Erik finds out Charles drinks to cope. Charles explains that his control isn’t perfect. There’s a lot of bleed over from other people’s minds if he isn’t careful, doesn't remain perfectly in control. When he drinks, he can’t shield his mind from the outside world but it doesn’t bother him as much. It’s like white noise, something there but insignificant. It makes him feel ‘normal’. The next morning results in a headache, but they’re common to the telepath, since childhood anyway.
It happens in New York, in the mansion, over chess. They’ve been training mercilessly for weeks with significant success. The promise of a fight, a war is on the horizon and Charles is very keen on averting his gaze. It’s evident in the air that everyone is apprehensive and Erik is personally very grateful that he isn’t the telepath in the group, he could only imagine what Charles is hearing.
He is drunk, Erik knows. He can tell from the glassy look in his eyes, the flush to his cheeks, the way that he bites his lower lip between sips of his glass. And Charles is a flirtatious drunk so Erik knows not to take anything he says seriously… But that doesn’t stop the flutter in his chest when Charles suddenly leans back in his chair, looking at Erik with that look. A look that speaks volumes, of affection, of admiration, of the promise of so much love that Erik thinks he might drown.
The following words knock the wind out of him.
“You know… I could live my entire life with just the love I have for you right now.”
The… thing between them goes unspoken. They look at each other, their eyes meet, and they look away. It is never acknowledged. They can’t.
So for Charles to say it so plainly, so openly, all while drunk… Erik can’t do anything but shake his head. “You’re drunk, Charles. We can continue the game tomorrow.”
Charles laughs. “I’ve had a bit to drink but I mean it, Erik.”
Erik says nothing, just helping Charles to his room. He helps Charles into bed and turns to leave to his own room across the hall.
“I mean it Erik.” Charles calls, his voice slightly muffled from his face being pressed into his pillow. “Every word.”
Erik leaves without a word or a look back.
They don’t speak about it the next day or any day after. And then Cuba. And everything afterwards. Washington, Paris, Poland, Egypt. So many years, decades, of pain and loss and loneliness. Erik is sure that he is lost. Everywhere he called home turns to ash, ablaze by his own monstrous desire to love and protect but always in the wrong way, at the wrong time. If Erik believed in luck, or curses, or anything supernatural, he would assume he was cursed. It is a terrible fate to love so intensely but have no one to give it to.
At his weakest, Erik thinks back to that night in that mansion. And those sweet, sweet words that set his mind alight. He quickly brushes them away. They are from a lifetime ago. Surely any sentiment Charles once had are buried, destroyed, burned. But the foolish, sentimental, disastrously-in-love part of him wants to believe it still exists somewhere. If things were different, if he were different… In a parallel universe, Erik imagines himself, not so terribly broken. He imagines himself defeating Shaw in that office. His mother alive and proud. He thinks of meeting Charles, maybe during their studies, and that magnetic pull that’s kept them hovering in each other’s orbit. He thinks that Erik would be able to love Charles the way he deserves… And Erik drinks, trying not to be jealous of a fantasy world where he is happy.
It happens in Paris, this time, outside a cafe, over chess. They don’t discuss the future but Erik’s offer of a home hangs in the silence. Erik speaks without thinking.
“Do you remember what you told me once?”
Charles looks up from the game to look at Erik, confused but amused nonetheless. “I’m afraid you’ll have to be a little more specific, my friend.”
Erik flushes and stares at the chess board in front of him, contemplating his move to stall for time. He fiddles with his knight. “It was a long time ago.” A lifetime. “You were drunk.” It was a lifetime ago. “We were playing chess in the study.” Surely all that love has run out by now. “And you suddenly told me that you loved me.” Please don’t tell me that I’ve waited too long. “And that you could live your whole life with the love you had at that moment.” Don’t tell me that I’m too late.
Erik doesn’t look up from the board but he does see Charles sit up straighter in his chair. There’s a long pause. “You remember that?” The question is soft, surprised. Hopeful.
Erik laughs. “It’s hardly something I could forget.”
Charles just looks at Erik, hesitant and waiting. “Why bring it up now?”
Erik swallows his pride. “It’s just something I think about sometimes… We never talked about it. I thought you just said it because you were drunk. Or you didn’t mean it.”
Charles looks at Erik with those piercing blue eyes, so kind and so sad. “Oh my friend. I meant it, drunk or not.”
And because Erik hates himself, he asks. “Meant?” Past tense.
Charles’ smile softens. “Meant. Mean. Past tense, present tense.” He is hesitant, testing the waters, as he extends his hand to rest over Erik’s on the table. “I have lived my entire life with the love I had for you then, if not more now. I have seen nothing but the best in you. We’ve been on opposite sides for so long. You had your goals and I had mine. I do not fault you for doing what you did because… I know you do everything out of love. As chaotic as that can be, you do it because you love so much. Our kind, our right to be safe and secure. We have different ideas of how to do that, yes, but your heart has always been in the right place. When you’ve strayed from that path, it’s because you’ve been incredibly hurt and manipulated when you were at your most vulnerable.” They both think back to Egypt. The memory of Magda and Nina still aches, even now.
