The first time it happens, Erik isn’t really sure what’s going on.
All he knows is that he wakes up with his heart pounding, his shirt damp with sweat, and a terrible pit in his stomach that he usually associates with Shaw. It takes several moments for him to calm down, to slow his rapid breaths and control the trembling in his hands. His mind is spinning with a fear and dread he hasn’t felt in years.
Across the room, Charles slumbers peacefully on in his own bed, his back to Erik, his head buried deep into his pillow. The covers are drawn neatly up around his shoulders, and his body is neatly parallel with the edge of the bed—everything so neat. Erik doesn’t think Charles is even capable of anything less than perfect order. What a life it must be, he thinks, not even bothering to deny his envy. What it must be like to grow up a regular child, to go to school, to be able to sleep so serenely, not plagued by the nightmares that consume Erik every time he closes his eyes. For that moment, while Charles’s mind is blanketed with sleep, he lets these jealous thoughts run free, lets the distraction of them chase away the remnants of his racing pulse and shaking fingers.
Eventually, he settles enough to sift through the chaos in his head, trying to make sense of what just happened. A nightmare—that’s clear enough. Erik’s had dozens of them over the years, but he’s been getting better at managing them. These days, he can wake up with just the barest sense of unease, and it usually takes him seconds to refocus on reality (he’s here, he’s strong now, and there is no Shaw).
But tonight—tonight is different. He doesn’t know how it is, but it’s been minutes now and it’s still a little hard to breathe, like little shards of ice are closing up his throat so that each breath is painful.
What the hell was that?
Steeling himself, he gropes through the darkness of his groggy mind, searching for the nightmare. It makes no sense—he should be running from the damn dream—but he’s always been this way, always fighting when he should flee, always pushing when he should quit. So he sits there on the narrow hotel bed and pulls the hazy sleepiness back.
First, there’s the fear. It’s sharp and rampant, just what he’d expect from the boy he’d been. He locks down the feeling ruthlessly and moves on, reaching for details.
A flash of hands—hands on him, touching him, but it’s not painful, not yet. Then a vague sense of shame, then bare skin in the darkness, then—
He sighs. That feels like one of those sharp memories of steel tables, razor-thin scalpels, and Shaw’s cold smile. Just another one of those then.
He scrubs a hand over his face and eases back under the covers. He must be more tired than he’d thought if those familiar images are making him react like this even now. It’s a good thing Charles insisted that they take a hotel for the night instead of pressing on; though finding the mutants and recruiting them isn’t so strenuous, the hundred-mile drives across the country are taking their toll.
Taking a deep breath, he closes his eyes again and lets consciousness fall away.
In the morning, Charles asks cheerfully, “How did you sleep?”
Erik heads for the bathroom door and concentrates on nothing at all, just in case the telepath is prying. “Fine.”
Three nights later, he wakes up with a shout strangled in his throat. Disoriented and still half-asleep, he fights against the blankets that tangle around his legs like ghosts of the restraints that held him to the steel tables that Shaw liked so much. He thrashes blindly for a second before he loses his balance and topples from the bed, hitting the ground hard.
The impact knocks him into full awareness, and he stops struggling, wondering what the hell is happening to him. His pulse is thundering through his ears, his throat hurts from the memory of a scream, and he aches in places he doesn’t remember hurting before. For a long moment, he lies perfectly still on the cold ground, fighting to clear his mind, fighting to breathe.
These nightmares again. He’d thought he’d mastered them. They are memories, shadows, nothing more. They shouldn’t frighten him, even now. They shouldn’t evoke such a reaction.
Except it’s hard to convince himself of that when his entire body is trembling with remembered pain and his heart is galloping away in his chest. He takes a shuddering breath and closes his eyes, pressing his sweat-damp forehead against the cool floor.
Just when he thinks it could be over, that he might finally have defeated Schmidt, at least in his mind, all of it returns with a vengeance. That would happen to him, wouldn’t it? He starts to laugh, then stops, knowing that it will only come out hysterical and more terrified than he wants to admit. First the world war, then the concentration camps, then Schmidt, then this…it only makes sense that his nightmares would resurface, just as vivid as they had been when he’d been fourteen years old and broken under Herr Doktor’s gleaming scalpel. He has lived through horrors his whole life—what is one more?
When his heart has calmed, he pushes himself off the floor and picks the blankets up off the ground. A glance to the other bed tells him that Charles is still sleeping. Really. That man could sleep through an earthquake and the rescue crews that would come afterwards. Part of Erik is relieved; these nightmares are his and his alone, and he doesn’t need or want a telepath poking around them. Charles has an unhealthy curiosity about anything he sets his eyes on, and if he catches sight of Erik with his shirtfront patterned with sweat, his eyes still slightly wild, he will question everything.
Erik can’t handle questions. Not about this, not even with Charles.
With a quiet sigh, Charles turns in the bed, settling in a new position facing the ceiling and pulling the covers up to his chin without waking. Erik wonders what he dreams about. Peace and Oxford and mutant utopias, surely. For a moment, he wishes he were the telepath so he could see what normal people dream of, what pleasantries an untainted mind comes up with. He wishes Schmidt would remain a distant memory where he belongs.
