you are the hole in my head . you are the space in my bed
you are the silence in between what i thought . and what i said
you are the nighttime fear . you are the morning when it's clear
when it's over . you're the start
you're my head . you're my heart
“Scheduled track maintenance? I certainly didn't see any signs that -” and now I'm going to be late for the “- anything about track maintenance -”
“- in the red coat, mommy -” the mouth of Sarah's new doll, red lollipop all swirls of scarlets and crimsons in the glass case, mustn't touch the glass case, the man with the mustache is “- pointing to her, aren't you listening -”
“- for six months, and never once told her he was married -” hussy, new fur coat, softest white fur just brushing the new diamond earrings, expensive, no money for milk these days and she “- believe it? I told her to -”
CLEANS LIKE A WHITE TORNADO! ON SALE NOW!
“- see a damned thing down here -” cattle trains, corralled people, smell of piss and fear and sweat “- you think, Charles?”
It was the sound of his name which finally broke through the cacophony, a brief sliver of focus in the overwhelming maelstrom of thought and sound. “... I'm sorry, Erik; what were you saying?” The other man was standing right next to him, but that only meant Charles had to crane his neck back to look up at his face, shifting his grip on the handrail above him to move his arm out of the way. He always felt the discrepancy in his own height here. The handrail was too high, and the long minutes spent caught in the crush of the over-packed car had his shoulder aching in protest.
“The map,” Erik said impatiently, making a cramped gesture in the direction of the nearest wall. His clipped tones suggested that he'd said it at least once before. “I was telling you that I think our stop is two away from here, provided we ever start moving again. But it's so dark in this damned car that I can't be sure.”
Charles had grown up not terribly far from the city, and he sensed that he was supposed to be the expert in this situation. He sighed, attempting to re-arrange his feet in the small space around him. The man slumped on the bench seat diagonally from him was tall and wearing a fedora, and even with his head bowed in apparent slumber he was still blocking Charles' view of the map in question. “I'm sorry, my friend, I can't quite --”
The train suddenly lurched forward with a beleaguered shriek, throwing Charles against his companion, and then it was all back again: the darkness, the humidity, the smell of wet wool and sweat and urine and the heavy dust of the tunnels, and that single unguarded moment was enough to make his shields slip until –
Told him not to the seashore and the smell of the salt in the boss is gonna fire me if I'm late again and but I want a jawbreaker, Mommy, why can't the slick-sick pull of rubber against the chewing gum on the floor bright red like the surge of anger which it's 'baseball' two down just write why won't he stop looking at me I should have just stood like I what's the matter with him is it the heat –
“Charles?” He blinked, abruptly aware that he'd released the awkwardly placed handrail in favor of gripping Erik's damp leather jacket. A glossy sheen of sweat had appeared on his forehead, and though he was fairly certain that he was looking up into Erik's confused face the pressure building in his head was pressing sharply against his optical nerves, as everywhere else, and he couldn't be certain he was actually looking at anything at all.
“Erik,” he groaned in warning, just as – hurtambercallfoxanchorashleytomorrowscreeeechjellycan't – his overloaded brain flipped the breaker in a moment of self-preserving alarm and he pitched forward again into darkness.
. . .
He awoke to the cold and the damp and the feel of a thousand tiny needles drilling steadily against his face.
Erik was nearby; he was the first thing Charles could sense, close enough that the press of his mind swelled subconsciously into the telepath's even as Charles was gingerly checking that his shields were once more in place. The other mutant was concerned, but his worry was tempered sharply with – as if he's never been in a crowded place before, must've been the heat after all – annoyance. Charles wasn't terribly bothered by that. Annoyance was Erik's default setting in regards to the rest of the world these days. Charles pushed back gently in reassurance, but Erik wasn't paying attention and he didn't notice it. He was far more receptive to the sudden stirring which signaled that Charles was awake, and the small, stinging needles were abruptly replaced with the muted sound of quiet drumming.
“Welcome back,” Erik commented dryly as Charles carefully opened his eyes. They were above ground once more, the taller man crouched beside his prone companion and shielding them (as best as he was able) with his black umbrella. The underside of the waterproof fabric was the first thing Charles saw, opaque against the filter of weak light overhead.
“How … did we get up here?” The last thing Charles could remember was the horrifically packed subway car. He gingerly pushed himself up to a sitting position, ignoring the way the wet concrete scraped at his elbows through the fabric of his coat. His entire body ached, but it was nothing in comparison with his throbbing head. The smell of damp stone and a nearby sewer grate flooded his senses as he struggled to focus on Erik's face. It all fit New York's schizophrenic personality somehow: a world chilled like winter and smelling of Spring.
“You missed it; it was all very heroic. I forced the doors open with my powers and carried you to the nearest emergency hatch.” His friend sounded more smug than concerned.
“And no one tried to stop you?”
“They thought you were drunk. Everyone was far too worried that you might vomit all over their expensive shoes to care much about what I was doing.” Definitely smug. Charles resisted the urge to lecture him about flaunting his skills in front of overwrought humans and rested his forehead on his bent knees instead. “Are you alright now?”
“More or less. Are we far from the hotel?”
A few wayward raindrops stung the back of his bent neck as Erik turned to look up at the street sign on the corner. “Closer to where we were supposed to be going in the first place.”
“I can't, Erik. Not today. I'm sorry. If you get me a cab, you can go without me. Or we can both go tomorrow.” He could sense Erik's irritation again. This time, it made him feel helpless and more than a little annoyed with himself.
“It's cooler up here. You should feel better if you rest a moment.”
“It wasn't the heat.”
Charles shrugged his shoulders and forced himself to straighten again. “It's harder to maintain my shields when I'm tired. Especially in small, enclosed spaces where there are entirely too many people.” They had driven the entire night to make it to the city by dawn, and though they'd shared the driving duties Charles had been unable to sleep in the passenger's seat. Erik's frustrations with the failed search of two days past were too loud for him to drown out, and they'd worn away steadily at his defenses into the small hours of the cold, rainy morning. “It was hot, and dark, and there was no ventilation --”
“I know,” Erik interjected impatiently, “I was there.”
“No, you weren't. That's what I'm trying to explain to you. You were in the car, but only inside your own skin. I was in the car and in everyone else's head, and it was --”
“Alright, alright. I'll find a cab.” Erik blew out an exasperated sigh, breath frosting between them in the chilled air, and it reminded Charles of the fogged window glass in the subway car – loops of condensed steam shading in the spray-painted letters of bright pink graffiti. He groaned in assent and let his head fall against his knees again.
Erik gave him a sympathetic pat, but as he rose Charles caught a particularly loud, stray thought from the other mutant, and it made him tense.
He thinks I'm weak, he realized. And it made him feel cold.
. . .
Though they'd never articulated it in so many words, Charles knew that Erik and the other mutants regarded his powers as a set of elaborate parlor tricks: Pick a card, any card! Now put it back in the deck without telling me what it is. He didn't blame them for their dismissal. After all, telepathy wasn't exactly the easiest mutation to understand. They knew that he could read minds, create illusions, and occasionally talk to them without moving his lips – skills any decent stage magician likewise possessed. The only difference, to their way of thinking, was that Charles' magic was actually real.
The intricacies of telepathy were the intricacies of the mind, and however intelligent his companions were they remained largely ignorant (with the exception of Hank) of how their own brains functioned. How, then, could he expect them to understand his powers?
Charles knew that Erik respected him for his intelligence and his leadership abilities, and that the other man considered him a friend: the instant, involuntary surge of trust and affection each time he greeted Charles was hard for the telepath to miss. But Erik was much more ambivalent in regard to Charles' mutation. He considered telepathy a skill, rather useful for reconnaissance and finding directions and maybe convincing the meter maid that there had been enough change in the machine all along, but that was the extent of it. He certainly didn't regard it as a weapon, and Charles didn't have to be a telepath to know that combative powers were the only ones Erik truly admired.
Charles' own ethics regarding his abilities only served to compound the issue. It was all well and good to say that you could freeze a person in time or kill them outright by shredding through all their natural defenses, but it was hard to prove if you were unwilling to demonstrate. And Erik was a soldier, in training and in mindset; all talk of delicate intricacies and vital, fragile balances only enhanced his belief that Charles was weak.
The telepath knew all this. But that didn't mean he wasn't frustrated by the dismissive disregard which followed in the wake of the subway incident.
