Charles has never felt a mind quite like Erik's.
It isn't just the raw strength of focus, or the rigid intensity that drives the man forward on a path Charles can barely comprehend.
It isn't even the fact that Erik is a fellow mutant, though there's something more than a little seductive in the way Erik feels the hum of metal in every thought, every breath, every memory. It's an unfamiliar view of the world, and one that fascinates Charles.
But none of that is material.
No, what grabs Charles by the throat the first time he touches Erik's mind is the heady thrill of the unknown. There's an unyielding integrity to this man, and underpinning it—swirling through and around and beneath—are more mysteries and shadows and secrets than Charles can hope to untangle in a lifetime.
Not all the secrets are good ones, but there's beauty amid the chaos. There are bright points and flashes that leave Charles breathless—that make him desperate to know this honest, angry, brilliant man.
"You're not alone," Charles tells him, as the chill of open water sinks into his skin through the rush of adrenaline. "Erik? You're not alone." It feels like a promise.
One Charles is more than willing to make.
- — - — - — - — - — -
They ride to the CIA facility packed into a single car—an uncomfortable arrangement, considering the length of the drive.
Raven doesn't seem to mind being wedged between Erik and Charles in the back seat, and Erik finds her endless flurry of conversation strangely endearing, even though he mostly tunes her out. He spends the majority of the drive staring out the window or, at unpredictable intervals, across Raven at Charles—Charles, who never seems to stop smiling, even when he catches Erik staring.
"What's in the briefcase?" Raven asks at one point, eyes dropping to the leather handle Erik still holds in a relaxed grip.
"Nothing important," Erik says with half a smile. Nothing at all, in fact. Not yet.
But he's surprised to realize he doesn't mind her asking. Raven is a good kid. Sharp and sincere. She's a young woman with the potential to grow up into something beautiful and dangerous. She also happens to be blue—a fact revealed in a private moment, still aboard the coastguard ship, Charles standing by and smiling encouragement—though she hides behind a pale blonde façade now.
The drive spans several long hours, and even Raven falls silent eventually. In his peripheral vision, Erik sees her leaning against Charles's shoulder. She looks sleepy, but her eyes remain open. Erik wonders if her natural form would reassert itself if she drifted off.
Almost certainly, he decides. A talent like that must require constant concentration.
Erik stills at an unexpected flutter of sensation at the back of his thoughts. It's nothing solid—nothing physical he can pinpoint—so subtle that, for a moment, he thinks he's imagined it. But there's a sensation just the same, a sense almost like familiarity, and it takes Erik a moment to figure out why.
What are you looking for? He phrases the question deliberately in his head, thinks it clearly and slowly. He raises his gaze and catches the way Charles's eyes startle wide. His expression holds none of the caught-out guilt Erik expects, but instead obvious surprise tinged with awe.
You felt that? The words ring clear and easy in Erik's head—the same familiar edge, but more pronounced this time. Louder.
Don't dodge the question, Erik thinks with the same deliberate care. His lips twitch with the urge to voice the words aloud—thinking them without speaking is surprisingly difficult.
Forgive me, Charles says, and the corner of his mouth twitches suspiciously. I wasn't trying to invade your privacy.
Then what were you trying to do? Erik presses. It's not that he doesn't trust Charles. He does, in point of fact. He trusts a man he barely knows, which is almost as terrifying as the thought of just how much Charles Xavier may be capable of.
But there's no concern on Charles's face as he confesses, Sometimes my mind wanders. I do apologize. Truly. I can't help that I—
The thoughts cut off abruptly—deliberately—and Erik turns to give Charles his full attention. He arches one eyebrow meaningfully and locks Charles with his most piercing look.
Can't help what?
Charles smiles sheepishly, and finally admits, I can't help that I find you fascinating.
He doesn't elaborate, and Erik doesn't press.
- — - — - — - — - — -
Hours later, after a limited tour of the CIA facility, Erik waits impatiently. He eyes his empty suitcase and waits for the facility to close down for the night, the people to venture off to sleep. When Charles approaches him, there's a mysterious smile on his lips.
"It's not normal, you know," Charles informs him, and Erik doesn't know what he's talking about.
"You'll have to be more specific," Erik says blandly. "There's a great deal about this arrangement that isn't normal."
"The fact that you could feel me inside your mind," Charles says. "And from such a superficial intrusion, for that matter. With most people, I can go far deeper unnoticed."
"Perhaps they don't know what to watch out for."
"Or perhaps you have a remarkably perceptive mind."
"You do this frequently, then?" Erik asks, moving towards Charles without conscious purpose.
"Do what?" Charles asks, taking an automatic step back when Erik steps a little too close. The movement puts Charles's back to the drab, gray wall of the corridor, and Erik steps forward again—moves himself far enough into Charles's space for their difference in height to be strikingly evident.
"Rummage around in people's private thoughts," Erik clarifies. "Help yourself to their secrets."
Charles gives a quick, nervous swallow, but he doesn't try to step out of the trap Erik has maneuvered him into.
"I can't always help it," Charles says softly. His voice falls low and quiet, and he almost sounds embarrassed. "I'm quite good at controlling my talent, but it's… not always easy to tune things out. Some thoughts are louder than others."
"Are you reading my thoughts now?" Erik asks.
"No," Charles says. You would almost certainly feel it if I tried, he sends after, and even that leaves Erik's skin tingling.
Erik takes an abrupt step back, unsure why he suddenly feels shaken. Charles is watching him with curious eyes, and Erik shakes his head. The gesture does nothing to clear his thoughts.
"It's late," he says, not bothering to glance at the clock across the hall. "I think perhaps I'll inquire about quarters and turn in."
"Good night, Erik," Charles says. He doesn't hinder Erik's retreat.
- — - — - — - — - — -
Erik stays. Charles pretends to be surprised.
- — - — - — - — - — -
The plane touches down, and Charles unfolds from his seat. His limbs feel stiff and awkward when he stands. He's not used to flying anything but first class, and the novelty of a more standard airline experience wore off within twenty minutes.
Erik rises with enviable grace, and Charles can't decide whether to glare or gape.
He settles for collecting his coat, averting his eyes in the process. When he raises them again, Erik is watching him.
