Her eyes were burning. Charlotte gagged around the overwhelming scent of sulfur clouding her senses as she fought to keep her footing. She blinked and staggered about, catching herself on the edge of one of the curved couches in the center of the room. The sloping white walls, the paintings and bronzed sculptures, none of it was familiar. She had no idea where she was. As she stumbled across the carpeted floor she realized that she was only half-dressed, still in her flimsy nightgown from the night before. Or was it still night now? There were no windows here. That was when it hit her.
The sulfur. The strange, foreign room. The hazy thoughts of the two men in the next room over.
Shaw. She was somehow inside his base, the submarine from the looks of it, which meant she was completely and utterly trapped. She groaned and clutched desperately at the back of the couch to keep her footing. It had to be the doing of the crimson-skinned man she’d seen in Moira’s memories. Shaw’s teleporter. Her hand shot to her head, reaching out for the teleporter’s mind. He wasn’t too far, just in the next room over; he should be easy enough to control for the few seconds it would take to get her back to Westchester.
Suddenly the wall to her left opened up, and Shaw was there, standing alone in a room of mirrored glass. He had some sort of metal contraption atop his head, but he didn’t seem fazed by it in the slightest. A large grin tugged at the corners of his mouth. He stepped out onto the pristine white carpet and spread his arms wide in an odd parody of welcome.
“Miss Xavier. What a pleasant surprise. Welcome to my humble abode.” She watched his back recede a hundred times over in the mirrors as he stepped out of the glassy alcove and drew closer to her. That horrible, smug grin never once left his face. “Can I get you something to drink? Water? Tea? Or perhaps you want something a little stronger?” he continued conversationally as though he couldn’t sense her unease. He moved around to the bottles of liquor lining the wall and grabbed one down, inspecting it for a moment before pouring the amber liquid into a crystal tumbler.
“What have you done to me?” Charlotte spat back in reply. She was gripping the back of the couch like a lifeline, afraid that if she let go her legs would collapse beneath her and drop her like a stone.
“Ah yes, I forgot.” He grabbed his glass and turned to face her. The smile never left his lips. “You aren’t used to traveling with Azazel. My apologies. It really is the most convenient form of travel I know, but I admit that it can be a bit disorienting the first couple of times,” he said with a smirk, his eyes trailing up and down her body. Charlotte swallowed the urge to throw her arms across her chest to cover herself. It wouldn’t do much good anyway.
She stared back at him defiantly and probed for Shaw’s mind with her thoughts, but she kept coming up with nothing. It was like he wasn’t even there. Her heart shot up into her throat. The helmet. It had to be the helmet’s doing. She licked the dry skin of her lips and gathered up her courage. She couldn’t fight him the usual way, so she had to find another way out.
“What do you want with me?”
Shaw clicked his tongue in an affectionate reproach as he came ever closer. He reached out and brushed his fingers through the soft, loose curls framing her face before reaching around to massage the soft skin at the base of her skull. “Now, now, Charlotte.” She flinched at the sound of her name, and Shaw’s smile only grew. “I thought you could read minds, my dear.”
“I can,” she replied calmly, trying not to let her fear bleed through into her features. This man was dangerous and far too unpredictable for her to let her guard down. She loosened her grip on the back of the couch, standing up straight to face him in full, never once showing any sign that she even noticed Shaw’s fingers carding through her hair. “But something is keeping me from yours. Your headgear, I assume.”
His fingers tightened around the back of her neck as he began to laugh, and Charlotte could feel panic rising up in her belly. She couldn’t touch Shaw’s mind, and there was only so long she could control his henchmen. Even then, there was no telling how long it would be before they came after her again. She swallowed and tried to concentrate, searching for the familiar expanse of her sister’s mind. She was too far away to be able to definitively pick out anyone else. Raven.
“Very good, Charlotte.”
“Don’t call me that.”
He blinked, taken aback for a moment by her sudden outburst before the grin crept back onto his face. “What shall I call you then? Lottie? Charlie?” He brought his drink back up to his lips and took a sip. “Perhaps we’ll keep this professional, then, Miss Xavier. We are here on business after all.” He finally let her go, and she reached up to rub the back of her neck.
“Business?” Raven, if you can hear me, you need to wake the others.
“Yes, my dear, business.” He placed his drink down on one of the curved shelves lining the walls, crossing his arms in front of his chest. “You see, you and your merry band of miscreants have put me in a bit of a bind as I am now without a telepath. So now I need your help.”
She wanted to shout at him, spit back a witty retort, but that might cut off her tenuous connection to her sister. Raven, it’s Shaw. He—I need you to wake everyone and get to Hank as quickly as possible. I need your help.
“Why would you ever think that I would support your cause?”
“Ah, but that’s the thing, Miss Xavier. I don’t need you to.” He stalked closer to her, and she pushed her thoughts away with even greater urgency. “You see, Emma was more than a mere lackey. She had a much grander place in the whole scheme of things. Otherwise, even with an ability such as hers, do you honestly think I would have a woman as my second in command?” He laughed a little with a quick shake of his head, and Charlotte fixed him with a hard glare. “No, Emma had a higher purpose here with me than simply reading the minds of my enemies. But unfortunately, now that she is no longer at my side, I need something from you.”
“And what might that be?” She could feel herself shaking. His grin never faltered.
“You’re a geneticist, correct?” He paused for a moment, almost as though he expected her to answer. “From what I’ve seen thus far, the mutant genes such as the ones you and I possess appear to run more strongly in families. Just look at your Alex Summers if you want proof of it. I had Emma dig up records on all of the children under your care before you handed her over to the American government. And young Mr. Summers, did you know that his brother is just like him? Their abilities are rather similar, too. Isn’t it brilliant?”
She backed away. Her heart was racing in her chest. “What does this have to do with me?”
“Surely you’ve thought about this at some time or another. What a child born of two mutant parents can be capable of. My abilities are mostly physical, close-range. Telepathy, particularly when one is as strong as you are, Miss Xavier, is most useful at a distance. Imagine if you will, my dear, what a child with a combination of those two abilities could do.” His hand was suddenly tight around her arm. “A child like that, our child, could very well be the strongest mutant yet.” He pulled her up flush against his body. She could feel every ridge of his clothing through the thin fabric of her nightgown; she could smell the arousal on his breath.
“What I need, Miss Xavier, is a telepath. You stole Emma from me, and now you will simply have to take her place.”
Charlotte’s mind went into overdrive. Against her better judgment, she grabbed hold of the teleporter’s mind. He appeared before them in a puff of crimson smoke, his face slack like he was lost in a trance. Shaw’s calm demeanor melted and he thrust his hand into the teleporter’s chest, sending him crashing into the wall. Charlotte scrabbled desperately for purchase on Shaw’s mind, but came up with nothing. She had nothing. Her hands shot up to claw at the harsh metal edges of Shaw’s helmet, but his hands held her steady. His grip suddenly seemed a thousand times stronger than it had a moment ago, and he only seemed to gain more power with her efforts.
“Energy, darling. The more you struggle, the more you punch and bite and kick, the stronger I become.”
Charlotte knew this. She knew it, but she couldn’t make herself stop. Not now that she knew what Shaw planned to do with her. Her stomach lurched and her legs trembled beneath her. “Please, please don’t do this.” By now her connection with Raven was little more than a series of continuous pleas. She couldn’t garner enough focus for much else. “Please, just let me go.”
He said nothing. The time for talk had passed. Charlotte felt her arms jerk sharply forward, and her bare feet slid on the plush white carpet, bringing her to her knees. He dragged her over toward the mirrored room, to the endless facets of reflective glass, his hand hot and sharp against her skin.
The blue glow at the center of the room washed over them as the wall slid shut, throwing Charlotte’s world into silence. She was trapped. Shaw released his grip on her arms and dropped her unceremoniously to the floor. It was hot in here, almost unbearably so, even in her flimsy dress. She staggered to her feet. Shaw was watching her like a cat watching its prey.
