Some nights Charlotte comes home late, when the house is dark and everyone is asleep. Some nights she doesn't come home until the next morning, the sun already rising, the weak rays shining down on her as she walks up the steps to the front entrance in the same rumpled clothes she left in the day before.
She doesn't have to use her telepathy to smooth anything over. She never has to ask Raven to cover for her. Nobody even notices. Being angry or worrying take a lot more attention and care than her mother's ever likely to spend on her.
If it wasn't for Raven, Charlotte's not sure she would bother coming back at all.
The first time she met Erik was on the ferry. She knew better than to just dip into strangers' minds, truly she did, but - the young man beside her was so handsome, and mysterious-looking, and there was something about his expression and the way his fingertips clutched tight on the metal railing that had made her so curious. She hadn't gone in very far - just a tiny bit - but even that much had been extraordinary.
"Oh!" Charlotte gasped out, almost involuntarily, and the young man turned toward her. "Oh, but that's marvelous," she said. She reached out one hand to his upper arm, steadying herself a little. "Is that- can you really feel all of that? What else can you do?"
He stared at her. His face was blank but she could sense his mind working at full gear, going through options and scenarios - most of which, frankly, Charlotte thought were quite over the top. You don't need to hurt her, she could hear him tell himself, as though he needed a reminder. She's just a girl.
Charlotte bristled. "What do you mean, just a girl?" she said, placing her hands on her hips. You're not the only one who can do marvelous things, she thought, sending the words directly into his mind.
The man's face paled slightly, and for a moment he looked almost afraid of her - but it passed, after a second, and he was shaking his head, the faintest trace of a smile on his face. "That is quite a trick, miss," he said. There was an accent to his voice, but it wasn't very strong; just enough to make him sound foreign, different, without marking him to any one particular place. "Well done."
"It's Charlotte," Charlotte said. "Charlotte Xavier. And I've plenty more where that came from." She stuck out her hand for him to shake, and was pleased when he did so, without even a moment of hesitation.
"My name is Erik Lehnsherr," he said, "and I have absolutely no doubt that you do."
At first Charlotte thinks it's just because Erik is different. She's fascinated by him because he's like her, he's special. She knew there had to be others out there besides just her and Raven, but she didn't know when, if, she was ever going to meet another. Erik can feel metal, and make it do practically whatever he wishes. She can sit in his one-room flat for hours, just observing him practicing, watching and listening in as he works.
She's not alone. Erik is just as struck by it as she is - more, because he didn't even have Raven, a sister to help him along and keep him company. Erik's been by himself this whole time.
She doesn't know if she ever would have figured it out on her own, that there was something more going on as well. She's not nearly as good at knowing her own mind as she is at reading others'. But all it takes is one small moment - turning around suddenly, and seeing Erik's face, the way he watches her when she's not looking back - and his mind full of the heaviness of desire, of affection that goes far past the mere bonds of friendship.
Erik can see when she finally processes it, and she is opening her mouth to say something when he walks forward, his hands coming up to hold her face still while he kisses her into silence.
What Charlotte finds most frustrating is that Erik won't sleep with her.
That's not quite right. They sleep together, in the sense that they sleep in the same bed, night after night. Erik's chest to her back, half-curled around her like a warm blanket, like he's ready to pounce and protect her from whatever he imagines might come after her to hurt her in the dark.
What Erik won't do is have sexual intercourse with her. They kiss, of course. They kiss a lot. Constantly. Sometimes they'll take their shirts off and Erik will suck tenderly at her breasts until she feels faint. Sometimes while they kiss he'll pull her on top of him to straddle his thigh, letting her rub herself raggedly against him through their clothes until she reaches her pleasure. She knows the feel of his hardness pressing against her hip, the way it'll jerk between them sometimes when Erik finally lets himself go, the feeling of something warm and wet soaking through his shorts.
But whatever they do together, their underwear stays on, and no hands stray beneath.
"You're so young," Erik says one night in bed, the words falling half into her hair. He sounds serious. Almost pompous, Charlotte thinks. She'd rather like to kick him, if she wasn't so comfortable the way he was holding her.
"That's ridiculous," she says. "You're only two years older than me."
"I'm a lifetime older than you," Erik says. There's a ripple of memory through his mind, a million unorganized images of the war and the years immediately after. It's gone as suddenly as it appeared, as if Erik has turned off a projector or closed a book and put it back on the shelf.
Charlotte winces, and she pulls away from Erik's embrace slowly, until she can sit up on the bed and look at him. "I don't understand why you persist in seeing me as an innocent - as though I'm some porcelain doll you're sworn to protect. You know all the things I've seen, Erik. I'm older than I seem."
"Seeing isn't the same as living," Erik says, a little shortly. He sits up, too, and turns away, until his feet are on the floor and his back to Charlotte. He reaches for his cigarettes on the nightstand and brings one up to his lips. He uses his power to manipulate the lighter and set it alight.
