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The changeling; or, Charles Xavier (a Novel by a Lady)

Chapter Text

The fire in the hearth burned high and fierce, and the light from it spilled warm across the carpeted floor, lapped the children and the dog lying upon it, and washed up against two chairs and the men sitting in them. Where it did not run – the fold of a jacket or cravat, the deep shadows under a brow – there were shadows. The very edges of the light, as though exhausted by the journey, caught in the crystal and gold of a chandelier, and there refracted into a thousand infant flames.

All light stopped at the invisible barrier of the window. Beyond it lay the wall of impenetrable night, the sky clouded over and moonless. In the distance, the solitary wail of a steam-carriage sounded like a cry from the other world. Both the children and the dog looked up at the intrusion; both the men ignored it.

One of the men stirred, stretching long legs briefly across the carpet before retracting them and summoning his glass of wine, which sat atop the lacquerwork sideboard across the room. For a moment, he regarded his interlocutor over the rim of the glass. When he did drink, it was with economy – two quick swallows – and little appreciation. He did not put the glass down straight away, but contemplated it, and its steel monogramming, silently.

"As I am your employer," he said, "it stands to reason I ought to know something about you. But as it stands, all I know of you is that you attempted to drown me in my own lake. Did the kelpies send you to get rid of me? Where did you come from, Mr. Xavier?"

"I came from Essex School at Shawcross, and then Oxford, Mr. Lehnsherr," replied the man so addressed. "Did not Miss Frost inform you?"

"Miss Frost rarely informs me of anything. It's a good arrangement." Mr. Lehnsherr smiled wickedly. "But, even if she had told me the minutest details of what's inside your skull, I still want to hear your report of yourself from your own mouth, if you please."

He accompanied this request with a mocking bow of his head.

"Very well," said Mr. Xavier. He met Mr. Lehnsherr's eyes squarely. "If you wish."

* * *

"Bad, bad Charles, naughty Charles," Cain hissed triumphantly. "I told Papa on you, and he'll be here soon and you'll be sorry."

Charles Xavier, ten years old and quite alone in the world, awaited his fate in the presence only of the vase that lay shattered on the floor. Cain's voice reached him through the barrier of the library door, which was locked from without; Charles could plainly hear the rattle of the key as Cain played with the handle. More taunting than Cain's continual promises of retribution were his thoughts, audible as though the boy were shouting in his ear, thick with pride, resentment, a satisfaction that was hollow at the core. Roused by injustice, anger suggested the expedient of silently commanding Cain to unlock the door and to go away, or perhaps to approach his father and recant, but Dr. Marko had – Charles could discern this quite clearly – already resolved on Charles's guilt, and was even now in the process of devising an appropriate punishment.

On the floor in front of him lay the object of contention, a vase – celadon porcelain, worked with lotus blossoms and ducks across its surface – now shattered into so many tiny pieces, a duck's eye visible here, the flat blade of a flower there, on one fragment something that might have been a wing, on another, a ripple of water. Dr. Marko had claimed possession of it, a gift given to him by a Chinese colleague who had told him of airship prototypes even now being built in Shanghai. Charles had read the lie quite easily and said so, upon which Dr. Marko had said with a sneer, "And who, Charles Xavier, will believe you?"

A small commotion ensued outside the door; a clatter of impatient feet, Cain's shrill cry of triumph, his father's deeper voice admonishing him to leave directly, "You know I disapprove of your being in his presence, my boy." Cain habitually ignored any and all instructions given to him by his parent, their governess, and now the tutor, and Charles considered it unfortunate that Cain elected to disobey his father's inclination in this one particular.

Having pried his son off the door handle, Dr. Marko entered the room. In the dusty light, he was not a reassuring figure; natural severity of temperament had darkened almost to cruelty under the influence of liquor and (Charles knew) a life spent indebted to Dr. Brian Xavier, first for his genius and then his widow and his money. His beard, close-trimmed and black, framed a mouth now bent with censure; his brows, also black, drew down in a scowl when he saw the remains of the vase, and the water soaking into the carpets.

