One moment they were standing in the middle of Emma Frost's ruined cell within CIA headquarters and the next, they were all back at their temporary base, one of Shaw's old safe houses on the East Coast that Azazel had appraised him of upon their flight from the Caribbean.
Erik made a wide, welcoming gesture toward their luxurious surroundings. "Welcome home, Ms. Frost."
The telepath looked around with a bored expression, slim arms crossed. "Not quite home," she said. "It's under new management, after all."
Erik inclined his head in acceptance of her point. "You missed a few things while you were the unwilling guest of the American government."
Emma let her eyes linger on the each person in the room: Raven, now Mystique, blue and glorious where she sat next to Angel on the sofa; Janos, near the bar, already with a drink in his hand; Azazel, leaning against the far wall, watching the proceedings with an amused expression on his face. Then her eyes moved to him and Erik raised an eyebrow at her appraisal.
"I'd love to know the whole story," she said. Then she lifted a finger to point toward her head. "But your rather fetching new hat is making that difficult."
Erik favored her with a shark-like grin. "Anything you want to know, I'll be glad to share," he told her. "But I'll thank you to remember that my thoughts are off-limits."
She glanced toward Janos and was rewarded a minute later when he handed her a drink. The ice clinked her glass as she swirled it. "I have to admit I wasn't expecting a rescue once I heard what happened to poor Sebastian," she said at long last. "Especially after the fate of those other mutants." Emma tilted her glass toward Erik before she took a sip. "I'm assuming your telepath was one of them?"
Erik couldn't stop the cold curl of dread in his stomach, both at her words and at her oblique reference to Charles. He was almost relieved when it was Mystique who frowned and asked, "What about the other mutants?"
Emma's smile was thin and self-satisfied. "The CIA killed a group of mutants on an island near Cuba about...hmm, a month ago? They were very happy about it." She eyed Azazel, then Mystique, which made Erik realize that she had no outward cues to the use of her power other than a narrowed-eyed gaze. "I assume it was after you escaped without them."
Mystique was on her feet, hands clenched. "You're lying."
Emma rolled her eyes. "Why would I lie?"
"Then they must've lied to you about it, to scare you." Mystique looked at Erik, her yellow eyes wide and imploring. "They can't be dead."
"They didn't tell me anything, sugar," Emma told her. "I took it from the director's mind during one of our little chats. It's the same way I found out about Sebastian." She glanced back at Erik and he thought he might've detected a hint of apology in her bowed head. "I didn't realize none of you knew."
To Erik, it seemed like a strange thing for a telepath to say, but he knew from experience that sometimes telepaths were an oblivious lot, if Charles was any indication. As soon as the thought crossed his mind, he felt something angry and raw trying to claw through his chest, a twisted beast of emotion he'd thought he'd buried when he drove the coin through Shaw's skull. But, of course, it was still there, strangling him as the reality of Emma Frost's words began to sink in.
She was saying Charles was dead.
Although the expression on his face barely shifted, the metalwork of the room groaned as it all twisted and warped under his command, startling everyone. Mystique was trying to blink back tears, and Angel was looking around at the crushed metal with something akin to horror.
"It seems that your telepath left more than 'a bit' of a gap," Emma said. "And I don't need to read your mind to know that."
He was gratified to see fear flicker over her face when he took a step toward her. He didn't reach out but he let his eyes settle on her neck until she raised a slim hand to touch at her pale throat, as if she could feel the phantom crush of metal against her diamond skin.
"Erik." He didn't correct Mystique when she called him by that name, because her voice was trembling, cracking under the weight of emotion. "I...they can't...Charles can't be gone. He just can't."
There was a similar, vehement denial caught in his own throat, the roar of that raging beast, but he couldn't release it. To do so would be to accept it and, like Mystique, he wasn't ready to do so. Not yet.
Perhaps not ever.
"I think I've found my first use for you, Ms. Frost," he said instead. "I'd like to see if we can't verify this report of yours."
Emma shrugged. "If you like. I don't see why it really matters though."
Mystique made a wounded noise in the back of her throat, but Erik ignored her. "It's not for you to understand," he told Emma. "It's merely for you to obey."
She waved a dismissive hand in the air. "Whatever you need."