Charlotte moves forward across the bed on her knees until she reaches Erik. She rests her cheek against his spine and wraps her arms around his waist. "I love you," she says.
The sigh comes deep from Erik's chest. "I love you, too," he says quietly.
Charlotte closes her eyes. "I just want to be with you."
Erik doesn't respond immediately. She listens to the sounds of his breathing, the slow inhales and exhales as he smokes. "I just don't want you to do anything you're going to regret later," he says finally.
"What makes you think I would regret it?" One of her hands goes down to his hip. She doesn't dare explore past the waistband boundary, but Erik's so skinny, his sleeping pants hang low on his frame. When he's standing before her in them, she can see the way his hipbones jut out, like something she could lick or bite. She can see the way his hair on his belly starts to gather, dark and curly and thickening, starting a trail down she wants to follow.
"Of course you'd regret it," Erik says, and she can feel the hint of anger starting to reveal itself. "It's a big thing, Charlotte. What about when you meet the man you're going to spend the rest of your life with? When you get married?" He pulls himself away from her, standing up and walking over to the window that overlooks the fire escape. He puts one hand up on the wall and leans against it. "You'll want to go to him and give him everything of yourself, but you'll have already given this away to me. You wouldn't be able to undo that, no matter how much you wanted to."
Charlotte stares at Erik's bare back and blinks back against the stinging in her eyes. "You stupid, stupid boy," she says, much too loudly. There's a mental start from Erik, as much at being called a boy as anything else, but Charlotte ignores him as she climbs off the bed. There's a lamp on the table in the center of the room, and she clicks it on, filling the room with a dim golden light. She pulls off the oversized t-shirt she's been wearing as a nightie, and then, after a moment, she pulls down her underpants as well and pushes them away across the floor.
She's standing in the middle of Erik's flat in her birthday suit, completely exposed, and she can already feel the blush rising up her cheeks and upper chest. She ignores it the best she can, standing perfectly straight, jutting her chin forward with decision.
"Turn around, Erik," she says imperiously.
He turns around. He bites his lip hard at the sight of her. She waits while his gaze tracks up and down her body, stopping for a while at her breasts, longer at the hair between her legs. When his eyes meet hers again, he looks pained.
"Tell me about the man I'm going to marry, Erik," Charlotte says.
"Fine," Erik says, practically spitting out the word. He stubs out the cigarette in the ashtray on the windowsill. "Fine. We both know already, don't we? You'll marry some nice boy everybody approves of, some rich Gentile who can take care of you and not give you too tight a leash, who'll still let you keep your studies, maybe even work. Somebody nice who won't make you cry or ask too much of you." Somebody nothing like me, Erik's mind was blaring. Jew immigrant poor damaged needy wrong wrong wrong-
"There's nothing wrong with you!" Charlotte yells, and she is crying now, the salt dripping down until she can taste it on her lips.
"Someday I'm going to go back and find the man who did those things to me," Erik says. "I'm going to go back and track him down and make him pay for all of it."
Charlotte swallows, thinking about all of Erik's memories she's seen of that evil man with the genial face, thinking about the hatred and pain that's never completely missing from Erik's mind. She says, as bravely as she can, "I'll come with you."
Erik chuckles. It's not a pleasant sound. "You can't do that."
"I can do anything I want," Charlotte says. She's strong. She's barely even tapped into it yet, she knows how much there has to be out there for her, and whatever stupid fantasies Erik has been entertaining, she's going to have a lot more than the life her mother might have taken for granted that she'd lead. "You know that, too, Erik. Don't you ever, ever doubt me."
Erik sits down again on the bed, looking suddenly tired. "I wasn't doubting you. You- you deserve so much more than this, Charlotte."
Something in Charlotte softens, watching him rub his hands across his face. She says softly, "I deserve to make my own choices, too." She goes to the bed, sitting beside him, and he puts his arm around her shoulders without looking at her, pulling her in close. She kisses his shoulder. "Anyway, you'll need money, won't you, for all of that?"
Erik tenses a little, but doesn't answer.
"I get access to my trust fund when I turn twenty-one," Charlotte continues. "I know three years is a long time, but you'd be willing to wait that long, wouldn't you?"
He turns his head and kisses her fiercely, harshly, in a way that might be intimidating or frightening if she couldn't feel Erik's mind so close to hers, feel the desperation and need and love and resistance all flowing out from him like water.
"It's only a month until I turn eighteen, though," Charlotte says, when she manages to pull away from the kiss long enough enough to breathe and form words out loud. "Will you marry me, then?"
Erik doesn't answer that either, at least not in words, but the way he pushes Charlotte down to the bed and begins to kiss his way down her body speaks volumes on its own. And when Charlotte leaves the next morning, heading out to catch the train back to her mother's house, there's one fewer nail in Erik's flat and a small band of steel newly encircling Charlotte's ring finger.