This is the strong comrade, the one who brings help to his friend in his need. He is the strongest of wild creatures...when you see him you will be glad; you will love him as a woman and he will never forsake you. This is the meaning of the dream.
Eton College, 1928
Charles lines up the last of his books on the small shelf hanging over his desk, then takes a step back to admire the effect. "I think that's the last of it, then," he says. "Thanks ever so much for all your help, Raven," he adds dryly, turning to look at her, sprawled out on his bed as she has been for the last three-quarters of an hour, watching him unpack his things for the new term. "I don't know what I would've done without you."
"Oh, please, you know the pleasure of my company was more than enough," she says, rising languidly from the bed. At her movement, McCoy, seated at his desk, his nose already in one of his textbooks, jumps up respectfully.
"Are you leaving, then?" he asks nervously. "Would you like some tea before you go?"
"Thanks, no, McCoy," she replies with a smile, shooting Charles the quickest of looks out of the corner of her eye. "But it was lovely seeing you." She crosses the room and kisses him once on each cheek, causing him to flush scarlet. "Come on, Charles, walk me out."
"You're quite cruel to him," Charles informs her as they leave Cotton Hall House and walk towards High Street. Evening is falling, but the campus is still aflutter with activity as the boys enjoy their last hours of freedom before term starts, or attempt to send off lingering family members. "You know he fancies you."
"Does he? Even though he thinks I'm blood-related to you?" She pulls a surprised expression and slips her arm inside his as they walk. "Me, a lowly barmaid?"
"That's not funny," he tells her sternly. "You know that I think you'd do quite well at Windsor, and I still think you could enter as a sixth former. You—"
"Or even here," she suggests dryly, and in an instant, a young man is strolling beside him in full Eton dress. "I could call myself Randolph and say I'm your brother."
"Raven! Not here!" Charles looks around quickly, but no one is near them in the lane; the boys playing cricket in the field beside them are far too absorbed in the game to notice anything. Raven just laughs and resumes her usual form.
"We've had this conversation a tedious number of times already, Charles," she says, sounding half tired, half amused. "I'm not interested in memorizing fifty lines of Latin every night and—and singing in the bloody choir. This is your life, not mine."
"I thought you said my singing voice sounds like a goose being cooked alive."
"Oh, it does." They reach the main road and stop walking. She regards him fondly. "Dear Charles, always trying to fix everyone's lives. Well, I'm quite happy with mine, as you very well know. And I'm glad you're happy with yours, even if it is a frightful bore a lot of the time." She casts a doubtful eye over the school's imposing architecture, and then embraces him, allowing him to kiss her cheek.
"I'll see you at the end of term, then?" he asks, even though he already knows the answer.
"Wouldn't miss it," she tells him with a smile. "It just wouldn't be Christmas if I wasn't holed up in your common room listening to you bang on about The Origin of Species or whatever it is."
"McCoy says he's got a new edition. Perhaps you two can discuss it over a picnic."
She smirks at this and turns to leave. "I'll write you," she calls over her shoulder, adding silently, he suspects, you wanker.
"I heard that," Charles calls at her back, and he hears her laugh and knows he was right. He turns and strolls back across the campus as twilight falls, hands in his pockets, already missing her but devoutly glad to be back. The summer holidays are always unpleasant, stuck at home with his stepbrother glowering at him and cracking his knuckles threateningly, even though he never dares trying to beat him up anymore. He usually spends all his time either reading or down the pub with Raven, just waiting for term to start again so he can return to his lessons, his books and ideas; ever since his mother's death, school has felt far more like home than the mansion ever did.
He passes the tennis courts and comes upon Walpole House, catching sight of the Head, Shaw, strutting about in front of the doors as though he owns the place—which, Charles reminds himself, he practically does, having been elected President of Eton Society, as everyone had known he would. "Hurry up there, you," Shaw barks, and Charles starts, at first thinking he is being addressed, and then realizing that Shaw is looking at a boy whom Charles has never seen before and who is attempting to drag a large, battered trunk up the stairs of the house by himself. "It's Quiet Hours; you should've been moved in hours ago."
The boy lifts his head and Charles gets a good look at him: as tall as Shaw already, though clearly younger, from the way he's talking to him, about Charles' own age, lean and sinewy, with light eyes—he can't quite tell what color from that distance—and a blunt mouth that is very nearly harsh. Coppery highlights glint in his hair in the light of the setting sun as he turns his head to shoot Shaw a look of loathing. For a moment, Charles forgets what he's doing and where he's going and simply stands, looking. The boy wipes sweat from his temple with the back of his wrist and grabs hold of the end of the trunk again, and in the same moment, glances up and sees Charles.
It feels almost like a sudden, powerful gust of wind, except it's inside him rather than out: when they make eye contact, Charles is walloped with—something, a blast of emotion that is not his own. It's not thoughts, exactly; it's not like when he manages to tune in to other people's minds and catch fragmented words in their inner voice. It's just a pure sense of desire, a demanding want. He doesn't know if he's the one doing the pulling or the one being pushed, but a moment later, without any conscious decision, he's walking towards the House and the boy, their eyes still locked, and half-extending a hand.
"I say, d'you need—?"
"On your way, Xavier," Shaw snaps, looking down at them both from his position on the porch. "This doesn't concern you." Charles doesn't move; neither does the boy, and Shaw takes a threatening step closer to them both. "Have I said something unclear? Back to your House, or your Head'll hear of this."
Charles jerks his gaze away from the boy's and glances up at Shaw, who folds his arms menacingly, and Charles retreats. "Right, sorry," he says, feeling oddly dazed.
"Sorry, Shaw," he mutters, turning to go. He should've known Shaw would be at his very worst now that he was a senior and the President of bloody Pop to boot; he had garnered a reputation as the cruelest prefect in the school a few years back and had only gotten worse since. Charles has been trying to avoid him since his first year, and now he's gone and earned his wrath on the very first day back. Still, he can't help but glance over his shoulder as he heads for Cotton Hall House, looking back at the new boy, determinedly pulling his trunk up the stairs, his cheeks flushed with the effort, Shaw smirking as he watches.
What had just happened? He's never felt anything like that before. He'd figured out a number of years ago how to stop the headaches and tune into others' minds occasionally, and now almost always manages to get a few words and fragments of thoughts, but it's still always a bit fuzzy, like a badly tuned wireless. He's never been utterly doused in a sensation like that, not just from looking at someone...
He's still dwelling on it when he lets himself back into his room, shadowy now and lit only by McCoy's lamp, and he lays down on his bed, hands folded under his head, still faintly aware of the strange sensation, like a ringing in his ears from a loud noise. McCoy, still perched at his desk, glances up from his book.
"Er," he says, in a would-be casual tone. "So, your sister...she hasn't got, you know—she isn't spoken for or anything yet, is she?"
"What?" Charles shakes himself, looking over at him, the words taking several seconds to penetrate his brain. "Oh. Oh, no, I don't think so."
"Oh. All right, then. I was just wondering. She's quite nice. When you were in the other room she had a look at my books and she seemed rather interested in my editions of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and I was telling her that my studies have revealed that..."
Charles barely hears him. He feels as though his mind has been broken into, a door blasted open that he hadn't even known existed, and yet it doesn't feel like a violation. It feels like a recognition.
He goes to the window and looks out towards Walpole House, as if a signpost might have been erected in the last quarter of an hour explaining what just occurred there. He's got to find out who the stranger is; that seems essential. He needs to see him again.
It's three days before he sees the boy again. Three days of craning his neck in crowded corridors and in the dining hall, looking for that face and those eyes. Finally, at morning break on Monday, he spots him across the courtyard, reading alone on a bench. His hair looks a good deal redder in the direct daylight. Charles hesitates on the spot for several long moments, half wanting to march straight over to him, half oddly frightened by the prospect. He can think of no sensible reason for his apprehension, but it feels somehow very...exposed. He glances around and, after another minute, spots a Walpole House second-year boy starting across the quad. He clears his throat.
"You there," he calls. He's never been one much for the fagging scene, forcing the younger boys to fetch him things and warm lavatory seats for him and all the rest of it, but in this case it seems prudent to use him. The boy startles and looks up with that trademark expression of skittish anxiety at being called upon by an older boy, but quickly comes over to Charles all the same, trying to balance his new top hat on his dark, windswept hair.
"Quested, J.S., please, Xavier." He seems unsure if he's supposed to look up into Charles' face or subserviently down at the ground, and settles for peering at Charles' left shoulder.
"Who is that, Quested?" Charles asks, nodding in the mysterious boy's direction. Quested looks across the yard, past the fountain playing in the center, and Charles can see him thinking hard, scanning through the dozens of names and faces of older boys that he has been commanded to memorize as part of his servile duties. Charles remembers the feeling of panic at being put on the spot at that age—it would have been a lot easier, of course, if he could've just listened in and found the right reply in the questioner's mind, but at the time he wasn't practiced enough even for that.
"That's Lehnsherr," Quested says suddenly, looking relieved to have recalled it. "He's a new sixth former, Xavier. One of those scholarship boys, I think."
Charles raises his eyebrows, mildly surprised by both pieces of information. "Lehnsherr? What is that, German?" The number of spots for sixteen-year-old entrants to Eton were few to begin with; he wouldn't have guessed that a German would've been admitted to one of one of them, not given the attitudes around the place since the war.
"I think so, Xavier," Quested says. Then he bites down on his lip, evidently debating whether he should say more. "And he's..."
"He's...what?" Charles prompts. Quested glances back at the boy—Lehnsherr—again, and then looks up at Charles with a furtive, slightly gleeful expression, as though bursting with a scandalous secret.
"They say he's a Jew," he finishes, lowering his voice and drawing the word out slightly. Charles just looks blandly back into Quested's face, and the malicious grin beginning to tug at the boy's mouth vanishes, as though he is thoroughly taken aback by Charles' lack of a shocked reaction.
"And?" Charles asks coolly, as if he doesn't know why he's mentioning it, although he of course does. Quested goes pink in the face and fiddles with a loose button on his coat.
"Well—it's not quite right, is it?" he asks, now addressing Charles' shoulder again. "I mean, there are hardly any of them here, and we—we have chapel, and they shouldn't..." He trails off awkwardly, but Charles continues watching him expectantly, not intending to allow him off the hook, and he goes even redder, looking down at his shoes. "Killed our Lord, didn't they," he adds in a mumble.
