Charles sees the coin hurtling towards Shaw, and he hears his own heart pounding in fear. Distantly, Charles hears himself beg – fruitlessly, because Erik can’t hear him. A million thoughts flit through his mind, but there are two that are louder than the others – ‘let go, let go LETGO’ and ‘can’t, he might hurt Erik. Erik won’t hewon’theWON’T.’ And then, when the coin touches his no,not his,SHAW’S forehead, impossibly, it is the second thought that takes hold. Even when Charles feels the coin dig into his skull, into his brain, all he can think of is ‘Erikerikerik.HavetokeepEriksafe,’ and it gives him the strength to keep Shaw immobile, even with the adrenaline and force of desperation fuelling the evil, cruel man.
When it’s over, he thinks two things. First, ‘Shaw deserved it’ and second, ‘No, Erik deserved it.’ Charles stumbles blindly forward and makes his way to Erik. For the first time in a long time, he can't quiet his thoughts. ‘Erik is a good man. War breaks people far worse than this.’ Charles sees Erik, hears him talk of what Shaw spoke of – death, annihilation. His head throbs and the pain threatens to drown everything else, but Charles won’t let it. Right now, Erik needs someone to stop him before he regrets it, before he turns into the man he loathes the most.
He doesn’t remember much of what happens, though. All he can remember is the pain threatening to split his head apart, his vision doubling, and sudden clarity when he sees Erik turn the missiles back to the ships. He feels the bile try to rise in his throat, and he stumbles toward Erik in an attempt to break the man’s concentration. It works, for a moment. And then Erik pushes him. Charles stumbles back, and he steadies himself. Holds himself up for one, two seconds. Sees the missiles nearing the humans, and suddenly, it becomes too much. The pain – his pain, Erik’s pain. And then he can’t stop himself from hearing everything and everyone. He hears Moira screaming, the children crying in their heads. He hears the jumbled sounds of fear exploding from the human ships. He falls, and he hears someone yelling his name – ‘Raven,’ he realises, ‘and it’s actually coming from outside my head.’
Charles waits to hit the ground. He wishes that he’d fall on his head, hard, because then he wouldn’t have to keep trying.
But he never hits the sand. Distantly, he thinks he can hear the splashes of missiles falling in the water, that he can hear the stumbling thoughts of relief and exhilarating joy of men who just seconds ago thought they would die, and he spares a thought to be grateful to whatever god has given them this chance. He is aware enough to know that Erik would have done it – he hadn't even needed to hear Erik’s thoughts to see the determination that filled every pore of the man’s being.
“Charles,” Erik says, voice breaking. “Charles.” Erik sinks to the ground, turning Charles so that they can see each other’s faces. Dimly, he registers the children – and Moira – draw nearer, and Erik’s arms tighten around him. “Stay. AWAY,” he shouts, and every piece of metal on their bodies drag them away. Charles feels Erik’s hold tighten, and lifts a shaking hand to touch Erik’s face, and with what feels like all the energy left in him, shoves the helmet up and away. ‘It’s alright,’ he sends, stroking Erik's cheek soothingly. ‘Calm down, Erik. Everything’s all right.’ Charles hears the denial loud and clear – both in Erik’s ‘No, it’s not. Nothing is,’ and the slight tremors growing stronger in Erik’s body.
Charles feels the tears gather in his eyes and doesn’t bother trying to blink them away. ‘IT’S NOT FAIR’ he thinks. Erik doesn’t deserve this, doesn’t deserve all the pain that has been handed to him. No one does. All Charles wants to do is to help, but how can he help anyone if even someone as good and strong as Erik can be broken by the world? For the first time in his life, Charles’ world narrows to a single point. All he can hear is Erik – his pain, his fears, his regrets – and all he can think is ‘How can I possibly fix this? Fix anything?’ All he can feel is overwhelming grief for Erik, for himself, for the world, and he doesn’t stop crying even when his vision blurs at the edges and turns slowly to black.