I should make him think that he's a chicken for a week, he thought sourly as they drove through the Pennsylvanian countryside, slouched down in the passenger's seat of their rented car and glaring out the window. Then he might have more respect for what I can do. They had gotten lost three times today already because their map was outdated and Erik insisted that he didn't need Charles to scan their fellow drivers' minds for more accurate directions. He could have done it anyway, of course, but it was the principle of the matter. Charles was an empathic, caring soul, but that didn't make him any less stubborn than Erik was. And anyway, he would have thought that Erik had learned better after yesterday's incident: facing down a hostile mutant who could grow badger claws and fangs at a moment's notice because you wouldn't let your partner examine her emotions first should have been an instructive enough experience.
He's protecting you, a small, rational voice argued in the back of Charles' mind. It was the part of him which usually kept the rest of him out of trouble, but he wasn't terribly inclined to listen to its advice today. He didn't need protected. Erik was the one who had gotten his arm mauled by a badger-mutant, not him; Charles had been standing well-clear when she'd struck.
“You should be sleeping,” Erik commented idly without taking his eyes off of the road. It took Charles a moment to realize that the voice had come from outside his mind, because the advice was in direct accordance with the rational thoughts he'd been ignoring. “I've had just about enough of driving around in circles. I'm going to let you take over at the next rest stop.”
“I can't sleep, not with you rattling the car all the time.” The 'driving around in circles' phenomenon – which Charles made a point of not commenting on – really was annoying Erik. It was hard to be around him when he was annoyed, especially if they were within eyesight of anything metal. The small, pale blue American Motors Rambler they'd been driving was fairly vibrating with his anxiety.
“You can feel that?” he asked, glancing over at Charles in surprise. He sounded just a little bit guilty.
“No,” Charles explained impatiently, “I can feel you feeling it. You aren't actually in danger of shaking the poor car apart. But you are contributing nicely to my approaching migraine.”
“Well, then stop trying to read my mind.” Now he sounded defensive, which was much worse than guilty. He returned his eyes, narrowed slightly in suspicion, back to the road while Charles attempted to focus on the trees lined up outside his window. There was little enough to see in the dull quiet of winter, and as an annoyed Erik unconsciously increased his speed even the repetitive shapes of the dormant foliage blurred together into one indistinct streak of brown. He should just let it go, Charles knew. He'd tried to explain this all before, clearly without success, and it would only exacerbate the situation further if he were to comment on that fact now.
“I wasn't trying to read your mind, Erik. You asked me not to do that, and I have respected your wishes. But you're projecting your emotions so loudly right now that they're impossible for me to ignore.”
So much for keeping his opinions to himself.
“Oh. So you're some kind of psychologist now, too?” Erik shot back. “Should I pull over? I don't want you fainting on me again like you did on the train.”
“Erik, be reasonable. It isn't my fault that you're too stubborn to just ask me for directions --”
“-- Now, wait a minute, you're the one who's been complaining about being tired --”
“Erik, look out!”
Erik had turned his attention away from the road just long enough to miss the car which swerved in to cut him off from the opposite lane, but Charles had been staring straight ahead and witnessed the entire thing. Without thinking, he pushed his consciousness into Erik's mind and past the thoughts of the driver behind them, forcing the former to stomp on the breaks of the car and the later to swerve clear of their rear bumper. They avoided a collision by mere inches on both sides, but all cars managed to pass through the moment entirely unscathed.
“Was gerade passiert ist?” Erik breathed, the German even harsher than normal around his clipped astonishment. Without looking at Charles he carefully guided the Rambler off onto the shoulder of the road, tires crunching uneasily over scattered gravel, and cut the engine. He'd had plenty of near-death experiences in the past; they both knew that it wasn't the narrowly avoided accident which had startled him.
“Charles, did you just …?” Erik made a vague, confused hand motion to stand in for what he couldn't name, turning in the driver's seat to give his friend an accusing look. Charles squirmed a little beneath the scrutiny and fought the urge to get defensive.
“Yes, and I'm sorry. But given the situation, there wasn't time to ask for your permission.”
“Never mind that, how did you …? I didn't know you could manipulate another man's actions like that. You never told me.”
His friend sighed, sinking back against the worn seat cushion and pinching the bridge of his nose, silently counting to ten. “I did tell you, Erik. Why no one ever believes me, I'll never understand.”
“So if … I don't know; a man was pointing a gun at your head, about to fire, you could force him to put the gun down and walk away?”
“There are quite a few factors involved in a situation like that; it would depend upon --”
“Charles. Save the lecture for now. Just tell me: could you, or couldn't you?”
“Probably. Yes.” Charles allowed his hand to fall back to his lap again, and when he opened his eyes he noticed that Erik was actually grinning. They stared at one another for a moment, and to Charles' tired mind it all seemed surreal: the ticking of the cooling engine marking off the seconds which stretched out between them; the wind pressing close against the sides of the Rambler, making the little car shudder with cold and fogging up its windows. There was a small ketchup stain on the cuff of Erik's leather coat from the hamburger he'd had for lunch, the wrapper still drifting about somewhere on the floor of the car along with the other detritus of their week-long excursion, and Charles thought absently about how Erik had eaten the food quickly, furtively, the way he always did, not wasting a crumb and hating for anyone to see him do it --
“That's incredible, my friend. You can really do that? Whenever you want?”
Charles blinked, forcing all the minute details to reassemble into an overall picture again. Between his mental exhaustion and Erik's annoyed distraction, it would be a miracle if one of them didn't get them both killed before the end of the night.
“Yes, of course. Didn't I just say as much? I can manipulate the impulses between a person's brain and their central nervous system to control their actions, or I can halt all activity entirely and freeze them in a moment of suspended animation,” he repeated mechanically. “As I've said in the past. And Erik? I can also force you to get out of the car, stand alongside the road, and hop about on one foot singing 'I'm a Little Teapot' at the top of your lungs if I so desire; so won't you please stop gawking at me and start the engine again, before we both freeze to death?”
Erik grimaced at the mental image, but it appeared to do the trick. He waved his hand absently and Charles watched the key turn in the ignition, and then the taller man guided the vehicle back down the highway – careful this time to keep his eyes on the road. Charles could feel Erik's thoughts roiling restlessly just beneath the surface of his mind, but for a while the only sounds between them were the noises of traffic and the Rambler's engine grinding its way between gears. Charles told himself he didn't mind; honestly, this wasn't a conversation he was sure he felt like having. Still, the temptation to dip into Erik's head was difficult to resist, and it thwarted his half-hearted attempts at sleep while the winter sun slowly sank into the skeletal arms of the barren trees behind them.
It wasn't until they'd switched positions that Erik finally spoke again. “So you can entirely negate free will,” he mused, watching out of the corner of his eye as Charles readjusted the driver's seat and fussed with the rear view mirror. “Like a god.”
“Don't be stupid, Erik. I can force an involuntary physical reflex – that's all. It has nothing to do with free will.”
“So if I wanted, I could resist you?”
Charles hesitated, pausing in the act of starting the motor to turn and look at his companion. There was a quiet, subtle shift in the balance of power between them now, and it worried him because he didn't entirely understand it. But regardless, he felt it was only fair (and responsible) of him to make a few things clear. “Perhaps,” he said slowly, frowning at the glowing gas sign outside of Erik's window without actually seeing it. “You could certainly try. But Erik, you must promise me something: never try that. Ever. You know you can trust me, but even if I'm not the telepath in question … trying to resist could result in very serious brain damage, especially if you don't know what you're doing.” Blue eyes flickered back to his companion's face then, as bright as neon in the twilight gloom and far more piercing. “It could kill you.”
The silence between them grew pensive as Charles finally started the car and resumed their journey. It was full-on night, now. The moody, smoke-colored clouds of a fast moving storm veiled the stars, and every glimmer of approaching headlights caught the spider veins of the crack in the upper left-hand corner of the windshield. Charles generally didn't mind driving in the dark, but tonight the irregular sweep of foreign headlamps left him feeling strangely exposed, as though their jaundiced yellow light was somehow piercing through his skin to sear his bones. Like the search lights in the camp, Erik was thinking tersely beside him. Barking dogs and the sting of frozen weeds and big, angry men with big, angry guns --
“All this time, we have been envious of your ability to pass as 'normal',” Erik mused quietly, arms crossed as he gazed blankly out over the road. “Those of us who cannot hide, like Hank and Alex, they will be the first to be rounded up. And I shudder to think of what the humans might do to them. But you, my friend … what they'd do to the likes of us is nothing compared to what they'd do to you.”
