Charles was fairly certain that when his sister made him swear not to go sea-bathing alone, she had not meant for him to rent a rowboat instead. Oh, but she would scold him! Charles tipped back his straw hat and smiled into the salt-laced dusk-light, marshaling his arguments. How was I to know what you meant, dearest? It's not like I can read your mind…
The smile dimmed as he glanced down at the leg-and-a-half occupying the little rowboat. He could hardly blame Raven for worrying. But he could swim, he could. Somewhat more with the half-limb than the whole one, strangely enough. What remained of his left leg had considerably less nerve damage than the other. And after all, they had come to Brighton for sea-bathing, had they not? The doctors were quite certain it would help his legs – the right one was twitching a bit now – and his overall constitution, which was surely strained after so traumatic an injury.
Yes, they spoke so freely of his strained constitution, his traumatic injury, the spastic nerves in his thigh and calf. No one dared speak of the trembling hands, the nightmares, the cannon-fire and the screams—
But there, he was in Brighton to take his mind away from all that, not to dwell on it.
He'd kept himself far beyond the horse-drawn, wagon-like "bathing machines" – used by respectable swimmers as simultaneous dressing-room and water-carriage, transporting them out into the water and then blocking their sport from view of the vulgar folk on the beach – and had an excellent two hours' lazy rowing about. Now, however, the sunlight gleaming on the water was fire-colored and fading. He had best head for shore.
He was just turning the rowboat back toward land – his arms had grown marvelously strong in the months since his injury, and the oars were nothing at all to handle – when a pain struck that had him gasping and clutching at the affected area. Not either leg, for once, but his head, where his Gift had registered a sudden spike of distress from the low hum of the minds around him. He had hardly considered them all day, letting careless traces of others' pleasure and excitement wash back and forth like the constant sigh of the waves. But now a blast of hatred and rage – and pain, blinding pain – was striking like a bayonet through his brain. He had to find the man – it was a man – who was suffering so urgently, had to help him—
There, there was the source of it. A bathing machine drawn far into the water – too far, surely much too far – and sinking.
Charles blinked in shock for a moment, hardly able to understand what he was seeing. The bathing machine's wagon-like form was distorted – distorting further, even as he watched – crumpling in on itself with a painful squeal of nails and wood, and driving itself under the surface of the water faster than nature could possibly have taken it. The horse that had drawn the machine tore itself free, screaming, and swam for shore; he could feel echoes of its confusion and terror, too rough and alien for him to grasp.
His arms were already rowing the boat swiftly toward the sinking machine while his mind cast deeper into the maelstrom of anguish emanating from it. There were two minds within, he realized, the second nearly hidden by the strength of the first. And growing fainter by the moment, outrage and disbelief and fear slowly loosening their hold on a dying mind.
No. No. No more death. Charles rowed faster, hardly conscious of the burn of his muscles, and forced his own mind away from the fading one. Cruel, he could not make himself believe he was not cruel to leave a dying man alone, but he had learned – learned the lesson anew so many times – that he could not afford to walk through that valley.
The first mind was deafening now in his rage-triumph-grief-pain and something else… Charles felt his breath stutter with recognition. That subtle note of unique and peculiar brilliance, the sensation that always surged when Raven changed shape, when Armando created his armor, when Logan's body expelled a bullet and healed seamlessly behind it. This man was Gifted, powerfully Gifted.
So was the second man, he realized, but whatever ability his Gift bestowed did not seem to be helping him. The bathing machine was visible now only as a shadow far below. The water boiled and churned around it, but none of the force the drowning man cast out helped his head rise above the surface.
The first man's mental tone was changing, growing a shade quieter with satisfaction, resignation, a strange sort of relief. Physical pain interlacing with emotional – he was injured. It was possible that he could still reach the surface, but he did not intend to try.
The boat could get no closer now without overturning. Charles looked down at his mangled body, looked at the shadowed water where two men were dying.
He flung his straw hat into the bottom of the boat, tore his jacket off to join it, kicked off his shoe, and tumbled gracelessly into the sea.
His Gift was a compass needle directing him to the two men. He kicked downward, if not elegantly, at least effectively, and with stinging eyes searched the darkening depths for human forms.
There, there was the fading man, hanging silent and still in the water – which had abruptly calmed. Charles swam toward him, but even as he moved, he felt the last few flickers of the man's mind gutter and die.
No! God, please— But God had done his will already. Charles grabbed the man's arm instinctively, shook, but without response. He could do nothing for this one. Where was the other?