"Oh, he did? Him personally?" Charles asks, gesturing to Lehnsherr across the way, still absorbed in his book. "My, looks awfully good for his age, doesn't he." Quested fidgets. "Besides, I rather doubt that everyone in this school is directly descended from Henry Six anyway, regardless of what they might claim. Where are your people from, Quested?"
The boy looks petrified. "Es—Essex, Xavier," he quavers. But when Charles furrows his brow slightly and concentrates, he hears a jumble of words he doesn't know, rushed and panicky inside the boy's mind: —kérjük, ne kérdezd apám, senki sem tudja—*
He sighs and shakes his head. Everyone hides something or other. "Never mind. Do you know if—"
"What's all this, then?" Shaw appears from nowhere, swaggering into sight, his black King's Scholar gown fluttering more like an opera cape than anything else. He looks between the two of them. "Well, Quested?"
"Please, Shaw," Quested says tremulously. "Xavier was just asking about—about Lehnsherr."
Shaw's eyebrows rise, mirroring Charles' expression of a few minutes before. "Indeed?" He looks at him. "And just why is that?"
"Just curious." Charles looks at him levelly.
"I see." Without removing his eyes from Charles' face, he says "Fetch me a tea with lemon, Quested." Quested, however, is not paying attention, and is instead looking over his shoulder in some apprehension at Lehnsherr. Shaw cuffs him impatiently around the ear with the book he's holding, and Charles flinches. "I meant now."
"Yes, Shaw. Sorry." Quested scampers away at once, as if grateful to get away from the scene, rubbing his ear as he goes. Shaw glances over at Lehnsherr too, then back at Charles.
"You should know better than to associate with a scug like that, Xavier," he tells him. "You do know what he is?"
"I was under the impression that he was a student," Charles replies calmly. Shaw's eyes narrow slightly as he looks down his slightly turned-up nose at him.
"You've got a bloody cheek, haven't you," he says, his voice soft and dangerous. Charles just looks back at him, waiting. "Now get to class," he adds, even though there's another twenty minutes left of break. He walks away from Charles, heading across the courtyard to Lehnsherr, and Charles watches as he looks up with a defiant expression. Shaw appears to give him an order, pointing towards the nearest class building, and when Lehnsherr doesn't move, Shaw knocks the book from his hands onto the ground. Lehnsherr stands very slowly and looks Shaw straight in the eye for a moment, their faces close together, before stooping with deliberate leisure to collect his belongings.
A slight grin curves Charles' mouth. This is definitely someone he wants to know. Lehnsherr, he says inside his head. He likes the way it sounds, like a mouth against skin.
And by some miracle, when he walks into fencing club with McCoy the next evening, there he is, standing by the wall, next to the rusty equipment rack, again not talking to anyone. McCoy fidgets with his mask. "I spent my summer reading the entire works of Dumas, and yet I don't feel that I'll be any more adroit with a blade," he grumbles. "One would think I might've acquired some subconscious skill. I'm fairly certain I prefer cricket. At least I can see what I'm doing there. I feel like a cave-diver in one of these."
"Have courage, mon ami," Charles says, patting him on the back. "I'm sure you'll be excellent. And if not, I'm not sure it's a necessary life skill anymore. I hardly think Oxford will determine your acceptance on swashbuckling skills alone. But if Richelieu turns up and orders you to a duel, I'm afraid you're cooked." McCoy chuckles ruefully. Charles glances across the room. "Er, I'll be right back."
He crosses the room with deliberate indifference, wending his way around two third-years who are pretending to disembowel one another. As he gets closer to him, another boy knocks into Lehnsherr's shoulder—possibly on purpose, Charles can't tell, and Lehnsherr drops his glove. And in a moment worthy, Charles thinks, of D'Artagnan himself, he bends down and picks it up.
Their eyes meet as Charles hands it to him. He gives a nod of thanks. "Not at all," Charles says. Then, recklessly, "I'm Xavier, Charles Xavier."
The boy just looks at him for a moment, appraisingly, and then says, "Erik. Lehnsherr." Charles hears a distinct clip to his voice, the Rs spoken from his throat and a sharpening of certain letters that confirms his guess about the boy's surname. And his eyes are green—or perhaps blue.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance." Lehnsherr looks at Charles' proffered hand, seemingly amused at this show of formality, but takes it all the same. Charles feels an odd leap of contentment at this successful exchange, and then fumbles for something else clever to say, but all that comes out of his mouth is "So, you're one of the new sixth formers?"
"Yes," he replies, with something between defiance and pride. Charles gives an encouraging nod.
"Well done," he says. "That's quite difficult, isn't it? I know they don't take many at all every year, you must really—"
"All right, lads, enough nattering," the instructor calls loudly, and Charles breaks off as the others fall silent. "We'll just run basic moves tonight, as it's the first lesson of term. Have we got any new recruits?"
Two second-years put up their hands, looking terrified, as does Lehnsherr, looking matter-of-fact. The instructor pairs the two young boys with other students and then approaches Lehnsherr. "Had any experience?"
"Yes, sir," he replies smoothly. Behind him, Charles spots Azwell, a strapping fourth-year with a scar running along his one of his pale blue eyes; it stands out white and noticeable against the sunburn he apparently acquired in Majorca over the holiday, exacerbating his rather fierce appearance. As Charles watches, he leans over and mutters something to Leland, the boy beside him, his gaze on Lehnsherr's back.
"All right, then, into the queue with you, let's see what you can do." The boys shuffle themselves into lines, and Charles finds himself several places ahead of Lehnsherr. When it is his turn, he holds his own respectably well for a few minutes as the coach directs him from the side; he's never been much for the sport, but he's wiry and quick. When his round ends, he heads to the bench against the wall, giving McCoy an encouraging grin as he passes him.
Soon Lehnsherr is up, paired against Azwell. Charles realizes that he is holding his breath as he watches Lehnsherr dueling the other boy, his movements lithe and confident; he's clearly better than Azwell and most of the rest of them. Within a few minutes he parries Azwell's strikes and knocks him to the floor with a well-timed thrust, and Charles gives a whoop of celebration from the sidelines. Lehnsherr turns around at the noise, and as absurd as it is, for a moment Charles thinks he can see a grin through his mask. Then, in a second, Azwell is up on his feet and dealing Lehnsherr a crashing blow across the shoulder before he has fully turned around, and he falls hard to the mat. Leland and the other boys laugh from the queue, and Charles has to resist the urge to jump to his feet and sprint right over to him.
"Steady on, there," the instructor bawls, striding forward to meet them on the mat. "That's an illegal move, that is, Azwell. Take a seat." Azwell rips off his mask, looking mutinous and even more red-faced, and rejoins his mates on the opposite side of the room. Charles sees them shooting looks over at Lehnsherr, who gets quickly to his feet and heads for the wall as the next two boys step forward. He pulls his mask off as well and runs his hand back through his sweaty red hair. Charles stands and meets him as he walks over.
"Are you all right, then?" he asks. "I saw that, that was quite unsportsmanlike."
"I would expect nothing more," Lehnsherr spits. Then, seeing that Charles is still watching him, adds, "Yes, I'm fine," although he winces very slightly as he sets his foil down and sits back down on the end of the bench. Charles looks over and sees the other boys huddled together, casting dark looks over Lehnsherr—at both of them.
"They're just—you're new, and you're better than he is; it's tradition to give you a bit of a hard time, I think it's—" Charles says, somewhat lamely, but he breaks off at the look on Lehnsherr's face.
"You think that's all it is?" he says challengingly, and the jovial lie that Charles is about to tell dies on his lips.
"No," he says. He sits down again beside him on the bench. "No, that's not all." Lehnsherr turns to look at him, and this time Charles holds his gaze. "And for what it's worth, I think that's all a lot of rubbish."
"Do you?" he asks, and Charles realizes that he is genuinely waiting for an answer.
"Yes," he replies, and the rest tumbles out of his mouth before he quite decides to let it: "I think it's what we choose to do that matters, not what's been chosen for us. That alone doesn't determine who we are."
Lehnsherr looks slightly startled for a moment, but then gives the first real smile that Charles has yet seen. It's more mischievous than he would have guessed, and it gives Charles another odd shiver of happiness. "I suppose you're right," he says. "What are you, one of those analysts?"
Charles smiles back. "No, I just...listen," he says, deciding that it's close enough to the truth, for now. "And I've found that most people aren't what they claim to be anyway. You wouldn't believe some of the things they'll admit when...when they think no one can hear them."
"Is that so?" Lehnsherr asks, and his grin lingers. He seems about to ask more, but at that moment the coach claps his hand briskly and calls an end to the lesson slightly early, and they both jump to their feet. "We've still got a bit of time until Quiet Hour," Charles says, consulting his watch. "D'you perhaps want to—"
"All right there, Bochie?" Leland calls suddenly to Lehnsherr as he strides back across the gymnasium, heading for the rickety old equipment rack to replace his foil. "You want to watch your back a bit more carefully next time, eh?" he adds in a loud, pugnacious tone that suggests that there will indeed be a next time. Beside him, Azwell and the others laugh again.
Lehnsherr's eyes narrow, but he doesn't reply. Charles turns to him to say something, although nothing comes to mind, but at that moment McCoy comes up hurrying up to him on his other side, clutching his gloves tightly in one hand and looking pleased.
"I say, did you see that?" he crows happily. "I finally got him. I feinted left and he jolly well went for it. I think all that reading really did pay off."
"Oh—yes," Charles says, quickly deciding not to admit that he hadn't been paying the slightest bit of attention to anything else going on in the room. "Yes, well done, old man."
It happens in a fraction of an instant, in the moment when he half-turns back to Lehnsherr, intending to invite him to the dining hall with himself and McCoy for tea and biscuits. Just as he starts to open his mouth to pose the question, Lehnsherr, who isn't looking at him but rather frowning at something across the room, half raises his empty right hand, his fingers spread. There is a yelp from the corner of the room, and Charles whips around along with everyone else to see the topmost bar on the equipment rack swinging loose, sending a number of neatly-hung foils onto the floor and onto Leland and Azwell, who happen to be standing in front of it. Azwell is knocked off balance by a blow to the side of his head from a heavy épée and topples ungracefully to the floor, looking stunned. The coach sprints over, looking alarmed, and there is a burst of chatter and nervous laughter as some younger boys hurry forward to help pick up the mess and others merely stand by and watch.
Charles isn't sure what he saw. But for a second, he definitely catches sight of a satisfied smirk on Lehnsherr's face.
