When the club session is over, he has to force himself to go downstairs and change before flying over to Walpole House. His hands, aching from where his nails dug into his palms, are shaking as he pulls on his jumper and trousers, and once he is out on the dark grounds again, he breaks into a run, not stopping until he reaches the House. There is no one on the porch, and he closes the door behind him as quietly as he can, as he's hardly supposed to be barging into a House that isn't his own at this hour. He can hear voices and commotion from the common room, but he nips up the stairs two at a time, making hardly a sound—he might not be an expert swordsman, but he's always been spry. He tiptoes through the corridors, looking for the right door; he's never actually been to Lehnsherr's room before, as they always preferred to meet up in Charles' House or elsewhere on campus in order to avoid Shaw. Finally, he finds it at the end on the left: "Lehnsherr, E." and "Summers, A."
He doesn't even bother to knock. He opens the door and sees Lehnsherr standing in front of his desk, bracing himself against it with his hands behind him, his face darkened with pain. Summers sits on his bed across from him and appears to be in the act of offering him a flask. "—best thing for it, mate," Charles hears him saying as he enters.
Without hesitation, before they have even had time to notice him, Charles' fingers are by his head and he's blaring GO AWAY full-force at Summers, and it works: he instantly rises from his bed without another word and walks straight out of the door, passing Charles as though he isn't there. Charles has nothing against him, really, but for the moment he absolutely cannot bear the presence of anyone else. Lehnsherr looks around in surprise and sees Charles, and such a look of weary relief comes over his face that Charles nearly feels like crying again. "Xavier," he says. "I knew you'd turn up."
"Of course I did." Charles closes the door behind Summers, barely taking a moment to marvel at the fact that his powers of persuasion, as it were, have just worked so well. He crosses the room to him. "Are you—are you all right?"
Lehnsherr, as ever, just shrugs, but Charles comes closer. "Please, let me see," he says, now finally putting a hand on Lehnsherr's shoulder. He's sweating, though the room isn't warm. He closes his eyes briefly at Charles' touch, his expression pained.
"No, don't—it doesn't matter," he says again, but Charles pulls him gently away from the desk and looks, and the room seems to spin. It's almost worse than he expected—there are indeed great slashes cut in his untucked shirt and trousers, well over a dozen strikes, maybe closer to twenty, and his lower back and his buttocks and the back of his legs are bleeding. Shaw had clearly unleashed his full ire upon him without the slightest restraint, and no one had seen fit to intervene.
"Oh, God," Charles breathes, and he takes an unsteady step back so they're face-to-face again. "I'm so—can I do anything? Please, I want to—" He feels his throat tightening again. "I tried to stop him. Honestly, I did. I tried my hardest, but you know I can't—there's something about him, I just couldn't get in."
"I know," Lehnsherr says gently. "Please don't look like that; it's not at all your fault. He was always going to do it eventually."
"I couldn't bear it." He can't stop himself; the words are tumbling out of him. "I knew what he was going to do and I couldn't stand it, the thought of you—" He's shaking again and he doesn't know where to put his hands, somehow. "You've got to tell someone. He can't be allowed to get away with this."
Lehnsherr is watching him with an odd kind of sadness. It's a bit like the look he gave him when he had told him about his parents' deaths and Charles had tried to apologize, clumsily, pointlessly. "You know that wouldn't help in the slightest," he says quietly. "People like that, they get away with whatever they like; they answer to no one. It's just how things are. It isn't about right and wrong."
"Well, it should be!" Charles bursts out. "He's a sadistic despot; why are we letting him have any power over anyone else? If he doesn't use it properly, he shouldn't be allowed to have it! Why hasn't someone run him out of school?" He grips his forehead with a hand, the other clutching a fistful of his trousers. "I should've known. I should've stopped him. I'm so sorry, I—"
"No," he interrupts, and he leans forward, grabbing Charles' upper arm in a firm grip. "Stop blaming yourself, for God's sake. There was nothing at all you could've done. I know you tried, and I'm grateful to you. I ought to be the one asking your forgiveness."
"I was—harsh. I shouldn't have said what I did in the corridor." He drops his eyes. "About what we've been doing. I—I didn't mean to say it like that."
"No, you were right," Charles tells him, and now he can't look at him either. "I've been an utter fool. I've barely given a thought to—to what it all means, really, what we can do, and how we're meant to use it in, you know, in the real world. It's just that...it's just that I never thought I'd find someone else here who...I mean, I've got Raven, and she understands, of course, but we're quite different, she and I, and our lives aren't—well, it isn't the same." This is straying far too much into very dangerous territory, but he feels compelled to explain. "I've so very much enjoyed all the time we've had and everything we've done, you and I; it's just felt so very right, and I just couldn't think of anything...beyond that."
Now Lehnsherr's looking at him. "So have I," he says, very quietly. "It's been the best time of my life."
Charles raises his head, almost afraid to meet his eyes; he doesn't know if he can trust himself. "It has? Even with...Shaw and all the rest of it?"
"Of course," he answers, and Charles isn't sure which one of them has moved, but they're far too close now. Lehnsherr's hand has drifted down to his elbow. "How couldn't it have been? I've been...I've never had..." Now he can't seem to find the words either. He takes a deep, shuddering breath.
"I was alone," he says simply. "And then you found me." His eyes are greener than they've ever been, and Charles can see every eyelash.
Charles has to lick his lips twice before he can speak. Now his arm is parallel to Lehnsherr's and resting against it, his fingertips making the merest dents in the fabric of his sleeve. "I rather think we found each other, Erik."
It's a moment before he realizes what he's said; he's never called him that before, at least not out loud. No one at school ever uses anything but surnames with one another. It's yet another just-how-things-are that he's grown accustomed to. He grimaces slightly, worried that he's spoiled things, but when he looks, he sees a smile curving his slim mouth.
His other hand brushes Charles' face, and his thumb skims very, very gently against the cut on his bottom lip. "Say it again," he murmurs.
His heart is pounding so hard that he wonders if the other boy can feel it against his chest. "Erik," he whispers. And in the next moment, Erik has gripped his face and is kissing him so deeply that it seems to take all the breath from his body, and he feels the same jolt as he did against his hand as they sat playing the waltz, except this time it goes all the way through him, coursing over every inch of skin. Erik pushes against him, chest, hips, hands, and Charles feels his back hit the wall as his hand slides up against his neck, then his cheek, and into his red hair. He trembles all over as he feels lips parting against his own, and he tastes him, salty, and without even trying, without any intention at all, he is in Erik's mind—or perhaps Erik is in his—and he hears him, clear as anything: Charles, I've wanted—for so long—
"I know," he whispers against his mouth, feeling a hand slip to his waist. "Oh, Erik—oh, my dear, you've no idea, so have I, more than—"
And now he's hearing more and seeing more, flash after flash, every moment they've had—the library; the waltz at the piano; the fireside; that very first night in front of the House; the classroom; the wireless—
He feels Erik's hands on his skin, under his jumper, sliding along his stomach, and in response the hand in his hair tightens its grip and Erik gives a soft growl of pleasure, his kiss growing hungrier—
(and more now, even more, further into his mind: a tiny shaggy-eared spaniel leaps from a basket into his arms; a fork leaps into his small hand from six inches away; yellowed newsprint with names, faces and ranks; a swish and a roaring pain like fire; Raven's eyes flash yellow as she changes her shape; his father tucks him into the boot of the neighbor's car; a man in a uniform wears a terrified expression, and savage pleasure rakes his heart; he sees the roof of the Chapel for the first time and feels a spasm of terror)
—and Erik's hips press hard against Charles' as his hands roam further up, and Charles winds his arm under Erik's and presses his fingers hard enough to bruise against his collarbone, and it seems as though he may truly kiss the life out of him because he can't catch a single breath—
(a grand ship on black water; a heavy pen stroke through another name on a list; a surge of energy and a yell and a dismal splash in the dark; his mother's face, tear-stained and so thin; the heady smell of the soil under the floorboards as he hides beneath his bed, covering his ears against the explosions; Charles' face and his hand at his temple; a chain-link fence, tearing apart like paper as he strides through it; the empty house and the crowded graveyard; a voice, pleading and terrified)
—now one hand is against his galloping heart and the other is at the waistband of his trousers and fingers are inching down, and Charles feels dizzy and hot as he moves his tongue against Erik's, and the hand that isn't tangled in his hair is against his back, just above where his skin is flayed and raw, pressing him closer—
(the feel of the black and white keys under his fingers; a low voice reciting the Kaddish at his aunt's funeral; Shaw on his knees, begging; a map, marked to lead him right to them; a rifle flies out of a guard's hands and fall in pieces to the ground; Charles hands him his glove; the ship's horn and a satisfied laugh)
Charles breaks away with a gasp, the back of his head hitting the wall. "What—?"
