Charles had always been perceived as gifted. He was the youngest pilot, but extremely good at his job. He was capable of manoeuvring through tough spots, things that other pilots would have been hesitant to do. He was remarkably calm under most circumstances, carrying a carefree and can do attitude that created a positive energy within the military force.
Unfortunately, the government was full of emotionally exhausted people. Young recruits not yet accustomed to their job gravitated towards him, before growing cynical like many around. There was only a handful of others that were like him, but they were spread so far thin that he didn't see them much.
So it was safe to say that Charles was a little lonely.
He was approachable to be a shoulder to lean on in the worst of times, though spent most of his days by himself. As a pilot, he was trained to remain calm under all circumstance. He had to be a solid foundation, unshakable and supportive. No-one would even know that he was lonely or sad, because Charles was always smiling. Even after a tough mission, the medics sometimes overlooked him thinking that he wasn't injured due to his cheery disposition. It often meant he tended to his own injuries as drunken laughter echoed through the night.
He found Henry, the man who had betrayed him and the government. The man changed to a cyborg, knocking on deaths door, staring at nothing and everything. He was surrounded by the remains of a former Toppat base, flaming debris leading like bread crumbs to the body. Through months of recovery and care, Henry stayed close to Charles' side. He was like a towering duckling, not wanting to be separated from his safety net. During a rest stop where they sat together with their legs dangling off of the edge with the cold nipping at their faces, he revealed the truth to him.
"They left me to die." Henry admitted, cradling a cup of mediocre coffee. The story was one that clearly bothered Henry, his eyes telling a deeper pain yet to be unravelled. He thought that their leader and partner were at that base, but he was mistaken.
Charles bumped his shoulder against his, smiling at him with tender care. The action enough to make the daredevil thief to recoil into himself, and when Charles turned his attention to his hot chocolate there was a slight redness to the cyborg's cheeks.
Then there was Ellie. She had held Charles at gunpoint, brown eyes wide in terror and her hands trembled. She recognised Henry, and everything around them melted. The pilot forgave Ellie for the incident, assuring her that her reaction was completely justified. He had startled her in a dirty, dusty, rundown house that he wasn't sure why she was there. Which was something he never asked her, and something she never spoke of.
As the months past, the three had pulled off so many successful missions together that General Galeforce had decided it was best that they worked together permanently. They had been moved to their own team, completing missions much more dangerous and difficult than standard.
Henry's trickery and quick thinking were a major asset to their team, especially coupled with his cybernetics. Ellie was intelligent and a quick learner, she picked up on things like a fish in water. The duo were skilled thieves, and were able to steal things under the most observant of eyes. It made everything so much easier, they could get in and out before there was a whiff of something wrong.
Charles, well, he wasn't exactly the sneakiest of people. Ellie had affectionately referred to him as a golden retriever, always waiting for them to return with giddy excitement and basically trampled everywhere. It was an assessment that hadn't bothered him, if it made then happy then he was happy and a golden retriever was not the worst thing he's been compared to.
Not like when one of the senior soldiers told him that he was a damn clown the general kept around as a favour. Admittedly it had stung, but no-one had to know about that. No-one had to know about him crying alone in his bedroom, arms bandaged and bleeding, feeling hopeless and miserable. No-one had to know that he dreamt of flying his helicopter forever, taking safety in the comfort of the air. Where motors and propellers were his company. No-one had to know because he put himself back together and kept his cool.
It's a habit he has, admittedly. One he developed over years, and one he hid like the dirty secret it was. So when he finds Henry and Ellie on the couch of the crappy hotel room they were renting, tangled in limbs and snoozing he does not say a word. He ignores the yearning in his chest as he pulled a blanket over the two before retreating to the available armchair. Settling on the torn cushions, running his fingers along the hastily sewn seams to prevent everything from spilling out. He gives the arm a comforting pat before pulling his hood over his head and adjusting his headphones, then promptly falling asleep. He noted to himself mentally that he was happy that they had found each other. While much of Ellie's life was a mystery, he knew that Henry's had been tough. They found solace in each other, he was happy for them.
It would stop hurting eventually.
