Erik doesn't remember anymore, how they got there. He doesn't know where they are—never has—and it's been so long he doesn't remember the beginning. Not the very beginning.
The first thing he remembers is being dragged into this room, this cell, with its cold concrete floor and the chains made out of some sort of hard thick plastic or fiberglass or something, and he remembers being stripped naked before they snapped the chains around his wrists that have held him against this wall ever since.
Humans. They were just humans, and it didn't make sense until Shaw walked into the room. Until Erik realized Shaw was using them. Having Emma control them or simply not telling them that he himself is mutant Erik still doesn't know, but they're here, they're always here, still here, doing Shaw's dirty work for him. They enjoy hurting him. They enjoy hurting mutants, taking them down a notch.
Erik remembers that they didn't hurt him at first. Not that first night. But he remembers hearing Charles's screams from the next room, remembers screaming back and begging for it to stop and trying desperately to reach out to his friend's mind and hold onto it but Charles wouldn't let him in.
He remembers the nightmares, later, after he'd fallen asleep, remembers knowing, then, exactly what had happened to Charles even if Charles didn't mean to let it through to him. Erik remembers the devastation—both his own and what he felt from his friend because nothing like this was ever supposed to happen to him. Charles can control people, keep anything from happening that he doesn't want but somehow Shaw had gotten hold of a drug and it's kept in his system now and it isn't perfect but Charles's powers are useless now, for anything beyond simple communication.
The drugs don't stop the dreams though, Erik is relatively sure, but Charles has learned to control it, since then. Erik doesn't get anything through his dreams anymore. He doesn't know what happens in the next room. Not really. Not specifically.
He can guess what happens. More of what happened those first weeks, when he still got every bit of it, when Charles slept.
It isn't only hurting mutants that these sick-minded humans enjoy. They hurt both of them, every day, hurt them until it's one blinding sensation that never stops, sometimes it seems, but while they're hesitant to do anything else to Erik—they're more afraid of him—they are not hesitant at all with Charles. That first night when Charles screamed he begged, too.
He doesn't bother to beg anymore.
Erik would know. He can hear everything through the thin walls. It's just one more piece of the hell Shaw has created for them.
"You can stop this," Shaw tells him, when he's actually here, crooning near Erik's ear like a mother comforting a child. "Join me. You know you belong with us."
He can't. He never will. But the other option is not an option, either.
"If you want this to stop but you don't want to join us you only have to say so, Erik. You'll be free to go," Shaw told him in the beginning.
"And the catch?" he'd growled.
"Charles's life will be forfeit. I've given him the same choice, but in reverse, of course."
The promise hangs over them, the choice they can make to end this, but even when both of them are lucid enough that they can communicate telepathically—easier than shouting through the walls—they don't talk about it. It's easier to pretend it doesn't exist, because it isn't satisfactory in any way.
This could end, but one of them would die, and that isn't good enough.
I'm sorry, Charles says, every now and again. I should be able to get around this, around the drug, find a way to stop this…
And every time he says it Erik silences him, sends what he hopes is the mental equivalent of an embrace, and changes the subject.
They don't have that conversation much anymore. They don't talk much at all anymore. It isn't that they don't want to, but there is too much pain, too much exhaustion, not enough time between beatings and stretches of unconsciousness and desperately stolen real sleep and tears they both hope the other doesn't know about. But Erik can still hear everything, and he knows Charles can too, and though they haven't seen each other since this began they've shared most of it.
We'll get out of this, Erik still tells him sometimes, on days when he's feeling a little less miserable. He used to believe it.
Charles isn't chained to the wall. He's chained to the floor, face-down, every bit as naked as he knows Erik is, and it's been that way from the beginning. There's just enough slack in the chains that he can turn, a bit uncomfortably, onto his back, his arms crossing above his head, but he doesn't do that often. He feels even more exposed that way, though how that can bother him after all this time he doesn't know. There's a hole in the floor for bodily functions, off to the side just enough that he can get to it if he needs to but he isn't always lying on top of it. He knows it's a similar setup for Erik, a hole next to him near the wall he's propped against.