Erik looks at him, bewildered, almost frightened. "Charles, what is it? What's wrong?" Charles just stares at him, his chest heaving, unable to take it all in, to accept what he's just seen. It can't be. He wouldn't. But he saw it, he felt it all, everything that's happened and what he wants to happen—
Erik seems to be shrinking in on himself, his shoulders hunching, his eyes darting about anxiously, his face paling. He takes his hand quickly from Charles' waist. "I didn't mean—that is, I thought you wanted—"
"What are you going to do?" Charles whispers. "To Shaw, and to all of them? What are you planning?"
The fearful look drains out of Erik's face, and a coldness passes into his eyes. "Were you in my mind?" he asks slowly, looking straight at Charles. "I thought you weren't going to do that."
"I didn't mean to," Charles says. Horror is building up in his chest like rising water, but it's not like an hour before, when he realized what was going to happen to Erik. This is worse, because now it's about what Erik's going to do. "It just...happened. But I felt —I saw—" He still can't catch his breath, the combination of the kiss and his shock making him feel ready to faint. He hasn't collapsed in years, not since the early days when his mind began to reach beyond his control, but this is too much. "I saw...the boat," he says unsteadily. "The one Shaw's been going on about. And him there, begging. And then...what...?" The splash, the laugh, the rush of buzzing metallic power—it's all there. Even as he says it, he realizes he already knows. "You're going to kill him."
Erik just looks at him, not denying it, and Charles reels. Everything is falling to ashes, just seconds ago he was happier than he's ever been, his lips are still burning and yet everything has changed—and that isn't the end of it. That isn't all he saw. "And who were the others, Erik? The soldiers?" he whispers, gutted.
Erik looks to be in great pain again, chewing the inside of his cheek and lifting his eyes to the ceiling. He rubs the back of his neck, hard. "You can't ask me this," he says finally. "You just can't, Charles. Not after—everything."
"What are you doing to do?" Charles repeats, very slowly. Erik says nothing, and Charles' eyes move away from him and onto the wall beside his bed. He's never been inside his room before, and when he entered just minutes ago, he had eyes only for him and nothing else. Now he steps away from the wall and looks around properly, taking it all in: the giant map of Europe as the sole decoration on his side, pinned to the wall and marked very deliberately with different colors; Xs and lines and minute words. Official photos of uniformed men, connected with strings to various cities and towns on the map. The stack of aging newspapers on his desk, with cuttings neatly pasted into an open book. Bits of paper stuck into history books on the shelf, marking the passages he needs. All of it, right out in the open, because he has nothing to hide. The penny finally drops.
"Oh my God." Charles' hand goes to his mouth. It was right there, all along, and he just didn't want to see it. It was all there: his studying, his focus on history and facts and places, his caginess about Oxford and their future and everything beyond. He never planned to go to university. He never even planned to return to Eton for their final year. He never meant to stay with Charles at all.
"You're going after them," Charles says, and his own voice sounds far away to him. "All of them. The ones...responsible for your parents' deaths." How can he not have known? I'm not in the habit of denouncing an entire country... No, he wouldn't, Charles knows; he's too focused for that. He would never sit and brood passively against a vague, faceless entity that has indirectly wronged him. He would work at it for months, years, if necessary, and then he'd go and find exactly the people responsible. And he'd make them pay. "But you're starting with Shaw."
"Don't," Erik says suddenly, once again gripping the desk behind him with both hands, and he turns his head and gives Charles a piercing look. "Don't act as though you understand."
"I don't. Erik, I'll never understand everything that's happened to you. If I read your mind every day for a year, I know I would still never truly comprehend it all." He forces himself to hold Erik's gaze. He can still feel the sensation of hands against his chest. "But I understand you. You said it yourself. And you can't do this." Erik turns his head away with a snort. "What was done to your family was monstrous, and what Shaw's done to you is unforgivable, but you can't kill him, you just can't. Nor any of them."
"What he's done to me?" Erik demands, looking at him sharply. "Do you believe that I think only of myself?"
"What do you think Shaw will do when he's out there, in the real world, as you say?" He points out of the window into the velvety darkness; the room is dim enough so that a few faint stars are visible through the glass. "Do you think he'll stop, or that he'll reform? That he'll be satisfied with mere schoolboy cruelties?"
"I—I'm sure I don't know what he'll do," Charles tries to say, but he knows this isn't true either. He knows Erik is right; Shaw has proven himself to be far more dangerous than anyone could have guessed. The idea of him beyond school, out there with real power over others, perhaps, is frightening, Who will be next after Erik? "But that's just it, don't you see, that's why we've got to do something now. That's why you've got to report him; tell the Headmaster, show him what he's done. We can stop him before he gets out to the—"
Erik is shaking his head again, and this time he looks almost disgusted. "Report him," he repeats. "As if that will change anything. He's the Head, and the President of Pop, and his father owns near half the country, and you believe that they'll listen to me over him? That he'll be punished for giving the Boche the beating he surely deserves?"
"Don't call yourself that," Charles exclaims. "I'll grant you that he gets away with far too much; they all do. I'm not daft; I know that's how things are. But he's gone too far this time, anyone can see that. Just look at the state of you." He gestures to Erik's injuries, barely able to look himself. "He'll be stopped this time, I know it. The Headmaster won't have any choice but to do something. It's just immoral."
Perhaps it's Charles' use of that word that makes Erik laugh. It's a harsh sound, nothing like his usual delighted bark. "Dear Charles, always believing the best in everyone, forever tilting at windmills," he says, and there is a cold, mocking note to his voice that Charles has never heard him use towards him before. "It's time someone told you that people aren't really governed by morals; that's simply what they tell everyone else to do. People care for themselves, nothing more."
"What about you, then?" Charles demands, and heartbreak is making him defensive. "You just said you're not only thinking of yourself, and yet you're—you're going to kill everyone who's done you wrong?" He can barely even pronounce the word; he still cannot entirely believe that this is real, that Erik is really saying these things and meaning them. "What morals are those?"
"Isn't it moral to put a stop to those who prey upon their subordinates? Those who are innocent?" he snaps. "I wasn't the first, and you know I won't be the last. You know what he can do out there. You know he'll find more people to hate, others that will fear him and do as he says. He's already got followers, you said it yourself. You know that he'll gain more power, at school and after, he'll marry that heiress and he'll be ever richer and—and he'll crush them."
"You know this. More, and more, and again and again. These sorts of people, they don't stop. You've studied your history; you know this is true. ‘The injury therefore that you do to a man should be such that you need not fear his revenge.' They know what people will do if they're forced down like that; they fear it more than anything."
Charles scrambles to organize his thoughts, astonished at how much time and thought Erik has clearly given the matter. "But that's history, that's not now; don't you think we've learned? We learn from mad people like—like Genghis Khan and Leopold and I don't know who else. And what about the war overall? There's no way we'd allow that sort of thing to happen again. What about progress and not resisting sensible change and all the rest of it?"
"It will," Erik says fiercely. "I assure you. It'll happen again. There'll be another, someone else will rise up because we're all too afraid to stop them. Shaw's just the type. Perhaps he won't be some great world dictator, but he'll do his part and there will be others. He has to be stopped for the greater good. I was merely practice to him, and he has to be stopped before he gets worse."
His face is blazing with emotion, his eyes flashing. Something is breaking inside Charles and falling away forever. "And the others?" he asks again. "What of them? Do you intend to—to go after every Allied soldier left in—?"
Erik jerks his head as if dislodging an irksome fly. "I care nothing for politics," he says curtly. "I only intend to find those who committed a great wrong to those who didn't deserve it, regardless of what side they were on at the time; it's as simple as that."
"But it wasn't—they didn't do it on their own," Charles protests, pointing at the photos on Erik's wall. "It wasn't their decision, there's a hierarchy to these things. They were given orders that—"
"Orders?" Erik practically shouts. "What about choice, Charles? Or was it not you who said that what matters is our choices, not what's chosen for us?" Charles is speechless, unsure if he is more stunned by the fact that Erik remembers what he said the very first time they spoke, or that his own words are backfiring so disastrously against him. "Carrying out an inhuman act is no better than coming up with the idea for it," he continues ruthlessly. "It may even be worse, knowing something is wrong and doing it out of sheer cowardly obedience. I can accept that there must be casualties in war, and that there are good reasons to kill and die. But I will never think it right to go after those who can't defend themselves, never."
