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The Burdens We Long to Carry

Chapter Text

Leaving Charles behind never got any easier.

He had tried more than once to stay with him--"Let them handle it alone, they're capable"--but Charles' answer was always the same.

"You're my right-hand man, Erik." He would smile with that kindness, that absolute and total forgiveness that tore Erik up inside. "I need you with them."

Never mind that Erik had become his enemy for a full year in between. Never mind that Erik had dogged his every movement not only to counteract it but to stay close to him for any reason. Never mind that it was Erik's fault that Charles didn't accompany them on these missions in the first place.

"He doesn't mind it, you know."

Erik turned from the suddenly empty space in front of him to look at Emma, wisps of their teleportation fading into the night around her.

"Staying there while we go. He doesn't mind." Her eyes narrowed as she studied his face, as though it were difficult for her to interpret his expression without stealing into his thoughts. He didn't wear the helmet, not anymore, but they had their agreement.

But then, most everyone had difficulty reading Erik's expressions.

"He's a telepath," Erik answered, rough, but quiet. She had done much for him in the past year and didn't deserve his temper. "Do you think he doesn't know how to fool you?"

Part of their closeness was that she knew not to argue with him. Not about Charles. She shrugged, leaving him with one last offering before she moved to join Mystique. "Beast has something he's afraid to ask you."

Hearing this, Beast looked like Azazel had dropped him here without any of his clothes or fur on. For one brief moment his yellow eyes were fixed on Erik. "It's nothing," he mumbled. With one last cautious glance in Erik's direction, he withdrew into the shelter of the tree line around the penitentiary. Azazel joined him as he rolled out the map one last time.

Erik didn't usually feel such things, but there was a sting to his withdrawal that Erik hadn't gotten used to in the two short months since the assassination. But if it was a sign of Beast's loyalty to Charles, Erik preferred it. He turned toward their quarry.

"Are we ready?"

* * * * *

Charles stopped in front of Sean's door and knocked softly, waiting for Sean's permission before entering.

Sean didn't sound or look much better when Charles wheeled in, but he was sitting up, at least, reading a comic book which he set aside as Charles approached.

"How are you feeling?" Charles asked. He stopped at the bedside, setting the bottle of medicine on the nightstand as he studied Sean's face.

"Better," Sean replied, though clearly he was dissatisfied with his progress. He'd been ill for coming on three days now, and had been confined to the bed, excepting bathroom breaks. At his age, and with the freedoms afforded by his particular mutation, it was no doubt frustrating for him. "I'm tired of lying here. I just wish I could stand up for more than five--"

Charles was smiling a little lop-sidedly, and Sean stopped talking.

"Sorry." Sean dropped his gaze to his hands. "It's just, Walter was a friend in school."

The purpose of the mission tonight, the mission Sean couldn't participate in, was the forcible release of a young mutant from wrongful imprisonment. Throwing their kind into prison on dubious grounds had become more common now that they had lost their leading human ally in the White House, and for Sean this one was personal.

"I know it's difficult," Charles answered gently. He took out the thermometer he'd brought with him and shook down the mercury before handing it to him. "But this is why we're a team. We have to trust each other to be where we can't go, to succeed where we're unable."

Sean frowned. His face was always so honest. "And you're really okay with that? Every time? Every mission?"

Charles smiled, overriding whatever else he might have done as he considered his answer. Was he content to stay behind? Had he made peace with trusting others to go in his place, waiting to hear results only when they returned to his little castle? "I wasn't really a man of action to begin with, Sean. I only accompanied you a single time. I never got used to going."

Before Sean could follow up, Charles gestured for him to put the thermometer in his mouth. "Under the tongue, now, let's see how you're doing."

Still watching him, Sean complied, and Charles withdrew for the moment to straighten up the room where he could, trying not to feel self-conscious as he did so: maneuvering carefully, reaching with the right counterbalance, not bumping into anything or getting stuck in a room set up for walking. He did these things without incident and had for some months now, but he could be reminded that he didn't always, and didn't always have to.

And there would always be challenges. The room was stuffy, and in need of some fresh air, even if it came from the chilly February outside. Rolling to the window, Charles looked up at the latch that was about a foot out of his seated reach. He pursed his lips briefly, imagining the process to reach it.

Locking the wheels of the chair, he gripped its arms firmly and pushed himself up until his arms were straight. Shifting one hand to the window sill, he transferred his weight forward, then quickly reached up with his other hand to release the latch. His return to the chair was not quite as calculated, but he'd take gravity's help whenever it presented itself. Seated again, he nudged the window open a few inches, feeling satisfied as the cold air drifted over his face.

It was the small things.

"You don't have to do this," said Sean, mumbling around the thermometer.

"But I can," said Charles. He unlocked the wheels and swiveled to face him again. "And right now you can't." Returning to Sean's bedside, he smiled gently. "Besides, the tables will turn. If you decide to stay here, I'm going to need your help with this school, once it is one again. I'm going to rely on you, and Alex, and Hank the most. You were the first."

"And Erik?"

Charles smiled again, though more carefully, as he took the thermometer and read it. "And Erik. And--Mystique." He looked up from the bar of fluid. "One hundred point two. It's coming down."

"You trust him, then?"

Charles blinked as he opened the bottle of medicine he'd brought from Hank. "Who, Erik?" He furrowed his brow, caught off guard, but softened as he looked over Sean's face. They were all uncertain what to do with Erik. Erik betrayed them. Erik attacked their ideals, if not them. And then Erik came back to them, though it was more accurate to say that Charles came back to Erik. "I trust him with my life."

"And ours?"

"Even more so." He passed Sean the bottle of medicine and the spoon. "Two spoonfuls of that and more rest."

Sean rolled his eyes, but took the medicine as directed, and didn't press the issue. Charles filled his water glass with the pitcher beside it, and Sean sipped from it to clear the bitter taste from his mouth before hunkering down on his pillow again.

"Give it time," said Charles, encouragingly. "Your mutation doesn't exempt you from the common flu, I'm afraid."

"Then what good is it," mumbled Sean.

Charles shook his head as he turned to go. "You know how to call me if you need me."

He had just slipped out and shut the door behind him when he heard the team returning through the back door. He could immediately count six minds before Emma and Azazel just as soon left again; no less than they'd set out with, but no more, either. Had they been unsuccessful?

Charles hurried toward their entrance and suddenly couldn't have cared less whether they'd done the job or not when he turned the corner. There was blood soaking through the cloth wrapped around Erik's thigh, and in true Erik fashion, he would lean on no one as he forced himself to make do with it.

"Erik!" Charles called, swiftly covering the distance between them. He quickly looked over the others to be sure no one was worse off, then threw all of his attention on Erik again. "Are you all right?"

"It's fine," answered Erik, coming to rest just in front of Charles, hardly limping, but Charles was sure he wanted to. "We got him out. Decided to hedge his bets on his own."

Charles frowned, looking between Erik's eyes and his blood, unsure which stirred him most. "I hope for his sake he's a good gambler. Alex, will you tell Sean what you can about his friend? Hank, please force Erik to accompany you for medical attention. And Ra--Mystique--" He waited until she met his eyes, then tried to get her to smile at him. "Would you debrief me in the television room?"

She wasn't quite there yet, though she nodded easily and headed in that direction. Alex was already down the hall toward Sean's room. "Beast, I'll see you in the lab," Erik advised.

Hank had hardly left the hallway before Erik stepped forward and set his knee, the good one, on Charles' chair between his thigh and the chair's arm. Fumbling with the wheel locks, Charles finally pressed them into place before reaching up to pull Erik down to him. He could smell the blood from his wound, feel his breath on his face, taste the sweat on his lips. He craved it, this confirmation that Erik was truly and physically there with him when he had convinced himself, for his own sanity, that it was not possible. He felt Erik's hand curve around the back of his neck, a fingertip idly stroking Charles' hairline in a way Charles felt certain he never touched anyone else.

The nerves on his tongue were humming by the time they parted, Charles' arms returning to the sides of his chair. His eyes were still raised to meet Erik's gaze, which was never anything less than direct.

This was what frustrated him most about the difficulties that kept him behind. Though he trusted them all to take care of each other, nevertheless he sometimes feared the worst, and feared not knowing it had occurred until they came back one mind fewer. Charles' powers of influence and protection could extend only so far.

"Be more careful," Charles said, softly. "You worry me."

"There were no human fatalities," Erik answered. It was like an offering to Charles, the pacifist. "It was either me or them."

Them, then.

Charles swallowed his own thought, hoping it hadn't shown in his face. He'd said it aloud, once. And once had been enough to prove how far he'd come toward Erik's side. But he still didn't like to say it.

"Go get yourself seen to," he said, pulling Erik by the uniform covering his chest to kiss him again before he let him withdraw. Unlocking the wheels of his chair, he backed up toward the television room long enough to watch Erik not limp toward Hank's lab. Once out of sight, Charles turned to propel himself forward again.

* * * * *

Erik was silent as he sat in Beast's lab, watching him suture the laceration in his thigh after he'd numbed and cleaned it. He wasn't particularly interested in this little operation--he'd gone through enough of this sort of thing, sometimes tending to it himself--but he couldn't help drawing parallels he had no right to. One numbed muscle group was no comparison to everything below the waist.

But it was a fixation, and being with Charles again left him helpless to ignore it.

When Beast was finished, Erik hopped down from the table, and even through Beast's fur his wince was obvious. He handed Erik a pair of sweatpants since his trousers were ruined. "Be careful with that or you'll rip it open again."

Erik smirked, pulling on the offered clothing. "I appreciate your concern."

Beast eyed him warily, then narrowed his gaze as he stepped away, interpreting Erik's words the way anyone who knew him would. Erik caught his arm, braving Beast's growl, knowing he deserved it. "I meant that," he clarified. He wanted to repair the damage he had done, he just never seemed to do it right.

Beast shrugged him off, but after a moment he nodded. "Keep it clean. Stop straining it. We'll remove the stitches in a few weeks."

Erik nodded back at him, knowing he'd probably pull them out himself. "What was it you wanted to tell me?"

Beast glared again, but Erik knew it wasn't really at him. "She doesn't have the professor's principles."

She does if you're me, thought Erik. "I'll talk to her," he suggested. "But tell me."

He watched Beast's face, waiting for the denial he expected, but Erik was making the effort anyway.

To his surprise, Beast finally sighed. His gaze burned brightly on Erik before he turned and moved to the far corner of the lab. "It's about the professor. Something I thought could help him." He opened the cabinet in the corner, glanced at Erik again, then carefully pulled out a set of metal leg braces attached to a back brace. He returned to where Erik was standing and set them down on the table, saying nothing.

And Erik understood his silence. It was a delicate topic, much as something leapt in his chest.

Admiring the workmanship, Erik ran his hand over the jointed steel, not touching it but feeling its resonance as it responded to him. "What could he do with these?" Erik asked, prompting Beast to speak, to start, anywhere.

"Alone? Not very much. Standing frames exist already, similar to this, but they wouldn't allow for much more than their name. Not for someone with Charles' injury."

'For someone with Charles' injury.' Not just 'for Charles.'

Erik tore his attention away from the overlapping grid of metal supports to focus on Beast instead. "But that's not why you have them."

Beast frowned at the table, his hands curled to fists where he rested his weight on its surface. "I made them. And they're not just for standing, they're for walking. The joints are fluid, the hips mimic ball-and-socket mobility: it's specifically engineered to maintain a regular human gait."

Erik watched him, feeling the rest was inevitable. "Then why doesn't he know about these?"

Beast stared at them for a moment, then raised his eyes to Erik. "Because you'd have to operate them."

Erik had suspected as much, as soon as he saw them, as soon as he felt them. To hear it, though, sank whatever hope he had dared entertain. That was why Beast hadn't told Charles. That was why he had barely confessed it to Erik.

Yes, it was possible. Yes, with enough practice Erik knew they could fool anyone. But Erik would not be his puppeteer.

Wordlessly, Beast took the frame from the table and put it back into the cabinet. That Erik would say nothing about this was assumed, and correctly.

"Another way," said Erik quietly. Beast sighed with a nod, and Erik turned to go. The laceration in his leg was beginning to burn again, but he knew he'd take nothing for it. He should be glad to feel anything at all.

* * * * *

Finally undressed for the night and feeling more exhausted on account of it, Charles trundled to the side of their bed wanting very much to be in it already. Though he'd once been a staunch supporter of pajamas, they now proved too many extra steps, and he wore very little to bed, if anything. It was startling how much he could live without when it cost him too much to keep it.

Erik was at the wardrobe, hanging things up, and as Charles glanced in his direction his eyes caught the lamp's glare on the helmet Erik had buried toward the back and left there. But he didn't linger on it. He couldn't linger on it. Instead he tugged down the bedding and turned his attention to getting himself into bed without falling over.

Wheels locked, feet on the floor, left hand on the chair, right fist on the mattress, and up and over. It seemed elementary now, but in the beginning it was one of many seemingly insurmountable tasks, none of which amounted to more than just getting through the day. He was almost grateful Erik hadn't been there to see it.

Erik and Raven, both.

"What's wrong?" Erik asked. He shut the wardrobe and crawled onto the bed to sit on his heels.

Legs on the bed, hand over the headboard, and Charles had hauled himself back against the pillow to sit up almost comfortably. He lifted his eyes to Erik's face, knowing he wouldn't get Erik's sympathy on this topic, but he didn't particularly want it. It was too much like pity.

"Raven won't talk to me."

He watched Erik as he moved Charles' knees apart enough to sit between them. "She does, I've seen her." Erik took Charles' right leg and straightened it, gently pressing down on the knee with one hand and pulling back the ball of his foot with the other.

"Only when she has to. Only to inform me." He sighed softly, watching Erik repeat the exercise with his left leg. "She's my sister. We grew up together, in this house, no less. And she couldn't be further from me now."

Erik looked up, his mouth set in an even line as he studied Charles' face. He sat back, hand running absently over his own thigh until he looked down at the black stitches under his fingers.

"Do you know why people develop scars?" he asked lightly.

Eventually he looked up at Charles again, and Charles wondered at his uncharacteristic tone. After a moment Charles gave the barest shake of his head so that he would go on.

"Because the trauma is so great that it must be healed quickly, at any cost." The line of Erik's mouth tightened before it relaxed again. "Raven's wounds ran deep."

Charles kept his eyes on Erik's. They both knew it was Charles who had hurt her, without even realizing it; Charles who encouraged her to hide herself, Charles who delighted in his own abilities while consistently relegating hers to mere maintenance of the status quo. If shutting him out was how she recovered from that persistent injury, she had every right to continue. But he couldn't help hoping it would change. He missed her. And he'd learned.

He smiled lightly, softening as he extended his hand to draw Erik forward. "An effective analogy. Are you sure you wouldn't like to be a teacher here someday, Professor Lehnsherr?"

Erik smirked at him, the closest he came to laughter sometimes. He tugged Charles to lie down with him and pressed close to him, breath tickling at Charles' neck until he laughed for him.

"I'd rather be this teacher's pet."

* * *

In the small hours of the morning, the spasms woke Charles with more vigor than usual. He took medication for it, he took medication for so many things, but every so often they rose up to remind him that despite what he had accomplished, he was still not in control. It was one thing not to be able to move half his body; it was another entirely to have it move of its own accord.

There was nothing to be done about it but to let Erik hold him, to think about something else while the mattress shuddered beneath him, to bury his face in Erik's shoulder to muffle the breath that was wrung out of him. And no matter how many times Erik got kicked, no matter how many times Charles woke him up, he never said a word about it, only fell asleep with him again when it was over.

"It doesn't hurt," Charles had assured him once. But they both knew that wasn't entirely true.

Chapter Text

Erik winced behind the paper he was reading to hear Emma's summons in his head, almost shrill for the volume she used to reach him in such a large house. He tossed down the paper and headed down the hall toward the foyer.

It wasn't unusual for her and Azazel to drop by this way. With a teleporter available, picking up a telephone suddenly seemed a little trite. Besides, phone calls could be traced.

As he approached, she held out a card to him. "They found us again. We've moved."

He scanned the address; now they were somewhere in the Appalachians. He sighed, glancing between them. "You know you could just stay here. Charles has already made that clear."

Emma smiled with a little wilt of her brow. "Two mind readers in the same house? I don't think you're ready for that, sugar."

But Erik knew it was more than that. She had been his replacement for Charles. And now Charles had reclaimed that role. Living under his roof would be too bitter a pill for her to swallow.

"Anyway, we've got some targets to keep an eye on."

Erik flipped the card between his fingers as he watched her take Azazel's hand. "Keep us informed," he instructed. "And be cautious. We don't hear from you, we come find you."

Azazel nodded. Emma just smiled, and Erik got the feeling he wasn't supposed to see her expression acquire that wistful edge before they fizzled out of view.

The distance they were keeping concerned him, but it was enough, for now, that they still followed him at all.

"She's quite gifted, Emma."

Erik turned to see Charles wheeling himself down the hall toward him.

"I noticed her outfit, too," replied Erik dryly. More seriously, he added, "She has been a great help."

"And Azazel," Charles went on, brushing off the implication, if he even knew it was there. "He's quite the exercise in convenience." Charles must have been outside: his face was still ruddy from the cold, and when he slowed to a halt a few feet away from Erik he unwrapped the scarf from his neck and tugged off his gloves, arranging them rather methodically in his lap so that Erik waited for him to say more. "In fact," he sighed lightly, finally folding his hands, "if I had his abilities I wouldn't need to ask you this favor."

He looked up at Erik with a sort of plaintive wince, and Erik smiled faintly.

"What do you need, Charles?"

Charles' expression softened with gratitude. "It's a book. Upstairs."

Erik began to move in the direction of the staircase, keeping pace with Charles once he'd turned his chair to follow him. Though both Beast and Erik had suggested the installation of an elevator, Charles had politely declined the fuss.

"I thought all your books were in the library down here."

"Well, it's not a book, really."

Erik stopped with one foot on the first stair, looking back at him expectantly, and then with some amusement.

"It's a diary," Charles admitted, gesturing for Erik not to dwell on it. "I'm sure you'll find even more humiliating things up there. I'll lead you to it."

Erik shook his head with an inward smile. Dutifully he climbed the stairs, turning the landing and stopping at the top. "Where am I going?"

Take the hallway to the right. It'll be the second to the last door on your left.

The hallway was long, all the way to the other end of the house. He doubted anyone had been this way in a long while, unless they were nosing around where they shouldn't. Havok and Beast had rooms far down the other end; so had Banshee, before he moved downstairs to be closer to the television.

Erik opened the second to the last door on the left and entered the room. This one, like all the others, was still full of furniture, waiting to be of use to anyone. Erik narrowed his eyes as he glanced around. "Was this your room?"

One of them.

"Really, Charles," Erik muttered.

Not at the same time, Charles clarified. I moved to this room to be closer to Raven.

"Touching. But still decadent, I'm afraid."

The closet, please.

His attention still crawling the room, Erik turned to the only other door and pulled it open. He stared at the contents.

"Charles, how could anyone find anything in here?"

From floor to ceiling, the shelves were full of notebooks; field guides; binoculars; jars of homogeneous assortments of rock, sediment, shells; two microscopes; boxes labeled by date; what looked to be a squirrel's skull; and a few dozen journals.

It may have all been neatly arranged to Charles' mind, but the sheer quantity of items made it seem as though it could avalanche at any moment.

There was a pause. I was more adventurous in my youth.

"No, you were just a slightly smaller professor. Where am I looking?"

Give me a moment. Look around again.

Erik did, eyes slowly sweeping across each shelf, trying not to linger on things as he came across them.

Mid-way down, Charles stopped him. There.

Erik moved closer to the space, running his finger over the veritable collage of objects. That he was looking for some bit of bound paper on a shelf of other tattered bound paper wasn't helpful. "Here? Be specific."

It's the blue one.

Erik frowned, then stepped to the side so that his shadow no longer obscured so much of the color. "Charles, there is nothing blue on this shelf."

Bluish.

His fingers alighted on a faded spine that might have been a sort of purple once. "This one?"

No, to the right.

He moved his hand to the right--

Not so far, back.

To the left, then--

You keep skipping it.

"How can I possibly be skipping it, there's only two--"

You're looking at it!

"Now I've lost my place." He sighed. "I could just bring you up--"

Erik, it's right here.

Erik's hand shot forward, his forefinger pressing down on the top of one of the journals as though he were about to pull it free of the shelf.

And then he didn't move. He hadn't moved. Or he hadn't meant to. And then:

I'm sorry, Erik, I didn't--just come down, leave it.

"Charles?"

But Charles had left him.

Slowly, Erik pulled the journal out from the two warped spines that had obscured it from him. He hadn't seen it. He hadn't known it was there. But Charles had.

Charles had made him reach for it.

* * *

Charles felt positively ill, and more sick still to hear Erik's heavy steps thudding down the hall above and finally, down the stairs. Charles backed up to make way for him, trying to make eye contact, worried when he couldn't. He'd withdrawn his mind before he could determine how angry Erik was. "Erik, wait--I didn't mean to--"

Erik had taken several strides past him when he suddenly returned to press the journal into Charles' hand, all before Charles could turn around to plead with him. By the time he dropped the journal in his lap to swivel around with both hands, Erik was bounding halfway down the hall. "I need to take care of something!" Erik shouted over his shoulder, and then he was gone around the corner in record time.

Charles stared after him, agape, trying to piece together what had just happened. But what he kept coming back to, what he was least equipped to explain given what he knew of Erik, was that Erik was grinning like a lunatic.

* * * * *

Erik didn't stop until he had burst into Beast's lab, finding him at his microscope and ignoring the snarl of surprise this entrance earned him.

"Beast, he can use me," Erik pressed, crossing the space between them quickly so that Beast actually took a step away from him. "He can use me to move it himself!"

Beast recovered quickly, shifting from defense to indignation as he tried to keep up. "Slow down, you can't just--" His eyes stopped in mid-assessment of Erik's sudden physical presence. "I told you to be careful with that. Sit down." He turned to reach for his equipment.

Erik glanced down with impatience to find he'd pulled a stitch, the blood seeping through to his trousers again. He stepped into Beast's path to force his attention. "It's not important. Listen to me. Charles can control people, right?"

"If he wants to, yes. Now sit down, that needs attention."

Erik ignored him, trying to make eye contact. "And if those people are mutants, he can control their abilities."

Beast finally looked up from Erik's leg to stare at him. Eventually, he nodded, but slowly. "Yes. Yes, I believe you're right."

"Then you know what I'm getting at." He searched Beast's eyes, willing him to have a reaction, anything. "He could use my power to move the frame. He'd be in control, not me. Beast, this is the answer!"

Beast held up his hand, a request for a moment of restraint as he slowly stepped away and pulled open a drawer. He took out a tray of medical supplies and set it down quietly on the table, then stared at it. "It's only the answer if he asks the question." He looked over at Erik. "I think this has potential, I do, and I want to help him as much as you do--"

No, you don't, you didn't do it--

"--we just have to be careful how we approach it. What we want is irrelevant. It has to come from him."

"I know that," Erik growled, though he almost immediately checked himself, and evened out his tone. They weren't enemies now; they never really were. "Then what do you suggest?"

Beast shrugged, then raked a hand through the mess of hair on his head. "We wait for the right moment. Give it time. Be patient, until there's a good reason for it."

Erik set his jaw as he looked away, then casually lifted his hand to drum his fingers on the table. "That may not be an option."

"Why not?"

Erik peered sidelong at him, then sighed as he turned to face him, hand still on the table, hip canted to the side. "I was not exactly discreet on my way over here. He's going to wonder."

Beast stared at him darkly before he finally pressed his hand to his face. "So we have to tell him now."

"Well, we have to tell him something." With another sigh, Erik took a step closer to him, his voice lowering in the reduced space. "He may be a minor god to you, but you're the one who came up with this in the first place. You have to present it to him sometime. It may as well be now."

Beast studied him sharply from under his brow, but gradually conceded. "Fine. But he's not going to hear a word out of your mouth if you don't let me stitch that up again. This has to come from you."

Subconsciously, Erik had known this. Erik had to be the one to offer it, to offer himself, otherwise Charles would doubt Erik's willingness to be subjugated. He probably would anyway. Charles' ethics were often a third party in their relationship.

Unfastening his belt, Erik backed up toward a seat. "I seem to be dropping my pants for you a little too often."

Pulling the tray and another chair over, Beast sat in front of him to assess the damage. "I don't judge."

When Beast was finished repairing what he could, Erik stood and redressed, attempting to take care, though it was not in his nature to do so. He headed toward the door, then turned back to watch Beast withdraw the heavy, rather exquisitely designed frame from the corner cabinet. Unbidden, Erik's ability reached out toward it, connecting it to him from across the room with something akin to affection.

"How long did it take you to make that?" Erik asked. He tried to sound indifferent to it.

Beast held it with some reverence as he looked it over. "By the time I collected and engineered all the pieces without him noticing? About four months."

Erik's mouth twitched in a half-smile. "I've only been back for less than three."

Beast continued to examine his creation silently before he shrugged. "I knew it was a possibility." He lifted his eyes to Erik again. "But if it wasn't you--maybe someone else, someday."

No one else. It has to be me.

But the briefest involuntary shake of his head was Erik's only admission of that thought. "Then what timing," he answered, flatly, tapping the frame of the door as he moved to leave. "I'll change clothes and meet you."

* * * * *

It wasn't difficult for Charles to find the passages he was looking for in the diary. Before Raven, he was lonely, isolated, cheerless; after, he was excitable, inquisitive, confident. Happy. It was such an arrant about-face that he wondered how he'd ever forgotten it, or failed to thank her properly for it. How had he managed to repay her this way?

He felt Erik's presence, though he didn't look up until he heard him walk into the room. Charles immediately tried to assess his expression, which was again cryptic. He set the journal aside, on the sill of the window, and turned from it. "I overstepped our boundaries. I apologize."

Erik looked confused, then seemed to remember the incident Charles had been agonizing over since Erik ran off. "It's fine, Charles. That's fine."

"Then what on earth is the matter?" Charles frowned, pushing the chair forward. "I told you I'm not in the habit of inviting myself into your head; you still have to talk to me."

"I know. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have left you like that." He seemed to vacillate between two as-yet unknown points before he gestured to the overstuffed chair nearby and sat down. Charles wheeled himself to it, still trying and failing to read Erik's face where he came to rest across from him. He had no choice but to wait.

Erik drew a breath, looking alarmingly uncomfortable. Charles' stomach sank as he desperately forced himself to forgo stealing into his thoughts.

"This isn't going to come out right," Erik sighed. "Charles, if you could walk again, would you want to?"

Charles stared dumbfounded, grateful that he was the mind reader in this conversation. He wouldn't have wanted anyone to know the miasma of emotions those words wrenched from him, from his own infantile hopes, to his bitterness that he should still entertain them--and finally to his resentment that Erik of all people would force him to talk about this.

"Given the limited options available to me," he answered carefully, struggling for neutrality, "I don't think this is a very healthy conversation."

Erik's gaze dropped to Charles' hands, which Charles realized were gripping the arms of his chair painfully. Instead he folded them in his lap, and he felt some of his tension leave him, but not all. Erik sat forward, looking back up to Charles' face. "What if your options weren't as limited as you think?"

This was a dangerous place for Charles to be. He wanted to give Erik a chance, to hear this conversation out, but to do so risked reopening wounds that were still trying to heal.

He sensed Hank just out of sight beyond the doorway. Charles lifted his hand to his forehead, rubbing it, though keeping his mental faculties idle. "Hank, what do you have?"

There was a moment of hesitation before Hank finally entered, carrying something Charles recoiled from before he could mask his reaction. He knew what a standing frame was; to him the braces seemed brutal, grotesque, though he knew it was only because of what they represented and how little they could really do for him.

Hank looked almost as uncomfortable as Charles felt, though he set the metal frame on the sofa a few feet away and was silent.

"You don't think I've thought of this before?" Charles asked, trying to be gentle, then trying not to falter. "I get around just fine as I am."

Regardless of what Hank did say, Charles was grateful he didn't patronize him. "It's more than what you think. Professor, this could actually work."

Charles saw the look he exchanged with Erik and wondered that this was what brought about their cooperation.

Erik sat further forward in the chair, trying to close the space between them, and for an instant it flashed in Charles' mind that if Erik moved any closer to him he'd have to get down on his knees in front of him.

Or had that come from Erik's mind?

"You could walk, Charles, if you wanted to." Erik searched his face, and Charles felt like pulling away, though he remained still. "You could control your movement by controlling the frame."

"Erik, if I were telekin--"

"Through me. You could use my ability for your own. You can do that, can't you?"

Charles felt his jaw slacken before he could pull himself together. Not everything Charles could do deserved to see the light of day. "I can, but--"

"Then I'd be at your disposal."

Charles heard that word like Erik had thrown it at him. "No one is at my disposal. Don't ever say that. Not you."

Though Erik matched the strength of Charles' glare, he was silent.

Hank stepped forward then. "You should know it's about more than walking. This would resolve a number of medical concerns: cardiovascular complications, pressure points, spasticity--"

"I do know that," Charles announced. He looked between them, feeling more than he was equipped to process at one time, and sighed, seeing the look on Hank's face. "I'm not--I'm not angry. And it's a brilliant idea; you made this, didn't you?" He nodded toward the anthropomorphic jumble of metal and leather padding on the sofa and tried not to feel anything toward it as Hank admitted he had.

"I need to speak to Erik alone."

Hank nodded, glancing one more time at his conspirator before he retreated, and Charles confirmed that he had moved out of earshot.

Erik was watching him submissively, seemingly with all the patience in the world. Charles sighed, slow and long, not certain how comfortable he was with that.

"Give me a moment," he said softly. Elbow on the arm of his chair, he rubbed his forehead again, eyes closing as he tried to analyze the cacophony of emotional contradictions in his own head. He was tempted, so powerfully tempted . . . But.

When he opened his eyes again, Erik was unchanged.

Charles drew his breath slowly as he straightened himself in his seat. "Listen to me. Aside from the matter of me being in your head more than you've ever been comfortable with, which I assume you've considered, we can't predict the future. We still have our differences, Erik, though they are not as great as I once thought." He extended his hand to him, and Erik took it. Charles gripped it tightly as he leaned carefully forward, needing it for balance. "If this worked, if I could walk again only with your help, then for you to leave me would be to consign me to this chair again. I need to know you'd be all right with that."

He studied Erik's face, trying to be sure he understood him. "If you stay with me, my friend, I want to be able to know it's for the right reasons. And not because you feel obligated to keeping me upright."

"Obligated?" Erik laughed harshly, though it sounded forced, and he waited a beat too long before speaking again for Charles not to notice his difficulty. "Do I really have to remind you that I am not so scrupulous that I wouldn't abandon you within ten minutes of injuring you for life?"

Charles shook his head, still gripping Erik's hand. "You didn't know the extent of it."

"I could have stayed long enough to find out," snapped Erik, but Charles knew it wasn't at him, and Erik softened somewhat before he gathered himself to continue. "If I have to promise you that if it comes to it, I'll leave you without a moment's hesitation regarding the consequences, then that's what I promise."

Charles couldn't help his smile. Strange as it was, that was what he wanted to hear: that he would not be the burden lashing Erik to his side.

"Well, now that we've established how horrible you are . . ." He smiled again, weathering Erik's reaction until he took his words for the offer of humor they were meant to be. "I can tell you I will think about it." He covered Erik's hand with his other before pushing against it to sit upright again. "I've invested a lot of time and effort coming to terms with this. Casting it off at the soonest mention of an alternative sounds to me an awful lot like denial."

Erik smiled lightly, leaving his seat to come forward, hands on the arms of Charles' chair as he set his forehead against his. After a moment he tipped his head to brush his lips over Charles' mouth.

"Call it what you like, it's up to you."

Chapter Text

Erik stood at the window of the empty flat some fifteen stories above the street below, trying not to think about ants even though Charles wasn't there to misunderstand him. They were lucky they'd got there early: the senator's motorcade left an hour ahead of schedule, and would be passing their vantage point in a few minutes.

Erik's eyes were only half-open, his open hand resting on the glass. There were a lot of guns down there already; distinguishing who was holding them, friend or foe, depended mostly on where they were and how they moved.

"So why am I here again?" Havok muttered. He was crouched at the next window, scanning the building opposite with a pair of binoculars.

"Because Charles gives a damn about politics. You sat in on the same briefing I did."

"I mean why me specifically."

Erik noted the addition of three pistols to the ranks below, though the hardware that accompanied them suggested they were carried by more police. "Second pair of eyes never hurts. And you're good at creating distractions."

"Yeah, me and every other one of us."

Erik lifted his brow. "Then I'd say the more likely reason, knowing Charles, is that he wants us to talk to each other."

Of the boys who stayed behind with Charles, Erik would have guessed Havok was the one who had disliked him the least. Conversely, Havok also seemed slowest to accept him back again.

"So," Erik mused dryly, "been to the cinema recently?"

Havok didn't answer, and Erik didn't expect him to. It was just as well. The motorcade had just turned the corner about a block away, and there was about to be a lot more metal to keep track of.

Under Johnson, they'd lost almost all mutant supporters to little more than cowardice. The senator approaching below remained an exception, and this location was determined to be the weak point in his protection. If there were any attempts on his life, Erik would avert them.

But only because Charles asked him to.

"Third floor, sixth window from the left."

"I see him," Erik murmured. "Keep looking, there could be others."

He let his eyes fall nearly closed as he lifted his other hand to the glass. He sensed nothing out of the ordinary aside from that rifle, but he remained alert to the area even as he focused in on the bullet in the rifle's chamber, waiting. He could have stopped it up then, but Erik was in the mood to give the human a choice.

The moronic parade of cars slipped further onward below, rolling at an arrogant pace between Erik and the rifleman. He felt the little ripple of the slow arc the gun metal made as it was swiveled, keeping the senator in its sights, but apparently not well enough. Or maybe the man was having a change of conscience--but Erik doubted that with everything he was.

Either way the bullet remained asleep in its barrel, even as the motorcade turned out of range. The humans could take it from here. Or they couldn't, but he'd done his job.

"Huh," puffed Havok. "I kind of thought you'd just--"

"Kill him?" Erik opened his eyes to confirm that everything he perceived of the scene below was true by sight as well. "That would have been simplest, wouldn't it?" He turned from the window to pack their things.

"Then why didn't you?" Havok handed him the binoculars, and Erik shoved them into the bag.

"Because I compromised," he muttered. Saying it felt like owning up to a mistake. "He didn't fire."

"What if he had?"

Erik zipped the bag and slung it over his shoulder. "Then it would have been Charles' turn to compromise." Setting off toward the door to the central hallway, he motioned for Havok to follow him, and quickly. "But so long as he gets to live, we get to question him. If he doesn't ditch his weapon we can track him, but we have to hurry."

Havok took two jogging steps toward him before he halted. "Wouldn't it be easier if he stayed put until we got there?"

Erik blinked at him, then strode back toward the window, reaching toward it, through it, across the street to take hold of the man's weapon and strike him unconscious with it.

"Good idea."

Havok grinned at him, and Erik almost smiled back.

* * *

At the far end of the library, Charles sat next to a few stacks of books he'd taken out of the lower shelves and was busy putting back.

A year ago, before he'd come home, someone had thoughtfully reworked the entire room: re-spacing the furniture, adding more shelving closer to the ground, and transferring almost all of the sizable collection of books into Charles' new reach. A few of the top shelves were still empty, though most had acquired decorative items from around the house to fill the space.

At the time, there'd been so much to adjust to that Charles never found out who was responsible--though from the perfect match of the new bookcases, he suspected Moira, and also Hank, for his raw strength and his eye for natural order where the books were neatly sorted in their new homes.

For this corner of the room, however, Charles suspected Alex, or perhaps Sean.

For months, Charles had left it, but with Sean's full recovery he was once again faced with the tedium of the time on his hands. He had his role and the chair did not impede him from filling it, but he'd never be spared the waiting.

Reaching the bottom of the third pile, Charles slipped the book into place and leaned back with a sigh, rolling out a stubborn kink in his back before it could twinge again. It bore his task unhappily, his reach awkward at this angle and difficult to counter-balance without pulling one muscle or another.

He was about to set in on the fourth stack when he felt the team's return, sudden as it was with the convenience of Azazel and his gift of transport. They were earlier than expected, but Charles tried not to worry over every outing, especially those with limited exposure, and safeguarding the senator shouldn't have revealed them at all. He continued a few books into the stack until Erik stepped into the library through the door far to Charles' back. Charles was not difficult to find.

"Welcome home," said Charles, cheerily, because as much as he tried to be rational something still flipped in his chest to know that Erik's home was here again, and not hidden--lost--where Charles could never hope to find him. As Erik came around toward his side, Charles threw a glance over his shoulder. "How did--"

He bit back a spasm between his shoulders, releasing the book to reach back and rub at the errant muscle. His face soured as he found the knot, but he renewed his smile as he focused on Erik again. "How did it go?"

Erik watched him with a tight frown, but it was disconnected from his words. "He's alive, though I'll be surprised if he stays that way. He's careless. There was a gunman there, and we were the only ones who knew it."

Charles winced again as he considered this, for two reasons now. "Perhaps his inability to appreciate the danger he’s in is the only reason he’s still on our side."

Erik grunted dismissively, and Charles watched him until he disappeared behind the chair, not risking another twinge in his back to turn. Charles knew he put no stock at all in human politics. Still, Erik acted on Charles’ behalf, when requested, and Charles could hardly ask for more than that.

"The gunman," Charles ventured, sensing Erik was still close, "any affiliation?"

"Independent," Erik answered, the word lightly punctuated by his hands on Charles' shoulders. Charles sank back into the press of his fingers before he even realized he was doing it.

"I see," he said, though for the moment his mind was not on the mission. He let his eyes close and his head droop forward, his hands on the arms of his chair as Erik found the knot in his back and carefully worked his way to it. It was still so novel to be touched sometimes that he let the quiet minute stretch as long as possible.

