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Truthfully, Charles liked it better when the lecture hall was mostly full of students who were half-asleep. Teaching was easier without all of those feelings battering him while he was trying very earnestly to convey his excitement over lithographic surveys. Half-asleep was good -- all sluggish pulses of attention from otherwise excellent students in his undergraduate lecture, which he purposefully scheduled at the heinous hour of 8:30 in the morning. There were a few bright points of focus in the room, and Charles smiled encouragingly at those students, who seemed to hum with steady, caffeinated waves of serious academic interest.

And then there was the stranger who slipped into the back of the hall, ten minutes into Charles’ lecture.

Too old to be an undergrad, Charles judged. Too well-dressed to be a graduate student. He’d removed his somber grey trilby upon entering and smoothed out his trench coat as he’d folded himself into a chair. Junior faculty from another department, perhaps?

Charles could believe it, except for the way the stranger radiated sharp, devouring interest. No one from Chemistry or Physics cared about flint-knapping that much.

“Your assignment for Monday is the next two chapters and Dr. MacTaggert’s article on the Meggido Stables. Any questions?” Charles looked over the lecture hall, but his students seemed disinclined to speak up.

The stranger was on his way out the door when Charles met his eyes -- and that interest, that brutal concentration was still there, and Charles’ breath caught for a moment. Then the man tipped his hat and slid out the door, and Charles was far too busy collecting papers to go after him.

***

“Just a moment, Hank, I think I have your paper right -- oh, well, it was here, but I’m sure it’s just--” Charles sifted through a few more stacks of paper and then knocked all of his mail on the floor.

Hank was obviously a graduate student who understood which side his bread was buttered on, because he instantly knelt to help pick up the letters from the floor. “What’s this?” Hank said curiously, hefting a package wrapped in brown paper and bound with twine.

“Oh, probably a book for review,” Charles said absently, and then frowned at the lack of return address. It was pure chance that he located Hank’s paper then, buried under midterm exams that Charles hadn’t gotten around to yet, with a regrettable yet entirely understandable tea stain at the corner. “Here you are, well done, close the door on your way out, there’s a good chap.”

Charles was cutting the twine on the package when the door opened again. “Forgot something, did you?” he said, pulling out a book with an unpromising title.

And then he froze, because he felt it again: frighteningly focused intent spliced with adrenaline.

“Dr. Xavier?”

“Yes?” Charles said, keeping his tone light with effort.

The stranger removed his hat and gave him a brief, polite smile. “I hope I’m not disturbing you. I have a few questions I thought you might be able to answer for me.” Charles pegged his accent as German, which wasn’t entirely unusual. Plenty of good archaeologists were German, and it was 1962 and completely beneath Charles to feel wary just because of someone’s accent.

Charles’ fingers tightened around the book in his grasp. “Certainly, if I’m able to, Mister...”

“Eisenhardt. Erik Eisenhardt,” he said, and Charles was startled to realize that although he could feel it was a partial lie, the edges of it were butter-soft, as though this man were such an accomplished, confident liar that even his mind would conceal the truth, rather than trumpet it.

“Pleased to meet you,” Charles said, and decided to take the risk of offering his hand.

Eisenhardt’s grasp was warm and firm, but the sensation was nearly lost in the flood of thought and feeling that surged into Charles, all of it strangely fluid and metallic, like mercury rolling through his mind, and it sang mission and danger, and loudest of all, Mossad.

Charles let go abruptly, and waved Eisenhardt into the chair across from his desk. “I believe you dropped in on my lecture the other day,” he said, aiming a sunny smile at Eisenhardt even as he sat down, putting the book aside.

Eisenhardt’s eyes flickered away briefly, but he said, “Forgive me, I should have asked permission first.”

“Oh no, not at all. I’m just unused to having visitors. Do you have an interest in archaeology, Mr. Eisenhardt?”

He smiled then, sharp and showing too many teeth. “An abiding one.”

Charles shifted uncomfortably in his chair, and wondered if he’d been watched, and for how long, and why. “What can I help you with?”

“Your reputation as an archaeologist of the Levant precedes you,” Eisenhardt said.

“You’re too kind,” Charles said. “But I have many senior colleagues in the field -- I can’t imagine why you’ve come to me.”

“So modest,” Eisenhardt said, both tone and thought as warm and shudder-inducing as if he’d dragged his tongue down Charles’ nape. “But you’ve a very specific research focus that I’m interested in.”

“What might that be?” Charles said politely.

“The Tesseract.”

Charles’ already strained smile froze on his face. “Merely a fancy. It doesn’t exist.”

“You’ve expended a lot of energy on something that doesn’t exist. That last person who amassed so much research on the subject was Sebastian Shaw.”

Charles furrowed his eyebrows in genuine confusion. “I’m not familiar with the name, I’m afraid.”

“Perhaps you know him better as Klaus Schmidt,” Eisenhardt said, and that concentration of his was a painful jangle now.

“Mr. Eisenhardt,” Charles said, far more calmly than he felt. “I’m terribly sorry, but I have an appointment.” He stood, and Eisenhardt swiftly matched him, and then stepped around his desk.

There was no use in denying that he was genuinely afraid when Eisenhardt leaned closer still. “I know you stole some of Schmidt’s research notes and smuggled them out of Germany.”

Charles swallowed. “Is that what this is about? You want them back? You can have them, they’re useless Nazi rubbish, the ravings of a madman--”

“Schmidt is close to finding the Tesseract.”

“That’s impossible,” Charles said reflexively.

“I assure you, it’s true. And you, Dr. Xavier, are going to help me find it before he does.”

Charles fought the urge to accuse the man of being insane because even if he were certain the Tesseract was a myth and not a real object, it was clear that Eisenhardt felt differently. “And if I refuse?”

“There’s no need to make this ugly. We both want the same thing. And you’ve been working with very little information -- I’m confident you can use this to lead me to the location.” Eisenhardt’s fingers closed firmly over Charles’ wrist, pulling his hand forward to place a worn, leather-bound journal in it.

Charles didn’t exactly like taking his attention away from Eisenhardt, but he did open the journal, flipping through it briefly, eyes widening as he went. “This is -- where did you get this? I’ve never seen anything like this -- where did these sketches of inscriptions come from--”

Eisenhardt grabbed his wrist again and carefully plucked the book out of his grasp. “You’re going to come with me and see for yourself.”

“You can’t seriously expect me to -- to leave with you for god knows where, I have classes to teach, I--”

“Dr. Xavier,” Eisenhardt said, voice soft. “I’d prefer you willing. Don’t make me threaten you.”

Charles wet his lips. “And what would you call what you’re doing right now?”

Eisenhardt’s eyes narrowed. “Persuasion.”

It was fortunate that Eisenhardt’s fingers were not actually touching his skin, but even so, the ferocity of his determination was battering Charles from all directions, and he knew that this man was not to be crossed. But even though a healthy sense of fear made his heart race, Charles couldn't help but steal another glance at the journal in Eisenhardt's hand, and it was reckless and stupid but he couldn't let that journal slip away from him. “Consider me persuaded,” Charles said.

***

For all that Charles had promised Eisenhardt his cooperation, it didn’t seem that Eisenhardt was willing to take any chances. Charles had pleaded for the chance to return to his home in Westchester, and Eisenhardt agreed, but made it perfectly clear that Charles would not be permitted to go alone.

“Must you? It’s terribly distracting,” Charles said, looking up from the journal with irritation. He was slouched in his favorite armchair in his personal study, and Eisenhardt was perched on the settee directly across.

“Must I what?”

In truth, Charles objected to the man’s focus -- he didn’t know what Eisenhardt was thinking, but it felt like the ticking of a clock, neat and orderly and inevitable and it was making him jittery. “Stare at me like that,” Charles said finally.

“Find me a lead quicker, then,” Eisenhardt advised.

Charles repressed a frown and carefully turned another page. “You said Schmidt is close. Why not just follow him to it?”

No.”

Charles did frown then, because it seemed like a much better plan than combing through this hodgepodge of information. It was clearly all copied from original sources with no organization, no sense to it, no understanding what they meant. “I must say, whoever wrote this didn’t know a damn thing about archaeology,” Charles groused.

“What do you mean?” Eisenhardt said sharply.

Charles shook his head. “He obviously thought that these two inscriptions here were separate, but they’re not. They’re continuous, and--” He flipped a page. “And I’m certain I’ve seen this map before, but this sketch can’t be its entirety. Where’s the original?” He turned the book to face Eisenhardt, who leaned forward to look.

“Paris,” he said after a moment’s thought.

“Then,” Charles said, “that’s where we’ll start.”

***

The first available flight to France wasn’t until the morning, something which made Eisenhardt’s jaw clench upon verification.

Charles was feeling a little more philosophical about it. “Better to start our search with a good night’s sleep, don’t you think? I confess, I’ve never slept well on airplanes.”

Eisenhardt gave a sharp exhale of resignation. “Fine. Pack a suitcase, we’ll get some sleep, and we leave first thing in the morning.”

Charles felt a lot less philosophical when Eisenhardt grimly watched him prepare for bed. When he slid into the sheets and said pointedly, “You’re welcome to the guest room next door,” Eisenhardt ignored him entirely and locked the bedroom door before disappearing into the en suite bathroom. He emerged in somber navy pajamas and slid into bed next to Charles as if it were his right.

“What are you doing?” Charles said, aware that he sounded slightly strangled.

Eisenhardt looked unimpressed. “It’s this or I handcuff you to the bed. I’m not letting you out of my sight.”

“And if I prefer the handcuffs?” Charles asked.

Eisenhardt gave him a long, steady look that nearly made Charles squirm. “Go to sleep, Dr. Xavier. We have an early flight.”

***

Eisenhardt produced a British passport for the ticket agent, which probably shouldn’t have startled Charles as much as it did -- clearly, any Mossad operative worth his salt wasn’t going to go around gently kidnapping archaeology professors with his real name on an Israeli passport. But when it came time to pay for their tickets, Charles mustered the determination to close his hand over Eisenhardt’s as he was opening his wallet.

“Erik, darling, really,” Charles murmured, trying to breathe evenly despite the mad rush of urgent determination and careful plans that flooded his brain. As he’d suspected, Mossad agent though Eisenhardt -- Erik, really, at least that part was true -- was, this was no official mission and as a result, Erik had no state-sponsored funding. Charles took out his checkbook and gave the ticket agent his warmest smile. “On second thought, are there any first-class seats available?”

“Wasteful,” was Erik’s opinion when they took their seats on the plane.

“And here I thought you’d appreciate the relative privacy,” Charles said, accepting a glass of scotch from the stewardess. He’d gone to no small amount of trouble to get them seated together, and that was after the hassle of purchasing tickets at the very last minute.

Erik took his own tumbler, and then said, “You didn’t have to.”

Charles took a thoughtful sip. “Don’t be absurd, Erik, I absolutely did. I’m much too delicate to fly coach.”

It startled an amused grunt out of Erik, who then said with heavy disapproval, “You’re being terribly familiar, Dr. Xavier.”

“Are you suggesting that I let a perfect stranger whisk me out of the country?” Charles said sweetly. “And anyway, I refuse to call you ‘Eisenhardt’ as though we were down at Oxford together. Particularly since that isn’t your name, is it, Mr. Lehnsherr?”

It was a foolish risk, an attempt to tilt the scales in his own direction, and he regretted it when Erik seized his elbow in a painful grasp and pulled Charles close enough to whisper in his ear, “If you are one of Schmidt’s spies, you will not leave this plane alive. Tell me where you heard that name.”

He groped for an explanation, anything that sounded more plausible than I hear your thoughts when your skin touches mine even though of course that was true, that even the nudge of Erik’s nose against his ear was enough for a sharp spike of sickening anger and how does he know how does he know couldn’t be wrong supposed to be safe.

“Please,” Charles croaked, trying to shift away, only for Erik to give him a sharp shake and drag him closer. He regretted the privacy of their seats now, with no one who had a clear view of them, and the stewardess occupied elsewhere.

“Tell me,” Erik hissed.

“Schmidt’s notes,” Charles said suddenly, pulling together the pieces. “He thought there was a family line that safeguarded the Tesseract. He was convinced they could tell him where it was, he tried to make them--”

Erik’s grip went slack.

“You could only be Erik Lehnsherr, whose parents sent him away to safety,” Charles said gently, turning to look him in the eye.

Erik looked actually shaken, and he gave a rattled exhale before composing himself and saying, voice low, “Forgive me.”

Charles felt shaken as well, wrung out by the sheer strength of Erik's fear. "I surprised you," he offered, draining the rest of his glass. "But if you feel compelled to recompense me for what I am sure will be extensive and colorful bruising, there something I'd like you to do."