"My son informs me you ordered him to break this." Dr. Marko installed himself on the sofa, black and ominous against the scarlet of its damask. "Is this true?"

"You've already decided it is, so I suppose so," Charles replied.

Dr. Marko's pale lips thinned. "I should lock you up for your insolence. Have you thought to try any of your… your tricks on me again?"

"I have not." The anger from earlier returned, making his breath short. Unfair, unfair, it cried, and railed at its lack of power to avenge itself. It pressed against his skull, the cage of his thoughts and the knowledge of his dependency.

"Your father and mother are both dead," Dr. Marko continued, "and your mother, when she died, left me in control of this estate. And you…." He regarded Charles from behind his spectacles; the lenses caught the white glare of the crank-light, obscuring the expression in his eyes. When he turned, the eclipse faded; scorn and hostility were promptly restored to those dark orbs. "You, Charles Xavier, are a dependent, and you would do well – very, very well – to remember that."

"Yes, sir." Something had locked tight around his throat, almost choking off the words.

 

Silence descended, oppressive accompaniment to Dr. Marko's study of him. Charles thought to try himself against him again, although he suspected his mind was too young, too undisciplined to attempt any assault against Dr. Marko's. He had sometimes thought of trying to infuse compassion or love into the brain that resided behind that skull and unyielding face, but could such be accomplished – could, Charles wondered, something like pity be introduced into a nature so antipathetic to anything resembling it?

"Even for a changeling there is something unnatural about you." Dr. Marko had been a scientist – not, Charles told himself with fierce pride, of the same quality as his father – and the dark, deep-set eyes, framed as they were by lids made soft by drink, were keen and penetrating. No specimen (Charles would think this later) could be studied more thoroughly. "When you look at me that way, I almost fancy something quite old, quite other, watches me from those eyes."

Dr. Marko studied him a moment longer and then, standing to his full height, pronounced sentence: to clean the wreckage of the vase himself while he meditated on the gulf of difference that subsisted between himself, Dr. Marko, and his son; and after this, to go forthwith to the nursery and go to bed without supper.

"The staff will have instructions on the matter," Dr. Marko said. He rubbed his hands briskly, not unlike (Charles imagined) Pontius Pilate washing his hands of Christ. "I will know, Charles, if you have managed to circumvent me."

With that, Dr. Marko quitted the room. Before the door shut behind him, Charles caught sight of Cain's wide face, just then contorted in a sneer, his small, dark eyes glittering viciously. Charles started toward the door, intent on something, ready to fling out silent promises of vengeance, or darker nightmare suggestions that would sink into Cain's mind like poisoned needles. Dr. Marko wheeled threateningly and Charles started back; Cain crowed with victory, yaaaah, yaaaah, bad Charles, you got caught; the door swung to, and Charles was alone.

The library closed around him. Once he would have thought it a refuge – Cain never went there if he could possibly help it (bloodier and more expensive mayhem could be wrought elsewhere), and Dr. Marko preferred the billiard rooms – but now, stirred to a pitch of agitation foreign to him, his thoughts filled up the room with their cacophony and crowded about him, anger and indignation and hurt, frustration with his weakness and the injustice of Dr. Marko's partiality.

Blindly, he knelt by the vase and began to collect it fragment by fragment, careful of the edges. An edge caught him across the soft pad of a finger, the pain bright and startling and clear and bringing silence with it. In the gloom of the library, consigned as it often was to dust and isolation, the blood welled richly red, a pinpoint of light in it that elongated as the bead stretched and ran down his finger to drip upon the carpet. With a sigh he applied his handkerchief to the wound and somewhat awkwardly went about his task.

When the last bit of porcelain had been consigned to the dustbin, he considered obeying the second half of his orders and taking himself upstairs to bed, but rebellion – infant as it was – raised up its head; and instead of finding the nursery he found a book (a commentary on Newton, quite dust-covered) and the haven of a curtained window seat. He curled up with the book open on his lap, sheltered by the heavy wine-red fabric on the one side and the window on the other, and instead of reading looked out onto skies that lowered grey with rain, and the lawns and gardens of the Xavier estate as they ran off to the bordering woods.