From there, they seem to see a lot more of one another. At first Charles thinks that it's his doing, that he's simply always got an eye out for him, but he soon notices, to his distinct pleasure, that Lehnsherr is seeking him out as well. For the most part he seems singularly disinterested in socialization; Charles only ever sees him alone or occasionally with his roommate, a boy called Summers, about whom there is a vague and unsubstantiated rumor that he has been caned more times than his entire house combined for various infractions. But whenever Lehnsherr spots Charles, within a few minutes he is by his side, hands in his pockets, often saying nothing much more than "All right, Xavier?"
More than once he joins him and McCoy for meals in Bekynton, the dining hall, although he never says much then either, preferring to listen rather than talk as McCoy and Charles rhapsodize about their latest experiments and ideas. He soon proves himself to be rather brainy as well, however, and Charles is nothing short of dazzled when he offhandedly reveals his linguistic talents in their literature lesson one day, when he is tasked with reading a few poems aloud and opts for their original forms, flowing effortlessly from Baudelaire to Cervantes, his sharp accent dissolving alluringly into the softer, rolling sounds of French and Spanish. When Charles writes and how the devil did you learn all that? on the corner of his diary and shifts it sideways to show him, Lehnsherr just smiles and writes back simply lived in a lot of places. He seems to prefer European history the most, however; he speaks up the most in that class, at any rate, and nearly always to give a correct answer as he takes diligent notes. None of this endears him much to the other boys, of course, and after a few weeks Charles hears them sneering "clever dick" at him in the corridors, adding to the long list of other rude words they already use for him. Charles has faced a fair bit of that himself over the years, being disliked for being clever, but Lehnsherr acts as though he doesn't notice most of the time, and every time he shows one of them up in class it gives Charles an undue sense of pride. You show them. He can't quite understand it: he's had his share of mates before; there's no sensible reason why the blossoming of this particular friendship should be so...affecting. But Lehnsherr's different.
One evening, towards the middle of term, Charles glances at his watch as he sits in the library working on a particularly complicated lab report and realizes that he is twenty minutes late for evening services. He rolls his eyes, annoyed half with himself and half with the tradition that forces him to abandon his studies for a spot of daily religious reflection; it always seems a bit wasteful to him. His Head of House will probably give him a few demerits for not turning up, but he'll get them for turning up late anyway, so he decides to return to his common room and finish up his work there.
As he cuts through the main hall, however, he hears faint music from a side room and—he can't tell if the two sensations are connected or merely occurring simultaneously, but he feels a touch of that same tug, that same irresistible pull as he did that first day. And somehow he's not altogether surprised when he follows the sound into a side chamber and finds Lehnsherr there alone, seated at the piano. A nearby table is spread out with newspapers and what appear to be maps; it seems as though he was attempting some schoolwork before getting distracted, and he is now playing—quite well—what sounds like Mendelssohn. Charles waits until he has finished a movement, and then applauds from the doorway. Lehnsherr turns quickly.
"Not bad at all," Charles says with a grin, entering.
"Skiving off chapel, are we?" Lehnsherr asks by way of a reply. "Awfully naughty of you."
"So are you," Charles points out, and then realizes his blunder. Lehnsherr laughs outright at the look on his face.
"D'you play?" he asks, gesturing to the piano. Charles shrugs.
"A bit. Not terribly well, I'm afraid."
Lehnsherr slides over on the bench. "Come on, then, let's have it." Charles sets down his books on the edge of the table and then moves to sit beside him, his heart fluttering slightly as though he's just run up a flight of stairs. Lehnsherr shuffles through a pile of sheet music lying on top of the piano, and then shows him one: a waltz in B major for four hands.
"Why not." Charles knows he's out of practice, and yet he's oddly unconcerned; for some reason he doesn't feel like he can embarrass himself in front of Lehnsherr anymore. They start to play, haltingly at first, then more elegantly, and Charles is pleased to find that the skill comes back to him reasonably easily, although he finds himself distracted by Lehnsherr's hands. They're slightly long-fingered, but broad, and his movements are confident and deft, nearly sensual. His right hand brushes Charles' left ever so slightly, and Charles feel a tiny shock, a snap against his skin, like when he reaches for a doorknob after walking across a thick carpet. He jolts slightly and hits a wrong note, fracturing the brisk melody.
"Dash it all," Charles says, removing his hands from the keys and smiling. "You're better than I am. Where did you learn?"
"My mother taught me," he said. "Started to, anyway, when I was quite young. I stopped for a while." He contemplates his hands, still resting on the black and white polished wood. "I find myself missing it a bit now I'm here, though."
"You're lucky your parents aren't close by, or I expect they'd be harping on you to practice more, talent like yours," Charles tells him, still smiling. Lehnsherr looks at him quickly and then back at his hands, his forehead creasing.
"They're dead, actually."
Heat rushes to Charles' face. "Christ. I'm frightfully sorry." Lehnsherr half shrugs. "No, I am, I shouldn't have...I do apologize." He pauses. "Were they...was it the war?"
Lehnsherr nods and is silent for a moment, but then he takes a quick breath and continues, his eyes still downcast. "They sent me away when the food ran out. I lived with relatives in France for a while, but my aunt and uncle died of the flu in ‘20, and then later I...found out what happened."
Charles' skin seems to crawl. He remembers studying it in his earlier years of school, the Allied blockade, all those people who'd essentially starved to death...he'd found the idea disturbing even then; it was bad enough so many had died in battle, but to condemn so many innocent people as well seemed thoroughly wrong to him. Of course, it had seemed equally wrong that any country would allow that to happen to its own people, so he'd been quite mixed-up about it ever since. He'd received a telling-off in his second year for questioning it, with his professor snapping that he'd ruddy well be heiling Wilhelm II right then if it wasn't for that blockade, but he's still never liked it. And it feels a thousand times worse sitting besides Lehnsherr now, picturing him as a small boy with his red hair and his serious face, thinking about him being shipped off and leaving his parents behind, waiting years to hear of their fate and then finding out that he would never see them again...
"I'm—very sorry," he mumbles again, quite at a loss of what to say. "I never thought—that is, I always quite disliked the idea of...well, I just hope you don't think we're all of, erm, like-minded—" He breaks off when Lehnsherr looks up at him.
"You don't have to apologize, Xavier," he says, and Charles is profoundly relieved to see that he is giving him a small, reassuring smile. "I hardly blame you personally. I'm not in the habit of denouncing an entire nation because of what some did. And I daresay there's blame to go around on both sides, anyway."
"Oh," Charles says, rather stupidly. "Right. Well, that's good. I'm glad. I shouldn't like to think that we—well, you know." He mentally kicks himself a few times and then, because it seems unreasonable not to say it, adds "So are mine. My parents, I mean. They're dead." Lehnsherr looks up at him again. "I hardly mean to compare the circumstances, of course, but, well, I suppose it's always a rather rotten thing."
Lehnsherr nods. "What happened?"
"Father died when I was eleven; accident in the lab. Or that's what they said, anyway. Then Mother two years ago from cancer. I've got a stepfather, but he's not...terribly fond of me. I'm not even sure he was all that fond of my mother, really, so much as her fortune." He's never really discussed this with anyone other than Raven before, not even McCoy. And yet it feels natural and surprisingly easy, telling him. "We put on a fairly good show of it, I suppose, but we're not..."
"Not family?" Lehnsherr asks shrewdly. Charles gives a wry smile.
"No, not particularly. And my stepbrother and I—well, we're not quite the best of chums either. Raven's family, certainly, but she's not blood, of course, and she doesn't live in the house anymore, so it's a bit..." He searches for a dignified word and finds none. "Lonely, sometimes."
"I'm sorry too, then," Lehnsherr tells him. He looks out of the window. "Family is quite important."
"I agree." Charles studies his sharp profile for a moment, and then Lehnsherr looks back at the piano keys.
"Well. Shall we give it another try?"
They attempt the waltz again, and Charles decides that it sounds rather impressive after a bit, once they fall into the right rhythm together. When chapel ends, they give the others long enough to get back to their Houses before setting off themselves, walking across the dark grounds together.
"I've still got this report to finish," Charles grouses, shifting a heavy book from one arm to the other as they head along the lane. "Whoever wrote this textbook ought to be taken out to the shed and shot; these diagrams are just awful. You can't even tell where the mitochondria—"
"Lehnsherr." Shaw is on the porch, eerily outlined from behind by the lights of Walpole House, his features invisible in the darkness. They both stop in their tracks. "You're not meant to be wandering around beyond After Five. Where've you been?"
"Out," Lehnsherr retorts, looking mulishly up at him.
"Somewhere that isn't here, clearly."
Shaw takes a step towards him, onto the top step of the house. Lehnsherr doesn't move. Charles notices that his both of hands have curled into fists.
"Does your insolence know no bounds?" Shaw asks, his voice icy. "It's quite insulting enough that you're here, where you clearly do not at all belong, but then you decide to flout the rules that the rest of us have managed to follow for centuries. As special as you may think yourself, I assure you that you do not have the right to simply do as you wish. You need a good lesson in respect."
Lehnsherr still says nothing, just looks into his face with a kind of detached fury. A muscle twitches in Shaw's cheek. "Get inside. The kitchen area needs sweeping, and you've just earned the privilege."
"I'm having a conversation with Xavier just now, obviously."
Shaw takes another step closer. "I wasn't giving you a choice." Lehnsherr looks ready to fire back with something else, but Charles just shakes his head very slightly. This battle of wills between them is going further than he thought it would, and he doesn't at all like it. At first he'd been glad that he was standing up to him, that someone was finally putting Shaw in his place, but this is going too far.
"It's not worth it," he murmurs. "Go on. I'll see you tomorrow, all right?"
Lehnsherr appears to deliberate for a moment, but then says simply "Fine, then," and marches straight past Shaw into the house, his shoulders squared. And as he moves away, Charles bites down on his lip and focuses his mind and hears, more clearly and fully than he has ever heard anyone:
You have no idea what I can do.
Charles sits on the porch of Cotton Hall House, one hand wrapped around a cup of tea as he rereads his copy of Hamlet. It has been snowing for perhaps an hour so far, and the grounds are silent and nearly empty, as most students went home for Christmas the day before. Charles stays behind, however, as he always does, and Raven is due to arrive that evening. They've done the same thing for the past three years that he's been at school, as spending several weeks shut up with Kurt and Cain is about the least festive thing he's ever experienced. He's never said it aloud, but he knows that Raven most likely has far better invitations, and he's always inexpressibly grateful that she comes and shares the holiday with him instead.
