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.
"Are you angry with me?"
Erik paused in the bedroom door. The sum of their conversation (once Charles let Erik get to his feet) had been an awkward agreement that perhaps it was time to retire, and Charles had shown him to his room in heavy silence. "No," Erik said. "I was... irrational. I would apologize, but I was bested so thoroughly that that hardly seems necessary."
Charles smiled modestly, covering his relief. "One does pick up a few tricks on the battlefield."
"You were a soldier, then?" Erik's surprise faded into enlightenment as he eyed Charles's legs. "Yet your tricks seem to have failed you."
"My Gift is little use against cannon fire." Memory tapped at the doors of his mind, flying shards of glass and wood and metal, the unholy noise of it all. He closed himself tightly away from it. Not now. Not now.
Erik still stood uncertainly in the doorway, glancing from Charles to the unfamiliar bedroom's interior. Charles could feel how shaken the man still was, how he both feared, and in a peculiar way yearned for, the apparition's reappearance. "I'm sure you have a hundred war stories to tell, veterans always do," he said.
"Indeed. I can tell you a few, if you like, while we have a nightcap?"
Only polite interest showed on Erik's face, but gratitude flowed from him in a warm wave.
Charles rolled his chair over to the fire and began pouring from the bottle he made a point of providing for the guest bedrooms. He knocked back half his glass, and topped it off again, while Erik was still occupied opening his trunk.
"Oh, dear, I'm sorry," Charles said, when he saw that Erik's clothes had not been removed to the wardrobe. "I meant to inquire if you wanted the servants mucking about with your things, told them to wait on my order before unpacking you."
"No, you did well to hold them off. I prefer to do it myself." He lifted a small pile of clothes from the trunk and moved toward the wardrobe. "Where is that war story you promised me?"
"Ah, yes." Charles flicked through a number of possible tales, shying away from anything remotely distressing, as much for his own nerves as for Erik's. Finally he launched into an appropriately amusing anecdote – The Epic Tale of Armando Versus the Fishmonger – and felt Erik beginning to calm, though he was so intent on his task that he hardly looked to be listening.
Calm, that is, until he reached the bottom of his trunk, reaching in for one final object that caused an emotional spike that should, by all rights, have been visible. Charles stopped mid-word, knocked quite off-path by the surge of vicious satisfaction, tangled with old traces of anger and pain.
"What have you there?" he called, when Erik passed several moments simply staring down at the object in his hands.
Erik woke from his reverie and finally took his seat across from Charles, pausing to sip from his glass. Charles noted ruefully that he had drained his three times since entering the room, and was beginning to feel it; he took a last swallow and set his glass aside.
"This is me," Erik said, "and Sebastian Shaw." He held out the object; Charles, taking it, saw that it was a graphite sketch in a silver frame. A boy of ten or twelve years sat rigid in a rather gaudy rococo chair. Beside him stood a man, a possessive hand on the boy's shoulder, his smile holding more sly triumph than good cheer. The artist, Charles thought, had been quite skilled, unless it was his own knowledge of Erik's childhood horrors that put such solemn despair in the child's eyes, and attached such meaning to the way his delicate fingers clutched at his own trouser legs, as if to keep himself from cringing away from the man beside him.
It was no more than Charles had pieced together from the chaotic tumble of Erik's memories, but the pain leaking around his words, bleeding from his mind, still tore at Charles's heart.
"I wonder, then, at your keeping this portrait." Charles passed the silver frame back into Erik's hands.
Erik's smile was sharp as a wolf's. "Shaw had kept it in my room – to remind me, he said, to whom I belonged, to whom I owed everything in my life. And remind me it has, all this time."
"Shaw is dead now," Charles said. "You can forget him. You need never think of him more."
"Yes, he's dead," Erik said, gazing on the sketch with a distant satisfaction that bore little relation to the roiling emotions Charles sensed within. He moved, so suddenly that Charles jumped – a flick of the wrist that sent the portrait, frame and all, into the hottest part of the fire. It landed with a crash of breaking glass, and together they watched the flames catch the edges of the exposed paper, and creep across it, swallowing delicate pencil marks as it went. The predatory smile, the clutching hand, gone. The rigid boy with his hopeless eyes, gone. All gone.
"Erik," Charles said cautiously, "the last thing I desire is your further distress. But if I am to unravel the conundrum set before us – this strange specter of your daughter – I believe I must uncover its origin. I must know what happened to you."
Erik swallowed. "But surely you know already."
"I know fragments. I must see the picture in its entirety."
Erik was silent for long minutes, watching flames lick the edges of glass and silver. Charles could be patient, as patient as Erik was stubborn.
Finally he spoke. "I ran away from Shaw, when I discovered the truth of my parents' deaths. I took money and papers enough – fraudulent papers, of course, Shaw had plenty of those – to establish myself as a wealthy businessman, under the name Eisenhardt. Magda..." He trailed off, a bittersweet smile ghosting across his face. "Magda was a gentleman's daughter, and should have been beyond my reach. But her father was a generous and indulgent fellow, and indeed there were few men who could have denied Magda anything."
Charles was lost, for a moment, in the wash of remembered love – the fascination of a dimple, the joy of a smile, the trembling delight of an inner fire he had never known before. Erik, Charles saw, was not a man who could enjoy lust for its own sake; he wanted only where he also loved. He had had little opportunity to love, in Shaw's house, and so desire had come on him as a welcome but overwhelming surprise, and it was maiden Magda who had been smiling and confident on their wedding night, soothing her nervous stallion—
—and there, Charles had delved quite, quite too deep into memories he had no right to. He could only hope Erik would not notice the rising color in his cheeks, or would put it down to drink.
Erik did not notice, in fact – seemed hardly to see him or the room around them at all. The flames reflected in his eyes.
"He found me," he said at last, his voice little more than a hoarse whisper, and seemed incapable of saying more.
"Might it be easier for you," Charles said gently, "if I simply... view it directly?" He tapped a finger to his temple.
Erik looked torn, something naked and vulnerable in his eyes. "Charles, I am not at all certain that my mind is a place you should wish to be. Especially on the night in question."
Charles clasped his hand. "If it will help you, then that is exactly where I wish to be."
Erik took a deep breath, his hand tightening around Charles's, then nodded consent.
Charles let his eyes fall closed, and eased his mind forward, gently, ever so gently, keeping his Gift's touch as light and warm and soft as a dove's wing. Forward into the maelstrom.
For the most part, Erik's mind was a very straight-angled place, tightly organized, terrifyingly focused. Erik had trained himself into this strict focus as the only way to control the violence of his emotions. Beneath a surface that seemed calm, even cold, lay the firestorm. Charles had known this already, and thought himself prepared.
He was wrong.
The first few moments were as dizzying as their first meeting in the sea, and Charles had to cling tightly to Erik's self-built steel girders of mind in order to orient himself. But the place he had to go – the memory of Anya's death – held little such framework. His self-control that night had been scanty at best. Determined, Charles eased toward it.
Glimpses, first, of Shaw approaching Erik at his club, all smiles and false joy at their reunion, his eyes full of spite. Expressing his expectation that Erik would abandon the unworthy specimens of humanity he had inexplicably surrounded himself with, and come home to complete his 'training.' Erik's tight refusal, believing himself safe, established in his new life, believing Shaw had no more power over him.
And learning differently, when he saw Shaw's face at the bedroom window moments before the great ripping crash that set the house aflame.
Charles, momentarily aware of his hand crushing Erik's, forced himself to draw back a step. It was too much – too much like his own experiences with fire and chaos and shrieking fear – he could not afford – only a step, one step back, and he could handle it.
There, now he was able to view and sort and evaluate without losing himself. It was still impossible to construct a full timeline of events, however – Erik's mind had been in such turmoil that great chunks of data had never been cataloged to begin with. He could remember the night only in dream-like flashes, some hardly more than impressions, others sporting a chilling crystalline clarity. His housekeeper's face, distorted with terror, dragging a wounded footman out a window. A kitchen maid sobbing in a closet, too terrified to run – Erik had wound an iron poker around her body and used it to throw her from the house. Everywhere the heat and smoke and hungry roar of fire.
The stairs collapsing behind himself and Magda as they ran for Anya's room, the iron banister bending to Erik's need. Turning the corner to see Anya's bedroom door already painted with flame.
Perhaps he only imagined hearing screams over the crackling roar. Perhaps he only imagined that he saw her, for the briefest of moments, a shadow standing in the midst of the flames, when he tore the wall open – and the fire, suddenly granted access to new air, exploded in a billowing inferno.
He had little memory of how he had survived. There had been metal involved, hot enough to burn holes in his clothes, clustering around him and Magda, casting them to the periphery of the wreckage as the house fell in. And that was all, until he woke in hospital, with only a scattering of burns while his daughter was dead, and his wife hovering at the edge of life.
Her eyes were dim with pain and opium, when he limped to her bedside. He had no recollection of how she had come to be injured so much more severely than he. Perhaps the hot metal... but surely without it, she would have died in the house. He tried to speak to her, touched her hand.
And she gasped, and drew away in unmistakable fear.
She had not known, of course, that he was Unnatural. It was only then, at her bedside, that Erik remembered her shock and terror when he began to use his ability in the burning house, realized she had tried and tried to pull away from him. While he, focused entirely on Anya, had only tightened his grip on her hand, and pulled her deeper into the fire.
He was not angry at her for fearing him, not then. He had no reserves left for so taxing an emotion. He only kissed her hand, while she cringed away, and went back to his own bed.
When he woke again, she had died.
Charles extricated himself from the memory with difficulty, dimly aware of his body gasping and shaking around him.
It was clear that Erik's mind held rage and guilt and grief enough to power any number of nightmares about his daughter. It was Charles's Gift that had added the power to manifest those nightmares in the waking mind. That was, after all, no new trick for it.
It was tempting, so terribly tempting, to lay a veil over those memories, cloud them, or cut them away entirely. Ease Erik's pain at the source. It might be the only way to keep Anya from appearing to them again.
But Erik's mind, still loosely entangled with his own, flinched violently from the idea as soon as Charles conceived it. The mental scream of MINE was enough to send Charles scrambling for the shores of his own consciousness.
He opened his eyes to find Erik staring at him in such hatred and fear that he half-expected to find a sword at his throat once more.
"You will do nothing to modify me," Erik snarled. "You will not violate my mind, you will take nothing from me—"
"Of course not," Charles said quietly, keeping his voice even and clear. "I told you already, Erik, that I cannot bear to alter the minds I truly care for." He released the hand he had been clutching hard enough to bruise, pressed it to the table as if smoothing a paper he had not meant to crumple. "I will do nothing to you without permission, Erik. You have my solemn vow."
They sat without speaking for a time, and the only sound in the room was their breath, neither of them easy yet after the mental exertion. The fire in the grate had gone down to coals, leaving the room in shadowy chill. Charles watched the faint light brush Erik's face. His eyes were miles away, and his hand remained where Charles had put it.
"You wish to go to bed, I am sure," Charles said at last. "But let me do one thing more for you. You would not have me dampen your worst memories – but perhaps I can crowd them out."
"What do you mean?"
"I know how little you remember of your life before Shaw. The memories are still there, only buried. Unearthing them all at once would be too much for both of us tonight, I think. But I could easily choose one, and leave you happier thoughts to sleep on."
He did not expect Erik to agree, after his anger only moments before. To his surprise, however, after a tense moment, the hand on the table turned over and opened, welcoming him back in.
Charles permitted himself a relieved smile, took the offered hand, and sent his Gift winging softly toward the brightest corner of Erik's memory system. It was blocked off by layers and layers of – protection, he realized. Erik's under-mind had bundled these memories away, so that they could not be poisoned by Shaw's tale of abandonment. Young Erik had believed what he was told, knowing no alternative – but still he could not bear to think ill of his parents, and so elected not to think of them at all. Even the revelation of Shaw's betrayal had not been enough, after so many years, to dislodge them from their hiding place.
Carefully, Charles took the edge of a single memory, one that radiated peace and contentment, and pulled it free.
Erik lay in bed, warm and dozy under a double helping of quilts, one small hand reaching out of the covers to rest across his mother's knee. She was a comforting weight on the edge of the bed, stroking his hair back and singing softly, the same lullabies he had heard in his infancy. When Erik's eyes finally drifted shut, she leaned down to kiss his forehead, then stood. "Gute Nacht, schatz." She bent to blow out the candle.
"Nein!" he cried sleepily. She let out a breath of gentle exasperation, then kissed him again, smiling, tucked the quilts up under his chin, and left the candle lit.
With the light of the candle, and the warmth of his mother's voice still adrift in the room, Erik was not afraid. He had fallen asleep by the time his mother closed the door behind her.
Charles opened his eyes to see Erik looking broken and lost. The dying firelight glinted on a single tear track.
"I didn't know I still had that," he said, low and shaking.
"You have many things," Charles said, "many good and beautiful things in you, Erik. Not only pain and anger." He was surprised to find he'd shed a tear to match Erik's, and raised a hand to dash it away. "Thank you for letting me see them." He took hold of his chair's wheels and began steering toward the door. "I'll send someone to see to your fire."
Erik caught his hand as he passed and, to Charles's shock, raised it briefly to his lips. "Thank you, Charles."
Charles sat frozen a moment, a tingling warmth spreading rapidly out from his fingers. At last he managed an acknowledging nod, and reluctantly reclaimed his hand. "Goodnight, Erik."
His arms shook only a little as he pushed himself out the door.
Erik woke to the sound of cannon fire.
He had slept soundly, for once, but the bone-shaking explosion was more than enough to put him on his feet, every bit of metal in the room quivering and ready, his mind casting out for the shape of the cannon and ball.
There was none.
He stood in utter bewilderment for a moment, while another boom rattled the walls. Erik was no soldier, but he knew a cannon when he heard it. Shaw had had him learn the metallic workings of any weapon he could lay hands upon. His Gift was insistent; there was no cannon anywhere in the vicinity.
Was he dreaming still? The cold of the floor against his feet, the trickling warmth of sunlight through the window, the unfamiliar scratch of his night-shirt – surely they were no dream. How often, after all, did one wonder if one was dreaming, and then find it to actually be so?
The cannons were getting closer. Erik, still in bafflement and alarm, threw on his dressing gown, his mind bent on investigating.
And cried out in alarm as the next boom sent the wall of his bedroom exploding inward, shards of glass and wood and stone flying at his face. An instinctive thought had the iron bedframe upended and screaming across the floor to his defense, though it could not be fast enough—
But the moment passed, the bed arrived, and he was unharmed. None of the debris had touched him. None at all.
In fact, his wall was perfectly intact.
He dropped the bed slowly, cautiously. He could still hear cannons, but they were fading away into the distance.
Charles. Charles alone could be the source of this, and for a moment Erik felt his long-familiar rage fall over his shoulders like a cloak. Surely he had endured enough of Xavier’s manipulation and intrusions into his mind. It was true, the man seemed genuine in his efforts to help him – but after all, Erik would not need his help if Charles's Abnormality were not so poorly leashed. Why was Erik in this man's house at all? Without Charles—
The anger fled, utterly hollowed. Without Charles, Erik's body would be washing up on the shores of Brighton about now.
Well, whether it made him a grateful friend or not, an investigation was direly in order. Erik opened his door.
And found Charles's ward – sister – hurrying toward him down the corridor.
"Mr. Lehnsherr, do not be alarmed! I was just on my way to you, I do apologize, it took me some minutes to recall that you would not be accustomed to such things."
"What in blazes is going on?"
Miss Darkholme sighed and adjusted the shawl she wore over her morning gown. "It is Charles, I'm afraid. He has nightmares about the war, which I think perfectly natural, and they sometimes... spill over through his Gift."
"Can you not wake him?"
"Oh, he is quite awake, that is the puzzle of it. He says the ‘echoes’ take some time to die down."
"How often you must replace entire crops of servants! I’m sure they regularly flee the house in terror.”
Miss Darkholme smiled, her eyes sparking. She was quite a beautiful girl. "Our servants are made of sterner stuff, Mr. Lehnsherr. Many of them have volatile Gifts of their own – Charles's valet has set fire to the curtains twice – and so it behooves them to be understanding." The very slightest arch to her eyebrow informed Erik that his patience was likewise expected. "In fact, my good sir, this morning's incident has been a tame and placid creature. A bit of cannon fire is nothing at all. Pray do not be alarmed if it worsens; it does sometimes, just before it dies away. I hope I do not have to expect hysterics from you. My brother is already sick with guilt, I would not have you disturb him further."
Erik was surprised, but not displeased, by the steel in the girl's voice. No wilting flower, this one, and her affection for her adopted brother was laudable.
"No hysterics, I assure you, Miss Darkholme," he said. "Is there coffee to be had?"
"Then I bid you good morning." They exchanged bow and curtsy, and Erik went his way, running fingers through his hair and adjusting the dressing gown he had thrown on so precipitously until he felt better fit to be seen.
He heard no more cannon fire as he made his way to the kitchen. He did, however, rather start at the sight of footprints appearing in the corridor, footprints in blood that made a stumbling, laborious path, accompanied by faint sounds of pained gasping, and the occasional smeared handprint on the wall. A maid passed him with an absent curtsy, her attention locked on the invisible specter as she kept to the wall furthest from it.
Erik made the kitchen, found his coffee, and took the luxury of a splash of milk – and nearly dropped it when a dozen French soldiers charged bellowing through one wall and out the other, muskets glinting. One of the kitchen maids jumped and dropped a sack of flour, earning a knock with a wooden spoon from the cook. The man's fat face had the look of laughter more than scolding, and in fact the maid herself was chuckling ruefully at herself as she began sweeping up the flour. Erik made his retreat, brushing white powder from his clothes, and went in search of Charles.
He found him in the dining room, which at this hour was empty and dark, the curtains drawn and the grate empty. He had not bothered to move himself from his wheelchair to a dining chair, and so sat a bit low at the table. This doubtless helped along – but was not the only cause of – his vulnerable appearance. Small, pale, and tired he looked, and it pricked at Erik to see him so. He looked up at Erik with a wan smile, and took a long swallow from his mug.
"Chocolate, Charles?" Erik said, eyeing the mug's thick, frothy contents as he seated himself at Charles's side. "Though I suppose I should be getting accustomed to your self-indulgence."
"I will have my morning chocolate," Charles said, his voice firm yet bleary, "despite the sneers of lesser men. Never fear, my friend, it is a man's drink you see before you." With that, he pulled a bottle of whiskey out of the blankets across his lap, and tipped a very generous slosh of it into the chocolate. And sipped from the bottle before putting it away again.
"Fortification against the trials of the day?" Erik said dryly.
"Among other things," Charles muttered. His eyes grew more strained, suddenly, focusing on something across the room; Erik turned to see a bloody handprint forming on the wall, and heard labored breath. But Charles was speaking again already. "I owe you an abject apology, my friend. I'm sure someone has explained the... state I find myself in this morning. Usually the application of strong spirits before bed numbs it down, keeps my head..." he gestured inarticulately, "swampy enough that nothing can escape it. I put my glass aside earlier than usual last night in order to focus on our conversation. I should have had another tumbler or two afterward. I'm sorry."
Erik stared. "Do you mean to tell me you must habitually drink yourself into a stupor to prevent these projections? I cannot believe that is good for your constitution."
Charles only twitched a broken sort of smile, and took a long pull of his enhanced chocolate.
"Well, no more of that, if you please," Erik said, fighting the urge to throw the chocolate mug across the room. "All else in the house seem to have grown accustomed to this, I'm sure I can do the same." He almost wished for his earlier anger back, his determination that Charles was greatly at fault in this matter. It might have protected him from wanting so badly to alleviate the man’s misery.
"It is good of you to offer that." Charles's voice was tight, whether with emotion at the overture, or from the sight of the bloody prints working a slow circuit of the room, Erik was not sure. Charles looked away from it, made the effort to draw himself more upright, and focus his eyes. "We must apply ourselves, my friend, to the problem of... well, you."
