Family of Blood
She didn’t see Mutter and Vater and Erik on the platform the day she was shoved into the train with Onkel Erich. In fact, by that time she already gave up on ever seeing them again.
When the door closes, she huddles close to her Uncle and wishes to see the light of day again. She wishes for Mum’s soft hands on her face, Dad’s deep baritone when he read her fairy tales, for Erik’s teasing and brilliant smile and that feeling of lovelovelove she felt every time she looked at her family.
When the door opens again, she is led out like cattle. Someone — a soldier — grabs Uncle Erich and pulls him to the left, where Uncle Erich staggers, all because of his bad leg, from one hunting accident many years ago, long before Ruth was born and before Erik was born.
“Onkel!” she cries, before someone — another soldier, clad in dark green, with a wicked smile plastered on his somewhat handsome face — covers her mouth and lifts her without effort.
She trashes and tries shouting, but to no avail. There is no one to hear her, Mum is gone and Dad, and Erik (she misses Erik, terribly, maybe more than Mum and Dad, now, because Erik was the one who always calmed her down after a nightmare, oh Erik) and now even Uncle Erich is gone too, taken from her like everything.
They put her down in an office next to a demolished room, looking like a picture taken from one of Erik’s schoolbooks, the one which had shown the effects of a hurricane. It frightens Ruth even more.
“You are Ruth Lehnsherr, aren’t you?” asks a man in glasses in a polite tone that maybe is intended to be soothing, but sends a shiver down her spine.
Ruth nods and the man smiles darkly.
“Brilliant,” he says and leans back in his chair. He regards Ruth with interest. “Spectacular, I might say. Better than anything Josef have ever imagined.” He pushes a chocolate towards her. Ruth hasn’t eaten in days, she’s hungry and she’s tired, and she wants to cry and she wants to run away, go back home and she wants, she needs her parents and her brother and she needs Erik to tell her that it’s going to be okay (even if it won’t), doof.
Ruth takes the chocolate and reluctantly puts it into her mouth. For some reason, it tastes like ash.
“There,” says the man she’ll come to know as Herr Doktor. “We’re going to have a lot of fun together.”
There are days when she forgets about Mum and Dad and about Erik and his brilliant smile. During most days she stays in Budy, on a farm that doesn’t remind her of grandpa Max’s. There are no lambs for her to play with, there’s just work and work, and digging, and cold and hunger. But those are the good days.
There are also the days when she’s taken from her camp, back to Herr Doktor’s office and those are the bad days. Herr Doktor is curious about her and asks her then tells her, then threatens her, to bend metal. She tries, but she knows she can’t and she doesn’t know why Herr Doktor wants her to do something that’s not possible. Herr Doktor yells and kicks his desk, then kicks her legs and it hurts. He calms down after awhile and rubs his temples, tells his soldiers to take her away and he is disappointed with her for a reason she can’t comprehend.
On a one particularly bad day he’s so angry with her that he just enters the other room — the one with a metal bed and metal instruments and traces of blood everywhere, not hers, never hers and she doesn’t know whose — and one of the soldiers hits her. Then he hits her again and again, and she screams and wishes that he stopped hitting her, that he wasn’t here, that he would have never been born. And it doesn’t hurt anymore, the next blow doesn’t come and there’s the sound of a gun falling to the floor and the other soldier shouts. Herr Doktor is back in an instant and asks her what she did. She tells him and he is delighted, says something about different mutations and reality and concentration and shaping timelines and he is happy.
He offers her a chocolate when she’s about to be taken back to her camp and she takes it, pockets it and treasures. There’s never enough food and there’s a girl at her camp, Magda, and she’s pregnant. Magda knows she won’t be able to keep her baby, but she doesn’t want to lose the baby either and Ruth feels for her. What little food she does get, she shares with Magda and she’s the only one (stupid enough) to do so and Magda is grateful and Ruth is proud, because she knows Erik would be proud, because her big brother is the one who taught her that you should always share with those who have less.
She gives the chocolate to Magda in the evening and Magda hugs her and cries. Ruth cries too, for her parents and Uncle Erich and her big brother whom she’ll never see again.
Herr Doktor tells her to concentrate, to be angry, because she’s powerful then. She doesn’t think it’s true, but she tries anyway, because that stops the blows to her head, to her back. He tells her that she has the power over time and space, that she can wish things to happen and she wishes her Mum and Dad and Erik were with her, though that doesn’t work and she’s still alone, so maybe Herr Doktor is wrong.
One day she’s just looking at him and suddenly she knows, she knows that he’s different, just like she’s different and like that person whose blood graces the floor of Herr Doktor’s other room is probably different too. She feels that, the power he has and the power he wants to have (will have) and she grits her teeth and says nothing. It’s a bad feeling and he is a bad man, his whole person is glowing a greenish light that makes her sick.
She steals a chocolate from him that day — he doesn’t notice or pretends he doesn’t notice, she suspended one of his soldiers in time and maybe he’s just letting this one go — and gives it to Magda. Magda is getting thinner and thinner instead of bigger and Ruth wishes she could make her healthy and strong. And her baby too, and it’s a girl and Ruth knows that, because she can know everything about the world, the whole reality is her friend and it sings to her when Erik’s not there to make her sleep.
When the camp is liberated, Ruth is standing alone. Magda is gone, long dead and buried, and so is her little baby girl — Magda named her Ruta and said it’s after Ruth and her kindness and good heart — and Ruth and other children from the camp are taken to an orphanage. There are soldiers, but also kind people around her now, doctors and nurses and simple volunteers and they’re sweet and caring and Ruth thinks that maybe not everything is wrong in the world. Everything around her sings in agreement, trees, and furniture and people’s flesh and there’s this man with kind brown eyes and a sad smile, who is the first person who takes care of her. She’s dirty and so skinny, and he takes her hand and says that she was brave and she will be fine now, and that he won’t let her be alone.
He’s a doctor, but a good one, Ruth knows that, because there’s this brilliance to his person, an aura of sympathy and care around him and Ruth is sure that if her big brother was alive, if she was able to see him with her new eyes — to see him with her power — he’d look the same.
There are things Ruth knows about the man who takes her hand, who holds her close and promises that he’ll take her far away: that he’s a pediatrician, that he has no family of his own, that he’s here because he didn’t want to believe such cruelty was even possible. What she doesn’t know just by looking at him, he whispers to her in the night: that he loves cats and summer rain, that he’s an Englishman and his name is Gordon Phillips, that he has a house and two horses and that he won’t let her be transported to the USSR, that she won’t have to be alone.
With a help of a well placed bribe and a forger named Georg Odekirk, Gordon manages to keep his promise and gets her out of Poland, out of the reach of the Soviets’ influence, to his little home in Derbyshire. He has friends, Gordon, he’s well-known and well-liked and no one denies him a favor, even if they think that smuggling a potentially dying girl is not smart.
Ruth doesn’t die and Gordon makes sure she is not alone anymore.
Ruth was supposed to go to school the day the war started and she never got a chance to. Gordon tries to teach her everything she missed, everything that might be needed if — when — she goes to a regular school. He starts with English, because England is her country now, all the papers state that she’s Ruth Elisabeth Phillips, born in 1932, and she needs to know the language that’s supposed to be her mother tongue now. So Ruth sits with Gordon by the fireplace in his tiny study in the attic, flips through pages of a dusty book and listens to Gordon’s explanations. She’s not sure if it’s a part of her power or if she’s just so smart (she would love to tell Erik that she is that smart, he would make fun of her and then Mum would tell him to stop and they would all laugh), but she just understands, looks and reads and learns, and knows, and Gordon is delighted, because his German is not that good.
He sends her to a school and she’s fourteen now (and Erik would be sixteen and he would start stealing Dad’s cigarettes). Gordon tells her teachers about her, but not the children, and Ruth is just a new girl in the town, too tall and way too thin for her age. And she’s bright, she instantly understands every new word, every new concept or idea and most children ignore her. But there’s Timmy and Jane, and they hate science and Ruth is really good at that, so they like her.
The school makes Ruth learn about her power. There is probability and timelines, and there are certain things she can wish for (like that day when she wanted Miss Fanny to win the lottery and she did), there are certain things she can manipulate (and it’s time, she can freeze it and make it go faster) and when she’s really scared she can displace things (like that soldier, once, and she wonders what happened to him). But she can’t change anything and that’s why all the wishing in the world won’t bring her Mum and Dad and Erik back, because no amount of power can bring back the dead.
Sometimes, when she concentrates really hard, she sees flashes of what might be, probable outcomes and at first she thinks it’s funny, but then — when she’s talking to Gordon’s neighbour and he tells her she’s a pretty young lady — there’s a glimpse of an accident and she tells Gordon’s neighbour not to go to the city by car and he takes his bike and dies anyway. She learns, then, that she might influence the details, but time has the amazing ability to correct itself.
She still doesn’t know why she knows, but that doesn’t matter. Dad would be proud and Erik would be amused and he would tell her that she’s his favourite sister.
She flees the school when someone asks her about the numbers on her arm. She goes back home, she slams the door of her room shut and she sits there and cries. Gordon brings her hot chocolate (and it’s not all bad, chocolate is Herr Doktor, but chocolate is also Magda and compassion and faith). He holds her close when she sobs and finally, finally tells him her story.
She tells him that she had a happy family. She tells him about her Mum — whose name was Edyta, but everyone always called her Edie — who was a music teacher in a primary school and all the children loved her. She tells about her Dad, Jakob the tailor, and all the princess dresses he made for her when she was little, she tells about Uncle Erich and his hunting trips and her big brother Erik, who once wanted to be an architect. She tells him they were happy and good.
She tells him how she wasn’t at home when they came for her Mum and her Dad and her brother, how she was with Uncle Erich and then there were Tomasz and Marysia and they hid them in their basement. She tells Gordon how Tomasz and Marysia were shot right in front of her — for hiding Jews and that was a crime — and how she and Uncle Erich were put on a train and brought to the camp, how she was pulled aside by a man holding a photograph of her and Erik (it was summer and Dad took them to the zoo and Erik had a silly hat and Ruth was missing a tooth) and how she was allowed to live even though she wasn’t old enough or strong enough to work.
(He listens to her and she doesn’t even realize that she constantly switches from English to German to Polish.)
And Gordon hugs her tighter and rocks her and tells her that he tried to find out if her Mum or Dad or brother lived, but it was tough and impossible and Ruth knows that (she always knows), because she saw the burning of all the documents.
Ruth says that she hates the Germans and hates the world and Gordon strokes her hair and tells her that it’s not right, because good things do happen. He tells her that everyone is equal, that everyone has the potential to be good and bad and it all depends on the choices and that’s the only thing that differs people.
Gordon continues to hold her long after she falls asleep.
One day — she’s almost nineteen and it’s the beginning of the summer and she finished school and Timmy and Jane are planning a wedding — Gordon takes her hand and guides her to the little study in the attic and sits her on the floor. He crouches next to her and he kisses her fingertips and asks if she wants to go to Israel. She blinks, because that’s not what she expected him to say.
Gordon tells her that he loves her and wants her to be happy and asks her again. He has money, he says, and he could help her start a comfortable life. Ruth smiles and shakes her head, kisses Gordon’s forehead and says “no”.
She knows what she wants (and what she can have). She wants to be a doctor, like Gordon, and she wants to help people. There are bad people who do or will do bad things — when she’s not paying attention to switching off her power she can still sense them — but there are also good people and good people need all the help they can get.
Gordon beams with happiness and smiles brightly. He hugs her and tells her he’s proud. Ruth is pleased. Gordon is proud (and she loves Gordon) and she knows that Mum and Dad and Erik would be proud too, because that’s the right thing to do.
After all, good is like heat. The amount of good absorbed should be equal to the amount of good released, or at least that’s what Ruth got out of Physics lessons.
Gordon wipes a tear and puts a hand on her shoulder.
“I will not let you be just a doctor, young lady,” he says. “You will be the best bloody doctor ever.”
And that settles it, really. Ruth Elisabeth Phillips (born Ruth Lehnsherr, but no one knows that) is going to Oxford.
Ruth stops brushing her teeth and looks into the mirror, into the — slightly tired, but rounder now, healthy — face of a twenty-year-old girl. Ruth blinks and the girl in the mirror blinks too, closing her greenish-blue eyes for a second. Ruth takes off her bathrobe and looks at her left arm. It’s early spring in Oxford, but it’s getting warmer and warmer every day and soon Ruth will have to stop wearing long-sleeved shirts, because it will be time for skirts and dresses.
There is more learning in Oxford than it was in a little school where Gordon sent her and with that comes more understanding of her power. Ruth can change details, can wish them to happen (like with Miss Fanny’s winning lottery ticket); she could try to wish bigger changes, and she often thinks about wishing hard enough for her parents and Erik not to be captured. She would be able to do that, she thinks, but there are other things to consider, there’s cause and effect to every decision and every event and Ruth knows that certain things are bound to happen and timelines can correct themselves and if someone died and she changed that, they would die anyway. Just later. (And she’s not selfish enough to risk ripping apart the fabric of reality just so she could have her dream.)
But there also the little things, like the colour of a dress Gordon bought for her (it was pink and she didn’t like it and she wished he’d bought a blue one and when she opened her eyes, the dress was in fact blue) or a number on her arm. She thinks about it for a moment, of all the things that might change if she changes it, rearranges the digits. But it’s not truly important, all the documents were burnt and there’s no one alive that might be affected by the change, there’s no one alive who might be looking for her. So Ruth puts her right hand on her arm, closes her eyes and thinks about how much she wants the numbers to be different.
They are different when she looks at them again, they’re different and meaningful and they look like a regular tattoo. Ruth smiles and the girl in the mirror smiles back, all teeth and a twinkle in the eyes. Ruth thinks she might put the blue dress on tomorrow and she might even go to a bar with some of her friends.
When Ruth sees, she knows and understands.
Betty Worrington told her about the handsome young man and his sweet flirting, and Ruth saw how Betty’s whole person flashed a half amused, half embarrassed pink — both her cheeks and her aura — but she’s not privy to one’s mind, she knows that Betty thinks the man is sweet, but she doesn’t know how he looks like or who he is.
And he is handsome, she decides, has impossibly blue eyes and an easy smile. He comes up to her stool by the bar and Ruth notices that Betty’s jealousy is pale yellow. He looks into Ruth’s eyes — and they’re greenish-blue, the same as Erik’s and it’s an unusual colour — and whistles softly. She raises a brow questioningly and he points at her eyes.
“Your eyes,” he says. “They’re neither fully blue nor green. That’s semi-dominance. That’s a very groovy…”
“Check please,” Ruth interrupts him and that throws the man off a little.
“I’ll pay for your drink,” he offers quickly and gestures the bartender. She puts her hand over his.
“I’ll pay for my own drink.” She slides off the stool easily. “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Betty Worrington chuckles somewhere on her right and the man is clearly out of spirits. Ruth takes a few steps towards the door and stops, then turns on her heel to say that Betty is nice and she thinks he’s cute and that they could be cute together, but when she looks at him, everything she wanted to say dies on her lips. Because there it is, a faint buzz of power around him and he brings two fingers to his temple and the buzz gets stronger. It takes Ruth’s breath away, because he’s different and he’s like her, and she hasn’t seen anyone like her in years.
“Reconsidered?” he asks and extends his arm. “Name is Xavier, Charles Xavier.”
She takes his hand and shakes it.
“Ruth Phillips,” she says. He smiles and reaches for his temple again, and oh, she knows what it means, so she winks playfully and leaves the bar.
She joins his Genetics classes as a listener just because. At first Charles thinks it’s because she’s interested in him, so she gently makes him understand that it’s not the case and points him towards a blond Amy Finnigan from nursing school, who’s silly and will be easily wooed by his smart lines.
Ruth doesn’t tell him that she’s like him and she doesn’t tell him she knows about him — he never offers a confession on his own and Ruth respects his decision, so she doesn’t push. But his power… his power is fascinating, because it compliments her own. She can look at things, at people and just know things about them while he can listen to what they actually think. He can find out what they want to do and she — if she tries, but she seldom does — can find out what they will do. (But her knowledge is based on dreams or sudden flashes and it’s fragmentary at best, and there are so many variables she’s not aware of, so knowing about the future like that is pointless.)
And their lecturer, Doctor Kinross, is the best example of how their powers differ. Charles can spy on his thoughts and discover that Doctor Kinross is thinking about his wife and her pudding and how he loves her, but Ruth can know that when the evening comes, Doctor Kinross will be invited to the house and to the bed of one of his students.
It’s knowing and believing, with them. Charles can believe in great many things, but in the end, Ruth will always know better.
She’s one of the first people to read his master’s thesis. They discuss it, talk about mutations in human genome like it’s just a hypothesis, not a fact, for both of them. Charles is passionate about it, tells her about possibilities and how those evolved humans will be the better people. Anger flares deep inside Ruth and she grimaces, thinks about humans and their wars and weapons and how she got robbed of everything she loved.
But then she remembers Herr Doktor and the hum of his power and she remembers that he was different like her and Charles, that he was a mutant like them, and the anger is gone. Charles still blabs about bright future and Ruth thinks that he places too much faith in everyone. He assumes that everyone is good by default and that evolution can only make them better. And as always, Ruth knows better, she knows that there are good humans (like Magda or Gordon or her parents and Erik) and there are bad mutants, because all the people are the same and have the same capability of being good or bad. Their fate is what they make it.
Charles is not wrong, but he’s not entirely right either. Ruth thinks he lacks the ability to see the middle ground.
They go to Derbyshire for Christmas, Ruth and Charles and Charles’ sister, because Gordon thinks it would be wonderful to have more people around and he forgets that his house is really small. Ruth is delighted to finally meet Raven, about whom she heard a lot, and is even more happy when she hugs a blond girl with a bored expression on her face, because she looks at Raven and knows that her fake skin itches and Raven is really red-haired and blue and she considers Ruth a competition for Charles’ affection.
Gordon hugs all three of them, prepares hot chocolate and generally treats them as if they were fifteen, not twenty-something, and he floods them with sweets and presents on the Christmas morning. Charles and Raven both get presents from Gordon (and everyone thinks it’s funny, because they’ve just met, but that’s the way Gordon is, always loving and kind) and Ruth doesn’t and she frowns and for once doesn’t understand. Then Gordon asks her to leave the drawing room and go to the attic with him, and there he gives her an old, battered jewellery box and it takes Ruth a few minutes to recognize it and when she does, she cries.
There are torn photos inside, a pencil drawing Erik made for Mum during their last summer together, and Mum’s engagement ring. Ruth cries and large tears drop into the box and Gordon thinks he’s upset her, tells her that he asked for some favors and got it for her from under the floor of her family home, because Gordon is well-known and well-liked. He tells her he’s sorry that he saddened her, and she cries some more, because she doesn’t know how to thank him or how to tell him that this box survived the war when her family didn’t.
It takes them an hour to get back downstairs and Charles has already found Gordon’s chess set and asks for a game. Ruth smiles faintly when Gordon agrees and they play, and she and Raven watch the game and Raven tells her that she has a wonderful ring. Charles tells Gordon how all the teachers at Oxford think that Ruth is a genius, how she’s never wrong and Ruth has to hide her embarrassment in a cup of chocolate. It’s Charles who’s truly brilliant, she thinks, because he learns and discovers, and she just knows, and that’s a part of her power. A power that could be so dangerous (if she was scared and couldn’t control it, she could easily destroy and displace and so many people could end up like that soldier she lost somewhere in time), but isn’t because Ruth will use only a small part of it and because you can’t blame and judge the whole world based on the actions of few men, no matter how horrendous they are.
Ruth sips her hot chocolate and wonders where would she be, physically and mentally, if it wasn’t for Gordon and his love and protection and beliefs.
“Checkmate,” announces Charles and Raven claps. Gordon laughs loudly and Ruth is overcome with a deep, warm feeling she hasn’t experienced since early childhood. This, she thinks, this is a family, a patchwork family that has nothing to do with common descent, but everything with love.
She tells that to Gordon in the evening, when she’s helping him with the dishes. He catches her wrist, draws her closer to him and kisses the top of her head.
“Family doesn’t end with blood, sweetheart” he murmurs into her soft brownish hair and she thinks he’s right.
Charles is on his way to getting his Ph.D. and Ruth is the best intern a local hospital has ever seen. Her diagnosis are always correct and she often sees symptoms other doctors have omitted. At least that’s how Ruth explains the seemingly unnecessary test she runs on her patients; her power, her just looking and knowing makes her a good doctor and lets her help as many as she can and she’s proud to say that it sometimes saves lives. (Charles called Gordon once and told him that Ruth embarrassed the renown surgeon, because she pointed out what he missed. Gordon was ecstatic. Ruth’s sure her Mum and Dad and Erik would too, be happy for her.) She doesn’t call her ability “cheating” anymore — it’s a penchant and she grins every time someone tells her she was born to do this. Maybe that’s true.
Her relationship with Charles is difficult to tag; they’re not exactly friends, because friends share with each other and she and Charles have so many secrets that she doubts they could ever sort it out properly. But there’s certainly respect between them, they can have fun in each other’s company and Charles tries to ask her out every few months. She declines every time, because she thinks of him as an adorable cousin and while he thinks he’s very mature, she thinks he’s still so childlike and naïve and sweet.
There are things Charles wants to know about her and there are days when he resorts to his powers to gain answers. It never works, because Ruth always knows when he’s going to do so — even if his touching the temple is just a gesture — because his aura gets whiter; she pushes thoughts he can see to the front and buries the others deep in her mind and after two years she’s still an enigma to Charles, who finally summons his courage.
“What does it mean?” he asks and points at the numbers on her arm. They look like a tattoo anyone could have, not a mark of war, not a brand and Ruth is glad she made it look normal. There’s a little heart added at the end and she touches it.
“It’s my brother’s date of birth,” she answers and draws her fingertips over 16 and 11 and 30, and thinks about all the missed birthdays and unlit candles and presents she’ll never have a reason to buy.
“I didn’t know you have a brother.”
“I don’t, not anymore,” she whispers and Charles pales and swallows and stops asking.
When Ruth finally passes all the exams and gets her license, they get drunk. It’s the last day she spends in Oxford or even England, as she volunteered to go to Morocco — there was an earthquake and all the help is needed, people are being evacuated, diseases are going to spread and the decision to go is natural to Ruth. Gordon knows better than to try and tell her not to go, Raven wishes her good luck and Charles thinks it’s dangerous. When life isn’t dangerous, Ruth asks him after a few drinks and they laugh for some reason, like it’s the best joke they’ve heard in months.