Charles swallows. He has to make this right. He realizes he's wringing his hands painfully hard. "You know that we're of one mind there," he says, trying to sound calm. "Of course I agree that the innocent must be spared. I told you before, I think that what happened to your people was barbaric, and of course I understand why you would want to avenge them. But killing will solve nothing, Erik. It won't just put an end to it all. You know you won't be allowed to get away with it. You said it yourself, Shaw's quite well connected; what do you think his family and his people will do to you? They'll have you in chains within a day."
"That," Erik replies, "is why he's still alive. I don't intend to be foolish about this, you know."
For a moment Charles can say nothing to the utter pitilessness of this statement, it seems to slap him across the face. "But what about you?" he asks, trying to regain his voice. "What will it do to you? Even if—even if you're not found out, even if you succeed, it will take its toll on you, I know it will. You will never have peace within yourself."
"That is a luxury that I never expected to have," Erik says baldly. "I want nothing more than justice. And I cannot live with myself if I don't try."
He grabs desperately for another tack. "But you're barely seventeen. You're still in school, for God's sake, how will you begin to—"
Erik raises his eyebrows. "I think you can see that I've already begun," he says coolly, with a nod to the map, his notes, his books. "I'm not an idiot. I've been on my own for some time now; I know how to manage myself. And I've used my time here to learn a great deal and to plan everything quite carefully."
"So—what, is that the only reason you bothered to turn up, then?" Charles demands, his voice cracking. Has it all meant nothing? Has every moment they've spent together been a lie? "Just to use our lovely great library to plan your mission?"
For the first time in several minutes, something like embarrassment flickers over Erik's face. He drops his eyes, and his contentious posture sags slightly. "No," he says after a moment. "I thought...there was a time when I believed I could be...that is, that I could have..." He doesn't need to finish it. It's written all over him: a normal life. He closes his eyes and shakes his head briskly. "But that was wrong of me. I have no right to be here when there's work such as this to be done."
"The right—don't be stupid, you've got just as much right as anyone to be here!"
"No," he says again. "I can't sit idly by reading poetry and worrying about A-levels when I have bigger responsibilities. Someone must make things right."
"But why the hell is it your responsibility? Why has it got to be you?" Charles can hear the plea in his voice and he knows how childish it must sound, but he can't help himself. What he really wants to ask is, why has it got to be us? Why can't we have each other?
Erik just looks at him for a moment. Then, without turning his head, he flicks his hand—it barely takes him any effort at all now—and a heavy silver letter opener soars off of his desk and zooms, point first, into the dead center of the map on the wall. "Because I can," he replies quietly. "And because I'm not afraid. I understand now, not only what I have to do, but what I can do. You showed me that."
"Don't you dare." Charles' voice comes out as a hiss, and he points a shaking finger at Erik. "No, don't you dare put this on me. That's never what I meant. I never said that we should use our skills for something like this, to hurt anyone."
"For what, then?" Erik challenges, emphasizing the word in a purposeful echo of his question back at the gymnasium. "Don't you feel that we have a duty to do something useful with our abilities?"
"Revenge isn't useful," he spits, and he's somewhat surprised to find anger bursting through his deep sorrow. "It's selfish." Erik looks outraged, but he plows on. "And that's what you're doing: getting revenge. You can be as high-minded as you like about it, but that's what it is, and it's wrong. You say you're just making things right for the defenseless, but next to you, they're defenseless, Shaw and all the rest of them. To use yours abilities against them—talk about abusing power. Talk about making others fear you."
"It's abusing power to use it at all?" Erik demands hotly. "So you do think we ought to hide, then. It's one thing to have a laugh between ourselves, but it's terribly wrong to ever use it against anyone else; we ought to take pity on them because they're not—because they can't do what we can, is that it? Because they can't, we shouldn't."
"Why is it a matter of against anyone?" Charles fires back. "Why can't we just all—just—"
Erik is giving him that look again, like he's ashamed of him. "What, all be friends together?" he suggests scornfully. "Have you not noticed how people tend to treat those who are different from them? Those they don't understand?" Charles can think of nothing to retort to this, and Erik gives him a calculating look, his arms folded. "You know that there are more of us out there."
"More?" he repeats. "People with...with abilities?"
"Yes, with abilities. We've said this before; I think you have enough sense to know that it's rather unlikely that it's only you, Raven and myself."
"I—well—yes. Yes, I imagine you're right. That was one of the things I wanted to...find out. Later, with my studies." With you.
"And just how do you think they'll react if it turns out that there are loads of us out there? Other people born with other talents, flight or fire or—simply death?" He spreads his hands interrogatively. "What if there's someone who can just kill with a glance? Or with their mind?" He looks pointedly at Charles. "In time, you probably could."
"Don't say that." Charles actually recoils from him. "Why would I ever do that?"
"I doubt you ever would. But that's what they'll be afraid of, and they'll hunt us. Whether it's just you and I or thousands of us, they'll be afraid that we're greater than they are, and they'll hate us for it."
"The way you talk—us, them. You make it sound like we're another bloody species."
"And we very well might be. That's just it, isn't it: we don't know, and they don't know, and the less they know, the more afraid they are."
"You're jumping to massive conclusions. Who's to say that they'll—that anyone will hate us? We can hardly assume that—"
"That's not so," Erik interrupts, and now he points accusingly at Charles. "You do assume. You said it, back at the gymnasium. You said I couldn't let anyone see what I can do, because you ‘can't begin to think what they'd do' to me. Didn't you?"
"That's not what I meant," he splutters, again disturbed by his excellent memory. "I meant—for Christ's sake, you'd just tried to murder Azwell in the middle of the room, and you were using your powers to do it. I think it's safe to say that that would indeed frighten the daylights out of anyone who realized, and quite reasonably so. If you're making the argument that people shouldn't assume that we'd use our abilities for destructive purposes, that's about the worst example you could give."
"But that's not what you said," Erik persists. "I heard you. You said that I shouldn't let anyone else see what I can do, full stop, because you're afraid of what they'd do in response. You never told anyone else about yourself or Raven. She's never shown her real self to anyone else; she said so." Charles vividly remembers the awed, reverential look on Erik's face when Raven had, after much cajoling on his part, revealed her true form to him that night over the holidays when they had told each other everything, or close to it. It had made him feel a brief, acrid twist of something that he later realized was jealousy, although at the time he had merely attributed to the drink. "You told me about your childhood, the way your brother hurt you as your abilities began to appear, the way you were afraid of him realizing what you can do. This is how people are."
"So why did you bother, then?" he demands, again sickened to hear his own words thrown back at him like that. He had told Erik all those things; he had shared things no one else knew because he trusted him... "Why did you trouble with me at all? I see why you wanted the practice—" he gestures to the blade stuck in the wall "but why did you care what I did? Why did you—encourage me? Why did you help me?"
"Because—" Erik bites off the word, as if changing his mind halfway through about answering. He exhales sharply, looking deeply uncomfortable, and then says, "Because you're far more powerful than you know, and I wanted you to see what you can do if you discipline yourself. I've pushed you because you can't let your talents go to waste, Charles." For a moment he looks like a stern professor, glaring authoritatively at him. And then his expression slips, and he looks almost bashful. "And because...you asked me to. Because I wanted...well, I—I like to be with you," he fumbles.
Somehow it's the simplicity of the statement that makes it hurt so badly. Charles closes his eyes momentarily against the sting of it; just a short while ago it would have made his heart soar to hear him say that. Now he can hardly stand to hear it. "You say we've got to hone ourselves, our gifts, and yet you say this will make everyone else hate us," he forces himself to say carefully, trying to cling to the rational, rather than let himself slip under the waves of everything he's feeling. "So we're to deliberately antagonize the rest of society? How will that help anyone?"
"I believe that we have a obligation to make good use of our abilities. The fact that we will be outcast for it is simply a truth I don't choose to deny." His voice is sharp again, hardened by the strength of his beliefs. "And you also know that they'll react with fear first and anger second, but you think that we ought to hide. Don't you?" he presses, when Charles says nothing.
"Only for now," Charles bursts out. "Right now we don't know anything, we don't know why we can do these things or how it happened or if there are others or any of it. Don't you think we ought to know a bit more, to be able to explain properly, because we start running about and calling the newspapers?"
"To make it easier for them," he shoots back. "You want to make it all lovely and comfortable for them to hear that they're not the superior breed anymore. We wouldn't want to upset them, after all, wouldn't want to make waves. Wouldn't want to stand out too much."
