Charles sat on the floor, back against the cold radiator and smoked a cigarette. The window had stuck open an inch, the wooden frame swollen after the rain. He blew the smoke out of the crack into the gray morning. The church bells tolled in the distance, calling the good God-fearing folk to the Sunday service.
The cigarette was burnt to the filter but he hung on to it. It was his last one, and putting it out meant that he would have to get up, put some clothes on and go buy more. Then he would have to walk outside, past the blood stains on the sidewalk and possibly answer the neighbors questions about what happened there. He was far too hungover to face that now. He needed the hair of the dog, coffee and at least two more cigarettes to even consider getting up from the floor.
The tip burned his fingers and he gave up, leaning to drop the cigarette butt in an old teacup that he used as ashtray. There was a sudden sharp crackle, then a tired groan when the tub emptied from water. Charles glanced at the closed bathroom door. Hangovers had only one upside: thoughts didn't get through the blunt headache. Usually Charles looked forward to that silence, but this time it allowed a certain element of surprise that he didn't like.
The door opened, letting out steam that smelled like old candles. It stuck to the window glass in a greasy sheen.
“I like your bathroom,” Wesley said when he walked into the room, running a towel through his wet hair. “That's one big tub.”
Wesley looked disgustingly perky, and not a mark on his skin from the fight. Charles knew first hand what difference the healing bath did, but it still seemed impossible that Wesley had bled on his carpet only an hour ago. Most of all, it was unfair. The bath didn't help with hangovers.
Charles had tried.
“You wouldn't have any smokes on you, would you? I could use one,” Charles asked, rubbing his face. Wesley went to his coat and rummaged through the pockets. His coat made a sound, a clatter of metal and Charles wondered what kind of arsenal he carried around this time. Wesley had a tendency to go for the overkill with weapons. Charles didn't personally understand the appeal. Guns were so clunky and loud, too much trouble. There were easier ways to kill someone, when you put your mind to it.
Wesley pulled a flattened pack of smokes out of the coat pocket and flicked it at him. He didn't catch it and the pack flopped against his shoulder. The headache made him slow.
”A bit banged up from the fight, but see what you can do. Do you have any coffee?”
Charles nodded and waved toward the kitchen. He shook the smokes out of the pack and chose one, rolling it between his fingers to smooth out the wrinkles. Wesley walked to the kitchen. Charles heard him open and close cupboards, looking for things he needed. Charles didn't offer any help. His kitchen wasn't that big, Wesley could manage it. He lit a match, holding the flame steady and inhaled deep. The hit of nicotine soothed the headache and Charles sighed in relief, dropping the burnt match in the teacup.
The coffee pot gurgled, the fridge door opening and closing. Wesley walked back to the living room, with two mugs in his hands and a quarter-bottle of whiskey under his arm, like he was the mind reader here. Wesley handed one mug to him and left the whiskey on the floor. Charles nodded in thanks.
Wesley sat on the sofa, stretching his legs. Charles noticed the pale white scars crisscrossing at the bottom of his feet. Those were new. Charles tasted the coffee. It was hot and black, very strong. He uncorked the whiskey, splashed some in the mug and tasted again. Better.
They drank in silence for a while.
”What do you want Wesley?” Charles finally asked, when he felt steady enough to hear the answer.
Wesley smirked. ”Is that any way to talk to your dear brother, who saved you from a serious ass-kicking? You're welcome, by the way.”
”Please, it wasn't my first bar brawl. I had it under control,” Charles said and leaned to flick ash to the teacup. ”You should've stayed out of it.”
”Don't fool yourself. You can't disarm a fucking kitten when you are that drunk.”
”Yes, because kittens so often need to be disarmed,” Charles muttered and emptied the mug with a thirsty gulp. He held it out to Wesley, who sighed and handed his own mug to him. He used milk instead of whiskey so it didn't have the same effect, but Charles drank it anyway. The caffeine and alcohol created a soft buzz inside his head. He leaned back against the radiator, sighing. ”Tell me what you want.”
”I need you for a job.”
”I don't do wet works anymore,” Charles said. ”I quit.”
”Who said anything about a wet work? This is more of a search and rescue. Damsel in distress, innocent lives at stake, fate of the world in balance? Right up your alley.”
