In the beginning, Erik saw his powers as an entity outside himself. If it was meant to be part of him, then surely he'd be able to control it like any other sense; surely it wouldn't just burst out whenever the cracks were big enough.
All it was good for was catching the eye of a monster.
The problem (one of the many, many problems) is this:
The first thing Erik ever saw with his overwhelming new senses was that barbed wire fence.
His power was an unreliable friend that didn't always come when he called.
It responded to nothing less than the deepest reserves of his rage. With the years, reaching for the memories began to feel like just another mechanism, the same as exercising a tangible muscle, but he could never truly separate the feel of metal from the knowledge of how he'd been taught.
The fruit of the poisoned tree will still kill, no matter how lovely it looks.
The first few years after Schmidt, he couldn't close his eyes without being back in the room with the table and the ceramic instruments. He slept in two, three hour bursts and woke up screaming, his forearm throbbing as if he'd only been tattooed yesterday.
It was on one of those sleepless nights that he picked up a tattered copy of Frankenstein, left on the coffee table of the drab apartment he'd broken into.
The next time Erik closed his eyes, his nightmares began to take on different shapes.
It was no bad thing, he decided, seeing himself in the Monster. Its desire for vengeance was justified, and it stopped at nothing to claim it, which was admirable.
His only objection was to the absurd ending of the book. Only the need to preach a tired and outmoded morality could have driven the writer to portray the Monster not basking in his triumph but instead feeling undeserved remorse for accomplishing its task.
For his part, Erik could only imagine the sweetness of fulfilling his goal, the satisfaction of finally allowing himself to rest once the enemy was dead.
(Maybe he could stop running, then, because there would be nothing more to fear, nothing at all.)
Once, his abilities had been a curse he never asked for. Now they were the greatest of gifts. He no longer wondered where they had come from, or what it said about him that they were only accessible through his rage.
It didn't matter, not while Shaw lived.
He dreamed of his senses extending until he could feel the whole of the earth, down to the core, layers upon layers of metal, and the magnetic field that wrapped all the way around it like a living thing.
In the dream, he lost control, and squeezed until it all cracked.
Then he meets Charles Xavier, and everything changes.
Oh God, you're in my head.
There's no wonder in that thought, only horror and the kind of fear he'd thought himself free of. If he's not the only one with powers, then he's not safe.
But there's safety in numbers, too, the kind of strength he never dreamed he'd believe in again.
"You're not alone," Xavier says, and the most surprising thing of all is that Erik believes him.
It had been one thing to suspect that there might possibly be others like him; quite another to meet one such man in full, confident command of his powers, who seems to use them as easily as he breathes, without a single ripple of fear or anger.
For the first time since he bent the gates, Erik feels a true sense of belonging, pure and powerful.
Men have fallen in love for far less.
The day before they leave the CIA compound to go recruiting - and Erik can't help but imagine them as birds about to leave an iron cage - Charles spends a full hour locked in Cerebro. When he emerges, he's smiling wide enough to show neat white teeth, eyes so unnervingly bright and full that McCoy spends their entire conversation looking off to one side rather than meet them head on.
He only folds back into himself - small, neat, English - when Raven hugs him, pressing a kiss into his hair. She's in her blonde form again, as if her true skin is something to be hidden away in shame and fear. The way McCoy's eyes alight on her pale form is almost as disquieting.
Wanting to be normal, to be like their genetic inferiors - he can't understand it. Not when they're so much more than that.
Charles' smile quirks, like he knows exactly the direction Erik's thoughts have taken. "Erik! You didn't need to be here. Could have slept in." It's kind of you to worry, but there's really no danger.
Erik shakes his head. "I wanted another look at the machine."
It doesn't count as a lie when Charles can read the truth as if he'd said it out loud. He doesn't trust the CIA. Not MacTaggert, not that petty little bureaucrat running Division X, not even McCoy, who's clearly brilliant and yet naive enough to have found himself working for the enemy. There's no way he's going to leave Charles in their hands unsupervised while they run their experiments.
Charles nods, accepting both the story and the underlying truth. "Will you walk with me?"
Outside, it's a painfully picturesque day. Charles falls into step beside him on the winding path, and the silence is - comfortable. Despite the setting, despite the urgency of his mission burning like a hot coal in the centre of his chest, he is risking becoming far too comfortable here.
A sense of fellowship, once gained, is difficult to let go of.
"I found a telepath today," Charles says slowly, as if testing each word out loud. "No, not Shaw's, unfortunately. Another one."