"I could've had them upgrade us," Charles says as they move into the aisle. He has more than enough money. He hasn't tried explaining to Erik just how much, but he suspects Erik has some idea already.
"And let on to the CIA that you've sufficient resources to fund this entire venture yourself?" Erik chides, confirming Charles's suspicions. "I don't think so." But despite his rebuke, he's wearing a soft smirk, unmuted amusement flashing in his eyes. Charles finds himself returning the smile without thought.
It's possible he should be more careful. He seems to have very few defenses where Erik Lehnsherr is concerned.
"You say that now," Charles says, disembarking the plane behind Erik. "But you haven't yet seen the room we'll be sharing. I've never actually been inside a motel, you know. I've heard horror stories."
Erik snorts, and the eyes he turns on Charles are disbelieving—but also warm in a way that twists under Charles's skin and leaves him wanting to reach out with his mind and touch.
He resists the urge and falls into step beside Erik.
- — - — - — - — - — -
The rental car is slate gray and unassuming, and Charles doesn't protest when Erik moves immediately for the driver's side door.
He's content to ride in the passenger seat and watch Erik out of the corner of his eye. Erik's gaze holds steadily on the road ahead, shadowed by the dark glasses he put on the second they exited the airport terminal.
"How far does Cerebro let you see?" Erik asks, voice breaking the comfortable silence as he glances briefly towards Charles.
The seatbelt tightens over Charles's chest as he shifts in his seat. Erik's attention is already back on the road as Charles considers his answer.
"You mean geographically?" he asks.
"I'm not sure," Charles admits. "It's a little hard to guess distance when everything is so strongly amplified. All the coordinates Hank printed out seem to keep to roughly the same half of the North American continent, but that could simply be because my mind latched onto the nearest mutants first."
"Do you think you could reach farther?"
"Maybe," Charles says, settling back in his seat and considering the possibility. "There's a whole world out there, after all. Given enough time, imagine how many people we could help."
Charles feels Erik's focus on him like a sudden wave, and when he glances to his left he finds Erik watching him heavily through those dark glasses—not paying nearly enough attention to the road. A trickle of something uncomfortably like awe reaches Charles from Erik's mind, and he brushes the feeling aside.
"The road?" Charles says, keeping his tone light.
Erik waits an extra, almost deliberate moment before returning his focus to where it belongs.
- — - — - — - — - — -
"Which one is ours?" Erik asks as they step through the door, into an establishment filled with low lighting and loud music.
Erik takes in their surroundings, and within seconds he knows that there are three exits that lead outside plus the door leading backstage, that the bartenders could pose just as much of a physical threat as the bouncers, and that there are seventy-nine people visible in this room. There's no discerning which one of those seventy-nine people might be the reason they're here—hell, there's no way he can be sure the mutant is even in this section of the bar. There are dozens of other, more private areas branching off, and at least one additional level up the stairs in the far corner.
Erik's gaze sweeps the room, even though he knows he won't be able to identify their target by sight. His eyes linger on patrons, dancers, discreet security, but he can't discern any useful information.
Charles presses close beside him and leans up so that Erik can just make out the quiet, "Her," Charles murmurs in his ear.
Erik's eyes dart to Charles, then shift to follow his gaze to the center of the room.
Even knowing she's the one, Erik can't see any difference between her and the crowd of humanity filling the rest of the space. But he doesn't doubt Charles as he follows him down the steps and onto the main floor. He keeps following Charles's lead through the evening, all the way into the red-draped private room where he finds himself reclined on a bed, with Charles on one side and an icy bucket of chilled champagne on the other.
The situation feels suddenly surreal, but Erik finds himself smiling and taking it in stride.
"More tea, Vicar?" he asks, levitating the metal ice bucket within reach with barely any effort at all.
Angel's eyes widen as she watches Charles take a smug sip of champagne, and then she cocks her head to one side.
"And what do you do?" she asks Charles.
Erik watches Charles set the champagne glass aside and raise his fingers to his temple. A look of focus settles across his face, eyes going distant, but the softly amused half smile doesn't fade from the corner of his mouth.
Erik is so caught up in watching Charles that it doesn't occur to him to watch for Angel's reactions—not until he hears the gasping snicker and turns to find her looking at him.
She's covering her mouth with one hand, and her eyes flash wide with gleeful amusement.
"Charles?" Erik says, not breaking eye contact with Angel. "What are you doing?"
In his peripheral vision he sees Charles drop his hand, and Charles's voice is bright with mirth when he answers.
"Just a visual projection." Then, in the privacy of Erik's mind, You'd be amazed how easy it is to effect minor changes in a person's perceptions.
How minor? Erik asks, even though it seems rude to exclude Angel from their conversation.
Very, Charles says. Then aloud, "Angel here was still seeing you, just… with some slight variation in accessories."
Angel's hand has fallen from her mouth, and the smile on her face is positively wicked as she says, "The eyeshadow was a nice touch."
Then, before Erik can protest or demand further explanation, she says, "My turn."
The four wings that unfold from her body are glorious. They're like nothing Erik has ever seen, and hopeful excitement twinges in his chest.
Extraordinary, Erik thinks, turning to meet Charles's eyes.
Yes, Charles agrees, already watching him.
- — - — - — - — - — -
Charles grows accustomed to sharing Erik's space as they travel, from state to state, city to city, one set of coordinates after another.
He finds he doesn't even mind the frugal accommodations, though he keeps having to stop himself from calling the front desk for room service. Erik laughs at him the second time Charles picks up the phone and puts it down without dialing a number—it's as though he knows exactly what Charles was thinking.
"The car is just outside the door if you want dinner, Charles," he teases.
"Thank you, Erik," Charles mutters dryly. "But I think I'm fine for now."
They develop a simple routine that they follow with each new recruit. Erik demonstrates first, something flashy and direct—turning off the meter in Armando's taxi with a flick of his fingers, twisting the bars on the high window of Alex's cell into nonsensical shapes—and once undivided attention is secured, it's Charles's turn.
Visual illusions are the simplest way to go, allowing Charles to demonstrate his gift without having to address the way unguarded thoughts flicker through his mind—telling him more about their talented young recruits than they might be comfortable with.