”Screw you Wesley,” Charles said and crumpled the empty pack of smokes, throwing the ball at Wesley's head. He missed by a mile and the carton bounced behind the sofa. Wesley laughed loudly and Charles grimaced. ”Stop laughing. And get me more coffee.”
Wesley smirked and got up, walking back to the kitchen with the empty mug. Charles felt his mind moving, the familiar shape of it. He didn't see any details, but Wesley felt worried. He leaned to crush the cig in the teacup, thinking. As much as he wanted to help Wesley, what ever this job was, Charles didn't want to get tangled with the Fraternity. And at the moment he didn't know if there was one without the other. Yet, Wesley didn't ask for his help often so this meant something.
Wesley returned and handed him the coffee mug. Then he took a folded paper from his coat pocket and held it out to him. Charles hesitated for a moment, but finally reached to take it. Wesley sat back down, watching him.
Charles opened the paper. It was a copy of a photograph, the details blurred into black and white mess. The photo was taken from afar, the angle up and from the left. It was a man, his head tilted slightly up to the camera, like he had just realized that someone watched him. Charles couldn't make much out of his face. He wore a hat and the picture was shoddy. He had a long coat, gray or beige maybe, and he carried a briefcase.
"If this is your idea of a damsel in distress, we need to have talk about what the word damsel means," Charles said and tucked the corner of the paper under the ashtray to keep it straight.
"He does have long legs and he's in trouble. Close enough."
"Will you take the job?"
"What kind of trouble he's in, Wesley?"
"Will you take the job, Charles?"
Charles stared at him, trying to get a sense what the catch was. It was hard when Wesley's mind flickered like a broken neon sign and the headache pounded behind his left eye. Charles glanced at the photograph again. The man looked annoyed.
“Who is he?”
Wesley said nothing, just drank his coffee like he hadn't even heard the question. Charles hated that.
"Fine. I'll do it," Charles said and uncorked the whiskey, adding a splash to the coffee. He had a feeling that he didn't want to be too sober for this. “Who is he? What kind of trouble he's in?”
"That's Erik Lehnsherr. He's my new Gunsmith."
"Right. So he needs protection from you," Charles said, tasting the coffee. "That's simple. Leave him alone. There, done."
“What do you know about what's happening at the Fraternity?”
“I heard it's a big mess after you put a bullet through Sloan's head.”
“Right now the Fraternity is a stomped ant hill,” Wesley said, staring at his coffee mug like it had some divine answer hidden inside. “There are fractions that exploit the chaos, and they will do anything to stop me from pulling the Fraternity back together. They know I need Lehnsherr to do it."
"If he's that important, why haven't they tried to take him out?"
“He is the best bullet bender I've ever seen. It doesn't matter which end of the gun he is, he snaps his fingers, and the bullets obey. He can toss them aside like it means nothing. No one wants to waste potential like that, especially not when our ranks have decreased.”
Charles tried to imagine that kind of power. He had never gotten the hang of the bending. He couldn't stop analyzing the shot, breaking the event apart until there was nothing left. He knew a bended shot was impossible, and he couldn't let go of that notion. Luckily he had other skills that had made him invaluable for the Fraternity.
”I don't think you would ask me to be his bodyguard then. Why do you need me?”
“He vanished two days ago. We were supposed to meet in Brugges, but he never came there. I asked around, and all signs started to point here. At first I thought it could be a coincidence, but after that bar fight, I'm starting to think she planned this from the start. You get beat up, a knife in the ribs, and you lay in the bathtub for the rest of the day, no use to anyone. She's good.”
“Who do you think? Emma.”
Charles grimaced. That was the one name he didn't want to hear. He took the whiskey and poured more of it in the coffee mug. He chugged it down with a thirsty gulp. Wesley looked disapproving but he didn't say anything. That was fine, Charles didn't want to hear it. He sighed, the alcohol creating a warm glow inside his chest.
”If she wants to play with the Gunsmith, do the smart thing and let her play. Find another one. How hard can it be?”
”No. I want Lehnsherr, and I will get him out of Frost's hold even if I have to find a diamond bullet and shoot her in the head to do it.”
Charles shrugged and picked another cig, rolling it between his fingers. It could be one too many.