"For our list?"
They'd worked out a simple list of criteria between them, arguing it out over a game of chess on a makeshift board. Young, but not too young. Persuadable. Stable, more or less.
"No. Too broken. All he could hear were surface thoughts, Erik. And it was enough to drive him mad. I wish I could help him."
The last sentiment is very Charles - all bleeding heart and earnest tone. It makes Erik wonder how he had made it through those first few, no doubt terrifying months when his powers had manifested. His mind, always systematic, shelves the thought for another time in favour of new information.
They now know of at least three telepaths. All the other mutants they know of have unique powers. With a bigger sample size, could they find another metal-bender? Another shape-shifter?
"How many of us are there?"
Enough to survive the inevitable coming war? Enough to keep going if the others - the humans - were out of the picture?
Charles' gaze goes from sorrowful to sharp between one blink and the next.
"Difficult to say, given the size of our current sample group. More than I'd ever dreamed, certainly. No, no, not a viable population on its own like you're thinking. Give it four, five generations - if my hypothesis is correct, in time mutant will be the norm."
The last seven words go through Erik like a thunder clap, almost as powerful as the moment Charles found him in the water. It's the most genuine thing he's ever heard, as definite as magnetic north.
Charles nods, very solemnly. "When I first realized...it changed everything."
Of course it does. Humans continuously occupy themselves by using each tiny little difference as an excuse to treat each other like animals, remaining blissfully ignorant while history passes them by.
But one day, they'll have to understand.
The only difference that truly matters is the one between us and them, between humanity and mutantkind. That's the only fundamental truth of the world.
Travelling with Charles is difficult. He's nowhere near as fussy and spoiled as Erik had feared, and they make good time every day, but Erik is used to working alone. The presence of any other person would have been unnerving enough, without it being someone as clever and invasive - and distracting - as Charles.
"That's really quite remarkable."
"That." Charles gestures at the butterfly knife spinning in the air in front of Erik, folding in and unfolding like a particularly deadly flower. "You're not even paying attention, and yet the trajectory is perfect."
"Practice," Erik says, allowing a faint smile.
He'd taken the knife from the cooling body of a former SS officer. It had been spotless, perfectly sharp. Possibly never used.
No matter how lovely, a weapon is just a weapon. The use it's put to is what matters. It's true of Erik, who had been beaten into something sharp and deadly, and it's equally true of Charles, who has honed his power all his life, even if he works very hard to conceal it.
The mildness of speech and expression, the careless, unthreatening body language - it's almost perfect, as far as disguises go. Would be perfect, without the occasional slip-ups, when he stands too straight or strides forward with too much confidence.
Then there's the way he looks at Erik, unabashedly hungry, like Erik is newly discovered territory that he's busy working out how to conquer. Charles might fool the whole world with his harmless act, but Erik knows a fellow predator when he sees one.
"Erik," Charles begins, and Erik's never heard his name in that pleased, wondering, almost reverent tone before. He's almost afraid of what Charles is going to say next. "You know, I think you'd be quite resistant to telepathic manipulation. I've never seen anything like it."
Charles purses his lips. "Mm. Significantly."
"But not enough to keep you out," Erik says dryly. Still, it's useful to know. Shaw's telepath had succeeded in hurting him - maybe the option of controlling him hadn't been available to her.
Erik brushes it aside with a wave. "Don't apologize for things you can't change."
It's possibly Erik's least favourite thing about Charles. He does it often enough for it to be termed a habit, too. And now Charles undoubtedly knows exactly how Erik feels about it.
"That's a good rule. Still leaves me with quite a lot of leeway, though," Charles says thoughtfully. He's not wearing his usual mask of a smile. The cool amusement behind it is a lot more honest.
Charles has a power that makes all others look like inane curiosities, and he uses it like it's the most common thing in the world. Sometimes just looking at him makes Erik's head hurt.
His quaint morality only just balances the scales, makes him less than terrifying. Erik has pushed and taunted and tested as far as he can, and for all his efforts there seems to be no denting Charles' fierce belief in the possibility of change for the better.
(Which is fortunate, really. It means he won't consider changing people's minds for them.)
All of which is bad enough, and nowhere near the worst part. No, the worst part is this:
Charles has laid himself out like an open book in front of Erik, at ease with being inspected like a potential ally - or a potential enemy. All that honesty and trust and belief goes to Erik's head like heady wine, and he's been parched for a long, long time.