“You look tired,” Charles remarks over a plate of eggs and pancakes.
“I’m fine,” Erik mutters, watching the passerby. His own breakfast remains untouched.
“You’re sleeping all right?” Charles presses. “Nothing’s, ah…keeping you up?”
Erik turns to face him, eyes narrowing. Charles’s gaze is filled with an interest that makes Erik instantly wary. How much does Charles know? How much has Charles seen? If the telepath has been poking around in his head, so help him God, he’s going to hurt him. Maybe permanently. His thoughts, his dreams, they’re his own, no one else’s. He doesn’t need Charles’s sympathy, or his understanding, or, God forbid, his pity.
Charles must see something of the thunderclouds gathering on Erik’s face because he glances away quickly and clears his throat. “I’m asking out of friendly concern, that’s all. If you don’t want to tell me, I’ll respect that.”
The tension between them doesn’t dissipate. “You don’t read my mind, right?” Erik asks. “Right?”
Charles sighs softly. “You’ve asked me not to multiple times. I heard you.”
“It’s just…” Charles hesitates, pushing his fork along the plate. “I have…bad sleep habits sometimes. Nothing about me is keeping you up, is there?”
At that, Erik pauses in surprise. Something about Charles…What an absurd thought. The man sleeps like the dead and barely even snores. No, there’s nothing about Charles keeping him up. Just Herr Doktor and remembered fears.
“No,” he answers honestly.
There seems to be real relief on Charles’s face. “Good. I’m usually a fine sleeper except when I get exceptionally tired.”
“Exceptionally?” Erik repeats.
Charles huffs as he takes a sip of his tea. “Recruiting is harder work than you think. I have to make sure the mutants aren’t hostile, I have to soothe them if they are, I have to plan out our route…All you do is drive.”
“I do more than that,” Erik protests indignantly.
“Yes, you’re the muscle,” Charles adds with a grin. He winks at Erik over the edge of his teacup, and for a moment—just a moment—Erik feels his mouth go dry.
“Come,” Charles says, seemingly oblivious to Erik’s reaction. He finishes off his tea and sets his napkin down. “We’ve got a long day ahead of us.”
The dreams stay away for nearly two weeks. Erik figures they were a fluke, a simple slip of control when he’d gotten too tired to resist them. When the next few days are relatively stress-free and the nightmares don’t return, his theory is validated.
Then one of the mutants gets violent, and the visit ends with Erik’s arm in a sling and Charles nursing a raging headache that Erik can feel from the next room over. They limp to a nearby hotel and clean up as best they can before collapsing into their respective beds. Charles is asleep almost instantly, but Erik fights to stay awake, knowing what waits for him when he closes his eyes. For the past two weeks, he’s been fine, but tonight he is tired; tonight he’s in no shape to fend off Schmidt, even in his dreams.
So he sits in bed and stares at the wall, coin circling between his fingers. The pain in his arm is incessant but bearable. He’s lucky to have escaped with nothing more than scratches and bruises, and Charles…Erik remembers again the jolt of terror he’d felt when the mutant had sprung across the table at the unarmed, unprepared telepath. It’s been so long since he’d felt fear for someone else. The last person had been his mother, all those years ago. He remembers the way he’d instinctively launched himself into the other mutant’s path, shielding Charles. That had been such an automatic move; he hadn’t even thought about it. Hadn’t even thought about how bad an idea it was to throw his arm into the way of a mutant who had fingernails as sharp and lethal as knives. That scares him a little, how little control he’d had over the moment. Charles is…like no one he’s met before, and it’s simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.
He slips into a doze twice, jolting awake when the coin clatters to the ground. Across the room, Charles is quiet, as always. For a moment, Erik considers it—considers asking Charles to make these dreams disappear. He’s seen hints of Charles’s power, and he’s fairly certain Charles would be capable of banishing Schmidt and his torture forever. Charles would even be gracious enough to do it without needing anything in return, because that’s just the kind of person he is. If he can help, he will, if he can’t, he will find a way. Who can afford to be like that in this world? So unbearably kind?
No, he won’t ask Charles. He’s been dealing with these memories nearly all his adult life; he should be able to sort them out by himself now. Charles doesn’t need to see any of his past. It’s better this way, really. Erik won’t let Schmidt haunt anyone else, especially not Charles.
It’s somewhere between that thought and the next that his head drops to his chest and the coin falls from its lazy orbit to the ground. This time, the clattering doesn’t wake him up, and he falls into an exhausted slumber.
When he opens his eyes, he’s lying flat on his back on the floor in a dark room. For a disoriented moment, he thinks it’s still the hotel room and that he’s somehow fallen off the bed. But when he reaches out, there’s no bed there. There’s only darkness. Confused, he tries to flick on the lamp with a twist of his fingers, but nothing happens. Fighting the growing sense of wrongness, he reaches out with his powers and feels—
Nothing. There’s nothing there. It’s the first time since he was eight that he couldn’t feel even the residual hum of metal surrounding him. A stifling fear fills him, and for a terrible moment, he can’t breathe. He can’t breathe.
Calm, his rational side snaps. Having a panic attack solves nothing. He forces himself to draw in a breath, first one, then another. He’s fine. Nothing’s happened. He’s fine.
