A year after the events of Washington, when he and Hank have got the school pretty much up and running again, Charles has a dream.
He's not sure, afterwards, if it was a dream or if it was real. Logic tells him that there is no way it could actually happen, not without Logan as a connector, but it feels real - in fact it almost feels repeated, as though he has been through it before. He is never able to convince himself either way.
He finds himself back in that strange and brightly coloured room with Old Charles. Old Charles is there, but so is Old Erik, and once Charles has worked out where he is, Old Charles turns to Old Erik and says softly, "He's here."
Old Erik wrinkles his brow in a way that is very Erik. He cannot see Charles, though Charles is standing within arms reach of him. "Who?" Old Erik asks.
"Charles," Old Charles says. He smiles at Charles, the lines around his eyes crinkling - proof that at one time he did a lot of smiling. Charles doesn't have those lines yet. "Here," Old Charles says to Old Erik, and takes his arm.
Charles is so taken aback by the gesture of familiarity, of a warm hand on an accepting arm, that he almost doesn't notice Old Erik's change in expression. Then Old Erik says, "Charles…" in such shock that he is forced to look up.
Old Erik is staring at him. Right at him, locking gazes in that arresting way which only Erik has ever been able to achieve. His eyes are wide, but one corner of his mouth has tweaked up.
Charles takes in Old Erik properly, from head to toe. Still wearing that foolish cape and armour, but there is no helmet here. The man doesn't even have helmet hair, though he does, at least, have hair. Unlike Old Charles, Charles thinks ruefully.
They stare at one another, through stained glass lights, all yellow and green and red, painting the room, painting them.
"You look…" Charles says, then realises he doesn't know what he's trying to say. "Old," he finishes, lamely.
The already raised corner of Erik's mouth lifts a little further. "And you look very young, old friend," he says.
There is no mistaking the warmth and fondness in his voice. It robs Charles of his breath like nothing else. "You're here," he hears himself mutter. "With me. We're still…" - and there is no other way to put this - "…talking."
Old Erik nods. "We'll always talk," he says. "We never stopped talking to each other after the 70s, actually."
"Although a lot of the time it's more shouting than talking," Old Charles puts in, and grins up at Old Erik with a gleam of mischief in his eyes that Charles recognises, bizarrely, as his own. Old Erik snorts and squeezes Old Charles's hand, and Charles is suddenly hit with a longing. He wants to grin at his Erik like that, he wants his Erik to look at him like that. He wants what they have. And yet it's practically unimaginable.
"Not unimaginable," Old Charles puts in, reading his thoughts, and it is weird having his mind read, he's the one that does the reading, not the other way around. He can suddenly understand why people find it so unnerving. Old Charles adds, "Just difficult."
Old Erik's gaze sharpens, the way it does even in Charles's time when he is about to impart information that is very important to him. He steps forward, into Charles's space. "Charles," he says calmly. "I'm going to tell you something, and I need you to listen closely to me. Because I will likely never say this to you again."
Old Erik's eyes are the same as they have always been. His face may have more wrinkles, his hair may be grey, but his eyes are entirely the same. Perhaps a little sadder, perhaps a little wearier, but they are Erik's eyes through and through. Charles would be able to find those eyes in a crowd.
"Go on," he says softly.
"I am not a great man," Erik says honestly. "Not like you. I am a murder, I am a criminal, I have committed multiple atrocities and sins. I will never stop being these things. I will never be a good man." He pauses. "It is entirely possible that I could become mankind's greatest foe…except for one thing."
He stares into Charles's eyes. "You," he says.
The first thing Charles wants to do is laugh. Right now, he's the biggest mess in the world. He is a junkie, an alcoholic and a coward. He can't imagine himself helping anyone, not when he can't even help himself.
"I'm serious," Old Erik persists, perhaps gleaning a little of Charles's thoughts. "Charles, you are what stops me from going over the edge into true darkness. I skate close to it my entire life, I teeter and hesitate on the line, and in some years I am closer to it than in others, but I never drop headlong into the abyss. And that is because of you. Because I speak to you and you, every time, have faith in me. You have faith in me. Every single time. No matter what I have done. I could walk up to you with the blood of hundreds of innocents on my hands, and you would still see hope in me. You would still believe that I could be saved." He hesitates. "I know that right now you will not think that. You cannot believe me to be anything but a monster. But if you could only change your mind…I need it, Charles."
Charles looks, aghast, down at Old Charles. Old Charles smiles slightly. "Just because someone stumbles," he echoes, "Loses their way…"
"And I do a lot of stumbling," Old Erik chimes in, sardonic.
Charles doesn't look away from Old Charles. "And you have hope for him? Even now?"
Old Charles meets his eyes. "Always," he swears.
Old Erik squeezes Old Charles's hand again. Charles is lost for words. He glances up at Old Erik again, and, suddenly remembers their first meeting, how he'd pulled Erik away from drowning. Maybe that's what he does his entire life. Pulls Erik away from drowning. Every time. Maybe nothing else can do that but Charles.
It should feel like a hard responsibility, to have to keep faith in such a man…but somehow it doesn't.
"And there's something else," Old Erik continues, and for the first time he looks nervous. "Something I will definitely never say to you. But I will always think it."
Charles's stomach squirms. "What?" he asks.
Old Erik looks away from Charles, down to Old Charles, who is looking up at him, puzzled. "I love you," he says quietly.
And that - that - is why it's not a hard responsibility.
Old Charles looks briefly like someone has just slapped him round the face. He gapes at Old Erik. Charles gapes too. Old Erik tears his eyes away from Old Charles and fixes them on Charles. "Remember that," he says. "Always remember that, Charles. I love you more than anyone in the entire world."
Which is when Charles wakes up.
The next day, Charles roots out a blank postcard and a leaflet of the school, then hunts down Marco, a recent arrival of theirs who can pinpoint other mutants and teleport directly to their location.
He gives Marco an odd request, but Marco has just been rescued from a life of self-hatred about his powers and is more than happy to do anything Charles asks of him.
Erik is in Germany, in a pub that was an old favourite of his parents. He doesn't know why he is here, but that's nothing new these days. He sometimes spends months at a time wondering why he is doing anything at all.
It is raining outside, a cold, wet night, and Erik is hunched over a beer, giving himself some thinking time. He has many avenues in his life at the moment, and choosing which one to go down will be a hard task.
A man sitting beside him says, "Erik Lehnsherr."
Erik starts. Here in the town everyone knows him as 'Lars'. No one knows his real name. He glances at the man, then looks around for an escape, but the man cuts off any attempt.
"Special delivery," he says with a slightly mocking air, then pushes a piece of paper across the bar and vanishes in the blink of an eye.
A mutant, Erik thinks, vaguely. He stares at the piece of paper. It looks entirely non-threatening.
He takes the paper. There are actually two parts to it. One is a leaflet showing a picture of a familiar mansion, with the words Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters at the top. Stapled to this is a blank postcard. On it someone has written: You are always welcome, old friend. Come and see me soon.
Erik can hear the rain battering on the metal roof outside. It is a cold night. It will be a colder day. But just this moment, Erik feels warm.
He knows where he's going now.