The air was loud. It wasn’t just the sound, not just the assault on his ears that stood in such stark contrast to the peaceful stillness that he’d grown accustomed to on Genosha. It was the motion. The metal. The movement of the cars on the street behind them. The cables, and coins, and cutlery, and all the other frivolous wrappings and trappings of human existence that they carried rattling and clattering in their homes and in their pockets. Something pinched at the corners of Erik Lehnsherr’s eyes as the Paris Metro pulsed through the tunnels beneath them, wailing like a siren of metal as it approached from the distance and then disappeared into the same on the other side.
It was how things had become for him, ever since Cairo; ever since En Sabah Nur had coached him in reaching down into the Earth itself and stripping the very metal from its ores. He had learned to feel the magnetic potential in everything, and now he felt it everywhere. A cacophony of field lines screaming at him from all directions, utterly obnoxious, and oppressive, and inescapable.
He forced his mind to shift and focus, not on the world around him, but on what lay before him. Charles Xavier. His oldest friend, or perhaps his oldest enemy, depending on whom you asked. Much had changed over the decades, for the both of them. Charles was not the man he had once been, and for better or worse neither was Erik. He was no stranger to broken men: one greeted him in his reflection every time misfortune forced him to gaze upon it, after all. He was no stranger to seeing it in Charles either, but never to this degree. Not even on that plane from Washington, all those years ago, had Erik witnessed Charles Xavier look so defeated. He looked like a man defeated, a man who had lost everything, or had it taken from him. His family. His school. His prestige. His purpose. Jean. Raven. More names to the ever-growing list of lives for Charles Xavier to mourn.
Erik knew how that felt. Magneto had been built upon that very same loss. Every life, every loss, he let them burn within him until they were white-hot, and the pain of it seared his emotions until they were cauterized against it all. Or at least, that was what he believed; yet time and again the world showed him different, taught him that there was always more pain to be found, and more loss to be felt. The hurt didn’t end just because the tears were all spent.
But in this moment, things felt different. Erik no longer sought fuel for his rage, nor revenge for his hurt. He’d even abandoned the solitude of Genosha, the peaceful escape from the magnetic noise of civilization, to come here and search for something else: hope. The irony was not lost on him. The unending search for hope belonged to Charles, and yet it was a quest that he had abandoned. Today, Erik took up that mission on his behalf, and began to search for it himself.
He did not find it in Charles’ eyes, as piercing and blue as the skies over Cuba. They had always been so warm, so resolute, so filled with caring and empathy. Today, the skies of Cuba felt cold, as if the sun had set within Xavier’s heart. So Erik searched for hope elsewhere; and he found it, not in Xavier’s eyes or heart, but in the seat upon which he sat, the metal spokes of the wheelchair, far more conventional and civilian than the ostentatious conveyance Charles usually chose. A choice of simplicity was perhaps all it was. After all, what did an ordinary man need with a wheelchair built from plastics and ceramics? What did such a man have to fear from something as benign as a little magnetism? Yet Erik clung to it, fixated on it. He thought of all the times he and Charles had spoken, all the confrontations between them, all the instances where Charles had been prepared, protected from what Erik might do to him. It was a caution born out of fear, and one that Erik had done plenty to earn. That made it hurt more, knowing that it was he who had destroyed the trust they’d once shared so completely.
But now the fear was gone. Or at least, the will to act on it was gone. Perhaps it was just apathy. Perhaps Charles Xavier no longer cared to keep himself safe. Erik would have understood if he had. But perhaps, just perhaps, it was a sign of something else, the potential for something more. The faintest flicker of a smile tugged at Erik’s lips.
Charles had no patience for it. “What are you doing here, Erik?”
The words were an accusation. Bitter. Dismissive. Erik deserved that. He weathered it. Didn’t let it push him away. He knew how that worked too: to quite the expert degree, in fact. He approached the people around him the way that he approached metal. He wrapped his mind around them, held them at a controlled distance, pushed back if they tried to draw too close, or flung them away entirely if the mood took him. The reverse was rare, and every time Erik allowed himself to draw anyone close, it only ended in pain. It was why he had fled from Natalie as soon as he’d learned she was carrying a child. It was what had doomed his beloved Magda and Nina, his sins paid for by their blood. People were blades of metal, and one was a fool to let them orbit anywhere close to one’s heart.
But then there was Charles. Charles, who in all his foolish nobility, time and again risked everything to fight his way closer to Erik’s heart. The day they had first met, Erik had been ready to die, to throw his life away in pursuit of a vengeance he had never truly believed he could achieve. Charles had literally thrown himself into the ocean, entwined himself to Erik’s own fate, without knowing the faintest thing about him. It was Charles’ greatest strength and greatest weakness, the blindness with which he judged the world and judged morality. Charles had endless hope, for the world, for humanity, for mutantkind. For people, too. Even for Erik, difficult as he made it for him. For many years, Erik had wished it away. How dare Charles still care for him, after all he had done? How dare Charles, time and again, manage to set his personal feelings aside and find common ground and renewed compassion for a man who’d caused so much death and pain?
