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First Breath After Coma

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The sky is very blue.

*

"Charles?"

"Good morning, Charles. How are you feeling?"

*

"Charles?"

"Mmmh?" Charles answers.

"Charles?" The voice is familiar; if only he could concentrate, he thinks he might know who's speaking to him.

"Don't worry, dear, he might not respond for a while yet." An English accent, an unfamiliar voice.

"But this is still progress, yes?"

"This is excellent progress." Footsteps, two sets, walking away.

Maybe he didn't answer. Maybe he answered in his head.

The sky is very grey today.

*

The world is silent and grey. The silence worries him most, though he doesn't know why it should. Silence is nothing to be concerned about, surely?

A breath of sound. Just the faintest whisper, from a distance. A sound that's shaped in a way that feels comforting. Familiar. Familial.

He reaches out, and the whisper becomes a soft murmur, but he can't seem to pull it towards him or get closer.

*

"Charles?"

Someone is calling his name. He thinks he's heard her call his name before. Or perhaps that was just a dream. He's not certain if his eyes are open, if he's awake or asleep. He feels like he's floating, cocooned in light, and the sky is white, brilliant white, like high clouds on a sunny day.

He wants to answer. It's important. He forms a word in his head, shapes his lips around it, makes a sound. He means it to be hello, but it comes out malformed.

"Oh, Charles!" she says. He's not sure who she is, which is a puzzle, because she feels such a comfortable presence beside him. She's holding his hand now — stroking the back with her fingers, softly, as though she's worried she might hurt him, though he is quite certain that she won't. Nothing can hurt him, not while he's floating in his cocoon.

He closes his fingers around hers to reassure her, and her fingers tighten inside his clasp. There's a new sound, and Charles can't place it until he feels something splash on his face. A tear. She's crying.

Don't cry, he says, but he doesn't get any sense that she hears him.

He floats away.

*

There's a beam of sunshine falling across his face. It's golden warm, like summer on the front lawn at Westchester, and Charles tilts back his head to enjoy it. His head sinks into a pillow. He's in bed. He feels incredibly tired, but not sleepy, so he keeps his eyes closed and enjoys the sunlight. It's probably time to get up, but nanny will call him if it gets too late.

*

"Ah, Charles, you're awake, I see."

Charles blinks. He is awake, it's true. He blinks again, and this time his eyes remain open, and when he turns his head a fraction, he sees the person talking to him. A woman, in a pale blue uniform. A nurse.

His neck aches, just from moving his head.

There's a trace of bleach in the air, and the walls are bare, cheap white paint. He's in a hospital.

He was just on the beach.

Erik was by his side, the children massed behind them. Erik was holding the missiles back and then—and then he was sending them back up into the air towards the fleets, and Moira was shooting, bullet after bullet deflected by Erik. And then Charles was falling, hot agony in his back. Everyone on the beach was screaming in their minds, and it rained down on him, a cacophony of emotions: fear and hatred and worry and loss and uncertainty, all his mental filters in tatters. Erik was clutching Charles in his arms; face covered in anguish, but still hiding his mind from Charles, just flashes of emotions slipping through when the back of Erik's hand brushed his. Erik was calling something, words that Charles tried to make out, but they blew away on the breeze as Erik's face faded and his touch became fainter, until Charles can't remember anything more.

Charles gasps, a flash of pain hitting him as he inhales, suddenly back in the present. The pain vanishes as quickly as it comes, gone by the exhale. Phantom pain.

The nurse puts her hand on his chest — inside she's shouting at him not to try to move — but there's no need. He isn't floating any more, and his body feels divorced from his brain. "I'm just going to fetch your sister," she tells him, her external voice quiet and assured. Reassuring. "She went to get a drink, but she's only just down the corridor."

His sister. Of course. Raven. She held his hand.

He tries to stay awake for her, but he's so tired.

*

He's not sure if he just drifted off for a moment or if he's been sleeping for hours, but the next time he opens his eyes, Raven is smiling down at him.

"Hi," he says. His voice sounds scratchy and faint, but the word comes out and Raven lights up.

"Do you want a drink?" she asks, picking up a glass with a straw as though she knows his answer already.

Charles nods, and she puts it to his lips. It's orange juice, room temperature, but it tastes good. She pulls the straw away before he's had enough, but when he goes to say more, she shakes her head. "I think that's enough for now. You can have more soon."

"My legs?" Charles whispers. He can't feel them. He remembers telling Erik, looking up at him just before he blacked out, the words coming out hoarse through the pain, I can't feel my legs. He lifts his head a fraction, and he can see the shape of them under the blankets. But he can't move them, can't feel the weight of bedclothes or wiggle a single toe. It isn't just because he's so weak — his entire body is weak, but he can lift his hand, feel the pressure of the bed against his back. But he can't feel his legs at all.

"I'm sorry," Raven says, hand to her mouth as though she doesn't want to have to say anything

"How long?" he asks, because she looks as though she's blinking back tears, she looks exhausted, and that can't have happened overnight. He might have been here a day, more even. He has half-memories of waking before.

"I, um. I should call the nurse," she says, and that's not like Raven. Not like her at all. They tell each other everything. Almost everything, at least, and what can be so bad that she wants the buffer of another person present.

He puts his hand out to her, and she's just close enough for him to grasp hold of her arm. It's an effort, and she could shake him off if she wanted, but she doesn't move, as though his hold is a real tether. "Please," he says, because he's starting to get worried. "Tell me."

Raven swallows, and she won't look him in the eye. She sits down on the edge of the bed, lets his hand slide down her arm so that they're hand in hand, and finally looks at him. "Nearly two years," she says, and that can't be true. That's impossible, because he can remember Erik's arms holding him up on the beach and it feels like yesterday.

"Two days, you mean," Charles says, and he's begging her to tell him that of course that's what she said, what she meant.

She shakes her head. She doesn't say anything more, just bites her lip, and there are tears in the corners of her eyes.

"Two years," Charles says. His voice sounds scratchy again, but it's not because his throat is dry this time.

"You've been in a coma ever since the accident," she says eventually, and now Charles looks at her properly, he thinks she looks older. Easily two years older, which is strange because Hank said her cells didn't age the way ordinary cells do. He puts that thought to one side for now, though, because there are more urgent matters.

"The school?" he asks.

"They've been notified, of course," she says. "And they're holding your position for you." She looks slightly surprised that the fledgling school is his first question, but Charles was responsible for all of them, felt almost like a father to them, Sean and Alex and Raven. Even Hank.

Erik was the first who came to mind though. He remembers staring into Erik's face, unable to hear him because of that wretched helmet he took from Shaw, seeing the expression on Erik's face as Charles told him he was responsible for the pain Charles was in. Two years. A lot could have changed in two years. Charles has no idea what happened after he blacked out. If Shaw's people attacked them, if the armies fired again, if Erik turned the missiles on them unhindered.

At least Raven is here and safe. But what of Erik? So misguided, so tortured by the past. Charles can only begin to imagine how he might have faired.

"Erik?" Charles asks. He's not sure what question to frame.

"Erik?" Raven parrots back at him.

"Yes," Charles says, impatient now to have answers, whatever the question. "How is he? Where is he?"

"Who's Erik?" she says, as though he's talking about an old college acquaintance she can't remember meeting.

Charles can't breath. He reaches out with his mind to find out if he can feel the familiar shape of Erik's mind, but he can barely push beyond the boundaries of the room. There are active minds milling around nearby, but try as he might, he can't find a familiar one among them, not even the nurse he remembers from before.

He takes a deep breath. He sounds to himself as though he's been running, which is ironic because he can't feel his legs. Another deep breath. "Who's running the school?" Assuming, that is, that his plans were followed through, and there is a school. He was arguing with Erik at the end, lost consciousness before he knew whether his arguments were persuasive enough to make Erik see that there was a chance for them all if they worked together.

Raven shakes her head in puzzlement. "The Chancellor, I suppose, or the Dean. I don't know. Is it important?"

"Is it important?" Charles shouts. "Of course it's bloody well important. Two years of training. Alex needs to learn focus, and Sean n-needs—" He's gasping for breath now, and Raven's shushing him, holding him, and then a nurse comes in — a different one, in a darker uniform — and sticks a needle in his arm and the worry drifts away.

*

Next time he wakes up, it isn't gradual, and there is no moment of uncertainty. Everything rushes in on him at once, and he finds himself juggling a myriad of different questions: Erik, the other mutants, his legs, the school, Raven's strange reaction to his questions.

There's no one in the room — it's a private room, just his bed, a bedside cupboard, monitors, two chairs and a huge window — but the door is open and he can hear people passing by outside. He lifts up his head — it's easier than the last time he tried, but still an effort — and calls out. "Raven? Nurse?" He sounds like a helpless child, and it frustrates him, but not enough that he doesn't call out again when he doesn't get an immediate response.

He hears footsteps then, not quite running, but fast, and Raven barrels into the room.

"Are you okay?" she asks, then looks as though she wants to bite her tongue at such a stupid question. "Sorry."

"I need you to answer some questions for me."

"Of course," she says, though he can sense her drawing back even though he doesn't attempt to touch her mind.

"What happened after I was hit? I remember you walking towards me. At least, I think—" His memory after the moment the bullet hit him is blurry, the only vivid parts the pain in his back and the feel of Erik's arms.

"Walking towards you? I wasn't there when you had your accident."

Charles is beginning to feels as though they're having two different conversations. "Of course you were. You were on the beach. We all were."

"The beach?" Raven is broadcasting confusion. Confusion and worry, and a certainty that Charles isn't as well as he looks. Which considering he's apparently been in a coma for two years, doesn't bode well.

"Yes, the beach. When—" When Hank crashed the plane and Erik killed Shaw (and Charles helped him) and they all fought and they stopped a war. Their little band of mutants stopped World War Three. Only Charles can't seem to put it all into words because there are tears running down his face and he thinks he might actually sob if he opens his mouth.

Raven turns to go — to fetch a nurse probably — but Charles doesn't want to be sedated again. He can get past this. He just needs a minute. He holds up a hand to get her to wait.

He'll start again. Let Raven do the talking. "What happened?" he asks.

Raven pulls up a chair next to the bed, sitting forward in it so he doesn't have to strain to see her. "Do you want me to start from the beginning?" Charles nods. "Okay, so you were driving back to your flat. You'd been out in the country for the afternoon, on a boat trip on the Thames — sorry, the Isis, I know you hate it when I get the name wrong. Someone you'd been at Pembroke College with got their PhD, so you were all celebrating. Only the weather had turned bad, some freak thunderstorm, so you cut the boat trip short and you were driving back into Oxford to have dinner there instead. You were going to celebrate at that pub you always liked, The Turf Tavern. But your tire blew and you skidded and hit another car, and your car rolled and it—it was bad." Raven's talking faster and faster, like she can barely bring herself to remember it all and has to get it all out as quickly as possible, but it doesn't make sense. He was on the beach. It was a bullet. He was injured by a bullet, by Erik, not in a car crash. He misses some of her words. "—and they were both totaled. I saw your car afterwards, in the police compound. I don't know how you survived, Charles, or the girl who was with you — the police say it was a miracle — but—but I am so happy you did." She rubs at her eyes. They're blue, and her hair is blonde, and she's a beautiful, normal girl, and that's as false as the story she's just told him.

Charles doesn't ask about the girl Raven says was with him. He doesn't know who she was. There was no girl, there was no car crash. That isn't real. "Turn blue," he says.

"What?"

"Turn blue for me. Just quickly. No one will see. You can close the door if you're worried, but I'd know if anyone were coming in and be able to warn you in time."

Raven looks at him as though he's crazy, then the looks softens into concern. "Charles, you've been in a coma for nearly two years. It's going to take you a while to get back to normal."

"We're not normal, you and me," Charles says desperately, just a bit too loud considering the door is open. Something is very wrong. "Mutant and proud, remember."

"Charles, don't, please. I don't know what you're on about, but you're scaring me. Let me go fetch the nurse."

"No," he says quickly, schooling his face into a reassuring look. "No, there's no need. You can tell me more later. Would you fetch me a drink?"

"Of course," she says, looking relieved to do something simple for him.

Charles doesn't want to do it. He promised her he wouldn't read her mind, but he thinks he really might go crazy if he doesn't figure out what's happening. He lifts his right index and middle finger to his temple, needing the point of focus, and concentrates. His head feels flaccid, his mind an out-of-practice muscle, but he has to do this. He gets inside her head and—

And it's all wrong. Everything there is wrong. The important things are all missing: mutants, the team, working for the CIA. None of it is there.

The story she told him about the car crash, that's there. And two years of visiting him, sitting by his bedside, holding his hand, reading the paper to him. Missing him. The prognosis, that he may or may not wake up, and that if he does, he'll never walk again — he finds that, all too clear and stark. But no mind-reading or shape-shifting, no proud mutants, no fighting to make the world a better, safer place for them all. No childhood memory of meeting him in his kitchen and learning that she wasn't the only one. No fear that no one could ever truly love her real form or wistful longing to be normal. No searching for others like them, setting up a training camp, learning how to master who and what they are. Becoming an extraordinary family.

Instead, there's the faded trauma of her parents (his aunt and uncle) dying, and being taken in by his mother and stepfather. Growing up with him, games in the garden, creeping out of bed at night for midnight feasts, becoming brother and sister to each other.

