Chapter 1: Prologue
Let us set the scene. There are two women sitting in a bar, the sort of small but posh bar where half the clientele sits to be seen and the other half sits not to be seen. Our two women are amongst the latter half, and with good reason - if they were to be seen together it would cause a public scandal, if for no other reason than the fact that in the public eye they appear to hate each other.
Emma Frost sits at one side of the table, known for keeping a cool head in any situation and manipulating anyone into giving her what she wants. Her brother has been known to say in public that she is a "stone cold bitch and not to be trusted". On the other side, sits Raven Xavier - a mess of a name if ever there was one - known for showing everyone what they want to see and never staying the same for more than a week. Her brother has been known to say in public that he is “more surprised on the days when she doesn't come home with a new tattoo or piercing than the days when she does".
Our two women sit on opposite sides of a table, playing a game. It started when they were young, as snarky comments made sitting on the opposite sides of a bed, and then the slowly drawn breath as Emma, with eyes constantly rolling, painted Raven's nails for her - or whatever she eventually asked for that day. Later, it turned into a public snip-fest, to quote Raven's brother, with each thinly veiling compliments and insults together. Emma is accosted by a drunk man at a party, Raven is quoted as saying "if she didn't show off so much skin, people would be less likely to fall at her feet". Raven Xavier debuts whole new hairstyle, commenters wonder where she gets the money for it all, Emma quoted as saying "if I had a body like hers I'd change it all the time too". Emma has a brother with a temper, and drunk men are dumped at hospital doors all the time; the answer is, of course, her brother Charles.
They sit in a booth that is designed for the sole purpose of expensive privacy. You can see out, your bodyguard, should you have one, can see everything that goes on, but not one word passes beyond its walls. This is the sort of booth where, should you wish to have an affair with a rich woman, you romance her while nobody sees you. The sort of booth where, if you wish to conduct a business deal not suited to office buildings, each side's guards may guard to their content. The sort of booth where, if you wish to play a game with the prodigal daughter of the family considered your worst enemy by many - including those families - you may escape the notice of anyone, especially your brothers.
The game is, of course, conducted in hushed tones, smiles, movements of the legs and arm and eyes that track bodies expertly. It is unclear who wins - the rules change each time.
Emma Frost, in her second most revealing dress with a neckline nearly at her waist, leans forward onto the table, takes a sip of her drink, smiles, looks Raven Xavier in the eye, and says, "so tell me all about Charles' new paramour".
To her credit, Raven Xavier doesn't bat an eyelash.
"He's awful! Whenever Charles comes home he's all "Edward this and Edward that".
Emma raises an eyebrow.
"A fake name of course, it's all hush hush, he knows better than public scandal, at least. You know Charles, he can lie to anyone but me. But I let him have his secrets - when it comes out, I want to be as surprised as anyone. But honestly, when he's home it’s all he talks about, and he spends most of his time not at home anyway. Edward takes him out - secretly, of course - they buy tickets to the same show, arrive at different times and different entrances, and probably spend the entire show sexting or something."
At this, Emma gives a genuine laugh, which makes Raven smile in return.
"Charles! Sexting! Now that's something I never want to imagine about the boy I used to babysit!"
"Imagine it's your brother! Imagine Erik sexting! God, imagine."
"I think he'd be rather bad at it. I feel bad for the man he tries to woo. But continue - he's not at home?"
"Rarely, and when he is he's either hungover or drunk. Half the time I think he and his paramour don't even like each other, given how much he drinks before he sees him. Eh, I don't wonder much. He'll sort it out, he always does. I think there's few people Charles could still fuck that would raise eyebrows. How's Erik doing, speaking of?"
Emma laughs at this again - it was a thing, once, a rumour, quickly quashed, by Emma and Raven no less.
"Well, he's Erik. He's never at home either, and when he is it's all slammed doors and small-talk. Were it not Erik, I'd think he's having an affair, but you know Erik - he's never secretive about his love. No, I don't know what I think about him. He does well, he helps the family, he scares off drunk men and pins dresses together when they tear. He may hate it, but he plays the game well."
"Lord, I don't miss that. You know Uncle Henry took over when father died? He's working on getting me back - it's failing, of course. I only keep the name for tax purposes, and I don't intend to let what's happened to Charles happen to me. I told Henry to keep him on the public line, and I should hope he's doing it. Charles has no head for business or violence. He likes his life simple and expensive, and he'll get it simple and expensive."
"Not like you, I hear?”
"It was hardly a fight! More like, an altercation, a brief disagreement. She was being a bitch about Charles, I had to do it. Plus, she publicly endorsed your new line, anything to keep appearances up."
"How about down?"
"That was terrible and you know it, you've had more than enough drinks and you know it! To bed with you, lest you end up like Charles."
"I should think I'd like to be just like Charles - drunk and in bed, with a secretive lover."
"I think you're losing the game."
"I think the loser gives the first moan."
"Ah, definitely losing then."
"Speaking of Charles-"
"Where is he? What did you tell him?"
"He doesn't care. He's seeing some secret cinema thing tonight, told me he'd be away the whole night, so clearly he's meeting with 'Edward' afterwards."
"How odd, Erik said the same thing - not Edward, of course. I wonder if they'll meet."
"I hope not, I wanted to witness that. He has an interest in these things then?"
"The more obscure the better. Did you hear of the Impromptu Art thing last month?"
"Of course, Charles made it down, I couldn't."
"Charles and Erik, at a small, intimate, secretive show, in a room of apparently 10 people, and not a single news article?"
"Charles wouldn't pay them off."
"Charles rarely home, often hungover or drunk; Erik much the same, often. You said Edward often pays for him?"
"Erik's finances have been...odd...recently...."
"It can't be."
"Well look at us."
"They were ever so close, before."
"It would make sense."
"He's been keeping many more secrets than usual."
"It can't be!"
Game forgotten, conversation dissolves, facts and memories dredged up of two brothers' lives, while the brothers in question fall onto a bed, memorising and re-memorising the others' skin.
Not much later, two sisters grab their phones out of their bags, determined to fake their brothers out. Two brother relax onto a bed, hauling in breaths and tracing skin with fingernails.
Two phones chime out at the same time, two texts.
"Is Edward code for Erik? Just a curious sister."
"Say, brother dearest, been treating a man to wine, a show and a good night in recently? Recently and often? A man named Charles, by any chance?"
It's a gamble. From the look of horror on two brothers' faces, it's a good gamble.
Chapter 2: [Coda 1] See my face like a heart attack
Let us look back in time to two houses, two families, two long gardens, and the four children who played in them.
It's like nothing changed, except everything changed.
Title taken from 'Me' by The 1975.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Let us look back in time to two houses, two families, two long gardens, and the four children who played in them.
Emma remembers the days of her childhood semi-fuzzily, with memory generally marred by time or nostalgia. She remembers the house, though, and the garden. She was born in that house, from a mother who wanted a natural, comfortable birth, and a father willing to pay anything to let her have it. She remembers the house before Erik came along, remembers it as an austere, white world that she, often detached and rarely childlike, hardly changed at all.
She remembers toddling out into the garden, and all the way down the long, long lawn, further than she'd ever been allowed to go before, and at the bottom there was a fence, and in that fence there was a hole, and she looked through the hole and on the other side was a boy, happily playing in the mud at the bottom of his garden. She remembers seeing the woman she thought was his mother come down to pick him up, and ducking behind the fence to remain unseen. She remembers hearing her mother call her back and tell her off for getting a speck of dust on her shoes. She never went down there again, but occasionally, when the garden was quiet, she could hear another child's voice on the other side of the fence.
It wasn't long after that that her mother walked out of the door into a different life, and her father brought a string of other women into Emma’s. Usually, they left not long after they came, but one stayed. And it wasn't long after that that another child's voice came into her own home, as Erik came screaming and wailing into the world. He was, according to his mother, a difficult birth, a difficult baby and a difficult child. Unlike Emma, who inherited her mother's innate sense of disconnection with the rest of the world and her father’s intense fascination with the way it worked, Erik had inherited his mother's fierceness and his father's stubbornness, and he exercised in every way he could. Their father retreated into the upstairs of the house, a cohort of nannies took care of Erik and left Emma to her ways, and his mother left not long after that.
A string of girlfriends came in and out, but the fleet of nannies were the ones who raised the children, and Emma remembers staring enviously at the fence at the back of the garden and the loving mother she imagined living on the other side. As she later learned, what was in fact happening on the other side was a string of affairs, an unwanted younger sister, and a mother who ran away from the real world into a drugged one.
(She remembers a teen Charles saying that the grass was always greener on the other side, and that they both agreed they'd rather have neither of their lives.)
Raven, like Erik, was a firebrand. Whereas Charles was innocent and happy to do as instructed, and Emma placid and happy to amuse herself, Erik and Raven both delighted in making messes and destroying things. Emma abhorred it, Charles indulged it, a fleet of nannies cleaned up.
Unsurprisingly, it was Raven who brought down the fence. It happened with a sudden crash and boom. Emma, sitting on the patio, at the wise old age of 9, reading, looked up in surprise to see a worried looking 7 year old Charles, a happy looking 3 year old Raven, and looked around to see an intrigued looking 5 year old Erik. Erik and Raven took one look at each other, and Erik raced down the garden to play with this new stranger. Emma recognised Charles as the boy she'd once seen on the other side of the fence, and walked down rather slower than Erik, to make sure that they were all okay.
She remembers their first conversation well.
'Where's your mom?'
'No, she's there behind you.'
'That's not mommy! That's Calla, she looks after me. Where's yours?'
'I don't know. Not home. The Nannies look after us.'
'That's what dad calls them.'
And then they were distracted by two loud cries filling the air, as both Raven and Erik managed to hurt themselves at the same time. Two nannies ran out from respective gardens, scooped up two children, apologised in general and lead four kids back to their respective homes. They were separated, but from that day on they were inseparable.
Later, after dinner, Emma's dad called her into his study and asked her about the fence. She told him in stunted, swift words, and then asked him if they could keep it down for a bit. He agreed, mostly because they would need to negotiate the repairs with the family on the other side, and the next evening she came to his study and said simply, 'They're called Raven and Charles, and Charles' aunt named Raven which is why it's such a weird name, and they don't really know any other kids, and Charles' dad has a really big collection of books but he’s not usually allowed in, and Raven's energetic and tires him out, and he'd like to try our deckchairs, but I wasn't sure about letting him in so we watched the babies at the end of the gardens but they really want to come over. Can they?'
The dust that rises when fences fall could also be called magical friendship dust. Instead of a fence, they installed a door, and the kids could all get in and out as they pleased (with a guardian’s permission). At first it was Raven-Erik Charles-Emma and then Emma and Charles got older and boys/girls had cooties, and it was Raven-Erik, Charles, Emma, and then Raven got a bit older and started being interested in girl stuff and Erik got a bit older and started being able to get Charles to play along with him, and then it became Charles-Erik Raven-Emma.
There were stages, as there always were with friendships. But other kids were exhausting, whereas Charles and Raven were not, and Charles would always be there with friendly, clever eyes and Raven would always be there with her questions and her grumbles about not yet being old enough.
'Old enough for what?' Emma would always ask, and 'old enough for everything!' Raven would always reply.
In time, they moved from gardens to homes, in time, Raven and Emma would move from vague friendship to vague competition, sitting on opposite sides of beds while Raven read and Emma painted her nails, and then the same side of the bed as Raven grudgingly let Emma paint hers too. Meanwhile the boys, one room over, moved endlessly from game to game, never able to find something that satisfied Charles' imagination and Erik's restlessness.
Over time, Emma's father started teaching her more about the family business and the running thereof, starting teaching her how to be his prodigal daughter and giving her the job of leashing her wayward brother in as much as she could. Over time, Charles' father exchanged bottles for paperwork, as he pushed it across the table to Charles, and his eyebrows furrowed as he tried to understand what the rows of numbers meant. Over time, the rules set in place for Erik tightened, and the more he fought against them the less patience Emma had, until she drove a permanent wedge between them because she didn't understand why he wouldn't just listen. Over time, Raven remained the firebrand she was, didn't listen to mother nor father nor brother nor nanny nor Emma nor Erik nor anyone else. She dyed her hair, pierced her nose in a friend's bathroom, drew out tattoos on her skin and often ran screaming from her house into the bottom of the Frost-Lehnsherrs' garden.
Over time, Emma discovered her talent of bending people to her will, Charles discovered his of being able to work out what people were trying to say without their words (willingly or not), Raven discovered hers of being easily able (if unwilling) to change herself as people wanted to see her, and Erik his of being hard as nails and unwilling to listen to anyone at all.
Charles and Erik remained seducible, Emma and Erik remained competitive, Erik and Raven remained incorrigible, Raven and Charles remained playful,Charles and Emma remained clever,
and Emma and Raven remained that elusive mystery...girls.
But the board was set, their roles were laid out for them, and eventually even Raven stopped coming through the door to hide in their garden. Emma stuck in the study, learning whatever her father thought she ought to know, Charles holed up in the library, using studying as an excuse to stay away from responsibilities, Erik shut up in his room, ignoring the world and whatever it had to say to him, and Raven hiding in her other friends' houses as they told her that her family was awful and she had to run away.
She did so, three times. The first time, Charles brought her back; the second time, Emma; the third time, the police. On the way back, she tried to tell them that her dad was drunk and her mom stoned and she was raised by nannies and she wasn't allowed other friends until she accidentally broke through the fence at the bottom of the garden and all she wanted was to not be holed up in that shitty house, and they told her to stop complaining and enjoy her rich life.
Emma knows this, because they dropped her off at the wrong house, and she let Raven use her shower and change into some of her clothes, and helped her cut her hair short and deal with an infected cartilage piercing. At the end of the night, four days missing, she returned her home with a well-spun lie, and Raven grudgingly agreed to be her partner in crime.
Meanwhile, Erik and Charles, she assumes, got up to equally messed up and complicated hijinks. Erik certainly never told her, and if Charles told Raven she never told Emma.
She knows, now, that Erik loves Charles. She knows this in the same way that she knows he hates their parents, because he doesn't try to hide it, and she wonders constantly where he learned to love like that. Certainly not the same place as her - Raven is pretty, but there is the tangled mess of childhood between them, and a few nights in a hotel does not a relationship make. Besides, Raven is constantly chasing skirt, and Emma has a front to maintain. She's never felt interest in another woman apart from Raven, and that interest is one half sexual and one half platonic; she assumes Raven is the same. But Erik and Charles...they love each other. Whatever messed up, tangled, childhood friendship sits between them, it doesn't matter the way her and Raven's does, and they love each other.
At 18, Emma went off to a different state for four years to get a degree. Halfway through, she heard that Charles had moved to England to get his. Erik stayed at home, unsure of his future, and when Emma graduated she moved to the West Coast for a year, before Erik left to rove the States and she was summoned home. Not long after, Raven ran away to England to join Charles, and she stood in the garden by herself. No point having a big family house with no family in it - her father sold it and moved to his own penthouse. She leased a flat a few blocks away, kept a spare room for Erik whenever he came home, and when eventually Raven and Charles came back, it was to a summons to the old family house.
