“You accuse me of treason and lock me away – but only because you think you’ve won. You haven’t. The Reich will rise again!”
Kurt Marko’s voice rang out through the entire courtroom. Most of the people watching this ranting man in handcuffs looked on with disgust – including the judge, unfortunately for Marko.
His stepson, Charles, was wondering how long it would be before he could open his next bottle of wine.
“You beat me down because you can – forgetting that not all of us have fallen, that others will not carry on our work – ”
“Silence, Mr. Marko!” The judge slammed down his gavel a few times before pronouncing the sentence: death.
Immediately every newsman in the courtroom, dozens of them, ran for the doors and the long line of pay phones in the hallway. Good, Charles thought. Maybe that will give me a chance to get by them.
No such luck. There were always a few who didn’t get to a phone, a few who were ready to swarm around the only “friend” of Marko's in the courtroom. Instantly a swarm of fedoras and notepads surrounded him, harshly illuminated by the pops of flashbulbs.
“Mr. Xavier! Do you agree with the judge’s sentence?”
“Were you aware of the spying for the Nazis?”
“Do you think your father is truly guilty?”
“Stepfather,” Charles said. The correction was the only word he spoke as he pushed his way through the press gauntlet and into the street.
It didn’t matter whether the papers called Kurt Marko his father or his stepfather. The connection would linger. People would hear the name Charles Xavier, ask themselves where they’d heard it before, then remember the entire horrible truth: Marko’s position in the aerospace industry that had made him a perfect source of intel for the Nazis, the Allied mission in North Africa that Marko’s information had betrayed, the 173 American soldiers who had bravely, needlessly died in the desert. Charles would forever be stained by that treason – and the widespread, incorrect assumption that he must have cooperated with Marko.
Of course he hadn’t. Charles loathed the Nazis even more than he loathed his stepfather. One hatred was born of principle, the other of bitter experience.
But … Charles had known.
What good now did it do for Charles to remind himself that he’d found out about Marko's spying too late, only after the North African mission and only weeks before the arrest? Or to remember how he’d searched through libraries in an attempt to find a way to pass the information on without disclosing his identity?
You might have walked straight to the nearest war office and told all, Charles thought as he walked toward the heavy wooden doors of the courthouse. He should have done. But he had been afraid of being deported – or, worse, of being disbelieved. If Marko had been able to slither out of their traps, if he’d had a little more warning and a better lawyer, he could have beaten the rap. Then Charles and his younger sister would have once again been at his stepfather’s mercy.
For himself he might have taken the risk, but Charles could not do that to his sister. Their entire childhood constituted one long lesson in why you would never want to be at the mercy of Kurt Marko.
At least Raven's well out of this, Charles thought. She was attending university at a small women's college in Vermont, safely protected from the rabid press coverage. If he had accomplished nothing else, at least he had kept his sister safe.
Ironically, the weather that day was beautiful – cloudless skies and the warmth of spring. To Charles, however, the light felt blinding. Every other man on the street wore a hat, but he had never liked the heaviness on his head. Better to let the sun beat down, burn his pale skin raw.
At least the fine weather meant his friends would actually come to the party tonight. They’d all stuck with him so far ... when it wasn’t raining, and when Charles paid for the drinks. Those sorts of friends were as good as it got, for him, probably from now on.
Marko had dragged his entire family to Florida just before the war, ignoring their protests. How could they have guessed that he'd taken the job because his aerospace company was a defense contractor, and the Nazis had already groomed him as a spy? Charles had always thought he'd ditch Florida the first moment he could, but now there was nowhere else he wanted to go, except hell, and he could get there as quickly from Miami as from anywhere else.
Quicker, if you had the right company.
“Come on, Charles!” Angel Salvatore – a chanteuse he’d met in one of the clubs – draped herself across the arm of the sofa. Her gold satin gown shimmered against his silk shirt. “You have to come to Havana with us. It’s going to be so much fun!”
“We’ll set sail in my yacht tomorrow morning,” promised Janos Questad, millionaire playboy and Angel’s current fling. “In Cuba you can get away from all this madness. Enjoy a warm welcome from the locals.”
