"One," Erik released the coin, letting it hover in the air between them.
"Two," the coin started drifting towards Shaw in an almost casual way. Erik's breathing grew harsher in anticipation of finally fulfilling this dream.
"Three," slowly, deliberately, he pushed the coin forward until it broke through Shaw's forehead. He savored the feel of metal sliding through tissue and bone, leaving disaster in its wake.
Erik could hear a scream, guttural and agonized. It seemed fitting background music to this moment that he had waited so long for. It didn't even occur to him to wonder who was screaming. His attention was on one thing and one thing only; he wanted to soak up every single second of Shaw's death. He wanted to revel in the knowledge that the monster that had haunted his nightmares was finally gone.
With a final push of power, the coin broke through the back of Shaw's skull and fell to the ground behind him. A few seconds later, the body toppled after it, slumping to the ground heavily.
It was over. After so many years of hunting this man down, it was all over.
Why did he feel so empty?
Erik blinked a few times, snapping himself slowly out of the single-minded focus that had taken over. Everything was silent and the calm of it surrounded him with some small amount of peace. Until he realized consciously why his ears were still ringing slightly.
A hollow scream that had most definitely not come from Shaw. One that had started just as the coin entered Shaw's head and had stopped just as suddenly the moment Shaw fell. Or more accurately, the moment Charles had, theoretically, released Shaw.
His mind darted back to that moment on the plane when Charles had confirmed the death of the Aral Sea crew. That brief flash of unexplained pain across the telepath's face as he pulled back into his own body.
"Charles," the name came out nearly as a whisper and Erik stared at the dead body in front of him with horror. Leaving Shaw behind without a second thought, Erik turned and ran through the empty submarine with Charles' name tearing from his lips again and fear growing in his chest.
The helmet remained forgotten on his head.
His heart clenched with dread when he burst out of the sub and into the bright sun. He could see someone collapsed just outside the jet. Someone who was wearing the same hideous blue and yellow jump suit as the rest of the team. He tried to convince himself the fallen person was someone other than Charles, but he could clearly see every one of the others gathered around the body.
Erik covered the distance in seconds, pushing Alex out of the way so he could get to Charles.
The telepath was pale and shaking on the ground, breath coming out in short gasps of air. His eyes were unfocused, blurred with pain. He was blinking blearily around as if he had only just woken up. It didn't last long, the trembling faded as Charles mind slowly caught on to the fact that the pain was gone. Erik suspected Charles' head was gradually reaching the conclusion that it had not actually had a coin shoved into it.
"Erik," Charles said softly as his eyes finally focused. The telepath's eyes darted briefly to the helmet on his head and a flash of hurt showed through, but he didn't comment on it. Then, his gaze drifted back to Erik's worried stare and in typical Charles fashion, his lips turned up in a smile. A weak and tired one, but no less bright than usual.
Erik hadn't missed the look Charles had given the helmet, but he didn't bother taking it off. He was too busy making certain that the telepath wasn't dying. He waited until Charles' breathing evened out before questioning, "What happened?" He already knew of course, but he still desperately wished that Charles would prove his suspicions wrong.
Charles let out a humorless laugh, "If I had let go of his mind, he would have killed you."
The reality finally sunk in completely as Erik's fear was confirmed. "You were still in his head." Erik stated with horror and bile rose in his throat at the implication of what he had just done to Charles. "You were still in his head and you felt everything." Guilt blossomed inside him, churning his mind into a turbulent chaos.
He recalled the sadistic pleasure he had felt driving that innocuous piece of metal through bone and brain. He thought of the joy he had felt in knowing that Shaw's last moments were agony for him.
It hadn't been just him that the agony affected though.
It wasn't worth it. Killing Shaw had once been the most important thing in his life but somewhere along the line that had changed.
Now the most important thing was Charles, and the kids they had surrounded themselves with. Killing Shaw was far from worth the pain he had just caused Charles.
He remembered the way he had planned Shaw's death for years. Searching for some way to do it that would cause the right amount of pain. Enough pain to satisfy years of torture.
It seemed far worse now when he knew that his actions had caused Charles that same pain.
"Let me tell you," Charles quipped in an attempt at cheerfulness, "Feeling metal cut through your brain is not all it's cracked up to be." The attempt at humor was rendered completely ineffective by the hiss of pain that he let out as he struggled to his feet.
