When they return to Virginia with Angel -- their first successful recruit -- they find the FBI waiting for them.
More specifically, they find their CIA patron and Hank squaring off awkwardly with three feds in the facility's foyer. Hank, lurking in his boss's substantial shadow, sees them first. His eyes go wide and desperate behind his glasses, and Erik doesn't need telepathy to know that the boy is projecting PLEASE HELP as loudly as he can.
Charles takes in the scene with his characteristic calm, though Erik can make out the hint of a frown at the edges of his mouth. "Ah, Hank," Charles says. "This is Miss Salvadore. Perhaps you could show her to her new lodgings?" His voice is light, the words tossed out absently, as though he's not paying much attention to what he's saying. That's his only tell, but it's one Erik has quickly come to recognize. Charles is definitely playing inside someone's head right now.
Hank glances nervously toward his boss and the feds, but they pay him no mind. Ah, Erik thinks, satisfied. Sure enough, it's only once Hank and Angel are well out of sight that the men in the black suits finally notice Charles and Erik's presence.
"Hey, speak of the devil!" the CIA Suit says, with forced joviality. (Charles refers to the man as Oliver -- presumably his real name -- but Erik only ever thinks of him as the Suit.) "Mission successful this time?"
"Hello, Oliver," Charles says pleasantly, neatly sidestepping the question. "I see we have guests."
Oliver the Suit coughs. "Of course, yes. Dr. Xavier, may I present Assistant Director Sullivan, of the FBI."
One of the feds steps forward to shake Charles's hand. A.D. Sullivan is a tall, heavyset man with reddish hair rapidly losing the battle to gray. His smile looks more like a grimace. Charles winces at Sullivan's handshake, and Erik wonders whether it's the strength of the man's grip or the brush of his thoughts that Charles finds distasteful. Either way, Erik dislikes Sullivan on the spot.
Apparently Erik himself is to be subordinate in this exchange, like the two nameless feds flanking their A.D. He's perfectly content to be seen as Charles's muscle at the moment, and makes a point of folding his arms across his chest with a scowl, glowering at all three FBI agents indiscriminately. Sullivan hardly spares him a glance, but one of his boys (very tall, middle-aged, with a military buzz cut, metal calling out to Erik from both a visible sidearm and a small revolver in his ankle holster) has the good sense to look nervous. The other, a compact, dark-haired younger man, just returns Erik's gaze impassively.
The Suit prattles on incessantly, while Charles and Sullivan silently assess one another under the guise of exchanging pleasantries. Erik tunes out the words; no one's saying anything of substance, no one references the actual purpose of this CIA facility. He trusts Charles will inform him of what the FBI is really doing here later.
Sure enough: Inter-agency feuding, Charles whispers directly into Erik's mind. Some higher-ups at the FBI want a look at the CIA's pet projects.
Should we care? Erik thinks back.
Oliver does. That's sufficient for the moment.
Erik snorts. He is deeply unconcerned with what the Suit does or does not care about. But one government agency poking around Erik's people is already one too many; they don't need to let the FBI in as well.
Evidently Charles agrees, at least in part, because when Oliver grudgingly leads the G-men on an abbreviated tour of the facility, the labs are suspiciously clean. All of the equipment and data readouts on display are blandly anonymous, with no obvious indications of Hank's actual research. At one point, Oliver makes the mistake of gesturing out the window toward Cerebro, all too visibly alien on the neatly manicured lawn; Charles presses his index finger to his temple and the feds' eyes slide right past the window as though it's not even there. Hank reappears and does a very earnest song-and-dance about breakthroughs in intermolecular interactions and enhancements to human physiology; Erik watches with barely concealed amusement as Sullivan's eyes glass over at all the scientific jargon.
While Hank rambles, Charles steps back to join Erik, leaning against the lab wall by the doorway. "What a spectacular waste of an afternoon," he murmurs. "I had hoped to get in another session with Cerebro while Angel settled in. Hank tweaked a few parameters; we may be able to prioritize results by location now."
"Hear anything interesting from the feds?" Erik asks, keeping his voice similarly low. He leans in toward Charles, their shoulders touching, trying to create an illusion of privacy in this lab full of people.
Charles smiles faintly. "A.D. Sullivan knows this project involves 'powered' individuals, but not the precise nature of the program, or what we are. He also liaises with another agency that deals with, ah, 'superhuman' threats -- though I believe they keep him pretty well in the dark. He thinks the government is working to build these theoretical supermen for military purposes and moreover, that it's a waste of good American tax dollars."
That is interesting. "So the US government is creating its own mutants?"
"Obviously not in our case," Charles says dryly. His hand brushes against Erik's like an accident. "But one of his men is ex-military, and he's heard of a program designed for just that, though he thinks it's a lot of, ah, 'bull.'"
Erik looks back over at Sullivan's lackeys, re-assessing. "Which one?"
"The taller one. The other..." Charles frowns in concentration, eyes narrowing slightly. "Well, that's unexpected."
At that precise moment, the other agent turns and gives them both a hard, quick look. Nothing else changes in his placid demeanor. Charles blinks, and the man turns back to Hank's presentation.
"He suspects what we are," Charles says quietly. "And unlike his friends, he actually believes that our powers are real."
The Assistant Director, of course, is too important to babysit a CIA lab for the rest of the day. Unfortunately, his lackeys aren't. Once Oliver the Suit escorts Sullivan out the door, Charles smoothly intervenes with the suggestion that they all retire to the facility's canteen. "I do apologize, but I've just got off a rather long flight, and I'm afraid I haven't had lunch yet," he explains. "The food is nothing to write home about, but they do have ice cream in the afternoons."
It's a convenient, non-threatening place to keep them busy for a while, and Erik suspects that Charles has now given both federal agents an inexplicable craving for ice cream. Hank slips away with palpable relief. Erik moves to follow him, but Charles shoots him a look that says clearly and in no uncertain terms that if I have to see this charade through, then so do you.
What the hell, Erik hasn't had lunch yet either.
In the cafeteria, Erik discovers that roughly half the resident lab technicians and security guards in the facility are also craving ice cream right this minute. He glances over at Charles, who does a very poor job of suppressing a smile. It's not a bad move -- none of the CIA flunkies are favorably inclined toward interlopers from their rival agency, so they won't be likely to blab, but it takes some of the pressure off Charles as sole guide. And once their boss is out of the building, Agents Larson (ex-military) and Delaware (too shrewd for Erik's liking) manage to loosen up a bit. The security guards seem to take a shine to Larson, anyway. Delaware is quiet and cordial.
"He's a tricky one to read," Charles remarks, keeping an eye on Delaware as Larson launches into an old army story.
Erik frowns, setting down his sandwich. "You mean he's blocking you?"
Charles bristles a little. "As though he could. But he's certainly putting up a good show of it -- his surface emotions bleed through clear as day, but when I try to pry deeper..." He smiles in spite of himself. "Well, he's thinking very hard about a door. A closed door. With at least six padlocks across it. It's a childish trick, really -- that is, Raven used to do something very similar when we were younger, before I had better control of my powers. It kept me from accidentally slipping into her mind."
"Is it effective?"
"In keeping me out if I want to get in? Goodness, no, not in the least. But it's a fairly simple deterrent. A locked door -- it's as though he's put up a very polite sign requesting that I go no further. To do so anyway would be tantamount to breaking and entering."
Erik believes that when someone goes to the trouble of locking a door so extravagantly, it means there's something very valuable on the other side, and 'need to know' most certainly applies. But he somehow suspects Charles will disagree. And he's not about to engage him in a lengthy argument about the ethical application of mind control in mixed company, so he doesn't press the issue.
With conversation flowing around them, Charles and Erik are more or less overlooked for the time being. So no one else notices when Charles goes very still, spoonful of soup suspended halfway between the bowl and his mouth.
Erik clears his throat pointedly.
"Hank's introduced Angel to Raven and Moira," Charles explains, eyes distant. "Good. They know to occupy themselves out of sight for the next few hours."
Erik is torn between his healthy appreciation for privacy on one hand (the young recruits are none of the FBI's business) and, on the other, an instinctive hatred of the idea that they should have to hide from anyone. But another thought arises, distracting him: the lodgings are on the far side of the facility, a good 400 meters away at least. If Charles can send and receive thoughts to them... "What is the range of your power?"
