"I have a story," Moira says against the distant rolling of thunder.
Moira's a good storyteller. She keeps her voice hushed. She pauses to add heightened suspense. There are eight of them wedged into the dorm room, and they're all hanging off her every word as the wind and rain batter the sides of the building.
"This is true," she says. They've all started their stories that way, but something about her tone makes Charles more likely to believe it. "There's a big, abandoned house outside of New York City. It's an hour or so north, where the neat little cardboard-box suburban homes turn into sprawling mansions. If you get to the end of the miles of craggy pavement that make up the driveway, the building you see is more like a castle than a house. There are tall turrets and ivy growing up the sides. It's huge and ominous and you can't help but feel that if you screamed, if you needed help, the house would laugh and no one would ever come.
"That's because, for dozens of children, no one ever did."
Someone gasps. It might be Lilly, who's a freshman and only here because she has a crush on Charles. No one speaks, though. Charles inches closer to Moira on her lofted bed. His stomach is churning and his heart is racing and he's not sure why.
"They say that the old man who lives there was a scientist once. They say that, during World War II, he developed a serum for the government that would fill the army with super soldiers capable of stomping the Nazis out in one sweep. But the serum was stolen and his plans were destroyed. He spent the rest of his life trying to recreate the chemicals from memory, but the Allies were suddenly winning the war and they no longer had soldiers for him to test on. They no longer had a need for his miracle drug. They sent him packing back to his estate, but he was crazed, determined to make it right.
"One night, a little girl broke into his kitchen in the middle of the night. She was hungry and homeless and he was ready to throw her out when he had an idea. He smiled at her. He offered her food and a place to stay. He promised to take care of her. It really only took him a few weeks to win her trust, and after that it was easy to lead her down through the long, dark catacombs under the house, into his lab. No one missed a little orphan girl. No one heard her screaming as the newest version of his serum turned her blue and left her skin peeling off her bones."
Another whimper, this time from one of the girls from the suite. Charles can't blame her. Normally, he brushes these stories off without a second thought. Moira's the fourth person tonight to take advantage of the flickering old wiring in their dorm building and the October storm in order to tell ghost stories. Moira currently holds the title of Best Storyteller on their hall, and with good reason. Charles spent most of the last three stories making faces at Moira in the candlelight, scoffing at the trite tales from the rest of their friends. Now he just wants it to stop, he wants Moira to be quiet. He's getting a terrible headache. His hands are shaking.
"No one missed any of the other children, either," Moira continues. "The little Irish boy who wandered away from his family's camping trip and screamed until the walls shook, but was never rescued. The runaway brothers, one of whom was forced to watch the other bleed out from his chest until he clawed his own eyes out. There was a girl whose poisoned blood made her veins glow like grotesque tattoos as her body rejected the poison and vomited it up, burning her skin like acid. Lost, lonely children who were never seen again, whose bodies he pumped full of chemicals, screaming at them, cursing them for not doing as he wished, for not--"
A flash of lightning outside and then darkness.
The room is still lit by candles, but the rest of the lights have gone out; Charles can tell just from looking out the window to where he should be able to see the glow from the other rooms. Lilly is crying, Gabrielle is screaming, and the room has descended into chaos. Charles would be relieved that Moira's stopped talking, but his palms are sweating and when he closes his eyes, he sees long stone hallways lit by single bulbs. He hears someone telling him it's almost right, it's just a little longer and it will be right. He hears someone screaming and the screech of metal and--
The lights flicker back on outside and Darwin leaps to his feet and hits the switch on the wall. The fluorescent light is too much and Charles closes his eyes quickly, covers his face with shaking hands. Everyone is talking at once, shouting at Moira, shouting at each other, and Charles lets it all fade into the background. He breathes deeply, lowers his hands and tries to act casual. It helps that they are mostly ignoring him, as Moira's friend Therese leads Lilly and Gabby out of the room with Darwin, Rob, and Joe on their heels, talking about hitting up the coffee shop before it closes, leaving Charles sitting stockstill on Moira's bed.
"Wimps," Moira says.
Charles doesn't reply. The bed shifts and Moira turns to scrutinize him. He must look as awful as he feels, because she frowns, a furrow of concern appeared between her eyebrows.
"Are you okay?" she asks. "You look spooked."
"I'm fine," Charles says, and Moira snorts.
"It must have been some story if I've scared the great Charles Xavier," she says. "You're unshakable. It wasn't even that good."
Charles closes his eyes and sees the long hallways again before he opens them quickly.
"I just...I'm not sure," Charles says. He doesn't want to examine the pictures behind his eyelids. "The house you described...it's very much like the house I grew up in. I think I must be associating...I don't know."
"It's just a story," Moira says. "I made it up."
"You said it was true," Charles says, running his hands through his hair.
"I always say they're true," Moira says. "It makes them scarier. It was based on some stupid thing I read once and some story my cousin told me." She rubs his shoulder. "Are you sure you're okay? This is weird for you."
"I'm fine," Charles says, breathing out noisily. He shakes himself and forces a smile. "I'm fine. You got me, it seems. You win this time."
"Yeah," Moira says, but she doesn't look convinced.
"Do you still have that vodka?" he asks her. She stares at him for a moment. There's a whisper through his head, like an echo of a memory, and he shakes hard to dislodge it. Great. The mental whispers are always the precursor to an anxiety attack or a migraine or both. He grabs his wallet and slips out his pill case, shaking out his anxiety medication into his cupped open palm. He probably shouldn't drink before a migraine, but the migraines are brought on by anxiety and the quickest way to calm his nerves, outside of his medication, will be a drink. Moira leans over the edge of her bed and pulls up a backpack. She unzips it and reveals a bottle of Smirnoff that's nearly full. "Excellent," he says.
"I have my doubts about this plan," Moira replies, but she unscrews the top and takes the first drink before wincing and passing it to Charles.
"It's fine," Charles lies. "I'm fine, I'm past it." He takes a long pull from the bottle to wash down his medication and wills the alcohol to work its magic. "Now. Do we want to follow the rest of them to the coffee shop?"
Instead they end up down the hall at a low-key party in the boys' suite. Charles drinks until Moira's story is out of his mind and seduces one of the boys on the lacrosse team so he doesn't have to go to bed alone. After he wakes up, he has a terrible migraine and when he's finally fit for civilized company, Moira's story is nothing more than a distant shiver down his spine.
It's been two weeks since Charles moved back to North Salem to work on his book and he still feels like a stranger in the house. To be honest, he even felt like a stranger as a child. He's sure that at some point it felt like home--maybe his very early childhood, before his father passed. Those days are so far, though, so distant that the only memories he has are detached--hiding from Kurt, staying up in his room or the library on that floor, keeping indoors instead of exploring the vast grounds of the estate. It's his home, but every day brings new discoveries, rooms and items he's forgotten entirely, if they were ever familiar in the first place.
He misses his cramped flat in Manhattan, but only distantly. That wasn't really home either, though he knew all of the nooks and crannies by necessity. If he's honest with himself, what he misses is Moira and the companionship of being with another person. It's funny--for all he doesn't have many friends, he's never been happy on his own. He's more comfortable with other people, with people he trusts. These days, Moira is where that list begins and ends. They've been inseparable since they met freshman year at Harvard. After school, they relocated to New York together while Charles worked towards his PhD and Moira obtained her Master's and then a job with the FBI. They've shared apartments through their schooling and their first jobs, through Charles getting tenure and Moira being promoted to field agent. They're getting older, though. Charles is twenty-seven. Moira will be thirty in six months and has made it clear she wants a family one day. He understands that there's a progression to these things. He just--well, he wasn't quite expecting it this quickly.
Moira and Nick have only been dating for a year. He likes Nick. Nick is smart and sarcastic and a little taciturn, but in a way that makes him seem mysterious and intriguing rather than rude. He's good for Moira--he respects her, gives her shit when she needs it, listens to her when she doesn't, and is frequently impressed by what she can do. Moira's dated enough men of dubious quality that Charles is happy for her. He is. But, well. Charles hates change. Or maybe he just doesn't like being alone. It's hard to know for sure.
"Listen," Moira had said to him one night in late May. They were splitting a bottle of wine and toasting to the end of the school year and the start of Charles' break from students, his sabbatical to finish his book. "So, I know you're taking a year off and I know you were thinking about going somewhere for a while to work."
"Yes?" Charles said when it was clear Moira wasn't going to elaborate.
"Well," she said. "Last night I was talking to Nick--well, commiserating, since he didn't get that promotion. And he admitted that one of the reasons he wanted Detective was because the hours were better and more conducive to...married life. And I said I'd been meaning to bring that up for a while recently and--"
"Marriage?" Charles blurted out. "Already?"
Moira shrugged. "Yeah," she said. "And we talked and it's definitely something we feel like we're moving towards. And I thought--with the lease up in August and you taking some time off to work on your book, maybe it would be a good time for Nick and I to move in together. To see if we can stand being around each other 24-7 before we commit to it."
And it did make sense, of course. It was practical and logical and completely understandable, but it had been a long time since Charles had lived on his own. He'd never lived on his own, really. He briefly considered staying in the city and getting a roommate, but he wasn't thrilled about living with a stranger and he didn't have very many friends. It was more expensive to live on his own, not that he couldn't afford it, and he spent so much time debating boroughs and neighborhoods and pros and cons that, in the end, it seemed silly not to just head up to the house in North Salem at least until he got himself sorted out. The quiet, he thought, would be more conducive to working than spending months acclimating to someone new and calming his nerves enough to be able to focus with them banging around the flat.
So Moira has a new apartment with her boyfriend and Charles has a huge, empty house that he lives in on his own and regards with no small amount of fear and loneliness. Moira would tell him there's a solution to that. Moira would remind him that people sometimes use other people for things other than sex, that perhaps he should consider a serious romantic relationship instead of a series of good-natured hook-ups with anyone willing. He appreciates her concern and he understands, in theory, that it's a good idea but...well. It's hard to find someone he likes, who likes him, who doesn't have so many questions. Charles hates talking about himself, and all of his past attempts at relationships have delved into that rather quickly.
"Not your work," Lilly Neramani had said to him when they dated in his last year at Harvard. "You, Charles. I want to know about your life."
Charles hadn't had a good answer for her, and the relationship fizzled out before winter break.