”What exactly you want me to do?”
”I found her safe house, it's not far from here. I want you to get me inside, and help me find Erik. That's it.”
“That's it? I know Emma and so do you. She's not an idiot. She'll expect you to come for the Gunsmith. Which means you have no chance in hell of getting anywhere near anything she doesn't want you to get near.”
“But you do,” Wesley pointed out. “I'll draw her attention and you get Erik. It's perfect.”
“No, because then she has you in her hold. I think the future leader of Fraternity is a better chip on the table than a Gunsmith, no matter how skilled.”
“Don't worry about that. Your job is to get Erik out of the house, I'll do the rest.” Wesley emptied his mug and got up. “Can I borrow socks? And a clean shirt? I think mine is beyond help.”
“In the bedroom, the closet on the right,” Charles said. Wesley got up and walked to the bedroom. While he rummaged through his closets, Charles took the picture and looked at it closer. He couldn't make out much from his face, but he was sure he would recognize the man if he saw him.
“Charles, where is your gun?” Wesley asked, holding an empty box. He had taken his blue shirt. It fit him better. “I've told you, the only things you can store in a sock drawer are socks and porn, that's it.”
“It's a box,” Charles pointed out, grabbing a hold of the window sill and pulling himself up. He felt alright, the holy triad of caffeine, nicotine and alcohol shoring up his mood. “It doesn't matter where I keep it.”
“You didn't pawn your gun, did you? It was a birthday present, I had it a custom-made for you!”
“I didn't pawn it,” Charles said. “Raven borrowed it.”
“Fuck's sake,” Wesley said. “This is why I need a Gunsmith. Here.” He went to his coat and dug up a gun from one of the pockets, placing it on the coffee table. It was a SIG-Sauer P220, standard model. It looked out of place between his books and study notes.
"I'll go get the car. You haven't forgotten how to use one of these? I don't want you to accidentally blow your own foot off while I'm gone."
"Point, pull the trigger," Charles said. “I'll try not to aim it at myself.” He walked to the bathroom, careful not to make any sudden moves. His headache had settled to a tolerable level, and he didn't want to give it a reason to spark up again.
"Not funny,” Wesley shouted.
"Lock the front door when you leave," he shouted back, turning the water on. The water shifted between hot and cold, so he showered quickly. When he walked back to the living room, Wesley was gone, the flat empty and quiet. The gun was still on the table. Wesley had tucked the folded picture under it. He looked at the picture again.
“What is a guy like you doing with my brother?” Charles muttered. “And I have to get you away from Emma? Damn.” He wished he had had the sense to kick Wesley out an hour ago, but it was too late now. He was in this mess with him. Charles tossed the picture on the table and went to the bedroom to get dressed.
He found his heavy boots in the back of the closet and he put them on. He walked back to the living room, grabbing things he might need, his lighter, bit of money, his lock picks before pulling on his pea coat and shoving the items in the front pockets. For a moment he considered leaving the gun on the table. It wouldn't help against Emma, and he didn't care to carry one anyway. But Wesley would know if he had it or not, and he wasn't in the mood to argue about this. Charles shoved the gun in his pocket, buttoned the coat up to the collar, took his gloves and closed the door behind.
The wind had picked up, pushing the heavy gray clouds across the sky. The air was chilly and fresh, the rain eased into a slow drizzle. Wesley wasn't there yet, so Charles walked down the street to buy smokes from the corner store. The shopkeeper mentioned the fight few streets down, how the police had arrested someone. He wondered the state of the neighborhood these days and Charles nodded, agreeing. Wesley had that impact, but he didn't say that to the shopkeeper.
He took his smokes and left, walking back to his front door. A car idled on the street, dirty and black, one of those models Charles never could tell apart.
Wesley pushed the passenger seat door open. ”Get in.”
”This is one crappy car,” he said.
”It's works, what else do you want? Leather seats?”
Charles shrugged and got in. Wesley slammed the dashboard, the radio sputtering a piece of news and a commercial jingle before settling to the news station. Wesley drove quietly and Charles dozed off, the window cold under his cheek. The headache reduced into steady pressure, mixing with the tap of rain against the windshield.
It felt like only a minute later that Wesley stopped the car and smacked his shoulder. ”Wake up, time to go to work.”