"You're twisting everything I'm saying." Charles' chest feels constricted again. "You're so determined to justify what you want to do—murder, Erik. That's what it is, you can't deny that."
"That's what you call it." Erik's voice is dead and icy again. "I call it justice."
"So that's just it, then?" he demands, his breath catching. "After Summer term, you're just going to head off and kill Shaw and them, what, go traipsing around Europe knocking off anyone you find who had anything to do with the blockade? Or will it perhaps go beyond that? Will—will you expand your campaign and go after anyone responsible for civilian deaths in other countries during the war? Or maybe during any time?" He gives a mirthless laugh that is nearly a sob. "Where does it end?"
"I hardly require your mockery, Charles," he says coldly. "To think that I hoped you might understand."
"Understand? You mean agree? How could I possibly—"
"Because you know!" Erik explodes, both hands jutting out in a desperate gesture. "Because you're like me, you're different, you have your abilities, you've lost your family, you know what it means to feel—helpless—" He runs a hand through his hair in great agitation, gripping it hard as Charles had done just moments ago, it seems. "And I thought—" His voice breaks. "I thought perhaps you felt..."
His jaw clenches and he can't finish it. Apparently forgetting himself, he leans back against his desk and then jerks forward with a gasp of pain as his lacerated skin touches the wood. Instinctively, Charles leaps forward and takes hold of him. "God, Erik—"
"Please don't." Erik turns his face away from Charles', as though he can't bear to be so close or to be touched by him. Charles doesn't move away.
"And what about us?" Charles whispers, his hands on Erik's upper arms, only vaguely aware of the fact that he's crying. "What about—everything? You're just leaving, for good? And I'm to stay behind and wonder what's happened to you?" He knows it sounds selfish and he doesn't care. At this moment, nothing in the world is real except them.
Erik's eyes are reddened, and he seems afraid to open his mouth again. Charles can see him grinding his back teeth, as if trying to crush the words out of existence. Finally he manages to say "You know that I...I don't wish to leave you. When the time comes I'm sure I will find it almost impossible. It's...the only thing I fear."
"But you're still going."
He drops his head, so that his forehead nearly brushes Charles'. "I've got to," he says, almost inaudibly. "I've got to. It's the only thing that seems right. But I'll never be happier than I am with you, I know that. I won't ever forget what you've done for me." Charles says nothing as silent tears run down his face. Erik finally looks up at him. "Charles, you must know that I l—"
"No." Charles shakes his head violently; he's released Erik and is backing away from him. "No, you can't do that, say that and then go. You just can't do that to me."
Erik just stands there with his arms wrapped protectively around himself. "I never meant for you to be hurt," he says. "Not you, ever. Please don't go."
"I can't." Charles is still shaking his head when he reaches the door. "I can't stay." Erik doesn't move, and Charles thinks he looks terribly small and lonely standing there in the middle of the room by himself, the pain on his face worse than when Charles first came in. His image blurs, and Charles swipes a hand across his eyes as he pulls open the door and runs, along the corridor, down the stairs, out of the House. He throws his head back, eyes burning and lips still aching, trying to breathe, and the night is dark and quiet and cool, as if the world hasn't yet noticed that everything has shattered.
Erik disappears over the break between terms. Charles stays at school, of course, but Erik is just—gone, or perhaps hiding from him. He's too afraid to search for him with his mind, scared both of how Erik would react and of what he might see this time. Day after day, Charles sits on the porch of the House, trying to read or get some sort of work done, but he just ends up watching Walpole House down the road, waiting, hoping to see him, his hair catching the sunlight like a new penny. But he doesn't appear, not until Summer term starts and classes resume. When he walks into their literature class on the first day back, he keeps his head down and sits on the other side of the room from Charles. He doesn't speak in lessons anymore. At mealtimes, he is alone in a corner of Bekynton with a book, or else absent entirely. They don't speak for a fortnight, which then becomes a month, and then six weeks.
Charles is wrecked, adrift. He can't concentrate on anything; he can't bring himself to care. He gets bottom marks on an essay about Robert Louis Stevenson because he was too busy watching Erik's wrists move across his paper as he took notes to hear the assignment. It's all he can do to force himself to attend class, and sometimes he can't manage even that. Instead he wanders the campus, ghostlike, or else simply stays in his room, lying on his bed and watching the squares of sunlight moving across the ceiling. He stops attending fencing club. McCoy is at a complete loss, having no idea what has happened, and when his tentative questions go unanswered, he hovers, first attempting to rouse Charles with frequent invitations to accompany him to the lab or to a cricket match. When these too fail, he gives up on direct contact and simply leaves nightly cups of tea on Charles' bedside table without comment, watching him concernedly out of the corner of his eye as he works at his desk. This, somehow, only serves to make Charles feel worse.
He fights with himself every day, always the same circle of debate, the same unanswerable questions: what he should do, if anything; what he should say, if anything. In his desperation he wonders if he should alert someone to Erik's plans, and then immediately hates himself for it, sickened by the mere thought of betraying him so. He develops a wild, malformed fantasy of developing his powers enough to enter Erik's mind and force him to stay behind, to stay with him, but then despises himself for that too, knowing how insane and hypocritical that would be. Then he wonders if there is any chance of finding him again, later, after—but he knows it could never be the same again; he wouldn't be the same Erik at all and it would always feel wrong. And then, inevitably, he arrives at anger and resentment: why doesn't he want to stay? How could he let so much happen between them and then simply end it all, entirely, like a sword flashing down? In those moments, he feels as though he hates Erik nearly as much as he hates himself.
Raven visits again at Short Leave in May. Charles hasn't told her anything of what happened; the idea of writing it all out in a letter, actually seeing the words before his eyes, is unendurable. He has tried to restrict their correspondence to discussion of Raven's life only; she has recently taken a flat in Islington with a girl called Angela who works with her at the café. He's been careful to sound as normal as possible in their exchanges, but wonders if Raven is entirely convinced. On the morning of her arrival, McCoy leaves their room rather suddenly and when Charles drags himself from his bed and looks out of the window, he sees them walking towards the House together, having what seems to be a serious conversation. When they enter the room, McCoy gathers his books, mumbling something about needing the library and quickly departs. Charles forces a smile that makes his face hurt and attempts to greet her normally, and realizes within approximately ten seconds that she is not remotely fooled.
"Don't give me that tosh," she says impatiently, setting her things down on Charles' desk chair and giving him a stern look in response to his vague mumble about "just a bit tired from revising." "Something's up with you, I can tell. Your last letter read like a telegram. ‘Classes fine stop lots of rain here stop missing you loads stop.'" She throws herself onto the bed beside him and looks at him levelly. "And you're giving McCoy an ulcer worrying about you. What's happened?"
Charles, who has a laundry list of nondescript responses prepared, falters somewhere between "why, nothing at all" and "whatever makes you say that" and just looks at her for a long moment, his heart feeling about ready to cave in from sheer misery. Then suddenly he is talking, more than he's done since that night with Erik, starting with that breezy afternoon in the courtyard when they'd laughed themselves sick at Azwell and Shaw, and then onto the fencing club, the fight with Azwell, the Pop-tanning, and finally his realization of Erik's plans and their argument. He leaves out what happened directly before the argument, though, and makes it sound as though he spontaneously broke into Erik's thoughts with no provocation, although Raven raises her eyebrows in a way that is a little too knowing when Charles alludes to their being alone in his bedroom at the time. He's never quite told her about his feelings for Erik, although he's not entirely sure why; she doesn't seem at all likely to object. It's more like it was too delicate of a thing to put out into the open, like an unhatched egg that needed warmth and quiet to grow—except now it's all out there and ripped apart, of course. Now he's just afraid that she'll think him a fool for it.
Raven doesn't say anything once he has finally stopped talking, after he ends by admitting that he and Erik haven't so much as made eye contact since that night. She has drawn her bare feet up onto the bed and wrapped her arms around her calves, and she leans her chin on her knees, evidently thinking hard. She ponders the matter so intensely, in fact, that after a moment she slips into her natural blue form, and in an odd way it comforts Charles to know that she cares enough about his situation to give it that much of her attention. A full minute goes by in silence, and then she says "You're not going to like this, Charles."
"What am I not going to like?"
"What I've got to say." She looks him right in the eye, and he feels a leaden sense of foreboding in the pit of his stomach, because he knows that whatever she tells him, however unpleasant it is, it will be the truth he needs to hear, as she is and always has been completely incapable of patronizing him or evading realities.
"I expect you're right about that, but say it anyway," he replies dully, leaning back against the wall. He has little to lose, anyway; he can't imagine how he could possibly feel worse.