“Now, Miss Xavier, are we going to do this the easy way or the hard way?”
She glared and spat at his feet, but the gesture only brought a smile to his face. “Good,” he murmured softly, the word rumbling deep in his chest as he advanced toward her. “I’ve always liked the ones who put up a fight best.”
Raven had never seen anything quite like it before. Water poured down the sides of the submarine like a curtain as it rose up into the air, roiling up the gulf in waves. She trembled from her seat as she watched the thing emerge from the water like one of the great sea monsters of old, her thoughts racing. That was Shaw’s ship, and Charlotte was in there. Somewhere. With Shaw doing god knows what to her. Raven tracked the progress of the submarine with her eyes and prayed her sister was safe wherever she was. It was a false hope, and she knew it, but she clung to the idea like her life depended on it. She needed her sister to be all right.
Hank lowered the plane in synch with Erik lowering the vessel under his command to the beach. This massive display of his power had left everyone reeling, and Raven wondered, not for the first time, what was going to happen with the ships fast approaching the embargo line. Surely they were watching this. Both sides were going to stop gunning for each other, and they were going to turn their attention to the beach now that they knew just what people like Erik—people like herself—were capable of. She gripped the edges of her seat hard under her hands and tried to calm her racing heart, focusing on thoughts of her sister and the mission at hand. Charlotte. They were going to find and rescue Charlotte. That was what mattered right now.
No matter how often Raven reached out to her, Charlotte hadn’t said a thing since that fateful night, the telepathic connection between them now horribly silent. The faint, desperate whispers haunting the back of Raven’s mind had yet to disappear, and she knew that some of the others had picked up on it. Not words, perhaps, but the emotions had leaked through well enough. Her sister was in trouble, and wherever Shaw was keeping her, she couldn’t reach out to them. Raven bit her lip and watched the submarine collapse onto the sand like a beached whale.
The wheels of the plane had just barely touched down to the ground, and they were scrambling out of it. The submarine lay before them, silent and still on the sand. None of Shaw’s followers emerged, but there was no doubt that they were hiding in there somewhere. Erik took the lead, tearing open the metal sides of the ship like they were made of paper. Raven followed close behind, silent as a shadow. She had no idea if any of the others were behind them, though she could hear the harsh crack of the teleporter echoing in her ears, signaling the start of the fight ahead of them. She kept close to Erik’s back, wondering if anyone else would be there to meet them as they moved along the deck.
The place was silent and empty, like a tomb. Shaw’s henchmen were likely now out on the beach fighting their companions.
“Where do you think he’s keeping her?”
Raven jumped at the sound of Moira’s voice. She hadn’t realized the agent had followed them in. Raven shook her head. “I don’t know. Probably somewhere near the end of the ship. I have no idea where we are.”
“Judging from the controls, I’d say we’re in the cockpit,” Erik mumbled. She could feel the anger bundled within his frame like a living breathing thing, pulsing off of him in waves. He twisted open the door at the far end of the room. It was far too pristine to be much of anything but some sort of living area. Knowing Shaw, he wouldn’t keep a prisoner in living conditions even half that good, but there were so few places he could be hiding. They charged ahead, hoping for some sort of clue.
The curved walls were lined with bottles of expensive wines and liqueurs, the floor decked out with a soft white carpet that sank with every step they took. There was no sign of Shaw. Erik yelled in frustration and slammed his fist against the wall, leaving small, rounded indents where his hands hit the metal. “There’s nothing here! How do we know he didn’t just disappear using that demon of his?”
Suddenly the wall behind him opened up, and Shaw was there, a wide smirk painted across his face. “Now, now. I wouldn’t be so quick to label him a demon. I’m not sure Azazel would appreciate the comparison.”
Erik? Raven? Even telepathically, her voice sounded muddled, like she was speaking to them through a pool of water, but that was definitely her sister. Raven peered around Erik’s back to get a better view of the hidden room.
Charlotte was there at Shaw’s feet, pressed up against one of the mirrored walls that reflected her image into infinity, naked as the day she was born. A swath of blood spilled down her forehead, and her fair skin was mottled with bruises, but her eyes lit up at the sight of them. Moira started forward, but Erik held her back with a sweep of his arm. Shaw’s grin only grew at the motion.
“I see that you did learn something from me, at least.”
“And what might that be?” Erik growled.
“To keep your women at arm’s length. Take this one for example.” He reached over and snagged Charlotte’s hair in his fingers, dragging her across the smooth mirrored floor toward the carpet. “She’s quite the little viper when you get her riled up. Nothing at all like my last telepath.” He dropped her unceremoniously to the floor, and she glared up at him, her blue eyes flashing.
Raven could see Erik’s fists clenching at his sides, but he made no other show of his anger.
“She did make a pretty little lure for you, didn’t she, Erik? I’m sure you’ve already had a taste of that sweet flesh. She certainly makes you fight for it, doesn’t she?”
Raven felt her stomach drop down to her feet. Shaw hadn’t…he couldn’t have. Charlotte would have put a stop to that before he could lay a finger on her. But the marks on her sister’s body spoke otherwise, didn’t they? A hot, burning rage coiled up in her belly as the realization hit her, and Raven rushed forward in a flurry of fists. Shaw barely reacted to a single blow, but she just kept on, her mouth open in a wordless scream of rage.
Her sister’s soft voice brought her back to her senses, and she slowed, giving Shaw the opportunity to seize her wrists in his crushing grip. “Is that really the best you could do, my dear?”
Erik’s hands lifted, and Shaw’s helmet went with them. He dropped Raven to the floor as the metal rose from his brow, and he reached up to grab it only to freeze in place, his hands raised futilely in the air. Raven gaze trailed over to her sister. Charlotte’s fingers were glued to her temple as she was wont to do whenever she needed to concentrate her telepathy, her blue eyes fixed on Shaw’s face in a steely glare. Erik prowled around the man’s frozen form like a circling buzzard. He suddenly stilled, reaching into his pocket to pull out the small silver coin he always seemed to have on his person.
“I’m going to count to three. And I’m going to move the coin.” He released the coin from his fingers. It floated up in front of him, a threat and a promise. “One.”
“I can’t hold him for long, Erik,” Charlotte ground out through clenched teeth.
Erik ignored her. The coin moved closer, rolling through the air to settle between Shaw’s eyes. “Two.”
“For god’s sake, if you’re going to do anything to him, do it now and be quick about it,” Charlotte snapped from the floor. “Otherwise you can hurry up and get us the hell out of here.” Her tone was laced with venom as she spat out every breathy word.
The coin went into Shaw’s forehead, and Charlotte crumpled to the floor, her face bunching in agony, her mouth opening and closing in silent screams. Through it all, her fingers never left her temple; Shaw never twitched.
The bloodied coin fell to the carpet with a soft thud, staining the white fibers red, and Shaw fell like a stone. Raven pushed herself to her knees and stumbled over to Charlotte, gathering the other woman up in her arms. Charlotte was naked, bruised, shaking with exhaustion, and her eyelashes were dotted with the moisture of unshed tears, but she was alive. She was alive and breathing, and that was enough for now. Moira knelt down beside the pair. She reached out to touch Charlotte, but her hand fell short.
“We should get out of here.”
Raven rubbed her hand over the bare skin of Charlotte’s shoulder. “Do you think you can walk?”
“Yes,” Charlotte panted. “Yes, I should be able to walk.” She untangled herself from Raven’s arms and tried to push herself up from the floor, but her legs refused to hold her, and she fell once more. She pounded her fists against the carpet, swearing at her display of weakness.
Raven looked up at Erik. His attention was still fixated on Shaw. “Erik.” He didn’t move. “Erik we need your help.”