It's symbolic. You grow up, you move away, you come home, your house is sold, as is your back neighbours’. No more joined garden, no more afternoons in the sun or safe houses. Time passes. Raven leaves the family, moves to the city. Charles has his first mental break, joins her. The Frost-Lehnsherrs join the Xaviers' circles, they see each other sometimes, presumably Charles and Erik start their courtship.
Raven, just like when she was 3, knocks the proverbial fence down, by stepping on Emma's dress one time. They get drunk together after a party for old time's’ sake, and while they leave under the pretense of going back the same way, they in fact go back to the same flat. They pick up their game a few steps ahead of where they put it down, and meanwhile, unseen, Erik and Charles are fucking like bunnies.
Meanwhile, their fathers and uncles and business partners compete from opposing skyscrapers, the paparazzi comments on their every move, Emma still tells Erik off when he gets too drunk and fucks up, and Charles still fondly indulges Raven's every odd desire.
It's like nothing changed, except everything changed.
If you couldn't tell, this isnt't going to be a hugely shippy fic - I want to tell a story, not talk a lot about two men fucking. Fucking will be involved, but I'm keeping mature due to adult themes throughout but nothing explicit. Yet.
Also, I suck at writing kids, suck at writing Americans, and don't know much about New York? Wherever the Xavier home is? So I wrote this while thinking of the gardens on my block.
Also, I keep forgetting to say this, but parts of this fic are heavily inspired by tahariel's Backseat 'verse so if certain things seem similar, it's because I love that 'verse so damn much :)
Chapter 3: Powders and walking back home
Charles takes a trip, does some thinking, has an argument and makes a decision, all in a slightly hungover morning.
Hi there! I took a break to go on holiday, so this is short and filler-y while I get to work on the meat of the story. Title from 'MONEY' by The 1975
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The morning after, while our two ladies lie in bed together and plan their journeys home, Charles Xavier, heir apparent to the Xavier kingdom, known mostly for being charming and occasionally getting a bit too drunk, leaves the apartment rented by his lover surreptitiously, and hurries along to the metro, determined not to be caught by anyone. It's all a bit of a farce really. Raven texted him and mentioned Erik by name, about the same time that Emma texted Erik with a vague hint that she knew what was going on, which means either that they both worked it out at the same time (unlikely) or that they were together (WHAT) and discussing their brothers' love lives (WHAT) and realised that the coincidences added up. The latter doesn’t seem hugely likely, but the former is barely possible, and more importantly if it is the former Raven can hardly stay on the moral high ground given what she's clearly been doing, and besides, he doesn't care what she thinks anyway.
He loves Erik. This isn't anything new.
About halfway home he decides to take a detour, switches lines and travels a bit out of the city to a large, mostly empty graveyard (because who visits graves on a Saturday morning). He has to walk for about 10 minutes through rows and rows of derelict graves with the names rubbed off, after which he's feeling so depressed he almost turns around to go home, but before he can he hits the rows and rows of extravagant sarcophagi. To him, it's stupid - why show off the money you can't spend now that you're dead? Certainly neither he or Raven have ever been impressed by the large stone monument - but he chose not to be present for the decision, so he doesn't really get to complain.
Inside one are a man and a woman - his parents. They died a few years ago, his father from a heart attack, his mother from an overdose. Both were pretty young for such deaths, but both had had them coming for a while. He had tried to feel grief, but instead all he'd felt was a sort of emptiness. They hadn't raised him, they were just the people who paid for things and shouted at you when you made mistakes, who said “go ask your father” and “mummy's upstairs, she doesn't feel well” and shunted you off to different adults. They had been people, and he supposes he had loved them, but grief...grief was fickle.
He visits them on this particular day because he's feeling worried and angsty, and he figures he can express that by standing around his parents’ grave and if he weeps a little nobody's there to judge him. The facts are, he loves Erik, who is beautiful and fascinating and unobtainable, because their families are enemies, and they both have sisters who will never understand. Raven and Erik, for all their similarities, grew apart very quickly, and Emma's always seen Charles as the younger brother she likes more. It was his dad after all who allowed them to be friends, so he sits on the floor with his back to the sarcophagus and wonders what his dad would think of them now. Disapproval, probably. If his parents were standing next to him now, his mother would be looking away with a sort of faint disgust at the fact that she ever got there, and his father would be almost-frowning and then would sigh and turn away. He waits, to see if the tears are going to come. They aren't, so he stands up again, puts the flowers he picked up at the station on the grave and mumbles “Hi mum hi dad how are you I'm fine thanks. I'm worried that Raven's found out I've been sleeping with someone I probably shouldn't have for several months now, and I don't know how she's going to react. You'd probably be angry at me, so I guess she will too, but I like this guy and I don't want to give him up. I'm going to go back now. Bye mum bye dad.”
He's discovered in the past few years that when you're feeling melancholy and need a space to channel that, graveyards are a good idea. Also, the one place where you can talk to yourself and people don't care. Very handy, he thinks, on the metro home. Very handy.
The house is, strangely for the flat he shares with Raven, very tidy, and when he knocks on the door and then pops his head into her room he confirms that it's empty, which confirms his suspicion that she's spending her nights would someone she probably shouldn't (because it’s far too early for her to be awake), and while he should probably do the dishes or something in the end he just flops onto his bed. About half an hour later a key turns in the lock and he gets up to stand in the hallway and watch semi-judgmentally as Raven stumbles in, yawning her head off.
“You know it.”
"Once I'd finished discovering some things I'd rather not have known about you, yes."
"We're having this conversation now? Where were you last night?"
She walks into the kitchen and he follows her, half a step behind while she refuses to face him.
"Yes we are, and I was catching up with an old friend."
"Does that friend happen to have a brother named Erik?"
"I don't know Charles, does that brother happen to have been fucking my brother for god knows how long now?"
"You want the truth? Yes. Yes. Every damn time I told you I was going out with someone, it was Erik. Every time I returned at odd hours or with strange bruises, or came home drunk or morose or angry - Erik."
"Months. Long enough."
"How'd it start? Actually ignore that, I don't care. What were you thinking?"
"I don't know, Raven, what were you thinking when you went out with Emma last night?"
"You can prove that, can you?”
"You sent similar texts at the same time. Either you're both psychic, or you were out together."
"Alright, okay, Emma and I had a few drinks. For old time's sake."
"And then you, what, slept in a trashcan? I thought you hated each other."
"I thought you hated Erik, we're all very short sighted in this flat. And you know what? I can count on one hand the number of times Emma and I have slept in the same bed since I turned 18, so you can get off your moral high ground and give it back to me."
"The number of times doesn’t matter - it's your hypocrisy!"
It’s like a small explosion.
"Hypocrisy? What hypocrisy? I don't sneak around! I don't conduct affairs in secret! We go to events together, okay, and we get drunk and we pretend to go home in the same cab to different places and pay the cab driver not to tell anyone we leave at the same spot. No secret games, no pretending, no sneaking about! We drink, we fuck, we go home. You on the other hand-"
"I what? You should listen to yourself Raven."
"I am listening to myself, I do it all the damn time because you don't! I've slept with someone I'm professional enemies with four times. Last night, we were complaining about you two, realised that there were some coincidences, and put two and two together. We sent the text, got drunk and went back to a hotel room. You on the other hand, lied to me for months and snuck around behind my back, for months!"
"Right, queen of not-keeping-secrets."
"This isn’t about me, Charles, it’s about you. Just...just explain yourself."
"Tell me why."
"Because I love him! I know it might be hard for you to understand, but I do! I love him! And we sneak around because we have to professionally hate each other and because we know you two would react badly, and we didn't want to deal with that."
"Love. That's it?"
She's almost disappointed.
"I mean, he's pretty good in bed too."
"TMI, brother of mine."
"I...I honestly don't know what I was going to do next. Probably ask you to stop seeing him, maybe keep less secrets, have a relationship rather than an affair."
He knows it's meant to be funny, but he doesn't laugh.
"It's none of your business, Raven. It's my time and my nights and my heart."
"I know, I'm just worried."
She sits down. She looks exhausted.
"Listen, Emma and I are tabloid enemies. I'm nothing to the family now, if word gets out we'll get a lot of headlines and the Xaviers will get no backlash, because I'm not part of them anymore. You are, and Erik will never leave the Frost-Lehnsherrs. You're fraternising with the enemy. It's your time and your nights and your heart, but you're my brother."
He sits down next her.
"Go to bed, get some real sleep. Let's not fight."
She punches him in the shoulder for old time’s sake, and as she ambles off he realises he only got off easy because she's distracted and hungover. She's going to spend the next few days formulating her battle plan and then when he doesn't expect it she'll spring it on him. It’s the Raven way.
He should clean up, or get some sleep himself, or call his uncle, but instead he lies on the sofa and texts Erik.
"How's Emma doing?"
"We haven't talked in a few days. Raven?"
"She gave me the lecture, part 1"
"Not really. That filthy hypocrite, she's been sleeping with Emma”
Only four times, apparently"
"And she gave you the lecture?"
"Still had the nerve"
"What are you going to do?"
"I don't know"
He thinks about it, seriously. He is heir to the Xavier family, Erik might as well be heir to the Frost-Lehnsherr family, he is conducting an affair with his enemy and the novelty of sneaking around has worn off, but he loves Erik and he's a good lay, and he wants to be around him, more than he wants to be honest with Raven and the rest of the world. Besides, in a world slowly driving him mad, Erik is one of the few things that makes sense. Keeps him sane, as the songs say. He gets another text.
"Leaving so soon?"
"Miss me already?
"Think we can fix that?"
"Yeah, give me a second to get upstairs"
"Don't be too long"
"Never will be”
You migh have guessed, all the chapter titles are taken from songs by The 1975 which is tough because they're all so abstract, so by the end of the fic I might be throwing darts at a board filled with random lines.
Chapter 4: Don't call it a fight
It’s not like it wasn’t bad before. It’s just that, in the short space of half an hour, it’s got so much worse.
Title taken from ‘The City’ by The 1975. Kind of a part one of two linked chapters setting up the plot proper.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Unfortunately for Charles, the next few days offer little in the way of escape. A million and one small responsibilities he's been neglecting in favour of Erik get in the way of contacting him, let alone seeing him, and he's just managed to find some time to get away for a day or two when his and Raven's uncle gets in contact with them.
Uncle Richard is the man who effectively runs the family business. He took over after their father died, and has so far done a pretty good job of it. He doesn't have their father's face for people, but he makes up for it with his head for business and iron stomach, and he's made many decisions which Charles knows he would have faltered from instantly. He doesn't love the man, but he respects him, which in their world is good enough, and as a member of the family and technically heir and second in command, when Richard summons, he comes. Raven comes along for moral support.
In fact, she comes along because one of her favourite stores is around the corner, and being seen with Charles makes them both look better, but he calls it moral support and appreciates the hug she gives him outside the Xavier headquarters anyway.
"Don't fuck it up," she says, which he thinks is a gross insult, and laughs at him when he says as much. "You know what I mean," she says and turns away, shoulders still shaking.
Richard's office is 20 floors up, and the elevator is swift, silent and by no means offers him enough time to gear himself up, but he tries his hardest anyway, and when the doors open he walks into Richard's office with a face that is mostly confident and together. Mostly.
Richard's office matches him impeccably: unobtrusive, unnecessarily large, and with only the essentials. He's on the phone when Charles walks in, and he motions at the chairs in front of his desk and rolls his eyes, mouthing "some bratty investor" before returning to the conversation as if he hadn't missed a beat. Listening to him, Charles thinks he begins to understand why exactly he's been summoned: Richard is by no means stupid and he’s good at telling people the basic truth, but he understands the world in black, white and grey, and struggles to keep the man on the line, unable to embellish the truth which is good but not quite good enough, apparently.
In the middle of a rant on the other end, Richard scrawls something onto a piece of paper and pushes it across the table. "It's about the Stark acquisitions," it reads,"are you up to date?" Charles nods, because he does take some of his responsibilities seriously, and Richard waits until a break in sentences before saying, "Let me pass you over to my nephew, he may be able to explain it to you better," and hands the phone over.
The investor's issue is remarkably simple in fact, and it takes him less than five minutes to have him assured, happy and willing to do even more business with them, providing the Stark acquisitions do well. They're going to, because it's Stark and it always does, and Charles realises, as he makes polite small talk with the investor, that this is his role. Richard makes decisions, Charles justifies them.
This suspicion is confirmed not a minute later when Richard sighs heavily as Charles hangs up and hands the phone back to him, and runs a hand through his hair. "You're as good at it as Brian was," he says, sounding more than a little tired, "I just can't make them understand. They want answers, I give them answers and they're not good enough. People, eh?" he says, with a laugh that says "I know you're the best people person there is and unlikely to sympathise, but I'm trying to break some of the ice."
"People," Charles agrees, and decides to get to the meat of the matter. "Why did you ask me here today Richard? I assume not to deal with angry investors."
"No, I asked you here so we could talk about something. Two somethings in fact. First, the Frost-Lehnsherrs. You know of them, I assume?" he asks wryly.
Charles keeps his face perfectly calm, doesn't show a hint of emotion. "I used to know them quite well."
"Yes, as I recall. I don't know if you two have any contact with them now, but their family's rise has been...meteoric. It seems like two years ago they were just starting off, trying to get ahead in this messy world, and now...well, now."
He sighs, and says it, as he always does, bluntly. "They've grown too powerful. You'd be amazed to hear it, but I could call them our strongest rivals right now and not tell a world of a lie. Stark remains on top of course, but at the moment we're sitting pretty underneath him, watching as the Frost-Lehnsherrs climb up a metaphorical pile of bodies. Harsh image, I know, but it's the truth. What we need are allies, as it were, people who will work with us and stay loyal to us. You know me, Charles, and I won't hesitate to say it myself: I'm a smart man and I've got a good head for business, but I can't deal with people at all - as you've just seen."
He breaks off for a moment, presumably to give Charles a moment to respond. He remains silent, trying to process it - things with Erik just got a lot more dangerous, and therefore a lot more tempting. Before, it would have been frowned upon, for sure, but now...well, they're no Romeo and Juliet, but if they got caught it would be a public scandal, they'd both get disinherited from their families, the Xaviers would be completely screwed with no immediate heirs or seconds, and both of their prospects would be ruined. Sometimes, Charles thinks that would be a good thing, but Erik's focused and determined, and Charles doesn't doubt he'd pick his career over Charles. Which, he supposes is why the Frost-Lehnsherrs are doing so well.
"I see," he says, "and you asked me here because..."
Richard leans forward. "Because I need you to do your job," he says. "You're my second, as it were, and heir to the family. So far you've done well, being our prodigal son, had the occasional scandal but nothing too big, kept your head low and your nose clean. We need you to do more now. I need you. I've been the single head of this family for too long, and I can't do both jobs. I propose we become two heads - I stay head of business, you take on the public face."
It's what he was expecting, but it still comes as a shock. The equivalent of a day job, except by working he's talking to people, schmoozing, forming alliances and working to make sure that the Frost-Lehnsherrs don't come anywhere near the Xavier throne. He thinks about Raven and how she got out early, and Erik and Emma and their determination. Erik would choose his career over their relationship in an instant. Maybe, if he doesn't keep secrets, he can make both work.
"Sounds excellent," he says.
Richard seems a bit taken aback, like he'd have to do more convincing.