"That doesn't tell us much," he finally said, his voice hardly rising to the occasion. If there'd been connections, at least they could be followed.

"Just that we're hated on a personal as well as organized level," Erik responded, but his tone was flat. The conclusion was nothing new to either of them, though Charles was not as vocal regarding it.

Erik's thumbs worked their way deeper, and Charles sighed appreciatively. "Was there anything else?" Under Erik's hands he was losing confidence he'd remain upright in his chair for the rest of the conversation.

"Like Havok?" Erik guessed, and Charles could hear the smirk in it. "Did you think he was going to talk to me?"

"I hoped he might," said Charles, finally opening his eyes to focus on the busy pattern in the rug. His hope did not have a promising track record. "Though more than that I hoped he might take the opportunity to observe you."

Erik's hands slowed.

"We don't know what might happen," Charles confessed. "Any of them could be called upon to lead far sooner than anticipated. They have to learn how."

"You're their leader. They learn from you."

Charles paused, trying to choose his words carefully, but in the end he could only be honest. Slowly, he lowered his grip to the wheels of his chair and turned it to face him. Erik's hands were at his sides again, and he waited, eyes on Charles. "Alex is not like me."

Erik caught the implication, though the change in his face was so subtle Charles was forced to wonder if he'd picked up his thought without meaning to.

There'd been a time Charles had feared that even a minor tenet of Erik's philosophies had rubbed off on these, the first students, in the brief time they all spent together before the divide. Now, he didn't exactly welcome it, but he no longer saw the point in discouraging it.

"Are you hungry?" Erik asked.

"Incredibly," answered Charles, and he followed as Erik waved them both out.

* * * * *

In the morning, Erik woke, eyes on the still-dark ceiling. He knew the time by the color of the room; Charles, as it happened, didn't know this time at all. Erik always woke first, and slept more lightly, on his back like a man on the sidewalk of a skyscraper.

He moved to sit up, brushing Charles' hand under the bedding as he did. He stopped there as Charles breathed evenly on.

It always surprised him. When Erik touched him, especially with any suddenness, he expected Charles to withdraw.

For all Erik had done to him, Charles' instincts should have imagined Erik his greatest living threat. Yet nothing seemed further from the truth. Charles might be unaware of him now as he slept, but he wasn't unaware last night in the library, or as they prepared for bed, or any of the times before, when Erik had grown bold enough to let contact between them become commonplace. Charles welcomed him. Charles encouraged him.

Even in his least guarded state, Charles still looked peaceful in his company; it occurred to Erik that Charles was one of those rare people who look the same sleeping as they do awake.

Disturbing him no further, Erik slipped from the bed, forgoing the lamps until he'd shut the bathroom door behind him.

* * * * *

Charles stared at the television screen as it went on with its broadcast of the nightly news--one topic to another, transient, each story important for only as long as it took to be read aloud.

He had turned down the volume almost to nothing so that Sean wouldn't hear it in the room where he slept, and in that near-silent void, a different night drifted up to fill the space, just three months into the past, but seemingly ageless in its inevitability.

"Oswald didn't even make it to his trial," Charles had said, focusing on some point beyond Erik. Finally he lifted his eyes, catching Erik suddenly. "I don't suppose you had anything to do with that."

Erik's expression was hard to read, broken by the brutal helmet. "You wouldn't like my answer."

It wasn't a confession, it was a challenge--a play on the chess board, though even a year into the game they couldn't seem to get past trading pawns.

All the same, Charles' king was tipping, his own finger to its crown.

"Maybe I would."

He heard Erik's footsteps hesitating in the hall before they sounded a quiet path to the side of his chair. Erik bent to switch off the set and Charles let him, the room's darkness pooling between them before gradually lightening to a faint blue. Clear nights of the northern winter were never as dark as they were cold.

"Walter, that boy you freed from detainment," Charles told him, the words thick on his tongue. "--In broad daylight--For no reason at all--"

"They will only ever need the one." Erik's answer was quiet, as though he were still paying his respects to Charles' lost hope.

Charles sighed, eyes lifted to search the emptiness of the ceiling, head tipped back as though he were listening to some distant voice he no longer answered to. More and more often he felt lost, disoriented, a paradox in the limited spaces that now confined him.

"I feel like I'm drowning in it," he murmured, "in this--"

"Anger?"

"Hatred," he whispered. He closed his eyes beneath its weight, though he seemed detached, outside of it, as though he watched it gnawing bone-deep at the half of him that couldn't feel it.

He turned his palm up, and Erik took his hand, crouching beside him. He felt Erik's lips against the backs of his fingers and tightened his grip to keep it steady.

Erik's voice sounded absolute. "They deserve our hatred, Charles."

Charles smiled sadly. Erik would never change, but Charles no longer wanted him to. "Yours, Erik. Not mine. Not both." Their strength, he had found, lay somewhere between the two of them--just as he'd told Erik a long time ago. The balance between them was crucial.

And Charles was slipping.

He turned his head to study Erik's face in the monochrome light. The hue made everything necessarily somber, but in his memory was something brighter. "Do you remember that day on the steps, overlooking the National Mall? Back when we first met?"

Erik nodded, still holding Charles' hand, his thumb now brushing over its knuckles. Charles paused, waiting for Erik to remind him that he had warned him, then, and that he'd been right, but Erik didn't.

"The man you knew then was mostly a fool," Charles admitted. He sighed, looking over their hands, noting their differences even clasped in solidarity. "And yet I think I need to see things from his perspective again. I suppose I mean that literally. I think I need to sit on that step again with you and remember why he hoped as he did."

He lifted his eyes to Erik's face again, watching the subtle changes in it as he continued. It wasn't often he got to make Erik happy, and he didn't want to miss a single detail of it now. "Either way I'm going to need your help to get there. And I'd rather you didn't have to carry me."

Chapter Text

On his way inside the house, Erik stopped just outside the back door, his attention easily caught by the striking blue figure against a backdrop of white snow and gray stone. She faced the mansion, leaning back against the terrace balustrade, while off to her side a low-hanging afternoon sun found little to cast shadows with in the wide and empty lawn.

The house she was gazing at was large enough that she didn't seem to notice his approach until he was nearly to her.

Unceremoniously, she pushed about a foot of accumulated snow off of the balustrade next to her and gestured. "Now it seats two."

Erik tipped his head in mock gallantry before trudging over the uncleared flagstones and turning to sit in the space she'd prepared, not paying much attention to the frigid stone, though its chill bit immediately into his skin through his clothes. For a moment he looked over the oppressive edifice before them, trying to guess what might have interested her. "Spying on anyone in particular?"

She smirked at the army of windows staring back at them. "Look at this place. You'd be lucky to even glimpse a person, let alone spy on them." Still her eyes wandered from casement to casement, aimless, wistful. Beautiful. "Lose someone once," she said lightly, "you may never find them again."

Much as Erik tried to let his attention drift as hers had done, he found he had sought out the windows of the library and then did not stray from them.

"Are you all right, living here again?" he asked, eventually forcing his gaze to follow his voice as he looked at her. She'd followed him back here, but not all of his people had. She could still go.

After a moment, she shrugged. "It's as good a place as any."

"Then why won't you talk to him?"

She looked at him sharply, but the edge didn't last. She shook her head as she studied her old home again. "Two minutes with those big eyes and that stupid voice of his and I'd be right back where I used to be."

He watched her face as she smiled faintly, then felt caught when she glanced sidelong at him. "You know what he's like."

Erik shrugged off her perception, narrowing his eyes at the mansion. "We've all learned from our mistakes. Charles included. You should give him a chance."

When he finally looked toward her silence, he found her already studying him.

"You look like you have somewhere to be."

Though for entirely different reasons, she was almost as good as Charles at reading people--and almost as good as Erik at dodging their conversation.

He wouldn't push her. Neither would he deny the accuracy of her observation. He nodded, and eased himself from the balustrade, aching just shy of numb.

"Come inside soon," he advised, trudging toward the house again. "You will eventually get cold."

"I will," she said after him, and he trusted her good sense enough not to question her tone.

Once inside, Erik had stamped off the snow and made his way to the door of the library a little more quickly than he was ready for, and he took those last steps slowly. He knew he'd enter. He knew he'd meet Charles there and consent to their agreement (once more, for good measure, until Charles believed him). Still, he took his time.

It wasn't fear. It wasn't apprehension. Rather it was the absence of those things that gave him pause. What he was about to let Charles do ran so contrary to everything Erik was that offering it, let alone going through with it, should never, ever have crossed his mind.

And yet it was all he wanted. It put things right in a way he could never hope to.

He pushed open the door where it stood ajar and closed it behind him. Charles glanced up where he sat near the fireplace, looking pleased, but guarded.

"You've come," he observed with all obviousness, but Erik understood his surprise. There was a book in his lap, but it wasn't open; when Charles came forward, he discarded it to the nearby chair, the one they'd pulled away from the chess table, redundant.

"Of course," he answered, flatly. "If you think I can avoid you, I would remind you where I sleep." He bent to clear the board and pieces from the small, square table, then sat down, withdrawing a smooth metal ball from his pocket, as from a ball bearing. If he didn't make the first move, he felt certain there was a good chance Charles would talk himself out of it.

Charles wheeled himself around to join him. "I suppose that would be a short-sighted plan." His eyes settled briefly on the ball, though Erik realized it may have been the way he involuntarily fondled it that drew Charles' attention. "Besides," he added, drawing breath, "if this is what you're willing to do, I should at least meet you halfway."

Erik opened his mouth to protest--it wasn't about satisfying him--but Charles stopped him.

"I want to," he said.

Erik watched him, as though he'd know it if Charles were lying, but in the end he nodded. Shifting, he shrugged out of his jacket, then draped it over the table and set the ball in the middle of it so it wouldn't roll, though it would still be easy enough to move. He sat back again, ignoring the part of him that had begun to panic, a dark and quiet golem that had learned a long time ago that there was no one in the world Erik could trust.

It was a stubborn beast, that was certain.

"Tell me how you do it," said Charles, softly, and Erik noticed Charles hadn't looked away from the metal sphere since he'd set it down.

Erik frowned. "It's just a reflex. I don't think about it."

Charles finally looked up at him with wry smile. "You have an immense amount of power under your command, Erik, and you're about to hand that over to me. I need at least an inkling of how not to put us all in mortal danger."

Erik smirked, then conceded, focusing on the ball and trying to train himself just up to the point of influencing it and no further. It was like trying to explain how he fell asleep, or how he used a pen to write words. But he was trying. Regardless of the attention his ability had once earned him, no one had ever asked him how he did it.

"It's not about moving the object," he offered, finally. "It's more about the space around it. You make it easier for the object to move in the direction you want and harder for it to go anywhere else."

Charles narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. "Electromagnetic fields, then."

Erik shrugged. How should he know?

Charles drew his breath slowly, then seemed to sink into his chair as he released it. "And you're absolutely sure about this? Without a doubt?"

No one. Let no one--

"Yes, Charles."

"All right, all right," he ceded quickly. "All right." Charles echoed it the last time slowly, softly, as though trying not to frighten a dove from his window sill. "Here we go, then."

He lifted his fingers to his temple, and his eyes flicked up from the table to Erik.

It gripped him with surprising immediacy. Erik did his best not to move, not to react. He'd had Charles in his head before, but this was very different, this was like someone touching his skin from the underside, like someone breathing with his lungs, their air in his throat, their heart in his chest.

He'd gone rigid under Charles' gaze, his every sinew drawn to tension before the threads were suddenly cut and he nearly slumped over in the chair.

"You're fighting me," Charles remarked, gently.

"I'm sorry," Erik answered, annoyed to hear that he was panting. He sat up straighter and forced his breathing to slow, rolling his shoulders. He flexed his wrist in a beckoning gesture. "Again."

Charles looked unhappy, but he did eventually return his fingers to his temple, and this time Erik was a little more prepared. Much as it grated against his well-battered principles, he tried to welcome the sensations that had startled him before, tried to let them move freely through him like a current. It was still uncomfortable, still strange, but it had lost its acuteness, and it must have felt different to Charles, too, who eventually dropped his gaze to the solid metal sphere on the table.

Erik's attention went with it, but carefully, avoiding interference. He kept his breathing steady in the silence that followed, and while the ball remained still, he could feel what Charles was trying to do, could feel the swell of pressure behind his eyes when Charles exerted effort. He heard the muffled rattle of the sphere's vibration, but that was all.

He closed his eyes, willing himself to rest even more limply in the chair, ridding himself of any lingering resistance, or as close to such a state as he could manage. Make the path, he thought, sure that Charles could hear him. It will follow.

He felt it like a dam bursting, but so much faster, so that it was only his own well-honed reflexes that kept the sphere from embedding itself in the wall far to their sides. As he drew the ball to his hand, he couldn't help a small smile at the way Charles was laughing at what he'd done--open, guileless, unrestrained. It was as great as any sound in Erik's memory, possibly greater than any he'd forgotten.

It wasn't the first time Erik's ability had been met with laughter. But with Charles, it was so much different.

Charles genuinely liked what Erik could do. His exuberance had nothing to do with using Erik, nothing to do with gaining at his expense. It was pure and it meant him no harm. Better still, it wasn't merely Erik's talents Charles seemed interested in, despite their present task.

Erik sat forward to set the ball down again on the table, fighting to suppress what might have been a measure of pride. "There. You've done it." Sitting back, he gestured. "This time, bear in mind it's not a wrecking ball."

Charles laughed again, and once more it felt infectious, tugging at the edges of Erik's mouth. Charles seemed younger in his mirth, closer to the Charles Erik had first met, the one who delighted in every new mutation they discovered no matter how trivial. Back then his zeal had been freer, unacquainted with misfortune, unhappy endings, disappointment, hardship.

He's worse off because of--

"Ready?"

Erik forced the thought out of his head. It was the sort of thing he often put up with from his own conscience, but he wasn't about to let Charles worry on it.

He nodded, and again he felt that otherness slipping through him, yet it was more subtle now, less heavy-handed, as though Charles had already adjusted his approach after just one attempt. Still, after several seconds of suspense, the ball again shot off with little control. Erik returned it to the table as Charles impatiently shook out his hand, and on the third try, the ball finally rolled slowly, as though nudged, just to the edge of the table and back again.

"That's better," Charles murmured, embodying both professor and student at once. He lowered his hand as he looked up at Erik again, eyes searching for something Erik wasn't sure was there. "How are you holding up?"

Erik shrugged lightly. "You're the one making all the effort."

"You know what I mean."

It's fine. I'm fine with it. If it's you, I'm fine with anything.

But he wasn't ready to say that, and Charles wasn't in his head at the moment--Charles never listened without being obvious about it.

"Nothing I can't handle," he dismissed lightly, in favor of another topic. "Do you have to do that? With your hand? Does it help you focus?"

Charles blinked, turning up his hand to look at it. He smiled faintly, almost abashedly. "The opposite, actually. When I was young I had a hard time keeping to myself, as it were. This was the device I came up with to restrict myself."

Erik nodded. So it wasn't required.

"Don't use it with me," Erik said, though it came out more commanding than he'd meant it.

Charles folded his hands in his lap, his gaze hardened with doubt. "I don't know, Erik, I--"

"You're not a boy any longer. I trust you." He sat forward, cutting a path through Charles' next protest, and maybe too through his own alarm at having said that. "If we follow through with this, do you expect to spend your whole day with your hand at your head?"

"No," Charles confessed, "I suppose not." Quietly, he sighed, then smiled at his own expense. "I'm going to have a hard enough time not falling over as it is."

"Beast has every confidence in you."

Charles' smile persisted into bewilderment. "I fear too many do."

* * *

They spent the rest of the day and evening in the library or near it, making up excuses to the others as necessary and taking their dinner there, though the truth was no one really paid their companionship much mind, even in its extremes. Erik never liked people assuming anything about him, but at least by now most of those assumptions were correct.

By the time they left off for the night, Charles had become quite good at it, and Erik hardly tensed under his influence. In a way, he'd grown comfortable with it, much the same way he'd grown to accept first Charles' friendship, then his affection. It was just another rung on the ladder, and Erik couldn't say how far it went up.

They'd established an initial working radius of almost 100 feet, within which Charles could still access Erik's mind, and double-back his ability to Charles' immediate surroundings. Beyond that, it started to fall apart, losing accuracy, increasing the pain of effort for both of them, but Erik was willing to push it.

What they hadn't determined was whether or not Erik needed to be fully conscious, but that was easily enough tested. And it would take some practice before they could both use Erik's power at the same time, which was essential. Charles had made it clear to him that he wouldn't go through with it if it limited Erik in any way, and Erik agreed that, out in the world, it would be too much of a risk to have to choose between Charles' mobility and whatever else might require his attention. But if it was a trick they could only use within the safety of the mansion, then it was still something.

By the time they both had got into bed, it was late. Charles pulled himself up to sit against the pillows against the headboard, and Erik, stripped bare, straightened Charles' legs and climbed over him to sit, gently at first, on his thighs.

He always expected them to be cold, but they weren't: they were as warm as he was. He let his weight slowly press them down, straightening Charles' knees. More routine for them, except this time Erik still had the metal ball in his hand, which he revealed.

"Take it."

Charles reached for it with his hand, but Erik drew it away, making a light sound of disapproval with his tongue until Charles laughed at him.

"Erik, I'm exhausted. We can continue--"

"Do you think the world out there will make exceptions for you when you're tired?"

Charles appraised him evenly, maybe a touch darkly.

Erik smirked, almost a smile. "Or when you're cross with me?"

He felt the ball slip out of his hand to spin slowly in the air beside them. The rotation was smart: easier to keep it steady that way.

Erik was still almost-smiling as he shifted, his voice dropping. "Or when you're distracted?" Sitting further back to bring his torso down, he pressed his mouth to Charles' shoulder, then dragged his lips over the well-contoured skin between there and Charles' neck.

Charles shuddered faintly, stammering something along the lines of "most terrible man I know" before he was incoherent again, having to divide his attention so cruelly. Erik was slower now as he teased with tongue and teeth up Charles' neck to his ear, tugging at the lobe and running his tongue behind it.

"Old news, Charles," he murmured there.

Intimacy with Charles had at first been a challenge, but it seemed natural, now, to focus his attention on those other parts of Charles that produced a similar jolt of sensation. In some ways Erik knew his body better now than he ever might have, were the man still whole. There was so much that was too often overlooked, so much that was ignored in favor of the swifter payout.

Were things different, he might never have known that pressing his tongue into Charles' ear at the same time as his thumb brushed his nipple would bring that incredibly raw groan out of him, or if he really wanted Charles to kiss him first, he had only to nip along the line of his jaw until Charles finally grabbed him to catch his lips with his mouth instead.

He felt Charles' hands slip down the sides of his neck and over his chest to his ribs. Goaded, Erik pressed deeply into their kiss, his hunger bearing a different edge tonight with the vague awareness of Charles still in his head--he had to be, the ball was still spinning in the air next to them, and Erik wasn't doing it. He pushed his nails across Charles' hardened chest to his arms, indulging himself in the tactile reminders of Charles' considerable physical stature. He was stronger than Erik, now, and Erik was no idle war machine.

Charles gasped. Erik felt both his hands and his mind pull away from him an instant before he felt the ball hit the mattress.

He withdrew to find Charles staring past Erik's middle at nothing in particular, his hands pulled back like he'd done something he shouldn't have.

Erik could see nothing wrong, but with a little prickle of yearning, then cold remorse, his own body reminded him that the last place Charles had touched him was just above his knees.

If Charles, in his head, could hear his thoughts, and employ his faculties, couldn't he also feel what Erik felt?

"I'm sorry," breathed Charles. He hadn't moved. "I'm just--I wasn't--"

"It's all right," said Erik, softly. He fought with himself, with the sharp ache spearing his chest, to flee the bed or to stay and endure it, and he gently slipped his fingers through Charles' hair to tip the scales. This wasn't about Erik.

Slowly he came near again, eyes falling half shut as he breathed close, brushing his nose beside Charles' almost tenderly.

"Do you want to do more?"

Erik kept still with his own words, as though letting them stain his mouth so they wouldn't be easily wiped away when he finally drew back far enough to see Charles' face.

Charles' eyes were troubled, as they often were, but Erik met them steadily, his fingers extending to stroke back the hair that framed them. Charles' mouth tightened, though he didn't frown.

The metal ball remained idle on the bed, but Erik could feel Charles tentatively prod his mind as though confirming Erik's willingness. He could only have found it there in full force. As Erik felt Charles ease into him again, it was something like completion, and he let it lilt quietly from his throat as Charles reached to collect him nearer and Erik shifted to sit higher across Charles' lap.

Charles pulled himself forward to rest his head against Erik's chest. Erik could feel his warm breathing that quickened when Charles again placed his hands on Erik's sides and slowly let them drift downward, down to his hips, then lower, over his thighs, catching and heaving now and then, especially as his fingertips rubbed gently over the stitches that still held Erik's wound closed.

Erik swallowed down the brief razor's edge of pain, amplified like the rest of his sense of touch, as if it were doubled for the both of them though Erik knew this was only in his own head. He let his hands trail back through Charles' hair, fingers skipping lightly down his neck and onto the muscled plane of his back. Charles' hands had shifted inward, and they both shuddered as Erik felt them creeping up the inside of his thighs, following the hollow his tension made.

There was a stillness marked at last by Erik's breath hissing between his teeth when Charles slipped his hand around his cock, but Charles--Charles groaned raggedly, the noise high in his throat like a cry, and Erik had to slam his grip to the headboard to keep from bruising him with it.

Erik had taken this from him. It was because of Erik that Charles had to settle for this.

Still he couldn't help but arch into that contact, press his hips forward into Charles' willing grasp, and he felt the sting behind his tightly-shut eyes, threatening him to be human and suffer his shame in the open.

As Charles began to stroke him, as deftly and soundly as though Erik belonged to him, Erik felt his other hand gripping him behind the hip, urging him forward, urging him to thrust into the heat of his hand. Erik didn't stand a chance at resisting him, not when he was so close to him, not when he knelt here at the edge of breaking apart at the sound of Charles' gasping, faltering moans. He risked bringing one trembling hand back to Charles' shoulder, the other still clawing varnish from the headboard as he tried to steady them both under the desperate lurching of his pelvis.

Charles' thumb rubbed over the tip of his cock and Erik cried out before he could bite it back, hips snapping forward like he could feel every ridge of Charles' thumbprint raking over that sensitive, weeping strip of skin. He felt sure he did bruise him now, gripping Charles's shoulder like he'd fall off the end of the world if he didn't, and he loosened his fingers, trying to be gentle, but they only shook with his tension.

He tried to slow down, for Charles' sake--tried to pull himself down from the rapid escalation that had launched him toward total abandon, but he was losing the battle. Charles' breath was rough and hot against his chest, paced to the same rhythm as Erik's own hushed panting, and Erik realized Charles was losing the same battle with him, and deliberately. The vise of his hand had a purpose and Erik was going to fulfill it for them both.

Erik gave himself to it. He stopped fighting it. He could feel Charles' mouth moving against his chest but only heard the word in his mind, his own name pressed into his thoughts like a gift in trembling, fluttering paper. Erik tried to answer it, but his jaw had ground his teeth together in that final moment, and it was only in his head that he called back to him, Charles, I'm so sorry, Charles--

He shoved his hand down between them as he came beneath it, rocking into Charles' hand, helpless to listen to the sounds Charles was making under influence of the endorphins rushing Erik's brain, so much more direct in their assault than what Charles had probably become accustomed to. Charles didn't let go until it was finished, until the very last of it had skipped through Erik to a deep and final throb.

He felt Charles recede from him, gradual and inevitable as an ebbing tide. He almost reached out physically, uselessly, to stop his mind from leaving him alone again. But he said nothing, knowing they were naturally apart--as they'd always been, and as Erik should prefer it, because Erik had done things he should want to hide, and Erik had done things he should want to undo, but none so great as his crimes against the one he loved most.

In his sudden, yet familiar isolation, Erik focused on the feel of Charles' head still resting against his chest, his breath even now, and solid. Slowly, Erik calmed with him, the stinging finally fading from behind his eyes, the knot unraveling from his throat.

And then when Charles said it, so simply, so sincerely, it finally did break him, forcing him to turn away with his stifled sob.

That Charles would thank him--

Chapter Text

Bundled in a large scarf and a few layers of blankets, Charles leaned into the arm of his chair, watching the scene taking place on the back lawn. About a half hour ago, mid-morning, Alex had shoved Sean off their jogging path and into a snow drift, and Sean had retaliated the best way Sean knew how, and that was to pelt him with that same snow drift via shockwave.

From there, they'd torn up half the lawn's undisturbed blanket of white trying to demolish each other with it, and when Raven and even Hank--with reservations--eventually joined them, Charles was just surprised this hadn't happened earlier.

They were still young. The past year and a half had dealt them each their own blows, and while Charles tried to provide outlets for the emotion he sometimes couldn't ignore from them, those escapes were most effective like this: spontaneous, convivial, without consequence. And if their cover was to be believed, they were little older than schoolchildren.

Had things gone according to plan, they would actually be in school, this school, but after the events of last November--not even a full season ago--their stability had evaporated. What mutants they had by then attracted, Charles had sent home, fearing for their safety while the core team remained assembled to assess, and possibly reinstate, their standing in the world. It continued to trouble Charles, whether those younger mutants were safer back in their homes than collected here in his, but in the end he knew they were at a disadvantage either way. He just hadn't had enough time to build the fortress before the foundation was yanked out from under him.

At least this way, he wouldn't be directly responsible--

He heard Erik's footsteps on the salted path cleared through the terrace and straightened enough to catch the expression on his face. Of course, there wasn't one, but he was eating something out of a bowl that Charles couldn't see from his perspective, and that was a good enough sign.

"Did you try?" asked Erik, before Charles could even greet him. "While I was asleep."

Charles smiled lightly as Erik came to stand at his side. "I thought it better to let you rest."

For once, Erik had still been sound asleep when Charles had finished with his morning maintenance, and Charles figured he must need it. There was a chance it wouldn't have disturbed him (Charles was very good at being stealthy when he wasn't trying to be fair), but he couldn't bring himself to strip Erik of his defenses again so soon. Not after last night.

"Tonight, then."

Charles disguised his sigh by watching the steam his breath made if he exhaled slowly enough.

"If you like."

He'd always been aware of Erik's guilt. He even assumed it before he ever saw the signs, unwilling to believe that Erik was so callous that he wouldn't feel some remorse about what had happened. But it had taken three months of contact for it to come so clearly to the surface, and Charles wasn't sure what to do with it in its blatant forms. Even if Erik appeared to be ignoring it this morning, Charles couldn't.

Charles had made Erik promise him that he wouldn't stay with him out of obligation. But Erik had asked for no reciprocation. He didn't seem the least bit interested in confirming that Charles wouldn't stay with him just to use him. It was possible he already knew what Charles' answer would be.

Or it was possible he didn't care either way. And Charles wanted him to care. Charles wanted him to climb out of the pit he'd dug for himself and demand to be treated with the respect he deserved. But the man had entirely redefined for himself what an "accident" was, and by all accounts wanted Charles to take as much advantage of him as Charles wanted.

Which was none. If Charles did the right thing, given Erik's vulnerability to him, he would back out of their arrangement with the frame until such a time as Erik finally forgave himself. Problem was, Erik probably wouldn't forgive himself until he'd sacrificed everything to put Charles right again. Doing the right thing would mean denying Erik the chance to redeem himself in the only way that seemed appropriate to him.

Doing the right thing wasn't worth keeping Erik miserable. Even if the alternative was to Charles' benefit.

Resting his jaw on his hand again, elbow on the arm of the chair, Charles looked up at Erik while the man furrowed his brow at the antics on the lawn.

We'll set each other right, he thought to himself, only if you let me do you wrong.

"What's the point of that?" asked Erik, around a mouthful of what Charles now guessed were leftovers from yesterday's dinner.

"Haven't you ever been in a snowball fight?"

Erik narrowed his eyes as he swallowed his food. "No."

Charles smiled with a sympathetic lift of his brow. "Pray don't tell them that, they'll bury you."

"Like to see them try," Erik mumbled at his bowl, but it was so low Charles had to wonder if that was actually what he said, and Erik didn't give him time to figure it out. "Azazel's discovered some meetings we should listen in on tonight. It'd be easy to navigate. We could use you."

Charles closed his eyes briefly. Every once in a while, Erik tried.

"The number of mutations possible in the human genome," replied Charles, "is nearly infinite." He set his gaze on the lawn again; Raven had at last pulled Hank into the fray. "And yet, even amongst the very few of us gathered here, there are two who can do very nearly the same thing." He looked back up at Erik, studying his eyes when he finally lowered them in his direction. "What good fortune that one of them would be me."

If Charles believed in fate, that coincidence would be its showpiece.

Erik looked resentful, but he didn't argue. With Emma on their team, it just wasn't worth the risk bringing Charles instead.

Charles remembered clearly the first conversation he'd had with Emma as an ally. They'd spent almost two hours in discussion, and Charles had steered most of that time to the topic of Erik. Even in her supple form, Emma was very good at keeping Charles out of her thoughts, and by the end of those two hours, the only thing Charles could be absolutely certain of was that everything she'd said about Erik had been a lie.

Charles had trusted her ever since.

He narrowed his eyes, thoughtful. "Do you ever miss your cape?"

Erik lifted a brow over the look he cast him. "The theatrics were useful." His annunciation carried a defensive edge.

"Well, you certainly wore it well," Charles mused. Never mind how deeply the sight of Erik cut into him at the time--Charles was trying to be lighthearted. "What do you think?" he asked, spinning once in the chair as he glanced over his shoulder. "One on the back? I could pull it off."

Seemingly against all odds, Erik actually laughed, much like he used to, his eyes drawn shut with it.

For Charles, it was a small but significant triumph, and he wasn't ready for it to be over.

Rolling himself a little further forward, he reached to gather some snow from the balustrade, then packed and turned it in his cupped hands as he surveyed the battlefield.

He proffered it to Erik, who took it warily. A moment later, Erik had hurtled it through the air to strike Alex on the shoulder, who promptly assumed it was Sean and retaliated, and Charles had to cover his mouth to keep his laughter from traveling. Raven had looked in their direction, but too late: she could confirm nothing.

As his laughter trailed off, Charles looked back up to find Erik studying him, his brow faintly puzzled, his smile softened by the same distance and uncertainty that often made it possible. Erik soon turned to go back inside, but he was in no hurry, and before he departed Charles felt his fingers in the roots of his hair, snow-cold fingertips rubbing his scalp for just an instant before he continued on.

It was the sort of thing that could still stir Charles in the pit of his stomach, the deepest sensation he still possessed. His eyes fell closed as he held to it until it faded.

I made you promise you could still leave.

Now promise me you never will.

* * * * *

That night, while most of the others were out, Charles knocked beside the open door to the lab, hoping to speak to the only other present occupant of the house. A mission that was 'easy to navigate' unfortunately doubled as 'difficult to hide in,' and Hank had stayed behind. Charles didn't get the sense that he minded it: Hank still wasn't entirely comfortable revealing himself to outsiders, not even now, when Erik was quick to show any naysayers the error of their ways.

Hank emerged into view as he leaned back in his chair, then rose to his feet. "Professor?"

Charles smiled apologetically as he wheeled a little further in. "Do you have a moment? I fear I may need you to indulge me in some conversation." He realized he hadn't spoken to Hank since the day Hank presented the frame to him; Charles suspected they may have been avoiding each other, if subconsciously.

But Hank nodded without hesitation, pulling his chair away from the table of wires and chassis pieces as though to demonstrate his willingness to ignore it for however long Charles needed. He sat down, and Charles came the rest of the way forward to join him.

Charles glanced to the lab around him, ready to let it guide his conversation, but he didn't have the time nor the heart to stall. "It's about the frame," he began, finally. "Though I'm sure you've guessed that already."

He could see the discomfort in Hank's posture and, in a way, appreciated it. It meant he respected Charles' right to remain just as he was, even if Charles wasn't going to invoke that right after all--at least, not at this point in his life.

As Hank waited patiently for him to go on, Charles collected himself. If he was really going to go through with this, he had to be practical. "Could you retrieve it?"

Hank nodded heavily, rising and rounding the chair to walk to the corner cabinet. He opened it and withdrew the frame easily, though the truth of its cumbersome weight was not so well concealed when he set it on the table at Charles' side, just a little lower than his eye-level.

Charles hadn't been as close to it the first time he'd seen it--or barely seen it. It had been difficult to look at then, just as it was now, but tonight he was forcing himself to observe it, consider it, appreciate it at the very least for the apparent intellect and effort that had gone into its design. He finally reached out to touch it, the final proof of its substance, and tried to think of it as Erik might, tried to find something other than malaise in the smooth rigidity of its supports.

"I don't think I thanked you properly for this," said Charles, softly, as though anything louder might disturb the steel under his fingers. "For having thought of me. For having anticipated this . . . alternative."

"I couldn't help it," mumbled Hank, as though it were an apology, and Charles smiled at him. Engineers solved problems. Doctors fixed people. Of course he couldn't help it. "Do you think you'll use it?"

He let his breath out slowly. Some part of him was still holding to the possibility that he'd change his mind, but that was foolish, and it was becoming easier to recognize that. "Yes. I think I will." Still, it changed something in the air to say it aloud, to commit himself to it in front of one more witness. "So long as Erik continues to allow it."

It really was incredible, what they had accomplished so far between them, but Charles knew at any moment it might prove too much, too invasive, too close. And at that moment Charles would push the entire thing aside without quarrel. Erik was what mattered to him, not this.

"If I may, Professor, I don't think you have anything to worry about there."

Charles glanced at him, tempted to know what words he must have exchanged with Erik, probably here in this lab. But he could guess, and guessing would have to be enough.

"Tell me about this," he said, nodding toward the frame.

Hank's vivid gaze lingered on him before he finally shifted his attention to the table. "I made several modifications to the more standard design," he explained, haltingly, but his enthusiasm gradually hastened his pace. "None of the joints will lock; in fact, they won't offer any resistance at all. This frame would be completely useless without some kind of external force maintaining its structure."

"So that it doesn't interfere," ventured Charles, and Hank nodded.

"Range of motion is also more generous than the standard models. You'd still have some rotation in the hip and ankle--though not as much as you'd normally have, because the joints are on the outside. Now, if you were to have something implanted closer to the--"

"One thing at a time, Hank," interrupted Charles with a weak smile, and Hank immediately checked himself.

"Even with the sum of limitations," Hank went on, "I think with this, you could operate on nearly the same level as someone with an intact nervous system."

Charles let his breath out slowly through the corner of his mouth as he considered, and doubted, the truth of that. "That's a very ambitious prediction, Hank."

"I know."

Charles appraised him lightly, though whether Hank's confidence was warranted remained to be seen.

He looked back to the frame, pressing on, though the words threatened not to come out at all. "As for physically using it, then. Prepare me. What should I expect?"

Hank dropped his gaze to his hands. "Professor, you've studied these subjects extensively. I'd be telling you what you already know."

"Remind me," encouraged Charles. "It's more objective if I hear it from you. Besides, you're far more clever." Furthermore, there was a good chance Charles had been thoroughly hungover during the relevant lectures, but he kept this likelihood to himself.

Hank sighed and hazarded to glance up at him. Charles did his best to look receptive.

"All right," Hank agreed, running a set of claws through his thick hair. He seemed to debate where to begin before he gestured with his decision. "Balance is going to be your biggest obstacle. The weight of the frame will anchor you, but your center of balance will still feel like it's low in your chest instead of your pelvis. You'll feel top-heavy. That will only work itself out in time."

Charles nodded, wondering if he ought to be taking notes, but Hank was right: none of this should be a surprise to him, even if it meant something entirely more personal now.

"To complicate that," Hank continued, "you won't feel the ground beneath you. There will be no feedback, so even flat terrain will require constant visual cues to inform you."

Studying the frame as Hank spoke, Charles turned to face it better, reaching out to flex the joints at the ankle. "This seems so rigid, though, that it might conduct the force of impact all the way up to here"--he dragged the frame a small ways down the table to tap the broad plates at the torso--"where I can feel it."

"It might, if you walk hard enough."

"Oh, I doubt I should be able to walk softly," Charles countered, lifting his brows. The image in his head was laughably robotic.

Hank paused, so that Charles glanced over at him.

"I think you may be surprised, Professor. Walking may not be as difficult as you anticipate."

"How so?"

"Well," said Hank, "spinal locomotion. Of course."

Charles sat back again, studying him thoughtfully but saying nothing so that Hank continued.

"Walking requires an exact sequence of muscle activity and a strict coordination of the left and right sides of the body, not to mention a careful adherence to pacing and rhythm." Hank gestured out in front of himself the way he often did when particularly taken with an idea. "The whole process is so complex that the parts I've mentioned aren't even conducted in the brain. The brain is still the agent in charge of when and how fast, but the rest--the rhythm, the sequence, the coordination, is managed in the spinal cord. Below the point of injury yours is still functioning, if in isolation."

Charles pursed his lips. "But how can I access that if it's no longer connected?"

He could remember that they'd concluded, early on, that Charles' mutated ability seemed confined to the brain proper. His realm of influence didn't extend to the similar nerve endings in spinal tissue--otherwise they'd have pursued that possibility.

"You would have to use external input to coax it into operation. If you explicitly started to put one foot in front of the other, it would respond to take over, and cease when you stopped yourself."

Charles frowned. That seemed a little too convenient. "You're certain of that?"

"I apologize for my directness, Professor, but if we were to support you on a treadmill, you would walk." His face briefly hued a faint purple, as though he'd blushed. "What you will have to be in constant control of, of course, is keeping the frame in support of your weight, and well enough to facilitate the reverse pendulum of a human gait. It will be a combination of systems."