Erik turned away from her only to find Mystique's pained, tear-stained face waiting. "Until we know otherwise, believe nothing but what you know here." He touched a gloved hand to her chest. "Keep your faith."
Mystique swallowed as she nodded her agreement. "What about you?"
"I have the future to look to," he said.
None of his fledging brotherhood had to ask anything further because they felt it in the distant groan of mansion's metal bending to Erik's will, bowing in the sorrow he would not let him express.
Because if that future was one where Charles had died on that beach, then it would be one that made Shaw's vision of a new world look pleasant.
Erik would make sure of that.
It was easy -- pathetically so -- for Mystique to put on the face of an unimportant agent once Azazel kidnapped him and use his credentials to waltz into the CIA and find the information Erik wanted. It was how, two days after Ms. Frost's release, he found himself standing in the lobby of a Virginia apartment building, waiting for an elevator to take him to the sixth floor where Agent Moira MacTaggart made her home.
She wasn't dead, at least not according to the CIA employment file that Mystique had mimeographed, but was on indefinite leave, for reasons unspecified. That fact gave both Erik and Mystique nascent hope that if she'd made it off the island, then so had Charles and the others.
He'd wanted to come alone, but Mystique had insisted accompanying him, and he hadn't had it in him to forbid it. It was a weakness that he hated to show to the others, but no one other than she could understand what it meant to the world if Charles Xavier had ceased to exist.
It was strange to see her in her fake form after so long, but they'd both decided to approach MacTaggart as she'd known them, which meant Erik had even left the helmet off, although it was in the bag he carried. Emma was close, waiting in a car outside, and he wasn't ready to trust her entirely.
The elevator ride was excruciatingly slow and Erik fought the instinct to use his powers to raise them up more quickly. But finally, they were standing outside of Moira's door, and he knocked on it, Mystique clinging to the shadows behind him.
The agent looked more casual than he'd ever seen her, dressed in capri pants and a plain shirt, hair covered with a kerchief. Given the smudges of dust on her face, it looked like they might've interrupted her in the middle of house chores.
Her expression, however, could only be described as murderous. "You," she spit out, venom dripping from her words. "Get out of my sight." Her eyes flicked over to Mystique and the shape-shifter shrank back. "Both of you."
Moira slammed the door in his face, but it wasn't as if that were a real deterrent. Erik waved a hand to make the locks give way for him and followed the agent into her living room, Mystique on his heels. "It's nice to see you, too, Agent MacTaggart."
She rounded to face him, a sheen of moisture already marring her dark eyes. But her chin was held high and there was no fear in her, only the anger that made her shake with its force.
"What do you want?" she demanded. "Have you come to finish what you started on the beach?" She tugged at the slim chain around her neck from which dangled a small cross. "It's silver. Go ahead, use it to choke me." Moira squared her shoulders. "I won't even struggle this time."
"Moira!" The name was almost a sob in Mystique's voice. "Stop it!"
She turned her glare from Erik to Mystique and back again. "Tell me whatever it is you want and then get the hell out of here."
"We want to know where Charles is," Erik said, voice as steady as if he were asking about the weather. "We thought you might be able to help us."
"Where do you think he is?" The tears waiting in her eyes spilled over at the mention of Charles's name, and Erik realized that the only thing that matched her anger was her grief. "He's right where you left him, Erik," she ground out. "On that beach. Dead."
"No!" Mystique stepped forward. "He can't be."
"Yes," she said. "He is." Quieter, she added, "They all are."
Mystique's quiet sobs filled the room as Moira and Erik continued to glare at each other. Moira nodded her head toward the door. "Now get the hell out of here."
"No." Erik caught her by the arm in a painful grip. "Tell me what happened."
"What do you think happened?" she asked, yanking her arm out of his grasp. "You left us on the beach with two superpowers who wanted you all dead. Just because the first attempt didn't succeed didn't mean they weren't going to try again."
She shook her head, finally breaking the concentration of her glare. Instead, she looked down at her clenched fist. "They sent a gunner boat out. Started firing on us from the water. Charles couldn't move, couldn't walk. He ordered us to leave him behind and run, but Hank wouldn't. He tried to carry him to safety, but he took a kill shot in the back. It finished off Charles, too."
"Hank," Mystique whispered, hands over her mouth.