Charles shrugs. "I haven't pushed myself terribly far, to be honest. It's always been sufficient to my needs. At least a mile, I think, though reaching out so far takes a great deal of effort and concentration. That's why Cerebro is such a godsend -- with that, the telepathy's range could be very nearly limitless."
Anywhere I go, no matter how far I run, he could still find me, Erik realizes, doing his best not to broadcast it to Charles. The thought simultaneously terrifies and thrills him. It's so strange to think of this friendly, spoiled young idealist possessing such power. Charles could bring the world to its knees if he so chose -- and yet here he is, sitting in a government canteen, hair still charmingly tousled from a long day of travel, frowning down at the cold soup in his spoon as though he can't imagine how on earth it got there. Erik smirks at Charles's bemused expression, and feels something tighten in his chest when Charles looks back up at him with laughter in his eyes. He chooses not to analyze that too closely.
Instead he looks away, and notices an empty seat at the other end of the long canteen table.
"Charles," he says, keeping his voice low and calm. But something in either his tone or his mind must give him away, because Charles's full attention snaps to him sharply, like a compass drawn to north. "Agent Delaware is missing."
"He probably just stepped out to find the loo," Charles says, but his finger is pressed to his temple and his gaze has gone unfocused. "Or -- ah, there. I'd rather avoid a scene, Erik, so if you would be so kind as to slip out after him..."
Erik is already getting to his feet. "You'll direct me, I assume?"
Of course, Charles says in his mind. He's heading for Cerebro.
Cerebro's chamber is set out on the grounds, where anyone could just walk up to it. The entrance is generally kept secured -- at least on the days Hank isn't too distracted by his work to remember to lock it. But even assuming the worst, that this Agent Delaware gets inside -- well, really, it's not as though he'll have the slightest notion what Cerebro is. Erik's not particularly worried. Irritated, yes. Very much so.
The door isn't locked. He pushes it up and open with a gesture, and climbs in.
Sure enough, there's Delaware, visibly startled by the clanging door, a sheaf of data readouts in hand. He's giving the raised platform a healthy berth. Not that Erik is the resident expert, but Cerebro itself appears untouched. He hasn't been up in here but the once, and Hank and Charles have made some changes to the place -- there are additional workstations set up around the edges, desks littered with notes and printouts -- but the headpiece is just the same.
"Hello," Erik says acidly. "If you were looking for the restroom, you must have missed a turning."
Delaware recovers his composure quickly. "Must have. Maze like your facility, you'd think there'd be signs." His voice is gravelly, deadpan.
Erik glances down at the papers in the fed's hands. To his credit, Delaware makes no attempt to conceal them. "Agent Delaware, I do believe you've been snooping around our lab."
"I'm an FBI agent, Mr. Lehnsherr," Delaware says, faintly exasperated. "Of course I'm snooping, what the hell did you expect?"
That surprises a short laugh out of him. "Find anything interesting?"
Delaware scowls, tossing the papers back down on the lab bench. "Kinda hard to tell, isn't it? I'm not a scientist. But you've got a hell of a setup in here. What on earth is this helmet thing? Some kind of torture device?"
Erik remembers the mingled ecstasy and agony on Charles's face when he'd first used Cerebro, pain and wonder so jumbled together Erik could feel them viscerally, roiling in his gut. He hasn't been able to sit in on the Cerebro sessions since. It's an unusual sensation for Erik; he is certainly not unaccustomed to pain, either inflicting or receiving it, but to stand by and do nothing while Charles opens his mind to a million screaming voices at once...
Perhaps Delaware is not entirely incorrect in his assessment.
"It's nothing you'd have any use for," Erik says instead, which is not a lie. "You do realize you've just illegally trespassed within a top secret program, of course."
Delaware coughs. "As opposed to the legal sort of trespassing? Anyway, I've got jurisdiction, technically. Oversight, my boss forced a deal out of your boss, et cetera. And you can't just build a big white sphere in the middle of the lawn and expect no one to notice -- though you and your pal Xavier did a good job distracting us from it earlier."
"And what did you hope to discover in here?"
"What sort of tests you people are running," Delaware says promptly. "Some clue as to who you and Dr. Xavier are, because God knows you aren't CIA. And while we're at it, which one of you was trying to poke around in my head, 'cause that felt weird."
If he'd wanted to surprise a reaction out of Erik, he's going to be disappointed. Ignoring the last, Erik gestures to the mess of incomprehensible printouts. "And you somehow expected to find it all written out for you? In layman's terms? Highlighted in red, perhaps?"
"You clearly aren't a government employee. We have to write up an official report every time we sneeze."
It's a flippant remark, but Erik has to suppress a twitch. He has many reasons to be uncomfortable working with the CIA. This is just one more. Sure, Hank cleaned up his labs before the feds got in, but somewhere -- in this facility, or in Oliver the Suit's office, or on some anonymous steno's desk -- there are records of precisely what Charles and Erik are doing here. Security clearances mean little. After all, there isn't a safe in the world Erik couldn't break into with his powers. If a written record exists, someone can find and read it.
And Charles, with Cerebro, is compiling a list of known mutants for recruitment purposes. Brilliant.
Something must show in his expression, because Delaware narrows his eyes, considering. "I don't know exactly what's going on here, Mr. Lehnsherr, but something tells me you like it just about as much as I do."
For a moment, Erik wishes he were the telepath. Delaware is no ally -- for starters, he's human, and Erik will never trust Moira and her ilk the way Charles does. And his curiosity, though refreshingly frank, is a liability. Erik wants to know why Delaware is so interested in this facility.
"I may not know much about machines and things, but I'm not a complete idiot. Some of those printouts are coordinates," Delaware presses on, low and intent. "What are you looking for, Mr. Lehnsherr?"
There's the ringing tread of someone clambering up the metal stairs, and Erik can feel the light brush against his mind that signals Charles's presence. He supposes it is a 'weird' sensation, as Delaware said, but for some reason he never finds it off-putting. It's rather -- not comforting, exactly, but familiar. Which really ought to be disconcerting -- he's only known the man a matter of weeks, if that.
"Ah, Agent Delaware, there you are," Charles says pleasantly, stepping up through the open grate. "I thought I heard voices in here."
Erik snorts, and ignores Charles's mental reproof in favor of the flash of mischief in his eyes.
"Voices," Delaware says flatly, glancing between them. "I'm sure you did."
He knows one of us is a telepath, but isn't sure which, Erik thinks deliberately in Charles's direction.
Yes, Charles replies, his mental voice amused. I know. Aloud, he says, "Agent Larson has been looking for you. Apparently you've been called back to headquarters -- he wouldn't give me any details, of course."
"Of course," Delaware echoes, his visible reluctance warring against the gentle, insistent push of Charles's mind. "I'll just see myself out, then." He takes one last look at Cerebro, sighs, and elbows past them to exit.
"You're not actually letting him wander around the grounds on his own again," Erik says. It's not a question.
Charles raises an eyebrow. "There are some extraordinarily helpful security guards waiting just outside to assist him."
"And the phone call from FBI headquarters?"
"Larson certainly believes he received such a call," Charles says. "And it's a bit of a drive back into D.C., particularly at this time of day. By the time they reach the office, it'll be too late to sort out the confusion and return here."
Erik gives him a hard-edged smile. "Playing rather fast and loose with your code of ethics, aren't you, Charles?"
"Just a little white lie, no harm done," Charles replies easily. "I'm only protecting our secrets."
The thought clicks in Erik's mind. Something about the edge of concern in Delaware's voice -- What are you looking for, Mr. Lehnsherr? "And what do you suppose Delaware is trying to protect?"
Charles frowns. "I'm not sure, but I do think you're right. He's not just an overzealous investigator, is he?"
"You said you could read his emotions -- what was he feeling, in here? Curiosity?"
"Worry," Charles says quietly. "He felt worried."
Angel is flying by moonlight. She looks rather like a hummingbird, flitting about over the facility's grounds. Erik wonders how she could stand to have lived so long grounded, tucking her beautiful gossamer wings out of sight. She was made for the open air.
