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To see for the first time (opened up my eyes)

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Erik Lensherr is the most amazing person Charles knows, and Charles hasn't even met him yet.

He doesn't mean to fall as far into Erik's mind as he does, really. When Charles feels him in the water at first, he does in the same way he senses everyone else: surface-level thoughts only. There are just too many people in the world for Charles to be reading deeply all the time, and Erik's mind is an especially bright one, making him easy to sense. Charles gets as far as: there's a man in the water holding onto a submarine with his powers (completely nonsensically, his first reaction to that is, groovy), and then he's jumping.

It's a side effect of physically falling, Charles thinks later, that makes him reach into Erik as far as he does. He just means to reach out, but he misjudges, and then—

Charles' whole world narrows, for one very brief moment, to Erik Lensherr's mind, all of it, the entire fierce, focused whole. Erik, who is rage (inarticulate, aching rage, accumulated over years of just stop the bullets, Erik, or do you want these poor Jews to be killed and mutant/freak/monster, monster, monster) and determination (won't let go, he isn't getting away from me this time, enough power to slow a submarine, just a little) and the sort of hatred that almost makes Charles reel away. Erik, who below all of that, Charles sees, has so much potential for good, more than anyone else Charles has ever known, who has been tortured beyond what any one man can bare and still has a mind that sings to Charles of loyalty, of snarling protectiveness, of so-carefully-given love.

For a moment, just a single one, Charles lets himself be subsumed in Erik entirely, completely willing to let himself drown if it will bring this man even a second of peace.

Hitting the water, physically, provides the jolt Charles needs to drag his mind away. His whole body stings at the impact, the sudden sinking drag of his clothes (he didn't even take the time to strip off more than his jacket, and he knows Raven will laugh when he is dragged back up looking as miserable as a soaked cat), and Charles is himself again.

He wraps himself around Erik in the water, fighting the drag of gravity and the water and Erik's power to pull them up, and Erik startles and pulls against him. No, Erik's mind brushes against his, thought insistent and projected like a blow—Charles is for a moment stunned, because he's never met anyone whose mind was like this—stop, let go, Schmidt. (Charles sees a man with a young face, seated calmly across a desk from Erik as he orders Erik's mother killed, and he almost lets go despite himself when he feels how much Erik would rather die than let the bastard get away, how Charles is in his way and he's so close, so close but he's still not good enough.) Charles is overwhelmed, for just an instant, with sheer desperate horror, with a thought that begins what if he doesn't let go and trails into silence.

Then he touches his mind to Erik's again and tells Erik the truth he does not want to hear: /You can't. You'll drown. You have to let go./ Something escapes from Charles, then, a message he does not mean to project: It's been minutes and I already can't let you go, please don't make me let you go. It's quick, sent mostly in emotion, but Charles knows there's no way Erik didn't feel it. He just hopes he doesn't frighten the other man away before they've even met (and dear God, but these are the sorts of problems that can only ever happen to telepaths.) /I know what this means to you, but you're going to die./

Erik hasn't let go. Erik hasn't let go and Charles feels his lungs starting to call for oxygen, so God only knows how long Erik has left. /Please, Erik,/ he sends, and hopes it sounds steady, /calm your mind./

And then, (ohthankGod), Erik does.

They break the surface together, and Charles is possibly more relieved than he was when he got his doctorate, which is saying something. For the first time, Charles lets himself process the fact that there is no room between his body and Erik's, that Charles is curled around the taller man far too intimately for two men who have just met. The spark of warmth that lights in Charles is not one the water can cool. Oh, Charles thinks, almost stupidly, and is glad he's still being flooded with adrenalin, or he might flush.

Then Erik says, “Let go of me!” and lunges away in the water. Charles has three thoughts in quick succession. The first is the terrifying image of Erik trying to swim away, to actually follow the submarine to his death, but that fear settles when Erik stops half a meter away to tread water. The second is, his eyes are very, very blue (and Charles will deny it his whole life that he immediately thinks of the genes responsible for that, as if he would ever compliment Erik on that mutation as opposed to the one that lets him control metal, for God's sake). The third is that, given what Erik has just shouted, Charles knows that the other man is focusing on the contact they were just in, that his opinion of that touch must be foremost in his surface thoughts.

Charles really cannot help himself. A moment later, he recoils, that feeling of low-level disgust/annoyance/upset/discomfort as much of a rejection as he will ever make Erik give him, and almost wishes he could have, just this once.

Still, when Erik says, “I thought I was alone,” Charles cannot help the fluttering, stupid joy of being the first to tell him otherwise.

It can be the start of a beautiful friendship, anyway—asking for more would be moronic, when Erik himself is more than Charles has ever known before.

“You idiot,” Raven says, as soon as Charles is back on the ship and wrapped tightly in a towel, and for a moment he thinks she's going to hit him. Then her arms are around him, almost tight enough to hurt, and the physical contact makes it impossible for him to ignore what she's projecting at him. (Charles diving into the water and not coming up and not coming up and not). He wraps his own arms around her in return and tries to pull his mind away from hers. Their agreement that he stay out of her mind does not extend to things she deliberately projects, but he tries to respect her privacy during moments when he's not sure she means to project. “Never again, Charles,” she says, and pulls away just as fiercely as she dove in, making eye contact. “You're not a good enough swimmer to try that, okay?”

“Okay,” Charles says, and feels the slightest twitch of amusement at his side as the words come out quaking through his shivers. He hadn't forgotten Erik was there (he couldn't, right now, with Erik so very present beside him), but he had forgotten to make introductions. /Raven,/ Charles projects, because he can trust his mental voice not to shake from cold, at least, /this is Erik Lensherr. He's like us. Erik, this is my sister, Raven Xavier./

Erik goes stiff beside him, as though he'd honestly forgotten how Charles had managed to communicate under meters of water. Raven sees that and rolls her eyes. “I can introduce myself, Charles,” she says, and then turns and tells Erik, “I'd shake your hand, but I figure you should probably keep them under that blanket for now.”

“Miss Xavier,” Erik says, matching the formal address with a bow of his head.

“Just Raven, please,” Raven says, looking as though much more of that will make her start laughing. “I'm not as stuffy as the professor, here.” Erik almost visibly processes this new information—something about seeing it makes Charles realize exactly how tired the taller man has to be, because that dip into Erik's mind left Charles with no doubts that the other man's thoughts rarely show on his face. Erik Lensherr is entirely too good at compartmentalizing for his own good.

“Speaking of the professor,” Erik says, not bothering with subtle segues, “Xavier—”

Charles doesn't quite wince, but he does say, probably a little too emphatically, “Charles. Please call me Charles.”

“Charles,” Erik echoes, voice low and irritated (and Charles gets the distinct impression that all of this first-name business isn't what Erik's accustomed to), “why did you bring me onto this ship?”

There is probably a diplomatic way of saying because this is a CIA vessel, and I have reason to believe we're tracking the same man as you. (There is no diplomatic way of saying, because your mind is so—god, Erik, I wish you could see it yourself, I couldn't lose that, as Charles knows perfectly well.) “Ah,” Charles says, and tries, “there are some people here who want to talk to you.”

Charles isn't reading Erik's mind at that moment, but he doesn't need to to know Erik considers running. He doesn't need to to know that, even after Erik decides on staying, the other man actively catalogs every piece of metal in the ship around them, and how best those could be used as weapons if things go poorly. Still, Erik stands, managing to make an imposing figure even with a damp blanket draped over his shoulders, and says, “Alright. I'll speak with them.”

“Good,” Charles says, and talks his own body into standing as well. At this point of the night, he'll take whatever small victories he gets.

Erik will go with them to the CIA compound, and listen to what they have to offer him. Erik will not run (yet).

God, but Charles needs sleep, if those two facts alone are enough to make him almost giddy.

Charles is drifting between sleep and awareness, less than two days after making Erik's acquaintance, when he feels what he's been half-expecting to for the better part of the day.

He sits up, the genetics text he had been skimming falling off its resting place on his chest at the movement, and scrubs a hand over his eyes. He's tired, and had hoped to sleep early tonight—he's been running in a state of excitement since they first headed out to find Shaw, his plummet into the water and discovery of Erik only exacerbating the situation. Still, there are things more important than his rest, and that thought is enough to have Charles sigh, swing his legs over the edge of the bed, and get up to put on a bit more clothing.

The thing is, Erik thinks very loudly. Charles really has been trying to stay out of the other man's head (he's learned, by this point in his life, that digging in the minds of people who do not reciprocate his interest only leads to discomfort, and he isn't that persistent), but it's a little bit like covering his ears when Erik is talking a meter away. Most things come across to Charles as muffled, and he does not push to amplify them; some things come across like Erik shouted them out loud, and those things, Charles does not have any control over whatsoever.

Erik's intent, just now, is very loud. Charles finishes tying his shoes and decides to wait outside.

It doesn't take Erik very long to get there; Charles has to give him credit for this much at least, when Erik decides he's going to leave a place he certainly doesn't waste any time doing it. The taller man may be physically noticeable, what with the leather jacket and determined look in his eyes, but it's the screaming focus of his mind on the briefcase in his hand that most catches Charles' attention. He doesn't even have to press to get the answer he wants—unsurprisingly, Erik's surface thoughts are focused on the object he's made off with. (Shaw's files, which means Erik does not plan to return. Charles tries very hard not to let absurd hurt cross his mind; he has more important things to do than focus on unrequited attentions, now.)

Later, Charles will not remember precisely what it is he says to Erik, that night, which is nearly astounding for him. He pushes off the wall and makes his presence known, and Erik keeps walking, so Charles says—well, something intrusive, something about what he saw in Erik's mind, trying to make Erik understand. (This would be so much easier if Charles had not been the only one to feel that first-instant connection fall into place between them, when Charles touched Erik's mind. This would be so much easier if Charles could just push Erik into staying, just the slightest bit, and expect things not to fall apart.) They're off, after that. Charles thinks he makes a number of good, probably intellectual points, and hopes at least that he didn't resort to saying please stay, I can't even explain to myself why I need you to, but I do. Will that be enough?

The end results of the conversation are these: Charles walks away, before he knows what Erik will do, and does not even pry to see the other man's answer. His reward for this is that the next morning, Erik is still there. Erik stays.

Erik also, in as many words, tells Charles to stay out of his head.

Only two people in Charles' entire life have made that sort of request from him. The first was Raven, his own sister, but even Charles can admit that she might have had a good reason, when she did. It hurt, obviously, but it was only a very small thing compared to what Raven's friendship and companionship had always meant to him. It was an excellent test of his control, too, back then when he couldn't have stayed out of the minds around him if he'd tried—reminding himself constantly that he would not read Raven's mind (would not, would not, would not) was likely what allowed him to fine-tune his ability to the level it is at now.

Erik, too, has perfectly legitimate reasons to want people out of his head. There is so, so very much in there which is too private, too painful for Erik to willingly let other people touch—Charles himself would never have touched those memories without permission, had things unfolded a little differently. Charles knows only too well where people choose to draw their boundaries, and he fell well within Erik's, that first night. Even if he hadn't, Erik's (almost growled), “Then you know my mind isn't a place where you should be,” would have made things abundantly clear, so.

This request hurts, too. It always does, a little, to deliberately put a mind outside of his own range, to throw up walls which were not naturally there. Erik does not become any less bright against Charles' mind, he simply becomes something Charles cannot reach out to.

Still, the very next day, when Erik turns to Charles, waiting on his answer regarding the use of Hank's machine to recruit mutants, Charles says, “I'm with Erik, actually,” and gets to watch something in Erik's face lose its edge, not so much a softening as a first inkling of trust extended to Charles, and that is worth a surprising amount.

The first day of their cross-country recruitment roadtrip sees them sitting in a car in the parking lot of the CIA facility at half-past eight, during a day which begins bright and warm, without a cloud in the sky. Charles would like to take that as a good omen for the trip, but, then, Charles begins the day deplorably hungover.

There was actually a logic behind that the previous night, Charles knows. There hadn't been any behind the first two drinks—those had been solely to calm Charles' nerves at spending hours in an enclosed space with Erik—but somewhere around the third he'd had what had seemed to be a wonderful idea. It was always harder to use his telepathy when he was distracted, after all, and the only sort of short-term distraction he could think of to keep his mind away from Erik's was the debilitating headache he knew he could build himself up to with just a few more drinks. Then, it had seemed like a brilliant idea, guaranteed to keep him from violating Erik's wishes and privacy in the worst way and killing off their tentative friendship. Now, of course, it leaves him huddled miserably in the passenger seat, while Erik looks down at him sardonically over the rim of his sunglasses.

Charles raises a hand in a halfhearted attempt to get the sun out of his eyes, and says, “Yes, yes, I know, I'm horribly naïve and idealistic, and I take my own health and safety for granted, now will you please stop looking at me like that.”

In the seat beside him, Erik goes suddenly tense, his gaze looking a lot less amused than it had moments before. “Did you—,” Erik starts to say, his tone suspicious and clipped, and that is just patently not fair, considering that Charles had gotten himself into this state into the first place to help alleviate those concerns.

“I didn't read your mind, Erik. I happened to be thinking just as poorly of myself as you were, at that moment. Your expression rather gave you away.” Charles shifts in his seat, and then, knowing exactly how petulant it makes him sound, says, “I hate sunlight.”

Erik relaxes at that, at least as much as he ever does, and shifts the car into drive. “I suppose you won't thank me if I turn up the radio, then,” he says. Charles takes a moment, in the sanctity of his much-abused mind, to appreciate the slight accent that colors Erik's words, the soothing rumble of his tone.

Then Erik's words actually register with him, and Charles finds himself saying, “Oh God,” reflexively and rather weakly. Erik chuckles, actually chuckles, which is more reaction than Charles has gotten out of him previously. “I would take it as a kindness, my friend, if you spared me from that particular pain at least until we make it out of the parking lot.” Something shifts in Erik at that, and Charles realizes he said my friend instinctively—unfortunately for Erik, that is what Charles considers him, and Charles is currently incapable of sparing any pity for whatever discomfort that small intimacy might cause.

Erik turns the car onto the road that leads towards the highway they need, and looks as though he might actually consider smiling at some point in the near future. Charles rewards him with a beaming smile of his own.

“Here,” Erik says, and then his steel-rimmed sunglasses lift off his eyes and float across the space between them to drop into Charles' lap, all without Erik ever taking his hands off the wheel. Charles isn't sure if he appreciates that casual show of power, or the unexpected bit of kindness, more. “Get some sleep.”

Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Charles slides the sunglasses on before Erik has a chance to change his mind. “Thank you, my friend,” he says gratefully, and leans his head back against his seat. “I should warn you, I sometimes snore.”

“I'll wake you if you do,” Erik says (and, for the briefest moment, projects such a vivid image of paper clips rising up from the glove compartment to bludgeon a snoring Charles that Charles cannot help but to see it, and laugh.)

Their hotel room—one room, singular—makes for Charles' first challenge. He doesn't mean that to say that the beds are too small (though they are, and Erik at least will have to choose which limbs he prefers on his bed, as there's no way all of the taller man will fit at one time), or that the room itself is smaller than some closets Charles has found himself in. No, he means that Erik takes one look around the cramped space and smirks, the gesture all sharp teeth and strangely genuine emotion, and says, “How altruistic our benefactors in the CIA are,” and then promptly turns and says to Charles, “Do you want first shower, or can I?”

Charles feels himself freeze in the middle of the doorway. (He knows what Erik looks like wet, how his hair falls dark around his face and droplets cling to his eyelashes, and though the way he gained this knowledge was not erotic, it's only too easy to shift the context to Erik in the shower, all bare skin and long, strong limbs, one hand fisted loosely around his cock.)

He doesn't quite come back to himself until Erik blinks and says, “Charles?” He shakes his head to clear it of the thought and waves Erik's concern away, stepping quickly into the room to drop his suitcase onto one of the beds. Erik snorts a laugh from behind him and says, “Lightweight.” It's meant as an insult, but Charles is perfectly willing to live with that, compared to what he knows Erik's reaction would be if he knew the truth. Frankly, Charles will need to get a better grip on himself (and, God, but that was possibly not the best phrasing to use when Charles is already...distracted). If he's going to go about thinking of Erik in this way, he's going to have to be especially careful not to project any of it.

The silence between them has lasted a beat too long by the time that Charles feels himself composed enough to turn back to Erik and resume conversation. “The shower's all yours, my friend,” Charles says, gesturing to their tiny bathroom and trying very hard not to process the meaning of his own words. “I think I'll take the time to get my things sorted before dinner.” Erik raises one eyebrow in question, and Charles reaches over and undoes the lock of his trunk, letting the resulting mess fall where it may. “Packing drunk has never been my forte,” Charles says, lightly and self-deprecatingly, just to see amusement flash across Erik's face again. The emotion itself looks good on Erik's face, of course, but it's more than that—Charles has seen this man's poker face, and knows full well that any expression he sees on Erik's face is one Erik allows him to see. The small trust in that warms Charles.

Then Erik raises one hand, and the travel chess kit Charles thought to bring along raises itself from Charles' bed by the hinges that allow it to fold. “You play?” Erik asks.

Charles feels himself smile, almost involuntarily. He'd been hoping when he packed that, nothing else. “Yes,” Charles says. “Do you?” Erik fixes him with a moment's look, a pointedly blank one, and then /would I have asked if I didn't?/ presses against the surface of Charles' mind. The words themselves are quiet and slightly muffled, as though Charles is hearing them through a pane of glass, but for a first attempt at deliberate projection they are surprisingly easy to understand. Charles takes a brief moment to savor that, the feeling of Erik pressing out to meet him, and then lets Erik's mind slip away without trying to follow after it. “A fair question,” Charles acknowledges out loud, not daring to try his luck by projecting back. “If you're in the mood to play after dinner, perhaps we could have a game?”

“Perhaps,” Erik says in answer, and Charles does not have to read his mind to know that means yes. The taller man spends a moment looking over Charles, though for what Charles cannot guess, and then he turns towards their bathroom. “That is, if you think you can provide a challenge,” Erik calls over his shoulder as a parting shot.

“Oh, I may surprise you, my friend,” Charles says in answer, and then closes his eyes and his mind as the bathroom door just barely fails to close behind Erik.

Erik is an excellent conversationalist, when he so chooses to be. When he chooses not to be, Charles learns, attempting to speak to him is possibly less rewarding than spilling one's hopes and dreams to a brick wall.

Dinner that night finds Erik cold, entirely not in the mood to converse, with all hints of the emotions that had previously graced his face shut away. Charles is confused, as he has absolutely no idea what he's managed to do wrong in such a short time span. The silence feels almost expectant, as if there is something he has not done that Erik thought he might, but that's absurd. Charles has stayed out of Erik's mind (no matter how tempting it was, how easy it would have been to see through Erik's eyes just for the length of that one shower, no matter that he probably could have gotten away without Erik knowing he'd done it, just that once) and kept his hands to himself. Eventually, he decides to chalk it up to something innate to Erik, occurring due to no fault on Charles' part, and does his best to merely provide quiet companionship throughout their sub-par meal in the diner of the town they've stopped in.

Oddly enough, it's when Charles decides to let go of conversation altogether that Erik seems to warm back up to the idea. Suddenly it's as though Erik has decided to enjoy his company—they talk politics, sidetrack into philosophy, and then change the topic entirely to the comparative benefits of hypothetical mutations, all laced with banter and wit that would have surprised Charles had he not already known Erik to be capable of it. They drink beer, which Charles dislikes and Erik seems ambivalent towards, and everything between them is shockingly easy and comfortable.

Chess, that night, is a bit drunken, but still entirely too fascinating for Charles' own good. Erik proves an extremely worthy opponent, alternating between traditional, well-thought out strategy and off-the-wall creativity whenever Charles thinks he has finally got Erik pinned down. Charles wins the first match, loses the second, and barely escapes a stalemate with victory for the third.

“You're cheating,” Erik accuses, after that third match, though his tone is light as he says it.

Charles means to joke in response, but finds himself shaking his head emphatically. “No,” he says, a little softly, “I wouldn't. Never for this, my friend.”

Erik leans back in his seat, looks at Charles contemplatively for a moment, and says, “Well. Maybe you wouldn't, after all.” His emphasis on you is one more thing Charles finds himself unable to make heads or tails of. “Another match?” Erik asks, when a moment has passed and Charles has found nothing to respond with.

Why not, Charles thinks, not quite loud enough to project, and smiles at Erik. “Set up the board,” he says, “and I'll see about getting something else to drink.”

He really does need to find a constructive solution for dealing with Erik that does not involve copious amounts of alcohol. Soon. He needs to do that soon. Right now he's either too drunk to think about it, or not drunk enough.

“Mein Gott,” Erik says, from beside his bed the next morning, “you are useless. Charles, wake up.”

Charles throws a hand over his eyes and doesn't groan through force of will alone. “I am awake,” he says. “I wish I wasn't.” Firm, warm fingers clasp around his wrist (and if Charles was not feeling so miserable, he would have slipped into Erik's mind involuntarily at that, so perhaps there is something to say for this desperate plan of his), and lift his hand away from his eyes. Charles blinks them open, largely unwillingly, and stares up at Erik's face. “How are you not hungover?” he asks.

Erik smirks down at him. “Lightweight,” he says again, and this time Charles is not nearly as tolerant of it. “Come on, Charles. We're wasting daylight.”