He's still sitting there reading after it's officially gone dark, and so he doesn't notice the figure clomping up the path until he's on the porch, wrapped in a wool coat and shaking snow from his hair. "Thought I'd find you here," Lehnsherr says. "Happy Christmas, Xavier."
"Oh, hello," Charles says, his voice casual but his heart leaping like a bird. He had suspected that Lehnsherr would be remaining at school for the break too, having nowhere else to go, but it's still a delight to see him there. "Er, you don't celebrate Christmas."
He shrugs. "You do."
"And it's nearly still a fortnight to go before the twenty-fifth."
"Carry on like this and I'm not going to give you your present." He throws himself into one of the wooden chairs, unfastening the top button on his coat. Tonight his eyes are blue, their hue just visible in the lamp hanging over the House front door and reflecting off the snow.
Charles fights to contain what will surely be a truly gormless smile. "You got me a present?"
"Well, it's to share." He flashes his slightly wicked grin and reaches into his coat, pulling out a golden-amber bottle of brandy.
"Where on Earth did you get that?" Charles asks, impressed, recognizing the rare, expensive brand. Lehnsherr grins more broadly.
"Shaw really ought to get a better lock on his door," he replies. "He's quite careless that way."
"Well, you may not celebrate it, but I assure you you've got the Christmas spirit down perfectly," Charles tells him, shaking his head, and he stands, taking one last swallow of the now-cold tea and pocketing his book. "Come on, let's go inside, it's freezing." They head inside the empty House and settle in the common room. Within ten minutes Charles has started a fire in the grate and Lehnsherr has taken off his coat, revealing a simple white collarless shirt and trousers with braces. Charles has never seen him out of Eton dress, and he looks older, somehow, in casual clothes, nearly dashing. He locates glasses and pours them each a liberal amount.
"We've got run of the place; everyone has left," Charles informs him, and Lehnsherr nods in contented approval, handing him his drink. "Cheers." Charles sits down in an armchair besides him and they clink glasses. They both drink, and after a moment Charles says "D'you mind if I ask—what is your holiday like? I know it involves candles, but I'm afraid that's where my expertise ends."
Lehnsherr smiles into his glass. "What, Hanukkah?" he says. "Celebration of a miracle. Bit of oil lasted for eight nights in the temple during a revolt."
"So what do you do?" Charles prompts. Lehnsherr cocks his head and looks at him, a fond expression playing over his face, and Charles feels suddenly a bit lightheaded, even though he's only had one swallow of liquor. He takes another gulp.
"Well, there's prayers, and certain foods and things, and then there's the candles." He gestures vaguely with his free hand. "Eight of them. You light one every night for eight nights, and you give presents. I remember we used to..." He trails off and looks into the fire, falling silent long enough for Charles to drain and top up his glass. "I think it's the earliest thing I can remember, actually," he says finally, more to himself than to Charles. "My mother and I, we'd do it together, and..." He stops again and shakes his head briskly, looking at his half-empty glass. "Hmm. Strong stuff, this."
"It sounds beautiful," Charles tells him, although he's not entirely sure if he meant to say it out loud. It is strong stuff. Tasty, though.
He smiles faintly. "Yes, rather," he allows. "I haven't really had a proper holiday in...well, since they died." He traces a finger around the rim of the glass. "I suppose I figured there's no point bothering by myself."
"This is a rather depressing time of year to be on one's own," Charles agrees, forcing himself not to add but you're not, you know.
"What about you? Shouldn't you be at home with a massive tree and crackers and songs about sleigh bells or whatever it is?" He finishes his drink in one gulp and pours another. Charles is moderately impressed.
"That's not quite Christmas at my house, I'm afraid," he tells him wryly. "It's more like a tree and the maid crying in the pantry and my brother locking me out in the snow for three hours." He tries to chuckle as he says it, as though it's a joke and Cain hadn't done precisely that four years previously, but he doesn't quite manage it.
"Blimey, Xavier. That might be the gloomiest holiday tale I've ever heard, and we've got one about rivers turning into blood."
"Well, I expect you can see why I prefer to stay here, then. It's a little quieter, but preferable, I assure you. My sister's coming soon, you'll meet her if you hang about." Lehnsherr nods his interest. "And I should very much like to see your holiday someday."
"Would you?" he asks with a slight snort. "Perhaps I should've done it this year. Just started in doing the blessings right in my common room. That would've gone well, eh?"
"You mustn't let Shaw get to you," Charles tells him, and Lehnsherr's jaw clenches at the mention of his name. "Really. He's just a strutting martinet with a tremendous ego who's desperate for a bit of attention, nothing more. And we'll be shot of him next year anyway, and then we'll be seniors." Earlier in the term Charles had told Lehnsherr a few stories of Shaw's other infamous acts of cruelty from previous terms, from before he had arrived at the school, in the hopes of making him see that he was just one of a string of unlucky scapegoats. However, the information seems to have increased, rather than decreased, Lehnsherr's simmering fury at Shaw, and Charles rather regrets having said anything.
Lehnsherr looks as though he's chewing something for a moment before saying "It's not just him."
"Well, you mustn't let any of them get to you, then," Charles amends, a bit impatiently. "They're all a bunch of puffed-up, stuffed-shirt tight-arses who know that they will never be anything more than their surnames and who find anything new or interesting or beyond the confines of their smoking rooms to be opprobrious and terrifying." Yes, he definitely didn't mean to say that out loud. Lehnsherr regards him for several seconds with his eyebrows nearly in his hairline, and then breaks into a loud, hearty laugh, nearly dropping his glass.
"Really, you mustn't mince words so. Do tell me how you really feel."
"I—do excuse me," he mutters, rubbing his forehead with a hand. "I think perhaps I'm a bit tight already."
"I should hope so; I didn't bring this so you might water your agapanthus with it," Lehnsherr replies, still chuckling, leaning over and pouring Charles another half-glass of brandy. "I can't say I don't agree with you, although I rather thought you had a fonder view of the place than that."
"Well, I—I do rather enjoy a lot of it, yes," he admits. "It's a lot better than being at home, for a start. And there are plenty of perfectly decent chaps to be found here as well, it's just that..." He doesn't quite want to say it; doesn't want to admit that Lehnsherr's arrival has forced him to examine just how disappointingly backwards and antiquated people there can sometimes be, because he's sure he should have noticed this before, especially given all the private things he's heard. "We're very fond of standing on ceremony here, but I often find it's based on nothing," he says finally. "And I daresay there's no point to tradition if it hinders progress."
Lehnsherr nods approvingly. "I think that deserves another toast," he says, and they touch glasses again. "Prosit." They drink again. "Progress, eh?"
"Evolution, if you will," Charles says. "I think it's quite illogical to resist change. It simply doesn't make sense to hold onto principles or—or traits that have been proven obsolete, no matter how damned comforting it might be."
"You sound like McCoy." They've both heard him discourse on the subject many times; he's been told off more than once for ruining dinner napkins with excited scribblings and diagrams. But Charles isn't talking about finches now. He takes another deep swallow of brandy and continues.
"Well, he's quite right, isn't he. We've got this idea that we've already figured out the ideal sort of person to be, so we're all meant to strive for that and then stop trying and just fall in line," he says, waving his glass a bit too emphatically. "We're all meant to say the same bloody prayers and take the same bloody courses as they did a century ago, and a century from now, and then we're all to troop off to Oxford and become, I don't know, barristers or something dull, and then consign our children to the exact same thing. It's nonsense. Ruddy ‘best of all possible worlds' or something."
"You are going to Oxford, you've said it a dozen times," Lehnsherr points out. Charles waves a dismissive hand.
"That's not the point," he protests, before glancing at Lehnsherr and realizing that he's laughing again. "I'm saying, it's about...it's about being afraid to take another...step. To be the first one to try—to be something different. To not hold yourself back because you don't fancy standing out." He can hear himself talking and he knows where he's headed; he can feel the words circling inside him, waiting to spring. He's been thinking about this moment for weeks, possibly longer, wondering if he could tell him and how and when—and also, if he can ask what he's been suspecting for some time now. That may be even trickier. An hour ago, he still wasn't sure; he'd only be the second other person, after Raven. But he's never wanted to tell anyone this badly, not even McCoy, and if his guess is right, then it would be madness not to. And something about the fire and the snow outside and the drink makes this seem like a perfect moment. Or perhaps it's just the drink; he can't tell.
"I think I've found that ‘standing out' is really just about everyone else looking in," Lehnsherr says dryly, tipping the amber liquid back and forth against the sides of his glass. "It has rather more to do with what they think than what you've actually done."
"It's about what they're afraid you can do," Charles tells him, and he nods his assent. Then Charles leans forward, elbows on his knees. "Lehnsherr, can I tell you a secret?" He nods again. Charles sets his glass down carefully on the side table, and then closes his eyes, taking in a slow breath. He concentrates hard, a frown creasing his face. It's more difficult after several drinks, but after a moment he finds something. He opens his eyes and says "What was its name?"
"What's name?" Lehnsherr looks nonplussed.
"The dog," Charles says quietly. "The one your father gave you as a gift for Hanukkah when you were small. The one you were just thinking about."
Lehnsherr's eyebrows unknit themselves as his eyes widen and a look of blank shock comes over his face. He swallows. "How—how did you know that?" he asks, his voice hoarse.
"That's what I can do," Charles tells him, still in the same soft tone. "I can hear things. Thoughts, I mean. Usually just bits and pieces, a few words, but sometimes it's images too. Depends on the circumstances. And sometimes I can make people hear me as well." Lehnsherr looks, if anything, more stunned. "I've nearly always been able to, although it took me quite some time to sort it all out. I used to get the most appalling headaches. My mother thought I had a nervous condition." Despite his excitement, he feels the old shard of grief twist in his heart at this thought; she hadn't lived long enough for him to tell her the truth—or to ask what she could do, if anything. He pushes this aside and continues. "I don't know why I can do it, or if anyone else can. I've never told anyone before, apart from my sister. But I...I wanted to tell you."
His monologue finished, he watches Lehnsherr's face closely for a reaction. He blinks several times and lets out a long, slow breath. "Fucking hell, Xavier," he mutters. "That's...that's—you're...wow."
Charles teeters on the edge of his next question for a moment, and then, spurred on by the fact that he hasn't sprinted from the room or lunged for a fireplace poker, catches Lehnsherr's gaze and asks "What can you do?"