He flips the old Nazi coin idly between his fingers, to remind himself what he was made for.
There's a hooting cry, and Erik looks up to see a small dark shape in the air. Angel laughs and twists away, darting toward the treeline; the shape follows. Erik jogs after them with a frown. Not that he thinks Angel is in any danger from an owl, but still. Best to keep an eye on her. She was born and raised in LA, probably never interacted with birds bigger than pigeons before. He hopes she's not trying to tame the creature.
She comes to earth at the edge of the yard, beneath the spreading branches of an old pine tree. The owl, he sees, is perched on the lowest branch, blinking down at her. "Making friends among the local wildlife?" Erik asks dryly.
Angel turns to him with a smirk. "Gee, papi, he just followed me home. Can I keep him?"
"No." He looks up at the bird. It matches him stare for stare. "I've never seen one take such an interest in people before."
"We aren't exactly people like he's used to," Angel points out. "He's probably wondering what the hell I was doing in his airspace."
Erik glances down at her, feeling a small smile tug at the edges of his mouth. "Then it's time he learned to share."
Angel returns the smile, slow and sweet. "Share, huh. Something tells me you're not so good at that yourself. Though I gotta tell you, the way you and the professor showed up in my club--"
"We needed to speak with you in private," Erik says, shrugging it off. "It was expeditious."
She rolls her eyes. "Right, sure. Hey, where is Xavier, anyway? I think this is the first time I seen one of you without the other."
Erik's shoulders stiffen involuntarily. "Cerebro," he says curtly. "The device Dr. McCoy designed -- the one that helps Charles locate others of our kind."
"And that's a bad thing? 'Cause you don't look so happy about it."
"Using Cerebro -- it takes a certain toll on him. The power is marvelous, of course, but being connected to all those minds, all at once..." Erik doesn't know how to describe it, can't really even imagine what it must feel like in Charles's mind under normal conditions, let alone with Cerebro's massive amplifying influence. "It exhausts him," Erik says instead, choosing his words carefully. "I tried to convince him to wait until tomorrow -- we've had such a long day already, finding you last night and spending the morning on the plane, and then that bureaucratic nonsense with the FBI this afternoon -- but Charles insisted."
Angel eyes him with undisguised interest, and Erik realizes that this is probably the most she's heard him speak all in one go. Charles is usually the one who does the talking.
"Speaking of which, you must be worn out as well," he says abruptly. "Or are you going to fly all night?"
She tilts her face up to the sky. "I think maybe I could," she says wistfully. "But I probably shouldn't. I am pretty tired."
"I'll see you back to your room." He glances back up at the branch, and is surprised to find the owl still perched there, staring. "Say goodnight to your new friend."
Angel grins and blows the owl a kiss. "Buenas noches, poquito."
The owl blinks slowly. Erik can't quite shake off the feeling that it's watching them the whole walk back to the facility.
It's nearly two in the morning when Charles finally emerges from Cerebro. Erik knows this because there's a clock on the wall of Charles's quarters, where Erik had fallen asleep in an armchair waiting for him. He jerks out of a monochromatic dream of roiling storm clouds and barbed wire to the gentle weight of Charles's hand on his shoulder. "Whatever are you doing here?" Charles asks softly.
Erik shakes his head to chase away the remains of the dream. "I didn't expect you to take so long." He peers at the clock, then blinks. "Christ, Charles, you've been working with Cerebro since just after dinner. Are you insane?"
"Of course I wasn't in the device this whole time," Charles scoffs. But his face looks ashen even in the warm lamplight, his blue eyes bloodshot and fever-bright. "It's just that there's so much work to be done, and I'm the only one who can use it."
"Yes, and what a great deal of good you'll do us once you've completely burned yourself out," Erik snaps. "Have you found anything useful, at least?"
Charles recoils, and Erik feels the flash of hurt as though it were his own. Charles really must be tired to be unconsciously projecting like this. "I did, in fact," he says stiffly. "Another mutant, this one much closer to home. He's in Alexandria. I thought we might drive up tomorrow morning."
"Tomorrow afternoon, maybe, and only if you can prove conclusively that you've gotten at least eight hours of sleep."
An image flickers in and out of Erik's head unbidden: precisely how he might ensure that Charles sleep tonight. He honestly can't tell whose mind it originated in, and he'd rather not consider that too closely. Charles flushes faintly but makes no further remark. "I'm fine," he says instead.
"You're exhausted," Erik retorts. "I'm exhausted, and at least I slept in the hotel last night. You were up half the night scribbling notes at the desk. And then you played mind games with the FBI all afternoon before your marathon session with Cerebro, which leaves you looking like death warmed over under the best of circumstances."
Charles sighs, sitting heavily on the edge of his bed. "My friend, you're hardly one to lecture about overtaxing one's powers."
"And as a friend of mine once pointed out, killing oneself in pursuit of one's mission accomplishes nothing."
That evokes a smile, tired though it is. "You know, I can't even remember why I'm arguing about this. Get out of my room and let me get some sleep already." The fondness in Charles's voice takes the sting out of the words. He curls up on top of the blankets still fully clothed and watches Erik with heavy-lidded eyes.
Erik pulls himself to his feet. His own bedroom seems irritatingly far away at the moment, but the armchair isn't all that comfortable. "Tomorrow afternoon, then?"
"Morning," Charles counters, eyes closing. "Alexandria."
Afternoon, Erik thinks back pointedly, and allows himself a brief moment to enjoy the soft smile curving at the edges of Charles's generous lips. He so rarely has the time to just stop and look, what with searching for Shaw and cross-country treks and the government breathing down their necks. And it's still so strange and new to him, this unlikely friendship; a frivolous indulgence at best, a distraction.
He shouldn't like being distracted this much.
Why were you waiting up for me? Charles murmurs in his head, fading fast, and Erik can't think of a single answer to give him. It doesn't matter. Charles is already asleep.
Charles wins by virtue of already being up and functional when Erik stumbles to breakfast late at eight o'clock. ('Late' being a relative term -- Raven never makes it down to the canteen before ten at the earliest.) Erik doesn't like breakfast as a rule, but though the war is many years behind him, he still thinks of fresh fruit as a rare treat to be hoarded, and the CIA canteen always sets some out in the mornings.
"We'll need to do one last coordinate fix with Hank before setting out," Charles says, far too cheerfully for as little sleep as he must have gotten. Maybe that's his secondary mutation. "But it's Saturday morning, he'll probably be at home. That's for the best, I think. Angel was an anomaly -- most of these people are likely to be less approachable at their place of work."
Erik grunts and helps himself to an orange. "Do we know anything more about this mutant?"
Charles smiles, eyes lighting up as they always do in the face of something new and marvelous. To a telepath, Erik supposes that anything new must by definition be marvelous. It would certainly explain Charles's continuing fascination with him, a man so outside his usual frame of reference. "Some, yes, of course, though less than I saw with Angel or the others."
'The others' being the first two new mutants they'd attempted to recruit. One turned out to be too young for government work, a fourteen-year-old boy with an invisible mutation that enabled him to understand any language, oral or written; the other, a pretty brunette their own age, had a husband and a new baby and no interest whatsoever in exploring her ability to see in the dark on the CIA's dime.
"So what did you see?" Erik asks.
"His name is Sam Wilson. Black, thirties, rather impressive build. A physical man, certainly. Possibly military, or formerly so. His mind was a bit hazy -- I think he might be at least mildly telepathic. Or perhaps a strong empath, I've never encountered one of those before, I'm not sure how one would affect my own powers." Charles shrugs. "Or the haziness could just be interference from Cerebro -- we still have a great deal of calibration to do. The power is enormous, but it's rather like a large, blunt instrument. Like trying to focus on one mind in a noisy, crowded room -- which I'm more than capable of -- but multiplied to some exponential degree."
Erik tries ,once again, to imagine it, and fails. "It hurts you."
Charles waves this off. "Yes, of course, but what of it? It's all part of the learning curve. Your morning run causes you physical discomfort when you push yourself hard, but how else can you increase your endurance? Same thing."
