It was late afternoon before Charles looked for Erik again, and found him standing over a table in the library—their de facto workroom, strewn with papers, photos, maps. At first Charles thought he was intent on some file, head bent to study it, but as he drew nearer he saw that Erik was simply bracing his arms on the table, staring at nothing.
Concerned, Charles sent out a tendril of awareness and encountered uncharacteristic tumult.
He had learned long ago that most men’s minds were chaos, shards of love and noble purpose mixed haphazardly with tawdry jealousies, desires, fears. He’d realized then, so long ago, that he had a choice: he could either recoil from it all in revulsion—live, as it were, like Gulliver, among the horses—or accept it, the endless flotsam and jetsam of being human. As much as possible, he chose the latter.
Erik’s mind didn’t usually demand such forbearance, however. More than anyone he’d met, Erik’s psyche was precisely organized, different elements separated and sealed up tight. Like the metal cabinets you sometimes found in laboratories, the ones with dozens of tiny locked compartments, Charles thought, though his own metaphor made him shiver.
But this—this was like the first time he had encountered Erik—except that that had been an anarchic blast of destruction, while this was a sluggish roil of mismatched thoughts and half-formed feelings, bumping haphazardly against each other.
“Erik?” he said cautiously, shying away from the welter of thoughts.
Erik looked up, as if he’d only just noticed that Charles had come into the room—and that was worrying in and of itself. Charles peered at him. Erik had lost the flush of triumph he’d had when he’d turned the radar dish—now he looked exhausted, lined, sunken-eyed. Without thinking, Charles reached a hand toward his face.
“I think we’ve had quite enough of that for one day, don’t you?” Erik intercepted him, closing around Charles’s wrist hard enough to hurt. He loosened his grip almost at once, but not before Charles felt the heat coming off his fingers, and something he hadn’t noticed before rising to the surface of his mind. Fear: and that was as surprising and worrying as the rest of it put together.
“You’re not well,” Charles said, a statement and a caution. Erik still had hold of his wrist, as if he’d forgotten what he was doing—or as if he were too dizzy to let go.
Erik shrugged. “It’s nothing. It just happens sometimes when I—“ He gestured with his free hand, tilting it the way the radar dish had turned, “—overexert. It will pass soon enough.”
The fear, Charles decided on closer inspection, wasn’t new. It was a residual thing, left over, he thought, from a time when any physical weakness meant a death sentence, stirred up now by new pain.
Taking a calculated risk, he reversed their hands, moved to hold Erik’s wrist cupped in his own palm. When Erik didn’t pull away, Charles brushed his other hand over the hot skin of Erik’s forearm, found the pulse beating too rapidly under his thumb.
“If you’re ill, you can rest,” he said, trying to sound matter-of-fact. “You’re safe here.
Erik looked at him as if Charles could have no idea what those words meant. Charles thought there might have been pity in the look, if it hadn’t been so bleak. “No need. It will pass soon enough,” he repeated.
He disengaged himself, but swayed as soon as he was out of Charles’s grasp, grabbing the table again for support with a self-mocking snort at his own debility. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, perhaps you’re right. Perhaps I will go upstairs for a bit.”
“Where’s Erik?” Raven asked over dinner.
“Working out some theory. He took some food up to his room earlier, I think,” Charles answered, not sure why he was protecting Erik’s privacy.
Raven seemed satisfied, though. When they’d finished eating, she and the others drifted off to whatever teenage pastimes they were pursuing—Charles didn’t want to know, to tell the truth. Instead, he procured a thermometer from the old first aid kit —still in the downstairs washroom after all these years—fetched a glass of water from the kitchen and the brand new bottle of aspirin from his own bedside table—he seemed to go through a lot of the stuff these days—and made his way upstairs to Erik’s room.
There were quite a few flights to climb. For some reason, when they’d all claimed rooms, Erik had chosen a small one almost under the eaves. Not a maid’s room, quite, but certainly one that had been a guest room for unimportant cousins in the mansion’s heyday. It was puzzling. The man was no ascetic—Charles had toured enough cities with him by now to know that much. Perhaps the more luxurious parts of the mansion made him uncomfortable in some way. Charles could sympathize with that—he himself had been unable to contemplate sleeping in either his childhood room, or the master suite. But at least he’d chosen one of the larger bedrooms, closer to the ground floor. Erik, by virtue of age and experience, could have done the same.
Slightly winded, Charles reached the right floor. He shivered slightly—it was drafty up here—and bumped Erik’s door awkwardly with his elbow, hands too full of supplies to knock.
“Erik?” he called.
There was no immediate answer, and Charles had shifted his burden around and twisted the knob before it occurred to him that Erik might simply be asleep.