"I beg your pardon?"
"No, no, I only mean... I mean you came here in order to rest and regain your feet after your many trials. But have you any idea what you might do, when you are rested? Will you go home, do you think?"
"Home?" Erik blinked. "I can only suppose you mean to Magda's family. No, I very much doubt they would welcome me. I left them abruptly, in the disarray of their grief, abandoning all tasks half-done – and already word was spreading of my Abnormality, which of course several of the servants witnessed during the fire. I believe some of Magda's family were already conceiving my blame for the event, if for the wrong reasons. And besides..." He swirled the last swallow of coffee in his cup. "I do not think I can be Max Eisenhardt anymore. There was little to him besides Magda's husband, Anya's father. I would not know how to go about it now."
Charles regarded him some moments in silence, expression thoughtful. Erik drained his coffee down to its bitterest dregs.
"But do you know how to go about being Erik Lehnsherr?" Charles said at last.
"If Max was Magda's, then Erik was Shaw's. And that is done, now, too." Could not some Unnaturals allegedly read the future in coffee dregs? Or was it tea? He had not the gift either way.
"Then ownership defaults to yourself," Charles said. "Congratulations. And you will stay with me while we figure out what that means to you." He touched a reassuring hand to Erik's wrist, then tipped back the remainder of his chocolate.
"Is any man truly this generous?" Erik could not help asking, vividly aware of the hand on his wrist. "What am I to you? Even an honest man does not throw his money away where there is no benefit to himself."
"Throw my money away? And what have you cost me, Erik? You take up one bedroom among dozens; you eat a third share when Oliver cooks enough for twenty. Thus far you are cheaper to keep than the three-legged cat."
The what? "I have cost you your life, very nearly."
"And if a baker very nearly charged me for a rye-loaf I should call myself a thief." He set down the mug and turned the full force of his gaze on Erik, and if he had looked sickly before there was no trace of it now. Everything about him seemed strong and certain and clean. "Erik, I know you have had little enough reason to believe this. But there are good men in the world, men – and women – who would help you simply because you needed it. I will teach you this, I swear it. I will show you the world is not so hopeless as you think it." He smiled gently, warmly, and began rolling back from the table. "Now then. Breakfast will be laid in about a quarter-hour. Raven and I always have our meals together, but feel free to have a tray brought to your rooms, if you prefer. Afterward, I intend to go riding, and I hope you will join me."
"Of course I will join you, and for breakfast as well."
"I am very happy to hear it." He cast a final bright-eyed glance at Erik over his shoulder before wheeling out of the room.
It was some minutes before Erik could follow, shaken to the core in ways he could not name.
Raven had only brought up the carnival that morning to distract her brother from the imaginary cannon fire that was rattling the windows. She should have known it would only make matter worse.
"Raven, you know I don't entirely approve of carnivals," he said, leaning on the counter with a drawn face while the tea brewed and Moira whipped the chocolate into a froth.
"Well, you needn't approve," Raven said cheerily. "If you choose to attend without taking any joy in the venture, that is your own fault. I enjoy carnivals immensely, and I would dearly like to go."
"So you can stare at the freaks like every other pudding-headed lout with sixpence in his pocket?"
Honestly, she would never understand the way Charles looked at the world. "No, Charles, so I can have an evening's entertainment in a place where Unnaturals use their abilities openly and earn a living for their pains!"
"Earn a living on the schadenfreude and morbid curiosity of people who wouldn't let them in out of a blizzard—"
"You quite miss the point, Charles, as you so often do—"
"Enough, Raven," Charles said – not angrily, but wearily, and for once Raven had reined in her tongue. Her brother looked so wan and unsteady. She had chosen a poor time to broach a subject that would lead to debate.
"Very well, Charles," she said softly, and leaned forward to kiss his brow. "You are feeling so poorly right now. I will not press you."
"Meaning you will press me later," Charles grumbled, but squeezed her hand as he passed, heading for the dark dining room with his chocolate.
As the lady of Graymalkin, Raven had enough to occupy her day, or so she told herself. Their hurried return from Brighton had left a good many things out of balance – some of the furniture still covered, the pantry very meagerly stocked, none of the servants certain of their schedules – on top of the usual endless cycle of meals and gardening and laundry and cleaning, to be directed and coordinated if not, thank God for Charles's money, participated in. Her parents had been milliners, when she had parents at all, and even the best moments of her early childhood had not involved an overabundance of food or warmth. In comparison, she did not at all mind the responsibilities of being a lady.
Raven had never been sure how much Charles's parents knew about her origins. They had accepted her as their ward without a quibble, and put her on social par with themselves without a thought, but it was obvious that Charles's Gift was at work there. He had been only twelve, and not nearly so refined in his efforts as he would later become; the servants had thereafter watched their employers' dreamy smiles at Raven with some disquiet, and treated both children with wariness.
Charles, of course, knew all – knew that Raven was in no way bred to be a lady, would have been happy to find herself only securely employed, and had instead taken her unhesitantly into his heart and home as his own sister. He never spoke, or seemed even to think, of how grateful she ought to be, how little right she had ever to argue with or vex him. She alone reproached herself when she had put him to abuse, and probably too seldom; but she did not forget to love him.
And she did not hesitate to let drop all the tasks she had set for herself, and turn away in the midst of a conversation with Moira about the needs of the herb garden, when she heard her brother and his guest return from their morning's ride.
She found them in the drawing room, Charles pouring drinks and watching in delight while Mr. Lehnsherr spun a coin in lazy loops through the air. Both were sun-flushed and sweat-dampened, their coats flung over a chair, and Raven paused in the doorway to appreciate the spectacle. Charles was not, after all, her brother by blood; she was allowed to merely look.
"—extremely scandalous of me, I'll well aware," Charles was laughing, "but I simply cannot abide a hat! It impairs my vision and denies me the breeze in my hair. I cannot help tearing it off the moment I feel I might get away with it!"
Mr. Lehnsherr's expression was a study in fond exasperation. "And if you could not abide trousers or breeches, what then? Would you live as a naked hermit in the forest? Some things in life are simply not optional, Charles."
"It is no use to scold him," Raven said, stepping into the room. "Charles is quite good at looking chastised and crestfallen, agreeing wholeheartedly that his behavior was wrong, and then cheerfully doing it again at the first opportunity."
Charles looked wounded. "Raven, dearest! You will give our guest quite a terrible impression of me!"
"It is nothing he cannot have observed for himself already. Perhaps you do not know, Mr. Lehnsherr, that at the very moment you met my brother, he was in the water in defiance of both my express request, and the dictates of common sense. And only look at his face! Even now he is preparing to apologize, when every word of it would be a lie. Speak truth, Charles, you are not sorry at all."
Charles lifted his chin. "Very well, I am not. How could I be, when my actions resulted in Mr. Lehnsherr's presence here? Not merely 'here in this house' but 'here on this Earth,' you understand."
Raven rolled her eyes, and crossed the room to casually put away the bottle Charles had poured from. "You see how comfortable my brother is with impropriety, Mr. Lehnsherr, and yet this very morning he balked at the idea of attending a traveling carnival that has camped nearby."
"How very stodgy of you, Charles," Mr. Lehnsherr said agreeably.
Charles scowled. "Yet surely you cannot entirely approve of the Gifted making show-ponies of themselves."
Mr. Lehnsherr rubbed thoughtfully at his chin. "Indeed, the idea of homo superior performing for the amusement of its less advanced cousins is repugnant. Yet the less-advanced cousin is at least getting appropriately fleeced, from what I hear of traveling carnivals, and it is one place where the Gifted are free to show themselves."
"You see?" Raven said, though she was somewhat uncertain if Mr. Lehnsherr was, in fact, agreeing with her or not.
Charles looked similarly uncertain. "'Homo superior,' Erik? You will parrot Sebastian Shaw even now? Surely his own actions have shown you that the Gifted hold no moral superiority to the Mundane."
"Moral? Perhaps not, but that was not my argument. I speak of power, Charles, the power any one of us holds over the Mundane, as you call them. Has it not always been the nature of the world, that those who cannot are ruled by those who can?"
Charles seemed torn between bafflement and laughter. "Can and cannot what, my friend? Argue, if you will, that the three of us have Gifts worth respecting; but I have seen many Gifts much humbler – certainly wonderful in their way, but nothing that could rightfully command reverence. We have a housemaid, for instance, who can cause the appearance of colorful lights. It is pretty, to be sure, but has yet to prove particularly useful."
"And yet even such a humble Gift cannot be duplicated by any Mundane. Man rules the beasts because he can think, and they cannot; the rich rule the poor because they have wealth, which is power, and the poor do not. We have power that the Mundanes do not have; our dominance over them is both natural and inevitable."
Raven felt a peculiar sort of singing inside herself at these words, as if some tuning fork she had never known she carried had been struck at long last. Yes, she wanted to shout. We should not be the bottom rung of society, but the top. Our Gifts should be praised and revered, not whispered of in shame.
But Charles looked distinctly uneasy. "Erik, you would only teach people to fear and hate us all the more. Our Gifts are not to be used to oppress the common people, they have quite enough of that already. If anything, we should use our Gifts to help them, to show them that Unnaturals are not freaks or monsters but people as good and honest as anyone else. One advantage of the carnivals, I would say, is that they show the Gifted in a context of harmless fun—"
"Harmless fun indeed!" Anger glinted now in Mr. Lehnsherr's eyes. "I would teach the people to respect us, while you would encourage them to look down on our Gifts as parlor tricks, and – worse! – calculate how we might be indentured to their own advantage."
"Erik, that is not at all what I meant!"
Erik raised a hand, stopping Charles's indignant words. He drew a breath, visibly calming himself. "It is terribly rude of me, of course, to argue with my host. Particularly in front of a lady." He turned to Raven with an expression schooled to pleasantness. "Your brother numbers your Gift with those that ought to command respect, Miss Darkholme. Is it too bold of me to request a demonstration?"
Raven glanced to Charles, whose cheeks were still reddened with agitation, but he opened a hand in a gesture of do as you will.
Unable to keep a smile from her face, Raven let her skin ripple into a flawless facsimile of Erik's own, even extending a thin layer of skin over her morning dress that then shaped itself to mirror the man's shirtsleeves, trousers, and brown-striped waistcoat.
She was pleased to see Mr. Lehnsherr start violently, then step toward her with a brilliant grin. "Magnificent," he breathed. "Can you do anyone, then?"
She shifted again, this time into Charles's image, and spoke in his voice. "Anyone at all. Though I must prepare my mind beforehand, memorizing what I intend to imitate. I've a very good memory for such things, but voices are sometimes difficult."
"You are perfectly magnificent. I cannot see a single flaw."
She cast her eyes down and curtsied demurely, which, executed in Charles's form, sparked both men to laughter.
"And the face you wore but moments ago," Mr. Lehnsherr asked, "is that your natural appearance, or is there a deeper layer?"
She hesitated. Had she not wished for permission to show her true face in Mr. Lehnsherr's company? Yet he was looking at her now with such admiration and joy, it stung to think of him recoiling from the chimera beneath. Instead she gave a coy smile. "How very improper of you, sir, asking to see a lady au naturel!"
"I do beg your pardon." Still smiling, Mr. Lehnsherr bowed. "Pray take my overenthusiasm as the compliment I meant it to be."
"Of course, sir." She flickered back to the blonde Miss Darkholme.
"You have a powerful Gift indeed, Miss Darkholme," Mr. Lehnsherr said. "To be anyone, at any time – you might rule the world with very little effort."
"And yet, tonight at least, I would be satisfied to only attend the carnival."
"Well, you shan't," Charles said, in his determined-not-to-be-cross tone. "Erik and I have plans for this evening and will not be available to escort you. Next time, perhaps."
Raven opened her mouth for a hot protest, only for an idea to occur – one so obvious that she felt quite stupid for having taken so long about having it. The hot protest converted into a disappointed, "Very well, Charles." She let the conversation move to other things – and was able to participate with all good cheer, knowing she would, in fact, be attending the carnival, whether Charles liked it or not.
After dinner, the three of them settled in the drawing room, and Raven made herself quite docile. While Charles and Erik fiddled about with metal and a sporadic game of piquet, she practiced at the pianoforte, read a few chapters of her novel, and embroidered as dismally as ever. She also hid the half-empty wine bottle when Charles wasn't looking, but that was nothing out of the ordinary. She picked no arguments at all – did not so much as make a joke at her brother's expense.
If Charles distrusted her sudden agreeableness, he said nothing. In fact, he was so distracted with his guest, his eyes bright and his smiles frequent and easy, that Raven suspected she could have had a hair-pulling, window-breaking tantrum without ever attracting his attention.
She refused to let the idea bother her. After all, it worked in her favor. It meant that when she excused herself early, she received no resistance or suspicion, only an absent-minded " 'Night to you, Raven, sleep well" and the doff of an imaginary hat. Mr. Lehnsherr shot him a scolding look, and stood to bow to her properly.
"Goodnight, Mr. Lehnsherr. How nice it is to have a gentleman in the house!"
Charles rolled his eyes, all good humor and loose limbs. She had done well to hide the wine when she did. "Very well, Raven, if it pleases you, I will have Alex fetch my crutches so that I can stand and bow as well. Pray do not be alarmed if I topple over."
"Ridiculous man," Raven said, and crossed the room to kiss his forehead. "Be sure to let Mr. Lehnsherr get some sleep tonight."
He waved her off with fond irritation, and she was free.
Upstairs in her bedroom, she allowed her lady's-maid to get her ready for bed – and the moment Amy was gone, was on her feet again, the lamp turned up, and pulling her nightgown over her head.
She stood before the mirror with her nerves singing and all her skin pebbling in the cool air.
Do I have the nerve for this?
Yes. A dozen times yes.
She first, instinctively, took Charles's form, that being the one she was most practiced at. But that would not do at all, would it? Being recognized, even falsely, could lead to disaster, if some acquaintance chose to mention the encounter – and oh, what a very simpleton she was! Charles could not go walking about at the carnival or anywhere else. She cocked her head, and with a flutter of scales replaced her brother's blue eyes with Moira's brown ones, and his hair with Sean Cassidy's ginger mane. A few inches of height added, a few pounds of Charles's soft cushioning converted to lean muscle, and – yes, perfect. She looked like no one in particular, only a wild-haired young man. Quite a pretty one, with those eyes. She rather liked the effect.
And now clothing. She'd had a half-formed idea of borrowing something of her brother's, but it would not likely fit this amalgamate form. And after all... she hardly needed it, now did she?
She closed her eyes, drawing up the memory of what Charles had worn on their last trip into town. Jacket and waistcoat, shirt and breeches and boots – it all had to be perfect. She could not afford to draw anyone's eye to an oddity. A cravat, of course – how very strange it felt to form her own skin into a Mathematical knot! – and she would need a hat.
She would have to nick a hat on her way out, she decided quickly. Making a piece of herself detachable in such a way was quite beyond her. At present.
And there in the mirror stood a perfectly unexceptional doe-eyed young man, dressed and ready for an evening's entertainment.
She could not suppress a nervous giggle. Did anything of interest befall you since last we spoke, Miss Darkholme? Oh, no, nothing at all. Only I attended a traveling carnival unescorted and, oh yes, unclothed.
She would have to be quite careful, of course, pressing through the crowd in naught but her skin – being elbow-jabbed or trod upon would be quite a bit more painful than usual – and she did fervently hope it would be a warm night. But she was prepared to endure some discomfort in this instance.
Leaving the house proved nerve-wracking. It would occur to her only much later that she could have made it easier by taking the form of one of the servants. That held its own potential for disaster, if she should stumble across the servant in question, but would have been easier to explain than a young man no one had ever seen before. The idea, however, did not occur, and so she was forced to make her way to the door without being seen at all.
She had evaded the drawing room, but Charles and Mr. Lehnsherr had moved into the library, perhaps in search of the chessboard – a fact she did not discover until she passed the doorway and found herself pinned by Mr. Lehnsherr's piercing gaze.
Mr. Lehnsherr had been in the house only two days, he could not know the faces of all the servants. She might have strolled by without notice, had her manner been less guilty. As it was, she could see straightaway that he perceived her to be out of place. His brow furrowed, and he opened his mouth, raising a hand to catch the attention of Charles on the other side of the room.
Raven threw herself on his mercy with a frantic shake of her head, letting her scales ripple just enough to communicate her identity.
His mouth closed.
"Sorry, Erik, what did you say?"
"Only that I could make excellent use of a snack, if we are to continue drinking."
"Of course. I will ring for a tray."
Raven flashed a grateful smile, and hurried away and out the door.
There were some, in Charles's acquaintance of like-minded men, who tried to attract the objects of their desires by being soft and submissive and womanly. They had their share of success, with a certain type of man. At least one of his friends, Charles knew, fantasized about starting a new life, in the Colonies perhaps, a life of skirts and curls and padded bodices, with a husband who might be made to understand – or never to know.
Charles did not want to be a woman. There was something of feminine submission, he supposed, in the desire to have strong arms around him, to feel a man's weight pinning him to the bed. But the thought of doing the pinning was equally appealing – and in that word, equally, lay the key. He did not, like his poor friend, desire a husband to rule over him, but a partner to stand at his side.
He knew it was a disservice to women, to assume he could never find such a partner among their ranks. His Gift did not let him believe, as so many men were determined to, that women were less sensible than men. It was their upbringing, not their intrinsic nature, that led so many of them to be silly and helpless. He could not disdain them for that – but neither could he love them for it. He sought strength in a partner, the focus and integrity of a powerful mind, and though he still held out hope of finding such a wife, he had thus far been more successful with men.
'Successful' being, of course, a relative term. Charles winced, reminded of his many, many romantic disasters, and took another drink.
The butler, Mr. Quested, had brought a tray of pastries, with his usual silent flair, and Charles watched from the corner of his eye as Erik leaned over to take one, moving with all the grace of quiescent power. Erik had just the sort of mind Charles felt most drawn to, sharp and strong and passionate – and damaged. Charles knew that he was never in more danger of falling for someone than when they needed his help, and oh, Erik needed all the help the world could give him. Add a dash of dry humor and astonishing good looks, and Charles was lost.
"Did you lie to your sister?"
Charles blinked awake from his reverie, trying not to let his cheeks color. "I'm sorry?"
"You told her we could not escort her because we had plans for this evening."
"Oh! Yes, yes we do have plans. I'm rather shocked Raven went to bed without calling me to task." He lifted his eyes to the clock ticking on the mantle. "Time and past to get started, I suppose."
"Started with what?"
Charles put aside his drink and turned his chair to more directly face Erik's. "Disentangling whatever knot in our collective minds is causing your nightmares to manifest in the same way as mine do."
Erik hesitated. "Are you so sure the problem need be addressed at all? Perhaps it was a solitary incident."
"From what little I saw, my friend, I do not at all believe that to be the case. The... entanglement looked to be a rather sturdy one, given to ebbing and flowing but not to unknotting itself. Perhaps when I dig deeper I will see differently – but I would prefer to find out now, rather than wait for another incident." He sat back, reluctantly. "If you feel differently, of course, I will not press you. It is your own mind, and as I have told you already, I will do nothing to it without your permission."
Erik drew a long, thoughtful breath. "No, if you really think it is not over, I would rather disentangle, as you say, before we are confronted with another apparition."
Charles essayed a reassuring smile, ignoring the little sneer in his head pointing out that he had been unable to stop his own ghosts from appearing to the entire household; how could he expect to do better with Erik's? He could do nothing, after all, if he did not try.
"I don't plan to walk through any more of your memories," he said, "but I am really not sure where I might be forced to follow the threads, so to speak, if I can even find them. I will stop any time you ask me to."
"If you are ready, then." At Erik's nod, Charles relaxed back into his chair, and raised an instinctive finger to his temple.