They find their first mutant in a bland house, in the midst of an equally bland suburb.

“Domestic,” Erik says, when they make the turn into the area, a hint of a sneer touching his voice and the corners of his mouth. Charles doesn't need to read Erik's mind to understand what his friend is getting at; Erik no doubt expects Charles to disagree, but Charles has seen into more than enough minds to know that outward appearances of normality in no way guarantee the same within. Besides, there's a sort of gloom over the neighborhood, like a cloud of discontent lingering in the air, and it makes Charles uncomfortable.

“Yes, well,” Charles says, simply. “Pull over somewhere. I know where she is.”

The woman who answers the door when Charles knocks is wearing a flowing house dress that does not suit her in the slightest. “Can I help you?” she asks, taking in the sight of the two of them on her front step. A quick dip into her mind shows Charles that she finds Erik intimidating (broad shoulders/tall/leather jacket/looks dangerous floats through her surface thoughts, and not in the warm, considering way Charles thinks that image deserves), and so Charles steps forward and smiles carefully, in a way that makes him look younger than he really is.

“Yes, Mrs. Goldstein,” Charles says, using the name his moment's fishing provided for her. “I'm Charles Xavier, I've a degree in genetics, and this is my,” and her mind gives him the phrase she is expecting to hear, so Charles smoothly provides, “associate, Erik Lensherr. If it's not too much of a bother, we'd like just a moment of your time.”

/'Not too much of a bother', Charles, really?/ Erik projects at him, clearly amused. An image of Charles sipping tea from bone china cups in a study full of books darts across along with the thought. Charles is almost disappointed that all of their titles are in German—he has no doubt his friend's mockery would continue even onto that level, were Charles capable of understanding German without deliberately filtering it through Erik's mind in a way he does not have permission to do. Aloud, Erik says nothing, which may be for the best.

“Well,” Mrs. Goldstein says, after another moment's scrutiny of them both, “you'd better come in, then.”

The inside of the house is very much like the outside, all straight lines and neat, light colors, and all terribly boring. Charles knows it's unkind of him to be judging this rapidly, but something about this place is very much putting him on edge. Mrs. Goldstein gestures for them to wait in the foyer, and turns to close the door behind herself (Charles has no rational reason to start feeling claustrophobic when she's finished that task, as he knows there is plenty of space in the house, none of it filled by any other minds than their three.)

“Your house is lovely,” Erik says, sounding very mild and genuine, and not at all like himself. Charles finds himself shooting a sharp glance up at his friend, and sees that Erik is holding himself differently, as though his leather jacket is actually part of a suit and he is a consummate business man. Charles knew, from diving into Erik's mind, that the taller man could do this, could hide himself inside another persona, and often did on his years-long search for Shaw. However, Erik's never had cause to change himself this way with Charles before, and seeing it now is...unsettling. From Erik's brief questioning look when he meets Charles' eyes, that discomfort is showing rather blatantly on his face. Charles looks back down and attempts to pretend that he hadn't been anchoring himself against Erik, inadvisable as that had been.

Mrs. Goldstein says, “You don't really think that,” and Charles looks up, surprised. She's twisting her fingers together, obviously uncomfortable, but she goes on, “You dislike my home, Mr. Lensherr, and you aren't comfortable in it, Mr. Xavier.” Beside Charles, Erik's whole body tenses, in a way that Charles recognizes intimately as due to fear that someone else is in his mind. “Neither of you are here about genetics,” she says, and drops her hands to her side, looking listless.

“But we are,” Charles cuts in, and smiles at her. “We're here about your genetics—our genetics, as well—the sequences of DNA that allow us to express our abilities. We are here because we are all the next evolutionary step for humanity, Mrs. Goldstein.”

“Charles,” Erik breaks in (and there has been at least one improvement over the last awkward minute or so, because Erik's voice is back to its usual, and the way in which he holds himself is purely his own.) “Don't be pedantic.” That, admittedly, stings a little, but Charles attributes most of it to Erik's displeasure at not having his mind solely to himself, and that makes it easier to stomach. “Are you a telepath?”

Mrs. Goldstein shakes her head. “I feel emotions, how other people are feeling, but not—not thoughts.”

“Empathy,” Charles says, and then a thought occurs to him. “You project emotions as well, don't you? Other people around you tend to feel how you feel?” It would explain why the entire neighborhood felt equally as discontented as the mind of the woman standing in front of him does, why standing in this house makes him feel as though he is absorbing profound discomfort from the woodwork.

“I can,” she says, and for just a second Charles is overwhelmed (sister crying at my wedding and she doesn't know why, just says over and over that she feels like she's losing someone, do you know how hard it is to keep smiling when your own sister is crying for your misery and you can't make it stop you can't ever make any of it – so hard to know when people were interested, when just my wanting them for friends/lovers made them want that too and I could never know if they wanted me or I made them – I make everyone unhappy in the end I make everyone hurt), and then Erik's hand comes down on his shoulder, and Charles finds what he needs to shake free.

Charles feels his eyes stinging, but his face is dry. “I'm fine, my friend,” he says to Erik, and manages a smile so that Erik will believe him. When Erik lets his hand fall away, still looking prepared to do something drastic in Charles defense, Charles turns to Mrs. Goldstein. “You aren't going to come with us, are you?” he asks, and finds his voice softer than he expected it to be.

Understanding dawns on her face. “You are a telepath,” she says, and smiles, a little sadly. “I'm sorry. But, no, I won't go with you.”

“Why?” Erik asks, sounding frustrated, and it occurs to Charles that an entire conversation has occurred that Erik could not possibly have grasped. “Do you really want to stay here with people who are nothing like you, who can never understand you? We haven't told you where we're going, or what we can do.” Charles hears echoes of his own voice in Erik's as Erik says, “With us, at least, you will not be alone any longer.”

Mrs. Goldstein says, “My husband will be home soon. You should probably leave.” She turns back towards the door, then pauses for a moment, deliberation written across her surface thoughts, and turns back. Looking Charles directly in the eyes, she says, gently, “What we are is wrong.” (Charles sees himself, looking at Erik, friendship/respect/attraction/love coming off of him in waves—sees a girl, in her early twenties, stretched out on a sheet, unclothed and relaxed and smiling, lips kiss swollen, beloved and incomparable—sees a very earnest man saying this is wrong this is a disease this can be cured—and knows that Mrs. Goldstein does not mean their mutations, and pities her that she believes this so strongly.) “I can't compound that by going with you,” she finishes, and shows them to the door.

Outside, in the car, Erik is all gritted teeth and obvious irritation. “She should never have to believe that what she is is wrong, Charles,” he says, and grips his hands very tightly around the wheel. “No human should ever have been able to make her feel less than she is.” He says something in German which Charles does not doubt is a curse (for a moment, the image of a golden, six-pointed star pinned to threadbare jackets and shirts rises so forcefully out of Erik's mind that Charles cannot help but to see it), and something metallic in the glove compartment starts to audibly shake.

“She felt that way long before her mutation began to appear,” Charles says, and then, when Erik's expression makes it clear the other man will challenge that, says, “Erik, please,” and closes his eyes.

Charles really isn't sure what happens for the next few minutes. He opens his eyes again when Erik starts the car, and by then something in his friend has shifted away from visible anger. “We'll have better luck next time,” Erik says, when he notices Charles watching him, his voice resolute.

“Of course we will,” Charles says, hoping he sounds even half as certain, and reaches for the radio in the hopes that music will help keep him out of Erik's mind.

...

“So, you two haven't killed each other yet,” Raven says, her voice sounding amused over the tinny phone line.

Charles looks out at the hotel lobby, where Erik is sitting on a plush and somewhat horrifying bright couch. (It isn't pining over Erik, Charles gets to tell himself, provided that Erik always notices his gaze before Charles can get even the slightest bit of soulful desperation into his gaze, or whatever the phrase particular to romance novels happens to be. Erik is entirely too astute to be appreciated unnoticed from afar.) Predictably, Erik feels the weight of someone's gaze on him and looks up from his book, meeting Charles' eyes briefly. Charles presses the phone he'd borrowed closer to his ear and shoots his friend a quick smile; Erik gives him the slightest hint of his usual smug grin and looks back down. “We've been perfectly civil,” Charles says, and leans further back in his own chair, wrapping the phone's cord around one finger. “Erik makes for very good company.”

“Which means you've been boring him with technical talk for weeks,” Raven teases.

“Shocking as it may be to you,” Charles says, deliberately putting on the most proper voice he can call to mind, “there are people in this world who don't find me boring, strangely enough.”

“And Erik is one of them?”

Charles can't help but wish Raven was close enough that he could touch her mind, that she would be willing to allow him to do so—his time with Erik is not something that compresses itself well into a brief, verbal summation. (Erik tilting over Charles' king, his lips curving up smug and pleased, his guard, for once, down—Erik laughing, actually laughing, in the car, his body shaking slightly with the genuineness of it, as Charles tightens his hands on the wheel and continues to butcher the words of the song on the radio—Erik with his eyes on the road ahead, determined to push just a little faster, a little farther, to get to Shaw.) Without that means available to him, Charles says, “Yes. Erik is.”

“Good,” Raven says, sounding contented for him, and Charles misses his sister very badly for a moment. Raven has been his closest companion since they were children together; Charles is unaccustomed to being apart from her for prolonged periods of time with only a telephone for communication, and their search for fellow mutants has gone on for almost three weeks now.

“How are things with you?” Charles asks, closing his eyes. “You and Moira are getting along well enough without me?”

“No, Professor, we've torn each other to shreds without your calming influence,” Raven says, and Charles laughs at how dry she's managed to make her tone. “We're alright, here. It's been a bit of show-and-tell with the CIA—you know, see the pretty girl, see her turn blue,” and the bit of bitterness that bleeds into Raven's voice makes something in Charles ache familiarly. “Mostly Moira's bosses seem to all believe we actually exist now, so that's something. But—I've been spending a lot of my time with Hank, when I'm not actually working.”

“Raven,” Charles says, and finds himself flailing for something which sounds appropriately happy for her, while still clearly imparting the message that Charles is her older brother and never wants so much as a glimpse into her sex life. “Congratulations,” he says, a little stupidly.

Raven laughs, the sound very, very welcome. “We're not getting married, Charles. I just—thought you might like to know.”

“It's always good to know my sister is happy,” Charles says, and opens his eyes. It does not surprise him, at this point, to find that his eyes automatically seek out Erik, who is once again paging through his book. “I'm glad you've found someone.”

There's the briefest of pauses, and then Raven says, flatly, “You mean someone who knows I'm blue, don't you?”

Charles frowns. “I wish you wouldn't, Raven,” he says. (It disturbs him that, lately, his sister has been ever so focused on the color of her own skin, parading about in front of him in her natural form and asking his opinion, so intent on getting that opinion that it actually makes Charles uncomfortable. Charles' opinion shouldn't matter. When they were children, when she feared that their mother wouldn't love her if she was blue, or their father would send her away, it was easy for Charles to touch her mind and tell her that it didn't matter, that she was his sister and he loved her regardless of anything. The color of Raven's skin has never been part of what makes Raven herself as a person, only part of how society views that person—Charles couldn't care less what she goes about looking like, but he wishes she would stop letting that appearance define her.) “You've been very focused on looks recently, it isn't like you.” Charles is left for a moment to the sound of his sister's breathing over the phone line, and the feeling that he's not said something wrong, but he has said something poorly. “I don't understand that,” Charles says, and hopes that his sister will take this opening to talk to him for once.

Instead she says, clearly changing the topic, “You've found three mutants so far?”

“Yes,” Charles says, and feels like he should push even as he lets it slide. “One wouldn't come with us, another was too young for us to consider taking him away from home, and one had a mutation that was...unsuitable for work with the CIA.”

“It sounds like there's a story there,” Raven says, and Charles winces. He'd rather hoped she wouldn't actually ask after that.

“He released spores that caused extreme intoxication in anyone they touched,” Charles says. (What, Charles had said when they touched him and the world seemed to slant, did those do, exactly? The mutant had looked very apologetic, I release them as a response to stress, I didn't hear you coming up behind me, and then Erik had said, Charles, sounding oddly distressed. That's the last thing Charles remembers of the four hours following contact; the only small upside was that he finally got to see what Erik Lensherr looked like hungover.) Raven thinks about this for a moment, and then begins to laugh hysterically. Charles holds the phone slightly away from his ear and waits for her to calm down.

When she sounds rational again, albeit gulping for air in the aftermath of her laughter, Charles says, “Understandably, we're hoping for a slightly less extreme mutation on our next attempt,” and sets her right off again.

“No, I'm done now,” Raven says, some small time later. “Really. Just—that image is way too good, you know.”

“I'm glad you appreciated it,” Erik says, smoothly, from directly next to Charles' ear. Charles very nearly has a heart attack at an unfortunately young age, and looks sharply up to where his friend has come to stand behind his chair and is leaning over him. “Charles was monopolizing you,” Erik says, mouth close enough to the receiver to be heard and as such far too close to Charles' lips. (On the one hand, Charles very much appreciates Erik's tone on a number of levels; on the other, something he refuses to title jealousy bites at him in response to that tone being turned on his sister.)

“I didn't know you'd bonded,” Charles says. Then, both for honesty's sake, and to see the satisfied expression he knows it will bring to Erik's face, he continues, “Nor did I see you move, my friend.”

“You didn't monitor all the time we spent at the CIA post, we had to do something while you were in Cerebro,” Raven says, even as Erik says, “Then you should be paying more attention, Charles.”

“Alright, alright,” Charles says, and laughs, “I know when I'm outnumbered.”

Erik claims the phone from Charles, and tells Raven, “Your brother and I need to go, I'm afraid. Our list of mutants may be shortening, but it's hardly exhausted yet.”

“Oh,” Raven says, “where are you going?”

Charles realizes an instant ahead of time what Erik is going to do, and says, “Erik, no.”

It does him no good. Erik, in a voice dropped lower than its usual rumble (and Charles refuses to think he is the only one who hears that voice and immediately thinks of sex—he pities any people who might pass by at this moment, who would not expect to suddenly have all their thoughts forcibly derailed), says, “Oh, didn't your brother tell you? We seem to be going to a strip club.”

“I am never going to hear the end of this,” Charles says, mostly to himself, and Erik drops the phone back into its cradle to the sound of his sister laughing so hard it might actually cause injury.

Chapter Text

Driving away from the club is one of the most profoundly relieving things Charles has ever done.

Apparently, this shows on his face, as Erik glances away from the road for a moment to look at him, and frowns as he turns his eyes back. /Are you alright?/ Erik projects, fingers tapping against the steering wheel. There's genuine concern behind the question, which Charles appreciates deeply—this, however, is something Charles really does not want to explain to his friend.

The thing is, Charles has been reading minds since before he knew the words for what he's able to do, so of course he's touched minds preoccupied with, or engaged in, sex before, usually against his own will. Equally obviously, Charles has had sex before (rather a lot of it, actually, for all that Raven tends to mock Charles' favorite pick-up lines). He knows what sex feels like, both for himself, people he's slept with, and a number of people he never wished to know quite that much about. What he hasn't ever done before is go to a strip club—he does spend the majority of his free time with his little sister, after all, and thinking of Raven and sex at the same time is enough to make him cringe on the merits of brotherly affection alone. Walking into that club unprepared was like finding himself unexpectedly taking part in an orgy, surrounded by other minds solely fixated on sex/now/want, and having to walk into that next to Erik was almost more than he could bear. If that wasn't enough, the atmosphere of the place on its own was mortifying and miserable and entirely too dependent on red velvet everywhere, including the bed that he and Erik laid on together while they talked to Angel and Erik suddenly decided everything should be an innuendo. (We'll show you ours if you show us yours, really.)

Understandably, Charles is still...a little flustered.

Still, he'll be alright. It isn't as though spending weeks sleeping in the same room as Erik hasn't already been a test of his control; he's getting rather good at talking himself down from inopportune erections, as it were. Besides that, there's the small flash of joy Charles gets every time he looks in the rear-view mirror and see Angel sitting there, arms crossed over her chest a little defensively and barely more clothed than when they had first seen her, but still very present and very much a mutant. Their first success is sitting in the backseat of their car, and that's certainly something.

“Yes, my friend,” Charles says to Erik, and hopes he isn't flushed, “I'm perfectly fine, no need for concern.”

Fabric rustles in the backseat, and Charles flicks his eyes to the rear-view mirror to see that Angel has sat up straighter, looking interested. “So, do you two talk like...?” she asks, waving one finger in the general direction of her forehead. Charles chooses to interpret that gesture not as the one that typically denotes insanity, but as her best approximation of his usual focusing gesture, which she has only seen once. “Can you have whole conversations that way?”

Charles shrugs and says, “I prefer to have conversations out loud.” It's true, to a certain degree—other people certainly prefer that Charles speak out loud, and Charles generally prefers not to make those around him uncomfortable. “However, if you're asking whether I could have a whole conversation entirely between minds, then the answer is yes.”

“Huh,” Angel says, and settles back. Charles contemplates skimming her mind to see exactly what that means, but if there's even the slightest chance that something of the strip club lingers in her thoughts, doing so will not be worth physically reacting again. The possible discomfort of working with someone who finds his ability intrusive is not something Charles wants to worry about, not now, when there is a much more immediate discomfort he's only starting to calm from.

“It's a long drive to where we're going,” Erik says, when the silence has stretched on for a minute. “If there's anything you need, we should stop now.”

“Nah,” Angel says, “I'm fine. Been crashing on a friend's couch, so pretty much everything I own is in here.” She nudges the black bag on the seat beside her, and Charles feels rather judgmental for immediately noticing how worn it looks. “I'm not hungry or anything either, so we're good to go.”

Then it is just the three of them in the car, silent, and to Charles' surprise that silence feels oddly uncomfortable. He and Erik have, by necessity, formed a sort of travel etiquette by this point—one can't exactly spend three weeks in extremely close proximity with another person without forming some basic rules to keep everyone involved sane. Erik prefers to drive, perhaps because he feels more as though he's actively doing something to find Shaw when he does so, and Charles allows him that provided that Erik sometimes lets him take over the car. Charles prefers speaking to Erik, or listening to the radio, rather than sitting in silence, and Erik provides conversation or music except for when certain moods strike him. The small compromises go far beyond those, of course, but the fact of the matter is that Charles has not felt uncomfortable in a car with Erik since those very first days, back when keeping out of Erik's mind was a constant struggle rather than a largely ignorable ache.

It's almost as if, now that they've found Angel, they simply don't know what to do with her. Charles thinks something about that doesn't bode especially well, but acknowledges that thought as Erik's habitual pessimism rubbing off on him.

Charles, for lack of anything better to do, settles more comfortably in his seat in a manner that just happens to turn his eyes towards Erik. It isn't often he indulges in his desire to properly admire Erik, which is more the fault of Erik's perceptiveness than Charles' self-control. Still, ever so occasionally Charles cannot think of a reason not to, and today, with their very first located mutant sitting in the back seat, is one of those occasions.

(Erik is wearing a suit today rather than one of his usual turtlenecks, and the jacket and tie have long since been discarded next to Angel in the back seat, leaving him in a shirt with just the uppermost button undone. It probably says something about Charles that the small patch of skin that is revealed at the base of Erik's throat makes Charles feel rather like he belongs back in the Victorian era, gaping like a fool at some lady's bare ankles. The rise and fall of Erik's throat and chest fascinate him for no reason he can explain, and he allows himself to picture, for one moment, what it would feel like to rest his head against Erik's bare skin, sex-sticky and tired, and let that rhythm lull him to sleep. Erik's fingers, curled around the steering wheel, are large and capable, and Charles cannot let himself imagine what they would feel like against his body, or a certain problem will become pressing once again. He wishes Erik would roll up his sleeves, just enough to let the strength of his arms show; then again, he's seen the ink against Erik's inner arm once or twice during their nights spent traveling, while Erik read in the bed across the room, and he understands Erik's reluctance to do so. Erik thinks of himself as a weapon, Charles remembers, and certainly parts of Erik would fit that image: his lean strength, for one, or the way his blue eyes sometimes go distant and furious, or the sharp edges of his teeth when he smiles. As a whole, however, taking all the good and bad and everything that lays between the two, Charles cannot view Erik in that fashion. It makes him sound an impossible romantic to say so, but Erik, taken in his entirety, is beautiful.)

Erik feels his gaze eventually, unsurprisingly, and sends his mind out to Charles' in a brief brush, projecting not words but a questioning feeling. Given Charles' current mood, the touch feels far more like a caress than the friendly inquiry he knows it truly is, and it takes a great deal from him not to return that soft touch. “I'm sorry,” Charles says, and smiles at Erik before turning his eyes away as he rightly should have before. “My mind wandered for a moment.”

It means a considerable amount to Charles that Erik has learned to accept that phrase from him without worrying about intrusions into his mind; Erik does not flinch away at the suggestion as he might have done weeks ago, but instead snorts softly in amusement. “Sometimes I don't know how you keep yourself from walking into walls, Charles, given the amount of time your mind spends focused elsewhere,” Erik says, and turns just enough towards Charles that Charles cannot miss the edge of his smirk.

“Years of practice,” he says, lightly.

Erik's grin widens, and he says, “Remind me to ask Raven about your childhood, then. I have the feeling there are any number of stories I'd love to hear.”