Charles knows much more of what happens to Erik than Erik knows of what happens to him, of course, since he's learned to keep his nightmares from leaking into his friend's mind. Those first weeks he was too traumatized to help it—he remembers being nearly hysterical, panicked that he couldn't control their hired jailers and couldn't stop them and horrified by what they did even though he can't remember many of the details now. Just the feelings.
He remembers Erik shouting at him in his head, shouting through the walls, wanting to make it stop wanting to help him, I've been here before let me help you don't know what you're dealing with! but soon enough they were hurting Erik too and he was shouting for other reasons. And Charles still had the memories he'd seen before, the memories from Erik's past, the memories of pain and screaming and blood and Shaw, but hearing him scream then, through the wall, still hurt, even through his own pain.
It's been months now, and it still hurts. He still can't shut it out and he doesn't want to even though he still has control in his own mind and he could but it would feel like betrayal. Erik can't shut out his screams.
At first he didn't want to know how long it had been. Erik kept track, more used to being able to think clearly through miserable circumstances, but he didn't tell Charles unless he asked.
The first time Charles asked it had been two weeks, the next time more than a month and a half, then more than two, then nearly three…
He stopped asking. Made a point of not counting any days himself, of making himself oblivious to the passage of time, and when he got up the nerve to ask again the number of months Erik gave him was seven. Seven even, almost to the day.
Charles remembers crying that night, the first time he'd let himself do it, in maybe weeks.
It's been nearly ten months now. No one has come for them, and no opportunity for escape has presented itself and Charles knows it has to end. He can't go on like this.
The position he's chained in is rather perfect or those that come to hurt him. Perfect for beating him, kicking, a whip, perfect for keeping him prone and vulnerable to whatever new torture they can think of. They always fall back to the old standbys, but they don't stop thinking of new ways to hurt him, to humiliate him. It's the same for Erik, he knows, but not in one way.
They don't take Erik. They tried, once, in the beginning, and Erik bit someone's ear half off. Erik nearly died for it, and he's still the one who takes the worst of the beatings, but they don't try that anymore.
They take Charles instead. Sometimes it's only one or two of them and often it's more, laughing and jeering and taking turns for god's sakes or sometimes coming at him at once. They don't seem to care how depraved they are.
Some of them fuck him from behind, easiest the way he's restrained, and some of them don't. Some of them drag him up as far as he can be dragged up and force themselves between his lips and fuck his mouth instead. He never makes it easy for them but they do it anyway. More than one has gone away whimpering, with bite marks and bloody, but they always come back to beat their revenge out of him.
Fucking him raw in retaliation would do no good. He's always raw.
They know that. They take pleasure in it. It's rare now, for his thighs to be clean of dried blood and other things. It only happens after they come in with hoses and rough sponges and wash him, like they clean him and Erik both every week or two. It mortified him at first, but he almost looks forward to it now—or to the few hours afterward that he can feel at least a bit cleaner than usual, before everything starts all over again.
"I know you want to think the best of humans, Charles, but if the world finds out about us this is all they will have for you," Shaw tells him. "This will happen to all of us—caged, tortured, experimented on. We're better than them. We deserve to rule this world and to protect ourselves we have no choice. Join us, Charles."
"Kindly go to hell," Charles grates out, when he has enough strength to answer aloud.
He doesn't know how many times it's happened. Shaw doesn't seem to show often, and they've been here so long.
Sometimes he wonders absently if there's permanent damage anywhere, or if he's losing nerve endings or overtaxing them or if his brain in beginning to shut down, because maybe he's crazy but things don't seem to hurt as much as they used to. Or maybe he is just going crazy. But if he's never going to be free again none of that matters.
And he never will be. Something in him feels it, because he knows how to end this and he's tried to fight it, tried to tell himself it isn't right but there's no other way. He and Erik are wasting away here, and there's no reason for them both to die when one of them could live and have a life.
He really can feel himself losing what he has left of his tenuous grip on reality, on sanity, and he knows that if he's going to do something he has to do it soon, before he's gone and he doesn't come back.
Since Erik told him seven months had passed he's been working on it, convincing himself of what he had to do and readying himself to do it. It's taken preparation. The drugs supposedly suppress his powers enough that he can do nothing more than communicate, but he's closer to Erik. He knows Erik. With Erik he could do more from the beginning, as evidenced when he was projecting his nightmares, but he's worked since after the seven-month mark to expand on it.