Easing into Erik's mind, the first thing he encountered was, of course, the man's current emotional state. Beneath his steely calm he was nervous, uneasy both about this procedure and the need for it, naturally uncomfortable with the invasion of his mind.
And yet another part of him welcomed it. Charles paused – he surely could not be blamed for pausing – to examine this unexpected emotion.
A part of Erik, and not a small part, though it hummed just beneath the surface of consciousness, was remembering Charles's last assay into this territory with a sort of longing, and was not just resigned but eager to have it repeated. Charles had then, as now, taken every pain to be a considerate guest, feather-edged and gentle, and Erik had been strangely comforted by it. He had expected to be repulsed by the sensation of not being alone in his own head, and instead found it a solace.
No one had ever welcomed Charles before. In response, and almost without his direction, he felt his presence within Erik's mind grow warmer, deeper, from a mere brush of fingertips to an outright caress. And the greater part of Erik's mind leaned into that caress with something like a purr.
In the physical world, Erik's body shifted uneasily, and Charles drew back, sending tendrils of reassurance to the parts of Erik that keened at the lost contact. He had to focus on his purpose here, before he tricked Erik into something the man was not at all ready for.
Any hopes that he might, eventually, be ready, belonged to a later time.
Gathering himself with a deep breath, Charles skimmed carefully across the sharp-angled gridwork of Erik's mind, looking for anything that did not belong. He had a moment of excitement at the discovery of a pulsing, unhappy place walled incompletely off from the rest of the mind, but it was only the pain of the wounds Erik had sustained in the water, which he was attempting to suppress. Charles focused his search on the area of memory containing Anya's death, without result. He then slid down the grid to the other possibility – the moment where he and Erik had first made mental contact.
And there it was, the raw, writhing place where Charles had tried to take away Erik's pain, and been repulsed with all the ill-aimed strength of panic. There, some piece of Charles's own mind had been trapped by Erik's frenzied mental defenses, still intertwined with Erik's most painful memories.
It was quite a knot, swollen and bleeding and still frantic to protect itself, flinching from Charles's touch like a wounded animal. It could not heal with a foreign mind infecting it, yet it would not let go. For at least an hour Charles hovered near it, blanketing it with comfort and calm and reassurance, but it was not moved, and the more he prodded it, the tighter it curled into itself.
Finally Charles withdrew, and found himself back in a body that ached with tension and effort, a thin sheen of sweat over his skin.
"You found it," Erik said, looking little better than Charles felt.
"I did," Charles replied, and explained the situation as clearly as he could. "It is only the tiniest thread of my own mind – leaving it behind has not harmed me. But it will harm you, I think, all the more the longer you hold onto it."
"But I have no intention of holding it! Why should I want it? You may have it back with my goodwill!"
Charles spread his hands helplessly. "You are not holding it consciously. It is only your panic, that subconscious fear of losing yourself, which has tightened around everything in its grasp and will not let go. It is forcing a continuing contact between that scrap of my Gift and your most painful memories. Thus the hallucinations."
"How am I to let it go?"
"That I cannot tell you. Yet," he hurried to add as Erik's frustration visibly mounted. "Come, my friend, the doctor has only just made a diagnosis! Do give me a day or two to concoct a plan of treatment."
Erik shuddered. "I am not fond of doctors."
Charles winced; yes, of course. Sebastian Shaw had called himself a doctor, though his education supported no such claim. "Your tailor, then, has yet to decide how best to mend this tear. Nothing more can be done tonight; I have prodded your poor knot into a state of hysterics. Best to let it calm before attempting anything else."
Erik nodded. "I believe I shall go to bed then. I would advise you to do the same; your efforts have left you quite pale."
"Thank you, that sounds an excellent idea. Do go on ahead; I believe I will finish my glass first."
Erik eyed the glass with disfavor, and set a pastry beside it.
"Very well, if it pleases you, Mother," Charles laughed. "Hie thee to bed now."
As Erik went to the door, Charles could not resist reaching out one last time, toward what he was beginning to think of as Erik's cat-brain, the part of him that purred and arched its back into every touch. Goodnight, my friend. Sleep well.
The carnival was a whirl of torchlight and laughter. Peanut shells crunched beneath Raven's boot-formed feet, the breeze ruffled her skin-cravat, and a group of grimy children ran squealing past. A one-man band wandered by from the other direction, filling the air with the sound of drums, cymbals, and some manner of horn; she started, then grinned, to realize he played with two sets of arms.
Raven had not been to a carnival since her early childhood, and memory had not prepared her for the overwhelming spectacle of it. For some time she simply wandered, gazing about with fascination and delight. The carnival had a carousel, and a tiny steam-powered train on a circular track. On every side men called out their offerings.
"Which cup holds the nut? Find the nut, win a penny!"
"Fresh roasted peanuts! Fresh hot cinnamon buns!"
"Pick a card, gov'nor, any card you like!"
"The Disappearing Devil! He's here, he's there, he's everywhere! Come one, come all, you won't believe your eyes!"
She followed a party of other young men into the tent housing the Disappearing Devil, but was distracted on the way by a sideshow. A dark-haired boy stood surrounded by streams of fire, directing them with his hands in a complex dance. His face held an expression of such transported absorption and joy, Raven doubted he was aware of his audience at all. The rather singed sign overhead read The Amazing Pyromaniac.
She watched a long time, thrilled by the rush and roar of the flames, bitterly jealous of the boy's freedom to display his Gift. So very powerful a Gift! On either side of her, Mundanes cheered and applauded, tossed coins, and moved on to the next attraction. How foolish people could be! They thought of this boy's Gift as – how had Erik put it – a parlor trick, when he could just as easily use it to kill them, every one of them. Taking their money was all very well, but this boy could as easily demand their worship as their pennies. How could they not see that?
At length, Raven tore herself away from The Amazing Pyromaniac, and turned to see the rest of the performers. The Disappearing Devil who was, indeed, here and there and everywhere, and frightened the Mundanes witless; The Toad-Man with his astonishing tongue and acrobatic leaps; Madam Psylocke the Mind-Reader, who held her attention a good while as she tried to catalog the differences between her Gift and Charles's.
We could do this, you and I, she pictured herself saying to Charles. 'Hazard your will against the Astonishing Doctor – no, Professor – Xavier, who knows your thoughts before you do! Gape in awe at Mystique, spirit from the beyond, descended to the mortal plane to take human form – ANY human form!' You may even bring your friend if you like, Charles – 'Quail before Magneto, Master of Magnetism!'
Charles would likely have her bundled off to a hospital for even suggesting it, convinced she was fevered if not mad.
Even that reflection could not sour her spirits entirely. She could hardly believe how light and free she felt here, safe from judgment behind a false face in a crowd of strangers – free to win a shilling at the hammer-bell, and spend it on a mug of ale; free to laugh and shout and be unladylike. Free to wink at a red-haired girl who stumbled over her foot, and receive her answering blush like a precious stone too awkward to wear, too beautiful to let drop.
That encounter left her feeling giddy and wrong-footed and strange, enough that she sought shelter from the crowd by ducking into the House of Mirrors.
Her effervescent mood dimmed immediately. On every side a glass, and none of them reflecting Raven. In every direction lay distortion – but none of it a more false image than the one she already wore.
She was quite alone. Laughter and voices rebounded through the maze of mirrors, but no one stood within sight. And if someone should catch a glimpse of her, why, this was a carnival! She would be taken for one of the attractions.
With a smile of relief, Raven let the doe-eyed ginger boy melt away, and spun to watch her dozen blue reflections twist and ripple and swirl.
"I thought it must be so."
Raven gasped, snapping back into her most familiar form – blonde Miss Darkholme, complete with muslin gown. Oh, foolish move, now her indiscretion could be traced to its owner, her true identity exposed and shamed – but the speaker did not look eager to shame her. She looked amused, and satisfied, but not in the predatory way of the blackmailer. Or so Raven hoped.
"Madam Psylocke!" she said, and the woman smiled, tossing long black hair over her shoulder and curtsying.
"Indeed. But you may call me Miss Braddock. I knew your mind did not match your face, that you must surely be one of us."
"I am. You may call me M-Miss Teak."
"Well, Miss Teak," Madam Psylocke said, with such arch emphasis that Raven knew she was not deceived, "there is one of our number who greatly desires to speak with you."
Raven frowned. "With me? Do I know this person?"
Madam Psylocke's smile deepened. "No, not at all. But she knows you. Come." She turned and began leading the way out of the House of Mirrors.
Raven swallowed, settled her young man's disguise back into place, and followed.
On the edge of the carnival, a bit separated from the noise and light, was a tent of deep purple cloth, and a sign reading Lady Destiny, Blind Seer and Prophetess.
"Enter, Miss Teak," Madam Psylocke said. "Believe me, you are expected."
Raven swallowed, and walked through the curtain into the tent.
The room was dim, lit by a single candle-sconce. The walls were heavy with colorful drapery. Lace covered a table, on which sat a deck of cards and a clear glass ball the size of Raven's head – but both these things were pushed to the side, and the middle of the table was mostly occupied by the hands of the woman who sat behind it. They were delicate, graceful hands, twisting around each other with eagerness or anxiety, and Raven stared at them a moment before she dared raise her eyes to their owner's face.
She was perhaps a year or three Raven's senior, her face as pretty and pale as her hands, with dark hair disarrayed as if she had just pulled it down – or perhaps relieved it of a fortuneteller's turban. She wore golden hoops in her ears, and layers of opulent shawls. All this Raven noticed only after tearing her gaze away from the milky sheen of the woman's sightless eyes.
"Hello, Raven," the woman said, her voice warm and gentle, and bearing a tremulous edge of the excitement that kept her hands in motion. "My name is Irene Adler, and I've been waiting for you for a long time."
For all his hurry to get to bed, Erik found no rest there. He stared into the coals in the grate, then at the dark ceiling, alternately kicking his blankets off and pulling them back on again. His sleeplessness was irritating, but not surprising; the truth was that he had not excused himself early because he was tired. In fact, he might as well admit to himself that he had fled out of fear. Not fear of Charles, but... well, but therein lay the problem. Charles surely posed a greater threat to the people around him than anything short of the angel of death, if he chose to use his Gift to its fullest. And yet Erik felt at home, at peace, in his presence in a way that he had not thought he could ever feel again. He did not trust the feeling. It was possible Charles was causing it, manipulating him deliberately, or even unconsciously. It was just as possible that it was simply Erik's own weakness, the same weakness that had let him be lulled by safety and peace until he was too soft to protect his family.
Either way, the draw he felt towards Charles Xavier, the desire to be near him and earn his approval, could only be harmful. The intimate sensation of Charles inside his mind was a false and unnatural comfort, and he had been right to distance himself from it as quickly as possible.
None of which he intended as a condemnation of Charles as a person. Charles had earned Erik's gratitude by his actions, and Erik's affection by his manner, and it was no use and no virtue to pretend otherwise. Their acquaintance was yet in its infancy, but Erik dared, quietly, to hope that it would prove a lasting friendship, a mutual support that could survive all the trials of passing years and growing families—
And there Erik had to laugh at himself, for surely his own future held no hope of family, not anymore. Charles, of course, would marry, and fill this great echoing house with beautiful blue-eyed children. Why was he not married already? He had returned from the war only six months ago, he'd said, but that was time enough for many a soldier to find a pretty young thing and embark on domestic bliss. Why not Charles?
Was it his injury that prevented it? Did women scorn him now, because he could not walk? Erik's skin warmed with anger at the thought. Any woman in the world should count herself blessed to receive the attentions of a man like Charles Xavier – generous, kind, brave and intelligent. He had charm, wealth, good looks – surely the wealth alone would win most women's hearts, though that idea, too, was repulsive – Charles yoked for life to a fortune-hunter who cared nothing for his happiness. He made a note to do whatever proved necessary to prevent such a fate for Charles.
His next breath dispelled all such thoughts, all thoughts whatsoever, as it filled his lungs with the stench of burning meat.
"Papa. Papa, help me." The words were nearly swallowed by the chewing roar of a fire that gave no light to the room. "Papa, please."
Erik flung off the blankets and stood, looking about frantically. "Anya? Where are you?"
"I'm here, Papa."
The voice came from behind him; he spun, and there on the foot of the bed, sitting with knees drawn to her chest as she had been wont to do, was the flame-limned shadow of his little girl. As Erik watched, the sound of fire faded, and the flames around her died away to only an occasional flicker, leaving her features as clear and solid as any child's. Magda's wide dark eyes, his own thin lips and high cheekbones, the scatter of freckles that were all her own.
"Anya." He fell to his knees beside the bed, reached out – left his hand only an inch from her foot, not daring to touch. "Why are you here?"
"Don't you want me here?"
Erik blinked away tears. "Of course I do, love. But you're... You should be at peace. I avenged you, you should be at peace."
"But you're so sad. How can I be at peace when you're so sad?" Flames flickered in her hair.
She was not real, Erik reminded himself. She was neither a real child nor the ghost of one, only his own memory. There was surely no point in arguing with her.
He argued anyway, through the growing tightness of his throat. "Anya, it doesn't matter if I'm sad. It is not your place to take care of me, but mine to care for you."
"I know. I remember. Papa takes care of Mama and Baby." She inched her foot forward, toward his hand. He could feel the radiant heat of it. It wasn't real. It wasn't real. "I miss Mama," she said, her voice cracking.
That was more than he could bear. He stood and crossed the room to lean against the mantel, staring down into the dying coals.
But there was no escaping; he could feel her standing at his side before she spoke. "Don't you miss Mama? Don't you miss us?"
"Yes." Somehow the word was both a shout and a whisper. "Yes, schatzi, I miss you more than anything."
Anya put her arms around his waist, and her touch burned, felt just like fire against his skin. He knelt and pulled her close, buried his face in her hair even as sparks drifted through it.
"Don't be sad, Papa. I still love you."
"I love you, too, schatzi."
She pulled back and pressed a burning kiss to his skin – three kisses, just as she always had at bedtime – one to his forehead and one to either cheek, and waited for him to return the favor. He did, the tears on his face hissing against the heat of her skin.
She was gone as quickly as she'd come, and with her the pain of burning; his skin was unmarked.
He did not sleep until nearly dawn.
"We have never met, Miss Adler," Raven said, and could not muster an ounce of the affront this woman's familiarity should provoke.
"No, we have not. But I'm sure you have gathered the nature of my Gift. I have known for many years that you would come here."
"And do what?"
Irene Adler's smile quirked wistfully. "As to that, there are too many possibilities to say for certain."
Raven raised an eyebrow. "This from the prophetess."
"The future is never certain, Raven, only probable. Particularly where it hinges on the decisions of one so... protean as yourself." Her voice was rich with affection, and despite her nervous unease, Raven felt warmed. She had no idea what she could have done to earn the affection of this beautiful woman, so glamorous and elegant and yet with such a sweetness to her manner – but whatever it was, she would gladly do it again.
"Won't you have a seat?" Irene asked, and Raven sank into the chair without protest.
"Pray forgive the liberty, my stranger-friend," Irene said, "but I would dearly like to see your face." She raised her hands, diffidently, and after an uncertain moment Raven sat forward, and let the delicate fingers sweep over her cheeks. "No, no," Irene said instantly. "Your face, Raven."
Raven swallowed, and let her skin ripple back into its natural state, keeping the form of a white dress over it.
"There you are." Irene's voice was nearly a croon. Raven closed her eyes and let Irene's warm fingers follow every dip and curve of her cheeks and nose and forehead, eyes and lips and the edges of her hair. She tried to remember if anyone had ever touched her like this before, as if she were something precious and beautiful.
"Sweet Raven," Irene murmured. "Would you have me tell your fortune?"
Raven opened her eyes, and did not answer immediately, letting her gaze roam Irene's face as Irene's hands had roamed hers. "Before asking my fortune," she said, "I would ask one who knows, whether she has found that knowing events beforehand brings her joy."
"You are wise," Irene chuckled, settling her hands in her lap. "And the answer is that it has brought me the greatest joys of my life. And the greatest sorrows. But I will not read your future now; you would not believe what I told you. Once the cushion of a long sleep and your familiar home sits between us, you would remember that I gave you no proof of my Gift, that I could as easily be a charlatan with strange taste in victims. The first thing I will do, then, is point out that I have neither asked for, nor will I accept, a single coin from your hand tonight."
"And what is the second thing you will do?"
"Tell you your present," Irene said, "which was the future only hours ago, and which may, seen through another's eyes, give you more guidance than a dozen futures." She placed her hands on the table once more, palms up.
Raven hesitated only a moment before laying her own hands in them. "Very well, then, Lady Destiny," she said, hardly knowing if she meant it as jocularity or sarcasm. "Tell me what you see."
"I see a young woman who has yet to realize that she stands at a crossroads. Who needs without knowing what she needs. You have the love of people who do not understand you, and you have – or will soon have – the understanding of a man who does not love you. You can be as beautiful as a fairy queen, and yet feel that in truth the plainest farm-girl outshines you. You yearn for the approving eyes of men, and yearn just as strongly to stand before their disapproval unmoved. You can create yourself in any image, wear any face you choose, except the real one." She smiled softly. "And tonight a girl's blush moved you more than a kiss from Mr. McCoy ever could."
Though she had not worn true clothes all night, Raven only now began to feel naked. She drew trembling hands gently away from Irene's. "What do you know about Mr. McCoy?" She had not seen Hank since her departure to Brighton, but they had exchanged letters, and there was talk of his visiting later in the week.
"Mr. McCoy is one branch at the crossroad, Raven. He is a dear boy, you are not deceived in his character – though your knowledge of his faults is incomplete."
"What do you mean by that?" Raven licked her lips nervously. "Will he ask for my hand?"
Irene's smile quirked. "Yes. But that is nothing you do not already know."
"Should I accept him?"
"You stand at a crossroads," Irene repeated. "Which path you should choose depends entirely on which destination you wish to reach."
Raven pressed her hands against her eyes, trying to smother sudden tears. She felt very tired. "And what destination do I wish to reach?"
"That is hard for me to know, when you have not yet decided. I do know that if life were a wagon, you would load yours heavy, on the roughest path, and pull it alone. You would treasure every scar that path won you, and consider your strength at the end of the road to be worth every pain."
Again Raven felt the tuning fork inside her sing to the note that matched it, and her tears came thicker. "Do you see me finding it? This heavy, painful, purposeful life?"
"No," Irene said, "for it is not something you find. It is something you make, forged in the deepest parts of your own fire. Oh, dearest." She cupped one hand around Raven's cheek, stroking away tears. "You are not a raven at all, you know, but a tiger, and you will have no weak and watery life, whatever path you choose."
Raven shuddered with a swell of hope and relief, as if those words had opened a gate, swept away a blockage. Stumbling, she left her seat, and found herself kneeling at Irene’s feet, head pillowed on her lap, while Irene stroked her hair.
Their tableau held for a long, dreamlike while, Raven lost in the comfort of Irene’s hands, the warmth of the lap beneath her cheek, the sweet scent of her loose hair that fell over Raven like a protective curtain. Irene sang to her, soft snatches of tune that seemed both meaningless and desperately important, and bent forward to press a kiss to Raven’s hair and rest her own cheek against Raven’s, arms warm around her.
Then Raven started at sudden noise from outside the tent, a high whistle followed by a boom not unlike Charles's cannons.
"That is the fireworks," Irene said serenely. "They mark the end of the carnival for tonight, but we do not travel again until Monday." She tipped Raven’s chin up. "Can I impose on you to guide a blind woman outside for the show?"
Raven bit her tongue on the obvious question, eyeing the gentle amusement in Irene's face. She stood and linked their arms to lead her out of the tent.
