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For Charles, visiting New York City is a bit like getting high. Or, well, like he imagines getting high must feel like for normal people -- he's only ever experienced mind-altering drugs by telepathic proxy, and was left with no desire to repeat the experiment. He doesn't particularly want to find out what havoc hallucinogens might wreak upon his control.

But being in such a densely inhabited city, with all those millions of minds caught within easy range of his powers -- it's intoxicating, to say the least.

"Nearly eight million people crammed into one city," Erik remarks, as they emerge into the sprawling concourse of Penn Station. "And we're looking for...three?"

Charles ignores Erik's skepticism, reaching out to absorb the energy of the city. His mind feels stretched and open, welcoming the world in. When he was much younger, trips to the city were a source of no small anxiety, until he learned to shield himself properly. As his powers continued to mature, he loosened the barriers, testing his control by reaching ever further out. But now it's as though using Cerebro flipped a switch in his mind. All those countless thoughts flow past him in a current, crisp and fresh like a new deck of cards, and Charles rifles through them with a gambler's ease, seeking out the aces. Three potential recruits' coordinates cluster within the island of Manhattan -- though in a city this large, there are doubtless more mutants yet. But three is a good number to start.

In the initial rush, his mind strikes against Erik's like a flint, sparking. Charles isn't the only one whose mutation thrills at the city. For a moment, through Erik, he can sense the steel and iron construction in the train station and beyond, all those enormous buildings scraping the sky with their metal foundations and struts and supports, steel beams and iron rails and countless cars and cabs and subway trains, and gold wedding bands worn by eight separate people within just a ten-foot radius....

Charles hastily throws his mental shields back up, dragging himself out of Erik's mind with some reluctance. He does try to avoid invading his friends' heads without express permission. Well. Unless he has very good reason.

If Erik noticed his intrusion, he makes no remark. But the barest hint of a smile curves at the corners of his mouth. New York is a dangerous town, Charles thinks, somewhat giddily; put the pair of them in a place like this, and they just might conquer the world.

"Three in eight million," he says instead, returning Erik's not-quite-smile with one of his own. "I like those odds."

*

The line for taxis stretches around the block, and Erik is brimming over with pent-up energy from the long train ride from Virginia. "We could take the subway, you know," Charles points out. He can see the indecision in Erik's face. Pro: literally surrounding himself with metal. Con: have already been on a train for entirely too long (and also, the close press of other people, even more densely packed than the streets).

"Tomorrow," Erik says. So they walk to the hotel.

Charles ought to be regretting the decision. The evening is unseasonably chilly for September, and Gramercy Park is more than a mile's walk from Penn Station. But he's flush with the exercise and the warm drug of so many strangers' thoughts, and can't bring himself to mind. Also, while they both packed light -- they intend to spend two, three nights in New York at the most -- he suspects that Erik is tugging gently at the traces of metal in his suitcase, the zipper and the lock and God knows what else, making it far lighter than it ought to be.

This stretch of Broadway is dimmer and narrower than its counterpart up around Times Square, but energy still buzzes under Charles's skin with the echo of neon lights. They're passing through the Tenderloin, once a red-light district, now a dingy netherworld that's not quite residential, not quite business, certainly nowhere near respectable; the thick scent of flowers cloys in the evening air, though the many florists along 28th Street closed up shop hours ago. A clutch of young women strut down the sidewalk, giggling and chattering, their thoughts fizzing like cola as they brush past. Charles beams at them indiscriminately. His bag feels abruptly heavier.

He gives Erik a pointed look, which Erik matches. "Interested in street walkers, Charles?"

"It isn't polite to make assumptions," Charles says primly. Two of the girls were, in fact; their three friends weren't. None were out in search of custom tonight, though. Not that it's any of his business. "And no, I simply enjoy people who are enjoying themselves."

Erik scoffs, but Charles can sense the smile in his mind. His suitcase lightens almost imperceptibly. "You must have such fun with me, then."

Charles grins. "Always."

*

It's nearly nine o'clock by the time they get to their hotel, but this is the city that never sleeps, and Charles's mind hums with it. Their rooms are adjoining singles, which makes for a pleasant change; after some of the no-tell motels they encountered on the road, Charles intends to fully exploit the return to civilization. But he spends all of ten minutes sitting alone in his room before the disjointed thoughts from the hotel's many residents reach fever pitch and he needs a distraction. So he knocks on Erik's door.

It opens a second later. Charles lounges against the door frame in what he hopes is a casually inviting manner. "Drinks?"

Erik rolls his eyes. "Dinner," he counters. "I'm famished. And you're a lightweight on an empty stomach."

Ah, Tulsa. Not exactly Charles's finest moment. The potential recruit there had been a wash, too. "That was once."

"You're a menace to society," Erik says, grinning. "I'm embarrassed to be seen in public with you."

"Meet you in the hotel restaurant in ten?"

"Of course."

They end up dining at the bar. Erik focuses on his food single-mindedly, with scant appreciation; it's fuel to him, that's all. Charles only picks at his meal -- the restless buzz of the city leaves him twitchy, scattered, without much appetite to speak of. But the brandy is excellent.

With Erik's attention temporarily diverted, Charles allows his mind to wander, luxuriating in the bounty of discussions surrounding them. The restaurant is popular; the Gramercy Park Hotel fancies itself to be a sort of bohemian haven, and various writers, artists, and intellectuals have frequented the place for decades, brushing elbows with the occasional Kennedy or film star. The hotel's rates are low enough to attract a much broader variety of life than the Waldorf-Astoria and its ilk, which is an additional draw for those excited by the prospect of "slumming it" without any real danger attached. He can hear Ginsberg and Kerouac name-dropped alongside Yeats and Hemingway; a young man in a beret is engaged in an earnest discussion of pop art with an older woman whose gallery plans on hosting Warhol's first East Coast solo exhibition later this year. Charles doesn't linger in any one person's thoughts for too long, skimming lightly down along the bar and through the restaurant, and up throughout the hotel and the brownstones beyond and the streets below....