"When they went down, Alex and Sean tried to fight but it wasn't any use by then. They were all...dead."
There was something painful and vicious and cruel inside him that needed release, and she was an appropriate target, standing here alive when her words said Charles had died. "All except for you, Agent MacTaggart," Erik pointed out. "I noticed you managed to make it home in one piece."
"Not exactly." She raised her hand to her shirt and began to slip the buttons out of their holes until the front of her shirt gaped open. She pulled the material to one side far enough to reveal the remnants of a nasty-looking wound, obviously from a bullet, the scar tissue over it red and angry and new.
After Moira gave them a few seconds to take it in, she pulled her shirt closed and wiped at a tear where it clung to her cheek. "Don't get us confused, Lehnsherr," she said. "You're the one who left them there to meet their deaths, not me."
Before Erik even realized it, he was twisting the slim silver chain around her neck with his power, tightening it until she had to gasp for breath. "This is still your fault," he told her. "Yours and your government's."
"No," she gasped out around the pressure, the damning echoes of words he still heard when he closed his eyes. "It's yours, Erik."
You can kill her if you want, Emma's bored voice came into his mind. But she's telling the truth.
With a sound that sounded suspiciously like a howl, even to his own ears, Erik released the chain from his power and Moira could breathe again, ragged gasps of air that were quickly melting into sobs. "He died in my arms," she choked out. "Because the two of you left him." Her dark eyes were hot with accusation as they slid from Erik to Mystique, making sure they both felt the brunt of her anger. "I hope your new little brotherhood was worth it."
Mystique had long since lost the ability to hold her false appearance and she sat in a heap on the floor, a forlorn blue figure as she wept, face still in her hands. Moira remained on her feet but she was doubled over, arms wrapped around her middle like she was physically ill.
And for all the emotions the women expressed, it was only a shadow of what Erik felt inside, so consuming and powerful he knew if he released even a fraction of it that he'd bring the apartment building down on them all.
He wouldn't care if he did.
Send for Azazel, he commanded to Emma. Have him meet me here.
Erik didn't wait for confirmation that she had complied with his request before he lifted his helmet from his bag and slipped it on his head. A moment later, when the teleporter arrived, Erik looked as impervious as he always did, eyes dry and voice unshaken as he told Azazel where he wanted to go next.
There was more one more desperate hope that Erik held to, one more place that might offer better answers. He'd give the world that much of a chance before he brought it to its knees.
The Xavier manor stood tall and proud against the landscape, much like its visitor did. Erik had had Azazel leave him on the lawn before he'd dismissed him, and he stood there, looking up the majestic architecture the same way he had that first day. But then he'd had Charles at his side, his equal for all their philosophical opposition, and the world, for the first time in years, had sang with the promise of more.
Now, Erik was alone and perhaps would have to face the fact that he'd never see Charles again.
But not yet.
He strode through the empty halls of the mansion, peering into room after room looking for some clue of recent activity. However, everything looked just as it had the last morning he'd woke there, as if untouched in the month that had passed. Hank's laboratory was still a mess of broken furniture and upturned equipment, and there was still a half-finished chess game in the study, a forgotten jacket tossed over a sofa in the library. Even the hastily rinsed-out coffee cups from the morning they'd left for Cuba were still beside the kitchen sink, no sign that anyone had been there since.
Erik ended up in front of Charles's bedroom door and he couldn't stop himself from stepping inside. Like with the rest of the house, it told the story of that October morning, scattered with signs of a life in progress but ground to a stop. Charles's bed was unmade, covers haphazardly thrown aside as he'd rose, his watch still on nightstand beside it. Erik reached out for its metal, a vibration he'd to come to know during months spent in its company snug on Charles's wrist -- Florida, recruitment, Russia, training the children.
The bathroom told the same story, familiar pieces of Charles's life that Erik knew almost as well as his own -- a few dark strands of hair in the teeth of a comb, a toothbrush, his discarded pajamas in the hamper. He wondered if Charles's scent still clung to any of it, the smell of paper and ink, warm wool and spicy bergamot aftershave; Erik didn't dare risk finding out.