Small things. Out of Erik's notice but enough to assure Charles that he can do what he needs to do.
He's ready now—able to do it, anyway, if not ready; he'll never be ready—but Shaw has to be here. He has to wait until the next time Shaw shows his face here.
He's glad Shaw isn't here today. He's more exhausted than usual today, and he doesn't know if he could do it right now. They beat him earlier, before they took him, and it was several of them today. But that wasn't enough for them. They had to finish with one of their new favorite pastimes—a loosely judged contest in who could get Charles off more quickly, who could make his cheeks burn the hottest with shame.
Why is he still ashamed when they do it? He knows he can't fight them. He knows there is nothing he can do, but he still feels it.
Part of him supposes that's a good thing…that he can still feel enough to feel the shame, the humiliation. That he hasn't shut down completely.
Or it would be a good thing if he needed to worry about a life after this. If he needed to worry about seeing Raven again, or Moira, or anyone, and not scaring them with how much he'd changed.
Though he imagines that even though he's managed not to shut down, he would still be different if he ever got out of here. There would be no way to avoid it.
God he misses her. He wonders if she still hopes at all, if she still thinks they might be alive. If she or any of the others are still looking. If they kept the house in New York as a home base or if any of them are still together at all or if they went their separate ways after he and Erik disappeared and weren't found.
Charles suddenly feels unbearably lonely, and certainly in light of what he knows he's going to do, and he reaches out to his friend.
He feels Erik pull in a sharp breath, and realizes in his exhaustion he let some of the pain and humiliation through. He apologizes and curls a little farther in on his side, trying to find a position that isn't as uncomfortable—that doesn't press on so many bruises or force him to lie on the sore edges of too many protruding bones.
They're both thin now, fed only well enough to keep them alive and just strong enough not to snap in half at what's done to them, really. Along with the drugs they give Charles to suppress his powers they're both given shots of vitamins and other supplements regularly to help with that, so their jailors can get away with feeding them less and still beat them as hard as they please.
Needless to say, finding a semi-comfortable position to lie in is nearly impossible now.
Bad day? Erik says, half concerned and half with forced levity.
Charles shrugs inwardly. A bit. He pauses. Erik, we can't go on like this forever.
I know. Now Erik pauses, and it takes what seems like forever before he says anything else, and Charles realizes suddenly that Erik has been thinking about this too—not just absently, of course he would think about it, but really thinking about it. He's just been too wrapped up in his own contemplations to notice.
You have to do it, Charles, Erik says finally. Just do it; it's all right. Tell Shaw he can kill me and get the hell out of here. Go home to your sister. She needs you, and those kids need you if they're still there.
Charles is shocked into silence for a time, because whatever he expected he didn't quite expect this—for Erik, who has spent so much time hunting Shaw, planning to kill the man, to give up his chance to do it. To give up his life before he has accomplished his life's goal.
And suddenly Charles understands how much Erik cares about him. He's always known, of course. Part of him has known, but he hasn't really understood it fully. Now he does, and it only makes it hurt more. It only makes what he has to do that much harder.
No, Erik, he answers quietly, blinking back tears. I won't do that.
Then what else do you suggest we do, Charles! Erik's voice, even telepathically, is weak and frustrated and tired, and Charles's sees what's happened today—the fresh bruises and blood over the old. He closes his eyes, wishing the images away, and swallows.
I don't know, he lies. But I can't do that. If you want to I won't be angry—
NO! Erik shouts angrily, and he shouts it aloud too and Charles hears him, sees him in his mind's eye slumping back against the wall again, newly exhausted just from expending the energy of merely doing that.
Get some rest, Charles tells him gently. It won't do much good, but it ends the conversation.
Damnit, why did Erik have to mention Raven? Now he's missing her even more strongly than he was before, and his heart is in shreds to think he will never see her again. Part of him desperately wonders if there is any other way.
There isn't, of course, but…
When it happens it all happens much too quickly. So quickly Erik isn't even sure it's real.
It's only days later that Shaw makes an appearance, and Erik is being beaten at the time but he can't miss the sharp click of expensive shoes against the concrete. The blows stop and Erik can scarcely see for the blood in his eyes, but he doesn't have to see to know it's Shaw as the humans back off reluctantly and man who orchestrated all of this crouches at Erik's side.
