Erik's been held for a week and a half to two weeks—twenty-one meals dropped from the ceiling at irregular intervals giving him his only guess as to how much time has passed—when someone comes for him.
It's not what he expected, not gas hissing in through the air vents or men with guns waiting in the hall as the door swings open. No, instead it's a portal of some kind, purple and pink, flashing open a few inches inside the door. It's tall enough that Erik could walk through it if he ducked, wide enough for several people to walk through abreast. And, before Erik can process it, or identify any of the small group of people he can see on the other side, two people do come through, the portal closing behind them once they're all the way through it. One of them is a young woman Erik doesn't recognize; the other is a bald man in a floating chair.
Erik's never been one for hope, and he's not now, either. He's never once been fool enough to imagine he would ever see Charles Xavier again. His captors have an illusionist, that's all this is. Just another Jason Stryker.
"Yes. Yes, it is," the man says, not to Erik, exactly the way Charles always used to respond to other people's thoughts when too distracted or taxed to project his response back. "Would you tell Bishop I'll need five extra minutes?" He's still not speaking to Erik, though he hasn't looked away from his face in the long moment since their eyes met. Erik hasn't looked away either, unable to take his eyes off this man who cannot be Charles. "No, make that ten."
"Okay," the girl says. She stands there for a few seconds, as if waiting for something else, then opens another portal and goes through it, leaving them alone.
"Hello, old friend," says the man who cannot be Charles.
"You're dead," Erik says. "I know this isn't real. You can't trick me."
The man scoffs and rolls his eyes in an exceedingly Charles-like fashion. Erik's never wanted to believe in anything so much in his life, but he can't. Charles died in front of him nearly six years ago, and he won't. "Yes, well. I'm not going to argue with you about that right now. It's a very long story, anyway, and we haven't the time." There's a small box on his lap Erik didn't notice before, which, when he opens it, contains a number of very small tools, each held in its own place in a setting of black foam. "Now, I need you to come over here, please, and bend down so I can reach your neck."
There don't seem to be any suspicious needles in the case, so Erik does, on the chance the offer of rescue, at least, is real.
"You should probably brace yourself on the armrests." Up close, he even smells like Charles. "You can't move once I start, you understand. You must remain as still as possible."
"And if I move?" Erik asks.
"Your head explodes. I don't recommend it," comes the dry response. "Let me know when you're ready."
Erik braces himself on the armrests, as suggested, then says, "I'm ready."
Charles—the more and more convincing imitation of Charles—picks up one of the tools, then reaches for the collar. Erik can't see to tell what he's doing. His only clues as to what's going on are a few small clicking and scraping sounds, and the collar shifting ever so slightly. It's almost like having dental work done, if he couldn't sense any of the instruments.
"The idea is to remove the collar without turning off the suppression effect or the tracking device," Charles says, once he's been working for a few minutes, "either of which would result in an explosion. It would alert them to our presence, as well. It's a tricky thing. They didn't really make these intending for them to come off."
"I never thought they did." This isn't Charles, but Erik still can't help what he says next: "I have the utmost faith in your ability," he says, using his most earnest, Charles-like inflection.
"If you make me laugh, your head still comes off," Charles says peevishly, his hands having gone still at Erik's neck. "And talking counts as moving, so hush now."
How convenient a way for you to get the last word, Erik projects, in that clumsy way that always leaves him uncertain if Charles will hear or not, or know it was meant for him. It never sounded all that different to Erik inside his head, not like when Charles projected to him, and he's out of practice besides.
If this is Charles—but he doesn't respond to Erik's projected thoughts, so there's still no way for Erik to know, no way for him to be certain one way or the other. He's never been one for hope, but it's here anyway, a tension in his stomach and a tightness in his throat.
Another long few minutes pass, neither of them speaking. Erik's back starts to hurt.
"Almost there," Charles murmurs. "Just one more—here we are."
And with that, the collar opens at the front, Charles reaching behind Erik's neck to pull it the rest of the way off. As he does, it all comes rushing back for Erik, his power, all the nearby metal singing out to him, beckoning, from the bars on the door to the steel beams running all through this place. He could pull the entire building down around them, raze this place to the ground with a thought.
"Please don't. This is a stealth mission. They can't know we're here," Charles says, and that's the other thing, the more important thing, Charles' warm and steady presence filling up Erik's mind, lighting up even the darkest corridors and nosing into even the dankest corners.
Erik spent decades wearing a helmet to keep Charles out. For the past six years, it's been hard to remember why; harder, with each passing day, to remember why they spent so many years apart.
"Charles," Eriks says, letting himself believe it now, letting himself want it. "How did this happen?"
"It's a long story. I told you," Charles says, laying the collar down on the mattress. "It would take several hours at least, and we've only ten minutes." He sets the tools back in their places, then closes and latches the box. "All I'm going to say for the moment is you must be very nice to Moira the next time we see her. If we do."
Erik sniffs. "I'm not sure any resurrection requiring I show gratitude to MacTaggert could possibly be worth it."
Charles looks heavenward, which is a disappointment; Erik likes it better when he pinches the bridge of his nose. Now that he has his hands free, he lays them on Erik's shoulders, curling his fingers in the fabric. "We didn't know you'd be here. We hadn't the slightest idea." He lets out a breath, straightens his fingers and smooths Erik's shirt. "Some of us thought—well, no one had heard anything about you in quite some time. Some of the others thought you might have gone to ground."