Ruth is pleasantly tipsy and Charles is too, if his colour-changing aura is anything to go by, and they giggle and snort and Charles allows Ruth to call him “Charlie”, something he hates and will regret in the morning. Ruth’s control over the rest of her power slowly slips and when Charles leans back in his chair, she has a different image in front of her eyes, of a Charles that’s both so different and so alike. There’s a bone-deep sense of sadness and loss in that vision, and there’s a forced smile and a wheelchair and Ruth can’t help but moan.
“Ruthie?” asks Charles that’s sitting in front of her and Ruth shakes her head, tries to dispel the image of what could (may, should not, will) happen. “You okay?”
Not okay, never okay, but she doesn’t tell him that. Instead she asks him to take her home and when he does, she kisses him on his cheek and watches him wobble towards his and Raven’s apartment. Her control slipped today and she knows something about the future, but she can’t and won’t do anything about it, because she has rules and she has them for a reason. There’s no changing and affecting, because she doesn’t know when or how or why and the future is not set in stone, and the possibilities are almost endless.
She braces herself for dreams that thankfully don’t come and in the morning she leaves Oxford.
She doesn’t attend Charles’ first lecture as a professor, because she’s in Peru, fighting with cold and a recent avalanche and people freezing under all the snow. She hopes that Gordon passed the good wishes.
When she finally gets back to England, back home, Gordon is there, waiting for her with an apple pie and news, and Timmy and Jane want her to be the godmother to their son Richard, and Miss Fanny is getting married at the age of ninety and everything is merry in a little house in Derbyshire.
Ruth spends the first week after her return in various living rooms of various houses, sipping tea and telling gripping stories about distant countries and grave dangers. Every person in the village wants to know, wants to hear for themselves, because that’s the first time one of them travelled so far and Ruth once catches Gordon telling a postman that his daughter did all of that.
She doesn’t know how to act around him for the rest of the day, and if Gordon notices, he doesn’t comment. Late at night, when she’s alone in her bedroom, she whispers a word she had no reason to use during the past eighteen years and it tastes good.
“Daddy,” she says and smiles into her pillow.
After the baptism of Richard Jonathan Grover, Ruth packs few things and goes to Oxford. She wonders if Charles still dresses like an old librarian, if he still manages to scare all the girls after one night and if Raven is still blonde. When she gets there, Charles’ landlady informs her that both her tenants left in a hurry two months ago, that they’ve left most of their belongings and are unlikely to return. Ruth agrees to help the old lady pack unwanted stuff and takes it back home, where she stashes it in Gordon’s basement and hopes to return it someday, when Charles decides to call her and tell her where he disappeared.
Ruth doesn’t like it when Charles finally calls. She’s known him for almost ten years and that’s long enough to know that hearing Charles Xavier sob into the receiver is just wrong.
Ruth tells Gordon that Charles had an accident and that’s enough for him, he’s helping her pack her things — and she takes more than she did to Oxford, she’s not sure how long she will stay — and he’s booking her a ticket to New York and he doesn’t complain about her leaving when she just got back, when she’s home for the first time in almost seven months. Helping is one of the values Gordon treasures the most and a friend in need is, as far as he and Ruth are concerned, a top priority.
Gordon sees her off to the airport and gathers her into his arms and holds close. He kisses her cheek and hands her an envelope, murmuring something about wonderful times and laugh and love.
“Tell Charlie and Raven that England misses them,” asks Gordon and Ruth promises that she’ll pass it to the siblings.
She boards the plane and goes to the USA for the first time in her life. She holds her breath during the take-off and landing — she always does and Gordon teases her about it, and she tells him that if she was meant to fly, she would have the ability to — and after many long hours she lands in New York. No one is waiting for her at the airport, but that’s fine, Charles might be busy (or still too hurt to move) and he probably doesn’t let Raven anywhere near cars (or boys or alcohol or any other thing that might corrupt his little sister). She takes a cab and pays for an hour-long drive to Westchester.
The mansion makes her eyes widen, and Charles told Ruth about his family home and his fortune, but that’s so much more than she anticipated. She walks through the gate and follows a gravelled path right to the main entrance. She rings a doorbell and waits.
A boy with too long reddish hair opens the door and stares at her for few minutes. Ruth glares at him and yes, he’s a mutant too, his ability has something to do with sound waves. The boy continues gaping and Ruth clears her throat.
“I’m Ruth Phillips,” she introduces herself. “I’m a friend of Charles’. He didn’t tell you that I was coming?”
The boys blinks and shuts the door close right in her face. Ruth puts her bag on the ground and wonders about what’s going on. The door opens again and now it’s a slightly older blond boy.
“We didn’t know someone was going to pay a visit,” he says, “but please, come in, Miss Phillips.”
She takes her bag and gets inside. The hall is even more intimidating than the outside of the mansion and Ruth stares at everything with awe. The blond boy smiles at her — she reads his aura as “suspicious” and “alerted” and his power connects with vast amounts of energy — and takes her bag from her. The redhead soon returns.
“Alex, the professor says he knows her.”
The blond boy — Alex — leads her to the end of one of the adjoining corridors. There are many doors, doors leading to bedrooms, he explains, and he puts her bag down in front of the last door on the right. They lead to a room in what Ruth assumes is the mansion’s little tower. Alex knocks on the door and opens it for Ruth after he hears a weak “come in”.
It’s dark in the room, heavy curtains are drawn over big windows, blocking all the light. There are bookcases with empty shelves and cardboard boxes in piles on the floor, making the room look like someone moved into it in a hurry.
Ruth gets closer to the giant bed. Charles is lying there, much paler than usual, under the blood red covers that for some reason make him look dying. Ruth sits on the edge of the bed and reaches for Charles’ hand and clasps it in her own.
“Hey, Charlie,” she says quietly and he laughs bitterly. “You called so I came.”
“I don’t remember that,” he admits and Ruth has to bite her lip. He’s in pain, his head is pounding and his mind is in shatters, and it hurts, and it feels like someone shot him point blank, but he lived to experience the ache — she knows that, and she knows there was a coin and endless pain, and Charles hisses when her grip on his hand becomes too tight. “Normally I would jump with joy at seeing you, but, ah… It appears I can’t.”
And he doesn’t have to turn his head towards a wheelchair, he doesn’t have to say and she doesn’t have to see, because she already knows and she’s known for some time.
“Oh, Charles,” she says and strokes the back of his hand gently.
She gets a room right next to his. She’s the only person with medical qualifications in the too big mansion and there are only three other people — children, really — in there anyway. There’s Alex, who still watches her every move, and there’s Sean, who talks too much when he’s nervous, and there’s the third boy, Hank, whom she hasn’t seen a single time.
“Where’s Raven?” Ruth asks once and Charles turns his head to face the wall.
Alex brings her Charles’ medical files and even though she knows it’s pointless — she sees Charles every day and she knows that the damage to his spine is too extensive, that there isn’t a way to fix that kind of damage and that he will never walk again — she checks it, analyzes it and tries to think of a way to help him, but there isn’t one. She could try to wish his injury to never have happened, of course she could, but she can’t, because the repercussions of tampering with a stable timeline are something even she cannot fathom.
Besides, Charles’ paralysis is the least of his problems. There’s the pain in his head, pain that isn’t his, not truly, and they both know it, and it sometimes messes with his powers, because she can feel his despair from the second floor. But that’s not everything, because there are also his emotions to worry about, and Charles feels depressed and useless and lonely and abandoned and his aura is the darkest grey, almost black, almost colourless.
Charles doesn’t want to tell her what happened nor how he ended up like this, but Ruth knows anyway. She knows there was a beach and she knows that Charles was shot and then Raven left, but she doesn’t have the details, because having them would be mind-reading and that’s his power, not hers. She wonders about the person who has taken so much from Charles with just one bullet and Charles never tells her who that was.
So Ruth sighs and goes back to being a doctor and a friend. She’s good at what she does and she can always tell when Charles’ condition changes, so she can always take away his pain and soothe panic attacks. But that’s not enough and she grieves, because there isn’t a medicine that can cure a broken heart.
She wakes up one night and she doesn’t know if it was the loud thud coming from the room next to hers, or a cry, or projected emotions that disturbed her sleep. She’s up in an instant and pads to Charles’ bedroom, where she finds him sprawled on the floor next to his bed. He hits the wooden floor with his curled fist and his arms shake. He shivers, but he doesn’t let her get him back to bed. He mumbles something about pity and humiliation and uselessness, he weeps and stays on the floor where he fell off the bed, so Ruth takes a pillow and puts it under his head. She grabs a duvet, gets behind him and covers them both and holds him close while he cries himself to sleep.
She stays awake for the whole night and strokes Charles’ hair and whispers soothing words at the first indication of a nightmare, just like Erik once did for her.
Alex gets used to her presence and even starts winking when she enters the spacious kitchen. Sean sometimes tells her that she’s beautiful and she thanks him and laughs. Charles starts letting her open the curtains, then he starts leaving his bedroom. He even starts smiling, after some time, and it’s a bit forced and very pale in comparison with his usual sweet self, but Ruth counts it as a victory and she knows that Sean and Alex are grateful even for that.
She still hasn’t seen Hank, but there are more important things, and she helps Charles learn to use the wheelchair, to get in and out and around, and she lets him do everything by himself, she makes sure he will never think that this makes people think that he’s less brilliant or competent or independent.
“There was a man,” confesses Charles when they’re in the garden one day and his aura flashes red. It’s big and Ruth knows that, because she’s seen Charles flirt with girls many times, but she’s never seen him truly in love. “It was an accident.”
“Where is he now?”
Charles grits his teeth, but longing is still visible in his features. You feel lonely, thinks Ruth, and you can’t see that you’re not alone.
“Gone,” is the reply.
Weeks somehow transform into months.
It’s a pure accident that she catches all three boys talking in the kitchen. She goes there to make Charles tea and prepare lunch for the kids, all because she’s terrible at chess and she lost of course and she had to be extra useful around the mansion that day.
“… and he crippled the professor and he doesn’t even know…”
“Fucker,” adds Alex.
“… and it’s all Lehnsherr’s fault anyway,” finishes the third boy, Hank, when Ruth enters the kitchen and she stops dead in her tracks. The boys get frightened and Alex tries to hide a very furry and a very blue Hank, and they really think that the sight of him is what shocked her. She quickly turns around and strides to Charles’ room, hears the boys running after her, and they get to the master bedroom together. They burst in and Charles’ small smile disappears and he pales even more and his eyes dart from Hank to Ruth.
“We need to talk,” says Ruth and Charles swallows.
“Alex, Sean, Hank, excuse us,” he sends them away gently and soon it’s only Ruth and Charles in the room. “Ruth, I can…”
“I have to tell you something,” she blurts and he blinks, and offers her a chair. Ruth declines and starts pacing around the room and wonders where to start. She takes two pawns from Charles’ chess set and throws them high in the air and Charles wants to ask what she’s doing, but his question never comes as he sees Ruth suspend the pawns in the air, immobilizing them in time, halfway down to the floor. She takes one of them and puts in his hand, then she waves and the other drops.
Charles is surprised, but also excited and he positively beams and Ruth wants to cry, because she hasn’t seen him this happy, hasn’t seen him being so much him since Oxford.
“Amazing,” he declares and there’s a trace of old Charles in his voice. “Fascinating. How come I didn’t know?”
She tries to grin and starts telling him about her power and he wriggles in the wheelchair and smiles and it’s almost like nothing ever happened and they’re just students, taking the conversation about Charles’ thesis into the next level.
“Who’s Lehnsherr?” she asks later that day. Charles closes his eyes before replying.
“Erik,” he breathes and it’s a punch in the gut, not only because of the name, but also because of all the emotion in Charles’ voice, the anger and betrayal and longing, but most of all love. “He’s… he’s the man.”
“Tell me about him,” says Ruth and she hopes she doesn’t sound like she’s pleading.
Charles takes a deep breath and starts talking about a man of an amazing power and a beautiful mind, who’s been through unimaginable hell and with whom Charles intertwined his fate when he saved him from drowning. There are tears on Ruth’s face when Charles tells her about Sebastian Shaw, about the camp and his Erik’s power, and Ruth can only think, all that time. All that time you were there and I mourned you and we never found each other.
“And I…” cuts off Charles and Ruth doesn’t need him to finish, because she can hear it, love is in every word he says.
Ruth kisses the top of Charles’ head and leaves his bedroom, goes to find Hank and Alex and Sean, and when she does, they tell her about an evil man who was ready to kill hundreds of innocent men, whose only fault was that they were on duty that day.
It’s an entirely different story.
“I’m going to open a real school,” informs her Charles and he’s excited, and that’s a good sign, because that means his depression is at least receding. “Children will learn to control their powers here, this will be their safe haven.”
“And what next?” asks Ruth and moves her knight, which Charles immediately takes off board.
“We will wait for humans to be ready to accept us.”
And there it is, the true Charles Xavier, the optimistic idealist who will never give up.
“And what if they will never do?”
“Ruthie, people are capable of great good.”
“But they are capable of great horror too,” she reminds him and he winces. They both think about humans targeting a beach, sending missiles after no real threat. Ruth also thinks about others like them, mutants, who are no different to humans, when you truly think about it. Good and evil is not exclusive to baseline humans, it’s something they all chose from, every waking day.
She thinks about her big brother, who was always supposed to be proud of her doing the right thing, of her helping the good people in need. About her big brother, who…
“Check,” says Charles and amusement colours his voice.
Ruth doesn’t tell him about Erik and her own past, and she’s not sure if she’s doing that because she’s trying to protect him or because she is — for the first time in her life — just ashamed of her brother.
There’s a girl in New Jersey, Alisa, and she lives there with abusive foster parents. Charles tells her one evening that he’s going to visit the Tager family, that he’ll try to bring Alisa to Westchester, that she’s a mutant and she needs training, because an uncontrolled power might be dangerous and Ruth knows he’s right (there is, or rather isn’t, a young soldier to serve as a proof).
He asks for her assistance, because he felt the young girl’s terror and she might be in need of medical help.
“And there might also be trouble,” Charles adds a touch quieter, “because the Brotherhood is coming for her too.”
And the Brotherhood means Erik (oh, Erik) and Ruth isn’t sure she loves or hates the idea of possibly facing the man who’s supposed to be her brother. This whole quest, finding mutants and bringing them close, for one reason or another, that’s not a part of her life. She doesn’t do recruiting for anything, she just wants to help everyone she can, but not like that, and it’s almost never enough.
“I don’t think I should,” she murmurs and gets up from her usual spot on Charles’ bed. She moves towards the door, snatching a bottle of scotch that she’s sure Charles hoped she wouldn’t notice. But she did, and she’s not only a friend, but she’s his doctor too and she can’t approve of him trying to drown his sorrows in a glass of expensive alcohol.
Charles rolls his eyes and she pads straight to her room — and that’s across the corridor, because on some nights Charles still needs help and calming down and affection. She pours a drink for herself, sits cross-legged on the floor and thinks about tomorrow, and Charles and Hank’s trip to New Jersey. The alcohol burns pleasantly and it thrums in her veins and her control over her power slips a little, and there are images.
She sees a wave of blinding white-blue light that comes from the Statue of Liberty, and an army and fighting, and Charles is dying — he’s older, much older and his prized hair is gone — and there’s a curious cure, and above all that, everywhere, in every scenario she sees and knows, there’s a man in a red cape with a red helmet, and Ruth shrieks. She starts backing off and doesn’t stop until her back hits the wall. Her pulse is racing and she can’t calm her breathing.
She gets up and comes to a golden-framed mirror. The girl that looks back at her has a haunted expression and it’s clear that she’s lost some weight, her cheeks are starting to look sunken. She reaches for a gold necklace that Gordon once gave her for her birthday, takes off Mum’s engagement ring and hangs it on the gold chainlet and puts it on her neck. It will be easier now, she won’t have to worry about losing the one memory she owns.
She leaves her room and tip-toes to Charles’, and he’s not sleeping yet and he seems genuinely surprised to see her back.
“I’ll go,” she says. He smiles lightly — and still sadly, and she’s afraid he’ll always smile like that — and promises her one of Hank’s best suits.
A peaceful visit somehow transformed into a fight and it’s not the Brotherhood’s fault, as far as Ruth knows (and she knows, because that’s what she does).
The police — but thankfully only a handful of men — tries shooting at everyone, corners them in Alisa’s house, because Mrs. Tager called them. She doesn’t care about Alisa, but the child’s presence means extra money and Mrs. Tager doesn’t want to lose that.
Bullets are flying everywhere, deflected, and one of them hits a young policeman (freshly out of police academy, that’s his first assignment and he has a wife at home) and Ruth ducks and crawls to him, stops the bleeding from the leg wound. She calms down when she does that, because she’s helping, and that’s what she was born to do. He is a good man, young and hopeful, and he’s just following stupid orders, and there’s one thing Ruth knows about orders, that they often resort to the “kill or be killed” ideal, and she’d never want anyone to lose their life because of her.
She sees from the corner of her eye that Charles falls amidst the general commotion and she’s prepared to run to him, when she sees a man in a red cape, wearing a (stupid, really, but useful, her power supplies) red helmet and that’s her big brother, she knows that and she doesn’t need to see his greenish-blue eyes that are like her own, or his high cheekbones he took after Grandma Elżbieta. That’s him and she knows, because it’s her power to do so, and because she’s seen him last night, in every vision she had.
He raises his hand and all the guns suddenly turn against their owners, the triggers are pulled and Ruth shouts “no”, and she jumps to the front and thrusts her palm out and everything stops. The people freeze in place and Ruth stands in the middle of the Tagers’ living room. She’s frightened, because there are so many lives to lose, but she also feel righteous and she’s never released so much of her power before. She moves quickly, removing all the guns and throwing them out of the window, into the garden, where they won’t be a threat to anyone. She breathes deeply, in and out, and moves towards Charles, who has a deep cut on the forehead and whose blood froze too, one drop on the tip of his nose, and that’s kind of funny.
She touches his arm and wishes him to move, and the cut starts bleeding again, and Charles exhales and blinks. He’s not in her time-freeze anymore, because she can wish him not to be if she wants.
“Can you stop him?” she asks and he knows whom she means. “Can you put him, the Brotherhood, to sleep, so it would be easier for Hank to get them back to the mansion?” Charles nods. “What do you need me to do?”
“The helmet,” he mumbles, because his head hurts again. “It blocks me out, you need to get the helmet off.”
She’s back on her feet and by Erik’s side in a blink of an eye. She reaches for the helmet and she takes it off his head, and knows everything about him. She takes a step back and looks at the helmet, looks at Erik and that feeling of dread is back, because the past and the future are both scary places. She feels her power flow through her body, everything around her bursts into colours, reality curls around her and sings, and there they are, possibilities, everything that ever happened and ever will. It’s hers to take, to change and shape, and she can make it so that Charles is never shot, Raven never leaves, Erik is never lost, Mum and Dad and Uncle are never killed, her family is never captured and Gordon never has a daughter, and Erik and Charles never meet, and Charles never learns to love an individual, and Moira MacTaggert never finds help, and Shaw never finds an opponent, and Shaw is never stopped, and–
She closes her eyes and concentrates on the helmet. There are endless possibilities, variables to consider, but this, this seems to be a constant and she has her rules and she never interferes, but this time, this one time she will. She puts her hand on the top of the helmet and opens her eyes.
“This is never to appear, never to be found and never to be remade,” she says and the reality hums in agreement and the helmet starts disappearing in her hands. “No more hiding.”
She flicks her wrist and lowers the time-freeze and she turns to smile at Charles, but her body is slammed into a wall and Charles shouts something (she never hears what, because that other telepath engages him in a match of their own and Raven tries to stop her) and Erik is suddenly so close that she can feel his breath on her cheek.
Gordon’s gold necklace starts biting into her skin and she chokes, and she can’t concentrate hard enough to stop him. She whizzes and wants to cough, and soon the oxygen in her lungs won’t be enough, and the tightening suddenly stops. Erik’s eyes are cast downwards, locked on a little ring that hangs on the delicate chainlet. His eyes widen and there’s a spark of recognition in them, and he releases her so slowly.
“Skończ to,” she rasps in Polish and Erik is suddenly very frightened. “No dalej. Nie ma powodu, żeby przestać.”
He wants to say something, is already opening his mouth, but his gaze turns unfocused and he slumps to the floor. Ruth looks around. Raven and the other telepath are lying on the floor too, and so are the policemen and Mrs. Tager. Little Alisa shifts back from invisibility and is huddled in a far corner of the room. Ruth and Charles exchange meaningful glances and she moves towards the girl, back in the helping mode.
“Hank would be very useful now,” she states and Charles snorts from somewhere on the floor. “We really need to get out of here.”
Back in the mansion Alisa Tager is introduced to the other kids and Sean is happy that he’s not the youngest one, at last. Erik and Raven are put into their old rooms and Emma gets one too, at the far end of the mansion. Hank wonders how long that confinement will work and Ruth shrugs and places a time-lock on all the rooms, so that it will be impossible to leave without a proper key (that only she and Charles have, and that’s the brilliance of it). Her reality-shaping power is stronger than Erik’s metal-bending and he will never be able to break out.
There is so much to do, Ruth thinks.
Ruth puts three stitches on Charles’ forehead, the cut being deeper than she initially thought. Charles sits very still on a gurney in the mansion’s infirmary that Ruth insisted on having. Every school needs its own private hospital, she reasoned and Charles and Hank agreed with her.
“All done,” she says and wipes a droplet of blood from Charles’ brow.
“You are amazing,” declares Charles. “I could use a doctor like you by my side.”
“Are you offering me a job or flirting with me?” Charles shrugs and doesn’t answer. “Because a job sounds nice, but you’re not my type.”
“And what’s your type?” he asks and leans a little towards her.
Ruth lets out a small puff of air.
“You know, girls like me fall for the bad boy types. The brooding ones with a troubled past.”
They fall silent. Charles suddenly finds his shoelaces fascinating and doesn’t lift his gaze to look at Ruth. She wishes, not for the first time, that she could read his mind and know what exactly is he thinking about.
“What am I going to do?” he asks in a small voice and there’s no need for clarifying. Ruth puts a hand on his knee and he can’t feel the sympathetic squeeze.
“You are going to go to bed,” she replies, “and you’re going to get a good night’s rest. Consider this doctor’s orders.”
