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?"
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.
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
"There," Charles said as he adjusted the resolution. "What do you see?"
"They're all lined up so neatly," Wanda reported, her voice caught on wonder. Her hands rested delicately on the table, balancing as she leaned over the table. "What are they?"
"I want to see." Pietro pushed restlessly at his sister's side, but she refused to budge from her station in front of the microscope. Charles stepped in, placed a calming hand on Pietro's shoulder, and, after reassuring him he would be able to look in a moment, asked Wanda, "What do you think they look like?"
"Little blocks, Mr. Xavier," she said decisively. "What are they, though?"
Pietro was vibrating under Charles's hand; with a laugh, he helped Wanda down and, almost before he turned back, Pietro had installed himself before the microscope and was peering avidly down into it.
"Those are the cells of the fern," Charles explained as he sketched a diagram in Wanda's notebook. "They build the fern – like blocks, yes," he said, anticipating Wanda's question, floating as it did at the surface of her mind. "Professor Hooke named them that because they look like the cells used by monks, in the old days."
"Is that all they do?" Pietro asked.
"Rather a bit more than that." Both the children pressed him to explain, and Charles showed them the simple drawing, the labels that read cellula and interstitia and nucleus ("or the areola," Charles said, "that is the other term for it"). "I believe, and other scientists are starting to think so, that they are what give us life. There are a great many secrets within them – within the nucleus, in particular."
Pietro and Wanda stayed silent, and the temptation of their silence was too great; Charles had to fill it with his theories, although theory did not quite describe them so much as dreams might, the hope he'd built on his textbooks and his own observations, founded on something he supposed in others might be called faith. Suppose we are all of us composed of so many millions of small things – these cells, and they have within them the force or the spark to perpetuate themselves, and they are what allow the transmutation of species – that they carry within them an almost infinite capacity for change? He sensed their curiosity, and the childish suspicion that the words were important despite not knowing why.
These cells could hold the secret to my telepathy, he said directly to them; Wanda laughed as she always did (his voice tickled, according to her), and Pietro's brow wrinkled in thought. And they could be the reason why you run so fast, Pietro, and why you, Wanda, can cast your spells.
"They're very tiny things," Wanda said skeptically.
"'What, of the friability or brittleness of some others, and the like?'" Charles quoted, "but till such time as our Microscope, or some other means, enable us to discover the true Schematism and Texture of all kinds of bodies, we must grope, as it were, in the dark, and onely ghess at the true reasons of things by similitudes and comparisons.'"
"You preach like an enthusiast," said Mr. Lehnsherr from the doorway of the library.
"Papa!" The twins launched themselves at their father, who raised an admonitory finger and bade them calm down and remember where they were. Pietro and Wanda subsided obediently. "Perhaps," Mr. Lehnsherr said, straightening from his careless slouch against the doorframe, "you children would like to be out in the garden."
Pietro, who could only endure lessons so long, was gone from the room in a shot, footsteps vanishing down the hallway in barest seconds. A moment later, following the much more courteous asking of permission, Wanda followed.
"I appreciate you waiting a few days before beginning to undermine my authority." Charles restored Hooke's Micrographia to its place on the shelf, and, unthinkingly, accepted the volume of van Leeuwenhoek's drawings that Mr. Lehnsherr held out to him. When he looked up, Mr. Lehnsherr was smiling at him, an inviting light sparking behind the cool blue of his eyes, and Charles (touched also by the sudden openness, the reserve of Mr. Lehnsherr's mind melting like ice), had to smile back.
"Do you like the room?"
"Very much," Charles said.
Mr. Lehnsherr nodded absently. "I asked Miss Frost to fit it up for you, anything that you might need. After all," he said this with an odd wistfulness, "we must keep you happy."
The school-room was outfitted much as any small school-room might be, from what Charles could recall of the years before Essex. Books furnished by the library sat on a shelf, and comprised introductions to the classics, Latin, French, the natural and physical sciences, mathematics, and geography. A globe sat in its corner, eclipsing a rather smaller model of the solar system, Herschel's Uranus in its lonely, outermost orbit, bounded by the ecliptic and its copper disk worked with stars. And, prize among prizes (for Charles at least), the engraved brass of the microscope shone dully in the light through the window. Under Mr. Lehnsherr's invisible influence, the metal plates on which the slides rested shuffled back and forth, and the neck of the microscope eased up and down in its bearings.
"I hope they've been obedient." Mr. Lehnsherr's attention had wandered from the microscrope to the books now, his fingers roaming the spines, tracing the gold-embossed names of Milton, Vergil, and Schiller. Charles assured him the children were well behaved, and Mr. Lehnsherr made a small noise of satisfaction.
"While you were with your businessmen this morning, they suffered through Keats," Charles said, which won him the same wordless reply. "Pietro has a head for mathematics, I believe."
"Do you find it odd," Mr. Lehnsherr began, "to teach books written and theories formulated by humans? I heard you speaking of that," a spare gesture for the microscope, "and the secrets these cells of ours might hold, and yet it's humans, not our own kind, who are discovering these things. Who write on us."
"Do you adhere to the old belief as well?" Charles asked, not bothering to keep back his smile; it seemed to nettle Mr. Lehnsherr, who scowled. "I find it hard to believe that a man such as yourself thinks that the fairies take human infants from their cradles to raise them under the barrows, and leave us in their places."
"Hardly." Mr. Lehnsherr pushed the microscope back across the table, the silent and effortless exertion of his power a reminder. "But I fail to see what possible use these cells of yours have for us."
"What possible use?" Mr. Lenhserr was a miasma of cynicism and disbelief, his usual dark amusement and Charles rallied all his forces for attack. "Imagine the comfort a changeling might have, knowing he came not from some alien race – " the memory of Dr. Marko's words still stung " – but instead the reasons for his existence and his gifts are perfectly, empirically explainable? That there was no magic, or superstition, involved in his creation? And imagine – imagine the parents of such children, knowing that there had been no failure on their part, that their children are as much an ordinary fact of the world as the sky or the grass. Changelings would no longer have to live apart, tolerated but feared by their human brothers and sisters. We could… we could have understanding. Peace."
Mr. Lehnsherr absorbed this speech in silence. Something chased across his face, dark, pain a sudden claw that sank into Charles's chest. He gasped with it, and closed himself off as swiftly as he could, but the pain lingered, echoes upon echoes, and they resolved themselves into fleeting images – faces with no names, a hand holding a knife, voices speaking words that teased at the edge of Charles's understanding before they dissipated.
"Perhaps you'll credit me with having some experience of the world," Mr. Lehnsherr said tightly, and Charles remembered his own words from the night before, "when I say that peace is very often the last thing the world wishes, however fair the face that proposes it."
He left with that, and left Charles to gather the materials for the afternoon's lesson. Briefly, Charles considered calling for him to come back, but anger had drawn Mr. Lehnsherr's spine tight, his shoulders stiff with it, and Charles had to let him go. Instead he turned himself to collecting pencils and papers, and with the walk out to the garden, haunted as it always was by the steel door and the void behind it.
Outside, the sun sat gently on the world, a cool breeze soothing its warmth and nothing like the stifling despair within the house. Charles idled his way down to the garden, collecting his mind back to himself; he sensed, distantly, the dark cloud of Mr. Lehnsherr's presence in one of the older orchards, solitary, and forced himself to turn away.
The estate at Ironhill took its name from the boulders that stood like half-sunk sentinels along the northern approach to the house. Metallic veins ran through them, rivulets of silver in the sunlight or moonlight, and under rainwater they shone a dull, steely grey. Those same rocks had furnished some of the stone for the house, as well as the flags of the courtyard and the pavements by the entry. Their smaller cousins had been built into the garden wall, buttressed by ivy and, near the southern corner, interrupted by a massive chestnut tree.
Pietro and Wanda sat in the chestnut's shade, collecting specimens for the afternoon's assignment, a study of flowers and insects, as Charles watched. Next to him, Miss Frost observed the lesson with no small amount of boredom and impatience, her immaculately white dress tucked up carefully despite the protection of a blanket.
"It's a fine day," Charles said.
The observation won him a disinterested "Quite," and a silence as absolute as the stone wall. Around them, the garden drowsed in the westering sun, the irises and buttercups fading to a gentler gold, the roses spilling gauzy light over their leaves and the narcissi beneath them. Miss Frost – something about her forbade the familiarity of a first name – sat almost indifferent, stitching a length of white cloth with silver. Unwarmed by the sun, her face, like the cloth she embroidered, was pale and cool, the aristocratic lines of it never softening for an instant under the crown of her golden hair.
An adjutant Mr. Lehnsherr had called her. Remembering how she had greeted him, a stranger dripping extravagantly over the clean flags of the kitchen, coolly passing him off to Mrs. Hughes and saying she would meet with him when he was presentable and not attempting to flood her house, the position seemed insufficient. The maior domus, perhaps, Charles decided, the governor of the palace in the king's absence.
Despite the warmth and calm of the day, the tension stretched between them. He felt the blankness of her mind, the same emptiness of Essex's, very nearly. Only, instead of the drop into the void she was smooth, an obdurate shell – a glass, perhaps, giving nothing back to him except his own reflected power. If she felt his touch she gave no sign of it, and paid him as little heed as she did Wanda, who attempted to show her one of her sketches.
"I don't teach brats," Miss Frost said, the weave of her needle through the fabric unfaltering. The curls clustered at her temple shielded her eyes. "When I was a girl, I learned quite well on my own."
It had been fall, tending slowly into winter, when change came to the gates of Xavier House.
Dr. Marko had banished Charles to the nursery, which had been set at a discreet distance from the adult and inhabited world of the study, salon, and ballroom. Charles sensed the presences of the staff coming and going, Dr. Marko (usually in the billiard room), and Cain. The last he followed with some anxiety before realizing that his step-father had given orders for Cain to stay away in case Charles decided to plant a horrific suggestion in Cain's mind, and to that end had installed Cain in one of the front rooms of the house. That the size of the house, large as it was, posed no difficulty to Charles seemed not to occur to Dr. Marko, who believed that Charles required the sight of his victim to work his devilry. Charles, grateful for the reprieve from Cain, did not strip Dr. Marko of this illusion.
Most other children would have pined over the solitude, but Charles filled his days with his books (collected by sneaking down to the library and silently suggesting to the staff that they not notice anything amiss) and, surrounded by Cuvier, von Humboldt, and even Lyell, passed his days mostly quiet and unmolested. On occasion, he would look out the window over the Xavier estate and ponder the looming mystery of school. And it was in the middle of meditations on the latter that one of the maids found him, and roused him with a brisk order to make himself presentable and go down to the salon.
"Dr. Marko wants to speak with you in the study," the maid said. She knelt to help him with his collar and to brush his coat, a quick finger-dusting. "You are very presentable, Master Charles."
"Thank you," he said politely, and she offered him a shy smile, as though the friendliness were forbidden. In fact, it had been. "Hurry along with you now," she said, as if remembering, and gave him a curt push out the door.
When he arrived in the study, he felt Dr. Marko before he registered him properly – a confusing blur of alcohol, resentment, and fear – and, sitting with his back to Charles, a stranger Charles hadn't even sensed. On his entry, the stranger stood and turned.
He, the stranger, was a massive pillar, black-clad, the pallor of his skin like marble. Above the blood-red necktie thin white lips curled in a smile that showed no teeth, and above that lifeless curve black, black eyes studied Charles from their perch over a sharp nose. The coat, the eyes, the black hair all drank the light, and even darker than those, far more frightening, was the mind that hid behind the terrible opacity of the face. Charles hunted for the sense of anything, and found only a gaping emptiness.
"Charles," Dr. Marko said frostily, "this is Dr. Essex." When Charles continued to stare, he snapped "Charles!" and, turning to Dr. Essex, said, "My apologies, Doctor; even for a changeling he can be unruly."
"No apologies are needed, Dr. Marko." Dr. Essex smiled more broadly, allowing the points of his canines to show. His voice was dark and compelling, terrifying for how it tried to approximate human feeling. "Young Mr. Xavier, I'm sure, was surprised to see me."
Charles kept quiet, gathering himself in tightly. The animate marble of Dr. Essex's face settled into a half-smile, an expression that, in a human face, would perhaps be interpreted as benignant. Behind the whitely curving lower lip, the scarlet flesh of Dr. Essex's mouth gleamed.
"And what do you do, Mr. Xavier?" Dr. Essex asked. "What is your gift?"
The emphasis placed on the word left no doubt as to what he meant; the peculiar, inhuman glitter in Dr. Essex's eyes – there was, Charles realized with a shudder, no white in them – also said he knew already, as though he had reached inside Charles's head and taken the knowledge from him.
"His gift," Dr. Marko was saying discontentedly, "is destroying the peace of my house, and lying about it."
"Changelings often lack… control over their gifts." Dr. Essex approached, and Charles steeled himself against the compulsion to move away. "Now, my boy, perhaps you could tell me… What is it you do? What is the divine spark inside you?"
"I'm a telepath." Charles swallowed past the dryness and fear. "Sir."
"And you know the term!" Delight rang metallic in Dr. Essex's voice. "How delightful. Did you know, Charles, that so few changelings know the proper words for what their gifts are called?"
"I read it," Charles said.
"In Linnaeus, Systema Naturae, correct?" Charles stared at the floor, but nodded. Undeflected from his terrible enthusiasm, Dr. Essex continued. "In the early editions, Linnaeus included our kind rather haphazardly with Homo monstruosus, but later we became Homo mutatus telepathicus."
"Yes, sir." So Dr. Essex was also a telepath. Charles made a try at Dr. Essex's mind again, and found only the void, as though a sudden cliff had appeared beneath his feet and, peering down into it, he could perceive only a darkness that stretched on infinitely deep and wide.
"I hope despite what I've told you," Dr. Marko interrupted, "you'll still be willing to take him."
"The school does not turn away any changeling in need," Dr. Essex said and then, turning to Dr. Marko and eyeing him severely, said "I am very glad you alerted me to the boy's existence." Dr. Marko shrank into himself and murmured a hesitant you're-welcome. The white-red mouth curled, drawing back from the wolf's-teeth, and then Dr. Essex was peering down from his great height at Charles again.
"Should you like to learn more about what you are, Charles, and be with other changelings like yourself?"
Charles considered. To go with Dr. Essex, who seemed scarcely human – and Charles, despite Cain's insults and despite having no firm evidence, believed in some ineradicable place that he was human – and more like the monster in a nursery tale – to go with him to a place where Charles might learn, or to stay and be an outcast in his own home? The specter of Cain rose before him, grinning evilly and promising an infinite progression of miseries, and Charles made his choice.
"I should like to go with you sir."
Charles had seen the children into Anna's hands, and eaten dinner in Miss Frost's silent company; Mr. Lehnsherr had vanished, but not before giving orders that he was not to be disturbed, and had retreated to a low-burning presence in the corner of Charles's awareness.
Now, in bed, Charles cast his mind like a net across the house. Pietro and Wanda slept, their dreams nothing worse than sunshine and rambling in the garden; the household staff, except for the scullery girl still slaving away at the dishes, also slept and 'revisited in dreams the work of their day,'; even Mr. Lehnsherr slept, the turbulence of his mind suppressed as though a calming hand had laid itself upon them. Miss Frost remained blank to him, an empty place in the fabric of the house – and whatever lay down the hall from her room, in the place behind the steel door.
He sought for a calm slow in coming, but even as his breath found a slower rhythm and he watched the stars change outside his window, a species of sleep came – uncertain, enough to fade the boundaries between himself and the world, and waking became sleeping, or something like it.
A soft thud sounded very near his door, and he started, and sleep fled from him. He pushed himself up on his elbows and then his hands, ready to spring from bed but frozen in the curious paralysis between fear and curiosity.
Came a snuffling, a low and abortive growl low in the throat of some great animal – a mastiff, a bear, Charles thought irrationally. He lay tensed in his bed, searching the room for a weapon of any sort, and came the heavy shuffle of feet dragging on the carpet. The night moaned again, and then, then a thick tearing, something sharp – a claw, a knife – working through the resistance of plaster and wood.
Unthinking he reached out, and the diamond carapace of Miss Frost's shielding collided with him. He reeled back, staggered, clutching at the pain in his temple and the shock of vacancy, for not only did Emma Frost proceed invisibly – he knew her only by the texture of her mind, like adamant – but the creature at her side, whatever it was, might as well have been a spirit for all Charles felt of it.
Slowly the heavy footfalls faded. Nerving himself, Charles climbed out of bed and into his clothes, not bothering with boots or shoes. Nothing stirred outside his door; the air was still as death, and the slumbering minds slept on – too deep, Charles thought as fear reasserted itself, but dreams were there.
He opened the door.
Gouges ran along the wall, a row of three parallel lines scoring the wallpaper, carving canyons into the plaster and the framing underneath it. His door had been left unscathed, as though the creature-nightmare-thing had idly trailed its fingers down the smooth stretch of the wall for the enjoyment of the texture. No shadows stirred at the end of the corridor, and no awareness either; the household staff in their quarters were as deeply asleep as the others, and all Charles heard was the knocking of his heart against his ribs, and the disinterested tick of the clock as it counted the seconds.
Ironhill slept on around him as he crept down the hall, making for the comparative brightness of the drawing-room. He had no sense of Miss Frost now, or the enigma that accompanied her. As he walked, fear receded and resolve took hold – and, Charles would think this later, something of his native curiosity – and he made his way downstairs with, if not confidence, then certainty.
The windows of the drawing-room looked over one of the hay-fields and the apple-orchard, and the sea of ancient forest held at bay by a stone wall, which seemed an insufficient barrier between Ironhill and being engulfed by waves of beech and ash and oak. No road ran on that side of the house – the only approach to Ironhill was from the north – and any wanderer who attempted the paths there found only old deer-tracks and the paths Mr. Lehnsherr used for hunting.
And, Charles thought, they might find a monster.
He knew he did not dream, that his body was his own and that his mind dwelt within it. He knew he saw with his own eyes, and that no other mind influenced his own, and he knew this as absolutely as he had ever known anything in his life. Yet what moved before his eyes was starkest impossibility, a black shape stepped out of Raven's storybooks – immense, a shadow against the long shadows on the lawn, moving on all fours, a Werewolf, a Barghest, a phantom that melted just as swiftly into invisibility. As Charles strained at the limits of his own senses, he heard again the animal moan, the lament of a fierce, caged creature, and then a long, muffled howl that sounded as though from a great distance.
At that howl, his certainty faltered. A white shape, a pillar of pale light in the margins of the shadows, turned; it was Emma Frost.
He walled up his mind immediately and staggered back from the window, into the recesses of the drawing room. In the shelter of the crank-light his heart and mind calmed; on the return walk to his room fantasy faded under the influence of reason, the conviction that an explanation must exist.
The conviction persisted as he slipped back into his room and, for the sake of deception rather than sleep, returned to bed. As he listened, thoughts carefully warded – an illusion woven to resemble the dreams of an untroubled soul – against any who might go looking, he discerned nothing save the rush of his own conjectures and the unknotting of fact and fiction. If Miss Frost and her familiar returned by the same path, or if she had permitted it to return to its strange and native regions, he could not say; the hall beyond the door remained silent.
When he ventured from his room in the morning, the scratch marks had vanished, as if they had never been.
Chapter 3: Chapter 3
Despite the retirement of Ironhill, the days kept Charles busy – lessons for the children in the morning and afternoon, not only on the range of subjects necessary to the construction of well-bred young ladies and gentlemen, but on the understanding and use of their abilities. It had been the latter for which he had been hired, Miss Frost had informed him on his arrival; Mr. Lehnsherr held the view that the study of the humanities was, for changelings, a useless and even detrimental affectation. Charles, who held that genius might be as miraculous as any ability so remarkable as controlling metal or divining the thoughts of others, ignored this prejudice and made sure to fill the morning hours with as much literature, history, and music as Wanda and Pietro could endure.
"Besides," he said to Mr. Lehnsherr on the first occasion his employer had enquired about it, "how do we know some of the great poets and composers in our history – from Caedmon through Byron and Mozart – were not one of us?" Mr. Lehnsherr, too surprised at his subordinate's effrontery to muster one of his usual scathing retorts, hadn't answered.
It meant that Charles continued his curriculum unmolested, and also that he spent more hours with the children than not. He found his hours of leisure taken up by anything but leisure: by recovering from the exertions of the day, by preparation for the next day's lessons, and – most perplexingly – by Mr. Lehnsherr, who made evenings in the drawing room a commandment issued with the casual power of a man used to obedience.
"What do you mean 'your own research'?" Mr. Lehnsherr asked one evening, when Charles sent Mrs. Hughes to the drawing room with a message containing the intelligence that he would not be free to attend his employer. The housekeeper, clearly unused to playing courier, had returned to Charles's room with this question and, with some exasperation, found herself bidden to wait on an answer.
While Charles was composing a reply, the man himself materialized in the doorway, clothed in black and a barely-contained impatience.
"I mean," Charles said, "I've neglected much of my own work recently. If I'm to keep up in the field, I need time and space to develop my own work. And," this said with a nod at the small stack of journals and books, "to read the work of others. It's sadly in need of correcting."
"You want to help human scientists study us," Lehnsherr said with honest incomprehension.
"You say it as if I'm a cow who wants to help the butcher lead us to the slaughter," Charles said, meaning it as a joke; the expression on Lehnsherr's face said he found the analogy appropriate. "I want to help changelings understand themselves, so they might not live in fear of what they can do. And I want to help humans understand us, so we may exist more peacefully together."
Lehnsherr made a disbelieving, Germanic noise and departed.
And then there was the matter of the steel door. Charles picked at it as a prisoner might pick at the lock on his chains, or the knot about his neck, and found that nothing might unlock or untie it.
No attempt had been made to conceal the door; it, and the steel-clad wall around it, stood sentry at the end of the third-floor hall, without adornment or disguise of any kind. Charles had never once seen a maid, Miss Frost, or Mr. Lehnsherr enter or exit it; indeed, for all the inmates of the house seemed concerned, the steel door scarcely existed. Charles had brushed careful fingers through the thoughts of Wanda and Pietro, and their childish knowledge comprehended only their father's warnings about an attic that was to be undisturbed. The servants' minds blurred over the door, something barely noticed and discarded as unimportant; Mrs. Hughes, when asked directly, said "she supposed that some of the old silver and family heirlooms were kept there; Ironhill was likely as safe as any big house, but burglars might attempt it one day, and better safe than sorry."
There was, of course, no asking Miss Frost, around whom the darkest secrets of the steel door turned in their terrifying orbit, and no chance of filching the information from her mind. Charles guarded his own thoughts on the matter, an old childhood trick he had perfected with Raven: imagining his thoughts were so small, so very, very small even the sharpest eye might miss them.
Small thoughts Raven had said to him on the night she'd left. I shall keep my thoughts very, very small, Charles.
More than once, he turned over the possibility of daring Mr. Lehnsherr's displeasure and asking him directly. To that end, he set aside his research one evening and joined his employer and the children in the relative quiet of the drawing room. Miss Frost, who tended to become annoyed with 'scenes of domestic bliss' very quickly, had withdrawn. Reaching out, he discerned Mrs. Hughes and Anna, and the rest of the staff, at leisure downstairs, talking animatedly over their dinner. The children were rapt up in a picture book, something on the faerie tales of the north country that they had wheedled out of their reluctant father.
"Of course, this one here tried to drown me when we first met – came up out of the water as those creatures tend to do, so maybe the stories tell the truth after all." The light in Mr. Lehnsherr's eye, augmented by the glow from the crank-light bulb and the fire, was teasing.
"Ignore him," Charles told the children when they appealed to him for information. "If you hadn't lost your last shuttlecock, Pietro, I wouldn't have been in the pond in the first place."
"So it's true," Mr. Lehnsherr murmured around his glass of wine. "Governesses and tutors do foment rebellion and discord."
"Only where it's needed."
"It's curious, having a revolutionary tutor."
"I'm only interested in the revolution of enlightenment – bettering conditions for all of us," Charles said. He caught the And you say you're not a proud man as though Lehnsherr had tossed the thought to him. "We stand on the edge of a revolution that could well see unheard-of prosperity – for some, although not for many. And I believe the future of changelings is bound up in that revolution, as well as the future of humans."
"You speak as though humans and changelings are inextricably bound together," Lehnsherr said. "As if there is no dissolving us."
"I'll hazard a guess and say you came from human parents, the same as many of us," Charles said. Lehnsherr's face flexed in displeasure. "What of your family, sir?"
"My family?" Lehnsherr's mouth, wide but not generous, thinned dangerously. "Miss Frost should have furnished you with sufficient gossip about them."
"I'm not interested in gossip, sir, and I believe Miss Frost knows that."
Lehnsherr snorted. "You said, the night we met, that you could know everything about me if you wished. Miss Frost is one of the few people who can make that claim, but we've been associates for… some years now, out of necessity if not mutual affection." He smirked, an elongated curl of lips. "And do you still assert that you haven't once dipped into my mind, and excavated my most terrible secrets?"
"I said to you I didn't, and I swear to you that's the truth," Charles said stiffly. "If you want me to promise never to do it, I will."
You are quite proud, Mr. Lehnsherr thought, with a smirk that told Charles he expected to be overheard. Aloud he said, "If you must know, I am the first Lehnsherr to inhabit this house. My father owned a small iron concern in Germany. Using my gifts, I improved our refining process – it's also quite useful how having a changeling in the board room improves negotiations in one's favor – and expanded the business. All of this," he gestured, "belonged to an old man who feared the changing times, and that fear brought him ruin, and me a safe house at relatively little expense."
"The recent expansions in industry must not have hurt you much," Charles said.
"Lehnsherr steel is used in the frames for aerships and steam carriages," Lehnsherr replied. "We hold contracts with Worthington and Worthington Aeronautical Enterprises and other companies as their sole supplier. As I said, negotiations." He sipped his wine thoughtfully. "I know very little about how my abilities work, or why, only that they do, and that constant practice – the necessity of constant practice – has enabled me to refine them. So I'm somewhat at a loss to understand why you feel it's so necessary."
Charles bristled. "Just because you feel your life has not suffered materially for your not knowing the truth about your powers doesn't mean others out there feel the same way. And," he knew this was reckless but forged ahead anyway, "I would wager you haven't unlocked the tenth part of what you're capable of."
"Is that so?" Far from being angry at his employee's effrontery, Mr. Lehnsherr seemed almost pleased. At least, pleasure radiated off of him, warm as the heat from the fire, Lehnsherr honest in his passions in a way that Charles had come to admire and respect. "And I suppose you'd take me under your wing as well? Have me in the schoolroom with Wanda and Pietro?"
"I'm sure I could arrange for private tutorials," Charles said.
"I'm sure you could," Lehnsherr murmured. The words were heavy and slow with meaning, and Charles, once he caught up to them, blushed.
Even as Charles felt the tension draw him tight, as though he – his mind, his body – were pulled along a flexed bowstring, Lehnsherr seemed to relax. The rangy length of his body unfurled into relaxation, and the look he gave Charles bordered on warm. They could have, Charles thought abruptly, been equals, had circumstances placed them differently – or, he supposed, if circumstances had placed Dr. Marko and his wretched son somewhere other than Westchester.
"Tell me," Lehnsherr said slowly, "tell me of yourself – what do you know of yourself as a member of Homo mutatus telepathicus?" The question might have been mocking, but Charles felt the genuine curiosity behind it.
"I have no firm knowledge, although I do have theories," Charles began, and ignoring the sotto-voce Spare me your theories, forged ahead. "Harrington believes telepathy arises out of heightened sensitivity to stimuli otherwise undetectable by humans– that it is in fact a sixth pathe, much as sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste are, and that there is a place in the brain corresponding to that sense. White, on the other hand, believes it is a thing of the soul and the sympathies, although Bradleigh is more a theologian or a philosopher than a proper scientist – he follows Descartes all the way, and insists that there is no corporeal basis for a telepath's power, that it is innately spiritual, a thing of the anima, as it were.
"And then," he continued, bit firmly in his teeth, "then, of course, there are the hybridists – Grey, Dunning, Whatley et cetera. I myself believe more as Harrington does. I believe the telepath's ability – our, my ability – lies in the embodied mind, even though many prefer not to think of it that way. We lack the technology at this point that would allow us to quantify and better qualify the experience of what it is to, as it were, 'read minds' and communicate silently. Then, of course, there is the problem of language, of describing experience that, historically, human language has been ill-equipped to – "
"Enough!" snapped Lehnsherr, although he felt more bemused than annoyed. Charles fell silent, and in so doing came back to himself. And coming back he found Lehnsherr watching him with utter fascination, grey eyes alight and spilling over with much that Charles, alarmed and off his guard, didn't dare to parse too closely.
"I asked you what you thought about your gift," Lehnsherr said, "not what Harrington and whoever else had to say on the matter."
No one since Raven had asked that question. Essex, in his endless batteries of tests, in the times in the small white rooms that Charles never allowed himself to remember, had never asked it. His classmates at Essex, minds shuttered to a curiosity that could only attract unwanted attention, never asked it, nor did his few friends – his very few friends – at Oxford.
"I know," Charles said slowly, finding the words as he spoke them, "I know that when I was very much alone, I was grateful for my gift. I still am. And I know that I want to know more about it, so I can do my utmost to improve my world."
"But surely improvement isn't all you seek," Lehnsherr said, tensing somewhat. "Surely some that is for yourself."
It would be lying to say otherwise. "I daresay my telepathy is as much a part of me as your metallokinesis is for you," he admitted. "I would sooner stop breathing than stop wishing to be aware, intimately aware, of those whom I love." More agitation from Lehnsherr, who seemed on the verge of speaking; Charles plowed ahead. "Or rather, I should say, the sense of other minds – other lives – gives me great comfort. Even when I find myself confronted by great cruelty, I think of the good that I can perceive in so many – a very simple thing, really, but so powerful."
"The good in people," Lehnsherr said flatly. "With what you must have endured – alone, as so many of us are – and still believe in such a concept." As I am, was the thought that broke free and winged its way to Charles.
"You're not alone," Charles said. "Sir, you're not alone."
Lehnsherr had drawn himself in again, his silence prickly and warning as thorns. Belatedly, Charles remembered the children. Wanda and Pietro had long since abandoned their book in favor of auditing a conversation that Charles entertained desperate hopes of them not understanding. Silently he ordered them up to bed; mercifully they obeyed, and were sensitive enough to their father's moods that they skipped bidding him good-night and hustled upstairs to the nursery. Charles thought to follow them but found himself reluctant, and instead waited through some indeterminate time as Lehnsherr meditated on some mystery Charles ached to excavate.
He kept his thoughts to himself, mindful of his promise, and allowed Lehnsherr to fade to a knot of presence in the corner of his awareness. The house settled into silence around them, a north wind stirring the trees the only sound, save – to Charles – the deeper, menacing vacancy of the space behind the steel door, which had the same quality as the hollowness underneath a just-rung bell. It occurred to him the time had passed to ask about it, for this evening at least.
Instead he sat, holding a long-forgotten glass, and listened to the tuneless hum of Lehnsherr's thoughts and watched the stars beyond the window, which, like Lehnsherr's mind, burned with an endlessly burning fire.
Charles's journey to Essex and Shawcross passed in a blur of winter-empty fields and the endless back-and-forth of the steam carriage and the monotony of the mind belonging to the servant who accompanied him. The great transportation hub outside London, with the carriage station hunkered under the bulk of the aerships that plied the clouds between Paris, Berlin, and Rome, passed by as little more than a blur. London itself seemed distant and uncertain, wreathed in gray. Inside the car, outfitted only with cramped seats and gas lamps that smoked and spat soot onto Charles's shoulder, the world was almost insubstantial. Charles collected his thoughts to himself and tried to sleep.
If he did sleep, it felt like an enchanted sleep. Still dreaming, he stood when the servant bid him and stumbled off the steam carriage into a horse-drawn one that clattered and bounced over cobblestones so rough Charles felt the vibration in his teeth. The jolting of the carriage melted then into stillness, and then the cold half-light of a courtyard, its flags frosted over and paved with ice, and that in turn blurred into the tentative warmth of an old building, and a crowded room filled with strange faces and strange thoughts, a voice announcing that a new student would be joining them and for all forms, changeling and human, to recess into the refectory.
Supper, when placed before him (or when he was placed before it) was a stew, hot against the cold that had insinuated itself into his bones. Revived somewhat, Charles looked around the room, the faces.
The refectory – dining room seemed too formal an appellation – was large, of plain hewn stone, and adorned only with five simple wooden tables. One belonged to the faculty, an austere assortment of men and women who talked little with each other and split the mealtime between eating and keeping an eye on the students. The other four tables, so far as Charles could see, were split into two groups, then subdivided into girls and boys, and those in turn arranged by age.
"Why do the humans and the changelings eat separately?" he asked the boy next to him.
"It's Dr. Essex's orders," the boy replied. "Different rations."
Charles did what he did only rarely and shifted into the mind of a girl at the closest human table. Sure enough, he saw only a few thin scraps of rusty meat and a parsimonious morsel of bread. Returning to himself, he stared guiltily down at his stew, already half-demolished, the victim of a day spent without much in the way of food.
"What about sleeping?" he asked the boy.
"That too," the boy said and his thoughts hunched in on themselves, coated with the desire to be left alone.
Politely, Charles retreated into silence. It sounded close to the separation enforced by Dr. Marko. Charles wondered if he had come all this way only to find more of the same, or if perhaps this distinction were an unfortunate fact of life everywhere, and not only Westchester.
"We're not to talk to them," the boy added after swallowing a mouthful of bread. "Dr. Essex don't approve of it. You'll learn soon enough."
Charles did learn. He learned the school had been designed in matching halves, one side devoted to housing changeling-children and the other to the humans; the refectory, three classrooms, and a large hall for studying amounted to all the space shared between the two. The only time shared was for thrice-daily meals and academics; the sleeping hours, and the hours in which humans worked or took extra classes and in which changelings were instructed in their abilities, were strictly segregated. Even in the classrooms and mealtimes, Charles saw how carefully the students kept apart, invisible lines drawn between them despite how their pale skin and cheap clothing, their common fear of the teachers and the restless, childish discontent with order, ought to draw them together.
He also learned questions were not brooked by the older children or the teachers, and his days settled into a blur again, surrounded by humdrum thoughts that pored over ship tonnage and the dates of the reigns of the kings. Once a teacher drowsing during a geography review nearly took him into half-sleep with her; he had come to with a start and dropped his slate, and the thin, splintering sound of it shook him back into life.
That night another mind woke him, niggling at him with its silent fear-exhaustion-hunger. Most nights his own exhaustion meant he slept through even the most intrusive thoughts and images – the dreams of the changeling and human children in the school were vivid with terror – and one more small, starving voice could hardly make itself heard. But this had a bright defiance to it, a recklessness that said its owner had no regard for what might happen if he were apprehended. Charles couldn't help but follow the thread of those thoughts, bright in the shadowed and quiet corridors, masking himself against the sentries who patrolled the hallways and guarded the doors between the boys' and girls' dormitories, as well as the part of the building where the workaday rooms – the kitchens, the laundry, the small infirmary kept for the human students – had their place.
Dr. Essex spared the newer technologies for the changelings' classrooms and the laboratories. In the kitchen, with its candles dead, only the moon through the window furnished any light. And in the kitchen, mostly shadow as it was, Charles saw and felt the determined, furtive shifting, the angular shape of Mr. Quincey, the arithmetic instructor, prowling through the larder in the central kitchen.
"I say," Charles began.
Mr. Quincey whirled, dropping the cheese and apples in his surprise. One of the apples bounced off his foot and rolled away into the shadows.
"You're not Mr. Quincey," Charles said immediately. Mr. Quincey's mind was, like his lessons, a creature of rote and habit, everything reeled off as if it had been recited or repeated endlessly. "Who are you?"
Mr. Quincey's body shifted, blurring from pale skin to blue, shortening and diminishing until, with a last shift of indigo, a girl stood before him, naked and scaled and defiant in the moonlight. Her eyes, yellow-gold and deepening to brown in their narrow pupils, fixed determinedly on him.
"Are you going to tell?" the girl asked belligerently, clutching a small loaf of bread to her chest.
"No," Charles said earnestly, too overcome by her to do much other than gape. "What… what are you doing down here?"
"Dr. Essex made me hold another shape all day today," the girl said. She flickered into another form, an older woman, her yellow hair faded with age, years marking her face and stooping her shoulders; Charles recognized the face of one of the seamstresses, human, who did the sewing the students and female teachers couldn't do themselves. "When I lost it once, he said I should go to sleep without my tea or supper, and I'm so hungry."
His heart broke for her, for the pleading and defiance that came off her in waves. She stood there naked except for her scales and a determination Charles recognized, the same determination that had carried him through his own dark days with his stepfamily.
"You won't tell?" the girl asked again, a thread of suspicion twined around the hope in the question.
"I won't tell," Charles said firmly, and held out his hand to shake on it. "I'm Xavier. Charles Xavier."
"Raven," the girl said, "my name is Raven," and she melted back to her blue skin and yellow eyes and took his hand. Her scales were smooth against his palm.
He had her for three years after that; she was his ally and confidante, and he was hers. Together they stumbled on the trick of thinking small, small thoughts and the trick of how to place a wall between his mind and the minds of others when the mind-voices became too overwhelming. Charles watched, endlessly fascinated, as she shifted through all the shapes she knew, learning to adapt her voice as well – she was a tremendous mimic, and merciless in her mockery of certain teachers whom even Charles, for all his love of learning, disliked.
"I was born like this," she told him during one of their recesses. They sat in a hidden corner of the courtyard, under the shelter of what had once been an imitation Roman ruin. The eyes of a fallen statue, peering blindly above the grass and the new dandelions, seemed to watch them with a distant sort of kindness. Charles chewed on his bread and cheese, and on the images she offered him, a child's impression of an orphanage with strangers looming over her, and then Essex's face, pale and menacing, and his voice offering to take her away from those who could never be like her.
Then five years – five years of Essex – with her scales scraped off and her body forced to endure change upon change upon change, into the forms of students, teachers, even Essex himself. She could imitate the forms of animals but could only move clumsily; anything inanimate was beyond her.
"I will escape from here," Raven said over the tumult of her own thoughts. Her determination pulled Charles back into himself. "I will escape, Charles, and you must come with me."
Chapter 4: Chapter 4
The afternoon following that strange conversation with Lehnsherr – a conversation that had impressed itself in Charles's brain, for he dwelt on it endlessly – presented him with an unexpected opportunity.
Lehnsherr was gone early, off on some business known only to himself. If he were speaking of any other country gentleman, Charles would have supposed he had gone to visit friends in the neighborhood, but so far as he could tell, Lehnsherr neither had any acquaintance in the vicinity of Ironhill nor did he seek any. Miss Frost likewise had left on an errand of her own; it had been the hoofbeats of her pale grey mare that had woken Charles from his half-sleep near daybreak. The staff had a half-holiday, and after Mrs. Patmore had prepared a cold supper, she, Mrs. Hughes, and the rest had gone down to Field to see a traveling fair – and, with Charles's quickly-given approval, Wanda and Pietro went down with them.
So it was that, shortly after lunch, Charles found himself the sole inhabitant of Ironhill Hall, and found himself about to do what Raven would call a "beautifully reckless thing."
He set his fingers – cool, slick with a nervous sweat – to the handle of the steel door and turned it.
The handle did not budge, which did not surprise him.
Taking the ring of keys from Miss Frost's room had not been, he supposed, in keeping with the behavior of a gentleman. Then again, he told himself as he held up the keyring and stared at the dull grey steel of the one key whose metal matched that of the door and the wall, keeping God only knew what in Ironhill – and he knew what he had seen, and knew that he had been in (and still was in) his right mind – was hardly gentlemanly, or ladylike, either.
Resolved, he pushed the key into the lock and turned it, and with a heavy thump and a click of tumblers falling into place, the lock gave way.
If he had been asked what he might expect to find behind the steel door, a study would not have been one of them.
That was what greeted him, though, a study precisely like the one of his childhood – not precisely, but near enough, all oaken panels carved to resemble Grecian columns, and bookcases running from floor to ceiling, and all of those stuffed with books. He drew close to the nearest one to inspect the titles, and saw with not much surprise – or perhaps, he thought, he was too surprised to know he could be surprised at anything else, the shocks accumulating so all he felt was dullness – that they were recent, a few books of poetry, Tennyson's Mariana and Lady of Shallot, and collections of Keats and Shelley, but mostly scientific texts, on architecture, chemistry, and engineering, offprints of journal articles and schematics on the analysis engines, even heredity and palaeontology. His own father's books – now dated, he thought with a distant sort of amusement – on the development of chemical batteries and conductors for electric light were there.
His papers, from Studia in mutantibus and Notes and Inquiries into Heredity – the only two he had published before discovering that neither his father's long-faded influence nor his own brilliance could secure him a professorship – were there. He let them be.
Prudence had accompanied him, and had not abandoned him, for he had carefully wedged the door open before allowing amazement to take him over. Even so, with the hall reassuringly visible through the doorway, he felt as though he had stepped into an alien land, a country whose inhabitants had attempted to make hospitable to human visitors, but whose very strangeness made the most familiar objects uncanny. Charles kept glancing up anxiously, half-expecting an invisible hand to move aside the door-stop and for the door to swing shut and lock him in here forever.
A prison, he thought as he walked across the thick carpet, touching the upholstery of the furniture – expensive, heavy, and old (thirty years, he thought; this must have belonged to the old owner) – and examining the chess set, its ebony and ivory pieces neatly ranked on opposing sides of the board. Moving to the curtains along one wall (crimson edged with gold, he could almost have been in his old library), he twitched them aside. Heavy oak panels, no windows, lay behind them.
The suggestion of a prison came to him again, and the crushing awareness that he could still sense the void, the space, lurking behind the fine old oak panels and under the parquet of the floor.
Before he quite knew what he was doing, he bolted from the room. He paused barely long enough to kick the door-stop free and tuck it into his coat pocket, to wipe the handle clean of the sweat and marks from his fingers. When the door swung shut, it was with a heavy and final sound, the sound of a sepulcher closing, walling death and silence up inside it. A trip to Miss Frost's room to restore the keys – he had woven an illusion around them, around himself, all is well, all is in its proper place, and doubted she was powerful enough to see through it – and he found himself outside in the orchard, breathing the free air and his mind racing headlong into calamity.
What is it, what is it, what is it? Reason offered no answer; Fear burst in with a series of hysterical replies, all centered around incarceration, death, and terrible secrets.
He thought back to that night, the animal-spirit that, attended by Emma Frost, had haunted the lawn. For the first time since that night, doubt crept in, for how could that specter, hunched and feral, snarling like Cerberus come up from Hell – how could that occupy that space Charles had come from, with its civility and its books, the chess set, all of it so fresh and perfect the staff might just have left it?
The emptiness had still been there, though, only – removed, or like the horizon, it had shifted back as he had stepped closer to it. A hidden room, then, he supposed, concealed behind the bookcases and accessible only to those who knew or stumbled on the secret. The study might be an anteroom, a deliberate attempt to dispel suspicion should anyone (anyone like Charles) stumble upon it by accident or design. Behind it lay the true secret, still shrouded and both frightening and compelling.
It occurred to him that the room had been intended not only as a prison, but as a prison of a very specific sort, meant to keep certain people out as much as to keep something or someone in. Whatever was in the steel, or in the walls was impervious to his power; while he would, in any other circumstance, be quite intrigued by the existence of some substance that hid any mind or any space from his mental sight, all he could think of was Essex and the laboratories at the school, Raven, aching for freedom and being too afraid to chase after it.
Perhaps the secret, whatever it was, was suffering, too.
The silence of the day drowned in the cacophony of his thoughts. With some effort, he drew in on himself – no use in frightening the villagers with half-formed and fearful projections – and, after he had quite controlled himself, sent out a thought in search of his two charges. He caught a sudden, bright twist of happiness from one of them (Wanda, the name came in a blink, as soon as he thought to ask), childish wishes that something so exciting could happen every day and a wondering why Mr. Xavier had decided to stay home with his dusty old books instead of coming to Field with them to see the sights.
I should ask myself the same question, Charles thought, and collapsed in the cool of the shade under the great chestnut tree. "Really," he said aloud, "most people would be quite happy see something novel and safe, instead of something novel and potentially dangerous."
Silently, he added, Raven, you would be proud of me.
Whenever he thought of her – frequently, some days – he would project himself (his word for it, the closest he could ever come to describing what it was like, to leave only part of himself anchored in his body while the rest of him roamed to the very horizon of his inner sight), and his silent voice would travel unheard by thousands. It would cross streams and hills and mountains. It would move through all the towns, villages, and cities within its scope, even up to the borders of the ocean. And not once, not once since Raven had left that night had she answered him; not once had he felt the familiar, much-loved touch of her mind against his, smooth and cool like the scales on her fingers.
He did this now, Raven? Raven? Raven?, and felt the echoes of other, familiar minds, although he didn't dwell on them: Miss Frost some miles distant in the home of a dark-haired man Charles didn't know, the children and the staff lazy with the summer sun and the long day, with Mrs. Hughes thinking of getting Wanda and Pietro back before they needed carrying.
Lehnsherr was deep in negotiations with his attorney, and despite his intention not to dwell, not to look, Charles found himself caught, drawn in helplessly, as though Lehnsherr's power had knotted itself to Charles's thoughts and chained them close – prisoned, he thought in a flex of panic, like whatever was caught in the silence behind the walls. But no, it was only Lehnsherr's peculiar magnetism, the attraction of a strong mind, with its arrow-straight determination and its passion, the sort of mind Charles had experienced only a few times in his life, endlessly compelling.
He could, Charles thought, solve the mystery of the prison-room at this very moment. Lehnsherr, like most people, had little idea of the extent of Charles's abilities. Those who knew he was a changeling – a fact that Charles, like many changelings who could pass for an ordinary human, kept close to his vest – thought he needed to be in the same room as the mind he wished to read. For that matter, most of them thought all he could do was read minds. Even fewer knew he could communicate, that they could, if they pitched their thoughts just so, even speak with him in turn. He'd told no one save Raven (Essex knew, but Essex took, and pried Charles's secrets from him) that his power could work at a distance, so finely-tuned it was that he could pick a familiar mind from a crowded room miles away.