A sour note jangles at the edge of his awareness, and Charles reels himself back in to find Erik watching him, something uncertain and uncomfortable in his regard. "You're in your element here, aren't you?" Erik remarks, a little too harshly. "All these clever thoughts, pseudo-intellectuals who've never done an honest day's work in their lives puffing themselves up over martinis--"

"I prefer brandy," Charles says mildly. He signals the bartender for another refill. "And there's no need to sneer at the life of the mind. 'We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.'"

Erik snorts, glancing around the bar with a critical eye. "Wilde notwithstanding, this is hardly the gutter."

"To most of these people, it is," Charles says wryly, well aware of his own hypocrisy. He's just as much a child of privilege as anyone else here. "Don't let it bother you, Erik. You're smarter than any of them." He takes a bracing swallow of brandy to distract himself from the sudden intensity of Erik's gaze. The flush of warmth in his chest is entirely due to the alcohol.

After a long moment, Erik changes the subject. "How do you intend to find our three mutants in this throng?"

Charles shrugs negligently, tapping his temple. "Much as I did on any of the other stops on our tour."

"You didn't have quite the same degree of radio interference with the others," Erik points out.

"It's still the same basic principle." Charles doesn't know quite how best to explain it, is at a loss for analogies that might help a non-telepath understand. How to describe the unique sense of each individual person, like a fingerprint, a beacon, each its own star in the endless firmament of thoughts?

And Erik's own mind, somehow brighter still, like Polaris. Charles has been reorienting his life with Erik as his lodestar from the moment they met, scant weeks ago. It's utterly illogical. He can't help himself.

"Are any of them within your range right now?" Erik asks, snapping Charles back into the physical world again.

"I'm not sure," Charles admits. He'd previously thought his telepathic range to be within perhaps a two- or three-mile radius. But since he started working with Cerebro, it feels more...expansive, somehow. "The coordinates we pinpointed for these three were somewhat disparate -- one up in Harlem, another well over on the East Side, the third down around Houston Street. But this is New York; it's unlikely they've stayed put."

Erik raises an expectant eyebrow, so Charles sighs and brings his finger to his temple, closing his eyes to concentrate. The vast galaxy of individual minds opens before him, dense and bright, like the night sky appearing over the unpolluted countryside. He reaches out for particular points of light, those three intimate strangers he'd glimpsed in Cerebro. But he can't quite bring them into focus. He tries pushing himself further, straining, which is instantly a mistake. His head spins from the brandy -- three glasses in rapid succession, with little food to balance out the alcohol -- and despite his rush of energy from the city, he's still overtired from too many days on the road, getting first Angel and then Alex settled into the CIA facility, plus the long, draining session with Cerebro this morning followed by the interminable train ride up from Richmond....

Dizziness overtakes him all at once, the mental constellations tilting and wheeling around him with a sickening lurch. Briefly unable to retrace the connection back into his physical body, he panics and reaches out desperately to the brightest star, grasping tight, navigating himself home.

When he opens his eyes, he realizes that he has a death grip on Erik's arm. Erik's face is very close to his own, sharp with concern. "Charles?"

"Sorry," Charles says, quickly releasing him. He can feel sweat prickle his forehead, and swipes his hand across his face, breathing deeply. "I do apologize, Erik -- the long day finally caught up with me. I think I'll make an early night of it."

Erik stands when Charles does, hovering as though he's not sure Charles will remain upright without aid. Which is ridiculous, really. "I'll head back up with you."

"There's no need," Charles insists, tossing some cash down on the bar to cover their tab. "Enjoy your evening. I'll see you in the morning."

But Erik follows him upstairs anyway, hesitating outside of Charles's room as though he wants to say something more. Charles is tempted to just snatch the thoughts up directly from Erik's mind, but his head hurts, and the breach of privacy doesn't seem worth the effort. So he simply bids Erik good night and closes the door.

Sleep is a long time coming.

*

He awakens in the small hours of the morning, oddly unsettled by the quiet. No, that's not quite right. There's plenty of sound -- a few drunks chatting loudly on the sidewalk below, the occasional passing car, a couple having energetic sex in the room directly above his -- but it's all disconnected, distant. Stray thoughts and dreams drift across the landscape of his mind with the same detachment. It's just white noise, easily ignored. Which is ordinary. Peaceful. So why is he awake?

It's not a lack of noise that's bothering him; it's the lack of proximity. For the past week and change, he and Erik have shared a room every night. He's become accustomed to the sound of Erik's breathing, the low rumbling nearness of his mind. Charles has always instinctively reached out to a select few others; Raven for affection and companionship, a string of one-night stands for physical gratification, Erik for...whatever Erik is to him. He tries not to analyse it too closely.

Well, he'll get over it. Or perhaps -- he closes his eyes and listens. Erik's room is right next door, just on the other side of this wall. It's no stretch at all. Erik dreams in disjointed brushes of memory and imagination, soothingly formless. No nightmares tonight. Charles doesn't pry deeper, simply wraps himself up in the patchwork quilt of Erik's mind and slips back into sleep.

*

"I'm starving," Charles announces, when Erik knocks on his door the next morning. "Luckily, our first mutant's thinking about getting breakfast at the deli down the street. Shall we?"

Erik doesn't smile, exactly, but there's a certain fond amusement in his eyes. "Down the street from us or from him?"

Charles pauses and reorients himself. He's spent the past half hour or so seeking out the nearest mutant's thoughts. It's easy to get a little too absorbed. "From him. Sorry. Still, it's an excellent opportunity. He's very much a full-breakfast-and-morning-paper sort of person, he should be settling in for some time. I'm sure we can catch him."

"Where is he?"

"Well within my range -- this is the one in lower Manhattan." Charles smirks up at him. "The old cast-iron district, Erik, you'll love it."