He smiles weakly and she helps him get into his chair. They leave the infirmary and on their way to their respective rooms, Charles stares at a small staircase that leads to the upper floors of the west wing, where Erik’s room is located. Ruth knows that and she’s been there, a dusty bedroom that still houses everything Erik left behind when he didn’t come back all those months ago.
“Go to sleep, Charlie,” Ruth advises when Charles wheels into his bedroom. “You’ve hit your head pretty bad, you don’t have concussion, but you’ll sport a nice headache in the morning. I need you to rest, we all do.”
“Thank you,” he says and closes the door behind him. Ruth sighs and retreats to her own room. She doesn’t sleep well herself, she’s alerted the whole night, waiting for a sign of Charles’ nightmare. It doesn’t come, however, or if it does, he manages not to project it onto her.
There are three extra plates waiting on the counter when she enters the kitchen in the morning. She greets Hank warmly, who grunts something in response and takes two plates, leaves the kitchen and goes to the staircase leading to the east wing. Ruth sighs. Alex and Sean are also in the room — Charles is still sleeping, she checked on him when she got up, because she’s already worrying — but no one makes a move to take the third plate. They are wary of Erik’s presence, uncomfortable with him in the mansion, and she can’t blame them. The last time they’ve seen each other, it was in Cuba and Erik left a bleeding Charles in the hands of three scared boys.
She takes the plate — it holds a toast with scrambled eggs — and decides to be the adult.
She stops in front of the door to Erik’s room, thinks about the person inside, inside the time-lock, and touches the ring on a chainlet, her key. She doesn’t need it, because it’s her power that traps him there and she could easily override the lock, but she sticks with the rules they’ve set, because it makes things bearable for everyone.
She takes a deep breath, opens the door and walks in. Erik is sitting on the bed, facing the window, so he doesn’t notice her at first. She clears her throat.
“I brought you something to eat,” she says and his head snaps, and he’s on his feet in no time, staring at her as if he was seeing a ghost. “Sorry for the quality, but it was Alex’s turn to make breakfast and he doesn’t like you enough to bother.”
She puts the plate on a coffee table that stands in the middle of the room. He’s still looking at her and his mouth is moving, but no sound comes out.
“Ruth,” he manages to say finally, and this one word is choked and disbelieving and hopeful, all at once.
She puts a strand of brownish hair behind her ear.
He takes a step closer to her and reaches his hand out and he touches her chin with his fingertips, almost afraid that what he feels won’t be solid, won’t be flesh, just a mirage. He releases a shaky breath when his nail scratches her cheek.
“Ruth,” he repeats and now it’s a full-on shock. “How…?”
“Two weeks outside the ghetto,” she answers quietly. “With Onkel. Different transport. Budy. Powers. Schmidt.”
A dark flash crosses his face at the sound of that name and he retreats his hand, goes back to the bed, hides again in a shell and there’s no trace of a stunned man who regarded her with wide, expectant eyes. It’s the man she saw in New Jersey, the stubborn one. Untrusting.
She walks to the bed and kneels in front of it, she gently touches Erik’s thigh.
“It’s okay,” she whispers and tries to look into his eyes. “You’re not alone, Erik.”
And somehow that’s the wrong thing to say.
The next time she comes, she brings a pot of hot tea. Erik watches her every move with narrowed eyes.
“That was you,” he rather states than asks, “you somehow interfered in New Jersey. Charles couldn’t do it, wouldn’t be able to.”
“I’ve frozen time,” she answers and pour the tea into two mugs. “That’s kind of my thing.”
She hands him the mugs. He accepts it and turns around in his hands. The inscription on it says “Best Brother Ever”. Funny, she didn’t notice it when she took the mugs from the cupboard in the kitchen. It must be Charles’, she thinks.
“Schmidt,” Erik whispers. Ruth nods.
“He was waiting,” she says. “Had a picture of us, the one Dad always kept in his wallet.”
Erik squeezes the mug. The antique argand lamps rattle, then the metal starts moving, curving and melting a little. Ruth chuckles, but there’s no humor in it.
“He once told me to bend a spoon.” She shakes her head. “It all makes sense now, with you and your metal-bending.”
Erik shifts uncomfortably and doesn’t look at her. She knows that she makes him feel uneasy. He is so happy to see her alive that he can’t actually comprehend that he’s happy. So he’s mildly annoyed instead, because he was technically kidnapped, and Ruth is here, and that’s Westchester and everything would be easier if they were ten miles away. But not here, because this is Charles’ house, and Erik doesn’t want to be here. Even if a part of him does.
Ruth’s gaze turns serious.
“The boys told me about you,” she whispers. “I asked Charlie first, but he sugar-coated everything and he didn’t even know that he was doing that, so I went to them. God, Erik. All those people…”
“Just humans,” he dismisses her flippantly. “And they were ready to kill us, all of us, at any moment.”
“And that gave you the right?” He clenches his jaw, stubborn and firm in his beliefs. “I’m a doctor, you know? I go around the world and help people. Regular people, normal people, and I’ve spent my whole life imagining that you’d be proud of me. That you’d be proud of me doing the right thing.”
He has no response to that, so he sips his tea. He clears his throat.
“What do you want, Ruth?” he asks softly.
“I want to understand,” she whispers in reply.
Erik’s not the only one who can’t find his footing anymore. Ruth observes Charles with growing concern, because there are dark circles under his eyes, he’s always tired and he constantly watches the west wing staircase when he thinks no one is looking. He doesn’t have nightmares anymore, but Ruth is beginning to suspect that it’s not because his mental state is better than before, but because he simply avoids sleeping.
He’s going to crash any moment now and Ruth can do nothing to help that. This ordeal, this, this having Erik in Westchester, only a floor away, so close and so far at the same time, is draining him, killing slowly and cruelly.
There are other things happening at the mansion too, because Charles insists that the boys and little Alisa need to continue their training. There are constantly stitches to put, bleedings to stop, aches to soothe and Ruth is kept busy, always in motion, never having enough time to actually check up on Charles, to offer him what little comfort she can.
She once catches him sitting in front of the staircase, intently watching the corridor. Little Alisa tells her that the professor has been sitting there for the past two hours and that’s enough, Ruth goes to him and yells at him for not sleeping at all and not eating properly, and going through everyday motions as if he wasn’t really there, and just waiting, suspended. He looks so guilty and crushed after she finishes that she doesn’t know what she wants to do more, smack him or hug him.
And the worst part, Ruth thinks as she resorts to cheating and hides sleeping pills in Charles’ supper, is that she knows that if she could phase through walls, she’d find Erik sitting on his bed in the exact same position.
“Why didn’t you kill me?” she asks when she brings him a book to read. “Neither me nor Charles. We’re your enemy too, aren’t we?”
“No,” he answers too quickly and she raises her brows. “We don’t harm our own.”
“You mean mutants?” He nods. She bites her lip, because she knows Erik and knows that he has a temper, and what she’s going to say isn’t something he’d like to hear. But she’s his sister, and the way she sees it, no one else will tell him this. “And if that was Mum?” Erik’s eyes widen. “Mum didn’t have any powers and what if that was her? Just another human who opposes you, would you kill her too?”
Everything that’s metal rattles and the lights start to flicker. Erik’s face is slowly turning red and his eyes flash dangerously.
“No,” he grits out. “Never.”
She taps her chin, deep in thought.
“So you detest and fight humans,” she starts, “as long as they’re not someone you know and care about?”
“It’s not that easy, Ruth,” he says and there’s a patronizing edge to his voice.
“Yes, it is that easy,” she insists. “But it doesn’t work that way, Erik. You can’t choose to whom your beliefs apply, because if you can’t generalize them, they’re not beliefs. They’re just whims.”
He closes his eyes and rubs his temples tiredly.
“What do you want, Ruth?” he repeats the question.
“I want you to understand.”
“Why do you hate humans?” she asks as she sits cross-legged on the floor of his bedroom. She’s tired, she spent the whole day running after the kids — the flu season is coming and she’d really want to vaccinate them — only to come back to her room to find the door of Charles’ room wide open, and Charles lying on the wooden floor, unconscious. “No, really, Erik. Why do you hate them, all of them?”
“They’re responsible for the worst part of my life,” comes the reply from the bed.
And she knows that he doesn’t mean the camp or the war, not in general. She’s seen the blood on the floor of Herr Doktor’s other room and she’s seen the web of scars on Erik’s back.
“They’re not,” she says and he gets up and looks at her curiously. “Schmidt was a mutant. He was one of us.” He blinks and she continues. “Do you know how hate is born? First there’s fright, then there’s anger and that leads to hate. You hate humans, a targeted group, you attack and destroy. Doesn’t that sound familiar to you?”
She sees, even in the dim light of an evening, that Erik pales.
“What exactly makes you better than them, brother?”
“Why do you come back every day if my beliefs disgust you?”
Ruth leans on the wall, next to the door. She brought him dinner, a soup that Gordon taught her how to make. It wasn’t her turn to prepare a meal, it was Sean’s, but with Charles getting thinner every day and now being plain too weak to even get out of bed, she wouldn’t let him cook. They needed real food with nutritional values, for Charles’ sake, not salt water with pasta.
“Whims,” she reminds him and he winces. “Besides, I don’t come here every day. Honestly, I’m too busy to do so.”
“There are little kids at the mansion, you know. Not only Alisa now, but an African girl too, Ororo.” She watches him snatch a spoon from the coffee table with his power, too lazy to get up. “And then there’s Charles.”
The spoon drops on the floor, halfway to Erik’s bed. She distracted him.
“Charles?” She nods. “What about Charles?”
“A lot,” she answers vaguely. “His legs. His head. He’s depressed and it’s getting worse instead of better. And right now he’s on his way to looking like we did during the war.”
Erik swallows, she sees his Adam’s apple jumping.
“Charles is fine, he’s always fine,” he says, but that doesn’t sound convincing, not even to his ears.
“Then you don’t know him as well as you would like to, if you believe that.” Erik frowns and Ruth sighs. “Charlie is brilliant at pretending, he’s been pretending his whole life after all. And he’s everything but fine. But you don’t know that, how could you, you weren’t here, you still aren’t. I’ve spent the last four days by his bed hoping that he doesn’t slip into a coma or something, because I’m pretty sure he stopped eating around the time you and Raven appeared here.”
“We haven’t been here this long,” Erik snaps, but then his eyes widen. “Four days? But… you’ve been here yesterday.”
“You think I was.” She laughs bitterly at Erik’s obvious confusion. “Erik, I can manipulate time. This room, as well as Raven’s and Emma’s rooms, are in a time-lock. You didn’t really think that it was just a fancy name for an expensive lock, did you? I slowed the flow of time in here.” She pauses, if only for the dramatic effect. “You’ve been here for almost five weeks.”
And that finally truly angers him. He leaps of the bed, strides to her and glares threateningly. If looks could kill, Ruth thinks, I’d be lying dead and he would regret.
“So we’re prisoners here?” he hisses. “You trap us here, why? And what does saint Charles have to say about it?”
“Not much,” she answers and she raises her chin defiantly. She’s not afraid of him, because she’s not just anyone. And she knows that he would never intentionally hurt her, nor Charles. “Lately, he doesn’t do anything except waiting for the day when you go downstairs and reassure him that you’ll always be his friend.”
And the anger is gone, replaced by a mix of emotions that Ruth cannot put her finger on. His aura flashes several colours at once and it’s difficult to tell which emotions apply to this conversation and which are just residual reactions to the whole situation. But she knows that he’s scared, for one reason or another.
Ruth rubs the back of her neck vigorously.
“And you could always try to get out,” she reminds him. “Mind you, you’d never be able to actually leave the room, but you could try. And you never do.” She puts a hand on his cheek. “I don’t think you really want to leave.”
Erik shrugs, but doesn’t deny.
Three days later, she brings a chess set with her.
It was a long day, Ororo managed to almost strike Sean with a lightening, Alisa broke her left arm and Ruth threatened Charles to take him away from the mansion and to put him in a guarded room in a proper hospital if he doesn’t finally get his life together. Charles swallowed and glared at her, but the threat was enough to make him come to the dinner and eat with them.
The kids were delighted and Ruth was relieved.
Erik’s aura brightens when he sees the wooden board and chess pieces and he immediately sets the whole thing up. He chooses black, so Ruth is left with the first move. It takes Erik fifteen minutes to beat her and he chuckles.
“Who taught you to play?” he asks. “That couldn’t have been me, if it were me, you wouldn’t be so terrible.”
“Gordon taught me,” she replies and sets the game up again. “But he’s no good himself, as Charles is eager to remind him every time they see each other.”
Erik grits his teeth. He doesn’t like listening about Gordon. Ruth wonders whether it’s because he never had a Gordon for himself.
“Do you think that Charles’ way is the better one?” Ruth blinks and Erik clarifies. “For us, is it better? Hiding, waiting and hoping that humans will just accept us?”
“No.” Erik opens his mouth to say something and Ruth quickly interrupts him. “Charles isn’t right, but neither are you.” She makes herself more comfortable in the chair. “There isn’t a one good way, there are only those which are better than others. But the only way to ensure safety is to find balance.”
“Balance,” he repeats dubiously and shakes his head.
“Yes, balance. You’re right, we can’t hide and wait. But we also can’t… terrorize. Making people think that we’re potentially dangerous is the fastest way to making them fight us.” She clears her throat. “Biology, Erik. The only reason for a species to survive is if they are useful to the environment. Coexistence is possible.”
She rolls her eyes.
“You know, the biggest flaw in your logic, as well as Charles’, is that you can’t see, can’t accept that the other one might be right too. You’re a pessimist, you think that everyone is evil by default. Charles, on the other hand, is an optimist, he tries to see only good in people, no matter how many times they hurt or disappoint him. You two are so in love with your ideals that you can’t see the middle ground.”
“And what’s the middle ground, Ruth?” Erik asks tiredly.
“The fact that everyone has equal chances of being good or evil. It’s a choice, Erik, not a genetic imperative. You have to be cautious, but you can’t deny anyone a chance.” She looks at the board and moves her rook. “And that’s check, I believe.”
“There’s something I want to show you,” says Ruth when she enters Erik’s room during the seventh week of their confinement — or the tenth day, as far as Erik and the girls are concerned. Erik pats the empty space on the bed, right beside him, and Ruth shakes her head. She walks slowly to him and hands him a little envelope, the one Gordon gave her at the airport many months before. Erik takes the envelope, looks inside and pales. Ruth knows why.
There are photographs. Several photographs Gordon had taken during summer holiday when Charles and Raven visited them in Derbyshire and then stayed for a month. There are photos of all three of them running through a meadow, of Raven — who was still blond then — petting Miss Fanny’s old border collie, of Ruth laughing at Charles who had problems with getting on Gordon’s horse. But one of the pictures catches Erik’s attention especially and Ruth knows which one it is. It’s her favourite one too.
She reaches to the pocket of her trousers and takes out another photo, and hands it to Erik. This one is much older, grayish now and torn at the edges. It’s one of the pictures from the battered jewellery box.
“Do you know what’s similar about these pictures?” Ruth asks quietly.
Erik shakes his head, but he doesn’t stop looking at the photos. The old one shows a six-year-old version of him, smiling brightly and hugging Mum tightly, looking as if he didn’t have a care in the world. The newer one shows Charles, who’s sitting on a pier and swinging his legs lazily. He has an unguarded expression on his face, a carefree, relaxed smile that Gordon somehow managed to capture on the photo.
Ruth kneels in front of Erik and tries to look into his eyes. They’re watery, she thinks.
“These people,” she points at a smiling Mum, and a smiling Erik and a smiling Charles, “are gone.”
Erik’s arms start shaking and the photos fall to the floor. Ruth catches his hands in her much smaller ones.
“Wszystko będzie w porządku, głuptasku,” she says the words he used to tell her when they were little. She takes the gold chainlet off her neck and puts it into Erik’s hand.
And the tears finally fall.
The kids are camping outside the closed library door when Ruth sees them on the way to her room. Alex and Hank are standing on the right side of the two-winged door, both with arms crossed and grumpy expressions on their faces. Sean is sitting on the floor and biting his nails, Ororo and Alisa are fighting for a place by the keyhole and Raven mimics Hank’s pose, only on the left side of the door.
Something is clearly wrong.
“What’s going on here?” she asks.
Alex points at the door.
“Lehnsherr came to visit the professor, they’ve closed the door and asked us not to disturb.”
“And?” prompts Ruth, because Alex’s tone suggest that this isn’t the end.
“And they’ve been inside for almost an hour. No sound, nothing. We’re starting to worry.”
Ruth bites her lip. On the one hand she doesn’t want to interrupt whatever it is that her brother and friend are doing, on the other however… It’s almost past dinnertime, and if she wants to get Charles back into at least physically good shape, she needs to make sure he’s not skipping meals again. She takes a breath. Decision’s made.
She reaches for the door handle, but Raven’s hand on her wrist stops her.
“Ruth,” hisses Raven warningly.
“Medical override of Charles’ request,” explains Ruth smoothly. “It’s past dinnertime and I don’t trust him to go and eat something later. And most certainly I don’t want him to unintentionally starve to death.”
She opens the door and six curious heads immediately peek inside. Raven gasps and Sean’s jaw drops.
They’re sitting by the enormous window — or Charles is sitting with his head bowed and Erik is kneeling in front of him — clearly not paying attention to the sudden movement by the door. Erik’s left hand rests on Charles’ thigh and the right one cups Charles’ cheek. They’re touching their foreheads, but as far as Ruth can tell, they’re not actually looking at each other. Just… soaking up in the moment.
“A bit closer and they would kiss!” squeaks Alisa and she and Ororo start giggling.
“What are they doing?” asks Alex incredulously.
“Healing,” replies Ruth.
After that, life in Westchester doesn’t get any better. If anything, it gets worse.
After exactly seven weeks, two days and four hours — which equals ten days and seven hours — Ruth lowers the time-lock. It’s more of a gesture than necessity, since Raven has been coming and going from her room freely for about ten days in the regular flow of time and Erik got Ruth’s key with the pictures. The only person who actually benefitted was the other telepath, Emma, who hasn’t set a foot anywhere outside her assigned room. When Ruth goes to see her, to tell her that it’s over, she’s free to go, Emma sneers and asks why. Ruth remembers that Erik once asked the same question, why, and she hasn’t answered then.
“We needed time”, Ruth replies and she means: I needed time to break through Erik’s barriers. Charles needed time to gather the courage to face Erik and Raven, Charles needed time to learn to say goodbye, Charles needed time to prepare himself for letting them go and the time I’ve given him is still not enough.
Emma smirks and decides to stay in her room, because she doesn’t know what else to do. Erik, her fearless leader, is in Westchester and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere and Emma is so used to following orders that she has trouble making her own decisions.
Emma’s fate rests with Erik, with the choice he has to make, because everything goes down to this: stay or go, Westchester or the world. Raven is going to stay, that much Ruth knows. She hadn’t known about Charles’ condition, not before New Jersey, and watching her brother slip further and further during the subsequent weeks made the choice for her. It doesn’t mean that her worldview has changed, no, and everyone knows this; but Ruth has seen them talk, and Charles finally said that he had nothing against Raven’s blue form, but he had a lot against seeing her stark naked, and Raven agreed on wearing at least the minimum of clothes. At last they’re both willing to compromise and it’s a huge step.
Erik’s fate — and by extension, Emma’s — remains a mystery, however, as Erik tries to make himself invisible. Emma Frost’s presence in the mansion is unnoticeable, Raven starts to fit in once again and Erik just haunts the place, constantly moving in the shadows and avoiding contact with anyone — Ruth thinks that he avoids her and Charles with twice as much intent as he avoids the rest.
Most days now Ruth sees him wandering around the mansion’s grounds, always within reach of the iron main gate, like the metal it’s made of is calling to him, inviting him to pass. He never participates in the training routines or any other activities, but he also gets up before anyone else and prepares breakfast, as if he was trying to make sure that he still can be useful.
It takes Erik a full week to get to the main gate. He touches the iron with his fingertips, caresses the bars, extends his arm and tries to reach beyond this final border of Westchester, somewhere beyond the horizon where the rest of his Brotherhood is waiting, where he could make himself forget that he didn’t only break bones, that he also broke a heart and that every time he looks at the gate, the invisible wounds bleed a bit more.
“You can go,” says Ruth quietly and she stands by his side.
Erik thrusts his hands into the pockets of his black trousers.
“No one is keeping you here, not anymore,” she carries on. “You only need to press the handle and the gate will open.”
“You want me to believe that no one will try to stop me from leaving?” he asks and disbelief mixes with slight amusement in his voice. “I’m a homicidal terrorist, after all.”
“We could stop you, Charles and me,” Ruth admits. “But we won’t. Charles won’t because he’s too noble and too exhausted, I won’t because I believe in free will.”
She watches him draw fingers along the iron bars lovingly, like one would stroke a cat or map the body of a lover. There, beyond that gate, is everything that made him Erik, everything that shaped his path so far. She could try to concentrate and try to see if he won’t be here in the morning — and of course he would leave in the dead of the night, because that way he wouldn’t have to see disappointment or heartbreak — but she doesn’t want to know. She’d rather be surprised when there’s no breakfast waiting in the kitchen rather than face Charles with the feeling that she knew and she could have at least tried to prevent it. (And that wouldn’t work, anyway, because that would be the time correcting itself, because Erik was never meant to stay and Charles was meant to be alone.)
She turns on her heel and heads back to the mansion.
“I will never agree with Charles,” announces Erik loudly and she stops. She’s not facing him and she’s glad for once, because that way he can’t see a small smile playing on her lips. Of course he won’t agree with Charles, she may not know him well, but he’s still Erik and he always had trouble admitting that he might be wrong. “But after much consideration I admit you might… have a point.”
She waits for him to join her and they go back to the mansion together. When they part by her room, Ruth touches the crook of his arm. Raven, who’s leaving Charles’ room, eyes them suspiciously.
There is breakfast waiting for them the next morning and every morning after. Erik stops haunting the corridors and accepts Charles’ polite offer to join in and eat with everyone. At first the tension is almost unbearable at the table — the boys are protective of Charles, while Alisa and Ororo clearly prefer Erik to the quiet, withdrawn professor — but it gets better with time. Erik is slowly included in the conversations and once or twice even asked for an opinion.
“I’m trying to built a new Cerebro,” says Hank one morning and Ruth sees it as an opportunity. She points her fork at Erik.
“Erik once wanted to be an architect, didn’t you, Erik?”