I could do this. In his mind's eye, Charles stood in the attorney's office with Lehnsherr, bent over a broad shoulder, reading along with him as he pored over some document. I could, and he stroked invisible fingers across the locked box of Lehnsherr's memories.
Essex was not at the school when Charles first arrived, nor did he appear until almost a month had elapsed. In that space, Charles had been assigned his classes and his duties, mostly looking after the very young changelings, a handful of children of about five or six years, whose inhuman appearances had made them foundlings or induced their humiliated parents to place them in Essex's care.
"You have a knack with them," one of the teachers had observed when he had come upon Charles drying Sarah's eyes as the little, bone-skinned girl sobbed over an insult inflicted by another student, and the next day Charles had found himself nominally in charge of the school's youngest during their free time.
He had met Raven, too, and made tentative friends with some of the human children. His teachers, a mix of human and changeling, liked him, and he liked them in turn, and sought to please them.
"When will Dr. Essex be here?" he asked Raven one day during their free hour. She had, somewhat reluctantly, taken up a share in his responsibilities, and kept a fiercely watchful eye on their young charges.
"Soon enough," Raven said darkly. "Too soon."
"Where does he go?"
"He goes all over." Raven shrugged, her skin flickering blue-pink-blue; it had been Essex's orders, she said, for her to maintain the same appearance, and any dereliction – even in sleep – would be found out and addressed. The fear flickered, too, interwoven with anger and hatred, and the steely thread of Raven's determination.
"What for?" Charles asked, intrigued enough to be tactless.
"He goes collecting," Raven ground out. She shot him a dangerous, yellow-eyed look. "Sometimes he goes to the orphanages. Sometimes parents write him and tell them they have a changeling-child." Her mind turned thorny with pain, the sharp edges of memories that hurt. That's what mama and papa did. "Then he goes and gets them and brings them back here."
The day that Essex returned saw the entire school turned out as if welcoming a monarch. Charles found himself rousted out of bed by Mr. Quincey – really Mr. Quincey this time, not Raven – and chivvied through the twice-weekly bath, but with extra admonishments to be thorough. As he hurried and shivered through drying off, a dismayed whisper made the rounds of the changeling-boys' dormitory, for Mr. Quincey had specified Sunday dress, which meant uncomfortable ties and shoes and jackets. "No grumbling!" hollered Mr. Quincey, whose ability was, unfortunately for the students, supra-normally acute hearing. "The steward says we have but twenty minutes until Dr. Essex arrives, and mercy help you if you are a heartbeat late getting into line!"
Charles bolted into his clothes and, while attempting to straighten his tie with one hand and straighten his hair with the other, bolted down the stairs. Breakfast, if they received it today, would have to wait, despite the aching undercurrent of hunger that swirled around him, much of it from the human students but some of it from the changelings whose abilities required more energy to sustain. The human children were already in place, all of them of a piece: their pale faces were tight with anxiety above the uniform rows of their collars and tuckers and the dull gray of their coats and jackets. A stir outside the courtyard gates had the changelings falling into order by class, the taller and older ones at the back, the younger ones at the front.
Raven's small hand slid into his and squeezed, its owner silent and miserable next to him. Sarah, Henry (whose bare, prehensile feet flexed unhappily against the cobbles), and the other young ones clustered close, and despite his own fear, he tried to reassure them silently.
Essex appeared through the gate, precisely as Charles remembered him, vast in his black suit, his pale face monstrous above the crimson tie and his collar. Terror surged under his skin – an influx of it from the children and even the teachers, and he hastily imagined a wall, immensely high, so high you can't see the top of it, made of stone – steel, make it steel – without a single crack in it, nothing to let anything through, and the terror receded.
"Ah, my children!" Essex boomed. He was through the gate and before them now, the smile teasing at his pale lips before growing, flowering into wolfishness. "I hope you have all been well-behaved in my absence, and that you have been industrious in your lessons?"
"Yes, Dr. Essex," was the frightened, barely-audible chorus.
"All your students have been models of studiousness and propriety," said the headmistress quietly.
Charles had the sense that Essex knew this, that he had ways of knowing the same as Charles did, and that the headmistress, the teachers, and all the children knew Dr. Essex knew as well.
"Splendid," purred Essex. His pitchy eyes turned on the human children, all of whom shrank in on themselves as though willing themselves to invisibility. "Misses Branwell and Callisto, Mr. Austen and Mr. Quincey, if you would please take your charges to breakfast? All except – " And that dark, sinister gaze fell squarely on Charles, " – all except Mr. Xavier, who will please accompany me."
Raven pressed Charles's hand once, hard, before gathering their small flock and shepherding them to the refectory. Her eyes had gone to gold in her fear – fear for him, he thought suddenly, not fear of Essex. If Essex noticed her lapse of control, he said nothing, fixed on Charles as he was.
"Come with me, Mr. Xavier," Essex said coolly, turning away from the refectory and toward the one part of the school that was closed to Charles, the vacancy that he had been told was "where Dr. Essex does his work." Fear battled with curiosity, and he was light-headed with it.
"We shan't be long," Essex said as he opened a door and stepped inside. The hallway was cool, startling against the anxious heat of Charles's skin, the light from the gas lamps sooty and half-hearted. "We shan't be long," Essex said again, this time with a smile and a hand on Charles's shoulder, "and then you can have your breakfast."
"Yes, sir." The hand had closed on his shoulder like a trap, and Charles found himself pulled along by it, through a door that opened at Essex's merest gesture, and into a room that was white, and cold, and filled with strange things.
"This is my laboratory," Essex said, gesturing. The weight of his hand had imprinted itself, the weight still palpable; Charles imagined he could feel the fingers (long, square, powerful) closing about his neck, cutting off his breath – but that, no, that was the fear again.
"If you will kindly sit up here…" Another gesture indicated a bed, not much more than a thin mattress atop a frame with heavy steel loops set into it here and there. A moment's puzzling over them told Charles what they were for.
"Some children are afraid of the needles, and I need them to remain absolutely still." A metal stand stood by the bed, and atop it, a tray with needles and clamps, rubber tubing arranged neatly next to an array of syringes. His fingers, brutal-looking as they were, closed around a syringe with unexpected delicacy.
"Will you be a good boy, Charles, and stay quite still for me?"
Evening came on while he sat in the orchard. With the sun behind the trees the air cooled where it drowsed under the shadows, dew beading on the grass and the leaves. Despite the coolness, and the thin fabric of his jacket, Charles found himself reluctant to go inside. Quiet as the day had been, with barely a soul stirring in the fields and only the rarest passer-by on the distant road, at least it was open out here, no walls, no silence.
With the sun almost gone, Charles felt, more than heard or saw, the children returning from their outing in the town. Too tired to eat, the dears, and that was Anna, her thoughts sweet with bemusement and affection. The children's thoughts were nothing so coherent, but a tangle of half-dreams and protests that they were quite sleepy, too sleepy to wash and dress for bed – but not sleepy enough to not want to see Herr Professor, who must have been quite lonely spending all day with only himself and his books.
Unsure whether he wanted company or not, he sent them a soft wish that they might go to bed, that he would see them in the morning and they could tell him about their adventure. Pliant and halfway to dreams already, they listened, and the subdued chaos of their arrival soon smoothed out into contentment. He sent another wish to the staff not to worry about him, and they were used enough to changelings – or maybe just Miss Frost – that his silent request met only with agreement and not the surprise that usually greeted him when he spoke with humans like that.
How welcome that is! he thought to himself, because even at Oxford he'd had to be careful about his telepathy. His few friends had been friends because he had kept his gift from them; the papers he had published, his work on changelings and heredity – most of all his conviction that changelings were as natural, as every-day, as inevitable as any other physical phenomenon – had been put down to eccentricity. And eccentricity in an academic had been expected, a harmless oddity in a place where most people were odd, one way or another.
Memories of Lehnsherr intruded then – distrust, hatred, contempt, why bother with the humans? Charles shrugged uncomfortably away from that conversation, and wondered how it was that someone could be right and wrong at the same time. It was true, humans feared and detested changelings – not all humans, but enough of them – but surely, surely fear and hatred given in return could not be right.
Distantly, he heard hoofbeats, their swift rhythm enough to pull him from his abstraction. They came closer, closer, the distant thunder growing louder, and accompanying them was the low, fierce burn of Lehnsherr's mind. Swiftly, Charles stood – or tried, his muscles were stiff with sitting – and watched as the dark, mounted figure galloped by the stone wall ringing the orchard and turned up the lane.
A pause, then, and Charles knew he'd been seen, felt it, the sudden, piercing awareness of himself as seen through the eyes of someone as observant as Erik Lehnsherr.
He will come to me, Charles thought with a despairing sort of prescience.
Lehnsherr did, dismounting his horse and leaving the animal to wait in the lane. He scaled the wall with an athlete's grace and dropped lightly to the grass. The light, such as it was – for it had gone to twilight so late, a handful of stars scattered across the sky and Venus leading the end of the evening in – the light left more shadow on Lehnsherr's face than anything, the strong lines of it contemplative and almost sad. Charles nodded respectfully as Lehnsherr strode up next to him, and the courtesy earned him one of Lehnsherr's usual sarcastic smiles and a nod in return.
"So you abandoned your books today," Lehnsherr said.
"For a while." Charles met Lehnsherr's gaze squarely. I kept my word, he thought in the confines and the safety of his own head. For a moment, under the weight of Lehnsherr's attention, he thought he had been overheard despite his precautions, but Lehnsherr's smile only softened, to something rare and honest.
"I spent the day locked up with my attorney," he said, and Charles was struck by the absurdity of it, for he knew what Lehnsherr had been doing, and here they were, an employer and employee talking about their day. "He's seeing to some new contracts. America, now… They have plans for a new steam carriageway, across the continent. Who knows if it will ever happen, but in the meantime, it's a contract worth some thousands of pounds."
"Yes," Charles said.
Lehnsherr laughed, so loudly and unexpectedly that Charles stared. When Lehnsherr turned to him, his amusement and delight unfettered and his face alight with it, Charles could only stare in silent astonishment, mental fingers hesitating over Lehnsherr's mind, aching to reach in and touch and come to know.
"You… you are not terribly impressed?" Lehnsherr asked.
It was Charles's turn to laugh. "Not as a rule, no," he agreed, "but if you want to order to me to act suitably impressed, I'll certainly do my best."
"I also get the impression you're not one to be ordered." That Charles was a gentleman's son, and born to privilege and the expectation of it, went unmentioned, for which Charles was grateful. Lehnsherr continued, saying, "At least, I have never met a servant more intractable than you."
"I used to be," Charles said, swallowing back the memories of Essex and his lab, of telling Raven, No, no I can't – Sarah, Henry, Piotr – I can't. "But I've found, as I grow older – " Lehnsherr snorted at the older, and Charles rolled his eyes " – I've found it's much harder for me to pretend obedience to principles, and individuals, with whom I disagree."
He said this as neutrally as possible, but Lehnsherr caught the challenge anyway. Charles perceived the quickening, Lehnsherr's acute mind rising to the occasion, and his own thoughts sped up, something in him long-dormant awakening.
"And do you," Lehnsherr said silkily, "disagree with me."
"I believe you know that I do." Nearby a cricket began to sing, the harmony picked up by a nightingale.
"You aren't afraid of me, are you." This was said with a quiet wonder.
"Do I have reason to be?"
Lehnsherr remained silent, but gave his answer, one word, poured out across his face, painted so clearly across his thoughts that he might as well have shouted it, and Charles would have heard it even without his telepathy. One word, silent and desperate, but there between them.
The evening stretched on between them. Charles watched the sky darken to purple and indigo, crimson fading to pink and silhouetting the trees. Field, away down in its valley, stood out as an island of lights around its transport depot and the pub. A solitary point, the last carriage of the night, worked its slow way across the shadowy immensity of the moors, a ship in a foresty ocean.
"I cannot," Lehnsherr said at last, "fathom why you aren't afraid."
"Maybe some things should simply be accepted as true, even if they can't be understood."
Lehnsherr barked a laugh. The smile he offered Charles was sideways, as though he were uncertain of being caught unguarded. Slowly it brightened, becoming truer, and Charles's heart – treacherous thing – lifted at the sight.
"You forget you're not talking to a man with much use for faith, Mr. Xavier," Lehnsherr said, but it was teasing in a gentle way Charles had a hard time identifying with him.
"I'm not one myself, despite what you may think. You always seem to forget you're talking to an empiricist. Someone who believes in the validity of questioning."
"Yes, the scientist." Lehnsherr's laugh was warm; his smile remained, as though this – this back-and-forth – were a source of genuine enjoyment. He shifted closer, the warmth of his body almost tangible, an aura that penetrated Charles's jacket and shirt and settled beneath his skin. "And I'm sure your questions are many."
"They are," Charles said. And then, with a calm he didn't feel: "The steel door for one."
Lehnsherr's humor faded. He withdrew into himself, and when he spoke again, it was with the iciness of command. We won't speak of it, and more steel doors, locks, chains, iron-clad ramparts lay behind the words.
"If I am to be a party to some crime," Charles said, "I would prefer to know of it. I have kept my word not to read your mind, but what you have done goes beyond simple concealment, if you wish it to be hidden from telepaths."
"You aren't a party to anything." Lehnsherr's voice was fierce. "You are as innocent as Pietro and Wanda, rest assured of that. If there was a crime committed, it was committed years ago, by those who are so unlike you, even you could not have any sympathy with them. What remains behind those walls is the relic of great cruelty, and you would be cruel to disturb it."
The fierceness faded out, and Lehnsherr was turning to look down at him directly, his grey eyes keen in the fading light; long fingers curled around Charles's wrist, thumb pressed to the soft cup of his palm.
"You promised once not to read my mind," Lehnsherr said. "I'm relying on your honor now. I do not want anything to happen – " He cut off and dropped Charles's hand; the sense coming off of him now was of sobriety, a current of it flowing under the brighter, sharper twist of fear. For him, Charles realized.
"If you feel you must leave, I won't detain you." Lehnsherr nodded at the stables. "I'll give orders for a horse to be saddled, and you can make your own way, with payment for your work. But I – " A silent pain crossed his face " – I should be very sorry not to have you by my side. Impertinent, difficult allies are difficult to come by."
"I should hate to deprive you of one," Charles said. Hope and expectation bounded within him, contrary and fighting his attempt to bridle them. With an effort, he forced himself back to rationality. "But I must ask you to swear that the children are safe."
"As safe as children like them can be in this world," Lehnsherr said swiftly. "I've done what I can to armor them against a world that would teach them to detest and fear themselves, and some of their safety must come from you."
Charles thought of the changeling-children at Essex's school, almost all of them in fear of either their own abilities or those of the children stronger than they. He had been among the strongest, already assured of his own power well before his advent in the refectory of the institute. It had bought some safety from Essex for the weakest children, those on whom the worst of that cold, inhuman fascination had devolved.
"Have they experienced much of that, for what they are?" Charles asked, not wanting to hear the answer, but knowing he must.
"Despite your mania for understanding, most humans are happy to remove a changeling-child from their company the heartbeat they find out what it is." Lehnsherr scowled. "And hatred of Jews is hardly unfashionable, no matter what Parliament may be trying to do about it. Some of us pass invisibly, or choose to be baptized into the English church; both bring advantages, advantages I refuse." He looked askance at Charles. "But I see you're unsurprised by their heritage. How did you know."
"You weren't here for three months when I first arrived," Charles said coolly, "but in that time I noticed that Miss Frost never took the children down to church. Even the laxest of us in the Church of England at least go during Advent and Epiphany, and most changelings remain observant. As the vicar hasn't once come up to remonstrate with her, I put it down either to her power persuading him otherwise, or your express orders that the vicar not trouble a rich and powerful man with beliefs that were not his own. And then when Passover came, well, if I had not yet worked it out, that would have done it."
"The children were disappointed you declined the invitation to Seder." Lehnsherr's tone fell somewhere between reproachful and mocking, and Charles felt the disadvantage of no telepathy keenly; a sideways glance showed Lehnsherr apparently absorbed in adjusting his cravat and studying the middle distance.
"I felt the honor of the invitation too great for me to presume upon the strength of four days' acquaintance with you." Charles added, for Lehnsherr's sake, "Because I am, as you seem to forget, an employee, and not an intimate of the family."
"Not an intimate?" Lehnsherr lingered over the word, the precise emphasis investing it with dimensions of meaning. "You have been in my family longer than any person except Miss Frost. You argue with me, yet you also insist on standing on ceremony. You say, if you wished, you could know everything about me. Doesn't that qualify as intimacy, under most definitions?"
"I may not share your traditions," Charles said, with as much demureness as he could muster, "but that doesn't mean I should not show them the respect that ought to be accorded to them."
Lehnsherr huffed. "Despite what you think, you are very bad at being humble, Charles. Has anyone ever told you that?"
"Once or twice, yes."
He felt the amusement, and saw from Lehnsherr's face that he'd been meant to catch it. They stood for a while, Lehnsherr leaning meditatively back against the trunk of the old chestnut – for that was where they stood, in the high embrace of the stone wall, looking down across the road, with Ironhill looming dark on the hilltop, the windows rectangles of light in the gloom. Charles found himself caught between contentment and anticipation, enjoying the moment, the excitement of having another mind ranged against his – a mind equal to his, something so rarely experienced, equal and without the blind, all-devouring greed of Essex.
All he could say was that Lehnsherr possessed a very human mind, despite what Lehnsherr preferred to think. Intuition proposed it and conviction seconded it, and he is your equal, Charles thought, with a rising and helpless excitement. The knowledge tightened his chest, and he was heavy and light with it, both at once, alight with discovery and heavy with knowing he must be constrained to keep it to himself.
"Do you find it strange…" Lehnsherr was going to return to the attack; Charles felt his mind sharpening, a knife whetted and set in readiness. "Do you find it strange that someone already half an exile on account of his gifts would willingly embrace his identity as a member of a race that has, for much of its history, been a race of exiles?"
"Not at all. We're bound only by those things we choose to be bound by. Customs, conventions, religions…"
"You make freedom sound perilously easy," Lehnsherr growled. He lifted one hand, an abortive and frustrated gesture. "Believe me, Charles, when I say it isn't as easy as that, for many of us. A slave cannot will his bonds away simply by choosing not to acknowledge them. He cannot will his captors to grant him a share in the humanity you insist belongs to all of us. Unless, of course, he's a telepath, and would you begrudge him the use of his powers, to secure his freedom?"
"Of course not."
"Then," Lehnsherr said, voice silky with triumph, "you will allow that I am able to use my powers to protect my family from those who would choose to harm them. Charles, humans still exist who would expose us as infants, if they could, or burn us for witches' children, if it weren't for flimsy laws holding them in place."
Lehnsherr's thoughts had become a tangle of voices, anger and fear uppermost, loud enough that Charles must overhear them, no matter his promises.
"And what about you," Lehnsherr pursued when Charles failed to say anything, "if you were confronted by those who would hurt those you care for? Would you exercise your powers to defend them?"
"You speak as though I've never done such a thing before." Charles held himself back from the desire, fierce and sudden and almost overwhelming, to unfold for Lehnsherr what he had done to save the few people fate had seen to give him for friends and dependents. I couldn't save Raven; I hope she saved herself. "I have, Mr. Lehnsherr, and those who would hurt them were not humans."
He thought of Raven, Sarah, and Henry, and the years spent at Essex's side to win some safety for them. How long as senior boy in his class, and then as teacher, before he felt his conscience clear enough to apply to Oxford and start anew? The years could be measured – barely eight, from his first setting foot in Essex's school to the day he had taken his trunk and set out on foot for the carriage station and Oxford – but within that space the time stretched on incalculably.
Surprisingly, Lehnsherr fell silent. Charles waited in his own silence, expecting a demand for explanation, a demand that failed to come. Instead, the clamor of Lehnsherr's rage lessened, brought back under control by the machinery of a mind that had long since harnessed that rage to power it but was not used to allowing it full rein. In its place came the sensations Charles had come to associate with Lehnsherr's presence, not unlike a banked fire, the sense of something coiled and waiting – but also, unfathomably to Charles, something dependable, as though he might always turn to look for it and find it there.
"You also spoke of choosing to ignore conventions," Lehnsherr said slowly. "Would you then choose to ignore the conventions that dictate that the differences in station between us must also keep us from becoming – becoming better acquainted with each other?"
Charles's heart leaped at that. Better acquainted had not been what Lehnsherr had wanted to say at first. That momentary uncertainty bred hope, and opened Charles's vision onto other, wider fields of possibility. He pulled it back, however anxiously his expectations wanted the rein to gallop into ever-wilder regions of fancy and half-formed longing. Remember the steel door, remember, remember.
"Some times," Charles said carefully, "it is best to choose that which we might otherwise wish not to. I came at the invitation of Miss Frost, and on your hand-written approval, to tutor your children – "
"You came," Lehnsherr agreed with no small measure of impatience, "but does that mean, in the spirit of your beloved adaptation, you must remain in the same condition in which you arrived?"
"For now, it does," Charles said, and the bitterness coming off Lehnsherr, cold and sharp as saltwater, stung.
"Are we doomed to fight forever?" Lehnsherr asked, the tone half acerbic, half wondering.
"I wouldn't call it fighting, precisely," Charles said slowly, "merely… spirited disagreement."
Lehnsherr gazed back out onto the fields, the grass and trees shaded by the deepening twilight.
"And," Charles ventured after a moment, "I would much rather disagree with one who has both passion and logic in his convictions, than carry on hours of empty conversation with someone who lacks them."
He had experienced such conversation first-hand, the small talk necessary to grease the social wheels with the professors, their wives, and the other students. His gift had smoothed his own way, of course; he knew what to say, and his mother's tirelessly critical eye had taught him from his earliest years how to say it. Lehnsherr, Charles imagined, would suffer none of that gladly, or at all.
"You're very singular, Herr Professor," was all Lehnsherr said, but he said it with a warmth that curled, tangible as thought, and wrapped itself around Charles's heart.
At length they moved – Charles could not say who began it, only that one minute they stood sentry over the night, and the next they began to make their slow way back inside. Lehnsherr moved with his usual, sleek competence, black jacket half-invisible against the night, and the thin twilight picking out fleeting glimpses of his face, the angles of his cheek, the curve along his jaw, a ridge of the temple that ran down to the shadows under his brows. In the sudden brightness underneath the porch, his eyes were eager, searching, as though he might borrow Charles's gift and peer beneath Charles's skull to read the text written across his brain. Caught in the keen focus of Lehnsherr's attention, Charles wondered if any telepathy were necessary, if his feelings weren't shouted out across his face or declared in the tense yearning of his body.
"I should say good-night," Charles faltered. I should, but I do not want to.
"Good-night, Charles," Lehnsherr said and, after a pause, departed swiftly.
The warmth from earlier stayed, keen against the coolness of oncoming night, as Charles made his way inside to bed, and it lingered. It spread, no less warm for the way it suffused every nerve and coursed through every vein and settled in the spaces between his bones. As he settled down in the dark, the early moon lending only the faintest light to the periphery of his room, he fought for the coolness of logic.
The battle was lost almost as soon as it was joined, and he found he could only think of the taste of his name in his mind when Lehnsherr, Erik, thought it, and the sound of it when he spoke.
Charles, Charles, Charles. His name had rested in Erik's mouth like a litany, like honey, and he drifted to sleep on the chorus of it.
The standing appointments with Dr. Essex began that day, and Essex drawing what had felt like half of Charles's blood. What he took it for he never said, beyond the barest mentions of tests that he ran on all new changelings to come to his school, and his desire to keep samples on hand as he developed his own means of discerning how changeling gifts might be propagated.
Charles's only respite came when Essex left on his trips, journeys timed to some schedule known only to the scientist himself. He never allowed himself to anticipate them, or to think about them much; the memories of those sessions all hazed over, became uncertain, as though they belonged to another boy who only dreamed them in the grip of a fever. Only a few occasions stood out sharp and clear, delineated as though carved into relief.
One such had come three years into his tenure at Shawcross and the institute.
"Now, Charles, I must go away for a time again." Essex never looked at him while he talked, or while he worked. Charles lay in silence on the table, back and shoulders numbed to the wood under the thin mattress. His clothes and the blanket over him were wholly inadequate against the cold of Essex's laboratory, and the chill that crept into Charles throughout every session.
"I must go away for a time," Essex repeated, "in order to collect subscriptions for the institution, and to see your beloved stepfather about a donation."
"A donation?" Charles asked, surprised into the question. The words scraped against the back of his throat, but Essex offered no water. He never did.
"Of course it's not something you would expect." Charles closed his eyes against the metallic clatter of Essex putting his instruments away and then the crawling fear of Essex moving closer. "But, Charles – and you will discover this for yourself eventually, when you're quite grown up and out in the world – it's properly said that, while hatred itself is powerful, fear is the strongest actuator of human activity. Your stepfather, when finding himself trapped between his hatred of me and his fear of what I could do to him, will do that which will preserve him from me and give an extremely generous, and standing, donation to this institution. The entire time, he will tell himself that he does this out of gratitude to me for taking his troublesome changeling stepson off his hands, but he will also know the bitterest truth: that he has helped a man he despises with every fiber of his being, for no other reason than that this same man holds an unbreakable dominion over him."
Charles kept quiet and wished his mind far, far away.
"No woolgathering now," Essex said kindly. His massive hand closed about Charles's shoulder. Charles struggled not to think about the texture too much, smooth-cold-not-living. "Now, Charles," Essex said, "I have an assignment for you while I'm gone."
He had learned, long ago, to shield the worst of his reactions from Essex. Fear and hatred incited only Essex's amusement, defiance his contempt. Charles opened his eyes and stared blankly at that pale face and the bloody slash of lips smiling down at him.
"Every day, at precisely two o'clock – I know that's when your free hour is, so no excuses – I will expect you to find and contact me. The farthest I will be from you is London, not terribly far I should think, but – "
"All those minds," Charles whispered. "I couldn't…"
"You will," Essex said, stroking Charles's shoulder, voice caressing and terrible and gentle. "You know my mind by now, of course," this said with a laugh, "and you must look for what makes it familiar out of the myriads of thoughts in the city." He paused. "And, for your uncertainty, you will tell me if you encounter any other changeling-children I may bring back with me."
"Yes, Dr. Essex." It was, Charles knew by now, the only response.
"Good lad." Essex's grip tightened, a signal that Charles should get up.
He sat up unsteadily, head heavy on his neck, weighed down with the thoughts of hundreds. Thoughts not his own, winter's coming early Missus needs to help wi' getting' the hay in oh how will I tell her how I feel she'll never have me why can't I work this sum it'll be a flogging for sure the Vision closes; and the mind, not undisturbed by the delight it feels, is left to muse upon the solemn scene, and memories and emotions, entire lives. His stomach churned with it, all of it.
Essex helped him drink; the water did little to settle him, not that Essex cared. He watched Charles narrowly until Charles could get himself off the bed and back into his shoes and jacket.
"Please send in Mr. Allerdyce," Essex murmured, already engrossed in his notes by the time Charles stumbled to the door. "He should be waiting by the outside door."
Charles stumbled out, skirting around a tall, spare man with a mumbled apology. "Of course, my boy," the man said, his voice strangely accented, and he appeared in the corner of Charles's vision like a mirage.
John didn't need Charles to show him in. Lost in trying to sort out Charles from the twenty strangers Essex had forced him to "study" (his term for Charles riffling through their minds and pulling out their stories, or sitting just behind their eyes and telling Essex about what they did), and the avalanche of thought-memory-feeling and the not-him. He made his slow way out into the courtyard saved for the changeling students, wincing against the burgeoning headache and the unruly press of the other students' minds against his.
"Charles!" That was Raven, and just behind her, Sarah and Henry. "Charles, come on."
Raven had him in hand soon enough, and with Sarah and Henry to help, had him dragged across to their corner of the courtyard, under the remnants of the old fake ruin. Henry had a blanket there already, and Sarah was fishing out the small cache of food Raven had likely stolen while disguised as Mr. Quincey.
"Oh, Charles," Raven murmured. They had him tucked up in no time, Henry handing a morsel of bread to Sarah, his toes curling anxiously against Charles's ankle. Sarah pressed the morsel on Charles, who took it wearily, and ate despite his lack of appetite. Raven shared out the rest of their treat with the other two children and sat sentry on them while they ate, glaring ferociously out at any other student who dared approach them.
"I shall be quite well soon enough," Charles said with as much confidence as he could muster. It wasn't much confidence at all; resolve fought against exhaustion and found itself vanquished in short order, and he sank limply against the crumbled column at his back. Raven huffed irritably, as though she'd managed to guess at his true state.
He could pick out Raven anywhere, even in the strange skin she wore now, belonging to a girl whose picture Essex had shown her in a book, black-haired and dark-skinned, her brown eyes flashing fire and promises of vengeance at any student, human or changeling, who dared to stare at her. He wondered if, at this point, the same might be said for her, if after a year together she had become attuned to him.
"He can't keep doing this to you," Raven said, low and fierce, once satisfied they'd be left alone. "You shouldn't let him."
"There isn't much I can do," Charles told her. Sarah had wormed her way under one of his arms, the bony protrusions on her skin rubbing harsh against his jacket and poking into his ribs. Henry curled up nearby, watchful under his thatch of dark hair. "Truly, Raven, I can't."
Raven subsided into a thorny, discontented silence. Sarah tried to ease it by telling Charles about her studies, her troubles with the maths and how the French mistress said she might start learning French soon, if she applied herself. Her chatter soon died, Charles too wrapped in abstraction and Raven too consumed with her anger to listen and encourage.
"Are you… will you…" Henry hung back, shy as always. "Will you be quite well?"
"He would be," Raven snapped, "if he graduated and left. You could, Charles."
"I would," Charles whispered, half-asleep and not wanting to slip into other people's dreams. His heart ached with all he wanted to tell her, the knowledge of what held him back from agreeing with her plans. "I would if I could, Raven."
"I know," Raven muttered. She settled back against Charles, a slender, warm barrier against the coming fall and the suspicious whispers of their fellow students. Passionate as she was, Raven could also be practical and direct, her mind clear – wonderfully so, empty of the fear of the rest of their colleagues or the labyrinthine self-deceptions of the teachers. Charles allowed himself to lean against it, Raven's presence close and warm, welcome as the sort of sibling he wished he could have had at home.
"All will be well," Charles told her around a yawn.
"Go to sleep, Charles," Raven said with her old humor and impatience, and Charles did.
The day after his latest conversation with Mr. Lehnsherr, Charles betook himself down to Field on his own business and a commission from Mrs. Hughes. The early afternoon promised fair, the sun lazy on the fields and orchards, and even Lehnsherr, usually up and out before breakfast, had seemed content to sit and talk instead of pursuing whatever ruthless, steel-related scheme he had going. William, who usually performed the office of server when the Lehnsherrs dined en famille (which was always, for Lehnsherr never had any company, or any inclination to hospitality), had dripped confusion over the trays of fruit and the coffee service, a confusion with which Charles sympathized.
In contrast to Lehnsherr and his unaccountable behavior, and his unaccountable way of staring at Charles when he thought Charles's attention had strayed elsewhere, Field was refreshing. The inhabitants, as prosaic as their town, suffered no fools gladly and had heads only for practicalities. He could see why Lehnsherr would settle in a place like this; if the citizens of Field indulged in any fancies regarding the reclusive changeling family up at Ironhill – or any fancies regarding Charles – it stayed buried beneath the preoccupations of business, and the slow transformation of their rural town into something driven by pistons and gears.
He stopped, inevitably, to look at the Ramsey and Ramsey analysis machines in the offices of the parish church, used to work out the tithes of the local farmers and their landlords; they seemed small and quaint next to the machines in the heart of Essex's school. Another machine, paid for by Lehnsherr himself, sat in the small steam carriage depot, used to figure and record the value of goods shipped to London; the records would be used to assess markup, and any potential profit. Cheaper to do it ourselves, Lehnsherr had said about the machine when Charles had asked about it.
Both were heavy, bronzy things, bristling with gears and tiers of wheels, churning the heavy paper of the punch-cards through them and spitting out the tax owed to the Ironhill estate and the shipping costs; a copy went into the Field records for the landowners' taxes, and a copy went to the seller. A girl, Gwen, worked the one in the depot, transferring the handwritten shipping bills into the device, her hands a blur of competent activity.
He would have to bring the children down some time, Charles thought. Neither Wanda nor Pietro had inherited their father's particular talents, a phenomenon that teased at the scientist in Charles (and a phenomenon he refused to pursue; he was no Essex), but Wanda had a head for technology, as focused and passionate as her father was.
The post office sat next to the shipping depot; a bell rang out, announcing that the steam express would be leaving in ten minutes, and anyone wishing to be on the carriage, or have their mail on the carriage, should hurry up. Charles quickly had his letters stamped and delivered into the post-boy's hands, in exchange for a small package of mail accumulated over the course of the week. From the weight of it, more journals had arrived, and the thin correspondence he kept up with an old professor at Pembroke.
"Are ye picking up the mail for the fam'ly?" the postmaster asked, the implication being that Charles's answer would be yes, whereupon he produced an extra bag and deposited a small trove of letters and newspapers.
While this transaction took place, another pair of footsteps sounded on the worn wooden floor.
"Pardon me," said the owner of the steps, a young man, harried and quite out of breath with exasperation. "I am terribly sorry but, ah, there isn't perhaps a cart going up to Ironhill this afternoon?"
"All t' horses're working," the postmaster replied with equanimity, unbothered by the young man's difficulties or by being the messenger of bad news. He stuffed a few envelopes into a post box, not bothering to look up when the new arrival asked for directions. "Nowt but a five-mile walk up t' hill road there," a jerk of the chin to indicate the westbound road, "and Ironhill's t' only house you'll come to before you come down t'other side."
"Five miles," the young man sighed. "Thank you."
Charles, of course, had abandoned all thoughts of his mail on hearing the name of Ironhill. The only visitors Lehnsherr received were his lawyer, his tenants, and the villagers who came on business; every one of them knew where to find the house, and knew that unless they furnished their own transportation, there wasn't a horse, ox, or cart that wasn't devoted to the fields at this time of year.
He turned to examine the stranger.
The dark-haired man from Miss Frost's business trip stood in the doorway to the post office, covered in summer dust and gripping a carpet bag.
Out from behind his desk he was quite tall, and quite young. Charles had only managed the most fleeting glimpse of him before prudence had his thoughts darting, swift as a bird and as silent, away from Miss Frost. With more time now, he absorbed anew the shock of dark hair and the crooked mouth, a pair of spectacles perched on the end of his nose and how he squinted uncertainly through them at the postmaster and his unhelpfulness.
He felt familiar, although aside from that hasty viewing – as swift as if the young man had stood on a platform and Charles had been in a steam carriage going full-tilt past him – he was fairly sure he had never laid eyes on the young man in his life.
Hesitantly, remembering his words to Lehnsherr – I would use my power to protect those I love, no matter who came against them – he reached out.
As Charles had stood there, blockheadedly staring at the young man, the object of his attention had shifted his, from the postmaster to Charles. "Can I help you?" the young man asked hesitantly, a pause before the question as though the speaker were as uncertain of the question itself as of the answer he might receive.
It was the uncertainty that did it, the hesitation, and memory poured through like a flood over the breakwater: a short, slender boy squinting unhappily out at the world, slightly apart and hovering always at the edges until Charles took him by the hand and thought You are so very welcome here, and taken him in.
Gah, sorry for the massive delay! Major Life Events conspired against me, but all is done now and I can get back on track. Also, as you've noticed, um... everyone in my fics talks an awful lot. But I hope most of the long, rambling, quasi-philosophical arguments are done now and maybe if I'm very good the plot will actually get moving.
Chapter 6: Chapter 6
"Henry, my dear friend, I cannot say how happy I am to see you again."
"You've tried six times already, by my count," Henry laughed, "but I feel likewise."
If he had been the sort of person to think it, Charles would have considered the beauty of the day an omen. They were ascending the path up to Ironhill, the wood now on their right and the wide fields falling away beneath them, with the air gentle under the shade and dazzlingly clear beyond. Henry walked next to him, untroubled by the heat or the uphill track despite the weight of his carpet bag and the small trunk that had waited for them on the post office steps.
"Are you quite sure I can't at least help you with the bag?" Charles asked, eyeing Henry and his burdens.
"Quite sure," Henry said with some complacence. He had balanced the trunk awkwardly atop his left shoulder, steadied by his left hand; he carried the carpet bag in his right. If either was an effort for him to carry, he gave no evidence of it; Charles had no sense of difficulty from him, only the absent sort of ease experienced by a mind and body exerting themselves in ways to which they had become accustomed.
"I hope," Charles said after they had walked a few paces in silence, "you have been well since we last saw each other."
"Oh, very well. Certainly very busy."
"You must tell me about it, then," Charles said warmly.
"I wouldn't want to bore you with it." Henry seemed to wish to speak directly to the footpath.
The boy Charles had known lived on in Henry's initial reticence, a caution that slowed his words and added in anxious pauses until he was quite sure of his welcome. That much remained the same; if anything, time had augmented it, for Henry spoke slowly and chose his words with a care that seemed, to Charles, unwarranted given the circumstances.
Not everyone holds the same opinions regarding friendship as you do, he reminded himself. For Charles, intimacy once established was irrevocable; or, at least, so he felt about Raven, should he ever see her again: that, no matter the lapse of years, her presence would still be as familiar to him as it had been the day she left. No reserve could hollow out a gulf deep enough to be unbridgeable by such affection.
"It must be," he said in response to Henry's halting explanations of the few years he had spent with his family following the school's closure, "a very particular thing to bring you all the way out here. I take it you are acquainted with Mr. Lehnsherr."
"Ah." The uncertainty lay like a cloud on the day and over Henry's thoughts; Charles had the sensation of one peering through fog, groping his way along a narrow path. "I come up every year to examine Mr. Lehnsherr and the children, as their personal, ah, physician, as it were. There is, as I'm sure you know, Mr. Xavier, is a growing body of evidence attesting that human physicians and apothecaries can serve changelings quite as well as their own in many things – and good thing, too – but Mr. Lehnsherr wanted to be sure he had a physician who might address his children's particular needs."
"And so it is with his tutor." Charles worried at the knot of Henry's mind. What was the damned matter? His thoughts went, as they did instantly these days, to the steel door, the room behind it. "Where did you do your studies? I'm sure I would have heard of you, if you'd been either at Oxford or Cambridge."
"I – I went to the Continent," Henry stammered. "Paris first, and then Berlin, for degrees in chemistry and engineering. I found I couldn't bear to stay here, not with everything that had happened. My parents agreed with me."
"Of course not, my dear fellow." Germany he filed away for future reference, and on the heels of that came regret-anger-helplessness-relief-guilt at the memory of Essex and what he had taken from them. "Is that where you met Mr. Lehnsherr?"
Henry shot him an anxious look; wariness was muted, a small, grey animal moving through the darkness. "I did," he said at last. "My work and – and what I am – were both brought to Mr. Lehnsherr's attention, and he took me on retainer, although my specialty is not in medicine. His children were rather younger at the time, of course."
"I'm glad," Charles said, although he did not entirely know for what. Henry relaxed as he let the silence continue, mind loosening into something approaching happiness as he looked out across the moors. For his part, Charles let him walk and worried over the few scraps of information Henry had let himself divulge.
A brush of his power across a mind could bring up thoughts and sensations in a cloud, like pollen blown off a flower, the briefest, most delicate impressions of the moment as it lived in the mind's eye. Henry though… an occlusion clouded the surface of his thoughts, a cataract that prevented any closer observation. A lens out of focus, Charles thought, or a flaw in the glass; Charles's eye was healthy, but something had been placed between himself and the object of his sight.
Frost, he told himself. The same occlusion had been spread over the children and the staff, and only in the regions of those thoughts and memories having to do with the steel door. Sharpening his power, he worked through the minutest cracks in that beclouded carapace, probing deeper and searching for some clear spot, a flaw, an anything. He caught flashes, silver-metal-brass-gears-machinery-eyes-god-why-is-he-looking-at-me-how-fear, and experimentally he pressed harder, harder, the force of his power redoubling on itself, and nothing except Henry flinching and grimacing.
Charles retreated into himself, waiting out Henry as he shook off what he dismissed as overexposure to the sun. "It was hot in the carriages," Henry mumbled, and this time did not object to Charles taking custody of the carpet bag. They continued on their way, and Charles continued to chew over what he had learned.
Machinery. He'd had no hope, of course, of divining what it was, but Henry had mentioned his degrees. Charles himself had found, in that room beyond the door, books on engineering and principles from across the field of scientific knowledge. He had found his own articles, on changelings and inborn methods of adaptation. Henry, like Charles (like Essex), had found some way to apply his education and his own natural genius to the study of their kind. That, Charles felt, was quite certain. That room, now – that room had been accoutered for one faced with spending some amount of time there. (A prison, a prison, and Charles clamped down on the fear before it could do worse than work a shiver down his spine.)
Perhaps an examining room? Memories of Essex's laboratory clamored in the pit where he kept them. Charles's thoughts flew to the children; when they alighted on Wanda and Pietro, the children were playing one of Wanda's probability games, practice-play to hone her abilities. Lehnsherr's presence hovered nearby, content in a way it almost never was, watchful even though he himself was preoccupied with another task. Happiness spilled over the edges of Charles's own thoughts; children often were that way, he found.
Henry would not, he told himself, remembering Essex, his power hovering over Wanda and Pietro, he would not, he would not.
The last approach to the house put off any further speculation. Charles directed Henry around the gate and across the courtyard to the great door, heavy, indestructible oak that opened only reluctantly at his touch. Beyond it waited the cool, and even Henry, with a grateful sigh, put down his trunk. Charles installed the carpet bag next to his foot.
"I'll get someone," Charles said to Henry, and it was no difficulty to reach out and find the nearest maid, just now hastening down to the drawing room to put some things in order, and catch the edges of her attention.
"Ah, Anna." The maid paused with a quick smile and flicker of inquiry; her lack of obvious interest in Henry beyond a curtsy and "How do you do, Doctor?" said she had seen him before and found him no object of fear. "If you could, please show Dr. McCoy to the drawing room, and get him some refreshments? The heat was a bit much at the end, I fear."
"Of course. Would you like me to send someone to fetch Mr. Lehnsherr?"
"No, don't trouble yourself; I'll do it." And, Charles thought, I would like to see his reaction for myself when I tell him the news of his friend's arrival.
"Very good, Mr. Xavier." Anna curtsied to Henry, who shifted awkwardly and mumbled something about his belongings and their delicacy. Charles eyed the carpet bag, threadbare and threatening to wear through at the handles. "Shall I have the boys carry them to Dr. McCoy's room? It's not yet made up, Dr. McCoy, but I'll have Gwen begin it straight away."
"Not yet ready?" Charles thought fast. "Yes, if Henry agrees."
Henry muttered his agreement and radiated unhappiness.
After seeing Henry transferred to Anna's capable and hospitable hands, Charles turned and headed out the front door again. Part of himself he left with Henry, not so much to see Henry taken care of as to see what he would do, if Miss Frost would appear like the spectre she was; before she did, Charles told himself, he could at least watch. The rest of him went out into the fierce daylight and down the hill to one of the side orchards. Against the sunlight, the children were a gentler warmth where they played under the Rousselet tree, with its fruit heavy on the branches and almost ready for picking.
Downslope, Lehnsherr stood alone a short distance from a dead blackthorn tree. He had dug out the earth around the roots, and had done it himself instead of prevailing on one of the field hands to do it, Charles saw, for he was in shirtsleeves and smudged here and there with dirt. Flashes of metal gleamed up here and there – bands, Charles realized as he drew closer, wrapped around the blackthorn's thickest roots.
Distantly, he heard Wanda and Pietro's greetings of Herr Professor, for all his attention had fixed itself – as it inevitably did these days, and more so since last night. Charles pushed those memories to the side, but they had their own force, augmented by the sight and the feel of Lehnsherr's power flexing itself as he worked. The tree drew out of the earth by degrees as Lehnsherr tugged it upward, the tree balanced carefully on fulcrums of iron. If Lehnsherr registered Charles's presence by his side, he gave no sign of it, grey eyes intent on his work and, Charles saw, the fingers of his right hand shifting slightly as though conducting or weaving the intertwining strands of the sympathies that bound him to the metal.
At last, the tree broke free in a shower of dry earth and, without its anchors, tipped over on its side. Lehnsherr let it go with a sigh and stretched, and turned to look at Charles.
"Well, Herr Professor?"
"Very impressive," Charles said, even though Lehnsherr had only exercised the barest fraction of his ability. You haven't unlocked the tenth part of what you're capable of, he'd said in one of their earlier conversations, and he had the sense that Lehnsherr knew it. Still, Lehnsherr basked in his ability as one might bask in the sun, splendid and acutely conscious of his power, and Charles, despite his resolutions, wanted nothing more in that moment to absorb the contentment Lehnsherr gave off, warm rays of it that penetrated deep and thrilled him, and I want this, the deep, dark voice of impulse within him said, protesting the chains he'd laid upon it, why can I not have this?
He swallowed, and forced himself to speak. "Mr. Lehnsherr, I came to inform you that you have a visitor." Lehnsherr's complacency vanished, his body and mind pulled tight and sharp as the bowstring and its waiting arrow. "Dr. McCoy," Charles continued, "has arrived just now. I met him when I was down in Field, and accompanied him here."
"Did you," Lehnsherr said, voice flat. His right hand flexed; the iron encasing the blackthorn's roots quivered. "Thank you for informing me."
"Of course." Danger chilled the air, and the day was no longer calm. "Shall I come with you? Anna has him in the front drawing room."
"No. Please keep the children outside," Lehnsherr said coolly. "Dr. McCoy and I have business to discuss."