They take a cab, because it's easier for Charles to follow the thread of the new mutant's mind from above ground. "How much can you read, from this distance?" Erik asks.

"Varies from person to person," Charles says, trying to find a more comfortable position on the hard backseat. The taxi's interior smells of old leather and something slightly sour -- not quite rancid, but off-putting, and the driver's thoughts are unbearably dull. He finds himself unconsciously leaning in toward Erik's warm, familiar presence. "Some people guard their thoughts more tightly than others. And I'm only brushing the very surface of his mind, superficial thoughts and impressions. He's not in the best of moods at the moment, but that's probably due to the early hour."

He's not sure, though -- there was a similar ill-tempered tenor to the man's thoughts from Cerebro yesterday. Maybe he's just cranky. No matter.

Charles directs the driver to the intersection of Houston and Ludlow Streets, where glowing neon proclaims KATZ'S DELICATESSEN to the morning commuters. The mutant is definitely inside. Charles hardly notices as Erik accepts their numbered tickets from the door attendant; it's a popular place, bustling with customers, and all his attention is focused on honing in on that one, shining mind in the crowd.

"There," he says, trying not to point to obviously. "At the table down near the corner, reading the Times."

Erik bumps his shoulder lightly. "You get us a table near him, I'll handle breakfast. You're better at the soft sell."

Charles makes some noise of agreement and moves forward, dodging around a clump of customers to approach the stranger. He rifles quickly through the mutant's mind in search of relevant personal information as he snags a chair at a neighboring table. Fred Westin, forty-seven years old, handyman, good with tools -- ah, mildly telekinetic, nothing flashy, but he's learned to subtly incorporate the power into his everyday life. Lonely, unhappy, wife left him eight months ago, drinks heavily, hence the morning hangover, hence the crankiness. Every mind has its own...flavor, for lack of a better word. Fred Westin's is bitter, like black coffee, with narrow twists and sharp edges. He's not cruel, but there's a petty meanness lurking in the shadows of his thoughts.

Westin is currently thinking about his paper, more bad news, always bad news, filthy commies, can't trust anyone these days, Christ he needs another coffee, can't get decent service anywhere, look at that asshole behind the counter, yammering away in that horrible made-up language, if they want to live here can't they learn fucking English--

Charles yanks away from Westin's thoughts, stomach twisting. That's Erik Westin is looking at, thinking about -- Erik at the counter, chatting with the deli worker in...German? No, Yiddish. It's a Jewish deli, after all. And Westin has a very particular epithet in mind for people like Erik.

Charles suddenly feels a very strong desire to wash his hands. With bleach, if possible.

Erik slides into the seat across from him, setting a couple of overloaded plates down on the table. "Bagel with cream cheese and lox," he says. "You didn't ask for anything in particular, and Moshe says it's obligatory. Apparently we should come back for lunch, something about pastrami, the man would not shut up--"

"Let's take these on the road," Charles interrupts. He gets to his feet, grabbing the bagel. "It's a bit crowded in here."

It's a sign of how accustomed they've become to one another that Erik doesn't even question him, simply follows his lead. In his haste, Charles accidentally jostles Westin's table, and can feel the venomous glare without even having to look over. He grimaces at the surge of ill will -- there's no actual intent behind Westin's easy anger, just directionless malice.

"Charles?" Erik says in a low tone, leaning in. His hand rests briefly at the small of Charles's back.

Filthy queers, Westin thinks decisively, and goes back to his paper.

"It's nothing," Charles says, pulling away. "Let's go."

Outside, the air is brisk and gritty, but it feels marvelous against Charles's overheated skin. The bagel is cooling rapidly in his hands, so he takes a hasty bite. It's delicious. His appetite returns as they walk down Houston Street, and he demolishes his breakfast before they've gone two blocks. Erik just watches him, his cool eyes thoughtful, assessing.

"Not a good prospect, I take it?" Erik finally asks.

Charles does his best to remain dismissive, dispassionate. "Very mild telekinesis. Parlor tricks at best -- he uses it to cheat at cards, the occasional bout of shoplifting. Petty pursuits. Nothing worth our time, really."

Erik frowns. "With proper training--"

"He wouldn't have come with us no matter how we phrased it," Charles says, tossing his now-empty plate away in a nearby bin. His fingers are still greasy from the bagel. "He doesn't like--"

Damn. The last thing he wants is to set off Erik's temper. Westin's a narrow-minded bigot, but he's no Nazi. Just a petty, small, unremarkable man who blames all his problems on others -- Jews, Catholics, blacks, communists; they're all the same to him. He's not fond of women, either. Or men who are more successful than he is (greedy thieves) or less successful (lazy bums, drain on society) or...anyone, really. It's sad.

"--people," Charles finishes, rather unconvincingly.

Erik gives him an unimpressed look. "I don't particularly like people, either."

"It's different," Charles says tiredly. "Believe me."

They walk in silence for some time, gradually veering northwest. Charles tries to focus on finding their next potential recruit, but his thoughts keep returning to Westin, that pathetic, bitter man. Charles has encountered far uglier minds and temperaments -- his childhood was hardly a picnic, for starters. Westin, at his worst, has nothing on Kurt or Cain Marko. And Charles has grown quite adept at filtering any nastiness directed at himself or those he cares about. For example, several of the guards at the CIA facility think about women in ways that make Charles want to swaddle Raven in her ugliest jumpers and lock her away in a tower to keep her safe; it doesn't stop him from working with them.

But he's given little choice in those personal encounters. Here, he and Erik are the recruiters. As the mutants they contact can choose whether or not to accompany them, so can he choose to whom they make their offers. And Charles doesn't want a man like Westin on his team. So that's that.

It continues to nag at him, though.

"Where to next?" Erik finally asks. "Not that this isn't a delightful stroll, but if we're simply playing tourist...."

"Right, of course." Charles stops in his tracks, because he needs to focus, and he doesn't quite trust himself not to wander into traffic if he's this easily distracted. He presses his fingers to his temple, shoving back a burgeoning headache, and reaches out.

