The rally is starting to disperse when Erik finally spots a familiar blue-and-copper figure on the other side of the Washington Square fountain. He waves as he elbows his way through the crowd. "Raven! About damn time."
Raven grins when she sees him, white teeth flashing against the deep blue of her skin. She's accompanied by an unfamiliar man whose boyish good looks are somewhat offset by an unfortunate tweed jacket. "We got here in time to hear the speakers, anyway. It's a madhouse, isn't it?"
"As well it should be." He isn't one for hugs, but he tolerates the quick squeeze she gives him in greeting. "What, no colorful posterboard of your own?"
"Couldn't come up with a catchy slogan in time. Not that anyone else did, either." Erik gives the rest of the protesters a critical once-over. She's right -- lots of MUTANT RIGHTS = HUMAN RIGHTS and GOD LOVES MUTANTS and NO TO THE CURE, which are serviceable but unimaginative. Well, at least they make the point.
"What will they cure next?" Raven's friend reads off another sign. His lips twist into a wry smile. "Interesting rhetoric. Worthington Labs never claimed to be working on a 'cure' for mutations."
Erik can feel his hackles rising already. "No? Temporary suppression of the X-gene -- you don't think that's an attempt to 'fix' us? Because it certainly has the odor of eugenics to it."
"I don't deny that it's worrisome. But it won't help the mutant cause to be caught overreaching the truth." He looks to be in his mid to late twenties, like Erik, but he speaks like an Oxford don. The tweed doesn't help. "If there's a genuine case to be made against this so-called 'cure' -- and I do believe there is -- it's imperative that we build it out of actual scientific fact, rather than paranoid speculation. Otherwise you risk being dismissed out of hand."
"Dismissed by who?" Erik demands acidly. "The distorted echo chamber purporting to be journalism? A human populace so complacent in their entrenched prejudices that any rational argument is automatically tarred as radical extremism? Please, explain to me why we should bother with the court of public opinion. They indicted us long ago."
The other man makes a sweeping gesture that's probably meant to encompass the crowd of protesters around them, many of whom are still chanting slogans. "Then why protest at all, if not to win over hearts and minds? The progress of social change can be painfully slow at times, I admit, but we progress nonetheless. A generation ago, fewer than one in ten thousand newborns carried the X-gene; now, it's closer to one per hundred. By 2030 mutants are projected to make up more than ten percent of the world population. And studies have proven that personal interaction with members of a minority group leads to increased empathy and tolerance. It's only a matter of time."
"Integrationist idealism," Erik scoffs. "The Mutant Registration Act is gaining traction in Congress yet again -- what sort of 'empathy' is it that requires us all to be branded like cattle? What sort of social change permits the courts to treat us as second-class citizens, or the cops to ignore crimes committed against us? Three teenaged mutants have gone missing in this city alone in the past month, and the police have done nothing. And how, pray tell, will our numbers increase if men like Warren Worthington -- or Bolivar Trask, or Clive Ambrose, or malicious congressmen like Robert Kelly -- succeed in 'curing' unwanted mutations?"
"Because they won't!" Raven's friend insists, blue eyes alight with conviction. It's a good look on him. "For every Senator Kelly, there's a Perrin opposing him. There are far more well-meaning scientists working to understand mutation than there are trying to eradicate it -- myself included, I might add. Look, obviously I disagree with Worthington's proposal. Further research into the genetics of mutation is all well and good, but you're right that there are valid ethical issues to be raised in this particular line of experimentation."
Erik lifts an incredulous eyebrow. "And yet you object to my standing behind a podium and saying so?"
The man grins unexpectedly at that, his whole face brightening. It's strangely endearing. "Actually, I think I would have rather enjoyed seeing you up there. You're far more engaging than any of the people who actually spoke today."
"Oh, Christ," Raven mutters. "I knew that introducing you two would be a mistake."
"You haven't actually introduced us yet," her companion points out with a charming smile.
