Charles closes his eyes, then opens them. His home, green and gilded in the sunlight, spreads out for breathtaking miles of rolling hills below him.
Very far below him.
He gulps and glances back up at the tangle of leaves, clear bare sky, and – more importantly – the mercifully thick tree branch to which he is currently clinging.
“Fuck,” he says, with a degree of emotion which would have astonished every professor who had ever attempted to make him recite.
He can feel Sean’s embarrassment, tinged with guilt – the poor boy’s face is probably as red as his hair. Now, under normal circumstances Charles would understand entirely – after all, one is scared, one has previously been thrown from remarkable heights, Erik, one might grab out at the nearest person as one is shoved again, Erik, and might not let go in a timely fashion – but his sympathy is slightly dampened by the fact that he is in a tree.
Erik doesn’t appear to have any sympathy whatsoever for either Shawn or Charles, judging by the waves of amusement radiating off him so obviously that Charles doubts he’s physically capable of not picking up on his schadenfreude. And although it might be nice to see him laughing for once, the pleasure is somewhat dampened considering that Charles is keeping his gaze resolutely fixed to the very close and very rough and very immobile tree branch rather than looking down, and really he could share Erik’s amusement much more effectively if he were not hanging much too far off the ground from a tree branch.
It occurs to him that he’s a bit hung up on the tree branch, which is perhaps a little unreasonable; surely he isn’t really that far off the ground – oh, dear God, he is rather far off the ground, isn’t he. Charles has never exactly had a problem with heights before, but evidently there’s quite a difference between heights in the context of a building or an airplane or something of that nature and heights in the context of clinging, which is really another matter entirely.
It occurs to Charles that he’s panicking rather a bit.
“Quite a bit, really,” Erik calls upwards from below him. “Do you realize you’re broadcasting your thoughts to the entire countryside?”
No, I hadn’t realized that, actually, Charles sends at him, reining the rest of his mind in. He doesn’t bother filtering out his annoyance, which – obnoxiously enough – only makes Erik laugh harder. Charles is starting to suspect this is as much about the release of tension as it is about amusement, which would certainly be a bit of a balm to his pride, but Erik is certainly genuinely entertained.
Calm down, Erik thinks pointedly, which only makes Charles more annoyed. He is perfectly calm by now, thank you, and he feels he’s rather entitled to a few moments of panic at finding himself suddenly hanging from a tree. (All right, he’s still a bit hung up on that point – and dear God but that is an awful pun, however unintentional.) There’ s genuine reassurance in the thoughts Erik is deliberately radiating, however – not that he’s stopped laughing yet – and so Charles might, eventually, forgive him for all of this. Once Charles is on the ground.
Oh, God, there’s somebody coming from the house. Several people, in fact, judging by what he’s sensing – in fact, it’s everyone but Hank. Jesus Christ.
“Where’s Charles?” Raven asks aloud; he cranes his head sideways to catch a glimpse of her (and does a double-take yet again; he still isn’t quite used to the perpetual blue, although at least she’s clothed). All right, breathe deeply, keep your eyes on the lawn. It is Not. That. Far.
Up here, he communicates, and promptly senses the peculiar mental twitch that signifies a double-take. The gales of laughter require no psychic ability to notice.
“I really don’t think this is as funny as you all seem to think it is,” he shouts. Of course, that doesn’t help anything at all.
“I – I’m –” I’m sorry, Charles, Raven calls to him helplessly. Charles gives in and tries to survey what’s going on through Erik’s eyes, nudging at him for permission which Erik offhandedly grants, a wordless warning underneath: only what I see. Raven and Angel have their arms around each other, Raven’s face buried in Angel’s shoulder as both of them struggle to stay upright, shaking with their laughter. Sometimes he forgets how fond he is of his sister. It’s good to see her happy.
See? Erik points out. It isn’t that bad.
Oh, do fuck off, Charles thinks eloquently, mentally retreating and attempting to adjust his grip on the tree without actually loosening it one iota or, indeed, moving his hands at all. The effectiveness of this maneuver is entirely predictable. Why is this news to them, anyhow? I thought you said I was broadcasting everything?
I have no idea. Perhaps I’m simply more attuned to you.
More likely my range is lessened under these sorts of circumstances, he huffs, and does the peculiar sort of turning-up of his mind which he thinks of as raising his mental voice to address the group. Could you please attempt to take this seriously?
“All right, all right, how are we gonna get him down?” Armando wants to know. He, at least, is kind enough to try to pretend he doesn’t find the entire situation hilarious, which is enough to make Charles far more kindly disposed to him than he currently is to anyone else on this planet, but he can also tell how much Armando wants to laugh.
What on Earth do I look like? he wonders.
