by Meredith Bronwen Mallory (garnettrees)
(Overall. NC-17/M chapters will be separated and marked.)
Disclaimer: X-Men, all associated characters and imagery are all property of Marvel Comics. I make no money by writing this, and intend no disrespect.
Trigger Warnings: Period-appropriate ableism and homophobia, discussion of interspecies hostility and violence, apocalyptic themes, religious references; issues with physical recovery and rehabilitation.
Additional Warnings: dark!Erik (
Summary: In the wake of the accident that cost him his legs, Professor Charles Xavier is trying to rebuild his life. Teaching at NYU, focusing on his research; he is determined to set aside the strange memories and impressions that seem to stem from that awful night. Odd echoes insist on bleeding into his every day life, making him question his sanity and-- in the case of the mysterious Mr. Lehnsherr-- fear for his heart.
A/N: This note is dedicated to the lovely Nonnie who sent me an Ao3 invite. I have my suspicions, but I'm not _positive_ who it is. Whatever you identity, darling-- here's looking' at you, kid. ^_~
by Meredith Bronwen Mallory (garnettrees)
A small part of Charles will probably always believe that hospitals-- not illness or injury-- steal time. He's been in so many of them, ever since he was a small boy; in a way, their sameness adds another eerie layer to an atmosphere already thick with worry. All clear, sharp linens and white walls. Endless not-quite-green tile, the click of nurses' rounded heels and the smell of starch in their uniforms. The unquiet night, coughing and groaning seeming to come from the ward itself, the faint smell of urine and rot that never quite dissipates. As he gets older, he tells himself again and again that it was all perception-- white isn't _really_ the color of sickness and melancholia.
('Still,' says a small, petulant corner of his heart. 'It _feels_ true.')
He learns early-- perhaps before he can even teeter on chubby toddler's legs-- that much of reality depends on the person doing the looking. The world is full of compromises, truths people seem to have agreed on in grayscale conspiracy, never speaking aloud. In art, white is the absence of color; in optics, it is all colors together. Though Charles is a scientist, he leans towards the former. He supposes an artist would say blank canvas is a great openness, not even a horizon line. All possibility.
It terrifies him.
White is the void that holds him now, not even a pencil's smudge for demarkation. Up and down forever, breadth and depth until you could vomit with it, but still as close as his own skin. Some poet called Death a pale mistress-- she has lithe arms, but she's ever so much stronger than she looks. He wonders how many times he'll scape by her before she finally grabs hold.
(A tipsy Erik is smooth, talkative. Never sloppy-- just a little more flowing. A brilliant improvisation on an already beautiful jazz standard.
"Your mouth," he gasps against Charles' lips, already wet and swollen from kissing. Erik is still fully dressed, eagerly peeling layers of linen and wool from his professor. He must know what this does to the younger man-- being bare in strong clothed arms, mouth stormed like something taken in battle.
"Mmh," Charles says, because he's far more interested in the slide of their tongues than actually articulating. Erik coaxes even as he lays siege, fondling the curve of his lover's neck and jaw. They finally part, Charles gasping and clinging to broad shoulders, as the older man trails kisses along his pulse.
"Never give you up." Not spoken ardently, but with quiet, factual certitude. As calm and inviolate as the feeling he's bleeding into Charles through their skin; the molten core of a seemingly barren moon. "_Never_.")
'You'd best take him at his word,' the professor's own voice advises. It sounds strange, though-- distant and mournful, as if certain facts are only just now understood.
'I don't _know_ anyone named Erik,' Charles responds. It is at once a soul-rending pain and the deepest relief. He does not like this new, small part of him that speaks in this silence between heartbeats. Would that it should take flight, and leave him in peace.
('Would that I were deaf all together!' thinks the skinny, freckled young thing in striped pajamas. He's all alone in the West Wing, yet there are voices talking over one another, as if the cocktail party is in here his room and not out on the lawn. 'Too loud, too loud, be _gone_!)
It's loud here too, in the in-between. Not a cacophony of voices, thankfully, just a roaring and crashing. Like breakers against the cliffs of Dover. Confusing as the jagged lines of the Continent, seen across the channel.
'Blue birds will fly _over_
the white cliffs of _Dover_'
A sweet voice-- a girl's, and very golden. Like the shimmering of her facade's blond hair, like the stunning leonine gold of her real eyes.
