Magneto dies on a Wednesday afternoon.
One moment, he's pacing and lecturing a new recruit. Things go a bit hazy after that, but he's sitting up, now, staring at coal black walls shot through with veins of blood red, the smell of sulfur heavy in his nose. He sighs, but he's not entirely surprised. He has no illusions about the the work he's done and the lives he's taken. If an afterlife exists--as if there's room for doubt in that, now--he knows he's landed in the proper place.
He's dead. The knowledge is deep within him, inescapable. He can't explain how he knows, but the fact that there's not even a whisper of doubt in his mind leaves him resigned to the fact that the explosive argument he vaguely remembers was the end of his life. He thinks he should be angry or upset or disappointed, but mostly he's relieved. Relieved and slightly irate when he realizes his instincts have him examining his surroundings closely. Even in death, it seems, there is no rest for his tempestuous mind. Rest is all he really wants, now. It's all he's really wanted for years. This last time he saw Charles, a stolen weekend in a hotel room just six weeks ago, it had been so difficult to refuse his customary plea for Erik to return to New York with him. It's not that Erik's ideals have changed--he doesn't agree with Charles, not entirely--but he's old and tired and he never slept quite as well as he did with Charles' arms around him. He's begun to realize that the sacrifices that were so easy to make as a young man are just as easy to regret when he sees how numbered his days are and how lonely they're bound to be.
Well. He supposes that's not a problem anymore. He wonders if Mystique will tell Charles of his passing. He wonders if Charles will shed a tear for him or if he'll just be relieved.
No, that's unfair. Charles will weep for him. Charles weeps for him already, has wept for him so many times in the past. For all that lies between them after all these decades, all the bloodshed and battle and ill will, Charles' love has never wavered. Charles will weep for him, just as he would weep for Charles if their positions were reversed. He nearly weeps for Charles now, thinking of him alone at that school, hearing of Erik's death, knowing that, for the first time since that warm night in Miami, he's truly alone again. There were days that Charles' words, still echoing in his head, were all that sustained him. You're not alone. You're not alone. You're not alone.
He's alone now. The room--cave, really--has no obvious entrance or exit. He's sitting on a stone dais in the center of the room, raised a few feet off of the floor. There are no other rock formations and nothing resembling furniture. The walls and floor are smooth, if uneven, and the crimson veins seem to glow and pulse. Erik thinks they'd be hot to the touch and wonders if it matters if he gets burned. He feels better, physically, than he has in years. All of the aches and pains of age have disappeared. He's so comfortable in his body he's almost numb. He can feel the hard planes of the dais, but aside from the knowledge that it is hard and underneath him, it doesn't bother him. His muscles don't shift against it, uncomfortable like he gets when he sits for too long on an unforgiving surface. A glance at the back of his hands confirms that he still looks eighty, which, in a moment of vanity, he allows himself to find slightly disappointing. It would be nice to spend eternity with the youth and vitality he felt in his body fifty years ago, but he assumes that if they wanted him to be happy, he would have ended up somewhere else.
He gets to his feet and paces around the room. There's a heaviness to the atmosphere that would be humidity if it wasn't so dry. As it is, he can only liken it to something like dread, hot and stifling and weighing down the very air around him. It's not his dread--he's not afraid of anything that's to come. He's lived through hell on Earth and he can't imagine that anything can top horrors already in his past.
He stretches, more out of habit than need, and does a quick circuit of the room. The walls, even the glowing red streaks, are cool to the touch and solid. He wonders if this is it--an eternity spent alone in this room. It's far from the worst he's had to endure. Maybe his intentions count for something after all--maybe his desire to make things better for mutantkind are enough to lessen the horror of the acts he's committed.
"It's not quite like that," says a voice. It's just a voice, at first. Erik is alone in the room, is still alone in the room, when he first hears it. He glances around quickly, and when he's once again facing the wall, there's a figure standing next to him.
"Hello," Erik says. It's as good as anything else to lead with.
"Hello, Erik," the man says. He's tall, taller than Erik, and slender. Despite the olive tone to his skin, he seems... bright. Like there's a faint aura, not around him, but emanating from his skin. His hair is black as tar and his eyes are nearly the same, the irises barely discernible from the pupils. He wears a pale grey, sleeveless tunic and slacks. He fairly radiates power. "Or do you prefer Magneto?"
It's not mockery; it's an honest question, but there's a strange tone to the words that Erik can't identify. He thinks on it for a moment. He does prefer Magneto. Erik was weak and nearly directionless in his single minded rage, his inability to see the larger scope of the world. Magneto was a leader. Magneto inspired confidence. Magneto was an icon.
But, then, in fifty years, Erik's never quite been able to think of himself as Magneto. In his head, he's always been Erik, the name given to him by his parents, the name he had in the few memories that are happy. If he's going to be stuck with a name for eternity, he supposes he should pick one that has a connection to the few things in his life really worth remembering.
"Erik is fine," he tells the man. "What shall I call you?"
"Whatever you'd like," the man says. "I've more names than I can keep track of, really. Funny thing, names. Interesting. Call me what you please. I can be whomever you'd like."
"I prefer people to choose their own identity, if it's all the same," Erik says.
"Of course you do," the man says. "It's a very noble way to be. Of course, it only works if you like the identity they choose. For example, I could look like this."
It's as if Erik has blinked, though his eyes remain open. One moment he's faced with the lanky stranger. The next second it's Charles, Charles as he was when they first met--young and bright and smiling. Erik thinks he might be sick.
"Don't do that," he says. He tries for commanding, but he's never been able to hide his emotions from Charles and his voice breaks in the middle. "Don't you dare make mockery of him."
"I'm not," Charles--that man--says. "You asked me to choose my identity. I thought it would be easier for you to be around someone familiar, someone to put you at ease. Unfortunately, the options are limited. You're not at ease frequently, are you, Erik? Or should I say, you weren't."
Erik swallows against the bitter taste of adrenaline and suppresses the desire to reach out and touch. It's not Charles. It's not Charles. It doesn't matter if he feels the same way Charles does, if he has the same soft skin, if there are freckles in the same places. It's not Charles, and that knowledge would make any petty, immediate comforts sour and wrong.
"No, I suppose I wasn't," Erik says.
"Do you know where you are?" the man--not Charles, not Charles--asks him. Erik nods.
"I'm dead," he says.
"Yes," the man says. "And this is what comes next."
"I'm in hell, then," Erik says.
"What makes you say that?" the man asks. "Do you think you deserve hell?"
It's so much like Charles that Erik nearly weeps. Charles' voice, Charles' face, Charles' open, guileless expression. They may have even had this conversation before, except that Erik's been an atheist longer than he's known Charles and until he woke up in the afterlife, he certainly never believed in it. Still.
"There are things I've done," Erik says. "I justify them by saying they were for the good of mutantkind, but that doesn't excuse the acts themselves. I knew what I was doing. I know what I've done. I've no illusions about the amount of blood on my hands. I did what I thought needed to be done, but what I did was murder and I was fully aware of it, even at the time."
The man wearing Charles' face nods. There's a depth to his eyes, a flicker from the blue that Erik knows so well to the deep black of the man's eyes, fast enough that, were Erik's reflexes not this sharp, he would have missed it.
"Do you wish you could have done things differently?" he asks.
"I have... regrets," Erik says. He pauses, but the whole of his life seems massive, his mistakes too many to catalogue, his triumphs spread out over decades. "I don't know that I can say that I would have done things differently. I don't know that I have that perspective."
The man laughs. It's nothing like Charles' laugh, though it's still in his voice.
"Erik, this is the afterlife," the man says. "Having that perspective is rather the point."
Erik grits his teeth, reminds himself that this isn't Charles. The man mocking him is not Charles, even though he does so in Charles' voice. It's not even mockery, not really. It's an observation, a correct one, and just because this being wears Charles' face--
"I made my decisions," he snaps. "They're done. I may regret my actions, but if any of them helped mutantkind in even the slightest of ways, it was worth it. My life is over and there's no use dwelling on what could have been. Unless that's my torture, my penance. To think about the many ways I've wronged Charles Xavier and the world."
The man laughs again. "Oh, Erik, this is just a prelude. We have a ways to go until you reach your final stop." Erik swallows, but forces his face to remain impassive. "It's a long journey. Perhaps it will be a good time to think about what you've accomplished."
There's a door, suddenly, where there wasn't one before. Erik senses it before he sees it, heavy, dark wood with pure iron fixtures. It's the first metal he's felt since waking up and the relief goes through him in waves, rolling over his body. He can have this. He can still have this.
He pulls the door open before the man can reach for the knob, and the man turns and smiles at him with Charles' mouth.
"I thought you'd like that," he says. "Follow me, please."
Outside the room is not the fire and brimstone Erik imagined. The smell of sulphur still hangs in the air along with that heavy dread, but it's actually almost peaceful. There's an iron fence that encircles what looks to be an island. At one end, up past the stone fortress behind him (large and dark, but almost rustic, not imposing at all), there's a gate that's secured shut. In front of them is a path made of the same dark stone shot through with crimson. It meanders down a hill through knee-high grass. At the foot of the hill, the path turns into a bridge. Anything beyond that, beyond the very edge of the river, is obscured by mist.
The afterlife, the man had said. Not hell. Erik thinks back to the classics, to epic poems and ancient myths. The resting place of all souls, not just those who deserve punishment for their deeds. He wonders what that means for him. Given all that he's done, he hardly expects a light sentence, but it seems like this man--Hades?--will come to things in his own time and not a minute sooner.
Erik can have patience. It may have been difficult to master in his youth, but he's had many years to learn the benefit of waiting things out.
They follow the path to the river and as they grow closer, a bridge materializes through the mist. It's little more than a slab of the same black and red stone that's stretched over the water, but it seems sturdy enough and the man doesn't hesitate in stepping up onto it. Erik follows, his steps more hesitant, at least until he can feel how firm the stone is beneath his boots. He stays close to the man--the mist is thick and despite being halfway across the bridge, he still can't see to the other side. He doesn't want to lose his way, but he also fears getting too close--he doesn't want to touch an illusion of the companion lost to him. He can't help but feel that it would be a betrayal, somehow.
The man takes two steps down, the only warning that they've come to the end of the bridge. Erik steps down as well, and as soon as his feet touch the soft dirt of the other side, the mist is behind him and he can see the whole of the world laid out in front of him. Soft green grass in rolling fields and gentle hills, trees clustered here and there, a clear pond. Aside from the dark path, which cuts its way across the field like a scar, it seems almost impossible to believe that this is the underworld, that they're in the land of the dead.