Raven rolls her eyes. "Like you need my help. Anyway, Erik, this is my insufferable brother, Charles Xavier. Charles, Erik Lehnsherr. But you knew that already."
Charles's handshake is surprisingly firm. He steps a little too close into Erik's personal space for it, but Erik finds that he doesn't particularly mind. "Lovely to meet you at last, Erik. Raven's told me quite a lot about you. Mostly dreadful things, I'm afraid."
Erik laughs in spite of himself. "Well, she's told me virtually nothing about you, so I suppose we're both at somewhat of a disadvantage."
"Don't let the English charm fool you," Raven warns him, with a sidelong glance her brother. "He's an omega-class telepath with no sense of personal boundaries. Anything I might have mentioned about you he's probably already checked out for himself."
That ought to be worrying. Instead, Erik finds himself even more intrigued. He reaches out with his own powers to toy with Charles's expensive watch, twisting it teasingly around his wrist. Charles sucks in a sharp breath, his eyes darkening. "All right, then, Charles, tell me," Erik says. "Do I live up to my terrible reputation?"
"That remains to be seen," Charles says, running his tongue distractingly along his lower lip. "Perhaps you could disillusion me further over a cup of coffee?"
"Oh, for fuck's sake!"
Erik favors Charles with a slow smile, ignoring Raven's disgust. "I'd love to."
This one is going to be trouble, he thinks. He's quite looking forward to it.
2. Meet Cute
Erik loathes parties.
Well, he supposes that's a little harsh. More intimate gatherings, where a person can actually carry on an intelligent conversation without having to shout to be heard: those are fine. But this sort of affair, with its dim lighting and pounding bass and overworked catering staff, is most certainly not his thing. He's going to kill Angel for dragging him here -- assuming he ever finds her again in this throng. Really, it would serve her right if he just up and left.
But then he'd never hear the end of it at the office on Monday, and he supposes that would be worse. Besides, he owes her one.
It takes him several tries to flag down one of the harried bartenders and shout his drink order. When the alcohol finally arrives, he takes one swallow and then nearly spits it back out. This sure as hell isn't the vodka he ordered.
"Oh, bloody hell," the man leaning against the bar beside him says, in a rather charming British accent. Erik turns to see him wearing a similar grimace on an otherwise handsome face. The stranger gives Erik a rueful smile. "Sorry, it's just that I can't abide the taste of vodka."
Erik glances down at the other man's glass, then at his own. Both contain clear liquid. "I don't suppose you ordered a gin and tonic?"
The stranger blinks at him a moment before grinning widely. "Well, that's one mystery solved. Trade you?"
They swap drinks, and Erik tastes this one carefully. Vodka and soda, thank God. "That's much better."
"It is indeed." From the look in his eyes -- blue, Erik thinks, although it's hard to tell in this lighting -- he's not talking about the drink. Erik allows himself a small smile of his own. The man is on the short side, which Erik finds endearing; his white shirt is unbuttoned at the collar, revealing a temptingly smooth V of pale skin. When he tilts his head back to take a swallow of gin, it allows Erik's gaze to linger on the graceful line of his neck. His tongue darts out across full lips to catch the remains of the alcohol.
Erik's mouth feels a little dry. He sips his own drink slowly, enjoying it.
"So what brings you here tonight?" the man asks, leaning in closer to be better heard over the music. "I assume it's not the service."
Erik huffs out a brief laugh. "Hardly. I don't even know the host. I'm here with a friend."
"Ah," his new companion says. "Not a very good friend, I'd imagine, to abandon you to the whims of the bar staff."
"Not a very good friend at all," Erik agrees. He holds out a hand. "Erik."
"Charles," the other man says, taking it. He lingers a moment too long, thumb tracing along Erik's knuckles for a moment with a strange sort of familiarity before releasing him. "How did your terrible friend con you into being his -- or her -- plus one this evening?"
"Her, and she claimed to need someone intimidating to pretend to be her boyfriend," Erik explains. "The host is an ex of hers, I think. It's all very complicated. I didn't ask for details."