Bursts of red and gold and silver flared and glittered overhead, and Raven smiled at them with the simple joy of a child. No, when had she ever felt this pure, trembling joy in her childhood? This was something entirely new. Irene’s arm was around her waist now, and when Raven hesitantly reciprocated the gesture, the reward was not only the sweet fascination of a curving hip under her hand, but Irene’s smile as she shifted even closer, resting her head against Raven’s shoulder.
Raven did not dare try to name what she was feeling, chose defiantly not to remember how little she knew of this woman, or that she ought already to have been at home. She let herself know only that she was, for this moment, more perfectly happy than she had ever been in her life.
As soon as he had a swallow of coffee in his belly, Erik sought out Charles, to tell him that the apparition had visited again. He wasn't sure the information would be particularly helpful – they knew the cause already, and the cure was still a mystery – but that was surely for Charles to judge.
It did not occur to him until he had already knocked at Charles's chamber door that he might be violating etiquette by calling on his host before he had shown himself downstairs. Growing up in Shaw's house had given Erik little education in the ways of polite society, and he had spent much of his Eisenhardt life trying to recover from social missteps. But if he had intruded, Charles did not seem put out by it; Erik felt a brief brush against his mind, a tinge of curiosity that shaded quickly into pleasure, and then heard Charles's voice calling, "Come in, Erik!"
Erik entered, and followed soft splashing and clinking sounds to the dressing room, where a tin hip-bath called out to his Gift. He stepped into the room to find Charles ensconced in said hip-bath, steam rising around him with the scent of some expensive perfumed soap. Cinnamon? Yes, cinnamon and roses.
Erik found he had frozen in the doorway, breath stopped in his throat.
"Good morning, Erik," Charles said blithely. A pink flush floated across his cheeks and down his chest, doubtless a result of the hot water, and his eyes were brighter than Erik had ever seen them. "Yet again you catch me at my most self-indulgent. I find that a hot bath braces me for the day, for all that my doctor would rather see me in a cold shower – those are surely only useful for extracting information from captured spies! I don't pamper myself so every day, but as one of the servants has a heat-based Gift that reduces the inconvenience, I decline to apologize to anyone for my baths. Alex, a rinse please, and then my shaving kit."
Charles's valet, a fair-haired young man who never ceased to look awkward in his proper servant's uniform, hefted a large, steaming jug and poured it over his master's head. Water cascaded down what seemed like yards of milk-and-roses skin, leaving Charles's water-darkened hair clinging to his face and neck.
Erik swallowed hard, wondering if he'd contracted a touch of fever, to feel so odd.
Charles laughed and shook his sopping hair out of his eyes. "So very refreshing! If you would like to use the bath when I am done, Erik, I can have fresh water brought."
"Thank you, not today," Erik managed, with difficulty.
The valet handed Charles his shaving kit, and perched awkwardly on the edge of the tub to hold up a mirror. Of course Charles could not stand before a mirror to shave. Erik was gripped by a sudden desire to step closer to the bath and examine the cut-off remainder of Charles's lost leg. He stamped out the urge immediately; such morbid curiosity would surely be hurtful to his friend.
"I say, Erik, this mirror has a metal frame. It might be easier for you to hold it up than poor Mr. Summers here."
Erik extended a hand, half-consciously, and the mirror left the valet's hands to hover at perfect height before Charles's face.
"Excellent!" Charles threw a brilliant smile at Erik. "Thank you, Alex."
It took the valet a moment to realize he was being dismissed, at which point he retreated with a rather clumsy bow. Wherever had Charles found the lout, and why did he keep him?
"I needed a valet and Alex needed a position."
Erik fought a trickle of panic – he's LISTENING, what else did he hear – without daring to admit to himself what he feared had been overheard. Instead, he merely observed dryly, "A gentleman might wait for a question to be asked before answering it."
"Sorry," Charles said, blithely insincere. "It was a very pointed thought. I admit Alex is unpolished as yet, but he's learning quickly. You should have seen him a month ago. But, my friend, I am sure you can only have called on me so early with something on your mind. Not that you are not welcome at all times! There is no hour of the day when I would be displeased to receive you. But is there not something?"
"There is." It took a moment's effort for Erik to drag his attention away from the steel of the straight razor, making its smooth methodical way through the lather across Charles's jaw. "There is indeed. I was visited again last night."
"Oh, Erik." The razor stuttered in its path, and a thin line of brilliant red appeared on Charles's white cheek.
Erik bit down hard on an entirely bizarre need to lean down and touch that cheek, run the pad of his thumb over that scarlet line, as if he could thereby heal it or, or possess it somehow, and what the devil was wrong with him?
Charles, with a hiss of pain, pulled a handkerchief from a nearby drawer and pressed it to the cut. "You could have woken me, Erik. I am so sorry."
"It was not so bad. I was able to converse with her this time, and though it was of course painful, it was not... not horrifying." He heard his voice go distant. "To see my daughter's face again, when I thought I must wait for death to even hope..."
"Careful, there, my friend." Worry sharp in his eyes, Charles set a cautionary hand on Erik's arm, and when had Erik come near enough to the tub for that to happen? "Do not deceive yourself. This is not your daughter restored."
"I am still considering how we might relieve you of this burden. I confess I have no useful ideas at present. There is, however – I meant to point this out to you first thing – there is something in the newspaper that I believe you will find of intense personal interest!" He gestured to a very badly folded newspaper that sat on the dressing table. Careful to keep Charles's mirror steady, Erik crossed the room to pick it up.
A paragraph on the last page had been circled and circled again in a wild dash of ink. It was a notice of the death of a London businessman by the name of Sebastian Shaw, whose solicitors were seeking the whereabouts of one Erik Lehnsherr, Mr. Shaw's former ward, to whom he had left all his worldly goods.
A loud combination of splash, crash and yelp sounded behind him as the mirror dropped into the hip-bath.
"I am well. I cannot say as much for the mirror."
"Careful!" Erik forced himself to step away from the newspaper. "Don't move. Let me help you."
Charles set aside the razor, which he appeared to have been finished with in any case, and let Erik lift him out of the glass-littered water, his arms warm and wet around Erik's shoulders.
Charles got his one foot under him, but precariously; if Erik let him go, he would clearly fall. What could he do but continue to stand there, Charles's weight against his arms and chest, Erik's hands spread on creamy bath-heated skin, Charles's hair brushing his nose with hints of cinnamon and roses...
Charles tilted his head up to meet Erik's eyes with his own brilliant blue, and he felt the feather-brush of Charles's breath on his skin. Erik himself had stopped breathing at all.
"Mr. Xavier?" came Alex's voice from the chamber without. "I heard a crash. Have you fallen? Mr. Xavier—" The door opened, and Erik had the barest moment to feel awkward and alarmed, heat suffusing his face, before Charles turned toward his valet, all good humor, as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.
"No, Alex, be not alarmed! Only the mirror has shattered, and Mr. Lehnsherr was good enough to help me up before I could cut myself. Do fetch my towel – there's a lad, excellent, and my chair..."
Erik's arms felt abruptly cold and useless as Charles lowered himself into the chair, his valet swaddling him in towels.
“We’re invited to a ball in town tomorrow night in any case,” Charles said cheerfully, “and I had already sent word to have the townhouse opened up. London is but two hours by carriage, and it would be no problem to go into town today, if you’d like to inquire after this apparent inheritance. We could have Hank meet us there, if you don't mind it – Hank is a suitor of Raven's, I know she's been all afire to see him again – and let them make a proper day of it." When Erik didn't reply, he spoke again, uncertainty shading his voice. "Of course if you wish to look into the matter on your own – it's entirely your own business and I certainly wouldn't—"
"No." Erik's voice came out rough and tight. "No, you're welcome to come."
"Oh, good." Charles flung him a smile full of bright, easy affection, somewhat obscured by the towel Alex was scrubbing through his hair, and Erik had never felt so entirely unsteady and strange.
"Let me dress, then," Charles said, "and I'll meet you downstairs for breakfast."
Erik beat his retreat. On his way out he picked up the half-empty cup he'd set down absently on entering, and took a swallow of cold coffee. He'd hoped it would settle his nerves, but all he could taste was cinnamon.
It was only proper, of course, that Raven, as the only lady in the carriage, be given the forward-facing seat, and have it to herself. No one could argue with that. One could, perhaps, argue that in so spacious and comfortable a carriage as the Xaviers owned, there was no need for Charles to sit quite so close to his companion. But no one, in fact, chose to voice that argument. No one at all.
Calling Erik into the bath had been a gamble, but oh, a beautifully successful one. Erik was now aware of Charles and his own reaction to him. The cat-brain was tip-toeing into daylight, and Charles was certain that now was the time to deploy his best lures.
He spared a moment to laugh at himself. Put into words, his plans seemed such a cold, calculated seduction, the campaign of a hardened rake – when in fact it was almost embarrassing to contemplate how tender was the warmth and need he felt, how easy it would be for Erik to devastate him with a word. Believe me, my friend, I would not pursue you with half so much care if I did not so desperately wish to catch you.
Erik turned suddenly toward him, and for a moment Charles was terrified that he had accidentally projected that thought, but the man evinced no surprise or alarm, only affectionate exasperation.
"Charles, you've left the house without a hat again."
"Dash it all, so I have!" Charles ran a hand through his hair, as if searching for the offending headwear. "My valet has quite failed me. I blame him entirely."
Raven, who had been leaning sleepily against the side of the coach, bestirred herself to say, "It's a wonder you're not shunned by all and sundry, Charles, going about bare-headed as often as you do."
"I have money enough to be eccentric," Charles snorted. "In any case, it's little matter – in fact, it might well turn out in my favor, for I shall be spared the burden of wearing one, while still satisfying all the propriety of it!" He raised a hand to his temple, and grinned at the others' surprise when, to their eyes, a perfectly respectable top hat appeared on his head.
Raven only rolled her eyes and went back to sleep, which was uncommonly dull of her, but then the steady motion of a carriage on a good road could make the stoutest heart go drowsy. Without her conscious attention to hold her disguise in place, she quickly reverted to her natural form; he would be sure to wake her in time for her to put herself together before they arrived.
In the meantime and much more importantly, Erik was gazing at the imaginary top hat with amusement and delight. With a half-shy glance for permission, he reached out to touch it.
Charles could easily have convinced Erik's mind that there was an entirely real and solid hat beneath his fingers. Instead, he chose to let the illusion melt away when touched, and Erik's hand lighted on his hair instead.
Lighted, and lingered, and caressed, a brief motion so full of casual affection it stole Charles's breath.
"I suppose one advantage of the current preference for tousled hair," Erik said, "is that it is less obviously disarranged by one's hat."
"On the contrary, my friend," Charles replied with cheerful indignation, "my hair is styled with the utmost care, and I deeply feel the misplacement of even a single strand!"
"But is it not the point to look wild and careless?"
"Of course, but stylishly so. And I am quite convinced that you would benefit from a similar approach. Come, let me attempt it."
Erik looked startled and uncertain, but did not protest as Charles removed his hat and ran rumpling fingers through his hair. A moving carriage with no hair-styling tools was hardly the best place for the experiment, and it soon became obvious that Charles was not going to achieve anything worth showing in public. That did not keep him from spending several minutes in the attempt, stroking and tousling – Erik had excellent hair, much thicker and softer than it looked in its severe styling, and Charles permitted himself to openly enjoy every moment.
Erik kept himself very still and upright, making no response to Charles's half-conscious soothing murmurs. If once or twice he turned into a touch, just slightly – if once or twice his eyes fluttered shut for just the briefest moment – if in fact the glow of contentment and pleasure radiating from his mind utterly betrayed him – well, Charles was hardly going to point it out.
"Well, I fear I've made nothing but a mess of you, my friend," Charles said at last, forcing his hands to pull away. "I think you might do best to comb it all back just as it was."
"Gladly." Erik pulled a comb – metal, of course – from his pocket and swiftly put his hair back in order, betraying no hint of the cat-brain's disappointment. His gaze fell belatedly on Raven, and he gave a start. “Oh,” he said after a moment. “That is her natural appearance, then?”
“How remarkable. I wonder how she can bear to cover it up.”
Charles smiled, relieved by his friend’s easy acceptance. “Yes, her true coloration is very striking. There are not many, though, who would appreciate its beauty.”
“All too true,” Erik muttered. He fell into silence then, watching the scenery creep past, and just to be polite Charles asked instead of peeking.
"What's on your mind, Erik?"
Erik shook himself. "Nothing of import. I am naturally curious as to what awaits us at this solicitor's office. I almost wonder if it is not some sort of trap."
"What, laid by Shaw? Surely not. You and I both saw him die." He tried to repress the uncomfortable reminder that Erik, his own lovely sharp-witted, strong-hearted Erik, was in fact a murderer.
"A man's will and testament can spring a trap even while its author moulders," Erik replied. "I wonder if it would be better not to go. What need have I to claim anything of Shaw's?"
"If you do not wish to go, then we will not go," Charles shrugged. "But I think… I think you do wish to go. And I would not see you have regrets."
"I do wish to go," Erik admitted. "You may think less of me, Charles, to know that I do take some animal satisfaction in claiming for myself what once was his. My victory over him seems all the more complete. And, more practically, an inheritance may give me some means of entering society again – a livelihood, an identity."
"I urge you, accept nothing for that reason alone, if you find it distasteful. You are in no extremity of need – I assure you, you are welcome in my home for as long as you like—" Barely he prevented the words 'as long as you live,' that much generosity would only unsettle so suspicious a mind as Erik's – "and I can offer as much aid as you may need in re-entering society. I pray you will not make yourself uncomfortable on that score."
"You are very kind," Erik replied, with all appropriate warmth, but from his mind Charles heard not only kind but extraordinary and beautiful and something very near to angel, and then far more than I deserve, and I too selfish to leave him as I ought.
In reply, Charles could only stammer and blush, and suggest a game of chess – projected onto their laps – to occupy the rest of their journey to London.
Raven had no idea how to feel about seeing Mr. McCoy again. He is one branch at the crossroad, Irene had said, and You are not deceived in his character – though your knowledge of his faults is incomplete.
In the early days of their acquaintance – not far in the past – he had seemed to have no faults at all. She had walked in on him showing his Gift to Charles, and been immediately captivated by his awkward earnestness, his bright-eyed sweetness of temper. He was well-mannered, honest, intelligent, handsome in his adorable, ungainly way, and Gifted. What more could she ever want?
That he was also a bit flutter-brained and easily cowed became evident later, but did not significantly decrease his appeal. She knew herself to be headstrong and moody; she was prepared to tolerate a husband's flaws as well as he tolerated hers, and Hank McCoy had thus far been a paragon of patience on that score.
It was true she had not missed him as she thought she would while they were away in Brighton, had thought of him affectionately but infrequently and without urgency. In contrast, she even now thought of the bustle and flash of the carnival with longing, and wished heartily that she were back in Irene's company there.
But however dear Irene might be to her – and Raven knew she felt a peculiarly strong attachment to the woman, despite their brief acquaintance – Mr. McCoy was surely her best chance at happiness, at a successful marriage based on mutual affection, a life of comfort and security and respectability. And children. Whatever she was beginning to suspect she felt for Irene, was she willing to forfeit children to have it?
All this passed through Raven's mind as she pretended to sleep the last quarter-hour of their journey, half-listening to the chatter between Charles and Mr. Lehnsherr. From the well-known and well-beloved tones of her brother's voice, she gathered that his courtship of Mr. Lehnsherr was going well. She could not say she was surprised – the man hardly seemed to look away from Charles anytime they were in the same room – but she was mightily relieved. And, perhaps – she chuckled softly to herself – perhaps a little jealous. After all, Charles's victory meant one more gorgeous Gifted male removed from the pool of marriage candidates.
"So, Raven, you are awake after all," Charles called. Her chuckle must have been louder than she thought. "Just as well, we are nearly there. I sent word to Hank to meet us at the address, but there was no time to receive a reply. I do hope we haven't – ah, but there he is!"
A glance out the window confirmed this assertion; Mr. McCoy's tall, lanky form was hard to mistake, loitering outside the solicitor's office as the carriage pulled to a stop.
Raven nearly forgot to 'dress' as Charles would put it, remembering the state of her skin only when Charles made a pained noise in his throat as she reached for the door. Quickly she swept her skin and hair into their long-familiar disguises – and her eyes, at another warning sound from Charles. Stepping out onto the street in her blue skin – that would have been disastrous! And in front of Mr. McCoy – he had never seen her true face, and however Charles accused her of enjoying an ambush, she had no desire to spring it on him without warning.
So she was safely pink and gold by the time Hank handed her out of the carriage, and the dazzlement in his eyes was nearly enough to make the mask worth it.
Their carriage departed for the townhouse, and the predictable round of pleasantries and introductions began ("Mr. Henry McCoy, this is my friend Mr. Erik Lehnsherr – no need to look so alarmed, Hank, he always smiles like that"). The conversation was enlivened by discussion of the ball being held at Hank’s house the next day.
“I am ever so glad you are coming!” Hank exclaimed. “I was not at all looking forward to the event, with Miss Darkholme away in Brighton – but since you have returned early, I am all anticipation! And of course you must bring Mr. Lehnsherr as well, I hope that goes without saying."
“It is good of you to invite me,” Mr. Lehnsherr said, with notable stiffness.
“I don’t know if Mr. Lehnsherr is quite up to a gathering of strangers,” Charles said. “As a good host, of course, I could never impose on him…” Balanced precariously on his crutches, he turned to Mr. Lehnsherr with a look almost comical in its bright-eyed pleading, and Raven stifled a laugh. Erik Lehnsherr was a hard man, she knew, but he was not hard enough to resist those eyes.
"It sounds marvelous," Erik said with palpable reluctance. Charles, beaming, squeezed his arm in gratitude, which seemed to soften the man's antipathy significantly. Oh, yes, her brother had great reason to be sanguine about this one.
"But you will have to give Raven the particulars, Hank," Charles said, "as Mr. Lehnsherr and I have pressing business – that is, Mr. Lehnsherr has pressing business and I am sticking my nose in. Do enjoy the shops, and we will find you when we may!"
So the two of them disappeared inside – Erik putting a hesitant hand to Charles's elbow to help him with the stairs – and Mr. McCoy offered Raven his arm to make their way down the street.
It was not a part of town Raven was familiar with, which meant – as if she could not already tell – that it was not terribly fashionable. Nevertheless, there was plenty to see – displays of ribbon and lace, flowers and fruit, an organ grinder with a monkey. Mr. McCoy talked unceasingly, as was his wont when nervous, telling her all about the preparations for the ball and how disagreeable his mother had been about the date and how it was surely the last ball of the season, what with August drawing to its sticky close. That led to a monologue on the weather and how beastly hot it had been but how excellent the breeze was today. Raven listened with half an ear and a fair amount of amusement, waiting for him to burn through his nerves.
Her mind wandered inexorably to Irene, gentle hands and flashing ear-loops, the way she seemed not merely to know but to understand Raven's deepest thoughts without even having to be told. She struggled to pull her focus back to the present, to Mr. McCoy. He deserved to have more than the leftover fragments of her attention.
At last, as they lingered in the window of a milliner's, Mr. McCoy dammed his flood of inconsequential speech, stopping himself mid-word and taking her hand.
"My dear Miss Darkholme, I do beg your pardon most ardently," he said, the tips of his ears going red. "I have not permitted you a word in edgewise, when I ought to have been inquiring after your activities more than blathering on about my own. You have been in good health, I hope?"
"Yes, entirely," Raven said with grave dignity, letting her eyes dance so that he would blush harder. "And yourself?"
"Perfectly well, but I am not the topic of conversation! How was Brighton? Do tell me all! Why have you returned so much earlier than you intended?"
Somewhat haltingly, Raven related the tale of her brother's meeting Mr. Lehnsherr and inviting him back to their estate. There was some in that story that she did not know, and more still that she dared not tell, so that the account of it was short and rather vague. Mr. McCoy asked no awkward questions, however, only observing that Mr. Xavier and Mr. Lehnsherr had become surprisingly intimate friends in so short a time.