Letting out his breath, Charles steepled his fingers against his chin. A reverse pendulum: where the foot was stationary and the pelvis swung forward with inertia, which was transferred into the next step, and so on. It had evolved in some higher primates to conserve energy, and he'd still have to employ the technique now if he didn't want to wear himself--and Erik--out. Mentally he could see it happening, diagrams of bipedalism stuttering on silent film through his memory, but translating all of that to this unconventional implementation seemed incredibly daunting.

"Standing still will be an even greater challenge, I take it."

Hank nodded. "The motor compensation that usually keeps a person balanced when idle is too fine to be imitated by moving the frame, so you will need to rely more on your upper body. You may find other ways as you go. The brain adapts. It will change to make this method easier, until it's entirely natural, if you stay with it."

Even the adult brain was incredibly resilient when presented with the right motivation.

Charles glanced up to the clocks on the wall, finding the right one for their time zone. The team would be returning soon, if everything went as planned, and Erik was usually gifted at forcing a schedule. Charles didn't want to be here discussing these things when he got back.

"You've been very kind to indulge me, Hank," he announced. "I should leave you to return to your work."

"I could tell you more--"

Charles laughed lightly. "I'm sure you could tell me volumes, but I'm afraid I'm not studious enough a vessel to contain it." At some point, he would just have to try it, when they were ready. He couldn't entirely deny that he was curious.

Nodding, Hank rose to his feet. "If there's anything else I can do--"

"You've already done enough, Hank." Charles kept his voice light to avoid any heavier meaning. He started to withdraw, then paused. "Though if you could--" He stopped, then pressed forward. "If you could, after tonight, bring it to Erik."

And then there'd be nothing between him and--

"Of course," answered Hank, and Charles nodded his thanks as he turned to depart. He couldn't even entertain the notion of succeeding without some protective mechanism rising up to stop him.

"Do the others know?" asked Hank.

Charles slowed before he reached the door, then turned back a few degrees. "Would you tell them? If it comes up."

An announcement didn't seem bearable, and to surprise anyone with it was unfair.

Hank seemed puzzled by how it might just 'come up,' but he nodded valiantly.

"I'll see what I can do."

* * * * *

Erik turned his head, listening. A whisper, not heard but felt, calling him not to wake, but to lie still. A plea of permission, lying cradled in his ear, in the hollow space, but now it twisted with its razor-like silence, boring inward.

'Wut und Schmerz.'

The smell of iron, the taste of it stopping his tongue, and he could only listen, to false kindness dripping inward, seeping through the cracks, searching, gripping, pulling, out, out--

'Du und Ich, Erik.'

'Wut und--'

It was his own sudden movement that woke him, his hands that knocked Charles away from him and scrabbled in the sheets to put space between them. He could hear Charles' winded voice, in the room and in his head--Be calm, Erik, it's me, be calm--but his firing nerves and thudding heart would not permit him to leave the edge of the bed once he found it.

He could see Charles' outline as he pulled himself up, shifting himself closer to the lamp to switch it on. Erik winced in the brightness, under the glare of fluorescent lights in a laboratory of metal until he saw clearly the bedroom walls, the bed he rested in, and the man who shared it with him.

"I'm sorry, Erik," Charles was saying, his concern all but begging to close the space between them though he remained where he was. "Are you all right?"

He was still wheezing faintly. Erik must have struck him in the chest.

"I'm fine," Erik forced, knowing he would be and rushing it along, though his head was still pounding and something small and frightened was trying to convince him he wasn't safe again. He eased himself a little further away from the edge of the bed so he wouldn't so much resemble the cornered animal. "Are you hurt?"

Charles coughed. "Surprised, is all. Your subconscious mind is much more protective of you than this one is."

Erik's limbs were starting to tingle as they relaxed, finally, and he moved closer to the center of the large bed again. On his cue, Charles did the same, propped up against the headboard.

"Were you able to do it?"

"Briefly, but--"

"Good," Erik answered. That was the important thing. If the next-to-worst ever happened, Charles would not be left helpless.

Charles sighed at him, mouth set in a narrow line, brow furrowed, as though he were reasoning with the unreasonable. "Erik, it's likely the same thing will happen. Only you won't wake up to stop where your mind was taking you."

"If I'm ever knocked unconscious, nightmares will be the least of our worries. Do it anyway."

Charles still had that look on his face, but he tipped the expression to the side, a reluctant declaration of his concession to Erik's point. Erik's brow twitched upward to acknowledge the victory, and noisily he bunched up his pillow to lie down on it again. Charles eventually slid himself down to join him, and Erik switched off the light without stirring.

He could still feel Charles' hesitance, even in the dark.

"You will do it?"

Charles dragged the gravel into his voice. "Yes, my friend. If it comes to it I will do what is necessary."

Satisfied, Erik closed his eyes.

"But if you're going to punch me again," Charles muttered, "try to do it in the leg."

* * * * *

Charles watched Erik attentively as Erik held out the two metal emblem seals in front of him, one in each hand. One was the mold of a shield, the other a laurel wreath.

"All right? The right one's yours, left is mine."

The television room was empty save for them, bright and warm with trapped afternoon sunlight.

"Your right or mine?"

Erik lifted the one in his left hand. "This one, your right. Yours, mine. Shield, wreath."

"I'm clockwise?"

"Yes. Ready?"

Charles nodded, habit lifting his hand from the arm of the chair, though he put it down again before he could put it to his temple. He concentrated on Erik and the shield seal in Erik's left hand, simultaneously, catching the seal in the air when Erik tossed it lightly upward, letting it hover there. He was only skimming the surface of Erik's explicit thoughts, reaching as specifically as he could into that deeper, more primal region that granted Erik his magnetic dominion. Now that he'd for the most part isolated it, however, he had to learn to step back from it, to mitigate his possession of it, which was altogether more difficult.

He could feel the tug as Erik released the wreath seal, and both objects dropped a few inches before they recovered, evening out as the two found their balance in Erik's head.

His hands now free, Erik lifted his forefingers to motion with their respective rotations.

Slowly, Charles encouraged his seal to begin a small circle in the air, parallel to the floor, clockwise. He kept his eyes on it, though he couldn't help but be distracted by Erik's seal, which was beginning to move in the other direction.

Clockwise. Clockwise, clockwise-- He closed one eye, wincing as he turned his head to bring only the shield seal into his field of vision, but he could still feel Erik's intent, could still feel it brushing the wrong way against Charles' mental camp in Erik's faculties. Clockwise, clockwise.

"Just like that," murmured Erik, and Charles wondered how he could still talk out loud, but then again, Charles was the one who had the most to juggle in this case.

They managed it for several seconds, the two seals moving in opposing directions, quite independent of each other, before Charles' began to wobble, its path veering.

Clockwise, counter-clockwise--Oh, hell--

He overreached to correct himself, and Erik's dropped out of the air so that he had to catch it in his hand.

Slumping back in his chair with a plosive sigh, Charles drew his seal into his fist and held it, catching his breath. Breathing was what seemed to suffer the most while he tried to maintain control of everything else.

"You need a break," Erik suggested. They'd been working up to this for almost an hour.

Charles shook his head. Exhausting as this was, and as frustrating as it could be, he was enjoying it. He liked having this between them, liked having Erik close to him, liked how Erik seemed a little happier this way, though Charles would have expected just the opposite.

"I could use some tea, though," he reconsidered, sitting up straight to wheel himself back, setting the seal on the table beside him. "I'll just be a moment. Would you--"

"Stay," said Erik, rising. "I'll get it." He drew Charles' seal off the table and handed it back to him. "You see how long you can keep that up."

Charles laughed wearily as he took it. "You're a liar. You'll tell Sean to get it for you."

Erik shrugged on his way toward the hallway. "If he didn't like it, he wouldn't spend so much of his time in the kitchen."

Charles was inclined to agree, but only because Erik had left before he could opine further.

Alone in the room, he looked down at the seal in his hand. He first found Erik again, then directed Erik's influence back into the room to lift it out of his palm. He could sense it when Erik's pace faltered, but he recovered in just an instant, and Charles sat back to relax, concentrating on nothing but the seal, and the thread that stretched from him to Erik and back again, lengthening with every step Erik took.

As the distance grew, he used it to help him scale back the grip he had on Erik, steadily, so that the seal didn't wobble. He would never have to use very much of Erik's power, given the true reach of it, which Charles had only seen a handful of times and would never forget. He needed only reserve a portion of it, such a small and insignificant portion that it was difficult to find the degree between 'quite a small amount' and 'nothing at all.'

But as Erik continued moving away, increasing their distance toward its breaking point, he found it, by fault of that limitation.

He kept it for only a second or two before they crossed that threshold and he felt the stress, the twinge of acute discomfort behind Erik's eyes. Releasing him, he let the seal drop to his hand again. If he could find that point again when Erik was in front of him and hit it consistently, Charles would hardly be using him at all.

As though there could be anything in between for someone like Charles. Coercion was not measured by degrees.

His attention was mercifully stolen by the figure passing the doorway, and Charles set down the seal to wheel himself toward the hall. "Mystique?"

There was no answer, though he was sure she must have heard him. Emerging into the hallway, he followed her, trying to catch up before--

Before she reached the stairs.

Charles sighed, calling up to her. "Mystique, I'd just like a moment--"

"Busy," was her only response, and as he slowed to a stop at the bottom of the staircase he could only watch her continue up and out of his reach.

Every time, Charles rued bitterly. He turned his chair to head back down the hall.

Erik was leaning against the wall next to the door to the television room, his arms folded. "Rude of her."

Charles shook his head lightly. It was sometimes a mystery to him how someone whose conscience could tolerate the extremest form of violence could still identify such minor transgressions as rudeness.

"At least I know she's still a sister to me," he answered, smiling briefly. Far past Erik, he noticed Sean carrying a tray in their direction, and his gaze returned to Erik.

Erik sniggered and disappeared into the television room. "In here, Sean, if you would," called Charles, defeated, and he followed Erik in to join him again where they'd been practicing.

Erik was looking rather self-satisfied where he sat. "You're a brute," chided Charles, before Sean rounded the corner and set the tray down next to the seal Charles had left there on the table. Charles took the seal before it could roll off to the floor.

"Thank you, Sean," he said, pointedly. He kept his gaze on Sean until he had his attention. "Don't let him bully you," he advised, kind but firm.

Sean lifted his brows as he screwed up his mouth, glancing furtively in Erik's direction. "Have you met him?"

Charles laughed before he could stop himself. There may have been some real sentiment behind Sean's words, but that he would say them in front of Erik told Charles it wasn't serious.

Then again, Sean didn't often exercise vocal discretion, and that was troubling, if ironic.

"Banshee knows how to defend himself," said Erik, while Charles tended to his own cup of tea, leaving Erik to fend for his own. "He can tell me No."

Sean didn't seem to know if Erik was supporting or threatening him, and as Charles took up his cup and saucer, he wasn't sure, either.

"I'm gonna go," mumbled Sean, and Charles nodded, endorsing his escape and thanking him again as he left. He'd have to make a point to speak to him later, in case he did have reason to worry.

"Next time," said Charles, once they were alone, "I will get it myself."

"And he'd still do it for you," dismissed Erik, sitting forward. "Do they know what we're doing?"

Charles winced with the memory of the night before. "Not yet. I asked Hank to tell them. It wasn't fair of me."

"Not fair?"

Charles scratched at one of his sideburns with his free hand, his expression still pinched. "It's a sensational topic. And it's Hank. I just didn't--"

Erik shrugged. "I'll tell them."

Charles blinked at him. "Well. Hank would love you for that."

"I doubt that."

"Then I would."

That earned him Erik's silent and full attention, more direct than Charles was expecting. Charles cleared his throat lightly and self-consciously sipped from his tea before setting it aside. He found the seal in his lap to continue their practice. "Maybe if you go first this time--"

When he looked up again, Erik's face had the memory of a smile on it, and Charles couldn't help but answer it, to the same slight extent.

"Let's try it," agreed Erik, picking up his seal to release it to the air again, and Charles slipped once more into his mind, seeking that smallest degree of possession, but wanting to take so much more.

Chapter Text

Staring up at the ceiling, Charles lay on his back on the bed, legs bent over the edge.

It must have been just past noon. Though the day was overcast, the refracted light of winter cast enough light into the room to highlight all the plaster and paint that needed repairs above him, faults he hadn't noticed before and would probably forget about in another few minutes.

He didn't often find himself flat on his back. It was too hard a position to get up from, and even when he was with someone he didn't mind being on his back for, Erik didn't like putting him at anything resembling a disadvantage. It was physiologically upsetting, this perspective. His blood pressure wasn't handling it well.

Or maybe he was just nervous.

"Nearly done," said Erik. Charles clenched his jaw.

Nerves were something Charles never really had to deal with. He owed that to never having to wonder what anyone thought of him, to always knowing the right thing to do or say, always finding the way out of or into a situation as needed. But right now he was nervous, and thinking about the cracks in the ceiling wasn't doing a damn thing to distract him.

"All right," said Erik, his tone sounding final. "How's--"

He stopped. Charles could guess he was about to ask him how it was, or how it felt, but of course it felt like nothing, save for the metal plate Erik had closed over his lower abdomen and the one behind him it was attached to, under his back. They were tight enough to send his breathing high into his chest, but that couldn't be avoided. He needed the support.

"Can you sit up?"

Charles swallowed down a little skip between his lungs. He'd been putting this off for days, choosing to focus instead on perfecting their interaction, reducing his command of Erik's ability to almost nothing. But once achieved, he hadn't been so canny about lying that it wasn't, only because he didn't have the heart to try. Erik had been so patient, so optimistic. Charles wanted to give him something in return.

He tried to get up in the usual way. Only some of his abdominal muscles still worked, and he tried to push himself first to one side, but the frame didn't quite twist as far as he was accustomed to. It took some extra effort to manage it, but he finally sat up.

Erik was crouched just in front of him. He could have helped him, but Erik never assumed Charles couldn't do something.

Charles wore only his shirt, which was open, and a pair of boxers. The frame was meant to be worn beneath his clothes, but Erik hadn't seemed keen on bothering with clothing this time around--which meant there was nothing to stop Charles from looking down at the frame but his own discipline, which presently failed him as he dropped his gaze from Erik's face.

The atrophy of his legs had been too gradual to shock him, but he could tell at the time that Erik had been disturbed by it, seeing it suddenly a full year into the process. Charles supposed it was that same suddenness that turned his own stomach now.

It was difficult to determine the source of his malaise. The cage of the frame was strapped so closely, fitting him exactly, as it was made to do. Though it was far too early for him to accept its potential role, it already looked a part of him, a part of his self.

And from the looks of it, he'd never get out of it without Erik's help, just like getting into it had been beyond his reasonable ability.

"Are you all right?" Erik asked, and Charles tried to stop being so transparent. He smiled briefly.

"Fine. I'm fine." With one hand on the bed to keep his balance, the other lifted each leg under the knee to set his feet, in the heavy orthopedic boots, a shoulder-length distance apart on the floor. "Give me your hands."

Though still bent at the waist before him, Erik straightened up, extending his hands only as prompted. Charles took them.

Ready, and--

He couldn't tell if he was ill or elated. In fact, he couldn't tell what any of his emotions were doing, and for Charles that was a very rare state indeed. But he gripped Erik's hands, and Erik gripped his in return, and tentatively Charles reached out to his mind to take hold of that small corner he'd become so familiar with.

Even ignoring the bulk of what Erik was thinking and feeling, Charles still took pause at what he found there. It seemed to permeate every sector, so that try as he might to sidestep it, to find some less invasive angle, he eventually withdrew, unsuccessful.

"What is it?" asked Erik.

Charles met his eyes, uncertain of how to answer. What he had found in Erik's thoughts was a prime example of the breach of privacy Charles had been afraid of.

His gaze dropped to Erik's hands, which he still held, and he renewed his grip of them. "It would be wrong of me not to remind you that when we do this, I will sometimes know things you probably don't want me to know."

Carefully, he looked up to Erik's eyes. Until then, Charles didn't think Erik capable of blushing.

Here it was, then. Erik would take this opportunity to change his mind, express his doubts, call for some delay until Charles could find a way to bar himself more completely from Erik's thoughts. After all, Charles was offering him that choice. It would always be Erik's choice.

Erik set his jaw, but stayed where he was. "Does it bother you?"

Charles smiled gently, studying him. "No." It also didn't surprise him.

Erik made the barest nod of acknowledgment, but didn't look away. "I've nothing worse to hide than what you already know. I'd tell you anything. Now I don't have to."

As he held his gaze, Charles opened his mouth to answer, but found he had nothing. Whatever language he possessed was effectively neutralized.

"Now, come on," said Erik. "I think you're stalling."

Charles finally looked away, drawing his breath slowly and releasing it. He nodded. If Erik had no misgivings, neither could Charles have them. And maybe he was stalling, but no longer.

Gingerly, Charles again found his place in the order of Erik's mind, accepting what Erik probably couldn't help feeling. Perhaps he should be glad that one of them, at least, liked the way he looked strapped into an articulated grid of metal.

He pushed that aside, as best he could.

Slowly, he leaned forward. It was ridiculous how tightly he held Erik's hands, but even this simple shift of his posture was normally not possible without toppling forward the rest of the way. But now, he could use the plates around his abdomen, and the joints at his hips, to keep his body from crumpling under the weight of his torso. He found he had closed his eyes, but he opened them now, needing to know his relation to the floor.

Gradually he transferred his weight forward, flexing the joints at his knees to lessen his dependence on the bed, and gravity slid him forward over his feet. For a moment he held himself still, concentrating on the many hinges so that they wouldn't fold, and then, slowly, he coaxed them to straighten, bringing his shoulders up until he was standing.

--Until he was standing.

He released his breath in harsh surprise, and though it set him off-balance, he recovered. He was holding onto Erik so hard his wrists were shaking, and he wouldn't have realized he was smiling if it hadn't been so wide as to hurt his face.

He made an attempt to calm himself. After all, he had a very long way to go, but this, this was still something, because when he ventured to lift his eyes to Erik's, he was seeing him from a long-lost point of view, from a time before everything had gone wrong, when Charles had just been happy to have met his equal, and he could hardly guess at the world they might create for each other.

If Erik hadn't begun to move, Charles might have stayed like that interminably.

"Just a few steps," Erik was saying. "Try." He had taken a half-step backward.

Still holding onto him, Charles pulled his wits together. The goal of this was not to stand there, grieving or otherwise, but to move from one point to another. Dropping his gaze to remind himself where everything was, he carefully shifted the hip joints to place his weight on his left leg--rather, the left brace, and lifted his right knee to set his foot clumsily a little further ahead of the other.

That's one.

He corrected the placement, then shifted his weight to the right, taking care that all the joints were still poised to hold him up. But for all its articulation, the frame left him with little dexterity in the foot, and he had to force the hinge at the ankle to pitch himself forward, leaning that way to aid the direction. It worked, if he kept the knees more limber than they might usually be, and he was able to bring his left foot forward almost as soon as he shifted from it.

That's two.

He could feel the perspiration on his brow. For covering so little ground, he was quickly exhausting himself. Half his mind was still trying this the hard way, sending signals that never reached their destination, and that was most of the struggle he was feeling now. During his rehabilitation, he'd been instructed to try moving his lower body at any cost, to see if there was even a thread of tissue left intact. It had been excruciating, and, of course, fruitless. Involuntarily, he was repeating that unfortunate ordeal now.

Erik continued to move backward with him, and by the fifth painstaking step, cumbersome as his gait was, Charles could tell something was trying to engage, something that was altogether more coordinated than his conscious mind could handle at the moment. He could hear Hank's words from nearly a week ago: the isolated nerves were waking up. Welcome back, you lazy bastards. Six, seven, eight . . . though still slow, the steps were a little smoother, a little more repetitive, though he still felt alarmingly disconnected from the floor beneath him. Erik was his only anchor.

Stilts, he thought. He was strongly reminded of the summer, when he was young, that he'd got hold of a pair of stilts. It had been an ill-fated stunt: he'd barely ambled ten feet before he toppled himself into the garden hedge, having no mutated gift for the self-awareness of wood (or its thorny cousin, the rose bush). Once more he felt perched, teetering on the surface of a spinning earth, without a center of balance and in constant peril of meeting the ground with his best face forward.

But he didn't fall. Not yet. Instead he suddenly found Erik against him, their hands caught between them. They'd reached the other side of the room, and Erik's back was against the wall. Charles had taken the last step into him before he realized.

He raised his head enough to catch Erik's gaze. He was taller than Charles was, yet they were all but eye-level, and again it was just as Charles remembered from barely a year and a half ago. But something was different. Erik was studying his face, lingering finally on his mouth, and Charles knew it when he did, their eyes meeting again.

Though quiet, Erik's thoughts were too clear not to be deliberate. Erik tried to smile, and he failed.

They'd never stood this close, before. As two able-bodied friends they had never crossed this line, though they had approached it, tested it, warped it, twisted it. Then they'd left it between them, gnarled by fate.

They just hadn't had enough time before it all fell apart. And then he couldn't have hoped--

Charles let go of his hands. His knuckles ached as he moved his grip to Erik's shoulders and buried his face in the neck of Erik's shirt, and he tried to keep steady as he felt Erik's arms around him, tight against his back. His mind, his heart, was racing. He was losing his focus. He wasn't prepared for this, for all of this at once.

He faltered, Erik's arms keeping him up before he pushed himself straight again. He'd already exhausted himself somewhere between the bed and here. "I need to lie down," he managed, trying not to sound like he felt, but his honesty always won out against his pride.

"Can you make it back?"

He shut his eyes, testing it before he shook his head. Without pause, he felt one of Erik's arms leave his back before he was lifted, and he was too grateful to be ashamed, his mind free to let everything go as Erik carried him.

It was such a short distance before Erik set him on his side on the bed. It had seemed leagues a moment before. But Charles was too spent to be disappointed, and at the bottom of his thoughts, when he hadn't the energy to conceive of a single other piece of logic, fact, or intuition, there was only the simple knowledge that Erik was here, Erik was with him.

Distantly, he heard the faint metallic rustle of the frame's many locks and buckled straps.

"Leave them," he murmured, and it ceased. He had more to do. He wasn't done today. I just need a few minutes. He was too tired to speak more.

There was a pause before he felt the bed shift behind him. "Take your time. I'll be here."

Charles closed his eyes, never more thankful.

He had hoped, someday--he could never stop himself, though he tried, he tried--that through some advance of medicine, some miracle of science, it might be possible.

What he hadn't dare hope was that Erik would be with him when it happened.

* * * * *

A few minutes eventually became half an hour and counting.

Though he had little choice but to stay nearby while Charles slept, Erik didn't mind it. In fact, he hadn't moved from the edge of the bed, and only rarely were his eyes elsewhere. As his mind had so tactlessly projected, and as Charles had been too ethical to ignore, there was a certain attraction in the way he perceived the frame--and that was before it was Charles who was inside it.

Occasionally he looked across to the far wall, recounting the details of the short journey they'd made, though he seemed to have wrapped them into the singular memory of how Charles had looked at him at its conclusion. He wished Charles had gone ahead and seared it into his permanent memory while he was in there.

Meanwhile, Charles breathed evenly in the quiet.

He had to keep reminding himself that the year they spent apart had been only that: a year. A year since Charles had last stood in front of him, a year since he'd left him lying in the sand. Not a lifetime, not an era, certainly not an eternity, and yet it had felt that way. That was the power of regret. Were it not for Charles, Erik wouldn't even know the meaning of the word.

It wasn't just the bullet. Though tied directly to Erik's hand, that had been a cruel trick of chance, and on some days--maybe even today--Erik could accept that. What rivaled it and selfishly won as the greater tragedy in Erik's mind was that he'd lost Charles that day.

And he just hadn't seen it coming.

I tried to tell you. I thought you knew me.

Charles stirred where he lay, but didn't wake. On his side, he seemed to be trying to roll to his stomach, but the metal around his hips held him where he was. Erik reached down to shift his leg to aid him, gently, though he knew gentleness wasn't necessary, but maybe it was to him. Erik was sure it couldn't be comfortable around Charles' waist, but Charles had told him to leave it, and so he did.

Just as when Charles had told him to leave, he had, and never expected anything to change from that point forward. Despite the sense of betrayal that burned him to a hollow in the weeks following, he eventually realized that Charles did understand him, and Charles had accepted him.

Charles had understood, and accepted, that Erik would never change.

So Erik wasn't one to argue when, after that year, Charles so carefully suggested he might be willing to break just far enough to reach him. He hadn't argued when Charles went so far as to invite him--even his allies--back to the Westchester estate, where Erik had left his things that night and didn't come back for them.

And he certainly didn't argue when he'd felt Charles' hand close on his wrist barely a week into their tentative agreement, signaling that maybe Charles, too, wasn't sure it would last, and wasn't willing to miss the opportunity a second time--even if he had to pull Erik down to his knees beside the chair to reach him, even if Erik wouldn't have believed that was what he wanted when Charles tugged him forward by the neck of his shirt to kiss him, almost terrified at first, but bolder the longer Erik didn't resist him.

They'd fumbled their way from there to here, where Erik didn't think twice about what any of it meant, just that for him, Charles may have taught him regret, but Charles was the key to a kind of life he would never find without him, and it included many other things besides.

He couldn't be sure Charles wouldn't one day find him reprehensible again. But it was easier for the warmonger to condone the pacifist, and so long as that remained true enough the other way around, Erik would be there, used or unused, exploited or not. That was his choice, and he'd made it.

He was finished with regret.

* * * * *

When Charles woke up it was considerably darker in the room; he hadn't meant to be down so long. He could still feel Erik behind him, though now Erik's arm rested over Charles' side, and he could feel Erik's breath at the back of his neck. Charles wished he could easily turn over to face him.

"You should have woken me," said Charles, softly. Erik wasn't asleep, but Charles didn't want to startle him. He slipped his hand over Erik's to clasp it briefly, then pushed himself up. He'd already lost enough time.

"You'd wake up when you were ready," answered Erik. He had turned to sit again at the edge of the bed, watching Charles over his shoulder. "How do you feel?"

"Better," Charles replied. Erik was probably right: had he been awakened any sooner, he wouldn't have recovered as much. He pulled himself to the other edge of the bed, then tugged his legs around to the floor. They were much heavier with the braces, and he could all but feel Erik's eyes on him, but for Charles it seemed important not to use Erik's ability for anything that didn't absolutely require it.

He reached for the tall bedpost at the foot of the bed and shifted closer to it, then, holding onto it for dear life, repeated the process from earlier, carefully giving his weight to the frame and straightening its hinges. Feeling calm again, he was better equipped to concentrate.

Erik had come around from the other side of the bed, but remained at the other bedpost, ready but not interfering. Still clinging to the bed's support, Charles carefully turned himself to face him.

"There now, you'd never guess," he said, his uncontainable smile already ruining the deadpan he'd been trying for. Though he easily acknowledged his laughable state, he was as proud as he was willing to make fun. "I'm a natural."

Erik's face softened, nearly a smile as he looked like he might play along. But just as quickly, his expression descended into something else. It was too much for Charles to ask, for Erik to find humor in this like Charles could.

Charles moved forward, his hands--for a split second--reaching for wheels that weren't there before he recovered and found the bedpost again. But it was to the same end: rather than Charles reflexively moving closer to Erik, Erik had come forward in an instant to aid him, though Charles caught himself before it was necessary. Still, Erik was now close enough for Charles to reach him, and he carefully transferred his grip to Erik's arms just below his shoulders, trying not to squeeze the circulation out of them as he steadied himself.

Erik's hands came up under Charles' elbows to secure him further, long fingers curled around the bend in them. Distracted suddenly by the warmth, Charles couldn't remember what he'd meant to say before his faltering. For all his violence, for all his ruthlessness, Erik's hands were so--

Charles stopped himself. For the moment, this was more important.

"I wouldn't change it, you know," he said. He lifted his eyes to Erik's, smiling gently, even under the weight of Erik's cautious frown. "We could recruit ten mutants with the ability to travel time and I wouldn't change it. What if I'd been struck in the neck, or the head? What if Raven had been hit--or you, somehow?"

Erik's brow furrowed. He knew what Charles was saying, but wasn't allowing himself to accept it.

Charles squeezed his arms briefly, then eased his grip again. "My life is different now, I'll grant you that. But with everything that went wrong that day, Erik, I consider us all lucky it wasn't any worse."

Erik's gaze finally fell away. His fingers pressed briefly into Charles' arms before he looked up again, his expression marginally lighter. In another few breaths, the edge of his mouth quirked up. "Who's to say we haven't tried it once already."

Charles let his smile widen. "Time-traveling? We might never know."

Erik finally rewarded him with a proper smile, though it was brief, and he looked away with it. Charles watched it into its traces, his own remaining, though less bright for it.

He finally drew his breath. Though he wanted nothing more than to continue exploring the paradoxical comfort he found in Erik's private company, he had other challenges in mind. "Think we can get me up the stairs today?"

Erik's gaze snapped back to him, brows lifted. "I don't think you should push yourself."

"And I don't think we should grow complacent," said Charles, cheerily, fighting his own doubts. He eased his grip from Erik's arms to reach for the bed again, and Erik let him go. "Wasn't that the entire point of being here, not that long ago?" Finding his clothes where they'd been draped across the foot of the bed, he tossed them toward his chair where it waited next to the nightstand. "To push ourselves, find our limits?"

"Yes," answered Erik, "and we found them."

Charles' boldness ebbed before his lighter expression returned.

"Clearly, we didn't." He looked up to hold Erik's gaze long enough for it to mean something before his attention shifted to his chair. "I'm going to go talk to Raven."

"Right now?"

"Have to." As Erik stepped out of his way, Charles embarked on the arduous process of trundling his way over to the chair, holding onto the bed along the foot board. If he could manage to focus entirely on the frame and not the legs inside it, it would be easiest. "As soon as she finds out I'm no longer confined to the ground floor, she'll move her bed to the roof."

Erik was quiet for a moment while Charles continued toiling toward his chair. "You could just bring it to you," he finally suggested.

"Only the frame, Erik." Charles would have used more words to make his intentions clear, but he felt Erik understood, and he was too busy concentrating on the more difficult schematics of bending over the mattress for the last few sideways steps. Finally, he turned, sitting heavily in the chair to dress himself.

There was a lot of room to fill up again in his old trousers, so over the braces they still fit, the metal and padding where muscle used to be. That did make the material difficult to pull on, after he'd disconnected the boots, but he was eventually successful, and presentable, shirt buttoned, jacket shrugged into. He rolled the chair back from the nightstand to withdraw the journal from its drawer and slipped it into one of the jacket pockets.

Erik remained quiet throughout, watching with only half a mind, judgmental but respectful.

Charles had got himself to the bedpost again before he reached the end of his independence. He smiled beseechingly in Erik's direction. "If you could get me to the door, I think I might make it the rest of the way."

Erik still didn't look as though this were the best idea, but still he came forward. He was pliant when Charles turned him and hung on to his shoulder and arm.

He drew his breath, focusing as Erik stepped forward with him. Metal, he reminded himself, not muscle, not bone. A number of metaphors arose to help him visualize, but inwardly he cringed at them all.

When he was able to reduce his mental representation of his lower half to the frame, it became less exhausting, less cumbersome, if he could just maintain it.

As they reached the door, Erik opened it with his free hand, and Charles reached out to transfer his grip to the door frame, releasing him. With the hallway stretching out ahead of him, he felt it had never been longer in his life--even when he was young and the electricity sometimes went out at night and there were always so many doors left ajar between him and safety. He glanced back to the chair; he could just take it to the stairs and start from there, but he was hesitant to give in.

"She knows what we've been attempting?" he asked, looking instead to Erik.

"I told them."

Charles nodded, relieved. He looked back to the hallway, drumming his fingers lightly on the door frame. "Did she say anything?"

Erik paused. "She wished us luck."

Charles kept his eyes on the hall. Erik was lying, but in what way, he barred himself from discovering.

But he was forgetting something, and rather egregiously at that. Before he began his foray into the corridor, he rolled his back to the door frame and propped himself against it. He reached instead for Erik, who stepped forward at his beckoning only to be pulled into Charles' kiss, slow while Erik gathered his bearings, while Charles tried to maintain concentration.

"Thank you, Erik," he said. "For all of this."

Erik shifted against him. "It's the--"

Charles stilled his answer with another kiss pressed to his lips, knowing what words would follow. You know it isn't. It's very, very far from the least you could do.

Again, Erik dodged it, or maybe Charles' voice in his head had reminded him. He moved back as Charles reached behind himself for the door frame, pushing himself from it.

"The stilts, did you ever try them again?" Erik asked.

Charles looked at him curiously as he transferred his balance to the other side of the doorway, almost missing its narrow purchase, but catching himself. He certainly hadn't mentioned that episode aloud, or shared it on purpose. "Could you hear that from me?"

"I think so." Erik followed him as he rounded the door frame into the hall. "I know it wasn't my memory."

"Intriguing," remarked Charles, easing himself forward, leaning heavily into the corridor wall as he made one slow step after another beside it. "It must have got away from me." Being so constantly connected to him, he supposed that it was bound to work both ways at times, under duress, if Charles was too communicative and couldn't silence himself. "But to answer your question, no." He smiled lightly. His mother had been far more worried about the roses than her son, but this he did not share. "I know when I'm beat."

Erik snorted, and Charles glanced at him where he walked alongside him. He seemed skeptical.

Charles only smiled. "This was your and Hank's idea, I'll kindly have you keep in mind."

"Not this part."

"Yes, well, I have developed a stubbornness befitting my title. 'Professor X' doesn't sound like a pushover, does he?" He navigated successfully over the distance of a narrow open doorway and continued plodding his way along the wall. "Present difficulties notwithstanding."

Erik laughed under his breath. "I'm sorry, Charles, but 'Professor' is not the most intimidating moniker."

"You sure?" He puffed out his cheeks, working his way around a console table against the wall. "Because I had a few I wouldn't face even now."

Erik snorted again.

At the last chair this side of the hallway, Charles eased himself into it to rest. It wasn't physical exertion that sapped him, but the sheer depth of concentration this required of him, even if it was getting easier to keep himself moving once he started, one step after another, so long as they landed in the right place and he didn't let go of anything. It probably didn't look very natural, but it might never. He would just have to find out what they were capable of.

For having been so hesitant, he was having a hard time stopping himself now. He had tried to be realistic. Maybe he was tired of that.

"You're going to strain yourself," warned Erik.

Charles shook his head. "It's like sitting even when I'm standing. I'll be fine." His vascular system might be taking a beating, but it was too late to worry about that now.

Pushing himself up again with a deliberate grunt, he rounded the chair to lean into the wall once more. The stairs extended up to the left from the corner he'd just reached, and between him and the newel post of the banister was about five feet of open space.

He pursed his lips, considering the distance. If he could steady himself far enough away from the corner, he could probably fall into the banister if he aimed well, and that was only if he did lose his balance, which he was absolutely guaranteed to do as soon as he let go.

He saw Erik shake his head out of the corner of his eye before he stepped a little ways in front of him and offered his arm. Charles cleared his throat and took it, again clinging to him for the few steps between him and the post.

"And you're going to make it all the way up the stairs?"

"If I have to climb them literally, that is what I will do," he answered, gripping the banister and unwittingly counting the steps as they extended up before him and veered off from the landing. Maybe it wasn't the best idea, but now he was committed. Though it wasn't rational, he still felt that if he waited even a day, she'd somehow be out of his reach again. He could only chase her so far.

He glanced further down the hallway toward the lab, trying to place it in relation to Raven's room. "You could go tell Hank the news while I do this. He'd probably like to know."

"Certainly, Charles," answered Erik, amused, "and please feel free to fatally injure yourself while I'm gone." He pinned Charles with his sharply pale gaze before he shook his head. "I'll wait here."

Charles smiled at him, looking over his face, disapproving as it was. Feeling this strongly for him--it might be a real problem, someday. Again. "Thank you."

Biting his tongue against anything further, he turned to face the stairs again. The banister was solid the whole way up: it would just be a matter of the changing elevation. As he set his foot on the first stair and pulled himself up, however, it occurred to him that though it was still perilous, it wasn't any more difficult--possibly because it was so difficult already. The mechanics took adjusting, a higher lift of the knee, a greater arc to straighten in the joints again, but there was hardly any additional effort, unlike the operation of muscle. The difference in force applied to the frame's hinges was nothing to Erik's command.

Of course, he still needed to haul himself up by the banister like he really was climbing. He hoped it had been kept in better repair than the ceiling in the bedroom.

He was a few steps from the landing when Alex came barreling, as fit young men are wont to do, down the top flight. Surprised by Charles, he nearly ran into the wall of the landing, but he caught and composed himself admirably, standing up straight and nodding as though they were meeting for the first time. "Professor."

Charles smiled with as much normality as possible. "Alex, good afternoon." He shifted, furtively confirming where he'd put his foot last and cautiously pushing himself up a little straighter, arm still on the banister but slightly less desperate in its grip. "Keeping occupied, I hope?"

Alex lifted the fan of comic books in his hand. "Sean let me borrow these."

"Right." Judging by his verve, Charles expected he was on his way to Sean's room now. "Well, you'll let me know if you need anything?"

"Yeah, sure." Alex gestured with the comics, not to Charles, but around the space between them, nondescript. "Uh, same."

Charles wondered on what certain terms Erik had threatened them if they risked embarrassing him. Alex was trying very hard not to draw attention to anything out of the ordinary.

Charles nodded and thanked him, releasing him to continue his way down the stairs. Charles glanced over his shoulder to see him stiffly pass Erik, who was leaning against the wall at the bottom of the stairs, and yet what he caught of Erik's expression suggested some mutual appreciation between them. He smiled to himself, then turned ahead again, continuing to pull himself up by the banister, pushing from beneath with the frame.

The second flight was much shorter. At last reaching the top, Charles did his best not to look down through the balusters, especially as this portion of the upstairs hall overlooked the ground floor for the space of about eight feet. He hadn't experienced the luxury of heights for some time. But he failed to pitch himself in any unforeseen directions and kept steady along the banister, arriving at solid wall again with some relief. He cast one last glance to Erik, then lost sight of him as he worked his way to the second door along his path.