Charles laughs. His arm brushes up against Erik's. "Sounds like a clever scheme. If she's done with you, though, perhaps I could commandeer your services for the remainder of the party. Help me fend off unwanted advances."
"I'd be more than happy to oblige." Erik drags his gaze away from Charles for a moment to scan the room. He actually spots Angel this time, cozying up on a couch to vaguely familiar-looking older man. He points her out to Charles. "Actually, it looks like she's settled in for the night."
Charles stiffens slightly when he sees them, something unreadable flickering across his face for the briefest of moments. "That's Sebastian with her," he remarks lightly. "Our host for the evening. You're sure he was the ex-boyfriend?"
"Huh," Erik says, as Angel laughs and swings a leg across to straddle the man's lap. "Perhaps they've reconciled their differences." Erik shrugs it off, favoring Charles with a slow smile. "Either way, I do believe this means I'm at your disposal."
"Just what I wanted to hear," Charles says with an enigmatic smile of his own. He tosses back the remainder of his drink. "I'm rather tired of this party, though. Would you be amenable to continuing this conversation elsewhere?"
He doesn't bother saying goodbye to Angel -- she's clearly occupied at the moment, she won't even notice he's gone. Instead he allows Charles to lead him out, Charles's hand loosely clasping Erik's wrist. His fingers are cool.
The party is being held in the event space of a glitzy hotel; the corridors are far more brightly lit, and the absence of pulsing music is a blessing in itself. Erik takes a better look at Charles: his eyes are indeed a clear, lovely blue. He looks a little older in this lighting, although no less attractive for it; Erik places his age at thirty, or just past it. Much like Erik himself. At the elevator, Charles hesitates, glancing up at Erik.
"We could try the hotel bar, I suppose, if you'd like -- or we're in the middle of Times Square, I'm sure we can find another place to have a drink. But I've booked my own room in this hotel, so that's also an option."
"That sounds like an excellent option," Erik murmurs, slipping an arm around Charles's waist. "So you're not local, then?"
"Does it matter?" Charles asks.
"Not at all." But it does matter, all of a sudden -- he can't explain why, but he doesn't like the thought that Charles is just here as a tourist, or on a business trip. Wants to see him again, and again, and again. Which is ridiculous: they've hardly known each other for twenty minutes, haven't even slept together yet. Haven't even kissed. Well, that part's easily taken care of.
Charles's lips part against his immediately, unquestioningly, as he wraps his arms around Erik's waist. He tastes like juniper berries. Erik thinks he could learn to appreciate the flavor of gin.
The elevator dings, and Charles pulls away from the kiss. His eyes are very wide. His hands tremble ever so slightly where they grip Erik's hips.
"Charles?" Erik murmurs.
Charles blinks a few times, then shakes his head as if to clear it. "Right! Lift. Shall we?"
There are several other guests in the elevator already, so Erik and Charles keep a respectful couple of inches between them. Erik can't stop sneaking glances at him, though, imagining how much redder his lips will become after a few more good kisses. He has a light buzz going from the vodka, making his mind a little hazy. It feels wonderful.
Charles practically yanks him off at his floor, tugging him down the hall to his room. It takes him a little longer to fumble with the key card, and Erik takes advantage of the pause to press a few lingering kisses down along the smooth curve of Charles's neck. "That's...really not helping, you know," Charles tells him, breath hitching.
Erik noses at the line of his jaw. "Who says I'm trying to be helpful?"
After a few false starts, Charles manages to get the door unlocked and they stumble in. It's a lovely suite. At least, Erik assumes it is. He only really bothers noticing the bed. He hears the door slam shut behind them as he pushes Charles gently down onto the mattress.
Charles gives him a heartbreaking smile and catches his wrists, holding Erik in place above him. "Erik," he says softly, eyes intent. "Are you ready for this?"
Erik breathes in, then out, focusing on the bright blue of Charles's eyes. His head is clear. "Let's find out."