Then, somewhere to his left, he hears footsteps. Snapping his head over to face the noise, he climbs unsteadily to his feet, and it’s then that he notices something strange with his body. He feels uncoordinated and small, his limbs too short and thin. His chest is narrower than he remembers, his shoulders wiry. What is this? He doesn’t remember this.
The door opens. He hadn’t even known there was a door there. There were no doors like that that he can remember, but there it is, and in the light that flows in stands a man.
His heart clenches painfully, and he opens his voice to shout. Even his voice is different, higher and thinner than it should be. The man rushes in, hisses, “Shut up, you fool, you’ll wake everyone up,” and Erik thrashes, but he’s caught as easily as a child—he is a child—and the man is suddenly tearing at his clothes and—
Erik is already packed and ready to go by the time Charles finally stirs in the morning. Charles sits up with a yawn, and then his eyes fix directly on Erik, almost as if he can read the residues of the nightmare on him. Erik stubbornly avoids his gaze, counting backwards from a hundred in German in his head. If Charles meets that wall of resistance, he gives no indication of it. It really is impossible to tell if Charles is using his telepathy; he usually lifts two fingers to his head as he does, but Erik figured out quite a while ago that Charles doesn’t need that crutch. So Erik just counts steadily and wills Charles to mind his own business.
“You look tired,” Charles says casually, and Erik resists the urge to hurl the nearby lamp across the room.
“I’m fine,” he replies shortly, hoping his tone is indication enough that he doesn’t want to talk.
“Are you sleeping all right?” Charles asks, climbing out of bed. “If…if there’s something you want to tell me—”
“There’s nothing,” Erik snaps. He slams the lid of his suitcase and squeezes his eyes shut. Calm. Control. Eins, zwei, drei…
“Oh.” Charles sounds slightly wounded. Erik hears him moving toward the bathroom. “I’m sorry for asking then.”
Oh, damn it. How is it that he feels guilty for defending his own right to privacy? He turns, a clumsy apology on his lips, but the bathroom door is already closed firmly. He reaches out tentatively and feels Charles turn on the faucet at the sink. The sensation is like ghost fingers brushing across his skin, and he shivers, wishing for the briefest moment that he were brave enough to tell Charles everything.
Two nights later, the man in the shadows rips his clothes off again and violates him in ways he’s never been hurt before, and he wakes up with tears streaking down his cheeks and phantom aches where they shouldn’t be. For the rest of the night, he can’t do anything but lay there in stunned silence, his heart pounding and the blankets around him damp with sweat. This has never happened before. Schmidt, Shaw, whatever he was, he never touched Erik like…like that. He cut and prodded and broke, but never in that way. If he had, Erik would remember, Erik would know.
The thought scares him. When he’d first been pulled from the glass room by American soldiers pouring into the concentration camps, he’d been sent to a medical officer, who had passed him on later to a psychologist. That man had been one of the few shrinks Erik had ever been to, and he’d explained something called repressed memories, memories so terrible that Erik’s subconscious had somehow shut them away to protect him. Erik had never believed in that—if only he could make himself forget—but now…what if…
No. No. He’d remember something like this. He remembers every vivid detail from that hell whether he wants to or not; he refuses to believe that there was something more, that Shaw found another way to break him apart.
He lays there in a daze until Charles stirs a couple of hours before dawn. The telepath turns over and blinks sleepily. “What time is—” Abruptly, his eyes snap open, and all the blood drains from his face. “Oh my god.”
Erik recoils violently. “Are you in my—get the fuck out of my head.”
“It’s not—I’m not—oh my god, Erik, I’m so sorry, forgive me—” Charles nearly falls out of bed as he struggles to his feet, his eyes wide and horrified.
Verdammt. Fucking telepath. Fury flooding through him, Erik rises as well, his fists clenched at his side. “I don’t need your pity,” he spits venomously. “I told you to stay out of my head!”
Charles is white as a sheet, and he sways a bit on his feet. “I’m so sorry,” he whispers. “Forgive me, I…” He stops, then turns, grabbing his things and stuffing them into his suitcase.
“What are you doing?” Erik demands.
“I think…I think it would be best if we got separate rooms,” Charles says unsteadily. Erik can see that his hands are trembling, and for a moment, he wants to ask if Charles is all right. The things Charles must have seen in his head…those aren’t things Charles are used to. Erik has been dealing with these nightmares for years and years, and he remembers how difficult those first few months out of the concentration camp were. Charles can’t be all right.
But he says nothing, because most of him is still angry and thinks that Charles deserves it. Serves him right for poking around where he’s not meant to be.
“I’m sorry,” Charles mutters, not even bothering to zip up his suitcase. A couple of shirts fall out as he rushes for the door, but he doesn’t even bother to stop. In seconds he’s gone, leaving behind nothing but a rumpled bed and discarded clothes.
For a moment after he disappears, Erik stares at the door in silence. It takes him several seconds to realize what has just happened, and when he does, his legs seem to go weak. Stumbling backwards, he sits heavily on the edge of his bed and takes a steadying breath.