As he left the room, he called for the watch to come to his hand, slipping it into his pocket. Its weight was new but comforting, a replacement for the coin he'd left in Cuba after its march through Shaw's skull. Again, he swept through the halls he'd walked for those weeks at Charles's home, searching -- for redemption, for hope, for reassurance that its owner would return as whole and hearty as the day he'd left.
But he found none.
He ended up sitting on the staircase, crushed by the silence around him. There was a gaping hole in his chest as empty as the house, aching and echoing with its losses. Without thinking, Erik pushed the helmet from his head and let it fall to the step behind him, desperately reaching out for some trace of connection, for the mind that had come to slide so easily against his own.
But there was nothing -- in the house, in his head, in his heart. Everything was gone.
It wasn't until he looked down at his hands and saw the tears splash against his knuckles that Erik realized he was crying. Then he started in earnest, great shaking breaths like he hadn't allowed himself since his mother had died, the mansion quaking with the tremble of his shoulders, swaying under the press of his unwinding powers.
It could've been hours or days later when Mystique found him there in that same position, eyes gritty and red. Her own eyes were still watery and her lithe natural form made it easy for him to see how she shivered with her suppressed grief.
"Azazel brought me," she explained softly. She started to reach out to him, but thought better of it, drawing her hand back. "It's true, isn't it?"
"There seems to be a lack in evidence to the contrary," Erik told her.
She took a deep, shuddering breath, trying to hold on to her control. "We shouldn't have left him there."
"No," he agreed, a confession he'd trust to no one else, a regret he'd live with the rest of his life. "We shouldn't have."
A tear escaped her eye but Mystique dashed it away impatiently. "So, what now?"
"We avenge him," he said. "We make them pay."
"We make who pay?" she asked.
There was only one answer to give. "Everyone." He slowly rose to his feet, returning the helmet to his head. "Are you with me?"
Mystique hesitated a moment before she nodded. "Of course."
Once they were outside, Erik's gaze was drawn toward the satellite dish, still turned to face them, but Mystique glanced back at the mansion, eyes roaming over its shape with sadness. "He never even really liked this place," she told him. "But he wanted it to be home, for all of us."
She didn't look surprised when Erik reached out with his powers and crushed the dish in on itself, a screaming grind of noise and pressure as the metal buckled under his mental touch.
"Come, Mystique," he said, not looking back as he walked away, toward the red-skinned figure of Azazel waiting in the distance. "We have work to do."
Although the newspapers shied away from reporting on it, there was a rash of mysterious deaths among the government in the following weeks.
The director of the CIA was found dead on the side of the road, his car flipped several times and crushed under its own weight. His right-hand, Agent Stryker, followed him a few days later, dead by his own hand in an apparent suicide, gunshot to the head. A week later, it was a naval captain on shore leave. The Soviets suffered through own losses, a sea captain and a few higher-level officials, a certain general who had once enjoyed the psychic attentions of Emma Frost.
It didn't take long for Erik to amass a body count that impressed even Azazel, Janos and Emma with his ruthlessness. Mystique, though, often watched him with worried eyes, but she never said a word, never once seeming to regret her promise to help him pay back everyone who deserved it for the death of her brother and their former teammates.
Every night he could, Erik went back to the lifeless manor and roamed the halls in solitude. He almost wished he believed in ghosts because at least then he'd have a reason for his presence there, a hope he was feeding by staying in that dark, still place that harbored so many memories. At least then he could be looking for a phantom in its shadows, but he had no such excuse, other than the fact that he was drawn there over and over again, compelled to haunt its corridors as if he himself were its ghost.
He usually ended up in Charles's room, in Charles's bed, the only place he ever managed to find a few hours of rest. Sometimes he would talk out loud telling the walls and drapes and knickknacks of the things he'd done in Charles's name, of the things he planned to do. Erik knew if his friend were there, he would not approve of Erik's actions, would not want the added blood on his hands. Charles would tell him to be the better man, the one with the good in his soul that Charles swore he saw. And maybe he could've been that good man if not for Shaw; maybe he even could've managed it for Charles if he hadn't been taken away from him, if they'd had a chance to reconcile their differences into a shared path.
Now, he'd never know.