Charles didn't know how to respond to that. He drummed his gloved fingers against the curve of the steering wheel, working over the words a moment, and then pointed out softly, “Hours earlier, you thought I was weak.”
“Yes. I'm sorry for that. I did not understand.” Past tense.
“No. You don't.” Present.
They drove the rest of the night in silence, taking turns trying to outrun the storm.
. . .
Spring, Charles had learned over the years, had a habit of cropping up in the most unlikely of places. After waiting out the lingering dregs of winter in the back of a Russian farmer's truck, he certainly hadn't expected to encounter the slow, joyful reawakening of the world here.
Lips twisting a little at the unexpected irony, Charles tilted his head upward to expose his cheeks to the warmth of the morning sun and picked up his pace.
The general upkeep of the grounds had been an afterthought during his years at Oxford, one born more from a lingering sense of guilt and obligation than any actual thought of expediency. For some reason he'd been unable to sell the place, but he'd never actually meant to return. “Fate,” Raven had decreed promptly as she'd twined her arms through one of his, but he suspected that neither of them believed that. Coincidence, more like, but nonetheless a handy one. And, though he scarcely admitted it to himself, it was unexpectedly good to be home.
His feet remembered the grounds well enough, sneakers scuffing against dirt and gravel as he jogged his way around the perimeter. The air was tipped with frost yet and biting as it lapped against the droplets of sweat beading his exposed skin, but it smelled clean and fresh and he felt that that was worth the trade-off. Thigh-high blades of dew-slick grass whipped against his legs whenever he ventured off the path, usually at the beck and call of an unexpected blaze of color nestled in the vibrant green. He didn't stop to examine the flowers, but he liked to turn his head and look at them as he trotted past. The mossy pigments of this fragrant sea occasionally rubbed off on his sweatpants as he passed through. He smiled absently to himself, imagining all the ways Raven would give him hell for it later.
It all left his mind free to wander in a way he seldom allowed it to, because out here only the birds and the flowers lingered to catch him unawares.
So far, he mused while he ran, things had been going well. The role of 'teacher' had come naturally to him, and he relished each of the other mutant's independent victories as happily as if they'd been his own. None of them knew what they were doing, but for some reason they had all decided that he did; a sham he was willing to entertain so long as it brought them all the confidence and sense of security that they so desperately needed.
It did leave him little time for himself, however. Caught between his new roles as teacher and grounds administrator, only the very early mornings truly belonged to him now. He had taken to dressing in the thin, early light of dawn and slipping outside to go running about the expansive perimeter of the mansion, nominally to check on the land but mostly just to clear his head. He was not a solitary creature; if given the opportunity, he would always choose to surround himself with other people. But the background noise of a house full of thoughts and dreams, ambitions and discoveries could be impossibly trying for a telepath, especially one who often found himself tired to the point of exhaustion. The morning solitude was a welcome reprieve.
He took two turns around the outer buildings today, waiting until the sun had settled high in the sky before returning home. The others would just now be stirring, he knew; that left him plenty of time to shower and dress and make his way downstairs to greet them.
But contrary to routine, the kitchen wasn't deserted when he entered this morning through the back door. Erik was already sitting at the table, wearing the light gray sweatpants and sweatshirt they'd all adopted for exercising and playing with the spoon sitting in his empty cereal bowl.
“Have a good run?” he asked conversationally, watching as Charles drew a glass of water from the tap. “Hank mentioned something about rain later on today.”
“No sign of it yet,” Charles countered, eyeing his friend in turn. It was on the tip of his tongue to point out that Erik was up much earlier than usual, but he decided to let the other mutant tell him what he was thinking on his own terms, taking a seat across from him at the dining room table instead. They had all been surprised when Erik decided to join them here, Charles included. He trusted Erik and knew that the other mutant shared his convictions regarding solidarity, if not his visions of the future – but with Shaw's trail so tantalizingly fresh following the raid at the institute, it had never been a sure thing that Erik would postpone his revenge further still to train with the others at the mansion. “Regardless, there's no reason to let a little bit of rain spoil our training today,” he added cheerfully.
Something about Erik's posture, idle as he currently was, broadcasted a challenge. But that was hardly unusual; it was one of the reasons Charles had come to enjoy his company so much.
“Training? Is that what you were doing out there?” he asked casually, stretching his long legs out beneath the table as he leaned back in his seat. The motion brought the tip of his shoe into contact with the side of Charles' foot, but the telepath declined to readjust his position. Erik often made a point of subtlety invading Charles' personal space.
“Certainly. Isn't that what we're all doing here? Running, lifting weights --”
“-- Practicing with our powers,” Erik added pointedly, regarding him through slightly narrowed eyes. The sunlight was strong enough now to spill through the curtains frilling the edges of the dining room windows, dappling the old tabletop and pulling out strands of green and amber in Erik's forest-colored irises. Ah, Charles thought to himself in sudden understanding, but – as he'd done with the flowers outside – he let his mind wander a moment in contemplation of the unexpected, gemlike colors before making his reply. They were both losing their paleness, he noted absently. The sunlight out here was strong, and it had steadily begun to thaw away their chill.
“Well, running doesn't exercise my telepathy, no. But it doesn't do much for your ability to manipulate metal, either.”
“True. Which is why I do more than run and lift weights.” Erik lifted his hand and the spoon rose into the air obediently, catching the light in a bright gleam of silver as it began twisting itself into a neat little bow – just as though it were made from the most pliant silk. “I was just wondering what else you do. When you're not out running, I mean. Or trapped behind that big desk, filing paperwork. Or setting up mannequins for Alex to blow apart. Or encouraging Sean to jump out of windows. Or --”
“Yes, yes, Erik, I get your meaning.” Charles raised a hand to halt his tirade before shifting uncomfortably in his chair. He had the ridiculous feeling that he was a delinquent pupil being called to task by the headmaster for neglecting his studies. “As you've just demonstrated, I've been rather busy.” The telepath flicked a lock of sweat-damp hair out of his eyes, resisting the impulse to look guiltily down at the table.
Erik hummed in agreement before dropping the spoon neatly into his bowl again, shifting to rest his chin in the palm of his hand. His expression wasn't necessarily judgmental, but it did hold the light of a determined reprimand. “And what would you be doing if you weren't so busy?” he asked. “Say someone were to convince Hank to take on some of your paperwork. Or offer to push Sean out of windows for you. What would you do with your free time then?”
“Erik, you and the others have powers which physically manifest – meaning that you can practice with them on your own. Telepathy has absolutely no advantage for an individual unless he is around other sentient beings. I can't train by myself.”
“Good thing you're not alone, then, isn't it?” Erik smiled at him – that slow, amused smirk that Charles had become familiar with over time, and maybe a little too fond of – but his friend shook his head in firm denial.
“No, Erik. Think about this a moment: really think about it. We're training for combat scenarios. When Alex unleashes his energy rings, we hide behind the door of the bunker to keep from being cut in half. No one would be able to hide from my attack. It's too dangerous.”
“Then don't train with the children. Train with me.” His tone was casual, but the words were colored with a protective fringe: protective of the children, which Charles had been expecting, but also protective of Charles, which he had not counted on. The telepath studied his companion a moment, long fingers absently toying with the cuff of his sleeve.
“It's dangerous for you as well, Erik. I appreciate your offer, but absolutely not.”
Erik sighed impatiently. “Then don't attack me, Charles. There has to be other ways to train. Fitness, endurance – running for the mind, whatever you want to call it. Like … what if I were to try to keep you from discovering a secret?”
“No, that wouldn't work. The very fact that you were concentrating on the secret would make it easy for me to find.”
“Fine. Then I'll practice putting up shields to keep you out.”
Charles gave him a faintly horrified look. “You're mind isn't like a castle. Have you forgotten the conversation we had before about this? If I tear through your barriers, I could very well kill you.”
“Then what is the mind like?” There was an edge to Erik's voice now; his impatience was becoming outright annoyance, and Charles found himself automatically glancing at the spoon, waiting to hear the rattle of silverware against the empty bowl. “You constantly complain that no one understands, but you have never explained the process. Tell me. You're supposed to be a professor, aren't you? So learn by teaching.” He smiled, sharp and challenging. The spoon remained still.