There, tangled in the wreckage of the bathing machine, blood spreading in dark wisps through the water around him. Charles pushed toward him, ignoring the growing burn in his lungs, latching onto his mind with all the strength his Gift could offer.
Hold on! I'm coming to help you!
The man's mind was muzzy with the lack of air, but he jerked, body and mind, with a spasm of denial. Leave me.
Certainly not! He reached the man, took hold of his arm, and was shoved back for his trouble. The man was not, Charles realized, tangled in the wreckage, so much as clinging to it. Let go! Charles demanded, reached into that howling storm of a mind for a name. Erik! Erik, you have to let go.
That startled the man into loosening his grip, and Charles yanked at him, wrapping arms around him and kicking. His misused legs hurt savagely, and oh, how his lungs burned! Erik, let go!
The only response was a mental wave of agony, printed on gossamer images – a little girl, now smiling, now screaming – a woman, eyes soft with love, then wide with fear – a man with a predator's smile and hearty, false affection in his voice, so much pain for so many years but now it was over, now it could finally be over…
Charles plunged deep into the dark, bloodied waters of Erik's mind. There had to be something that would make this man want to live.
Erik's mind was a great garbled mess, sharp edges and broken pieces. The dimmest flickers of warm, peaceful childhood, all but obliterated by torture and betrayal – "Everything I did was to make you stronger" – the brief respite of Magda, Magda, freedomsafetylove and the fragile beauty of their daughter, every memory precious and holy and poisoned with grief, with sparks and hellfire light, the smell of smoke and burning flesh—
Charles, reeling, nearly forgot himself so far as to inhale. It was too much pain for anyone to bear, and he reached instinctively to draw it away, take what he could onto himself. The intrusion roused Erik to struggle at last, if not for his life than at least for his self—
Self? No, Erik, this is not who you are, you are more than the sum of your sufferings! A fog was rolling in over Charles's mind, as the lack of air became ever more urgent, and he could not find a way to tell Erik about the extraordinary strength he held within himself, the intelligence, the capacity for fierce, all-encompassing love. He could only beg him, Please, don't die, I cannot bear it, please let me help you...
But he wasn't in much shape to be helpful, now was he, with his limbs leaden and burning and everything fading to shadows before his eyes…
Then there was cold air like a slap across his face, and Charles gasped, coughed, struggled reflexively against the arms confining him. They released him instantly, and he dashed seawater from his eyes to see Erik's face, only just visible in the deep dusk, but already as familiar to him as his own.
"Who are you?" Erik demanded, his anger and confusion driving at Charles's mind like a hundred tiny metal spikes.
"How scandalous of me," Charles found himself saying, a little drunkenly. "We haven’t been introduced. Charles Xavier." He tried to put out a hand, and his head dipped below the surface. He sputtered and came up again, laughing.
"You were in my head! How is it possible?"
"You have your Gift, I have mine." Charles gave him as dazzling a smile as he could manage with his teeth beginning to chatter. "Do please calm your mind, my friend, your singularly strong emotions are quite on their way to giving me a megrim."
Erik just gaped.
"I believe we should make for shore, if there is aught to be seen of my boat – ah, yes, loyal little fellow hasn't gone far. Right this way."
They caught hold of the boat's edge without much bother. Considerably more troublesome was the prospect of regaining its interior, with his right leg now driven into a state of unresponsive spasm.
"Do precede me, Mr. Lehnsherr," Charles said after his first efforts failed. "Unless you are too badly hurt?"
With a mental flash of determination, Erik heaved himself into the boat, then helped Charles up after him. Charles knew the moment he saw the missing leg – how silly, you can't see something that's missing, I will think of some more logical phrasing later – by the little stab of surprise-realization-uncertainty he'd grown so accustomed to encountering. It was not, however – to Charles's grateful surprise –– followed by the usual drench of embarrassment and pity, nor morbid curiosity. Charles couldn't really say what the man's reaction was; he barely seemed to be having one at all.
He settled himself in the bottom of the boat and watched silently as Erik inspected his wounds – a gash in one hand, a deeper one across his right side, a smattering of other nicks and scrapes too minor to signify, though they surely stung like fire in the salt-water.
"My jacket is the only cloth on hand for bandages," Charles said, nodding to the careless heap of fabric between them. "I suppose there's my shoelace for a tourniquet, but I don't believe you need one."
"No." Erik set about tearing part of the jacket into strips, winding one about his hand and the using the other to tie a thick pad of the remaining fabric to the wound in his side.