Sometimes he dreamed of Charles with him in the empty house, beside him, his mind reshaping Charles's words in his ear. Killing will not bring you peace, Charles had told him, and he'd been right, but that didn't mean Erik could stop. Just as Shaw's death had not ended the pain caused by his mother's loss, it didn't seem to matter how many of those responsible he killed, the emptiness he felt with Charles's passing didn't diminish, until Erik thought he might have to make the world run with blood to even begin to staunch it.
Of course, Erik had his own blame in it, something he never let himself forget. Charles's blood was on his hands as much as it was on some others, and it was just one more reason he needed to do what he was doing. He replayed it over and over -- putting on the helmet that blocked Charles's presence from his mind, killing Shaw, their fight on the beach, his fists bruising Charles's skin as he lashed out in anger, focused on nothing more than making them all pay. And then that bullet, ripping into him, wrenching the scream from Charles's throat, shattering Erik's ability to be anything but honest with Charles in his arms.
I want you by my side.
He'd meant even when he'd left him in Moira's arms, and he still meant it now, with life and death between them.
Erik also ached for the loss of the others, though it was a duller pain -- Hank, so scared of his own mutation, and Alex, very much like Erik himself, wrapped in pain and anger. Sean, unlike them the rest of them, a blend of humor and ease needed to balance out the rest of them.
He knew Mystique particularly mourned Hank, her own special regret the same way Charles was Erik's. And like him, Mystique would always bear the wounds of it on her soul. It was probably why she never said anything even when he could see the words in her eyes, words that were sometimes an echo of what Charles might've said if he'd been there, but she didn't dare give them voice.
Erik had once told Charles he'd never find peace, but he had found it of a sort in the knowledge that he'd lost his best chance, wounded it with a bullet to the spine and killed it through that hasty act of abandonment. It was freeing to know he didn't have to search for it, hope for it, or even long for it any longer, knowing he'd let it slip away.
So even when Emma rolled her eyes and Angel frowned every night when he asked Azazel to return him to the Xavier mansion, Erik returned to torture and to console himself with his own regrets, with his rage, with the reality that he'd never feel serenity again.
Passing another fitful night in Charles's bed, Erik woke to the incongruous sounds of voices whispering through the empty halls.
At first he thought his wish for ghosts had been answered, but as he came more fully awake, he realized that the voices meant someone had encroached on his living mausoleum. He assumed it was his people and rose from the bed, ready to meet them with anger for the interruption or resolve if their trespass proved warranted.
But as he moved through the house and the voices became clearer, Erik knew they belonged to none of his followers. The voices were masculine, not Mystique or Emma, but not the low rumbles of either Janos or Azazel. Erik's temper ignited and quickened his pace, ready to flay the unknowing interlopers for their presumption.
At the top of the stairs, though, he slowed as the words became distinct.
"...happened to it?" the first voice said. "It looks like something crushed it."
"Maybe it got hit by lightning," the second voice answered. "Not that I really care because I am too damned tired to care about anything but especially that stupid satellite dish."
Even though it wasn't Janos or Azazel, Erik did know those voices, but they belonged to people he knew to be dead, thanks in part to his own actions. Ghosts, then, he decided, except that ghosts usually didn't complain of fatigue, which meant...
Erik almost stumbled down the stairs in his haste, hand tight on the banister, but then he could see then, two figures in the moonlit expanse of the massive, marble-floored foyer, one stretching his arms wide above his head, as he spoke, saying, "...for a week, I don't care for what."
"Sean." The name was out of Erik's mouth before he could stop it, as he watched the red-haired boy drop his arms. Then, "Alex," when his eyes landed on the second figure, leaning against the jamb of open front door.
Erik was at least relieved that he wasn't the only person who looked like he was facing ghosts because both boys jumped at the sound of his voice, paling when they turned to see him standing above them.
"Erik?" Alex asked while Sean moved toward one of the walls. It was only when the room was flooded with light that made Erik blink against its assault did he realize that Sean had went for the light switch, something Erik hadn't done since his first day there. "What the hell?"
"Yeah, what are you doing here?" Sean asked. "Shouldn't you be out terrorizing someone somewhere?"
Erik fought down laughter that would've been than laced with more than a little hysteria. Where despair before had been what had eaten him alive from inside, it was hope that now gnawed at him, fierce and destructive to the little equilibrium he had. He tried to remind himself that the boys were alone, no sign of their teacher or Hank in tow. "I heard you were dead."