Charles hesitated before countering honestly: “It isn't your ability to understand that I doubt, Erik; only your willingness. My powers aren't like yours or the children's. As I've said, they're not physical. I don't manipulate objects or images. I can manipulate the neural impulses of the mind, but I only do so on the rare occasions when I don't have any other choice. That's not what I do with my powers on a day-to-day basis. My telepathy is more like …” He paused again, struggling to find the right words. “A satellite dish, perhaps? I pick up on thoughts and emotions. My contribution to the war effort will come more along the lines of deciding whether or not an individual is hostile or dangerous. It's a tool of communication. I'm not a weapon.”
It was Erik's turn to shake his head, cool and entirely unconvinced. “I don't buy that for a second. And even if what you say is true, you still need to train. I saw what happened the last time your shields failed you. And that was in a subway car of people who didn't know – or care – that you even existed.” He pushed his chair back, deliberately letting the legs screech against the hardwood floor before he braced his palms on the scarred tabletop and leaned forward.
“We're all vulnerable, Charles. You included. That's why we're here. All I'm asking is, what are you going to do about it?”
He didn't wait for a response, only threw Charles one final, grim look before straightening again and stalking out of the room.
. . .
Based on the previous patterns of their acquaintance, Charles had expected Erik to avoid him after the confrontation in the dining room. Strangely, though, the very opposite was true. The telepath saw more of his friend in the following week than he had since they'd all arrived at the mansion; wherever he went, Erik was there, too. It should have been annoying, really, but because Erik never pressured him about their earlier conversation quite the opposite was true. When he bothered to wonder about it, Charles supposed his friend might be doing reconnaissance – observing how Charles actually did spend his time, looking for evidence that his telepathic muscles were being stretched, too. But, as usual with Erik, he resisted the impulse to ask. These days, they were all busy enough that there wasn't much time for idle speculation anyway.
They were sitting in Charles' study one afternoon, Erik reading a book on the couch by the door while Charles worked on the mansion's increasingly impossible budget. They weren't speaking to one another, obviously, but it was a comfortable sort of quiet. Erik had his long legs drawn up beside him with the open book resting on his knees, looking entirely absorbed in its contents. Charles wasn't sure what he was reading, but he knew his friend had pilfered the little volume from Charles' library without asking permission – not that Charles would have denied him, had he asked. But it was a matter of principle for Erik. Dog-earring the pages of Charles' beloved books was, somehow, a way of marking territory.
Charles had half a mind – playfully – to point out to Erik that he wasn't getting much training done these days, either, not unless it was the training sessions the two men conducted together, but then he'd have to admit that he'd been watching Erik for the past five minutes or so (and emphatically not working on the budget.) Besides, Erik was at least still toying with his powers, if absently. He'd found a quarter in the seat cushions and was letting it hover in the air near his shoulder, shaping and reshaping it while he continued to read.
Charles found himself oddly fascinated by the process. Trusting that Erik was too absorbed in the book to notice, the telepath folded his arms over the surface of his desk and braced his chin upon his crossed wrists, letting the tension ease out of his tired muscles while he watched the distorted lump of metal. It was clearly a subconscious action, and thus a rather impressive demonstration of how far Erik's abilities had come in a short amount of time. Charles found that, if he concentrated hard enough, he could pick up on the stream of latent emotions running underneath the current of Erik's conscious thoughts. Like the metal, those emotions continued to shift and change, their formations influencing the next manifestation of the coin. Charles' eyes narrowed as he watched the metal dissolve again, listening hard. Animal … dark … night … cat? No; the metal twisted itself into a little winged bat before dissolving again. Damn. Alright: small … hunger … bright red … apple! Yes, he'd gotten it right that time. Pleased, Charles chewed thoughtfully on his bottom lip and tried again.
Anger … strong … large … sharp … clawed … “Bear,” he muttered, and then smiled brightly when he was right.
“... What was that?” Erik looked up from his book, blinking drowsily, and Charles straightened hastily in his chair. The lump of metal fell onto the cushion beside its wielder, a simple quarter once more.
“Um. Nothing. I was just … you made a bear,” Charles explained lamely. Erik arched an eyebrow at him and then glanced down at the coin.
“Oh. Did I? I wasn't really paying attention.”
Some combination of guilt and pleasure prompted Charles to add, unasked, “I could feel your subconscious thoughts about the coin. I was trying to guess what shape you would make before you yourself decided on it.”
Erik's brow creased somewhere between confusion and intrigue. “How can you identify a thought that I haven't even had yet?” He closed the book around his index finger: a temporary pause, but clearly a sign of genuine interest in the topic at hand.
“Well, you have had the thought, obviously. It just hasn't reached its final form. Like when someone starts to say a word, and you already know what the word is going to be before they finish based upon its initial sound.”
Erik frowned, eyes flickering downward to the worn, blue cover of his book. “But I wasn't thinking about bears,” he protested mildly. “There aren't any bears in 'Hamlet'.”
“You were thinking about something which your subconscious associates with bears. Anger; strength; something sharp. If I had to guess, I'd say that you were reading the sword fight scene between Hamlet and Laertes.” Surprise flickered across Erik's expression then, something Charles only ever saw rarely, and he felt strangely pleased at having guessed correctly again.
Unfolding his long legs from the sofa, Erik reclined back against the cushion and regarded his friend curiously, tapping the book against one of his bent knees. Fidgeting, Charles had learned over time, was a sign that the other mutant was deep in thought. Erik always had entirely too much energy for his own good. “Huh. That's interesting. So does this mean that my conscious thoughts are words, and my subconscious thoughts are pictures?”
“No, no, not at all. We all think in a variety of ways about everything, consciously and unconsciously. Emotions, images, text – we use them in conjunction with one another, like … like the parts of speech. No one uses only one mode of thought. Just think about words which have visual connotations, like 'honey,' or --”
“-- Blood,” Erik provided solemnly. Charles gave him a strange look but let it go.
“Yes, if you like. And our conscious thoughts are in constant dialogue with our environment. Each time you engage your senses, even on a subconscious level, it colors your thoughts. The same is true about emotion. An angry person does not think about bears, for example, the same way a calm person does. The formation of the idea is different. Which is why I can gauge a person's emotion even when I cannot see them, or even when I don't know what they're upset or happy about.”
“And my emotion, right now? Based upon the bear, I mean.”
Charles cocked his head to one side, unsure whether he was being mocked or not, but decided to answer anyway. “Content. Your associative feelings – the anger, the sharpness – were all vicarious based upon the content on the book, not your own state of mind.”
“But how can you possibly know that? You're sitting in the same room with me, you know what I'm reading. But if you weren't …?”
“I would still know, yes. If you walked into a room and heard someone telling a story, would you be able to tell within seconds whether or not it was a story they'd heard or one about them?”
“... Possibly. Probably, yes.”
“Exactly. Their voice inflections, their hand gestures, their level of emotional engagement with the story – all those things are subconscious clues: the person gives them off subconsciously, and you subconsciously read and analyze them. I wouldn't have known that you were reading Hamlet – not unless I searched your mind for that information – but I still would have known that the emotions did not result from your own situation.”
“Is that how you can tell when people are lying? Because I've often wondered about that.”
Charles smiled brightly at him, and Erik automatically straightened a little under the wordless praise. “Yes, that's right. People learn how to school their voices and their behavior to become good liars, but no one learns how to school their thoughts. There hasn't been a need for it. If human evolution continues along the path it has taken with us – with me, specifically – that might change someday. But for now, it is very obvious to me when someone is being untruthful.”
“... I always thought it was like opening a book and plucking out a sentence. When you read people's minds, I mean. I had no idea it was so … involved. Is it always that complicated? Like when you would search for directions, for example?”
“Yes,” Charles admitted reluctantly. The confession felt like a concession of sorts; the last thing he wanted was for Erik to think that he was weak again. “It's more like entering a library and picking out a word, actually. But it gets easier with practice. I've had years to learn how to interpret the images and the emotions I pick up from people. It's not so different from learning how to read a foreign language and then translating it back into your native tongue.”
“No wonder you were always tired,” Erik mused, not unkindly. Charles shrugged, picking at a nonexistent loose thread on the sleeve of his jacket. Erik had that considering look on his face again, the one he'd worn before in the car after Charles had forced him to step on the breaks, and it made him vaguely uncomfortable.
“... Should probably finish up with the budget,” he said eventually, pretending to return his attention to the paperwork before him while Erik pretended to go back to his book.