Even this simple twist of perceptions is an invasion, in a way. Charles needs to slip beneath a subject's bare surface thoughts to accomplish the trick, deeper perhaps than he would be invited if people knew just what he was doing. But privacy is a relative term to Charles Xavier. A virtue he respects when it's important—and when he's given his word—but also a concept that would drive him mad if he clung to it more tightly than necessary.
With enough focus and effort, Charles can block the entire world out—but the few times he's done it have left him no desire to try again. He can't live that way, and so he chooses his battles more carefully. He perceives the world with all his senses, and looks to privacy almost as an afterthought.
"What do you show them?" Erik asks as they wait for Alex to be discharged into their custody. Curiosity drifts almost tangibly off Erik's thoughts, and Charles shrugs.
"Simple things," he says. "In Alex's case, I simply switched our attire. I must say, I looked quite smashing in that leather jacket of yours."
"I'll lend it to you sometime," Erik says.
Charles could discern easily enough whether or not Erik is serious, but instead he simply smiles and leans patiently against the wall.
- — - — - — - — - — -
There's a farmhouse at the end of the enormously long gravel drive, and Erik doesn't doubt that the next mutant on their list is there. Charles sits in the passenger seat, confidence obvious in the set of his shoulders and the glint in his eyes.
They drove nearly an hour out of town to reach this place, and as Erik parks in front of a blue home with tall windows and a wraparound porch, he wonders if the distance from town is deliberate. Some mutations are more dangerous, more difficult to control. Perhaps the removal from town is a deliberate attempt to keep people at a safe distance.
Or perhaps the individual they're searching for simply isn't a people person. Erik certainly knows how that goes.
Charles gives Erik a bright smile before exiting the car, and Erik follows close behind. The wooden steps creak suspiciously beneath their weight, but the porch feels solid enough as Charles knocks on the door.
The silence stretches long enough that Erik wonders if perhaps Charles got this one wrong.
"It's possible no one's home," Erik points out when the quiet persists and the door doesn't open.
But Charles shakes his head and says, "No, he's here. I can feel him. There's something… different about him, but he's definitely here."
Charles knocks again, and again they wait. Erik shakes his head and sets a hand on Charles's shoulder.
"There's not much we can do if he doesn't want to talk to us, Charles."
"Maybe he didn't hear," Charles says, ever the optimist. "Perhaps we should return later and try again. If we—"
The door cracks open, and Charles falls silent. A tall, gangly young man peers out at them through the narrow opening. His eyes are dark and suspicious.
"Hello," Charles says, voice bright and unassuming.
"Who are you?" the man—boy, really, Erik wouldn't peg him at older than sixteen—asks.
"My name is Charles Xavier." Charles wears a reassuring smile as he takes a step towards the door. "This is my associate, Erik Lehnsherr. We were hoping you might spare a moment to talk."
"About what?" the boy asks. He doesn't volunteer a name, but he does open the door a sliver wider.
Erik feels instinctively—knows Charles must as well—that parlor tricks aren't going to be the best way to break the ice here. There's a skittishness in the boy's face and posture, uncertainty in the set of his spine and the way he hasn't emerged onto the porch. Erik glances to Charles, and Charles gives an almost imperceptible nod—reassurance that yes, this is the one they're here for.
"It's a delicate subject," Erik answers, vague but honest. "We'd like to discuss the things you can do. Any unusual… talents you might have."
The boy's expression barely changes. His eyes widen slightly and his fingers tighten on the doorjamb, but all he says is, "I don't know what you're talking about."
He's terrified, Charles murmurs in Erik's head. Erik had already surmised as much.
"It's all right," Charles says. His tone is soft, placating reassurance. "We're friends. We may be able to help you."
"What do you know about it?" the boy asks cautiously.
"Nothing," Erik cuts in. "Not unless you want to tell us." He reaches into his back pocket for a scrap of paper. "Do you have a pen, Charles?"
Of course Charles has a pen, and Erik scribbles down the name of their motel, the room number, and holds it out like a peace offering.
"This is where you can find us if you want to talk," Erik says. "We'll stay for a couple of days, but please don't wait too long."
The boy accepts the scrap of information, reaching forward without stepping out into the sunlight. His wrist is thin, his fingers long and narrow, and he snatches the paper from Erik's hand like he's not certain he wants to concede even that much.
"Come on, Charles," Erik says. When his companion doesn't immediately move to leave he drops his voice and repeats, "Charles, we should go." He sets a hand at the small of Charles's back, feels heat beneath his palm and then the subtle start of movement that reassures him he's been heard.
"Do consider it," Charles says. Then together, they turn and descend from the porch.
- — - — - — - — - — -
Their room is on the ground floor, at the very the end of the building, and Erik parks the rental car in the space immediately in front of their door.
"What was his name?" he asks once they're inside. He sheds his jacket and drops it across the foot of the bed nearest the door.
"I don't know," Charles admits. "His surface thoughts were… guarded. And I got the sense probing deeper would be especially unwelcome."
"Do you think he'll come find us?" Erik asks.
"Honestly, I've no idea," Charles says, still standing just inside the doorway. "But I hope so. He's scared of something. His gift, perhaps, or the way people respond to it. It's impossible to say. But with any luck his curiosity will get the better of him."
"Luck, Charles?" Erik's eyebrows arch high.
"I'm not allowed to believe in luck?"
"You're a scientist."
Charles grins and moves further into the room.
- — - — - — - — - — -
The knock at the door comes just under six hours later, and a quick glance at Charles's face tells Erik who's standing outside.
Charles shifts to the edge of his bed, where he's been sitting with a chaotic spread of papers—maps, coordinates, spreadsheets full of data. He tidies the papers into a single pile, then stands and moves for the door.
Erik stands at Charles's elbow as the door swings open. Outside, familiar face regards them with wide eyes, and Erik doesn't need to look at Charles to picture the reassuring smile he's probably wearing right now.
"You don't look surprised to see me," the boy says.
"We were hoping you'd come," Charles says. "What's you're name?"
"Would you like to come in, Laurence?"
Laurence's eyes dart from Charles to Erik, to the room behind them, then back to Charles. An uncertain expression settles across the boy's face.