3. Private Investigator
He flips open his badge to show the receptionist. "Max Eisenhardt. Dr. Worthington is expecting us."
She nods at once. "Of course, Mr. Eisenhardt. Let me just get you your pass. How many members of your team will require entry to the labs?"
Max glances over his shoulder, doing a quick tally. They'll need techs to go through all the network systems, but most of the security personnel can remain down here. "Three others." He raises his voice slightly. "MacTaggert, Rushman, Skye -- let's get you passes."
Once upstairs, he dispatches the tech experts to deal with the IT weenies. "Stay with them," he tells Moira. "It'll be best if I speak with Worthington in privacy."
He rolls his eyes. "I'll shout if I need you." Moira MacTaggert is an excellent security officer, but she tends to be a bit overprotective. He can handle himself.
Dr. Worthington's office is about five times the size of Max's boss's. Must be nice running a pharmaceutical company. Worthington stands to greet him. "Thanks for coming by."
"Of course," Max says. "Security breaches are no small matter."
"I have to stress that total confidentiality is of the utmost importance in this...incident," Worthington tells him. "If so much of a whisper of this should leak outside these labs--"
Max smiles sharply, baring his teeth. "I understand completely. That's why I was assigned this case."
The look Worthington gives him is difficult to interpret. "Yes, I know."
He starts by giving Max a quick tour of the labs -- which are all strangely sterile, with only the most innocuous of projects on display. Eventually they return to his office and get down to business, as Max extracts all the information he can about the nature of the security breach and Worthington's suspicions. He gets a strong sense that Worthington isn't being entirely open with him about the nature of the research being done here; it's immensely frustrating. His team will likely be able to track down the hacker regardless, but if it turns out to be an inside job -- and most leaks are -- it would help to narrow down motivations if he knew what research in particular had been targeted. Maybe the stuff with mutations? Seems to be a hot topic lately. Max also makes a mental note to look into the business partnerships Worthington Labs has with Trask Industries and the Rossum Corporation -- could be corporate espionage between rivals.
After another thirty minutes or so, it's clear that Worthington has nothing further he's willing to disclose, and Max decides to stretch his legs a bit. "Going for a walk," he tells Moira when he finds her again. A little exercise will help clear his mind, let the pieces start falling into place.
"You want me to come with?"
"No, you're better off keeping the science types from hassling our people." Max nods toward Rushman, who's looking increasingly annoyed with the scientist currently hovering over her shoulder as she works. Moira's mouth twitches in a smirk.
He heads back down to the lobby, giving the receptionist a smile. "Where can a guy hunt down a decent cup of coffee around here? I don't trust the stuff you've got brewing in those labs."
She directs him to a small coffee shop just down the block. Independent place -- one of the few remaining in this city, Max thinks ruefully. He orders a plain black coffee and glances around the shop. It's moderately busy but not packed; there's not much customer seating to speak of, though. One table is occupied by two men who look oddly familiar. Max studies them discreetly over the top of his coffee cup, trying to place them. After a moment, it clicks: he'd seen one of the men -- the tall, lanky one with horn-rimmed glasses -- in Worthington's labs. Well, he supposes everyone gets coffee breaks. The scientist looks worried, though, and he's speaking to his companion in a low, hurried tone. Might not mean anything. But Max has learned to be suspicious of just about everything.
The scientist has his back to him as he approaches, but the other man glances up -- and freezes, staring at him. Max blinks right back. He knows this guy, he's sure of it. How does he know him?
"Oh -- hey, you're that guy," the scientist says, interrupting Max's reverie. He smiles nervously up at Max. "My boss showed you around the lab earlier. Sorry, we weren't properly introduced." He sticks out a hand. "Hank McCoy."
"Max Eisenhardt," Max says, taking it. "Didn't mean to interrupt your chat."
"No worries!" McCoy says quickly. "Just catching up with a friend. But I should really get back to work before my boss misses me." He gets to his feet awkwardly, eyes darting between Max and his friend. "See you later, Charles."