The fire guttered suddenly, sullenly, as a dark, flaky something peeled itself away from the inside wall of the chimney and plummeted into the licking flames. The brief motion recalled his attention and creased his brow into a thoughtful frown; really, he should have talked to someone about cleaning the flues before using the fireplaces. But he had contented himself with a quick, mental probe to make sure that he wasn't sacrificing the life of a hapless squatter – be it bird or bat or mouse. His comfort wasn't worth committing murder for.
And what would you call igniting all your sleeping guests, then? he asked himself ruefully, toeing a log which had cracked dangerously close to the edge of the grate with the tip of his shoe. But as the blue-tipped flames writhed in another gust of moaning wind, Charles settled for taking another sip of his brandy and convinced himself that the chimney's ventilation wasn't really a primary concern.
He wasn't normally so careless, he reassured himself as he settled in his favorite armchair. It was just hard to imagine anything changing in this place. The stone walls weathered time with an impressive stoicism, and though the mansion was young by any European standard, it still loomed large in his childhood memories – a presence at times intimidating if rarely comforting, an institution unto itself that some small, irrational part of his mind believed had always been and always would be exactly as it was.
But that wasn't strictly true, was it? He himself had brought change to commemorate his reluctant homecoming, frills of laughter and dinner-table conversation to wreathe the barren walls. Five sleeping minds now occupied rooms which had stood vacant for entirely too long. He could reach out and touch them if he wanted to: Raven, utterly at ease in her own room in a way she rarely was in her own skin; Alex, content with the absence of prison walls. If Charles closed his eyes and reached just a little deeper, he could sense that Sean was dreaming of flight, and that Hank was dreaming of Raven (not that he wanted or needed to know the details of that, he reminded himself hastily as he pulled back again), and Erik –
Well. Four sleeping minds, anyway.
Cautioning himself that it was really none of his business what Erik was doing awake at this hour, the telepath pressed two fingers to his temple anyway, their tips brandy-warm and cool with night, and brushed a wordless question lightly against the surface of the other man's mind.
At first, all Charles sensed in return was surprise: surprise at the contact, quickly followed by surprise that a telepath would need to ask at all. It was the default reaction to what he'd done, Charles knew, despite all their recent conversation about the subject, and he ignored it, focusing instead on the feeling of hesitation which came after. The sensation wasn't hostile, not in the way it might have been (or that he'd been half-expecting it would be); rather, it was the hesitation of someone who did not rely upon non-verbal communication as his default mode of expression and wasn't immediately sure how to respond. It would have been easiest for Erik to reply in words; most people did. As an academic, Charles knew how easy it was to think in text. In his previous telepathic conversations with Erik, conducted mostly during their recruitment trips, that was how they'd communicated with one another. But he should have known that someone with Erik's astonishing linguistic abilities would automatically wish to reply in the same language with which he'd been questioned, especially given the interest Erik had shown in the idea earlier that day. The realization brought a small smile to Charles' face -- one which he knew was amused and which he tried to pretend wasn't also warmly affectionate. Realigning his hand slightly so that he could keep his fingers where they were while also nestling his chin in his palm, Charles waited patiently for Erik to get his bearings.
Finally, Erik pushed an image back against Charles' mind. It was an awkward first attempt (an image in place of an emotion, and one which was projected aimlessly into the shadows of the mansion; Erik didn't know where Charles was, and didn't know how to seek him out. Catching the thought was almost random, and something a lesser telepath might not have managed.) It was a mental snapshot of the window in Erik's bedroom, rain-lashed and rattling slightly in its old wooden frame. The mutant's grey-green eyes were caught somewhere in the dark pane of glass, ghostly and insubstantial, and Charles knew he wasn't trying to tell him that the storm had kept him awake. It was about something more than that. But the what remained unclear.
Charles let his eyes fall closed as he considered a moment, and then he gently pressed the sensations of the the study up against Erik's waiting consciousness: the warmth of the fire against the edges of his cheekbones; the solid comfort of the leather armchair; the faint, reassuring scent of the old books stacked neatly along the shelves near the door; the stately sense of order and security, anchored in the great mahogany desk in the corner and eddied around the table where the chess pieces stand quiet sentinel against the umber shadows. He dropped the clues like breadcrumbs along the fringes of Erik's curious mind.
He sensed momentary confusion, but then a spark of revelation and understanding followed directly on its heels. Charles caught himself smiling again as he leaned back in his chair, unaware that he'd tilted forward in anticipation. Erik's next signal, when it came, was more focused – were it a bullet, it might have ricocheted hopefully off of the mantle piece before being caught in the gloved hand of Charles' mind. More impressive still, it was a true sensation this time, an echo of the quiet question Charles had opened with. It was only an imitation; like any beginning student, Erik was simply parroting back what he'd already heard. But the copy was impressive nevertheless, bearing only the faintest trace-accent of the bold-printed letters Charles usually heard in his friend's thoughts.
Restlessness. Emptiness. Charles pressed the emotions back in response, though he did it lightly and with the utmost caution. They were meant to be an explanation, not a trigger for darker memories. He was so concerned with bringing some distressing recollection to the surface of his companion's mind that he didn't at first realize what he might be risking himself with the revelation.
There was silence between them for a long time after that. It was hard to know whether Erik was at a loss for how to respond, or whether he simply didn't wish to pry. But Charles resisted the temptation to find out for himself. Erik had begun this pseudo-game with a natural handicap, and pushing deeper into his thoughts felt like cheating.
Erik's next sending was something of a puzzle; the vocabulary was right, but the grammar was wrong. Charles sensed a sort of … deflection, like a stream of water scattered into individual droplets upon encountering an obstacle, and that was followed by the same questioning sensation as before. He let Erik sense his confusion, which prompted a quick sleight-of-hand – an image of the chessboard. Cheating, technically; Erik may have been intelligent, but he was also a creature of expediency.
Distraction, Charles realized. He's offering to distract me. He formulated the suggestion himself and projected it back, gently correcting. Then he paused a moment to consider the offer.
He'd had entirely too much brandy already to hold his own against Erik in chess; that was a given. He supposed they could always just sit up and talk instead. But while he'd always enjoyed Erik's conversation, Charles was overwhelmingly reluctant to give up the form of communication they were already sharing for its more mundane counterpart. Telepathic conversation was something of a luxury when one couldn't tell anyone that they were a telepath, and he hadn't realized how much he'd longed for that unusual intimacy until now. Raven's insistence that her brother stay well clear of her head tended to preclude such things, and there was no one else.
Charles finally signaled agreement, but he added a stipulation: this way, he thought, the request manifesting as a gentle tug on Erik's mind.
Another pause, followed by another questioning sensation. Charles responded by forming the image of a cat in his mind's eye. Nothing detailed, just the faintest outline of one, colorless and without character. He planted the sketch into Erik's mind and then waited, childishly amused at the other man's initial confusion. The whole thing was childish, really; this was a game he'd devised for Raven and himself to play when they were children, harkening back to a time when she didn't guard her secrets so jealously. It had been especially useful for long, dull trips or those miserably grey afternoons when they were both supposed to be studying.
Of course, Raven had had the benefit of a verbal explanation beforehand. But Charles resisted the urge to explain. He was curious to see what Erik's ingenuity would devise on its own.
Some of Charles' delight and amusement bled through the tentative connection between them when he received his answer in the shape of a very detailed feline, sporting thick, silver-grey fur and eyes which were, coincidentally, the exact same shade of blue as Charles'. Pleased, the telepath then began to build a room around the image: walls which Erik promptly divided into sturdy red bricks; a floor which Erik covered with a braided rug. They filled the space with furniture and brick-a-brack, crowded enough to shame any Victorian parlor, and when there was no more room to fill Charles opened the door and sent the cat out into the hall.
It was a simple game, but it was not necessarily easy. The more detailed the cat's environment became, the harder it was to hold everything in focus. Erik held his own for a while, though. Charles could feel his concentration and his interest mixing with the pigments he threw out into the void of the world they were constructing between them, sharing the excitement of shared invention and creation. There was no room in this world for whatever nightmares or anxieties had kept Erik awake long into the small hours of the morning; no room for the unpleasant phantoms of Charles' neglected childhood.
But there was room for absolutely everything else.
When the limitless possibilities themselves became exhausting, Charles gently took over, lifting the non-existent cat by the scruff of its imagined neck and depositing it playfully in a room much more familiar.