That seemed to draw him out of his trance, and he crouched down on the carpet, reaching out to gather Charlotte into his arms. She shoved him back. “Don’t. Don’t touch me. Moira, help me up.” He backed away to give the agent room, his expression hard as stone. Moira shifted closer and wrapped Charlotte’s arm around her shoulders before standing, lifting the telepath to her feet.
Raven shuffled over to Shaw’s body and quickly divested him of his suit jacket. She held it out for Charlotte to take, not knowing if her sister wanted any sort of cover for her nakedness. “I don’t…I wasn’t sure if you wanted anything. We don’t have anything else.”
Charlotte sighed and pulled it on, as much as it pained her to do so. The jacket hung low about her hips, not quite covering her, but her shoulders deflated a bit. It itched and made her skin crawl, but it was better than nothing. She stumbled forward toward the door, the others trailing along behind her.
Charlotte rubbed the towel over her calves, scowling at the dots of water still littering her skin. She was warm, far too warm, but she refused to remove the robe from around her shoulders. She couldn’t stand to be naked for more than a few minutes. It left her too exposed, made her far too vulnerable. Just taking the shower had been hard enough. She scowled and rubbed harder, turning the skin red.
Good, she thought. The small rash of skin would now match the scuffs on her knees, the welts on her thighs. She’d have a matching set. She rubbed harder.
The soft white robe slipped from around her shoulder, baring the skin to the cool evening air. She caught sight of the large purpling bruise atop her breast and felt her breath catch in her throat. That one, that had been a bite. A particularly hard one if she was remembering correctly. She dropped the towel and swiftly put the robe back in its place before cinching the tie ever tighter about her middle.
Her chest felt tight, making it hard to breathe, and she wanted nothing more than to slap some sense into herself. Stupid. She was being so stupid about this. It was only sex, and Shaw was dead. She knew that better than anyone else; she’d felt the phantom of Erik’s damn coin pass through her skull. And no matter how badly she hurt now, the pain would fade. The female body was fit to survive such abuse. It was only sex, after all.
She rose from her bed and padded over to the cabinet at the far end of the room. She leaned down, wincing at the tight pull of her abdominal muscles and searched for the bottle of brandy she kept hidden inside. It was a habit she’d picked up from her mother, hiding the alcohol. If Raven had ever picked up on the stash of wine she’d kept near her bed in their flat back at Oxford, she’d never said a word.
Her fingers brushed the familiar ridges of the glass stopper, and she pulled the bottle out by its neck, not even bothering to grab a glass. They were probably dusty as hell anyway She drank straight from the bottle and coughed a little at the burn as it slid down her throat. It wasn't the best stuff she had lying around the house and tasted rather like the bile resting in the back of her mouth, but she didn’t particularly care so long as it did its job.
She took another swig before sliding down to the floor to bury her face in her knees. She couldn’t believe how stupid she was being about this whole thing. Shaw was gone; he was never coming back. And what he’d done to her hadn’t been all that bad in the long run. She’d seen far worse in the minds of men she’d never know and even worse than that in the minds of some she did. She would be perfectly fine in a few days, nothing serious. She wasn’t even bleeding, though god knows Shaw had been rough enough for that sort of thing. She was being silly, like a schoolgirl regretting whom she’d given her virginity away to.
It was only sex, not the end of the world.
The weather was starting to turn, and Charlotte’s mood was starting to turn with it. It had been nearly a month since she’d been taken, and everyone was still walking on eggshells around her. It was maddening.
Charlotte captured Erik’s pawn and set the piece off to the side, frowning a bit into the curve of her fist. “You’re not playing your best tonight,” she observed. “I see checkmate in five.”
Erik startled and turned his wandering attention back to the board. He swore softly when he saw that she was right and floundered to correct his clumsy mistakes. Charlotte leaned back in her seat and sighed. “What is going on, Erik?”
He looked up at her, his grey eyes going unnaturally wide. “What?”
“With you. You’ve been acting odd lately.”
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”
Charlotte leaned forward in her chair and fixed him with a hard stare, scrutinizing every line on the man’s face. “You’re angry, even more so than usual. You’ve been amiable with the children, helpful, even, but I can feel you boiling under the surface. Your rage has been building ever since we left Cuba, and yet here we are, night after night, like nothing’s wrong.”
“Is there something wrong?”
“Of course there’s something wrong,” she growled in frustration at his obliviousness and pushed herself to her feet. “I don’t know how to be around you anymore!”
“What are you talking about, Charlotte?” His brow bunched together in confusion, and all she wanted to do was punch him. She fought to keep her telepathy in check.
“I’m talking about you.” She paced up and down the floor, her bare feet pounding against the hardwood floor. “You’ve been nothing but disgustingly nice to me ever since Florida, and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with it. I want things to go back to the way they were. I want everyone to stop…” She paused and dug the heel of her palm into her face. Her eyes were burning, stinging with tears that made her more angry than anything. Her moods had been so volatile lately, and she was aggravated by her lack of control. “I can’t breathe around here anymore,” she whispered.
She heard Erik rise from his chair. The weight of his mind laid heavy in the back of her head as he came to stand behind her. She could feel his hesitation rolling off him in waves.
“You know, it’s okay, Erik. You can touch me.” She turned around and looked up at him, her blue eyes red and rimmed with tears. It was an odd contrast to the light smile gracing her lips. “That’s what I’ve been telling you all this time, all of you. I’m not made of glass.”
He gathered her into his arms, reveling in the hard press of her arms against his chest. He buried his face in her hair and tried to clear his head of the endless litany of foreign feelings rushing through his skull. She curled her hand into the woolen fabric of his shirt, and he calmed.
“I’m okay, Erik. I promise.”
She nodded and breathed out, preparing herself for the sudden stimulation Hank’s new version of Cerebro was about to hit her with. It was only the second time she’d used this model. Their first trial run had been disastrous, not at all like the one they’d been able to use at the CIA base. Hank had gotten a little too generous with the power levels now that he had a real telepath to work with instead of just theory. Charlotte had had to physically pry Erik off of Hank after the machine failed, and all over a little headache and a few coordinates that didn’t really exist.
Even now she could see Erik looming on the periphery of the room, his frame so tense she was afraid he might snap in two. “You all right there, Erik?” she called out with a smile.
“Just get this over with,” he grumbled. Hank began to flip the switches, the click of the metal loud in the quiet of the room.
The surge of power almost caught her off guard, but she held herself steady with the railing in front of her. An endless stream of faces flashed past as she brushed up against their minds, searching for the elusive tell that would verify their mutation. It was almost a relief to be working again, doing something besides physical training with Raven and the boys, playing chess with Erik and pouring over dusty tomes of outdated literature on genetics and biophysics that she barely remembered having, let alone reading.
Her stomach gave an abrupt lurch, and her knees went weak, her hands gripping the railing so hard her fingers went white with the pressure. She had been afraid of many things happening, and this, unfortunately, had not been one of them. “Oh god.”
She shoved the helmet from her head and rushed from the room, keeping the back of her hand pressed firmly against her lips.
Keep it in, Charlotte. Keep it in. You’re almost there.
Her feet slid across the floor as she raced into the hall bathroom. She fell painfully to her knees and bent over the toilet, waiting for the bout of nausea to pass. She wondered just how long it would take for Erik to come find her. Judging from the heavy footsteps pounding the floor outside, it wouldn’t be long at all.
She groaned and leaned forward against the tank, enjoying the feel of the cool porcelain against her forehead. Soon. The nausea was definitely bad right now, but it would pass soon the same way it had the past couple of days. She just had to wait it out and hope that her breakfast didn’t decide to come back for a repeat performance.
“Charlotte?” And there was Erik, right on time.
She opened her mouth to reply, but hot bile rushed up her throat instead. She heaved into the bowl, trying desperately to ignore the rush of worry rolling in from her companion and the hand pulling her hair away from her face. Thankfully, it was hard to focus on little else except the wrenching twist of her stomach as it tried to escape her body.