After a moment, Max shrugs and takes the seat McCoy vacated. "Do you mind?"
"Not at all," Charles says quietly. He's still staring at him. Max can't help but notice that his eyes are startlingly blue. "Er...Max, was it?"
"That's right." Max takes a sip of his coffee, studying him. He just can't shake the sense of deja vu. "Have we met? Sorry, you look really familiar."
Charles opens his mouth to speak, then closes it again. His brow furrows endearingly. "I -- no. I don't think so. Max."
"You work with McCoy in the lab, maybe?"
"I'm afraid not." Charles shifts in his chair, fiddling with his empty cup. "I'm a...philanthropist, of a sort. Hank's trying to convince me to fund some of his research."
Max settles back in his chair with what he hopes is a charming smile. "Anything interesting?"
Charles appears oddly unsettled. "Possibly. I'm still considering his proposal."
The bell over the door jingles, and Max glances over his shoulder instinctively. It's Moira. She scans the shop, frowning, until she spots Max and Charles. Her frown deepens.
"Hey, MacTaggert," Max says when she makes a beeline for him. "Something wrong?"
"No, but Skye thinks she's found something that you should check out. Ready to go?"
Max glances back over at Charles, who looks supremely uncomfortable. Something about the guy is setting off all kinds of weird alarms in Max's head. He wants to figure out why. "In a minute."
"Now would be better," Moira says firmly. But still, Max hesitates.
Charles gives him a small smile. It looks...sad, somehow. Max wonders why that troubles him. "It's all right, Max," he says. "Sounds like you're needed."
Moira touches Max's shoulder, giving it a firm squeeze. "Max. How about a treatment?"
Right. Max gets to his feet. A treatment will sort him out, get his head back in the game. He's got work to do. "Sure thing. Hey, Charles, maybe I'll find you again later, huh?"
There's no response, but Max can feel Charles watching him all the way out the door.
Erik can't really explain the impulse that leads him to the Museum of Natural History that afternoon. It's not how he generally chooses to spend his days off. But an ad for their new exhibit caught his eye, and he hadn't been in years, and it's not like he had anything better to do. So here he is.
Other things that Erik doesn't usually do include striking up conversations with complete strangers. But as a school group goes by, another patron starts correcting the tour guide's scientific inaccuracies under his breath, and he's entertaining enough that Erik introduces himself with a request for a personal tour.
And so the third extremely uncharacteristic decision Erik makes today is choosing to accompany his new friend Charles to a nearby coffee shop, and then, another hour and a half later, up to his apartment. But when attractive men with sly smirks and wide blue eyes invite you home with them after a mere afternoon's acquaintance -- well, sometimes you just have to live dangerously.
They dispense with pretense the moment they enter the apartment; Charles laces their fingers together and tugs him down the hall into his bedroom, kicking the door shut behind them. Then, curiously, he drops Erik's hand and steps back. "A little music, perhaps?" Charles asks. He seems distracted as he fiddles with an iPod hooked up to a speaker. "Any preference?"
Erik blinks, caught off-guard. "Something classical, I suppose."
"Excellent." Charles puts on something vaguely familiar -- one of the B's, Erik thinks, Bach or Beethoven or Berlioz, but he's not an expert -- and turns up the volume. Not uncomfortably loud, not enough to hinder conversation, but still, it's a little odd. Charles turns back to face Erik, expression unreadable. "Are you ready for this?"
Memory -- reality -- snaps back into Erik's mind in a rush. He leans back against the closed door, squeezing his eyes shut briefly against the onslaught as he breathes deeply. "Let's find out," he murmurs.
When he opens his eyes again, relief has diffused Charles's features, emanating from his mind in waves. "Erik. There you are."
"Hello, Charles," Erik says, reaching out to pull him into a proper kiss. Charles wraps his arms around him, clutching him like a drowning man, returning his kiss fiercely. When they come up for air, Erik nuzzles lightly at his earlobe, eliciting a soft gasp. "Bugged?" he murmurs directly into Charles's ear.