It's all wrong. It's all sweet and charming and a terrible lie.

He's shaking with the effort of not screaming. He wants to howl like Sean, break all the glass in the window. He wants to burn the place down like Alex could. He wants to twist and distort and break things like Erik would. Instead, he turns into his pillow, muttering a sorry when Raven brings him his drink, and closes his eyes.

He can hear Raven hovering at his bedside. He can feel her pity and concern even though he's carefully avoiding going anywhere near her mind — it's in the awkward shuffle of her feet, the way she's moving the glass of water she poured for him from hand to hand, eventually setting it down as quietly as possible on the bedside table, in the way she clears her throat as though she's about to speak but doesn't say anything, and in the way she tip-toes out of the room. He's never been so relieved to get rid of someone before. He loves her, she's his sister, but he doesn't think he could have born another minute with her in the same room without screaming at her.

He wishes he could run away, but he can't. He's stuck in this bed, and he might never walk or run again, and all his sister's memories are a lie.

There are memories that Charles has always dipped into whenever he wanted to find peace. Quiet ones, that give him good dreams if he finds them before he goes to sleep. One has always been the look of joy on Raven's face when she first turned into her natural form in front of him and he couldn't help but grin at her happiness and relief.

He doesn't turn to those memories now. Instead, he sets up two images side-by-side in his mind. On the left he sets Erik. He's standing next to Charles, leaning against the wall below the front drive at Westchester, and they're staring at the huge satellite dish that dominates the skyline. Charles is certain that Erik has the ability to move it, if he can just balance his anger with something more stable. With love. He searches in Erik's mind for something suitable, and finds it, a beautiful hidden memory of his mother. He brings it up to the surface and he knows there's a tear running down his face — there are tears in Erik's eyes too — because it is such a perfect, serene moment. And it gives Erik the strength he needs; he moves the satellite, and, afterwards he's laughing so joyously and broadcasting so much love for Charles that Charles almost moves the hand resting on Erik's back higher, clasps him by the neck, and pulls them together for a kiss. Almost, but he doesn't — he doesn't pry to see if the love Erik feels is brotherly or more. He can't use his powers that way, and then the chance is gone because Moira's calling to them to come inside. He stops the memory there — that's enough.

On the right he places the story that Raven told him. He tries to picture a dinner cruise on the Isis, but he has no details. He doesn't know the color or size of the boat, or which faces to place around the table, or what they might have been drinking. He doesn't know where they disembarked or what route he took back into Oxford. He doesn't know if the girl in the car with him was blonde or brunette, if they talked about genetics or politics or the Beatles, if he'd ever kissed her. He doesn't know her name. There is no memory.

He plays and replays those minutes with Erik, and every time it is the same. A bright joyous memory, as vivid as if it happened days ago.

He tries to play the day of the crash, and it's like trying to create a movie in his head from a single paragraph in a novel. Insufficient data.

Raven has to be wrong. She isn't lying, not deliberately. Perhaps her mind has been altered. Perhaps Frost got to her, though why she would do this, Charles has no idea.

The effort has made him tired, so he doesn't fight falling asleep again.

*

He apologizes to Raven the next day. "I don't know what I was thinking," he says.

"I'm sure it was just the drugs," she reassures him, though he can tell she's still concerned about him.

He's very careful not to say anything that might worry her after that.

*

"How are you feeling?" the doctor asks. Her name is Jean Mabie, she's a senior house officer (those two things she tells him), and she has a soft highlands accent and curly dark brown hair (those he sees and hears for himself). She's about his age, and pretty. He'd flirt with her if she hadn't just been examining his useless legs while he lay there naked from the thighs down.

She's talked him through the injury to his back. His vertebral column was crushed, and the resulting pressure on his spinal cord compressed the nerve fibers. And while nerves can sometimes recover after being bruised (he clings to that idea), his are damaged beyond any chance of regeneration. The damage was to the lumbar nerves — he's lost the use of his legs, permanently.

He feels numb. Not just his legs, but everything.

At least his catheter has been removed. There are certain indignities to waking up from a coma that he can't wait to shed.

Charles forces a smile. He doesn't want to stay here any longer than he has to. He needs to get out of here, find everyone who matters, and work out what's happening, why his memories and Raven's are so utterly different. He needs to find a doctor who will give him some hope of walking again.

"Better, much better," he lies.

"Aye, well, don't rush it. It'll take some time for you to build up your strength. We gave you regular physiotherapy to protect your muscles and joints while you were unconscious, it's true, but that can never replace you working your own body."

Charles nods in the right places, says all the right things, skims the surface of her mind to check that she's satisfied with his responses. As soon as she's gone, he calls out to a passing nurse and asks for a newspaper.

She brings him the Daily Telegraph, his least favorite broadsheet, and moves his pillows to prop him up. It's the first time he's sat up. His head spins, but he steels himself and the room soon steadies.

As soon as she's gone, Charles reads the date on the front page. September 2nd, 1964.

He drops the paper in his lap. That much, at least, is true. It's been nearly two years.

Reading the words, it finally sinks in. He has lost two years of his life. The world has carried on, people living their lives, people dying, and he's been lying unconscious in a hospital bed. Governments could have fallen; wars could have been started, won and lost. There could have been earthquakes and famines. Giant leaps in understanding. Science has moved forward two years. Friends are all two years older, might have married or divorced, had children. Might have died. He's missed weddings and funerals, christenings and graduations. He's missed all the things he might have done in two years.

Two years. It rings through his head, a mocking refrain. An entire chunk of his life missing completely. 1964, and he never even saw 1963.

He picks up the paper again, once his hands stop shaking, and skims through it. He isn't looking for mentions of mutants, but for articles that might be explained by the existence of mutants or the use of them by the government. Any government. Any mention. He doesn't find anything, though at least the superpowers don't appear to be actively at war, just stuck in the same cold war he remembers. Next time he sees Raven, he'll ask her for some periodicals to bring him up to date with the world. He won't question her any more; he doesn't want her to sense his certainty that something is wrong with her mind.

In the meantime, he reaches out with his powers, trying to stretch them, exercise. He tries not to think of it as training, as that just makes him think of the team and start worrying again. There's no point in that right now, not until he can do something about it. He doesn't latch on to any one mind for too long, and doesn't go deep, just enough so that he can practice and regain his strength without intruding too much. He watches the activity of the hospital through the minds of staff, walking along the corridors with them. It makes his head ache, takes as much effort as it once took him to hide their team in the back of the truck, but he refuses to rest.

At least this exercise is something familiar. His body and his sister and the whole world are wrong, but his mind is still familiar, something he can control, and he finds some reassurance in the exercises.

He's in the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. A private room. There's only one person younger than him in this ward, a young boy, Jim, who hasn't woken up from a fit. Charles and Jim are the ward favorites, and everyone on the ward is thrilled he's finally woken up.

One of the nurses, Beth, has a crush on him, but she's so full of pity for him, that he'll never walk again, that it smothers him whenever she gets near. He can barely bring himself to talk to her and she avoids him after a while, uncomfortable because of his obvious discomfort. Charles would feel bad about it, but he doesn't have the energy to spare.

He's watching the ward through the eyes of one of the auxiliary nurses when he sees him. A wonderfully familiar face. Darwin. Armando Muñoz, the taxi-cab driver who Shaw murdered. Charles can't help himself — he calls out, "Darwin!"

Darwin reacts, lifting his head from the patient he's bending over, and looking around.

Charles shouts again, "Darwin!"

Darwin whispers something to his patient, pats her on the shoulder, and heads towards Charles' room. He sticks his head around the door. "Did you call me?" he asks, surprised.

Charles can't help but grin at the sight of him. Alive and well. "Yes," he says. "I—" He's lost for words. He doesn't want to say too much in case Darwin's mind has been altered or erased, or whatever it is that's happened to Raven. And Charles is afraid too, afraid of what he'll find out. Afraid that Darwin's mind might be the same as his sister's.

"Are you okay? Do you want me to fetch a nurse for you?"

Charles shakes his head emphatically. "No, no, I'm fine. I just—I wanted to see how you are. How you're—adapting."

Darwin huffs out a laugh. "I'm adapting fine, thanks," he says, in a tone that suggests that he's humoring Charles. Then he tilts his head to one side. "How did you know my nickname? No one's called me that for years."

Charles can't seem to think quickly enough to come up with a good explanation. "I must have heard someone else use it," he says, slipping a persuasive edge into the statement, and Darwin nods as though that's perfectly logical. "So, have you seen Alex lately?" Charles asks. "Alex Summers," he adds, when Darwin looks puzzled.

"I don't know an Alex Summers," he says. "Is he a patient here?"

Charles shakes his head. "My mistake." He's going to have to look inside Darwin's mind. And do so quickly, because Darwin is turning to leave, and Charles isn't strong enough yet to do much from a distance. He goes straight for the part of the brain where the most important memories are stored, rifles through them, and—

Darwin's mind is exactly the same as Raven's mind. No knowledge of mutants. No mutation of his own. Nothing familiar in his memories that overlaps at all with Charles' memories. Darwin's a physiotherapist, and he's worked at the John Radcliffe for three years now. He was given the nickname Darwin as a child because his little sister couldn't say Armando, and Darwin was one of her failed attempts at the name. He's led a perfectly normal life, never been a cab driver, never been recruited to train with a group of mutants, never even been near a CIA facility.

Charles falls out of Darwin's mind and pulls up every guard around himself that he can summon. He sets up a do not enter aura at the doorway to his room and tries to make sense of it all.

There are two options: one, that there is something wrong with his mind, or two, that other minds, multiple people, have been affected, for reasons unknown and by persons unknown (though he can add some guesses to the theory).

Occam's razor. The simplest theory that requires the least new assumptions is that his mind is the one at fault.

He can't accept that. Not yet. Not until he's gathered more information.

*

His bed-frame is metal. Charles didn't notice at first, not until he'd been sitting up for a couple of days, but there are strange dents in the bar at the foot of the bed. Two sets of four hollows, a fifth just visible underneath each set. As though the metal was soft at one point, and someone pressed their fingers into it.

Charles can only think of one reason for the indentations. One person who could have made them.

He asks Raven about them, but she tells him she's never thought about it. Just stood at the foot of the bed sometimes, her fingers stretched out into the hollows. It's a stretch for her hands, which means they'd fit a man's hands. Erik's broad hands.

"I'd put my fingers there when I got frustrated, and pretend I'd made the hollows myself," she says. "Work out my anger with you for not waking up when I begged you to." She sounds guilty for having had such thoughts.

He smiles at her. There's nothing to forgive, but she needs to feel forgiven. "I'm glad you got angry. Maybe that helped me wake up," he tells her.

Eventually he asks one of the nurses — the ward sister who's worked on this ward for eleven years and knows everything and everyone.

"It's a funny thing, those dents," the nurse says. "They weren't there when you first came to the ward, but a couple of days after you were admitted, I noticed them one morning when I came to check in on you. I had the frame checked by maintenance to see if there was some weakness in it, and if we ought to put you in a new bed, but they couldn't find anything wrong with it. If anything, they said, it was stronger than they'd expect. So strange," she says, shaking her head in remembered disbelief at the experience. She's not the kind of woman to believe in anything out of the ordinary.

It's the first moment of hope he's had.

*

Charles has been promoted to the day room now, wheeled there daily by one of the nurses, or Raven, if she arrives early enough. There are stacks of well-thumbed books in the corner and on a trolley, a wireless on a shelf that's too high for Charles to reach, and two old ladies permanently asleep and snoring in armchairs. The walls are drab orange and the curtains are brown, faded at the edges; even with the south aspect and the sun pouring in, it's depressing.

He saw Hank yesterday. Hank looked the way he did when Charles first saw him, quiet and bespectacled and eager, talking to a colleague and gesturing so wildly that he nearly hit a passing doctor. He went bright red and stumbled through an apology, and his colleague laughed at him when they carried on down the corridor. He was so much like the boy Charles knows that it felt like a physical blow when Charles couldn't find any memories of him or the team or the work they did together. This Hank has never build Cerebro. Has no concept of it. No knowledge of mutations or any idea that such a thing as mutants exists. He's bright, incredibly smart, and shy, and is researching treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Charles deliberately made Hank think about his feet, but other than a corn on his left big toe, Hank's feet were perfectly normal.

Charles has a list. Raven, Darwin, and now Hank. Three people with memories utterly different to his, whose lives are completely different from the lives he remembers them having. The evidence is mounting up.

It's two in the afternoon, and Woman's Hour is just starting on the BBC Light Programme. Charles nurses a cup of tea, tries to forget about how exciting it was to work with Hank on Cerebro, and waits for a police officer to show up. The ward sister asked him yesterday if he felt up to a visit from the police. He'd said yes right away: he'd rather speak to someone now, when any confusion or contradictions in his story can be explained away by him just having woken up from a coma.

It should be an interesting interview. Charles snorts into his tea; by interesting, he means strange, very, very strange. But he might learn something from the questions, or from the police officer's mind. He'd welcome any clue at this stage.

When the officer walks in, it's a shock. It's Moira MacTaggert.

Charles learned his lesson with Darwin though, so he doesn't react, and he doesn't use her name until she's introduced herself.

"Good afternoon, Professor Xavier," she says, holding out her hand. Charles shakes it. "I'm Sergeant MacTaggert."