“What do you want, Charles?” he said as soon as the door cracked open and Charles clumsily inserted himself through it.
Erik lay on top of the covers, shoulders propped on the headboard, knees cocked. He’d pulled a blue terry bathrobe over his gray training clothes, and there was a book open on his thighs, but he had an arm flung over his eyes, as if it had become too much of an effort to read it. The same interior wildness came off him like a scent, perhaps even stronger than before.
“Just came to see how you were.” Charles shifted his weight from foot to foot—this kind of pastoral visiting was well outside of his areas of expertise.
Erik lowered his arm and regarded Charles quizzically. The evening’s rest didn’t seem to have done him much good. His face was drained, gray, except for the hectic spots of color slashed across his cheekbones. “I’m fine, thank you,” he said. “Or at least I will be fine by morning.”
“You still look feverish.” Charles pushed on, aware that he was taking refuge in officiousness, and despising himself a little for it. “I thought we should see what the damage is.” He took a step closer to the bed and held out the thermometer.
That at least made Erik smile, even if the smile was wan, lips stretched tight over teeth. “Charles,” he said, “a mercury thermometer isn’t going to work on me.”
“Oh. Right.” Charles felt foolish—it was a ridiculous thing to have forgotten. He put the thermometer down on the bedside table. “But this—yes?” he held out the aspirin bottle and water.
“Yes,” said Erik. “That will help. Thank you.”
He seemed to have given up his annoyance at Charles’s intrusion. Pushing himself farther into a sitting position, he took the water and the pills Charles shook out for him, swallowing them both at once and then draining the glass. Then he wrapped the blue robe more tightly around himself, shivered, and closed his eyes.
“Thank you,” Erik said again, and this time he clearly meant good-bye.
And, truly, Charles couldn’t think of what else to do. He’d exhausted his knowledge of what one did for sick people. His mother had always relegated him into the hands of nannies and housekeepers at the first signs of illness. And those caretakers, while never unkind, had recognized only two categories of disease: bad enough to call the doctor; and merely bad enough to be confined to bed, uncomfortable, lonely, and bored, until whatever it was had passed.
On the rare occasions when he or Raven had been unwell since—usually as the result of overindulgence, to be honest—they’d never seen any reason to change this protocol.
Charles had no idea why he should want to do more for Erik, of all people—Erik, the most self-sufficient of them all.
“Why don’t you have my room for the night?” he offered on impulse. “I’m sure it’s warmer than this attic.”
Erik’s lips quirked, though he didn’t open his eyes. “That’s kind of you, Charles, but no—this room is—reasonably secure. Yours isn’t.” He made a vague twirling gesture with his fingers without unwrapping his arms from his body.
For a moment, Charles thought Erik might be entertaining paranoid notions of the mansion being attacked, might be wandering farther in his fever than he’d thought. But then he took another look around the room and noticed how bare it was—none of the standing lamps and brass-footed armchairs that made his own room so comfortable. Perhaps there had been more to Erik’s withdrawal than he’d realized.
“Oh,” he said. “Right.” And wished he could think of something else to say. “Well, try to get some sleep then.”
Erik opened his eye, the effort wringing a faint groan from him. “Can’t do that, I’m afraid.” He resolutely lifted his book again. “Last time I fell asleep during one of these spells the Red Army lost several valuable pieces of equipment.”
“Now that’s a story I’d like to hear,” Charles said, wishing too late he’d masked the fondness in his voice.
“Maybe I’ll tell you sometime when my head isn’t pounding like a jackhammer.” Erik kneaded a spot in the center of his forehead, his eyes squeezing shut again.
“If you like, I could—“ Charles drew a half step closer, speaking before he could censor himself. He didn’t know what words to use to describe what he meant, so he used his hands instead, turning them downwards and cupping his palms. But Erik had his eyes closed. So he tried, as delicately as he could, to demonstrate with his mind—unfurling a kind of gossamer net around Erik’s thoughts.
Erik’s eyes snapped open and his hands tensed around the book. For a moment Charles thought he might have to duck.
“Surface only,” he said quickly. “No prying. Just a kind of—of shield—a fire break, you might say. So you could sleep. I wouldn’t even have to touch you.” He held up his arms--look, ma, no hands--feeling weirdly exposed, as he were the one who was vulnerable, not the sick man on the bed.
For of course he expected Erik’s coldness, a withering dismissal. But Erik just held his gaze, blue eyes paler than Charles had ever seen them, wariness battling a bone-deep exhaustion in their depths.
“You couldn’t do that,” he said, an odd flush of hope in his voice.
It was Charles’s turn to grin. “Try me,” he said, and tightened the weave of the mental filaments he’d created.