"Despite the cold," which was starting to make itself known most rudely, in their sopping state, "I think we must wait some bit, and rest, before either of us can row. If you can row at all, with that hand." His own arms felt watery, and trembled even at the effort of dragging his hair out of his eyes.
Erik made no reply for a time, then finally said, "Why did you come in after me?"
"I was the only one around to help," Charles replied, a little puzzled by the question.
"I hadn't anticipated anyone coming to help. I had, in fact, rather counted on the opposite. It's generally best to be alone when committing a murder."
Ah, yes. That. Charles could not help but know, now, that the bathing machine had not sunk by any natural misadventure, the death of its other passenger not in any way accidental.
"That was Sebastian Shaw, yes?" Charles said, still piecing together the jumbled fragments of what he'd learned in Erik's mind. "The man who killed your parents and made you believe they left you. The man who held hot irons to your feet and drove nails through your hands. Who found you, when you ran away from him, and set fire to your home." He did not dare speak the name Anya.
"Yes." Erik was disconcerted, of course, that Charles knew so much, but Charles felt also a certain restrained hope. That surely someone who knew everything Shaw had done would not condemn Erik's actions, would see that it was only justice he had meted out, would understand…
And he did, of course, how could he not? Erik's actions still pained him, he could not condone them. But neither could he rescue this man only to hand him over to the gallows.
"The horse spooked," Charles said at last. "And dragged the machine too deep. Damaged it on a rock along the way, causing it to sink. Such a pity neither of us could get to Mr. Shaw in time."
Erik smiled wolfishly, radiating relief and a sense of triumph that made Charles uneasy. But there would be time, later, to help Erik conquer his darker nature.
A great deal of time, if he had aught to say about it. He was not letting this man out of his sight. Somehow he… just couldn't bear the thought of it. He had thought that biting a rag while a battlefield surgeon sawed through his leg was surely the most painful thing he would ever be called upon to endure. It was much too soon to wonder if losing Erik would be a comparable grief…
"Ahoy!" came a shout from the direction of the beach, and they turned to see a light bobbing across the waves. "Ahoy there! I saw that bloody thing go under – demdest thing I ever did see! Are you blokes all right?"
"My friend is hurt," Charles shouted back. "We should dearly love a ride to shore, we're neither of us strong enough to row!"
"A'course, a'course! Be there in a blink!"
"Now, Erik," Charles lowered his voice, "it seems you'll be needing a place to live. And as it happens, I have plenty of room."
"You know I've no specific objection your new friend, Charles," Raven said, "but inviting him to live with us based on an acquaintance of a quarter-hour seems a bit... rash, never mind bringing us home early from Brighton for the event! What, after all, do you actually know about this man?"
"Everything." The word contained all the cheerful arrogance Raven had learned to associate with her adopted brother – along with something unexpected, sheepish and wistful. Raven looked at him sharply, but he, much occupied in re-working his cravat for the third time, did not see. "He is not going to nick the silver, Raven, nor murder us in our beds. And it is only for a little while, until he can find a place of his own."
Raven snorted. Charles was forever taking in strays 'just until they get back on their feet.' Some of them had now been employed at Graymalkin for a decade or more, and the three-legged cat had lived all its remaining years on the grounds. This Erik Lehnsherr was apparently not a prospect for kitchen-work, however, and Raven was not pleased by the idea of her brother supporting some clever parasite in the manner to which he wished to become accustomed. "What know you of his family, Charles?"
Charles's hands stilled for a significant moment. "Most of his family are dead," he said, not as lightly as Raven thought he meant to, and resumed his efforts with the cravat. "His late wife was the daughter of a country squire. He had taken over management of some of the family properties, but after his bereavement, he was not... able to continue that occupation."
"Is that his plan, then? Go back to his wife's family?"
"I doubt it," Charles muttered, and untied his neckcloth yet again.
Raven stooped and batted his hands away, taking charge of the neckcloth and executing a perfect Ballroom Tie, as that seemed to be what Charles was attempting so unsuccessfully. Usually he could hardly be bothered with a Napoleon knot. He was wearing his best waistcoat, too, the blue silk that brought out his eyes.
"Tying my cravat is Summers's job, you know," Charles said irritably. "It's quite improper of you to even know how. Where is the blasted boy? He'll be here any minute," which Raven took to mean Erik Lehnsherr, not Charles's inept valet. "Aren't you going to, er... dress?"
Raven raised an eyebrow, and said coolly, "It's a perfectly respectable sprigged muslin, Charles."