“A lifetime ago,” he replies flatly, but it’s enough to spark Hank’s interest. They talk about plans and sketches and properties of different metals and by the time their bacon is cold, Erik has already agreed to help with preparing the metal plates properly. There’s a little, self-satisfied smile on his lips that only Ruth sees, because she knows where to look.
“Could Erik help during the training?” she asks Charles. “We could use another running instructor.”
She almost misses the way Charles’ eyes dart down for a moment, before going back up and settling on her face. Almost.
“Of course,” he replies and Erik glares at her in an annoyed manner, but his aura flashes a thankful blue. Charles, however, swallows and there’s a tinge of pale orange to his dull and still grayish (still depressed, but it is better now) light.
Ruth has never seen that colour on him and she doesn’t know what it means.
Running becomes their routine. Erik wakes Ruth in the morning — she yells at him for the loud pounding on her door, because her room is next to Charles’ and she doesn’t want Erik to unnecessarily wake him up — and they go jogging. Sometimes they race across the grounds and it feels like holiday at Grandpa Max’s farm, where they used to chase through wheat fields and laugh all the way. Ruth knows that Erik doesn’t remember this, because there are so many good things that he can’t recall.
Sometimes Charles watches them when they come back, sweaty and satisfied, and there’s always that orange tinge to him, accompanied by traces of yellow and traces of pink. Yellow Ruth can understand, that’s jealousy, and she feels terrible for the rest of the day. Pink means embarrassment and Ruth knows that too, but she doesn’t know why Charles would feel that way exactly — and she wishes once again to be able to read his mind, but she can’t and he doesn’t offer.
Orange is still an enigma to her.
Charles is better too, all in all. Not exactly fine — and Ruth fears that he will never be fine, because there’s a big part of him that needs to be perfect and he’s not anymore — but better. Healthier physically, back to his normal weight thanks to Ruth’s threatening and Raven’s fussing and Erik’s amazing culinary skills, and much more stable mentally. His headaches are gone (and Erik nearly vomited when she told him how exactly Charles acquired those) and he’s more at ease with himself, gets excited over Ororo’s rainbows and Alisa’s habit of bringing him flowers while invisible, and Hank’s progress at rebuilding Cerebro. The last one makes him work with Erik on regular basis and Ruth wants to cry with joy, because she knows that it’s Charles’ favourite part of the day and he’s so happy that the whole mansion knows it and even on a cloudy day everything seems brighter.
But then they all gather for dinner. Hank fills them in on their progress, and Charles’ blue eyes shine, and Erik asks if Ruth wants to go for a walk later (or dance with him, if there’s a song he likes playing on the radio, or run a few laps around the mansion, or go for a drink, or–) and Charles sinks deeper into his chair, sulks, and the amount of orange is overwhelming.
When they finish building the machine, something breaks between Erik and Charles, the little agreement they had established is gone and they have no reason, no excuse to see each other every day anymore. Erik still asks Charles to play chess with him, and if it is Charles’ good day, he says yes. Most days are the bad ones, though, so Erik shrugs and goes to ask Ruth instead. That makes Charles feel even worse, and for the first time Ruth feels the need to just start shouting or maybe shooting, because this is a vicious circle and it appears that no matter how much they all try to help, all the progress Charles makes is quickly replaced with another wave of sheer despair.
She figures it all out after two months and when she does, she can’t believe she didn’t know sooner.
Ruth sits on one of the couches in the library, when Erik enters, freshly out of a shower, with droplets of water still dropping from his damp hair. He throws himself on the couch, right next to her, and stretches. He glances at the cover of a book she’s reading and laughs.
“I didn’t know Charles owned a copy,” he says and points at the title, The Issa Valley. This book means more to them than it might ever mean to Charles and they both know it.
“Apparently it was a birthday present,” Ruth replies and closes the book. Erik stares at the fireplace, frowning. She wets her lips. Dad used to frown the same way when he was trying to remember something important, she muses.
“Almost like a winter evening,” Erik pauses, “w domu babci Elżbiety,” he finishes slowly.
“Brakuje tylko Hanki Ordonówny,” she says and hopes that he remembers the singer their grandma loved and that they were too young to appreciate. He has to, because he smiles too. But the smile fades quickly.
“I don’t remember those songs.”
She pats her thigh and he gets it, changes his position and lies on the couch, with his head on her lap. She starts combing his hair with her fingers.
“Miłość ci wszystko wybaczy,” she sings softly, „smutek zamieni ci w śmiech…”
There’s a muffled sound from the library door and Ruth stops. She looks up and looks at Charles, who stares at her, at them, with blue eyes wide open. His expression goes from shock through annoyance to the look of utter defeat, before he schools it into a mask of perfect indifference.
“I thought you might want to play chess tonight,” he says to no one in particular, before wheeling himself out.
And that’s when Ruth gets it, at last. The orange tinge is something she didn’t recognize, because she’s never seen that emotion in Charles, never thought him capable of feeling it. But there it was, his new companion since the time-lock was removed.
After that evening in the library things get awkward in Westchester. It’s not easy to pick up on it, not at first, but soon all the kids are aware that something is not right, again. Ruth sees Alex corner Hank in a corridor, demanding to know what the hell happened during the construction of Cerebro, because something had to happen to make the professor start avoiding Erik for a change. Hank raises his hands and swears that everything was fine, that the professor was more than fine when they were working together and it was starting to feel like before Cuba. Alex sighs and lets Hank go and they’re both wondering what triggered the sudden change.
Raven observes Ruth intently and more often than not seems to want to say something, to ask something, but then she thinks better of it and goes back to glaring. Ruth tries asking Charles, because his current attitude makes her uncomfortable.
“Everything’s fine, Ruth,” he says with a fake smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes and it makes Ruth’s teeth hurt. She doesn’t believe him, because she knows the look he’s sporting nowadays, has seen it on so many nameless faces that it could last her two lifetimes. It was the last emotional expression to be seen on a person’s face in the camps, the moment before their spirits broke and they became too worn out, too disillusioned to care anymore.
It’s an expression of someone who is giving up and it’s wrong, because it’s Charles and in every flash of every possible future Ruth ever had, Charles was always the one who kept hoping, who kept having faith despite everything. And this Charles, her Charles is announcing his surrender and Ruth is not even sure what he’s giving up on.
“What have we done wrong?” asks Erik in the evening and Ruth knows he means “what have I done wrong”. She squeezes his hand and Raven, who’s sitting nearby and observes them, grunts.
“I don’t know,” says Ruth and that’s the truth.
“Do you have feelings for Erik?” blurts Raven, when she finally gathers the courage to ask her question and corners Ruth on the way to the infirmary.
Ruth’s sure her jaw dropped.
“What?” she asks, because she’s sure she heard wrong.
“Do you have feelings for Erik?” repeats Raven bluntly and no, Ruth didn’t hear wrong.
“Of course not,” she denies fervently, because that’s the only thing she can say. Raven worries her lip between her teeth and doesn’t look convinced.
“I know you two got really close,” continues Raven as if Ruth didn’t say anything. “He’s really… touchy with you and you make him smile when he thinks no one will see, and that’s fine, really, we’re all happy that he has someone, but…” Raven takes a breath and releases it slowly through her nose. “But I don’t want Charles to get hurt.”
More than he already is is not added, but Ruth hears it anyway, clear as a bell in Raven’s tone.
“So I talked with Charles,” Raven says, “and we think that…”
Ruth never hears what Raven and Charles think, because she panics. This is wrong on so many levels, so silly and unbelievable that Ruth just freezes Raven mid-sentence. You never talked with Charles, you never talked with Charles, Ruth thinks and she wishes it to be true, because Raven is wrong and she shouldn’t be giving Charles unhealthy ideas.
Ruth hurries back to her room and shuts the door closed and only then she releases Raven. Her heart is still racing and she’s had a panic attack like this only once and she’s not even sure why she lashed out with her power like this, because there’s nothing wrong with telling everyone about her and Erik. But she hasn’t done so already because she enjoys having her brother for herself, but she’s also afraid of the reactions — Charles’ especially — when she finally admits that she wasn’t honest with them at all.
“I’ll talk with Charles in the morning,” she promises herself as she brushes her teeth. The girl in the mirror looks nervous at the prospect.
Erasing Raven’s conversation with Charles from the history did nothing in the grand scheme of things, Ruth decides the next morning.
“I’m not in love with Erik,” Ruth murmurs to a passing Raven, who raises her brows in a confused manner.
Ruth knocks softly on Charles’ door and walks in when he lets her enter. He’s sitting in his chair, looking out of the window and Ruth knows what he’s observing. Or whom, rather, because Erik’s been running around the mansion with Alex in tow for the past half an hour.
“We need to talk,” Ruth says and Charles wheels around to look at her.
“Yes, we do,” he confirms and it sends a shiver down Ruth’s spine. Charles takes a breath. “I’ll never be able to express my gratitude for everything you’ve done for me,” he says and the Oxford-like manner of pronouncing certain words is what makes Ruth realize that he’s been preparing this speech for some time now, “but I would like you to leave the mansion.”
Charles tries to make himself more comfortable and fails utterly, if his pained expression is anything to judge on.
“I need you to leave Westchester, Ruth.”
Not “want”. He needs her to leave and that sentence leaves Ruth stunned, at a loss of words.
“Charlie,” she starts, but Charles interrupts her.
“And I would be grateful if you stopped calling me ‘Charlie’,” he states and turns around to once again look out of the window.
Ruth leaves his room and she’s too astounded to process the giant disappointment her conversation with Charles proved to be. She goes back to her own bedroom, takes her suitcase from the armoire and starts packing.
Ruth is not sure how Erik learned about her dismissal from Westchester, but he did. From the other side of the wall she’s heard him storm into Charles’ room and start an argument that left all the metal fixtures shaking and squeaking. She heard Erik switch from English to German halfway through the fight and from that moment it was a one-sided fit of rage, accompanied by Du bist net bei Trost! and selbstsüchtig and Mein Gott, Charles.
It lasted for forty minutes. After that Erik stormed out of Charles’ bedroom, still spitting out curses, and Ruth was left with a feeling that nothing was going as planned.
“You don’t have to leave,” says Erik quietly when he enters Ruth’s already empty bedroom an hour after the fight. He’s soaked, he went for a walk to calm down and it started raining, and now he’s standing in her room, suddenly looking very much like a fourteen-year-old boy Ruth remembers, sad and shivering.
“Yes, I do,” she replies and puts the battered jewellery box into her bag. “Charles gently told me that I’ve overstayed my welcome here.”
“But I don’t want you to leave,” he pouts.
“You can’t always get everything you want, Erik.” She closes her suitcase, zips her bag and turns around to face him. “Besides, it’s high time I went home. Gordon is probably climbing the walls by now, talking with him over the phone is not the same.”
Erik flinches and Ruth is not sure if that’s because she mentioned Gordon or because she used the word “home”. In the end, it doesn’t matter, because he thinks he has neither. Erik looks around a bit helplessly and she sighs.
“This is Charles’ home, Erik,” she reminds him. “Not mine, I’ve always been just a guest here.”
He snorts and takes a step closer to her. He puts a hand into one of his pockets and takes out a gold chainlet with Mum’s engagement ring still attached to it. He offers it to her and Ruth closes his hand around it, pushes it back.
“I have enough memories,” she says quietly. “You don’t.”
He opens his mouth to say something, then closes it, then opens again and Ruth tentatively puts her arms around his neck and kisses him on a cheek.
“You know the saying, Erik,” she whispers into his ear. “Your home is where your heart is.”
Erik walks her to the taxi. He puts her bag into the boot, then bends and kisses her on the cheek. Ruth smiles lightly — she doesn’t quite manage, but it’s close — and looks at the mansion. The kids are standing on the driveway, bidding their goodbyes with a bit of waving and misplaced, goofy smiles. Ruth sends them kisses, one for everyone.
“Don’t forget to remind Charles to hire a doctor,” she tells Erik and he nods.
Charles will be unhappy, of course, because he doesn’t want to need any help — and it’s ironic, as Charles is the one always offering it to others — but there are also the kids to think about, teenagers prone to accidents, young girls who can’t judge the risks well yet. Ruth believes that Erik will find a way to convince Charles and to make sure that their new doctor keeps an eye on the professor too.
“I could go with you,” Erik murmurs as he closes the cab’s door. Ruth knows he wants, the violet of his longing is clearly visible to her.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” she tells him, because he needs to find a world of his own, something beyond pain and revenge and guilt, and trying to fit into Ruth’s little Derbyshire reality is not going to help him. She touches the back of his hand and he seems to understand.
“Wait a moment!”
Ruth turns her head to look at the source of the yell and sees Emma Frost, walking down the gravelled driveway with her head raised proudly, defiantly. She stands next to Erik, they regard each other coldly, then he steps back and Emma opens the door of the taxi and gets inside. She glares at Ruth, challenging her to tell her to get out, to throw her away. Ruth clears her throat.
“I’m going to the airport, is this okay with you?”
Emma Frost shrugs and Ruth asks the cabbie to go. Ruth glances at the Westchester mansion one last time and spots Charles, sitting by the library window and watching her taxi leave the grounds. When the car turns left and the mansion disappears behind tall trees, Ruth exhales.
“You have no idea what you’ve done,” says Emma coldly.
Ruth looks at her with curiosity, a woman that was supposed to be Magneto’s ally for years to come and who was now leaving him behind. Was making her own fate.
“I’m not sure I understand what you mean,” she says instead.
“He had great plans,” Emma murmurs and Ruth shivers. She’s seen glimpses of those great plans, the Statue of Liberty and Alkali Lake and it terrified her.
“I’m not sorry.”
“He was trying to avenge your mother,” sneers Emma. “Honour her sacrifice.”
“If he was, then I’m sorry to say, but he got it completely backwards,” replies Ruth and there’s a dangerous, angry edge to her voice that Emma immediately picks up. “Because Mum would never want us to become murderers, no matter what.”
“Besides,” continues Ruth when Emma doesn’t comment, “revenge should not be an option. Ever.”
Emma raises an eyebrow, interested.
“And why is that?”
“Because it never ends,” says Ruth. “Revenge is perpetual, because there will always be someone who’ll want to avenge past killings. Revenge is about blood and blood leads to bloodlust and bloodlust leads to bloodshed. It never ends in death, because it never ends at all.”
When Ruth looks at her, Emma is tucking at an edge of her white blouse. The air of confidence that surrounded her is gone and Ruth is left with a spoiled heiress who has no idea what to do with her life. Ruth resists the urge to laugh. Lately, that’s everyone’s problem.
“We were supposed to change the world.”
Ruth sighs and rubs her temple.
“You can still do that,” she states and tries to sound confident. “You just have to find a way that doesn’t involve a body count.”
Emma snaps her head up and looks at Ruth dubiously. They get to the airport together, but they part without uttering another word. When Ruth takes her bag from the taxi’s boot, Emma Frost is already gone.
Ruth closes Charles’ The Issa Valley and glances to her left, at the man who’s been staring at her since the plane had taken off. The man is Erik’s age, on his way back home from a conference. He has an Aquiline nose, big, hazel eyes and strawberry blond hair that sticks out at every angle and there’s nothing unusual about him. He’s not a mutant, just another human male, one of many on the plane and one of many in the world.
“Is there something on my face?” asks Ruth, because the staring is starting to irritate her.
The man blinks.
“No, no,” he assures her. Pauses. “Do I know you?”
“I doubt it,” replies Ruth and goes back to reading.
“You look really familiar.” The man tilts his head to the side and a big smile suddenly appears on his face. “You are Ruth Know-It-All Phillips,” he says and sounds equally awed and amused.
“Know-It-All?” Ruth raises her brows and the man grins. He extends his hand.
“I’m Joseph Kinross,” he introduces himself. “You attended my father’s Genetics class in Oxford. He told me about you, you annoyed the hell out of him. I’ve always wanted to personally thank you for that.”
Joseph Kinross. The son of the creepy Doctor Kinross, Charles’ promoter who had spent three years ridiculing all of Charles’ theories and who was the reason Charles had to rewrite his thesis five times. Ruth shakes Joseph’s hand.
“Nice to meet you.”
“It’s amazing that we met here,” Joseph says excitedly. “And that we got seats next to each other. It’s like fate, isn’t it?”
“I don’t believe in fate,” says Ruth stoically and reaches for the book again.
“But you have to admit that it’s a hell of a coincidence,” presses Joseph. He settles more comfortably in his chair and rest his chin on the back of his right hand. “So if you don’t believe in fate, you believe in making choices. Do you know, Ruth Phillips, that according to Everett’s many-world interpretation, there’s an infinitive number of worlds in which we sat here together, talked and then you agreed to go on a date with me?”
Ruth lowers the book and looks at Joseph Kinross with amazement. This is new for her. This is new, because the theory — which she knows everything about, of course she does, it’s something that ties to her power so strongly — is something that fascinates her (choices and consequences, endless number of possibilities throughout the Universe) and she never gets to talk about it. Charles is smart, but he doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get it, because he doesn’t see the world the way Ruth does, and he sticks by Bohr’s theory.
Joseph’s grin turns sheepish.
“I’m really bad at this,” he admits and rubs the back of his neck. “I mean… sorry. I’ve been told that astrophysicists are bad at flirting, but I never thought I could sink so low.”
Ruth thinks about Charles’ awful rhymed pickup lines.
“I’ve heard worse,” she says.
(Then she thinks that Charles is not likely to use any in the foreseeable future and is tempted to feel bad. But Joseph’s smile is contagious, so she grins back at him.)
“I don’t know about any of the other worlds,” she says (but she could know, if she wanted), “but I can name one where I might consider allowing you to buy me a drink.”
Joseph Kinross’ smile makes the whole cabin seem brighter.
Gordon is beside himself with joy when she’s finally back home. Ruth doesn’t manage to pass the threshold when she’s pulled into a strong bear-hug and kissed everywhere Gordon can reach. He sits her on their old couch and he goes to make her tea, brings biscuits while constantly filling her in on what happened when she was gone. And Ruth learns that Miss Fanny decided to celebrate her ninety-second birthday with a divorce, that Jane is pregnant again and little Ricky can’t wait for the arrival of his baby sister, that Gordon finally got the money needed to build a reasonable pediatric ward in his hospital.
“And how is Charles?” Gordon asks when he needs to stop and take a breath. “How’s Raven? Being home serves them good?”
Ruth is not sure how to explain everything that has been going on in those past months. She resorts to telling Gordon about an awful accident, about a strain that put in Charles and Raven’s relationship, but how things are starting to go smoothly once again. That last part is a lie, as nothing is going smoothly yet, but Ruth believes and Ruth hopes.
“Paralyzed,” mutters Gordon and shakes his head. “Below the waist. And there’s nothing…?”
“No,” whispers Ruth and for a moment she feels as if she failed Charles somehow. Maybe she could have done more for him, she could have insisted on staying instead of running away at first opportunity, like a coward…
“… to find the middle ground, because he’s not incapable of taking care of himself, but he does need help.” Ruth blinks and realizes that she phased off and missed half of Gordon’s speech. “Ruthie, sweetheart?”
Middle ground. Find the middle ground. Ruth swallows bile that suddenly appeared in her throat. She looks at Gordon, who has a concerned expression on his face. Middle ground. It makes her a hypocrite, doesn’t it? Telling Erik that they need to make their existence known in peaceful ways, that they have to step up and be proud, but not arrogant, but keeping her own powers a secret from the one man who gave her his whole life. The ultimate hypocrite. Ruth takes a shaky breath. How the hell did she end up being this girl?
“Gordon, I need to tell you something,” she says softly and Gordon pales. “And I need you not to freak out.”
“God, Ruth,” he manages to force out, already terrified. “Don’t tell me you’re pregnant. Or getting married. Or pregnant and getting married. I really like Charles, but he’s not exactly the son-in-law material of my dreams.”
“I’m not in love with Charles,” she states and the sole thought is somehow as awful as the idea of her being in love with Erik.
Gordon visibly relaxes.
“It’s something else.” Ruth stands up, goes to one of the bookcases and takes a clay figurine of an angel that she made for Gordon when she was fifteen. “I need you to look closely.”
Ruth takes a swing and before Gordon can shout “no!”, she throws the figurine towards the opposite wall. And then she suspends it high above the floor. Gordon’s jaw drops; he stands up and goes to the figurine, which is hanging in the air, on level with his eyes. He touches the angel, clasps his hand around it and Ruth releases the figurine, which rests safely in Gordon’s palm.
“What was that?” he asks, a little breathless.
“Do you remember Charles’ thesis?” she asks.
“The one your Doctor Kinross called the dumbest thing he’s read in years? Sure.”
“Charles was right,” Ruth says. Gordon’s eyes widen. “It’s all true. I’m the evolved one from his thesis.”
“And this,” Gordon motions the general direction of the wall, “is your…”
“Power,” Ruth supplies. “But that’s not only this. I can also wish things to happen. I can freeze time. Make it go slower or faster. And when I look at something, I immediately know things about it.”
Gordon sags on the couch, looking old all of a sudden.
“How long have you known?”
Ruth sits next to him.
“Since before we met,” she admits. Gordon rubs his face tiredly. “But I didn’t know how to tell you.”
She squeezes his hand and chooses her next words carefully.
“I don’t like keeping secrets from you.”
And it’s not a lie, not really, she tells herself. She hates secrets and Gordon deserves far better than that. He deserves the truth even if he won’t be able to accept it. There are things that Ruth knows about Gordon — that he’s smart and caring and has a bottomless capacity of forgiveness — but she doesn’t know if he’s ready. But it doesn’t matter, it should be his choice to make.
“I guess that Charles is one too,” Gordon says, not asks. Ruth, after a moment of hesitation, nods. “And Raven?”
“She’s actually blue.”
Gordon starts laughing. It sounds hysterical and not fully controlled, but he doesn’t call her a freak and that’s a good sign.
“Bloody hell, Ruth.” He looks at her and she knows that he’s scared, but also awed and surprised and amused. She frowns. Why would he be amused? “And you’ve been using your powers, haven’t you?” She nods. “When?”
“When you used to tell me to tidy up the house,” she whispers and he laughs some more. “I used to freeze time to be able to do it later. I also changed the colour of that dress you bought me when I went to Oxford.”
“The blue one? But I thought you liked blue.”
“I do, but the dress was originally pink.” He shakes his head and mutters something about this being unbelievable. “And every time you forgot to salt the water when boiling pasta. And you always forget to salt the water.”