“I came to see an old friend.”
Today, it seemed like Charles was learning. There was no hint in his voice or in his eyes that he had any intention of feeling compassion for Erik again, not this time. But this time, he didn’t need to. This time, it was Erik’s turn.
“Fancy a game?”
It had been the bridge between them, more than once. Erik cherished and coveted the memories from Xavier’s study, wrapped inside the ridiculous finery of Charles’ absurd home, gazing at each other across the two-tone wood of a chessboard as they matched wits and debated the world. It was as close to a perfect moment as Erik had ever known; more so even than the happy memory that Charles had once dredged from the depths of his psyche while aiding him in unlocking his potential. Erik had never told him, and never would, but in the years since it was the chessboard and not his childhood that had become the place between rage and serenity for him: the balance point between the conflicted emotions that Charles Xavier inspired. Part of him wondered why that reluctance was. Charles’ ego was what he always blamed: couldn’t give the man the satisfaction of knowing how important he had become.
“No, not today. Thank you.”
The words were curt. Dismissive. Firm. Erik felt the swirling blades of metal try to draw a little closer to his heart. His instincts begged him to resort to his usual tactics, to grab hold of them, and twist them into a protective barrier between himself and everyone he might care about. But that was Magneto’s approach to things. That wasn’t what Charles needed. He unleashed a slow breath.
“A long time ago, you saved my life.” They were words long overdue, uttered too late, and realised by the man saying them even more so. The words referenced that one, first instance between them, but they could have applied to so many others, so many long agos, so many times when it was Charles and his compassion that had steered Erik away from the worst parts of himself. Miami. Cuba. Washington. Cairo. So many times Erik had stepped into shadow, and so many times it had been Charles who reached out, trying to pull him back. Only now had he actually taken it, only now, setting aside anger and revenge, to stand by Charles’ side once more, to protect a life instead of take one. It was hard to admit how good it had felt, to be one of Charles’ righteous X-Men once more, if only for a few moments. It was harder to admit that despite all of Charles’ efforts, despite the infinite reach of his compassion, Erik hadn’t done it for him. He’d done it for Raven, just as Charles knew he would when he had played that card. Damn him for that. Bless him for that.
Perhaps this was for Raven, too. Is this what she would have wanted? Or for her, had the schism between Erik and Charles grown so wide that she couldn’t feel as if she truly belonged on either side? Hank had explained as much; explained that Raven had tired of who and what Charles had become, that she’d wanted to walk away, and that staying had cost her life. Erik’s eyes found Charles’ again, and he understood the pain lurking there, at least a little. Regardless of anyone else, no one whom Charles Xavier loved ever truly came to believe that he had stopped, not when the emotions clouding their judgement had cleared away. Erik might have joked that it was a gift of Charles’ mutation, but in truth it was part of his humanity. It was what made him so insufferable, and so beloved: that he could see into the minds of everyone, witness the absolute darkest aspects of human nature, and still had the fortitude to find and fixate upon the hope that lay in the few tiny fragments of light.
The only mind that Charles could not read, it seemed, the only person not worthy of that infinite compassion, was himself. It fell upon Erik then to be his mirror. That, he decided, he was not doing for Raven. He was doing it for Charles. And about damn time.
“Then you offered me a home.” Erik barely recognised his own voice as he spoke. The last time he had heard it sound that way, so calm and gentle, had been in Poland. It was the voice that sang Nina to sleep. It was the voice that whispered sweet nothings to Magna. It was the voice that matched wits across a chessboard with Charles. The voice of Erik, not Magneto. The voice of the lost, fragile man who had finally found a place to belong. “I'd like to do the same for you.”
His gaze locked with Charles’. He wasn’t sure if Charles was reading his mind, but he willed him to, even as memories of harsh words and scathing sentiments echoed from the depths. I'm never getting inside of that head again. He had, of course, but only when Erik had given him no other option. Strange to think how welcome, despite everything, that familiar presence had been. I need your word, Erik.
“Just one game. For old times' sake.” The words were almost pleading. The expression that matched them was resolute. The faintest flicker of a smile joined the fray. “I'll go easy on you.”
A crack. A glimmer. The faintest ghost of a smile in response, and then the resignation of surrender. “No, you won’t.”