Luckily, there was no one in the hall: no one to reveal him too soon, no one to rush his hand. He finally knocked on the door only at the thought of her opening it before he could do so.

Silence followed, but only because she moved in silence. He knew she was inside. It was involuntary that he should know that, and he'd made certain of it, of course, when he stubbornly vowed to talk to her today. He felt her on the other side of the door just before the knob turned and she pulled it open.

He leaned with the same unmitigated dependency into the frame of the door. But he held himself back from it, giving her as much distance as he could physically manage when their eyes met.

"Please don't close the door," he said, swiftly, before she could do just that, and he knew she might anyway. The expression that stole over her face painted the situation clearly. He had cornered her. But he had to. "Look at the lengths I've gone to." He tried to smile.

Her face finally fell to an indifference he wouldn't believe was easy for her, but she backed away, giving him room to enter, then finally turned to ignore him as she took a seat. "Are we going to pretend you did that for me?"

She faced away from him, but he could see her reflection in the vanity mirror, and it was through it that she watched him.

He studied her reflection from the doorway, then slowly eased himself past the threshold, closing the door behind him. He followed the wall before successfully reaching the back of a chair, gripping it for balance as he came to rest against it. The strain of Erik's distance was a steady tug, but it was manageable, far short of their limits. "I suppose we shouldn't pretend anything at this point."

Her eyes continued to regard him, but she said nothing, and as the silence persisted he suddenly felt very foolish for coming here, and with such a meager, silly offering. But it would be even more foolish to turn and leave again. He reached into his pocket for the journal, then risked leaning to set it on the end table beside the chair. Her eyes moved to it, but she seemed no more interested in it than in the pattern in the wallpaper.

When she still said nothing, he pushed on. "That's the journal I was keeping when I met you. I know it doesn't absolve me, but the boy in those pages thought you were brilliant, just the way you were that night, just the way you are now." Long before her return he'd drawn up the things he might say to her, and none stood with him now. "It started very different than how we ended up."

"Then what happened?" She turned toward him, so that he only saw the side of her face. Her voice was flat, but commanding.

He sighed. He had only honesty. She always saw right through him. "I grew up. I saw things. The things people did to each other. It wasn't just my family I had to hide you from, it was everyone, the whole world." There were dreams he used to have, nightmares, of Raven being taken from him. "It was just the two of us then. Not like it is now. What could I have done?"

"Charles, of all of us, you are the most dangerous." She looked at him, sharply, over the back of the chair. "You were never helpless. You could have protected me. You just didn't want to."

Dangerous. But contained. Disciplined. Controlled. Stiffly, he shook his head, eyes on hers. "There's nothing wrong with not wanting to cause harm."

"There is when you'd rather the people you cared about came to harm instead."

"I would never--"

"You would. You do. You let them hurt us because you won't strike back."

Them. Us. It was such a clear division to her. There was a time he was so naive he might not have understood where the line was drawn, but he knew it now.

He saw the things people did to each other. He saw the things people did to them.

"That's why I need Erik," he answered. He studied the floor beyond the edge of the chair. There was a balance between them. Erik was the sword; Charles was the sheath.

Her emotional signature in the room shifted unpleasantly. "So he can do your dirty work? Make the difficult decisions for you? You're a coward."

"So I'm a coward, then." He sighed, raising his eyes to hers. "You want me to argue that? I won't. I came up here to tell you I was wrong. I treated you carelessly for most of our lives together and I'm sorry for it. I mean to change it. You can take that as it is, or would you rather tell me all the other ways I've screwed up?"

"Somebody needs to."

"Nobody needs to." He frowned at her where she turned away again, her face visible only in the mirror, though she didn't face that, either.

She used to be his friend. His closest friend. His only friend.

He sighed, gripping the back of the chair tightly as he prepared to move from it. This wasn't what he'd hoped would happen, but he'd wanted her to talk to him, and he couldn't quibble about what she said when she did.

"I won't let you be hurt again," he said, knowing he hardly looked capable of fulfilling such a promise, but meaning it. She made no answer, but that was answer enough. He traced his steps and his dependencies back to the door and pulled it open.

He felt it, though he didn't pry; heard it, though he wasn't listening. His name in the thoughts of others always cut through the walls he put up.

But she extended nothing further, and he continued out, sliding his weight around the frame of the door to pull it shut behind him. For a moment he didn't stir, even when he heard Erik's step just a few stairs down from the top landing. He watched as Erik approached.

Erik posed no questions. He probably didn't need to. Charles suspected that in their year apart, Erik had come to know Raven better than Charles had even attempted in twenty. Instead Erik lifted his hand to set it not on Charles' shoulder, but closer to his neck, where his thumb brushed the skin above his collar in a gesture Charles didn't take for granted. Not when it came from Erik.

He pushed himself out from the wall, though he couldn't lose contact with it. "I think I've met my limit for today," he said, and he turned to navigate, with Erik's help, the long passage back to his chair.

Chapter Text

Charles spent the remainder of the first day in his chair, resting. To Erik he seemed to have lost the bolder edge of his confidence, but by nightfall his resolve had returned, stronger than before, if quieter.

Erik did not sleep easily that night. It seemed too good to be true. If Charles had pushed himself too hard, exhausted himself, strained himself, in body or in mind . . . . Erik knew it was irrational, but surely they couldn't get away with this--surely their cooperation, so ill-fated at the outset, would not be allowed this sort of harmony.

But Charles slept easily, and his breathing was untroubled, his heartbeat regular, when Erik gave into foolishness and felt for it.

If he woke Charles with it, Charles was gracious enough to feign oblivion.

* * *

In the morning, when Charles was ready, Erik joined him in the bedroom to help him again into the frame. It was too large, too ungainly, for Charles ever to do it himself, and in a way Erik supposed Charles was trading one independence for another. But until Charles took issue with it, Erik didn't need to be asked.

With Charles' arms around his neck, Erik lowered him into the hollow shell of it, all of the straps laid open to accept him. Once he'd been sat properly in position, Erik held onto him to lean him back on the bed, shifting the back plate underneath him before he withdrew his hands, brushing Charles' scar as he did.

To Erik's credit, he barely faltered before moving on, down to the straps, the leather metal-tipped so he didn't even have to touch it. But he liked to, at least here and there. Though practicality was often paramount in Erik's mind, he didn't rush this.

His lack of reaction was a marked improvement. The first few times his fingers had accidentally grazed the spot he'd apologized, unthinking, like the wound was still fresh, and Charles had found his withdrawn hands and kissed them, and kissed him, until Erik was able to touch him again. Now, his apology was caught up in something else, something silent, and it didn't stop him in his tracks like it used to.

Charles wouldn't change it.

At least, that was what he'd said, and Erik could hardly wrap his head around it. There were times Charles didn't even seem possible.

"Something on your mind?"

Erik tightened the last strap and held Charles' knees while Charles sat up.

Erik smiled, just one corner of his mouth. "Shouldn't you know?"

Charles laughed pleasantly, sitting straight while Erik remained crouched in front of him. "I try not to." He reached out a hand, two fingers brushing the hair at Erik's temple before they retreated. "If you thought my name distinctly, or if your preoccupation were particularly strong, I'd hear it. Though I am in there somewhere, mostly I'm able to ignore you."

Erik lifted a brow. His smile, longer-lived than usual, remained. "Now you're ignoring me?" He leaned to set his hands on the bed at Charles' sides to stand up.

Charles laughed again behind his grin. "Not like that."

"Hm," said Erik, catching Charles' mouth with his when he was level with him.

It was too hard, too rough. Erik realized it when he felt Charles' hands grasping at his chest for his shirt.

But once they found purchase Charles held him from pulling away. He kept his lips parted despite their spiking warmth against Erik's mouth and his tongue vulnerable despite the scrape of Erik's teeth.

Erik's fingertips grazed the frame at Charles' hip, then curled beneath the sturdy rod running the length of his thigh. This metal in Charles' shape, this metal warm from Charles' body heat--

It was only nine o'clock in the morning.

Charles' drew his breath sharply, parting them by a slim margin. His hands relaxed in Erik's shirt before Erik felt him smoothing the material, palms pressing flat over Erik's chest. Unwinding his grip, Erik straightened the rest of the way, out of Charles' reach.

Charles' hands returned to his lap, and Erik caught their subconscious rub of the frame. "I should get dressed," said Charles, a little breathless, and Erik nodded down at him before backing out of his way. "Then if you would be so patient as to escort me to breakfast, we might get there before lunch."

Erik retreated to sit on the sill of the window, arms folded as he waited. He watched Charles dress himself, though not so directly as to be rude. When Charles was nearly finished, Erik focused.

Charles.

Charles looked up at him, and Erik was satisfied.

* * *

The kitchen wasn't nearly as far as the stairs, but Charles was still relieved when they finally made its threshold. If he forgot what he was doing, confused one knee joint for the other for even a second, his weight would fold the whole thing down. Regardless of sensation, it would not be the best experience for the weaker parts of his physiology, or the stronger parts of his pride.

Raven was not there, but he shouldn't have expected her to be, not at this hour. Though impossible to wake up in the mornings of all their years together, Raven seemed to have aligned her habits with Erik's, and now woke much earlier than Charles usually left his room for the day.

Hank and Sean were deep in animated conversation over their plates.

"Good morning, boys," greeted Charles. Although hesitant to draw attention to himself, he couldn't rudely slink about the house, either.

Charles was thankful that their responses were only a brief lapse in their discussion. Despite the cursory vocal acknowledgment, Hank's glance made a critical sweep of Charles' condition; Sean, on the other hand, gave no indication he noticed anything out of the ordinary whatsoever.

Charles sometimes wondered if it might surprise Sean if anyone told him Hank was blue, and had been for some time now. If he had to name a few of Sean's best qualities, that would be among them.

At the table, Charles held fast to Erik's arm as he maneuvered into a chair, his grip moving to the edge of the table while he centered himself. Meanwhile, Hank went on regaling Sean with his plans for rebuilding the Blackbird. Cerebro was the real priority--but Hank knew that. And Charles knew a supersonic jet was far more exciting a topic than a radar installation only he could use.

"What do you want?" asked Erik, still standing at his side, and it took Charles a moment to work out that Erik meant to serve him.

Under usual circumstances, Charles would have seen to himself, but given his infantile control over this new mode of operation, it probably wasn't wise.

"Coffee," he said, meekly, then reluctantly realized he was actually hungry. "Something with eggs, if it's not too much trouble."

Though he said nothing, Erik moved away toward the cabinets. Looking after him, trying to think what he could help with from his frustratingly stationary seat, Charles was soon distracted by the blueprint Sean rolled out in front of him, and he turned to join their enthusiastic conversation as well as his knowledge could permit.

* * *

By the time the plates were cleared--again not by Charles' hand--even Erik had thrown in a worthwhile suggestion or two regarding the reincarnation of the jet, though quite literally it was all he said until a few minutes before the hour. Sean had already taken off for the television.

"Emma is due to check in with me," Erik said, returning to the table. "You'll be all right here?" He looked away to Hank and back again. "Or come with me."

Emma, with Azazel's help, usually met Erik no further away than the foyer, but Charles was content to stay where he was. "Let them report to you alone," he advised. "I know she's more comfortable with that."

Erik hesitated, but finally turned to leave.

When they were alone, Hank rolled up his blueprints, but kept his seat. "How far away can he be from you?"

"Reasonably far," Charles answered. "Half the length of the house, give or take." To demonstrate, he sat back, gripping the sides of the chair to steady himself as he shifted one knee where Hank could see it. "But I can't get anywhere but flat on the floor without something to hold onto, and unfortunately that ends up being him."

"He doesn't seem to mind it," Hank offered. "In fact he seems to be taking the whole thing surprisingly well, especially--"

Hank stopped short as though to avoid spoiling the conversation.

But there was nothing to spoil. For every success, for every happy moment with Erik, Charles kept his expectations in check. Whatever progress they made, in any sector, could easily be undone. Charles never forgot it.

"Especially given where we were four months ago," Charles finished for him. He smiled lightly, because he understood. For a year that miserable helmet had broken every bond they ever had, and reeked of a distrust that was more painful than the separation. Now, they'd spun so far in the opposite direction that Charles was dizzy with the contrast. And it was becoming clear just how difficult it would be to give it up.

Hank nodded, quiet for a moment.

"We're better with him here," he said.

Charles carefully sat forward to rest his arms on the table, releasing his breath.

"Yes, we are."

Chapter Text

"Oh, for the love of--"

Erik looked up from the day's paper to catch the sight of Charles biting back his fifth fit of cursing that morning, though he never quite got to the good part.

In the middle of the kitchen, a little ways from the table where Erik sat with his coffee, Charles was straightening himself up between the backs of two wooden chairs, trying his damnedest to balance upright of his own volition between them. While he'd become rather adept at stumbling from one point to another, standing in one place was a challenge he wasn't handling well. It had only been a few days, but from what Erik could infer, Charles wasn't accustomed to failure.

One of the chairs squealed an inch or two against the tile as Charles tipped again and almost fell into it, but he caught himself and pulled it back where it belonged. No swearing, but Erik was certain the nettled hum that buffeted him along their connection was a more explicit version of it.

"You should give yourself a break," said Erik, finally. He'd hoped Charles would come to that conclusion himself, but now it didn't seem likely, short of head trauma. "You've already accomplished enough to make things easier on you."

"It's no good if I can't function normally," Charles replied, his voice retaining more of an edge than Erik was used to hearing, though he did round one of the chairs to fall into it noisily. "I'm still more capable in a wheelchair."

"Why does it have to be all or nothing?" Erik folded the paper, for the moment setting aside the bills that seemed destined to pass the House, making mutants easier to detain, easier to be found guilty, so long as 'national security' was at stake, and wasn't it always? Erik was willing to threaten or rig all relevant votes in their favor, but Charles wanted to do things properly.

Charles sighed slowly as he looked at him, briefly wincing before he shifted, rubbing his ribs through his clothes where the top of the frame bruised him. He shook his head. "I can't keep hiding here. I had my excuse before. Now I don't."

Erik studied him, noting the way his gaze drifted. Ever since he'd spoken to Mystique, he seemed determined to participate in a way he'd staunchly refused before, even when conditions had been favorable. "What does Beast say?"

"That gravity and I have a complicated relationship." Charles raked his fingers through his hair. "He thinks I owe some of my difficulty to the disruption of proprioception. I can't sense where my legs are."

Erik furrowed his brow. "Why can't you? I can."

Charles blinked at him, musing flatly, "Well, you see, Erik, the spinal cord--"

"Close your eyes. You can't feel the metal in this room? Where each piece of it is?" It was such a fundamental part of Erik's experience with the world that it hadn't occurred to him that Charles might not be sharing it with him.

Charles' eyes were skeptical before he shut them. Erik watched the fine lines in his face as he concentrated, but after a moment Charles shook his head. "Nothing, I--"

"Then you're not using me completely." Erik stood up and strode over to him, holding out his hand. "Come here."

Erik could feel his hesitance: one more thing to be in his head for. But Charles took his hand and stood, and Erik drew him a pace closer, away from the chairs, to set Charles' hands on his sides. In turn Erik gripped him behind the elbows, preventing Charles from looking behind Erik, where the table was.

He found Charles' eyes, holding his gaze deliberately. "How many pieces of flatware are on the table? And don't read--"

Charles frowned. "I already did."

"Use it, don't read it." Erik sighed, looking around for something he didn't know the answer to yet. "All right, how many cans are in the pantry?" Though he couldn't help but sense them, he busied himself with recalling the headlines in the paper to avoid tallying up the right answer.

He could feel Charles rooting around in places he wouldn't normally. It had the effect of certain nerve clusters coming rapidly to the fore: a sensitivity in his fingers, a taste, a memory, an epiphany that didn't make any sense. Charles really didn't know what he was looking for.

"I don't know," he conceded, releasing the breath he'd been holding. "I don't know if I can. It's a lot more subtle than moving something."

"Then we'll start more simply." If Erik possessed something useful, he wanted Charles to have it, in no small part because Charles had made him proud of it in the first place. He called to his hand a lost key from under the sideboard and showed it to him before tucking it into his palm and slipping his hands behind his back.

When Erik let go of him, Charles had to hold onto him more tightly, fingers pressing along the bottom of his ribs. Erik almost dropped the key as he passed it between his hands, though it would never have hit the ground.

He brought his closed hands forward, to their sides. "Don't read my mind. Which one?"

"I have a fifty percent chance of being right, it's not statistically reliable. Besides--"

"I'm not that kind of mutant, Charles, I only have two hands. Which one?"

Charles sighed. "Besides, so long as you know where it is, I will, too. And before you ask, I won't stop you knowing. It's in your right hand."

Erik frowned sternly. The only way he could remain ignorant would be to lose consciousness, and he already knew Charles wouldn't knock him out, as painlessly as he might do so. He would just have to distract himself, with something more effective than the newspaper.

Charles shifted, his fingers pressing into Erik's sides as he found his equilibrium again. In response, Erik's gut clenched in a low shudder that had grown more demanding over the past few days.

He could focus on that, couldn't he? He could easily focus on that.

He passed the key between his hands behind him, watching Charles' face. He began to imagine a scene like this one, only in his version Charles was tugging Erik's shirt out from his trousers. When he was sure he could clearly picture Charles slipping his hands under his clothes, clearly feel his nails climbing up toward his chest, he brought his hands out again.

"Which one?" He asked it quietly, almost a murmur, to avoid breaking his own concentration. If Charles read the answer from his mind now, it was no accident.

He saw Charles lift his brows, but as Erik had hoped, he soon felt Charles scrabbling around in his head again, brushing so gently over random aspects of Erik's consciousness as he searched. Erik's awareness of metal was not quite the same as his control over it.

The sensory assault would have disturbed him before, even angered him, but now it was just another mode of contact, and the blatantly invasive nature of it was bolstering Erik's efforts of distraction.

"Call to it," he offered. "It will answer."

Charles closed his eyes, and Erik felt the strong urge to lean into him and kiss him, slow and persistent. In his mind, he did. In his mind, Charles had backed him against the edge of the table, his hands unfastening their belts, the metal buckles clinking.

He felt the key warming in his hand, almost humming, and he concentrated all the harder to bury his awareness of it under the imagined feel of Charles' zipper, then the satisfying smoothness of the steel plate Charles hid under his clothes, warm from his body heat, almost thrumming with his pulse.

"Right," Charles murmured. "It's in your right."

"Yes," answered Erik. He could hear his own shortness of breath in the word. Again he passed the key between his hands, while in his thoughts Charles was pushing Erik's clothing down over his hips, his mouth pressed along the line of his collar bone. "Again."

There was a shift in the scene he was imagining, as though the colors were brighter, as though he was aware of more detail, more than he'd ever need to know or strive to recreate. Charles was now more sharply in focus when Erik noted the improbable blue of his eyes, and it took him a moment to realize he was no longer the only source of his mental imagery.

Charles?

You don't mind, do you? Left, by the way.

Just don't cheat.

Erik was fumbling with the key now. With Charles in his thoughts the scene was more real than he could dream up on his own. He held out the concealed key once more just as Charles, in his thoughts, leaned close, and Erik lost sight of his eyes, though the sensory details of Charles' lips on his and the familiar taste of him when he tipped his head were just as vivid.

Where they stood, Erik had leaned into him, head bowed toward him, but that was all, while Charles' hands remained innocently on Erik's sides for balance. He was barely hesitating now in his answers as Erik continued to test him, even when Erik didn't have the key in his hands at all.

Erik finally dropped it when, in his mind, Charles broke their contact to turn him around to face the table. He could so plainly feel its surface under his hands, and the pressure of Charles' palm pressing between his shoulder blades, when it suddenly dulled, losing its polished veneer. Charles had said something, aloud.

"What?" mumbled Erik where they stood, dazed, and not a little impatient.

"I said, Hank--"

The door to the kitchen swung open. Before Beast was even visible, Erik's reflexes had pushed Charles to arm's length, where Charles clutched at Erik's arms, his balance upset.

"Wait, wait--" Charles pleaded as Beast stepped past the door, and though Charles was laughing, Erik swiftly corrected his oversight only to pull Charles into him, far too close for other people to see. But Erik didn't move again. One arm around Charles, he glared at the intruder.

Against him, Charles was shaking with silent laughter, and Erik would have glared at this too if he were able to do both at once.

Beast blinked at them before he walked away to put his bowl in the sink. "Your balance hasn't improved, I take it?"

"We're working on it," Erik quipped for him. "Don't you have a lab to--"

Charles hit his leg with his knee, and Erik clamped his mouth shut. Charles' body may have stopped kicking him in his sleep, but Erik was apparently not entirely exempt.

"Erik had an idea that might prove beneficial," said Charles, turning to face Hank better, and putting some respectable distance between them, though his hand remained heavy on Erik's shoulder. "Though I think it will take time to tell."

Beast nodded, and Erik's eyes followed him as he took several steps back toward the door. "You should come by the lab when you can, we need to run a few tests. And now that you've settled into it, the frame might need adjusting."

Erik had seen the bruises it was causing. Charles had brushed off his notice, but now he nodded, and Erik was relieved, though his stare was still effectively sending Beast out of the kitchen.

"This evening, Hank," Charles managed before he was fully out the door. Erik made no apologies, even when Charles turned a darker, more disapproving gaze on him, looking up at him from under his brow.

"He'd better be careful with you," said Erik, only half as lightly as he intended.

"Me?" Charles canted his head with some mirth. "Or this contraption I'm in?"

Erik narrowed his eyes. It was true: Beast would likely have to remove or at least loosen the frame to adjust it, and Erik didn't particularly like that notion. It was his domain, his responsibility. But it was its relation to Charles that bent his possessiveness around it, not just that it was an elegantly functioning metal structure. "It's still about you."

Charles sighed, squeezing Erik's shoulder before he let go to move in a reeling sort of gait toward the chairs again, gripping the back of one once he'd reached it. "I'll be glad when it isn't. We have more important things to do."

He would have argued that they didn't, but Erik knew their priorities didn't often meet, unless he forced them to.

"How does it feel now?"

Charles closed his eyes, and Erik watched as the lines in his face broadcast his thoughts as well as his mutation ever did.

"Overwhelming," he finally replied, opening his eyes and scanning the room before his gaze settled on Erik again. "But I can feel my place, I think. Once I'm desensitized it could prove helpful."

Erik nodded. Now that Charles had found what he was looking for, he couldn't perceive a difference in the way it felt in his head. Psychologically, though, it was different. It was one more thread to bind them.

Erik glanced at him as he passed the chairs on his way back to the table, but Charles was busy sparring with his equilibrium once more and probably hadn't caught it. Erik's coffee was cold on the table, but he finished it anyway.

* * * * *

On his way back from the lab that evening, Charles kept close to the wall of the hallway, but wasn't touching it. He could liken it to riding a bicycle, or a unicycle in this case: if he just kept moving, balance wasn't so much of a challenge even at his ungainly, unpredictable pace, and yet he always kept near enough to something that the occasionally drastic misstep didn't cost him very much. He couldn't tell if what Erik had urged him to take on that morning was making a difference yet, but he was aware of it. And he was aware, as always, of his proximity to Erik, and so headed toward the kitchen to join him.

Perhaps, in another week or so, if Charles was improved, they could venture out. Charles needed to do something, and until Hank managed to complete another Cerebro under the searching eye of a CIA who knew what materials he'd used to do it the first time, Charles couldn't do very much from inside his walls. He'd bided his time for a year, doing what he could. Now, he couldn't stop moving . . .

As Charles approached the foyer, Alex was just entering through the front door on his way to the stairs. In the beginning, Charles had advised against his being out after dark, but he knew Alex had grown careful, and the boy seemed to require more solitude than the rest of them. And it didn't hurt to have a pair of wary eyes out on the grounds every so often.

Hand to the wall, Charles stopped to greet him, and again Alex appeared tongue-tied even in this simple exchange. They hadn't crossed paths since his trip up the stairs that first day. Alex was usually scarce, and Charles had been less available while he'd practiced.

"You seem--better," Alex finally settled on, and even this he seemed afraid to say.

Charles laughed softly, dropping his gaze. "I suppose I'd have to, given how you found me then."

"I didn't mean--"

Lifting his other hand, Charles stopped him gently. "I know. Forgive me, Alex, I'm in a much better position to make light of this than you are." He tipped his head, a means of bringing them closer though he remained where he stood. "But you should always feel free to tell me what's on your mind. You can be honest. If not here, with us, then where?"

Alex frowned, shifting and lowering his voice. "Erik told us to ignore it."

Charles suppressed his smile. He appreciated Erik's reasoning, though his methods were probably questionable. "He meant well. You know he always means well, don't you? But I've had some time. Say what you feel."

At this reassurance, Alex barely paused. "Does this mean you can come out with us?"

Charles smiled softly, before he was aware of doing it. He nodded, hesitantly. "I've considered it, where it won't be an issue."

"Because you should see us now, we're way better than before," continued Alex, his excitement in sharp contrast to Charles' caution, and yet Charles couldn't help but be moved by it. "Sean's got this thing he does, and I think Mystique really wants you to--"

Alex stopped abruptly, and Charles wondered if the expression on his face had changed so blatantly. He sharply reigned himself in, away from the boy's thoughts, so completely that he feared he might accidentally sever his connection to Erik, too. But he remained steadily upright, his attention wound around the name. What? What does she want? What can I do?

"Mystique is really good, is all." As Alex reworded himself, Charles could only guess it was to avoid breaking her confidence. "You'd be proud of her." He said it deliberately.

"Yes," Charles nodded, pushing through it. She wants you to be proud of her. "Of all of you. I am."

Alex was watching him with a sort of understanding Charles wasn't comfortable with. This was supposed to be the other way around, the professor supporting his students.

His students. Charles lifted his chin, pressing a different topic. "Hank says there haven't been any distress calls." He studied Alex's face, hoping to read there his utmost confidence. "You and Sean have noticed nothing on your rounds?"

Alex shrugged. "Nothing. Everyone's playing it safe, staying low."

"Back to hiding." Charles sighed, rubbing the side of his face wearily. "But not forever. I have faith we'll get back to where we were, Alex. I hope you do, too."

Alex nodded, though he looked away as he did it.

Charles straightened where he stood, preparing to say his good night, though Alex followed his reluctant nod with a low, "I still can't believe they shot him."

Pursing his lips, Charles watched him. He knew they would carry that loss long into their future. Humanity had been their friend--in name, at least--for that brief, fabled year of John F. Kennedy's support, and that friendship may have cost a man his life and a country, their leader.

"I know." Charles set his free hand on Alex' shoulder briefly. "We may never have that again, but we'll find other ways. As long as it takes."

"Yeah." Alex shrugged, looking unconvinced, but he was already stepping away. "Even if we don't, at least we're not alone."

Charles was still frowning after him when Alex took to the stairs, eventually calling back a good night over his shoulder, and in another few bounds was out of earshot.

Good night, Alex.

There were times Alex so strongly reminded him of Erik, though he was never so dark as Erik sometimes became. But he was right. They'd fallen very far from the height they had achieved in that year. If he was honest, he knew they probably wouldn't reach it again. But they'd never go back to where they started, would never be alone again. He had to learn to count their blessings even in failure. Charles was an idealist, even now, deep down, but he recognized the value of the realists among them.

Realists like Erik, whom Charles moved to rejoin in the kitchen after a long moment in the hall; Erik who may not have held Jack Ruby's gun but most certainly had been the one to fire it; Erik, whose revenge that day had probably been a gift as only Erik could give it.

Charles paused in the open doorway with a light shake of his head. "You're sure the kitchen is the best place to do that?" He tried not to let his perspective distract him as he stepped forward; it was on entering rooms that his increased height still disoriented him. How quickly he'd forgot.

Erik looked up from where he sat on a stool close to the sink, his trousers pushed down far enough to reveal the stitches in his thigh, a pair of tweezers in one hand, a small pair of scissors in the other. "The bedroom was too far away."

"If only we had an entire laboratory, in-house," mused Charles, "complete with an honorary medical doctor who could do that for you." He made his way along the tables to approach him, stopping a few feet away, his hand on the counter. "Are those even sterile?"

"Sterile enough," answered Erik, and Charles shook his head at the impossibility. Erik picked up one of the sutures by its knot and snipped it before looking up to assess him, and though Charles wouldn't feel it, he could see in Erik's face that he was testing the integrity of the frame as it had been put back on him. "How did it go?"

"All of my numbers are in range. And Hank doesn't expect them to get any worse, though the possibility is always there."

Erik nodded carefully. It was hard to predict how Charles' body would interpret his regained bipedalism. It was hopefully for the better: more rigorous activity and better circulation, but it was, at the very least, unconventional therapy. Things could go wrong.

"I'm sure he told you to slow down," Erik added, and it took Charles a moment to realize Erik was holding the utensils out to him.

Charles furrowed his brow, but turned to wash his hands in the sink, hip to the counter's edge. "He did. Said I'm rushing things. I know he's probably right, I just--" He sighed, drying his hands, knowing he was full of contradictions of late. Was he supposed to want to stay here so he didn't slow them down, or go out and pull his weight for once?

He turned from the counter. "Need I remind you I'm hardly the picture of rock-steadiness these days?"

Erik eyed him from under his brow, but the utensils remained. "I'm aware."

Charles frowned sidelong at him, but bent to set his elbow to the counter, then lowered himself with some difficulty to his knees, where he had more points of balance and could use both his hands. He took the tweezers and scissors from him and set his elbow on Erik's other leg for added stability.

"This intended as a test, then?" Charles asked lightly, but when he lifted his eyes to confirm it, he saw in Erik's undivided attention that he simply wanted to watch Charles do it. Self-consciously, Charles shifted the steel instruments in his grip, knowing Erik was watching this, too. "Well, I apologize in advance for further injury."

Carefully, he picked up the next knot, avoiding the edges of the gently rumpled skin beneath it. He slipped the tips of the scissors around it to cut it, and the suture sprung open, though the wound stayed firmly together.

At least some tissue could be trusted to heal.

He moved on to the next, pausing as the muscle beneath the knots tensed, letting this draw his thoughts away. He was no genius of anatomy, but the orderliness of it, patterned on the orderliness of the genes that guided it, attracted him. Or maybe it was just Erik. And the way Erik was breathing. And the movement of his fingers on the edge of his chair.

He cut the next thread and glanced upward. Though Erik's eyes were focused squarely on him, he was imagining things again, something about the table, about Charles' hands on him, about Charles turning him around--

Letting his gaze drop, he moved on to the next knot, his apology swift when he accidentally caught his skin with the tweezers. It was easier for him to ignore Erik's thoughts when he wasn't looking at his face. Renewing his focus, he snipped the thread and shifted to reach the remaining two.

It was an odd thought, an odd desire, for them. He couldn't be certain which one of them that particular imaginary act had come from, that morning. At the time they'd been tightly linked, closely aligned, and the real origin of an idea was easily lost between them. But whatever its source, Erik had made it his, even if he'd never bring it into the open. Charles had limitations.

And yet, they had their loopholes.

With earnest concentration, Charles cut the last stitch, fighting a red-faced jumble of his own thoughts so as not to catch the skin beneath. He felt Erik take the scissors from him, gently, and he was hyper-aware of where Erik's fingers brushed his palm.

He didn't dare look up at him now. He slowly pulled each of the threads out with the tweezers, and was mortified to note that his voice had acquired the stammer he developed only when well and truly flustered. "You know, if you wanted, Erik, we could--" And then his throat cut him off, and he spent another few seconds toiling with the rest of the sutures. He wasn't going to get through those words, spoken or not. Instead, with a sort of plea for comprehension, for Erik to know what he was talking about, he said as firmly as he could manage, "We could."

Only now did he look up, an extension of his plea.

Erik was admirably stolid. Even his thoughts seemed instinctively protected, so that Charles would have done anything to take back the assumption he'd made as he colored further under his stare.

He shook his head, unable to come up with something to mumble, and began to push himself up from his knees, trying not to lean too hard on Erik's other leg. He felt Erik's hand around his upper arm, holding him still, halfway to standing.

"I thought you couldn't."

Tentatively encouraged, Charles lifted his eyes to Erik's, finding them at his level now where Erik still sat.

"Well, it--" Charles could feel the heat in his face again, but it wasn't as difficult as suggesting it in the first place. "It still works," he stated, voice low as though someone would hear. "If provoked. It just--it doesn't do anything for me."

Brow furrowed, he watched Erik's face for his reaction.

"But if you're in my head," Erik followed, voice just as low before he left it there, waiting.

Charles nodded stiffly, and Erik was on his feet.

Chapter Text

They couldn't simply race down the hallway like Charles wanted to, but Erik didn't waste the journey. When Charles inevitably stumbled half a dozen times within fifteen feet of the kitchen, it was into Erik, who drew him along, unbuttoning and unzipping as they went so that Charles hoped to God that Sean didn't surprise him by suddenly tiring of the drawing he was currently making and abruptly deciding to be in the hallway instead. Charles was less dexterous with one hand occupied by the glass bottle Erik had shoved into it seconds before they were out of the kitchen, but his other was free to grip Erik's hair when he felt his lips close on the revealed skin above his collar bone, his shirt and cardigan open and pushed down past his shoulder. He bit back the groan that threatened to interrupt his careful silence, and as he tripped again to feel Erik's teeth coaxing a mark from him, he wouldn't have objected to being outright carried the rest of the way.

If he actually stopped to think about what Erik wanted him to do--

But they'd already reached the bedroom, and he'd made it there on his own two feet--sometimes on Erik's two feet, but he was doing the best he could under the circumstances, which were growing more dire by the minute.

He managed to shut the door quietly before Erik drew him away from it. Charles felt his lips pressed to his neck just under his ear, and with that particular flick of Erik's tongue would nearly have dropped the bottle if Erik hadn't taken it from him, sending it by its metal top to the stand beside the bed.

Their hands worked to unbutton the rest of Charles' shirt, and Erik pulled the sweater from him with it. Once free of it, Charles reached for him, pausing just an instant before their mouths touched to anticipate it, to breathe him in, to remember a time he didn't dare hope for Erik again.

In that single breath, he could see himself, feel his own presence, as though there were a mirror between them. He sensed himself from Erik's mind, a fragment of feedback his brain usually canceled out, and it was quickly gone, leaving only Erik, as it should be.

He caught just a glimpse of Erik's expression, a steeled hunger that didn't always understand itself, before he closed the distance and let Erik into him, past his lips, past his barriers. He could feel Erik's fingernails scrape against his ribs, then the softer backs of his fingers as Erik tugged him forward. The frame's plate pressed into his back; Erik had taken hold of him by the straps that secured it to the front.

Panting, Erik broke from him, keeping hold of Charles' hands long enough to set one on the back of the near chair before he stepped away, backing up toward the bed and leaving Charles aching after him. Erik stopped at the edge of the bed, his eyes straying from Charles only when he pulled his sweater up over his head, a heavy, high-collared garment which flattered his narrow physique but suited him best on the floor where he dropped it.

His chest heaved gently where he stood.

"Come for me," he said. It was either a challenge or the most persuasive request in Charles' memory.

Charles had rarely felt less impressive in his life. He might fancy himself a leader, but not here, not anymore. The Charles Xavier who had thrived in the bars and pubs of the world, without the sort of flaws people noticed or cared about on a one-night stand, was gone, in both mind and body. And while present-Charles didn't particularly mourn his passing, there were times when he wished him back again. Times like this. Even if pub-Charles would have questioned what a man was doing in his bedroom.

But Erik was well aware of Charles' shortcomings. He knew his weaknesses and his inabilities. And yet he was here, asking for him, in some ways because of them.

Charles drew a breath and released it. He set his first step forward and let go of the chair, his eyes on Erik's, at once trying to focus on his walking and forget it so he could lose himself in Erik instead. But the two paths overlapped, delivering him to the bedside where his hands pressed Erik back. His eyes followed Erik down to the mattress as he put one knee, then the other, on the edge of the bed and climbed atop him.

Of all the perspectives he'd reclaimed thus far, this one was the most alarming.

What am I doing, Charles panicked, though he kept the thought tightly sealed. As far as he could assume, it should have been Erik up here, and Charles pinned down there. But it could not be safely done. It had to be this way, if at all.

Beneath him, Erik's eyes were sharp with anticipation, but there was trust there, too, in the smooth line of his brow so often drawn tight with disquiet. He drew Charles down to him, catching his lower lip between his teeth so that Charles had to keep still, groaning plaintively against his mouth, as Erik's hands traveled him with a certainty suggesting ownership. One hand slipped over his chest to make the muscles flinch; the other moved to the back of Charles' neck, where the skin had never seemed so sensitive as after the accident. And Erik just seemed to know these effects, possibly because Charles was not always quiet under his hands.

On his elbow, Charles grasped what he could of Erik's short hair, his other hand fumbling with Erik's zipper, already half-undone from the kitchen. When Charles finally pushed Erik's clothing a little past his hips, he brought his hand up again, spreading his fingertips with steady pressure around Erik's navel and down, following the line of dark hair. He could feel it, as Erik felt it, and he centered himself on that. It didn't shock him like it had before, but it still gripped him with a unique intensity.

Erik groaned softly. His muscles hardened under Charles' fingers as he sat up enough to pull himself further onto the bed, toward the headboard. His mouth found Charles' again and drew him along, slow enough--patient enough--for Charles to follow closely. The bed trembled beneath them as Erik shoved and kicked the rest of his clothes off, and Charles hardly winced when Erik's boots thudded to the floor. These walls were thick enough to conceal a great many things, and there was little to hide, besides. That they shared a bedroom was the single unspoken, unchallenged declaration of what needs they'd given in to. Though not blatant, it was undisguised, and ignored.

Erik sat back against the headboard, and Charles moved over him, on hands and knees, to stay close, to distract himself with the warmth of Erik's lips and the slow curl of his tongue into his mouth. He knew what must eventually follow. Charles wanted this if Erik wanted it, but there were challenges to overcome along the way.

And his reluctance would only ruin this.