As the nausea began to ebb, she spat into the bowl one last time and collapsed back onto the tile, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand as Erik flushed away the evidence of her sickness. “I’m all right,” she panted. “I’m fine.”
“Like hell you are. I knew this wouldn’t work. Not after the last time. I’m not letting you near that damn contraption of Hank’s until he figures out how to tell his head from his—”
“Erik.” She placed a hand on his arm and stared him in the eye, bring down his ire. “This isn’t Hank’s fault or Cerebro’s doing. I’ve been fighting off some sort of bug the past few days. I didn’t tell anyone because it really hasn’t been all that bad. I think it’s finally caught up with me is all.”
He still looked skeptical as he helped her to her feet, but he didn’t question it. Charlotte knew herself far better than he did, after all, and if she said she was sick before all this, then she was probably telling the truth, though it was entirely possible that was all a cover-up to turn his anger away from Hank.
Erik watched as she straightened her shirt and smoothed her hands down the fabric of her slacks. She’d always preferred pants to skirts, and after Shaw the very thought of baring her legs for most any reason was impossible. For now, at least. She was going to work herself up to it eventually.
“Tell Hank I’m indisposed. I’m going to go lay down for a while, I think.”
“Do you need anything?” He tried not to sound so eager to help. She had flown into a rage the last time he’d done that. “Water, perhaps?”
“No,” she sighed, sounding immensely tired all of a sudden. “Just apologize to Hank for ruining whatever equipment you might have bunged up on your way here. I’ll be in my room.”
She sat down on the edge of her bed and swung her legs limply over the soft down coverlets, her toes just barely brushing the smooth wooden panels of the floor. The sickness from earlier had long since passed, but she hadn’t felt much like facing the rest of the household today, instead choosing to hole herself up in her room and flip through her old university notes to pass the time. It was dull and a little lonely, but she appreciated the quiet. It was almost nice not to have to tell someone how to act around her.
Since the mishap this morning, Erik had been warning everyone away from her room barring emergencies, saying she was ill and needed her rest. It was sweet of him, she knew, but frustrating all the same. She didn’t need him to fight her battles for her.
Tight, pinching cramps inched up her belly, and she felt the nausea rise again, so she bent low over her knees, hoping it would pass quickly. It had been coming and going mostly at random for some time now, and she had no idea why. The frustrating lack of other symptoms had her worried, though she wouldn’t dare breathe a word of it to another soul. There were so many things that could be wrong, and if she was honest with herself, it could simply be all in her head. A psychosomatic malady brought on by stress. It wouldn’t be surprising.
She squeezed her eyes shut and silently berated herself for being so weak. She could feel Erik buzzing throughout the house below her in an aimless daze; his anxiety had been flitting around the edges of her mind all day. She had half a mind to call him in here and sit him down for a talk or send him on some mindless task to calm him down. She sighed and flopped back onto her bed. It probably wasn’t worth the effort.
The cramps began anew, and she massaged the soft skin below her navel, scowling at her body’s betrayal. This illness wasn’t anything. She was likely just starting her period. She’d always had the worst cramps, and—her period. Oh. She shot upright and slid off the bed, her mood growing all the more sour.
She rushed over to her nightstand and shuffled around for one of the menstrual rags she’d buried at the bottom of her underwear drawer. She appreciated the biological process, she really did, but there were so many times (particularly as of late) when she wished she didn’t have to deal with it. She finally found one and its accompanying belt, crushing them tight in her palm before slinking over to her bathroom. She was certain that she’d never been so relieved to have a bathroom to herself.
She peeled away her pants and underwear, fully prepared to wash away the dark stain that was sure to be decorating the seams of the fabric, only to find nothing there. Odd. The cramps had yet to stop. Perhaps the bleeding was light this time around and the cramps early. It wouldn’t be the first time. She frowned and fastened the belt around her hips with a shake of her head, securing the rag into place. She could hear Raven coming up the stairs to let her know that dinner was ready. She reached for her pants and pulled them up over her legs, ignoring the rolling of her stomach. They were just cramps.
It was probably nothing.
After three days had passed, she found her rag was still as spotless as it had been when she’d taken it out of her drawer, and the cramps had yet to stop. Charlotte knew something was terribly, terribly wrong.
She was growing more restless by the day and couldn’t help wondering if something was seriously wrong with her, if she should swallow her pride and seek professional medical advice. If it was some sort of psychic malady, then she wasn’t exactly prepared to treat it (how did one treat oneself for these sorts of things, anyway?), and she was even less competent if it were something purely physical. She paced the floor of her room, dozens of disastrous scenarios flicking through her mind. What if it was cancer? What if the alcoholic tendencies graciously passed on to her from her mother had finally caught up with her? What if it was something serious, and she was just brushing it off as an overactive imagination playing tricks on her?
She slouched down into one of the lumpy armchairs situated in her room, contemplating the dry cloth between her legs and the tight pinching in her belly. Something wasn’t right. She rubbed a hand over her abdomen, trying to quell the tiny squeeze of the cramps that had been plaguing her off and on for the past few days. Nothing added up. It certainly felt like she was on her period. Unless…
Her eyes went wide as the thought struck her, and she was on her feet in an instant. She kept a little calendar in her nightstand as a reminder, a way to track her cycles just to make sure. It couldn’t be. Shaw had been trying to, yes, but it wasn’t true. It couldn’t be true.
She pulled out the calendar and flipped through the pages, her eyes running over the tiny numbers she’d scrawled in the corner of each box. She hadn’t been counting as of late, but she made up for that now.
The numbers added up.
And it made perfect sense, did it not? This very thing had been Shaw’s ultimate goal when he’d taken her. She sank to the floor, her legs refusing to hold her up any longer.
She was pregnant. With Shaw’s child.
Oh god, she was pregnant. The thought of that alone had her reeling even if she didn’t think about whom the child’s father was. She hadn’t slept with anyone since her abduction, and it had been almost three months before that that she’d taken anyone into her bed, no matter how much she’d wanted to do so with Erik so close to her all this time. There was no one else it could be. Her mind sought out the familiar pattern of her sister, unconsciously seeking out comfort wherever she could.
Raven. Raven, I need to talk to you. It’s urgent.
Charlotte? She got back in reply, and the sound of her sister’s voice reverberating through her head made her throat go tight. Is everything all right? Are you okay? She sounded worried, was probably on her way to Charlotte’s room now, though she might have Erik in tow if he was near. Charlotte couldn’t handle dealing with him right now.
Just come up here, please. And don’t bring anyone with you. I need your advice.
“Charlotte?” The creak of the hinges seemed far too loud in her ears as the door opened and Raven stepped into the room. Charlotte wanted to get up, greet her sister and tell her that no, never mind, nothing was wrong, but she couldn’t get her legs to lift her off the floor.
She looked at the calendar again before meeting her sister’s gaze. Raven was wearing her disguise, pink skin and blonde hair, but her eyes had gone yellow in her worry. Charlotte smiled a little and gestured up at her own face. “You need to watch that, you know. I thought Erik was working with you on maintaining your disguises under stress.”
Raven frowned and crouched down low to the floor. “He is, and I’m getting better at it.” She reached out and brushed away a stray curl that had spilled out over Charlotte’s forehead. “But that doesn’t matter right now. What’s going on? You wouldn’t call me like that unless something was wrong, so don’t even think of sending me back downstairs without some kind of explanation. It was bad enough getting up here without Erik following me like some sort of stray puppy.”
Charlotte laughed a little at that, but she couldn’t keep the distress from her voice. She was a mess, and she knew it. She just didn’t quite know how to fix it. Her throat went tight, and her eyes finally welled with tears that she swiped away with a soft curse at her show of weakness. Raven’s hand gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze.
“Charlotte, what’s going on?”