"The fields of virtue," the man says absently. "Not a bad afterlife, if you can swing it." He grins at Erik over his shoulder--over Charles' shoulder--and it just serves to make Erik's skin prickle. He wishes, absurdly, that he'd gotten a chance to say goodbye. He said goodbye at the end of each of their trysts, of course. He tried to say it with the knowledge that they may never see each other again, but faced, now, with the knowledge that the last time really was the last time, he finds their goodbyes lacking. Did he tell Charles he loves him? Has he ever, in all their years together, confessed how brilliant he believes Charles to be? When was the last time he told Charles he was beautiful? When was the last time they had a serious conversation about what they've meant to each other over the years?
Now he supposes they never will. He finds himself hoping that Charles broke his unspoken agreement not to read Erik's mind. He finds himself hoping that Charles dug down deep and saw all of these things for himself. He hates to think of Charles alone and not knowing how deeply he was loved. He doesn't imagine he'll ever have a chance to tell him. Charles will end up here, with the virtuous, and Erik will end up.... Well. Wherever it is this man is leading him.
He breathes deeply and holds the air in his lungs. It smells like a spring day after a shower, the deep, refreshing green smell that's impossible to replicate. The sky is bright in a vague, indefinable way and the air is warm without being too hot. There are no people close to the path, but he sees signs of them--there are swings in the trees and patches of grass tamped flat from lounging bodies. He can hear distant laughter, indistinct, but warm. Erik doesn't blame them for staying away--he thinks, if he was granted an eternity of perfect spring days, he wouldn't want to watch people marched onto something worse either.
They walk for what may be hours. It's hard to be certain; Erik feels no more tired than when they set out, and there's no good way to keep track of time in a place with no sun. The walk is mostly silent, though the man chuckles from time to time, laughing at a joke that Erik isn't privy to. They seem to be building to something, but it's not until they reach the top of the hill that Erik even realizes that they've been climbing at all.
This realm is green as far as Erik can see, save for their path which cuts down the other side of the hill and off towards the horizon. There are trees and gardens and vast grassy fields. He can see, in the distance, people talking and laughing. There are couples holding hands, children running after each other, people reading or just sitting alone and enjoying the day. It reminds him, almost, of the park in springtime. He and Charles used to meet for chess and all around them humans would frolic and lounge and meander down the footpaths. Sometimes, Charles would reach out and touch his hand as they played, a move casual enough to be ignored by passersby, but deeply intimate between the two of them. Those days Erik almost believed he could give it all up to exist in an endless summer day with Charles. If only for a few minutes, his mind would traitorously wonder why he bothered to be anywhere but at Charles' side forever.
Inevitably, the moment would shatter. Teenagers would walk by using "mutie" as a casual insult, someone with a visible mutation would be obviously shunned by those around them, or talk would turn to politics. But here, it seems, that moment stretches on endlessly.
"It's rude to taunt people with what they can't have," Erik says quietly, but with no bite. If he'd gone with Charles, would they have ended up here? Would they spend eternity in an endless, serene afternoon, together and happy and worry-free for the first time in all their years?
"It's not a taunt," the man says. "You made your choices. You said yourself, you knew what you were doing. We're merely on our way to our final destination. This is the shortest route." He pauses and glances at Erik again with a whiff of Charles' most mischievous smile on his lips. "Besides. I know you can appreciate beautiful things."
Erik swallows hard and nods. They stand at the top of the hill for another moment, and then the man heads down the other side. Erik follows and tries to appreciate their surroundings while he can.
He's so busy, in fact, looking out at the world around them, that he misses the figure at the bottom of the hill until they're nearly on top of her.
Erik knows that voice. He's heard it in his dreams, as clear there as it was when he was growing up, running around underfoot and causing trouble even then. Though his memory has been sharp, it can't hold a candle to the actual sound of his mother's voice, real in his ears for the first time in over sixty years. His eyes well up with tears, unbidden, as he looks at her for the first time since he was a child.
"Mama," he whispers. He can't move. She looks so full of life, so happy. The lines left on her face by fear and anxiety have faded away. He doesn't know that he's ever seen her look so carefree.
She steps forward and wraps her arms around him. She's so small, now. He towers over her as he hugs her close to him and swallows against the sob in his throat.
"Oh, my Erik. Look at you. So big and strong. I always knew you would survive. I knew it."
She pulls back and looks at him critically. He wonders what she sees; he's old now, older than she was when she died. He's lived a hard life, but a better one than he ever imagined he could have lived. She brushes her fingers against a scar on his temple and shakes her head.
"My little boy," she says. "My Erik."
"I've missed you," Erik says. "I've--" He doesn't even know what to say. Everything I've done, I've done for you. But even that's a lie, isn't it? Shaw was for his mother. Everything since has been to stop another Shaw from taking power, to keep mutants safe from those who might want to harm them the way Shaw harmed him, the way Shaw murdered his mother and was party to so many more murders. He's thought of his mother often through the years, but he's never imagined what he would say to her if he saw her. He didn't allow himself time for idle delusion--he knew she was dead. There was no need to dwell on how things would have been different if she wasn't.
"Oh, I know, my darling," she says. "I've seen it. I've seen how you grew. How you changed."
There's something in her tone of voice that makes his insides go cold. It's not condemned or accusing, but she knows. She's watched him murder and destroy. He never wanted her to see that.
"I did what I had to do to avenge you," Erik says. He takes her hands in his own. "I did what needed to be done to see that you didn't die in vain."
She frowns at him then and shakes her head. He feels like a chastened child.
"Now, Erik, you know as well as I that isn't entirely the truth of the matter," she says sternly. "Though I don't approve of such things, I understand your drive to avenge me and your journey to find Dr. Schmidt. But, my darling, anything done in my name was done when Schmidt was killed. He was a vile man and he would have continued to hurt people. I don't like the idea of you killing anyone, but that man deserved it." Just as when he was a child, Erik can feel the "but" weighing at the start of her next sentence. "But, Erik, all of the people after him. All of the rest. You'd done what you needed to to. You'd killed the man who killed me and all of the others. All of the rest--they were innocent."
"They weren't innocent!" Erik insists, but he can't find the anger, the determination he's always relied on when people have questioned him. He's ten years old, again, being scolded by his mother, almost whining his defense. "Can't you see? They were full of hatred. I needed to make sure that no one could be subjugated like that again. I needed to protect my people!"
His mother smiles sadly and strokes his cheek.
"My little boy," she says again. "I can't blame you. Not for any of it. Your childhood was robbed from you. I should have been there to teach you these things, to help you. Your heart was in the right place--you've always had such a strong sense of justice. Too strong, maybe."
"Mama," he says, desperately. He doesn't know what else to say, how to articulate his frustration.
"I like to imagine that if I had been there for you, it would have been different," she continues. "I could have helped you see that what you have is a great gift, so much greater than what that awful doctor thought it was. I could have showed you there are better ways to use it, ways that don't involve fear."
"I'm sorry, Mama," he says. He hates himself for it. He doesn't regret anything he's done, he doesn't, he doesn't, but he regrets hurting his mother. He regrets making her sad. He regrets letting her think it was her fault.
"Hush, darling," she says, and hugs him close again. He curls down around her, clinging. She smells the same way she did when he was a child. "I'm not proud of what you've done, but I'm so proud that you've survived. I'm proud that you've become stronger. I'm proud you've allowed yourself moments of happiness. It's more than I imagined you'd have and I'm so happy for you. He's a good man, your Charles. He tried his best, but it was already too late, wasn't it?"
Erik can feel the tears threatening, clouding his vision as he hugs his mother as tightly as he can manage.
"He would have liked you," Erik says as the tears start to slip down his cheeks.
"I would have liked to meet him, also," his mother says.
Eventually, his mother pulls back from the embrace and Erik lets her go. She looks over him one last time, shaking her head.
"I'm so happy to see you grown up and strong," she says. "I just wish you could have been happy." She smiles sadly and pulls him down to kiss his cheek. "You have a long journey ahead of you. I won't waste any more of your time."
"It's not a waste," Erik says, and wipes his eyes. "Never a waste, Mama."
"Still," she says, and touches his cheek again. "You should go. I am so happy I had a chance to see you again, my little Erik." The man, who had been standing off to the side, clears his throat softly and steps forward again.
Wildly, desperately, Erik says, "I love you. I missed you all the time. And I love you so much."
"I love you too, my darling," his mother says. "I wish I could have been there. Now go on, my dear. You have more to see, I think." She squeezes his hands and then steps back waving goodbye.
The man begins to walk again, but Erik can't tear his eyes away from his mother. He walks half-backwards, waving as he goes, glancing over his shoulder to see if she's still there. He stares until they've walked far enough that she's a distant speck on the horizon. He stares until they've walked far enough that a mist once again begins to hang in the air. He turns around fully and sees that the mist deepens as their path once again leads down to a river bank.
"That was unnecessarily cruel," he remarks as the grass begins to thin out, brown and scrubby closer to the water.
"She wanted to see you," the man says. "Who am I to deny her that? You heard her--she's proud of how you've grown."
"But not of what I've done," Erik says. The man slows so that he's walking side by side with Erik. It's unsettling, too close to too many nights he spent walking with the actual Charles.
"Are you proud of what you've done?" the man asks.
Erik glares and doesn't allow himself to be baited.
That's what he tells himself, at least. He won't let himself be baited by this creature who so badly wants to get under his skin. It has nothing to do with the fact that Erik honestly doesn't have an answer to the question.
The man stares at him for a moment and then speeds up again, once again in front as they step down onto the river bank and then up onto another stone bridge.
Before they're even through the mist on the other side, Erik can tell something is different. There's something in the air, or maybe something missing from it. Before, a bright light cut through the mist, even though there was no visible source. There's nothing like that here--the atmosphere isn't as warm and inviting. It's not foreboding. It's not dark. It's just... less, somehow.
The mist finally parts to reveal a long, flat plain. The grass is rougher and patchy. The light isn't as good. The sky lingers on the odd grey of early morning before a storm. There are people in the distance, wandering and sitting and talking, but the joy that suffused the air on the other side of the bridge is absent. Purgatory, perhaps. Something for those who have been neither good nor evil.
"The Neutral Plain," the man says, as if sensing Erik's thoughts. Maybe he can. Maybe he has Charles' power as well as his face. Maybe it's just a perk of being what Erik assumes is the leader of this realm. "It's not a bad place to be. Today is a particularly gloomy day. There's regular weather, just like Earth. There's joy, like Earth, but also the same sorrows as Earth. Very few complain, though it may be because they don't know what they're missing."