“You're not that cruel,” Charles says, and manages to get the beginnings of an actual laugh out of Erik.

“Try me, my friend,” Erik says in return. Erik clearly means it casually, in much the same way that Charles does, but it does not escape Charles that this is the first time Erik has used that word in reference to him aloud. Charles likely looks entirely too thrilled for a few moment's banter to account for, but at least Erik is focused on traffic and slightly less likely to notice than he would have been anywhere else.

Then, from the backseat, Angel asks, “Who's Raven?” and Charles is startled despite himself. He had honestly forgotten she was there for a moment, and realizing that makes him feel guilty. He's obviously been getting slightly too used to having Erik entirely to himself.

“My younger sister,” Charles says, and takes care to meet Angel's eyes in the rear-view mirror. Angel looks—not focused, precisely, but strangely intent, as though there is something she is thinking very hard about. “She's a mutant like us, a shapeshifter, and she's close to your age.”

“That's groovy,” Angel says, and crosses one leg over the other, never dropping her eyes from Charles' gaze. “It'll be nice having somebody around to talk to.” Her eyes narrow, and there's a feeling like a buzzing at the edge of Charles' mind, a presence his mind registers not as sound but rather as an itch. Charles frowns and raises a hand to scratch over one ear, hoping the physical stimulus will drive the mental one away.

“Yes,” he says, “I thought you might—” Then the buzzing comes into focus, and suddenly Charles realizes that Angel has been trying to project at him for quite some time. /...if you can hear me professor/ flits through his mind, the thought sounding quiet and strangely inconsistent, as though Angel keeps changing the distance she's speaking to him from. Still, for a first attempt, this is hardly the worst Charles has ever seen. One day, he will stop being fascinated by the amazing people he's managed to surround himself with; it will be a very dull day indeed. /Yes,/ Charles says, letting his mind reach out to Angel's, just enough to stabilize the contact between them, /I can hear you./ Out loud, Charles rather lamely finishes, “—appreciate that.”

“Groovy,” Angel says again, and Charles is really quite uncertain what she's responding to. She slumps back in her seat and projects /i don't really need anything. i just wanted to see if i could./ Something else comes across with that thought, something that feels to Charles like a question Angel is unsure if she should ask. He sends a touch of encouragement between their minds, and feels Angel's confusion as she tries to sort it out, a pointed feeling that comes to him as /!?/. Then, a moment later, she sends back /okay. i wanted to know if/ (this short brown-haired cat sitting next to a bigger man at the bar, a large bill in the bigger one's hand, and work's been going better today than it has for/they're sitting on the bed together, shoulder to shoulder, both all in suits and blue eyed/the professor leaning back in his seat and looking over like)

Charles shakes his head to clear the sudden influx of memories—memories that can only be Angel's, considering that he saw his face from the outside in them—and projects, gently, /I'm sorry, Angel, that didn't come across. Ask again?/

Angel gives him a feeling of vague discomfort at repeating the question that Charles is fairly sure she did not mean to send, and then tries again. /i wanted to know if the two of you are together./

After those memories, Charles does not have to ask what she means. /No./

/oh/ he gets in return, along with surprise/sheepishness/skepticism. /because it would be okay. if you were. that isn't—/ (Seen guys like that before—might not get it, personally, but they've always been cool, don't ever make trouble—one guy at the club pays for a private room and asks to just talk about this cat he's with, and definitely not a counselor here, but won't say no to a tip that good—being, y'know, like that, isn't sick.)

“Thank you,” Charles says, surprised by her support, and only realizes he's said it out loud when Erik lets his choice not to ask show visibly on his face. Obviously he knows what she sent is true—he's been in enough people's minds to see what real mental illness looks like, and homosexuality bears no resemblance to it—but he's rarely met others who share his view. /We aren't together,/ Charles continues, in the interest of not causing an embarrassing misunderstanding, /but thank you, nevertheless./

“Yeah,” Angel says, “no problem, Professor.” She smiles at him, not widely but sincerely, and then finishes curling up in her seat. “Look, it was a long shift,” she says, and closes her eyes, “I'm just gonna catch some sleep.”

“We'll wake you before we arrive,” Erik says.

After that, Charles finds, the silence in the car is not nearly so uncomfortable.

Angel sits up in the backseat, blinking sleep out of her eyes, and then begins to blink for an entirely different reason. Charles feels the change in the tone of her mind, but by the time he contemplates dropping a layer deeper to find out why, she's already talking. “This?” she asks, incredulously. “This gigantic thing is your covert CIA base?”

Not entirely certain why he's feeling defensive over a base he had no part in creating, Charles says, “Well...,” and then trails off. There is probably an excellent argument to be made for the base, but Charles doesn't even begin to know what it is.

/Charles/ Erik projects, sounding far more amused in the mental touch than his physical voice would normally convey. /You don't have to defend the US government's sense of secrecy. In this case, I don't think you could./

Charles acknowledges that point. “Yes,” he says, and then, “If you'll step out of the car, Erik and I will show you to a room?”

“Lovely evasion, Charles,” Erik says, and opens his door.

The grand tour, as it happens, is neither particularly grand nor especially long. The building is much like any other government building Charles has ever found himself inside of before—largely built with clean lines and utility in mind, with only a rare thought given to comfort. It isn't meant to be a home, and they aren't trying to make it one, but it is what they seem to be considering their base for the time being, and that makes the lack of comfort rather more noticeable than it would have been otherwise.

The area which they are allowed to spend time within is rather smaller than the entire base, as well. Charles appreciates that they are, after all, borrowing a covert CIA base, and tries his best to respect those limitations. He could easily allow his mind to venture outwards just a little, and know for certain what is being kept secret within this building, but that would be a terrible breach of trust, and so Charles is content to accept his lack of knowledge. Erik, rather pessimistically, likes to think that the areas are restricted simply because they are mutants (they'll keep a place for the humans to run to, Erik had told him one night earlier on the trip, drink half-empty in his hand. We are the secret they're keeping, Charles. It frightens me that you choose not to see that.) Charles is fairly certain his view is the more realistic one, but doesn't consider the matter important enough to argue with Erik over, not when he and Erik find plenty of things to argue over besides that.

Regardless, the tour Charles finds himself giving Angel is a fairly brief one, starting with the stark bedrooms they've been allocated, winding through the building's cafeteria, and ending in Hank's labs. The tour is kept from complete blandness by virtue of Angel's curiosity alone. “So, what,” Angel asks, once her bag is dropped in a room and Charles has explained the basic layout of the hallways, “you two get paid to drive around and look for people like us?”

“Yes,” Charles says. “We're officially considered consultants to the CIA, and we are paid accordingly. It isn't much—,” Charles finds Erik's snort at his comment to be unnecessary, and levels his friend with a look, “but it is enabling us to work towards our ultimate goal.”

“And that is?” Angel asks, and Charles spares a moment to wonder why on Earth she even came with them, if they did such a poor job of explaining this in the first place.

“To begin to understand how many of us there are, and to better understand our own mutations,” Charles says. Then, on a whim, he shoots a glance towards Erik and continues, “To make sure none of us need to consider themselves alone in the world.”

Angel raises an eyebrow at him, and for a moment looks at him like he can't possibly be serious. Once she seems to realize that Charles is saying nothing he doesn't truly believe, her entire expression changes. Awe/discomfort/gratitude come off her thoughts in a dizzying tangle, and Charles respectfully looks away from the memories that roll through her mind. “That's pretty deep,” she says, trying to sound facetious and very nearly managing it—were Charles not a telepath, he would never have known her true emotional state was far more complex.

“Charles is sentimental,” Erik says, managing to make it sound like a mild insult, “but shallowness is not something I'd usually accuse him of.” That, by contrast, sounds like the highest sort of compliment, mostly due to the way that Erik says it.

“You flatter me, my friend,” Charles says, and hopes it comes across as a continuation of a joke, rather than a somewhat pathetically sincere response to positive attention from Erik. From Erik's grin, Charles decides he mostly succeeded.

“Hey,” a very, very welcome voice says, and Charles is spinning to face his sister even as she continues, “no flattery in front of me, okay? I'm his younger sister, I'm obligated to think Charles is an irredeemable tyrant.”

“Raven,” Charles says, his voice sounding very warm even to his own ears, and he opens his arms for an embrace his sister willingly gives, smiling as she does so. “I am extremely glad to see you.”

Raven steps away, blonde hair bouncing around her face as she moves, and says, “You too.” Then she turns to Charles' companions and says, “Good to see you again, Erik,” at which Erik's grin widens slightly, and, to Angel, “I don't think we've met. I'm Raven Xavier, the friendlier and more attractive Xavier sibling.” This comment, of course, makes Charles obligated to shoot his sister a disapproving look, which she maturely responds to by sticking her tongue out at him.

Angel smiles, the expression slow and genuine, and then says, tone casual, “I don't know, Raven. Your brother's a pretty cool cat, you're gonna have to work for that one.”

Raven blinks, momentarily making her eyes larger to give the faux disbelief more impact, and says, “Cool? Charles, what lies have you been telling her?”

“Everything good I ever told her about you, to begin with,” Charles says, and presses a kiss to her forehead simply because she is physically in the same place as him for the first time in weeks, and he can, now. /Sentimental/ Erik's mental voice comes, as though he is proving his earlier point. (Charles has to take a deep breath and ignore the sensation that comes with that thought; for all that he appreciates Erik's gradual relaxation around him, he doubts his friend will appreciate Charles reacting to the feeling of never had that/Shaw took so much that seeing Charles and Raven together prompts in Erik, especially when he has no doubt Erik did not mean to send that sensation in the first place.)

“You're a horrible brother,” Raven says, smiling. “Has she met Hank yet?” Enthusiasm enters her voice at that, and Charles feels himself smiling as well—it's good to see Raven like this, genuinely happy in an uncomplicated way. When Charles shakes his head in answer to her question, Raven turns to Angel and says, “Come on, then. Hank's a mutant too, and he works here as a scientist—he's going to love meeting you. Just ignore any scientific babble he falls into when you show him your mutation and you'll get along great.”

Angel, too, looks genuinely happy as she turns to follow Raven; her tangled thoughts of before have settled as well, becoming simpler things about the conversation Raven strikes up and the possibility of a friendship between them. Charles feels exceedingly justified, watching them. He was spoiled, all his life, to have his sister nearby and know for a fact that there were others like him in the world. For every Charles Xavier, however, there are God knows how many Erik Lensherr's, growing up believing themselves to be monsters, to be alone in the world, or Angel's, rejected by the people who should have looked after them because of a genetic quirk they could never control and uncomfortable with their own abilities. Being able to find those mutants and bring them together is becoming even more important to Charles, now, after seeing Angel feel relaxed and welcome for the first time since she turned twelve. Charles cannot help but to look at Erik and wonder how his life would have been different if someone had come to take him from Shaw's hands and tell him he was not alone when he was still a boy. Changing the past is impossible, Charles knows, but every mutant he can bring to safety is one more who will not suffer as Erik did.

“Charles,” Erik says, sounding amused, and Charles snaps out of his own train of thought. “You were wandering again.”

“Being philosophical, actually,” Charles says, by way of correction. By this time, Raven and Angel's minds are two bright points well ahead of them, moving towards Hank in the labs, and Charles knows he had better catch up before his sister becomes irritated with him. “Shall we?”

Erik gestures down the hallway and says, “After you.”

Charles would like to say that he's mystified about how a tour for Angel turned into him waiting to be connected to Cerebro again, but the truth of the matter is that he's no such thing. (“Charles!” Hank said, as soon as he'd ceased hypothesizing about the organic material that made up Angel's wings and realized Charles was present. “It's good you're here—I made some minor updates to Cerebro's programming while you were away.” Charles, naturally, asked exactly what changes had been made, leading into Hank explaining that, “Cerebro wasn't originally designed with you in mind, considering that I made it to amplify all brain waves, including human ones. Since you used it the first time I used the results of that test to optimize it; your range in it should be improved, now. If you'd like to try it, I can probably improve that further—actually, if you don't mind, maybe we could, now?” The end result of this had been all of them trudging up towards Hank's installation, and Erik shooting him repeated smug thoughts that had lab rats as a common theme.)

Some of the wires that protruded from Cerebro's helmet the first time have been removed, and others bundled together, making the helmet neater looking overall. Charles still feels a certain amount of trepidation as he pulls it down over his head. Cerebro is...overwhelming to use, and Charles has a sinking suspicion that it's extremely boring for the others to wait around as he's doing so.

“If you like,” Charles says, eyes meeting Raven's, “you can finish showing Angel around instead of waiting here.” To Angel, he says, “This process is rather dull for everyone in this room who isn't telepathic, I'd imagine—my standing in one place for half an hour isn't terribly exciting to watch.”

“You do make rather amusing faces while you do it, Charles,” Erik points out with a smirk. He's leaning against the far railing of the installation, looking very much settled into a position which allows him to both face Charles and keep an eye on the door. Charles gives him a look which probably falls far short of disapproving, and Erik's smirk widens enough to reveal a few more teeth. “Besides that, I'll admit it's uneventful.”

“Maybe if we let Hank try shaving your hair, Charles,” Raven starts to say, and Charles is very quick to cut her off with a negative response before Hank starts looking hopeful again.

Angel laughs and says, “Yeah, I think I'll sit this one out, if that's okay with you.” Something in her tone strikes Charles as odd, and he frowns and lets his mind dip into hers, checking her surface thoughts for anything negative even as he sends a soft query between their minds. /just tired, prof/ she sends back, and the fatigue from the car rises in her thoughts, proving her answer true. “Raven,” she says, “could you maybe show me back to my room? I just want to relax for a while and sleep early, I'm a little out of it.”

“Yeah, sure,” Raven says, though she darts a quick glance between Hank and Erik, as if she doesn't want to leave them alone together. There's something loud in her mind, a memory so obvious that it's a step short of projection, but Charles has had years of practice at staying out of Raven's mind, and it is not nearly so challenging now as keeping himself out of Erik's. He lets the memory subside from his attention, and resolves to ask his sister later whether Erik and Hank argued at some point Charles is not aware of. “C'mon.” Raven gives Charles one last quick look and a smile, and then she turns back towards the stairs leading out of the installation, Angel trailing behind her.

“Erik?” Charles asks, once they've gone. He stretches out his fingers and then wraps them around the bars in front of where he's standing—he's aware he'll probably need them to stay upright, but last time he came out of Cerebro he'd clenched them so tightly that he almost lost feeling in his fingertips.

“Trust me, Charles,” Erik says, and leans back farther, giving every impression of having absolutely no desire to move. As if to further that impression, he crosses his arms over his arms over his chest, which Charles suspects is meant to appear nonchalant rather than to draw Charles' attention to the strength of his arms. “If I wanted to be elsewhere, I would be.”

It's a fair point; making Erik do something he doesn't want to is difficult enough when Charles is putting effort into it, and that alone should cue Charles into the fact that obligation is never much of a motivator to his friend. “Alright,” he says, and closes his eyes, as though that will make any difference. “Hank, if you would?”

“Okay,” Hank says, and then—

Charles is everywhere, absolutely everywhere, seeing the world through God only knows how many minds at once. It's like nothing else has ever been, or will ever be. The closest comparison he can make to it is swimming through stars, bright individually and blinding as a whole.

“God,” he hears himself say, his own voice sounding very distant, “and I thought this was overwhelming the first time.”

There is so much, there are so many people, and Charles is with all of them, Charles knows them all. They think mundane things (what do I need to buy for groceries/does he really/damned car won't start/your turn to deal with it) and they fall in love and out of love as Charles watches, uncountable minds crying and laughing and fearing and hoping and living, all so very alive, and it's brilliant, it's so brilliant. It's almost like a drug, but this is not some chemical playing tricks with Charles' mind, this is his mind expanding impossibly to touch everything.

Charles revels in that for a moment, and then reaches for the brightest minds, the ones he feels most clearly, the ones that manage to shout over the din.

“We're getting results,” he hears Hank say, the sound thin and unreal coming from a physical voice to his physical ears. “There are already so many.”

Yes, Charles thinks, there are, and he is with all of them. He knows them all, and it's impossible for him to feel this much, but he is, he knows—

Charles feels his physical body frown, and, with a great effort, pulls himself back down into his own mind, at least enough to allow him to speak. “Hank,” he says, “wait, stop, some of these mutants won't want to come with us.”

“You can feel their intent?” Erik asks, and Charles thinks, Erik—

Erik's mind looms up in front of him, brighter than any other mind he's seen, the flawed beauty of it magnified a thousandfold by Cerebro, and Charles knows coming this close was a mistake, because it would take nothing now to submerge himself in Erik again. He knows Erik's mind and he wants more than anything to let himself press against it, to curl up inside and let the imperfections cut him and the underlying goodness sooth those hurts until he is part of Erik, until Erik cannot leave him and will not want to, and it would be nothing in this moment to let himself do so.

Keeping himself from doing so is everything, takes every grain of focus Charles has, and leaves him feeling winded and alone. It—reassures him, paradoxically, to finally know the lengths he will go to to maintain Erik's trust; he thinks that after this, he will finally be able to trust his ability to stay out of Erik's mind as completely as he does his ability to stay out of Raven's. My God, he lets himself realize, privately, I really do love him. It is perhaps not as surprising a revelation as it should have been.

“Yes,” Charles says, what feels like a small eternity after Erik's question, feeling compressed and stifled from holding himself back but entirely proud of himself. “You may as well cross those ones out. It will save time, anyway.”

“The machines won't register which sets of coordinates those are,” Hank says, and Charles taps featherlight against his mind as a request. “Oh!” Hank says, and Charles realizes that featherlight in this state is still perhaps a little heavy-handed. He doesn't appear to have actually injured the scientist, fortunately, as a moment later Hank continues, “Yes, of course, you'll recognize them and tell me, thank you.”

Permission granted, Charles weaves the thinnest, most temporary link between his mind and Hank that he can manage, enough to filter Hank from the overwhelming effects of Cerebro. Then, opening his eyes, Charles lets himself go, and the light of a million minds swallows him up.

“Welcome back to the world, Charles,” Erik says, and Charles realizes he does not know how much time has passed.

He reaches up to lift the helmet off his head and finds his arms weak, his hands and fingers shaking with strain. His first step forward finds him weaving like he's drunk, and if the metal bars were not there for him to hold, Charles is fully aware he would fall down in that moment.

“Charles!” Hank says, sounding concerned, and comes around the bars to help brace him upright. “Are you alright?”

“Yes, of course,” Charles says. “I'm going to sleep for twelve hours and probably dislike myself immensely tomorrow morning, but I'm certain I've inflicted worse on myself before.” That last is either an exaggeration or a very close call, but Charles is fairly certain it says enough about his life already that it is not an outright lie.

He tries another step and finds it to be even less successful, and is certain he hears Erik laugh at him as he clutches feebly at the bars.

Then there is an arm around his shoulders, one that does not feel at all like Hank's, and Charles lets himself look up to see Erik standing entirely too close. For a moment he feels himself turn towards Erik involuntarily, as if he is actually going to embarrass himself entirely by swooning like a romance novel heroine into Erik's leather-clad arms. Then Erik's grip tightens, and Charles manages to pretend unsteadiness was the cause of his actions in the first place.

A chuckle physically rumbles through Erik's chest, and at this distance Charles can feel the way his body vibrates with it. “Come on, my friend,” Erik says, his voice pitched low in ways Charles is completely incapable of guarding himself against right now. “I've seen you like this before, and I think it's best we get you back to your room before you become completely useless.”

“Oh, God,” Charles says, “everyone in the CIA is going to think I'm drunk.” Erik laughs again at that, rather pleasantly.

“He will be okay?” Hank asks, and Charles realizes the question is directed to Erik when Erik nods in response.

“He is right here,” Charles reminds them, and then has to concentrate very hard on staying upright as Erik takes a step forward. “That is exceedingly unpleasant,” he informs Erik's shoulder.

“I'll play a game of chess with you if you can make it to your room without falling over,” Erik says, clearly trying to offer some form of incentive, and Charles finds himself laughing.

“My friend,” he says, “in this state, I'm afraid you'll demolish me.”

“So,” Erik says, “nothing out of the ordinary, then?” This is an utter lie, and a defamation of Charles' chess skills besides, and he fully intends to protest until he realizes they have reached the stairs. The first stair is enough to make him decide that he hates whoever invented stairs, he is never using Cerebro again, and his focus is badly needed elsewhere.

Fortunately for Charles, Moira is amenable to moving their planned breakfast meeting to one occurring over lunch.

By fortunate, of course, he means that, had the meeting been at its original hour, he would have slept through it entirely. He'd slightly miscalculated in the estimate he gave Hank, as generally even hangovers do not cause him to sleep in so late; he only awakes to the sound of someone knocking on his door, and a bleary look at the clock then shows him it is approaching eleven o'clock. “Sorry, yes,” he calls out vaguely to whoever is at the door, and manages to talk himself upright and make his way to the door.

It only occurs to him that he might have been well suited to find clothes, or at least to put on a shirt, when the door opens to reveal Erik on the other side. For a long moment, there is silence, as Charles scrambles to retrieve his manners from wherever they were dislodged to, and Erik watches him with a completely unreadable, strangely intense expression. “Hello,” Charles manages to say at last, “sorry, I've just woken up. Come in, my friend.” He stands away from the door frame to allow Erik to do so, and after another moment with the weight of Erik's gaze on him, Erik steps inside.