Erik was very clearly amused by this abrupt change of scenery, but he obliged by picturing himself sitting on his bed: long legs stretched out in front of him and crossed at the ankle, back braced against the headboard, still fully clothed in his jeans and black turtleneck but barefoot, watching the cat they'd imagined together leaping up onto the coverlet beside him. This exercise would have been impossible for Erik alone – like giving Shakespeare to a first-grader – but it was child's play for Charles. He expertly imagined the cat flicking its soft tail against the arch of Erik's right foot, and was gratified at Erik's startled surprise when he actually felt the phantom caress of fur against his bare skin.
A slightly less drunk and drowsy Charles might have wondered if he was trespassing at this point (he did have to dip deeper into Erik's mind to convince his body that it was feeling something that wasn't there) but it was all meant in good fun. And besides, Erik seemed more intrigued than put-off. Charles allowed the cat's tail to curl intimately around one exposed ankle before coyly drawing away again, and then it was his turn to be surprised: Erik pushed a slightly altered image at him, one in which he was drawing up the fabric of his pants to expose his foreleg in clear invitation.
It was an almost flirtatious gesture (something that was delightfully at odds with his normal interactions with Erik) but Charles' mirth was abruptly pulled up short when he paused to examine the newly-exposed skin … if skin it could be called at all. Erik's calf was almost as leathery as Charles' armchair, lost beneath a braided network of old, ugly scar tissue.
Charles had shared a hotel room with Erik on numerous occasions. He knew very well that Erik's legs didn't look like that. But he wasn't looking at Erik; he was looking at Erik's mental projection of himself – at an image created by someone still too inept at painting to conceal how he truly feels about his subject.
Not that Charles was one to talk. Before he could stop himself, he flooded Erik's thoughts with an all-encompassing wave of affectionate, protective pity, and like a light being switched off the image abruptly blinked out of existence.
Damn, he sighed inwardly, though he had the grace to keep that one to himself. What he sent instead was an apology full of regret and self-abasement: /I'm sorry, Erik./
It took a while for the other mutant's aloof /Goodnight, Charles/ to wind its way down into the study, but it was encouraging in its own way. Though it was undeniably a dismissal, it also lacked any trace of heat or hostility.
Charles' eyes flickered back towards the fire then, dwindled down to soft, red-eyed embers, and for the first time in at least an hour he acknowledged the sighing of the wind around him again. He supposed that he should sleep; they had a lot of training to do in the morning.
For the moment, though, he simply leaned back in his chair, eyes closing to ensnare the last echoing footsteps of more welcome phantoms –
the fading heat of the dying fire against his skin; the aftertaste of alcohol heavy against his tongue; and the warm, familiar press of another mind entwined with his in the dark.
The light above the sink was on but it wasn't terribly bright, more adept at softening the black shadows into amber than it was at dispelling them outright. Charles recent work on the budget had convinced him of the need for energy conservation, though, and so the other lights in the room remained switched off. Were he being entirely honest with himself, he'd have had to admit that he liked the shadows. Unlike those of the previous night, these were streaked with the occasional laughter drifting in from the living room and allowed him to focus on the colors in the soap bubbles drifting lazily around the confines of the sink. The heat from the water, in direct contrast to the cool floor tiles beneath his bare feet, combined with the repetition of the task and made him pleasantly drowsy.
“I thought of something,” Erik announced suddenly from where he'd been lounging in the doorway. Charles had known he was there, but the sound of his voice startled the telepath from his thoughts. He took a moment to mull over the words while he rinsed off a plate, guiltily wondering if he'd stumbled in on the middle of the conversation again. He hated anything that reminded him of that stupid subway train.
“Good to know your brain still functions,” he said mildly, losing his hands in the hot, soapy water again. He managed to catch the reflection of Erik's amused grin in the window above the sink before it faded into seriousness, and for some reason that felt like a victory – albeit a small one.
“About your training, I mean.” Unfolding himself from the doorway, Erik crossed the room to lean against the counter beside the sink instead. Charles noticed that he was trying to catch his eye, but he kept his own gaze resolutely trained on the glass he was currently washing.
“Erik, I appreciate your concern,” he said slowly, “but I thought we agreed. It's too dangerous.”
Erik made an impatient noise in the back of his throat, the one which always made him seem at least ten years younger than he really was, and withdrew a folded piece of paper from the back pocket of his jeans. “What about what we were doing last night?” he insisted. “Or yesterday, in the study? You were honing your skills in both cases, and no one was hurt. I've just been trying to think of a way to use the same ideas towards enhancing your more aggressive skills.”
“-- Charles, will you just shut up and let me explain?” The taller man touched his friend's shoulder lightly with the tips of his fingers, the gesture taking away the heat of his words, but it was obvious that he was deadly serious. Charles sighed in defeat and dried his hands on a dishtowel.
“Alright. Show me what you've got. But this doesn't mean I'm going to agree to it.”
Erik unfolded the scrap of paper and laid it out on the counter, beckoning Charles to come closer and take a look. It was a light pencil drawing of a maze, difficult to see in the room's half-light. Their shoulders brushed as Charles leaned over to examine the design. “You told me that I couldn't keep a secret from you if I was concentrating on it, and that I couldn't put up a shield against you because knocking that shield down could kill me. Right? Well, I think I've come up with a way to solve both of those problems. Look.” Leaning forward himself, Erik pressed the tip of his index finger to the center of the drawing. The movement lifted his arm enough to press against Charles', but if he noticed he gave no indication of it. “I'll place the secret here, at the center of – at what I perceive to be the center of my mind. Then I'll build a maze around it, like this. I know from last night how hard it is to keep all these things in focus at one time, which means that trying to hold on to the images of the walls – while projecting them at you – will lessen my concentration on the secret, hopefully making it harder to find. The walls of the maze act as shields protecting that secret, but they're not barriers that you have to destroy to get past – you can go around them without hurting me. But they'll still represent a challenge because you won't have knowledge of the maze ahead of time.”
“But I could just change the walls,” Charles pointed out. It was a protest but not a dismissal, and his consideration seemed to encourage Erik. “Like last night. If you allow me access to your mind, I can change whatever image you project at me. And if I hold onto that change, you won't be able to change it back.”
“Technically, yes, but the rules say you can't.” Erik flashed a grin at him, another one of those shark-toothed, challenging smiles. “I know how you like rules, Charles. This is just another game, really, but it's still an exercise for your mental reflexes. Especially if I change the maze around you while you're going through it. Or if I think up other challenges to try and distract you from reaching the center, hitherto unspecified.” He chuckled. Charles found himself intrigued at the notion in spite of himself.
“It's not a bad idea,” he allowed slowly, “but you do realize how exhausting this will be for you, right? Remember how quickly you tired last night. As you said, it's difficult to keep so many components in sight at one time. And it will be even harder if you start adding these mysterious challenges into the maze.”
“I know. But in that way, it's practice for me, too.” Erik lifted his gaze from the drawing to make eye contact with Charles, level and steady. “Emma Frost may be in CIA custody right now, but she's proof that there are other telepaths besides you – and that Shaw has a way of potentially finding them. I want to know what it feels like to have someone running around in my mind, and I want to work out ways to at least deflect their efforts which don't put me at mortal risk.”
Charles drummed his fingertips against the counter top, debating a moment with himself, before saying: “Whether or not this 'practice' does you any good would depend entirely on the telepath in question and how strong they are, Erik. That goes double for the risk level. But if that is your intent … you're essentially giving me exclusive insight into how you would construct those shields. A skeleton key, really, that can unlock any door you deliberately throw up. You might be able to keep other telepaths away from your secrets in this manner, but … if we do this … you would probably never be able to keep me out. Assuming you would ever want to.”
Erik shrugged. “So promise me I won't have to. Promise me, right now, that you'll never go searching around in my mind without my express permission.”
“Assuming you or one of the others isn't in danger?”
Erik rolled his eyes. “You know what I'm asking, Charles. Promise me.”
“Good.” Erik smiled before dropping his gaze to his drawing again. “Then I'm going to go work on this. Can't use the design you've already seen, obviously. Shall we try it out tonight?” His excitement was almost contagious. Charles still had his private misgivings on the idea – it sounded entertaining, honestly, but not terribly useful – but it was impossible to refuse Erik something he obviously felt so strongly about.
“Why not? I'll be in my room, so you can project your thoughts there. Unless you'd rather have literal mice run through your maze, of course.”
“You're the only lab rat I need,” Erik smirked. He folded up the paper and gave Charles an encouraging pat on the shoulder. “Tonight, then.”
“Tonight,” Charles agreed.