"Perhaps outside instead," Erik interjects. A rundown park languishes around the side of the motel. There's rusted playground equipment, uninviting and abandoned, and a scattered row of picnic tables along the perimeter. Neutral enough, and private enough for their purposes.
The suggestion instantly eases Laurence's expression, though he runs a nervous hand through his hair before he nods. Erik wonders if it's a distrust of them guiding his reactions—perhaps others have discovered him and reacted poorly in the past—or if it's something more basic. Caution hums like a warning along Erik's skin. He considers for a moment, and opts to leave the door propped open a crack.
Erik lets Charles lead the way, leaves the door just shy of shut as he follows off the pavement and into the unmowed grass of the lawn beyond. Laurence sits first, his movements cautious even now as he claims a bench near the side of the building. Erik drops to a bench at an adjacent table, eyes following as Charles moves to lean against the wall, roughly halfway between them.
"You said you could help," Laurence says, and his eyes dart between them, hesitant with hope. The sun hangs low in the sky, casting deep shadows across the ground and making the expression on Laurence's face look even heavier.
"That's right," Charles says. "Though it would help if we knew what you can do."
"You first," Laurence says guardedly.
Charles's eyes dart to Erik, bright and confident, and Erik nods. He turns his attention towards the empty playground, and after a moment Laurence turns to follow his gaze.
There's a sagging swing set with rusted chains a short distance away, a seesaw beside it, and an off-balance merry-go-round visible beyond that looks like it might once have been painted in primary colors. Erik focuses on the swings first, on the dangling chains, and gives a gentle nudge. The two hanging seats squeak softly as they come to life with grudging movements, and a moment later the seesaw creaks with the same reluctance. Both of them, back and forth, up and down, and without releasing either piece of equipment Erik widens his focus to encompass the tilting metal of the small merry-go-round.
The merry-go-round is even slower to shudder into motion, joints rusted and broken, but it's metal within his grasp and it still turns at his command. Grinding unhappily at first, but smoothing as he twists the base back into shape.
Laurence's eyes are wide and shocked, and Erik doesn't maintain the show for more than a few seconds. He can already tell there's no need.
He turns a piercing stare on their guest as the swings settle to silence.
"I project my emotions at people," Laurence blurts. The words are all at once rushed, relieved, and terrified. It's painfully obvious he's never spoken them aloud before, and Erik keeps his face carefully neutral. He could ask questions here, but he senses somehow that he doesn't need to. There's something confessional in the way the boy leans forward. He'll say more without prompting.
Charles must realize the same, because he remains silent where he stands.
"I don't know how it works," Laurence continues a moment later. His tone is calmer now. Soft enough that he's difficult to hear. "I can keep it in sometimes, but… when I can't, it's too much, you know? It's… it can be dangerous."
"What happened, Laurence?" Charles asks softly.
Laurence flinches at the question, but he meets Charles's eyes when he answers.
"It's worst when I'm scared. And when there are too many people. When I was little I got lost in a big city, and it was… bad." He pauses. Breathes in and out. "I caused a riot. People died."
"Was that the first time it happened?" Erik asks.
Laurence nods and shifts his feet, stares at the ground between his shoes.
"It wasn't your fault," Charles says in the same soft, reassuring voice Erik has heard him use a hundred times.
Laurence laughs at that. It's a ragged sound, dry and unhappy. He shakes his head, and for a moment his shoulders tense. Then he's raising his eyes, turning to lock Charles with a hollow grin.
"What about you?" Laurence asks. "What can you do?"
Charles's face is considering, but after only a moment's delay a half-smile twists at the corner of his mouth.
"A demonstration, perhaps?"
And this Erik is used to. This is the routine, and he watches without interrupting as Charles raises two fingers to his left temple. Charles's eyes drop briefly closed before flickering back open, locking on Laurence with intense focus, and then—
Then something goes wrong.
Erik doesn't know what. He can't tell what's going on in Charles's head, or in this kid's, but Charles's eyes clench shut and a hurt sound escapes his throat. Charles starts and stumbles, and Laurence makes a shocked noise and surges to his feet.
"Oh god," Laurence gasps, as Charles falls to his knees. "Oh god, I'm sorry, I didn't— Fuck."
Pounding panic flushes beneath Erik's skin, tight and hot, and he's on his feet in an instant. This isn't right either, this unfocused terror spinning through him. Erik is no stranger to fear. Fear is a known commodity—something he's spent his whole life learning to master and control.
Fear like this—shattered, uncontrollable—is something Erik hasn't experienced in years.
But as he takes an instinctive step towards where Charles has collapsed and curled in on himself, Erik realizes what's happening.
The fear isn't his.
As quick as the thought hits him, Erik reverses course and intercepts the boy instead. He grabs him by the collar of his shirt, and shakes him hard.
"What did you do?" he demands, more roughly than he intends. He can't focus, can't moderate his responses. It's all he can do not to lash out and attack, an instinct that can't possibly serve him now.
"I swear I didn't mean to," Laurence gasps, shaking in Erik's hands. "I swear! He—He was in my head, and I panicked!"
"How do I help him?" Erik demands, giving him another shake. "How?"
"I don't know," Laurence gasps. "Oh god, I don't know. Please let me go!"
There's terrified sincerity in the boy's voice, but it still takes every ounce of Erik's failing control to let go and watch him run for the street.
Charles makes a shattered sound, and Erik goes to him without hesitation. The grass is damp beneath his knees, but Erik isn't paying attention to that, he's too busy reaching for Charles. The uncontrolled panic is receding now at least, fear falling back into the familiar contours of his own emotions, and Erik's mind snaps into damage control mode. Charles's arms are shaking beneath his hands, heat bleeding through his sleeves and into Erik's palms, and Charles's breath echoes unsteadily in Erik's ears.
Erik needs to get him inside, and he needs to do it now.
He has to all but carry Charles back to their room, thirty feet across grass and pavement—guiding and pushing, manhandling him over the threshold and slamming the door shut behind them.
"Charles," Erik says, and gets no response. He's still got Charles by the upper arms, and he gives him a rough shake now, but that also accomplishes nothing. Charles's eyes flash open once, twice, sporadic and glazed, but even in those brief moments he's obviously not seeing Erik.