“I didn't think you'd still be asleep,” Erik says, something a little strange in his tone. Charles tries to decipher it, and, failing, turns around to grope for a shirt inside his suitcase instead. If his head is pounding a little too hard for intelligent conversation, he can at least try for propriety. “Are you feeling ill?”

“Nothing serious, no,” Charles says, and finds a sweater. “My head is aching, and I slept like the dead, but a few hours quiet and something to eat should cure most of that.” He pulls the sweater on and settles it around his body; feeling slightly less unprepared for conversation, he turns back to face Erik, who is now looking at him with something like amusement.

“You'll be glad to know I spoke to Moira last night and had the time of our meeting changed,” Erik says, and Charles finally recalls that such a meeting had been arranged in the first place. He feels himself flush—even if he hadn't, Erik's smirk would make it readily apparent how obvious his embarrassment is at this moment. “Calm down, Charles, I explained why I was asking. There wasn't any offense taken.”

“Well,” Charles says, “good. That's—that's good.” He sounds rather remarkably insipid, he is just conscious enough to realize. He is not yet awake enough to correct that, though.

Erik's smirk widens. “Go take a shower, Charles.” Charles, for a moment, is utterly confused by this, as well as completely distracted—(Erik pressed up against him in the small shower stall of his bathroom, water running over both of them, all warm wet and skin)—and has to force himself back to attention when Erik continues, “Get something to eat. Our lunch meeting's not until twelve thirty. Amusing as I may find you at the moment, Charles, you'll be of very little use until you feel a bit more human.”

“Thank you,” Charles says, dumbly, and Erik laughs softly at him before turning for the door.

“Remember to wear clothes to lunch,” Erik says, just before the door closes behind him, and projects the sound of his laughter from the hallway at the disgruntled noise Charles makes in return.

Charles does do as Erik asks, and takes a shower. He somehow doubts his friend expected him to put it to quite this use, however.

He doesn't exactly plan for the hot water to make him hopelessly aroused, but the fact of the matter is that after his time in Cerebro, the relaxing effect of the water has a sort of sensuality in and of itself. It doesn't quite pound down at his muscles the way he'd like—this is, after all, the CIA, and he supposes he cannot have particularly high hopes for their water pressure in guest quarters—but it does roll warm down the stiffness that is his back and chest, and Charles feels himself harden without putting any conscious effort into it.

Instinctively, Charles stills his mind, preparing to exercise his mind's superior control over his body to once again stifle that physical reaction, and then it occurs to him, like a revelation, that he does not need to do so, now. Here, he is not in cramped quarters with Erik. He does not need to fear his erection will be correctly interpreted as the unwanted attention it is, nor fear that, in his self-pleasure, he will moan out Erik's name and make things exceedingly awkward. Erik is, for the first time in three weeks, not in either his direct line of sight or in hearing range.

Relief pours over Charles, and this time it's nothing to do with the hot water on his skin. He is, after all, a healthy male, and not yet thirty; suppressing his libido for a three week period was beginning to have serious detrimental effects.

Then that relief is replaced by something entirely different, and Charles does not need to examine the source of that emotion. Quickly, almost unable to believe that he has the privacy now to do so, Charles runs a hand down his own chest, fingers tracing the tracks of water droplets down to his belly and lower. Generally, he prefers something of a slower start; today he scrapes his fingers through the hair above his cock, teasing himself with the pressure just directly above where he wants it most, and finds that that is already more foreplay than he can stomach.

He's so hard right now that his cock is already pointed almost straight upwards, bouncing against his stomach with his every inhale and exhale. Charles cannot, does not want to, stifle the audible moan he makes when he curls his hand around himself. That first touch makes him rise up to the balls of his feet to fuck into his own fist, and he spares a moment to be pleased he is alone, because that must look alarmingly desperate. He tightens his own hand around himself, the water soaking his body enough to keep that friction just short of painful, and begins moving his hand in slow, steady strokes that twist just at the head of his cock.

Charles tries, very hard, to keep from straying into fantasy. He needs badly enough right now that it will not be necessary for him to come—just the warmth of the water and the press of his hand will be more than enough, given enough time. That does not mean, however, that he does not want to allow himself the privilege of fantasy, here where he can indulge in it without fear that the focus of those fantasies will barge in and interrupt him. His resolve lasts about as long as it takes for his free hand to track across his chest, circling his nipples and coming to pinch at one of them slightly, and then he gasps and caves, closing his eyes.

(Erik is standing behind him, pressed close enough that Charles can feel the heat of his body, can feel every time one of his muscles so much as twitches. Erik's cock is nestled along Charles' ass, tip resting at the small of his back, and Charles thrusts back against it once before Erik chuckles. It's a low sound, the one that rumbles in his throat and derails Charles' thoughts entirely, and in this context it makes Charles close his eyes tighter, making a sound he will deny to his dying day. Then Erik wraps one arm around Charles' waist, equal parts comforting and constricting, his forearm resting strong and warm just above Charles' cock. “There's more than enough time for this,” Erik says, and punctuates his statement by thrusting against Charles, all wet heat. His arm tightens as he moves, and Charles takes the message gracefully: for the moment, Erik would like to control the way this goes. “Right now is about you, Charles.”

One of Erik's large, capable hands takes Charles', and together their hands wrap around Charles' cock. Charles thrusts helplessly into the combined warmth and tightness of their hands, feeling the calluses of Erik's fingers against the sensitive skin of his cock. He feels entirely beyond speech, but Erik seems to expect it of him, and so Charles manages to huff out, “That seems a—a little selfish of me, my friend.”

“Mm,” Erik says, and nuzzles the side of Charles' neck, nipping at his earlobe, breath ghosting out over the curve of Charles' ear, “not really. Selfish of me, maybe.” Erik guides him through a proper stroke, but a teasing one, not nearly as fast or as tight as Charles would like right now. “This is what I want to see. You, this desperate for me.” Together they stroke harder, and Charles moans something meaningless, leans back into Erik's body to be able to better thrust upwards into that joint pressure. “You made me wait, after all. I think I deserve what I want right now, don't you?”

Charles wants to say—something, God, there was certainly something, probably something about being a generous enough soul to allow that, or something else mildly teasing—but he cannot find air for words, and when he opens his mouth he only says, “Erik, please.” Erik lets out a breath that is almost a gasp behind him, and thrusts against Charles' body in a way that seems involuntary, driving Charles forwards into their hands with the movement. “Erik,” Charles says, and Erik picks up the particular twist Charles favors, and Charles babbles something meaningless and strokes a little faster.

Erik's arm tightens around his waist, and he says into Charles' ear, “Yes. This, Charles. This, for me.” Charles drops his unoccupied hand to his balls, feeling them already drawing up tight to his body, and rolls them gently in his palm. “You don't know how you look,” Erik says, voice low and warm. “So desperate like this, like you can't decide what you want most, if you want to come like this or with me fucking you.” The harsh consonants of the word 'fuck' roll of Erik's tongue and Charles finds himself suddenly about to drop over the edge, so close, and then Erik says, “Would you come for me, now, if I asked you?” and Charles—)

Charles actually does not come back to himself until what feels like several minutes later. The water is still warm, which is a small mercy, but the tiles of the shower wall are cold against Charles' back where he collapsed against them. He pants, trying hard to catch his breath, and uses one hand to wipe come absently off his stomach. There are stars behind his eyelids every time he blinks, still, and he feels boneless and relaxed.

“I very much hope no one heard that,” Charles tells the shower curtain, still feeling like his brain has evacuated his body via his cock, and then he tries to make himself presentable before he runs out of hot water.

/You look much better/ Erik projects to Charles, when Charles arrives at their lunch table, and that mental brush is far less debilitating to Charles' ability to function now that he has relieved the tension he's been carrying around for weeks. What Erik says is true, besides; Charles caught sight of himself in the mirror before leaving his bathroom, and so knows he looks far more relaxed, and far less hungover. He's also wearing clothes, which is something of an improvement from the last encounter he had with Erik.

“Thank you, my friend,” Charles says, smiling at Erik as he sits down. Erik blinks slightly, the only hint Charles gets that his smile was perhaps a little wider than usual—unsurprisingly, Erik doesn't choose to comment on it, merely quirks his lips upwards in return. “Moira hasn't arrived yet?”

Erik shrugs. “With the meeting having been delayed once, it's not surprising she didn't expect us to be early.” That's true enough. (Charles is somewhat curious as to what rumors have filtered through the workforce of this base since last night, given their delayed meeting and also Charles' extremely conspicuous stumble through the compound last night. He has, largely, been in too good a mood to bother checking since he woke. A fragment of thought from a nearby table prompted by what Erik has just said is enough to guarantee that whatever else the rumors are, they're certainly interesting.)

They are largely silent as they wait for Moira, save for a few pleasantries about the weather and that sort of thing. Charles can't say he's ever had as much practice sitting in comfortable silence with anyone as he has with Erik; they don't particularly need words at any given moment, between the two of them. He's only rarely felt this sort of silence, where he is neither speaking nor riding lightly in the upper levels of his companion's mind, and finds that he likes it especially in the mood he's currently in. Besides, any personal conversation they begin is likely to be interrupted by work, and there's no point in discussing business before Moira has time to arrive.

Charles feels the brush of Moira's mind before he sees her—she enters through the door at his back. Erik, of course, instinctively placed himself so as to best see all entrances and exits, and physically sees her first. He flicks his eyes to Charles, making sure Charles is aware of her, and Charles nods in return. The entire exchange reminds Charles more than a little of the sort he used to have with Raven when they were children; of course, Moira is significantly more pleasant than the acquaintances of their mother he and Raven used to warn each other about.

Moira's thoughts are displeased and frustrated as she settles into the seat next to Charles', but Charles does her the courtesy of not actively turning his mind to the reason why. People tend to be irritated when Charles answers questions they haven't yet asked. “Good afternoon, Erik, Charles,” Moira says, politely, and he and Erik echo the greeting. “Or maybe I should say it's good to see you up and about at all, Charles.”

Erik is, unsurprisingly, smirking, his teeth sharp and evident in the smug gesture. “I will point out,” Charles says in his own defense, “that had I not been, it would have been because I tried to improve our odds at finding other mutants, not because of sordid attempts to out-drink coeds.” The image of Charles, his throat tipped back to swallow thickly around mouthfuls of beer, rises into Moira's surface thoughts, almost certainly her impression of the first time they met. (Charles is somewhat embarrassed to realize there's a tinge of sexuality attached to the image he is certain was not present on his part—Moira's memory of this turns the tilt of his neck and the way the muscles of his throat worked into something far more sensual than they truly were, and Charles is fairly certain that pub's lighting was too dim to afford his skin that sort of a gleam. It is not that Charles is unaware of Moira's attraction to him, given his telepathic nature. However, as her attentions are not reciprocated, and as Moira herself has not chosen to act on those attentions, he has been mostly ignoring them to this point. Ignoring a memory this direct, however, is simply not possible, and it makes Charles feel somewhat awkward. Then again, given what Erik would find in Charles' mind were Erik to suddenly discover telepathic powers of his own, Charles knows full well he has no right to judge.)

“That's the problem, actually,” Moira says, and for a single absurd moment Charles thinks she is referring to either her attraction to him or his attraction to Erik. It is something of a relief when she continues, “The higher ups in the CIA are concerned with our ongoing search. They think it's not happening fast enough.”

Erik snorts gently through his nose and shifts his weight in his chair, posture becoming more engaged and also slightly more intimidating as he leans forward. “God forbid anyone take into account the fact that we're doing something no one has done before,” Erik points out, crossing his arms in front of him on the table. “It's not as though anyone else has managed this faster than we have. Or as though anyone else could have, for that matter.”

“It's been a month,” Moira says, and crosses her own arms a little defensively. “So far we have one mutant to show for that. It's not as if I don't know this is complicated, but the fact that you two chose to do this alone is raising eyebrows. The general opinion seems to be that if the CIA sent out teams, this search would be more time and resource efficient.”

“Or it would frighten off mutants entirely!” Erik says. His voice raises in volume as he speaks, and then, as it almost always does when he is truly feeling passionate about something, drops quiet and low. “You don't understand what it feels like, Agent MacTaggert, to have the government come calling at your door for something that makes you different. This must be carried out by mutants, or we'll never recruit any. It's difficult enough to get them to trust Charles and I, and we can show them that we're like they are. If you send in squads of human CIA agents, you'll never get the results you want.”

Moira takes this as the truth it is, but her thoughts don't settle, and so Charles does what a number of his fellow academics would likely consider cheating. Her mind is human and unguarded, and she doesn't notice when Charles sinks a level below the surface thoughts he generally occupies. He doesn't use that connection to force her to accept their arguments, or to make her forget there ever was a problem—that would be wrong of him, and it would be ineffective besides—but he does gently look through the memories there, seeking out the problems he needs to address. His conscience twinges, but he settles himself with the thought that it is time efficiency she's advocating for, and shortening this conversation will make everyone involved better able to move onto things beyond bureaucratic concerns.

“Moira,” he says, “you do have a valid concern there.” Across from Charles, Erik's posture shifts just enough to make disapproval clear, though that is probably not apparent to people not well versed in Erik's body language. Moira, by contrast, straightens up, and her thoughts brighten ever so slightly, as they do every time a man puts aside gender to deal with her as seriously as she deserves. “As it happens, though, I was attempting to address that very same concern last night, when I so thoroughly incapacitated myself for the cause. I spent a few hours in Cerebro, updating our list of coordinates to take into account which mutants might be willing to come with us. The new list is much shorter, and we will likely have greater success with everyone on it.”

“There are five or six possibles clustered in one area,” Erik says, which is news to Charles. Erik's mind presses outward and supplies Charles with /Hank standing over a map, marking the new coordinates with pins, looking pleased as small patterns emerge/ and then follows up the memory with /This happened after you were asleep, Charles, I'd meant to mention it to you earlier./ “Charles and I could take a train and reach a number of them in one trip, no need to even pay for gas. We were planning to leave again the day after next.” /Or we are now,/ Erik projects, his tone more amused than apologetic. Charles raises one eyebrow in mild rebuke, but also smiles at Erik, and Erik takes his message perfectly.

“As you can see, Moira,” Charles says, in response to the last coil of thought he feels in Moira's mind, “we have considered the convenience of our CIA benefactors in this, and you can guarantee your superiors that they will see more results shortly.” The tangled thought disappears, and Charles pulls his mind away, returning to his usual position in the surface-level thoughts of those around him only. The emotion in Moira's surface thoughts at that moment is contentment at having the matter settled, and Charles allows that positive emotion to settle any uneasiness he might have had at the invasion of privacy.

“Well, that's business taken care of,” Moira says. “Now let's see about actually getting lunch.”

Charles goes for a long run after lunch, following the perimeter of the compound. This is another thing he's missed during his three week trip with Erik, the simple ability to find somewhere relatively empty of people and let himself run through it. He doesn't push himself for speed, just sets out at any easy pace and lets his feet carry him. He tires earlier than he's used to, probably because he is nearly a month out of practice, and he doesn't press himself to continue once he tires. Instead he turns and walks back towards the nearest door, his good mood from earlier making the ache in his muscles seem pleasant and fulfilling.

He gets back to his own door just as Erik is walking down the hall. “Hello,” he says, noticing Erik looks to be in much the same shape Charles is, sweat evident on his clothes and face and skin flushed. “Were you working out?” Erik, unlike Charles, has not been nearly so lenient about his exercise while they traveled, but he was limited to whatever he could do within a small hotel room. Having seen what Erik considers light work, Charles is somewhat wary of picturing what a full work out for Erik would be like.

“Out of shape,” Erik says, by way of confirmation. He does not sound at all amused by the prospect; for a man who considers himself a weapon, Charles supposes, letting himself get even slightly out of form would be troublesome.

The only thing Charles can think of to improve Erik's mood is to offer a distraction. “Come on,” he says, “you promised me a chess match last night. We could both use something relaxing just now, I think.”

Erik shrugs, and says, “If you're prepared to lose, fine.” Charles raises one eyebrow, expression deliberately exaggerated skepticism, and Erik responds to it by losing some of his earlier grimness. He follows Charles into his temporary room, and grabs the folding board they've been using for their games.

Erik plays black, and it becomes immediately clear that he has every intention of playing to the best of his abilities—and, for all that Charles is feeling much better, the fact remains that he put himself through a mental wringer the previous night, and cannot play to his usual standard. It's a difficult game, and Erik wins it. “There, you see,” Erik says, looking smug and relaxed as Charles meant him to, and so Charles has to challenge him to a rematch.

Two games turn into a third, and play progressively slows. As time passes, Erik seems more amenable to talking during the game, and though their conversation is rather eclectic in terms of topic, Charles finds himself participating in it just as eagerly as the chess game.

Abruptly, as he is advancing a pawn, Erik says, “It was probably impolite to have spoken for you about our departure.” It doesn't escape Charles' notice that Erik does not actually apologize for it—Erik is not the type to feel guilt over such a small thing. “Is it too sudden?”

“Erik,” Charles says, looking over the board as he speaks. He's fairly convinced Erik is in the middle of doing something especially clever, but he's simply not seeing what that greater strategy is at the moment. “Neither of us have much to pack, and, besides, you've seen the mess I regularly make of my suitcase in an attempt to pack. I'm fairly certain we would have been ready in time had you said we were leaving this evening.” He moves a knight to where it can better cover the center of the board, and then looks at Erik. There's something Charles can't make sense of on Erik's face, an expression he simply cannot read. Going on instinct, he says, “Something about this is bothering you, or you wouldn't have brought it up. What is it?”

Erik seems to deliberate for a moment, and then he leans in, chess temporarily abandoned. “When we started this search, I only agreed because I thought it would be us alone. Mutants finding mutants, Charles, without outside interference. The CIA shouldn't be pressuring us about time concerns. This isn't something a human government has any right to do.”

That was not at all what Charles was expecting. “You knew we wouldn't be cutting the CIA out of it entirely, Erik. I agree with you that it's better to be able to demonstrate our abilities when we ask a mutant to trust us, but that doesn't mean the human members of this facility have no right to follow our progress.”

“When them following our progress means we are revealing the identities of mutants to a government that barely accepts them, Charles, then yes, it does mean they should be kept out of it.” Erik meets Charles' eyes, an intensity in his gaze that makes Charles blink instinctively. /You've never seen something like this/ Erik projects, and Charles recognizes the switch to thought for what it is: an attempt to bring Charles around to his point of view. This method of speech does give Charles a fair bit more by way of emotional context to work with—had Erik said those words aloud, Charles would probably have missed the sharp, dark emphasis of the word this, as though Erik is not referring to their search at all. /It all seems very innocent to you, I'm sure. But sometimes anonymity is the only thing that can guarantee safety./ (Floorboards overhead, creaking and old, the weight of boot-clad feet on them, breath held in, don't make a sound don't make a sound please don't let them find us). Charles blinks and opens his mouth, to warn Erik that Erik is projecting more than he means to, but Erik continues before he can get a word out. /The humans do not trust us, Charles. They will use us for now because they need us, but one day they will turn on us, and none of your optimism will be of any use then. They aren't going to need us forever. And we're letting them know where to find us, when they decide we are too much of a threat to remain./

Charles doesn't know what to say—there is nothing to say, nothing that can somehow make the tragedy Erik has survived more bearable or less real to him—but he knows he cannot say nothing. “Erik,” Charles says, as gently as he can, “not all humans are like the Nazis. They're just as capable of good as we are, Erik. Moira's superiors may be impatient, but that does not mean they're not good people, people who want just as badly as we do to find Shaw and stop him.”

“You'd be amazed,” Erik says, very quietly and very intently, “to see what good people will do if given the right motivation.”

Again, there is no retort Charles can make to that, and so he changes tracks. “If you're willing to assume the mutants we find are trustworthy, why can't you extend that assumption to the humans?”

“Because I trust my own species, Charles!” Erik says, and the words sound very loud in the sudden quiet of the room.

“No,” Charles says, grasping onto the flaw in Erik's logic. He doesn't think genetics will convince Erik, but genetics are what he knows—they are the one thing he can be certain of, in this conversation that has gone so badly out of control. “Mutants are not yet a separate species, Erik. We're the next evolutionary step, yes, and perhaps the first glimpse of what the next species of mankind could be, but we're not so separate yet. We can still have children with humans, Erik. We still look human, for the most part—we still behave like them in a number of ways. We are still human.”

“You're being pedantic again, Charles,” Erik says. His voice is harsh, and a little biting. “You say we're human? Then my point holds even better than before. Look what humans do to each other, Charles, all the time! Wars, genocides, senseless violence bred from fear. Do you really think they'll care whether we're human or not?”

“But fear could just as easily affect us,” Charles says. “If fear prejudices us against humans, who's to say we won't become truly dangerous to humanity? Or that we won't start our own war?”

Charles has never seen Erik look so angry. “If fear drives us to war against the humans, then good! It's nothing they don't deserve.” (Pain/loss/hatred/things stolen, lives stolen, made less, made worthless/dehumanizing, inhumane—no such thing as humanity, as mercy, not from humans.) Erik is projecting memories, ones Charles has seen before in his mind, memories of experimentation and his time in the concentration camp and the sound of a gunshot, but they cut fresh now, and Charles can see how the fear and anger drive Erik on. It makes Charles afraid, too, afraid that if he does not reach Erik now, he will never be able to.

