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Charlotte Francine Xavier

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“Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings – always darker, emptier, and simpler.”

-Friedrich Neitzsche


--


It's one thing to be a woman holding a doctorate and having to deal with the sneers and comments and ruined experiments and stolen data (not that Charlotte has much of a problem with the latter two, telepathy being what it is).  It's quite another  to be a woman holding a doctorate and know each dark, razor-filled thought behind every cruel smirk and mocking laugh, to feel the resentment pouring off them like black oil whenever she passes.
 
After defending her thesis to a lecture hall full of people just looking for an excuse to throw her out (and she knew it was true, she could feel it, and every speck of discipline and control she possessed wasn't enough shut out such an immense tidal wave of it), going for a drink is an immense relief.  She and Raven choose a bar a long way from the university, far from the thoughts that had clogged her mind like weeds in a propeller, and where Charlotte is finally – finally – able to relax her guard somewhat.
 
Enough to begin eyeing the handsome blonde man at the bar, and wondering if he will appreciate a discussion of how his green eyes are really a mutation of brown eyes.
 
Raven notices the direction of her gaze, and snorts.  “Charlotte, please tell me you aren't winding up for that ridiculous mutation line.”
 
“It's not ridiculous,” she defends.  “It works, doesn't it?”
 
And she knows why; she hears it in their minds each and every time.  With such driven, science-oriented talk then she's obviously a career woman, one of those unnatural creatures that don't want a husband or children so clearly she's only after a night of fun and isn't that just brilliant?  It might be true – Charlotte is often after a night of fun and her telepathy makes it easy to protect herself.  But just because the idea of a husband or children hasn't entered into her plans yet doesn't mean she can't resent the assumption, just a tiny bit.
 
But then an auburn-haired woman slides in front of her and calls her 'professor', and the night out takes a most unexpected turn.
 
--
 
She'd expected the government men's scorn, the disbelief, but she hadn't expected Raven to stand up and defend her the way she had.  For a moment, Charlotte is worried, but when she throws out her telepathy to skim the thoughts of everyone in the room, and latches onto the man sitting in the corner, his plans and hopes and ambitions...then Charlotte knows everything is going to be all right.
 
This man knows about mutants, has been trying to convince his superiors for years, but he doesn't want them as lab rats, or as experiments.  He sees them as powerful forces for good, and if the flavour of his own ambition colours that dream...well, everyone's ambitious, and his ambition is born of a true desire to do good.
 
And wonderfully, miraculously, there isn't even a touch of resentment or doubt in his thoughts – he doesn't think Charlotte will be useless or unable to help him because she's a woman.  He knows what it's like to be marginalised, to be seen as less than what he is, to have paths cut off and doors shut in his face.
 
Charlotte thinks she's going to like working with this man.  She even makes sure they take Moira along for the ride.
 
--
 
It's heady – for so long she and Raven have been the only ones, and now to feel another telepath in her head, to feel such incontrovertible proof that it isn't just them is like every birthday Charlotte's ever had come at once.  The good birthdays, that is, not the ones she tries not to think about.
 
But even beyond the haze the other telepath is weaving to stop Charlotte, there's another mind, projecting rage and despair and a driving need for vengeance so strong it almost sends her to her knees.
 
Charlotte has never felt a mind like this.  A mind so strong it can sweep past her shields like they are straw, a mind so chaotic it's hard to pinpoint where the man is...but there, there in the dark water, a shape moving so fast it sends a surge before it.
 
How is he moving so fast?
 
She fixes on him, focusing her mind on the bright flicker of his consciousness.  To her surprise, the answer to her question comes easily, flowing lightly into her mind without any of the usual effort and struggle of probing another mind, syncing her thoughts to those of her subject.  His name is Erik and he is using magnetic fields to pull himself after the submarine and his name is Erik.  He is hunting a man called Sebastian Shaw – Herr Doktor.  And he needs her.  That is enough, and she dives into the water.
 
Later, when she's shivering and dripping over the ship's deck, Charlotte will wonder at her choice of words.  She knew he needed her – not that he needed rescue, or that he needed someone to pull him back from the brink.  He needed her.
 
--
 
He's so close, so close Erik can practically taste the metal of the submarine on his tongue, and it will only take a little bit more, just a little bit more to pull it back to him, just a few more moments and he'll have Shaw in his grasp...
 
But then there are arms around him, slender and lean with muscle, and a voice...
 
Except it can't be a voice, because he isn't hearing it with his ears, and voices don't come with light in the back of your head and warmth that sears through every part of you.  Voices don't come with a whispered litany of please/please/please and not alone anymore/I heard you/I came and the feeling that something he didn't even know he was calling for has finally come home to him.
 
It's that feeling, more than the plea, that makes Erik lose his grip on the submarine.  The body behind him twists, feet kicking and propelling them to the surface, and it's the sensation of air on his face that reignites Erik's fury because he had been so close...
 
“Get off me!” he snarls, turning around and shoving at whoever has grabbed him.  “Get off me!”
 
“Just breathe,” comes the voice, and hearing it with his ears instead of...whatever that had been, Erik realises that the voice is female.
 
“We're here!” she calls, and the sweep of the searchlight momentarily blinds him.
 
When his vision clears, Erik is treading water in front of a small woman wearing the sopping remnants of a suit jacket, dark hair sticking to her face in salt-clumped tendrils.  Her eyes are in shadow, but he can see the bright gleam of her teeth as she smiles wide, far wider than anyone shivering in the ocean has a right to.
 
“Who are you?” he demands because he can still feel it, that tickle of light and warmth at the back of his mind, the kind of warmth that just makes you want to relax into it, and what is this woman doing to him?
 
“My name's Charlotte Xavier,” she gasps, spitting out water.
 
“Are you in my head?” Erik doesn't bother waiting for a reply because he knows, in the same way he can sense the corrosive itch of the salt which clings to her metal zipper and belt buckle.  “How did you do that?”
 
“You have your tricks, I have mine – I'm like you, just calm your mind.”
 
It's fantastical, ridiculous.  Erik is floating in the ocean in the middle of the night with a woman who knows his name without being told and can speak in his mind and who looks at him like he's the realisation of her every dream.
 
And it's that last part that Erik finds hardest to grasp.
 
A life ring is thrown, and they're pulled up to the ship, and it's a surprise to find that Charlotte is wearing trousers.  It isn't that Erik falls into the trap of thinking women are less capable or ruthless than men – in the camps, the female 'nurses' could be just as sadistic as the male guards – it's just unusual to meet a civilian woman who openly wears what's traditionally considered masculine clothing.
 
She's shivering, her teeth chattering as she reassures another woman – clearly government, with the regulation black skirt and ID hanging around her neck – that she is unharmed.
 
“You wear trousers,” he comments, thinking it's ridiculous that he’s just noticed that now, when she knows his name and god knows what else.
 
He knows practically nothing about her.
 
Charlotte Xavier goes stiff, and her eyes are narrow and hooded when she turns around.  “Yes.”
 
It's the kind of tone that dares him to make an issue of it, while her set shoulders and shuttered expression tell him that many before him have indeed challenged her on it.
 
Erik knows he should ingratiate himself, put on the charm so she trusts him and it will be easier to sneak away when he has to.  But his response isn’t practised or cultured, but automatic – he doesn’t like not being able to see her eyes, and he feels the irrational urge to say something that will make her look at him the way she had in the water.
 
“It agrees with you.”
 
Her eyes are blue, and as open as the sky.

Chapter Text

A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.
-John Lennon
 
--
 
Charlotte is still dripping wet, and trying to close off her mind to the lust-filled thoughts of the sailors around her.  Many are completely innocuous, the kind of harmless fantasies the mind goes to when it beholds an attractive person in clinging clothes, but some have a darker edge to them, the scalpel-sharp edge of show her what she's good for/put her in her place that Charlotte's become depressingly accustomed to.
 
She doesn't hunch her shoulders, but she can't quell the urge to cross her arms over her chest, to hide the blouse that's probably turning transparent even now.  She turns to ask for a blanket – because even without the sopping clothing, it's bloody cold out here! – to find Erik has positioned himself in front of her, glaring viciously at anyone who so much as glances at her.
 
Charlotte's not sure what to make of that.  She's fought her own battles since...well, since there were battles to fight (Kurt and Cain, her memories whisper, but she won't think of them now), and Raven has been so much of a little sister to her it's instinctive to shoulder her burdens alone rather than let them weigh Raven down.  To have someone feel as though they need to protect her even from something as small and petty as this is...new.
 
Perhaps she should be insulted, but Charlotte can still feel him (the loudest, strongest mind she's ever known), 'and his thoughts have nothing of can't handle herself and everything of crude idiots/don't know they're looking at/should show respect.
 
It's different enough to hold her silent and curious as a blanket is draped around her, as she and Erik are hustled below decks, out of the wind and the sea spray.
 
“Why did you jump in after me?” Erik asks – no, demands.
 
His eyes are suspicious, and something in Charlotte aches at the idea that it has been years since he has known kindness without an ulterior motive attached to it.
 
“You were drowning,” Charlotte says, perhaps a little dryly.
 
The suspicion in his eyes doesn't let up.  “And what concern was that of yours?”
 
“I felt your mind,” Charlotte admits.  And it's ridiculous to be grinning while her teeth are chattering this hard, but she can't help it.  “It's extraordinary.”
 
Erik's face contracts into something approaching a snarl, and he steps close as though trying to intimidate her with his greater height.
 
“Stay out of my head!” he hisses, the expression on his face best described as ‘menacing’.
 
But he's still projecting as clearly as a film reel in a cinema, and Charlotte knows this is simply automatic.  Erik lashes out because that's the way he's used to dealing with the world – hurt it before it can hurt him.  She can feel his reciprocal fascination with her, and beneath that, the relief he doesn't want to acknowledge, the grudging satisfaction that comes with knowing that he is not the only one with unusual talents.
 
Erik is gone before Charlotte can explain it wasn't exactly intentional – that his mind just reaches for hers the same way he reaches for metal.
 
--
 
Moira finds her a spare tracksuit, which Charlotte’s slight frame swims in more than she did the actual ocean.  It's the smallest one on board, but she still has to roll the sleeves back twice before she can even see her hands.
 
Charlotte finds herself hoping her suit dries before they go to pick up Raven, or her sister will be giggling all the way to the CIA compound.
 
But in the meantime, there's a debriefing to go to, and a new friend to pick up along the way.  She doesn't wonder why she thinks of Erik as a friend so quickly and immediately.
 
There's no formal guard on the cabin Erik was instructed to change in, but Charlotte knows it isn't coincidence that several navy men are lounging in the hallway.  They aren't going to trust the assurance of a civilian woman, after all, and she takes a moment to swallow the familiar bitterness before she knocks on the door.
 
“Erik?”  She keeps her tone light and inquisitive, undemanding.
 
The door opens – and of course, Erik's tracksuit fits him perfectly, and Charlotte feels a flicker of envy at the fact that he looks completely at ease in his borrowed clothes.  She can’t help taking note of his shoulders and chest, broadened by what she suspects are several layers of muscle, and the way his damp hair is curling slightly at his temples, but she's allowed to be shallow now and then.
 
“They want to debrief us,” she says, smiling the kind of welcoming smile that seems to put people at ease.
 
But with Erik, it only makes him more suspicious.  He folds his arms defensively even as Charlotte has to strengthen her shields against the why did she rescue me?/what's in this for her? hammering at her consciousness.
 
“I'm not staying,” Erik says bluntly.
 
“Why not?” Charlotte asks.
 
Erik's lip curls.  “I thought you said you knew what Schmidt meant to me.”
 
There is a flash of blood and pain and screaming, too quick to be truly disorienting, and with a start Charles realises that Erik's so-called 'projections' are partially her fault.  Her telepathy – usually only picking up on surface thoughts and emotions unless she concentrates – honed in on Erik the moment his memories began to assert themselves, as though her mind was reaching out to welcome him in.
 
Given that Charlotte has worked on shielding her mind and muting the endless flotsam and jetsam of people's mental process since she was seven, this is rather disconcerting.  Clearly she'll have to pay more attention to her shields when Erik's in the vicinity – it won't do to just throw them up and leave them be, as she usually does.
 
But Erik's still staring at her, and Charlotte realises she hasn't actually replied to him.
 
“I did say that,” Charlotte nods agreeably.  “And I would have thought that would be your main reason for staying – at least long enough to hear us out.”
 
Erik's defensive posture doesn't change or soften the slightest bit – he doesn't even twitch – and Charlotte resists the urge to sigh in frustration.
 
“Aren't you wondering why the CIA just happened to show up?”
 
But she can tell he isn't.  Very single-minded, this man she's found.  Although she suspects they've found each other.
 
In the end, she settles for a slightly conspiratorial smile, and the promise, “Come with me, and I promise everything will be explained.”
 
--
 
Within twenty-four hours, Erik's world view has...well, not changed, but certainly been shaken.  He was so sure, for so long, that he was the only one, a freak.  But then there was that strange woman with Shaw, who for a moment looked like she was made out of diamonds, and Charlotte's sister Raven, who claims she's a shapeshifter...
 
And of course, Charlotte herself, and to think of the bright-eyed woman sitting beside him as a freak seems a kind of blasphemy.
 
Anyway, Charlotte informs him that they're not freaks; they're mutants.  The next stage of human evolution, which is certainly a much more glorious moniker than any Erik has given himself in the past, but he has to admit he wasn't truly paying attention to the biology lecture.  He was more caught up in the bewildering spectacle of a thirty year old woman acting as excitable and painfully happy as a puppy.
 
Erik doesn't know what's happening to him.  He doesn't get attached to people – not any more.  He cons and threatens and charms and does whatever the situation requires to get him to Schmidt, but he doesn't get attached.
 
What he's feeling now, in a government-issue car with a telepath beside him who's grinning brightly at her sister, then twisting to glance at him as though inviting him to share in the joke, is frighteningly close to attachment.
 
It grates unpleasantly on Erik's nerves, the bright kindness Charlotte seems so determined to show to everyone and everything, the way her smile doesn't falter for even a moment as they walk the halls of the CIA's complex, in spite of the contemptuous glances he can see directed her way, lingering on her trousers and suit jacket.
 
Raven and the woman Charlotte introduced as Moira are wearing skirts and thus, seem to be considered acceptable.  Erik wonders if Charlotte is trying to make some point with the clothes she chooses to wear, if attracting their attention for her attire has been deemed a better option than attracting their attention for other reasons.
 
Charlotte reveals another mutant purely by accident, and Erik notes the easy, almost unconscious use of her abilities – Charlotte is much more powerful than she likes people to believe.
 
She is also bright and trusting and (there is no other word for it) innocent, and something in Erik is quietly seething because he has seen how this world treats the innocent and the trusting.  This is why he wanted to leave on the boat; because he has a mission, and he can't get distracted by pretty blue eyes and an open heart.
 
Someday, Charlotte's trust is going to be her downfall, but that's her problem, not his (it can't be his).  All he needs is the information on Schmidt – that's all he came for.
 
--
 
Charlotte's not surprised that Erik wants to leave – a little disappointed, perhaps, but not surprised.
 
They're on the cusp of something magnificent, she just knows it.  She's never felt drawn to anyone the way she feels drawn to Erik – she knows that together, they're going to be the start of something wonderful, though she has no idea how she knows this – and if she believed in soulmates, she'd say that's what this is.  As though they were destined to meet.
 
She can stop him, of course she can – freezing people, compelling them, that was one of the first things she learned (and she won't think why, not now, not ever) – but she won't.  She's never used compulsion when it wasn't necessary.  It always leaves a nasty after-taste in her mind, but that's not the reason she's holding back with Erik.
 
She's not a fool – this must be his decision, in the end.
 
It truly is a surprise when she sees him the next morning.  She was rigidly disciplined throughout the night, never letting her mind reach out for his even the slightest.  It was slightly distressing, deliberately numbing her telepathy like that, but the background hum of everyone else's thoughts had eventually soothed her into sleep.
 
And she does agree with him on mutants being found by other mutants.  It will promote a greater sense of solidarity, lessen the idea that they're being tracked down as freaks (or so she hopes).
 
By the time she steps into Cerebro, pulling the elaborate headpiece down to settle on top of her hair, her gut is aching with restless excitement.
 
“What an adorable lab rat you make,” Erik says, expression unconcerned.
 
But beneath his flippant tone she can sense his unease and worry, the sure knowledge that he will rip those metal wires apart the instant that this machine look like it's hurting her.
 
If Charlotte were anyone else, she might raise an eyebrow at the swift ferocity of his concern – after all, she has only known him for a day.  But as it is, she just smiles at him and chides him not to spoil it for her.
 
And then...and then she is so much more than Charlotte Francine Xavier.
 
She is every mutant from here to...god, it feels like her mind is stretching across the entire continent.  She feels all of them – their fear and regrets and joys and pains and the loneliness that seems to pervade all of them like a dark stain of ink across a book.  She wants to reach out to them, to assure them that she's here, that they're not alone, that none of them will ever be alone again if she has anything to say about it, but she manages to rein herself in.
 
A disembodied voice in their head is hardly going to be reassuring, she chides herself, and tries to drag her spiralling telepathy under control.  Focus, she needs to focus, on the closest or perhaps the loneliest, the ones they can do the most good for...
 
When the location of a strip club coalesces around her, Charlotte can't stop herself from laughing.
 
--
 
Erik's not really sure why he came back.  He would like to say it's part of a larger plan, that he's more assured of reaching Schmidt if he remains with these people, and that's certainly most of it...
 
But it's not all of it.  It would have been, back when everything made sense, but now there is a stir of reluctant curiosity to find more mutants.  And even worse, something he can only call fascination for this woman known as Charlotte Xavier.
 
He wonders if this a by-product of whatever she did that night in the ocean, when she spoke to him underwater.  Does everyone she uses her power on feel compelled to be close to her, to understand her the way she understands them?
 
He doubts anyone can ever truly understand what Schmidt did to him or the craving, desperate need to kill the man those years instilled in Erik's heart.  But he finds himself thinking that perhaps Charlotte might come close to it.
 
He knows he's hovering when Charlotte is being hooked up to Cerebro, knows and resents that he can't seem to stop himself.  Can't quell the urge to prowl close to the railing, to reach out for the feel of those twisted copper wires to assure himself that he can rip the machine apart in an instant if he needs to.
 
“Don't spoil this for me, Erik,” she says, as though the possibility of being abused and exploited has never entered her mind (and he won't think of when he was like that, young and trusting and still believing that nothing bad could ever happen to him).
 
Hank is flipping switches and the lights are flickering, but Charlotte's gaze is steady on his until she closes her eyes.  Erik is just beginning to relax incrementally, to tell himself that this doesn't seem harmful, when Charlotte's eyes fly open on a breathless scream.
 
The only thing that prevents him from reducing the entire machine to scrap is the bright, unreserved wonder on Charlotte's face.  Her breath is coming in pants, and she's practically trembling on the spot, but it's clear from her expression that this is far from hurting her.
 
Still, he's not sure it's entirely good for her.  Her trembling worsens as the minutes tick by, as though the immense mental power contained in that slight body is seeking to burst through Charlotte's skin.  But her grin is as broad as it was that night in the water, and Erik's not truly surprised when she starts laughing.
 
He doesn't think he's ever met anyone as willing and eager to share her happiness with others as Charlotte is.
 
Hank hastens to shut off the machine, clearly worried that something went wrong, but there's not a trace of pain or concern in Charlotte's eyes when she focuses on Erik.
 
“My friend,” she announces, barely-concealed mirth and excitement dancing in every syllable.  “We're going to a strip club.”
 
--
 
Charlotte will put up with a lot to find other mutants, but right now, she's feeling rather sceptical about the whole project.  They have to blend in, and for Charlotte, this means a dress, jewellery and heels.
 
The dress is red, with a daring neckline and a hem well above her knees, and she hopes she and Erik won't have to chase the mutant down, as she's certainly not going anywhere fast in this.  She's borrowed some of Raven's jewellery – sapphires flash at her throat and wrists – and she can almost feel the eye-shadow and mascara weighing her lids down.
 
She's never a fan of dressing up at the best of times.  She wears trousers far too often to be really comfortable in a dress or skirt, and having to be constantly aware of the position of her legs and how the material is covering her is just annoying.  But it's really the shoes she resents the most.  High heels are not footwear, they are instruments of torture; Charlotte is quite certain of this.
 
And maybe, just maybe, dresses and high heels and make-up reminds her of her mother's disappointment (why can't you be a normal girl?), but that's neither here nor there.
 
Erik is waiting by the car – it's only an hour or so drive to the club – and Charlotte feels a moment of purely lustful appreciation at the sight of Erik in a dark charcoal suit that was obviously fitted exquisitely.  And yes, that moment might have turned into two or three (she's a healthy woman with healthy sexual appetites), but who's counting?
 
Charlotte allows herself her indulgence, then tells herself to be grateful she's the telepath in this partnership and begins to negotiate the driveway, trying to summon up long-past memories of walking in these idiotic shoes.
 
--
 
Erik isn't uncomfortable in the suit, but that's hardly a recommendation.  He's grown accustomed to wearing whatever he has to, from the lice-riddled clothes of the concentration camps to the fine suits he wore to suspicious Swiss banks.  He could be standing here in nothing but a loincloth if that was what the situation required and still not feel uncomfortable.
 
But watching Charlotte wobble towards him, he can tell she most certainly is uncomfortable.  She keeps trying to take strides that are far too long, obviously more accustomed to trousers than the clinging dress, and he can tell she's only barely holding in the urge to stretch out her arms for balance.
 
It's rather reassuring to see that, for all Charlotte's ease and confidence and peace in herself, there are some things she seems to be legitimately awful at.
 
So Erik crosses the distance between them in free, easy strides and offers his arm.  Though he doesn't say a word, he can feel his mouth stretching into a smirk of amusement and gentle mockery.
 
Charlotte looks at him,'torn between pride and practicality, before she finally sighs and slides her hand into the crook of his elbow. 
 
“Yes, alright, I am as graceful as a three-legged giraffe when I wear high heels,” she grouses as they set off towards the car, Charlotte using him to keep herself steady.  “Please keep all mockery to a minimum until we're finished.”
 
“And then I have free reign, do I?” Erik asks, his lips curling into something that more resembles a smile than a smirk.
 
“I guarantee you there's no comment or joke you can come up with that Raven hasn't already.  That three-legged giraffe comment was one of her better efforts.”
 
Objectively, Erik can acknowledge that Charlotte looks beautiful.  Her hair is loose, her mouth flush with lipstick, cheekbones accentuated with rouge and eyelashes dark and full, an optical illusion to make her eyes look wider and the blue irises more striking.  And the dress is designed to show off her body in the most blatant fashion, complete with plunging neckline and clinging waist.
 
She looks like a pin-up, but really, Erik prefers her in the suit.  Because Charlotte in trousers and jacket is natural and at ease, relaxed and joyful, but this...this is fake.  This is Charlotte playing a part, donning protective colouration and trying very hard not to stand out when really, that seems to be what she does best.
 
“You shouldn't have to wear that,” he comments as he starts up the car (Charlotte is dubious about her ability to work the pedals in high heels and insisted on Erik driving).
 
From the corner of his vision, he can see Charlotte's face brighten in surprised pleasure, as though he's just given her a particularly spectacular compliment.
 
But all she says is, “Sometimes subterfuge is necessary.  We don't want to attract attention, remember?  And I can assure you, having me show up wearing a suit would most certainly attract attention.”
 
--
 
Charlotte knows it's ridiculous to get flustered by something as simple as 'you shouldn't have to wear that', but she can't help it.  Most people simply choose not to comment on her preference for trousers (what thoughts she gets from them are another matter entirely), and the most she ever got from Raven was a “Knock 'em dead, Charlie”, and then only when she was attending an academic meeting and the suit became more of a symbol of defiance than simple comfort.
 
Though really, the suit started out as both defiance and defence mechanism.  Charlotte's shields are strong, but they can only take so much, and it was exhausting to go about her day with her mind constantly mired in jeering, sarcastic thoughts about the quality of her work, the quality of the administrators that had admitted her to the university, her sexual history and whether that sexual history had anything to do with being admitted.  So she'd donned the suit, and to have all that ugly noise focus on her clothes instead was an immeasurable relief.
 
And at this point, she's gone without skirts and dresses and high heels for so long that they just feel foreign to her.  She doesn't know how Raven can stand to wear them, let alone how she runs in the things.  Perhaps it's some sort of secondary mutation?
 
So to have Erik express such open support for her choices in attire, and so off-handedly, as though it would never occur to him to think otherwise...well, it's new, that's all.
 
A lot of things about Erik are new to Charlotte.
 
“Her,” she whispers when they slip into the club, her eyes on a coffee-skinned girl with sleek, dark hair and tattoos of insect wings.
 
She almost reads the woman's mind to find out her mutation, but holds herself back – Charlotte likes to be surprised every now and then.
 
“We need to get her attention,” Charlotte murmurs to Erik as they slide into seats at a circular bar.
 
Erik chuckles, deep and rich, before he produces a bill with a large denomination on it and beckons the woman over.
 
“Oh, right,” Charlotte chides herself aloud.  “Obvious.”
 
Erik chuckles again, and Charlotte can't help but think that it's a shame he doesn't laugh more often.
 
--
 
“That was astounding,” Charlotte is beaming, still sipping at her champagne as they wait for Angel to finish up her shift.  “I wonder how her wings can transition like that?  Are they absorbed into her skin somehow?  Or do you suppose-?”
 
“I thought you could read minds,” Erik points out.  “Don't you know already?”
 
“I don't read minds all the time,” Charlotte smiles.  “I'd miss out on surprises like this.  Besides, I try not to read people's minds too deeply when we're first getting acquainted – it tends to give the wrong impression.”
 
“You did with me.”  And Erik's still not too sure how he feels about that.
 
“Your mind's very loud, my friend,” Charlotte said, her tone almost contemplative.
 
Erik can feel the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, alert to any weakness.  “How so?”
 
Is he somehow more vulnerable to telepathy than other people?  Was that why that woman with Schmidt was able to nullify him so easily?
 
“Think of my mind as this room,” Charlotte says, gesturing expansively with her glass.  “Most people's thoughts are like the rest of the club – I'm aware of them, but they don't really disturb me and I can't pick anything specific out unless I focus on them.  But your mind...it's like someone knocking repeatedly on the door, calling my name.”
 
She glances over at him, and apparently sees something in his expression she doesn't like.  “It's nothing to be ashamed of.  Your mind's very strong; one of the strongest I've ever encountered.  And it's partially my fault – I should have been able to keep you out, but...”
 
Charlotte trails off in a shrug, then laughs softly, almost to herself.
 
“I think you're drunk,” Erik observes dryly, wondering if he really wants to be in the same room as a drunk telepath.
 
“Perhaps a little,” Charlotte concedes.  “But I guarantee you, I would be just as giddy without the champagne.”
 
Angel returns, clad in a black dress with a cream bag slung over her shoulder, and Charlotte doesn't even wait for permission before she slides her arm through his once more.
 
Not even two days ago Erik’s first reaction to being touched unexpectedly would have been to severely injure the person doing it.  He wonders what it says about him that his instinct now is to lay his hand over Charlotte's and bring her closer in case the alcohol is interfering with her already-abysmal coordination.
 
“Are you feeling okay?” Angel asks as they leave the club, frowning at Charlotte.
 
“Perfectly fine,” Charlotte beams.  “I'm just unaccustomed to wearing high heels, and I'm afraid I don't have your superb balance.”
 
Angels scowls.  “If that's meant to be some kind of comment on my job-”
 
“By no means,” Charlotte hastens to reassure her.  “I rather envy your coordination, truth be told.  I could never wear those boots without falling flat on my face.”
 
Angel is smiling by the time they reach the car, chattering with Charlotte about the various shoes she's had to wear at her job and which pair were the worst, and Erik wonders if Charlotte has this effect on everyone she meets.  After all, Angel worked in a strip club – she should know to be wary of the customers, and yet she's leaving with them after barely fifteen minutes of conversation?
 
Erik drives in silence, knowing that Charlotte is darting worried glances at him but content to let her soothe Angel's concerns by herself.  He's not exactly the nurturing type.
 
Moira goes to settle Angel in her own room, and as soon as they step into the common living area that's been set up for them Charlotte bends down and plucks off her shoes.
 
“Freedom,” she sighs, leaning back against the bar as she extends her legs and wiggles her toes into the carpet.
 
Erik experiences a sudden flash of desire as she stretches her arms above her head, back arching and body relaxing.  He smothers it quickly though, forces his mind to recite all the aliases of Schmidt he has learned over the years, and hopes Charlotte didn't pick up on it.
 
It feels almost like a betrayal to want her, as though he's just like the other men in this compound, who look at her body and never see the mind behind it.
 
But he doesn't think Charlotte has detected anything because she's still smiling at him, wide and giddy as though she's just been given the best present she could ever ask for.  Joy rises in him like golden bubbles through champagne, and in this moment he can almost say that his life is perfect...
 
Except, Erik realises as he shakes a suddenly-muzzy head, that's not him feeling that.
 
“Are you in my head again?” he asks, trying for stern but feeling he only comes across as curious.
 
Charlotte blinks, and the joy/light/warmth in Erik's mind bursts and vanishes.  He tells himself he doesn't miss it.
 
“I'm sorry,” she apologises, sounding very contrite.  “Sometimes when I'm particularly happy, I tend to...well, leak the feeling a little.  Is it better now?”
 
Erik doesn't answer.  Because 'no' implies too much, and 'yes' would be a lie.

Chapter Text

“Pain is deeper than all thought; laughter is higher than all pain.”
-Toni Morrison
 
--
 
They’re a short plane flight away from Richmond, and in a part of this city that could be colloquially referred to as ‘the wrong side of the tracks’.
 
Usually, this is where Erik feels most at ease, where the violence and greed that underlay all human nature is laid bare, without any pretty words or false smiles to disguise it.  Erik prefers his cruelty naked, and usually feels more at home in the shadows of these filthy streets than in all the expensive hotels he's visited over the years.
 
And that's the key word – usually.  Because now Charlotte is walking beside him, insisting their mutant taxi driver is somewhere up ahead.  She treads the pavement confidently, carelessly, as though unaware that they're being watched and evaluated by everyone they pass.
 
Erik knows it's ridiculous to feel protective – Charlotte is probably the farthest from helpless it's possible to be.  She's a telepath, for god's sake; she'll know if anyone dangerous gets within twenty feet of them.
 
But it doesn't stop alarm trickling down Erik's spine like cold water when he becomes aware that of footsteps behind them, footsteps that dog them even through the labyrinthine twists and turns.  Someone is following them.
 
Something flickers across Charlotte's face, concern and worry chasing each other in her eyes, before she stops abruptly and spins to face their pursuer.  Erik turns a split second behind her, in time to see sunlight glint off metal – there's a knife in the man's hand.
 
He doesn't even think about it.  It's automatic to use his power to tear the blade from the man's fingers and pull it into his, taking a light grip on the handle, ready to send it flying into the man's belly if he needs to...
 
Except the man hasn't reacted.  His expression hasn't changed, his stance hasn't shifted – he hasn't even blinked.  He only barely seems to be breathing.
 
I froze him, Charlotte's voice whispers in his mind.  She's contemplating their would-be attacker with something that looks disturbingly close to compassion.
 
Then, as Erik is absorbing exactly how formidable an enemy Charlotte would be (there's no sign of strain on her face – it took little more than a thought to freeze that man in his tracks and how many people could she do that to before it even became an effort?), she reaches into her purse, removes several bills, folds them and tucks them in the man's pocket.
 
“What the hell are you doing?” Erik's voice is sharp, because is Charlotte honestly going to reward a man who would have attacked them?
 
“He wouldn't have hurt us,” Charlotte says – aloud, this time.  “But he's been fired from his job, and his wife's just had a baby; that's the only reason he was even contemplating robbing us.”
 
“A lot of people are desperate for money at some point in their lives,” Erik scoffs.  “They manage not to steal from people.”
 
Perhaps Erik's being hypocritical – god knows, he's stolen more money than he's ever earned.  But the people he stole it from were those who bought their luxury with the murder and suffering of his people, those who grew fat off the spilled blood like ticks.
 
“He made a bad choice,” Charlotte says softly, turning away and resuming her course down the street as though there has been no interruption.  “That doesn't mean he doesn't deserve a second chance.”
 
Erik has the uncomfortable feeling that she's referring to more than their would-be robber.  Charlotte has a habit of looking at him like she can see good in him, like there's hope for him, and it irritates Erik – doesn't she know that there are no second chances for the likes of him?  He's a murderer, and he's come to accept that of himself.  And if a day of judgement truly exists, he'll gladly account for himself, so long as he can guarantee that Schmidt will first face retribution.
 
He remains staring at the motionless man for a moment or two longer, debating using the knife to give him a souvenir of this encounter, a warning not to accost women in the street...
 
But in the end, a reluctant mugger is small fry compared to the larger goal at stake here, so he leaves the man to catch up Charlotte.  He keeps the knife though, tucking it into his coat.  It's reflexive by now, to keep and hoard whatever weapons come his way.
 
When they turn the corner, Erik sees the man stagger, released from Charlotte's hold on him, but they're out of sight before he can recover enough to see them.
 
“A real bleeding heart, aren't you, Charlotte?” he mutters sarcastically.
 
She shrugs absently, her expression distant and closed.  Probably checking to ensure she hasn't done any damage to the man – it seems the sort of thing she'd do.
 
“You didn't put your fingers to your temple,” Erik observes quietly.
 
“That gesture isn't necessary to activate my telepathy,” Charlotte admits.  “It's more like a nervous tic.  I developed it when I was young – it was a way of letting Raven know I was reading someone without saying anything aloud.”
 
Erik nods, though he can't deny he's a little unnerved by the idea that Charlotte can just slide into his mind without any twitch or gesture to indicate what she's doing.
 
But that's all he is – unnerved.  By all rights he should be frightened, should be seeking advice on how to ensure that doesn't happen, how to defend himself if she tries it.  But he isn't.  For some reason, the idea that Charlotte can delve into his mind at any moment isn't frightening in the slightest, as though he knows she’ll never abuse that power.
 
Can it be he actually trusts her?
 
But Erik doesn't want to dwell on that question, and makes himself ask something else.  “When did you know he was after us?  I thought you usually shielded yourself from people's thoughts.”
 
“From their deep ones, yes,” Charlotte counters.  “But I'm always aware of their surface thoughts, though I usually try to tune them out in pure self-preservation.”
 
“Why?  Does it hurt you?”  The idea doesn't sit well with Erik, and he won't examine why.
 
“Nothing quite so serious,” Charlotte says, with the kind of gentle smile she gives away so carelessly.  “It's just that for every significant, purposeful thought a person has, they have about a hundred unimportant, nonsensical ones – it's like constant, low-level static.  Usually thoughts rise above the morass when I'm paying attention to them, or when there's purpose to them.  And there was plenty of purpose in his thoughts.”
 
Erik digests that, wondering why Charlotte seems so willing to share the details of her power with him, openly admitting weaknesses and limits.  It's certainly not a confidence he would give, in her place.
 
“Can you understand different languages?” he probes, wondering just how far her comprehension stretches.
 
“Easily,” Charlotte replies blithely.  “People rarely think in plain language, you understand – it's mostly images and concepts.  Language shapes the way we think, but it doesn't dominate it, and when it does intrude, it's very easy to discern the meaning of the words from the person's thoughts.  No one really thinks in structured, coherent sentences unless they’re muttering aloud to themselves or writing it down, but it's the only way I can articulate it.  Oh, here we are!”
 
And with that, Charlotte throws out her hand for the passing cab.
 
--
 
This is the second mutant willing to join them – Armando – and Charlotte is truly, honestly thrilled.  Even her wildest dreams for finding other mutants didn't match up to the reality; the sheer number that are out there, that they've found and the ones they have yet to find, the ones that have yet to born...
 
It's a dizzying thought.  That there might be hundreds, thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of other mutants out there.
 
Six hours is a long drive, so Charlotte is eager to take the opportunity to get to know this man.  Armando keeps insisting on demonstrations of her power by playing the 'what number am I thinking of' game, and is equally impressed the eighth time she plucks it from his head as the first.
 
A performing poodle, are you now? Erik's thought arrows towards her, with enough direction that she knows he wants her to hear it.
 
Hush, I'm having fun, she sends back.
 
She so rarely gets to show off like this, with someone who thinks her telepathy is amusing and 'awesome', rather than terrifying, that Charlotte only realises she's let her shields drop perhaps a bit more than is prudent when terror flashes through her, so raw and primal she freezes in mid-sentence.
 
A sicking sense of weightlessness engulfs her, and Charlotte tries to pull back from whatever her mind has latched onto, but it's too late.  Pain bursts through her mind – her ribs are broken, her leg is twisted, her own blood is hot on against her side and on her face-
 
Charlotte!
 
Her mind tears free with an almost audible snap, scrambling for a foothold in a world that's suddenly lost all sense.  For a brief moment she is pulling the car over, because that cool mind-reading chick looks like she's about to be sick, but that's wrong, that's not her, and then she's cupping Charlotte's face because she's gone as pale as polished bone and she's moaning, low in her throat, the way she heard the starving women moan in the camps and Charlotte should never, never make a sound like that and oh god she needs to shield, shield now...
 
And then she's back, back in her own body with her mind distinct and separate but still ringing with the aftershocks of pain/fear/blood/no-no-no!  Her seat belt has been unbuckled and she's lying prone across the seat, Erik's hands tipping her head back, taking her pulse as he calls her name urgently.
 
Her mind is still open far too wide, blown open by the sheer force of the agony and terror she inadvertently picked up, because she can feel Erik's worry and frustration as if it's her own, feel his urge to shake her but not sure if that won't make things worse, if she isn't having some kind of seizure.
 
Charlotte has a perfectly calm, perfectly lucid moment where she's grateful that the car has stopped.  Then she shoves Erik back with a hand on his chest, tears open the car door and make it two steps before she vomits into the grass at the side of the road.
 
She heaves once, twice, her legs shaking beneath her, the right one still not quite believing it isn't broken.  Her knees dip and buckle and she hopes she isn't about to land in her own vomit-
 
She never hits the ground.  Someone – Erik – is supporting her with an arm around her rib cage, just beneath her breasts, and Charlotte is distantly grateful he's not putting any pressure on her tortured stomach.  His other hand is twisted loosely in her hair, holding it back from her face, and Charlotte tries to thank him but doesn't manage the first syllable before she's vomiting again.
 
It only stops when reduced to nothing but dry heaves and her mental shields are in some semblance of order.  For several moments she does nothing but dangle from Erik's arm like a rag doll, trying to summon the energy to make her legs take her weight again.
 
Apparently recognising that it's over, Erik shifts her to lean back against his chest, releasing her hair to produce a handkerchief from his pocket and wipe at her mouth.  If she wasn't mortified by the loss of control – she hasn't been so careless in years! – Charlotte might have laughed.  Erik likes to think himself heartless, but really, he’s the exact opposite.
 
When Erik's weight shifts as though preparing to lift her, Charlotte forces herself to draw the line.  “I can walk, Erik.”
 
“You're certain of that, are you?” Erik grits out, his voice tight and tense.
 
She's worried him and he's not used to being worried on another's behalf.
 
“I'm fine,” Charlotte murmurs.  “Really.”
 
She's too exhausted to raise her head and so settles for speaking to his collarbone.  He still hasn't let go of her.
 
“I don't mean to be rude,” she can hear Armando begin hesitantly.  “But what was that and is it contagious?”
 
She can feel Erik's body tightening for a vicious rejoinder, and without thinking Charlotte lays her hand on his arm, fingertips rubbing tiny circles into the tense muscle there.
 
He doesn't mean any harm, she tells him, trying to soothe the dense storm of worry/concern/anger/bitterness radiating from his mind like heat from a burn.  And anyway, I'm fine – no permanent damage.
 
“It's not me,” she says aloud for Armando's benefit as well.  “There was a car crash up ahead, perhaps two miles or so.”
 
“And you can feel-?” Armando starts, then shakes his head and prioritises.  “Shit, we gotta call somebody.  How far back was the last phone?”
 
“No need,” Charlotte murmurs absently, her mind already stretching out to the nearest hospital – cautiously, avoiding the sucking black hole of pain and fear so close by.
 
It’s often frightening, how easily she can do this.  How effortless it is to pull and tug at the right minds within the hospital to send ambulances their way, prepared for a car crash with three victims.  Reading minds is one thing, but Charlotte often feels that altering them this way ought to be more difficult, ought to come with some kind of deterrent.
 
But it doesn’t.  All that holds Charlotte back from becoming the worst kind of monster is her own morals and values.  And she’s always afraid that one day, they won’t be enough.
 
“Ambulances are on their way,” she informs her companions, finally making herself push back from Erik to stand under her own power.
 
Both he and Armando still look a little rattled, and for a moment Charlotte is worried she projected her experience to them.
 
“Are you alright?” she asks, frowning in concern.  “When I overload like that I sometimes project whatever I’m feeling-”
 
“Nah, I’m fine,” Armando says quickly, an easy, dismissive grin sliding over his face.  “I think you worried your boyfriend a bit, though.”
 
Charlotte blinks, realising Erik has gone completely, unnaturally still, like a predator just before the hunt begins in earnest.  His jaw is clenched so tightly it has to be painful, and his mind hasn’t calmed in the slightest.
 
If anyone else was this upset, their powers would probably slip a little – Charlotte would feel her metal buttons start to shiver, at the very least – but Erik is tightly controlled.  So much so it actually breaks her heart, because she knows how brutally he learned that control.
 
And it’s a sign of how badly scrambled her brain is that she only then registers what Armando called him.  “Erik’s not my boyfriend.”
 
“Sorry,” Armando says, looking a little embarrassed.  “But since you two don't have rings-”
 
Charlotte laughs softly, ignoring the ache in her over-taxed abdominal muscles.  “Not spouse either.  Friends.”
 
As though he’s reached some kind of internal decision, Erik strides back to the car, getting back into his seat and slamming the door with such vehemence that it can really only be called ‘storming off’.
 
Armando raises his eyebrows.  “You sure about that?”
 
Charlotte frowns, wondering if she’s missed something.  Yes, she’s picked up on the occasional shiver of lust from Erik, but it’s always quickly suppressed and he certainly doesn’t seem inclined to act on those thoughts.  And as a telepath, Charlotte knows that actions are really all that count.
 
The man happily married for twenty years might think other women desirable, but he won’t act on it.  The good mother might think her daughter is ugly, but she won’t tell the child that.
 
Erik might think her desirable, but he’s made no attempt to take her to bed, so Charlotte shrugs that errant thought away.
 
It’s been a long time since Erik was frightened for another person, Charlotte knows.  With Shaw, anything that Erik cared about automatically became leverage against him, became a weakness, and it’s a mindset that has followed Erik into adulthood.  In a way, it’s a mindset that has governed Erik’s entire life.
 
Charlotte refuses to let it govern him any longer. 
 
She’s hated very few people in her life – it’s hard to hate someone when you know the internal agonies and inadequacies that drive them to be mean or petty – but she certainly hates Shaw.  For a moment, Charlotte closes her eyes and lets herself feel that hate and that grief for Erik’s lost childhood, lets it pass through her and pass her by.
 
Then she opens her eyes, smiles at Armando as she feels the dark wound of pain and fear ahead of them easing (the ambulance has arrived, the paramedics are doing their job and Charlotte needs to pull back now, she can’t do anything more to help them), and suggests they get back on the road.
 
She forces herself to be bright, cheerful and flippant as she slides in next to Erik – no matter how much Charlotte yearns to help him find a measure of peace, he won’t accept sympathy.  To him, it feels too much like pity.
 