The sly emphasis Janos put on locals served as tacit acknowledgment that Charles would be seeking those who called themselves señor rather than señorita. No one in this group would ever openly speak of Charles’ homosexuality, and his romances would always be viewed as both strange and somewhat comic … but they did not condemn him. That was as much as he could ask.
Sometimes Charles wondered whether this louche, boozy crew he’d fallen in with in Miami was actually more open-minded than society at large. Other times he thought they were too thoughtless and amoral to give a damn what anyone did in bed. Tonight he was too busy drinking to care.
“Havana sounds divine,” he said as he helped himself to another glass of the chianti – then poured one more, which he walked over to the man he’d just spotted near the door.
Everyone else in this party wore the sort of colorful, luxurious clothes one saw on the rich and spoiled of Miami Beach: Moira’s midriff-baring red silk blouse, or Alex’s white linen jacket. The newcomer was different. His charcoal-colored suit could have belonged to an executive, if that executive cared about impeccable tailoring and had an utterly perfect body. He had dark hair, which he wore slicked back more severely than most men did; his eyes were a blue so pale they might have been gray. While everyone else here laughed and joked and got drunker by the moment, the stranger simply sat in the leather chair, calm – slightly amused, no telling by what – and patient.
And his eyes never left Charles.
That was promising.
“Who are you?” Charles said as he made his way toward the chair. His legs weaved under him – I must have had a few more glasses than I’d thought – but he made it to the newcomer without spilling either of their drinks. He handed one glass of wine to the newcomer, who took it as Charles slumped liquidly upon the ottoman across from his chair. “You’re a party crasher, aren’t you? I like party crashers.”
No response – but the newcomer lifted his glass, as though for a toast. That would suffice. Charles knew a pickup when he saw one, and he was looking at one now.
I would’ve wanted to fuck you anywhere, Charles thought. Anytime. But tonight, yes, God, I need you tonight. You can drag me into the bedroom and make me forget everything farther away than your skin. That seemed to be the only thing Charles wanted any longer: To forget.
The din of the party had not stilled, but by now Angel at least had caught on. Tipsily she giggled as she slid off the arm of the sofa and managed to get to her feet. "I think we've overstayed our welcome."
Charles didn't even bother looking directly at her. His gaze remained only on the dark, exhilarating stranger in front of him. "So glad you came, Angel. Janos. Everyone."
From the corner of his eye he caught the knowing glance Moira gave him as she and Alex swept out the door. Not everyone was as savvy; a small cascade of meaningless jokes and farewells washed over Charles as people took their leave. The only comment worth hearing came from Janos. "Remember, be on my yacht at noon. Don't even bother packing a case – you can pick up everything you need in Cuba."
"Tomorrow at noon," Charles promised, just before the door swung shut, leaving him alone with … "What's your name?"
"Erik. I like that. I'm Charles, by the way."
"Charles." The repetition was more than mere politeness – there was a coolness there, a kind of evaluation. Yet Charles liked the sound of his name in Erik's mouth.
This small beach house had been the first place he could find in the wake of Marko's arrest, and the government's seizure of all his family's assets in the United States. The rent was exorbitantly expensive – the appearance of wealth was probably the only reason Charles had so many new "friends." Appearance was all it came to, though; in another three months or so, Charles would be completely out of cash, and after that, he neither knew nor cared what would become of him.
For the time being, he enjoyed the high life. The main living area of his bungalow had leather furniture, like the broad armchair Erik sat in, and its ottoman, where Charles perched. Cool white walls offset the richly tiled floor, and the high ceilings lifted away the Florida heat. He'd splashed out on a gramophone, which even now played Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade." More than one departing guest had snapped off a lamp while leaving, which meant he and Erik were now illuminated only by a single light in the corner. The chiaroscuro effect suited Erik's features – strong, almost stark, with an expression in his eyes that somehow suggested both coolness and fire.
"So." Charles leaned forward slightly, collar flopping open. He'd ditched his necktie a while ago. "Crash parties often?"
"Virtually never." Erik tilted his head, studying Charles more intently.
"Why did you make an exception tonight?"
"Maybe I liked the music."
"That must have been it."
Erik remained so still. So steady. This was unlike virtually all Charles' previous pickups. Normally you had to telegraph your intentions rather brazenly to make sure the pass you were about to make was desired, welcomed. Otherwise you risked a fist to the gut or, worse, an arrest for "indecent exposure." Yet Erik let his silence speak for him. It was cool, controlled and intensely attractive.
