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Fragile Things

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Charlotte has always known what is expected of her. She is to be beautiful. She is to be loving. She is to be kind and generous and sweet. The road to her future is mapped out, all the important events neatly signposted.

There are so very many rules, about what clothes she should wear and how she needs to hold her hands and which smile to use when, but Charlotte learns them all, front to back. She has always been a good student. Perhaps she's cheating by plucking the answers out of their heads, but she doesn't let that bother her.

Her mother never did have very many specific lessons to teach her, but she used to comb Charlotte's hair and dress her up like a porcelain doll for social events, every stitch of clothing, every lock hair, perfectly in place.

"Well, aren't you lovely?" her mother used to say, and Charlotte could feel the way she meant it, every single time.

---

Raven has never understood Charlotte, and the feeling is entirely mutual. Raven thinks of herself as ugly, but Raven can be beautiful in ways that Charlotte will never be. She can look sweetly innocent or scandalously sexy. She can twist herself into whatever shapes they want, be anything they want. At a moment's whim, she can be beautiful or plain or ugly or anything in between.

She never does that, though. She only wears the one face she has made for herself, and she hates Charlotte for envying her power. Charlotte could touch her mind, could uncover all her secrets and subtleties. It would be so easy.

Charlotte doesn't. She keeps her promises. That's one of the rules.

---

The boys watch them as they walk through Oxford together, arm-in-arm, and Charlotte can feel the weight of their lust on the back of her neck, like an itch, like a caress.

---

After she finds Erik, Erik watches her too. The lust is still there, buried deeper than it is in most, hidden underneath his general wariness. He's careful around her the way he's careful around the CIA handlers, around Moira. It's new for Charlotte, being distrusted, being feared by a man. Most of them don't know what she is, what she's capable of.

Erik knows.

Erik knows, and he still watches.

---

She doesn't dive into the water after him. It's too cold, too dark, and she shouldn't, and when she looks down at the water, all she can feel is his rage and his terror and his pain. "There's someone down there!" she shouts.

They're all scrambling around the deck, searching for the man in the darkness, and Charlotte knows where he is. He's so angry and so hurt and so close to letting himself drown, and she can't stop him fast enough, not from here.

Let go, she says right into his mind. You have to let go.

She can feel the way he starts at the mental voice. He's not the first person she's talked to like this, but he will probably the first person whose memory she won't wipe immediately afterward.

I know what this means to you, but you it's not worth dying over, she says. I'm like you. You're not alone, Erik. You're not alone.

He's distracted enough that he can't maintain hold of the submarine any longer, and she can feel his body rising to the surface of the water. She can feel his first breath of air.

"Down there," she says out loud to the crew, pointing at a tiny speck in the night.

They manage to drag the man aboard. He's shivering and gasping for breath. His eyes flick towards Moira, tall and strong and clearly in charge. Charlotte always feels too small next to her, as fragile as a glass figurine. Moira fought for her position every step of the way, and Charlotte has only taken what was handed to her.

"Who was...?" he snarls. His emotions simmer under the surface, anger and fear and a small, strange thread of hope.

"It was me," Charlotte says, and she can feel his surprise even clearer in his head than it's written all over his face.

---

At Oxford, Charlotte does her work, and she does her work well. She dots her i's and crosses her t's. She likes the biology classes the best, likes learning the intricacies of of the human body, the mechanics of human life. It makes her wonder what she is, underneath the surface of things. It makes her wonder if she'll ever be able to figure it out.

"You could stay on for the doctoral program," her advisor says, and Charlotte senses the honesty behind her words. "You've got a bright mind."

"I-- I don't know," Charlotte says. It was a big enough concession from her mother to let her go to school at all, and even then, all her mother thought of was how nice it would be for Charlotte to find a nice British husband. Almost no one she meets seems to care about whether or not she can pass basic chemistry or whether or not she understands mitosis. They do care about whether or not she looks nice in a skirt. It feels like cheating to even have this much.

Her advisor smiles at her -- a wave of kindness, almost verging into pity -- and says, "All right, then. We'll cross that bridge when we get to it."

Charlotte nods. It would be nice, staying. She feels a new path unfolding in front of her, tentative and fragile, beautiful all the same. She could walk down it, she realizes. All she has to do is take the first step.

---

There have been boys. Beautiful ones, sad ones, delicate ones, strong ones. She shags a few, snogs a few more. She loves them all in turns, because it's hard not to know someone's mind and not love them just a little bit. She knows that they don't love her back.

Raven doesn't understand, of course. "He was an asshole," she says to Charlotte. "I don't see why you're so broken up by it."