Yes, but running too fast won't cause me to go mad, Erik thinks irritably, and doesn't care whether Charles overheard it or not. He glances down at the orange on his tray, realizing he's shredded the peel into jagged strips with his pocketknife, the fruit underneath untouched. Charles doesn't comment on the knife still hovering a few inches above the tray. Erik pockets it with a twitch of his fingers and pops an orange segment into his mouth.
"You really dislike Cerebro, don't you?" Charles asks, brow furrowed. "Despite appreciating what we can accomplish with it."
"It's an incredible tool," Erik agrees. "And it will make you into an incredible weapon, just as Shaw made me. I don't have to like the methods to appreciate the results."
Charles frowns. "The situations are entirely different."
"Believe what you like," Erik says with a shrug, getting to his feet. He takes the remains of the orange with him. "Didn't you say you wanted another go with it before heading after this potential empath of yours?"
He leads the way out to Cerebro, ignoring the mental edge of Charles's concern. In his mind, he visualizes a thick metal door with a bolt and padlock across it, just to feel Charles flinch.
Erik had fully intended to join Charles in Cerebro's chamber this time -- at the very least, his presence will intimidate Hank into keeping the session short -- but Charles stops him at the stairway. "I think perhaps it would be best for you to remain here, Erik," he says. "This shouldn't take but a moment. I just want to be sure our Mr. Wilson hasn't traveled across the country overnight."
He reaches out, placating, but Erik pulls away. "Fine," he says curtly. "Make it quick."
The morning air is cool, but it's shaping up to be a beautiful, cloudless day, summer's last gasp before conceding fully to autumn. Erik sprawls across the grass beside Cerebro to wait. The CIA facility is quieter on the weekends -- the security guards are out in force, as always, but the rest of the support staff are off, as are most of the lab technicians apart from Hank. Hopefully the relative peace will help Angel ease herself into her new life here, he thinks, and then wonders why he cares. That's what Charles is here for, to coddle the new recruits and ease their minds. In his absence, Raven should do well as a surrogate. She was his original stray, after all; she's surely picked up a few of her foster brother's tricks.
A small flock of sparrows circles Cerebro's dome, then comes to rest in the shadow at its base. Erik watches them idly, comparing their flight patterns to Angel's, wondering if they'll find more mutants who can fly. Enough to create a flock of their own, perhaps, one day. Wouldn't that be a sight?
When Charles emerges from Cerebro, fifteen or so minutes later, the sparrows are still there. Erik does believe in coincidences -- his life has been shaped by them in too many ways -- but that doesn't make him any less skeptical. "Charles," he says calmly, "do Angel's talents give her any additional...affinities?"
Charles blinks down at him. It's an unusual perspective, Charles looming above him. "I'm not sure I know what you mean."
"An owl chased her through the air while she was flying last night," Erik says. "And those sparrows have been watching Cerebro ever since you went inside. She was curious about it yesterday."
"I can't imagine the connection," Charles says, eying the birds. They stare right back at him. "If anything, her wings are far more like an insect's, not feathered. And she was very forthcoming about her abilities when we spoke with her -- I don't know why she would have kept this aspect secret."
"Maybe she doesn't realize it herself?" Erik suggests, but he knows it's weak. "I don't know. Might it have something to do with Cerebro -- some frequency of radio waves it emits, or neurological resonance...?"
Charles laughs. "Now you're just inventing some pseudoscience to suit your theories. I'll check with Hank, but I very much doubt it. Anyway, are you ready to head out? Our new friend is still in Alexandria. We can easily make the trip by lunchtime."
With one last glance at the sparrows, Erik gets to his feet. "I'll drive, you navigate."
"Of course." Charles hesitates, then puts a hand on Erik's arm before he can head out toward the parking lot. This time Erik allows it. "I apologize for shutting you out, with Cerebro. It's just -- having you right there with me, feeling the way you do about it..." He smiles ruefully. "You're rather distracting, you know."
"The feeling is mutual," Erik mutters. He doesn't know how to respond to the sudden intensity in Charles's gaze, so he walks away.
Sam Wilson lives in a smallish apartment complex just off the highway. They both leave their jackets in the car in deference both to the warmth of the day and the informality of a home visit on a Saturday. The building itself is nice enough -- fairly recent construction, judging by the newness of the steel Erik can sense in the foundations. A bit shabby in spite of itself, and the interior decoration of the lobby is distinctly uninspired, but everything is clean and the hallways are lit brightly to combat their narrowness.
Charles charms their way past the front desk attendant with a little mental encouragement, then leads the way to the top floor. He stops abruptly in front of apartment 9C. "Here," he says. "This one."
"You're sure?" Erik asks unnecessarily, and is rewarded with an arrogant eyebrow arch. He smirks. "In that case, will you do the honors, or shall I?"
"No need to pull any doors off their hinges," Charles says primly. He raps at the door of 9C, and they wait.
No one answers.
"In fairness," Erik says, after a minute or so. "if I heard an unexpected knock at my door on a Saturday morning, I probably wouldn't answer it, either."
"Not all of us have quite your rationale for paranoia." Charles presses his lips together into a thin line. "Although I suppose he might think we're trying to sell him something."
"We are trying to sell him something."
"Fair point," Charles concedes with a laugh. "Let me try adding an extra incentive to our pitch." He presses a finger to his temple in concentration, then nods. Erik knocks this time.
Muffled behind the apartment walls, he hears someone call, "Canton, you're closer to the door!" and someone else respond with an unintelligible grumble. Erik turns to exchange a smile with Charles, but as footsteps approach the door, Charles's eyes suddenly go very wide.
"Well, this is unexpected," Charles murmurs just before the door swings open.
There's a moment where everyone sort of freezes and stares at one another.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Agent Canton Delaware demands.
In retrospect, Erik thinks, it shouldn't have been very surprising at all. They knew Delaware knew more about mutants than he ought; they suspected he had a secret to protect. Except it turns out that the secret isn't his at all.
"I'm sorry, Agent Delaware," Charles says, faintly flustered as he always is when caught in a misstep. Erik finds it oddly endearing. "We weren't expecting -- that is, we were hoping to speak with Sam Wilson."
Delaware, dressed far more casually than the day before, crosses his arms across his chest and leans against the doorway, blocking their entrance. Erik can make out the living room behind him, dominated by bookshelves and a lumpy brown couch. "Yeah. I kinda figured. Sorry, Doc, he doesn't want to speak with you."
"Shouldn't you let your, ah--"
"My roommate," Delaware says, glaring.
Charles blinks twice, rapidly, and Erik wonders what he'd just read. "Your roommate, yes. Shouldn't Mr. Wilson be allowed to decide for himself?"
Before Delaware can reply, Wilson himself walks into view. He's a powerful-looking black man, as Charles had described, perhaps an inch shorter than Erik, with close-cropped hair and an affable grin that fades when he sees his guests. His eyes are sharply intelligent -- a hawk's eyes, Erik thinks. "New friends, Canton?"
Delaware doesn't budge. "I doubt it."
"Mr. Wilson, I presume?" Charles puts on his most disarming smile. "My name is Charles Xavier--"
"Yes," Wilson says flatly, ignoring the proffered hand. "And this must be Erik Lehnsherr. Canton mentioned you. Didn't expect you two to come a-calling quite so soon, though. Canton, aren't you going to invite these gentlemen inside?"
Delaware turns and glares at his roommate, and they have a brief, silent conversation composed entirely of scowls and raised eyebrows. Erik wonders if Charles is getting the audio as well. Whatever the argument, Wilson wins, and Delaware grudgingly steps aside to let them in.
The apartment is small but filled to the brim. Books compete for space on ceiling-high shelves, a small TV set sneaks in between a thesaurus and a series of identical volumes of something or other, haphazard furniture collides in odd fits and starts. There's a small but sturdy-looking table shoved into a corner, with a pair of folding chairs stacked underneath it, presumably for dining purposes. One doorway leads to a tiny kitchen, equally cluttered; a corridor off to one side probably leads to the bedrooms. Erik is a man accustomed to the bland orderliness of hotel rooms and occasional sojourns in spartan flats; he isn't sure what do with so much evidence of life.
Once, before the war, before the ghetto and then the camps, he and his parents must have had a home of their own. He can't remember a single thing about it. It probably hadn't look like this at all.