"Yes," Raven said, trying to steer her mind away from Irene. "Well, it – it does happen that way, sometimes. Particularly with Charles," she added with a laugh.
"That is true! Your brother has a most delightful and engaging manner, so that even the most perfect strangers must feel kindly toward him. I suppose his, er—" Seeming to remember they were in a public place, Mr. McCoy swallowed his words, and contented himself with, "I suppose he has a unique advantage in that area."
Raven snorted – remembered too late how unladylike that was. "For a man with such a 'unique advantage,' he can in fact be shockingly obtuse." The breeze fluttered against her skin, sending her curls swinging, and she smiled to think of how it had caressed her entire body at the carnival, from the tough leathery hide of her 'boots' to the delicate ribbony skin of her cravat.
There was an idea – Mr. McCoy might like to see her cravat! What a good joke it would be! He was always pleased to see her being clever and bold. "I have been practicing my own unique skills, you know, Mr. McCoy! If we could find a private spot for a moment, I might show you some of the things I have learned." He looked rather scandalized, and Raven had to laugh. "Nothing shocking, I assure you, sir!" Not that I am going to show you, at least. "Only a few... parlor tricks."
"I... Miss Darkholme, I think that would be most unwise in our current circumstances."
"Oh, come, no one will see."
"I have always believed that any venture begun with the stipulation 'no one must see' is not one a gentleman should undertake."
Raven stopped walking. "Mr. McCoy," she said, a little breathless with outrage and hurt, "I do not... I cannot... Mr. McCoy, I may have teased just now, and been – perhaps a bit reckless. But you react as if I had suggested – as if I had tried to ensnare you into some moral wrong!"
Mr. McCoy's cheeks were blooming scarlet. "Indeed, no, Miss Darkholme, I meant nothing of the sort! Only..."
"Yes? Only?" Her voice was rough with anger even to her own ears, and she tried to decide whether she cared.
"Only it really is not at all proper, Miss Darkholme, for you to – to even suggest showing me such a thing, and I am quite surprised that you did so!"
"How improper? Mr. McCoy, I assure you, I had no intention of showing you anything more shocking than you might see in any direction at this very moment!" Tears were gathering in her eyes, and she fought frantically both to dispell them and to lower her voice. "I can – I can make a cravat, now, that is all, and I thought it would be a great joke to show you – I thought we would laugh, that you might even admire – it is not easy you know and – oh, dash it all!" That, she saw instantly by the way her beau recoiled, was not at all the right thing to say, however it relieved her feelings. The realization did not help her to calm herself.
"Of course not, I never suspected – I never thought you would do anything untoward, I only – to exercise your—" His voice fell to an agitated whisper. "—your Abnormality in company – in public – I know you are always quite as bold as you wish, Miss Darkholme, and truly I admire it in you. But surely you cannot blame me for being surprised!"
Raven took a few deep breaths, keeping her eyes strictly away from the strangers' gazes they were attracting. She could only pray her eyes had not reverted to yellow, as they sometimes did when she was upset. She was, at length, able to speak calmly. "Surprised. Yes, I – I can understand your being surprised. You were... you were only surprised, though? Not... not disgusted? By my Gift?"
He shifted uncomfortably. "No, of course not. Only surprised, I assure you."
She permitted him to take her arm once more, and they proceeded down the street, not daring to speak to each other, while Raven tried to decide whether she believed him.
Pray forgive the liberty, my stranger-friend, but I would dearly like to see your face. No, no! Your face, Raven...
It really is not at all proper, Miss Darkholme, for you to even suggest showing me such a thing!
Mr. McCoy might be a "dear boy," but in some comparisons he definitely did not show to advantage.
The terms of Shaw’s will were very clear. Everything went to Erik. All the investments, all the buildings and their tenants, every share he had owned in a dozen or more successful businesses – and, most prominently, full owner-and-proprietorship of a gentleman’s club on Duke Street. All left to Erik, “in the expectation that he will carry the legacy of everything I labored to teach him.”
Charles’s voice slid into Erik’s head, cutting through the buzz of triumph and disbelief and black amusement. Somehow I don’t imagine, when Shaw made this will, that he expected things to fall out quite this way.
I don’t know about that, Erik replied, keeping half an ear tuned to the pointless droning of the solicitor. Even if he had known, who else would he have left it to? I was… his only family. Very quietly, to himself more than Charles, he added, And vice versa, in our twisted way.
Do you feel guilty? Charles asked, in a tone of neutral curiosity.
Not remotely. The man murdered everyone I ever loved. For the rest, though… He was right, you know. Everything he did to me, all the torture and pain – it was all to make me stronger, and it did. He was right. He continued over the beginnings of Charles’s appalled protest, I think he was proud of me, in the end.
That startled Charles into silence – briefly. Erik was beginning to believe nothing could muzzle the man for long. Proud of you for killing him?
Yes. Erik felt a wolfish smile escape onto his face, and the solicitor’s voice stumbled to a halt.
“Er. Yes, well, I’m sure I’ve taken up quite enough of your valuable time, Mr. Lehnsherr,” he said. “There are still a few papers for you to sign, and then I can let you alone to… grieve.”
“Excellent,” Erik said cheerfully. “Lead on.”
Charles was very happy to accompany Erik on his inspection of his new property. He was less enthused by Erik’s insistence on inviting Raven and Hank to come along.
“Erik,” he said tightly as Raven and Hank climbed into the carriage, “I am not at all in a hurry to take my sister to an establishment known as The Hellfire Club.”
“Surely they will not admit a lady, in any case?” Hank said, and yelped when the seat beside him was suddenly not occupied by a lady at all, but by a ginger-haired young man in a muslin walking-dress.
Erik laughed and applauded. “Quite so, Miss Darkholme. You see, Charles, your sister can fend for herself very well. Though she might wish to see to her wardrobe.”
“Ah!” Raven giggled, and another flutter of scales had the dress concealed behind a set of perfectly acceptable gentleman’s clothes. “I’ve no hat, but perhaps Charles could provide one for me as he does for himself?”
Hank, Charles noticed, was sitting quite as far from Raven as possible, large-eyed and pale. Just skimming the surface of his mind, it was clear they had had some sort of quarrel already that morning, and this sequence of events was only unsettling him further. Raven, of course, he did not attempt to read, but she radiated a nervous defiance that he could easily perceive without his Gift.
“There’s really no need for the two of you to accompany us,” Charles said. “You might far rather continue your walk, and see if the shops have anything to offer for your ball toilette.”
He meant to provide an opportunity for them to reconcile in private, but they did not seem to want it. Hank said nothing at all, and Raven’s response was a sunny, “Oh, we’ve quite exhausted the shops on this street, I would much rather see this club Mr. Lehnsherr has inherited.”
“And I, for one, welcome your company on the jaunt,” Erik said and raised her hand to drop a kiss on her knuckles, despite her gentleman’s disguise. A very brief and proper kiss, but the warmth in his smile, and rising color in Raven’s cheeks, made Charles turn away with a sudden sickly chill in his belly. Hank, across from him, looked similarly displeased.
Charles wished he had a drink.
The building at the address Erik had been given showed no outward sign of being a den of iniquity – it was ordinary dark brick with white columns, nondescriptly handsome. The windows were large, but blocked by thick drapes, even in the middle of the day. The sign out front said only, Private establishment. Members and their guests only.
Charles had to nudge Hank away from offering Raven his arm as she got out of the carriage, then was surprised to see Erik extending a hand to his own aid. He did not need it, having months ago (by force of will) conquered the trick of mounting and dismounting carriages on his crutches, but he rewarded the gesture with a grateful smile, and tried to let the sour jealousy in the back of his throat dissipate.
The crutches were doing as well as he could have hoped, today. A wheelchair was so very tiresome, in town, and anyway the doctors urged that he rely on it as little as possible, the better to force his remaining leg to adjust to its duties. There were many days that his spastic nerves simply did not permit it, but today they were giving him only the occasional twinge. Charles's hatred of the crutches ebbed and flowed, his opinion of them dependent on how much they were paining his underarms, and whether anyone on the street tried to give the 'crippled beggar' a penny. Today he felt kindly toward them, enjoying having his head at Erik's shoulder rather than at his belt buckle.
They opened the door into a small but comfortable foyer, well-furnished and stocked with an attractive array of drinks and finger-foods. A trim, alert-eyed young man in a uniform stood before the door that led, presumably, into the club proper.
"Good day to you, gentlemen!" he said. "I'm afraid I don't recognize you, are you members of the club?"
Seized by inspiration, Charles cut across Erik's nascent "I own the club" before it could leave his mouth. Don't. Let's get the lay of the land first.
Erik tilted his head thoughtfully, then said, "No, I'm afraid we're not members, but we're interested in becoming so."
"I'm afraid a current member will have to vouch for you before it is possible for you to join."
"We were referred by Mr. Shaw himself," Charles said, stepping – hobbling – forward. "My name is Charles Xavier."
The man's eyes went wide at the word 'Shaw'; at 'Xavier' they seemed likely to fall out of his skull. "I see. You and your friends are certainly very welcome, Mr. Xavier. Pray make yourself comfortable, I will return very shortly."
He scurried off, and Charles made straight for the door he had been guarding.
Hank made a sort of hesitant gurgle. "Shouldn't we wait?"
"If we want to see only what they wish to show us, certainly." Charles smiled archly over his shoulder at Erik, whose answering grin seemed to echo his own feelings nicely. "Raven, won't you escort us?"
Raven, looking delighted, shifted into the form of the departed servant, and led the way.
The Hellfire Club earned its name, Charles quickly acknowledged. There were rooms devoted to every major vice, from gambling to gossip to gluttony. There was a boxing ring, in the downstairs, and in the upstairs—
Well, it would hardly be a gentlemen's club if it did not pander to lust.
Charles had inevitably struggled with the stairs, and fallen behind; he looked up to find that Raven and Hank had already disappeared. Erik, however, was waiting patiently only a few steps above him, and after watching his efforts narrow-eyed for some minutes, advised him to hang on tightly to the crutches.
"Whatever do you – awk!" Charles was torn between laughter and outrage as his crutches lifted themselves on their metal screws and carried him quite evenly to the top of the staircase.
When they achieved the top, they passed through a set of double doors, and found themselves in something very like a dance hall, but which managed to be both more shocking and less obviously disreputable than those havens of low entertainment. On a stage at the far end, a trio of ladies danced to the tune of a pianoforte; not raucously, as at a dance hall, but with sensual grace. The rest of the room was occupied by tables – sparsely populated, at this time of day, but every one that contained a gentleman also contained a lady, wearing – as the dancers did – amazingly little, and taking such liberties with the men's personal space as almost made Charles blush, innocent virgin though he certainly wasn't. Even as they watched, one dazed-looking fellow was led by his lady-friend away from his table and through a curtain into one of the private niches occupying the walls.
"And all this glory now is thine, my friend," Charles said, not sure whether to be more amused or appalled. He could see no sign of Raven or Hank.
"Can I show you gentlemen to a table?" The voice was playfully sultry, its owner curvy and darkly exotic. If Charles's crutches made any impression on her, she did not show it. Her smile deepened as she took in their stunned expressions. "Or perhaps you're interested in... a more private setting?"
Erik caught Charles's eye, glinting amusement and perhaps something fiercer, the mere hint of which had Charles’s pulse quickening. "That sounds lovely," Erik said.
“Right this way, then.” The young woman led them away from the faux dance-hall, to a corridor lined with doors, and opened one to usher them in.
The room had walls hung with velvet and lamps turned comfortably down. It was dominated by a large, very luxurious bed.
"Make yourselves comfortable, gentlemen," their escort said. "Believe me when I say... you may be just as comfortable as you like, here."
Charles's mouth had gone a little dry at the sight of the bed, and his condition only worsened as Erik seated himself against the headboard. "Charles? Are you coming?" When Charles continued to stand frozen, his expression softened with concern. "Would you rather go?"
"No." Charles gulped and forced himself to move toward the bed, set his crutches against the wall and shifted himself as close to Erik as he could get, a line of unbroken contact scalding from shoulder to ankle.
Their young lady had not been idle during this exchange; Charles saw that her clothes had been subtly repositioned to draw more attention to her bosom and shoulders, and she had unpinned her hair, which now fell in a dark river down to her elbows. They could hear no trace of any sound from outside their door, so there was nothing to prevent enjoyment of the silver flute she pulled from a loop on her belt, and presented to their view with a curtsy.
"My name is Angel," she said, less playful, more sultry, "and I'll be providing entertainment for you today."
She played well, Charles thought, but the performance was mostly lost on him; he could not drag his attention away from Erik for more than a moment at a time – the heat and scent and weight of him, denting the mattress so that it was a struggle for Charles not to fall into his lap. There were so many things they could do with this bed, and surely in an establishment like this no one would care if he turned, braced one hand on Erik's thigh, pushed himself up just enough to press their lips together...
Erik seemed to be watching Angel's performance raptly, and Charles would not have dared to look closer except for the slight tremble to Erik's hand as he pushed his hair back. Charles had been in Erik’s head; he knew the man’s disinclination toward casual, indiscriminate lust, knew he could not feel more than an aesthetic interest in a stranger like Angel. The implication, then... if Charles was not deluding himself...
He had to look, just briefly, just the tiniest glimpse of the surface—
He didn't have to look any further than the surface. Beneath Erik's utterly impassive exterior was a roil of nervous confusion, frustration and want that left Charles breathless, and no, not an ounce of it was directed at Angel. Erik hardly knew she was there.
Until, quite suddenly, all his attention was focused on her, sharp to piercing, and Charles's was not far behind.
The girl had begun to dance as she played, a sinuous swaying and twisting that he might ordinarily have found compelling, without so sweet a distraction at his side. As she moved, her hair had fallen off her shoulders, revealing the delicate lines of insectoid wings.
Tattoo? Erik asked, but they both knew how unlikely that was. For a woman to have a tattoo at all, and one so extensive – the wings seemed to spread across both shoulders – was hardly imaginable, and in any case the lines looked much too even and precise to have been made by a man's imperfect hand. As a soldier Charles had seen his share of tattoos, and had never seen anything to compare to Angel's wings.
Of course, there was only one way to be sure. Charles raised a hand to his temple. The truth took only a moment to ascertain.
"You're Gifted," Charles said.
Angel managed a sort of bow without a pause in her playing.
"No, I'm sorry, I didn't mean as a musician, though your performance is magical." He touched his temple again. I meant a different sort of Gift. How much I should like to be able to fly!
The song of the flute cut off instantly, and Angel stared at him in shock and alarm. "How – how could – are you—"
"We mean you no harm," Erik said quickly. "We were just thinking... you might show us yours, if we showed you ours." He turned to Charles with a smile. "Care for a drink, Charles?"
A shining metal champagne bucket at Erik's elbow rose and floated over to Charles.
"Ah! Don't mind if I do," he said, eagerly helping himself.
Angel looked amused. "Welcome to the Club, gentlemen."
And now Charles saw – she had not been startled that they knew she was Gifted, only by the sounding of a voice inside her head. Being Gifted was, in fact, par for the course around here. Now that his mind was open, Charles found that a very great many of the minds in the club held some variation on the frisson he felt from Erik and Raven and all the other Gifted of his acquaintance. "Good heavens, Erik," he breathed, "she's not the only one – in fact the vast majority of the staff are Gifted, and a significant amount of the clientele!"
Angel frowned, still half-laughing. "However did you come to be here without knowing that?"
"By sneaking in without permission." A blonde woman in a white dress stepped through the door. With a jerk of her head she dismissed Angel from the room, closed the door behind her, then stood regarding them with ice-blue eyes. "Erik, I believe."
How had she managed to sneak up on them? On Charles? He cast his mind toward the woman, and had it reflected back at him in painful fragments like shards of glass that left him gasping. Her Gift, then, was something like his – but different enough that he wasn't certain how to counteract it. He turned his mind to Erik's to whisper a warning—
—and found an ice storm, Erik frozen and screaming while a foreign presence drilled deep into the tenderest parts of his mind.
A wave of superheated terror and rage left Charles near incoherent, and he blasted into that ice, crashed through it, ripped and clawed and tore at it, scoured every trace of it away from Erik. The woman screamed and fought, and finally did – something – that blocked him out, scattered his attack into harmless sparks.
Charles opened his eyes and found that the woman before them was now a living statue of crystal, her skin turned to glittering facets. She turned as if to flee, but did not make it a step before the brass bedstead dragged her back, wrapping tight around her wrists, arms, throat, until she was immobile.
Dizzy and disoriented from his mental exertions, Charles grabbed blindly for Erik's arm. "Are you all right?"
"Yes. Thank you." Erik's voice held both strain and grim foreboding; he squeezed Charles's hand briefly, then pulled away to walk around the bed and crouch before the captive woman. "Give me one good reason," he growled, and the coiled metal tightened around her throat, "not to kill you here and now."
"Erik." Charles wasn't sure whether he meant to calm Erik or warn him. Whatever the woman had done, he wasn't going to be party to her murder. Erik is accustomed to murder, his mind whispered to him. This is the sort of man you've chosen. He tried to get up, but his head was still spinning.
The woman laughed, a tinkling crystalline sound. "Whatever makes you think you can kill me? It takes more than brass to cut through diamond. And your friend there will find himself equally powerless against me now."
"Metal frequently finds it can do whatever I ask of it." The bedstead tightened further, and further.
Charles managed to get his foot on the floor and a crutch under him. "Erik. Answers might be more useful than a sparkling corpse, hm?"
Erik did not seem to be hearing him. His gaze on the diamond woman's neck was alarmingly intent, and when Charles rounded the foot of the bed, he nearly stumbled at the sight of fine cracks spreading across the woman's shining skin.
"Erik! That's enough!"
Before Erik could respond, the woman slumped in defeat, human skin reappearing as the diamond layer sloughed off into shimmering dust. She glared at them both with clear loathing.
Erik turned to him with a serene smile. "All yours, Charles. If she tries that again, just give her a light tap." With that, he crossed the room to pour himself a glass of champagne.
Charles let out a breath, half relief and half frustration. "Well, madam, will you tell us why the devil you just assaulted my friend's mind?"
"The man who murdered this club's previous owner sneaks in behind my back and I am to assume his intentions are noble?"
"Do not offer that excuse. You could not have known the truth of Shaw's fate until you gleaned it from Erik's mind. We offered you no harm, so what were you attempting to do to him?"
"If I tell you, will you believe me, or will you go on a jaunt through my brain afterward anyway?" She sounded almost bored.
"Good point," Charles said, and raised two fingers to his temple.
"Her name is Emma Frost," he murmured to Erik, "and she's been Shaw's right hand – and lover – for nearly a decade."
"Was she trying to avenge him?"
"No. No, she's far too practical for that – though I think she mourns the man more than she's admitted to herself." She gave him a sharp look; he only raised an eyebrow, Deny it if you like. "No, she was not going to kill you, Erik – merely re-make you in her preferred image, a puppet who would smile and nod and let her hold all the true power."
"Remind me why her violent death would be objectionable?"
Charles was finding the answer hard to remember, himself. If you touch him, he shoved the words into Miss Frost's mind, burned them into her like a brand, if you touch either of us ever again, I will take you apart.
Oh, don't worry, sugar, came the poison-sweet reply, I don't bother to touch men like you. We have boys on the payroll for that.
Charles felt his nostrils flare, cheeks heating – with anger or embarrassment, he couldn't tell.
But of course, you won't be needing them. She cut her eyes toward Erik, one corner of her mouth tipping up. Erik will make such a very interesting employer. "You are, of course, already on the membership roll, Mr. Lehnsherr," she said aloud. "And any friends of the club's owner must always be welcome. There was no need for this skulking about."