Charles schools his face into polite helpfulness. "What can I do for you, Sergeant?" he asks. She's wearing a white shirt, buttoned up under a black tie, and Charles can't help taking a quick glance at her neck. Last time he saw her she had vicious red marks where Erik tried to strangle her. There's no mark. No trace.

She pulls a chair up to the side of him and sits down. She has a notepad and pencil in her hand, but she doesn't open the notebook, just flicks the corner of the paper with her thumb. It's a nervous habit. Charles is sure she doesn't even notice she's doing it. "What do you remember about your accident?" she asks gently.

Charles truthfully replies, "Nothing." He gives her a wry smile that's perfectly genuine. "My sister's told me what happened, but I don't remember any of it."

"Nothing at all?"

"No. Nothing." He doesn't offer any further information. He certainly doesn't tell her that as far as he's concerned, he was injured on a beach in Cuba, hit by a bullet shot from a gun she was holding. That in his memories, there was no car, no blown tire, no accident. It's a surreal moment — seeing her makes the fight on the beach stand out even more vividly in his memories, and yet here she is, yet another person believing a completely different version of events. Another name to add to his list.

MacTaggert nods her head, as though that's what she'd expected. "You were very lucky to survive," she says.

"And the other driver?" Charles asks.

"Ah, yes, Erik Lehnsherr. He walked away with nothing worse than a few scrapes and bruises, some minor cuts from the windshield. Miss Solomon — she was in your car, I understand she was a friend you were giving a lift back into Oxford — she only had minor injuries too. You were all very lucky."

Charles' heart sounds incredibly loud in the quiet room. "Erik Lehnsherr?" he asks. "Are you sure that was his name? Would you check for me, please?"

MacTaggert consults her notebook, running her nail down the page. "Yes, that definitely was his name. He wasn't a local." She doesn't offer anything further, and Charles has to restrain himself from peppering her with questions, going into her mind and finding out everything she knows. He has another question he needs to ask first, and he wants to hear her answer out loud.

"You won't be pressing charges?" He doesn't know if he'd been drinking that day. He's still finding it hard to believe that day happened the way everyone says it did.

"No. It was an accident, no one's fault," she says, reassurance rolling off her. "This is all just routine, dotting the i's and crossing the t's if you like. We'll be closing the files now we know there's nothing else you can add to what we already know."

She stands to leave, and Charles asks, quickly, "Mr. Lehnsherr, do you have an address for him?"

"I imagine there is an address on file," Moira says, disapprovingly, "but if you're asking for it, you have to understand that such details are confidential."

"You can't give me a phone number, even?" Charles tries to keep his voice even, not to sound as though he's begging, as though his very sanity depends on contacting a man who, as far as she is concerned, he has never met.

"I'm sorry, but no, Professor Xavier." She does sound genuinely sorry, over and above the surprise that he would want to contact Erik, but there's no room for compromise in her thoughts. When he presses inside, he doesn't find anything definite, nothing that will lead him straight to Erik. There's just a vague recollection that Erik was a foreigner, just visiting the UK, and had mentioned that he was heading to the US.

It's a start. At least Charles now knows that Erik is out there somewhere. He's clinging to that.

But there's another thought, an ugly one wriggling its way to the surface of Charles' brain: what if Erik is like everyone else? What if Erik doesn't know Charles, is resolutely normal?

Charles has coped with everything so far. He's bent under the weight of each new revelation but not broken, but he thinks that would be too much. To have Erik look at him and see no spark of recognition in his eyes, no annoyance or amusement, no affection. Raven at least knows him, and he's building a new, different relationship with her, but Hank, Moira, Darwin, none of them remember him. He means nothing to them. If it were the same with Erik, it would be exponentially worse than growing up thinking he was alone. To find someone, and then lose them—

He won't allow himself to contemplate that possibility. Not yet. Erik is alive. He's certain Erik visited him while Charles was in hospital and melted the metal of his bed frame. That's enough to give him hope. And for now, he needs to concentrate on getting out of hospital and getting home. Then he'll be able to start searching for Erik.

*

His recovery is fast. He's still weak, but he's discharged three weeks later, and he flies straight to New York.

When the taxi pulls up outside the mansion, Charles half expects to see Sean swooping down out of the sky, or Alex shouting out hello from an upstairs window. He wants to hear laughter and noise, even crashes or the sound of breaking glass. It's all quiet, though. Just him and Raven. He's not sure that he wants her with him here, but she insisted, and he sensed the hurt when he tried to insist that she stay in England.

"I was only there for you," she says, and he can't reject her, even though everything in her mind feels like a rejection of him and who he is.

He can't help but wonder what she'd think about him if she knew about his power. How she'd react to the idea of mutants, people with crazy, impossible super-human powers existing right now, and her brother being one of them. She's been his lifelong ally, but he has absolutely no idea how she'd take the news that he can read minds, influence people's thoughts, manipulate them. She's still his sister and friend, but she's a stranger too, though he feels like he's betraying her just by thinking that.

His new wheelchair crunches over the gravel. He might have to redo all the gravel paths. Not just yet, though. For all that every doctor he's spoken to so far has assured him the damage to his spine is permanent, Charles refuses to believe it. He has seen miracles happen: he's seen a woman turn into living diamond, a boy fly with the power of his voice, a man lift a submarine from the ocean and fling it up on dry land. He won't accept that the rest of his life is going to be spent in this chair. Not yet.

*

"I'll fetch you a rug for your legs. And what about a fire? I can light a fire. Well, I think I can — you can always tell me how. Stupid old house — we'll have to get a new heating system installed."

"Raven," Charles interjects, but she cuts him off and carries on as though he didn't say a word. She paces around the room, moves an armchair a smidgeon to the left, pushes a coffee table up against the wall. It's driving him nuts.

"The doctor said it would be easy for your legs to get cold without you realizing it. I'll unpack you some warm socks. I don't suppose anything in your room will be fit to wear, the place has been closed up so long."

Charles wheels around to face her. "I know you mean well, but you have to stop fussing, my dear." He's tired after the Atlantic flight, and still weak from two years inactivity, but he doesn't need to be treated like an invalid, settled into the study like an old man. He doesn't want to be treated so — that might be the more honest assessment. Whatever his current physical state, he is used to caring for others, not being fussed over. He can't so easily hand over the reins, especially not to his little sister. It's bad enough that he's reliant on her to push him wherever he needs to go.

The look on Raven's face, and the distress that she's broadcasting (he can't even beg her to think more quietly), stop him from saying any of that. She means well, and he does need her. They'll find a balance soon enough. In the meantime, it's up to him to ensure that the move back here, and Charles' own return to health, goes as smoothly as possible.

Charles reaches out for her and takes her hand. "Sit down," he says, and when she lets go of his hand to sit on the nearest part of the sofa, he has just enough strength in his arms to wheel his stupid chair a few inches across the carpet so that they're just pressing knee to knee.

Raven preempts him. She looks a little tearful but she's smiling, determined to be optimistic and cheerful for him. "I hope you're not going to give me some stupid speech about how I mustn't put my life on hold for yours and that I should be out there, having fun. Or living up to my potential by doing some serious, meaningful job as befits the bright future you've always seen for me."

"That is a terrible imitation of me," Charles says, because it was, but he can't entirely hide his smile. This — Raven mimicking him, Charles lecturing her — this feels more like the relationship he remembers.

"Actually, I thought I got the stuffy, pompous attitude down pretty well."

Charles interrupts her before she can insult him any further. "And," he says, "that isn't what I was going to say. Well, not exactly," he adds, honestly. He had planned to say something about how he couldn't begin to say how grateful he was that she'd taken care of him all this time; the nurses at the John Radcliffe told him she'd read to him and talked to him almost daily. But he wanted her to have her own life, not be stuck with him.

"Well, you can skip all the bits about being grateful and how wonderful I am and how lucky you are to have me as your sister — you can just owe me a favor or two," she says wickedly. "And, if you like, you can pay me to be your personal assistant or something else that sounds official, and then it'll look good on my resume when you're well enough to do without me."

"You know I'll never want to be without you entirely," Charles says, and is very glad he thought to articulate that out loud when he feels the warmth and happiness it brings to the surface of her mind. "But yes, you being around full time does need to be a temporary matter, just until I get stronger and more accustomed to being—" Charles has thought of words for what he is now, lacking the use of his legs, a weak facsimile of himself, he just doesn't like them very much. Paralyzed is the nice one. Crippled, not so nice. "Less mobile," he settles for.

"And you'll make it an official job? With a regular pay check?" She's teasing, but there's an earnestness underneath her words — she wants to be sure of her place in his life.

Charles laughs. "Of course I will. And you can even choose your own job title."

"I won't wear a uniform though," Raven says, shuddering with mock disgust. "You'd make me wear some hideous, frumpy dress down to my knees and sensible flat lace-ups."

"Heaven forbid that you should look so respectable!"

"I just have no desire to look like an old fogey before my time," Raven says, and her smirk says exactly who she's implying does look like an old fogey. Personally, he thinks he's always dressed perfectly appropriately for a professor. A very young professor. According to Raven, he is still a professor of genetics, still studied human mutations. That much of his memory matches hers.

Charles grins back at her for a moment, then lets his expression fall serious and leans forward, looking straight at her. "I do have to say this once at least, though. I am so incredibly grateful to you. For being a wonderful sister, and for being there for me all this time." Raven ducks her head, and Charles can tell she's embarrassed. He doesn't let it stop him. "I love you dearly, and I am so glad that you're my sister."

He doesn't get any further, because Raven jumps up and hugs him, face tucked into his shoulder. He's not sure he could have said more anyway, not in words. And he can't project his thoughts into her mind any more, not yet. Not until things get back to normal between them — or what feels normal to him, two proud mutants. He just hopes that they can have that again, because for all that it feels good to hold Raven like this, he still feels the loss of the extra bond they shared before.

*

His second day back home, Charles sets out on a dual endeavor: working out what needs to be done to make the house habitable for him, and searching for signs that there was ever a team of mutants here. The latter he has to do discreetly, while Raven wheels him around. He makes notes to get an elevator installed, and some ramps built — the elevator will be useful anyway, and the ramps can be removed if—when—no, if (he has to be honest with himself) he ever gets out of this chair. He makes a list of the thicker, bulkier rugs that he'll have put into storage, and doorways where the carpet strip needs to be replaced with a flatter edge.

He decides to hold off on any outside changes for now, anything that would diminish the beauty of the place. Gravel walkways might be tiring to wheel through, but they're not an insurmountable problem. Besides, it'll be good exercise. Charles knows he needs to get stronger, both mentally and physically. He needs to build up his upper body strength so he can wheel himself around for more than a few minutes at a time, and so that dealing with his more intimate physical needs won't be so awkward and embarrassing.

He sees no signs of the other mutants. No newly repaired windows, no textbooks that don't belong to him or Raven. No uniform grey sweat suits. No trash bin full of charred objects. There's no sign that anybody has lived in the house for years. Nothing.

He tries not to react, but his despondency must show, because it's not long before Raven declares they've seen enough for the day, and no amount of cajoling or threatening can persuade her to prolong the tour.

"I take my job very seriously, and it's my job to put your welfare first," she says firmly, taking him to the kitchen. There's only a skeleton staff at the moment, Williams the caretaker doubling up as chauffeur, Mrs. Williams the housekeeper as cleaner, plus a head gardener and two boys to help him. They'll need to hire more, but for the time being, they can fend for themselves in the kitchen.

"Omelet?" Raven offers, checking the fridge.

"Scrambled eggs," Charles suggests. There's less chance she'll burn those, and Charles does loathe burned eggs.

She only burns the toast, and even that's not too bad, once the surface layer's scrapped off and replaced with butter. There's a bowl of red apples on the table, and they munch on those after they've finished their eggs.

"I found some hand weights this morning," Raven says, once they're sitting back with a mug of coffee each. At least her time waitressing taught her how to make good coffee.

"Thanks," Charles says.

He'll get Raven to set up a simple gym for him. And he'll set aside some time to work on mental exercises too. He curses his lack of Cerebro. All those years, it was just him and Raven experimenting with his powers, and even then he achieved a lot. But with Cerebro and Hank it was amazing. He learned so much so quickly, felt how big the world was and expanded his mind out to fit it. If he had their help, he'd find Erik in a day. Faster, even.

But, much as he's itching to rush straight into searching for Erik, his mind's too weak. Building up his mental powers to a state where he can approximate the range he had with Cerebro, if it's even possible — that's always been one of the exciting things about his power, not knowing how far he can take it — is going to take time. He's taunted by the memories of being so much stronger. It's bad enough that his body is feeble, but his mental powers are just as important a part of who he is, and he feels the same frustration at not being able to reach out mentally as he does every morning he wakes up to one glorious second when he forgets he can't walk and then comes back down to earth in a miserable rush.

He wishes he could do something to speed up the process. Cerebro was all electrical, but maybe there's some chemical that would help. He'd do anything.

For now, though, he'll just have to try more ordinary channels to find Erik, maddeningly slow as that's likely to be.

*

His first phone call is to his lawyer. His firm is discreet and has handled the Xavier family's business for decades, so a request to locate the man Charles crashed his car into is taken on board without a hint of curiosity.

"His name is Erik Lehnsherr, he is in his thirties, and he is probably a German citizen. He may live in the US now," Charles says.