It's not so bad like this. He has Moira. He has his work and his students. He'll be finishing up his book this year, and then he'll have that. He's moderately sure that he'll limp into his thirties as a well-regarded young man, respected in his field at a young age, with a best friend who's like a sister to him and a promising career ahead of him. Well-adjusted. Normal.
There's a distant crack of thunder and he jumps, slamming his knee on the underside of the desk he's clearing out.
Well. Mostly well-adjusted. Everyone has their quirks.
When he first moved back, a part of him wanted to limit his movements to one part of the house. He told himself it was easier that way, that he was used to a string of tiny dorm rooms and then a string of slightly larger apartments, that spreading out over the vast space of the house would just lead to him losing things that might be important in rooms he's only been in once. It was a silly thought, one borne of childhood fears that he couldn't quite substantiate in his mind. They were distant and muted and he kept them that way--what he does remember of those years, the years with his mother in little more than a gin-induced coma and Kurt and Cain ruling cruelly in her absence, he wishes he could forget as it is. He's alone here, now, and there is nothing to stop him from making use of all of the space, or at least examining it for the first time since his mother's funeral. He has a whole year off from teaching and only has to be in the lab twice a month. He needs something to do in his spare time.
Thunder crashes again and Charles starts to think this is a task better suited to daytime.
He thinks this office belonged to Kurt and maybe his father before that. He only knows it was one of the rooms he was forbidden to enter in his childhood, not that he strayed far from his sanctuary on the third floor, the corner wing that contained his bedroom, his classroom, and a library. Mostly it seems to contain empty filing cabinets and a desk filled with odds and ends, scraps of paper, nothing he can make sense of. Charles is frankly surprised that Kurt was able to clear so much of this out--he was packing to leave the house the day after Charles' mother's will was read, the day he found out that he inherited nothing and Charles everything.
He wonders where all of these things ended up after Kurt's own untimely death only days after Sharon's. He stops and listens to the storm battering the house and then decides those thoughts are best left to morning.
The whole task is best left to morning. Charles' hands are shaking when he closes the desk drawer and gets to his feet. He'll go to the kitchen and make himself a nice cup of tea, maybe add a little something extra. There are brownies somewhere, a treat for himself that he couldn't resist when he stopped at the coffee shop in town yesterday. He'll have a cup of tea and a snack and then take some of his papers and retire for the evening and--
There's a crack of thunder that feels like it shakes the house to its foundation. There's a flash from outside, and then Charles is plunged into darkness.
He doesn't scream, but only because his voice has fled entirely. There's no light to speak of--the outside lights are gone, the inside lights are gone, and the storm has covered up any moonlight or starlight that may have led him to a candle or a lantern. He tries to ignore his thumping heart as he closes his eyes and maps out the room in his mind. There were candles on the mantle and long fireplace matches in a box on the bookshelf. He opens his eyes again, though it does no good--the room is just as dark with his eyes open as it is when they're shut. Still, he begins to pick his way across the room, his eyes straining to adjust, to take in just the barest hint of light. His questing hands close around the edge of the mantle and he quickly feels his way over to bookshelf. His hands are shaking so badly that the first match flickers and dies, but the second takes and he manages to light first one candle, then the other.
He leaves one on the mantle and holds the other out to get his bearings. It's fine. Everything is fine. The room is just as he left it. His eyes scan over his surroundings, taking in the hulking dark shadows of filing cabinets and shelves and the man in the doorway.
Charles' heartbeat quickens. He swallows a gasp. Maybe if he pretends he didn't see the man, maybe if he closes his eyes everything will be okay. Maybe it was just a trick of the light.
There's another strike of lightning, illuminating the room, and the man is suddenly right in front of him.
Charles drops his candle. It fizzles out when it hits the carpet, leaving him with only the dim glow from the candle behind him to see by. He wants to scream, but his throat is thick with fear. The man is taller than him, his features sharply carved into his face. He looms over Charles with something like rage in his eyes, which are dominated by his pupils in the dark. Charles makes a quiet, frightened noise.
"Where is Klaus Schmidt?" the man all but growls.
Charles takes an involuntary step back and trips into one of the armchairs. It puts him at a further disadvantage that the man quickly leaps upon. He leans over, resting his weight on the arms of the chair and effectively trapping Charles in place.
"I--I don't--take what you want, I don't--please don't--"
He doesn't know what he's saying, what he's begging for. He's going to be murdered. He's going to be murdered in his own home and no one will find him for weeks. He'll be another bloody ghost story, another one of the urban legends that have always surrounded this house.
"Where," the man hisses, his face inches from Charles' own, "is Klaus Schmidt?"
Charles swallows again and again. He's hearing the words now, possibly for the first time. Schmidt. Oh god, Schmidt.
"I don't know!" Charles says desperately. "I don't know, he died! He died the same time as my stepfather, he died in the laboratory fire, I swear, he's not here, I don't know!"
The man stares at him, but he moves no closer and makes no further demands. In a back part of his mind, Charles thinks he'd be very handsome if his face wasn't contorted in such anger.
"Schmidt survived the fire," the man finally says. He still sounds furious, but the anger is no longer directed at Charles.
"He--he couldn't have," Charles says. "I saw--Kurt was--all of the laboratories burned. They were trapped. They were--he couldn't have--" The fear curling in Charles' gut is of a different sort, now. He remembers Klaus Schmidt, and a world with Schmidt in it is significantly worse off. He shudders.
The man stares at him again and then grabs the front of Charles' shirt in his fist, lifting him off of the chair until their noses are almost touching.
"If you're lying to me...."
"I'm not, I swear!" Charles says. "God, fuck, I wouldn't, not about him, not about Kurt--it can't be true, he can't be--" Charles snaps his mouth closed before he goes hysterical, his breath still coming too quickly. Something shifts in the man's face. He's still staring at Charles, and Charles stares back. There's something familiar about him. Something resonant. Charles has seen that expression. He's seen it in the mirror.
He touches the man's hand where it clutches his shirt. He doesn't know why. It's foolish--possibly suicidal. But the man doesn't flinch, he just looks down at Charles' hand and then back up at Charles. They stay there, unmoving, until another strike of lightning illuminates the room and another crack of thunder shakes the house.
The man drops Charles' shirt and Charles falls back into the chair with a thump. Before he can say a word, the man turns and flees into the darkness.
Charles knows he should follow, should get up and phone the police, but he doesn't think he could stand if he tried. He sits in the chair, breathing hard, with his eyes squeezed shut.
Oh god, there was a stranger in his house. A stranger asking questions about Klaus Schmidt. Someone broke into his house and Schmidt might not be dead and--
He blindly tears out of the room, tripping and stumbling along the way, feeling out desperately for anything in his path until he's out in the hallway, then down to the foyer and around to the sitting room he's been using as his office. He tears inside, knocking over an end table and groping madly for his bag. He brushes everything else on the coffee table onto the floor in his haste, his fingers finally closing around the strap, his hands digging inside for his cellphone--
He winces at the brightness of the display as he taps in his password with shaking fingers. He finds Moira's name and prays that reception won't cut off from the storm.
"Hey," Moira says after endless seconds of tinny ringing. "What's up?"
Charles chokes back a sob. "Can you--" come up here? he wants to ask, but the man might still be in his house and if anything happened to Moira, he'd never forgive himself. "Can I come down there tonight? Now? Please, Moira?" he asks instead.
There's a slight pause, but that's the only hesitation. "Of course," she says. "Charles, you sound--"
"Thank you," Charles says breathlessly. "Thank you, I'm leaving now."
He doesn't wait for her to reply. He ends the call and uses the remaining light from the display to make sure he has his keys, then grabs his bag, shoves the phone in his pocket, and stumbles towards the front door.
It's still pouring outside, and Charles drops his keys when he tries to lock the door behind him. It takes three tries to get the door locked and by then he's already soaked. He doesn't pause, though. He sprints through the puddles towards his car and by the time he's on the highway headed towards the city, he's almost stopped shaking.
"Jesus fuck!" Moira says when she sees him, soaked and bedraggled and standing outside the door to her new apartment. "Did you forget your umbrella or something?"
"No time to stop," he mumbles through chattering teeth. Moira shakes her head and pulls him inside, closing the door behind him.
Moira and Nick's new apartment is in Astoria. It's light and airy and much more open than the series of apartments Charles and Moira shared in Manhattan. It's a bit of a hike to get down to the Federal Building for work, but Charles privately thinks that if Moira didn't have her commute to complain about, she'd get bored.
She leads him into the kitchen and shoves him into a chair. "I'll be right back," she says, then disappears down the hall. She returns less than a minute later carrying a pair of his trousers and a hoodie that he suspects belongs to her boyfriend.
"The pants are yours--I keep finding your clothes mixed in with mine. Nick'll want the sweatshirt back eventually. Put them on," she says.
Charles does as he's told. He has no shame left when it comes to Moira, and peels off his slacks in the middle of the kitchen.
"Nick's working the graveyard shift," she continues, "So it's just you and me. And when you're done dressing, you're going to tell me what made you drive all the way to Queens in the middle of a storm, soaking wet and white as a sheet."
Charles expected as much, but he still moves slowly, peeling the wet clothes from his body and replacing them with Moira's loaners. He's drying his hair with a hand towel when Moira kicks his ankle and glares at him. He drops it onto the table and sighs.
"Can we...?" He gestures towards the sofa in the living room. Moira nods and leads the way, but once they're both settled, Charles knows he's out of stalling tactics.
"A...a man--" He swallows. "This evening, a man--"
Moira's eyes go hard.
"Did someone hurt you, Charles?" she asks. "Were you on a date? Did someone--I can call the police, we can file a report--"
"No!" Charles says quickly. "Oh, god, no. Not like that. No, I wasn't--no." He shakes his head and Moira relaxes, but only slightly. "I was home, going through some things in the office and...the lights went out and this man--he broke into the house. He asked me questions about my stepfather and his--business partner. And then he left. And I just--I needed to get out of there."
"Fuck," Moira says. "Please tell me you called the police."
"You're like the police," he hedges, but Moira just groans.
"Charles! A man broke into your house and--did he hurt you? Are you sure you're okay?"
"He didn't touch me," Charles lies, because he doesn't know how to explain that the anger, the violence wasn't directed at him, even when he was hanging in the stranger's grip. "He just asked questions. And when it became clear I had no answers, he left."