“I’m terribly sorry about your handkerchief,” she smiles.  “I hope I didn’t ruin your shoes, as well.”
 
Erik gives her a hard look that suggests she has entirely missed the point.  His thoughts flash by in a brief barrage of does she really think I care about that?/does she have no care for her own well-being?/how often has this happened?
 
And beneath them, deep and primal as his heartbeat; shouldn’t care about her/won’t care about her/I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I WON’T!
 
Charlotte wants to reach across the distance between them and take his hand, wants to tell him that it’s far too late, that he already cares about her – she can feel it.  That he might try to build a fortress around his heart, but she’s already in there; all he’d be doing is trapping her inside.
 
But Erik’s not ready to hear that – there’s still a frisson of unease from him every time Charlotte calls him ‘friend’ – so she offered him refuge in the banal and inconsequential.
 
“Is that kind of thing normal for you?” Armando asks as he re-starts the car and pulls back onto the road.
 
“Being able to read people’s thoughts isn’t always pleasant,” Charlotte says quietly.  “Our experiences and our responses to them are all relative, all in our mind, so to speak.  Emotions I can usually maintain something of a distance from, at least nowadays, but pain…well, pain is a very immediate, very primal sensation.  Telepathically speaking, it’s very loud, and when I’m open like that…”
 
Charlotte trails off, trying to explain the inexplicable.  But she doesn’t think she can truly describe what it’s like – language might be subjective and variable, but there’s no language on Earth designed for describing what it feels like to be in another person’s mind.
 
“It’s as if it happened to me,” she eventually settles for.  “As if I’m experiencing whatever they’re experiencing in that moment.”
 
“Sounds pretty nasty,” is Armando’s thought on the subject.
 
“Yes, that describes it very well,” Charlotte sighs.  “And that kind of incident can often result in a rather physical reaction from my body, hence the vomiting.”
 
She smiles again at Erik, whose face is even darker than before.  “And thank you for helping me with that, my friend – I’d hate to think what this suit would look like if I had actually collapsed halfway through.”
 
It’s light, teasing, meant to be a joke, and Armando laughs while Erik’s mouth tightens at the edges.  He looks out the window, deliberately turning away from her.
 
His thoughts are still bitter waves of doubt and fear and self-recrimination, and there’s only so much Charlotte can take.
 
“It’s not a weakness,” she whispers.  Breathes, really, so Armando won’t hear it, so softly she might worry about Erik hearing if she didn’t know how keen his sense are, trained from years of being on the hunt and on the run.
 
He doesn’t reply, but his eyes move away from the window to fix on her, evaluating her like he’s the telepath.
 
“Caring about others,” Charlotte murmurs, keeping her expression open and gentle yet sure and steady at the same time.  “It’s not a weakness.”
 
Erik doesn’t reply, but Charlotte wasn’t truly expecting him to.
 
--
 
Charlotte’s fingers are quick and graceful as she removes his knight from the board, setting her rook in its place.
 
“Checkmate,” she announces, her eyes bright and teasing.  “I did warn you – you have to pay attention when you’re playing me.”
 
There’s the barest hint of a gloat in her voice, but Erik thinks she’s entitled; he can only imagine how many opponents have underestimated her, to their detriment.
 
Society may say that men should seek out intelligent discourse in other men, not women, but not too long ago one particular society said to imprison people in death camps and systematically exterminate them.  Erik hasn’t put much value on what ‘society’ dictates since then. 
 
Besides, it’s not that he underestimated Charlotte when they began their chess match, only that his mind was absorbed with a myriad of questions.  Questions that circle what happened earlier today – he can’t help but wonder if Charlotte’s experience with the car crash is a regular pitfall of her telepathy.
 
“Has it always been like that?” he asks, knowing Charlotte will understand exactly what he’s asking.
 
Charlotte sighs softly, her eyes dropping to the chessboard.  “Yes.”
 
In this moment, she looks somehow ancient, older and wiser than any person should be, and Erik wonders how he ever thought her naïve.
 
He presses forward.  “When did you first realise you could read people’s minds?”
 
He remembers grey mud in his shoes, rain soaking his clothes and a gate between him and his parents, and wonders if all manifestations are as traumatic.  Are all mutants born in loss and pain?  Or is it just him, the monster alone as he has always been?
 
“When I was six,” Charlotte says quietly.  “That’s when it started.  My father liked to hunt, you see, and one day there was…an accident.  When they brought him up the house, so he could be taken to the hospital, I was playing on the lawn, and when I saw the blood…”
 
She trails off, swallows, then seems to steel herself.  “It was like I was the one who’d been shot.  I doubled over screaming, but everyone assumed I was just upset at seeing my father like that, and I couldn’t stop crying long enough to explain it to anyone.  The pain only faded when he was five miles down the road.”
 
Erik remembers what it’s like to be in pain and know that no succour is coming.  They aren’t memories he cares to dwell on, save when necessary to draw on the rage that fuels his powers, so he tries to move the conversation into safer waters.
 
“But it got better.”  It isn’t a question – Erik knows it got better.  It had to, or there’s no way Charlotte could still be sane.
 
‘I learned to control my powers very quickly,” Charlotte agrees.
 
“Did anyone ever notice what you could do?”  
 
But Erik doubts it.  There was never any Schmidt in Charlotte’s life, that much is obvious, and if someone had ever discovered a little girl could pluck secrets out of people’s heads…
 
Charlotte confirms his suspicions with her next words.  “No – no one ever realised.  There were certainly times when people felt I knew too much, but they always assumed I had seen or heard something I shouldn’t have.”
 
A slight bitter smile twists her lips, and her eyes are still distant, focused on the past rather than the present.  “I was never very good at my parents’ parties.  They wanted to show me off, you see – the beautiful, perfect daughter they’d been expected to have – and the illusion would be rather ruined when I asked why Mr. Rutherford’s wife was smiling at him when he’d been kissing their chauffeur two hours ago.  And putting me with the other children was never very good, either – I knew too much too young, and didn’t understand why Bobby was dreaming of becoming a fireman when his father was determined he would take over the family business.”
 
Her voice is light, almost joking, but there’s a terrible loneliness in her eyes, the loneliness of a girl who outgrew her peers within the space of a few weeks, who was forced into an adult’s comprehension of the world around her before her age was even measured in double digits.
 
Erik can’t pretend that loneliness doesn’t call to him, but he steels himself against it.  He won’t care for Charlotte, he can’t, because caring about something means you protect it, and he’s never been able to protect anything.
 
“My apologies,” Charlotte says suddenly, leaning back in her chair and shaking her head.  “I’m getting terribly maudlin in my old age.”
 
Erik doesn’t dignify that with a reply.  Instead he stares at the chessboard, picks out the pattern of Charlotte’s strategy and his defeat.
 
“Did it ever get easier?”  He means the loneliness, not her telepathy, but she seems to sense what he’s talking about.
 
“Raven came along, eventually.”
 
Erik knows he should stop here.  Should let them fall into silence until Charlotte rises and says something about it being time for bed…but he can’t quell the urge to push further, deeper.
 
Charlotte has seen him, all of him, from his most triumphant victories down to the dark corner of his soul where a coin rests on a desk and doesn’t move and there’s a bang like a firework and a thump like an empty suitcase hitting the ground…
 
Her power has laid his soul bare.  Inadvertently, perhaps, but he still feels exposed.
 
He wonders if she’ll expose herself in turn.
 
He knows a good man wouldn’t push her.  This woman is offering friendship and acceptance and belonging, and if Erik can’t give her the same then he can at least leave Charlotte her secrets.  A good man wouldn’t ask this, but Erik has given up being a good man a long time ago. 
 
“What’s the worst thing you’ve felt through your telepathy?”
 
Charlotte is silent for a long time, and at first Erik doesn’t think she’ll answer.  But then she speaks, her voice flat and without inflection, as though she’s reciting lines she’s memories long ago.
 
“At one point, our house was participating in some sort of garden show.  I don’t remember what it was – undoubtedly I pulled it from someone’s thoughts at the time, but it was hardly important to me.  We had a fleet of gardeners staying at our house, and one of them…one of them had a seventeen-year-old daughter who was learning the ropes, so to speak.”
 
Unease tickles in the back of Erik’s mind, and he wonders if that’s his own discomfort or Charlotte’s.
 
Charlotte swallows harshly, and then obviously forces herself to continue.  “On the last night before the show...I felt that girl being raped.”
 
Now it’s Erik’s mouth that has suddenly gone dry.  Only a few hours ago Charlotte explained that she feels people’s pain as if it were her suffering in their place, and even though he’s the one who asked her, who wanted to know, he still didn’t expect anything like this.
 
“I felt it,” Charlotte whispers, as though almost afraid of being overheard.  “And I…I couldn’t even call for help.  I was stuck in her mind, trapped by Amelia’s fear and pain.  It was only when she slipped into unconsciousness that I could finally wrench myself free.”
 
Erik knows he should stop there.  If some part of him wanted quid pro quo, Charlotte exposed to him as he’s been exposed to her, then he’s certainly got it.
 
But there’s one more thing he has to know.  “How old were you?”
 
Charlotte looks up at him, and her eyes are very deep, very sad, and very alone.  “Ten.”
 
Erik quells the instinctive, nonsensical urge to reach across the chessboard and take her hand, and wonders why he even felt the urge in the first place.  Holding her hand won’t help anything, won’t make the memory hurt any less.
 
So instead he gives her silence.  Because he, more than anyone, knows that silence is often best.
 
Charlotte gives a soft, shuddering sigh.  “And after Amelia had endured that…I ended up violating her again.”
 
Erik is at a loss.  “What do you mean?”
 
“She was hurting so badly, and I…I just wanted it to stop.  I didn’t mean to, not really, but I…” Charlotte takes a deep breath, and seems to brace herself, as though preparing for a blow.  “I erased her memories of the rape.”
 
Erik isn’t good with sympathy.  He’s seen the world in black and white for a long, long time, and he knows that if someone talked about robbing him of his memories of Schmidt he’d call it evil.
 
But this was a ten year old girl trying to stop a pain she should never have experienced, and that’s a shade of grey if there ever was one.
 
Besides, he can tell by the quiet misery in Charlotte’s face that she knows what she did was wrong, that the girl called Amelia had a right to her pain as surely as Erik has a right to his.
 
Usually, he’d give her silence, but this calls for a response.  “You were doing what you thought was right.”
 
Charlotte’s smile is weak and tremulous, but she still smiles.  “Isn’t there a saying about the road to hell being paved with good intentions?”
 
“I’ve seen the road to hell,” Erik says bleakly.  “And I promise you, it’s paved with nothing of the kind.”
 
People can argue about the Nazi soldiers and guards who were ‘just following orders’, but in the end, they decided it was perfectly acceptable to round people up like cattle and send them to the slaughter.  They saw human beings in pain, and perpetuated that.
 
Charlotte sees human beings in pain, and tries to heal it.  Perhaps she didn’t always go about the right way, but what she did to Amelia was done because she couldn’t find another way to stop the girl from hurting.  And Erik can’t condemn her for that.
 
“Besides,” Charlotte murmurs, almost to herself.  “It’s certainly isn’t the worst thing I’ve done with my powers.”
 
'Erik ruthlessly suppresses the brief spike of anxiety which he feels at that comment.  For now, there’s something he’s been wondering about ever since Charlotte described her childhood dinner party experiences.
 
“If you know all this, if you see all this and feel all this…how can you still believe people are inherently good?”
 
Charlotte smiles, and there’s a hint of real joy to it.  “For all people’s differences, our fears and sorrows and regrets are remarkably similar.  And stripped of all trappings, what we want is always the same; to be safe, happy, and loved.”
 
Privately Erik doubts that.  Happiness has never really factored into his decisions, it’s been so long since he felt it.
 
“Even if we won’t admit it,” Charlotte goes on, her eyes intent, and for a moment it feels like she’s talking about him.  “And if we’re so similar, at such a basic level…all we need to do is make others see past our superficial differences.”
 
“Easier said than done,” Erik comments grimly.
 
“I’m going into this with my eyes wide open, Erik,” Charlotte chides gently.  “I’m certainly not innocent or ignorant of human nature.  I’ve seen evil, Erik.  I’ve felt it.”
 
She stands slowly, rolling her shoulders to stretch them, but her eyes never leave Erik’s.  “And by that measure, I know how rare true evil is.”
 
Charlotte tucks her hair behind her ear and moves to leave, but she pauses at the doorway.
 
“I know evil, my friend,” she says, her voice firm with conviction.  “And you’re not even close.”
 
--
 
Charlotte’s heart is pounding as she makes her way to her bedroom, and she can feel her pulse in every part of her body as though she’s just sprinted across the county.
 
She’s never told anyone about Amelia before tonight, not even Raven.  That girl and what Charlotte did to her were locked in the darkest corners of her mind, a constant reminder she needs to wield her power prudently.
 
But when Erik asked her…she told him.
 
Charlotte lets herself collapse on the bed, staring at the ceiling as she remembers the way Erik’s eyes had darkened as she told the story.  Sympathy and acceptance (and anger, always anger but on her behalf, anger that she should have suffered that) had bled off him so strongly Charlotte could almost taste it.
 
She hadn’t truly known what Erik would think of her erasing Amelia’s memories, hadn’t known if it would shatter the trust he places in her when he realised what her telepathy can do.
 
But she’d told him anyway, because he’d asked…and she trusts him.  Trusts him even without reading his mind, which was previously an honour held only by Raven.
 
“I,” Charlotte declares to her ceiling.  “Am in a lot of trouble.”

Chapter Text

“The doors we open and close each day decide the lives we live.”
-Flora Whittemore
 
--
 
Prison is unpleasant.  This kind of rigid confinement goes against every instinct of human nature, and it shows.  Overcrowd any animal, and it will become hostile and anti-social.
 
Still, Charlotte resents the implication that she can't handle the visit.
 
“Sweetheart,” the warden says in a conciliatory tone, the awful endearment grating on Charlotte's nerves.  “This isn't a Sunday stroll through the park, this is-”
 
“A corrections facility housing men who have been charged with thievery, rape, murder and the other assorted crimes which currently carry jail time in our society,” she finishes crisply.  “I'm perfectly aware of exactly what I'm walking into.”
 
The warden curls his lip, irritated at being interrupted, and Charlotte catches the whisper of fine, she asked for this/cold bitch/hope they give her a good scare.
 
But all that comes out of his mouth is, “Your funeral, sweetheart.”
 
“And don't call me sweetheart,” Charlotte adds.
 
The warden is clearly unhappy, but there's no rejoinder he can make without seeming like a crass bigot, so he remains silent.  Verbally, at least – mentally, it's quite another story, and Charlotte deliberately veers her attention away from his thoughts.
 
Erik – who has been glaring from the moment the word ‘sweetheart’ first left the warden’s lips – is now smirking, as though he enjoyed the show.
 
I don't think you made a friend, he thinks with a very meaningful glance at her.  That's not like you, Charlotte.
 
I didn't sleep well, she sends back.
 
She ensures that comment carries just a touch of her grouchiness, and her heart lifts a little when Erik chuckles in response.
 
It's true, though; she didn't sleep well.  Charlotte was pondering her reactions to Erik for most of the night, and at some point around two o'clock she realised she is well and truly infatuated with the man – there's no escaping it.  It isn't a problem, not really, (Charlotte's been infatuated with dozens of men in her life and is sure this will pass in time), but it could lead to tension in their friendship, so it's best to set it aside.
 
Though in her defence, Charlotte thinks it would be difficult not to become infatuated with Erik.  She's seen what he's been through, seen how it colours his life every day, and to be so willing to trust her in spite of what he's endured speaks volumes of his strength.
 
He's listened to her worst experiences and darkest moments without recoiling in horror.  He knows what she did to Amelia, and he still trusts her inside his mind.
 
How can she not love him?
 
As they approach the cell block, Charlotte deliberately strengthens her shields.  She can already feel it, creeping towards her like a darkness with eyes and ears and voices – all those ugly, frustrated thoughts packed into so small a space are like a grenade waiting to go off, and she wants to be ready when it does.
 
'Charlotte's suit doesn't hide the fact that she is a woman, and the jeers and catcalls and wolf-whistles begin as soon as she steps in front of the first cell.  She knows the warden would usually quiet the inmates, especially when the lewd suggestions start, but he wants to give her a fright; petty revenge for the way she trampled his authority not ten minutes ago.
 
But if he expects her to flinch, or cringe, he'll be disappointed – Charlotte has read much worse from the minds of supposedly upstanding citizens.  In fact, compared to some of the fantasies she's inadvertently picked up at parties or in pubs, the imaginings battering at her shields now are rather tame.
 
Erik, on the other hand, is rapidly falling into a truly ill humour.  His jaw seems to be clenching incrementally tighter with each raucous call for Charlotte to 'get over here', and she doesn't think it's a coincidence that Erik is between her and the cells, impairing the prisoners' view of her.
 
She understands where his protective instinct comes from – Erik has seen too many people he loves suffer and die to not want to throw himself between her and anything that can be remotely considered a threat – but sometimes Charlotte wishes he'd be a little easier on himself.  The fact that the inmates are leering at her is hardly unexpected, and certainly not indicative of a personal failing on his part.
 
She puts her hand on his arm to get his attention, and then broadcasts, loudly and firmly, I'm fine.  Trust me, this is nothing compared to a night at the pub.
 
Erik scowls, but Charlotte can see him force himself to relax and dial his tension back.  I believe they’re more commonly called 'bars' in America.
 
I don’t care – they’re pubs to me.
 
Erik's amusement washes through her like a healthy swallow of hot coffee – warm with just hint of a bite to it – and Charlotte's cheeks pinch down to hide her smile.
 
She can feel Alex up ahead, convicted on multiple counts of possession and drug dealing.  The police and judge assumed he was just an idiot looking for a high.
 
Charlotte knows better.  Alex paid for the drugs and mixed the drugs and took the drugs like they were candy because they kept him sedate, kept him passive.
 
Kept his power safely locked away and under control.
 
God knows it's a route Charlotte considered more than once.  Really, all that had held her back was the fear – what if the drug enhanced her telepathy rather than suppressing it?  What if it left her telepathy completely unhindered, but wrecked her ability to shield herself?
 
Either way, the risk had never been worth the potential pay-off, and eventually, Charlotte had taught herself to control her power without chemical stimulants.
 
She only hopes she can offer the same to Alex – control without dependency
 
--
 
Erik can admit he's been – not worried, because he doesn't worry – but concerned over Charlotte's reception by their fellow mutants.  After all, a telepathic woman who wears a suit is hardly mainstream, and Erik has seen the unthinking, automatic prejudice people can display towards those who deviate from what authority tells them is 'normal'.
 
But he's been pleasantly surprised thus far.  There's such a longing for acceptance in every mutant they've met that they'd probably have followed a purple genie if it promised them other mutants.  So a woman in a suit?  Barely seems to register.
 
Until Charlotte leaves Erik with Alex while she closes their official business with the warden, and the younger mutant mutters a snide comment, low and almost under his breath.
 
“So what, you let a bitch give you orders?”
 
Erik can hear Alex's uncertainty through the paper-thin aggression in his tone, and knows this man is only trying to determine the pecking order of his new society in the only way he knows how.  There’s no true contempt in his voice – Charlotte had to reprimand the unpleasant warden yet again for calling her ‘sweetheart’, and Alex’s eyes had gleamed with respect.  This is merely an intimidated man trying to communicate that he will not be pushed around in the only way he can conceive of.
 
That doesn't mean Erik's inclined to forgive it, though.  He not entirely sure why this irritates him so much, only that the idea of Charlotte being seen as less than what she is infuriates him.
 
Erik's knows his eyes are hard and his voice flat with threat when he turns.
 
“Let's get one thing very clear,” Erik says in the tight whisper he used with that banker in Switzerland.  “Professor Xavier is the one who found you, and the one who wanted to get you out, so if I were you, I’d show her some respect in case she changes her mind.”
 
Alex blinks, and stays quiet until Charlotte returns.  And then Erik suspects he only speaks up because it's difficult to remain silent in Charlotte's presence, with her sun-bright enthusiasm and bubbling excitement about your powers, all smile and wide blue eyes and promises that you aren't alone any more.
 
--
 
Erik knows he has a serious problem by the time they're back at the CIA, and blames his slow realisation on the fact he's not accustomed to keeping watch for this kind of threat.
 
For the first time since he was a child, Erik is invested in the life and happiness of another person.  He has thrown his lot in Charlotte Xavier for the foreseeable future, and he doesn't even remember the precise moment when it happened.  Somewhere between arms around him in a cold ocean (you're not alone) and a soft smile over a chessboard, Erik's given his loyalty to a woman who wears suits and think mutations are 'groovy'.  To a woman who stands strong in the face of the world's disapproval, who can slide into people's minds and leave nothing but a gentle touch of warmth and laughter, who often comes quite close to glowing with the force of her optimism and compassion.
 
And all Erik can think is that he needs to get rid of this, or change it, or...dilute it somehow.
 
Given that he's led a solitary existence for over half his life, Erik is well-versed in taking care of his own needs, be it food or shelter or sex.  And though his routine for self-pleasure has stepped up since he met Charlotte (her cheeks flushed with alcohol and eyes heavy-lidded and all-but smouldering, her look of astonished ecstasy as Cerebro bursts into life, her soaking shirt clinging to her breasts, sharply outlining her nipples), he's never actually fantasised about her when he brings himself off.  It's always seemed somehow disrespectful, as though he's taking advantage of her in some way.
 
But now he won't hold himself back.  Maybe this bond between him and Charlotte won't be as powerful if he turns it into something filthy and sordid...
 
But he can't.  Because what he has with Charlotte is worlds away from everything that has come before.  Try as he might, he can't imagine fucking Charlotte quickly and harshly in some dingy motel room, can't picture himself picking his clothes up from the floor and leaving afterwards.
 
Instead, his mind paints Charlotte sprawled on his sheets, naked and laughing, fearless to be so vulnerable because she would be fearless, would know she had nothing to fear from him.  He sees her smiling as she bares herself, delighting in revealing her body, curious about Erik's, her eyes bright with trust as she pulls him towards her.
 
Even in his fantasies, it’s Charlotte’s joyful laughter and open smile and eager encouragement.  Even in his imaginings, the appeal is less in the idea of sexual intercourse and more in the fact that it's Charlotte he's picturing with him.
 
His orgasm is swift and surprising in its intensity, and Erik climaxes with an image of Charlotte behind his eyelids; sweat gleaming on every inch of her exposed skin, hips writhing, breasts heaving with each breath, mouth open and eyes blind in ecstasy.
 
While his body is calming, Erik stares at the ceiling and feels fear creeping over his skin with the drying sweat.
 
Because his attachment to Charlotte has dug into him like a hook, buried in flesh and bone, and it won’t be removed easily.
 
Erik cares about Charlotte Xavier.  And everything he's cared about, he's lost.  Or, more specifically, Schmidt and blind human prejudice have taken from him.
 
If you care for something, you must be strong enough to protect it.  And for all his power, Erik has never been strong enough when he truly needed to be.
 
When his mother would be shot unless he moved the coin-
 
When there was no food unless he opened the lock on the cell-
 
When the pain wouldn't stop unless he tore the instruments from Shaw's hands-
 
In the next instant he tells himself not to be foolish.  Charlotte protects herself far more capably than Erik would ever be able to; she identifies threats before they're even half-formed thoughts and deals with them in the next instant.
 
Besides – and Erik hates that he needs to comfort himself like this, like a child who's wet the bed from sheer fright – Schmidt doesn't even know Charlotte exists.  Schmidt will never touch her.
 
His exercise in diminishing their bond a failure, Erik concedes defeat.  He cleans himself up quickly, then goes to the living area to find Charlotte for the chess games that have become a regular occurrence.
 
--
 
Charlotte's on the defensive – her experience in the prison left her more tired than usual, and Erik seems particularly devious tonight.  She's already lost a bishop, both her knights, and a slew of pawns.
 
“Are you particularly religious?” Erik asks.
 
From anyone else, she might be taken aback at the sudden question, but not with Erik.  These chess games seem less about the game itself nowadays and more about their conversation, feeling each other out, getting to know each other and how their minds work – differently, yes, but so similar in so many ways.
 
She knows Erik hasn’t practiced Judaism for years, since the ringing bang of a gunshot took away the last person connecting him to that world, and Charlotte can feel his honest curiosity behind the question.
 
“I’m not really sure,” Charlotte admits.  “I’ll admit I can’t believe in any of the various gods religions follow today.  I can’t believe there’s some inherent order or plan to the world, because everything is just too…random.  Too nonsensical.  Good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to people who have never deserved them.”
 
She does her best not to think about how much that last statement applies to the man in front of her.  But she can’t help feeling a shiver of sorrow all the same, as she is vividly reminded that there is no inherent justice or order to the world.  Only chance, and what you can make of those chances.
 
“And as for the afterlife,” Charlotte continues, “I’ve never felt a mind without a body, so whatever it is that makes us…us, it certainly doesn’t linger here.  But on the other hand…”
 
She pauses, thinking about how to articulate her feelings on the subject.  “I’ve touched people’s minds, felt their emotions, and it seems strange to believe that they just vanish into nothingness when we die.  Energy can’t be destroyed, after all, merely transformed, and people’s minds – what theologians like to call our soul – I feel sure they’re a kind of energy.”
 
“But doesn’t that law also state that energy cannot be created?” Erik points out.  “And what’s birth, if not our creation?”
 
“Point,” Charlotte muses quietly.  “And I don’t subscribe to the idea of reincarnation.  Maybe we just…dissipate, the way our bodies rot in the ground.  Maybe all the pieces of ourselves somehow become a part of everything else.  Maybe that’s our afterlife.”
 
“No heaven, no hell?” Erik pushes, something dark and jagged flickering in his eyes and across his mind.  “No eternal reward?”
 
But Charlotte knows it’s not heaven he’s hoping for.  Judaism doesn’t subscribe to the idea of hell, but Erik likes the idea of Klaus Schmidt suffering for all eternity.
 
“I’m not sure about heaven and hell,” Charlotte says, both of them tiptoeing around the shadow in the room by mutual, unspoken agreement.  “It’s always seemed very arbitrary to me.  I mean, we have perhaps seventy, eighty years of life to do whatever we’re going to do, and to be punished or rewarded for those short years for all eternity seems inappropriate in most cases.”
 
But not all cases, Erik’s mind whispers, so softly Charlotte isn’t sure if he intended her to know it or not.
 
She decides to go on as if she didn’t get another glimpse into the dark, labyrinthine workings of Erik’s mind.  “Besides, I like the idea of essentially getting nothing – that what you do in this life has to be your reward, rather than something handed to you by an all-mighty power.”
 
The corner of Erik’s mouth curls, as though he’s amused by something.  “You would like the idea of making your own reward.”
 
Charlotte laughs.  “Well, there might be a touch of worry in that as well.  After all, plenty of people have told me I’m going to hell for wearing improper clothing and all the premarital sex I’ve been having.”
 
Erik scoffs, “If there is a hell, you’ll never see it.”
 
His eyes are hooded and strangely intense, and Charlotte wants to dip beyond his surface thoughts to find out why, but holds herself back.  She limits her mind-reading as much as she can when they’re playing chess – it feels like cheating otherwise.
 
“Confident of that, are you?” she grins, glancing back at the board.  Erik will probably defeat her in the next three moves, and at the moment she can’t see a way out of it.
 
Her mood sobers as Charlotte reflects exactly why she should fear a hell, if one does indeed exist.
 
“I can guarantee, I’m no angel,” she says quietly, never raising her eyes.  “You, of all people, know that.”
 
The rest of the game – what little remains of it – is played in silence.  Erik does indeed checkmate her in three moves, and rises to leave instead of lingering and talking as he usually does.
 
Charlotte might be worried, if she hadn’t felt the concern radiating off Erik every time she yawned.  He’s realised she’s tired and is letting her retreat to bed early.
 
It’s almost amusing, how much of a caretaker Erik is without ever knowing it.
 
The door is almost shut when Charlotte hears it, like a radio through static.  Thoughts deliberately directed at her always seem somehow louder than others – the way calling her name in a crowded room attracts her attention – and thoughts about her are the same, which she’s often had cause to regret.
 
The fact that Charlotte isn’t actively reading Erik’s mind means that the thought is muted, but clear all the same.
 
…not an angel, but pretty damn close…
 
There’s a kind of puzzled admiration to it, as well as a whisper of bitterness, the sour taste of lost hopes.  But the complicated tangle of emotions that runs underneath the words isn’t what makes the rhythm of her heartbeat kick up a notch.
 
She tells herself it means nothing.  Given Erik’s experiences, of course he’s going to think highly of the first person to offer him the kind of friendship and acceptance Charlotte knows she’s offering.
 
It doesn’t stop her cheeks from flushing though, and Charlotte mutters a quiet curse to herself.
 
She’s in deep.
 
--
 
Sean Cassidy looks closer to seventeen than twenty-two, and seems to be spectacularly bad at picking up girls.  And Raven mocks Charlotte for her groovy mutation line – she should have heard the fish one Sean employed.
 
It doesn’t take long, but then it never does.  These people have thought themselves alone for so long, that the prospect of finally knowing there are others out there, finally meeting them, is a lure so potent it almost feels like cheating.
 
Sean is packing within the hour, telling his friends that he’s found a job out of state and might be out of touch for a little while.
 
They’re all very eager to go with us, Erik thinks as he and Charlotte help load Sean’s bags into the car.  Do you have this effect on everyone?
 
What effect? Charlotte wonders, curious.  Unless you mean my telepathy, and no, I’m not compelling them to go with us – that wouldn’t help our cause at all.
 
I didn’t mean your telepathy.  There are deep undercurrents to that thought, undercurrents of why her?/what does she do?/what is it about her that makes people want to follow her to the ends of the earth?
 
And even deeper, beneath affection/frustration/bewilderment; what is it about her that makes me want to follow her to the ends of the earth?
 
Charlotte breathes through the almost painful warmth curling in her chest, and can’t help smiling at him.  I admit my telepathy does come into it, in a way.  Cerebro doesn’t just find them, you see – I feel them as well.  And I can feel the ones who are searching for something more – it won’t always be us they want, but I have a fairly good idea of who’ll go with us and who won’t.
 
There’s a wave of surprise/amazement/wonder/what is that like?/how it that possible? from Erik’s mind, the same basic thoughts and feelings Charlotte usually picks up from this man when she expounds on an aspect of her powers.
 
Even Raven has never been entirely comfortable with Charlotte reading her mind, and perhaps that’s natural – there are some things you simply don’t want to know about your sibling – but Erik never pulls back, never turns away, never tells her to get out of his head after that first night on the boat.  That kind of trust is quite intoxicating, and sometimes Charlotte worries about that, worries that this silly little crush of hers is about to turn something bigger (if it hasn’t already), worries about being spoiled for any future romantic prospects, now that she’s known such complete acceptance of her telepathy.
 
Charlotte sighs – at herself, at the world – and tucks a lock of hair behind her ear in a nervous habit she hasn’t indulged for years.  Then she smiles, because really, what can she do?  It’s not like there’s a way to stop yourself falling in love with someone; it either happens or it doesn’t.  There’s no middle ground, no ‘sort of’ or ‘halfway’, no way of halting the headlong slide once it’s begun.
 
And if she’s already on it…well, at the very least, she can enjoy the ride.
 
--
 
Erik has come to the conclusion that Charlotte is either more oblivious than any telepath has a right to be, or…
 
Actually, he can’t think of another explanation.
 
He’s been off-balance for days, certain he was broadcasting his affection so loudly that Charlotte could have picked up on it from across the county, but if she did, there’s been no sign.  She doesn’t address the subject the way Erik imagines she would if she picked up on his emotions over their chess game, doesn’t avoid him the way he’s half-feared she would if she got a mental eyeful of one of his fantasies.
 
In short, Charlotte acts like nothing has changed at all, and Erik’s unsure if she really has no idea of his feelings for her or if she’s simply too gentle and goddamn polite to verbally crush his hopes.
 
Erik’s always been the type to go after what he wants, but with this – with Charlotte – he feels a kind of hesitancy he hasn’t felt in longer than he cares to remember.  If he wanted anyone else this way, he wouldn’t be like this – he’d just fuck it out his system and move on, and that’s worked well for him thus far.
 
But what’s holding him back is the horrible suspicion that if he ever takes Charlotte to bed (or the floor, or the table, as he’s sometimes imagined), it won’t end there.  That he won’t be satisfied with just one night or one week, that he’ll want to stay with her even more than he does now, and that’s just…unacceptable.
 
Leaving aside the question of whether an optimistic, pacifist telepath will help or hinder his goal of killing Schmidt, there’s the question of what association with him will do to Charlotte.  Erik knows what he is, and ‘murderer’ is one of the kinder names for it.  Violence trails him like a faithful dog, and while his shadows might have touched Charlotte, courtesy of her power, they haven’t tainted her, not yet.  And they won’t as long as he keeps his distance.
 
But keeping your distance from Charlotte Xavier is easier said than done.  It’s almost automatic for Erik to seek her out when he finds himself becoming bored with the routine monotony at the CIA, instinctive to attempt to direct his thoughts at her rather than whisper when he doesn’t want to be overheard.  Part of that is pragmatism – telepathy can’t be eavesdropped on, after all – but another, larger part of it is the feel of Charlotte in his head; warm and gentle and everywhere.
 
But perhaps this is a habit for Charlotte, being blind to those whose affections for her have deeper currents than friendship.  Erik can see the hidden, wistful longing in Raven’s eyes when Charlotte puts an arm around her or kisses her forehead.
 
Perhaps Erik should be disgusted at the idea of a woman desiring another woman, but he isn’t.  Homosexuals were in the concentration camps alongside his own people – the Nazis labelled them as disgusting perverts, and Erik doubts those fucking sadists could be right about anything.  Besides, there are more important things to judge people by than their choice in bed partners.
 
So instead, Erik finds himself sympathising.  It’s not easy feeling so deeply for a woman who seems so blind to her effect on people, in spite of her telepathy.

Chapter Text

“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact.  Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
-Marcus Aurelius
 
--
 
In the moment a twelve year old girl saw her in her natural form and smiled rather than screaming or running away, Raven had known her life was going to change. 
 
Though she could have never anticipated exactly how much.  Even at twelve, Charlotte was strong enough and deft enough with her telepathy to make her mother believe she'd adopted a child, to slip Raven into the household without even a ripple.  In some ways, it had been almost frightening, to have people she'd never met treat her as though they'd known her for years.
 
Raven remembers thinking that for a well-fed, richly-clothed girl who couldn't have wanted for anything, Charlotte had been surprisingly desperate for her to stay.  Of course, it was only later that she understood just how starved for affection Charlotte was, in that enormous mansion where she had everything a child could want and so little of what a child actually needed.
 
For the first week, Raven had been unable to go anywhere without Charlotte tagging along behind, her mind whispering through Raven's own, always asking if she was all right, if she needed anything, and did she like the house?  It might have been irritating, if Raven hadn't been just as desperate for friendly company.
 
She quickly realised that Charlotte was very protective, almost smotheringly so (though she's gotten better since she went to university), but two years had passed before Raven first had an inkling as to why.
 
She was eleven when she saw the scars on Charlotte's back, criss-crossing like carelessly threaded shoelaces, eleven when Charlotte first told Raven about her stepfather and stepbrother.
 
At the time, Raven had thought that Charlotte really was just like a fairy tale princess – she had a mansion, a special power, and even an evil step-parent.  Now, with an adult's eyes, Raven can look back and see how those years of being terrorised by Kurt Marko and his son, Cain, shaped the woman Charlotte would become.  It's why Charlotte is so reluctant to turn to violence, preferring tactics she dubs 'aggressive diplomacy', it's why she controls herself so rigidly, why she worries every time Raven has one of her little slip-ups.
 
It's also why she's so desperate to protect Raven, even though Raven's long-past needing that protection.  Even now, Raven knows there are secrets Charlotte will never share with her, for fear that they'll hurt her somehow.  If she hadn't seen the scars in the changing room that summer, Raven has no doubt Charlotte would never have breathed a word about her mother's second marriage.
 
Perhaps that's where it started – no one had ever tried so hard to protect her before, to the extent of refusing to bring up subjects they feared would hurt her.
 
Try as she might, Raven's never really seen Charlotte as a sister.  Perhaps it's because the mansion was so foreign to anything she'd ever known before – it took years for her to become truly comfortable in it – and Mrs. Xavier...was always Mrs. Xavier, never her parent.
 
To tell the truth, she often felt sorry for Charlotte, having to call that bitch 'Mother'.
 
So, she's never seen herself as related to Charlotte, but it was when Raven was fourteen that she first noticed some distinctly un-sisterly feelings towards her adoptive sibling.
 
It was then that she asked Charlotte to stop reading her mind.  Raven can bear a lot of things – she's had to – but she can't bear the thought of Charlotte's horrified rejection.  It's not her revulsion or disgust Raven fears – she's known she had nothing to fear on that subject ever since Charlotte slammed that psychology textbook shut and snapped, “Completely ridiculous – homosexuality is not a mental illness, and I'm in a position to know!” – but Charlotte's pity.  Because it would be pity – it could never be anything else.
 
Besides, there are plenty more fish in the sea.  Hank, for one.  And Raven can admit Erik's quite handsome, if you like the intense, permanently brooding type.
 
Which it appears Charlotte does, if the sidelong glances and almost dreamy smiles she gives Erik are any indication.  Subtle, Charlotte is not.
 
Of course, Erik's not much better.  He lights up every time Charlotte walks in the room, and Raven knows for a fact that there are several trained government operatives who won't talk to Erik unless Charlotte's there to put him in a good mood.  Raven once transformed into Charlotte and walked up to Erik to see if he could tell the difference, and she'd been taken aback at the way his usually-severe expression had softened, turning gentle at the edges.  As though he was smiling with his eyes, even if his mouth didn't move.
 
It hadn't lasted long – Raven couldn't duplicate Charlotte's powers, and in the absence of telepathy Erik had broken her cover within moments – but it was long enough for Raven to see exactly what her sister meant to this man.  She'd have been sitting Erik down for a conversation about his intentions, but it feels kind of redundant, as well as about a week too late.
 
Honestly, Raven suspects they'd fallen for each other by the time they reached the CIA.  Which is kind of cool, to connect to someone so deeply so fast (and she suspects Charlotte's telepathy is playing a role in this), but also kind of spooky.
 
It might be cute, if they were actually doing anything about it.  As it is, it's all longing looks and deep personal conversations over chess.  Raven's half-tempted to just barge in on one of their chess games and tell them to have sex already, but she's not entirely sure she really wants them to hook up.
 
Because Erik may be completely smitten with her sister, but Raven's not blind to what the man is.  He's a killer and he has already tried to leave them once (Charlotte does tell her some things), he’s a basket of emotionally repressed issues just waiting to explode, and the jury's still out on whether he's good for her sister or not.
 
He might be able to kill Nazis and manipulate metal and could probably kick her ass if he wanted to, but if Erik hurts Charlotte, he'll answer to Raven.
 
--
 
“What's it like?” Erik asks.  “This future you envision?”
 
He and Charlotte are in the car again, driving to a bar (because it is a bar, Erik calls them bars) where Cerebro picked up another lonely mutant.  This is the fifth time they've done this, and Erik can't help but wonder what point Charlotte sees in this.  She's been very vocal about her dreams of mutant/human cooperation, but how is she planning to get there?
 
After all, it's been over fifty years since women were granted the right to vote, yet as far as public acceptance goes...well, he's seen the way far too many people treat Charlotte.
 
“What do you mean?” Charlotte wonders, looking away from the empty road for a moment to glance at him.
 
Erik's stare is flat and bitter, and it's almost a relief that Charlotte can pick up on his thoughts, that he won't have to articulate what's running through his mind – that even if they can change the laws, they won't erase people's prejudices.
 
I'm not saying it'll be easy, Charlotte's mind breathes into his.  Acceptance doesn't happen in a day, or even a generation.  But the road will be much smoother once we're legally recognised, and working for the CIA is a good step towards that.
 
Make the recognition positive, rather than negative, Erik realises.
 
Precisely.
 
“You're assuming that positive recognition will make a difference in the long run,” Erik speaks up, unsure if the troubled chaos of his mind is properly articulating his feelings on this matter.  “You, of all people, should know better than that.”
 
Charlotte doesn't speak aloud, and Erik wonders if it's more natural for her to communicate telepathically than verbally. 
 
Just because I've seen evil, my friend, doesn't mean I'm blind to all the good in the world.  Yes, I know when people give into temptation, when they lie, when they're selfish and greedy and petty and cruel...but I also see people resist temptation, fight above their baser natures to be selfless and kind and giving.
 
Erik can admit he's dubious about that – he's seen a lot of the world, and the parts he saw were nowhere near selfless or kind.
 
And yet, almost against his will, he remembers his father giving him the last of their food even though both he and his mother had gone hungry for two days straight.  He remembers the ones who stumbled in the lines to the gas chambers, whose friends and family rushed to pull them from the mud before the guards could strike them, often taking the blows on their own body.
 
But then that was always people they knew – always a relative, or close friend.  Someone they had reason to be kind to, to watch out for.  People aren't kind or gentle to others simply for the sake of it.
 
At least, people who aren't Charlotte Xavier.
 
Most people don't want to hurt others, Charlotte muses.  In fact, we'll go out of our way not to.  At some level, we're aware that we're not alone in this.
 
This?
 
Life, the world, take your pick.  Humans are primarily social animals, and I've seen nothing to indicate mutants are any different – we have to work together or we'll destroy ourselves.
 
Destroy them, you mean, Erik thinks, feeling a shiver of satisfaction at the thought.  He's not a helpless child any more – he has strength, and power, and if it happens again, he can protect himself.  He can protect Charlotte, and Raven, and every mutant out there.
 
No, I mean ourselves, Charlotte repeats.  You think if it comes to war, it'll be all humans on one side, all mutants on the other?
 
“Why wouldn't it be?” Erik demands aloud, the words somehow feeling weightier if he speaks them rather than merely thinking them.
 
Charlotte lips quirk, but it can't be called a smile – it's too sad for that.
 
“We're born to humans, Erik,” she says quietly, and it feels strange to hear her with his ears instead of inside his head.  “Mutants are such a small fraction of the world's population...our families are human, our friends are human, and I guarantee you that if we try to raise ourselves above humans, most of us will fight it.  If someone proposed a regime that would make Moira a second-class citizen, then I'd fight it, no matter what they were offering me.”
 
“Not all those families are happy,” Erik protests, but it's half-hearted.
 
After all, his mother was human.  As was his father, and his uncle and aunt and his cousins...
 
No family is perfect, Charlotte admits, and Erik wonders if he's imagining the weariness and sorrow in that thought.  I can't deny that.  Some of them become frightened of their children, but most...there's a reason I could only pick a few to go with us.  Because most are happy with families who love and accept them.
 
Erik has no reply to make to that.
 
And I'm not entirely ignorant, Charlotte continues, her mental tone seeming lighter somehow.  I know how people treat those they don't understand.  If we're to make any headway, we need to be...aggressively peaceful.
 
Aggressively peaceful?
 
Basically, we're nice and diplomatic, but if we're pushed...we push back hard.
 
There's a hint of steel to that thought, determination and conviction and a whisper of anger, the weight of a tested strategy rather than a hypothesis.
 
That's how you survived, he realises.
 
Charlotte's eyes are shadowed, seemingly more black than blue.  I know a thing or two about fighting for acceptance, my friend.
 