His expression sharpens. "What?"
"You're like me, aren't you?" Charles asks, sliding forward to the edge of his chair. "I've sensed it in you. I think I have, at least. You're—something more."
Lehnsherr doesn't say anything, but the look on his face is as good as an affirmation. Charles bites down on his lip, this time failing entirely to hide his broad grin. "Go on, then," he urges him. "You can tell me, it's all right. Please," he adds.
He regards Charles for a long moment, his expression worried, nearly fearful. Then he sits up straight and looks around, his eyes falling on the giant old wireless sitting on the floor a few feet away. He turns to face it and squares his shoulders, slowly lifting one of those hands that Charles likes so much. As he watches, the screws embedded in the corners of the wireless begin to turn and then dislodge from the wood, and a moment later, the front paneling falls forward and all the pieces of the inner mechanisms, wheels and cogs and pins and whatever else, bits as tiny as fingernails and as large as baseballs, fly up and spread out, hovering in the air like an instructional manual come to three-dimensional life. Charles tears his eyes from this exceptional sight and looks at Lehnsherr, whose face has reddened with concentration. He bends the fingers out his outstretched hand very slightly inwards, and the pieces of the wireless begin to fall back into the original places as the machine reassembles itself perfectly. The front panel wobbles and falls back onto the carpeted floor with a muffled thud, however, and Lehnsherr drops his hand, exhaling sharply and leaning forward onto his knees.
"I can't...always control it," he pants. "It's harder...when there are so many pieces. But..."
It's even more amazing than Charles has been imagining. He thought he knew what Lehnsherr might be capable of, but to actually see it happen in front of him is breathtaking. Unbidden into his mind come words, poetic, not his own but perfect for the moment: How infinite in faculties! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension...
"...how like a god," he breathes, almost inaudibly. He slides from his seat onto the floor and kneels in front of the wireless, touching its exposed face; all its tiny wheels and cogs look as though they haven't been disturbed in the slightest, although they are warm to the touch. He looks over his shoulder at Lehnsherr. "Is it...anything? Machines, or—?"
"Metal," Lehnsherr replies, and lifts his head to look at him again, his brow faintly sweaty. "All of it, anything."
"Splendid." Charles can't stop grinning as he reclaims his chair. "Simply splendid. And you always could do this?"
"As long as I can remember," he says. "It used to be only when I was...upset, or feeling something strong, but now I can do it when I choose. But it's hard, I can't...well, you see." He gestures at the wireless.
"I can't even imagine what you could do with more time, and more practice," Charles marvels. "You could—you could move aeroplanes, or tanks, or—"
"Me?" Lehnsherr gives a disbelieving laugh. "What about you? You can hear minds, and talk to minds; what if you could control them? Lots, all at once?"
"I—well, I hardly think I—"
"Why not?" Lehnsherr's eyes are alive, dancing in the firelight. "Progress, remember? Being the first one to try." His gaze is almost fierce upon Charles' face for another moment, and then he shakes his head. "I can't—I can't believe it," he mutters, his voice suddenly throaty. "All this time, I thought—I didn't know there was anyone..."
"I know," Charles says, and in the next moment his hand is on Lehnsherr's knee. "I'm afraid you're not so alone here after all."
Lehnsherr looks away, at the floor, but his hand is suddenly on Charles' wrist, gripping it almost painfully tight. They are both silent for a moment, and then, "Max."
Charles blinks. "What?"
"His name was Max. My dog." He grins shyly, still not quite looking at him, as though he can't quite believe he just said something so daft. For a moment his eyes seem over-bright. Charles beams. He moves forward in his chair again, and now their knees are touching.
"I can't tell you what it means to me that—"
There is a bang outside in the corridor, and the two boys spring apart as they hear footsteps. The door to the common room opens. "And what the devil is going on here?" a voice demands, and His Majesty George V comes striding into the firelight's glow.
Lehnsherr leaps to his feet, looking astonished. "I can't fucking believe you started drinking without me," the monarch adds peevishly, tearing a scarf from beneath his beard. "I ought to have you both thrown in Scotland Yard."
Charles laughs. Lehnsherr looks to be seconds away from heart failure. "Very nice," Charles tells the king, and then turns to the other boy. "As I say, not as alone as you might think." Raven resumes her usual form with a grin. Lehnsherr's jaw drops. "Erik Lehnsherr, may I present my sister?"
"Give it another go."
"You're relentless, you are. I can't, I've had enough."
"Oh, come on, old man, try another." Lehnsherr drums both hands impatiently on the stone ledge and flashes Charles a grin which, Charles has noticed, has only gotten more wicked in recent weeks. "Go on, unless you're too scared."
Charles gives him a withering look. "You might want to rethink using reverse psychology on a telepath. It seems a trifle counterintuitive."
It is morning break, and the two boys sit in the courtyard as a weak March sun puts in a halfhearted appearance from behind the clouds. They are supposed to be revising for a rather large test on Plato's Symposium, but once again they've fallen into their preferred form of coursework: trying out their abilities. They had started over the winter holidays, the day after their conversation, their first real conversation. They had stayed up all night, Raven included, talking excitedly and (while making quick work of the rest of the brandy, as well as a bottle of whiskey brought along by Raven) showing off, with Charles extracting long strings of numbers and increasingly bawdy short phrases from each of their minds, Raven imitating President Coolidge giving speeches and the Little Tramp eating his shoe, and Lehnsherr doing the trick with the wireless again, this time finishing by turning it on and tuning it, taking a deep bow as they other two clapped and the music filled the room: We're all alone, no chaperone can get our number. The world's in slumber, let's misbehave! He had even consented, blushing furiously, to give Raven a momentary twirl when she seized him, laughing, as she and Charles did a very ungainly foxtrot around the room. They had finally fallen asleep close to dawn, all together in Charles' room, with Lehnsherr on the floor, Raven in McCoy's empty bed and Charles in his own. The next morning—or afternoon, rather—when Lehnsherr had come shambling downstairs to the common room in his shirtsleeves, his coppery hair sticking up at odd angles, Charles, having drunk several cups of Raven's brutally sobering coffee already, had greeted him with a cheery salutation and then thrown a candlestick at him.
It hit him in the shoulder, and he had yelped something undoubtedly profane in German before squinting balefully at Charles across the room, kneading his forehead, clearly still feeling the effects of their libations himself. "What was that?!"
"Practice," Charles said buoyantly (for that was the innocuous word upon which they had landed as being the best to describe their efforts), and took aim with the other one in the pair. "Now this time, stop it in the air."
"Xavier, what the hell—"
Charles let fly with the candlestick, and instinctively, it seemed, Lehnsherr's hand had shot up in front of him and the instrument instantly froze in mid-flight, hovering five feet above the carpet. Lehnsherr looked rather pleased with himself, and Raven, seated at the table with Charles, gave him another round of only slightly mocking applause. After a quick meal of eggs, toast and tea, they had begun to make plans, coming up with all sorts of ideas for honing their powers together. Their initial methods weren't the most sophisticated: they comprised mainly of Charles attempting to read simple, clear thoughts from within Lehnsherr's mind, and Lehnsherr attempting to stop or move various objects that Charles chucked at him. They included Raven as well while she was there, with both of them barraging her with things like "old man with long gray beard" or "Louise Brooks in a baseball uniform" and seeing how quickly she could change her form accordingly.
When she returned for Long Leave at the end of February, however, they had progressed by leaps and bounds, and Charles was now testing his abilities on unsuspecting others, while Lehnsherr had moved on to manipulating—not just moving—increasingly larger objects. The two of them could hardly breathe for laughing as they told her about the look on Shaw's face when he had reached for a pitcher of water in the dining hall and found the entire contents in his lap, the entire bottom mysteriously flayed apart. After a half an hour of their excited recitations, she had declared that she'd had "quite enough of you two giggling schoolgirls" and gone off to chat with McCoy. Charles never learned what they talked about, although when Charles found McCoy later that night in the common room, he was outrageously cheery for someone merely sitting there darning socks, as he was.
They have also done a fair bit of theoretical research as well, holing up in the library for hours at a time and poring through any books that seem relevant. Nothing has been terribly helpful in explaining the source of their abilities; Charles notes more than once in frustration that it would have been quite fascinating to test if these things might be genetic, were it not for the fact that he, Lehnsherr and Raven are all orphans, or as good as, with no family to speak of. He had, though, come across that word, telepath, coined nearly fifty years previously by a doctor called Myers, and ever since then he has carried it around inside him like a secret glow. Finally, a definition; a meaning for what he is. They find no such concise term for Lehnsherr, though, to Charles' slight disappointment. "Maybe you're the first one," he tells him encouragingly, but Lehnsherr seems unconcerned. He prefers to focus more on history and action than on terminology, still forever perusing newspapers and books for hints, Charles assumes, of someone else out there like him.
His real preference, however, is clearly for practical application, and he is forever goading Charles to push himself further, to try more difficult feats of mind-plundering. And it works: Charles can now almost always glean full, complex thoughts from others' minds at will; the entire picture rather than snippets, and he can often also extract specific bits of information, things he wants to know rather than simply what the person is thinking at that moment. He can also now make himself clearly heard when he communicates thoughts to others, although in this case "others" is only Lehnsherr and Raven; he hasn't tried it on anyone else yet, assuming that most people would notice and rather object to having a foreign voice in their mind. Lehnsherr, however, remains convinced that with the right amount of focus, Charles could enter someone's thoughts with enough command to control their actions, as if to make them think the voice in their head is their own. He hasn't tried it on either of them, figuring it's an invalid test if the subject is expecting his intrusion. Besides, the idea frightens Charles—but it excites him in equal measure. He's started having occasional headaches again and sometimes he could swear his hair is falling out from the effort, but there's no denying that he's become astonishingly more powerful under Lehnsherr's eager, sometimes bossy encouragement.
"Well, what have we here," Lehnsherr says now, the feckless grin sliding from his face. He's looking past Charles' shoulder, and when he turns, he sees Shaw entering the courtyard, flanked as he so often is now by several younger boys, including Azwell, Leland and Quested. Charles raises his eyebrows.