He can feel the mental brush of Charles's curiosity, and puts the locked door back up in his mind's eye. Charles stiffens at his side, but keeps his peace.
"Let's cut to the chase, okay?" Wilson says, not unkindly, once Erik and Charles have taken seats on the couch. He leans against a rare patch of bare wall, arms folded across his chest. Delaware perches at the edge of the table and glowers enough for the both of them. "You're with the CIA?"
"Yes, well done on the whole covert agency bit, Agent Delaware," Erik remarks acidly. "Your government's secrets are safe in your hands."
Delaware shrugs, unimpressed. "Sam's my roommate. He doesn't count."
Charles clears his throat. "To answer your question, Mr. Wilson, yes, we are currently allied with a branch of the CIA. They provide us with resources in exchange for our cooperation. But neither Erik nor I are government agents, and the work is our own, not dictated to us by others."
It's a pretty little half-lie. Erik doesn't call him on it, not here.
"And what would that work entail?" Wilson asks.
"Finding and training people like us," Charles says quietly. "People with...unusual gifts. People like you, Sam. I apologize if this sounds forward, but I am very curious indeed to know what it is you are capable of."
Wilson drums his fingers along his bicep thoughtfully. "What I'm capable of," he echoes, rolling the words along his tongue. "I'm capable of a great deal, Dr. Xavier. I served in Korea, you know. The military helped me discover all sorts of capabilities I hadn't thought I had. I'm capable of shooting a man point blank in the face. I'm capable of slogging up hills on a broken ankle for a week without painkillers. I'm capable of watching my friends die slowly of disease because we can't break radio silence to get them medicine. And I'm capable of coming back home and putting my life back together on my terms, and thriving, while so many of my old army buddies fall to pieces." He rolls his shoulders back in something like a shrug. "And oh, yeah, I'm capable of talking to birds. Which, I gotta tell you, falls pretty low on my list of priorities."
"Well," Erik says, after a long moment. "That explains the sparrows. I'm sorry to interrupt, gentlemen, but is there a restroom I could use?"
The bathroom is just down the narrow corridor; Erik ignores it in favor of giving Delaware a taste of his own medicine. He snoops. There are two other doors in the hall, one closed, the other cracked open. Out of courtesy, he explores the open room first.
The building planners probably intended it to be a bedroom, but Delaware and Wilson have converted it into a sort of study instead. More bookshelves, of course, with many psychology and criminology texts appropriate for an FBI agent. Erik spends a minute or so trying to deduce Wilson's career from the books on display, but he must be in a similar field, because Erik can't distinguish which texts belong to which roommate. Maybe they're all Delaware's -- but then, there are two separate desks in the study, so it's likely both bring some work home.
This room has more generous windows than the living room, wall to ceiling, framed by dark green curtains -- and on second glance, one of the windows is actually a sliding door. Erik unlatches it with a wave of his hand and steps out onto a small balcony.
On which he finds a large perch, a bucket of bird feed, and an enormous falcon glaring at him.
After the adrenaline jolt wears off, of course, it makes perfect sense that Wilson would have a pet bird of his own. Wasn't falconing considered the sport of kings, once? It's a noble tradition. This particular creature seems -- well, tame would most emphatically not be the correct word, but calm enough. It doesn't screech or fly at him, anyway, which is somewhat comforting.
"His name's Redwing," Delaware says from the glass doorway. "Magnificent, isn't he?"
Erik doesn't startle easily. And he hadn't expected to remain undiscovered long. He leans back casually against the balcony railing, maintaining a respectable distance from the falcon's perch. "Indeed."
"Sam communes with him for hours, whole conversations I can't hear." Delaware smiles crookedly. "Makes me feel kinda left out, to tell you the truth."
Inescapably, Erik can't help but think of Charles. "Yes," he says. "I know how that is."
"So Xavier is the mind-reader, then," Delaware says. "Huh. I thought it was you."
Delaware shrugs. "You're the scary one. Stands to reason."
"You ought to be grateful," Erik remarks dryly. "You really wouldn't want me in your head."
"I don't want anyone in my head, thanks. Myself included sometimes." Delaware crosses the balcony to gently stroke the falcon's wings. Redwing allows it haughtily, preening. "Sam's telepathy only works on birds, but sometimes -- I think Xavier was calling it his empathic link? Anyway, that bleeds over a bit, every now and then. Just flashes of emotion, stuff like that, all very muddled and confusing. But it's a very distinctive sensation."
Erik crosses his arms, considering. "That's how you could feel Charles in your head. And why you came up with your little mental defense trick."
"Yeah, you two have that much in common. Poking around where you're not invited." Delaware looks around the balcony pointedly.
Erik grins, sharklike. "Just following your excellent example."
That gets a laugh out of the other man. "Fair enough. Anyway, your buddy's back with Sam waxing rhapsodic about genetic mutations or something, which I guess is what your CIA facility is working on."
"You already suspected as much yesterday," Erik points out. "I take it you were hoping to protect your roommate's secret?"
Delaware stills, expression perfectly neutral. "It's a habit."
"To spend a life in hiding?" Erik scoffs. "What a waste of talent and energy. He shouldn't have to hide. None of us should." He keeps his gaze direct and level. "Not even you."
"I don't have any of these special talents, Mr. Lehnsherr," Delaware says warily. "Not like you or Xavier or Sam."
"That's not what I was referring to." Erik gives Delaware a hard-edged smile. "Just think on it, Agent Delaware."
He turns to go back inside, but Delaware's voice stops him at the doorway. "I never asked -- so what can you do?"
Erik lifts his hand, and the balcony's metal railing warps and bends. Delaware jerks away from the edge. Redwing screeches, the sound raw and harsh, shattering the late morning stillness.
Unsurprisingly, Wilson declines their invitation. "I've done my time with a government team," he's saying calmly, as Erik and Delaware rejoin them. "I'm through now." From the way he says it, Erik doesn't think he's just referring to his stint in the military. He'll have to get the full story from Charles later.
Charles's eyes seek out Erik's as soon as he enters the room, a rueful smile tugging at his lips; Erik doesn't need telepathy to know that Charles has resigned himself to this one as a lost cause. Erik lifts his shoulders in the barest of shrugs.
"We understand completely," Charles says, shifting his attention back to Wilson. He gets to his feet and holds out his hand; this time, Wilson accepts the handshake. "I'm glad to have met you all the same, Sam. You would have been a great asset to our team. If you ever change your mind--"
"I won't," Wilson says firmly, stepping back. "But I suppose Canton will know how to reach you if it's ever necessary."
Erik very much doubts that, but he says nothing. He wonders whether Wilson will continue to watch the facility through his birds, and if he ought to care. Wilson is one of theirs, whether he likes it or not. Charles can always find him again if need be.
There's nothing more to be said, and none of them are the sort of men to waste time on pointless pleasantries. Wilson sees them out, with Delaware lurking awkwardly in the background. Erik allows himself one glance back over his shoulder at this cluttered, shabby home, and then lets it go. This isn't the sort of place for him.
Charles bumps lightly against his side in the tiny, slow elevator. "Pity," he says quietly. "He really would have been a marvelous addition to the team. He doesn't need his powers to be a good man in a fight, and if he really can link into the mind of any bird, anywhere in the world -- well, I suppose that would be stretching his range a bit. But still. It would make him an excellent spymaster, if that's ever what we needed."
"You could have always convinced him," Erik points out.
Charles frowns. "That is a rather slippery slope, my friend. Yes, I could have planted the interest in his mind, and he would have believed it was his own impulse. Of course, Agent Delaware knows him well enough to be suspicious, so I suppose I would have had to tinker with his mind, as well. And then maintain the illusion for both of them, for as long as Sam worked with us. There are many things I can do, but where do I draw the line? At what point does the network of lies and manipulation become too complex for me to maintain? And what does that cost me -- not to mention those whose minds I'm so recklessly altering?"
He's so absurdly earnest. Erik can't help grinning at him, unrepentant. After a startled moment, Charles lets out a short huff of laughter. "You're mocking me," Charles complains with a smile.
"Not at all. I just hadn't expected to provoke an moral crisis."