"Erik. It's been a while."
Erik glares at him. "Your point?"
"How are you feeling?"
He thinks about spitting in Shaw's face, but he can't muster enough saliva.
"It's been more than three quarters of a year now, Erik. Did you know that? Isn't that enough? If you'll join me…if Charles will come with us, no one has to die. No one has to hurt anymore."
"Except the people you destroy taking over the world," he bites out. He still isn't so sure he cares about any humans at all anymore…not that he ever has so much, since the camps…but he knows that Charles doesn't want people to die.
"Acceptable losses. We don't need the humans. We are the future, Erik. Mutant kind." Shaw sighs a bit. "Now I know ten months is less than we spent together when you were young, but it isn't just you anymore. You don't want Charles to suffer anymore, do you?"
No. No of course not. But he can't join Shaw and he can't…
Erik tries to come up with another smart-elec response, but suddenly he is no longer in control of his own tongue. He can't move it, or anything else. He panics inwardly, until he feels Charles's presence. Charles? What are you...?
Charles is in his mind, in it, not just communicating—actually, not communicating at all at the moment—but taking hold, taking control, and suddenly Erik is afraid. Charles! he tries again. What are you doing!
I'm sorry, my friend. This is the only way.
"No," he hears himself saying aloud. Emotion leaks into his voice and he didn't tell himself to speak at all, but he's spoken because Charles has made him, though the emotion isn't faked or forced into his voice; it's just that Charles has brought Erik's real feelings forward and he can't keep them out of his voice. Charles has taken that control from him.
"I've told you, Erik, you can stop it. You can join me and I'll have him left alone for a while, or…"
The choice. The choice that will free both of them, but not the same way, and now Erik realizes what Charles is doing and sobs inwardly. Charles, don't! But Charles doesn't release him and the invasion of his mind is a violation, and Charles shrinks back from the word but still doesn't let go.
And somehow he knows that Charles is crying, quietly, in the next room, even though he can't hear it.
I'm sorry, I'm sorry…
"I know," Erik says against his will, and he closes his eyes and he's not sure if it's he or Charles who made it happen.
"Do it," he's whispering, and he's fighting with everything he has to shut his mouth, but he can't. "You know I'll never join you. Just end this…please."
His eyes are still closed, but he can feel Shaw studying him. "Are you sure you know what you're saying? If I end this at your request and you don't agree to join me, Charles will die."
"I know that."
"And you're sure?"
"I know what I'm asking!" His frustration and Charles's, all rolled into one under Charles's control. "Just do it, damnit! Put him out of his misery! Let this be OVER!"
No No NO! Erik is screaming inside. Oh god, Charles, please! Let me go! Let me take it back!
I can't do that…this had to end somehow.
But why you! Why do YOU have to die! It's not right! PLEASE!
None of this is right.
You're better than me, Charles. You deserve to live. I don't…
A sob in his mind. Don't say that. Never say that. There is good in you, Erik. I've felt it. You deserve the chance to find it for yourself. You deserve a second chance. You never really lived your life. Live it now. Don't avenge me. Just live. Please. For me.
And then Charles pulls back, not releasing him but making it clear that he won't answer again. And Shaw is standing slowly, nodding as he straightens.
"All right, Erik. If you've made your choice."
Erik just looks at him, trying as hard as he can to convey with his eyes what he's shouting inwardly. I didn't! I don't want this! But after Shaw looks at him for a moment he turns to go, and if the man suspects at all that this wasn't what it seemed he simply doesn't care.
Shaw leaves, and his footsteps fade away down the corridor, and only then does Charles release Erik from his control.
The moment he is free Erik starts screaming, and he doesn't stop until his throat is too sore to do it anymore.
Erik is screaming, sometimes incoherent and sometimes begging him to tell Shaw it was all sham, but for the first time Charles shuts him out. When the screaming finally stops he can still feel the pain, the anger, but he ignores those too, though they're still there, like a thorn in his mind.