There's melancholy and anger running beneath her words, and Erik knows Charlotte intends him to feel it, that she's deliberately giving him an insight into her very emotions.  The intimacy that comes with this kind of communication is deep, and all the more unsettling for the fact that with Charlotte, Erik...doesn't mind it.  There's no instinctive need to retreat, to keep a healthy distance – if anything, Erik's inclination is the opposite.
 
He wants to get closer to Charlotte Xavier, this woman who openly flies in the face of what society expects, who smiles in the face of jeers and insults, who refuses to do unto others as they have done unto her.
 
--
 
Charlotte is feeling dubious as soon as they walk into the bar.  Logan is lonely, yes, and yearning for something more, but she doesn't think he'll find it with them.  At least, not yet.
 
She and Erik try anyway, but they've barely introduced themselves before Logan cuts them off.
 
“Go fuck yourselves,” he says, without preamble.  Then he turns and gives Charlotte a considering glance.  “Unless you want to fuck me, then you can stay.  Assuming you actually are a woman, that is.”
 
Erik's eyes narrow dangerously, and while Charlotte would usually be irritated and repulsed, she's not now.  She can sense that Logan's crudeness is deliberate – he wants to be left alone with his pain, and is taking the most expedient route possible to that solitude.
 
So she decides to leave him to it.
 
It's all right, she sends to Erik, along with a compressed version of her realisations.
 
Erik's still not happy, but he leaves the bar without incident. 
 
Charlotte is pensive as they walk back to the car, reflecting grimly on how easily that could have been her.  Drinking to forget the pain, drugging so she wouldn't have to think, fucking so she wouldn't have to connect with anyone.
 
If Raven hadn't come along, Charlotte's not really sure what would have become of her.
 
At that thought, she can't help but smile, because Charlotte knows she's been extraordinarily lucky.  True, it had been difficult in the beginning – to have telepathy manifest in a household so devoid of love was a trial – but she's known a sister who is fiercely devoted to her, and she's managed to pursue her doctorate in spite of the many obstacles in her way.
 
And she's known Erik.  No matter what may become of them, Charlotte knows she'll never regret meeting this man.
 
Her smile grows wider, and she tilts her face to the sun, basking in its warmth.
 
Beautiful... whispers through Erik's mind.
 
Charlotte starts from her reverie, glancing at her companion.  “What?”
 
Erik blinks, echoing her question.  “What?”
 
“You thought 'beautiful',” Charlotte says, glancing around.  “What's beautiful?”
 
There's a wave of embarrassment/defiance/determination from Erik, as though he's sure she won't appreciate whatever he's seen, but is determined not to be ashamed of it.  Curious, Charlotte dips just a tiny bit deeper, trying to see what he found beautiful through his eyes...
 
It's her.
 
It's her; her face tilted to the sky, the breeze lifting individual strands of her hair and curling them around her neck and face, her eyes distant and her smile soft and contemplative.
 
The picture is hazy – Erik's trying to drown it in a stream of mundane information – but Charlotte can feel his affection and attachment to her deep in her own chest, a throbbing as close as her heartbeat.
 
Erik thinks she's beautiful, in a way that goes far beyond the physical.
 
Charlotte's not sure if it's a side-effect of her powers, but they step towards each other in almost perfect unison.  Her hand comes up automatically, wanting to touch him physically as she's touching him mentally, and she's not sure what's written on her face but Erik's is twisted like a man walking a knife-edge between agony and ecstasy.
 
His thoughts are a hurricane of contradictions; longing/denial/want this so much/want her so much/can't do this/can't want this/can't deal with this.
 
The sudden, visceral wave of rejection and fear that follows pulls Charlotte up short, her hand half-extended towards Erik's face, her mind stinging at the slap of no, no, no/can't/won't/NO!
 
“I can't,” Erik says aloud, with something like desperation in his voice.
 
He steps back, his fingers curled into fists at his side.  He actually looks...shaken.  But his mind is unanimous in rejection and refusal of Charlotte's unconscious offer.
 
So she deliberately breaks their mental connection, withdrawing in an effort to give Erik some privacy, and tries not to feel hurt when he turns away and walks to the car as quickly as he can.
 
But she's only lying to herself.  Of course she's hurt, but really, what does she expect?  If she couldn't make even her weak-willed, socially-compliant parents love her, what chance does she have with Erik?
 
Charlotte's used to disappointment, but it's been a long time since it hit this hard.  So she takes a moment to collect herself before she makes her way back to the car.
 
Erik is clearly uncomfortable – his hand is in his pocket, tracing the shape of the coin he always carries with him – and Charlotte finds herself automatically searching for a way to soothe him.
 
“It's alright,” she eventually settles for, deciding to keep their conversation verbal rather than mental.  “It doesn't matter.”
 
It does matter, it matters a great deal, but he doesn't have to know.  Charlotte refuses to find out why he rejected her, instead stretching out her mind to the mental hum of the city around her, the equivalent of sticking her fingers in her ears and loudly singing nonsensical syllables.
 
Because there's some knowledge – and some pain – that Charlotte can live without.
 
--
 
Erik feels like a coward, and it's not a feeling he relishes.  He's sworn that he'd never be in this situation again, never be denied or afraid of taking what he wanted the way he was so many years ago, but...
 
But he can't do this.  He can't risk deepening his attachment to Charlotte – it's already consumed far too much of him.  At times he can almost feel how dangerously close he is to falling in love with her, the same way you feel the heat from a fire long before the flames actually burn you.
 
Erik loved once, or at least he thinks he did.  Her name was Magda, and her parents died in the gas chambers.  She lived, for a while at least – Schmidt and the soldiers had uses for a pretty young girl, none of them particularly palatable.
 
They were young, they were suffering, and they were alone; their bond was almost inevitable.  Sometimes, Erik wonders if Schmidt didn't plan it that way.
 
Because as soon as Schmidt realised his little lab rat cared for someone, Magda become one more tool to inflict pain and incite rage.
 
“You can stop it, Erik,” he whispers as the soldier drag Magda out, slapping her sharply even though she hasn't had the strength to fight them since the first week.
 
“It doesn't take much,” Schmidt continues, voice low and coaxing, dripping faux-kindness.  “Just a little tug, and their guns turn on them.  Just a little tap, and their skulls are crushed inside their helmets.  You can do it, Erik – you failed to save your mother, but you can save her.”
 
He tries, he always tries, reaching out for the metal decorating the soldier's bodies and willing it to turn on them, but he can't quite get a hold on it.  It's slipping away from him as they leave the room, yanking Magda along like a recalcitrant dog, but no, no, he needs to do this, he needs to save her-
 
The door slams shut, and Schmidt sighs.  “Such a pity.  Maybe next time, Erik?”
 
And then Erik is left alone, with an aching head and tears on his cheeks as he curls into the corner and tries not to think about what the soldiers are already doing to Magda, tries not to think about anything at all.
 
He knew Magda for perhaps seven weeks before she died.  Schmidt didn't think Erik was progressing fast enough, so went back to his tried-and-true methods – he drew a gun on Magda and told him to stop the bullet.  Erik tried, of course he did, but...
 
But in the end, he was too young and inexperienced, and the bullet moved too quickly.
 
Erik doesn't allow himself to think of Magda often.
 
So, no, he can't fall in love with Charlotte Xavier, even though telling himself that feels rather like trying to bail out a sinking ship with his hands.  He's just about managing it, but something tells him there's a storm on the horizon, and he's fighting a losing battle.
 
Besides, it's not as though his motives are purely selfish.  Erik doesn't truly expect to survive killing Schmidt, and he doesn't want Charlotte to feel what he felt that day, standing over Magda's body.

Chapter Text

“The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible.”
-Arthur C. Clarke
 
--
 
As a government operative, Moira has learned to admit to fear – it can save your life.  And she doesn't feel a trace of shame when she admits to herself that Erik scares her.
 
She's hardly alone in it, after all.  Plenty of people in the compound are just as nervous around Erik as she is.  It's something in the way he watches you; like a predator scenting potential weakness, and just waiting for the right moment to strike. 
 
He's a mass of honed and hardened battle-reflexes, the kind that only develop after years of struggle.  He eats every scrap of food on his plate and gets twitchy when someone doesn't finish their meal.  He circles the perimeter before he goes to sleep, closing every window and locking every door.  He prefers standing to sitting (in fact, Moira thinks the only time she's seen Erik sit down is with Charlotte), and when he's in the room her eyes are automatically drawn to him every two minutes, as though some subconscious part of her brain is recognising the need to keep such a potentially dangerous person under surveillance.
 
Moira's much more comfortable around Charlotte – they're both women trying to succeed in traditionally masculine worlds, so they have a lot of common ground.  And Charlotte's just a nice person; always ready with a smile and willing to listen to whatever you want to talk about, from 'environmental effects on phenotypic inheritance' to 'that asshole in the cafeteria'.
 
Moira sometimes wonders if that's some aspect of Charlotte's telepathy – the way she seems to put everyone around her at ease.  Even Erik isn't immune, but Moira has the feeling there's something deeper going on there.  Not necessarily sex, but she won't be surprised if that's involved.
 
They look for each other when they first enter a room, can communicate with a meaningful glance (though to be fair, Moira can't swear Charlotte's mutant ability isn't involved) and most of the time they're as at ease with each other as an old married couple.
 
Except there's a hint of tension between them now.  Nothing overt, it's just...there.  It certainly doesn't seem to be animosity – Charlotte has been just as open and friendly as ever, and Moira thinks she'd be a bit sulkier if she and Erik had some kind of falling out – but Erik is certainly quieter than usual.
 
Which is quite a feat, given that Erik usually speaks only when necessary, but he's barely talking to Charlotte, which is what tipped Moira off.
 
She just hopes it won't interfere with the mission.  After all, the CIA smuggling what are technically civilians into Russia to monitor a senior Soviet official is enough of a minefield even without...whatever is going on between Erik and Charlotte.
 
--
 
Charlotte tried not to think about it, she really did, but she couldn't help it.  She worried at the questions of Erik's 'I can't' like she was tonguing a sore tooth.
 
She suspects he'd been acting out of fear.  She's sure that Erik wants her – she knows what she felt from him when he called her beautiful, and there was nothing moderate or distanced about it.  But of course, Erik's not going to be comfortable with the idea of caring for her the way he does, hence his retreat.
 
There's nothing Charlotte can really do about that – addressing the issue will just make Erik dig in his heels – so she does her best to show him that as far as she's concerned, nothing has to change.
 
And in all honesty, Charlotte would rather have Erik's friendship than a meaningless fling.
 
Though it's a hazard of friendship – of any close relationship really – that at times you want to strangle them.  When Erik runs off, intent on tackling Emma Frost alone, Charlotte has a moment where she wants to mentally control his right hand to slap him across the face.
 
“Erik!” she hisses, reaching over Moira to grab at his sleeve.
 
She misses of course, because Erik is damn quick when he wants to be, and tries to quash the urge to immediately run after him.  Instead, Charlotte practically glues her binoculars to her face, watching for any visible sign of Erik even as she automatically stretches out her mind to keep track of him.
 
Are you crazy? she projects into his mind, as loudly and obnoxiously as she can.
 
Erik's reply is a mix of stay out of this/don't try to stop me/don't you dare shot through with the kind of anger and bitterness that has had decades to simmer.
 
Erik, she's a telepath.  You do remember what happened the last time you confronted her?
 
A sense of disgruntlement from Erik, as well as seething frustration at the idea that Shaw might slip through his grasp again.  I'll be ready for her this time.
 
Charlotte's doesn't reply in words, just a wave of disbelief, which Erik shunts aside with a surge of fury.
 
There are deeper emotions than that of course, so dark and tangled Charlotte doubts she could unpick them if she had a month, but nowhere in there is even a hint of acquiescence.
 
Erik isn't coming back.
 
So Charlotte goes after him – she can't let him face a telepath alone.
 
--
 
Charlotte can't help but notice Erik doesn't actually kill any of the soldiers.  For all that he won't tolerate obstacles between him and his goal and he's undoubtedly violent in their removal, it isn't lethal violence.
 
As she darts through the front doors of the mansion, jumping over the fallen guards (unconscious, no need to erase their memory), she sends a very clear and direct thought to Erik.
 
Do NOT try to confront a telepath by yourself.  I'm right behind you, just let me catch up.
 
Erik's thoughts spit refusal at her, but she doesn't let that stop her.  It's easy to pick Erik's mind out of the mansion's chaos (almost too easy, as though their minds are somehow instinctively attuned to each other), and Charlotte follows it as quickly as she can through the maze of long, opulent corridors.
 
She finds Erik stepping over more soldiers, knocked unconscious by their own weapons as the guns flew apart in their hands (Charlotte saw it through their eyes only moments ago).
 
She sends out a quiet call to Erik, the mental equivalent of tapping him on the shoulder, and Erik whirls around, eyes wild and body tense.
 
“Go back!” he snaps.
 
“I can't,” Charlotte says simply, not wanting to risk unnecessary telepathic communication so close to Frost.  “They've gone – it's just you and me now.”
 
There's a flash of satisfaction/contentment/triumph from Erik at that – he likes the idea of standing together against a common threat – but it's tempered by anxiety/can she even use a gun?/what happens when telepaths fight?
 
“I don't know what happens when telepaths fight,” Charlotte answers, still speaking aloud.  “I suppose we'll find out.”
 
Though she didn't think it possible, Erik's face darkens even further.  She can see the thought forming in his head, and cuts it off before it has a chance to become a decision.
 
“You are most certainly not leaving me out of this.  Or do you honestly imagine you stand a better chance against Frost than I do?”
 
Erik's eyes narrow in savage contemplation, and a pistol flies from the belt of one of the unfortunate soldiers to his hand.
 
“Take this,” he instructs, flipping it around and offering it to her grip-first.
 
It would have been simpler for Erik to just float the gun into her hand, Charlotte knows, but instead he chose the route that would require him to hand it to her, that would require their hands to touch as she took the weapon from him.
 
Really, it only shows that she's right; Erik's just as drawn to her as she is to him, whether he accepts it or not.
 
“I can't take that,” she says honestly.  “I've never used one before, and I'm far more likely to end up shooting myself or you.  Besides, I doubt physical weapons will matter very much with Frost.”
 
Erik doesn't argue the point, but his thoughts whisper never held a gun?/have to teach her/she needs another line of defence besides her telepathy!
 
The speed at which Erik's mind jumps to defence and protection might be amusing, if Charlotte didn't know – in excruciating, bloody detail – why Erik is so driven to protect those he cares about.
 
--
 
Charlotte is completely unarmed, has no idea how to use a gun, will have to face a telepath who’s already managed to block her out once before…and she still came after him.
 
Erik’s never been simultaneously grateful to and furious at someone before.  He clings to the anger because it’s familiar and entirely appropriate, given the foolishness she’s just displayed.  Granted, her telepathy would have warned her of any threats to her life, but what if Frost was aware of her presence and managed to block or dampen her somehow?
 
He won’t think about what Charlotte’s stark refusal to abandon him signifies, why she followed him so blithely into the lion’s den, in spite of…everything that’s happened between them.
 
She’s clearly not going to take the gun, so Erik pulls it apart, twisting the metal so that it can never be reassembled – if these soldiers wake up, he doesn’t want them putting their guns back together and surprising him and Charlotte.
 
Of course, he has yet to see Charlotte actually surprised by someone, but he isn’t going to take the chance.
 
He turns away, the muscles in his legs coiling, eager to all-but run down the hallway and reduce the distance between him and Schmidt’s right-hand woman, but Charlotte’s hand closes around his sleeve and holds him back.  He’s about to shake her off, but her face is tight and drawn, and for the first time, she looks honestly worried.
 
“She’s a telepath, Erik,” she reminds him quietly.  “I’ll have to keep her out of your head.”
 
“So do it,” Erik snaps – more harshly than she deserves, but he’s so close, so close to a true, solid link to Schmidt and he can’t afford any distractions.
 
Charlotte seems unperturbed by his tone.  “It’s automatic to shield my own mind from interference, but it’s a rather more involved process to shield yours, so-”
 
She breaks off, licks her lips, and she looks so blatantly uncertain that Erik feels a prickle of alarm.
 
“This will likely be unpleasant,” she says at last.  “And I’m sorry for that, but I promise it’s only temporary.”
 
She raises her fingers to her temple, a gesture Erik is sure she only makes out of courtesy, a way of telling him she’s about to do something, and then…
 
And then…
 
There are no words to describe it, not in any language Erik has ever learned.  It’s like a soft blanket being wrapped around him, not just his body but the very essence of him, as though he’s being cradled in Charlotte’s palm.  He has a fleeting impression – not gained by sight or sound or touch or taste but there nevertheless – of something immense and vast curling around his mind, seeping into every crack and crevice of his psyche as though to bolster it.
 
When Frost invaded his mind on the yacht, it was like diamonds and needles and ice, jagged and painful and as cold as her namesake.  Like having his head shoved into a bin of scalpels.
 
Charlotte is the opposite; warm and gentle and steady.  Yet behind the deceptive softness, Erik can sense the power there, the quiet, implacable strength.  It seems to add to his own somehow, lifting him and fuelling him, like concrete being cast around a steel support beam to steady it.
 
He wonders what idiot told her this was unpleasant.
 
“No one told me,” Charlotte says quietly, and Erik wonders if hearing her answer his thoughts will ever not be startling.  “I’ve never had to do this before, after all.  It’s just…I need to be very much in your head for this, and most people don’t appreciate that.”
 
Idiots, all of them, but Erik flicks that thought away in favour of advancing down the hall again, almost at a run.  Charlotte is sprinting beside him, informing him between pants where she expects they’ll find Frost.
 
Now that he’s taken a moment to collect himself – now that the haze of fury and adrenaline in his mind has had time to clear – Erik remembers how easily Frost incapacitated him the last time they faced off.  How seemingly effortless it was for her to reach into his brain and dredge up all his worst memories, making them so real and vivid that he could have sworn he was back in the camp.
 
Perhaps he should be worried, but Charlotte is a bright presence throughout his mind, reassuring and protective and there.  Perhaps he should be concerned Charlotte won’t be able to keep Frost out – the other telepath seems to be more skilled in using her telepathy offensively, and Charlotte’s admitted this is the first time she’s tried to shield someone else, after all.
 
But all the strength in that cold mind, there was something brittle about it, like ill-cast glass.  And for all the softness in Charlotte’s, there’s the slightest hint of threat, like a banked fire.
 
He thinks of how ice melts away in the heat of the sun, and for the first time since he was a child, Erik is content to trust his safety to another.
 
--
 
Emma is...broken.  Charlotte wishes there was a better word for it, but there's no other way she can describe it.  Shaw took her as a child, warped and moulded her into his tool, and that knowledge leaves a sour taste in Charlotte's mouth, as though she's just thrown up.
 
And the memories she's skimmed from Emma's mind...well, Charlotte's doing her level best to push them into the darkest recess of her mind, lock the door on them, and lose the key.  Telepathy helps you pick up a few mental tricks, and right now she's dredging up every one of them to suppress everything she's just learned about Emma Frost's life.
 
Emma could have been strong and magnificent, could have been a leader in her own right.  And maybe she still can, if they get her away from Shaw.  Because in that man's hands, she's strong, yes...but brittle.  She's missing true confidence in her own capabilities, is reliant on Shaw in a way that makes nausea churn in Charlotte's stomach, knowing how that reliance was induced.
 
She knows the only reason Emma let her in was to show her Shaw's plan – Emma wasn't planning to give away as much as she did.  Charlotte can feel the blonde's surprise as she reaches deeper and pulls up memory after memory, scanning to make sure this isn't a trap.
 
Until she abruptly hits upon the reason Shaw hasn't come himself.
 
We need to go back! she exclaims to Erik, already sending out a mental call to Moira.
 
She gets a maelstrom of confusion and discomfort from Moira, who isn't at all happy with the idea of Charlotte in her head (so few people are).  But Charlotte hangs on long enough to inform Moira of what's happened and receive the assurance that she and the rest of the CIA agents are on their way.
 
Moira is coming, she tells Erik, keeping her thought brief and succinct, ignoring the confusion/frustration/what's wrong?/what did she see? emanating from her friend.
 
Then she turns her attention to Emma.  Charlotte has been able to keep her out of Erik's head easily enough thus far, but she's not sure if she'll be able to shield all the agents, certainly isn't willing to risk it.
 
And, to be perfectly honest, the idea of touching their minds as deeply as she’s touching Erik’s sends revulsion skittering through her.
 
So she takes those diamond-hard shields in Emma's mind, formidable and nigh-impenetrable, and turns them inwards.  She uses Emma's own shields to cut the other woman's mind off from her own telepathy.
 
It's not permanent, Charlotte knows – given that she's used Emma's shields rather than taking the time to construct her own, Emma will be able to break them down eventually – but it will hold for now.  It's surprisingly easy to wall Emma's mind off from her powers, and Charlotte realises it's because Emma's ability is almost the mirror opposite of her own.  Shields are natural to Emma in a way they simply aren't to Charlotte.  She doesn't possess the constant, low-level awareness of other people's thoughts the way Charlotte does; with Emma, it takes effort to reach out to other minds.
 
That's why the touch of Charlotte's mind up in the Arctic Circle unnerved her so much, because Shaw and his people have only known Emma's version of telepathy.
 
Charlotte has seen in Emma's mind that her reach has aroused Shaw's interest, and that the attack on the CIA compound – as well as eliminating a potential threat – is also his effort to find her.
 
We need to get back to America as soon as possible, she repeats to Erik, slightly calmer now.  We'll probably be far too late, but we have to try.
 
“What do you mean?” Erik asks, instantly alert to possible danger.  And are you aware you haven't spoken aloud since you went into her mind?
 
There's a ghost of menace beneath that thought, underscored by Erik's inclination to throttle Emma again if he believes for even an instant that she's hurt Charlotte in some way.
 
I often speak telepathically after going so deeply into someone's head, she explains.  It's automatic and I'm sorry, but we need to leave now!  Can you get her out of here?
 
Erik nods, his face grim as he picks up on her urgency, her desperation.  The metal around Emma's wrists pulls her to her feet and yanks her along behind them as they hurry from the mansion.
 
“Shaw is going to attack the CIA,” Charlotte says, forcing herself to speak aloud, the words feeling heavy and clumsy as they always do after mental communication.  “That's why he didn't come to Russia.”
 
Bitter rage rises in Erik like a boiling volcano, fury and frustration and so close/so damn close/just missed him/always just missing him with threads of worry twined through it, like veins of gold through iron.  Worry for Raven and Hank and Angel and Darwin and Alex and Sean, worry about why Shaw would attack the CIA, why now?
 
“He's probably striking right now,” Emma corrects Charlotte, sneering and triumphant.
 
Her loyalty to Shaw makes disgust shiver along Charlotte's spine, knowing how that loyalty was dragged from her, fused into her being through the kind of psychological manipulation only a true sadist would use.
 
“When I felt you all the way out in the Chukotsk Sea...” Emma grins.  “Well, let's just say he's very interested in how you did that.  He wants to find out what makes you tick, little telepath.”
 
Emma's trying to scare her, Charlotte can feel that – she wants her to worry that Shaw will be after her, wants her to be off-balance, constantly looking over her shoulder – but Charlotte doesn't actually feel much fear on her own behalf.
 
Erik takes care of that for her.  The wave of cold horror that sweeps from him comes quite close to knocking Charlotte's feet from under her, and she struggles to raise the shields she so recently lowered.
 
'Raw, primal fear roars through Erik's mind at the idea that she's aroused Shaw's interest.  Fear, and determination – a conviction terrifying in its intensity that Shaw won't touch her, that he'll have to step over Erik's dead body first.
 
Given that Charlotte's care-givers throughout her childhood were indifferent at best and downright abusive at worst, this is the first time she's felt such a wild, visceral desire to protect her in someone else's mind.  She knows Erik is protective, of course, and she's sensed his need to defend her more than once, but...
 
But that was from abstract threats or essentially meaningless words.  This is different and all the more frightening because Charlotte doubts she's worthy of it.
 
“You're something of my opposite, aren't you?”  Emma's voice breaks her out of her contemplation.  “For me, shielding myself and others is almost effortless, but reaching into other minds...that takes work.  It's the reverse for you, isn't it?”
 
Charlotte nods – she doesn't see any point in hiding it.
 
“Oh, poor baby,” Emma coos, voice dripping malice.  “Tell me – what's it like?”
 
Charlotte blinks in incomprehension.  “I beg your pardon?”
 
She can always dip into Emma's thoughts to find out what she's referring to, but the other telepath's mind is a place Charlotte desperately wants to avoid.
 
“What's it like to know exactly how much they resent you?” Emma whispers, with the kind of smile Charlotte often saw her mother wearing – empty and vicious.  “To know exactly how much they hate you, how much they long to put you in your proper place-”
 
Her words cut off as one of metal bands around her wrists leaps to her throat and tightens hard enough to choke her.
 
“Do we have to do this again?” Erik asks, his voice flat.
 
It's all right, my friend, Charlotte whispers into his mind as Moira and the other agents come over the hill.  We have bigger problems to concern ourselves with.
 
--
 
The bumping, rattling truck didn't affect Erik's nerves in the slightest the first time around, but now every jolt makes him want to rip every nail, bolt and screw out of the thing.
 
It’s not just his frustration at Schmidt slipping through his grasp yet again, though that is part of it.  But Erik exorcised most of that fury on Emma – Charlotte had clearly been unnerved by his display of violence, and Erik knows he should feel pleased that she’s finally realising what kind of man he is, that she can’t save him.
 
Except instead, he’s feeling…irritated.  Charlotte knows he’s here for Schmidt, knows he needed the information they got from Frost – did she expect the other telepath to yield without a fight?  Did she expect Erik to just roll over and hand Frost to the CIA without doing everything he could to get that information?
 
Still, he now has proof that his trust in Charlotte isn’t misplaced.  He could feel her misgivings when he was strangling Frost, threatening to snap her neck into a thousand glittering fragments, and though it would have been easy to stop him, to seize hold of his mind and make him bend to her will…she hadn’t.  She hadn’t liked what he was doing, but her persuasions had been just that – persuasions, rather than coercions.
 
So most of Erik’s fury (and fear, but he’ll be damned if he admits to that), are coming from a much different source.
 
They don't know what's happening back in America, and while some part of Erik is hoping they can get there in time, he doubts it.  This won't be a confrontation – they'll just be picking up the pieces.  He knows in his gut that Schmidt has slipped through his grasp yet again, and wonders if there'll be anything left of the CIA compound when they return.
 
He suspects the other mutants will be unharmed, though – Schmidt never destroys that which interests him.  Study it, yes, abuse it, yes, but not physically destroy it.
 
And apparently Charlotte has attracted Schmidt's attention.  As though Erik doesn't have enough nightmares.
 
The fact that Charlotte seems so unconcerned only makes it worse.  As soon as they were in the truck she tucked herself into the back corner and closed her eyes, and she hasn't moved since.  She almost seems to be meditating, and to see her so seemingly indifferent to the knowledge that Schmidt is actively seeking her makes Erik's jaw clench painfully.
 
You do realise what this means, don't you? he thinks as clearly as he can, wondering if she'll even pick up on it.  What he'll do to you if he finds you?
 
He not even sure why he's pushing her like this, only that he wants some sort of reaction from Charlotte – fear or anger or unease, some sign that the terror curdling in his gut is justified.
 
Considering that I've just had it playing in vivid, sickening detail in my head, then yes, I do, Charlotte sends back sharply, her eyes snapping open.
 
Then she grimaces, as though she didn't mean to let that slip.
 
For a moment, Erik is disturbed.  Did some of his memories leak through again?
 
It wasn't you, Charlotte tells him.  It was Emma.
 
Frost?  But why-?
 
Shaw's had her since she was a child, Charlotte continues, answering his question before it's even fully-formed.  His ways of ensuring her loyalty were...unpleasant.
 
Alarm makes Erik sit more stiffly.  Is Charlotte saying that she experienced Frost's memories when she read her mind?
 
I had to go fairly deep to ensure it wasn't some sort of elaborate trap.  Even her mental voice sounds weary.  But don't worry, I'm alright, so long as I suppress the memories.  And as they're not my memories, they'll eventually fade – like dreams or nightmares.  In time, I'll only remember the basic details, not the actual sensations.
 
Erik can't help but notice that she doesn't mention how much time. 
 
“What did you see in her head?” he asks in a low voice.  “About Shaw's plan?”
 
He wants to start World War Three.  He believes a nuclear war will eliminate the humans and allow the mutants to rise to dominance.
 
“You don't agree,” Erik observes.
 
He notices several of the agents shifting away from him and Charlotte in a way they probably think is subtle.  They're unsettled by the idea that Charlotte can read minds, and Erik's seemingly one-sided conversation is only making them more uneasy.
 
Erik's lip curls in contempt and he dismisses them from his mental sphere.
 
I don't think we're a product of the atom, Charlotte muses.  If it could produce mutations as drastic as ours the world over, there would be a far higher incidence of cancer and birth defects as well.  Mutations start out small – telepathy doesn't just appear, there has to be precursors first.
 
“Like what?”
 
I'm not entirely sure.  And from anyone else, that would be accompanied by a shrug, but Charlotte simply transmits her feelings of uncertainty and curiosity directly.  Perhaps an ancestor of mine was particularly good at reading body language? 
 
Erik can actually feel a part of Charlotte's mind begin to drift off along that tangent, wondering about the biological basis of telepathy and how such a mutation could have progressed, then wondering about Erik's own mutation before snapping back to the subject at hand.
 
Anyway, nuclear war will destroy just as much of us as humans.  Mutants like Shaw and Darwin will survive, but those like you and I?
 
Erik can see her point.  He won't survive a nuclear strike anymore than a human will, and neither will Charlotte.
 
“And you got all that from her head?”
 
She wanted me to see that.  She's...proud of it.  All that death and destruction...and she's proud of it.
 
Charlotte's honest bewilderment rings through Erik's own mind – she just can't comprehend why anyone would glory in the kind of future Schmidt and Frost are planning. 
 
For all that they both possess telepathy, Erik thinks there has never been two people more different than Emma and Charlotte.
 
“She was projecting, wasn't she?” he muses, trying to change the subject.  “To the general.”
 
Yes.  A rather graphic projection, if you get my drift.
 
“Judging by what he was saying, I assumed so,” Erik says, feeling almost amused for no reason he can adequately pin down.  “Does it take effort to do that?”
 
Depends on the projection.  Earlier today, it took more effort to conceal all of us than it would have if it had just been you and me.
 
“But you could still do it.”
 
This time Charlotte does shrug.  Everything we perceive about the world around us is translated by our mind.  Most of the time, it takes only a small nudge to convince someone they didn't see or hear something.  Convincing them they're experiencing something they're not takes a bit more artistry to give them the right details, but in terms of power, there's not much difference.
 
“You looked tense.”  It’s not quite a question.
 
Yes, well, I’ve never had to do it under the threat of being shot before – tends to add some pressure to the situation.
 
The more Erik learns about telepathy, the more he thinks that the only limits on Charlotte's power are her own morals.
 
--
 
Darwin is dead.  And Schmidt killed him.
 
Erik can admit he wasn't expecting that.  He had been convinced that Schmidt wouldn't harm the mutants, that if Charlotte was his goal he'd only seek out whatever could get him to her.
 
But Darwin stood in his way, so Schmidt eliminated him.  Darwin, the mutant who had shared Erik's horror when Charlotte told them she'd felt a traffic accident miles away, who had thought he and Charlotte were married, who had seemed to derive endless amusement from childish games that involved Charlotte reading his mind.
 
It's been years since a death made Erik feel anything besides triumph and vicious satisfaction, so the heaviness on his chest is foreign and unsettling.  Something within him twists like a dagger every time he sees the other mutants and remembers that Darwin will never stand among their ranks again.
 
Of course, there's another mutant missing, but Erik is forcing himself not to feel anything for her.  She's the enemy now, and he needs to be able to kill her without a moment's hesitation.
 
And frankly, if she's stupid enough to turn her back on Charlotte for Schmidt, they're clearly better off without her.
 
Charlotte said they had somewhere to go, and promptly instructed everyone to pack whatever they needed.  Erik finished within ten minutes – he travels light, and makes sure he's always ready to leave – and began patrolling the perimeter, trying to ease the low-level anxiety that's been rattling along his nerves.  If the compound was compromised they can't assume Schmidt's people won't return, either to liberate Frost or attempt to abduct Charlotte again.
 
It also gives him time to shove the anger and sour frustration of having missed Schmidt yet again into the back of his mind, suppressed but ready to be called upon when he needs it.
 
He's passing the window to Charlotte's room when he becomes aware of soft, broken noises drifting to his ears.  They're muffled and gasping, almost as though...almost as though someone's being choked.
 
Erik doesn't even think, he simply reacts.  The metal window frame tears free of the concrete wall and takes the glass with it, allowing him to leap into the room...
 
Except no one's choking Charlotte.  There's no one else in the room – just Charlotte curled up on her bed, her cheeks wet and eyes bloodshot.
 
She's crying, and Erik has to suppress the sudden urge to leap right back out the window.
 
“Erik?” she queries softly, with a pitiful-sounding sniffle at the end.  “What's wrong?”
 
He can feel her scan his mind, like a flicker of sunlight through leaves – and he's quite sure he's only aware of it because she chooses to make him aware of it, to give him a chance to object if he wishes to.
 
“Oh,” she breathes, in a tone of realisation.  “You thought I was being attacked.”
 
Erik shrugs, refusing to be embarrassed.  The compound had been breached barely a few hours ago by Schmidt, seeking her, and it was quite reasonable to assume someone might have been left to watch the place and inform Schmidt when Charlotte had returned.
 
Though perhaps it might have been better to at least glance in the window before he pulled it out.
 
Charlotte is contemplating the wreckage behind him, before she sighs and shakes her head.  We'll lie and say Shaw did it during his rampage.
 
Tears are still dripping down her face, and she's making absolutely no effort to disguise it.
 
Erik has seen Charlotte dive into a dark ocean with all her clothes on, feel a car accident and walk afterwards, stroll through a prison without flinching, run into a heavily-guarded house without even a gun to protect herself.  And yet this, when she sits in front of him with her pain completely naked, seems the bravest thing he's seen her do.
 
Charlotte apparently picks up on some of his confusion, because she gives him a tremulous smile, her lips wobbling.  I need to feel it now.  I need to let myself feel my grief, and everyone else's grief, so I don't collapse when we're on the road and I'm being battered by it from all sides.
 
Erik doesn't know what to say – he's never been in a position where he needed to comfort someone before.  He could always turn around and walk away, of course, but...
 
But she's just sitting there, continuing to weep, and he's never been able to walk from Charlotte, even when he should.
 
He has a vague memory of his mother hugging him; maybe that will help?
 
Erik sits down beside her on the bed, feeling uncomfortably aware of how very out of his depth he is, and wraps his arms around Charlotte's shoulders, drawing her into his chest.  Charlotte is limp and unmoving for a long moment before she takes a shuddering breath and clings to him, her hands fisting in his jacket and her forehead pressing into his collarbone so hard it's almost painful.
 
I was relieved when Emma said he was after me, she whispers in his head.  I thought if it was me he wanted...then he wouldn't hurt them.
 
In spite of the fact that she's sobbing in true earnest against his chest, none of her grief comes across in her telepathy.  No flicker of sorrow, no sense of mourning or loss – it's all tightly locked away in her mind.
 
Erik can't help but remember how readily she'd leaked her joy after they'd found that girl, and wonders at the kind of control that takes.  Wonders if it's as automatic for Charlotte to let those around her feel her emotions as it is for other people to let it show on their face.
 
I wonder if I could have done something differently, comes Charlotte's next thought.  Did I fail her in some way?  Would she have left if...
 
“You didn't fail her!” Erik snaps, furious at the idea that Charlotte is blaming herself.  “She made her choice when she chose to follow a murderer rather than stand with those who would have protected her.  It's a choice she'll come to regret, but it was still her own choice, and certainly none of your doing.”
 
Charlotte shudders in his arms – in regret or sorrow or fear, Erik doesn't know – and it's instinctive to hold her tighter, to press her to him as though he can take her pain away if he only grips her hard enough.
 
The agents, Moira, even the other mutants see a leader, a professor, a sister – whatever they need to see.  Charlotte lets him see the woman who loses control, who slips up, who doubts herself, and for the first time Erik realises just how much trust she places in him to do that.
 
It's actually rather frightening – doesn't Charlotte realise that he's one of the last people she should trust?  Doesn't she understand he's only going to let her down?
 
“I don't think you'll let me down, my friend,” Charlotte murmurs into his chest, her voice thick with tears but still audible.  “Not in any way that truly matters.”
 
The utter faith in her voice makes something in Erik's gut twist.  Because it can't last, it never does – something this good will never be Erik's for long.
 
At least Charlotte has stopped crying.  Her breaths are still shaky, and her face is still pressed into the wet patch on his shirt, but she's no longer trembling or sobbing.
 
But Erik isn't inclined to let her go. 
 
“We need to think about our next move,” she says, her voice slightly hoarse.  “I doubt Shaw is as interested in me as Emma implied, but if he's motivated enough to go to the trouble of seeking me out again, we might be able to set a trap for him.”
 
“You mean use you as bait,” Erik states, quite proud of keeping his voice flat when everything in him is screaming in rejection.  “Just dangle you out there and hope he takes a bite?”
 
He can feel the muscles in her face moving against his chest as she grimaces.  “You don't like it.”
 
Of course Erik doesn't like it.  Charlotte had drawn the fact that Schmidt was a mutant from Frost's memories, and had told both Erik and the agents that he was able to absorb energy and release it as he willed.  Erik had been concerned about how difficult it would be to defeat a man like that, and now, when he's seen the level of destruction Schmidt can wreak...now Erik's honestly wondering how you can even begin to fight that kind of ability.
 
Especially as Charlotte mentioned he's acquired a helmet that blocks telepathy, a detail she also gleaned from Frost's mind.  If force doesn't work, and telepathy doesn't work...what will?
 
And this is the root of the anxiety gnawing behind Erik's ribs; the fear that if Schmidt comes for Charlotte again, Erik's not sure he could stop him.
 
Charlotte seems to pull herself together, sitting up straight and raising her face from his shirt as she looks up into his eyes.
 
“It's alright, Erik,” she says quietly, trying to smile.  “We'll figure something out.  Together.”
 
She's smiling at him, blue eyes wet and bloodshot, but just as open and welcoming as the night he first met her, when she plunged into the sea to save him.
 
If he is going to lose this – lose her – eventually, then why should he hold himself back?
 
So Erik bends his head and does what he's wanted to do for weeks now – he kisses Charlotte Xavier.

Chapter Text

In the beginning, people think vulnerability will make you weak, but it does the opposite. It shows you're strong enough to care.
-Victoria Pratt
 
--
 
Charlotte knows Erik is going to kiss her perhaps five seconds before he actually moves.  She's very open at the moment, telepathically speaking – deliberately overloading herself on everyone's grief so she can tolerate it later – and she can feel the decision coalescing in his mind.  He thinks that if he’s going to lose her, he might as well have all of her.
 
It feels like extremely poor timing to be doing this in the wake of Darwin’s death and Angel’s defection, but when Erik’s lips brush over hers – gently, carefully, as if he suspects she might run away – Charlotte decides she’s going to be selfish.
 
She leans up into the kiss, sliding one hand up Erik’s neck and into his hair to pull him down to her, the press of their mouths becoming firmer, more self-assured.  Charlotte can feel her mind stretching out for Erik’s, Erik’s thoughts a furnace-hot blast of want/need/yes/more/affection/desperation/Charlotte/Charlotte/Charlotte!
 
Her desire and Erik’s collide and twine, merging into something higher, more desperate, and yet…they stay kissing.  Deeply and chastely, soft and roughly, hard and desperate as though they’re drowning in each other, only parting for quick little gasps of air.  If Charlotte had been feeling this level of desire/want/need from anyone else, they’d already be naked.
 
But the only hand that could really be called wandering is Erik’s left, which is tracing along the hollow of her spine as though trying to sense her bones in the same way he senses metal.  His other hand is at the back of Charlotte’s neck, just two fingers and a thumb stroking through her hair in a way that makes her wonder if she’s physically capable of purring.  Her own hands are busy – one in Erik’s hair and one flat against his chest, feeling the rhythm of his heart through his shirt.
 
It’s only kissing – just their lips meeting and breaths mingling – but it feels somehow more intimate, more frightening than anything Charlotte’s done before.  Perhaps because her telepathy is unfettered; physical contact enhances it, which is why Charlotte usually shields herself as much as she can when she kisses someone or goes to bed with them, but now…
 
Now she can feel her mind reaching for Erik’s, brushing and retreating over and over again like waves against a beach.  Each contact is light, almost shy, but the flashes of emotion she gets from Erik are close to disorienting in their strength.  It’s so intense it’s almost painful – and there is pain, from Erik, pain because he believes this is temporary.
 
Even as he’s kissing her, even beneath the affection/attraction/finally!/Charlotte/finally! she can feel desperation and near-despair thrumming in a constant litany.
 
Don’t leave, don’t leave, don't leave…
 
And there are many layers of meaning to the word ‘leave’ for Erik, Charlotte knows.  ‘Leave’ can mean her shoving him back, knocking his arms from around her and striding from the room.  It can mean her turning her back on him, walking away and leaving him alone again as he’s always been.  And it can mean her lying broken and bloody on the ground, it can mean her torn from him by Schmidt, dragged away against her will…
 
Erik has a very fatalistic view of the world.  Charlotte will just have to show him that in this instance at least, he’s wrong.
 
--
 
Erik knew, logically, that Charlotte came from wealth, but he never expected anything like this.
 
This isn’t a mansion, it’s a fucking castle.
 
“Honestly, Charlotte, I don’t know how you survived,” he drawls.  “Living in such hardship.”
 
He says it deliberately, trying to prompt a smile or a laugh – Charlotte has been tense and strangely closed off ever since they reached the driveway, and Erik doesn't like it, especially since he's not even sure why she's acting this way.  It's made worse by the fact that he can't feel Charlotte's mental presence at all; she's been completely absent from his head ever since she got in the car.
 
It's not that Charlotte's always reading his mind, but Erik's got used to feeling her against the edges of his thoughts when she's in the same room – it's not intrusive, more like her telepathy is simply acknowledging that he's there.  He lacks the words to describe it in any language he knows, but it feels similar to putting his hand on the case of a sun-drenched engine – warm and alive, with the soft hum of gentle activity in the background. 
 
Besides, it's not Charlotte's telepathy that's disturbing Erik, but his reaction to the absence of it.  It should be natural to be alone in your head; he should be feeling at ease, revelling in his privacy...
 
Instead, all he can think is that his mind feels cold and silent.
 
So he throws a sarcastic quip, expecting Charlotte to snort, or giggle, or at least look at him.  He isn't expecting Raven to step forward and insinuate herself between them, throwing a severe look his way that seems to stop just short of a glare.
 
“It was a hardship softened by me,” she says, her voice just a shade too defensive to be called joking.
 
Charlotte's arms slides around her sister, almost as though she needs some form of support.  She presses a kiss to Raven's temple as the breeze tangles their hair, dark strands winding around the blonde.
 
The embrace lasts for only a few moments.  Charlotte straightens as her sister pulls away, seemingly strengthened by that brief contact – and what could have Charlotte looking for support, in front of her own home?
 
Her eyes are sad and strangely wary as they gaze up at the building she insisted was 'theirs', not hers, and she looks as though she's steeling herself for something unpleasant.  Then she becomes aware of Erik's gaze, and glances at him.
 
“We'll be safe here,” she says in a reassuring tone of voice.
 