His cheeks colored a bit. "You know my meaning full well, Raven."
She crossed bright blue arms over her chest. "You said this gentleman is Unnatural, just as we are—"
"—so I don't see why I should hide from him."
"I'm not asking you to hide, Raven," though of course that was exactly what he was asking, "only let the man settle in a bit before springing such a... surprise on him."
Raven let out a long breath of mingled frustration and surrender. Of course she would adopt her usual mask for the arrival of Charles's friend. She hardly enjoyed the shock and revulsion that greeted the sight of her natural form, especially when one was unprepared for the sight. She was only... irked. Charles had not thought of the inconvenience to her of bringing a stranger into the household. True, she wore the mask much of the time, even at home, but at least the servants were enough accustomed to her that they did not scream if they came upon her true face unexpectedly. Her own ladies' maid, Amy, hardly blinked anymore, and Raven could be blue with her nearly as easily as with Charles. With this Erik Lehnsherr in residence, was she to be denied any opportunity to relax in her own home?
"There's a girl," Charles said, relieved, as Raven sent a ripple through her skin, turning her cerulean scales smooth and creamy, her blood-colored hair to flaxen curls, and dimming the bright gold of her eyes to hazel. Therein lay her one concession to truth; she reserved the right to change her eye color at will, and hazel could be shifted in any direction without arousing suspicion. She stepped closer to Charles's mirror, and with another ripple swept her hair into a gleaming chignon, with perfect ringlets framing her face.
Her Gift had its advantages. Her hair was never less than perfect, even after hours of dancing, and her complexion – the irony! – was the envy of the county.
She only wished she felt less like a painted lady, wearing so false a face.
She must have stared into the mirror too long, for now she felt a gentle hand on her arm. "Raven, any man worth marrying will love you in whatever face you wear, just as I do. But you know..."
"Yes. I know." She knew how few respectable men would be seen with her at all, should it become known that she was Unnatural, much less unite with her for life. It was the sort of thing one told one's husband after one was safely wed, if it had to be told at all. Like having a love child, or a wart.
Unless, of course, one married a gentleman just as Unnatural as oneself. Raven felt a brief smile cross her face, thinking of Henry McCoy.
"Oh!" Charles said, his expression momentarily distant. "Erik's here, he's at the door. Mr. Quested is letting him in. Come!" He rolled his chair a few paces toward the door, then paused, turning to her with an uncertain countenance. "The chair, do you think, or the crutches? The chair is – I look such an invalid, and so small – but so ungainly on the crutches, and I do sometimes fall..."
"The chair, I think," she replied. "It affords you a dignity the crutches do not."
"Very well." He bit his lip. "Very well. Come along then."
Raven followed him out the door, repressing an uneasy sigh. How well she knew this eager, nervous manner of her brother's – and how often she had seen it end in heartbreak, and skirt the edge of disgrace. There were so few creatures of either sex who deserved, in any measure, the affection he spilled on them so freely. He bore the rejection well, generally, but how well would he bear it now, with his prospects so cruelly narrowed by his disability? When he needed love all the more, and stood less chance than ever of receiving it, even from those who shared his... Liberal-mindedness. Would this Lehnsherr be the one she had dreaded so long, the one who served no polite rebuff, nor even severed a friendship cleanly, but raised an uproar, spread a rumor, and exposed her brother to scandal and shame?
It was easy to forget, sometimes, that she wasn't the only one who had to hide.
The moment she saw Erik Lehnsherr, her brother's regard for him became easy to understand. The man was beautiful, lean and smooth as a hunting cat, with a graceful economy to his movements, expressions, even his manner of dress, that was strangely refreshing.
"This is Miss Darkholme, my family's ward, whom I regard as quite my own sister," Charles said, and Mr. Lehnsherr bowed so prettily that she felt forced to abandon her doubts as to his gentlemanly status. "But where is your luggage, my friend?" Charles exclaimed. "I had warned the footmen to expect any number of boxes, and instead here you are with a single trunk. Up the stairs with that, Sean, the green bedroom!"
"But you know, Mr. Xavier, that I have been some time traveling with no permanent abode. Only a fool would drag a fleet of belongings behind him, on such a venture."
"Mr. Xavier," Charles snorted. "I hope you don't expect to be Mr. Lehnsherr in exchange, for I shan't do it. Come in, come in, I believe breakfast is just on the table!"