He's not sure how much time passes, but it can't have been terribly long -- there are a few passersby giving him strange looks, but Erik's glare deflects the worst of the curiosity, and no one's attempted to intervene. "I think we'd better get on the train. Neither are within three miles of us. I think I felt one further north -- she must be our Harlem mutant. Once we're closer, I'll be able to get a more accurate read."

"No sign of the other?"

"He's being very inconvenient," Charles grouses, allowing Erik to direct him toward the nearest subway station. "He keeps flitting around the edges of my range, but he won't keep still. Perhaps he's in a moving vehicle."

Erik glances around pointedly -- the busy streets, cars and buses and cabs all jostling for space, not to mention the underground subway lines -- and Charles has to laugh. "Point taken. We'll track him down eventually."

*

The subway rattles its way uptown; they've missed the worst of the morning rush hour, fortunately, and are able to snag seats. Or at least Charles sits. Erik leans against the metal pole in the center of the car, arm wrapped casually around it like a lover. Charles half expects the pole to have molded itself into an imprint of Erik's long, lean body by they time they disembark.

"Do we know anything more about this one?" Erik asks, and Charles drags his gaze back up to Erik's face. "Or do you intend to dismiss her out of hand like the last?"

His tone is teasing, but Charles stiffens, looking away. "I try not to delve too deeply into their minds beforehand. Or at all, really. It doesn't exactly inspire trust."

"And yet you knew everything about me within minutes."

"You were drowning," Charles says sharply. "I had to snap you out of it."

Erik's smile has a mocking edge to it. "Relax, Charles. I'm not questioning your ethical judgment."

Not this time, anyway. Erik blows hot and cold on Charles's powers -- one minute he's insisting that Charles push himself ever further, and the next he's throwing up walls and demanding that Charles stay out of his head. No one's ever fully comfortable with a telepath; even his own sister has her reservations. Charles would like to say he's used to it, but even so, it stings.

All the more so because Erik has just cause to be wary. Charles's code of ethics is very loosely constructed. He tries. But he's never known life without telepathy. Telling him to turn it off would be like a deaf man requesting someone with hearing to plug up their ears because that's cheating. Perhaps it is, but no one ever gave Charles a rulebook to follow. He does the best he can.

Perhaps sensing he's struck a nerve, Erik softens his tone. "Why did you take such a disliking to the mutant in the deli?"

"We wouldn't have been able to work with him," Charles says, trying not to begrudge Erik the information. "He wouldn't have worked with us. He's...not the most open-minded of men." His mouth twists into a faint grimace. "Even if we'd somehow convinced him to join us, I couldn't inflict him upon the girls."

Erik snorts. "Your sister's hardly some delicate flower. And that Angel's got fire to her, she'll do fine."

"And Moira carries a gun and knows how to use it, yes, I know. I'm not concerned for their virtue, Erik." Charles rubs his temple, wishing his mental powers extended to willing headaches away. "But I don't want a nasty old man undermining them with every ugly thought that passes through his terribly small mind."

For a minute, there's no sound but the ceaseless clacking of the train on its tracks. A few other passengers are becoming a little too interested in their conversation; perhaps that last bit was louder than it ought to have been. Charles deflects their attention with a quick mental nudge.

"Whatever did you see in his head, I wonder," Erik finally says, studying Charles's face searchingly.

"Commies, negroes, and queers, oh my," Charles mutters. He shakes his head. "As I said, he doesn't like people. I suppose he'd accept Hank willingly enough, provided he never saw the boy's feet, but a black girl, a blue girl, an ex-con, a Jew, and a queer?" He laughs, the sound scraping at his throat. "Hardly, my friend."

Something sharpens in Erik's eyes, dark and intent -- but before either of them can say anything further, the train enters the next station and Charles is on his feet, mind alight.

"Here!" he says, shoving all thoughts of Westin aside in his blooming enthusiasm. "We've got to get off here, Erik, come on--"

Erik follows at once, frowning. "I thought you said she was in Harlem?"

"Not right now she's not, I can feel her, let's go."

Charles hardly spares a glance for the signage in the station, nearly jumping over the turnstile in his haste. She's not far -- above ground -- but if she should hop into a car or onto a bus....

They emerge out onto a broad avenue, right across from Central Park. Ah, the park, of course! Charles sees as much with his mind as his eyes, impressions of the physical world around him overlaid with his mental sense of every individual person, mapping out the park in brilliant constellations of thought. His chosen mutant's mind shines the brightest of them all, a beacon guiding him through the winding paths of the park. And always, always, he can't help but feel the steady light of Erik's presence beside him, sunlight glinting off polished steel.

"Have I ever told you you're rather creepy at this stage of recruitment?" Erik remarks, with some amusement. "Like a hound on a scent."

Charles ignores him and nearly stumbles over a fallen branch in his path. The park isn't terribly busy -- it's a weekday morning, and the weather is overcast and still unusually nippy for early autumn. But a number of women congregate in the playground up ahead, mothers or nannies with children too young for kindergarten. Most cluster together along a line of benches, rocking strollers and chatting amongst themselves while the kids toddle about the sandbox and jungle gym; a few sit separately, engaged with magazines or merely watching their children intently.

"There," Charles says quietly. "The woman alone, near the swing set."

He spares a fraction of his mental energies to send out a vague sense of peace and calm to the others; two unaccompanied men in a playground might well send up some red flags. But they're not interested in any of the children.

The mutant in question is a tall, regal black woman, seated alone on a bench. She looks to be about their age, late twenties or early thirties; her neat, conservative dress and coat do nothing to disguise her beauty. Her mind is lovelier still -- cool and sharp, incisive. She's the sort of person who thinks in complete sentences and lets nothing extraneous bleed out along the edges. Rather like Moira, Charles thinks approvingly. He's definitely going to like this one.