"Things calmed down in your House, then?" he asks, referring to the previous night when a third-year, Cassidy, had been caned by Shaw merely for filching Licorice Allsorts from the prefects' study. Charles and Lehnsherr had returned from an evening out and were standing on the porch of Walpole House talking when they'd both heard the boy's shriek of pain from inside the House, their heads turning quickly in unison at the sudden, jarring sound. Charles immediately felt a sharp pang of empathy for the lad, but Lehnsherr's eyes had narrowed in anger and he'd made a sudden movement towards the front door, as if set to charge in and put a stop to it, but Charles had prevented him, knowing it was of no use. Lehnsherr shoots the same kind of cold expression across the yard now.
"Relatively," he says. "Go on, mate. Try him again."
"I have tried him, you know that," Charles retorts, half exasperated and half embarrassed. "I can't get through. Something...I'm always blocked. Probably because he hasn't got a single sodding thought that he doesn't share out loud," he adds as an attempt at humor. It's certainly true that Shaw is given not only to sharing his opinions quite liberally, but to boasting about various aspects of his life; he has been telling anyone who will listen, and several who won't, all about how he intends to take a gap year before entering Cambridge and take a grand voyage around the world on a luxurious ship along with the Windsor girl he's been courting, an apparently stunning blonde called Frost, heiress to some sort of gem fortune. Nevertheless, Charles never has been able to break into Shaw's mind, not even slightly; it's as though he somehow knows how to erect a protective mental wall. He's not sure why or how, but he finds it disturbing.
Lehnsherr doesn't laugh at Charles' feeble joke, but continues glowering across the courtyard at him. "What's he hiding, then?" he mutters, posing the same question that he always does when Charles fails to access his thoughts. Charles glances sideways at the dark look on his face, feeling worried, as ever, about the enmity between the two of them. There's also no denying that it's gotten worse over the last term; Shaw has managed to become even more vindictive than before, making snide comments at every available opportunity and reprimanding Lehnsherr for the most absurd of infractions. One evening he had failed to meet Charles at the library and explained the next morning, his voice shaking with suppressed rage, that Shaw had kept him behind, ordering him to redo the creases on his trousers a dozen times over, saying that it reflected on the lot of them and he wouldn't have a no-account sixth former keeping them from having a "clean House." Charles isn't sure what's caused this surge in maliciousness; he wonders if Shaw intends to get as much of it in as possible before he leaves school, or if he's being encouraged by his odd little band of followers. He can't help but think, though, that it's because of the obvious change in Lehnsherr this term, ever since the conversation with Charles and the beginning of their efforts and everything. He's more extroverted, more confident—happier, essentially, and Charles suspects that this infuriates Shaw, even if he doesn't know the cause.
Deciding to distract him, Charles focuses his attention instead on Azwell, hovering dutifully by Shaw's side, and his fingers drift unconsciously to the side of his head. It's just a bad habit he's fallen into, thanks to Lehnsherr's teasing suggestion; he knows it's a bit silly and intends to desist once he's gotten a bit more skilled, but for the time being there's something useful about the pressure on his ability to focus. After a moment, he laughs and nudges Lehnsherr in the ribs. "How about this, then," he says. "You know that scar Azwell's got?"
"Yes?" Everyone does, and everyone also knows a different outlandish rumor about its origin.
"Not from a wild pub brawl. And not from the last desperate swings of a German bayonet, either." Lehnsherr's mouth quirks. "When he was six, he tried to drown his little sister's kitten, and it scratched the dickens out of him. He's mortally afraid of cats ever since."
Lehnsherr looks delighted. "Really?"
"Oh yes," he says. He's quite sure—he'd seen it clearly, the pond, the small, fuzzy gray body, the furious yowls, the prickling sense of terror. The when and where and how, all of it; picture, facts and feelings. He grins, pleased with himself, and they both turn to look at the boy across the way again. "And his sister knocked out his tooth when she found out."
Lehnsherr lets out a raucous bark of laughter, and Shaw and the others look quickly over at the noise, which in turn makes Charles laugh, and for a minute they can't stop. "Shut it, you two," Shaw bellows, evidently irked by all this unwarranted mirth. "This isn't a beerhouse."
"Very sorry, Shaw," Lehnsherr calls back boldly, and then adds "Oi, Azwell, how's your sister?"
"Sod off, Lehnsherr," the boy shouts, apparently instinctively. Lehnsherr puts up his hands in a mock-defensive gesture, trying and failing to keep a straight face.
"All right, all right, don't go having kittens about it." The startled, flustered look on Azwell's face is visible even from where they sit, and at this, Charles lets out a most inelegant snort, burying his face in Lehnsherr's shoulder, his whole body shaking with laughter. Lehnsherr unleashes his most fiendish grin yet.
"Thanks," he says. "I quite enjoyed that."
Later that evening, they walk together to fencing club, still chuckling over that afternoon's minor victory. Both of them have also improved at the sport; Lehnsherr has observed how it perfect it is that they had met there, as the activity is so thoroughly relevant to their individual gifts. Indeed, Charles has gotten fairly good at sensing his opponent's next moves, and Lehnsherr is unsurprisingly adept with a foil and at rendering his challenger less so. They have acknowledged, of course, that it is less than sporting to have such advantages, but justify it by agreeing that it's only practice, in more than one sense of the word; it's not as though they're in any sort of official competition.
"But of course, we'll have to watch ourselves when we're at Oxford," Charles teases now when they land upon this subject again, turning a bend in the road and heading towards the gymnasium. "We might accidentally earn ourselves reputations as expert swordsmen here, and then we'll be jiggered when we've got to rely on skill alone at university. Well, I will, you're discourteous enough to actually be decent already."
Lehnsherr just gives Charles a faint nod, saying nothing, as he always does when they fall upon the topic of further schooling. Charles' own grin fades. "Oh, really, Lehnsherr, you've got to come," he says in a different voice. "You've just got to. We'll be so much better by then, and there's so much more we can do there, and after... I'm quite sure you can get a scholarship; that really shouldn't be a problem. For your music, perhaps; you play so beautifully."
Lehnsherr smiles at the praise. "Perhaps I could," he agrees, but Charles knows he is being humored. Charles can't understand it; he gets good marks and seems to enjoy study, and he's sure he would be treated with far less rudeness at Oxford, as it's so much larger and the population is, in theory, rather more diverse and mature. And, of course, Charles wants to believe there's other motivation.
"It won't be the same without you," he says, trying to make his voice light and silly, as though he's teasing again, but his stomach seems to squirm a bit as he says it. "Who else will harp on at me about practicing all day and night? And haven't we got a brilliant scientific dissertation to write as well?" He had floated this idea a few weeks ago, after their repeated disappointments at the library in finding any explanatory texts regarding their abilities. Charles has long felt, or perhaps expected, that his eventual career lies somewhere in the scientific field, possibly because of his parents, he supposes, and these past several weeks have increased this dream exponentially and given him an excellent experimental area on which to focus. When he had eagerly explained this to Lehnsherr and suggested that they work together on the matter long-term, however, he had merely responded with inscrutable semi-interest.
He shrugs as they pull open the door of the gymnasium, the light momentarily dazzling their eyes after their walk through the dark grounds. "I'm sure McCoy will make a more than sufficient lab partner, won't he?" he asks, nodding towards McCoy himself, who hails them both cheerfully from across the room, already dressed in his fencing clothes. "You might as well tell him eventually; he'll be fascinated."
"Oh," Charles says, as they turn and head down the steps into the changing rooms. "Er—well—yes, I'm sure that's true." But his stomach now stops squirming and seems to drop like a stone—McCoy? He thinks that Charles regards him in the same way he does McCoy? He likes McCoy very much, to be sure, and has indeed toyed with the idea of telling him about his abilities; his kindly, loyal nature and his extraordinary scientific mind do seem to qualify him as someone worthy of knowing the secret. But for Charles, McCoy and Lehnsherr have never been in the same category, not even for a second. From the very beginning, Lehnsherr has been different.
Charles isn't a fool. And even when he is, it's not about things like this. He knows now what he feels about Lehnsherr; he's known since even before their fireside talk. As new and unusual as the feelings might be, they're not hard to identify, given their unwavering nature and increasing strength. At first he'd thought that he was merely drawn to him because he sensed his abilities, that that first irresistible pull he'd felt towards him outside Walpole House that first evening had been one advanced mind recognizing another. But he soon came to understand it was more than that. And even if he'd had any lingering doubts or strands of denial, it would have been more or less impossible to cling to them after sitting beside him in class, studying The Symposium (which they had never gotten around to revising after all) with Lehnsherr's leg brushing against his under the table and Charles' heart in his throat. For when the lover and beloved come together, having each of them a law, and the lover thinks that he is right in doing any service which he can to his gracious loving one; and the other that he is right in showing any kindness which he can to him who is making him wise and good...well, there is no mystery there.
And he knows how most people feel about these matters—it's illegal, of course, to pursue that sort of thing out in the real world, and at school, the other boys' sniggers and the professor's stern rebukes make their views plain. And at the same time, it's a familiar phenomenon at schools such as theirs; older boys are forever swooning and declaring their mad desire for some pretty younger lad. That's just how things are. But Lehnsherr isn't younger or pretty or innocent, and Charles is quite sure his feelings go beyond mere admiration of loveliness. Every term there is another rumor about someone else being caught or suspected or punished in some scandalous fashion, and they get another lecture after morning chapel about being "proper English gentlemen" and avoiding "immoral behavior" and all that sort of nonsense. It makes not the slightest bit of sense to Charles. The Greeks and Romans apparently couldn't say enough on the subject, according to everything they're made to read in class—they're meant to revere the great classics, to memorize them, to suffer through hideously long essays about them, but then to disregard their messages entirely as being "immoral"? They're told to look to their trusty King Jameses for any and all answers—well, there's plenty in there that's jolly well immoral, in Charles' opinion, stonings and whippings and animal sacrifice and all sorts of mad stuff, and none of that ever seems to bother anyone.
Besides, the potential reactions of everyone else, severe though they would be, concern Charles far less than Lehnsherr's. Sometimes he allows himself to believe that his feelings are in fact reciprocated; Lehnsherr certainly always seems to want to be around him, and he's gotten rather more physical and affectionate over the passing months—a hand ruffling Charles' hair after a particularly brilliant telepathic accomplishment; an approving pat on the leg. Or is he merely imagining it; seeing what he hopes to see? He didn't laugh at the Plato readings, at any rate. There is a fairly obvious solution, of course, one that Charles resists with increasing daily difficulty: he and Lehnsherr seem to have made a tacit agreement that Charles would not enter his mind anymore, not now that he's moved on to more challenging feats, and he hasn't done so. But the temptation is nearly irresistible, even with the risk that Lehnsherr will realize what he's done, just to know.