“Raven, I—” the words caught in her throat as she eyed the dates on the calendar at her feet, the little numbers mocking her. How could she do this to herself? How could she have let this happen? She swallowed and lifted her gaze to meet her sister’s eyes. They had gone completely gold by now, the yellow sclera crowding out the last remnants of white. “I’m pregnant.”
Raven blinked, her mind not fully processing what she’d just heard. She glanced at the little calendar at Charlotte’s feet, and her throat grew tight. “You don’t mean…Shaw?”
Charlotte nodded, not trusting her voice. Raven stared at her like she’d grown a second head. The silence stretched out between them, and Charlotte felt her anxiety rising. She wanted to read Raven, take in her shock and disgust and wrap herself up in it like a blanket because surely she was just as repulsed by Charlotte’s weakness as Charlotte herself was, but a promise was a promise. She had said she would never read Raven’s thoughts without her permission, and she stuck to it. “Raven? Say something.”
Raven shot up from the floor, her skin shifting back to its natural blue. “That bastard!” She stormed back and forth across the floor, spitting her anger into half-broken sentences and wordless screams of rage. “How could he—I can’t believe he would—uurgh! …can’t even escape him now.”
As Charlotte watched her sister’s outburst, she felt a strange sense of calm wash over her. Raven.
Raven came to an abrupt halt and stared down at Charlotte. She came back to herself and was back at Charlotte’s side in an instant, her face flushed with embarrassment at her loss of control. “Sorry, I’m sorry. I just—” She reached out to touch her sister’s hair again, a comforting gesture she’d picked up when they were children. “How could he do this to you?” she asked, her voice little more than a whisper.
Charlotte wanted to laugh. Easily, she thought. “I’m not a fighter like you.”
“Don’t you dare, Charlotte. Don’t you dare put this on yourself because nothing that happened to you was your fault.” She calmed then, her face falling as the color drained from her cheeks. “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.
Raven worried her lower lip between her teeth, casting nervous glances at the door. “I know Moira is technically law enforcement, but if we’re quiet about it, I know a place—”
“No. No, I don’t—I can’t do that, Raven. I…no matter how much I hate Shaw, I can’t kill a child. Even his.”
“So you’re keeping it?”
“I don’t know.” She looked down at the floor. Her eyes were burning again, tears threatening to spill out over her cheeks, and her entire body was shaking. She really needed a drink. That would calm her nerves. She sucked in a deep breath in hopes of quelling the tremors running through her body. “I don’t think I can do this, Raven.”
She suddenly found herself enveloped in the soft embrace of her sister’s arms, and the tears couldn’t be held back this time. Raven ran her hands over Charlotte’s back and stared out into the distance.
“We’ll work through this, Charlotte. We’ll figure this out.”
Another handful of days slipped away, taking any hint of warm weather with it. Charlotte kept the secret of her pregnancy to herself, relying on Raven’s support whenever she felt like breaking down. She didn’t know what she was going to do, or how she was going to deal with it, but she knew that she would have to break the news to the rest of the household eventually. She wouldn’t be able to hide it forever.
She fell back onto the plush cushions of the sofa beside the fireplace with a sigh and stretched her legs out before her. It had been a long day. Hank had finally recalibrated Cerebro to Erik’s liking, and they had completed a successful test run, finding five mutants within easy traveling distance. That combined with a full day of training with the children had left her exhausted. She closed her eyes and tilted her head over the back of the sofa, trying to clear her head of the static buzzing between her ears. The rest of the week would be devoted to finding the people on Hank’s new coordinate list and offering them a chance to join their cause followed by more tests with Cerebro, expanding her range ever higher. It was exhilarating feeling all of those minds at once. She simply wished it didn’t leave her with such a spectacular headache.
The little knot at the base of her stomach made itself known once more, and she stiffened. The cramps weren’t bad, more of an annoyance than anything, but they reminded her of her predicament, of what she still had to do. She screwed her eyes more tightly shut and wished that she had someone to talk to. Someone who wasn’t Erik or Raven. Moira had been good company, but she was gone, and Charlotte wasn’t sure she could handle dealing with any of the boys right now.
Moira had been called back to CIA headquarters, and when she’d broken the news to them Charlotte had gone against her principles and altered Moira’s memories. Moira would know their names should she pass them on the street, and she could update her superiors on the mutant issue as it currently stood, but she wouldn’t remember the mansion or what exactly had happened to Sebastian Shaw on the beach all those months ago. It was too dangerous for her to know just what they were capable of. Mutants were people, not weapons, and Charlotte had convinced everyone that it was best to hide for the time being. At least until they could get the school itself up and running.
Charlotte missed Moira more than she’d originally thought. It had been nice having another woman to talk to besides her sister, but life seemed to enjoy kicking her when she was down. She rubbed a hand over her abdomen and tried to will away her aches and pains. It didn’t work, but it was a good enough distraction.
She heard Erik’s thoughts long before she heard his footsteps and stilled the movements of her hand, but she otherwise pretended she hadn’t noticed him coming in. Perhaps if he thought she was asleep, he would leave her alone.
Apparently not. He stood there, watching her for what felt like eternity. She sighed and raised her head to look at him. “What is it, Erik?”
“Would you mind company? The children appear to be collaborating on the most imaginative way to poison us.”
She quirked an eyebrow in amusement. “They’re all cooking dinner? Together?”
He smiled and sat down on the armchair facing her. “They’re trying to, at any rate.”
“I see. Hopefully Sean will be able to salvage anything Raven attempts to make. She’s always been rather abysmal when it comes to the art of cooking, and his food has at least been somewhat edible.” She rubbed her feet together, enjoying the warmth spilling out from the crackling fire on her skin. She watched the pattern of the shadows dancing across her feet, flickering in and out with the flames. Erik leaned forward over his knees and studied her with an expression she’d never seen before. She smiled at him. “What? Do I have something on my face? It wouldn’t surprise me if I did. Hank asked me to—”
“No. No, you look beautiful.”
“Oh.” She felt a blush rise unbidden to her cheeks, and her eyes shot to her hands. Anywhere but Erik’s face. It had been so long since someone had complimented her looks. The last time it had happened felt like a lifetime ago. Her immunity to it seemed to have gone out the window in only a few short months. “Thank you.”
“I never thought I would be here, you know.”
She looked up at him. His chin was propped up on his hands as he stared at her. She felt like his eyes could see right through her, and she drew up into herself a little, feeling vulnerable yet again. Silence drifted between them. Charlotte didn’t know what to say to that, so she waited for Erik to elaborate. When he didn’t, and she felt his thoughts grow darker and more troubled, she sighed. “What’s bothering you, Erik? Don’t try and hide it from me. I can fight dirty if I have to.” She smiled and tapped the side of her head. She heard him shift about on his chair before opening his mouth to speak.
“Do you think Shaw was right?”
Her head snapped up in an instant. “What?”
“About humans. Identification is the first step, Charlotte, you and I both know that. Then comes the separation, experimentation, and before you know it there are ghettos, slums and camps. Extermination for those deemed too powerful. If we were still working with the CIA, where do you think it would have stopped?”
“We’re not with the CIA anymore, Erik.”
“Agent McTaggart still knows about us.”
“Only somewhat, and she’s our ally.”
“She’s a liability.
Charlotte huffed in exasperation and laid her head back down over the edge of the couch. “Did you come in here just to argue with me, Erik? Because if you did, I’m going to kindly ask you to leave. I’m too tired to deal with it just now.”
“That’s not why I’m here.”
She eyed him apprehensively, trying to keep herself clear of his thoughts. “Then why are you here?”
He rose up out of his chair and settled down on the sofa beside her. “Because I wanted to see you.” He reached over and gently grabbed her chin in his hand, turning her face to look at him. Her breath caught in her throat as he leaned in close and pressed their lips together, all warmth and trust and god, she’d been waiting for this for so long. She leaned into the kiss, just enough to show that it was welcome, and she could feel him smile against her lips. Just then, another cramp hit, bringing her back to reality. She drew away, her face crumbling.