Apparently Charlotte misinterpreted Erik's expression of concern, which only makes his worry deepen.  How off-balance does a telepath have to be for them to misread you?
 
--
 
Erik has come to the conclusion that he doesn't like the mansion at all.  It's far too big, with far too many entrances and vulnerable points, filled with empty rooms and furniture muffled in white cloth.  Though Charlotte claims she and Raven deserted it only a few years ago, it has the cold, echoing feel of a place abandoned for decades.
 
The only room he actually likes is the one that seems to serve as Charlotte's study, and it's the only one that feels at all like someone has lived there.  The bookcases bulge with haphazardly stacked titles, piled onto the shelf without even an approximation of organisation; a battered Robert Louis Stevenson paperback resting next to a pristine, hefty text on genetics.  The walls are adorned with pictures of Charlotte and Raven, something conspicuously lacking in the other rooms and hallways.  There's a chess set on a table in the corner, the pieces carved from soapstone, looking so old they're probably antiques in their own right, and there's even a fireplace.
 
Erik doesn't have to guess where Charlotte spent most of her time.
 
He's been given a room of his own – they all have – but he only stayed in it long enough to drop his suitcase in, close any open windows and analyse all the possible entry and exit points. 
 
This place feels too open, too conspicuous, far too easy to overrun.  Granted, it was built primarily as a house, not a fortress, but Erik can’t help feeling that they should board up some windows and reinforce the doors.
 
It’s been years since simple threats could intimidate him, but now just the memory of Frost’s words sends a shiver slowly creeping over his skin.
 
He wants to find out what makes you tick, little telepath.
 
Erik knows Schmidt’s preferred methods of ‘investigation’ all-too well.  And now that he’s lost his own telepath, it’s even more likely that he’ll come for Charlotte.  That he’ll attempt torture and coercion to bend her to his will, use her in the same manner he did Frost…
 
But he won’t get the chance, Erik tells himself.  He won’t let him – if Schmidt ever touches Charlotte, it will be because Erik is dead.
 
He leaves his empty room for the one at the end of the hall, where Charlotte sleeps.
 
He still can't feel her mind, doesn't know if she's aware of his presence or not, so he raps on the door before turning the brass handle with a flicker of power.  There's a reassuring amount of metal in this house; metal window frames, metal reinforcing, metal cutlery and polished metal surfaces down in the kitchen...
 
If Schmidt comes here, Erik can use the very building itself to stop him.
 
Charlotte is sitting on the window seat, knees tucked to her chest and shoulders hunched.  Her bare feet and slight stature make her look almost like a child, gazing dreamily out the window, but there's tension in every line of her body.  It's small, barely there, but Erik's spent his life reading people's bodies for the tells that signal when they're going to attack him or cower away, and he knows how to spot someone trying to hide.
 
And why would Charlotte want to hide in her own home?
 
He's about to ask, but then she turns to face him, and the first genuine smile Erik has seen in hours spreads across her face.  “Erik!”
 
It's bewildering – people aren't usually happy to see him, let alone as happy as Charlotte seems to be, so much so that it wipes away her previous unease.
 
“What do you think?” she asks, making a gesture with her hand that seems to encompass all of the mansion and the surrounding grounds.  “It can be a bit draughty, I know, but I think it will do nicely.”
 
In the fact of her enthusiasm, Erik can't do anything but nod.  As much as he might dislike the feel of this place, he has to concede that as a training camp for mutants, it certainly has everything they could want – open space, equipment, and above all, isolation.
 
Charlotte smiles again, as though his nod is the most rousing endorsement she's ever received.  She moves close, winding her arms around his neck and standing on tiptoe to kiss him.  Just like that – no glance for permission, no wariness or hesitation.  Charlotte wants to kiss him, so she does, as fearless and daring as ever.
 
Erik likes that about her – that she doesn't shy or flinch from him, that she could see him strangling Frost and still have no compunctions about invading his personal space.  He likes it so much that the kiss he suspects was meant to stay brief and chaste turns into much more as he bends his head and hitches his arm around her waist, pulling her firmly against his body.
 
He's learning that Charlotte makes the most delicious noises when she's being kissed – little gasps and moans, some that seem to arrow straight to his cock.  She holds onto Erik as desperately as she did when she dragged him from the ocean, and he's acutely aware of the curve of her back beneath his hands, the soft whisper of her hair against his cheek, the weight of her breasts against his chest, the sweet pressure of her fingers on the nape of his neck.
 
Something opens against his mind like a flower unfurling, brushing but not penetrating.  Erik, can I?
 
It's not like Charlotte to be so timid.  He wants to ask why she's been so closed, so wary since they came to this mansion that should be her home – that should be the one place she can relax – but for now he can feel Charlotte's mind after hours of deprivation, so those questions are shunted aside for a later time.  He wants to somehow grab her mind and drag it into his, and she obviously picks up on the thought because she's suddenly there.
 
It's like being in a cold, dark room of concrete (and Erik has personal, intimate experience of what that's like) and suddenly stepping out into a bright spring day, the sky cloudless and the sun gentle.  Erik has noticed he tends to think of Charlotte's telepathy in terms of sunlight, but that's the closest approximation he can make.  Warm yet insubstantial, without pressure or pain as it spreads across skin.
 
He can feel her amusement at his simile, along with her pleasure and satisfaction and bone-deep contentment, as though she would be happy to do nothing but kiss him for the rest of their lives.
 
She's earnest and optimistic and beautiful, and it will be devastating when she leaves.
 
--
 
Sometimes Charlotte wishes Erik weren't so pessimistic.  She wouldn't change anything about him, of course she wouldn't, but it's difficult to keep kissing him when she can feel the way his mind whispers that this won't last.  She can feel his resignation, his conviction that she'll leave eventually, and it makes her want to grab him by the shoulders and shake him.
 
She settles for kissing him deeper and harder, pressing herself against him in the futile hope that if she just gets close enough Erik will understand, will finally accept that she's not going anywhere.
 
A knock on the door makes them jump apart, and Charlotte wonders if it's automatic to react like a guilty teenager when you're on the verge of being caught making out in your childhood bedroom.  At least Erik reacted similarly to the threat of discovery, though his comes from an instinctive need to hide what he values, to conceal where he's vulnerable.
 
“Charlotte, dinner!” Raven calls through the door, and departs without waiting for an answer.
 
You didn't know she was there, Erik surmises, and Charlotte can feel his wry amusement along with a flash of what her face looks like now, lips swollen and cheeks flushed.
 
My attention was otherwise engaged, she admits.  We should go down – Hank said he'd cook.
 
Hank?
 
He claims cooking is merely chemistry – the right ingredients combined in the right ways.
 
--
 
In Charlotte's previous experience, shared mealtimes were stilted and uncomfortable, fraught with reprimands about the correct posture and which utensil she should be using.  But this dinner was more reminiscent of her lunches with Raven; loud and uncoordinated, full of demands to 'pass the potatoes this way' and 'stop hogging the casserole, Sean'.  They eat at the small table in the kitchen, rather than the sweeping dining hall, and Charlotte knows there's an irrepressible grin adorning her face throughout the entire meal.
 
They're happy here – they're actually happy.  They're going to stay, and maybe this mansion will finally become the home it never really was, could never truly be while her mother dwelt here.
 
And maybe Charlotte will be able to walk through the halls without expecting to catch stray thoughts of 'freak' and 'abomination' and painful, bleeding indifference to her existence.
 
Raven's smiling at her, clearly aware of the source of Charlotte's joy, and on impulse, she gives her sister a conspiratorial wink.  Raven smirks and nudges Charlotte's calf underneath the table with her bare foot, the physical contact enough to let a small trickle of affection leak through Charlotte's shields.
 
Charlotte knows Raven doesn't like her mind being read without permission, and to know that her sister is prepared to forgo her desire for privacy to reassure her, even if only for a moment, makes contentment glow warmly through her chest.  Raven knows why Charlotte dislikes this place, why they both do, but that touch tells her that Raven's hoping for the same thing she is – for this to become a place of warmth and welcome, rather than silence and rejection.
 
At the end of the meal, Raven declares that Alex and Sean have to do the washing up by virtue of having eaten the most.  They try to protest, saying that Hank has eaten just as much as they did, but apparently Hank gets out of washing up because he cooked the meal.
 
Charlotte just can't stop grinning, and the muscles in her face are beginning to hurt.  She glances at Erik – who is surveying the domestic scene with an expression of bemusement, as though he isn't quite sure how to react to it – and reaches out to tug at his sleeve, feeling daring and slightly naughty in a way she hasn't felt in years.
 
“Chess?” she asks innocently, sure that her eyes are practically dancing in invitation.
 
Erik smirks, and Raven's cheeks pinch down as though trying to hide a smile.  She puts a finger to her temple, the gesture that tells Charlotte she has something to say that won't be spoken aloud.  Thus prompted, Charlotte's focuses on Raven's mind – being careful to pick up surface thoughts only – and she feels her sister's knowing amusement.
 
Chess, huh?  Is that what they're calling it now?
 
Charlotte can feel herself flushing, and knows it's all the answer Raven needs.  Sometimes Charlotte wonders how Raven can make her blush with just some tame insinuation, when usually she can pick up on the most explicit of fantasies without so much as raising an eyebrow.  Maybe it's because Raven's her sister, and thus will forever have the power to embarrass her.
 
Still, the embarrassment fades quickly as she and Erik move towards her room, pointedly not touching, as though afraid they're going to simply leap on each other at the slightest provocation.
 
Although, given how long it's been since Charlotte's had sex, this is probably a legitimate concern.
 
Erik's want/need/desire/lust/affection are thrumming against her mind, and a small, treacherous part of Charlotte wants to dive right in and make herself at home, but she can't.  Given the way sex tends to destroy her control, it's usually best if she just keeps entirely out of her partner's mind.  So she works to build the shields that will keep her out of Erik's head.
 
It always feels disorienting – like closing her eyes or stopping up her ears.  She feels off-balance, cut off from an entire sense when she does this, when she turns her telepathy inward, but it's the only way to ensure she feels nothing.  And if it sometimes makes her a little dizzy, sometimes gives her a headache...well, everything comes at a price.
 
This kind of shield never holds for long anyway.  It's as though her own telepathy destroys them, her urge to reach out to the minds around her too automatic and reflexive to really be contained for any length of time.
 
The door to her room swings open without either of them touching it, and locks behind them just as swiftly.  Charlotte laughs – she can't help it; Erik's brilliant, he really is – and she grabs hold of his jacket to both pull him close and tug it off.
 
Maybe they're moving too fast, but this whole relationship has been 'too fast' by any normal standard.  Charlotte knew Erik's life story before they'd even spoken, she considered him a friend before she'd even known him for an hour, and it already feels as though she's been in love with him for months rather than weeks.
 
She only opens three buttons of her shirt before she loses patience and simply pulls it over her head.  One of the buttons snags on Charlotte's hair and she hisses under her breath, tugging the rest of her head free of the material as she honestly considers just ripping the tangled strands out.
 
But Erik's hands rise to cover her own, and his eyes are amused as he gently frees her hair from the clutch of the button.  Feeling herself flushing with a touch of embarrassment, Charlotte busies herself with tugging at Erik's turtleneck.  Erik raises his arms obediently at her prodding, and as soon as his chest is bare Charlotte just has to slide closer and explore.
 
The moment she traces a curious hand over his collarbone and down across a nipple, Charlotte feels a twinge of pain in her temples.  Her telepathy is instinctively seeking a way to connect with Erik, and coming up hard against her blockade.  What she feels when she overreaches herself in this way is similar to a tension headache – the only way her body knows how to translate the strain is discomfort, pain being the all-purpose 'stop that right now' signal.
 
But she's become used to mild headaches during sex, so it's easy to ignore it in favour of leaning up to draw Erik into a kiss.  She can feel Erik's erection against her belly, and the knowledge that Erik's getting hard from this – just a kiss with her shirt off – makes her shiver.
 
Erik's hands settle at her hips, broad thumbs rubbing at the arch of her ilium as her bra clasp opens and her belt unbuckles seemingly of their own accord.  Those wonderful hands slide up her back – Erik's clearly intending to pull her bra off with his fingers, rather than his powers – but his progress suddenly stutters, his hands halting for a moment before they begin to drift from their path, tracing horizontal and diagonal lines across her skin...
 
Tracing Charlotte's scars.
 
She stiffens as Erik breaks the kiss, the hands on her back suddenly pulling her forward so Erik can look over her shoulder, can confirm with his eyes what his fingertips are telling him.
 
Charlotte usually covers her scars, projects the illusion of smooth skin when needed, but...
 
She places her hands against the irregular patchwork of scars on Erik’s chest, running her fingers over the fibrous tissue.  She follows the lines cut by Shaw's scalpel, the barbed wire of the camp fence, the switches and straps that Shaw used as discipline.  She lays her hand over the tattoo that adorns his forearm.
 
She's seen Erik's scars.  It seems only fair that he see hers.
 
“Charlotte...”  There's an undercurrent of something dangerous in Erik's voice and Charlotte closes her eyes, breathing deep and shaking her head.
 
“Erik...not now, please.”
 
As a mood-killer, it's very effective, so Charlotte tilts her head up and kisses Erik again, trying to resurrect it.  As she'd half-expected, his arousal has faded somewhat – clearly, the thought of her in pain is quite distressing to Erik – but as she flicks her tongue into his mouth she can feel him getting harder.
 
She feels a slight tug on the metal button of her trousers, an instant before they drop to the floor.  Charlotte shoves her underwear down to join them and steps out of the pile of cloth, kicking it aside before she looks up at Erik again.
 
He's staring at her, of course he is, but not in the hungry, lustful way Charlotte's accustomed to in these situations. 
 
Erik's staring at her with an expression close to reverence, as though he wants to imprint her on his mind forever.
 
Perfektion,” he breathes, his voice a hoarse rasp.
 
Then he looks surprised, like he didn't actually realise he was speaking aloud.  The expression on his face is far more endearing that it has any right to be, and Charlotte finds herself regaining her boldness.
 
“Hardly,” she says with a wry grin, her fingers sliding over his belt buckle, just a breath away from touching his cock.  “And I'd like you out of your pants now.”
 
His eyes go dark, and yes, there's the lust she was expecting, and it gives her a jolt of satisfaction to know that she's the one making him feel that.  She sets to work on his belt, intending to get him naked as quickly as possible, but Erik distracts her – cupping her breast in one hand as though testing the weight of it, his thumb tracing circles around the hard, flushed nipple as he bends to apply lips and teeth and tongue to her neck – and it ends up taking her three and half minutes just to unzip his trousers.
 
But at least then she can work her hand around his cock and get some of her own back.  Erik jerks at the first firm stroke, his finger and thumb tightening spasmodically around her nipple, and the hint of pinching pain along with the wash of pleasure makes Charlotte gasp and arch.
 
Whereas before Erik seemed content to take it slow and languid, now he practically tears the remainder of his clothes off and clutches her to him as though worried she'll slip away.  Now their kisses are wild and devouring, hands gripping at each other so tightly they'll leave delicious bruises.  She can feel Erik's fingers slide down her back to cup her buttocks, then he honest-to-god lifts her off her feet.
 
Charlotte squeaks in surprise, automatically clutching at Erik's shoulders even as her thighs rise to grip his hips.  His cock slips between her legs and rubs against her, a slow wet slide that has Charlotte grateful she isn't relying on her own legs for support and Erik making a guttural, inarticulate noise in his throat.
 
She rather admires the fact that he manages to stay on his feet as he walks them both backwards, towards the bed.
 
Oh, yes, bed, Charlotte thinks, half-dazed.  That would be better than the middle of the floor.
 
It's almost reflexive to reach out, to share that thought with Erik, but she won't let herself.
 
Erik bends over the bed, lowering them both to the sheets with an impressive display of muscle control.  For a moment, they remain still, Charlotte savouring Erik's weight on top of her, then he pulls back and...just looks at her.  Hungry and slightly disbelieving, as though he can't quite credit that this is actually happening, but there's awe in there as well, and Charlotte desperately wants to slip into his mind to understand.
 
Erik blinks and his brow furrows, one hand raising to brush Charlotte's hair away from her face.  “What's wrong?”
 
They're finally naked, finally about to do what Charlotte's been fantasising about for weeks, and he's asking what's wrong?  Some of her incomprehension must show on her face, because Erik taps gently at his own temple.
 
“I can't feel you at all.”
 
“Oh.”  Hot and wonderfully shivery with anticipation, Charlotte's voice sounds weak and thready.  “My telepathy isn't very controlled during sex, so it's easier to just shield completely.”
 
She thinks that will be the end of it, but the creases in Erik's face only deepen.  “I thought you said that was difficult.”
 
Charlotte shrugs, unwilling to confirm it and toying with the idea of just shoving Erik's hand onto her breast and forgoing talking for the rest of the night.
 
“Charlotte...”  She might not be reading his mind right now, but Erik's frustration and poorly-hidden concern come through loud and clear in his voice.
 
“Well, sometimes I get mild headaches – but they're nothing, really.”
 
Erik doesn't look at all mollified.  “Stop it.”
 
“Stop what?”  Charlotte suspects she knows what he means, but he can't be serious, can he?
 
“Stop shielding.”
 
A frission of unease shivers through her, and she can't stop herself from tensing.  “That's a very bad idea.”
 
“Why?”  And god damn Erik for looking so unconcerned about the fact that they're naked and he's discussing letting her into his head when she's...like that.
 
“I'd be...I'd be completely out of control.”  It's hard to admit that, when she's fought for control all her life.  “I could hurt you.”
 
The truth is, she has no idea what she could do; she's never actively used her telepathy while having sex before.  There was always some minor leakage, of course – a penchant for simultaneous orgasms – but that's exactly what it was, minor.  Never enough to glean anything from their thoughts, never enough to let them see hers, only flashes of sensation that could be dismissed as the heat of the moment, if they were ever remembered at all.
 
Erik looks sceptical.  “Have you ever hurt someone with your telepathy?”
 
Charlotte closes her eyes – she can't lie to him, not about this, but she can refuse to see the judgement in his eyes – and nods.
 
“Deliberately?”
 
Charlotte doesn't actually have an answer to that.  She likes to tell herself it was accidental, that she didn't mean to, but...
 
But she had been frightened, so frightened, and she'd just wanted Cain to let her go, to stop touching her...
 
“I don't know,” she whispers.
 
There's silence as Erik digests this, and Charlotte half-expects him to get up, to leave, because what rational person wants anything to do with someone who could hurt them, who could change them, in a moment of inattention?
 
But Erik never takes the sensible option.  “What were they doing?”
 
Charlotte is so surprised her eyes open to find Erik's face only a few inches away, his face smooth but with a hint of anger at the edges.
 
She swallows, and shakes her head.  “It's not important.  The important thing is that I lost control, and hurt them.  Quite badly.”
 
“Were they hurting you?” Erik asks, in the carefully level voice of someone exercising immense control over themselves.
 
“That's not-”
 
“Were…they…hurting…you?”
 
“...yes,” Charlotte admits reluctantly, tasting shame in the back her throat.  “But I don't see why that's relevant.”
 
Erik looks exasperated.  “Because you were defending yourself, Charlotte!  They hurt you, so you hurt them, as you should.  But your power...are you usually altering people's minds effortlessly?”
 
“No,” Charlotte concedes.  “But-”
 
“Your nature is the farthest thing from violent I've ever seen,” Erik says quietly.  “The only way you'd hurt me is if I were hurting you, in which case I'd deserve it.”
 
Charlotte can feel herself wavering, like an amateur trying to walk the highwire.  She should remain strong, focused, with her telepathy locked safely away, but she wants to be in Erik's mind so badly...
 
“You won't hurt me, Charlotte,” he says quietly.  “I trust you.”
 
She should stay strong, but she's never been able to resist Erik.
 
So Charlotte takes a deep breath, and her shields come down.

Chapter Text

“To touch the soul of another human being is to walk on holy ground.”
-Stephen Covey
 
--
 
Charlotte is half-expecting to hit Erik's mind like a freight train.  For her telepathy to be so sudden and overwhelming Erik will immediately tell her to get out of his head and maybe even get his clothes and leave, depending on how unsettled he is.
 
Instead, it's surprisingly gentle.  Their minds touch – a bright starburst of relief and joy after the effort it took to contain herself – and slide together, merging smoothly and almost seamlessly, like two different metals being melted into an alloy. 
 
It's like nothing Charlotte's ever known before.  Usually she's aware of surface emotions, actual thoughts if she concentrates, and she can probe minds for specific memories.  But this is...different.  Similar to the connection Charlotte maintains when they're speaking telepathically, but deeper somehow, her own emotions and sensations flowing into Erik as effortlessly as his usually do into her.
 
For a moment, she and Erik simply stare at each other, eyes wide and breath sticking in their throats as they try to adjust.  Charlotte's fingers curl around Erik's biceps, reflexively seeking some kind of anchor, and she feels the ghost of pressure on her own arms.
 
She's feeling what Erik's feeling.  And not just pain or intense emotions, but everything he’s feeling.
 
The realisation passes to Erik as soon as it settles in her mind, and she feels his answering stir of curiosity.  He cups her face in one of his hands, dragging his thumb along the line of her jaw, and she knows the instant Erik feels the caress on his own skin.
 
For a moment, Charlotte's worried – non-telepathic minds aren't really built for this kind of dual sensation, and maybe she should stop this before she hurts Erik?
 
But she feels refusal/rejection/indignation from Erik at the prospect; the mental equivalent of 'don't you dare'.  Then he slips a hand down her body and Charlotte forgets to be cautious as long fingers deliberately trace teasing circles around her clitoris.
 
She can distinguish a flash of surprised pleasure from Erik at how wet she is, but then his fingers are moving again and Charlotte's coherency splinters away.  It's almost surreal how well Erik plays her body, how he seems to know all the places and touches that feel best to her – but of course he knows what feels good; he feels the echo in his own body.
 
Charlotte stares blindly at the ceiling, floating high on Erik's satisfaction/affection/lust/pleasure, basking in the sensation of being connected so deeply to him she can feel every thought and impulse that flashes through his mind.
 
Right now, there's a definite impression of smugness, along with a brief snapshot of what she looks like; hair tangled around her shoulders, cheeks flushed and mouth open, eyes unfocused and pupils so dilated her irises have been reduced to thin blue rings.  And there's an undercurrent of wonder as well, awe and reverence and...
 
This really is a first for you, isn't it? Erik's thoughts whisper.
 
Charlotte's affirmation seeps across their connection – she never trusted herself enough, never trusted anyone else enough.
 
Erik's fingers still at that thought, with shock and a flutter of fear, the apprehension he always feels whenever Charlotte mentions how much she trusts him.  For a moment, Charlotte worries that she's spoiled the mood, but then there's a burst of determination from Erik, strangely intense, as though he's vowing to deserve something, and his head dips so he can apply his mouth to her breast and Charlotte loses her train of thought again.
 
She's just thinking she should muster herself to return the favour (though is it a really a favour when she'll feel everything she does to Erik and vice versa?), when Erik shifts downward again, hands sliding beneath her legs and across the backs of her knees.  It seems ridiculous – it's her knees, for god's sake! – but the gentle caress over that tender skin makes her shiver and twitch.  Erik feels that incongruous flicker of pleasure and smirks at her, pressing a kiss to the inside of her thigh before draping her legs over his shoulders in a business-like manner.
 
A snapshot of what Erik plans to do dances through her head, and usually she would be quite happy to just lie back and enjoy, but right now she's impatient and desperate and she just wants Erik in her!
 
Come on, Erik! she demands, frustrated lust pouring across their connection.  I'm wet, you're hard – what are you waiting for?
 
There's no structured reply from Erik, just amusement and satisfaction as his tongue spears into her and the breath punches out of her lungs.  There are no teasing licks or kisses, just blunt pressure and delicious penetration, making Charlotte's toes curl and her body convulse.  Or at least, convulse as much as it can – Erik's pressing her hips into the mattress, holding her in place.
 
Be patient, Erik chides through the thrumming, tangled maelstrom of their minds.  I'm rather enjoying this.
 
Some small, still-sane part of Charlotte's brain thinks that it's very unfair Erik can construct coherent sentences while she's probably sending a nonsensical stream of want/Erik!/lust/desire/please!
 
She has a vague feeling she should be more energetic about this – should do something other than just lie here – but just the fact that her telepathy isn't restrained makes her feel relaxed, pliant in a way she's never been before.  Like unclenching a muscle you didn't even realise was tense, and she just wants to luxuriate in it.
 
And she doesn't think Erik will object.  Beneath the satisfaction and the reflections of Charlotte's pleasure swirling through him, there's a strange desperation, a deep-seated need to make this good for her.
 
I like the idea of making you come with my mouth, Erik breathes across the link.
 
Next time next time next time, she babbles.
 
Fortunately, he draws back for a moment, long enough for Charlotte to regain her breath and wrestle her mind into spitting out something approaching an actual sentence.
 
A warning of If I come, you'll come, is the most she can manage.
 
Really, she suspects the shared pleasure alone might have pushed them both over the edge already, if not for the fact that she can sense the way it feels slightly surreal to Erik, his mind struggling to process the phantom sensations.
 
At least she knows why he can be so coherent.  And this time she doesn't wonder if she should stop, because even through Erik's slight disorientation she can feel the way his mind is practically clinging to hers, revelling in their connection.
 
Charlotte only just remembers that there are condoms in her purse, and that one would be useful right now.  Erik picks up on that thought and starts glancing vaguely about the room, his pupils so enormously dilated he looks as if he’s been drugged.
 
I can get them, Charlotte tells him, grateful that some of her usual self-possession has been restored now that Erik’s head is no longer between her legs.
 
She makes an attempt at standing under her own power, her limbs feeling decidedly wobbly and her inner thighs already sticky.  She manages to gain her feet – just – and walks unsteadily across the room to rifle through her purse and wonder where the hell she left those condoms.
 
Charlotte hasn’t bothered to cover herself up (why would she?) and Erik’s appreciation/lust/want roll over her like a wave of heat from a furnace.  But it’s scattered through with flashes of something deeper and infinitely more complex, sparkles of affection/tenderness/admiration, tinged with darker, savage whispers of protectiveness/possessiveness/fury when her scars catch the light as she straightens.
 
For a moment, Charlotte is almost afraid to turn around.  It’s ridiculous, she knows it is – this is hardly her first time, and Erik’s already seen her naked.
 
But it’s struck her, just in this moment, exactly how naked she really is.  Sex, for her, is usually a tangled skein of deception and concealment; her scars covered by projection, her telepathy severely limited, the very essence of who she is locked away safe and secure.
 
Except now her scars are on clear display, her telepathy is dancing between them, and she is bare and exposed in a way she’s never been before in her life.
 
That moment of trepidation transmits clearly to Erik, who sits up in the bed, expression beginning to harden.  But Charlotte determinedly drowns her brief bout of nerves with a flood of trust and desire before – feeling a bit mischievous – she hefts the condom in her hand.
 
Catch! she tells him cheekily, grinning brightly as she tosses the little plastic packet across the room.
 
Erik doesn’t even bother making a grab for it, just watches as it sails through the air to land on the floor, not even on the bed and almost against the wall.
 
I take it baseball was not your thing, Erik comments with a soft prickle of amusement.
 
Charlotte settles for a non-verbal flash of disgruntlement/frustration/embarrassment as she moves to pick up the condom.
 
But she’s not as humiliated she would have expected, given the way she can feel how Erik’s amusement is underpinned with affection and curiosity, the sharp wonder of a child exploring a new facet of the world for the first time.
 
Flickers of memory and half-formed sensations tell Charlotte that Erik’s previous experiences with sex have been hasty, impersonal and business-like.  If he wanted sex, he went to a pub, picked someone up for the night, left as soon as it was over and never saw them again.  If he needed to seduce information out of someone, he did, and never thought anything else about it.  And when he was younger, fresh from the horrors of Shaw and without family or friends or any means of supporting himself in his quest for revenge, sex was the means to food and a warm bed for the night.
 
No one has ever grinned and thrown a condom at him from across the room.  No one has ever been playful with him.
 
It’s reassuring to know that this is new territory for both of them.
 
She tosses the condom at him again, just to be perverse, and Erik catches it easily – one-handed, too, the bloody show-off.
 
She can tell Erik picks up on that thought by the way his lips quirk and the amusement/affection/tenderness from his mind re-doubles in strength.  He fits it on his cock with practised motions, and by the time Charlotte reaches the bed again he’s ready for her.
 
The rapport between them means she knows what he wants – what they both want – and she straddles his hips as Erik lies back and urges her on top of him.  Their hands entwine, Charlotte bracing herself against Erik’s arm (the clenching muscle making the inked numbers twitch and ripple) as she reaches between them to hold him steady and sinks down.
 
Charlotte bites her lip at the tight, pleasure/pain stretch of Erik filling her, thick and long and yes yes yes/feels so good.
 
She’s not sure who’s thought that is, and she doesn’t care.  Her fingers and Erik’s are locked together almost painfully, and she uses them to steady herself as she begins to move, riding Erik slowly.  She keeps a steady pace, savouring each exquisite slide of penetration and withdrawal; the deep, satisfying pleasure of Erik’s cock moving inside her contrasting deliciously with hot sparks of ecstasy when she grinds her clit over his pubic bone.
 
Erik’s not passive, of course (Charlotte doesn’t think he could ever be passive, doubts he has it in him).  He rises to meet her on each downward plunge, and in that moment when he’s as deeply imbedded as he can possibly be, he twitches and swivels his hips minutely, tiny movements that nevertheless send pleasure singing along Charlotte’s nerves and drag soft whimpers and moans from her throat.
 
She wants this to last, wants to be able to savour it, but Charlotte suspects they won’t make it past the ten minute mark.  She’ll be very surprised if they do, really.
 
Because it isn’t enough that she’s contending with her own pleasure, she’s also dealing with Erik’s.  It’s a little more distant than when they were caressing each other; she doesn’t actually have a penis, and her body is rather struggling to translate the sensations, and the best it can do seems to be a phantom sensation of rhythmic, gliding pressure along her clitoris.  Erik seems to be in a similar situation – she can feel his mind puzzling over the feeling of being penetrated where there is no corresponding opening in his body.
 
Perhaps it should be surreal, disorienting, but it’s exactly the opposite.  Because beyond the sometimes-strange sensations, it’s connection of the kind Charlotte has never even allowed herself to dream about.  And she doesn’t need to worry about Erik anymore, not when she can feel his awe and wonder and look at her, look at her, look at the way her mouth opens when you move like that, look at the way she’s staring at you, like she can’t believe how lucky she is, like she doesn’t know how wonderful, how fantastically impossible she is-
 
A particularly hard buck from Erik makes Charlotte gasp and lurch forward, losing her grip on Erik’s hands and only just managing to catch herself with her arms braced on either side of his head.
 
She can’t even catch her breath before there are fingers in her hair and Erik is drawing her into a deep kiss.  He’s still inside her, but for a moment neither of them moves, enjoying the play of lips and tongue, and the affection/tenderness/desire that wells between them makes Charlotte’s chest ache.
 
Then Erik decides to suck on her lower lip, which makes Charlotte shiver and clench around him, and it suddenly becomes imperative that she start moving again right now.  But she remains draped over him, shuddering as each shift and writhe drags her sensitive nipples over his chest hair, Erik’s hand on her hip to guide her.
 
Before she was perfectly content to go slow, but now Charlotte finds all she wants is faster!/harder!/more!  Erik is driving into her so violently each thrust wrings a desperate cry from her, and he’s mouthing at her neck and collarbones, lips forming the syllables of her name over and again, like a man praying for redemption or salvation.
 
Every muscle in Charlotte’s body is tensing, and she’s not sure whether she’s close to orgasm and simply dragging Erik along or if it’s the other way around.  She clutches wildly at Erik’s shoulders – or is that Erik clutching at her shoulders? – and Erik bucks up one more time and holds himself there as a calloused thumb brushes across her clitoris-
 
Then there’s nothing, just blind pleasure and satisfaction and release, orgasm reverberating through her and Erik like sound in an echo chamber, amplifying again and again and then fading out with thrumming aftershocks.
 
--
 
Charlotte’s usually quite alert after sex; the restrictions she puts on her telepathy ensure it.  And without them – without the need to watch herself so closely, alert for even the slightest slip-up – she feels herself sinking into a peaceful lassitude that makes her understand why people use the term ‘afterglow’.
 
She’s vaguely aware of Erik rising and disposing of the condom in the en-suite bathroom, but only vaguely.  She feels a curl of pleased satisfaction from him as he returns, a flash of what she looks like – hair tangled in a wild halo around her head, eyes closed and skin glistening with sweat, looking thoroughly debauched – along with a hint of smugness and awe and did I really do that?
 
You know very well you did, she tells him, trying for stern but not entirely certain how well she’s pulling it off in her current state.
 
Erik’s thoughts are dimmer now, fading out slightly against the background mental activity of the others in the mansion.  Reluctantly, Charlotte forces herself to draw further away from his mind, giving both of their brains a rest after the confusing sensory workout she just put them through.
 
Which is why the touch of the cool cloth between her legs comes as such a surprise.  She yelps, her whole body jolting, and she might have ended up kicking Erik in the face if he hadn’t had a firm grip on the leg closest to him, holding her open.
 
“I didn’t think it was actually possible to startle you,” he muses, voice deep and husky as he gently, tenderly, cleansed away the sticky residue on her inner thighs.
 
Take it as a compliment, Charlotte thinks at him, her eyes drooping closed again.  You’ve utterly exhausted me
 
She can feel a soft wave of amusement at that, and then Erik seems to hesitate, as though not quite sure what comes next.
 
Not opening her eyes, Charlotte makes a vague grab for him, gets hold of his elbow and tugs pointedly.  Come here.
 
There’s a bit of wiggling and shifting involved, but eventually she and Erik end up under the covers; Charlotte feeling relaxed and sated enough to sleep for a month, and Erik tense and wary.
 
Charlotte knows why – Erik’s memories of prolonged physical contact aren’t pleasant – and the knowledge makes something in her ache dully.
 
Go to sleep, she suggests, rolling towards him.  She doesn’t hug him – she doubts Erik would be comfortable enough to sleep like that – and instead settles for laying one hand on top of his beneath the covers, curling her fingers around his palm.
 
Some of the tension bleeds out of Erik’s body and Charlotte sighs quietly, content with his slight relaxation and the knowledge that he’s not going to leave.  She expands her telepathy again, listening to the ebb and flow of all the minds scattered throughout the mansion, the white noise lulling her to sleep.
 
--
 
Erik wakes abruptly, aware that something’s changed, something’s not right – there’s pressure against his side, holding his arm immobile…
 
Then he remembers where he is, and realises what awoke him; Charlotte has rolled in her sleep so that she’s essentially snuggled up against him, his arm trapped beneath her body.  He extricates himself as carefully as he can, trying not to wake her as he rises from the bed.  Charlotte barely stirs, only rolling more fully onto her side, a sleepy mumble emerging from her lips.
 
The clock in the corner tells Erik that it’s nearly dawn, but he won’t be going back to bed.  He’s become accustomed to living on very little sleep, and he’s not about to unlearn the habit of a lifetime now.
 
It doesn’t mean he’s blind to the appeal in slipping beneath the covers with Charlotte for a little while longer, but he won’t indulge himself.  Erik practises every morning to keep his control of his power as honed as possible, and to practise, he needs the anger.  He’s not sure how sensitive Charlotte’s telepathy is while she’s sleeping, but he’s certainly not going to risk exposing her to the kind of rage he has to dredge up when he uses his power for an extended period of time.
 
And today’s practise might be longer than usual – he has a brand new source of fury, after all.
 
It’s difficult to see in the dawn twilight, but Erik can still glimpse the faint lines and shadows that trace across Charlotte’s shoulder blade, exposed to the room by the hollow Erik has left in the blankets.
 
Memory fills in the rest.  The momentary surprise at feeling thin, jagged ridges where he expected to feel only smooth skin.  The jolt of incredulity as he followed those scars, realising that they were too patterned, too deliberate to be the relics of some sort of childhood accident.  The shiver of fury as he pulled Charlotte forward and looked, and recognised the evidence of a flogging, the marks twisted and ragged where the flesh pulled at them as it grew, proof that Charlotte was still a child when they’d been inflicted.
 
God knows, he’d seen similar marks on his skin often enough – the handful of scars across the backs of his shoulders are permanent reminders of Shaw’s more efficient methods of discipline, so Erik has a good idea of how hard you have to hit a child to produce those kinds of scars.
 
He’s not entirely sure why he’s so blindly furious about this (or rather, he suspects he knows and doesn’t want to examine that thought).  He’s seen and suffered through far worse in his lifetime, after all.
 
But perhaps that’s the difference.  That was him – this is Charlotte.
 
Her breathing is starting to accelerate, as though she’s drifting up into consciousness, and Erik belatedly realises she’s probably cold.  He moves to tuck the blankets in around her back, but it’s too late – her eyes are open and blinking drowsily, startlingly blue in the half-light.
 
“What time is it?” she asks, sitting up and stretching.
 
Given that this makes the blanket pool around her waist and neither of them bothered to don clothes last night before going to sleep, Erik thinks he can be forgiven for taking a few seconds to process the question.
 
“Early,” he says simply.  “You can go back to sleep.”
 
But Charlotte’s already leaning over to the side, shifting to where she can get a clear line of sight to the clock.
 
“I slept for six and a half hours!” she proclaims, smiling broadly.  “Usually I barely make five.”
 
“You only sleep for five hours a night?” Erik clarifies, feeling his eyebrows raise – he knows the body can be trained to cope with little sleep, but he’s never met anyone who did it naturally.
 
“Usually less,” Charlotte says, running her fingers through her hair in an effort to restore some semblance of order.  “I’ve often wondered if it’s some sort of by-product of my telepathy – if the differences in my brain structure somehow result in me needing less sleep than most people.  It certainly came in handy during university, I can tell you.”
 
She smiles at him, but then small furrows appear in her forehead as her expression becomes concerned.  “Aren’t you cold?”
 
It’s true he’s completely naked and not exactly comfortable, but he’s had worse.
 
Charlotte makes an exasperated sound, clearly having picked up on that thought, and climbs out of bed to rummage on the floor for their clothes.  The first article she finds is her trousers, and she’s clothed from the waist down before Erik can really appreciate the view.
 
“Underwear, trousers, jacket,” she rattles off as she tosses each item to him.  “Can’t find your turtleneck, though – oh, wait, here it is!  And that’s my shirt, and…do you remember what happened to my bra?”
 
Erik honestly can’t remember what happened immediately after he glimpsed Charlotte’s scars.  He probably just dropped the bra on the spot, might have kicked it out of the way as he carried her to the bed…
 
He finds it on the floor, almost underneath the bed, and uses the metal clasps to send it floating across the room until it hovers just in front of Charlotte’s face.
 
Charlotte grins – the bright, utterly enchanted grin she always wears whenever Erik demonstrates his powers – and plucks it out the air, pulling the straps over her shoulders.  Erik can’t resist stepping close behind her, placing both hands on her shoulders as another flicker of power drives the tiny hooks through the eyelets.
 
He’s rewarded with Charlotte’s laugh, soft and low.
 
Both partially clothed now, Erik runs his fingers idly over Charlotte’s collarbones, then down to ghost across the outline of her breasts.  Charlotte sighs and leans trustingly into him, her scored back sliding over the patchwork of scars on Erik’s chest as they breathe.
 
Erik doesn’t even realise his thumb is running over one of the more prominent marks (curling around the ridge of her hip, clearly inflicted with something thin and flexible) until Charlotte lays her hand over his.
 
At first, he thinks she’s going to push him away, to pull back and tug on a shirt and leave the room, but she stays almost perfectly still, her fingers cupped around his palm, just holding it in place.
 
My stepfather, whispers through his mind, along with a flash of a man’s face, twisted into a sneer.
 
Erik can feel himself tense, but keeps his hands on her relaxed and open.
 
My telepathy was rather…raw…when I was younger, Charlotte admits.  I had trouble telling the difference between something I’d been told and something that I’d read from people’s minds.  Kurt – that was his name, Kurt Marko – always assumed I was spying on him somehow, and was less than appreciative.
 
Erik can’t see her expression, but her fingers have tightened their grip on his hand.  He memorises the face he saw in that brief flicker of memory and name Charlotte mentioned – Kurt Marko – and begins to plan exactly how he will find this man.
 
It didn’t help that I was already quite different from most girls my age.  There were expectations about my interests and behaviour that I failed to live up to, which Kurt felt reflected poorly on himself.
 
Snapshots of memory fly into Erik’s mind, so quickly he’s not sure if they’re intentional or not.  Charlotte, sitting in a classroom with other girls (all of whom look young, so painfully young, and the idea that this happened when Charlotte was that young makes Erik want to howl), not paying any attention to the instructions about sewing because the spider web just outside the window is so much more fascinating.  Charlotte, not playing with any of the girls her age because she likes collecting beetles and watching ants and trying to find worms in loose soil.  Charlotte, climbing trees to look at birds’ nests and dirtying expensive dresses and skirts.
 
Charlotte, enchanted by the world of biology and chemistry and science, when her mother and teachers told her she should be preparing to get married and have babies.
 
But she didn’t listen to them, and Erik is fiercely glad of that – that she refused to become what they said she should be.
 
Perhaps I could have stopped him, could have influenced him to leave me alone, but…  She shakes her head minutely, her hair dragging over his collarbones.  His mind was so ugly, so…poisonous, I preferred to just take the beating.
 
Erik can never truly understand what it’s like to be a telepath, but he thinks he has some kind of grasp on how truly horrible a mind would have to be for beatings that left scars to be the ‘better option’.
 
“Didn’t anyone notice?” Erik can’t keep himself from hissing.  “Your mother-”
 
Her shoulders slump in resignation, and the rest of Erik’s words fade into silence.
 
It was before Raven came along, and my mother…my mother didn’t care about me, Erik.
 
There are no accompanying flashes of emotion – Charlotte’s telepathy is heavily reined in – and Erik wonders if she’s choosing to communicate mentally because she doesn’t trust her voice.
 
It seems too much to credit.  Yes, those memories he’d seen implied that Charlotte’s mother had disapproved of her daughter’s choices, but surely she had to have loved Charlotte?  How can anyone do otherwise?
 
My mother had a child because she was expected to, and for no other reason, Charlotte continues bleakly.  My father was…fond of me, I suppose.  In the same way you’re fond of a pet – I was ‘cute’ and ‘charming’, as long as I didn’t get in his way or upset him.  And my mother viewed me rather like…well, rather like some kind of expensive porcelain doll.  Beautiful, perhaps, but with each crack, each way I differed from what was ‘normal’ or what was expected of me, my value diminished.
 
The truly unsettling aspect about her monologue is that it’s completely free of hysteria or speculation.  Charlotte’s a telepath, and if she says her mother didn’t love her, it’s isn’t extrapolation or hypothesis – it’s something she knows, something she would have felt every day she lived in this place.
 
Erik is starting to understand why Charlotte was so reluctant to return here, why she’s been so uncharacteristically quiet and hesitant – unconsciously reverting to old patterns of behaviour.  He thought knowing why Charlotte was acting like that would help, but it hasn’t; on the contrary, it’s given Erik a rather irrational urge to raze this whole miserable place to the ground, piece by piece.
 
“How long did it…go on?” he asks, and is pleased that his voice sounds level.
 
He doubts it will fool a telepath, but he always enjoys proof that he can control himself.
 
Why do you want to know?  The question is automatic, almost defensive.
 
So he can determine how painfully Kurt Marko needs to die.  But Erik doesn’t say that aloud – he doesn’t need to.
 