"As you wish." He needed all his resources to play the deferential subordinate he wasn't; it was a mask, and the thorny suspicion coming off Lehnsherr said Lehnsherr knew it. "If you have any need of me, sir, please…"
Lehnsherr strode off without waiting for Charles to finish. Behind him, the blackthorns roots cracked, splintered, shattered, gunshots in the quiet of the day.
After three years he grew used to Essex. Used to – that was the term, although habit could not describe the peculiar cast of mind he adopted in order to make his way through his days and keep his children (and they had become, quite to his surprise, his) as safe as he could. Resignation did not precisely describe it, and looking back from the lofty eminence of twenty-five Charles would wonder how a thirteen-year-old boy could become resigned, but there had been some of that as well. He excelled in his classes and made himself indispensable to his teachers, and when his actions realized no repercussions, used his telepathy to steer the worst of the other children’s animosity away from Sarah and Henry.
He had struck his own bargain with Essex, poor as it was for him, the contract immutable as one written in blood.
It had its benefits, he reminded himself. His telepathy had grown in leaps and bounds, powerful enough now to influence adults without much exertion on his part. Essex made much of him for this, for the unfolding of abilities he had only (he said this with joking and false self-deprecation) barely suspected in his protégé. If Charles went away from their appointments in the laboratory with a grinding headache – or if the rest of the changelings and humans at the institute suffered hallucinations for the day – Essex merely smiled and suggested that Charles ought to learn the finer points of control, and turned away to his notebooks again.
"What do you suppose it would be like, if I had stayed with Dr. Marko?" Charles asked Raven once. She had stolen into his dormitory at night, disguised as one of the younger boys, and crawled into bed with him. The warm, familiar weight of her pressed against him on his narrow mattress comforted him.
"It would be worse," Raven said, voice sleep-dull, her fingers curled tight into his nightshirt.
At times, Charles wondered how it could possibly be so. And at those times he buried the question under his work, his futile attempts to coax the human children into warmth and friendship – their fear sat on him with its own weight, a nightmare on his chest – and the protection of the more vulnerable changelings. Benefits, he told himself, thirteen years old and acutely conscious of additional years lived through the minds of others.
Then, at the border of summer in Charles's thirteenth year, the owner of the Institute and the land upon which it rested came.
As with Essex, full panoply greeted his advent. The human children huddled in their Sunday best, and the changelings likewise pressed close as if for a warmth suddenly stolen away. Charles stood with the boys in the first changeling class, and his stomach turned with their fear. When a black carriage, drawn by a pair of matched and magnificent blacks, clattered into the courtyard, the horses' coats resplendent with sweat, their hooves trampling the flagstones in their anxiety, Charles had to close his eyes and pull all of himself more firmly within. Opening his eyes brought the day back with a shock, the perfect clarity of the sky riding above the miasma of childish nightmare.
Next to him, Essex waited in all his cold superiority, which was worse. All eyes were riveted upon the carriage, waiting as the footman jumped down and opened it, and the coach's lone occupant stepped out.
A tall, spare man voice strangely accented. A memory enfleshed – a memory pulled from half-hallucination, half-waking – manifested itself before Charles's very eyes.
"Children," Essex boomed, "please welcome our patron, Mr. Sebastian Shaw, of Shawcross."
The welcome, sternly ordered, was reluctantly rendered, the children's voices tattered with their fear. Charles heard his own voice speaking, as though his vocal apparatus had been taken from his control and given over into the hands of another. The man had followed John into Essex's laboratory that day. Welcome, Mr. Shaw.
Essex made a small, aggrieved noise, but stepped forward anyway to take Mr. Shaw's hand. The smile Mr. Shaw offered was knife-thin and sharp under his mustache, dishonest, for nothing joyful reached those pale brown eyes.
"I trust," Mr. Shaw said in that strange, blurred accent of his, "that all is going well, Dr. Essex?"
"Quite well," Essex said complacently. "There are some students, I believe, in whose progress you will be particularly interested."
And with that, his gaze, unerringly, sought out Charles and found him.
"Well," Mr. Shaw murmured, "we shall have much to talk about, then."
"Indeed." Essex took Mr. Shaw by the elbow and turned him to the main door of the school. "It's been some time since you've been here, but the changes and improvements have been quite extraordinary – even out here, where decent material is so very difficult to acquire…" Charles stretched out the thinnest spidersilk-fine thread of his power, laced it around Mr. Shaw "… have you any news of other changelings?"
"An older boy on the Continent," Mr. Shaw said, "but his parents could not be convinced."
"Pity," Essex said. "But the Xavier boy, out of all of them here – he may, Sebastian, be the key to the project you've begun, if you've managed further progress on it."
"None." The smooth voice roughened with frustration. "The plans, I am assured, could be tenable, but there is doubt about the theory. Humans are so damnably reluctant to make themselves useful, changelings even more so. I may have to resort to other methods."
"As long as no attention is drawn to me," Essex replied. Charles sensed no fear in him, unless it should be the fear of being inconvenienced by human authorities. "The Xavier boy has his appointment with me tomorrow; come then, and you shall have a demonstration."
Charles, and that was Raven, her warm presence drawing close about him. In the unimportant distance, the teachers were herding the children back to their lessons – back to an afternoon of distraction and speculation, for the teachers themselves were as undone by this Mr. Shaw as their charges – and all that mattered was the spike of interest in Mr. Shaw's mind, sharp enough to cut the filament that bound Charles's awareness to his.
Charles, Raven tried again, the warmth stronger this time, and he let himself be folded in it, as a barrier between himself and what waited.
"Herr Professor?" Wanda's tiny voice said from the fringes of Charles's awareness. "Herr Professor, you're not watching!"
"What? Oh, oh, my dear, I'm sorry." Charles shook his head and, with only a trace of guilt, flicked through Wanda's most recent memories. They came up to him in a dusting of gold, coated by the afternoon sun: Pietro racing in a complicated pattern through the pear and apple trees, fallen leaves fluttering in his wake, and Wanda flipping an old copper penny and casting her hexes to make it fall on one edge.
"You're coming along quite well," he said absently, but it sufficed for Wanda, who danced with pleasure, her reddish curls bouncing about her neck, and ran off to show her brother.
Immediately, he turned back to his own thoughts. No joy in them at all, only the dull and deadening certainty of what he knew, and the fear of what he could but only suspect. Miss Frost had joined Dr. McCoy inside; his sense of Lehnsherr had faded the moment the main door of the house had swung to. There would be no divining the content of that conversation, not unless Charles wished to throw all his power at the walls Miss Frost had put up, and Charles was almost desperate enough to contemplate it.
Wrapped in distraction as he was, he missed the moment when Lehnsherr flickered back into reality again. One minute his world was a faint sense of the children playing, darting fool's lights in the fog of his preoccupation, and then the traveling flame of Lehnsherr walking through the orchard's gate, and when he looked up, Lehnsherr stood ringed by the twisted trunks of the sloes and pears and apples, coiffed and calm across the surface and underneath surging with fear-want-anger-betrayal.
"Charles," Lehnsherr said, "we must speak, I think."
"We must," Charles agreed.
The children forestalled further conversation, clamoring for their father's attention where Herr Professor had been woolgathering for hours. Lehnsherr absently caressed the children's heads before dismissing them to the house for tea. Wanda and Pietro obeyed with alacrity, Pietro tugging his sister along, and very quickly – too quickly, Charles thought with some despair mixed in with his relief – they were alone.
"I hope," Charles said, "that Dr. McCoy has settled in well. He was fatigued, I think, after today."
"He has been," Lehnsherr replied. "He said that he knew you, that you were students together once."
"A long time ago. Longer for him than for me, I suspect."
"You might be surprised." Lehnsherr shifted imperceptibly closer, as though drawn by some inexorable force and all unwilling. Charles closed himself against the fear and the anger, held back from touching the half-projected threads of Lehnsherr's thoughts, why why now, why today, why is he early why this why can't I – , so at odds with the fierce control he associated with his friend.
Employer, Charles reminded himself.
"You implied, when we first began our acquaintance," Charles said, feeling his way with each word, hating the stumbling, groping blindness of it, "that you knew some of the stories of the Institute. What was done to the children there."
"Only that it was closed by protests from the human and changeling families. Neglect – typhus, among the human students, and the changelings were returned to their parents out of fear they too might be infected." Lehnsherr made an impatient sound. "What does that have to do with anything? Dr. McCoy said his parents had withdrawn him; he'd been homesick, before the school closed."
"There were reasons beyond a boy missing his family," Charles said tightly. "I will show you those reasons, if you want, but first – first I must ask you to tell me what's behind those doors. The whole history of it, nothing less."
They had come to it; Charles knew, and he knew that Lehnsherr did as well.
"And if," Lehnsherr said coolly, "I do not?"
"I looked after Henry when we were at Essex's Institute together," Charles replied. Under the cool, Lehnsherr ran hot; the clamor of his mind was machinery, a terrible engine driven by rage and grief. He kept going, headlong into danger: "Henry was, and still is, dear to me. And whatever Miss Frost has involved him in – I did look, Mr. Lehnsherr, I'm not that honorable – is a danger to him. To the children, perhaps." He paused, and closed his eyes for strength. "To you."
"There is no danger," Lehnsherr said roughly. He had drawn closer; Charles felt him as acutely as fire, as a blade across the back of his neck. "Only very old pain, pain I would thank you to leave buried, where it belongs." The words shifted from polite to a threat; Lehnsherr's power waited, leashed but stretching its bonds almost to breaking.
"You asked me last night if I would exercise my power to defend those I love from any who would hurt them, and I told you that I would," Charles said. Lehnsherr nodded warily. "I have done it before, and I will do it again."
"What do you mean?"
Behind him, the abandoned blackthorn groaned; through Lehnsherr's eyes Charles saw the iron bands withdrawing like the tentacles of some subtle, metallic beast from around the tree's roots. They hovered, indecisive, waiting for whatever purpose Lehnsherr would give to them.
"You must tell me everything," he said, and readied himself to smother Lehnsherr's power if he should make any attempt with the iron. He could do it, he had done it once and in the extremes of terror, Shaw pressing a pistol to John Allerdyce's forehead and saying unless that flame goes out, he must die, my boy, and the heart of Lehnsherr's abilities was as vulnerable as mortal flesh.
You must tell me everything, he said again with his silent voice. Lehnsherr backed up a step, wild and animal suddenly, cornered and readying its claws and its guile for escape. You must, or I will take it from you.
"You gave your word," Lehnsherr said hoarsely, mind bitter with disbelief. "I trusted you, that you would never do such a thing."
"And you said yourself last night that circumstances change. Circumstances have changed, and so I must adapt to meet them." Swiftly, Charles told himself. "But I am leaving you the choice to let me in freely, because I owe you much – because I – I," no way to finish the thought, and not lay himself bare to the peculiar power Lehnsherr exerted over him, "I respect you enough to give you that choice. Because we might have been, in some other world where things are different, friends."
"Might have been?" Lehnsherr echoed. He closed his eyes, and the grief of him caught at Charles and bound him as surely as iron would.
Might have been, and farewell to that, now.
I am so sorry, Charles said, and, holding one memory of Erik Lehnsherr close (his face, limned by moonlight, golden underneath with wanting), reached out, and in.
Human or changeling, the mind is not a straight path. It is the road lost in a dark wood, tangled and lost in the undergrowth. Its track loops back on itself, strange crossroads where the traveler might find himself hopelessly lost; the signposts might lead him down other, stranger ways. Fools' lights in the mists might lead him further from his goal.
Despite this, Charles forged ahead with purpose, and the clarity of his power straightened the path before him.
The memories of Erik's earliest days (of his earliest days; Charles is as much Erik now as he is himself) are those of most children, hazy, a tangle of wordless affections and dislikes, the impressions of other beings as yet half-formed and indefinite beyond the faces and voices of those who care for him – his mother, his nurse, his besotted if bemused father. Only the first marks of domestic happiness remain in half-remembered bits of songs and stories, and a clear memory of four candles in the menorah on his fifth Hanukkah; if there is any primordial stirring of power, or sympathy existing between soul and metal, the brain retains no memory of it.
As it is for many changelings, he is reared as a human boy, by human parents. He grows up tall, angular and coltish, remarkable only to his parents, who – like most parents possessing all the prejudices in favor of their own offspring – see only the perfections in him.
His parents are not superstitious; the iron scissors his mother had kept by the cradle had been to pacify the quiet worryings of relatives and the strange custom that holds – still holds, across centuries and across traditions – that changelings fear iron and will keep their infants to themselves when they find a crèche guarded by anything iron-tipped.
When metal begins to sing to him, when he is ten years old and watches a metal die fumble its way across the table toward him, his mother laughs and says perhaps the changelings have become used to the taste of steel, that perhaps she ought to have propitiated them with cakes, or wound spells about the nursery door. She embraces him and, despite the teasing in her voice, he can perceive the fear for him as a trembling against his heart.
He is not, has never been, a wild boy, but quiet, serious – grave, his father says, always aloof and slightly apart from his family and the other children who populate the street and his school. Looking back, he wonders how much is the fact of his blood, his parents’ blood, the divide that runs between himself and the Protestant children of the neighborhood, and how much is the subtler knowledge that discriminates between species. Even through all the years his power lay slumbering inside him, he had beheld the world with vague impatience and incomprehension, and loved his parents with a desperate and confused sort of love, the depth of it something a boy could not begin to understand.
Not long after his power wakens, his parents speak in quiet whispers about what ought to be done. He has heard the stories of the fate suffered by those such as him, and with his heart pounding its anxious drumbeat, he recalls them:
That of old – and yet not so long ago – changeling-children might be turned out by their parents and with no recourse to the law.
That the charities and orphanages could turn away even these, the most wretched and desperate of creatures to petition for their generosity, without the censure of church or synagogue, or the more intimate rebuke of conscience.
That death should find them, miserable and alone, whether in the guise of hunger or cold or the violence occasioned by the terror of simple mortals.
He remembers the other stories, the romances from the old days, how the changeling-child might find his way home again to the hollow hills, or the bottom of the lake, or the glassy isle across the sea. But he's heard no proof of such places – the hills are desolate, the lakes have no beautiful mystery, no explorer has come to such an enchanted bourne – and already he has enough doubt in him to believe that the darker tales are the truer.
"We shall not send him away to school," is his mother's verdict, delivered in a tone as unbendable as the steel his father manufactures, "and he shall most certainly have his bar mitzvah, if I have anything to say about it."
Erik studies the Mishnah with the rest of the boys. If the elders have anything to say about it, only one mutters something about the cuckoo in the nest and leaves it at that. He graduates early from the local Grundschule and moves to the local Gymnasium, where the Lehnsherr name – and Lehnsherr money – shield him as much as his abilities do.
The memories blur, as memories often do, the currents of years running and blending together.
Quickly, he takes an interest in his father's business. After college, his father says, one day, one day, Erik will follow him into a future played to the music of turning gears and the rhythm of pistons. After his schoolwork, Erik reads the reports of the mining engineers and letters from companies seeking to contract with Lehnsherr Steel, and tries to decide which would be best: to draw iron from living rock and shape it to its potential, or to put it to work in the great machines that will drive the world.
And not long after his sixteenth birthday, Doctor Klaus Schmidt calls at the house in Altstadt.
The house in Altstadt is old; the creaks and groans when the maids tread on the stairs, or when the temperature drops, sound like the portents of coming spirits. A patina of gloom clings to the place, oppressive with the gray light of a late winter's day through the window and the heavy woodwork belonging to bygone years. It is, some days, altogether too small for him, too human.
He is upstairs reading – Kant, altogether human, are there no philosophers among us? – when he hears the bell, and the maid's efficient footsteps on the tile, his mother's wondering who the caller might possibly be at this time of day. Restless with his studying, Erik creeps down the stairs – his power knows how to settle the old nails tight so the boards stay still – and hovers in eavesdropping range, the angle sufficient for him to see the back of their visitor.
Melting snow beads on his jacket, on the long brown hair that brushes his collar. Greta, now burdened with a fur-lined greatcoat, hat, and walking stick, rushes away to the coatroom. When she glances up, Erik catches her eye; it is wide with fear, shining with it.
Ah, Frau Lehnsherr, the man says. His accent, and a certain condescension, make the words ugly and ungraceful.
"I am Frau Lehnsherr," Erik's mother says with her usual civility, "but I have not the pleasure of knowing you."
"I am Doctor Klaus Schmidt," the newcomer tells her. The bow he displays is unctuous, and Erik can tell without seeing her fact that his mother is unmoved by the flattery. "I was to meet Herr Lehnsherr here, but alas, I'm afraid I am early."
"If you will come with me…" Erik's mother murmurs, and the carpet of the hallway muffles their footsteps as she leads their guest to the parlor.
Another blur, over the inconsequential waiting for Erik's father to come home. The reason for his tardiness vanishes into unimportance – half-recalled mentions of a meeting run late, or the streets slowed by the afternoon snow – and the memory of the reason for Schmidt's presence burns away everything else, and the memory of being a boy of scarcely sixteen, isolate on the stairs of his family's home and listening to the forerunners of disaster.
"I have heard, through friends at the gymnasium, of your son's very remarkable gift." A sudden silence from his parents; Erik thrills at the thought, that someone else might find him remarkable. "Now, I myself am an educator of the young, but I have a… particular interest, you might say, in changelings. They are quite tragically underserved by even the best of your schools – which, of course, cater to humans." Erik can hear the cater to your species in the contempt that subtly spices the words. "I am myself in the process of forming a small group of changelings for private tutelage in their abilities, the Schmidt-Schule – I laugh, madam (this in response to a grunt of irritation from Erik's mother), because there are but four other students thus far, hardly enough to constitute a class, much less a proper school. But I hope, in time, it should grow to become so."
"Where," Erik's father asks, "would this school be held?"
"Ah," Doktor Schmidt says delicately, "I have a small property in England that I have turned into a school. For changelings to develop themselves properly, they need space, tranquility, freedom from the judgment of – of those who would condemn them for what they are," and after a pause to aerate the point "These things, I'm sure you will agree, are terribly hard to find in a city."
"We will think about it," says Erik's father.
"I have references for you." Erik catches the rustling of unfolding paper, the creak of a chair as someone leans forward and back. "And you would of course be quite welcome to come and see the place. I do hope you will tell Erik of our little talk, Herr Lehnsherr, Frau Lehnsherr – and that you will be in touch."
The tentative quiet of the parlor breaks into a clamor of chair legs scraping back and feet stamping. The suspension into which Erik's mind has been thrown – a hiatus, as he considers for the first time the novelty of being with others of his own kind – breaks and he hurries from his perch on the stairs before his parents or Herr Doktor Schmidt perceive him.
After that day, his parents say nothing and their silence troubles him like a slow-festering wound. When he alludes to it, skirting the edges of confession, his mother cups his hand in hers and says they fear to send him where they might not follow.
"When you're older," she says.
"Charlatans, the whole lot of them," his father growls, earning a censorious glare from his wife.
University comes and goes, the business waits for him at the end of it when he is twenty-one and joins his father in the running of it. This is the first unalloyed happiness he knows, to walk with the miners and smelters and be surrounded by the beating heart of machinery; to walk in the mines in the Ruhr and feel the iron running through the rock like the living veins of some great and vital animal. He tends to the metal, shepherding it through its metamorphosis from ore to the great beams that will support buildings or the rails on which commerce has begun to run, and his father takes over the dry, lifeless paper realm of contracts and accounts.
He marries at twenty-three on his parents' suggestion, a girl named Magda. The steel in her is not quite so responsive to him, but affection dwells in her eyes when she looks at him, and some sympathy calls him to her in turn. For a time he imagines himself a man who, thinking himself consigned to the storm-tossed seas forever, finds himself in a region of calm that stretches to the horizon with no sign of ending – one eye to his present felicity, but a weather-eye keeping watch for the disaster that must surely come.
And come it does, one day in his twenty-fourth year, and it comes in the form of Herr Doktor Schmidt.
Erik misses the first part of the conversation, preoccupied as he is with a new process for tempering the steel for the carriage-line tracks. His father's office, tucked in an unprepossessing corner of Dortmund, is often quiet and tame next to the clamor of the refinery, but today – today there is a tension in the air. The secretary, a slight man, almost vanishes behind his desk.
"You see, Herr Lehnsherr," and the Herr Doktor's accent is still slurred and arrogant, "the terms are all quite easy and clear. I don't particularly care how you accomplish your end, only that you do. And my end," Erik is in the door now, so he sees Herr Schmidt's back, a careless gesture of his hands, how his hair is still glossy and dark, "my end will be to relinquish my attempt on Lehnsherr Steel."
"Papa," Erik says, "what is this?"
"Ah, Erik." His father, Erik thinks, is old now. Worry has etched lines in his face and darkened his eyes behind their spectacles. "Please come in, this concerns you."
"Ah, der kleine Erik Lehnsherr," the Herr Doktor purrs as he stands and turns, a terrible, joyous smile upon his face –
The shock of seeing Klaus Schmidt's face as it lived in Lehnsherr's memory hit him as a heavy blow, the recoil of a musket kicking beneath his heart. Charles staggered, the connection between himself and Lehnsherr, taut like a bowstring straining at its reciprocal knots when the archer pulls it tight, rebounded with all the force of that releasing bowstring and left him breathless. His head ached fiercely and the sun above was too cruel and bright, dazzling him to blindness. In his consternation, Lehnsherr was a pillar of fire, beautiful and terrible in his anger.
"I told you," Lehnsherr said, voice rubbed raw with pain, "I told you – you swore – "
"That man!" Charles broke in, before Lehnsherr's fury could work itself to its coldest, darkest pitch. He forced his mind into order and gathered his trembling telepathy to him and held it close. "That man, your Herr Schmidt – I know him."
Open as he was, he could see the shock cut through the fog of rage. Lehnsherr was brought up short; Charles let drop the reins he had ready to order Lehnsherr to stillness. That would, he thought with no little bitterness, be the end of any hope of something between the two of them. The hope, Charles reminded himself fiercely, had been ephemeral anyway, something barely conceived.
"Schmidt," Lehnsherr said, glaring at him still. His mind weltered with anger, the bitter edges of disbelief and betrayal that Lehnsherr worried at as if at a sore. "You know that man."
"Not as Schmidt," Charles admitted, "but under another name, Sebastian Shaw. He owned the school I attended as a boy – Essex Academy. He was in absentia most of the time, but I… I encountered him on a few occasions when he came to inspect the place."
Encounter! He thought the word at Lehnsherr, with all the force he could and with all the terrible meaning it had for him. Six times in his years at Essex, each one bored into the very foundations of his mind and having all the clarity that belonged to the memories of a creature that could efface the memories of other beings but never his own.
Forcing himself into the innermost, most sacred privacy of a little girl, describing for Schmidt and Essex a particular memory in another student and then excising it, forcing this teacher to dance a waltz, making that teacher believe an apoplexy was coming on, stretching himself so far across so many minds he doubted he could come back to himself – and coming back to himself the pain and humiliation and determination to protect what might be, what must be, protected.
"You asked of me," Charles said hoarsely as Lehnsherr stared at him, "what I would do, and that is what I did."
"Are you asking me," Lehnsherr said with some incredulity, "to forgive you?" He stepped closer, the set of his body menacing; Charles prepared himself for attack, reminding himself Lehnsherr could be ruthless. He would be now, with Charles's betrayal between them now.
Charles pushed that grief to the side and said, "I know part of the secret now – the most dangerous part, I daresay, and I've guessed part of it, and seen part of it for myself. I think it serves you nothing to keep the rest back from me."
"Incorrigible," Lehnsherr growled, halfway between angry and amused, although the amusement was a discordant note, something out of tune with the purity of Lehnsherr's fury. Charles's breath came somewhat more calmly now; the sun receded to its habitual gentleness; his headache drew back to the fringes of his awareness. "You've seen my life for what some of it is. What do you think of it?"
"I think you have confirmed what I already knew to be true," Charles said. Lehnsherr started and positively stared, icewater eyes wide with disbelief. "To dissociate your passions from your memories is impossible. What I saw through your eyes I also felt, and I felt no cruelty in you, or despair. Loneliness, yes, but – but you were alone." Are he amended to himself. "You are no more naturally given to evil or cruelty as I am, or Pietro or Wanda."
"Your arrogance," Lehnsherr said, unmollified, "is unending. Very well; if you want to see the awful conclusion to the tale, if you want to see what I am, then come with me."
With that, he spun on his heel and began the trek back up the slope to Ironhill and the house that slumbered darkly even in the full light of day. Charles followed, chill in the desolation of Lehnsherr's grief and in the foreboding of what waited on the other side of those walls. Not once did Lehnsherr turn around, and though Charles might dip into his thoughts, the barrier of fury-loss-betrayal-how-could-he was as a high palisade wound around with thorns, and Lehnsherr's silence, the set of his shoulders, forbade any more liberties even if Charles were inclined to take them.
Like Orpheus, Lehnsherr paused only once, at the very threshold of Ironhill. The expression he turned on Charles was one of desolation; he opened his mouth as if to speak, but if words were there they remained silent in his throat, and the last flicker of despair melted into anger and then determination, and he led the way inside.
Oh god I'm so sorry this took forever. Between one soul-destroying thing and another, I lost my voice for this fic and needed a while to get it back. Trying to make a reasonable stab at duplicating historical styles of writing is an all-or-nothing proposition, and I needed to spend some time with Jane Eyre and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to get things back in order.
I hope things will be back on track with this and the antiques fic, though, since the worst of the soul-destroying is past. For now, anyway.
Chapter 8: Chapter 8
This is, as they say, the moment you've been waiting for. I actually don't know if you've been waiting for this moment in particular, but the story has been building to it for 29,000 words now, so.
Thanks to everyone for reading, kudos'ing, and commenting!
The study Charles recalled from his first and only foray behind the iron door was, in its essentials, unchanged. A few books had changed positions, a gas lamp shifted to a different table and altogether more candles burning. It was, Charles noticed, significantly older-looking than the rest of Ironhill, a tomb of relics and remains of a former age, excepting the books.
"Looking at it, you would not think this to be the anteroom to a chamber of horror," Lehnsherr said with a deliberate and ironic disdain. "But let me close the door…"
The door swung to, its closing a heavy sound and final, the closing of the leaden lid of a coffin. And, with its closing, the world beyond – the world of sun and life – disappeared utterly, as if it had never been, and the separation from it was like the separation of limb and body, or body and soul.
Charles staggered and caught himself against the back of a sofa. The upholstery, finest satin and brocade, was insubstantial under his hands. In no small amount of terror (blind, he thought, I am truly blind), he searched for Lehnsherr's mind, a perilous harbor in any storm, to be sure, but it was there, turbulent with despair and fear of Lehnsherr's own. It was there, and Charles found he could breathe again, and although his existence had contracted to the room with its red fabric and mahogany, and its terror behind the far door, he found he had some courage too.
"The alloy in these walls is one unknown to most of mankind," Lehnsherr said dispassionately. When Charles focused on him again, he found Lehnsherr's eyes had fixed on him steadily, as if to impress the truth into Charles's brain. "It was discovered in Russia, and brought back by a man who was, by his own account, a field doctor in Bonaparte's campaigns. This man attempted to replicate the properties of this metal, which as you can tell, Mr. Xavier, is antipathetic to certain changelings, but found he did not have the requisite skill to do so, or the facilities to produce it if he did."
Bound to Lehnsherr as he was, mind to mind and trapped him as surely as a shipwrecked man in the ocean, Charles felt the truth of the account.
"This man," he said, "was Shaw."
"At the time, he called himself Klaus Schmidt, Herr Doktor Klaus Schmidt," Lehnsherr affirmed with a vicious twist of his mouth. "You are in the den of an enemy, Charles, even if you can't bring yourself to acknowledge it."
"You are no friend of Shaw's," Charles said swiftly, "and so no enemy of mine. I've told you as much, and you've not raised a hand against me yet."
"So sweet with one side of the mouth, and with the other, poison on the thorns," Lehnsherr said sarcastically. "If you are determined to see this through, to see the monster I am, then you need only step through that door."
Fear would shackle him, if it could; already he perceived it chill and heavy, locking him in place, for what might be worse than being shut away from the world? He drew a breath to steady himself and to lock the fear more deeply inside.
"Brave," Lehnsherr said, but there was no scorn in it. He gestured at the door. Behind the wood invisible gears turned, bolts sliding back.
The door swung open, revealing another room beyond, this with walls all unadorned metal and windowless. Within it, a nightmare lived – quiescent, but in the way that a wolf is, its menace coiled in on itself, its dreams filmed with blood and spattered with memories of the kill.
Never before had he sensed such a mind, not even the minds of the children at Essex's school who had been tormented almost to the last extreme of their endurance. And more, he knew this mind, although it had never crossed his awareness before; he knew it because he had seen the body containing it with his own eyes, and heard the snarl and howl of it. What such a mind belonged to, man-beast or beast-man, there was no discerning, for the body had moved clumsily on four legs and the mind growled and stuttered wordlessly, but underneath – underneath Charles could perceive the substrate, the foundations on which ruins rested, and that substrate had once been rational and retained yet some faint memory of what it was like to be free and to breathe the free air and to know what one was.
He found no name among those ruins, search as he might, no scratching, no token that might lead him back to any identity granted to this being by a fellow human. Only blood and madness tenanted that mind, and brambles to choke off any hope of its resurrection.
"Miss Frost keeps him chained much of the time; she and Dr. McCoy and myself are the only beings who might contain him." Lehnsherr was standing close by his shoulder, the storm of rage and betrayal smothered under the heavier weight of guilt. "But he cannot remain drugged or under her influence forever, even if all hope of his recovery is gone."
The body was, Charles saw as he drew nearer, a man's body, heavy with muscle and hidden under the questionable protection of ragged pants and shirt. The marks of a hard life lived in the lines around the eyes – half-open, opaque with drugs and the influence of Miss Frost (who stood, even now, crystalline and silent in a corner) – and the body itself was covered with a pelt, as it were, of dark hair like a wolf. From between the lips sharp canines protruded, worrying the lip bloody and encouraging foam in the corners; and that foam mixed with the blood and frothed pink. But the horror was – and Charles, before he knew it, had drawn nearer – the horror was the chains about the man's neck and wrists, and looking closer he saw still worse: the threading of metal in the skin, knobbing in the joints of the knuckles and the wrists, half-sunk along the heavy ridge of brow and jaw.
"He's a changeling," Charles said.
"Indeed, poor devil." Lehnsherr's hand was on him, pulling him back with unaccustomed gentleness. "He was a project of the Herr Doktor's. And a project of mine."
Before them, the werewolf's head weaved back and forth. A low moan issued from the bloody lips and rose into a hyena laugh before dying again into a snarl. As Charles watched with sick and distant fascination, three claws – bone mottled with that silvery metal – extended from the metacarpals; slowly, slowly they extended, a full foot long and laced with blood where the skin had shredded to make way for them. The moan started again, and followed the same trajectory as its predecessor, spiking upward and collapsing down into a rattle that shook the man's chest with its ferocity. The eyes rolled slowly, the motion exaggerated, and fixed for a moment on Charles before sliding away again.
"What did you do to him?"
"As you saw," Lehnsherr said, the words a brittle and silent reminder of Charles's broken promise, "Schmidt offered me a choice. He desired the use of my abilities to manufacture this metal, among other things. I hated him, for he sought to coerce my father into giving me into his power, where he could not gain me by honest persuasion, but I… he was evil, and is evil still – he is out there, Charles, although he has not found this place – but all the same his words persuaded me that the humans could not be trusted, and we could not look to a human society to achieve the perfection of our natures as changelings."
"And you believe this still," Charles said flatly.
"Do not you Christians say the devil can speak the truth when it serves him?" Lehnsherr asked impatiently. "To return to my story, I spent some years in his company, refining my powers as I refined metal. In that time my family's business flourished. I had children. And I thought, with my family out of danger, and with Schmidt growing ever more grandiose in his plans for us – plans that had begun to involve other changelings, weaker changelings or those whose power the good doctor felt had not been fully expressed (I had not realized, at this point, that he was the same Sebastian Shaw who was the author of much of your own torment) and the sacrifice of them in the service of our race.
"One evening I told him that we would part ways. He laughed at me, and said 'Well, that's gratitude for you; I give you the power of a god – the power of a god amongst all other gods – and you abandon me. For what? Your human wife? Your children?' His eyes glittered. 'The comforts of a domestic life?'
"I do not believe in the devil as you do, but in the Adversary – in Satan – I could believe he stood before me. If ever I was reluctant, he would smile in such a way as to remind me of how the rest of the world stood ranged against us, and he had been alive for many years, he said, and saw the mindless cruelty of humans throughout the ages. 'It shall never change, Erik,' he would say (and he did say that night), 'until we are numerous enough and strong enough to crush them.'"
Lehnsherr fell silent. The beast-man in the corner raised himself into a crouch and, head swinging like that of a great hound, began to pace slowly, clawing at the wall. Its toes, Charles saw, were much like Henry's, nearly prehensile and almost elegant in their length, blood crusted in the long nails. It snuffed the air and moaned. When its gaze happened to fall on Miss Frost, it bark-growled and lunged, claws extended. What damage it might do to Miss Frost, diamond as she was, Charles had no idea; Lehnsherr clearly knew, for he pulled Charles back safely away from the radius of the chains.
"He had happened on a changeling – this one you see before you – that had been wandering in the Schwarzwald near the Breg, and trapped it and subdued it with his own immense strength, and chained it and brought it to our laboratory in the Ruhr. At the time, our circle was small: myself, Miss Frost, and Dr. McCoy – yes, you start, but your dear friend was at that time the brightest star in the university firmament near Berlin, and Schmidt would have no lesser changeling for his physician.
"The changeling, Schmidt had determined, possessed extraordinary physical gifts – superhuman endurance, flesh and sinew that healed almost as soon as it was rent, no matter how terrible the damage done to it. At the time, I had been working on a project of my own, the isolation and refining of a new metal, which I named adamantium…"
Lehnsherr's voice had gone ragged at the edges, and his mind spiny with the edges of old, revivified pain.
Charles slipped in among the thorns and saw for himself: Shaw, precisely as Charles recalled him in his nightmares, standing over a table with the changeling prone upon it, a terrible cage over his head and great manacles locked about his wrists and ankles; Miss Frost in all her white and silent disdain watching as the changeling struggled and cursed, the curses muzzled by the cage; Henry on the periphery of Lehnsherr's vision, pale with revulsion even as fascination sparked in his eyes; Lehnsherr's own hands resting on the manacle, feeling the quiver and throb of metal tested to its utmost as the changeling strained against it.
He is listening to Schmidt's words, mad and yet ruthlessly logical with the logic peculiar to madmen, recoiling from the means even as he agrees with the spirit, for "if we merely defend ourselves against the humans, we will find ourselves crushed under the boot of their hatred as we have been for millennia; I tell you we were born to be gods, but even gods must have their weapons – their swords and their thunderbolts – to enforce their laws."
"Lehnsherr," Schmidt says, and the zeal is ardent in his pale corpse-eyes, "how much adamantium do you have on hand?"
"Not much," he says reluctantly, sensing the direction already. "What happened to not inflicting pain on our own kind?"
"The pain he will recover from," Schmidt tells him, "and pain is always the cost of survival. When we pass through the fire… that is what tempers us, yes? You should know that better than anyone."
In the first stages of the project, he holds to the fraying threads of faith, that the improvement of their race will lead to their security, to their preeminence and their inheritance of the world. The faith lasts until Schmidt determines they have enough to begin a test of the procedure he and Dr. McCoy have, until now, only seen as theory.
"You grafted the metal, the adamantium, into his bones," Charles whispered. "You were the one who did this to him."
"Yes," Lehnsherr said, the word scarcely more than breath grinding in the throat.
They begin with the toes as preliminary experiments, as much for Erik's control as to see if bonding metal to bone might be possible. The exhilaration of this level of mastery, the very molecules – the very atoms – of the adamantium bending to his will masks the horror that crawls in him hearing the changeling curse and howl. Eventually he tightens the metal close about the changeling's mouth, two holes in it for the nostrils; Miss Frost, gone to diamond whenever she finds herself in his presence and the changeling's, takes as much pity as she is capable of taking, and sends the changeling into unconsciousness.
Late into the night he works, weaving his way slowly up to the ankles. The bones are many and tiny, the mosaic of cuboid, cuneiform, and navicular, the mottled talus, and interlaced hopelessly with tendon, sinew, and veins. Fragments of metal sometimes cut into those veins and are lost in the blood and its iron-rich stream; if Erik loses control, he stands by and watches as the gush of red stops, sealed up by the changeling's gift, then cleans the blood away and begins again.
When or how the changeling eats, he knows not. Schmidt believes he could go forever without water or food – truly immortal – but on Dr. McCoy's hesitant suggestions does not pursue the theory.
And then, one day as he begins (his first attempt at the fingers, more complicated even than the feet, he chances to look the changeling in the face before closing the cage over it.
* * *
Shaw's visits had diminished over the years to one perhaps every eight- or twelvemonth. "A new opportunity on the Continent," he said to Essex one day while Charles wrestled with his telepathy to write a simple sentence with the unwilling hand of another student. Across the table, Robert Drake sweated and stared at his hand in a horror that Charles, desperate, had muted to the softest moans.
"How is he progressing?" Shaw asked, voice hollow as if coming from a great distance.
"Satisfactorily," Essex replied. He was a cloud of menace in the corner of Charles's vision, and a sucking vacuum near the heart of his telepathy. "How is that blasted device of yours, by the way?"
"Not so satisfactory," Shaw said with no little impatience. "Perhaps if I had a telepath of sufficient strength, I might make some progress."
"It is well," Essex said, "that strength can always be cultivated." A rustling, then, and Essex's presence cold over his shoulder. "Lovely penmanship, Charles. Now please, write the following…."
The night belonging to one such day, when Charles had been nearly sick with pain after pushing to the uttermost limits of his ability, Raven crept into his dormitory. He heard her coming, the mouse-soft whisper of her thoughts asking if he was still awake and if she might come in.
Of course, he thought, and brushing the minds of his thirteen roommates with the gentlest suggestion to remain asleep, he padded quickly to the door to unlock it. Raven slipped in, defiant in her natural blue.
You needn't do this to yourself, only on our account, Raven said to him after they had made themselves comfortable. The late winter howled outside the window, driving the cold into the changeling boys' dormitory, and the two of them huddled together under the feather weight of their blankets. Around them the rest of the children slept uneasily, their dreams haunted by wind-snow-cold-Essex, some of them vivid enough to paint the air with their dreamer's terror.
I need to keep you safe. He chafed Raven's hands in his, until Raven rolled her eyes and, after some fumbling, had his hands clasped between hers. This was the only way it could be done.
I can keep myself safe, Raven snapped. Despite the aggrieved silent voice, she shifted closer to him, forehead pressed under his chin and her scales soft against his neck.
He felt it, then, in a rush of dizzying possibility and saw it in the tumble of images that, half-formed but still inexorable, made up what Raven had come to tell him.
I have to. A soft breath against his collar bone and wetness against his skin. It hadn't been so bad for a while, after you came, but now… I can't bear anymore, Charles, I can't. Not even for you.
Where will you go? He tucked his grief away, down in the place where he put his father's death and the slow dissolution of his mother, and held on.
I don't know. Raven said this defiantly, as though Charles's question were a challenge. I can hold my shape now, I can change into anyone. But I… I want you to come with me.
He heard-felt-tasted her fear, not so much fear of the wide world beyond the walls but fear of being without him. Fear, he realized, for him. Her small, hot hands closed tight around his and held on.
I cannot, he whispered, and gave his apology as a kiss against her cheek. Sarah and Henry are too young; I cannot leave them to Essex, not now, maybe not ever.
Raven waited until spring, until the roads cleared and the fitful thaws had finally resolved into new grass and the first buds of flowers. Charles waited out the time in an agony of dread that he preserved carefully in a place where she and the others might not know of it, for Raven, like fate, was inexorable. She had no preparations; she would take nothing except a little food, enough to see her into the next town. All she carried with her would be her wits and her native courage, and she had no small measure of either of those two things.
At last the night came. Charles knew it by the pace of Raven's thoughts, restless and turning in circles throughout supper and into the evening. She was careless with her slate during the study hour and could barely swallow her small cup of coffee before bed, her gold eyes wide and wary as she searched the small clutch of changeling students and their teachers for signs they had divined her plan. More than once, she demanded to know if Essex were returning, although he had left two days ago on a mission to collect more unfortunates.
"He's quite far from here," Charles reassured her quietly, although he wished he could lie to keep her with him.
Come the night did, and after a gentle tap to Mr. Quincey to remind him to stay asleep, Charles slipped down to the kitchens. As in that night years ago, he saw Raven in the thin starlight through the window and the guttering candle, stuffing food into a small pack.
You're really leaving, he thought at her. Raven's eyes glittered alien in the candle's glow, quite gone and shut of this place already. You must, he added, moving to embrace her one last time, you must think very small thoughts until you're quite far from here.
"Small thoughts," Raven whispered fiercely. She clung to him, her fingers digging into his shoulders. "I shall keep my thoughts very, very small, Charles."
* * *
"You decided then to escape."
They had taken two chairs on the far side of the room, at some distance from the changeling and its aimless pacing. The wooden arms had been scored almost to splinters in places, no doubt a result of the changeling and its claws; the cushions were hardly in better shape, and smelled stale. The entire room smelled of animal, of sweat and unpleasant musk, despite the care with which the rest of it had been kept clean. Water and fresh food sat in trays close at hand – the changeling had enough awareness about him to know these were good things, and not to be disturbed – and a bed, also mangled but serviceable, stood in the corner.
"Some part of him remembers what he is," Charles said, watching as the changeling snorted and made growling noises as if they were preliminaries to speech. "Has Miss Frost attempted to help him?"
"Her skills do not run that way." Lehnsherr had folded one leg over the other, hand resting on his knee; tension ran under the steady casualness of the pose. "They suffice to control him, but to heal him? No."
"There is nothing left to heal," Miss Frost said, crystalline. In the lamplight – caged in corners of the room – she glittered coolly. "He was already halfway to being an animal by the time Schmidt caught him, and I am not a miracle worker."
"If I looked harder, maybe I could," Charles said absently. "But what he is… it is buried down deep."
"I suppose the difficulty is not so much an impediment as an encouragement," Lehnsherr said with his usual dry affection, so close to what they had had that Charles ached with it.
"You did decide to escape, though," he said again, to reinforce the memory of what he had seen in Lehnsherr's past.
"When I realized I had done what I had vowed I would never do and rob another changeling of his right to his own life, yes." Lehnsherr sighed. "The escape was not easy."
The terror remains with him even now; it claws at its cage, as vicious as the guilt and rage Erik carries with him. He has money of his own from the company, grown enough now to make a clean break, and the break is made in a cleansing fire when Schmidt has gone off on business, secure in his power over his followers. Before that, though, Erik must convince Miss Frost, who comes only because Schmidt's arrogance has begun to sour even her; Dr. McCoy falls into line more easily, driven as he is by a guilt and self-loathing far deeper than Erik's, and fear of Schmidt as well.
The night of the fire, they take with them the changeling, subdued by all the power Miss Frost has at her disposal and locked in an adamantium coffin. Erik destroys the metalworks himself, the adamantium he cannot take with him melted to unshapeable and obdurate slag. The fire, once it takes its own life from the oil lacing the wood and stones of the old house, rages with a heat that almost matches what burns in Erik's own heart.
A house waits in the north of England, already furnished with the telepath-blocking metal in two of its rooms. And, in a third, the one thing Dr. McCoy had taken charge of, a fabulous contraption of copper and silver wires and elegant gears. Erik had helped to move it into its crates, a thing he had sensed but never seen.
"Shaw's life's work," McCoy had told him as he packed straw tight around a helmet. The rim of it had been delicately inscribed – elegant, which was odd next to Schmidt's pragmatism. (And now, with Charles bringing the memory to light, vivid as if it had happened yesterday, Erik remembers the Shaw.) "He had been working on it for years before he, ah, found me in Berlin. He had never quite been able to perfect the theory of it; it was a matter, mostly, of high-conductivity metal, he had been using tin before."
"What is it?" Erik had asked impatiently, setting the long bone of a piston in its box.
"Cerebro," McCoy had said, which said nothing much at all.
Chapter 9: Chapter 9
Part of this chapter roughly corresponds to parts of Chapter 23 in Jane Eyre, which is one of my most favorite passages in English literature. Thus, I kind of want to hide my face in my hands, because there's no way this can be as good.
They left the changeling to prowl in its corner and add more scratches to the walls. Its claws left traces of blood and skin on the metal, itself adamantium overlaying the antipsionite (this was Schmidt's name for it; Charles heard the word shouted from the depths of Lehnsherr's memory, soaked through with hatred and Schmidt's gloating) and so impenetrable to the changeling's metal-laced claws. Quite undeterred, the changeling worried at the wall, pausing only to roll its eyes at Miss Frost, its great, shaggy head weaving back and forth aimlessly.
"You're certain nothing can be done for him," Charles asked. As if attracted by the voice, or the concern, the changeling paused and looked up; and for a moment it seemed to Charles that the changeling's vacant gaze locked on his and became lucid, but the mind behind them remained turbid. Reaching out with his telepathy brought only the vision of ruins and a creeping fog.
The changeling moaned.
"Come away," Lehnsherr whispered, his hand on the cuff of Charles's jacket.
The request was just that – a request, delivered not with Lehnsherr's usual icy hauteur. Faced with the changeling's distress, and the headache that came with being in contact with a mind so utterly animal (and Charles, in that fog, had had the impression of a cathedral of trees, underbrush, the gamy scent of nearby meat), Charles let himself be led. Hand still resting warmly upon Charles's wrist, Lehnsherr directed him back through the study – a shock; Charles winced against the brightness and the return of luxury and civility from the realms of nightmare – and then through to another room, this door concealed behind a heavy red curtain and protected by an invisible lock that required Lehnsherr's power to unbar it.