“Why?” Charles challenges, desperate for anything that will touch Erik through his anger. “Why is it genocide for humans to start a war on us, but justified for us to start a war on them?”

“Because our war would be self defense.”

“Not if they haven't struck first,” Charles says, and feels a very ugly expression cross his face. “Tell me why, Erik.”

“Because there are fewer of us, and they will destroy us if they strike first,” Erik says. He's getting louder, now, but no less intense, and his words are becoming progressively sharper and more accented as he continues. “Because once they start, they'll never stop.”

“And we will?” Charles presses. “If humans are incapable of mercy, as you say, then what makes mutants capable?” He puts his hands down hard on the table between them, paying little mind to the chess pieces he dislodges, and leans in. He cannot let Erik back away from this. He cannot lose Erik for this, not now.

“Because mutants are better than that,” Erik all but shouts, and Charles hears himself laugh, not quite aware of why he's doing it.

“Oh, Erik,” he says, softly, “I thought you, of all people, would know what happens when one race of people begins to consider themselves better than another.”

It is an exceptionally cruel thing to say. Charles knows that as he's saying it, but doesn't actually register it until he sees his words impact. Erik's face goes very pale and very tight, and it is as though he is drawing in on himself. Charles had not realized, until this exact moment, how much Erik was willingly letting him in—now he feels himself shut out, Erik's mind and emotions sealed away so tight Charles can barely feel them. He feels as though he's been left standing on the opposite side of a wall that did not exist a moment before.

He's hurt Erik, he realizes. He's hurt him badly.

“Oh God,” Charles says. “Erik. I am so sorry.” The words sound useless even as he's saying them; Charles has a strange notion that they would taste like ashes in his mouth, if they were tangible. He doesn't know if there are words for this sort of thing. Erik is still sitting just a meter away, but that doesn't stop Charles from feeling as though he's lost Erik anyway. “I am so, so sorry.”

Without a word, Erik stands. Charles stands as well, thinking of reaching out to Erik, trying to do anything to make him understand that those were not the words he wanted, and that was not something he meant in truth. As Charles moves, though, Erik fixes him with a look that is so absolutely glacial it actually makes Charles freeze in place a moment. His heart thumps audibly in his ears, and he tries to think of something, of anything, but there's nothing he can do to repair this. This realization feels almost physical, like a stone settling in Charles' stomach.

This is the man he loves, and he's just done something he doesn't think Erik can forgive him for.

Silent still, Erik turns from him and leaves. The sound of the door clicking shut behind him has something final in it.

Chapter Text

When Charles was a child, he had one method of coping with upset, and one only. In retrospect, it was a rather escapist approach to his emotions—that, of course, did not stop Charles when he was younger. Then, when his situation became too much for him to handle, Charles merely stepped out of his own mind, and found another mind to ride along with for a little while. It was something of a vacation from his life, allowing him to just be someone else for some small amount of time. He used to think, then, that it was much simpler being someone who wasn't him; other people never seemed to have problems with knowing too much, or with having to hear both physical and mental sounds at once in a way that could be completely overwhelming.

He has long since realized this is possibly not the healthiest method of coping he could have invented, and found other methods. Counting to ten to dispel anger, for instance, is likely far more reasonable than temporarily abandoning his own body to avoid the emotion. Charles' degree, and the inevitable stresses he went through to earn it, did much to provide him with motivation to find more normal means of calming himself.

Just at this moment, though, Charles would give almost anything to spend some time out of his own mind. He feels like he did just after he broke his leg aged eight, the moment after he fell out of the tree; he feels as though he's done something immensely harmful to himself but cannot feel the damage yet, feels numb in anticipation of the realization to come. His chest hurts as though there is something literally broken in it, and Charles had previously thought descriptions of that sensation to be an exaggeration at best. Even a few moments spent as someone else would be lovely, just now.

Unfortunately, Charles is surrounded by minds he cannot touch; in this place, he has to respectfully ignore most of the minds around him for fear of intruding upon the secrets kept here, and two of the four minds he can afford to touch have been barred to him by request. Were those not reasons enough to restrict himself, Charles also knows full well that if he reaches out his mind now, he will latch onto Erik's. He means no harm, of course, but the temptation is still there—though Erik is physically gone from him, his mind is well within Charles' reach, and so the urge to reach out and make Erik understand is difficult to resist. The absolute last thing Charles needs to do is couple his inadvertent cruelty with a violation of the boundaries Erik has set between them. He doubts Erik will forgive him as things stand now, but he knows Erik will not ever forgive him if he allows himself to break his word and touch Erik's mind.

So Charles is left to his own mind for distraction, and his alone. This is not a comfort to him. Every time he so much as blinks, he sees Erik's face again, as it looked in that one moment before he left. Charles has been analyzing that expression for some time now, which is again not the healthiest pursuit he could have chosen; the moment where he thinks he recognizes betrayal on the image seared into his mind would hurt less had he actually been struck.

After some time, Charles cannot bear it any longer, and allows himself to reach out to the minds around him. He knows he's making excuses to himself, but nevertheless tells himself it is acceptable so long as he touches only surface thoughts, rather than sinking into any one mind.

(I think I left my keys at/an image of a woman's face/not too much perfume, I think/so bored I could/strains of Bach, imagining how it feels to trace out the notes with slim, long fingers/a grocery list visualized, with the word 'eggs' appearing and disappearing from it with a questioning feel/have to drop off the kids at/she's not even listening to me, is she/rage, sharp shocks like hurt, raw edged thoughts that spin cyclical and never-ending, he's-wrong-can't-believe-I'm-not and a touch of self-doubt carefully masked under anger, all of it in German, thoughts flavored like Erik, Erik, Erik.)

Charles retreats into his own mind, after that.

“Charles?” Raven's voice comes through the door, along with the sound of knocking. Charles opens his eyes, blinking sleep out of them. There's only so much energy Charles can spare on berating himself before he exhausts himself to sleep, apparently—he wakes fully clothed on his bed, feeling groggy and complete incapable of interacting normally with anyone, let alone someone as perceptive as Raven. His feet and hands, though, seem to act without him, as he finds himself opening his door without any real intent to do so. “Hi,” Raven says, “I haven't seen you since you brought Angel in yesterday, and I just wanted to come check—”

Charles can tell the exact moment she takes in his appearance, because she stops short and begins to frown. He knows he looks rumpled, but he doesn't think he looks so miserable as that expression would seem to indicate. “Yes?” he asks, and his voice is hoarse, as though he's been shouting or he's coming down with something. Maybe he and Erik were a little louder than he thought they were. The rumors circulating at this point are probably fascinating.

“What happened?” Raven asks, essentially crushing Charles' slim hopes that they might not have to speak of it. Charles steps back and gestures his sister into his room, as he has absolutely no intention of having this conversation in the hall. Only once she's inside does he process the rather dramatic scene his bedroom currently makes, what with the chess pieces scattered across the still open board and across the floor, and with the chair either he or Erik apparently knocked over during their argument. He winces slightly when Raven immediately turns to him and asks, something protective in her voice, “What did Erik do?”

“Nothing,” Charles says, and his voice attempts to crack in a very embarrassing way. He runs his fingers through his hair in an effort to collect himself, and probably only makes a worse mess of himself in the process. He sits back down on the edge of his bed, and says, voice steadier, “Erik did absolutely nothing wrong, unless having strong opinions I disagree with suddenly qualifies. The better question would be to ask what I did.”

Raven sits down next to him, and Charles can tell his behavior is unsettling her, because a ripple of blue passes over her skin before it settles back to its usual tone. “And what's the answer to your question, Charles?” she asks.

He finds he does not have it in himself to relate the story just now—when he opens his mouth to do so, it feels as though there is a metal band around his chest and he cannot find the air to speak, and so he closes his mouth again and remains silent until the feeling dissipates. “Something he will not easily forgive,” Charles says, finding that is the truest answer he can give. It feels inadequate.

She puts her hand on his arm, just lightly. “Come on,” Raven says, “it can't be that bad.” Charles drops his eyes to the sheets under his fingertips and traces over them idly. “Hey,” Raven says, and her grip tightens on his arm. “Erik really likes you, alright? I don't think it's as bad as you say it is. You've been around him everyday since we found him, so maybe you don't see this, but he looks a lot happier now than he did a month ago. He relaxes around you, and I think that's a pretty big deal to Erik. Whatever you did, he'll forgive you.”

Charles finds himself laughing, but it doesn't sound like his own laugh—there's something strange and humorless in it, and he stops himself as soon as he realizes he's doing it. “I wish that were the case,” Charles says, and once again feels the inadequacy of words. Frustrated, Charles lifts one hand and crooks his fingers above his forehead where Raven can see them, shaping his focusing gesture but not actually completing it. “I can't explain,” he says. “Let me show you, please.”

It takes a long moment of eye contact between them, but eventually Raven nods, the motion very slow. Charles calls up the memory of Erik's reaction—it's easy, considering how much he's dwelt on that moment in the time since—but carefully leaves out the memory of the words that provoked said reaction. He would prefer his sister not view him in that light. It's selfish, perhaps, but he cannot have Raven and Erik angry at him at the same time. Carefully, with full awareness of the unusual favor Raven is granting by allowing him to do this, Charles sends that memory to Raven's mind, projecting the image in full color.

Perhaps more of his emotions reach Raven than he intended, because Raven pales a moment later. “Oh my God,” she says, in immediate reaction. Then, a bare moment later, she blurts out, “You're in love with him, aren't you?”

Charles stiffens in reaction, but does not deny it. He cannot add that lie to everything else that has occurred today. For a long moment, they sit in silence, him staring at Raven and her staring back; directly after sharing a memory in that way, it challenges Charles immensely not to touch her mind. Even a hint as to what her reaction will be would be hugely welcome—this is not a topic Charles has ever spoken to Raven on. (It's easier, mostly, for Charles to sleep with women. This is not to say he is not attracted to men, or even to say that he has not slept with a few, but each of those encounters had something secretive and illicit about it, and Charles does not enjoy sex when something about it feels hunted and wrong. Almost every one of his male partners has thought of the fact that sex alone could have them thrown in jail at some point in the act in question, and that makes it harder for Charles to enjoy fully. Maintaining the polite fiction of having an interest solely in women has been the easiest approach for Charles to this point, and for all that he picks up men, he has never done so in front of his sister. Now he almost wishes he had, if only so that it might have come up when he felt more emotionally prepared to accept her reaction.)

“You wouldn't be that upset if you weren't,” Raven says, more slowly, almost as though she is explaining her reasoning to herself. There's another moment of silence, and then Raven says, “Okay.” Charles looks at her, almost unable to believe this is the entirety of her response, and finds her looking extremely sincere, if still a little confused. “Okay,” she says again, like she knows he's afraid he misheard the first time. “This is not a conversation we should be having for the first time right now, and I'll yell at you for that later, but right now I'll let that go.” She pauses, seeming to struggle for words, and then says, “Is it...mutual?” It's a delicate way of phrasing things, and this now makes two people within a week who have accepted this idea with relative equanimity. Charles knows he is enormously lucky in the people he has chosen to surround himself with.

“No,” he says, bluntly, and for a fact he has resigned himself to, saying so aloud still makes something in him tense unhappily.

“I'm sorry,” Raven says, and Charles shakes his head. There's nothing she can do to solve either of his problems: arguments and unrequited loves are not something a sister's concern can end or resolve. Nevertheless, when she puts her head on his shoulder, Charles rests his own head atop hers and accepts the contact for the comfort it's meant to be. “You're right. That didn't look very good.”

“I know,” Charles says.

Again, there's silence for a little while. Charles rubs his cheek against Raven's hair. “Still,” she says, “I wasn't lying when I said you make him happy. From what little I know of Erik, there's not much that does that. So maybe it isn't as bad as you think.” Charles snorts indelicately and moves away from Raven, feeling some need to move. Raven catches him by the arm and smiles up at him. “This isn't the sort of thing you can solve on an empty stomach,” she says. “C'mon. Pull some clothes on that are a little less wrinkled, and come for dinner.” She lets go of his arm and stands herself, stretching her arms out above her head in a stretch that looks oddly feline. “I'll wait outside.”

Raven, as ever, knows Charles entirely too well—even he has to concede that food does help, as does the fact that she sends him off to sleep immediately after they return. This isn't to say he sleeps well, but he at least wakes with only a vague sense of disquiet and no memory of his own dreams. He doesn't feel refreshed, but he does at least feel better rested and better able to handle his own life, which is a great improvement.

There's a note left on his bedside table, which Charles only notices after he has showered and dressed. It's in his sister's handwriting, and is very short, saying simply: Apologize. -R

Charles is still not certain this is going to work even slightly, but Raven has been giving extremely good advice thus far, and has by far a more sensible and objective view on things than Charles does. The clock at his bedside informs Charles that it is not yet eight in the morning; for all that Erik is an early riser, Charles still has the best chance of finding him in his bedroom at this hour. It takes him a long while to decide to go, but he feels much better in general once he's decided to do it, as he now at least has a course of action to carry out.

Erik's bedroom is not far from his—the housing portion of this facility is small enough that Erik could not be far away from him had he tried—but it does still take a few minutes to walk there. Charles feels progressively less and less sure of himself as he goes, feeling rather like he's a young boy reporting to the school headmaster, and so those minutes feel rather longer than they might have otherwise. He tries to spend them practicing his apology in his head, but none of the words he calls to mind seem like they'll be of any use.

Then Angel steps out of Erik's bedroom just as Charles is coming towards it, and even the inadequate words leave him entirely.

She's dressed, neatly and entirely, and hasn't a hair out of place. From her appearance alone, there is absolutely no reason that Charles should be sustaining the suspicions he currently is. Yes, she looks like she's just woken up not too long ago, but Charles likely does as well—in all honesty, for all that there's still something tired in her expression, she's probably better put together than Charles is at the moment. Her thoughts are buzzing and cluttered in a way that makes them hard for Charles to read, like trying to catch individual details of pictures moving almost too fast to see, but there's nothing about them that would suggest anything untoward.

This does not stop Charles' heart from feeling as though it is sinking to somewhere in the vicinity in his stomach, illogically and unreasonably. Even if Erik and Angel had slept together—and Charles has no proof of this, he reminds himself—Erik is an adult, and Charles has no claim on him. He has no right to feel upset, he knows this.

For a moment, he stares blankly at Angel, entirely unsure of what his expression must be, and she looks back at him with a completely neutral expression. Then she shuts the door gently behind her. By the time she turns back to face Charles, there is clearly anger on her face; nevertheless, her voice is soft and deceptively calm when she says, “Go ahead, Professor. Make that assumption. I know you want to. Because of course I slept with Erik, right? I'm a stripper, it's practically what I do for a living.”

Charles wants badly to protest, but the fact remains that that is the assumption he immediately made, and guilt makes him unable to meet her eyes. At the very least, he wants to assure her that he didn't assume for that reason. It isn't her occupation making him unreasonable, he's seen enough of her thoughts to know that job was her making the best of an extremely unfortunate situation, and he would never hold that against her. It's just Erik that makes him this completely illogical. It feels impossible that he will be able to explain this to her, though, when he can scarcely explain it to himself, and by the time he opens his mouth to try she's already continued speaking.

“Never mind that I'm just like anybody else in my off hours. Because I'm a stripper, so of course I must sleep with every male I meet, and it was Erik's turn. And never mind that Erik's a person too, and maybe sometimes he might need to talk to someone as a friend and know it won't be held against him, right?” Never once in this speech has Angel raised her voice above a low, flat whisper—somehow that makes Charles feel like cringing away, makes the guilt even more intense. When she says the words 'held against him' Charles cannot help but look up, knowing he has to say something to protest, but then he meets Angel's eyes and falls silent. (Disgust/anger/betrayal/thought you were better than this/of course you're just like every other man I've ever met, stupid to think otherwise.)

“Angel,” Charles says, quietly, pleadingly.

She just shakes her head, continuing the emotional barrage she's projecting without breaking their gaze. “Erik's right about you, you know,” she says, and Charles gets the feeling that that is absolutely not a positive assessment at this moment. With an expression on her face that Charles cannot describe as anything but a sneer, she gestures to the door behind her. “Don't let me stop you, Professor. You were here to say something, weren't you?”

He can't. Charles doesn't consider himself a coward, but at this moment, he absolutely cannot. “I'm sorry,” he says, though whether he's saying it to Angel, himself, or the closed door that Erik is currently behind, even he doesn't know. Then he turns and leaves.

Someone knocks on his door that evening, but Charles doesn't answer it, or reach out mentally to find who's at the door. Charles has not had a conversation that went the way he planned it for almost two days now. If there is a CIA agent at the door, Charles is afraid whatever he says might actually get their sponsorship removed; if it is Raven, he does not know how to explain that he's somehow worsened things; and, if it is Erik or Angel at the door, Charles thinks he's already proved his complete inability to speak rationally to them often enough.

(He hopes it's Erik, but doesn't let himself hope seriously. He's still uncertain whether Erik ever plans to speak to him again, and he can admit, if only to himself, that he's somewhat terrified of accidentally starting another argument. God knows he's still a little unsure as to how his attempts to reach Erik started the first one.)

Whoever it is at the door, they apparently don't have any great need of him, as they retreat after that one knock and leave him alone.

The first time Charles sees Erik after their—disagreement does not seem a strong enough word, but Charles likes it better than the alternatives—is the next morning. Charles wakes bright and early, finishes pressing the last of his things into his suitcase in such a way that the thing still closes, and heads down to the CIA garage. The plan, insofar as Charles has been made aware of it, is to have Moira drive him and Erik to the train station, and then to make their way about via cabs and the subway once they have reached their destination. This has the distinct advantage of not having to bill the CIA for gasoline; on the other hand, it has the rather unexpected disadvantage of forcing Erik to remain near him almost constantly for the next few days, when Charles thinks they might benefit from some distance and time between them.

Dragging his rather terribly packed suitcase behind him, Charles makes his way to the garage. It's only a little after seven, so Charles is unsurprised to see the car park almost completely abandoned. Charles enters and casts a look about for Moira.

Of course, with Charles' luck of late, it isn't Moira who he finds.

“Oh,” Charles says, though it's less a deliberate word and more due to the way his chest contracts. “Erik. I didn't expect you to be early.”

Erik, who until just the moment before was leaning against the car they'd be using, straightens up. His posture is very stiff, and Charles almost wishes he had spent less time studying this man, because it's only his acquaintance with Erik that lets him see the underlying discomfort. There are shadows under Erik's eyes, like maybe Charles isn't the only one who's been sleeping poorly since their argument, but those are the only signs on Erik's face that anything is amiss. His features are otherwise expressionless; a moment later, Erik digs his sunglasses out of the pocket of his jacket and presses those over his eyes, covering even that small indicator that anything is wrong.

“Charles,” Erik greets, coolly. From his voice alone, any stranger would assume them casual acquaintances at best—Erik says Charles' name without any hint of underlying fondness or trust, sounding almost as though the name is distasteful to him. Charles is uncertain how he's going to survive several days travel, when just that change in the way Erik says his name makes him feel breathless and a little hurt.

Charles does what his entire childhood trained him to—in absence of anything insightful to say, he falls automatically back on basic etiquette. “Good morning,” he says, aware the phrase sounds stilted and unnecessary even as he's saying it. Erik doesn't even deign to return the sentiment, just dips his head into a shallow nod and goes right on not speaking to Charles. The air between them feels tense, and Charles has absolutely no idea what he's supposed to do. He catches himself starting to say, “Did you sleep well?” and actually winces, stopping himself halfway through the question. Small talk is hardly going to be the solution here, and he knows that, but Charles' strength has never been verbal communication. He wishes he could touch Erik's mind and communicate on a level that goes beyond words—that way, at least, he might have some small chance of having Erik understand him—but knows he can't. Frustrated, Charles says, his voice tight, “Erik—”

Erik levels him with a look that silences him. (There is nothing, that look tells Charles, that he can conceivably do to repair what he has caused between them. Regardless of what he meant to say, Erik has no interest in hearing it. Charles cannot understand how he is supposed to function like this; why on Earth would the human race, after thousands of years of evolution, still have the capacity to feel crippled by emotional pain? Sooner or later, Erik's indifference will have to stop feeling like it is physically harming him. It has to.) Quietly and intently, as though every word is being precisely chosen for its purpose, Erik says, “I am perfectly capable of being professional. I understand the importance of what we're doing. If you have anything to say to me that has to do with the search, feel free to do so, Charles.” He does not say that there will no longer be personal conversations between them, but it is so strongly implied that Charles supposes he did not feel the need to waste air on it. This time, when silence falls uncomfortably between them, Charles lets it rest.

Moira enters the garage some minutes later, her footsteps resounding lowly against the walls as she approaches. She smiles at them both in greeting, and then confusion crosses her face and thoughts as she takes in the atmosphere. “Is everything alright?” Moira asks, and her wonderful directness is enough to summon a smile to Charles' face. Her thoughts become particularly loud for a moment after, and so Charles is unable to ignore the reflection her view of him provides. Some vain part of Charles is displeased by the paleness of his face and the weakness of his smile.