Sean winced, a sad look on his face. "Moira?"
Erik nodded, not trusting his voice. There was only one thing he wanted to know but he couldn't make his mind form the words, not after so many days of mourning him with everything he was.
"It was a near thing," Alex said, less shocked now and more angry. "No thanks to you."
Erik was almost ready to force his question past the knot in his throat when another voice sounded from just behind Alex, growing louder as it moved closer. "What's taking you guys so long?" it demanded as its owner came in through the door, still impressively blue and furry even with the white bandaging that shrouded his otherwise uncovered torso. "You guys know I can't move...him...by my..." Hank glanced up toward him, yellow eyes widening in surprise. "Erik?"
Erik no longer had the patience for anything but his own, urgent demand. "Charles?" he asked, met with the three sets of blank looks. "Where is he? Tell me."
"Outside," Hank said, gesturing behind him. "But he's..."
Erik stopped in his rush forward. "What?"
"He's asleep," Alex answered. When Erik rushed past him, he called out, "Erik, wait!"
He ignored the boy, instead dashing out of the door and across the lawn toward the battered white van that hadn't been in the drive when he'd arrived earlier in the evening. There in the passenger seat was a unmoving figure that had to be Charles, though all that he could see from that distance was tousled dark hair. He was suddenly halted in his advance toward the vehicle by a strong, blue hand on his shoulder. "Erik, wait," he ordered, growling. "There are things I need to tell you first."
"Let go of me," he warned, reaching out with his powers to see if Hank wore any metal he could use against him. "I need..."
"He can't walk," Alex said, coming up behind Hank. His voice matched his gaze, hard and accusing. It reminded Erik of Moira. "He'll never walk again because of you."
It was a blow, but it was nothing compared to thinking him dead, lost forever. Erik shrugged off the restraining grip and Hank let him. "He's been in a lot of pain," Hank added with a sigh. "We've got him drugged to the gills for the drive." More softly, he continued. "I just wanted to warn you. He probably won't wake up. He probably shouldn't."
"I just need to see him," Erik said. "That's all."
Hank nodded, as if he understood. "Go ahead."
Erik was dimly aware of an argument behind him between Alex and Hank, but he didn't care, not when he was so close to escaping the nightmare that had consumed him for the last few weeks. But for all his eagerness, his steps slowed as he got closer, his eyes fixed on the sliver of a face he could see behind the curtain of hair -- the curve of a cheek, the corner of his mouth, all so of utterly familiar that for a moment Erik forgot to breathe.
Then he was charging ahead, the van door wrenched open with a flick of his wrist until Charles was tumbling into Erik's arms.
As Hank had warned, Charles didn't stir, but it didn't matter to Erik because he wonderfully, blessedly alive. Erik took a moment just to enjoy that, the warmth and weight of Charles's body against his own, before he started to catalogue the things about him he thought he'd never experience again. Erik brushed the dark hark back from Charles's forehead, then let his fingers dance along the line of his arm before Erik couldn't stop himself any longer, wrapping his arm more tightly around the lax form, guiding Charles's head to settle against his shoulder.
Erik closed his eyes as he let the miracle of it wash over him, unconcerned with the wetness he knew streaked his face.
There was the sound of a throat clearing behind him. "We should probably get him inside," Hank said. "Alex and I can carry him in."
"No," Erik said, already adjusting his hold. "I'll do it."
"Uh, okay." Hank backed up to give him the room to swing around with Charles cradled in his arms. "Take up to his room, I guess? You know where it is."
Erik had quite possibly become more familiar with Charles's room over the last few weeks than Hank or Alex could imagine, but he just nodded, moving slowly as to not jeopardize his burden. The three boys followed in his wake, Hank hovering as if he was worried Erik would need the help, while Alex and Sean trailed farther behind, quiet words passing between them. Erik was only as aware of them as he had to be, all of his attention focused on drinking in the details he could of Charles just in case it was all cruel dream that he would wake from in the morning.
Hank, Alex and Sean loitered in the hall when Erik crossed the threshold and laid Charles gently on the bed, shifting the scattered pillows until he was satisfied enough to let Charles's head rest against them. As he was doing the same with the sheets and light blanket, he heard Hank ask, "You've been staying in here?"