She chews her lip for a moment, and then says gently, "I think he's earned it."
"The right to..." She looks slightly embarrassed. "Well, it sounds quite melodramatic to say it out loud, but...the right to his revenge."
Charles looks back at her, wondering in a detached sort of way whether he might feel stunned by this if he could feel anything properly right now. "You think he should—"
"No, no, I didn't say should," she jumps in quickly. "It isn't a matter of that. I'm entirely with you there; I don't think it's his responsibility in the slightest. I think he's taking far too much on himself. And I rather don't fancy the idea of him become a murderer either." She seems to have less trouble with the word than he does, although her brow creases in distaste. "But..." She sighs. "I can't disagree with his idea of justice, as you say. I think he's right; there are people who can't be taught better or reasoned with. There are people who are just cruel, and once they get a bit of authority or influence or what have you...it's quite a dangerous thing."
"But what about all the rest of it?" he presses her. "His other plans, the war and his parents and everything? You can't think everyone who was responsible for that counts as mad despots who've got to be put down to save innocent lives. It's not that simple. He claims he's researching it all and being so terribly specific and careful, but there's no way he can know exactly." This is what he's chosen to dwell on for the past several weeks; it's far easier to focus on the solid logic (or lack thereof) of the facts rather than looking at the deeper, personal parts, the parts that make his chest actually ache as though he's been hit. "He'll end up going after some innocent private and getting himself hanged for it or something. It doesn't—" He breaks off, even though he has plenty more to say on the subject; the mere idea renders him too disturbed to speak.
Raven just watches him gloomily, and she slides over so that she is sitting directly beside him, her back against the wall as well. "You're probably right," she tells him. "But..." Her frown deepens; she appears to be choosing her words carefully. "I'm not sure that's really the question, whether or not he can do it."
Charles looks sideways at her. "What is, then?"
"Well...look, he's a stubborn bastard," she says frankly. "One of the hardest I've ever met, and you know him far better than I do. And what he's been through—I mean to say, it's not the sort of stuff you just get over. He's, you know. Scarred." Charles flinches at the word, but he doesn't interrupt. "So I don't think it's a matter of convincing him that he's wrong or trying to shame him into changing his mind, because it shan't work. If I thought he was just being impulsive, I'd say perhaps you could talk him out of it with time, but he's had ages—years—to stew over this. I think trying to force him to feel any other way will just make him more determined."
"So...what's to be done, then?" he asks slowly, hoping very much that there's a reprieve to this bleak pronouncement.
"I think it might be a matter of precedence," she says, still in that same deliberately measured tone, and she does something she hasn't done in a long time: she reaches down and covers Charles' hand with hers, blue over pale. "The question is whether he'll choose his mission...or you."
Charles' mouth is dry. "He'll—he'll choose me?" he repeats, almost afraid of how simple it seems in her words.
"He'll never be rid of the desire to avenge his parents, and he'll never be amenable to the idea that Shaw is out there, free to do what he likes," she explains. "You won't be able to change those things within him, nor will anyone. But I think they could become...less. I expect that he understands that he can either do those things or he can have you, and I would imagine that right now, that's nearly an impossible choice for him, determined as he is. It may be worth it to him to deny himself those satisfactions if it means he gets something far better."
Charles sits there, dumbfounded, her words rolling over him with crashing blows like ocean waves. He's not sure which part is more staggering, the idea that Erik could want him that much, or the idea that Raven is aware of this, and of what it would mean to Charles if he did. He looks fixedly at his own knees as he says "I was unaware that you had...er, I didn't know that you knew..."
"Oh, Charles, don't be silly," she says, and in an instant is back to her usual dry, brisk, sisterly manner, although her hand is still in his. "Just how oblivious do you think I am? I've known since Christmas, the way you two look at each other..." She shakes her head. "Probably before, with all your damned letters. ‘Oh Raven, I've met the most exceptional chap, he's so unlike everyone else here, you've simply got to meet him. Oh, Lehnsherr said the cleverest thing the other day, ha ha ha.'" She does a thoroughly unflattering impression of a pompous chortle, and Charles feels like smiling for real for the first time in ages.
"I don't sound like that."
"Mmm, you do to me." She gives him an impish sideways grin, yellow eyes twinkling. Then, with the slightly grudging air of one forced to admit a sentimental truth, adds "You're adept at a good many things, but hiding your heart isn't one of them, I'm afraid. It's simply too big."
He does smile this time. It feels almost unnatural on his face after all these weeks. "So you don't reckon I'm condemned to fiery perdition for immorality, then?" he asks. He puts comical emphasis on the word, as if he's only bothering to ask her as a throwaway laugh, but the back of his neck prickles with anxiety as he says it: logically, he knows she is unlikely to think any such thing, having never shown any disapproval of that sort of thing before. But even the vaguest, slimmest possibility of her condemnation frightens him, far more than does the entirely definite reproach from nearly everyone else in the school, because her rejection would matter so much more than all of theirs.
She gives him an odd look, not quite the playfully exasperated expression he hopes for and (mostly) expects. It's something a bit less sanguine, somehow. "I hardly think we get to choose whom we love," she says after a moment. "And I think—I should hope that when we do, it's rather more about who they truly are more than...anything else."
It seems that she wants to say more, but she doesn't, and Charles is distracted by the word she used, the one he has excised entirely from his vocabulary; the one he refuses to let himself associate with Erik, even inside his own mind. He forces it away like a cloud of smoke. "Well...good," he manages. "That's...that's settled, then." He pauses. "So...so you think I've just got to wait it out, then? To see what he does?"
"I don't suppose it'll mean very much unless it's his decision, so, yes, I expect you've got to," she replies. "That's rather a hell of a lot easier said than done, though, isn't it."
"Quite so." They sit in silence for a time, and Charles watches the dust swirling in the shaft of sunlight coming in from the window and considers: he certainly can't say that he feels good, in any traditional sense of the word, but this is the least terrible he's felt in a month, and that has to count for something. "Thank you, Raven," he says softly.
She gives his hand a squeeze, and then slides off the bed, reassuming her blonde-haired form. "Come on," she says. "You've got to get out of here. Let's go to Bekynton and have some of that dreadful apple tart you like so much."
Charles tries to force himself back to life. He tries to make himself to hold onto Raven's words, because they are comfortingly logical, if less than idyllic, but somewhere along the way he has to make his own choice metamorphoses into he's got to choose me, and then into of course he'll choose me and then but he's already chosen otherwise and back again, replacing his previous agonizing wheel of indecision. The urge to speak to him, or just to look him in the eyes again, becomes painfully strong, even though he doesn't know what he'd say; he feels as though he's desperately hoping to be chosen for some terribly important position, and just one more handshake, one more smile, one more moment could push things over the edge in his favor. But he's also afraid.
One day in June just after Long Leave Charles is making his way across the main courtyard in front of the Chapel in the rain; even if he'd remembered his umbrella, he wouldn't be able to hold it along with all his books. He's decided to directly counteract his lethargy of the previous months by throwing himself headlong into work, as though if he fills his brain with enough academia, there won't be room for anything else. As he hurries along, mentally conjugating verbs as he goes (volo, vis, vult, volimus, vultis), he catches sight of Shaw and his—"friends" doesn't seem to be the right word, somehow—usual companions dawdling and smoking under an archway.
He's seen rather less of Shaw as of late, as he's stayed away from Erik and Walpole House, not to mention nearly everyone and every place else, and it's strange to look upon him now, knowing what he does. It gives him both a swooping sense of fear and burden and a savage flare of pleasure to watch him there, smirking and blustering about, entirely ignorant of that fact that he is a marked man. Charles will still never believe that he deserves such a fate, but there's something satisfying about the idea that he is breakable after all; that there could be something so dire and beyond his control ahead of him in his path. His callousness and bravado seem deeply ironic now, and some strange, dark part of Charles wants to march over there and let him know just what his future (might, possibly, likely?) holds, not to save him from it but just to savor the look on his—
Wham. Charles is too busy staring over at Shaw and the others and brooding over this sensational prospect that he barely notices where he is going, and collides violently with another boy, a senior called Howlett, as he rounds the statue of Henry VI. Despite being shorter than Charles, he is stocky and alarmingly well-muscled, and physics proves its unforgiving nature yet again as Charles is knocked to the wet ground, books and papers flying.
"Watch it, twerp," Howlett growls, and stomps off without a second look. Charles can hear faint laughter from across the yard and assumes it is Shaw and company, but doesn't bother to look over. "Sorry," he mutters at no one in particular, and then gathers himself up and starts collecting his things from where they're scattered around him, wincing as he brushes dirt from his skinned elbow.
