"Emma, darling," said Charles, tracking a tall, unfamiliar shape as it prowled across the far side of the room, visible between bodies the way a tiger might be through a jungle screen. "Who is that strange man?"
Emma, who knew everyone, followed his line of sight through the crowd. "Which one? The one dressed as Queen Victoria, or the one wearing the tutu?"
"The one who isn't dressed as anything," said Charles, for the man in question was wearing only a perfectly normal tuxedo, which amongst the costumed masses made him the strangest sight of the party. Emma was an icicle, in floor-length white satin with diamonds and glitter dust everywhere that fabric wasn't. Dressed as Clara Bow and currently away retrieving champagne, Raven had made an attempt at turning Charles into Rudolph Valentino, but he was too fair and Raven's efforts with the cosmetics had made him neither dashing nor mysterious, only scandalous.
Emma's cool blue eyes picked out the lean figure. "Oh, that one. That's Erik Lehnsherr."
"Erik Lehnsherr," Emma said, leaning in closer to be heard over the band. "That's Erik with a k, and Lehnsherr with who-knows-what. You won't know him. He's very new. Cambridge, not Oxford. Not even British. German, I believe."
"How barbaric," said Charles, teasing.
Emma tossed her head, disdainful. "Barbaric's right, honey; he writes for the papers."
"Naughty boy," said Charles, rather absently, watching Erik Lehnsherr watch him through the crowds.
When Charles finally met Erik Lehnsherr for the first time, he was dressed as Bacchus. That is to say, Charles was dressed as Bacchus, in a chiton sewn from a bedsheet and an animal skin which had previously adorned the floor of the spare bedroom at his step-father's flat. Lehnsherr was wearing his suit and an expression somewhere between amusement and annoyance, probably due to the glass of champagne which Charles had just spilled over the pair of them and, more importantly, Lehnsherr's notebook.
"My dear fellow, how awful of me," said Charles, dabbing ineffectually at Lehnsherr's jacket and notebook with the hem of his cloak, which ended only with ruined velvet and irreparably smudged ink. Which might not have been so terrible in terms of matters such as the reputation of everyone at the party, but was still a rather brutal social faux pas.
"That's quite alright," said Lehnsherr. With a sharp smile that suited his features, he produced another notebook from his jacket. "I always carry a spare."
"Oh, how very -" Charles cast about through the slight fog of champagne for a suitable adjective. "How very German of you."
There was something intriguingly dangerous about the ever-so-slight incline of Lehnsherr's head towards Charles when he said, simply, "Quite."
He was already writing by the time Charles went back to the bar for more champagne.
"That was terribly unfair of you," said Charles, a week later, finding Lehnsherr lurking against the salon wall. Actually, he thought, lurking was a misnomer; it implied furtiveness. Lehnsherr's lean figure was perfectly at ease as he brazenly observed and catalogued London's brightest young things.
"Really?" Lehnsherr said, without looking up. "I thought it rather a successful column. And you did make it so easy."
"Historical precedent aside, your aspersions cast upon my relationship with alcohol went unappreciated," said Charles. He held out a glass of champagne to Lehnsherr. "Here."
Lehnsherr looked up from his notebook for a long, sceptical look directed first at Charles's face, then at the offered glass of champagne, then back at Charles.
"Thank you," he said at last. "But I believe arsenic ruins the taste."
"Don't be a bore," said Charles. "It's apology-champagne, to replace that which went so cruelly to waste last time we met. I felt awful about it."
"I'm surprised you remembered," said Lehnsherr, but he took the offered glass, cupping its shallow bowl unfashionably with a broad, long-fingered hand.
"Well," Charles admitted, with a smile. "My sister reminded me in the morning, and then I can assure you I felt the proper amount of guilt."
He held out his own glass in an invitation to toast.
"You're quite mad," Lehnsherr told him, but their glasses clinked together all the same with a cheerful sound, and in the morning edition Charles got a kinder-than-usual line.
"Your sister is blue," said Erik Lehnsherr, without ceremony, joining Charles at the balustrade for a better view over the dancing couples below.
"She is indeed, quite blue," said Charles, who himself had gold-dust in his hair. If he hadn't already been watching Raven he would have been able to pick her out easily, with her dyed skin and short scarlet crop. The bathroom at the flat - and, indeed, Raven herself - might never be a normal colour again.
"And the young man permanently attached to her side," Erik said, in his fishing-for-information voice, the one that Charles habitually ignored.
"I often wonder how a person ends up in such a vulgar business," he said, a little irritably.
Erik's hands, braced before him on the ivy-twined balustrade, went suddenly white at the knuckles. When Charles ventured a look at his face his jaw was set, his eyes fixed down unseeing and bright with anger on the oblivious dancers.
"My friend," Charles began, inelegantly, being already a little drunk. He put a hand on Erik's forearm, which Erik endured perhaps only because to shake him off might have caused a scene.
"Some of us must make our own way in this world," said Erik, quite coolly, but with a vicious undercurrent.
Charles became aware that his hand was still resting on Erik's arm, which felt about as safe as petting a tiger. But safety was boring. Erik was fascinating. Charles squeezed Erik's arm in a drunken, clumsy apology.
"The young man is Doctor Henry McCoy," he said, watching the planes of Erik's clean, unmoving profile. He might have been carved by a Greek master. "He and I were at Oxford together. He's an old friend of the family. We met him in New York, years ago."
The set of Erik's jaw softened, minutely. Charles smiled in something like relief.
"Come and drink absinthe until I'm forgiven," he said, and Erik allowed himself to be drawn away.
"I wish you wouldn't encourage him," Emma sighed, leaning close to her reflection in the hall mirror to adjust a curl under her spangled headband. "That column of his is too awful to speak of."
