The baby was crying.
Or, perhaps more to the point: the baby was still crying.
Erik had escaped to the bathroom, using the excuse of his nightly shower with no small sense of relief, leaving Charles alone with the child. The shower had been longer, much more indulgent than Erik was wont to let himself enjoy, but he felt sure it left enough time for things to come to a calm in the motel room.
It seemed he had been overly optimistic.
"Honestly, Charles," Erik said, rubbing the towel through his hair. "Can't you see what he wants?"
"I know what he wants," Charles said. His voice was strained, and his eyes were starting to look a bit wild. He shifted the baby in his arms again, hoisting him up against his chest. The baby had his fingers curled around Charles's cardigan, though the rest of his body seemed to be pulling away from Charles as much as he could as he continued to scream. "He's tired, he wants to sleep but he won't let himself. He doesn't know us, he doesn't know this place, it's overwhelming for him."
Erik frowned. "Couldn't you just..." He made a waggling motion with his fingers, a few inches away from his temple, imitating Charles's usual gesture. "Make him sleep?"
Charles shot him a dark glare. "Do you know anything about infants' brains, Erik? They're not like adults'. They're growing, changing, learning at an incredibly advanced rate. If I did anything to this boy, I'd risk damaging him permanently."
Erik grunted. He stood for another moment, watching Charles awkwardly pat the boy's back, before he came to a decision.
He crossed the room. "One would think you've never held a baby before," he grumbled, taking the child out of Charles's hands and arranging him in his own arms, letting the baby curl naturally against his chest. The boy was solid, pleasantly fat - healthy, Erik thought. What little hair he had was a pale ginger, and when Erik rested his nose against the top of his head, he smelled good.
"Hush," Erik murmured against his scalp. "Hush, little man." He rocked the baby in his arms, steady and gentle. "Yes, you see? It's all right. You're safe here, I promise. We'll take care of you." He did his best to keep his voice quiet, low, soothing.
Slowly, the baby's cries began to calm. Erik rubbed the baby's back through a few shuddering, hiccuping sobs. His shoulder was wet with drool where the baby had pressed against him, half on the strap of his undershirt and half on his skin.
Erik continued to murmur nonsense ("yes, see, isn't that better, what a good boy you are...") as he held the child. He caught a glimpse of Charles out of the corner of his eye, sitting on the edge of the bed, and he turned to look at him.
Charles's mouth was open, and his eyes were wide. He looked ... amazed. Thrilled. Besotted. As if Erik had just performed some sort of magic trick or miracle.
"What?" Erik said.
Charles closed his mouth and shook his head, a smile on his face. "You never cease to astonish me, my friend." He stood up, approaching close to where Erik stood, close enough to almost touch. For a second of stillness Erik expected - what? A kiss? Something. But the moment faded, and Charles simply gave the baby a ridiculous, awkward pat on the head and moved away again.
"I suppose I'll go take my turn in the shower, then," Charles said. "Since you seem to have the situation under control here."
"All right," Erik said. He watched Charles's walk to the bathroom in silence, and stared after the door for some time even after Charles had closed it behind him - until the baby began to fuss again, and demanded his attention.
The waitress came around to the booth again shortly after Charles excused himself to the restroom. She refilled Erik's coffee cup and set down more hot water for Charles's tea, but instead of moving on immediately afterwards, she paused, resting her hand on her hip.
Erik was doing his best to feed the baby small spoonfuls of mashed banana. He'd only managed a few bites of his own eggs.
When he glanced over to the waitress, she smiled at him widely.
"That's an adorable kid you've got there," she said. "What's his name?"
Erik blinked. There hadn't been any note with the child when they had found him; he'd been abandoned with nothing more than a blanket and a diaper. They only found him by accident, at a stop at some random gas station, when Charles had sensed him close by. If they had stopped a few miles earlier or a few miles later, they would have missed him.
They hadn't had to discuss it, not even in one of the short telepathic exchanges that were becoming more and more frequent between them; they picked him up and brought him with them to the car. In other circumstances, Charles might have insisted on taking him to the authorities, Erik thought, but they both could see the difference in the child. There were small buds on his shoulder blades that were beginning, very slowly, to form into something that might one day be wings.
There was no doubt in Erik's mind that the physical mutation was the reason the boy had been left like this, and he thought Charles must accept that obvious truth, as well. So there was no question of giving him to the police; the boy would have to come with them back to Virginia.
Still, neither Erik nor Charles had thought to consider the question of his name. Erik said the first thing that occurred to him. "His name is Jakob."