And all that is bad enough, but a moment later a new sound escapes Charles's throat. A hurt gasp, low and sharp, and another after it as Charles suddenly shudders, twisting and thrashing in Erik's hold.
"God damnit, Charles," Erik growls, mind racing, evaluating his options. He can't just let go. It would be too easy for Charles to hurt himself like this. Instead, he moves for the nearest bed even before a fresh shudder wracks Charles's body.
"Easy, Charles," Erik murmurs, voice modulated low and calm as he forces Charles down. His words will go unheeded, he's sure of it, but maybe his tone will get through. Maybe Charles will feel the steadiness in Erik's voice, in his mind.
But Charles doesn't quiet, he doesn't still, and Erik shifts his grip, murmuring reassurances as he pins Charles more securely—as his fingers close over the warm skin of Charles's wrists and—
—a jolt in that instant of skin against skin, and Erik feels it like an electric shock.
"Fuck," he gasps. A surprised tremor rockets through him, and he squeezes his eyes shut.
When he opens them again, Charles is staring at him—at him, Erik realizes in a disjointed corner of rational thought—and Charles's mouth is open on a ragged gasp.
"Erik," Charles whispers, and then, Erik, mirrored harshly in his mind.
Maybe it's the fact that Charles has been in his head already, or maybe it's that Charles's thoughts are screaming, but Erik feels more than just the familiar brush of his friend's thoughts. He feels reckless purpose, the desperation as Charles's mind reaches for him—
He feels it the instant Charles latches onto him, his thoughts and memories. The touch is unthinking and vicious, and Erik inhales sharply. He should let go—physically he should let go—but he doesn't remember how. He's not sure it would make a difference.
"Charles, stop," he gasps, staring into Charles's eyes, feeling his friend twist deeper past his natural defenses. "What are you doing?"
And then the force of Charles's mind surges around him—grasping and cacophonous—and Erik feels himself coming apart. It's too much, too intense. It feels like Charles is trying to crawl in beneath his skin, and might even be succeeding, and god, it hurts. It hurts like nothing Erik has ever experienced in a lifetime of too much pain, and Erik falls forward as the world swirls to broken chaos.
- — - — - — - — - — -
The first thing Charles notices is a deep, aching wrongness humming beneath the surface of his thoughts.
He searches it out instinctively, digging deeper, but shies away with a sharp hiss when doing so calls up fresh pain. It's only psychic pain, nothing physical for him to focus on and analyze. There's damage, somewhere deep and rebounding, and the extent of it—the shock that comes of poking at it—makes Charles wonder how he's even conscious.
Charles's mind is a chaotic disaster of hurt—a hurt like nothing he's ever experienced—and he has to focus through a pounding headache to try and decipher what happened.
Charles catches his lower lip between his teeth as he remembers Laurence—as he circles the raw hurt in his thoughts as closely as he can, trying to figure out what it means.
The second thing Charles notices is that he's trapped.
His back is flat against something soft—feels like a bed—and on top of him is steady weight, heat, a smothering sense of being crushed in someone's arms. But that makes no sense. There's only Erik, and why would he—?
Charles forces his reluctant eyes open and confirms that yes, that is Erik. Curled atop him, heavy and overheated. One of Erik's hands is curled around Charles's wrist. Erik's other arm is wedged firmly between Charles and the comforter in a grim parody of an embrace, fingers fisted in the fabric of Charles's shirt as though desperate for something to hold onto. Erik's body is a heavy line of muscle bracing Charles in place and making it impossible to move, to retreat to a safe distance and think. Against his throat, Charles can feel the steady in and out of Erik's breath, his friend's face squashed into his shoulder.
Charles can't untangle himself, and so he says Erik's name. Softly first. Cautious.
When Erik doesn't stir, Charles speaks his name louder.
It takes several long minutes for Erik to stir—long enough for Charles to discard any embarrassment at the uninvited intimacy of their positions. He can't be embarrassed when his worry is an almost overpowering force.
Finally Erik shifts above him, presses closer as he draws a deep, uneven breath.
"Christ," Erik gasps, and Charles feels a low tremor run through Erik's body. "What happened?" Erik asks the question in a groggy voice, and though his clenched hand loosens and releases Charles's wrist, he doesn't rise or roll away. He doesn't unwrap his arm or shift his legs where he and Charles are entangled. He props himself awkwardly on one elbow, as if even that effort is almost too exhausting to manage, and looks down at Charles with uncomprehending eyes.
God, how to explain. For a moment, Charles isn't even sure where to start.
He swallows thickly and forces himself not to flinch from Erik's scrutiny. Elements of his telepathic ability are difficult to put into words, but not impossible. Charles's fingers twitch, wanting to fist in the sheets and pillows beneath him, and he draws a slow, steadying breath.
"I should have considered that Laurence might have natural defenses to telepathy," he finally says. "Especially considering his gift. I was careless. I should have exercised more caution."
"What did you do?" Erik asks, his voice still soft, still dazed. Still looking at Charles like he's not sure whether this conversation is actually happening.
"Exactly what I did for the others," Charles says. "I entered his mind to create a simple visual illusion. He perceived the intrusion as an attack and responded… violently."
"He hurt you," Erik says, eyes narrowing darkly. Anger flashes across his face, and Charles flinches as it echoes like a shout of rage in his own mind—still too close, then, or maybe just too tired. Too freshly wounded. His shields aren't up to their usual strength.
"He didn't mean to," Charles says. "It was instinct. He'd certainly never met a telepath before." Erik looks dissatisfied with that, but Charles insists, "There was no coordination to the attack. No purpose. He simply lashed out at the foreign element in his mind, which… just happened to be me."
Charles can see more questions in Erik's eyes: queries he's obviously not sure how to put into words, though Charles understands clearly enough. He struggles for the necessary clarity, the way to explain, feeling trapped as much by the weight of Erik's stare as by the press of his body.
"I think, even subconsciously, all he meant to do was knock me out of his head. But he used too much force. He… damaged me." Charles wishes he could say something reassuring to calm the worry his statement ignites in Erik's expression, but even he doesn't know the extent of the damage. He won't know until he can get close enough to examine that wave of pain beneath the surface.