A very annoyed monkey, Raven supplies, still laughing into the curve of Angel’s shoulder. Charles gets a brief impression of soap and softness and deep-seated warmth and flees his sister’s mind immediately, letting Erik know exactly how annoyed he is about being put in this position. Erik picks up enough of what Raven said – no, what Angel said to Raven, which she repeated – that he simply starts laughing harder yet. Which is all well and good, but Charles’s arms are starting to ache a bit, and he’s stronger than he looks but there are limits.
A little assistance would be nice as soon as any of you are willing to provide it!
“Sorry.” Armando coughs. “Uh, Angel, do you think you could get him down?”
“I – I don’t –” She pulls herself together, at least somewhat. “He’s too heavy. I can’t.”
“Great.” Armando shares a rueful glance with Alex, whose lips are twitching; the kid looks surprised by his own amusement, as he always does, and Charles realizes abruptly that he’s borrowing Armando’s viewpoint and shifts, grumpily nudging at the corner of Erik’s mind instead so as to keep himself informed.
For heaven’s sake, be patient, Erik suggests.
“Sean,” Armando says, “can you do anything about…” He trails off as Sean waves his tattered wing gloomily.
“Yeah, that’s kind of how this happened,” he admits. “I can’t.”
“I could fly some food up there if we have to leave him,” Angel suggests, eyes dancing. “Maybe a hammock?”
Charles just barely restrains himself from swearing at her too, particularly when that comment sets everyone else off yet again. He settles for hurling obscenity after obscenity at Erik, who is after all responsible for this – yes indeed, nothing bad could possibly result from perpetually hurling the poor children out of windows – until the curses stop making any sense at all. Erik cheerfully reminds him that nothing Charles can manage is remotely colorful by Erik’s standards.
Go to Hell, Charles grumbles mental, and quickly amends that with fuck you in the hopes of being less immediately illustrative of Erik’s point. It doesn’t work.
“We need a taller ladder,” Raven suggests. Charles resists the temptation to say anything acidic about her timing with that brilliant idea, although it’s difficult; his arms are starting to hurt quite a lot now.
I could make you get me down from here, he grumps at Erik, not quite serious, and sudden white-hot unexpected fury blasts him like a double punch to the mouth and the gut, leaving his head ringing so much he only half-processes his hands ripping free of the branch until he’s falling – but not falling, dropping in fits and starts still far too fast but far slower than simple gravity would allow, suspended by his buckles.
He hits the dirt with a humiliating thump at Erik’s feet.
“Never even think about doing that,” Erik says flatly before Charles has a chance to catch his breath, and stalks off across the lawn. Charles coughs and struggles to his feet, tugging his clothes straight.
“What did you say to him?” Raven asks, suddenly somber.
“Nothing.” He brushes himself off and sighs. “I’d better go apologize.”
“Apologize for nothing?” Angel asks behind him. Charles refuses to honor that with a response and picks up the pace, determined to catch Erik before he reaches the house.
“Erik! Erik, listen –” The other man slows, but doesn’t turn around; Charles circles him, doing his very best not to look predatory. “Erik, I apologize. I would not actually –” He gestures helplessly; talking about this often sounds so very absurd, so sensational, and he is entirely serious at the moment and isn’t even sure why, but he desperately wants things to be all right. In spite of his own annoyance, this afternoon was the most cheerful that he’s seen Erik since the incident in Cuba, and Charles hates to ruin it so pointlessly.
“I apologize,” he repeats. “I wasn’t serious.”
“Yeah, well.” Erik glances at the ground, at the sky, finally back at Charles. “Don’t,” he commands, low and strained. “You of all people should know why –”
“Go on,” Charles urges, stepping closer, enough to catch an unexpected whiff of fresh sweat and new cologne on the rising wind. He doesn’t step back, just waits as Erik’s jaw goes tense.
“Why I need to keep control of myself,” he grinds out. “Stay my own.” You stupid fuck. Charles winces.
“I understand,” he says, and adds, guiltily, “now. It won’t happen again.”
“Thank you.” Erik continues towards the house, relaxes infinitesimally as Charles falls into step behind him. “You may as well try not to end up stuck in any more trees, too.”
“Whose fault was that?” Charles demands indignantly, pouncing on the change of subject as he know s he’s meant to do. “I wasn’t the one shoving frightened students into the open air – yet again –”
“Well, if it helps them learn – he knows he can do it, clearly, there’s no good reason –”
“Everyone at their own pace, my good man, everyone at their own pace.” He exaggerates the pomposity on purpose, imitating one of his old teachers pointlessly; Erik chuckles, shaking his head, and Charles catches the wisp of a thought that feels unconsciously directed, formless enough not to exist in words until it brushes him: I could almost get used to having you in my head, one day, if you don’t push.
Charles struggles to ignore the warmth rising – a blush – along his throat, smiles at the curve of Erik’s mouth as he chuckles and realizes abruptly that there is a great deal else that they should probably discuss.
It’s only half as terrifying a prospect as it might be.