"Hi, Jakob," the waitress cooed, her voice artificially high-pitched. The baby presented her with a grand, open-mouthed smile in return, showing off the banana remains still in his mouth. "Oh, I can see the family resemblance," the woman continued. "He's going to look just like you when he gets older."
There was nothing to say to that, so rather than responding, Erik took a sip of his coffee.
"Where's his mama?" the woman asked.
"His mother is ... gone," Erik said carefully, and the woman's face fell into a sympathetic mask.
"Oh, gee, I'm so sorry!" she said. "That's so brave, though, you bringing him up all by yourself-"
"Excuse me," Charles said from behind her, and the waitress almost jumped before moving quickly out of his way. Charles slid back into the booth, shooting Erik a smirky, amused look across the table. It occurred to Erik, rather belatedly, that the waitress was flirting with him.
"Could I possibly get a slice of the blueberry pie?" Charles said, flashing her a bright smile.
"Of course, hon."
As soon as she had left, Charles turned back to Erik. "Well, you and Dora seemed to be awfully cozy," he said, biting into a slice of bacon.
"She was wearing a name tag, Erik. It was right there."
Erik shrugged. Charles shook his head, still looking amused.
"I would offer to take over for you, so you could get a bite to eat yourself," Charles said, gesturing towards the bowl of bananas with his fork, "but I think we both know how that would turn out."
With the food on the floor, the table, the baby's skin and clothes, all over Charles's clothes; everywhere but in the boy's stomach. With both the baby and Charles tense and frustrated. Erik had occasion to see Charles's brilliance, competence, and self-confidence at so many things in the short period of time they had known each other. It was unfathomable to him how completely and utterly all three traits seemed to desert him when faced with an infant. If he didn't know better, he would think Charles was almost terrified of the kid.
"Just finish your breakfast," Erik said. "I'm fine."
"Well, of course he's crying, Charles, I can feel the way you're stabbing him with those pins."
"I wouldn't be poking him if he would just stay still-- Erik. Give me back the safety pins. I need to get this diaper on him."
"Get out of the way. I'll do it."
Charles didn't move very far out of the way; he stood, instead, at Erik's shoulder, watching carefully as Erik arranged the cloth around the baby, settling the pins into place with the careful precision of his powers. Charles wasn't touching him, not quite, but he was close enough that Erik could feel the warmth radiating off his skin, the buzz of almost but not quite.
"There," Erik said, rather more gruffly than he meant to. He picked up the child and deposited him in Charles's arms in one smooth movement. The look in Charles's eyes (admiration? pleasure? something else that Erik couldn't name?) shifted quickly into a nervous worry.
"Erik, maybe you should take him-"
"Charles," Erik said firmly. "You're doing perfectly well. Stop panicking. People have been dealing with babies forever, and they turn out all right, for the most part. Just stop holding him like a sack of flour, don't drop him, and you'll be fine."
"I'm not going to drop him," Charles replied, but it was said almost absently. He was gazing into the baby's eyes, an old-fashioned staring match.
Erik sat down and picked up his newspaper once more.
It was late morning, and they had been driving for a few hours already. The baby spent much of the time sleeping in the backseat; Charles had been quiet, not interested in chatting, but rather folding his hands in his lap and staring out the window. It was a pleasant silence, rather than an awkward one; comfortable. Erik concentrated on the road, the feeling of the car's metal parts all around them, the very few occasional other cars they came across.
The peace broke all at once, with a sudden wordless shout from Charles at almost the same moment as the baby began to cry.
"Charles?" Erik looked to his side. He was shocked at what he saw - Charles's face had drained of color, his eyes were closed, and his face looked strained in pain. "Charles," Erik repeated, more loudly.
"Hell," Charles said, soft enough that Erik could barely hear him over the baby's unhappy noises.
Erik pulled over to the shoulder of the road and shut off the motor. He turned in his seat, leaning over Charles. "What is it? Are you hurt?"
Charles shook his head. "No, I'm sorry, I'm fine. The baby is teething - I wasn't expecting it."
"Teething?" Erik repeated, somewhat unbelievingly.
Charles did already look a bit better; he gathered himself together enough to give Erik a slightly embarrassed smile. "I'm afraid so."
"I find it hard to believe that a baby's slightly sore mouth almost made you pass out, Charles," Erik said, but he let himself out of the car and opened the door to the backseat. It took a minute for him to manage to get the child out of the unwieldy seat and into his arms.
"Stop your crying, little one," he said. He looked down at the baby's miserable face and kissed his forehead. When he pressed his finger gently against the baby's mouth, the baby instinctively let him in, sucking on the digit like it was a bottle or nipple.