Erik did, needless to say, too cautious to do otherwise, sent a spike of power towards the construct, gently at first, then harder. Charles dispersed it easily—not trying to defuse the magnetic force, simply undoing the impulse that had spawned it, smoothing it away. Erik made a small sound of surprise.
“See?” Charles said, lowering his finger from his temple. “No trouble at all.”
That wasn’t quite true. Charles had no doubt that if Erik were in full possession of his faculties he would be able to punch through any barrier Charles cared to erect. But he would need all his strength of purpose to do so. And at the moment fever, pain, and weariness had blurred his focus, made the volcanic force of his power easy to disarm. Erik, he was sure, knew that too. But there was no reason for either of them to acknowledge it now.
“Get some rest,” Charles said. “I’ll watch.”
Their gazes remained locked a moment more, then Erik gave him a quick, slight nod, an emotion Charles couldn’t name flickering across his face. Charles pulled the one straight-backed wooden chair in the room closer to the bed, Erik’s eyes following him the whole way, and perched on it. Then, because he had said he wouldn’t touch, he leaned an elbow on the back of the chair, put two fingers to his forehead, and brought his invisible firebreak down over the flares and shadows of Erik’s mind.
Almost inaudibly, Erik sighed, as if it were was more than comforting than he’d expected to be so guarded, so hemmed in. He dipped his head as if acknowledging something, then shifted closer to horizontal, closed his eyes, curled in on himself, and turned so that he faced away from Charles.
Charles watched him. Erik’s layers of clothing barely muffled the knife-edge lines of his shoulders and torso. Charles wondered, as he often did, how any man could look so much like a weapon, even in repose. But as he watched, some of the tautness went out of Erik’s body, and Charles would have known he was moving towards sleep, even if he hadn’t felt the withdrawal of his consciousness. He wished he’d made him get under the covers. But he hardly dared move. Somehow, Erik's willingness to turn his back, to expose the pale sliver of flesh between the folds of his hood and the mussed strands of his hair, seemed a greater gesture of trust than looking him in the eyes ever had.
Was this how Androcles had felt, he wondered, when the wounded lion had offered him his paw?
On the rare occasions on which he’d tried, Charles had always found it hard to find words to describe the texture, the terrain of other people’s minds. There was no specific language for such things, and most metaphors sounded trite and inadequate. He would have said that Erik’s thoughts, even while he slept, were like a forest fire incompletely doused—guttering strangely, sparking without warning—or like a simmering ocean storm generating random waterspouts—but neither image was exactly right. He supposed it didn’t matter, as long as he caught, defused, smoothed out, the bursts of power as they came.
He had said he wouldn’t pry, and he didn’t. He had already seen most of the memories that surfaced, in any case, even the most horrific ones--many, indeed, that very morning. He stood guard as impersonally as he could, as Erik would have surely wanted him to. After a while, though, he became aware of a memory making its way through the turmoil, as if Erik himself had thrown it out as a kind of life raft.
There were no images associated with this memory; only touch—a cheek pressed into faintly scratchy fabric, something warm and soft beneath; and sound—a woman’s voice, singing low and tunelessly.
Oyfn veg shteyt a boym,
Shteyt er ayngeboygn,
Ale feygl funem boym
Zaynen zikh tsefloygn.
Charles didn’t recognize the language—Yiddish, he supposed—but he knew the voice. In the memory, the child Erik burrowed deeper into his mother’s lap, wriggling happily as her fingers carded through his hair.
Something clenched in Charles’s chest that was very close to pain. He’d spent so long grappling with all that Erik had suffered, the damage it had wrought in him, that he’d never given much thought to what he’d lost. It hit him now like a blow: all that Erik had lost that he, Charles, had never known. For a moment, he had to give his attention to quelling the unruly burst of envy in his heart. But it wasn’t until a metal lock detached itself from one of the windows and cracked the plaster in the opposite wall that he realized how much he’d let his concentration lapse.
Chagrined, Charles pushed all self-pitying thoughts away, let the pressure of his fingers on his temple ground him, and resumed his vigil.
In the wee hours of the morning, Erik’s fever broke, just as Erik had said it would. His mind stilled, took on the murky opacity that so often follows storms. Groaning faintly, he turned onto his back, a film of perspiration covering his face. Still in the hard chair, Charles shifted and almost groaned too, stiff from having sat so long motionless.
Erik blinked open red eyes, and, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, held out a hand towards Charles. Charles took it, held it, clammy but cool, between his own. They stayed there for a moment, the night’s quiet heavy and thick around them.
“Help me up?” Erik broke the silence, finally, voice clear if a little raspy. “I need a change of clothes and a wash.”
Charles did, then let Erik wave off his assistance as he made his way, slow but reasonably steady, across the room. At the door, he paused, leonine head bowed slightly, but still turned away.
“Thank you, my friend,” he said.