Wesley opened the door and the cold air jolted him awake. Charles yawned and rubbed his eyes. Wesley had parked the car in the back road, and next to a couple of trash cans it didn't look out of place. Charles got out and reached for his smokes, opening the pack with clumsy fingers. He flicked the lighter and inhaled, waiting for the first drag to hit before looking around.
The street was quiet, the sound of the freeway a distant rumble. The neighborhood was an odd medley of things. Some of the old houses were scarred with new money, chopped up to smaller apartments, designed up to the rafters. Some looked abandoned, some well-kept. He looked around slowly. He kept coming back to the house with a green door. There was something off about it.
“That's hers, isn't it?”
Wesley nodded. ”What do you think? Is he in there?”
Charles focused, allowing his mind to wander closer to the house. Something nudged him off the course the closer he got to the door. Charles shook his head.
“She's running some sort of interference. I can't tell much from here.”
“I thought you were good at this.”
“I am,” Charles said, dropping the cigarette to the ground. “But so is Emma. It's her house, her advantage.”
“So she could have an army in there and you wouldn't know,” Wesley said. “Great.”
“She doesn't need an army. She'll blink and you will bark like a dog for two weeks, like the last time,” Charles said. “And the army would be useless against me, because I could make them bark like dogs.”
“Good point,” Wesley said and glanced down the street. “If you got nothing out of the house, then stay here, I'll go take a look at the back.”
Charles didn't try to stop him. Wesley walked down the street and vanished behind the corner. He would circle the block, maybe walk around a bit further to get a better idea of the house. It would take a while. Charles considered getting back to the car and taking a nap, but he couldn't turn his eyes away from the door. It was green. The more he looked at it, the more he started to think he should go and open it. He knew an invitation when he saw it.
Charles crossed the street and walked to the door. It wasn't locked, and he pushed it open. The foyer was empty and silent. Charles stepped in, listening. No sounds, no movement from thinking minds. The air was stale, smelling like dust and damp wood. Charles let the door close behind him and for a second he felt disoriented and weightless, like submerged in cold water. He adjusted his mental shield and the sensation vanished.
“What's with the parlor tricks, Emma?” Charles muttered. Emma had better tricks up her sleeve than a low-key repellant push.
He checked the two sitting rooms in the ground floor. Both rooms were bare, the wallpapers stripped away and the floors torn up. There was nothing to see. Charles moved to the staircase, stepping carefully so the stairs wouldn't creak.
The second floor opened as two long hallways to left and right, both sides turning in sharp corners at the far end. Charles chose the hallway on the right. He tried to work fast, relaying on fleeting impressions. He touched the doors like searching for a fire but nothing sparked. The rooms were empty. He turned the corner and reached the end of the hallway, the large window letting in daylight. It had started to rain again. Charles turned around to return to the stairs, when a conscious mind flickered and vanished at the other end of the floor. Charles pulled his gun, glancing around the corner. The hallway was empty. He ran as quietly as he could to the other end and looked around the second corner. Empty. Only same big window as the other side.
Charles looked around, trying to figure out where the flicker had originated. He checked the doors on his way back to the stairs, but he didn't put much thought to it. He was sure this floor was empty. He walked up to the third floor. The air smelled like lemon detergent, the walls were mauve and seemed to fluctuate in his eyes. Charles shifted his shield and when he looked again, the hallway settled back to normal. It was a trick to hide small details. Emma had created it for a complicated job few months before Charles had left. He had no idea why she would throw that at him. It was harmless on its own.
Charles went to left this time, and the fourth door sparked. He put the gun back to his pocket and tried the doorknob. The door was locked. Charles learned how to pick locks when he had been eight, and he had practiced with doors like this one. It took him a moment to pick it, longer than he liked but finally there was a familiar click. Charles straightened up, took his gun and pushed the door open.
The room was narrow and there were chairs everywhere, stacked in high piles. The burn of a human mind was bright but shapeless. Charles walked further, looking around. He missed him at first, a slumped shape in the corner. In a room full of chairs he sat on the floor, leaning against the wall.
Charles approached him carefully and stopped at arm's length from him. He crouched down to see his face. It was the man from the photo. He looked younger without the annoyed frown.