Charles smiles at her easily, without artifice; he doesn't need to charm her. A straightforward approach will be best. "Good morning," he says, holding out a hand without pressing in upon her personal space. "My name is Charles Xavier, and this is Erik Lehnsherr."

She gets smoothly to her feet. Her handshake is brisk and firm. "I am N'Dare," she says. He can hear two surnames flit across her thoughts simultaneously, overlapping so closely he can't make either out. A married woman, judging by the gold band on her finger, but she still doesn't think of herself by her husband's name. "To what do I owe the pleasure of your acquaintance?"

N'Dare's English is quite literate; Charles can't place her accent. Well, immigrants from all across the globe pass through New York. It's hardly surprising. "We don't mean to alarm you," Charles says. A stupid phrase; N'Dare is understandably wary, but not in any way frightened. "We would just like to speak with you for a few moments. Please, ma'am, have a seat."

She doesn't. Standing, N'Dare has several inches on Charles, a fact which seems to amuse Erik to no end. "What is this about, gentlemen?" she asks.

"Perhaps it's best if we show you," Erik says, holding his hand out demonstratively and curling his fingers. Deftly, ever so daintily, the clasp on one of N'Dare's gold hoop earrings unfastens itself. The earring floats in the air between them. It's such a little trick, but something warm and soft brushes up against Charles's chest, catching in his breath. He cannot help but be mesmerized by the dexterity with which Erik uses his power, at how gentle he can be with it. Precision comes with more difficulty than brute force, yet this is where Erik excels. He needs the furnace of his rage for the big things, but here, in this delicate manipulation of a piece of jewelry, this is where Charles can see the true potential of Erik's powers. He's magnificent.

Charles realizes he's still staring transfixed at the elegant curve of Erik's fingers, and hastily glances up to catch N'Dare's reaction. Her face remains politely impassive, but her dark eyes gleam. "I see," she says. She holds out her hand, palm up, and the earring drops lightly onto it like a kiss. "So the sorcery, too, travels across the sea."

Instinct has Charles opening his mouth before his brain catches up with him. "Actually, the genetic mutation--"

"You're familiar with such powers already, then?" Erik interrupts smoothly, before Charles can get too technical.

N'Dare lifts her shoulders in a graceful shrug, a faint smile playing across her lips. "Of course. This is why you came to me, is it not?" The smile fades. "How did you find me?"

Erik slants Charles a sly look. "That would be my friend's sorcery."

"I can sense mutants -- individuals with these sorts of powers," Charles explains. Without speaking, he adds, Your mind shines like a beacon, when I look properly.

This startles her, though she betrays herself only with the slightest widening of her eyes. "You're in my head?"

"I've only skimmed the surface," he says reassuringly. "But mutants' minds are...different than ordinary humans'. Brighter. I'm sorry, I'm terrible at explaining these things." He gives her a smile, projecting an air of sheepish embarrassment. He's been told it's quite disarming. Or, well, that's what he's read off other people's thoughts.

N'Dare nods, suspicion gradually sliding away into a sort of sadness. "You should have met my mother's mother. She would have shone much brighter than I, I'm afraid."

Charles perks right up at that. A proven hereditary component, mutation passed along the maternal line? "Your grandmother had powers as well?"

"All the women in my family have the sorcery," N'Dare says, smiling wistfully. "But the full strength of it, that passes some generations by. My mother's mother was a great priestess, in her time. Not I."

"Would you mind showing us your power?" Erik asks.

N'Dare nods again. She takes a moment to reattach her earring in her earlobe, the hoop bumping gently against her smooth cheek. Then she briskly gestures them both closer. "Come. Give me your hands."

Erik exchanges a quick look with Charles, but they do as bidden. N'Dare clasps both of their hands. She takes a breath. At first, there's nothing. Then Charles can feel her hand go cold in his, icy, leeching all the warmth out of his skin. A bone-deep chill creeps over him. Just when the ache of cold is nearly unbearable, the flow reverses, flooding him with heat. He gasps at it, blood tingling in his veins, the warm flush suffusing his entire body.

N'Dare releases them, stepping back. A glance over at Erik shows him to be similarly affected; his skin is flushed, a sheen of sweat standing out across his brow. One drop slips down his temple to disappear beneath the plane of his jaw. Charles's mouth feels dry, parched as desert earth.

"If I wish for things to become cooler or warmer, I need only touch them," N'Dare says matter-of-factly. "It is very useful for my husband; he gets so distracted by his work, his coffee is always going cold. But it is not such a great power as some."

The wind bites against Charles's face; he assumes it only feels colder in contrast to N'Dare's heat. But N'Dare frowns, looking past them, and he notices that there's also a subtly different scent in the air.

"Excuse me," N'Dare tells them distractedly, and strides closer to the play area. "Ororo! Come over here!"

It smells like snow, Charles realizes all at once, just before the first flakes begin to fall.

"Snow? In September?" Erik asks incredulously, staring up at the heavy gray sky as if in accusation. "It wasn't that cold today--"

"Oh," Charles says softly. He rests a hand on Erik's shoulder, nodding at N'Dare and her child. How could he not have noticed before? He's been so focused on finding the specific mutants he'd touched in Cerebro that everything else faded in comparison -- but now that he's looking properly, oh, she shines.

N'Dare's daughter is still a toddler, a chubby little girl of two or three at most. Her nutmeg-brown skin is of a noticeably paler tone than her mother's, and her hair is as white as the falling snow. Her mind feels so very young, not yet fully formed, but the sheer potential therein is staggering. The girl beams up at N'Dare, giggling, and snowflakes swirl around them, kissing their cheeks.

"The little girl," Erik murmurs, understanding. "She's the one who inherited the true sorcery."

"We can't recruit them," Charles says, equally quietly. "I won't separate a mother from her child, and I don't want the CIA anywhere near that little girl." Erik glances down to meet his eyes, in perfect agreement for once.