If Erik isn't careful, his fear of what Charles might do with it will melt away until there's nothing left, and although the power of an ally is something he's coming to get used to, even enjoy, it doesn't do to forget to be suspicious.
All of which only partly explains why he gives in a few weeks into their recruitment trip.
The first time Charles touches him with more than friendly intent, something inside Erik snaps with the sudden viciousness of bone crunching under steel. He doesn't remember the last time he wanted to hold something so badly without wanting to destroy it at the same time.
Everything, Charles says inside his head. I want everything of you.
His smile is so hungry that Erik finds himself believing it.
It's a fucking disaster.
After, Charles flops down on the narrow single bed - Erik's bed - his body a line of warmth all down Erik's side. He doesn't seem inclined to move.
Overcome by smugness, probably, Erik thinks viciously, and he doesn't care if he's shouting.
Why shouldn't Charles be, when he's cracked Erik open even more thoroughly than he had that first night in the water? His skin feels too small for his body, alive with receding pleasure and crawling with the discomfort he's always associated with vulnerability.
"Well? Is your curiosity sufficiently satisfied?" he snarls, when he feels capable of speech.
Charles opens his eyes to stare, his expression going from relaxed to tense in a split second. "Erik, don't. You know that's not how I feel. You know. Calm down."
"Get out of my head."
Even as he says it, he knows it for a lost cause. They've just had this discussion, after all, before all the - the sex - and Charles is honest enough that he'd never agree just to placate Erik.
"You're in mine," Charles says, and he might be joking, or he might mean every word. It's difficult to tell in the fading light.
"Your sense of melodrama is tiring," he settles for saying, gruffly.
Men like Charles only know how to demand without boundaries. To let them get their hooks into his flesh would only lead to pain.
Charles shakes his head minutely. "My friend, you've never met anyone like me. And I've certainly never met anyone like you." He brightens suddenly, grinning from ear to ear. "Did you know, there was so much static around your desire that I could never be sure your revulsion wouldn't overpower it. You're an impressively contrary man, Erik."
"I'm not repulsed by you," Erik says, blank with surprise. If he had been, they'd have an entirely different set of problems.
"No, you're not. Just by the implications of my power. It's all right." Charles waves a hand half-heartedly, nonchalant as if they're discussing the weather.
"It's not all right. How - how can you - "
Charles leans forward and touches his soft, bruised lips to Erik's brow. "I understand. It's only natural."
Things change once they arrive at the mansion.
Charles and Raven retreat into themselves, leaning on each other more obviously than they'd ever done in front of Erik. For all his initial distaste at the haughty grandeur represented by the Xavier estate, it quickly becomes clear to Erik that the gleam of luxury hid darker secrets.
The third morning, he almost walks in on Raven and Charles talking in the kitchen, and slows down to listen despite himself.
"What's that? Charles, show me."
"I'm sorry. Here. From the Institute."
He's never heard Charles sound like that before - infinitely tender and somehow coolly resolute at the same time.
Raven's voice, too, is full of old strength, even as it wavers.
"Yes. No change," Charles says, and then he glances up, raising an eyebrow at Erik in the doorway.
Eavesdropping on a telepath. Erik's surprised he lasted that long. He can't imagine Charles meant for him to hear - the man must have been truly distracted.
"Excuse me," Erik says.
Raven's face drains of colour. "How long have you - "
Charles cuts her off, talking very fast. "Some of this mail is years old, I don't know why Marianna kept it. It's all just boring old tossers with more money than sense, anyway."
"You're so terribly judgemental, Charles," Raven says reproachfully, her false eyes sparkling with mirth.
Erik raises his eyebrows. He recognises a routine when he sees one. What's really impressive is how quickly both of them launched into it.
Raven leans towards him, voice low like she's confiding a terrible secret. "Charles secretly hates upper class society. I think that one Russian boy turned him into a Communist."
"He did not," Charles says indignantly, trying and failing to hide his grin. "I simply find my family's social set tiresome in the extreme."
His rant about the general uselessness of New York State's high society is almost enough to convince Erik that Raven might be on to something. But it's not enough to make him forget about the letter.
He corners Raven in their makeshift gym the next day. She's bright blue and radiant, which is enough to put a smile on his face.
(It's the kind of expression that makes Charles trace the curve of his mouth and bite.)
Raven drops her weights to the side, closing her eyes. Her skin ripples for the briefest moment. "Cain Marko. Our step-brother."
"What happened to him?"
"We had to," Raven says vehemently, like it's an answer in itself. And maybe it is.