He didn't stir, eyes fixed on a spot on the floor.
“Wesley sent me. Can you hear me?”
Nothing. Charles pressed his fingers against his neck. His pulse was steady but slow, skin cool to touch. He had shirt and pants on, but no coat.
“She put quite a whammy on you,” Charles said and took off his coat, spreading it over him. “But don't worry, I've seen worse. I've fixed worse.”
Erik had no comment on that either. Charles got up and squeezed past the closest pile of chairs to get to the window. He looked out and saw a piece of street, corner of the garden. He closed his eyes and let his mind wander, sliding down like water against the glass. He hovered over the garden, the animal minds pale bursts of hunger and fear. A mouse, a cat, a magpie.
He tried to move forward but he couldn't get past the garden. He should've found Wesley in seconds, but all he got was the circle of a mouse, a cat, a magpie. Emma's interference technique worked. He pulled back to himself, opening his eyes. Wesley might be inside already, or he might have gone back to the alley to look for him. There was no way to know. Charles went back to Erik.
"Looks like we are on our own," Charles said to him and knelt next to him. “Let's see what we got here.” He turned his head gently to get eye contact. Erik didn't object. He was as emotionless as a doll.
“This might feel a bit uncomfortable.”
Charles focused, pressing his fingers against his temple, ignoring the headache. He reached out, inspecting the fringes of Erik's mind. It felt rigid, trapped. Charles pressed closer against the smooth surface. He moved in spiraling movement closer and closer to his mind, pushing to find a weakness, an anomaly. He didn't find anything. It was beautifully crafted lock-down, both solid and self-sustaining.
Charles dropped his hand and sighed, rubbing his face.
"I wouldn't have drunk so much last night if I had known I would end up playing the animator," he said. "I'm sorry, that's a lie. I would've drunk just as much, maybe more. Wesley has this knack to land in trouble and drag everyone down with him. Trust me, you don't want to be sober for that. Alright. Let's try something else."
He pressed his fingers back against his temple and tried again. Around the fringe, across the vast empty whiteness. Something small and quick flickered in the bottom of Erik's mind but Charles couldn't catch it.
"If you can hear me, do that again," Charles said and focused on the spot where his mind had moved. It was an emotion, strong and easy to pick up, if only he was fast enough. "Was it because of Wesley?”
The light flickered again and Charles zoned in on it, following it down, trying to get a hold. It was cold inside his mind, everything slippery and angular.
“Wesley is ten minutes younger than me, but he acts like the big brother. He smokes this awful brand of smokes, and he puts milk in his coffee." Charles threw tidbits against Erik's mind like pebbles against the window. The light flickered faster and Charles captured it, pulling it to the surface with him. It slipped through his hands at the last minute, but he caught it again, drawing it to him. Erik blinked.
"Good, there you go,” Charles said and Erik blinked again, his head moving slightly to follow his voice. Erik struggled under the cold, clear lid, his mind sparking and sputtering. Charles dove back in and pulled up, showing him the way out. He got more animated, his fingers twitching.
“Follow that route, you'll be fine in a minute,” Charles said and started to get up from the floor.
The gunshot came out of nowhere, the bullet tearing through a chair, pieces of wood flying around before it embedded in the wall. Charles flung over Erik and knocked him down, covering him with his body. The door closed with a soft thud. Charles recognized the mind in the room in a split second. He got up, slow and careful.
"Fox, what the hell?”
"Charles?” She walked closer, weaving through the chairs. “What are you doing here?"
"What are you doing here? And why did you take a shot at me?"
"I thought you were someone else," she said. She was half-hidden behind a pile of dining room chairs, closer to the door than the corner.
"You thought I was Wesley," Charles said. She looked agitated, something Charles had never seen before. “You tried to shoot him.”
“Just a warning shot. That's why the bullet is in the wall, not in your ass,” she said. “Now, get away from there. Let me handle him.”
“No, I'm good right here,” Charles said. “Mind telling me what's going on? Last time I saw, you and Wesley worked together as a team, and now you want to shoot him?”
"I'm trying to save Wesley," she said, her voice tight. "From him.” She pointed the gun at Erik. Charles saw the need to fire inside her mind, but he couldn't see the reason behind it.