He knows that song. Vera Lynn, on the scratchy victrola. Cain liked to sing (shout, rather) 'there will be bombs up, then comes the dawn up!' and clap his hands loudly, close to Charles' ears. There was never any little girl singing it, twirling in her bare feet.
(Except there _is_. Here she is with a dab of orange paint on her nose; here she is playing hide-and-go-seek. At his sick-bed, shifting to match the characters as she reads theatrically from Bulfinch or Dunsany. Older now, but lovely with that flush of womanly youth, taking his arm, matching his stride. Here she is doing the Twist.
"Come on, baby," Raven sings, holding a hand out to Charles.
"And why on earth would I engage in such foolishness?" he hears himself ask.
"You're such an old man!" she teases, smile wide and pristine. "You'll do it 'cause I asked you to, and because you love me.")
'I held on too hard,' that other part whispers sadly. Going, going, and now she's gone.
'I don't know what you're talking about,' Charles whispers morosely. All things must be in order, everything _must_ make sense. None of this but-it-feels-true, no more but-he's-really-thinking. Science, his final refuge, is not like grammar; there are not exceptions for every rule.
("Is that what you think, boy?!" A heavy, meaty hand. Enough whiskey to make a dragon's breath. "You think you're exempt? That you know better than me!?")
Science is clear cause, and clear effect-- tested rigorously to compensate for all variables. It can be documented. Charted, graphed, and cut into skin.
(Softly now, quietly. I didn't think about that. Shh.)
He is not a little boy who makes up stories; he has earned multiple degrees, his title of professor, his place amongst sensible and solid things.
(He has such a long arm, and it lends to the way he arcs up the line of the belt. It doesn't even hurt at first, the blow is that strong. Then, later, it feels like thousands of tiny acid bites.)
Even Death is not a mystery. Xavier repeats this to himself, and to the white void. To the voice frantically calling him, demanding he stay. Life is the result of organic chemistry, random points in a random cosmos. He'll say it over and over again, as much as he needs to, the way a mystic rocks in prayer. And then, randomly (please, god, randomly), 'Kurt Marko died of a brain aneurysm.'
(Hush now-- we don't talk about that.)
'Let it be past and over,' he thinks in a very young voice. It is the cadence of a little boy who devours everything from Lord Dunsany's fantasies to tawdry science fiction pulps. He _believes_. Belief makes things possible, like magic, and magic is not always good.
"Among the things I have put away."
Any whispers, any strange voices-- loved or no-- reaching across starry depths. I put you away.
Finally, _finally_; silence descends.
Charles wakes thinking, 'I want Raven' and then does not know what that means. He's foggy, adrift in medication and lost time, but at least he's aware of it. The feeling may be uncomfortable-- bordering on a sense of alienation-- but it minimizes the risk of slipping up. Whole parades of footsteps have made their way past his private room; doctors and nurses, and a few others besides. Xavier knows they haven't found anything, still batting theories back and forth, and he's equally certain he's not supposed to be privy to this. The nurses are cheerful little things, nimbly avoiding concrete statements and using the word 'we' a lot.
The professor takes deep breaths, fighting down the irritation that laces true panic. Let them have their needles and probes, their whole spectra of of tests and blood samples in every possible shade of red. They do an EEG which, oddly enough, makes him feel as if his perception of light and color has been ever-so-slightly widened. There's a faint, ghost-blue sheen clinging to his hands, vague curves like auras or halos wreathing the head of every person in the room. So much hallucinogenic nonsense-- Charles was a dedicated student, but he also wasn't a monk. He's uncomfortably reminded of those youthful indiscretions, the feeling that there is something foreign-- something utterly else-- creeping under the fabric of mundane reality. Shadows and cogs and wires fractionally askew.
The ghost in the machine.
(It's not supposed to end like this. Like children with some maddening sidewalk rhyme-- 'will you, won't you, will you, won't you'. Or the rhythmic creak and shift of a loom, threads pulling in too many directions. The design is lost.
And the stars are going out.)
Luckily, the EEG itself don't last too long, but its during the test that Charles discovers he's brought back a little souvenir. At first, he thinks its some stain, or a trick of the light on his hospital-issue robe. In a way, it is. He puts his fingers on the terry cloth over his heart. The faint, jagged roselight he's perceiving transfers to his own skin and nails.