One hand on the mattress to hold him up, the other trailed over Erik's stomach before leaving it to push his own trousers further down, his knuckles hitting against the rods of the frame. Feeling between the supports against his thighs to the space between his legs, he drew his cock out from the boxers he wore beneath everything, and, ignoring the twinge of illness, began to stroke himself as though it were someone else.

He'd grown accustomed to the way numbness felt, dead flesh that wasn't really dead. Of course he had. A man couldn't bathe himself as often as Charles liked to without growing familiar with the body he was in, whatever its condition. But this was another emptiness entirely, one that shame would easily fill if he didn't force something else in its place.

He could remember what it should feel like, though mostly because Erik's mind had so recently, so miraculously reminded him. It had come tinged with his guilt, but Charles had taken both in whatever measure Erik gave them. He tried to time his memory of those sensations with the gradual pistoning of his hand. He tried to imagine the initial spike, then the slow build. In another's mind he could plant those exact sensations so easily, almost indistinguishable from the real thing, because all it was in the end was a neural response, a bit of electricity in the brain. But in his own mind he was a neutral, ineffective force, capable only of a brief fizzle of success before it shorted out and left him numb again.

He nearly shrank away when he felt Erik's hand over his, reaching to aid him, but he held himself still and let him. It was working, after all, a much simpler loop of stimulus and response than the usual psychosomatic complexity. It was nothing worth feeling shame for. It was nothing he could help.

But despite his efforts, Erik noticed his difficulty. Their kiss broken, Charles was merely breathing gently against his mouth.

"Do you still want to do this?" Erik asked, quietly. "We can do something else. It doesn't have to be--"

"No, I do." Charles swallowed his chagrin and forced his face to cooperate and smile lightly. "I do." Gingerly, he drew his hand out from under Erik's, leaving him to it. He rested his hand on Erik's hip instead, refocusing himself with the way Erik felt the slow rubbing of his thumb over his skin. Erik knew what he was asking for. Charles had to trust him in return. "Just go slowly," he advised, "or this will be over before it's begun."

Erik's brow twitched upward before it fell. Charles could tell from the movement in his shoulder that he had slowed. "Can you? Still?"

Charles laughed, an involuntary puff of air, bowing his face beside Erik's. "So I'm told." His doctors had expressed more concern over his ability to father children than he had mustered himself. It was an unwelcome memory, and an irrelevant one. He pushed it away with his nose pressed to Erik's hairline behind his ear, and he breathed in the way he smelled when all the competing fragrances had worn off for the day. He knew there were so few who'd ever been allowed this near; Charles let this knowledge twist the breath in his chest, a physical response he recognized as an echo of his detached arousal. He chased after it, pressed his tongue to the taut muscle in Erik's neck, like a man after a thief.

This was Erik, Magneto to the rest of the world, who was distant, cold, dangerous by any measure. And yet this was Erik, who--despite everything--had so earnestly treated Charles like the friend neither of them would find in another. Erik let Charles close to him, let him press his lips to his neck with the sudden weight of his sentiment, and only tipped his head to encourage the contact; below, his leg stirred under Charles' tightened grip, and Charles slipped his hand under his thigh, his heartbeat quickening.

This was Erik, who let Charles into his mind, and who was about to go one further.

There was a brief flurry of activity in Erik's mind, but he didn't flinch from Charles' wandering touch, even as he carefully crept his fingers under the curve of his buttock. Charles had seen Erik's imagination played out in the kitchen, but it had been only that. He pursed his lips, still near to his ear. "Erik, you're aware that neither of us has--"

"But I can guess," said Erik, quiet but certain. He was running his hand down his own stomach: Charles could feel it in Erik's mind, and realized Erik was preparing him just a second too late to silence himself as Erik took hold of his own cock, subsequently flooding Charles' mind with the acute jolt of sensation. Erik turned his head, his hand slipping into Charles' hair to grip it, his voice low and palpable against Charles' gasping. "Now turn me around," he said, inducing another twist under Charles' ribs, "and we'll see if I'm right."

Charles couldn't help his tight-lipped moan. Erik might have invited him to be the aggressor, but as with everything Charles did to him, it was Erik who was ultimately in control. And under the direction of Erik's hand on himself, Charles possessed not a shred of dissent.

His grip was rough on Erik's shoulder when he took it and rolled him to his stomach; he was no gentler when he took him by the hips to pull him up to his knees in front of him. But it was what Erik wanted, and Charles was helpless to ignore the way Erik's body was responding, and what it was expecting--craving--from him along with his force. The steadily coercive pressure of it in his thoughts guided Charles' actions now: no second-guessing, no hesitation. Charles eased himself toward the nightstand and reached for the bottle of oil, pooling a measure of its contents in his palm before returning it.

The unstable surface of the mattress challenged his balance when he needed both hands, but he remained upright long enough to move one knee between Erik's, then sat safely back on his heels. He collected his thoughts with some effort for perhaps the last time tonight.

I'll feel everything, he warned, though he didn't expect an objection, not when Erik was so well aware of the consequences. But it was wrong not to remind him. It was wrong to take what wasn't handed to him, explicitly, repeatedly.

"You know I'm giving it to you," said Erik, lowly, almost impatiently, voicing it aloud because it aroused him to do so, and Charles felt that, too.

He closed his eyes. He would take it, then. He imagined he needed it, or maybe he'd been imagining all along that he hadn't.

Rising carefully to his knees again, one hand tended briefly to himself before he shifted its attention to Erik, letting his fingers trace a path across his abdomen as Erik had done. When he took him in hand at last, he silenced himself, though what stomach muscles he still controlled clenched sharply to force his breath out. His other hand found the inside of Erik's thigh and worked its way upward, finding its mark and slipping two fingers past it before Erik--or Charles--could shy from it.

Erik gasped, and Charles did his best not to gasp with him, though the result was not unlike suffocating, especially as Erik's mind threatened to overwhelm him, coursing over Charles' own experience of Erik's body clenching around his fingers. Erik had lifted one hand to grip the headboard, but not to pull himself away. It was just the opposite, and Charles felt close to losing consciousness with how badly Erik wanted this, the invasion only inciting his demand for more.

He finally pulled in his breath, setting their thoughts apart again, slowing working his hand at the base of Erik's cock. Erik was still pressing back to his other hand, and Charles eased another finger into him, bending to press his lips to Erik's back.

Erik was nearly silent. Though Charles couldn't see it, he could feel the furrow in his brow, feel the tightness in his mouth drawn back in a grimace not from pain, not yet. He could see the same tension in his grip of the headboard above him, but Charles couldn't focus on it. He was glad, suddenly, that what his mind was processing couldn't inspire his own climax: otherwise he'd be well into his apologies by now.

Erik wasn't so lucky, but Erik was holding up, holding back, with all the self-possession he'd trained in himself for other reasons. Charles kept the grip of his other hand low, close to Erik's body, encouraging but not escalating.

It was unexpected how close to the edge of Charles' tongue his plea rested (I can't wait any longer, I can't), because it was nothing to him. The act to him, in this iteration, was nothing but a mimicry. Instead what he needed was for Erik to feel it, for Erik to be driven hard to his limit and inescapably past it, for reasons both selfish and not.

And he needed it now. He panted, almost begged Erik's name against his back and felt Erik shudder beneath him. Erik made no verbal response, but he reached back and found Charles' hip to push him with an unsteady grip to move further behind him. When he returned his hand to the bed, he sank to his elbow, his other hand still clutching the headboard, the muscles along his arm drawn taut. Despite the fragmented bursts of thrill he caught from Erik's mind, Charles needed the outward consent, and he would get no better signal than that.

Charles drew his fingers from him and steadied himself with his hands on Erik's hips. In the silence roughened only by their breathing, Charles could almost hear the scrape in the frame's joints and the strain in its leather straps as he maneuvered himself further between Erik's knees. Its construction would be tested tonight, and God save his dignity if it broke.

Charles leaned to slip his hand around Erik's leg to grip him again, urging him to focus on that point of contact rather than the feel of Charles' cock, still complacently erect, where he held it poised for entry, his fingers confirming its placement where he couldn't see. Though Erik didn't stir, his breathing stalled. He had said he could guess. Charles hoped he was right.

Charles pressed forward, grimacing with the initial trauma of it and regretting the stifled noise it drew from Erik, though he felt from Erik's mind no desire for it to stop. In fact he was pushing back even before Charles was ready for him to do so, but he was helpless to choose what to feel from him. If Erik favored pain, Charles suffered it with him. And yet it didn't last. Either Erik's tolerance for pain was tragically high, or Charles' hand between his legs dulled the edges of it.

Spare me nothing, Erik thought, though it was barely conscious, barely in a language at all.

Letting out a slow breath to re-center his thoughts, Charles removed his hand from between them to grip Erik's shoulder, holding him still as he used the frame to press himself further in. Erik's response was louder this time, and the sound of it tripped down Charles' spine to disappear in the void. It was followed immediately by Erik's much more blatant physical rush, which flourished and persisted in its place. Another steady press and Charles straightened to confirm that he could go no further: he was flush against him, buried deep. If he searched for it, he could feel the more subtle pressure of the rigid frame biting stiffly against Erik's backside where it was pinned between them. Erik's huffing was staggered, forced, as though he kept forgetting to breathe.

Eyes closed, Charles slowly bent over him again. More steel curved over Erik's lower back, making him shiver before it warmed, and Charles' chest was hot by comparison where Erik felt it. He let himself settle further into Erik's thoughts: they were the key to this act, and Charles' only carnal drive to complete it.

He shifted a little further out of himself as he compelled the frame to slide his hips back and forward again, slow for now, easy, just as long as Erik could tolerate the pace, just as long as he could tolerate it, himself. Aside from his hand still around Erik's cock, now and again dragging its contact over the tip to make them both shudder, the control of Charles' body rested in Erik, and it was tempting to stay mostly there in his mind, tugging strings that led back to his true vessel.

It didn't take long for Erik to find the rhythm to meet him, and each time the frame dug into him it stirred him, a little deeper each time, a little slower to fade, so that Charles was encouraged to grant him more force, and more quickly. He groaned with him as the stirring ceased to fade at all, and rather began to build, forcing the breath roughly in and out of Erik's chest, now and then catching his voice, which he no longer stifled as prudently.

Around his middle, Charles could feel a humming, a subtle vibration he recognized as the errant manifestation of Erik's power, acting on the metal that surrounded him by more than half. Erik's back was an arch of tension beneath him, his head bent down low, and Charles saw the ripple of muscle in his shoulder before Erik reached back to take hold of the frame at Charles' hip, pulling him in, his knuckles white with desperation, fingers curled painfully tight around the steel.

And then with the stifled cry of his surprise, Charles' hips jerked forward of their own accord, muscles long out of use now tightening involuntarily, awakened for this and only this. Just as involuntary was Erik's reflex to pull away, but his hand on the frame hauled him back again to endure it, and Charles shuddered with the tangible proof of his body's ability to function without him, indirect as he felt it.

But Erik was still achingly hard beneath him, and there was no relief, no sense of release as Charles' muscles wound down to perpetual stillness again in the grip of the frame. Before Charles could reach for him again, Erik drew himself free and twisted to face him, one hand slipping up to the side of Charles' face, the other wrapping around his own cock to stroke it.

Erik was so close to the finish that Charles could hardly breathe, especially with Erik's gaze so intently fixed on him, but mercifully, Erik didn't prolong the suffering they shared inextricably. He couldn't, he didn't have the stamina for it, himself, and Charles felt Erik's hand move to his shoulder to clutch it bruisingly hard just an instant before he came.

The assault to Charles' nervous system wrenched an empathetic cry from him, muscles lurching with the spike, but only the upper half, and he couldn't help reaching for him, pulling free of Erik's hand where it held them apart. But even with his closeness, Charles couldn't look away from his face as they both rode it out, from the emotion Erik so infrequently revealed, brow drawn down, mouth in an unsteady grimace.

With one last deep spasm, Erik's shoulders sank and his face smoothed out again, his mouth slack with his breathing. His hand returned to Charles' shoulder, gentler now, and after a moment he drew close enough to kiss him between the remains of his panting.

Charles thought he could hear the humming in the frame again, but maybe it was just the ringing in his ears. His heart still pounded, though it began to slow as though in answer to Erik's gradual calmness. He steadied himself with his hands on Erik's thighs, fingers brushing the healed wound, still sensitive, an easy sensation to pick out in Erik's thoughts.

"I didn't think I'd be doing that again," said Charles. It had been the only realistic expectation. In his exhaustion, enough for them both, he found it hard to open his eyes once they were closed.

"I didn't think I'd be doing that at all," Erik answered lightly, and Charles laughed, wondering if he'd still want to laugh about it in the morning. They'd crossed yet another line, with as much potential for regret as any of the others.

The mind was a curious thing. And Erik's mind was more curious to him still.

Erik's hands drew him to lie down, and Charles did, gratefully. When Erik withdrew, he could hear the muffled sound of fabric as Erik pulled the trousers from him, then the subtle slip of leather and buckles as the frame was undone.

Back to normal. Back to a rigid set of difficulties he'd some time ago ceased to resent. No matter what progress they might make, he would always return to this.

He rolled to his back and Erik undid the straps at his sides before the whole thing was tugged gently from him and set in its habitual place against the foot board like a loyal dog. With a grunt, Charles pushed himself to his side again and aided where he could as Erik pulled the bedding down.

Erik settled beside him on his back, but as always there was a space between them. It sometimes wasn't there by morning, but more often it remained.

Charles closed his eyes again. "I thought I was supposed to be taking it easy."

Without stirring, Erik shut off the light.

"Starting tomorrow."

* * *

"Charles?"

He'd only been asleep for a few minutes at most, but it took him almost as long to gather the effort to open his eyes. In the dark softened by the clear night outside, he could see Erik was still just where he'd been, on his back, and probably hadn't fallen asleep at all. "Hm?"

Erik's eyes were fixed on the ceiling, as Charles' had been the first time Erik strapped him into the frame.

"I want to know what it feels like."

Charles' thoughts were as sluggish as his voice. "What what feels like?"

Erik turned his head to look at him, and Charles' brow furrowed as he began to guess.

"You can do that, can't you?" Erik pressed.

Charles closed his eyes again, retreating for the more complete darkness he'd woken from, but it wouldn't transport him from this. He sighed, letting sleep drawl his words to hide their edge. "You've been an absolute saint with me, Erik, really you have. There's no reason for you to know."

He felt Erik shift, and knew he'd rolled to his side to face him when his voice was closer. "You're in my head. You know what I feel. I only want the same."

Frowning, Charles opened his eyes to look at him again. Erik's expression was so plain, so honest, that Charles had to question his own impulse to refuse him. Was he embarrassed of it? Did he distrust him, suddenly? Wasn't it only fair that Erik have the same insight into Charles as Charles so routinely stole from him?

He sighed again, quietly this time. Regardless of what it made of him, he was considering it, and Erik was still watching him with eyes almost clearer in the dark than they were in the light of day.

"Just for a moment," Charles mumbled, hardly deciding to say the words before they escaped into his consent.

Drawing closer to him, Charles' hand felt heavy as he lifted it and slipped its fingers into Erik's hair, gripping him gently at the back of his head. He didn't need to touch him for this; rather he felt wretched about doing it, and the gesture somehow softened the blow.

Reluctantly he crept into Erik's mind, locating his perceptual awareness of the nerves in his lower extremities and, gradually, shutting them down, all the way up past the small of his back to a familiar point of demarcation that still ached, distant and dulled by time. Nothing in, nothing out. No sensation, no control.

Though Erik's gaze was steady, it widened almost imperceptibly, a deep, primal panic rising up in the wake of his lost feeling, though he refused to succumb to it. Instead he put his hand to his stomach and felt downward, fingers crossing that line of separation and continuing past it, acknowledging the jarring numbness as Charles had been afraid to do for weeks afterward.

He didn't stop there. Charles drew his arm away as Erik pushed himself up with his hands, then reached for the headboard in an attempt to haul himself toward it to sit up. He was struggling to do it with half his body hindering rather than helping his efforts.

He would eventually have made it, but Charles could feel his frustration, his comparative weakness, and he could stomach no more of his difficulty.

"Enough," he sighed, and he let go of Erik's perception to return it to its normal functioning. Erik looked defeated, maybe disappointed that it hadn't lasted longer, but he said nothing, easily completing the process of sitting up. To Charles' relief Erik's eyes were on the bed and not him.

After a minute of his silence, Charles reached to take him by the arm, tugging him to lie down again, to forget about it, to move on.

Without resistance, Erik settled down once more on his back. His breathing had almost slowed to its regular rhythm.

"Ask me what you're about to ask me," Charles conceded, still lying on his side. He could sense the urge but not the words.

Erik paused. "How do you know when you have to use the bathroom?"

Charles almost laughed; what came out of him was something half-choked with surprise, amusement, misery.

"I don't," he answered. "I'm on a schedule. Go to sleep."

And Erik did, but not before rolling to his side again to face him, and the space always left between them was hardly there at all.

* * * * *

The next morning, still dripping wet from the shower, Erik stopped towelling off in the doorway of the bathroom just to watch Charles still asleep in the cold blue light of the early hour. His arm was still stretched out into the space Erik had left, devoid of his warmth by now, but if anyone could sense Erik's lingering presence it was Charles.

And he usually didn't let himself linger. He usually didn't let himself stand there and stare, because fondness never brought him anything but pain. And yet knowing this, he let his gaze settle, let the water drip from his skin, let the minute sweep slowly around the small clock face on the nightstand. The only sound was Charles' breathing.

It had been a long time since he'd suffered anyone to leave their physical mark on him. The marks he still carried with him weren't put there by his permission, but this was different. Charles was different. It seemed unfair that these, the ones he wanted, wouldn't last: the awakened nerves still tingling faintly below the small of his back when he was still, the specific soreness further down when he moved.

Charles stirred, gradually ascending the stages of wakefulness, and Erik felt him slipping into his mind, familiar and intimate. He welcomed it, another mark he wished were permanent, but there was no reason for Charles to be there in his head, and Erik had no means to keep him as the feeling receded.

Finally opening his eyes, Charles confirmed the empty bed, and Erik watched him smile as he found him still standing naked in the doorway. "Aren't you a sight," he mused, groggily, eyes fixed on him as he pushed himself up to sit with a practiced effort Erik had failed to enact last night. The muscles in Erik's stomach clenched to watch him, as though they might make up for the absence Erik had known only briefly and wouldn't forget.

And knowing made it easier. He didn't want to admit that, but it did. He knew now exactly what he'd done, and he knew on what grounds Charles had forgiven him. Erik wondered if he would have done the same. Part of him wanted to say No. Most of him didn't want to answer at all.

Dropping the towel, Erik finally left the doorway, coming around to Charles' side of the bed. Charles' eyes followed him closely, bluer as they reflected the light from the window behind Erik, quietly waiting for some indication Erik hadn't given yet.

Erik knew why. He had wondered, himself, when he woke up if what he was feeling was regret, or shame--or perhaps the simple awareness that the closer they got to each other, the harder it would be to walk away untouched if Charles ever changed his mind. While Charles had slept against him, he had tried to imagine leaving again if it was what Charles wanted, and for the first time couldn't bear to.

He had kept himself prepared for that day, and now he was defenseless.

"We don't have to have done that," Charles offered, quietly, as though it pained him to say it, though of course he would. "If it's bothering you. I can--"

Erik shook his head, stopping him as he sat down on the edge of the bed. No matter the weight, he would carry it with him when he left, same as he carried it before, to be buried so deep he couldn't breathe around it. He lifted his hand to slip it through Charles' hair, leaning close to kiss him. It was light; he made sure it was.

"Take it from me," he softly warned, lips to his mouth, "and I'll only ask for it again."

When he drew away, Charles' lips remained parted, and it was only through great effort that Erik finally turned from the striking color of his eyes to dress himself and leave Charles to his morning.

Chapter Text

Dutifully following Hank's advice, Charles resigned himself to his chair most of the time over the next several days. Though its ease bored him, the chair could hardly be called an inconvenience, as accommodations had a long time ago been made for him throughout most of the ground floor. Truth be told, he was still more capable in it than out of it, though he trusted that would change. There'd already been improvement following Erik's continued tutelage--slower now as Charles attempted to master the finer points, and slower still now that he had less opportunity to practice, but he'd get there. And what would actually change once he arrived, he didn't know, but maybe he just needed to work toward something he could actually accomplish.

As the water kettle began to whistle, Charles wheeled himself over to it to turn off the stove and empty the kettle's contents into the pot he held, careful not to spill it onto his lap, regardless. Kettle back to the stove, he set the pot on its tray, only a little below eye-level on the counter so that it clattered a little more than he'd have liked.

At least his time in the chair gave Erik a chance at privacy. He'd been nearly attached to Charles at the hip since they'd started using the frame, and though he made no indication that it bothered him, Charles would rather it didn't ever reach that point. Conversely, 'independence' had never been so meaningful a word until he nearly lost it, and he could use reminding that he still had it.

For a split second he considered warning Raven that he was already in the kitchen before she appeared in the doorway, but he decided it wasn't worth the minor trespass, even if he had to watch her turn and leave when she saw him.

But she didn't, which meant she wasn't avoiding him. Better still, the expectation in her face suggested she meant to find him.

"Up, down, past, present--I hardly know how to expect you these days." She nodded to his chair as she entered.

He allowed himself a smile, given that she didn't look angry. "Well, but we'll never really get back the past, will we? Hank thought I shouldn't try for too much at once." He tried not to stare at her, not to fall mute, but this was the first time she'd entered willingly into conversation with him since Cuba. "There's enough for two, would you like some?"

She nodded, not entirely enthusiastically, but he'd take it. Wheeling back, he reached down to the lower cupboard where the dishes had been moved and took out another cup. He set it on the tray, which she reached to take.

"I'll get it."

"No, I can--"

But before he could continue the half-hearted defense of his capabilities, she turned and sat on his lap, tray in hand.

"Raven," he laughed, trying to see around her, "what are you doing?"

"Hitching a ride. Come on, let's go."

"I was only going to the table--"

"Better get a move on, then."

Shaking his head with a guarded smile, he wheeled them both across the long kitchen to the table, where she deboarded and set down the tray to take the seat across from him. Maneuvering himself into place, he locked the wheels, overly conscious of his actions.

"Mystique," he corrected himself, much delayed, in the silence that felt longer than it probably was. He reached to pour the tea, too nervous to wait for it to steep quite all the way. "I meant Mystique."

Elbows on the table, she lifted a hand to wave it off, then took the teacup he offered her. "It actually sounds kind of wrong coming out of you."

"More gravitas?" he suggested, then did his best impression of an American radio drama announcer as he lifted his tea. "Mystique."

She laughed out of embarrassment for him, and he smiled involuntarily to see the genuine mirth on her face. "Don't ever do that again." She shook her head, sobering somewhat as she turned her cup slowly on the table's surface. "Just call me Raven, Charles."

His smile softened, too. He was relieved for that, but--"I thought it was what you wanted."

"I don't know what I want," she answered, her words following closely as though it were already on her mind. "Or what I should want," she added, her tone milder as she studied the table. She sipped her tea.

He watched her face sympathetically, but said nothing. He'd been telling her nearly her whole life what she should want, and it had done far more harm than good. It was for her to decide.

"But you," she said, suddenly looking up at him as she shifted out from under the attention, "you seem happy."

Charles frowned. "No, do I?" He set down his tea.

"I know you like to keep up appearances around people, but I can tell the difference." She smiled as his distress persisted. "Don't look like that. I'm not criticizing you. You don't have to wait until world peace to be happy."

And yet what right did he have? Everywhere he turned there was evidence of people like them still suffering--and that was on top of the many millions of ordinary humans who were already suffering in an unjust world, even if he hadn't claimed them as his responsibility. "I know, but--"

But no one needed to be reminded of that.

"What about you, Raven?" He looked over her face, trying to read her expression if not her thoughts. "How are you?"

She shrugged. "Not much to tell."

"No?" But he was sure there must be something. They were practically siblings, shouldn't there be something? "Have you and Hank, ah, made amends?" He regretted choosing the topic so hastily, but he was anxious not to let her lose interest in their conversation so soon.

She half-smiled, but it wasn't bitter, nor was it fond. She straightened where she sat with a tip of her head. "I'll tell you all about Hank," she bargained, "just as soon as you tell me all about you and Erik."

He lifted a brow, and tried not to betray anything further than that as he, too, straightened. He sipped his tea.

"That's why you're happy, isn't it?" she pressed. "Not because you got out of that chair."

He cleared his throat quietly. "Keep going, and you'll have to tell me something about Hank." He smiled lightly. Only fair.

She smiled back, sipping from her tea knowingly, but she didn't take him up on it. Curious as he was, he was relieved when she changed the subject.

"I read the journal, Charles."

Relieved, but cautious. He set down his tea. "And?"

"Not as dry as your thesis, but surprisingly heavy on the anecdotal evidence."

He laughed, though pained. "Raven, I very sincerely need to know." He studied her face closely, looking for a sign, anything. It had been a silly thing to give her, but it spoke his heart more plainly than anything else he bungle through now.

She sighed, her expression softening as, perhaps, she took pity on him. "If I believe you? If I've forgiven you? I don't know. Almost. Maybe. Just--"

Pausing, she leaned forward to fold her arms on the table again. Fragment by fragment, she assumed the likeness she'd hidden in for so long at his behest: blond hair, pale skin, hazel eyes. Clothing.

He looked, because she obviously wanted him to look, and she met his eyes directly.

"What are you thinking?" she asked, softly.

As brave a front as he tried for, he eventually dropped his gaze to the table, where he smoothed his hands over its surface and cleared his throat. "Forgive me, Raven. The last time I saw you like this was when we were--when I thought we were close."

"We weren't very far," she answered, and inside him something wanted to break, but held.

Pulling in his breath, he released it slowly, his own arms folding on the table. He drew together the most objective, honest answer he could manage. "I'm thinking you look familiar. That you look human." That she looked familiar to him should convey that he couldn't help but associate that appearance with happier times, though he knew now they were only happy for him.

But objectivity could be insensitive. Her expression became more uncertain as she watched him, as though she were ready to flee, ready to shut him out for good, to be hurt for the last time.

"But we're not human," he hurried to continue. He pursed his lips, careful to say 'we.' He remembered the last conversation they'd had at this table, and he wouldn't repeat it. "And that likeness isn't you."

She looked stricken. For a terrible instant, he thought he'd managed to hurt her after all, with some implication he hadn't intended, and his stomach dropped. But beneath it all she had begun to smile--barely, but he was sure it was there. She stood and bent over the table to touch her lips to his forehead, and when she pulled away again she had returned to her natural form and was still retreating.

"Raven?"

"I'm sorry. Thank you--for the tea." Her voice nearly failed her as she finally turned away, ignoring his plea for her not to.

He could only watch her go, trying to remember her smile and not her eyes just then. Saying the right thing, making it right with her--he was more bound to fail the more important it was to him. But maybe this time he'd erred on saying too much of the right thing.

Alone again in the kitchen, as unprepared for her departure as her arrival, he hoped the odds might have turned in his favor. He wanted her to know--to believe--that she had his support. And he missed her, even when nothing he did managed to impress her. He often needed that.

Among other things. Reminded, he reached into his vest pocket and retrieved his daily regimen of pills, thumbing over them wistfully before washing them down with the rest of his tea.

* * * * *

Erik was looking over the selection of tactical maps he'd laid out in the makeshift strategy room when he felt Charles' approach. It was strange: he didn't always feel him, but when he did it was with a sort of acceptance. It was how it should be. It was what he wanted.

"It's awfully gloomy in here for the middle of the afternoon," said Charles, rolling in from the hall.

Erik smirked and glanced over his shoulder at the room. He'd pulled the heavy drapes over the windows and turned on what lamps were necessary. "Banshee and Havok are due for a tactical lesson. I didn't want them to be distracted."

"Ah," said Charles. His eyes swept the room as he wheeled further in. "Though I suppose this room's always been a bit gloomy."

Erik followed his gaze around the room. It had been his, for the brief time he'd needed it. As such, it had always been the makeshift strategy room as well.

He pulled out a topographical map and looked it over. Perhaps they wouldn't be staging any battles in the mountains--but better safe than sorry. He slipped it back into the pile.

"You must be bored to seek me out here," he said. "Did you want to join us? Or practice?"

Erik watched Charles shake his head slowly in the lamplight. "Hank said no earlier than tomorrow."

And no one really wanted to make Beast angry.

Leaving the table, Erik turned to the larger map on the wall. He began moving a few of the magnetic markers into a better example. "I shouldn't have to remind you that you are riding a chariot of metal."

Charles laughed quietly behind him. "Nicely put, but I'm not so feeble I need to use your mutation to roll myself around. Save that for our old age."

Erik paused, then set the last marker into position.

"I meant for your balance. It should be the same principle of awareness. Pick the chair up off the floor and try not to dump yourself out of it."

When Erik turned from the map, Charles looked skeptical.

Erik shrugged. "If you don't think you can do it."

"Oh, all right," muttered Charles, and Erik smirked.

He turned to pull open the drawers of the desk, looking for another color of place-markers for the map. When he glanced over his shoulder, Charles had managed to lift all four wheels of his chair a few inches off the ground. His control was somewhat wobbly, but it held.

The effort he was making, however, was apparent in his voice, and the crease in his brow when he looked over to Erik.

"I suppose you could jet around in a metal hovercraft, couldn't you?"

"Not practical," Erik answered, closing and opening a few more drawers. "The prototypes exhausted me."

The chair returned to the ground with a muted clatter. "You were building hovercrafts? You never told me."

"Charles." Erik shut the winning drawer and turned. He tried to effect a smile, but that never really worked. "Why would I have told you?"

Charles got only as far as the purse of his lips before Havok and Banshee arrived. They didn't so much appear in the doorway as peer around it, like they were hoping to get out of the lesson if Erik happened to have stepped out for a moment.

No such luck.

"Get in here," said Erik. He lifted his hand in response to Charles, who waved himself out with a 'Pay attention, boys,' but otherwise offered no sympathy. Havok led the way in.

"Why don't Mystique and Hank have to be here?" protested Banshee, albeit politely.

"Because," said Erik, "Mystique could teach you all of this if I felt like putting her through that, and Beast is one of the assets you'll be protecting."

He sent the door shut behind them. Banshee startled, but Havok's eyes rested steadily on the table. He reached to fan through the maps Erik had set out. "Let's do this."

* * * * *

March progressed, for once, the way everyone always said it did, and the way the New York climate usually defied. The snow had melted save for the drifts, and even some of the raised dirt paths were dry enough to walk on. Most importantly, the temperature was mild enough that Hank no longer warned Charles to stay inside to avoid frostbite along the metal grid of the frame. Today the wind was chill, but Charles stole out of the house with Erik anyway.

Halfway down the path alongside the back lawn, Charles carefully stopped and turned himself around to look at the house. He felt a swell of triumph to see its distance, though he still shifted his weight awkwardly from one foot to the other to juggle his balance. He'd improved, but it wasn't perfect. Erik stopped with him, and was a statue by comparison.

"Thank heaven the weather broke when it did," Charles sighed. "I was half out of my mind in there."

"I'd hate to see what you'd do in a normal-sized house all winter."

Charles turned to catch his wry smile, and shook his head with a guilty chuckle. He turned further to continue their walk, Erik beside him. "You're right, I know. I really have nothing to complain about."

"I didn't say that."

"No," Charles agreed, glancing at him, smiling faintly. "But it's true." He shook his head again, casting his gaze ahead of him. "And, of course, compared to last winter, when--"

A colder wind pressed the breath back into his throat, and even as it died down he couldn't continue. He'd shut so much out, but suddenly he remembered those months with a cruel immediacy.

He could feel Erik's eyes on him, and his sympathy, grasping for purchase in Charles' silence. "Your recovery?"

Charles laughed, just to force his throat to clear. "That, too."

The isolation, the absence of the only real family he'd ever had, these things had crushed him, and it had been just as well he couldn't get out of his bed, because for weeks he couldn't scrape together the desire to do so. And when he finally did drag himself into some semblance of self-functioning it was only to relieve others of the burden of him.

He did recover, but not all of him pulled through. As he'd settled into his new life he'd realized that he'd become someone else, someone who had accepted the permanence of loss, someone whose new inner strength was his ability to survive without. He had forced himself with all the ruthless faculties of his cunning mind to imagine his life--the rest of his life--never meeting Erik on the same side of anything.

And only when that seemed the natural state of things, no longer a tragedy but the law of gravity itself, did he remember the rest of the world, and decide to find his place in it, alone. He had many students, and a handful of friends, but only one equal. And without him--

"Charles?"

Charles broke his reverie, reflexively smiling before he realized just how badly the wind was stinging his eyes. "Yes, Erik, I'm sorry." He slowed his pace, but found it easier to keep going than to stop. "Are you cold? We can go back."

But Erik did stop, his hand gently catching Charles' arm and steadying him as Charles obliged him and stood as still as he could manage.

"I'm fine," said Erik, and Charles tried not to look away as Erik studied his face. "Are you?"

"I'm quite warm at the moment," Charles answered, smiling lightly with the truth of it.

Erik seemed to be trying to divine his thoughts, but Charles wasn't sending any, and Erik finally nodded, accepting this. "When do you want to go to Washington?"

Charles laughed. "Washington?"

Erik's wry smile returned. "The entire reason you gave in and let this happen?"

"Yes, yes." Though he couldn't say it was the entire reason, now. He winced to think of the sad state of his mastery. "But I'm hardly ready to pull this off in public. Soon, not yet."

Slowly, Erik let go of his arm. "You seem to be doing a fine job right now."

"Certainly," agreed Charles, taking a small step back to catch himself before easing forward again. "If you like metronomes. And need I remind you those steps have no railing?"

Erik would be with him, of course, but leaning on him, in public, was obviously out of the question.

"Close your eyes."

Charles laughed at him. "If you think I'm unstable now--"

"I don't, you do. Close your eyes and remember what I told you."

Making a conscious effort to stop shifting his weight, Charles appraised him sternly. Erik liked to play these games, pushing him where he was vulnerable, but it hadn't served him wrong yet. And he couldn't say he minded it. There was a distinct pleasure in being instructed by Erik that Charles didn't care to analyze.

"All right," he said, closing his eyes. "But if I--"

"I won't let you fall, Charles."

The rest of his words stuck in his throat. Swallowing them, Charles did as he was told and focused on the metal that held him up, most especially his relation to it, its angle to the earth, its position relative to his center of balance. There was even a hint of magnetic fields there--was that magnetic north? It was easier to accomplish here, out in the open, where the frame was nearly the only metal around. If he just kept his upper body poised to complement its placement, he could avoid any uneven pull of gravity--

Of course, the wind was still beyond his skill set, and one solid gust, maybe even a breeze, knocked him squarely into Erik, ending his success.

But much as he abhorred failure, he was too distracted by Erik's warmth to be disappointed. Maybe he was cold, after all.

He opened his eyes and felt Erik's arm around his back, holding him until Charles could get his feet under him again. Even then, the loop of his arm persisted, keeping him near. Charles rested his hands on Erik's sides, gripping the pockets of his jacket.

"Before you say it," murmured Erik, "I wouldn't call that falling."

In a sense, I would, thought Charles, and when Erik turned his head Charles wondered if he'd let him hear it, then realized he didn't care if he had.

"Well," said Erik, at last, fingertips dragging along Charles' back as he released him, "whenever you're ready. Azazel can take us."

Charles nodded as they were set apart again. He was about to repeat that it would be soon when the unnaturally abrupt presence of two additional minds on the grounds usurped his attention.

"Speak of the devil, I think they've just arrived." He looked back at the mansion, but didn't see them; they must be toward the front.

Erik lifted a brow at him as he began to move back toward the house. "Really, Charles."

Charles blinked at him, then pushed forward to follow. "That's the expression!"

Erik laughed, though Charles could tell he was keenly interested in what news Emma had, and concentrated on keeping up with him.

As they neared the house, Emma and Azazel stepped out from around one of the corners. Neither of them were really dressed for the weather, as usual. Azazel acknowledged Charles with a solemn nod; Emma presumably included him in her "Afternoon, gentlemen," though she was looking almost entirely at Erik. She only cast her glance to Charles to sweep her attention down his newly vertical posture. If Erik hadn't already told her everything, she'd just learned it, brushing Erik's thoughts and nearly Charles' by extension. Azazel seemed content to let the mystery persist.

Charles didn't challenge Emma's obvious preferences. He wondered if she would ever warm to him, and sincerely hoped she would. She had a sharp mind and a bold demeanor that reminded him of some of his most effective teachers, and even if that idea didn't appeal to her, their collaboration in other respects could yield fantastic results. For now, though, he politely excused himself.

"Just give me a moment to get inside," he requested, appealing more for Emma's cooperation than for Erik's, which he could already count on. As he withdrew, he invited Azazel to follow him in if he wanted, and to Charles' mild surprise, he did.

"This is new," said Azazel, gesturing to him as Charles led them through the side door.

Charles laughed cordially, though didn't slow, making his way as deliberately as he could toward the television room. "Still getting the hang of it, I'm afraid."

Hank and Sean were already in the room, seated at the round table in front of the window still practicing the stacked cipher they'd developed, and Charles greeted them without stopping. He'd have preferred depositing himself into his actual chair, but he didn't want to hold Erik and Emma up any longer than he had to.

As it was he'd barely sat down when Emma cut them apart, so abruptly that it stung him like a fresh wound, his hands finding and gripping the arms of the chair to hold himself up.

"Professor?"

Without investigating his thoughts, Charles couldn't be sure what distressed Sean more, the gasp he hadn't stifled in time, or Azazel standing near the doorway.

He already knew where Hank's priorities would lie. "Something wrong, Professor? Does it need adjusting?"

"Not at all," said Charles, his head still aching, but it was fading, and easy to hide. "The chair wasn't exactly where I thought it was. I'm sorry to interrupt." He pushed himself up by the chair's arms to sit further back, more safely ensconced in the chair's deep cushions, though not being able to feel their plush resistance gave him a sort of tipsy relationship with them.