Charles had let himself out of the car as well, walking around the back to join them. He leaned against the body of the car and watched Erik and the boy with eyes that Erik thought were almost greedy. It was an odd expression.
"It wasn't a matter of how much pain he was in," Charles said. He reached out and rested his hand on the baby's back, rather gingerly. "I told you, infants' minds are ... different than others. Whatever he feels, it's all he's feeling. He doesn't know anything but that. He doesn't know why it's happening, or if it's happened before, or if it will go away, and he doesn't have any way to articulate those feelings. He's just alone. Alone and desperate with it."
His eyes flicked up to meet Erik's; there was something knowing in his expression that Erik felt he should resent more than he truly did.
"And so he was projecting very, very loudly indeed," Charles continued, "and it took me by surprise. That's all." He smiled at Erik. "I am fine."
Erik gazed at him for a few moments. "Here, take him for a moment, will you?" he said abruptly, and he dropped the child into Charles's awkward hold.
He crossed to the back of the car, unlocking and lifting the trunk, unzipping one of the suitcases, all with his power. He reached out and took the half-empty bottle of whiskey they'd neatly packed away, and brought it back over to Charles.
"I don't think you're supposed to give them alcohol," Charles said doubtfully, but Erik ignored him. He opened the bottle, pressing his finger to the opening, and then quickly turned the bottle upside down for a moment before uprighting it again. He placed his finger into the baby's mouth and began to rub the alcohol gently against his gums.
"That should help," Erik said, stepping back slightly to look them both over.
Charles gave a short sigh, and then fumbled with the baby, until he was against his side. With his free hand, he reached out towards Erik. "I think I could use a bit of that as well, if you don't mind."
If Erik had stopped to think about what he was doing, he wouldn't have done it - but he acted on impulse. Not planning, not strategy, not the bigger picture, none of the things he had trained into himself so thoroughly over all these years. Just a sudden, bright desire that he followed, simply because he wanted to. Simply because it was Charles.
Instead of handing Charles the whiskey, he set his finger again to the top of the bottle, letting it soak his skin. Charles's eyes widened, with surprise, perhaps and Erik kept his gaze steady on the familiar blue there as he brought his hand up to Charles's face. The feelings were swirling around helplessly in his gut; his own voice sounded rough as he said, "Open your mouth."
The instruction wasn't necessary. Charles had figured that out on his own. He was leaning forward, even, straining towards Erik's hand, until Erik pushed his finger forward the last inch into Charle's mouth.
Charles's mouth: warm, wet, perfect. Charles closed his eyes and began to suck and Erik felt it all over his body, from head to toe. This was a promise, Erik thought, an IOU. He crooked his finger a little, letting the pad stroke against the bumps of Charles's tongue. Charles made a soft noise and opened his eyes.
Erik smiled at him.
What are you looking at? Charles thought at him, cheeky and pleased.
You, Erik sent back to him. I'm looking at you. Do you know, it's been rather fun to see you out of your element like this, these past few days?
He pulled his finger back out of Charles's mouth slowly; Charles let it go with a wet pop. "Fun?" Charles said disbelievingly. "This has been fun for you? Watching this child make a fool out of me?"
Said child was squirming now - rather dangerously, Erik thought - and Erik took him out of Charles's grip, holding him again to his chest, handing Charles the whiskey bottle in exchange.
"Yes," Erik said, still thinking over Charles's question. "It rather has." He looked back down at the baby, stroking the hair down across the soft skin of his head. He could feel Charles's eyes on the two of them together. "I think you've been enjoying it more than you admit, as well."
"I do like seeing you like this," Charles said softly. "It's rare to see you this ... at peace, I suppose."
The word made Erik's hackles rise immediately, and he scowled at Charles. "It's not a matter of peace, Charles. It's-"
"Don't," Charles said. He raised his own finger to Erik's mouth, setting it gently against his lips in a quieting gesture. "Let's not fight about it now, hmm?"
He took his fingers away, setting his hand on Erik's shoulder and stretching up to his full height. Erik leaned down the distance to meet him in a kiss, short and soft and chaste, with the child between them.
"Are you ready to get back on the road?" Erik said, raising one eyebrow.
"Actually," said Charles, "I think you'll find a diaper change may be in order first. I'll just leave you two to that, shall I?" He smiled widely at Erik, obviously pleased with himself, and then disappeared around the other side of the car, leaving them alone.
The baby looked up at Erik and blew a large spit bubble.
"I agree, he can be a bastard," Erik said.
Can still hear you, Charles sent.
Erik ignored him and addressed the baby once more. "Come, then, let's take care of you, you ridiculous thing. Let's see what we can do for you," he said, and he opened the back door to begin searching for the baby's supplies.