"Are you sore there, sir?" asks one of the candy stripers. Tiny dark-haired thing with big doe's eyes. Charles knows her name is Gretchen-- okay, fine, he might have overheard someone address her. He definitely should _not_ know that everyone calls her 'Dolly'-- on account of her porcelain looks-- and that she's fretting about her sister's stockings, which she borrowed and accidentally ruined.
"Should I be?" The tone comes out calm, but that's not the way Charles intended to phrase it. A moment later, he answers his own question. The flesh under his robe is still smooth and fine, but it's marked with a bruise so dark it looks like a ripple of amethyst night.
(The bullet was ceramic!)
'Oh, nonsense,' the young professor thinks, and then is aware of a sudden cacophony beyond his own thoughts. There's a great deal of beeping and flashing, machines responding and charting things the technicians can't seem to account for. Despite the relative warmth of the room, Xavier feels gooseflesh race up and down his spine.
"What's _causing_ that?" one of the nurses asks, voice pitched high. The doctors ignore her in favor of wires and dials, crowding together in tense fascination. Instinctively, Charles lifts his hands to the web of electrodes affixed his his temples and cranium, but one of the lab techs quickly bats him away.
There's the sound of glass breaking, somewhere off to the side.
"Damn it, who left that pitcher in here? The last thing we need is water on the equipment!"
"Dolly, be more careful!"
"I wasn't anywhere near it!"
"I must have hit the edge of the table," Charles hears himself say. He sounds perfectly calm and reasonable-- possibly the only composed person in the room. I must have just… pitched forward and hit the corner."
(Red blood seeping into red gloves.
Lines of desperation-- _panic_ -- marring the handsome features, already obscured by the harsh edges the awful helmet.
"Charles? Charles!?" And underneath that, the ghost-creaking of iron gates being pulled asunder. He doesn't need to hear it, he can see it in those sea-gray eyes. "Don't you leave me, don't you dare!")
Charles' mouth forms a word, a name-- the shape of it is on his tongue, but silent. A moment later, he has no idea what he intended to say. It scarcely seems to matter, in all the commotion. No one is paying attention to him anyway, beyond ensuring he's still hooked up to that infernal device. The two needles-- delta and gamma-- jump like nimble lunatics, extreme valleys and peaks that nearly skitter off the paper feed. Yet the scholar's heart rate has remained steady, and he feels perfectly alert. Whatever is going on, it's not like the fit that landed him here.
"Turn it off before we bust something." The senior physician orders finally, wiping sweat from his own brow. He has a length of print-out in his other hand, frowning and shaking his head.
"Was that an ictal recording?" This from one of the younger, more nervous residents.
"That was no seizure." The head doctor is called Locke, Charles knows. Were they introduced? If they were it didn't make an impression at the time. What sticks with him now-- in searing technicolor-- is the beautiful taffy-haired bombshell Locke is having an affair with, and how ardently the doctor imagines her brother, his best friend, while he fucks her.
"Luanne," Xavier says without meaning to. The girl's name is Luanne, and the best friend/brother is Billy, who has an identical spray of crisp copper freckles across his nose. He clamps down hard on his lip, pulling it between the tips of his teeth, but it may be too late. Locke is looking at him with hard, narrow eyes.
His voice is as cool as the hospital tile, "Are you quite well, Professor Xavier?"
Too much, too loud, but it's breaking up now. 'Do not attempt to adjust the picture', Charles thinks with hysterical mirth, 'let it fade to snow and white noise'. Someone in this room plagiarized their English paper ('what does _The Scarlet Letter_ have to do with being a doctor, anyhow?'), someone else is supposed to pick up dry-cleaning on the way home. He can't tell which is which, though, and that's good. The sooner this goes away, the sooner he can start pretending it didn't happen, and stop tasting his own blood on his tongue.
"I didn't feel anything," he says, topping it off with his best absent-minded-academic smile. It's true, physically at least. Everything else is so much romantic nonsense. He read too much fantasy tripe as a child, like Kurt always said.
"You're quite the mystery, old bean." Locke removes the lattice of electrodes, and his smile doesn't reach his eyes. "But there's nothing better than a puzzle for modern medicine."
With that, the ordeal is mercifully over. Unhooked from the machines, Charles' world returns to all its proper shades and gradations. He's wheeled back to his room by Dolly, who is now just as much a stranger as anyone he might pass on the street.