Charlotte grimaces, the muscles in her back contracting as though she wants to hunch in on herself but won’t let it happen.  It doesn’t matter – he’s dead now, anyway.  And it was only a few years.
 
Years.
 
Erik thinks he can be forgiven for having assumed that Charlotte is the way she is because of her family, that she was raised in the most loving, accepting environment possible.  Yet to know that she’s so trusting, so willing to believe in people’s better nature, not because of her upbringing but in spite of it…
 
It confuses him.
 
Charlotte’s been holding herself stiffly ever since the words ‘my stepfather’ rang in his head, but now she sighs and relaxes, closing her eyes and half-turning in his arms until the side of her face is pressed against his chest.  She doesn’t move for several moments, and Erik has the impression that she’s listening to his heartbeat – but that’s ridiculous because really, how could that help?
 
It’s alright, Erik, she tells him.  My childhood might have been worse than some, but it was better than others.  And I like to think that by this point, I’ve let it go…as much as I can, anyway.
 
Erik can’t really understand that, but he refrains from commenting.  Charlotte sighs softly, almost nuzzling into him, before she straightens and leans back to look into his face, smiling the bright, trusting smile she always gives Erik.
 
 “I know it’s very early, but do you want to get some breakfast?”
 
Erik usually eats after he’s practised – the bite of hunger in his belly helps keep him focused, helps remind him, helps fuel the rage his powers feed on…
 
But though Charlotte’s smile is honest her eyes are still a little wary, still guarded against the unpleasant memories this house holds for her, and Erik doesn’t want to leave her alone while she’s looking like that.
 
“Good idea,” he murmurs, then feels his mouth twist into a smirk.  “Though you might want to put a shirt on first, just in case we aren’t the only ones awake.”
 
“I’m a telepath – I’d know if they were awake,” Charlotte declares loftily.
 
But she does pull on a shirt, buttoning it up tightly against the slight morning chill.
 
Then she presses a swift dart of a kiss to Erik’s lips (and he wonders if he’ll ever get used to that, wonders if he’ll have time to get used to that), threads her fingers between his and draws him towards the door.
 
“Come on, I’m sure we can find something in the kitchen.”
 
Erik follows, telling himself he’ll practise after breakfast.
 
And that it can’t hurt to break his pattern, just this once.

Chapter Text

“The secret of success is learning how to use pain and pleasure instead of having pain and pleasure use you.”
-Tony Robbins
 
--
 
The day is busy, with Charlotte urging Sean to control his vocal chords to hit different pitches, coaxing Hank into running with her and letting Alex set fire to the underground bunker (she makes a mental note to buy more fire extinguishers).  Even Raven is training – lifting weights and walking about the house with faces not her own, trying to imitate inflections and mannerisms along with physical appearance – and Erik…well, Charlotte has a theory about Erik’s power, which she’s hoping to put to the test one of these days.
 
The point is, she can see the paths they need to take to improve themselves, to strengthen their control and heighten their abilities, but she can’t say the same for herself.  After all these years, she’s accepted that her control is as good as she can make it.  She’ll never be able to entirely silence the whispers and flashes of the minds around her, and as to power…
 
She can erase memories or dig them from people’s heads, alter perceptions or eliminate them entirely, compel someone to do something entirely against their nature when she doesn’t just take over their body and manipulate it like a puppet.
 
The only arenas in which Charlotte can grow more powerful are those she absolutely refuses to practise with.  It’s true that at times she’s wondered idly if she could induce a heart attack or a stroke, but she’s not eager to find out.  Once, when she was young and panicked, she managed to induce a coma that continues to this day; she hates to think what she might be capable of now if she truly attacks someone’s mind.
 
Perhaps she should settle for overseeing the other mutants’ training, but she doesn’t want to – it feels uncomfortably like stagnation.  So if there’s no real way to improve her telepathy without harming the minds around her, she’ll just have to choose another route to self-improvement.  Maybe she can learn how to fly a plane?  Or some battlefield medicine?  Because at this point, Charlotte has accepted that this is going to turn into a fight, much as she might wish otherwise.
 
She’s dredged up some medical texts to get her started, and is on her way back to her room to read them.  She’s just passing the living room when a whisper of anger/hate/indignation/how dare he? brushes against her mind.  She knows it’s Erik – everyone’s mind feels different, and only Erik is that loud, that strong – and she leans into the room, curious about what’s got him so worked up.
 
He’s in front of the mantelpiece, staring narrow-eyed at the picture of Charlotte’s mother and Kurt Marko on their wedding day.
 
Erik’s eyes slide towards her as though he knew she was there, even though Charlotte’s certain she didn’t make a sound.
 
“They look happy,” he says, his voice flat yet somehow seething.
 
Charlotte nods.  “Strange, isn’t it?  That they could look so happy when they very much were not.”
 
Erik glances back at the picture again, and Charlotte can feel his mind grappling with the question of why her mother married Kurt in the first place.
 
“My father had just died,” she says.  “And I don’t think she really understood how to be on her own – in many ways, she needed to be married.”
 
Kurt had cured her of that rather quickly, though.  When he died, Charlotte’s mother simply crawled into the bottle and only emerged for public appearances.  Meaning parties and charity functions, of course, not Charlotte’s graduation or Raven’s birthday or anything along those lines.
 
Erik is still eyeing the photograph, and Charlotte can feel his confusion at the fact that it’s still there.  That she hasn’t torn down and burned anything that bears Kurt Marko’s face.
 
There are some things Charlotte will never be comfortable talking about, but telepathy is different.  It’s so much more intimate than verbal communication, and Charlotte has already confessed things to Erik via telepathy she doesn’t think she could have spoken aloud.
 
I don’t hate him, she tells Erik quietly.  I did, when I was younger, but now…
 
She shakes her head, moving to stand beside Erik and stare into the framed photo.
 
It probably helps that he’s dead, she muses.  That I don’t have to worry about running into him on the street one day or what have you.  And in the end, he saved my life.
 
Erik’s confusion ripples over her like a chill wind, and Charlotte lets him see the gatehouse that used to stand at the entrance to the property.  Two stories high, but old and all-but abandoned, the exterior maintained for appearances while the interior layered with dust and spider webs.  She lets him see her explorations there, tentative and curious, the way she slept there, sometimes, when the razor-edged press of minds from the mansion grew too much for her and she resorted to distance to blunt them.
 
Through her, he knows that she woke one day to oven-like heat, to thick smoke pouring up from the stairway, to a fire that was already consuming the ground floor.  Charlotte had tried to run down the stairs, but the flames had turned her back, had tried to climb open the window, but age had sealed it shut.
 
Charlotte remembers the smoke choking her, remembers gasping for breath even though there was no clean air to draw into her lungs, but she maintains a careful distance from Erik’s mind so he won’t feel that.  She just wants to give him the information, not to drag him into her memories.
 
She had curled up on the floor, eyes watering, mind slowing as the smoke got thicker and the house began to creak and grown, and then…then Kurt had been there.
 
She shows Erik her hazy impression of Kurt picking her up, using his elbow to smash the window, calling down to fire-fighters on the ground below who were holding a net stretched between them.  The ominous crack from the old beams above them, the heat warping the wood until it could no longer hold up the heavy tile roof.  Kurt looking down at her, his face settling into resolve, determination…
 
Then the swift rush of clean air as she was flung out the window, landing in the net as the roof of the gatehouse caved in, crushing Kurt Marko beneath it.
 
So I don’t hate him, she whispers into Erik’s mind.  He saved my life.  And that taught me a very valuable lesson.
 
“What lesson?” Erik asks, his voice rough.
 
That there’s a difference between knowing a mind and understanding it.  Everything I ever learned about Kurt Marko tells me he should have left me to burn…but he didn’t.  And I’ll never know why.
 
Maybe it’s her own arrogance talking, but it’s her ignorance that most disturbs her.  She doesn’t exactly mourn Kurt – she might not hate him anymore, but she still can’t be sorry he’s gone – but she does wonder sometimes about that final choice.
 
Erik’s thoughts are a bubbling morass of anger/indignation/hatred/resentment, the feelings jagged and bitter like chewing shards of glass, and Charlotte has no idea why some part of her finds it comforting.  Perhaps because very few people have ever been angry on her behalf – angry at her, yes, but at her treatment by teachers and professors and so-called peers?  Most of them seem to think it’s what she deserves for choosing such an ‘unfeminine’ and ‘unnatural’ path.
 
Raven is her staunch defender, of course, but that’s different.  They both know what it’s like to be neglected, they’ve both had to deal with Charlotte’s mother’s drunken tantrums and sober viciousness.  Besides, she’s Charlotte’s sister, and familial ties aren’t easily broken.
 
Erik, on the other hand, has seen and suffered far worse.  Yet the mere concept that she might have been mistreated makes him furious – a bright, blinding explosion of it, like the retort of a gun.
 
Instinctively wanting to soothe him, Charlotte leans close and rests her hand on his arm, her mind brushing gently against his with a pulse of comfort/contentment/it’s all over now.
 
Erik’s thoughts are still a thorny tangle of viciousness towards Kurt Marko, but now there’s a layer of bewilderment/resentment/she never makes sense/will I ever understand her?/will I have the time to understand her?.
 
“What are you doing with that?”  he asks, glancing at the anatomy book clutched in Charlotte’s hand.
 
It’s a blatant attempt to change the subject, but Charlotte lets it pass.
 
“Well, everyone else is so busy, improving their control, their strength…” she shrugs.  “I wanted to learn something useful, and first-aid seems a good idea.”
 
Erik raises an eyebrow.  “So you thought you’d start off by reading an anatomy book?”
 
“You have to start with the basics.”
 
Erik smirks, and she feels a tingle of amusement radiating from his mind.  Then it’s washed away by a surge of determination/resolve/this needs to happen.
 
“There’s another skill set you need to learn even more urgently,” he says, his voice now rather grim.  “Come on, I’m going to teach you to shoot a gun.”
 
As he finishes the statement, a gun sails in through the open door, summoned by Erik’s powers.  Usually, Charlotte would have worried about a gun free-floating through the mansion, but she supposes it would be effortless for Erik to keep it from firing.
 
She’s rather more interested in what he’s just promised.  “You really would?”  And in a rush, Charlotte realises that’s exactly what she needs – physical defence is one area in which her skills are sadly lacking.  “Erik, you’re a genius!”
 
Now it’s Erik’s turn to blink in bewilderment, and Charlotte knows he was expecting a very different response from her.
 
Not going to argue about your telepathy being the only defence you need? he thinks pointedly.
 
Shaw’s helmet has proven telepathy isn’t infallible, she responds.  And even though bullets won’t work against him, they might help against the next one.
 
Erik nods, and Charlotte can see that his mind has been running along similar lines – that where there’s one helmet, there could be others.
 
Follow me, she says, placing the book down on a side table before moving towards the door.  I think my father had a shooting range somewhere at one point…
 
--
 
Erik had been expecting Charlotte to resist being taught how to handle a firearm – it’s a tool of violence, and Charlotte is always so adamantly against violence that he’d been sure she’d hate the idea from start to finish.  He hadn’t been planning on backing down, of course, no matter what she said; bullets might be no use against Shaw, but he needs to know she can give the next psychotic bastard who can block telepathy something to think about, at least.
 
But Charlotte’s defied his expectations (as she’s been doing since they met), and is turning out to be a very quick learner.  Though perhaps it’s because he urged her to go into his head and draw the knowledge of how to shoot straight from his mind.
 
More than that, Charlotte actually seems to enjoy handling the gun and would probably be quite happy to continue indefinitely.  But Erik calls a halt when he notices her unconsciously flexing her wrist between rounds as though it’s getting tender, muscles and tendons unaccustomed to the weight and to compensating for the recoil.
 
And then Charlotte apparently decides kissing him is an appropriate way to express her gratitude.  Her lips are dry and slightly chapped from the cool wind, and he can feel her affection breaking over him like firecrackers, snaps and flashes of warmth with each kiss.
 
Erik’s no telepath, and he sometimes has difficulty interpreting the feelings and sensations he gets from Charlotte.  But a stray comment here and there has told him that most people are unnerved and frightened by her telepathy, which is probably why she seems so thrilled whenever Erik welcomes her into his mind.
 
When he’d asked her to bring her shields down, she’d seemed so amazed, so wondering, and almost afraid, as if she wasn’t sure she really wanted to know what telepathic sex was like.  And when she’d finally let her telepathy go, she’d seemed half-dazed, almost drugged, and Erik might have been worried if he hadn’t been able to feel her pleasure and relief at not having to suppress and smother her power.
 
Charlotte’s still bubbling with happiness/satisfaction/pride as Erik shows her how to take the gun apart.
 
“You’re very enthusiastic for someone espousing the virtues of non-violence,” he says, feeling a kind of tolerant amusement for the way Charlotte is treating the gun – as if it’s a new and delightful theory about mutation that must be examined in every conceivable way.
 
“I’m learning,” she beams at him.  “I was little envious, you know – everyone else is busy learning and improving themselves, but what was I doing?  Standing around offering encouragement and helpful suggestions mainly.   I started really wanting to learn something new myself.”
 
Erik wants to ask what Charlotte thinks he’s learning, but suspects he already knows.  And that he’s been slowly learning it since he met her.
 
At least he feels marginally more satisfied now, some part of him eased now that Charlotte knows how to shoot a gun.  Even if it won’t be much use against Shaw.
 
It’s strange that it’s more automatic to call him Shaw now, and Erik wonders what that means, if it even means anything.
 
Charlotte’s looking at him with dark, serious eyes now, and he suspects she’s gleaned his thoughts.  It might be a side-effect of knowing a telepath, but his mind feels constantly open, as though some part of his brain is attuned to her like a radio, just waiting for her to make contact.
 
He can’t help but wonder what will it be like when this ends – will his mind feel constantly empty and alone, calling out for Charlotte even long after she’s gone?
 
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something,” Charlotte says quietly, biting lips that are still slightly swollen from kissing him.
 
The hesitant, almost frightened expression on her face is beginning to make alarm squirm along the back of Erik’s neck.
 
“I’m not sure how interested in me Shaw is, or if he even knows we’re here, but if he does come here, and we can’t stop him…” she takes a deep breath, as though steeling herself for his reaction.  “You have to let him take me.”
 
Erik’s sure he misheard that – he must have.  She can’t possibly be serious.
 
I’m perfectly serious, she insists, a steely flash of determination/conviction/protectiveness accompanying her words.  Under no circumstances are you to get yourself killed for me.
 
But it’s perfectly fine for her to submit to torture and experimentation in the name of protecting him?  Fury and indignation rise up from Erik’s gut, so quick and vicious they nearly choke him.
 
“Hypocrite!” he spits.
 
“This isn’t up for negotiation, Erik!” Charlotte snaps, looking irked.
 
As though she honestly thinks she can persuade Erik to step aside and let Shaw take her as Frost’s replacement, to be warped and broken into his pet telepath and sex slave.
 
It’s not happening.  If Shaw takes Charlotte, it will be because Erik is dead.  It’s really that simple.
 
Erik sets his teeth, and tries to keep his voice level.  “Why is it acceptable for you to sacrifice everything for our safety, but not for us to protect you?”
 
“Because it makes sense to delay the confrontation with him as long as we possibly can, and if I’m all he wants-”
 
“Then he’ll have to go through us to get you,” he says flatly.  “Every single one of us would fight to protect you, Charlotte – don’t pretend you don’t know that.”
 
Raven will defend her adopted sister to the death, without question or hesitation.  Moira and Charlotte have become friends, and Erik knows that anyone wanting to harm Charlotte will have to go through the human woman first.  Hank seems a little in awe of her, but honestly delights in having someone willing to chatter endlessly with him about books and science and the possibility of rebuilding Cerebro.  Alex respects her because she doesn’t take any of his shit, because she knows how to turn his sometimes sharp teasing right back in his face, and he listens to her where he would have dismissed a weaker-willed person.  Sean trusts her, is willing to try outlandish ideas if Charlotte endorses them, because he knows she’ll never willingly let him come to harm.
 
They all care about her, and if it ever comes down to it, every single one of them will put themselves between her and Shaw, without hesitation.
 
Charlotte looks devastated, and Erik knows she followed every thought that just crossed his mind.  Only Charlotte would look so upset at the idea that people are willing to shield her from a very real, very dangerous threat.
 
At least Erik now has some idea of where this martyr-like attitude comes from.  Charlotte’s mother did not defend or protect her when she was a child, and on some level Charlotte still seems to believe herself unworthy of the protection that should be her right.
 
I never want to see any of you hurt because of me, she admits.
 
And we don’t want to see you hurt, Erik replies, one hand cupping her cheek, urging her to look him in the eyes.  Don’t deny us the privilege of protecting what we care for.
 
Charlotte looks floored, and there’s nothing coherent coming from her mind – just a stream of amazement/discomfort/surprise/affection/longing.
 
It makes Erik feel almost uncomfortable, as though he’s tipped his hand somehow, and he leans back, letting his fingers drop from her cheek.
 
Charlotte smiles gently, the smile that seems to say she sees everything he is and accepts it, even treasures it.  The smile that always makes Erik uncomfortable, because he isn’t what she thinks he is, can’t she see?  One day, probably one day soon, he’ll fail her or break her heart and then she’ll stop looking at him like that and the absence of that smile will be like scraping his skin raw on hot bitumen but he never asked her to smile like that in the first place, goddamn it!
 
With most people, you have to earn their trust.  Charlotte trusts you first, and then you feel obligated to live up to it.
 
“Well, now that I can shoot a gun,” Charlotte begins, in what Erik suspects is a deliberate attempt to divert his thoughts.  “Could you possibly teach me some unarmed combat?  I’ve afraid I never learned that, either – I was rather too reliant on my telepathy.”
 
He should say no – maybe if he rations the time spent in Charlotte’s company, it won’t be quite so painful when he finally has to go cold turkey.  But she just looks so damn hopeful…
 
“Fine.”
 
Her smile is so wide and bright it looks painful.
 
--
 
Charlotte may not be formally trained, but she’s quite a scrapper, bringing the same determination to a spar that she brings to almost every aspect of her life.
 
Erik’s spent the better part of the afternoon showing her holds and blocks and throws and pins, with emphasis on what will work best when dealing with an opponent taller and heavier than yourself.  Now they’re rolling around on the floor of what he suspects used to be the drawing room as Charlotte attempts to put what she’s learned into practise.
 
Erik might have actually enjoyed a chance to work out some of his frustration, if a new source of frustration hadn’t begun clamouring for his attention partway through.  He’s rarely in this amount of physical contact with someone unless he’s either trying to kill them or having sex with them.  And since he certainly isn’t trying to kill Charlotte his cock has decided, all on its own, that sex must be in the immediate future.
 
“Are you all right?” Charlotte asks when they break apart, with a rather pointed glance towards his crotch.  “Do you want to take a break?”
 
“I’m fine.”  He should be able to fight regardless of distractions, and while this is the first time this particular distraction has been a problem, he should be disciplined enough for this not to make a dent in his concentration.
 
She grins, her expression teasing.  “Are you sure you don’t want to forfeit?  That looks painful, and I could give you a hand.”  Her grin stretches wider, a hint of mischief colouring her eyes.  “Or a mouth, if you’d rather.”
 
Erik launches at her, determined to have her pinned to the mat within two minutes.  Because she needs to know not to let her guard her down, of course, and certainly not because those words and the curve of those flushed red lips are sending pornographic images reeling through his head.
 
Charlotte goes down easily – she’s no match for Erik when he tries to bring her down rather than just batting her across the mat and deliberately giving her as many openings as he can, and she’s laughing too hard to even try to fight back.  There’s a flicker of spite in the way Erik pins her wrists on either side of her head, straddling her thighs and using his weight to keep her pressed to the floor; for a moment, he rather resents that she seems so at ease with this, that she can kiss him and laugh with him and joke about sex while his intestines seem to be tying themselves into knots and half the time he has no idea what to do or say.
 
But perhaps that’s just Charlotte – she loves the unplanned and unexpected, while for Erik, unplanned and unexpected things usually end with him bleeding.
 
“You win,” she concedes, still breathless with laughter.  “You win.”
 
Erik’s preparing to make some kind of sarcastic comeback when Charlotte arches beneath him – deliberately, provocatively – rubbing the cradle of her pelvis against his erection. 
 
“And to the victor, go the spoils, yes?”  Her voice is so saturated in invitation he doesn’t need the lust/desire/thrill/daring that curls around his mind like woodsmoke, and Erik’s irritation is thrown off-course so thoroughly that for a moment he’s left blinking down at her, unsure of his next move.
 
He’s still pinning her wrists with his hands, and anyone else would have been nervous, held under him like this, but Charlotte trusts him so completely she didn’t just dismiss the idea that he’d hurt her, the thought never even formed.  There are no questions or doubts or worries – her mind is all welcome and daring and yes yes yes/come on, Erik/play with me.
 
Erik knows he won’t be able to do anything Charlotte doesn’t want – if he frightens or hurts her, she can just reach into his mind and stop him in his tracks.  Perhaps he shouldn’t find that reassuring, but he does.  There is literally no way he can ever overpower Charlotte Xavier.
 
At least, not if she doesn’t want him to.
 
The only reason he could bring her down is because she didn’t use her telepathy to stop him.  The only reason he’s still pinning her is because she’s letting him, which is bewildering, incredible…and somehow very, very arousing.
 
It’s the work of a moment to extend his power and lock the door.
 
Charlotte’s smile is different now, sensual and somehow languid, and it only grows wider as Erik bends the weight stand into a fluid, shimmering line of metal and weaves it around her wrists.  He’s hesitant at first – not quite sure if this is really what she wants, but then she’s in his head again, all lust/affection/trust/desire overlayed with eager encouragement.
 
Last night, the sex had been almost desperate, some part of him not entirely convinced she wasn’t about to change her mind and shove him away.  But now she’s pinned underneath him, her wrists bound above her head, and she’s clearly not going anywhere in a hurry.  Now, Erik is perfectly content to take his time.
 
He opens her shirt slowly, letting his fingertips ghost over newly-revealed skin before he moves onto the next button, watching goosebumps prickle in his wake.  He shoves the fabric aside to puddle on the floor, and for a moment just allows himself to look.  To drink in Charlotte’s bare skin, the way each breath delineates her ribs, her nipples tight and hard beneath the plain fabric of her bra.
 
Erik skims his hands across her chest, down to the soft skin of her belly, watching the muscles jump and tighten under his hand.
 
Erik!”  His name comes in stereo – both a soft, breathy gasp and a whip of warmth through his mind, accompanied by desire/anticipation/joy/please please please!
 
He doesn’t actually unclasp her bra – just pushes it up to her collarbones to bare her breasts so he can cup them in his hands, feel the weight of them in his palms, circle his thumbs around the pink areolae.  Charlotte gives a soft, shuddering sigh, her eyes closing to slits as her back arches, as though she’s trying to push herself into his hands.
 
This is only the second time they’ve had sex, but telepathy makes it breath-takingly easy; Erik knows all the most sensitive places on Charlotte’s body, knows where he needs to be gentle and where she’d like him to be rough. 
 
And the sensory loop seems less disorienting this time, as though his mind is getting a handle on it.  He scrapes his teeth over a nipple and feels the pleasurable sting, but some part of him can say that’s not actually him feeling that.  Perhaps it’s because Charlotte can’t touch him and confuse it – since he knows he’s not being touched, all those physical sensations have to come from Charlotte alone.
 
He unbuckles her belt and pulls her trousers down – Charlotte wriggling and arching in an attempt to help him along, her trust/excitement/lust/affection/yes Erik yes thrumming in the back of his mind.
 
But he deliberately avoids where he knows she wants him, instead stroking random patterns on the sensitive skin on her inner thighs and the groove where her legs join her pelvis.  He strokes his fingers through her pubic hair like he’s petting a cat, and feels a slight sting of rebuke as soon as that thought passes through his head.
 
If you dare make some kind of pussy joke you’ll be very sorry!
 
A burst of amusement wells up in Erik and he presses his face against her belly to try to contain his smile.  But Charlotte’s joy singing through his head isn’t helping him contain his own, and he finds himself laughing softly into her skin, feeling her tremble with the vibrations.
 
He drags his tongue over her skin and into the crease of her hip just because he can, holding her in place as she arches and bucks and writhes, her feelings becoming tinged with frustration/want/get down to business already!/please!/Erik!
 
He’s tied up people up during sex before, but usually those he didn’t trust or when he wanted to fuck but wasn’t in the mood to be touched.  It’s never been like this – an excuse to explore and tease and do his level best to drive Charlotte wild.
 
He mouths at a nipple again, just because he likes the noise she makes when he does that.  The gentle, almost-but-not-enough pleasure ripples through his own body, but Erik’s far from finished.
 
It probably says something disturbing about his psyche that he likes the way she seems trapped, helpless, able only to accept what he chooses to give her.  The fact that she’s not truly helpless only makes it better – he doesn’t have to constantly watch himself, secure in the knowledge that he’ll know the instant he does something she doesn’t like.
 
I don’t think you’re actually capable of doing something I don’t like, Charlotte muses.  But by all means, feel free to experiment.
 
Feeling as though he’s been given permission to push and prod at her boundaries, Erik becomes just a shade rougher.  The kisses along her body turn into bites, leaving scattered red marks that he knows will turn into faint bruises, and still all that comes from her mind is yes/more/please/not actually going to break/Erik!
 
He slides two fingers into her, curling them in the way he knows makes every muscle in her body tighten, enjoying the way her legs attempt to close reflexively, as though trying to keep his hand in place.  His thumb circles her clitoris as he deliberately moves his hand in a pace far slower and steadier than Charlotte would like.  Her fists clench and twist impotently in her bonds, and she grits her teeth as though trying to mute herself, even as soft moans leak past her lips.
 
Erik wants to remove his fingers and replace them with his mouth, feel her clench and shudder around his tongue, but that would mean sacrificing his view.  And the sight of Charlotte Xavier losing control beneath him is not one he wants to surrender any time soon, so he keeps his hand moving and tries to ignore the desperate, pounding need to touch himself.
 
Their connection ensures he can feel the moment when her heart starts to pound, her breath starts to catch, her muscles begin to flutter, and he yanks his hand away just before her climax begins.
 
Frustration and raw want blister his mind, and for a moment Charlotte actually thrashes beneath him, making a high, keening noise of desperation.
 
Erik feels ridiculously proud that he managed to put the oh-so calm and collected Charlotte Xavier in this state.  He can’t be a good man, he can’t be what she deserves, but this…this he can do.  Physical pleasure is probably a paltry reward for all that she gives to him (acceptance, companionship, complete trust and faith in him, a connection so deep and blinding he knows all that comes after it will be pale shadows in comparison) but it’s the best he can offer.
 
You better be planning on finishing what you started! slices through his mind like the harsh buzz of insect wings.  Charlotte’s glaring up at him as her body winds down from the brink he was dangling her over.
 
Technically, you started this, he points out, pushing his fingers into her again and enjoying the way her mind fragments and scatters, pleasure shivering between them like the aftershocks of an earthquake.
 
Unfortunately, telepathy ensures that he’s teasing himself as much as Charlotte, and Erik’s willpower only goes so far.  He only manages to repeat the process once more (and he needs to think of it as ‘the process’, because if he actually thinks of it as finger fucking Charlotte to near-orgasm this is going to be over that much quicker) before he gives in.
 
He rolls her over, and uses a palm on her belly to urge her onto her hands and knees.  The metal unwinds from her wrists, leaving her arms free so she can brace herself against the floor (and maybe because he’s still rather wary of his control, doesn’t trust himself not to accidentally break her wrists or bruise her and hurting Charlotte will never be a risk he’s comfortable taking).
 
He realises they’re missing something at the exact same moment that Charlotte sends him an image of a condom packet tucked into her pocket.
 
The little plastic square is easy enough to find.  Charlotte’s trousers are still around her knees and her shoes are still on – the laces neatly tied – and it might have seemed ridiculous if Erik wasn’t quite so aroused.
 
Confident are we? he thinks at her, wondering if she somehow planned this.
 
Optimistic, Charlotte fires back, lust/frustration/stop teasing! bleeding around the edges of the words.  And I didn’t want to be digging through my purse again.
 
He can go deeper in this position, and when he slides home in one smooth thrust, Charlotte arches and makes a low, pleased sound that shudders through Erik’s bones.  An impulse he doesn’t quite understand and doesn’t bother to untangle makes him lean over her, wrapping an arm around her to pull her back tightly against his chest, sealing them together as he presses his mouth against the curve of her shoulder, alternately kissing and biting, lips and teeth and tongue moving over smooth and scarred skin equally.
 
Charlotte’s head is thrown back, her hair sliding against Erik’s neck and catching against the faint stubble on his chin.  She’s wet and hot around him, internal muscles flexing, and he only manages a handful of thrusts before they both come.
 
When the spots clear from his vision (it has to be her telepathy that makes it so intense – Erik’s never had an orgasm send him temporarily blind before), he would be irked at his lack of stamina, if he couldn’t feel Charlotte’s pleasure/satisfaction/affection/can’t do that again too soon/you’ll kill me/thought I was having a heart attack towards the end there/I think you’ve broken my brain.
 
He should get up – they’re sweaty and half-naked, curled on their sides in an undignified tangle of clothes in the middle of the room – but instead he finds himself pulling Charlotte closer.  Finds himself savouring the feel of her galloping heartbeat slowing beneath his palm, the sound of her breathing gradually evening out, the scent of her hair as he presses his face against the nape of her neck.
 
Just a few more minutes.

Chapter Text

“Keep looking below surfaces appearances.  Don’t shrink from doing so just because you may not like what you find.”
-Colin Powell
 
--
 
Charlotte makes an effort to be at ease with her own desires, especially when it comes to sex.  So many people are such disgusting hypocrites about it – condemning people for enjoying what they secretly fantasise about themselves – and she’s vowed she’ll never join their ranks.
 
Still, she’s never been tied up before, perhaps because it smacks too much of vulnerability, of ceding control.  Most people would say that what’s sex is all about, but for Charlotte – with her shields and projections and layers upon layers of concealment – sex has always been the antithesis of losing control.  With Erik, however…
 
Well, she’d liked the idea.  When he was pinning her, an idle thought about it had floated to the top of her brain and then suddenly there was heat kindling low in her belly and every part of her was saying ‘yes, yes, let’s do that’.
 
She knows Erik thinks sex is all he can offer her, and she wants him to open his eyes and see how much he offers her every day, seemingly without even being aware of it.
 
She’s worrying at the constant puzzle that is her lover’s self-image and concepts of self-worth, which is why she only realises something’s gone wrong when she catches a blast of panic.
 
Charlotte knows Erik is training with Hank and Alex, training that mainly seems to involve Hank hurling enormous metal objects (that might have formerly been parts of Kurt Marko’s precious car collection, which Erik seems to take an unusually vicious pleasure in ripping apart) at Erik, who tries to stop them.  It’s more difficult than it sounds, largely because it’s far easier and more reflexive for Erik to simply deflect the projectiles rather than stop them altogether and have to counter their inertia.  And while that’s a perfectly sound strategy for a fighting force of one, it’s not such a good idea when you actually have allies on the battlefield, allies that can be hit and injured by a stray bit of metal.
 
Hank’s involved because while some of the metal objects are of reasonable size (pipes, engine parts and the like), most of them are far too heavy for anyone else to lift.  And Alex…well, Charlotte suspects Alex just likes to throw things.
 
But the blast of raw panic/fear/oh, shit, the Prof!/it’s going to take her head off/duck, she needs to duck! tells her something has gone very wrong.  She doesn’t bother turning around, just drops into a crouch, arms automatically coming up to cover her head…
 
But then, rising above the panic, is a strange calm determination, a NO that pierces the chaos like the single, clear note of a bell.
 
Charlotte looks up to find that the front half of a car is suspended in the air a foot away from her, at a height that suggests it would have indeed taken off her head and a good portion of her torso if it had continued on its course.  Erik is panting, his hand extended, holding the car in mid-air, until he seems to realise that yes, she’s perfectly fine, and drops it back to the ground.
 
Hank immediately begins babbling apologies, Alex just seems impressed that Erik managed to stop it, Erik’s wondering if there’s some way he can run over there and scan Charlotte for injuries without giving the game away, and Charlotte can’t help but smile to herself.  She remembers the icy, determined calm that had radiated from Erik’s mind, and the smile grows wider.
 
Her pet theory about Erik’s powers is looking up.
 
--
 
Just because they’re having sex now, doesn’t mean they’ve entirely neglected their chess games.  Erik finds it almost relaxing – the thrill of challenge without having to fear consequences if he fails – and Charlotte always becomes very talkative, willing to ramble for hours about what she’s noticed about someone’s power and the possible applications.
 
Tonight, a lock of Charlotte’s hair is slightly singed – Alex set the bunker on fire again – and she’s babbling about a connection she’s noticed between the strength of Alex’s blasts and his exposure to sunlight.  The sort of thing that only Charlotte would be looking for.
 
More than once, he’s wondered if she’s giving false hope to Alex; if a power that requires some artificial device to control it can’t really be controlled, and she should leave it alone before she does more harm than good.
 
But Erik isn’t drawn to Charlotte because she’s perfect or always right, but because she tries so hard.  Most people are content to sit back and let the world do as it wills, but if Charlotte sees something that needs to be changed, she goes out and does her very best to make that change happen.
 
Eventually, Charlotte diverges into the possible evolutionary aspects of their powers, which Erik has to admit is rather fascinating, even if he’s not as wildly enthusiastic about it as Charlotte is.
 
“Though yours is a bit of a puzzle, my friend,” she admits to Erik. 
 
Most people don’t call someone they’re having sex with ‘my friend’, but he rather likes that Charlotte hasn’t abandoned her previous title for him.  Every time she calls him that it feels as though she’s promising that their connection is still there, that what they have isn’t temporary, and even if he knows he isn’t true, he can enjoy the fantasy.
 
Charlotte might have noticed his thoughts, but if she did, she hasn’t let that deter her from her point.  “Speaking in evolutionary terms, forged metal is very recent invention – though I suppose all it would take was some clan warrior in the Bronze Age that could change the trajectory of his spear after it was thrown.  It would certainly be an advantage, at least enough for the gene to be passed down…”
 
“I don’t see how there could be any advantages to looking obviously non-human,” Erik points out.  “Raven, for example – you can’t tell me she’d have lasted long.”
 
Charlotte might argue for humanity’s better nature, but Erik’s seen too many people hunted and killed for being different to believe a blue girl could have survived for long in some ancient tribe.
 
He’s found himself taking an interest in Raven, and he doesn’t quite know why.  It’s not because she’s Charlotte’s sister, but maybe because her mutation is the most visible of any of them (maybe because she seems lost in her own skin and he remembers how it felt to be like that, not knowing who or what you are).  Raven often watches him as though she’s silently taking his measure – she knows about him and Charlotte, and Erik thinks he’d be just as wary in her place – but she does seem to listen him.
 
He honestly has no idea why.  And it’s not just her – Hank and Alex and Sean listen to him as well, and all seem to like him, which is rather bewildering and not something Erik really knows how to deal with.  He’s used to scaring people, not having them look up to him like he’s some kind of role model.
 
“What we think of as primitive societies tend to be a bit unpredictable in their reactions to differences,” Charlotte says, answering his earlier question.  “Someone like Raven was equally as likely to be worshipped as the avatar of a god as to be persecuted.”
 
She smiles.  “Needless to say, god-avatars tend to have their choice of consorts and spouses, and as long as the genes were present in a small fraction of the population…”
 
“You might want to mention that god-avatar spiel to her,” Erik points out.  “It could help her confidence.”
 
“She doesn’t seem to hear it most of the time.  I think she just expects me to say things like that because I’m her sister.”
 
“It doesn’t help that you’re always telling her to be careful about it when she’s in public.”  And if there’s a shade of criticism in his voice, Erik thinks he has good reason for it.
 
“Just because I believe humans can accept us doesn’t mean I’m entirely blind to the way they react to something they consider a little too far out of the ordinary.”  Charlotte’s expression is closed-off and somehow bitter at the same time.  “And maybe most people wouldn’t care, or at least wouldn’t care enough to do anything about it…but it only takes one.”
 
Erik knows the truth of that better than most, and he can’t feeling a flicker of irritation and anger.  “You keep preaching acceptance, but even you don’t believe that humans will follow their better impulses.”
 
“Yes, I do,” Charlotte’s voice is sombre.  “I’ve seen it happen.”
 
“Most people-”
 
“But not all,” Charlotte says firmly.  “I won't do it, Erik – I won't write off humans, won't condemn the good people along with the bad.  I'll fight the naysayers, fight the prejudiced and the bigots...but I'll never fight humans.”
 
She sighs suddenly, scrubbing a hand over her face.  “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading people’s minds, it’s that violence only begets more violence.  Prejudice justified only asks for further prejudice in turn.  Even if your vision of a mutant-dominated world comes true, it won't be utopia.”
 
Feeling a little stung, Erik narrows his eyes into an expression that would have sent most people running for cover (Charlotte, of course, doesn’t even blink).  “Why not?”
 
“How long before they decide that some mutations are better than others?  My own, for example – in this world of yours where mutants rule, how long before they decide telepathy is too intrusive, too invasive, and people begin to clamour for controlling measures, for telepaths being locked away?”
 
“That would never happen.”  Erik’s trying for confidence, but he’s certain he’s not fooling her.  Because he knows how easily bigotry can build, can flood into every crack and corner of society until it overflows.
 
“Why not?” Charlotte asks, not sounding chiding or reprimanding, but honestly curious.  “You don’t mind me in your head, true, but I promise you, you’re in the minority, Erik.  And if it's already permissible to oppress people based on what they can and cannot do…to begin making those kinds of distinctions between mutants seems inevitable.”
 
“It would never work, anyway,” Erik points out, mainly to reassure himself.  “Telepaths are too powerful.”
 
“Shaw's helmet keeps me out,” Charlotte reminds him.  “Where there's one, there can be others.  And give a genius like Hank a few years and few thousand dollars and I'm sure he could come up with some kind of drug that could keep me under control.  Besides, are you saying that kind of segregation is all right as long as it happens to those without a useful power?  Make that kind of distinction between one person and the next, and more distinctions are soon to follow.”
 
She takes a careful sip of her drink.  “In any case, history has shown us that any kind of society that elevates one at the expense of the others…doesn’t last long.  At best, there’ll be constant civil war, and at worst…at worst, it will be Armageddon.  We’ll destroy each other.”
 
Erik’s feeling brusque and defensive, reluctant to admit she’s actually raised some salient points, and asks harshly, “You keep telling us to give them a chance, but what would you do if they attacked – here and now, in your home?  Would you neutralise them peacefully?  Or would you do what you had to do to defend yourself and everyone here?”
 
“I don’t know,” Charlotte says quietly.
 
Erik’s temper flares and sparks, a lit match against sulphur.  “Don’t give me that-”
 
“No, I mean I truly don't know, Erik.”  Her voice is calm, her face set and grim.  “When I’m backed into a corner…I'm capable of some frightening things.”
 
She lifts her drink again, but this time takes a large swallow, her eyes fixed on a point somewhere above Erik’s head.  “Have I ever told you about Cain?”
 
Cain?  Erik’s quite sure Charlotte hasn’t mentioned him, and he shakes his head.  The prickle of anger along his skin seems to be compressing, focusing – everything about Charlotte’s expression and voice tells him this wasn’t a happy acquaintance.
 
“Cain Marko, my stepbrother.”  Her voice is still very calm, disturbingly so.  “Kurt Marko’s son from his previous marriage, five years older than me, an unrepentant bully…and Amelia’s rapist.”
 
Something in Erik’s gut goes hard with fury and at the same time strangely watery with apprehension.  He thinks of the words Kurt Marko’s son and unrepentant bully and rapist and thinks of the young Charlotte he’s seen in the few photographs around her study, all wide blue eyes and brown hair with the slightest hint of a curl in it and just-developing body…and he prays this story isn’t ending the way he thinks it will.
 
And of course, Charlotte’s picks up on that – Erik must have been shouting his thoughts to her – because he feels a soothing touch of comfort/affection/it’s all right roll over that fury and fear like cool balm over an open wound.
 
I told Mother and Kurt what he’d done, of course, Charlotte continues, but now her voice is purely mental.  But, given that Amelia had no memory of the event – a stab of shame/self-loathing/guilt that cuts like a scalpel and is swiftly pulled back – there was no wounded party to come forward, and he denied it all.  I was called a liar, and Kurt punished me for it.
 
There’s no accompanying flash of emotion or memory with the last sentence, though Erik imagines he can feel it, straining against Charlotte’s self-imposed bonds like a prisoner fighting a barbed wire fence.
 
But he was afraid of Kurt – he abused Cain as well, you see – and he was too frightened of the consequences if he was caught to do it again while Kurt was alive.
 
But after he was dead? Erik thinks, deliberately articulating the words in his head so they aren’t drowned in the flurry of anger and dread boiling through him.
 
He started…looking again, Charlotte replies, her words delicate but her eyes as hard as flint.  So I went to his room and confronted him.
 
Of course she did.  Of course a ten (or maybe eleven?  Twelve?) year old Charlotte Xavier would attempt to stand up to a rapist who was probably twice her fucking size.
 
He laughed, Charlotte continues, and now a thin trickle of anger/indignation/how dare he? is leaking through.  And he asked me if I was jealous.  I tried to move away, but he shoved me down onto the bed, put his hand over my mouth and tried to lift up my skirt.
 
Erik’s muscles are so tense they’re quivering beneath his skin, but he’s beginning to feel a hint of relief.  Charlotte said ‘tried’, implying Cain hadn’t actually managed to undress her, that he was interrupted somehow.
 
“And?” he asks, voice tight.
 
And I panicked.  Charlotte’s eyes meet his for the first time since she’s mentioned Cain’s name.  He’s still in a coma.  The doctors say he’s not entirely brain-dead, but…
 
She shrugs, a barely-there movement of her shoulders.  But I’ve read his mind, and…there’s nothing there.  It’s empty.  And I did that.
 
“Good,” Erik says, and he means it.
 
He can’t deny feeling a tingle of apprehension at his proof of just how frightening Charlotte’s powers can be (accidentally putting someone in a coma when she wasn’t even teenager and god, what could she do now?) but in this moment he’s intensely grateful they were enough to save her. 
 
He knows what it’s like when your own abilities fail you at the moment you need them most, and he’ll never wish that on her.
 
“But don’t you see, Erik?” Charlotte asks, her voice slightly raspy, as though speaking of this actually causes her physical pain.  “I didn’t even mean to do it – I just lashed out.  And if I could do that without intending to, all those years ago, I shudder to think what I'm capable now of when I do mean it.  So to answer your question: if someone attacked the mansion, hurt my friends, hurt Raven, hurt you…I don’t know what I’d do.  But I know it would not be pleasant.”
 
She takes another generous swallow of her drink, as though hoping the alcohol will bolster her.  Charlotte’s always so bold, so fearless, that it’s startling how timid she becomes when she talks of her past or her power.
 
But perhaps that’s exactly why she seems so courageous – it’s easy to face the world when the only thing you truly fear is yourself.
 
And, Erik realises with a lightning flash of insight, this is why Charlotte struggles to encourage Raven the way she needs to be encouraged.  Because Charlotte’s never had someone encourage her, so she has no idea how to encourage someone as a relative rather than as a mentor, no relationship to model their interaction on.  Cain ensured that as far as a sibling’s concerned, Charlotte only know what she shouldn’t do, and so she did everything she could not to be like him.  But what she sees as protective, sisterly concern Raven sees as smothering, and what Charlotte sees as sensible precautions Raven interprets as rejection.
 