“Put that away, would you? You won't shoot me and I won't let you shoot him, all helpless like that,” Charles said. “And I could use a smoke.”
She glanced at Erik and then back to him. She made an annoyed little hiss and clicked the safety on, pushing the gun back to its holster on her side. Charles nodded in thanks and leaned to take the pack from his coat pocket. Erik laid on his side, staring up at him, then swerved his eyes to Fox's direction. He couldn't see her, but he obviously recognized the voice. Charles patted his shoulder what he considered a calming gesture and moved back to Fox's view.
Charles held his hand open so she could see he only had a pack of smokes. She watched him, her shoulders tense. Charles tapped the pack and pulled a cigarette out with his teeth, settled it to a corner of his mouth. He showed the lighter to her too and flicked a flame, inhaling the smoke.
“So what's the story? Why do you think he is a threat to Wesley?"
“Wesley didn't tell you,” Fox said, crossing her arms.
“You tell me then,” Charles said. Fox looked as she always did, thin and high-strung like her namesake. He had never gotten a good grasp of her mind, there were too many hidden corners, things folded within. And he had never tried that hard, out of respect.
“Do you know where Wesley found him?” Fox asked. Charles shook his head. “Two days after the battle of the Factory, Wesley fished him out of the sea. He was about to drown and Wesley jumped after him, pulled him out. Saved his life."
“That's...” Charles tried to come up with a right word. “New.”
“Wesley can't explain why he did it. Then it turns out that the man he pulls to the shore happens to be a Gunsmith, just the thing Wesley desperately needs. Thousand possibilities where he could've been that day, and he ends up where that man is. What are the odds?”
“Maybe it was a plain coincidence? It's possible.”
“Please. Nothing happens out of design, you know that,” Fox said. “He's on a job, I'm sure of it. He works for Emma.”
Erik struggled to get up from the floor, his movements uncoordinated. It caught Fox's eye and she pulled her gun again, rather casually. The black tendrils sat in her hand, the gun an extension of her. Charles knew how good she was, and that made him wonder why she bothered talking with him in the first place. She could've shot them both ten times over.
“Factory happened weeks ago. If Erik wants to kill Wesley, why the long con?” Charles pointed out. He glanced at Erik's direction. His eyes were open and focused on him. “And why would Emma put a whammy on him? He can't kill anyone when his mind is sludge.”
"I don't know yet but I plan to find out,” she said. “Run home, take a nap, eat a nice dinner, go to work tomorrow. Forget all this. It's not your problem anymore.”
“You have no idea how good that sounds,” Charles said and dropped the cigarette on the floor, stepping on it. He leaned to pick the butt and dropped it in his pants pocket. There was no point burning down the house. “But I can't do that. Wesley asked me to get Erik out of here and that's exactly what I'm going to do.”
Fox raised the gun, pointing at his head. “Not a wise decision.”
Charles glanced over her shoulder and shrugged.
"Give your gun to Charles," Wesley said behind her, pushing the gun against her neck. "Now, Fox."
She clicked the safety on, letting her grip loosen and the gun roll, the barrel pointing at the ceiling. Charles reached to take it from her, and a silent threat flashed in her eyes. Charles held the gun as cautiously as it was alive, about to bite him.
"Now. Tell me why you are here, or you'll be the next lucky winner for a day trip in the bath tub," Wesley said. "Talk."
“I heard you had some trouble. I came to help."
"You heard how? I haven't told anybody about this," Wesley said. “Unless you are in it with Emma. You want to steal my Gunsmith."
"No," she said and turned slowly around to look at him. "I'm trying to save you from yourself. That man has blinded you. He is not on our side."
Her mind snapped between two conflicting impulses. She had to protect Wesley. She had to get to Erik. Back and forth in obsessive circles. It didn't feel like her. Charles frowned.
"Same old Fox,” Wesley said. “Always looking out for me. You would know all about betrayal, wouldn't you?”
They stared at each other like two angry cats and Charles tried to hear them, to feel if he should step in or not. Her mind quieted, an odd white noise spreading over their thoughts.
Emma was close.
"Wesley, we need to get out of here,” Charles said and turned to help Erik to his feet.
"We'll finish this later," Wesley said and grabbed Fox's arm. "Come along. It's too dangerous to leave you alone."