As he applied himself to deciphering Newton, he heard at length soft voices coming from the gallery beyond the door. The maids, he realized, likely come to determine he had done as instructed and see to any damage to the rug. His fledgling power sufficed to draw a cloak over himself – or, rather, a cloak over their minds, woven of soft requests that they not discern his presence, that nothing more than stale air and a dead fly tenanted the third recess in the library's wall. The maids' minds were agreeable, and they chatted to each other as one put down dry cloths and the other picked up a few ostraka Charles had missed.

"Poor young man," said one presently, "the doctor was in quite a taking."

"Mark my words, it's the other one what's done it," her colleague replied, "anyone who can see past his own nose might see that, clear enough." After saying this, she turned the lever on the crank-light; the battery coughed to life and the light, which had begun to dim, flared to brilliance again.

"True, true, but what does that signify? At any rate, I heard the doctor talking; it'll be school for him soon, and who knows? Maybe it would suit him better than this gloomy old place. Both his parents died here, you know, poor lad."

The maids' discourse continued on, but Charles had found one point in it and dwelt upon it with fascination. School! He knew the word, because all boys were expected to go to such a place. Cain feared it as a place of discipline and deprivation, where all was orders and beatings for misbehavior, but Charles, hearing it, imagined neat ranks of desks and row upon row of books – Latin, geometry, literature, history, physics, chemistry, Greek – and days and nights spent soaking up the accumulated knowledge of centuries.

And, perhaps, the ever-hopeful voice whispered, other people – other changelings, those who were like him and those who might understand him, whose natures might be in accord with his.

At the time, these hopes came to him vaguely – powerful, true, but the scope of them beyond a ten-year-old's capacity to give them shape or any meaning beyond the diffuse want that filled him. He turned over the images as one might turn over a dream, and almost missed the drawing-down of day, and the warning to quit his post and go upstairs before Dr. Marko detected his transgression.

* * *

Mr. Lehnsherr set his wine glass to the side. "Will you drink?"

The carafe and another glass drifted over to Mr. Lehnsherr; his pale gaze still on Charles's face, he filled the glass and, with a gesture, transported it to Charles, who accepted it but did not drink. Instead, he studied the iron inlays and said, "You're a metalworker – you have an affinity for metals, I mean."

"Magnetism," Mr. Lehnsherr said. He nodded at Charles, who jumped at a stirring in his coat pocket; his watch was trying to escape, levitating on his chain. He secured it with one hand, and tucked it back where it belonged. Mr. Lehnsherr grinned, a wide and unnerving grin, before sobering again.

"What of your parents?" Mr. Lehnsherr asked. "You mentioned they were gone."

"My father was an inventor." Charles nodded at the crank-light, abandoned in its corner. Mr. Lehnsherr turned to glance at it, eyebrow rising in inquiry. "He held two of the first patents for the crank-light; specifically, the conduit for the electricity, and the composition of the battery. The same battery they now use in the parish registers, to power them."

"One of those alone would have made him rich," Mr. Lehnsherr said speculatively. He gestured idly; the lever on the crank-light turned and the battery started to life. A moment later, the three bulbs began to glow, and some of the shadows fled. "And yet," he fixed his pale gaze on Charles's face, "and yet, here you are."

Charles shrugged. "When I graduated, I found myself without help or connections; my step-father had cast me off entirely after my mother died, and sixteen years left me with little hope of relying on my father's name. So, I vowed to turn my hand to any work where I might be useful, and where my talents might benefit society. I am not a proud man."

"On the contrary," said Mr. Lehnsherr, "you strike me as a very proud man, Mr. Charles Xavier."

"I suppose you number telepathy among your talents as well?"

"I? No, no I do not have that power, only the ability to read your face and find out the truth for myself. Maybe, if I did have it, though, it would have saved me some pain." When Charles looked away, Mr. Lehnsherr said, with somewhat less bitterness, "Then again, maybe not."

Charles, who prided himself on almost always knowing what to say, floundered for a moment before saying, "Telepathy is no shield against pain, sir, I can promise you that. I think no changeling has that gift."