Erik looked wary but considering. "What's that?"

"Call me Charles."

Erik stared at him for one long moment, and then shook his head in disbelief. "A sane man would have asked to be returned home."

"Don't be ridiculous, we've barely begun," Charles said, more confident and blasé than he felt.

Erik was still looking at him closely, and that wall of concentration that Erik had radiated when they'd first met was back. "In that case, Charles, would you like another drink?"

Charles endeavored to accept without seeming too desperate for it.

***

When Charles was six years old, he’d taken a long trip by train with his parents, and amused himself by telling his father all about their fellow passengers. It seemed like a fun game until Charles turned his attention to a friendly-looking man and his reedy son, knowing instantly, in vivid, stomach-turning detail, that the man beat his son when he drank. He drank often.

“Dear, you know his imagination runs wild,” Charles’ mother said disapprovingly after Charles went silent. “You shouldn’t encourage him when he starts talking nonsense.”

It wasn’t nonsense, Charles knew that even then -- and he knew, too, that no one could hear thoughts the same way he could. He heard them with excruciating clarity, at least until he turned thirteen, and as his voice dropped, so did his ability to hear other people’s thoughts -- and in its place, it left a suffocating, involuntary empathy.

By comparison, the flight with Erik to Paris was a different experience entirely. Anxiety from their fellow passengers gnawed away at Charles, and though he attempted to cover it as best he could, the length of the flight meant that he could only set his jaw and try to endure it, using Erik’s journal to distract himself.

He continued in that vein until Erik sighed and opened his briefcase. “You might have mentioned you were a nervous flyer,” he said, and pressed a small white pill into Charles’ hand.

“I’m not--”

Erik raised an eyebrow, and there was a little flutter of feeling, and Charles realized that far from being patronizing or disparaging, this was Erik trying to be kind.

“Please don’t take this the wrong way,” Charles said carefully, “but as you pointed out, we’ve only just met.”

“Suit yourself, Charles.”

Charles thought about it for several minutes, the pill still cupped in his hand. It might not work -- after all, it wasn’t his anxiety that was the problem, but maybe his body felt it as though it were? On the other hand, he had another five hours. Five hours of mild worry and throat-clenching panic and all the steps in between.

“If I drool in my sleep, I apologize in advance,” Charles said, and chased the pill with a last mouthful of scotch.

***

Erik nudged him awake a few moments before the plane landed. To his later horror, he snuffled a denial into Erik’s shoulder at first, before slowly blinking awake.

“Oh,” Charles said, once he’d sat up. “Oh dear. I actually -- I’m so sorry, I was honestly joking about the drooling,” he said, wincing at the damp patch on the shoulder seam of Erik’s jacket.

Erik neither looked nor felt overly concerned about it. “How’s your French, Dr. Xavier?”

Charles scowled at him before saying, “I can read it, but I’m rubbish at speaking.”

“Good to know,” Erik said, emotions still calm and click-clacking away, doubtless having filed Charles’ French-related capabilities appropriately in his brain before moving on. Charles wondered, sometimes, what he would see if he could still see people’s thoughts the way he used to, without the wild lack of control that now afflicted him whenever he touched people’s skin. Erik, he imagined, would have the kind of brain that Charles could rifle through like an index -- impeccably neat and ordered.

Erik procured a taxi and bundled Charles into it, cases stored neatly in the boot by the driver. He rattled off an address in French, and off they went into the fading afternoon winter light. Charles still felt groggy and pliant, which should have been worrisome but wasn’t -- which Charles supposed was the point, anyway.

The taxi pulled up at a modest building in a quiet neighborhood, and Erik led him up narrow stairs and pulled a key out of a hanging plant in a hallway.

“You keep a flat in Paris?” Charles said, curious. The place was plain but neat, and just a little musty.

It was at the time that Erik pulled a stash of bank notes out of the broiler in the kitchen that Charles realized it wasn’t so much a flat as a Mossad safe house. Erik moved with calm efficiency, storing their suitcases in the bedroom, and emerged looking completely ready to hit the ground running.

Charles felt decidedly less so, and it must have showed, because Erik looked at him and his eyes narrowed. “You didn’t eat on the plane. Dinner first? The bank is closed for the evening, in any case.”

“The bank?” Charles asked, confused.

“The original of the map that you wanted to see is there,” Erik explained.

“But not everything, am I right?”

Erik was silent for a moment, and then shook his head. “I was young, and being pursued. It seemed like a better idea to safekeep what I had in multiple locations.”

Charles frowned. “Is there an order to your storage? How did you decide what to keep where?”

Erik looked distinctly uncomfortable. “It was random.”

“You didn’t understand what you had,” Charles guessed, and the flat line of Erik’s mouth told him he was correct. “Your parents -- they gave you everything that had been handed down when they sent you away, didn’t they? But they didn’t have a chance to explain.”

Erik shook his head again. “They might not have known what they had, either. But they knew what it was for. They explained that much.”

Charles leaned against the doorway, and whether it was the aftereffects of the drug or just the rigors of travel, he suddenly felt very tired indeed. Whether Erik was just as deluded as Schmidt was not a thing he could ask, not when Erik had paid so dearly. “Dinner would be welcome,” Charles said, and he wasn’t imagining the soft swell of gratitude from Erik at turning the conversation back to emotional safety.

***

“Other side, please,” Erik said when he came to bed.

Charles blinked at him owlishly. “What?”

Erik actually lifted up the corner of the blankets that was covering Charles, which made Charles instinctively clutch them closer. “Move over.”

“This side is closer to the radiator, and I’m cold,” Charles grumbled, well aware that he sounded petulant but it was true, he was cold.

“You’ll be warm enough when I get in. I’m not asking you again,” Erik said, and then put a gun down on the nightstand next to Charles’ cup of water.

Good lord,” Charles said, and scooted over obediently, eyes still fixed on the gun. “Is that -- is that loaded?”

Erik gave him a look.

“Right,” Charles said faintly. Then he took a good look at the layout of the room. “Wait, why am I closer to the window? Wouldn’t it be better for you to be on this side, instead?”

Erik settled down in bed, pulling the blankets up over his shoulders. “From here, I could shoot anyone who came in the door. There’s no clear line of sight to that window from outside, and the Juliet balcony would slow down any simultaneous intruders.”

“I think I ought to be disturbed that you’ve thought this all through, but it’s actually on the comforting side,” Charles said after considering it. “You’re not really expecting anyone, are you?”

“Go to sleep,” Erik said, clicking off the lamp.

Charles wasn’t entirely certain that he could -- at his home in Westchester, his nearest neighbor was a mile down the road, and none of the staff he engaged to take care of the mansion stayed overnight, which meant that Charles’ sleep wasn’t intruded on by untidy emotions. He wasn’t sure how he had managed to sleep with Erik next to him in bed before, but he wasn’t feeling extremely optimistic about a repeat performance -- not to mention, there were others in this building, some awake and some dreaming.

But Charles did warm up as promised from their combined body heat, and Erik’s mind was calm, as well -- in fact, it seemed as if Erik’s mind had gone quiet, not unlike a person meditating. It was more soothing than he would have thought, and it had been a very long day -- had they only left New York that morning? He fell asleep only minutes after he put his head down on the pillow on the other side of the bed.

***

Erik dragged him out of bed at a thoroughly uncivilized hour and, after a quick breakfast of pastry and coffee, led him toward the Sorbonne, which Charles remembered rather fondly from several trips in adolescence with his mother during which she had ignored him thoroughly and he had tramped around the university. They had both been all the happier for it.

"Oh, convenient," Charles said with pleasant surprise as Erik led them to the Banque Nationale.

“How so?” Erik said, his attention clearly on the task ahead of him.

"We've an old family account there, and we'll need more money than what you pulled out of the oven, yes?"

"Don't concern yourself. I can get more," Erik said shortly.

Charles sighed. "I won't insult you by telling you how well off I am -- I'm sure you did your research. I swear to you, I'm offering it freely. No strings."

Erik looked at him hard. "Why would you?" His suspicion and disbelief clamored in Charles' head.

Charles pondered various responses -- I prefer to be kidnapped in style; Mossad isn’t going to foot the bill for your deluded crusade; you shouldn’t have to sell the last mementos of your parents for this. "Won't you consider me motivated by my own selfishness?" Charles asked. “I don’t mean to impugn your choice in lodging, but that bed did have an awful dip in the middle.”

Erik snorted. “You do know, don’t you, that we’re meant to be traveling relatively incognito? We’re not checking into the Ritz.”

“If you insist,” Charles said airily, and felt Erik’s paranoia subside.

Inside the bank, out came the Israeli passport, and Erik identified himself as one Erik Lehnsherr, holder of a safety deposit box. Erik removed the contents with less delicacy than Charles would have preferred, given the condition of some of the vellum, and stored the lot in the briefcase he had brought along.

Before they left the bank, Charles elected to give Erik more evidence of being spoiled silly by withdrawing a sum of money from the Xavier family account that was, even by his standards, a little on the excessive side.

“You’re going to get mugged in an alley,” Erik said gruffly, looking heavenward.

“Oh, well, in that case,” Charles said, and neatly divided the stack of bills and shoved half of it in Erik’s hand.

“That really doesn’t make it better,” Erik said, but he tucked some of the bills in his wallet, a few more into the inner pocket of his jacket, and the remainder into the briefcase.

“Preparing for all eventualities?” Charles asked.

“One of us has to,” Erik said.

***

Despite their far-improved financial circumstances, Erik wouldn’t hear of them budging from the safe house.

“What makes you think you’re going to sleep, anyway?” Erik said heartlessly. “Less complaining, more research.”

Charles scowled at him and went to scrub his hands thoroughly before sitting down at a small but sturdy desk with the contents of the safety deposit box. On first glance, the majority of the texts appeared to be in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, but he wouldn’t feel comfortable dating the material to the fourth or fifth century until he’d read it.

He settled in to read what looked like an account of how the Tesseract was found, and even though Erik had brought him here under duress, he couldn’t deny that this was exciting. The whispers of the Tesseract in the archaeological record, depictions of a glowing casket and rumblings of terrible, terrible power were all that Charles had found by himself, and the research notes of Schmidt that he’d managed to smuggle away had provided a few more clues, but it was nothing like this.

“The heavens opened up and the storm touched the earth,” Charles murmured to himself, translating out loud.

“What’s that?” Erik said, nearly making Charles jump out of his chair with how close he was.

“Did you never have anyone translate this before?” Charles said, loosening his collar.

Erik peered over Charles’ shoulder at the vellum. “Asking around seemed more risky than leaving it safely hidden.”

Charles continued to read the Aramaic. “This is strange -- the storm touches the earth, and leaves a pattern--” he paused for a moment, carefully shuffling through the vellum to find an inked reproduction, all geometric shapes. “It leaves this marking -- carved into the ground, apparently.”

“What does it mean?”

Charles bit his lip. “I haven’t the faintest idea. I’ve never seen anything like that before. The person who wrote this account was just as mystified by it, I’m afraid. And it’s not just the marking that the storm leaves. There’s a person, too.”

Erik’s in-drawn breath sounded very loud in his ear. “A person?”

Charles frowned at the text. “Not a person. Not -- not a human. The author thinks it may be an angel of the Lord. His armor is bright but stained red -- not just red, it’s blood -- and he has something wrapped in cloth, cradled in his arms.”

“An angel?” Erik said skeptically, but Charles could feel the twining threads of doubt and awe that wrapped around him.

“The -- well, the being -- is wounded, grievously so. They approach him and try to talk to him, but his speech is strange at first, and then he -- hmm.”

“What?” Erik’s hand was warm where it rested on Charles’ shoulder.

“He unwraps the cloth and the object -- it glows like the moon. He entrusts it to them, tells them to keep it safe, keep it hidden. And -- well, this is quite emphatic. They are never to touch it with their bare hands.”

“Sacrilege?” Erik guessed.

“Mm, no, I don’t think so,” Charles said. “I’m not entirely certain, but it seems they’re worried that it’s actually dangerous for them to do so.” He looked at the page with the ground marking again. “I’ve found a few depictions of the Tesseract before. It’s always in a casket, with beams of light escaping, but I thought that was because it was a sacred object, not because it was considered dangerous to touch.”

Erik’s thumb rubbed absently against Charles’ shoulder, and the thin chain that he wore under his shirt with its St. Christopher medallion must have caught on a thread, because he could feel the tiny links move against his skin in time with the strokes of Erik’s thumb. “Schmidt thinks it’s a source of power.”