Gott, he never meant for it to go this way. He never meant for Charles to see that side of him. Damn it, Charles knows nothing of boundaries, he’s always so goddamn nosy with those too-bright eyes that see everything. And now he’s gone because he couldn’t keep his mind to himself, and he saw…he saw…
Erik shuts his eyes. What Shaw did…what Shaw might have done…Charles saw it all, and he fled so quickly Erik hadn’t even been able to protest. He’s so broken and the secrets he carries are so jagged that even Charles—ever-loving, patient, kind, helpful Charles—bolted without looking back. What does that say about him? About the darkness that’s a part of him?
Slowly, eventually, he climbs back into bed, but he doesn’t sleep again.
At breakfast, Charles smiles cheerily as he asks, “Hotel breakfast or diner across the road?”
And if the smile is just a bit brittle, neither of them mentions it.
The dreams don’t come back for the rest of the road-trip. Erik pretends not to notice the darkening circles under Charles’s eyes, or the way Charles downs nearly three times his normal intake of caffeine during the day. There are bad nights, he supposes. They all have them.
The CIA base is quieter, and the nights are too. The recruits settle in well enough, with the boys rushing to show off their powers and the girls eager to be accepted. Charles says it’s all going according to plan, which puts Erik on edge. It’s his experience that when things seem to be going according to plan, they really aren’t, and to lower their guard would be lethal. So he prowls around the base on high alert, watching entrances and exits, sleeping with a gun under his pillow (MacTaggert prohibited them from carrying weapons, but she’s a fool if she believes that her disapproval will stop Erik from getting his hands on a gun), and generally avoiding Charles.
It’s not that he’s still angry at Charles. All right, part of him is, but that’s only a tiny part, the part that’s perpetually angry at everyone and everything. Most of him just doesn’t want Charles to see again. He can’t forget how pale Charles had been, how his whole face had suffused with horror quicker than he could hide it. Horror. At Erik.
No, he can’t put Charles through that again, and if that means sacrificing their friendship or whatever this is that they have…well, Erik’s never been one for friends anyway.
It happens again, after Darwin dies and Angel is whisked away into the night.
That night, they’re all sleeping tightly together in a single corridor Moira has reassigned them. The humans—the ones that survived, at least—are terrified of the mutants, even the ones who are labeled their allies. Moira tells them that keeping them together in the back of the base is just a safety precaution in case Shaw returns, but none of them is fooled; the danger comes from the humans, who are blinded by grief and rage and may just be stupid enough to attack the nearest mutants at hand.
Erik closes his eyes in the bed next to Charles’s and falls instantly into the darkness.
The room is darker than he’s ever seen it before, and the man when he comes is the roughest he’s ever been. He shoves down Erik’s trousers even as Erik screams and struggles, and when he presses his too-large erection against Erik’s back, the thin, wretched wail that twists out of his throat shocks even him.
“Shut your mouth,” the man pants, his thick fingers clamped over Erik’s face, making it hard to breathe. “Don’t want your mother hearing, do you? Or that pretty little sister of yours—don’t want her to come in, do you—”
He chokes on his own spit and tears and swallows his screams because he can’t let his sister find him, not like this…
The man takes a long time, and Erik bites his lip so hard it runs with blood. He lies limply against the floor, his face scrubbed raw by the rough rug, his vision blurry and his every breath a stifled moan. The man grips his thin legs so hard they’re sure to bruise, and when he finally finishes, he collapses on top of him with all his weight, knocking Erik flat on his stomach. His jaw strikes the ground with a force that makes his ears ring, and he hears a darkly satisfied, I like the kid like this, not talking, got to put him in his place more often…
The man pulls out with a carelessness that brings tears to Erik’s eyes. He clenches his fists into the rug and squeezes his eyes shut, fighting back a sob that’s trapped deep in his throat.
“Clean yourself up,” the man orders lowly, and there’s a quiet clinking that says he’s belting his pants back on. In a minute, he’s gone, leaving Erik raw and dazed on the floor. For a long minute, he presses his forehead against the ground and sucks in ragged breaths through clenched teeth. Despite his best efforts, a tiny cry escapes his lips. His pulse is thundering in his ears, and something slides down his thighs. He thinks it might be blood.
Then abruptly, it’s all yanked away, replaced by a blank whiteness and a devastating sense of horror. Oh god, not again, echoes a strangely familiar voice, not German and not Shaw. Oh my god, what have I done, Erik, are you all right, forget this, forget it all, I’m so sorry—
Charles’s smile is broken in the morning, and Erik wants to kill Shaw for taking Darwin away from him. Away from them. Charles had clearly cared for the boy, and on some level, Erik had too. The thought is strange to him—he hasn’t cared for anybody in a long time—but Darwin had been as close to a friend as anyone.
At least he’d slept well, better than Charles had, if the haggard look on the telepath is any indication. He’d half-expected Darwin to feature in his nightmares, but he’d been lucky. He’d slept like he hadn’t slept in weeks, not even a mention of Shaw or the dark room. There are some small miracles in life, he reflects. It’s the little mercies that count.