This room was situated under the old observatory, its domed roof reaching up perhaps twenty feet. Like the changeling's prison, it too was clad in metal, and in the heart of it sat a great, shadowed edifice of silver and copper and brass, half-sunk in the floor and resting on the haunches of its pistons. In front of it hung a helmet, shaped to the general contour of the human head but bristling with wires tipped in silver and wrapped in cloth and paraffin. Behind it sat a cranklight, almost provincial in its simplicity. Lehnsherr gestured, and the cranklight grunted and wheezed to life.
Henry had come up behind them, and where Charles had expected enthusiasm in the face of science, he found only hesitation. Fear and recollections scattered the surface of his mind, some of it dragged up from down deep where most people kept the pasts they preferred not to recall; each, in Henry's remarkable memory, separate and clear as shards of glass, and sharp enough to cut.
"What does it do?" Charles inquired.
"It amplifies telepathic abilities," Henry replied.
Under the words, Charles heard the race and tumble of hypothesis and excited speculation, what can we do with this – in the right hands what could we accomplish – he was so close but never worked it out and I did what he could not, and his own heart sped up in sympathy. Beneath even that he saw the schematics for the machine and the potential for it, and the first cautious images of Charles standing under that helmet, swinging it into position.
"Shaw was working on this," he said, careful to block his own excitement from the rest of the room, particularly Miss Frost. The expression with which she favored him suggested his momentary lapse had been sufficient for her to know the directions in which his mind was running. Lehnsherr, for his part, watched them in wary silence.
"You know now, of course, that Dr. Essex and the man we knew as Mr. Shaw, from our time at school, were working together," Henry said quietly, with an anxious glance at Lehnsherr and Miss Frost. And you know – Charles, I wouldn't – I would not want to bring this up, not…"
"Dr. McCoy," Lehnsherr said acerbically.
"You can," Charles said. "You have my blessing, Henry; these are things Mr. Lehnsherr and Miss Frost ought to know."
Henry sighed. He had never been, Charles recalled, a passionate boy, except about his books, and that passion had been great. His conviction never wavered in his pursuit of knowledge, but where others were concerned, where other feelings might take precedence, he had always lost his certainty – and in those times he had looked to Charles and Raven, to Charles and Raven who had left. How he had found his own way in the years of their separation, Charles could easily imagine: Lehnsherr's Herr Doktor might have easily made himself the avatar of security to a frightened young man, with his notice of Henry's talents in Berlin, his encouragement of Henry's particular interests.
"I know the bargain you struck with Dr. Essex," Henry told him, and he must have seen the shock on Charles's face, for he subjoined (rather more quietly), "he told me of it one day – I dared not say anything, for I was too young and too frightened to do anything more than accept what you had offered without demanding that you be spared. I hope you'll forgive me, truly."
"There was never anything to forgive, Henry; you must know this. What I did for you, I would do again; I would do it for anyone who had need of it."
"Do what?" Lehnsherr demanded, all spiky irritation at this colloquy.
"I was six when my parents sent me to Shawcross Academy. They claimed it was for my intelligence, but the fact of the matter was, my unfortunate feet drew the notice of other children, and they could not induce nursery-maids to stay once they had beheld these monstrosities of mine." Henry, Charles saw, still wore his shoes; they had to pinch fiercely, but Charles also clearly remembered Henry's misery at being forced to go barefoot at school. "But once I was installed at Shawcross… Dr. Essex took an interest in my gifts, and in the temper I evinced when thwarted in my desires, or – or starved, or provoked beyond my endurance. He said I should become much stronger, that my intelligence should not be the only extraordinary thing about me. Threshold was his word for it: how a changeling might be brought up to, and beyond, the fullest realization of his abilities.
"Charles put a stop to this. Mr. Lehnsherr, you will have to ask him for the particulars of the conversation; all I know is what Essex told me, that I owed my easier testing schedule to Charles's sacrifice, that he would take over my extra sessions and submit himself for Essex's experimentation."
"D——n it!" Lehnsherr said. "Charles, why did you not – "
"I did tell you," Charles said, "or rather I tried, if you recall our conversation from before we stepped through those doors out there."
Lehnsherr fell silent and recoiled as if struck. Charles, his powers lifted by anxiety to such a pitch that he could not shut out Lehnsherr's thoughts even if he wished it, perceived the war fought under that face made soft by revelation: it was doubt, fury, relief (that Charles had told the truth), pride (in Charles, that he should place himself in danger), admiration, and an impossible, upswelling warmth from which Charles hastily turned away.
Intimacy, he thought helplessly. There were sympathies, he realized, that bound him inextricably to Lehnsherr; they were sympathies of past pain and loss, and rather more now, what Lehnsherr had hesitatingly offered him in that evening conversation.
Henry was still speaking, still reticent, but caught in the flow of his narrative. He was relieved, giddy with the bone-depth of it, to finally tell a story he must have hidden close.
"At the time we were with Essex," Henry was saying to a silent Miss Frost and Lehnsherr, "Shaw must have been working on his experimental versions for a device that would increase the range of any telepath put into it. In theory, this device would allow him to influence the minds of any being susceptible to telepathy – humans, of course, were much on his mind as intended targets, although I did not know this when I began to work with him. He lacked much, though. First, he lacked a proper appreciation of the engineering principles involved – the metallurgical aspects, the energy requirements for a device so powerful, the physiology; but most importantly, he lacked a telepath."
"He came to my sessions, though," said Charles. "He knew what I was: Essex never troubled himself to conceal that, and I often demonstrated my powers for him."
"Indeed, and Essex wouldn't let him have you, until he'd taken what he'd wanted from you. It was only when you made yourself necessary to the running of the school, and then your departure for Oxford, which kept him from permitting Shaw to take you to Germany with him." Henry paused, and then added, somewhat more tentatively, "And I believe that he and Shaw worked at cross-purposes as often as they were allies. Neither of them trusted the other, and I rather think Essex feared what a telepath, their abilities augmented by powerful machinery, would do to him and his own schemes."
"God in heaven." This was Lehnsherr again. He had moved closer to Charles, and was staring down at him with a confused expression, caught between fascination and frustration; the battle Charles had witnessed earlier had calmed, forced to the corners of Lehnsherr's mind. Which sensation might win, Charles closed him off from knowing, but that conflict wrote itself in Lehnsherr's pale eye and the long, ungenerous mouth and was as legible to Charles as if written in clearest script.
"You finished Herr Schmidt's work for him, though." Charles nodded at the great, inexorable presence of the machine. The glow from the cranklight ran along it in licks of flame, vanishing in a declivity of shadows beneath the gears, which were quiescent, and the pistons anchored in the floor, which spoke of power. In the midst of the room, the helmet hung suspended from a pivoting brass arm, caught in a spider's-lace of coils. "At least, I assume this works."
"Ah, of course," Henry coughed, sounding somewhat ruffled. "On my visits here, Miss Frost has been kind enough to assist me with my work, but her gift is not as receptive to… certain forms of interference."
"I dislike having amateurs paw around my mind," Miss Frost said from her corner. The touch of her mind against Charles's was abrupt, shocking as cold water; I had no intention of making myself one of Sebastian's laboratory experiments, and I shan't become one for that puppy over there. Aloud, she said, "Our darling Henry has done such heroic work, given his… limitations."
The word was as cleverly insinuated as a needle. Henry shifted unhappily, but said nothing to contradict.
"Perhaps," Charles said, "you might show me how it works."
* * *
Almost every night for three years after Raven departed, Charles searched for her.
Under Essex's tutelage, he could find the unique glow of a spirit-mind-body in a sea of lights; he could find that glow and speak to it, mind to mind; he could direct its body through it, however unwilling the mind might be; he could made the spirit wish even for those things most deeply antipathetic to its nature, to seek to die where it wished to live, to humble itself and enslave itself to Charles's will.
He could not, however, find Raven.
After the first week, she had vanished like a bird in the night, or a cloud, as if she had never been. Charles felt sure he would have heard the unique signature of her voice – despite the glossing of scientific knowledge, part of him held that their souls were attuned, that he should know if she were to leave the world – but if her spirit had cried out for his, if she had asked for him to come to her, the cry and the request had been swallowed up by some great distance. In his bed (closer to the fire now, such as the fire was; he was Head Boy, and Mr. Quincey's nominal aide in the maths and sciences) he told himself she should have gone to the Continent, and told himself stories of the adventures she might have there, taking the shape of a noble lady or the Emperor of France as her pleasure dictated.
As he grew older, his native genius and talent outstripped those of his teachers. Essex, however, held his own knowledge close like a miser; all of Charles's attempts to persuade him to explicitness on the topics of his research, and the fruits of it, resulted in that taunting and red-lipped smile, a baring of teeth that was not at all friendly, a reminder that Charles might be bright, but was still a student and an experiment.
"You are a source of knowledge, my dear boy," Essex said as he took more blood, his hand chill against Charles's temple. "Do not seek to take in, but to give as generously as you have given to me in the past."
Eventually, as needs must, Charles found himself a source of knowledge in mathematics and science with the departure of Mr. Quincey. What the cause might have been for his longtime instructor's eviction from the school – rather, disappearance, for one morning Charles woke to find Mr. Quincey vanished much as Raven had – no student could say, nor did they want to. Instead, Essex, upon gathering them in the courtyard for another solemn and gray-frocked assembly, informed them that Mr. Quincey had left to take up a position at headmaster elsewhere, and they should all wish him well.
"And," Essex said tranquilly, "you should also give your well-wishes and your obedience to one of your own number, Charles Xavier, who will remain and take up the post just now vacated by your beloved Mr. Quincey upon his graduation next week."
That Charles – cast-out, desperately protective, and so trapped – should fail to agree, Charles knew quite well, had never been considered. He swallowed his own surprise and walled it up as best he could; he smiled as the changeling-children around him clutched at him with their cold fingers, and even the human children by the brightening of their pale faces seemed relieved with their schoolmate's investiture as teacher.
So it was, that one phase of Charles's life melted seamlessly into the new; unlike the series of shocks that had been his transfer from the care of Dr. Marko to that of Dr. Essex, from the lately-chilled bosom of his family home to that of Shawcross and Essex Academy. He moved his meager belongings to the rather larger space allotted to Mr. Quincey, and his bed to the next most senior boy in favor of the one lately vacated by his old instructor. The promotion resulted in better food at the tables and the addition of a blanket during the colder months – an addition he sacrificed, as well as granting his bed to three of the smallest boys who shivered and cried with the cold – and money (a novel thing; his first salary seemed a sultan's hoard), but beyond those, no further advantages.
Essex continued to test him, to make vague comments on the rapid growth of his power – "He was very impressed, Charles, very impressed at the growth of your range in the past year" and "Do you see what natural gift harnessed by long practice can accomplish?" and "He believed there existed an attunement between certain portions of the brain, for a mind long exposed to Charles's might take on some of its traits, such as his handwriting or his habit of touching his temple," and so forth, until Charles chafed against the knowledge that Essex knew far more about him and the practicalities of his power than Charles knew himself. On occasion, Essex might flesh out his skeleton statements into something more, but he never spoke out of generosity; it was the fervor of the moment, with Essex caught up and transfigured as some terrible saint at the height of an ecstatic vision, and the words tumbled from him in a flood.
"I wonder," Charles dared to say one afternoon (his sessions, of course, had remained as the longest-standing tradition of his life at Shawcross), "I wonder if perhaps I should practice with the students more, outside of the stress of the laboratory. Surely they might become more comfortable with their gifts if they're not being poked and prodded."
"You seem to be under the misapprehension that I do this for their comfort, or the pleasure of their improvement per se," Essex rejoined with a frown. He had stopped his endless testing to make notes upon some results; the sight of pen and ink and paper next to the sterile porcelain and steel of the laboratory was almost quaint. Essex even had a smudge of ink adorning his finger, where the pen rested. "My dear, dear boy, you are all of you quite remarkable, of course, but I seek to make us more remarkable. And when I have found the key to our gifts, the divine spark within us all (Essex's eyes glittered here with their unholy rapture), I shall open the door to the Golden Age, and we will return to that most perfect time, and our future shall be glorious."
"And these students are to be your martyrs," Charles said bitterly.
"Nothing so pedestrian, I assure you." Essex set his pen down. "You have been my faithful companion, my student, for years now. Why is you elect this hour to rise in revolt? Whence comes this questioning, little Charles?"
At sixteen, Charles had enough heat in his blood to resent the appellation. Essex, seeing this, grinned broadly and horribly, his white-red lips peeling back from his teeth in his laughter. He saw, Essex said presently as he returned to his writing, that he had touched a nerve; "Charles was always free to leave, if he wished; no contract or bond kept him here – except, of course, that which subsisted between a teacher and his students."
After the appointment ended, Charles returned to his room instead of the study hall and the observation of the fourth form's fumbling attempts at algebra. The changeling boys' dormitory, when unoccupied, had an air of desolation, with its worn bedsteads and blankets, the boys' spare clothing changes tucked into battered trunks positioned at the end of each bed. The fire, neglected during the day, drowsed in its ashes. Even when full at the close of evening, with the boys huddled together for warmth – they often shared beds, to share body warmth and blankets when the worst of winter forced its way through the walls and cracks in the window – even with fourteen bodies moving in it, the room was as one tenanted by ghosts.
He should leave. The thought struck him with the force of lightning, unexpected and searing.
But, he asked himself, where should he go?
The answer came directly: To university.
University, like school, commanded all his attention. He had gleaned some information concerning it from Essex (who was contemptuous) and Mr. Shaw (who spoke of consulting some researcher or other on topics outside of Essex's specialty), and in some of the human literature he had read at his old home and in his schooling. The word, invested in Charles's mind with the power of an incantation, summoned up young men hurrying to lectures, a bearded professor explaining mysteries deeper than any which had revealed themselves to Charles, books and vast libraries, repositories of knowledge free to all and not guarded jealously – in short, everything that school was and yet had failed to be.
* * *
"You've seen the worst and darkest truths of this place," Lehnsherr said that night.
Charles had only fretted at his supper, torn between the changeling in his cage and the monstrous promise of the machine in its tower. They sat now in the study as they had of old, with the children discharged to Anna's care, and Miss Frost and Henry with the changeling. Their minds had vanished the moment the steel door had closed, and the shudder of it – even knowing what lay within those rooms – still chilled the spaces between Charles's bones.
That this might be the final night spent here, for surely Lehnsherr had no use for those who violated their promises to him, also chilled him, and far more deeply.
"You – " Lehnsherr was repeating himself, sounding faintly annoyed at having to do so. Charles flicked through the surface of Lehnsherr's immediate thoughts for the original statement.
"I have," Charles agreed presently. The whiskey in his glass had steadied him somewhat, although a nervous and unsatisfied stomach suggested caution. Lehnsherr watched him from his usual chair, his own tumbler untouched. "I have, and I admit I am at a loss to know why, precisely, you expect me to condemn you."
"To give you a list of the reasons you should not would take far less time," Lehnsherr said ironically; under the sarcasm a sea of self-hatred heaved and churned.
Charles frowned at this. "You realized the fundamental evil of your actions and, when that realization came upon you, you desisted. You saved and succored that living being whom you had wronged, you aided those who sought to escape from the power of an evil man, and brought all of them to a place of safety. There is good in that; there is good in you, for doing such things, when you might have remained and considered one creature's suffering lesser than your own safety."
"Hmph," Lehnsherr said, and pointedly looked out the windows into the late and dying evening.
"You know, I still agree with Schmidt," Lehnsherr said presently. When he drank, it was abrupt, animal; half the tumbler in one swallow. "Despite what I saw, the evil in him and the evil he forced others to – I agree with him. That, I believe, is why I allowed myself to be used in the experiments on the changeling in the first place."
"But you would not harm another one of us, even for a cause you hold above all other things."
"Above all other things?" Lehnsherr did look at him now, directly and without compromise.
"I imagine your children are paramount now, of course," Charles said quickly.
"They are precious to me," Lehnsherr acknowledged with more impatience than parental affection, "but I was not speaking of them."
That impossible, warm-flowering thing welled up in Lehnsherr again, and it, Charles thought with some alarm, should engulf him if he was not careful. He rallied himself to his own defense, although his reserves – already worn out from the trials and shocks of the day, bombarded almost beyond their endurance – were slow to respond.
"I must apologize," he said, after casting around for something that might restore calm and allow him a chance to collect himself, and to get the worst of it over with. "You said that there was no threat to me here, and you were right. I misjudged you, and in doing so broke my promise to you. I cannot – I cannot say how sorry I am."
"I'm used to worse betrayals," Lehnsherr said. He turned slightly in his chair; the firelight caught on the sharp edges of his face before traversing them, leaving new shadows under his brows and the line of his jaw. "And when Dr. McCoy spoke of your sacrifice… I know whence that impulse comes."
"We are alike in that," Charles said, "but if you wish me to leave, I will depart – in the morning, if I may."
"Why," Lehnsherr said, starting forward, "should I wish that? Do you wish it?"
"No," Charles shook his head. "No, it – it is the last thing I should wish. But if you will accept a promise from a man who has already gone back on his word, I will tell no one about this place when I go from here – although I should be sorry to leave."
"Oh, for god's sake," Lehnsherr growled. He set his tumbler down on the sideboard with more force than was strictly necessary and stood, and commenced to pace the narrow cage that was the space between his chair and the fire.
Charles rose, collecting what remained of his power and his dignity to him. "I'll go then," he said, as unobtrusively as he could.
A swift hand darted out, swift, almost, as the thought directing it, and he found his wrist once again in Lehnsherr's grip, and the more imperative tug on the metal of his belt buckle and buttons. In the firelight, Lehnsherr's eyes were shadows on shadows, caught out here and there by gold.
"If you were to go, where would it be?"
"Wherever I could find a position."
"And if one were not offered to you? Not many seek out changeling tutors, and you yourself have disavowed any connection that might assist you."
"I have brains, and ingenuity sufficient to keep body and soul together; I should survive long enough to find myself a new situation." The pressure of Lehnsherr's hand on his increased; Charles considered subtly encouraging him to drop it. This close, with his shields down and Lehnsherr's usual reserve abandoned, the room seemed filled over with chaos, the tides shifting and changing, and catching Charles up in currents of need – want – confusion – anger – affection – affection-for-him.
"I wish, Charles," Lehnsherr said at length, pausing before drawing somewhat closer, "I wish for you to stay, to have you by my side."
Battered and exhausted as he was, Charles half-expected the force of revelation to hit him like a blow; but when it came, it slid carefully into place and locking there like a key. Outside, in the blackness beyond the windows, the wind picked up and clouds blocked out the tenuous moon.
"I am not poetic," Lehnsherr said, with a certain dry humor that asked Charles to share in it, "but I – " he took one of Charles's hands in both of his, and the touch was galvanic, and such that Charles imagined it was how metal felt, responding to the call of Lehnsherr's power, "but I, when I first saw you and spoke with you – do you remember what you said to me? For I do."
Charles did remember it, and saw the scene in Lehnsherr's mind, heard himself and saw himself (far more vibrant in memory than in waking life, surely), his words resonant. You are not alone, memory-Charles said, and those words had pierced – pierced Lehnsherr as surely as any sword, and the point of them had driven to his heart and lodged there.
"Yes, they've stayed," Lehnsherr agreed. "And I wish you would stay too, Charles."
The kiss he gave Charles was richer than any poetry, suffused with clear, uncomplicated warmth, as if the storm Lehnsherr habitually harnessed within himself had calmed and become tranquil, the waves smoothing with each stroke of Lehnsherr's fingers over Charles's face. On a breath, Charles gave himself into it – for a moment, he thought desperately, give me only this, only Lehnsherr's hands now shaped to the curve of his back, and his own hands learning the geography of Lehnsherr's flanks, such as might be learned with flesh hidden under jacket and waistcoat.
Give me only this, he thought again, before he made himself pull back.
"Your wife – " he said, once some coherence had returned.
This placed some space between them, although not much. Lehnsherr still held on, thumbs smoothing the material of Charles's coat momentarily before he stepped back.
"Magda's family had heard of my… associations," Lehnsherr said with no little bitterness. "Im Germany, the spouse of a changeling is allowed to divorce with no legal contestation, and is entitled to a settlement from the marital property. Faced with pressure from her parents and relatives, and fear of me – she had overlooked my gifts before, but when word got out of my association with Schmidt, she saw the monster I was in truth – well, armed with these truths, she confronted me. I agreed to the settlement and added money of my own, to ensure her comfort, and took our two children with me."
(He saw this, too: the wrongness of love twisted into fear, and the acceptance that she might be safer, removed from him – the rage that Schmidt had, yet again, taken something from him.)
"Convention – morality – "
"I remember a wise man suggesting that convention could be easily set aside, that it ought to be, if it is a bar to good," Lehnsherr murmured. "Charles, I would have you here in any place you would have – as tutor to Wanda and Pietro, as a friend to me and a faithful paid subordinate, but god help me, I am selfish (you know this, you should know me too well to believe I'm capable of being anything but that), and I want you."
Morality reared its heads, its heads of eight years of childhood sermons and the Pembroke rector's opprobria delivered on the licentiousness of his students. Safety sought to tug him back from the precipice; he might stay under any condition he named, need did not demand risk.
"Let me work with the changeling," Charles said, "and with Henry on Cerebro. There is so much good that remains to be done, that you can help us with. You do have good in you Mr. Lehnsherr – Erik – if you would let yourself see it."
"You'll stay," Lehnsherr said blankly, disbelieving.
"I will," Charles affirmed, and stepped into the warm curve of Lehnsherr's body to kiss him once again, and the breath that suffused Charles when Lehnsherr's mouth met his and shaped the two of them together, the heat, tasted and felt of gratitude.
They lay twined together, Erik's fingers laced through Charles's, their breath steadying, Erik's body a slowly receding tidal motion where his chest and belly pressed against Charles's side. In the faint moonlight he seemed a sculpture of the sort whose imperfections revealed something instead wholly perfect, the occasional scar, the too-narrow run of his flanks, all of him impossibly dear to Charles already.
"So much for convention, then." Erik's voice was transfigured, afterward, to something almost gentle and teasing. Charles had to laugh.
"And morality?" Charles asked. When he breathed in, he tasted sweat and the two of them.
Erik answered the question with one kiss and then another, and finally, "I have you for that."
"I'm hardly an authority," Charles said, looking down at himself, clad only in the sheets and the light from the window.
Erik laughed his low, rough laugh and kissed him once more. It sent a slow thrill through Charles, unlike earlier, when the excitement had come with the swiftness and fury of lightning bolts. This built more slowly, a careful climb upward, the architecture shaped by the splay of Erik's hands across his body, fingers shifting and changing their pressure against his skin. Charles sighed and arched into it. His heartbeat quickened; Erik's desire was its own pulse against Charles's mind, lapping at him like waves and washing him away into incoherence.
Oh my love, Charles thought, hands in Erik's hair. It was damp, tangled with the sweat of a hot night.
"Stay with me, Charles," Erik said.
I will, Charles tried to say, but desire had knotted in his throat.
"Stay. I would do anything," Erik murmured into the ardent curve of Charles's neck, "to keep you here with me."
Oxford was a revelation. To pull back the veil that had hitherto separated him from the world – the veil that was Shawcross, and years of oppressive fear and Essex's depredations – to pull back the veil and step out into the sun had, as with the force of epiphany, almost blinded him.
Another steam-carriage ride marked this change in his life. This second carriage ride, however, had been undertaken alone and, in the absence of much money, with a few subtle suggestions to the conductor that he had paid for, and surrendered, his ticket (another suggestion to the girl at the pub at a changeover had gotten him a sandwich and coffee), and he had been too excited-fearful-elated to sleep. As he waited out the final miles to Oxford-station, he thought of Raven and wondered if this how she had felt on putting the walls of Shawcross behind her; on impulse, he flung his mind wide – free, unfettered for the first time in all his memory – and it was a small darkening of his happiness, that he failed to find her.
As he stood in the open, if sooty, air of Oxford-station and looked up Hythe Bridge Street into the warren of stone and brick, and the proud spires rearing up overhead, Charles's happiness darkened rather more at the realization that there ought to be rather more involved in gaining entrance to university than simply presenting oneself at the gates. He clutched his small satchel tightly, sending silent orders to a few furtive-looking individuals who sidled too close and showed too much interest in it, and considered what to do.
His first decision was to head into the town and find a place to sit that did not move, and that might also provide him with something more substantial than the thin cup of coffee and sandwich at Canterbury. His second was to choose a small public house, busy enough that the proprietor did not so much as glance at him when Charles (after picking the mind of a rather inebriated young man to see how such activities were carried out) put in an order for food and drink. His third was to sit and chew on his bit of roast and potatoes while he chewed over the vast mystery that had become the rest of his life.
"I must," he told himself around a mouthful of gristle, "I must begin as I mean to go on."
Charles was nothing if not resolute: when fixed on a goal, he pursued it to the uttermost, and to the exclusion of almost all else. To go on, he found out, meant beginning with his telepathy, for the entrance examinations loomed for Michaelmas Term in the coming year and, the proctor said, he had no materials from Charles regarding his grades or qualifications. What school had he attended? Who was his father? "For that matter," the proctor said stuffily, peering at Charles from behind his spectacles with no small amount of ill-temper, "who are you, young man?"
His family named earned him some curiosity, for Brian Xavier had been a graduate of Pembroke College, and even tarnished as it was by the influence of Kurt Marko… "Well, he did help put the College on the map," a professor said as he studied the examination questions. "Now, Mr. Xavier, if you would please translate and construe this passage of the Odyssey, beginning with ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον?"
"Muse," Charles began obediently, "tell me of the man of many ways…"
He must, he thought, be like Raven – like Odysseus—and create his own disguise. To change his own skin was beyond him, of course; but years under the tutelage of Essex had given him resources enough to hide himself and to survive, and wrapped in the safety of his power, he might do better than mere surviving.
The notion of thriving, of being happy, was slow to take, hesitant as it wrapped its first tentative tendrils around his awareness, but by the end of Hilary Term he had lodgings near Pembroke and his fellow lodgers were young men mostly given up to drinking and writing salacious Latin verse for the undergraduate newspaper, full of double-entendre and veiled insults against their professors. He drank along with them, never to the extent where he forgot himself and the necessity of secrecy, and sometimes in the still moments when their laughter had faded into beery sleep, Charles found himself caught by the notion that he had assimilated, that having Anthony snoring beside him was somehow compensation for concealing what he was.
"Tell me," said Anthony at the beginning of their third year, "why are you still knocking about here, anyway? You're rather making the rest of us look bad; it'd only be fair to us poor bastards if you'd take your examinations early and turn professorial on us."
"I make you look bad?" Charles laughed into his wine glass. "My dear Anthony, you're the one who leaves all of us in the dust."
"It's almost uncanny," Anthony said reflectively. His American accent pulled at the vowels and made them slow.
Charles tensed, power at the ready to guide Anthony onto less dangerous paths. "What is?"
"How you manage to drink as much as you do, and yet never have a hangover." Anthony rolled over on his stomach and regarded Charles, half upside-down. "And how Doctor Watson saw you nearly drowned in your cups the night before lecture but didn't read you the riot act the way he does to everyone else. Let me in on your secret, Xavier."
"No secret here," Charles said.
He was a man of no secrets, open, friendly, and obliging to his professors and colleagues. The girls liked him well enough, and some of the young men given to Greek tendencies, "and that also is uncanny," Anthony lamented, "everyone likes you without you having to buy drinks for them." If Anthony had looked closer – if he'd been the telepath – he would have seen that liking rarely translated to anything beyond the acquaintanceship necessary for drinking, or the respect between teacher and student.
It certainly did not translate to intellectual sympathy, as Charles found out after the completion of his exams and his search for a thesis topic for his doctorate. Anthony, graduated and exulting in his freedom from the endless fagging away at books "to learn pointless knowledge to recite pointlessly before a body of professors with no point whatsoever," had returned to America, leaving only Professor Carr as one who might have any fellow-feeling for Charles.
"Yes, your father… a decent enough inventor, in his way," Professor Carr said when Charles approached him on the topic of his thesis, and pointed out that his father would have welcomed anything promoting scientific advancement. He toyed idly with the fountain pen on his desk, boredom-anxiety-hunger pulsing off him with each stroke of his finger down the plated brass. "Decent enough, and maybe ten years ago you might have been indulged, but my dear boy, I don't think – a thesis on changelings? That's hardly respectable work. You might as well publish in the Journal for Psychical Studies, or apply to be a palm-reader, or search for Atlantis as become a scholar of changelings."
"There are journals," Charles began with some passion, "respectable journals, journals that have been recognized as reputable by our peers, that have already accepted my work."
"Mr. Xavier, I do not seek to impugn your intelligence; you are a very bright young man, one of the brightest I have ever seen. Precocious, I should say. Your theories on inheritance and the exhibition of different traits within populations are, while somewhat," Professor Carr paused delicately, "revolutionary, they do bear further investigation, and I doubt not that they will bear valuable fruit one day. No, Mr. Xavier, what I say to you is simply this: for your sake, for the sake of the College, do not to waste your talent on something little better than, or of little more use than, the occult."
"But if humans understood more about us – I mean – " Charles scrambled to take back the words, but the damage had been done.
Professor Carr had almost ten seconds to register and assimilate the discovery, that one of his prize students and brightest hopes was one of the long-anathematized race. Charles had almost the same amount of time to remember the laws regarding the admission of changelings to universities – that special permission had to be obtained, that to disguise oneself as human could be penalized by withdrawal of all honors and degrees and the conferral of imprisonment – and then, after a desperate flicker of power, Professor Carr blinked confusedly at him and said, "I'm sorry, my boy, what were we talking of?"
"My writing my thesis on the inheritance of changeling traits," Charles said dully.
"Oh, of course, of course." Despite Charles's frantic meddling, the prejudice was still there, deep-rooted and inflexible. He despaired of eradicating it, for the seed would always remain, and reach full flower again and again. "Terribly bad idea – professional suicide," Professor Carr mumbled. "That might fly at Cambridge, but not here."
"Of course." Without waiting for dismissal, Charles stood. Perhaps the Hydra's heads were a more appropriate analogy; he knew, bitterly, that Professor Carr was far from the only one to entertain such feelings on the subject of changelings. "I'm sorry for taking up your time on this, Professor."
"Keep other topics in mind," Professor Carr said with a rusty sort of encouragement, as if the words came by rote. In fact, Charles realized, they did. "You have a very promising future, my boy; I would hate to see it go to waste."
"So would I," Charles said, and, too wrought-up for further argument, left the office.
That night he returned to his rooms and, avoiding the boisterous company of his roommates, collapsed into his bed. Along the wall opposite ranged his books, so many and so beloved, and his desk by the window – drafty, with winter coming – and the small stove that served to warm two feet of air around it and not much else. On his desk were his papers, his notes on changeling physiology and abilities, everything he had gleaned from his years with Essex and his knowledge of his own powers. Were those papers the best way to help his people? Charles asked himself – those papers that few outside the field would ever read, and if they were read, would be greeted with the same incredulity as that of Professor Carr?
Perhaps, his intuition suggested, there might be another way. "Why not help your fellow changelings?" it proposed, and set before him the sad narrative of his boyhood, from his mother's distance to the persecutions of Dr. Marko and his son to the ignorance that had led to his years with Essex. "Surely," the voice continued, "if you could spare some young changelings from those horrors – teach them to cultivate their abilities for themselves – teach their parents (if human their parents be) that they have nothing to fear – you would do good work."
The voice continued, weaving fantasies before Charles's inner eye as it spoke, "And one day, perhaps, you might gain money sufficient to open your own school, where you might help far more than one or two children at a time."
This vision had him out of bed and at his desk, pulling pen and paper to him. The pen shivered across the page, skittering with his excitement.
A young man, and a changeling, accustomed to tuition, seeks a situation with a family with children in need of tutoring and instruction in mathematics, literature, and the languages, as well as anything appertaining to their particular abilities. Reply to C.F.X, Northanger House, Oxford.
As pleasant as Erik's company was, Charles forwent a late morning and breakfast in favor of beginning work with the changeling. Stepping into the shielded quarter of the house still made his throat lock up; if it were not for the adamantium-clad walls, he would have asked that the changeling be moved somewhere else less prison-like, if only for the reassurance of having the wide world and other minds around him.
Erik accompanied him in; Miss Frost steadfastly refused to help ("I've said before, Mr. Xavier, that healing is not my province, and I've better things to do"), and Henry's diffidence prevented him from serving the only purpose anyone other than Charles might serve: restraining the changeling should he become violent. "There was metal in the changeling sufficient for Erik to subdue him," Erik said with impatience when Charles protested against the necessity of supervision, "and it takes much effort even for Miss Frost to restrain him."
On any other day, Charles would have protested against the implication of his weakness, but impatience overruled his desire for argument, and so with the light barely crawling up the sky, he and Erik stood in the changeling's prison-room. Erik moved to sit in a corner, as far from the changeling as he could get, and, once sitting, glowered at the rest of the room with menacing impatience.
Charles, from a foot beyond the perimeter of the changeling's chains, considered the changeling silently. The changeling stared back, a faint awareness in his eyes now that Miss Frost's influence had worn off. Of what the changeling might be aware, Charles could not say; whether he recognized Charles as a fellow human, as a potential threat, as prey – Charles had seen the claws, of course, and the teeth, which were sharp as a wolf's – that glimmer failed to say. Tentatively, he reached out, hello hello my name is are you – ? and the changeling stiffened, shaking his head as if to shake Charles's voice out of it.
In fact, that was much the case, for the changeling's mind was all over briars and nettles, hostile to any touch, even if kindly meant. Charles retreated into himself and sat back on his heels. Again, he thought of what he had found the day before, the wreck and remnants of something that had once been a discrete identity, that had had a name and a history, and everything that made up the texture of a human mind.
"What was done to him," as delicate as he kept the words, he flinched as Erik's pain refracted through him, "has left him, more or less, a ruin. Not much of him remembers what it is to be human – or changeling, I suppose – and the part that does is buried deep, so deep not even he remembers it."
"How do you know?" Erik asked. At the sound of his voice, the changeling made a sound low in his throat and glanced warily at Erik's corner. "Perhaps he was always out there in the woods, wild or nearly so."
"If you came across a collection of large, dressed stones – no matter how badly worn they were – and you saw that they marked out squares and rectangles on the ground, you would know someone had built something there. You might not know what it was, if it were a house, or a church, or anything else, but you would at the least know something had once stood on that spot, and a person had put it that place."
"Indeed." Erik's voice broke into roughness, as with some emotion quickly and brutally suppressed. "How might you excavate it, then?"
"That will be the challenge," Charles admitted. "When I was at… at Shawcross, with Essex, I heard tell of a boy who had simply gone to sleep after one of Essex's tests. It was before my time, so I only heard stories of it from the older children, but they all agreed that, when he woke up, the boy refused to – or could not – speak, could not remember his name or where he was, or anything. The mind is a strong thing, but it can only endure so much."
"You endured," Erik said quietly.
"I was fortunate."
Charles returned his attention to the changeling and focused his telepathy upon him. Gently he ran a finger over the surface of the changeling's thoughts – it was as if he reached into the battery for a crank-light, a storm of energy and violence – and then pushed deeper, careful to keep his presence small and unannounced. Who are you? he asked, the barest whisper of power behind the question, digging, digging, hoping to unearth a name.
He did not. The changeling glared at him and pulled at his chains.
His reward for the morning's labor was an excruciating headache, the sort he had not experienced since his early days with Essex, and Erik's refusal to allow him to do anything more until he had recovered. By noon, and after tea and a meal that Erik supervised with a stony glare and threats to fetch Henry if matters did not improve, Charles found himself rather better and hoping that the afternoon's work would go more smoothly.
"I cannot believe you," Erik muttered, sounding caught between grudging admiration and irritation. "I should ban you from that room until you've recovered fully."
"I've been through worse, I assure you," Charles said. It did not seem to reassure Erik very much: under the sarcasm, fear lurked – fear for Charles and the old memories associated with the device. "Henry will be there for this, and I have every confidence in him."
"You put far too much faith in people." Erik scowled at him. "In my experience, they all tend to disappoint."
"You've never disappointed me," Charles said, and perhaps that was too earnest --- too much – for Lehnsherr to bear, for the pale eyes flicked away and that mouth tightened.
He found himself having to repeat the reassurances to Henry, who hovered anxiously over the great towers that housed the main mechanism of Cerebro. Erik was an impatient, dangerous presence down beneath the girders and stairways, next to the switch that would turn on the twelve Xavier-Marko Mark V batteries that powered the device. Charles knew he was likely spilling over his own excitement, but found restraining himself impossible. It did little to soften Erik's sharp edges, or alleviate Henry's anxiety; if anything, it only worsened.
"I have complete faith in you," Charles told him as he stepped under the helmet. Under his fingertips, the brass was smooth and cold. It would, Henry's thoughts said, warm under the influence of the generators. "Henry, I would not do this if I thought your design lacking."
Henry made an indistinct noise and busied himself with inspecting the great pistons and the turbine. "Ah, Mr. Lehnsherr, if you could please turn the switch? Then you must get up here straight away; you won't be able to, once the engines start."
"If there is so much as a bolt out of place," Erik said ominously, "you will shut this down immediately."
"There is an emergency disconnector up here." Henry swallowed. "Or you could turn off the main switch with your power."
Discontent-anger-hostility-anxiety rolled off Erik, chased through with the knowledge that, however much Henry had perfected it, Cerebro was Schmidt's device – that Charles, had Schmidt's plans come to fruition, would have been taken captive and enslaved, and forced to have his will bent to whatever terrible purpose drove the machine and its creation. He had his own theories: to enslave humans (this did not bother Erik overmuch, but that Charles should be forced to it), to find other changelings suitable for Schmidt's designs… they rolled together into a knot of fear, which Charles sought to untangle.
I cannot, he said to the corner of Erik's mind, go in there with you like this. Please calm yourself.
Erik did, for a wonder. A moment later, something heavy thumped in the lower room, and a frisson ran through the air.
"The batteries are charging up," Henry reported. Now that the event was upon them, his nervousness had dissipated, and excitement rose to take its place. "Mr. Lehnsherr, if you would please? And Mr. Xavier – Charles – you can lower the helmet."
Charles did, the brass settling lightly on his hair. An intangible presence – there was no other word for it but that – ran through him like the wind, making itself known. He stiffened.
"McCoy," Erik began.
"All is well." A grinding sound, Henry pulling one of the levers to engage the device. "Charles, are you ready?"
"Quite." Charles licked his lips and swallowed against the anticipation. In front of him, Erik held the railing surrounding him, tight enough and absent enough with his power that he dented the metal of it.
"Engaging," Henry said, and pulled the second lever.
He could not, looking back at it, find words for it, for the terrible delight that was being pitched out of his body – transfigured, truly and properly, with the ecstasy that might have belonged to a saint at the apex of divine vision – and into the world. For the world it was, spread out before him like an endless sea under the dark of night, and in that darkness shone points of light innumerable. How like a god! the poet had said, and like a god his mind roved over the darkness upon the face of the waters, and the stars of the fourth day became shapes, and the shapes became people – and the brightest were changelings, lit up in the infinite and glorious varieties of their powers. His flesh dissolved behind him, and he was as the purest spirit; not Essex's wildest dreams could have contained him, nor even his own hesitant projections about the true extent of his powers. With this – he saw the temptation for Schmidt, even as he rejected it – what would not be possible?
Carefully he held himself back, despite knowing he could communicate with these minds and reassure them. Do you see how many of us are out there? Do you see how many friends, how many family you have, that you are no longer alone? He contented himself with roaming as far as he could – no Raven, she was truly gone from his sight, a corner of himself lamented, but Henry was there, and the incandescence of Erik's fierce and beautiful mind, and the crystalline sphere of Miss Frost's, the two subtler flames of the children.
He came back to himself still elated, and could not settle in his skin for the rest of the day. Miss Frost ignored him steadfastly when he tried to tell her of it, a chill that failed to remain with him; Henry, shocked almost speechless at his project's success, was more than willing to make up the deficiency of conversation on the topic.
That night he returned to Erik's room, drawing a careful veil over the eyes of Henry and the staff, and Erik's hands on him felt new, as though he were reshaping Charles's spirit to the confines of his body.
"What," Erik asked as he lowered Charles into bed, smoothing away the rough and trembling edges of him, "do you see in there?"
"Everything." He had Erik cradled in his hips, his shirt pushed open so Erik could pour kisses across his chest. His heart ached, too full and too beyond words. "I wish you could see what I see, when I look at you – when I was in there today, what I saw… So much possibility, Erik."
Erik stilled above him and lowered himself cautiously to the side. "What do you mean?"
A remembered conversation floated up from the depths, and Charles, sensitive as if newly come into his telepathy, caught it without meaning to: almost the precise words Schmidt had given in response to Erik asking why they did such things.
"Not that," Charles said quickly. "But… I've spoken to you of what I want, what I hope."
"To help changelings."
"I could find them with Cerebro." Excitement and desire had him animated; the visions tumbled through him almost as swiftly as the images of the changelings had earlier. "I could find them, they could be helped – they could know, in the very least, that there is a place for them if they need it."
"A place for them here." Erik had eased himself back and away. In the candlelight, his expression was meditative, his eyes fixed on the ceiling. Ardor had started to drain out of him, but he remained on edge with it, taut pressure at Charles's hip.
"Yes. A school – a refuge."
"Why," Erik asked, "should I ever wish to do such a thing here?"
"If you wish – truly wish – for the reality of what Schmidt promised to you, if you wish for safety, for the improvement of our people, this is one way we can do it. Indeed, it's the best way." Charles leaned up now, stretching across the tense width of Erik's body. Erik stared up at him, half-scowling and working on a rebuff. Charles persisted: "You know I am right about this, in the fundamentals if not the practicalities. And," he took a breath to steel himself for the risk, "if we do not find them, Schmidt might. Or another Essex."
"And you have determined this already," Erik said, but with a curious absence of heat. He touched his thumb to Charles's cheek.
"I've long since determined it," Charles rejoined.
"Then," Erik sighed and leaned up, that angular mouth slanting across Charles's momentarily, as if to seal a bargain, "so be it."
Note 1: For those who care, I couldn't find out when exactly Oxford and Cambridge switched from oral to written entrance exams. So I fudged it, completely and totally.
Note 2: Yes, that's Tony Stark rooming with Charles. In 1834, he's back in the States, working on Iron Man.
Note 3: No way was I going to try to write Regency-style porn, it is too embarrassing for words.
Also, I've gotten most of the rest of this written if not plotted out, so I'm going to do what I should have done a month ago and try to post a chapter a day over the next week. There's another fic that's been picking at me thanks to helens78, but I'm making myself not work on it until I have at least one of my WIPs in the can. Yes, more fic for you to avoid! *devilish laugh*
Chapter 11: Chapter 11
In the course of the following morning, Charles discovered that some adjustments had to be made.
The first was to persuade Henry to stay, an endeavor which required more exertion than Charles had initially expected. Efforts to detach Henry from his small laboratory hinged on his reluctance to leave his few – his very few, Erik said impatiently – clients in the lurch, and his worries soothed only by reassurance that he might continue to communicate and consult with them until such time as his work could be entrusted to others. The subsequent negotiations for Henry's residence were carried out through the agency of a Miss MacTaggert, who seemed to be rather more than the secretary Henry described, and more assertive in her claims on Henry's skills than the easygoing Mr. Platt; nonetheless, a month's time saw Henry secured to them, and so firmly ensconced in Cerebro's tower that Charles doubted he should ever leave.
No less pressing was what to do with the children.
"I am reluctant to give them up," Charles said over breakfast the first morning after his and Lehnsherr's understanding, "but there is much to do… perhaps Miss Frost – "
"Absolutely not," Miss Frost said. "I believe I've made it quite clear I did not agree to playing nursery-maid or governess when I came here."
"Henry, then, once his affairs are settled," Charles proposed, and when Henry nearly choked on his coffee and went red with alarm, added, "for the sciences and mathematics, surely; I remember you were quite good with the younger children, at Shawcross. That would leave me time to work with them on their abilities and the other subjects."
It left him time for the changeling and Cerebro, although even with Henry's help, he found too few hours in the day for all he wished to accomplish. Lehnsherr watched this with his usual faint amusement, and few choice remarks on the supposed indispensability of Pope and Grey. Charles, busy guiding the children through their exercises – coin tosses for Wanda and for Pietro a small obstacle course (in the course of which Mrs. Hughes had cause to lament the tragic demise of a side table), offered only a smile in return.
"And what of me?" Lehnsherr pursued, interrupting when Charles made some notations on Wanda's progress. One large, warm hand worked across the back of Charles's wrist. Lehnsherr was most often a cloud of ambient heat and light, occasionally annoyed, in the corner of Charles's awareness; this close, he was all about Charles, pouring distraction like liquid into every crevice.
"There are still a few hours in the night," Charles said, once he was sure of his speech again. "And you must help me with the changeling."
After a month, the changeling remained the changeling. Henry's modifications to Cerebro had proven useless for the sort of work the changeling required – "If he is not completely beyond help," Miss Frost said coolly at breakfast the morning Henry's release from his office came.
"Indeed," she pursued, "even if you should recall him to sensibility, if you should dust off his name and give it to him again (along with a wife, children, career, and whatever else you care to name) – even if you should, my best (this was one of her many mocking names for Charles) even if you should, you might well recall him to the same injury that drove him to this state in the first place. The mind often hides from its own memories; sometimes, this is the only defense."
Charles meditated on this point as he sat outside the radius of the changeling's chains. Behind him and unobtrusive in a corner, Lehnsherr sat in a frigid silence. Charles could perceive the waiting tension of his power, a bowstring pulled taut and waiting for release. That had been the condition of Charles's continued work with the changeling: that Lehnsherr should sit in attendance to prevent disaster, McCoy being too timid and Miss Frost being – not precisely trustworthy.
("She had not joined Dr. Schmidt to sit idly by during his experiments," Lehnsherr had said in sketching Miss Frost's character. "She seeks both security and advantage, and Dr. Schmidt's behavior had begun to convince her the wiser choice would be to leave. But doubt not for a second that she would refrain from giving you to the wolves if she sees some profit in it.")