“Charlotte? I didn’t, I’m sorry if I was—” She silenced him with a finger to his lips.
“No, you’re fine. I just…Erik, I can’t.” She wanted to, but she couldn’t do a thing with the secret hanging over her head. Shaw had been dead for almost two months now, and somehow he was still there, ruining their lives. She drew in a deep breath and braced herself. Erik needed to know. It was best to get this over with. “Erik, I—when Shaw took me, he…” She trailed off, not quite sure how to continue. She searched for the words in her head, trying to make sense of it all herself. “Erik, there was a reason he targeted me.”
Charlotte saw his hands curl into fists. She had a feeling Erik knew why Shaw had taken her; he certainly knew what had been done to her, even though they never talked about it. There had been no hiding it, really. Charlotte wavered between curling up and withdrawing from Erik and reaching out to smooth her fingers over his hands. She did neither, staying almost completely still as the words spilled from her mouth. “He was a Nazi at heart, Erik. He wanted to breed a superior mutant race, and he wanted a telepath to do it.”
Erik drew back like he’d been stung. “You mean he…?”
She nodded and swallowed. God, why was this so difficult? “Erik,” she whispered, her voice cracking. “I’m pregnant.”
“What?” Erik sounded dazed. He was staring at her, his eyes glazed over in disbelief as though this was all some sort of crazed dream.
“I’m pregnant,” she repeated, giving his hands a tight squeeze. “I didn’t know for certain until maybe a week ago.”
He blinked. She could hear him going over the entire thing in his head, trying to make sense of it all. Her heart broke a little at the quiet desperation thrumming through his mind, begging for this not to be real.
“And the child…it’s Shaw’s, isn’t it? That’s why you kept this hidden until now.” Charlotte nodded, not trusting herself to speak. Erik pulled away from her and stared at her abdomen as though the child would spring forth here and now like some sort of demon. His emotions washed over her in waves, and she felt dizzy with it. There was so much anger and hate and above all fear rushing through his head that it made her stomach turn. He looked up and locked eyes with her, his mouth set in a thin line.
She braced herself for the accusations, the question of why she hadn’t sought out some underground clinic and had this quietly taken care of like any sensible woman would have, but they never came. He remained silent and still as stone.
Erik? She didn’t trust herself to speak aloud. It was so much easier to speak telepathically when her mouth refused to work. Talk to me. Say something, please.
“What are you planning to do?” His voice was hollow, wooden, almost like he was speaking through a fog.
“I don’t know. Erik, I—there’s not much I can do.”
He looked down at her stomach again, his face pulling into a grimace. “So you’re keeping the child.”
“I—“ She was shaking. She couldn’t find the words to say. She didn’t want this child, but she couldn’t in her right mind terminate the pregnancy. Not when it was so risky both legally and to her health. For all that she could alter people’s minds, she had never been very good at skirting the law. Erik pulled away and stood, his gaze going distant. Charlotte wanted to go to him, hold him back and make him stay, but she didn’t. She only watched him make his way to the door. “Where are you going?”
“I need some time,” he said softly to the air before walking out of the room. He couldn’t even look at her anymore.
Charlotte drew her legs up onto the sofa and buried her face in her hands as the sound of Erik’s footsteps faded away down the hall, hoping to hide her shameful tears from the rest of the world. She never hated herself more than in that moment. Everything was spiraling out of her control, and there was nothing she could do to stop it. She had been too weak to stop Shaw from touching her, to stop this whole thing from happening, and now she was paying the price. She couldn’t let herself be happy because she didn’t deserve to be happy, so she let Erik go. It was for the best.
Charlotte was surprised to find that Erik was still in the house the next morning. When he remained a week after she’d revealed her secret to him, she felt herself begin to relax. Even if he wouldn’t look her in the eye or speak to her longer than a mumbled greeting in passing, he was still in the house, still supporting their cause, and that was enough for now. He rarely ate with them at meals anymore, but no one really questioned it; Erik had never been the most sociable of men, and Charlotte had specifically asked Raven to let it be.
If Alex, Sean and Hank noticed the rigid tension that had sprung up between their leaders, they made no mention of it. They’d known Charlotte had been unwell, and they left the issue alone for now in order to keep the peace within the house.
Charlotte made an effort of waving off the actual footwork of finding and recruiting new mutants to their cause, instead throwing herself into helping Hank upgrade the technology of the house, everything from tweaking Cerebro and expanding her range to replacing the ancient washing equipment in what was once the servant’s quarters. If they were to be boarding students here and officially turning the mansion into a school, they needed a way to handle the laundry.
Erik brought home a little girl who could change the weather with her moods and a young man with metal skin harder than diamond. Hank designed a pair of glasses with ruby-tinted lenses that allowed Alex’s younger brother to see again for the first time in almost a year and began working on a device that might cloak his own appearance so that he could finally step outside. But through it all, Erik and Charlotte remained at odds with one another, and after a few weeks of building tensions within the household, Sean had had enough.
He waited for the younger children to be put to bed before gathering Alex and Hank for support to corner Charlotte in the drawing room. She was hunched up on the windowsill when they finally found her there, her knees drawn up close to her chest as she stared out over the darkened grounds. The first snow of the year had begun to fall outside.
“I know why you’re here,” she said softly, not bothering to face them.
“Then tell us what’s going on,” Sean replied. He was tired of the lingering feud between their leaders.
She turned to face them, and for the first time they noticed the dark circles under her eyes. Hank silently approached her, kneeling down on the floor to come closer to her eye level, but he never reached out to touch her. She wished he would. She missed physical reassurance for her actions.
“You remember what happened? With Shaw? I’m sure Raven filled you in on what happened to me.” Charlotte knew that they knew this already—they had been there, after all. She could hear them shuffling nervously in the background, trying to avoid thinking about that day. She didn’t want to talk about this, but the others needed the background of it all to know why she was so upset, why Erik couldn’t stand to look at her for more than a few seconds without recoiling in disgust. She’d already avoided this for far too long. They said nothing, and she turned her attention back to the window. “I’m pregnant,” she whispered.
Sean was confused. “But what does Shaw have to do with…oh.” His eyes widened as the realization hit him full force, and she could feel Alex go dizzy with the new information.
Hank reached over and grabbed her hand, drawing her attention. “Is there anything we can do, Professor?”
Alex clenched his hands into fists, his anger rising and spilling out of him like water. “And Magneto just turned his back on you?”
She smiled sadly. Hearing the nickname the children had made for him made something twist in her gut. “He has every right to. I’m fine. You boys don’t need to worry about me. Erik will come around. Just give him time.”
Alex found Erik in one of the many rooms they’d emptied out and transformed into a bedroom, talking to the little girl who brought the rain when she cried. She was listening to him with rapt attention as he spoke; he seemed to be telling her some sort of story , accentuating everything he said with his hands. Alex crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the doorframe, settling in to watch the pair. His presence went completely unnoticed by the occupants of the room.
After a time, the little girl, Ororo if Alex was remembering her name correctly, began to nod off. Erik pulled the top blanket up under her chin and brushed his hand over her snow white hair as she fell asleep, more gentle than Alex had ever seen him. He clenched his fists against his chest but said nothing. As angry as he was with Erik, he didn’t want to fight with him in front of a little kid.
Erik rose from the bed and turned to go. He stopped dead in his tracks when his eyes landed on Alex. Alex tilted his chin toward the hall and stepped outside the room. He could hear the quiet tap of Erik’s shoes following him. Good.
The door to Ororo’s room closed with a soft click, and suddenly Erik was there, a puzzled and slightly irritated look on his face. “Was there something you needed, Alex?”
“Why are you avoiding Professor X?”