"I've spent two years swanning about spending money and looking good for the paparazzi. I think it would make a nice change to do something proactive, even if it still includes looking good for the paparazzi."
Richard smiles, or as close as he ever comes to doing so, and leans back, looking satisfied.
"Thank goodness for that. One more angry phone call and I'll start driving them away with pitchforks. We can work out the details later, since I need a smoke break and some food, but it's good to see you again. Nice doing business with you, Charles, welcome to the firm."
At that Charles has to smile. "Welcome to the firm" might as well have been the first words he heard, and the Xaviers, as a family that pride themselves on having built themselves up from dirt and ashes, live and die by those words. He's lost count of the headlines that tried to make a joke on them, and he's lost count of the times he'd heard them throughout his life.
They both stand and shake hands, and Charles, who normally despises his rich, stuffy family and their rich, stuffy business and outlook, feels, to his horror, a bit of family pride. He waits for it to pass, and is even more horrified when it doesn’t. He knows he should be planning out how he’s going to tell Raven but as he takes his leave of Richard and rides the escalator back down, he finds that all he can think of is how he'll tell Erik.
The problem is, up until now he was Charles Xavier, heir apparent, but he didn't do anything. As he'd said earlier, he spent most of his time spending money and looking good in photos, and while his behaviour certainly had an effect on the family, it didn't mean anything in the long run. He knows they'd have kicked him out long ago had they not needed an heir, had Raven not been an awful choice who had then left, and had Charles not been good at dealing with people, a trait most of the family except he and his late father sorely lacked. Back then, half an hour ago, when the Frost-Lehnsherrs were just another family business and his and Erik's affair was ill advised but not grounds for familial expulsion, things were simpler, he ruminates as he walks to meet Raven. Now, he's got a job, a responsibility, and he's working against the family who’s heir he loves.
It's Erik's number he considers calling as he waits for Raven, his message to Erik that he drafts as she tells him she's five minutes away, their next conversation he mentally rehearses as she walks up to him. They greet each other cordially and hop into a taxi back to the apartment, making small talk until they walk into their door, at which point he takes off his public face and flops onto the sofa, rolling around until Raven takes the hint and sits down next to him, leaning back, relaxed like she never is in public.
"What did he want?" she asks, bluntly.
"Two things," he responds, "one: Erik and Emma are now enemy number one. Well, their family is, don’t know about them specifically. Richard had a great image, let me remember...yeah, we're all on a big mountain under Stark and we're trying to defend our position against the Frost-Lehnsherrs who are climbing up to get us on a pile of corpses, of other businesses they've killed and eaten, I assume."
They share a laugh at their uncle's love of metaphor, and then Raven sobers up.
"And he's offered me a job.The business needs two heads, he says, he’ll handle business and I’ll handle party. People, I’ll handle people. Sorry, couldn't resist."
He takes in Raven's unamused face and sighs, leaning back again.
"I mean, it's hardly a job. I swan about and convince people to do business with us and not them, and look good in pap photos. Not hugely different from my life now, I suppose, except with less 'oops, caught in action!' photos and more 'look at us, good business pals, shaking business pal hands. Please don't do business with our rivals' photos. We're working out the details later, so that was it, more or less. But hey, more parties of the kind Erik and Emma frequent, more chances for both of us, eh?
She rolls her eyes, unamused, and turns around to face him. "Part one is awful but not unexpected, part two is great and gives you something to do for once, but it's not to be joked about. If you get caught now..."
"Yeah, I know. I have to have a tough conversation in the near future."
"Why not just break it off now? I know you "love him" but you need to be serious now. It's a matter of personal and professional importance, and if you two get caught you're both screwed. Emma can carry that whole damn thing by herself, Richard can't."
"Familial concern! From you!"
"When they kicked me out, they gave me an allowance. Presumably a leash because they didn't think I'd get a job, but they've got to keep paying till I'm 30. That allowance keeps us in the flat, I don't want it to go. Also, the family house is nice and Richard tries his hardest. Don't fuck it up."
"I know. And I know I should break it off. But it's hard. Would you break things off with Emma if you knew it was better for the family?"
"I don't have 'things with Emma'. And no, I wouldn't."
"But she would with you."
"In an instant."
"And Erik would with me."
"So you're scared he'll break up with you when he knows that a) you're now rivals and b) you're working against him?"
"I'm scared because I don't know if he will."
"You have to talk about it with him."
Silence, and then,
"One more thing."
"I have an idea."
"I'll stop lecturing you about Erik. In fact, I won't take any interest at all."
"As long as..."
"You keep it a secret. From anyone, that's not him. From me, even. As far as I'm concerned, you broke up. I don't want to hear anymore."
"I'm going to get something to eat. Go call Erik. We won't talk about this again. Keep it secret."
"Keep it safe."
At that, she finally laughs and gets up to leave. Charles is left in silence to contemplate just how messy things have become.
I use character's inability to communicate well to cover up my inability to convey what I mean properly *finger-gun emoji*
Chapter 5: When you know it's a war
Because here are the problems, in two little bullet pointed issues he can doodle while he sits in the taxi on his way to another "business night" (or, as Raven calls them, rich business DILF proms).
Part two of the plot-setup chapters! Title taken from ‘The City’.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The problem, the problem that they've always had, is that they're old money. Back in the day, that served them just fine - people respected them, their strength and unity, their roots and the way that, no matter how rich and powerful they became, they never quite diverged from them. But the death of Charles' father and ensuing inheritance issues, as well as the fact that (for those in the know) Raven had quite obviously quit the family, means that people's faith is fading, has been fading for several years. People look at them and they see an archaic family held down by the traditions and business practices of the past, and they want fresh, inspiring leaders. Down with the old, in with the new, or so they say. And it just happens to be that the Frost-Lehnsherrs are rich, just respectable enough, and very business savvy. The perfect contenders.
Richard was perceptive enough to notice that, but with Charles fully in place as the public face, his perceptions of the rest of the world start to fade. Charles is hardly surprised to realise that Richard sees money, not faces now, and he has to respect his business prowess, even as he's the one convincing people to please keep investing in them, Richard knows what he's doing, when has he ever made a mistake, things can only get better and better from here. He comes home exhausted and fed up with the world, which makes Raven laugh, even as she starts to leave the apartment more and more, which eventually he realises is because all he does is complain about Richard and the investors and not having his nights to himself anymore.
Because, alright he kind of realised it before, when he went to whatever Richard ordered him to or Erik subtly invited him to, but nightly business parties happen a lot. It's where half of the deals are made, CEOs shaking hands and making promises, and their underlings desperately taking notes and asking their somewhat hungover bosses to agree or disagree the next morning. It's where Charles does most of his work, schmoozing and wheedling and smiling and laughing and drinking and having to come home to his home at the end of the day rather than Erik's. They both know better than to even acknowledge each other at these parties, and not even Erik would suggest going home secretly afterwards. Charles takes the subway a lot, and he wears hoodies and low caps, and they meet at subway stations and outside coffee shops rather than him going straight to Erik's flat.
Because, yes, he keeps going back. At this point, he doesn't think he could stay away. Because as gorgeous and lovely and fantastic in bed as Erik is, he slowly finds that what's sweeter than his secret lover is the thrill of having secret lover, of each time they check the papers and find no exposé of their secret life, not even a mention of them in the same article, and realise that they've pulled it off again. True to her word, Raven doesn't question him when he comes home late anymore, and true to his word, Erik doesn't mention the texts they got ever again. In fact, Erik doesn't talk that much at all - he's never been hugely verbal, and while Charles is usually more than happy to fill up the silence with his own chatter, he finds that often it's easier just to exist with companionably silence or muttered words. Kisses shared outside fogged up diner windows convey so much more than clumsy words can, and Charles finds himself hoarding them up (both the kisses and the feelings).
Each night he spends in Erik's company is a new blessing and each morning he returns to the flat to freshen up and change his shirt before heading to the Xavier building is a new curse. He wants nothing more than to curl up in Erik's bed forever and never leave, keeping his mind and his body and his heart all to himself, but it can't be. It can't, because Erik is still always the first to rise. It can't, because when he leaves Erik kisses him and then says "go steal our customers". It can't, because this somehow still gets in the way: there is Erik, there is Charles, there is The Job and it sits in between them like a heavy weight that he can't quite see past. He's kissing Erik, but The Job is still between them.
Frankly it's getting a little depressing.
Because here are the problems, in two little bullet pointed issues he can doodle while he sits in the taxi on his way to another "business night" (or, as Raven calls them, rich business DILF proms):
a) the Xaviers are not doing as well as they should be, want to be, or used to be. They are in fact doing quite badly. Yes, they still have money and influence and power and a lot of allies, but at the party he's going to now, he will be trying to save old friendships, not forge new ones, and half of what he'll be doing is begging, just dressed up in nice words and fancy drinks.
b) when he told Erik about his new role, Erik went silent for a bit, said "well, that's life, isn't it" and hung up. A few minutes later, he rang back, apologised and explained that, while Charles was just a boy he knew when he was young, he didn't mind that he was a Xavier, but now he's an Xavier employee and boss number two, he's going to have to think differently. They still go out, they still fuck, they still love each other, but now the weight of their family names bears down on them even more.
He scrunches the paper up, rips it into pieces and shoves those pieces into his suit pocket. He'll distribute them like little candy pieces, and he'll put the last one inside Erik's suit pocket, and it'll be all sweet and romantic, but instead he empties them out in the trash before he enters the party. He's a few drinks in already, but when he enters all he sees is people who no longer want to do business with him. Luckily, the party's in full swing, and he appears to be amongst the more sober members of it, so he doesn't feel out of place at all, and it takes him merely seconds to find his place amongst the people around him, to talk and laugh and get along well with perfect strangers, as he always has.
Someone's girlfriend presses her phone number into his hand, another man takes him aside and says, far too close to his ear, that he'd love to have a one on one meeting later, older men shake his hand and close their ears, and he goes and goes and goes. At some point he realises he's just acting and he can't remember what he's saying anymore, but clearly it's funny because everyone around him laughs, so he smiles into his drink, says some polite words, and goes outside to get some fresh smoky air. Outside, a woman in a dress that looks far too thin to be worn in October offers him a cigarette, laughs when he declines and says "too much for you too? I hate events like these. They suck your soul out."
They share a moment of companionable silence before he turns to go inside but she grabs his hand to stop him, and looks him in the eye. "Charles, right? Xavier? I knew your father. He was...well, he was, wasn't he. I hope your uncle does as well." She lets go, and he goes back inside, feeling distinctly like she's left the conversation with a lot more knowledge than he has.
Once he's inside again it's like...well, it's like in the five minutes he spent outside everyone had five more drinks. It's noisy and busy and overwhelming and really he just wants to go home, or back to Erik's apartment, and sleep for the rest of his life. It's hard to keep up the smiles and positive words, especially when he knows that half the people he talks to are mentally deciding between the Xaviers and Frost-Lehnsherrs and settling on the latter.
Eventually he feigns sickness and leaves early. He knows he'll pay for it tomorrow, but at that point he just wants to be gone, so he just goes. Quietly he lets himself in, so Raven won't wake up (assuming she's asleep) and heads up to his room, silently stripping and getting into bed. Half asleep, Erik calls him, clearly in his taxi home.
"I didn't see you today."
"I didn't feel well."
"Tough day at the office?"
"Every day is tough."
There's a long period of silence, and Charles wonders at the fact that, when once, he would do whatever he could to keep Erik on the line, whereas now he just wants to hang up and sleep. So,
"Erik, I'm tired and I just want to sleep whatever's wrong with me off. I'll see you as soon as I can. Good luck with Emma when you get home."
They say their niceties and hang up, and Charles is met with a shitstorm the next day.
Of course it is.
The story that Raven tells is that early in the morning Richard called her into the office, and more or less ordered her to rejoin the family, to stop acting like a child and to show some gratitude to the money that keeps her alive.
Raven had retorted that she'd hated the family for as long as she'd lived, that between her alcoholic father and druggie mother she'd had a horrible home life, that Charles had only come out alright by simply pretending it didn't happen, and that she'd spent her whole life running away and she wasn't going to come back now she'd succeeded.
The story that Richard tells is that Raven's always been a dangerous firebrand, that she's always been a liability to the company and the family, and that he's quite glad she's gone and would never want her back, and he’d merely called her in to discuss her allowance when she had lost her temper and gone off.
The story that the tabloids tell is that Raven Xavier was seen entering the Xavier HQ, having subtly absented herself from all family issues for several years, that she'd left in a clearly awful mood half an hour later, and had stood in front of the reporters and told them more or less what she told Richard.
She'd left the family at 18, and spent the next four years never looking back. She'd never told the tabloids, mostly because she cared for Charles and his desire for privacy, partially because she'd wanted to stay out of the spotlight herself, but now she has.
Charles turns his phone off, locks his door, and goes to bed again.
He wakes up a few hours later feeling groggy and awful, crawls into the shower and emerges feeling about 50% more human. Two coffees later and he knocks on Raven's door.
He opens it to find Raven sitting on her bed, curled up, an empty look in her eyes.
"They're outside the house," she says, "Richard ordered a security guard so you can get around, but I can't go outside anymore."
Charles is silent, taking it in. She stands up, walks over to him, looks him in the eye.
"They were awful, right? It wasn't just me, right? They were genuinely awful. Dad drank so much, so often, and mom...I don't think I ever knew her when she wasn't doped up. It was like they weren't there, right? It was you and me and Emma and Erik and the nannies, but never mom and dad, right? It wasn't just me."
"No," he says, slowly. "It wasn't just you. And you're right. I pretended it didn't happen. I pretended mom was sick and dad was tired and that was how normal families worked. I never had much else to compare it to, you have to say."
"But it wasn't."
"It wasn't. And you were right. And we never told anyone, and now I’m stuck."
"You can always leave."
"I can't," he says, and turns away. "I can't."
He turns his phone on, fields texts and phone calls and worried investors and interested friends. Finally, he calls Richard.
As always, he doesn't hold back.
"Charles, I know she's your sister, but she's gone too far. The family house has been empty for far too long, I want you to move back, make a show of it. We'll transfer you to working at home, you can have the house and do whatever you want to it. Just make sure you're not around her anymore."
It takes him less than a second to give his answer.
"No. This is my home, I pay rent and half the utilities, I'm not leaving this flat and I'm not leaving Raven."
"But she's crazy! She's spreading lies and making us seem even worse! Surely you of all people can see this!"
"I know, Richard, and I can. But she's not spreading lies, she's telling a truth that we hid for far too long, and she needs me. Here."
He hangs up, turns his phone back off, walks into the kitchen where Raven is preparing dinner.
"It might be takeout for a few nights," she says, as he helps lay the table, "they don't show any signs of going."
"Takeout I can do," he replies.
They eat in silence, open a bottle of wine, retreat to the living room, reminisce about the better bits of their childhood. Raven seems open, willing to talk, even willing to discuss Erik and Emma now. It's like the secrets have been shocked out of her, and Charles is amazed to discover that between her and Emma it really is just sex, nothing more. Just a game played by girls teenage and adult, that always gets taken a step too far.