Very likely, Charles agrees silently. Hence the music. We could just communicate telepathically, if you like, but I know you generally prefer actual speech.
"It's difficult for us non-telepaths to communicate with any sort of precision through mental projection," Erik points out in a low tone. "But if you think it's safer--"
Charles pulls back enough to smirk at him. "I'd rather hear your voice, anyway."
Erik rolls his eyes, but he can't help a small smile in return. "You're really enjoying this whole fantasy date scenario, aren't you?"
That slams a door shut on Charles's face; Erik feels a sharp sting of backlash in his mind. "Not particularly," Charles says, dropping down to sit at the edge of the bed. He rubs his temples, looking abruptly older, weary. "I hate this, Erik. I should be the one in there, not you."
"But I couldn't play the wealthy client half so well," Erik says softly. He joins Charles on the bed, arms and legs brushing. "And you can't shut your own mind down the way you'd need to, to survive in there. This is the only way to find her."
Charles sighs, not quite looking at him. "Speaking of, we should really get down to business. Any luck yet?"
This is the trickiest part: accessing the memories he's not supposed to have. Charles's telepathic protection keeps his true self, his own memories, locked away tightly deep within his own brain where the Dollhouse can't scrub them out; a tiny part of Erik is able to go on monitoring the world around him regardless of the personalities they imprint him with. But that's all on the subconscious level. It's difficult to consciously retrieve the information he's acquired as an Active. "I think -- yes. A conversation I overheard between Frost and Bolivar Trask. They didn't refer to her by name -- I don't think anyone but Frost actually knows our original identities -- but they described her abilities in detail. So unless there's another blue-skinned shapeshifter out there…"
"Raven," Charles breathes. The hope in his eyes nearly breaks Erik's heart. "Any idea where they're keeping her? Could she be one of the other Dolls in the House, stuck in an unfamiliar form?"
"I can't…" Erik shakes his head, frustrated. The memory is there, at the tip of his thoughts, but he can't bring the damn thing into focus. "Just look for yourself, will you?"
Charles presses his fingertips gently against Erik's temple. He doesn't actually need the physical contact to dive into someone else's mind, Erik knows, but it's a gesture of good faith. And Erik appreciates his touch.
After a few long moments, Charles drops his hand, giving the nape of Erik's neck a quick squeeze in passing. "Paris. It sounds like she's in Paris. Well, it's the best lead we've had in months. And 'Mystique,' really?"
"You should hear the names they give some of the other Actives," Erik says with a grimace. "I think they're supposed to reflect our original mutations, before that damn telepath's mind-wipes suppressed them."
His own Active name is 'Magneto.' It's dreadful.
But Charles has returned to the original problem: "What's in Paris? Trask and Worthington don't have any labs outside of the States. But I suppose Rossum has greater reach."
"Much greater. There's another House in Paris."
Charles generally keeps a tight lid on his telepathy, but Erik can feel the sharp fizz of shock against his own mind. "Another Dollhouse? That's--"
"There are many more than that, Charles," Erik snaps, suddenly impatient. It's easy to forget that Charles is still largely on the outside of this harebrained operation, that he's barely glimpsed the bigger picture. Erik has been living the reality of this horror for months now. "Did you think the House here in New York was the only one? There are at least a dozen, probably more. L.A., Washington, Paris, Dubai…"
Charles looks pale. "Dear God."
"It's not just 'paranoid speculation' anymore, is it?" It's a low blow, throwing Charles's argument from what feels like half a lifetime ago back in his face -- especially now, when he's already lost so much. Erik regrets it as soon as the words are out of his mouth.
"I didn't know," Charles says quietly, face drawn. "I had no way of knowing, then."