When they reach the mansion, Charles assigns him a room near everyone else’s. When he asks where Charles’s is, he’s told it’s halfway across the house in a separate wing, surrounded by nothing but empty rooms. That’s puzzling; it would make more sense both tactically and for convenience’s sake to keep everyone close together. But this is Charles’s house, so he won’t complain, though he does make a few circuits near Charles’s room to try to figure out the reasoning behind their setup.
One night, he runs into Charles in the hallway just outside his room. The telepath pauses, surprise lighting across his face, but Erik doesn’t buy it for a second; nothing surprises Charles, not when everyone’s thoughts are like homing beacons in his head.
“Erik,” Charles greets him warmly. “Is there something you need?”
Well, it seems like the only way to get a straight answer is to ask for it. Erik points at Charles’s door. “Why are you so far away from everyone else?”
A shadow passes across Charles’s face, so quickly that Erik would have missed it if he hadn’t spent the last ten years reading people. His eyes narrow, but before he can pounce on the slip in Charles’s mask, Charles answers, “I’d like you all to get a good night’s sleep, that’s all.”
And he ambles off toward the kitchen, the dismissal so sudden that Erik doesn’t even have time to call him back.
He wanders into the library one afternoon to find Charles already there, stretched out on the couch massaging his temples. He stops in the doorway, unsure if Charles wants privacy, but the telepath looks up and smiles wearily. “Erik. Come in. I haven’t seen you in a while, my friend.”
“Not for a couple of days,” Erik agrees, not mentioning how the absence itches at him. They’d been plastered together for the weeks of the road-trip, and now it feels almost wrong to not have Charles somewhere within touching distance.
As if he picks up on the tail end of that thought, Charles’s smile turns a bit more genuine. “Where have you been?” he asks, closing his eyes. “And what have you been up to?”
“Training,” Erik replies simply, dropping down into the armchair across from the couch. “Alex, to be specific. That boy has potential, but he needs guidance.”
“I’ve been working with Hank about that,” Charles says. “We’ve got something rigged up. It should be ready by tomorrow, but until then, Alex should stay in the Danger Room. No sense in burning down the house.”
“I’ve been working with him on hand-to-hand combat,” Erik clarifies. “Not with his powers.” It’s his opinion that all of them should be well-rounded in every aspect, with or without their mutations. He’s had to fight his way out of a few tight spots without the use of his powers, and in those times, physical training had been invaluable.
“Oh,” Charles murmurs. His voice is quiet, almost faint. “That’s wonderful.”
Erik frowns. “Are you all right?”
“Mm? Yes, perfectly fine. Just very tired.”
Well, Erik would be amazed if Charles were anything less than exhausted. He’s been running around practically since they’d settled in at the mansion, making sure to spend time with each person, scribbling down plans with Moira, immersing himself in the new Cerebro down in the basement when he has the chance. In fact, Erik doesn’t think he’s ever seen Charles even shut his eyes in the three weeks they’ve been here.
“You should rest,” Erik says, letting a hint of disapproval curl around his words. “You’re no good to anyone like this.”
Eyes still closed, Charles smiles sheepishly. “Yes, I suppose you’re right. Though I did promise Hank I’d be down by six to check on—”
Charles huffs. “Fine.”
He’s out in seconds. Erik, who honestly has nothing better to do, picks up a nearby book and thumbs slowly through it, lulled into a certain tranquility by Charles’s gentle snores. Through the window in the corner that’s cracked open, he can hear Raven shouting something, presumably scolding Alex and Sean for their latest antics. Someone has left the radio on downstairs, playing so loudly Erik can hear the Beatles from where he sits. He feels almost…at peace. It’s a strange feeling.
And then, so violently he nearly falls out of his chair, the dark room slams into him. He’s pressed against the floor, hands grabbing roughly at his hips, blood filling his mouth—
—but he’s sitting in the library at Westchester, book open in his lap, sunlight warm on his face—
—in the darkness, the man snatches at his belt, tearing it off with a swift jerk, and Erik wrenches himself away and—
—hits the hardwood floor hard, book tumbling to the ground, hands clenching at a nonexistent carpet. His vision spins. Something is wrong. The man is shoving his face into the rough fibers of the rug, but all Erik can feel underneath him is wood. Smooth, paneled wood, and he can feel the nearby metal legs of the table, something he’s never been able to do in this nightmare before. The touch of metal fills him with confidence, fills him with rage, and with a sharp yank of his hand, the table flies apart, each leg transformed into deadly projectiles. The man is hovering above him now, panting harshly in his ear, and Erik growls, “Get the fuck off me,” in his voice—his real voice, deep and angry and familiar—and the metal legs fly, imbued with Erik’s fury and Erik’s hate—
Somewhere, glass shatters. The dark room vanishes so quickly that Erik blanches, dizzy and shaking. Slowly, he comes back to himself, details bleeding back into shape. He’s on the floor in the library, fallen book by his hand, warm sunlight draping his body in light. When he lifts his head, he can see the metal legs of the table across the room in a spray of broken glass. He must have hurled them at the window, and the sound must have jolted him awake.