Eventually, he tells her. Tells her that the Xaviers are falling apart, that they're losing investors and friends and allies, that he's failing at his job and knows it, that each business night he goes to sucks his soul out a little more, that he can feel his depression returning and hanging over him like a cloud that threatens to envelop him, that The Job lies between him and Erik when they sleep on the same bed, that he doesn't know what to do.
She's silent for a long while, and then she says, "It's all gone to shit. Remember the dreams we had as kids? It's all gone to shit."
Another silence, a glass emptied, and she gets up to go to bed.
After she's gone, Charles considers what to do next. The tempting thing to do is also withdraw from the family, publicly support Raven and expose their shitty parents, wish Richard good luck with his life and get back to the his previous, now enviable, lifestyle. Pros: Erik, ease, no more stress, probably better mental health; cons: giving up, Richard needs his help, he likes Xavier money and if he withdraws he'll probably lose it all. The sensible thing to do is to keep going, to try his best, to neither support or deny Raven vocally but stay with her for moral support and so people can see that he's a true family man, doesn't run away as soon as his sister fucks up. Pros: money, helping Richard, having something to do; cons: hard on him, hard on Raven, hard on his and Erik’s relationship.
The sensible thing is so sensible. The tempting thing is so tempting.
He thinks about calling Richard. He thinks about calling Erik. He thinks about getting on a plane and never coming back.
In the end, he gets up from where he sits and writes Raven a note. "If I'm not here in the morning, sorry. I've decided. Richard wants me to denounce you and move home. For his sake, I'm not taking your side, and I'm staying a Xavier. For your sake, I'm staying here as long as you want me, and while I can’t vocally support you, I’ll let them see me here, with you. I need you, the Xaviers need me, and Richard won't get rid of me as long as I'm important, which means money for me and you. I have to go see a man about a problem with my insides."
He calls Erik, but his phone goes straight to voicemail. So he leaves a message ("Hey Erik, it's me. I assume you've seen the headlines. I don't want to talk about it, I just want to be around you and relax and not be constantly questioned about my motivation and my next decision and who and what to support. Can I come over?"). He sneaks out the back exit, takes the subway to Erik's apartment, and even though it's risky lets himself in with the key Erik gave him months ago.
He expects Erik to have heard his message, to perhaps at least have been ready for him to come over. But clearly he hasn't, because when he comes in, Erik is standing in his kitchen in his underwear, washing bloody clothes in the sink.
As you may realise I know very little about the business world. Also, I’m going for the short and often writing style, because 3000 words is about all I can write in one night.
Chapter 6: I insist on haunting your bed
This is Erik, this is what he does, this is why Charles doesn't react, just walks into his arms and stays there, for the whole night and next day.
Title from Haunt // Bed.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The act of finding Erik, unprepared for his arrival and washing bloody clothes where someone should not be washing bloody clothes, would be a lot worse were it not something that has happened at least once before. In fact, it has happened a surprising amount. Erik has never made a secret of his violence, of the fact that he fights as well as he fucks, and Charles, knowing this, has never reacted to his face. He knows that Erik gets into fights, that sometimes he comes home with blood on his hands and sometimes blood on his nose, and while part of him, the part that was raised in a pristine home where the veneer of propriety was spread over everything, wants to react, to be surprised or shocked or horrified, most of him doesn't care. This is Erik, this is what he does, this is why Charles doesn't react, just walks into his arms and stays there, for the whole night and next day.
The next night he travels home under cover of darkness, prepares a statement while drinking his way through a bottle of whiskey and edits it the next day while working his way through a hangover, and then on the fourth day he calls his uncle, gets a taxi to the Xavier building and reads his statement out. It says something to the effect of him neither confirming or denying Raven's allegations, agreeing that his family life was certainly less than perfect but really, isn’t everyone’s, and verifying that he would continue to work at the Xavier business that he would also continue to live with Raven, and that he would let neither his family nor his work control his life or influence his decisions.
It's bullshit, but it's media-appeasing bullshit, and they go back to their offices to hopefully write a piece on how he will mediate between the various warring factions of the Xavier family, will continue to work his hardest to uphold the Xavier family values and ensure the continued success of the business, how he is working hard to remove the party-boy-rich-kid image of himself, etc etc etc. And then life sort of goes back to normal - Raven works, Richard decides, Charles explains, Erik fights, Emma intimidates, the Xaviers and Frost-Lehnsherrs remain enemies, Erik and Charles meet up every so often, Raven disappears one night and reappears with a single diamond earring and a neck covered in hickeys. Life goes on, he goes to Erik's flat, Erik has bloody clothes in the corner or scars on his knuckles or a bruise underneath his eye, Charles pretends to kiss the pain away and ignores the irony of the fact that he's terminally in love with the man whose family is killing his own.
Once, lying beside Erik in bed, tracing his fingers across Erik's sleepy skin, he asks him if he'd consider picking on his family that wasn't Charles’. Erik, half-asleep, asks him to repeat the question, and rolls over to face Charles, trailing a hand down his side. Charles rolls up and onto Erik’s waist and leans down over him, kissing down his neck and working the words out between kisses. Erik lies back, accepting Charles' affection and then rolls them over, trapping Charles between his thighs, returning in his usual, overbearing manner.
"Believe me, it's tempting. I'd rather not have to run around in secret under cover of darkness for you. I'd rather we be rivals, than enemies, because then I could still love you, and have it be discouraged but not terrible, but," kiss, kiss, kiss, he's getting distracted, "Emma, unfortunately, hates you and wants you taken down."
He leans back to look at Charles properly.
"Remember the text she sent? Not, I suppose, that you could forget. I told her it was a regrettable, if enjoyable, fling and that I'd break things off next time I saw you. Clearly, I haven't. Emma's perceptive and she knows I’m seeing someone, but she doesn't care who it is, and it appears she and Raven aren't in contact anymore so they can't plot and plan against us. So...."
He slides down Charles' body, kissing as he goes, stopping around his hips to look up at his face, "she'd be suspicious if I did. I'm sorry, Charles, but this is how it is. We compete at work, we compete at home."
Erik smiles a wicked smile, and then proceeds to thoroughly distract Charles from whatever he'd been thinking before, and indeed anything that isn’t the words "mouth", "restraint", or "tease".
Later, when Erik is asleep, Charles lies in bed unable to drift off but unable to do much else either, and realises a few key things. First, that Erik clearly has no idea that Emma and Raven have a thing on the side, because otherwise he'd be a lot more angry at Emma, and his black and white morality would have caused many more arguments between them based on Emma's hypocrisy and the fact that Charles is willing to let it slide, as long as Raven doesn't try and intervene. Besides, Erik has a strong unwillingness to do anything like Emma does, and he strongly suspects that if he had found out, he'd have put them on a pause just to emphasise how different he is from Emma, how he has restraint and doesn’t sleep with the enemy, except for the fact that he has and does and would continue to do so. Erik might have wanted to trump Emma, but he wouldn’t break up with Charles for the sake of proving a point, at least not for good.
Second, Charles realises, hauling his mind back on track, in the few times Raven has meet up with Emma since the text, she hasn't revealed a thing to her. He and Raven have an arrangement, still standing, where neither mentions their...extra-curricular affairs to each other, and neither acknowledges it, even when it's clear as day, but similarly neither of them form an opinion on either one's activities. Raven can tell when Charles has been with Erik because he disappears for a night or two, and on the few nights he disappears with someone who isn't Erik he's willing to mention it to Raven, mostly so she can laugh at him. Charles can tell when Raven's been with Emma, because she returns rather more mauled than if she'd been with anyone else, and usually with some kind of gift that makes sense only to people who know Raven, Emma, or both of them. They both agree - if neither of them acknowledges it, neither is implicit in each other's bad decisions. It works for them.
So, the situation, laid out in Charles' tired brain: he and Erik are semi-regularly seeing each other, Emma and Raven are occasionally seeing each other, neither he or Raven acknowledge this, Emma has no idea about him and Erik still being together and Raven will continue to keep them a secret. Their families are still enemies, their affairs remain remarkably bad decisions, nobody, hopefully, will ever know. He realises at that point what a good business decision it would be to reveal Emma and Raven’s affair: with Raven out of the family, the Xaviers would be fine, and Emma would be named and shamed, the Frost-Lehnsherrs likely destroyed, if not wholly then at least quite badly, and Raven would hate him and Erik would hate him and he’d lose his sister, his boyfriend and over half of his friends in one fell swoop. It’s not a decision at all.
So he continues to lie in bed, half of his mind wrestling with the problem the way it always does, the other half telling it to shut up and stop thinking and go to bed, and eventually his body tells the rest of them that it has needs and that he certainly won’t sleep unless he deals with them. Slowly he ambles out of bed and sleepily stumbles to the bathroom, half considering waking Erik up just so that he can get him to send him to sleep again, but on the other hand knowing that a recently woken Erik is a grumpy one and more likely to give him a bed on the couch than give him an orgasm. He's debating this most important of issues in his head when, while sleepily washing his hands, he looks up and notices something behind him in the mirror.
Turning around, he finds that with his cajoling Erik has at last started washing his bloody clothes in his bath rather than his kitchen sink. It's a start, but it's also still bloody clothes, and if it wasn't one of the most suspicious things to have in your search history ever, he'd research how to machine wash blood off of clothes just to save him the effort of washing the bathtub afterwards. Except it's, yep, still bloody clothes, still in Erik’s bath, and he sits down on the side of it and rubs his eyes, suddenly overwhelmed with an exhaustion that just makes him feel bad, rather than sleepy. He takes a deep breath and forces himself up, and on the way out he notices what he hadn't before, that there is something on the side of the sink, something small and metallic which his half-asleep eyes hadn’t even seen before. Picking it up, he turns it over to see something that makes his heart sink into his chest.
In and before his grandfather’s generation, there was a habit of giving small pin-badges with the Xavier insignia on them for the best and most valuable of the Xavier employees, to show that they had truly risen from depths to heights in the business world. It was almost like a stamp of approval, and on the rare occasion one of them would leave the business, it served as well when finding new employment as a glowing reference would. While the practice had been discontinued by his grandfather, those who had badges continued to pass them on the through the family if their children, who also happened to work at the business, also rose to such heights. There are few enough now existing that he could almost definitely find the person it belongs to in seconds simply by asking around but he finds he doesn't want to. He doesn't want to think about the bloody clothes in the bathtub or the bloody pin-badge belonging to one of his employees that will turn up the next morning with god knows what having happened to him or the fight or whatever it was that caused them, or anything other than bed, and sleep, and comfort.
Instead, he puts it down back where it was, rinses his hands again, and returns to bed, crawling into Erik's arm when he sleepily rolls over and proffers it. Inside the warmth and safety of his embrace, he thinks about the bruises underneath Erik's eyes and the grazes on his knuckles and the cut on his nose, thinks about the blood that he can still feel on his hands and underneath his skin, and wonders, not for the first or last time, whether it will be love or family that breaks him first.
A lot of thinking, not much plot, but trust me, it all goes downhill from here.
Chapter 7: You're cold and I burn
Raven tries to keep up with her brother’s bad decisions, Emma’s capricious moods and her own life.
So I was 100% convinced I wrote a Raven/Emma fic that was properly explicit and meant as a companion piece to this fic last year, before I even had a proper plot, but apparently I didn’t! So maybe I’ll write it later. Title from Settle Down.
From Raven's perspective, it all looks about 100 times worse, of course. Because no matter how much she denies it, her brother is dealing with his stress about work and his anger at her by spending as much time as possible with his covert lover, their enemy (his, she thinks, no longer theirs, that's not her life anymore) and someone who would make their families intensely angry if they found out.
Objectively, she doesn't really care what happens to either family business. What with her cutting ties publicly, the stipend that the Xaviers used to give her was swiftly taken away so it's not like she relies on them anymore, and the Frost-Lehnsherrs have never been any of her business. It's harder when it comes to the people: before it all got weird, she and Erik got along very well, mainly due to having similar attitudes towards the world and what they owed it. Emma, of course, is a problem - she likes their 'dates' and she likes Emma as a person, but she wouldn't mourn if she lost her social standing. It's petty, but so's their whole thing. Charles, on the other hand....Charles she cares deeply for. Discovery of them would slaughter Charles. It would hurt.
But then, so does seeing them together. Because she's not stupid, and she knows that the Frost-Lehnsherrs is why Richard keeps making more and more risky decisions, why Charles comes home fraught and tight-faced and knotted with stress every day, and why he seeks release from that stress in Erik's arms, and she knows that the affair with Erik stresses him out as well, and that he's desperate for something that's neither of them, and she knows exactly what that desperation is for.
There's a cycle: Erik does something (sometimes it's standing Charles up, sometimes it's coming home covered in blood which Charles has to clean up, sometimes it's badges belonging to their family found on bathroom sinks), Charles discovers it, comes home sad and worried, drinks his sadness away and calls or texts or stumbles back to his flat, forgiving him and desperately craving his attention and affection. It's awful to watch, frankly.
It's awful to watch and not be able to help him, and really that's all she desperately wants: to offer him a way out, a way that belongs to neither family but to her and her much longed-for freedom, a way that will offer him something he is currently incapable of finding. She wants to march into the Xavier building, tell them that Charles can no longer work for them, that he's stressing himself to death with Richard's shitty decisions and that he's dealing with it in increasingly unhealthy ways and that he needs to leave the family and leave for good, and stay with her, no longer their pawn or puppet but his own man. But, she can't.
She can't, because she's not part of the family and has no standing, not even as Charles' biological half-sister. She can't, because she'd have to talk to Richard and Richard wouldn't listen to a word she has to say. She can't, because she's not even allowed near, let alone into, the Xavier building, and she can't talk to anyone inside the business aside from Charles because they're under strict instruction that they'll get sacked if they do and she's now more or less a social pariah to them. She still gets work, and between her and Charles they make enough to keep the flat, but it's a precarious position and one that could crumble down at any minute. If Charles leaves the family, and he never would, they'd have to rebuild somewhere else. Somehow, she doesn’t think either of them could handle it.
It's awful and tough and she hates the situation and she hates the people who brought them into it, and she hates herself for her own hypocrisy. Because during all the time that Charles has been getting himself in deeper and deeper with Erik, Raven has still been seeing Emma on the side, just here and there, never often, never obviously. Usually they meet, eat dinner, have drinks, flirt and then go their separate ways, occasionally phoning or texting later but often with no contact at all, leaving Raven aching and desperate and willing to make any number of mistakes in whatever club she can get into. But even that's been ceasing recently, with Raven trying to work on her daytime life and Emma apparently needing time to focus on her job, as it were. Though what she actually does Raven has no idea - presumably something more than looking pretty for paparazzi photos, though that could of course be all. But she has a smart mind, and Raven would be surprised if she let herself be used like a pretty doll and never allowed to exercise that mind.
Emma slides from extreme to extreme, ignoring her for three weeks and then sending her inappropriate texts filled with suggestions that make her blush all the way down her neck. At events they happen to both be at, half the time Emma makes a point of standing a room away from her the whole time and half the time she makes a point of posing for the cameras in that jokingly flirtatious way that's all the rage these days, with just a hint of more than their antagonistically platonic relationship, like she wants people to guess, like she wants to challenge someone. More often than not though, she seems distant, like she’s focusing on something very specifically not Raven, and deliberately avoiding her to focus on that thing. It would only take Raven one turn to guess what.