No way of knowing that Worthington's "cure" was really telepathic suppression, removing all traces of a person's mind and memory along with their control over their mutation. No way of knowing that mutants and humans both were disappearing off the streets and into Rossum's labs. No way of knowing that Raven, following a trail of rumors and urban legends, would herself disappear into the Dollhouse. And that Erik would voluntarily turn over his own mind and body to them in a desperate bid to bring her home.
Erik takes a deep breath, willing himself calmer. "Neither of us did. There's more, though, that you should know. Not just about Raven. It's easier if you look for yourself."
"I will," Charles says. "Later, though, if that's all right. I do have you booked all weekend."
The smile he offers Erik is a pale shadow of his old confident smirk, but it's lovely all the same. "Well, then," Erik says, leaning in. "Let's put the time to good use."
"Are you ready for this?"
Erik blinks rapidly, memories rushing into his mind like the first hit of a drug, like the worst sort of high. The first few moments after Charles uses the trigger phrase are incredibly disorienting. Being imprinted in the Chair is only a pale shadow of this -- probably because those memories aren't real. This personality is his own.
It only takes a few seconds of real time to orient himself, though it feels much longer. Charles designed the trigger as a call and response, so: "Let's find out," Erik tells him, confirming that his true self has returned.
Charles sags a little in relief, clasping Erik's hands in his own. "Erik."
Erik frowns as he takes in his surroundings and his most recent memories slot into place. "This isn't an engagement -- Charles. We're still in the Dollhouse. You're in the Dollhouse." They're in a service corridor, to be exact, not far from the rooms with the sleeping pods. "What the hell are you doing here? You're not safe here!"
"No, it's fine, it's all right, it'll be all right," Charles says, words tumbling over each other haphazardly. "Hank took care of the CCTV, we have a twenty minute window before anyone will suspect--"
"How did you get in?" Erik demands, clutching him too tightly. This is all wrong. Charles was never supposed to set foot in this terrible place.
Well. Not that the House itself is particularly bad, with its graceful architecture and luxurious amenities. It's like an upscale spa -- if you ignore the fact that the residents are all very attractive zombies, blank-faced dolls with no thoughts or personalities of their own. The thought of Charles in the Chair, of that beautiful, complex mind wiped to nothingness, a vacant expression on his boyish face...it's enough to turn Erik's stomach.
"You do realize I've been here several times already," Charles says, trying to keep his tone light and failing miserably. "Every time I booked you for an engagement."
"Yes, but that was upstairs in Emma's office, not down here."
"Oh, she brought me down the first time, briefly. To show off the accommodations, how well the Actives are cared for." Charles's mouth is twisted with disgust. "I saw you on the floor. You were doing some sort of yoga, I think."
"I'm sure I was." When he's back in himself, Erik does his best not to think about the Doll state. It's somehow far worse than the engagements. At least he's a person when he's on assignment, even if that person is not himself. And violating though the experience may be, he did choose this. He consented to it, knowing full well what it would entail.
He reaches out with his powers to toy with the watch on Charles's wrist, the metal singing to him as he curves it lovingly against Charles's skin. Being disconnected from his mutation is the worst part of this whole operation, though of course he doesn't know he misses it until he's himself again.
"Anyway, Logan and Peter got me in this time," Charles goes on. "Ah -- you haven't met Peter yet. That should be an experience. He's...very quick. Erik, we're here to get you out."
Out. Erik doesn't dare believe it. "You've found Raven? You're sure?"
"Paris, just like you suspected. Hank managed to isolate the location of their Dollhouse. Now it's just a matter of breaking her out -- but we can work on that from the outside. You can help me bring her home, Erik."
His mind is racing. "How long have I been in here?"
"Nearly six months," Charles tells him. He strokes his thumb against Erik's cheek. "Long enough. Come on, let's go."
But Erik shakes his head. "It's not that easy -- no, listen to me, Charles. Once the Dollhouse has you, they never really let you go."