"Do you have any information as to which city or state?"

"No, that is as much as I can tell you."

"It might take some time, sir."

"Just let me know when you have something. And—"

"Yes?"

"Please speak to me personally if you have any questions, and when you have an answer." He doesn't want Raven to know what he's doing.

*

"The library? Really?" Raven steps into the car and Williams shuts the door behind her. "Your first proper trip out after leaving the hospital, and you want to go to the library?"

"Stuffy professor here, remember," Charles says. The car rolls slowly along the driveway, and Charles winds down the window. The fresh air feels good, and the change of view. It's nearly fall, leaves beginning to turn gold and red. The county has always been incredibly beautiful at this time of the year, all rolling hills dotted with old trees and horses in pastures. He used to despise the obvious wealth, feel bad that he was a part of it, but he's still able to appreciate the beauty.

"You're not that stuffy, really," Raven says, bumping him with her shoulder. She's treating him a little less like he's breakable now, and he's grateful for it.

Charles turns to her and grins. "I still want to go to the library. But don't worry; you don't have to come with me. I won't force you into a building full of books."

"I'm not allergic to books," Raven counters. "I even enjoy reading them sometimes." She adds a mock gasp for his benefit. "Just not all the time, and not the tedious, dreary ones you're so fond of. Those are only any good as a cure for insomnia."

"So you want to come to the library?"

"Hell, no," Raven laughs. "I'm going to the ice-cream parlor. So you'd better not be too long in the library, or I'll make myself sick on strawberry sundaes. You're treating me."

"You're a working girl — you can treat yourself!"

"But you're a generous employer," Raven wheedles, and Charles ends up slipping her a dollar when they pull up outside the library.

The library looks just like Charles remembers it.

Mr. Zimmermann is on duty in the reference room, and he exclaims in genuine pleasure at the sight of Charles.

"My favorite young visitor," he says. There's no hint of pity in his tone. "I hope zat you have an intriguing search for me — I have missed your requests while you vere in England."

Mr. Zimmermann is looking even more stooped than the last time Charles saw him, and his hairline has receded another inch or so, but he's a permanent fixture here. He always used to get tetchy with other children — silence in ze library was his regular refrain, repeated in quiet, mocking tones when he turned away — but he was never impatient with Charles. He sensed Charles' genuine love both of books and the knowledge in them, and it was he who taught Charles how to use a library and how to find information. How to make a library talk to him.

It's comforting that this, at least, hasn't changed at all.

"Just a couple of things today, old friend," Charles says. "Do you have any texts on the latest developments in genetics? And any articles on the Cuban Missile Crisis. And I'd like to see back issues of the Hudson Hills Herald from two years ago, please."

Charles comes away with two new, untouched textbooks — he has a strong feeling that Mr. Zimmermann ordered them with him in mind, because they are most certainly not on a level that anyone else in the area is likely to be able to comprehend — and a sense of frustration at the lack of information from the local paper. It followed the story of his crash, as he knew it would, even though the crash was in England; stories about the Xavier family always make the Herald. But it didn't tell him anything he hadn't already learned from Raven or Moira MacTaggert. Most importantly, it didn't give him any clues to Erik's whereabouts.

He's quiet on the drive home, listening to Raven talk without paying much attention. He knows he has to consider the possibility - the probability - that what he remembers is not in fact the truth. He could make excuses for one mind's memories not matching his, but every scrap of evidence so far indicates that he's the only one who has the memories of the children, his team of mutants, and their battle on the beach. The Cuban Missile Crisis happened, but not the way he remembers it — there was no eleventh hour intervention between two fleets.

The only thing that gives him hope is that he is still most definitely a mutant. His abilities might not be as strong as they were, but he can still read minds, still influence them. He is a mutant.

And where there is one mutant, surely, surely there must be more.

*

He isn't sure who to contact within the CIA. He remembers names, but doesn't know if in this reality any of them know him, or even if they work for the CIA.

He starts with the research facility.

He gives Williams directions, expecting to get halted before they can get too close. It's a bad sign that they drive right up to the front without being confronted.

It's a school. A high school, full of teenagers. Very ordinary, messed-up, argumentative, sulky, irritable, horny, bored teenagers. There's no way it's hiding anything.

Charles doesn't let the set-back get him down too much. It's only to be expected. And just because the research facility doesn't exist, it doesn't mean the people he met there don't exist either. He knows Hank's real, even though he's a dead end when it comes to finding answers.

John Smith is his best bet.

Charles is certain that John Smith isn't his real name. He and Erik mockingly nicknamed him the Man in Black after he'd mysteriously introduced himself. "Call me—John Smith," he'd said, a grin at the back of his eyes. Charles never used his powers to find his real name, but all he needs to do is get close to Langley and eavesdrop. If John Smith is in the CIA, he'll find him. And Charles is certain that, even if this man too has no memory of mutants, he'll be open-minded enough to listen.

It takes Charles some time — and in the process he learns that being stealthy in a large chauffeured sedan, or in a wheelchair, is incredibly difficult and takes a lot more mind manipulation than he'd like — but he eventually eavesdrops on enough minds to learn John Smith's habits. He discovers three things: John Smith is the name he goes by, at least to the low level operatives who Charles reads, he's interested in the unusual, though no one knows exactly what directive he works under, and he sometimes patronizes a small bar on the edge of McLean.

Charles spends two evenings drinking in the bar before he meets the man he's looking for. The first evening he drinks too much — he's lost his capacity for drinking all night — and ends up flirting with a young woman who reminds him a little of his first girlfriend in Oxford. Her name is Olivia, and she's not conventionally beautiful — her face too broad, teeth a little crooked — but she's drinking the same beer as him and she laughs at his lame jokes, and she lets him kiss her.

He wants to do more, but he's drunk enough that his mental controls aren't as finely honed as usual, and he hears her thoughts: concern mingled with curiosity as to whether he's even able to do anything more, and a trace of pity. She's wondering if she's the first woman he's approached since his accident. She's not sure what she'll do if they go back to her place and he can't get it up.

None of this shows on her face. She's perfectly nice, and if Charles weren't a telepath he'd never pick up on any of her doubts. But he can't take the pity. It sobers him enough that he drops her hand and leaves her with a quick excuse. He heads straight back to his hotel. It's only a block away from the bar, chosen deliberately so he didn't need to keep the car at hand. Raven had argued against him coming here without her, but McLean is a five hour drive from home, and he wants to keep his search from her, so he told her it was a doctor's appointment and eventually persuaded her that he might just be able to manage for a few days with only Williams to help him.

So here he is, a lonely man wheeling himself in the dark to a solitary hotel room, wondering if he's impotent. Sober enough to think, drunk enough to be maudlin.

And now the question is there, staring him boldly in the face. He hasn't had an erection since he woke from the coma; at first he had neither the privacy nor the desire, and since he got home he hasn't had the inclination to try to get aroused.

It wasn't a matter he felt he could raise with his doctor back in Oxford — he didn't feel like discussing erections or the potential lack of them with a nicely brought up Scottish girl, and the one time she'd awkwardly broached the subject, he'd feigned exhaustion. But now he needs to know. He needs to get to his room and find out for himself. And for all that he tells himself that he should have stayed at the bar and waited a little longer in case the Man in Black turned up, he's only thirty-two and he's a man, and he wants to have sex again. He wants to know that he can have sex again.

His room is on the ground floor, and he's strong enough now to lift himself out of his chair and onto the bed, though it leaves him gasping for breath. It's late, and he's tired, and he's had too much to drink. But he has to try.

Charles opens his fly and lifts his hips enough to pull his pants down to his thighs. He unbuttons his shirt and opens it, but leaves it on — there's a fall chill in the air, and he doesn't want to get back into his chair to close the window. He must look ridiculous, legs stretched out like useless sticks in front of him, his penis flaccid and pale.

He doesn't have any magazines to help, so he calls on memories. He starts with Olivia, and thinks of the swell of her breasts underneath her cashmere rollneck, the warmth of her lips against his, and the whiff of patchouli. She tasted of lip gloss and beer, and it should stir something in him, but he feels no sense of arousal, and his penis remains resolutely limp.

He goes back in time. If kissing doesn't help, then sex surely should. He remembers making out with Virginia in her dorm room, half his mind stretched out to make sure her roommate didn't come back to interrupt them, the rest of his mind very firmly caught up in the warmth of his hand under her blouse, the way she shuddered in pleasure when he slipped his other hand up her thigh and under her panties. She'd giggled nervously when he'd started to finger her, but she'd pushed her skirt up to make it easier for him, and bitten her lip in anticipation when he'd slipped her panties off. He can still remember how wet she'd been, how hot he'd felt, how he'd had to concentrate for a moment on the opening paragraph of his molecular biology essay so that he didn't come the moment he slid inside her.

It isn't helping. He can remember the feeling, but it's a pale imitation of actual arousal, and he can't even be sure the memory is real. He can't be sure of any of his memories these days.

He tugs almost angrily at his dick, frustrated. All the times he's had unwelcome and ill-timed erections, and now, nothing.

He doesn't mean his mind to go in the direction it does, to think of Erik, long evenings spent together playing chess, drinking and laughing and arguing, but once Erik is in his thoughts, he's there to stay. Charles imagines Erik kneeling in front of him. Right here, in this hotel room, on this bed. He imagines the huff of warm breath as Erik leans almost close enough to kiss, then smirks at him and backs away. Charles is certain Erik would be a tease like that, deliberate and obvious. But then he would brush Charles' hand aside and wrap his own hand around Charles' dick. His hands are larger than Charles', more calloused, scarred in places. No mistaking those hands for anyone else, or for his own touch.

Erik might not be able to read minds, but he would still know what Charles wants, the sort of touch he needs. Nothing gentle. Firm and assured, and he'd look Charles in the eyes as he jerked him off, and there'd be no uncertainty about Charles' arousal.

Charles' heart would start to pound and he'd breathe faster. Erik would pull his upper lip into his mouth in concentration and when he let it go again it would be moist and reddened as though he'd just been kissed, and Charles would ache so badly to kiss him that he'd push himself upright and press up against Erik and they'd be kissing then, both demanding and needy, and Erik would still be twisting his hand around Charles' dick, faster and faster, and then Charles would be coming, splashing warm on his own naked belly.

And when they'd pull apart eventually, because Charles' dick was getting sensitive, he'd see splashes of white on Erik's black pants, and they'd laugh at it, a little rueful on Erik's part. But they wouldn't laugh for long because the bulge in Erik's pants would be obvious, and he'd pull his zip down without even touching it, and it would be Charles' turn to make him come.

Charles gasps. The image is far more vivid than any fantasy he's conjured before. He looks down at himself, the mess on his stomach, his softening dick, and takes a deep breath. At least he knows he's fully functional there.

And he's just confirmed every stray thought he's repressed about how he really feels about Erik.

It is not possible that he could feel this way about a man he's never met. There has to be something more between them than a car crash, and Charles takes comfort in that as much as in his orgasm.

*

He goes back to the bar the next night. He drinks less, and doesn't flirt as much, and doesn't see the man he's looking for.

The night after that is a Friday, and Charles is hopeful.

It's nine thirty when his hope is validated. The Man in Black walks in alone and sits up at the bar. If Charles could stand, he would walk over and sit down next to him and touch his mind enough to start up a successful conversation. Instead, he waits until the Man in Black has ordered a drink and has it in his hand, and then sends him a light nudge. Just the idea that company might be good, and the man in the wheelchair is also alone, so why doesn't he go and sit at his table.

The Man in Black introduces himself as John Smith, a consultant. He doesn't say what field he consults in, or offer any further information, true or false. So Charles leads the conversation, talks about his PhD, gets excited about genetics and mutation which is easy enough. And then posits the crazy idea that mutations might suddenly occur, not the natural, barely noticeable ones that have been gradually changing humans for millennia, but massive, ground-breaking mutations happening in one generation. He thinks of all the times he's had this same conversation, he and Erik together on the recruiting trail. He's missed it.

John Smith shakes his head in disbelief. "They would kill the people suffering from them," he says. "Or lock them away in labs."

"Some might," Charles agrees, "but what if there were useful mutations? Improvements and skills that could advance the human race."

"Such as?"

"Such as mind-reading or shape-shifting, or being able to adapt to any environment. Or human flight. Imagine the possibilities." Charles isn't sure quite why he doesn't mention Erik's ability in his list; it just seems safest not to.

John Smith takes a long drink, pondering the idea. "Those could be as dangerous as they could be helpful. And I can only imagine how ordinary people would react to somebody who could read minds."

He's imagining the possibility now, but Charles skims his mind just enough to know that he has never knowingly met a mutant and that it's all just a rather wacky theoretical idea to him. An entertaining conversation over a glass of good single malt, but nothing more.

*

Charles drives home that night, dozing in the back of the car as they head up the I-95. He falls asleep long enough to dream, but when he wakes up to the sound of wheels crunching over gravel and the feel of the car stopping, he doesn't remember any details beyond standing in a field, Erik beside him, and an overwhelming feeling of contentment.

He hopes it's a good omen.

It is. The following day, his lawyer calls. They're an old firm, fond of the personal touch.

"I have an address and phone number for you," the man says, and Charles' mouth goes dry. He thought he might have to wait weeks for a result, if they'd even been able to find anything. "We haven't confirmed if either one is current, though."

Charles interrupts. "I'll see to that," he says.