Instead, he focused on one small detail to the exclusion of all others. Tonight, lying on his side in the middle of his large bed, Charles let his eyes trail down the arm he'd haphazardly thrown against the coverlet until they reached the spill of silvered moonlight pooling in the curve of his palm. He imagined that he could feel its chill, though in reality he knew that was only some combination of the cool air in the room and the crisp, cold sheets not yet warmed beneath his knuckles. He studied how the crystalline threads picked out the creases in his skin and followed the dusky shadows of his veins down beneath the cuff of his shirt sleeve. Erik hadn't set a specific time for their encounter this evening, but that was alright; in this slow, liquid moment, Charles felt like they had all the time in the world.
The windows weren't open, but there was just enough of a draft to shake the curtains from time to time, and during one of those silken, sighing shifts a sliver of silvered light – insubstantial but hard as steel – fell across the naked skin of his inner wrist. Charles stared at it a moment in drowsy fascination, wondering exactly what color one's blood might be if spilled by moonglow.
And then, there: he felt the spider-vein of Erik's thoughts crackling down the surface of his consciousness, bright and searching. Charles gazed at them a moment in distant contemplation. Without the powers of his own mind, Erik's projections were two-dimensional and clumsy. They resembled the well-meaning but awkward attempts of a first grader asked to draw his house, blocky and hastily scrawled. But he could fix that. He could pull that flat, dull image into the machinery of his own mind and give it life.
Shivering in anticipation of the first slow, intimate point of contact, Charles grasped a hold of the golden thread and pulled Erik's mind into his.
“I want to make it harder,” he told Charles that night in his study, losing spectacularly to his friend at chess while he mulled over this unique problem. “I was changing it almost constantly by the end, there, but you were still able to reach the center eventually.”
“You're very wedded to the concept of actual, physical walls,” Charles pointed out as he deftly captured Erik's queen. “You might have an easier time holding on to a more complicated design if you weren't so literal.”
“I don't know what a wall feels like, Charles. That doesn't even make sense.”
“Doesn't it?” Tired of taking advantage of Erik's distraction, Charles leaned back in his seat and smiled encouragingly at his companion. With his back partially facing the fireplace, Erik's face was mostly wreathed in shadow, except for where the soft tongues of shifting light caught the tip of his nose and the edge of his cheekbones. He looked mysterious, but it was a pleasant sort of mystery: the type which wasn't really a mystery anymore at all.
“Perhaps 'wall' is just the wrong word, Erik. Do you know what a barrier feels like? Or an obstacle? Picture yourself running at something you desire, and then suddenly encountering a solid brick wall which stretches from the floor to the ceiling. What does that feel like?”
“That's not the sense of a wall,” Erik protested. “That's just frustration.”
“Is it? What else do walls do, Erik?”
“They provide structural support.”
“Do mazes need ceilings? You haven't pictured ceilings in your earlier designs.”
“Suppose not, then.”
“Another use for walls?”
“... They keep out the cold. The elements.”
“Mm. Do mazes need to keep out the cold?”
“Then why do mazes have walls?”
“To confuse. To keep out intruders.”
“And you can't associate a feeling with those ideas?”
Erik paused uncertainly, clearly unsure, and so Charles carefully conjured up a blend of his own – frustrationconfusionforbiddensecretdarkcolddespair – and gently pressed it against Erik's mind, as he'd done with their nonverbal communications the first night. He watched in pleasure as his friend's eyes widened suddenly in understanding. “It's like painting,” he murmured softly. “From a distance, all you can see is the finished product. But up close, each individual pigment and brush stroke becomes visible. All I'm suggesting is that you focus on the brush strokes. They're closer to the truth of the image than your prefabricated supposition of that image is.”
Smiling again in encouragement, Charles leaned forward and added promisingly, “The other thing about mazes with walls, Erik, is that they provide me with clues as to where to go. If a wall blocks me from going left, then I must go right. But a maze without literal walls provides no clues at all.”
“But then how is it a maze?”
Charles spread his hands in an expansive, all-encompassing gesture. Firelight flickered promisingly in the spaces between his splayed fingertips. “Have you ever tried to recall the lyrics to a song which you know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that you remember – and yet you can't find them anywhere in your recollections? All minds are mazes.”
“Even yours?” It was Erik's turn to lean forward then, the motion brushing their bent knees together. He smelled like rain, though the night was clear; in this light, his eyes were the color of damp, thunderous skies at dusk. Charles experienced the brief, unusual sensation of not knowing precisely what he was being asked, and it felt a little like vertigo.
“All minds,” he repeated softly. And silently, he wondered what secret might lie at the center of his.
The missile crisis was finally coming to a head. There was no more time for games.
“Haven't these people ever heard of telephones?” Erik asked testily as they headed down the crowded New York street in search of a cab. The past few days had proved entirely too emotionally charged for him: some potent combination of fear, anxiety, anger, anticipation, and fury cycled constantly through his bloodstream, melded together into a sort of battering ram which constantly pounded against the walls of Charles' mental shields. He had become so used to opening his mind to Erik's over the past few weeks that it was now doubly hard to shut him out, and the spike of annoyance his friend felt over the meeting they'd just sat through wasn't making things any easier. “I still don't know why we needed to be here at all,” Erik groused, oblivious to his companion's suffering.
Drawing in a sharp, steadying breath of city air so thick it tasted like metal on the back of his tongue, Charles closed his eyes briefly and slipped his hands into his coat pockets to fidget restlessly with his keys. “I needed to be here because I asked Moira to keep me involved in all operations and decisions pertaining to our division. You didn't need to be here at all, and only came along at your own insistence. If you recall, I specifically asked you to stay behind and keep an eye on the rowdy group of restless teenagers currently living in my house.”
“But they didn't make any decisions,” Erik protested, ignoring the second half of Charles' statement entirely. “They did what men in fancy suits always do: they talked and talked and decided nothing. Those are the sorts of men who start wars, Charles. I don't understand why you continue to heel every time they call you.”
“Yes, you do,” Charles countered simply, “or at least, you would if you'd stop being angry and just think about it for a minute.”
“How about we just assume I'm going to be angry for a while and you just tell me?” They stopped to wait for a traffic light, Charles swaying a little into Erik's side as the cacophony of the drivers' loud, violent thoughts suddenly swelled between the crowded rows of waiting cars. Both men pretended not to notice.
“Erik, the CIA doesn't exactly broadcast its decisions to the world. The only people who have any idea what's going on in that division either work for it, or work for a part of the government that's even more exclusive than the CIA is. Which means that if we stop cooperating with them, we'll have no way of knowing what they're doing. And since they are, at the moment, the only group of non-mutants who knows anything at all about our existence ...”
“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” Erik surmised. “I'm impressed, Charles.”
“Well, I wouldn't exactly call them our 'enemies', but that's the principle, yes. Besides, giving them the phone number to the mansion means that they'd have a way to locate the mansion. Something I am reluctant to allow them.”
Erik slanted a thoughtful, sideways glance in Charles' direction. “... Even though they're not enemies.”
“Just hail us a cab, will you? I want to get to Grand Central and then get home.”
This city had a way of draining him. There were simply too many people here, all the time, all broadcasting so loudly at so many different levels that Charles could never find a way to shut them all out. It certainly wasn't as bad as the subway incident had been, but that didn't mean it wasn't unpleasant. Between the usual cacophony of the metropolis and Erik's restless agitation, Charles was rapidly approaching a point in which he could no longer hear himself think.
He shut his eyes against the telepathic noise again and kept them closed, forcing himself to think of the flowering pastures behind the mansion: all the colors he knew intimately now, all the warmth of the open sky, all the soothing peace of the empty space –
Erik touched his arm lightly then, and Charles didn't protest when the other man took a firm hold of his elbow to help into the back seat of the waiting taxi.
“All the powers of a demigod, and yet utterly incapacitated by rush hour traffic,” Erik mused quietly, touching Charles' knee lightly in sympathy.
“Aye, there's the rub,” Charles sighed, though by now he had his head back against the seat cushion and his eyes firmly closed once more. Erik studied the tense lines of his face, the worry on his own more visible now that he knew Charles couldn't see it.
“I want to help you, my friend,” he said, low enough so that the driver couldn't hear. “Tell me how.”
Charles reached out blindly for Erik's hand, pressing his own cool fingers against the sharp, staccato pulse beating heavily against the skin of Erik's wrist. “So angry,” he sighed wearily without opening his eyes. “All the time. My teeth vibrate with it, Erik. Can you calm your thoughts for me, just for now?”