“It may well be,” Charles said softly, but he didn’t think that he and Erik were talking about the same kind of power. Charles could well believe that the Tesseract conveyed prestige and maybe political authority, but Schmidt’s ravings about unlimited energy could only be that -- ravings. Charles picked up where he left off in the foundation text. “But the angel or whatever he is, he touches the Tesseract with his bare hands and he--” Charles trailed off, reading the last part with growing alarm. “He glows like the moon, he becomes the light, and then he’s gone. My god, he gives the Tesseract to them and then he kills himself.”

They were both silent for a moment, Erik’s hand gripping Charles’s shoulder, the chain biting into his skin.

“Tea,” Charles said finally, resolutely. “I’m going to need a lot of tea. Be a dear, Erik, and put the kettle on, would you?”

Erik seemed loathe to move away, but after a short hesitation, he straightened and Charles heard his footsteps move toward the kitchen.

***

“My head is going to fall off,” Charles said seriously, hours and hours later. And he really only had himself to blame -- although Erik had given him the initial push, Charles’ ability to lose himself in research was well established. He was probably better off than usual, since Erik insisted he break for actual food, and not just subsist on cup after cup of tea.

“Stop there for the night,” Erik advised from behind him, a small clank of metal suggesting he was still occupied with cleaning his gun.

“This is only the most exciting trove of archival material I’ve seen in my career, and you want me to stop?” he said, aiming for the sort of cheek that seemed to privately amuse Erik while he rubbed his temples in slow circles. He could feel his head throb in time to the back-and-forth flow of bitter hurt emanating from a couple upstairs, who would probably be better served by having an actual argument and clearing the air instead of stewing about it.

“You’ll do me no good if you collapse,” Erik said dryly, but there was something serious in the pulse of feeling that wrapped around Charles, something that felt almost protective, and Charles thought he understood -- Erik must be used to cultivating and making the most of his resources.

“Well, we can’t have that,” Charles said. He stretched in his seat before knuckling his eyes. “I think I might feel better after a bath,” he concluded, swallowing a last mouthful of cold tea before going to fish his pajamas out of his suitcase. Erik had insisted on repacking their luggage before they went out to the bank that morning, and when Charles had asked if Erik had thought they would leave so soon, he had merely replied that he preferred being prepared.

Charles sat on the edge of the clawfoot tub, fussing with the taps and trying to get a temperature somewhere between scalding and lukewarm. It was almost full when he heard Erik’s footsteps, and looked up to see him leaning in the doorway. “Oh, sorry,” Charles said, realizing suddenly that perhaps he’d been inconsiderate. “Did you need to use the facilities first?”

Erik shook his head, but didn’t move from his spot.

“Then would you mind closing the door?” Charles said, and pointedly started to unbutton his shirt.

“I would, actually,” Erik said. “If you think I’m going to leave you alone in a room for longer than five minutes, you’re sadly mistaken.”

“Oh, really,” Charles huffed. “In the first place, I’m not going to escape -- we’re three stories up and I’d break something important. And in the second place, I thought you weren’t expecting any trouble.”

“You’re going to overflow the tub,” Erik said calmly.

“Bugger,” Charles said under his breath, and switched off the taps. He went to undo his shirt buttons again, and then said, “You could at least have the decency to turn around.”

Erik raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t take you for a prude.”

Charles felt his ears go red. “It has nothing to do with -- I’m not -- at least let me get in the water first.”

Erik’s lips twitched, and he was clearly humoring Charles as he turned to face away from the tub. Charles lost no time in divesting himself of the rest of his clothing, lowering himself into the bathsalt-clouded water with an initial hiss of discomfort at the temperature which melted into a soft noise of satisfaction as he relaxed into the warm water.

He ducked his head under once and then slouched down in the tub, letting the warm water work at the stiff muscles in his neck.

“I take it I can stop averting my eyes now?” Erik said, voice softly mocking.

“I really wish you would just shut the door. With yourself on the outside,” Charles muttered. He slid a little further into the bathwater, which wasn’t precisely opaque but preserved his modesty well enough.

Erik had turned to face him again, but to his credit, he seemed to be doing his best to spare Charles’ sensibilities, no matter how ridiculous he appeared to find them. His eyes were fixed on the window over the bathtub, and he was radiating that serious concentration that Charles had felt from him before. But far from discomfiting him, it seemed to ease some of the strain -- it was steady, comfortingly so, and if Charles focused on it, he could almost pretend that he couldn’t feel anyone else nearby.

Charles felt his headache gradually dissipate, and with his eyes closed, he felt relaxed enough to murmur, “Can I ask you something?”

“Yes,” Erik said, after a pause.

“How did you find me?”

Another pause, a short burst of curiosity-suspicion-interest, and then Erik said, “You can’t have thought that no one would notice half of Schmidt’s papers were gone.”

“And here I was hoping someone would just believe they were misplaced.”

Erik huffed out something that might have been a laugh. “Why did you take them in the first place?”

Charles bit his lip. He’d only gotten into that file room in Bonn because the archivist had taken a fancy to him, and after a bit of mutual masturbation in between file cabinets containing classified wartime documents, Charles knew that this was his only chance to see Schmidt’s research, that someone else was sniffing around and it would disappear forever the moment he left.

But since he couldn’t tell Erik that he’d read the archivist’s mind while exchanging a furtive wank, he said, “I didn’t want anybody else to see the notes until I’d had the chance to publish.”

“How ruthless of you,” Erik said, tone dry but a warm tug of appreciation sending a shiver down Charles’ spine.

“It’s publish or perish in academia, after all,” Charles said faintly. The temperature of the water was starting to drop, so he applied himself to scrubbing his hair and the rest of himself clean. When he pulled the plug and shifted his weight to lever himself out of the tub, Erik considerately turned his back again. Still, he hurriedly dried himself off with the towel he’d left to warm on the radiator, before wrapping the towel around his waist.

Erik looked over his shoulder again at that moment. “Thank you, by the way.”

“What for?”

Erik smiled wide, all schadenfreude and smug satisfaction. “According to my contact, Schmidt was incandescent with fury that a pretty little professor had beaten him to recovering his work.”

Charles froze. Had he been within arm’s reach of Schmidt and not even known it? “Who are you calling ‘pretty’?” he groused, trying to paper over the sudden jolt of retroactive fear.

Erik’s smile turned sly. “My contact’s words, not mine. He said you were quite accommodating in the pursuit of research.”

Charles saw his cheeks go pink in the bathroom mirror. Of course Erik’s contact was the archivist -- why couldn’t he ever see anything useful when he touched people’s skin, that was what he wanted to know.

Erik gave another amused exhalation before tugging the door shut behind him.

***

They had just settled down in bed -- Erik acknowledging the dip in the middle with a wry twist to his lips -- when someone knocked on the front door.

Charles looked at Erik and then at the gun on the nightstand. Erik pressed one hand to Charles’s chest in a firm but unspoken stay here and slipped out of bed, nearly soundless as he picked his way through the flat.

“Pardon me for disturbing you so late,” Charles heard their visitor murmur in French after Erik opened the door.

“What do you want?” Erik replied in the same tongue, sounding impatient.

“I must compliment your good taste, Monsieur Eisenhardt -- you could have gone anywhere in the world, but you choose to holiday in Paris. How are you finding it?”

“I prefer Paris without company,” Erik said tersely.

“And yet you bring your young man with you. So cruel to keep him indoors, away from the delights of the city. Will you be here long?”

“Not long, I’m afraid,” Erik said, not sounding particularly sorry about it.

“What a shame,” their visitor said, and the undercurrent of emotion that flooded Charles was vile, the kind that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up while he clutched at the covers. “Enjoy the rest of your holiday. Good night, Monsieur Eisenhardt.”

There was the sound of the door closing again, and the snick of the lock, before Erik came back to the bedroom.

“Who was that?” Charles asked in as normal a voice as he could manage.

“A colleague,” Erik said, climbing back into bed. He was quiet for a moment, and then said, “What’s the matter?”

Charles realized that Erik was looking at his hands, still white-knuckled where they were fisted in the covers, and briefly panicked, because there was something intensely wrong with their visitor, and if Erik didn’t know, Charles ought to tell him. But on the other hand, Erik probably knew very well -- if Erik called him a colleague, it likely meant he was a French intelligence agent. Charles forced himself to relax, and said, “Just a bad feeling, that’s all.”

“You don’t have to worry,” Erik said, just a little awkward in his attempt at reassurance. “He won’t be any trouble. But we should leave in the morning.”

“And go where?”

“London,” Erik said, and turned off the light.

***

Charles woke in the night, face wet with tears and throat tight with grief not his own, and it was so rattling that he was out of bed and stumbling toward the bathroom in the dark, not even bothering with the light as he slumped to his knees on the chilly tiles.

He thought he might throw up -- it had been a few years since he’d suffered one of these, and whether he had been caught in someone’s dream or been unwitting party to someone’s waking, consuming despair in the small hours of the morning, it made no difference. He shook as he tried to calm his mind and get his breathing under control.

“Charles?” Erik said from the door, voice quiet and rough from sleep.

“I’m fine,” Charles said, but ruined the surprising steadiness of his response with a wet-sounding sob.

He heard a sigh, and then Erik crouched down beside him. The warmth of his hand on Charles’ back was unexpectedly grounding -- he rubbed his thumb slowly against the fabric of Charles’ pajamas, tracing a line up and down Charles’ spine.

“Nightmare?” Erik said finally, unexpectedly gentle.

“Yes,” Charles said, because it was the easiest answer and probably true.

He honestly hadn’t expected such low-key comfort from Erik -- simple, without judgment for the lapse in Charles’ control. It was this kind of behavior, of course, that had led to doctors shaking their heads in Charles’ childhood, declaring him a boy with a delicate, nervous constitution, better kept at home and tutored privately that subjected to boarding school. Of course, back then, he’d still been able to read individual thoughts, and maybe it had been worse -- he’d seen too much, known too much, and these grief nightmares had been coupled with the heart-wrenching conviction that his father/wife/child/friend were gone and would never return, that he had buried his love in the ground and spring would not come.

“You’re awake now,” Erik said, and he probably thought that was soothing, but it wasn’t, this wasn’t something that was over when Charles opened his eyes. “I’m going to turn on the light.”

Charles opened his mouth to protest, nothing more complicated than a simple denial on his tongue, but anything he would have said faded as Erik cupped his hand over Charles’ eyes, shielding him from the sudden flood of light but not shielding him from Erik’s thoughts.

What did you expect, dreamy-anxious-sensitive-academic, not used to this, of course Laurent’s warning upset him--

“I’m fine,” Charles said again, leaning away from Erik’s hand and blinking at the light.

Erik looked him in the eye, and he must have been convinced by whatever he saw, because he said, “Wash your face and come back to bed. If you’re not there in ten minutes, I’m coming back for you and I won’t be as understanding.”

Charles heard that for the lie it was, bound up with sympathy and protectiveness. And so he murmured, “Thank you,” and saw Erik’s eyes widen in surprise in the bathroom mirror’s reflection, before leaving Charles alone to compose himself.

***

The train to Calais passed in a haze of translation. Although Charles had felt duty-bound to suggest that they fly to London, he didn’t exactly fight when Erik shot the idea down and refused to explain why. It wasn’t, Charles knew, out of concern for his supposed nerves -- at least, not entirely. Whatever it was, Erik’s emotions were an organized tick-tick-tick, not that nearly narcotic haze of sympathy from the night before.

He carefully read through some text that appeared to document the location of the Tesseract, except that what he had started mid-sentence, and the end was so vague that Charles re-read it several times and still didn’t understand. It sounded like someone from the family line was needed to find the location, but how they were to do so was bound up in a strange reference to lineage and strength.

“Eat this,” Erik said at one point, thrusting a wrapped sandwich in Charles’ direction.

“I’d have to stop reading, don’t want to get mustard on your heritage,” Charles said, nose still buried in the documents.

“Then stop reading,” Erik said. “How did you survive into adulthood?”

Charles did not dignify that with a response, but he did carefully put his research away before tucking in.

At Calais, they boarded the older-looking, steel behemoth of a ferry to cross the Channel, which Erik seemed strangely cheerful about, not that his face betrayed it. “Do you like sailing?” Charles asked eventually, grateful that the water was reasonably calm and he didn’t have to worry very much about enduring the misery of other people’s seasickness.

“Not particularly,” Erik said in reply, still emanating good humor and a sort of peacefulness that Charles hadn’t felt from him before. If Erik was at all disturbed by Charles keeping close, trying to soak his mood in and block out the rest of the passengers, Charles couldn’t tell.