"It was more than that, though," Charles admits before Erik can speak. "Whatever he did… it didn't just knock me out of his head. It knocked me out of mine. I've never felt anything like it."
"Like what?" Erik growls, eyebrows knitting.
Charles's brain scrambles for a moment, searching for a way to describe the sensation, and finally he answers, "Untethered." He pauses. Swallows. "I couldn't find anything familiar to ground me. Not until you touched me. I don't know if I'd have found my way back without you."
Erik looks considering after that. Charles thinks about asking him to move, but somehow senses it would be better to hold his tongue. This conversation isn't over yet. The intensity of Erik's focus makes that abundantly clear.
When Erik finally speaks, his question punches the air from Charles's chest.
"And what did you do to me?"
There's no anger in the question. No accusation. Just quiet puzzlement. But Charles's startled response must show on his face, because Erik's expression quickly changes to a look of mounting concern.
Charles doesn't remember doing anything to Erik beyond sensing him—reaching for him—holding on with everything he had.
"May I?" Charles asks, suddenly breathless and terrified as he gestures at his temple with his right hand. Erik nods, and Charles forms the familiar gesture.
He nudges carefully with his mind, and instead of the almost imperceptible resistance he usually encounters, he gasps at the sudden force of too much information flooding into him. It's a heady rush, almost overwhelming. Like an open conduit, all rough edges and surprise. Things Charles shouldn't be able to sense without deliberately seeking them out, all rushing into him in an uncontrolled flurry of thought.
As drained as he is, Charles still manages to slam a shield up to block the flow. It's not a perfect effort. Too rough, too blocky and uncoordinated, but it's better than the alternative.
The sudden cutoff leaves Charles dizzy, and he feels Erik shudder above him. When he opens his eyes, he finds Erik watching him, unsettled and queasy.
Charles's breath is coming too fast, and Erik is clearly not doing much better.
"You're in my head right now, then," Erik observes, and Charles blinks at him in surprise.
"No," Charles says.
"Then why can I still feel you?"
Charles's eyes go wide as he processes that. Erik can't still feel him. Not if Charles isn't making contact. It shouldn't be possible, which leaves an incredibly slim line of reasoning that Charles follows to the only conclusion he can.
"Oh, my friend," he whispers. He searches his own mind for confirmation, and now that he knows what he's looking for the evidence is unmistakable. Bright points of connection, glinting threads of consciousness woven subtly between them.
"What is it?" Erik asks, catching the guilty revelation on Charles's face—or, god, maybe in his mind. Maybe Erik can feel it. "Charles, what have you done?"
"I seem to have miscalculated," Charles hedges. He braces himself, licking his suddenly dry lips, and continues, "In using you to ground myself, I must have formed some kind of telepathic bond between us. It seems to be… pervasive."
"That's… What does that mean?" Erik's eyes are too wide, too bright, too close. He's staring down at Charles with a look of dawning comprehension, and Charles has to swallow past a sudden lump of emotion in his throat.
"Our minds are linked on a fundamental level. The reason you can still feel me in your thoughts is that I left something behind. Quite literally, I'm afraid."
"Can you take it back?" Erik asks, looking dumbfounded and suddenly lost.
"I can try," Charles says. It's not going to feel good—he can already tell that whatever he did to Erik's mind is tied up in that bright, taut pain he discovered in himself bare moments ago. He needs to brace himself, and he definitely needs a little more distance if he's going to have any hope of pulling this off.
"What are you waiting for?" Erik asks after a pronounced moment of silence.
"I'm sorry," Charles says, feeling suddenly sheepish and a little bit flushed. "But could you maybe…" He glances down, indicating the lack of space between them. Erik blinks as if slow to follow Charles's reasoning.
"Oh," he finally says, shifting his arm from around Charles's back and pushing to his hands and knees. "Of course." He doesn't move far. He simply pushes himself upright and kneels beside Charles, sitting back on his heels and watching expectantly.
Charles sits up with awkward stiffness, sliding towards the head of the bed so he can lean against the wooden headboard. He reaches for his temple again and closes his eyes, seeking with his mind and trying to catalogue all the points of contact. Even as Charles focuses in on a single thread, he's all too aware of the inevitable futility of the attempt. There are too many.
Still, he has to try, and he follows the thread between their minds. He searches for the spot it hangs tethered in his own consciousness, and then in Erik's. And once he's found the anchor points, he tries to disengage.
The attempt makes scattered sparks flash behind his closed eyelids, blinding brightness tearing at him. Charles hears his own voice cry out, then hears Erik's throaty gasp beside him. Pain follows, swift and sharp, flowing the length of the thread and curling beneath Charles's skin. His free hand fists in the comforter, and he struggles to quiet his mind, dropping the thread and edging cautiously away from the throbbing discomfort.
He inhales slowly, exhales audibly, and shakes his head without opening his eyes.
"Apologies. That was… clearly not what I should have done. Let me try something else."
He tries everything he can think of. The connection refuses to give ground, and every attempt leaves him—and Erik—shakier, more shattered, wrung out and exhausted and hurting.
Finally Charles drops his hand and slumps back. He opens his eyes and finds Erik watching him with impenetrable resignation.
"I'm sorry," Charles whispers. They're useless words, but he says them anyway. Erik will know it means he's failed.
"Is it permanent, then?" Erik asks. His tone is guarded, but there's anger in his eyes.
"I don't know," Charles reluctantly admits. "I've never done anything like this before." His chest hurts almost as much as his battered mind, sensation that has nothing to do with physical discomfort and everything to do with the look on Erik's face—with the enormity of the violation Charles is all too aware he just inflicted.
Erik's gaze cuts away, drops to stare at the gaudy comforter between them, and after a moment he slides to the edge of the bed and stands. He grabs his coat from the other bed and shrugs into it, not looking at Charles.
"You should rest," Erik says in a disconcertingly measured voice. "You look like hell."
"Where are you going?" Charles asks, too tired to be embarrassed by the plaintive desperation in his voice.
"Out," Erik says. He grabs the room key off the dresser and slips it into his pocket. "Don't wait up for me."
The door closes softly behind him, and Charles collapses onto his back, pillows squashing beneath his head.
"Fuck," he says.