Not long after that their jailers return, but not to cause anyone any harm. It's nearly time for washing anyway, and they do it now, bringing the hoses and sponges and splitting between Erik's cell and Charles's and cleaning them more thoroughly than usual. This time there are towels, which has never happened before. Both of them are dried off, and Erik is left where he is, but once Charles is clean and toweled off, even his hair, they release his wrists from the chains.
He hasn't sat up without any impediment for nearly ten months, and his back and legs cry out in pain and his shoulders scream in protest when his arms are suddenly not, for once, above his head. Even though they move slowly when they pull him up to sit against the wall, even though they're practically gentle, it hurts so badly he's shaking and crying when they settle a blanket over his lap—the first shred of dignity he's had since this all began.
Shaw's version of a dead man's last meal, he supposes, and it's almost funny but he's crying too hard to laugh and it isn't only because of the pain.
It means more than that, too, the blanket. It means this is over. It means no one will ever touch him again where he doesn't want to be touched, no one will be inside him again against his will, no one will beat him, and it's over. Finally.
Except, of course, for however Shaw plans to kill him.
Charles chokes back one last sob, and when the sharp ache in his bones and joints calms enough to be tolerable he manages to stop the tears, too. Shaw could return at any moment, after all, and it's the last thing he wants the man to see.
His friend's mind is a mess of anger and guilt and pain and grief, and Charles does his best to soothe it as he reaches out. Erik, I'm so sorry. I know I crossed a line, but I hope you understand why.
Please. Don't. Even if you're angry with me, please just…Erik, even if you don't stay with them, I need you to go back to New York. Please. Tell Raven I love her, and…and take me home. Bring me back to my sister. Don't leave me here, please…
Never, Erik chokes. But god, Charles, please don't do this! I…
He trails off, afraid, but Charles knows what he wants to say, and he clenches his eyes shut in pain. I know, Erik. I know. I love you, too. I always did.
Another strangled sound, and he knows Erik made it aloud in the next room. Charles…!
But that's when the cell door unlocks and opens, and Charles looks up and Shaw is there, looking at him gravely.
It's time, his mind whispers, back through the connection to Erik.
No. Stubbornly. No…
"I suppose you know what Erik and I spoke about earlier," Shaw says, and it isn't a question. He steps farther into the room, not bothering to close the door behind him but letting it swing slowly on its hinges.
They both know Charles is too weak to try anything. They both know he isn't going anywhere.
Charles licks his lips and clears his throat before he speaks, to be certain it will come out. "Yes."
Shaw crosses slowly to Charles and bends on one knee beside the telepath, arms resting on the other knee in front of him. "Then you know why I'm here."
He nods once, slowly. "Yes." He clears his throat again, struggles to speak evenly. "How are we doing this?"
Shaw smiles with a kindness that doesn't reach his eyes, and reaches up to stroke the backs of two fingers down Charles's cheek. Charles leans away a bit as the man answers. "I think you've been through enough, don't you? I'll break your neck. With my powers, of course, I have enough energy to do it quickly. The right way. You shouldn't feel it."
"Do you have anything to say?" Shaw asks, pulling his hand away.
Charles straightens again. "Say?" he asks weakly.
"I'm not going to deny a man his last words."
Charles glares at him briefly, swallows hard. He doesn't have anything to say, but he does have something to ask. "You will keep your word, yes?"
"Erik…you'll let him go. No strings. He's free."
"Of course. It's a shame—he should be with us—but I will." And Charles knows he isn't lying, because he isn't wearing that damned helmet.
So he nods and lets out an uneven breath. "All right then."
Shaw nods in return and reaches for his chin, the other hand circling behind Charles's head. Charles can feel his heart rate speeding up, and his breathing, but he can't go anywhere. He won't. This is the choice he made.
He feels tears prick his eyes again, and his fingers twist in the blanket over his legs. Goodbye, Erik.
Charles, NO! I love you…!
And then there is nothing.
Charles abruptly goes limp, his head lulling forward in Shaw's grip, and he lets go.
He hadn't done anything yet.
"Charles?" When he sees no signs of movement or of breath he presses two fingers to the young telepath's neck for a long moment, but feels nothing. "Hmm…Emma? Emma!" he barks, and in a moment his own telepath strides into the cell, wrinkling her nose at the general smell of the place and absently brushing off her white pants already.