Sean and Hank exchanged glances but went back to their work, and Charles returned his attention, this time rather sheepishly, to their guest. "I would ask if I could get you anything, but I'm afraid while they're away I actually can't."

"Not a problem," said Azazel, and Charles thought he might actually be smiling. "Banshee can get, no?"

Sean cast a why is it always me look in Charles' direction, but Charles could only plead ignorance.

* * *

"You didn't have to do that," snapped Erik, the stinging behind his eyes driving the edge into his voice. "He'd have let go himself."

Emma was studying him as though she hadn't expected Erik's discomfort, but her words remained cool. "I don't like to wait. We have things to talk about."

Sighing, Erik reined himself in, turning and walking with her down the path Charles and he had just taken. No one wanted Emma against them, least of all him. And there remained the fact that despite his leadership style, Emma still managed to treat him like a person and not an icon.

"Go on, then," Erik prompted.

"We tracked down the last of them," she answered smoothly. "Most are in government custody."

"Most?"

She shrugged, though the way she watched him for his reaction was less than casual. "We couldn't spare them all."

"Then let that be a lesson to them," he answered, easily meeting her gaze. He hadn't changed. "Whatever they'll make of it."

The Russians were as yet unconvinced that mutants were not America's newest conspiracy, a new kind of biological warfare to be deployed when the program reached maturity. The spy ring Emma and Azazel had succeeded in dismantling was meant to collect information for developing some kind of Russian defense.

Erik had almost laughed at the absurdity of it, but he had to take it seriously for the sake of any mutants they managed to come across.

"How much information did they manage to collect?"

Emma sneered, and Erik appreciated her contempt. "Next to nothing. We planted false leads to keep them occupied until we'd found them all."

And landing them in the care of the American government kept the attention off of Charles' and Erik's teams. Erik nodded. "Smart. Good work. You're here for the time being, then?"

She shook her head. "We might not be finished. The Secretary of State seems a little too interested in what they found out."

Erik stared ahead of him. That wasn't what he wanted to hear, but he kept calm. "Why wouldn't he be? They're Russian spies."

Emma slowed her step and turned to face him. "Except the man he's appointed to lead his investigation is a US navy captain from the fleet in Cuba."

Erik stopped with her, trying to read her expression. He maintained to this day that both fleets deserved what he almost did, but if the officers on those ships didn't have personal reasons to hate mutants before, they did now. "And you don't think that's a coincidence."

She shook her head.

Rubbing his brow, Erik glanced back to the house. If Emma was right about the connection, they couldn't simply get rid of the captain, or it would only point fingers in their direction. On his own, Erik wouldn't give a damn--would relish the opportunity, really--but if Charles wanted that school out in the open someday Erik couldn't be so rash. Especially when the connection wasn't confirmed.

"Check up on them," he said, turning back to her. "See if they really are collecting information on mutants specifically. But I don't like this distance you're keeping. It's safer here. We've got Azazel, you don't have to stay out there."

She shook her head with a bored sort of laugh, starting toward the mansion again. "I don't pack as light as you, honey. By the time I move it all in--"

Erik stopped her, his hand closing on her arm too roughly, though he released her when she turned. He found her gaze and held it, elusive as it was. "You don't think this is going to last."

She smiled incredulously, her brow furrowing. "Do you?"

He set his jaw. He had enough doubts of his own; he didn't need hers. Furthermore, he'd made his commitment, and he couldn't trust anyone who didn't follow him in it. "Your allegiance, Emma. I need to know it's to Charles as well."

Her surprise was rare, but he glimpsed it before she tipped her head and her expression smoothed to a blank coldness. "How many masters do you think I need, Magneto?"

She kept her eyes on him until her back was turned, then left him, walking back toward the house.

* * *

Charles was deeply preoccupied by two things when Erik returned from his talk with Emma. One was that Emma had actually spoken rather pleasantly to him on her way past the television room; the other was that he'd risen to his feet to greet her before he'd consciously taken possession of Erik's faculties again. They seemed to come hand-in-hand with Erik's proximity.

"What's wrong?" Erik asked as they stepped out into the hallway, leaving Hank and Sean to work. "Where's Azazel?"

"Ah, the kitchen," Charles answered, clearing his thoughts as they walked toward the foyer, in the opposite direction. "Emma should be with him, that's where I sent her when she asked. She was really very gracious. Rather took me by surprise. Is there news? Azazel said little."

"He rarely says more," answered Erik, absently. He seemed pensive about one or all of these things, but like Charles brushed it aside for the matter of most importance. As Charles settled with his back to the foyer wall for its support, he listened as Erik recounted Emma's findings, and their suspicions.

"Collecting information on mutants," Charles repeated, and Erik nodded.

"Identification, that's how it starts."

"Then they could be building a national registry." Frowning further, Charles lifted his hand to rub his closed eyes, trying not to remember Erik's words as a prophecy. "Surely that's not legal."

Erik hissed derisively. "You still think that matters? When they need to, they'll make it legal. Until then they're getting a head start."

Drawing his breath slowly, Charles stood straighter, slipping his hands up to Erik's shoulders before he realized he was doing it. He let his hands rest at his sides instead. "We don't know for certain that's what they're doing. Let's not jump to that conclusion until we have to."

Erik's look was dark as he studied Charles' face, and Charles kept quiet under his judgment. Their agreement hadn't been truly tested yet, and Charles had hoped that trial would come far later than this. A small disagreement could quickly spiral into something catastrophic. That had proven itself well enough already.

But Erik sighed, relenting. "Emma is going back out to keep an eye on things. She'll let us know if we're right."

Charles nodded, keeping his relief to himself. "All the same," he considered, pursing his lips, "ask Azazel to come back here tonight. I want to check on the students firsthand. Make sure they're all right, that they haven't noticed anyone around."

Erik lifted a brow. "I thought you weren't ready?"

"That's partly why we're going at night," Charles confessed, smiling lightly. "Call it a dress rehearsal."

Erik matched the smile, almost, but Charles had the distinct impression he was looking forward to Charles being out with him. "I'll go talk to Azazel."

"And Alex," Charles suggested. "I'll talk to Sean. They've been making the rounds so far, they might have some information to offer. And then we should try to get some rest, it's going to be a long night."

Erik nodded, heading back down the hall, and Charles followed him before turning off into the television room again. Despite the circumstances, he couldn't help sharing a little of Erik's anticipation, and it was entirely secondary to the achievement of returning to the world on his own two legs. What struck him far more deeply was the prospect of their working together again the way they had at the very beginning.

They couldn't get back the past, no--but this was so close he could almost believe they'd done it.

Chapter Text

"Let's not make our way west too soon," Erik advised, walking with Azazel down the hall toward the foyer. "We don't want to show up too early." Charles was already waiting there, chewing his lip, but he released it at their approach. If Erik didn't know better the reason for his restless shifting, he'd have said Charles was nervous.

"Are you ready?" Erik asked him, admiring his attire as he stopped in front of him. They were dressed normally to avoid attention, though the clothing was dark, standard for Erik but uncharacteristic for Charles. Erik liked the shade on him, even if the sharp effect of the dark slacks and black collared shirt was softened by the black peacoat and scarf. At least, on account of Charles' unerringly wealthy taste, they wouldn't be mistaken for thieves tonight, even with television set in hand.

"Don't make fun," hushed Charles, but he was smiling.

"You're supposed to be ignoring me," Erik answered, amused. "That's on you."

"I am already familiar with all of the locations," Azazel broke in, dryly. "Do you have any you wish to add?"

"Standard tour should suffice," answered Charles, proper again as he glanced to Erik for confirmation. "Thank you, Azazel."

Azazel bowed his head in acknowledgment, then turned to watch the grandfather clock against the wall. He was almost pathologically punctual, which Erik supposed made sense if travel time was instantaneous. It was still a half minute before the appointed hour.

While his back was turned, Charles stepped close, his voice low and secretive as though the foyer's acoustics gave them any privacy. "Erik, hold onto me, will you? It may take me a second to connect with you again each time we arrive."

Erik tried not to enjoy the way Charles looked up at him: supplicating, vulnerable--nervous after all. He could only smirk, a half-smile to hide everything else as he threaded his arm behind Charles and held him firmly. "I have you."

Despite his feigned conceit, Erik softened when Azazel turned to face them and Charles lifted his hand to grip Erik's shoulder. When Azazel reached to make contact with them, Erik couldn't help his other arm wrapping around Charles' back, as though after all the times he'd traveled this way, just this once he risked losing someone for not holding onto them tightly enough.

He used to think it was like the ground falling away beneath him, but it was more like his entire being falling away, evaporating, and for an instant, barely long enough for the brain to notice, he lost the tactile sense of Charles against him. But then he was there again, and the air was different, the temperature colder, the sky expanding over them with impossible speed and measure.

Though he'd worried, Charles remained steady throughout. He only checked his footing before slowly releasing him, slipping back against the whitewashed brick wall of a corner store Azazel had placed them next to for its cover before himself stepping into its shadows. Beyond them stretched a sleeping neighborhood like any other, save for the mutant child hidden in it, and Erik watched Charles' face as he took it in.

For weeks after Erik's return, four months ago now, it had felt wrong to go out without Charles, to carry out not his orders but his suggestions, to leave him behind when they'd begun all of this together. Above all, what had continued to gnaw at him every time he led a team that was only half his was that Charles trusted him so completely, with them, with their goals. When Erik had given his word, Charles asked for nothing more.

At the time, Erik had considered it a weakness that Charles was better rid of. That kind of faith in people could only set him up for betrayal, Erik had thought, time and again.

But it wasn't faith in just anyone. It was faith in Erik. And Erik wanted to believe it was warranted.

Now that Charles was out, however, Erik realized the other side of it. He could feel it with every car that crawled through the area, with the clipping thrum of a distant helicopter, with the metallic slip of the cutlery somebody's overworked wife was using in the kitchen in the house next to them. Charles was out in the world, and the world wasn't safe, especially in their peculiar dependency.

Gathering his bearings, Charles moved to the edge of the wall to cast his glance to the street beyond, presumably in the direction of the mutant.

Erik couldn't help it. He was a guard dog, hackles raised. "Charles, if you sense anything suspicious, you tell me."

Charles glanced back at him, a light smile softening his expression of concentration. "They'll never know what hit them, hm?"

Erik said nothing, because that was true.

Charles reached back to beckon him close enough to squeeze his arm, his voice soft with understanding as he looked to the parallel lines of houses again. "Take it easy, Erik. We're not in a war zone, we're not breaking anybody out of prison." He sighed, and everything about him seemed to withdraw by another degree. "We're just on a street in a town where everyone is dreaming."

Erik studied his face, the slight slackness in his jaw, the distant look in his eyes. "Is it too much for you?"

Charles drew a slow breath, then shook his head, dismissing the concern. "Not normally. But it's been some time. I haven't been around this many minds since I was in hospital." He smiled, glancing to him, the memory twitching the corner of his mouth. "And a hospital is an awful place to be if you're a telepath. This is much kinder."

Nodding, Erik fell quiet, his hand squeezing Charles' shoulder before letting him to his work, noticing that his fingers were at his temple, where he hadn't seen them since they'd started exploring this possibility. In the meantime, he kept his senses open, listening for malicious intent, which almost always involved metal. It was one of the hardest, truest materials one human could raise against another, and why would any of their wretched species settle for less?

Visibly, Charles relaxed, lowering his hand. "I found her. Everything seems fine."

"Is it harder when they're dreaming?"

"It is, actually." Charles glanced to him with an appreciative smile. "It's very chaotic, things aren't where they usually are. Sometimes it's hard to distinguish the real memories from the imagination. But there was nothing out of the ordinary there. I'm sure I'd have caught it if there was anything."

Erik nodded, turning to walk with him along the wall to the sharp angle of shadow Azazel stepped from. "Then let's keep going."

He felt Azazel's hand on his shoulder and wrapped Charles close to him. A new climate pushed back against them, but found them solid once more.

When Azazel withdrew from them, there was no cover at all to speak of, though there were no people to hide from, either, just a farm house some distance away at the end of the dirt road they stood on. The moon cast a clear light over it all.

"Sean reminded me about this one," murmured Charles as he turned to look around. "There's a dog."

"He's friendly if you greet him," sniffed Azazel just as a large dog shape lifted its head from the wooden porch, then trotted down the steps and along the road toward them.

As Charles crouched down to one knee, Erik confirmed that the collar around its neck was a smooth metal chain before he stepped out of the way, ready to yank the thing backward if it so much as looked thoughtful. But its tail was wagging as it approached, and Charles took its face in his hands. "Do you keep Thomas company?" he was saying to it, and Erik tried not to roll his eyes. "He missed you very much while he was at school."

The dog bumped noses with him before it went over and sat next to Azazel, who tried to ignore it, even as it nosed his palm until he finally pet it. Erik heard Charles chuckle as he rose to his feet, brushing the dust from his knee. When he had straightened, he steadied himself with a hand on Erik's shoulder.

"Blood pressure," he muttered, blinking.

"Is that still a problem?"

"Not really. Hank cleared me for full operation, remember?"

"And I remember you telling me things could always change."

"Well, it's fine for now." Charles clapped him on the shoulder. "There, better." As though to prove it, he left Erik's side to walk a few paces forward toward the house. After a moment, he lifted his fingers to his temple again.

It was making Erik powerfully nostalgic, that pose, that easy confidence and command. Whether Charles realized it or not, he hid the accident well.

We've undone it, haven't we?

Everything I've done, I've taken it back.

But Erik turned away, because he knew that wouldn't ever be true. And yet he couldn't watch him and not feel it. He couldn't think of their easy company and not suffer that illusion.

"You know," Charles said, voice cast in Erik's direction again, "Thomas reminded me of you." His task had taken less time in this isolation than it had in town.

Erik turned around again, clearing his head at all costs. He snorted quietly. "He must have been a delightful child."

Charles laughed at him, just as quiet, as it was too early in spring for the hum of crickets to drown them out. "No, just that he always had something metal in his hand. Used it as a sort of antenna, most remarkable, to pick up the radio waves his brain could demodulate. I could tell he was never paying attention during his lessons."

"Well, I doubt he's seen anyone all the way out here, attention paid or not."

Charles shook his head, looking back to the house. "No, he hasn't. Not that old Champ here would have alerted him." He glanced toward the contented dog with an odd expression, and Erik guessed he was trying to read the dog's thoughts, though he was certain he remembered that Charles couldn't. At any rate, he gave up, beckoning Erik close in preparation for departure. "To be honest I'm not expecting anything so soon, if ever, based on what Emma told you. I just need to set my mind to rest."

"Of course," answered Erik. The truth of it was he didn't much care what they did so long as it was together, and so long as it didn't involve pandering to humans. He motioned to Azazel, and Champ looked dismayed to lose him.

* * *

It would be another three mutants, all just as uneventful as the first two, before Charles brought up the inevitable. They'd arrived on another street, in another town, this one warmer though they would be gone again before they'd suffer in their coats.

"I just wish we knew where Angel and Janos were," he said, and his pinched expression nearly shamed Erik for not caring as much. "They're the only two we knew about and lost track of."

Erik watched a car as it rolled by, its driver not seeing them despite Erik's glare following him the whole way past. "She could have told us where they were going. She chose not to."

"She knew she could have come back, didn't she?"

Charles had turned toward him, and Erik had no choice but to face him, and to answer. "It may be for the best she didn't." They weren't there when she joined Shaw, but they'd been told. "Not everyone forgives as easily as you do."

For a moment, Charles didn't speak, yet Erik knew the topic wouldn't be spared. "You forgave her, didn't you?"

"You see what you want to see."

Because they both knew that Angel, and Azazel, and Riptide, and Emma had accepted Erik in Shaw's place because as far as they were concerned there was no difference between them. Erik could no more forgive them for following Shaw than he could condemn them for following Magneto.

"Then perhaps it is for the best," answered Charles, his tone deliberate, drawing Erik out of his thoughts.

"And yet you still worry." Erik stepped out onto the sidewalk with him, glancing back to see where Azazel hid himself before they followed the curb. He wondered if he himself had once been the object of that same worry, when Charles had lost him to the world and he'd hidden in it, unreachable. "Is there no hope for another Cerebro?"

Charles shrugged, pursing his lips, eyes on the row of shotgun houses before them. "The equipment is specialized, difficult to procure without raising flags about where it's going. Hank has a few pieces so far, but it'll take time."

"Because you insist on doing it legitimately. Steal it, and they won't know where it went."

At least Charles smiled at him, though he shook his head. "You know I wouldn't allow that." He lifted his hand to his temple as they walked, sighing lightly, his words quiet but still fluid as his attention was split. "Even if I am tempted. However Hank does it, we'll have to come up with a way to disguise it before anything gets built."

Erik thought of the area, how easily such an installation could be picked out from the air. "Why don't you build it underground?"

Charles turned his head, his hand dropping an inch or two before he smiled, looking genuinely pleased. "I suppose that would work, yes."

"I'll help you," Erik offered, purely under influence of that smile. He wanted to see it broaden, and it did, until Charles checked himself and returned his hand to his temple.

"I thought you didn't approve of the idea," he murmured beneath his concentration, though the smile was still there by some degree.

Erik had already said too much--or it should have felt like he had. Don't make plans. Don't assume. Don't wish.

He shrugged in the quiet, ignoring the warning. "It's for us this time. Not them."

Charles' stopped, his smile different now, gentler, as though Erik had just given him a gift he very much wanted but didn't expect.

"That's right," Charles agreed, his eyes soft with his gratitude, and Erik had to start walking again to avoid it.

* * *

As they arrived yet again in another town, Charles held onto Erik a little longer than usual. He had lost count of how many streets they'd walked or lawns they'd trespassed on and was starting to feel the exhaustion, not just due to the hour but also to the tedium of sifting through so many dreaming and addled thoughts.

Though Azazel was nearby as always, Erik allowed him the prolonged contact. In fact, though they'd established after the first transport that Erik didn't have to hold onto him at all, Erik's arm had wound itself firmly around him every time, and Charles didn't stop him.

"Should we finish this tomorrow night?" Erik asked, and Charles shook his head, finally easing them apart.

"If you're both all right, I think we can finish this before sun-up." He looked to them both to verify it. "How many more, Azazel?"

"Nine, I believe."

Charles nodded. "That shouldn't be a problem." He made a quick scan of the direction Azazel pointed him in and gestured for Erik to walk with him along the worn, narrow road while their talented companion again receded into the shadows. This town was far less dense than most of the others, and Charles enjoyed the breathing room, large expanses of lawn separating each house, each collection of minds.

"What exactly were you teaching all these mutants?" Erik asked, his tone curious, but only mildly.

"Oh, the usual," answered Charles, puffing out a lungful of air. He could remember, when Erik's absence had still been fresh, wanting to share every idea, every development about the school with him. Over and over he'd had to remind himself that Erik wasn't there. "Subjects appropriate for their age range," he elaborated, pushing the memory aside, "as well as special training in the particulars of their mutations."

But that wasn't all, was it? He wished a mutant curriculum required no more than that. "With some heavy emphasis on ethics," he added, lightly. "And history."

He met Erik's meaningful glance, holding it until Erik suddenly stopped, his gaze cast forward onto the figure of a girl who appeared on the road in front of them. He squeezed Erik's arm to assure him, though the girl's clearly wavering image had probably already revealed she was the mutant they'd come to find.

Taking a few steps closer, Charles lowered himself to crouch in front of her projection, one hand to the road to keep his balance. "Teresa, darling, you're supposed to be in bed."

"I am in bed, Professor," she answered. "Are you better now?"

But before Charles could answer that, she noticed Erik behind him. "Who are you?"

He felt Erik's unease and half-expected him to ignore her, then wished he had.

"I'm Magneto."

Erik Lehnsherr-- Charles glared back at him as the girl shrank away, recognizing the name. After all, Erik had spent a year making sure the public knew it, even if everything else was kept as much a secret as possible for their protection.

"Teresa, this is Erik," he corrected, gently, beckoning her back to him. "It's all right. He's the reason I'm"--how had she put it?--"better. And he's always liked people like us, hm?" Charles smiled, trying to keep the many complications of that out of his expression as he coaxed her out of her doubt. "You've been all right at home?"

"Mother doesn't want me here," she answered, her small shoulders shrugging.

Charles smiled sadly. He knew she had a habit of listening on the other side of doors, recalling herself back to bed at a moment's notice. It gave her an air of disillusionment and distrust, altogether too adult for her age.

Though his methods had been different, he knew what constant eavesdropping could do to a person. "It's not always a good idea to listen to the things people don't mean for you to hear."

"Isn't that when they're the most truthful?" Erik said, and Charles pursed his lips.

Erik, she's seven.

"Surprisingly, it isn't," he answered, smoothly. That was only half-true, but the important thing was that nothing was certain when it came to people's intentions. "What about outside your house? Have you met anyone new? Grown-ups asking questions?"

She was silent as she thought about it, image flickering, eyes cast toward the side of the road before she shook her head. She yawned. "Nobody."

Charles nodded, glad of it as he rose to his feet. "All right, Teresa. You get back to sleep." He would have pat her hair if the projection of her had been in any way solid.

"Good night, Professor," she said, yawning again. "Good night, Magneto." She looked to be nodding off as her image faded.

When she was gone, Charles turned to him. "That's going to stick, you know."

Erik shrugged.

* * *

The night was nearly over. As Azazel conveyed them to their next destination, Erik was aware of the biting wind second only to the massive steel girders holding up the building beneath them. Instinctively he held Charles tighter, but when he opened his eyes he confirmed that Azazel had set them solidly on the roof of a building some fifty stories in the air, from the looks of the view.

"I don't recognize that skyline," said Charles, his voice thick with the wind until it died down and he stepped away from Erik to take it in. "Where are we?"

"Seattle," answered Azazel. There was no reason for him to hide here, and he remained where he stood, a step or two from them.

"All the way in Seattle?" said Charles, clearly delighted as he turned his smile on Azazel. "That's fantastic. I didn't think we knew anyone so far away."

"The girl's family moved. Thirty-fourth floor, northwest corner." Azazel nodded in the right direction, and Charles took a few paces toward it, and stopped.

"Oh."

Erik watched him as he bowed his head toward the concrete beneath him, silent as his brow furrowed and he swayed lightly on his feet. The density of minds he'd have to get through to reach the mutant from here must have daunted him.

"We should have done this one earlier," said Erik, tersely.

"It was furthest west." Azazel met his stare. "I did as requested."

Erik sighed. So he had. He turned toward Charles again. "We can go down there. I can unlock the doors."

"Ah, no." Charles glanced up at him, brushing it off with an easy smile though it was clear how tired he was. For his sake, Erik wanted this to be over. "It'll take time moving through the building. I think I can do it from here, I just need to concentrate." His eyes searched the roof. "My attention is split if I'm standing."

Erik spied the low wall around a skylight near the corner Azazel had indicated. He lifted a finger toward it. "There. Sit down."

Charles turned and found it. "I'll just be a minute."

Erik kept an eye on him only long enough to be sure there was nothing in his path before he turned to face the city beyond them, walking slowly toward the roof's edge to see its streets stretching away far below, running out between other buildings as high as theirs. Everything was brightly dotted, hardly a dark corner anywhere. America did so love to light her cities.

No.

Erik frowned, half-turning, not sure that he'd heard anything at all until the wave of panic hit him along the thread of their connection, nearly staggering him.

No, this can't--

"Charles?"

Charles was still seated, his fingers to his temple, his eyes fixed blankly on the roof. He winced, and Erik felt it again, that cold, frightened alarm, and with it the most incredible pain behind his eyes, nearly blinding him on his way to Charles' side.

"Charles," he repeated, forcing his vision to clear as he made out Charles' expression, noting with a start that his blank gaze was now fixed squarely on him, blue eyes wide. "What's wrong?"

Before Erik could reach him, Charles seemed to find himself again, shutting his eyes as he shook his head lightly. He drew his breath, his mouth working uselessly around it for a moment. "It's--it's nothing--"

"The mutant? Charles, what is it?" Erik glanced at Azazel for something, anything he might have caught that Erik didn't, but Azazel seemed as ignorant.

Charles finally looked at him again, eyes still wide with what Erik could only recognize as fear. "No, she's--she's fine," he said, and his voice was dry, breathless. "Azazel, how many more?"

"Two more."

"Sean and Alex--they'll have to finish this tomorrow," Charles was saying as he rose to his feet, his breath still clipping his words unnaturally. He reached out a hand to Azazel. "Home, Azazel, please." The other took hold of Erik's arm, and he wouldn't look at him.

That he wouldn't answer him was the worst he could do.

"Charles," he growled, shoving his panic down deep as he fought for Charles' attention, "what is it?"

And then Charles finally met his eyes, and the bottom dropped out of Erik's chest as the roof and the rest of the city fell away in an instant.

* * *

They were moving again as soon as Erik felt the foyer floor beneath him, Charles pulling him by the arm down the hall, his bowed head seemingly deaf to Erik's demands though Erik could no longer hide his alarm. The more he tried to stamp down his emotions, the angrier he became, fighting the violent urge to jerk Charles backward and force an explanation from him just to put an end to the clawing, merciless dread of not knowing.

When they reached the bedroom, Erik threw the door closed behind them and tore himself from Charles' grasp, but Charles kept on through the room, driven, his obdurate silence the only shred of his calm that remained.

"Charles, for God's sake--"

Still it was if he'd said nothing, and Erik stormed after him as Charles yanked the wardrobe door almost off its hinges to reach up into the top shelf. When Charles finally deigned to face him, he was pushing the helmet, once blessedly forgotten, into his hands and Erik could hardly believe the trembling words that would bear it into his possession again.

"I need you to put this on."

Erik recoiled, refusing to accept it, forcing Charles to keep it though his hands seemed barely willing to support its damnable weight either.

"Charles, what--"

Charles' eyes closed, his brow drawn down. "Erik, please just do this."

If Charles had been calmer, Erik might have done it, trusting in his reason, pushing his hurt aside. But Charles' refusal to explain himself threw Erik into the irrationality of fear. To make it worse, Charles' mind was firing the barest fragments of thought at him--this is not possible--I can't have--how could I--and all of Erik's waiting demons rose up to join them.

"I'll do nothing until you tell me--"

Charles shoved it harder against him. "It's for your own protection!"

"Protection from what, Charles?"

"Protection from me!"

Charles' voice rocked him to silence as Erik tried to process what he meant, fixed there by Charles' gaze, finally focused, finally locked and burning, so darkly serious that in that moment Erik could believe Charles was a real danger to him.

Finally, Charles' shoulders fell, his breath coming in staggered gasps, though he held it steady long enough to say it. "Erik, I can't separate us."

Erik's lips parted, but there were no words. He couldn't tear himself from the look of absolute devastation on Charles' face.

"I can't," he went on, as though Erik wouldn't believe him, wouldn't forgive him, "I can't do it. I tried. He said it, Hank said I would adapt, and I have and it's into you."

Erik frowned, not because he should fear this if Charles were telling the truth, not because he'd trusted him, but because Charles was miserable, Charles was himself frightened, and Erik had no response for that. "Charles, calm down."

Charles grimaced, his breath catching again. "I can't be calm, Erik, you have no idea how serious this is!"

Erik shook his head, retreating, and Charles seized his arm, holding him where he stood, the helmet thrust painfully against his chest, whether Charles meant to use such force or not. His voice was strained as Erik finally met his eyes again, his gaze desperate in his need for Erik to understand him.

"I can control people, Erik. Make them do, and say, and feel what I want them to." His grip tightened painfully, and his eyes grew more troubled, throat closing around his words as though he hated them. "They don't even know I'm doing it. Consider, Erik, there was a time I didn't know I was doing it either."

Erik didn't move under his pleading gaze, though his pulse ached under Charles' grip. He knew, he thought he knew, what Charles was trying to tell him, why Charles was so frantic. He tried to imagine it, not being able to trust any kindness. He unearthed from the tomb of his boyhood the only memories he still had of love and tried to imagine the poison of doubt, the revolting suspicion that he'd fabricated every caring word himself.

Wouldn't it destroy him? Wouldn't he live in constant fear of that possibility?

But he didn't believe Charles could go that far, now, could do such a thing and not know it. He didn't believe they were in danger of that. "We don't have to be separate," he said, slowly. "You're not controlling me, Charles."

That seemed exactly what Charles was afraid he'd say. "Erik, you wouldn't know it if I was! For once, will you just listen to me and take this!"

Erik did take it, because it was bruising him, and he felt it much deeper than his chest bone. He held its curved edge in the curl of his fingers, surprised that it was cold, because when it had been a part of him it was never away from him long enough to lose his warmth. Its polished surface took it now, quickly, sapping it from his fingers.

He turned away, taking it with him. It wouldn't come between them again, not for this, not for anything. "This shouldn't even be here."

"Erik!" Charles cried, frustrated, angry, not Charles at all, and then the helmet was wrenched from Erik's hand and their link was severed, the separation a searing white blindness through Erik's mind as he heard Charles crumple behind him.

*

Confined by the workings of the helmet, Charles' mind writhed with silent agony in his skull, coiling and sparking like a cut wire. It was so much worse than when Emma had done it, worse because Erik was right there in front of him, their bond strongest in their proximity. The pain only reminded Charles of what he'd done, how far he'd let it go, how deeply he had trespassed. It wasn't supposed to be painful to pull his mind back to itself. It wasn't supposed to hurt him to keep to himself. Something had changed. His mind had changed. It was more natural to be part of Erik, to use Erik, than to be separate from him. Hank had warned him, though he didn't know, couldn't have known.

As the sharpness dulled to an ache, it was his wrists he noticed next, having caught his full weight when he fell, nothing to support him, not even Erik who'd turned too late to catch him. Erik was crouched in front of him now, and though Charles knew he was concerned, he couldn't look up. Despite the impenetrable wall between them now, despite the unbearable silence he hadn't known for months, he knew Erik was hurt, Erik was confused. He could tell by the way he was breathing, the way he said nothing, the way Erik's hand was so far from violent when it slipped under the helmet, brushing along Charles' jaw as he tried to lift it off.

"Don't," Charles whispered, and Erik stopped, his hand simply resting there high on his neck so that Charles couldn't help but raise his to it. Despite the sprain in his wrist, he let his fingertips convey along the back of Erik's hand the regret he couldn't express with words.

Charles should have known. He shouldn't have trusted himself. He shouldn't have grown so comfortable with it, with the intrusion, with the appropriation of what didn't belong to him. He shouldn't have assumed this couldn't happen. He didn't do things like this. He never lost control. He could not afford to lose control.

"I'm sorry for all this," he said, softly, sincerely, and his voice came back to him unnaturally. In the silence it was easier to be calm. In his forced isolation he could breathe more slowly. "I need you to understand, Erik. If I cannot control myself, none of this is real. You are not real. If I cannot contain myself at will, then the world is my creation, and it is not a world worth living in."

He finally lifted his eyes, and could read nothing of Erik's expression. He'd retreated, withdrawn, given up. What else did Charles expect?

It was the way it would have to be. Charles had made a grave mistake in sacrificing caution for comfort, and he'd carelessly brought Erik into a cooperation Charles had no business seeking. He wished he could have told him without the panic, without the alarm, but he couldn't have gone another moment invading Erik's mind without the ability to leave it.

He would fix this. The part of his mind that had extended to Erik's would wither like the muscle in his legs had. He would just need time to learn to hold them apart again, to rebuild the boundary his mind had erased.

And then never cross it again.

Blessedly, his chair was on this side of the bed. He shifted carefully onto his hip to reach it, dragging it closer to him by its footrest, stubborn as it was with its wheels locked. He couldn't properly counterweight it, but pulling it, inch by inch, was better than dragging himself across the floor to it.

When it was close enough he took it by two points on its seat that he'd committed to memory. It was part of a strategy he had once forced himself to learn along with the upper body strength necessary to complete the difficult transfer from floor to chair. For weeks he had struggled with it until, though forever challenging, it was part of his abilities.

But now, as he hauled himself up, as he tried to transfer enough of his weight onto his hands, onto the soreness of his wrists, he discovered he couldn't do it. He struggled now, in front of Erik, because the steel of the frame weighed him down, its bulk scraping and catching against the chair to defeat him.

He heard Erik's boots scuff as he moved, heard the unexpected heartbreak in his voice. "God damn it, Charles," he cursed, and Charles felt his arm wind around him before Erik lifted and turned him, dropping him into the chair so hard Charles' teeth rattled.

For a long moment Erik remained behind him, his arm still crossed over Charles' heaving chest, his hand clenched in Charles' coat. Charles could feel the pressure of his head against the back of the helmet and could remember nothing beyond the sound of Erik's breaking voice, though now the man was silent, not even breathing.

And then he withdrew. Charles couldn't find the release of the brakes fast enough and nearly wrenched himself out of the chair trying to twist to see him heading for the door. "Erik!"

Erik stopped with his hand on the knob. "I'm taking a walk," he said, and his voice was again hard. "Take that damn thing off."

He turned the knob roughly and pulled open the door. He strode out, leaving Charles to watch him go like he was taking his whole world with him.

* * *

Erik was sure he'd hurt him.

He couldn't slam somebody into a chair like that and expect it not to hurt him.

But watching Charles struggle, abiding the silence in which he wouldn't ask for help, enduring the forgotten sting of being alone in his own head--it had snapped something in him. Charles had once fought their mental separation with everything he had; now he was desperate to divide them, desperate to the point of debilitation, to the point of resurrecting the most ruthless symbol of their history and begging Erik to put it between them again.

Why was that your solution, Charles? Why would you turn to that first?

Through the wide front doors of the mansion, down its rarely-used front steps, along the drive that led out to the road, Erik let the distance between them grow. Charles was the calm one, the steady one, the constant one. His unbridled distress had been an impossible crack in the foundation Erik had begun to build his life on. He couldn't have stayed another moment or he would have seen it in pieces.

At the edge of the grounds, he slowed to a stop at the large iron gate of the Xavier estate, reaching for the cold metal of its design and pulling himself into its subtle field. In his hands it had a pulse, and he counted it to the beat of his own until both eventually slowed.

He hoped Charles had given up the helmet by now. It was why Erik gave him distance, to break their cooperative bond with infinitely greater kindness, if that was what Charles needed. It was possible, with the great Professor X, that Erik was not far enough away to make a difference. But though the gate was no obstacle to him, Erik could go no further.

Someone had taken care of these bars over the years. Some poor bastard in the family's hire had kept the rust off and the paint fresh, kept the leaves and the dirt from collecting in the sharp angles of the metalwork, so that as Erik rested his head against the soundness of the gate it was the better of the two of them.

Chapter Text

It was nearly dawn. Charles had watched the hour passing through the window of the bedroom, its recent stillness broken only and at last by the sound of Erik's approach, the door still open to the hall.

With every footfall, Charles gripped the arms of his chair more tightly. Uncontained again, he wanted nothing more than to drift back into Erik's mind, though it would be more like falling, and Erik was the gravity that drew him. His resistance to it was a sharp cord of pain between his temples, stalling his breath in his chest, but though Erik was mere yards away, Charles managed to keep apart from him. Through his own devices, he remained on his side of the wall, even as Erik reached the bedroom, his step slowing.

He lifted his head to see Erik hesitating at the doorway. The wall was yet too fragile to meet his eyes.

Charles nodded to the helmet that now sat quietly on the window sill in front of him, clearing his throat delicately. "I'm afraid I've dented it," he confessed. He could barely hear his own voice. "I'm sorry." Near the helmet, a corner of the window sill was damaged, but there was no one left but himself to make that apology to.

For all the sincere contempt in Erik's voice, it was almost as quiet. "Destroy it for all I care."

Charles smiled, too weak for bitterness. "There was a time I dreamt of little else." Carefully, he eased his grip from the chair's arms. He folded his hands in his lap instead, aware of their nervous twitch. "Hank may be able to fix it for you. I can ask him when I give him back the frame."

"Give it back?" Erik should not have sounded so surprised. It killed Charles anew that Erik would have hoped this could end any differently. "Why?"

"Because I have to." Because I don't need it. Because I never should have wanted it.

"You know nothing has to change, Charles." He sounded so earnest. "We can deal with this. You know I trust you."

Charles closed his eyes. Trust--Erik's trust. Different from any other trust in the world. "I wish I could tell you what that means to me." His hands smoothed over his legs, palms brushing the rigid outline of the frame under the fabric. He'd tried to remove it himself, but only got as far as loosening the straps around his middle. The rest he couldn't manage on his own. "But it's too great a risk. I have to keep my mind out of yours. What I'm capable of--"

"But this was working." Erik was still at the doorway, out of Charles' sight, but Charles could so plainly imagine his face from the rare fissure in his voice.

Charles sighed, one hand lifting to rub his forehead. He couldn't look at him or it would all be for nothing. He was tired beyond measure, mentally frayed. "That's precisely it. I think the only reason I was able to do it as well as I could was because I no longer had to think about it. I should always have to think about it. Your power came second-nature to me. And there's no guarantee I wouldn't bleed into other parts of you." It didn't matter what he was losing. It didn't matter how much he'd grown to love it, the cooperation, the closeness, the freedom.

"But that hasn't happened. It may never happen."

"But if it did, Erik--"

"Then we'd handle it. Then we'd scale it back, take more precautions."

Charles lifted both hands to his face, now. He shouldn't have to argue this, it should be obvious. Why did Erik have to tempt him? "I already told you--"

"That we wouldn't know it?" Erik had come no closer, but his voice was sharper. "Do you think we'd never be apart again? That you wouldn't have to sleep? Don't you think in those times of separation from you that I'd find a way to tell you if something was wrong?"

Charles shook his head. He couldn't let himself be pulled in that direction. "I don't know, Erik. I don't. But I can't let you take that risk. I won't."

Charles' conviction had always been the strongest part of him. It was true that day on the beach. It was true now, when it hurt almost as much.