"I'm sorry, Charles. If I had known-"
"But you didn't. It happened and neither of us can change that. You are not at fault for this, Erik." Trust Charles to know immediately that guilt was clawing at Erik's mind. The telepath swayed a little unsteadily and Erik reached out at once to stabilize him. Wanting to chastise him for standing so soon to begin with.
He should really stay down. At least until he had stopped looking like someone who had just felt what it was like to die.
"I'm fine, Erik. We have more pressing concerns right now."
Charles' eyes flickered momentarily to the fleet still hovering offshore. Erik picked up on what Charles was trying to tell him with relative ease. As soon as he allowed his attention to shift away from the telepath it was impossible to ignore the feeling of metal spinning towards them. The battleships were slowly repositioning their gun turrets, aiming at the beach with deadly intent instead of at each other.
The telepath had to have picked it up from a scan of the captain's minds. Which meant that the order had probably already been given. If the guns were just being moved as a precautionary measure Charles wouldn't look nearly so worried.
The disbelieving retort Erik had been planning on sending Charles' way at the insistence that he was, "fine," died in his throat as an entire new fear gripped him. After all these years, he had finally killed Shaw, only to die a few minutes later right after finding out that he had just indirectly tortured the man he loved. Worse yet he had brought his entire family along on the mission and they all stood beside him now poised to die as well.
This day, which was supposed to be his salvation, was rapidly becoming a nightmare far worse than anything Shaw had ever done to him.
With little more than a muffled boom, the missiles fired.
Hundreds of metal projectiles sped towards them, fire spitting out behind them, and Erik grasped at every last speck of power he had. He could feel each individual missile bearing down on them and with a single outstretched hand he stopped them all. He nearly laughed at how easy it was as he watched the missiles hovering over the beach.
Everyone behind him stood staring in horror at the death that had almost occurred and no one spoke or even moved. Everything was still.
Except for the churning of Erik's mind. He clung on to the missiles and as he let his power dance across their metal surface he felt his anger growing. This was exactly what he had warned Charles about. This was the inevitable outcome of revealing themselves to humanity. Homo-sapiens would fight mutants fiercely because they would fear their own extinction.
Humans had just tried to kill every single person he cared about in one single move.
Erik let the rage boil inside him and with a gesture the missiles pivoted slowly in the air to face the fleet that had just attacked. Those ships sitting there which would have succeeded in killing them all if Charles hadn't pointed out what they were doing in time. Erik knew full well that he had been too focused on Charles to notice the missiles and they would all have died.
Now though, he had the chance to kill those who attacked him.
"Erik! Wait, please!" Charles voice called out to him and Erik couldn't help but turn to the telepath. His lover's bright blue eyes bored into his soul, already wordlessly begging him to be a better man than he was. Erik recalled a conversation not that long ago when Charles had told him The choice to be a better man has always been yours to make and I hold no illusions that I can make that decision for you. I simply have faith that one day you will save yourself.
The metal bender pushed away the memory and latched on instead to a justification for what he wanted to do, "I told you before Charles that I would attack those who attacked me. I am defending us, not killing innocents."
"You're wrong, Erik," was the quiet reply. Charles hesitated a moment before continuing, as if waiting for Erik to argue. When no argument came he gestured to his temple – their now familiar symbol for telepathy – and asked, "May I show you something?"
Erik wondered for a moment why Charles didn't just go into his head without permission, showing whatever he wanted. Then he recalled the weight of the metal perched on his head and what exactly it did. A dozen different thoughts crossed his mind in the span of a few seconds. What if Charles took over his body and forced him to release the missiles? What if Charles used his power to change Erik's mind entirely?
On the edge of those thoughts was the question, why am I doubting Charles at a time like this?
As if he could read Erik's mind, Charles spoke up again, "You have to trust me, my friend. I would never betray your trust by doing something to your mind that you don't want."
Mutely, Erik nodded his assent but he made no move to actually remove the helmet. Charles, seemingly sensing the reluctance he still had, moved closer to him cautiously. He raised his hands slowly to grasp at the helmet and lifted it free of Erik's head, dropping it unceremoniously – and with a poorly hidden look of disgust – to the ground beside their feet.
Erik was instantly comforted by the love and affection still pouring off Charles. He hadn't even realized that he missed those steady emotions. He certainly hadn't realized – or at least hadn't admitted to himself – that he had been afraid his mistake with Shaw had cost him Charles' love. If the feelings the telepath sent his way were any indication, he still hadn't managed to push Charles away completely.