Between serenity and rage.
Erik looked stricken for a moment, caught between the walls of guilt and confusion. He had never tried to focus his concentration like that except for when he was using his powers. Casting his mind about the cab for a moment – Charles could hear his thoughts reflecting off of the metal walls, the arms of the drivers' glasses frames, the buttons on their coats – Erik finally reached into Charles coat pocket (with his characteristic disregard for Charles' personal space) and pulled free the paper clip which had once held the debriefing notes together from today's meeting.
Eyes narrowed in concentration, he crushed the paper clip inside the cage of his fingers and leaned his shoulder into Charles'.
Gradually, the telepath's eyes opened and flickered sideways, meeting Erik's with surprise and gratitude. It was like white noise: one concentrated sound broadcasted directly into his skull, relatively unobtrusive on its own and drowning out almost everything else in the process. The stillness of Erik's mind was so complete that it engulfed the rest of the silently screaming world, and Charles gratefully allowed the calm to bleed through the fractures in his own abused barriers. Their bodies were now touching at every socially acceptable juncture – shoulder, arm, elbow, thigh – but it almost wasn't enough. Charles had to resist the impulse to press his face against the warm skin of Erik's throat and twine himself as deeply inside the eye of that storm as was physically possible.
“How did you know to do that?” Charles asked quietly – gratefully – when they climbed out of the cab.
“What have we been doing for the past few weeks?” Erik scoffed as he returned the paper clip to Charles' pocket again. “I pay attention.”
Charles felt the same fiercely protective edge to Erik's thoughts that he had that morning in the kitchen, and he made sure the other mutant could feel his gratitude in return. “Thank you, my friend,” he said quietly, brushing his fingertips against the small of Erik's back as they turned toward the station entrance.
Erik only shrugged, but Charles sensed that he was pleased.
The train ride home, thankfully, was quieter in every sense of the word, though that only seemed to make Erik more intent on resuming their usual discussions. It was as if, through the act of calming his mind, none of it had even happened; both the meeting and the incident in the cab were merely bad memories to be dispelled with a new topic of conversation.
Or perhaps he simply wanted to remain distracted from it all.
“What about sex?” he asked abruptly after they were in motion, casual in the face of his companion's startled incredulity. Charles had composed himself by now, slumped wearily in the seat opposite Erik's, but master of his own thoughts again – not that that had prepared him in any way for Erik's unexpected question.
He let a few beats of rambling track click off time between them, propping his throbbing head against the cool glass of the window while he eyed Erik and his obvious curiosity. “What about it?” he asked finally, feeling around discreetly to see who might be listening in. Erik's frankness embarrassed him. No matter where this discussion was heading, it didn't seem in any way appropriate for a public space.
“There's quite a bit of emotion involved, even in a one night fling. And I imagine that if people manage to distract you to the point of physical pain while walking down the opposite side of the street, then actually being intimate with someone must make their thoughts excruciatingly loud for you.”
“Erik, would you keep your voice down, please?” Charles hissed at him, giving him a warning look.
“Würden sie lieber in einer anderen Sprache reden?” he asked obligingly. “Combien de nous parler en français? ¿O qué tal si hablamos en español?”
/Now you're just showing off./ Charles frowned at him in clear disapproval, refusing to be swayed by the bad-boy smirk which curled like smoke against Erik's mouth.
/Admit it it: you were impressed. And my question still stands, professor. What is sex like for a telepath?/
/I fail to see how this is any of your concern, Erik, but if it's the only way to shut you up … you've guessed correctly. People broadcast rather loudly during, and it can be extremely painful. Honestly, I prefer to avoid it. The pleasure involved isn't really worth the migraine./
/But you touch people all the time./ A strange sort of collage of images followed this thought, which Charles judged to be intentional (Charles catching Erik's sleeve, pressing his fingers, touching his shoulder, guiding him by brushing the small of his back) followed by a wave of warm, protectively affectionate emotions which Charles doubted were intentional at all. He was touched, as he had been earlier, but he felt it wise to pretend like he hadn't sensed anything at all this time.
/I'm not an empath, Erik, I'm a telepath. It's people's minds, not their bodies, which concern me. Physical proximity makes it easier to hear their thoughts – and more difficult to block them out – but that doesn't mean all contact is painful./
/The way you talk, I'm surprised you aren't a hermit./
Charles was briefly horrified at the thought, something which – judging by Erik's surprised expression – was loud enough for his friend to notice. /I wouldn't be able to stand it. I like being around people. I like socializing – even flirting; there are rules. People keep their emotions and their thoughts to themselves, generally speaking. It's only in truly unguarded moments when they drop all their barriers. That's why sex is problematic. But I would never want to remove myself from society entirely./
/What is pleasurable for you, then? What's an acceptable form of intimacy for a telepath?/
Charles wasn't sure that he could answer that question telepathically without all his overwhelming emotions getting tangled up in it somehow, and he wasn't quite willing to let Erik see all that. Intimacy was one thing; utter exposure another thing entirely. So when he did finally answer, he spoke out loud once more. “Imagine that you are a traveler from another world,” he said softly, turning his head to look out the window at the city as it grew smaller and smaller in the distance. “And imagine that you have arrived here. You are welcomed by all and cared for, but you are the only one of your kind. No one knows your customs; no one speaks your language. They all listen politely, but they don't really understand what you're talking about. What would you want then, Erik? What would you long for more than anything?”
/Someone who can speak your language. Someone who understands what you are./
Charles nodded once. He could sense that Erik was trying to catch his eye, but he didn't turn away from the window again for the remainder of the journey.
It had been two days since they'd returned from their trip, and for all intents and purposes Erik had been avoiding him entirely. They still ate together with the others, still trained together and discussed strategy, but all their personal interactions had abruptly ceased. There were no more chess games, no more long conversations after hours in Charles' study, and when the telepath stretched out across the unmade tangle of his bed each night, as he was doing now, he was quite emphatically alone with his thoughts.
Charles tried to convince himself that it was for the best. Erik was his friend, and always would be. But he'd known from the start that the two of them were rushing headlong down very different paths, and growing too attached now would only make their inevitable separation more difficult.
Given the state of current political affairs, he had started to wonder if that separation might be more imminent than either of them desired. The one time he had indulged himself and dipped into Erik's mind, the other mutant had been thinking about Shaw.
Still, he missed Erik. The man was damaged, vengeful, angry and secretive, but he had decided to trust Charles of all people and that had made their relationship special. In return, Charles had shown more of himself to Erik than he ever had to anyone. The loss of that intimacy, he felt, was worse than never having experienced it at all.
Chiding himself for his obsessive remorse, Charles was about to turn off the light and attempt to sleep when he felt it: the first, tentative brush of contact between another mind and his. He was so surprised that it took him a full minute before he'd collected himself enough to respond.
Erik, Charles sighed, and dimly he realized that the man's name was no longer a word in his mind at all; it had become too tangled up in every other part of him, a cresting wave of affection, familiarity, and longing that smelled like rain and bore the same color of Erik's forest green eyes.
And like a tidal wave, Erik's consciousness suddenly spilled into the room to crash around his. The sound and the scent and the touch of his own name opened the flood gates, allowing Erik as always to invade his personal space, once more sure of his welcome. Like the way he dog-eared Charles' books or refused to knock before entering the study, this felt possessive, too. There were no words this time from Erik's end, and so Charles said nothing else, only opened himself up to accept whatever it was the other mutant was trying to offer.
Erik had always been the passive partner in these exchanges. Without Charles' telepathy, he was only a solitary man lying alone in his bed tonight, singing to himself in the silent, deadening darkness – no echo, no repercussions. But when Charles' mind hooked around his, intimate as a connecting puzzle piece, the bridge between them took that lone, tremulous voice and wove it into memory and intent, emotion and meaning. It was a symphony of Erik's devising, but only Charles' mind could give it voice.
Language is meaningless to the individual. Without dialogue, there is no expression.
Like all his first attempts, this sending was raw and unrefined, but every emotion thrummed strongly with the promise of his potential. To Charles, the lack of ornamentation only made it more sincere. The telepath closed his eyes and let the music and the emotion fill him, fixed now to blood and bone and twining sinuous along the very curves of his ribs, and with the sense of peace and steady, supporting calm came understanding: Erik had withdrawn from him temporarily because he had wanted to teach himself how to say this in Charles' mother tongue.
And it was no thing; and it was everything.
To call it 'love' would be to miss the point entirely.