“In many ways, Cain proves my point,” Charlotte goes on.  “He didn’t rape Amelia or attack me because he’d inherited some sort of ‘evil’ gene from his father, or because humans are naturally inclined towards violence and hatred.  He did it because Kurt had made him powerless, and terrorising another person was the only way he knew to snatch that power back.”
 
She sounds very detached, very impersonal.  But Erik remembers what she told him about experiencing Amelia’s rape as if it were her own, and wonders if this cold, clinical outlook makes it easier for her.
 
It just makes him feel ill-at-ease, though, uncomfortably aware of the parallels between himself Charlotte’s abusive step-brother.  He can’t say he didn’t enjoy ripping out those banker’s fillings, didn’t feel a rush of satisfaction when he killed those people in Argentina, won’t smile to himself when he stands over Shaw’s dead body…
 
You’re nothing like Cain, Erik, Charlotte’s voice rings through his head, firm with conviction/assurance/not possible/how can he believe that?
 
“You don’t know that,” Erik reminds her.  “You haven’t seen-”
 
He breaks off when he remembers that she very likely has.  He’s not sure exactly how much Charlotte has picked up on her various trips into his head, but given how many people he’s killed, one of those memories must be among them.  It’s easy to forget when she seems so determined to believe that he’s capable of good.
 
When you make a habit of sexually assaulting people, I’ll re-evaluate, Charlotte comments, and Erik wonders how a mental voice can be tart.
 
Then she shakes her head lightly, as though making herself get back on topic – clearly, Charlotte has a point to make and won’t be deterred.
 
“We can’t judge people based on what is in their DNA,” she says.  “Those strings of chemicals hold many mysteries Erik, but they don’t make us good or bad.  That’s up to us.  I’ve felt mutant minds, and humans minds, and morally speaking we’re certainly not more evolved – we have an equal capacity for evil as humans.  Probably more, come to think of it – power corrupts and all that.  But my point is that people should not be segregated or oppressed because their DNA is slightly different from what’s considered ‘normal’.”
 
“That’s what I’m saying!” Erik snaps, frustrated all over again.  “Mutants should be protected, not live in constant fear of exposure.”
 
“I agree,” Charlotte says easily.  “But you’re advocating the other extreme.  The one where humans are oppressed.”
 
“We’re the next stage of evolution – you said it yourself.”
 
Charlotte shrugs.  “Maybe, maybe not.”
 
Erik’s rather taken aback at her lacklustre response.  “You argue for it quite loudly.”
 
“Evolution isn’t a linear path, my friend,” Charlotte points out.  “It’s more like a labyrinth – not every way leads to the centre of the maze.  Take me, for instance.”  She flicks her hand up and down her body as though inviting him to contemplate it.  “This may be too much information for you, but I’ve had perhaps five periods in my lifetime.  There were tests done, and I won’t bore you with the details of the poorly-understood stress hormones that seem to be involved in my telepathy, but they essentially mean I’m sterile.”
 
“Sterile?” Erik repeats, bewildered.
 
“Well, my odds of conceiving are extremely low, and the chances of carrying the child to term are even lower.”
 
She smiles ruefully.  “The body is in a very delicate balance, after all – it takes very little to disturb it.  Raven doesn’t seem to have the same problem, but who knows how many do?  Who knows how many of us have mutations that damage our health?  It’s likely I’ll never have children and in evolutionary terms, that takes me right out of the game.  We may very well be the next stage of human evolution, but we may also be just a dying branch on the tree.”
 
“You never mention this,” he says quietly, wondering why he hasn’t heard this before.
 
Charlotte laughs.  “Yes, well, it’s not quite as peppy or optimistic as ‘the next stage of human evolution’.”
 
“I want mutants to dominate,” Erik admits, pressing her to see his point of view.  “But I won’t be…rounding the humans up in camps.”
 
You wouldn’t,” Charlotte agrees, with an emphasis that feels a bit too pointed for Erik’s comfort.  “But I can’t be part to a society where people are arbitrarily placed as second-class citizens from the moment of their birth – it’s not right.”
 
“Humans would have rights!” Erik grits out, frustration beginning to gnaw at him.  “Mutants would just supersede them.  It would ensure that we couldn’t be oppressed or targeted, if we’re dominating the government and police.”
 
Charlotte goes very still, and sets down her glass.  “I have two X chromosomes.”
 
“…and?”  Erik has no idea what her point is.
 
“The X chromosome contains more genetic information than the Y, did you know?  Because I have two X chromosomes, I’m less likely to be colour-blind, have haemophilia and a whole host of other disorders that arise from a mutation on the X chromosome.  In fact, one could argue that in many ways, my second X chromosome makes me healthier than if I’d had a Y.”
 
She shifts in her seat, and taps one finger sharply on the arm of her chair, like a punctuation mark.  “And yet, in our society, because I don’t have a Y chromosome, I’m somehow deemed…lacking.  Deemed not intelligent enough, or capable enough, and I cannot count the number of doors that I’ve had shut in my face, the university applications that have been rejected…”
 
Charlotte shakes her head, her voice grim.  “I’ve lived my whole life in a society that tried to use my genetic make-up to determine my destiny.  I won’t support another like it.  I can’t.”
 
There’s no particular passion or desperation in her voice, but Erik knows she won’t be budged.  Charlotte often seems so affable, so biddable, but her will and convictions are as firm as bedrock – he won’t change her mind about humans, and in some ways, Erik doesn’t really expect to.
 
But he keeps trying, and she doesn’t really seem to mind.
 
--
 
Hank has cooked again, which Alex calls ‘girly’ even as he takes a second helping.  Charlotte sends him her best admonishing glance – learned from her fourth-grade teacher – and resists the urge to get into his head and make him apologise (and she must resist because that’s a damn slippery slope and she doesn’t want to go near it).
 
It’s harder to fight the urge to tell Hank exactly why Alex teases him so often when there are other targets well within mocking range.
 
It’s because Hank unsettles him.  They’ve all seen Hank’s strength – Charlotte had been peering under the sofa for a book she suspected had migrated to the floor and Hank, trying to be helpful, had simply lifted the whole damn thing off the floor.  Alex is accustomed to physically powerful men, but in his experience they have violent tempers and are eager to unleash that strength on anyone weaker.  Hank, who never raises his voice, never gets angry even when drunk and thinks every interpersonal relationship problem is matter for his brain rather than his fists…Hank simply confuses Alex.
 
So he teases and needles at every opportunity because he wants to find Hank’s breaking point, wants to know when Hank’s temper will snap.  Alex figures it’s better to do it deliberately and be prepared than to be caught off-guard and vulnerable.
 
It’s equally as tempting to tell Alex that he’s wasting his time.  After being severely bullied in his childhood (always far too smart or far too young, never fitting in, no wonder he wants so desperately to be able to make himself fit in) Hank has vowed that violence will never be his conflict resolution of choice.  Fortunate, really, given his immense strength.
 
But strangely, the mild animosity only makes Charlotte feel happier.  Perhaps it’s because the animosity is just that – mild.  There was no teasing in Charlotte’s childhood, only vicious words and shrewd blows and her mother’s indifference, which cut deeper than any belt or fist.
 
Alex and Hank may not be comfortable with each other, but if Shaw breaks down the door they’ll fight side by side without a second thought.
 
It probably helps that Sean sits between them at dinner.  Sean, with his over-large and over-loud family (though none quite as loud as he), who’s accustomed to diffusing tension over food because no stupid argument is going to get in the way of his dinner.  Charlotte often wonders if it comes with being the eldest sibling in a family of six children with over twenty cousins, but Sean’s quite relaxed about…well, almost everything.  The only time he seems honestly apprehensive about something is when he’s trying to fly.
 
Raven’s clearly enjoying the food, and has obviously decided this makes Hank even more appealing.  Of course, given that this is Charlotte’s younger sister they’re talking about she can’t help but feel the urge to give Hank the ‘hurt her and you’ll be mentally two years old for the rest of your life’ speech and order them to have at least three feet between them at all times, but she’s resisting.
 
As long she keeps her concentration off them and avoid picking up any fantasies (or, god forbid, something that’s actually happening), she thinks she’ll be alright.
 
Erik’s sitting opposite her with an almost bemused expression, as though he’s not sure how to react to this sort of domestic scene but is willing to give it a try.
 
And for the first time in her life, Charlotte feels as though she’s home.

Chapter Text

“The difference between friendship and love is how much you can hurt each other.”
-Ashleigh Brilliant
 
--
 
Erik is finding you learn different things about someone you’re having sex with than you do about a friend.  As a friend, he knew Charlotte was capable of staying up quite late and still being reasonably alert in the morning.  In the last week, he’s learned that Charlotte’s sleeping patterns are very erratic – sometimes she’ll only doze for only an hour or so before she rises again – and that she never sleeps more than six hours.  He’d known Charlotte took pleasure in the little things, but now he’s realising exactly how sensual she is, how she loves to immerse every part of her sense in whatever gives her pleasure, be it food or sex or music.
 
And now he’s learning that if Charlotte’s on her back with her head tipped a little awkwardly and her mouth open, she’ll snore.  Not particularly loudly, but it’s definitely a snore.  It’s almost funny to think that this is the woman who thirty minutes ago, gave him a blowjob that had finished him for the rest of the night.  He’d brought her off with his fingers, and the memory makes smile with pleasure and just a hint of smugness.
 
He should probably leave, but Charlotte has a habit of latching onto his hand before she goes to sleep, and Erik hasn’t yet been able to quell the urge to keep his eyes on her.  He can’t stop feeling that he should enjoy it while it lasts…
 
He knows the pain of losing a mother, the pain of being helpless and at the mercy of a man with none.
 
When Charlotte leaves, he’ll know a different kind of pain.
 
--
 
The lab always seems far too bright and clean, as though it’s somehow removed from the mud and ash-choked air outside.  Erik’s always afraid he’ll dirty it somehow, and he doesn’t want to think what Schmidt’s punishment would be if he fouled this shining whiteness.
 
At least Schmidt’s found someone else who intrigues him for the moment, and Erik hates himself for the relief he feels even as he cowers in the corner and prays this won’t give Schmidt any new ideas for their next ‘session’.  He keeps his eyes on the wall but doesn’t dare put his hands over his ears – Schmidt likes to address his observations to Erik, and the one time he’d found Erik pressing his fingers into his ears and humming – no, he won’t think of that, he won’t, he won’t…
 
A loud click of the electric current being turned on, something on the table jerking and twitching in the corner of Erik’s vision, a high, keening wail rises over the sound of machines whirring and clacking.  Another click as the power box is turned off, a wet thump as a body drops back to the steel table, ragged gasps splattering through the air like drops of blood.
 
“Fascinating,” Schmidt purrs.  “I’ll need to open the skull to do more in-depth mapping, but the preliminary results suggest that the wiring of the brain differs significantly-”
 
Erik’s not listening, he’s not.  He’s not listening to Schmidt chuckling, not listening to the sharp clink as he picks up a scalpel, not listening to whatever’s on the table choking out a soft, wretched whimper.
 
“Please…”
 
And then suddenly Erik is listening, is even turning to look because he knows that voice…
 
Charlotte’s lying on the table, naked and bruised, thick leather straps digging into her wrists and ankles, shoulders and hips.  Her head has been shorn and electrodes rest at her temples, tiny drops of blood showing that the wires have been drilled into her skin.  Her skin is as grey as the tiny sliver of sky glimpsed through the window, her chin bloodied from where the electric current has made her bite her own tongue and lips and as Erik watches, Schmidt rubs his thumb through the blood, smearing it over Charlotte’s mouth like gory lipstick.
 
“Telepaths are so very intriguing, wouldn’t you agree, Erik?”
 
Erik reaches out, hard and fast, reaches for the steel table and the scalpel in Schmidt’s hand and every scrap of metal he can possibly find, ready to tear Schmidt away from Charlotte or die trying…
 
But there’s nothing.  It’s as though the room is entirely empty of metal, even though Erik can see the harsh gleam of the knives and cleavers and bone-saws hanging on the wall.  He tries to step forward, but there are chains around his wrists that anchor him to the wall and he can’t remember where they came from.  But they’re metal too, and he should be able to manipulate them but he can’t, and Schmidt is doing something with the scalpel that Erik doesn’t want to think about it because if he thinks about it he’ll have to look at it.
 
Charlotte is making what may be the most awful noises Erik’s ever heard – moans and strangled wails, as if she doesn’t even have the energy to properly scream.  He can’t help it – he looks, and his stomach cramps at the sight of the blade moving through Charlotte’s flesh, skin being peeled back to expose fat and muscle and stringy tendons, blood pooling on the table beneath her.
 
“It’s alright, sweetheart, it’s almost over,” Schmidt coos, cupping her cheek in a hideous parody of affection, wiping at the tears streaming from her eyes, leaving streaks of Charlotte’s own blood across her face.
 
The manacles are digging into Erik’s wrists so hard blood is dripping between his fingers and that should hurt but he can’t even feel it, can’t register anything but Charlotte’s low whimpers, her trembling as she begins to slip into shock, and the smile on Schmidt’s face, the speculative gleam in his eye as he runs his fingers down Charlotte’s body, not bothering to skirt around the bloody wound in her belly and chuckling when she sobs in pain.
 
And Schmidt is opening his pants and lowering himself down onto Charlotte’s naked and battered body, and Erik wants to look away but can’t, wants to shred Shaw into a million little pieces but no metal is answering his call even though the bloodied scalpel is lying right there and now Charlotte is screaming, twisting, trying to pull away from Schmidt as he moves on top of her and then Schmidt’s hands are at her throat and she’s choking and flushing, lips going blue and eyes turning red as tiny blood vessel haemorrhage and her struggles still and the last thing she mouths is his name…
 
“Erik…”
 
CHARLOTTE!
 
--
 
Charlotte is dragged into consciousness, her heart pounding and her skin unpleasantly slick with chill sweat. 
 
It’s not the first time she’s been woken by someone else’s nightmare, but it’s the first time she’s seen one in such graphic, sickening detail.  The sleeping mind is vastly more disorganised than the conscious mind, after all, and other people’s dreams are usually nothing more than vague impressions.
 
Erik’s nightmare had come through as if it were a memory.  Which is to say, still hazy around the edges but as clearly as if she’d been the one dreaming it.  But Charlotte will puzzle on that later – right now, she’s more concerned with waking Erik up.
 
“Erik,” she hisses, shaking his shoulder and mentally prodding his mind towards consciousness.  “Erik!
 
Erik’s eyes open so quickly Charlotte’s half-expecting to hear a snapping sound, and it probably wasn’t a good idea to be leaning over him because he simply reacts.  There’s no real thought process behind it, either, just a learned reflex activated so many times it’s become close to pure instinct.
 
Erik is rolling them off the bed before Charlotte’s even aware he’s moving, one hand spread over her collarbones to ensure her head and neck will take the brunt of the impact.  To hopefully knock her unconscious, or at least incapacitate her long enough for Erik to gain the upper hand.
 
Recognition spears through his thoughts when they’re halfway down and Erik shifts both intent and posture almost instantly.  An arm stretches to hit the floor first and brace them, while his hand moves to cradle the back of her head and protect it from the impact.
 
Charlotte barely even registers the jolt as they finally hit.  For a moment she lays there, catching her breath as Erik crouches over her, his eyes wild and panicked.  He is as tense and poised as a startled tiger, and Charlotte wonders if he’s about to run from the room.
 
But then everything in him seems to slump as he sits backwards with a painful-sounding thump, and she’s dragged off the floor into his arms.
 
Erik holds on so tightly it almost hurts, arms locked around her as if someone’s trying to drag her away.  His face is pressed into her shoulder, he’s breathing in stuttering gasps and his mind is a mantra of relief/fear/Charlotte!/she’s safe she’s safe…
 
For the first time, Charlotte realises Erik’s in love with her.  She has suspected before this, of course, but there are many layers to emotions, particularly love and affection, and it can be difficult to puzzle out the nuances between the love you feel for a friend and the always-and-forever type love of partners and spouses.  And perhaps Charlotte didn’t want to look too deeply, or think too hard about what she saw.
 
But now...she can feel what Erik feels at this moment when he realises it's only a nightmare, that she's unharmed.
 
She puts her arms around him, a little awkwardly given how tightly he’s holding her, and she moves her fingers through his hair, trying to soothe him.
 
It seems to bring Erik back to himself somewhat, enough to make him realise what he’s doing, and he lets go so quickly Charlotte almost falls backwards.  He scrambles to his feet, and while Erik usually possesses the kind of lethal grace you associate with large felines, this time ‘scrambles’ applies very well.  He’s trying not to look at her, discomfort/resentment/embarrassment leaking out like a dripping faucet, but then he glances over at the bed and his face goes blank, his mind suddenly ringing with shock/fear/did I do that?/how could I lose control like that?
 
Charlotte follows his gaze, to find that the metal bed frame – indeed, every metal fixture in the room – has been warped.  Bent and creased and folded like fumbled origami.
 
--
 
Erik isn’t truly surprised the after-effects of his nightmare reached all the way down into the kitchen.  In the dream, he’d been reaching so desperately for any metal he could find…
 
“Your range is quite extraordinary, you know,” Charlotte says conversationally, lifting a handful forks that have been crimped together with fascination in her eyes.  “I wonder if it alters linearly or exponentially?”
 
Erik shrugs, wrestling with what he knows is a baseless, paranoid urge to patrol the grounds, sure he’s radiating fear and uncertainty so thickly Charlotte can taste it.  Until now, his nightmares have always been memories, sometimes blended and blurred, true, but always rooted firmly in his past.  He’s never dreamed of something that hasn’t actually happened – why does his mind feel the need to conjure up new horrors now?
 
But in his heart, Erik knows the answer – because now, he has something he fears to lose.
 
“It’s alright,” Charlotte says quietly.  “I think it’s natural to fear losing something you love.”
 
His reaction is automatic.  “I don’t…”
 
“Love me?”  Her expression is very gentle, but there’s not a trace of doubt in her voice.  “Erik, we both know that would be a lie.”
 
But he wants so badly to hold onto that lie.  Because if he doesn’t love her…then maybe it won’t hurt quite so much when she’s taken from him.
 
It won’t be that easy to get rid of me, she tells him, fond affection seeping through the words like warm syrup.  Or do you somehow imagine you feel more for me than I do for you?
 
She smiles then, soft and welcoming with just a hint of daring behind it.  We’re in this together, Erik.
 
It can’t be that easy…but Erik realises that he no longer cares.
 
This won’t end – he won’t let it.  He’ll fight tooth and nail for it to never end.  Let the whole world burn to ash, as long as Charlotte Xavier is standing beside him in the flames.
 
And perhaps that’s a rather dark thought, but Charlotte doesn’t seem to mind.  Her smile only grows wider as she steps in close, sliding her arms around his neck and rising on tiptoe to kiss him.  He bends his head automatically, slipping an arm around her waist and a hand into her hair to hold her steady.  Her mind suffuses his with trust/affection/contentment/comfort like a miniature sun held within his chest and for the first time, Erik allows himself to think he can have this for the rest of his life.
 
For the first time, he allows himself to think there will be a ‘rest of his life’.
 
--
 
They end up going back to bed, but neither of them sleep.  Erik props himself up against the headboard and stares out the window at the darkened grounds, the realisation he’s so-recently come to settling in his mind like a stone dropping quietly into a river, sending tiny ripples outwards in ever-expanding rings.
 
Charlotte knows Erik will up for the rest for the night – his mind is too restless to go to sleep again – but that’s no reason to neglect common courtesy.
 
“I’m going to read,” she announces, lifting the latest scientific journal from the small stack on the chair – it was only delivered yesterday, so she hasn’t managed to get through it yet.  “Will you mind if I leave the light on?”
 
Erik shakes his head, and she feels his mind stutter for a moment before settling on a decision.  As she approaches the bed with the journal, he settles himself more comfortably and motions invitingly.  Charlotte gets a flicker of what he wants – her leaning against him, all-but snuggling into him – and even though Erik’s not much for prolonged physical contact without some kind of purpose behind it, she doesn’t hesitate.
 
She climbs onto the bed and slides in front of him, wriggling around until her back is pressed against his chest, his legs on either side of her hips.  She leans her head back on his shoulder, not surprised in the slightest when his arms come around, gently encircling her.  She lets him cocoon her, and wonders how often Erik will be touching her now that he’s essentially given himself permission.
 
“So, what’s new in the realm of genetics?” Erik asks, his voice rough, and Charlotte recognises this for the diversion it is.  Much as he might like to pretend otherwise, terror from his nightmare still lingers in Erik’s mind, like the ringing echoes after a bell has been struck.  So Charlotte reads aloud from the journal, telling Erik about cell division and chromatic spindles.  She feels him relax by slow increments.  His mind against hers is warm and bright and vibrant with energy, for once clean of the anticipation and dread of losing her.  Charlotte allows herself in bask in it like a cat warming itself in the sun.
 
She can feel when a memory drifts lazily across Erik’s mind, like a cloud scudding across the sun, a picture of his mother and father lying on the sofa in their home (the one they lived in before the ghettos), his mother reading aloud to his father.  For a moment, Charlotte freezes, wondering if Erik will realise that for the first time in years, he’s thinking of the past without bitterness muddying his memory.
 
But Erik doesn’t seem to notice, only pressing a kiss to her temple when her silence drags on, gently urging her to resume.
 
--
 
Erik spends the day in a state of surreal expectation.  He keeps thinking that something should be different now that he’s looking at this, this…at everything…as a permanent arrangement rather than a temporary interlude.  But no, Raven’s still eyeing him suspiciously at odd moments, Hank’s still spending almost all of his time in the lab, constantly modifying and adjusting Sean’s flight apparatus and Alex’s...whatever that thing is.  Some kind of conductor? 
 
Charlotte’s still watching their little group eat, with the same half-puzzled, half-pleased expression she always wears during dinner, as though she doesn’t quite dare to believe that everyone is really enjoying themselves.
 
Erik considers the idea of this scene repeating itself indefinitely for months and years to come, and surprises himself by finding it appealing.
 
Charlotte smiles at him and he wonders if she caught that thought – but no, there’s no hint of secret knowledge in her eyes (no more than usual, at least).  She’s smiling at him because that’s just something she does, something she seems to enjoy doing.
 
She’s still smiling when they move into the study and assemble the chess pieces, Erik getting them both drinks as Charlotte cracks a textbook open beside her chair – she reads it whenever she feels his mind getting particularly loud, in an attempt to distract herself and avoid inadvertently picking up on his thoughts and strategies.
 
Charlotte wins this time, and given how distracted Erik is he’s not truly surprised.  And certainly not complaining when she rises with a triumphant grin on her face and straddles him in his chair, making herself at home in his personal space.  Delicate fingers slide up underneath his turtleneck as she kisses him, slowly grinding herself down on his lap.
 
Light and warmth explode in his mind, and he can feel Charlotte’s relief at the contact, that she’s no longer deliberately ignoring his thoughts.
 
He’s never really understood why Charlotte seems to like being in his mind so much – surely it can’t be a pleasant place? – but he’s grateful for it, and eagerly embraces the affection/fondness/trust/desire/Erik/love you that pours from her like water released from a dam.  It’s just the same as it’s always been between them, but it feels…better somehow.  Sweeter and more powerful, now that he’s turned his mind to prolonging this rather than anticipating its end.
 
He hardens slowly, almost languidly as pushes his hands underneath her shirt, cupping her breasts through the thin material of her bra.  He keeps his touch light and gentle, just so he can feel her arch against him as a spark of frustration/lust/come on, Erik! smacks straight into his mind.
 
Charlotte’s never been this forceful with her telepathy before.  Perhaps he should be worried, but Erik only finds it intriguing and, god help him, rather exciting – it’s as though the last barrier between them has been lowered.  This time he can actually feel their desires meshing into some kind of feedback-loop, and he’s not sure whether it’s his impulse or Charlotte’s want that makes him shove his hand into her pants – he only realises what he’s doing when his fingers meet warm, slick flesh and slide in deep.
 
He can feel the tight, hot burn of pleasure as if it’s his own, and then…
 
And then his perceptions must have blurred a little, because he has no recollection of Charlotte shedding her underwear or of opening his pants, only a blur of touch/yes/affection/more/desire/please/need/want/ErikCharlotteErikCharlotte before she’s lowering herself onto him with a gasp and wash of pure, animal pleasure that makes his vision go slightly fuzzy at the edges.
 
Some part of him wonders if he’s having an out of body experience.  He knows their bodies are moving on the opulent armchair, but the physical pleasure seems dim and distant, muted and dull compared to the loud, vibrant mind blazing against his.  It’s like holding a star cupped in his palms, like drifting in a warm volcanic lake, and all he wants to do is hold it tighter, plunge deeper, somehow get closer
 
And then, quite suddenly, he is.  Closer than a heartbeat, closer than even a thought, close enough that he isn’t feeling a dim glow of sensation from her, but that for a moment he is seeing through her eyes.  For a moment he can feel the weight of breasts on her chest, the feel of his own cock inside her body, the flicker of her lids as she blinks in shock.
 
It’s dizzying and disorienting, and the world spins away in sickening kaleidoscope of images and sounds, blurring past like he’s looking out the window of a speeding train.
 
He is lonely and afraid, curled in his too-large bed and still feeling his side throb painfully from where Father was shot.  And he knows it’s from Father even if he doesn’t know why, knew it the moment he saw the blood and heard the shrieks.  His throat is raw from his own screaming and he feels sick and miserable, hearing/feeling/seeing/smelling/tasting the buzz of minds all through the house like angry flies.  He pulls the blanket over his head, just wanting it to stop, but it doesn’t stop (it will never stop) and so he cries and cries and cries, weeping softly for the peace he’s lost and will never have again.
 
He is young and confused and sad, looking up at his mother as she speaks with the nanny, telling her to keep him out of sight for the night because this dinner party is important.  He looks at his mother and reaches out with his mind and there is only cold emptiness when his mother looks at him, only distant regret of at least if it had been a boy he wouldn’t want another one and he doesn’t understand why.  Mothers love their children – he knows, he’s felt it, but his mother doesn’t love him and he can be better, mama, can be good and quiet and the perfect little daughter and maybe, maybe if he’s better his mother will love him.
 
He is cowering in a corner, wondering what he’s done this time to earn the rage and hatred that spills off the man coming towards him, unbuckling his belt as he goes.  He reaches out, tries to turn him away – you don’t see me, you don’t see me – but his mind is bitter and dark and twisted and cruel.  Like drinking poison, like holding naked skin over a flame, like being thrown into pitch-dark oil and drowning, choking on it.  Like a living thing that can hold him under the surface and infect him until there’s nothing of him left.  He kicks and writhes and manages to twist free of the painful, sucking grasp and the belt that comes down on his back – hard enough to split skin and cloth – is a relief in comparison.
 
He is trapped in the girl’s mind, her own fear and pain and shame and helplessness closed fast around him like the jaws of a bear trap, Cain’s face wavering before his eyes, grinning and gloating.  He wants to run, to hide, to smash Cain’s smirk off his face but he can’t, there’s only the hideous phantom weight on top of him that holds Amelia pinned to the floor and him pinned to Amelia’s mind.  And she can’t stop thinking about it, can’t stop reliving it and forcing him to relive it as well, and he just wants to get through dinner without crying or screaming and attracting Kurt’s attention so he goes into that weeping, ravaged mind and erases those hurts, glosses over them as if they had never been.
 
He is the only one that remembers Amelia’s pain now, and it fractures into his mind in bright, sharp shards like a broken mirror when Cain laughs.  He laughs and shoves him backwards, and his knees hit the bed and fold and then Cain’s on top of him, still laughing and shoving one hand over his mouth, the other up his skirt and hooking into his underwear as though to rip it away.  And the panic and fear crash out of his mind into Cain’s, and Cain screams and spasms and his mind goes perfectly, blissfully blank.
 
He’s staring at a blue-skinned girl standing naked in his kitchen, his mind a thrum of like me, like me, she’s like me as he open his home to her.  She eats quickly, hungrily, and he looks at her and vows that she’ll never know want or hunger again, vows that he will protect Raven as could not protect himself.
 
He’s graduating high school with top marks and his mother isn’t even there to see it, but that’s okay because Raven is there to smile and support and he basks in her feeling of pride.  It’s so rare that someone is proud of him.  They say he should be a teacher, but he wants to go to university, to untangle the mysteries of DNA, of his own and Raven’s mutations, and though so many of his classmates are feeling relief that their schooling is finally over, he knows that for him, the worst is yet to come.
 
He can feel the resentment and dislike and contempt against his skin like the blaze of the sun in a desert, but he doesn’t let it deter him.  He uses his telepathy to turn away any minds considering ugly practical jokes or more vicious methods of persuasion, keeps his head down and works.  They think he doesn’t socialise with them because they’ve intimidated him, because he’s seen that just because they have to let him in doesn’t mean they have to like him, when in reality their thoughts have never once influenced him.  None of them seem to understand that he’s not here to make a point, not here to prove anything to them or himself; he’s here to understand what makes him the way he is, to unlock the secrets of his thoughts and Raven’s skin.  His eyes are fixed on a much broader, much loftier goal, and while their thoughts may touch him they can’t hurt him, can’t discourage him, not while he still has his dream.
 
His mother has just died and he hates that he’s relieved.  She may not have loved him but she was still his mother, yet all his grief is for what their relationship should have been, all for that she should have been to him, not what she was.  He closes up the house and he and Raven move away to England.  He doesn’t bother to sell it, doesn’t bother with a caretaker, doesn’t even want to think about it.  Let it rot, let it go to dust, he won’t be going back there ever again.
 
He is greeting Moira in a small, out-of-the way pub, he is freezing the CIA all throughout the building, he is feeling a mind through the night, through the ocean, calling him like a beacon, like a siren’s song, and he hurls himself towards it because he can’t help but answer it.  He is seeing Erik’s face for the first time, meeting and revealing Hank in the same breath, wobbling towards a strip club in high heels and grateful for Erik’s support.  He is giving money to a man who would have robbed him, he is traversing the corridors of a prison and trying to ignore the crude fantasies battering at him, he is standing in front of Emma Frost and wanting to vomit because he knows what made her the way she is.  He is weeping for Darwin’s death and Angel’s defection, he is opening the mansion in the hope that it might be for them the home it never was for him, he is trying to help the others train while terrified of pushing his own limits.
 
He is smiling at Erik over chess and thrilling in their discussions, in being treated like he’s an equal, a partner.  He is kissing Erik for the first time with tears still wet on his cheeks and his lips salty.  He is sliding into Erik’s arms in the bedroom where he once cowered in fear of himself and those all around him, love burning a bright hole in his chest.  He is speaking to Erik about his past in a way he never has before, not even to Raven, knowing that Erik will understand that he doesn’t want pity.  He’s letting his telepathy free during sex, experiencing things he never thought possible, never thought it was possible for someone else to want, for someone to trust him enough to risk this and he loves Erik, loves him with a depth he was beginning to doubt himself capable of, and he wants so badly for Erik to stay with him…
 
Then it is gone, and Erik is left sitting in a plush armchair, Charlotte in his lap, his heart shivering in his chest like a frightened rabbit.  It looks like he came at some point, but the sticky aftershocks are a secondary consideration to the fact that he has no idea what just happened.  Charlotte is shivering his arms, and Erik can feel her fear and uncertainty, so clear and present he automatically pulls her closer as they gather the scattered remnants of their thoughts.
 
Erik doesn’t know, but he suspects he just lived through Charlotte’s entire life in the space of…what?  Minutes?  Hours?  He has no idea.  Charlotte’s skin is damp with sweat but she feels cold in Erik’s arms, trembling as she clings blindly to him, like a half-drowned man clings to a spar.
 
He remembers what it felt like to experience Charlotte’s telepathy, to see into people’s souls the way she does.  Their hopes and dreams and fears and secret shames, the hatred and the love, the selfishness and the selflessness, merging together and yet starkly different, the mass of contradictions that exists inside each and every person.
 
And he thinks he understands.  Charlotte sees all that people are, all that they can ever be…and she has to believe in the good in people, or what’s the point?  She has to believe most will follow their better nature, or she’d probably kill herself.  Or everyone else.
 
It belatedly occurs to Erik that if he’s just seen Charlotte’s memories it’s very likely she’s seen his, and feels a sudden rush of alarm and horror at the thought.  She said she knew, yes, but she hadn’t seen it, hadn’t lived it…at least, he hopes she hadn’t.
 
Are you alright? whispers through his mind, each word heavy with concern/worry/fear/did I hurt him?/please don’t let me have hurt him!
 
“Fine,” Erik says automatically.
 
Charlotte draws back, her eyes huge and her thoughts frantic, babbling apologies both mentally and verbally, and he can feel her mind drawing away from him, knows she’s preparing to lock down her telepathy.  Something in him panics, flailing in darkness, and he feels a momentary sense of vertigo as though he’s standing on a tossing ship and the floor has just dropped away from his feet.
 
Then he realises there’s nothing to panic over – she’s still there.  Dimmer, yes, a soft glow in the back of his mind instead of the bright sear she usually is but still there, and that same something that had panicked relaxes just as swiftly.
 
Charlotte’s eyes are still wide and frightened, her chest heaving with each breath as she whispers, “Can you still…feel me?”
 
Erik frowns.  “Of course.”
 
“...I think we have a problem.”
 
--
 
Charlotte is completely lost.  She has no idea of the specifics of what she’s done, but she can tell she seems to have tied Erik’s mind to hers somehow.  For a moment, she was quite literally inhabiting his body, reeling through his life…
 
She can still feel him at the back of her mind, far stronger than the vague awareness of other people’s thoughts her telepathy usually grants her.  She’s not deliberately touching his mind yet it feels as though she is, thoughts and emotions transmitting as clearly as if she were focused on them.
 
She can feel Erik’s confusion, and she owes him an explanation, deserves for her to tell him what she’s inadvertently done.  Even if he may hate her for it.
 
“I think I’ve linked our minds,” she says aloud, not wanting to risk telepathic communication for fear of strengthening…whatever this is.
 
At that rather useless afterthought (closing barn doors after horses have bolted and all that), Charlotte throws up the strongest shields she can manage, trying to sever the contact even as she longs to maintain it, to feed this link until it is deep and permanent…
 
Erik twitches, and his discomfort bleeds across the bond before Charlotte’s shields are complete.  She stops immediately, realising that Erik is just as aware of and connected to her mind as she is to his.  She’s not sure what would happen to his non-telepathic mind if she blocks or severs the link, but she’s not willing to risk it.
 
Of course, there’s also the question of what this prolonged contact with do to him, but Charlotte clings to the idea that she can manage it, limit it somehow.  And it has to be better than just cutting herself off from Erik’s mind and hoping for the best.
 
Erik’s concern/worry/uncertainty/distress/what’s going on? burns like sharp spice on her tongue.  “I take it this isn’t something that’s happened before.”
 
Charlotte laughs hollowly.  “I don’t know what…I’m sorry, Erik, so sorry – you have to believe I would never have touched your mind if I thought for even a second-!”
 
“Calm down,” Erik said firmly, his arms around her tightening so suddenly Charlotte topples into his chest.
 
It struck her that this was a strange conversation to be having while she was sitting in Erik’s lap, both of them mostly naked.  Of course, they wouldn’t be having a conversation at all if Charlotte hadn’t picked the worst possible moment to lose control of her mutation…
 
“Calm down,” Erik repeats, and the realisation that he is probably feeling her distress comes close to throwing Charlotte into an outright panic.
 
But she forces herself to take deep, even breaths, to clear her mind the way she does when she’s overwhelmed by the thoughts and feelings of other people.  When she thinks she’s calmer (though calmer is a relative term when she can still feel Erik at the back of her mind and oh god what has she done now – no, calm, she’s calm…) Charlotte risks speaking again.
 
“I’m sorry.”  And maybe she’s already said that too many times, but it bears repeating.  She tied them together without Erik’s consent, without even knowing what she was doing, and if this proves to be somehow damaging Charlotte will never forgive herself.
 
Erik’s stroking her back as if she’s a wild animal to be gentled, and Charlotte might feel resentful of his calm, might think he was patronising her if she couldn’t feel his concern and worry.
 
“It’s alright,” he says.  “It hasn’t hurt us, and it doesn’t have to be permanent.”
 
Charlottes makes a small, choked sound, and even she can’t tell if it’s a laugh or a sob.
 
Erik’s hand freezes on her back, and his fingers tighten convulsively.  “It isn’t permanent, is it?”
 
“I'm not sure I can sever us without brain damage,” she says honestly.
 
Now fear begins to blossom in Erik, pulsing and bloating like a living thing.  “And what happens if one of us dies?”
 
It’s rather telling that’s the first question he asks.
 
“I don't know,” Charlotte whispers bleakly.
 
The flash of Erik’s anger is like a sudden jet of boiling water through an icy stream.  Charlotte mentally braces herself for his furious outburst, surprised when it doesn’t come.  In the next instant she realises it’s because Erik’s finding it hard to be angry at her when he can feel her apology and uncertainty and fear.
 
“It’s alright,” she says automatically, perversely feeling a little steadier now that Erik is just as worried as she is.  “We’ll work it out.  Together.”
 
She doesn’t mention that ‘together’ is likely their only option for the foreseeable future.

Chapter Text

"Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts."

-Arnold Bennett

--

Hank knows he’s not the best when it comes to interpersonal relationships.  But at the same time, he thinks even a child would know something’s wrong.

He’d risen early (he has a new idea for Alex’s suit he wants to try out), but as soon as he opened the door to his lab, he’d come face to face with Erik and Charlotte.  But they hadn’t been facing him; they’d been staring at each other – well, glaring, really – as though they were having some sort of silent argument.  Which, given Charlotte’s mutation, isn’t outside the realms of probability.

But Charlotte turns to him as the door closes, and her smile is tinged with exhaustion.  “Hank, I was wondering if I might ask a favour.”

At first, he thinks they’ve come about the serum – but no, their mutations aren’t visible, and Charlotte always looks strangely sad when she glances at the vials sitting on the bench.

“Sure,” Hank says automatically.  “Whatever I can do.”

He likes Charlotte, after all.  She’s given him the run of this lab, and it’s nice to have someone who actually understands him when he rambles about his theories.  And there’s a certain sense of fellow-feeling between two people who have always been on the outskirts of academia; Hank because he was always too young, and Charlotte because she happened to be born female.

Erik, he’s less sure about.  It’s not that he’s afraid of Erik, just that there’s something…unsettling about him.  A feeling of tightly-leashed violence, and while it’s certainly not directed at them, it’s enough to make Hank wonder how long Erik will stay with them before that tension inside him forces him to leave.

“Can you draw some of my blood?” Charlotte asks.

Erik crosses his arms, and the first response that springs to Hank’s mind is ‘not while he’s in the room’.

“I can,” he begins cautiously.  “What do you need it for?”

Charlotte brightens, as if she actually thought he’d refuse her something so trivial.  “You needn’t worry I’m giving you more work – it’s mainly to satisfy my own curiosity about how being a telepath might alter my body chemistry.”

Almost against his will (really, he’s got enough projects to work on in very limited time), Hank is intrigued.  “That sounds fascinating – I’ve often wondered about that myself, actually.  I mean, speaking from a purely physiological perspective, there should be no way for thoughts to transmit over distances, unless you’re somehow highly attuned to our brains’ electrical activity, and even then recent research suggests our thoughts are as much chemically based as electrical-”

Charlotte beams.  “Exactly!”

And with that, she rolls up her left sleeve, presenting him with her bare arm, veins standing out beneath pale skin like blue threads.

Erik still hasn’t said a word.  Hank collects the sterilised needle, vial and cotton swab as quickly as he can, eager to get it over with.

He’s really hoping Charlotte doesn’t flinch, if only because he suspects Erik will hurl him across the room if she does.

--

Charlotte feels guilty about lying to Hank, but this inadvertent bond she’s created with Erik feels like something deeply private, something secret and cherished.

But just because she cherishes it, doesn’t necessarily mean this is a good thing.

Erik hadn’t been comfortable with the idea of Hank drawing her blood – it smacked too much of Hank studying her, of lab rats and bright white tile, and she’d known better than to ask for him to donate some blood to the cause.  Charlotte can admit she has no real idea what she expects to untangle from her blood, but there’s the vague hope that if they draw some at regular intervals, they’ll be able to tell if the bond becomes detrimental to their health.

Exactly how they’ll be able to tell that…well, she’s still working on it.

He’s still working on the serum, Erik points out as they leave the lab, his thoughts tinged with bitter anger.

I know, she sends back.  But what do you expect me to do about it?  He’s a grown man, not a child – I can’t order him to stop.

And Charlotte can admit some part of her doesn’t actually want to stop him.  That some part of her wants her sister to have the best of both worlds – to be a mutant, but not experience the potential danger of being easily identifiable as such.

She’s not sure if that thought goes through to Erik or not, but she’s not actively shielding it, so he probably feels her indecision in some form. 

Charlotte had been immensely relieved to discover that, if she couldn’t sever the bond to Erik, she could at least muffle it.  She’d been worried about Erik having a direct conduit to her thoughts and feelings – his mind simply wasn’t built to cope with that for hours on end – and is glad she can dim the link until they only feel a vague sense of the other’s mind.  It’s almost like Erik is standing just behind her with his hand on her shoulder, a silent sense of warmth and presence.

Of course, that didn’t stop Charlotte from probing and testing, trying to see if there was a weak point in the bond through which it could be attacked (even if a part of her was screaming against the idea of removing it), until Erik told her that he could feel everything she was doing and could she stop it?

But that doesn’t mean she’s given up.  The bond might feel like everything she never knew she was waiting for, but that doesn’t mean it’s good – after all, before she actually met Kurt Marko she’d thought he might be a second father to her.

--

Erik knows Charlotte keeps expecting him to pull back, for him to demand their bond be broken no matter the consequences.  He’s not sure if he should be insulted at the idea she thinks him so spineless, or furious at what this expectation of abandonment implies.

Erik can admit there are some aspects of the bond he is most definitely not happy about.  The fact that if he has nightmares in the future, Charlotte will most likely share them, for one.  He doesn’t like the idea that his memories are in her head, memories of blood and pain and horror just waiting for her to trip over…but he doesn’t actually resent it.

When Erik makes a promise, he keeps it, no matter the cost.  He’s vowed to stay with Charlotte, and in many ways, the bond makes it easier.  There’s a tiny, selfish part of him that rejoices in the fact that the bond ensures she’ll find it difficult to leave him, and he hates himself for that.  Then he’ll wonder what happens if he needs to leave (he can’t clearly picture why, but the fear is there, lurking at the corners of his thoughts), and feels a prickle of fear at what that might do to their minds.

Of course, his biggest worry is what will happen if one of them dies.  If Shaw kills him, will Charlotte die too?

She’s tried to sever the link twice, but while she can muffle it – mute the bond until it’s just a dim awareness of her in the back of his mind – any attempt to break it makes both of them nauseous, gives them splitting headaches, and Erik worries Charlotte was right when she said severing it could result in brain damage.

He’s always been willing to die to kill Shaw, but now…he’s not so sure.  If only because he has no idea what his death would do to Charlotte.

Erik knows his acceptance is probably made easier by the way Charlotte needs the bond – she might pretend otherwise, but it’s difficult for her to protest when he can feel her essentially using his mind as a shield when she gets overwhelmed.  He’s not sure exactly how it works, but whenever Charlotte picks up on something upsetting (which is more frequent than he’d ever imagined), she seems to be using his mind to tune it out, rather than simply slamming up her shields.

At least she’s getting something out of this as well.