For a moment, Charles' hand lingered on Erik's cheek, brushing a thumb lightly against the skin. Then with a deep breath – and one last murmured plea for trust – he pressed two fingers to Erik's temple.
Without warning, Erik found himself standing on the deck of one of the battleships. Or, more accurately he supposed, he seemed to be seeing through the eyes of someone standing on one of the ships. The man had a mop in his hands and he whistled merrily as he scrubbed at a particularly stubborn spot.
His name is James. Charles' voice filtered through to Erik. He has a girlfriend waiting for him back in Virginia. Two days ago when they were at port, he bought a ring. All he has done this entire day is clean.
Erik's view shifted again and he looked around a crowded mess hall from behind a counter.
This man is named Tyler. He only joined the Navy so he could get a college education but he found a passion here for cooking and now he loves his job as the chef.
Another shift and this time Erik was in the bunk room.
Kyle has been resting down here for the last two hours because he just finished his rotation. He hates his job but stays because his paycheck is the only thing paying his mother's bills. Without it she would end up out on the street.
Peter, who is about to enter the room has been in the engine room half of the day repairing a few minor things. His son waits for him at home and talks frequently about growing up to be just like his dad.
"Why are you showing me this, Charles?" Erik whispered, knowing that somewhere back with their physical bodies Charles was close enough to hear him.
Because I want you to see that there are thousands of innocent men on these ships. Charles answered without hesitation. While he spoke he flashed a continuous stream of minds through Erik's head. These are all men who have no idea what their captain just did. Would you condemn them all to die for the crimes of the ones who pushed the button?
True, there is at least one man on each and every one of those ships who was ready and willing to kill us all, but there are hundreds more who played no part at all in this. They don't deserve to be murdered for someone else's wrongs.
When you start killing all humans for the sins of a few, Charles' voice grew softer in his head, that's how genocide begins.
This conversation seemed familiar, and he supposed it was because he had it at least a dozen times before with Charles. As the anger inside him slowly calmed down, he recalled that each time Charles had convinced him that killing those who had done nothing wrong would only make things worse.
It was even harder to ignore the wisdom of the words now as Charles pressed one person after another into his mind. Seeking out those who had no say at all in what the missiles did or who they shot at. Erik had long lost count of the number of men Charles had shown him. None of whom had done a single thing worthy of the death Erik had been about to inflict on them.
Charles seemed to realize his work was done and he gently pulled out of Erik's head. A tentative smile played across the telepath's lips, as if he wasn't quite sure if Erik would be upset with him for entering his mind in quite that manner. Erik offered him a smile in return.
His hand wavered in the air, the missiles shaking slightly in response but not moving closer to the fleet. He wasn't ready to let them go, but he wasn't going to fire them at the ships either. He wasn't entirely sure what to do with them at this point.
Something must have seemed threatening in his gesture, because in the next moment a loud gunshot rang across the beach.
Everything happened far too quickly, the sound had hardly reached his ears when he felt something impact against him, throwing him towards the sand. The surprise of the moment made his focus waver and the missiles dropped from his grasp, exploding in the air above the Atlantic. The second gunshot sounded before he even had time to realize that the thing that had hit him was warm, solid, and dressed in a hideous jumpsuit.
He landed roughly on the sand, watching in horror as Charles' body arched in pain when the first bullet drove into his spine. No scream came out of his lips but the soundless way his mouth gaped open in agony was just as bad. The second bullet was still speeding through the air and Erik could clearly see that it was poised to strike Charles' temple.
This scenario seemed horribly recognizable to him. It had been less than a week since the day Charles put a gun to his own head and asked Erik to stop the bullet. He wished irrationally that he could go back in time and shoot Charles just so he could have had the practice before it came to a situation like this. The same fear and panic which had overwhelmed him the last time a bullet threatened Charles' life welled up in him now as he acknowledged that this time it was real.
There was no cheating by melting the bullets before they left the chamber. There was no use trying to tear the gun away from Moira because the bullet was already flying. Nothing he could do at this point would undo the damage already done.
If he didn't stop this bullet it would collide with Charles' head and drive straight through it just like the coin.
Erik didn't give himself room to doubt. He grasped at the bullet, feeling it burn its way through the air on its deadly trajectory. He filled himself with rage and serenity, quieting the fear and panic, and then he shoved with all his might. Time seemed to slow down as the bullet shifted by tiny fractions and Erik pushed away the worry that it wouldn't be enough.
It had to be enough. There was no other option.