He tries to wait up despite Erik's admonition, but he only manages to stare at the ceiling for twenty minutes before sleep claims him.
- — - — - — - — - — -
Erik returns at sunrise, two cheap cups of coffee in hand.
The coffee isn't a peace offering. If he thought he needed a peace offering he'd have brought good coffee. But he suspects they're both going to need it, and as he shoulders his way into the room he decides his assessment was correct.
Charles—usually an unapologetic morning person, so far as Erik has been able to determine—is still out cold. He sprawls atop the comforter of his bed, fully clothed and looking unnaturally pale. He clearly didn't last long after Erik left last night, and a protective twinge murmurs through Erik's chest.
He's not angry anymore. Not after spending almost the entire night in motion, walking his frustrations out through the town and figuring out that he can't bring himself to hold Charles accountable for something neither one of them foresaw. His mind hums with unfamiliar rhythms, with sparks and glimmers he's not sure are his—in fact he's pretty confident they're not—and as he sets down the coffee and nudges the door closed, Erik can't take his eyes off of Charles.
Charles stirs as though he can feel Erik's scrutiny—or maybe it's Erik's proximity rousing him—and a moment later his striking blue eyes open.
Silence hangs between them for an awkward moment, tight and uncertain, and Erik realizes he can feel Charles's thoughts, like a bruised echo along the periphery of his awareness. Nothing clear, nothing tangible, but impossible to ignore now that he recognizes the sensation.
"I'm so sorry, my friend," Charles says, meeting his eyes without sitting up.
Erik's voice lodges in his throat, and it takes him a moment to say, "I brought coffee."
"Thank you," Charles says. He sits up, no hint of surprise showing on his face, but Erik feels the masked emotion. Charles is waiting for the other shoe to drop—for Erik's rage to leak through onto his face, into Charles's thoughts.
But Erik's rage is occupied with more important tasks, and all he can spare Charles is a wave of rueful resignation as he hands over one of the cups and sits on the edge of the bed beside Charles.
They drink in silence for several minutes before Erik speaks.
"No more telepathic demonstrations for the recruits, I think," he says tiredly. Charles stiffens beside him, just for a moment, then slumps, shoulder brushing Erik's arm.
"Agreed," Charles says, and takes another sip of coffee.
- — - — - — - — - — -
They've already checked out of the motel and loaded their few bags into the car, but Charles can't help thinking they're not finished here.
He touches Erik's arm to draw his attention, and says, "We should go back. Try to talk to him again."
The look Erik levels at him is wide-eyed disapproval, and Charles can feel the surge of denial even before Erik shakes his head.
"He's gone," Erik says, expression falling grim. "I returned to the farmhouse before dawn. There was no one there."
"He could return later," Charles insists. "We should try to find him, at least. We did say we'd try to help him."
A fresh surge of muted anger, and Erik shakes his head again. The anger's not meant for him, Charles senses clearly, and he tries not to think too hard about Erik's purpose in going back to the farmhouse alone. He doubts Erik meant to do the boy harm, but just the same he would rather not know for sure.
"I very much doubt he wants to be found, Charles," Erik says. "And we've wasted enough time here. Shaw won't keep his head down forever. We don't have time to chase dead ends."
He's right. Charles doesn't want to admit it. He can't quite find it in himself to acknowledge that someone might be beyond his ability to help, even temporarily. But Erik is undeniably right, and Charles's shoulders slump with the weight of resignation.
"Fine," he concedes, moving for the passenger side door. "But we're coming back. Once we've done what's necessary, once we've stopped Shaw. We have to try again. We can't leave him like this."
"Later, Charles," Erik says, as close to agreement as he's likely to come.
As they settle into their seats and the engine growls to life, Charles falls reluctantly silent.
- — - — - — - — - — -
They return to Washington in the late afternoon, back to the CIA facility for a thorough debriefing. Their new recruits have already arrived, for the most part. Only Sean is absent, and his plane is due within the hour.
"How about a game of chess?" Charles asks as they step out of a drab office and into an equally drab hallway, all gray walls and smooth floors.
He feels a quiet surge of approval, sees the hint of Erik's smile, but for some reason Erik shakes his head.
"Not here," Erik says, glancing at their surroundings. Charles understands well enough, then.
He doesn't mind the anonymous, vacant corridors of the facility himself, but even with half-hearted shields up to keep their thoughts separated, Charles can feel the claustrophobic way these halls resonate for Erik. He can understand the desire to be anywhere but here.
They end up on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial—empty, by some improbable miracle—and Charles is lightheaded with hope, with excitement, with the giddy energy of everything they have the potential to accomplish.
He doesn't need to sense Erik's thoughts to know his friend doesn't share his unbanked enthusiasm. He can tell from the pensive lines drawn between Erik's brows, and from the cautious hesitation in his words. The way he talks about identification and experiments, the dry hint of fear in his voice.
Charles doesn't know how to convince him. He only knows what he himself believes.
Perhaps he'd be able to form stronger arguments if half his attention weren't focused on maintaining a careful wall between his thoughts and Erik's. He's trying to be thorough, because the alternative would make this chess game a bit of a farce, considering how potent the bleed-through of thoughts and feelings has become in such a short span of days.
A ripple of private guilt shivers beneath Charles's skin, but he keeps his expression untroubled as he reaches for the board and retreats his remaining rook three squares back.
He's so focused on the board, and on the effort to see the board through only his own eyes, that it takes almost a full minute for Charles to realize Erik is staring at him instead of contemplating his next move.
"It's more difficult than it should be, isn't it," Erik says in a contemplative voice.
"What is?" Charles asks. The sudden flash of trepidation isn't entirely his own.
"Keeping me out now that there's this… connection between us," Erik clarifies, gesturing vaguely at the space between them.
Charles winces and drops his eyes back down to the board.
"It's not that bad."
In his peripheral vision, he sees Erik's eyebrow arch higher—he can hear the skepticism curling around the word when Erik says, "Really."
Charles plans to study this chessboard until Erik lets the subject drop. There's no apology he can make that will undo the damage he's caused.