They change into their fencing uniforms without saying much, Charles forcing himself to keep his eyes downcast. When they return to the main room upstairs, they find that the instructor has gone off sick and left Fitzroy, a wild-haired prefect from Hawtrey House, in charge. The boys split up into their usual groups, having been divided by skill level after the first initial practices, and Charles takes his usual place on the side of the room with Lehnsherr and McCoy, who has also improved, although he has opted for a more straightforward method of actual study of technique and practice. "I think I've had a breakthrough," he tells Charles happily as the boys at the head of the queue take their positions and begin to duel. "Mouse Four is still alive, and it's been eight days."
"Oh," Charles says again, still distracted. "Good. That's brilliant."
"I thought perhaps if I cut the grain intake by a quarter and increased the serum by that much as well, it might just balance it all out and the growth would slow to a manageable pace, because that's what's been doing it, you know, too much accelerated cellular change all at once, and it renders the membrane too permeable and the bacteria gets in far too quickly. But now I think I've finally got just the right ratio, and I'm going to try it on the others tomorrow." He says this all in one breath and then heaves a contented sigh. "So how's your—Xavier? Are you all right?"
"What? Oh—yes, quite all right. Sorry. Bit tired. Er—lot of work, you know. What were you saying? The cells?" He forces himself not to stare at the back of Lehnsherr's head. Just the quickest little peek—
"You do look rather peaky," McCoy says, studying his face thoughtfully. "I think you're rather overworking yourself. I feel like I've not seen you all term." Charles knows immediately that he's right on both counts: he's come back to their room late nearly every night this term, having spent all evening in "practice," and then stayed up until all hours reading and making notes about what they'd done and should do next. McCoy's tone isn't at all accusatory, but there's something about the sincerity with which he says it that makes Charles feel a distinct kick of guilt; he really has been a rather rubbishy friend as of late.
"You're right," he tells him, turning and looking into his earnest face. "I've just had—rather a lot to be getting on with, but that's no excuse for being such an appalling roommate. Do forgive me, won't you?"
"I can't make any promises," McCoy replies, but he smiles shyly as he says it, and Charles knows that it's forgotten. Perhaps he should tell him. Lehnsherr's right; maybe his research will prove useful. There doesn't seem to be a single useful explanation for their abilities out there yet, so if anyone is going to help them break new ground, it's probably him. And—his stomach slips another few inches at the thought—if Lehnsherr really might not be nearby in future... "I say, have you decided what you'll be focusing on once you get to Oxford?" Charles asks him. "Because I've...got rather an idea for something that might interest you, I think."
This time, however, it is McCoy who is distracted. "Gosh, it always seems to be those two, doesn't it," he says, and Charles follows his gaze to the mat, where Lehnsherr has reached the head of the queue and is paired off, yet again, with Azwell. Azwell too has improved considerably over the year, and he and Lehnsherr are decently matched in skill, if not in style. Indeed, this evening Azwell seems to be even more recklessly aggressive than usual, and Charles wonders if he's still smarting over their taking the piss out of him that afternoon. This, of course, only serves to please Lehnsherr, it seems, and he moves with a bold, taunting confidence that is nearly playful. Charles can't quite tell if he's using his abilities or not, but he's certainly having fun with him. "Achilles and Hector, those two," McCoy remarks, shaking his head. "I shudder to think how this will end."
"No, I think he's got him," Charles says, a smile appearing despite his worries. "Look, he's—just there—" They both watch as Azwell swipes at him furiously and Lehnsherr easily dodges him, leaping nimbly out of the way and then surging forward, driving him backwards. He then parries a strike and delivers a devastating riposte to the chest, and Azwell, misjudging his motion, overbalances and lands on his back on the mat. Charles and McCoy both applaud, and Lehnsherr pulls off his mask and grins broadly.
"You'll have to do a little better than that, I'm afraid," he says smugly, and sarcastically extends a hand to help him up. Azwell shoves his arm away.
"Fuck off," he snaps, clearly audible behind his mask, getting clumsily to his feet and recovering his foil. Lehnsherr looks, if possible, more pleased.
"Tsk-tsk." He wags a reproving gloved finger of his non-foil hand. "Didn't your mother ever teach you not to be a sore loser?" He turns to walk off the mat, catching Charles' eye and winking.
"I wouldn't talk," Azwell calls after him, standing in an aggressive stance in the middle of the mat. "I doubt your kike of a mother had time to teach you much of anything before she snuffed it, eh?"
There is a moment, one airless moment in which everything stands still and Lehnsherr comprehends what he said and Charles hears McCoy's indignant splutter of "Well—!" and he realizes what is about to happen. Before he can do anything, before he's even moved, Lehnsherr has whipped around and dropped his foil and his mask, and in the next second he is charging at Azwell, his left hand flying out to the side and open, and Azwell's foil shoots from his fingers and rockets across the room. He looks down in confusion at his empty hand, but then Lehnsherr is upon him, knocking him clear off his feet with ferocious right hook directly in his masked face. Blood spurts from behind the mesh, and Charles can hear his howl of pain as Lehnsherr wrestles him on the ground, and without even realizing it he's running forward and he's shouting "Lehnsherr, don't! Don't!" Panic explodes inside him like gunfire—if he loses control, here, now, in front of everyone—if they see—
Everything is suddenly chaos; boys have swarmed around them and are yelling in either indignation or encouragement, it's impossible to say. Charles launches himself at Lehnsherr, now pinning Azwell to the ground with his knees on his chest, and attempts to pull him off, but Lehnsherr throws him off with shocking strength and his elbow catches Charles in the mouth. He falls backwards, knocking into McCoy, who is right behind him, and they both hit the mat as well. Charles tastes blood and lifts his head, and sees what Lehnsherr is doing: one hand is holding Azwell's arms down while the other—the other is poised in the air some eight inches before Azwell's face, his fingers bent, and the fencing mask seems to be collapsing in on itself, like a punctured rugby ball, and the buckles round the back are pulling tighter and tighter as Azwell thrashes in terror, unable to get the breath to yell, and there is nothing but blind fury in that face that Charles knows so well—
"Oi! What the hell d'you think you're doing? Get off of him!" Fitzroy and a few other boys come charging forward and shove several gawping students aside, and they pull Lehnsherr off. Azwell, his arms now free, scrabbles frantically at his throat with both hands, and two of the boys kneel beside him and attempt to wrench off the destroyed mask as Fitzroy yanks Lehnsherr to his feet, taking in the whole scene: the blood on the back of his right glove; Charles and McCoy lying sprawled and stunned nearby. "What the bloody hell are you playing at?!" he demands, giving Lehnsherr a hard shove in the chest. Lehnsherr, breathing hard, his hair all over his face, doesn't even look at him, just continues staring as Azwell on the ground. "Come on," Fitzroy growls, and begins to haul Lehnsherr away by the scruff of his neck. Charles scrambles to his feet.
"Are you all right?" he fires at McCoy, who is still on the ground, open-mouthed and blinking rapidly behind his spectacles.
"Y—yes, I'm fine, but your lip—" Charles doesn't wait to hear the rest, but goes running after them. Fitzroy drags Lehnsherr out of the gymnasium and into the small antechamber leading out into the grounds and then releases him.
"Well?" he says angrily, just as Charles shoves his way through the doors as well. "What've you got to say for yourself?"
Lehnsherr says nothing at all, and Charles jumps in. "Please, Fitzroy, you've got to understand—"
"No one asked you, Xavier," Fitzroy snaps, glancing at him in annoyance, but he plows on.
"But it's not like it looked; Azwell said—"
"Said? I don't give a tuppenny fuck what he said," Fitzroy shouts, his voice echoing slightly off the raised ceiling. He bangs the open door with a fist and Charles jumps aside as it slams shut like a cannon shot. "You can't just go and beat his head in because of what he said, for Christ's sake."
Lehnsherr remains silent, standing motionless, not looking at either of them, his face impassive. "Damn it all to hell," Fitzroy mutters, raking a hand through his wild, wavy hair. "Who's your Head? Shaw?" After a pause, Lehnsherr jerks his head in assent. "Fine. I'll let him deal with you." He opens the door to the gymnasium again and sticks his head in. "You, Drake, come here," he calls, and a younger boy comes trotting out. "Go find Shaw. Tell him what's happened." The boy nods obediently and heads straight for the doors and out into the dark grounds; it's still a few days before the evenings will be light again. "You stay here until he arrives," Fitzroy says threateningly to Lehnsherr, and then enters the gym again, presumably to tend to Azwell and restore some semblance of order.
The instant he is gone, Charles says swiftly "Shaw put him up to that. He told Azwell to provoke you, I know he did."
Lehnsherr looks properly at Charles for the first time, and his expression instantly defrosts several degrees as his eyes fall upon his split lip. "Xavier, I'm sorry," he says quietly. His hand drifts upwards, as if reaching for his mouth, but he seems to think better of it and drops it. "I didn't mean to hurt you."
"Never mind that," Charles says impatiently, wiping at the cut and ignoring its sting. "Listen, you can't do that. That mustn't ever happen again, all right?"
Lehnsherr's features harden again. "You heard what he said."
"Yes, I did, and it was awful, and frankly I'd quite like to knock him sideways for it as well," Charles tells him bluntly, and he means it. He so badly wants to put his hand on Lehnsherr's shoulder, but he resists. "And I also know that that wasn't at all just about what he said. But Lehnsherr, please, you know you can't let that happen again, not like that, in front of everyone. What if—" he lowers his voice, even though there is no one nearby "—what if someone saw? I mean to say, what if they noticed what you can do? I don't even—I can't begin to think what they'd do with you. You just can't, not after all your work, not after you've gotten so—"
"So we're to hide what we can do?" Lehnsherr says abruptly. "We train, and we work, and we improve ourselves, but for what? Why do we have these abilities, then? For what purpose?" His accent is suddenly so strong that Charles can barely understand him. "What are we to use them for, really?"
Charles blinks stupidly at him. "I—we—well, not that, surely," he stammers, gesturing at the gym, indicating the brawl. "We've only just started, haven't we? But later, after school, once we're even better, we can—we'll..." He trails off. How have they never discussed this? Charles has had endless daydreams about the two of them, older and confident and ever more powerful, studying and traveling the world together, perhaps, and learning all about themselves and what they can do. And doing—something or other benevolent for society as well. He's just assumed opportunities for nobility and brilliance will present themselves along the way, but he's never filled in the details. He's been so focused on the together part, on the idea of them as a pair, unique and apart from the rest, that he's barely spared a moment on what they should actually do, in the grand scheme of things. And somehow, he's never asked Lehnsherr just what he has in mind. He's just assumed—or maybe just hoped—that they were on the same page about that, too.