"And what did you think?" Erik asks, not about to admit that he might as well have been in hiding, for the first five of these past six years—without Charles, without even his powers, he'd been truly lost for the first time in his life. He can remember those years if he puts forth the effort, but he doesn't often trouble to; there's a gray wash over those memories, and not much happened, besides. He ate when he was hungry, sought shelter when he was cold or wet. He stayed in a place for a few weeks or months before leaving again, caring little about where he found himself next.
And then, one day, a piece wobbled on a chess board. Color returned to the world, slowly at first and then all at once. With the return of his powers, Erik found his footing, found his purpose in a present worse than anything mutantkind had yet faced.
"Just in time to be captured in your sleep," Charles notes, clearly making himself at home inside Erik's head rather than vacating the premises as he usually would.
It's not exactly easy, setting up a watch at night when all your friends are missing, dead, or still quite vexed with you. It didn't help that his pursuers had known better than to use any metal.
Erik's about to say as much when Charles adds, "I thought it much more likely you'd gotten yourself killed."
It's a sentiment he's expressed numerous enough times in years past, though since Erik's generally been wearing the helmet on such occasions, he's usually missed the extra blast of emotion—accusation, anger, but most of all relief—that comes with it now.
This should probably be Erik's cue to evict him. He's never wanted Charles poking around his head, unearthing his plans, spouting off about morality or otherwise making a nuisance of himself. And he's more than capable of shielding strongly enough that Charles can't stay inside his head without hurting him (something Charles, at least, has always shied from). But with Charles before him, real and breathing, barely perceptible iron coursing through his bloodstream, Erik finds that he has no inclination to push him away. He doesn't want to erect those barriers again.
"I wasn't trying half so hard to get myself killed as you seem to be." Erik eyes the toolbox in Charles' lap, which is seeming more and more sinister by the moment. "Defusing bombs, Charles? What were you thinking?"
"Well, I'm thinking a 'thank you' would be nice, to start with."
"Surely you have better things to do with your time," Erik presses. He can think of a thousand uses for Charles Xavier that don't involve putting him in such a dangerous position.
"Not really. As it happens, telepathy isn't much use against Sentinels," Charles says. "Anyway, I'm very good at this. As you can see, I still have both my hands."
"There are other mutants being held here, too, you know. It's not just you," Charles says in a firm voice, as if he's scolding one of his students. It's a tone he's used with Erik many times, and no less irritating just because he's back from the dead. "I have work to do. You don't get a vote. Anyway, we only have a few minutes left before I have to get back out there..."
Between the suggestive note that creeps into Charles' tone by the end and the way he's looking at Erik now, it's clear exactly how he's hoping for this particular disagreement to be resolved. Erik's tempted to keep going, to try to argue Charles into the ground. He would have, six or seven years ago. But Charles is as stubborn as Erik is, and as much as he hates the idea of Charles risking himself, Erik finds that he no longer has the stomach for unwinnable arguments—at least not at the moment.
"I'm not thirty anymore," Erik says, leaning in. "It takes longer than a few minutes these days."
Charles scoffs, but sets aside any smart comment he might have made in favor of pulling Erik closer for a kiss. It's awkward, as it's always been when Erik's standing and Charles is in his chair. And maybe it should feel new, the first time in six years, but like everything else about Charles, it's more familiar than not, as it perhaps can't help but be after all the kisses they've shared over the past forty-odd years.
"Will you come with me?" Charles asks when the kiss ends, Erik's shirt once again fisted in his hands. This time, he doesn't let go. "I wish you would. For a while, at least. We have so much catching up to do..."
"You've been in my head since that thing came off," Erik says. "How can you not know?"
It's Charles who sniffs, this time. "Believe it or not, I don't consider your mind a free-for-all just because you let me in. I haven't been picking up anything outside of your surface thoughts."
"You should," Erik says, because he would tell Charles all of it, but they don't have enough time for him to say it all now, and who knows when they'll next have the privacy. "You should look."
He pictures his mind opening as he speaks: a fist uncurling into an open palm, offering Charles everything. It's only the second time in his life that he ever has, and it's the first time he's done it knowing exactly what it is he's giving.
After Charles died, Erik spent years rewriting the past, wishing it had gone differently. First, he spent lifetimes with Charles by his side at the head of the Brotherhood, Erik's other self having found exactly the right argument to persuade him on the first day they met on opposite sides of the battlefield; on the day Charles came for him at the Pentagon, desperate for his help to rescue Mystique; on the night before Cuba, before either of them truly understood how stubborn the other was.
He spent as many and more lifetimes by Charles' side at the mansion, after having been the one to bend in any or all of those altered memories. He wore hideous yellow and blue jumpsuits on missions, taught classes full of mutant children, assisted Charles with all the other vague responsibilities involved in running a school, and slept beside him every night.
And none of it was anything more than an old man's foolish daydreams, all of his regrets made plain through knowing that Charles was gone, that they'd never have the chance to put anything right.
They still can't go back. They can't reconcile on the beach, at the Pentagon, across any of the battlefields they met on over the years. There's nothing left of the Brotherhood. Charles' school burned to the ground not long before Erik's capture; even if they win this war, save their people from extinction, chances are neither of them will live long enough to see any of it rebuilt.
They can't go back. Yet, if Charles is willing, they can go forward, standing together until the end, against whatever comes.
"Oh, thank God," Charles says after a moment, and then: "Yes, of course I'm willing." His expression goes far away for a moment. "All right, our time's up. We have to go."
Even as he says it, the portal's opening up again, in nearly the exact place as before; and as they step through it out into the hall to meet the others, Charles takes Erik's hand, and doesn't let it go until it's time for him to enter the next cell.