They keep him overnight, again. Hardly unexpected, but not certainly not pleasant, either. He has a private room, but his money cannot insulate him the glass-pinned feeling of being a specimen. Locke, in particular, would probably swear to any unlikely diagnosis if he thought it would keep the professor within reach of his wires and tests. A part of Xavier can even understand that burning passion, the flame in the tower that _demands_ unruly nature yield to logic, but his own experiments have never involved whole beings. Clusters of cells, strands of DNA-- not something human his own scientific desires suddenly made _less_.
He tells himself he's being paranoid. Let them be perplexed by his case-- by the damaged nerves in his spine and the wild ion-impulses of his brain. Shouldn't it be at least a little redemptive if some academic satisfaction can be derived from his injury?
("Sweet honey on a viper's tongue," says that voice, its own cadences like smokey cinnabar against his collarbone. "It's quite the gift you have-- you can say things no one else would even attempt to get away with."
"It's the accent," Charles' voice says, hitching on the pleasure he's receiving.
Covetous hands. "Oh? I think not." Those verdant eyes-- so fond, but also _knowing_. "It's the way you phrase things, the words you use. These fools-- even the suits-- hear how pleasing and sweet you sound without grasping half the words. Underneath all that courtesy, that placating kindness, you have an unforgiving wit. Schone kleine Professor, I do believe there's a thin layer of darkness in that golden heart.")
His humor _is_ darker now-- Xavier is willing to acknowledge that. The anger and resentment will poison the sugared well if he's not careful, so he watches himself. 'Yes, sir', 'No, Ma'am'; 'of course, you're doing everything you can'. Always weighing other people's perspectives, respecting their sensibilities-- though he'd thank all concussion-related delusions to kindly keep their opinions to themselves.
There are only so many ways he can be prodded, though, and he is going home tomorrow. At the Beresford he will have space, and peace in which to type up his lesson plans, edit articles. Fret uselessly over whether his 'fit' was some sort of seizure, and worry if it will happen again. He will have his own bed, soon, where sleeplessness is at least mitigated by the comfort of familiar shadows and the glittering city lights.
An unseasonably strong storm begins to whip through the Big Apple, silver-radiant trickles of lightning, and thunder that makes the windows rattle. Charles was hardly expecting to sleep well, but this makes it categorically impossible. For all it keeps him awake, Xavier almost wishes the rain's fury were louder. He's aware of some other hum, some renegade signal still playing lightly over the polarized neurons in his brain.
'Nonsense', he tells himself, using Kurt's voice to make it stick. It won't hold though, skepticism ground down under huge tumblers clicking into place. Pythagoras' cosmic engine on darker rails.
"Such drama." He tries to murmur aloud, but he's not sure if he succeeds. Sleep passes shallowly over and around him, like veils.
(Another hospital, another fury. Too warm, this rain; too humid. Florida, maybe. Miami? Where ever Moira felt was closest, most likely. He doesn't think he's managed to string together more than a few hours of consciousness at a time, since the beach. They'd doped him well and good, but it's beginning to leave him now. Drugged lethargy oozing out viscus to be replaced by ache and the edge of waiting pain. The cluster of nerves itself is a puzzle box-- here, waiting agony; a centimeter down, nothing. The entire lower half of the bed is a whole lot of nothing. Another layer of surrealism to go with the jagged edges of the room and night.
He's disoriented, but it doesn't matter. He'll know that tall shadow even after he's forgotten his own name. They have him strapped face-down to a board, so he won't try to roll over in his sleep; he has to crane his neck carefully to get a visual sense for the void screaming in his mind.
"I hardly think a little rain would drive you indoors," he says dryly. He bites his tongue a little so he'll salivate-- it's hard to sound firm with one's mouth dry.
"I came to see you." So very quiet, and rough. Like those words on the beach-- 'I'm _so sorry_'-- pulled quivering from the gut. He doesn't think he'd ever heard Erik apologize before.
"You came, you saw." He really wishes he had the use of his hands-- a careless, sweeping gesture would be good right now. "Now go out and conquer, if it means so much to you."
Erik moves closer, illuminated by a sudden and brief bolt in the sky. There's the helmet, of course-- the foul thing of dull metal. He's still wearing the flight suit, too, though it looks worse for wear. "_Charles_."