Except…except he hadn’t been sleeping, hadn’t even closed his eyes. Then what…how…
He looks up to find Charles sitting on the edge of the couch, as far away from Erik as possible, his face leeched of all color, his chest heaving. He looks terrified—of what? Of Erik? Of…
Once, when Erik was strapped down to Shaw’s metal table, the Herr Doktor told him a secret. He leaned down so close his lips brushed Erik’s ear, and he whispered, “You know, little Erik Lehnsherr, I am just like you.” And he proved it by putting one finger over Erik’s gut and pushing down with what should have been light pressure—except it wasn’t. Three of Erik’s ribs had snapped under Shaw’s hand, and he’d suffered a nearly fatal case of internal bleeding. Erik had screamed and screamed, and Shaw had laughed, his eyes cold and cruel, as they always were.
The realization, when it comes, feels a little like that. His throat constricts, and he can’t draw in a full breath because Charles had been sleeping when the dark room came, not Erik, and that means—can it be that—
“Excuse me,” Charles stammers, standing shakily. He moves for the door, but Erik is on his feet in an instant, barring his way.
“Is…what just…” He can’t find the words to say. He can only stare straight at Charles’s eyes, wishing fiercely for telepathy, for an answer.
“I’ll be right back,” Charles mutters, pushing ineffectually at Erik’s shoulder.
It’s a blatant lie, and they both know it. Erik doesn’t budge. His mind is reeling. Charles had been sleeping. All those nights, all those times during the road-trip, Charles had been sleeping too. And Charles has telepathy, Charles can project, Erik has seen how easily Charles can make himself heard. Is it possible that all this time, that Charles—
“No,” Charles says, softly but sharply. “No. Don’t.”
“Don’t?” Erik repeats, shocked. “But you—”
“I’m sorry,” Charles cuts in, his fists clenched at his sides. “But don’t. If you knew…if you knew…”
Erik’s eyes narrow. “But I know. Every time, in that dark room, that was you. Not me. Not Shaw. Your dreams.” The words burn as he says them, but he forces them out: “Your memories.”
A shudder runs through Charles’s frame, slight but noticeable. “Please,” he whispers, and Erik sees for the first time the veiled fear in Charles’s blue eyes. That is a look he recognizes from Auschwitz, from Buchenwald. It is jarring to note how easily Charles’s terror mirrors the faces from his memory.
But he can’t let it go. He can’t let Charles keep the silence because it has gone on for long enough; he has seen inside that dark room, and he never wants Charles to be alone in there again, never. After a moment of hesitation, he says, “I…Charles, the things I saw…Did I see what I think I did?”
Charles closes his eyes and retreats a step. For a second, Erik thinks the telepath is going to turn on his heel and walk away, mute with anger or shame or both. But after a long pause, Charles opens his eyes again and meets Erik’s searching gaze. He takes a deep breath that rattles somewhere in his throat and says, “Yes.”
Erik releases his own pent up breath, relief and horror warring their way within him. If those were truly Charles’s memories, then Shaw never hurt Erik that way. He never touched Erik like that, and that is a relief in and of itself. But then again, if those were truly Charles’s memories…the things that happened to him…
Sudden, sharp rage rolls through him, and Erik asks tightly, “Who was that man?”
Charles looks startled. “Erik, what—”
“The one who hurt you.” He can feel phantom hands pulling at his legs, phantom hurts keeping him awake at night—Charles’s legs and Charles’s hurts. Erik wants to break something, wants to smash everything in sight. His voice is brittle as he asks, “Who did that to you?”
Charles bites his lip, his eyes dropping, and in that moment, Erik realizes something very important and very obvious: the things he would do for Charles, the lengths he would go to for this man, go beyond all reason. The thought terrifies him—should terrify him—except in the next instant, Charles opens his mouth and Erik loses the terror to a surge of protectiveness that he hadn’t believed he was capable of.
“I’m afraid I’m not quite as pampered as you believe,” Charles says, almost apologetic. “My father died when I was very young. My stepfather, when he came four years later, wasn’t a good man.”
In that one, irrational moment, Erik is wholly prepared to forget Shaw, forget the CIA. If Charles will give him the name of this man, Erik will gladly leave this instant and track the bastard down, even if it takes years, even if he has to go it alone once more. In that moment, Erik is fully, willingly Charles’s.
Charles smiles sadly. “Thank you, my friend. That means a lot.”
Erik is too scattered to even be angry at the mental intrusion. Instead, he bites out, “How long? And does Raven know?”
“I won’t answer the first,” Charles replies. “And no, Raven doesn’t know, and I’d like to keep it that way. There’s no need…” He pulls in a breath that hitches slightly on its way in. His composure is cracked; Erik recognizes a mask when he sees one. “There’s no need for her to know.”
“All that time,” Erik says, his gut twisting, “all those times in the hotels, I thought…I thought that maybe Shaw had…”
“No,” Charles whispers, his eyes going wide. “I’m sorry, my friend. When I’m tired, it’s difficult to control my telepathy sometimes, and dreams can spill over. You saw what I remembered. Nothing more.”
Charles’s pale face that one night in the hotel makes a sickening sort of sense now. He hadn’t been repulsed by Erik’s past at all; he’d been horrified by his own lapse of control. The fact that Charles needs to shoulder this burden on his own is grating. Erik wants to hold him, to soothe the aches, to take away the pain as no one had done for him.