"If this is about the tracker--"
"It's made of metal, I can rid myself of it in a heartbeat," Erik says impatiently. "That's not what I mean. They'll never stop, Charles. What they're doing to mutants here, to our people -- it's an abomination. We've only just scratched the surface. I agreed to this in order to find Raven, to save her -- but this is bigger than just me and her, much bigger. You have to see that."
"Of course I do," Charles whispers. "Erik…"
"There are more than twenty Houses scattered across the globe," Erik says. "Worthington and the Rossum Corporation are going to destroy the very fabric of society with this technology. Free me, free Raven, free everyone in this House -- it won't matter. They'll just snatch up more mutants and keep on going. We have to bring the Dollhouse down for good. But we can't do that without more intel."
Charles's grip on his hand tightens convulsively. "No. Absolutely not. You can't possibly mean to stay."
Erik gives him a grim smile. "Not forever, that's for damn sure. But with your telepathic trick keeping the real me tucked away inside my own head, I'm the best mole you could possibly have. No one pays attention to a Doll or bothers watching what they say around us. We have no memories, no identities -- worst case scenario, they can just wipe us and start over. You know how much intel I've given you already. A few more months, a year -- just imagine how much more dirt I could dig up." He clenches his free hand into a fist, and all the steel in the building foundation groans faintly. "And then I'm going to burn this place to the ground."
Charles just looks at him for a very long moment. He's never been one to freely project his thoughts or feelings outward -- years of concealing the strength of his mutation proving a difficult habit to break, even with the few people he trusts -- but Erik has never relied upon Charles's telepathy for that. Every emotion is writ large across his face, if you know how to read it.
"You know what I thought, the first time we met?" Erik asks quietly. "When your sister introduced us at that rally in Washington Square?"
The ghost of a smile passes across Charles's lips. "Well, I am a mind-reader, so yes. You thought I was an arrogant, idealistic ass."
"Trouble," Erik corrects him. "I looked at you and I knew I was in trouble. And I was right. But I've never once regretted it."
Charles leans forward, pressing his forehead to Erik's. Erik closes his eyes and breathes him in.
"I could change your mind, you know," Charles murmurs.
"You could," Erik agrees. "But you won't."
"No, I won't."
There's a sudden burst of air along the hall, and when Erik blinks, a young man with silver hair and a Pink Floyd T-shirt is standing beside them. "Charles! Hey, Charles, Charles, c'mon, man, we gotta go, Hank says we've only got three minutes left."
Charles huffs out a sigh. "That's plenty of time for you, Peter. I just need a moment." When Peter continues to stare at them both curiously, Charles gives him a very pointed look. "If you wouldn't mind?"
Peter rolls his eyes. "Whatever, dude." In a flash, he's gone again.
"You'll have to bury me again," Erik reminds Charles. "It'll be...different, this time. I wasn't an imprint when you triggered me, I was in the Active state. Tabula rasa."
Charles shudders. "I know. And I thought the imprints were disturbing."
"There's a code phrase -- I told you about it," Erik goes on determinedly. "It's not necessary, but I...that is, Magneto will be anxious if you neglect it."
"I know," Charles says again. He reaches up to place his fingertips lightly at Erik's temples. His hands are cool, but steady. "Erik...you're sure?"
"I'll see you soon," Erik promises. He allows himself a wry smile. "I'm sure you can come up with some new fantasy that requires Magneto's services."
"Thousands, my friend." Charles kisses him, his mouth warm. Erik closes his eyes and savors it for as long as he can.
This part is not at all like the mind-wipes in the Chair. No spike of pain, no imaginary life flashing before his eyes. Just a soft nudge, the sense of a door being closed tight, the turn of a key.
Magneto blinks. His mind is clean and empty. There is a man standing before him, a beautiful man. He looks sad.
"Did I fall asleep?" Magneto asks.
The man nods. "For a little while."
"Shall I go now?"
"If you like."
Magneto nods and starts to go, then turns back. "Do I know you?" he asks curiously.
The man smiles. It is strange to see a smile that is so sad. "Not yet," he says. "But you will soon."