He glanced over his shoulder. "What makes you say that?"
Hank gave him a sympathetic look, then nodded toward the chair where Erik's cloak and helmet rested.
Erik rewarded that observation by raising his hand and using the metal in the door to close it in their faces. "Goodnight," he called out.
None of them challenged him or his place at Charles's side, so Erik stretched out on the bed at Charles's side for the most peaceful hours of sleep he'd had in months.
For an awful moment when Erik first woke the next morning, he was scared the evening before had been nothing but a dream. But then he noticed the line of warmth down one side of him and he turned toward it to see Charles still propped up on the pillows, watching him with his painfully expressive blue eyes.
"When I woke up and found you here," Charles began slowly. "I thought perhaps Hank had given me something far stronger than I agreed to." Erik couldn't stop the laugh that that sardonic remark elicited. Charles smiled a little and continued. "But he assures me that you are really here and are not the result of some kind of narcotic on my mind."
"I could almost think the same of you," Erik admitted. He touched his fingers to the line Charles's jaw, relishing the prickle of stubble under his fingers.
Charles's eyelids fluttered at the touch but he caught Erik's gaze with his own. "What are you doing here, Erik?"
"In your house? In your bed?" His thumb brushed dangerously near the curve of Charles's bottom lip.
Charles gently pulled Erik's hand away from his face, keeping it trapped in his own as he answered. "Period, my friend. I did not imagine the specifics of our last meeting any more than I'm imagining you here at this moment. I find myself at a loss to understand."
"Can't you just read it out of my head?" Erik asked.
"I could," Charles told him with a smile. "But I won't." His fingers tightened around Erik's. "Although I am glad to feel you there once again."
"I thought you were dead, Charles," Erik told him, all playfulness fading from his face. "That you'd died in Cuba."
"I am sorry," Charles said. "That deception was never meant for you." He cleared his throat. "But that doesn't explain why you're still here."
"You infuriate me on purpose, don't you?" Erik pulled his hand away from Charles's. He leaned in until he was all but looming over Charles. "Why do you think?"
Charles let his eyes flicker away. "I couldn't guess."
"Well, let me give you a hint." Erik closed the last inches of space between them and kissed Charles as he'd dreamed of doing so many times in the months since they met. His mouth was demanding against Charles's, and it only took a few heartbeats before Charles returned the pressure, his lips parting when Erik's tongue sought entrance. Erik knotted a hand in Charles's messy hair, while Charles's hands fluttered between them, splaying over Erik's chest and shoulders.
Despite the way his hand clutched at Erik's shirt to hold him fast, it was Charles who broke the kiss first. "Erik..."
"After my mother's death, thinking you were dead was the most devastating thing I've ever felt," Erik said quietly, words spilling out of him as easily as if Charles had pulled them from his mind. It was important that Charles understood his urgency, his need, his elation. "Where else would I be but here? I told you I wanted you at my side."
"But not enough, my friend." Sadness was plain on his face as he gently uncurled his hands, releasing Erik's shirt from his grip. "Not enough."
"That's not true," Erik denied, hand sliding down from Charles's hair to his shoulder. At Charles's sad, steady look, Erik knew only the absolute truth would convince a telepath when he was so intent on shielding himself from Erik's inner turmoil. "All right, maybe it was true before, before I thought I'd lost you forever. Even when I left you on the beach, deep down I knew you'd be here, waiting for me." His voice trailed off, making the last sentence more of a question than he'd intended it to be.
I would've, Charles's mind said. And I will. Never doubt that.
"You won't have to," Erik told him. "Do you really think I could leave again? Go on without you?"
"Oh, Erik." His name was a sigh as Charles reached out to touch his cheek, his expression so naked with his longing that it almost hurt to look upon it. Still, Erik looked long, trying to memorize every detail, very line and furrow. "We still want different things."
"I want you by my side," Erik told him. "Do you not want the same?"
"I do," Charles said, a tremor in his voice. "You know that. But I cannot watch you give into pain and anger again and again, then take it out on the rest of the world. I won't."
"Then you will have to teach me, Professor, a new way to live," Erik said. He leaned forward again to brush his mouth against Charles's mouth, his cheek, his brow. "And I'll make a realist out of an idealist to protect him from the world he's so determined to defend."