Erik’s smile grew, just a fraction. “No I won’t,” he agreed, as he began setting the chess pieces in place. Wooden ones, this time. It was all the tiny Parisian market stall had available, and his mission had been too urgent to hunt through the city for a better alternative. He could have, he supposed, fashioned the pieces for himself. It was where his chess set on Genosha had come from, each piece fashioned from some reclaimed scrap of metal, molecules rearranged for a new and more noble purpose. He’d played against the other mutants on Genosha, of course, but deep down he’d always known the other pieces were for Charles.
But wooden pieces were what they had. Erik almost felt naked, the board missing an important dimension that was normally there. The thought of moving the pieces by hand, rather than sliding them through magnetic will clutched at his chest, and not just out of a desire for familiarity. It had always been a brag with Charles, a flirt, even. Erik’s way of showing off. Look of what I can do. Not merely born of ego, though, but out of need. A need for Charles to see it. To acknowledge it. To understand the part he played in the powers that now obeyed Erik like an extra limb.
He felt naked without his helmet as well, but perhaps that was for the best. Jean had destroyed it, or at least, that incarnation. It was cathartic, in a way. That helmet - Shaw’s helmet - had been what Erik used when he’d first wanted to shut Charles out. Fitting then for it to be destroyed so that Erik could finally be ready to let him in.
Charles hunched forward, attention focused on the board, all business it seemed. Erik missed the smugness, the way Charles would casually recline in his chair, so comfortable and confident in his mental superiority. Erik had beaten that out of him, competitively speaking. A new smile tugged at his eyes and the corner of his mouth as he recalled the expression on Charles’ face the first time he’d won. There’s more to me than just violence and rage, he’d explained, proudly, at the time. Erik wished he could say the same to Charles now, and make him truly see it; truly understand it.
The Englishman’s posture afforded him a view of the sleek dome that now capped his telepathic mind. Erik thought back to the hair that had once been. The flop from when they’d first met, that Charles so cavalierly brushed into place whenever he thought he was being charming. The tangled disaffected mess from Washington that Charles had used as a way to hide. The way it had been in Cairo, swept back and away from a face that had nothing to hide; the same locks that had been stripped away by En Sabah Nur and his attempt to steal Charles’ power for himself.
No, Erik corrected. It wasn’t just Charles’ power that was to be stolen. It was his life. His essence. His very being. That was what had been at stake in Cairo. That was what Erik had been willing to sacrifice on the pyre of regret and revenge. He’d felt as if his word had been torn away from him, so damn the rest of the world and everyone living in it. Pay no mind to the pieces of your world that still remained, pushed out of view by your own emotional failings.
“So you want me to come live with you on your island.”
The words startled Erik, more conversational than he’d expected Charles to be. But of course, as always it wasn’t phrased as a question, but a statement. Because of course, Charles knew exactly what Erik wanted and needed, and was about to tell him that in his signature smarmy, condescending way. God, he missed it when Charles did that. How many of these frustrating and intoxicating lectures had he deprived himself of throughout all their years apart.
“Unless you have another mansion that I don’t know about,” Erik countered, maintaining his cool, not giving Charles the satisfaction of knowing that the routine was getting to him. Not that it would do any good if Charles was probing his mind, of course. It would have been poor sportsmanship during a chess match, of course, but Erik had no idea if the gentleman’s agreement of old still applied. Perhaps this was Charles’ plan: read his mind, win the game, find an excuse to usher Erik away. It wouldn’t work. Erik’s jaw clenched in concentration, while his mind dredged up countermeasures, old fragments of thought, idle and disregarded, notions from years hence of ways that foppish Xavier hair could have been put to practical use, images of passionate fingers grasping hold now slowly being adapted to the sleek new normal instead. A mirthful smile tugged at the corner of Erik’s lips, and he glanced up at Charles to see if he reacted.
Frustratingly, he did not. “I expect,” he offered instead, with the kind of pregnant pause that always preceded Charles Xavier saying something he believed sounded rather smart, “That your Genosha is not exactly wheelchair accessible.”
Erik brushed aside Charles’ statement, and the corresponding chess move, with an effortless retort of his own. “I’ll put in a word with the man in charge. I’m sure we can come to some sort of accommodation.”
Charles let out a dismissive huff. “I’m afraid it’s going to take more than a few crude ramps scattered around the place for me to have any meaningful autonomy. I can’t -” Xavier faltered, hesitating mid-move. “I can’t fend for myself, Erik. Not under those conditions.”
“Then I’ll fend for you,” Erik countered, as if it were nothing.
Charles’ brow tugged into a frown, face twisting in mild frustration at Erik’s apparent lack of comprehension. “I appreciate the sentiment, old friend, but I would be nothing but a burden -.”
“Then I’ll carry you.” His voice was more insistent this time, a flicker of anger sparking in his throat, no patience for Xavier’s willful inability to listen, not this time. “We have enough martyrs already, Charles. Don’t act like you need to be another.”