"Sometimes I feel as though every conversation with you precipitates a moral crisis," Charles murmurs, and Erik isn't at all sure what he means by it.
The car is parked right near the apartment entrance, but neither of them feel much like getting back on the road. It's terribly anticlimactic to spend time and effort tracking one person, only to have him slip through your fingers -- a feeling Erik is well acquainted with, after all. But Charles reclines lightly on the hood and tilts his face up toward the sunlight, smiling, and Erik can find no space for dark thoughts of Shaw, not right now.
"I think perhaps we'll need to tinker with Cerebro's parameters again," Charles says, eyes closed against the sun's glare. "Narrow the focus to seek out younger mutants first. Not children, of course, but the older teenagers and young adults, like Angel. The ones more likely to have open minds. Mature individuals like Sam Wilson have already built lives of their own. They're less inclined to turn away from all that to explore genetic quirks they've long since learned to control and conceal."
Erik snorts, but finds himself leaning against the car just beside Charles, their arms brushing companionably. "Yes, God forbid we push anyone outside their narrow little comfort zones."
"It's human nature, Erik," Charles says softly. "Most of these people have lived their lives thinking they're freaks, that they're alone. So they've adapted to survive. If they opt to lead what they consider a normal life, who are we to stop them? Would you call Sam a coward for being happy with the life he chose himself?"
Erik opens his mouth to argue, but Charles's hand clasps his wrist warningly, silencing him. "Ah," Charles says, in an entirely different tone, without opening his eyes, "Agent Delaware. I expected you'd be after us."
Erik hadn't even noticed the other man's approach. He looks up to find that Delaware has indeed followed them out, though he'd probably taken the stairs rather than wait for the elevator to creak its way back up to the ninth floor. "Yeah, well," Delaware says. "We had some unfinished business to clear up."
"The FBI's inconvenient interest in our facility, I assume," Charles agrees, sitting up to meet Delaware's eyes evenly. Erik can still feel Charles's warm fingers loosely encircling his wrist. "I'd imagine you don't want them to find out too much about our ability to locate mutants, do you? After all, not everyone would let a man like Sam Wilson walk away from an offer like ours."
Delaware scowls. "It's not just us. Consider this fair warning: the NSA's been sniffing around your program as well, some jackass called Gyrich. He's far worse than my boss -- A.D. Sullivan doesn't believe in superheroes. Gyrich does, and he hates 'em." He hesitates, glancing between them, then squares his shoulders. "So I'll make you a deal, Dr. Xavier. I'll keep the other agencies away from your people as long as you stay the hell away from mine."
"That's quite the promise," Erik remarks. He can't quite keep the skepticism out of his tone. "How do you intend to keep it?"
"Sullivan likes ruffling Langley's feathers, but he's lazy. I'll volunteer to act as your liaison. He likes my work because I'm a stubborn SOB and I produce results for his department, but he doesn't like me very much." There's a certain wry humor in Delaware's eyes. "This'll keep me both busy and out of his hair. And I'll pass along only whatever you want him to learn. Or I'll just make stuff up, I don't really care, whichever works."
Charles's grasp on Erik's wrist tightens, almost imperceptibly. He doesn't intend to betray us, Charles murmurs in Erik's mind.
I'm not in the habit of trusting humans, Erik thinks back.
You're not in the habit of trusting anyone, Charles retorts, mental voice tinged with humor. But you should trust that he won't betray Sam, which for our purposes is much the same. Out loud, he asks Delaware, "And Gyrich?"
Delaware smiles grimly. "I've dealt with him before. Keeping my own agency in the dark, that's a business arrangement. Tripping Gyrich up, that'll be a pleasure." He sobers. "But I'm dead serious about keeping Sam out of this. He's been in one of those government programs once already. He served his country, and now he deserves to be left alone."
"The work we're doing is somewhat different than his previous experiences," Charles points out, though Erik can tell it's only a token protest. His thumb strokes light circles along the pulse point at Erik's wrist, distractingly, but Charles himself seems unaware of it.
"In case he didn't mention it, Sam's got his own work," Delaware snaps. "He's a social worker in the District, in the worst inner-city slums, mainly works with troubled kids, mostly teenagers, although he's also got a soft spot for homeless vets. You trying to tell me that playing scientist at your fancy facility is more important than what he does?"
"You're very loyal, aren't you?" Erik remarks, almost impressed in spite of himself. "It's a rare quality, for a human to be so fiercely protective of a mutant."
Delaware meets his gaze levelly. "I'm nothing special, Mr. Lehnsherr. I can't read minds or talk to birds or, I dunno, shoot lasers out of my hands. But if either of you try to approach Sam again, believe me, I will make your lives a living hell."
Erik grins. "We'll bear that in mind. Charles, I do believe we should be getting back on the road." He gently tugs free of Charles's grip; Charles blinks at him, then down at his own hand, as though he'd forgotten he was still holding on to Erik.
"Right!" he says brightly, pulling away toward the passenger door and flashing Delaware his trademark disarming smile. "Thank you for the warning, Agent Delaware. About this Gyrich person, as well."
"Don't mention it," Delaware says dryly. "And please, feel free to forget that Sam and I exist, and I'll make sure the FBI does you the same courtesy." Charles just nods. When Erik opens the driver's side door without touching it, Delaware steps back out of his way. "You know, I really ought to charge you for the repairs we'll need to do on our balcony," he remarks.
Erik pauses, considering, then looks up. The balcony overlooks the parking lot; nine stories up isn't too great of a reach. He focuses, hand outstretched, and tugs.
The falcon screeches again.
"That works, too," Delaware says. Erik gives him a small smile and gets in the car, but Delaware puts a hand on the door, keeping it open. He glances at Charles, waiting patiently in the passenger's seat, then back to Erik. He keeps his voice low. "You think I like having to hide all the time, either?"
"So don't," Erik tells him, and pulls the door shut. Delaware remains standing at the curb, watching as they drive away.
The trip back to the facility is quiet. Charles pulls out a notebook and spends the ride scribbling, with periodic breaks to gaze out his open window. He keeps his thoughts to himself, whatever they are, and doesn't intrude upon Erik's. For his part, Erik does his best to keep his mind as empty as possible, just focusing on driving.
As they reach their exit and turn off the highway, Charles flips his book closed. "It's too bad Hank didn't have the opportunity to speak with Sam in person," he remarks. "My notes really are no substitute."
Erik slants a glance over. "I'd imagine your read on the man would be rather more comprehensive than Hank's."
"In one sense, yes, obviously, but Hank knows better which questions to ask for research purposes." He props his elbow up on the open window, tapping his index finger against his cheek pensively, then shifts in his seat to look at Erik. "Delaware mentioned 'hiding,'" he says, sounding strangely hesitant. "So you knew."
It takes a moment to register, but then Erik just shrugs, keeping his eyes on the road. They're nearly home. "There was only one bedroom in that apartment."
"And it doesn't make a difference to you?"
"Why should it?" Erik counters, faintly amused. All those times Charles poked into his mind -- this, of all things, he hadn't bothered to read? "The only distinction I make is between mutant and human. Race, sex, religion, all those other petty differences that humans kill and die for -- I find them absurd, and infuriating. And I can't imagine why the men with pink triangles sewn on their shirts deserved to be in the camps any more than those of us with yellow stars."
That shuts Charles right up, as any explicit reference to the Holocaust always does. Erik glances back over. Charles just watches him, expression unreadable.
"Stay out of my head, Charles," Erik says softly.
"I am," Charles replies, voice equally low. "That's what makes this so damnably frustrating."
Erik pulls into the facility's parking lot and kills the ignition. Neither of them move for a few long moments. Without the low rumble of the engine or the wind through the windows, the air feels very warm and far too quiet. He feels as though Charles is waiting for something, but he hasn't the faintest idea what.
Finally, Charles sighs and shoves his door open. "Since I've an unexpectedly free afternoon, I'm going back to work on Cerebro. I'll see you at dinner." He's gone before Erik has the chance to respond.
Erik sits there for another minute, staring out at nothing. A sparrow alights on the hood of the car, tilting its head to peer at him through the windshield. Erik glares at it. This is getting ridiculous.