The train to London Victoria from Dover was considerably less pleasant, as Charles tried to match the text with a map that had no legend. It didn’t go well. “I want to go back to the fourth century and strangle someone,” he muttered at one point, which startled a bark of laughter out of Erik, who had otherwise been content to watch the English countryside speed by.

***

He expected to squabble with Erik about their lodging in London, and furthermore, entirely expected Erik to steamroll him into another Mossad safe house. But Erik did nothing of the sort, and acquiesced to a plain, serviceable hotel with two beds to a room.

“We still have time to go retrieve the cache I have here,” Erik said. “But we’ll have to go now.”

Charles wanted somewhat desperately to wash up and maybe have a cup of tea, but he put his suitcase down next to one of the beds and said, “Lead on, then.”

Erik looked so at home in London that Charles wondered if he’d spent a good deal of time here on assignment. For his part, Charles mostly remembered a London that didn’t exist anymore -- a London pre-war. His father had relocated them from England to the States when Charles was six, either having taken advantage of a research opportunity, seen the war brewing, or both. Even had they remained in England, Charles was certain his parents would have sent him to the countryside, rather than risk the air raids. When he’d last returned, it had only been for Oxford, and he’d rarely stirred from the university except for archaeological digs.

Erik didn’t tell him where they were going, but instructed the cabbie to drop them off on Cheapside, not far from St. Paul’s. They walked at a leisurely stroll down the street, Erik having evidently decided they had enough time to get to wherever they were going without forcing Charles to keep up with his ground-eating stride.

“Dinner afterwards?” Erik suggested as they crossed an intersection.

Charles didn’t answer, because the cold shock of violent intent cut through the chatter of other pedestrians, and Charles knew he shouldn’t look, shouldn’t draw attention, so he caught Erik’s elbow and gave him a flirty smile, and pulled him down a side street called Ironmonger Lane.

“What are you up to?” Erik said, enough warmth in his voice that a stranger might miss it for the genuine question it was.

“There’s a man following us,” Charles said, pressing close.

“I know, I saw him,” Erik said. “He’s nothing to worry about.”

Charles clutched his hand tighter around Erik’s elbow. “Erik, he wants to murder you.”

“How do you know?” Erik said dismissively. “It’s a professional evaluation that you ought to leave to me -- I don’t presume to tell you about archaeology.”

“Please,” Charles begged. “I can’t explain, but I’m sure, Erik. You have to trust me.”

Erik halted at the corner of a tiny street, more of an alley, and bent down to whisper in Charles’ ear, “You want me to trust you over my own experience, my own instincts? I know that man -- he has no reason to kill me.”

Their would-be assassin had not followed them down Ironmonger, but he was still flooding Charles with bursts of adrenaline and urgency and the desire to kill in cold blood.

Charles gripped Erik’s shoulder in his other hand and squeezed tight, going up on his toes to say, “He does, he must -- Erik, for God’s sake! On your parents’ souls, you have to believe me.”

Erik took in a breath at that, and then Charles felt him nod once before pulling Charles down the alley. “Quickly, now,” Erik urged.

They reached the end of the alley, about to tumble out on to another small street when their pursuer rounded the corner, gun drawn, and fired.

Charles watched the bullet come to a dead halt in the air, and then the gun was yanked out of the man’s hands and snapped into Erik’s waiting grasp.

“Now, then,” Erik said. “I hate to break our cordial relations, but you did start it.” He aimed the gun, and the man looked at him balefully, lip curled.

“Erik,” Charles said, nearly pleading. “Erik, don’t.”

“I can’t let him tell his employer what he’s seen,” Erik said shortly. “What would you have me do?”

Charles worried at his lip with his teeth, thought fast, and decided that he’d rather wager he still had the ability to do what he planned, than have Erik take this man’s life. “Just knock him out for me first, if you please.”

The gun left Erik’s hand then, and smacked hard against the man’s head. He crumpled to the ground, and Charles sincerely hoped that no one else was about to wander by and see any of this. He knelt on the pavement next to the man’s unconscious body, and then reached to touch his temples.

“What are you--”

“Shhh,” Charles said, and there it was -- it had been a good bet, the man’s brain was quiet, and Charles could push through, wading molasses-slow to find what he was looking for. The memory of the past ten minutes, of Erik’s extraordinary ability -- telekinesis? -- was a discrete moment, a small thing compared to the whole. Charles nearly despaired, longing for the past when he’d been able to change a memory with almost no exertion, but here and now, he could only dig his heels in, cut roughly at the edges, and pull.

He felt like the inside of his head was coming apart, and he whimpered at the vicious, vicious stab of what felt like the worst migraine in his considerable history of them.

“Charles,” Erik was saying. “Charles, we have to go, now.”

Erik pulled him along, one arm going around Charles’ waist when he stumbled. At one point, Erik led them into a building where he poured Charles into a chair and said, “Just wait here, I’ll be right back” -- and he was as good as his word, coming back in under five minutes and then they were in a cab back to their hotel.

Charles felt less like he was going to actively die in the next five minutes, and sat down gingerly on his bed, squeezing his eyes shut as though it would help. He felt the mattress next to him give under Erik’s weight, and opened his eyes in surprise.

“So,” Erik said finally. “Are you going to tell me how you knew that Lancaster was planning to kill me?”

Either Lancaster wasn’t that man’s real name, or Charles hadn’t the control to even glean that while doing the most minor rearrangement of his memories. “Are you going to tell me how you stopped those bullets?” he asked.

Erik lifted a finger, and Charles felt the St. Christopher medallion lift gently out of his shirt into Erik’s grasp.

Charles stared at him in wonder. “How?” he asked, barely above a whisper.

“If it’s metal, and not too big, I can move it.” Erik traced the engraved image on the medallion with his thumb, and the chain seemed to slide back and forth against Charles’ neck. “I showed you mine. You show me yours.”

Charles winced and looked at his feet. “It’s not like that. I can’t -- I can’t decide to do it. It just happens. I know how people feel.”

Erik’s brow furrowed. “How they feel?”

“Yes,” Charles said tiredly, and he felt surprise from Erik, along with that mechanical, organizing concentration, but no condemnation, no fear. Charles decided to go for broke. “And when people’s skin touches mine, sometimes I know what they’re thinking, too.”

Another blare of surprise, and then Erik carefully tucked Charles’ necklace back under his shirt, and then, just as carefully, brushed Charles’ neck with the backs of his fingers -- Like this? You don’t touch people, but you let me touch you before -- no no inaccurate, not bare skin, you flinched when my skin touched yours--

“Nothing personal,” Charles said, and Erik nodded, letting his hand fall away.

“Then you must know what I am,” Erik said.

There was clearly no point in dissembling further. “You’re a Mossad agent. On leave, of some sort.”

Erik looked -- well, he looked impressed, and then chagrined. “Then you must also know that I’ve been using us as bait for Schmidt.”

“You what.”

Erik stared at him for a moment before pinching the bridge of his nose. “You didn’t know that,” he concluded, sounding irritated with himself.

Charles would be the first to admit that he was already feeling a little overwrought, and that last revelation put him more firmly on the hysterical side of things. “How could you? Are you -- are you insane? Why would you do that?”

“Listen to me,” Erik said, voice low and fierce. “That monster went so far under after the war that even with all of the resources of Mossad, I couldn’t find him. He tortured and murdered my parents and who knows how many others in the camps, and he was walking around free somewhere. The first time I got a break, the very first time, was after you snatched his research in Bonn out from underneath his nose. I thought at first that you and Schmidt were connected, but your dossier said you weren’t a Nazi sympathizer.”

“You have a dossier on me?” Charles said faintly.

“Charles, you went on digs in Israel,” Erik said. “Of course they compiled information on you before letting you play in the dirt. And the more I read about you, the more it seemed that you just thought the Tesseract was an interesting myth.”

Charles rubbed his forehead. He should have put off this conversation, or talked about something less emotionally fraught. In any case, the pain made everything but unvarnished honesty seem like too much effort. “Because it is,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry, Erik, but it’s not real.”

“Don’t tell me it’s not real. What did my parents give their lives for, then? Why send me with everything they had?”

And that -- all of Erik’s rage and grief, made more terrible by the thin chain of doubt -- was almost more than Charles could bear. “I’m sorry,” Charles said. “I don’t -- please, Erik, please.” He stroked Erik’s shoulder with a shaking hand. “Please, calm your mind. I need you to -- I need --”

There was contrition and a bit of guilt, followed by the return of that orderly concentration. And then Erik deliberately touched Charles’ face, watching for a flinch that didn’t come. I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have let them hurt you. I won’t hurt you --

Charles jerked away, feeling both relieved and bereft. “Stop,” he begged. “Please, please, not now, I made that man forget us, my head is going to split open.”

“You can do that?” Erik asked, and the simple admiration would have been something to luxuriate in if it weren’t so exquisitely painful.

“I don’t know if it took. I hope it at least buys us some time.” Charles rubbed his temples futilely.

“Lie down,” Erik said, pushing gently until Charles had curled up with his head on the pillow. “When you’re feeling better, I’ll -- I’ll take you to the airport. You don’t have to involve yourself further.”

“And what will you do with the rest of the Tesseract notes?” Charles said.

“I’ll find someone else to translate them,” Erik replied, but the mix of doubt and fear and something else, something like sorrow, seeped into Charles’ head and made it plain that Erik was far from sanguine about the prospect.

“Listen,” Charles said, eyes shut again to block out the light. “Let me look at what you picked up today -- that is, I assume you were picking up your London cache after the alley? Let me read that, and then you can take me to the place where you’ve hidden the rest, and I’ll read that too.”

“Why would you do that?” Erik said, with more despair than paranoia.

Charles reached out blindly and clasped Erik’s knee with his hand. “Because. Because I don’t know why your parents sent you away with what they did.”

There was a painful flare of hope from Erik, who wrapped his fingers gently around Charles’ wrist, being careful to touch his shirt cuff and not skin.

“I’ll try my best for you, Erik, but what if I can’t do this?” Charles said. “What if I can’t help you find what you’re looking for, in the end?”

Erik said nothing to that, his emotions contemplative.

Charles said quietly, “In real life, X never marks the spot.”

There was silence for a long beat. “Then at least you’ll have enough to publish your paper, won’t you?”

Charles drew in a breath of surprise at that response that was more of a sob, and Erik shushed him and offered to get him paracetamol and water.

“Won’t help,” Charles said dully.

“Should I -- should I leave?” Erik said, broadcasting mild panic and a little helplessness.

No.”

“Why not?”

Charles groped for the words to make Erik understand. “Because I know you, now. You’re familiar, and when I listen to you, I can almost ignore everything else. Just -- feel quietly, if you could.”

“All right,” Erik said, and the mattress shifted again underneath Charles as Erik sat up against the headboard. The size of the bed meant that Charles’ head was rather mashed up against Erik’s hip, hands resting in front of him against Erik’s thigh as he curled up on his side.

He felt Erik’s hand come to rest on his shoulder, fingers splayed and warm, as he drifted off to sleep.

***

It took some time -- minutes, hours, who could tell? -- for Charles to realize that he was sharing Erik’s dream.

It started with a memory, one that Charles could tell was real. Erik was in a hotel room in Bonn, having come to see for himself the evidence that Klaus Schmidt was alive and had been there, had come for his old research on the Tesseract.

Erik was carefully flipping through a file at the desk in the corner, a little smile on his lips. Charles peeked over his shoulder, and was startled to see a picture of himself -- it was a few years old, and he recognized the pub in Oxford where it was taken. His face in the picture was a bit more rounded, a little color in his cheeks -- oh, fantastic, of course he was comfortably drunk in his Mossad surveillance photos.

“Clever boy,” Erik said to himself. Charles thought he said it in German, but it was hard to keep straight what was actually happening and what Charles understood from having his metaphorical fingers in the pie. And then Erik looked over his shoulder and saw Charles, and his smile widened, admiring and disconcertingly hungry. “Clever, clever boy. I would have been irritated if I hadn’t made copies of all of Schmidt’s research and left the originals there as bait.”

Charles was stunned. “You can -- you know I’m here?”

Erik turned and laid a hand on Charles’ shoulder, squeezing it. “Of course you’re here.”

“There’s no ‘of course’ about it -- I haven’t shared a dream like this since I was twelve,” Charles said tartly.

Erik slid his hand to cup Charles’ nape. “Why not?”

“You must be touching my skin,” Charles said, a little uncertain. “That’s the only explanation. I don’t sleep with people, you see.”