The snow falls thick and slow, catching in Charles's eyelashes. He blinks it away. Everything feels somehow gentler, muted, all the harsh lines of the world blurred away, Erik's smile softened at the edges when he gazes down at Charles. The induced heat of N'Dare's power has long since faded, but Charles can still feel the warmth pulsing through his blood, snowflakes melting as they touch his skin.

*

Charles strays off the paths as they make their way back out of the park, diverting into an open meadow. The snow is thick atop the grass, which pokes through here and there in startled clumps as though protesting the unseasonable shift in the weather. N'Dare had given her daughter a gentle scolding for the storm, but the girl seemed undaunted by the reprimand, far too young to consciously control her own powers. N'Dare simply rolled her eyes and tucked her back into her stroller. "Your father will be hearing about this," she chided.

"Yes, on the weather report," Erik muttered.

They bade their goodbyes pleasantly, and Charles did slip N'Dare his card. Just in case, he told her. If she ever needed assistance controlling her daughter's powers.

"The sorcery is in our blood," N'Dare told him, shrugging it off. "I will raise her as my mother raised me. And we will not be here long -- my husband will be sent on assignment abroad before the new year. Egypt, he thinks."

"Not quite home, is it?" Charles said.

"Not Kenya, no," N'Dare said, smiling down at her child. "But David and Ororo, they are my home."

Charles almost envies her that security. Home is such a nebulous concept for him -- his abandoned flat in Oxford? The lodgings provided by the CIA? That empty mausoleum up in Westchester? Raven, he supposes -- though lately, the distance between them feels more like a chasm. He hunches his shoulders forward, stuffing his hands deep in the pockets of his jacket. He didn't dress for this kind of cold.

Beside him, Erik has been very quiet since they left N'Dare. He has even less of a claim on any sort of home than Charles. Where would Erik come to rest if he had the choice, Charles wonders -- or is he capable of settling at all? After Shaw, what then?

Well, no sense working himself into a state over some as-yet-distant and very theoretical future. Not everything has to be life or death. Sometimes it snows in September, just because a little girl wills it so. Erik is still lost in his brown study, drifting several feet further away from Charles in his meandering, and Charles really ought to snap them both out of this oppressive mood. He feels mentally drained from the efforts of searching out three mutants in a city of millions all morning; words are well beyond his grasp at the moment. But the snow covers the city's grit, leaving the landscape fresh and clean, and Charles used to love a good snow day.

He leans over to scoop a handful of snow off a bench and neatly lobs it at the back of Erik's head.

Charles has never had spectacular aim, but at this close range, he could hardly miss. Erik lets out a startled noise (certainly not a yelp, he'll later insist) and whirls around. Feeling suddenly lighter, reckless, Charles gives him an innocent smile -- and then runs for his goddamn life.

In retrospect, taking a man of Erik's particular history by surprise with a thrown projectile really wasn't one of Charles's cleverer notions. Fortunately, the sheer shock of it forestalls Erik's more violent instincts for long enough for him to realize it was only a snowball; unfortunately for Charles, Erik has always been a great one for vengeance. A few stray aluminum cans transform themselves into unnaturally effective catapults, and Charles isn't quite agile enough to dodge the torrent of snowballs pursuing him across the lawn. No one notices; the only other people in this particular stretch of park are a cluster of teenagers (who really ought to be in school, Charles thinks) who had much the same idea as Charles, and are too busy shouting and flinging snow at one another to notice Erik's innovations.

Charles enjoys running -- he jogs regularly in the mornings, when he's not hungover or up too late studying or otherwise engaged. Well. Perhaps it hasn't been terribly regular of late, which would explain why Erik catches up with him so bloody quickly. It doesn't help that Erik is unfairly fit, with freakishly long legs. Charles never stood a chance.

He manages to get one last snowball right in Erik's face, which is extremely satisfying until Erik tackles him to the ground. The snow muffles the worst of the impact, aided by the fact that it isn't actually winter yet -- the grassy earth beneath the little girl's snowfall is still soft and forgiving, not hard through with frost. Even so, Charles gets his breath knocked out of him. It doesn't help that he's laughing so hard he couldn't breathe properly anyway.

Erik straddles his hips, considers him for a moment, and then deliberately shoves a handful of snow down Charles's collar.

"Uncle!" Charles gasps, batting Erik's hands away. Good God, that's cold. "For heaven's sake, Erik--!"

Erik laughs, full-throated, and the sudden hitch in Charles's chest feels like hitting the ground all over again. Has he ever heard Erik laugh before? Really laugh? For a moment, the sheer, uncomplicated joy of it pulses through Charles's mind like a sunbeam, a heartbeat, clear and true.

Something in his face must betray him, because Erik stares down at him, sobering. He has snow in his hair, Charles thinks stupidly.

Slowly, gently, as though he's manipulating a delicate scrap of gold, Erik reaches down and thumbs a clump of melting snow off Charles's cheekbone. He isn't wearing gloves. His hand ought to be cold, but it sears against Charles's skin as though he's absorbed some of N'Dare's power into his own body. Charles holds himself very still, hardly breathing, unable to break Erik's intent gaze.

And then Erik pushes away, scrambling off Charles to get to his feet, and Charles is left dazed on his back in the snow. His jacket and trousers are soaked through and freezing, and his spine aches slightly. He couldn't stand up right now if he tried.

So, he thinks, mind perfectly clear. We're finally here.

It was only a matter of time. He's known since he wrapped his arms around Erik in the unforgiving ocean, possibly even from that first crystalline moment he stopped himself short in the Coast Guard ship, sensing that alien, beautiful mind in the water. Your mind shines like a beacon, he'd told N'Dare; he doesn't have the words to describe Erik's. Erik doesn't shine. He blazes.

Sun-blind, Charles accepts Erik's proffered hand to be helped up to his feet. He doesn't let go once he's standing. Charles feels a bit as though he's stepped ahead through time -- not so very far, just a few months, bypassing the long brown autumn and skipping straight through to winter. They have time enough to get here properly; no one will begrudge him one borrowed moment.