Charles jots down the details on the back of an envelope, and stares at them once he's put the receiver down. The number is a Yonkers code, and the address is just off the New York State Freeway. Erik could be minutes away.

It's late afternoon, and Charles has been lifting weights and overseeing workmen and ignoring Raven's attempts to get him to take a nap. He's exhausted — and secretly wishes he had taken the nap — but he calls for the car anyway. He can't wait until tomorrow.

He needs to do this in person. Over the phone, Charles won't be able to use his powers — not at the moment, not until he's stronger — and he won't even be able to read Erik's face. And he wants to see Erik. Hearing his voice just isn't enough.

He taps his fingers on his thighs and counts every mile until they pull up outside an old brownstone. There are six steps leading up to the front door, and the column of buzzers is set high on the wall, so Charles waits on the sidewalk while Williams rings. There's a constant hum of traffic, and Charles doesn't hear anyone coming until the door opens. Time has never felt so slow.

There's a man standing in the doorway. Too short, too blond. Charles doesn't recognize him.

"Don't know anything," the man says, after Charles tells him who they're looking for. "I've lived here for a couple of months, and I've only got one forwarding address for mail, and that's not for your Mr. Lehnsherr. But you should try the landlord. He lives in the basement." He points out the correct buzzer before he climbs the steps two at a time and closes the door firmly behind him.

Charles can feel the tension in his shoulders. His head aches too, and he wishes Raven were here, his old Raven, the one who knew his secrets, the sister he could talk to about almost anything.

The landlord is swarthy and greasy and Charles knows immediately, without even scratching the surface of his mind, that he won't be helpful unless he's bribed. And while Charles would willingly part with just about anything to find Erik, he has no intention of making this man any wealthier, so he doesn't say a word, just holds him still and scans through his thoughts.

The man remembers Erik. Charles gets a clear visual of Erik striding up the steps right here, scowling, and an argument. There'd been something strange about Erik's room after he'd left: the light fittings were all twisted and there was a coin embedded in the wall.

But Charles' joy at the confirmation of Erik's powers is muted quickly: the landlord doesn't have an address. Erik stayed for a few months, and left with the same single suitcase and duffle bag that he arrived with. No clue at all as to where he might have gone, or why he left. Charles looks deeper, to see if there's any hint that this Erik might have some vendetta or be searching for someone, but there's nothing.

Charles lets go of the landlord in frustration, not pulling out of his mind as gently as he could. The man reels a little, standing in the doorway looking puzzled, before glaring at them and slamming the door.

"Home," Charles says, and wheels himself wearily towards the car.

"Is everything okay, Mr. Xavier?" Williams asks as he helps Charles out of the chair.

"Fine," Charles says, and slips into his mind. Just some gentle nudging and Williams is reassured.

Charles tries the phone number when he gets home, but it's disconnected. He thumps his fists on the desk in disappointment. Yet another failure.

*

Charles is running out of options. His lawyer's investigators have hit a dead end, and he doesn't know of any other way to track people down, especially if they don't wish to be found. So far, there's little to suggest that Erik wants to be found. Charles' only reason to hope Erik will be glad to see him is the indentations in his bed frame back in the hospital. Erik must have visited him, and why would he do that if there were nothing between them?

Strengthening his mind is Charles' only option. He pours over books and medical journals to see if he can find some way to make his powers reach across greater distances, or become more receptive to specific minds, but he has to improvise based on barely related studies. He's on his own in this. But he was on his own before he found Raven — at least, in his memory, that's how it goes — and he can do this.

The worst thing is constantly lying to Raven. That, and the headaches. He has painkillers, but they barely touch the throbbing in his head after a day of reaching out as far as he can possibly go and then pushing just that bit further. Of feeling mind after mind, seeking signs of other mutants, hunting for that one most familiar mind. Of being utterly alone in his search.

He begins to wonder if he's sane. If this is what a breakdown feels like, the desire to believe that he is right and everyone else is wrong, even against all the evidence. He's sleeping less and less, his mind buzzing like it used to when he drank pint after pint of coffee during his exams. He can't quiet it, can't switch off. When he does sleep, he has nightmares that he searches every mind on the planet and still doesn't find Erik, that Erik is so different that he passes by his mind without recognizing him. He wakes before it's light, restless and impatient to get back to his search, even though he's becoming more and more exhausted.

*

The nights draw in, and the evenings grow chillier. Charles has always liked this time of year, even the storms and longer hours of darkness.

Raven has lit a fire in the study this evening. They curl up on the sofa in front of it, a blanket tucked around Charles' legs, and play card games, Snap and Old Maid. It's something they both remember.

"Did you know that the first card games were invented during the Tang dynasty, in China?" Charles asks, just to make Raven smile.

"Oddly enough, no, I didn't know that. Want to know why I didn't know?"

Charles bites. "Why?"

"Because I am not a gigantic freak like my brother, that's why. Also, I win," she adds triumphantly, putting her last two cards down.

"Winner gets the drinks," Charles says.

"I'm pretty sure it's the other way around," Raven says, but she gets up and pours them both another drink.

He sleeps well that night.

*

The next day, Raven leaves early in the morning without telling him where she's going. She has a sly expression on her face that he doesn't remember seeing for years, not since she was too small to understand how expressive her face could be. He refuses to read her mind — she doesn't know he can, isn't in a position to give or deny him permission — so he frets until she returns.

The moment she returns, the reason for her guilty expression is obvious.

"Raven," Charles exclaims, wheeling himself out towards the car. "What on earth were you thinking?"

She steps out of the car with a puppy cradled in her arms. "I was thinking she'd be company for you," Raven says. She sets the puppy on the ground; it stands a little shakily on too large paws, and then totters slowly towards Charles.

He can't help himself. He leans down and scratches under the puppy's neck. Her fur is thick and soft, a dark bluish-grey.

"Don't try telling me you haven't fallen instantly in love with her, because I won't believe you for a minute," Raven says. She lifts the puppy up into his lap and looks proud.

The puppy wriggles around, then settles down facing him. It's strange, not being able to feel her weight, or the warmth of her on his legs, just the press of her chin against his stomach. She looks up at him with big, dark eyes.

"You are incredibly manipulative and sneaky," Charles says, ostensibly to Raven, but he's including the puppy too. Raven grins as though he's just given her the best compliment ever.

He calls the puppy Blue. He can't help overhearing Raven's loud thought that he's obsessed with the color blue, just as he can't help picking up her relief that he now has something to take care of. She thinks it'll help him snap out of whatever he's working through.

*

Charles takes Blue with him when he wheels himself around the grounds each morning. She trots along at his side, and sometimes she jumps up on his lap. Charles has fallen in love with her, it's true. And she's entirely his girl. In the evenings, it's always Charles she gravitates towards, even though Raven feeds her just as often. He doesn't detect any jealousy from Raven though — she's glad for him.

And Charles is glad for company who won't notice when he pushes himself too hard, won't worry about him when he experiments with ways of stretching his mind further.

He's never used drugs before — weed doesn't count — but he needs all the help he can get. He tries all sorts: some to help him relax, others to help him focus. He's careful, trying small doses at a time, allowing time for each drug to leave his system before he tries a new one. He makes precise notes of each experience, estimating the effect or lack of effect each one has on his abilities.

Dextroamphetamine turns out to be the key. It takes a while to balance the dosage, to increase his concentration and capacity without too many significant side-effects, but once he gets it right, the effect is cumulative, day to day. He reaches further and further, passing through hundreds, thousands of minds a day. He stops in some briefly, whenever he senses anything familiar or different, but few of them turn out to be mutants, and none of them are Erik.

For the first time, he doesn't miss the use of his legs so badly. He's seen two more doctors since he came home, and neither of them offered him any hope. He's coming to terms with it. There are still mornings when he wakes up and tries to climb out of bed, thinks of going for a run, aches inside when he remembers he can't. But those days are getting fewer and fewer, and as his mind gets stronger, it makes up for his other loss.

*

The day he finds Erik starts off badly.

He's developed a pressure sore and has hired a nurse to treat it each morning. She's quick and kind and efficient, but it's still humiliating to lie face-down and half naked in his bed while she dresses it.

Raven is full of guilt that she didn't notice the problem earlier and spends all morning on the telephone ordering a variety of cushions for his chair, along with more equipment for the gym. She makes him promise that he'll work out in the gym every day, not just once or twice a week, and the nurse gives him a list of do's and don't's.

After lunch Blue has an accident on the bearskin rug in front of the fire, which makes Raven burst into tears. Charles tells her she's being ridiculous, and then mentally slaps himself for being so unkind when she runs out of the room, projecting guilt and grief.

Charles wheels himself to the summerhouse in the afternoon, Blue trotting along by his side. It's peaceful out here, far enough from any other minds that he doesn't have to set up any sort of blocks. There's no heating, and the door is slightly warped and lets in a draft, but he's wrapped up warm enough. He takes two pills, swallowing them down dry, then casts out, focusing his mind carefully so that he can manage a three hundred and sixty degree search at each new distance that he achieves.

He touches a bored schoolteacher and a new mother trying to hush her baby. A funeral director, a salesman, a toddler on a swing. A secretary who wants to quit her job and a pensioner in a nursing home who thinks she's just about to get married to her sweetheart. So many minds.

When he touches Erik's mind, the sensation is so astounding he almost doesn't believe it. He grips the arms of his chair so hard that his fingers go numb, determined to hold on long enough to be absolutely certain.

There is one memory he is certain that both his Erik and this one will share. He knows exactly where to look, deep down, in a forgotten corner. He finds it. Erik and his mother celebrating Hanukkah together; a golden glow of candles, a soft smile on her face, the warmth of being loved.

It's as beautiful now as the first time he saw the memory. Even more, perhaps, for all that it means to Charles. It means he has found Erik.

Charles hadn't given up on finding him, but as each day passed it had grown harder to cling to his hope. But here is Erik, alive and familiar, and Charles feels an overwhelming burst of sheer joy. He can't hold the link much longer, so overwhelmed with emotion that his concentration is shot, but he stays there just long enough to see through Erik's eyes for a second. It's sufficient for him to catch the image of a building. A new building, modern, covered in glass, with a statue of a man playing a pipe in front of it.

Charles grabs his notebook and a pencil and sketches every feature of the building that he can remember. He pictures the way the light falls on the statue, and works out the building's aspect, makes a guess at the size, tries to recall every little detail that might help him find it. Find Erik.

*

Mr. Zimmermann is as helpful as ever when Charles goes to the library first thing the next morning. With the sketch sitting on the table between them, they search through architectural journals and photo books for pictures of the building Charles saw. Mr. Zimmermann doesn't ask questions or enquire how it is that Charles has a sketch of a building but only a rough idea of its location (south, maybe fifty miles away).

"Eureka," Mr. Zimmermann says, after nearly three hours have passed. He lifts a journal to show Charles a photograph of the building, the name printed underneath. He looks a little guilty to have broken his own silence rules.

Charles leaves directly from the library, giving instructions to an impassive Williams.

The drive down to New York takes forever. Charles has to repress the urge every few minutes to tell Williams to put his foot down. Trees and houses and telephone poles go by the window at a painfully slow pace; Charles would only be satisfied if he could see no more than a blur, and even that would still be too slow.

He can't relax. He churns scenarios over and over in his mind, tries to work out how best to greet Erik. He doesn't want to startle him, and if, somehow, Charles is wrong and Erik doesn't have his powers, then Charles is going to need to be very careful. Yet careful is the last thing he wants to be — he wants to rush up to Erik, take him by the shoulders and shake him for not being there when Charles woke up, ridiculous as that would be. He wants to find out exactly how their lives overlap, if any of Charles' memories of Erik are true. He wants to learn whether or not his old friend is the man Charles believes him to be.

Charles feels out of control. He taps out a rhythm on the door handle, more and more nervous as he gets closer.

The drive takes just over an hour in the end. Williams helps him out of the car, and Charles looks around. This is the place. The building he saw in Erik's mind is on one side of a public square. It's lunchtime, and people are milling around, sitting on steps and around the base of the statue, eating bagged lunches.

Charles wheels himself along the sidewalk and reaches out with his mind. He takes in the whole square, hundreds of people, and instantly knows Erik is not in this crowd. He sends out tendrils of thought further, touching mind after mind, frantic now he knows he's close.

He looks crazy. He sees it in the minds of passers-by. The madman in the wheelchair, circling around, fingers pressed to his temple, eyes straining as though he can see through buildings. He doesn't care. If he looks just a little further—

There.

Nearby. In the basement of a tall building, a dingy room filled with a large printing press, shouting to be heard over the noise of the press. There's a thick scent of ink in the air, ink and sweat and heat. Erik's busy, finishing up an urgent job — fliers for a local election — and he doesn't notice the faint press of Charles' mind.

Charles holds his mind steady. Keeps the touch light but secure. He wheels himself along the sidewalk. Goes to the pedestrian crossing before he crosses the road. Reaches the right building, and waits.

Erik's thirsty. He's been working since 4 a.m., and he's nearly finished, ready for a drink. In just a few minutes, he'll come out of the door and Charles will see him.

Charles can be patient. He can wait.

It feels like the hardest thing he's ever done.