He recognizes his hand first. As Charles reaches for the puddle in which his now-sodden copy of The Epic of Gilgamesh lies, another figure crouches down in front of him and gets there first, and his heart seems to fail at the sight of those long fingers against the book's jacket before he's even looked up and seen him.
Erik's head is angled deliberately downward and his damp hair partially obscures his face as he wipes the book on his Macintosh, trying to dry it. "All right?" he mumbles, barely audible over the rain and noise of the students around them.
"Yes," Charles says, just as quietly. "You?"
He shrugs, and the gesture is so familiar that it hurts. Charles keeps his eyes on at the ground as they finish picking up his belongings. When they straighten up, he is very careful not to let their hands brush as Erik hands him his things, but he allows himself a momentary look at his face. Close to, he thinks he looks drawn; there are dark shadows under his eyes (slate blue today against the dull sky, almost gray) and he is unshaven, his jaw peppered with gingery stubble. Charles quickly removes his gaze from his face and drops his eyes to the hollow of his throat, just visible between the folds of his shirt, but this proves to be a bad choice when he is immediately seized with a longing to press his lips there. Erik, for his part, looks fixedly at Charles' left arm, and he is reminded of Quested all those months ago, on that very first day. "I just wanted to...check," Erik says, so awkwardly it's as if he barely knows the language. He tenses as if to resume walking, but then doesn't move.
Charles stays where he is as well, his arms full of wet books, his hair dripping cold rivulets down his collar. He opens his mouth, intending to say "thank you," either for the books or perhaps something more, but what comes out is "I've missed you."
Erik instantly flushes. He chews his lip for a moment before addressing Charles' shoes. "So've I."
They stand there for another moment, absurdly positioned and stationary in the middle of the yard as boys run past them and the rain continues to fall. Then Charles says "Erik, can't we—" just as Erik says "I have to—"
Charles wins out. "Can't we...talk?"
"What's to be said?" he asks, his voice firm, if quiet. "I've not changed my mind."
"I know," Charles says. "I didn't expect that you would. Your convictions are far too strong for that."
Erik's frown intensifies, etching deep lines into his pensive face. "Then why can you not respect—"
"Because you can do so much more," Charles tells him (or at least, he tells the top button of his shirt), and he is surprised to hear the words coming from his mouth; he hasn't planned them at all. "You think that this is the best use for you, but you have so much more to offer of yourself than just anger and vengeance."
"I thought I made it clear that it's about far more than that." Charles can hear the strain in his voice as he tries to master himself; there is something bizarre and nearly indecent about having this conversation out in the open, even if no one else is listening. "I'm not acting out of sheer self-indulgence. My own experiences, they're the...the root of my incentive, not the sole cause."
"Your parents wouldn't want this," Charles says suddenly. He knows he has gone too far before the words are even entirely out, and Erik's head snaps up furiously as he says it, finally looking right into his face, but he doesn't stop. "They sent you away to save you; they wanted a better life for you. Not this. Not more death and hiding and—" He swallows. "Loneliness. They thought you deserved more, and you do."
"I'll thank you not to speak of them," he retorts, his voice like a knife-blade. "You know nothing of what they would have wanted. And nor do I, as they're not here to tell me, so I have to think for myself."
"You think you're expendable, that you're just an instrument and that you don't matter because you have no one left," Charles says softly and evenly, and once again he is startled by the words, his and Raven's, because they sound as though they are coming out of someone else, someone calmer and far less torn apart, someone who has reached inside him and pulled out the twisted wreck of his thoughts from these past months and untangled them into something real. It seems that the words will only come in the moment, when he is standing right before him. "But you're wrong. You aren't alone. And you've got somewhere to be, if you want it." Erik jerks his head to the side as if averting his eyes from something obscene and moves to walk away. "Erik. You do have a choice."
The sound of his name seems to hold him there for a moment, and he wavers on the spot for several seconds after Charles stops speaking. Then, with an anguished glance at his face that lasts no longer than a heartbeat, he is gone, walking swiftly across the courtyard, his shoulders hunched, his hair darkened with rain.
Weeks pass. They don't speak again, but Charles catches Erik watching him from across the classroom a few times, although he always immediately ducks his head when Charles looks back. Charles continues attacking his coursework with an almost manic determination; he has rather a lot to make up for from his weeks of depressed indolence, but he is also thinking ahead, to his dream of Oxford and his plans for his future studies. He is strangely determined to pursue his study of and for other people with abilities like his own, with or without Erik, as if to prove that his interest is not, in fact, purely selfish and only about the two of them. He feels the need to prove it to himself, that he can still care about such things, or anything, and that his world isn't really entirely broken after all.
On the morning of the second to last day before the end of term, Charles sits in his House common room with McCoy, revising for their chemistry exam later that day. Charles, who managed only a few hours of sleep after returning very late from the library the previous night, attempts and fails to fight back a yawn as McCoy rereads his notes on Naturalis Historia for the twelfth time.
"I can't read my own writing," he mutters feverishly, flipping a page. "Or perhaps I've forgotten the entirety of the English language. Can that happen with too much revising?"
"Probably," Charles replies, his eyes on his own baffling diagrams. "Here, have a look at mine and see if it makes sense to you." He shoves a page over, and McCoy glances at it.
"No, that won't do. Your handwriting has a serial-killer slant; no one could read it." Charles scowls at him as he looks around the table for something better, and reaches for part a newspaper left abandoned there the previous day. "‘An American engineer, Herbert Ives, gave the first public demonstration of a color television today in New York. The images shown were of a bouquet of roses and an American flag,'" he reads aloud, and lets out a relieved sigh. "Thank God. So I haven't gone completely round the twist after all...although I expect this chap has. Color television—I mean, people are barely used to talking pictures. They won't take to this at all."
"I'm sure you're right," Charles says vaguely, now drawing a complicated system of arrows around his notes on Lavoisier's acid-base theories. McCoy continues perusing the newspaper, turning over a page and stopping at a small paragraph at the bottom.
"Say, Xavier," he says after a minute. "What was the name of that girl Shaw was talking about?"
"What? Oh, I...I don't remember."
"Was it Frost?"
"I'm not—" He thinks. "Yes, actually, I think it might have been. Why?"
"Just a small piece here. ‘The Caspartina, a new luxury yacht commissioned by diamond baron Winston Frost, will set sail on its maiden voyage tomorrow from Southampton with the Frost family and several guests onboard. The first stop on its round-the-world excursion will be Brest, followed by Gijón and Casablanca.'" He tosses the paper aside, looking mildly contemptuous. "Hmm. How lovely for them."
Charles feels a slow, creeping chill of horror spreading up his neck, but it is a minute before he understands why. "Wait, Shaw?" he asks, looking up from his papers. "And that girl Frost? So that's the ship he was going on about?"
"Suppose so." McCoy has returned to his notes, but Charles' mind is speeding up and moving swiftly away from science.
"That can't be," he says, and reaches for the newspaper. "It's sailing tomorrow?"
"Today," McCoy corrects him. "That's yesterday's."
"But term's not over. Shaw's still here. How can he be—?"
McCoy looks up again, frowning over at him in confusion. "It's over for him. Commencement was yesterday. Just how long were you shut up in that library?"
Charles gapes at him. Of course, seniors always left a bit earlier than the rest of the school. How could he have forgotten? "But—he's leaving today?"
"Seems that way. I rather thought you'd be glad to be shot of him, after everything. I expect Britons everywhere will sleep easier tonight with him leaving the country." McCoy's grin vanishes at the look on Charles' face. "Good heavens, what's the matter with you? Where are you going?"
Charles has leapt to his feet, nearly upsetting his chair. "I'll be right back," he blurts, and is out of the room before McCoy can say anything else. He sprints out of the door and into the June sun, the morning light nearly blinding him after so many hours shut up with his books. But all thoughts of revising and exams have now been extinguished because of what he's just realized. He had been thinking of Shaw's departure—and therefore, Erik's—as something off in the non-specific future, assuming only that it would happen sometime in the hazy period after term ended. It had loomed off in the distance like some gathering storm on the horizon; he had never thought it would be this soon and sudden. He's been so worried about what Erik will do that he's hardly considered when he'll do it. His stomach feels like lead as he hurtles up the steps of Walpole House and through the door, ignoring an indignant shout from someone in the common room. He bolts up the stairs and goes straight to the last door on the left and hammers on it. "Erik! Are you there? Please—"
The door opens, but it's not Erik. It's Summers, who stands there in a rumpled shirt with his blond hair all over his forehead, frowning sleepily at Charles. "Is Er—is Lehnsherr here?" Charles pants. "I'm sorry, but it's terribly important."