On the other hand, sometimes Emma seems to physically crave her, the days that she keeps in contact all day and night until they can see each other again, the nights they don't eat and barely drink before Emma drags her up to the room she rented, hands desperately sliding beneath her clothes and mouth never more than an inch away from her skin, something like joy or pride ripping through her as Raven submits, always willing to fulfil her needs. Today seems like one such day, and Emma starts with a series of texts that Raven feels she shouldn't be reading in the public space of her living room, and moves onto the occasional photo with extremely thorough captions when evening starts to draw in. It takes Raven seven photos in a row before she cracks, books a table at their most regularly attended bar, and tells Charles that he has the flat to himself that night before getting ready to leave.
Getting ready for Emma is like a challenge in itself, all careful decisions about what dress to wear with what jewellery and heels and what makeup to match it with, where to drink and how to get there and how to subtly find a room later, all a big game. Emma's always been one for minimalism, as few colours and clothes as possible with jewellery that complements rather than accentuates, standing out in her starkness amongst the jewelled peacocks of her friends. Raven on the other hand likes to stand out, likes people to notice her for how she never seems to quite be what's expected. She likes odd makeup and clothes that aren't quite appropriate, indie stores around the corner rather than brand names, runway makeup for nights 'on the town'. If Emma wants people to fear her, Raven wants people to know her.
Tonight's outfit is relatively simple, as it often is on these nights, unwilling as she is to draw attention to them as any more than two relatively wealthy ladies with good fashion taste having drinks in a fancy bar that knows better than to break the privacy of its patrons. It's fun, in a way. Dressed and ready, she calls Charles' normal driver, whom he pays more than Richard does to allow her passage too, and then calls another taxi service, one known for their secrecy, and has herself delivered outside a club she regularly attends before getting into the next one. She meets Emma at their normal table, and is greeted by a look that seems to go from head to foot and inside her dress, followed by a smile that says exactly what Raven wants to know.
Emma isn't one for talking tonight it seems, and more is told by legs pressed against each other, arms draped around chairs and meaningful looks than words from mouths. Not to say that the mouth isn't present - Emma uses the excuse of the music being louder than usual (a deal of the illegal kind, she presumes) to tilt her head close to Raven's ears, breathing across her neck as she speaks, and Raven feels...well, it's a thrill. It's always a thrill, and she never feels more alive than she does her, giving as good as she gets and trying her hardest to rile Emma up, make her more fun to play with later and getting her (no shame here) to ply her with drinks, pretending like she needs one more and taking her time. Eventually Emma's patience snaps, and she wraps her hand around Raven's waist to draw her in close and whispers in her ear, "Don't you think it's time to go?"
"Where are you planning?" Raven replies.
"Anywhere!" Emma says with the barest hint of a laugh, the expression on her face one of a wild thing barely tamed, one that excites and terrifies Raven in equal measure. She wonders if this is how Charles feels, and wonders if maybe she could begin to understand.
"But for now...I was thinking upstairs."
"Lush!" Raven says, but she follows Emma when she gets up, allows her to take her by the hand and lead her through the crowds of people to the elevators and upstairs. Maybe it's the drink, but it feels like time passes in slow motion as they wind their way through, as people look at them the way you do when someone walks past, when nobody notices them because somewhere like this, you don't. It catches up to her as they walk into the elevator, pointless in an establishment that barely has any floors, but designed for clients that refuse to walk up stairs. It's a short walk to the room Emma's rented, not the classiest but not the cheapest either (typical Emma) and as she closes the door Raven realises that neither she or Charles have either had a lover back to the flat. She wonders if Erik is there right now.
Any other thoughts she might have had get pushed out of her head when Emma pushes her back against the wall, locking the door and trailing her hands from the lock to the gap in Raven's open-backed dress. It's a test, and Raven passes with flying colours, pushing herself into Emma's arms with a desperation she doesn't even try and hide, longing for her as much as Emma longs back.
Is this how Charles feels, she thinks, is this what he wants, this craving, this physical need to get closer and closer to your partner. Does he feel like nobody else could ever satisfy you in the same way, like when they're in front of you you'd do anything for them? Sink to your knees, prostrate, looking up, begging to be allowed what you want most. Given it and given it again, by someone you shouldn't be anywhere near but someone who you are learning (again) in the most biblical sense.
The action moves on, sex is had, they go to bed, Emma wrapped around Raven, unwilling to let her have freedom of movement even now, and while both are asleep and while neither knows nor hears, Emma's phone, which sits in her purse slowly dying, vibrates with a series of texts.
The next morning Emma scrolls through her texts while Raven's in the shower, shoots off a response and greets her with a goodbye kiss, letting her leave while she gets herself ready.
Erik: You said keep you updated so here I am, keeping you updated (11:23 PM)
Erik: Everyone's in position, we'll be moving in soon (11:33 PM)
Erik: I can't believe I'm texting you, anyway, account for any gaps by me doing what needs to be done (11:34 PM)
Erik: We're inside (11:44 PM)
Erik: Who the fuck needs 50 floors in a building? Anyway, elevator goes up to 45 but schematics say back stairs up to 50 (11:53 PM)
Erik: Our mole did their job. Nobody's around at all (11:59 PM)
Erik: On the stairs. Damn that elevator's quick (12:04 AM)
Erik: On the last level. Looking for his office. People around. What needs to be done (12:13 AM)
Erik: found the office (12:16 AM)
Erik: he's here (12:16 AM)
Erik: it's done. we're leaving now (12: 28 AM)
Erik: nearly out (12: 47 PM)
Erik: Everybody out scot-free. Nobody noticed a thing. Cavalry's going home. I'll text you when I'm back (12:51 PM)
Erik: Home safe. Tomorrow we talk (01:34 PM)
Raven feels alive and dead at the same time, half hungover and half lovesick, wanting nothing more than to spend the morning and the rest of the day in bed with Emma, knowing exactly why she can't. She's in a normal outfit this time, last night's dress packed into her surprisingly deep bag and last night's heel's dangling from her hands. She looks like any other woman on a metro ride of shame, sunglasses protecting delicate eyes and swallowing convenience store aspirin with convenience store water. She doesn't even acknowledge the real world exists until halfway through when she dares to check her phone, and she's halfway through catching up on messages when she gets a new one from Charles.
It reads "bad news apparently, get home soon."
It's enough to make the aspirin sink to the bottom of her empty stomach and make her intensely grateful she didn't fall prey to the greasy food temptation, which would probably by threatening to make its way back up right now. Instead, she makes her way home as quickly as possible, arriving about two minutes before Charles, who clearly wasn’t at home last night either. Charles greets her perfunctorily, opens his laptop and calls Richard on Skype, this apparently being a conversation too important for normal phone lines. Raven prepares to leave the room but Charles catches her by the sleeve and holds her back, saying "You should be here for this too, apparently."
The phone is answered, but not by Richard - instead by his second in command after Charles and apparently now confirmed extra-curricular affair. He looks into the camera worriedly and speaks in clipped sentences, looking over his shoulder every so often.
"He's asleep now, drank himself to sleep when he got home last night. I wanted you to know before the presses did, because it won't be long now, apparently. He's folded. Accepted the Frost-Lehnsherrs as richer, more powerful than us. The agreements and investments that they want, he's giving to them. We'll be sucking up to them now, not Stark. Apparently Stark made an agreement with them yesterday. He hasn’t told me why, or how, just that it happened last night. I wanted you to know. I have to go now. I have to-" there's a noise in the house behind him and he terminates the call before either Raven or Charles can ask the millions of questions they have.
They sit back, two words rattling around inside their heads.
Chapter 8: Blood is on your tongue as well as your hands
Things change, the way they always do, things stay the same, decisions are made, Raven leaves.
Content warning for descriptions of canon-typical violence (not at all graphic but read at your own discretion). Title from Antichrist.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
In the aftermath of Richard's decision, Raven and Charles' lives change in that worst of ways: subtle, but noticeable. Charles finds himself with less and less work as Richard finds less and less reason to keep the business rising, instead consolidating and focusing on keeping it solely afloat. Richard is wholly unwilling to talk to anyone, and isolates himself in his office, not even acknowledging Charles except to pass on news of a new development to him. Nobody in the Xavier building seems to know a thing about what happened that night, but Charles does realise while taking a cursory glance over employment records that a few people have been laid off the day afterwards with no given reason why. Were it any other day it would be normal – on that day, it’s suspicious. He considers bringing it up to Richard, but soon even the vaguest mention of that night to anyone else leads to abruptly ended conversations and deliberate avoidance of him whatsoever, so he keeps quiet, telling nobody but Raven.
Over the coming days and weeks, they try their hardest to piece the story together, and generally speaking fail - as far as they can tell, on the night in question the offices were suspiciously devoid of people, with Richard more or less alone in his private offices, something happened overnight while the building was empty and the next morning he broke the news that he was officially letting the Frost-Lehnsherrs take their place. What exactly happened during that time is the mystery - nobody knows anything about it, or if they do they refuse to say, and whenever asked all Richard will say is that he made a choice, and that choice was life.
In Raven's eyes, this isn't necessarily a bad thing - she's no longer reliant on the Xaviers, due to being publicly separated their humiliation hasn't affected her in the slightest, it doesn't seem to have changed her relationship with Emma any more than usual, and it has in fact taken some of the workload off of Charles' shoulders, which should make him less likely to seek release in the arms of alcohol, Erik, or Erik and alcohol. Should, being the operative word here. Because what should happen is not what does happen - Charles, rather than being less stressed, somehow manages to become more stressed. Raven has the vague idea that he blames himself somehow - that he wasn't doing his job well enough so Richard had decided it wasn't worth bothering, or something similar - but honestly she think he's just tired. With tension high between the families as they are, each night Erik and Charles spend together is fraught with tension and danger, and she suspects that the logical side of him has decided the affair isn't worth it, whereas the emotional side of him has decided the affair is worth anything.
Emotions, she wants to huff, they make everything so complicated, before taking a sip from her glass of red wine. The truth is just the opposite – the more Charles worries himself, the more she worries about him, almost to the exclusion of all else. It becomes a terrible circle: Charles winds himself up into balls of stress, unwinds by doing the one of the very things that stresses him so much, and therefore gets even more stressed. In some ways, it's exactly the same as it was before.
Except not, because decisions have been made. Up until now, most of the family has been living scattered about the city, their childhood home sold when their childhood passed, the family home at Westchester kept mostly for memory's sake and preserved by a team that specialised in keeping dusty relics alive. Richard has decided to consolidate the family as well as the business, and moves himself home, putting the moves on Charles until eventually he relents. Raven is torn between Charles and her freedom, but Richard, apparently unable to summon enough emotion to remain angry at her, arranges in private to lease her part of the house, so that she has the legal status of a lodger but is still around to look after Charles. She suspects that, were he himself, he'd laugh at the fact that it's the little sister looking after the elder brother but in all honesty he doesn't seem to care.
So, the family moves home. Withdraw, as Richard puts it. Runs away, as Raven puts it. The terms of their arrangement are pretty solid: she lives in the same house as them, she has access to some of the house, specifically the parts where Charles is, she's forbidden from the Family Only rooms she never saw the point of anyway, she pays Richard a pitiable price for renting a few rooms (much less than she'd paid for their flat), she's allowed her freedom and her choice of activities. It's a bit of time added to her commute, and she finds herself going to her studio less, but it's worth it.
Because Charles is slowly destructing from the inside. He'd given into Richard’s request for him to live at home, partially because Richard looked like he was about to self-destruct as well, mostly because Raven told him she'd come with him. Not that it seems to do much: there's only so much she can do to help him, when he refuses to do anything to help himself. Being at the family home makes it harder for him to sneak out to see Erik, and she finds herself inventing several excuses for him and hooking up with several anonymous women as she tries not to think about the fact that she's enabling his bad habit (as she has taken to euphemising it to herself as). His work lessens even more as Richard disappears into whatever hole he hides in all the time, and the time that that leaves him he fills up with drinking and generally moping. He hides it, she doesn't mention it, but they both know it's coming: Charles had a breakdown once before, several years ago, just after he'd reached adulthood, after which he was kept on a shorter leash and not allowed the freedom Raven so longed for. He got better, he worked past his issues, they moved on, and whatever happened she knew it would never be that bad again. Never until now, she worries, and she fills up the time between painting and socialising with worrying about Charles. It seems to be a permanent position.
After a few weeks of being at home, a few weeks of knowing they were no longer as rich or powerful as the Frost-Lehnsherrs, a few weeks of secrets and hiding and feeling a bit like she was 17 again and waiting and waiting to run away, Emma gets in one of her moods. Things have been a bit, heh, frosty, between them as of late – on Raven’s side, she can’t help but blame Emma for taking her away from home on That Night, and on Emma’s side her life is suddenly very busy, what with now being the figurehead of the richest and most powerful family in town. Between the changes and the two of them, they haven’t talked much. Raven’s beginning to have serious thoughts about their “relationship”. It’s strange. But Emma gets in one of her moods, and she won't leave Raven alone, so she finds Charles, takes the bottle he already has open away, and says, "Get yourself ready, we're going out on the town tonight".
It takes Charles a few moment to understand what she means, but when he does, he stands up a little unsteadily, claps her on the shoulder and says "Yes, little sister of mine! Out on the town!" She takes a little more care than usual getting ready, and then they hop into the taxi into the city, splitting at a subway station so they can go their separate ways. Outside of the entrance, Charles clasps her hands and looks her in the eye. She looks back at him, judges him passable for sober and begins to speak, but then he closes his eyes and rests his forehead on hers. A few deep breaths later, he looks at her again. "How do you do it? Without emotions? I can't even one night stand without emotions making things hard."
The answer comes to her as quickly as light. "Because I'm not looking for "love". Never have been. I don't need - or want - a romantic partner. I want someone who can give me a good time, who'll buy me drinks and make me feel special. She's the same. We don't need emotions."
"I don't think he does either, but I can't do that. I can't just...not feel..."
"I know, brother. You never have been. Remember when we were kids and it felt like we all became so weirdly good at something all at once? You were so good at knowing what people wanted, what people really thought, how they felt. You made being at home so much easier. I think you've always been so empathetic and now you latched onto someone, just the worst someone you could."
"I know, I know. I'm keeping you, sorry. Tomorrow morning?"
And they take their leave. Raven has a plan. She's going to meet Emma, she's going to get her drunk and happy, willing to share all, and she's going to ask her exactly what happened. What will happen next depends entirely on that answer.
As plans go, it's not a bad one. It's just that it's hard to carry out when Emma is tactile and generous, buying drink after drink and taking her time, all of her early desperation apparently lost in her need now to make Raven work for it. Normally, she'd be loving this, but now she finds that with her plan all she feels is jittery and unsure. It takes her a few cocktails and semi-flirty hints and more than a few deep breaths before she finally gets up the nerve to ask. In a way, it feels like it happens to someone other than her: stop conversation, look Emma in the eye, take a deep breath, say the words. "Emma...what happened the night last time we were together. Something happened between your family and mine. I know it did. I know everything else. I just need to know what."
Silence that stretches as far as the eye can see. And then, at last. "I don't know. I was here. Erik made a decision. He didn't tell me what it was."
"You didn't think to ask?"