The sun is low this time of year, even at lunchtime, but there's a gap in the buildings opposite and Charles finds a spot on the sidewalk where he can wait in the sun, out of the way of the passing pedestrians. He wraps his scarf tighter around his neck and is grateful for the new fingerless gloves Raven bought him — they're thick navy wool, with leather inset in the palms. His hands are shaking a little, and he clasps them together in his lap to force them still.

Charles knows exactly when Erik is about to exit the building, but he isn't prepared for the wonder of seeing him for the first time.

He is exactly like Charles' memory. A new hint of grey at his temple, maybe, and some dark smudges of ink across his cheek, but his face is so familiar that Charles' chest aches at the sight of him. Erik's fingers are inky too, stained dark under his fingernails. He's wearing a heavy black greatcoat, collar turned up in expectation of the cold breeze. He stands tall and determined, scans the road quickly and takes the four steps up to the sidewalk in just two strides.

He sees Charles.

They stare at each other. Erik isn't broadcasting anything. It isn't a total absence of all thought, not like the utter silence Charles had felt when Erik put on Shaw's helmet. But Erik is drawing back internally, and Charles can't feel any obvious emotions. Charles could go inside his head, but this is his friend, and he's already intruded in order to find him. More would be an invasion, and however much Charles desperately wants to know what Erik is thinking right now, he won't sneak around in Erik's mind uninvited.

They stare for several seconds. Then Erik turns to walk away, as though Charles is a random stranger who caught his eye for no reason. He's going to leave, and Charles can't help it. He shouts. "No!"

It's New York. No one else reacts, but Erik stops in his tracks. He turns back to Charles.

"Erik, my friend," Charles says, and he is begging Erik to recognize him, all of his plans to say the right thing forgotten.

"Why are you here?" Erik asks.

"May we talk?" Charles asks in return. "Somewhere warmer?"

Erik doesn't look surprised at the request, just wary. "There's a bar down the block. It'll be open."

They walk in silence, the need to weave along a busy street enough excuse for the lack of conversation.

The bar is small and dark. There's a game of pool going on, and one old man slumped in a booth, but otherwise it's empty. Charles gets them two bottles of beer, and they sit at a sticky round wooden table in the farthest corner from the door. Oh! Pretty Woman is playing on the jukebox. Raven likes that song, dances to it when Charles isn't around.

"I'm Charles Xavier," Charles says, pulling off his gloves and holding out his hand. It's backwards, introducing himself after calling Erik his friend, but he needs to restart this meeting, and his name is a logical starting point.

"I know," Erik says. He shakes Charles' hand, but doesn't introduce himself. "I heard you were in a coma. I'm glad you're out of it," he adds. If there's anything more in that statement than the polite concern of a virtual stranger, Charles can't find it.

Charles wants to shout at him, beg him to tell Charles what's real, instead of this civil and distant conversation. He wants to know what Erik remembers. He wants to read his mind or at least nudge it towards opening up to Charles, but his need for Erik to open up to him willingly is even greater. If this is a new start for them, Charles wants to get it right this time. He doesn't want a repeat of lying on a beach in Erik's arms, in agony, begging Erik not to kill an entire fleet. He wants Erik to trust him enough to try Charles' path, to give a peaceful, non-genocidal approach to human-mutant relations a chance. Charles has the opportunity to start afresh, guide Erik onto a path that will be good for him and the world.

Maybe that is the whole purpose of his memories. Maybe some higher power is interfering in the ways of men, giving Charles the understanding to make the right decisions this time around.

Even without reading Erik's mind, Charles knows he's in turmoil. Charles isn't as good at reading people's faces as Raven — the Raven he remembers. She used to study people in intricate detail, all their mannerisms and habits and the reasons behind them, so that she could mimic them successfully. Charles always relied too much on the emotions people broadcast, or on reading the surface layers of their thoughts.

But there is strain in the set of Erik's jaw and tension in his shoulders, and dark circles under his eyes, and it's easy enough to read his state of mind from those signs.

"I hope you don't mind me asking, but I'm curious. What happened? At the crash?" Charles asks.

"I don't remember it that clearly," Erik says too quickly, and his eyes flicker up and to the left for a fraction of a second. He's lying.

Charles doesn't challenge him. He takes another drink, and then carries on as though he's simply reminiscing. "The police officer who interviewed me when I woke up, Sergeant MacTaggert, she told me that I was lucky to be alive. That the wreckage was the strangest she'd ever seen. We should both have died that day."

"Perhaps she isn't very experienced in the field of car crashes," Erik says dismissively. Charles still knows his tones well enough to know he's avoiding the subject.

Charles takes another drag of beer. He takes off his scarf and unbuttons his coat, already too warm in the muggy atmosphere of the bar. Erik doesn't even undo a single button. He looks ready to leave at any second.

Charles can't let him leave, not yet.

He reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out his comb. It's metal, warm from resting against his chest. He flicks it over and over in his hand.

"I used to have a friend who could bend spoons," he says, watching the comb flash yellow from the dim glow of a wall-light. He looks up at Erik. "Do you believe that's possible? That a man can manipulate metal with the force of his mind?"

Erik doesn't answer straight away. He looks everywhere but at Charles, swallows slowly, settles in his seat. He's clearly uncertain — more so than Charles has ever seen him before — but Charles resists the temptation to push him. Erik leans forward, just a fraction, looking from the comb up to Charles and then back down to the comb. He focuses on it, and Charles finds himself holding his breath.

There's the faintest smile at the corner of Erik's mouth. Charles watches Erik's face, until he nods and looks up. When Charles looks down at the table, the comb is folded neatly in half.

Charles grins at Erik, wide and open. "I knew you could do it," he says, letting the joy he feels show on his face.

"How did you know? How did it even happen? No," Erik says, shaking his head, the faint smile gone and replaced by a pinched look of distress. "I don't—"

"It's okay," Charles says, reaching out and folding his hand over Erik's. "You're not alone. You're not the only one."

He can tell Erik isn't entirely reassured, that he's scared he's revealed too much. Bending a spoon might be a parlor trick, but to bend metal without touching it is the sort of thing that makes men mutter dangerous things. So Charles talks to him the other way: I can assure you, you're not the only one.

Erik startles back, pulling his hands off the table and away from Charles. "How did you do that?" he hisses. "This is impossible."

"You and me, we're different. We're special," Charles says quietly, but out loud. "But I think you already knew that, even if you didn't want to admit it."

"I—I do remember the crash," Erik admits slowly. There is a long pause before he speaks again, but Charles doesn't rush him. "I think you spoke to me that way then, in my head. Did you?"

Charles huffs out a bitter laugh. "I remember nothing of that day," he says. "But I might have. It makes sense."

It's Erik's turn to laugh. "It makes sense to you?"

"Yes. It does. My field is genetics — I was a Professor of Genetics in Oxford before the accident — and I believe there is a logical, scientific explanation for all this."

Erik finishes his drink. "I think we need more privacy than this bar affords," he says, standing up.

"I have a place we can talk," Charles offers. "And better beer."

*

Erik's current job is complete, the fliers all ready to be shipped out, and he doesn't need to be back at the press until the following Monday. He gets into the back of the car with Charles without question. Charles takes it as a good sign, that Erik senses that he can trust Charles.

They don't talk of anything important on the drive. Erik tells Charles about the countries he's traveled through and some of the more amusing local customs, and how he misses the sausages he had as a young child in Germany — there's nothing quite like them in New York. Charles shares silly excuses his students at Oxford gave him for not handing in papers on time, and about his failed attempts so far to train Blue to sit on command. He talks about his studies too, about genetics and mutation, but he doesn't mention mutants in the hearing of Williams.

Charles has a sense of déjà vu. When they traveled cross-country searching for mutants, they had easy, rambling conversations like this. Even said some of the same things, though important details are different: Erik's past, their goal, Charles' legs. But still, it feels good, talking like friends, the jagged edges that made Erik so dangerous before missing.

It feels comfortable. Like an old friendship renewed, even though Charles is now certain that it's no such thing, that his memories of Erik are as false as he once believed Raven's memories of his car crash to be. But there is some bond between them, that much is certain.

*

Charles aches with the familiarity of the scene. Erik sitting next to him in Charles' study, a chess board on the table between them. Erik has a glass of scotch in one hand and his socked feet up on a stool, soaking up the warmth from the fire.

There are differences from his memories: Charles isn't in his old armchair, but in his wheelchair, and Blue is curled up at his feet. The house is almost empty and the chess set is untouched. They've too much to talk about before they can allow themselves any distractions.

"How did you get inside my head?" is Erik's first question. He picks up a chess piece, a black rook, and twists it around in his fingers. His whole posture is relaxed, but Charles can sense the tension and confusion under the apparent ease.

"You have your tricks, and I have mine," Charles says, remembering words he used in some other lifetime, in a dream. "I'm a telepath," he explains properly, "and I don't just hear thoughts, I can project them too."

Erik weighs Charles' words carefully. "Are you reading my mind now?" He stares at Charles, not in accusation, but appraising, as if to make certain Charles doesn't lie to him.

"No," Charles says, and then adds in the interest of total honesty, "I can sense emotion when it's strongly felt without touching a mind. So I have a vague sense of your state of mind — I would be able to tell if you were angry or fearful, because those are strong emotions; I feel those whether I want to or not. But I promise you, I will not look inside your mind, not without your permission. You have my word on that."

"And my state of mind now?" Erik's face is blank, just one small muscle in his jaw giving away the tension he's feeling.

Charles doesn't hesitate. "You're not sure whether to believe me. You're confused and anxious."

Erik nods, his face relaxing. "Thank you for being honest," he says. He places the rook back on the chess board and tidies several pieces that have been knocked onto the wrong square. It's a stalling tactic, but Charles gives it him. This conversation needs to happen at Erik's pace. He needs answers first.

Charles picks up a white pawn and changes the subject to give Erik time. "Do you play?" Charles asks.

"Yes," Erik says, and then qualifies it. "I used to. I haven't for many years."

Charles has a sudden image of a young Erik playing with an older man. A kindly face, teaching him. His father.

"Perhaps we could play some time," Charles suggests.

"Perhaps," is all that Erik offers, but he's full of nostalgia for the game, for the memories it invokes. He wants to play again.

They are quiet for a while. It isn't quite the silence Charles remembers them enjoying, friends relaxing after a long day, but it isn't uncomfortable. Blue puts her head on Charles' knees and he scratches her favorite spot just under her neck. Her eyelids droop.

Erik is the one to break the silence. "When we crashed, what did you do? What did you do to me?" There is a hint of anger in his tone, but it feels like old anger, like a fury that's grown dull and sad.

"Do to you?" he asks. Charles never wanted to cause him pain or sorrow, but he might have done something in the fear and shock of the moment, something he doesn't remember.

"Yes. You did something, you did something to me," Erik says. He leans forward, face screwed up in concentration, relieving the moment. He looks scared. "Just before we hit, I heard your voice in my head and—I don't understand it."

"I—I have no idea. I don't even remember the crash." Charles rubs at the bridge of his nose. "I—" He huffs a breath, hardly knowing where to start. If he stares into the center of the fire, the flames are mesmerizing. He can see patterns, miniature worlds in it. "I think the accident affected my memory."

"You have amnesia?" Erik asks. Charles hasn't sensed any pity from Erik, not for his paralysis, and not for his amnesia. A trace of suspicion now, but not pity. It's a relief.

"No," Charles says. "Well, yes, I suppose I do, in a way. This is going to sound crazy—"

Erik interrupts, "I think we can both handle that. After all, you've seen me bend metal, and I've heard your voice in my head."

"There are crazier things in life than either of those," Charles warns.

"But sometimes the crazy things make more sense," Erik mutters, quietly, as though he's not really speaking to Charles, but pulling up old memories. Charles wonders what happened to this Erik during the war, what madness and horror in the name of order. There is a tattooed number on his arm; that's a partial answer. It's the same number Charles vividly remembers. Erik never hid it. It isn't Charles' place to ask, though, so he starts his own story instead.

"I have a completely different set of memories," Charles begins. "Going back years, as far as I can remember. I remember a different life to the one my sister, Raven, remembers. There's a lot of overlap, some things that are the same or similar, but in my memories, she's a mutant too. Able to shapeshift. Her natural form is blue." Blue lifts her head at the mention of her name, and Erik smiles briefly. Charles goes on. "In my memories, we met before."

Charles remembers jumping into freezing water, desperately pulling Erik to the surface. He remembers the pain in Erik's mind. He'll tell him about that another day, if Erik stays.

"We worked together," he says, "training other mutants to use their powers safely. Helped them learn ways they could use their abilities." It's the briefest possible potted history of all Charles remembers, but it will do for now.

"You knew about my—mutation? Before the crash?"

"In my memories, there was no crash. It's—confusing," Charles says. "Trying to work out what's real, what isn't. In my memories, I knew you could manipulate metal and control magnetic fields. But I didn't know for certain that your powers were real until I started looking for you. Though I hoped," Charles adds, because he wants Erik to see that this can be a gift, not a curse.

"I didn't know until the crash," Erik says. He sounds cheated, as though somehow he should have known. "I heard a voice — your voice — screaming for me to help us. As though you knew I could. And then I found myself reaching out, holding back metal, changing the trajectory of our cars." He's stretching his arms out now, circling his out-stretched hands in the air. The metal in the room is vibrating. "I could feel all the metal around me, and around you, and I forced it away from us. I had no idea I could do anything like that."