"What kind of music do you like?" Charles murmured, leaning closer. "Besides Glenn Miller."
"Lots of things." Erik's fingertips tapped a slim leather case beside his chair. "Brought a few recordings of my own you might like to hear."
-- all right, that was original, if a little odd. "Excellent. You'll play them for me, won't you? Teach me all the words?"
"You'll know the words."
Mm, that sounded promising. Charles got to his feet to pour himself another glass of chianti – the last one had emptied so quickly. But when his hand closed around the wine bottle, he realized nothing was inside. He turned his head toward the bar, but tonight's party had ransacked it of nearly everything. He groaned. "We're out of wine."
"Not a problem."
"The hell it isn't." Charles was drunk, very drunk, but still not drunk enough. He could still feel misery, and fear, and shame. He needed to keep downing glasses of wine until he'd drowned every emotion he'd ever had, until he was nothing left but a body for Erik to use. "Come on. Let's go get some more."
Erik glanced at his watch. "At this hour?"
"This is Miami. Sin is available at every hour." He grabbed the car keys from the hook beside the door. "Ready?"
He expected Erik to argue with him about driving; Charles liked that idea, because maybe the argument would get ugly. Words could turn into blows, and this could become a truly dangerous fuck.
Instead Erik simply walked outside without a single protest. The only thing he said, as they reached the curb, was, "Some car."
"My stepfather's." Long, sleek, creamy white – every inch of the automobile advertised wealth and power, both of which had come from the Nazis. Charles hoped to wreck this car someday. Not tonight, though. With a somewhat sloppy flourish, Charles took the top down in the hopes Erik was the type who could be seduced by a convertible. "Get in."
It was a warm night, yet late enough that the streets near his home were relatively deserted. This was for the best, Charles thought, because the road kept blurring in front of his eyes, and he was aware that the center line kept moving all over the place when it shouldn't have. Erik never said a word, never even flinched – but his left hand rested on the space between them in the front seat. The tension in Erik's fingers might have been Charles' imagination – or the fact that Erik was ready to grab the wheel at any moment.
"You don't trust me," Charles said.
"I just met you."
"But you were willing to slip into my house for the night."
"Maybe I trust my instincts."
Where the bloody hell was that liquor store? Charles could have sworn one sat along this long stretch of road. Instead they drove past endless palm trees and golf courses, without a single illuminated sign in sight. Not that he minded the drive, because the combination of the engine's powerful roar and his own tenuous grip on consciousness – it felt like dancing on the high wire.
To hell with looking for the store. He was drunk enough. And if it was truly completely deserted out here … maybe he could desecrate Kurt Marko's car in any number of entertaining ways.
Charles looked over at Erik, whose hair remained unruffled, his suit damnably sleek. "What are your instincts telling you about me?"
"That you might be interested in something I had in mind."
Here we go, he thought, grin spreading across his face. "And what would that be, exactly?"
Charles never heard the answer, because at that moment the police siren began to wail.
"Damn." His fists tightened around the steering wheel as he saw the flash of red and blue lights behind him. "Think I could outrun a police motorcycle?"
Even this could not disturb Erik's tight composure. "Not worth trying."
"To jail with me," Charles said blithely. At any rate, he hoped it sounded blithe. "Like stepfather, like stepson."
At least this was just for drink driving. In another fifteen minutes, he and Erik might have been arrested for indecency, even for sodomy. Yet at the moment he thought it might have been worth it – because surely getting pulled over by a cop wrecked the mood.
As soon as they'd pulled over, the motorcycle policeman swaggered up to them. "You don't look too steady there, pal."
"It would be very strange if I did," Charles said. He saw no point in trying to bluff his way out of this one. Why not finish the night by going to jail? It couldn't make his day any worse.
The cop took a deep breath, then grimaced. "You smell like a distillery. Okay, buddy. License and registration."
Did he even have these with him? Charles intended to leaf through the glove compartment and see what he could come up with – but then Erik leaned past him, flashing his open wallet at the policeman. "I appreciate your vigilance, officer, but I've got this."
What was that supposed to mean?