There's a figure standing next to the path, the same path they've been following, the same black and red scar that stretches across the land to the horizon line. The figure is far enough away that Erik can't make them out. He tries not to think of who will be waiting there for him and why. There isn't much that's visually interesting, however. The last field was like something out of a classic painting. This plain is more like a half-hearted recreation. There's nothing to catch his interest and his eyes keep returning to the figure as they slowly advance upon it. He tries to think of anything else, but what is there? His life is, quite literally, over. Wondering about the weather and the state of politics and whether his plants have been watered is pointless now.
They get closer and the figure resolves into a shape that's definitely female. Small and thin with dark hair and, oh, oh. It can only be one person, a person that Erik has spent far too little time thinking about these past years, far less than she deserves.
He hesitates, only for a moment. The man stops as well, pauses and looks back, his expression blank and scrutinizing and just like the one Charles would use when something rattled Erik's composure and he was dying to know why but too polite to ask.
Avoiding her now would be cowardly. She deserves far more than that.
He steadies his shoulders and nods at the path in front of them. The man continues walking. Erik follows him, though his gut churns with regret. Soon enough, he can make out her outfit and then her features and finally her expression. He slows to a stop two yards in front of her.
"Hello, Magda," he says. His voice trembles more than he'd like. There's so much about her that hasn't changed and even more that has, that harkens back to their carefree childhood, the years before the hatred of those around them darkened their lives. She looks healthy and vibrant. Her eyes have the same hint of mischief and her shoulders hold the same determined set that he remembers from their youth.
"Erik," Magda says, and she smiles at him. It's warm and brilliant and much more than Erik deserves from her. "I'm pleased to see you."
Erik hopes she speaks the truth, rather than a mere pleasantry. He is genuinely happy to see her again, despite his shame at how poorly he's kept her memory. His heart aches in his chest as he thinks back to their short time together, to the quiet life they carved out for themselves for almost two years. He loved Magda then. He loves her now as well, but it's different. The things he felt for her were never the sort of things he could have built a life on, at least, not the life she would have wanted. He was seventeen--barely more than a child and still naive to the world, despite all he had lived through. Still, he wishes it could have been better for her.
"I'm sorry," he says. He wants to say more, to offer her more, but, just as back then, anything he can give would fall short.
"There's nothing you should feel sorry for," Magda says. Her tone brooks no nonsense. "At least, not as far as I'm concerned. You did what you could, Erik. We both did. We were children."
Yes, she's definitely the same as she always was--firm and logical and fair. She had more sense than any other two people their age combined. Erik wants to touch her, to touch her arm or her hair or hold her hand, but he can't. He can't bring himself to get any closer.
"I should have done more," Erik says. "I could have. I could have used my powers, I could have tried harder, I could have--"
"You did all you could, Erik," she says. "Truly you did. The seeds were sown in the camps. And even if you had, if somehow you helped me overcome my sickness, what then? Would you have lived a quiet life with me in the countryside? Would that have been enough for you? Would I have been enough?"
"I--" Erik can't lie, but he can't bear to tell her the truth, either. "I always loved you."
Her smile isn't unkind. "It was a child's love," she says. "We were very, very young and we had been through much together. Love like that can't last, not the way we thought it would. You had greater things awaiting you."
His love for her was true and deep, but easily eclipsed by his rage and the seeds of discontent that would grow into the need for vengeance that drove him for so long. It was easily eclipsed, too, by the love he felt for Charles, by the incendiary passion that drove them in all they did, be it arguing or making love. It feels like a betrayal, but she's right--they were but children.
"Besides," she continues. "Could you have continued to love me after you discovered what you were? Could you have loved a human?"
Erik chokes on his shock, on his shame.
"Is that really what you think of me?" he asks. "That I would throw you aside so easily? That I would turn you away simply because...?" He can't even say the words. He knows he's gaping.
"I've seen no evidence otherwise," she says, though her tone is soothing. It's not a condemnation, just a fact, and that almost makes it worse. "You sought dominance over the human race. You seemed to care little about distinguishing between those who deserved it and those who did not."
"I--I never would," Erik insists. "I would never harm you. Not like that. You understood persecution. You wouldn't have judged. You wouldn't have hated."
"By that line of reasoning, you shouldn't have either," Magda says. She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. Erik wants to be angry with her, wants to shake her until she understands that he couldn't let that happen again, wants to implore her to see it from his perspective. She lived through it too--she should understand! But he can't raise his voice to her. He still can't touch her. He stands here, motionless, and looks away, jaw set, as she scrutinizes him. "I don't understand, Erik. After all you've been through, after all we ran from, how could you choose to destroy?"
"How could you think, after all of that, that the world is anything other than kill or be killed?" he asks. "I tried to find peace. I tried it with you, and it failed. I was not a man destined for peace."
"One failure at eighteen years old doesn't mean you should give up entirely," Magda says.
And before he can think better of it, before he can stop himself, he says, "I tried again."
There's a pause. Erik closes his eyes.
"Do you really think I didn't know?" Magda asks after a moment. "Did you really think I could know everything that came after and not know that? You loved him, Erik. There's nothing shameful in that. I didn't expect you to mourn me forever."
"You deserved more than I gave you, though," he says. He opens his eyes again. There's no recrimination on her face.
"Perhaps," she allows. "Perhaps Charles did as well. Did you really try to find peace with him, or did you run as soon as he made the very suggestion of it? Did you make an honest attempt, or did you flee the moment he made it seem like it was possible?"
"You weren't there," Erik says. "You have no place to pass judgement!"
"I don't," she allows. She frowns and Erik is brought, abruptly, back to the decrepit room they shared in those two years after the war. She would frown at him like that when he ignored her or refused to believe he was good enough or capable enough or smart enough or kind enough to deserve her. Even sick, even starving, she was like this. Argumentative. Seeing the best in everything. Seeing the best in him at a time when he thought he was nothing more than the weapon Shaw created. She taught him that he could still be gentle but she was gone before he could fully accept that. Before the war, he admired her from afar. After, he barely believed he was capable of it until it was nearly too late. "But do you think that I didn't hate them? Do you think that I didn't despise them for what they did to my family and my people? Of course I did."
"Then you understand," Erik says.
"No, Erik," she says. "I don't. Because you can't let it rule you. You can't let your hate control your life. The best revenge I could imagine is living the life they tried to take from me. I know what you were like. I know what you were like before and I know that man warped your mind as well as your body. It's okay to hate those who make you suffer. I know that you were afraid that you were a monster. You were afraid with me and you were afraid with Charles. You never hurt me, Erik."
"I all but killed you," Erik murmurs.
"You saved me," Magda insists. "You saved me in the camp. You saved me afterwards. But not everything can be undone by brute force and luck. You can't stop a sickness by wishing it away. That man put these ideas into your head and they're still there now. His legacy, years after his death. No, Erik, I don't mind that you loved again. What pains me is that after all we survived, you let Klaus Schmidt continue to rule you."
"I killed Schmidt," Erik says. He goes cold all over. "I killed him. I let him do nothing of the sort."
"You let him tell you that you were nothing but a weapon," Magda says. "You believed it all these years. Tell me, are you a weapon tasked with achieving your dream by force because that's who you are or is it because that's what you know and you're afraid of discovering what you're really capable of?"
"You have no idea what you're talking about!" Erik snaps. "You have no idea what I'm capable of, no idea why I've done what I have! There was no other way."
Magda sighs and shakes her head. She steps forward and takes Erik's hands in her own before he can move away. She's still young and untouched. Her hands are small in his, smooth and youthful in the face of his age. His chest aches with it and his eyes cloud with tears that he has to blink away before he can look at her. She's so young. She had so much stolen from her, so much eaten away by the death and work and pain and sickness of the camps. He can remember, distantly, watching her run through town in the days before the war. There was a vitality to her that she never quite regained, after. She certainly never ran like that again, carefree and strong and innocent.
"Why do you argue with me like this?" he asks, desperate. "Why torture me? Why waste your time berating me for what I've done?"
When he meets her eyes, there's a kindness to them as well as an edge, diamond sharp and stubborn.
"All I wanted for you was happiness. Peace," she says. "I wanted you to shake off your shackles and you never did. If I can give you a chance--if I can make you think about what you are and what you could be, I must try." She squeezes his hands and smiles at him, as bright as in his fondest memories of her. "You are stubborn and condescending and sometimes very dense, but you're smart, Erik, and worth saving. Worth loving. You thought that about me, and I still think it about you. If anyone deserves a second chance, it's you, because I believe you're good-hearted enough to see what you've done."
She kisses his cheek, kisses away the tears that still linger there.
"I loved you," he tells her. "I still do, even if it's changed."
"I know," she says. "And I you. Now it's time for me to go, and for you to go, too." She drops his hands and steps back, her lips twisted into a wry smile. "Please think about what I've said. I don't want my whole day to have been for nought. It's not as if I have all of eternity to waste, after all."
It startles a laugh out of Erik. He nearly chokes on it, it's so unexpected. He smiles at her and shakes his head. It's easier to turn back to the man, then, to follow him back to the path. It's shamefully easy, actually. After all, he's been turning his back on her his whole life, hasn't he? His human wife, buried under the weight of his hatred for Shaw, his anger with humanity, and the complicated mess of emotions that Charles Xavier drew from him.
Maybe it's time to bring that pattern to a halt.
He's quiet as they continue their journey. He's been quiet for most of it, of course, but the unease of before, the fascination and apprehension is replaced by a flurry of thought.
"What did she mean?" he asks the man after they've been walking for some time, Magda left far, far behind them. "What did she mean that she could give me the chance? The chance for what?"
The man hums absently without responding. It was a habit of Charles', a way to stall for time when thinking of an answer to a question so he could continue to seem all-knowing even as he scrambled for a reply.
"Have you thought about my question?" the man finally asks. "Do you know what you would have done differently? Would you have done anything differently?"
"That's not an answer," Erik says.
"Neither is that," the man says. "And yet here we are."
Erik snorts and doesn't bother speaking again until the familiar mist of the river begins to once again spread out in front of them. The sulfur smell from earlier is back, and Erik knows they've reached the end of their journey. He knows that the other side of the bridge will lead to wherever it is he's been sentenced to spend the rest of eternity.
He hesitates only for a moment. The urge to take the man's hand is strong, but only because he's still wearing Charles' visage. It's been years since he spent more than a weekend with Charles, but Charles is still the closest thing to comfort he knows. Whatever is to come is sure to be unpleasant, and while he wouldn't wish it on Charles, not ever, he wouldn't mind the comfort of a hand to hold right now.