The capsule-prison of the adamantium and antipsionite chamber made him itch, despite being able to sense the other two minds contained within it. Lehnsherr seethed with barely-bridled impatience; the changeling was a fog, shifting back and forth and glowering alternately at the wall and Lehnsherr.
His first forays into the changeling's mind were always much the same: briars and bracken, thorns like swords waiting to cut any unwary flesh that happened past. Buried underneath them he had the sense of structure, a foundation with its superstructure wasted away and scattered about. Yet whenever he turned his purpose to something like excavation, to bring up a stone with the legend of the changeling's name upon it, he found himself repelled – pain, his own and the changeling's, redoubling upon itself until he had to pull back, the edges of his telepathy flayed and raw. Desperate, he reached once more, thinking he might bring it up if he dug that much deeper, only a little bit, so close –
Lehnsherr pulled him back, heedless of the changeling's snarls when he ventured too close. His head ached fiercely, not helped by Lehnsherr's anger.
"You mustn't do that," Lehnsherr snapped. He chafed Charles's hands between his own, his long fingers folding about them competently; calluses sat on the pads of his fingers, from reins and even from his pen, at the first joint of his middle finger. "What even were you thinking, Charles?"
"I was thinking I would help him."
Lehnsherr produced an aggravated sound and glowered at him. "And you would help him by nearly killing yourself?"
Charles winced as he sat up. "I should hardly say killing myself, Lehnsherr." The headache retreated to a sullen pressure in his temples, hovering there as a warning. He glanced at the changeling, who had his claws out and had started to dig futilely at the adamantine floor, the scrape-whine of metal on metal enough to set Charles's teeth on edge.
"Perhaps Frost is right," Lehnsherr said. "Perhaps there truly is nothing left, or nothing left that might make any difference." When he caught Charles's shrug of half-hearted agreement, he smiled – unaccountably, but he did, a warm and tentative curve of the mouth. "You are determined to disbelieve this. Why?"
"His abilities, beyond those claws, seem to include prodigious strength and accelerated healing," Charles said, mostly to himself and entirely to Lehnsherr's irritation. "It may be that any telepathic interference is instinctively resisted; the mind prefers its own homeostasis, or what it perceives as being such, and fights against anything that would sway it."
"Frost rarely takes him out," Lehnsherr said, and Charles recalled the one night the werewolf-changeling had prowled the grounds of Ironhill. "She can manage perhaps a half-hour at a stretch before she must rest, and that for a long time. And when we brought him from Germany to Ironhill, we made all the speed we could on the aerships, but even so, we were nearly two days – he was nearly two days in the coffin. Frost was nearly insensate by the end of it."
"He would have every reason to fear any telepathic contact, then." Charles struggled to comprehend what the changeling must have passed through, from shock to shock to shock, and once coming out of his entombment, finding himself in a prison much like any other he had inhabited, except perhaps for the absence of active torment. His heart twisted in him, a pang of compassion as quickly followed up by determination.
"Has anyone simply sat with him?" he asked. "Any patient needs company – even, especially, someone the world and the doctors commonly agree is mad."
Lehnsherr's silence gave him answer enough.
And so it was that Charles came to sit with the changeling for some hours of the day, mind resting carefully against the sharp edges of the changeling's. At first, the changeling bridled and growled, and sharpened his claws against the walls as Charles read Henry's dissertation. "There's not much need for that," Charles said, and followed that with a gentler telepathic utterance, all is well all is well you'll see no cause for fear that, for a wonder, the changeling did not shake off.
What Lehnsherr thought of this he did not say, not at tea and certainly not when they gathered for supper and Miss Frost asked how "sitting with the invalid" had gone.
"Every living thing needs compassion," Charles said calmly, "and to know that there is at least one other thing out there that has some empathy with him. High or low, human or changeling, that at least binds all of us."
"Not all of us," Lehnsherr rumbled, the memory of Dr. Schmidt so clear to him it seemed, to Charles's eyes, that the ghost of the man stood over Lehnsherr's shoulder.
"It was important to him that he have you, Miss Frost, and Henry – even Essex," Charles said, undeterred. "He required some beings in sympathy with himself. I never said such an impulse was inherently noble – it is what it is."
"Philosophy over the soup course," Miss Frost murmured sarcastically. "Whatever next? Metaphysics over the cheese?"
"There is some practical dimension to it," Lehnsherr said. He set his bowl to the side and leaned forward, grey eyes avid in the candlelight. He was, Charles thought with a helpless twist of attraction, altogether lovely, hard-edged as he might have been. "We know that he will have doubtless attracted others to his cause (Charles could not help a small thrill at this, thinking that Lehnsherr had said his cause, abandoning it wholly to Dr. Schmidt), perhaps he and Essex have reforged their old alliance."
"Speaking of," Henry said, somewhat pale with the mention of Dr. Essex and setting down his napkin with a shaky hand, "speaking – I believe, Charles, that I've found the key to transmitting the location information of the changelings you detect through Cerebro – ah, well, Lehnsherr put me onto it, you see, when he reminded me of the computers down at the station in Field."
"I've had to order the analysis machine with some… unusual customizations," Lehnsherr interjected, clearly delighted with the confoundedness Charles was projecting. "But you will not have to take time or effort to report the locations to us directly; the machine will, Dr. McCoy assures me, be able to record them on the punch-cards after he – interfaces? Yes – interfaces the new machine with Cerebro's. All we should need, other than the hard work of Ramsey and Ramsey, is a reliable navigating map."
"You never cease to amaze me," Charles said, heartfelt. Henry blushed, and Lehnsherr smirked. "I tell you, we – our dream cannot fail of being achieved," he added, and when Lehnsherr greeted this assertion with a smile somewhat softer than usual and a private flicker of affection instead of his usual cynicism, Charles felt as if his heart would spill over; surely such a surfeit of joy could not, he thought, help but flow out, naturally, like a flooded stream.
"This – a reliable way of recording information gleaned from Cerebro – was also one of the stumbling blocks Dr. Schmidt encountered," Henry said, sounding quietly pleased, and even daring to shoot a satisfied look at Lehnsherr.
"Well," Miss Frost purred as she raised her wine glass, "shall we toast, then, to stumbling blocks?"
* * *
Two months after his first sending out inquiries for a position, in August, Charles packed his belongings – what clothes he possessed that were not past the aid of a needle, his beloved books, a few small trinkets from his time with Essex that had more happy memories than pain attached to them, his father's watch (the only thing he had remaining from his life at Westchester) – and, accompanied by Anthony and a hangover, made his way to the Oxford station.
"I wish you wouldn't have given up," Anthony said moodily, as though Charles's decision to leave had offended him personally. Perhaps, Charles thought, it might have; Anthony was mercurial enough for that. "I'd come back to see you, thinking you'd be halfway through some brilliant project and I might have to hire you on if only to make working for my father more bearable – and here you are! Leaving!" The pitch of indignation he reached must have been too shrill, for he grimaced and pressed his palm against an eyeball. "I must remember to speak more softly next time."
"I am sorry, Anthony," Charles said as he collected his ticket, and as he negotiated with the porter for the safety of his baggage, added, "but if I felt I had any other choice that I could have made in good conscience, I would have made it."
"You do have another choice." Anthony planted himself obstinately in front of Charles, and Charles wondered (not for the first time) if there weren't a little bit of the changeling about Anthony, who managed to combine brilliance and stubbornness and obnoxiousness in almost equal measures. It was a peculiar harmony. "You can come to America, Charles, and work for me – work with me, not go to the back of beyond and work yourself to the bone for the sake of children and parents too dim to appreciate your talents."
Charles regarded his friend silently. Anthony's dark hair, as usual, was thoroughly mussed – the work of many pairs of feminine hands and his own distraction – and he smelled strongly of a night spent amongst the whiskey and port of their favorite pub. He had not bothered to dress, because he had never bothered to undress in the first place, and his jacket and trousers bore the evidence of a few hours spent stretched near-comatose in Charles's unmade bed. Yet beneath the fog and disarray his eyes were keen and sober, which they rarely ever were, and in a sudden agony of truth, Charles told him his secret.
"Well," Anthony said in response to this revelation, "that certainly explains some things."
"Like why I have to go, I should hope." Charles paused, his telepathy carefully held back, fearful of influencing Anthony and of finding out what moved under his friend's surface calm. "And I should like – Stark, I should like to think we're still friends."
"Of course we are," Anthony said gruffly, "although I do wish you had told me earlier, before I had to take – er, borrow – my father's aership after hearing my best friend was abandoning a great future for ignominy out in the sticks to go and find out what had possessed him."
"The aership is on your head," Charles told him. He was grinning, helplessly, unreservedly, an answer to his friend. "But you must come back some time, to visit. Perhaps you can persuade me yet."
"If your wicked stepfather…" Anthony was one of the few who knew a handful of the details of Charles's life. He shook his head. "Living well is the best revenge, as they say. I'm glad you have something to make you happy, Xavier, even if it's ridiculous."
This exchange with Anthony was, Charles discovered, the last pleasant exchange he should have for some time. His steam-carriage wound its way northward into a sullen grey haze, a haze that seemed to penetrate even the passengers, for to a man they were all silent and drawn in on themselves, and even Charles's shields failed to render him ignorant of it. The rain started as they crossed the moors and began to descend in slow stair-steps along the flanks of the hillsides to a town that lay nestled in its golden nimbus some distance off. By the time they disembarked – "Field!" halloaed the conductor, sounding somewhat rustier after an eight-hours' ride – the rain was racketing off the carriages and the tin roof of the depot, and in the fleeting space between Charles jumping from his coach and under the station's shelter, soaking into every exposed surface.
He asked around for directions, or a ride, or anything, to Ironhill; and, in a fit of desperation, asked if anyone from the house had been sent for him.
"I'm the new tutor," he said, somewhat wildly, utterly perplexed at the placid faces gazing back at him from the half-lit darkness of the pub. "I was told to be here on the evening of the eighth to begin my work, and here I am."
At the apex of uncertainty, certain only that his funds would not suffice for a night in the inn and that his fortitude would not suffice for a hike in the darkness to places unknown , Charles had half-determined to curl up in a corner of the pub and make the rest of the patrons forget he was there. He had no connection in the country beyond the tenuous one of the Emma Frost of Ironhill who had answered his inquiry; he had his baggage and what he suspected were the beginnings of a cold, a headache from the journey, and an appetite unsatisfied by the meager lunch at a depot outside ——— and certainly it would be no abuse of his powers to pass off a few for something more in exchange for some wine and food, and peace and quiet in the corner.
Charles had half-formed a resolution respecting this, and had begun to fix his attention on the proprietor of the establishment when the door banged open. It admitted a gust of wind and more rain, which was greeted with universal disgust, and a tall figure wrapped in an oiled cloak, which was greeted with impatient demands to "Close that d——ed door!"
"Is there a Mr. Xavier here?" said the figure. It the hood of its cloak back and became a mud-splattered and apologetic young man.
"That would be me," Charles said, half-relieved and half-apprehensive.
"I'm William, from Ironhill." The young man, William, held out his hand, not to shake but to offer Charles an oiled cloak of his own. "The roads are right hard goin' now; so sorry I'm late."
Swathed in the cloak and more apologies, Charles found himself hustled back out from the warmth and into the swirl of the darkness and rain. William had, at least, already taken the trouble to load the baggage onto the wagon, which conveyance was pulled by two horses standing dejectedly in the meager shelter of the depot's side. In short order, though, the horses and Charles were forced out into the elements.
In the chaos – the wind whipped the rain to a fury and, its own fury redoubled by the tempest, rustled fiercely in the trees – Charles found he could scarce see the heads of the horses at the radius of the lantern. Only the occasional touch of William's thigh against his, and the anxious focus of his mind on the road, told him that another human sat beside him.
"They know their way home!" William called, and it must have been true, for the horses stepped quickly, despite the treacherous going. With no way to mark the time and no tranquility in which to reflect, the time passed in a curious absence of itself, hours or minutes, miles or leagues – Charles was out of his reckoning. All he knew was that they headed upward, on a track made of gentle curves that seemed to follow the line of a hill. Flashes of lightning – and, on a few occasions, the moon through tattered streamers of cloud – showed hints of a valley falling away beneath them, and wind-wracked trees towering overhead, behind a stone wall that delineated the roadway.
Eventually a shape darker than the night behind it loomed before them, more precise in its lineaments than the craggy buttresses of a mountaintop. The vagrant clouds cleared long enough to make out the contours of a great old house, a proud assertion of stone rising up from the forests at its flanks and gazing down over the valley at its feet. Charles cleared some rain from his eyes and thought, reflexively, of Radcliffe and Udolpho, and if this place might not have been Otranto in another life. He was, in fact, so caught up in wondering what sort of dark, terrible secret would inhabit a place of such foreboding character that he missed the cessation of movement – the horses had halted in the sheltered entranceway to the courtyard – and William saying that they'd arrived.
William's good offices saw him stripped of his cloak and deposited in a large front hall, and dripping extravagantly on the tiles. Charles gazed blearily about, half-certain he was in a dream, surrounded by old portraits and plants, the furniture almost jarringly modern. He thought idly about touching a mahogany side-table to be sure of its reality, and it was in the grip of such an impulse that he felt the other changeling approach.
She was of a height with him, and spectral in the dim lighting of the hall, all in white from the lace at her bodice to the shoes that peeped under the hem of her skirt. Her skin was scarcely less pale, her hair a gold almost bled to whiteness, and her eyes – when she drew close enough – her eyes were a crystalline blue.
Yet this was not what struck him, although she was undeniably beautiful. Underneath the beauty, as steel might undergird and support the finest marble, lay a mind as brilliantly faceted as a diamond, and every bit as hard.
Hello, Charles Xavier, she said to him, and as Charles stared, smiled a cool smile and introduced herself.
My name is Emma Frost.
* * *
Charles Xavier had never been religious. He had faint memories of Sunday services with his parents – his mother, married to an irreligious scientist, had insisted on that mark of civilization at least – and then, with Dr. Marko and Cain, Christmas and Easter until his mother had died. Essex had sent the human children of the school to church, on the grounds that it looked good for prospective donors to see that the children partook of some spiritual food alongside the slender portions of bodily food afforded to them. He had gone somewhat reluctantly to chapel at Oxford when he and Anthony had found no chance for escape, and had used the services as opportunities for silent, unstructured meditations on his research.
But now – now, surely he had entered into some region of bliss. He was on the verge, at last, of attaining those things he sought ever since his boyhood: the society of other changelings, an opportunity to work on their behalf, the companions and means by which such opportunities might be accomplished.
"You are quite different," Lehnsherr said to him one night. They were in Lehnsherr's bed, the covers in disarray about them. In the light of the fire Daisy had set before retiring downstairs, he was ablaze, copper and gold, the shadows bronze, his eyes a mercurial silver. He stretched carelessly, a thrill of skin down Charles's side.
"How am I different?"
"More alive, I suppose." Lehnsherr rolled onto his body, the light adjusting itself to his contours. One finger traced idly across Charles's collar bone. "You have always had such… purpose, but now that it has the means to exercise itself…"
They would travel on the morrow, Lehnsherr meant, the first attempt at gathering students for their school. Their baggage waited, strapped shut, by the front door, waiting for the porter to take it, and them, to the station. A vision played itself out briefly as Lehnsherr thought of it: the two of them in the steam carriage, heading south to the first changeling Charles had identified as in need of help, a boy of sixteen imprisoned in London for offenses related to his power. Arson, Charles had reported after stepping out of Cerebro, the result of a loss of control, no maliciousness at all.
He would be the first of many, so many – not as many as Charles would have liked, but a beginning nonetheless. Charles was projecting, he could feel the emotions spilling off him, joy-anticipation-love-wonder, and much of it for the one beside him. Lehnsherr watched him, rapt, and Charles looked back, feeling unaccountably exposed even considering his lack of clothes. He let himself be looked at, unaccustomed to the feeling of being known as Lehnsherr seemed to know him, but finding that he liked it and could not fear it.
"It's quite infuriating," Lehnsherr remarked, "how you make me believe the best of myself."
"There is so much good in you, Erik," Charles said earnestly, the tone that usually drew an eye-roll and irritated silence from Lehnsherr. "What we're doing now proves it. What we will do will continue to prove it."
"Such faithful professions belong on the lips of a saint." Lehnsherr's voice had dropped to that delicious murmur and Charles's I am not a saint dissolved on his lips as they kissed. Lehnsherr gathered the two of them together, and all thought dissolved into the tangle of limbs and breath, and the hours melting together into timelessness.
Chapter 12: Chapter 12
Charles Francis Xavier met Mr. Erik Lehnsherr in this fashion:
The spring had come early, and with an unseasonable heat that had the children alternately restless and reluctant. Pietro and Wanda were, on the whole, tractable children, but with an unexpected vein of stubbornness in them like iron. Within the first few months of his tenure at Ironhill, Charles knew when such ore might be molded to some use and when it would remain obdurate, and so it was on one hot afternoon that he dismissed them from their lessons and proposed a game down near the ponds.
With the heat had come an unexpected greening and early birdsong. The farmers remained suspicious of the weather and held back from planting at so early a date, but Nature seemed not to share their hesitation: already the flowers had begun to bud, new blooms peeking shyly out, and the pale green of the new-leafed trees joined the evergreen of the ivy climbing along the stone walls. Like the plants and the earth casting off their winter clothes, Charles pulled off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves to feel the sun on his skin, and followed the children on their tumbling course down to the ponds and the fields and forests surrounding it.
Pietro and Wanda had a peculiar and lawless notion of what constituted badminton, an anarchic game in which the rules changed at a moment's notice and were changed so as to give the winning party further advantage (or were changed by the loser to erase it). Charles, accompanied by his jacket and a book – Miss Frost had steadfastly refused to accompany them – took up his station to watch, and occasionally advise the children on the wisdom of moderating their behavior.
Eventually the children's excitement and involvement in the game reached such a pitch that Wanda's still-uncertain grip on her powers slipped, and the shuttlecock spontaneously and violently changed its course; where she had intended it merely to fly over Pietro's shoulder, it veered suddenly upward and starboard, and such was her shock that she lost any thread of control over it; and so the shuttlecock flew in an arc over the trees and precipitated into the lake behind them.
"The birdie!" Wanda and Pietro cried as one. "It's lost!"
"Perhaps," Charles suggested mildly, "some restraint would have prevented such a grievous tragedy."
"It's our last one," Wanda lamented.
"Shall we see what became of it?" Charles asked. "Perhaps it can yet be saved."
This met with fervent agreement and the full force of warm, childish gratitude. Agreement and gratitude, inevitably, turned into pleading when, as they came around a copse of beech into the clearing and saw the pond spread glittering before them, Pietro spied the shuttlecock bobbing in the middle of the water.
"Oh please do fetch it!" cried the children. Pietro offered further speculation on his ability to run across the surface of the water and fetch the shuttlecock himself, which course of action Charles vetoed on the grounds of his fear of Pietro falling and catching cold.
It meant, of course, that Charles must perforce wade out into a lake that, unlike its surroundings, had not seen fit to partake of an early spring's warmth. He winced and hesitated as the cold crept up his ankles and calves, the children's encouragement not quite enough to make the thought of advancing further any more appealing.
"In for a penny," he told himself and, steeling his resolve, plowed deeper still, knee, thigh, hip, until he gasped with the cold and was nearly insensible with it as he began swimming.
A fingersbreadth from his prize, he brushed up against – against something.
Looking back on it, the moment would be comical, a source for Lehnsherr's habitually mocking wit and Charles's own embarrassment. He had been quite preoccupied with the children, and not at all expecting the presence of another mind, let alone another mind in a winter-cold lake. As it was, he had been quite off his guard and distracted by the children, so that the first he knew of a fourth human presence at the lake had been, quite by chance, his knee bumping another's skull.
So might one arouse a dragon, the reaction was so swift and violent, and rather before Charles knew it, he found himself in a tangle of furious limbs and half-drowned in waves of both water and utterly startled indignation. The water stung his eyes and got up his nose, and what breath was left to him was swiftly expelled from his lungs by strong arms grappling at him and pulling him down. Choking and filled with his own desperation, Charles fought back, wrapping his own arms around a strong, resistant torso; and, after a fortunately-placed knee in his assailant's midsection had rendered him too stunned to offer further resistance, he had them in short order hauled up to the air again.
Calm yourself, he snapped at the churning, metallic cloud of fury. Whence the boldness came – if not from a desire to avoid drowning – he had no idea, but come it did, and the other's resistance snapped into stillness as if shocked by being commanded in such a way. He blinked the water from his eyes and, in the temporary peace afforded to him, looked for the first time on the owner of the mind he'd spoken to.
"What – what the devil!" The man spat out water and more curses, the second with surprising proficiency. Pale, furious eyes fixed on Charles as their owner snarled, "Who are you?"
"My name's Charles Xavier," Charles introduced himself, and despite the cold of the water, and the indignation pouring off his equally-soaked and chilled companion, felt warmed quite through.
* * *
He sensed the new mind on the periphery of sleep, not the slow brightening of a presence coming closer by the road, but an abrupt flash into being, a crack of lightning ahead of the stillness of a storm – baleful, bringing the world to stillness before flooding it with terror. No clear sense of it came, only a roiling satisfaction and anticipation like clouds churned to fury before the wind.
It brought Charles gasping to wakefulness, alive suddenly with an unspeakable fear. He struggled against the weight of Erik's arm across his chest, feeling the breath crushed from him. Underneath his ribs, his heart beat like a small, frightened animal; for a moment he was quite overmastered by the fear before he, like a shipwrecked sailor struggling against the current, pulled himself up above it.
"Erik," he breathed. The silence about them was oppressive, heavy with portents. He pushed at the warm solidity of Erik's shoulder and repeated his name. Next to him, Erik, as if caught by some inimical spell, stirred drowsily; about him hung a haze, as if of a drug, and Charles found himself groping through it, lost, to the place in Erik's mind where he might press and shout, with all his might, Erik!
"What?" Erik started up, the soft edges of sleep sharpening into alertness. The warm, preserving weight of his arm fell away. "Charles?"
"Hush," Charles breathed. He pulled on his shirt and trousers, which had been discarded – how far away seemed those sweet hours, now! – and, careless of the obstacles of clothes and shoes still upon the floor, made his way to the window, through which the pale, setting moon poured the last of its light.
Three figures stood upon the lawn, just touched by the shadows of a ruined ash-tree. They were men, if such could be called men – changelings, Charles realized; and now that they had materialized he could pick out more than the single mind, although the thoughts were so closely matched he might have taken them for one mind in two bodies. Behind them, the ash's branches twisted in agony in the wind that had suddenly sprung up.
Two minds, he thought with horror; for the third man, standing between them, had no mind. He was a void, a shadow within the shadows of the night, except where the dying moon silvered the edges of the helmet upon his head.
"Schmidt," breathed Lehnsherr, who had come up beside him. In the darkness of the bedroom he was a pillar of fire, and Charles felt – despite the fear worked into the very marrow of his bones – he should be burned with the righteous fury of him.
As if aware he was being watched, Schmidt, from the lawn below, called out, his voice carried on the wind, "Lehnsherr! My dear friend, do come out and speak with your old ally."
"I'll speak with him," Lehnsherr growled. All about them, the steel skeleton of the house groaned. The iron framing of the windows creaked, the glass splintering between the bars. "Charles – "
"I shall not leave you," Charles said, "and you shall not go out to him. Not until the others are safe away." When Lehnsherr turned from him, taut with rage and making for the door, Charles stopped him with a hand upon his wrist. He half-expected to be thrown back, for the look Lehnsherr turned on him was hot and alien and had nothing of his friend in it, but Charles refused to let go.
"The children," he said succinctly. "Erik, your children come first. They must. You can do nothing until they're safe."
"Until you all are safe," Lehnsherr corrected. "Which is why I order you to take them and get to safety."
"Lehnsherr!" cried Schmidt again. Charles still sensed nothing of the man under that damned helmet of his, but the triumph in his voice was plain enough. "I heard, my dear, dear man, you have your children with you. I have a friend, Lehnsherr, who would be most interested in them – a mutual acquaintance of myself and your much-beloved Mr. Xavier. Shall I send Azazel to collect them?"
The house rocked as if under a sudden blow. Lehnsherr caught at Charles as they stumbled, the two of them staggering. The few glassine figures toppled from their perches; a side-table fell; overhead, the glass reflectors in the lamps chimed sweetly. Through the clouding of panic, Charles sensed the power at work; one of the changelings could control wind, and had harnessed a hurricane to send against them.
"You must leave," Lehnsherr insisted. His eyes were wide and fearful, his anger abandoned for the moment. He pulled at Charles in turn, forcing him toward the door. "For God's sake, Charles – "
Came another blow, and this time it was no earthly storm, but something unleashed from the depths of the nethermost pits, the power Hell might release at the judgment day. The floor, as if made from feeble twigs instead of walnut, gave way beneath them, and the great blocks of masonry shattered like bones. With that force came an incredible heat, and for a moment Charles thought it truly was hellfire engulfing them, the flames of it licking at his back and stinging his face despite the shelter of Lehnsherr's body.
His head rang in the silence left behind, accompanied by the tortured moans of the house and the crumbling and breaking of stones and wood two stories below. Fire crackled greedily as it lapped at the drapes and the splinters of furniture, its warmth growing with frightening keenness.
"Erik," the name was more cough than speech in the smoke, "Erik, are you – "
"Charles." The fire threw light enough for him to pick out the blood and ash on Erik's face, one eye swollen nearly shut. His mind was a cacophony of pain that even Erik, cold and precise as he was, could not bring to full order right away, but nothing broken beyond a crack in a wrist thank god; Charles found himself repeating the phrase over and over again.
"You must go, Charles," Erik sighed. He coughed, wincing against the pain and the smoke. "Get the children to safety while I do this."
Kill Schmidt was what Lehnsherr meant, and it was on the tip of Charles's tongue to ask how he expected to do that, accompanied as Schmidt was by a teleporter and a wind-worker. "You can do nothing against Schmidt," Lehnsherr continued, perhaps anticipating Charles's protests, "but I – I can."
"I cannot leave you," Charles said. "I can shield you from the other two. And if you can get – "
"Charles, please," Lehnsherr gasped. He spat out the blood that had dripped into his mouth. "I beg you – "
"I will not leave you." His head ached fiercely, and his spine had become a column of fire, but he rallied himself to his tasks. Azazel and the other, who thought of himself as Riptide – he could hide from them easily enough, the matter of the merest illusion while he tried to reorder something of the world. The next thing required a deep breath to steady himself, and then a push through the panicking flock of the household staff to find the mind he needed.
(He, of course, could not find Miss Frost, cloaked in crystalline invisibility as she was. He wondered if she had seen this coming and had left, or if she was fleeing even now; either way, no help could be trusted to come from her.)
Henry, you must; there is no choice, and no time, and I am sorry. Henry's mind pulsed in surprise and panic for the briefest second before Charles could put his own will upon him; such resistance as Henry could muster against him failed in the face of the imperative, the absolute command, You must take the children and flee, flee to a place you know will be secure; we will find you, but until then, you must run – run fast and far, and keep them safe. In an instant, Henry's mind capitulated, made compliant by the force of Charles's will and his own desire to find some place of safety.
He tied the thread of a thought to Henry's progress, a bright line that followed Henry's path through the cataclysm of the house: through the shadowed corridors with their toppled plinths and busts and the carpets rucked up to trip feet less agile than Henry's; up the stairs, ducking around banisters twisted off their supports and slipping under a rafter that had come through the ceiling and set itself like a bar before him; down another hall, Henry's keen eyesight picking out the obstacles even in the hell-light of a distant fire; into the children's room, where they huddled together in the crib, too terrified to cry out. Henry pushes aside the bureau and gathers the children to him in his powerful arms; they press their faces to his chest, their sudden tears soaking his jacket. Pietro pleads for Papa and Wanda echoes him; Henry does not hesitate, good lad, and sets them down in the shelter of the bureau. He tells them to turn their heads and close their eyes, quite tight, they will see Papa soon if they heed him.
With a powerful fist wrapped in the satin of the drapes, Henry breaks the glass in the window. He bends the frames, almost as effortlessly as Erik might. Heedless of the glass underfoot and the prickle of it across the unguarded skin of his face, he gathers the children to him again. He leaps out the window into the darkness; Charles, riding along, sees the rush of blackness resolving into the dew-lapped grass, the orchard wall, and beyond it the congregation of trees leading down the hill to Field.
Charles lets them go. The command will remain embedded in the very fabric of Henry's brain until such time as danger passes – perhaps even beyond then, for the events of the night may play out to an end Charles fears is more likely than not, and the danger to Pietro and Wanda may never truly be gone.
On the lawn beneath them, he senses Azazel and Riptide moving. The wind accompanying Riptide is sufficient to shift the few beams and pillars that support the ruins of the lower floors; Ironhill groans in agony as its bones give way. He and Lehnsherr run as quickly as they can to the more stable sections of the house, towards –
"The changeling," Charles gasps. "Erik, you must set him free. Schmidt cannot find him, not again."
"Lehnsherr!" Riptide's wind has thinned out Schmidt's voice, but it comes to them clearly enough, the victory undiluted. "If you come with no more fuss, I assure you that you will always have what was due to you: A place at my side, power beyond anything you could imagine, seas of insignificant humanity in their proper place, groveling beneath your heel! That place would be for you and your heirs, and even your treasured, principled Mr. Xavier if you wish it. Why will not you join me?"
Lehnsherr hesitates. This is, Charles knows, the siren song that Schmidt had lured him with before, the sweetness wrapped around a poison that had found Lehnsherr's deepest fears and desires and dripped slowly into them, putrefying them so they spread like a canker through his very soul.
"Safety for your children," Schmidt cajoles, "only come out, and all you wish for can be yours."
"Erik, no," Charles pleads. He hears the words coming from his mouth, but it as if another speaks with his vocal apparatus while his own soul must stand silently by and listen: "He must," Charles says, "reject Schmidt as he had done before; that Schmidt had no regard for the welfare of anyone, human or changeling, except his own; that regardless of his promises he should see Wanda and Pietro given over to Essex and do it gladly; that Schmidt's promises of safety could only lead to disaster and bloodshed, that Charles's way, through learning and peace, was the only – "
"I am sorry, Charles," Lehnsherr says, an ocean of grief welling up hot as the fire around them.
* * *
When he comes to, he is at the periphery of the forest, the air cold against his skin, which has gotten used to overwhelming heat and, nearly burned, cleaves tight against his muscles. He smells smoke and the sharp, clean scent of the forest behind him, although his throat and lungs feel as if they have been shredded with the fire and what he remembers as his own desperate cries.
Before him, the house burns. The tower containing Cerebro has sheared from Ironhill's flank and has tumbled in ruins down the hillside; through the gaping wound, in the light of the raging fire, Henry's study is pristine, the adamantine walls unbent. Charles's vision swims; he cannot see if the door beyond them, leading to the changeling's prison, is open or shut, if yet another living creature has been damned this night.
Erik. His mind is chaos in chaos, rage and pain barely harnessed to the determination that is find Schmidt – kill him – end him – end it all. Of the two changelings, Azazel and Riptide, there is no sign. Either they are dead at Erik's hand or they are gone.
At least Erik is alive, Charles tells himself. The thought is enough for resolve to leach steel into his backbone and bleed vitality back into limbs left stunned by the blow Erik had given him. The betrayal is a knife in his heart, twisting and threatening to send him stumbling to the earth again, but he pushes through it, buoyed up by the hope that at least, at the very least, Erik is fully fixed on Shaw's extinction.
For Erik, Charles thinks, is inexorable as fate.
His own fate, Charles decides, has come for him this night, and he has never shrunk from it, no matter how dark the path he sees laid before his feet.
The light of the conflagration spills down the lawn. Far away, Field has woken in alarm; they have gathered with wagons and the fire-engines; only fear of the unnatural holds them back, what they might find waiting for them atop the hill. The house is beyond saving, the wood and fabric and the stones themselves feeding the fire's endless appetite. The roof and the gutters melt and drip inward, and the attic timbers kindle, fingers of flame picking them apart to splinters that fall down, down, to the floors beneath so those, too, dissolve and in the dancing firelight Ironhill flickers, an illusion with no substance behind it.
Erik burns brighter than the house, all of him incandescent with rage. In his mind's eye (clouded with grief, bruised, oh how he hurts), Erik holds his ground, surrounded by snaking coils of iron torn from Ironhill's carcass.
Schmidt stands before him, the Shaw of Charles's childhood nightmares resurrected. The firelight runs along the contours of his helmet and catches in the pitch-black of his eye.
"Do you see, my little Erik?" Schmidt asks. The question itself is a boast; hate surges in Erik's heart, hearing it. "You cannot possibly hope to defeat me, not on your own, not if you should try a thousand years. No, no, I will be here, well-fed on the power your engines give to me, and you – you will be dust. Unless you give me your hand in amity, and admit we will rule together."
Erik, Charles sends, desperate. A flicker of surprise tells him he's been heard. Erik, the helmet –
"One more chance I give you," Schmidt says, stepping forward, one immaculate hand extended. "One chance, to take your place by my side."
Swifter than thought, one of Erik's iron coils whips forward and around behind Schmidt, supple and deadly as a snake. Through Erik's eyes, Charles first sees the helmet knocked from Schmidt's head, bouncing and ringing hollowly on the ground, and then in an instant Schmidt's mind is laid bare to him, a geography of mountainous pride and deep rills of evil, and endless, endless seas of greed that will take and take and swallow, and even Erik and his power – Charles, the children (Schmidt is convinced they could be used to bring Erik to heel) – are insufficient to glut his desires.
He fastens onto the part of Schmidt's mind that links soul and body, the bridge of will that connects desire and the ability to act on it.
Now! he cries desperately to Erik. Schmidt twists underneath his control, fighting desperately, the knowledge of his doom coming over him; Charles is sick with it, and the agony in his head, the heat like poison on his skin. He holds on grimly. Now, Erik!
"Goodbye, Herr Doktor," Erik says, hand raised, fingers bent as if holding his power within the cup of his palm.
Agony tears him from Erik's mind, from the world. His vision is all rushing blackness, a torrent of it dragging him down, down to death. As the waters close over him, he sees Schmidt fall, a husk, and over him, over Erik, Ironhill collapsing as if it, too, had been dealt a final, fatal blow.
Erik! he screams, but his own pain fills his lungs and his mind, and he knows no more.
Chapter 13: Chapter 13
Surely he dreamed, and they had to be the feverish, wandering dreams of the dead who were lost.
What sensation came to him came through layers of uncertainty, the sequences broken and altogether out of joint. It seemed as though he moved ceaselessly, although he himself did not move, but rather was borne along by an unstoppable force – the power, perhaps, that bore souls to the other world – and then in the next moment soft hands touched him, gentle, although the body they touched seemed to belong to another man entirely. Then voices, but voices he heard only with his ears, and that distantly, as if they came from down a long tunnel; and surely, he thought hazily, they must be the voices of ghosts, for he felt no minds behind them, no thoughts or mind-speeches brushing up against his.
He must have had water. At one moment it trickled fitfully down his throat, most of it spilling on his chin, poured by an unsteady hand; at the next it poured on his face and crept into his eyes so they stung. Then again another hand, softer, steadier, cupped the back of his head, and another placed a cup to his lips so he could drink, and took it away even when he cried for more. When he settled back, it was into something giving and smooth, a pillow; the last he could remember, it had been cushiony, but rough. Moss it had been, although that made no sense.
The sense of motion came again, a ceaseless pounding back-and-forth. It faded into nausea as the world stilled, and he groaned.
"Are you awake?" asked a voice.
He might be, although to what he had awakened, he could not say. Cautiously, he cracked one eye open, wincing at the light, although it had the gentle quality of late evening, or maybe candlelight. The light fell upon his hands, limp and pale where they lay atop a coverlet.
A young woman, scarcely more than a girl, sat in the glow of the rushlight on the bedside table. She had the countenance and shape of an angel, her cheeks gently rounded and pale, her eyes blue (a blue that would perhaps be truer in full daylight) and sternly intent under the flawless arches of her brows. A nimbus of golden hair framed the whole, and she sat still enough that she might, even, have been the model for such an angel as Charles thought of.
"Do you have a name?" the young woman asked.
"I…" His eyes slid shut. A name, a name. He searched for her thoughts, seeking what lay behind such tranquility to see if it might be trusted, and found, instead of the texture of another mind, the texture made up of the voices of sensation and memory and conscious thought woven together into an identity, only a resonant silence.
When he pressed harder, such pain came to him as to blot out the world, as if a cruel hand clamped down on a shattered limb and twisted it. Realization slid across him, that in the extremes of desperation – his desperation and Schmidt's – with his abilities stretched to their utmost, and with his spirit battered as it had been by the various blows of that night, Schmidt's death must have cut something vital in him. Where his connection to the inner worlds of others had been was now something his mind drew as a brutally amputated limb, still raw and exposed, every phantom inch of it an agony.
Distantly, he felt the mattress dip as the young woman slid onto it, her hands delicate yet firm on his face. He must have a fever, he thought, for her hands were cold as ice suddenly. He choked around the water she gave him.
"All is well!" the girl cried, and then repeated in a somewhat steadier voice, "You are well, you are safe, you must be calm."
On the other side of some sea of time, he had remembered saying almost those precise words to another. Erik! Memory, summoned along with the name, came to him: the fire, Erik vanishing in the avalanche of masonry as the house collapsed, the onrushing darkness covering all and swallowing him up last.
When he returned to himself again, daylight lay warm on his face, made gentle by the gauzy filter of some inexpertly-hemmed curtains. A girl's first sewing project, he supposed, and glancing around, he realized that the hand that made those curtains might yet inhabit the room about him. The walls, though cracked in places, had been painted a soft mauve; another bed – small, like the one in which he lay – occupied a nook across the room, a counterpane laid across the foot, made of gaily-patterned squares stitched together. A few portraits done by someone young, but with the first buddings of talent, hung framed here and there.
The young woman still sat in a rocking chair by his bedside, and still watched him somberly. He tried to speak, but the dryness in his throat stole words from him. With a compassionate smile, somewhat at odds with the softly impatient breath she released, the woman helped him sit up and drink.
"If you please," Charles said once he was sure of his voice again (and how thin it sounded still! how emptied of life!), "where am I? And who are you?"
"My name is Miss Teak," the young woman said, "and you are in quite a safe place."
He would have to trust her on that; she had saved him, succored him when he must have been an utter stranger to her. What had become of his clothes in the indeterminate space between then and now, he could not say, but by the time his tribulations had finished with him, she could not have any reason to expect a substantial reward for her troubles. Still, he supposed some caution would be best, and if he could not employ his telepathy to ensure his safety, there were other means.
"Francis Pembroke," he said, "at your service. Or," he amended, "with your good offices, I will be soon." Miss Teak smiled at this, and Charles was struck by a surge of familiarity at the way she bent her head and glanced to the side.
"I pray you, ma'am," he said, "how did you – how did I come to be here?"
"I found you," she explained, which was, Charles reflected, not much of an explanation. Miss Teak elaborated, "I found you on the flags just beyond the front door, in a storm right out of a Radcliffe novel; Miss Adler heard me call for help and she summoned Angel out to help you. Between the three of us, we got you inside and into bed, and it's a good thing we did; you'd been still as death for nigh on five days since before you woke the last time, and if we had not discovered you, those days might not have ended with five."
"Five days!" He shut his eyes again. "Five days. Are you sure? What day is it?"
"The thirteenth of September is almost over."
The last he had known the date, he and Erik had settled in bed together at the close of the first of the month. "Thirteen days," he whispered, mostly to himself although he knew Miss Teak had both ears and eyes upon him. "Truly, that long?"
Miss Teak affirmed this too was so, and added, "Only in the past day have you stirred on your own, without one of us to rouse you. Irene – that is, Miss Adler – says you have been through a terrible shock. Can you tell me of it?"
"I… I cannot." Recollection hedged him about as if with swords. "I am sorry."
"You mustn't vex yourself; Irene would be cross with me, if I were to upset you." Charles gave thanks for the absent Irene; the girl gave him a rueful smile. "Do you think you can manage a little supper? It shan't be much, for you've barely recovered from your ordeal (and the pause in her voice said she very much wanted to know the circumstances, but refrained from further inquiry) and we oughtn't overburden you, either with talk or our shameful cooking."
"I trust I won't become much of a burden at all," Charles said, "or more than what I've become already."
"Nonsense," Miss Teak said with a brisk finality. She rang a bell that sat next to the lamp on the table and, a scant few seconds later, a small red head – a small red head that had been eavesdropping – poked through the door.
"Jean," and the young lady so addressed blushed at the elder's reproving tone, "if you would, please ask Angel if we have anything for our guest? And you may tell Sarah she can take her supper outside, if she wishes."
"What about Ororo?" Jean asked, darting a curious look at Charles; clearly the question was meant to stall for time while she scrutinized the mysterious newcomer. "She's been outside all day, and is all over mud."
Miss Teak gave orders concerning Ororo and the necessity of a bath before coming in to supper, and further gave Jean to understand that their guest was hungry and would not appreciate being kept waiting to satisfy a child's curiosity. With a final, intensive study of Charles's face, the red head vanished in a flurry of curls and activity. Miss Teak sighed with some exasperation, but the light in her eyes was fond.
"We rarely have visitors here," she explained, turning back to Charles, "so you are something of a novelty. The fair unknown, as it were."
"Not so fair," Charles said ruefully, which made Miss Teak laugh.
Under the influence of Miss Teak's directness and the warmth of the room, the worst of the pain ebbed away. Miss Teak busied herself with seeing to the fire; where another person might be anxious with the silence, she moved with a steadiness of purpose that soothed him still further, as though lost and fever-ridden travelers turned up at her door all the time. By the time she finished mending the fire and spreading another counterpane over Charles's feet, another girl, this one dark-haired and somewhat closer to Miss Teak in age, materialized with a tea tray and another considering, silent look for Charles. This young lady, Charles learned, was the previously-mentioned Angel, and where Miss Teak wore the current summer fashion that bared the slope of shoulders and neck, Miss Salvadore wore a dress with a high lace collar that must have chafed in the heat.
Miss Teak watched him closely while he ate his few slices of toast and fruit and drank a glass of well-watered wine and a cup of tea. The set of her face seemed to forbid conversation and mandate the consumption of all on offer, and so he studied her as closely as he could in the interim. With no clues from her mind to go on, he had to learn about her in otherwise, to her hands – smooth but competent-looking, no hint of a ring ever adorning her left hand – and her dress – made of plain grey stuff, without ornament of any kind – and her hair – carelessly wound back in a braid and pinned, long platinum strands escaping from it almost defiantly. A lady, Charles decided, but one perhaps fallen on hard times, or used to the genteel sort of poverty that came with good breeding and little money.
"Can you tell me," he asked after the last mouthful of tea had gone down and Miss Teak nodded with satisfaction, "where I am?"
"Do not you know?" Miss Teak asked, confusion wrinkling her brow. When Charles admitted he had little memory of the past several days (he forebore mentioning Erik and the catastrophe at Ironhill), Miss Teak said slowly, "You are in -- --, in a house perhaps ten miles from Westchester Village."
"Westchester!" Charles cried, starting up. "Truly?"
"I would not lie," Miss Teak said, sounding deeply offended.
Charles collapsed back into his pillows. Westchester, a shock for so many reasons! That he should be so close to his old home, a place so long removed from him he'd thought it buried under newer, far dearer notions of what home was (Ironhill, for one, but wherever Erik should be; these had begun to define the word for him) – a place, still, that resurrected itself in his mind's eye as clearly and solidly as if he stood before it now! And then, scarcely less stunning, was the distance he had somehow covered in the space between now and that disastrous night; perhaps seventy, perhaps a hundred miles, he calculated, and when he groped for the means behind this miraculous translation, he found only the ever-shifting fragments of nightmare.
"Perhaps you hit your head in a fall," Miss Teak speculated. "It is not uncommon, for injuries to the head to cause such memory loss."
"Quite common," Charles assured her, an assurance in which he could not take part. "Doubtless with time and rest, memory will befriend me again."
"You shall have as much of it as you need," Miss Teak said firmly.
"I won't let myself become a burden."
"And a burden you shall not be," Miss Teak replied. She collected his tea tray and set it in a corner of the table; another ring of the bell brought Jean hastening in on her swift, silent feet, and another meaningful look sent her back on her way before Jean could do much more than direct the briefest, inquisitorial glance at the bedridden one. Miss Teak turned back to him, resolve written in the corners of her mouth. She said, "As a girl, I knew the greatest kindness one living being could show another, and I would be remiss if I neglected another creature in his hour of need."
"You are too kind," Charles said.
He could not trust himself to speak further. Miss Teak must have discerned this, for she turned down the lamp and bade him sleep, and ordered Charles not to trouble himself, "for Jean and Ororo shall sleep with Irene and herself tonight; he must have peace for some nights yet," before excusing herself from the room.
* * *
Two more days passed before Charles could regain his feet again, and yet another day before Miss Teak would trust him to navigate the stairs without disaster. In that time his body healed and reacquired some portion of its usual sturdy vigor, even if his telepathy remained a throbbing and half-closed wound. He wondered if it should ever scab over and, if it did, if he should be condemned to silence forever.
He told himself not to regret it, for he had spent himself in the defense of those whom he loved, and had he not said to Erik that he would exercise his powers in such a way? He regretted keenly that Henry and the children were lost to him now, but with Schmidt dead, surely they would be safe, or as safe as Henry could make them in Erik's absence.
His dreams those first few days still had the quality of feverish visitations, as though the sickness that had come over him moved into his mind even as it abandoned his body, or perhaps, with his pain silenced during the day, it vented itself at night in the cruelest phantasms. With aching clarity his nighttime visions displayed all their encounters, their first meeting, the conversations and arguments; he recalled the repressed passion in Erik's voice, the intonation precisely rendered as a surgeon's knife; he recalled the quality of the firelight on Erik's skin and the flex of his throat when Charles had applied his mouth to the delicate flesh beneath his jaw –
He remembered the searing heat of the fire and the great, dark wave of Schmidt's death rising up to engulf him, and Erik vanishing beneath the shower of masonry, the abrupt absence as of a light being snuffed.