The coin Erik had been idly flipping between his fingers wobbles in mid-air. "Explain."
"There were - problems. Kurt - our step-father - he was an asshole. So Cain was already broken when we met him. He was always angry. Always - out to hurt."
Charles has far more scars than a man of his relatively sedate lifestyle should.
"What did Charles do?" Erik says, although the answer is already taking shape in his head.
Institute? Mental Asylum?
Raven's eyes snap open, bright yellow and blazing. "You mean what we did. Everything that happened since I arrived here, we went through together. You wouldn't understand. Just - don't mention it to him. Please. He doesn't like to think about it."
The human mind is endlessly adaptable. It's entirely possible to rearrange it in order to optimise function, if you know how, Charles had said, on one of their car trips. Making some memories easier to recall than others, as an example.
Erik doesn't mention it, not that it does him any good. His chess matches with Charles that evening are quiet affairs, free of Charles' usual absent chatter, or one of their vigorous political debates. Charles works his way through three glasses of scotch before he opens his mouth.
"We all do what we have to do. Isn't that right, my friend? Go on, I know you're dying to ask."
"No. You did what was necessary."
In his place, Erik would have done the same, possibly worse. Although there was little that he could do which could top rubbing a man of his sanity.
Charles smiles at the pawn in his right hand. "That was when I understood how easy it was. If I operated without limits, I could remake the world. Isn't that the best argument for restraint?"
Looking back, that should have been his first clue.
Charles is unquestionably a good man, by any measure Erik cares to apply and several he doesn't. That's not to say he's a kind man (although he sometimes remembers to try). Those things don't have to go together.
Erik leans forward. "No. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that you have a responsibility to use your power that way."
"Raven thinks that too," Charles says, carefully noncommittal, and takes a very delicate sip of scotch.
"She's sensible. You should consider her point of view."
When Charles glances up from the board, he could be a different man. It's the same face, with the same features, but Erik's never seen that expression before.
"I never said I disagreed with her. Mate in three, by the way."
He'd assumed that Charles took safety for granted because he'd never had to fight for it, not like Erik, who'd been taught early its absolute value. But Charles obviously has his own safeguards too.
"I won't let anyone hurt you," he says. Blurts out, really. He's not sure what drives him to it, only that he means every word.
Charles' smile turns sharp. "Don't make promises you can't keep. Rather, say that you'll fight for me. That's all I ask."
Days at the mansion go by too quickly. Or too slowly, he can't quite decide. The Shaw-shaped hole in his chest seems to be expanding with every day they spend in this idyllic bubble, training and chess matches and long evenings spent wide awake, trying to etch himself into Charles' skin, trying to get something of himself back in return.
Charles' study has some of the most ridiculous furniture known to man (and not nearly enough metal). One of the most ridiculous items is the enormous red armchair, of which Erik has become almost fond. Or at least he's getting used to Charles backing him into it and sinking to his knees, pointedly graceful, carrying himself like royalty even then.
He lets Erik take and take until Erik no longer feels the urge to run, to leave Westchester and go back to his hunt alone, and then he smiles that hungry red smile that freezes Erik in his tracks.
On one of the last days, Erik makes a decision.
Charles lifts his head from its resting place on Erik's thigh, gaze all heat and fascination. He's too honest to pretend that he hadn't known. "Could I - please, Erik, just this once - "
I'll stop as soon as you want me to.
Erik closes his eyes. "Yes."
He'd imagined the compulsion as something that could be easily felt, a violation that his mind would try to repel by instinct. It's nothing so crude as that. In fact, it's seamless. Charles' mind is like water, the way it flows through the smallest opening, the way its gentle and inexorable progress wears through even stone.
Charles is everywhere. Or he could be nowhere, and there's simply no way to know.
The problem, in the end, is this:
There is no way to know.
Anyone who could reach into his heart, tug on the strings until everything came loose, and leave him feeling grateful for the experience was no one he wanted as an enemy.
If only Charles really was nothing more than a foolish idealist. Idealism alone does very little damage - it's only when misguided ideas are married to intelligence and ability that they become capable of doing harm.
"It's not that I don't trust you, Charles."
On one level, the helmet is purely a symbol. Charles could still keep Erik from killing Shaw, by acting on any or all of the unshielded minds around them.
The helmet is his determination.
I will do this regardless of the cost. There is little else I'd lose your friendship for. You knew this was coming.
The helmet is his relief that Charles will never hear the mess of justifications and recriminations in his head.
The helmet is a dare.
If you value my life over his, let me do this.