He can feel a headache building and his heart is still hammering, but getting up to get his bag is an insurmountable obstacle. Luckily, years of living with Charles has made Moira rather well trained at picking up his cues. She shakes her head and gets up to retrieve his things, shaking out one of his anxiety pills and passing it to him.
"I can't believe you didn't call the police," she says. "Honestly, Charles. You can't be that stupid."
Charles dry swallows the pill.
"It's hard to explain," Charles says. "You don't--I panicked." It's not a complete lie. He doesn't know how to explain to Moira that he can't bring himself to think of someone looking for Schmidt, looking to hurt Schmidt, as a bad guy.
"Fine," she says. "Stay here tonight. Tomorrow morning I'll go back over there with you and scope the place out and call the police. And you'll tell me the whole story, okay? I can tell you're holding back on something."
"Thank you," Charles says. He rubs his forehead and sighs. "I'm sorry about all this. It was just--things happened in that house and I--" He stares at Moira plaintively. He doesn't know if he could explain if he tried.
"It's fine," Moira says. "I'm just glad you're alright. Come on, you can bunk with me. It'll be just like college all over again."
"That's the most frightening thing I've heard all night," Charles says, but he follows her into the bedroom, his heartbeat finally returning to a normal pace.
Moira follows Charles back to the house at a distance that would make her superiors at the FBI wince in shame. They're both lucky that nothing causes Charles to step on the brakes unexpectedly, because they would undoubtedly collide if he did so. He knows that Moira is concerned and he feels, in the light of day, like a world-class idiot for running to her instead of calling the police, but it's all done now and they're all safe. There's no reason for her to attach herself to him quite so closely.
Once they pull up at the house, Moira tries to make him wait outside until he reminds her that the inside is a labyrinthine mess that even he hasn't properly broached since he was about ten years old. She reluctantly allows him to follow, instructing him to stay close behind her as she inches through the place, gun first.
"Is that really necessary?" he asks quietly after she swings into another room, eyes flickering quickly over every corner, weapon never wavering.
"Is it necessary for me to have my weapon out while looking for possible intruders in your house?" Moira asks. "Yes, Charles. It's necessary."
Charles doesn't protest again, merely follows her from room to room. It takes almost an hour, but at the end of it, they're back in the foyer with nothing to show for their inspection save for dust on their clothes and cobwebs in their hair.
"First off," Moira says, "this place is insane. I can't believe you grew up here."
"I can't either," Charles murmurs. "I mean, granted, I lived in London until I was five and moved back there when I was eleven, so I didn't properly grow up here, but I understand your skepticism."
"Secondly," Moira continues, "did you see anything missing? Would you even know if anything was missing?"
Charles shakes his head. "The rooms I haven't been in since I moved back looked undisturbed. The rooms I have been in seemed to be intact. Do we really need to call the police? I mean, what will we say? Someone came in, didn't take anything, didn't hurt me, and then left?"
Moira crosses her arms. "Charles. Don't downplay this. You were white as a sheet and shaking last night, and that was after you had an hour's drive to get your shit together."
"And now that it's daylight and I have my wits about me, I see that I might have blown it out of proportion," Charles says. "Look," he continues before she can object further. "It was dark. The power was out. You've seen how big and intimidating this house is. Imagine being alone in it at night during a storm with no power. The man clearly took my words to heart. When I told him I didn't know where Schmidt was, he left. He clearly believed me. And it was frightening, yes, but I overreacted. You can see how easy it would be to do that, here."
Moira scrutinizes him and he does his best not to flinch under her gaze. She relaxes eventually, though, and and pulls out her phone, handing it to him.
"Fine," she says. "But you're going to call the police and let them know what happened and I'm going to sit here and make sure you do it. Just in case, Charles."
He ignores the phone and pulls out his own. The local police department is pre-programmed in after one too many sensationalist newscasts about the perils of dialing 911 from a cell phone. He calls the office number for the North Salem police department and leads Moira into the kitchen as he waits to be connected to an officer after explaining the situation. He gives a report, sounding as dismissive as he can without making Moira suspicious, and the whole thing is over in less than ten minutes.
"There," he says as he hangs up. "Are you satisfied?"
"Not really," Moira says, "but I'm meeting Nick for dinner, so as long as there's not a serial killer hiding in your pantry, I need to get back to the city."
"There's not," Charles assures her, leading her back through the halls towards the front door, where they came in. "I'm sorry if I scared you last night."
"I just want to know you're safe," Moira says. "I worry about you, Charles. More than I should, really. I think some time away from the city is going to be good for you, but I guess I didn't realize how far you really were and how isolated it is out there."
They stop at the front door and Moira hugs him tightly. When she pulls back, she holds him in place by his shoulders.
"Call me if anything else happens, okay? In fact, call me once a day to let me know you're alive."
"I will," Charles agrees. He looks forward to it, actually. It is rather lonely out here and it's been difficult transitioning from having Moira constantly underfoot to being entirely on his own. "Drive safely!"
He follows Moira out and watches her get back into her car and loop around down the driveway, watches her until her car is out of sight and the hum of the engine blends into the rest of the noises of the day. He returns to the house and closes the door behind him, leaning back against it. The house is still as ominous, as eerie as it always has been.
"If," he says out loud to the lingering specter of his intruder, "you turn out to be dangerous after I went through all that to defend you, I'm going to be rather cross."
The silence of the house is all he hears in return. He sighs and heads back to his office to try and get some work done.
Charles tries to put the whole incident out of his mind. He has a book to focus on, work he should be doing, research he needs to verify. He makes himself a daily schedule to get back into the routine of working regularly now that he doesn't have the structure of teaching classes to guide him.
Predictably, the schedule lasts all of two days. Or, more specifically, the schedule lasts through two nights of quiet contemplation in the dark of his bedroom, hours spent turning the home invasion over in his head. There was something so familiar about the man. The terror at the mention of Schmidt, yes, but something else. God, he hadn't even thought about Kurt and Schmidt in so long, not really, and now that he tries to think harder, everything seems to slip through his fingers. He remembers awkward family dinners full of Kurt and Schmidt laughing and talking in sharp, hushed voices while his mother listlessly stared into space and Cain glared at Charles mutinously, jealous of his special privileges.
Special privileges? Did Cain really get that jealous of Charles' invitations to go down to the lab to watch Kurt work? He can't remember. It's hardly important. He can't even remember what it was he did in the labs.
Kurt couldn't have taken everything. There wasn't time. Charles barely had time to pack all of the things he wanted to take with him to London. He'd expected he would be forced to stay with Kurt and Cain. There was the funeral and then they went straight to the lawyer's to hear the will and then they were home and packing, Kurt and Cain as good as evicted, just like that. They only had the late afternoon and evening. The fire was started before midnight and then....
The thoughts twist and turn in Charles' head as he tries to sleep each night. He has such clear memories of London, of his uncle and aunt and cousins, of boarding school and of college. His memory has always been excellent, but he supposes it's true what they say about the brain protecting itself by repressing trauma.
It doesn't stop him from wanting to know more, though, and on the third day, as he steeps his tea, he says to the empty kitchen, "Oh, fuck it."
He finds a set of small screwdrivers, a crowbar, and an ancient keyring in the outside shed. He doubts the keys open anything useful, but he collects all of these things and brings them back to the house. He starts in Kurt's old office, the one he was working in the night of the trespasser. It's as good a place as any, and, if he's being honest with himself, he's not eager to be back there after dark and he has a feeling this might take a while.
He opens every drawer, looks through every scrap of paper. He pries open the locked cabinet and finds nothing but a few very, very nice bottles of whiskey. When he's satisfied, he moves on to the next room, then the next, until he's hit every office and spare bedroom he can find and amassed a whole lot of nothing.
It's late. He's dirty and tired and aching and he can feel a headache coming on. He's been having them every night, now, and he owes that to his friend the intruder, who's ratcheted up his anxiety to levels he hasn't seen since he was finishing his dissertation. He looks at the pile of notebooks and documents he's found and then he looks at the clock. Whatever it is can surely wait one more night.
He takes a bottle of wine from the kitchen and grabs his medication, an empty glass, and the latest notes on his book and takes them all upstairs where he draws himself a warm bath. A week ago, he's not sure he would have seen himself retreating to work in order to calm himself down, but it seems like the simplest choice, now. He sits in the water until it's gone tepid and his skin is pruny, then dries off and puts on a pair of boxers before curling up in his bed, asleep nearly before his head hits the pillow.
It turns out that work was actually the best choice to distract himself. Even in the bright light of morning, fully rested and working on a second cup of tea, Charles can't make any sense of the notes he's pulled together from all around the house.
"My god, I'm glad I learn lab procedures from them," he mutters to himself as he looks through the--admittedly truncated--pages he's rescued. None of the formulas make sense. His father worked with genetics and Kurt was in the same field, the same field that Charles chose to pursue. Most of the documents read like straight chemistry and not any chemistry he's familiar with. The others are strange supply orders and what look like observation logs from some sort of lab test, though it's not clear what type of animal was being tested or what sort of tests were being completed.
It's gibberish without context. It leaves Charles scratching his head. A day's worth of creeping around the house, forcing his way into rooms and drawers, sneezing and coughing from the dust, and all he has to show for it is a pile of papers that, despite a PhD and quite a bit of practical experience in his field, seem entirely nonsensical.
It was a wasted day. He should go back to his book.
He pours himself a glass of wine and stares outside instead.
He can almost see the door from where he's sitting. The entrance to the catacombs. There used to be one in the house, but Kurt had it sealed up and the remaining passageway turned into a bomb shelter. He said it was too dangerous, that it was too easy for Charles or Cain to wander in by accident and hurt themselves. The outside door needed a keycard to get through. Charles asked for his own when he started accompanying Kurt down there, but he never got one. You needed to swipe the key to open the door and then there was another door that needed a code. 7-6-2-6-9. Strange that he can remember that so clearly while other things elude him.
There's no keycard now. The fire department broke the lock and bent the door out of shape. It doesn't close all the way anymore. Charles walked by it once when he returned to the house, just to check that it was there. The second door, he could see through the gap where the outer door was mangled, was gone completely. That was as close as he'd gotten to the labs before turning around and walking quickly back towards the house.
No one's been down there in years. There's nothing left, probably, but if there is something that can add context to these random documents, if there is some sort of key to all of this...well. It would be down there.
He lets himself stare a little longer.
"Charles," he finally says. "You've gone round the bend."