Charles watched as the cop straightened. "Yes, sir. You could've just said – "
"I'm saying it now." Erik's voice was not unpleasant, yet as unyielding as steel. "Thank you, officer. Good night."
The policeman touched the brim of his cap, almost a salute, before going back to his motorcycle. As it took off, leaving them alone at the side of the room, Charles said, "You're a cop too, aren't you?"
Erik didn't bother showing Charles his wallet. "That's not how I'd put it."
"But you are. You have to be. You're a goddamned cop." Charles' head reeled with anger and wine. "What's your game? Entrap the traitor's son, so we can put him in prison too? Is that why you came on so – what, were you going to wait until my pants were around my ankles? Make sure my humiliation was complete?"
Erik might as well have dropped a lit match into gasoline. Charles shoved Erik back, as hard as he could, enough to force Erik against the passenger side door. "What do you want from me? What else is there to take away? The only person left in my family is halfway across the country and needs to stay there. My name is branded with shame, forever, for something I didn't even do. No doctoral program will ever take me now that everyone thinks I was a Nazi like Marko. The money's running out. But no, it's still not enough for you vultures – "
"Hey," Erik said. Gentler now, but still remote. "There's no need for this."
"No need to be upset? Even when I'm better off dead?" Charles hadn't put it in those words before, but now they reverberated within him, the most stinging for being true: Better off dead.
Erik went for the car keys then, and Charles tried to fight him, but when he did, his head reeled and his gut twisted so violently that he began to retch. As he slumped, semiconscious, onto the seat – helpless now, against anything Erik wanted to do – he wished they'd found that liquor store. Still, he wasn't drunk enough to face what was coming.
Above him he saw Erik's face, blurry and unknowable, and beyond that the darkness of the night sky, and then he saw nothing at all.
"He'll be sleeping this off a while." Erik stood in Charles' living room. The phone cord stretched long enough that he could see Charles lying unconscious atop his still-made bed.
On the long-distance line, static clouded Landau's voice. "Any sense of which way he'll go?"
"The right approach will probably do the trick."
"I don't know, Lehnsherr. A fairy and a drunk? Hardly the ideal candidate."
"Hardly," Erik repeated. His eyes never left Charles' profile, distinct against the dark blue coverlet on his bed. "Still, no one else will do. No one we know of, at any rate."
Landau sighed. "Don't remind me. All right, call me tomorrow morning after you've talked to him."
Once Erik had hung up, he walked back into the bedroom where he'd poured Charles Xavier atop the mattress. The rest of this beach house was decorated in the gaudy style of the nouveau riche – velvet curtains despite the tropical heat, the latest model gramophone, even a phone in white instead of black. But Charles' room contained nothing so showy. Scientific texts and thick novels crowded the bookshelves; a simple braided rug covered the floor. The only decoration appeared to be a photograph of Charles with a young blonde woman – the sister, Erik recalled – embracing at what appeared to be her high school graduation.
It looked almost … wholesome. Even if it was the room of a fairy and a drunk.
Erik stepped closer to where Charles slept. His brown hair hadn't been cut in quite a while, and apparently the man didn't bother with pomade. Charles preferred his appearance as messy as his life, it seemed.
Yet no carelessness could mar the dark arches of his eyebrows, or the deep redness of his lips.
Were you going to wait until my pants were around my ankles? Charles' voice rang in Erik's memory. Of course he wouldn't have. That wasn't his game, never had been. Yet Erik remained aware that he had allowed Charles to interpret his attention as flirting for far longer than convenient. And he had not stopped Charles from driving while intoxicated, mostly because he had imagined them getting lost, well and truly away from it all, which in the moment he had found appealing.
He did not allow himself to ask why.
Slowly Erik sat on the end of the bed and took one of Charles' feet in his hands. He was able to slide the loafer off silently; Charles didn't stir. Other foot, then.
It was only polite to remove the man's shoes for sleep. Sitting there for a few moments, Charles' foot in his hands – fingers curled around one ankle, feeling the curve of Charles' instep – that was harder to explain. Fortunately Erik did not have to explain it to anyone. Not even to himself, after he walked out to spend a long night on the sofa and wait for the next morning, when he would pull Charles Xavier out of the world he so despised. Put him in the greatest danger he'd ever faced. And, quite possibly, end his life.