"In our family, we keep our secrets close. I didn't think to ask. Let me buy you another drink."
Raven slumps back. Emma's notoriously hard to read and no matter how hard she tries Raven can never get a handle on her – she could be telling the truth, she could be lying and there's no way of telling, at least not for Raven. Charles would probably be able to tell, but she suspects he doesn’t really want to know. Besides, he’s busy with his own mistakes. So she lets Emma buy her another drink, goes along with her plans, flirts back when expected to and follows her up to - you guessed it - a room not the cheapest nor most expensive. Very Emma. The night continues as it will, but after the activity's done they stay awake, Raven’s unable to sleep due to the thoughts racing around her head and Emma apparently unwilling to drop off first.
She seems to be having a great deal of fun tracing the tattoos and scars that trace across Raven's skin, evidence of her unwillingness to ever stay the same, her desire to always become a new version of herself and add more to the canvas that is her body. Several of the tattoos have scars entwined with them, and she won't deny, it feels nice to have someone entranced rather than shocked by them. Too many girls turned on by artistic tattoos get turned off by artistic scars. There is silence, silence in which Raven realises, with the sudden clarity that comes of having thought about something in the background for a long time, that she's never had any power here. On the one hand, it's something she's always known - even from the start of their game it's never been an equal playing field, Emma's always had the upper hand - but on the other hand she's beginning to realise the best word for her would be puppet. Plied with drinks, played like a violin, dancing along to Emma's tune. Always, perhaps, but not anymore.
One last night, she decides, one last goodbye, and then it's up. No more hiding or lying or pretending to feel special. One last night, and one chance to wrest the truth from her. She wants to turn over, to curl up on her side and let the little ball of hurt bleed from her chest into the bed, but she's held trapped by Emma's gaze and her hands, unwilling and unable to move. Emma must sense something has changed, because she slides up on the bed and holds Raven by the wrist, taking the sort of deep breath someone who is about to tell a terrible truth they'd much rather not always takes.
"You wanted the truth, yes? What happened that night? I will tell you. We had a plan, Erik and I. We had a mole in your brother's company, someone who was able to trick everyone into leaving early. We were supposed to go together - we would enter the building, incapacitate everyone who stood in our way however we deemed necessary, find your uncle and threaten him into conceding your position to us. We'd been planning it for months, and that morning we tossed a coin as to who would lead: it fell to Erik. I was to be part of the mission anyways, a side part, mostly I would threaten him - you know Erik, he's not good at words. As I was getting ready though I....I suppose you would call it guilt? I felt bad for you, your family. I knew it would hurt Charles and Charles would hurt you, and I found myself unwilling to do it. It felt like betrayal.
"Erik laughed at me, and I contacted you. I suppose it was as much to distract myself as anyone else. You were supposed to keep Charles at home - yes, I know about them - but Erik fobbed him off onto someone else for the night who looked after him. I suppose it was heartless, but Erik refused to be distracted. When I came home he told me the whole thing. As planned, the offices were mostly empty. They were able to make it to the top floors without a problem, and they decided to non-violently deal with opposition, less suspicious. No fatalities, a few knocked out security guards and one threatened secretary. Found your uncle, alone, still awake at midnight, working, I suppose.
"Erik...he threatened him. At gun point. Knees on the ground, hands in the air, gun at his head. A decision. If he wanted to live, he would agree to hand over your position to us, your wealth and your power and your connections. If he disagreed, Erik would kill him and the family would be destroyed anyway. Not much of a choice, I know, but it could have been worse: Erik wanted to kill him either way, make a statement. Well, I guess he was feeling kind. Richard chose life, the agreement was made, they left the way they came. Erik came home and drank himself to sleep."
Raven is silent, taking it in. It seems improbable, but then again in their life so does everything. She wants to get up and leave, and never look back. She wants to fall asleep in Emma's arms and pretend it isn't real. She wants to call Charles and cry into his arms. She wants to call Richard and tell him she's sorry for making the better of two terrible choices.
She lies on the bed, still and silent.
"So there it is," Emma says, "the truth you asked for."
The ice mask slides back into place, what honesty she ever displayed hiding behind it again. "And now here we are."
She turns over, curls up, and goes to sleep. Raven lies awake for much longer, silent and scared. Eventually she gets up under the pretext of going to the bathroom, an act that usually awakens Emma if she's not quite asleep yet. When Emma doesn't stir at all Raven dresses in complete silence and leaves. She walks down the hallway without being noticed, takes the silent elevator downstairs and leaves through the near-empty bar in her day clothes, taking her leave of the bartender and paying the tab she opened many months ago. Nobody says a thing. She hails a taxi, texts Charles that she's going home, and then watches the city pass outside the window, silent and scared for what tomorrow will bring.
D'you like the Marina reference I dropped in there? In case you haven’t worked it out, no happy endings here!
Chapter 9: Broken heads in hospital beds
Life goes to hell, and then sometimes it just gets worse.
Content warnings for non-graphic descriptions of substance abuse and self harm, see end notes for more info which is somewhat spoilery. Title from Facedown. I’m taking next week off because a) classes start and b) the next chapter will be tough to write and will take me a while.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It takes Raven one week, five days and eight hours to break down. What Emma had told her plagued on her mind - it made her less likely to curse at or about Richard, it made her less trustful of the Frost-Lehnsherrs as a whole, and it made her stomach twist in worry when it came to Charles. It's a tough life, when you're watching your brother tear himself apart about something that had little to do with him and deal with it by convincing you to sneak him out of the house to visit the very man who directly caused the thing about which he is so torn up. It’s pretty messed up.
Whenever Raven thinks about Emma, she thinks about white fur with the bottom edge eternally stained red. Whenever Raven thinks about Erik, she thinks about a handsome, cold man with hands covered in blood. Whenever she looks at Charles, she sees blood stains all over his body. She deals with it in two ways: first, she spends much of her daytime in the city, not thinking about or dealing with the issue; second, she spends much of her nighttime confined to her rooms, drinking wine and watching crap TV. In the thirteen days between Emma's confession and her own, Charles convinces her to sneak him out no less than five times. On the twelth night, she loses her patience and tells him just to move in with Erik if he likes being around him so much.
There's a genuine moment when she thinks he might do just that, might walk out of their home and out of their life and into Erik's permanently, but he says nothing, just turns around and leaves her room. Part of her wants to apologise - most of her knows she has to wait until Charles faces the facts that he's done wrong. It's a bit like dealing with a child: if you reassure them directly after punishing them, they associate wrongdoing with positivity and ignore the punishment. Or so she assumes - it's not like her own parents were the best role models. Either way, she waits and waits and a few hours later Charles knocks on her door. His apology is stunted, his eyes trained on the floor the whole time, and she knows he's struggling to stand up straight, but she accepts it anyway and sends him to bed, forbidding him from touching another bottle. It won't work, but it's nice to pretend she has some power over him.
Clearly, something goes wrong overnight.
Raven knows she should have faced it sooner. Should have addressed it, should have gotten some help, should have done something. Should have found him earlier, should have made an effort, should have should have should have.
She gets up sometime around 11, potters around her rooms, makes breakfast, answers emails, makes plans to go meet a friend later. Takes her time in the shower, spends the whole morning with the vague dread that Something is terribly wrong but she just isn't sure what. She's used to it. It's basically her best friend by now.
A few hours later she leaves her rooms, walks up to Charles', intending to ask him about something or another. His room is unlocked, which isn't weird, but what is is the fact that he's not in his room, although his phone is charging which means he's still at home. She walks around the living area he mostly inhabits, half intending just to text him the question and leave before she's too late. On the way back, half on impulse, she knocks on his bathroom, wondering if he's passed out next to the toilet or something. His voice comes back, week and reedy.
A bolt of terror comes out of the air and hits her right in the heart, travelling to her stomach and turning it over a few times, taking out the feeling in her arms while it's going. She pushes the door open gently, terrified of what she'll find on the other side. The last time she heard him like this, she was calling an ambulance while he protested and their parents shouted questions to them up the stairs, too lazy to come see for themselves.
What she finds is not as bad as she fears, which is something. Charles is lying mostly clothed in the bath which thankfully has very little water in it, two bottles (one half empty) next to him. He looks half asleep, but she knows it's his "somewhere between still drunk and hungover and barely slept" state. What terrifies her is not his state of drunkenness or his location but the fact that his sleeves are rolled up and across his left arm is a patchwork of small, light red scars. None are bleeding, and all look light, but she knows what it means anyway.
Slowly, carefully, she closes and locks the door, moves across the room, kneels down next to him and takes one of his hands in both of hers.
"Charles," she says, "what happened?"
He's silent for a long while, and she knows it's his brain trying to work past the fog of booze and sad and pain and back into the real world.
"I...don't know. I'd finished one bottle and got the next, and I thought I needed a bath but I forgot to run it. I just got really really sad. And the nail scissors were there. You know how it is."
She does. They'll heal in a few days to a week, leaving naught but barely visible white scars, the type you can only see in the right light if you know where to look. He will cover them with long sleeves and pretend all is alright and he'll spend his nights wracked with guilt that he was so weak. She wants to help, to comfort, but all she can do is clutch his hands tighter and say "I'm here, I'm here now."
Eventually, she helps him get out of the bath and empties it. While he's distracted she puts his razors in her pocket, and tells him to have a shower and take some time to himself. She goes into his room, picks some of the rubbish and bottles off the floor, confiscates the ones that aren't empty and opens the windows, lets the stuffy air out. By the time she comes back upstairs Charles is showered and changed, sitting on his bed and slowly sobering up. She stays with him all day.
By the time evening rolls around, Charles finally opens up. He tells Raven everything - how he and Erik had kept a quiet correspondence even as their families grew apart, how they'd met at an event one night and felt the quiet thrill of attraction towards one whom they should not be attracted, how they'd gone home together that same night and woken up to the news that the Frost-Lehnsherrs had moved up in the world and were officially now in competition with the likes of the Xaviers. How they'd gone their separate ways having exchanged numbers, how they'd gone months without acknowledging that night until Charles had, while slightly drunk one night, accidentally called him. How it was like taking the first drag on a cigarette when you've not smoked for months, how nice it felt to be around him, to be with him. The way that it wasn't just how hot he was, how illicit the affair was but how nice Erik was to him, how he treated him and took him on dates even though they couldn't be seen together. How they talked, how clever and funny he was, how much Charles enjoyed spending time with him. How eventually he realised he was in love with him, that it was more than the thrill of sneaking out to go on half-hidden dates with the scion of your family's worst enemies, how it was more than everything. How he dealt with it by staying away, until Erik more or less begged him to come back on bent knee, so he returned and just kept coming back. How he grew frustrated with his easy life, how he was bored all the time and constantly compared himself to Raven or Erik - always busy, always working, always moving forward. How Richard's job offer had given him a chance to make a difference, to use one of his skills that wasn't looking good for cameras, to try and do something good for his family. How the stress had driven him into Erik's arms for release, how he'd screwed up and Richard had decided to cut his losses, how all he could feel was guilt and anger and this raging inability to decide between his love and need for Erik and the fact that he knew he was dependent on him. How he felt like all his emotions had bottled up inside of him and the only way he could go to sleep was with alcohol until one day he couldn't and the only thing he could do was cut.
There's a long silence, while Raven takes it in and Charles gets his voice back. And then, in a cracked, stilted voice, Raven opens right back up. She tells him how she and Emma had also kept up a correspondence, how they'd also met at an event and got drunk and gone home together, how both were careful to keep emotions out of it and saw each other as merely a means to an end. How she'd let her guard down, let Emma take advantage of her, how she'd lost all her strength and their fake game before it had begun. How eventually she'd put the pieces together, asked Emma, and when she refused let herself get drunk and go to bed with her for the last time. How Emma had, in the post-coital high, told her the whole thing - the plan, the infiltration, the gun to the head. How she'd left the next morning, unwilling to be around her for any longer than she needed to. How she couldn't think about them anymore without thinking about a family drenched in blood, and how she couldn't look at him without seeing the bloodstains all over his skin.
The next silence is even longer than the first, and then Charles breaks down. Not his violent, angry breakdown of the previous night, but one of pure sorrow, sorrow that their lives are so fucked up, sorrow that he'd made such a mistake, sorrow that the one he loved had betrayed him and his family, sorrow that he'd been blind to Erik's true nature the whole time. Raven has a spare bed, and that night and the next they both sleep in her rooms. It's not that she doesn't trust Charles by himself - it's just that neither of them do.
Charles, to his credit, makes a genuine effort to get better. He makes an effort to drink less and he's honest to Raven and when he feels his mood go down he finds her to look after him and if they go out they stick together so he won't make a regrettable mistake. He goes out more during the day and tries to get his sleeping schedule back on track and he contacts Erik less and doesn't see him at all. He makes an effort - but the best efforts aren't always successful, and she can see it in the way he talks and holds himself and winces away from the world around him. She can see the guilt in his eyes, the way that his thoughts turn from "I did something wrong" to "I fucked the man who is killing my family" and the way that the thoughts prey on him constantly.
When he turns back to the bottle she's lenient, hoping that he’ll be able to control it better now that he's had a break. When he starts to isolate himself again she lets him, thinking that maybe all this new interaction has been tough for him given his mental state. When he stops talking to her and stops spending time with her, she takes it as a sign that he's just trying to be more independent and less reliant on her. Once again, she fails to read the signs.
This time it's not cuts or fully clothed baths or anything so dramatic - it's just that he summons her via text and she finds him drunk and in tears, telling her that he misses Erik and all he wants to do is be around him but he doesn't trust him and he can't see him but it's all he wants to do but it's wrong, and he’s wrong and broken and fucked up and he'll never be fixed and he's so, so wrong. The next morning he doesn't remember and she doesn't mention it, but she knows. She knows he's reverting, that it's getting worse, and eventually she makes one of the hardest decisions of her life.
While Charles is asleep, she gets Erik's number from his phone. Two days later, she sends the first text. She tells him who it is, she tells him that they both know about what Erik did, she tells him that Charles is in a bad way. She doesn't get a response for several days, and when she does it's him telling her that he doesn't associate with their family anymore, that he's got bigger and better things to do. If she was sensible she'd give up there, but she doesn't - she annoys and convinces and wheedles until eventually he gives in and agrees to arrange a meeting with her.
They meet the next afternoon in a neutral cafe in a neutral part of town, and over coffee Raven tells him the abridged version of what happened - that Charles used him as an emotional coping strategy in the past and when he couldn't anymore turned to alcohol and self harm as his strategy. She leaves out the part where Charles, drunk, confessed how much he missed Erik, and the part where she had at the same time been sleeping with his sister.
At first, he laughs in her face. He makes some grandiose statement about how he had only ever seen Charles as something pretty and fun, that he didn't really care about him and his family and that while he enjoyed spending time with him he enjoyed spending time with a dozen other men. That Charles' fucked up mental state is none of his concern.
Raven faces him with an iron face, summons up as much ice as she can from the memory of Emma, and tells him, in quiet, stubborn words.
"Charles loved you. He may still love you now. He did, and it was real and genuine and you were all he thought about and all he cared about. Your betrayal cut him in half, and though he's tried to cover it up I know that he can't handle it. He hates himself for it. He loves you and he hates himself for it. I know he needs professional help, but I figured maybe you could do something, talk to him. At the very least, let him take out his anger to your face - it's the least you deserve. I know you never loved him back - I don’t think you’re capable of loving anything back. But at the very least face up to the shit you caused."