He didn't come out here to solve some insane fifteen-year-old mystery or to snoop around in his dead stepfather's affairs. He came out here to work on his book. He came out here to get away from the city, to focus on himself for a few months and not his students or Moira or his colleagues. He'd hoped he could eliminate the distractions that were around every corner in the city, and clearly his brain has been working overtime to create new ones.
He needs to focus. He needs to work. He needs to stop thinking about things that happened so long ago that the memories are nothing more that a fog in the back of his mind.
He takes the glass of wine and resolutely marches back towards his laptop. He's going to finish another chapter tonight and look at the notes his research assistant sent over. He has a pile of documents to read through in the week before he's due to stop by the lab again, and it's best to get started now.
He'll keep busy. He'll forget all about this insanity. He can't live in the past.
He dreams about the intruder. Of course he does.
He dreams that the man is back, but this time, when he shakes Charles and asks where Schmidt is, Schmidt appears beside him. He yanks the man away from Charles, and though Charles thinks he should be grateful, he finds himself terrified and scrambling to get away, reaching for the stranger who is just beyond his reach.
"I think he's sweet on you," Schmidt says. "I can work with that."
The words make Charles sick, but he can't get away and the stranger looks horrified and the room is bright, too bright, he can't see and his head is killing him and he wakes up in agony.
He scrambles for the bedside table and manages to find his pills and a bottle of ibuprofen. He swallows his anxiety medication despite his dry throat and the ibuprofen follow. He's still shaking when he realizes that the ringing phone woke him up.
"M-Moira?" he stutters when he hits accept.
"Hey, I--are you okay?"
He swallows. "I'm sorry," he says. "I just--I had an attack. I'm fine now. I'm going to be fine."
"Jesus, Charles," she says. Charles pushes himself up and leans against the headboard, untangling himself from the sheets. "Are you sure you're okay? I can come out. I was just calling to tell you I have to go up to Danbury tomorrow and see if you wanted to get lunch or something, but--"
"No, that sounds lovely," Charles says. "I'm really fine, Moira. I had a nightmare. I took my medication."
"Good," Moira says, and Charles feels the world starting to come back into focus. "Are you sure you're okay out there by yourself? I'm starting to think this isn't as good an idea as we initially thought. You can come stay with me and Nick if you want. I mean, the place isn't big, but it might be better for you."
"Moira, really," Charles says, though he's starting to agree with her. "I'd love to have lunch with you tomorrow. Would you like me to meet you in Danbury or would you like to come out here?"
"I'll come to you," Moira says. "Danbury sucks. Do you need anything?"
He's sure she means for around the house, but he finds himself saying, "Yes, actually--can you do me a favor?"
"What kind of favor?" she asks.
"Can you...can you look up Klaus Schmidt for me?" he asks. "At work, I mean."
There's a short silence on the other line.
"I...guess that wouldn't be a problem," she says. She doesn't comment further, which means she's suitably intrigued by this whole thing and is going to hold off on the lecture until she satiates her own curiosity. "Do you know anything besides his name?"
"Not really," Charles admits. He's not sure he's ready to disclose how blank his childhood memories really are. "I know that he and Kurt had a government contract, but that's about it."
"Okay," Moira says. "I'll find what I can and bring it up tomorrow."
"Thank you, Moira," Charles says. "It's--" He suddenly doesn't want to talk about it more than he has to. He coughs a little. "Anyway, uh, what time should I expect you?"
"One thirty," Moira says. "I'll give you a call when I'm leaving Danbury?"
"Yeah, thanks," Charles says. "Have a good day, Moira."
"You too," she says. "Take care. Feel better."
He hangs up and rubs his eyes. His headache is better. He can breathe and think again. He's not sure how to interpret the level of horror felt in his dream. He hasn't had a night terror in years, and he doesn't actually know the intruder, but the despair he felt at being pulled away...he can still feel echoes of it. He doesn't know if it was his fear of Schmidt or the unease that's been stirred up at being back in the house, but the dream felt real and he's still having trouble shaking it, even as he rolls out of bed--it's already almost noon, he's practically slept the day away--and stumbles towards the shower.
He intends to get to work, he really does, but he can't focus. His mind wanders after every line. He re-reads words two or three times before he absorbs the meaning. It's no use; nothing is getting done. Three weeks he's been out at the house and he's done less than he normally accomplishes in half the time.
He tells himself a walk will be helpful. He tells himself the cool autumn air will clear his head. He tells himself he's not obsessing, he's not going to think about Schmidt or the intruder or his dreams or his childhood. He's just going to admire the scenery and let himself unwind.
The problem is, the more he thinks about those years, the less there is to get lost in. There are things he remembers about his early childhood, about playing in the house in London, that seem odd when he stops to think about it. Odd that he can remember some of those days so clearly, when so much of the time in the states is a blur. They moved into the house in Westchester when he was five, and so much of his memory from those years is torn to shreds, right up until he moved back to London after his mother's death.
The air smells like fall as Charles wanders through the grounds. Smell is usually a powerful memory trigger for him, but almost nothing of the autumns in this house are coming to mind. He thinks of college, of the day he met Moira, of the autumns spent wandering around Cambridge, but he should have some clear memories of New York, shouldn't he? He understands how repression works, but all the days couldn't have been so bad, not when the ones he remembers seem rather terrible in their own right.
He reaches a bench by what was once a small reflecting pool. The water is green and murky, now, and any fish in it have long since died or been devoured by predators, but the bench is still standing and seems sturdy when he sits on it.
The problem is that the holes in his memory don't feel entirely natural. His mother's funeral is a blur, a fog, but in a way that's different than the rest of it. The same with his father's. Some of Cain's worst beatings fall under the same umbrella, but the majority of the rest of his missing memories feel more jagged.
He picks one and tries to trace it back, closing his eyes and tipping his head back. He picks up from being shaken awake that night by his nanny and pulled from the house, watching the labs burn, terrified about...something. He's not sure what. The fire, he supposes, but the missing source of the terror has the same sharp edges as the rest of his missing memories. He tries going further back, examining more closely. They came home from the lawyer and Kurt shoved him roughly aside. It hurt. He remembers it hurt. He remembers that Cain went to hit him and Kurt smacked Cain across the room, yelled at him to pack his things. Charles' nanny tsked quietly at that, but said nothing, hurrying Charles along to pack himself. They were leaving the next day for London, she told him. Kurt and Cain needed to be out by then, she told him.
He remembers Schmidt came by. He argued with Kurt about something, something that Charles only heard snatches of until he was brought back upstairs to finish his packing.
He remembers hearing only snatches, but not what those snatches were.
He gets lost in the memories for endless minutes that stretch and stretch until something--
There's a noise and Charles sits up. The sun is noticeably lower than it was when he closed his eyes. He looks at his watch to confirm that, yes, he just fell asleep outside for a good hour. Fuck, he has to get back to the city. Another whole day wasted and--
The man is standing at the tree line, maybe twenty feet away.
Charles swallows and slowly looks up, making eye contact with the man. He seems different in daylight. Softer, maybe. Maybe it's the rage that's missing, making his face almost entirely different than it was the last time Charles saw him. Charles tries to keep his breathing even. His pills are still inside.
They don't speak. The man's gaze is steady and almost warm. He's really quite handsome, which is a ridiculous thing to focus on. Charles crosses his arms over his chest, but doesn't look away.
"What makes you so sure that Schmidt is alive?" he finally asks. His voice is quieter than he intends, almost vulnerable. He doesn't like that, but he can't take it back now that the words are out there. "I saw what was left after the fire. I know what was left of Kurt. How can you be sure he got out?"
The man regards Charles with a dark intensity. Charles tries hard not to squirm.
"Because I started the fire," he finally says. "And I only escaped because Schmidt took me and ran."
The man turns, then, and walks off into the trees. Charles is too stunned to follow him.
Charles stays on the bench until the sun starts to dip further down into the sky. He doesn't know what to think. Was the man on the property even then, down in the labs while Charles was sleeping up at the house? The man can't be that much older than Charles, he would have been nothing more than a boy then. What the hell was he doing down in those labs? Why would he start the fire?
Charles' head is aching. He needs to take a pill. He needs to have a drink. He needs to find a time machine so he can go back and warn himself off of ever coming back here.
He pushes himself to his feet. He's dizzy with an impending attack, his heart out of control, his nerves leaving him a shaking mess as he stumbles back towards the house. Has this man been watching him his whole life? Has he been here at the house for all these years? Is he Schmidt's son, his protege? Why the hell does he look so damned familiar and why the fuck was he in the labs that night?
Charles manages to make it inside and takes two anxiety pills and a handful of ibuprofen. He washes them down with the last of the wine in a glass on the table, takes a moment to breathe, and then decides he needs something stronger if this is going to continue to make so little sense.
The whiskey is still in the cabinet that Charles pried open the other night. He doesn't bother with a glass, just opens the bottle and drinks deeply, sputtering only a little. He holds it close to his chest as he staggers unsteadily from the room and into the more familiar library he's been using as an office. He hits the couch hard, curling up and squeezing his eyes shut.
He can't make sense of any of this, none of it at all, voices loud in his head, ideas tangling into knots, huge gaps in his memory, and the constant whispers in his mind that he can never focus on fully. He's lost control of this, if it was ever his to lose.
He drinks until he stops thinking and sleeps so deeply he doesn't dream.
The phone is buzzing when Charles opens his eyes.
It's shaking everything on the table, actually. There's a pen tapping against an empty glass that pings with every ring. The loose change he pulled from his pocket a few days ago shakes. A water bottle lying on its side is buzzing with the vibrations.
There's a pounding, too, but Charles realizes that's farther away when he picks up his phone and the pounding keeps going. It's Moira on the line, but he's not quick enough, and before he can accept the call it goes to voicemail. Rather, it joins the six other voicemails he currently has. And the nineteen missed calls. And nine texts.
Charles gets to his feet, groggy and disoriented, and walks as quickly as he can to the source of the banging, the front door. His phone starts to ring again just as he pulls the deadbolt and opens the door. Moira, as he suspected, is on the other side. She looks apoplectic.
"Where the hell have you been?" she shouts. Her voice is so high it must hurt. Her face is red. "I was two fucking minutes away from breaking into your fucking house you fucking idiot!"
"Moira," Charles says, but it's all he says before she elbows past him and slams the door hard enough that the end tables on either side shake with the force.
"I've been calling you since I left Manhattan," she says. "I thought you were dead."