--

Charlotte has learned that distance is apparently no obstacle to the bond.  She feels Erik just as clearly when he’s in the room with her as she does when she’s three hours drive away and the others’ thoughts have long since faded into the white noise of mental chatter that permeates Charlotte’s world.  When the link is open it’s like having a constant conduit between their minds, thoughts and emotions flowing freely, though Charlotte can’t help noticing that fear and dread – in short, the emotions of peril and distress – seem to transmit far more clearly.  Or maybe it’s just that those kinds of feelings grab your attention much more quickly than positive ones.

Still, trying to look on the bright side, it’s much easier to protect herself from others’ thoughts now.  Where before she had to either shield entirely – the mental equivalent of shutting your eyes when you didn’t want to see something – or risk opening herself to other minds to blot out the unpleasant one, now she only has to open up the bond and let Erik’s thoughts drown out whatever is causing her discomfort.

Charlotte can admit a large part of her terror at the bond had come from the belief that Erik would find it horrifically invasive and would hate her for essentially trapping him in the telepathic link.  But while Erik had harboured a tiny prickle of resentment at their link, she knows that his wariness of it is based on his fear of what happens if one of them dies – more specifically, what happens to her if he should die.  In fact, sometimes she gets the impression Erik actually likes the bond, likes this tangible proof that he’s not alone.

Of course, that doesn’t stop Charlotte from worrying about it – she asked Hank to take blood for the second time today.

I wonder if it was an adaptation, Charlotte muses, staring at the chessboard.

Erik knows she’s talking about the bond and simply shrugs, moving his queen to take her bishop.

I mean, in some ways it makes sense, at least from an evolutionary perspective, she continues, peppering her thoughts with succinct summaries of various papers she’s read on natural selection and relevant portions of her thesis.  I can’t count how many times my telepathy has overcome me and induced a fit of vomiting or a fainting spell, things that could easily be fatal several thousand years ago if they happened in the wrong place – like on a hunt, or during a battle with a neighbouring tribe.

So how is this bond an adaptation for that? Erik asks.

I think it’s intended to ensure I have a permanent knight in shining armour.  Charlotte lets her wry amusement sparkle through that thought.  Something goes wrong, I’m in distress, then you’re meant to feel that distress and do something about it.

Objectively, Charlotte can see how useful it would be for long-past telepaths to have a protector on hand whenever the situation called for it.  But she can’t help feeling like she’s…trapped Erik, somehow.

“You do realise that this bond means I can now feel when you get guilty and self-sacrificing,” Erik mutters.

You can? Charlotte frowns, wondering if she should mute the bond a little.

“And if you’re thinking about what I think you are,” Erik continues, his thoughts a stream of half-formed ideas of consent and traps and manipulation.  “Then I might remind you that the bond was just as much of a surprise to you as it was to me.  If we’re going to talk about being trapped in anything-“ the emphasis Erik’s gives the word ‘trapped’ is enough to tell Charlotte what he thinks of that, even without the disdain washing through the bond “-then you’re just as trapped as me.  Probably even more so.”

Charlotte’s a little lost on that last statement, and sends Erik a sense of puzzlement and gentle query.  Erik’s answer isn’t in words, but in a sense of the cloying finality and permanence that has dogged her ever since she realised what she’d done.  The sense that there can never be anyone else for them, not after this, in a way that makes ‘til death do us part’ take on a truly ominous meaning.  And she can tell from Erik’s thoughts that he believes she’s the one with the raw deal, that she’s the one who should be complaining about being tied to him for the rest of her life.

That’s absolute rubbish, she thinks, infusing those words with as much conviction as she can manage.  I love you and want to stay with you – the idea of being with you for life is actually rather pleasant…

She trails off at Erik’s pointed look and the swell of satisfaction that comes down the link.  And you imagine I feel differently?

Oh, yes, very clever, she grumps, not quite willing to credit that Erik played such an obvious trick on her so easily.  Why are you so calm about this?

Erik shrugs again, deliberately thinking as loudly as he can, The idea that your telepathy might hurt me is your complex, not mine.

But Charlotte knows it’s deeper than that – she can feel it.  Erik has decided to stay with her, and he’s not a man for half-measures.  The bond makes it easier, so he likes it; it’s really as simple as that.

Personally, Charlotte thinks he should be a little more concerned with his mental integrity, but she’s finding it hard to complain.

--

It’s eight days after Charlotte accidentally initiated the telepathic bond, and by this point she’s noticed some interesting side-effects.

Previously, Erik had been wary of physical contact – at least while he slept.  Charlotte often drifted off with their hands entwined, but he’d wake up if she cuddled up to him in the middle of the night.  But this is now the fifth day straight Charlotte’s woken up to find Erik wrapped around her like an affectionate octopus.  They touch each other constantly now, often without either of them being really aware of it.  Just yesterday Charlotte had been speaking with Erik and Moira in the library about possible leads on Shaw, and she’d only realised her hand was on Erik’s knee when Moira gave her a particularly knowing look.

She has a feeling that if there was ever any hope of keeping this quiet and discreet, it’s gone now.  Charlotte’s not entirely certain why she wanted to keep it quiet, only that what she has with Erik seems…fragile.  Ridiculous, perhaps, but she can’t quite squash the urge to tuck it out of sight and keep it all to themselves, where no one can interfere.

For now though, she lies still, enjoying the feeling of Erik’s breath on the back of her neck.  One of his hands is resting on her breast, well away from the dark bruise on her abdomen – a relic of sparring with Raven, and the source of the dull ache in her lower body.

Except it suddenly occurs to her that Raven’s blow had been closer to her sternum, and this ache is settled in her pelvis.  She lifts the blankets and chances a glance down – yes, there’s the bruise, just beneath Erik’s arm, but the pain is lower, and deeper somehow, less like a bruise and more like the burn of a pulled muscle.

Curious (because this feels vaguely like the last period she’d had, back when she was twenty-three and before her telepathic range grew so vast), Charlotte dips her fingers between her legs, not surprised to find lingering dampness, but when she draws them back they’re smeared with blood.

It’s probably quite telling that her first thought is that Raven’s blow did internal damage.  But she dismisses that thought, telling herself not be silly, and carefully extricates herself from Erik’s arms to go clean up in the bathroom.

She’ll probably have to wash the sheets, and she’s quite sure there’s some kind of cloth for this thing, but she can’t remember where she put hers (the last time she needed it was over seven years ago), so maybe she can borrow one of Raven’s?

Charlotte lets the inner babble of her thoughts and the sluggish processes of Erik’s sleeping mind calm her turmoil.  She knows that for most women, menstruation is entirely normal and they’d only become concerned if it failed to happen.  But Charlotte’s not ‘most women’, and all the periods she ever had were before her telepathy fully matured.

So what’s going on?

--

She made Hank take another blood sample (and then had to sit down for a little while, and Hank refused to take anything from her for at least two weeks), and now she’s testing her oestrogen levels.  Re-testing them, really, but they keep giving her the same results.

They keeping coming up…normal.

She’s looked at the blood samples taken earlier, of course.  The one taken the morning after she accidentally forged the bond shows what the tests five years ago did – minimal oestrogen levels, and some of the hormones that have been tentatively linked to stress present in near-debilitating quantities.  The second sample showed a drop in those hormones, and a subsequent increase in oestrogen.

And now, while this sample still shows high levels of stress hormones, the oestrogen is gaining ground.  At least enough to give her a period.

In some ways, Charlotte supposes this makes biological sense.  Telepathy is incredibly stressful in more ways than one, but the main factor being that she just cannot shut it off; not without shielding herself entirely, which is even more stressful.  It’s like being stuck in the middle of a riot, with people shouting and jostling her all the time.  She adapted – of course she did – but she always thought her telepathy sapped her body’s resources to the point that it simply had none to funnel into reproduction.

Except now, she has a buffer.  Now, when she feels other minds pressing in too tightly, instead of just bracing herself and taking it and trying to do something relaxing afterwards, she can lean on Erik’s mind like crawling beneath a security blanket.  And so her stress levels are dropping, apparently enough for her body to divert some of its energy.

It’s all rather surreal.  Charlotte had accepted her sterility – it had been a fact of life, and now to know that fact might possibly be overturned…it’s strange.  She’s not entirely sure how she feels about even the possibility of having children (there’s yearning there, for love and family where she had none, but there’s also terror – she had horrific examples set for her and would probably be a terrible mother), and anyway, this is certainly not the time to be pondering it.

Concern suddenly washes through the bond as Erik feels her distress, and Charlotte automatically soothes him, sending back calm/content/I’m fine.

In some ways, this development makes the telepathic bond even more logical, in terms of evolution, that is.  Setting aside the stress telepathy places on her body, Charlotte had always doubted if she’d even be capable of carrying a child to term.  Physical contact always increased her telepathy, and a developing mind that was actually inside her body?  She’d be focusing on it almost constantly – she wouldn’t be able to help herself – and that much mental power concentrated on a developing mind could harm it.  Maybe even enough to hamper development and induce a miscarriage.

Which, of course, explained why the tendency for psychic bonds had been passed on, and also why telepaths were such a small fraction of the population.  Powerful female telepaths would be unlikely to reproduce – and maybe even male telepaths would have difficulty producing healthy sperm – unless they had another mind linked to theirs.

Charlotte shakes her head, just once, and pushes herself back from the laboratory table.

They have bigger things to worry about, after all.

--

Alex was a bit suspicious – still is, really – but he can admit that the Professor does know what she’s talking about.  Most of the time.

This target practice shit still makes him think she’s crazy, though.  Sometimes he just wants to scream ‘do you remember what I did to Darwin?  Do you have any idea what I could do to you, without even meaning it?’  There was that one time he’d singed her hair, and while she just laughed it off Alex was half-expecting Erik to stab him with forks in retribution.

It’s not that Alex doesn’t like Erik – on the contrary, he thinks Erik’s pretty cool, really.  But that doesn’t mean he’s not a fucking scary guy; hell, just look at the way he reacted when Alex insulted the Professor in the prison.  Which was probably kind of a dick move, but he’d just been pulled out of solitary confinement (where he belonged) and told to go with what he thought were government mooks – he thinks he can be cut a little slack, under the circumstances.

So yes, the Professor knows what she’s talking about.  And she’s also kind of hot, in a sexy-teacher kind of way, but Alex does his best not to think about that.  Partially because she’s a telepath, and he really doesn’t want her to pick that up, and also because she and Erik are so in love it’s actually kind of sickening.

Alex has to admit, the Professor and Hank are onto something with this chest plate.  It’s making the blasts more focused instead of the widespread destruction he’s used to, though he prefers practicing with the Professor – Hank gives him the creeps.

He does his best not to let on (can’t let them see any weakness), but he stills feels it.  Hank is strong enough to pick up a car’s engine in one hand and quick enough to run laps around the Professor.  When Alex went into the lab to get his chest plate measured, he’d caught a glimpse of the equations written up on Hank’s blackboard, and he hadn’t even been able to understand the symbols – the only thing that was comprehensible to him was the square root sign.  And if he’s that strong, and that smart, it’s only matter of time before he loses patience or someone presses an invisible button and he snaps.

Alex has been trying to nudge out the guy’s limits, find out what kind of things get to him more than anything else, but it hasn’t been going well.  He’s figured out that Hank’s feet are his weak point, but whenever Alex jabs him about them Hank doesn’t look angry so much as crestfallen and hurt, and it leaves Alex feeling like he’s just kicked a puppy.

Though sometimes Alex can’t see what the problem is.  Sure, Hank’s got some really freaky feet, but he’s also got the Professor’s totally smoking sister panting after him – surely that’s some kind of karmic compensation or something right there?

--

Erik can feel Charlotte’s worry/fear/concern thrumming through the bond like a plucked guitar string as she raises the gun.  He tries to send confidence and assurance back, but he’s not sure it’s getting through the adrenaline and the lurking rage he needs to summon to control his powers.

She’s squinting, as though blurring his features will somehow make it easier to pull the trigger, and Erik grins, already reaching out for the feel of the bullet, remembering the shape of Shaw’s smirk…

But then the gun drops from his forehead.  He actually feels disappointed.

I’m not going to shoot you, Erik, she sends to him, and by this point Erik can recognise the exact flavour of determination that means Charlotte absolutely will not yield an inch.

Although, I suppose we could always-

She’s muffling the bond, so Erik doesn’t know exactly what she’s planning, only that she’s planning something, but then the gun starts to rise again, swivelling to point at Charlotte’s temple.

Erik has the gun in his hand before he’s even registered using his powers to yank it from her grip.  He knows his mind is probably screaming with fear and anger, but he never wants to see a gun pointing at Charlotte’s head.

Alright, alright, we don’t have to.  Charlotte’s thoughts are deliberately saturated in calm.  In fact…I think I have a better idea.

She takes Erik’s hand and tugs him towards the edge of what he’s come to think of as the lawn-balcony, and while he’s aware there’s probably a better word for it that’s what it looks like to him, so that’s what he calls it.

You see the satellite? she asks, nodding towards the enormous dish that doesn’t look like it could be built with anything other than serious government money but is apparently part of her property too.

Through the bond, he gets a glimpse of what she’s planning.  I don’t think that’s going to work.

Why not?

With something that big, I need the situation, the anger.  And summoning an image of Shaw’s smile is a paltry prod compared to actually seeing him.

Anger alone isn’t enough.

Erik’s starting to feel the prickle of indignation.  It’s got the job done all this time.

It’s nearly got you killed all this time, Charlotte sends, somehow managing a huff without actually opening her mouth.

Erik stifles the childish urge to retort ‘has not’, but of course, Charlotte feels it anyway.

When we first met you were drowning in the ocean – I think I’m allowed to be sceptical of your instincts for self-preservation.

There are some things more important than my survival.  The fact that Erik’s beginning to look beyond his confrontation with Shaw (shaky and blurry, perhaps, but he’s starting to glimpse something there) doesn’t make this any less true – she’ll never convince him otherwise.

He can feel Charlotte very deliberately decide not to argue that point (though she has no room to throw stones on the subject of martyrdom), and instead thinks, I believe true focus lies somewhere between rage and serenity.

‘Serenity’ isn’t exactly something Erik associates with his powers.  The moments when they came to him, when they were strongest, are always those when he’s the grip of utter rage.

Perhaps, but do you remember what happened with the car?

Remembering half of a car flying at her head is not really making him feel serene.

You were calm, Charlotte points out.  When you stopped it, there wasn’t the slightest trace of rage in you.

That might well be true – it wasn’t as though Erik was paying much attention to his emotional state.  He just remembers the cold-wind chill of fear and the knowledge that he had to do something; the car couldn’t be allowed to hit Charlotte, and he was the only person capable of stopping it, so it had to be stopped.  There were no other options.

Try, Charlotte’s mind whispers to him.

Erik should probably be disturbed by how automatic it is for him to obey, to reach out for the huge metal structure.  He concentrates, willing steel beams and fixtures to bend, just a little, just enough…

But he can’t.  It’s too big, too heavy – just like Shaw’s submarine.  His power has limits, after all; he may hate it admit it, but they’re there.

Sweat has broken out on his face by the time he gives up.  He’s half-expecting Charlotte to be disappointed, but on the contrary – what he’s feeling from her is more like anticipation.

May I?  She wiggles her fingers near her temple, asking for permission to delve into his mind.  Or at least, deeper into his mind – the bond ensures her being in his mind is pretty much a constant.

Having Charlotte deliberately reach into his mind is always slightly surreal, like falling into warm, golden water and watching shadows flicker on the surface above you.  He can feel her sifting through memories, which always makes him a little nervous because Charlotte’s seen enough horrors in her day without taking on his own, but these aren’t his usual memories.  They’re saturated in warmth and comfort and love…

Then there’s his mother’s face, and candles, and a feeling of peace and security he’d long ago forgotten.

--

Watching the satellite turn, Charlotte can feel Erik’s bewilderment and elation, his confusion as everything he knew about his powers is suddenly…well, perhaps not turned on its head, precisely, but certainly skewed.

She can’t deny that she’s feeling pleased as well – it feels wonderful to show Erik how much good there is in him, that’s he so much more than what he believes himself to be.

He grins wide, so wide it looks like it must hurt, and his eyes are shining with more than tears when he turns to her.  A complex tangle of love/surprise/wonder/pride/mourning rolls through the bond like a warm, salt-tinged wave and Charlotte steps closer, feeling Erik’s mind hum enthusiastically at her proximity.

A sudden flash of nervousness/expectation/anxiety from the minds in the mansion makes her twitch, and then Moira is leaning out of the sitting room window.

“Hey, the President’s about to make his address,” she calls.

She and Erik trade cautious glances, Erik’s mind now seething with suspicion and cynicism, and then they turn for the house.

It’s actually more like calm determination, Erik comments as they enter through the kitchen.

The bond ensures Charlotte knows exactly what he’s talking about.  Between rage and serenity is catchier.

Catchier?

Well, which are you going to remember?  ‘The place between rage and serenity’ or ‘be calmly determined about it’?

The corner of Erik’s mouth quirks ever so slightly.  I suppose the former is more poetic.

Charlotte laughs quietly, but then they’re in the sitting room and the time for lightness passes.

Chapter Text

“In the end we are all separate: our stories, no matter how similar, come to a fork and diverge.”

-Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

--

The whole house has been tense ever since the announcement, and while some part of Erik is glad that they’re taking this as seriously as it deserves, he can feel the headache it’s giving Charlotte.  She retreated to her room almost immediately after dinner, and for almost an hour now the only thing he’s picked up from her is the low-level calm that seems to denote her attempts to quiet her mind and block out the din of others’.

Erik’s been put in the very foreign position of being the one to reassure everyone else that they’ll be fine, that they’re prepared (which he doubts, but telling them otherwise is only going to lower morale).  He’s never been someone anyone turned to for comfort, and he’s not quite sure he likes it.

He’s doing one last circuit of the grounds, checking all entry points are safely closed off, when he feels a soft ripple of disquiet from Charlotte, flavoured with worry and emotional distress.

He’s halfway to her room before she reassures him that she’s not hurt, that there’s nothing to worry about.

He hopes his feeling of irritation comes across the bond.  He refuses to feel embarrassed about his reaction – this is probably Shaw’s last chance to abduct her, and some part of Erik is convinced he’s going to take it – but his irritation is derailed when Charlotte tells him exactly why she’s upset.

Hank has finished the serum, and Raven has refused to take it.  I’m not reading her mind, but I gather he said some…unkind things.

Erik’s anger returns at that, quiet and seething.  He doesn’t think about it, just shoves open the door and strides into the room.

Charlotte is sitting on the edge of her bed, Raven beside her in a bathrobe, her hair blonde and her skin pink, but her eyes are yellow and glimmering with tears.  One hand is entwined with her adopted sister’s, and Raven’s holding on so tightly Charlotte’s skin is turning white.

Raven looks up in surprise as Erik enters, and for a moment her eyes flash blue, as though she’s trying to hide behind them.  Then the blue fractures like stained glass and slides back into gold.  Instead, Raven hunches her shoulders and tries to turn away from him.

Charlotte doesn’t even glance at him – all her focus is on Raven, on finishing whatever conversation they were having before Erik burst in.  “If you came here looking for justification, Raven, I can’t really give you that.  It’s your decision, it has to be, and I shouldn’t really get a say in it one way or the other.  But you’re my sister, you’ll always be my sister, and that means that if you want to look like-” Charlotte made a vague gesture with the hand Raven wasn’t holding, trying encompass the blonde hair and fair skin, “-then I’ll support you.  And if you want to be…well, blue, then I’ll support you in that as well.”

Raven sniffs a little wetly, and looks like she’s trying to muster up a glare.  “You want me to look human, though.”

Charlotte winces slightly.  “Well, I can’t deny that I worry about exposure, about people hurting you…but you’re strong, Raven.  And in the end, it’s your choice.”

“You know what I think,” Erik adds, remembering their brief conversation (though perhaps conversation is being a bit generous) when he found her lifting weights.

He doesn’t really want to look too closely at why he hates Raven’s disguise (reminds him of yellow stars inadequately concealed under jackets and scarves), he only knows that he resents it, that her need to hide seems to perfectly encapsulate everything wrong with the human race.

“In fact,” he continues, getting into his stride.  “You might consider not wearing clothes at all.  You don’t seem to feel the elements in the same way we do, and since you can morph the appearance of clothes anyway…”

Alarm and a sense of please, stop comes to him through the bond, but Raven is looking intrigued.  “You really think so?”

“Have you ever seen a tiger, and thought you ought to cover it up?”  And all those philosophical discussions with Charlotte must have been good for something, because they’ve certainly helped Erik articulate his point of view.

“Let’s not take it too far,” Charlotte grumbles.

Raven looks crestfallen.  “Don’t you like the idea of me as…me?”

“It’s your choice, and I promise I’ll support you whatever you choose, but…” Charlotte grimaces.  “But please think very hard before you decide to go around naked in a house with three easily-distractible men in their early to mid-twenties.  We’d never get a straight sentence out of Sean again.”

You’re not including me? Erik asks.

I’m assuming you have more self-control – at least enough not to drop or break something if my sister walks by naked.  Should I revise that assessment?

“Oh, right,” Raven mutters, almost to herself.

“Although if you felt like making an entrance…” Charlotte offers with a cheeky smile.

Even Erik can hear the acceptance beneath those words, and he can feel Charlotte’s pride in her sister along their connection.  She and Raven both laugh, and Raven abruptly shifts into her natural form, sans bathrobe.

“Good god, Raven, you're my sister – warn me when you're about to do that!” Charlotte says in mock-horror, covering her eyes.

Raven giggles – the soft, furtive giggle of a child taunting their sibling – and the bathrobe reappears.  The blue skin, however, stays.  Charlotte runs her eyes over Raven, like she’s taking in a new dress or haircut, then smiles. 

“You look beautiful.”

Charlotte’s voice is soft, but her eyes are proud.  Raven makes a sound that suggests she’s trying to sniff back tears, and Erik suddenly wishes he never opened the door – this is feeling a bit too private.

It’s fine, Charlotte’s voice is in his head before he even turns towards the door.  She looks up to you – it helps, having you here.

Raven suddenly flings her arms around Charlotte and literally throws herself against her sister.  Charlotte rocks back at the impact – Raven’s taller than her, even if she is deliberately hunching her back so she can tuck her head beneath Charlotte’s chin.  Charlotte runs a comforting hand over Raven’s shoulders, resting her fingers at the nape of her neck, soft pale flesh a stark contrast to blue scales as she presses a gentle kiss to her sister’s crimson hair.

Eventually, Raven sighs and draws back, but she’s looking…not happier, but more settled than Erik has ever seen her.

“Now, do you want me to convince Hank the lab is infested with rats?” Charlotte asks.  “Or cockroaches – I can do cockroaches.  I can also make a very convincing illusion of an earthquake-”

“Like that one time that boy tried to bully me at school and you made him feel itchy for the rest of the day?” Raven sniggers.  “I think I can fight my own battles at this point, thanks.”

The reminder of battle sends a shadow flitting through the bond, but Charlotte’s expression doesn’t flicker in the slightest.  It’s moments like these that show Erik, over and over again, just how rigidly Charlotte controls herself, how much she works to prevent her true feelings from being detected – a habit forged over a lifetime of inadvertently learning all the ugly, shameful secrets of people you’re meant to respect.

Raven is still blue and smiling when she leaves, but Charlotte’s grin disappears as soon her as sister is out the door, and she lets her body flop backwards onto the bed with a soft groan.

Are you alright?  Sometimes, Erik wonders if he’ll ever talk aloud around Charlotte again.  He rather likes that he doesn’t have to – it appeases the dark, shadowy part of his mind that worries about overheard communication and leaked information.

I think it’s just hit me that in less than twelve hours we’ll be leading them all into battle.  Charlotte words are laden with worry/fear/regret/trepidation and a strange, bitter sense of inadequacy, like she thinks she’s not good enough to do this.

You’re the only person who could do this, he tells her, and he means it. 

Erik knows he’s a good taskmaster, good at pushing others into testing their limits, but he’s not good at the other side of it.  The gentle encouragement and verbal pats on the back Charlotte seems to do so effortlessly simply aren’t part of his vocabulary, they never have been.  And for all Moira’s grasp of tactics and strategy, she’s human and government-employed, all of which combine to give them a certain wariness around her, a sense of a gap they can’t bridge.  Except for Charlotte.  But then, ‘except for Charlotte’ seems to be Erik’s motto, nowadays.

I can feel them, Charlotte goes on, the words veiled with a kind of haziness that Erik is learning denotes the thoughts Charlotte only half-means him to hear.  All through the mansion, and they’re all so worried, so uncertain, and I don’t what I can say to them, if there’s anything to say…

You managed to deal with Raven’s crisis well enough, Erik points out.

Yes, but that’s something I can relate to.  I know what it’s like to be told you’re inadequate, that you’re somehow deficient simply because of the way you were born.

The words are underpinned with snippets of memories, of Charlotte standing in front of the mirror and hating the breasts and hour-glass hips that mark her as female, of Charlotte considering projecting the illusion of a male body into everyone’s minds and living as ‘Charles Francis Xavier’ because it would be so much easier.

I need to shut my brain off for a while, she admits ruefully.  Or at least think about something else.  Can we play chess?

Coming from anyone else, that might have sounded like some kind of euphemism, but Erik doesn’t need the bond to know that Charlotte doesn’t feel like having sex right now.  Chess has become a relaxing, almost meditative pastime for them both.

At least, when their conversation doesn’t take them into dangerous territory.

--

“Peace was never an option,” Erik says, and tries to ensure Charlotte can feel his determination through the bond.  Either Shaw will die tomorrow, or Erik will – there is no middle ground.

Charlotte tilts her head, and a sense of puzzlement trickles into Erik’s mind.  Erik, when did I ever say I didn’t want you to kill Shaw?

Erik pauses, trying to dredge up a memory of Charlotte doing exactly that, and comes up short.  All she’s ever said is that killing Shaw won’t bring him peace.

I’m not happy about it, she admits.  The thought is accompanied by a complex tangle of thoughts and emotions, most of which give him the impression that Charlotte’s main wish is that none of this happened to him in the first place, and Erik…doesn’t really know how to process that.

But really, what else can we do? Charlotte continues.  I don’t know any prison that can hold him, so the only alternative would be to trap him inside his own mind, which is essentially death anyhow, and death is possibly kinder.

There’s still a part of Erik that bristles warily when Charlotte does this – mentions something like trapping someone in their minds for the rest of their life like it wouldn’t take as much effort as cooking an omelette – and he’s reminded all over again that for all his power, Charlotte is really the more dangerous of the two of them.  It’s not suspicion, exactly, more like those self-preservation instincts that have always been strangely silent in regards to Charlotte are making a feeble attempt to be heard, screaming that he’s in love with someone who could destroy him without breaking a sweat, and shouldn’t he be more worried about this?

The bond actually helps with that, though.  Those brief glimpses of what it’s like to be a telepath he caught when the bond formed (not just voices as he’d half-imagined but images and tastes and smells and touches and even emotions and not for the first time he wonders how Charlotte escaped adolescence with her sanity intact), showed him exactly how strict Charlotte is with herself, how much she shies away from true manipulation without good reason.  Not because it’s difficult, but because it’s too easy.

A shiver of trepidation and unease through the bond pulls his attention back to Charlotte.

I just don’t want you to have any illusions, she whispers.  Killing Shaw won’t make it go away.

It would be easy to scoff, to ask her what she knows about it, if Erik didn’t know what her life had been like, hadn’t seen her secrets in excruciating detail.  Charlotte knows what it’s like to watch someone who abused her die.

But she’s also admitted that his death reassured her, and to be perfectly honest, there’s nothing she could say or do to turn Erik back now.  He’s spent most of his life plotting to kill Shaw and to stop now would be…unthinkable.

--

They don’t make love that night, and Charlotte wonders if Erik gets any sleep at all.  He’s curled around her when she falls asleep, muscles tight and tense, breathing a little too evenly to be purely natural, and he’s in the exact same position when she wakes up, three and a half hours later.  She’s the one who’s moved – turning into his embrace, her nose pressed into the hollow of his collarbones, her hair catching in his early-morning stubble.

She knows why he’s like this, thinks she would know even without the bond.  He’s afraid.

Not for himself, of course.  Erik doesn’t fear his own death…but he fears hers.  And Raven’s, and Sean’s, and Hank’s, and Alex’s and even Moira’s.  He’s worried about all of them because they don’t know Shaw the way he does, don’t know what will happen if he gets his hands on them (and she can feel Erik very deliberately not thinking of the interest Shaw’s already expressed in Charlotte herself).

She takes a deep, steadying breath, and wishes she could give him some kind of reassurance, in words or through the bond.  But any reassurance she can give now would be lies, and Charlotte’s made a promise to herself that she will never lie to Erik.

Of course, the bond may render it moot – he could probably feel if she was trying to deceive him – but it’s the principle of the thing.

“Well, I suppose we should get up,” Charlotte murmurs, speaking aloud to ease the early morning tickle from her throat.

She cranes her head back to look into Erik’s face, tight and worried with deep furrows around the mouth.

Charlotte tries to smile.  “Time to face the world.”

She wishes she was speaking metaphorically.

--

Sean has rarely seen anything more awesome than the plane that Hank calls the Blackbird.

And Christ, what happened to Hank?  He said something about a serum, and Sean vaguely recalls him doing something with Raven that would make them look human or something (he was never really clear on the details), but it seems to have backfired spectacularly.

Erik was kind of a dick though, with that comment about Hank ‘never looking better’.  Even Alex didn’t go there.

At least the Professor got Hank to let Erik go before he killed the dude.  But she’s good at getting people to listen to her.  She got Sean onto the satellite dish, didn’t she?  And this was before he knew he could fly.

But the Professor’s just the sort of person people automatically trust, Sean’s noticed.  It doesn’t have so much to do with her blithe smile or air of complete honesty, but more in the way her face seems to tell you that she knows exactly what’s going on and exactly what you’re really capable of, and that she’ll die before she lets you get hurt.

It was Erik that gave him the final push though – quite literally.  Sean gets why he did that, he really does – it’s like when his uncle took his hand off his little brother’s bicycle.  In many ways Erik does remind him of that uncle, who went to the Korean War and came back…different.  Not evil or anything, just quiet and sad and angry all at once, the way Erik can be when Charlotte’s not cheering him up.

Also, if the two of them think they’re being discreet about their relationship, they really need to get their heads checked.  Charlotte always smiles at Erik whenever he walks into the room, small and soft, like she barely realises she’s doing it.  And Erik, who’s usually all about personal space, seems to consider it some kind of mission to invade hers as often as possible.

Sometimes, Sean thinks he should be worried about that, but he’s not.  It seems like something out of the fairy tales his mother used to tell him – the rich scientist and the lone Nazi-hunter – but it works.  Charlotte often seems rather stressed (Sean supposes helping them with their powers and dealing with the government people is pretty much a full-time job), but she relaxes with Erik, as though she can somehow give her brain a break when he’s nearby.  Erik can be a bit of a hard-ass at times (but Sean gets the feeling it’s only because he simply doesn’t know how to deal with them – sometimes he looks at them smiling and laughing at one of Alex’s jokes like he just doesn’t understand how they’re doing that), but Charlotte smooths those sharp edges a bit, like she’s reminding him that not everything is some kind of life-or-death battle.

Of course, just because he’s (semi) forgiven Erik for pushing him off the satellite dish doesn’t mean he’s going to give the guy a chance to push him out of a moving plane.  Sean’s jumping when he’s good and ready this time, and not a second before.

--

The submarine falls from Erik’s grip as the summoned winds send them into a tailspin, and Charlotte knows she can only pull Erik onto the plane because he’s using his powers.  She can feel himself pulling his own body towards the metal ceiling against the force of the conjured typhoon – she’s merely acting as the fulcrum.

She loses her grip on his hand – his fingers slipping out of her glove – and for one terrifying moment she hangs weightless as the plane spins in the air.  Some small, hysterical part of her brain thinks that she’ll leave a very nasty smear across the shiny metal deck.

Then the plane hits the beach, and Charlotte slams into the floor, the impact driving every scrap of air from her lungs.  There is one split-second where everything is crystal-clear, time slowed by adrenaline, and the blind panic of everyone in the plane rings through her head like a gong.  Erik’s fear is louder through the bond, echoing like metal screeching against stone, but it’s being drowned by determination.

Then he’s on top of her, hands flat to the floor and locking them in place, his body keeping her pinned as the plane rolls along the ground like an empty beer bottle.  The drag of gravity, the phantom pressure along every inch of her skin demands release, and she screams because there’s nothing else she can do, wondering how long she can hold out before she blacks out…

But then it stops.  The plane grinds to a halt upside-down, she and Erik attached to the floor-turned-ceiling, Erik’s heart beating so hard she half-expects it to break his ribs.

“Ta,” she says, rather inadequately.  And aloud, because her mind is still scrambling to shut out the aftershocks of fear from everyone else in the plane. 

Miraculously, no one’s seriously injured – a few bruises and scrapes, and Charlotte actually trembles in relief for a moment before she can collect herself.

Erik lowers them slowly and carefully, grunting low in his throat when his back hits the ground, and she squeezes his wrist briefly before scrambling to her feet.

She knows there’s no time to waste.  The submarine must be telepathically shielded somehow – she can feel the minds there, but they’re…slippery.  Hard to fix on and grasp, sliding from her mental probes like oil.  It’s the reason the whirlwind-maker caught her by surprise, but she had just enough time to catch a glimpse of Shaw’s plan from the mutant – Shaw is going to absorb the energy from the submarine’s reactor, and turn himself into a bomb.

Charlotte would really prefer not to be caught in a nuclear blast.

She’s tempted to try to disable the three on the beach, but holds herself back – she trusts the others to take care of it, and she has a feeling she’ll need to reserve all her strength for Shaw.  Apart from the helmet, Emma’s memories have shown her Shaw’s mutation makes him resistant to telepathic control.

“I’m coming with you,” she says to Erik – aloud, for the benefit of those without a telepathic bond.

Erik’s mind practically screams a denial.  He’s accepted that she’ll have to get into Shaw’s head at some point, but there’s a very instinctive, visceral horror at the thought of Shaw laying eyes on her for even a moment.

I’m sure he’s in the void, she tells Erik, already picking her way to the place where the Blackbird was torn in half.  If you enter without me, it’s very likely our bond will be completely cut off.  And while I don’t precisely know how that will affect us, I don’t think it will be good.

She deliberately calls up memories of her own attempts to break it – the headaches and nausea and dizziness.  Side-effects they can ill-afford when tangling with a man who can make himself into a nuclear bomb.

I go in first, Erik thinks, and Charlotte knows this is non-negotiable.  She sends a feeling of assent through the bond, and is hard on Erik’s heels as he runs across the sand.

Alex and Hank are dealing with Angel and the teleporter, but the whirlwind-maker – Janos – is still standing.  Charlotte is considering the best way to take him out – order him to sleep?  Tell him to turn his powers on himself? – when Erik takes care of it for her, flattening Janos with a long sheet of metal ripped from the side of the submarine.

We need to make for the middle of the vessel, she tells him as she skirts around the unconscious man.  That’s where the blind spot is.

They enter through the hole Erik has created in the side, and find themselves in some sort of control room.  Several of the panels are sparking ominously, and Charlotte flicks through the remnants of Emma’s memories to find the location of the controls for the nuclear reactor.  It’s simple enough to pull the lever into the ‘off’ position, but Charlotte knows they’re not out of danger yet – Shaw must have already absorbed an enormous amount of power, and it’s not going to simply dissipate now that the reactor has been turned off.

She wants to impress upon Erik the need to be cautious, to not take risks, but Erik’s mind is a snarl of anger/fear/dread/anticipation underscored with a burning need for vengeance, thick and bitter as cigar smoke, and Charlotte knows anything she says now won’t make the slightest impression.  It makes her nervous – not of Erik, never of Erik, but for him.  Frightened at the idea that Erik might not survive this, that he might not even want to.

Erik opens the door at the end of the control room, holding out an arm to keep Charlotte behind him as he scans the room beyond.

Charlotte is expecting to find Shaw in there – they’ve reached the edges of the void, after all – but the room is empty.

He’s not here!  Erik’s thoughts are tinged with bitter frustration and deep, throbbing anger.  He’s left the sub!

He strides to the centre of the room, glancing up to check for some kind of door hidden in the ceiling, before whirling around and running his eyes along the walls.

Charlotte follows him into the room, feeling confused and a little lost.  This is the void – Shaw should be here, he has to be here.  And even if he isn’t, how did he leave without them seeing him?  The doorway they entered through is the room’s only exit.

Then the wall at the opposite end of the room parts, as smoothly and silently as a satin curtain.

Erik sees her eyes widen, feels her surprise through the bond, and turns to face the man standing in a room of mirrors.

“Erik,” Shaw greets, as genially as if they are old acquaintances meeting for cocktails.  “What a pleasant surprise.”

There are no thoughts accompanying his words, and even though Charlotte had expected that, it feels…wrong.  Like a gap in her vision – she knows it should be there and maybe if she just focuses hard enough, she’ll see it.  But there’s nothing; no thoughts, no emotions, not even the faintest whisper of them.  It makes Shaw seem more like a mannequin than a person – she almost wants to prod him just to see if he’s real.

For a moment, Erik is frozen, staring at Shaw like a child watching a snake.  Then Shaw breaks their gaze to look Charlotte up and down and Erik steps in front of her, his fear souring the bond like bile.

“So you’re the telepath,” Shaw muses.  It’s hard to get a good look at him with Erik between them, but Charlotte sees him smile.  “I’m so pleased to finally meet you – I’ve heard so much about you.”

Charlotte stares, caught in the sickening fascination of seeing someone move and speak without feeling anything from their mind.  It’s like seeing a corpse get up and dance.

The metal doors suddenly bend inwards, flying towards Shaw at Erik’s command.  He swats them out of the air like he’s batting away flies, sending them careening into the mirrors behind him which shatter into thousands of glittering shards.

Shaw actually smiles at Erik, looking almost proud, then his eyes land on Charlotte again.  “Just let me put Erik down, and I’ll be right with you.”

Charlotte, run! Erik screams across the bond as his powers lift one of the sofas by its metal frame.

But he never gets the chance to throw it.  Shaw suddenly moves, so quickly that Charlotte wonders if he can somehow translate his absorbed energy to speed, and deals Erik a blow to the side that sends him spinning into the wall.  His pain bursts across their link, and Charlotte automatically takes a step towards him, for a moment forgetting about Shaw’s presence because it’s so easy to forget when half her senses are telling her he doesn’t exist…

She remembers him when a large hand wraps around her throat and drives her back against the wall.  Charlotte coughs reflexively, her hands coming up to tug at Shaw’s arm, instinctively trying to ease the pressure on her neck.

It’s like trying to move a steel girder.  Without Erik’s powers.

But Charlotte doesn’t actually feel any fear – there are no thoughts behind Shaw’s movements, so he doesn’t seem quite real.  It’s why she’s never been fond of movies; without that mental hum, people just don’t seem real to her – it’s like watching a puppet show.  There’s nothing there, so in spite of the hand at her throat it feels surreal, almost dream-like.

No, not even dream-like.  Because even in her dreams, she can feel people’s thoughts, and this is just…blankness.  Erik’s fury and fear are the only things that seem real, the only thing alerting her to her peril.

She was always much more worried about the toll this confrontation would take on Erik rather than herself, but now Charlotte wonders if perhaps she will be the one who doesn’t survive this.

--

Chapter Text

“When you push someone too far, they will push back and they push hard.”

-Rachel Vincent

--

The attack comes too fast for Erik to block or evade, and the sudden pain that lances across his right side is enough to make him lose his grip on the sofa.  He reaches for the metal in the submarine walls, trying to push himself away and counteract the force of Shaw’s blow, to cushion the impact so he won’t be knocked unconscious immediately.

Erik hits the wall and drops to the floor, but his ribs aren’t broken and his skull is intact.  He rolls to his feet, glancing wildly about for Shaw…

And he finds him on the opposite side of the room, pinning Charlotte to the wall.  Erik can only just see her face over Shaw’s shoulder, eyes wide and dazed as though she’s been stunned, Shaw’s fingers wrapped around her throat, his thumb pressing beneath her chin to tilt her face up towards him.

Erik has never seen one of his nightmares come to life before.  And he is painfully, horrifically aware of that fact that Shaw wouldn’t even have to squeeze to kill her.

Charlotte is pushing at Shaw’s arm, but he doesn’t even seem to notice.  He’s staring at her the way he used to stare at Erik, intrigued and delighted, and the only thought in Erik’s head is to get Shaw away from her.

He reaches out to the metal girders that hold the submarine together and shoves them at Shaw.  They’re carefully aimed away from Charlotte, which is more difficult than he thought it would be – that kind of fine control is beginning to get lost amid the familiar tidal wave of anger and fear.

Shaw doesn’t bother batting them away – they hit him and veer off course, smashing through walls and floor and driving upwards into the ceiling.  His expression doesn’t even flicker; there’s no amusement or condescension or even triumph as he puts one hand on a steel support beam and pushes it towards Erik.

Erik tries to throw it backwards, but apparently his own mutant power is no match for the force Shaw is exerting.  The bastard isn’t even breaking a sweat as he slowly extends his arm, until Erik feels cold metal touch his fingers.

Every scrap of Erik’s power is focused on pushing that beam back towards Shaw, the pulse at his temples pounding so hard he wonders if he’s about to have a stroke.  But it doesn’t work.  It doesn’t work, and the beam keeps coming.

Shaw takes a step towards him, and for a moment Erik hopes he’ll let Charlotte go in favour of pressing his point (and the beam) home.  But of course, he should have known better – Shaw never relinquishes any advantage.  He simply drags Charlotte along with him, his grip forcing her onto her tiptoes to keep from strangling herself.  He can see her hand tighten on Shaw’s arm, but it seems less a ploy to make him release her and more a desperate attempt to keep her balance.

Humiliatingly, it’s only seconds before Erik is pinned against the wall with the beam he pulled from the ceiling himself.

The metal is shuddering with the force Erik is exerting on it, but it’s not moving.  He tries reaching for more anger, or for that place ‘between rage and serenity’, but all he’s feeling is sick despair and a sense of inevitability.  Shaw had always been stronger than him – why did he think this time could be different?

It’s alright, Erik, Charlotte sends into his mind.  The link has been dormant since he laid eyes on Shaw, but now he feels the slightest whisper of wariness/hope/fear/dreadIf he wanted to kill us, he would have done it already.

Which is not reassuring in the slightest.  If Shaw doesn’t want to kill them, it only means he has a use for them, which is far more horrifying.

“You’ve come a long way from bending gates,” Shaw says to Erik, his tone genial and conversational.

Charlotte squirms in Shaw’s grip, and Erik recognises the diversionary tactic for what it is – she is trying to draw Shaw’s attention to herself, rather than on him.

He wants to shout at her, but instead settles for sending a blistering rebuke through the bond.  There is no acknowledgement, not even an answering thought as Shaw looks at her, one casual glance taking in her flushed face, the strands of hair that have come loose from her ponytail.

He laughs, and drops his hand from the beam, only there’s no chance for Erik to take advantage of that because he leans his shoulder on it instead.  It’s just his shoulder, but it might as well be the side of a mountain for the effect Erik’s straining has.

“I must say, your taste has certainly improved,” Shaw says in a low, almost intimate tone, his face far too close to Erik’s.  “From an underfed human brat to this magnificent specimen?  My compliments.”

As if the insinuation isn’t terrifying enough, Shaw uses his free hand to brush the hair away from Charlotte’s cheeks, to better see her face.  But Charlotte doesn’t flinch or cower or even look away – she matches Shaw stare for stare, eyes wide and defiant and impossibly blue…

Erik jerks when Shaw raises his hand again, half-convinced he’s about to hit her, but he only grips her chin and turns her head to the side.  Not painfully or even particularly forcefully, simply as though Charlotte is a doll he wants to inspect.