Summers regards him critically for a long moment, as if deciding whether or not to answer. Then he shakes his head. "No. He's gone. Left early this morning."
Charles lets out a sharp breath as though he's been hit in the stomach, shrinking, needle-like terror pricking at him all over. "Do...do you know where he went?" he manages to ask, even though he already knows himself, one hand on the door frame for support.
"No. He wouldn't say. He never did." As he speaks, Charles looks over his shoulder into the room, and sees that the map and all the photos are gone from the wall and his desk is almost entirely cleared off, except for a small, neat stack of books. "Listen, Xavier, what the hell did you do to him, anyway?"
"After you two stopped palling around, he was very..." He shakes his head again, as though words can't explain it sufficiently. "Different. Quite different. Bit mental, really. I don't think he slept through the night once all term, he was always up and pacing about and reading and things. And he'd hardly talk about anything at all, especially you. So what happened?"
Charles' mind and heart are both racing. "It's...a long story," he says evasively. His eyes keep returning to the room behind Summers, to the empty space where Erik once was, to the desk, to the wall against which he himself had pressed as Erik's hands roved against his waist as his tongue parted Charles' lips...
Summers follows Charles' gaze, turning his head to look at the cold, neatly-made bed and the nearly empty desk. "He said I could have those," he says, gesturing at the books. "He took most of the rest of his things, but he said he didn't need them all." Charles just nods slowly. Of course he didn't. He would take only the necessary items and nothing else. He always knew precisely what he needed—and didn't.
"Thanks, Summers," he says faintly, and turns to leave. Before he gets two paces, however, Summers stops him.
"Wait a moment," he says, and retreats into the room, reappearing seconds later at the door. "He told me to give you this if I saw you. He said yours got wrecked, or something." He holds out a book, and Charles reaches for it with numb fingers: The Epic of Gilgamesh. He takes it and closes his eyes briefly as the sharp ache in his chest increases. "Sorry I can't...help more," Summers adds in a mumble, evidently embarrassed by Charles' obvious pain.
Charles just nods at him again, and then heads off back down the hall and down the stairs, speeding up as he exits the House and heads back to Cotton Hall. When he arrives back in the common room, McCoy is still sitting there, looking up in bewilderment as he enters.
"Where did you go?"
"McCoy, please listen: I've got to leave straightaway." He rounds the table and shoves his notes and books into a haphazard pile, which he then stuffs into his bag. McCoy looks increasingly confused.
"What d'you mean, leave? Leave for where?"
"Southampton," he says, and he hasn't even realized he's made the decision until the word is out of his mouth. Somewhere in the far back of his mind, he understands that there never was any other choice.
"What? But you can't just go tearing off to Southampton, it's got to be four hours by train at least. And we've got Chemistry at eleven, you'll miss it."
"I don't care," Charles says, and realizes that this is also true. "I've got to go. Hang on." He dashes up to their room and searches through his things, shoving Gilgamesh in his pocket and grabbing a few other essentials. He clatters back down to the common room. "I'm sorry, but I can't explain right now," he tells McCoy, who is standing there looking profoundly flustered. "Listen, have you got any money? I promise I'll pay you back."
"Well—yes." He begins to rummage in his own bag. "But Xavier, please, think about this; if you miss this exam—"
"I know," he admits, looking up into McCoy's sincere face. "I do, really. But...this matters more. In fact, I think this matters more than anything."
"Southampton Town Quay, last stop. End of the line, ladies and gentlemen, so everyone off unless you'd like to join our noble train crew."
Charles is already standing in the aisle before the train has slowed to a stop, and he is the first to jump onto the platform. He didn't sleep a moment on the long ride, his fatigue having vanished and been replaced by nauseating fear. Once he walks away from the train and onto the street, however, he looks around at the bustling, crowded street and realizes that he has no plan whatsoever, no clear method of finding the right ship or locating Erik and—what? Begging? Threatening? Tying him to the wharf with an anchor? He doesn't know, and his brain seems incapable of processing anything beyond the next ninety seconds, so he looks around aimlessly, hoping for some clear sign pointing him in the right direction.
"Well, hullo, you look like you need a bit of a hand." A young man roughly Charles' age steps forward from the curb, a bright smile on his handsome, dark-skinned face. "Might I be of assistance?"
"Yes—no—well, perhaps," Charles falters, looking at him in some embarrassment. "I'm afraid I've never been here before, but I'm....looking for a ship."
"We've got no shortage of those here," the fellow says, nodding down the road to where the sea and several vessels are visible. "Any one in particular?"
"It's called the Caspartina. It's sailing today, and it's, er, quite important that I find it."
He raises his eyebrows interestedly. "Got a ticket?"
"No, it's not that. I've...I've got to find someone."
He smiles again. "Seeing off a sweetheart, perhaps?"
Charles huffs a soft, sad laugh despite himself. "Something like that."
"Well, I'll surely help, if I can. How about a ride?" He gestures grandly, and Charles realizes that he is standing in front of a motorcar, one of the new taxis from London. Having never ridden in one before, he is intrigued and nods, walking forward to step inside. The cabbie jumps in the front seat, looking heartily pleased. "You're a brave one, guv; you're my first fare all day. People aren't taking too kindly to the new model. Still prefer the old hansoms, I think. But I say you've got to change with the times in order to make it, you know? Evolve."
"I most certainly do know," Charles tells him. "I'm Charles, by the way."
"Good to know you," he says, tipping his cap slightly and winking at him in the mirror. "I'm Armando. Now let's find your ship, shall we?"
They head down the main road until they reach the docks, and Armando drives slowly along as Charles leans absurdly halfway out the window, reading the names painted on the sides of the ships as they go. Finally, he spots it: not the largest one on the row, but certainly the most pristine, her sides gleaming with black paint so shiny it still looks wet and her name written in bold letters. "There," he exclaims, and Armando pulls over to the side of the road. He quickly jumps out and shuts the door, and Armando leans over to address him.
"Shall I wait, then?"
"Er, if you don't mind," Charles says, feeling foolish for not wanting to be left alone. "Well, actually, if I'm not back in a quarter of an hour, I suppose—here." He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a handful of shillings, both his and McCoy's. "How much do I—?"
Armando waves a hand. "I can't very well charge you if you don't find her, that'd be right wicked of me," he says with a grin. "Go on, hurry; we'll settle it when you come back."
It takes Charles a moment to realize who he means, and then another to understand the kindness of this offer. "Thanks very much," he says awkwardly, pocketing his money again. "I'll be right, er..." He doesn't know how to finish it, but turns and hurries off towards the ship, his heart in his throat again. Passersby look at him askance, and he realizes he is still wearing his embroidered school vest, probably looking terrifically young and silly to them all. He pulls at the collar of his shirt, the afternoon June sun uncomfortably warm on his face and neck. Despite this, he begins to run as he gets closer to the Caspartina, and when he gets to the end of the dock he hear the great engine's hum and sees that several young men are already untying the massive ropes mooring the ship in place, and he realizes that they are minutes from shoving off.
He looks up at the vessel and sees figures moving about on deck, although the violent glare from the bright golden railings prevents him from making out their faces. He knows Shaw is up there somewhere, a man now, no longer a schoolboy, no longer in his black robes, his heart probably bursting with self-satisfaction...and Erik is here as well, somewhere, no doubt having arrived well before Charles and probably before the rest of them. He is always so precise; he would have known every detail of the ship's departure and planned it all out perfectly. Charles actually looks down at the dark blue-gray water, as if expecting to see Erik's ginger head bobbing just above the surface as he circles the ship like a shark...but no, he would already have sneaked aboard; he's probably spent the last few hours crouching in the dark in the bowels of the craft. Charles can picture him there as if he's looking straight through her metal side: dressed in black, maybe, his face set and alert, his breathing soft and his heart filled with purpose as he waits for night and for his moment...