Breakfast had, in fact, been on the table since their customary time nearly an hour ago, so Raven set into her buttered toast and sausage with a will. The newcomer, she noted, bypassed both the sausage and the bacon, and though he helped himself to eggs and oatcakes, his attention was not on the food. His gaze wandered the room, calmly appraising the furnishings, the decor, the cutlery... before lighting on Charles, and his mouth turned up slightly as he watched the enthusiasm and concentration Charles spent painting his toast with strawberry jam. Once it met his exacting specifications, he devoured it with his usual alarming glee. Raven rolled her eyes, but Mr. Lehnsherr seemed all the more amused.
"My brother tells me you're an Unnatural," Raven said, mostly to see Charles choke. Mr. Lehnsherr checked for a moment, fork of eggs halfway to his mouth, and cast a startled glance at Moira, who was just then laying a plate of hot fried tomatoes on the sideboard.
"Pray don't let my sister's vile sense of humor disturb you," Charles said, with a dark look at Raven. "Graymalkin is one of the only houses in England where it is quite safe to be blunt. My housekeeper, Mrs. MacTaggert, is one of the very few staff members with no Gift of her own, but she is entirely supportive of the Gifts of others. An exceptionally sensible woman."
Moira ventured a moment's eye contact with Charles and bobbed a curtsy; he smiled and nodded her on her way.
"You run a rare household, then," Mr. Lehnsherr said warily.
"I suppose I do, though I've reason to know that such... accommodating situations are not as rare as the public would like to think. In any case, so long as we are alone in the house, it is quite safe to use your Gift freely."
So long as you don't look any different, Raven thought, but was not ill-natured enough to say. "So what is your Gift, Mr. Lehnsherr? Charles was rather vague about it all." Uncharacteristically so, in fact. She knew full well that Charles was hiding something about how he met Erik, and it rankled, as it always did when Charles kept a secret. Perhaps that was the source of her poor mood at present.
"You do insist on calling it a Gift," Mr. Lehnsherr murmured in Charles's direction. "It has brought me little enough joy, withal. But very well, if you would like a demonstration..." He opened a hand theatrically.
And all across the room, items rose into the air.
Raven started, and pushed her chair back as her silverware took to the air, spoon tugging itself out of her hand. Beside her, Charles was all delight, and only this unconcern kept her from squeaking when her necklace rose up before her face. It was all metal items, she realized after a moment of sitting gobsmacked. Spoons and knives, candlesticks, picture frames – even the iron hands of the clock in the corner were now straining upward. Charles looked at her as if this were all the very greatest wonder, Christmas and Easter all in one, and after a moment she was able to return his smile.
"How very useful that must be!" she said. "Only metal objects?"
Erik's reply was overridden by a loud gasp from Charles.
"My ring! Only look, Raven, there the silly thing is, after all this time!" He pointed out a bit of silvery-grey metal that had risen from behind a cabinet, and tried to wheel toward it, only to squawk indignantly when he realized his chair was one of the objects now hovering some inches out of place. "Erik, really, do you call that entirely necessary?"
Mr. Lehnsherr chuckled and let the chair sink to the floor, bringing the ring across the room with a gesture, to settle delicately into Charles's hand.
"My signet ring," Charles said, brushing his thumb over the circle-X symbol on the ring. "I misplaced it ages ago, never had to nerve to tell my stepfather what became of it... Thank you, Erik, this is... I am most excessively pleased to have this back."
"I wish I could take credit for it," Mr. Lehnsherr said, looking a bit uncomfortable with the gratitude. "It was entirely accidental, I'm afraid."
"Nevertheless." Charles beamed at him. "Since it seems it won't take long to settle your things, perhaps, after breakfast, you might like a tour of this great heap of a place?"
"To be certain," Mr. Lehnsherr said, with something approaching a sincere smile.
They held eye contact for a full beat longer than necessary, and Raven dabbed her mouth with a napkin, bemused.
Perhaps she could afford to worry a bit less than usual about Charles's heart, this time.
"A pipe? How fashionable."
"You're one to tease, my friend, with your terribly stylish coiffure. I believe my grandfather wore his much the same way." Charles chuckled, sucking air carefully into the pipe. Erik raised a self-conscious hand to the hair he wore so unfashionably short, and combed smoothly back instead of forward in a lush tumble.
"I've no particular desire to spend the day looking bed-rumpled," he said curtly.
"Dear me, no. None could suspect you of so human a weakness as sleep. But very well, disdain my pipe if you will, while I disdain your hair, and you may have a cigar from the box on the table. Hurry, now, there is not much left in this tinderbox."