He slams the car door behind him with rather more force than necessary and jogs across the lawn toward Cerebro.
By the time he reaches it, he's very nearly caught up with Charles. He takes the stairs two at a time up into the chamber. "Oh, hey, Professor!" he hears Hank say. "I didn't expect you back so soon, but actually, as long as you're here, I was working on--"
Hank cuts himself off when he sees Erik, eyes widening. Charles just looks resigned to his fate.
"Out," Erik tells Hank. "Now."
"Uh, yeah, sure," Hank stutters, grabbing a couple of handfuls of papers off a workstation. "I'll just -- I've actually still got quite a lot of data from last night to go over, so really, it's probably just as well--"
He goes. Erik yanks at the air, slamming the door shut and locked. The silence that follows seems very loud.
Erik turns to Charles, choosing his words slowly and deliberately. He keeps his voice even. "I am sick of hiding all the damn time."
"Sometimes I wonder which of us is truly the idealist," Charles replies sharply. It's the first time Erik has ever heard him sound -- well, very nearly angry. But then, they've been dancing around this argument for days. "Say Raven were to stride down the streets of Washington in her natural form," he goes on, hands at his hips. "Would you have her be subject to the revulsion of everyone she meets? I wish the world were more accepting of difference, but it isn't, not yet. How do you think the FBI would react if Delaware came forward with the true nature of his relationship with his roommate? How would that help anyone?" He's practically shouting now, and has to visibly reign in his frustration, breathing deeply. "You need to learn to make the distinction between cowardice and prudence, Erik."
"And your running to hide in here?" Erik demands, stepping forward to crowd him against the workstation. Charles stands his ground. "Which of the two was that, Charles?"
The monitors and machines surrounding Cerebro's platform hum with electricity. Charles glares up at him. "I beg your pardon?"
"Yes, I think Raven ought to feel comfortable in her own skin, and Hank is the worst sort of coward to try to cover her up permanently with that theoretical cure of his. It's no one's damn business what Delaware and Wilson do to one another in their sole bedroom, and for the record, I don't think they're cowards. At the very least, they're honest with each other. But you--" Erik wants to grab Charles by the shoulders and shake him, ruffle him up, break that infernal composure. He keeps his fists clenched tightly at his sides instead. "You're a walking bundle of contradictions. You pry into strangers' secrets while keeping a tight lid on your own; you seek out others of our kind whether they want to be found or not and then pretend you're giving them a choice in the matter; you spend hours risking your health and sanity in this damn contraption and then preach moderation and serenity to everyone else. And don't even get me started on your precious moral code, which shifts to suit your whims as easily as Raven shifts bodies. You know, Delaware may be a paranoid bastard, but he doesn't try to hide his true nature from himself!"
"You have no idea, do you?" Charles says incredulously. "Do you honestly somehow think it's easier with my powers? Do you know how frightened people become when they learn what I can do? Because I can feel that -- even from you. Especially from you, you've a much broader understanding of the extent of my abilities than most. And you're the only person I can't -- yes, I've looked inside your mind, but God, Erik, you think I'm the contradictory one? I never know what's going to set you off, or--"
"Welcome to life for the rest of us," Erik snaps. "And yet somehow we muddle by."
"Muddle, yes, excellent choice of words, and it's absolutely maddening -- you'll say these things, these ambiguous things that could mean any number of -- and then throw up those bloody locked doors like the worst sort of tease, and I have no idea--" Charles breaks off, laughing, a sharp, jagged sound that hardly resembles mirth, and his eyes are so fucking blue. He reaches up to grasp Erik's shoulder. "So, look, I'm going to kiss you now, even though I honestly don't know how you'll react--"
Erik surges forward, grabbing Charles's hips to hold him in place, and presses their mouths together. Charles makes a startled sound against his lips, and Erik opens his mouth to capture it; and then they're finally kissing properly, messily, marvelously. His entire universe narrows to the softness of Charles's lips, the warm scent of his skin, the incautious exploration of his tongue in Erik's mouth. Charles is clearly struggling to keep his powers in check, to avoid broadcasting, but fragments of thoughts and emotions fizz in Erik's mind like champagne bubbles, making him feel lightheaded. Or perhaps that's due to the heat of Charles's mouth, the electric bursts wherever their skin touches. Distantly, Erik is aware that he's pressing Charles back against the workstation; Charles clutches the edge of the table with one hand, bracing himself, while he wraps his free arm up around Erik's shoulder, his fingers tangling in Erik's hair. Erik yanks Charles's neatly pressed button-down untucked from his trousers, desperate to feel bare skin under his palms.
Something whispers in Erik's mind; he realizes it's Charles's voice, repeating just the one word yes over and over and over, like a mantra. Erik chuckles into Charles's mouth, and Charles retaliates by spreading his legs apart and hooking his ankle around Erik's, pulling Erik's full body flush against his.
"Fuck," Erik groans, pulling away from Charles's lips to press open-mouthed kisses along his jaw, his neck; "if you ever could have just stopped talking for half a minute--"
"I was only -- God -- only trying to draw you out," Charles manages, tilting his head back. "You could have told me--"
"Why, Charles, I thought you already knew everything about me," Erik breathes right in Charles's ear. He can feel Charles's shiver all along the length of his body.
Charles lets his hand slip down Erik's neck, coming to rest cupping his cheek, and gently pulls away until their eyes meet. His thumb brushes Erik's lower lip. "Not enough, apparently," he murmurs. "Never enough."
Erik nips at Charles's thumb, enjoying the way his breath catches, blue eyes darkening. Charles draws him back in for a kiss, but Erik keeps it light, teasing. He traces untold patterns across the smooth plane of Charles's back under his shirt, pressing rapid, shallow kisses against Charles's mouth until they're both gasping.
Charles's shirt is really just getting in the way now; Erik reluctantly abandons the exploration of his shoulderblades in favor of unbuttoning the damned thing. He shoves the fabric back, leaving Charles's chest and shoulders bare. Charles makes a soft, needy sound in the back of his throat, and Erik dips his head to taste his way down Charles's clavicle, his chest, tonguing gently at a nipple. That makes Charles arch and writhe and -- God, it's indecent, the noises he's making, Erik will have to remember that. He looks up with a grin, and Charles takes his face in both hands and kisses him again, deeply. Yours too, he demands, his mental voice shaky, like radio static.
The day outside is warm; Erik is wearing a polo shirt, fortunately, rather than an easily entangled turtleneck. He still has to pull away from Charles to yank it off, and feels the loss keenly, even for just those few moments. If he'd found Charles's persistent light touches maddening before -- the bumped shoulders, the brush of fingers against his wrist -- he shudders to imagine how much worse they'll become once he knows the feel of Charles's skin nearly as well as his own.
It's oddly freeing to 'worry' about something so trivial as this. Erik relishes the sensation.
Charles tugs him back as soon as the shirt is discarded, running his hands up and down Erik's arms. He doesn't even pause at the tattoo, accepting it as unthinkingly, as wholeheartedly as all the rest of Erik's body and mind. The inked numbers mark a part of his history, they define him, they're important, but Charles has always seen Erik as far more than the sum of his parts. Erik thinks maybe, if Charles keeps looking at him like this, someday he might even become the person Charles sees. It's rather terrifying.
"Stay with me," Charles murmurs, eyes intent on Erik's face. "Don't shut me out, not now."
What the hell. Erik pictures a door in his mind, all unyielding steel, and then deliberately rips it apart. Charles laughs delightedly and drags him down for another kiss. And then another, and another; Erik lets his hands wander downward to cup Charles's ass, pulling him even closer, and a white-hot pleasure bursts through his mind as their erections meet through layers of cloth. Charles never stops kissing him, biting gently on his lower lip even as he deliberately rolls his hips against Erik's, and Erik thinks he's never wanted anything this much in his life.
That's pure hyperbole, of course, but right here, in this moment, he believes it, and that's what matters.
Belts and zippers are utterly irrelevant in the face of Erik's powers. "We shouldn't," Charles gasps out, clearly reading Erik's intentions. "Not here -- the lab equipment -- we can't--"
"Later," Erik agrees reluctantly, but there's plenty they can do, and there's no chance in hell either of them are going to stop now.