"I'm sorry," Charles says. He follows after her as she stalks back towards the library. "I was asleep, I--it's a long story. Yesterday--"
"I'll bet it was a long story!" she says. "Let me tell you a shorter one. Last night I put your friend Schmidt's name into our system. I got as far as finding out he has an alias before being denied further information. This morning, before I can even pour myself a coffee to get ready for the drive to my idiotic meeting in Danbury, I get called into my boss' office. The assistant director was there to lecture me on snooping around in things that are above my pay grade."
Moira grabs the bottle of whiskey on the table and takes a swig. Charles rubs hard at his eyes and tries to cut through the fog to focus.
"You're telling me Schmidt is classified?" he asks.
"So fucking classified that I'm lucky I'm not being tailed right now," she says, wiping her mouth. "I made up some stupid story, about how he worked with your dad and how you just moved back into the house and were thinking about him and wanted to know if he had any family. 2012 and we might as well still be in the dark ages because they bought my 'I'm just a silly lady with lady feelings' act and told me he did some contract work, but died in the fire and had no family. Lies, I'm sure."
Charles sits on the couch. It's a lot to process.
"What the hell was this Schmidt guy into, Charles?" Moira asks. "What was your stepfather into? What have you dragged me into?"
Everything in Charles, from the moment he returned to this house, has been pulling him away from the labs. He can barely look at the entrance to the catacombs without being filled with the urge to look away. He's avoided so much as opening the door.
He can't avoid it any longer.
"I don't know," he tells Moira. "But I know where we can find out."
Moira has a heavy duty flashlight in her car and Charles manages to find another in the kitchen. He tries not to think as he passes it back and forth between his sweaty hands, leading Moira out back towards the labs.
"I realized today that I have a significant amount of gaps in my memory," he tells her as they walk. "Mostly around Kurt and Schmidt and what happened down in those labs."
"Shaw," Moira says. "His name is Sebastian Shaw. Klaus Schmidt was an alias that he used in Germany and brought over here for a few years."
"Whatever his name was," Charles says. "I have no memory of what happened there. I know that I went down to 'help' Kurt sometimes, but what actually happened is...it's like a block." He rubs his temple. "I start to get a headache if I think about it for too long."
"You blocked the memories out, you think?" Moira asks. They're outside the doors, now. Ten, maybe twelve feet away from what's been haunting Charles since he returned to this house, maybe his entire life.
"I don't know what we're going to find down there," he admits. "I can't--I can't grasp it."
Moira only purses her lips and nods. She unholsters her gun and jerks her elbow back.
"Get behind me," she says. "We'll go slowly."
Charles eyes the gun warily.
"There's...something else," he says. "I--I saw the man again yesterday. The one who--the one from that night."
Moira doesn't need further elaboration but, to her credit, she allows him to continue before unleashing the invective he can tell she's storing up for him.
"I really think he's--I think he's on our side, Moira," Charles says. "He could have hurt me, but he didn't. He didn't even come near me. He just told me that he knew Shaw survived the fire." He didn't tell her how. He didn't want her shooting at the man before Charles could get an explanation out of him. "There's something--I swear I know him from somewhere. And I think he has the answers we're looking for. At least some of them."
"So I can't shoot him on sight?" Moira asks.
"No," Charles says.
"Fine," Moira says. "Let's go."
Moira pushes the door open with her shoulder, flashlight tucked under her arm and gun pointed down the narrow metal staircase. Charles stays close behind her, nearly on top of her as the door creaks shut behind them. There's enough light leaking in around the warped door frame that they're not in total darkness yet, but his stomach is already crawling by the the time they reach the bottom of the stairs. Another door, this one still mostly functional. It must have been open when the firefighters arrived. It's closed now, dirty and solid looking.
"Stand against the wall and pull the door towards you," Moira says. "Don't step in front of the empty doorway. I'll go through first."
"There's a light switch on the wall," Charles says. His voice is steadier than he would have guessed. "I don't know what the circuitry is like after the fire, but it's worth a shot."
He positions himself against the wall the way Moira instructed and pulls the door to him. It opens easily--suspiciously quietly, actually--and Charles holds his breath as Moira marches through, her sneakers slapping against the concrete.
There's a moment of silence before she says, "We're clear. Come on."
As Charles slides himself out from behind the door, Moira flips the switch on the wall. Charles isn't expecting much, but there's a sputter and then a low hum, after which the tunnel lights up.
It's not much. This first tunnel, the outer labs, is really nothing more than rooms carved out of the concrete bomb shelters of some past Xavier paranoia. The ceiling is low and lit by single bulbs that flicker from years of disuse. None of them are very bright, and somehow the low light makes the space seem even smaller. There are maybe a dozen of them in a line all the way down the corridor, to the heavy steel door a hundred yards away. The walls and doors are dark with scorch marks, the remnants of the fire that took Kurt's life, the fire that Charles thought must have killed Schmidt--Shaw--whatever his name was. Is.
One of the bulbs overhead pops and sputters out. Charles jumps, but Moira takes a hand off of her gun to touch his shoulder in an attempt to calm him.
"What's in these rooms?" she asks, even as she walks towards one. The door is half open and blackened, but not charred. The problem with the fire wasn't that the walls caught--the concrete and metal used in the construction were largely fire resistant. No, it was the smoke and the chemicals that kept the flames going, trapping Kurt inside, unable to breath and then unable to escape the flames that crept closer and closer once he was unconscious.
The doctors assured Charles and Cain that Kurt was dead before the fire reached his flesh, but the hollow words did nothing to rid Charles of the image of what was left of Kurt's body when the firefighters found him.
He tries to push the image out of his mind now.
"Labs and offices, mostly," he says. "Mostly filled with computers and desks. Research materials. Things like that."
Illuminated by Moira's flashlight, the charred remains of desks and bookshelves are covered with a layer of dust. The metal door at the bottom of the stairs must have been enough to keep the wildlife out for the past seventeen years. Charles doesn't want to think about anything else keeping the wildlife out, but Moira isn't letting herself be so complacent. She continues to stalk forward with her weapon pointed ahead of them while Charles shines his flashlight beam into the various rooms they pass, still only a hair's breadth from Moira. He's glad her hands are full, because he's quite sure if they weren't, he'd be squeezing one in terror right now.
He pauses at a door that's mostly closed and nudges it the rest of the way open with his foot. It's slow to move, but when it does, the contents of the room is almost eerie in its placidity. The door must have been shut during the fire, because it's untouched, now. Dulled by dust, yes, but still as new and pristine as it was when Charles was down here, getting weighed and having his temperature taken and--
His ears are ringing and his head is aching, all of a sudden. He shakes his head clear, but it just makes it worse as he stumbles back from the room. He realizes, abruptly, that his wallet is back at the house. He didn't bring his pills with him. He's going to have to tough it out.
"Are you okay?" Moira asks. "What's wrong?"
"Headache," Charles says, rubbing his temple with the heel of his hand. "I'm fine. I've had worse."
"We should have called the police," Moira mutters under her breath, but she doesn't stop moving slowly forward, glancing into the room on either side and keeping Charles behind her. "I should have made you call them that first night. I should have made them come out here."
"It's better they didn't," Charles replies. "I--there are things that--my stepfather was not a nice man."
"I know," Moira says. "Generally, nice men don't smack their stepsons around."
"Yes, well," Charles says. He quickens his pace until he's walking side-by-side with Moira, brushing occasionally against her arm as they creep forward. "Then you'll understand what I mean when I say Klaus Schmidt was worse than my stepfather."
"I can hazard a guess," Moira says. "Nice men generally don't have confidential government files and aliases, too."
"Quite," Charles says. "And the way he used to hurt--"
He winces at another stab of pain. There had been a memory right there, something sharp that made him so angry and so desperate, Schmidt casually raising his hand and--
It's gone, so close he can almost see it, but when he tries to focus his head throbs like his skull is going to crack open. Schmidt had hurt someone. It wasn't Charles, but it was someone dear to him. He can't fathom who--there wasn't anyone dear to him here in this house.
Moira stops, lowering her gun to point at the floor. She bites her lip. "Are you sure you want to do this?" she asks. They're close to the door at the end of the hall, now. It's rusted and soot-darkened, looming in front of them. It would be so easy to tell her he's changed his mind, to go back to the house and take one of his pills and lie down and forgot today happened.
"Yes," Charles says, though his throat is dry and his stomach rolls at the thought of going through that door. His headache is getting worse, but he needs to see this through. There's a part of him that's missing, that's been missing for years. He needs to remember. He needs to make sure Schmidt is gone for good.
He needs to help the stranger who broke into his house. He doesn't know why, but he can't shake the compulsion.
"Okay," Moira says. She raises her gun and nods towards the door. "Same as before, all right? Open it and stay out of the way."
Charles grips the handle and swallows back the bile creeping up his throat.
"On three," she says. "One. Two. Three."
Charles closes his eyes and pulls open the door.
Erik is shaking and Charles wants nothing more than to stay and help him, but Kurt's steel grip on his arm is dragging him away.
"I'll be back tomorrow!" he shouts after Erik, and earns a slap across the mouth for his efforts. The casual cruelty enrages Erik, who tries to lunge for Kurt but falls when his weakened legs can't hold him up. Kurt laughs at his sprawl across the floor and Charles struggles to get away, even though he knows it will just earn him another slap. "Erik, no! I'll be back tomorrow, I promise!"
He meets Erik's eyes and they're dark and desperate and Charles wants to go to him, wants to help him, wants to sit down and cry because it's not fair, it's not fair, Erik's been through so much, Charles deserves this, maybe, but Erik doesn't and Charles should be able to help him, to protect him, but he can't.
He can do one thing, though, and as Kurt pulls him away, he reaches out and says, Erik! Erik, in here. What do you want, Erik? Where should we go? and Erik--
Charles blinks and then blinks again. It's not Erik in front of him. It's not--Erik is--
"Charles!" Moira says again. "You're freaking me out. You opened the door and kind of...went blank."
Charles' head is splitting apart, but he forces himself to shake free of the memory and focus on Moira.
"Erik," he murmurs.
"Who's Erik?" Moira asks. "Charles, I'm--"
"Moira, I know," Charles says. "Sorry, I just--Erik is...Erik is the man. The stranger. The person who broke into my house. It was Erik."
"You know him?" Moira asks. "Charles, you need to explain."