"Are you well, Mr. Pembroke?"
The voice belonged to Miss Adler, a tall, silver-haired woman. Despite her silvered locks youth still graced her face, a few more lines in it to suggest some years separated her from Miss Teak, although not many. She sat, as she had been sitting, at her loom, weaving a patterned blanket; Charles had drifted off to the endless chant of the warp and woof clacking together, and only her voice and the sudden realization that her weaving had stopped had brought him back.
He affirmed that he was quite well, an affirmation greeted with some skepticism by his companion. Still, she returned to her work, her fingers flying as she directed the shuttle.
"Is that for the household?" Charles asked.
"Oh, no, for the market," Miss Adler said. "All of us have some skill or other, and we put it to use for our income. I weave, Sarah is a marvelous artist," – this was the mysterious Sarah Charles had not yet laid eyes upon, " – and the others, particularly the younger ones, tend the garden for vegetables and herbs. Angel takes the cloth I weave and makes clothing; she made dresses, before she came to us."
Something in Miss Adler's tone implied that the dressmaking had not been entirely voluntary, that Miss Salvadore's coming to us had been in the nature of finding a refuge freely given, much as Charles's own arrival had been. He said this, and Miss Adler smiled cagily but offered no further details.
"There are legends," he said, "of lost and desperate travelers who come suddenly out of difficulty into a blessed land, where the inhabitants care for them and provide for their every need, and there is no sickness or want, but only the gold of the sunshine and the free air, and repose."
"Perhaps no repose," Miss Adler said, her fingers flying through their work without pause, "but this is a place, Mr. Pembroke, where you can be safe and remain for as long as you wish."
She said this with a peculiar emphasis, her astonishing dark eyes fixing on his as if she knew the secret behind his advent on her front step, and as if she perceived as clearly as Charles could the terrible wound he carried with him.
"How did you find me?" he asked.
"You already know much of the story." At last, Miss Adler's fingers paused in their flight and the loom settled to silence. "I cannot tell you what prompted me to look out the window when I did, but we were all gathered in that front room there," and here she nodded to the room beyond her own workroom, with a window that looked out over the small front courtyard, "and in a flash of lightning I saw you collapsed there."
"And there was no one else with me?"
"No one that I saw," Miss Adler said, and began her work again.
To be suspicious was unworthy, but Charles was at a loss to explain how he might have covered a hundred miles in the space of what he calculated to be a week. (Two weeks since the end of all his dreams! It seemed like years.) He could not have crossed such a distance under his own power, and he doubted he had manifested another power in addition to his telepathy that would allow him to do such a thing. The teleporter under Schmidt's control was also quite out of the question; not only would such a humanitarian action have likely been beyond him, but what would the odds be that he should abandon Charles in this place? Any other traveler would have placed Charles directly into the care of the mistresses of the house; for that matter, Charles thought, they would not have borne him a week's travel south, but rather to Field, or to the nearest large town and the hospitals there.
That mystery at least occupied most of his day, along with familiarizing himself with the house.
It was not large, and so overflowed with the personalities of its inhabitants. They were, Charles realized in short order, all female except for himself and a Negro boy named Armando, whose presence was as unaccountable as it was unexplained by Misses Teak and Adler. (When he inquired as to the nature of the relationship among all of them (for Jean, with her red hair and freckles, and Ororo with her dark skin and striking white hair, pale as Miss Adler's, could hardly be related either to each other or to the older women), Miss Adler looked at him archly and said that, quite often, the closest families had no blood ties between them; Charles, thinking of Erik and the children, could not dispute this. In a house built to house perhaps four, with its two bedrooms and poky hallways and cramped parlor and workroom, they numbered six: the aforementioned Misses Teak and Adler, Armando, the young Jean and Ororo (the latter of whom seemed to prefer living up trees to inside), and the still-absent Sarah.
"She is shy of strangers," Miss Teak said with finality when Charles asked if he was to have the honor of her presence.
He doubted he should ever see her, or that she even existed, and would have continued to doubt it had he not glimpsed a swift, silent shadow one night.
It was nearing a week since he had rejoined the world, and the energy of his rapidly-healing body combined with his reluctance to revisit painful dreams kept him wakeful in the night. Miss Salvadore, Miss Teak, and Miss Adler had retired to their room, Jean and Ororo – whose bedroom Charles had been occupying – had taken up their pallets in the kitchen, and Armando had gone to his own small room behind Miss Adler's workroom. Charles, restless and somewhat guilty at the extravagance, remained in the living room to read by candlelight; it was Miss Teak's battered copy of Otranto companioning him that night when, at the periphery of his vision, he saw a flicker of movement.
The movement had vanished in a twinkling, so swift he doubted he had seen it. A few minutes later, though, came the quiet creak of a door opening, and then a furtive rustling in the kitchen. Oh, he thought suddenly, how much this was like the night he had met Raven! So caught up in that memory was he that he sat in silence as the thief gathered up what treasures were to be found in the larder and made away with them. Absently, wondering if perhaps the thief-spirit would go back the way it had come on its return trip to its mound or barrow, he looked back out the window.
The westering moon spilled its light upon the flags so the stones glowed a pale silver and the shadows of the stable and outbuildings crawled across it. Straining his vision to its utmost and wishing with sudden bitterness for his telepathy, Charles could pick out a small, skulking shadow flitting at the edges of the light, quite prosaically carrying a plate and mug. Pausing as if it sensed something, the shadow laid its burden on the stones and vanished swiftly in the direction of the barn.
Charles thought, somewhat nonsensically, of folk who still left cakes and ale or bowls of milk for the house spirits, the ones who would either be helpful and assist with chores or, if not placated, would hide tools and make the fruit spoil.
No brownie or sprite came out of the nighttime, though; rather, it was a figure Charles now knew all too well. It emerged from the darkness, long twisting lines of silver marking it out where the moonlight fell upon it, and with unexpected delicacy the changeling picked up the mug set beside the plate and drank from it.
As Charles watched in stunned silence, the changeling devoured the food – not, as Charles had expected, by rending it with teeth and claws, but by picking it up and eating it much as any human might, even chewing carefully as though considering the taste. When the changeling had finished his repast, he placed the mug atop the plate and, to Charles's further astonishment, placed something in his mouth and apparently struck a match and lit it. The light flared before dulling to a soft glow, and Charles realized it was, in fact, a cigar.
The realization galvanized him into action. He had the door unbolted and opened quite before he knew what he was about, and quite before he entertained the possibility of frightening the changeling away, or frightening him into violence. Without the benefit of light he had no idea if the changeling had set himself to flee or attack, if the changeling should remember him as one who had sought to help him or a further instrument of his torment, and he was suddenly, acutely aware of the changeling's claws and the absence of chains.
Still, the changeling stayed immobile as Charles drew closer, although he remained in his habitual crouch and puffed on his not-habitual cigar, the great muscles of his back tensed and the tendons of his arms standing out as he braced some of his weight upon his wrists. Someone had given him clothes – Miss Adler, perhaps – for while these bore the stains of the forest and the elements, no rips or tears marred them, and the changeling actually had a shirt, although he picked at it irritably. When Charles drew close enough, he could discern the awareness in the changeling's eye, sharp and clear where once the haze of amnesia had clouded them.
The changeling smiled, a baring of teeth that might be considered friendly.
"You," Charles said, feeling somewhat foolish and clumsy with his words, "you – you're – "
"Name's Logan," the changeling said with an ironic dip of his head before Charles could stammer out anything else, "and I'm much obliged to you."
Slight adjustments to the title have been made. The second title had been bothering me for a while because it didn't feel right to me, but it's only now that I figured out something better.
Chapter 14: Chapter 14
Um, wow, I thought I'd uploaded this thing days ago. Apparently not.
The changeling offered his hand and, propelled by the reflexes of good breeding, Charles accepted it. Calluses abraded his fingers, and the pad of the changeling's palm was a cushion of iron.
"You can speak," Charles said. He would have felt foolish for stating a fact so plainly manifest save for the shock of hearing the changeling's voice, which eradicated all other sensations except itself.
"As you can see," the changeling replied, and grinned around his cigar.
It was a rough voice, the hinges of the syllables turned rusty with disuse; Charles suspected that, even had the changeling – had Logan – been loquacious his voice would never have the edges polished from it. His accent said he had not had England as his native soil, with its slow, rounded vowels and blurred consonants; it would have, Charles decided, some distant kinship with Anthony's.
"Canadian," Logan said, when Charles inquired about it. His brow furrowed. "That seems right, anyhow."
Charles, who had long imagined the circumstances of the changeling's speech returning, had never considered his own speechlessness as one reply. Yet in the moment, confronted with such comparative loquacity as he watched the changeling calmly drawing on the cigar and exhaling the smoke into the night, he could only search for words and find nothing.
"You carried me here," he said at last, the first thought startled into his brain.
Logan grunted an affirmative and extinguished the dying embers of his cigar on the flagstones.
The next question Charles propounded, of course, was how.
"How else do you think?" the changeling asked. He settled back on his haunches and belched deafeningly. "You're a sight heavier than you look."
This did not, Charles pointed out, clarify matters appreciably.
"I found you near what was left of the house," Logan said, "and I thought you were dead; I could barely smell you under the smoke. Then I heard you," and here he tapped the side of his head, "in here – or, rather, I saw a picture of this huge house, and a map. Figured you needed getting home, so I took you."
"I remember none of this," Charles admitted. When he strained to recall those days, the memory twisted and slid out of his grasp, as elusive as phantoms and as uncertain: he remembered the running of water ("It rained," Logan said, when Charles asked about it) and periods of stillness that had the peculiar quality of stepping off a ship or steam-carriage, with the remnants of protracted movement clinging to the mind ("I had to set you down eventually," Logan said to this).
"You talked to me at first," the changeling confided, and indicated his temple again, "and directed me – a map, I suppose, following those steam-carriage lines south."
"I confess, I am trying to imagine how my stepfather would have taken it, a changeling leaving his cast-off stepson on his doorstep," Charles said. "Why did we stop here?"
"You were dying," said Logan.
He had been dying, Logan repeated, burning up with fever and his telepathic voice silenced. It had been a choice between the last ten miles and finding help immediately, and Logan, who had carried many comrades home from fields strewn with charnel and bullets, with their breaths wet and raspy against his face or the back of his neck as they held desperately to the thin spar of life – he had stumbled onto a side road and followed it through the night to a pool of light in front of a door.
"The yellow-haired one found you," Logan said, which Charles assumed meant Miss Teak. "She must have been coming up the road directly behind me; I had been hiding out in one of the outbuildings when she'd come riding up. She called the other birds and had you taken in like that," and hereupon he snapped his fingers, "and they nursed you back to health."
"I am glad," Charles began, although a sudden difficulty in his throat made continuing difficult. "I am – I had no idea until tonight that you lived, much less that it is to you I owe such a debt."
"No debt," the changeling replied. "You were the first in a long time to treat me as though I weren't an animal – that's what brought me back, you know, you sittin' there and readin' your book, like I were just someone to be around, and not muck about with."
"You didn't," Charles began hesitantly, "that is – you did not happen to see what became of Mr. Lehnsherr, or any of the others."
Logan replied concisely that he had not, and from his tone, Charles knew better than to pursue that line of conversation unless dire need should warrant it. For his part, Logan regarded the extinguished cigar with something very much like regret, and said, "I wish she didn't keep me to one a day. She's a good sort, that girl Sarah, but she thinks cigars are a habit that'll do me in one day."
"From what I understand, that is quite unlikely."
"Quite," Logan agreed. He idly extended one claw, scraping it upon the flags. The sound of it sent shivers up Charles's spine, and he found words, again, suddenly absent. He searched for them as the breeze freshened, bringing with it the first hint of coming rain; Logan raised his head and scented it.
"You ought to get in," he said at least, not unkindly. "I didn't haul you all the way here to die from exposure again."
The rain came moments after Charles darted under the safety of the eaves, and when he turned around, the changeling had vanished entirely into the night. He went perforce to bed, deciding the puzzle would solve itself as easily in darkness as in the extravagance of candlelight, and when he woke in the morning, the conversation had the intangible quality of a dream, only the changeling's rough palm against Charles's own so real Charles knew it had been no fantasy.
Summer spent itself in a last few weeks of warmth, the nights drawing out their stay, encroaching on the evening and lingering in the morning, reluctant to allow the daylight her full portion of hours. The house, Charles discovered, was situated in a dell, populated only by themselves and the farm poultry, a stubborn old cow and a pony almost too fat for the harness that yoked it to its cart; sheltered as it was, the shadows lengthened with astonishing rapidity, but the gentle, golden hours and wholesome breezes more than compensated for the slow decrease of sun.
"Do they know about you?" he asked Logan one night. He had spent the day outside, and his skin still felt uncomfortably warm; it had burned, he knew, and would resolve itself into uncomfortable peeling and some freckles.
"Don't know. Sarah does, don't know if she told them." Logan, as always, seemed unbothered by the elements, worn down into something incapable of further corrosion.
"I no longer have my abilities," he added, when the changeling seemed content to nurse his cigar. "They must have been – perhaps the fever took them."
"Maybe those are healing too." Logan offered the suggestion along with a perfectly-formed smoke ring. "And maybe – "
I fear what would happen if I should seek out Erik, and not find him. Charles could not force himself to speak the words out loud, but perhaps Logan had his own telepathy, for he said, "Maybe you're afraid of what you'll find, if you use 'em." Logan grunted. "He did me the worst kind of good turn you could imagine; don't see as I owe him anything."
"It is not my place to tell you to forgive him," Charles agreed, "but I – I grieve for him. I expect I always shall."
The changeling snorted.
"Maybe," he said, "you ought to find out what happened to him before you start with that."
"Maybe," Charles repeated.
* * *
Mr. Lehnsherr dry was scarcely less dragonish than Mr. Lehnsherr wet and half-drowned. Once they had both extricated themselves from the lake, and Mr. Lehnsherr had dealt with the raptures of his children, Charles found himself summarily ordered back to the house to dry himself and meditate on the evils of attempting to assassinate his employer.
"And," Mr. Lehnsherr subjoined, "you may take those with you."
Those denominated Pietro and Wanda, who briefly – if loudly – clamored to be allowed to help their father escort his horse back into the care of the stablehands. "No," their stony parent said, "it's no place for brats with more impulse than sense; you may go back with Herr Professor there, and I shall see you when I've finished my business."
The children, their spirits dampened but not quite extinguished, consented to the separation. Charles herded them back up the hill to the house, half a mind given to their inquiries about the possibility of a snack and when was the soonest they might see Papa and if they could not perhaps go down to the stable after all if they swore to stay in Herr Professor's company, and the other half remaining still with the low, restless thrum that was, Charles realized, the unique sensation of Mr. Lehnsherr's mind. It moved against his like an earthquake, one heavy presence pushing up against another; it was, Charles realized, every bit as implacable and inescapable, as though he should find it no matter where he turned.
In the past, those who had commanded his attention in such a way had almost without exception been inimical. There had been Essex and the terrible emptiness of his mind – an emptiness Charles now knew was an illusion, for Essex's shields had taken on the quality of a void, the endless chaos that was everything and nothing – and then the hideous calculating superiority of Schmidt. There had been Raven's bright determination, a lifeline in the gray purgatory of Shawcross, but even she had left him and vanished as though she had never been. This now, this, the glow of Lehnsherr's presence as steady as a crank-light beam and with as much energy behind it – this had permanence to it, as though the world might crumble and Lehnsherr would remain in the center of its ruins, burning.
* * *
The days passed slowly, with no hint of Charles's powers returning. He tried to ignore the silence that washed against his mind, eroding the lines of it like waves upon the sand and reconfiguring it into something of unrecognizable contours. In the moments of his greatest despair, when he would reach out and find only his own voice speaking back to him, he would have to hide his face or excuse himself; this always brought worried looks from his nurses, but upon his insistence that they could do nothing to help, or that it was merely a sudden headache (left over, no doubt, from the exposure and resulting fever), Miss Teak would warn the others off and admonish them to let him be.
Young Miss Grey – that would be Jean – always watched him closely as these spells came over him, and always seemed on the verge of speaking, at least until a furious glare from Miss Teak arrested any words before they might be spoken.
It was a minor mystery, one easily dealt with by explanations of a sensitive child. Compounded with the others – well, Charles was not going to investigate further mysteries.
That Ravenswood – for this was the name of the house (Charles had no recollection of this place from his childhood) – was a place of respite, peaceful enough to make forgetfulness possible, became a blessing and a curse. It was blessing in its tranquility and the cheerful generosity of its inhabitants, who welcomed a homeless and friendless young man whose only contribution to the household was dramatic readings of old novels and, gradually, taking over the educations of Jean, Ororo, and Armando. Its curse exerted itself in moments where he found himself unguarded, when memories of his losses – of his power, of Erik, of the children – forced themselves upon him with such suddenness his breath vanished and the pain froze his heart to immobility.
After one such episode, when he had excused himself to his room – he would, he decided while attempting to distract himself, have to speak with the older women about moving, so as not to deprive Jean and Ororo of their beds – Jean peeped through the door.
"Miss Teak wants to know if you want dinner sent up," she said. As she spoke, she slithered more fully into the room, although she remained by the door and clutched at the knob with a small hand.
"I shall be down," he assured her. At the scrutiny in her green-grey eyes, he smiled and asked, "What is it, dearest?"
"Nothing," Jean said in such a way as to suggest it was, indeed, something. She added, impulsively, and with an anxious glance back through the door and down the stairs. "Only – only you are sad, Mr. Pembroke."
This was uttered with a certainty, earnest and artless as it was. Charles supposed he might put it down to the perspicacity of children, whose eyes, unclouded, saw truer than those of adults – and whose mouths were, similarly, more unguarded. He ached to have his power, not the stump of it that still bled pain, and wondered, briefly, if he might confide in her, if such confidence could or should be entrusted to a twelve-year-old.
Instead of explaining himself to her, he said, "It is only that I wish I felt better on such a pleasant day as this. And now," he added, rallying himself to stand and offer her a courtly arm, "shall I escort you down to dinner?"
Thoughtfully and with gravity, she placed a hand in the curve of his elbow and said, very quietly, But you are still sad, her head bent so the disheveled red curtain of her hair hid her face.
Downstairs, Miss Adler seemed infected with his own melancholy, only her symptoms had manifested in an unusual pique of temper. As Charles and Jean made their entrance into the corner designated as the dining-room, Miss Adler was banging about with her cane, complaining bitterly about it – "A useless impediment, I say, when I can – " and pausing only when she heard the introduction of new footsteps.
"Is there anything I can help with?" Charles asked.
"Smoothing feathers, perhaps," Miss Teak said, with an arch look at Miss Adler.
Ravenswood had its own surprises. One of them had been Miss Adler's blindness, for she managed everything about the house so effortlessly, from her weaving to navigation about the kitchen, that Charles had not suspected it until one day when he had asked her if she would like to take a turn reading from the night's novel and she had replied in the negative, saying, "I do not remember it well enough to say it to you." The changeling's residence in the woods, of course, was the second. Sarah remained an obdurate mystery.
"She prefers the outdoors," Miss Teak said now, to Charles's inquiry as to whether Sarah would be joining them.
Dinner proceeded silently for a few minutes, before Miss Adler, as she always did, succumbed to the urge to ask after village news. Miss Teak had returned from a morning trip with Angel and some of their woven goods. Much of it was, so far as Charles could divine, ordinary village gossip – change the names, and the tales of sickness, petty intrigues, and competition would have their origins in Field instead – but Miss Teak's final piece of information jolted him to attention.
"They have decided to begin a search for the heir to Xavier House," Miss Teak said.
"What?" Charles coughed. "What is this?"
He could not – no, he must – he struggled for calm. Jean, sitting next to him, glanced up at him anxiously; it was all he could do to smile reassurance at her. Ororo, Angel, and Armando seemed mostly interested in Miss Teak, who was glowering ferociously at her plate.
"I wish I could have seen him when he died," Miss Teak said furiously. "I would have sunk the fear of the Almighty into him – indeed, I would have, for what he did!"
"My dear," Miss Adler interposed with an exasperated sigh.
"Did something become of the old owner?"
"Old usurper," Miss Teak growled.
"Dr. Kurt Marko," Angel said, turning to him, and Charles wanted to laugh as she recited the story of his misfortunes to him: "Some years ago, the blood heir to Xavier House vanished. Dr. Marko had control of the estate until his death, oh, six months back; his own son, Cain, was lost in the Indies – not that it would have mattered, for the matter of the inheritance was quite clear, although Marko desired to muddy the issue. The family attorney has had no luck finding the estate's proper owner – "
"The d—ed vulture's relatives are trying to get their talons in, of course." (This was Miss Teak.) "They're wanting to declare him dead, so they might contest the property instead of having it go to some third cousins."
" – but," Miss Adler continued, "I imagine there are some developments on that score."
"An American," Miss Teak said, "a friend of Ch – a friend of Mr. Xavier's from university. He found out about the situation and has offered to finance a reward for any information leading to his whereabouts."
He had to excuse himself, hearing this. Propriety deserted him, leaving behind a stammered excuse and a "please forgive me" in response to Armando asking him if he was well. He ached, suddenly, for Logan, for Erik – for, he realized, Raven and Henry, and all those who knew him. Instead of their company (Logan, the only one near at hand, could never be found during the daytime), he found himself in the cloisters of the beech-grove behind the house, the air under their gentle leaves quiet and filled only with the cacophony in his own head.
Kurt Marko dead! Something in the depths of his heart shuddered, as if breaking free of chains that had long fettered it. Dr. Marko gone! He turned the thought over and compared it to the last image he had of the man, a full four days before he had departed for the cold bosom of Shawcross, and the image rose up before him as an apparition: Dr. Marko bent over papers on his desk – patents, Charles had gleaned from his mind, documents seeking to assign full credit for the Xavier-Marko batteries to Marko himself – and looking up only when he had finished signing them. Across the years he remained unchanged, face still pale and framed by dark, glossy hair, the eyes cruel under the shelves of their brows and the mouth unsoftened by any kindness; Charles could not imagine any force, not even Death, capable of making alterations to those features.
Death sat strangely next to the man whose shadow had stretched long over Charles's life, and whose hand had thrust him upon the path that led him to the greatest miseries of his existence, and the greatest blessings. In the balance, with Essex and Schmidt, with Raven and Erik, had Marko brought him good or ill?
His head spun with the possibilities and with questions. How would he prove himself? Would Anthony accept the warrant of his face, without the power that lay behind it? What further barriers would lie between him and gaining back the property that had been taken from him? (And, he found, he did want it back; where in former years it had been a thing but distantly lamented, it had remained close enough to his heart for it to be the one last image of home he gave to Logan, a giving he could not remember.) And, once he was in possession of a competency – more than a competency, if the family lawyers had been on guard against Dr. Marko's depredations – he could – oh, he could do so much with it. He could search out Raven properly. He could begin to rebuild the dreams that had been left in ruins along with Ironhill.
And he could – he must, for Logan had been right – travel north again, and find what had become of Lehnsherr.
"First," Reason interrupted the increasingly giddy, and apprehensive series of musings, "first, before and above anything else, you must find Mr. Stark and speak with him. Dress up your best words and put your case to him; if he is a true friend, he will recognize you and give you all the help you can.
"And then," she continued, "you must confess yourself to Miss Teak and Miss Adler, and give them back every kindness they have showed you."
He resolved on this; indeed, he had scarcely done so when he perceived a new presence behind him, a presence not quite capable of concealing itself, bright and determined as it was, and not used to being stealthy in its own space.
"Mr. Pembroke." It was, of course, Miss Teak, with her shawl hanging carelessly about her arms and her cloud of blond hair in disarray. She continued, after a careful assessment of his face, "You have the house in confusion, and I would ask you if there was anything in our conversation to upset you."
"No," Charles said honestly. "Or, rather, it was a conversation not upsetting as much as it was – unexpected."
"Village gossip," Miss Teak said with a curl of her lip. "I should wonder why it would be so unexpected to a man wholly unconnected in the country."
"As to that, I am not, as you say, wholly unconnected; I know the area, although it has been many, many years since I have come into the region after last leaving it. I – I knew the Markos, somewhat, as much as anyone might wish to know them."
"Indeed!" Miss Teak cried. "Well, that is something, although I can see why you would not have wished to intrude yourself on their notice. Dr. Marko is – was – among the worst men who ever breathed, and I have had experience of the spectrum of evil men can display."
She had worked herself to a pitch of agitation, indeed, of such anger that she was incandescent with it. Her fingers knotted in her shawl as if her anger might carry her away from the earth and the shawl was the only weight anchoring her to it. Her skirts swirled about her feet as she paced, kicking at the fallen beech leaves, her eyes flickering with such fearsome emotion they seemed to change color in the dappling of shadows.
"Are you quite well?" Charles ventured.
"I am," said she, "but I – oh, oh, I hate him so much! I wish I could have stood over his deathbed, as I stood over him in his sleep that night, and cursed him for what he did!" She ground the words out, such venom in them Dr. Marko should have been struck dead if he had stood before her.
If he had had his abilities, Charles would have seen the source of her pain, for her pain was now as tangible to him as the trees around them and the cloth on his skin. He would have seen it played out in the ghost of her memory, how she had crept in to the house disguised as a servant and stood over the drowsing man's bed, pushing him roughly awake and smiling in vicious satisfaction as his eyes widened and he scrambled away from her, gasping "You!"
"He ruined the one dearest to me, the one who was the first to show me kindness," Miss Teak was saying. She had her back to him, her shoulders quivering with sobs. "I was a little girl when it happened, but I had only known years of abuse and cruelty – and then my friend came to me, and helped me – I repaid him by abandoning him, and oh, Mr. Pembroke, I only wish I could find him again."
Charles had drawn quite close to her, enough that he found himself in the tidal wash of her longing and her pain, and the arm under his hand shook and jumped with the force of her passion. What he meant to say he knew not, the words of comfort fumbling around the boundaries of propriety and familiarity (for he felt she was a friend, and a friend of long-standing, although they had known each other a mere month), but propriety or no, words or no, she turned to face him.
Her mouth trembled, her smile uncertain of its welcome, her cheeks blotched and streaked with her tears. And, above her cheeks and framed by the tumble of her yellow hair, her eyes were gold.
Chapter 15: Chapter 15
"Your eyes," Charles whispered, half-disbelieving what his own senses reported to him, for surely, after so long what were the chances of finding her again, in such a place? You know what you have seen, Reason told him, and he was not (and had never been) a man given to passing fancies, not even when confronted with an impossibility, however much desired it may have been.
For her part, Miss Teak startled, going frighteningly pale under the red passion staining her cheeks. She passed an impatient hand across her eyes, and as if transformed by a magician, they changed to their usual clear blue.
"I am sorry," she said stiffly, turning away again. "I was – I was overcome."
"No," Charles said. He stepped towards her quickly, and liberty though it was, took a tear-damp hand. She made to withdraw, her strength sudden and improbable, but he persisted and retained her hand, now clasped in both of his.
For a moment they stood in terrible suspense, her fear very nearly a presence against his skin, before the words could work past the difficulty in his throat and he said, "I – oh, Raven, can it be you?"
As if her name were a spell, and his invocation of it, she froze. Her eyes flickered between blue and gold, the pupil at one moment shadow-black and at the next a deep amber and ovoid, like a cat's.
"Raven," he said again, thinking that a third time might call forth her true form, "it is – it is you."
"Charles?" she asked, and for a moment her brisk, competent tones gave way and she was quite the little girl he remembered, asking him if he was going to reveal her to their teachers. "Charles," she said again, "can it – no! It cannot be – "
"It is," he assured her. Her hand trembled in his and her whole frame fairly shook with disbelief. She swept him with one comprehensive glance, toes to shoulders, and fixed a deep, scrutinizing look upon his face, tracing the lineaments of it as though she were seeking down through the layers of skin and flesh and bone, searching out a younger, more familiar face underneath the older one. At last she fixed upon his eyes, and Charles thought, surely, all his desire that she might know him must be written in them, for she breathed once, harshly, a sound that might be his name, and in another heartbeat she had flung herself into his arms and rippled from pale skin and blonde hair to her scales, blue and supple against his neck.
He could barely breathe between the disbelief and the joy, and the tightness with which Raven – Raven! – had clasped him to her. Under his hands her back and shoulders shook with something that might be laughter or tears; the moisture against his skin suggested the latter, although he could also feel her smiling.
"Oh, Charles," she murmured. For a moment she was the little girl again, after Essex had stripped the defiance from her and left her exhausted, when Charles would find her huddled in his bed or their little corner of the courtyard. The vulnerability lasted a moment only; her habitual strength soon reasserted itself, and she drew back (rubbing discreetly at the dampness on her cheeks), regarding him critically once more.
"Let us sit," Raven said with some of her usual imperiousness, and thereupon guided him to a small bench that stood underneath the generously-spreading arms of a chestnut. A few leaves had fallen, this early in the autumn; the light that filtered through the chestnut's crown was green and gold. Despite the declining year, the world felt new again, with Raven tall and lovely with the polished indigo of her limbs and her bright red hair, still holding on tight to Charles's hands.
"I looked for you," Charles told her when the silence had dragged on too long. "Raven, you must believe that – as soon as I left Shawcross, I searched for you, but I could find you nowhere."
That had been the first moment in which he had realized he was alone. Raven had always existed as a promise, something waiting for him beyond the gates of Essex's school; like a star – or, perhaps, the invisible influences of magnetism, invisible but felt, or distant but perceived – she had guided his movements from Shawcross to Oxford. She had never manifested herself, and had not come in answer to his silent pleading, and when he had at last come to a quiet place in Oxford, he had let himself feel, for the first time, his isolation.
"I left England," Raven confided. The alien yellow of her eyes was somber. "I could not – I could not bear the thought that he might be searching for me," and there was no need for her to clarify the he of their mutual nightmares," and that he might find me again… So I left. I changed myself into a lady I had seen near the ferry docks at Dover and departed for France. I did not return to England for some years."
"I looked for you," Charles said (and at this confession Raven impulsively flung her arms about his neck). "I swear to you, Raven, I looked; I did not want you to be alone."
"Small thoughts," said she, and he could feel the curve of her lips on the skin above his collar. "I was gone so often… I met Irene – that is, Miss Adler – in Switzerland, and she it was who told me I would have company along my path. I had thought perhaps she meant you – you, who had been my only comfort and solace in that awful place – but no, she meant herself." Here, Raven flushed, indigo underpainting the azure of her scales. "And I realized I must do what I could to gather other changelings to me – I felt, my darling friend, that you would have approved."
Revelation raced electrically through Charles's head. "The others – Miss Adler, Ororo – they are changelings!"
"Indeed," Raven said with a bright smile. "You must come and meet them – meet them truly, and there is one other among us, who can claim an acquaintance with you."
So it was in the space of a few hectic minutes that Charles found himself bundled into the cottage's sitting room, with Raven calling shrill imperatives for the other inmates to present themselves. Jean, Ororo, and Armando came running in directly, Angel and Miss Adler with rather more deliberation, the former complaining about being called away from her work. But a few moments more sufficed for Raven, the tears trembling in her amber eyes, to present to them not their now-familiar Mr. Pembroke, but her dearest and long-lost Charles Xavier.
Once assured that he was one of them – although Charles had to deflect a silently querying look from Raven on that point – the children fairly fell over themselves to demonstrate their talents before such a legendary figure as Miss Teak's – Miss Darkholme's– old school friend. ("They are somewhat out of practice," Raven told Charles quietly after she had him settled in a chair, "we were uncertain of you.") With a gesture, Jean lifted The Romance of the Forest from its place by Charles's elbow and brought it to her; with a gesture of her own, Ororo called up a breeze that ruffled its pages. Armando, rather more theatrically, stabbed himself in the palm with his dagger – or would have, Charles realized after he was halfway out of his chair, if the skin of his palm had not hardened into something like the strength of bone. Angel, with some relief, unbuttoned her high collar and (to the mutual discomfort of Charles and Armando) tugged her bodice loose, enough to unfurl the miracle of gauzy dragonfly wings.
The display reminded Charles acutely of the innocent joy Wanda and Pietro had taken in their gifts, the games by the fireside with Wanda's coins and Pietro running half-wild through the orchard; and Erik would pretend impatience with the entire business, and annoyance that he should be distracted from his business or his book to superintend the education he entrusted to another – and he would stand, Charles thought with a tightness in his throat, quite close, close enough that Charles's shoulder might brush his. Yes, he would stand so, and the invisible fingers of his power would play with the buttons of Charles's coat, or if they were being watched, one of the coins from his pocket.
"And what, Miss Adler," he said, turning to the lady so denominated, "is your gift?"
"Nothing so marvelous," Miss Adler said. She lowered herself to her chair, her dark, blank eyes studying him intently as she did so. "But I will say it was I who saw your coming, although I did not know what the significance was at the time, beyond that you were important to my Raven."
"I never wanted to return to England," Raven said. Her guilt washed over him, a cold and heavy tide. "But Irene insisted that we come back – that there was more to be found here, and I would find something given up for lost; those were her very words. And so it was that I found Sarah again (here she paused to bid Jean to go fetch the truant girl) and this place for sale. We purchased it with Irene's money, and she and Sarah stayed here, while I went about, looking for others like us."
"Did you fear what Essex would do, if he found you?"
Raven nodded tightly. "I had heard that the school had been closed after inquiries by the parents, and I feared he would come looking for me – for us, for I had Jean and Sarah – you should see her, Charles, she is quite grown-up now; you will be – "
"Our Sarah?" Charles asked.
"Indeed," Raven said, and as if summoned by the word the girl herself appeared in the doorway.
"I don't expect you remember me," Charles said as Sarah approached him. She had grown of course, but the distinctiveness of her skin – dusky pink – and the markings of the bones about her face and shoulders, the bump of the growths tenting the fabric of her dress and tearing it where knobs and joints pushed through – all of that remained quite familiar. The ferocity in her eyes, that was new to the girl who had huddled in their little courtyard shelter, and had something of Raven about it.
"Of course I remember you," Sarah said, after a mistrustful, searching look. She drew close, wary as a young deer; the skin of her palms, when she closed a hand about his wrist, was scarred and callused. Charles thought fleetingly of what he had learned of her when she had come to Shawcross, only the disjointed images of cruelty and confusion; she had, like Raven, been a foundling.
"We shan't think of it now," Raven said presently. When she touched the bony curve of Marrow's cheek, it was without fear. She looked up at Charles, and what she saw on his face, Charles could not say; what was in his own heart was beyond his ability to decipher. "We're here and together again," Raven continued, "and we won't ever be separated."
"No, we won't," Charles said, and thought this moment should be impressed in his heart forever, the quality of the light, the confused pleasure of the children suffusing him with warmth to match the afternoon, and Raven, dearest Raven, he had found his way home to her.
* * *
In the dream he had that night, Charles held something cupped in his palms. The night about him was dark and he walked through it on careful feet. No moon rode in the sky; there were no stars. He walked uphill, feeling it in the strain of his breath, but of the nature of the ground – whether marble or carpet or grass – and the weather – whether foul or fair – he could divine nothing. He walked, in the curious, purposeful way of doing things in dreams, not knowing the why, only that to reach the top of the hill was imperative, and that he must carry his burden there.
He looked down into the cup of his hands, expecting to see jewels or costly spices or the most delicate glass, for he held his hands in the cautious, fearful manner of one carrying something beyond price. Looking, though, he saw only water – or, perhaps, not precisely water, but a silver-shot liquid that reflected light from no source Charles could see. His breath caught (surely, he told himself, with the exertion of the climb), and he had to compel himself to look away and upward.
Up and up he climbed, the invisible path undeviating. When he attained the summit, he looked down into a great abyss, dark enough to swallow the night around him and vast enough to swallow the world. Down, down into it Charles peered, leaning forward so the pitch of his body threatened to unbalance him, his hands and his burden clutched to his chest; down and down he looked, straining to see a non-existent bottom, repelled and fascinated both at once, and as he reached the critical degree where he must either straighten or resign himself to oblivion, he thought –
* * *
Raven had insisted upon having him to herself for a day, that they might catch up – and, Charles had discovered, that she might ask him about the mysterious disappearance of his gift. He told her about Erik and that night, and of the terrible pain, and of Logan, to whose agency he owed his life and his advent at Raven's doorstep.
Logan declined the invitation to join the rest of the household in the already-crowded house. He gave his refusal with the habitual terseness of a man unused to words, or any human society whatsoever, but all the same did not seem inclined to stray far from the woods and fields immediately surrounding Ravenswood. Sarah, happy enough to remain in the stables (she had no good associations with proper rooms, Raven had explained, and the girl had prickled with discomfort at even the nominal civilization of the living room), seemed drawn to him, the strange creature of mottled skin and metal, and trailed him with her typical suspicious curiosity.
It was on the second day after their mutual revelations that Charles found himself and Raven in Raven's wagon, bouncing down the road to Xavier House.
He watched the roadside closely for signs of familiarity. The years had erased much he had known and redrawn strange figures in their places, new houses where he recalled a forest and a low part of the hunting preserve drained and planted over with groves of oak and chestnut. The hedges ran along the road in their neat lines, and beyond them sheep grazed on the free lands; to their south the land ran on in its gentle waves, not at all like the crags about Ironhill and the mountains that ringed its horizons.
"I've kept my eye on this place," Raven said as she turned the horse through the high street of ——, the town to which Xavier House was immediately adjacent. A few merchants called to her, and Raven responded briefly before continuing, "I wanted to be sure he did no further harm to it, although I suppose he could not do worse than the things I imagined him capable of doing."
"He would never bring the estate to ruin," Charles said absently. He realized, with some surprise, that he was searching the faces of the townspeople for Dr. Marko's. "He cared too much for money not to waste it once it was his own, or to ever put himself out of the way of acquiring it."
"Well, he could never acquire yours," Raven said with vicious pleasure. One hand left its grip on her reins to close around his tightly. "I listened and asked questions where I could, and met the man who was the secretary to your parents' solicitor. He said that the house's affairs were very much tied up in court, and Dr. Marko's solicitors were very determined to find some irregularity in the wills concerning which property he might inherit as your mother's widower and which were to be yours. And I decided, right then and there, that if Dr. Marko were ever in the position of obtaining any of your property by whatever nefarious means he could devise, I would – "She broke off, biting back the words so harshly her lovely lips went thin and pale.
"I knew you would not approve," she said at length, rolling her eyes at him. Charles frowned, for he had not had the heart to chastise her out loud, had only thought that he would not have wished her to do what she had planned. Raven was still talking, somewhat more loudly and with marked agitation – "She must be grateful that it was Charles Fate had sent her that night when she had been starving and exhausted, but she could not be grateful to him, he whose cruelty had been the root of all the evils in Charles's life" – when they reached the open gates to Xavier House and drove through them. The road turned uphill, and twisted its gentle way through the forests of walnut and beech, the horse's hooves a regular tattoo in the silence.
"This is an old forest," Raven said, looking up at the distant treetops.
"According to legend, it's part of the Weald," Charles told her. "They say there's a guardian spirit that will take vengeance if anyone touches the trees. I never thought the Sidhe to venture so far east, but perhaps they did."
"Even he could not bring himself to destroy this," Raven grumbled, as if dissatisfied.
"I had half-expected to see something of him here," Charles said to her, to distract her from her tirade. "But I see – I see nothing. It is all as it was."
He could not keep back the sudden, upsurging gladness as the house drew into view, resting serenely on its overlook above the fishponds and the hedge maze. Perhaps, Charles thought, it was the knowledge that Dr. Marko and his son no longer tenanted its halls that made it seem warmer and welcoming, less like the forbidden castle in an old tale where it rose up from the sculpted beds of its gardens. Where Raven had hung on like grim death to the horrors Charles must have endured here, he found them eased – he wished he could tell her this, for her mouth was unhappy and she was frowning moodily up at the house – and in the place of those memories he found himself thinking back to the happier years he could recall.
"My father died when I was quite young," he said to Raven, who made a sound of assent. "But, do you know, one of the things I remember about him – he and my mother would play chess, and I would sit on his lap and listen while he explained the rules to me. I remember it perfectly, the light in the study, his voice; I would see his strategy in his mind, and ask him about it. My mother particularly enjoyed that; she said it meant she might, once in a while, beat him. Although she was quite good herself."
"You should have had more such memories," Raven said.
"I was able to make those elsewhere," he told her, and leaned in to kiss her indecorously on the cheek. He thought, not for the first time that day, of Erik.
They might have met, he thought, on terms of equality, though such terms had not mattered to Erik in the end – or, he supposed, in the beginning; all scruples related to that, the asymmetry of employer and employed, had been on his own side. If he had not entertained such reservations, how sooner might they have come together? Regret rested bitterly on his mind as he climbed down from the wagon and dusted himself off.
Despite his intimate familiarity with the house, he found he must be admitted to it as a stranger. The staff had changed, of course, in the intervening years, and the butler was not well-disposed to the possibility of characters like Charles and Raven lurking in his atrium. Still, he acceded to Raven's demand to see Mr. Stark immediately on a matter of business pertaining to the estate – it was the day, Raven informed Charles sotto voce, for Mr. Stark and his solicitors seeing to debts from the tradespeople and fielding information on the search for Charles – and was gone and back in short order, with the intelligence that Mr. Stark would see them, briefly.
Charles steeled himself against the thousands of possibilities crowding his mind. That Anthony would recognize him he had no doubt, for they were not long removed from each other's acquaintance. Anthony would expect his telepathy, though, and be puzzled at its absence. Would that cast a pall over their reunion? Would it remove him from consideration for his own inheritance, for the fact that he was a changeling had been generally known – his father had never considered it shameful and had insisted on his son having his rights – and he might well be an imposter, an actor as skillful as Raven –
Further thought fled from him as the butler showed them down a familiar hallway and into a familiar room, the office his father and latterly Dr. Marko had used for the work of running the estate. Behind the great mahogany table Anthony had stood to receive them, and was standing still, as if frozen, staring at the doorway.
"I don't believe it!" Anthony cried upon Charles asking if his old friend had any words for him. "As I live and – I don't believe it!" He eeled around the desk and made straight for Charles, hand outstretched.
He did not, Charles decided, need his telepathy for this, for delight poured off Anthony Stark; he was incandescent with it. It was sufficient, nearly, to mask the paleness of his skin and the way it seemed to hang loose beneath his eyes, and the careful reserve in his motions; a poison ran underneath his skin, Charles thought, made of worry and something slower-working. It was a thought for another time, he told himself, with Anthony seizing his hand in a grip of iron and pumping it ferociously, and saying something Charles could not quite hear about miracles in this day and age, and "my dear girl, wherever did you find him?" to Raven, who laughed and seemed to be crying again. Anthony freed Charles's hand only to clamp both hands on his shoulders as if to hold him in place and regarded him critically.
"It really is me, Tony," Charles said, and felt himself quite incapable of saying anything more.
"Of course it is," Tony said impatiently. He shook Charles as if to reinforce this. "I knew it must be – not that I have your gifts, I'm only a simple human genius, but every now and then – well, intuition, is it not?"
"You have always had that," Charles agreed, "except when it came to flirting."
"Ah, now I know you are Charles." Forthwith, Tony tugged him over to his desk and, following his summons to Raven to join him, subjoined an order to the butler to fetch Miss Potts at her earliest convenience.
"I am already here," the woman so-named said as she marched into the room. Marched was the fitting word, Charles saw; no other word could capture the military precision of the woman's gait, or the conscientious neatness of her person. The contrast between herself and her employer was striking and, Charles thought with a helpless smile, rather entertaining.
"I keep her around for reasons that escape me," Tony grumbled, although the reasons were there, in a mind so carefully ordered and adorned with nothing but the accomplishments most necessary to secure their owner's merit. "I don't suppose, madam, you would be so good as to fetch the solicitors and be sure the paperwork is as it should be? I believe Mr. Xavier would appreciate an expeditious end to this."
"Such an end shan't be expeditious," Miss Potts said. In one comprehensive look she had the measure of both Charles and Raven, and the results of that measurement tallied and recorded. "There will need to be findings of fact to confirm his identity, and the final hearings to confirm Mr. Xavier in his rights – if, of course, the law agrees that he is Mr. Xavier."
"But," interposed Tony, turning to Charles, "at this point the solicitors for your dearly departed step-father have rather unsteady legal legs to stand upon; they will have to make sure Cain is content with his father's estate, if they ever find him."
Erik, however, dominated Charles's thoughts. "Tony, how long will the estate's affairs require?"
"Oh, as long as the court deems necessary to satisfy itself and to be sure its judges are well-paid. There may be trips to London… But you, of course, will stay here in the meantime."
And so it was that he found himself, that very afternoon, moved into his parents' room, with its brocade and the old crank-light in the corner, the framed prints of his father's inventions on the wall. The windows looked out over a wide run of field that sloped downward toward the bordering forests and, after its hiatus, continued as farmland beyond the road. The trees had begun to wear red and gold, yellow as the hair Raven had worn during their journey today, and all the land seemed caught between the memory of a warm afternoon and the anticipation of the coming winter.
Raven had left to return to Ravenswood with promises that she would return with Miss Adler and some of the others on the morrow. In the meantime the house was silent, filled only with the buzzing of his thoughts and the remnants of the wine he and Tony had drunk at dinner. He settled into the stillness of it, allowing his mind to settle into the contours as it had not since the first days following his father's death.
So much loss in this house! Charles wondered how it was, that his life should be so marked by loss: his father first, at an age tender enough for Charles to have formed nothing beyond a child's blind adoration for him; and then his mother, to the slow wasting of grief; and then Raven when she had vanished from his sight so utterly she had become a phantom; and Erik – Erik –
He was walking through the darkness again, carrying that precarious burden again, walking uphill, ever uphill through the darkness. This time, though, a force drew him on, gently tugging. It had wrapped itself about his heart, steel woven fine as spiderweb, and he followed the direction of its pulling, as though a hand on the opposing end held it with tension enough to draw Charles along.