“Your stepfather,” Erik says, and his voice sounds very far away to his ears. “Where is he?”
“Dead,” Charles replies evenly. There is something very tired in his eyes as he says that.
Charles sinks back down onto the couch, as if his legs have given way. Erik fights the urge to join him there, to take him into his arms until he stops trembling, until they both stop trembling.
“Does it really matter?” Charles asks.
“Yes,” Erik says firmly, and it does. It matters so much, because Erik wants the man to have suffered. He wants to know that the son of a bitch died of a bullet to the gut, or of a chronic, painful illness, or of having his spine ripped out through his throat.
On the couch, Charles draws his knees up to his chest and wraps his arms up around them. He looks like a child. He looks like the child from the dark room, and Erik wants to scream.
“I did it,” Charles breathes, so softly Erik barely hears it, like it’s a secret that should never be heard. “I killed him.”
Erik swallows. Some part of him is intensely glad; Charles got his revenge, got his closure, just as Erik would have wanted. Another part is incredulous that pacifistic Charles could ever lay a hand on someone, although Erik really shouldn’t be surprised because what had happened in the dark room with that man—well, he is certain that anyone would have been pushed to murder.
Except in the dreams, the memories, Charles had been a child, so small and weak, and his stepfather had been a giant. Erik would know; he remembers the dark room and he had beat his tiny fists against the broad, unyielding chest just as Charles had. His stepfather might as well have been a titan for all the good Charles’s struggle had done him.
“How?” he asks, and Charles closes his eyes.
“I wish you wouldn’t ask me that,” he whispers. When Erik stays silent, he lets out a sigh that comes from somewhere in his chest and shudders on the way out. “Does it matter?” he says, almost to himself. “You already know everything else.”
Erik gives in to the urge to touch, and he sits down heavily next to Charles, reaching out to grip his arm. The contact grounds them both, and Erik says, “Tell me.”
“He hit me,” Charles says in reply, his eyes far away. His voice is clipped, almost clinical. “A lot. Sometimes with his belt, sometimes with anything in reach. Raven…I kept Raven away from him as best as I could.”
“Your telepathy,” Erik says, trying to put the pieces together. “You could have…”
“I wasn’t nearly as in control of my powers as I am now,” Charles tells him. “I didn’t know how to do the things I can do now. Talking with others mind-to-mind was simple; manipulating minds without damaging them, without changing their essence, was something else entirely.” He leans into Erik’s touch as if to steady himself and says, “One night, I heard him coming to my room. My mother was outside in the hall; she’d been going to get some water, and she asked him where he was going. He told her—he told her to get out of the way, and when she wouldn’t, he hit her.”
A little broken laugh escapes his throat, and Erik has to concentrate very hard on not snapping everything around him in half. “The one time my mother was sober,” Charles says, “she stood up to him, and he hit her. And I couldn’t take that. I could take him hitting me, hurting me, but I couldn’t take that. So I reached out with my mind, and I…”
Erik isn’t sure he wants to hear the rest of this, but it sounds like Charles has never told anyone what happened, and if he needs to say it, Erik will hear it. So he prompts gently, “You…?”
“Crumpled his mind.” Charles closes his eyes, and a shudder wracks his frame. “It was so easy. Like crumpling up a piece of paper and tossing it away. I’d always had the power, but I never had the control. In that moment, my anger gave me the control I’d needed, and I broke him to pieces.”
The anger. Just like with Erik, who had only ever reached his potential under Shaw when cold fury thrummed through him. He wants to tell Charles he understands, he understands the anger, but then Charles is speaking again, and all Erik can do is listen.
“It was easy enough after that to convince everyone he’d had a stroke. Mother didn’t care much. Raven was relieved. Cain—that’s my stepbrother—was the only one who ever suspected anything. He knew I was different. Knew Raven was too, and he thought he could make us show him. He tried, and I—I—”
His voice breaks, and Erik’s control does too. He reaches out and pulls Charles’s thin frame into his arms, burying him close. “You don’t have to tell me anything more.”
“I do,” Charles gasps, his eyes wet. “I hurt him, like I’d hurt his father. Not as badly, he didn’t die, but it was bad. For a while, I thought I’d broken him for good, but I managed…I managed to fix him a bit. I put him back together, only he wasn’t perfect after that, he was cracked. After that, I was terrified of myself. Of what I could do. Raven didn’t understand. But I knew the anger…the anger would hurt me, would hurt everyone around me if I couldn’t control it…”
And Erik suddenly understands where rage and serenity came from; it wasn’t for Erik’s benefit, it wasn’t to curb Erik’s rage, it was to stop Charles’s. That point of balance has been in place for Charles long before Erik ever came into the picture, and Charles has built his entire existence around it.
“I’m sorry,” Charles whispers, his voice trembling. “You don’t want to hear this.”
“Yes, I do,” Erik answers. His heart is pounding in his chest as heavily as Charles’s is, and he can feel Charles’s racing pulse through his wrist, pressed close to Erik’s stomach. “I do.”
He doesn’t need to be a telepath to feel Charles’s disbelief. “You don’t need to force yourself—I don’t need anything from you—”
“I wanted to hear it,” Erik cuts in roughly. “I needed to. That room…I was there with you, Charles. I was there.” I felt what you did, I lived through what you did. I know. I know.