Charles steps fully into the newly revealed room and leans against the wall to catch his breath. His heart rate has skyrocketed and he can barely think for the strength of his headache. He glances around the room, almost absently. He remembers it. The antechamber. Long tables and hard plastic chairs that they waited on before testing. Everything in shiny white and chrome, just like it was, but it shouldn't be. This was the room where they found Kurt's body, it should be a burnt out shell. It shouldn't look just like it did back then. It does, though, down to the chairs where he'd sit against the wall, waiting, and sometimes, when Erik looked particularly drawn or pale and pained, they would hold hands while they waited for Kurt or Schmidt or the woman--what was her name?--or one of the scientists to come fetch them.
How had he forgotten Erik? How had he--
"I...I remember," he says to Moira faintly. "Erik was a boy. From Germany. Schmidt brought him here. He was like me. He was my friend, my best friend, and I would have done anything for him."
Moira's cool fingers brush against his brow.
"What do you mean 'like you?'" she asks. Charles shivers as another stab of pain pounds at his skull.
"We weren't alone," he says, closing his eyes.
The boy is crying, though he's trying to hide it. He's scared and sitting on the far edge of the cot and Kurt and the other man have gone away, so Charles isn't sure what he's supposed to do. He wants to help the boy, though. He likes the boy already--his mind is sharp and bright and beautiful, so unlike the minds of the people up at the house, of his mother and Cain and Kurt.
The boy's name is Erik. Charles sits next to him and touches his arm.
"My father died too," he says.
Erik looks up and sniffles. He's wary of Charles, but so desperate for affection that Charles' chest aches. He wants to pull away, but Charles' touch is the first compassionate one he's known in a long time.
"I want to go back to Germany," the boy says in surprisingly good English. It's slow and stilted, but out of caution and care. Charles is impressed; Mother has been making him take French lessons for a year and he still can't understand it unless he's in his tutor's mind.
"I'm sorry," Charles says, because he doesn't know what else to do. Erik doesn't pull away, though. He's hunched over and very thin--Charles thinks he's probably tall when he stands up, taller than Charles, at least. Erik is older, too. He's almost nine to Charles' seven.
Charles doesn't want Erik to go back to Germany. Charles hasn't had a playmate in so long, and it's very lonely at the house. Plus, if there's another boy here, maybe it will make the tests better, maybe it will make them hurt less.
"Until you do," Charles says, carefully giving Erik at least a little hope, "maybe you can be my friend?"
Erik is still and quiet for a long time.
"Maybe," he finally says, but he doesn't push Charles away.
Charles doubles over. God, his head.
"Charles, dammit, look at me!" Moira orders, and it's only by virtue of years of friendship that Charles can hear the panic there, the fear. "Charles!"
He wants to respond but he can't. It's like reality is turning inside out, like his entire life is being shove back into his head all at once, through a pinhole. He can barely stand. God, it's all right there, but he can't put it together, he can't put it in order.
"Charles, tell me what's wrong!" Moira shouts.
"He can't help it," says a voice out of Charles' nightmares. "He's remembering."
Charles manages a gasp and slides the rest of the way to the floor, pressing his head between his knees. Distantly, he registers Moira pointing her gun at Schmidt, who's already pointing one at them, but he can't focus, not when it's all pounding back. There are too many memories, he's not big enough, they're going to overwhelm him and there's so much noise--the orderly whirling of Moira's mind as she assesses the situation, a thick wall of maniacal glee from Shaw, everything that's ever happened to him shifting into a new focus. He can't put things in order. His memories are like a shuffled deck of cards and he's screaming from the electrodes at his temples, he's pounding on the door that he knows they've taken Erik behind, he's crying in his bed alone at night, he's at his mother's funeral, he's telling his father what the other men in the lab are thinking, he's listening to Kurt's vile mental commentary on his mother, he's looking up at the woman, Ms. Frost, as she goes pure and clear and quiet, he's hiding away with Erik in a mental playground of his own making--
Erik. Erik's here. Oh god, Erik's here.
The rest becomes quiet as he zeroes in on that, on the sleepy echo of Erik's mind. He's asleep--no, unconscious--but it's as crisp and clear and bright and beautiful as Charles remembers. He sinks into it, falls into Erik and tries to block out the cacophony of noise and pain and memories.
Erik wakes with a gasp and Charles sees through his eyes for a split second before he jerks upward and gasps himself as he comes back to his own mind. He opens his eyes and looks past Moira, past Schmidt, and focuses on Erik, bound in thick ropes and lying dazed on the floor. He's awake, now, but still reeling from the hit on the head, dizzy with disbelief and sick with pain and horror because, fuck, Shaw has Charles, Shaw's going to hurt Charles, after all these years Erik's found Charles again and Shaw is going to take him away, no, he needs to fight the way the room is spinning, he needs to protect Charles, he needs--
A chair lurches across the floor feebly, dragging Charles from Erik's thoughts, and Schmidt laughs.
"Oh, Erik," Schmidt says. "How noble. All these years and you still carry that torch. It's very sweet, really."
Charles' head is still pounding. It's an effort to focus on what Schmidt is saying.
Above him, the safety clicks off Moira's gun.
"Someone needs to fill me in before I start shooting indiscriminately," Moira says.
Schmidt turns his sickening smile on Moira.
"Well, it's young Dr. Xavier's legacy, but he seems a bit indisposed at the moment," Schmidt says. "Ms. Frost will be glad to hear that the tampering she did to his memory lasted nearly seventeen years, though. I suppose being away from the house worked too, on top of all of those lovely drugs we've been pumping into his system. So trusting, Doctor, taking those pills all these years! We were sure we'd have to intervene at some point."
Charles can't make sense of what Schmidt is saying. Pills? Memories? Schmidt waves his gun from side to side in a parody of a tsking gesture.
"Nevermind all that, though," Schmidt says. "That's later. This all starts with Dr. Xavier's father and his big mouth. He noticed his little boy had a gift--he could answer questions before they were asked. He knew what people were thinking. And, being a scientist, Dr. Xavier senior decided to test his son further. Bad form, I think, experimenting on your own child, and I suppose Dr. Xavier agreed, because he told his secret to his co-worker, Dr. Marko, and asked for his help. Marko saw only the money, though. He didn't appreciate the power, but he knew others would, and that's where I met our boy."
He says it with a fondness that would turn Charles' stomach if he wasn't already sick from pain and from Schmidt's confirmation of the memories that were slowly returning. It had been fun, at first. Games. Charles liked the attention from the man who usually preferred books to his own son. He liked being useful. But the tests made him tired and sometimes they hurt, but he could tell his father wanted to take them farther, make them longer, and he just wanted to make his father happy.
Schmidt takes a step forward.
"Don't get any closer," Moira growls.
"Don't touch him!" Erik wheezes.
Schmidt just laughs.
"So protective, both of you. I would never hurt Charles." That awful smile is back. "Well, not permanently, at least. I know power when I see it. I understand power. I appreciate it. Marko sold out your father, Charles, who sold you out. It's a cycle of betrayal, really. Marko thought the government might have use for a boy who could read minds, and as it happened they could. As long as they could control it, of course. Your father didn't like it, so we had your father...removed."
Charles can see it in Schmidt's mind, the panic on his father's face as Schmidt held a cloth over his mouth and nose, holding him still until he stopped struggling. Schmidt had killed Brian Xavier and hadn't even blinked. He'd been in the way, and Schmidt had a job to do, had a goal, and Brian Xavier was nothing more than a minor obstacle.
"My father," Charles says. "You--"
"Marko wasn't happy about that," Shaw continues blithely. "But that only lasted as long as it took for him to deposit his first check. He certainly took up with your mother soon enough. Moved right into the bedroom, and then we started working. The government wanted a way to control these powers. A weapon's not useful unless you're the one pulling the trigger after all. We were discovering more people with strange abilities and we couldn't let them go unchecked. We started coming up with a suppressant. There was a lot of trial and error involved. It was painful, but it was for the greater good."
Trial and error. Torture, was more like. God, it was all rushing back and there was so much of it. Arguments between Kurt and Schmidt--'She'll notice if he's stoned off his goat!' 'Dr. Marko, your stepson can't stand up and he's still more sober than your wife.'--writhing on the gurneys in agony, shot after shot after shot and then asking him to try and read their minds, hooking him up to machines, running electrical current through him....
"Charles and Erik were up to the task, though," Schmidt says. "Admittedly, Erik took a little more than the young Mr. Xavier. He had a mother, after all, not that she would have noticed. The staff, on the other hand, might ask questions, and we wanted to keep things clean, simple."
It was awful, watching Erik poked and prodded, watching him get doses twice and three times as high because they knew no one cared. No one but Charles, who watched and sobbed and begged, but it never stopped. He did what he could. If they let him near Erik, after, he helped clean his wounds and curled up with him. When the pain was the worst, he dipped into Erik's mind and invited Erik into his fantasy world, the one he had been constructing in his head for as long as he could remember. He got headaches, sometimes, trying to keep Erik tethered to him for so long, but it was worth it. Anything he could do was worth it.
"I can't believe I forgot you," he says, looking to Erik, hiccupping on a sob. His head hurt. It had never hurt this much before. "I can't believe she took you from me. I'm so sorry."
"Not your fault," Erik says. His focus is clearer, now, but he still sounds distant and dazed. It's an act, Charles realizes. He wants to look worse than he is.
Do you have a plan? he asks. Erik winces--it's been so long since Charles communicated that way, since he even realized he could. It hurts, talking like that, but everything hurts so much that he barely notices the change.
I do, Erik responds. Hearing Erik's voice so clearly makes Charles' knees weak with relief. God, how could he not have realized how badly he was missing this?
"Of course, all good things end," Schmidt says. "Charles' mother died and left everything to Charles, including this property. She left Charles in the care of her brother, and that was the end of it. The boy would go off to England, the house was to be boarded up, and we had nowhere to go. It was just as well--we had the drug. The government was already putting it in Ritalin and Xanax and Penicillin, pumping it into the water supply, making sure it reached everyone. They wanted to move onto new projects. Now that we knew we could control these people, they wanted us to find them. It was messy, clearing out the evidence so quickly, taking our findings with us, having my dear friend Ms. Frost make sure there was nothing that Charles could do to implicate us, but we would have managed. Poor Erik, though, couldn't stand the thought of leaving his little friend behind. He started the fire. You know the rest."