“You do,” Erik said, gaze going heavy-lidded, and Charles received a flash of the archivist’s satisfied smile.

Charles squirmed. “I meant, I don’t actually share beds with people for just this reason. I can’t control it.”

Erik’s thumb traced a distracting trail just under Charles’ ear. “Did you used to have better control?”

“Yes,” Charles said, breathed it like the secret it was. “I used to be able to hear the thoughts of people forty miles away if I wished, when I wished.”

Erik frowned. “I think I used to be able to do more, too. I moved a train car once, carrying tons of steel. I could never do that much now.”

“Oh,” Charles said, and smiled tremulously. “You know, I honestly thought I was alone.”

“You’re not alone, Charles,” Erik said, and kissed him.

They both woke then, and Charles was momentarily disoriented by the fact that his lips were pressed to Erik’s neck, not to his mouth. He was actually lying half on top of Erik, one of Erik’s thighs riding between his own, Erik’s hand on the small of his back and his fingertips touching the skin below the waistband of his trousers. The room was dark and quiet except for their breathing, and Charles was contemplating an escape to the washroom when Erik rocked his thigh against Charles, and he gasped against Erik’s neck because he was aching for it. Even without the hard line of Erik’s cock against his hip, he would have known that Erik wanted it too, had wanted it since he’d seen Charles in the bath, hair curling and pale skin pinking up from the steam, and Erik had been seized by the desire to mark him, to set his mouth against that pale neck and the smattering of freckles on his shoulder --

Too much,” Charles gasped and lifted his head away while reaching back to move Erik’s hand.

Erik stroked his back cautiously, fingers safely on top of Charles’ cardigan. “No skin,” he said, not really a question, more of a confirmation.

“Not -- not never, just not right this second,” Charles said, dropping his forehead to rest on Erik’s shoulder.

“All right,” Erik said. Charles feared for a moment that he’d put Erik off completely before Erik whispered, lips close to his ear, “I don’t need to touch your skin to bring you close.”

Of course, of course he should have known that Erik would take it as a personal challenge. He peeled Charles’ cardigan off, leaving his shirt safely in place, and before Charles could catch a breath, Erik rubbed his nipples through the soft, thin cloth, gently at first and then pinching, running his fingernails over them as Charles writhed on Erik’s thigh.

“I wonder,” Erik said thoughtfully, and that was all the warning Charles got before Erik pushed him on to his back. “Tell me if you can hear my thoughts,” Erik said, and Charles almost asked what he was talking about before Erik put his head down and sucked one of Charles’ nipples, the cloth a thin barrier between.

“Oh God,” Charles whimpered, and Erik licked, the cloth growing damp, and when Charles squirmed beneath him, breath uneven, he bit gently and Charles nearly came off the bed.

“Forget about close,” Erik said, his satisfaction curling around Charles. “I think I can bring you all the way.”

Charles had no response for that, save to reach down and palm Erik’s cock through his trousers. Erik groaned and sucked through his shirt again, before moving further down, unbuckling Charles’ belt, stripping it off and letting it fall to the floor before unbuttoning his trousers and pushing them open enough to reveal his briefs. Erik nosed against his cock, breathing warm air and mouthing at the cotton where it was already damp. “You said it’s too much,” Erik said, his words vibrating against Charles’ skin. “Because you have no control. If I sucked you right now, you’d know exactly what I want. I could think about how much I want to fuck you, how it good it would be, and you’d come for me just like that, wouldn’t you?”

“Erik, yes,” Charles moaned.

He moved down to nuzzle Charles’ balls, sucking at them through his briefs. “All those other men, I bet you always did it fast, no one you’d ever seen again, in alleys and dark corners. No lingering, no letting someone work you open and give it to you slowly.”

Charles was so, so terribly close, he couldn’t think, he could only feel the purr of Erik’s words against his cock, feel Erik stroking him and mouthing at the head through damp cotton. He heard the clink of a belt buckle and thought Erik must be undoing his own trousers.

“I could do it,” Erik said, voice gravelly. “I’d find a way for you. Like to know how?”

Charles had no time to respond before Erik pulled his briefs down and swallowed his cock, and it was a perfect sequence of images, and oh, he should have realized Erik’s incredible ability to focus wasn’t limited to his missions, not when Erik could visualize working Charles open with a dildo, not touching his skin until Charles was whining high in his throat, Erik stroking one hand over himself until he pulled the dildo out and pushed his cock in --

Charles wailed and came down Erik’s throat, and felt the wave of Erik’s orgasm crash into him almost immediately afterward.

Erik let his head rest on Charles’ thigh, still covered by his trousers, while they caught their breath.

“Good lord,” Charles said after a few minutes.

If he had thought he knew before what Erik felt like when he was self-satisfied, it was nothing to prepare him for how smug Erik felt now.

Charles nudged Erik’s shoulder with his knee. “Oh, really, Erik.”

“What?” Erik said, seemingly innocence personified except for projection of lingering pleasure and pride and possessive affection.

“We should wash up,” Charles said, although he really would rather lie in bed some more. “Find dinner, make plans for our next move.”

“Your wish,” Erik said, pulling himself up to drop a brief kiss on Charles’ lips, “is my command.”

***

“Erik,” Charles said slowly, frowning at the text in front of him, “has your family always had your particular ability?”

Erik looked up at the ceiling, clearly mulling it over. “No one ever said anything about it, exactly. But my father -- he was an engineer, he worked on mining projects. It’s possible he could feel metal the way I can. His father was a silversmith. I recall his work was considered particularly fine.”

Charles tapped his finger thoughtfully against the desk. “It says here that the Tesseract was secreted away in a cave, and the way in is where -- let’s see -- the pull of copper is the strongest.”

Erik stared at him. “Which suggests that some form of that ability has been present since the fourth century.” The surprise was pouring off him in waves, but there was an element, too, of pride and pleasure, perhaps that he was able to carry on this ability from his forbears, that it lived on through him.

“Mmm, my thoughts exactly.”

“And you?” Erik asked, and Charles was charmed almost in spite of himself by how eager Erik appeared to know.

“Xaviers have a certain reputation for eccentricity, but I suspect that if mine were an ability that stretched back in time, we’d have a reputation for madness as well,” Charles said.

Erik frowned at that. “Do you believe, then, that environment can induce ability, or must it be bred?”

“For that, my friend, I think you’ll want a scientist, someone who looks to the future for answers and not the past,” Charles said. “I confess to having paid close attention to those persons in the archaeological record who seemed to hear voices, and wondered if they heard their fellow man, and not gods.”

“And?” Erik asked, curious.

“Inconclusive,” Charles said. “Though I am deeply grateful to have been born in an era where I am unlikely to be burned for witchcraft.”

He regretted almost immediately saying that in such a flippant tone -- he wished, rather, that he hadn’t said it at all. Because there was only one place Erik’s train of thought was going to go, to what had befallen those deemed different in this day and age, and Erik’s anguish squeezed tight around Charles, constricting his throat and making his eyes prick with tears.

“Switzerland,” Erik said after a few moments. “Can you endure the flight to Switzerland tomorrow, or should we--”

Charles took a deep, steadying breath. “It’s what, under two hours? I can grit my teeth, I think. If not -- well, best to keep a little pharmaceutical intervention handy.”

He felt some uncertain, delicate emotion bloom faintly from Erik, who said, “Or you could -- you said it helped if you concentrated on me. I could keep contact with you on the plane. I’d think as quietly as possible.”

Charles felt his breath catch. “It’s a kind offer, Erik, but I--”

“I want to,” Erik interrupted sharply, then gentled his tone. “I told you, Charles, you’re not alone. Not anymore.”

“Oh,” Charles said, a little helplessly. “If -- if you don’t mind.”

“Do I feel like I mind?” Erik said gruffly.

And Charles felt his cheeks flush, because what Erik felt -- well, he was anything but displeased by the prospect of touching Charles’ skin the whole way there.

***

Erik bought a paperback at the airport, which Charles wouldn’t have thought was so extraordinary except that it was a romance novel.

“A little light reading for the plane?” Charles asked, and then bit his lip to keep from smiling.

“Are you passing judgment on my literary tastes?” Erik said, completely deadpan as he tucked the book in his briefcase.

“Never,” Charles vowed. “I’m sure Forbidden Rapture will be riveting. And probably not that forbidden.”

Once they boarded the plane, Erik draped his jacket over the arm rest between their seats, broke the spine of the novel with a ruthlessness that made Charles wince, and then slid his hand under the jacket.

Charles looked at him for a long moment, and then hesitantly slid his hand underneath as well.

“You’ll tell me if it’s too much,” Erik said, his voice low. It wasn’t a suggestion. And then he carefully took Charles’ hand, his grip cool and dry. Everyone else’s feelings on the plane receded, and instead, he heard Erik’s mental voice reading the book. It felt strangely emphatic, like Erik was pushing the words at him.

“Not so rough, my dear,” Charles murmured. “Just read naturally.”

“I was trying to concentrate,” Erik said him, and followed it with a rush of don’t want to hurt you trying to help.

“It’s a splendid, clever idea,” Charles reassured him. “Go on.”

The love interest in the story was a twit -- barely two chapters in, both he and Erik were pulling for the heroine to take up with the sheriff instead. Charles, because the sheriff seemed to actually care about her, and Erik -- well, apparently because Erik thought it was sensible to get involved with someone who had a weapon and knew how to use it.

“Really, Erik,” Charles said.

Erik scowled. “It’s the Wild West. She should know how to use a gun, for god’s sake.”

“She’s a schoolteacher,” Charles protested, terribly amused.

“So are you,” Erik said.

“I’m a professor, thank you. And I don’t know how to use a gun, either.”

Erik’s disapproval was almost flattening through their connection. “I’ll fix that. Do you mean to tell me that you went on digs without being able to defend yourself?”

“I have a whip.”

Erik narrowed his eyes. “Do you know how to use it?”

“Well,” Charles hedged.

“That’s it,” Erik said darkly, and for the first time, Charles actually knew what Erik was thinking when Charles felt that strange, orderly pulse of emotion from him -- as he’d suspected, it was Erik plotting, and in this case, it was a sharp series of concrete plans that involved procuring a gun for him from a contact in Zurich, taking him to shooting range that wasn’t in high demand, showing him exactly how to hold the gun, nudging his feet into proper position, standing close to check his posture, and then Erik would show Charles how to sight just right, and steady him by taking him by the hips, and--

Erik,” Charles said, slightly strangled in tone, when Erik’s plans devolved into something a lot less practical and a good deal more naked.

“Too much?” Erik said, a frisson of heat overlaying a genuine sense of concern.

Charles coughed. “I think you’d better go back to reading.”

There was a sharp cut of guilt from Erik that made Charles wince, which triggered a backwash of pain that made Erik frown in turn, before Erik severed their connection to collect himself. When he tangled his long fingers with Charles’ again, Charles mostly only heard the story, and he couldn’t prevent a small sigh of relief from escaping his lips.

***

Charles felt anxious by the time the plane finally touched down, the stress of being subjected to intense emotion from their fellow passengers registering in tense, aching muscles. But since he didn’t have a panic attack, faint, or both, he was ready to call Erik’s distraction-by-romance-novel method a modest success.

Erik took them straight to collect his last cache, and then to yet another quiet address. Charles was starting to think that Erik knew all the sleepy, forgotten parts of every city in Europe.

“Is this another safe house?” Charles said curiously after Erik waved him in the door on the upper floor of the building.

Charles felt Erik’s amusement long before Erik flicked on the light to reveal the smile at the corners of his mouth. “Not quite,” Erik said. “I actually do keep a flat here in Zurich.”

And Charles could see then that of course, it was no sterile space shared by a succession of strangers. It bore signs that someone lived here, in the ragtag collection of books, in the worn chess set given place of pride on the little table set between two chairs.

And it occurred to him then that Erik didn’t have to bring him here, that Erik could have taken them to some anonymous hotel room and not exposed a place he called his own.

“Erik, what will you do if we find the Tesseract?” Charles asked, before he could think better of it.

“Do?” Erik repeated blankly.

“Afterward, I mean. Say we prevent it from falling into Schmidt’s hands, and it’s safe. Then what?”

“Then I’m dragging Schmidt to Tel Aviv to answer for his crimes,” Erik said, with a kind of casual ease that suggested this was a well-worn plan. “The world should know what he’s done.”

Charles let out a slow breath, more relieved than he’d thought he’d be. “And then?”

“And then what?” Erik said, clearly completely confused and Charles couldn’t stand it. He caught Erik by the wrist, holding it tight in a bid to make him listen.