I am coming, he said to the darkness, whereupon a light formed in the great distance and a wind came, blowing cold against his back. I am coming.
The dawn came, a chill, thin light through the curtains, but the fire in the hearth was warm. Charles stretched and tried to bring himself back to the world, to re-order the fantastic chaos of the past few days into a story he might tell himself. Each episode in it, he mused, seemed more incredible than the last, and Tony's declaration that he would see Charles restored to his rights the most incredible of all – but, Charles told himself as he looked around the room (his room, he had no compunction in correcting himself), he was here and the room had the solidity of fact about it, and he had no reason to doubt the reality of what he had been through.
"And," he thought, "you could start again. You could use the time waiting for the courts to come around to plan, and then begin to execute your designs over the winter – a school, as you've always wanted. What you wanted to begin once, you could have again, and there is no Shaw to take it from you."
As he always must, Erik wove his way into those thoughts, not only in the splendor of his power as Charles had seen him once, but in hybrids of fantasy and memory – Erik by his side in bed, disheveled and unguarded as he never was outside of Charles's company. He should stir sleepily, sensing Charles's wakefulness, and turn to him with that stony face softened by dreams and affection. He should lace those long, powerful fingers about Charles's wrist to tug him close for an embrace, a kiss, and he should say –
One more chapter! At least, I hope so. I'm at the point now where I just want it done because I've been screwing around with it long enough... but I also don't want to rush it. (Which, actually, I'm already doing. Argh!)
Chapter 16: Chapter 16
Charles started violently awake. His name sounded as if it had been spoken in his ear, and the phantom warmth of another form hovered in the air; all through his frame awareness shivered, an electric current coursing through him and suffusing him with life. Life lent motion and impulse direction; he hastened out of bed and to the window, which gazed out on empty moonlit lawns and the stands of walnut casting long shadows on the grass.
"I heard – " he said to himself, "I heard – "
The house had long settled into silence around him: when he strained his hearing to its utmost he heard nothing except the peculiar, full quiet of a building at peace. Charles's heartbeat seemed to project itself into that peace, pulsing thickly and knocking its fist against the gate of his ribcage. When he breathed, his breath rushed in his ears, loud as a hurricane; all his being waited, attuned to an absent voice and straining to catch the faintest whisper of it. Pushing open the window let in the cold, night's fingers insinuating its chill under Charles's shirt; half his shivering was for that, the other for the impossible clarity of the dream, the conviction that Erik had been by him, that he had called his name.
"Impossible," Charles told himself and the night. Reason had been chained by dreams and the late hour, and his mind had been open to the sweetest suggestions of fantasy; he had not needed sleep for such indulgences, he reminded himself sternly, for they came on him unlooked-for, in moments when he was least on his guard. They might manifest as he discussed Raven's plans to travel to Ireland to meet the family of a boy she had learned of in her last voyage, or the details of the probate with Tony and Miss Potts. Most perniciously they came while he reacquainted himself with the grounds of Xavier House, and almost infallibly whenever he was in the company of Miss Adler.
"It is pleasant today," Miss Adler had observed on the last occasion, as they sat on the terrace and watched as the gardeners gently disciplined the hedges of the labyrinth. Or, rather, Charles watched, for Miss Adler had fixed her unseeing gaze steadily upon him. The hedges were still winter-bare: the months of cold had not yet released their hold on the land, although the sun was warm enough to venture outside, and Miss Adler would not hear of further confinement indoors.
"I suspect," Miss Adler had said after a moment, "the sun does not sit so easily on you as it does on me."
Charles thought of Erik standing by the balustrade, and the image of him there, tall and slim, severe in his dark coat, was so acute he had to close his eyes against it.
"You should not fear what the future may be bring; you have resources and strength to meet it, and friends to help you where you lack them – if lack them you do."
Charles had wished to say something sharp, but the kindness she had shown him and the intimacy she claimed with him as Raven's companion had held his tongue.
Now, in the dead hours of the night, he had thought to have the hallways to himself. Xavier House had the quiet of a building in slumber, the peaceful spirits of dreams like a gentle atmosphere that settled about his shoulders and loosened the tightness of grief in his chest. The women's dreams had a quality of distance to them, in the ladies' quarters as they were, but to reach out and feel the soft, drowsy texture of them – Raven and Miss Adler so close, Angel and the girls in their own rooms – was no effort.
In the midst of that peace, heavy and dim as it was, Charles perceived the bright-burning flame of activity in the first-floor office that had become Tony's, for the managing of his business and the satisfying of the armies of attorneys and officials who came to inspect Charles, the will, and the property.
Where Tony's alertness glowed steadily, his face was drawn, pale with fatigue and the creeping sickness that had become too severe to ignore. He bent over his desk, lost in great swathes of paper that held the plans for some impossible new project. To hear Tony talk of it – a subject which interested him even more than the society of the neighborhood and the charms of its feminine inhabitants – the Americas had become a land of wonders, and, Charles thought with a laugh, the minds of Stark Industries were the magicians.
"Those imbeciles over at Hammer America would prefer to think otherwise," Tony said, looking up as Charles walked in.
The crank-lights, their old Xavier-Marko Mark III's traded out for Stark Industry batteries, hummed quietly in the background. In their steady light, Tony was very white, save where the purple shadows beneath his eyes marred the extraordinary pallor of his face. Tony Stark quiescent was a rara avis: Charles could summon only a few memories of a sleeping, peaceful Tony to him; in all the rest, even if Tony was still, as now, he coruscated with a restless energy that crept beyond the boundaries of his flesh. Most of those few memories involved dawn peering over the ancient spires of Oxford, and Tony's breath smelling of spirits.
Tony tapped his pen against the papers scattered in front of him. "I thought I would have the office to myself for some hours yet."
Drawing close, Charles perceived something of the designs, intricate and elegant in their tracery of black ink. Drafting paper lay close by Tony's elbow, written densely with ciphers and roughed-out diagrams, stained here and there with coffee. They seemed, from what Charles could gather, to revolve around a small engine powered by a battery far smaller than Charles had ever seen.
"I hope," he said, "I do not disturb your reflections."
"And I hope you don't feel you must ask permission for making use of your study," Tony said archly.
"You have rather made it your own." A model of the device, no larger than a human heart, sat by Tony's other elbow; Charles perceived it as he sat in the chair positioned across the desk. "Although," he continued, for this close Tony's exhaustion pulled at him as an inexorable tide pulls at the weakening sailor and draws him down into a last, breathless embrace, "although I should say you ought to make your bed your own, at this hour."
"And I could say the same," Tony replied. "What brings you down at this hour of the night? I would have thought Miss Potts and the barristers had run you ragged between them today."
Never had Charles suspected the government of being able to produce as much paper as had been placed before him that day. Much of it had to do with verifying the worth of the estate – Dr. Marko's stinginess had been kind in this one respect – and detailed explanations of the tenants, rents, crops, the expected income from the smallholders, the income of the parish (and the obligation of the master of Xavier House to see to the spiritual, as well as physical, nourishment of the flock in the form of a trustworthy figure to inhabit the rectory and give a few sermons on the occasions he could not prevail upon his curate to do it), and the numerous investments in foreign ventures that had seen returns in the space between Charles's exile from Xavier House and his reinstatement. In short Charles had never done so much reading for so little effect or pleasure and, when his eyes could bear no more close-set type and his ears could bear no more of the barrister's monotonous drone and the rote hum of his thoughts, he had fled.
"I find it miraculous you have time for your own work when the work of running Stark Industries must be Herculean," Charles said by way of answer. "Are you quite sure you are not a changeling?"
"I am as human as human can be," Tony said. "Where my nature does not suffice, however, I find that both gin and coffee are useful to augment my powers." He made a small noise of inspiration and scribbled something wildly in the margin of a schematic. When inspiration had exhausted itself, he set down his pen and looked up and said, with a seriousness Charles had rarely seen in him:
"You did not come down in the dead of night to talk about your day and my work, Charles."
Charles was forced to admit that he had not. Upon Tony's subsequent inquiry as to why he was haunting his study at three in the morning, Charles, haltingly, explained the dreams, the entire sequence of them, hearing the words falling from his lips with both the relief of a penitent who had longed desired to unburden himself of his crimes and a strange, disembodied humiliation. His injured telepathy was one thing, the mysticism of dreams quite another, and part of him shrank from the passion in his own voice, for Tony had, despite his own passions, never subscribed to the wilder mysticisms of the age.
"I hear him saying my name," Charles confessed. The words hung in the air, echoing like the ringing of a bell. "Tonight – I dreamed again. His voice is that of one on the edge of despair."
"Perhaps they aren't dreams." Tony leaned back in his chair; although he seemed to study the plans on his desk, his eyes looked through them, fixed on some other point entirely. "Perhaps he does call, and there are moments when you have forgotten to keep believing that your telepathy is gone."
"Belief does not work that way."
"With regard to the body, it does. According to Miss Potts and my doctors, overwork and the medicine I take for my condition are in league against me; I have perhaps six months left before I must consign myself to the status of invalid and spend my days under blankets, doing nothing more strenuous than lifting tea to my lips. If I were to admit my weakness and leave off my designs (both engineering-wise and companion-wise; I saw that look you gave me when I was speaking with Miss Salvadore and it was scarcely less scathing than the one she gave me), I would perhaps last a year. As you can see," he said with a gesture to the plans spread across his desk, "I have chosen to believe otherwise."
"You never told me what happened," Charles said, desirous to avoid considering the possibility that Tony had the right of it.
"Those seeking a career in industrial espionage will have a bright future; however, at least in the present instance, they did not count on me." The factory had made the magnetos, Tony's modification of the basic Faraday device, used in SI batteries; Tony himself had rushed into the building to rescue those workers trapped in the explosion. Something, some insidious combination of chemicals had insinuated itself into his body and begun to work at his heart with its slow-moving poison.
"I did not tell you that, about the poison just now," Tony said when Charles asked if the substance had been identified. He tapped his forehead and his smile took on a certain smugness, one Charles had become accustomed to seeing in lecture, when Tony would defy their professor's expectation of his inebriate student and furnish the correct answer to a problem. "Are you quite sure, Charles, that your telepathy is as incapacitated as you say it is?"
Charles shook his head, not to indicate the possibility that Tony could be correct, but to deny it.
What, then, Tony asked, drew him down here?
"I – " He stopped, and in the hiatus between thought and speech, revelation rushed upon him: I felt your wakefulness, your determination to see the last phase of this project carried out – for your own life is bound up in its completion, and Miss Potts and the doctors be damned. These were such words as he would give in explanation, and they were words only a telepath could speak.
When he attempted to communicate his joy to Tony, however, the peculiar numbness that attended every previous try at thought-sharing spread through him and he sat back, frustrated.
Tony was not to be so easily dismayed. With far more animation than Charles felt possible for the hour, and certainly far more than he himself was capable of in the face of such astonishment, Tony began to gesture his way through an explanation:
"When I learned of your telepathy, I of course had to learn something about it. (After all, what kind of scientist would I be if I merely accepted that you were a being who could read, transmit, and if called upon, alter, thoughts?) I learned in due course of the various theories of the properties and nature of telepathy, and some of what you yourself had written on the subject. You were a proponent of theories that held telepathy was, first, completely physiological and biological, and second, a phenomenon that could, should proper technology be developed, be assessed, studied, and known as well as any empiricist could desire. All your life you had grown used to – hearing? I have not your terminology for it; sensing, perceiving, if you prefer – the thoughts of others, yes? And even this interruption, as unexpected and painful as it was, could not rob you of that instinct: as your brain healed from whatever trauma it had suffered that night at Ironhill, it simply began doing what is in its deepest nature to do: to perceive. Shortly thereafter, it follows, you will be able to project thoughts deliberately; already I feel as if you've been whispering in my ear, very faintly, but I can still hear you. Or have you completely abandoned your theories?"
"That telepathy is a property of the body, rather than the soul?" Charles shook his head. "Of course not. Or, rather, I suppose they have been modified; I find I cannot hold them with the same conviction as before."
When Tony said nothing in reply, Charles continued: "When I realized that I had lost Erik, and that I was cut off from the world – I cannot describe that pain to you. You know something of being betrayed by your own body," here he indicated Tony's chest and the faltering heart within it, "and your mortal frame confronting you with new limitations. This was – this was loss, of the purest, cruelest kind; it was as though I had been robbed not only of a sense, or a limb, but rather as though something bracing the foundations of my self had been pulled away, and I stood on the edge of ruin."
"You were always the most hopeful one of us, Charles," Tony said, not unkindly. "Where was that hope then?"
"With Erik, I suppose. Dead, and yet not." Charles rubbed at his temple, the pressure of two fingers familiar and focusing. Now that he was aware of it again, Tony's concern lapped at him, warm and laced through with sadness like oil laced through water. Deep beneath, currents of meditation ran, plans for the immediate future, things that must be said.
"You ought to go and find out for sure," Tony said, free of irony, one of the few times Charles had heard him speak without his perverse humor coloring his words. "You won't rest easy until you know, either way; not knowing is not in your nature, Xavier, any more than it is in mine."
"The estate – " Charles began, without conviction.
"Miss Potts will look to it, and where her vigilance fails – not that it does – Miss Darkholme and myself will look to your interests." With an effort, Tony heaved himself up from his chair and came around the desk. Charles rose to meet him and embraced him, somewhat in gratitude and somewhat to give Tony a steady frame against which to brace himself.
"Go on, Charles," Tony said, quite somber now. "But, of course, you must come back; there is only so much paperwork I can manage."
Charles caught sight of Gwen, who minded the transfer of goods with a vigilant eye, checking off the inventory on her punch-cards. A few familiar faces, most belonging to men anxious to see their property loaded safely so they could return home, clustered around her or milled under the shelter of the station-house. Momentarily he considered approaching them and asking around for assistance in the form of transport; it was possible one of them might be meant to take a shipment up to Ironhill. Fear detained him from such a request, and the cursory skim of Gwen's memories, sparked by her annoyance that the removal of Mr. Lehnsherr from Ironhill meant additional paperwork.
He drew a cloak around himself, made of suggestions that those who would take notice of him should look aside to other things more important and, gathering his satchel and giving a skeptical eye to the integrity of his coat (which seemed insufficient to the bluster of a late March morning), began his trek up the hill.
The land fell away from him as he ascended, the dirt track frozen underfoot. His breaths billowed in clouds in the cold air and the world about him was still, locked in winter's embrace. Such sound as there was, the wind's busy fingers in the hedges and the leafless trees, only served to deepen the silence. He paused once to review his progress; the path had been lost in the twists and turns its makers had deemed necessary to an easy ascent. All around him the earth was bare and brown, empty, marked out by hedgerows and the snaking line of the steam-carriage tracks.
How many times had he walked this path in the few months of happiness granted to him? That first time he had come in darkness and storm, both frightened and elated at the new direction of his future; on other occasions he had hurried to the village on errands, eager for some variety in the routine of an isolated country life – and on some of those occasions he had hurried back, anxious to see Lehnsherr again, drawn thither as if he were the iron Lehnsherr so effortlessly commanded.
At last the standing-stone that marked the final stretch appeared. Charles passed it with quickening step, straining with mind and body both.
He felt Lehnsherr before he saw him, although he needed a moment to verify that the mind he perceived – burning with the sullen light of a fire banked, not the fierce brilliance which Charles could recall as clearly as if Lehnsherr stood in his very presence – did indeed belong to the one he sought. His breath came short, not entirely from the labor of the journey; and if his legs were weak, that weakness was not entirely from the fatigue of the day or the restless two days of preparation and travel that had preceded his arrival. Dropping his luggage, he hastened past the walled orchards, their pear and apple trees arthritic and forsaken in tall brown grass, and up to what remained of Ironhill.
The stately, ancient house stood no longer – or, if it stood, stood in ruins of masonry and wooden floors. Undaunted by the weather or the ravages of the fire, weeds had already begun to tenant the fallen stones and to encroach on the courtyard. Charles passed carefully through the piles of rubble that had once been the gateway to the courtyard and saw on one hand the first and second stories fallen into the kitchen, twisted masonry reaching for him like the hands of the doomed to a savior. The winter wind flickered fitfully through the yard, chasing dead leaves across the flags.
Reaching the far side of the house required a mountaineer. Some spars had been braced against the piles of stones, meant to assist those foolish enough to clamber about in such a treacherous place. Such foolish souls must have looked for survivors buried under the shattered bones of the house – or the dead, entombed in its bowels. Here and there he spied an object familiar to him, a fragment of vase from the front drawing-room, the broken globe from the study in which he passed many hours with Wanda and Pietro, books, a handkerchief that, by the monogram, had belonged to Anna.
He picked his way up to the summit, mindful of his footing, which was ever on the precipice of disaster as the stones shifted under him.
Lehnsherr stood beneath him, in a tangle of iron and the terrible, deafening metal called antipsionite. He was so unexpected, despite Charles having fastened onto his mind the instant he perceived it, that Charles quivered with the shock.
Even with his back to Charles, Charles would know that silhouette anywhere, the broad shoulders with determination written in the wide sweeps of muscle and bone, the narrow waist and long legs. He had only traced those beloved contours a few times in the flesh, far more in imagination and dreams, and dreams had been the cruelest. Memory supplied him with the sensation of Lehnsherr's rough fingers tracing his cheekbones and the ladder of his ribs, the muscled press of his thigh, and the longing to have that again overpowered him and would have pulled him under save for the darkness that hung about Lehnsherr like a shroud, so utterly alien a thing to associate with him Charles was taken aback.
Lehnsherr's thoughts ground in a slow, obsessive orbit around the object of his study, what had once been Logan's prison and the study connecting it to the now-fallen tower inhabited by Cerebro. Charles touched a careful finger to the text of those thoughts, following it as though following a line of script. Lehnsherr had never been one to regret, for regret implied an inability to effect change or redress, an impotence in the face of the past and future both. Remorse he had had for his transgressions against Logan, and much the same for his parents and his wife, lost on the other side of Schmidt's machinations; but his vengeance against Schmidt – that had paid for Logan and his family, and for Lehnsherr's own anger at being manipulated.
Charles's death had been the price of that vengeance, and that price he could not repay. As he stared at the grave in which his hopes and dreams (foolishness, Lehnsherr told himself, foolishness, to hope for such happiness), Lehnsherr could not decide if Charles dying had been a price too high for Schmidt's death, if it were a price he would refuse to pay, if the transaction were ever offered to him again. It was that which tormented him most, the possibility that, if God should present him with that same choice, the death of his most beloved for the death of his greatest enemy, he should consider the bargain a fair one.
Oh, my love, Charles thought.
A piece of masonry moved, shifted by the power of an invisible giant. Lehnsherr would come here on occasion to observe the creep of the seasons across the stones and to remember, and at times to look for things that were lost.
I am not lost, Charles sent, with all the force of his longing behind it. Turn and see.
Lehnsherr's shoulders straightened and the aristocratic head raised, the wind catching his hair and blowing it about his temples.
I am here, Charles thought as fiercely as he could, and saw the instant that Lehnsherr heard, the second in which a tentative flame caught its breath and flared bright.
Originally this was going to be the last chapter, but then I realized 1.) I was rushing things, and 2.) Erik absolutely would not make things easy. So over the past month I've been revising things and, actually, writing the last two chapters. I only just finished this one (as in, the no-longer-the-last chapter) tonight. Because that's how my brain rolls.
Chapter 17: Chapter 17
"Charles." Lehnsherr was staring, as much expression on his face as Charles had ever seen, and too much in it to decipher safely. What Charles permitted himself to see of Lehnsherr's mind roiled with fear and hope, and anger was there too, stoking Lehnsherr's temper to a fine heat.
Lehnsherr picked his way up the pile of rubble, metal scraps pushed away from his path by invisible hands, stones and fragments of mortar slipping beneath his boots. The afternoon light fell unkindly on him, on a face marked by still-healing skin and new scars, and a bitterness Charles had not perceived in the last few weeks of their intimacy although he had perceived it at the very beginning of their acquaintance.
"You are not a ghost," Lehnsherr said flatly, although he continued to stare at Charles as if unable to look his fill, "and Miss Frost does not have the ability to conjure memory so clearly."
"I am myself, and no illusion."
Lehnsherr closed his eyes and seemed to brace himself, as if against a blow unlooked-for. One hand hovered, arrested in the act of reaching out, until Lehnsherr lowered it again. When he opened his eyes once more, and once more master of himself, it was to catalogue Charles most comprehensively and without apparent passion. No piece of metal could be assessed more coolly, Charles thought, but all the same he basked in it.
"So you are," Lehnsherr concluded, with a sudden pulse of relief, so powerful it nearly swept Charles out of himself.
"I hadn't thought – " At last that pale gaze removed itself from Charles, fixing on the ruins and the road behind him. "I had thought you lost."
"I'd thought the same of you," Charles replied, to which Lehnsherr merely nodded and braced a foot against a piece of masonry.
"Wand and Pietro, Henry…" Charles began uncertainly.
"They are well, although not here." Lehnsherr's expression softened momentarily, relief and gratitude making the stony lines of his face pliable for a fleeting moment. Charles sighed, his own relief echoing Lehnsherr's, and nodded. Lehnsherr continued to stand as if frozen, gloves locked in his fingers, his expression inscrutable. Without his gift, Charles would not have perceived the slow, inexorable transition through confusion to gladness through to confusion again, and then into darker realms which, upon his beholding them, made Charles despair. As Lehnsherr's mood deepened, Charles wondered if he might lose his way altogether.
Charles had not formed an idea of what reception he might expect upon his arrival. In the town he had kept himself from searching out any thoughts or information on Lehnsherr, a deferral of painful truth if it should happen that Lehnsherr were not at Ironhill, or if worse things had befallen him. Now he could not decipher the text of Lehnsherr's mind, smudged and slurred as it was until all that Lehnsherr might feel – relief, love, anger, loss, Charles could hardly say what – had become illegible to him. It was, Charles thought, much as they had been together in the first days of their acquaintance, Lehnsherr distant and disdainful and his mind an unknown, inhospitable country.
"Well, since you are not an unhappy spirit haunting this forsaken ruin of place, you should explain yourself," Lehnsherr said at last with one of his ironic half-bows, as though seeking to snare Charles's gaze with his own. "Starting with why you chose today to manifest yourself."
"That story is long," Charles said, glancing up at the dimming sky, "and the day draws short. Is there a place, perhaps in Field, where we might go to talk?"
"Not Field," Lehnsherr said with his old decisiveness and a flash of anger. "But yes, there is a place."
"Then I should be glad to accompany you, if you would permit it." For a moment, he feared Lehnsherr would not permit it, but at length Lehnsherr bowed his head in something like grudging acquiescence.
"Very well then," Lehnsherr said gruffly, and turned to the faint path leading down the hill to where a saddled horse browsed in the hedgerow. Lehnsherr offered Charles one of his habitual ironically mocking smiles and indicated the horse.
"My lodgings now, such as they are, lie above five miles from here, and I've stayed late enough as it is. Mrs. Hughes will be wondering where I've gotten to, or if the devil hasn't taken me already. The poor animal will have to bear us two; you are tired from your journey, and the road is difficult at night."
When the former family had not been furnished with sons, Avalon had served as a lodge of sorts, a retreat whose isolation afforded as much peace as its inhabitants might stand; and, when they desired otherwise, ample game to pursue for entertainment. As they had come to the front door, Charles saw that the house was old, of greater antiquity than Ironhill itself; the old family, he decided, must have relegated Avalon to a distant second in the ranking of the family properties in the area. The status of the house relative to Ironhill was readily apparent in its Spartan furnishings, the single lamp that lit the entryway and the narrow hall that permitted only single-file passage through to the drawing-room in which Charles and Lehnsherr now sat.
Anna, with the competence and grace that was part of her, brought the lights for the drawing-room and, upon a second visitation, a silver tray with two glasses and a decanter and a plate of sandwiches. Lehnsherr ignored her curtsey and Charles's murmur of thanks, and Anna's quietly heartfelt "I am truly glad to see you again, Mr. Xavier," in favor of frowning into the fireplace over the angles of his steepled fingers.
"Shall I bring the children through?" Anna asked, hesitating at the threshold of the door.
"Not tonight," Lehnsherr snapped. "I'm in no mood for touching reunions, if it's all the same. And certainly not in the mood for tears."
Anna departed wordlessly and the room fell into silence and half-gloom. Charles held himself within his own mind as much as he could, although the slow churn of passion within Lehnsherr came to him like the sound of a distant storm, coming closer and ready to break over him.
Lehnsherr ached with uncertainty, which Charles did not expect: Erik Lehnsherr of Ironhill had always been swiftly decisive, first the determination of his course of action and then in his pursuit of it. While he had known regret – his failure to protect Logan, the danger posed to his family and children – he was equally determined to make amends for his transgressions, and to erase them by any means possible, whether by the sheltering of a creature he had wronged or the exaction of vengeance. To sit and cast about helplessly for words – to find himself snared by competing impulses of love, anger, and fear – was antithetical to his nature. The uncertainty, Charles divined, had been born of shock, Charles's advent into a world that Lehnsherr had decided Charles could never be part of again.
The drawing-room at Avalon grew dark early, with its windows facing north and the formidable wall of an incline that led down to where the house hid in the shadows of the forest. Close to the house the few ragged trees were in fact apple, the now-wild descendants of tamer forebears; as the slope graduated upward, they melded with beech and oaks of venerable age, woven together by undergrowth. Charles, looking out the window, looked into a darkening wall as the sun slid down behind the hill. The silence had also settled, nearly as dark and impenetrable and Lehnsherr stared at anything other than Charles.
Inside the fire in the hearth did little to dispel the gloom. No crank-light sat in its corner, and the candles in the sconces were wax and lit by real flames that smoked pungently. At Lehnsherr's elbow sat a gas lamp, the wick trimmed and set low so the light hovered at the edges of his scars. One, still vividly pink, traced a line from nostril to lip; another at his temple had twisted where flesh had torn apart and the doctor's needle had clumsily stitched it together again.
Lehnsherr, of course, caught him looking.
"I am a sight, am I not?" Lehnsherr said with a derisive curl of his lip.
"A sight I feared not seeing again," Charles replied.
Lehnsherr started at that. Then his habitual irritation subsumed the surprise that had, however briefly, overspread his face and he said, "I am not how you remember me, I suppose."
"Dearer than I thought possible."
"Infuriating." The word was uttered with something like fondness. With a gesture, Lehnsherr summoned two wine glasses from their tray on the buffet. One settled at Charles's side, and when Charles took it up he saw the glass was not so clear, the engraving on the iron banding absent. Lehnsherr must have taken notice of some expression on his face, for he said, "I am not accustomed to receiving visitors here; the appurtenances of this place are not of the standard you may recall from Ironhill. All of those things, of course, were lost. What little remains I sold or gave away."
Pain had kept him close companionship; that much was clear, even without the awareness of it spilling from Lehnsherr as if from a mortal wound. Charles set his wine down untouched. "You saved far more important things that night," he said quietly. "Your children. Henry."
"You saved them," Lehnsherr corrected. "I sought – I sought only to destroy, and that I accomplished well enough."
"If you had not done what you did, none of them would have been safe."
That had been another vision that had visited Charles in the night: Schmidt surviving and triumphant, seeking out Henry and the children and taking them for his own, building another school like Shawcross with a nightmare Essex as his headmaster. What Henry's abilities might avail against Schmidt's, Charles could not say; but the young doctor's good nature and timidity ranged against the ruthless cruelty Charles had perceived in Schmidt's mind that night – no. Charles recalled himself to the present with a reminder that Schmidt had died; his memory of that night had not failed him in that regard.
Lehnsherr said nothing to this. It was an indisputable point – or, rather, reason could not dispute it, for Lehnsherr knew Schmidt's predatory nature better than Charles did himself, and knew that only his life stood between his children and the suffering to which they would be subjected. Passion, though, was quite another creature; allied with conviction it had bound chains of regret about Lehnsherr, I should have taken them – taken them all – and fled, and I would not have lost that which was dearest to me, no less adamantine for all that they had been forged of illusion.
"You have told me nothing of yourself," Lehnsherr said presently. He set his glass down, untouched. "I cannot – I cannot say how glad I was to see your face today, when I believed it should never happen. But it's strange to me; I hadn't thought to see you again."
I believed you dead ran silently beneath the words, but heartfelt enough that Charles knew he'd been meant to be heard, and meant to overhear the despair and fury, paradoxical as they were.
"Logan – that is, the changeling – repaid my kindness to him and rescued me from the fire." Charles's mind still recoiled from that terrible, timeless period of shadow and pain and the silence that had inhabited his head. He gave the details of that period in the barest terms possible, although he lingered warmly on Raven and Miss Adler, and the discovery that Miss Teak and the girl who had been his ally and companion were one and the same. Then he continued on to the intelligence of Dr. Marko's death and Mr. Stark's advocacy on Charles's behalf, and Charles's hopes, now that he was re-established in the world, of again beginning the work they had been forced to abandon.
"I am glad you found safe harbor," Lehnsherr said, the words tight in his throat, and Charles said, "I am as well. I was fortunate."
"You were," Lehnsherr agreed. He swallowed half his drink and frowned. "So I wonder why you test fortune by coming back here." The look Lehnsherr slanted him was far from kind, and the anger and grief behind it chafed against the already-raw skin of Charles's power.
"I thought you dead, Charles, because if you were alive I thought surely you would have returned." To me, Lehnsherr said and did not say, and Charles had to close his eyes against the knowledge of his own cowardice.
"There is one thing," he said haltingly, "I have not told you, and that is, until very recently I had thought… I had thought my abilities to be burned out of me."
This intelligence brought Lehnsherr back to him, his eyes wide and a sudden alertness refining the tension on his body. "I heard you," Lehnsherr said after a moment of difficult silence. "At Ironhill, I heard you," he indicated his temple, "as I had not heard you for so very long."
"Until a few days ago – perhaps, even until today – you would not have heard me, no matter how desperately I called out to you." Charles studied his own hands, marveling at the strangeness of them, interlaced over his lap. "My telepathy was," he paused, temporizing, "disabled, so to speak."
"How did that happen to you?" Lehnsherr asked. When Charles failed to answer, Lehnsherr snapped, "How, d—n you?"
"I cannot," Charles began to hedge, but a terrible glare from Lehnsherr brought him up short. "I was the one who helped you kill Schmidt that night. I held him back from striking you – I smothered the power that would have made him invulnerable to you – and in doing so – there are no words for it, Erik. No one can say for sure, but I believe the – difficulty of that damaged my abilities."
"My God," Lehnsherr muttered. "Charles."
"My last memory of half the house collapsing on you." It took no effort to bring up that moment, nightmarish as it was; as he spoke, Charles wondered if it had not been the shock of seeing Lehnsherr buried under that slurry of rock that had pushed him past the limits of his endurance. "If I'd had my abilities, the first thing I would have done was seek you out – but when I woke, the world was strange and silent. I more than half believed you dead. It was only through the persuasion of certain clear-sighted individuals that I began to think my power not gone from me entirely."
"I am glad, Charles," Lehnsherr said, with more warmth, very nearly, than Charles had ever heard in him.
"I had," he paused, wondering if Lehnsherr should be told; obligation said he should, "I had dreamed of you at nights – that I heard your voice, speaking with such pain and longing it broke my heart. Looking back, I believe I did not dream, but rather heard you as if you were calling to me."
"So I did," Lehnsherr confessed. "Many times." And then, as swiftly as it had come, the warmth vanished into Lehnsherr's habitual reserve. "I suppose, now you've come to verify my continued existence, you'll return again to your friends."
"I thought myself with a friend. You are no longer alone, you know," Charles said. Lehnsherr shot him a look heavy with longing and disbelief; Charles kept on, saying, "I have returned, and while I cannot compel you to come with me – I could, my friend, but I would not – I would know… I would know what became of you between that night and now, and why you would stay chained to this place."
"Can not you look?" Lehnsherr said, not without irony.
"I promised, some time ago, not to do such a thing."
Lehnsherr sighed heavily, but elected not to remind Charles of that long-broken promise and the intimacy it had, improbably, begun between them. He drank from his glass and seemed to take no courage from it. In the candlelight the wine was dark, opaque as poison.
"For years I had desired only two things: to see Schmidt's death and to see my family safe. The former secured the latter, but I found myself – I had thought I would be content with Schmidt's death, whatever obstacles presented themselves, even if my own death were the necessary price to win it. As I lay in the ruins of my home, listening to the humans moving the stones to reach me, I realized two things: that the bright presence I had become used to over months of acquaintance and intimacy had vanished; and that I wished nearly as much for its return as the knowledge that my children were safe.
"My wounds required nearly a week to heal enough that I was capable of giving orders and seeking out my children and Dr. McCoy: I had inhaled much smoke, which had shredded my voice, and the palms of my hands had burned badly enough that to hold a pen was agony. There had been a fire, begun, Mr. Bates the innkeeper informed me, when a spark had caught in the carpets and draperies of the drawing-room. Doubtless the wind-worker contributed, but the villagers did not seem to know that changelings had been involved; they must have suspected it, for the ruins have been considered a place of ill-omen ever since, and reports still circulate about unearthly lights and noises that disturbed an otherwise peaceful night. At any rate, the Fielders were too practical at the moment to indulge in superstition: they put out the fire, rescued me and installed me in the inn down at Field.
"They told me that they had seen Dr. McCoy and the children racing across the fields, heading for the road to York; messengers reached them at the home of one of Dr. McCoy's colleagues. Of Miss Frost's presence they made no mention. All the servants were accounted for – save yourself." He paused, tracing a finger across the rim of his glass. "Such men as could be spared returned to look for you and to clean up the wreckage, but they found no trace of you. None of them ran afoul of the changeling; I know now the reason why." Lehnsherr stopped, tapping the armrest of his chair and seeming disinclined to say more.
"But you located Henry, the children…"
"A few days later, yes; Dr. McCoy returned with them."
"Is Henry here now?" He had no sense of the young doctor being in the house, but was still uncertain of his telepathy.
"I sent him to Berlin. Schmidt had records there, and as poor a tool as Dr. McCoy is, he could obtain such information as needs to be destroyed." A smile, utterly without joy, curled Lehnsherr's lip. "That may exorcise the last of the influence Schmidt had on him; at least, no scholar will bumble across secrets best left unsaid or unwritten."
It was plain by the tenor of Lehnsherr's thoughts that he spoke of Cerebro and the peculiar telepathy-blocking metal, the antipsionite. Charles held back a sigh of relief at the thought of less of that in the world.
"Not long after it was clear I would mend, however imperfectly (here Lehnsherr gestured to the marks on his face, and touched a thumb to the scar over his lip), the good people of Field suggested that I… remove myself from their presence. I suppose it was only a matter of time before they decided a changeling landlord and his children would be too much trouble, even if the cause of that trouble itself had met its end. So I sent messages to Dr. McCoy, as I have told you, asking him to bring the children and himself to Avalon.
"And so it is that we are here now, in this place." Lehnsherr gestured to their gloomy surroundings and the night beyond it. "A sad ending to the tale, I suppose."
"No ending at all," Charles said earnestly. "If you were to come with me – indeed, Erik, you must know you are still more than welcome, regardless of what has passed since that night. You are – " Desired, he wished to say, and longed-for.
"I fear yes." Lehnsherr steepled his fingers underneath his chin, the same long, elegant fingers that had touched Charles so sweetly months ago. "You see, after being so kindly evicted from my own property by the good people of Field, and in your absence, I have had time to reflect and to form my own resolutions. They were long in abeyance, but now with Schmidt gone, I can put them into action."
"What are those?" Fear coiled about him, tightening when, finally, Lehnherr's pale-fire gaze fastened on him.
"To begin where Schmidt left off, and to continue on the straight path where he went astray," Lehnsherr said. "I told you that I shared Schmidt's vision of changeling primacy, even if I loathed him for his methods and how he came to have power over me. I still do share it." He leaned forward, and fixed Charles with a gaze so painfully desperate it should have swayed Charles from all his long-cherished beliefs, and a small voice suggested that whatever his convictions, Charles ought to abandon them and follow Erik's instead. With an effort he shook off the impulse and rallied himself and said:
"I had not previously thought you a fool, Erik Lehnsherr, but I am more than willing to correct my mistake, if I must."
"It amazes me," Lehnsherr said with subdued passion, "how you insist that a rational evaluation of the world and how things ought to be is foolish." Here he paused (they were in the cramped, dark study; there was no crank-light to light the room, only a dying fire, and evening had drawn down the shadows so all Charles could perceive were the tumult of his thoughts, and something of the pain on his face) and, after a moment of difficulty said, "Part of me, still, wishes to believe you."
"Then believe me."
Lehnsherr said nothing to this, but merely shook his head.
At length, he began:
"One of the first times we spoke, I asked you if you would concede to your employer the right to have his opinions – namely that, if he believed peace would not be possible for him, you would at least refrain from contesting that."
"And at the time," Charles said with a smile, "I did not agree. I have not wavered in my belief since then."
"Of course you haven't," Lehnsherr said with his usual ironical expression. "I suppose to expect otherwise would have been to expect a miracle. And so you must understand that I myself have not wavered in my belief."
"And what good does that belief bring you?" Charles asked. "As far as I can see, it will bring you only solitude and strife and pain."
"I am well familiar with those," Lehnsherr said dismissively. "Indeed, I am far more comfortable with them, particularly when the other option is tolerating the abuses of humanity. And as difficult as my path may be, it will be for the best – for the betterment of our people."
"And I tell you we both of us are part of the human world. We were born to human parents, raised with other human children. You married a human woman." Charles, in a different world, one still inhabited by his father and mother, might have as well. "You run a business which, I daresay, employs mostly humans and has dealings with them." He took a breath; in that space, Lehnsherr attempted to interpose, but Charles rode over him. "If it were not for one such human, I might not stand before you today; he it was who protected my interests against my stepfather's family, and who – far more importantly – convinced me my abilities were returning, and that I ought to look for you."
Lehnsherr remained in festering silence for a moment. His glass turned absently in the air. When he seemed inclined to say nothing, Charles continued:
"What of your children? Surely you owe them a life without the contention and hardships you are so keen to take upon yourself."
"And so they will have it; that peace will be my sacrifice." After a pause Charles did not dare interrupt, although he longed to, Lehnsherr said, "This new venture of yours you were telling me about… You intend to run it as you intended to run its stillborn sibling."
"My estate will support it," Charles said, "and once I establish it, I expect to supplement my contribution with donations from those as can afford to make them. But yes, the same curriculum, the same goal of teaching changeling-children about the blessings and responsibilities of their gifts… I haven't wavered in that." He paused and then, greatly daring, added, "I should like to have other older changelings alongside me, whose vision can match my own."
Lehnsherr made a soft, derisive noise but otherwise ignored that last. "You have vowed to take in changelings in need of sanctuary and teaching?" He leaned forward, oddly anxious for the first time in their discourse.
"Of course I have," Charles said, bridling somewhat. "And as I have said, there is always a place for – "
"It's settled, then: you shall stay here tonight – it is too dark to send you on the long road back to Field; you shall stay here in such accommodations as I can give you. Then I will bring Wanda and Pietro to you, tomorrow fortnight," Lehnsherr said. He flowed to his feet, absently straightening his coat; the dying fire caught the grey of his eyes and the harsh curve of a cheekbone, and illuminated the few small scars there. "They, at least, may know peace even if I may not."
"You do not mean to stay, then," Charles said, the realization coming to him, pressed along by the steely cast of Lehnsherr's determination.
"Indeed," Lehnsherr said, and did not seem inclined to speak further.
"They will grieve to be parted from you," Charles said. "I will. I do."
"Such is the way of things. What shape my trials will take, I know not; if I believed in God, I would pray to him to reveal them to me, that I might be better prepared for what I must undergo. But make no mistake, Charles," his voice caressed Charles's name, a lingering touch before letting go, "I will undertake them. I will not be shackled any longer."
"This is your resolve, then? To pit yourself against the world?" Charles stood – it was either that or crane his head uncomfortably back to catch Lehnsherr's gaze, which the man had fixed steadily at some point beyond Charles's sight. "The last time you sought that, a living, feeling creature was sacrificed to the goal of changeling superiority. Would you become that which you most hate – another Schmidt?"
"Never that," Lehnsherr growled.
"In time you will," Charles promised, stepping closer. Lehnsherr's pale eyes glittered furiously, his mouth thin to keep back what Charles knew would be cruel words if they were spoken. "In time, those things you most abhorred about Schmidt will be those which you will feel compelled to embrace if you are to succeed. Or have you forgotten that Schmidt and Essex were also changelings, and that between them they have done the two of us more harm than any human?"
"Knowledge of the future is another gift of yours, is it?" Lehnsherr asked with deep sarcasm.
"A lady of my acquaintance does have that gift, but I don't require it to see the obvious conclusion," Charles replied. "And I will not teach my students only to bring them into a world in which changelings find their only option to defend themselves against humans is violence."
The iron poker quivered spasmodically in its holder by the hearth, and the wall-sconces moaned. Wetness spilled over Charles's hand; looking down, he saw the iron-bound cup crumpled in on itself, wine glittering dully on the tabletop and drying on his skin.
"That has been the only option for our people," Lehnsherr said, his face stony but all of him beneath roiling with passion. "Do not you have enough evidence of this? Humans are not always restrained by the laws put in place to defend the weak; they prey on difference, and the more defenseless their prey, the more rapacious they are in their pursuit of it. If I must range myself against them on my own, I will. I am far from weak."
"You would be better off with friends," Charles said, half-wanting to flinch under the battering of Lehnsherr's fury and sensing that the fury was half for the humans and half for the thwarted desire of having Charles with him. "And I will always remain your friend, but I cannot go with you."
"So be it," Lehnsherr said.
Distantly a bell rang, loud in the oppressive silence that had descended. Lehnsherr had armored himself most effectively against Charles, who ached to draw close and to reach into that fortress of a mind and beg. Perhaps, he thought, if Lehnsherr saw the truth of his own soul he would relent; surely, surely where words failed pure thought and emotion might win the day. The grim set to Lehnsherr's mouth, his shoulders braced as though to support the weight of some impossible armor, said that any psychical intrusion should be greeted only with more anger, and should only serve to reaffirm him in his purpose, and so, against all his desires, Charles kept his yearning to himself.
Anna manifested herself in the dark of the hallway, her pale face aglow in the candlelight. Perceiving her, Lehnsherr gave orders for Charles to be shown to his room, and a curt reminder for Anna to direct Branson to prepare the chaise against Charles's early departure in the morning.
"There is no reason for us to part like this," Charles said, hesitating at the threshold. Lehnsherr had turned to face the dying fire, arms crossed over his chest. Such light as there was lit what was rapidly becoming a stranger's face – the face of the man Charles had met on that late spring day, with his past still chasing him.
"I also told you, some time ago, that few of us could be so easily unchained from our histories as you." When Charles opened his mouth to contest this, for he had much in his past that fettered him still, Lehnsherr gestured impatiently. "Allow a captive the dignity of knowing himself to be captive, Charles, and be done, for God's sake."
"Then the captive ought to allow a liberator to give him the key, at least," Charles said. "Good night, Mr. Lehnsherr."
To Charles's well-wishes, Lehnsherr made no response. Without any further attempt at speech, Charles followed Anna and the beacon of her candle down the hall.
"He means to let most of the rest of the household go," Anna said, voice carefully lowered. Her breath scarce disturbed the flame in her hand. "I, William, and Mrs. Patmore are to stay on. He has had his solicitor draw up the papers to transfer leadership of his company to other hands, although – as I understand it – he will still retain much of the revenue from it. He's to head to Germany in two weeks, for what I cannot say."
"What of Dr. McCoy?" The walk was short, up a set of narrow stairs and down a narrow hall, and they stood now in front of Charles's room. It gaped emptily behind the open door. "Could you send a message to him? I wish him to know that there will be a place for him with me, if he desires it." Henry might well come; Lehnsherr's schemes were not for him, and Charles sensed Lehnsherr would quickly tire of Henry's determined pacifism.
"Of course, Mr. Xavier. If you give it to me tomorrow before you leave, I will see Branson gets it; he can post it when he takes you into Field." Anna offered him a tremulous smile. "I am sorry you could not talk him out of this, although not surprised."
"There's a fortnight yet," Charles said, striving for some hope. "Perhaps all will yet be well."
In his room and a dark made only more comprehensive by the rushlight on the table by his bed, Charles looked for hope. He searched the invisible ceiling for it, and felt the night press hard upon him, and found it not at all.
This is like the slowest-written 80,000-word fic in existence. Thank you to everyone for your incredible patience and lovely words as this pokes its way to the end <3
Chapter 18: Chapter 18
Charles left that morning without fanfare and without Lehnsherr waking to see him off. He had managed only a fitful sleep marked by dreams in which he had knelt at Lehnsherr's feet, hands clasped on his knees like a supplicant, and poured into him all the visions he had for their mutual future, all the arguments against the path Lehnsherr had chosen, and the conviction that their truest strength lay in their mutual support rather than their separation.
Even if you do not wish to be with me again, we may yet live together, he said in his dream, and Lehnsherr had rested his hands on Charles's face, his fingers tracing the lines of his cheekbones, and drawn him up into a kiss that said he did wish it after all. Beyond that point, the dream dissolved into bliss and Erik's lovely body stretched out atop his. On the other side of a long night, Charles did not know whether to blush at the recollection or despair of it.
The children also remained in bed – "Mr. Lehnsherr prefers them to wait until they go to stay with you; he doesn't want hysterics when you must leave again so soon," Anna reported when Charles asked after the possibility of seeing Pietro and Wanda – but Charles sent a small tendril of warmth to them, not to wake but to soothe. He thought of reaching out to Lehnsherr, that he might one last time communicate his affection, his pain, and his desire, although such a gesture would perhaps be greeted with Lehnsherr's characteristic suspicion. Despite that, he found the temptation impossible to resist, and hoped Lehnsherr might also perceive the truth of how much Charles feared for him and wished him what peace he could find, and the quiet hope that such peace might be found with him.