"Yes, speaking of friends." Charles dipped back into her mind, and was unsurprised to find the memory of Raven and Hank. "You will take us to our other companions immediately."
They found Raven and Hank cheerfully playing whist in one of the gambling rooms. That is, Raven was playing cheerfully; Hank looked on the verge of a nervous collapse, glancing about as if he expected any moment to be attacked and eaten.
It was, in fact, one of the calmer rooms, whist being quite the tame pastime in comparison to the Hellfire Club's other offerings. Even the lovely brunette singing lustily on the dais at one end of the room had drawn only half a dozen people. That half-dozen included – and this was likely the main source of Hank's discomfort – a man who floated some six inches off the ground, and another with glowing red eyes. The singer had curling horns like a ram.
"The Hellfire Club, as you may already have realized," said Miss Frost, leading them to Hank and Raven's table, "was established as a haven for our kind. Here we may practice perfect freedom, revealing our true selves and displaying our unique abilities without fear of reproach. Well," she amended with a small smile, "no reproach so long as there is no property damage."
"Yes, Charles, Miss Frost has been telling us all about it," Raven said, turning toward them excitedly. "She says that for all it calls itself a 'gentlemen's club,' women are allowed to join as well – anyone Gifted may. Your Mr. Shaw cannot have been so very bad, Mr. Lehnsherr, if he established a place like this! Isn't it wondrous?"
"And yet you do not take advantage of it, Miss Darkholme," Erik pointed out, running his gaze down her well-disguised skin.
Raven only bit her lip and glanced at Hank, a motion Erik followed with disfavor. "Have you any Gift, Mr. McCoy?" he asked, his voice dangerously quiet.
Hank only stammered and reddened.
"I've told you before, Hank, there's no need to be ashamed of it," Charles said gently. "Here least of all, apparently."
Hank gulped and nodded, but made no move to doff his shoes.
Charles sighed inwardly, but declined to press the boy. The other two people at the whist table had wandered away – at Miss Frost's insistence, Charles rather thought, considering their glassy expressions – and he gladly lowered himself into one of the vacated seats. His leg was beginning to twinge a bit more demandingly than before.
"Mr. Lehnsherr, we have a good deal of business to discuss," Miss Frost said. "I believe your friends will be well entertained here, if you'd like to step into my office."
"Spoken like a cunning spider," Erik said dryly. "I think not, Miss Frost. Bring your business here, where there are witnesses."
And, more importantly, where there was Charles. He smiled winningly at Miss Frost, whose displeasure saw expression only in the flatness of her eyes.
"As you wish, Mr. Lehnsherr. I shall return presently." Her curtsy was barely a bob; his bow hardly a nod.
"I feel as though I missed an act of this play," Raven observed, watching her leave.
"Miss Frost is not in any way trustworthy, and I am still considering what to do with her," Erik said, almost absently. He took the other abandoned seat and picked up the hand of cards left there. "Are we playing for money?"
"A few pennies."
"Charles, I assume you will be my partner?"
Charles picked up his own adopted cards. "Of course. Whenever you like."
Other than that constant source of strain, Charles had to admit that the atmosphere of the Hellfire Club was beautifully relaxing. All around him were other Gifted, tension draining from their shoulders as they unfurled their wings, liberated their tails, stretched their arms like taffy to reach high bookshelves. Less obvious Gifts were also in evidence; one man cooled his own drink with a frosty breath, and a young lady with a tray of sandwiches walked casually through a table that stood in her way. Even Erik got into the spirit of things, using his Gift to float a metal dish of pastries over for their enjoyment.
Hank excused himself after an hour or so, the inevitable consequence of the amount of tea he had drunk, and returned to find that Raven had reverted to her natural cerulean. Her appearance was still entirely proper – her now-scarlet hair still bound up in pearls, ivory gloves still encasing her hands – only her texture and coloration had changed. She looked up at Hank in a silent agony of defiance and pleading, and he stood motionless, frozen in the act of pulling out his chair.
Charles dared a skim of the man's mind, and nearly winced at what he found there. Shock, dismay, uneasiness and discomfort, even embarrassment. Raven had become alien to him, something strange and – well, unnatural.
For Raven's sake, Charles did not let his displeasure show. This was the first Hank had seen of Raven's true form, and he had been surprised by it. Perhaps he only needed time. Already there was a hopeful sign in the lack of outright disgust, which was more than Hank granted his own poor feet.
After a long, taut moment, Hank managed a polite nod, and took his seat. He then surprised Charles by reaching out to briefly squeeze Raven's gloved hand.
She smiled, relief and joy as stark as the white of her teeth, and they all turned back to the game.
Erik was splitting his attention with apparent ease between the conversation, the card game, and Miss Frost's words of business. Charles's performance, on the other hand suffered severely from his divided focus, his constant quivering readiness to put Miss Frost back in her place. He decided to compensate by cheating shamelessly, not only silently communicating his hand to Erik – who permitted it with dry amusement – but peeking through everyone's minds to see their cards.
He and Erik won four tricks in succession before anyone caught on.
"I believe you are cheating, Charles," Raven grumbled.
"I would never," he intoned virtuously, and brushed through her mind again, this time deliberately sloppy.
She gasped, turning on him with golden eyes full of outrage. "I felt that, Charles! You are cheating, and furthermore you promised—"
"I am not reading your mind, Raven, I swear it! I only... borrowed your eyes a moment." He gave her his best innocent look. "Besides, this is the Hellfire Club, where all Gifts may be practiced without reproach. Is that not so? Is it not – how did you put it – wondrous?"
Erik smothered a snicker. So, to his surprise, did Emma Frost.
Raven glared at them all equally. "I will have my revenge, Charles. Perhaps when you are sleeping."
"I will take what stripes I must," Charles replied solemnly. "And now," he swept the played cards into his hand, "I believe I win again."
"Always the cocky one, Xavier."
Charles jumped at the familiar voice, smiled widely as he turned toward it – but there was no one there.
"Charles?" Erik's brow was furrowed, and the other two were watching curiously.
"I thought I..." Surely there was no mistaking Logan's rough, growling voice. Where had the man—
Oh. There he was, sprawled across a sofa in full uniform, absently scratching his head with one bony claw. Just as he had at the General's party. Exactly as he had at the General's party, in fact, since this was nothing more than a projected memory of that very moment.
"Nothing," Charles said with a sigh. "Never mind." He topped off his glass and drank deeply, ignoring Raven's mental burst of disapproval. She and Erik had silently conspired to keep Charles from hitting the bottle as hard as he would have liked, and now see the result. This was, at least, a benign enough hallucination, and didn't seem to have spread beyond his own head yet; at least, no one seemed to be reacting to the soldier – two soldiers, now – making themselves at home along the back wall. Armando had joined Logan, perusing the Hellfire Club's bookshelves just as he had the General's.
The disappointment was much harder to bear than the illusion itself. It would have been lovely to see some of his brothers-in-arms again, outside the context of nightmare. Particularly Logan and Armando, the other Gifted men of his regiment. In the army, he'd been pleased to discover, the Unnatural – at least those with combat-useful Gifts – were greeted quite warmly. The men had called the three of them Brains, Brawn, and Balls (not, perhaps, to Logan's face) and hung on them like heroes. Logan and Armando, being nigh-unkillable, had been at the front of every charge, while Charles – particularly in the early days, before he had his feet properly under him – was often bundled safely into the back, to coordinate and communicate, tracking both their own troops and the enemies'. In some ways he missed it – the rush, the danger, the strange paternal joy of so many minds under his personal protection, not to mention the certainty of his own usefulness. Certainly he missed Armando, with his courage and serene good sense, and Logan with his ill-tempered snarls and heart soft as butter.
On the whole, however, Charles was extremely glad to be home. Home, where, please God, he would never again have to scrabble for the strength to ease a dying Frenchman's pain, while he himself bled and bled down into darkness, not knowing whether he would wake.
The long procession of papers to sign came at last to an end, and Miss Frost disappeared back into her office with an armful of books.
"There is a good deal more to do here," Erik said, "if I am to understand the scope of this venture I've inherited, much less decide what should be done with it. I should very much like to return tomorrow.”
“Of course. There will be plenty of time before the ball, and that is our only engagement for the morrow.”
“Speak for yourself,” Raven said.
“Ah, yes, I forgot Raven’s long-standing habit of buying some variety of new ornamentation before every ball, despite having already enough of a party wardrobe to clothe an orphanage. Have you found someone to go with you?”
“I have hardly had the time! But I’m sure I can persuade someone among my town friends.”
"Do try not to set the town afire with your looting and pillaging, then. Are we ready to go then? Excellent! Let me send word to the townhouse that we’re ready for the carriage." He settled back in his chair, fingers to his temple, and felt the peculiar weightless rush that was all his mind's energy channeling into his Gift. The townhouse was not three miles as the crow flew, well within his grasp – but it did take an increase of focus.
He brushed mental fingers over the handful of busy, familiar minds in his London home until he found the London home’s housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, and imparted the news of their location and need for the driver’s services.
Of course, sir, right away, came the immediate reply. Nothing rattled Mrs. Hughes, certainly not the unusual talent of a master she’d known from his boyhood. Charles let his affectionate gratitude shine through for a moment before withdrawing the connection.
He returned to full awareness of his body to find Erik staring at him.
"How very strange you looked, Charles! As if your soul had entirely left the confines of your skull."
"I do apologize, I'm told it can be unsettling. I didn't think."
"No, no, it's fine." And in truth, the emotions that lapped against Charles's perception held no trace of fear, only something like awe. "And at least a mile or two to your house – Charles, I told your sister she might rule the world with very little effort, but I see now that you would win any such race to the throne."
"Only race I'll ever win again, eh?" He grinned and patted the remainder of his lost leg.
Erik snorted. "Only race you'd ever need to."
"Your own Gift is nothing to disdain, you know. I can only imagine how thrilled my old regiment would be to have a soldier who could turn the enemy's weapons back on them with a thought."
Erik grinned. "You and I together, then, to rule the world, with Raven assisting."
"Sounds marvelous." But not as marvelous as hearing the phrase 'you and I together' from Erik's lips, nor yet as marvelous as Erik's hand under his arm, helping him up. The warm, rosy feeling stayed with him all the way to the townhouse.
Erik had not thought he would sleep easily. There was so much to prey on his mind – the dizzying possibilities of the club he now owned, the potentially dire problem of Miss Frost, the creeping feeling on his skin when he remembered Shaw's 'expectation' that he would carry on his legacy. Instead, the thing his mind insisted on dwelling upon was Charles – first the gentle fingers in his hair, then the fierce and flashing rage as he fought off Miss Frost's influence, and how he then hovered protectively, like a warrior angel ready to put flaming sword to anything that threatened Erik.
Charles had spoken before, about how the more he cared for someone, the more he was disinclined to see their mind altered in any way.
I now owe him both my life and my sanity, Erik thought, and wondered what exactly Miss Frost would have made of him, how far she would go to remain the icy white queen of her sordid little kingdom. Miss Frost was a problem that had to be addressed, for he surely would not always have Charles at his side – and there was a thought that stabbed unreasonably.
Erik started to roll over, determined to will himself to sleep, and froze partway through the motion as he caught an all-too-familiar whiff of smoke.
The door to his bedroom was closed; thanks to his awareness of the metal knob, he knew this very certainly. But the doorway was dark now as if open to an abyss. The only light was the flickering outline of his daughter's body.
Erik blinked, wondering if he had heard aright. This was a change to the script.
"Papa. Come quickly. Help him."
"Charles. He needs you."
Erik quickly stood and reached for his borrowed dressing gown – but, fumbling in the dark of an unfamiliar room, could not find it. Well, he wasn't going to take the time to search, not when Charles could be hurt, or ill, or in danger. His mind filled with images of Charles's crutches faltering on a staircase in the darkness, he followed Anya's receding form, out the door and down the corridor to Charles's room.
When he opened the door, Anya's fire stood beside the bed, but by the time he reached it she was gone.
There was no reply from Charles, but the room was not silent. Erik spun in panic toward the sound of a cry – an old woman, huddled in the corner, streaked with dirt and blood and weeping into her apron.
He could see her far more clearly than he ought, in the darkness of the room – because she was not appearing to his eyes, he realized, but directly to his brain. She was not real, but a manifestation of Charles's nightmare.
This realization made it only slightly less alarming when he saw the blood spreading through Charles's sheets, a flood of scarlet from around his legs while his body shivered and shook.
"Charles! Wake up, Charles!" He shook the man's shoulder.
Charles woke with a loud and frankly frightening gasp, his body jerking upright, eyes wide. His hands seemed to work without his direction, locking around Erik's arm in such a way that Erik only avoided a broken bone by shifting with the movement, and providing immediate distraction. "It's me, Charles, it's me!"
For a few moments Charles only stared at him, disoriented and panting. "Erik?"
"You're – why are you – you're here, why are you here?"
"Anya came to me." Erik's gaze traveled pensively over Charles's wild hair and still-wilder eyes. "She said you needed me."
Now he laughed, breathless and bitter. "Yes, I... subconscious call for help, I suppose... she is, after all, made from a piece of me as well as you... It's nothing, only the usual nightmares. I am sorry to have disturbed your rest." He seemed to realize he was still holding Erik's arm, and released it.
"I was not resting well in any case, and you would not have liked sharing more communal hallucinations with the staff." The old woman was gone now, but the blood on the sheets remained, preternaturally vivid to his mind's eye.
Charles responded to this thought with a long stream of weary cursing. He sat up and threw back the sheets. "Where did I leave that bottle of brandy? There, will you hand it—"
"No! No, Charles, I do not like—"
"I don't like it either, but my options are limited! And I'll never get back to sleep without it. Dash it all, man, either help me or get out of my way!"
"Is there nothing else that would help you?"
“Opium, perhaps,” Charles said bitterly. “Would you prefer that?”
"Then nothing! Only..." He swallowed and rubbed his eyes with a shaking hand. "Company would help," he admitted, very quietly. "If you will not let me drink... Company is almost as good. Deucedly hard to come by, though."
"Then I'll stay."
Charles looked at him for a long moment, his eyes a faint but mesmerizing glimmer in the darkness. Then he slid back into the bed, far back so that Erik would have plenty of room.
Erik nearly lost his nerve, looking down at the sheets where Charles's body had rested just moments before. But this wasn't... this was to help a friend. To repay, in some small way, the debt he owed him.
Heart hammering, Erik climbed into the bed.
He would swear it was the most comfortable bed he'd ever been in, the softest and warmest, every inch of it cradling him perfectly, he never wanted to leave it and he needed to leave it this instant, it had to be a trap, it couldn't be real. It was a trap and he wasn't here to help a friend, there was no reason for a friend to take hold of Charles's pale hand lying between them on the bed, run his fingers along the back of it, turn it over to do the same to his palm, and up his wrist, inside the long cuffs of his shirt – to imagine that tender veined skin against his lips, or pinched gently between his teeth—
Charles shuddered, and seemed to strain toward him.
Panic flooded him, and it was all Erik could do not to flee the room. Charles was his friend, Charles was a man, and it made no sense to want – things – from him, things a man should only want from his wife, there was something wrong with him that this unnatural fixation was how Erik repaid the astonishing kindness Charles had shown him, and now – now his own twisted feelings were leaking back to Charles through his Gift, infecting him with desires not his own—
Immediately Erik felt a frantic-edged wave of reassurance and consolation, the angel-wing sensation he recognized as Charles's Gift at work, a silent soothing that did not forcibly change his emotions, only offered comfort. It was an all-but-wordless jumble, but Erik caught traces of it's all right, shhh, it's all right and please don't leave I need you.
And surely enough, the hand in his was trembling, the distress of his nightmare still sparking off of Charles in all directions. Erik breathed deeply, once, twice, quelling all inappropriate emotion, tucking it tightly away. Charles seemed willing to forgive his deviance in return for his aid, and Erik would not refuse that bargain. Carefully, he pulled Charles closer.
"I'm more comfortable on my other side," Charles whispered hesitantly.
The side with a full leg. "Of course." Erik released him to resettle himself, and suddenly there was no space at all between them, Charles's back a solid, pleasant pressure against Erik's chest. Erik could not stop himself from melting against that warm body, wrapping his arms tightly around it, pressing his nose into silky-soft hair to smell the traces of rose-and-cinnamon soap under musky-sweet sweat. Charles relaxed into his hold, his shivers already beginning to fade.
Erik had felt nothing like this since Magda died, had rather assumed he never would again, that that part of his life was over. There had been nothing left but vengeance, the hunt, he could think of nothing else... and now the hunt was over. Shaw was dead. Erik could, if he chose, have a life again. He could choose to love again.
And had Magda meant so little to him, that he could simply install a replacement and continue on? No, surely not, he had loved Magda. Even now, the memory of her dimpled smile, her teasing laugh, could put him on his knees with pain and longing. Surely he could not betray her.
But she had betrayed him first. She had recoiled from him in fear. He wouldn't hate her for it – she had been frightened, shocked, in pain. But surely, surely he could not be blamed for declining to leash himself to the memory of someone who feared his Gift, when he was faced with someone who embraced it, someone who was warm and bright and kind, like Magda, but stronger and braver...
But no, no, it was one thing to think of love – he would hardly be the first widower to remarry – and something else entirely to think of a man in her place. It was wrong, it was unnatural, and he would not risk losing Charles by pressing abhorrent advances upon him. He would put away his feelings, as he had once been quite good at doing, and he would go on without them.
The man in his arms was fully asleep now, the rise and fall of his breath slow and steady against Erik's chest. He could be fairly sure, then, that it was entirely his own mind whispering to him a reminder that what others called unnatural, Charles tended to view as a gift.
Erik woke with a dream of his father's voice still echoing in his head, and the fleeting desire, for the first time in decades, to say morning prayers. He didn't do it, of course; he couldn't even remember how to begin. Like most memories involving his parents, almost everything about the faith they had taught him was buried. He still thought of himself as a Jew, in some quiet corner of his mind, but he had little idea, anymore, of what that meant.
He could find out. With Shaw dead, all paths were open. He wasn't entirely sure he wanted to, didn't know if he could bow his head before a God that left a small boy in Sebastian Shaw's care.
Perhaps giving him Charles – or giving him to Charles – was an attempt to make amends.
Dawn light seeped around the curtains, and Charles's skin glowed wherever it touched. Their bodies were curved snugly together, Charles's leg tucked between Erik's two, his head pillowed on Erik's arm. The other arm, the one thrown around Charles's torso, was trapped now under Charles's corresponding arm, their fingers interlaced against Charles's chest. It was hard to see it as anything but a lovers' tangle.
Erik cast a hard, wordless denial at that thought, and gave his body the firm order to get onto its feet. Nothing moved. He wasn't sure how he could bear to ever move again.
After a moment, Charles made a sleepy, mumbling noise and shifted further into Erik's embrace – a movement that highlighted certain... that made it quite imperative that Erik remove himself from the situation.
"Charles." No true voice came out, only breath. Erik cleared his throat and tried again. "Charles. I should go back to my room now."
He might have felt a brush of disappointment from Charles, though it was too faint to be certain. Nevertheless, Erik forced himself to leave the bed, sliding out of the covers without ever opening them to the morning chill, and tucked them securely back around Charles. If, somehow, while he was bent over him arranging the blankets, he came to press his lips briefly into the warm place just above Charles's ear, at least it could not be proved, and therefore did not have to be acknowledged.
Erik ducked back into his own room without being seen, and stood there a moment in his shirt, forcing his mind to make a plan.
He would dress. He would inquire after coffee. And he would discover if the townhouse kept an apparatus for cold showers.
Raven could only blink in surprise when her brother joined her in the dining room, cup of tea in hand, clear-eyed and alert and beaming, at barely seven in the morning. "Surely not!" she blurted.
Now it was Charles's turn to blink. "Surely not what?"