The missiles fall as soon as Erik hears Raven’s shout. He turns, bile in his throat, and it feels like ages before he manages to catch Charles. For a moment, he can see his mother falling dead on the ground, and he turns Charles towards him. He wants to see his friend’s chest rising and falling, wants to feel Charles’ steady pulse in his hand. The pulse is weak, but there – but it is the sight of Charles blinking at him that makes him believe that it isn’t just wishful thinking, that his friend really is still alive. He can’t help but choke out Charles’ name in relief, the bile rising until his vision blurs, and he has to blink rapidly to maintain his dignity. His attention is fixed on Charles, but even so, he feels the others – feels every piece of metal they are wearing – come closer, and feels panic overwhelming him ‘No no no NO,’ he thinks, ‘not again NEVER AGAIN YOUCAN’THURTHIM!’ He shouts at them to stay away, and drags them away when they don’t do it fast enough. He’s already failed before, with the coin and Schmidt jeering at him, mocking him. There is no way he is letting anyone hurt Charles, even if he has to kill the rest of the world – human and mutant alike – to do it. He clings tighter to Charles, afraid of what can happen and desperately hoping nothing will.
And then Charles’ hand is on his face, pushing Schmidt’s helmet away. His head fills with soothing words and feelings of calmness, and he can’t stop himself from thinking of denials. How can things be all right when Charles is lying prone before him, face set in a sad, heartbreaking smile? When even when Schmidt – when even when Shaw is dead, those he cares about, those he loves, can get hurt? All he can feel is a permeating sense of hopelessness, and he can feel himself shaking – little by little and then progressively stronger, until his limbs feel uncontrollable. He feels his grip getting weaker, and a sense of desperation fills him from head to toe. The world disappears, and all he can see is his arms loosening and all he can think of is Charles slipping.
When Erik hears someone shout ‘IT’S NOT FAIR!’ he thinks it’s him. But he looks down at Charles, quiet tears tracking down slightly dirt-stained cheeks, and realizes it isn’t. He’s fairly sure Charles doesn’t mean for him to hear the jumble of thoughts – but they echo in Erik’s head loud and clear. Erik can hear Charles’ despair, can feel the other’s hopelessness and desperation rising and mixing with his own. Erik can hear Charles’ soft heart crying for him, for everyone, and Erik feels the tears he’s been blinking away fall freely. He chokes at Charles’ last coherent thought before unconsciousness takes over, and his heart breaks. ‘How can I possibly fix this?’ he hears, ‘Fix anything?’
It doesn’t take long for the anger to rise unbidden. It’s how he has dealt with everything in his life. ‘Before Charles,’ his mind whispers, but how can he stop himself from falling into old habits if Charles is not there to help him? His chest heaves, and he thinks of how he needs Charles to be here with him so they can change the world, and Erik thinks how, if Charles stopped breathing, he might just do too. So the desperation claws at him, and he lets rage consume him. He turns to the only homo sapiens sapiens, the only one who was with Charles the entire time.
Erik feels a vicious sense of satisfaction when he lifts MacTaggert up by the neck. Without this woman, Charles would never have needed to get involved, and would never have needed to get hurt. ‘And I would be dead,’ he thinks, ‘probably. But whose death is more acceptable? Mine, or Charles?’ “WHAT. HAPPENED?” Erik grits out, voice rough from the thickness clogging his throat. “I... I don’t know,” Moira answers. “NOT. GOOD. ENOUGH.” He yells, and tightens the dogtag chain even more. He knows Charles would not approve, but Charles is not here. He is hurt, possibly nononononononeverpleasenonever dead, and all Erik wants is for everyone to feel the pain that has settled in his very bones.
It is Raven’s voice, once again, that interrupts his tunnel-vision of killing. Her voice is shaking, sobs interspersed in her words. “It’s... was he in Shaw’s head?” Erik turns to her, sees the tears falling freely from her eyes. “When you... when you killed Shaw?” Erik can’t bring himself to answer. He can feel the dread pooling in his stomach – dread of what that question could mean. “Sometimes,” Raven says, hesitating. “Sometimes... if he’s too deep in someone’s head – when he’s looking through someone’s eyes, or when someone’s mind is difficult to control... he feels it.” Raven chokes, and her next words are hoarse. “If he was in Shaw’s head, then...”