Something in Charles breaks. He clings to Erik suddenly as if Erik is the last thing left in a world that has crumbled away. “I was so alone,” he cries, shaking, and his face is wet with tears. “There was no one coming to help, and I let him do it, again and again for so long…”
There is a pressure behind Erik’s eyes that tells him Charles’s mind is in his, blending their thoughts and emotions, and an anguish and pain not entirely his own floods through him. He doesn’t comment though because Charles is far from in control of his telepathy right now, and if he needs to share, if he needs to let go of his barriers for just one instant, Erik will let him. The years-old fear and despair would have been enough to bring him to his knees if he hadn’t been sitting already, and he manages to hang on in the maelstrom, anchoring them both.
“I know,” Erik whispers soothingly, holding Charles close. He feels so small in his arms, like the child he used to be. “I know.”
And he knows instinctively that this is the first time that anyone has ever said those words to Charles and knew what they meant to him. It is the first time anyone has known every one of his secrets and held him and loved him for it. And that’s so very obvious now, so true that Erik can’t fight it, can’t be afraid of it: Erik loves Charles, loves him so fiercely he can barely stand it, loves him to the end of all things. He loves him more than he hates Shaw, and that is something huge. Nothing has ever surpassed his hatred of Shaw before, and for the longest time, he believed nothing ever would. But now he is holding this telepath in his arms, and he can’t breathe through the shared grief. He can’t breathe through the love that makes him want to take Charles and protect him forever and ever against the world that has been nothing but cruel to them both.
“You can’t tell,” Charles chokes, his hands fisted into Erik’s shirt, his face buried into the crook of Erik’s shoulder. “No one can know. Especially not Raven.”
Erik nods. “Of course.”
“And—the dreams—you can’t let me sleep near you, or anyone else.”
Charles’s room on the other side of the mansion, Erik realizes. That’s why he’s so far away, to lessen the chances of his telepathy spreading dreams that will raise questions. The thought makes something ache deep in Erik’s chest, in understanding, and quiet admiration of Charles’s strength, and pain at Charles’s pain.
“Has it always been like this?” Erik asks, wondering how long Charles has lived through these nightmares alone.
“No. Not always. It…comes and goes.”
But it has always been alone. That goes without saying. And Erik decides right there that that will never happen again, that Charles will never be left in that dark room alone without Erik at his side. He is afraid—he is unspeakably terrified of the man in that room, of how helpless he is when the lights are out and the dream world rushes in to mix with memory. But love makes him brave, and he is willing to run through a thousand dark rooms and fight a thousand stepfathers for Charles.
“All right,” Erik says finally, more calmly than he believed possible. “We’ll deal with it.”
Charles’s eyes widen. The pressure behind Erik’s eyes eases; Charles is withdrawing his mind. ‘“We?’”
Erik shoots him a cool look, daring him to argue. “Yes. You aren’t alone. You showed me that.” He takes Charles’s hand, curls their fingers together in tight, pulsing warmth. “Now let me show you.”
In the dark, Charles shivers. Beside him, Erik stirs awake, blinking blearily as he takes in the night. For a second, he wonders what woke him, but then Charles trembles again, and Erik presses his lips together. The dreams are back.
“Not tonight,” he whispers. “You don’t get him tonight.” He pulls Charles close and touches their foreheads together, pushing at Charles’s mind, knowing that Charles’s telepathy, loose and uncontrolled in sleep, will draw him in.
It doesn’t take long. In seconds, he’s sucked away from the bedroom and into the dark room where Charles—a child, just a boy with his eyes wide and frightened and his mouth open in a silent scream—lies on the ground. He looks so small against the rug in a room full of a darkness so much larger than he is.
For a moment, the terror in the room is stifling. It’s impossible to breathe, impossible to even think, but Erik has had years of practice now. He pushes through the fog of fear and pain and steps up out of the darkness.
Charles-the-boy looks up, startled. “No,” he whispers. “You need to go. He’s coming. He’ll hurt you.”
“No, he won’t,” Erik says. He holds out his hand. “Come on, Charles. We’re leaving.”
And Charles reaches up and slides his small child’s hand into Erik’s, and the room changes. Suddenly there’s a door to the side, not the door the man always comes through but a door outlined by light spilling through its cracks.
“That’s…that was never there before,” Charles-the-boy says, his voice filled with wonder and hope.
“I was never here before either,” Erik replies, as he always does, and he opens the door and pulls Charles up and out of the dark room into the light.
They wake together, sweat chilling on their skin. Charles sucks in a full breath and says quietly, “It’s been a while since that happened.”
“Yes,” Erik says. He’s slept with Charles in this bed for a long time, and in the beginning, back before Shaw’s death, it was bad, but it got better, and now it’s a rare occurrence. Tonight it’s back, but Erik has trained himself through the years to help, and it helps them both.
“Thank you,” Charles says, squeezing Erik’s hand.
Erik kisses him, slow and soft. “Always.”
With a sleepy smile, Charles turns over, Erik slips his arm around his waist to tuck him close, and they fall away together into a dreamless sleep.