Charles isn't a particularly strong man -- he's fit enough for an academic, but he's distinctly smaller and less physically powerful than Erik -- yet with a clever combination of physical agility and strong mental suggestion he pushes away from the table and maneuvers Erik around so that their positions are reversed, and Erik suddenly finds himself pressed down against the workstation, Charles above him. Erik releases Charles for long enough to clear the surface, paper and clipboards and God knows what else scattered heedlessly as he pulls himself fully up to sit on the table, leaning back against some sort of monitor. He can feel the uncomfortable shapes of knobs pressing into his bare back, and couldn't care less. Charles follows, straddling his waist and cradling the back of his head with one hand while he slips the other down between them, to the aching place where their groins meet. Erik hisses out a breath and holds on tight, murmuring nonsense against Charles's collarbone.
If he'd ever considered it -- which perhaps he had, occasionally, over the past weeks -- Erik would have imagined that a telepath would be at a distinct advantage when it came to sex, able to read his partner's every thought and adjust accordingly. But as it turns out, the reverse is equally true -- with Charles's control slipping, Erik can feel each reaction as waves of emotion, arousal and need and longing and sheer affection swelling and ebbing with every touch, every kiss, accentuating the delicious friction as they rock against one another. It's intoxicating. And this is with Charles still holding back.
"Let go already," Erik demands, stilling abruptly to look up at him. Charles makes an impatient noise and insinuates his his hand directly down the front of Erik's trousers. Erik shakes his head and presses his fingers against Charles's temple, hard. "I mean it. Stop hiding."
Charles hesitates, still breathing hard. "But you don't like it when I--"
I've already given you my consent, Erik thinks as loudly as he can. Accept it.
It's not an open offer, doesn't mean he'll allow Charles unfettered access to his mind and memories from here on out. But at least for the next five minutes, yes -- and then perhaps the five after that, and after that -- this much, Erik is willing to give. And his consent is not granted selflessly, of course. Erik wants nothing more than to feel careful, proper Charles come completely undone for him, powers unleashed and unrestrained.
And so Charles lets go.
If Erik had felt Charles's presence in his mind moments ago as gentle waves, then this is a flood, a torrent, a hurricane at sea. He nearly staggers with it, every touch and emotion and pulse of arousal magnified and reflected back and forth between them in an infinite feedback loop. Charles wraps his arms around Erik, holding him tightly through the initial onslaught, their foreheads pressed together, until the shock of pure sensation has a chance to recede somewhat. It's rather like drowning. By the time Erik surfaces, their bodies and thoughts are so hopelessly entwined that he can't tell where he ends and Charles begins, and he's never cared less about such a distinction in his life.
In objective terms, neither of them lasts long after that. It's just all so intense, so fast. Erik can feel the texture of his own skin under Charles's fingertips, hear Charles's voice both in his head and outside of it rich and rough and desperate, arousal pounding through his blood and in the heat of Charles's touch and the slick sweat trickling down his (Charles's?) back and there isn't enough air but Erik can't stop kissing him long enough to breathe and their bodies move together in stuttering rhythms faster and faster and--
And then he stops thinking entirely.
Awareness trickles back as his heartbeat gradually slows to its normal rate. Charles has already withdrawn from his head -- well, as much as he ever can; the soft mental brush of his presence and attention remains, and Erik is glad of it -- but physically remains draped across his body, heavy and overly warm. Neither ever did manage to get their trousers off, which makes for a certain uncomfortable dampness in that general area, and the sweat is slowly drying on their skin. None of it bothers Erik in the slightest.
Charles buries his face into the crook of Erik's neck, murmuring something about the time and inappropriate locations and other very responsible things, but he's also pressing gentle, sated kisses against Erik's neck and collarbone, and frankly, actions speak louder than words. Erik runs a hand up and down Charles's back, simply enjoying touching him. He idly wonders where his shirt ended up, and glances up over the top of Charles's head.
Ah. Apparently Charles wasn't the only one whose control of his powers slipped during their little interlude. Erik huffs out a laugh.
"Oh, God," Charles mutters into Erik's shoulder. "Something tells me I'm not going to like this."
"Hank certainly isn't," Erik agrees, perhaps a little too gleefully.
Charles sighs and pulls away, disentangling himself from Erik. It's somewhat precarious on the narrow table, and Erik is quick to catch Charles's waist to keep him from overbalancing when he twists to have a look.
Cerebro itself is undamaged, Erik thinks, but it's...rather difficult to access at the moment, the way the metal platform has become warped beyond recognition. At least one of the computing machines has shorted out, still leaking wisps of smoke, and a few long steel beams are jutting out at angles no man would design, one practically twining around the Cerebro headpiece itself. The notes and data readouts scattered across the floor are purely superficial accessories to the real mess.
Erik smirks at Charles's aghast expression. "I think I rather prefer it this way," he remarks. "Although I'm afraid you won't be able to spend your afternoon honing in on any more recruits."
"Don't look so cheerful," Charles retorts, sliding gracelessly off the table to stand on the now uneven floor. "You're the one who's going to have to fix it."
His attempt to sound stern is thoroughly spoiled by the delightfully debauched look of him. Charles's hair is a wreck, his shirt long discarded, his trousers undone and barely still hanging off his hips; lips pink and faintly swollen, eyes heavy-lidded, and a fresh bruise starting to darken at his collarbone. Erik grins at him, unselfconscious, well aware he probably doesn't look much better himself. From the way Charles's gaze darkens, eyes flickering to Erik's mouth, Charles is equally appreciative of the view.
"Later, though," Charles concedes, voice much lower than usual. He grabs Erik's shirt off the floor and tosses it at him, then goes hunting for his own among the debris.
Erik pulls on the shirt and gets to his feet, wincing a little as he stretches the kinks out of his back. Next time, he thinks, they should try this on a bed. From the tickle of amusement brushing his mind, Charles agrees.
"How do you intend to explain this to Hank?" Erik asks, fastening his belt.
Charles pulls a face. "I don't intend to at all. I'll just have to keep him distracted until it's fixed."
"Set your sister on him. That should do the trick."
"Yes, thank you for that mental image, Erik," Charles says with an exaggerated shudder, but he's smiling. That fades a little as he meets Erik's eyes. "You really will need to repair this, you know -- at least the metal parts. The computer I can explain away as some other sort of accident. Hank will take care of it."
"I still don't like what Cerebro does to you," Erik says quietly. "I understand why you need to use it, but it's dangerous, and it shouldn't be so painful."
Charles steps in and catches his hand, briefly tangling their fingers together. "So help me build a better model. In the meantime, I'm willing to take the risk."
"Of course you are." Erik lets the subject drop, for now. "I got distracted somewhere along the way -- who won the argument, that time?"
Charles grins. "Both of us, I think." He tugs at Erik's hand, mischief glinting in his eyes. "Care for a rematch? Assuming we can ever get out of this place, that is -- did you actually melt the door hinges?"
As it turns out, yes, Erik had. Fortunately, they're easily fixed.
This won't actually solve anything, Erik thinks, as he and Charles emerge back out onto the lawn, blinking against the sudden daylight. Charles will continue to be manipulative and maddeningly naive in turns, and Erik will be impatient with him and everyone else, and the government still watches them too closely and Angel still only feels comfortable flying in darkness and Hank still hates being a freak and Raven still doesn't know how to wear her own skin. And somewhere out there Shaw is alive and plotting, and Erik knows that when he goes to kill him, Charles will try to stop him. And neither he nor Charles had won their argument, not really. They'd simply...been distracted.
Charles smiles up at the sunlight and sends some very dirty thoughts in his direction, and really, as distractions go, Erik's rather fond of this one.
They maintain a respectable distance between them as they head back to the main building, and this must be how Delaware and Wilson are when they're out together, so fucking careful, trying so damn hard to look normal and not at all as though Erik's trousers are a mess and Charles's shirt is partly untucked. There's a mottled pigeon perching on the sun-warmed iron railing along the steps leading up to the facility; it tilts its head up to watch them pass. Erik eyes it narrowly.
He's never seen a pigeon look smug before.
Erik twitches his fingers, and the iron bends abruptly. The startled bird flaps up into the air and is gone.
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.