Erik doesn't know why he goes back. It's been weeks since Cuba—since he walked away from the only person he's ever loved since the day Shaw killed his mother—and he thinks he's been dealing with the fallout well enough. He thinks he's kept himself in check: his emotions, his needs, all subordinate now to the fact that he has a job to do. A world to change.
He doesn't have time for his heart. He proved that when he left it behind, broken on the sand on that beach.
He doesn't know why he goes back. He just does it. There is no conscious thought, just a feeling and then he's searching for Azazel. The red-skinned mutant raises an eyebrow at him but does not question his request. In moments they are at the bottom of a hill in Westchester, New York, and Erik tells his companion to return in several hours. Azazel nods and disappears.
He turns toward the house, the mansion, and he's come in full regalia of course, capped off with the helmet. He wouldn't want to give Charles any ideas. He tells himself he's here for follow-up only. Perhaps they may now be on clearly opposite sides of this war, but he should be sure that Charles is well. The others too. They were left stranded on a beach in foreign country, after all, and Charles had been injured…
Erik stops that thought before it can go too far. Before he can let himself fear, or feel guilt, or anything else.
He knows what those feelings will be when he has them, but if he feels anything while he is here he may not leave again, after all.
But he must. He has a fight to win. A fight Charles refuses to believe exists. Even if he believes it is there now—and how can he not?—he does not share Erik's views, or he would have said yes. He would have stayed at Erik's side, where he belongs, but he didn't.
So be it.
Erik moves slowly up the hill, with measured steps, giving himself time to decipher what he will do when he arrives at the door. Will he even go in? Maybe if he circles the house, peers through windows…perhaps he can find out what he wants to know without anyone ever knowing he was there. And they won't know. Not if no one sees him. Not if he keeps the helmet on. Not even Charles will ever know he came.
If he can see Charles; if he can know the man he was able to love for such an achingly brief time is all right….
He could survive, at least, on that, he thinks.
But they've seen him. Someone has. He isn't quite there yet, but Hank McCoy has come from a side door. He's just standing there watching Erik approach, warily, and his arms are crossed over his chest and his eyes are narrowed. Erik walks straight to him, not backing down from the challenge, though the young man looms over him in height and is larger than him, now, with the added muscle and blue fur.
"Beast," he acknowledges.
Hank only snarls. "If the professor hadn't picked up that I saw you coming and asked me not to hurt you, you would be dead by now."
"I'm sure seeing you try that would be interesting." The answer is cold, but his chest is fluttering at the mention of his once lover, and he quickly stamps down the beginnings of emotion.
Meanwhile, there is a low growl from Hank.
"Are you going to allow me inside or will Charles be coming out here?"
"Who says he wants to see you?" the other mutant snaps.
Erik refuses to react to that. "Well?"
Hank stares him down for a long moment, and then turns on the heel of a padded foot in a much more graceful movement than anything he was capable of before his change. "You're coming inside. Against my better judgment," he huffs.
Erik follows him into the mansion, and through the ground floor to the base of the stairs that he remembers climbing so many times, often with Charles at his side…
When he mentally shakes himself, they've stopped, and he realizes that Alex Summers is hurrying down the stairs and holding out a hand as if to stop them.
"Wait, wait, uh…" He all but drops off the bottom step in front of them, and now that he has a closer view Erik realizes how pale he looks—the drawn, worried look on his face, which is something new from smug Alex.
Hank's face has gone slack. "Alex?"
Alex glances at Erik, and then back to Hank, quickly suppressing a grimace. "Not a good time. Really not a good time," he says quickly, and his voice is pitched low and Erik doesn't like it at all.
"What?" Erik insists. "What the hell is going on?"
Alex scowls at him. "You're just gonna have to wait."
"Why? Where is Charles?" His fists clench, and any metal in the immediate vicinity begins to vibrate. He has much more control now and he could stop it if he wanted to, but he does it purposely.
"Hey," Hank barks. "You don't make the rules here. You left. You want to see the professor? You wait until—"
He cuts off, wincing, probably knowing anything he says is useless once Erik hears the wrenching scream from upstairs. It isn't only one scream, either. It's one scream after another, growing more desperate and pained by the second, and Erik would know that voice under water.
"Charles," he breathes. He's bounding up the stairs before they can stop him, and they shout after him but he goes anyway, following the heart-rending screams to a room he knows well. The door is closed, and locked, but he feels it before he gets there and with a single flick of his wrist the lock is disengaged and the door is pushed open. He charges in with no warning, and no thought of what he will do.
He only knows that the man he loves—still loves, damnit—is in pain.
He can hardly take everything in at once. He only catches glimpses of the medical equipment around the four-poster bed and he barely registers that Sean is there, at its side. All he sees is Charles, back arched and taut in the bed, head thrown back in the pillows as he hoarsely screams at full capacity.
"Charles!" His gaze shifts angrily to Sean then, who with red-rimmed eyes looks up at him in shock.