“Perfectly fine,” Erik says, and Charles looks to him in time to see an insincere smile fade from his face. (Erik would probably be uncomfortable to know exactly how many things about him Charles has realized—amongst those things is knowledge of what Erik looks like when he is genuinely happy. Then, his smile is all teeth, his lips pulled back thin and stretched wide, as though Erik has ceased to bother with looking peaceful and has let some of his predatory nature show visibly. When Erik is smiling for the sake of politeness, he smiles with a closed mouth, and it is a much smaller and much less aggressive sort of expression.)

Moira looks to Charles with an expression he has sometimes seen mothers use with their children, a look that seems to indicate one child is clearly lying but the sibling might still have the good sense to tell the truth. “Yes, everything's fine,” he says, and immediately knows she does not believe either of them.

Still, they are all adults, and there is very little Moira can do with that knowledge. “If you say so,” she says, conceding the point for the moment, and goes to the driver's side door to unlock the car.

“Charles,” Moira says, when Erik has already stepped out of the car at the train station and Charles is in the process of doing so. Charles pauses, his door already open and one foot on the ground outside, and waits as Moira begins to say something. She stops herself before she actually speaks, looking at Erik who is now some feet in front of the car, and then back at Charles. Her surface thoughts are full of friendly concern and also irritation—what Charles understands from them is that she knows there is some trouble between the two of them, but doubts either one of them will actually attempt to discuss it maturely. “Be careful, okay?” is what she finally says.

“I'll try to be,” Charles says, and finds an actual smile for her before he goes.

The train ride is several hours in duration—Charles spends almost the entirety of that time thinking.

His problem to this point has been his complete inability to articulate what he actually means with words. Spoken language is likely the far more efficient mode of communication, Charles grants, but it is also limiting in a way Charles' telepathy never is. Words can sometimes have a series of meanings, but even those cannot replace the emotional context of thoughts—when Charles is contacting someone mentally, he can send them an idea, the emotions behind that idea, and the thought process that generated it all in one exchange, tangling meaning and logic and feeling into one entity as he communicates. When Charles speaks aloud, he needs to slow those thoughts and separate them, and often he simply forgets to; accustomed as he is to using his telepathy, he sometimes does not remember that other people will not understand, when he tells them what he means, why he feels that way. Erik has lately been bearing the brunt of this deficiency.

But Charles cannot give Erik regret/stubbornness/guilt/sincerity/respect/never meant to harm you, and so he puts in the time and effort to turn those into words. He cannot send Erik that image of Erik recoiling from him, cannot let his friend see the way the edges of the memory feel almost frayed from how often Charles has been dwelling on that moment. He can, however, communicate his apologies, and he can tell Erik that he never would have spoken so hatefully if he hadn't been afraid of losing his chance to make Erik see the flaws in his own logic. It's slow work, bothering to find the right things to say rather than the right things to think, but if millions of average humans are capable of doing this every day of their lives then Charles supposes he can manage this once.

What Erik thinks of his silence throughout the train ride, he doesn't say. He reads, seemingly extremely focused on the text in front of his eyes, and Charles cannot tell whether Erik is avoiding him, or whether he genuinely is that absorbed in his reading. The book is written in German and has a nondescript black cover; for all Charles knows, it could be anything from a detailed scientific text to a romance novel. He does not think Erik will provide an answer for him if he asks after it, in any case.

Erik does look up, once, and meet Charles' eyes, and for a moment they both seem frozen that way. Charles is struck by the strong urge not to break eye contact, as though somehow Erik will divine what Charles means to say from that alone and everything will repair itself. Why Erik doesn't look away, Charles hasn't the faintest idea. There's an expression on Erik's face then which, for all that it is infinitely preferable to the careful blankness Erik wore before, is also completely beyond Charles' ability to interpret. For the length of several breaths, they remain still.

Then someone stands from their seat farther back in the car, and the noise of it seems to jar them both out of whatever trance they were in. Charles, abruptly, realizes what that must have looked like to anyone who happened to notice them. Had it truly been some sort of shared passionate look, Charles might actually be embarrassed by their lack of subtlety—with the situation completely different, however, he merely feels slightly wistful and regretful. Erik certainly didn't seem to take any message away from that moment, and is now once more absorbed in his reading.

This is why, Charles reminds himself, he is trying to find words. Even more determined now, he sets his mind back to it.

Contrary to Erik's voiced wishes, the first thing they do once they have deposited their things in a hotel is not rushing out to begin the search. Up to this point, that had been their approach—without any knowledge of the exact locations or even the names of the mutants they were searching for, Charles was essentially using his telepathy as a dowsing rod to seek them out. Combined with one set of coordinates that said where they were located when Charles used Cerebro, Charles' ability to jump from mind to mind until he felt one he recognized was absolutely not foolproof, and more than one mutant was simply beyond his ability to find. Using that approach, setting out immediately made sense: with a time consuming, faulty method of searching, the best thing to do was start promptly and cover as large an area as they could before they either found the mutant or gave up.

Now, however, Charles does not have to rely simply on that. This latest time in Cerebro, he listened as long as he could, not only for names but for details of permanent residences or jobs, or any other information that would help them pinpoint the individuals they're looking for. This was part of why Cerebro exhausted him so thoroughly. The payoff of this, though, is more accuracy, and less need to blindly search; accordingly, the first thing Charles does when they arrive in the hotel is charm the receptionist in the lobby into letting him borrow her phone line, and settle down with the city's yellow pages.

Erik does remain in the lobby for some short time as Charles makes calls, but he does not remain there the entire time. After half an hour, he scratches out 'Going to lunch' on a piece of paper and shows it to Charles. He does not offer to wait for Charles, or to bring anything back, and so Charles has no choice but to nod and attempt to smile. Erik leaves the hotel shortly after.

By the time Charles finishes his calls—apparently there is rather a lot more bizarre bureaucracy involved in having the CIA remove a prisoner from a state penitentiary than Charles anticipated—it is too late for lunch, and Charles is starving. He returns the phone, chats with the receptionist for some small time just to be pleasant, and then leaves himself to find something to eat.

It's surprisingly easy, once he's already out and away from Erik, to make excuses as to why he should stay that way. Surely Erik will not want to share a meal with him just now; just picturing the disinterested, icy silence between them, replacing their usual quick banter and debate, is enough to motivate Charles to stay out for dinner as well. Then, after all, there's the period between dinner and sleep which he and Erik generally filled with planning or chess, and Charles reasons that Erik will benefit from having a night away from Charles, just now. How this results in Charles sitting in a bar, not properly drunk but not nearly sober either, until last call, even Charles can't really explain.

When he gets back to the hotel room, the lights are out and Erik is fast asleep in his own bed. Just drunk enough to be maudlin, Charles sits on the edge of his bed and watches the rise and fall of his friend's chest. He wants to say something, a sort of test run of his apology, but he knows well enough by now that Erik has trained himself into being a light sleeper, and will wake if Charles speaks at all. In the end, Charles just—well, he knows himself well enough to know he'll consider it moping when he's sober again, and probably be embarrassed by it—for some time, and then gives up and goes to sleep himself.

When Erik closes the door to their hotel room behind him the next evening, Charles finds himself, unexpectedly, genuinely angry. It doesn't help that the mannerisms Erik was using all day seem to melt away as the door shuts between himself and the rest of the world—the false brightness he wore all day, in the privacy of their room, disappears like the falsehood it was, leaving Erik's new apathetic mien in its place.

Charles looks over Erik's shoulder at the paneling of the door, fully aware that he cannot say this to Erik's face and still remain rational, and says, “Don't.”

Erik's eyes turn to his face, the gaze feeling strangely sharp. The scrutiny there is perhaps the highest degree of attention Charles has had from Erik since that moment on the train. “Don't what?” he asks, tone too flat for Charles to decipher whether he's asking out of genuine confusion, or out of some other emotion.

“Don't pretend that things are entirely right between us,” Charles says. Erik's eyes widen slightly, just enough to show surprise, and Charles has to close his eyes for a moment to continue. This is exactly the sort of thing he generally finds easier to communicate mind to mind; with his resolution on the train still fresh in mind, Charles puts in the effort to slow the thought, and turn it into coherent words. “If we fail to recruit the mutants we seek out,” he says, slowly, “that's fine. There are always going to be some people who have other obligations in life that prevent them coming with us, even if they might otherwise want to.” (The mutant they sought out today, a man named Bradley Jones who has an ability to move things with his mind, also has a wife and a new job. When they found him and explained what they were trying to do, Jones agreed with them that he thought it was a fascinating idea, but also explained that his wife had told him she was pregnant just that morning, and he couldn't possibly think of leaving home just now. The parting between them was amicable, with Jones promising to get in touch if he changed his mind.)

Charles waits for the rest of his words to cement themselves, and then opens his eyes and meets Erik's gaze. “Please,” he says, and hopes Erik can hear exactly how sincerely that word is meant, “don't pretend again that you've forgiven me, just so that we can present an undivided front to the mutants we're trying to recruit.” (Charles sees again Erik smiling at Jones and at Charles, standing comfortably close to Charles, acting like they'd never had a problem in the world between them; Erik, putting on one of his masks so that Jones would be more likely to come with them, seemingly unaware that every casual gesture he made simply put Charles more on edge.)

Erik looks at Charles for a long while, just looks, saying nothing. Charles feels out of sorts, as he has all day, put off balance both by the loss of Erik's genuine friendship and the sudden, nonchalant appearance of a much less real attachment. Finally, quietly, Erik says, “This has upset you.” His tone confuses Charles—he is uncertain of whether Erik is displeased he's upset Charles, or vindictively satisfied, or simply making a neutral statement. Perhaps even Erik is unsure.

“You're my friend,” Charles says, simply. “I'm sorry for what's happened between us.” He takes a moment to appreciate the inadequacy of those words, for all that he means them, perhaps more than he's ever meant an apology previously. “I'd prefer you not act like you've forgiven me unless you actually have.” That is about as much as Charles can explain aloud, the rest of his reasoning being as tangled in his feelings for Erik as it is.

Sometimes, Charles genuinely wonders whether he and Erik speak the same language at all. He doesn't mean the language barrier between German and English, or even between mental communication and verbal communication—he simply means that sometimes he thinks he says one set of words and Erik hears a completely separate message. He has that feeling at this moment, as Erik continues to silently look at Charles, as if appraising him for something. He didn't think his words were so complex—in fact, they were far less eloquent than he might have preferred—but based on Erik's expression he might as well have spoken them backwards.

Finally, Erik looks away. “Alright,” he says, still speaking more quietly than his usual. (Charles feels a small flare of hope light up inside him. Surely Erik, who has never before been concerned enough with diplomacy to soften his choice of words, would not be reluctant now to tell Charles if he genuinely thought he'd never forgive him. Erik's tendency towards blunt truth over tact means that Charles is willing to interpret his lack of outright anger as a positive sign.)

“Thank you,” Charles says, just as quietly.

It is Erik's concern—no, Erik's fear—that drags Charles back into consciousness that night.

He comes to in the dark, and for a moment he is unsure of which thoughts are his own. There are two minds on his bed, both of them thinking so very loudly, that for a moment Charles is lost in helplessness/hurt/discomfort/anxiety/loneliness/compassion/confusion/frustration/affection/love. It's dizzying and bilingual, strains of German thought and English, and overwhelming. Charles latches powerfully onto the first emotion he knows must be his own—love—and uses that as the base of his usual mental walls, until he is solely occupying his own mind once more.

It's only after all this that Charles realizes his eyes snapped back closed almost immediately after he woke. Cautiously, he blinks them open. The hotel room is familiar, but he can't see much of it; everything is shadows, layers of black on grey. Perched at the edge of his bed is another human shape, which Charles could have identified as Erik even if he hadn't intruded mentally some moments before. Charles can't see any of the fear he felt from Erik in Erik's face, and finds himself squinting to try to make out anything that might be wrong. When he finds nothing, he says, “What's the matter?”

The breath he draws in shakes in his lungs, surprisingly unsteady, and it is then that Charles realizes he has been panting since he awoke, heaving in air in choked sounding gasps. His voice, when it emerges from his throat, sounds thin and rough. Sleep alone isn't enough to account for that.

Sure enough, a moment later Erik says, “You were screaming in your sleep.” He sounds reluctant to speak, as if he's aware this conversation steps over the boundaries he himself has set, but isn't quite willing to stop speaking regardless. (Concern, Charles thinks. Concern, and fear, and anxiety—whatever else of the emotions belonged to Charles, those three at least belonged to Erik. It is the first definitive sign he's had that his error hasn't completely destroyed Erik's respect for him. Those emotions mean some part of their friendship still lingers with Erik, however much Erik might want to blame Charles entirely. For the first time, Charles lets himself really hope that Erik might, in time, forgive him.)

Charles runs a hand over his face tiredly, trying to compose himself. “I'm sorry,” he begins, and is disproportionately comforted by the sarcastic huff Erik lets out in response to his politeness. “I can't remember what I was dreaming about.” He remembers feeling small, and trapped, remembers almost suffocating fear, but has no memory of what prompted it. Shrugging, Charles offers, “It's entirely possible that wasn't one of my dreams at all.”

Erik shifts on the bed minutely, and asks, “You dream other people's dreams?”

“Oh,” Charles says, “no, not dreams. I just meant—.” Embarrassingly enough, he has to pause to let out a jaw-cracking yawn before he can continue. “Sometimes my barriers come down when I'm sleeping, and particularly distressed minds can draw me in.” Charles thinks of the emotions he felt again, and allows the sickening potential of them to sink in for a moment. “I think there was a crime committed tonight,” Charles says, closing his eyes. “It's done by now, whatever it was.” As usual, all Charles can do in this situation is ride along with the victim's mind—by the time he wakes, it's too late to help, as long years of experience have taught him. He'll check the paper tomorrow; it's possible that monetary aide could do some good, though unlikely, and God knows Charles has more than enough money to spend on good causes.

“A crime,” Erik says, and his voice is very flat. Charles opens his eyes again and cannot make out anything of Erik's face but the planes of it. In the dim light Erik looks angular and sharp edged, very much like the weapon he views himself as, and Charles is momentarily blindsided by the fact that he cannot understand this aspect of his friend. “You are forced to witness crimes in your sleep.”

“Only sometimes,” Charles says, entirely uncertain of whether or not it is the right thing to say.

Either way, Erik subsides into silence for a long while. They sit in the dark, Charles half under the sheets of his bed and Erik seated stiffly at the very edge of the mattress, as if he's expecting to spring upwards and leave at any moment. With each moment that Erik does not rise and return to his own bed, Charles becomes more unsure of what exactly is going on. He's tired, and confused, and Erik is being even more inscrutable than usual—all Charles really wants is to go back to sleep, and this time peacefully.

Just before Charles opens his mouth to ask Erik to move, however, Erik speaks instead. “You said a name,” Erik says, quietly. He meets Charles' eyes and holds that gaze. “Right before you started screaming, you said the name 'Cain.'”

Charles feels as though his stomach has risen up into his throat and knotted itself there. “Oh.” Charles' voice sounds toneless, even to his own ears, and he tries to speak more normally when he continues. “Then I'm sorry, my friend, as I seem to have lied to you inadvertently.” Erik, somehow, straightens up further, his spine a perfect, unbending line against the dark. “That was my dream, after all,” Charles finishes.

He hasn't thought of Cain in years; he tends not to, except in times of high stress. Doing so now makes Charles want to curl into himself and stop thinking entirely, but he knows that isn't feasible with Erik sitting so near. Erik, who is Charles' closest friend and deserves some sort of explanation for the way he was dragged from sleep; Erik, who is still distant from Charles because of something Charles said in anger; Erik, who Charles loves. Charles thinks of that potential forgiveness he felt in Erik's thoughts earlier, and finds the air to speak.

“Mutants are not better than humans,” Charles starts. He gets about that far before Erik stands from the bed, so fast that it looks like he's recoiling from a blow.

“Don't start that again, Charles,” Erik says, teeth showing white against the dark with each word. Anger hangs heavily on each word, and Erik's posture has snapped closed, defensive.

“Erik,” Charles says, and hears the name come out of his mouth like a plea. “Please, I'm not trying to argue with you. I'm trying to give you an explanation of why I said what I did.” Charles realizes, with some detached amusement, that he sounds like he's coaxing a feral animal as he speaks. It works, at least slightly. Erik remains standing, but his shoulders go loose again, and he falls silent. “Thank you,” Charles says, and then starts again. “We aren't, Erik. I'm sorry, but we are not.” He exhales hard through his nose, breathes in, and then says quickly, “I am not.”

He looks down at his hands, his fingers twining with each other and then coming back apart. This is one of those things he wishes he could communicate mind to mind. Verbally, each word is a struggle—at least between minds he could pass the story along in one brief touch. This way requires more courage than Charles thinks he has to spare at the moment. He closes his eyes again and lets himself picture his childhood home.

“Raven was adopted into my family when we were both children,” Charles says. “My mother never wanted her, you have to understand—she'd always been focused on the superficial, and the fact that Raven was naturally blue was too much for her to accept. It was my father who filed the paperwork for her and welcomed her into the family.” A memory Charles almost did not realize he had flashes across his mind, of Raven perfectly mimicking the strange faces their father would make at her when their mother wasn't looking. Seeing two perfect images of Brian Xavier, both dressed in neatly pressed suits and polished shoes, and both making absurd faces at each other, had never failed to make Charles laugh. “He was fascinated by her,” Charles says. It's a bittersweet memory now. “He passed away shortly afterward.” /Rained at the funeral, black cars driving in neat lines to the graveyard, a stone-eyed angel watching as Raven sobbed quietly, shaking, and my mother never reached out to either of us in comfort./

“Charles,” Erik says, “you're projecting.” His tone is equal parts oddly gentle and surprised, and Charles realizes that this is the first time he has projected his thoughts to Erik. It wasn't exactly what he would have liked to start off with.

“My mother remarried,” Charles says. “One of my father's business partners, Kurt Marko, was particularly kind to her while she grieved. I knew all along that the only thing he loved about my mother was her money, but my mother wouldn't believe me.” /“Don't lie, Charles, just because you miss your father. I miss him too, but I'm not going to be alone forever.”/ Charles catches himself projecting this time, not quickly enough to stop himself but quickly enough to offer an apology before Erik can say anything. “I'm sorry, this is—difficult, for me. I don't mean to project.”

Erik does not accept his apology, or dismiss it. Instead he just says, “Let me guess. Marko had a son.”

“Yes. Cain Marko, who became my stepbrother six months after I met him for the first time.” Charles swallows, his throat dry, and almost wants to stop and get a glass of water. He has a feeling, though, that starting the story again will only be all the more difficult because of the break. “Aggression was a problem in the Marko family, as was profound insecurity. The two made for a poor combination in Kurt, who was abusive towards Cain, and cruel to Raven and I. In Cain, they were even worse. Cain was—creative. Kurt was casually horrible, but I always knew it was because he couldn't think of himself as strong unless there was someone nearby he'd made weak. Cain wasn't like his father in that respect. He lashed out because he couldn't allow anyone to be happy while he suffered, and because he genuinely enjoyed watching others in pain.”

“At first, they both mostly left me alone, and I underestimated the severity of the situation.” This part of the story still pains Charles profoundly—for all that he'd been an active telepath for years by the time his mother remarried, he still allowed his naivete to override the strains of thought he sometimes caught from his stepfather and stepbrother. “It took me almost a month to realize they were leaving me alone because Raven was an easier target,” Charles says, and feels himself wince at the words. /Raven who could shift shape to hide bruises, and who knew me well enough to keep thoughts hidden away./ “I might never have realized if I hadn't seen Cain taunting her one day. I should have realized it beforehand, of course. My mother was at least fond of me, even if she was never very motherly towards me, and that gave me some protection from Kurt and Cain. Raven had no one in that household that loved her except for me, and Kurt thought she was a—a freak. Of course she was the easier target.”

“I tried to stop them, but I was still just a child. I had no idea how to stop someone bigger and stronger than myself, not when my mother was turning a blind eye to any imperfections her new husband had. So I did the only thing I could do to help.”

Erik interrupts, “You made yourself into a target.” The words sound like a hiss, and Charles recognizes anger in those words. He also recognizes that Erik is taking entirely the wrong message from this story, adding Charles' childhood as another entry in a long list of arguments against humankind.

“I was cruel to him,” Charles says, both agreeing with Erik and correcting him all at once. “I was worse than his father. I looked into his mind and found the places where Cain Marko felt vulnerable, and I used his worst fears to mock him. He hated me for it, like I'd meant him to.” A smile curves Charles' lips, but he imagines it looks more self-effacing than pleased. “After that, Raven was almost never his target.”

“I learned where to hide from him. I was a fast runner, which helped, and the fact that I could read minds meant I was quite good at arranging collisions with Kurt or my mother just as Cain was about to catch up. I learned to sleep very lightly, and I locked my door at nights. School was a sort of relief—Cain could push me around there, but he couldn't ever really hurt me, because the teachers would stop him.”

“So what changed?” Erik asks, and Charles feels his smile turn more genuine. Of course Erik has guessed where this story is leading—Charles wouldn't be telling it if it didn't come with its own sort of moral.