"Don't--" Say my name. Pretend you care. Stand there as if you have the right. Remind me that I still-- "Don't." And that goes for both of them, so he makes his voice very hard.
"Do you think I ever _wanted_ harm to come to you?"
"I think the fact you're still wearing that helmet says just how much-- or little-- our… friendship… truly meant."
"You are not the only telepath, nesh--" Erik catches himself, and Charles thanks both-- hell, any and all-- their gods. His eyes sting like he's been tossed into a furnace, but they are also dry.
"And do you have your peace now?" the professor needles. "With your revenge sated, are you quite content?"
Closer. Gloved hand on the rail of the torture-chamber bed. "I told you that peace was never an option."
"What to you _want_?" His mouth his still dry and the words sound raw. Like they're bloodying his throat.
"I told you that, too." Of all the damned things, sounding almost hurt. "You're the one that told me 'no', Charles."
"Fucking _look_ at me, Erik! Of course I did!" The vulgarity is sour on his tongue, but also satisfying. "They can't fix this," he adds in a rush. "If you killed me now, you might be doing both of us a favor."
Oh, God-- it's too dark to really see, but he hears the motion. Hears the faint click of the helmet as it's set aside on the night-stand. More over, he hears the low alto peal of Erik's thoughts, the bright-metal structure of his mind, singing.
"You're not my enemy." Warm fingers stroke his cheek, smooth back his hair.
"All evidence to the contrary."
Erik's touch stays gentle, but his voice and thoughts harden. "I should have taken you with me, regardless."
"Well, that would have ended me more quickly." Is that brittle-glass laugh really his?
"I still could," the older man continues, as if he did not or will not hear. It hurts, so much more than the bright bloodlight of the pain on the beach, to be touched with such careful affection. Those strong, deadly hands know his body; his bones may as well be metal, for how they hum and strain for the other mutant's touch. Erik pets the back of his lover's neck, the curve of scapula, in the same way he had less than five days ago. Every point of contact, skin on skin, communicates what the metal-bender is feeling. Love flayed open, burning but alive, devouring even after it has consumed everything in its path.
Charles can't stand it, because there's an answering swell within him, too. In spite of everything, there is the instinct to open, to cherish and embrace. 'This is killing me,' the telepath thinks, the way an animal moans in a trap. He may die five, ten, fifty years from now-- but when he does, he will know it's this that has killed him.
Aloud, he says carelessly, "Well, I suppose you could do _more_ damage, if you really tried."
Ah, there's some anger-- Erik is not Erik without it, and his rage is always cold. The kind of cold that eats, stealing sensation, frost that actually bites away at skin. Snow on barbed wire, on craven lean-tos, seeping into mud and clothing and food.
"I love you too much," the older man says. Not something Charles wants to hear, even if it's spat in anger. "Too much to stand by and--"
Let it happen again, hangs unsaid. A silent knell.
"--they will try to destroy us, Charles. They will try it _again_-- that's what that was, on the beach. Not friendly fire, or collateral damage, but an extermination. Calculated, with intent. It wasn't a crime of opportunity, and they will try again."
"They don't represent all of humanity," his own voice sounds very far away. "They were cowards and liars, yes, and they were wrong. They acted out of fear. Not everyone is like that."
"They acted because they were repulsed," Erik corrects him. "Humans cannot look at difference and reign that impulse in. Anything that is 'other', they destroy." A little huff of laughter, and Charles can imagine the sardonic smile he can't see. "You're right, though. Not everyone would participate." He leans down, as if whispering a sweet nothing.
"Some of them would just stand by and watch.")
+"The White Cliffs of Dover" (1942) Lyrics by Walter Kent and Nat Burton, performed by Vera Lynn.
+"The Twist"-- originally by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters in 1959, popularized by Chubby Checker's cover in 1960.
+"Let it be past and over, among the things I have put away." Bethmoora from A Dreamer's Tales by Lord Dunsany (1910).
+EEG's didn't really proliferate into the medical community until the late 1960's, but I hope you'll forgive my 'artistic' time-smudging. ^_~
+ictal recording- an EEG recording taken during an actual seizure.
+schone kleine professor- German. 'Lovely little professor'.
+neshama- Hebrew. The intelligent, reasoning part of the soul. Also used as a term of intense affection.