"It must have been terrifying." Charles reaches out and squeezes Erik's arm. Just briefly, reassuring.

The vibration stops. Erik's expression settles into something approaching calm.

He continues. "I thought it might have something to do with you. I don't even know why I thought that. I had no way of knowing for certain that it was your voice in my head. There was nothing to say that was what made me able to do what I did."

"You came to visit me in the hospital."

"Yes. You remember? You weren't conscious. I had to sneak in while no one was looking."

"I don't remember, no. But when I woke up I noticed indentations in the bed frame. Like finger marks. And I knew of only one man who could have done that. You know," Charles adds, "I think that saved my sanity. All that time, seeing people I remembered and finding out that they had either no memories of me, or completely different ones, that none of them were fellow mutants, I clung to the hope that when I found you, then I would know for a certainty that I wasn't the only one." Feeling other mutant minds in his search for Erik had helped, but nothing was as good as finding him. Seeing his power in action.

"And now you know you're not."

"Yes, now I know." Charles drains his glass of scotch and leans back. He hasn't felt this relaxed in a long time. He pets Blue with his free hand.

"Are there others out there, do you think? Others like us?"

Charles shouldn't feel so warm at Erik's casual use of 'us'. "Yes, there are. I am quite certain of that. There are over three billion other humans on this planet. I only touched a small fraction of them searching for you, but I felt other mutants among them. Not as many as I remember," Charles says, voice softening at the memory of the wonder of Cerebro. "When I searched for mutants in the other world, I found so many it was truly astounding. So many mutations, amazing ones I'd never imagined possible. When I searched for you, I only found a handful. But they are out there."

They quickly change the subject to China and the atomic bomb when Raven comes in to say goodnight. Charles brushed against the surface layers of her mind earlier, when he arrived with Erik. She'd remembered the name from Charles' questioning when he first woke up, so Charles slipped in a vague memory of Erik as an old university friend. Now she's just glad to see him so animated, happy that he has another friend besides her.

"You haven't told her, I take it," Erik says once she's closed the door behind her.

Charles shakes his head. "No. I hate lying to her, even if only by omission, but I think it's safest for her. The memories I have, of a team of mutants — she was one of them. And she was in danger, more than once. This way, she can lead a normal life. I'm well enough now that she doesn't have to stay here to take care of me any more. She's thinking of moving to New York, and I'm going to encourage her to do that."

"Won't you find this place empty without her?"

"It'll be strange, yes. But I hope it won't be empty," Charles says, the seed of the offer he wants to make to Erik. There's a flicker of understanding in Erik's eyes, but he doesn't say anything.

It's late. Blue's asleep now, and when Charles reaches out, Raven is brushing her teeth, half asleep. But Charles knows he and Erik still have far too many unanswered questions for either of them to sleep yet.

Erik asks the next one. "How did you find me?"

"I searched, mentally. I—" Charles finds it hard to put into words the experience of reaching out with his consciousness. It isn't something the English language has been designed to describe. "I felt your mind, eventually. Every mind is distinctive, and a mutant's mind has a very distinctive signature." Erik's mind is strong and very powerful; even if Charles hadn't known him, he would have been drawn to such a mind. But there's pain there too, underlying everything. Not the bitter hatred the other Erik felt, but a sadness, a sense of failure. "I knew yours the moment I touched it."

It sounds to Charles like something a lover would say, but he doesn't qualify his words.

Erik sounds thoughtful. "I wonder if you did that when we crashed. Reached out and awakened dormant powers in me."

"It's possible," Charles agrees. "The shock of the crash must have had some impact too. Fear can be a powerful force. Perhaps it was the combination."

"I keep wondering what might have happened if I'd known about this ability earlier. When I was a child." This is the source of his pain.

"During the Holocaust," Charles interjects softly.

"You're reading my mind now?" Erik doesn't sound angry. But he isn't pleased, either. More resigned, as though he'd had no great expectations that Charles would be able to keep out of his head.

"No. No, not at all," Charles says quickly, willing Erik to believe him without actually forcing him to accept it. "It's part of my memories. Your past, losing your parents. I've seen it in your head, before."

"I might have been able to save them," Erik says softly. This is what's been tormenting him, the failure that's eating away at him. He gets up and paces around the room. "They died in the camps, and I don't know what sort of torture they went through before they died. They were quiet, decent people. Hard-working. We were a loving family. And if I'd found out about my power in time, they might still be alive. I could have saved them," he says, coming to a halt in front of Charles.

Erik's expression is full of pain and loss, and Charles is going to help him overcome it if he possibly can. He's not going to make the same mistakes this time. Perhaps he dreamed what he did for a reason. Perhaps there is some higher power, or perhaps it was some strange form of precognition, seeing a future that might have been if things were just a little bit different.

"No, you would not," Charles says. He remembers the other Erik, the life he led, consumed by the need for revenge. He has to try to get Erik to understand. "You would have tried, and it wouldn't have helped them, just made life so much worse for you. Imagine what might have happened if someone in a position of power had learned about your powers. Imagine what they might have done to you." He feels the tears well up in his eyes and tries to blink them away. One rolls down his face, and he rubs it off. "Please trust me, it is far better that you didn't know about your abilities then."

"You sound very certain." Erik doesn't look convinced. He's too full of guilt for one man's assurances to wash it all away in one go. Charles just hopes Erik will give him the time to help him see the truth of it.

"I am." Charles yawns then, the warmth of the fire and the scotch in his belly and the late hour all conspiring against him. He could take some pills, but Erik is tired too. "We can talk more in the morning. If that is okay with you?"

Erik yawns in answer. "I assume you have a spare room," he says, looking around as though he can picture just how many rooms there are here.

"One or two," Charles says wryly.

*

Charles and Erik talk through most of the next day. Raven insists that Charles follows his physical therapy routine, so they work out in the gym together, and after lunch Charles gives Erik a tour around the grounds. He tries to see his home through Erik's eyes, and he knows he's trying to make it as appealing as possible to convince Erik to move in.

There's a brief rain shower, heavy and sudden, and Charles is very aware of Erik's closeness as they shelter under a tree. He wants to keep this, find out where their new friendship could lead. He wants Erik to stay.

"I'm aware that this is very sudden," Charles says as they head back up the lawn towards the front of the house. Erik is walking by his side; he's only offered to push Charles once, when they were racing uphill to the shelter of the tree.

"You're going to ask me to stay," Erik says, and grins at Charles.

Charles matches his grin. "I wasn't aware that telepathy was catching."

"You've been telling me about everything we achieved together in your memories, and it doesn't take a mind-reader to know that you're thinking about all we could achieve if we worked together now. And you know that I have a job that means nothing to me, and no ties, nothing holding me back."

"So that's a yes," Charles says.

Erik slows his steps, hand on the arm of Charles' chair to halt him. "I don't know what the future holds. I don't know how we'll deal if the world finds out about us. I don't want to be a government pawn — I won't be. But I've been trying to cope alone for too long, and you need someone by your side, and—" Erik tips his head back and looks at the sky. There's a break in the clouds, and a weak ray of sunlight falls on them. "And there's something between us," Erik continues, stumbling over the words as though he needs to say it but doesn't know how. "I don't know what. I don't believe in fate. I think we make our own, and that only fools or the weak blame fate. But if I ignore this, then I'd be throwing away an opportunity to do something good. Be at the start of a stronger, better human race."

Erik's last words make a faint chill go down Charles' back. But this is his chance too, his opportunity to guide Erik, help him see that mutants and humans can work together. For all his pain, this Erik isn't bitter like his old friend. He's more hopeful, more optimistic. Charles feels a new strength inside him, a new purpose.

"I am glad, my friend," Charles says.

*

Erik travels back to New York with Raven. She's tearful, but excited, and Charles touches her mind subtly to dispel any concerns she has about leaving him. He's sad to see her go, but it's for the best. She's safer somewhere else, not around him. She never needs to know about mutants. Charles doesn't know what danger might be ahead for them, but in this world, Raven needn't be a part of it.

Erik returns the next day with the same suitcase and duffle that Charles saw in the landlord's mind, both just a little more scuffed around the edges.

"I've never had grand dreams of being a printer's assistant," he tells Charles as he hangs up his shirts and jackets in the room he chose. It's his old room, next to Charles'. The wardrobe is too big for his few belongings; empty hangers rattle when he closes the door.

"What are your grand dreams?" Charles asks, wheeling across the room to turn on a lamp. It isn't dark yet, but the extra light warms the room.

"Why don't you tell me?" Erik suggests, turning on the other lamp with a flick of his fingers. Flashy. Probably the first time Erik has felt safe using his powers like that in front of someone else.

Charles taps his fingers against his temple. "Are you giving me permission?"

"I suppose I am." Erik sets a photograph on the chest-of-drawers. Erik as a child, maybe five years old, with an older woman beside him, her arm resting lightly on his shoulder. Charles recognizes her from a memory of a memory: Erik's mother.

Charles rests his chin on his hands. He's hiding things from Erik: the fear that Erik and he might come to blows as they did in his memories, the feelings he has for Erik that he can't imagine are reciprocated. He doesn't want to go into Erik's mind while he's still keeping secrets. "No, just tell me."

Erik sprawls on his bed, his unpacking finished. It didn't take him long. Clothes, toiletries, two books, a few papers in a well-worn folder, and that one framed photograph. He's been traveling a long time.

"Well," Erik starts, "I always wanted to be an astronaut. And a train driver. And for a while I wanted to be a train."

"What boy doesn't? Well, the astronaut and train driver, anyway." Charles had had ambitions of being a racing car driver at one point. But deep down genetics was always his first love, right from the time he first opened a biology textbook as a boy and worked out that genetics could be the key to understanding himself. "What now? Or do you still harbor a desire to be the first man on the moon someday?"

"Now," Erik says, stretching his arms out and floating a brass-inlaid box into the air, "now I want to see what I can do. I want to learn how to use my powers."

Charles smiles, open and content. For all his fears, he is optimistic. This time around, everything is going to be better. "We can do that together."

*

With Raven gone, there is nothing to hold them back from practicing their powers. Erik is bemused at first when Charles suggests that he could fly, and then excited. He learns quickly, hovering an inch off the ground at first, then higher, then floating up to the roof. He sits on the balustrade and waves down to Charles.

"I could float you up here too," he offers. "There's more than enough metal in your chair."

It's a crazy idea, and yet Charles says yes without hesitation. Erik floats him up carefully, keeping the chair steady, and lands him without a jolt on the roof. "That was amazing," Charles says gleefully.

Charles too is continuing to get stronger. The amphetamines help keep him focused, and he tries out old skills he once had. Erik drives them into Salem, and Charles winks at him, then freezes everyone in the bookstore.

"It's a good thing you're an honest man," Erik says, looking out the window at the bank opposite. "Or are you ever tempted?"

"To rob a bank? No, never. Smaller things, though. I used to use my powers to chat up girls," he admits wryly. "I'd offer to buy them whatever drink they were thinking about." Erik looks surprised. "What, you thought I was too honorable?" Charles laughs.

"No, not that, exactly," Erik stutters.

"Then what?"

"Nothing."

"You know, people are always lying when they say it's nothing," Charles observes.

"I was just surprised that you used to chat up girls. I'd simply assumed—that your tastes were different."

Oh. "I see. And if that were true?"

Erik shrugs. "You wouldn't be the only one," he admits, and now it's Charles turn to be surprised. And relieved.

*

Erik finds the amphetamines one morning when he wanders into Charles' bedroom and asks to borrow some shaving soap.

Charles rationalizes later that it was better that it was Erik who found them, not Raven. If Raven had known about the drugs, Charles knows would never have agreed to leave for New York.

"What the hell are you thinking?" Erik shouts at him. Charles wheels himself into his bathroom, still in his pajamas and dressing gown, to be confronted with Erik standing in front of the open cabinet holding a little brown bottle of pills. There are six tablets left in the bottle. "No wonder you're always so wired," Erik says, quieter, but no less furious.

"That I needed help to find you," Charles says. He hasn't slept well, and he hasn't had any coffee yet, and it's too early in the morning for an argument.

"You're putting this on me?" Erik snaps, disbelieving. "Your drug abuse."

"No," Charles says quickly. "I just—I had to find you, and I couldn't—I wasn't powerful enough, so I experimented. For a while. Carefully. Amphetamines helped me focus."

Erik turns the bottle slowly in his hands. "You realize that every drug addict has a perfectly good explanation for taking drugs."

Charles doesn't believe he's an addict. He has always been careful. The drugs are simply a tool. Nothing more.

Erik shakes his head in disbelief. "I might not have your ability to actually read minds, but I'm pretty sure I know what you are thinking right now, and you are wrong. You are a fucking idiot if you think you can handle this."

"Take them, then. Throw them away." Charles shrugs carelessly, as though it's no matter to him what Erik does, even though he's woken up tired and he knows that if he were to take just one tablet, or two, just two, he'd be able to work longer, work better, achieve more today.

"No."

"No?"

"No. I won't do that. You need to do that."

Erik has been here for two weeks now. They both have strong personalities, different backgrounds, different ways of looking at the world. It's surprising that they haven't argued sooner.

"And if I don't want to?"

Erik stares at him, long and hard, and then stalks out of the bathroom. He throws the bottle at Charles as he passes.

The glass is slightly warm from Erik's touch. Charles rubs his thumb around the lid. He wants to take one.