Charles draws in a startled breath at the unexpected nudge of Erik's mind at the edge of his thoughts. There's something focused about the contact, unmistakably deliberate. Erik prods at the barrier Charles has been maintaining—a gentle enough touch at first, but one that quickly transforms into something too strong to ignore.
"All right, yes," Charles concedes aloud. He loosens his control and is surprised at how good he feels—warm and relieved—at the soft, returning pulse of Erik's mind past his defenses. "It is difficult. It is, however, a great deal more difficult when you do that."
Erik's expression is unrepentant, but in the quiet shadow of their shared thoughts Charles notices unexpected concern.
"Can I learn?" Erik asks, and fresh guilt hits Charles so fast he feels winded. He slams his walls back up in a rush, and only then does he consider Erik's question.
"You mean learn to maintain your own psychic barrier between us?" Charles asks. "Block me out from your end?"
Charles thinks it through and realizes he honestly doesn't know. Normally his answer would be no. How can a mind with no telepathic sensitivity learn to protect itself that way? How can it raise defenses to an invasion it cannot perceive?
But Erik has already defied those rules. Even before the connection formed between them, Erik was sensitive to the touch of Charles's mind. He shouldn't be able to perceive the barrier Charles has been maintaining, let alone interfere with it, and he's already proven himself capable of both.
"It's possible," Charles finally admits. "I could certainly try to teach you." He pauses for an uncomfortable moment, then finally raises his eyes and adds, "But I hope you know I would never deliberately take advantage. I've done my best not to—"
"Charles," Erik interrupts in an exasperated tone. Charles's protests stutter to a halt. He sits up from his slouch, meets Erik's eyes more evenly.
He waits. He doesn't know what to say.
"Charles," Erik says more softly. "I wasn't accusing you of anything. It just doesn't seem fair for you to shoulder the burden alone."
"And why not?" Charles asks tiredly. He doesn't need to point out the obvious—that he's the one to blame for their predicament, and why shouldn't he be the one to bear the resulting burden. Erik huffs an exasperated breath and gives Charles a look of inexplicable fondness.
"You're impossible," Erik says. "Be practical, Charles. You can't do everything yourself all the time."
Erik isn't wrong. Charles holds his tongue, and this time the silence lasts so long that Erik shifts, turning his attention towards the Washington Monument in the distance. Charles follows suit, eyes unfocusing in the fading sunlight.
"You don't have to be quite so careful, you know," Erik says, and Charles starts, turns confused eyes on him. Erik is watching him again with heavy scrutiny, and eventually continues, "Respecting privacy is one thing, but always staying on your guard like this… I can tell how much it's draining you, and it's barely been a week. There has to be a better balance."
Charles means to respond, but he's too busy staring. For all that Erik seems to have adapted calmly enough to their awkward new situation, Charles still finds himself shocked by the unmistakable ease in his words.
"Besides," Erik says. His eyes go guarded, the barest shadow settling over his expression as he turns away from Charles again and shifts his focus elsewhere. "You've already seen everything. What can I possibly still have to hide?"
That, at least, is a point Charles has to concede.
- — - — - — - — - — -
Erik knows he's dreaming, not from the landscape, but from the strangely vivid sense that if he looked hard enough at his surroundings, he could see everything at once. There's a surreal sense of the familiar about him—permeating the air, the green of the trees, and the sprawling water of some lake far below—but he doesn't know this place.
"It's a property in Ontario," comes Charles's voice from near to Erik's left. Erik turns, finds Charles standing against a decrepit fence, leaning his elbows on uneven wood.
"I've never been here," Erik observes, stepping closer to Charles. It seems an important point to make.
"I'm not surprised," Charles says, sparing him a glance before returning his attention to the lake below. "Nothing ever happens here. That's why I like it."
Erik can't fathom why his subconscious is imagining up places he's never been, but he's not surprised to find Charles here.
Erik's thoughts are dominated by Charles in the waking world. Why should his dreams be any different?
"What's so special about this place?" Erik asks, taking a final step forward. He's standing close at Charles's back now—close enough to feel his heat, and to see the tiny, almost imperceptible shiver he tries to hide. The horizon ripples, shifts subtly, and the sprawl of green burnishes smoothly into the reddened shadow of autumn.
"There are never people here," Charles says in a distractingly soft voice. "When I get tired, it's a good place to be alone." To be really alone, he must mean. To have his thoughts to himself, with no other minds intruding.
It occurs to Erik that this feels like truth. But how can he know these things? Even if he considers the insights he's gleaned lately from the unintended connection between them—
But that explains it, surely. Charles is asleep. They both are.
The walls are down.
"Yes," Charles says, as though Erik has spoken aloud.
"This is your dream," Erik realizes. He doesn't mean to crowd forward, or to touch. But suddenly his hand is resting on Charles's arm, his chest is a light pressure at Charles's back, and this time he doesn't just see Charles shiver. He feels it.
"I'm surprised you found your way in here," Charles says. "The subconscious mind is tricky to navigate, even with experience."
"I didn't let myself in on purpose," Erik says. He means it to sound wry, but his throat is too tight to manage the trick.
"I know," Charles says, and the landscape shifts again, bypassing winter and traveling directly into spring. "It's still impressive."
"Has this happened before?" Erik means between them. He means in the last couple nights, when he doesn't remember dreaming and might not have realized even if he did.
"I'm not sure," Charles admits. "Dreams are strange, even when they're not shared between two minds. I don't always remember mine. Chances are we've been sharing more often than not since…"
Since the day that still fills Charles with so much guilt that even here, dreaming and disjointed and surreal, Erik can feel it.
"Stop that," Erik admonishes, pressing closer—pressing Charles against the unsteady fence.
"Stop what?" Charles asks, but his confusion rings less than sincere.
"Don't be coy, Charles," Erik murmurs, lips brushing his ear with the words. "You know exactly what I'm talking about."
"I violated your trust," Charles whispers, body falling impossibly still.
He violated more than that, a fact they're both sharply aware of. But Erik knows it was an accident, and what little anger he could spare for their current predicament is long since spent. He knows how to accept a situation and make the most of it.
"What's done is done," he finally says. "I'm not going to harbor a grudge."
"It can't be that easy," Charles says.
"It is," Erik says, and presses a kiss to Charles's throat just as the trees shimmer and the dream dissolves away.