Charles’ jaw tightened, his eyes rising from the chessboard, a glare unleashed in Erik’s direction. He was cut off before any of the accompanying words could be uttered.
“Your children are all grown up, Charles. Your school will live on without you. It’s time to move on, and find a new part of mutantkind to help.”
Pending move abandoned, Charles’ hand tightened into a fist around the chess piece he was holding. “And what about your children, Erik? What about Peter? What about his sister? What about all of us -” He tripped over his words. “What about all of those you have abandoned when they needed you? What happens to me, to Genosha, to everything else when the great Magneto decides it is time for another foolish crusade?”
The words hit him like a hammer blow, and emotions began to seep from the wound like blood. How dare Charles bring his children into this? How dare Charles - of all people! - play that card with him. Did he understand how hard it had been after Cairo, realising who Peter was, seeing the boy pull away from admitting it at the last moment, and realising that it was safest for the both of them for Magneto to run as far away from them as possible and never look back? Did Charles not realise what Genosha was, not just for mutants but for Erik specifically: an end to that running, a place to finally be still, an opportunity to be found by anyone who might want to? Did Charles not understand how many nights Erik had lain awake secretly hoping that Peter, or Raven, or Charles - or even Hank! - might show up on his shores, and how agonising it was to finally have that happen only for it to be too late?
Of course, he did. Of course, Charles understood. He wouldn’t have said it otherwise. What was the point of lashing out, if you didn’t arm yourself with words you weren’t absolutely certain would leave wounds? Again, it was a strategy that Erik knew all too well, and one that Charles simply wasn’t practised enough at.
“You want to know?” His hand lashed out like lightning, snaring Charles’ wrist. He tried to pull away, but Erik wouldn’t let him. “You really want to know?”
Charles’ hand was pressed forcibly against the side of Erik’s face, and Erik’s eyes stared like steel into Charles’ Cuban skies. Every wall, every barrier, every effort to hold his emotions at bay was reached for and torn down, letting all of it flood into his mind. He thought of Cuba, and Shaw, of how it had felt to propel that coin through the mind of the man who had taken so much from him, and how hollow and empty that victory had left him. He thought of the pain each time his Brotherhood grew smaller, through loss, or departure, or all the other ways. He thought of Dallas, of the President, of how part of him had hoped that it might have been the moment - the moment - when he and Charles could come together in common purpose, and he could finally come home. He thought of his liberation, of the plane, of everything that had transpired in Washington, of the agony he had felt as he drifted away into nothingness. He thought of how Poland had been his desperate second chance, a new home now that he was certain his old one was lost forever, and of how devastating it was to lose a family yet again. He thought of how Apocalypse had offered him a sense of belonging during a time of weakness, of the sickening realisation that had followed, and of the shattered heart he’d carried ever since knowing that, no matter how ready he might have finally been to accept, it was too late for Charles to invite him home again.
And he thought of Charles. He thought of the waters off the coast of Miami. He thought of the study. Of the mansion grounds. Of the satellite dish in the distance. Of the feeling of Charles in his mind, before, then, and so many times since. He thought of the beach, of the bullet, and the horror. He thought of the emptiness of his heart torn out hearing Charles blame him not just for that, but for leaving him behind. He thought of the stray notions. The smiles. The stolen glances. The idle wanderings of his mind, the what-ifs and flights of fancy. The emptiness inside where Charles Xavier belonged. The comfort that his helmet always brought, knowing that Charles wasn’t there because he couldn’t be, and not because he didn’t want to be.
He let the hand fall away from the side of his face, not able to bear a sensation so close to Charles’ hand holding his cheek for any longer. His eyes fell away too, his voice turning softer than ever. “You told me, when I was still the man I was before, that true focus lies between rage and serenity. That has always been my problem, Charles. All I have is rage. My serenity was you.”
The world around grew painfully loud again, crushing, smothering, weighing down on Erik like a blanket of lead, grabbing hold of the world and crushing it around him. He barely heard the words when Charles finally uttered them, and wouldn’t have believed them even if he had.
“We should go inside.”
Erik managed to dislodge himself just enough to cast a puzzled look in Charles’ direction. It was only then that he realised that, though his hand had fallen away, Charles’ had not. It was still there, still in his, not by force but by will. He watched as Charles’ hand shifted so slightly, not held by Erik’s, but holding it. The confusion wrapped around Erik’s chest even tighter, until his eyes found their way back to Charles’. A wave of intent hit him, and Erik could feel the world around them suddenly halt, frozen in place so that there was nothing but silence, Charles’ eyes, and the sentiment behind his words.
“Take me inside, Erik.”
* * *