Gordon puts his arm around her and brings her closer to him, hugs her tightly. She buries her head in his shoulder and breathes in the familiar scent of antiseptic and vanilla.
“Your power, your… knowing is what makes you such a good doctor, isn’t it?” he asks quietly. “You look at your patient and just know what’s wrong with them.”
“Ruthie,” he starts seriously, “why do you settle for being a country doctor when you could be a part of something much bigger than you?”
She looks up at him, directly into his warm brown eyes. The first eyes that reminded her that she could be safe when she thought that all that was left in the world was pain and loneliness.
“I don’t want a bigger destiny, daddy,” she whispers slowly and Gordon starts beaming with badly repressed joy. “I just want to be safe.”
Four days after she returns home, she gets a call.
“He’s gone,” informs her Hank and she doesn’t need to ask whom he means. “Took his things and disappeared. He told us goodnight in the evening and was gone before sunrise.”
It does sound like something Erik would do. Ruth sighs.
“She stayed, at least. But it’s chaos now. Alisa won’t stop hiding and you know that keeping an eye on her is difficult even when she’s visible. And thanks to Ororo, we’ve been having thunderstorms lately. Alex had to talk her down from creating a hurricane yesterday. I didn’t know that those girls grew so attached to him.”
“You don’t know where he is?”
“Actually,” says Hank, sounding embarrassed, “we hoped you might tell us. Raven suggested that you may know something.”
“I don’t know anything,” Ruth says truthfully.
Hank grumbles something incoherent.
“Pity. We could use some information. I really don’t know who’s more upset now, the girls or the professor.”
“I’ll call if I learn anything,” Ruth promises, but she knows that she won’t be able to keep that promise.
“I found my brother,” confesses Ruth when she’s sitting with Gordon on the porch of their little house, sipping hot chocolate and watching the stars.
“Erik?” Gordon puts down his mug. “Erik’s alive? How do you know?”
“I saw him,” Ruth says quietly. “I met with him.”
“At Charles’, I presume,” Gordon guesses and Ruth shoots him a baffled look. “Sweetheart, don’t look at me like that. Lately everything seems to center on the Xavier family mansion. It’s like Westchester is the centre of the known universe or something.”
She thinks about it for a minute.
“Maybe it is.”
“Where is he now, Erik?” asks Gordon. “And why didn’t you bring him here?”
“I don’t think he was ready, Gordon,” replies Ruth and she finishes her chocolate. “And I don’t know where he is. He left Westchester, but no one knows where he wandered to.”
“And you guys can’t locate him? Wasn’t Charles’ super machine supposed to help him find others like you?”
“Cerebro?” Gordon nods. “It helps him, but Charles won’t use it to find Erik. They have this… pact, I don’t know, something. Charles won’t go looking for Erik’s mind. He’ll just wait for Erik to come back.”
“And if he won’t?”
Ruth lifts up her face. The sky is cloudless and all the stars are visible, easy to spot against the dark blue. She closes her eyes. On her right, Gordon is waiting for an answer. Gordon. Ruth smiles. Gordon doesn’t know Erik, only heard a few stories about him over the years, but still manages to pinpoint one of Erik’s characteristics, his never-ending desire to run. But this is Gordon. If Ruth didn’t know any better (she does), she’d say that judging one’s character is Gordon’s very own power.
“Then Charles will be waiting forever,” Ruth says.
They fall silent, but it’s not uncomfortable. They’re at ease with each other, and after all those years they don’t really need words to communicate. And this is more than telepathy, this is understanding, pure and untamed.
“Ruthie?” Gordon shakes her arm. “Could you freeze this mosquito before it launches an attack on me?”
Ruth glares at him, but complies. Gordon lets out a laugh.
“This is bloody brilliant,” he decides.
Gordon raises his brows and coughs meaningfully when Ruth lets Joseph Kinross inside. She takes Joseph’s coat and offers him a place on Gordon’s old, abused couch, and Gordon calls her to the kitchen.
“I’ll be right back,” she promises Joseph.
In the kitchen Gordon pulls her behind the fridge, so that Joseph wouldn’t be able to see.
“Ruth Elisabeth Phillips,” he starts seriously, but Ruth hears in his voice that the situation is entertaining for him, “do you really think that dating the only son of a man that had spent three years making your best friend’s life a living academic hell is the best you can do?”
“Joseph is really nice,” is what she manages to say.
Gordon tries to disguise his laugh as a coughing fit.
“Oh, Ruth,” he says and raises his eyes to look at the ceiling, at the sky above, as if looking for patience. “Just look at your life. Look at your choices.”
Gordon pats her on the shoulder, goes back to the drawing room and leans on the doorframe. He crosses his arms.
“What are your intentions towards my daughter, Joe Kinross?” he asks and Ruth groans. Oh, Gordon. He wouldn’t find a better way to scare her wooer if he tried.
“Pure, sir,” Joseph answers, although his hands are sweating profoundly, Ruth notices. He’s nervous. “My parents are coming from our family estate in Scotland back to Oxford. They’ll stop by my apartment in Chesterfield and we agreed on having a… little… family dinner.” Joseph swallow loudly. “I’d like to introduce Ruth to my parents, sir. If… if that’s okay. Sir.”
“Gordon,” hisses Ruth warningly. Gordon chuckles.
“Alright, alright. Have fun, you two.” He turns to Ruth. “You don’t have a curfew, young lady, but try to be home before midday tomorrow, okay?” Ruth rolls her eyes and goes to bring her and Joseph’s coats. Gordon winks at Joseph. “Welcome to the family, Joe Kinross.”
Ruth watches as Alasdhair Kinross waves at the waiter and orders another bottle of red wine. Beside her, Joseph grips his napkin so hard that his knuckles turn white — Ruth knows that he’s trying to prevent himself from a snappy comment about his father’s manners or alcoholism. He’s not doing it for himself or Ruth, though — he’s trying to please his mother, the delicate Gabrielle Kinross whose idea it was to gather for a lovely meal.
“Ruth Phillips,” says Doctor Kinross seductively for the sixth time. “You always showed such a promise, Ruth Phillips.”
Unlike Charles or herself, Alasdhair Kinross hadn’t changed since their last lecture at Oxford. He’s still the tall, ungodly handsome man, who used to drag his hand through his reddish-brown hair in order to mess it up, whom Ruth remembers. His predatory smile, which graces his lips every time he sees a young, attractive girl pass him by, is also the same and also present.
Joseph grits his teeth and Gabrielle Kinross lowers her eyes, when Alasdhair starts leisurely stroking the back of Ruth’s hand. His aura is of a sickeningly green colour that Ruth has only once seen on Herr Doktor.
“You fascinate me,” he slurs drunkenly. “I will never understand what…”
Ruth never gets to know Doctor Kinross can’t understand, because Joseph starts up from his chair and punches his father square in the face. Ruth gasps, Alasdhair Kinross staggers back and Gabrielle puts a hand over her mouth.
“Enough,” says Joseph coldly. “Mother can turn a blind eye, but I will not…” He takes a steadying breath and turns to Ruth. “I’m sorry I ruined your evening. We’re leaving, now.”
There’s blood trickling from Alasdhair Kinross’ nose, dripping down his chin and under the collar of his white shirt. He looks outraged, but still not over the initial shock, at least not enough to start a verbal fight with his son.
“It was lovely seeing you again, mother.” Joseph bends and kisses Gabrielle’s cheek. “Oh, and father… Any wedding invitations? Over my dead body.”
Joseph offers his arm to Ruth and she takes it, and they both leave the fancy Chesterfield restaurant. It’s a warm summer night and Ruth suddenly thinks that Gordon’s house must be raided by mosquitoes by now. By her side, Joseph is trembling, seething with anger.
“I should have known,” he drawls. “I thought that he might find enough restraint for one evening, but no, obviously not. And I should have known.”
She strokes his arm gently.
“Tell me,” she asks. She knows of Doctor Kinross’ reputation, she knows about all the girls whom he helped to pass their exams, but Joseph is angry and needs to talk. Needs to share.
“My mother is a very patient, devoted woman,” Joseph says. “Father has never been particularly discreet about anything, everyone on the campus knew about his affairs with students, but mother… Mother never believed. People were telling her, father’s colleagues were telling her and she didn’t believe that her dear husband could do such things.”
“They didn’t have any proof?”
“She didn’t need any proof,” snorts Joseph, “because she never wanted to believe. She turned her head around every time father came back from a ‘late night meeting’, always played the good wife. I… I pity her.” His voice drops to a whisper. “She wasted her life with him. How I wish she would have believed that he’s been unfaithful to her basically since the day they were married. She might have left him, might have moved on with her life. Being left alone in disgrace is what he deserves.”
They stop in front of the door of the building where Joseph’s flat is located. He gestures the door.
“You want to come in?”
Ruth says yes.
Ruth contemplates the features of a soundly sleeping Joseph. She heard once — from one of her friends from Oxford, maybe it was Betty Worrington or that silly Amy Finnigan — that whole life is reflected on one’s sleeping face. Joseph’s expression is peaceful and he smiles in his dream, so his life can’t be bad, not at the moment.
“I wish your mother would have believed,” she whispers in the night. That’s selfish, this thing that she’s doing, shaping time so it would please someone she cares about. But nothing bad has ever happened so far and Ruth starts to think that maybe she’s been wrong with fearing the outcome. “I wish your mother would have believed.” She kisses Joseph’s temple. “I wish your mother would have believed.”
She falls asleep with that mantra dying on her lips.
Joseph drives her back home in the morning. They’re within the walking distance of Gordon’s house when Joseph decides to apologize again.
“I should have just taken you to see a movie,” he grumbles. “I knew that bringing you to an awkward family dinner won’t end happily, but that was worse than I initially suspected.”
“It’s okay,” dismisses his concern Ruth. “I enjoyed meeting your parents.”
“You already knew my father,” Joseph points out, “an by the next meeting, there will be a new girl by his side. Diana isn’t for keeping.”
Joseph smacks himself on the forehead.
“Right, you’re right. It’s Tessa, father left Diana two weeks ago. Tessa.” Joseph tastes the name. “Actually, I don’t care about her name. I’ve had enough part-time stepmothers, no one can expect me to remember all of them.” He glances at Ruth, who’s staring at him with eyes wide open. “Ruth?”
“But your mother…” she whispers. “Gabrielle, I’ve seen her yesterday, you have her eyes.”
Joseph grits his teeth and stares pointedly at the road.
“Very funny,” he comments icily. “I told you. My mother killed herself. I’d appreciate if you didn’t make fun of that.”
“Stop the car,” says Ruth shakily. “Stop the car, stop the car, Joseph, stopthecar!”
Joseph presses the brake and the moment his car slows down, Ruth is out of it. Joseph calls after her, but she doesn’t hear him anymore, she just runs towards Gordon’s house, towards home and safety and–
“Ruth?” Gordon sounds concerned and then he looks scared when Ruth sinks to the floor, crying. “Sweetheart, what happened?”
“I killed her,” sobs Ruth, “I killed Joseph’s mother, Mein Gott, Gordon, I killed her, I killed her, IkilledherIkilledher.”
“What?” Gordon sits on the floor beside her. “Ruth, you told me about Gabrielle Kinross’ death years ago. The first thing you learned about that Doctor Kinross of yours, remember? His wife committed suicide, you told me that.”
Ruth shakes her head.
“No, no, nonono, she was fine, she was alive.” It’s getting difficult for her to breathe. “I saw her yesterday and she was fine, and I wished, and she’s dead, and I killed her, I killed her, Gordon, Ikilledher.”
Gordon’s face goes blank and that’s it, he finally makes a connection.
“Ruthie, listen to me,” he says slowly.
“I should have died,” moans Ruth and starts rocking back and forth. “I should have died in the camp, in ghetto, I only make people miserable, it would have been better, it would be better, I wish no one saved me, I wish, IwishIwishwishwish…”
She murmurs the wish frantically and that’s a curious sensation, the thing she’s feeling now. It’s almost like tickling, but more prominent, like heat and it burns, but it’s cold at the same time. It’s funny, how her hand slowly stops being as solid as human flesh, and Joseph would say that the particles are disappearing, that the matter is dissolving and—
Gordon slaps her. Hard. Then grabs her by her arms. Ruth blinks.
“Ruth, I need you to snap out of it,” he says loudly. “I need you to concentrate. Think about every good thing you’ve done. Erik. Think about Erik. You kept him sane, right? He’d be a revenge-crazed psychopathic killer if it weren’t for you. He’d be alone.”
Ruth thinks briefly about the Statue of Liberty and Alkali Lake and nods.
“And Charles,” continues Gordon. “You’re his friend. And me.” His grip on her shoulder tightens. “The world would not be a better place if you died during the war, Ruth Lehnsherr.”
That’s the first time anyone used her given name in years and it calms Ruth a little. She stops sobbing hysterically, only hiccups loudly, manages to take control over her wild power again. The funny sensation in her hand stops.
“I killed her,” she repeats and Gordon shakes her a little.
“You need to listen to me carefully, Ruth,” he says slowly, “because what I’m about to say is very important.” Ruth manages a weak nod. “You didn’t kill anyone. Gabrielle Kinross committed suicide over fifteen years ago. You didn’t kill her. You didn’t give her a gun and you didn’t pull the trigger.”
“I wished that she admitted her husband’s infidelity,” confesses Ruth in a broken whisper.
“There is a difference between killing someone and letting them die, Ruth. A small difference, but it is there.” Gordon puts an arm around Ruth’s shaking form. “I’m not saying that I understand your power. I don’t, but the way I see it, you took the choice from Mrs. Kinross.”
“Joseph thought it would be better if his mother knew.” Ruth presses her cheek to Gordon’s chest, straining his stripped shirt with tears. “I wanted both of them to be better.”
“I told you once, Ruth, that everyone has a choice.” Gordon starts stroking her hair. “Joseph thought that his mother made a bad one, but it was the best one for her. Sweetheart, you can’t just wish the world, everyone in it, better. Life doesn’t work that way, because it needs to be miserable sometimes so that we can appreciate the good things about it.”
Gordon clears his throat.
“You took away Gabrielle Kinross’ choice, disregarded her right to make her own decisions in pursuit of easy solutions.”
“Not good,” mutters Ruth and Gordon laughs bitterly.
“No, not good. Because that respect of every person’s right to make their future, to make their own choices — no matter what you think of them — is what truly makes us human.”
“What do I do now?”
Gordon huffs and kisses the top of Ruth’s head.
“You try to make the world better,” he says, “but without the shortcuts that come with your power. You get up every day and change the world, one step at a time. You stay true to yourself, but you never again overstep the boundaries of another person’s freedom.”
Ruth breathes into Gordon’s neck.
“I can’t tell him,” she murmurs and thinks, he’ll hate me. He won’t want to know me.
“That decision is yours to make.”
Ruth remembers the first thing that she heard on the opening day of her internship. Cecilia Reyes took her group to the emergency room and told them, prioritizing is your first line of defense. When presented with several cases of injury, you need to assess the damage. You need to decide which patient should get help first and who can wait. Who is strong enough to survive with first aid only for now, who needs a specialist and for whom there’s nothing to be done. Who’s already gone the moment you get to them. It’s not always fair, Cecilia Reyes said to them, but it is important. You prioritize. And you save lives.
Ruth takes a good look at the girl in the mirror. She has a puffy face and red eyes with dark bags underneath. She looks miserable and Ruth thinks that it’s only fair — she doesn’t deserve better. Ruth sighs and reaches for a notebook and a pencil. She sucks the tip of the pencil for a moment, then starts writing. Amends, she writes in her doctor-style handwriting that’s difficult to read, and underlines the word. She needs to make a list. Assess the damage done, prioritize the victims, apply help.
Ruth thinks. There’s only one person that truly deserves to be her number one. She writes the name down, puts the pencil behind her ear and leaves her room. When she gets downstairs, Gordon’s sitting by the rectangular kitchen table and reads a newspaper. He coughs when he sees her and points at a chair next to him. Ruth sits down and Gordon pushes a plate closer to her. Ruth’s heart skips a little. There are chocolate pancakes on the plate, fruits — apples and strawberries and pears, all her favourite ones — and a cup of hot milk stands on the table, nearby the plate. It’s the Comfort Breakfast — capital letters fully deserved — that Gordon used to prepare for her when she was younger, right after the war, especially after a night full of nightmares of death and blood and Herr Doktor’s laugh.
Gordon peeks at a sheet of paper that Ruth’s clutching in her hand.
“Something important?” he asks.
“List of people I’ve somehow wronged,” she answers and puts the list on the table. Gordon leans a bit to the front and cocks his head to read the first name.
“Charles?” he raises his brows. “What on Earth have you done to Charles now?”
She cuts the fruits and rolls into a pancake.
“It’s more about what I haven’t done,” she admits and stuffs her mouth full with the pancake. Gordon waits patiently while she chews. “I didn’t tell him about Erik.”
“And he got ideas. He didn’t like them. A lot.”
“And?” presses Gordon.
“And then I didn’t tell him either.” Gordon sighs and rests his chin on the back oh his left hand. “I thought that he could… resolve everything with Erik, all on his own.”
“And how that worked for you?” Ruth shrugs. “I know you hate being wrong, sweetheart, but you can’t run away when something blows in your face.”
“You are, trust me. You get defensive, you get scared and you hope that everything will somehow work itself out. You run away and you hate confrontations.” Ruth shoots Gordon a doubting look. “Don’t tell me to remind you of a failure that was your Chemistry project with Jane during lower sixth form. You didn’t even go to school to own half of the blame for not preparing it.”
Ruth lowers her eyes and starts picking at a half-eaten strawberry. The red juice stains the plate and the fruit looks dissected. She drops her (metal, of course) fork, feeling ill.
“Have to be perfect, have to be good,” she murmurs with her head bowed. “If not, it would hurt.”
It takes Gordon a moment too long to realize what Ruth is saying, what she’s implying. Then the newspaper he’s been holding falls to the floor, abandoned and forgotten, and Gordon is hauling her into a standing position and crushing her against his chest.
“You don’t have to be perfect,” he tells her, punctuating every word with a soothing pat on her shoulder blade. “No one is perfect and I don’t bloody care who told you that,” and Ruth thinks, Herr Doktor and Shaw, and he created me, but he’s gone now, “but you’re allowed to make mistakes. Everyone does. True beauty lies in imperfection.”
Gordon grabs her chin and raises her head so she would look into his eyes. He wipes a tear from her cheek and tries to smile reassuringly. Maybe he thinks, you’re beautiful to me. Maybe he thinks, I’ll never let anyone hurt you, or maybe, you’re still so brave. Whatever it is, his aura is gentle and full of love when he takes Ruth’s list and passes it to her. He takes a pencil from behind her ear and sticks it into her hand, then pushes her back onto her chair and moves his own one closer, so that he can sit next to Ruth, with one arm casually resting around her waist.
Ruth looks at the first name on the list and writes down Raven as number two. Because if Raven wanted to talk to Charles and discuss paranoid ideas with him, it was her right to do so. Number three is more difficult and she’s tempted to fill the gap with Erik’s name just because he’s Erik, her brother. But there are still other people — one other person for whom Ruth unwillingly and unknowingly destroyed something, everything — and moving Erik higher for a selfish reason is not the right thing to do. If anything, Ruth decides and thinks about that stupid helmet and Statue of Liberty and Alkali Lake, he’s the only one who’s better now than before.
Joe Kinross, she writes under number three. She puts Erik’s name next, because while he’s not a top priority — wherever he is now, he is safe and he is strong and he will be fine — there are things she needs to tell him (Ruth thinks about the deep burgundy of Charles’ love and there was a man), things he doesn’t know and even some he may not want to know.
The list is short and ends with Gabrielle Kinross. The lowest priority, because there isn’t much Ruth can do for the dead.
She takes the jewellery box to Gordon’s study in the attic and unpacks the contents. It consists mostly of old papers now, with the engagement ring gone. There’s the drawing of Neuschwanstein Castle which Erik had done in the summer of 1938, when Uncle Erich had taken them on a trip to Bavaria. Ruth smiles as she traces the steeple towers with her fingertips. It’s a truly amazing picture that doesn’t look like it was drawn by an eight-year-old boy. Mum had said that Erik would make an excellent architect after seeing it; Erik had clung to the idea for the whole school year, even going as far as buying a sketchbook with the Hanukkah gelt he got from Grandpa Henryk.
Ruth puts the picture down and reaches for the photos. Even with one gone — Erik kept the one which shown him and Mum — there are many of them, dating from 1928 to 1939. Ruth takes one of Gordon’s pens and starts labeling the photos, one by one.
Wedding picture of Jakob Lehnsherr and Edyta Edelstein, 1928
Dad looked good in a tuxedo and Mum had a wonderful smile, full of teeth. Erik has her smile, Ruth thinks.
Edie Lehnsherr with a newborn Erik, 1930 and Edie Lehnsherr with son Erik and infant Ruth, 1932
Mum looked so hopeful and full of life in the first picture, despite it being the time of Great Depression. The second one… Ruth laughs. In the second one a two-year-old Erik is peeking into a pram, curious about this baby sister thing that Mum had brought home. It was early spring when Ruth was born, as opposed to late autumn on the 16th of November, the day of Erik’s birth.
Edie Lehnsherr with children, Erik and Ruth, 1933 (Nordeney Island)
Ruth was too little to remember anything from 1933, but it was the year of the great Reichstag Fire, the first year of Hitler’s chancellorship, the year of passing of the Enabling Act and the fall of Weimar Republic. But Ruth also knows it was the year she and her brother first saw a real beach.
Jakob Lehnsherr with Erik and Ruth, 1935 (Free City of Danzig)
They left Düsseldorf that year, in October, after the passing of Nuremberg Laws. They left for Warsaw, Mum’s home city, where Grandpa Henryk and Grandma Elżbieta welcomed them in their home with open arms. They thought that Warsaw was a much safer place than the Nazi Germany. And they were right, for a while at least.
Erik and Ruth Lehnsherr, 1937 (Zakopane)
It’s winter in the picture and a boy is smiling happily and hugging a younger girl. They both have ridiculous caps on their heads and are standing beside a snowman. The girl is clutching a carrot in her hand and if someone inspected the picture close enough, they’d notice that the boy is trying to snatch the vegetable away.