He reaches up to brush the snow out of Erik's reddish-brown hair, and then draws him down for a kiss.

It's only meant to be a quick, stolen press of lips. But then Erik sighs into Charles's mouth and molds his body against Charles's, and Charles has to close his eyes against the empathic tide that swells against his mind's loose shields, splintering them to pieces. He can taste snow melting on Erik's lips. Erik's hands are broad and strong, grasping at his shoulders, and Charles holds on tight, losing himself in Erik's warm mouth and the sheer want cascading through his thoughts.

One of the teenagers further down in the meadow shrieks loudly, and the outside world slowly edges back into focus. Charles pulls away with reluctance, trailing his hands down along Erik's arms. He does a quick mental scan of the area, but no one noticed them. Good. Charles doesn't feel like altering memories today; this one is already too precious for him to erase from anyone's mind.

The sun is coming out, he notices distantly; the air is already warming, recovering from N'Dare's daughter's flight of fancy. The snow will have melted completely by mid-afternoon. None of which does anything about the state of Charles's damp clothing.

"Let's head back to the hotel," Charles says, letting Erik go. "I need a change of clothes before we go hunting our last recruit."

Erik stares at Charles as though drinking him in, as though he's never seen him before this moment; but really, it's no different than the way he's always looked at Charles. It's just that now they both know.

"Erik," Charles says quietly, offering up a smile, and Erik follows.

*

The cab ride back to Gramercy Park is quite possibly the longest of Charles's life. The driver has his radio playing, humming along tunelessly and paying his passengers no mind. Which is just as well, because Erik shifts in far closer to Charles than is strictly necessary, knees and feet bumping. Charles rests his arm along the back of the seat, not quite brushing Erik's shoulders, and resists the urge to run his hand through Erik's hair.

"The first mutant, in the deli," Erik says in a low tone, under the blare of the radio. "What did he do to you, Charles?"

Charles blinks at the non sequitur. Haven't they moved past this yet? "He didn't do anything. I didn't like the shape of his thoughts, that's all."

Erik's pale eyes are unreadable. "And you didn't consider changing his mind?"

"I wish I could," Charles says, too honestly. "But not -- not the way you're thinking. That would be far worse."

"Why?"

"What would you have me do, Erik?" It's a struggle to keep his voice down. "Go through the world one person at a time, violating their minds, twisting their perceptions in favor of tolerance? Establish some sort of benevolent dictatorship?"

"Humans despise and fear difference," Erik says levelly. "They cannot change themselves. You're the one who envisions some grand utopia of friendship and acceptance; how else do you plan on achieving it?"

Charles takes a deep breath. "One person at a time, I suppose," he admits. "But not like that."

A smile lurks in the corners of Erik's lips, as though Charles has just passed some sort of test. Or failed it spectacularly. It's hard to tell, with Erik, but he refuses to cheat and peek.

"We can't waste the time and energy it would take to broaden one bigot mutant's horizons," Charles says. That's the crux of what's bothering him, really; he wishes he could. Fred Westin may be an unpleasant man, but he still deserves a chance. Charles hates giving up on anyone. And yet -- "We have more pressing concerns at the moment."

"I know that." Erik's hand comes to rest on Charles's knee, pressing firmly. "Do you?"

Charles lets out a breath, sinking back against the seat. Erik's long body is warm all along his side. "I do. And N'Dare--"

"She seems like she has her life well in hand," Erik says with a shrug. "I've actually never been to Egypt before, though. We should check it out." He gives Charles a sidelong glance. "Say in ten, fifteen years, when that daughter of hers is old enough to know her own mind."

It's just an offhand remark, but whether he realizes it or not, Erik is starting to consider a future beyond Shaw. Charles doesn't push, lest he shatter the fragile potential in the thought, but his chest feels tight with tentative hope. He struggles to keep his tone light and unconcerned. "You do realize you sound like a dirty old man, yes?"

Erik chuckles. The hand on Charles's knee is slowly migrating further up his thigh, maddeningly. Charles retaliates by brushing his fingers across the nape of Erik's neck in a lingering touch. Erik leans into it, his eyes darkening, and Charles finds it impossible to look away. God, this is a terrible idea; the cabbie may be distracted, but he'll hardly fail to notice two men necking in his backseat. Of course, Charles could deliberately deflect his attention....

The cab lurches to a stop in front of the hotel, neatly sidestepping that particular ethical dilemma.

*

They get a couple of curious looks as they walk through the hotel lobby, but Charles quickly ascertains that the attention is due to their rather damp and bedraggled attire, not any whiff of impropriety. The snowfall was apparently limited to that one sector of Central Park; the rest of the city remains untouched by the sudden winter. All the more reason for them to change clothing before setting out again. Charles tries to distract himself from the blaze of Erik's mind by reaching out again for their one remaining New York mutant, but is again stymied by the limits of his range. Perhaps he could try some meditation exercises to broaden his focus.

Erik's hand brushes his in the elevator, derailing Charles's thoughts. If the ride up is a bit faster than the laws of physics ought to permit -- well, some questions are best left unasked. Especially when Charles can vicariously feel the thrill of Erik's magnetism as he puts it to good use.

The corridor on their floor is deserted. Charles hesitates at his door, fumbling in his jacket pocket for the room key. It's already been a long day, for all that it's hardly noon; what he really needs is a change of clothes and a hot meal, and quite possibly a nap. There's still that last mutant to seek out, as well, which should be their top priority--

The door unlatches itself with a firm click, the brass handle turning of its own volition. Apparently Erik has his own priorities at the moment. Charles tries and fails to suppress a smile. "You have your own room, you know."

Erik steps in close behind him, his palm coming to rest at the nape of Charles's neck in a deliberate echo of Charles's touch in the cab. "Charles," Erik murmurs, his lips brushing Charles's ear. Charles shivers involuntarily; Erik begins pressing slow, teasing kisses down along Charles's neck, which doesn't make it any easier for Charles to move.