Charles has half a mind—more than half, really—to leap aboard the ship himself and search until he finds him, but he is afraid of exposing him, afraid of what Shaw and the others will do to him if he is found stowing away, much more afraid that he is for himself. And more than that, he knows that Erik will never come with him now, no matter what he does, not when he's gotten this far. He stands there on the pier, tormented in knowing he is so close and yet already far away. He listens to the water lapping and sailors shouting to one another and horns blowing in the distance, and he does the only thing left to him: he braces his right index and middle fingers against his head and, concentrating with every fiber of his being, trembling with effort, knowing it is futile, closes his eyes and calls out to him: Erik, don't do this. Please, please don't do this. You still have time, just come home. Come back with me. I'm begging you, if you can hear me, please don't do this. You're better than this. Please, Erik—
But there is nothing. He can't sense his mind; he feels no connection at all. His words merely disappear into the warm, salty air like the tail of a lost kite. Perhaps Erik is hidden too far into the ship's body for Charles to reach him, or perhaps he has discovered a way to block him with his mind, like Shaw can. Erik understands Charles' abilities at least as well as he himself does; of course he would know how to resist them. Charles just stands there, looking at the brilliant ship, the reflection burning his eyes, unable to move or look away, until a voice calls out to him.
"‘Ere, you can't stand there, lad. Got to clear out. She's headin' out in a mo'." He looks around, barely able to see for the harsh glare and the tears gathering in his eyes, and makes out a sailor gesturing him away from the dock. "Go on, then."
Charles just nods faintly in the man's direction and turns away, walking mechanically back up the quay. It is all over. There is nothing left to be done. He climbs the steps and stands on the wharf and watches as the ship rumbles fully to life and then, very slowly, turns at an angle and begins to move away from the dock with much clanging of bells. A few people passing by near where Charles stands stop to watch as well, waving at the strangers on board as it pulls away and heads for the sea. He watches it go for a few minutes, his heart searing and in flames, worse than it's ever been, it seems. He turns away, putting his back to the sea, leaning against the rail, his breath coming in uneven spurts as though there is a heavy weight on his chest. It is all over.
Something pokes him in the backside, and he reaches automatically into his back pocket. His fingers close over the book, The Epic of Gilgamesh, which he'd hurriedly stashed there and then forgotten as he dashed away from the Eton campus that morning, heading for the train station, his heart swelling with terror that he would be too late. He pulls it out and looks at it: it is slightly bent from having been sat on for several hours on the train, but looks otherwise untouched, as though Erik had never read it. Of course not; why would he bother. He opens the front cover, and sees a short message inscribed on the title page in Erik's cramped, spiky handwriting, written in German in case Summers or someone else saw, or perhaps because he could only say it in the language closest to his heart:
Es tut mir leid. Ich werde dich immer lieben.
Charles knows what it means, or perhaps senses it. He knows because they are the two things he most wants to tell Erik himself; the only things remaining to be said. But he scarcely feels the words' impact; there is nothing left to break. He clutches the book tightly in one hand and covers his face with the other, trying to breathe, trying to remain standing. There is nothing left.
He feels a hand, light on his shoulder. He looks, and it's Armando, a concerned look on his face. "You all right, guv?" he asks gently.
Charles turns and looks out at the sea again, at the slowly shrinking Caspartina and right at Erik himself, or so it feels to him. "No," he says quietly. "No, I'm afraid I'm not."
It is dark when Charles makes it back to Eton. He passes Bekynton and hears loud laughter and chatter from within as boys celebrate the end of term with a lavish meal, but he walks by without stopping, as uninterested in eating as he is in seeing anyone, despite having had nothing all day except coffee. The sense of jittery, heart-pounding panic that began when McCoy read the news story aloud has gone now; he feels nothing but a dull, heavy, smothering grief that weighs on his shoulders, his heart, his lungs, everything, all the more potent because he had known it was coming. There was never any real hope of stopping him. He's not sure if it would have been better or worse to catch him there and receive his rejection yet again—it would have been horrible to be so close and to watch him go, but perhaps it might have been worth it to see him one final time. He takes the book from his pocket again and just holds it as he walks, feeling the warmth of the only souvenir he has.
He turns onto Eton Wick Road and his free hand drifts into his pocket, feeling the coins clinking gently together there. At least he'll be able to pay McCoy back straightaway; he needed less than he thought, not having eaten or anything else. He'll want to know what happened, of course, and he'll be in a right state about Charles having skipped his chemistry exam. Knowing him as he does, Charles imagines that he probably attempted to make up some excuse for him to the professor, maybe suggesting he had some sort of extremely virulent and rare 24-hour illness that rendered him incapable of sitting the test that day but of which he would surely be cured by tomorrow, so couldn't he please have another go, just this once, sir... Charles knows exactly the fretful expression he'll be wearing when he enters their room, and he tries to worry about the test as well, tries to feel pleased and grateful that he has such a steadfast mate in McCoy, but he can't bring himself to feel anything other than destroyed.
He passes Walpole House, and his head turns automatically to look. The House is quiet and almost entirely dark; the boys who haven't yet left are probably all at the dining hall, delighting in their freedom from Shaw's tyranny. He turns away and looks ahead to Cotton Hall House. As he walks towards it, the front door opens and someone steps onto the porch.
He can't see anything other than his outline from that distance in the dark. And yet he instantly knows who it is, perhaps just by the way he moves; perhaps because he knows him by heart.
Charles takes in his breath and can't stop, he is filling and filling and seems to be lifting off the ground. He realizes that he is running, the sounds of his own breath and heart terribly loud in his ears as he covers the last few yards with great strides and jumps up the four steps to the porch in one movement. And then he stands, and looks.
Erik is dressed in traveling clothes, with a worn canvas bag slung over his back, a flat cap on his head and a thunderstruck expression on his face. His hand is still on the door when Charles lands in front of him, and for a moment neither of them can speak. Then Erik says, "I thought I'd find you here. Where did you go?"
Charles is panting, only partially from his sudden sprint. When he says "Sou...Southampton," the word is barely more than a breath. He hardly dares to believe it, afraid he'll disappear if he blinks.
Erik exhales sharply, and for a moment he looks torn between laughing and crying. Then he says "I made it all the way there." His hand is still on the door, and he seems to be gripping on for dear life. "But then I...couldn't. I was standing on the wharf and I just knew it wasn't...where I was meant to be. Suddenly everything I've been thinking, everything I've thought I needed..." He looks into Charles' face as if he hasn't seen him in years. "I can't explain it; it just wasn't the same anymore."
"We must have just missed one another," Charles says faintly, his breath still coming hard, his mind reeling at the madness of it all—he had stared out the train window all the way there, onto streets and platforms and passing trains, thinking only of that face and those eyes, and they were probably heading right towards each other at the time... "I saw it go. The ship, I mean. And I thought you...well, I thought I was too late."
"So did I," he says, with half a glance back into the House. "I thought perhaps you'd already gone home, or..." He trails off. Charles just watches him, taking him in, everything: his face, the sound of his voice, the movement of his hands, the feel of him standing there in front of him. "You went to find me?"
"Of course I did." He can think of no other way to say it. They continue to look at one another for a moment, and Erik's gaze drops to Charles' side, to the hand still clutching the book. Charles looks down as well. "Oh, I...I've got this," he says, pointlessly.
"Oh." Erik nods, looking uncertain and fearful again, almost childlike. "Right. Good."
And as though he has planned it all along, as though it is the only thing that could possibly be right, Charles steps forward and puts both arms around Erik's neck, and kisses him with everything he has, not caring who might see, not caring about anything else in the world. Erik responds in kind, nearly lifting him off his feet, his arms tight around him, biting gently at Charles' mouth in his ardor. His hand goes up into Charles' hair and the other grips the back of his shirt, and when they finally come up for air, Charles kisses the hollow of his throat and then leans in closer, his mouth close to Erik's ear.
"Thank you for the book," Charles says, very softly. "And I love you as well."
Erik pulls back and looks searchingly at Charles for a moment, as if verifying the words in his face. His eyes are—beautiful; he can't tell any more than that at the moment. Erik kisses him again, hard, and then buries his face in his neck.
"I'm so sorry," he murmurs, echoing his would-be last message, his words just barely distinguishable, still clinging on very tight. "And I'm staying. I swear it. It's finished. I'm not leaving you again."
Charles holds onto him, feeling his shuddering breaths and taking in the scent of his hair (which still smells of the sea air, he thinks), knowing deep down in some quiet place inside himself that it is not true, not entirely: Raven was right; it will never be finished, he will never be entirely rid of the ghosts that haunt him and the darkness that he carries. Things will never be perfect, Charles thinks; the past will always hang over them both like a mist. But what matters is that he wants it to be finished; he wants something more of himself than rage and sorrow. He's made his choice. Whatever else happens, he's decided that it—that they—are worth it.
"Good," Charles whispers. "That's all that matters, then." His mouth finds Erik's again, and then they simply stand there, entwined in one another, pushed together—or maybe pulled—by some force they can't name, some demanding want, something electric and alive.
- fin -