“You could do anything, Erik,” Charles said. “Anything at all. You could be so much more than a weapon for Mossad.”

“Could I?” Erik asked lightly, but there was a welter of feeling behind that as he looked down at Charles, too tangled and brief for Charles to pick it apart.

And there was nothing he could say, really, nothing that would make Erik believe the way Charles did, but maybe it was enough for now that Erik just think about it. So Charles leaned up and brushed his lips against Erik’s, the second of contact enough to send a shiver of warmth down his spine, a flash of anything? wrapped in speculation and sweet with hesitant hope.

***

The final remnants of Erik’s heritage were spread out on top of the low table in front of the settee, and Charles read, and read, and read some more. Erik didn’t pester him, not as he had that very first night, back in Westchester. He let Charles be, for the most part, periodically coaxing him away for food and tea, and later that evening, for a brisk walk.

“Why are we doing this?” Charles griped when Erik helped him into his coat. “I was finally getting somewhere. And it’s cold.”

“Your brain will work better after some fresh air,” Erik argued.

“There may be some truth to that,” Charles said, and followed Erik out into the street. There was a little flurry of snow in the air, just enough to ghost down the pavement with the wind. He felt stray whispers of emotion as they wandered past buildings, murmurs of routine domesticity, loneliness, and once, the exuberance of newly-requited love.

“What are you smiling about?” Erik asked, but Charles just shook his head and kept walking.

“If it were warmer, and not so late, we could walk across the river and into the old town,” Erik said a few minutes later. “I’m surprised you’ve never been to Zurich before.”

“Because my family seems like the type to harbor affection for the financial institutions here?” Charles hazarded. “The Xaviers have their secrets, but ill-gotten financial gains aren’t among them.”

“I know,” Erik said, mildly reproachful.

“Oh,” Charles said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to intimate that you were a terrible -- you know. I’m sure you’re very good at your job.”

“Thank you for the vote of confidence,” Erik said dryly. “And on that note, we’d better turn back. Your nose is red.”

“I’m fine!” Charles protested, because Erik had been right -- a chance to stretch his legs had helped clear his head. “But I suppose I should get back to the gibbering madness.”

“How do you mean?”

Charles snorted derisively. “There’s one document unlike all the rest -- I don’t know why I’m reading it, to be honest. I’d date it to around five centuries after everything else I’ve seen. In any case, the author doesn’t strike me as a person in full possession of his faculties. Mercury poisoning, maybe.”

“It seems odd that it would be included, if that were the case. Are you sure?” Erik said, sounding thoughtful but projecting just a bit of mischief.

Charles rolled his eyes. “Honestly, Erik. It talks about it being alive and eating vitality and being an abomination not of this earth.”

“That’s clearly more insane than anything else you’ve told me so far.”

Charles gave him a friendly thump on the arm. “Did I mention the gibbering? You can practically see the spittle.”

“I’m sure,” Erik said. “Maybe you should set that one aside for now.”

“If you insist,” Charles said, and let Erik guide him back into his building.

***

“Other side,” Erik said.

“Oh, really,” Charles groused, but obediently scooted over to the other side of the bed.

“So much less backchat,” Erik said approvingly.

“You love my backchat,” Charles said, and settled the covers around himself and snuggled into his pillow. “Good night, Erik.”

Erik turned off the bedside lamp, and said, “Good night.”

His brain was still picking over the last thing he’d been reading when Erik said quietly, “Do I have to wait until we’re dreaming to kiss you?”

Charles felt himself go a pink in the cheeks. “We’ve kissed before.”

“A peck,” Erik said. “Not exactly what I’d like to do to you.”

“Ah,” Charles said a little breathlessly, already feeling Erik’s want curling around the base of his spine. “It’s just -- it might be a little -- I don’t usually--”

“No?” Erik said in an interested purr.

“You guessed right, before,” Charles said, squirming. “No one I’d ever see again. Usually they don’t want to kiss, and even if they do -- people think all sorts of things, not all of them conducive to a pleasant experience. And sometimes I hear things they’re not even aware they’re thinking. It’s better if it’s over with quickly.”

Erik rolled Charles on to his back, Erik’s hips cradled between his thighs. “Nobody’s ever given it to you the way I did in London,” he said, face close to Charles’. “I’m the first.”

Charles swallowed. “Yes.”

“You’ve never let anybody this close,” Erik said, stroking one hand down Charles’ side before rubbing his fingertip over Charles’ hardened nipple, still safely covered by his pajama top. “You’ve never trusted anyone like this. Only me.” He rolled his hips against Charles’ in a slow, sinuous grind, his breath warm against Charles’ neck. “Only me. Say it.”

Charles clutched at Erik’s shoulders. “Only you. Erik--”

Erik kissed him then, not sweet or brief or chaste, his tongue in Charles’ mouth and Charles moaned around it, because Erik was thinking, It’s too much for you right now, but I’ll get you there, I’ll make you fall apart -- and the mental images, dear god, of Erik making him come again and again until he could bear to be kissed enough for Erik’s liking -- it’ll never be enough, but I’ll take it all, I’ll give you everything until you just can’t, and then -- all the places Erik wanted to put his mouth, the bruises he wanted to suck into Charles’ neck, the freckles on Charles’ shoulder that he wanted to taste, he wanted --

Charles pulled his mouth away to gasp for air, just a few seconds’ respite, but Erik pulled the collar of his pajamas away and kissed the hollow of his throat, tongue dragging across his skin while Erik thought of licking come off Charles’ belly, of turning him over and licking down his spine, licking in--

“I can’t, Erik, I’m going to--” Charles said in a desperate whine.

Erik just thrust against him harder, hips moving in short jerks, and then he bit down on Charles’ neck--

His orgasm and Erik’s pleasure didn’t quite create a feedback loop, but it did feel like overload, so much so that Charles actually whited out for a moment, before blinking his eyes open again and realizing that Erik had braced himself with one forearm next to Charles’ head, and his other hand was gripped around his cock, stroking himself hard and fast.

Charles felt blissfully exhausted and dreamy, but he had enough energy left to remember something Erik’s mind had whispered before. So he rucked up his pajama shirt, and when Erik’s half-lidded eyes met his, Charles licked his lips and said, “You can come on me. I want you to.”

Erik groaned, then, and did just as Charles asked, and when Charles ran his fingers through the mess on his belly and brought one fingertip to his mouth to taste, Erik muttered, “Have mercy, Charles.”

Charles probably did a terrible job of hiding his smile against Erik’s pajama-clad shoulder, but proceeded to enjoy both his afterglow and Erik’s enormously.

***

Charles had to read the phrase three times before he realized that he’d actually found the location of the cave where the Tesseract was hidden. He looked up to tell Erik, only to realize the room was empty. “Erik?” he called.

Erik poked his head out of the kitchen. “Just a second, I’ll bring the tea out when it’s finished steeping.”

Charles flailed a little in his chair. “No, wait! I know where it is! The cave is on the side of Mt. Ye’ela, in the Judean hills.”

Erik’s eyes widened, and he swiftly crossed the room to look at the vellum fragment Charles was looking at, as well as the modern map by his elbow. “Just outside Beit Shemesh?”

“Yes, yes, yes -- the western side of the mountain, where you can feel the pull of copper,” Charles said, nearly babbling in his excitement. “When can we go? We shouldn’t have any problem crossing into Israel, surely you can use your connections to get me in--”

“You’re not going,” Erik interrupted, mouth thinning into a hard line.

“Like hell I’m not,” Charles said, affronted. “You can’t think I’d desert you after all of this.”

He caught a flash of surprise from Erik, and then it was obliterated by a heavy wave of worry. “Charles, did you miss the part where we’re being tracked by Nazis who will probably be on our trail the minute we leave this country?”

“I’m going with you,” Charles said stubbornly. “You’ll need my help when you get inside the cave.”

Erik was silent for a moment, and his jaw clenched before he gave out a sigh. “I really wish I had to time to teach you how to use a gun.”

“I’ll leave the metal projectiles to you, and you leave the archaeology to me,” Charles said. “Deal?”

“Deal,” Erik said finally, and sealed it with a swift, firm kiss.

***

Charles had been through customs at the Tel Aviv airport several times now, when he had flown into Israel for digs. Each time, it had been a nightmare of visas and permits and questions about equipment, and the plane tickets had to be booked months in advance. He always supposed it could be worse, but he had a difficult time imagining how.

This time, he waited in line with Erik, who pulled Charles up to the counter with him as though he were a dependent. Erik then had a short conversation in Hebrew with the customs official, who waived them both through without so much as a blink or a more than cursory look at Charles’ passport.

“Do they know who you are?” Charles whispered afterward.

Erik just gave him a look and dragged him off to rent a jeep.

“Do you know where we’re going?” Charles asked, after Erik had stored their luggage in the back and slid into the driver’s seat. “I have a map.”

“You have a map from the year 450,” Erik said.

“Don’t be purposefully obnoxious,” Charles said, and brandished the modern map he’d brought with them from Zurich.

The drive to Beit Shemesh was only slightly more than an hour. They headed a few kilometers further east on a series of smaller roads, until Erik finally turned the jeep on to what seemed like a trail, at best, and drove them up the hillside, radiating concentration until he slowed to a stop. “We’ll have to go on foot from here,” he said.

“Can you feel it?” Charles asked curiously. “There’s copper?”

“More off that way,” Erik said, pointing out to the side of the trail.

“Then let’s go,” Charles said.

***

In the end, Charles basically tripped over a natural entrance to the cave. “No harm done,” he told, waving Erik off. “My ankle’s fine, and let’s just hope nothing with pointy teeth has made its den just inside.”

Erik cleared some of the brush away from the opening and pointed a flashlight in. “Nothing that I can see. Probably some bats. Or snakes.”

Charles shuddered delicately. “I hate snakes.” And then he felt it -- something malevolent and terrible that permeated like poison gas. “Erik,” he said urgently. “Someone’s coming.”

It was all the warning they had before they were surrounded.

“We meet at last, Erik Lehnsherr,” came a pleasant-sounding voice.

They turned to see Klaus Schmidt and five other men in dark clothing, and Erik immediately drew his gun and yanked Charles behind him before pulling the trigger.

Schmidt took the bullet in his shoulder, and though he rocked back from the impact, he didn’t look or feel terribly concerned. In point of fact, Charles felt an unholy sense of glee from him, and then a moment later, the bullet fell to the ground, a flattened disc.

“We could be at this all day, but that’s tiresome, don’t you agree? Put down your weapon, Lehnsherr. I’m bulletproof, but your dear professor isn’t.”

Charles could feel the tense muscles of Erik’s back under his palm, but Erik was ruthlessly calm, his mind clicking away. A moment later, he threw his gun away, and Schmidt’s men seized them both and separated them.

“Well, well,” Schmidt said, drawing close. “Professor Charles Xavier. I must congratulate you for completing my work.”

Your work?” Charles said, managing to find a contemptuous tone to cover his very real fear that Schmidt was going to kill them both where they stood. “Those were idle Nazi daydreams. You had nothing. You still have nothing.”

Schmidt backhanded him casually, and then seized Charles’ jaw with his hand. “I have you. And you know everything I need, don’t you? You’ll guide me to the Tesseract or I’ll put a bullet in Lehnsherr’s brain right now.”

“Then you’ll never see the Tesseract,” Charles said. “You need us both alive.”

Schmidt studied him, and he couldn’t decide if he was fortunate that Schmidt’s fingers were encased in leather gloves or if he could have used the advantage of knowing Schmidt’s thoughts. “I think you’re bluffing, dear professor. But why take the chance? I’m not an unreasonable man -- tell you what, you take me to the Tesseract, and I’ll let you both live.”

It was absolutely a lie, but Charles nodded in agreement.

Schmidt pointed at one of his men. “You go in first. And you,” he pointed at the two men holding Erik, “follow him. I’ll escort you myself,” he said to Charles. “If you make things difficult for me, I will make things difficult for you. Do I make myself clear?”

“Perfectly,” Charles bit out.

The cave entrance was narrow, but Charles stumbled forward, following the guard in front of him, with Schmidt close behind. He wished he could reach Erik with his mind, wished that he was close enough to touch and know if Erik had a plan, or if he was waiting until an option presented itself. They proceeded down a tunnel, with the burly man in front of Charles having to squeeze past a few rock formations, before the cave opened out in front of them to a huge gallery of stalactites.

“Left or right, Xavier?” Schmidt asked in Charles’ ear, making him shudder with revulsion.

Charles bit his lip. “Can you point your flashlight over there? That rock lying there. I think there’s something written on it.”

Schmidt aimed the light that way, and then dragged Charles closer. “Well?”