Erik’s face went hard. “And why are you using that ridiculous nickname?”
Alex felt his patience draining away already. “Just answer the question.”
“It’s no business of yours.” Erik turned on his heel and started to walk away, but Alex grabbed his arm and stopped him cold. Erik glared at him, cold and deadly. “Let go of me, Summers.”
“Not until I get an explanation from you. This is because the prof is pregnant with Shaw’s kid, isn’t it?” Alex felt the change in his pocket shudder against his thigh, and he loosened his grip. Erik shrugged out of his hold and scowled at him. Alex returned the look with gusto. “So that’s it. Yeah, she told us about that. Look, I know Shaw was a bastard to you—”
“You have no idea what you are talking about, Summers,” Erik snarled, and for a moment, Alex thought Erik was going to wrap his hand around his throat and squeeze until something snapped. Alex stood his ground.
“Actually, you know what? You’re absolutely right. I don’t have a clue what I’m talking about because I can only guess at what happened to you when you were a kid. But you know what? I do have an idea about what happened to the prof, and I know that you’re only making things worse by turning your back on her.”
“I haven’t turned my back—”
“Don’t give me that bullshit. You’ve barely even looked at her in almost a month, and she’s been running herself into the ground trying to make everyone think that she’s okay with it. Prof’s a strong lady, probably the strongest one I’ve ever known, and you’ve gone and walked all over her like she’s nothing.”
He stepped forward and jammed his fingers into Erik’s chest. “As far as I see it, you’ve got two options. You can go and find Professor Xavier and stop feeling sorry for yourself, or you can pack up right now and get the hell out of dodge. Because even with as good as you are with the kids, if you keep jerking the professor around like you have been, we don’t want you here.” His words held a tone of finality to them that he hoped would have Erik quaking in his boots, but the older man didn’t budge. Alex backed down, waiting for Erik to make his move.
“Where is she?”
Alex deflated, casting a look down the hall. “Right now? I don’t know. She was downstairs when I last saw her, but she might have gone to bed.” He sighed and shoved his hands into his pockets. “Just go easy on her. Everybody has a breaking point, and if you hit hers, I’m not holding back.”
The hall was dark and empty outside Charlotte’s room. Erik tapped lightly on her door and waited for a response. When none came, he tried again. “Charlotte?” he called softly. “I need to talk to you. Can I come in?” Nothing.
He frowned and flicked open the lock with a twist of his fingers. His footsteps were the only sound as he walked into the room. Even with the large arching windows lining the far wall, the room was swallowed by darkness. The moon had been hidden by the clouds that were now releasing snow outside. Erik turned on the bedside lamp with a flick of his wrist, illuminating the area with filmy, yellow light, but there was no sign of Charlotte, not even in the little attached bathroom. She wasn’t in here. He turned around and walked outside the room with a heavy sigh, turning off the light and shutting the door quietly behind him as he left.
So she hadn’t gone to bed just yet. Perhaps she was still hiding out downstairs.
He knew that most of the others were awake; it wasn’t exactly late, even though the sun had long since disappeared. He paused at the entryway to one of the common areas. Hank , Sean and Raven were all sitting around the fireplace, talking in hushed tones. The boys looked distressed about something; Erik wondered vaguely if it had anything to do with his current mission. He shook his head and moved on. He needed to find Charlotte.
He checked a few more common areas, including the little nook Charlotte and Hank had converted to a laundry room and even the path leading to the orchard outside, but there was nothing. She probably didn’t want to be found, least of all by him. He ran his fingers through his hair and headed for the kitchen. He needed a drink to calm his nerves.
It was something of a shock to see Charlotte sitting at the kitchen table, a deck of playing cards spread out before her in two neat rows. She fingered a half empty glass of amber liquid as she flipped over a card in the row closest to her. “Hello, Erik.”
Of course she would know he was there without him saying a word. She could hear his thoughts. He walked over to the table and sat down beside her. She looked more tired than he had seen her in a long time, and he felt something twist up inside his chest. Alex had been right, and the thought that he’d been a part of Charlotte’s distress hurt more than he’d expected.
“Nerves?” He gestured to the liquor on the table.
Charlotte said nothing. She lifted the glass to her lips and took a sip.
Erik watched as she slowly set it down on the table. His hands were itching to reach out and touch her, but he kept still. “What are you playing?”
“Patience.” She took another drink. “A fitting game, I suppose. It seems I’ve had to have a never-ending well of patience these days.”
Erik’s throat went tight. He studied the lines of her face, the dark rings under her eyes. “Are you all right?”
She sighed and leaned back in her chair, her game temporarily forgotten. “No.” She looked up at him then, and he could see something in her face crumble. “Why is this so hard, Erik? It’s like we can’t ever be rid of him.”
“I know.” Erik gave in and threaded his fingers with hers. “And this doesn’t fix anything, but for what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”
She smiled at him, soft and sad, and he felt something inside of him break. “I know. I’m just glad you finally came around.”
The months passed, the weather turned, and the house filled with children. Charlotte leaned against the railing and watched as Erik ran a few drills with Alex and his younger brother as they worked to improve their aim while enjoying the sunny afternoon. Scott was still wary around Erik, even after all this time, but tension in the house had certainly lessened with the warmer weather. Charlotte stifled a chuckle as Erik jerked the target out of Alex’s reach.
She felt a light pain ripple through her, and Charlotte gripped the hard curve of her belly, her mood falling. She wanted to find all of the tutors she’d had as a little girl, all of the women who’d told her all about the joys of procreation and how wonderful it was to bear a child, and tell them off. Thus far, pregnancy had been one of the most unpleasant experiences of her life, and as much as she was not looking forward to giving birth, she couldn’t wait to be done with the whole thing. The ache in her back on its own was enough to drive her to the brink of insanity, never mind the tenderness of her breasts, the sporadic mood swings and the painful swelling of her feet. At least it would be over soon enough. She could also go back to wearing pants. The skirts and dresses she had to wear now still made her feel horribly exposed, but there was little else she could do.
She watched as Erik clapped Scott on the back for a well-placed hit and felt a small smile work its way back over her lips. Erik was trying. He was still a little awkward around her, even after all these months and the obvious addition to her figure, but the tension between them was gone. It was almost like how things had been before her abduction, all gentle flirting and philosophical banter. It was comforting to have him around.
And he was a good mentor to the students, much as he would deny it if the topic ever came up. Charlotte would admit that he was still somewhat abrasive with the older residents of the house, but he worked wonderfully with the younger children. He was surprisingly good at helping them come into themselves, to be proud of who they were and what they were capable of doing. Charlotte leaned forward onto her arms again and watched as Erik started up yet another drill for the boys. They were part of a real school now, doing some real good. It was more than she could have ever asked for.
“Hey.” Raven came up behind her, catching Charlotte’s attention. She was in her real skin, wearing far less than Charlotte was comfortable with, but she made no mention of it. Raven would only brush her off as old-fashioned anyway. “You doing okay?”
Charlotte sighed as her sister came to stand beside her. “I’m uncomfortable, and my back hurts like nothing else, but I suppose that comes along with the territory of being pregnant.”
Raven frowned. “I don’t know. I heard some women love it.”
“Well, I’m not one of them.”
“I noticed.” They fell into a companionable silence, the two of them simply watching the training out on the field. Raven tucked a strand of hair that had blown into her face behind her ear. “The children are excited about the baby, you know. Jean wouldn’t stop talking about it today in class.”
“I wish I was,” Charlotte mumbled into the fold of her arms. Raven reached over and rubbed soft, comforting circles over her sister’s back.
“It’ll be okay, Charlotte. You’re going to be okay.”
Raven was just finishing up the tale over dinner of when she had spent the entire day pretending to be Charlotte so she could finally understand her sister’s endless complaints about her lessons when it finally hit her. Charlotte dropped her fork to her plate with a loud clatter, drawing the attention of the whole room. The color drained from her face, and her breath caught in her throat. Oh. So that’s what that was.