"I doubt you take requests for visitation from people on the other side of the bridge," Erik says instead. They're at the edge of the water now--he can hear it lapping against the river bank. "So if, instead, you could just--please tell him, when it's his time, that I always loved him above all else. I'm sure he knows that, and I'm sure he's destined for somewhere warm and bright, but I would appreciate it, on the off-chance he's ever doubted it."
The man turns to look at him. Erik can make out his inscrutable expression, though he can't quite parse it.
"I don't tend to do favors for people over there, no," the man finally says.
"Think of it as a gift to him and not to me," Erik says. Then, because if he can't be candid with Hades, with whom can he be candid, he adds, "I hate to think of him doubting it. I hate to think of him... lonely. I don't want him to die thinking he's unloved."
"That's very altruistic of you," the man says.
"It feels selfish," Erik admits. "But if altruism is what will get me my request, then, by all means."
The man nods and gestures forward. It's not a confirmation. It's not a promise that he'll pass on Erik's message. It's the best that Erik is going to get, though, he can tell. He follows, if perhaps with slightly less speed than he'd been following previously.
He can feel the heat the moment he steps onto the bridge. The red veins in the stone are glowing, bright threads cutting through the haze and the mist. The heat isn't enough to blister, but it's a marked difference. It's stifling.
The other side of the bridge is dark. Even once they step away from the river, even once the fog is behind them, it's difficult to make out the terrain. It's difficult, even, to make out the silhouette of the man, who can't be more than a meter in front of him. Erik has only the red seams in the rock to guide him. They're throbbing and bright, almost alive. Stepping on them makes Erik uncomfortable, but he can't trust that anything exists on either side of the path. He can't be sure that a step to the left or right doesn't spell disaster.
He speeds up, until the man is a scant few inches in front of him. They're both quiet, and Erik needs the reassurance that he's not alone, that there's someone else here, even if it's only this mysterious being dressed as his dearest friend.
This journey feels tense in a way the others didn't. There's something out there, something watching them, something hovering just outside Erik's perception. He wants to speed up, but the pace is being set by the man and he's not sure their destination will be any more welcoming than the path. He shivers again and again despite the heat, feeling the ghost of fingers that reach for him and just barely miss. He grasps his cape in either hand and squeezes the fabric, grounding himself as he walks. He can't let himself reach out for the man. He must have dignity, even in this.
There's whispering, too. It's too soft to make out. It could be nothing more than a breeze. There is an odd quality to it, as if it's not quite human.
He tries not to think about it. He tries not to think of anything. One foot, then another, then another and then the man speaks.
"It's a pit," the man says. "Cliche, I suppose. Or, rather, I suppose the cliches all began with a kernel of truth. We're not far, now."
Erik bites his lip. He wants to urge the man to continue, but he won't show that weakness.
"Not far" feels like eternity. "Not far" feels long enough that Erik begins to wonder if this is his punishment, walking forever just barely outpacing something that's coming after him, and then, suddenly, he realizes he can see past the edges of the path. Not far, but there's light coming somewhere and it's enough to make out the shape of the black, craggy dirt and rocks on either side of the path. Soon he can see his shoes and the man's as well and then further and further away from the path until he can make out the raised edge of a pit about five yards away.
There's a man there, standing right at the edge. At first, Erik is sure it's a guard of some sort, but once they're parallel to him, he has to choke back a gasp.
He should have expected this. There's no worse fate than an eternity with Sebastian Shaw. Nothing in the scope of imagination, human or otherwise, could be more torturous.
"If it isn't Erik Lehnsherr," Shaw says. There's enough light emanating from the pit for Erik to see the way his lips twist up into a cruel smile. "It's about time you joined the party."
"Shaw," Erik says. He keeps his voice clipped and diamond hard, if only to overpower the fear. All of these years, all of the training and power in the world and he still can't fight off the terror that spikes at the sight of his childhood tormentor. It's rushing through him, the smell of the white room, like bleach and blood, the creeping in his stomach, the fear that's stronger than his anger. He fights off a flashback, swallows against the bitter taste of adrenaline.
"I'm so proud, Erik," Shaw says, shaking his head in something like wonder. "I always knew you had it in you. I knew you would take up the helm. Literally, too, as it happens. You never could turn that lover of yours over to our side, could you? It's a pity. He was powerful. He could have swayed a lot of people. Although, I suppose it's for the best. Telepaths are unpredictable, and they make the whole thing bloodless. I enjoy a little blood, don't you?"
The spark of anger is familiar. It's a relief, actually. It shakes away the cold tendrils of fear that had been wrapping around him on the long walk through the dark. It heats him up, speeds up his heart to drive the last of the fear and the panic from his veins.
"I'm not like you," Erik says. "I never was."
Shaw laughs, sharp and smug and just the sound of it is enough to have Erik teetering on a flashback that he fights off with sheer fury. Shaw can't hurt him. Not anyone. Erik killed him and even though he's here, it's not like he can make anything worse.
"You're exactly like me, Erik," Shaw says. "That was the point. I needed an heir. I needed a second in command who was smart enough and strong enough to lead in my absence. It may not have worked out exactly as I planned, but the end result is the same. It's just a shame that you died before our dream could be realized. We were so close."
"It wasn't our dream," Erik snaps. "It wasn't the same thing at all. I'm not a megalomaniac--I never wanted to rule others. I took no joy in it. My only goal was to give power to the powerless, to allow those who were being persecuted for being better to truly shine, to meet their full potential. I only led because I couldn't trust the intentions of those around me."
He remembers those nights with Charles, remembers being in bed in the mansion, allowing himself the luxury of relaxation, the luxury of fantasizing about a life past Shaw. I don't want to lead anyone, Erik had confessed in the midst of Charles' latest grand plans for his school. I'm not good with people. I don't even like people.
Charles was so young. They both were, but Charles--his freckles, his smile, the hair that would fall into his face, the blue of his eyes--Charles was beautiful. Beautiful and smug and naive and superior and he'd waved Erik's fears away. You underestimate yourself, he assured Erik. Your charisma and passion will shine through. People will see the good in you. A sly smile and then he added, Plus, I imagine you could twist my arm into doing all of the actual leading bits. I don't know if you've noticed, but teaching is technically my job.
He doesn't remember how he replied, only that it ended in a tussle over the pillows, one that melted into slow kisses, the kind that knew there was no rush, that no one was going anywhere. Lying in that bed, in that house, with his hands on Charles' body was the closest thing to home he had felt in a long time. It continues, after all these years, to be the last time he wanted to have roots in a place.
"You're wrong," Shaw says. "You lead because it's in your very nature, Erik. In order for you to meet your full potential, as you say, you need to lead. You need to wield your power. You lead because you know you're better than them. We're the same, Erik. At the end of the day, we share a hatred for humans, for their weakness. We understand that they're not good enough, that they need to make way for those that are."
Erik thinks of his mother, of Magda. He shakes his head. "No," he says. "No--I don't hate all of them. I merely hate those who would hate us for being different. I took no joy in what I did, in what I left behind. It wasn't fun. It wasn't good. It was necessary." His voice is rising against his will. He will not react to this man. He will not allow Shaw to play him as he was played in his youth. He's above that now. He breathes deeply.
"It's no matter," Shaw says. "You're here, aren't you? Just the same as me. Don't pretend you're any better than I am. You've made just as many orphans as I have. More, probably."
"A necessary consequence," Erik says through his teeth. He curls his hands into fists again. "It wasn't a game to me. If you think I don't understand what I was doing--if you think I don't carry those deaths with me--I did despicable things in the hopes that one day, the children of our race wouldn't have to. I didn't torture children for fun. I didn't murder their parents to prove I could do it." He steps forward once, twice, and then stops himself, desperately trying to rein in his anger. He needs to learn. He needs to accept this. If he's to spend eternity with Sebastian Shaw, he needs to learn not to react, not to let it get to him.
Except, of course, Shaw badgering him is probably the point of the thing.
"I wasn't heartless," Erik says. "There was--there was good to me."
Shaw rolls his eyes. "Now you sound like your lover the cripple."
It takes Erik three steps to wrap his hands around Shaw's lapels, to lift him from the ground, his hands shaking with rage. He remembers, distantly, the way Shaw used to loom over him when he was a child. Erik's taller than he is, now. Has been since before the last time they met. Since before Erik killed him because Erik is strong and in control and Shaw is the weak one. Erik overcame him once and he can do it again.
The confidence feels good. Solid. But Shaw is laughing at him and that chips away at it, bit by bit.
"What are you going to do, Erik?" Shaw asks. "Kill me?" He reaches up and touches his own forehead and a hole appears, long and thin and bloody. "If I remember correctly, you already tried that, but here I am again, with you in hell. You can't have been that good if this is where you've ended up."
"There was good. There was a part of me that Charles loved," Erik says.
"The weak part," Shaw sneers.
"The best part," Erik says. "There was a part of me that was beyond you. That was more than hatred and more than fear."
"And what good is that?" Shaw asks. He's still hanging from Erik's grip, smug and arrogant and as awful as he ever was. Erik wants to shake him and shake him, wants to hit him over and over again until he disappears, until he's gone for good. "Fear and hatred are how you earn respect. They're how you keep people in line. You know that as well as I do. You've been using fear and hatred to make people do your bidding since the day you murdered me and took my place. Everything you have you owe to those things."
"No," Erik says. "No, it's not. It doesn't. It isn't. I tried it. For fifty years I tried and it hasn't worked. It's gotten our people nothing but derision and persecution! There's no respect! There's no understanding! There's no remorse! It just breeds more fear and hatred and I'm tired of it!"
Shaw disappears from his hands.
Erik stays frozen, his hands up in front of his face, clutching nothing. He blinks, finally, and when he turns to look around, to see where that cockroach has gotten to, there's nothing but the man from before. Hades. Whoever he is. He's staring at Erik with an expression that Erik recognizes from too many late nights in the car with Charles. It's a calculating look. Erik is being scrutinized closely.
"Does that mean that you would do things differently given the chance to go back and try again?" he asks.
It's not an easy question to answer. It would be hard enough in the best of circumstances, but Erik's pulse is still racing. He's still reeling from Shaw, and the dark seems to be closing in on him again. He has to focus, to concentrate, and though fear grips him, he shuts his eyes.
Fifty years of destruction and death. Fifty years of trying to lead a revolution with a handful of people desperate enough to join him. Maybe half of them believed in the cause. The other half were power-hungry or yearning to destroy, ruled by their anger and fear, rejected by every other option. He's glad he was able to provide refuge to those who needed it, but so few of them believed as he did. So few of them thought beyond the next battle, beyond taking out their enemies or taking revenge for wrong doings. There was nothing to call home. Nothing tangible to protect. He lived his life in concepts and ideals. He fought for a cause that was constantly in flux as the state of mutant politics changed from election to election. He was doing it for the betterment of the race, to make life better for future mutant children, but how?