The inscription on the rock was a warning, but from its placement, Charles took an educated guess. “Right,” he said.

They left the stalactite gallery and continued down the tunnel on the right side, before reaching a fork with another inscription, and Charles led them through another, smaller gallery with stalactites. They continued on for some time, until finally reaching a gallery with tunnels in all directions, and no inscription anywhere that they could find.

“Erik,” Charles called, and then gasped in pain when Schmidt tightened his hand around Charles’ elbow in warning. Charles had no wish to reveal Erik’s ability, not when it might still save their lives. But he had to trust that Erik could feel the Tesseract from this distance without Charles prompting him.

And Erik -- wonderful, amazing Erik -- closed his eyes briefly and concentrated, and then said, “This way.”

The tunnel was narrow and damp, and at the end was another small gallery, with no exit save the one behind them. And Charles’ breath caught, because there was a small chest made out of metal, except that it should long have rusted in a place like this. But it sat on a low altar hewn of stone, metal shining bright and--

It wasn’t a trick of the eye. It was actually glowing.

“It’s really here,” Schmidt said, sounding stunned. He looked at Erik. “I was going to kill you now, but I think you ought to see what your parents died for before I take your birthright away right in front of your eyes.”

Erik’s rage was mentally deafening as he struggled in the grip of the men holding him, and Charles knew then that it was up to him. Schmidt’s grip on him had slackened, and he allowed Charles to turn slow to face him. “Please don’t kill him,” Charles begged. “I’ll do anything.”

“Anything?” Schmidt said.

“Anything,” Charles breathed, as seductive as he knew how, and brought up his fingertips to Schmidt’s face. And then, with all of his strength, he threw the command at Schmidt’s mind: TAKE OFF YOUR GLOVES.

Schmidt snorted. “Your charms are wasted on me, Xavier.” He shoved Charles into a waiting guard’s grasp and walked toward the box.

Charles felt his heart stop in his throat when Schmidt shed his gloves as he drew closer.

“Don’t you dare,” he shouted. “You can’t open that box. You’ll defile it.”

Schmidt turned to look at him. “Defile it?”

“It’s a sacred object, guarded by the faithful. You’ve no right to it. It’s not meant for you.”

Schmidt’s face warped into something terrifying. “If not me, then who? You, Xavier?”

“It belongs in a museum,” Charles said, and then he held his breath, and prayed to a god he didn’t believe in, prayed that Erik’s ancestors had been right, prayed that he had read everything correctly.

Schmidt opened the lid easily, and a blue light suffused the room. And then he reached inside and drew out the Tesseract, unearthly and flooding the room with a sense of wrongness that curdled Charles’ blood.

Schmidt opened his mouth to say something, but he never got the chance. His body seemed to expand, then contract, then expand again, and then --

Klaus Schmidt imploded.

***

The next moments were chaos -- the rock around them creaked menacingly and Schmidt’s men fled in terror. Charles cried out to Erik, “Don’t touch it with your bare hands! Put it back in the box!”

Erik gingerly wrapped the Tesseract in his jacket and put it back in the chest, the cave still rumbling around them. He made as if to pick up the chest, but Charles grabbed his wrist and said, “You have to destroy it.”

“What?” Erik yelled over the noise around them. “Charles, are you mad? My parents died for this, it’s the last thing I have left of them!”

“It doesn’t belong here!” Charles shouted back, seizing Erik by the shoulders. “Erik, please, that thing doesn’t belong here! You could carry it with you, but it’s poison, your parents wouldn’t want you to take it!”

Erik had an agonized look on his face, but all Charles could feel was the terrible murmuring of the Tesseract.

Charles leaned up on toes and said desperately, “Erik, it will kill you and I couldn’t bear it. For the love of god, destroy it!”

Erik was silent for a long moment, and then said, “Tell me how.”

Charles sagged in relief, and then realized that the cave around them had stopped shaking. “I think we should -- well, first off, I think we should take it outside before we attempt this.”

Erik gave the cave walls an uneasy look. “Good idea -- let’s go.” He scooped a gun and a flashlight off the floor and Charles carefully took up the chest, after wrapping it in his own jacket for good measure.

They didn’t encounter any of Schmidt’s men as they made their way back out, and Charles felt no one nearby as he set the chest down on the ground.

“I’ve never felt metal like that before,” Erik said, stopping short of nudging the chest with his foot.

“Maybe it came from the same place as the Tesseract,” Charles said. “Can you manipulate it?”

“I can try,” Erik said, and then he looked as stunned as Charles felt when the metal rippled in front of their eyes.

“Collapse it -- pull the metal inward and see if you can shatter it.”

“I don’t think that’s going to work,” Erik objected. “Does it seem like it would behave like glass or crystal?”

“Just try,” Charles said, and Erik shrugged and held out his hand, fingers splayed, and then made a fist.

It was like an explosion, except Charles was pretty sure it was only in his head, at least before he hit the ground like a shockwave had rolled through. For a moment, he couldn’t hear anything.

And then, for the first time since he was thirteen, he could hear everything.

***

Charles, Charles, what’s wrong is he hurt he’s not bleeding just fainted?

“Erik,” Charles croaked, opening his eyes. He swallowed and tried again. “Erik -- my skin, you’re touching it, I can’t--”

“I’m not,” Erik said, alarm and concern wrapping around Charles, threaded through with the hum of Erik’s thoughts, Erik trying to remember the location of the nearest hospital.

“No hospital,” Charles said, fisting his hand in Erik’s shirt. He was lying on the ground, Erik half-crouched over him, and Erik’s hands were safely touching only his clothes, but he could still hear him, clear as anything, he could hear--

A clamor of voices, a tangle of Hebrew and Arabic and English, stretching out across the whole of Israel, he could hear--

Too much, too much, far too much, no way to stop it, dear god, it hurt.

“Erik,” Charles whispered again, and mercifully blacked out.

***

He woke up as Erik opened the passenger door, slipped his arm under Charles’ knees, and lifted him out of the jeep, and it was all right for a moment, because his face was buried in Erik’s neck and he could concentrate on Erik, orderly, focused, wonderful Erik--

And then they were inside, and Erik put him down on a bed, and the world roared in his head again and all Charles could do was curl up and gasp for breath.

“Charles,” Erik said urgently. “What’s happening? Tell me how to help.”

He could barely summon the strength to think clearly, his head hurt so much, he was going to break in two, in six, in too many pieces to ever be put together again.

“All right,” Erik said to himself. “You’re in pain. It’s worth a try.” He pulled Charles into a half-sitting position, and then slipped a pill into Charles’ mouth before raising a glass of water to his lips. Charles obediently swallowed, and then just tried to breathe, matching himself to the steady rise and fall of Erik’s chest against his back. “There you are,” Erik murmured. “You’re going to be fine. You’re going to be just fine.”

Bit by bit, Charles could feel some of the pain recede, and heard the voices grow less distinct, less overwhelming. And he thought, Erik, Erik, we’re safe, nobody can hurt us now, you can move mountains if they have enough metal--

“I don’t know about mountains, but I moved the jeep,” Erik said quietly. “After we cracked the Tesseract, there was some sort of explosion. When I carried you back to the trail, the jeep was on its side. I set it back on its wheels and didn’t break a sweat.” He carefully brushed Charles’ hair with his fingertips. “And I can hear you. Right in my mind, without saying a word, without you touching me. You’ve never been able to do that before.”

“Mmm,” Charles said, or maybe thought, he couldn’t tell. “Maybe your mad ancestor was right after all.”

Erik’s body went stiff against him, and Charles reached out a clumsy hand to pat Erik on the thigh. “The Tesseract ate power, it ate us. And now it’s gone, and--”

“--I can move mountains,” Erik finished for him, arms tightening around Charles, his lips going to his temple. “And you can hear for miles around.”

Charles smiled, and his eyes drifted closed.

***

He woke up again when the door opened and someone came in, someone who was irritated and concerned and said, “Dammit, Lehnsherr, did you get shot again?”

“Again?” Charles said, tilting his head back to look at Erik. It didn’t work very well. “You’ve been shot before?”

“Yes, but it’s fine,” Erik said soothingly, and then, “You’re not here for me.”

“Somehow, I gathered that from the drugged Englishman between your legs,” the stranger said dryly. “What did you give him, and why?”

“It was very nice,” Charles offered. “Everyone was being much too loud, but it’s better now. Erik is very nice to me.”

“Lehnsherr isn’t nice to anyone,” the stranger said dismissively.

“Probably true,” Erik conceded. “Just look him over, would you?”

The man set a bag down on the bed at their feet. “It would help if I knew what was wrong with him.”

Charles could feel Erik tense behind him, could hear Erik flipping through the ramifications of telling the truth. On that score, at least, there was something Charles could do. “Erik,” he murmured. “Erik, it’s okay, you can trust him. Dr. Dahan’s daughter can walk through walls.” He frowned at Dahan’s instantaneous panic. “Oh, no, we don’t mean you any harm -- I just meant, we’re like her. Your daughter. Oh, I’m sure she’ll love her birthday present, it’s very nice, what with the polka dots.”

“He can read minds,” Erik volunteered. “Which isn’t a problem, except he can hear a lot more than he used to, and he’s overloading.”

“Everyone is very loud,” Charles said, and then squirmed to turn in Erik’s arms, enough to press his forehead against Erik’s throat. “Except Erik, he’s lovely, he can make his mind quiet.”

Dahan took out a stethoscope and listened to Charles’ heart, evidently having recovered from his shock and decided to soldier on. “So let me see if I have this right -- your associate here can read people’s minds, but what he’s hearing is too loud, and he can’t cover his ears, as it were.”

“Yes, yes, exactly -- oh, Erik, he thinks I’m your gentleman friend.”

“You are my gentleman friend,” Erik said. “And yes, he doesn’t seem able to block or filter it out.”

“He ought to have learned,” Dahan said, puzzled. “An overload of stimuli should engender some protective reaction. And why does he think everyone is too loud except for you?”

Charles nuzzled Erik’s neck. “Erik can make his mind like a clock, all quiet gears turning, nothing out of place.”

“What?” Erik said, and Charles could feel his mind go tick-tick-tick.

Like that, Charles thought, letting out a dreamy sigh. When you turn inward -- how marvelous, I wondered what you were doing when you felt like that. Oh, I couldn’t do it before, I didn’t have the strength, it wouldn’t have helped, but now!

“Charles, I still don’t understand what you’re talking about,” Erik said, frustration tightly leashed.

“I do,” Dahan said, and Charles realized he must have broadcast those thoughts wider than he’d meant. “He’s like a new recruit who doesn’t know how to keep his feelings off his face.”

Your Mossad training, Charles explained, picking up on Dahan’s train of thought. Learning to focus, learning to calm your mind, learning to build walls between you and everything else -- oh yes, very useful, do you mind awfully if I just, mmm, help myself? He felt Erik’s assent, and then stroked his mental fingers right through, turning things this way and that, examining. That should do nicely. But knowing isn’t the same as doing. I’ll need practice.

“You’ll also probably need not to be drugged out of your mind,” Dahan said dryly.

“Oh, but Erik likes me this way,” Charles murmured. “He wants to pet me.”

There was a flare of embarrassment from Erik, which Charles attempted to soothe by petting Erik instead, smoothing his hand down Erik’s chest, only for Erik to catch his fingers when Charles’ attention was caught by Erik’s belt buckle.

“I think I’ve done everything here I can,” Dahan said, shoving his stethoscope back in his bag and collecting his hat. “If you need to dose him again, for goodness sake, wait another four hours at least.”

***

The flight from Tel Aviv to Paris passed in a haze, and Charles found himself grateful for Erik’s heavy hand with medication. His mind felt raw, overexposed, and beyond that, he was just exhausted. Both of the airports were dreadful, and he must have been broadcasting his discomfort, because Erik slung his arm over the back of Charles’ chair, hand on his shoulder and thumb resting just above his collar, letting Charles soak Erik in and focus on Erik’s mind without working too hard or letting his thoughts slosh everywhere.

They were over the ocean on their way back to the States when it occurred to Charles that all he really had to worry about were the other passengers on the plane. Underneath them were only air and clouds and water, and he thought about the walls Erik put up in his mind, how unyielding they were, and it didn’t seem quite right to him.

Better, he thought, to wrap the Atlantic around him, fluid and mutable. He dozed off on Erik’s shoulder, thinking of the ocean reflecting back the sunlight.

***

Westchester seemed like a country more foreign than the ones he and Erik had crisscrossed together. The mansion was just as they’d left it, echoing halls and stillness, but it felt strange.