"Give me my gun back," she asked, turning to look back to Charles. He could feel her tension, the sense of vulnerability that was so alien to her that she didn't know what to do with the emotion. Charles started to hold the gun out for her, when Wesley shook his head.
"No. She can get it back when I say."
She turned in his hold, her hand moving faster than Charles could see, smashing her fist in the side of Wesley's head. Wesley moved but not fast enough, the hit throwing him against the pile of chairs.
Charles saw the intention form in the center of Erik's mind a split second before he hit. Charles ducked to the right, instincts kicking in, Erik's fist missing his face a mere fraction. He should've hit his shoulder against the wall but instead he stumbled awkwardly to the floor, the room reshaping, the cold engulfing his mind. The three of them didn't seem to notice. Erik went after Fox, who moved under his stance, slamming her fist into his kidneys. He saw the jagged edges of their minds, burning like halos around their heads.
“Emma. Stop this.” He pushed up, trying to see through her illusion. He had miscalculated her strength. The room swam in his eyes and Charles tried to shore up his shields. It was a mistake. She locked on his movement, her claws sinking in where it hurt most, the root of the headache. Charles staggered under the weight of pain. He blinked desperately, trying to scream or move, anything. Within her grasp, the illusion broke. She had hidden the room from him and with it herself. It wasn't a narrow room, but big, empty space, the chairs barely filling a corner.
Emma sat in a high-backed chair and smiled at him. The emotion didn't reach her eyes, cold and flat as blue glass. He felt her touch against his open, unprotected mind, the stinging scrapes and nags of her kitty claws. The pain turned into abstract notion, his body shaking out of control.
”I'm so glad you could make it. Have a seat,” she said, patting the chair next to her. ”Almond?”
Charles sat down, her will a hot poker pressing against his forehead. He took an almond from the little bag she held. The effort was too much, his fingers powerless and the almond dropped to the floor, rolling away. Wesley got a hit in, Erik dropping in his knees, the blood splattering on the dusty wood. Emma bit the almond in half with an audible pop. Charles watched her. She looked frail and young, the image constructed with small details. White coat, a blue ribbon in her hair, pale pink nails. On the floor Fox found her opening, landing a beautiful uppercut and Wesley staggered back, momentarily dazed.
“Oh! Beautiful hit. Don't you think so?”
“What are you doing Emma?”
Emma glanced at him and smiled.
“You should stop drinking.” She picked another almond and twirled it around her fingers. “It throws you out of your game.”
”This is your revenge,” Charles said, as carefully as his mouth was full of glass. ”For Sloan.”
Her smile tensed.
”They shot Sloan. All of them,” Emma said. “This isn't revenge. This is justice.”
“Erik is new. Let him go.”
“You don't know? He built the bullet. Fox was the bait, your brother pulled the trigger. All of three of them deserve to die.”
Charles felt her fury crawling across his skin and he couldn't stop it. Fox blocked Wesley's hit, Erik slammed his fist in her side, knocking the air out of her lungs. She backed away, gasping. Erik used the momentum and launched against Wesley.
”It had to be done. His name came up,” Charles said. It was hard to talk, his face felt numb. Her hold was too strong, she would tear his mind open. ”There are no exceptions.”
”Bullshit! Your name came up, and your dear brother's. Her name, my name. Sloan showed me the truth! There is no higher order, no grand design! We are the proof that Loom doesn't apply to all, only to those we decide to use it against.”
“Sloan lied about the other names,” Charles said, focusing on this clear fact, preventing it from slipping away. He was so tired, he couldn't keep the conversation together. ”Mutual assured destruction. Wesley knew. Fox knew. They saw the original Loom. Pekwarsky told them...Only Sloan.”
“No! There is no other truth than the one we enforce!” Her voice turned shrill from the emotions she couldn't control.
“Sloan was a traitor,” Charles muttered, slumping down. ”Fraternity stands.”
“If that's true, why did you leave? You believed more than anyone else,” she said, her voice tiny in his ears. “You should've led us. You destroyed everything before Wesley ever could.”
“Tired of death, Em. I believe the cause. But tired.”