There are more photos, of course, some of them of Erik and Grandpa Henryk hunched over a book (Grandpa Henryk was a university professor of something that Ruth can’t remember; he was the one who started teaching French to Erik), of Grandma Elżbieta giving sloppy kisses to her two disgusted grandchildren, of Uncle Erich trying to make a scared Erik hold a dead rabbit for him. Those Ruth will keep for herself, as they bring no information other than that her family used to be happy and used to love each other. But there’s also the one that would make her point in a graceful way, one which Ruth doesn’t want to send away.
“What’s this one?” asks Gordon from behind her shoulder, startling Ruth. She didn’t know he was there.
“That’s us,” she says vaguely and she turns the picture.
The Lehnsherr family (l-r, Jakob, Erik, Ruth, Edie), August 1939
There were no photos after this one. Eleven days after they had it taken, the war begun and there was no time for posing. Ruth smoothes the edges of the photo. The photographer wasn’t happy with it, Ruth remembers, said that it wasn’t professional. And it wasn’t, but it was true in the way it pictured Dad’s affectionate grin, Mum’s delicate hands with the long fingers of a pianist, Erik’s messy hair and brilliant smile. It was real.
“One of Mum’s friends told her that taking a family photo was in the good taste,” explains Ruth. “So we did.” She puts the last photo into an envelope she prepared. “You know, the best thing is that my father didn’t have to end up in the ghetto at all,” she tells Gordon. “He was born in Germany and it would take a lot of digging to find out that Grandma Gertrude was of Jewish ancestry. He and Uncle Erich would just have to show their IDs and they’d be free to go.”
“But they didn’t.”
“No,” confirms Ruth. “Because neither of them wanted to leave Mum and us alone in that hell.”
“And this is what it means to love,” states Gordon wistfully. “To overcome your fears and weaknesses and worries, to survive every storm by the side of those you care for.” Gordon points at the envelope. “That’s for Charles?”
“Yes,” Ruth replies. “That along with letters to him and Raven.”
“Should I walk you to the post office?”
Ruth shakes her head. It’s sweet of Gordon to ask, but this one she needs to do by herself. She’s never told anyone about her past — save for Gordon and partially for Erik, but Erik doesn’t count as he’d already knew most of it and Gordon is just… Gordon — always kept it a secret in the back of her mind. She’s not comfortable with sharing those memories, but this is her one chance at honesty with Charles and if she wants to make this work, she needs to make little sacrifices.
If she doesn’t push that envelope into the postbox herself, she’s not sure she’ll send the letter at all.
Joseph takes her to his mother’s grave the next time they’re in Oxford. She brings white roses — he’d bought white roses for the dinner-that-wasn’t and Ruth remembered — and when he asks how she could have possibly known that white roses were his mother’s favourite flowers, she says that it was a lucky guess.
Joseph doesn’t appear to be changed by the absence of his mother. He’s still the awkward, sweet scientist she met on a plane. Maybe he’s a little calmer, Ruth muses. Less agitated at a smallest mention of his father. Like he cares less. Ruth asks him about the string of part-time stepmothers, as he calls them, students that his father kept by his side for few weeks before replacing them with another equally young and equally stupid girl. Joseph’s bitter about it, but not angry. There’s no hatred in his voice when he talks about his father; he doesn’t hate him on behalf of his mother, because without a mother there’s no reason for hatred.
“You must miss her terribly,” Ruth says as she places the roses on a grave. Gabrielle Kinross (1910-1949), it says, devoted mother and wife.
“There are days when I’d give everything to have her back,” he replies and puts his hands into his pockets. “But then I think about a life she’d have and think that maybe she’s better this way.”
“You can’t mean it.”
“She never got to see a manwhore my father turned into with age.” He grimaces. “But then again, she also never got to meet you and that’s an awful shame.”
Ruth contemplates telling him that it’s her fault, all her fault and she’s sorry, but that would need more explanation about her powers, about her history and this is neither the time nor the place. One step at a time, Ruth reminds herself. So instead she places a little kiss on the top of the gravestone and thinks, I’m sorry.
It’s not enough, but it’s the best she’s got.
There’s a letter waiting for her in the kitchen, but it’s not from Westchester. The return address points to Snow Valley in Massachusetts and Ruth doesn’t have any friends there. She opens the envelope cautiously and peeks inside. There’s a polaroid picture of a slightly futuristic building, with a little note written on the back.
Decided to take your advice, the note says. Can’t let Xavier try to tell every mutant that the world is about puppies and rainbows, so I offer an alternative. Massachusetts Academy. We have more hands-on approach and lower tuition fees.
“What’s so funny?” asks Gordon when Ruth bursts out laughing.
“I may have unwillingly created competition for Charles’ school,” she says and passes the photo to Gordon.
“There’s a postscriptum, have you noticed?”
Ruth takes the photo back and looks at the note. And Gordon’s right, there’s something scribbled in the bottom left corner.
Your brother attached this.
Ruth wonders briefly how Emma Frost knows about her and Erik, then remembers that the woman talked about them as siblings back in the taxi too. Maybe Erik had told her. Or maybe she just took that information form Ruth’s head, never bothered with ethics of telepathy like Charles is.
“It’s a newspaper article,” Gordon tells her and gives her the piece of paper.
It’ been cut from a Snow Valley local newspaper. It show a picture of an iron bridge and the headline states in the capital letters:
ANONYMOUS TIP ABOUT DETERIORATION OF SPANS OF SILVER BRIDGE HELPS PREVENT A CATASTROPHE
She skims the article, something about a call to the city hall that gave a detailed description of corrosion of several vital parts that supported the construction. And underneath the article, added in Erik’s neat, elegant handwriting:
I am proud of you.
“Is this good?” Gordon asks, looking over her shoulder. “This is Erik, right?”
“Yes,” Ruth nods. She wants to tell Gordon that Erik feels metal, that he could walk that bridge and know exactly what’s wrong with every part. What she says instead is: “This is very good.”
“So much for a revenge-crazy psychopathic killer then.”
She can feel that Gordon’s joking, she hears the laugh in the timbre of his voice and feels the way his body trembles against hers.
“Gone, I think. Or dormant.” She waves the article in front of Gordon’s face. “This is hope, Gordon.”
“Always last to die.”
The next day she issues a telegram to Massachusetts Academy in Snow Valley. It consists of only one word.
Joseph prepares drinks for them and brings them out to the small balcony of his Chesterfield apartment. Ruth leans on the railings and watches Joseph’s neighbour water his flowers as a cat sneaks on an unsuspecting pigeon.
“Have you ever read Charles Xavier’s thesis?” she asks.
“The one about possible mutation in human genome?” Ruth nods. “I did. I wanted to know what amused my father so much.”
“And what did you think of it?”
Joseph takes a sip of his whiskey.
“I thought that this Xavier guy was very smart,” he answers. Then adds, a heartbeat later. “And that his theories are not as crazy as my father painted them. They were… logical. Quite fascinating in fact. I can picture a world, hundreds of years from now, where people can fly. Or turn invisible.”
Ruth thinks about Sean and Alisa and laughs under her breath. Joseph catches that.
“You think that’s my inner science fiction fan speaking, don’t you?” he asks affronted. “Well, I think Charles Xavier may have a point.”
“Believe me, I know,” Ruth mutters.
Ruth puts a finger to her lips, shushing Joseph, then points to the cat, which is about to attack, already has the claws extended. Joseph watches as the cat arches its back, leans back and jumps, and the stops mid-air, suspended over the pigeon that looks around curiously.
“Those mutations,” says Ruth slowly, “are happening right now, Joe.”
She waves at the pigeon before letting the cat go. The bird flies away and the cat lands on a branch, confused about the lack of its pray. Ruth goes back inside and sits on Joseph’s sofa. Soon Joseph follows, takes a chair and sits in front of her.
One step at the time.
“Every word from Charles’ thesis is true. And it’s now, not hundred years from today.” She turns her head to look at the balcony door. “We’re… mutants, you’d say, but we’re human too. Every one of us has a different power. Mine is… time related. I can freeze it. Make it go faster or slower.”
“This is insane.”
“I know.” Ruth looks back at Joseph. “And that’s why I’m giving you a choice. I’m not like every other girl and you didn’t know that when you started courting me. But now you do and you have to decide whether it’s too much for you or not. This is the moment when you can leave and never look back.” She gets up and moves to the front door. “You’re running or staying, there’s no other option.”
She leaves Joseph’s apartment.
He comes to Gordon’s house two days later.
“I love you,” he blurts out when she opens the door for him and it’s the first time he’s ever said those three words. “And I want to be by your side, forever preferably. And I was thinking,” he scratches the back of his head, “that if I love you, I have to love all of you. Even the craziest things. And I do, love you, I mean. I love you in spite of those crazy things. I love you because of those crazy things. I love you because you’re you and you wouldn’t really be you without those crazy things, right? And I think I’m rambling, am I rambling?”
“You are.” She reaches for his hand and squeezes it. “But I think that’s sweet.”
Two weeks after she sent the heavy letter addressed to Charles and Raven Xavier, living in Westchester, New York, Gordon’s telephone rings. Ruth rehearsed many possible conversations with Charles, varying from a shouting match to gentle apologies, all of them depending on his mood and the level of hurt, but she never expected what she heard.
“I am mad at you,” says Raven, “for lying and for messing with my head.”
“I’m sorry,” says Ruth quickly.
“But I also don’t have Charles’ perfect memory,” Raven continues, “and by the end of the month I won’t remember why I’m mad at you. Consider yourself forgiven.”
It’s better than Ruth expected.
“How is Charles?”
“Horrified,” Raven replies. “He’s actually here next to me, too embarrassed to talk to you. Says he’s sorry for assuming and for telling you to leave.”
“Tell him he’s got nothing to be sorry for.”
“He will have when it finally dawns on him that he kicked Erik’s only living relative out of his house… Oh, wait, it just did dawn on him.”
“And in general?” Ruth presses, because he’s not only a friend, she’s also a doctor.
“He’s actually better. He laughed at Sean’s joke yesterday and it wasn’t hysterical or bitter, so that’s an improvement. He doesn’t let Alex clean out Erik’s room, but he stopped moping. I’d say he’s trying to move on.”
“Erik’s been in Massachusetts the last time I heard,” Ruth supplies.
“In Emma’s school, we know. Azazel told me.”
Ruth raises her brows.
She can hear her blushing. Raven clears her throat.
“All the members of the short-lived Brotherhood are at Emma’s school,” Raven informs her, gracefully steering the conversation away from this Azazel. “Erik was too, but apparently he and Emma had a disagreement and Emma told him to leave.”
Ah. That would explain the lack of response for the telegram, Ruth thinks. Maybe it missed him, maybe Erik never got it.
“Could you promise me something?” Raven asks and her voice suddenly drops to a whisper. “If by any chance Erik gets to England, tell him to come back to Westchester. He doesn’t have to stay, just tell him to come and tell Charles to stop waiting. I don’t want him to be left hanging, clinging to shreds of hope. He deserves so much better.”
“I know,” Ruth says in a hushed voice too.
Eventually — Ruth is not sure whether it’s due to her message or it was just bound to happen one day — Erik does come to the little house in Derbyshire. He’s tall and brooding, clad in black from head to toe, and the sight of him scares the children from the neighbourhood and earns a comment from Miss Fanny, who laments that there weren’t many boys this handsome when she was young. Ruth tells her that she’s still young and the old lady smiles and calls her a golden girl.
Erik and Gordon stare at one another for long minutes when Erik stands in the door, unsure of his welcome even though he tries to hide it, before Gordon finally smiles brightly and tells him to come inside and go unpack his things (Erik has nothing with him) and wash his hands before dinner. In the evening he proceeds to show Erik the spare mattress set up in the attic, Erik’s designated bedroom. There is no other choice as Gordon’s house is tiny and an extra person does prove to be a problem, and Gordon explains it all to Erik in a cheerful voice, then reaches out and ruffles Erik’s hair, absolutely ignorant to Erik’s age or murderous glares.
“That’s Gordon,” Ruth says when Erik raises his brows questioningly and it doesn’t help him at all. But he’ll soon learn that it is the only answer, because that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Erik and Gordon play chess and Erik wins three times in a row. He’s irritated and Gordon thinks it’s funny, and Ruth laughs because watching the two of them interact, clearly not happy with each other, is amusing.
“Your style is so different from Charles’,” Gordon comments off handedly.
All of the sudden Erik’s attention is on Gordon’s old chess set. He takes a black bishop and turns it in his hand.
“How is Charles?” he asks and tries to sound casually. Ruth notices it and Gordon does too, because he’s known Ruth for years and when it comes to it, she and Erik are not that different.
“Raven says he’s doing better,” Ruth replies and brings the two men their tea. Gordon is grateful and Erik snorts. “He misses you,” she adds because she remembers about her promise.
Erik’s eyes dart to the breast pocket of a shirt Ruth bought for him and Ruth realizes what he subconsciously fears to see there, pink and accusing. It’s a revelation, of sorts. Only not really. Erik clears his throat.
“I’m sure he’ll get over it,” he states calmly and confidently, like there’s no other option. Like it’s ineffable and obvious and it doesn’t bother him in the slightest. Ruth squints her eyes and yes, Erik’s aura is light grey, like snow at the end of the winter, when it’s been lying for too long, too close to the dirty ground, a tarnished brilliance and beauty. It’s perfectly him, composed and calm and no one would ever say that anything could shake Erik at all. But Ruth knows where to look, so she sees the thin undercurrent of ruby when Erik takes a breath and puts the bishop back on the chess board with a hand that’s not shaking.
“I don’t think so,” says Ruth. Erik is ready to retort, when Gordon moans and buries his face in his hands.
“Oh for God’s sake.” He looks pityingly at Erik. “And you were supposed to be the smart one, I swear, I’ve never seen anyone so oblivious.”
Ruth bites on her lip. This is going to end in tears, she’s sure of it. Gordon is an amazing, wonderful man, but subtlety is usually not his forte.
“That silly boy is in love with you!” Gordon throws his hands up, agitated. “I have no idea what is it about you Lehnsherrs that Charles finds fascinating, and vice versa mind you, but he’s been friends with Ruth for years and he’s in love with you, and I know that and I haven’t even seen you two interact with each other. It’s enough that Ruth is worried and Raven wastes a fortune on phone calls, and you get moody at every mention of that boy’s name.”
Erik gapes at Gordon, thankfully with his mouth closed and dignity intact. Ruth rubs her temples.
“I’m not privy to everything that happened,” continues Gordon, “and I know that you have issues, but every minute you spend here is another minute of misery for everyone. Because Charles is… Charles is…” Gordon looks to Ruth for help, “a telepath, right? Yes, and if he’s lonely and sad then people around feel lonely and sad, on top of their own bloody feelings.”
Erik moves his eyes from Gordon to Ruth, who sighs and looks up to the ceiling.
“I was going to be more gentle about the topic,” she murmurs, “but Gordon’s essentially right. And Raven wanted me to tell you to go back to Westchester, preferably in order to tell Charles that you’re not interested in him and that he should give up.” She crosses her arms on her chest. “But that’s not the case, right?”
Erik doesn’t answer. He grits his teeth, gets up and gets out of the house, shutting the front door closed. Loudly.
“He’ll come around,” Gordon predicts and clears out the chessboard.
Ruth is tired of waiting after two hours; she takes her trenchcoat and goes looking for Erik. It’s an early autumn afternoon, slowly slipping into a still warm evening. The dew accumulated on the grass wets the edges of Ruth’s coat as she makes her way through the meadows and towards the other side of her little hometown. She doesn’t know where her brother had wandered off to, but there’s one place that comes to her mind as a possible destination. If she were him — but she’s not, she mustn’t forget that — she’d go right there.
And he is there, sitting at the edge of the pier, holding a creased photo in one hand. She crouches next to him and looks at the picture. It’s hard to believe that this gleeful student, who was sitting here, in the same spot just five years ago, is the same man as a broken friend she left in New York. Ruth grimaces. No, not the same. Not the same, never again.
Ruth contemplates lying, telling that she suspected, nothing more, but that’s not right.
“Yes,” she answers, because there’s no point in avoiding the truth. “I’m sorry,” she adds. “I never intended to hurt anyone.”
Erik laughs humourlessly.
“That makes two of us.” He lies back, flat on the pier, and stares at the sky, painted violet by the setting sun. “Maybe it’s a family thing. We never want to hurt people we care about and we end up doing it anyway.”
“We can always make up for it.”
“You can’t fix everything though.”
He turns his head to the side and she knows that he’s thinking of a beach and a bullet and a wheelchair. She thinks about a bullet too, but also a grave in Oxford, and regrets.
“It’s always worth trying,” she says out loud and gets up, then offers her help in hauling Erik up. She intertwines their fingers when they’re walking back home.
Erik doesn’t mention the afternoon talk during breakfast the next day and Ruth is not sure how to bring up the topic. She’s running through several conversations in her head, contemplates hitting him in the back of his head — like Mum used to do when Dad was being silly — when Gordon enters the kitchen and throws a backpack at Erik.
“It’s not that I don’t want you here,” he assures Erik quickly. “Okay, I’m not fond of you and you’re not fond of me either, but we both love the same girl, so I’m fine with you being here. For my baby girl’s sake.”
Erik puts the backpack down.
“You have a point?” he asks Gordon in a bored voice that speaks more of threats than disinterest.
“Yes, I do have a point.” Now Gordon throws a wallet. “You, young man, are going to Westchester. Tomorrow. No arguing. When you’re as old as I am, you’ll actually know what’s good for you, especially when it’s almost staring in your face.”
Erik and Ruth exchange glances.
“Gordon?” asks Ruth, unsure about his intentions. Gordon coughs in a meaningful way.
“I consider myself a fairly open-minded individual, but I’m going to say this just once.” He moves closer and puts a hand on Erik’s shoulder, in a very fatherly, Gordon way. “Go get your man.”
Gordon quickly pulls his hand back. Ruth chokes on her coffee.
And Erik does.
It’s a long, disturbing silence after Erik leaves and it worries even Gordon.
Autumn proves to be an awful season, bringing a flu-like disease that is attacking young children. For most days Gordon is at a hospital, where Sarabeth Grover is one of the sick infants in his pediatric ward. He’s there, concerned, professional and supportive, calming Timmy and Jane, while Ruth stays at home, tasked with babysitting her three-year-old godson. There are moments when she’s that close to climbing walls or hitting her head on the table, fed up with inability to do something more productive, to somehow help. Those times little Ricky always comes to her, circles her legs with his arms and just holds, and Ruth remembers about baby steps and doing the little things and still making a difference. She bends and kisses the tip of Ricky’s nose, and he makes a disgusted face and tries to rub the kiss off with his sleeve, before bursting out laughing when Ruth tickles him.
Richard Grover is a wonderful child, Ruth decides; he’s lively and talkative and ginger, and he reminds her of Sean.
“A girl,” states Joseph unexpectedly as he plays with little Ricky. It’s been a long day in Derbyshire and Gordon is still at the hospital with Timmy and Jane, waiting for another crisis to pass. “If we ever have a child, I hope it’ll be a girl.”
“Why?” asks Ruth, amused by the sudden confession on Joseph’s part.
“Girls are less… wild?” Joseph says uncertainly. “Our daughter would be a strong woman.” He pauses, then adds. “Alba. I’ve always liked the sound of it, it’s a good name.”
“How Scottish of you,” Ruth jokes, then her voice loses the playful tone. “I thought you’d like to name our potential daughter after your mother.”
“I wouldn’t want her to be named after a dead woman who’s had a quite miserable life.”
Ruth swallows. Maybe this is the moment, she wonders, she’ll do it now, she’ll tell him the rest, she’ll tell him everything and Joseph will decide what’s next for them.
“Joseph,” she starts, “about your mother…”
“Don’t.” He looks at her seriously. “I know it’s a sensitive topic for you, but don’t, Ruth. Don’t pity the dead. It’s not worth it.” He turns his attention back to Ricky. “I wonder if he knows that he’s here with us because his sister is sick. Actually, I wonder how it is to have a sister. Or a sibling in general.”
“No matter what happens, you feel that you’ll never be truly alone,” replies Ruth, deciding against forcing the subject further. Not today, not this time. “There’s someone who’ll have your back and who’ll love you always, no matter what.”
Joseph raises his brows.
“And you’re an expert, because…”
She touches her left arm absent-mindedly.
“Because I have a brother.”
Joseph drops Ricky’s ball that he’s been holding. It hits the floor with a thud and rolls to the corner of the room, but Joseph doesn’t notice it just like he can’t see Ricky’s trembling lip and pouting face. He gapes at Ruth.
“I told you that Gordon adopted me,” she reminds him quietly. She did tell him that, the first time he asked about the curious absence of her mother at any point in her life. So she told him that Gordon adopted her when she was thirteen and it’s been the two of them ever since. She didn’t tell him that that her adoption consisted of forging papers and illegal transport to the Isles or that Gordon found her in an orphanage for the children of war, or that she wasn’t even British (Polish on paper and Jewish by blood, but too German for some of Grandpa Henryk’s acquaintances and not German enough for the Nazis). Neither of them were ready for that conversation at the time, or so Ruth assumed.
“I remember,” Joseph says.
Ruth worries her lip between her teeth, then rolls up the sleeve of her shirt. 161130, with a tiny heart at the end, is clearly visible against the pale skin of her arm as she shows it to Joseph.
“It used to look differently,” she says when Joseph shakes his head, still not on the same page as she is, not yet understanding. “The number was higher, much higher… And they didn’t decorate them, not where I’ve got my tattoo.”
It takes him a moment to put two and two together, but he eventually does come up with four and he pales. Joseph has never had to deal with the war before, he’s been kept away from the horrors by the rich and neglectful parents, like Charles. Twenty years after the war and it’s the first time he truly knows someone who’s been right in the middle of everything, who’s seen and experienced the things Joseph heard about from his father’s army friends. Ruth smiles bitterly. We live in the same world, she thinks, but reality is still so different for us.
“You’ve been…” Joseph swallows, unable to finish the question. Ruth nods. “And your family…”
“Dead,” she supplies. “Uncle killed upon arrival, Dad died of exhaustion in the winter of 1944, Mum was shot. At least that’s what Gordon has learned for me.”
“But you have a brother.”
Joseph absent-mindedly takes the ball Ricky brought him and throws it to the side, as if Ricky was a dog. Ricky makes an affronted face and goes to the drawing room, where he sits down on the floor.
“I do,” Ruth admits. “He’s… he’s alive and I didn’t know that for a long time.”
“Is he…” Joseph waves his hand in Ruth’s general direction. “Is he like you? Your brother.”
“Erik,” Ruth says. “And yes. He’s a mutant, you don’t have to be afraid of this word.”