There's been a part of him that's always admired Charles. He understands why Charles does what he does. There needs to be a safe space for children; the battlefield is no place for children to grow up. He's always thought of himself as protecting Charles and his school. Even when his Brotherhood fought Charles and the X-Men, it was only because the X-Men wished to stop them. He had no quarrel with other mutants, only with those who stood in his way. There were times, more and more of them lately, when he was so tired of his transitory life. There were times that, when Charles asked him to come back to the mansion, when Charles pleaded for him to return, he actually considered leaving it all behind. He would have liked teaching. He would have liked having Charles in his bed every night even more.
Fifty years of doing things his way, of trying to win the world's acceptance by force, and there's nothing much to show for it. Perhaps, given a chance to do things again, he would concede to Charles. Although, Charles' way of doing things hasn't been quite right, either. Charles hasn't changed the world any more than Erik has. Perhaps it would be best to come to some sort of compromise.
"Yes," he says, begrudgingly but with conviction, "If I could do things differently, I would."
The man sighs and tips his head back. "It's about bloody time," he says, and in an instant, he's gone. Erik feels one flash of panic, one cold gasp of horror because now he's alone in the dark in hell, but just as quickly he's returned. He doesn't look like Charles anymore, but the tall, slender visage he held when Erik first saw him. He doesn't need to be wearing Charles' face, though, for Erik to recognize how serious he is.
"This is a very unusual circumstance," the man says. "And I cannot stress enough how rarely we allow an opportunity such as this. You, Erik Lehnsherr, have within you the ability to lead a race to greatness. But not alone. And not through intimidation."
"Charles," Erik says quietly.
"Yes," the man says. "You said that the part of you where he lives is the best part of you. Did you mean that, truly?"
"I did," Erik says without hesitation.
"Then you have it within you to be the man he sees," the man says. "The man you were always intended to be. If you do this, you will only get one chance. If things fall apart the way they did the first time, you'll have to live with your choices both on earth and, eventually, down here as well. If you're going to do this, you need to trust Charles Xavier."
"Trust has never been our problem," Erik says, but even as the words leave his mouth, he knows that's untrue.
"It's always been about trust, Erik," the man says. He waves a hand and there's the helmet, floating in the air between them. Something like shame settles in Erik's gut. "You cannot start on this journey without trust. You need to accept his powers and his intentions as well as his affection."
"If my second chance is a world where I blindly follow Charles Xavier, then I'd just as soon not take it," Erik says. He crosses his arms to hide the way his hands shake.
"You're doing so well. Do not be a fool now, Erik. Your second chance is a world where you learn to work with Charles Xavier," the man says. "A world where you accept that sometimes you know best and sometimes he knows best and sometimes the answer is somewhere in the middle. You need to follow the best part of you back to Earth, Erik. This is a time where you need to follow Charles." He takes the helmet from the air and presses it against Erik's chest. Erik grips it tightly and then puts it on. He's worn it for so long, it's almost a comfort to feel it settle onto his head. Once it's on, the man stares at him for a long second and then snaps his fingers again.
Beside him stands Charles. Charles as he was then. It's technically only been mere minutes since Erik has last seen him--the man's impersonation was spot-on--but the sight still takes Erik's breath away. This is Charles. This isn't someone playing a trick, this is his Charles, the way he was before Erik ruined him.
"You've performed admirably so far, Erik," the man says. "This is your final task. To prove your willingness to change, to prove you're capable of it, you must follow the best part of yourself back to where it all began. You need to follow Charles out." The man snaps his fingers a third time and the path disappears. Erik hadn't realized just how strong the glow of the red veins of rock was until now. The darkness would have swallowed them all together, if it wasn't for the unearthly aura surrounding the man. "You can't touch him. You can't speak to him. Your task is to follow him. Follow him out and up."
"This is a test," Erik says.
"Yes," the man says. "Above all else, you need to trust him, Erik. This falls apart in the absence of that trust."
Erik looks at Charles. He's wearing a navy cardigan and a blue oxford and grey slacks. It's the outfit he was wearing the night he stopped Erik from leaving the CIA facility. He longs to reach out and stroke Charles' cheek, touch his arm, hold his hand. He wants to touch Charles just once before he's forbidden. He wants to reassure himself that Charles is solid and present. He wants the comfort he gets from the briefest of skin-to-skin contact.
"You can't touch him," the man says. He sounds almost contrite. He sounds like he understands how painful it is for Erik to be three feet away from the love of his life and unable to acknowledge him. "The quicker you follow, though, the quicker you'll be on the other side."
"Will he remember anything?" Erik asks. "Will I remember anything?" He doesn't trust himself at twenty-eight. He doesn't trust that he won't just make the same decisions all over again.
"You will remember everything," the man says. "You will remember your life. You will remember your journey. He will remember nothing. It's up to you whether or not you decide to share the reasoning behind your new insight."
Erik frowns. "Another test?"
"Once you make it back to the other side, there will be no interference from back here," the man says. "We don't meddle ourselves. That's what we have you for. You are truly free to share your experiences if you so wish. That's provided, of course, you make it back at all."
The man steps away from Charles and scrutinizes Erik one more time. It's like being under a microscope; he feels as though his very molecules are being inspected. When he meets Erik's eyes, he smiles.
"Remember," he says. "Don't touch him. Don't talk to him. Trust him above all else." He offers Erik his hand. "Best of luck, Erik Lehnsherr."
His hand is cool to the touch, his grip firm and calloused. When he releases Erik's hand, he taps Charles on the shoulder, and then he's gone.
Erik is still blinking at his departure, confused and unbalanced, when he realizes that Charles has started walking already. His heart jumps to his throat; in the absence of the man, the darkness has become almost all consuming. He has to listen closely to the footsteps in the rocks and dirt until he hears what he hopes is Charles. He walks quickly and as quietly as he can, following the footsteps until he can see Charles again, just barely, just an outline in the dark. Everything in him wants to reach out. Everything in him wants the security of holding on. Everything in him has been aching for the comfort of Charles' hand in his own since this journey started, since before that, since the day he and Charles went their separate ways on the beach.
He can't. He can't. He can't.
He breathes deeply and tries to steady himself. The light is so dim, it might as well be gone all together. He keeps waiting for his eyes to adjust, even though he knows they won't. He keeps twitching at the whispers, at the murmurs just beyond his hearing. He doesn't know if he wants to stop walking to focus on them or if he wants to sprint away so they'll never find him.
The darkness continues.
He starts a list in his head of the places he'll take Charles. It's a continuation of a list he started long, long ago. In the moments that he let himself imagine that he'd have Charles for more than a fleeting second, he thought of the cities he'd visited on business and how lovely it would be to revisit for pleasure. He thinks of restaurants in New York. He thinks of museums and libraries and resorts. There was a lovely villa in a town where he murdered a particularly brutal guard from the camps. A tiny cottage in Switzerland where he would frequently spend entire weeks strategizing.
It doesn't take up as much time as he would like and it's getting harder and harder to ignore the phantom rustles he hears all around them. There's a press of bodies right past the light. He can feel them. He knows they're there, just close enough to touch, just waiting, and his skin crawls. His breathing rattles heavy and loud in the helmet. He can hear his heart pounding. He's afraid, if he doesn't touch Charles, he may be sucked into the darkness. If he doesn't touch Charles, he'll never leave this place. If he doesn't touch Charles, the monsters in the dark will seize him and Charles will never know, Charles will keep walking, Erik will be alone.
He's going to scream. Screaming won't count. He won't be talking to Charles, he'll just be talking, period. He'll just be getting it out, the fear churning in his gut, the bone-deep knowledge that he's not strong enough to do this. There's something moving in the dark, there's something calling out for him, there's something right there and it's going to keep him from this, from his second chance, from his love, from--
He swallows the scream. It's wet and thick and the muscles of his throat contract around it, but he swallows and walks faster. He's less than a foot behind Charles now. He doesn't dare step closer, for fear they'll touch by accident. The shadows are still closing in, pulling the air from his lungs. Everything smells acrid and sharp. It's burnt hair, burnt flesh, and it haunts his worst nightmares and it's coming for him. It's coming for him. It's closing in on all sides and the darkness is going to go on forever.
He can't give in. He can't do this. He owes it to Charles. Trust. He can prove that he trusts Charles. He just needs to focus on the endgame, focus on the destination, not the journey. Just a long walk back and then he'll pass over and the first thing he'll do is take Charles in his arms. He'll hold him for as long as Charles can bear it. He'll relearn every inch of his skin. It's so close, so close and all he has to do is keep walking. He's lived through worse. He's lived through so much worse.
His hands are shaking, which makes peeling off his gloves difficult, but he manages it. He shoves them into the pocket of his trousers, not missing a step, not taking his eyes off of the back of Charles' head. With his hands free, he curls them into fists until his nails bite into the skin of his palms. He squeezes harder and harder and focuses on the pain, on the eight sharp pricks of awareness, on the blood he can feel is just beginning to well up, ready to burst through the skin the moment he applies that last bit of pressure. He breathes in and out through his nose, sealing his lips and then biting them as well. He can't chance even an accidental gasp, not after he's come all this way.
He can feel them reaching for him. He can sense how many there are and how close and how badly they want him. They're going to rend the flesh from his body but he's calm, he's focused, he's breathing in and counting to three and then breathing out.
He's staring at the back of Charles' head like it's the key to salvation. It is the key to salvation.
He remembers, distantly, his Greek mythology. He's always been well-read, but Greco-Roman history wasn't his strong suit. There's a story, though, about a man who loses his wife on their wedding day and is so distraught he travels to the underworld to beg her a pardon. The man in the story could not complete his task--he could not prove his trust and his faith.
Erik can. Erik will. Erik is stronger than some ancient human. Erik is not a foolish young man on his wedding night. He's had decades to cultivate this love. He trusts Charles. He does. He has faith in him. And he'll do his part if it kills him. He won't let Charles down. Not this time.
It feels like they walk for days, a cold sweat clinging to Erik's body the entire time. There's no manner in which to gauge the passage of time--his feet don't hurt. There's no change in the quality of light. There are no markers now that the path has disappeared from view. But eventually--finally, after days, after years--Erik recognizes a shift in the fog. It's not darkness any longer--it's mist. He pauses, just for a breath, and can hear running water.
