In the mornings, when everyone else in the mansion is still dead to the world, snoring peacefully away, Charles lies awake in bed as Erik slips into sweatpants and a light t-shirt. Charles is still slightly groggy—it’s only six in the morning, after all, almost too early for the sun—but Erik is fully conscious, as always. There’s no transition for him; he wakes up and gets up in an instant, completely alert and ready. Old habits, Charles supposes. They’re hard to shake.
Erik fishes his running shoes out from under the bed and laces them up tightly. Then he walks past the wheelchair to the side of the bed and leans down to steal a quick kiss.
Charles pulls away quickly, as always. “Morning breath,” he mutters, wiping his lips with his hand, and Erik grins his shark-grin.
On chilly days, he grabs a jacket too and then proceeds to stretch by the doorway, giving Charles a nice view as he flexes each muscle carefully. Charles sighs and turns so he can settle on his belly in the bed, propping up his chin on his hands and giving Erik an appreciative smile. Despite all his protests to the contrary, Erik is an exceptionally vain creature. He calls it a desire to keep fit, but Charles knows better; he knows Erik can’t stand to look anything less than perfect, and as far as Charles is concerned, that’s fantastic. So as Erik stretches, Charles lets a bit of his admiration seep out across the room. He knows the instant Erik feels it because Erik straightens up a bit in the doorway and preens—actually preens, the self-centered bastard—and Charles can’t help but laugh aloud.
Erik grins too, all good-natured because they both know he’s putting on a show for Charles, and when he’s done warming himself up, he says, “Ready?” and Charles nods and closes his eyes.
He rides along in Erik’s mind as he trots down the hallway and to the front door, stopping in the kitchen to grab a glass of water. Then he opens the door, steps out into the gray morning, and starts down the path.
Charles watches him from afar, content to drift along the surface of Erik’s mind for now. Erik takes the first half-mile at a slow jog, gradually increasing his pace until he hits a comfortable peak. Then, when he passes the old oak where the path from the front door splits into two branches, he thinks, Ready? and this time, Charles lets himself fall all the way into Erik’s mind.
Before Erik, Charles had never dared to go this deep into another person’s head, had never had such open permission before. But Erik is different. Erik is welcoming and willing and his, so Charles has no qualms about sinking into him, into his churning mind, curling their thoughts together tighter and tighter until there is no difference anymore, until all that had made them separate is gone, like a crack that has been sealed away. They are Charles and Erik, Charles-and-Erik, they are one.
Their heart pumps in steady beats and their lungs burn in the most delightful way as their legs pound the gravel, strong and healthy and whole. They turn off the rocky road to the dirt path that leads off into the trees, into the wilder parts of Westchester. Each breath is easy, each stride effortless. They share the simple joy of feeling the strain of muscles and the impact of their feet on the ground. The even thud, thud, thud of their steps through the grass and trees is calming. They breathe together, in and out, in and out, and it is so quick, so thoughtless. They could run like this forever. Forever and ever and ever and never stop.
They reach the lake hidden behind a copse of trees. This used to be their favorite place in their childhood, and this is where they pause to watch the rippling water. Here, Charles pulls out just barely enough for them to be separate again, and Erik whispers, All right? and Charles sends, Let’s go, and they slip together again seamlessly.
They run and run and run, through the garden, through the back fields, through everything. Every conscious thought falls away, and all that’s left is the rush of blood through their system, the delicious burn in their muscles, the smell of dawn deep in their lungs and the taste of sunlight in the back of their throat. It is warm, it is heady, and it is wonderful. There is nothing better than being alive in that moment, sprinting for all they’re worth across the wide open lawn, filled with a wild, fierce exhilaration that builds and builds and never ends.
Eventually, they falter because their flying pace can’t be maintained forever, even in their lean, strong body. They slow to a jog, then to a walk, then collapse in the grass. They know it’s bad for them (Can’t stop like that after such a hard run, have to cool-down, is what the part that is distinctly Erik thinks, and Charles rouses long enough to say, Stop thinking, before falling back in) but they don’t get up. Instead, they lie there motionlessly, breath puffing out in harsh gasps. Their legs ache, their lungs are on fire, their head is pounding with each rapid heartbeat, and nothing has ever felt better.
They raise a hand to brush stinging sweat from their eyes. Their skin feels hot, too hot, but even that is glorious. When the knocking pulse in their head slows a bit, they sit up and take off their shoes. Their socks are sticky with sweat as they peel them off and toss them away, and then they push their feet into the cool grass. Every green blade sticking up between their toes is a wonder, every sensation old and familiar and incredible.
Charles emerges from their collective mind to whisper a sigh of content in Erik’s ear. Erik pulls their lips into a smile and hikes up the legs of the sweatpants before lying back down, grass pressing into the exposed skin, Charles reveling in every moment of it.