The first time one of them was badly injured, it had been during an escape from a failed mission. If Ellie hadn't noticed the trap, which was pretty obvious in hindsight, all three of them would have died.
The gunfire had cut through Ellie's arm and leg, causing her to fall to the floor. Charles grabbed her before pulling her behind some cover. Henry shot a flashbang, giving them some time to get away from the swarming Toppats.
Charles' heart was beating heavily in his head, he could barely think as he ran side by side with Henry. The cyborg held Ellie close, his metallic wings spread out as a form of protection. His lips were pressed into a thin line as they kept running, fleeing until they were out of danger.
When they got to the helicopter, Henry quickly piled in with Ellie. The door was slammed shut as Henry got Ellie strapped into a seat. She was grumbling that she was fine, though it was clear that she wasn't. Charles glanced around to make sure no Toppats emerged from the bushes. Seeing that nothing was coming, he got into the pilot's seat and glanced behind himself to see Henry tending to Ellie's wound.
He breathed heavily, gripping the controls to steady himself. He inhaled, then exhaled. Calm, controlled, and focused.
"I'm going to take us into the air." He announced to the two, already beginning the process of waking the helicopter. The engines purred to life, humming a familiar song. Hearing a sound of affirmation from Henry, Charles brought the helicopter to the awaiting skies.
When they returned and after informing the general while Ellie was tended to, Charles expected there to be anger towards him. He should've taken note of how weird the setup was, he should have realised. He was the veteran, he was the one with experience.
It was natural not to want to work with someone who could have gotten you or your partner killed. It has happened before, back when he was inexperienced. Back when he had big hopes that didn't feel like a routine to parade around. When his heart was on his sleeve, and not dug at with razor blades or finger nails to get the damned thing off his wrist.
Instead, Henry rushes to him as Charles exited the general's room. The cyborg barrelled into the pilot, the former's arms being the only thing that didn't knock them both to the floor. Charles raised his arms, hands awkwardly hovering as Henry pulled him into a tight almost bone crushing hug.
"Oh, uh. Hey Henry!" He tried to keep calm, but admittedly his stomach is churning in knots that make him feel ill and little again. It's a rush that he isn't eager to return to, but he only gets a squeeze in response. "You doin' okay? What about Ellie?"
"Room.." He croaked, tears cried just minutes ago hung heavily in his tone and clung to his eyelashes. Henry squeezed Charles' again, before promptly scooping him up into his arms and whisking Charles down the halls.
They pass by different doors, towards their rooms. Charles was a little confused by this, because surely Ellie would be in the medic bay? Though thinking a little more than a second on the thought, he realised there was no way in hell that Ellie would stay in there.
Henry adjusted his hold on Charles, shifting him more towards his mechanical arm as he swung the door open. Ellie's voiced called from deeper within, probably in the bedroom.
"You got my pilot?"
"Huh?" Charles could barely hide the confusion in his tone, while Henry finally cracked a grin as the door swung shut behind them. He carried Charles further inside, entering the bedroom where Ellie lay.
Her expression her visibly brightened at the sight of the two, and she raised her good arm to grab needily at the air. Henry carried Charles before basically dumping him on the mattress next to Ellie. The pilot barely has time to register what's going on before Ellie slings her good arm over him, seemingly at ease. She shifted when Charles did, kissing the pilot's hair before sighing.
"My boys.." She hummed happily, and Charles briefly felt his heart skip a beat. The bed dipped as Henry got in, throwing an arm around Ellie as he settled behind her. Ellie responded by using her other arm to ruffle Henry's hair, wincing only a little at the movement.
Exhaustion seemed to finally hit Henry with the force of a freight train. His eyelids drooped as he pushed his head into Ellie's hand like a cat, the tiniest of smiles creeping onto his face. The scene was sweet and intimate, something Charles felt like he was intruding upon. It was sort of like that, wasn't it? This was their world, he was just the transporter. Taking them destination to destination with a wide smile and confident ride.
He tries to enjoy it as long as he can before he's replaced.
Charles was a little boy, freckles like stars dusting his skin and a crooked goofy smile. His mother taught him to always smile, taught him to always be good.