"It's as easy as that, then?" Charles asked, eyebrow raised to show his doubt. His eyes, though, were bright with hope, pleading for it as he melted into each caress.
"It won't be easy, but it'll be worth it," Erik murmured. "Together, what force can stop us, Charles?"
Charles had that glassy-eyed look that said he was really considering the answer, which made Erik huff out a laugh as he shifted until he covered Charles's body with his own, ever mindful of the unmoving legs between his, the healing spine -- unfading marks that his own blindness had left on the body of the man he loved above all.
Another kiss against that red mouth, one that had Charles's arms twining around his neck before Erik supplied the answer to his own question. "Nothing," he said. "Nothing can stop us."
Charles finally smiled a true smile, wide and free and full of humor. "I am convinced," he laughed, pressing his own kiss to Erik's jaw. "After all, who am I to question the great Magneto?"
The journey back to New York from Cuba had been arduous, not just for Charles but for all of them, a series of hardships he hoped they'd never face again: abandoning Moira to the navy to receive care for the bullet she'd taken to protect him, letting her believe the lie Charles had planted in their minds; the days in hospital for Charles and the days suffering his wounds alone for Hank; Alex and Sean left to tend them and get them all home.
But it had been worth it, Charles had thought as he'd sat in his wheelchair, watching Raven appear with Azazel, a shout of joy pulled from her throat when her yellow eyes had landed on Hank's hulking form. Then she'd launched herself at the scientist and enfolded him in a tight embrace, Hank barely recovered from his surprise before she'd released him to wrap her herself around Charles, sobbing out her relief with her face buried against his neck.
It had even been worth it to see Erik's brotherhood appear one after the other in front of him at the mansion, the smirking Azazel, the quiet Janos, hesitant Angel and the cold, imperious Ms. Frost, especially since Erik had returned with them, his eyes immediately finding Charles from across the room. Erik had smiled when their eyes met, and Charles could read the surprise in his followers' minds to know that he could smile so easily or so wide, that Erik could express some honest emotion not shadowed by his rage.
Charles was not surprised, but then no one knew Erik like he did.
He had been right when he'd said it wouldn't be easy to forge their lives together when everything said they should've remained parted after Cuba, but Charles was willing to try if Erik was, for as long as he was. Ever the optimist, Charles hoped with everything in him that they would succeed, even when simple logic made him want to doubt at every turn.
But when Erik touched him, he believed and it was enough.
One the third day of their new, confusing reality, Charles sat in his study, watching the sun set out across the trees some distance from the estate when Emma Frost sought him out, as he'd been expecting. She entered quietly and floated to his side, silent for long moments while she joined him in appreciating the splash of colors across the sky.
"I'm sure he hasn't told you what he did while you were gone," she began, eyes still heavenward. "Just as I'm sure you've already read it out of his head."
"Yes." Charles ached with every stray memory he gleaned of the deaths Erik had perpetrated when he'd thought Charles gone.
"He was ready to destroy them all in your name," she went on. "He would've ended the world as surely as Sebastian would've, just out of his love for you."
In both her surface thoughts and in her voice, he could read her disbelief that anyone could matter that much to another person, even when she'd been witness to Erik's actions. Almost hidden below it, Charles thought he felt a longing, too, a secret wish to feel anything with even a fraction of that depth.
"I wouldn't have wanted him to," Charles said after a moment. "I wouldn't have wanted anyone dead because of me."
"He knew that," Emma told him. "But that didn't stop him."
"No," Charles agreed sadly. "It hadn't."
"I suggest, Professor," she continued, a faint mockery in the way she pronounced the title. "That unless you want to take the world with you when you go to your grave, that you avoid it for a very long time. There's no telling what he'd do a second time."
"I'll do my best," Charles said dryly, though he knew it was something he carried on his shoulders, that his love for Erik could be responsible for so much.
"I'm sure you will," Emma said with a thin, icy smile, her heels clacking on the floor as she glided away. Before she opened the door, she paused. "I don't envy you, Charles Xavier."
When the door closed behind her, Charles smiled, looking down at his wrist where his watch once again sat. It was a weight, but like with everything else, it was worth it to have Erik at his side, to be by his side, just as they'd always wanted.
"Yes," he said to the empty room. "You do."