Raven felt her cheeks heat. "Nothing. I – nothing."
Charles raised an eyebrow.
"I only meant – surely—" She glanced about and lowered her voice instinctively. "Surely your relationship with Mr. Lehnsherr has not taken the sort of turn that your radiance of manner would seem to imply?" She squelched an entirely unexpected stab of jealousy – and for which man, she could not even say. Perhaps merely for their shared regard, which for all its complications still seemed simpler than her own romantic muddle.
Charles was smiling. "My radiance of manner?"
"Yes, precisely! I haven't seen you smile this early in the morning since George—" She cut herself off, too late, and had the agony of watching Charles's smile fall.
"Must we discuss Mr. Wickham?" Charles said, voice clipped.
George Wickham. Charles's brother-soldier – charming, witty, handsome, and a ruthless blackmailer. A snake that would never have slithered so close to Charles's heart if not for Raven, who had convinced Charles to try restraining his Gift in romantic situations, so as not to take unfair advantage. The fact that he'd been sent on his way with no harm done, relieved of all memory of any acquaintance with the Xaviers, had not made the incident any less painful for Charles.
Raven flinched. "No, Charles, I did not intend to bring him up at all. I only meant to inquire—"
"And 'surely not' indeed! Why not? Is it so unthinkable that Erik could reciprocate my regard?"
"Not at all! Charles—" She pressed his hand. "Not at all. Only I passed Mr. Lehnsherr in the corridor moments ago and saw no sign in his manner of such a change, so naturally I was confused!"
"Yes, well, Erik is a very contained individual." Charles bit his lip on a grin, ears reddening. "Not that it is any of your concern, Raven, and I can't believe we are discussing it at all, but there is no... understanding between Erik and I, only the ever-increasing hope of one." He sipped his tea, and she noted with surprised pleasure that there was no sign in color or scent that he had added any enhancement to it. "Speaking of understandings," he asked archly, "how are things between yourself and Mr. McCoy?"
That was enough to send her staring into her teacup, as if demanding it provide answers. "Mr. McCoy has a greater regard for convention and the opinion of the world than I should like."
Charles gave her a tilted smile. "We cannot all be as bold as you, love. Civilization would likely fall."
"And yet you cannot make me like him for it."
Charles frowned. "Have your feelings toward him changed so much?"
"No. Perhaps. Oh, I don't know." She finished off the tea. "Will breakfast be served soon?"
"Not for an hour still. I thought you would likely spend the morning writing to your London friends, arranging your grim pursuit of fan and slippers. I'm sure Miss Dashwood would be more than pleased to accompany you."
"It's Mrs. Brandon now," Raven reminded him, "and as it happens, she is very much pleased. I believe she must have written her reply before I was finished with the initial letter, it came so quickly. All is set, she and her sister are to be here at eleven."
"I do hope you will not forget your helpless brother in the great whirl of preparation? You know how I depend on your superior eye for style."
Raven shook her head with a chuckle. "Yes, Charles, I will make sure you are fit to be seen at the ball. I only hope you will not be too bored this time. When last you bestirred yourself to a ball, you declared it the most tiresome thing in the world for those who could not dance."
Charles shrugged, smiling again. "There is always the food."
A drop of tea had fallen to the surface of the table, and she passed her fingertip through it, turning it to an undulating line. "Charles?"
"Suppose I could not hide, that changing my skin simply was not part of my Gift. Suppose I were blue at all times. Do you think Mr. McCoy would still wish to dance with me?"
"I can't speak for Mr. McCoy."
"Would you dance with me?"
Charles took her hand and pressed it to his lips. "Raven, you are my first and oldest friend, and dancing with you is one of the joys I am most pained to lose."
Raven smiled, and let her heart be warmed, and tried not to notice that he had somehow managed to not quite answer the question.
Charles was not surprised when Erik, washed and dressed and smelling faintly of Charles’s own favored soap, grew restless long before Charles himself was ready to leave the house.
“Really, my friend, it is far too early for such industry,” Charles said as he made another attempt at tying his cravat. He bungled it, and tossed the now-wrinkled cloth back at Carson, his London-house butler and substitute valet. “You have not even had breakfast!”
“I can eat at the club. So can you. Come now, Charles, there is self-indulgence and there is sloth. It is nearly eleven o’clock!”
“And when does a gentleman leave his house before noon?”
“When he has things that need doing, dash it!”
Charles laughed, treasuring the affection beneath the exasperation, and fumbled another cravat. “Deucedly sorry about this, Carson — how many more cloths have you?”
“Just the one, sir, but I can iron another if you need it.”
“I hope that won’t be necessary. Erik, you might be so good as to let me focus for just a single moment…” Erik obligingly held his tongue, still radiating half-amused impatience and — oh — an unwilling fascination with the sight of Charles’s exposed throat. Charles swallowed involuntarily, and dared to meet Erik’s eyes in the mirror. Their gazes locked, scorchingly, for just a moment before Erik looked away, and Charles nearly ruined another neck-cloth with his unsteady hands.
He rallied, however, and with effort attained a respectable Mathematical knot. “Victory at last!” he cried. “And the gold cuff-links, please, Carson — excellent. Now, Erik, be serious. I have to dress, have my breakfast, and confer with Mr. Carson about some household questions, before I can think of leaving the house.”
Erik sighed. “You may join me at the club, then, as soon as you will. Before dinner-time, if it please you.” He turned to go, and at the door tossed, “And do remember a hat this time!” over his shoulder.
Charles only laughed, and with the tiniest of mental nudges, ensured that Carson did not notice the way he watched Erik’s figure as it departed.
As it happened, only an hour passed before Charles was out the door on his way to the Hellfire Club — complete with hat. To his chagrin, he was once again bound to the wheelchair, his leg having protested stridently at the idea of another day of exercise. Navigating the crowded and uneven sidewalks was an awkward chore, but not so awkward as his leg collapsing would have been. Carson had offered — repeatedly — to summon a bath-chair, but bath-chairs were for invalids, and Charles was perfectly capable of self-locomotion.
He had to admit, letting himself be pushed in a bath-chair would have ensured a greater dignity on his arrival; as it was, the doorman with his membership book raised an eyebrow at Charles’s breathlessness and sweat-edged hair. But he opened the inner door for him with no more than a murmur of, “Welcome back to the Hellfire Club, Mr. Xavier.”
“Where might I find Mr. Lehnsherr?” Charles asked as he wheeled himself inside.
“I’m afraid I’m not sure, sir. Miss Frost said she’d be giving him the grand tour today. I can send someone to find him for you, sir.”
“Oh, that won’t be necessary.” Charles touched his temple, swept his mind through the building, and found Erik and Miss Frost on the third floor. “Er, on second thought, could I trouble you for a pair of footmen to hoist my chair up the stairs? I am so sorry to trouble you…”
“No trouble at all, sir.”
And it wasn’t, Charles was delighted to discover, for the smiling young footman levitated him up both flights of stairs with considerably less effort than it took Charles to tie his cravat. Charles tossed him a generous tip, which glided down to the fellow’s hand as gracefully as a feather on the wind. Fantastic. This place was simply fantastic.
Charles attained a corridor lined with doors, very much like the one where Angel had escorted them the day before, and there Charles hesitated. Erik was with Miss Frost behind one of those doors. He had seen firsthand what generally went on behind those doors. Miss Frost was beautiful, and could be charming when she chose… Was it possible, Charles wondered with a icy-hot flush of jealousy, that Erik would rather he did not interrupt just now?
Another possibility, Charles realized with a jolt of alarm, was that Miss Frost had taken advantage of Charles’s absence to make Erik think he did not want them to be interrupted — or any other thought she chose. How stupid he had been to let Erik come here alone!
But on his frantic inspection, there was no haze of lust or pleasure over Erik’s mind, real or induced, and no sign of Miss Frost’s influence — only the razor-sharpness of intense interest. His mind perked up as it sensed Charles’s presence, like a dog — perhaps more appropriately a cat — pricking its ears. Come, Charles, you should see this. The proper door swung open without being touched, and Charles came inside.
The room was, as he had expected, very much like the one where he and Erik had watched Angel play her flute. Instead of sitting on the bed, however, Erik and Miss Frost were gathered around a square hole that had been opened in the wall. A painting set aside at their feet showed that the opening was normally concealed. Bemused, Charles came as close as he might in the chair, then took Erik’s proffered arm to pull himself upright and peer through the little window.
In the adjoining room, a middle-aged man sprawled across the bed, smiling dreamily. A red-haired girl in a white dress crouched over him, one hand on his face. She was no more than twelve years old.
Charles nearly choked on outrage and horror, clutching at Erik’s arm with bruising force, but Erik was already whispering to him urgently.
“Calm yourself, Charles, it is not what it seems! The child is not… being ill-used. She is only putting her Gift to work. Look for yourself.” He tapped his temple.
Charles frowned, but complied, sending his Gift threading into the room. True to Erik's word, there was no lust in the dreamy-eyed man's mind, only a hazy sense of well-being; he was hardly conscious of his surroundings at all.
When he turned his mind to the girl, he was surprised to perceive that her Gift was much like his own and Miss Frost's. All her concentration was at the moment bent on the mind of the man before her — Mr. Crawford — maintaining his stupor while she rifled through his memories. They flickered through Charles's mind as they did the girl's, mostly innocuous in nature – the walk he'd taken with his business partner that morning, the novel he'd read the night before, the — oh. The secret tryst with his business partner's wife the previous afternoon.
He felt the girl — Jean Grey — flinch from that memory, trying to shield herself from a roil of sensations and emotions that her young mind was in no way prepared to handle. The defenses she cast up against the flood were battered and scarred with use, patched where they had previously broken. Even as she cringed away from the man's sordid memory, she pursued it, gathering details — how often this had happened, where and when, what motive lay behind it. She handled the information as gingerly as glass shards, but she did it. As she had been trained to do.
As they had all been trained to do, herself and the other girls and boys with Gifts of the mind, the ones Shaw and Frost had gathered for this very purpose. All the Club staff were trained to extract secrets and even plant ideas, as their various Gifts and talents at seduction allowed. Already Jean was beginning to train as a dancer.
She was ten years of age. Ten.
Charles drew breath to tell Miss Frost, at high volume, exactly what he thought of this arrangement — but before he could form the words, his attention was drawn back to Jean, who was suddenly broadcasting panic as her mental defenses buckled.
He had no clear memory, later, of how he moved from their room to Jean's; all his focus was bent on wedging his mind between hers and Crawford's, blocking every tendril of the memory that threatened to overwhelm her. The tryst had turned violent, he saw, and the sudden flare of anger, pain and twisted satisfaction on top of the more conventional carnality had been Jean's tipping point. God in heaven, a child should never know these things!
Jean was considerably startled by his intervention, but clung to it gratefully, huddled shivering behind his shields as she struggled to reconstruct her own. Don't fear, sweetheart, all will be well.
Don't leave me!
I won't. I swear I won't. I'm right here.
He washed the foreign memory out of her mind, dulled the recollection of it as much as he dared, and, maintaining his protection of her, turned his attention to Mr. Crawford. Alertness and alarm were growing in his mind; Charles damped them, and sent him to sleep – less gently than he might have, but it would do him no harm. With Jean's distress coming swiftly under her own control, he eased back into his own head, and found himself next to Mr. Crawford's bed, with the little girl curled in his lap and sniffling into his shirt.
"There now," he murmured, stroking her bright copper hair. "There now."
"Your paternal instinct is laudable," Miss Frost said dryly from behind him, "but there was no need for such a panic. I assure you, Miss Grey has dealt with worse."
"She should not have to deal with any such thing at all." With effort, Charles kept his fury confined to a slight tremor of his limbs and voice. He had no doubt Miss Frost perceived the strength of it anyway. "She should not even be in this place. Such an establishment is inappropriate for any child, but a girl with her sensitivities, to be exposed on all sides to corruption and vice—"
"Her 'sensitivities' are the very reason she is here—"
"Yes, the more shame to you—"
"It was here or the streets, Mr. Xavier. As is the case with many Gifted children, her parents were neither willing nor able to cope effectively with her emerging Abnormality. Here she is cared for."
"Here she is used!"
"Here she is trained," Erik said, "to help protect her people."
Charles turned, securing Jean with one arm and wrestling the chair with the other, to stare at Erik where he stood with his back to the door. "You cannot countenance this, Erik. Tell me you do not."
Erik's gaze lit on the tear-streaked child in Charles's lap, sitting up now to rest her head on his shoulder, and to Charles's senses he flinched in something like shame. "Miss Grey is full young for the work, I admit. But the work itself carries great import."
"Import? Do tell me, Erik, of the great import, the noble pursuit, of blackmail and exploitation."
"There is no shame is using what weapons we have at hand. The Hellfire Club is more than a haven for the Gifted, Charles, it is a power base, a bastion for our people—"
Charles laughed bitterly. "How strange it seemed to me that Sebastian Shaw should establish this place, and now I see why. He had no idea of using it for our people, Erik, only for his own ends, to keep powerful men in his pocket. Lure them in, show them a good time, slip a noose around their necks when they’re not looking — it’s the old carrot-and-stick routine, the Club will help you if you help the Club, but heaven help you if you don’t hold up your end. God’s sake, Erik, the things they're training these children to do — and I recognize some of the people Jean has read, it looks like Shaw had his hooks into every level of the government—"
"Yes, and every one of those hooks is now in my hand! Charles, think what we could do with the network Shaw established. Not for personal gain, you can drop the offended expression – for our people. It will be the work of years, I'm sure, but if we work together, all of us, protecting each other, we can put the Gifted where they belong – the top rung of society instead of the bottom!"
Charles took a deep breath and turned back to Jean, whose alarm was growing as their voices rose. "Jean, love, dry your eyes, it's all right. Miss Salvadore is just passing by in the corridor — you like her, yes?"
"Good. Go with Miss Salvadore. She'll get you some tea and settle you into bed until you feel stronger." He shot a sharp glance at Miss Frost, who rolled her eyes, but let him overhear her give Angel the proper orders.
Jean reluctantly climbed off his lap and gave him a shaky curtsey. "Thank you for helping me, Mr. Xavier."
"You're entirely welcome, Miss Grey. It's been an honor to make your acquaintance." He kissed her hand, gravely polite, and tried to suppress guilt at the pleading in her eyes. She had, at last, found an adult she felt was entirely trustworthy, and she did not wish to be separated from him. I will find some way to help you, Charles promised her silently. "Go on now, Jean."
Jean took her leave. At a hard look from Erik, Miss Frost followed shortly thereafter.
Alone in the room, he and Erik regarded each other in silence.
"You still believe Shaw was right," Charles said at last. "That we're somehow better than other people."
"I know we are."
"And I know we are not. Erik, I have seen so many minds, Gifted and Mundane, and I swear to you there is no inherent difference."
Erik waved this irritably away. "Believe what you like. Frankly, whether we are superior or merely equal, it does not change the injustices we face, and here is the opportunity to correct them. Can I not depend on you to believe in justice for our brothers and sisters?"
"Of course! My friend, I have every interest in equality – equality, not superiority – for our people! But to do it by extortion and exploitation?"
"On any battlefield, Charles, a man must use the weapons available to him."
"But extortion and exploitation of the people you are claiming to defend? Aside from mistreatment of the staff, do you know how many Gifted the Club has threatened with exposure in order to get their way? You cannot have any real understanding of what Shaw was doing!"
"I assure you, I know enough of the particulars to guess the rest."
"And these are the shoes you would step into? You would take your parents' murderer as the model to follow? Oh, my friend." Charles swallowed against the sick feeling growing in his belly. "His damage reaches further than I thought."
Erik's voice was a dangerous growl. "I am nothing like Shaw."
"You are everything like Shaw! Adopt a man's creed, his goals, his methods, and what else can you call yourself but his disciple?" Charles knew his voice was too loud and a shade too high, that he had lost some measure of control that he should not have permitted himself to lose, but it hurt, it hurt so brutally to watch Erik transforming into his own worst nightmare. Or perhaps he was not changing at all, perhaps Charles had seen only the good as he had been so often accused of doing, when Erik had been a monster all along. "You are a killer," he spat, the words too bitter to swallow. "You are a killer and a power-hunting wretch, and everything Shaw wanted you to be."
Erik's face might have been stone. "Yes. I thought you knew that when you took me in. I'm sorry it took you this long to understand." He opened the door and stood to the side. "Miss Frost will show you out. I'll have someone collect my things from your house."
Charles was shocked into stillness. I didn't mean... Erik, I didn't mean... But after all he had not, in fact, said a single word that he didn't mean.
His own breath suddenly very loud in his ears, Charles took hold of his wheels, and pushed himself out the door.
Emma Frost was not a fool. She made a point of being familiar with her own strengths and weaknesses, and planned accordingly. She knew, for instance, that facing Charles Xavier in a direct Gift-to-Gift confrontation would probably end badly for her, and so she had no intention of engaging in such a confrontation. She knew also that Erik Lehnsherr had a mind as hard and rigid as steel, and that, having lost the advantage of surprise, it was unlikely she would succeed in adjusting his will to match her own – though she might well find herself just as well-positioned with him as she had been with Sebastian, if she played her cards right.
Emma had a strong instinct for self-preservation. That instinct had given her many advantages: for instance, she was content – preferred, really – to rule from behind the throne, rather than wear the target of open leadership. The same instinct had led her to ally herself with Sebastian of her own free will, rather than wait for him to break her, and it had instructed never to challenge him directly, or show him weakness. Similarly, she knew better than to involve herself in any way with the powder keg that was Erik's friendship with Xavier.
So she said nothing whatsoever, in either censure or encouragement, as she showed Xavier to the door, and she said nothing to Erik when she returned.
Though his face remained impassive, Erik's mind was a screaming storm of devastation, loss and self-loathing, loud enough to grate the sensibilities of half the girls on staff. Emma set her teeth and said nothing. She was not getting involved.
Still. Perhaps the situation warranted an experiment. Just to see how easy it was to nudge the Club's new owner in a given direction, without using her Gift.
"How boring of you, Erik," she said, taking care to sound as indifferent as possible. "I didn't take you for someone who gave up that easily."
He gave her no response whatsoever. But she did not quite have time to count to one hundred before he stepped out the front door.
"What do you think, Raven?" Marianne Brandon said, holding two fans up to her face. "Red or white?"
"One can hardly go wrong with white," said her sister, Mrs. Elinor Ferrars, despite not being the person addressed.
Marianne only scoffed. "It is because everyone thinks so that one can, indeed, go wrong with white. White will quite blend into the crowd."
"It is not entirely proper for a married lady to do otherwise," Elinor pointed out. "Come, Raven, can I not depend on you to help me rein in my headstrong sister?"
Raven laughed. "Indeed you cannot, Elinor; I fear it would be most hypocritical of me to try, since I have no intention of taking on a retiring air once I am married. No more than you have, speaking of hypocrites; I can but point silently to the very brilliant blue of the fan in your own reticule."
"Blue is a perfectly respectable color!" Elinor protested, but blushed regardless. At least her easy smile survived the blush, even thrived on it; Raven might find Elinor's sister's temperament more similar to her own, but Elinor was nevertheless the more relaxing company. After all, one never knew when Marianne's more turbulent emotions might cloud over. Though marriage had been good for her, in that respect; Colonel Brandon's gentle steadiness of character had rubbed off somewhat on his bride, or perhaps simply given her an anchor to help her ride out her own storms.
"Marriage has cost Marianne none of her vivacity," Raven said, "and I see no reason she should pretend it has. Nevertheless, my dear, I do not think that shade of red becoming to your complexion. Perhaps the green?" She looked down at the selection of fans before them, pondering her own choice. Her own fan had met its end at the last ball, dropped in the entryway and trod upon before she could retrieve it. Here there were many that might replace it; this one painted with doves, that one with roses. Her eye was drawn to one made all of lace and mother-of-pearl, but on lifting it she saw that it was too sheer. It might cool her face, but it would do nothing to hide it, if the occasion arose.