Her hand cupped his cheek, thumb wiping leftover cream away. He giggled, looking at her loving eyes with his own. He touched his hand to hers, completely enraptured by the kind love that she shows him. The sound of drunken brawling in the apartment building halls are forgotten about.
Eventually he's a almost a teenager, a warm comforting cloud in a violent storm. He practices his best smile and kindest wave in the cracked bathroom mirror, his reflection a scared bruised and bloodied boy. There is drunk screaming inside the apartment, and he smiles a little more forcibly.
He's a teenager who's form of rebellion is sitting on the roof of the apartment block, skinny legs dangling over the edge as he stared at the clouds. He was told he'd never find a place that's just for him, that he was a glass bottle with too many cracks and not enough worth. So when the young teen looked past the clouds and into the bright blue sky, he wondered if that was where he would fit in.
He's still a teenager when his mother passed away in his arms, the cold winter howling outside as their home was clawed barren. The raggedy blanket laid over his shoulders like a knockoff hero's cape, shattered glass like sharp tears all over the stained carpet floor. He saw lots of sharpness that day, in the form of the cold, the blades that they carried, and how his mother cried out for Charles to run.
In a world full of sharpness, Charles decided to be soft.
He decided to be a cloud, drift from place to place, so when things go wrong it won't hurt so much.
But there is Henry and Ellie now, and a fear he thought gone amplified to thresholds impossible. He was so used to being solid and floating, a rock to lean against and a drifter to care for himself.
He is replaceable.
He is a fraud.
He is too much.
But they won't let him disappear.
Two days after Ellie was given the all clear by the medics they were at another mission. Serving as extra guards from the sky as some Toppat prisoners were escorted to prison. Well, Charles served in the sky while Ellie and Henry helped on the ground.
"You sure you doing okay up there, Charles?" Ellie buzzed through his headphones, though her concern and care were still as clear as day. It warmed his heart a little, and he couldn't help the smile creeping onto his face.
"I'm a-okay! I can see everything from up here! I can see you two! You look so tiny!" Charles exclaimed excitedly, something which made the two laugh. He gripped the controller, giggling a little himself. He was careful not to excitedly kick, something he hadn't done in a while. The Henry and Ellie specks had been bouncing for a moment as if to make sure that Charles knew they were there before joining the rest of the group. As if he would forget.
"After this, I say we get some takeout." Ellie suggested, and there was an excited buzz from Henry. This made Charles giggle at that. "You're not gonna leave again before we get some rest, are you?"
The question made him falter, as if he had been physically pushed. The helicopter shuddered at his pause, but it continued once more.
"Huh? You want me to stay?" He inquired, wincing at how obviously uncertain he sounded. He shifted in his seat, almost sinking into himself. "Well, I don't want to be a bother, y'know?"
Ellie sounded like she was revving up to tell Charles something before Henry cut in.
There was so much in those two simple words that Charles wanted to cry a little. It hit him with enough force that the barrier he put his loneliness behind came crashing through. it consumed him in an instant, and his eyes were wet with tears that hadn't been there a second ago. He inhaled a little more shakily than he intended, exhaling slowly to steady himself back to what he's supposed to be.
Pilots must be confident, in the scariest of situations and Charles is scared but he can't put on a façade right now. Can't seem to stabilise, can't float without a worry.
Two simple words, a want from the two he cared most about, well it seemed his foundations were as weak as his knees at that moment. Thank goodness he was sitting..
Steeling himself to respond, his stomach churning in uncomfortable knots as he worried how long it took him to reply, Charles opened his mouth before his helicopter swayed. Charles watched wide-eyed as one of the armoured trucks suddenly exploded, quickly looking to where he knew Henry and Ellie were to see that they were safe. They were sheltered behind a massive rock.
"Damn it, shots fired! Bunch'a members comin' to get their crew!" A gruff male voice roared through his headphones. "Agent Charles, keep us covered!"
Charles didn't need to be told twice, shifting his helicopter right to hover over where the shot had come from. His hands gripped the controllers, only letting go of one to flick on the switch for the Gatling gun. The weapon emerged from it's confines beneath the helicopter with a hum deafened by the winds outside. One of the controller's tops lifted to reveal the small red button used to fire.