They snap off a blade of grass and roll it between their fingers for a moment before letting it float away in the breeze. These are the best moments: lying there on the ground as one, the rising sun warm on their face, able to feel the pull of muscle and heat of a run, able to be just a bit bothered by the itchy grass on their legs. An ant crawls onto their left leg, and the Erik-half reaches down to crush it but the Charles-half says no. So they let it walk and focus on the sensation of six tiny feet making their patient way across the wide expanse of skin. When it starts to tickle, they laugh, a quiet chuckle that escapes into the air. The sound is equal parts Charles and Erik: Erik’s reserve broken into Charles’s tendency to display his amusement. It is neither of them, it is both of them, and in that moment, they have never felt closer.
After the sun has begun its ascent into the sky and the last vestiges of dawn have been chased away, they sit up again and glance up at the clouds. The Erik-half says, Let’s go, but the Charles-half says, Wait, just a little longer. They look back down at their legs and wiggle their toes, appreciating every movement, even the tiniest ones. After another moment, they rise to their feet and pick up their shoes and socks. Barefoot, they begin the trek back to the mansion, where the Charles-half can distantly feel minds beginning to stir.
When they’re nearing the front entrance, Charles reluctantly detaches himself from Erik, taking a few seconds to remember himself, to separate what is Charles and what is Erik. After being one person for nearly two hours, it feels strange and disorienting to be two again. It takes an effort not to reconnect—Charles never feels as whole as he does with Erik—but he knows better than to dive back in; if he did, he’d never come out again and…well, that’s not conducive to running a school. So he withdraws mostly but stays in the periphery of Erik’s mind, pausing to watch as Erik slips his socks and shoes back on before stepping onto the rough gravel.
I’m coming up, Erik thinks unnecessarily, and Charles replies, I’m waiting.
Then he lets Erik’s mind slip away and comes back to himself in their bedroom, where the sun is starting to seep through the curtains, bathing the room in warm golden light. Time to get up finally, even if it feels as if he’s been awake for hours.
By the time Erik finally arrives, Charles has already dragged himself into his wheelchair and snagged a shirt and slacks for the day. He takes a moment to admire Erik in the doorway; his hair is damp with rapidly-cooling sweat, and he’s in the process of stripping his shirt off, revealing his toned midriff and muscles that Charles likes to run his tongue over.
Erik smiles when he spots Charles sitting there and asks, “How was it?”
“You know how it was,” Charles answers with a returning grin. “I love running.”
Erik snorts. “Only because you don’t have to feel like this when it’s over.” He gestures to his sweaty skin and walks over to the closet with a conspicuous limp. Charles doesn’t bother hiding his smile at that; Erik’s always so dramatic when making a point. He knows for a fact that Erik isn’t really hurting at all, not in a bad way at least. He’s only feeling the burn of a good workout, and Charles knows that because he felt it too, riding in Erik’s mind.
“At least you get to shower when it’s over,” Charles points out.
Erik glances over at him and grins, suddenly predatory. “That’s only good if I get to shower with you.”
“Erik,” he says in exasperation, because they’ve tried to figure out shower logistics with the both of them, factoring in Charles’s legs, and it never works out well. It usually leaves Charles frustrated and embarrassed.
But Erik just shrugs. “I run for you, you shower for me. Only fair.”
And Charles rolls his eyes and gives in because he loves Erik, loves him for running dutifully every morning. It isn’t only to keep up his physique, it’s to give Charles this: these precious few hours with the ground pounding away under his feet, with grass pressing coolly between his toes. Erik took his legs away once, and now he’s giving them back and it’s more than enough.
Later, when they’ve both laughed and contorted themselves through a shower session, they get dressed and head out to the kitchen, where, predictably enough, Raven has made an absolute mess. The students are starting to come out of the woodwork, probably roused by the smoke coming from a pan of charred…something in Raven’s hand. Hank is by her side, batting futilely at the smoke. When he spots them, he holds up both paws to profess his innocence and says, in a completely transparent attempt to divert attention away from the disaster at hand, “Good morning!”
Erik glances at Charles, who remembers again the easy motion of putting one foot in front of the other, the vigorous pull of air into pumping lungs, the tickle of grass against the soles of his feet. He thinks of Erik, willing to roll out of bed before dawn so they can run in the quiet, before anything else stirs. He thinks of years ago, back when Erik had been so reluctant to let Charles in on his thoughts. Even the slightest intrusion back then had warranted a scowl and angry words. The thought that today, Erik is willing to give Charles everything, to let him inhabit his whole mind until it’s not even Erik’s anymore, it’s theirs—it’s dizzying, the things Erik will do for him. How far they’ve come.
“Er…” Hank says into the silence. When no one reacts, he repeats more hesitantly, “Good morning?”
Charles glances over and meets Erik’s gaze, and the warmth and affection he feels is not just his, and not just Erik’s: it’s theirs. As always.
“Yes,” he answers with a small, secret grin. “The best.”