“Mutant, right,” Joseph mutters. “What’s his power then?”
“He can bend metal. Control it, through magnetism I think. I’m not exactly sure, it’s more of a physics thing.”
It spikes Joseph’s interest and his inner scientist, always at work, contemplates all the fascinating conversations he could have with her brother. Little Ricky comes back to the kitchen and tugs at Ruth’s skirt.
“Juice,” he demands.
“When can I meet your brother?” Joseph asks and his mind is still far away, in the wonderful land of might-be talks.
“I don’t know.”
Ruth pours a glass of orange juice for Ricky and the child starts drinking greedily. She watches him with an affectionate smile. Richard Jonathan Grover is an extraordinary child indeed. In a few years Ruth will have to step up and fulfill her godmother duty; she’ll talk to Timmy and Jane, explain everything to them, maybe she’ll even give them Emma Frost’s card if they’d want an alternative to what Charles will have to offer. In a few years Ricky’s interesting powers will manifest and he’ll need help and training and acceptance. In a few years…
“Are there any more interesting facts about you life?” Joseph asks and he tries to make it sound teasing, not half-embarrassed and half-mortified. Ruth is grateful for his efforts.
“Charles Xavier is also a mutant,” she offers and hands another glass of juice to Joseph.
“I figured that one already,” he says and takes a sip.
“And he’s in love with my brother,” she adds, hesitant. Joseph chokes and she has to hit him in the back, hard.
“Oh fuck,” he swears and Ruth hisses at him, because even if Ricky can’t understand, he shouldn’t hear that kind of language. “You know, despite all those girls that went through Xavier’s bed, the faculty had a running bet on whether or not he was gay.”
It’s Ruth’s turn to be surprised.
“Are you serious?” Joseph confirms and a grin forms on his face. He shouldn’t be so amused, Ruth think, so self-satisfied. “Who was on it?”
“Hitchens from biology department,” he starts to count out, “Rowlin and Danes from chemistry, that blond microbiologist and my father.”
“And who would win?”
“My father and Danes would have to split the sum,” Joseph answers with a loud sigh. “Of all the things my father could be and wasn’t right about it had to be this, it’s unbelievable.”
Ricky chooses this moment to gleefully drop the glass and let it shatter on the kitchen floor. Ruth hurries to get a mop and Joseph slides off his chair and crouches, picking up the glass.
“Do you remember Charles’ sister, Raven?”
“Yes,” Joseph replies, “I think I’ve seen her around a few bars. The pretty, bored-looking blonde?”
“She’s not blond. She’s blue.” That earns her only a one raised eyebrow as Joseph throws the glass into a rubbish bin. “And that’s it?”
“Well.” Joseph clears his hands on his trousers. “I think I’ve exhausted my resources of surprise for the day. Try telling me that again tomorrow.”
Ruth laughs while little Ricky manages to destroy Joseph’s glass too.
Two infants die at Gordon’s hospital, but Sarabeth Grover isn’t one of them. Gordon’s devastated, but also glad a bit and that makes him feel even worse, because he shouldn’t be relieved that Sarabeth pulled through while two other children didn’t. But Jane is crying and even Timmy is shaking when they come to Gordon’s house to pick up Ricky and Gordon can’t help himself. Ruth understands that, maybe better than anyone.
Timmy and Jane decide to take the kids to Timmy’s aunt near Swansea, because Sarabeth needs fresh air and they don’t want to make Ruth babysit Richard for longer than it was necessary. Ruth knows that they already feel guilty about dumping their son in Ruth’s hands and no amount of denying is going to convince them that it wasn’t much of a problem, having a child at home. If anything, it was illuminating and it brought a lot of joy.
Timmy and Jane leave for Wales and soon Joseph leaves too, for a job at Cambridge University, where his surname is not immediately linked to affairs with students. There’s still no word from either Erik or Charles and Raven hasn’t phoned with any news yet.
“It’s awfully quiet in here,” Ruth comments sadly as they sit in the attic, in front of Gordon’s fireplace in the study. It’s late autumn and the nights seem to last much longer than the should. For the last few months, there was always someone in the house besides the two of them and suddenly, for the first time ever, Ruth feels lonely in her little house. “I never noticed it before.”
Gordon puts an arm around her and presses her close to his body. He places a soft kiss on her hair.
“It used to be even quieter,” he whispers. “Before you came and brought something good to this place.”
She wraps her arms around his waist and just holds. Outside the window, it starts snowing. November turns into December.
Chapter 2: Epilogue
Ruth glares at a giddy Joseph, who’s drinking tea and blabs about the failure that assigned essays his students were to write turned out to be. He’s back in Derbyshire for a Christmas break and he decided to once again decline his father’s — and Irene’s, Alasdhair Kinross’ new girl of the month — invitation to spend the holiday with them in Scotland.
“Why would I want to spend it with them?” he counters when Ruth asks about his decision. “It’s half of December, start of the crazy holiday season in the Phillips household. There’s nothing better than that.”
Ruth smiles when she hears his explanation, but knows that Joseph’s not far from truth. December is always a crazy time in their little house; there are so many different festivals happening at the same time, especially this year, and Gordon’s attitude towards it has always been an ecstatic belief that the more reasons to celebrate, the better.
“Have you decided on a present you want to get for holiday, sweetheart?”
Gordon enters the kitchen and folds his hands on his chest. He looks at her expectantly and Ruth sighs and puts down the potato she’s been peeling. It happens every year. Gordon asks her what she wants to get, she says she doesn’t care, he ends up preparing some kind of a surprise for her. And it’s always meaningful, something unusual that makes her think that it was made especially for her. Even if it’s just a silver bracelet that you could buy at every jeweller’s — Gordon manages to add something extra, something just from him, that makes the whole thing priceless.
“I don’t need anything, Gordon,” she answers and takes a grater from the counter. She grates the potatoes, then mixes them with flour and eggs and adds spices. It’s not the traditional recipe — that one doesn’t involve adding saffron or ginger — but then again, nothing about the way she and Gordon celebrate anything is particularly traditional.
“Then it’s wonderful, because I have nothing for you,” Gordon says cheerfully, before shooting a meaningful glance at Joseph. Joseph immediately straightens and coughs.
“I’ll help you,” he offers unexpectedly and gestures at the unpeeled potatoes. “I think we should have more of… these.”
Ruth raises her brows, but doesn’t comment; she hands Joseph a knife and proceeds to tell him how to prepare the dough. From the corner of her eye she watches Gordon leave the kitchen, go to the front door and exit the house.
“What is this all about?”
Joseph readjusts the collar of his shirt, nervous. He starts grating the potatoes he’s peeled.
“Oh, you know,” he says and Ruth knows that he desperately tries to sound casual, not like a person who’s hiding something. “It’s Hanukkah today, right? Maybe he’s going to do some… late shopping?”
“First of all, it starts today,” she explains and puts the pancakes into the boiling oil in the frying pan. “Second of all, I’ve already done the shopping. Besides,” she adds, “why did you insist on making more? There’s only three of us and you’ve never eaten potato pancakes. You don’t know if you like them.”
“I like everything that comes out of your hands.”
Tease, thinks Ruth, but she smiles anyway. Fine, if they want to keep secrets, let’s keep secrets. It can’t be awful, she’s sure of it. If it were, Gordon would never participate in whatever it is that they’re planning. He’s… he’s Gordon, the amazing man who’s incapable of doing wrong by anyone he considers family. And that’s who they are to him, she and Joseph.
Gordon doesn’t come back for several hours and Ruth is starting to worry. There are many things that could have happened, she thinks. Accidents, robberies, anything, everything. She hates waiting, but there isn’t much she can — – she doesn’t even know where Gordon went to and Joseph is not helping. He’s just circling around the drawing room, checking the hour and making sure that the table in the dining room is set, that the pancakes are still warm, that the doughnuts they’ve made are properly filled with jam. He’s waiting for something and his aura is honey-yellow with anticipation.
“What is going on, tell me or I swear to God…” Ruth trails off.
Joseph swallows and sits on the chair beside her.
“I don’t know anything!” he exclaims suddenly. “Gordon told me this morning to stall you and to keep you occupied, and I have no idea what’s going on either.” He looks at his watch. “Other than he promised to be home an hour ago.”
Ruth gets up.
“That’s it, I’m done.” She goes to grab her coat. “Knowing him, he went to his hospital. Or he got lost in Chesterfield. Or Miss Fanny kidnapped him on his way home. One way or another, I’ll go look for him.”
That’s when she hears movement in front of the house, footsteps. The heavy ones belong to Gordon, she’s sure of that, but there is one… no, there are two other sets that she doesn’t recognize. A woman’s laugh. She looks at Joseph, who only shrugs. It can’t be, Gordon would never get this brilliant idea to invite Aladhair Kinross with his new almost fiancée, would he? Ruth close her eyes. Of course he would, he’s Gordon and subtlety is not something he’s good at.
“I’m sorry,” she mouths to Joseph. He straightens his back when the footsteps draw closer, clearly waiting for the door to open and the smug face of his father to appear. Ruth barely registers that it’s the first time they’ll meet since that dinner when Joseph punched his father. It won’t end well, she thinks, it won’t end well at all. Especially since Alasdhair Kinross is not as tolerant of different cultures or religions or appearances as his son is.
The front door opens and Gordon stumbles inside, covered in melting snow, with his round face red and happy. He gets his cap off with a swift movement of his hand.
“Didn’t know what to buy you this year, sweetheart,” he says loudly and blocks the view with his coat-clad body. “So I got you this.” He steps to the side and Ruth braces herself. “Happy oncoming winter solstice, Ruth.”
Ruth’s eyes widen when she observes as Raven gets inside and immediately shifts back to her natural blue-skinned appearance. She takes off her coat and at least she’s wearing a nice, fitting dress underneath. She beams with joy.
“Hi,” she greets Ruth and an astounded Joseph, who’s finally comprehending that Ruth was being literal when she said that Raven was blue. “We heard that you’re having a week-long party, so we decided to crash it.”
“We…?” Ruth asks and her heart leaps and then ends up somewhere in her throat when she sees Erik and Charles get inside too. Well, Erik gets inside, carrying Charles bridal-style through the threshold, and Ruth is overcome with two different feelings. One is amazement at the lengths Gordon is ready to go in order to ensure her happiness, the other is terror at the picture she’s seeing. She knows Charles and she knows how he hates being dependant, how he can’t cope well with being on the receiving end of over-protectiveness, and all of the sudden she’s sure that this will bring another argument, especially when she sees that Erik gracelessly dumps Charles on Gordon’s old couch. She closes her eyes and wishes — though not really wishes, and her heart is not in it — that Charles would not be affronted.
He’s not, as it turns out.
“Not a girl,” he says in a half-annoyed, half-amused tone and smacks the back of Erik’s head.
“Of course you’re not,” assures him Erik and the mockery in his voice is so apparent that Raven laughs. And, beside Ruth, Joseph does too, though his laugh has a bit of hysterical edge to it. It’s one thing to hear about Ruth’s mutant friends and gay brother, it’s entirely another one to actually see it. He’ll get over the shock, Ruth thinks.
Then Raven stops laughing and the house gets quiet. No one knows what to say. Gordon clears his throat.
“It’s been a long day, and we have one of our festivals starting right about now…” He points at the dining room. “I’d suggest we go and eat. Ruth, sweetheart?”
“Right.” Ruth nods. “I’ll go get the candles.”
She runs upstairs as quickly as she can, the she ducks into her room, closes the door and sinks to the floor. Then she finally breathes.
Gordon knocks softly on her bedroom door and comes inside. He crouches in front of her, with a worried expression on his face. The happy, satisfied colour that was attached to his person when he entered the house is gone now.
“Did I do wrong by you?” he asks softly and reaches to touch her arm. “I thought you’d be happy, having Erik and Charles and Raven here.”
She shakes her head.
“It’s fine, Gordon,” she says. “It’s more than fine, it’s wonderful. It’s just…” She takes a shaky breath. “We didn’t exactly part on the best terms, and there are a lot of things…”
“You’ll work it out,” Gordon says and gets up. He offers his hand to Ruth. “Remember, it’s not the only festival we’re celebrating at this house. There is one which will allow you to work everything out, sweetheart.”
She takes his hand and he hauls her up into a standing position. Gordon then goes to her wardrobe and takes out the Hanukkah menorah and a pack of candles. He blows off the dust and hands it to her.
“I think you should ask him to light the candles,” Gordon suggest as she takes the menorah and heads to the corridor. “God knows it’s probably the first time in years that kid is actually celebrating anything.”
When they get downstairs, their guests are still sitting in the drawing room. Joseph is engrossed in a heated conversation with Charles and there’s a wheelchair standing next to the sofa (so impractical in their cluttered little house), Raven is going through Gordon’s collection of clay figurines and Erik is sitting on the sofa beside Charles, with an unsure expression on his face.
“I got the candles,” Ruth says and all four heads turn to her. Joseph winks at her when she passes him by to place the menorah on the windowsill. Charles regards her with curiosity and Erik pales even further when she turns to him and offers him a box of matches and two candles.
“You’re older,” she says and drops the box onto his lap. “Do the honours.”
He takes the box. His hands are trembling, Ruth notices. He gets up and lights one match, then freezes. He almost drops the match. Charles furrows his brows and Ruth is sure she sports the same expression.
“I don’t remember,” Erik whispers. “I… I don’t remember the words.”
Ruth goes over to him, takes another match and lights it. She lights the shamash Erik is holding.
“Barukh ata Adonai,” she starts saying, her Hebrew much better than his after all those years, “Eloheinu melekh ha olam, she hehiyanu v'kiy'manu v'higi'anu la z'man ha ze.”
She places one candle in the menorah.
“Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha olam,” she recites another blessing and this time Erik’s voice joins her, quiet and shaking at first, “asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner hanuka.”
They lit the candles, recite the last blessing — Erik’s voice breaks in the middle — and she takes a hold of his hand. Behind them, Gordon claps to draw attention.
“Not to rain on anyone’s parade,” he says, “but Ruth’s wonderful latkes are not going to eat themselves, you know?”
There’s an expression of surprise on Erik’s face as he searches his memories for the meaning of a familiar word, then it settles on satisfaction when he figures it out. Joseph smacks his lips and Raven looks to Charles in confusion, but her brother just shrugs his shoulders, unable to explain the term. For all his intellect and knowledge and skills, Charles is really awful with anything that has to do with cooking and culinary terms.
When they get to the dining room and somehow manage to fit six people by Gordon’s table, there’s a lot of explaining about traditional Hanukkah dishes, about the potato pancakes and eating them with meat sauce or with mushroom sauce or with cream or with sugar, and everyone finds something for their taste. Raven puts so much sugar on her helping that it makes Gordon wince, Joseph settles for mushroom sauce and Charles is trying out every combination possible. Erik is just staring at his plate and his fork hovers few inches over the surface of the table, and Ruth knows that this is the first time since before the war that someone has cooked this for him.
“And now I’m so happy we’ve made the extra ones,” says Joseph with his mouth full.
A problem arises around ten.
“Gordon,” Ruth starts politely, “as we always have trouble finding space for one guest, how are we supposed to find it for four extra people?”
Joseph immediately reacts.
“If there’s a problem, Erik and Charles and Raven can always get a hotel room in Chesterfield.” He smacks his forehead. “Hell, I have an apartment in Chesterfield, they can stay there.”
“Absolutely not, I didn’t get those kids here only to drive them back,” Gordon replies and turns to Ruth. “I thought about moving the drawing room furniture up to the walls and putting sleeping bags there. It would be like a sleepover.”
“A sleepover.” Ruth takes a deep breath. “Gordon, you’ve never let me have Timmy and Jane for a sleepover and now you want to do this with four people?”
“Five with you, of course if you’d like to sleep in your room, that’s absolutely fine…”
He grins and pats Ruth’s shoulder.
“It will be fine,” he says and then adds louder, directing it to all the guest. “There’s Ruth’s bedroom and we can put up a mattress in the attic. Otherwise, you kids are sleeping here. And please don’t turn this into some kind of an orgy, alright?”
Ruth groans. Raven and Joseph laugh loudly and Charles chuckles, used to Gordon’s specific sense of humour. Ruth notices that even Erik’s lips twitch.
On the third day of the mad festival season at Phillips’ household — as Joseph continued to call it — Gordon wakes them up with the smell of freshly made coffee and three plates with piles of hot toasts on it. He puts it on the coffee table, then brings them orange juice and strawberry jaw and a bowl of fruit salad that Ruth taught him how to make after she came back from Morocco.
“Breakfast, children,” he says loudly and smirks when five hands reach for plates and cutlery.
They put the plates on the highest accessible surface, Gordon’s spare mattress that’s been brought to the drawing room after a heated debate which ended in a voting. They decided to get it downstairs for Charles and he wasn’t happy with the decision; but that was democracy, as Erik reminded him, and they voted five to one for making him sleep on it.
“And now, as some of you might know,” Gordon says as he settles on the floor in front of Ruth and their four guests, “today is the 21st of December, the first day of another winter holiday that we’re celebrating in this house. This day requires you to apologize to every family member you’ve somehow wronged.” He wriggles a finger at them. “And you have a lot of issues. So talk.”
For a moment crunching is the only sound in the room.
“I don’t remember this tradition,” Charles suddenly says.
“We’ve had it for only two years,” Ruth explains. “It comes from a Hindu festival.”
“Pancha Ganapati,” Gordon supplies.
“Gordon learned about it from the family of an Indian boy he was treating some time ago.” Ruth smiles. “We liked it the idea, so we adapted it. It gives you an opportunity to make amends. It’s about receiving forgiveness.”
“Let me make a little demonstration of how this is supposed to go.” Gordon clears his throat and faces Ruth. “Ruthie, sweetheart. I apologize for slapping you, even if it was necessary at the time.”
All their forks rattle, so Ruth puts a hand on Erik’s shoulder blade, patting him lightly.
“You needed me to get a grip on reality, Gordon, we both know that.” She clasps her hands on her lap. “But you’re forgiven for that.”
Gordon spreads his arms.
“See?” he asks. “Simple. Now do it yourselves.”
Erik and Charles exchange quick glances, then pointedly move their eyes away from each other and stare at the opposite walls of the drawing room. Raven starts tousling the edge of her pajama and Joseph drums his fingers on the surface of the coffee table. Ruth puts a lock of brown hair behind her ear.
“Joseph,” she starts quietly, “I want you to know that I’m sorry about your…”
“I forgive you,” Joseph interrupts her.
Ruth’s eyes narrow.
“You don’t even know what I wanted to say!”
“Trust me, I do.” He takes a deep breath. “And I forgive you.”
“Just like that?”
He shrugs and reaches for a toast which he then starts spreading the jam on.
“Just like that,” he confirms. He takes a bite. “You’re the love of my life,” he says and it’s barely audible through the crunching. “And as long as I’m able to, I’ll always forgive you. Always,” he repeats, stressing the word.
“I don’t deserve you,” she murmurs and that’s true, because Joseph’s not just another man, one of many in the world. He’s special and amazing and one of a kind, a much better man than people give him credit for being.
“Of course you don’t,” he agrees and a big smile forms on his face. “I’m way too awesome for anyone.”
Raven snorts and Ruth turns her head to her. She frowns, then sighs. Better late than never, she decides.
“I’m sorry for lying and for causing trouble for you,” Ruth says, both to Raven and Charles. “And for messing with your head, Raven.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” insists Raven and Ruth decides to let it go. She looks at Charles, who nods mutely.
Gordon clears his throat.
“You’re supposed to say it,” he reminds them. “Otherwise it won’t work.”
“Apology accepted then,” Charles says. “And my apologies for making you leave Westchester.”
“You are forgiven,” Ruth says with a smile, the words that Gordon taught her to value and cherish, especially during this time of year.
“Raven, I…” Charles trails off and looks at his sister. “I never wanted you to feel that you had to hide with me.”
“It’s fine,” Raven says and punches him in the arm. “A misunderstanding, and besides, it’s kind of my fault that I didn’t cotton on to you being uncomfortable with the whole naked thing.”
“Wait, you wanted to walk around naked?” asks Joseph before Ruth manages to shut him up. Joseph and Raven stare at one another for a moment, before bursting out laughing. Ruth closes her eyes. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, she thinks. Joseph wasn’t supposed to have this easy, friendly relationship with Raven, but he has and it’s only a matter of time before she convinces him to start pulling pranks.
“Boys, we’re waiting for you,” Gordon says and it prompts Ruth to open her eyes. Gordon’s looking at Erik and Charles, who are still facing away from each other. And that’s why they’re so fine with each other, Ruth thinks. They don’t talk about what happened, not really, they’re trying to move on without having any kind of a proper closure. And that fits with Erik’s character, his desire to run and hatred of being wrong, but not with Charles; at least not the Charles that she knows. But they’ve changed, she knows that, and Charles changed too and there’s something darker about him now, something broken and more serious.
Maybe they think it’s best not to go back to what used to be. That’s stupid, but that’s their choice and Ruth will respect that, even if she doesn’t agree. After all, their future is what they make it. And maybe this silence will grow to resentment and maybe even to hatred one day, and they will part, bitter and they will be alone (as it was supposed to be, but isn’t anymore, or so Ruth hopes).
“I’m going for a walk,” Erik says grimly and stands up, and leaves the room. Charles watches his back with a blank expression and Ruth wants to shake them both until they understand, but she knows it’s difficult. She knows it’s difficult, because Erik never learned to apologize and suddenly he has to actually mean those words, and Charles never wanted to be asked for forgiveness before.
“That could have gone better,” Gordon comments when Erik slams the front door shut. “But I’m sure you’ll all nail it next year.”
Erik doesn’t come back for the remainder of the day and Ruth strains herself in order to entertain the guests so that they wouldn’t start wondering where he’d gone. Ruth is pretty sure he’s by the lake again, staring at the frozen sheet, so she leaves him be. She enlists Gordon’s help with distracting Charles and they spend the whole day in their pajamas, playing board games, sharing embarrassing Oxford stories and at one point Ruth tries to teach Raven and Charles how to play dreidel and then decides that she’s created a monster, as she watches how Raven manages to win all the sweets they had in the house.
Erik’s still not home when they go to sleep long after midnight.