He listened to the sounds of fighting below through his radio, his eyes scanning the floor below. The Toppats were smart by hiding in the foliage, it made it hard for him to pinpoint exact locations. He pressed his lips into a fine line, tongue just slightly poking out. He had to keep an eye on his team and the enemy, along with ensuring that the helicopter remained stable.
He moved expertly, going through memorized motions as easily as he breathed. He scouted from above, firing off bullets to herd their assailants to a different direction. It worked to make them scatter as well, or as a distraction to make sure they didn't take out anyone.
"Their reinforcements are dwindling! Arrest 'em or drive them off!"
"Need aid south side!"
"Trucks need to maneuverer around, keep close!"
One more shot from the helicopter forces a few more back into the bushes, he moved to circle the air and kept his head down to scan the floor. He clicked his tongue quizzically, letting the helicopter rock a little in the air.
His helicopter shuddered at another explosion below, smoke rising from someplace deeper in the forest. Charles frowned a little, wondering what they were trying to do.
"Seems like more is on the way, so much for dwindling!"
The sound of gunfire filled the air, mixing with the sounds from the radio. He winced, finding it to be just a little overwhelming and the sounds of bullets striking flesh was something he never got used to. Charles jolted as his windscreen cracked, and he realised that he was being shot at. He swung his helicopter around, searching the surrounding area for the source. The screen soon shattered and his helicopter rocked from the impact.
"Charles!" The sound of Henry's wings opening paired with his worried cry carried clearly over the radio.
"I'm okay!" Charles responded quickly, hoping to assure Henry that he was fine. He can still hear his heartbeat in his head and Henry's mechanics whirring in worry. He realised he failed at calming him, so he internally berated himself harshly before speaking softly. "Henry, Ellie." He knew she was worrying too. "I'll be okay, I'm -"
Another bullet pierced the air, blood splattering against the helicopter flight display. Charles' body was slammed against the controls as his helicopter shifted unexpectedly. An alarm began to blare throughout the cabin, and he was spinning.
He didn't need to think too much, he knew what was wrong. Something took out his engine, and he was falling and spinning.
The world roared as he did his best to steady the controls, his shoulder throbbing as he tried to get steady. There was an ache in his chest that was growing with every shudder of the vehicle. He pulled up, trying to get it move, trying to get it to steady.
"Charles!! Can you hear us?!"
He can't reach out, he can't calm them and he's falling! He's falling, he's failing, there's a blur by his window and the trees are reaching their piney hands to take him and he's falling so fast that they're going to engulf him-
"Mama? Will papa come home soon?"
"..shoulder, order x-rays.."
"Charles makes a good punching bag, he'll just smile and encourage you!"
"Do you really trust him, Charles?"
".. be okay.."
Machinery bleeds into black, the beep of oblivion calling and repelling him. Voices known and foreign call to him, hands holding out to him that he couldn't quite reach. Something wanted him, but he couldn't quite find.
He wandered forward, hands held out to feel around. His hands tremble a little or something does, something calls him. Though he hasn't found that location quite yet. He tries to locate something familiar, but the dust that surrounds obscures his mind. Static is physical and confusion is a sharp knife embedded in his insides. He stumbled, hands reaching blindly to manifesting sheets and he pulls the blinds open -
Bright blue sweeps through and Charles can relax now that he has found familiarity. The name is on his lips, thousands of miles away and so close all in one. A cold mechanical hand reached to touch his face, cupping carefully with a tenderness he yearned for.
He feels light like a cloud, but not like before. He's full of the fuzzies, it makes coherency a myth and words fall out of his mouth before he can register its meaning. But the figure before him, familiar and home just smiles in a way that makes the fuzzies stronger. The figure comes closer, kissing his forehead tenderly before pulling away and walking out of sight.
Charles wants to cry out because in an instant that familiarity is gone and he's laying in something that drowns him. There is beeping all around, trying to tell him something as always. Is he supposed to know what's coming? Footsteps sound far away, and a new face appears.
Red and blue, his new favourite colours.
"There he is.." Red cooed, cupping his face as blue had before. Her hand is warmer, his head leaned into it like it called for him. "How're you feeling?"
"Floaty? Makes sense! They got you on the good shit." She shook her head with a laugh, and a sad little blue tugs at her eyes. "You won't go floating away on us anytime soon, okay? Make sure you don't do that."