Mr. Lehnsherr did not reply to this, but contented himself with watching Charles in a way that made Charles doubt the man was not, in fact, telepathic. In the glow of the crank-light, his face had lost its shadows, the sharp lines of his cheekbones and jaw illuminated, his hair – where it had dried, at any rate – shone in glints of copper and red. When he, at length, released Charles and turned his gaze to the children (and it did feel like release, as though the field of Charles's attention had been, by his power, turned to him alone), something softened the grim outlines of his face, and glowed in the blue-gray eyes.

"Pietro, Wanda." The twins looked up, immediate and expectant. "It's past time for you to go to bed."

"Yes, Papa," they said in unison and clambered to their feet. The dog got up as well and crowded up behind them as Mr. Lehnsherr dispensed cursory kisses and reminders that bedtime was bedtime, not "run riot in the nursery time." (Despite the stern words, Charles discerned how affection softened the harsh lines of Mr. Lehnsherr's face and lit his harsh grey eye.) After saying their good-nights to "Herr Professor," the children obediently trooped from the room with the dog at their heels.

"Miss Frost tells me you mortally insulted her when you first set foot in this house," Mr. Lehnsherr said idly. Charles detected something more, amusement and a certain subdued delight, and had to smile ruefully and admit that such was the case.

"She's an… adjutant, I suppose," Mr. Lehnsherr said. "She performs duties for me beyond the scope of the common housekeeper." Evasiveness that was, and Charles had to bite back on the question he very much wanted to ask, Is this to do with the steel door? and say instead, "I also could not imagine her taking on the task of governess."

"I haven't been able to find a changeling nursery maid – or, for that matter, a tutor – until yourself." Mr. Lehnsherr had his wine glass again, cradled in long fingers. "Not many of us are interested in educating the young, outside of the institutions and sanctuaries. That includes Miss Frost, as you probably know by now."

"It's a pity," Charles said, "I believe such institutions could be forces for the good of our people, if they were properly managed. With the world as it is now, the more smoothly we can integrate with human society, and the more we can turn our abilities to good… the benefits are incalculable. For everyone."

"You say that with great passion," Mr. Lehnsherr observed. The sardonic twist to his mouth suggested that this was not entirely a good thing, and Charles, who sensed the condescension and amusement – it registered almost as a smell, disagreeable and sharp, or a sour taste – bridled at the unspoken insult, and said, "Perhaps you'll credit me with having some experience of institutions, sir."

"Essex." Mr. Lehnsherr gestured impatiently with his glass; Charles fancied he could feel the watch in his pocket vibrating. "I've heard some reports of that place, and even I wouldn't wish it on the children of my worst enemy." His smile this time was wolfish, a curl at the corners of that generous mouth, the glint of teeth in the firelight. "But you've put too much faith in education. Is there not something to be said for nature? I am, by nature, a hard and unforgiving man, and I have difficulty believing that, even you and your saintly untiring zeal" (this was said with sarcasm) "could convert me to charity and forgiveness."

"Hard and unforgiving by circumstance, maybe," Charles said, "but not by nature, no."

Mr. Lehnsherr snorted. "And, Herr Professor, based on an hour's acquaintance, what do you know about me?"

"I could know everything, if I wished," Charles said.

"That's a very large claim, Mr. Xavier," Mr. Lehnsherr said. He was leaning forward now, eyes flinty and fixed on Charles; Charles steeled himself and met that flat, dangerous gaze. "If you know anything about me, then you'll know to stay out of my head."

The two of them sat in silence, gazes locked, and even as he began to feel uncomfortable – and to become aware that staring at one's employer was hardly deferential – Charles realized that Mr. Lehnsherr was allowing himself to be looked at. Anxiety drew his body tight, a vulnerability underneath the fine clothing, and Charles knew that if he pressed his fingers to the throat hidden under the cravat and collar, the pulse there would race. Mr. Lehnsherr allowed it, though, and Charles suddenly had the sense that he had never permitted himself to be seen so openly. Carefully, he kept himself back from all but the most basic impressions, the pale-green nervousness, the steel of the certainty that Charles suspected lay not very far underneath Mr. Lehnsherr's surface. He brushed across old grief, like a wound, and if Charles broke through the scab he could make the memory bleed again.