Erik makes quite an eloquent argument.

Charles manages to drag himself away long enough to shove the door open and stumble inside, tugging Erik in behind him. Erik flings the door closed by its metal hinges with the flick of his wrist, the tumblers latching into place; then he's walking Charles back toward the bed, one arm wrapped around Charles's waist as he kisses him again and again. Charles has just enough presence of mind to struggle out of his wet jacket, leaving it in a heap on the floor, but then the need to touch overwhelms any other considerations. He slips his hands up under Erik's soft turtleneck, greedy for the warm silk of bare skin beneath his palms; Erik hums and sucks on Charles's tongue. The backs of Charles's legs collide with the side of the bed, which is fortunate, because he's rapidly losing the ability to remain standing.

Finally, he thinks, clumsily helping Erik shuck off his own jacket before yanking him down, unwilling to relinquish his hold for long enough to deal with the rest of their clothing.

Possibly he said it aloud as well -- or he's projecting -- because Erik breathes in sharply, looking down at him. "Charles," he says in a low, urgent tone. "Do you have any idea how long I've wanted--"

"I know." Charles reaches up to press his fingers against Erik's temple, cupping his jaw in the curve of his palm. Erik's eyes slip closed at the contact, and Charles takes in a shaky breath. Erik's minds sparks against his like a firecracker. "I've known from the beginning. I couldn't help but know."

"Then why on earth didn't you...?"

"Not everyone is comfortable with their own desires," Charles says. "Many people aren't, actually. Especially when it involves..." He trails off, not wanting to put a clinical word to it, not knowing how else to say it. He's not sure if Erik even thinks of himself as a homosexual; Charles himself has never had a particular preference for one sex over the other. "Anyway. I thought it best to leave the choice in your hands."

Erik turns his face to press a kiss into Charles's palm, shockingly tender. "What other choice could I possibly have made?"

It's so matter-of-fact, so unapologetic, so Erik; Charles makes an inarticulate noise in the back of his throat and drags Erik down to meet him. It takes a terribly long time to undress one another -- every newly exposed expanse of skin must be fully explored, mapped out by texture, by taste, the rough calluses on Erik's hands creating devastating friction across Charles's chest and shoulders and down along his sides. Even more tantalizing is the electric hum of Erik's thoughts, magnified by touch and the open swell of emotions coursing between them both. Charles has always had to close a part of himself off during sex before; he's never been with a partner who knew about his powers, always had to be careful to reinforce his mental barriers, to keep his pleasure firmly contained within his own skin. But perhaps with Erik--

"May I?" he asks, breathless, cupping Erik's face lightly, fingertips pressing at his temples. "I'm not -- I won't intrude, I promise, I'm not trying to shuffle through your secrets or anything, it's just that shielding my mind entirely takes a good deal of concentration and I'd rather--"

"Don't you dare hold yourself back," Erik says. There's an edge to his tone that's almost like anger. "I want you, Charles. As you are." He kisses Charles fiercely, possessively, wrapping his arms tightly around him and tangling their legs together. His thigh presses down against Charles's erection, and Charles can't help but moan and twist his hips up into Erik's. Charles, Erik projects, inexpertly, the word bound up in a complex knot of admiration and frustration and wanting and a depth of feeling Charles isn't ready to put a name to yet. Everything, Charles, please.

Charles bundles up his own complicated tangle of affection and desire and slips it gently into Erik's open mind. Erik pauses for a moment, breath warm against Charles's lips, and then surges forward, sucking bruising kisses down Charles's jaw and neck as Charles gasps and writhes beneath him, trying to press ever closer as he lets the last of his mental shields go.

Stars go supernova behind Charles's eyelids. His mind expands exponentially, blossoming like fireworks across the velvet sky, and he is the city, cast-iron construction humming with the stroke of Erik's touch, a million wheeling constellations blazing with heat. He's an old woman walking down along the Battery, her face tilted up to the thin sunlight; he's a businessman enjoying a quick cigarette break; he's a child at recess, shrieking as he tumbles down the slide; he's a waitress at a fine dining establishment whose patron just left an unexpectedly generous tip. He is everyone and no one and the city pulses with his giddy joy, and another mind out of the millions brushes his, startling a laugh.

"What is it?" Erik asks into the sensitive skin of his collarbone, grounding him once again, and that's even better.

"Our third mutant," Charles breathes, arching into Erik's touch. "I think he drives a cab."

Erik pulls away just far enough to give him a narrow glare. "He can wait."

Charles grins, tugging Erik back in for a lingering kiss. He certainly can, Charles projects, lacking the breath to speak it aloud, before giving his attention over entirely to the hot slide of Erik's mouth against his, Erik's wonderful, deft hands slipping ever further south.

The afternoon is more than half gone before they're ready to leave the hotel in search of the final recruit.

*

Many hours later, en route back to the CIA, Darwin pulls them off the highway in the middle of Maryland to refill the gas tank and grab a snack from the attached convenience store. Charles takes the opportunity to stretch his legs a bit, feeling stiff from hours in the back of the taxi. His body aches in other, more pleasant ways as well. He already misses New York.

It's well into the evening, and the stars in the sky above shine more clearly away from city lights. Charles feels Erik walk up beside him, the shape of his mind as bright and familiar as the North Star. "Hello," Charles says, unable to keep from smiling up at him. "A few more hours yet. We probably should've spent the night in the city and set out in the morning instead."

"Probably," Erik agrees negligently. He's standing close enough for their shoulders to touch; even that light contact is enough to send heat pooling at the base of Charles's spine. "It's nice out here, though. In New York, I could never really see the stars."

Charles closes his eyes, feeling the tilt of the earth beneath his feet, the galaxies of distant thoughts spreading out in every direction. And Erik, ever present, blazing bright, guiding him to someplace very much like home. "Oh, I don't know," he murmurs. He allows his hand to brush against Erik's, catching and holding just for a moment. "There was always light enough to see by."