“I told you Cain was creative,” Charles says. /Dark mind, like a thousand winding corridors with someone screaming behind every door, the things he thought—./ “Eventually, he realized why I'd done what I had. He didn't know I was a telepath. He knew Raven was blue—her control over her shape was too inconsistent in the long term for us to hide that—but my mother had been afraid that two mutant children would scare Kurt off. We all pretended I was just a normal boy. It was that charade that gave me as much time as I had, I think. If Cain had known I was a telepath, he would have realized I was protecting Raven much sooner; he'd realize that a telepath who waited a month and then used his powers was probably motivated by something that had happened specifically in that month. As it was, he assumed I was just a highly observant boy with a grudge against him.”

“Then he figured things out, and it occurred to Cain that the best way to hurt me would be to hurt the thing I was protecting.” Charles cannot say this next aloud. Erik hasn't been protesting Charles' projections to this point—grasping at that feeble excuse, Charles allows himself to project the memory to Erik's mind, keeping the connection as light as he possibly can.

/I found him in a hallway behind the kitchens. He had Raven pressed up against a wall, her arm twisted behind her back. He was hurting her, and it terrified me. She made this sound, and I hit him before I even knew what I was doing. It didn't help, of course—Cain was three years older than me, and much bigger, and I'd never hit anything before in my life. He spun around and caught my wrist, and he laughed at me.

The touch destroyed my mental barriers, as it sometimes does. I found myself in the middle of his convoluted mind, and it was like—like a parade of horrors. I saw everything he was considering doing to Raven, and I saw that all those things pleased him. He wanted me to see them. He didn't know that I could, but he was going to tell me about them, slowly, after he broke one of my legs so I couldn't run away. He was going to spell everything out and then pick the ones that had horrified me most, and do them. He had plans for me, after, as well. He wanted to ruin me, to ruin both our lives.

I couldn't let him. He was wrong, and I couldn't let him do what he wanted to, so I lashed out. I pressed my mind into his and tore out everything I could reach./

Charles comes back to himself in the aftermath of the memory, and is aware that both he and Erik are breathing hard. He feels sweaty, and cold. Somehow, now that the worst of it is done, it feels easier to speak. “He was catatonic, by the time I was done. He's been in hospice care ever since, with almost no chance of recovery. I stopped everything about him but his heart.” Charles feels lighter, impossibly, as though this story has been a weight on his chest and now he can finally breathe again. He opens his eyes and meets Erik's. Erik sat back down on the bed at some point during the story, and is sitting statue still save for the rapid rise and fall of his chest. “That's why I know mutants are not better than humans, Erik. We are not more capable of mercy or rational behavior. If we are threatened we will retaliate like humans do. It's possible we'll ruin more lives in that retaliation than humans would be capable of, because of the power our mutations place in our hands.” Charles shrugs, and raises his hands with the palms open, like a peace offering. “We're only human,” he says, and hopes Erik has heard him this time.

“Charles,” Erik says, and it sounds like his own name again, like he is someone Erik recognizes. “Marko deserved that.”

“No one deserves what I did,” Charles contradicts, gently. “Erik, I destroyed the person who persecuted me, and all it brought me was guilt. Please don't make that same mistake.”

“If mutants are only human,” Erik says, “then how can you honestly expect me not to do what any human would, and make that mistake?” There's a tinge of irony in his tone, but also tiredness. This isn't a war Charles can win in one night, but this time, at least, Erik has listened.

“Mutants may not be better than humans, but you are. You, as a person, are capable of better.” It sounds more sentimental aloud than it did in Charles' thoughts, in a way that Charles can hopefully explain as due to the early hour and the painful conversation they've just had. For a long time he and Erik just look at each other, as Erik seems to think about that last.

Then Erik stands and walks to his own bed, sinking back under the sheets with an audible rustle. “Go back to sleep, Charles,” Erik says into the dark. He's still, after that, though whether he sleeps or not Charles can't tell.

Charles means to stay awake and think about the repercussions of this conversation. It is, after all, the first time he's ever told the story—the only other person who knows about it is Raven, who was there when it happened, and her only reaction at the time was to request that Charles never touch her mind again. Erik, at least, reacted with anger rather than fear; more importantly, Erik reacted like someone who cares about Charles, which probably bodes well for Charles' future attempts to gain his forgiveness.

Charles means to stay awake and think about all of these things. As things stand, he's asleep within the next five minutes.

After that, things are—different. Charles hesitates to say better for fear that he's being overly optimistic; he remembers the easy companionship that existed between them before their argument, and this is nothing like that.

Erik is still occasionally uncomfortable around him, for one. The stiffness and distance between them fade a little, to the point where some of the casual contact between them returns, and Erik stops treating Charles as though his presence is a burden. There are still some moments between them where Erik goes silent and looks at Charles in a way Charles cannot explain, as though he is still deliberating on what his reaction to Charles should be. It's as though there is a truce between them, but neither of them are entirely certain how fragile that truce is. Still, Charles is willing to take anything he can get.

With the new easiness between them, they manage to be the most productive they have ever been. There are still two mutants who say no, but, more importantly, there are three that say yes. Three mutants, all willing to take the return train with them in a week's time and begin to learn about themselves and their mutations. Darwin, Alex and Sean, each with their own unique skills and their own fallacies, each wonderfully human and bright even outside of their mutations: Charles feels as though he is permanently walking on air, and that helps a little in his interactions with Erik too.

All in all, by the time their week is up, Charles and Erik leave the city in far better shape than they entered it, and with three young mutants beginning to strike up friendships between them as they go. Charles can accept that for the victory it is.

Back at the CIA headquarters, Moira says 'Shaw' and Charles watches the hungry, hunting aspect of Erik surface once again. There's never a question of Erik going, and there's absolutely no way Charles is letting him go alone. The behavior of the younger mutants—and, God, sometimes Charles forgets how young they all are, the oldest of them in his early twenties—settles the question of their going quite effectively.

This is how, less two days after his return to Virginia, Charles finds himself on a plane to Russia with Erik seated next to him, and the specter of Sebastian Shaw looming ahead.

Chapter Text

The American soldiers that travel with them are all good people, if not an entirely talkative bunch. From what little conversation there is, Charles learns that most of them are officers, barring one enlisted man; that most of them are quite young to be officers, and have consistently been placed at the top of their classes and training courses to this point; and that most of them have worked together before in some capacity. From their minds (and Charles really does not mean to pry, but anticipation of what lies ahead has made Erik uncommunicative, and air travel bores Charles if he is left to his own devices) he learns that they have all been selected because of open personalities, that they have some reservations about working with mutants but are also a little excited, and a whole plethora of less interesting personal details besides. It is enough to convince Charles that they are trustworthy soldiers who will be of help in their confrontation of Shaw.

Erik, from the look on his face when Charles mentions this, does not agree.

Fortunately for everyone involved, Moira is acting as copilot during the flight, and the confrontation over this has to wait until they land in Russia; as Moira does not actually approach them until just before they are boarding the truck, this also has the advantage of meaning the soldiers are out of the way. Charles would hate for any of them to feel denigrated simply because Erik's tension has translated into a dismal mood.

Charles follows when Erik draws Moira aside, taking Erik's lack of protest as permission enough to take part in the conversation. With his usual disregard for conversational niceties, Erik begins the exchange by saying, “What exactly are you planning to accomplish with eight soldiers, one telepath, and myself, MacTaggert?”

Charles is struck with the sudden, inane thought that 'eight soldiers, a telepath and a man who controls metal walk into a Russian military compound' sounds rather more like the start of a bad pun than the start of a workable plan. “It does seem like a rather small group to take against a man like Shaw,” Charles says, and is rewarded with the pleased expression that darts across Erik's face at the support.

Moira shakes her head, her expression serious. “I understand that you'd prefer we launch an all out assault, Erik, but there's no way we can do that without starting the next world war. Even having this many members of the US army on the ground in Russia right now is a risk. It'll already be an international incident if we get caught. Do you think myself or my superiors would compound that by bringing along a whole squadron?” Erik frowns in response to this and opens his mouth to speak—Moira holds up a hand to silence him and looks up to meet his eyes. Very sincerely, she says, “I know how much you want Shaw, Erik. If there's a way we can catch that son of a bitch, we'll do it.”

Erik smiles thinly, the expression a little mocking. “I certainly hope so,” he says, in a way that leaves for your sake clearly understood in the silence afterward, just the softest tinge of a threat in his tone. He turns and climbs into the back of the truck, his movements smooth and controlled.

Charles catches Moira's arm as she turns away, and smiles at her a little regretfully. “He's just anxious to catch Shaw,” Charles says, knowing that Erik does not want excuses made for him and making them anyway. This is the worst possible time for a breech to form between Erik and Moira, which of course means that Erik has chosen this moment to irritate their most reliable ally; Charles cannot help but feel somewhat obligated to play referee between the two until tempers cool.

“Yeah, well, so am I,” Moira says, and tugs her arm away. There's a little genuine offense in her thoughts that Charles and Erik might think otherwise, and more than a little irritation at them both. “This is my job, Charles, and I'm good at it. It'd be great if Erik would stop treating me like the enemy just because I've got orders to follow.” She takes a step away before Charles can summon up anything to say to smooth things over, and nods at the back of the truck. “I'm an adult, and I can handle Erik. Stop trying to make me feel better and get in, already.”

The thing Charles neglects to take into account on the flight over, but becomes rather acutely acquainted with several hours later when the truck rattles over yet another section of uneven road, is the fact that Russia is actually a fairly large country. Somewhere in Erik's tightly wound air of urgency and the feeling of anticipation in Moira's thoughts, Charles lost track of the fact that of course a US government airplane wouldn't be able to get very far into Russia with international relations being what they are—and so, equally obviously, they would have to go a rather long way in the truck before they reached Shaw's destination. Charles is self-aware enough to realize he was expecting to move directly from the airplane into some sort of confrontation. Finding that confrontation was actually several hours away, and there was still a bumpy trip between him and it, was a surprise; Charles feels out of sorts for the first leg of the ride, the disconnect between his adrenaline-raising expectations and reality leaving him off balance and slightly jumpy.

Erik, unsurprisingly to Charles, manages to remain precisely as sharply-focused throughout the ride as he was when they began it. This is part of the skill set that makes Erik view himself as a weapon, after all, the ability to single in on a particular target and allow nothing to get in the way of his success—God knows the thought of revenge on Shaw has driven Erik for long enough for Erik to make a sort of art form out of it. Charles knows, even without touching Erik's mind, that his friend spends their time in the back of the truck going over scenarios in his mind, planning and adapting his plans until he can feel confident they apply to any possible situation of what lies ahead of them.

On the one hand, Charles is grateful for it; he personally does not have a military sort of mind, and knows he lacks the skills to plan any successful capture of Shaw, but also knows Erik will compensate for the skills Charles lacks. Charles hates Shaw simply on the merit of what the man did to Erik—even without the American government wanting to bring him in for his connections to Communist forces, Charles would have sufficient motivation to bring Shaw to justice. Erik is the person who will enable them to do that, the one of their group who knows best how Shaw thinks, how the man is likely to act. If anyone can bring Shaw down, it is Erik, and Charles loves his friend too well to wish Erik would step aside and let the Americans do this the less risky way.

On the other hand, though, Erik's furious and silent planning makes the transit seem even longer than it might otherwise. The new found truce between them disappears under the force of Erik's long-standing hatred, and Charles isn't yet secure enough in their renewed friendship to bear that without feeling anxious and a little hurt. Without Erik to talk to, Charles is left only to the conversation of the soldiers they are traveling with, and, beyond the common courtesies, they don't have much to say to Charles. Charles is British, a scientist, and a mutant—foreign on three counts—and there is a mission looming ahead to put them on their guards besides. While the soldiers don't seem uncomfortable with him because of those things, they also aren't at ease enough to maintain conversation.

All these things combine to make it seem a small eternity between when they enter Russia and when they reach their destination, but eventually they do reach it. One unexpected roadblock and a little bit of tricky telepathy later, they have driven far enough to that Moira opens the flap between compartments and says, “We're getting out soon and going the rest of the way on foot. Erik, Charles, you'll be coming with me.”

The truck rolls to a stop, and Erik is out of the truck almost before it's slowed entirely, leaving Charles no options but to follow him.

There is one advantage to Shaw's meeting's location, in that it is surrounded by dense foliage. Charles is a little comforted by this—as Moira leads them towards the home of the Soviet official in question, it immediately becomes obvious that Charles is the only one of their group not actually trained in stealth. Erik, perhaps, is a little more practiced at it than the rest of them; Moira, her partner, and the soldiers all move like people highly trained in theory, but who have had little opportunity or need to apply those skills. Nevertheless, all of them are leaps and bounds beyond Charles, who begins to feel like he could scarcely make more noise if he tried to do so. At least the thick cover afforded by the trees means that Charles isn't visibly obvious to top it off.

After a certain point, Moira pauses and makes a number of hand gestures at the soldiers. Charles gathers that they must be getting close, and that those gestures must have meant something, because the soldiers split off into two groups and move off in opposite directions, probably to circle the home they're approaching.

Or no, Charles has to correct himself once they reach the top of the slight hill they've been ascending and the building actually comes into view, the compound they're approaching. Perhaps it's Charles' quaint sensibilities—God knows everyone he's been surrounded with recently seems to think things like this are perfectly normal—but generally speaking he thinks homes have much less in the way of barbed wire and armed guards. Moira and her partner duck down against the top of the hill, taking themselves out of the sight-lines of said armed guards, and Charles sinks down between them, aware of Erik doing the same on Moira's other side.

Moira consults her watch, and then says, very quietly, “Shaw should be here within fifteen minutes or so, if the information we have about his schedule is accurate. When he gets here, I want things to go smoothly,” and she turns her head to address this last specifically to Erik. “I'll signal the soldiers, we make our way into the building and retrieve Shaw, and then we bring him out with us. The sooner we're back on our plane, the sooner my superiors can work on smoothing over the political shit storm this will cause. I don't want to make their jobs any harder by creating unnecessary drama, alright?”

Erik's smile is perhaps the most insincere expression Charles has ever seen. “Of course,” he says, his voice low. “I only want to see Shaw brought to justice, you don't need to worry about me.” That Erik's idea of Shaw being brought to justice is very different from Moira's doesn't even need to be voiced. Moira's thoughts go resigned, and Erik's stays persistently innocent; Moira's partner makes a soft, skeptical sound from under his breath, and then pretends the noise was just a result of reaching for his binoculars. Charles has the spectacular feeling that this could all go very poorly.

As it turns out, laying down on hills is a tremendously boring way to pass time, even if it is for a good cause. Erik, after his false protestation of innocence, goes silent, watching the building closely, while Moira's thoughts turn loud and jarring in their focus. The only place Charles can turn to distract himself is Moira's partner, who is, incongruously, thinking of baseball statistics to calm himself as he keeps his binoculars trained on the compound below. It is something of a crash course in a sport Charles has never been much interested in, and the sound of a helicopter's blades slicing through the air is actually a comfort to Charles for the split second it takes him to remember who exactly is in that helicopter.

Erik stiffens, and Charles is reminded for a moment of the way hunting dogs point towards prey. Then the cause of that stiffness transitions obviously from eagerness to disappointment, as Erik realizes what Moira's thoughts have already told Charles—there's a woman in the helicopter, not a man. “Where's Shaw?” Erik asks, his voice sounding as though it's caught in his throat, and Charles feels his own chest go tight from the sound.

Moira is saying—well, something, anyway, and probably something important, but all Charles is thinking of is how to find the answer to Erik's question. “If she's his telepath and I read her, she'll know we're here,” Charles says, not even realizing he's vocalizing his thoughts until they're already out of his mouth. Hopefully he didn't actually interrupt Moira mid-sentence. Charles watches the woman in white approach the doors, her back towards them, and his attention catches on the guards there. “I'm going to try something else,” he says, and sends his mind out with possibly a little too much energy.

Just to be cautious, he edges well around the woman's thoughts as he catches the mind of one of the door guards. It's always disconcerting to actively see out of someone else's eyes, rather than to just filter images through their thoughts—his own eyes are still open, and for a moment he sees two entirely separate images overlaid in a way that is really quite nauseating. It takes only a moment to close his own body's eyes, and then he's blinking to adjust to the new perspective as he uses his borrowed eyes and ears to eavesdrop on the woman.

She's sent in Shaw's stead—Shaw won't be coming—and with that knowledge Charles sinks back into his own body, leaving the door guard to blink perplexedly at mid-air. “He's not coming,” he says.

For a moment, he really thinks Erik will give up. Then Erik lifts up onto his hands, and it's clear he won't. Of course he won't—Charles should know better than to expect Erik would meekly drive back to the plane and depart empty-handed. It isn't in Erik's nature to admit defeat, not when it comes to Shaw. It seems Moira will have her unnecessary drama after all.

Moira makes a very good point about the sanctity of the homes of senior Soviet officials, but Charles can guess before she's even finished saying the words how little impact they're going to have on Erik. In a moment, he knows, Erik is going to go, regardless of the fact that he's just one man, regardless of the fact that he's going to try to storm a building held by men with guns, regardless of the fact that none of them know what could be waiting for them inside. For all they know this is an elaborate trap of Shaw's, and Erik is going to step inside those doors and find an army pitted against him—it doesn't seem Shaw's style, Charles acknowledges, but then he's seen enough of the man in Erik's memories to know Shaw's stability is never a safe thing to bet on. Erik is going to go into danger without regard for his own safety, thinking only of the man he's been hunting for half his life, again. Alone, as he always has been before.

And Charles cannot let him do that, because he remembers the look on Erik's face when he first realized he wasn't alone in the world. If Erik runs headlong into danger now, Charles is going to be left with that memory, and with the feeling of the gap that still exists between them. He can't let Erik go off with things between them so strained, because if Erik is injured or—God forbid—killed, Charles is going to feel the unhealed space between them like a wound for the rest of his life. He can't let Erik be alone. And he loves him too much to make him stay, or hold him back, even though he could, even if he should.

All this passes through his mind in moments, and by the time Erik is scrambling to his feet, Charles' decision is already made for him. Erik is quick—despite Moira's protests, he's already a little ways ahead by the time Charles manages to get upright. Moira continues right on protesting as Charles begins to move, but Charles does not have time to appease her and do what he must; making a mental note to apologize to her later, Charles all but sprints in the direction Erik took off in.

Erik hears him coming, of course, and is already half turned towards Charles when Charles reaches out to slow him. Without giving Erik time to speak, he says, decisively, “I'm coming with you.”

Erik's first reaction is an immediate, sharp, “No.” Charles meets Erik's eyes and does not let the gaze go. “This isn't your fight, Charles.”

Charles shrugs and says, “I can help you, Erik. Please let me.” Erik looks unconvinced, and Charles presses his point before his friend can decide to just turn and leave without him. “I can get you in and out without a single guard ever seeing you, Erik. I don't doubt that you can fight them off, but if that woman is a telepath she might hear the alarm in their thoughts. Let me help you.”

For once in his life, it seems Charles has said the right thing at the right time. “Alright,” Erik says. “Keep up.” Then Erik's spinning around and running into the forest, and this time Charles feels a smile nearly split his face as he follows.

The pace Erik sets is more than a little difficult to keep up with. Charles generally thinks of himself as fit—for an academic, especially so—but there's still quite a gap between himself and Erik. Erik moves like a predator through the woodland, his quick, long strides covering ground easily; for all that Charles has to struggle to keep up, he'll be damned before he lets Erik leave him behind.

Circuitousness is the last thing on Erik's mind now, Charles knows—they are moving directly towards the compound, subtlety abandoned for speed. All too quickly, they're close enough that Charles has to put aside the rapidity of his breath and the slight burning in his muscles to do what he came for. It isn't exactly projection, what he's planning to do, but it's not precisely anything else either—Charles opens his mind and reminds the minds near them that there is nothing of interest to see, to hear, no cause to look too deeply at their surroundings. Possibly the most difficult part of it is keeping that message generalized enough that every mind in the compound will accept it, without in any way influencing Erik. It's like making a blanket of disinterest with his mind, with one very specific, moving hole in that fabric that Charles cannot allow to untangle the rest.

It works, though. They leave the forest and run down the path leading up to the complex, and not a single guard even turns. Charles spares a moment to be pleased with himself, and then—

/You saw nothing, nothing moved, nothing to see,/ Charles projects, as quickly as he can, ferreting the sight of the compound gate rising out of the memories of the guards. “Erik,” he says, voice tense, “it's much easier for me to keep them from seeing us if I know ahead of time what they'll actually see.” They're through the gate by then, and Charles keeps hold of the guards' minds just long enough to keep them from seeing the gate close. Erik doesn't even stop, doesn't look back; the most Charles gets by way of apology is a brief outward brush from Erik's mind against his.

They run down the grass, past two guards staring idly forward, and Erik raises a hand to wrench open the front doors. Thankfully this time he makes the gesture obvious enough that Charles sees it in advance, and can mask the action from the guards' minds before it happens.

The inside of the compound is all dark wooden panels and occasional bursts of color in rugs or paintings, though Charles has very little time to take an account of the décor before they're moving again. “Which way?” Erik asks, though he doesn't stop to give Charles a chance to answer. Charles understands Erik's focus, he does, but he's still slightly exasperated—without time for finesse, he all but tears the answer from the mind of a guard in the next hallway, and then has no time to smooth over the ripples in the guard's mind. /Sleep,/ Charles commands him, quickly, and then gives up subtlety entirely and broadcasts that command, feeling each guard in the compound crumple to the ground in sudden unconsciousness. There's no way the other telepath missed that, Charles realizes ruefully, but then again, at the speed Erik's had him throwing his mind around, remaining unnoticed was probably impossible anyway.