Blue looked to red comfortingly, his hand on her shoulder and Charles wonders why they're so familiar. He reached his hands up even though they yelled at him in protest, and their hands find his.
"Am lost?" Charles inquired quietly, his words felt thick and heavy. He's saying something he's not supposed to, but they slither out of his mouth.
Red recoiled a little, and ugly blue is more prominent. His arms fall on his lap, he's too tired to keep them up. His head feels heavy too, but blue's hands hold it with a melting kind of smile.
Charles liked that word a lot.
It turned out Charles had said a lot of embarrassing things while he was high as a kite. Things he didn't say to anyone, things spoken only to the cuts on his skin. Things that weren't supposed to be heard.
After he was released with painkillers and strict bed rest. Charles had been diagnosed with a mild concussion, bruised ribs and a gunshot to his shoulder. He had some facial lacerations from the shattering glass, and bruising from the crash but nothing significant. It could have been a lot worse if Henry hadn't gotten to him in time. It was something he felt awful about, and he just wanted to disappear for the inconvenience he had caused.
One of the other soldiers that had been there laughed to Charles, expressing his surprise at how quickly everything cleared the moment he was in danger. Henry had shot like a rocket to where the helicopter was crashing, Ellie had somehow managed to grab a powerful weapon and chased the Toppat's off.
Charles hated how his stomach had twisted with conflicting emotions.
"You guys really don't have to be here, I'll be okay! And I can stay on my own!" Charles insisted, though it fell on deaf ears as Henry continued carrying him. He held Charles with tenderness and with a bit of stiffness. Charles wanted to ask if Henry was tired since he had been carrying him since he had been discharged; but every time he made a move to try to stand it seemed Henry only held him tighter so he probably wouldn't answer.
"Absolutely not." Ellie stated as she unlocked the door to her apartment, flipping the light on. "You're staying with us."
Charles sank into Henry's arms, hugging himself with a quiet mumble. This was unfamiliar, foreign and something he didn't know how to navigate in to get the results he wanted. Charles barrelled into new situations with his head held eye and enough brightness to light up the room. But this wasn't something that he could barrel through. Not something that he could yell the greatest plan about before attempting to do something dangerous, only to be stopped by having someone lift him by the back of his jacket.
No, this time he was vulnerable in ways he didn't think possible.
Henry had walked to the couch and sat down, adjusting Charles carefully. He laid the pilot's head against his shoulder, his chin laying against Charles' head. Ellie piled next to them, gently laying Charles' legs over her lap. She gently rubbed his leg, gazing tenderly at Charles. He sunk under her gaze, his cheeks reddening to the same shade as her hair.
"C - Can we w - watch something?" He stammered, feeling completely out of his element. Being basked in a genuine loving and caring light was something he hadn't had in years. His heart was thundering and he felt like he'd implode with anymore of anything directed at him. However the world wanted to torment him, because someone picked up on it.
"You're not used to this, are you?"
Charles winced, trying to bury himself into something to hide from the coming talk. Unfortunately there was nothing to bury into besides Henry, so he hid himself in the side of his neck. Henry thankfully doesn't move, instead he just adjusted himself a little so Charles could hide more.
"Charles, are you scared we'll leave you?" Ellie's fingertips rubbed comforting circles on his leg. She was clearly worried, and Charles wanted to scream. How much had he revealed?! How much had he said?!
He hated the little whimper that escaped.
Henry's free hand signed, but Charles wasn't looking. He couldn't read them anyway, his wet eyes blurred everything.
"Henry signed that we won't leave you, and he's right. We'll steal the damn moon if you asked, we'll move the whole stars just to see you laugh."
Charles hiccupped again, teetering on the edge of a breakdown.
"Charles. We love you."
There goes the flood gates.
Charles is pulled into a sandwich type of hug, crushed in between two ex-thieves, He cried, he sobbed, and he wailed. He wasn't supposed to be doing this, but Ellie is whispering soft words of encouragement and reassurance while Henry hummed something that made Charles melt.