They're at the river. They're reached the first river.
He stays even closer behind Charles as they rush through the mist. He can't stop the visions of something grabbing him, of something pulling him away when he's so close. Then, finally, Charles pauses and takes a step up onto the bridge. Erik breathes out in relief and follows, stepping up and crossing as the last of the anxiety bleeds away. Already, it's lighter on the other side. Already, Erik feels at ease.
They step off the bridge and onto the riverbank. The path here is missing too, the ground in front of them unmarked as if it was never there. The route he walked with the man was mostly straight, but even without this challenge he's been tasked with, he'll have to rely on Charles to lead them back to the next bridge, the next river.
He relies on Charles now to lead them out of the mist. Once they're through, he starts to understand why he felt as though there were creatures in the dark. There are people now, in the light. They line the path on both sides. They say nothing.
It's almost more disconcerting than the dark.
He concentrates on Charles. He stares at the weave of Charles' cardigan. He tries to ignore the stares, ignore the feeling of eyes boring into him. Out of the corner of his eye, he recognizes some of them--people from his childhood, CIA agents he worked with during the six months he spent with Charles, people he's crossed paths with over the years, mutant and human alike. Some he recognizes as his victims, others are people he's counted as allies. All of them are staring with the same impassive, unreadable expression.
He hunches his shoulders and keeps walking. If he bows his head, he can almost block them out, destroyed as his peripheral vision is in the helmet. As long as he doesn't look up, as long as he doesn't think about them....
He wants to ask them what they're looking for. Is it him they're focused on? Are they startled to see someone returning from the other side of the river? Do they know him, even the ones he doesn't recognize? It seems like there are far too many for them to be only the souls that Erik has touched in his lifetime, but he knows his destruction was far reaching. He knows that the people he killed had families and friends who cared about them and carried their deaths the same way Erik did. It seems staggering that all of these are his doing, that they're all connected to him, but it's not impossible.
If they are connected to him, maybe he can undo the damage. Maybe he can diminish these stares.
The eyes on him make the back of his neck prickle, but despite his initial discomfort, it's far better than the dark. He can see Charles, even if he can't touch him. He can study the back of his head, the set of his shoulders. He can pick out the silver already peeking into his hair at twenty-four. He can refamiliarize himself with the freckles on the back of his neck. It's hard and it's long and it's unsettling, but it's better than the dark.
Erik lets out a small breath of relief when the mist once against begins to gather around his ankles. He wades into it eagerly, a pace behind Charles, his heart soaring. He's so close. He's so close to getting out. This was easy. He can trust Charles. He's always trusted Charles. This was child's play and before long they'll be on the other side. His palms itch to touch, to hold, and he'll have his chance soon enough.
He's smiling as he crosses the second bridge.
He stops smiling when Charles veers right immediately and begins walking away from where the original path led.
He very nearly calls out in confusion. His mouth is open and the words are on the tip of his tongue before he remembers himself and snaps shut, swallowing the noise. He stands at the edge of the riverbank, just outside of the fog, and watches Charles walk further and further away. It's a trick and an obvious one. A test of his own hubris. Of course the moment he thinks of how easy it is to follow Charles, Charles does something unexpected. Any fool can see through it.
Still, he hesitates. He glances in the direction he knows he walked with the man for a long moment before shaking his head clear and jogging after Charles.
Charles takes him along the river and then out into the green fields he gazed at during his first journey. They're empty, now. There are no people, not even the distant laughter and conversation he heard earlier. The entire landscape is empty, as far as Erik can see in every direction. They're alone and walking ever onward. The sky is bright above them. The wind rustles the grass at their feet. Erik looks everywhere but at the back of Charles' head.
There's nothing to concentrate on now, nothing to distract him. He's alone with Charles. There's no one chasing him, nothing lurking out of the corner of his eye, no heavy gazes to sow discomfort. It's just Erik and Charles, single file, trapped in oppressive silence as they loop around the vast green fields. Erik's always counted on the magnetic poles to hone his impeccable sense of direction. Down here, there's nothing. He's long since lost track of what direction they came from, what direction they're supposed to be going in. He can only follow Charles and hope that this isn't a trick, that it's not a joke, that Charles knows where he's going.
The silence niggles as Charles breaks right again and Erik follows.
What is this supposed to prove? That Erik is willing to chase after Charles? That Erik is willing to be led around by his heart? There's trust and then there's logic and he trusts Charles, he does, but this is insane. He knows how he got from the first river to the second. It wasn't an entirely straight line, but it wasn't the zig-zagging spiral that Charles is leading him in. And why isn't anyone around? There was laughter and light and life to this realm when he first passed through. The emptiness now is jarring, like a ghost town. The swing hanging from a nearby tree moves gently in the breeze. The grass flutters around their feet. The silence continues to reign.
Wouldn't it be funny if this was his real punishment? Wouldn't it be a laugh if he's meant to spend eternity chasing Charles, unable to speak to him, unable to touch him? It would be worse than Shaw. Worse than anything Erik can think of, except for maybe an eternity of watching someone hurt Charles while Erik is forced to watch without speaking or touching. Either way, it would be an effective torture, the quickest way to drive Erik out of his mind. He's already halfway there. He doesn't know how much longer he can hold his tongue in the face of this. He doesn't know how many more loops he can make through the grass before he grabs Charles and shakes him. How long can he allow himself this foolish faith, this hope that one day they'll stop walking and Erik will be free again?
Hope is naive. Hope is childish. Hope has always been Charles' purview, because Erik can't even remember what it feels like.
If Charles were in his position, he'd follow without question. Erik knows this. Erik knows that Charles' loyalty is sound, even if his ideals and his judgement are flawed. Charles would follow him in circles for years, for millennia. Charles wouldn't give up on Erik, and with that thought, Erik finds it within himself to keep from giving up on Charles, at least for a little bit longer.
A little bit longer is all he has to wait. Charles takes one more sharp turn around a small hill, and then there they are, only a few yards away from the river. Erik shakes his head--it's all a game to them, isn't it? They're toying with him. And he has no choice but to allow them their fun.
Not for much longer, though. Charles climbs up onto the stone bridge with Erik not far behind. When they reach the other side, it's straightforward enough. Erik recognizes the small stone building he woke up in and the fortress they passed at the start of the journey. He felt the iron fence as soon as he crossed the bridge and it's warm and inviting now. There was no metal in the other realms, nothing for him to hold onto, or maybe the sense was just muted. Either way, he's missed this, too, and he's so close to having it back he could weep.
He follows Charles up the path, which is once again visible, and past the buildings. He follows Charles right up to the heavy metal gate. He follows Charles until Charles walks right through the gate as if he were a ghost.
Erik hesitates. He is dead, after all. Maybe the gate is just for show. Maybe it doesn't keep spirits out at all.
When he steps forward, though, he's met with unyielding iron. He can't walk through it. It was silly to think that he could, but no mind. He deftly flicks the tumblers in the lock on the gate and the doors swing open. Charles is still walking, and Erik rushes to follow and--stops.
There's something holding him back. There's a force field around the fence, gating him in even as the doors are open wide. There's something keeping him in this realm. Charles is on the other side and Erik is trapped, unable to follow.
Then the anger kicks in.
He was right the first time and the second. He was right to doubt every step of this ludicrous exercise. He followed Charles through the dark and the stares and through the rambling path of silence and for what? Charles is far up ahead. Charles is lost to him again. This was a taunt, a trick that made a mockery of everything he holds dear. Of the one thing he holds dear, the only thing that's ever mattered, and Erik could kill the man, the creature, whatever or whoever he was. He could kill him and everyone else who had a hand in creating this torture, of sullying Charles like this, of leaving him with this parody. His hands curl into fists, pulling sharply at the welts left behind from the first leg of the journey. He had his chance to touch, to speak, and he wasted it following rules that he foolishly assumed would pay off in the end.
He hates himself more, perhaps, than anyone else.
Up ahead, Charles stops and turns. He glances over his shoulder and then turns fully around. It's the first time Erik has seen more than the back of his head in too long and he hates how, despite his rage and fury, the first glance at his face is still the punch in the gut it always is. He hates that he wants to rend the world to pieces, but he's still swooning over Charles Xavier, even now. He opens his mouth to shout, to curse, to berate the spectre that dared give him hope and--
He pauses before he speaks. Charles is staring at him like he's exceptionally stupid. Erik despises that expression, but, most frequently, if Charles went so far as to actually use it, it was because he was right.
Erik closes his mouth. Charles looks impatient, as if Erik is meant to follow, but he can't. He presses his palms forward against the force field, as if to demonstrate, but Charles just shakes his head. Erik doesn't know what he wants, how further to explain without speaking. If he can't follow, he wants to tell Charles, at least, that it's not his fault. He pounds his fists against the force field, but it's unyielding. There's no getting through and Charles is rolling his eyes like this is a game, like Erik is wasting his time as if it's not Erik's very existence that's hanging in the balance. He doesn't know what else to do.
He covers his face with his hands. He's so close. He's so close to getting out, so close to being reunited with Charles, and it just doesn't make sense. Why lead him through all that just to stop him here? Why even bother with the theatrics? He's done his part--he followed Charles. He kept himself quiet. He didn't touch. It's just another example of innate cruelty of life, isn't it? The unfairness. Why should the afterlife be any different than life on Earth?
Charles is still staring at him when he lowers his hands. What does Charles want him to do? He thinks it despairingly and wishes that Charles could read his--
The man had said he needed to prove he trusts Charles. He had handed Erik the bloody helmet as a physical example of the lack of trust and Erik, idiotically, had put it on his head.
The helmet's been a part of him for years, now. He uses it to keep Charles out, yes, but it's also, strangely, a token of Charles. A constant reminder of him. A tether to him, even as it blocks him from Erik's thoughts. He's grown fond of it.
He doesn't love it more than he loves Charles. He takes it off swiftly and drops it onto the ground.
There are no words, but there's a flood of something warm and approving and inviting in his mind. He allows himself a moment to soak it up, to sink into the affection, and then he raises his hands again. He presses forward tentatively, but there's nothing blocking him any longer. There's nothing in his way.
He looks at Charles and smiles. Charles smiles too and gestures him forward. Two steps and he's over the threshold. The iron gates swing shut behind him. He hears them lock, but it's a distant awareness. He's focused on Charles now, on Charles walking towards him.
"Erik," Charles says quietly and now that Erik can finally speak, he finds the words dying in his throat. All he can do is wrap his arms around Charles, hold him tightly through the tremors of relief wracking his body. He presses his face into Charles' hair and closes his eyes.