Charles looks back to Erik, though Moira's eyes don't leave Schmidt. Erik nods.
"I started the fire because they took you away from me," he says. Something changes in his eyes, then. They turn hard and intense and he murmurs, "I won't let it happen again."
Something slams against the desk. Schmidt turns towards it, and Moira uses the distraction to fire her weapon. The bullet hits Schmidt square in the chest, but before Moira can so much as lower her gun, his entire body ripples. He grins at them, almost gleeful.
"Oh, very cute, honey," he says to Moira. "But I suppose I forgot an important part of the story. Charles and Erik aren't the only people who have these powers. This?" He holds up the gun. "This is mostly for show. To make you nervous. I don't need it to hurt you."
He drops the gun carelessly on the ground and then his whole being ripples again. There's a ping that echoes in the quiet of the chamber. It's the bullet, twisted and warped. When Charles looks back up, Schmidt is still smiling.
"Would you like to try that again?" he asks.
Moira doesn't speak or flinch, but Charles can hear her panic broadcasting outward, sharp and suffocating. Schmidt's mind is behind steel doors, save for the glee he feels at watching them suffer, at wielding his power. And Erik--
Erik uses the distraction to jump to his feet with more agility than Charles would have thought he could muster at the moment. His one wrist is loose, the ropes ragged at the edge, a screwdriver on the floor where he was previously crumpled. He swings the rope around Schmidt's neck and yanks back hard, as Moira fires another shot. Schmidt tosses Erik off and takes a step towards Moira and it's so loud. Charles wants to help, but he has his hands clamped over his ears and his head between his knees to try and dull the pain. His head is pounding, aching, coming apart. The noise is rattling in his ears and head alike, echos of different perspectives, commotion from shouting and objects bouncing around, and he just wants it to stop.
Charles notices the external silence first, and slowly opens his eyes. Moira, Schmidt, and Erik are all still. They're more than still, they're completely unmoving save for their breathing. He's blocked their minds as well--he can see Moira's rapid breathing, but the panic she was feeling is distant and muted. Schmidt, already mostly blocked from the inside, is silent. Erik's intense focus is on Charles.
Charles, he thinks, and Charles hears it clearly. It slips past his defenses as if it belongs there. Sebastian Shaw needs to die.
No. No, Charles won't be party to murder. He can't kill this man. He can't kill anyone! Good god, how has this even happened? Three weeks ago, he just wanted to finish his book somewhere quiet where he could concentrate. How has it escalated to this? What's happened to his life?
What was always meant to happen, Erik tells him. You've always been special. This has always been inside of you. That's what you used to tell me, at least. That this was a gift.
It doesn't feel like a gift. It feels like Charles' brain is imploding. He can't think, but the one thing he knows is that he can't just condemn a man to die.
He's done terrible things, Erik reminds him. His words are almost gentle. It's incongruous in this conversation, incongruous coming from Erik who's been churning with anger and purpose this whole time. He tortured us when we were children who couldn't defend ourselves. He hurt us because he enjoyed it. He left your stepfather to die, and he was probably responsible for your father's death as well.
He was. Charles has seen as much, now. Schmidt suffocated Brian Xavier because he was in the way. He hurt them, all those years. He tortured Erik for fun and because he enjoyed the pain that Charles felt at being so helpless to stop it.
He killed my parents, Erik adds, haltingly, as if it hurts him to think it, even after all these years. He saw what I could do and he killed my parents to get to me. I was seven years old. Charles--he has to die.
"I can't!" Charles says out loud. "I can't just--I can't do that, Erik! I can't allow it! What does that make me, then? What do I become if I do this?"
I'll do it, Erik replies. You hold him still, and I'll do it. I wouldn't want anyone else to have the pleasure of killing him anyway.
"Can't we just call the police?" Charles asks, even though he knows it's impossible. The police can't control someone with so much power.
When we were little boys, you trusted me, Erik tells him. You trusted me more than anyone else in the world. That's what you told me then. I thought you were dead--he told me you died in the fire, that it was my fault. I thought it right up until that night, when I saw you up close and I realized...I thought you were dead for all these years. You were everything to me, once upon a time, and even if you can't remember, you have to trust me, trust that it was true. I lived all my life thinking Shaw had taken away everything I loved. I can't leave him the chance to do it again. Please, Charles.
Charles rubs his forehead with the heel of his hand and closes his eyes. There's truth to Erik's words and, more than that, Erik's feelings. The affection there, the trust and the pain of separation, the shame in not recognizing Charles immediately--Charles can see it in Erik's mind, the moment he pulled Charles up by his shirt and saw his face, his eyes clearly for the first time. The shock, the denial, the disbelief as he fled, stumbling through the house, ashamed with the new knowledge that Charles had been alive all that time, that Erik had taken Shaw's word as truth and not even looked--
Charles shakes himself free of Erik's thoughts and then, careful not to project the order to the whole room, lets Erik go.
Erik remains still for a moment. When he moves, he only turns slowly to Charles.
"Charles," he says. His voice breaks.
"Just do it," Charles says. He looks at the floor. "Do it and get it over with, please."
He hears footsteps on the concrete. He doesn't look up.
"Hello, Shaw," Erik says. "Do you recognize this? It's the bullet you left with my mother. I think it's time I give it back to you."
There's a terrible, heavy pause and then a terrible, deafening noise in Charles' head as Schmidt bursts past his own mental barriers and then through Charles' as well. It's fear so primal that Charles can't parse it, intense pain, and panic and Charles wants to start screaming and never stop and he is screaming, his throat is raw with it, his world is going white around the edges and then--
And then there's blissful darkness.
The first thing Charles notices as he slowly begins to drift towards consciousness is T. H. White.
He's familiar with the story; he read The Once and Future King to tatters when he was in school and he knows there's a new copy somewhere on his nightstand, buried under edits for his own book. The strange part is the additional commentary that comes with it--a stark, painful relation to Lancelot, the memory of being a boy who was broken and put back together wrong. It's enough to draw Charles out--those aren't his thoughts, those aren't his feelings, and he thinks Erik... as he opens his eyes.
Charles is in his bed. The room is bright with autumn sun and the chair next to his bed is occupied by Erik, his nose buried in White. He pushes himself up on his elbows and blinks at Erik. Now that he's more aware, it's not just Erik. He can hear Moira, too, pacing about downstairs, drinking coffee, texting her boyfriend, sending a report for work, and worrying about him simultaneously. If he pushes out even farther, he can--
He winces. Okay. More pain. Not ready to reach out farther, then.
"Be careful," Erik says. He puts the book down and leans over the edge of the bed. He looks the same, of course--he's the same person. But there's still something about him that's different. He's smiling and less severe--his features are softer. There's something inviting in his eyes and the curve of his mouth.
"My head is still killing me," Charles says. He rubs his forehead.
"It'll take a few more days," Erik says. He curls a hand around Charles' shoulder and and urges him back down against the pillows. "When I first came off the suppressants, I had to lock myself in a motel room alone for a week. Things just kept...flying off shelves and sticking to me."
Charles can't hide his smile, but Erik ducks his head, smiling as well.
"A few more days?" Charles asks. "What day is it?"
"It's--" Erik stops to say, then frowns. "I'm not sure, actually. But you've been sleeping for two days. Almost three, now." He lifts his hand, but hesitates after he does so, his hand hanging in the air for long seconds. Charles stares at it, studies Erik's long fingers and the shape of his palm. Bits of his past are still fuzzy, but there's so much more there now. He remembers the hours he spent with Erik, talking and sitting close and sharing stories and making up new ones. He remembers Erik trying fruitlessly to protect him and remembers doing the same to protect Erik. I think he's sweet on you, Schmidt--Shaw said to him once. And Charles had been frightened at the prospect, thinking about all the ways that Shaw could use that against Erik, could use it to hurt him, but he'd also preened, just a little bit, in the very back of his mind.
"I remember there was a night when my mum was out and Kurt kept me down there so late--we sat in your room all night and you showed me how to make shadow puppets," Charles says. "At the end you got so shy--you tried so hard to protect me, you thought it was your job because you were older. You didn't want me to think you were a baby."
Erik swallows. His thoughts are going too quickly for Charles to latch onto them without trying harder than he'd like. There's a general sense of relief, of triumph, along with other things that are more complicated. Affection, definitely. Shock, still. Erik reaches out and brushes Charles' hair behind his ear. His fingers linger on Charles' cheek.
"I thought you were dead," Erik says. His voice is quiet, barely more than a whisper. "He told me you died in the fire. That I killed you. Whenever I did anything that displeased him, he'd bring it up. Remind me that I was good for nothing, that I ruined everything I touched."
"I'm not ruined," Charles says. "I'm alive, you never hurt me. You wouldn't hurt me."
"I didn't mean to scare you that night," Erik says. "I never expected you to--I thought you were dead."
"I'm not," Charles says again. He covers Erik's hand with his own and then he feels it, clear as day, so bright that Charles doesn't know how he missed it.
Oh, Erik, Charles thinks. Erik tries to pull back, but Charles refuses to release his grip, refuses to let Erik get far.
"It was over fifteen years ago," Erik says. There's an edge to his voice, but it's fear, not the anger he wants Charles to think it is. "I was thirteen years old. I don't know you anymore. I was in love with an eleven year old boy who held my hand when I told him about my mother. I don't know who you are."
"I want you to get to know me," Charles insists, and cups his hand around the base of Erik's skull, pulling him down for a kiss.
They kissed just once when they were boys. It was the night Erik showed him the shadow puppets. It was close to the end, maybe a week before the fire, maybe two. Charles made a comment about how it made him feel like a little kid again and Erik got so embarrassed. No, it's good, Charles assured him, and then kissed him. They were so young--barely more than children. It was chaste and quick, but Charles carried it with him until he couldn't anymore. He spares a moment to hate Shaw, to hate Emma Frost, for taking something so important from him.
It's okay, though. He has it back now. There's no need to dwell in resentment when the memory is his again and he's already actively working on making some new ones.
Erik exhales against his lips and pulls back just far enough that they can look at each other without going cross-eyed. He runs his thumb over Charles' temple, down his cheekbone, across his lips. He doesn't speak, but he also keeps his thoughts to himself, studying Charles in silence, learning the curves of Charles' face, the shape of his mouth.