He's silent, for just long enough that Raven considers getting up and leaving and trying to help Charles alone. But then Erik looks up at her, eyes as icy as his sister’s and voice as quiet as hers.
"Fine. Is tomorrow good? Have the house be empty, I don't want to be seen. I'll just talk to him. Let him say his piece. You're a bitch, Raven Xavier, and you don't half know how to manipulate a man. I hope your plan goes well."
CONTENT WARNING INFO: a non POV character struggles with substance abuse, and a POV character finds a non POV character after they have self harmed. Neither is graphic or particularly descriptive, but read at your own discretion.
Chapter 10: If you just take off your mask
Raven makes a terrible mistake. The sort of mistake nobody can clean up.
Content warnings for non-graphic descriptions of murder and suicide (ft. major character death), more info in the endnotes. Title from Robbers.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Somehow Raven has managed to get the house empty of everyone but her and Charles, doing her best combination of asking and whining and wheedling and straight up bribing, until eventually Richard excuses himself into the city, the cleaner takes her extra pay and leaves half an hour early, and it is just the two of them in the house. Charles has been locking himself up in the library recently, apparently preferring the company of books to people, and as the clock ticked down Raven congratulates herself on having the foresight to steal the key before he gets to the point of actually locking the door.
At 1:55 on the dot, Erik texts her to let her know that he's outside. The taxi has dropped him off at the bottom of the hill their house was built on, and she walks down the long drive to meet him by the gates as he gets his breath back from the long walk up. There's a moment of stunning stillness that takes her breath away as she watches him on the other side of the bars and realises just how trapped she and Charles really are. Then the moment passes, she opens up the door on the side of the main gateway and together they make the walk back up to the house.
Erik is characteristically silent, but she can't help but remember their childhood when they would be laughing and chatting, unable to understand their elder sibling's stillness or stoicness and happy just to have playmates their own age. They're still only a few months apart, and it weighs upon Raven again just how much they have all grown in the intervening time between then and now. She stops for a moment to steady herself, and at the sudden pause Erik also stops half a step ahead of her and turns around to face her. "Everything alright?" he asks in his soft, nothing-is-alright voice and she responds "Fine! Just melancholy thoughts," far too loud, far too enthusiastic. He doesn't ask and she doesn't elaborate.
They both pause at the front door while she quietly unlocks it and as soon as they’re inside and the door is shut he turns to her and says in his softness, most poisonous voice "Just what are you expecting?" It takes her barely a moment to come up with a response.
"I don't know. I just want you to talk. I want things to end properly, but here, in my house, where I can know help him. I don't want him to come home at 1 in the morning with a split lip and your blood on his shirt. I want to throw you out myself. I want you to talk."
He looks a little stunned at her brief soliloquy, the way he always does when she rambles on, and in the pause of his silence she calls out loud to the large house "Charles?"
"Study," he responds, shortly. Before she left he had been angry, she recalls, she had heard him throw stuff around, heard him shout at the walls, considered sneaking into his room and taking away some of his drinks, some of his meds. Considered calling someone to see him even if he refused to see them. Had decided better of it, had made a different decision. Taken things into her own hands. Now he sounds quiet, like he's worn himself out. Like he's blissfully unaware now that the anger has bled out of him.
There's a small moment, as Erik begins the walk down to the study and she turns to her wing of the house, as she makes her mind up. As he puts his hand on the doorknob she calls out again "I brought someone to see you."
The knob turns, the door opens, and in a dart she twists into her own wing and locks the door. She sinks down, curling in on herself, propping herself up against the door as a terrible fear rips through her, an overwhelming anxiety and worry that something is wrong wrong wrong. She wants to hope though, wants to imagine things will be okay, but against her will her shaking hands creep towards her phone and dial Emma's number.
The numbness in her arms threatens to make her drop it, but she brings it up to her ear anyway and as Emma answers three rings in, predictable as always, she cuts her off before she can speak. "Emma? It's me, Raven...well you know it is....I called Erik over, I asked him to talk with Charles. Emma, I'm so scared...."
She can't even finish the sentence as dizziness spins her head and turns her stomach and her breaths turn into short gasps, glad she sat down before she could fall over, unable to breath, unable to speak, unable to even move her hands anymore.
Emma, voice clipped and businesslike, says, "I'm on my way." She hears her turn from the phone and cancel her appointments, saying that an emergency has come up. "I'm so sorry...I'm so scared...Emma..." she whispers into the phone and Emma does not reassure her, does not tell her it will be fine, or that she made the right decision.
"Me too," is all she says and hangs up.
Feeling slowly returns to Raven's arms, and she drops her phone and leans her head back against her door, willing herself to get up and open a window or uncurl from her fetal position on the floor. But the anxiety is still too much, and she can barely perceive the world around her little spot, let alone that beyond. The ringing in her ears subsides just in time for her to hear the first raised voice, the first clash of precious object against floor.
She doesn't listen in, unable to focus on specifics or anything other than abstracts about how expensive those items will be to replace, how angry Charles will be with her and how grateful she is that even now, after everything else, Emma is here to pick up the pieces of the mistakes she makes. The shouting continues, Charles' higher voice and Erik's lower one, and as her breathing and vision to normal she focuses on the sounds of their screaming, easier to think about than any of the other shattered shards inside of her brain.
When you make a mistake, it's easy to focus on. It's easy to think about how to fix it, how to pick up the pieces and tape over the fractures. It's easier than unsurities, like when Emma will arrive and what they'll do next and how they'll survive. It's easier to focus on how she'll apologise, what she'll do to make it up, the plans they'll make never to rely on the Frost-Lehnsherrs again.
Her phone buzzes, Emma letting her know she's at the bottom of the hill and that the car is wending its way up. As far as she can hear, the argument in the study has gone quiet, and slowly Raven climbs to her feet and makes a decision. The shorter route is through the main hall and door, but that has access to the study and they could hear her leaving that way and then she’d have to face them. The other choice is her private exit, which is a longer route but keeps her away from the hallway and the chance of running into them. The decision is made by the way that thought sends a fresh wave of anxiety through her and she grabs her phone and flees through her private exit, keys still in her pocket. Running around the house and down the main driveway, she takes a moment to be grateful for whatever version of her didn't make mistakes and remembered to wear shoes and whatever version of her hadn't got trapped in her life of luxury and still had the ability to book it down a driveway if needed (which was surprisingly often).
She reaches the gates just as Emma is paying her taxi, and as she opens the side door again she notes abstractly that Emma is dressed sensibly for once, that she hadn't hidden her arrival like Erik had or bothered to bribe the taxi driver to lie like she would. Somewhere deep inside she knows it's because Emma knows that soon it won't matter anymore. She buries that thought along with all the others and links hands with Emma as they run up the driveway, desperate to get inside before something terrible happens, before the bubble of fear inside Raven's chest bursts.
It happens, in her brain, in a series of scenes.
Scene 1: Emma and Raven are standing outside the main door, which had latched itself when she and Erik entered earlier. Her hands are shaking too much to put the key in, so Emma elbows her aside and takes over, keys dropped in between and picked up in by two sets of shaking hands. In the series of moments between arriving and entering;
Scene 2: there is the sound of a shout, of words that sound like "I can't take this anymore" in Charles voice darkened with months of anger. There is a slammed door, a series of footsteps, the sound of someone desperately scrabbling for something hastily hidden, more footsteps, the sound of a slammed door and a lock turning in a key it never wanted to turn in again. It's far too much to happen in the space of a few moments, but she perceives it so nonetheless and then;
Scene 3: the key turns in the lock of the front door, Emma and Raven burst inside to the sound of one raised voice, one quiet one, a gunshot, and then no raised voices. They race towards the door, stopped short by the lock and bang their hands on it, screaming, begging someone to let them in. There's a moment when still, desperately, Raven thinks all can be okay. And then the locked door opens, they fall inside the room and;
Scene 4: Erik's body is on the floor, blood seeping out across the ground. Charles is not on the floor, but there is a gun in his hands and fear in his eyes. As Raven takes the one, two, three, steps across the study to meet him he moves with the speed she cannot. As her hands reach out to catch his, they move through them like air. There's is a sound like the world is ending. And slowly, oh so slowly, Charles’ body falls.
It falls into her open arms, and she sinks with it, the dead weight of a body abandoned by its spirit, and as Charles breathes his last Raven curls over him, and the bubble of fear in her chest bursts. She's unaware of Emma's horrified face behind her, unaware of the blood sinking into her clothes, unaware of her own screaming and crying. All she can see is body, all she can hear is his breath slowly seeping away, all she can feel is the overwhelming feeling that something is wrong wrong wrong.
And then it all catches up to her at once.
Slowly, slowly, Emma falls to her knees and crawls past Erik to Raven’s shocked form, curled tightly over the body of her brother. Shaking hands call 911, a shaking voice reports a murder-suicide at the Westchester house, yes that one, and that can’t be her can it, this can’t be real. It can’t be Charles’ body in her arms, Erik’s body behind her, it can’t be Emma’s arms wrapping around her and letting Raven cry into her shoulder. It can’t be.
A POV character hears the murder and sees the suicide of a non-POV character, who is a major character in this fic. Neither is graphic or particularly descriptive but read at your own discetion. What did I say about it not being a happy story.
Chapter 11: [Coda 2] Smashing to the ground with you
Charles remembers reading a book once where the character described something known as the last good day. Charles thinks that he also had a last good night - the last night before everything went wrong and everything afterwards became a blur of drink and sadness and bad habits and Raven's disappointed face.
A flashback to a better (?) time. It’s been so long since I wrote a sex scene, wow. Content warnings for sex (if you couldn’t tell from the rating) and a very brief reference to suicide, just in case. Title from Haunt // Bed (I tried so hard not to repeat songs RIP me).
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Charles remembers reading a book once where the character described something known as the last good day. It was put in the context of cancer - the last good day is the last day you have before everything goes to shit and the person you’re caring for is on a feet first slide to the afterlife. Charles thinks that he also had a last good night - in the context of love, not cancer - the last night before everything went wrong and everything afterwards became a blur of drink and sadness and bad habits and Raven's disappointed face. If he could, he would turn off the memories, and he's tempted to find some of the liquor that Raven's not so great at hiding and drink himself into oblivion, but the memories are more tortuous and it's easier to stay and let himself fall into them.
Because he has been falling, been falling since day one. Things had gotten too tense, too hard to deal with, and he'd taken to running straight to Erik's apartment and avoiding his own altogether, avoiding Raven and her anger and disappointment and constant wondering why he tried so hard for a life that gave nothing back, unable to understand that without something to do - awful and impossible though it may have been - he had nothing left to live for, that the inevitable end had gotten all too tempting until he found a purpose and let it take over his life. Plus, he preferred Erik's apartment - theirs reminded him too much of the family home, with items spilling out everywhere and the hints of the luxury that they could never quite shed hidden in every corner. Erik's is more like their childhood home, understated and minimalist with the barest hint of personality. It's easier, less personal and feels less like it belongs to someone other than him and more like it can belong to anyone, himself included.
He's standing outside Erik's door when he realises that Erik's not inside and he hovers briefly on the threshold before making his decision - more risky to leave and come back later, more suspicious if he turns away having already walked up. He pretends to fumble with his keys to excuse his delay, then lets himself inside. It's not the first time he's entered the flat when Erik wasn’t there, but happens rarely, and every time it feels more taboo - sneaking into his forbidden lover's flat when the other hadn't even given him permission to enter? Kinky, he can hear Raven say, and then laugh, and he winces as he closes the door. He walks over to the table, dumps his bag on it and fishes his phone out, texts Erik to let him know he's there and meanders towards the shower. No reply before he gets in, and he showers the day's grime away before wandering back towards the sofa, intending to perhaps watch some TV and wait for Erik to return. He’s got a response from Erik now, a semi-dirty text that makes him reconsider, and he stands outside Erik's bedroom door, thinking.
Personally, he's always considered entering one's bedroom without permission to be the rudest act of all, and when they were younger Raven would do it often for the specific purpose of pissing him off (though given that she also broke into Emma's bedroom at least once that he knows of, perhaps it was more just a habit she had). But this is Erik's bedroom, Erik's bed that he's slept in hundreds of times, and his hand makes his mind up before his thoughts can catch up. He intends, maybe, to stretch out on the bed and prepare himself, catch Erik as he enters and surprise him. But as soon as his head hits the pillow he finds exhaustion catching up with him and he's out like a light.
He wakes a few hours later (2 hours and 37 minutes according to his phone) to the sound of someone entering, and he tenses for a moment before he hears Erik's rough voice call his name. He shucks his clothes and walks out of the half-closed door, trying to go for seductive and instead falling at a solid sleepy. It doesn't stop Erik crossing the room in three strides and catching him in his arms, pressing him against the wall and kissing him deeply. Charles falls into the kiss for a while, panting as Erik slides his hands behind his back and down, head falling to the side as lips chase pale skin. He lets himself be swept away and it’s only when Erik backs off for some air that he looks down and finds red smeared all over his bare chest from where it's come off of Erik's clothes. He doesn’t really need to but he asks anyway, "Blood?"
"Blood. Not mine. Mostly."
Looking closely, he can see the cuts and bruises on Erik's skin, new ones over old ones, and he knows that 'mostly' might be an overstatement but he's willing to let it slide. Instead he pushes Erik back a little and says "Well wash it off! Go, have a shower! I'm going back to bed."
Erik boxes him in, smiles wickedly and bends down, lips touching the shell of Charles' ear and mutters, "I'm not going anywhere unless you help me."
Charles is hardly a blushing virgin by this point, but he flushes anyway, and acquiesces, wanting Erik more than he wants to prove his point, whatever it might have once been. "Fine," he breathes, and Erik kisses him deeply again, before leaning backwards to peel off his jacket and shirt. Charles' instinct is to pull him close again, but the blood, whoever's it may be, has soaked through the fabric onto Erik’s chest, and distaste wins out over lust (just about). "Shower," he says, hand against Erik's chest, and a smile spreads across Erik's face that is 70% lust and 30% amusement. It's an expression only Erik can pull off, he's found, and it's one of his favourites, amongst those containing more lust in general. Erik leads the way, with Charles following afterwards, the former shedding clothes as he goes and the latter fighting the urge to pick them up and put them in the washing machine. It's a curious reversal of their usual roles, and Charles has to laugh at that. When Erik turns with a single raised eyebrow, he says "normally it's you cleaning up after me," and Erik’s face relaxes into an amused smile.
Once inside the bathroom, Charles realises that he left most of his clothes on the floor, albeit in a pile, which he supposes makes him a bit better than Erik. Erik, now entirely nude, bends over to start running a bath and once the water is running sits on the edge and pulls Charles onto his lap to debauch him thoroughly, which he's fairly certain is Erik's ploy to get him into the bath with him, not that it's needed. The bath fills up and Erik slips in, handing a rough cloth to Charles and instructing him to clean. The blood is only just drying on his skin, and it's fairly easy to slough off, although some remains caked in his nails and the roots of his hair that will need some dedicated attention the next morning when they both aren't mostly distracted.