Charlotte could explain that his mind was beautiful, that he loved genetics in a way that was deep and pure and honest in a way that he never was otherwise, that he could cry listening to Beethoven alone in his room, that when he was six, he'd found a bird with a broken wing and brought it home and nursed it back to health. His mind was ugly too, filled with the pettiest of jealousies and the bitterest of rages, but Charlotte tends not to dwell on these things. She always wants to see the best in everyone, and she's been given a gift so that she can.

"You didn't know him, not the way I did," Charlotte says as she sips some of his leftover brandy. He could be cruel when he was drunk. Charlotte found that it wasn't so terrible when she was drunk, too.

Raven snorts. She's angry, so angry, these days, and Charlotte can't understand that at all. "Thank god for that," she mutters under her breath.

---

"What are you?" Erik asks, that first night on the boat. He's wearing something respectable now, a black turtleneck, tan slacks. He looks more human under the bright lights, and Charlotte knows him so well. His history is an open book to her. She has felt his anger. She has seen his pain.

"I'm a telepath," Charlotte says, and Erik looks her over. She knows she doesn't look like much, just a slip of a girl who has been pampered all her life, who has never truly had to experience real pain. Erik tries to look underneath, tries to see what she really is.

But what could he possibly see, when she barely understands what she is herself?

---

The next night, she runs into him as he's about to leave the CIA facility with Shaw's file tucked away in his briefcase. They have remarkably little security this time of night. Charlotte isn't sure if she feels safer this way, knowing that they aren't being watched.

She doesn't mean to get in Erik's way, honestly. She'd known he was going to pull a runner as soon as they met. It just so happened that she was going the wrong way down the hallway at the wrong time.

"Good luck," she says. His desire to leave, to get away, is so strong, a thick, angry hum underneath his surface thoughts. It would a kindness, letting him disappear into the night.

"You're not going to stop me?" he says. "Not going to tell me all the reasons why I am better off here?" In the harsh fluorescent lights of the hallway, he looks like a ghost, like he was never here at all.

"You'd go anyway," Charlotte says.

Erik gives her an even look. "Could you?" he asks, tapping at his temple.

Charlotte bites her lip and looks down at her feet.

Erik understands almost immediately, and she can tell that his fear of her is warring with his curiosity. "Do you want me to stay?" he says, leaning in closer. He's leashed in all his power, but he's holding it at the ready, waiting to strike.

Charlotte shrinks back. "Yes." She can't quite meet his eyes.

---

They get mistaken for a married couple constantly while they're travelling the country, searching for mutants to recruit to their cause. Charlotte supposes that it is less scandalous than the truth, and so she smiles when flight attendants call them "Mr. and Mrs. Xavier" and ignores the way men back off as soon as they spot Erik glowering over her shoulder. Erik lets her do almost all of the talking when they're together, and his smile is surprisingly fond, surprisingly indulgent.

He puts a hand at the small of her back when they're in crowds, and he'll watch her as she reads, curled up in a hotel armchair. She's aware of him the way she's never been aware of anyone else before. His mind feels dark and thick, a stillness hiding deeper feelings. Very few minds are so soothing, and Charlotte feels drawn to it, a planet orbiting a small sun.

In New York City, she holds out a hand as they walk down Fifth Avenue together on a cloudy spring day, and he takes it, curling his fingers around hers. Charlotte has been in "normal" relationships before. It's not so unusual to be walking down the street holding a man's hand, but it feels strangely illicit now that they have a secret mission, now that she knows how truly different they are. They aren't alone any longer. He smiles at her with a mouthful of sharp teeth, and she can feel the honest emotion behind it.

There's a softness to his thoughts about her, a gentleness that he doesn't think he's capable of feeling anymore. Charlotte holds it close to her chest, lets it sit there, a fire to warm herself by.

---

"You-- you think of yourself as being so small," Charlotte says to him, wistfully. They're making plans for the next day, the day after that, and Charlotte is sprawling -- unladylike -- all over the hotel armchair. She had a little too much wine during dinner; she's usually not this honest. "But there's an entire universe inside you. Shaw didn't take that away. He couldn't, no matter how hard he tried."

Erik jerks away as if she's slapped him, but then he forces himself to relax. Charlotte can see the tension leaking out of his shoulders. "You're so--" he says. foolish, his mind finishes, young, innocent. Not weak. He rarely thinks of her as weak anymore. He shakes his head and doesn't finish the thought, not completely.

He tugs her to her feet and leads her to the bed. He's careful with her, delicate, and there's a look in his eyes, an expression on his face, like he's afraid that he'll shatter her to pieces.

---

She kisses him against a wall in their hotel room, the night before they go to find Alex. She has to drag his head down and stand on the tips of her toes to reach, and he opens his mouth at the first touch of her lips, welcoming her in. His hair is surprisingly soft underneath her fingers.

