The mind is a muscle, just like any other. It gets stronger with exercise, but it also grows tired and sore from too much exertion.

Charles had been using his powers much more than usual lately. Back before his fateful meeting with Moira and teaming up with the CIA, he had used his telepathy only occasionally, to hit on co-eds in the Oxford pubs, or to smooth his way through life's minor annoyances. He had never needed to concentrate so closely, or for such extended periods.

Using Cerebro took a level of concentration and control that he had never experienced before. The images whirled by and he had to focus hard to sift through all the millions of minds, to find the specific individuals he sought. Just a few short minutes connected to the machine left him exhausted for hours.

He was also using his powers to monitor the others, to keep an eye on their moods and make sure no one got too discouraged or overwhelmed. A happy team was an effective team, and he exerted his powers to curb the worst of their fears and doubts, when he could. He also had to keep his mind constantly on the alert for sign of Shaw or his telepath, to keep them all shielded from those who sought them.

All in all, it was exhausting. And after weeks of intensive work, it was starting to wear on him.

The children were all busy training that afternoon, Alex and Sean jogging together while Hank and Raven were tucked away in his makeshift lab. Moira was busy giving her CIA superiors an updated mission status, while Erik had disappeared to practice on his own.

Charles was glad for the dark, silent solitude of the mansion. His head was throbbing, like Sean's supersonic sound waves were reverberating off the walls of his skull, echoing in an endless loop. It was excruciating, but there seemed to be little he could do besides lie still and keep his eyes shut. Paracetamol was useless against this sort of pain, triggered by his telepathic powers, rather than a physical muscle spasm.

Even beneath the steady pounding he could still hear thoughts filtering in unbidden. It was harder to keep his defenses up and control the incoming information when his focus was distracted by the pain. He could hear the thoughts of the children, normal teenage concerns mixed with more sinister undertones, fears and pressures that no normal youngster should have to face.

Charles focused on this breathing, letting the thoughts come and go unheeded, like a radio playing in the background, white noise with no meaning. He pinched the bridge of his nose, knowing intellectually that it would do nothing to ease his pain, but taking comfort in the firm, grounding pressure.

He was so focused on inot/i focusing at all that he didn't feel Erik's presence approaching, nor hear his footsteps as he entered the dark study.

"Charles," he said softly, and it took a moment for Charles to realize that the voice was not inside his head.

He cracked his eyes open cautiously, but instantly regretted it. Even the heavy drapes could not block out iall/i the light, and what managed to filter through felt magnified, like a blinding spotlight.

"Are you alright?" Erik asked, his voice a soft murmur. Even so, it sounded loud, and Charles tried not to wince.

Erik was crouched by Charles's elbow, his brows furrowed in concern. Charles could see it on his face without having to look in his mind. Sometimes Erik was an open book, though he never seemed to realize it.

"I'm fine," Charles replied, but it came out as an unsteady croak. Erik raised his brows with a patronizing nod, showing just how unconvinced he was by Charles's protestations. But he said nothing.

"Sit up for a moment," he instructed, and Charles wanted to scoff, if it wouldn't have sent shockwaves of pain through his skull. Erik may as well command him to fly, for it was equally beyond his capacity right now.

Erik seemed to correctly interpret Charles's incredulous grimace, and clucked his tongue. Charles ireally/i wished he wouldn't do that.

Erik placed his hands under Charles's shoulders, lifting slowly. Charles would have shouted a protest if he felt at all capable. Maybe even death threats; not that he was able to make good on them at the moment, but later, later Erik would definitely pay for this.

Erik ignored his closed-eyed glare and slid onto the sofa in the spot Charles's head had just occupied. He placed a cushion on his lap, precariously supporting Charles's neck with one hand for an uncomfortable moment, before lowering him back down. Charles sighed with relief at having a solid surface beneath him once again, letting his shoulders relax as he arranged himself comfortably.

Erik softly began massaging Charles's temples in a circular motion. Charles wanted to tell him that it was futile, but he couldn't be bothered to work up the energy to speak, and it did feel rather nice.

The drums continued to pound inside his head, but those fingers were a grounding presence, the slow circles a soothing counterpoint to the throbbing.

He could feel Erik's mind as well, covering his own like a reassuring blanket. Erik's thoughts were soft and warm and so close, drowning out the cacophony of other voices and emotions. Charles tried to focus on that presence, to hold onto it like an anchor. Slowly the pounding began to ebb, becoming the lazy lapping of waves on a shore, instead of a frantic choppy sea.

He must have drifted off, because when Charles finally opened his eyes again the room was pitch black, and the pain only a pinprick at the back of his mind. It was dark, but he knew Erik was still there; he could feel the presence of Erik's mind, overlapping his own consciousness. Erik must have fallen asleep, his mind soft and quiet, more colors and feelings than concrete thoughts.

Erik's head had lolled back against the sofa, and one of his large hands was resting on Charles's chest, over his steadily beating heart. It was as warm and comforting as the presence of his mind.

Charles was hesitant to disturb him; Erik deserved some quiet rest, a break from the weight of his mission and the memories of his past. Erik's mind often felt like a battlefield, chaotic and full of anger and fear and loss. But right now, in his unguarded moment, the goodness beneath his obsession shone through. Charles wanted to savor this glimpse, to hold on to it as long as he could. He wanted to be able to remember Erik this way, quiet and gentle and good, no matter what may happen in the future, when they were finally forced to face Shaw. That inevitability felt very far away from this quiet moment in the dark study.

Charles let himself drift back to sleep, curling onto his side with his head tucked comfortably against Erik's stomach. When they both woke again there would be more training, more searching for answers and preparing for the future. But for right now he would enjoy this stolen moment.