Silence answered his own silence, and Charles departed for Field and the station in Avalon's grey dawnlight.
And so it was that, after another journey, Charles discovered himself to be back at Xavier House, Raven's cloud of golden hair brushing his cheek as she embraced him. Miss Adler greeted him with somewhat more reserve but almost as much gladness. He tried not to let himself think about what he had truly desired for his homecoming: introducing Erik to Raven and Miss Adler, and – after allowing Erik a chance to recover from sudden exposure to Raven's exuberance – Tony. They would walk the grounds as Charles expanded on his dreams for the school, for the future, for their future, and Erik would – slowly, with all due caution – come to see Xavier House as his home.
"Charles?" Raven asked, slipping her arm through his and rather skillfully turning him to the stairsteps and the south garden, away from the house and the feminine inquisition waiting therein. "Charles, you're sad."
It was projection, he realized, and did what he could to draw his emotions back within himself. Still, the damage had been done; Raven's face darkened with revelation and her grip on his arm tightened. "Charles," she said quietly, "surely he was not – "
"No, no he is alive and whole, if not precisely well," Charles told her. Raven leaned against him, her relief soft along the edges of his mind. "I fear, though, he has decided against our dream." Against me, he thought, but hadn't courage enough to voice that.
"Oh, Charles," Raven said, despairing and fond at once, "that's your dream. You're too peaceful, you know, for some of us."
Perhaps you should go with him. Charles kept that thought back as well. Held inside him, the words burned like a slow-working poison. They stung the throat where they crowded together until he could rally himself sufficiently to the task of soothing them.
"What do you wish, Raven?" he asked when he could trust himself to speak again.
"To be known for what I am – known, but not feared." Her fingers tightened around his where they laced together. "I know what you want to do here, Charles, and it is laudable.. . but has it occurred to you what will become of your children once they leave this place? You can't keep them here forever, although I suspect part of you wishes you could. They must make their own way, as I did; you cannot keep them safe."
"The thought of you in danger was a torment to me," he said to Raven, perhaps more forcefully than he should. Raven's eyes widened, flickering to their burnished gold and her skin underneath the fine lawn dress melted into the blue of her natural form. "When I could not find you after I escaped from Essex myself and I had no sense of you in the world, I feared the worst."
"Yet I did survive," she pointed out dryly. "I could not let myself grow to resent you, if I'd let you keep me caged like Essex."
Charles stopped, frozen with the shock of her words. Raven turned to face him, taking his free hand in hers and smiling her sad, alien smile. "I don't mean it like that," she said quickly, laying a kiss to the back of his wrist. Her lips were very warm, supple skin lined with pink. "You never would have been cruel to me knowingly. But Charles… you can't keep all of us from hurt by locking us up in a fortress. I know you wish you could, and that your good nature, not any ill-will, is the source of that desire; all the same, you know what they say about good intentions, and would it not be better to teach your students and create a world which they have no need to fear, and which they can enter proudly, as what they are?"
"In time humans will learn not to fear us," Charles said, glad to hear his voice regain its steadiness as he balanced himself on the rock of his conviction. "Already the light of science has illuminated much that was dark and a cause for fear, and I have no doubt that soon – "
"Not soon enough for some of us, and it were better that we present them with the truth of ourselves, not hide until they decide not to fear us anymore."
"But violence, confrontation… I have a feeling that what Erik – Mr. Lehnsherr – intends is not strictly within the bounds of law."
"I had to do much that was not strictly within the bounds of law to survive," Raven told him. "I won't burden you with those tales, not now," and Charles perceived that part of her did not trust him with such knowledge, "but I will say that only Mr. Lehnsherr knows how best to forge a place for himself in our world, which allows us precious little place as it is, to be what we were born to be." She sighed. "I wish you could understand the difference between living as a changeling and living as a changeling pretending to be human."
"You forget that I was not completely virtuous," Charles snapped, provoked. "I had to trick my way into school, you know; I had no hope of sponsorship at Oxford, and certainly no assistance from my step-father. It was either use my telepathy to make a place for myself there, against the laws of the land and my own conscience, or admit defeat."
"Then work to change those laws." Raven had backed a few steps away down the gravel path. Above them the sky was blue, not the richness of her scales, and the flowers had begun their first tentative blooming. "Create a space out there that might, one day, be as safe as what you seek to make here."
"I could canvass against the elections," Charles mused. "The Commons has gained much in the past few years; there have been a few changelings in Parliament, thanks to the reforms, although their presence was due to political necessity and not our monarch's enlightened attitudes."
"That is a place to start, and I can hear you thinking now," Raven said fondly. "I suppose when you go to Westminster you will not permit your sister to remain in the countryside, playing schoolmistress."
"Even if I would, I can't believe you would permit it yourself." Charles essayed a small smile, which Raven returned, much to his relief.
"I had thought… you need students for your school. I need to travel and be out doing. I have perfected the art of finding changelings in need of sanctuary, you know."
Ororo, Jean, Armando, Angel; of course she had. Charles himself, Charles supposed, when she had stumbled on him in the dead of night.
"Despite what you have told me, and despite knowing how wrong it would be to keep you from your desires, I wish you would not go," Charles confessed. They had begun to walk again, Raven's wrap trailing behind her in the breeze. Below them, the hedge maze sloped downhill to the broad skirts of the lawn, the stream, and then the fields and forests beyond. "I feel as though I've just found you, and were you to leave, it might be many more years before we found each other again."
"You cannot tame everything to your hand, Charles," Raven told him, although not unkindly, "nor should you try."
Eventually the freshening breeze drove them inside to a flurry of questions – mostly deflected by Raven – and Tony's inquiries after his journey and its success. Charles put those off as best he could and begged to be left to solitude after the exertions of the trip. Something of his desperation must have communicated itself to Tony, for – wholly uncharacteristically, and without the pointed grumbling of Miss Potts – he let the matter drop and returned to his work.
The evening bled into night and Charles, restless from a surfeit of disappointment and still meditating Raven's words, found himself unable to find his peace. He abandoned the search long after darkness pressed against the windows and betook himself and a candle down to the library – his library, he thought with a smile, the other one being papered over with Tony's work. Once the crank-light had started up, its light falling across familiar furniture and books (and it was here, he remembered, that a young boy watched water from a broken vase soaking into the carpet and listened to the taunts of his step-brother), he took pen and paper in hand and began to write.
My dearest friend,
I grieve that we parted on such terms as we did two days ago.
The most painful lessons are, at times, those most necessary to be learned. My lesson, the one all my years and the cruelty done to me could not beat into me, has been the tragedy that attends believing I, a telepath, ought to (and do) know others better than they themselves. Unless perhaps I insinuate myself so deeply into your memory that I become you – a question whose possibility I leave to the philosophers – I cannot now know, or ever know, what it was like to pass through your life per te ipsum. I still must observe your pain, loss, and love through my own eyes and evaluate it against my own experience. Although I feel I know you better than any living creature, I realize I cannot know you at all, and I cannot speak for you. Indeed, considering you are the most perplexing, unknowable man I have ever met, I am forced to wonder at my hubris in speaking to you the way I did.
As I write this, late at night on the few scraps of paper I have unearthed in my study (Tony has commandeered all my paper for his plans), I know this revelation comes untimely. I know too that soon you will leave and go to regions where I cannot follow.
Despite my gloomy thoughts, I have a strange comfort. Do you want to know the source of it?
It is this: Two souls in sympathy with each other cannot be parted.
Your ruthless logic and my empiricism say such sentiment – or sentimentality – is fit only for the pages of novels or the ramblings of those pseudoscientists whose "theories" clutter the bookstores and fill the salons and drawing-rooms with the latest alchemical claptrap. Yet whatever part of me has been tempered (yes, I do use that word although you probably think me inflexible as ever) – whatever part of me has been tempered believes, although my waking, rational self can but rarely admit to it, that I should always know that you are in the world, and I should feel your departure from it. I may not perceive you with the inward eye or ear of my telepathy, but still, I will know you are here in this existence with me. This is not as much comfort as one would think, but I have solace in it nonetheless. Before you pass beyond my hearing, I beg only one thing of you, for the remembrance of any service I have done for you and your family: to bring Pietro and Wanda here yourself, and not to deputize a servant to cart them to a strange place far from all they know. Although they may know me, they will find me much changed from their academical Herr Professor; they will not know me as the owner of Xavier House and a young man with rather more on his mind than their Keats and their butterfly specimens. I do not ask that you abandon your resolve, or that you stay any longer than you deem desirable, only that you do this good office for your children before you depart on the road you have chosen – and for me, if I remain in your estimation,
Your loving friend,
12 April 1835
* * *
A week passed as if on wings. Where Charles had expected only the plodding feet of disappointment, he found instead a chaos of more paper and a procession of lawyers. Raven, wise bird, had vanished back to the farm with Angel, Jean, and Armando for the purposes of visiting Logan and beginning the slow process of moving such goods as Raven deemed useful to Xavier House.
One day Charles found himself drawn thence, passing through the gates to early spring birdsong. Ravenswood's close wrapping around him all warmth and cheerful clutter. He stood on the flags quite near to where he must have fallen that night Logan had brought him to this place and meditated on the exterior of the house.
As if summoned by his thoughts, Logan appeared around the corner of the barn, stub of a cigar clenched in his teeth. He stumped over to Charles, moving with the wary grace of an animal too-long primed to attack or flee, although the smile curving his lips, exposing the canines, could pass for friendly.
"Mr. Xavier of Westchester, is it?" Logan said, more tease than honorific.
"It is," Charles said, with a gravity somewhat lessened by his own smile. "I hope you've been well, Logan."
"Keeping out of trouble. Sarah needs help with the barn, and I seem to remember learning how to fix things." Logan inspected his hands, large blunt things that they were, and dangerous-looking even without the claws. Dirt lay under the nails and edged the callused fingertips, a dusting of dried blood across his knuckles. Logan caught him looking and said, "Barked myself on something; healed over before it could do much more than trickle."
Charles nodded, although he said nothing. Logan let the silence sit, predictably enough , and chewed his cigar.
"I came for you, in truth," Charles said when the quiet threatened to become oppressive. "I wished to ask you something."
"Ask away," Logan growled around his cigar. "Worst I could do is not answer."
"You know I am moving to my family's house," Charles began; Logan rolled his eyes, a silent of course I know, you idiot; get on with it. "Raven and the others will be coming with me, Raven before she leaves to find children for the school, and the others to become teachers or students. I wanted to know what you wish to do."
He had formed a number of tentative resolutions regarding Logan, until further reflection on his conversation with Raven convinced him that Logan ought to be the captain of his own future. In consequence, the nature of those resolutions had changed into steps he himself might take to advance Logan on his chosen course, if Logan might be induced to take advantage of them. It had occurred to him in the course of those reflections that pride, as illogical as it might be, would sometimes refuse to bend to accept what it saw as aid, even if the giver of such aid should think no less of its recipient – even, indeed, if the giver might think more highly of him, and be grateful to be of service.
Into Charles's cogitations, Logan said, "No offense, but I'd rather not try to live at your fancy house. Can't imagine the groundskeepers would take a shine to me, and it's altogether too much civilization."
"I would never expect you to come with me," Charles assured him, "although I would gladly make any accommodation for you that I could, out of friendship. We are friends, aren't we?"
Logan peered skeptically at him for a long moment, but at length allowed, with considerable gruffness, that they were.
"Was thinking," Logan said slowly, "I would like to stay here. 'S quiet, and the nearest changelings aren't trying to experiment on me."
"This place isn't in my gift," Charles said, rejoicing that Logan had hit upon the most ideal option of all those he had designed, "or rather it is, but only in spirit, if not in law, it belongs to Raven and Miss Adler. If they consent, you are most free to stay here for however long you wish it. Even for all of your days."
"Those days might be considerably longer than yours," Logan said with a certain humor but some despair as well. "Still, if you would ask the ladies for me, I'd be obliged."
"And you must come to see me, or I to see you," Charles added. "That is my only stipulation, selfish as it is; solitude is not good for you, and I would not see you relapse after I put such work into you."
"Thank you, Doctor," Logan said dryly, but held out his dirty hand for Charles to take and seal the agreement.
On Charles's return to Xavier House that night – he had come in on unsteady feet; Logan had unearthed a bottle of something burning and potent to formalize their bond – he found Tony waiting for him in the library. He had gone in there with the intent of writing a second letter to Erik in the hope that it might find him before his departure for Field, and never mind the costs associated with the express post, but instead found himself acquiescing to yet another contract.
"For you see," Tony said as he tipped his chair back, balancing it precariously on its rear legs, "I am compelled (or rather Miss Potts compels me) to return to the United States. The company, it seems, requires my presence (or, again, Miss Potts does not permit me to shirk my duties any longer, although I consider my duties as a friend to be as pressing as those as a company man, and far more pleasing to fulfill)… and where was I? Oh yes: the long and short of it is, I must soon leave you for New York, as much as it pains me to do so."
"The sadness is mine as well." Charles fell more than sat into his own chair, facing Tony across his desk. His friend's face was pale and drawn as ever, although still vibrant with determination. "I will be sorry to lose you, even though you have done so much for me – more than I can ever repay and I know I should not impose."
"Nonsense." Tony waved his championing of Charles's rights, his maintenance of the estate, and his battery of lawyers (and the formidable Miss Potts) into insignificance. "You would have done the same for me, Charles, in a heartbeat – although I did not do any of this expecting I should be repaid for the effort. Now," he added, before Charles could keep the conversation in the treacherous waters of sentimentality, "if you must insist on making it up to me, I will ask you one thing."
"Anything," Charles said earnestly. "Even if the granting of it is not in my power."
"You must tell me how you get on. I feel as though I'm leaving in the middle of a story – that Miss Potts, like a cruel lioness, has hunted me out of my solitude, forced me to put down my book and to attend to the business of my own life. The suspense, you see; it's rather unbearable, and I haven't even left yet."
"Of course. I will write you as many letters as you can stand to read. Is that it?" Charles laughed. "I had expected something… well, more."
"And as to that," Tony folded his hands in his lap. His cravat was quite askew, as was his coat and his hair, and almost everything else about him, but his eyes, steady on Charles, were precise. "I would like to know your history. I haven't known many changelings, or at least changelings who have declared their existence to me. If you would agree, I should like to know your own story and something of… of what it's like, I suppose, to be what you are."
"I would not be able to speak for all changelings," Charles said with some doubt, "and I am not a great writer."
"Nor am I," Tony said dismissively, "but I will gladly torture myself with your prose if I could come to understand you."
For the second time that day, Charles struck hands on a bargain, and drank an ill-advised quantity of spirits to ratify it.
Chapter 19: Chapter 19
84,000 very slow words later...
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Tony had not departed by the day Charles expected Erik and the children to arrive. Despite the overlay of logic and rationality, he searched for omens in the morning, from the sky – a mottled grey-blue with clouds clearing out under the influence of the west wind – to the butler's face when he brought messages at breakfast. Charles had flipped through them with anxious breathlessness, but they proved to be nothing more significant than missives from his attorney and the book-keeper at the town's steam-carriage station asking about the rents for new storage sheds. With no little impatience, Charles set the messages aside and returned to picking his way through his breakfast.
Raven had left already, too restless to tolerate being shackled to one place for so long, and Charles could not but feel guiltily relieved at her absence; she had packed her bags a few days ago, announcing her intention to pursue a lead she had left in order to attend to Charles, a little Russian boy who could turn his skin to steel. Angel, also restless, had already departed to fly across the parkland. The children, used to liberty by now (and they must, Charles thought distractedly, start again on their lessons soon), were likely tormenting the nursery-maid who – for a wonder – seemed unfazed by her changeling charges. Miss Adler remained behind and even now sat at his right hand, a smile on her face as she sliced an apple to suggest she knew Charles's inner torment.
Mr. Stark himself had vanished, perhaps to bed after a night in the throes of inspiration, or perhaps to pace the grounds in search of it. Charles allowed his coffee to cool in its cup and settled for staring moodily out the window.
"Your Mr. Lehnsherr sounds to me like a man of his word," Miss Adler said. The silver of her knife chimed as she set it on her plate. "You would not do him justice, Mr. Xavier, if you were to doubt him."
That much was true, and Charles had to admit it, which he did with shameful grace enough that Miss Adler smiled indulgently and turned the subject. Not, Charles thought with a private smile, that he was much given to conversation; as it was, he dithered over breakfast until he perceived the sudden rush of another long-familiar presence, simmering over at the edges with impatience, anticipation, and discontent.
And Tony was with him, God save them all. Charles came to his feet, and it was only with an effort that he restrained the flood of I am so terribly happy to see you and so afraid please come before it broke free and overwhelmed them all. As it was, he feared all he felt was written on his face plain as day and that anyone in the room – Miss Adler and now Tony and Mr. Lehnsherr himself – might read it.
"Mr. Lehnsherr," Charles said, marveling at the steadiness of his voice, "I bid you welcome, although I see you may already have been made to feel so."
"I was telling him if it were possible, I would buy an entire year's production from him," Tony said into the anxious silence that had descended, "but Mr. Lehnsherr is far too canny a businessman to let himself be exclusive to one buyer – for which I salute him, even as I lament it."
Lehnsherr seemed trapped between being nettled and being pleased; it was not a wholly unfamiliar reaction to Tony. Charles stood, searching for a way to spare his feelings and to prevent him from precipitously leaving, when the noisy arrival of the children, a chorus of "Herr Professor! I hear Herr Professor!" that, for all its cheerfulness, Charles found terribly oppressive.
Pietro and Wanda burst into the breakfast-room, Pietro a blur of pale hair and dark coat, Wanda with the auburn hair Anna had no doubt labored over already escaping from its knots and pins. Reflexively, Charles knelt to receive them – the velocity with which Pietro launched himself at him nearly bowled him over – and as he murmured endearments to them he forced himself to focus on their small, happy faces and not look up at Lehnsherr or to see what he might be thinking.
Eventually they did manage the formalities of introductions with Miss Adler, who received Lehnsherr's attentions with her habitual quiet amusement. Charles kept an eye on the byplay as Miss Adler inquired politely after Lehnsherr's journey ("Eventful," was said wryly enough, and with enough exasperated fondness for Pietro and Wanda to be paternal) and Lehnsherr asked, somewhat to Charles's astonishment, what her connection to Charles might be.
"Indirect," said she, "for I am the friend of Miss Darkholme – who is from home at the moment – and, as you may know, she and Mr. Xavier had known each other when they were quite young and were but recently reunited."
"I see," Lehnsherr said gravely. "And you are here on her account?"
Miss Adler gave him to understand that she was, but she had tired of the wandering life and found the opportunity to rest, and yet also be useful, appealing.
"For," she added with an expression as impenetrable as any of Lehnsherr's, "ever since I met Raven and heard her story, I became convinced that the fellowship of our own kind is the greatest salve to the soul of any changeling."
Lehnsherr said nothing to this; Charles himself had to forebear from silently chastising Miss Adler, who merely arched a challenging eyebrow at him. What Lehnsherr would make of such a pointed remark – a conspiracy, more than likely, his former tutor and a friend in league to keep him captive. With a sigh, Charles determined to redirect Lehnsherr's suspicions, if he could not dispel them, and asked if Pietro and Wanda – who were busily examining Tony as to the likelihood of being allowed to see his sketches – would like to get settled.
"Why don't you come with me," Miss Adler said, holding out her pale hands to Pietro and Wanda, "and let Mr. Xavier and your father discuss what must be discussed?"
"Business," Charles said, before Lehnsherr could object. "I hope you don't expect my services for free, Mr. Lehnsherr."
"Of course not," Lehnsherr said with considerable frostiness. "I would hardly dream of such presumption."
"I should hope not," Charles murmured. His response almost startled a laugh out of Lehnsherr before he bridled it. "If you would come with me, Mr. Lehnsherr? The sooner we get the details settled, the sooner you will be off."
Lehnsherr obediently heels him down the hall to the study, too well-bred to – at least in public – make observations on the luxury in which Charles has but so recently found himself, and to which he has (to his own consternation) grown somewhat comfortable. Xavier House is old, far older than Ironhill; although the Xaviers until Charles's father had never held a peerage, they can trace their family through generations of intellectuals and minor courtiers through to its beginning in Aquitaine. Some of those faces follow them with faded gazes as they walk down the portrait hall to Charles's study and its door tucked away, nearly hidden by the walnut paneling.
"You favor him," is all Lehnsherr says as he pauses by Brian Xavier's portrait, which has been restored to its station by the door.
Charles says, "I suppose I do," although the chestnut-brown hair and blue eyes, and a certain prominence to the nose, make such a claim indisputable.
"Was he a changeling?" Lehnsherr asks.
"No." Charles steps to the side to allow Lehnsherr through the door. "But he was a good father."
"You were young when he died," Lehnsherr says as if only now realizing it.
"Not having him in my life is cause for far more sadness than the fact that my step-father was allowed to do his best to supplant me," Charles says, wishing Lehnsherr would drop the conversation; mercifully, Lehnsherr appears to be meditating Charles's answer as he also meditates the library in which they've now found themselves.
The library is not over-large; it will not, Charles thinks absently, do to meet his lawyers and tenants in this place. It will be a sanctuary, with its heavy furniture and great-hearthed fireplace. No censorious ancestors look down on him from their perches on the walls, only rows and rows of books and a few shelves of artifacts collected by Xaviers now long-gone to their graves. Lehnsherrr seems to incline to the desk and two chairs on the far end, but Charles turns him to the two comfortably-padded chairs instead, facing each other across a table set with a chess board.
"Very fine work," Lehnsherr mutters. He refuses to sit until Charles does, and then only submits when Charles stretches out a hand in invitation.
"So," Lehnsherr says, mind sharpening into determination, keen enough to cut, "what do you ask in the way of tuition?"
"Twenty-five pounds per child, per year," Charles says and, before Lehnsherr can object, explains that the fee would include all tuition and board, and expenses encountered in the course of a child's eventful life. "With no easy way to contact you, it would be easier to have a fund for the purchase of clothes and necessities, should the children be in the way of needing them. With you being – going away, it should perhaps be difficult to secure the means and permission to obtain anything needed."
"Of course," Lehnsherr says. He does not, as he has in the past, lean back into his chair to allow Charles the view of the long run of his body, the hands folded gracefully in his lap; rather, he leans forward, the grey intensity of his eyes overwhelming in the quiet of the library. "I would," he adds after a moment, "gladly pay more, if there are students in need of sponsorship."
"You are too kind." There is some difficulty in his throat, a knot making the words reluctant, and it is made of pain and gratitude. "Raven has gone to find our first students, although we already have some who came with her; Pietro and Wanda may be meeting them as we speak, unfortunately for Miss Adler."
"I am sure they're glad of the chance," Lehnsherr says, "even if Miss Adler is not." And then, "Now that I have determined the price is no objection, and I trust to your rather… arcane and singular methods of instruction, having had experience of them before, what else was so pressing you must call me here and not a deputy?"
"You received my letter, then," Charles says, too relieved to prevent himself from stating the obvious. I would have asked you mind to mind if I'd thought I would be welcome.
"Of course I did," Lehnsherr says impatiently, although with a warmth that runs deeper and sweeter than any heat of temper. "And you must know, Charles, that despite – despite everything, I would come if you asked – even out of morbid curiosity as to what idealistic madness you plan next." I would always wish to hear you, said Lehnsherr's soul, although I don't know what you hear, listening to me.
"You flatter me," Charles says to cover the rush of pleasure and longing. "But perhaps we – no, I – if you would permit a former employee to be so bold, there are things I wish to say."
Lehnsherr arches an eloquent eyebrow; he radiates utter unsurprise, for he had known – he must have known – even upon seeing the letter that Charles had summoned him here in hopes of something more than negotiating the care of Lehnsherr's children. The thought is clear as a bell in his mind, ringing with confirmation.
"Really?" Lehnsherr's voice sank to some rough depth. "What would that be?"
"I've realized there must be more action beyond the education of our children," Charles says. Lehnsherr's eyes lock on him, hearing that, and Charles's own heart almost skips with the burst of surprise Lehnsherr cannot keep back. "I do not speak of violence, my friend – never that, and pray do not sigh at me – but of becoming more visible as thinkers, as leaders. We must be the politicians and businessmen who shape change and demonstrate how it ought not to be feared."
"And this is possible?" Lehnsherr says with heavy sarcasm. He is prepared for this, and Charles has few scruples about looking into Lehnsherr's mind for his strategy. As if sensing Charles's intent, Lehnsherr's gaze flickers to the chess board laid out between them.
"Is it possible for one man to change the course of the world with nothing but the lever of his own convictions?" He cannot look away from Erik, who pulses with skepticism, the heavy beats of it threaded through with curiosity. "No; he needs others who respond to him and who advance his interests. I am proposing we find those others, the two of us."
"Children," Lehnsherr scoffs.
"Not children, adults – humans and changelings alike." At the sudden burst of anger from Lehnsherr, Charles continues: "I do not mean make alliances with them – with the humans – beyond those convenient for our ends. I do not even ask you to like them, only that you give them civility enough that I can plant the seeds of belief in them. Doing that is much easier when they are given evidence in its favor."
Lehnsherr's expression is dry as any desert; Charles knows he knows what Charles has only now obliquely proposed. "This coming from a man who has read me sermons on free will and self-determination? Are you a god looking for a consort?" Are you that powerful?
"Nothing so great." Consider this a test, if you will. If you wish changelings to live openly, as what we are, you will allow me this: understanding you and speaking with you in this way. "I will not offer explanations for what I am, any more than I would expect you to, Mr. Lehnsherr; I will, though, wield my influence to the uttermost – my political and economic influence, that is – in order to secure our people's safety. With your help, I believe we can do it."
"What you propose is not so far different from my own path, although the means are different," Lehnsherr argues. "Why may we not walk mine together?"
On my path, Charles says, we have something of a head-start. "Changelings are permitted to hold seats in the House of Commons; it was, admittedly, a piece of politics to allow the king to bridle the unchecked power of the Lords. Since the beginning of the century there is also no law stripping a changeling of his hereditary titles; both the Lords and the Commons held that, contrary to the Archbishop of Canterbury's doctrine, a changeling was not the issue of an adulterous union or a cuckoo dropped into the human nest. And the Church has since followed that prescription." Charles leans forward, enough to press his point with the emphasis of his own body. "Whether you admit it or not, they've moved beyond the days when the Church said changelings were the children of witches who mated with the devil. They are on the path to enlightenment, Erik; help me speed it along."
Erik does lean back now, the familiar stubbornness turning the liquid surface of his mind to ice. When he does speak, he speaks in silence, his voice chilly. And the superiority of changelings to humans? What have you to say about that?
"I won't argue that with you." But I will take what you say under consideration; there may be one day when science proves changelings outstrip their human kin, and I believe one day we may surpass them in numbers. I believe it very well may be soon, but we cannot reach that day if we give the humans cause to consign us to the flames again.
"I have thought on your words since I left," Erik admits. He traces a finger across the fine fabric of the upholstery; the nail scratches against the grain of the silk. "Part of me, quite a large part, desires what it always has – but I find…" and the icy steel of his resolve neither softens nor melts, yet Charles finds his heart bound with hope and fear anyway, "… I find that perhaps an even larger part desires not to be in enmity with you. We could be at odds with each other, could we not? And the humans will devour us between them."
"That will never happen to you," Charles tells him. "I swear it, Erik. Not while I live."
"Nor would I permit it." The pale orb of Erik's eye belongs to a hawk, predatory and inimical. Not many, Charles supposes would find it comforting. "And," Erik pauses to caress the carved head of a knight – Lancelot or Tristan, maybe, mounted on his rearing charger – and to examine the patterned inlay of the board, "I do remember you, you know, when you told me the lengths you would go to that you might preserve those you love."
I count you among that number, as I always shall.
Lehnsherr nods, although beneath the carapace of serenity he boils and burns and flashes, the pain of working out the complexity of not wanting to desire what he desires and sensing that to deny such desire – to turn it to indifference, to reject the object of it – would fail.
"Stay," Charles says, the hope in him so sharp it is as if it's cut a hole in him through which the words spill out. "I know I cannot ask you to stay forever – but stay for an hour, a day, time enough for me to show how we might find common ground for our desires, you and I."
"Common ground," Lensherr repeats. The wide, ungenerous mouth offers the smile it had bestowed on Charles the night of their first meeting, without much warmth and with some disdain. "And if I should ever decide to defend myself or our people with means other than those you approve of?"
"I shall not stop you," Charles promises, "although I will do my best to argue you out of it."
"I won't have changelings made sport for humans," Lehnsherr says. "You are shielded from the worst of it, here, but the rest of our people do not have your luxuries."
"Then defend them, as I will." It is an effort, at least in his own head, to embrace the compromise Lehnsherr demands of him, even knowing that such a compromise is the only way to place a check on Lehnsherr's ambitions – and, rather more selfishly, to keep Erik with him. "Stay, my friend, please, and let us not work at cross-purposes, you and I."
"You want me to accept the authority of the humans," Lehnsherr says flatly.
"Not in matters of injustice. When one living being harms another, there can be no true authority."
"Such a convenient philosopher."
"Philosophy is almost always convenient, I find; we adopt those tenets that most closely suit our own comfort and needs, however strange those needs may appear to others."
"And your… needs." Lehnsherr rolls the word on his tongue as if tasting it. "What of them?"
You are what I need, Charles tells him.
Hoarsely, Erik says, "As you are," and swallows heavily.
He is, Charles thinks, like quicksilver; there is no grasping him. Nothing in Erik's face helps him find his balance; he is adrift for the moment he needs to register the warmth of Erik's amusement, heating to a desire that – oh, oh has not cooled or dimmed in the months of their separation. Beneath it runs a memory, one of the oldest they have together that is a memory and Charles's promise to him.
"Your leaving – it would be the one thing I regret in my life," Erik tells him. "And so it was very easy to be angry at you for leaving me alone, when you had sworn otherwise. I had to come to a decision, though: to be angry at you until the end, or to give it rest, and when I read your letter… I dared to hope we might find that common ground you spoke of."
The words are far more diplomatic than what Charles knows is the hope Erik cherishes, new-bridled as it is by compromise: he had come with some small part hoping Charles would have acquiesced to his vision, that they might be side-by-side in a new age in which changelings would take their true place in the world. He doubts that voice will ever be truly silenced and it will speak in the worst of their arguments, but at the moment he finds caring about it difficult.
"And now," Charles begins; he has moved, awkward as it is, to kneel by Erik's side, "now we've found it, or nearly so, what shall we do?"
Erik's mouth is soft and unexpected against his own, as his mind is, briefly tentative before desire and demand sharpen them. His dreams have never been quite like this, or as keen as the sudden flare of memory – the few times Erik has kissed him tumbling through his awareness like comets, the sharp edge of his teeth and his warm lips, the sigh that speaks volumes – and he'd scarcely allowed himself to wish to have this again. The dreams, clear-lined as they had been, had been painful enough, almost as acute as the aching sore that pulses underneath Erik's happiness: waking up in that human place, Charles vanished from his mind as utterly as if he had never been, convincing himself that Charles was dead, convincing himself, once Charles had been resurrected, that Charles had left him alone deliberately.
Never that, Charles tells him. Oh, never that. Never again, and I'm so sorry.
"It was the anger of relief, I think," Erik says when they at last break apart. His cravat is askew where Charles had stroked it, his eyes bright and unfocused with pleasure. "When I found that my worst imaginings had not come to pass… Well, I am quick to anger, as I've been reliably informed."
"And slow to let it go," Charles says, although not unkindly. He senses his own capacity for rage, a deep well of it he could drown in, if he lets himself. Carefully, he steers his thoughts from that; Erik is watching him attentively enough that, Charles thinks, he might well catch the tenor of his thoughts. To turn the subject, he says, "We could stay here ("I do enjoy you on your knees, Charles," Erik says, wickedly enough to bring a blush to Charles's face) or I could show you your home – where you might have however much peace you wish."
That last is daring, and maybe too much; he knows what Erik wants from him is not peace so much as a place of refuge. Still, that is peace enough – such peace, at any rate, as can be found.
He takes Erik's hand and draws him up and into another kiss, their last before whatever time they might be able to steal from the others tonight. Already his mind spins out plans, although nothing more complex than what he might do to have Erik's hands under his clothes again, carefully stripping them away so Charles is laid utterly bare to him as he is already bare to Charles and the two of them are one glorious thing together.
Erik must catch something of his thoughts, if the deepening of the kiss, the sudden rough pressure of his body against Charles's is any indication and, oh, what he would not give, Charles sighs, to have the barely-civilized lines of Erik's body aligned perfectly with his.
That is tonight, though, on the other end of the first of very many new days. Erik huffs out an exasperated noise when Charles steps back, mind a tumult of impertinent now why wait, so that Charles has to smile.
"Come," he says, to forestall the protest Erik gives him anyway (a torrent of images that make Charles sigh, sudden and deep and heartfelt, of Charles twisted up in gentle iron shackles, the marks of Erik's teeth on his chest and the tender curve of his hip), and Erik ignores him momentarily to set a foretaste of that vision at the back of Charles's neck, a nip that reddens the skin and makes Erik flush with pleasure. Erik.
"You were saying, Mr. Xavier?" Erik murmurs.
"Tonight," Charles says, and infuses the word with all the promise he can.
"Oh, very well," Erik growls. "What now, then?"
"Now," the word is sweet on his tongue, as Erik looks at him with desire and an almost shy happiness, "now you'll meet the children, and when you've tired of the noise I'll show you the house and the grounds, and all the quiet corners of them."
* finit *
This letter, dated internally to 1 June 1834 (see image of fol. 217v, pl. 10 for Xavier's autograph), is appended to the text in the Stark MS. While scholars contested its authenticity upon the first unexpurgated publication of Xavier's autobiography in 1969, the Stark Industry archivists and Xavier family alike successfully argued otherwise throughout a long and extremely public debate. Consequently, the so-called Iron Man Letter (a reference to the homo ferro fabricatus in the valediction) is now accepted as authentic and thus occupies a significant place in the intersecting histories of gay and mutant rights.
My dear Stark,
Before commencing with what I hope will be some source of pleasure to you, I must beg you first for this favor, that you ask Miss Potts to procure for me the latest news on the resolution taken up before the American Congress on the matter of changeling suffrage. As you may know, the Chartists here have been going back and forth on the matter of including changelings in their demand for enfranchisement, and I am anxious to hear how the United States stands on the question. I have had some success with advancing our interests here, but I believe any intelligence on the thoughts of your Senators and Representatives would be invaluable. Perhaps I ought to do what I have been threatening to do for some time now and visit to gain that intelligence first-hand.
Of course, you would be quite right to remind me that there are other matters, of even longer deferral, I must address.
Some time ago you made a request of me, that I should write out for you a narrative of my life. I could have, of course, simply transmitted that information to you – as a telepath, I could communicate to you the entirety of my history in the space of a thought, which is no space at all – but when I proposed this on our last meeting (in an attempt, I confess to escape an obligation I felt myself ill-equipped to fulfill), you vetoed it, saying "you would prefer to contemplate the story in a space and time all your own," if my memory serves me correctly – which it does – and to have at your disposal some tangible reminder of our friendship. For a telepath also gifted with a powerful memory this struck me as a strange request, for memory is ever-present and it does not fade; its tints remain as bright ten years on as they were the instant they were first laid down. Due to the slothfulness with which I have executed this favor (if favor my clumsy words are!), you will no doubt accuse me of forgetfulness despite my claims; but rest assured, my delay can be ascribed to too few hours in the day, for I have as yet found no changeling who can give me more of that precious resource.
In our subsequent communications (too few and far between for such close friendship) you have dropped hints that you were anticipating the fulfillment of this friendly obligation, and I hope what I have enclosed – rude and simple as it is – will amply discharge the promise I had made to you. Of course, I promised only to tell the story, and not to tell it well; I am not one of our novelists, or an orator, or a writer of sermons, so my tale is plain and unvarnished, and where it fails to excite any of the higher, more sublime passions I hope it will, in the least, provide occasion for reflection.
Erik, of course, has opposed my writing this. Our lives, he says, are not for entertainment or edification; for, he continues, how many tales have been told of changelings, their otherworldly origins and inhuman natures, for the diversion of humans? Over the centuries we have occupied the highest mountains and the deepest woods, the ancient barrows and mounds and bogs, and have been brought by our envious parents to take the places of children more comfortably-born, and in those old stories we have had to, perforce, return to our dark homes again, expelled by our human kin. But this time it is the lion taking up the brush to paint his adversity with the hunters, and I believe those who have any genuine empathy in their breasts will not look askance at the author for his origins or his nature. All the same, what I have enclosed is also truth, unconcealed by any veil, and in the places where more delicate or sensible minds may shrink away or cry scandal and immorality, I trust to your discretion. For all that your outward appearance suggests otherwise, I know that you are a man who knows well how to keep a secret.
If you have already read through my story, Stark, you may wish to know what has become of us in the months and years since I saw fit to append finit to the final chapter. (You are, quite naturally, free to take this as a delicate reminder that we are due a visit, if the new-minted chairman of Stark Industries would deign to visit a small country school.) To gratify your curiosity, I therefore append these short notes:
Due in no small part to your generous offices and the assiduousness of Miss Potts, I have obtained full control of my family property. The last vestiges of the Markos, a deeply unpleasant clan from the darkest, most scheming corners of Chelsea, have vanished from Xavier House and the fog of their presence has dissipated in the clear sunlight of the future. Upon his death, Dr. Marko had left a small competency for his son; due to Cain’s disappearance in the Indies, his relatives have turned their bloody attentions to that in the stead of a much larger property to which they had no title, and for which they faced a formidable opponent armed with rights of blood. What has become of Cain I know not. I sense that the years have not mitigated his cruelty; rather, in those humid, jungled spheres where British power is enforced with blood and steel, they could only have augmented it. If he should ever return to Xavier House, he will find little enough welcome from Erik and Raven; for myself, I know not how I would receive him, for I have others to think of, others his predations might fix upon when he sees that I, like him, have also grown up and become more dangerous.
With our home and fortune now secured, we have grown from our small circle of Ravenswood inmates to a school of about fifteen. Jean, Sarah, and Ororo now have Wanda, Elisabeth, Ilyana, and little Anne-Marie as comrades-in-arms; Elisabeth, like myself, is a telepath, and Anne-Marie is – well, my dear friend, she is exceptional. She is also rather devoted to Mr Howlett (that is, Logan), who has himself elected to stay on despite his justified resentment toward Erik; I believe this decision is in no small part due to his partiality for the girls, who look to him as a sort of romantic hero with a bad temperament. (He will not, however, bear any mention or reminder of this.) We still have Angel, of course, who at times accompanies Raven on her journeys, and Armando has become fast friends with Alexander Summers, the elder of two brothers who have recently joined us. The younger Summers boy, Scott, came to us with his eyes wrapped in a cumbersome set of brass and crystal goggles, similar to the sort the aership pilots wear. We learned from Alex that the two of them had been in an institution much like Shawcross; if the headmaster was not Essex, he must have been close kin, for much of what I learned I learned despite Alex's determined silence on the topic of their former home. Alongside Alex and Scott we also have Pietro and Piotr (the latter Ilyana's brother), Sean Cassidy, John Allerdyce and Warren Worthington, third of that name and (like the Summers boys) an American who came to us when his father heard of the school and the work in which we are engaged.
That work is multifarious, and I both fear and rejoice that it will never end. We – that is, myself, Erik, Dr McCoy, Armando, Miss Adler and (when he can be prevailed upon) Mr Howlett – keep the children to a rigorous curriculum in the humanities and sciences, and in addition teach them to accept their natures and the beauty of their gifts. Some days, I confess, are easier than others, but so many of them struggle with control, and when control does not come they consider themselves failures; and when they consider themselves failures, they perforce ask themselves what good the world could possibly see in them, why God selected them to endure such trials. These are questions I often asked myself in my darkest hours when I had no friend to comfort me; I cannot answer those questions for my children now.
Through this narrative and my earlier confessions to you, you know something of my life before and after Shawcross, and while I would not belabor you with my tale of woe – common enough among humans and changelings alike, and I know not nearly as terrible as many – I cannot but help thinking back on the cold, indifferent cruelty of Dr. Marko, and the more calculated, terrible attentions of Essex. I cannot describe to you, my friend, the sensation when one realizes that one has been reduced to a thing, a mere object onto which displeasure or scientific interest may be directed. It is as if a void that would devour all – pride, self, humanity (if I am permitted to use such a word) – has opened directly beneath the heart and once it has swallowed all that forms the foundation of what one is, vomits only emptiness and despair back up. Before I had numbered ten years in the world, I knew that emptiness; the thought of other children knowing it –
My pen is running away with me. To return to my account: We have not heard of Miss Frost, the teleporter, or the one who can make cyclones. I sense the latter two changelings are now under Miss Frost's protection, her considerable financial influence as well as the opacity of her diamond shielding. As they have been quiet, I assume Miss Frost has decided to make her own way, free of the constraints Schmidt placed upon her. She is far too canny and ambitious ever to be chained to one man's vision: her talent and strength are sufficient to guide her, and I hope they do not guide her into enmity with us.
Not long after he had discharged his promises to Erik, Dr McCoy found his way to us. He was grateful, as you may imagine, to find sanctuary after what had been a harrowing time for him. The first night after his return, he confided to me that he still feared Schmidt was alive; even though Reason (the goddess in whom Henry places all his faith) told him that the man he had feared only slightly less than Essex had died, he could not free himself of the conviction that he still walked the earth. Slowly he has, like Erik, come to believe in the peace this house offers him. He has even brought his assistant, a Miss Moira MacTaggert, whose only peer for competence and efficiency can be found in your office. She has proven invaluable not only for her aid in administering the school's affairs, but a political acumen that has served our cause well.
Henry has rebuilt Cerebro in the estate's observatory, and I have begun searching out changelings again. All of our newer students have come to us through Henry's labors and Raven's diligent traveling to find those children I have discovered and, if they wish it, bring them here. Her voyages take her across the diameter of Cerebro's range, to Iceland and Ireland, southward even past Europe and to the first fringes of the African deserts. At times Miss Adler accompanies her, at other times Angel; at all times I fear for Raven, but it is the fear of an older brother who must watch his sister make her way in the world, knowing that way must by necessity bring her into peril and uncertainty. That she had done this long before I found her again makes little difference – but then, as I now believe, we are in good part the ghosts of what we once were. So much of me remains the boy clinging to his first real friend; Raven is the mistrustful girl who learned she must rely only on herself; Erik is haunted by Schmidt and remorse, and the chains that bind him to his past are of anger and loss, and are not easily broken.
He has stayed, though. It took some effort, as you have read, to persuade him to remove himself and his family from Avalon and to stay at Westchester with me; he remained convinced that danger had not yet passed, despite my most solemn assurance that Schmidt had truly died; and when that error had been resolved, he refused steadfastly to believe that I should want to have in my company the man who caused me so much pain and, very nearly, the permanent loss of my abilities. Something of these beliefs has remained with him although three years have quieted their voices. I must say, too, that I am no stranger to those voices myself; they speak to me in unguarded moments, for when I wake with him in the mornings or hear his voice in the library, I am struck anew by surprise and gratitude. I know you harbor considerable impatience for the more delicate and sublime emotions, my friend, so I will refrain from effusions in this regard; and I will give you only my most heartfelt, sincere assurance that I am happy with Erik, and he with me. There will be little peace for him on this earth, I fear, but here he has found his measure of it.
As I write, the evening is drawing its shades on the day and the children have commenced their usual chorus of protests at being sent to bed. Between them, Miss Adler (who is currently in residence) and Dr McCoy handle their obstinacy well enough, although the girls seem only to heed Mr Howlett without opposition. Raven is a faint presence far to the south – France, I think; there is a young man there who, I hope, will join us. Erik is making his way through the halls to my study; our evening ritual of Scotch and chess, begun years ago, must be completed before we too may retire. Already his impatience brushes at me, bracing and sudden as a wave from the North Sea; there is little in this exercise he approves of, as I said, but he remains grateful to you for your kindness towards me, and that earns me – and you – something like indulgence.
Besides, he often says with no little frustration, when has there ever been a time when he might compel Charles Xavier to do anything? Even when I was his employee, I was 'impertinent and recalcitrant, and everything infuriating'. When I ask him what such a choice of disobedient, obstreperous companion might say about him, he merely frowns and shakes his head; what he feels when I ask him this, I refrain from describing for your sake.
Please pass on my warmest regards to Miss Potts, and to the young man, that mysterious "S.R.", you wrote about with such enthusiasm in your last letter. You must write back and tell me how you get on with the homo ferro fabricatus which has occupied much of your thoughts these last months; I believe Erik would be interested as well, although he will refuse to admit it. For now, though, I must hasten to him, and so I must also leave off my writing and remain
Your friend, &c.,
1 June 1838
Thank you so, SO much to everyone for reading, kudos'ing, and commenting throughout the very long eight months or so that I apparently felt I needed to write this. Your kind thoughts, impatience, and encouragement helped keep the story in the back of my mind even when I wanted to snarl "FINE BE THAT WAY SEE IF I CARE" at it and consign it to oblivion on my hard drive. I should say special thank-yous to Elaur for her spirit-lifting comments at every turn, Subtilior for anticipating my Very Clever Plot Points (grarrrr), and thingswithteeth, whose comments on another fic helped shape the last few conversations between Charles and Erik in this one.
Very special thanks are due, as always, to mrkinch, who has been one of the best friends--in fandom or out--anyone could ask for, and Bead, who turned up in XMFC like an extremely awesome penny.
Like many things, this was supposed to be much shorter and, like with many unexpectedly long projects, I find it awkward saying things at the end. So I will simply say, again and again and again, thank you to all who stopped by and to those of you who read along and those of you who probably very wisely put off reading this until its poky author finally got her act together and closed the deal, I hope it was worth the wait ♥♥♥