"You aren't supposed to be in here right now!"
"Why aren't you doing anything!"
"This is all I can do!" He means his arm. While the one of Charles's hand is twisted in the blanket, the other is clamped around Sean's wrist. Sean is gripping Charles's arm in return, a pitiful attempt at comfort.
Erik hasn't broken his quick stride for the bed, and the helmet is the first thing to go. He lets it fall carelessly from his hands, because he knows hitting the floor will not hurt it and because Charles and what is hurting him and stopping it is more important now.
Charles, I'm here! What's happening? I'm here…Charles!
But Charles doesn't seem to hear him.
Ignoring Sean and his lack of action, Erik drops quickly onto the bed and pushes himself to Charles's side. He gathers the younger man into his arms, breath leaving him in shock at how much smaller he is than the last time Erik held him. He pulls him to his chest, holds him close, and one by one pulls his gloves off with his teeth and tosses them away. Charles is still screaming, writhing in his arms and sobbing dryly into his deep red tunic, and Erik holds his head under his chin and doesn't let go. The only indication that Charles knows he's there is that he's let go of Sean's arm and the blanket and his fingers are twisted in Erik's clothing, instead.
Though as much pain as he seems to be in, it may have been reflex. It may mean nothing at all.
I'm right here, I'm right here, I'm right here…!
"What's happening to him!" He shouts it, demanding, desperate, and Hank and Alex have run in behind him and all three young men are just standing there, doing nothing, while their mentor shudders in agony.
And then…and then….
Charles abruptly stops screaming. He goes limp in Erik's arms, moaning, and Erik sees the others' faces. He really looks, for the first time, and he sees the resignation. The pain and the helplessness.
This is not something new to them.
"What the hell is going on?" he demands again, low and dangerous though it barely comes out at all for breathlessness thanks to adrenaline.
Charles is still now but for his own heaving chest, and a long several moments of silence is broken by his weak voice. His head turns enough that his voice will not be muffled, but his voice seems to barely be there.
Charles seems to barely be there, body thinner and lighter and unhealthy. Erik can feel it, and now that he can think about it again his heart stutters in fear.
"Sean…Alex…Hank…thank you, but…you may go. I will explain this to him," Charles says.
Alex glares at Erik fiercely. "He doesn't deserve shit."
Hank growls. "No, let him hear it; he deserves to know what he did."
Sean trudges out from behind the bed and shrugs in a defeated way that makes Erik's chest tighten even though he tells himself he doesn't care. He only cares about Charles. "Whatever. Come on." He glances back from the door. "Professor, just, you know…let us know if you need anything…"
Erik feels Charles nod minutely against his chest. "Thank you, Sean."
Sean nods and is gone, and the other two reluctantly follow.
As soon as they've left Erik lets out the shuddering breath he didn't know he was holding. "Charles…what was that?" he questions desperately. He doesn't bother to keep the worry or the anxiousness from his voice; the helmet is off, and Charles would know anyway.
God, he looks awful. His skin is pale and damp with sweat, marked by dark circles beneath his eyes and red rings around them, and soaked hair clings to his forehead while the rest of it is unkempt and flighty. He wears nothing but a thin gray t-shirt and deep blue pajama pants that disappear beneath the sheets. There is an IV line in the arm at the edge of the bed.
Charles opens his mouth, but coughs instead of whatever he was going to say. He grimaces, nearly doubling over in Erik's lap, and his body shudders but—
His legs. He didn't notice before. Why are Charles's legs so still?
Charles must have heard the thought. He clears his throat once the coughing stops and the rest of him is still again. "I can't feel them, Erik. My legs are gone," he says quietly. It isn't accusing, or angry, or anything of the sort. It's put into the air as a simple fact, but Erik's freezes anyway.
He knows why. There isn't any way he wouldn't know why. He deflected the bullet himself; he's known since a split second before it happened that it was his own doing. He didn't know until now that it had led to this, but he knows that it is his fault.
It doesn't help that Charles hasn't yet looked him in the eye.
And what the hell was it that just happened? Why was he in pain?
Charles pulls in a careful breath and plunges on, without waiting for Erik to ask him to. "What happened, just now…is unrelated."
"Un—" Erik stops, scowls, and tightens his hold just a bit, of the arm around Charles's waist. His other arm supports Charles's head now, and his shoulders, Erik's fingers are curled gently around his arm, and he can feel how cold and clammy Charles's skin is. It scares him. "Charles, what's wrong with you?" And he can't check the dread in his voice.
Charles gulps noisily, and takes another breath. It seems hard for him, to breathe, and Erik sees the oxygen mask hanging from a stand next to the IV stand. His chest tightens again. "Charles?"
Finally the younger man lifts his eyes, the piercing blue of them the only thing about Charles that does not seem somehow dimmed. He speaks slowly, matter-of-factly, but gently.
"My mind is…damaged, Erik. My brain is forgetting how to keep my body functioning properly…forgetting how to keep me alive. I'm dying."