Charlotte doesn’t struggle.  Erik’s grateful for it.

Thankfully, Shaw seems to lose interest in her soon enough and turns to Erik again, speaking as if there had never been any break in his attention.

“And you’re just starting to scratch the surface.  Think how much further we could go…together.”

Shaw’s tone is soft, probably meant to be enticing, but all Erik can feel is a pervasive sense of disgust and the shrill, ringing terror Shaw’s presence always induces.  Shaw leans in as if to whisper in Erik’s ear (a nauseating concept) but he suddenly freezes, his head swinging around to stare at Charlotte again.

“Extraordinary,” Shaw breathes.  “Emma could never penetrate the helmet at all, but with you…does close contact enhance your abilities?  I can feel something tickling at the back of my mind.”

Charlotte blinks, and the surprise/fear/astonishment that comes to Erik through the bond tells him she hadn’t even been aware she was chipping at Shaw’s mental defences.  But then there’s a swift wave of something that feels like pure determination, and Erik knows she’s bearing down on Shaw’s mind, trying to turn him to her will.

The sudden crack of flesh striking flesh echoes like a gunshot and Charlotte’s head spins to the side, a thin line of blood whipping through the air.  Erik just manages to stop himself crying out, feeling the shock of her pain jangle through him before she drags the sensation back.  He knows that if Shaw weren’t holding her by the neck, the force of the blow would have knocked her to the ground.

“Don’t try that again,” Shaw says, perfectly calm.

Charlotte stares at him, and Erik wonders if she even notices the fat drop of blood welling on her bottom lip.

Erik!  The bond thrums with fear/desperation/anxiety like a violin string plucked too hard.  The helmet!

Erik might be able to yank the helmet off Shaw’s head, but the metal feels…strange.  Almost slippery, as though his powers don’t quite have a good grip on it.  He won’t risk reaching for it, only to have it just wobble on Shaw’s head and tip him off to their plans.

So instead, Erik manipulates the metal wiring in the destroyed ceiling above them, directing a coil to snake down, moving slowly and carefully so Shaw won’t see sudden movement in his peripheral vision and turn around.

“Fascinating, isn't it?” Shaw muses, still gazing at Charlotte.  “How so much mental power can be contained in a body so small and...”  His hand lifts to her face, thumb catching the bead of blood that was beginning to ooze down her chin.  “...fragile?”

Shaw is staring at Charlotte’s mouth and the smear of blood with the kind of interest he once looked at Erik with.  His finger drags across her lip, painting bright crimson across her skin.

It’s frighteningly close to Erik’s nightmare, and the metal ship groans with his terror.

--

Charlotte can tell Erik’s hold on the metal wires is slipping.  She’s not surprised – the intensity of the anger and fear pouring through the bond is making fine control of his powers almost impossible.  She’s trying to calm him down, but her determined waves of peace/focus/calm aren’t making any kind of impression on the rabid terror that has Erik in its grip.  And it’s difficult to concentrate properly when she’s almost frightened as he is.

The helmet needs to come off Shaw’s head in the next thirty seconds.  The wires aren’t close enough to grab for it, and she suspects that kind of control is going to be beyond Erik very soon.

Shaw’s thumb rubs across her lips, making the gash sting anew from the salts on his skin.  Charlotte flinches in an abortive jerk backwards, not from the pain but from the sudden howl of Erik’s fear.  She tamps down the bond, like drawing a curtain across a window when the sun is too bright, trying to muffle Erik’s panic enough to clear her mind.

But not before a glass-clear image flies through the bond – her panting and bloody, strapped to a metal table, Shaw tracing her lips with hunger in his eyes.  This is Erik’s nightmare made flesh and Charlotte can see his face twist, see his lips form the word ‘please’.

She can’t tell if he’s begging Shaw or god and wonders if even Erik knows.  All she can hear is the thought drumming in his mind like a hurricane.

Please don't hurt her.

Shaw’s fingers begin to tighten on her neck, enough to make her gasp and her lungs begin to burn.  Slowly, inexorably, her trachea closes beneath the pressure he’s exerting, smooth and relentless, and Charlotte has a brief moment to think this is very similar to what Emma felt when Erik strangled her with that loop of metal.

She can’t read Shaw’s mind, but she knows he doesn’t want to kill her.  She’s never been particularly skilled at reading body language – she’s never had to be – but Erik can tell that Shaw is curious about her, and he never destroys anything he’s curious about.  At least, not physically.

Charlotte suspects – she doesn’t know, but she suspects – that his purpose in strangling her is to provoke Erik.  She might think he’s doing it to subdue her, except he’s certainly proven he doesn’t need her unconscious to do that; with that helmet on, and his mutation, she’s helpless against him.  No, he’s trying to push Erik into putting on a display for him.  He’s seen Erik’s power, of course, but as a child – he wants to test the limits of Erik's fully-matured ability, and sees tormenting her as the best way to do it.

It might actually work.  Erik’s fine control is deserting him, but the scale of his powers is growing.  The actual submarine is beginning to buckle around them but she doubts Erik’s even aware of it, not when all his focus is on the beam Shaw is pressing into his chest.

She can’t get enough air, and another flex from Shaw closes her throat entirely, and she has to act now before panic (her own and Erik’s) completely overwhelms her.

She sends one thought through the bond, bright and loud enough to burn through Erik’s terror.

CATCH!

Then Charlotte spits in Shaw’s face.

She was hoping to catch him in the eye, but she’s never tried to spit accurately since she was thirteen and Raven invented that disgusting contest, so the saliva actually hits the cheek of the helmet.  But Shaw’s head still snaps back instinctively, his weight shifting off the beam crushing Erik’s ribs as the dome of the helmet smacks into the wires dangling so invitingly behind it.

They curve around it like fingers and yank it off his head, and as soon as Charlotte feels even a spark of Shaw’s mind she latches onto it like a terrier with a rat.  She locks down any kind of voluntary movement, leaving him a prisoner in his own body, frozen in the act of reaching backwards for the helmet.

She’s not sure how long she can hold him – his mutation seems to give him some kind of inherent resistance to telepathy, it’s like trying to hold a writhing eel with soap-slick hands – but for now, she has Shaw under control.

Charlotte prods at Shaw’s mind, forcing his fingers to release her throat, and she staggers back, dropping to her knees and gasping for air.  The metal beam that had been pinning Erik falls to the floor, and the helmet follows it.

Then Erik is beside her, cupping her chin and brushing her cheeks, tucking her hair out of her face, the bond steaming with worry/relief/protectiveness/Charlotte/are you alright? 

I’m fine, she sends back, but she knows Erik doesn’t believe her.  She’s still breathing like a bellows, though that comes more from her effort to restrain Shaw than the strangling.

Erik’s fingers are stroking her certain-to-be-bruised neck with the lightest touch she’s ever felt, like the brush of an eyelash or an insect’s wing.  Charlotte wants very badly to just close her eyes and lean into Erik’s arms and Erik’s mind, but she can’t let herself relax yet.

There’s not even enough time for her catch her breath. 

Erik, I can’t hold him for long, she tells him.

Erik raises his eyes to Shaw and his face contorts, rage and hatred and remembered terror lashing down the bond like shrapnel.

He reaches into his pocket, feels the shape of the coin Charlotte knows is there, and stands slowly.  Charlotte stays on her knees – she doesn’t think any attempts to stand right now will end well.  Shaw is still raging, like a rhinoceros on a short chain, and she can almost feel the links slipping through her fingers.

Erik!

“Can you shield yourself from him?” he asks, voice flat as he pulls the coin from his pocket, the metal hovering above his hand, deliberately positioned in Shaw’s line of sight.

No, she can’t shield herself, but she’s not going to tell Erik that.  He would try to find some way of subduing Shaw that didn’t harm her, which will take time they don’t have to spare.  Instead she battens down the bond, reduces it to a cell door with a single viewport, just enough to keep them from developing any inconvenient headaches or nausea.

“I’ll be fine,” she says.  It’s not even a lie.

Erik nods.

And he moves the coin.

--

Erik can admit he’d had some idea of pushing the coin through Shaw’s gut and chest, shredding his insides slowly and painfully.  But with Charlotte in his mind, Erik doesn’t want to chance that she might feel something of what he’s doing, so he’ll send it through Shaw’s brain instead – there are no pain nerves inside the brain itself, but there are lots of blood vessels.  With a little spin on the coin as soon as it’s past the skull, Erik can reduce it to pulp

Erik, hurry! Charlotte urges.

There are no accompanying emotions, and the bond actually seems…muffled, almost non-existent.  But Charlotte probably needs to shield herself entirely to avoid feeling Shaw’s pain.

Erik can feel himself grinning as he sends the coin slowly forward, the kind of grin that twists his lips and makes his cheeks hurt, the one he’s always showed people who are about to die.  The coin meets the flesh of Shaw’s forehead and Erik feels a brief shudder of resistance, the coin wanting to rebound like it’s been thrown against concrete.  Erik suspects that if he moves too fast, if tries to drive the coin straight through like a bullet it will be thrown back – whatever power that inhabits Shaw’s skin rejecting the intrusion – so he keeps the push slow and steady, feeling the metal to part skin and eventually bone.

Shaw’s expression doesn’t flicker, which is a pity (some part of Erik wanted to see fear on his face, for a change), but Erik hopes he’s feeling every moment of it.  Charlotte gasps and chokes, as though in fear, and Erik steps between her and Shaw, so she won’t have to see what’s happening.  It’s probably a ridiculous impulse – she’s undoubtedly seen and experienced worse, if she picks up car crashes and rapes on a regular basis – but he doesn’t bother to curb it.

Once the coin disappears from his sight, Erik spins it, rotating like the blades of a blender.  Blood begins to cascade from the slit in Shaw’s forehead, running down his nose and mouth – staining his lips the way he’d stained Charlotte’s.  It’s only when the blood has soaked half his shirtfront – the way it had soaked Erik’s mother’s frayed dress – that Erik deems it safe to send the coin out through the back of his skull.

Shaw slumps to the floor, and in that moment of blinding relief and triumph, from the corner of his eye Erik sees Charlotte do the same.

Triumph turns to dust and smoke.  He whirls around, sure that he’s missed something, been too focused on Shaw to see that her trachea was crushed, that he’d broken ribs when he slammed her against the wall, that the backhand had fractured her skull…

I’m fine.  Even her mental voice sounds exhausted – fuzzy and soft and slightly inarticulate, as if it’s taking her several seconds to think of the right words.  I’m fine, just…drained.

Careful of any possibly injuries, Erik slips an arm under her shoulders and props her into an upright position.

I’m fine.  And there’s a definite tinge of irritation/worry/concern to that one.  Erik, I’m not the one who was thrown around the submarine.

The bond is still dim and muffled, and Erik wonders how long that’s going to last.

The others are still fighting, Charlotte points out.  Help me up.

It feels strange to think of the world outside the submarine, that a struggle might still be going on now that Shaw is dead.

Now that Shaw is dead.  Erik runs the words through his head, over and over, staring at the dead body, and still can’t make himself believe them.  He half-expects Shaw to stand up and start swinging, and surreptitiously wraps a few wires around the man’s limbs so Erik will have advance warning if he moves.

He feels numb, almost dazed, as though he’s concussed even though he never hit his head.  Shaw is dead, and while he’s certainly satisfied, he can’t deny that he thought he would be…happier, somehow.

He helps Charlotte to her feet and steadies her against him; her legs are as wobbly as a newborn fawn’s.  He spots Shaw’s helmet lying on the floor, and raises one of the steel beams above it, ready to crush it into a useless hunk…

Don’t! Charlotte exclaims, a thin dart of denial/refusal/pain/no following it into Erik’s head.

“Why not?” he snaps, more harshly than he means to.  But standing near Shaw’s body is making his skin crawl.

We need to understand it.

Charlotte totters over to it – brushing off Erik’s hovering hands – and picks the helmet up, tucking it under one arm.

It was the shield of an unrepentant sadist and psychopath, the only thing that can neutralise her power and make her vulnerable…and Charlotte wants to study it?

Of course she does.  Erik doesn’t know why he’s surprised.

The bond is still muted, only the faintest whisper hinting at its existence, so Erik has no idea what Charlotte’s thinking when she reaches out one hand and closes Shaw’s blind, staring eyes.  She closes her own eyes for a brief moment, her fingers coming up at rub at her forehead as though she has a headache.

But she’s not massaging her temples, or scrubbing her palm across her face.  Two fingers are gently running up and down in the centre of her forehead, like she’s soothing an injury that’s only an inch long…

Exactly the size of the coin Erik dug into Shaw’s skull.  Charlotte’s fingers are even tracing the exact location.

Horror blurs Erik’s vision.  “Did you feel that?”

Charlotte snatches her hand from her head, and Erik remembers their conversation.

Can you shield yourself from him?

I’ll be fine.

Too late, he realises that wasn’t a ‘yes’. 

“Charlotte…”

“He’s…not the…first person…I’ve felt die,” Charlotte says slowly, as though it takes effort to remember to speak the words aloud.  “And I think…we have bigger…problems…right now.”

Of course, Shaw’s people are still out there – the teleporter, the wind-maker, and…her.

Charlotte is beginning to totter in the direction of the hole Erik tore in the side of the submarine, and it occurs to Erik that maybe a show of force will be much more efficient than throwing themselves into another battle.  He reaches out for the wires wrapped around Shaw’s limbs, using the metal to levitate the body.  Charlotte grimaces but doesn’t object (though the bond is still utterly silent and Erik is doing his best not let on how unsettling he finds that).

Erik is trying to think of something grand and attention-getting to shout upon their exit, but Charlotte is still looking wobbly and faintly sick, and it’s hard to think past the…Erik doesn’t think he can call it relief, but it’s certainly the absence of the crawling terror that itched at the back of his mind whenever he thought of Shaw, alive and out there.

In the end, he goes with the basics.  “Stop!”

And it seems that’s enough of an attention-getter all on its own, though that might be the spectacle of Shaw’s hanging body.  As soon as he’s assured that Shaw’s cronies are staring, Erik drops it, and the corpse hits the sand with a wet crunch.

All three of them stare down at Shaw’s body as if they can’t really believe he’s dead.  Erik can sympathise.

He tries to keep his face blank and intimidating while thinking very clearly for Charlotte to hurry up and do whatever she does that makes people peaceful and conciliatory (Erik is secure in his ability to terrify people, but if they’re trying to get this to end without any further bloodshed then that’s Charlotte’s area, not his), when he feels a stirring from the huge metal ships, so far away from them.

Those enormous guns are turning towards this beach – towards them.

Slowly, Charlotte’s head turns to stare out at the ocean, and Erik’s not sure if it’s a side-effect of shielding the bond or whatever she went through when Shaw died, but suddenly her mental voice slams across his consciousness with all the subtlety of a train wreck.  It’s as if nothing exists but her words, and for a moment he loses all ability to think about anything else – as though she’s lost the telepathic equivalent of volume control.

I THINK WE HAVE A PROBLEM.

--

Charlotte has never been able to find the words to describe what it feels like to die.  Possibly because words have never been created for it – no one dies twice, after all.

Except for her.  She died when her father did, and when her mother did, and when that girl hanged herself, and when that boy was beaten to death…

Really, Shaw’s only one more name in a long, long list.  But she keeps the bond silent and tightly shielded while she tries to get a handle on Shaw’s memories – a deep connection like the one she was forced to sustain to hold him inevitably results in some spill over.

It’s why she closed his eyes.  In those moments, Charlotte had seen what made him…the way he was.  She doesn’t want Erik to see that – he deserves to hate cleanly, without the muddying taint of doubt or pity.

Charlotte doesn’t have that luxury, but she’s used to that.

She’s keeping the helmet to study of course, because you have to know your enemy to defeat them, and because, well…

She projects awfully when she’s sick.  Every single barrier comes down, which means her thoughts bleed into everyone else’s even as theirs bleed into hers.  Charlotte has only been seriously ill once in her life, but that was more than enough for both her and Raven, who was stuck with nursing her by sheer necessity – anyone else would have run as soon as they started feeling Charlotte’s projected nausea and fever.

Charlotte can’t help but think that if something like that were to ever happen again, it might be handy to have something that kept her thoughts to herself.

The display of Shaw’s body does seem to get everyone to stop fighting, if only in sheer shock.  Charlotte’s just beginning to feel like she’s clawed back enough control to risk lowering her shields; in general, that is – the bond is staying tightly locked up until she’s sure no memory of Shaw’s is going to slither down the connection to Erik.

Slowly, cautiously, her mind unfurls, glancing and skipping along the tangled thoughts around her, relief and horror and confusion, and she risks a mental peek at the men on the ships…

And suddenly realises that Shaw’s people are the least of their problems.

Charlotte blames her shock and still-shaky bearings when she blasts into the others’ minds like that.  Usually it’s easy to just whisper into their thoughts, to insert what she wants them to know without it becoming overwhelming and subsuming all other thought processes, but now she has to consciously rein herself in.

We have a problem, she repeats, trying to ignore the fear and wariness suddenly skittering through the minds around her – not directed at Shaw or the ships but at her, at the sheer force of her mind.

Erik is the only one who doesn’t seem bothered by it – he’s reserving his wariness for whatever has made her so worried.

She’s not surprised he knows what it is.

“The guns,” he says bluntly, staring out over the water.  “I can feel them turning.  Targeting us.”

Apparently both Russian and American militaries have decided that ‘the mutants’ are too much of a threat to be countenanced.  Even if ‘the mutants’ have just prevented nuclear war.

Strangely, Charlotte doesn’t think of the unfairness, of the betrayal, but instead of her first laboratory class in university, all those years ago.  Her lab partner had been nervous, unsure of what to do, but when she offered her assistance he’d slapped her gloved hands away and said scathingly that he ‘didn’t need some girl helping him’.

Charlotte had been so shocked that she’d frozen for a full minute, able to feel the resentment ringing from his mind like a gong struck too hard.  Even though she’d only been offering help, his reaction had been to punish her for it.  It isn’t the last time she experienced that – it isn’t even the first, but perhaps it made such an impression because some part of her had hoped that things might be different in university, that she might be accepted on the merits of her mind rather than her sex.

Charlotte thinks, for one brief moment, that if this had been the first time it happened, she probably would have been utterly useless.  The shock of it would have left her reeling for far too long.

But it isn’t the first time.  It’s not even the fiftieth, and her shock and stunned hurt have long since faded to nothing more than a quick spark of flint on steel; there and gone. 

Now, she’s just furious.  She can feel them preparing to fire and the only thought in her mind in as clear as glass and as sharp as shattered obsidian.

No you don’t.  Not this time.

Chapter Text

“First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win.”

-Mahatma Ghandi

--

So many people seem to assume that the difficulty with her telepathy is in reaching out, that it’s a strain to contact someone a mile or so away.  Maybe it’s like that for Emma, but for Charlotte, the difficulty is not in reaching out, but in limiting it.  When she froze the CIA, the trick came in freezing only those she wanted to and not every single person within a five mile radius.

So now, the problem is not contacting the men on those ships, but in ensuring she doesn’t blanket anyone on the beach or in Cuba within her telepathic grasp.

Charlotte closes her eyes and reaches out with a single, unshakeable command.  STOP.

They do.  She can feel it, and it’s difficult to keep her touch light, to just shut down their conscious actions rather than their heartbeats or their breathing or any other of the dozen autonomous functions the human body must perform to keep living.

“They’ve stopped.”  Erik’s voice sounds strangely muffled to Charlotte’s ears.

I’VE STOPPED THEM.  She really wishes she could spare the energy right now to control her mental touch a little better, but she doesn’t dare.

No one moves, but she can feel the desperate need to take several large steps away from her, the pulses of fear/anger/wariness/how is she doing that? that rise around her like heat shimmers from a baking road.  The teleporter (Azazel) isn’t the only one considering an escape, but he’s the only one she has to worry about.

STAY WHERE YOU ARE.

All ideas of teleporting himself away vanish in the rush of fear/panic/she knows, she knows/mustn’t anger her.  Charlotte knows he’s remembering what he’s seen Emma do, and is all-but trembling at the evidence that her own power so outstrips Emma’s.  Perhaps she should reassure him – and the wind-maker (Janos), and Angel – that she’s not going to hurt them…but then again, they hurt her friends, so perhaps they can stew for a little while.

She tries to narrow the focus of her telepathy to the people on the boats tasked with communication while still keeping the others frozen, which is…more difficult than she would have expected, like plucking an individual snowflake out of a snowstorm.  But Charlotte knows how to do this, she has grown up doing this, and she will do it…

She does it.  In the seething maelstrom out there, she finds the two minds she wants, the Russian and American with direct lines to their respective governments, in charge of relaying any changed orders the moment the political climate should alter in any way.  Not exactly standard military protocol, but these are unusual and rather fraught circumstances.

Of course, once she’s found them, it’s relatively easy.  Relatively easy to make them contact who she wants them to, to make speak the words she wants them to speak.  Relatively, because it’s still difficult not to make everyone else on the ship attempt to do the same.

I am not the person you believe you’re speaking to.  I am one of the mutants you just tried to kill.  And I am suggesting you reconsider your strategy.

I understand that fear can lead to impulsive and, upon reflection, foolish decisions.  I hope that was all that this was.  Because if this was the first push towards war, whether open or subvert…then understand, we will push back.  And we are more powerful than you’ve ever suspected.  Think long and hard before you make an enemy of us,

But if you want to talk, I’ll be very happy to listen.  And one last warning – I will know if you’re sincere.

Short, simple and almost painfully direct.  She thinks Erik would be pleased.

Charlotte takes a deep breath – or at least, she feels her body take a deep breath, but the sensation is rather muted – and gives the men in the ships one last order.

GO HOME.

She burrows it in deep, ensures the compulsion won’t lift until they’re back in the harbour, and turns her attention to the last, most difficult task.

She stretches her mind towards America, towards the CIA and the government, towards everyone who has ever interacted with them or checked their criminal backgrounds or even glanced at their files.  It’s a long way, and the wider her telepathy spreads the louder the minds between her and them become, until it’s like she’s trying to track a sibilant whisper through a rock concert.  That was Cerebro’s real gift – the ability to narrow her focus, to hear only the mutants without picking up on all the humans between her and them.

Well, there’s no Cerebro now – Charlotte is on her own.

Her head is starting to throb, and it almost feels like her brain is swelling inside her skull, and Charlotte knows that’s her telepathy coming up against the limits of her body, but she can’t listen to that – she’s been telling everyone else to push their limits, while she did nothing to even put a toe outside her own comfortable boundaries.

But now, Charlotte pushes.  Pushes in a way she didn’t know she could do, in a way that she was afraid to do.  She’s aware of her body (still standing on the beach as the ships turn away from them, back the way they came) but that awareness is secondary to the sheer weight of the minds pressing into her.  It’s like her mind is physically drifting away, a helium balloon tethered to her body by only a flimsy string.

Charlotte really hopes that string doesn’t snap.

She’s not sure how long she searches – it could be days, weeks – but the first thing Charlotte’s telepathy taught her was patience.  Patience to build her shields so they didn’t crumble at the first push of a strong emotion.  Patience to drag her mind into something resembling order when said shields were punctured or outright shattered by nearby horrific experiences (granted, supremely happy experiences can so the same, but Charlotte’s never minded those instances quite so much).  It’s exhausting – not physical exhaustion, but the deep mental exhaustion that makes your brain feel like it’s been squeezed out like a dirty sponge, that every nerve and synapse has died and you’ll never have a coherent thought again…but whenever Charlotte feels like admitting defeat, like turning away and retreating, she simply can’t.  Deep inside the tangled chaos that has become her mind, something nudges her onward, something supports her and soothes her and drives her onwards.

And in spite of the disorientation and the flood of minds and memories and people (ChristieThomasAlbertoSophiaKellyNoreenClaytonMelissaAllanMaxDerekSamanthaAshleyRowan so many, too many), eventually, Charlotte finds what she’s looking for.

And she erases it.

In the CIA headquarters and in various government branches across America, employees delete files, destroy hard drives and burn files in office bins.  If they are questioned, they will never remember doing it, but they won’t be questioned, because no one sees them or even realises anything has gone missing.

The memories are more difficult, requiring a finer touch, because Charlotte can’t simply erase them entirely.  People need to remember ‘the mutants’, need to know they’re out there (and exactly how very bad it will be to persecute them)…but they won’t remember their names, or their faces, only vague impressions – shadows and echoes, nothing more substantial.

She finds Emma, and in spite of her crimes, Charlotte can’t leave the other telepath prisoner to captors who have forgotten she existed.  Besides, she was immersed in Emma’s mind once, and that creates a connection (even when she doesn’t want it to); it’s no coincidence that Charlotte hasn’t referred to Emma as ‘Frost’ since she broke into the other telepath’s mind.

She’s not sure if Emma’s had time to rebuild her shields – what Charlotte had done was meant as a temporary measure only – and there certainly seems to be some resistance there, before Charlotte sweeps it aside like dust.

Emma is frightened, panicked, and lashes out instinctively, and though it made her stagger and reel only a few months ago, now…now, Charlotte barely feels it.  It’s like the bite of a mosquito – annoying and momentarily painful, but nowhere near as crippling as she remembers.

LISTEN TO ME!

Charlotte really wishes she could turn that off somehow.

Emma stops her feeble attempts to resistance, but her mind still shivers with fear/panic/awe/what happened?/how is this possible?

Xavier?  What happened to you?

This is only reinforcing the vague feeling Charlotte has that she’s broken through something, done something that maybe even a telepathic brain isn’t built to take. 

It started in anger, yes, anger at the betrayal, that those they had saved would turn on them, but anger is precious little fuel on which to run; it flashes like a firework and burns out just as quickly.  It has to harden into icy resentment or hatred before it can become a true driving force, and her anger was gone the moment she turned those ships away.

Anger couldn’t have seen her through the maelstrom, couldn’t have given her the strength to plunge into the seething morass that is the entire country and find the people she wanted to find.  What drives Charlotte is not anger, or even fear…it is purpose, plain and simple.  She has a task, and it must be completed.

Millions, tens of millions of minds are still howling around her like a hurricane, but somehow she’s in the eye of it, possessed by a determination terrifying in its intensity.  She feels the thoughts hum and buzz and throb, a living, moving ocean that passes into her and through her but it doesn’t drown her – this single, shining purpose burns them all to steam.

She will protect the people she loves.  All of them.  No matter the cost.

YOU WILL LEAVE, she tells Emma.  WALK OUT NOW.  NO ONE WILL STOP YOU.  NO ONE WILL HUNT YOU.  DO NOT HURT ANYONE AND DO NOT RETURN FOR VENEGANCE.

Yes, yes of course.  Whatever you want.  Emma is practically falling over herself to agree, her terror of Charlotte saturating every pulse and whisper of her thoughts.

The last time she spoke to Emma, the blonde had been smug, gloating even though she was a captive, confident that there was nothing they could do to her that she hadn’t suffered before.  Now she is all-but grovelling before Charlotte, eager to appease, desperate not to gain her anger.

Emma wasn’t even this frightened of Shaw.  Charlotte wonders what that says about her, about what she has become, that she can inspire this kind of terror.

She hangs on just long enough to ensure Emma has made it to relative safety (no one will be following her, but Charlotte wants to make sure), then Charlotte slowly begins to draw herself back to her body.

It’s strange.  She’s never done this with her telepathy before, never reached so far or done so much, and pulling herself back to her body feels almost like she’s diminishing herself, like curling into a too-tight cage or forcing herself into clothes three sizes too small.

Her head hurts.  It seemed insignificant when she was doing…what she was doing, nothing more than those little nagging aches you get if you’ve stayed awake too long.  But now that she is back (back in her body, as if she’d gone somewhere and how had she done that?  What has she just done?), it feels like her skull is moving inwards, crushing her brain in a vice.

When she opens her eyes, Charlotte’s surprised to find that everyone’s still where they were.  She’s still standing on the beach, and the ships are still in the process of turning around.

She’d thought it had taken her hours, at the very least, to do what she’d done.  Maybe even days.  Instead, it took her perhaps two minutes, at the very most.

Everyone is staring at her.  Moira’s fingers are clenched at the base of her throat, around her dog tags.  Hank and Alex are supporting Sean between them, and they she knows they’re not sure whether they should step closer or step away.  All of Shaw’s people are unanimous in their desire to be elsewhere, away from the woman who can turn armies aside with a single thought.

Raven’s hands are clamped over her mouth, and even though her thoughts screech with fear there is worry threaded there as well, worry for Charlotte, if she’s alright because she’s gone pale and her eyes aren’t focusing properly.

Erik is standing beside her, one hand cupping her elbow to support her, and the bond…actually, the bond is wide open, and Charlotte wonders what he felt of her mental voyage, what his mind could process of it.  She remembers the support she felt, the soothing presence that wouldn’t let her give up, wouldn’t let her surrender, and she knows – she knows because she can feel it – that it was Erik, refusing to abandon her, refusing to let her face it alone.

“What did you do?” Alex asks quietly, and Charlotte is uncomfortable with the awe in his voice.

I MADE US SAFE.

Charlotte is starting to wonder if she’s permanently broken whatever kind of control she had over her telepathic communication.

“Charlotte?” Raven’s whole mind is thrumming with confusion/fear/worry/is she alright?/was she hurt?

Charlotte takes a step towards her…or at least, she tries to.  Her legs move sluggishly, like that strange disconnection between her mind and her body is still in effect, and her sense of balance doesn’t compensate quickly enough.  She wobbles, tries to put one leg back to stabilise herself and shift some of her weight to Erik’s hand, but it responds too slowly.

The last thing Charlotte is aware of is Erik catching her before she hits the sand.

--

“Do you think she’s alright?” Raven asks.

Erik hates how everyone always asks him this – like he has some great insight into how telepathy works and can tell them if Charlotte is slipping into a coma or if she’s just getting some much-needed rest.

Granted, the bond means he’ll probably know if she starts to die, but he’s doing his best not to think about that.

“I don’t know,” Erik repeats for what must be the twelfth time.

But he can’t bring himself to be angry, not when Raven is so clearly terrified for Charlotte.  But Erik supposes they all are – he may not be Charlotte, but he recognises fear when he sees it.

Hank is all-but locked in his lab, studying whatever brain scans he managed to salvage from Cerebro, insisting he can find something in them that will somehow help.  Moira is obsessively cleaning and organising the entire mansion, even the rooms they never bothered to open, as though she thinks Charlotte will wake up if the place is just a little bit tidier.  Alex seems to be single-handedly trying to burn all of the mansion’s uglier furniture, and it’s similar enough to Erik’s own impulse to destroy everything with even a trace of metal in it that he can recognise Alex just wants to be left alone.  He’s less sure about Sean though.  Sean will spend hours alone in his room but will attach himself to Moira at random intervals and follow her for hours trying to ‘help’ in her clean-up mission.  He won’t spend more than a few moments in Charlotte’s room but he’ll nag them incessantly for updates at mealtimes.

Frankly, Erik has no idea how to deal with any of it, so he’s keeping his distance.

It’s been three days since they came back.  Since the teleporter took them from the beach and broken wreckage of their plane to the mansion’s neatly-trimmed lawn.

The others wondered why he did that, but Erik understands.  They’d just seen Charlotte turn hundreds of people into puppets, sweeping their own wills aside like they were nothing – Azazel (apparently, that’s his name) wants someone like that thinking well of him.  He probably hopes this deed will compensate for his previous animosity – it’s just common sense.

Erik understands it, but it doesn’t mean he likes it.  It’s cowardice, plain and simple – siding with the strongest person in the hopes that they won’t crush you.

Still, it got Charlotte off that beach, so he’s not complaining too loudly.

But when Azazel left, no one was quite sure what to do.  Erik carried Charlotte into the house and laid her out on her bed.  They’d considered the hospital, but Moira had vetoed that, saying that they were probably on some kind of watch list, and Charlotte would get carted away to some government lab (which is not happening on Erik’s watch).  And it’s not like the doctors would have known what to do anyway.  Their best guess is that this is some kind of telepathic overload, and their initial (and overly optimistic) theory was that Charlotte only needed to sleep it off.

When she hadn’t stirred fourteen hours later, they realised this was much deeper than over-exhaustion.

Moira had risked contacting some of her friends in the CIA, trying to determine what had been done with Emma, and if there was any way they could somehow use her to help Charlotte.

She’d reported back with startling news.

“Emma’s gone,” Moira sighs, slumping into the couch.

Their impromptu strategy meeting is taking place in the same living room where they first realised they were going to try to stop a war, and if Erik was a poetic sort of man he’s sure he’d see some parallel in that.

“She escaped?” Sean yelps.

Moira shakes her head.  “Not that simple.  She’s gone…and so are all of you.”

“Explain.”  Erik knows he should probably be politer – she’s helping them, after all – but Charlotte’s still unconscious and a possible door to helping her has just been slammed in their face which means he’s not happy with anything or anyone right now.

“Every record of you is gone,” Moira says bluntly.  “No one can recall who you are or where you come from or even what you look like.  All of you.”

While some part of Erik relaxes at the knowledge that government agents aren’t about to storm the mansion (he’d been seriously concerned about that, enough to plot out escape routes and contingency plans), the rest of him goes still and silent.  Now he knows what’s happened, something in him trembles in awe at the thought of Charlotte reaching so far, through so many minds to finds the ones she wanted.

He’d felt her desperation through the bond and assumed she was struggling to control the sailors.  He’d tried to send feelings of love and support, tried to lend her his strength for whatever she might need, but he had never suspected she was doing…anything like that.

Erik knows Raven’s figured it out by the way she looks at him, yellow eyes wide with realisation.  “She said she made us safe…”

A horrified silence descends, but only for a moment.

“Holy shit!” Alex blurts.  “Holy shit!  She really…holy shit!

Hank presses clawed fingers to his temples, looking like his mind is struggling to grasp the kind of power it would have taken for Charlotte to do that.

Moira is muttering to herself, like she’s trying to keep herself from panicking.  “They can’t know – they can never know.  They’ll lock her in a cage.  They’ll experiment on her.  Or kill her.  Probably kill her.  They can’t know-”

“Could she always do that?” Sean asks quietly.

He sounds almost betrayed, and Erik knows what he’s really asking.  If Charlotte could always do that, what was the point of having them come with her, of training them, of finding them in the first place?  If Charlotte was powerful enough to make two opposing armies sail away from each other, why didn’t she do that from the start?

“I don’t think she knew,” Raven sighs.  “Charlotte, she…she’s always been so afraid of her telepathy, she never really tried to find out what she could really do.”

Erik remembers Charlotte telling him about Cain, about how she never truly tested the offensive capabilities of her telepathy after that, too frightened of the damage she might do.

“Studies have shown that adrenaline can enhance physical strength and speed,” Hank comments, his voice soft and contemplative.  “It’s likely the same for our mutations.”

The others are nodding, making little murmurs of agreement, but Erik isn’t entirely convinced.  From what Charlotte’s told him about telepathy, and from the memories he experienced through the bond, blurring those memories would have taken more concentration and focus than sheer power.

But he doesn’t say anything – just leaves to check on Charlotte once again.

Erik knows, logically, that he doesn’t have to stay in Charlotte’s room – the bond will tell him the instant she begins waking up – but he can’t help but think that she’ll wake up more quickly if she knows they’re waiting for her.  So Erik stays and reads aloud from the books that show the most signs of wear in the spine and thus are probably Charlotte’s favourites.

The catheter was set up on the first day, courtesy of Hank – apparently he had a lot of medical know-how in that enormous brain of his – and the IV was set up twenty-three hours ago, to ensure Charlotte isn’t going to die of dehydration.  Hank’s talking about a feeding tube as well, ‘in case this comatose state persists’.

Comatose state.  Like he has any idea what’s going on, like any of them have any idea what’s happening.  Erik has a better idea than most – the bond sees to that, but all he feels through that is the kind of drowsy pull and dull murmurs of activity he feels when Charlotte’s sleeping.

That should probably give him hope – if she’s sleeping, she has to wake up, doesn’t she? – but the bond doesn’t get any response from her either.  Erik has spent the past two days calling down it, then sending Charlotte all his fear and anger in the hope that she’ll respond to his distress even if she doesn’t respond to her name.

But nothing’s worked.  Charlotte isn’t waking.

Raven leaves for her own bedroom at nine, but Erik lingers, still reading, until well past midnight, when he leaves for the room across the hall.  He doesn’t think he’ll fall asleep, but he finds himself jerking awake in the darkness, the clock telling him it’s half-past three in the morning, and his pulse thrumming for no reason he can determine.

Has he heard something?  The house is quiet, but Erik rises anyway – he’s learned to trust his instincts.  He’s pulling the edge of the curtain aside to check the grounds when he feels it; a faint, barely perceptible tug on the bond, like Charlotte is gently tapping him on the shoulder to get his attention.

Hardly daring to believe, Erik marshals his thoughts into something like coherency, and sends a tentative question.

Charlotte?

Erik, why did I wake up with an IV and a catheter?

Anyone else might be embarrassed about the way he slams open the door, but Erik’s not the sort of person to get embarrassed about things like that.   His reaction is entirely appropriate to the situation.

Charlotte is stepping out of the ensuite bathroom, looking very unsteady on her legs – like a still-wet calf trying to toddle after its mother.  She’s holding a ball of cotton wool over the back of her hand, where the IV needle had pierced her skin.

For a moment, Erik does nothing but stare at her, a quick visual check to ensure that yes, this is Charlotte and yes, in spite of the inevitable muscle weakness she doesn’t seem to have any problems coordinating herself so it looks like she’s avoided the possible brain or nerve damage Hank was worried about.

Then he’s across the room and she’s in his arms, and he’s probably holding her a bit too tightly but he doesn’t care because that was too damn close, way too close and she can’t do that to him, dammit, she just can’t

Erik, it’s alright, Charlotte’s mental touch whispers through his mind, the first active outreach after three days of mental starvation, and Erik almost wants to close his eyes to bask in the feeling of her mind slipping against his, warm and thrumming and so clearly alive.

He can feel the moment she realises she’s been unconscious for three days – a burst of comprehension/understanding/sympathy/oh, that’s why.

At least that explains the IV and catheter, Charlotte quips.

Erik pulls back to glance at her hand, but the pinprick has already clotted, and Charlotte drops the blood-spotted cotton into the bin beside her desk.

I think I’d like to sit down, Charlotte says. 

Erik doesn’t need to feel the weariness/frustration/I’ve only been on my feet for a minute! to know that Charlotte’s having trouble standing.  He eases her back to the bed, settling her against his chest the way he did that night when she read to him about DNA and mutations and he only vaguely understood what she was talking about, but listened more for the pleasure and fascination that had rung through her voice and mind both.

“Are you hungry?” he asks quietly, when she rests her head against his collarbone with a sigh.

Not really.  I had a few mouthfuls of water in the bathroom, but I don’t actually feel like eating anything.

Erik supposes that’s just as well.  After three days without sustenance, she should probably start slowly, eating soft and bland food.

Charlotte picks up the thought and Erik can feel her disgruntlement.  I don’t like porridge.

“We do actually have honey and sugar,” he reminds her (sometimes it still feels strange to know that he has those kind of luxuries on hand), and he feels her distaste settle into more general grumbling.

Erik knows he should probably wake the others up, but he remembers how frightened and wary they were when they understood what Charlotte had done, and he just…doesn’t want them here.  Charlotte seems strangely vulnerable, minutely shifting against him and flexing her hands and legs as though she’s re-acquainting herself with her own body, and she shouldn’t have to deal with that right now.

Erik lets her wind their fingers together, trying to force the small, panicked animal that’s been clawing at his chest for the past three days to calm.  “Why were you asleep for so long?”

I think my brain was…adjusting.  Erik can feel Charlotte searching for the correct word, knows that she’s not certain ‘adjusting’ truly applies but unable to explain it any other way.

What happened on the beach? she asks, and though Erik knows she could just pluck memory from his mind, he’s starting to think this is the telepathic version of polite courtesy.

“You won,” he says bluntly.

Because it’s not ‘we’, it’s ‘you’.  Whatever Charlotte did, she did it alone.

She shifts against him, almost fidgeting, and Erik can feel her uncertainty, her bewilderment and the low, flashing strobe of her fear.  Fear at what she did, at what she’s capable of.

You know, there are theories that the brain isn’t fully matured until we’re about twenty-five.

The words and information are clean and bland, as though she’s deliberately trying to scrub away any emotion that might be linked to them but Erik knows what she’s in trying to say.  That perhaps her telepathy only came into its full maturation when she was twenty-five…but by then, she was strictly controlling herself, afraid of what she could do.

Charlotte had never found the limits of her power, because there had never been a need to.  And when there was a need, when she’d stripped her own limitations away…

I think the bond helped too, Charlotte’s thought intruded into Erik’s contemplation.  I don’t think it would have been possible without it, actually.  Erik, you…you kept me grounded, stopped me from forgetting who I was.  There were so many minds, around me and through me and inside me…but I was able to keep my identity separate from them.  I knew I was Charlotte Xavier, because you knew it.

The depths of those implications leave Erik a little uncomfortable, and he knows Charlotte can feel how quickly he steers the conversation elsewhere.

“Moira told us about the ultimatum you gave them.”

How did she know?

“She seems to have friends everywhere.  Friends who, when push comes to shove, are more loyal to her than their superiors.”  And Erik can admit he admires that – Moira does what the situation requires, and uses whatever tools at hand to do so.  Moira needs to keep tabs on what the CIA is doing, so that’s exactly what she does, without any hysterics or grief about perceived betrayals – it’s very refreshing.

That’s one of the reasons I like her, yes.  Charlotte feels ever-so slightly smug, probably because Erik has been rather bewildered at the friendship she cultivated with a human government agent, but now…well, now Erik can see how similar Charlotte and Moira are.

But he still feels the need to warn her – she may have put two world powers in their place, but that’s no guarantee of safety.  In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite; now they’ve got a spotlight on them.  “You know it could go either way now, don’t you?”

Charlotte nods, her hair slithering against his neck.  Yes – they may step back and approach us peacefully, or they may only come down on us all the harder.  But either way, we have drawn the line.  We’ve taken a stand, and now we have to show them that we will not run, that we will not be persecuted.

Erik remembers a conversation in a government-issue car, seeking out an older mutant who hadn’t wanted anything to do with them.  “Aggressively peaceful?”

Exactly.

Charlotte huffs a quiet sigh, and turns her face against his neck.  Erik presses his lips to her temple just because it’s there, and he can.  Her mind is humming with affection and love and pride, and Erik can admit he’s practically basking in it because Charlotte’s here, she’s awake and she’s alright…

But then suddenly she’s not alright, because a dark wave of fear dims the happy glow.  Erik, I reached across hundreds of miles and manipulated minds like they were toys.  And the effort was in finding them, in only erasing what I wanted to and not wiping them entirely – it would have been effortless to destroy them.  Erik…Emma Frost was scared of me; what does that make me?

In some ways, Erik can understand her worry.  If Charlotte ever gets it into her head that she always knows best, that her way is always the right way no matter what anyone says…well, she’ll make Shaw look like a joke.  She can bring world leaders to their knees, manipulate people like puppets and ensure they never even know she’s done it.

But in the end, she’s still Charlotte.  That’s why Erik tried to wake her up, rather than take the chance to kill her while she slept.  That’s why the others haven’t turned away, for all that they’re clearly afraid of what she can do.

“You’re Charlotte Francine Xavier,” he says quietly.  “You’re what you’ve always been.”

And Charlotte actually laughs.

End.