Shaw nods to Charles, and Emma brings her hands to her hips and focuses on him for a moment. "Nothing. Not even coma background buzz. He's dead, all right."
Shaw sighs and stands, dusting off his own pants now, and now he hears the renewed sobbing screams from the next cell. "I suppose he is."
"He must have shut down all brain function. I suppose he could do that. He was powerful."
"Wanted to go on his own terms, I suppose. I can admire that. Such a waste, though, really."
"Then why did you decide to play it like this? If you really do let the other one go what have we accomplished?"
"Whichever if them lived was never going to think kindly toward humans again, my dear. That's quite enough for now. Even if Erik never joins us I'm sure he'll cause enough trouble for them on his own. But on the other hand, he will be back. He'll want his revenge. And then it will be our job to convince him to stay."
Emma just shakes her head, not understanding the complexity of his plans, but Shaw doesn't care. He glances down at Charles once more.
"Well, he did do his part, one way or another. He died. Which means it's time for Erik to go."
Charles is gone. Erik knows it, and not only because Charles said goodbye but because there's an emptiness now, in his head. In his chest. Emptiness in places there he didn't know existed until they were bereft of the thing they existed for. The person.
Erik is so lost in his grief he doesn't notice, really, when someone comes in and releases his wrists from the chains, or when someone else drops his clothes in a pile in front of him. He doesn't notice either of these things until long minutes later, and then the pile of folded clothing is there and he's free and he doesn't remember how either of these things happened but he shakily pulls the clothes on. Boxers and khakis and a black belt and black turtleneck and his brown leather jacket.
They hang off of him now. The only things that still fit right are his socks and shoes. He's grateful for the belt.
When the door opens again he is on his knees on the concrete, dressed and silent, and his eyes are still damp but he has long since dried his face.
It's Shaw. Of course it's Shaw.
"Erik, you're free to go. Azazel can take you somewhere, if you'd like." He doesn't say that Charles is dead. He knows that Erik would know that.
"What did you do to him?" he grates out.
Shaw blinks. "I didn't do anything, actually. Charles ended his own life. He shut his body down. Ceased brain function or stopped his own heart, perhaps; Emma and I aren't sure. But he's gone, Erik. You're free."
Erik's eyes close for a moment, pain ripping through his chest though he is somehow glad that Shaw was not the one to kill Charles.
Charles never deserved that.
"I'm taking him with me," Erik says evenly.
He swallows, and repeats himself more slowly. "I am taking. Charles. With me," he says, and manages to get to his feet. Being chained to the wall he'd been able to stand if he wanted to, even if he couldn't move far, and his muscles are not as deteriorated as he knows Charles's must have been. He's swaying a bit, but he doesn't fall, keeping his furious gaze settled on Shaw.
Shaw just looks at him, questioning.
Erik's jaw clenches. "He's dead. You don't need him now. Let me take him home." Charles did not ask for much, and this he can do.
He really cannot bear the thought of leaving Charles here, anyhow.
Shaw steps back, motioning out the door, and Erik brushes past him as quickly as his unsteady legs will let him and goes around into the next room—the room he has never seen but the room that has held the rest of his existence wrapped up in it for ten months.
And now that piece of his existence is gone.
Erik slows just inside, stopping cold for a moment when he sees the crumpled form against the wall on the far side of the room. He swallows hard and goes to him, kneeling silently beside him and letting a hand cup Charles's hollow cheek.
He's so small, jutting bones and prominent ribcage and deep, dark circles under his eyes, his once healthy longish hair falling in lackluster clumps around his face and his once red lips impossibly pale and thin. Oh Charles…
Erik knows he can't look much better, but it breaks his heart anyway. All over again.
As if it could be broken any worse.
And he's aware now, that Shaw is still behind him, at the door. Azazel is with him now, and they're waiting.
Erik has to clear his throat again before he can speak. "His clothes," he manages. He glances back, and Shaw is raising an eyebrow at him. "I am not bringing him home to his sister like this!"
Shaw would probably roll his eyes if that were something he did, but instead he simply shifts his gaze to Azazel and nods. The teleporter is gone in an instant, and a moment later he materializes beside Erik and unceremoniously drops another pile of clothing into his hands.