She slid her chair back from the table and rose to her feet. “I think, ah, I think I need to be excused.” She fled the room without another word.
Erik stood to leave, but Raven waved him down. “I’ll see what’s going on. You all just finish eating, and I’ll let you know if we need help.” Erik sat back down, but the tension in the room was high. No one felt much like eating anymore.
Raven slipped out into the hall and sought out her sister, sending out her thoughts as loud as she could in hopes Charlotte would respond. She found her holed up in her bedroom, curled up under the window and looking more terrified than Raven could ever remember seeing her. Her hands were gripping the edges of her distended belly, and Raven could feel the anxiety rippling off her in waves. “Raven, I—” She cut off with a sharp hiss, tensing up as the pain hit.
Raven rushed over to Charlotte and crouched down low, drawing her sister’s face into her hands to make her focus. “It’s the baby, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Charlotte panted. “Raven, Raven, I’m scared.”
“I know. But we need to get you up and over to a hospital.”
She tried to stand and lift Charlotte to her feet, but her sister panicked and dragged her back down to the floor. “No! No, Raven, I don’t…I can’t. What if it’s nothing? It’s been nothing before.”
“But what if it is something, Charlotte?” Raven could feel herself start to panic, anxiety rising up from the pit of her stomach. “I don’t know anything about having babies except that you go to a hospital. I can’t help you if you’re in labor right now, and I really don’t think anyone else in the house would be much better. Think about this, Charlotte. What if something goes wrong? I can’t help you then.”
Charlotte winced again. Her grip went so tight on Raven’s wrist that for a moment Raven feared it might break. “Okay,” she whispered after what felt like an eternity. “Okay, I’ll tell Erik to get the car. I just, oh god, Raven, I’m so scared. It’s too early for this to be happening now, and—”
“Shh.” Raven lifted Charlotte to her feet and began to walk her to the door.
A week later and Charlotte was certain she was going crazy. People kept coming in a steady stream to see her and the baby—her students, her fellow teachers, Raven, Erik—and even though they were all sweet and understanding, all she wanted to do was lock herself away in her room back home and forget this entire thing ever happened, but the hospital wouldn’t let her leave, and the others had forbidden her from altering the rules with her powers.
Everything had been terribly unpleasant ever since the haze of the birthing drugs had worn off. She felt bloated and sluggish when she wasn’t clawing the walls in a desperate attempt to keep herself from going insane. She hated the doctors and nurses. They were awful and nosy, coming in at all hours of the night and day to check on her or make her eat their terrible food.
And worst of all, they kept forcing her to bond with her son.
She stared at the bundle of blankets laying atop her bed and felt herself go ill. That was a baby, her baby. David. Her little boy. And she couldn’t stand to so much as look at him. Every time a nurse forced him into Charlotte’s arms, she felt the overwhelming urge to throw the child against a wall, which only made her feel worse. She couldn’t kill her baby before he was born, but now that he was alive and breathing and there in her arms, she only wanted him dead. What the hell kind of mother did that make her?
She paced the floor of her room, waiting for the discharge notice, praying that she could get out of this godforsaken place. Her nurse had mentioned her impending release this morning. Her ‘husband,’ Mr. Lehnsherr, would be by to pick her up soon.
There was a soft tap at the door, and she felt herself deflate in relief at the sight of her sister’s smiling face. She rushed over to wrap her up in a hug. “Oh god, Raven. You have no idea how glad I am to see you. I’m going mad in here.”
“Then it’s a good thing we’ve come to take you home.” Erik peered into the room over Raven’s shoulder, his face lit up in a toothy grin.
“Erik!” She let go of Raven and stepped back to let the pair into the room. “So I’m good to go?”
“As far as we’re concerned, yes.”
Raven went over to the bed and picked up the baby. “Do you want to carry him out, Charlotte?”
Charlotte grimaced at the thought of touching him. “No, no, that’s fine. I’ll carry my bag.” She made to grab the bag from the floor, but Erik got to it first.
“What kind of husband would I be if I let my darling ‘wife’ carry her things out of the hospital after giving birth?” he said with a smirk. Charlotte only glared.
“Fine,” she ground out through her teeth. “Then let’s go.”
Raven, come here, please. I need to talk to you for a moment.
It had been almost a month since they had brought David home, and Charlotte hadn’t been quite the same. She was moody and irritable, snapping at the littlest thing. Raven felt her heart jump up into her throat. Charlotte’s private talks were rarely good news. They never had been, even before all of this.
Raven found her sister seated on her bed, staring miserably at her hands. Her eyes were puffy and red, like she had been crying. Raven shut the door behind her and made her way over to the bed, taking a seat beside her sister.
“Raven, I don’t think I can do this,” she whispered. Raven knew exactly what she was talking about. She cast a quick glance at the crib by the window.
“Charlotte, you can’t just quit this. Motherhood isn't like changing your area of study at university or deciding you want to sleep with someone other than your boyfriend. It's for life.”
David began to stir, whimpering quietly and breaking the quiet of the room. Charlotte shot him a glare, and he quieted in an instant. Raven felt her chest go tight. Things had gotten worse since the last time she’d really bothered to check on how Charlotte was dealing with her son. Her sister was using her powers on the baby.
Charlotte fixed her with a half-crazed stare. There were tear tracks lining her cheeks, and more were slowly making their way down her face. “You don't understand. I can’t do this,” she whispered harshly. “Every time I think about him, I want to vomit. Every time I hold him, I want to kill him. Every time I see him, I see exactly what Shaw did to me, and I hate it. I hate him. I hate—Raven, I can’t do this.” She dug her fingers into her thick brown locks and shook with sobs. “I can’t have him around me anymore because I’m afraid that…I’m afraid I might snap and do something I’ll regret.”
Raven felt a chill go down her spine. She looked at the baby and then back at her sister, her thoughts a jumbled mess of worry. She swallowed and tried to ignore the way her heart was hammering away in her chest. “What do you want me to do?”
“I need you to find somewhere he can go. Somewhere safe. With people who might actually love him.” She looked up and locked eyes with her sister. “And then everyone will forget.”
Charlotte tapped the side of her head with her fingers, and Raven nodded, casting one last glance at the baby by the window. Memories were fickle things, and Charlotte could easily make it so none of them knew David had ever existed. He would disappear, and there would be nothing to mourn. And if David could be happy and healthy with a family who loved him...it was for the best.
The smell of sulfur was thick in the air. The only sound to be heard was the clicking of Emma’s heels against the pavement as she approached the steps of the church. It had been many years since she’d set foot anywhere near a church. How fitting that she do so now with a demon in tow.
A small wicker basket lay at the church’s door, stuffed with a soft white blanket that held exactly what she sought. She bent down low and retrieved the infant from the basket. He squirmed a little and stared up at her with odd-colored eyes. She wondered if the blue one would fade away to green as well once the child moved on from infancy.
She brushed a finger over the dark patch of hair covering the baby’s head and smiled as Riptide picked up the basket and inspected the little slip of paper laying in the bottom.
“It says here his name is David,” he offered quietly.
“David,” Emma echoed as the infant took hold of her finger. “He looks just like his daddy, don’t you think?”
Riptide and Azazel shot each other a look, not wanting to say their thoughts aloud. It was too early to say, but from what they could see, the boy looked almost nothing like their fallen leader, taking most of his features from his mother.
The little slip of paper shuddered in Riptide’s hands and slid from his fingers like a knife through butter to flutter gently over to the baby. Emma’s eyes lit with delight, and she hugged the boy closer to her chest. Telekinesis. Powers already manifesting at this age, strong and rare. Sebastian had been right. Her only regret was that this boy was not her own flesh and blood, but she would raise him as her son just the same. It was what Sebastian would have wanted.
“Welcome home, David. Welcome home.”