Erik strode back through the French doors into the study, seeking his cigar, and left Charles to puff his pipe and lazily eye the chessboard. Their tour of Graymalkin had gone quite well, he thought; he'd made the man laugh more than once, darting from absurd praise of the ancestral home to deep deprecation of it, and throwing in some history of the family as he went.
"We see here the chambers of my dearly departed stepbrother – it is his departure that is dear to me, you understand – held in readiness for his dreaded return, since I am not yet certain the assassin was successful. This window, here, is most beautifully useful for family suicides, it is just the right size and shape, and an excellent height. I have the servants leave it always unlatched whenever Cain is home. And down this corridor is the lesser library, where my great-uncle and his brother's wife were discovered together shortly before they ran away to the Colonies. I always thought that settee looked particularly uncomfortable, but perhaps they were masochists. I think he, at least, must have been, because I've seen a portrait of her and am quite surprised that her gaze did not turn the artist to stone. She was a very striking woman, and had I seen her in person I should have felt obliged to strike back. Why, Erik, whatever is the matter? Would you like a drink of water for that cough?"
At the end of the tour, dinner; and afterward, they had found themselves in the 'red study,' which had been the one favored by Charles's father when he lived, and thereafter by Charles himself. Charles was accustomed to playing a desultory and never-ending game against himself with the chessboard in the corner; when Erik's eye lit upon it in interest, Charles was only too happy to suggest they carry the board onto the veranda, where they could enjoy it with smokes and brandy in the evening breeze.
It is going well, Charles told himself firmly. There is no need for nerves. He smiled as he caught sight of the signet ring newly restored to his finger, and moved it back and forth to watch the sun gleam upon it.
Erik returned with his cigar, and just managed to light it before the tinderbox went out entirely. In his other hand, Charles was startled to see, he carried an antique sword that usually hung on the wall in the study.
"Do you mind if I examine this?" Erik asked, turning the sword and watching the light play over its planes. "The metal caught my attention. I don't believe it's an alloy I've seen before."
"Certainly, certainly. It's some old thing of my grandfather's, I don't remember where he got it."
Erik took his seat, sword across his lap, and eyed the chessboard. "Started without me, Charles? I am quite hurt."
"I can move my pawn back, and out again, if it will soothe you." Charles drew a deep lungful of smoke, and tipped his head up to let the smoke out as a perfect ring.
Erik had looked on the verge of continuing to banter, but the smoke-ring distracted his attention. There was... an edge to that distraction that rather caught at Charles's mind, as if it were less the smoke-ring than Charles's blowing of it that drew the eye. Charles did not dare to even acknowledge that thought to himself, but he could not help smiling when Erik turned his gaze intently to his chess pieces, drawing absently on his cigar.
"That is a great deal less vile-smelling than most pipes," Erik said, moving a pawn. "One could almost call it sweet."
"Vanilla in the tobacco," Charles said, moving a knight. "I'm afraid you'll find me quite an indulgent creature, Erik. I see no reason to surround myself with unpleasant smells, tastes, or textures, not when there are happier ones to be acquired so easily! Raven accuses me of epicureanism."
"I would have thought that, with the nature of your Gift," Erik gestured vaguely at his temple, "you might prefer a life of the mind."
"But how dull that should be! The mind is an excellent tool, you understand – I would call it by far the most important thing a man can have – but it is a tool to be used in the world, not to replace the world." He raised an eyebrow, watching Erik move his queen. Aggressive. That did not surprise.
"And how do you use your Gift, in the world? I'm sure the varied advantages of my own are evident to any man of thought. Yours, however, intrigues me with its possibilities."
"The possibilities are vast," Charles admitted. "As are the disadvantages."
"Disadvantages? How so?"
"At this moment, for instance, I cannot fail to be aware that as much as my Gift intrigues you, it also frightens you." He smiled gently. "Not an unreasonable response, my friend. It is true I could do terrible things if I wished. The world is fortunate to find me a wealthy and an easy-going man, with little need or desire to twist others to my ends. I cannot vouch for what I may have become in other circumstances, for unlike many of our kind, whose Gifts show themselves as they begin the first bloom into adulthood, I have no memory of a time without mine. Had I been born into a situation of need, with the careless conscience of youth, I daresay I would have... survived however I might." He turned the white knight over in his hand a moment, took a swallow of brandy. His was nearly empty already, Erik's hardly touched. "But you asked about the disadvantages! It is not always easy – sometimes it is simply not possible – to be deaf to the minds around me, and this can result not only in an unpleasant overturning of the senses, but in the sort of thing that... well, what is the saying? Those who eavesdrop hear nothing good."