"Come here," Charles says quietly, after long moments of Erik's silent contemplation. Erik doesn't argue or protest; he pauses only to kick off his shoes before climbing into bed next to Charles. He stays on top of the covers and lies on his side, sharing Charles' pillow and facing him. They stare at each other in continued silence.
"I'm sorry," Erik says quietly. "It's just--I can't explain--I know I keep saying it, but I never thought I'd see you again. All these years. I used to know everything about you. Now I don't know where to start."
"Oh, well, that part's easy," Charles says. He takes Erik's hand in his own and rests them in the narrow valley between their bodies. "I went to London to live with my uncle and his family. I finished school there, started at Harvard when I was sixteen. I met Moira there, graduated early, got my PhD in genetics, made a bit of a name for myself with some papers I published, and now I'm working on a book."
"Genetics?" Erik says. "Maybe your brain was trying harder to remember what happened to us than you though. Shaw was always going on about how genetic mutation was what made us the way we were."
Charles laughs. "Not quite," he says. "My field of expertise is bioinformatics, which deals primarily with analyzing the methods of storing and--you don't care." Erik looks slightly abashed and Charles placates him with another kiss, chaste and quick and familiar, despite the fact that it's only their third. "Life's not like the movies, unfortunately, and while you and I now know that magical abilities do exist, I would have been laughed out of Harvard at 16 for suggesting it."
"I've looked for books, papers, anything," Erik admits. "If the government has been covering this up since we were children, they've been doing a good job."
"Mm," Charles agrees. "Believe me, if it was out there, I'd know about it. I don't have much of a life outside of work. A series of unfulfilling relationships with people who asked questions I wasn't comfortable answering. People I could never really make that connection with."
He doesn't say, Because some part of me must have known I still had that connection with you, even though that's the sappy thought that's running through his mind as he looks up at Erik. He can't just throw himself at Erik, he has more self-respect than that.
Erik doesn't seem put off by his longing looks. He kisses Charles again, tugging Charles closer and holding onto him with a hand flat at the small of Charles' back. It's possessive. Charles likes it more than is probably proper.
"We'll see if we can change that," Erik says. Their noses are still touching, their lips barely parted. It reminds him of when they were children. He used to crawl into Erik's bed when Erik was too weak to get up or when Kurt and Schmidt forgot about Charles and left him to his own devices until late. They'd lie like this, facing each other and barely touching, talking long into the night. Erik was the person Charles loved most in the world. He'll never forgive himself for forgetting, even if it wasn't his fault.
He'd like to stay curled up with Erik, making up for lost time, but he can hear Moira approaching. She's far enough away that there's no sound from the stairs or the plush carpet, but he can hear the gentle whirring of her thoughts as she thinks about how she doesn't entirely trust Erik, but she trusts him more than she trusts the government right now, that she can barely believe this, that she wouldn't have believed it if she hadn't seen it, that Charles had enough shit in his life without this, that they need to figure out what they're doing next.
"Moira," Charles says quietly, and inches backwards just enough for polite company. Erik scowls at that, but doesn't pull Charles any closer and is mostly placated by Charles' hangdog look by the time the bedroom door opens.
"You're awake," Moira says. She ignores Erik and sits on the opposite side of Charles' bed. "How are you?"
"Tired," Charles says, craning his neck to look at her properly. "My head still hurts, but it's better than before."
"Good," Moira says. She takes his free hand and squeezes it. Charles squeezes back. "You need to rest for a bit, or are you ready to talk?" She glances at Erik. "Or would your rather neck with your new boyfriend and talk later?"
Charles would rather like to neck with his new boyfriend. Old boyfriend. Whatever Erik was. Erik, too, sends Charles a very detailed image of what he would like to be doing. Still, best to take care of business first. He ignores Erik as best he can, pushes himself up again, and says, "Let's talk."
Moira raises her eyebrows and Charles registers her wave of surprise. Well. He can be focused when he needs to be.
"Okay," Moira says. "Well, this is all well and good--people with powers and you reading minds and your friend doing...whatever it is you do--"
"I can manipulate magnetic fields," Erik says.
"Right," Moira says. "The point is, Schmidt--Shaw, whatever--was clearly part of some bigger picture. He made it sound like there are hundreds of people with these powers who don't even know it."
"More, maybe," Erik says. He sits up too, leaning against the headboard and turning enough that he can see Moira. He looks down at Charles and adds, "You told me what you've been up to. My story's not quite so cheerful. Shaw dragged me with him for years. He left here to work on another government contract. They had the formula to suppress powers, they were pumping it into all sorts of pills--Ritalin, Xanax, about every major anti-depressant and anxiety medication. They even pumped it into some of the drinking water. They had Shaw consult to help build a machine that could track people with powers. Shaw's friend Frost--do you remember her?"
"She was a telepath, like me," Charles murmurs, remembering a woman in short white dresses and tall white boots who could turn to diamond. She was the one who took his memories. He swallows back a wave of remorse.
"She could use the machine," Erik says. "None of the rest of us could. But she and Shaw had a fight and she left and took her rich family's money with her. Without the funding or the ability to work the machine, Shaw became useless. When the government started to dig into his past, he stole a copy of the plans to the machine and fled. He left me behind. I think he was starting to realize that I was getting too old to control. I was never going to be his perfect soldier. But I had no one else. I had nowhere to go."
"You could have come to me," Charles says quietly. "If I had known, if I had been able to break through Frost's tricks earlier--"
"It doesn't matter," Erik says. "I looked for Shaw. I found you. Here we are."
"So," Moira says, steering the conversation back to the topic at hand, "the government has a machine? And you know where it is?"
"And I know how to get the plans," Erik says. He looks at Charles again. "There are things you can do, Charles, things you haven't even dreamed of. You could make every person in that facility look the other way while we walk right in and take them."
Charles' stomach twists. He bites his lip. Storming into a government facility seems a bit much. He glances at Moira for reassurance, but her face holds none of the shock or disapproval he expects.
"You can't seriously be okay with this," he says to her, even as he dips into her mind to discover, to his surprise, that she definitely is. "You work for the government!"
"Yeah," Moira says. "That was before I found out that they tortured two little boys for years, unchecked, so they could have complete control over other people's free will. You were a kid and they let your stepfather and Shaw experiment on you, on him--" She gestures at Erik. "--until the money ran out and suddenly it wasn't a good idea anymore. They're pumping chemicals into the water? They're trying to weaponize people? They need to be stopped."
Erik is staring at Moira with narrowed eyes. He doesn't trust her.
"How do I know we can trust you?" Erik asks. "He says you work for them."
"I'm a junior field agent with the FBI," Moira says. She rolls her eyes. "I have about as much access to this type of thing as the janitors. Maybe less. Also, who dragged your ass above ground, made sure you didn't have a concussion, and fed you for three days? If I wanted to kill you, I would have done it while Charles was sleeping."
"We can trust Moira," Charles says, curtailing Erik's response with a squeeze to his wrist. "I just think--I don't know that I can do that anymore. Make people not see me, not see us. I can barely control my powers as it is."
"You'll have two weeks to work on it, at least," Moira says. Erik raises an eyebrow. Charles brushes past her mind just deep enough to discover her plan. "I'll have to give my two weeks at work so they don't get suspicious. I'll tell them I'm getting married, I've decided to devote myself to raising my kids. They're stupid enough to buy it. Nick'll tell his boss the same thing. That leaves four of us to get in, get out, and start this thing."
"Who's Nick?" Erik asks.
"We can trust him," Moira says.
"And I'm supposed to take your word for it?" Erik asks.
Charles rubs his forehead. His headache is flaring up again. "We can," he insists.
Erik looks at Charles and then Moira.
"We meet him," Erik says. "Charles reads his mind. Then we decide if we can trust him."
There's a tense moment when Moira and Erik stare at each other, unflinchingly, the determination enough to be suffocating.
"Fine," Moira says. "I'll call him and have him head up here as soon as he can manage so we can tell him the whole story."
"If we decide we can trust him," Erik reminds her.
"Fine," Moira repeats. "Once we get through all that, we can--"
Charles holds up a hand to stop her and uses the other to cover his eyes.
"This is all going very quickly," he says. "If I could have a day to deal with the fact that six years of my life were almost entirely erased from my memory, that my childhood best friend has returned, that my stepfather was a mad scientist, that I can read minds...."
He lifts his hand from his eyes and tries to ignore the way his brain feels like it's bouncing around his head. Moira and Erik are both quiet. There's a heavy mixture of shame and concern and resolution rolling off of them.
"I'll go call Nick," Moira says. "Why don't you and Erik try to get some rest? I'll re-heat some pizza for dinner."
"Thank you," Charles says. Moira kisses his forehead and, with one last look, leaves the room.
It's just Charles and Erik, now. Charles closes his eyes again and slides back into the pillows. It's only a moment before Erik follows him, his movements light and gentle as he wraps his arms around Charles.
"My head is killing me," Charles says softly.
"I know," Erik says against his ear. "Just rest. We'll start training later. Baby steps."
Charles presses his forehead against Erik's collarbone. His entire world is changing. His entire world is being remade from scratch. He wasn't ecstatic about his life before, but, god, it was familiar. It was comforting. It was the same thing every day, but it was safe. It was secure.
Charles hates change. Charles is terrified of change.
"I don't know that I can do this," he admits. "I'm a teacher, Erik. I...give lectures and do research and lab work. I write papers. I drink tea and grade. I'm not some kind of superhero."
Erik is quiet for a long time, his fingers combing through Charles' hair. It's soothing, actually. It's doing wonders for his headache.
"Do you know what one of the first things you said to me was?" he asks.
"No," Charles murmurs.
"'You're not alone,'" Erik says. "I'd been waiting for years for that assurance. It changed my life, Charles. And, I think, knowing you weren't alone, either--I think it changed yours, too. Think of all the kids out in the world who are waiting for the same reassurance. This isn't about what you can or can't do or what your life was like. This is a chance for you to be a part of something much bigger than yourself."
All those years that Charles spent wandering listlessly through school in London, the times he clung to Moira because she was all he knew, terrified of going out and meeting new people, inexplicably nervous about making new friends. All the years thinking there was something awkward and different about him, something he shouldn't think about too closely. All those years of not fitting in and accepting that was just how life had worked out.
He's in pain. He's exhausted. He's terrified. But he's never felt as free as he does now. He's never felt so open and so loved.
Charles opens his eyes and looks up at Erik.
"Okay," he says. "When do we start?"