His mind is buzzing, humming with confusion and worry and tangled up desire. He feels completely open to her, as raw and as tender as a fresh wound. She knows the first birthday he can recall and the moment he learned fear -- real fear -- and the feel of tears streaming down his own face and everything else he can't force himself remember any more than he can let himself forget.

Human minds are so beautiful. It's dazzling, how much people think and feel, how horrible and mundane and strange and lovely their lives are. Erik's thoughts, for all their pain and sorrow, are as rich and as bitter as the darkest of chocolate. She could get lost in them for weeks.

I love you, she thinks. She doesn't say it out loud. She never says it out loud to any of them. None of them would understand what she means, anyway.

---

"All that power inside here," Erik says, tapping at her temple. "All of it going to waste." They're in another hotel room, sweaty and sated. Erik is looking at her the way he looked at her that night on the ship, like he's still trying to unlock all her secrets.

"Hardly," Charlotte says with a laugh, but she feels a glimmer of doubt -- what if? what if?

---

"A school?" Raven says with a raised eyebrow.

Charlotte folds her hands in her lap. "Yes, a school." It feels like a possibility, now, where it had never been one before. When she graduated with her doctorate, she had considered-- well, and then Moira had come by looking for her and her genetic work, and now Charlotte is considering. She's realizing that she doesn't have to wait for a path to open for her any longer. She can make her own way through the wilderness.

"You'd be good at it," Raven says, somewhat grudgingly. "The kids would love you."

"And you?" Charlotte asks.

For all of her life, Raven has been a mystery to her, hidden away in her own mind. She wonders if it's like this for everyone else, flailing about as you try to understand what drives them, what makes them tick. Faces and bodies are so opaque and difficult. Raven's appearance flickers, blue and red and gold for a moment, before she smooths out her appearance again. "I'm not you," she says. "I don't want the same things you do. I don't want to be the same things you are."

Charlotte says, "I never thought--" and her eyebrows furrow.

Raven laughs. "Don't lie," she says. "You're horrible at it."

---

"Have you ever said 'no' to anyone?" Erik hisses. "Are you even capable of it?" He's angry about the fact that Moira's still with them at the mansion, that even now they're still ostensibly under the CIA's watchful eye.

Charlotte has always found it difficult, turning down requests. Charlotte can always feel their sadness, their disappointment so keenly it might as well be her own. "Of course I am," she snaps, standing up straighter. "I just don't want to."

"You don't need to bow and scrape at their every whim," Erik says. "They're beneath us, beneath you." His voice is cool and hard, but he feels the words so strongly it steals the breath from Charlotte's lungs.

The way he loves her is almost painful, as agonizing as a knife in the chest, as sweet as lemonade on a summer's day.

---

Charlotte has always known what is expected of her.

"You'll understand one day," her mother would say, brushing her hair. "You'll understand that there are things that women must do that men cannot."

Charlotte has heard it all her life. Not just out loud, but in their heads, too. Xavier girl is getting pretty, wonder whose eye-- If she's nothing like her mother, she might have a chance, poor thing, and there is all that money to--- her sister is growing up well, perhaps she will--

She knows what they think when they see her, the delicate girl with the big eyes and the warm smile and the useless degree. They don't see the things she sees inside them, their joys, their sorrows, their pain. To them, she's just the eldest daughter of Brian and Sharon Xavier, to be married off at the earliest convenience.

No one will carry on the Xavier name, but the Xavier line will remain. Charlotte spends a lot of time at Oxford thinking about bloodlines, about inheritance. It's almost funny that the X-gene may be more of her legacy than her money or her name would ever be.

At night alone in her dorm, she presses a hand to her stomach, breathing too loud in the quiet of her room. She wonders what brilliant, amazing things her children will be, and she imagines the strange and beautiful new world they will live in.

---

"I would ask you to marry me," Erik says. It's the night before Cuba, and his eyes are liquid and soft. The room is dark, except for the moonlight spilling in through the windows. This is the bed Charlotte used to sleep in as a child, and the sheets smell comfortable and familiar. The bed itself feels too small for two people. Perhaps she's grown out of it.

Charlotte can't look at him, can't let herself touch the tangled up mess of his emotions. "I know," she says. She doesn't promise him that she'd say yes.

He tilts her head to the side so that he can kiss her. "Whatever happens tomorrow--" he says. He so rarely thinks of the future beyond the next day, the next mission, but now his thoughts are unfolding with all the possibilities, spiraling outwards.

"Don't." Charlotte says, and she can hear her own voice breaking. "Please." She had always known this confrontation with Shaw was coming from the first moment she met Erik on that boat. She had hoped that she would have more than this. It still doesn't feel like enough time. She's not sure she's strong enough to face this, even with Erik by her side.

Erik pets her hair. He doesn't say anything else. His mind feels like water, slippery and dangerous. It would be so easy to drown.