Erik pulled the sword from his lap and ran a hand down it, thoughtful. "I suppose it must be grim indeed, to be privy to the darkest thoughts of humanity."
"At times. But ah, my friend, I am privy to their brightest thoughts as well! In a single ballroom, I might see the fortune-hunter's greed, the lush's despair, the harlot's vice – but in the same room, even in the same persons, I might see also the absent-minded kindness, the brilliant idea, the mother's selfless love. I see it all."
"Do you see only, or can you touch as well? In the water, for instance, when I would not let go, could you have changed my mind by force?"
"Easily," he said. "I might have been wiser to do so, in such a circumstance. But it is... a habit I try not to cultivate. Oh, I might perform a little nudge – for instance, make quite certain my valet remembers to polish my good shoes for once – and feel I've done no harm to any. But to tamper much with a man's free will – what right have I to do that?"
Erik looked bemused. "What right have I to move a teaspoon across the table? It is like your vanilla tobacco, Charles – if you want it and have the ability to acquire it, what right has anyone to stop you?"
"And yet you would not like me to play about in your mind, I daresay."
"Not at all," Erik admitted, and Charles could feel him fighting to reconcile the two points of view. "Still, I would not have you ashamed of yourself."
"Oh, believe me, I've been assured I am quite shameless." He took one of Erik's bishops with his knight. "And to be honest, my scruples about people's minds are... fairly fluid. I have caught myself doing casually to a stranger what I would never dream of doing to a friend. It seems the more I love a mind, the more loathe I am to alter it."
Which had not decreased the sting when Raven, some years ago, had requested he stay out of her mind entirely. It was not unreasonable, truly; she was becoming a woman, with the rights of privacy that entailed, and he knew full well how it rattled her, wondering if an unworthy thought had been overheard. The request was, in its way, a gesture of trust; she expected him to keep his word, knowing she had no defense if he chose not to. It had been an uneasy time, for them, as Charles tried to adjust the 'gates' of his Gift to keep her thoughts out; accusations had flown in both directions. "Raven, you are being loud on purpose, to provoke me!" "Well, you are not putting forth your full effort!" They had eventually reached a compromise, in that Charles knew always where Raven was, and often got a glimpse of her general emotional state, but did no active probing. Frankly, it was painful to contemplate shutting her out entirely; it was like being told he could continue to live with his sister, but see her only through a glass, unable to hear her voice or touch her hand.
But Erik had been active during his reverie; Charles let out a sound of indignant surprise as his opponent took Charles's queen off the board, moving a mere pawn into her place. "That is quite an unfair move, Erik!"
"If by 'unfair' you mean 'to your disadvantage.'"
"Well, what else would I mean?"
Erik chuckled, then suddenly frowned. "Do you smell smoke?"
Charles raised his eyebrows, looked from his pipe to Erik's cigar.
"No, a different smoke." Erik stubbed out the cigar impatiently and got to his feet, sword in hand, a tension humming in his skin that Charles hardly needed his Gift to perceive. Erik was looking around in growing alarm, and a dark and horrible dread. Charles looked about as well, but saw no trace of smoke or fire.
"How can you not smell it, Charles? I can hardly breathe for it!"
And then he did smell it – and it was nothing at all like the smoke of tobacco, nor yet a hearth. It was a heavy, unwholesome smoke, it contained the burning of things no one would cast into the fireplace, walls and books and carpets—
Charles felt suddenly sick and unsteady. He recognized this stench from Erik's memories. The burning of his home.
The burning of his daughter.
It had been barely dusk a moment ago, but now the darkness seemed absolute, and every shadow was full of the sound of some invisible fire, no cheerful crackle but a roaring, a violent devouring. And yet over this sound, a much softer one could be heard quite clearly.
"Papa. Papa, help me."
They both turned toward the smoke-roughened voice, Erik's eyes burning in a face gone white. The only light was the flickering flames outlining the silhouette of a little girl.
"Papa." She stepped closer, arms held out.
"Anya," Erik choked. He trembled, and the sword fell from his hand with a clatter.
Charles fought off icy fear and cast his Gift toward the shade before them. He did not know what to expect – would he truly feel the mind of the departed child? Or was she somehow a reflection of Erik's mind, like his own hallucinations – but no! Thinking of those might call one up, and he had to focus. This was surely about Erik, not him.
But that, he realized, wasn't entirely correct. Because he did touch something within the little girl, and it did feel like Erik's mind – and it also felt precisely like his own.