He didn't know how long he cried, didn't know how long they held him, but when he's coming down he's full of an exhaustion that weighed heavily on his bones. Ellie cupped his face so he was looking at her. He melted at the love in her eyes, the shame of breaking down was slowly dying down.
"You don't have to speak, you don't have to tell us anything." Ellie assured sweetly, Henry nuzzled the top of Charles' head to punctuate this. "But we're here, and we always be here. You know that we haven't had anyone close, yeah?"
Charles nodded slowly, his words stuck in his throat.
"And now we know that you haven't had anyone close in far too long. But you know? We have people now, we have each other. We love each other, and we will always be here.." Henry nodded in agreement.
"You have always been taking care of us, always drifting around us." Henry shifted so Ellie could pull Charles closer like a little ragdoll. He laid against her, every kind of exhaustion was pulling him into deep bad depths. The only thing that didn't make him sink was Ellie, who held him as a life line. "Always so far away, even though we wanted you so close.."
Charles wanted to apologise, but could only cough out a weak cry.
"You're so sweet, Charles. You always have been putting yourself last for so many years now, haven't you?" Charles nodded slowly, Ellie's thumb rubbed his cheek. She smiled at him but tutted at him carefully. "That's no good, not for you. You don't have to protect us from your feelings. You don't need to hide from us, we will scale those walls and bring you back to us."
Ellie massaged his back, Charles melted into her.
"You don't have to be happy all the time, it's okay when you're having a bad day. You always make us feel good, make us feel safe and comfortable." She kissed his forehead, then over one of the cuts on his face. "I would love to make you feel the same, and I'm positive that Henry wants that too."
An affirmative buzz from somewhere in the apartment confirmed that.
"We'll make you feel safe. Sunshine needs to rest too, I bet that's why the moon comes out."
Charles thought that he didn't have any tears left, but those sweet promises made him cry all over again. Ellie just holds him, teasing him lightly that she thought he got all of those tears out already. He could only sniffle in response, every inch of his body trembling. She continued to rub his back, cooing sweetly against his ear.
Henry returned from wherever he had been previously, kneeling on the floor next to the couch. Ellie gave him a quick peck on the cheek, which he returned happily. He then turned his attention to Charles, leaning forward to kiss his tear stained cheek.
'You never left me behind. Never gave up on me even when I was a grouchy piece of shit.'
"Not much has changed then."
Henry's glare did little to extinguish Ellie's laughter.
"I'm.. I'm not used to this.." Charles mumbled quietly, this hand fiddling with Ellie's shirt. "Th - This.. I want it but.."
Charles nodded slowly. "I don't want to mess it up."
"We're people, Charles. We mess things up all the time, its in our nature." Ellie pinched his cheeks, he still had some baby fat that made it so easy. "But we'll talk, okay? We'll cool off, we talk, and we continue. Nothing's perfect, but it sure as hell is worth it."
Charles nibbled worriedly on his bottom lip, Ellie just pinched his cheeks with a quiet tut. His cheeks darkened dramatically and he wanted to pull something over himself and hide.
"God Charles, you're so cute.." Ellie cooed, glancing at Henry again before looking at him again. "Henry, how are we so lucky? How can we be this lucky?"
Henry laughed and only laughed even more at how Charles squirmed at all of the affectionate attention. He reached for his headphones, but they weren't there. He couldn't help the quiet squeak that came out, and Henry was laughing more.
'I thought you were okay with compliments.' He signed before snickering again.
"That's different! You're going for me at my moment of weakness!" Charles yelped, reaching his arm out to swat at Henry. The cyborg dodged with a smug look, but quickly got his hair ruffled by Ellie. "You're fighting dirty!"
"Dirty?" Ellie echoed with a quirked eyebrow, a dark expression crept to her features. She pulled Charles up easily, leaning to whisper wickedly into his ear.
"I don't think you could handle us when we're really fighting dirty.."
If it was possible to die from being so flustered, then that was how Charles was going to die. He could only let out a series of whimpers, some more pained as his chest begin to ache. The sound of his pain caused Ellie to stop, but Henry shifted to kiss his cheek. He raised his hand to run his finger along his jaw.
"We'll take care of you that way later.." Ellie murmured with a wink, instead she laid her head against his. "Now it's just cuddles and healing."