---

She looks through Shaw's eyes as Erik raises the coin. She knows what is going to happen, and she doesn't need her powers to see what's he's thinking right now. She just needs to hear the words on his lips, see the expression on his face.

Shaw squirms against her control, angry and restless. None of it shows. She can feel him bending to her will, even now. In another world, perhaps, if she loved Erik any less, she could have let go, let Erik finish Shaw by himself without her help. There are things women must do... she hears her mother say.

She closes her eyes and leaves Shaw's open. She doesn't scream.

---

The sun is bright in her eyes. Erik's face is a shadow underneath his helmet. She feels torn apart, cracked open, stripped down to the bone.

"Your place is by my side," he says, his voice ragged and desperate. She can't feel the familiar texture of his thoughts.

She meets his eyes, as much of them as she can see, and she feels an almost painful wave of tenderness. She doubts it will ever fade entirely. "No," she says, "it is not."

She closes her eyes. He's a blank spot in her mind. She doesn't have to feel the impact of her words. It's his last gift to her, she supposes, the strength of will to make this choice.

When they leave, disappearing in a puff of smoke, the scent of ozone lingering in the air, she doesn't grieve, not for them, not for herself.

---

When Raven was ten or so, she climbed one of the trees outside her room and broke one of the porcelain dolls that had been with their family for generations. She'd been carrying it under her arm when it slipped and fell, smashed open against one of the protruding roots. What Charlotte remembers best isn't the scolding they received from the housekeeper or the way Raven burst out into tears, but the way the doll's head had looked on the inside, smooth and pale and hollow.

There used to be a time when Charlotte wondered if she was like that, something painted and pretty and hollowed out so that the world could pour all of its happiness and sorrow and pain into her. It felt that way more often when she was younger, when everyone else's thoughts were pounding at her head, trying to get in.

But she is older now, and she has been broken open more than she thought possible, and she now knows that there is something else inside of her, something hidden underneath her porcelain surfaces, something that is far stronger than she'd ever realized. It's strong enough to lean on.

She opens herself up. She lets it unfurl inside of her. She lets it grow.

There is a school now, with students to think of, classes to create. Autumn will fade into winter, and there are plans to be made, a future to imagine. To linger in the past is to be trapped by it. Erik never understood that. Charlotte refuses to make his mistakes.

---

Years later, she finds Erik in her rooms. He's standing next to the windows overlooking the grounds. The sunlight highlights the sharp angles of his cheekbones, washes out the color of his eyes. His hair is beginning to gray. The year is 1973, and she thinks her heart still might skip a beat at the sight of him, like the silly love-struck girl she once was and will never be again.

"Erik," she says, and her voice is steadier than she thought it might be.

"I wanted to see you," he says. He turns to look at her, and she can feel the sweetly familiar, heady rush of his emotions. It's been so long. She knows that she is not beautiful to many people any longer, that the wheelchair hides the shape of her legs and the curves of her waist, but his feelings for her haven't changed. They're as fresh and as new as they were all those years ago, as aching and as sweet.

"I know," she says. She rolls the wheelchair so that they're next to one another, not quite shoulder to shoulder, but as close as they'll ever get.

"The students seem to be doing well," he starts, carefully polite. It's more than he would have done years ago, when he was still so raw and so angry. The anger is still there, but it's fainter now. She can feel the emotions warring inside him, sitting low and heavy inside his chest.

Charlotte smiles. Perhaps she's still too young to feel so maternal towards her children. Perhaps she should have gone about this the normal way, but she isn't normal, and her children aren't normal. They will have to find their own ways through the world. They will have to create their own paths through the wilderness. "They are thriving here," she says. "I'm glad."

He watches her, careful with his distance. She can feel the way he's holding himself back. "If I asked you to come with me," he says, "what would you say?"

Charlotte meets his eyes. When she was younger, she might have cowered under his intensity. She barely remembers what that felt like. "Erik, she says, keeping her voice as gentle as possible, "you know what my answer would be."

He turns back to face the window, and a trickle of resignation seeps out of him. He sighs. "If we weren't--" he starts. She can hear the rest of his question before he says it.

"But we are," she says, cutting him off. These are the lives they've created for themselves. These are the people they've become. To pretend otherwise would be dishonest. This isn't a life her mother would have imagined for her. It's not a life she would have imagined for herself either. But it is her life. It's one she's chosen, one she's made. The world isn't ready for what they are yet, but they will be someday, and Charlotte intends to be there. She reaches out and holds one of Erik's hands between her palms. There are new calluses, rough against her skin. Their time apart has changed her. Perhaps it's changed him, too.

Erik takes a deep breath. "A game of chess, then?" he says. "I've heard that you've taught yourself how to play."

Charlotte smiles. She doesn't let go of his hand. "Of course," she says, and she leads him further into the rooms.

 

FIN.