And any last hope remaining of keeping his emotions in check slips away.
"What?" he gasps. He can't breathe. "I don't—I don't…understand. What about—why were you screaming? God, I—" He feels the light brush of that familiar mind in his own, deliberately calming him, and he scowls. "Charles," he pleads.
"It's…that was…a relapse, I suppose, for lack of a better word…my mind reliving the trauma that caused the damage. It's happened often enough…though I rather wish it wouldn't, but I can't seem to…to stop it. It is not…helping my condition. I'm afraid the flashbacks are speeding my decay, more than anything."
Erik isn't quite processing what he is hearing anymore. "What…what are you talking about? What damage? What happened to you? Why is this happening to you?"
Charles frowns and just looks up at him for what seems like too long. "You really don't know." His voice is quiet, but it sends a shiver down Erik's spine just the same. Perhaps more so, because it is.
"Don't know what?" He makes himself say it, though suddenly he is not sure he wants to know the answer.
Charles swallows before he answers, and his voice is small and pained and Erik wishes he could make it better but he doesn't even understand what's wrong.
Charles can't be dying. He can't be. How would this world exist without him?
"I was still in Shaw's mind when you killed him, Erik," he says. "I didn't just…know what happened. I felt it. I experienced it. Do you…do you have any idea how many layers of connection I had to forge to keep that man under control? His powers, all of that energy, I had to—"
"Why the hell were you still in there! You should have let go!"
"If I had let go too soon he would have killed you!" Charles shot back harshly. "By the time it was safe to let go I was too far in and I couldn't disengage before he was gone." He looks away, scowling now. "I misjudged everything…"
Including you. He doesn't say it or even think it but Erik understands it anyway. What he doesn't understand is everything Charles did say. His own voice is rough now by the time he says anything else.
"Are you saying this is happening because of that? Because of what…I did?"
Charles doesn't answer, and that is the only confirmation he needs.
"There has to be some way to fix it," he says quickly. "There has to be a way to help you, to—"
"It's been weeks, Erik," Charles says tiredly. "We have tried anything and everything. I cannot repair the damage myself even with my considerable abilities, and Hank's research has been useless; nothing else has helped me. It's too late now."
"No—" Erik chokes on it the first time, cursing the dampness gathering in his eyes. No. None of that. He is Magneto now.
Who is he trying to fool? He left Magneto at the bottom of the stairs when he heard his beloved screaming.
He feels Charles press a little bit further into his chest. "Erik…"
He knows that tone, that it's-all-right-talk-to-me insistence, and the voice is weaker but it is still Charles. It is still the voice he knows, and it still sounds more caring and forgiving than he deserves. Certainly now. Resigned…but forgiving.
But if what Charles says is true…if this is all his doing…he deserves nothing. Most surely not forgiveness.
"Oh god, Charles…" he moans. And no semblance of who he has tried to become remains, and he is only Erik and he hurts.
"You didn't know," Charles whispers.
He's gasping, trying to breath through the pain that is crushing him and it isn't easy at all. "It doesn't matter. You asked me not to kill him; you begged me not to do it. I should have listened to you—" Charles doesn't say anything to that either, and Erik isn't sure whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. "Why aren't you shouting at me? Why are you demanding that I leave? Why don't you hate me?" he whispers.
Charles lets out an unsteady breath. "Oh, Erik, my friend…I don't know that I could ever hate you even if I wished to." He shrugs weakly. "And…I suppose I have had the time to accept this. I am not entirely certain what I would have done with my life anyhow, after all of this…I certainly couldn't have simply gone back to Oxford to teach. It would have been incredibly anti-climactic."
A small bubble of laughter climbs into Erik's throat and comes out strangled when any feeling of amusement at the words is dashed by overwhelming reality—one he stubbornly wishes he did not have to accept. "Charles, are you sure...?"
Sadness now, deep in those blue eyes despite whatever he may have accepted or not. "I'm sure," he answers quietly. "We're all quite sure."
Erik sobs wordlessly and pulls him closer, up to his cheek, and his fingers tangle in Charles's damp hair and thin arms latch around Erik's neck. Erik doesn't feel worthy to kiss the clammy cheek that rests against his own, but Charles presses small kisses to his jaw and neck.
"Erik…stay with me," he pleads softly. "Please, it won't…it won't take up much time. I don't have—it won't be long. Please, Erik, just—"
"I'm not going anywhere," Erik cuts in. He swallows back the lump in his throat and tries to blink back the rest of the tears, but he fails miserably and the rest nearly doesn't come out. "If you want me here I'm not leaving."
Charles makes a small, broken sound of relief, and there isn't much strength in the tugging when he rests a hand against Erik's cheek and pulls Erik's lips to his, but Erik lets it happen because Charles wants it. Not that he doesn't want it, to kiss Charles…to love him…but he doesn't deserve it anymore.
But he'll stay here, for now. He'll stay because Charles needs him to, and until Charles draws his last breath he won't believe it's hopeless.