But the parallel stopped there. There was danger in challenging the powerful.

The floor creaked under Erik's weight. Out of the corner of his eye, Charles saw him straighten.

"I won't let you ruin this again."

Erik's voice was so quiet it did nothing to mask the straining sound of the buckles slowly tightening up Charles' sides. Instinctively, Charles gripped at his chair, and he gasped to feel the frame closing tightly around his stomach and back where he'd loosened it. "Erik, stop."

But Erik was moving him, one foot, then the other, before Charles was bowed out of the chair and straightened. There was nothing Charles could do to resist it without breaching Erik's mind again, and he wouldn't. "Erik!"

"I could break you, Charles." The unsteadiness in his voice made his words no less true. "Like you could break me. I risk my mind, you risk this. It's fair."

Charles kept his eyes on the floor even as Erik forced him closer, one step after another. He pulled the air into his lungs as though it would put space between them when he could not. Erik's physical nearness buffeted against the barrier Charles struggled to keep intact, and the pressure escalated rapidly, too rapidly.

"It will never be fair, Erik." His voice sounded strangled, barely escaping the confines he locked himself into. "The two are unequal. The mind holds everything. The body is nothing." He steeled himself as he finally lifted his eyes from the floor--the floor he so recently couldn't even get up from--and matched the hardness of Erik's gaze. "You can't tell me otherwise."

Erik moved closer, barely a foot from him, as though he could persuade him. Charles shut his eyes again where he stood, his only defense, the pressure swelling again, the temptation clawing at the inside of his skull as Erik's ardent plea filled the scant space between them. "Take the risk with me." He could all but feel Erik's eyes on him, imploring him. "Charles, I want this. You want this."

"Of course I want this!" he spat, the pain and the indignation of his own helplessness driving the anger into his voice. He found Erik's eyes again. "'If I could walk again, would I want to?' Would I want to! Erik, how could you ask me that?"

Erik flinched, but his jaw remained tense, as though he were restraining himself from following through with his threat. He could break him. He was about to. "I couldn't ignore the possibility if it was there, Charles."

"And you told me it was my decision," Charles answered, unable to shake the hardness from his voice. "You can't force me."

Erik met the words coldly. Charles thought at first he'd been offended by the assumption that he would try. But as Erik slowly stepped back, Charles knew he was mistaken.

Everything in Erik's expression, in his posture, said that he'd drop him. Erik would let him fall, and Charles knew his mind would take flight to Erik's as involuntarily as a reflex to catch him. The walls he'd built around it were too fragile to stop it. It was what Erik wanted, and Erik could do it. Erik could force him. Worse, Erik would.

But Erik didn't.

Instead, his expression fell. He nearly staggered forward to take Charles into his embrace, though Charles couldn't return the gesture. But neither could he step back from it, and he wouldn't push him, couldn't push him away, not when Erik's hand trembled on the back of Charles' neck and his arm nearly smothered the breath in his ribs.

Erik's head rested against Charles', breath hot against his ear. His thoughts were so close to Charles' mind that he could feel them brushing, stroking, begging to be heard, and it drained the last of his strength to refuse them still.

"Why do you have to change this?" Erik asked. It was so simple, so bare. Charles had never heard him more defeated. "This was perfect."

"Oh, Erik." Charles could have wept. He could feel it behind his eyes, stinging him where he was already so raw. "This was so very far from perfect."

Erik's arms tightened, his mouth pressed against Charles' ear in the crush so that despite everything, Charles couldn't help but wrap his arms around him. Even in the gesture he felt so weak, as though Erik could be torn from him at any moment.

He couldn't give Erik what he wanted. And Charles had been the one to make him want it--not by force, or coercion, but by showing him how close they could be, closer than was possible for any other two. And though Charles couldn't push him away, he already had.

When Erik finally moved, Charles felt his kiss against his hairline. Erik's voice was steadier, but still subdued, its emotion nullified. "We're tired. We should sleep."

Charles felt his body sag against him as Erik must have eased his influence from the frame, and then he was shifted as Erik lifted him. Charles held to him, trying hard not to be reminded of the way Erik had carried him to the bed that first time, just as he was carrying him now, setting him so carefully on the mattress. Like before, Erik began to undo the frame, but this time Charles didn't stop him. It was all he could do to remain silent, to keep his sorrow buried in his chest.

Erik undressed him, enough to remove the frame, enough to make him comfortable. Some of it, Charles could have done, would have insisted on doing, but now he could hardly will himself to move.

The chair was brought closer, and the room grew darker as Erik closed the curtains behind him, shutting out the morning. When his footsteps returned from the window, they were not headed toward the other side of the bed.

"Erik?" Charles pushed himself up from the pillow enough to see his face. He needed to see his face.

Erik turned enough to look at him. "You can't rest if I'm here." His expression was blank--but soft, tired. "I'll take another room. You have enough of them."

Charles had no argument to give. It was true. He couldn't yet trust himself in his half-dreaming not to slip into Erik's mind again, no matter how much his waking self vowed against it.

In the silence, Erik turned again, heading for the door. "Sleep, Charles." He drew the door quietly shut behind him, and was gone.

Charles sank again into the pillow, willing himself to keep quiet. If there'd been anything solid within his limited reach he'd have thrown it again.

Erik's gentleness, his silence, had reminded him of more than the care he'd taken with him the first time Charles walked again.

Much as he tried to refuse the similarity, much as he knew he couldn't withstand it, it was the same care with which he'd given Charles over to Moira on the day they parted.

Charles tried to gauge where Erik was. He tried to account for the seconds that had already passed, tried to guess how far he'd be from him now. Wouldn't it be safe? Couldn't he forgive himself this final trespass, just to say it, at the very edge of their range, weak as he already was, when the distance would pull them apart again afterward?

He could feel the pillow was already wet as he pressed his face to it, opening his mind by the barest sliver to flee to Erik's again. Though it was only the slightest breath of connection, it was comfort, it was relief, it was all the warmth of being where he belonged.

Please don't leave, Erik.

Charles felt him stop. He was nearly at the top of the stairs.

I'm not leaving.

He almost heard it in his chest instead of his head, so desperate was he to believe it.

Go to sleep, Charles.

And then he was moving again, drawing their connection thinner with each step so that it finally broke, leaving Charles clutching at the bedding to keep something, anything, near him.

*

Erik felt it when he lost him, like the barb at the end of a wire being plucked from him. At this distance, it was small, but it was unmistakable, as was the aloneness that followed.

He'd taken the helmet from the sill when he'd closed the curtains. He didn't know why, and it barely hung on to his fingers as he continued down the second floor hallway. Maybe he'd need it again someday. Or maybe he didn't trust Charles to keep it. Not if he'd use it against himself.

On his way to the end of the hallway, as far as he could get from Charles while in the same house, he passed the room Charles had sent him to for the journal. It had been the day Erik first realized Charles could use him. It had been the day Erik first thought of his ability as a gift.

He tore his attention from it, from the prospect of all of Charles' old things decaying there, and took the last room next to it.

* * * * *

Erik opened his eyes reluctantly in the unfamiliar room. He could tell by the brightness of daylight outside that several hours had passed, but he didn't feel as though he'd slept, and the solid weight in his chest hadn't unraveled. That he should be denied any useful measure of rest was nothing new to him. Until Charles' bed, he never slept consistently. It didn't surprise him now that without him, without his physical presence, that sort of ritual peace again eluded him.

Not that it made any difference. He knew how to function in the depths, knew what parts of himself to shut down in order to keep moving, keep going. And this misstep with Charles was hardly the worst thing he'd been through. In the scheme of his experience it hardly signified. He'd lost something, but he hadn't lost everything. Charles had feared that Erik would leave--but despite the raw wound where Charles had been, a wound he knew would be slow to heal, leaving of his own volition was the furthest thing from his mind.

He pushed himself up from the bed and stood, straightening the bedding he hadn't bothered to pull down. He needed a shower, which he could find upstairs, but he also needed his clothes, which he'd have to retrieve from the bedroom.

The glint of daylight on the helmet caught his attention as he turned. It lay on its side, discarded near the corner of the room. Something about its angle, about the dust hanging in the sunlit air, made it seem faded, forgotten, as though years had passed since anyone had seen it or even remembered it was there.

Something to hope for, anyway.

Drawing open the door, he stepped out into the hallway and followed its long passage toward the stairs. Before he could descend them, he could hear Charles' voice, but not in his head. It drifted up from the first floor, where the door was open to the television room near the bottom of the stairs. Alex and Sean made brief responses to it. They were discussing the former students, the ones Charles and Erik had checked up on.

Charles sounded tired, but otherwise he kept up his usual front of calm and control.

He didn't notice Mystique until she was nearly at his arm. She didn't touch him--Charles was the only one who did--but he could feel her concern all the same. It didn't sit particularly well on his shoulders, but he turned his head to acknowledge her without resistance.

"Beast said he gave it back," she said. Her voice was soft enough that it didn't carry; the conversation in the room below carried on uninterrupted. "What happened?"

"Doesn't Beast tell you the whole story when he gossips?"

It was probably unfair to call it gossip. The team deserved to know if Charles' status had changed again, regardless of how Erik wished he could pretend the whole thing never happened.

"He said Charles wouldn't answer him." She studied his face. She probably knew Charles well enough to guess the sort of things he wouldn't talk about, if there was anything.

Laying a hand on the top of the railing, Erik lowered himself to sit on the top step. He waited until Mystique sat down next to him before answering, too worn down to keep secrets from her. "He worried that he'd overstepped something with me." He kept his mouth in a stiff line, his voice the same low key as hers. With anyone else, he'd have stopped there. "I've never seen him like that. Afraid of nothing. Afraid of himself."

Listening to Charles' voice below, he could hardly match its steady timbre to his memory of that morning. And on top of Charles' initial fears, Erik had fought him, shamefully almost forced him, in order to protect what he wanted. In doing so Erik had brought out his anger, and the despair that fed it, usually kept under the strictest cover.

'How could you ask me that?'

Blinking away the words, Erik noticed Mystique hadn't answered. Her eyes were set on the open doorway downstairs, her lips parted in a frown. "What is it?" he prompted.

She looked to him, but her distress cast her gaze downward almost as soon as she met his eyes. Her voice hardly reached him. "I told him he was dangerous." Her frown deepened, and she clenched one fist in the other, staring through them. "Why would I say that? Why would he listen to me?"

Erik frowned with her, but lightly. It couldn't be undone. Nothing could--no matter how close he thought they'd come. "We're all dangerous. We all exceed someone's idea of safety. You didn't tell him anything new."

She shook her head, eyes again on the doorway below. "I don't know. It's Charles."

Erik sighed, dropping his hand onto her knee and pushing himself to his feet. "It's not your fault. All right?" Taking two steps down, he looked back to be sure she listened. Her hands still held her uncertainty, but she finally nodded, and he continued down the stairs.

Though he made no sound, Charles' voice slowed to a strained stop as Erik approached the doorway, and Erik kept his pace as he passed it. It wasn't his intention to ignore him, but the discomfort of whatever Charles was working through was obvious, and Erik wouldn't cause it willingly.

Try as he might to spare him, he was only halfway down the hall to the bedroom when he sensed the movement of Charles' chair. Still, he didn't stop until Charles called his name behind him.

"I apologize if I'm not quite myself for a while," Charles offered. His voice sounded stronger, as though he were trying to prove himself, but there was sincerity in it, too. "It should only be a few days before things are back to normal. No more than that."

Erik finally turned enough to see him. Charles looked more tired than he'd sounded. Erik wondered if he looked as bad. "And what is 'normal' for us, Charles?"

Charles frowned, taken aback, but Erik wasn't trying to hurt him. 'Normal' wasn't a word he knew what to do with, especially not for this, not for the two of them. They'd been the closest friends, and bitterest enemies. They'd shared each other's dreams and crushed the same. Their trust seemed seasonal, and their pain was as common as their comfort. "Tell me, because I honestly don't know."

Bowing his head, Charles wheeled himself closer. He lifted his eyes only when he was nearly at Erik's feet. "Being together, in this house, is normal. Working together, staying together, is normal." He lifted his hand to slip it into Erik's, and Erik let him take it to his lips. "This." Charles' eyes closed as his kiss lingered, then opened to follow the line of Erik's arm up to his face again. "This is normal." Gently, he released Erik's hand, his soft expression tightening in a grimace. Reluctantly he tapped the arm of his chair with his fist, an old dependable friend that he nevertheless seemed to resent. "And this. This is normal."

Erik watched the way his fist eventually uncurled to rest without tension on his lap, then looked back up to his face, its patience striking through his weariness.

"Can you live with that," Charles asked, "as I have defined it?"

He wasn't asking him if he'd be happy, but if he could bear it. If he could return to living alongside the consequences of a mistake he regretted every time he looked at him, most especially every time Charles smiled at him, which was only more often the longer Erik was around. He'd stupidly forgotten what guilt felt like, how it gouged him, how constant it was.

"If you can," Erik answered. It was no more complicated than that.

Charles' expression softened in a sort of relief, and he nodded. He dropped his gaze as though afraid he'd show it too plainly, but his voice betrayed him fully. "Thank you."

Erik sighed quietly. "You have to stop thanking me," he said, walking away before he could add anything else.

* * * * *

For Charles, the next three days passed quietly. Alex and Sean finished with Azazel the cautionary round he and Erik had started, reporting that the final two students were as safe and hidden as the rest. At Charles' request, Hank promised to concentrate on finding other ways of acquiring the materials for rebuilding Cerebro--a less powerful model if necessary. Raven was making an effort to spend time with him, but with a humorless, upstanding kindness that, although he appreciated it, almost did more harm than good. It reminded him of the way people acted toward him the first time he'd lost his walking privileges. He supposed she hadn't got the chance the first time around.

He saw little of Erik, though he was certainly around. The large house easily swallowed those who hid in it--Charles knew that well enough from his boyhood. Though its common areas were prominent, its smaller spaces promised an endlessly varied supply of solitude, especially for those who preferred it as he knew Erik did.

So Charles didn't seek him out. Most of the time, he couldn't if he wanted to, not when the house was nearly four times larger for everyone else than it was for him. And perhaps that was for the best. Erik would come to him eventually.

Or he won't.

Charles sighed, closing his eyes and rubbing the false premonition from them with some impatience. He believed that Erik intended to stay. He tried not to question it. But intentions couldn't always be honored, and he'd grown so familiar with the mantle of Erik's mind that its sudden absence bred a paranoia that had never plagued him before.

Lowering his hand, Charles let it return to his lap. Beneath his palm was no more grid of metal, just withered and unfeeling flesh as before. And as before, he'd get used to this. It was far more difficult to think of his loss of Erik--not Erik entirely, but a part of him, a whole side of his presence beyond what could be looked at and touched. Charles hadn't dreamed he'd ever have that again.

And now he wouldn't.

It's to keep him safe. That is most important. It was unthinkable what Charles' mutation was capable of. Nothing was worth that risk, especially not his own happiness.

Hearing the creak in the hallway, Charles quickly composed himself. He turned away from the bedroom window in time to hide his preoccupation, though there was little he could have been doing there besides thinking himself sick--especially as the window had already become reflective with nightfall.

Erik stopped at the doorway, setting his shoulder to the jam. Charles was suddenly so happy to see him that in concealing it forgot to say anything at all.

Erik spoke instead. Despite his careless posture his face was lined with fatigue, his voice to match. "I've just been out to speak with Emma."

"Out?" The question was useless mimicry, but Charles was disquieted to learn that Erik had been gone without his noticing it. Was he so fixated on turning his mind away that he couldn't perceive something as elementary as whether he was there or not?

With effort, he pushed this newest anxiety aside. That would have to wait. "Has she news?"

Erik shook his head, the movement slight. His eyes were set deliberately on Charles as though he were having the same difficulty focusing. "Nothing yet. The captain's been travelling. She hasn't had access to him. But he's meeting with the Defense Secretary in a few days. He'll be back in Washington then."

"What about him, then? Does he know anything?"

Another shake of his head. "He's purposefully avoiding details."

"So he'll be blameless." Charles frowned, considering it. "I imagine it would be damaging to his position if anyone found out about this too early and knew he was aware of it all."

"That's her theory. Some may still care about its legality."

Charles sighed, lips pressed together in thought before he shook his head. "We'll have to wait for that meeting."

Erik nodded.

Charles frowned again. There was little else for them to do right now but wait, yet Charles still expected some mark of Erik's dissent. Charles' hesitance to act when the hand wasn't fully dealt usually stirred something from him, some hardness in Erik's eyes, a tightness to his jaw. Now there was nothing but his weary agreement.

Erik straightened from the door. "Good night, Charles."

"Wait," Charles called. Erik had already stepped away, but he stopped and turned back. "Sleep here, won't you?"

He tried not to sound like he was begging.

Charles hated the empty bed. Waking up alone in the middle of the night was more lonely than he could endure. It reminded him of the very real nightmare he'd only recently shaken.

Erik blinked. "If you think you can handle it."

"I believe I can," answered Charles, allowing the smile of gratitude on his face. Erik should see what it meant to him. Erik should know he made him happy, even in these, the small things, his nearness, his attention, his patience. Erik could be profoundly generous; Charles was lucky to know it.

Erik studied him, then nodded, stepping back into the bedroom and closing the door behind him. Though it was far more subdued, Erik seemed grateful, himself, and Charles wondered if he'd been sleeping at all.

Erik turned his back to undress, and Charles did the same. He heard Erik climbing into bed long before Charles could finish, but as Charles finally lined the chair up with the edge of the bed and shifted himself into it, Erik was still waiting for him, awake. Tired as he looked, he hadn't lain down to fall asleep without him. He never did.

When Charles had pulled the last of himself onto the bed, Erik attended to him, his hands gently--always gently--easing Charles' legs to straighten, working out the scant knotted muscle where he needed to.

Charles couldn't help but watch his face. No disgust, no resentment, just acceptance, if there was any expression there at all. Charles had never asked him for this. It had become routine only when Erik asked him if it would be easier if he did it for him, and when Charles hadn't lied to say it wouldn't, Erik had assumed the responsibility, hesitating only long enough to give Charles a chance to object. Charles had been too touched by the offer to answer either way, and so it went.

When he was finished, Erik leaned close to him and suddenly stopped, as though thinking twice about the gesture that had come to conclude their nights so dependably. Instead, he pressed his kiss to the corner of Charles' mouth and shifted to move away.

Charles lifted a hand to his arm to stop him. His fingers nervously kneaded at the muscle under the skin, pleading silently. He missed him. He missed the smell of him, the warmth of him.

Held there, Erik eventually drifted close again, hesitating inches away until Charles pulled himself forward to close the gap. He took Erik's mouth slowly, rushing nothing, feeling as though the few days he'd passed without him had been so much longer. He took the opportunity to remember the curve of Erik's lips, their taste, their hint of roughness.

Erik was passive. Though he stayed close, he was letting Charles lead, going no further than Charles did, though Charles eventually felt Erik's fingers in his hair, buried above the back of his neck. Erik's breath hitched when Charles ran his tongue between his lips to part them.

He felt Erik's other hand on his side, fingertips toying innocently with the nerves under his skin, triggering them intermittently along the dappled boundary between what Charles could feel and what he couldn't. It was a curious sensation, and as Charles tipped his head to deepen their kiss on its encouragement, it was an inexplicably pleasant one. In some ways he was certain Erik's touch had retrained him, remapped the surface of him to respond to his hands in ways it hadn't before and wouldn't for another. The simplest tactile attention could drag from him enough physical hunger that he could forget it was from only half of him.

And yet the craving didn't stop there, as it always had to. Given the taste of more, the basest part of him had developed a greed for what Erik's mind had allowed him to feel again, and it railed against its confines with one of the strongest, deepest instincts of the human experience on its side.

But he couldn't. He couldn't allow it. He would have to be content with what he still had. It had been enough, and it would be, again. He distracted himself with the feel of Erik's chest under his hands, the way it rose and fell with his breathing, which Charles stole now and then in the press of his kiss.

Though momentarily subdued, the desire to feel something more potent rose up again almost faster than Charles could stop it, and the hand that had kept Erik near now pushed him away.

"I'm sorry," he gasped, feeling the loss of every one of Erik's fingertips as he drew them away in response. "I'm sorry, I can't yet."

He was afraid to meet Erik's eyes, afraid of what he'd see there. But when he did there was only a sadness made rough with interrupted passion.

Erik swallowed, then turned away, and Charles feared he'd get out of bed altogether. But Erik only lay down on his side, resuming where he'd left off.

Watching him, Charles eased himself down behind him, resting himself on his side to face his back. He couldn't help raising his hand to Erik's side, and when Erik lifted his arm to close his hand on Charles' wrist, he expected him to remove it. Instead, he brought it down in front of him so that Charles' hand was against his chest.

When he shifted again, the bed shaking under his efforts, it took Charles a moment to realize Erik had reached down to arrange the rest of Charles' body closer against him. Charles wouldn't feel the contact, but Erik would.

He closed his fist against Erik's chest with the well of tension that coursed through him, the bridge of his nose pressed against the back of Erik's neck. Charles couldn't say his Good night; uncharacteristically, Erik didn't either.

* * *

As expected, Charles woke up again in the middle of the night. But unlike the nights most recently passed, he barely minded it. Erik's warmth was an immediate reminder that Charles wasn't alone. He almost appreciated the added opportunity to enjoy his presence, even if the spasm in his leg was twisting the rest of him uncomfortably.

Erik had rolled to his back in the night. His arm was under Charles where he could only have put it purposefully. Not wishing to disturb him, Charles pushed himself up to put some room between them.

Like a sprung trap, Erik's arm tensed, and Charles was pulled down against his side again. "Erik," he chided, pushing back against it, but it was no use.

"Don't," Erik mumbled back. He was still asleep.

The spasm was already winding down. Charles watched Erik with a helpless well of feeling, trying to rein himself in even in the dark where no one could see his face.

When he could lie still again, he shifted off of his shoulder and settled against Erik's side. The vise of Erik's arm wouldn't let him reach the pillow, so he rested his head on Erik's chest instead.

Closing his eyes, he listened as Erik's heartbeat thrummed steadily beneath him. If Charles could no longer know his mind, he would at least know this.

* * *

The sky was lighter than usual when Erik woke.

At this hour he'd normally have been up and dressed. He'd be pounding the grounds, pushing his limits, allowing his body no lenience or excessive rest. Erik kept himself physically ready for the worst. He knew no other way.

But today the sun was about to rise over both of them, Charles' head resting on Erik's shoulder instead of his pillow, and Erik's arm gone numb beneath him. Though Erik was restless, he kept still. Something called him to witness this. Something warned him to take notice.

They'd weathered something, hadn't they?

What could have happened, this time, did not. Erik, his sense of belonging threatened, might have gone. Charles, reminded of Erik's volatile nature, might have ordered their parting. But Charles was still there at this side, and Erik was still there in his bed.

It was pain, either way. But Erik's entire life consisted of choosing one pain over another, and this choice, if it was one, was barely conscious. He chose Charles. He chose to feel the guilt of injuring him. He chose to feel the fear of losing Charles' favor. He chose to endure the solitude of Charles' mental silence, and the frustration of Charles' decision to cut them apart. This was pain he chose to feel.

Against him, Charles stirred. Erik withdrew his hand from his hair where he found he'd buried it, and Charles lifted his head, gave him a bleary smile, and rolled away to his back in the large bed.

"Don't let me keep you," Charles said, sleep-slurred, and as Erik freed his arm he saw Charles was still watching him from his pillow, still smiling, though roughly fifteen seconds away from being sound asleep again.

Before those fifteen seconds were lost, Erik slipped close again and kissed him. Charles' fingers fell light along his jaw, gentle in a way Erik trusted, but only from Charles.

As he withdrew, Erik straightened the bedding behind him, effectively tucking Charles in. "You're lazy," he said.

Charles eyes were closed, but the corners of his mouth were still lightly upturned. "It's important to have at least one fault."

Erik snorted, not without affection.

Chapter Text

It was the way Hank said it that kept Charles cautious. "What do you mean, 'Angel's been found?' Haven't we been hoping to locate her?" He frowned more deeply. "Hank, is she all right?"

Hank came further into the library, though he didn't sit. Sean trailed in after him. "We don't know. It wasn't us who found her. Thomas caught an unencrypted radio transmission that mentions her location outside Philadelphia. She's being watched."

"Whose transmission?" He looked between them, trying to predict how much information they had. "Do you think it's part of the government's initiative?"

"Or anyone with the time, the money, and the motive," Hank admitted. "But that's what it sounded like. I think the man they have investigating things is there. That would explain why he's been away from Washington."

Charles steepled his fingers, closing his eyes briefly. He had hoped it would take these people longer to find mutants to start tracking--if that was even all they were up to. Wouldn't it be so much easier to study a mutant in captivity? "Hank, make sure everyone's body armor is ready, will you? And Sean, go find Alex and Raven and wait for me, all of you, in the television room." He glanced to the clock on the mantle. Almost nine. "Erik should be back shortly. I'm going to go meet him to be sure we don't lose Azazel."

The two nodded and disbanded to their tasks. Charles wheeled out of the room after them, but headed instead down the hall toward the foyer. It was possible he was overreacting, but that avenue was far safer, and he'd rather follow it than underestimate the situation. He'd apparently already done that well enough.

He hastened to the pressurized sound of air as it was displaced further ahead of him. They were early. "Erik!" he called, the foyer still out of sight, "is Azazel with you?"

"And Emma," Erik called back, though quieter, as he'd stepped from the foyer to the hall to find him. "What's wrong?"

Charles glanced to the other two to acknowledge them as they came into view, stopping his chair as they met. "We've found where Angel is, for the moment, but we're not the first to do so. We think she's been under watch."

"The captain," guessed Emma, looking to Erik. "I couldn't locate him."

"He would have left in secret," Charles said to her. "No one's mind could have informed you. He's due back in Washington tomorrow for that meeting, but--"

"But he's probably gathering something to show for himself," finished Erik, and Charles sighed. He turned his chair to start for the others.

"That's what I fear."

He led them into the television room. Raven followed in after Azazel, then Alex with Sean; Hank slipped in last, his task furthest away. Charles used the short minute to consider his proposal for a course of action.

He turned to address them, meeting each of their eyes in turn as he spoke. For the most part he commanded their attention: Emma looked aloof, but she'd never challenged him. Azazel was simply waiting.

"Tonight our priority is getting Angel to safety. Her whereabouts have been discovered by what is probably an anti-mutant investigative team. We don't know what their full intentions are at this stage, but even collecting information is dangerous enough when it comes to us.

"Sean, I want you to go with Azazel and Emma." He found her eyes again, to be certain she was willing to comply. "Emma will be able to locate Angel exactly once you arrive. Do not engage with the investigators, if they're close by, just focus on her. Take her somewhere different. She is of course welcome here but the destination is ultimately her decision."

Emma nodded, almost imperceptibly.

Charles shifted his gaze, pursing his lips. His voice was light. "And Hank, I want you to go with them. Physically, you have the advantage among us. It may prove necessary. If there is an issue, Emma is capable of concealing you."

Hank looked distinctly uncomfortable: even Philadelphia's outer boroughs were full of people. But he kept quiet. Charles hoped Hank trusted him; more importantly, Charles hoped Hank could trust Emma.

"All right. You four, be ready in ten minutes in the foyer."

Though Azazel and Emma always seemed prepared for anything in whatever they were currently wearing, the dismissal was obvious enough that they turned and led Sean and Hank from the room. Charles then turned his chair to face the remaining three, his voice lower, though there was no secret.

"I want to know who else is on that man's list," he said. He tapped at the arm of his chair thoughtfully, perhaps anxiously. "If he really is there. There may be others in need of our help. We need to know how successful he's been in his pursuit, and I want to know before that meeting tomorrow."

He glanced between Raven, who looked sharply ready for the task, and Alex, who seemed to understand, and appreciate, Charles' concession not to send him to Angel's aid. "I want the two of you to go with Erik. Try to find where they're basing this leg of their operation; it's probably very near to where Emma finds Angel. See what's in his file, but for God's sake abandon it if you can't do so safely." He paused, watching them each that they took that last part seriously.

"If there's trouble finding them," he finally added, "watch where the others run to when they see Angel's been whisked away, but by then you won't have much time."

"Got it," said Alex. Though Raven was silent, her body language conveyed her confidence, almost eagerness.

"Ten minutes, foyer," repeated Charles, and Alex followed Raven out.

That left him with Erik, who hadn't spoken. Nor had Charles even looked at him this entire time, because he knew, he knew--

"Charles, come with us."

Charles winced. It was so much gentler than he'd been expecting it: so much harder to hear. So much harder to play stupid, though he tried. "The chair, Erik. I can't."

"Then leave it." Erik came around so that it would be harder for Charles to avoid looking at him. Charles didn't have the will to escape him, or what he was saying. "You know how much safer and faster this will be with your help."

"Then Emma," he said, a reflex. "Take Emma instead." But even as he said it--

"The other team needs her. You said Angel was the priority."

Erik's voice was still so steady. He wasn't badgering him, he wasn't berating him, or pressuring him. He was being practical. Stating facts.

Persuading him.

"We can't go back to that," Charles fought, quietly.

He could feel Erik's eyes on him. Erik gave him his silence, but only for a moment before he reminded Charles of reason.

"If this had happened a week ago, there'd be no question. It's only been a few days. You're not gaining anything by refusing."

Hands gripping the arms of his chair, Charles shut his eyes. If it had been a month that had passed, or three weeks, or even two, he knew Erik wouldn't ask him. He wouldn't ask him to repeat his efforts to recover, everything Charles had done to make it safe to be with him again.

But one week? Hardly six days, at that. Was it worth it? Was it worth putting Erik and Raven and Alex at greater risk just to avoid reliving those six days of difficulty, to avoid putting Erik through a few more hours of subjugation? The timing of it shifted the line between the justified and the recklessly stubborn.

"One last time, Charles." Erik sounded close, like he'd crouched down in front of him. "And then it's done, for good. We'll find other ways for you to join us. But for now, use what we have."

Charles finally opened his eyes, finding Erik just where he expected him. Where had that softness in Erik's expression come from? It never used to be there. Erik used to provoke him; now he implored him.

Releasing the arms of the chair, he couldn't help brushing back the hair at Erik's temple. But he couldn't allow himself to linger. His hands dropped to the rims of the wheels to turn them. "We have to hurry."

* * *

Erik trailed closely after him down the hall, unable to put his steps before the chair or even alongside it. Despite his continuing disappointment that their arrangement had been so short-lived, he hadn't wanted to drag Charles through this again. He was relieved that Charles had submitted to the logic of it, but this wasn't what he wanted. He kept behind him because he would not lead Charles in this. He kept behind him because he probably always would. He couldn't say when he'd accepted this state of surrender, but it was apparent now that he had.

At the lab, Charles wheeled himself in without hesitation, stopping alongside the examining table. "He put it in that cabinet there," he said, and his voice was without emotion: more like Erik's, less like his own.

Following suit, Erik strode without feeling to the cabinet he'd pointed to. The frame was a pile of folded steel at the bottom, irreverently stored now that it had no use. Erik was not sentimental, but he took it up carefully, letting gravity straighten it out as he removed it like Beast had done the first time Erik saw it.

Spurring himself, he left the cabinet, bringing the frame back to Charles and setting it with a deliberate clatter on the counter.

"There's no time for dignity," said Charles. "Just put me on the table."

Ignoring the flatness in his voice, Erik bent, one arm behind Charles' back, the other under his knees, to lift him, turning to set him on the table. Charles kept his eyes elsewhere; Erik simply couldn't, even as he had to undress him--no time for dignity--like Charles deserved no more consideration than a cadaver on the slab.

Erik shut out the image and turned to take the frame from the counter. He'd helped Charles into it enough times that he knew the best order, the best method, but even with the added deftness of his ability there were limitations to how smoothly a living body could be strapped into such a thing. Charles hadn't looked away from the ceiling, and the tense quiet was marked only by the creak of metal, the strain of leather, the contact of skin on skin.

It was all wrong. If there had to be a last time, Erik didn't want it to be this way. Rushed, impersonal--

"Quickly," Charles pressed.

--insignificant.

Jaw clenched, Erik pulled the last leg strap taut, avoiding the pinch of Charles' skin. "I'm trying to be careful."

"Erik, there's no need."

Erik's movement halted as though something in him had stopped working.

No need.

"Erik?"

I am always careful with you.

It doesn't matter if--

"Erik, we don't have time--"

Erik reached down, forcing his arm under Charles' back to lift his hips, pulling the back plate straight to align it with the front. Dropping him, he pulled the straps at his sides tight enough to make him wheeze.

"I can feel that," Charles grated, coughing.

"Good," Erik muttered, taking Charles' clothes and pushing, pulling, forcing Charles back into them. When he finished, Erik took him by the arms to drag him to sit upright, Charles' legs swinging heavily down from the table at the knees, and when he pulled away from the table he nearly took Charles with him, surprised to find Charles' hands gripping his shoulders to hold him.

Trapped, he stood still, eyes on Charles' shirt.

"Erik, I'm sorry," said Charles. His hands tightened on Erik's shoulders. "All right? I'm sorry."

Eyes still lowered, Erik shook his head, then waved it off, inwardly withdrawing from it though he couldn't step away.

Charles granted him his silence, at last ceasing to rush them. He sighed, and his hands slowly moved along Erik's shoulders to his neck. His fingers eventually slipped into his hair, gently cupping the back of his head, the curve of his skull, and all it contained. Erik finally looked up, into Charles' eyes.

One last time.

"May I?" Charles murmured.

Erik's breath caught. "Yes." Yes, yes, always--

This close, in the bright lights of the lab, Erik could see the way his eyes changed when he did it: the slight contraction of the blue as Erik felt him slipping in. Charles groaned, hardly a sound at all before he silenced himself, but his fingers pressing into Erik's scalp and the way his eyes weighed themselves slowly shut before him conveyed the rest.

If it was so hard for Charles to stay out, what must it feel like to come back in?

Erik slowly stepped back, drawing Charles with him. His hands gripped his waist to support him as his legs straightened to the floor and held his weight. Charles' eyes were still closed, the corners of his mouth drawn delicately down.

"Charles?" Erik lifted his hand from Charles' side to slip it to the back of his neck. "Come on."

Charles' eyes opened, clear but miserable. "I thought it might be different." Gently, his touch wandering as it traveled off, Charles released him.

Reluctantly, Erik stepped away, to another cabinet, drawing out an armored vest that had never been worn.

"What might be different?" he responded, though he suspected it already. He returned and eased Charles' jacket from his shoulders, taking it from him to lower the vest over his head. Erik tightened the straps at his sides. Charles hardly seemed to notice.

"I thought it might be like when we first started. When I still had control."

Erik studied his face, shrugging him back into the jacket. "Isn't it?"

Charles turned to the door, duty drawing him forward. He shook his head as he began to walk toward it, almost drifting. Natural, unencumbered.

"It's a hook that cannot be drawn out same as it went in," he said, his voice soft, as smooth as his movement. "It must be cut and I cannot do it. It's the same. It's the very same."

At the door, he stopped, as though remembering his surroundings again and the task they now prepared for. He had a hand on the hard shell of the vest at his stomach. "Where is yours?"

"That is mine," said Erik, joining him and pressing him to continue walking. Their moment was over; it had already taken too long. It was nothing Erik could remember with any fondness.

"I won't take it from you," Charles protested in the hall, but Erik stopped him from removing his jacket to get to it and kept walking.

"No time, Charles," he reminded him. It was absurd for Erik to be the one to wear it. Either Charles did or neither did.

Charles glowered, but he finally straightened his jacket over it again as they arrived at the foyer where the others were waiting.

"Are you coming with us?" asked Mystique, and Erik willed her not to get her hopes up. He remembered how she'd felt responsible.

"This time," Charles answered, and Erik didn't think he saw the way her face fell. "We all set out together and split up once we're there. I will need to be with Erik. Hank, have you given Azazel the location, as best we have it?"

Beast nodded. Azazel lifted his head to add that he'd tested the area while they'd waited. "I can take you directly there."

"You're fantastic, Azazel," said Charles, his gratitude apparent. "If we're all ready, let's not delay any further."

At his prompt, Erik stepped to clasp Azazel's hand, catching Charles' glance as Erik reached for him with his other. Was it wrong to enjoy this while it lasted? Charles finally coming along?

"Wait," Beast interjected, "shouldn't someone stay to watch the house?"

"If this house is found and invaded," Charles answered him, "better no one is here alone when it is."

"You always stay behind alone, Professor," countered Havok, taking up his place in the chain as Beast finally did.

Erik watched Charles' mouth curl too short of a smile.

"I'm different."

* * *

The night air was still when Charles' stomach perceived they were on solid ground again. Azazel had placed them in the darkness of an unused parking lot far from the lights of the street. The asphalt was cracked and uneven from disrepair beneath him, but Charles found his balance quickly, not allowing himself to come to fault, not now.

He released Azazel's hand to face them. The two teams stepped apart naturally, ready to go their separate ways.

"Try to remain unidentified," he warned, "faceless if you can manage it. And withdraw if the situation puts you in undue peril. Your safety is paramount."

"Charles and I will attempt to notify each other's teams if assistance is required," added Emma, canting her head at him, her eyes then shifting to Erik. "Though I doubt it will be."

Charles nodded, catching the almost secretive smirk with which Erik responded to her, but understanding it enough to let it be. "Let's hope you're right. We meet back here; whichever group returns first will attempt to contact the other through their telepath. If there's no answer, we come to the other's aid. Is everyone clear?"

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Emma already scanning the area as he spoke. She pointed out a building to Azazel, who found the line of its roof above the houses further down the street and nodded. When her gaze shifted back to Charles, he received the sharply angled impression of another building, about ten stories of apartments that had seen better days. Got it?