Lehnsherr just watches him sternly. "I don't know why we have these abilities, but I do know that we can't waste them. Collapsing tea kettles and listening in on schoolboys' secrets; these are children's games." He shakes his head. "No more of this."
Charles can only gape. Just hours ago they'd been sitting together, laughing their heads off teasing Shaw and Azwell and the others, toying with them because they can and because they deserve it, and now—what? "Children's games"? He looks up into Lehnsherr's grim face, and he is struck, not for the first time, at how much older he seems than Charles himself. He is still dazed and on edge by what has just happened, and now he feels foolish as well.
The door to the outside opens, and Shaw comes sweeping in, his arrival suspiciously prompt, in Charles' opinion. He rolls his eyes extravagantly upon seeing the two of them standing there as Drake runs quickly behind him and back into the gym. "God, you again?" he says, addressing Charles with great contempt. "Have you even got any other mates? What are you, his solicitor?"
"Shaw, listen: Azwell was bang out of order. You can't just—"
"I must have missed the bit where you're allowed to tell me what I can't do," Shaw interjects coolly, and then turns to Lehnsherr. He shakes his head. "You just don't learn, do you," he says softly. "You just insist upon making things worse for yourself. I'll never understand it. What exactly did you do to Azwell?"
"Go and see for yourself," Lehnsherr says evenly, looking straight past Shaw and out of the doors and beyond.
"I'm asking you."
"Hit him, then, didn't I."
Now Lehnsherr turns his head and looks at Shaw, straight in the eyes, without the slightest trace of fear or disquiet. Charles is awed by how intimidating he can be with the smallest of movements. He raises his eyebrows as if to say as if you don't already know, but then says, very clearly and calmly, "Because he deserved it."
For a moment, they simply stand there, sizing one another up, saying nothing as Charles' eyes dart between their faces. Shouts and clanks can be heard through the closed door; the session has evidently started again. Then Shaw takes another half step towards Lehnsherr and says in a near whisper "Go and get your things. You've had it. You're coming back to the House with me."
Charles hears the hiss in his voice, and looks down to see him flexing his fingers unconsciously. Something cold and sharp seems to pierce Charles' heart, and he feels a thrill of horror shoot down his whole body. He knows in an instant exactly what Shaw plans to do, and for a moment he thinks he can almost hear the swish-crack that every Eton boy know and, if he has any sense, fears.
"No," he says aloud, and both Lehnsherr and Shaw turn to look at him. "No, Shaw, don't."
"Once again, I'm baffled by your belief that your opinion is at all relevant, Xavier," he retorts, sounding close to laughter. "Honestly, no wonder the two of you are such bosom pals. You share a most charming delusion about what you're worth." He looks at Lehnsherr again. "I believe I told you to get your things." Lehnsherr glances at Charles for the briefest fraction of a second before turning and heading down the stairs back to the changing rooms, leaving Charles and Shaw alone. Charles' heart is pounding; he feels sickened. It's one thing to be beaten by a Head of House, as Cassidy was, but it's quite another to receive a so-called Pop-tanning, executed by the President in front of the entire rest of the Society. They're rare, usually saved for the most extreme of cases, and Charles knows that this is Lehnsherr's fate. It's a well-known fact that it's the harshest punishment one can receive at school, far worse than anything even the Headmaster doles out; the past few Presidents have tried to outdo one another to see who can draw blood the quickest. But the fact that it's Shaw, violent, sadistic Shaw, and it's Lehnsherr, his favorite quarry—Charles is sure that he'll leave him half dead or worse, cut to ribbons from the cane's strokes while they all watch. It's not just the extraordinary pain he'll feel that's turning Charles' stomach, it's the idea of him being degraded like that in front of all those boys, the ones who already look down on him, on everything about him. The thought is completely unbearable.
"I tried to warn you," Shaw is saying, looking down at him with something like pity or revulsion. "I told you not to hang about with scum like Lehnsherr, and you see it's led you nowhere. You make good marks, I hear, and you're from a decent enough family; you're a fool to ruin your chances by wasting time with him."
Charles isn't listening. He's concentrating harder than he ever has before, his hand at his temple, fighting desperately to break into Shaw's mind: leave now and forget about this; leave Lehnsherr alone and don't talk to him ever again; just leave it and go; nothing's happened here; forget about all of this; forget you even know who he is; don't do this don't do this DON'TDOTHISDON'T—
But it's no use, it's like shouting at the top of his lungs into a broom cupboard; there's no echo, no sense of connection, nothing but silence and a wall. "What the devil's the matter with you?" Shaw demands, looking unnerved and taking a step backwards. "You look like you're about to be sick." Charles just stares at him hatefully, knowing he planned this, knowing he's been just waiting for the perfect opportunity; he doesn't need bloody telepathy to understand that. "Right pair of little freaks, you are."
The door to the lower level opens again and Lehnsherr emerges, changed back into his regular uniform. Charles can't tell if he knows what awaits him or not, as his expression remains as unreadable as ever. Shaw points to the door to the grounds. "Get a move on," he says. "And get back inside, Xavier, you've got thirty minutes to go before Quiet Hour."
Charles ignores him, turning a desperate face to Lehnsherr. "I'll come with you," he says wildly, without thinking, without caring that Shaw is standing there. He can feel himself sweating from both his mental effort and his terror. Shaw laughs.
"How exquisitely pathetic," he exclaims, shaking his head in disbelief again. "And all this time I thought he was your little pet. Perhaps I was wrong."
Lehnsherr gives Charles the smallest of smiles. "No," he says, quiet but firm. "Stay here; it's all right. It doesn't matter."
"We'll see about that," Shaw says, eyes flashing. "Move. Now." Lehnsherr spares him one cold look before turning and walking out the door. As he goes, his hand brushes Charles' for the merest second, so briefly that Shaw doesn't notice. Charles watches him go, straight-backed and head held high, as Shaw prowls behind him like an executioner taking him to the gallows. Charles clutches his head with both hands, standing alone in the small corridor in agony. He can't bear it. The idea of him, Lehnsherr, his Lehnsherr, bloodied and humiliated in front of those wretched boys, it's too much—
The door to the gym opens yet again, and Drake sticks his head out. "Erm, Fitzroy says you're to come back in or he'll have you running laps, Xavier," he says timidly, clearly uncomfortable with all this newfound responsibility. Charles just nods vaguely, and the boy retreats. A very large part of him wants to go sprinting into the dark after Shaw and Lehnsherr and...what? Tackle Shaw to the ground and beat him, as Lehnsherr did Azwell? Set fire to the library as a distraction and whisk Lehnsherr off to safety? He feels helpless, knowing exactly what's going to happen and unable to do a thing about it, like when he was a child and sensed his stepbrother's oncoming rages, his mother's failing health.
After a moment he walks unseeingly back into the gymnasium because he can think of nothing else to do. He passes dueling pairs of boys and heads turning to look at him without really noticing them, and moves over to the side of the room, where he half collapses onto a bench. Within moments, McCoy is by his side.
"What on Earth happened? Where's Lehnsherr? They've taken Azwell to the matron; his nose is broken and he won't stop gibbering about Lehnsherr trying to crush his head in or some nonsense—what happened?" he repeats, trying to look into Charles' pallid face.
"Shaw," Charles manages to croak. "Shaw's got him. He's taken him back to the House and he's...he's going to beat him."
McCoy looks stricken, and Charles knows that he too understands exactly how dire of a fate this is. "Oh, no," he murmurs. "That's dreadful. Poor Lehnsherr. Although—well—" He looks awkward. "I suppose he shouldn't have—I mean, he jolly well could've killed him, but—what Azwell said really was awful."
"I should've stopped him," Charles whispers, mostly to himself. "I could've got to him before he hit him. Or I should've known he was going to say that; he was just trying to wind him up and he finally cracked. Anyone would; it's been months of this and it never ends—and now Shaw's got him and he's—he's going to—fucking hell," he bursts out, and slams his fist hard against the bench. It feels as though he's fractured at least three fingers, but he doesn't care. Every nerve in his body is jangling with the desire to jump up again and run right out of there. To hell with Fitzroy and all the rest of them; he won't let him be alone...but Lehnsherr had asked him to stay behind, and it won't make things any easier for him if he goes bursting in there...
"Steady on there," McCoy says, gripping Charles' forearm and looking slightly alarmed at the intensity of his distress. "There's no way you could've known that was going to happen, and I don't think anyone can stop Lehnsherr from doing anything he likes, really." He gives Charles a little shake. "Don't worry, he'll be all right. He's quite resilient, Lehnsherr is. I expect he's been through worse. Besides, we all have our turn in the end, don't we?" He attempts an encouraging smile, although he doesn't sound entirely convinced, as though he knows that neither of them have experienced anything like what Lehnsherr's about to.
Charles isn't at all comforted. He knows exactly how it will be and what Shaw will do; he probably gathered up all the other members of Pop ahead of time, knowing that his little lackey Azwell would follow orders and goad Lehnsherr into something worthy of a beating. Charles can see it, clear as day inside his mind, as if he'd succeeded in entering Shaw's mind after all: he can see Lehnsherr leaning against the window sash in the dark, elegant room, probably made to wear his thinnest, oldest trousers and untuck his shirt, his face a mask, refusing to make the slightest sound as Shaw strikes him over and over, the birch rod slicing through fabric and skin as the other Society boys watch in approval. He can see Shaw's face, with his ice-blue eyes—so unlike Lehnsherr's—alight with pleasure, his sleeves rolled up, having removed his King's Scholar's gown for once, knuckles white as he grips the rod and brings it down with all his strength. He knows Lehnsherr won't react, he won't give Shaw the satisfaction no matter how much it hurts; he'll just stand there with his jaw clenched, forcing himself to breathe, waiting for it to end...
Charles himself is no stranger to pain. He's been caned by regular prefects before himself, of course, and he's suffered far worse thrashings at his stepbrother's hands at home. But at the moment, strange as it is, he can remember nothing ever hurting this much. He knows it's absurd to feel this way when he's not even the one being beaten, but nevertheless, he can't stop hot, bitter tears falling from his eyes and onto his tightly clenched fists.