He would have felt a flare of pride when the bullet soared off into the trunk of a palm tree, but stopping one bullet didn't change the fact that the other had already embedded itself into Charles' spine.
The dull thud of Charles' body finishing its slow collapse to the ground met Erik's ears.
He heard the harsh inhale of breath next and everything came back into focus and sped back up to real time. Erik dove over to Charles, feeling for the bullet and finding it lodged firmly between the vertebrae of his lover's spine. He didn't dare take it out. The bullet was holding in some of the blood flow and removing it would only increase the speed with which the red stain was growing in the sand.
Charles, ever the infuriating; selfless; optimist that he was, cracked a weak smile and whispered, "I told you that you could deflect a bullet."
Erik ignored the comment and pressed a hand against Charles' back, putting pressure on the wound, feeling helpless when Charles let out an agonized cry that he could do nothing to ease.
"What the hell were you thinking, Charles?" he hissed out. "You could have died."
"Yes," came the weak answer, "but you would have lived."
The metal bender didn't dignify that with a response, knowing it was futile to argue and unwilling to let Charles waste energy trying to win a fight. Instead he said, "We need to get you to a hospital," and he moved to lift Charles off the beach.
He was surprised when the telepath laid a hand on his arm, a clear sign that he wanted Erik to wait.
Charles breath was coming in labored pants, a groan of pain permeating every few inhales, but his bright blue eyes were as alert as ever when he looked across the beach. With a feeble motion, he beckoned to the remnants of Shaw's team where they stood watching the entire drama unfold.
Erik hadn't even noticed they were still around.
When the cautiously approaching mutants were within hearing range, Charles held his hand out to them and softly said, "I would like you to come with us. You would be welcome in my home. We can make a difference without having to take innocent lives."
Erik swore under his breath. Here Charles was bleeding out on a beach with a bullet in his back and he took the time to offer an olive branch to the mutants who had fought against them.
Stupid, selfless, idiot with zero sense of self-preservation.
The metal bender had to admit that it paid off well though when Azazel was the first to step forward and accept the offer. "I can get you to the hospital faster than Erik could," he suggested with a hand held out.
"Thank you," Charles murmured.
Erik was startled by how much weaker and more strained those words sound than the ones from just moments before. He looked back down at Charles and noted the rapidly paling skin and the stuttering way his chest moved as he took each panting breath. His eyes were shut and his teeth were clenched against the pain.
The feel of a hand on his shoulder startled Erik slightly, but not enough to tear his gaze away from Charles who was rapidly fading in his arms. With a sulfurous smell and an abundance of red smoke, Erik found himself cradling Charles' body in a parking lot instead of in the sand.
Azazel muttered something about needing to leave before the hospital staff saw him and with another puff of smoke he left. Erik paid his exit no mind, he was already screaming for help and struggling to his feet with Charles held tightly against his chest. The telepath's skull rested against his shoulder, his forehead pressed against Erik's neck
He tried in vain to ignore how cold Charles' skin felt against his.
He stumbled through the automatic doors, glad to see that someone had heard his shouts and was already on their way with a gurney rolling swiftly along beside them.
Erik hardly had time to process what was happening before Charles was being swiftly removed from his arms and rushed back down the long hallway and out of sight.
I love you! Erik shouted desperately in his mind. No answering mental voice came. With a sinking feeling he realized that even though Charles had said those words to him, Erik had yet to voice them either mentally or verbally. He wondered now if he would ever get the chance.
The next fourteen hours were hell as Charles underwent surgery. Throughout the day, Azazel brought each and every member of the team to the hospital, always careful to remain out of sight himself. The crowd in the waiting room just seemed to continue growing and the quiet sounds of crying and comforting words grated on Erik's nerves.
He recognized that it helped the others, but he just wanted them to all shut up.
Rather than snap at them in his anger, he stood abruptly and wandered off to a vending machine around the corner. He walked beyond it for a short distance and then his legs gave out beneath him and he sunk to the ground numb with terror.
It had been so long since the doctor's got ahold of Charles. Shouldn't they have news by now?
There had been so much blood.
Charles had looked so weak in the end, almost completely non-responsive.
The feeling of Charles' body limp in his arms was not something he would ever forget.
Erik hadn't been cut off from Charles' mind for this long since the moment they met and the lack of contact was like a gaping wound in his own head where Charles' presence should have been. He had no idea how he had managed to wear the helmet so long now that he was conscious of the emptiness that existed without Charles in his skull.
