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Catch me when I fall

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The first ten minutes Charles spends in Cerebro gives them enough information on mutants to be worth it; but he stays attached to the machine for hours, pushing and pushing until he's trembling with exhaustion. He very nearly crumples to the ground when Hank takes the helmet off him, and it's very clear that his white-knuckled grip on the railing is all that's keeping him upright.

"I can do more," he gasps, still, in weak protest. "Just -- as long as I can have a chair -- I can do more -- please -- I need to --"

Hank and Raven both start to say something, but Erik's the one that steps up to the platform and puts one of Charles' arms around his neck, supporting him before he can fall over. "You need to rest," he says firmly.

"I haven't found them all!"

Erik huffs a laugh -- Charles appears to have set extremely high expectations for himself -- but steers him away. "Food," he says firmly, "and rest."

"Please," Charles says, slurring the words a little, "just five more minutes--" and then he gives a quiet sigh and passes out.

Without a word, Erik scoops him up and carries him down the stairs.

#

Hank is very firm about the length of sessions, after that. No more than fifteen minutes at a time; at least an hour's break in between; no more than two sessions a day; no exceptions.

When he spells out the rules like that, Charles gives a cheerful nod, with every indication that he isn't going to pay one whit of attention to them, and Erik resolves to keep a very watchful eye on Charles.

#

He does behave, at least for a while. It helps that they go after mutants as he finds them: not every mutant, not the ones who are still children or the ones who are too old to fight, nor the ones whose abilities are so understated as to be useless (there's a girl in Oklahoma that can change the color of her eyes at will, but nothing more), but the more promising ones. Slowly, their little proto-army grows.

For Erik, who had once thought he was the only one out there, it's hard -- gratifying, not at all unwelcome, but hard -- to gain allies at that speed, even if most of them are younger than he'd like.

For Charles, apparently, it isn't fast enough.

#

Raven comes to Erik, eyes glittering yellow with the strength of her agitation. "Come with me," she says, and leads him toward the Cerebro installation. "Charles--"

Erik starts to run.

He finds Charles hooked up to Cerebro, swaying on his feet, face paler than usual. Hank is there, which should be reassuring, except that there's something slightly off about him. Raven, clattering up the stairs behind him, gasps out, "I think Charles may have done something--"

Erik knows better than to try to take Charles out while the machine's going, so he turns on Hank instead. "How long has he been in there?" he asks, quiet and cold.

Shrugging, Hank gives him a glassy-eyed look. "I don't know," he says, disturbingly cheerfully. "But it's all right."

"Turn it off." When Hank doesn't respond, Erik takes him by the shoulders and gives him a little shake. "Turn. It. Off."

"Charles wants you to," Raven adds, and that seems to help. Hank hesitates but then turns and begins flipping switches, powering it down again.

Erik wheels immediately and catches Charles as he falls. He doesn't try to stop the motion, just eases the descent a bit so it isn't as fast and hard. Charles looks up, his gaze just as glassy as Hank's had been, and Erik feels a thrill of fear. "Charles," he says, and gives a light slap to one cheek. "Charles. Wake up, damn you."

Charles blinks a few times and slowly, slowly, his eyes focus on Erik.

Behind Erik, Hank says, "What," and "I don't--," and "Oh my God I'm so sorry I didn't--". Behind Erik, Raven says, "I don't think it was your fault." Behind Erik, Hank says, "It's just, he came to me and suggested we start, and it was such a good idea, it felt so right."

In front of Erik, Charles stops breathing for a moment, and then twists away with a harsh sob.

They have an audience; a part of Erik is distantly aware of that. It's not just Raven and Hank; a few others had been attracted by the minor commotion of Raven coming to get Erik, of their race to the installation. But most of Erik's attention is focused on the man huddled in front of him, curling in on himself like he'd shatter if he didn't.

"Charles," Erik says gently, very gently, making sure there is neither reproach nor anger in his voice. Lectures will come later: the /don't be an idiot, Charles/ lecture, the /we don't use our powers against our own kind/ lecture, the /I am not going to stand around and watch you kill yourself for these people/ lecture, all building up in Erik's mind like metal shavings pulling into shape. But he keeps himself still, because now is not the time.

"Charles," Erik says again, and rests his hand on Charles's back. "Look at me."

A little reluctantly, Charles unfurls enough to do so. His face is still pale, his mouth impossibly red, his eyes far too blue and bright with unshed tears. He tries to speak, falters when no sound comes out, and then he croaks out, "--so many minds--" And then he wilts, crumpling as the tears fall silently down his face.

"Hey," Erik says, and he moves without thinking, settling himself closer and pulling Charles in so he has something better than the floor to cry against. Charles clings to him, his whole body wrenching with soundless sobs, face buried in Erik's chest. "Hey," Erik says again, quietly, murmuring into Charles's hair. "It's all right."

Raven crouches next to the two of them, looks a question at Erik. "Get them out," he mouths, and she nods. Take care of him, her expression says, but she doesn't need to actually say it.

Erik spares a portion of his attention to making sure that everyone, including a red-faced Hank, leaves the room. Charles, he's fairly sure, is oblivious to all of it; he might be aware of Erik, but this sort of catharsis leaves little room for anything else.

Erik knows.

Shuddering against him, Charles makes an obvious attempt to pull himself together. His breathing slows raggedly, his death grip on Erik loosens somewhat, and he raises his head.

"Sorry," he says in a hoarse voice, "I don't quite--"

His eyes flutter closed as more tears escape. It's unfair, Erik finds himself thinking, how goddamn beautiful the man can be; even now, face wet with tears and snot, eyes red-rimmed with emotion and exhaustion, he's somehow utterly gorgeous.

Erik shoves that thought to the back of his mind, and uses one thumb to brush along Charles's cheekbone, gently.

"I'm afraid I made a right mess of your shirt," Charles mutters, and Erik finds himself laughing.

"Nothing permanent."

"No, I suppose not." Charles tugs his shirt sleeve down over his wrist and wipes his eyes and nose like a child might. "I'm still sorry." He tucks his head against Erik's shoulder and just sits there, breathing.

They'll have to move sometime, Erik knows, but for now he just keeps his arms around Charles and holds on and waits.