Socks and expensive shoes, more boxers and khakis, a brown belt, light blue button-down shirt, navy blue cardigan…
Erik fingers the weave of the cardigan and realizes he remembers it now, the day they were taken. The first part of it. Training at the mansion and lunch on the lawn, just the two of them, to do something different, and a game of chess over drinks, and laughing over whatever the hell they talked about. Before everything went to hell.
They're the last happy memories he owns.
He forces back the tears and the lump in his throat and dresses Charles, alone. Azazel and Shaw don't offer to help, of course, and he wouldn't want their help. Even as weak as he is, it is ridiculously easy to lift Charles up enough to get the boxers and khakis over his hips. He's so light, and it isn't as if the clothes are hard to pull onto him. They're much too big now, just as Erik's clothes are.
Erik dresses him with care anyway, tying his shoes correctly and tucking the shirt into the hem of his pants and pulling the belt through the belt loops and buckling it and buttoning both the shirt and the cardigan the way he remembers Charles buttoned them—the cardigan buttoned up all the way and the top two buttons of the shirt open, letting the collar fall over the top of the cardigan. He takes his time, not caring if Shaw and his minions are impatient, because these, really, are the last moments he will ever spend with Charles.
When he's finished he pulls his friend's body to him, cradling Charles in his arms and picking him up. He stumbles once, but catches himself. Supporting all of his weight like this, even as little of it as there is, is much harder, but he's going to do it. Erik turns to look at Shaw and Azazel, and Emma is with them now, arms crossed as usual.
"Where would you like to go?" Shaw asks, as if he cares.
Emma answers for him before he can try to say it. "Back to New York. Where we found them."
"Ah. Of course. The estate, I would assume. Charles's sister is still there with the others."
Erik is too exhausted and upset for it to register that Shaw knowing that is not a good thing. Still, it's been almost a year and he hasn't attacked it. None of the others are here. He supposes that means it doesn't matter much to Shaw. But they can figure out what to do about it later. Or better yet, Shaw can just die.
Azazel is moving toward him, and Erik glares vehemently at Shaw. "I will find you," he promises, too angry to remember the one other thing Charles asked of him. "And I will kill you."
Shaw smirks a bit. "We'll see. Take care of yourself, Erik."
And then Azazel touches his arm, and there is the smell of sulfur and a flash and they're standing in the trees at the end of the long drive that winds back to the Xavier mansion. Erik can just see the tops of the roof's sections from here, over the trees. Azazel lets go of him, motions toward the house in confirmation, and vanishes.
Not knowing what else to do, Erik lurches forward, tightening his grip on Charles and taking a step toward. He manages one, and then another, shakily, but it's the third that drops him to his knees. He isn't strong enough to carry him there, but the last thing he wants to do is leave Charles here to go to the house for help. He wants to bring Charles home himself, like he promised he would, but he can't. He isn't strong enough.
He isn't strong enough.
He isn't strong enough to deal with this.
Why for me? Why for ME? Why did you love me…
Erik stays on his knees, hugging Charles to him as he sobs once, and then again, and soon he is sobbing into the cardigan's shoulder, that stupid cardigan that was too big on him even before all of this, and now look at it. It swallows him, but that doesn't even matter because Charles is dead and he will never have to worry about it.
He's still warm. How is he still warm? Maybe it's just the clothes, or Erik is going crazy, but he doesn't mind going crazy if it means he can sit here and cradle Charles's body in his arms and pretend it isn't just an empty shell.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," he cries. He presses his forehead to the still one, then presses gentle kisses down the temple, the cheek, and buries his face in the shoulder again. "I'll always love you," Erik murmurs brokenly.
And he imagines he feels warm breath against his cheek, imagines he hears a soft chuckle and weak voice answer him. "Good lord, Erik. I had no idea you were so sentimental."
Erik tightens his grip on the still figure in his arms.
He doesn't expect the strangled gasp of pain that echoes near his ear.
Erik gasps himself and pulls back, nearly losing his grip on Charles when he sees bleary blue eyes blinking up at him. "Oh god I am going crazy—" Though if he really is and really going crazy means Charles really can be alive, at least to him, maybe he really doesn't mind.
"Erik, it's all right," the hallucination sighs. "Calm yourself. I was never dead. I merely slowed my heart and brain functions to an undetectable level."