“This way,” Charles calls out, and turns sharply, making towards the room the telepath is ensconced in, Erik at his heels.

The room isn't far, and once again Erik uses the metal of the door handles to throw it open before they get there, allowing the two of them to burst in without so much as pausing. For a moment, Charles is uncertain of what's happening in the room. His eyes tell him a lovely woman is sitting on the couch, mostly unclothed—his mind catches at the Soviet's, and tells him she is braced over the man on the bed, gives him lust/touch/skin/warmth/perfume. Then the telepath turns towards them, surprise on her face, and Charles realizes the truth of the situation, his mind darting away from the repugnant illusion in the Soviet's mind. /Sleep,/ he orders the man, and watches him fall to the bed, a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach—telepathy is not supposed to feel like that, cloying and ungenuine, not a connection between minds but a twisting thing that warps both in the contact. There's something wrong in the woman's telepathy, even beyond the degrading use she's putting it to, though Charles cannot put his finger on what exactly.

Then she is in his mind, and it's like that first night on the boat—Charles can feel her so acutely that the sudden sensation nearly aches. /Oh, sugar,/ she says into his mind, her lips curling up disdainfully, /aren't you sweet./ (Sweet the way father always meant it: stupid.) She doesn't mean to give him that last, Charles knows; neither of them are accustomed to being around others of their kind, and it would be only too easy in this moment for him to give away more than he means to, like she did. A second later her body shifts into diamond and he is thrown from her mind, the tie between them snapped by the force of her mental walls coming down.

The shock of that snap disorients Charles for a moment, though he thinks she's talking, something about how he cannot read her mind while she is in this form, which Charles knows full well by now. He only comes back to himself at the flash of alarm Erik's mind lets out, in time to see the telepath rush towards them and the open door at their backs. He and Erik catch her at the same time, and for all that it's difficult to get a good grip on her, he and Erik combined are more than strong enough to push her back against the bedposts. Erik grins, a flash of sharp white teeth, as the metal of those posts moves to hold her down.

Charles can actually see the metal change in composition as Erik strengthens it, recombining the elements that make it up to make the metal more durable, less pliable. (He hadn't honestly known his friend could do that—possibly even Erik hadn't known. Necessity is, after all, the mother of invention, and Erik's mutation seems to be growing all the time before Charles' eyes, even more so than his own.) By the time Erik is done, the formerly flimsy metal is sufficient to hold the telepath even in her diamond form, and they all know it.

That doesn't keep her from struggling, of course, but Erik responds to that struggle by tightening her bonds. Two new strands of metal catch at her throat, and Charles feels his own breath freeze in his lungs in sympathy. “Erik,” Charles says, alarmed, as the metal continues to tighten, and for a moment Erik looks at Charles as though he isn't even there. The sting of that silences Charles briefly. By the time he has found his words again, a hairline crack has formed across the other telepath's throat, and then she is sinking back into her more fragile human skin. Erik, to Charles' relief, lets the metal around her neck go after that.

“Charles?” Erik asks, his expression open and familiar once again. He sweeps an arm towards the other telepath, as if welcoming Charles to do as he will to her. Charles knew this was in his friend—the hatred, the fury, the willingness to do anything that will bring him one step closer to his revenge—but he had not seen it first hand before this. It doesn't make him fear Erik, for all that it should. Instead Charles finds himself feeling new anger towards everyone who ever set Erik on this path, everyone who ever made him feel it was acceptable to be a weapon, a monster, in order to hunt monsters. He doesn't feel pity, exactly, but it comes fairly close, and he knows Erik would hate him for that if he knew.

/A little attached?/ the other telepath projects, sweetly, the falseness of it washing over Charles' mind. /I've got news for you, honey. There isn't going to be a happy ending for your boy Erik. He's like me./ (Erik, a knife in hand, finding the energy in him to throw it, to kill, even through blinding pain, the disappointment on Erik's face when that knife is caught, the bloodlust rushing through his veins and his thoughts.) She meets Charles' eyes and refuses to look away, a smile on her lips. /He's just another monster, at the end of the day. You can't kiss that and make it go away, sugar./ Slowly, she turns her eyes towards Erik, looks him over; when she turns back to Charles she looks smug. /Not that he even wants you to,/ she projects, her tone suggesting that she's sharing an important secret.

She means that last to be a blow, a reminder of what Charles can't have. It's a miscalculation. Charles already knows that Erik is more than a weapon, has felt the good in him, and her every word reminds him of that; it angers him to hear Erik called those things, true, but her manipulation fails when she tries to use Erik's lack of interest against Charles. She can't hurt Charles with what he already knows, after all.

Charles smiles at her mistake. It gives him the boost he needed to shut her out of his mind, his own walls coming down between them. “Right,” he says, crisply, and turns to Erik, ignoring the telepath for a moment. “I think she'll cooperate now. Care to see what Shaw's up to?” He extends his fingers to his temples as a warning, and then reaches out his mind, brushing it along Erik's. /I can carry you along with me,/ Charles projects, /so you can see what I find in her mind./ Erik, after all, is rarely willing to be passive in his search for Shaw—besides, Erik knows Shaw better than anyone, and there's a chance that Erik will understand something in her mind that Charles will not.

Erik's response is to project a feeling of acceptance towards Charles, wordlessly. It is the mental equivalent of Erik stretching out a hand towards Charles, and Charles silently laces their minds together. The link is thin—none of their thoughts will touch—but enough to drag Erik along behind him. /Brace yourself, my friend,/ Charles projects, and turns back to the other telepath.

Her mind parts for him more easily than Charles' own strength can account for—she is cooperating after all, Charles thinks, and then Shaw's plan blossoms before them in all of its insanity. The entire human race, destroyed, leaving only mutants behind. As though all mutants will react to radiation in the same way—as though most of them will not die alongside the humans. Shaw's world is built on ruin and fire. It is immoral, unconscionable, and ugly, and all throughout it Charles is bombarded with the other telepath's—Emma's, this deep into her mind he cannot continue to call her by her mutation's title—view. She looks at the destruction and thinks that it is beautiful beyond measure, and the thought itself feels rotten, feels wrong.

She isn't cooperating, Charles realizes, suddenly. She's redirecting, deliberately catching his attention with what he wants to see so that he will not look further into her mind.

Charles catches hold of the end of that decaying thought and follows it like a rope, and it drags him down into the depths of Emma Frost.

Charles comes back to himself because someone is shaking him. There are hands on his shoulders, large ones, with strong, competent fingers. Hands that Charles knows. Then there is sound—someone saying his name, a male voice—

“Charles,” Erik says, and his voice pitched low and tense. “Charles, stop. Come back.”

“I'm here,” Charles says, and blinks his eyes open. He is unsurprised to find them wet, unsurprised to find that he has been crying. “I'm here, my friend, and I'm fine.”

“You can't leave me behind like that, Charles,” Erik says. It takes Charles a moment to process that—but of course the thin link between their minds would not have been enough to allow Erik to follow him that deep. Charles had been too absorbed to realize when he lost contact with Erik's mind, but he imagines that to Erik the disconnect would have seemed almost violent. Erik is no telepath—he had no way of knowing where Charles' mind had gone when it left him, would only have known that he was suddenly alone in his own body and Charles would not respond.

“I'm sorry if I frightened you, Erik,” Charles says, and Erik's hand tightens once more on his shoulder and then releases its grip. “It was for a good reason, I promise.” The remembrance of what he saw pushes Charles the rest of the way into alertness, and for the first time Charles thinks to take in the change in his surroundings.

He is kneeling in front of Emma, sat on the ground as if his legs collapsed out from under him, and Erik is crouched down beside him. Strangely, of all of them, Emma looks the most put together, her face blank and calm even in the face of what Charles just stumbled into.

Charles catches her gaze and holds it, and cannot keep himself from saying, “It isn't your fault.” Erik startles beside him, obviously confused, but Charles continues, “None of that was your fault, Emma, no matter what Shaw said. He cannot do what he promised you. All of it was a lie.”

(Shaw leaning in towards Emma, expression kind, almost benevolent. Shaw, bright and clean against the background of the sanitarium, thoughts saner than those of any of Emma's inmates and most of the nurses. The weight of her brother's suicide hanging on Emma's mind like a noose—Christian, the only one of her siblings who ever so much as cared for her, the one thing that made her father's tyranny over his household bearable. She hadn't even known he was queer until she'd read the note he left behind, after; it wouldn't have bothered her, except that she'd never known. A telepath who never saw her brother's pain until he killed himself over it. The guilt was so heavy. Shaw, whispering in her ear: It was your fault, Emma. It was all your fault. You never listened, and he's dead because of it. But don't worry. Don't cry. I haven't aged for longer than you've been alive—my mutation helps me to cheat death. And if you do as I ask, I can help you cheat death too, Emma. I can help you bring him back.)

Charles can tell, even before Emma sneers and turns her eyes away, that he hasn't gotten through to her. “He hasn't been wrong so far,” Emma says, haughtiness back in her voice. “He's more powerful than you can imagine.” She meets his eyes again, and says, with absolute conviction, “And he will do what he promised.” /Now,/ she projects, a purring thought against Charles' mind, /don't you have bigger troubles to deal with, sugar?/ And she gives him the knowledge of what Shaw is doing at that exact moment.

“Get her up,” Charles says. He can feel himself go pale, the blood rushing from his skin so quickly that he hears it like a dull roar in his ears.

“What—?” Erik starts to ask, but Charles cuts him off with a sharp gesture.

“Shaw is a mutant,” Charles says, “he's attacking the CIA base as we speak, we have to go now.” Erik doesn't question him, then, just detaches the metal bedposts from the bed and secures Emma with them, dragging her up after them.

(Raven, Charles is thinking, not loud enough to project. Raven, Raven, Raven. If Shaw so much as touches his little sister than he may finally understand the anger that drives Erik. If Raven is harmed he will not be sorry to see Shaw dead.)

They leave the building just as quickly as they entered. Charles wishes it were faster.

Moira is furious—beyond furious, actually—when they rejoin her at the truck, Emma Frost trussed and lagging half a step behind Erik. Charles understands why she is, of course, it's a perfectly natural reaction, but the fact remains that he does not have time to contend with her anger at just this moment.

/Here,/ he projects, a split second's warning before he's bundling up the entire last hour's worth of memories and delivering them into her mind. It's not something he would normally do—truthfully, he would never, under normal circumstances—but his mind is still caught on the idea of his sister in danger, and him on the wrong continent to be of any use. He does take enough care to strip the memories of emotional context, so that they are presented to Moira as a factual account rather than an unasked for trip into his life.

She stumbles backwards, briefly, whatever she had planned to say to them cut off entirely. Her eyes go wide, and she blinks several times in rapid succession, clearly trying to process the overwhelming flow of information. Then her face clears, and though she spits out, “Never do that again, Charles,” she also turns immediately towards the truck. “Let's go,” she says, and hops up into the driver's seat, her partner trailing confusedly behind, “we're in a rush.”

/You're a treasure, Moira,/ Charles projects, meaning it fervently, and gets in the truck.

The poor soldiers find the ride back to the airplane extremely disquieting, understandably. Between the half-dressed woman who's suddenly joined them, the metal holding her still by Erik's will, and the way that Charles is suddenly beside himself with worry, there's certainly plenty of disconcerting influences to be had in that truck. Charles has just enough presence of mind to notice the sudden change in emotions around him, but he can't really summon up the amusement or sympathy for them that he would usually feel.

“Raven will be fine, Charles,” Erik says from beside him, one large hand loosely clasped around Charles' upper arm. Charles appreciates the anchor, he does, but Erik cannot know what he says for a fact. Raven is not a fighter, not in the way Erik is, and Charles knows now what Shaw can do. She's just barely past the point of childhood, for God's sake. “She's not alone. They'll all help keep each other safe.”

Charles shakes his head. “They'll try,” he acknowledges, because he's been in the minds of each of their young mutants and he knows they are all of them good people. “But they're none of them trained, Erik. They're as likely to harm themselves with their mutations as keep themselves safe. And Shaw—”

“You do not need to tell me what Shaw can do,” Erik says, anger rising in his voice and falling just as quickly. Erik lets go of him, puts his head in both his hands. “I know exactly what sort of a monster that man is. He was dangerous enough when I thought he was human.” Charles is not nearly so consumed by his worry as to fail to understand what those words mean to his friend. Erik has built his world view around very narrow lines—humans are dangerous, to be feared, and mutants are safe because they are better than humanity. To suddenly have his tormentor revealed to him as a mutant must be shaking the view Erik held such confidence in. Honestly, while some small part of Charles is glad of that, glad that his friend is finally seeing the flaws behind his prejudice, Charles largely wishes that knowledge had not come like this, now, when things are so unsettled already.

/Going to wrap him up and keep him safe from the world?/ Emma projects, that same false saccharine in her tone. Charles cannot deal with his own crisis, Erik's, and Emma Frost just at this moment, and so he doesn't. He shuts his mind to her, walls off Erik's, and then for good measure cuts her off from the soldiers and Moira and her partner as well. Emma jerks as the telepathic walls come down hard, the metal of her bonds clacking loudly against the bed of the truck at the movement, and then looks angry at herself for the flinch. Charles puts her out of mind, after that, and focuses on Erik. His walls are not diamond, and Emma will be able to break through them eventually if she cares to, but he has bought them some time, and Erik's problems are far more immediate.

“Shaw is a mutant,” Erik says, and it sounds not like a repetition of fact but an acceptance of something Erik would rather not know. Erik breathes deeply once, twice. He looks up from his hands and says, “Show me what he can do.”

All of what Charles knows is from Emma, but he gives Erik every glimpse of Shaw's powers he gleaned from her mind. The radiation Shaw can absorb, the way it changes his cells and keeps him young, the way he can use it to become more powerful or release it like he is a bomb himself—Charles gives Erik what he has seen of all these skills, and tries very hard not to think of the damage those things could do to his sister. /He's strong,/ Charles acknowledges through the mental contact, /but not invulnerable./

/Is that what you saw, Charles?/ Erik projects. One hand comes up to run distractedly through his hair, unsettling the strands around his face. He looks particularly hopeless at this moment, and it is not a look Charles ever wants to see on him again. /Because I just saw something I've devoted my life to slipping out of my reach./

Charles cannot condone Shaw's death, hates that what Erik wants most in his already tragic life is more violence, and is frightened by how Erik speaks of Shaw's death as though his entire life ends at that goal. That said, he also cannot bear to see his friend looking so worn down, not when there is any help he can offer. /No,/ he projects, catching Erik's wrist in his fingers, making Erik raise his eyes to meet Charles'. /You will be able to stop Shaw, my friend./

/How?/

/Training,/ Charles offers, immediately. /You're only scratching the surface of your powers, Erik. I can feel it./ The entirety of Erik's abilities, once he has them in his control, will be awe-inspiring; Charles knows that as surely as if he'd already seen it happen. He pauses, and adds, /And you'll have my help./ Charles tries not to think too deeply of what that offer means. Charles cannot knowingly bring about Shaw's death, and Erik does not seem to think he can live without it—logic says this will only end badly. But Charles knows, now, that there was never a question of him letting Erik do this alone. Somehow the rest will work itself out. It has to.

/Your help?/ Erik asks. The question comes across as more than a little dismissive, as though Erik is unsure how useful that help will be. It makes Charles feel oddly defensive.

/I was useful today,/ he projects.

Erik's next message is tinged with pensiveness. /Yes. You were./ For the first time in several days, an actual smile curves across his lips. /Thank you for that, my friend./ Something in Charles, some tension he hardly noticed he was carrying, relaxes. Erik raises his right hand—and somehow, Charles hadn't noticed that he still had a grip on the left—and lays it over Charles' hand on his arm. “Raven will be safe,” he says aloud, making the words sound bizarrely like a promise, “and we'll stop Shaw. Alright?”

It feels as though he's sealing an oath when Charles says, “Yes. Of course.”

It doesn't make the worry over his sister recede, but it does offer him a distraction, if nothing else. It's the only thing that makes the truck ride and subsequent flight bearable, if he's going to be perfectly honest.

Raven's mind, alive and vibrant as ever to the touch of Charles' telepathy, is possibly the best thing Charles has ever felt. He doesn't read her thoughts—he wouldn't break his promise, after all, not now that he knows she's safe—but after such a long period of worry he couldn't resist the urge to stretch his mind out and seek the presence of hers. The car he's in makes the turn onto the main road that leads to the CIA base, and Charles withdraws his mind with an involuntary sigh of relief. “Raven's well,” he says, and feels a smile split his face.

Erik claps one hand on his shoulder and squeezes gently. “I told you she would be,” he says.

Then Moira says, “Jesus,” and Charles looks up and actually sees the state the base is in.

It's very apparent that there's been conflict here—shattered glass and stone litter the area around the base, and there seem to be entire chunks of the roof that have fallen through. Worse than that is the mental emptiness of the place. Before, the base was full of minds, albeit minds Charles chose not to read out of respect for the work done here. Now there are only a small, scattered group of those minds left, and each and every one of those minds resonates with a feeling of loss/pain.

Moira's partner puts the car into park, and Charles is out the door as soon as he can physically get it open. There, at the front of the building, are the mutants he and Erik brought here, standing together; Alex, Sean and Hank on the benches together, Angel standing slightly apart, and Raven, even now turning towards him. “Raven,” Charles calls, and steps quickly, wrapping his arms around her as soon as she's within reach. She's warm and reassuringly unharmed; something about feeling her hair press into his cheek and her shoulders shift as she embraces him in return solidifies her safety in his mind. His sister is safe. Charles is slightly tempted to never let her go again.

“Charles,” Raven says, and tightens her own grip on him. “Darwin's dead.”

Charles breathes out, hard. He'd been too tangled up in worrying about Raven to process what it meant that Darwin's mind was not one of those he felt, that Darwin was not sitting with the others. Hearing Raven say it like that, though, finally makes it sink in. “I'm sorry,” Charles says, and though Raven is the only one who hears it, the words aren't meant for her. Charles found Darwin, brought him here, and though it was never his intention, put him in the line of fire. He can't allow any of the others to come to harm.

So he lets go of Raven, more than a little reluctantly, and says, “We'll make arrangements for you to be taken home immediately.”

“No,” Angel says, and Charles looks at her in surprise. Her arms are crossed over her chest and her shoulders slumped—it makes her look smaller than she really is, as though she's folded in on herself. Despite that, the primary emotion in her thoughts is stubbornness, assurance that she's making the right choice, and her expression is determined. “Shaw offered us a way out,” she says, discomfort spiking through her thoughts, “and none of us took it. We're not gonna leave now.”

“You're not safe here,” Charles says.

Angel shakes her head. “You're not getting it. Shaw knows who we are, now. We won't be safe anywhere.”

“I'm not going back to prison,” Alex says, far more quietly than Charles would have expected from him. He doesn't meet Charles' eyes when Charles turns to look at him; guilt radiates so heavily from his thoughts that Charles feels it almost physically. /My fault./ It's not an intentional projection, but Alex is thinking it so loudly he might as well be screaming the words.

Charles needs to know what happened here. Whatever it was, it was enough to change the way the minds around him feel—he left six mutants here who still thought like children, and came back to five who think and feel more like adults.

He knows, though, from Alex's thoughts, Sean's, Angel's, that if he asks now the tentative composure they've managed to piece together will shatter. Later, he resolves, he will speak to them all, try to see if he can do anything to fix the damage that was caused here. For now, he has to simply acknowledge that they may have a point; for all that he wishes he could shelter them, their thoughts and minds are telling him that he's already too late for that.

“Charles,” Erik says, and Charles turns to face him automatically. “A word?” He doesn't mean for them to speak aloud, Charles gathers a moment later, as Erik projects, /We'll need them, to stop Shaw./ Erik's getting entirely too good at projection, now—along with the message itself, Charles gets the distinct impression that if he says no, Erik will assume he's gone back on his offer to help. /Shaw has his army. We need ours./

/They're kids,/ Charles projects, knowing even as he sends it that that statement's less true today than it was yesterday.

/You know better than that./

He thinks again of the guilt in Alex's mind, the complicated knot of emotions lingering just below the surface of Angel's thoughts, and sighs. /Yes, I do./ He sends Erik his acceptance in a quick burst of emotion rather than a fully formed thought—Erik grins toothily and sends back a feeling of warmth that makes Charles' heart skip a beat. “Alright,” he says aloud, turning back to the rest of the group. “But we'll have to train, all of us. Yes?”

No one disagrees, though Hank makes a very good point about there being nowhere for them to go.

Except that isn't at all true. Of course there's a place. Charles would prefer not to—he's never once used his key to the house, not since he left for university and brought Raven along with him—but his preferences mean very little in this case. They need a place with enough open ground to train, enough air space for Angel's flight and somewhere next to indestructible for Alex to practice; the house in Westchester is practically custom made for that. There's even lab space for Hank, and more than enough rooms for everyone to stay. It's very nearly perfect, save for the fact that Charles would rather never set foot in it again.

Still. They need to be prepared if they're to have any chance of stopping Shaw.

“There is somewhere,” Charles says.