“But you are a good man, Erik Lehnsherr. You always have been and I have loved you for it.” Charles smiles, soft and fond and suddenly Erik can’t breathe.
Charles leans back in his chair, looking… relaxed, like a weight has been lifted from his shoulders. Maybe it has. Years of loving and yearning weighs you down. Erik wants to put the weight down too.
“Me too.” He chokes out, the words clawing their way out. Awkward and clumsy. “Back then especially. You were- are so…” He trails off, unused to such open and honest sentiment. Even with Magda, he had trouble expressing his love verbally. Erik was always a man of action. So he acts in the best way he can, hoping Charles will understand. He’s been around telepaths often enough to know how to shield, how to project… Any walls that Erik had constructed over the years, any mental doors that were locked, all melt away as he squeezes Charles’ hand. He opens the floodgates, practically begging Charles in. Come in. You’ve been gone so long. Please come back.
The feeling of Charles’ mind in his is a familiar one. Before Cuba, it was something he revelled in. Afterwards, it was something he feared. Time softened that fear but still something neither of them indulged in unless necessary… Until today. It feels like a homecoming.
No longer hindered by conventional language, Erik’s emotions and memories crash over like a tidal wave.
A memory: the hatred for Shaw, the feeling of water. A sudden voice in his head. Confusion. Calm your mind. The voice told him. And then Charles sees his own face, through Erik’s eyes. It’s tinted with confusion but soon blossoms into something bright. Hopeful.
A flash of ink on a page. A book of poetry. A single passage. “And then my soul saw you and it kind of went ‘Oh there you are. I’ve been looking for you.”
A montage of images, of Charles and a chessboard. In parks, motel rooms, an airplane. Everything is painted in a golden light.
A woman with long brown hair and soft eyes. Her laughter fills the room and harmonizes with the memories of Charles’. He loves her, truly and sincerely. Maybe this is his second chance. Maybe he can love without breaking.
A sleeping infant, swaddled in a white blanket. Erik is overjoyed and so filled with love. They’re picking a name. There’s a moment where Erik pauses, his mind suddenly heavy. He thinks the name Charlotte and suddenly pictures a different world where he loves the first time without breaking.
Two graves in a forest. A sense of overwhelming grief. The grim realization that a flick of his wrist would be all it would take. The image of a bullet through his own head, all the pain: gone. So simple. Blue, blue eyes. There’s so much more to you than you know. More than pain and anger. There’s good too. I felt it. He puts the metal away with a heavy heart.
A map of the school. He’s rebuilding it with Jean, working in tandem with the students. He stays as they remodel. He has a room, a closet. He has breakfast with the kids, plays chess with Charles in the study. The memories have a honey-tone to them, nostalgic and sweet. Erik forces himself to linger on these memories specifically, narrating to Charles.
It was like a dream. I thought I could stay. That I belonged. Like I had somehow fallen into a parallel universe.
Charles squeezed his hand. You always belonged, my friend. You always had a place. I have forgiven you long ago.
But I haven’t.
Erik’s mind shifts to the moment he left. It plays the scene. Their last words to each other for years.
Goodbye, old friend.
It is a scene Charles thinks of often. What more could he have done, said, to get Erik to stay? He watches Erik’s point of view. After leaving the doorway, he stops. Looks at his feet, then back to the door. Thinks of Charles and the longing he’s always felt at a low simmer bubbles to a boil. In the memory, Erik turns and runs. His mind is a chant. You don’t deserve him. You don’t deserve him. You break everything you love. You don’t deserve him.
And finally, now. Charles sees himself across from Erik, in real time. There’s still so much guilt, so much hesitancy. But there’s still that golden glow, that warmth, that feeling of home that Erik’s felt, remembered… since the beginning. Charles pulls out of Erik’s mind, not completely, but just enough to give them both some breathing room. The air feels so much lighter, the weight of Erik’s mind so unbearably heavy.
Tears are flowing down Erik’s face but he doesn’t look upset. No, he looks… relieved. He’s smiling. “We’re not perfect. We’ve made our mistakes and we’re living with the consequences. I don’t want anymore mistakes.” He wipes his eyes with his free hand while he grips Charles’ firmly. “I am not the man you deserve. But I want to be, if you’ll let me. I want to be the man you’ve always believed me to be. I’ve kept you waiting for too long, I know. You’ve offered so many times but I always ran. But I’m not afraid anymore, Charles. Actually, no. I’m still afraid I’ll hurt you. But I’m not letting that fear stop me. I want to be by your side for as long as you’ll have me.”
Charles’ eyes are brimming with tears and he laughs. Joyful and overwhelmed and so very full of love.
“My friend, you best be careful. That sounds very much like a proposal.”
Erik smiles with all his teeth. “Who’s to say it’s not?"