By the time Raven found him later, he was leaned up against the wall with his head in his hands. At first he wanted to snap at her for bothering him, but the tears in her eyes stopped him. Instead he did what Charles would have done. He motioned her closer, letting her curl up against him on the floor as he wrapped an arm around her and pressed a light kiss against the top of her head.
Somehow, being thrust into the position of comforting someone else made it easier to deal with his own fear. Maybe that was why Charles always insisted on caring for other people instead of himself.
When the doctor finally arrived, they braced for whatever news was to come. The man's face looked tired and a little sad which sent fresh panic into them all.
"He'll live," were the first words out of the surgeon. The gathered group gave a collective sigh but more news came, "Unfortunately, the bullet severed the nerves in his spine. We don't believe he will ever walk again."
Raven turned into Erik's shoulder to muffle the sob that came out and Erik just stared stonily into space as he rubbed soothing circles against her back. This wasn't how it was supposed to end. Today should have been the victorious defeat of Shaw and the happy continuation of his life with Charles.
Instead, his hesitance to release his hatred had cost his lover the use of his legs.
When Charles finally woke, the first thing he did was ask for Erik so the metal bender found himself being led down the hallway and into the hospital room.
His breath caught in his throat at the sight of Charles propped up in the bed. His skin had yet to return to its proper color and the paleness was only accentuated by the stark white sheets. His smile was laced with pain and his eyes were tinged with red. He had been crying.
"So they told you," Erik guessed sadly.
Charles nodded mutely. He tried to lift a hand to reach out for Erik but his body was still far too weak. The metal bender crossed the distance between them in a few quick strides and firmly grasped Charles' hand in his own. He pressed a tender kiss against the palm and then let his forehead fall on top of their clasped hands.
The telepath gently squeezed Erik's hand as he leaned back more against the pillows behind him. He let out an audible sigh and whispered, "It could have been worse. We should be glad that it wasn't."
If there was anything Erik was glad of, it was that Charles' voice had some of its old strength back. "It shouldn't have happened at all!" He vehemently insisted as he lifted his head to glare at Charles. "That bullet was meant for me, not you!"
"Which, my love, is why I am so very glad that it missed its intended target."
Erik fought down his anger enough to ensure that he wouldn't accidentally warp any metal medical equipment and then he growled out, "Never do that to me again. I've already lost far too many of the people I love and you are not going to be added to that list."
"Of course not," Charles replied with humor starting to dance in his eyes. "But you should have known I wouldn't die. I still have twenty dollars to collect."
The metal bender allowed himself to let out a shaky laugh.
"Erik," Charles voice spoke out into the silence that had gathered between them. "You were going to release the missiles, right?"
His voice shook with uncertainty and his eyes dropped to their still-entwined hands.
Erik used his free hand to gently turn Charles' face back towards him. "Yes," he breathed out. After a moment's thought he spoke again, "I can't lose you, Charles. I know that more than ever now. But, I also know that we have two very different views of the world and we have been struggling since the day we met to force each other to change. We don't want the same things and I realize that."
Tears started to pool in Charles' eyes and Erik hurried to continue before the telepath tried jumping to any incorrect conclusions.
"Which is why I want you to teach me. I know that you won't ever turn completely against humanity, and I will never completely accept them, but we can meet in the middle. You always seem to find the good in anyone and in any situation. Show me how to see the world the way you see it. You were right, this may end up a war, but I of all people should know better than to commit genocide." He took a deep breath before continuing, "You told me once, that the only one who could save me is myself, but I can't do it without your help. If you will fight by my side against those who want to hurt us, I will stand by you to protect those who have done no harm."
The tears were falling freely down Charles' cheeks now and Erik brushed a few away with his thumb. "Erik, my love, I would be honored to fight beside you and protect our people from whatever threats may come."
Hank had worked hard in the time Charles had spent in the hospital. By the time that the team returned to the mansion it was fully accessible to Charles in his new chair.
Erik smiled up at the building with warmth in his heart as he allowed himself to think of this place as his home for the first time. He thought of the school it would become and the children they would help here. He glanced back down briefly to the telepath at his side and tried to figure out what on earth he had done to deserve this life.
You deserve far more than you like to think.
Erik smiled, not acknowledging the telepathic thought. Instead he just rubbed the back of Charles' hand with his thumb as he realized that Charles had been right all along. They could build something here, be a part of something. For once in his life, Eric could do more than just tear things down.