"Have you learned all you want to know?" Mr. Lehnsherr asked.

"I didn't read your mind," Charles said stiffly. "I could have, but didn't."

At length, Mr. Lehnsherr laughed. He sat back in his chair and finished the rest of his wine, smirking around the lip of his glass. Almost casually, he dropped the glass – Charles braced himself for it to shatter – and caught it a hairsbreadth before the carpet, and slowly lifted it back up and set it on the table.

"You have done what not one in a thousand would do – fail to take the opportunity to have me in your power forever," Mr. Lehnsherr said. Charles had a sense of a smile resting, just hinted, at the corners of his mouth, and living mostly in the eyes. "It's the lot of dependents to do what their superiors tell them to. If I were to tell you that peace is no possible option for me, and said you must agree with me, would you?"

"No."

Mr. Lehnsherr said something soft, emphatic, and German. Charles read the curse, and the frustration, effortlessly.

"You will forgive me," Mr. Lehnsherr said abruptly, "if I dismiss you now. Good night, Mr. Xavier."

"Good night." Every contour of Mr. Lehnsherr's thoughts demanded solitude, and, although reluctant to leave – his curiosity had been ignited; there would be no extinguishing it now – Charles repeated the "good night," and stood.

The candle and its holder drifted over to Charles, who plucked it out of the air, almost startled at the weight as it settled into his hand. Mr. Lehnsherr was pointedly looking away, staring at the fireplace with a raptness that would fool anyone but a telepath. All his attention was riveted upon Charles, fixed to him as though he were made of steel and the invisible threads of Mr. Lehnsherr's power were knotted to him inextricably and keeping him frozen there.

In the corner, the forgotten crank-light ran down and died with a hum.

Mr. Lehnsherr roused himself. "I said, good night," he snapped.

Charles allowed himself a half-bow, just at the edge of respectful, and left. The clock by the salon door told him it was almost gone midnight; outside, through the windows, the thin sliver of the westering moon picked out shadows on the lawn, the sharply-delineated edges of the garden and its flagstones. Past the windows darkness returned, broken only by his candle, and the candlelight ran slowly over the paintings on the wall, which watched Charles as he passed – generations of Lehnsherrs, Charles supposed, and most of them inclined to disapprove of him – and over the plinths with their statues, the worked pattern of the carpet. After ascending the stairs to the living area of the house, Charles turned right and counted four doors down, and let himself into his room.

From the window, the prospect from Ironhill Hall led darkly down the ramparts and the hill, out across the fields striped with the shadows of moonlight and the ocean of trees that waved in the wind. Beyond them low mountains ranged, silvered along their peaks. Charles studied them for a moment, vexed by the sense of confinement – Mr. Lehnsherr had, he thought ruefully, pegged him right as to pride, for pride he had, and more besides.

Before the candle melted down, he undressed and washed and climbed into bed. When he blew the candle out, darkness came down like a curtain, broken only by the strange and feeble light of the dying moon outside. Hesitantly, Charles reached out into the silence, ran mental fingers across the glowing points that were Wanda and Pietro in their nursery and Mr. Lehnsherr still brooding down below, the staff (not quite as bright as the children or Mr. Lehnsherr; changelings always stood out to him). He had no sense of Miss Frost, for she had walled herself up in her own mind, and – and – the terrible blankness of the place behind the steel doors.

He worried at it, a wall he couldn't see, a wall that prevented him from seeing anything beyond it. Against his mind it was adamant, utterly impenetrable, and he had the sudden, heart-freezing thought that to be locked in that room was to be lost to the world. Anyone in there might scream out the rest of his days, might pray to whatever god he believed in, might even – if he knew of changelings – beg for a mindreader to hear his cries – and the whole world and time would turn on, deaf.

Where in these dark imaginings he fell asleep, he had no idea. First he closed his eyes against the fear and breathed deep against the constriction in his chest, and when he next opened his eyes again, sunlight spilled through the window and the world outside had transformed to the green and blue and riotous color of an English spring.