"Please, Papa," the shade sobbed, and the flickering firelight showed her more clearly now, long waves of dark hair moving in a draft they could not feel. She was a lovely child, with wide dark eyes in a delicately pretty face. Her white dress was singed at the edges and begrimed with ash. She had been, he remembered, only six years old.
"Anya." Erik's paralysis broke, and he ran toward her.
Charles shouted for him to come back – an instinct, though he had no reason to think the shade would harm him. Erik disregarded him, but it little mattered; before he could reach the girl, she screamed, a sound expressing the furthest extremity of pain and terror, stopping Charles's breath and wrenching at his insides. Flames consumed her in a rush, and she vanished.
Instantly the veranda was plunged back from darkness to half-light, the air clear of any scent more unpleasant than vanilla tobacco.
Erik stood frozen, hand outstretched, his breath coming hard. Charles dragged a trembling hand through his hair.
"I never believed in ghosts," Erik said, after a minute, his voice distant and faint.
"It was no ghost, my friend," Charles said painfully. "I believe... if I do not miss my guess, I believe we created her somehow, you and I. You remember that in the water, I tried to take away your most painful memories — which I should not have, but my logic was not at its clearest — and you fought me. Our minds entangled and somehow... somehow this was the result. She is not any part of your daughter, Erik, only a projection of my Gift, somehow—"
Erik's surge of rage and betrayal near choked Charles where he sat. His face was a terror to behold. "You did this?"
"By no volition of my own, I swear to you! Erik, I would never be so cruel—" But his words, Charles realized, were sliding off unheard as Erik stepped heavily toward him.
Several feet away from either of them, the sword rose off the veranda's stone tiles, its point leveled at Charles's throat.
The war had cost Charles his leg and, perhaps, the greater part of his mental balance. But it had also taught him to use his Gift however he had to, in combat.
He raised a hand to his temple.
Erik was in no state to notice the slight shift as their surroundings were replaced by a mental facsimile of themselves. He caught the hilt of the floating sword and swept it toward Charles – only to be shoved back with a clash of steel as Charles rose to his feet, with an identical sword in his hand.
"Drop the sword, Erik."
"My daughter – you had no right—"
"And no intention. Sit down and calm your mind."
Instead, Erik swung the sword again. Charles parried it easily, and spun away, with Erik only inches behind.
There were many ways, Charles reflected as he parried again, to handle this situation. He could simply remove Erik's memory of the incident, but that seemed unwise. Whatever mental tangle had produced the shade had not, to Charles's senses, resolved itself with her disappearance, only gone dormant once more. This was probably not the last they would see of Anya; therefore it was just as well to deal with the issue now.
Very well then, he could render Erik immobile until his good sense returned. But he sensed the enforced helplessness would only further unbalance the man, and leave a lingering resentment. Canceling his emotions would be the same and worse. Perhaps it was best – since Charles was in no physical danger whatsoever – to let Erik fight through some of the howling pain now besetting him.
Erik pursued him across and around the veranda, knocking over the chessboard and shattering the brandy bottle. Erik's frustration mounted with every move, for although he was not at all bad with a sword, Charles was quite literally as quick as thought, and always eluded him by the barest inch. For a time Charles wondered if he had chosen ill, in allowing Erik to fight, but no – the frustration was making Erik wonder why he was doing this, it was pointing out the illogic of his actions. He was beginning to burn through the rage, exposing the raw pain beneath.
Finally, when he judged it safe, Charles allowed himself to be caught.
It happened somewhat more violently than he expected, Erik knocking the sword from his hand and snatching him up by his shirtfront, until their chests knocked together.
"You dare," he snarled. "You dare—"
The world shifted again, and suddenly Erik was on his back on the ground, Charles out of his chair and straddling Erik's body, holding the sword's point to the hollow of his throat. A position they had, in fact, occupied from the beginning.
"Listen to me very carefully, my friend," Charles said, as Erik gaped at him in shock. "I could do very nearly anything to you. But I won't. I will never, ever, use my Gift to hurt you. Do you understand?"
Erik just blinked.
Charles set aside the sword. "I did not intentionally cause the apparition we saw just now. I would never do such a thing. Whatever happened to cause it, I will find the way to undo it, I swear. I am going to help you." He could not help putting a comforting hand to Erik's cheek, just for a moment. "I am going to help you."
A voice whispered in the back of his head – no one else's thoughts, merely his own self-doubt. Good luck helping him, it said, when you can't even help yourself.