Erik's eyes are wet and he's gasping for air. He doesn't know what happened. He was holding Charles, he had just gotten out of hell and he was holding Charles, actually holding him and now, now--
He takes a breath and another and swipes at his eyes. He reaches out, instinctively, for all the metal around him and two things become immediately clear: he's in a bedroom he hasn't seen the inside of in over fifty years and the strangled yelp to his left definitely belongs to Charles Xavier.
"Charles?" he asks. His voice cracks on the name. His head is spinning with the knowledge of all he's been through since his death. He's disoriented and confused.
And none of that matters, because Charles Xavier, all of twenty-four, sits up next to him.
"What's wrong, love?" Charles asks. He rubs at his eyes. "I'm sorry, was it a nightmare? Do you want me to--" He wiggles his fingers.
"Charles," Erik says again, and he takes Charles' hands in his own and holds them tightly. "Charles, I--" He breathes out noisily. "Fuck."
"Erik?" Charles asks. "What's going on?"
Erik swallows the lump in his throat. He needs to focus and regroup and--
"Give me a moment," he says. "Just... come here and give me a moment."
Charles frowns but he does as he's told. He slides across the bed until he's close enough for Erik to wrap his arms around him and hold him close. He runs his hand over Charles' shoulders and back, touching the notches of his spine, the curve of his shoulder blades, the dip of his waist. He memorizes the smell of Charles' hair and he thinks.
He's twenty-eight. He's back in Charles' bedroom in New York. He remembers everything--his stay in the afterlife, the tumultuous life he lived as Magneto, the things he's done, the people he's killed. He remembers the journey that got him here, the conversations with his mother and Magda. God, they feel like a lifetime ago. Maybe they are.
He has a chance to do things differently. He has his whole life laid out in front of him, now, and it's going to be up to him to make the choices that shape it.
"Erik, really," Charles says. He's obviously aiming for irritated, but more than anything, Charles just sounds concerned.
"I'm sorry," Erik says. "Just--please, trust me. What day is it?"
"Sunday, October 21," Charles says. "Well, probably Monday, now. It's late." He strokes Erik's hair, combing his fingers through the strands. "Erik, please. What's wrong? Did you have a nightmare? What's happened? You're radiating terror." He pulls back just enough to frame Erik's face with his hands, peering at him with no small amount of uncertainty. He can feel Charles tentatively brushing against his mind, asking for entrance. The feeling is familiar, even after all of the years he spent keeping Charles out. He wants to throw himself into the contact, to pull Charles into his head and revel in the closeness, but he hesitates.
"Give me a moment," Erik says. "Let me figure something out. Just. Stay here." The presence hovering at the edge of Erik's mind retreats, but Charles keeps staring at Erik. He's worried--Erik can see it in his eyes. Erik leans forward and kisses him. He means it to be quick and chaste, reassuring, but even before the indeterminable amount of time Erik spent in the afterlife, it had been six weeks since he kissed Charles. His hands find their way to Charles' hair--Charles has hair again--and before long Charles is whimpering into his mouth, climbing into his lap and, god, he's missed that. He's missed the way Charles would try to scale his body to make up for the six inches Erik had on him, the way Charles would so trustingly wrap all of his limbs around Erik, like maybe if he held on tight enough they could just merge into one being. He loves many new things about Charles' body and his reactions in the wake of his injury, but that doesn't mean he hasn't missed this terribly.
Charles tips his head back and Erik needs no other encouragement to kiss behind his ear, nip his earlobe, nuzzle the line of his jaw, bite at his throat. Charles is rocking up against him and sliding his hands under Erik's t-shirt. His nails scrape against Erik's back, too short to do any lasting damage, but it still feels amazing. Everything about having Charles in his arms feels that way, like a revelation, like he's been given everything he could ever want. He very nearly has.
That thought is oddly sobering. He pulls back, slowly. Charles stares at him, still sitting in his lap. His eyes are glassy and his pupils are large and dark.
"Erik," he says, his voice high and strained. "I'm trying very hard to be patient, but you're starting to scare me."
"I'm sorry," Erik says. "I just... I need to think."
"You've said, though you've not explained why," Charles says. He pulls himself away from Erik, sitting cross legged on the bed in front of him and rubbing his face. He's so young. There are only a few inches of space between them, but it's enough for Erik to calm himself, to focus on something other than Charles and his eyes and his mouth and his hands.
"I know," Erik says. "I know. I just--" He pushes back the blankets and gets up on wobbling legs. "I need some air. I'll be back in a minute."
The path to Charles' balcony is familiar, though he hasn't used it in years. After Cuba, Charles took a first floor room for nearly a year. Once they had an elevator installed, he moved back to the second floor, but the room was at the other end of the residential wing, not the master bedroom he'd used when they first came to the mansion to train. Erik and Charles have never talked about it--he suspects that if he were to broach the subject, Charles would feed him a preprepared answer about layout or strategy or renovations, but Erik can come to his own conclusions. This is the room they shared. Erik was given his own room, of course, but he never slept in it. Even when they argued, Charles always appeared in his doorway, dressed for bed and unwilling to give up any ground, but equally unwilling to sleep alone.
He closes the french doors behind him and stares out at the grounds. The satellite dish stares at him from the distance, still facing away from the house. He remembers Sunday the 21st of October. Saturday was the day they pushed Sean off the satellite dish for the first time. Sunday, Erik jogged back out there with him to give him another go. He spent hours watching Sean fly while Charles worked with Alex. It had been a good day, but exhausting. He fell asleep with Charles stroking his back and slept better than he had in years. He woke up the next day energized and optimistic and, with Charles' help, moved the satellite dish.
Not even a minute later, everything went to hell.
Back to where it all began, the man had said. Back to where Magneto began, he meant. The chess match that Erik walked away from. The only time at the mansion he and Charles slept alone.
He can feel the clocks in Charles' room--it's just after midnight. He has about thirty-six hours to figure out how the hell he's going to handle this, how he's going to twist things around to change the outcome of the war looming in front of them.
He absolutely can't do it by himself.
He spares a thought for the fidelity of history, for the emotional repercussions of what he's about to do. It's silly, though--pointless. The whole reason he's here is to change history, and the man made it clear that he needs a true partnership with Charles in order to do that. He can't ask that of Charles while hiding something this important from him. He needs to be open with Charles, all of him, including his mind. He needs to accept all parts of Charles, including his telepathy. He can't shut Charles out, and if his mind is going to be an open book, then Charles needs to know everything.
He fills his lungs with the cool night air and stretches. His body is young and firm and strong again. He feels like he can do anything. He hopes that's the truth.
When Erik goes back inside, Charles has put on his dressing gown. He's sitting at the desk and staring into a glass of scotch. He meets Erik's eyes unflinchingly.
"Come here," Erik says, crossing to the bed and gesturing for Charles to follow. "There's something I need to show you. Something I need--this is going to be hard to believe. And it's going to hurt. And you're going to--" He sits on the edge of the bed and closes his eyes. "You may think less of me at the end of it. But I need you to know that I'm here to fix it. I'm showing you because we need to fix it. I need you to know that I was given a choice, and I chose you."
"You're not making any sense," Charles murmurs, but he dutifully sits next to Erik and takes his hand.
"I know," Erik says. "You'll understand after. I promise. And--" It occurs to him, suddenly, that he's been thinking only of what he wants. He wants this second chance to mean a life with Charles, but what if Charles doesn't want him after he sees what Erik became--what he's afraid to become again? What if Charles sees what Erik did to him and runs?
He has to take the risk. "If, after, you don't want--if, after this, you can't bring yourself to stay with me, at least help me fix this before you turn me away." He doesn't know what he'll do if Charles rejects him. He hopes he doesn't have to find out.
"You couldn't do anything horrid enough to drive me away," Charles says lightly, but there's an undertone of fear to it. "Honestly, Erik."
"Wait and decide after," Erik says. "I need you to read my mind. All of it. Now."
"I've already seen it all," Charles says dismissively.
"Charles," Erik says. "Just--please."
Charles stares at him, lips quirked into a frown. He raises his hands to Erik's temples and closes his eyes. Erik closes his eyes as well and, with a jerk, tears open every last mental door. It's like falling--no. It's like diving. He does it willingly and wholeheartedly and prays there's something waiting for him at the bottom.
When he next opens his eyes, the grey light of dawn is filtering in through the windows. There are tears on his cheeks. Charles is staring at him, his eyes red and wet. He looks like his heart has been broken. Something hard and sharp settles in Erik's chest.
"Now you know," Erik says. His throat is hoarse. He wonders if he's been screaming.
"Erik," Charles says. "Erik, I--" He swallows. He looks like he might cry again. "Is that really--"
"I want to change," Erik says quickly. "I don't want it to be that way again. It didn't work and I understand that. Together, we can--"
"No," Charles says. He strokes the side of Erik's face. "No, I mean--all those years and that's how you felt, how you feel? All those years and you loved me all that time? I mean that much to you?"
Trust Charles to look at the bleak span of his entire life and find the one thing worth salvaging from it.
"Of course," Erik says. He leans forward and rests his forehead against Charles'. "Charles, I wouldn't even know how to stop."
When Charles kisses him, his lips taste like salt.
"We're going to do this," Charles insists, whispering the words into Erik's ear when he pulls away. "We're going to figure out how to change the world."
Erik closes his eyes and takes the man's final words of advice--he puts his trust in Charles.
May 27, 1974
There is a collection of jewelry, watches, eyelets, and zippers standing on the other side of the door.
"I told them no party," Erik grumbles. It's too early for this. Charles' amusement curls around him, familiar and warm.
"Yes, because Kitty listens to everything we say," Charles says. "She's eleven, she loves you, and in her mind, birthdays can't pass without a party." The mattress shifts under Erik and Charles presses a kiss to his forehead. "Happy birthday, darling."
Erik sighs and catches Charles' wrist before he can pull away. He finally opens his eyes just long enough to tug Charles down for a proper good morning kiss.
"Thank you," he says when he deigns to release Charles. He was terribly afraid that Charles was going to follow that up with--
"Old man," Charles says cheerfully. His smile is sly and warm and he bounces upright and repositions himself, straddling Erik's lap. Erik wants to wipe that mischievous smile off of his face, but he's painfully aware that there are four children on the other side of the door.
"At least I still have my hair," Erik says. It's a low blow and a bit premature--while, at thirty-six, Charles' hair has thinned very slightly in the front, it's impossible to tell unless you're looking for it. Or unless you have very clear memories of Charles at fifty, fully balding. Still, Charles is undaunted; he briefly wrinkles his nose at the jibe and sends out the mental equivalent of a chastising pinch, but he's still smiling when he leans forward and runs his fingers through Erik's hair.