Erik stares down at him, wanting to believe it's possible. "What?"
Charles shifts in his arms, grimacing. "I—ah. I…I didn't know if it would work. I didn't want to get your hopes up, and your reaction to my death needed to be real or Shaw would have been suspicious, especially of your request to take me with you. And where…?" He cranes his neck a bit, letting out a small breath after a moment. "New York. Good." He pauses and catches Erik's eyes again. "Thank you."
Erik is still staring at him, struggling to understand whether or not this is real. But then, suddenly, he realizes that the emptiness isn't so empty anymore, and a gentle voice pushes in at the edges of his mind.
It's me, Erik. I'm all right. WE'RE all right.
"I am so, so sorry about this, my friend," Charles says aloud, very quiet. "But playing it out that way was the only chance we had of both of us getting away from there alive."
And Erik is crying again now. "Charles!" he cries, and presses his forehead to Charles's again, but this time it isn't still. "Oh god, Charles, I thought I was bringing a body home. I thought—"
"I know, I know. I'm sorry…" A hand on his cheek, cold but gentle, slim fingers that weren't nearly so slim ten months ago.
Erik shakes his head against Charles's hair. "I don't care, I—how could I be angry? You're alive…" he gasps. Lips against his cheek now, not much warmer than the fingers and it occurs to him that they're going to have to fix that.
But they can fix it now, and even as weak as he is Erik has never felt more alive as he finds those pale lips with his. They'll be red again soon, he thinks. We'll fix that too. They'll be red again and your hands won't be cold and our clothes will fit us and I'll be able to carry you farther than two and a half steps.
We'll get there, Charles tells him silently, chuckling in his mind. It will take time, but we'll get there.
And when he pulls back there are tears on Charles's face too, happy ones as his are now, and when Charles smiles at him warmly Erik can almost forget how small and drawn he looks, it's so brilliant.
You don't look any better, Charles thinks, chuckling aloud this time and giving Erik an image of himself, his own sunken cheeks and dark circles beneath his eyes and pale skin and limp hair and the clothes that hang from his nearly skeletal frame—merely a taller version of Charles himself.
Erik laughs too, for a moment, before his smile falls. "Why do you love me?" he wonders then.
Charles's eyebrows go up. "Because I see you, Erik. I know how good of a person you could be, if you tried. I know there's a part of you that wants to be that person, and it still exists after everything you've been through. I can't not love you."
Erik kisses him again, and pushes it deeper this time, wanting more of this, of Charles, of someone who loves him knowing everything. Both sides of him. Someone who loves him at all.
No one has loved him since Shaw pulled that trigger in that dim office so many years ago.
Another thought, when he finally pulls away again, and he's still holding onto Charles but he looks up, remembering that they need help. They're both aware of the fact that Charles is too weak to walk, and Erik could walk on his own but not carrying Charles. "Are you strong enough to contact Raven? Are they really here?"
Charles smiles again now, satisfied with himself. "She and the others are already on their way."
There's a shout then, up the drive, and when they look Raven has crested a small rise and the boys are not far behind her—lanky Hank and then Alex and finally Sean with his shaggy mane of red hair. Raven is blue, Erik notices, and she sticks out against the gray sky as she shouts again and breaks into a sprint down the shallow incline.
Charles pulls himself up against Erik's shoulder then, and Erik helps him, and they wait and Charles pushes gently into Erik's mind again, letting him feel the relief and joy he's picking up from Raven and the others and his own happiness. All of that combined with Erik's own exhausted joy and relief is nearly too much, but he takes it all in.
And Erik doesn't know what the farther future will hold, but what he said to Shaw in that last moment is forgotten now. Keeping that promise would only ruin this, what he knows he has now, what he and Charles can have, what they'll grow together. He doesn't know what choices there will be later to make, but right now he knows his choice.
I love you, he thinks to Charles, and the small body settles more closely against him, and Erik knows that his choice is this. He knows he's chosen not to let go of this. Of Charles.
Erik has no desire to lose him for real.
And the presence in his mind sees this, all of it, and curls around it and makes it light in his mind's eyes, and in his arms Charles is still smiling.
I love you too, Erik. That is MY choice.