"Really, Emma, everyone knows that sort of thing's rubbish," said Charles. He tugged on the upturned ends of his false moustache to sharpen the points. "Nobody believes what's in those columns, least of all the people who write them. Anyway, I rather like him."
"Charles likes everyone," said Raven, brushing into the room accompanied by the rattle of intricate beadwork on her dress.
"It's his great failing," Emma agreed.
It wasn't until the summer party, the weekend retreat to Emma Frost's country house, that Charles fully understood the trouble he was in. He'd only himself to blame, of course, having been the one to persuade Emma to extend Erik the invitation, and the one to persuade Erik to accept it.
"Shaw hates country party stories," said Erik. "He doesn't believe that anything worth reading about happens outside London."
"And he's right," said Charles. "But if you come, Emma will give you a story about Lord Azazel, you know, the exiled Russian who thinks he's the devil. He doesn't read the papers, and wouldn't care if he did."
And so Erik had agreed to come, and Charles was ruined.
But for his defence, your honour, he would submit that a saint would have found it difficult to be unmoved by the sight of Erik Lehnsherr that weekend, all exposed forearms bronzed in the midsummer sun and the long tempting stretch of his neck exposed in a vee of unbuttoned collar as they all reclined in an indolent group on the lawn, picnic things discarded around them as they became slowly drunk on chilled champagne.
"You're uncharacteristically quiet, Charles," Erik said, in the car on the way back to London.
"Too much sun," said Charles, who was trying to ignore the way that Erik's arm brushed against his.
"Too much something," Raven said, with a knowing look over her shoulder that made the car swerve dangerously.
"The road, darling," Emma warned, miserable behind her dark glasses.
Back in London, Charles moped. Impossible love was a terrible bore.
"Don't expect indulgence from me," Raven told him. "If you're stupid enough to fall for a society columnist, you deserve all the pain you get."
"Raven, darling, you brute," said Charles, muffled against his pillows. "I'm in despair."
"Then a party's just what you need," said Raven, remorselessly hauling him upright with surprising strength for such a slender girl. "You need champagne and music and merciless teasing by Emma Frost."
"He will be there," Charles complained, even as he was being marched toward his wardrobe, reflecting how thankless it was to have an unfeeling sister.
"It's a masked party," Raven countered. "See? It's perfect. Now put your tuxedo on. We're young once in our lives, Charles, and I won't let you waste it pining for gossip columnists, no matter how lovely their arms might be."
Champagne was a drink for the cheerful. Charles drank martinis and sulked.
He took himself off to the library for a spot of relief from the relentless energy and raucus music of the main room, but hadn't bargained on finding Erik at the far end of the room, speaking softly into the receiver of a telephone that sat on the oak desk of the house's owner, whoever that was, the constant parade of parties made it impossible to tell.
"So sorry to disturb," Charles muttered, and turned to leave, but found himself rooted to the spot when Erik held up a hand, palm out: stop right there. The steel-coloured mask he'd been wearing dangled loosely from his wrist. Charles could have left anyway, of course, only it seemed somehow impossible.
"'Mr Xavier, heir to the Westchester estate, proved an elusive figure throughout the evening, for once courting anonymity rather than infamy'," Erik said deliberately into the receiver, watching Charles all the while. "Yes, that's it. Goodnight."
Erik replaced the receiver carefully and tucked his notebook into his jacket's inner pocket. "You've been avoiding me."
"I didn't recognise you costumed," Charles said, though it was a lie; he realised now that he would have recognised Erik from the lines of his body or the shape of his mouth, because he had been unknowingly cataloguing these things for months.
"Masks have their uses," said Erik, rounding the desk. "And you are evading my question."
Charles affected defiance. "Just because I haven't sought you out doesn't mean I've been avoiding you."
"With you, it might as well," said Erik, still advancing. "You also missed two parties this week. I half-thought you might be dead."
"Well, as you see, I'm living," said Charles. His back was against a book-case now, and Erik was still prowling towards him with all the elegant menace of a jungle cat. "And I really ought to be getting back to the party, so if you'll just -"
"I think not," said Erik, reaching him at last, herding him back to be pinned with arms bracketing his shoulders.
"Erik, really," said Charles, heart beating a syncopated percussion against his ribs. He swallowed. The soft gold light from the desk lamp cast Erik's face in dramatic planes of shadow. "This is very unsporting."
"Is it," said Erik.
Charles managed, barely, to nod. "Terribly."
"Let's see what you make of this, then," said Erik, and kissed him.
The night was clear and beautiful, and music and laughter floated along with Charles across the lawn to where Erik was waiting for him, idly smoking a cigarette and observing the few people taking the air.
"Hello," said Charles, when he reached him, going up on tiptoe to press their mouths together in reckless greeting. He leaned back, grinning, feeling a bit like the bubbles in champagne. Raven had made him dance with her, something he agreed to only when he had the giddy madness of the full moon in his blood, or was in love.
Erik smiled, and indulgently wiped away a smudge of lipstick from Charles's cheek with his free hand, fingertips lingering. "Hadn't you better be a little more discreet, Mr Xavier?"
"Hadn't I, Mr Lehnsherr," said Charles, leaning a little closer. Erik smelled like hedonism, all champagne and cigarette smoke, and something else undefinable and not yet familiar enough that made Charles want to lean his cheek against Erik's shoulder for a better sniff.
Erik regarded him with something between fondness and exasperation. "And the lovely Miss Xavier?"
"Dear me," said Charles. "Am I so uninteresting?"
"Perhaps our readers are becoming rather used to your antics," said Erik, giving the final word all the emphasis it was due. He took another drag of his cigarette.
"Well then," said Charles. He reached up and plucked the cigarette from between Erik's lips. "I suppose I shall have to invent new ways to be scandalous."