Suddenly, he remembers Charles’ voice, desperately asking him to stop. The endless strings of ‘Erik’ and ‘no’ and ‘please’ and ‘don’t’. He remembers wearing the helmet to block Charles out, remembers propelling the coin towards Shaw. He remembers pushing the coin in slowly, deliberately causing as much pain as he could. He remembers the vicious satisfaction he felt, knowing that Shaw could feel it but couldn’t do a thing about it. ‘This is my fault.’
Numbly, he feels Raven nearing, and feels her pry his fingers away from Charles. He doesn’t let go. He can’t let go, even if he knows he doesn’t deserve Charles. Charles who – even knowing Erik is to blame for his pain – spent his entire time suffering despairing for his friend. Charles, who is selfless, who does everything in his power to help others. He hears Charles’ last conscious thought, resonating in his head, and echoes it. ‘How can I possibly fix this? Fix anything?’ But Charles only ever thinks of others, and Erik only ever thinks of himself. He does what he wishes to do without sparing a thought for the consequences. He says he wants a better world for his fellow mutants, but all he does is pursue revenge. But what does he do except hurt others? He ignored Charles’ pleading, short-sighted in his anticipation of Shaw’s death, and now look at what’s happened. ‘And besides,’ a voice he had buried deep inside him says, ‘was not your mother human? Wasn't that why Schmidt deemed her expendable?
He sees Charles in his arms, Raven crying beside him. Sees MacTaggert and Hank frantically trying to contact the rest of the world. Sees Alex and Sean hover anxiously a little away – wanting to draw closer but afraid they would not be welcome. He sees the ships in the distance, imagines the explosions, the deaths he would have caused, and thinks, ‘No. Never again,’ and vows to himself that this time, his selfishness would not make him fail.
Sometimes, Erik still dwells on that day on the beach. Charles knows when it happens, even without his powers, because Erik’s confidence and playfulness seem to drain away. Erik’s touch becomes tentative, hesitant, and more often than not, he starts stroking Charles’ hair and presses kisses on the telepath’s forehead. These are the times when Erik spends hours upon hours just touching Charles, where the kisses are chaste and never stray below Charles’ shoulders.
When those times happen, he can feel Erik’s uncertainty; can feel the doubt and the guilt slowly consuming the man. And so, Charles holds Erik, strokes Erik’s face like he did the first time he’d lain in Erik’s arms. Those days he reaches out and peppers kisses on Erik’s face – lips, temples, eyelids, forehead, nose. Over and over until it passes, until Erik’s thoughts settle, until the ‘I’m so so sorry, god Charles I’m sorryI’msorrysosorry’ slowly shifts to ‘never never never, things have CHANGED, never again.’ Until confidence and assurance slowly creep back into Erik’s mind, until Erik’s touches stop being tentative and turn passionate.
Those days, Charles feels himself drowning in the sweetness of Erik’s touch. Because while the love he feels for Charles will never change, those days Erik can’t help but feel almost reverent of this man who has never judged, who gives and gives and never expects anything. These are the days when the edge of arousal softens, when they can make love slowly, explore thoroughly, where the world falls away and the hours become meaningless.
And after many such days, there is one time when, lying sated on the soft sheets, Erik holds Charles just that little bit tighter to him, and asks:
“That day… If you knew it would hurt you, why didn’t you leave Shaw’s head?”
“Because above all I wanted you to be safe. And I believed in you. As I will always believe in you.”
“Lots of good that did for you.”
“Well, you’re here now, aren’t you?”
Erik quiets then, and the warm feeling of love permeates everything. And while those days still happen – Erik will never stop regretting his actions on that beach – the despair doesn’t stay long, and they have more time to simply love each other. Because Erik knows that even when he starts to doubt himself, he knows Charles will always believe – and Erik knows that simple fact will always be enough to drive him to be the better man.