Around the edges of the image he could sense a little of the mind she had taken it from: one of the men hired to watch, report, and be hidden. He was indeed one of the captain's men. And if he was there toward Angel's location watching her, then the man's sense of orientation placed the captain--

"There," said Charles, pointing to a building matching the image just down and over, tall enough to be visible. Not far. "That's where we'll be. Thank you, Emma. We'll go on foot: Azazel, you're free to stay with them."

Charles had always got the impression that Azazel's methods weren't Hank's preferred method of travel, but this time Hank looked distinctly grateful not to have to walk a city street, even alongside Emma Frost's mastery of illusions. Sean appeared stalwart, ready for everything, prepared for less as he nodded confidently at Charles.

"Meet back here," Charles repeated. "Be careful, and good luck."

The other team disappeared in a trailing line, air rushing to fill the void. In their absence, Raven and Alex turned expectantly.

It wasn't until Erik's hand tightened around his and released it that Charles realized he'd never let go of him. As Erik turned to begin walking, direct and purposeful, Charles stumbled a few steps to catch up to him. "You could have said something," he said, hushed.

"Yes," answered Erik. "I could have." Though his pace didn't slow, the cold determination in Erik's expression gave way to something a little less deadly when he turned his eyes on Charles.

"Excuse us while we go vomit in the bushes," muttered Raven from behind them, beside Alex.

Charles managed to frown back at her without tripping, but the familiarity of her teasing expression eased his defensiveness.

Erik simply kept walking.

"Don't choke."

* * *

Raven's humor might have softened the tension, but by the time they'd made their way to the doors of the building it was back in place, keeping them hushed and focused. Sensing no one in the lower hallway, Charles drew open the door and led them inside. The size of the structure was substantial, but it was far from full occupancy. Lifting his gaze toward the floors above, he skimmed through the thoughts of every mind he came across, listening, initially, for any familiarity with Angel's name.

He kept the stream at a tight clip, never reaching any further than he had to, until a group of men fit his test, all in close quarters. He tapped into their visual cortices to plot their physical arrangement in the room and noted the one they were all listening to, the one who held himself like their leader.

"He's definitely here," he confirmed, bringing his attention down again. "Seventh floor." He would have to get closer to reach any more deeply. There was too much interference between them, and he had to be sure.

"Raven, you'll be our primary defense in case any of their men in the field decide to return." He turned to her, trying to keep the overbearing brotherly tone out of his voice, but some of it was unavoidable. He was still telling her what to do. "Try to keep them occupied, all right? Anyone who looks the type."

She nodded. "Show me what the captain looks like."

Charles stopped mid-turn to Alex, frowning lightly.

"It's the best way to stall them," she added.

"Yes," he agreed, "but--"

"It's fine," she said. "Show me."

He could only take her word for it. Lifting his fingers to his temple, he touched her mind as he'd always bound himself not to do and offered the man's likeness to her as he saw and heard it. He wondered how often she'd done this with Emma, that she suggested it so easily.

When she assented that she had what she needed, he withdrew. "Alex, you'll be her backup if things go wrong. How's your control at close range?"

Alex shifted, though to his credit his gaze remained steady. "Better."

Charles kept his expression even. "Right."

To his side, Erik shifted toward the elevator, and Charles moved to follow. "Let us know if we need to evacuate the building," he added, quickly. "Push them outside first if you have to."

"You got it," mumbled Alex, and Charles caught one last confident look from Raven before she didn't look like Raven anymore.

Catching up to him, Charles joined Erik in the elevator, pressing the floor's button to signal the close of the doors. Though he trusted them, it was only natural to hope no one came their way at all. For Angel, so far he assumed the best. There was no word from Emma to suggest otherwise.

As the elevator began to rise, he let himself study Erik's face, badly reflected as it was in the metallic surface of the doors. Erik's eyes were already on him.

"You're all right?" he asked. Quiet, simple.

"Hardly thinking about it, actually." Charles smiled lightly, in the spirit of the question, but the subconscious nature of it continued to alarm him. It only confirmed that he was right to end it. His brain considered the use of Erik's to be a reflex. By the very nature of it it was uncontrolled.

Lapsing back into this had turned out to be unnecessary, anyway. Charles couldn't help but notice, as the doors opened to the seventh floor, that he could have made it here in his chair.

Exiting into the hall, he'd gone a few steps toward the door number he'd acquired when Erik brushed his arm. His expression when Charles looked to him, coupled with his silence, told Charles to expand his residency in Erik's mind to hear the words he was thinking.

Nothing aloud, Erik directed, and Charles nodded.

There was little movement in the apartment as they came upon it. Charles indicated it with a gesture, but passed the door that opened to the main room to continue down the hall until he was alongside the kitchen. He set his hand to the wall to hold himself better still.

Erik's thought was rough with the promise of violence, though for now it was purely defensive. How many?

Five altogether, Charles answered, the words accompanied by his perception of their placement, four seated around the table, one standing. They don't seem to be going anywhere soon. He rifled back through their minds to the captain's again and shifted his stance, planting himself more firmly to free up his concentration. Let me find out what I can.

He felt Erik move a few silent steps closer to him, his protectiveness palpable while Charles' mind was so open to him, but this he reduced as well. It would be unkind to subject him, even third-hand, to the rapid fire of another's thoughts, especially the way Charles was about to experience them.

Though he still listened for Erik, he focused the rest of his faculties onto the man seated perhaps six feet from him, on the other side of a wall that did nothing to separate them. Reading the surface--what he was currently thinking, saying, feeling--was easy enough. The room was warm; he felt hungry; he was preoccupied with traveling; he didn't trust the sod sitting across from him because he was too quiet.

Accessing the knowledge he wasn't actively using took a little more finesse. The brain was organic, its contents physically coded by chemicals and neural connections, and the arrangement was unpredictable beyond the larger regions. The information he was searching for was a page in an untitled book in an unordered library. The best he could do was stumble on something related, then follow the strings until he found what he really wanted.

Luckily, the man's grudges were not buried very deep. A single negative emotion gave rise to others: resentment, jealousy, fear, all threaded back to a single source of blame the way that only the obsessed can reduce all emotion to a single culprit. For this man it was the mutant, the unwelcome, the abnormal.

A telephone rang in another apartment; the sound of it reminded the captain of calls he was waiting for, calls from all over the country. There were others under his watch, other names and faces that Charles caught and followed to where they were coded, connected there to everything the man remembered of each of them.

Charles' hand curled on his side of the wall. He briefly noticed the cracked plaster in front of him before it was gone again, replaced. Erik's mind said something to his, an expression of concern, not warning, and Charles shook his head.

It all unfurled for him, one to the next, almost too quickly to process, but Charles could. What he recognized there in the maelstrom should not have made a difference.

Charles?

But it changed everything.

Chapter Text

Erik was nearly at his side when Charles suddenly pushed himself from the wall and turned to him. His eyes seemed unfocused, but only for an instant before their clarity returned like a thrown switch.

Can you unlock that door?

Erik frowned. Charles hadn't told him what he'd found, yet. All the same, they both had a long way to go before they crossed any line of Erik's. He stepped away toward the door, gesturing toward its lower corner and glancing back to confirm that Charles saw. There's an alarm.

Can you prevent us from tripping it?

Where are they now?

Kitchen. The word was accompanied with the image of its closed door. I need to see the file. It's in the main room.

Erik nodded, then sank to his knee at the entrance, hand extended toward the bits of magnet and metal he could feel on the other side of the door. It felt like a simple closed circuit: if he kept it closed by holding it there when the magnet on the door was drawn away, the alarm wouldn't sound.

He slipped the bolt and twisted the knob as quietly as he could. The door eased open to silence. After you.

Charles passed him to enter. Erik followed, shutting the door and releasing his hold on the alarm. Voices filtered through the kitchen door, but they were slow and unagitated. If anything was coming through there, it wouldn't be sudden. Besides, Charles would be the first to know.

Charles was already on the other side of the small room. He'd slipped a bundle of paper out from underneath a pile of several others and was staring down at its pages. Now and again he slowly flipped through, but the pages fell again to the one he was holding.

It's all here.

As Erik moved noiselessly through the room toward him, Charles finally looked up, not at him, but at the door. Erik stopped to look at it, too, but there was no movement he could hear, and the voices indicated no motivation to depart. He looked back to Charles as he closed the space between them. Show me.

Charles let the file close and gave it over to him. As Erik took it and began to leaf through it, Charles stepped around him.

There were some fifty names in the file. Under each was a list of information prompts: age, address, affiliation, employment, education, abilities, relations. Most were well filled out, many had dates suggesting multiple visitations. A few had sequential addresses as though they'd been carefully followed from one to the next.

And if there was any doubt as to the reason the file even existed, it was laid to fitful rest by the recommended handling of each mutant at the bottom of each page he flipped:

'Poor daytime vision, approach only in bright light.'

'Fast runner, subject best cornered first.'

'Sensitive to sound, easily crippled by auditory assault.'

'Weak skeletal structure, subdue through blunt trauma.'

'Commands metal--'

His eyes flicked up to the name at the top of the page before returning, considerably darker.

'--no extraordinary defense against other materials. Carbon fibre in development.'

Slowly he paged back, nearly to the beginning.

'Shapeshifter. Weakest when shapeshifted, reveals true form under stress. Subject to all physical human vulnerabilities.'

Erik closed the file. Charles was standing at the kitchen door, his hand against its frame. He turned his face from it, toward Erik, but only barely.

This is much worse than I thought.

For a moment, Erik was quiet. He tried to appreciate that Charles was actually surprised by this--that Charles hadn't expected the thoroughness, the assured hostility. But much as it jarred Erik to see it all so plainly stated, Erik had known this was inevitable. Anonymity was their primary defense, and yet it was impossible to protect. It fell at the slightest tap, and could not be made whole again.

File in hand, Erik finally paced closer. What do you want to do?

Charles didn't seem to hear him, or perhaps he simply didn't know. It's too soon for this. If we just had more time. We'd have done it right.

But there was no time for politicians, for public support, now. We can take this, Erik advised, lifting the file. Charles had closed his eyes, his forehead resting against the door. Would they hear him on the other side? Clear their memories. You've done it before.

It won't be enough.

Erik lowered the file, his eyes suddenly attuned to Charles' posture, to the tension in his mouth. His words had delivered his fear more purely than if they'd been spoken, and it wasn't a fear of what the men in the kitchen might do.

It won't be enough, he repeated, the thought somehow quieter in its resignation. Erik heard the muffled sound of bodies slumping to their nearest surface just before Charles' hand moved to the door knob. He twisted it, and let the door to the kitchen drift open.

Charles?

Charles barely waited a beat before he stepped past the door frame and out of view.

Erik leapt forward, though he already knew there was no need. As he reached the threshold he could see that the men inside were unconscious. No struggle, no fight. No chance. Charles had taken an empty seat at the table. He was staring blankly down at the man across from him.

Tell me what you're doing, Erik urged. I'll help you.

Charles' brow furrowed, lips parting as he broke their silence with the voice of reverent horror. "If we take the information, they'll only gather it again. And they'll make it harder to take next time."

Erik stepped into the room, over the body of the man nearest the door as Charles must have done. It was surreal, the utter calm, Charles looking about to suffocate beneath it. It seemed as though he'd realized something, something Erik couldn't guess.

"And if not him, it'll be someone else," Charles went on. "He'll be replaced. It'll always be someone."

Erik moved closer, boots scraping the worn linoleum. Across from them, unconscious on a table, was a man who not only would not hesitate to harm them, but was writing the book on how, and who, and why. "What do you want me to do?"

Charles turned his head, but only just. He drew his breath, and hesitated to speak before he forced it from himself, his voice soft, but not weak. "Take that file to Alex. Tell him to destroy it, but leave evidence. Let them think it's all we came for."

Havok was all the way on the ground floor. "That's too far away."

"I will call for you when I'm ready. You won't be too far for that."

"I'm not going to leave you helpless--"

Charles finally turned his eyes on him, and the words died in Erik's throat, though they should have died one sooner. Charles said nothing, and sent him no thought, but it was clear in the sudden bitterness of his gaze. 'Look around you.'

Erik could only suffer it so long. Reluctantly, he finally drew away, his eyes on Charles until he had to turn for the door, stepping over the body on the floor again as he did.

Help Raven while you're down there, Charles thought to him, and Erik left.

On the ground floor, a man was too busy arguing with Mystique's disguise to notice the elevator's arrival, or its occupant. Erik took three measured steps toward him before transferring the file to his left hand and throwing his right fist into the man's jaw.

He crumpled to the ground between them. Havok, who'd been watching under the guise of indifference from further down the hall, straightened from the wall as though surprised.

Mystique looked unimpressed, even as she shifted to her blonde form. "We would have done that if we didn't think--" She noticed the emptiness behind Erik. "Where's Charles?"

"Upstairs," he answered, passing her to approach Havok instead. He handed him the file. "He wants you to destroy this."

Mystique followed him. "You left him there?"

"I did as he asked." Havok had taken the file from him with uncertainty, and Erik focused on him instead. "Leave some pieces for evidence."

She didn't let it rest. Erik wouldn't have, either. "Who cares what he asked? Christ, Erik, he can't--"

"They have nothing to fight him with." Erik finally turned to look at her. Considering what she had revealed to him, she should understand that.

When she said nothing further, he looked back to Havok. "Take that outside. Make sure what you leave behind isn't readable. Then both of you get back to the rendezvous. Be ready in case Emma's team requests help."

Havok looked similarly hesitant to move any further from the scene, but he didn't share Mystique's willingness to oppose him.

For the moment, neither did Mystique. She finally turned away, striking Havok lightly on the arm to prompt the same from him. "Come on, do your thing."

Havok took a few backward steps, file in hand, before he also turned. Erik followed them down the hall until he could see them safely leave, listening for any scuffle outside the doors. Hearing none, he returned to the hall and leaned back against the wall to wait.

For what, he couldn't be sure. He only listened for Charles' voice, straining to hear it.

It wasn't long. The man lying on the floor hadn't even come to before Erik heard Charles' summons in his mind. Erik passed the motionless body in the hall and took the elevator up. On the seventh floor he strode to the apartment door and opened it, keeping the alarm circuit closed as he'd done before.

He found Charles already in the doorway of the kitchen. He'd have been able to stand up from the table while Erik was still en route, and he didn't pause now as he hardly met Erik's eyes and left the apartment, stepping around Erik and through the door he still held open.

Erik followed in silence, though it was difficult to maintain. Resetting the alarm, he locked the door behind them and kept behind Charles in the hall until Charles stopped and took Erik's arm to bring him alongside him. For a few steps, Charles' weight grew heavy on his shoulder, as though he needed Erik to support him. But before they reached the elevator Charles had released him. They stepped into it separately.

Charles turned to face the closing doors, but stood there, frighteningly vacant, until Erik reached forward to press the button. They were passing the fifth floor when Erik finally spoke, unable to hold it any longer.

"What did you do?"

Fourth floor. Third floor. Second floor. Erik watched him, and Charles watched their reflection in the doors.

Erik wouldn't ask again. If Charles didn't want to tell him, it was strangely gutting, but Erik was well acquainted with the necessity of secrets. He could never blame someone for keeping them, not even Charles, and not even from him.

"Schizophrenia."

Erik looked up at him, not understanding, but other than the slight wideness in his eyes, Charles' face was still blank. The tone sounded for the ground floor, but Erik lifted his hand to hold the doors from opening. He turned now to face him, though Charles' eyes remained focused ahead of him.

"Mild," Charles added. "Mild schizophrenia." His words were uncharacteristically stilted, pushed from him by his suddenly shallow breath. "He will see things, and hear things, that will make it into the file when he recreates it, when he expands on it. But the condition will be slight. No one will notice. Not even him. No one should realize for years that the data he collects cannot be trusted."

Erik watched him, now envisioning his intentions clearly. "Even if most of it is valid," Erik considered, to himself, "they'll have to count the whole work as unreliable." It was clever. It would probably work. "And they won't know to replace him until they've already wasted years on it."

Charles nodded, his face beginning to show signs of his devastation. "It buys us time. We just need more time."

Erik stepped to him, threading his arms around him, wishing he could feel more than the hard shell of Charles' vest. Not even his warmth seemed to penetrate it. "You solved a problem that needed solving. That's all it was."

Charles still didn't turn. He didn't move at all until Erik felt his hand pat his elbow as though, for once, it was Charles who had difficulty returning kindness. "We should go. They're waiting."

Erik remained there in their isolation for as long as he felt he was allowed before he finally let the doors open. He released Charles to walk with him down the hall, both passing the unconscious man without mention.

"You've heard from Emma?" Erik asked. They left the building and returned to the street. Erik noticed the pile of ashes on some charred dirt near the door, page corners visibly littering the ground, intact.

"No one was hurt," Charles answered, flatly. "Angel was frightened, but unharmed. She and her necessities have been moved to a new city, on her request."

Erik wasn't surprised. She had been adamant about not coming back with him to face the others. With Erik and Mystique it had been different: they were all guilty of joining the opposition, if it warranted guilt at all, but Banshee and Havok and Beast were not.

"That's a shame," he said, anyway, knowing Charles felt that it was.

But Charles was again silent. And he remained silent all the way back to the rendezvous, silent as the teams met again in the dark and broken lot.

They naturally looked to Charles for his leadership, but Erik stepped in to force his instead, drawing their attention away. "We've accomplished what we came for, both counts," he said. "Now we go home."

He began the chain with Azazel. The others began to step in to follow suit, and for the most part their eyes were off of Charles, whom Erik shielded with the subtlety of a wolverine. Emma alone was not fooled. Though Charles did not see, she was watching him with the faintest smile.

Erik's eyes settled on her. If he hadn't expected Charles to notice, he would have been at her throat.

She caught his glare, looking disappointed in his suspicion. He's actually blocking me for once, she informed him, patiently.

The chain was completed, and Erik braced himself for dissolution with Emma's voice still in his head.

And there's only one reason he would do that.

* * *

At the mansion it didn't take much for Erik to convince Charles to retire for the night. He went without protest, withdrawing down the hall, while Erik took the rest of them into the television room. There was usually some sort of discussion after every coordinated outing. If it was skipped entirely, the wrong kind of questions would eventually arise.

Erik sat down on the arm of the couch once the rest were settled. Briefly he acknowledged Charles' absence--they all knew his physical limitations. He smoothly moved on to interrogating them about Angel: how close the humans had got to her, what they seemed prepared to do to her, what technologies they were using, for defense or offense. Did Angel still have their emergency number? Then why hadn't she used it?

He was listening with only half an ear. This mattered, but Charles mattered more. Erik heard nothing from him, but still his attention was irreparably divided.

In addition to what could be learned about the humans through this conflict, he was also mildly interested in Angel's well-being, and was satisfied with what they told him of that.

He rose, hearing all he needed to, but Banshee stopped him. "What about the list this guy was making?"

Erik glanced to Havok. "Destroyed. And he won't remember what was in it."

"Won't he just start over again?" Banshee pressed, though he glanced to the others, hoping the question was not his alone.

"Of course," Erik answered, drawing their eyes onto him instead with his tone. Charles may have gone the extra length to ensure the humans' failure, but Banshee and the rest wouldn't learn about that from Erik. "This will never be over. And we'll keep doing what we have to."

As he'd assumed, no one wanted to arouse Erik's darker tendencies, so no one said anything further--not even Emma or Azazel, who for once seemed in no hurry to leave.

"You all did well," he told them. "I'm going to bed. Don't bother me."

Turning, Erik left the room. Down the right corridor was the bedroom, but down the left was the lab, where the chair was. Charles was going to need it.

But it was too far out of range. Sighing, Erik turned back to the room and called Beast out to join him. Despite Erik's usual brusqueness, Beast got up from his conversation with Mystique and met him in the hall.

"Could you get Charles' chair from the lab?"

Beast glanced down the hall over Erik's shoulder, perhaps working out why Erik couldn't get it himself. "Sure," he said, though he'd only taken a few steps away before he turned back. "The frame, is he--"

"It was only for tonight," said Erik. Beast frowned, but he finally nodded, and disappeared down the long corridor, leaving Erik to listen to the grandfather clock ticking, standing where he was needed to. When Beast returned with the chair a few minutes later, Erik took it from him and quickly thanked him, leaving Beast no time for more questions. He turned and drew the chair along behind him to the bedroom.

At the door, he paused. For once he actually knocked on it, but when there was no answer he went in anyway.

The lights were off, but Charles wasn't in bed. Instead he was leaning with his shoulder to the wall next to the window, and he was gazing out of it, as he could only do with the lights off at this hour.

Erik sent the chair next to the bed, in its usual place, and eased the door shut behind him. After a moment he turned on one of the lamps, a dim one in the corner. Though it was now much harder to see out of the window, Charles didn't turn from it. Erik saw that he'd removed his jacket and the vest beneath it, leaving the shirt.

Another minute passed in silence. Erik, wanting to force nothing, eventually turned toward the wardrobe to get ready for bed.

"I did a terrible thing, Erik."

Erik stopped, and turned back to him. "To a terrible person."

"Everyone has reasons," Charles answered. His voice was quiet, and his expression where Erik could see it reflected in the window was heavy, but smooth. "He was weak and afraid and misled, but not terrible. No more than anyone else, in the wrong light, under different circumstances."

Erik took a few steps closer, though he remained further than an arm's reach from him. "Then what made you do it?"

Charles smiled, but the sorrow in it was crushing. "You told me once that peace was not possible for you. Do you remember?" The smile faded to reveal a more troubled line in his mouth. "And I felt sorry for you. Why couldn't you be like me, I thought, why wouldn't you want to be like me, who wouldn't cross that line, and whose conscience was clear because of it?"

Erik kept still. Of course he remembered it. Charles had hoped Erik would spare Shaw's life so that Erik could be free of the insatiable maw of vengeance. But Erik had already given himself to it. He knew he'd never pull free of it, even when it was over.

"I can end all of this before it even begins." Charles' eyes closed, his brow tensing. "Not just this. Every conflict. Every war. I can end it, with the right thought toward the right people. But I don't. I don't, because it isn't right."

Erik continued to watch him, his heart sinking for no other reason than the expression on Charles' face as it fell.

"But what good does that do?" he asked, nearly a whisper. "Who does that help? Who but me?" His voice slipped lower. "So that I can sleep soundly. So that my conscience is clear. So that I can have peace, while others suffer."

Erik wanted to comfort him, much as Erik could comfort anyone. But that was the crux of it, between having power and using it. That there could be no comfort--no peace--either way. Perhaps Charles was joining him on his side of that blade.

"Likewise, Erik," Charles went on, his expression shifting as he finally turned to face him. "You--" His voice failed him, but he pressed through it, his hand moving to grip his shirt and the frame's plate beneath it. His brow drawn down, his eyes were dark with a question that wasn't really a question. "You want to do this for me."

Something leapt in Erik's chest, but he quickly threw it down again, because Charles looked like he was about to fall apart. It was all Erik could do to answer him simply. "Yes, Charles."

Charles' face crumpled. He pushed all his breath out, and it was again shallow, broken, as it had been in the elevator, as though what he feared most in the world was what he was about to say.

"Then I should let you."

Erik couldn't hold himself back. Whether for himself or for Charles, he finally closed the space between them and pulled Charles against him.

Charles resisted him, but only weakly. "But I'll need something else from you," he insisted, still breathing harshly, still almost shaking. "You'll have to get along better with Hank, you'll have to allow him to monitor us, to run--" Again his voice was failing him, but Erik couldn't let him go. "--To run tests, from time to time, to be certain there are no adverse effects."

"Whatever you want," Erik was saying, over Charles' torrent of words, on the edge of his awareness that he was speaking at all. "Anything."

"I can't do it all the time," Charles barreled on, his hand slipping into Erik's hair, "but I will always be here--"

"Yes, Charles. Yes." Erik couldn't muster a shred of discontent with any of it, no matter how it was affecting Charles. "Whatever you need from me. Whatever you want."

Erik had never yearned to share his life with someone. Poison, and bitterness--these were not things to be shared. But he could offer more than that, now. He had more than that to give.

He felt Charles' arms around his back, and with another deep draw of breath Charles finally grew quiet, his chin on Erik's shoulder. But he was still so tense, no matter how Erik willed him not to be, lips pressed to Charles' hair, hands smoothing the shirt at his back, arms holding him almost too tightly.

"Just be happy with me," Erik begged.

He didn't care how simple or how desperate a request it was. His entire life seemed to hang on it.

Charles' embrace tightened, his fingers trembling against Erik's back as the air left him.

"What do you think I'm so afraid of?"

* * *

Routine was a powerfully normalizing force. As Charles watched Erik undress for bed, his own hands absently seeing to the buttons of his own shirt, every familiar motion brought him one step further from the decision he had made, one step further from what he'd done, what he may have to do again.

Erik had taken it all in stride. Erik had simply moved forward, dragging Charles along with him, and when Erik had let him go Charles just continued that way, forgetting his horror, forgetting his panic, forgetting the eviscerating uncertainty of what could happen if his morals shifted even just a little.

Erik cared about consequences, but with the fearlessness of someone who had survived more than chance could account for and fate could make up for. No matter what, Erik would carry him forward.

Erik came around the bed, and Charles turned to sit on its edge. Like any other night, Erik was practical and efficient and kind and selfless and Charles was losing his calm again as Erik helped him out of the rest of his clothes and finally the frame itself.

But the routine went on, mundane and comforting and predictable, because Erik hauled it forward and Charles followed until he'd found his center again. He pulled himself up toward the headboard enough to transfer the rest of his body into bed, then worked himself down to settle on the pillow while Erik threw the rest of the covers over him and turned off the lamp.

Erik had rolled to his side to face him. As Charles' eyes adjusted to the dark, he could see Erik was watching him, too, perhaps afraid that if he looked away Charles might not keep it together. He may have been right.

Charles finally stirred, lifting his hand to run the backs of his fingers over Erik's jaw, his thumb faintly brushing over his lips. "This is us, then," he questioned, distantly. "This is how we live." Bound in a cage controlled by Erik's power, a piece of him forever in Erik's mind.

He could almost see the deliberation in Erik's eyes. He could almost see him consider their future, the disagreements they were bound to have, the unprecedented connection they had developed and the complications that would painfully and inevitably arise from it. Surely he weighed the consequences of Charles' abilities, the risk of such a closeness as theirs.

Charles, after all, was the most dangerous of all of them.

Erik lifted his head from the pillow and drew close enough to brush his lips against Charles' mouth. Closing his eyes, Charles concentrated on the warmth of Erik's breath until it finally carried his quiet answer.

"I know no other way."

Chapter Text

"Surely there weren't so many stairs last time," Charles demurred, looking up at what may as well have been a stairway to Heaven. If there were such a thing, surely America would claim it to be in their capitol.

At his side, Erik lifted a hand to his brow to ward off the glare of the noon sun, gazing up at the stairs between them and the monument proper as Charles did. He sighed, grandly. "Looks like I shall have to carry you after all."

As Erik turned and made to pick him up, in jest, Charles held him at arm's length, laughing at him as he avoided his impressive reach. "Don't, don't! I can do it."

Erik stopped teasing and straightened with half a smile. "That's the spirit."

Charles conceded with a matching smile and a shake of his head before squaring his shoulders and facing the steps again--no, just the first step. One at a time. No need to think of them all at once.

He hadn't exactly limited himself to level surfaces and ramps over the past two months. He'd had a lot of practice and a lot of training, and in all honesty this wouldn't be nearly as difficult as his stubborn trip up the stairs of the mansion that first day, so determined to reach Raven that he'd risked making an utter fool of himself passing out from exertion along the way. And if he really wanted something to hold onto, at least for the first flight, there were the two tall pedestals jutting out at each side.

But he'd chosen to march, more or less, directly up the center as he'd taken for granted that summer with Erik. He'd chosen this path because he knew his mind had settled so comfortably into this way of moving that he was only a little worse off than someone of normal functioning. He knew he could do it. Erik was the only crutch he needed, and Erik was right here.

Still, he couldn't help thinking there were an awful lot of steps. He couldn't have small goals, could he?

Of course not. He checked his balance, trying not to hold his arms out like an airplane as he shifted his weight and maneuvered one leg up enough to reach the step. Leaning forward, he straightened that knee to bring the rest of him up to its level. Luckily, there were only three or four others around, and none seemed particularly interested in watching him.

"I'll be right behind you," Erik assured him, and Charles smiled at how much the idea helped to relieve his involuntary fears. He knew Erik would never let him tip so far as to need catching, but the safety net was a necessary concept.

Shifting to the other side, he lifted the other leg, then ratcheted himself up again. He kept himself from falling idle, repeating the same series of movements one side to the other, over and again, to trigger the regulating signals the disconnected segment of spinal chord was still able to dispatch. Hank had recently measured some minor increase in muscle mass due to those signals, which was encouraging--insomuch as it excited Hank.

Eyes set steadily on the steps before him, Charles was surprised to find himself approaching the first landing. He suddenly remembered being winded the first time they'd done this, of Erik laughing at him, because Erik had been far hardier than Charles at the time.

"Do you need to rest?" Erik asked, stepping up after him. Charles shook his head, turning to look behind him once he was safely away from the edge. It was a clear, still day, and the reflecting pool was doing its job admirably, if a little harshly in the early June glare.

"I'm all right, thank you," he answered. Erik, as usual, was taking the exertion well, while for Charles the fatigue was entirely mental, and even that he was hardly feeling. He was far too distracted.

Turning from the familiar scene, he strode to the next flight. "Where were we before?" he asked, mounting the next stair, and the next, concentrating on the fluid movement from one to another. "Do you remember?"

"There," said Erik, again just behind him, pointing toward the top.

Charles smiled to himself. There was no hesitance in his voice, no uncertainty in his gesture. "Are you sure?" he pressed. "It wasn't further down?"

"No, I remember it," Erik insisted as Charles reached the fourth stair from the top, just where Erik had indicated. "It was right here, next to that crack in the--What?"

Perhaps now his fatigue was showing, because Charles couldn't hold it in. Laughing airily, he bent to catch himself on the stair, less gracefully than he'd have liked. He turned to sit down on it. "Erik, I had no idea."

Erik stood for a moment before him, lean and tall as the obelisk further on, before he finally turned and sat to Charles' right, smirking, but with good nature. "You were testing me."

Charles smiled at him, admiring the fine lines of his profile before Erik finally looked at him. "I wasn't," Charles confessed. "I didn't remember. But you did."

Erik looked away again, out over the view of the mall and its hazy treeline. His eyes finally dropped to his loosely folded hands. "Because I wasn't sure."

Wasn't sure he'd be staying, wasn't sure how long Charles and he would have. Wasn't sure he'd make other memories to take its place. Erik's foresight on that day had been remarkable indeed. Heartbreaking, but remarkable.

Shifting, Charles tried to arrange himself a little more naturally, more like Erik's careless lounge. He didn't quite have the same flexibility of repose, but it was close enough, and it gave Charles better opportunity to touch Erik's leg with the back of his hand. Erik unthreaded his hands to rest one on his leg, close enough to touch Charles' fingers.

"We are ridiculously sentimental," Charles observed, after a moment.

"This was your idea," Erik pointed out.

"You almost brought the chess set."

This earned him Erik's guilty smile, though it was again set toward the expanse before them. Charles watched his face with a smile of his own before letting his gaze drift ahead as well.

It had been a day just like this, nearly two years ago. It felt more like ten, but he could still reach the memory if he tried. He'd been embarking on the first great adventure of his life, with his first great love: a man who fascinated him, equaled him, at times bested him.

He'd never been so idealistic about the future as he had been that day. When he'd sat down on this very stair with Erik he'd done so at the pinnacle of his growing hope, the zenith of his aspirations and excitement. And then afterward had come the war with Shaw, then the war with Erik, now the war with that half of humanity still inclined to oppress them. But on that day, on this step, he hadn't foreseen any of that. He hadn't known the nightmare waiting at the edge of the dream. His expectations had been so very, very different. And so foolish. And so worthwhile.

And it nearly cost him everything.

Could he ever get back to that?

Lifting a hand against the bright sun, he shielded his eyes, then let his fingers drift over his closing lids. He laughed, because he had to be laughed at. "I fear I'm about to embarrass myself in front of this nation's great emancipator."

"Don't think about those things," said Erik, as though he knew exactly what Charles was thinking. He often did. "We're starting over."

Erik, the survivor. Always finding the way forward. Charles lowered his hand to smile blearily at him. "What would I do without you?"

Erik stood up, extending his hand to him. "Let's not find out." As he drew Charles to his feet, he nodded to the side. "There's a few more to go."

Charles turned with him to face the last three steps to the top. "I suppose we should, shouldn't we?"

Leaning forward, to be sure that was the way he'd fall if he suddenly forgot how to ambulate, he took the last few steps, feeling some small but measurable amount of triumph as he mounted the final platform. The rest of the monument and its pillars rose gargantuan above him, but he didn't feel so small in their stead as perhaps he should have. Instead he was looking out again toward the other end of the mall, where the crown of the Capitol Building was faintly visible behind the scepter of the Washington Monument.

As sentimental as he was, this wasn't the only reason they were here. He wished it was. The Senate was voting tomorrow on a number of bills that had, alarmingly, already passed the House. It was imperative that they went no further.

And he had good reason, he reminded himself. If the school was to reopen in the fall--

Charles' thoughts were scattered by what felt like the earth moving under him. Rather, he was being moved over it, one stride after another, by Erik's doing. Charles tried not to lurch unnaturally in view of a young couple in the shadow of a pillar and the security guards they were talking to, tourist maps in hand.

"Erik--slowly--" he contested, but as Erik turned from the guards to face him, Charles suddenly forgot all about his hard-won grace.

Erik had stopped him about two paces away, but now stepped smoothly into him, closing the space indecently. His eyes were full of mischief, as dangerous as any of his other qualities, as their gaze dropped to Charles' mouth.

Still planted where he stood, Charles wet his lips self-consciously and swallowed when Erik managed to fit even closer against him. The tourists near the pillar had stopped talking, and Charles hoped they'd simply run out of questions. "Erik?"

Erik inclined his head as though merely to tell him something in confidence, but suddenly his mouth was far closer to Charles' than it needed to be.

"Which do you think we'd get in more trouble for?" Erik asked, low and curious, and Charles didn't have long to wonder what the options were. Erik tipped his head closer, hesitating only in the half-second of Charles' gasp before he took his mouth without reservation.

Charles tried to keep his eyes open, but the way Erik's tongue was slipping itself lewdly between Charles' lips made that an impossibility. As Charles' hands finally consented to grip Erik's shoulders rather than hover over them, he felt the sudden movement in Erik's arm and the sound of belt buckles and scuffing shoes from the vicinity of the pillar.

The guards had righted themselves enough to shout something more coherent before Charles finally gave in and did something about it. He reached out with his mind to freeze them in their tracks, and the tourists as well, lest the two mutants also be blamed for the woman fainting. He wished he could say he withdrew from Erik's incriminating trespass at the same time, but what was done was done, and it could go on being done for a minute longer.

The afternoon was suddenly unseasonably warm.

"So which is it?" prodded Erik, parting from him only enough to make the words clear.

"Surprisingly," murmured Charles, "they are outraged in equal portions."

Finally opening his eyes, Charles shook his head, about to lament without an ounce of conviction what a troublemaker Erik was when Erik locked eyes with him and smiled like a schoolboy with a notion.

"Do you think we can outrun them?"

"Wh--I don't--"

Charles was still stammering for an answer, not believing Erik could be serious when he found his hand clasped in Erik's quite seriously indeed.

And then as soon as he noticed it, Erik broke into a run, with Charles in tow, headed directly for the steps. "I can't," he gasped, "I can't run, Erik, Erik!"

But he was running. Whether it was through Erik's aid or his own rewired coordination he was still upright and keeping pace with a madman, plunging down a double flight of marble and concrete steps with nothing to hold onto but him. He could feel the force of each footfall as the impact traveled up to his middle, pounding and rhythmic and thrilling, in the way that near death was thrilling.

His concentration in disarray, he lost his hold on the guards and the tourists at the pillar, and the guards shouted again as they gave chase, spurring Charles into a more delirious haste.

Miraculously, they reached level ground, and Erik tossed him only a cursory glance before he took off sharply to the north, toward Constitution Avenue. Charles was less panicked now as their strides lengthened, as fatalities were not so imminent, as he was finally out of breath because he was wheezing with laughter.

He couldn't walk, but he was running. He couldn't feel the whole of himself, but he'd gained another half. He was tearing through the lightly wooded lawn of the Lincoln Memorial because Erik had broken some laws just to be contrary and all Charles could think about was how he wouldn't change any of this even if it were the gift of his mutation to do so.

They were nearly to the street when Erik suddenly whirled around to catch him, backpedaling with their combined momentum. He drew Charles around the side of a line of telephone booths so papered as to be opaque and pulled him close. He was panting, shoulders heaving against the curling, faded flyers, his impossibly wide grin broken in the middle by the finger he held up to urge them both to keep quiet.

It wasn't really working. Charles was still laughing, even as he covered Erik's mouth--and his finger--with the palm of his hand. In fact, predictably, that made it worse, so Charles used other, more reliable means to be sure they were overlooked no matter how much schoolyard noise they were making.

When the guards were long past, Erik took Charles' hand from over his mouth and held it, his smile softer now but no less emotive. Bending, he lowered himself to sit at the base of the telephone booth, drawing Charles to join him on the shaded grass.

"I know what you're thinking, Charles."

Turning to sit against the papered glass at Erik's side, Charles smiled, curling Erik's fingers around his. "That I can finally have that track rematch with Hank?"

Erik laughed, but his expectant gaze didn't leave him.

Charles studied his face knowingly, though his smile didn't leave him, either.

"That you'll always bring the battle to us?" he offered, instead. "That you wage the wars and I keep the peace?"

The corner of Erik's mouth curled up lightly as Charles spoke.

"I won't always have to."

What might have been the first breeze of the day shifted the trees' shadows around them as Erik leaned into him, pressing a much gentler kiss to his lips. Charles met it completely, knowing the words that waited on Erik's tongue, but letting himself want to hear them anyway.

"But we'll win, Charles."

We will always win.