He doesn't. He reaches up and puts the bottle back in the cabinet.

*

The problem is that he's distracted for the rest of the day. He feels slightly off, three cups of coffee not enough to make him feel alert. His head aches when he tries to see if he can stretch his mind to a specific location chosen at random on a map by Erik. He can still do it, reach as far, but he feels the strain. He's irritable, and by dinner time he's had enough.

He means to take a tablet. That's his intent right up until the moment he opens the bottle. He tips one out onto his palm. It's very small and innocuous. Deceptive. But then so are a lot of dangerous things. Charles is dangerous, and so is Erik, but nobody could guess that from looking at them. They're both capable of killing people with their minds.

And they're both capable of making terrible mistakes. Charles can't fool himself that Erik is the only one who's made bad decisions. Remembering the other lifetime, Charles can see the moments he got wrong, the times he said the wrong thing. They're just following orders. Of all the thoughtless arguments to throw at a man whose family was killed in the Holocaust.

He looks at the tablets. He doesn't regret taking them. Without them, Erik wouldn't be here by his side. Charles would still be searching. But Erik is right. Charles can't keep taking them.

He tips the rest out into his hand, and throws the bottle into the trash. The tablets he drops, one by one, into the toilet, and then flushes it.

He's angry afterwards. With himself for being weak and not being willing to accept it. With Erik for being right. With himself again for being irrational. He goes to bed early that night.

The early night doesn't help his mood. He feels worse the next day, and plans things so that he spends as little time with Erik as possible. They talk over meals, but the pills are like an elephant in the room and Charles finds himself eating without tasting a thing. He goes to bed straight after dinner, skipping their regular routine of a game of chess and a glass of scotch.

It's about midnight when there's a faint knock on the door. It can only be Erik.

"Come in," Charles calls out. He doesn't really want to see Erik right now, but he knows he's been childish.

"I'm sorry," Erik says, sitting down at the edge of Charles' bed. Charles can just make out his expression in the faint light coming from the hallway. He looks sad.

"Why?" Charles shrugs. "You didn't do anything wrong."

"Yes, I did. I pushed you. Tried to force you."

"You were concerned for me," Charles replies, "and you were right to be." As he argues Erik's case he feels the anger drain out of him. "I've thrown them away," he says, and is rewarded by a brief glint of a smile in Erik's eyes.

This is a new beginning for them. Charles can't afford to make any mistakes. He knows he can't expect another divine intervention, another second chance, or whatever it is that his false memories are.

He can't fuck this up.

But this moment feels so intimate. Erik is leaning in, closer than he needs to be, knees pressing against Charles' hip. Every day they've gotten closer. They spend almost all their waking hours together, training and talking and relaxing in the evenings; Charles has missed that the last two days. And he can't stop thinking about that night in Langley, the night in his fantasy, the remembered sensation of Erik's hand around his dick so vivid it's hard to distance it from his other memories.

He works to keep his breathing even. His body is reacting to Erik's proximity, to the setting, the dim light and the dip of the bed next to him.

Erik has to feel it. Has to know what he's doing to Charles. But this is the first time Charles has been so close to someone and not allowed himself to touch even the surface of their mind. He won't cheat; he won't give Erik any reason to distrust him. So he holds perfectly still and waits for Erik to speak.

Erik shifts fractionally. Not away. "I think I must have known there was something special about you from the moment you crashed into me," Erik says softly. "I couldn't bear the thought that I'd tried to save you, tried to keep the car from crushing you, and failed."

"You didn't fail." Charles puts all the conviction he feels into the words, stares at Erik and wills him to believe it.

"You were in a coma," Erik says, holding his gaze. "And—and you'll never walk again. That feels like failure."

Charles reaches out with both hands and clasps Erik's face. "You saved my life, and for that I will be forever grateful." He wonders now that he's never thanked Erik properly for that. "And you brought us together, for which I am even more grateful."

They're so close, everything that happens next seems inevitable. They move together, Erik's hands coming up to Charles' shoulders as Charles slides his fingers into Erik's hair. It's finer and silkier than he's imagined, and Erik's face is softer than he's ever seen it, warm in the glow of the hall light. He looks good, so good, and Charles marvels that he's resisted this long.

Charles closes his eyes as their lips touch. His mind skips through random thoughts. That he should have closed the bedroom window because if it rains in the night, the carpet will get wet. This is Erik, finally. Tomorrow he must get Williams to post the letter he wrote to Raven. He fought this man once, came to blows over the future of mankind. He loves him.

The two of them, they can be magnificent together. All his thoughts come to this point.

He turns his face into the kiss. Erik gasps, or maybe it's Charles. They both gasp. Charles doesn't know. He's jumping off a roof not knowing if he can fly, nothing but air beneath him, and only faith between him and death. I trust you, he says silently, and holds on.

The kiss deepens, tight and desperate.

Charles doesn't need to breath. This is his air. This is his new drug. And maybe it's no safer, certainly no less addictive, but this is his choice. Erik.

He leans dizzily into Erik, not wanting to break the kiss. He feels a faint scar above Erik's lip, presses his lips into it, laves it with his tongue, nips at it with his teeth. He wants to learn every inch of Erik.

"Is this in your memories?" Erik asks eventually, the words melting into Charles' skin. "Us?"

Charles's throat is dry. He chokes out: "No." Nothing a fraction as good as this.

"Good," Erik says. Possessive, as though he's jealous of the time the other version of him spent with Charles. Charles can feel the emotions radiating from him: relief, happiness, arousal.

"You're going to have to think more quietly if you don't want me to hear," Charles says, pulling back reluctantly and letting his hands fall down to his side. He leans against his pillows.

Erik doesn't let him keep the distance between them. He leans forward and his breath ghosts over Charles' cheek. "I want you to know everything I'm thinking right now." He lifts one of Charles' hands and places it on Charles' temple. "Everything," he says.

He is in love with Charles. That is the basis of every thought running through Erik's mind, and it colors every recent memory. It's overwhelming to see their interaction through Erik's eyes, but wonderful, so wonderful he needs Erik to know exactly how Charles sees him.

He's never tried this before, pulling someone else into his own mind, opening up for them. But there is a bond between them, a connection on a level that Charles doesn't understand yet but wants to explore in every way, and he's certain that if this can work with anyone, it's with Erik.

He doesn't need physical touch to do this, but he holds out his hand anyway and Erik takes it. Charles doesn't focus his mind; he does the exact opposite. Lets it drift away from him, opens up like a butterfly spreading its wings in the sunshine after too long in its chrysalis.

He hears a sharp intake of breath, and Erik squeezes his hand. They're joined, sharing everything they've ever seen or felt or done. This life and the other one. Charles focuses now, relives the kiss they've just shared, feels it through Erik and knows Erik feels what Charles felt.

He is so open it hurts.

He can't hold it indefinitely, but even when he draws his mind back, they don't separate completely.

"I can still feel you," Erik says, and Charles nods.

Even without trying he can feel more than just emotions. He knows Erik is afraid that they'll end up fighting like the two men on the beach. That they're too different. And he knows Erik will do everything he can to avoid that future, avoid failure.

"We won't make the same mistakes," Charles promises, determined. "We won't. This is different. We are different men. We've seen what could happen, and we can avoid it. We will avoid it."

"Yes," Erik says, and kisses Charles again.

Erik doesn't ask before he pulls the comforter and top sheet off Charles. "You're perfect," he says, and Charles knows that's in response to his own fears. His own frustration with his imperfect body.

Charles unbuttons his pajama top, and Erik presses kisses against his belly and unties his pajama bottoms. For a moment, Charles sees himself through Erik's eyes again, lying there wanton and eager, his half-hard dick nestled between the spread fabric of the pajama pants.

"You are far too clothed," Charles points out. Erik hasn't even undressed for bed yet, has spent the evening pacing around his room. "And much as I would like to strip you, right now I don't think that would be possible." Not the way Charles would like, standing in front of Erik, pulling off one garment at a time, exposing him slowly.

Erik has metal buttons on his cardigan and a metal zip on his slacks. He sheds both garments without touching them but fumbles with his cotton shirt and underpants.

He's hard, his cock jutting up against his firm belly. Charles wants to taste him, wants to feel Erik inside him, wants everything.

"Patience," Erik orders but Charles knows Erik is no more patient than he is. Erik kneels on the bed next to him. He traces his index finger down Charles' chest, over the plane of his stomach, down to the wiry hair at his groin, then bends down and takes Charles' cock in his mouth. Sucks him to full hardness.

Charles makes a sound like a sob. Bangs his head against the headboard, over and over. He twists his hands in the sheet to keep from grabbing Erik's hair. He wants to fuck Erik's mouth, crash into him, rise and fall like a wave.

Sometimes I dream of crawling into this bed with you, spreading your ass wide and fucking you so hard you scream.

Charles shudders, his cock pulsing in Erik's mouth. He knows. He's seen Erik's dreams. Seen everything. And it's still not enough. He wants to live each of those dreams, create a dozen new ones and live those too. A hundred. A thousand.

There's a humming sound in the room, and Charles doesn't recognize it at first. And then he feels it too, all the metal in the room vibrating, in tune with them both, and his skin is alive, his whole body is more alive than he's felt—ever.

Charles touches Erik. Not with his hands, but his mind. Makes it feel like Charles's hands, matches Erik's rhythm, the thrum of the metal, pumps Erik's cock, faster and rougher and Erik matches that in turn with his mouth, and Charles can't keep silent.

"Fuck, Erik," he groans. "Fuck, I can't—" I can't last, can't wait.

"Shhh," Erik says, his voice hoarse, fingers sliding into the crease of Charles' thigh, and he can't feel the touch on his own skin but he can feel it through Erik, the warmth of thin skin, blood right under the surface. They're two, but they're moving as one, in perfect phase. And when Charles comes — too soon, but it's been so long — arching his back and thrusting into Erik's mouth, he feels Erik come too.

Erik slumps down on his chest afterward, legs tangled together. He's too heavy, and there is come drying between them, but Charles wraps his arms around Erik and holds him close. Welcome home, he whispers in Erik's head.

He feels at peace. The room has settled into silence.

And then Charles feels laughter bubbling up from inside him. He isn't sure why, just that Erik is happy and he wants to laugh and he wants Charles to feel his amusement.

Erik laughs out loud, the sound rumbling through Charles' arms.

"Really?" Charles mutters. "Your reaction to mind-blowing, telepathic sex is to laugh?"

Erik just laughs harder. "You really—" He snorts into his hand, and then continues, "You really picked up girls by telling them they had a groovy mutation?"

The laughter is infectious. "It's that bad a line, huh?" Not that it generally worked, but still. Charles didn't think it was that bad.

"Oh, yes. Right up with 'you must be tired because you've been running through my head all night.'"

Charles hides his face in Erik's shoulder.

"You haven't. Tell me you haven't used that."

Charles suddenly regrets his policy of honesty, but at least it doesn't require him to actually answer the question. "I guess it's a good thing I didn't have to use a pick-up line to get you into bed," he counters.

"To think that I'd imagined you as incredibly smooth." Erik's disappointed tone would be more convincing if he weren't stroking his fingers through Charles' hair, scratching his scalp in a way that makes Charles wish he weren't falling asleep.

"If I tell you I am that smooth, really—?" Charles tries.

"Too late," Erik whispers as Charles' eyes close and his face falls heavy against the back of Erik's neck. It's very comfortable. "I've been inside your mind. I know the truth now."

*

Erik props himself up on one elbow, flicking a stray hair out of Charles eyes. Charles needs a hair cut. He put his life on hold while he searched for Erik, but now there's time.

There's a landscape on the wall opposite — a view of North Salem commissioned by a long-dead Xavier — that's almost like looking out of the window. Charles normally enjoys it every morning when he wakes, but this morning he prefers to stare at the man next to him in bed.

"So, in this other reality, this coma dream," Erik says, appraisingly. "We trained mutants, you and I."

Charles nods. Knowing Erik like this, sharing minds, it's like suddenly having subtitles on a Chinese movie after trying to work out the plot from body-language alone. He doesn't have to guess any more. He knows what Erik is going to suggest.

He smiles at the good (fake) memories and even wider at the prospect of better (real) ones. All the time he spent searching for Erik, he'd feared that Erik wouldn't know him, and knew it would break him if Erik wanted nothing to do with him. And Erik hadn't known him, not really, but it's okay. It's more than okay. They're starting again, and it's good. It's so very good.

"Yes, my friend," Charles says, and by friend he means everything: friend, brother-in-arms, partner, lover. "We did. We hoped to open a school together, right here." The plans they drew up don't exist on paper any more, but they're in Charles' head, and in Erik's now too.

"And you think you could find other mutants?"

"We know there are others out there. Not all the ones I remember, maybe, but others I felt briefly, searching for you. And some may be scared or lost. With your help, we can find them." It troubles Charles, thinking of them, of lost souls like Alex, terrified of hurting others, of starving children like the Raven he first met. But he and Erik can find them, help them. Somehow he feels certain that whoever gave him those memories did so for this very purpose, to guide him to Erik, to put them on the path they're about to take.

"Then I think that is what we should do. Find them. Make that part of your dream come true," Erik says, then grins. "If we can ever bring ourselves to leave your bed, that is."

He leans over Charles and kisses him and makes it very difficult for Charles to even consider leaving.