Ruth wakes up with a gasp, clutching the material over her heart tightly. It takes her a moment to realize that it’s not hot and sunny, that it’s the middle of the night in Gordon’s house, her house, at home, not a distant, detested place by the sea, sandy and bright and painful and oh–
Ruth looks to the side, where Charles’ hand fell off the mattress and his fingers touch her right arm. It’s because of that, it’s through this link that she can feel the steady beat of pain-betrayal-stay-pain-heartbreak-loss-stay-pain-no-please-helplessness-loneliness-pain-help me-choose me-love me.
She takes a hold of Charles’ thin wrist and squeezes, and tries to convey as much of friendship-safety-belonging-family-love-love-love you as she can.
“He already chose you,” she whispers and no one listens to her, “he just doesn’t know how to say it.”
Charles calms down under her touch, slumbers into a dreamless sleep. Ruth keeps watching over him for the rest of the night.
It’s shortly before sunrise and everyone’s still asleep — and snoring, like Joseph, or whimpering in their sleep, like Charles — when Ruth gets up, puts on a fluffy robe and pads to the kitchen, to boil water for coffee and tea and to start making breakfast. She puts the kettle on the stove and goes back to collect the plates that were left in the drawing room after a late night snack Raven had made for them before they went to bed. From the corner of her eye, through the window, she sees movement in front of the house. She puts the plates back on the coffee table, puts on her slippers and carefully maneuvers between the sleeping figures of her friends. She quietly opens the front door and gets outside.
Erik is sitting on Gordon’s porch; he must have been there for quite some time now, judging by the thin layer of snow covering his arms and wetting his hair. He’s not shivering, this temperature is nowhere near as low as ones they’ve experienced during the war, but he still can’t be comfortable in his turtleneck and half-frozen pants only.
“I’m making coffee, you want some?” she asks and he turns his head around to see her.
“I’d appreciate,” he answers. Ruth’s about to go back inside when his voice stops her. “What was I supposed to say?”
He gestures the front door vaguely.
“That stupid festival of yours,” he says. “What was I supposed to say? ‘Sorry for destroying your life’?”
He’s being sarcastic, she knows that.
“That would have been a good start,” she replies and he scowls. “You could have also said that you’re sorry for not being there when he needed you, but that you’re here now.”
“And it would have magically made everything better.”
“Of course not.” She folds her arms on her chest and leans back against the door. “But it would have been a first step. And it really is that easy, Erik.”
“What is?” he asks, genuinely curious.
She readjusts her robe and steps back inside the house, living him on the porch. She stops when she’s fully inside.
“Loving someone,” she says to him without turning back.
They don’t talk about this during the breakfast or even after, and Ruth can feel that it suits both Erik and Charles just fine. They shouldn’t do this, dance around the topic and pretend it doesn’t exist, because they should be trying to work out the problems they don’t want to acknowledge, not stash them on the ever-growing pile of things they don’t discuss. But it’s not Ruth’s place to tell them what to do, because she is the expert in letting lies and problems get out of control and start living their own lives and she honestly shouldn’t be giving advice to anyone, let alone people she cares about.
Instead she proposes a chess tournament. It’s one of the things they’re both extremely fond of and good at and it will at least ensure that they have a civil conversation about the weather, if not about anything of import. The idea gets Charles excited and Raven disappointed, as she was hoping for another round of dreidel, at which she was better than anyone in the house. They divide into pairs and Ruth ends up beating Raven with a single rook. Joseph quickly checkmates Gordon and after that Charles defeats Ruth without difficulty. Erik looks positively bored when he corners Joseph’s king and determines the pairs for the finale. It’s Raven against Gordon first, battling for the fifth and sixth place, and their game takes a lot of time as they make mistakes that are obvious even to Ruth and she comes from the Gordon Phillips School of Bad Chess Playing. Ruth and Joseph are next, and after half an hour Ruth accuses Joseph of playing badly just in order to make it easier for her. Joseph shrugs, denies and then checkmates her in three moves, which is an obvious proof that she was right.
The tournament ends with a match between Erik and Charles, which isn’t much of a surprise, especially for those two. Everyone is aware that they are the only two decent players in the house, so that one game actually gathers an audience. It starts simply, with Charles’ white pawns defending his lines and Erik’s black pieces playing an offensive game. Raven quickly gets bored, yawns — and that earns her a disapproving look from Charles and a murderous glare from Erik — and goes to the study in the attic, where most of Gordon’s books are stashed.
Ruth gives up on observing after an hour, when Charles makes a move that draws a breath out of Joseph. It’s called castling, Charles explains, and Erik hums in annoyance. There’s a pause in their game when they move to the dining room to eat dinner, and then it’s back to the chess board. (Erik and Charles stretch the break for another few minutes, think about new strategies, and Ruth uses the time to make a few phone calls to Chesterfield.) The pacing of their game is different after dinner, quicker but smoother at the same time. They move their pieces gracefully, as if knowing exactly what the other is planning. Erik performs a relative pin on Charles’ rook and knight, forcing him to surrender the latter. Charles counters with an absolute fork that sends Erik into a bit of a frenzy over a lost rook. The small victory distracts Charles a bit and allows Erik to promote one of his pawns into another queen.
It’s not just a game of chess anymore, Ruth decides. Of course, it’s still a match that will determine who’s going to take the first place, and both Erik and Charles have their avid supporters — Gordon loudly cheers on Charles, bound by the English pride, and Joseph roots for Erik, seeing the game as an opportunity to win some points with the future brother-in-law — but it’s not only that and it’s definitely not just a game for the two men playing it. It’s much more intimate, passionate and it shows how well matched they are. It almost looks like a dance of sorts, swift and sensual.
Raven is halfway done with Gordon’s 1943 edition of The Little Prince when Charles loses his queen and is left with a rook and a bishop.
“He’s going to lose,” whispers Joseph and Erik smirks, but it goes unnoticed by all but Ruth.
The game goes for another thirty minutes before Charles finally checkmates Erik, tired and joyful. Ruth wonders if he ever noticed those few times when Erik deliberately omitted something, sabotaged his own game or left a figure in danger. He didn’t, if the satisfied expression on his face is anything to go by.
“You should have won this,” Ruth murmurs to Erik after he nods at Charles and gets up.
“Over an hour ago,” he replies.
Together they watch as Gordon brings in the main prize, the only bottle of beer that can be found in the house. Charles takes it triumphantly and he looks like someone who’s just climbed Mount Everest or got a Nobel Prize, not like a person who won a chess match in a little house in Derbyshire. But he’s happy, and there’s an affectionate smile playing in the corner of Erik’s mouth, and Ruth thinks that there’s still hope for them.
It’s the day before Christmas Eve when Raven decides that they have to go and buy a Christmas tree. Joseph wholeheartedly agrees and offers to drive them to Chesterfield. Raven claps happily and starts arguing with Joe about the important topic of spruce versus pine. Erik just raises his brows and carries on reading Corpus Caesarianum that he dig up in the attic.
“You should go with them,” says Ruth.
He raises his brows even higher. She didn’t know it was possible.
“And why is that?”
“Because someone will have to choose a tree when they won’t be able to agree on a type,” Ruth replies with a smile. “And you can be very persuasive when you want to be.”
He sighs and closes the book, but he doesn’t argue with her and that alone means a lot. He takes his coat and starts buttoning up, and Ruth goes to find Gordon.
“I need you to run a few errands for me.” She hands him a hand-written list of Christmas gifts. “I’ve already phoned to the jeweller, he’ll be waiting for you today and he’ll do the engraving off-hand.”
“Are you sure these are good presents?” Gordon asks after he finished scanning the list.
“Feel free to buy something extra.”
“Maybe a German dictionary so that Charles understands what Erik is yelling at him.”
Gordon hides the list with a mischievous glint in his eyes and Ruth immediately regrets giving him permission to add something. Charles’ and Raven’s presents are safe, she’s sure of that — Gordon really likes Raven and he treats Charles like this cute six-year-old that you have to smile at and pat him on the head and tell him that he’s doing great — but certainty leaves her when it comes to Erik. It would be so Gordon of him to buy a book on the habits of anteaters just to tease him. While they are not openly hostile, Erik and Gordon are like rams waiting to start butting their heads, annoying the hell out of each other.
“You’re not coming?” asks Joseph, who’s already waiting by the front door. Ruth shakes her head.
“Erik is going with you,” she answers and adds sarcastically, “I’m staying at home, because someone has to make sure that you fearless men will have something to eat when you come back.”
Gordon kisses her cheek when he’s passing her by and calls her “his little feminist”. She thinks he misfired with that comment, but doesn’t correct him. When the merry band leaves — and Erik glares at her in a way that means she owes him — she walks to the kitchen, puts her elbows on the counter and tries to come up with a recipe she’ll use today. Beef brisket with horseradish and carrots, she decides. Grandma Gertrude prepared something similar every time they visited the farm, but she added much more vegetables. Ruth smiles. No one wanted to eat it; well, no one save for Erik, who used to go through a really vegetable-friendly phase when he was seven.
“Do you need help?” asks Charles as he wheels himself to the kitchen. Moving around the house is still not easy — even though Gordon tried to make as much space as possible — but Charles doesn’t complain. He doesn’t complain at all, taught to be self-sufficient, to rely on himself at a very young age, and Ruth can only think, oh Charles.
In a few years, she thinks. In a few years Richard Jonathan Grover is going to enter your school and is going to learn how to control his amazing power, how to use it to help those good people who need it. In a few years, a simple handshake from Ricky will be able to cure, let’s say… a paralysis. (But she won’t tell him that, not today, because today Ricky is three and Charles is still learning to cope, and there’s a long way to go for both of them. A few years is a long time, she thinks, and a lot can happen.)
“You can peel the carrots,” she says and hands him a knife. She remembers from their Oxford days that Charles is an utter disaster in a kitchen and she doesn’t trust him with a more difficult task. “Then halve them crosswise. When you’re done, help me with the onions.”
They work in silence for several minutes. Ruth seasons the brisket with salt and pepper, coats with flour and browns it, on all sides equally. She prepares the pot and puts it on the stove. She glances sideways at Charles, who’s slowly and methodically dealing with the carrots. She lets out a puff of air. If he keeps this pace, she’ll have the meat ready and he still won’t be done. She decreases the temperature, deciding to take her time.
“I felt it,” she says quietly.
He halves the carrot with an ideally straight line. Perfectionists should never be allowed into kitchen, Ruth thinks.
“Your nightmare.” Charles stills. “It woke me up yesterday.”
“I’m sorry,” he says quickly.
Ruth shakes her head. Some things he’ll never learn.
“Nothing happened.” She turns back to the counter, puts there rosemary and bay leaves. “I know that he frustrates you, but don’t be hard on him.” Charles snorts. “He’s been through a lot and positive emotions confuse him.”
“You went through a lot too.”
His aura turns yellow and Charles pouts, jealous of the open affection she has for Joseph, of all the easy smiles that are given, not won with a hardship. She turns to him, takes the carrots and dumps them in the pot. She adds tomato paste. Of course, she thinks, he’d say that. But for everything that was alike about Erik and her, there were many differences too.
“It’s not the same, Charlie,” she says, using the pet name on purpose. “I was lucky, because Gordon found me. He took me in, made sure that I didn’t end up bitter and angry.” She stirs in the pot. “He reminded me very quickly that I still knew how to be happy, how to laugh, how to love. I’ve had him for twenty years, while Erik thought he was alone, in every sense of the word.” She puts the meat into the pot and transfers it into an oven. “You are his Gordon, Charles. But don’t forget that he’s known you for three years. Only three years.”
She sets the timer and moves to the side, to lean against the counter and look at Charles.
“And besides,” she continues, “he’s never been interested in grand gestures. Always about the tiny, simple things.”
She takes a step closer to Charles, bends and undoes the top button of his shirt. It’s something she noticed during their chess game, when he leaned over the board. Charles clears his throat.
“What are you doing?”
From under the shirt, she takes out a gold chainlet with a delicate ring attached to it. She smiles.
“He gave it to you.”
It’s not a question, it’s a statement, but Charles nods anyway.
“After he came back to Westchester. Just… gave it to me.” He swallows. “It’s yours, isn’t it?”
She straightens and lets go of the chainlet. It drops softly on Charles’ collarbone. Charles frowns.
“But you used to wear it, if I recall properly…”
“I did,” she admits, “but it’s not mine. It’s our mother’s engagement ring.” Charles’ eyes widen. He didn’t know and Ruth laughs at that. “You might want to argue, but I think this is the most important and precious thing in Erik’s possession. And he just gave it to you.”
Charles’ hand travels to the chainlet and he touches the ring with trembling fingers. There’s a wistful expression on his face, as if everything that happened recently suddenly gained a whole new meaning for him. Ruth folds her arms.
“It’s very telling, don’t you think?”
Gordon doesn’t let them sleep long on the Christmas morning; he wakes them up well before seven, with the sound of a whistle and a loud “merry Christmas, kids!”. Ruth groans and tries to cover her head with a pillow, but Joseph snatches it and throws away. Judging by Raven’s grunt, the pillow hits her right in the face.
“Time for presents!” Gordon says cheerfully and brings a large cardboard box full of packages wrapped in colourful paper.
“But we dooo-,“ Raven yawns, “-oon’t have anything for you.”
Gordon rolls his eyes and throws her a small box. She catches it and regards it curiously.
“If I was so desperate for presents,” Gordon tells her, “I would go and buy them myself, dear child.” He grins. “This is about you, our guests! Go on, open!”
Raven grins back at him and tears the paper. It’s a simple, cube-shaped box from jeweller’s, and she opens it with breath withheld.
“Wow,” she says as she takes out a silver raven-shaped pendant. “This is amazing. Very subtle,” she winks at Gordon, “but still amazing.”
“Glad you like it.” Gordon takes out another package. This one is big and looks heavy and Ruth knows for whom it is. “Grumpy, this is yours.”
Erik looks taken aback, but he leans forward, reaches out and takes the package from Gordon, who takes advantage of their proximity and ruffles Erik’s hair. Erik bows his head and slowly unwraps the present. Ruth puts her arms around her knees and watches him closely. Erik takes a deep breath when he sees the hardcover book on modern architecture that she chose for him. But it’s not all and Ruth is also surprised when she sees a thick sketchbook and a set of forty pencils, two for each point at the hardness scale. Everything looks very professional and Ruth wonders if Gordon had to look for an arts shop. It’s very sweet of him to put effort in making the presents special, and Ruth wants to get up, run to Gordon and wrap her hands around him, and never let him go.
“Thank you,” Erik stutters and Gordon laughs.
“Happy winter solstice, kid.”
Joseph — always the geek — gets a newly published science-fiction novel that was recommended to Ruth, Dune. He positively squeaks when he sees the brownish cover, then leans over and kisses Ruth. Raven giggles and Ruth has to look around to find out what amused her. It’s Erik and Gordon, both wearing expressions of complete disgust on their faces. For once they actually agree on something.
“And the last one for Charles.” Gordon hands him a rectangular, black box. Charles takes it, opens and stares at the contents. Then he stares some more and his brows raise. There’s a flush working up it’s way on his neck. Ruth shifts uncomfortably.
“It’s nothing really fancy,” she explains quickly. “But I gave one to Joseph when he got his first teaching position too. I don’t know, there’s something about serious professors owning a pen with their name engraved.”
And now Charles blushes a deep, embarrassed red. Ruth frowns. Something is very off.
“That’s… lovely,” Charles manages to mutter and tries to close the box, but Raven snatches it from him before he does. His blush deepens when his sister looks inside the box.
“Well, this is certainly…” Raven trails off and starts laughing. “Oh holy cow,” she says and wipes the tears off. “This is brilliant.”
Raven throws the box to Joseph, whose reaction is similar to Raven’s. He’s laughing so hard that he has trouble sitting upright.
“Sweet Jesus.” He hands the box to Ruth. “This. Perfection. Was it your idea?”
Ruth peeks inside the box. Closes it. Opens again and looks inside once more, but nothing’s changed. She closes the box, sighs, closes her eyes.
“Gordon,” she says warily. Gordon chuckles.
“What? I thought it would fit.”
Someone takes the box from her and Ruth opens her eyes. Erik frowns when he looks at the elegant fountain pen inside, then gapes mutely as it dawns on him what exactly has been done to this seemingly innocent gift. He clears his throat, and Ruth turns her head and mouths “sorry” to Charles, who tries to hide his red face in his pillow.
“I can see the appeal,” Erik states finally.
Charles raises his head and looks at Erik, as if trying to judge if his friend finally lost the last shreds of sanity he had. And Erik grins, his smile full of teeth (like Mum’s, Ruth thinks), and he hands the box to Charles, who takes it and smiles back uncertainly, sheepishly. If their fingers touch for longer than necessary, no one says a word about it.
Gordon hands Charles an old newspaper. Charles takes out the pen and presses it to the newspaper to try it out, to check how much pressure he needs to apply, how it fits his hand. It’s a beautiful piece of stainless steel, and Charles caresses it with his thumb. (Somewhere on Ruth’s right, Erik smacks his lips.) Charles holds it delicately so that everyone can see the Charles F. Lehnsherr engraved in an elegant cursive on it.
After breakfast Gordon reminds them of the theme of the day.
“It’s the last day of Pancha Ganapati,” he says and glares when Erik murmurs something akin to finally. “Today is about bringing love and harmony to the world. But none of us is Hindu, so we’ll skip the Ganesha part.” He gives them a serious look. “Today is about sharing love with those you care for. Be nice to each other, help each other out. And most importantly, tell at least one person that you love them.”
Joseph immediately turns to Ruth.
“I love you,” he tells her. “I love you, I love you, and I could go on like this for the whole day.”
She puts a hand on his cheek and tilts his head forward.
“I love you too,” she murmurs and kisses him.
It’s languid and chaste, just a peck of lips, but it’s enough to make her feel like the luckiest girl alive. When they part, she looks at Charles, who’s trying — and failing — not to look envious. Just three years, she directs at him and he overhears the thought. She bites down on her lip nevertheless. This day is not going to be difficult for Gordon, Joseph and herself, even Raven is going to have a great time stalking Charles and professing her undying, sisterly love for him. But Charles and Erik… Well. Charles will find his footing — even if it’s unlikely that he’ll get what he truly wants — and Erik will be like a fish out of water.
She thinks that, all things considered, Gordon should have given up on this particular tradition this year.
Ruth says the blessings quietly and lights seven candles. There’s a commotion in the dining room; Raven and Joseph joke merrily as they set up the crockery for the dinner, while Gordon brings in the dishes that Erik was tasked with keeping warm. It’s a true holiday feast that this house hasn’t seen before. There are the Hanukkah latkes again, Scottish salmon, traditional English turkey with cranberries, Polish borscht, German Kase Kuchen and silly American frosted sugar cookies that Raven managed to make around noon. There’s something for everyone, and it comes together perfectly as things under Gordon’s touch always do. This is them reaching a perfect harmony.
When they finally fit themselves by the table, Gordon reaches and takes Ruth’s hand. It’s a sign that Charles, Raven and Joseph recognize, having already spent holiday at the Phillips’. Joseph takes Ruth’s right hand and Raven’s left, Raven squeezes Charles’ left and Charles offers his right to a baffled Erik.
“You have to hold hands with us,” Gordon says moodily.
Erik narrows his eyes.
“Well, tough.” Gordon extends his left hand. “So is Ruth. Joe is a protestant, Raven and Charles are atheists and for all you know and care, I could be a Muslim.”
“Born and raised a Roman Catholic. Then I got better.” Gordon waves his hand dismissively. “This isn’t about faith, boy. It’s about being together. It’s about understanding and belonging, and sharing what’s good about life with each other. It’s a family tradition, Erik, and whether you like it or not, you are part of this family.”
Erik looks ready to say something more, but Ruth kicks him in the shin under the table. They glare at each other, before Charles says his name quietly and Erik surrenders. He takes Charles’ hand and then lets Gordon take his right.
“A lot happened during this past year,” Gordon says softly but audibly. “I’d like you to think about one good thing that you are grateful for, one good thing that keeps you going and is the reason you get up everyday.”
They all close their eyes, but then Joseph rearranges her hand in his and Ruth’s eyes snap open. She looks around the table. Joseph is frowning slightly and he and Raven battle with their thumbs. Charles is smiling softly and strokes the back of Raven’s hand gently. Erik… Erik keeps his eyes tightly closed and his jaw clenched and he squeezes Charles’ hand hard enough to break bones. There’s a tear rolling down his cheek, but he doesn’t seem to notice it. And next to Erik is Gordon, her wonderful Gordon, who opens one eye at the exact same moment when she looks at him, and he winks.
There are a lot of hurt feelings between them, between all of them, and there’s blood, blood spilled and blood lost, wounds on the inside and on the outside that will take time to heal properly. But still. This, thinks Ruth. This is what she’s grateful for. A family, her family. Whole and together and here. We’re of one blood (even if it’s only metaphorical), Ruth thinks, bound together across time, in life and in death and forever.
“Before we let go,” Gordon starts, “I’d like to say that the biggest piece of the cake is mine.”
Joseph and Raven laugh and they soon start talking, loudly and fast. Erik doesn’t let go of Charles’ hand and Charles uses the other one to wipe the tear off Erik’s cheek. Erik catches his other hand too, brings them together and kisses the knuckles. There’s a determined expression on his face, like he just made an important decision, and he leans closer to Charles and whispers something into his ear. Charles moves away from him, his eyes all wide, but then he smiles, honest to God smiles, and that dark edge is finally, miraculously gone.
Told you, Ruth thinks at Charles. Simple things.
Charles’ smile gets even wider and he lets Erik intertwine their fingers.
Joseph, she hears Charles’ voice in her mind. He wants to propose to you on New Year’s Eve.
About damn time.
Charles chuckles and Raven frowns, but then she shakes her head and decides that whatever made him laugh is probably not worth prying into.
“There’s still one thing to eat,” announces Gordon and gets up. He goes to the kitchen and comes back with a middle-sized bowl. “I made it all on my own, so apologies if it’s not edible.”
Everyone peeks inside, but only Erik and Ruth recognize the dish. Ruth swallows and looks at Gordon. He did it, she used to joke about it when she was younger, and he actually, finally did it.
“What is that?” asks Raven.
“It’s called kutia,” Gordon replies with a self-satisfied smile. “It’s made of wheat seeds and a dash of pasta, poppy seeds and sugar and honey, nuts and raisins and milk, and I honestly don’t know how it tastes.”
“It’s sweet,” Erik adds.
Raven shrugs and puts some on her plate. She takes a bite, chews and swallows.
“Not that sweet,” she judges.
Gordon tastes it as well.
“Oh bugger,” he says. “I think I salted the pasta.”