Her emotions shifted like a current, the unstable core of every telepath. Her hold slipped, only a fraction, but Charles had been waiting for it and he pushed, threw everything he had against her like
a burning spear. The pain was a shock and she didn't think. She reacted.
Her mind stopped, her skin glimmering brightly in the light. It was her haven, the cocoon of diamond where no one could harm her, free from pain and emotion. Her hold broke.
Charles breathed deep. Fox staggered back, releasing Wesley who slumped to the floor like a sack of flour. Erik leaned against the wall, his blood smearing the wallpaper. Fox knelt, reaching to touch Wesley's arm. He groaned and coughed, his arm in unnatural angle.
”Charles? What happened?”
Charles ignored her. He reached to touch Emma's face, cupping his hand over the smooth curve of her cheek.
“I'm sorry I hurt you. Let me fix this. Change back.”
She shook her head slowly and the flecks of light cascaded over the black wool of his coat.
“No. Please don't make me.”
“Darling,” Charles said, brushing his thumb over the diamond shell. ”You know me. It won't hurt for long.” She closed her eyes, the blue of her irises shimmering underneath her clear eyelids. Her skin turned warm under his palm, blood rushing to the surface as her heart beat again.
“There's my White Queen.”
Charles sat on the floor, back against the cold radiator and watched the smoke curl out the cracked window. The rain had left the air fresh, the setting sun turning the sky pink and turquoise.
The bathroom door opened and Wesley stepped out, buttoning up his shirt. One of Charles' actually, white and starched. It didn't fit Wesley, the cut too narrow to his shoulders. He looked the same as he always did, like his brother.
“I like your bathroom. Pictures in the ceiling, that's clever,” he said and walked past him, his bare feet leaving wet prints on the carpet. Charles saw the scars in his feet again, and remembered that he hadn't asked where he had gotten them. Maybe next time. Charles twirled the cigarette in his fingers, watching the tip glow faintly.
“I still can't believe I crashed the car like that, I haven't broken my arm in ages,” Wesley said. “Do you have any coffee here? I mean real coffee, not that instant stuff. It tastes like crap.”
“In the kitchen,” Charles said. He listened to Wesley open the cupboards, the fridge, the sound of coffee brewing. Wesley found everything at the first try. Little details tend to stuck, no matter how well Charles had tried to wipe him. There was a faint brush against his mind and Charles leaned to crush the cig in the old teacup.
“Wesley, I'm going to go get some smokes downstairs, you want something to eat?”
“Yeah, bring a sandwich,” he shouted. “And milk, you are all out.”
Charles got up and put his shoes on, grabbing his wool coat. It still smelled faintly of blood and rain. He wondered idly what the woman at the laundry would say about that. Maybe she would believe if he said he had been fox hunting. She had fought him tooth and nail, but in the end, he had managed to take the day from her. Fox didn't need to remember, she was better off without it.
The street lamps lit amber-colored circles over the black asphalt, the rain still gleaming in the gutters. Charles pushed his hands in his pockets and walked around the corner, in the narrow backstreet. He could see his window here.
Erik leaned against the brick wall, the tip of his cigarette a bright dot. Even in the darkness it was easy to see the bruises on his face, his left eye swollen shut. His cheekbone might be fractured.
“You need to get to the tub,” Charles said. “You know that.”
“Here's the thing that I don't get. She made us bash your brother's head in, and you didn't kill her. Why?”
Charles considered the answer.
“Her name hasn't come up,” Charles said. “I don't kill for revenge. And neither will you if you are a Fraternity member. You are new. You'll learn.”
“You wiped away their memories,” he said. “But not mine. Why?”
“I want you to remember who you will be going against if you hurt Wesley,” Charles said, smiling politely. “I will know if you do, and then all those nightmares you have crawling inside your head will become a tangible reality. Do you understand where I'm going with this?”
Erik threw the cigarette away, the bright arch falling down and vanishing when it hit the ground.
“You are the big brother. I remember.”
“Good. Then we are on the same page,” Charles said. “Go find that tub, take a long soak. Wesley will come look for you in Brugges tomorrow. Decide if you want to be there, or gone for good. I don't care either way, but when you have made your decision, stick to it. Wesley needs someone who has his back.”
“Tomorrow is Monday,” Charles said. “I have to go back to work.”