It's a habit Erik has, of getting him riled up and then leaving him be, wholly wanting and half hard, attention partially diverted by something else but some part of his mind always on the anticipation, always waiting for the next droplet of attention. It's a game between them that he always loses, and today's no different - when Erik is clean, he pulls Charles in with him and cleans the transferred blood off his chest. At some point, Charles has the brief realisation that this is more than a little strange - he's fairly certain most people’s idea of foreplay don’t include cleaning dried blood off their lover's body, even less blood transferred from clothes to body during some initial making out - but then they are more than a little strange, and frankly who cares. Who cares what they're doing or how they're fucking or who they're loving if it doesn't hurt anyone, except perhaps Erik's water bill.
Even Erik has more sense than to attempt to make love in the bloody water, and they stand up and towel off as the bath drains, with Charles rolling his eyes at Erik’s lack of care and making a mental note to clean it the next morning. It feels somewhat domestic, the thought, and it's dangerous to think those sorts of things, so he files it away and lets himself be distracted, lets Erik's hands and lips tease his brain away from the melancholy it so often rests on. Erik's needy and wanting tonight, presses him against the inside of the bathroom door once they're dry and then when Charles gasps out "Bed!" he lets him go long enough to them to leave the room before he latches onto him again. It makes his breath catch and his toes curl, the way that Erik boxes him in and presses him against the closed door, the way their bodies slide together and the way that neither of them has or needs words for the want that plays against them, that laps against their skin like the sea. Instead they just let themselves feel it, feel the moans and gasps in each other’s chests and skin flushing hot and erections pressed against each other, Charles pressing down for more and Erik holding him back, not letting him take more than he’s given. At one point he slides his hands between Charles' back and the door and down to his ass and hitches him up and Charles wraps his legs around Erik's back, enjoying the new angle.
It would be easy to stay there, to let Erik slip into him there and then and sate this lush, needy lust, but instead he gasps "Bedroom” again and Erik lets him down, the memory of the last time he tried to carry him advising him to let Charles walk (he’s not as light as his birdlike frame implies, he's proud to say). Instead he lets Charles walk first, presses him against the sofa as they make their way through the living room and letting him sit up on the back, wrapping one hand in his hair and one against his back and supporting him while tilting his head back for better access to his neck. Charles gets one hand between them and gets a few good strokes off on Erik before he leans backwards and smiles, says "Dessert before the main course, eh?" and takes a step backwards.
He gestures at the floor and Charles takes the hint, slides off the sofa, changes places with Erik and slides to his knees, Erik now leaning back against the sofa. Bluntly put, he loves sucking cock, for a lot of reasons, but mostly the way that he can control Erik's reactions in such simple ways. Normally he'd take his time, but he really does want dessert, so he goes to town, enjoying the way Erik gasps and his breath hitches and the way that his hands tighten in Charles’ hair. What he really wants is to jack himself off at the same time, but he's used to only doing that when Erik says he can, so instead he keeps both hands and his mouth on Erik, eyes open to watch his reactions.
It doesn't take long for Erik to pull him back by the hair and snarl out "Bedroom" and as he gets up and follows Erik a series of thoughts briefly flash through Charles’ mind - Erik loves fucking him when he's beaten up, is a bit rougher and more controlling (with Charles' consent), he reckons because with Charles he can regain some of the power he loses when he doesn't emerge from a fight perfectly unscathed - and then Erik distracts him by pushing him against another wall and the thoughts stop. Instead Charles decides not to think, lets himself be a little manhandled, lets Erik mold his body as he sees fit and just goes with the flow. He never properly closed the door to the bedroom and Erik doesn't bother to do so either, pulling him inside and pulling him close, staggering towards the bed.
Charles isn't expecting them to make it, and they don't - instead, as his legs hit the bed and he sits down on it Erik slides down in front of him, looking up at him reverentially. He could never tire of that look, he thinks, could never tire of the way Erik worships him like something special, and in this alone he takes strength, in this alone he is able to control what happens next. He moves down off the bed onto Erik's lap, lands a little roughly and they both laugh, and then Erik leans back, takes his weight and lets him kiss him deeply, lets him control their motions and enjoy the way he affects Erik with his subtle movements. Eventually Erik growls "over" and he rolls onto his back, watches Erik reach over to wherever he keeps the nearest bottle of lube and then come back over to him, leaning down to kiss him as he slips one finger in.
It's not really healthy, to fuck on the floor - great way to hurt your back - but he doesn't mind, just lies back and accepts whatever Erik gives to him. Sometimes they try new things and sometimes they go back to tried and tested things, but apparently tonight is one of the simple nights: Erik wants him in the easiest way possible and Charles wants whatever Erik will give him. Erik whispers soft encouragement in his ear, more pep talk than dirty talk, and Charles responds with the movements of his body, clenching down on Erik's fingers as his own encircle Erik's dick. After a few rounds of this and Erik getting thoroughly distracted he uses his spare hands to push both of Charles' above his head, and he takes the hint and stays there, instead wrapping his legs around Erik's waist and pulling him close.
He's not exactly in the mood for patience and apparently neither is Erik, who takes the hint, lubes himself up and pushes himself into Charles, slow enough for him to get used to it, fast enough for it to be not even slightly teasing. Charles is open and willing, and he takes Erik easily, leaning back to allow for a better angle and letting Erik move him around until they're both comfortable. Erik stays in for a beat and then pulls out again, rocking backward and forward until they have a steady rhythm. It's simple and to the point and Charles loves it, appreciates the simpleness and directness, so like Erik that he feels his heart might burst with affection.
He tries to stifle it and instead all the guilt he's been repressing comes out of nowhere, and what starts as a moan turns into a sob halfway through. He muffles it against Erik's skin and he's ready for the next one, disguises it as best he can, and tries to distract himself with the feeling of Erik's skin on his, Erik’s dick, his soft kisses. But the thoughts are there now and he can't escape them, can't escape the fear and dread and awful awful guilt. This close, Erik is hard to fool, and he pulls back a little, holds one hand against Charles' face and mutters "What's wrong? Charles, what's wrong."
Charles is silent, trying to find words, then gives up and comes out with something trite and empty, "I remember something," he says, between moans half genuine and half disguise, "I always loved you best with blood all over your hands." It's a quote, he knows, though from what he could not say, but Erik appreciates it nonetheless and lets the obvious half-deception slide, instead rocking against him and holding him close. He knows how best to get Charles off, and as he feels his orgasm approach, slowly genuine pleasure takes over his mind. He throws himself into it, lets himself get lost in the fog, and as it overwhelms him he leaves his mind there, unwilling to return to conscious thought. Above him, Erik comes a few thrusts later, and overwhelms and embraces him, the way he so often does, covering his body with skin and kisses and bruise marks, unwilling to let him go. Charles lets himself be kept, lets himself be moved and adored, and pretends he laps it up. He tries to remain thoughtless, tries to stay in the fog of post-orgasmic bliss, but one thought appears unwarranted - the thought that after this it needs to end. It goes at soon as it comes, but it brings with it a feeling of regret that lies next to the guilt in his heart. He covers it up and lets Erik pretend to love him.
On the table above them, Charles' phone quietly dies of battery loss. In the room next door, Erik's is soon to follow suite. Yet it remains alive enough to receive one text. It's from Emma, and it reads, "I've made my mind up, brother mine. You should lead."
Neither of them hears it and neither of them cares.
It remains, Charles thinks later, their last good night.
Tell me if I should up the rating to explicit for this chapter? I'm not sure. I edited this outside my university's chapel because I love to live in sin.
Chapter 12: Epilogue
But he's there, he's in front of her and he's holding her hand even now and tracing the lines, lines she'd added to since then, and he keeps saying it, keeps saying "You look so cool," and then someone else has taken her hand, someone real and tangible and cold.
Finally! I’m sorry this took me so long, the last two weeks have been horrifically busy but it’s reading week now so I thought I’d finish it off.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Raven exists in a state of numbness. Never one for denial, she can't pretend that what's happened hasn't, but she refuses to let it hit her, refuses to let it hurt her. Emma withdraws, locks herself in their house for a while and emerges pale and red eyed but cold as ice, brushing Raven off like she's little more than dust in a storm. So Raven numbs herself too, doesn't look at Charles' clothes or his rooms or the space on the sofa where he used to sit, doesn't allow herself to think of his absence for fear that she will drown in sorrow and never emerge. It’s only on the day of the funeral when she lets herself feel, in the morning when she wakes early to allow for several hours sitting in front of the mirror unable to move, terrified of being late but also terrified of leaving the house. She turns her alarm off and lies in bed half awake for an hour, until her phone rings. Without thinking or checking the caller ID she answers it, and turns over as Emma's voice comes through the speakers, crackly and slightly tinny.
"We're picking you up from your house, right?" she says, and when Raven remains inevitably silent says, "I'm sorry. I can't...I didn't want to face it. You were there. It was a reminder. I....."
She trails off and hangs up, and Raven rolls slowly out of bed. She somehow forces food and drink into her body, gets dressed in clothes she laid out the night before and then sits down in front of her mirror, staring as the dull, hazy-eyed reflection looks back.
She remembers the hours and days after the event, when the police arrived and pulled her and Emma away from the room, the bodies, and the long hours in the station explaining what had happened in simple, emotionless sentences. Her and Emma, hands linked, sitting in front of a jury of the heads of their respective families, explaining: that both they and their brothers had been having affairs for months, that on the day of the killing Emma had broken and come to Raven instead while Erik continued with the plan, that their affair ended that night but Erik and Charles continued until Charles ended it, than once Charles knew the whole truth he was unable to control himself, that sometimes the only way out is the darkest way. Their families, united by tragedy and eyes wide open at last to the horror that is their lives, Emma and Richard holding it all together, deciding that to hold the funerals together, both symbolically and personally. Different graves, different headstones, same ceremony, same location, families lined up on opposite sides of the church and green like a wedding.
Raven let Richard do all the organising on account of his finally seeming alive again and also the fact that she still technically didn't belong to the family. She supposes that Emma organised the Frost-Lehnsherr's side of things, but she hasn't asked. They haven't really talked since then.
It's cold, the end of autumn coming in, and Raven shivers as she sits alone in her room, struggling not to cry, struggling to hold it together until she's alone at the end of it all. Maybe they won't talk again. But she misses him, misses him next to her, laughing and telling her off and marvelling at how often she changed herself for others, the world, herself most of all. Misses how he made gentle fun of her but supported her when she needed it, misses how they fit together like peas in a pod despite how different their lives became. Every second of every day she wants to open the door to his room, to see him there, and every time she walks past the study, clean as it now is, all she can remember is the blood on the floor.
It hurts when the car arrives and she gets in, when she sits next to Emma who looks so composed, until you look closely and see the tear tracks over the paint over the tear tracks. It hurts when they drive to the graveyard and go past the school where all four of them were educated together, when they arrive, when they sit through the service and watch their bodies be lowered into the ground, when everyone else sits down and it falls on her to speak next. It was decided, in the spirit of equality, that the only speakers would be her and Emma. Their order was decided by a coin toss; she lost. She takes three deep breaths and gets up.
She honestly can't even remember writing the speech, so numb has she been over the past few weeks, but it sounds like something she'd write as she reads out the words in a hollow, quiet voice. It talks about Charles, about his hope and faith and endless enthusiasm, about how much he believed in humanity's fundamental goodness and how much he applied himself to anything he put his mind to. It talks about how much he cared about doing something, about making a difference, about how grateful he was for any opportunity to prove that he wasn't just the spoiled rich son of a spoiled rich family but a real person with goals and dreams beyond just money. It talks about how much he hated the life he was forced to live and the person he was forced to be, how much he wished for an escape and how every time he found it he always came home because someone - his father, his uncle, Raven - called him back. It talks about how he found his last escape with Erik, how it was intoxicating and thrilling and yet how much he loved him, about how she knew it was unhealthy and didn't stop it because she was so caught up in the tangles of her own life, but how despite it all, despite all the hate and anger and pain, he was still bright and full of life.
She comes back to herself as she reads out the last few sentences. "Despite everything, Charles always noticed, and he always cared. I remember...not too long before it ended, I came home one day. For as long as I can remember I'd always changed myself, hair, style, skin - I had more tattoos than I could count, and one day I'd decided I wanted something different. Scarification, is the word. Raised lines over engraved ink. I came home - Richard was out - and Charles found me in the lobby. He was...mostly sober, and as soon as he saw what I'd done he was...happy. That I'd found what I wanted next, that I’d found another creative outlet. I remember, he took my hand and traced over the lines with one finger, and he kept saying four words over and over again. "You look so cool," he said, "so so cool." He-"
Her voice breaks, at last, in memory. The tears start and don't end, and she hates herself for doing this, for breaking down at last in front of a crowd of mostly strangers and unable to do even this for him. But he's there, he's in front of her and he's holding her hand even now and tracing the lines, lines she'd added to since then, and he keeps saying it, keeps saying "You look so cool," and then someone else has taken her hand, someone real and tangible and cold.
It's Emma, stood up from where she sat at the front, calm and collected and voice only slightly breaking. She stands next to Raven, holding her hand, speaking for her.
"He always cared about other people no matter what, and he always wanted them to feel good. That's the Charles we want to remember, not broken, sad, twisted by this life and this world, but happy and full of endless light and energy. That's the Charles we knew."
There's silence, and then Emma takes a deep breath and starts speaking again.
She speaks about Erik, about how he too was full of life and energy and determination, about how their parents so often talked about power and becoming better than they ever were and how he latched onto it, and was sometimes blinded by it - the desire to always be more. She talks about how he was never perfect but he always tried, always tried to help their parents and their family and her. About how he always wanted what was best for those he cared about, even if sometimes he thought he knew better than them what that was, and about how, in the end, his one goal was for their family - her - to be comfortable. Not strong, not rich, not powerful - though those were always by the side - but comfortable, and never allowed to fall again. She talks about how much she misses his quiet strength beside her, about how much she regrets that when she broke her reaction was not to stop him but to run away, about how much she regrets that their life and goals and familial determination led them to where they were now. Finally, she talks about their childhood, shared and separate, and how they grew up and close and then more and far, about how their childhood innocence changed and warped, and about how much she hates that the life they lived both shared and separate led to them to seek each other, at last, in silence and darkness.
Raven stands in silence, eyes low, lets Emma's words wash over her. When she finishes, there's a moment, where nobody knows what to do next.
And then Emma speaks three more sentences, at last.
"The prodigal sons are dead. They will not live or speak or breathe again. It is up to us to raise a generation stronger than us, joined together by tragedy."
They stand, in silence, facing their families, joined by tragedy and death and two hands, grasped together, so tightly they can never be unbound.
“Well, now that you've got your gun
It's much harder now the police have come
Now I'll shoot him if it's what you ask
But if you just take off your mask
You'd find out everything's gone wrong.
Now everybody's dead
And they're driving past my old school
He's got his gun, he's got his suit on
She says, "Babe, you look so cool.”
“Robbers” - The 1975
I honestly can’t believe it’s actually done - this idea has been in my head for so long and now it’s real, and finished, and I’m free. Thanks Annabelle for cheering me on/enabling me :) Sorry if I made you sad (not sorry).