“It’s the same,” Erik said, though Charles hadn’t said a word. “You’re the one who changed.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Charles said, and dared to reach out and purposefully touch Erik’s thoughts with his own, just a quick brush, and Erik smiled.

His next class wasn’t until Tuesday, which meant he had a few days to rest, and to practice his shielding. “I’m sure I’ll improve with time,” he said to Erik, when they settled down in bed for the night. “Hopefully I’ll get through the class period without too much difficulty.”

“We’ll practice,” Erik promised, and then turned off the light without touching the lamp.

***

Two nights later, Charles had a dream. Or to be more accurate, he wandered into Erik’s. Or maybe it was the other way around. In any case, he was in front of the classroom, writing on the chalkboard, and when he turned around, he saw Erik instead of his students.

“Fancy meeting you here,” Erik said, sprawled back in one of the seats in the front row like he owned the classroom.

Charles put the chalk down. “I wonder if you’re touching me. Or if I’m just going to be able to do this from now on.”

“It’s a possibility,” Erik said, nonchalant.

“It doesn’t bother you?”

Erik shrugged. “Not particularly. But for what it’s worth, I certainly hope I’m touching you.”

In real life, Charles would have gone hopelessly red, but in the dream, he just licked his lips and said, “Do you, now.”

Erik spread his legs a little wider, and Charles couldn’t help but look. “I hope,” Erik said, his voice going deeper, “that my hand is inside your pants, right now, and that you’re writhing in my grasp, that you’re asleep but you want it so much that you’re already slick.”

Charles started toward him. “You must know -- you must know that I do. My god, Erik, I want you so much.”

Erik pulled Charles down into his lap and said, “Then wake up, Charles.”

They did wake up then, which probably said something interesting about lucid dreaming and telepathy, but what Charles noticed was that there was only one point of contact between them -- Erik’s fingers were resting loosely against his, and that wasn’t enough. He pulled himself closer and said, “I have to kiss you, I can’t stand it--” and pressed his lips against Erik’s.

It was a little tricky, trying to remember at first to keep his defenses up, especially when Erik was sucking on his tongue and Charles was trying to unbutton Erik’s pajama top and kept getting distracted by all the skin under his fingertips. But however wobbly, his shields held the world at bay and blunted his contact with Erik from extreme oversensitivity to something he could savor at length.

“I can touch you,” he murmured against Erik’s throat, delighting at the shiver that ran through Erik when Charles nipped at his ear. “I can actually touch you.”

“Then get these off,” Erik said, pulling impatiently at Charles’ pajamas, and they both shed their nightclothes in a hurry. Erik rolled Charles on to his back and Charles gasped at the contact, Erik’s body blanketing his own and he’d never felt anything like it, his nipples hard against Erik’s chest, his toes brushing Erik’s ankle, his cock pressing against the firm muscles of Erik’s stomach.

“I want everything,” Charles said, and moaned when Erik sucked a trail of kisses on the underside of his jaw.

“Spoiled,” Erik said, affection seeping through Charles’ shields. “Don’t think I won’t give it to you. But you’ll tell me if it’s too much.”

Charles bucked up against him, trying to feel as much of Erik’s body against his own as he could. “If it is, I’ll just come. And I don’t think you’re -- mmm -- averse to letting me do that more than once tonight.”

“I did tell you we would practice,” Erik said, and the image that flooded Charles’ brain nearly undid him then -- Charles a wreck, Erik thrusting into him just so, dragging thready, high noises from him.

“Yes, yes, do that,” Charles said, already reaching out for the nightstand drawer.

Erik caught his hand and pulled back enough that Charles could see his smile, even in the low light of the room. “Careful, or I’ll think you aren’t trying.”

“I’m trying plenty,” Charles protested. “Now, are you going to do something, or are you all talk?”

“Oh, I’m going to do something,” Erik said, turning Charles on to his stomach.

Charles held out while Erik kissed his shoulders and scraped his teeth over the nape of Charles’ neck, but when Erik started to make his way down Charles’ spine, he couldn’t quite help peeking at Erik’s thoughts, just a little, and then said breathlessly, “Are you -- are you really going to--”

“Charles,” Erik said chidingly, and Charles supposed he should try a little harder after all, but then Erik pulled Charles’ cheeks apart with his thumbs and how was he supposed to think at all when Erik’s tongue was -- oh god -- and Erik liked it, Charles could feel how much he liked it, and it was all tangled with how good it felt when Erik thrust his tongue in, and Charles couldn’t help pushing back into it, trying to get more. And the noises he was making -- helpless, almost mewling, and he was totally surrounded by Erik’s pleasure in doing this to him, knew that Erik wanted to make him fall apart from just this, that Erik wanted Charles wet and pliant and his alone--

He came all over the sheet underneath him, wrung out and trembling from his orgasm and from the intensity of Erik’s satisfaction. When he rolled over on to his back, he had mostly caught his breath and patched up his shields.

And Erik -- Erik was propped up on his elbow next to Charles, looking at him like Erik had never wanted anything more.

“Let me,” Charles said softly, and moved down the bed. “I want to -- just let me--”

“Charles,” Erik groaned, and lay back on the bed.

This was something, at least, that Charles had experience with, and he wanted it, and saw no particular reason to delay when Erik was staring down at him -- and oh, Erik had imagined this, had fantasized about Charles’ mouth, and Charles was going to give it to him. It had been a shame, before, that Charles had only been able to look and not touch, especially when Charles opened his mouth wide and then wider still to take Erik in.

He knew just how to bring someone off quickly, but now that he could, Charles wanted to take his time. He licked his way down Erik’s cock, and held Erik’s eyes as he tongued gently at Erik’s balls, and when he came back up to suck the head of Erik’s cock into his mouth, Erik’s hips lifted and Charles knew he hadn’t meant to do that, and that was when Charles wrapped his hand around the base of Erik’s cock and took Erik as deep as he could, which wasn’t far, because Erik was lovely and perfect and so big--

“Stop,” Erik gasped out, one hand going to Charles’s hair.

Charles licked the slit of his cock mutinously, and Erik shuddered beneath him. “Don’t see why I should,” he said.

“Spoiled,” Erik hissed. “If you thought my tongue in you was good--”

Charles considered it for two seconds before crawling back up the bed. And by the time Erik had two fingers inside him, slick and sloppy with lube, Charles’ shields were all but shot, and he knew he was broadcasting to Erik just how good it was but he couldn’t stop, he could only gasp and writhe with Erik lying between his thighs, three fingers inside now, long and stretching him. “Please,” Charles choked out. “Oh, please.”

“You don’t have to beg,” Erik said, his voice rough. “You’ll never have to -- I’ll always--”

He slid his fingers out and pressed his cock in, and it was a stretch, not exactly comfortable, but Erik paused when it was too much and let Charles adjust, and there was no one, no one else in the world that Charles would rather have do this to him for the first time--

“You’ll be the death of me,” Erik said hoarsely. “You’ve never?”

“Of course not -- oh,” Charles said, because Erik’s mind was a roaring cloud of lust, “Oh, you like that. You want to be the first person who--”

“Not just the first,” Erik said, and pressed a kiss to Charles’ knee where it was slung over his shoulder before withdrawing and slowly pushing back in.

It felt good, pleasure licking up his spine, not just his own but Erik’s, too, Erik thinking he was tight and perfection, and then Erik shifted a bit, altered his angle until Charles cried out, and Erik said, “Right there, I know you want it just -- like -- that,” thrusting hard against that spot inside Charles that shook loose every last bit of control he had.

His hands scrabbled at Erik’s back, trying to hold on while Erik gave it to him ruthlessly, and Erik was thinking of shifting position, of reaching for Charles’ cock, and Charles whimpered and said, “Don’t you dare, don’t, just fuck me--” and when he came, he took Erik with him, body and mind holding Erik close as Erik groaned and shuddered against him.

It was some moments later when Erik carefully let Charles’ legs down and pulled out, and Charles winced a bit but it wasn’t so bad. Especially when Erik gathered him in his arms again and kissed his shoulder, and there was a sweetness to his mood that Charles couldn’t help but drink in.

“I think,” Erik said, “we’ll have to practice more.”

“Oh, a lot more,” Charles said, not bothering to hide his smile, and he didn’t reach for Erik’s thoughts then, but he had a feeling that they were of one mind, no pun intended.

***

Charles had been teaching class for ten minutes when a man in an overcoat and grey trilby slipped into the back of the room. He could hear his students note the stranger’s presence, but it wasn’t much of a disruption, and Charles was gratified that their attention returned to his lecture in short order. As well it should -- Charles was essentially giving them a review lecture for their final exam next week, and if they paid attention and studied, they should do well. And Charles really wanted, more than anything, for his students to do well and maybe come back for another class if it took their fancy.

His students had all wondered, albeit in the privacy of their minds, at the difference in him -- even Hank, who was by no means a sterling example of social adeptness, had observed that Charles seemed more open, more engaging, and less likely to shy away from people. Charles himself was so elated by his progress that he was actually contemplating trying to schedule his classes at something other than the first time slot in the morning.

And he owed it all to the man who was probably fiddling with his slide projector in the back of the room.

“Your exam is next Tuesday at 8:30, here in this classroom,” Charles said brightly. “Study hard, everyone!”

A genial groan went out among his students, but they left cheerfully enough, and Charles packed up his notes and quirked an eyebrow. “Care to join me?” he called.

Erik’s lips twitched and he followed Charles into his office, shutting the door behind them.

“How was your trip?” Charles asked. Erik had been gone for five days, back to Tel Aviv, although he hadn’t been precisely forthcoming about his reasons and Charles hadn’t wanted to press.

“They accepted my resignation, but were disappointed to see me go,” Erik said, hanging his hat and coat on Charles’ coat stand.

“They -- you resigned?” Charles said, flabbergasted.

Erik lifted one shoulder. “The Tesseract is gone. I wanted to bring Schmidt to justice, but he’s gone too. There was nothing left for me there.”

Charles rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “Oh,” he said. “What will you do now?”

Erik pulled him forward by the hips. “Someone told me once that I could do anything,” he said, a hint of a smile on his lips. “And we know, now, that we’re not the only ones in the world who are different. Dr. Dahan wants you to meet his daughter -- you remember, the one who can walk through walls.”

“I don’t exactly remember, but in my defense, I was very high at the time. Which was somebody else’s fault.”

“There must be many more like her,” Erik said, disregarding the accusation entirely. “More like us.”

Charles reached up to loop his arms around Erik’s neck, even as he worried at his lower lip with his teeth. “I know that I told you that people with special abilities feel different to me, but I still have to be somewhat close to pick them out from ordinary humans. How are we going to find them? And what do you intend to do with them if we do find them?”

He could hear Erik concentrating, the marvelous order of his mind clicking away. “Imagine how many of us there are, how many went from barely noticeable abilities to something fantastic after the Tesseract was destroyed. We should help them if we can.”

“Help them?” Charles echoed.

Erik bent down, just enough to touch Charles’ nose with his own. “Help them harness their abilities. There’s a man I know who happens to be a pretty decent teacher.”

“Is that so,” Charles said a little coyly. “As it happens, there’s a man I know who’s pretty good at thinking on his feet. That could come in handy, too.”

“I was thinking of a school,” Erik said. “A place where they could learn to use their powers safely. What do you think?”

“I think I know of a pretty big mansion that might have enough room,” Charles said, and then kissed Erik, feeling like his thoughts were overflowing and Erik could probably hear how he felt, would know that Charles had missed him while he was gone, would know that Charles wanted him to stay.

“Come with me,” Erik said against his lips. “School is over next week. Aren’t you ready for another adventure? Come with me.”

Charles kissed him again, and thought yes yes of course, dear Erik and smiled into the kiss when Erik’s arms went around him tight, nearly lifting him off the ground.

They were interrupted by a knock at the door, and Charles pulled back abruptly, less concerned about being caught and more curious that he felt that extra something from the person on the other side, particularly since that person was his graduate student, Hank McCoy. “Come in,” Charles called.

Hank cautiously opened the door. “Oh -- I didn’t realize you had a visitor. I can come back.”

“It’s quite all right,” Charles said, and mentally filled Erik in on his suspicion that Hank was more than he appeared. “This is my friend, Mr. Erik Lehnsherr. Erik, this is Hank McCoy, who is doing some dreadfully clever work with aerial photography and satellite imagery.”

Hank flushed a bit, and said, “Nice to meet you. Do you have an interest in archaeology, Mr. Lehnsherr?”

Erik looked at Charles for a long moment, smiled, and said in the tone of a confession, “An abiding one.”