"Mm, even though it's gone grey," Charles says. "Which, don't misunderstand, I am highly in favor of. You wear it well, darling." He kisses Erik again and then sits up, staring down at him with an embarrassingly fond expression. "I only wish we didn't have to spend most of the day traveling. It would have been nice to celebrate in earnest."
"It's just another day, Charles," Erik says.
"You always say that, but it's not true," Charles insists. "It's important to me. I'm lucky every day to have you in my life. I like having a chance to celebrate that. You've had a remarkable life."
He has. Two of them, even. For that, Charles gets another kiss before Erik rolls over and dumps him on his side of the bed.
"We have a separate room from Jean and Scott and Moira and what's his name and your sister?" Erik asks.
"Nick," Charles says automatically. Erik and Moira's boyfriend have an understanding not dissimilar to the understanding Erik has with Moira herself. They argue and insult each other, but, at the end of the day, Erik begrudgingly respects him more than he does most other people. "And yes. We have the suite. They're all in rooms down the hall."
"We can celebrate tonight, then," Erik says.
"Good," Charles says. His gaze goes hot for just a moment, his anticipation lighting up Erik's mind as well as his own, before he smiles ruefully. "I think Illyana is going to shake out of her skin if she has to wait any longer."
Erik shakes his head and gets up, pulling a t-shirt on as he makes his way to the door. He glances over his shoulder to make sure Charles is decent and then waves his hand until it swings open.
Illyana looks ready to expire from eight year old glee. Peter seems almost embarrassed that he's even taking part in this, but there's Kitty, smug and pleased, and Ororo standing right behind her.
"Happy birthday, Erik!" Illyana says breathlessly, and launches herself at his legs.
"Oh my," Erik says. He leans over to pull the girl into a one-armed hug. "Thank you. It's a very happy one indeed."
Charles appears behind him and leans on the doorframe, smiling at the children. He's put on his pajamas and a dressing gown which conspire to make him look older than Erik feels.
"We made you breakfast!" Illyana says. "Special birthday breakfast!"
"How thoughtful of you!" Charles says. "Why don't you go down and get everything ready? Let Erik get dressed and we'll join you in just a moment."
"Okay!" Illyana says. She hugs Erik again and then scrambles towards the stairs. Peter offers Erik a handshake and a shy smile before following his sister, but Kitty lags behind and hugs Erik tightly.
"This has your fingerprints all over it," he murmurs into her hair. He kisses her forehead. "Thank you, ketsele."
"Just wait til you open your presents," Kitty says, and kisses his cheek. "I'll see you downstairs. Happy birthday."
"And you," Erik says to Ororo as Kitty chases after the Rasputins, "I'd think you were too old for this nonsense." She's nearly grown, his Ororo. He remembers her at six, following him around like a shadow, hanging on his every word, falling asleep on his shoulder when she had nightmares. She's taller than Charles now, smart and savvy and ready to venture out on her own, even if she's only venturing as far as the city.
"I'll never be too old to harass my father on his birthday," Ororo assures him.
"You don't bother Charles like this," he grumbles. Charles elbows him.
"That's because Charles loves birthdays," Ororo says. "It's only fun when it's torturous. And, speaking of how old I'm getting--"
Charles and Erik sigh in unison.
"I'm eighteen! I'm going to college in the fall!" Ororo whines. "I just want to come to Washington! Just once. I'll be really good--I'll sit with Scott and Raven and Erik and I won't say anything, I just want to see."
Before Erik can respond, Charles leans forward and says, "We'll talk over breakfast, darling. Go keep the children from burning down the kitchen. We'll be down in a moment."
Ororo rolls her eyes, but she kisses them both and then takes off down the stairs. Charles watches her go, smiling fondly, but Erik's gaze is on Charles and it's less fond.
"She's an adult, Charles," Erik says.
"Just because she's eighteen doesn't mean she's an adult," Charles says.
"I think that's exactly what it means," Erik says. It's an old argument, one that will probably never be settled. Charles underestimates the children over and over again, and while Erik chooses his battles when it comes to the student body, comes up with ways to make his point that involve logic and reasoning, when it comes to their own children--the children they've raised, the ones who will always be more than just students--things are different. First Scott and Jean and Ororo, now Peter and Illyana and Kitty, to a degree. More so than the other things they argue about, the fights about the children are most likely to turn vicious.
Charles closes his eyes and leans back against the doorframe. "I don't want to fight on your birthday."
Erik doesn't care if they fight on his birthday or not, but he drops the subject anyway and retreats into the bedroom with Charles on his heels.
It's not that they fight all the time--they really don't. They'll never see eye to eye on many things, it's true, but they've learned to choose their battles. Keeping Moira around helps--it was Erik, to everyone's surprise, who protested sending her away. She frequently manages to find the compromise between them, to hold the ground between offensive maneuvers and out and out hiding. It's been over a decade, though, and they're well-practiced in navigating that middle ground themselves. Erik finds, as the years pass, that he's becoming less and less extreme. He still disagrees with Charles' ideals, but he's sliding from a radical to a moderate and he has a feeling Charles is as well.
They're good for each other. They're good to each other. But they'll never agree about everything.
Charles is pouting as Erik gets dressed, running his fingers over their neatly packed suitcases. Erik can feels his unease rolling between them like a dark cloud. He probably doesn't even mean to project--Charles likes to keep a strand of his awareness floating at the periphery of Erik's mind. He has for years, now, just enough to know where Erik is and gauge his moods and keep an open line of communication. Contrary to his earlier thought, though, Erik finds himself hesitating to engage. Maybe he doesn't want to fight on his birthday after all. Still, leaving these things to fester never seems to work out in his favor.
"What's wrong, Schatz?" he asks as he buttons his shirt.
"You don't think it's enough," Charles says. Erik looks up, puzzled. Surely Charles isn't talking about himself, about the school, about the students, about their ragtag family? "No, no, no," Charles corrects quickly. "I mean the bill. You don't think it's enough."
"I don't," Erik says. He shrugs. "It's no matter what I think. They'll pass it anyway and pat themselves on the back for doing so, for proving how progressive they are. It's a fluff piece. It guarantees no real rights. It's the United States government saying, 'Look at us, we're forward-thinking. We agree that mutants should be treated with respect.'" He narrows his eyes. "You know this, Charles. You're more politically shrewd than any of us, save maybe Moira and that damn boyfriend of hers."
"I do know it," Charles says. "But it's something, isn't it?"
"It is something," Erik agrees. "But it's not enough. Nowhere near. If anything it's going to incite more anger, more debate, more knee-jerk reactions. There will be state laws popping up all over the country in the next election, trying to limit mutant rights however they can manage."
"It's a gesture," Charles insists. "It's proof that they're willing to work with us."
"It's proof that they're scared of us," Erik says. "It's a token they're tossing our way to lull us into complacency."
"It's more than there was before," Charles says, crossing his arms, and suddenly it all makes sense. Charles has been encouraging this bill all the while, of course. He spoke to the House and the Senate and the UN and was interviewed for newspapers and magazines. Charles is the public face of mutant debate, a well-spoken, charming genius with a British accent and a baby face. Charles acknowledged right from the start that this was nothing more than a vague gesture. He hoped to turn it against them, to use it as the spark to urge the government into taking greater strides. He's never this passionate about defending it, but if he feels the need to prove himself, then of course he's clinging to it.
"Charles," Erik says on a sigh. He crosses to where Charles stands and lays a hand on his arm. Charles looks up at him with a defiance that lacks confidence.
"I just--sometimes it feels like I can't live up to this idea of a fifty year love affair that you had in another life," Charles says. He looks away, his mouth pinched into an unhappy line.
"A fifty year love affair that I had with you," Erik reminds him. "One that started the same way ours started and ended much worse. I love you, Charles." He grasps Charles' shoulders gently and dips his head until he can catch Charles' eye. "I've always loved you. It's always been you. You don't have to worry about living up to anything." He pulls Charles forward, into his arms, and Charles hugs him automatically, resting his head on Erik's shoulder. "I barely remember it anymore, honestly. It's like a dream. I have to concentrate to bring it all back. Look for yourself if you don't believe me."
It's the truth. His old life is there, the one he lived as a radical and a terrorist, but it's almost as if it's locked away. He doesn't think of it often, and if he wants to think of it, he has to focus. The memories have a hazy quality to them, almost distant and drugged. Every so often something will remind him of his other life--he'll be overcome by a sense of deja vu or a flash of a conversation he remembers from years past. The moments are quick and infrequent, however. He doesn't find himself thinking back on it because he has a feeling that the changes he's made to the timeline will make most of those memories obsolete from a tactical standpoint and there's no need to linger on them from an emotional standpoint when he has Charles and his students and his duties and all of the other personal achievements that make this world so much better than the other ever could have been.
"It's foolish, I know," Charles says. "I just wonder, sometimes. Am I doing enough? Am I doing as much as he would have done?"
Erik pulls away and tips Charles' chin up until their eyes meet.
"There is no comparison," he says. "You are him. And you're doing all that you can. And if you keep doing it this quickly, I might even get to marry you before we're in our seventies."
Charles cracks a smile.
"We can certainly hope," he says.
"We should go to breakfast," Erik says. "The children have probably burnt the kitchen down."
"Yes," Charles says.
"And then we'll pack the car and leave for Washington--with Ororo."
"Yes," Charles allows, though he doesn't look happy about it.
"And we'll meet up with Moira and that lunatic--"
"I think he prefers Colonel Fury or Nick," Charles says.
"--and Jean and go to dinner. And then I'll take you back to our hotel suite and let you say happy birthday properly."
Charles chuckles and rocks up on his toes to kiss Erik. It's a kiss borne of familiarity, of hundreds and thousands of kisses exchanged before it. Of the knowledge of hundreds and thousands of kisses to come. It's casual and warm and something about it has twisted Erik's heart into a bright knot.
"We're going to change the world," he says, with no small amount of awe. It seemed impossible on that night all those years ago, the night after Erik died. Charles had insisted, so sure of himself, but Erik was just as sure they would fail, even if he desperately wanted to believe the opposite.
Charles grins at him.
"We already have," Charles says. "Is it what you imagined?"
"Not quite yet," Erik says. "But it's better than I'd hoped and I don't doubt that together we'll get there soon enough."
"Neither do I," Charles says. He nudges Erik towards the door. "Come, now. The children are wondering where you've gotten to."
It's not a perfect life, but it's one Erik's proud of, and he thinks that, in the end, is the best lesson he could have learned.