"Speaking of marriage," Marianne said archly as she tested out the green fan, wafting coppery curls out of her eyes, "what's all this I hear about you and Henry McCoy?"
Now it was Raven's turn to blush. Marianne giggled.
"Mr. McCoy is a fine man," Elinor said. "He has always struck me as very polite and gentle-natured. And quite intelligent."
"Yes, he's a very earnest gentleman," Marianne drawled, rolling her eyes. "Very steady, I'm sure."
"Oh, Marianne!" Elinor swatted her with a fan. "You know you are in no position to tease others for considering that a virtue, when your Colonel, dear as he is to me, is well on his way to being staid."
"My Colonel," Marianne said loftily, "has more romance in his soul than any man I ever met. He is only well-bred enough not to slop it about everywhere."
"Yes, precisely. But Raven has neither confirmed nor denied the rumor! Speak up, Miss Darkholme. Do you, or do you not, fancy Mr. McCoy?"
Raven blushed all the harder for not knowing how to reply. "He is very handsome," she managed. "And very — kind. He is a good man."
"And a fine catch in the more mercenary sense,” Elinor observed. “Oh, don't look at me like that, Marianne! There is something to be said for the rich marrying each other; all can be certain that they are pursued for their persons, and not their purses. With your looks and your fortune, you could of course aspire higher — the peerage, even — but the McCoys are extremely respectable folk. None could call it a bad match."
"Yes," Raven murmured, "with Mr. McCoy I could expect a very comfortable life." Whereas a life in a traveling carnival... well, it certainly would not conform to the standards to which she was accustomed.
"I hope that is not your only concern," Marianne said. "I would sooner see you a spinster than marry without love, for I feel sure you would be happier thus. But I hope I have learned the cost of pursuing love without regard to respectable behavior, and Mr. McCoy is, I grant you, the epitome of respectable behavior. Do you find him interesting, Raven? Excessive propriety can make a man boring."
"Oh, yes, Mr. McCoy has always something interesting to say. He is so very well-educated, he has thoughts on every subject." She wondered suddenly what Hank would think of Irene. He had spoken often on the necessity of pursuing knowledge at every opportunity, and she felt certain Irene could teach him much, but would he consider it worth knowing? Or would he, the 'epitome of respectable behavior,' disregard the words of a carnival fortune-teller? What would any of her friends think, for that matter, of her acquaintance with the singular Miss Adler?
Impulsively, she decided to test it. "I saw a fortune-teller at a carnival," she said, "who called Mr. McCoy 'one branch of a crossroads' for me."
"How cryptic," Elinor said. "But I suppose that's their stock in trade. They cannot be proven wrong if their words might mean anything at all."
Marianne laughed. "You see my sister's faith in the supernatural. But surely, Elinor, you remember the fortune-teller we saw, not a month past – at a carnival, in fact – I wonder if it could have been the same one! Raven, was yours a blind lady? They called her Lady Destiny or some such..."
Raven blinked. "Yes! Yes, that is exactly she."
"How astonishing! She told Elinor – but perhaps I shouldn't say..."
"Indeed you shouldn't," Elinor scowled, "since I have not even told Edward yet. It is far too soon to spread the news."
Raven's jaw dropped, and she barely suppressed a squeal of joy. "Elinor, are you—" she lowered her voice belatedly "—in a family way?"
Elinor was blushing scarlet. "It is too soon to be certain!"
"Lady Destiny said Elinor would have a son," Marianne whispered, "and not to worry when he came too soon, he would be fine so long as she was at home when he came. And Elinor, admit it, skeptic as you are, still you will not be traveling this winter!"
"Indeed I will not," Elinor admitted, "for she knew many things that... oh, carnivals are full of charlatans, I know, but I could not explain how she knew them!"
"She knew Christopher – Colonel Brandon, that is – would be late home that night, and that I would break Mama's teacup. She said – and wasn't this curious! – that under no circumstances was I to let Christopher call for the doctor when I fall ill next month, as I am apparently destined to do. She said it would do more harm than good."
"Of all the nonsense," Elinor muttered. "Better not to have a doctor? She had best be careful with that advice, lest she find herself charged with murder."
"But what did she tell you, Raven?" Marianne said. "You must tell us every detail! Did she say you would marry Mr. McCoy?"
"She said I was at a crossroads," Raven repeated, almost absently, before turning to Elinor. "You said earlier that carnivals are full of charlatans. Surely... surely you know what else they are full of?"
The sisters fell silent, regarding her with wide-eyed uneasiness.
"Well, yes," Marianne said uncertainly. "But it is not really polite, you know... I mean, they can't help what they are, and I think they are often judged too harshly, but all the same you really mustn't discuss them in company... Why? Do you think Lady Destiny was... unfortunate in that way?"
"Don't you think, based on the evidence of your own senses, that it's less likely she was a fraud, and more likely that foreknowledge is, perhaps, her... talent?"
"That is the always game of the carnival, of course," Elinor said slowly. "The chilling possibility that it is real. But I do not think such abilities are common. The few Unnaturals I have known suffered from much more... troublesome afflictions."
Raven and Marianne both stared, shocked to hear her admitting to knowing Unnaturals at all. Raven knew, of course, that her friends' acquaintance included far more Unnaturals than they could possibly suspect, including one or two eccentrics who were all but open about it. But if they – or she – ever became truly, unignorably known for what they were, no one in respectable society would admit to being of their acquaintance. They would hardly be spoken of again, except in whispers, after a cautious look around.
Boldly, Raven said, "Yes, some have very troublesome afflictions. But then, if they did not, we would never known of them at all, would we? Who, given the ability to hide their Abnormality, would in any circumstances fail to do so?"
"Lady Destiny, if you are correct," Elinor said. "I would not say that joining a carnival and actively promoting herself as a prophetess, could be at all construed as hiding it, however invisible the actual Abnormality may be."
Raven looked down at the display of fans. "You are right. Her Unnatural condition, if she does in fact suffer such, leaves no visible signs. She could hide it easily. But she chooses not to."
"Well, I admire her for it," Marianne said defiantly. "Do not all the poets agree that it is better to let one's true nature shine, than bind oneself behind the falseness of civilization?"
Elinor snorted. "Yet will I insist on scolding you if you burp at table."
"Well, I think she is very brave."
"Which, unfortunately, is often another way of saying very foolish," Elinor sighed. "Come, Raven, have you still not chosen a fan?"
"No, I have." She picked up the lace fan, that one that would not hide her face. "I'm ready to go."
Charles steered his chair blindly away from the Hellfire Club, his head churning, his insides knotted with pain and distress and the bitterest dregs of rage. Erik was wrong. Erik was wrong about every possible thing and there had to be a way to make him see it, a way to prevent this newborn chasm between them, step back from it, erase it. Surely it was not possible that a man like Erik, strong and intelligent and with the best of intentions, could be lost forever down the wrong path. Charles would not give up on him this easily.
Put simply, he could not bear for Erik to leave. Erik was everything he had accused him of, and probably more besides. But he could not bear for Erik to leave.
That did not mean he would bow to Erik's wishes, sit back and let him walk a path so destructive to himself and others. It did mean that the bloody conversation was not over.
But what would he say? What alternate path could he offer? Charles doubted he could dissuade Erik from helping the Gifted, nor would he want to. He just had to show him a better way. The Hellfire Club did some good, it could not be denied; Charles was sure there were many like Jean, who would have nowhere to go without it. Surely it could continue in those efforts, and become the sanctuary it pretended to be.
Something else had to be done for Jean, however, and the other children. He had promised to help her, and so would he do, even if it meant going to toe-to-toe with Erik, teeth bared and swords flashing. Surely it wouldn't come to that; Erik had agreed she was too young for her sordid duties. Charles would be happy to take personal responsibility for her, for all of them — he had the money and space to house a dozen children without blinking. At Graymalkin they could be cared for, and trained to control and appreciate their Gifts, without sacrificing their mental and moral stability. Surely, even in the wake of this catastrophic quarrel, Erik could not object to that.
As for the rest… They could compromise, blast it. Surely they could compromise. No one stood to lose their lives today; there was time to argue and debate and make reasoned decisions.
Assuming Erik ever consented to speak to him again...
He had been pouring his frustration into the operation of his wheelchair, jouncing and rattling along the sidewalk at a frankly unsafe speed while paying no real attention to his surroundings. The depth of this mistake became clear only when one wheel veered off the edge of the sidewalk, and he had a single crystalline moment to be terrified before the entire chair tipped, and crashed, and flung him into the road to lie bleeding on the cobbles.
For several moments he was too stunned to move; his head felt as though it were echoing, confusion and pain repeating on themselves. His right arm hurt as well, from palm to shoulder, and his knee; the pain seemed only to augment the overwhelming frustration and humiliation that was sweeping hot over his skin. Around him he could feel a handful of minds, all some combination of alarm, pity, and shamefaced amusement. In childish pique such as he seldom allowed himself, he smashed his Gift against their minds like a hand swatting a fly, obliterating their memory of him and sending them on their way.
Which meant there was no one to help him when a phaeton full of laughing youths thundered round the corner.
It was very much, he thought, like the classic nightmare, wherein the dreamer is being chased and cannot persuade his legs to move properly. His head swam, his arms trembling and resisting their orders, as he tried to drag himself out of the roadway. It was clear within seconds that he would not be successful. He reached for the mind of the phaeton's driver, but it slithered through his grasp like water; he had overtaxed his battered mind with that act of childishness. And oh, God, he was going to pay dearly for it now, for the wheels of the phaeton would be on him in moments—
The horse drawing the phaeton squealed and fought for footing as the vehicle skidded across the cobblestones, its occupants crying out as it spun and crashed against the sidewalk, narrowly avoiding an upset. One young gentleman tumbled from his seat, but landed more-or-less safely on his back end.
And Erik swept Charles up from the roadway.
The sudden motion set Charles's head to spinning again, and it was several seconds before he could respond to the stream of words tumbling from Erik's lips, frantic variations on Charles are you hurt please speak to me Charles.
"I'm all right, Erik," he managed at last. "At any rate, I do not think anything is broken. My head does hurt abominably."
"You're bleeding," Erik said, and with shaking fingers brushed Charles's hair back from the painful place on his brow.
A crowd had begun to gather. "Is'e dead?" "By Jove, what happened?" "Should I fetch a doctor?"
"Stay back!" Erik snarled, clutching Charles all the tighter.
"I'm perfectly fine," Charles said, and managed to thread a bit of persuasion into the words. "You kind people should see to the fellows in the phaeton."
The crowd wandered off, some to the phaeton, some back to their errands.
"Charles, what happened?"
"Steered my chair off the sidewalk like a bloody fool." His head was clearing now, and Charles was able to properly appreciate the way he was gathered — cradled, really — against Erik's chest. It felt marvelous, despite his assorted aches, and Charles couldn't help smiling, couldn’t help tightening his grip on Erik’s shirtfront. "You came after me."
"I did." Erik swallowed, uncomfortable. "I thought... perhaps one quarrel, however vicious, was insufficient reason to give up a friendship such as ours."
"I had much the same thought."
"Did you?" Erik's face betrayed such hope and surprise that Charles did what perhaps he should have done far earlier, and opened his mind to Erik's. The swirl of self-hatred and despair he found there made him gasp — his cruel words had cut far deeper than he intended — and he reached out instinctively to soothe it. Not erase it, he had sworn not to modify Erik – he only offered reassurance. The cat-brain leaned into that touch, and, to Charles's surprise, so did its conscious counterpart, Erik's eyes fluttering briefly shut.
Oh, how easy it would be, at this moment, to loop an arm around Erik's neck and pull him down into a kiss, feel Erik's warmth and joy and pleasure coupled to his own, and share it back to him redoubled—
Madness to even consider such a thing on an open street-corner, and a frightening loss of composure on his part. Besides which, he knew Erik was not remotely prepared for it, however fervent his current embrace.
"Erik," he said instead, “please allow me to apologize for the hurtful things I said. I lost my temper, as no gentleman should. I still disagree with you fiercely on this issue, but I have already concocted some alternatives that may please us both, if you are willing to hear them."
"Of course.” Erik’s arm tightened around him. “It is impossible that we cannot find some way to agree. After all, we want the same thing.”
Charles smiled, near-dizzy with hope. “Yes, my friend, we surely do.”
It was her own fault, Emma supposed. In retrospect, it was clear her purposes would have been better served by allowing Erik and Mr. Xavier to separate. Her little experiment in manipulating with mere words had been impulsive and unwise, and now she must bear the consequence – which was to see them sweep back into the club as if they owned it both together, so intent upon their own conversation that no one else seemed to fully exist. Xavier hardly stopped talking long enough for the club's physician to see to his split scalp and his abraded palm and knee, though he did take time to go into transports over the man's minor healing Gift.
That done, Erik and Xavier appropriated a parlor for their exclusive use, and spend the afternoon in an endless storm of conversation. They called for tea and cake, and a chessboard, and pen and paper, and to be left entirely alone. Wherever she went Emma could hear them in the back of her head. Their debate was at once like a dance, and a fencing match, and a pair of kittens exploring some exciting new toy.
Kittens, indeed – it was hard to say who was more thoroughly the other's pet, but Emma decided, with deliberate nastiness, that it was little Xavier in his rolling chair that would look best with a leash.
Only once did she attempt to nose into the conversation, letting her Gift drift through the room like a chilly draft.
"Compromise, Charles, does not mean me doing whatever you like. You, too, must make concessions."
Charles's reply was sheepish. "Compromise sounds easy until you realize it is your principles that must be compromised."
"Charles." The word was full of weary affection. "You are not practical. I wish I might live in your principled world, but I'm afraid you dwell there in utter solitude. I would not change you, but I would have you grant me the right to inhabit reality."
"I think you mistake me, my friend. I know very intimately the evils of the world, and that they must be fought. I only desire to fight them honorably."
"No, you desire to bring them tea and stroke their hair until they come 'round to the proper way of thinking, but you will not succeed. Look around yourself, Charles – in only one building in this city may an Unnatural feel safe and accepted. Everywhere else he faces ostracism at best, worse if his Gift is deemed frightening or amusing. You have all the power that generations of wealth and propriety may impart, and yet you dare not reveal yourself."
"I make no claims that our situation is just! But to prove to the populace that they are right to fear us – that will surely do us no favors in the long-term."
"Proving that we are a force to be respected? That one may not strike us with impunity? On the contrary, that will do us every favor you can imagine!"
Erik's voice was rising, and with it the heat of anger in the room; Emma eased slyly forward, ready to nudge her employer just a little further down the path he already walked. Enough to ensure that he and Xavier would come to loggerheads and stay there, that Erik would be forced to depend upon her, not him, for aid in achieving his goals.
But the moment she touched Erik's mind intending to do more than skim his perceptions, Charles's Gift bore down on her – no, exploded on her, all fire and vicious, protective rage. It was clear he had known of her presence all along, and waited for her to show her hand. She was forced to flee before that wave of protection – it looked to her senses something like a pack of lions, all made of flame and leaping for her throat – and came out of the encounter with a magnificent headache that seemed likely to persist for days.
Very well, she decided. Let the foolish man attempt to gentle his new pet. She would show Mr. Lehnsherr how much better it was to have a partner who shared his ideals.
It was nearly six o’clock — past time for them to be readying for the ball, never mind dinner — and Raven was beginning to think she ought send someone to fetch her brother home, when he and Erik came through the door on a wave of excited chatter.
“Raven, what do you think?” Charles called on catching sight of her. “I am to start a school! Can you imagine?”
“No, in fact,” Raven said, unsure whether to laugh.
“I assure you it is the truth! Our home will be filled to the rafters with Gifted children. I hope you do not object? I am sure you could have a wing of your own if you like, entirely separate from them—”
“I don’t imagine that will be necessary. Are you… are you quite serious, Charles?”
“Entirely!” Words tumbling over each other, he imparted the day’s tale — improper goings-on at the Hellfire Club, Gifted children with no better place to go.
“I think the idea is… fantastic, Charles — more than that, it is needed, it is precisely what should be done and I am so very proud of you for doing it!” Nearly bouncing, Raven bent to embrace her brother.
“Well, it is not me alone,” Charles said, beaming, as she pulled back again. “Aside from your own hoped-for assistance, Mr. Lehnsherr is to be my partner in the enterprise.” That he and Mr. Lehnsherr had quarreled over the matter she could easily tell by the nervous edge to his jocularity, the way he reached casually to touch the man's wrist, as if to reassure himself Mr. Lehnsherr was still at his side. He had no call for uncertainty that she could see; frankly, Mr. Lehnsherr seemed just as anxious for the reassurance.
"Come tell me of it over dinner," Raven said, "which must be quick, or we shall be more-than-fashionably late. I have lain out your clothes, Charles,” she continued as they moved toward the dining room, “for Carson to press and brush. I don't suppose you got around to shopping?"
"Oh, dear," Charles winced, rolling up to his place at table. "I entirely forgot, Erik, I was under strict orders to arrange ball-worthy clothing for you."
"I confess I hadn't thought of it at all," Mr. Lehnsherr said. “I am entirely out of the habit of attending social pageants.”
Raven rolled her eyes. "Men. Would you attend a ball, Mr. Lehnsherr, in the same clothes you'd wear for a simple stroll through town? Fortunately for you, I am more sensible. I hope you will not think me interfering, but I took the liberty of directing the servants to cut down one of our stepbrother's finer suits for your use. I could tell them your measurements in a broad sense — you may recall I've a good memory for such — but you'll need to be fitted more carefully after dinner."
"But how tiresome you are, Raven, going on about clothing, when I tell you our lives are about to change! There are some eight or nine children at the Hellfire Club who will very shortly become occupants of our own home — the big one, of course, not here. And I intend to offer a place to any of the adult staff, as well, who might wish to leave. We will need teachers, after all, and an increase of servants to care for the house; a place of some sort can be found for most anyone, I'm sure, depending on their qualifications."
"When you say a school for the Gifted, do you mean girls as well? And do eat, Charles!"
Impatiently he swallowed a bite of bread. "Any Gifted child — of either sex, of whatever background. A place where they will be safe and cared for, with no fear of rejection or abuse. They will learn not only their French and geography and whatnot— though I won't stand for any part of their education to be mediocre — but they will learn as well how to control their Gifts, and use them for the betterment of mankind."
This last drew a snort from Mr. Lehnsherr, but he said nothing.
Raven was still struggling to absorb the implications of this grand plan. "Charles... Charles, it sounds like heaven itself! A beacon of hope to every Unnatural in England!"
"Not too bright a beacon, I hope. The true purpose of the school must, of course, remain secret, or else attract all the wrong sorts of attention. I imagine it will be something of an 'open secret,' eventually — after all, one cannot get the word to those in need, without others hearing it also — but it is vital that society be permitted to ignore us."
Raven frowned, and saw a concurrent unhappiness in Mr. Lehnsherr's face. "All these children, then — you would teach them all to hide?"
Charles sighed, infinitely weary. "Erik and I have had this very argument thrice at least. He accuses me of idealism, when it is he who refuses to face reality. Yes, of course every Gifted being should embrace their unique nature, of course they should be permitted to shout it from the rooftops — but that is not the world we live in. Can you imagine the consequences if I announced to the world that I had filled my home with Unnatural children? How long would it be before some zealot set fire to the house, or brought a party of like-minded individuals with cudgels and guns? If I raised these children to bare their Gift proudly to the world, how far would they get in life once outside the safety of the school? Yes, Raven, I will teach them to hide, to keep themselves safe and change society from the inside, which is the only way true change will occur in any case."
"I would take a more direct approach," Mr. Lehnsherr said. "The Hellfire Club has the means to protect itself and its interests. I plan to be considerably more aggressive in championing our cause."
"Exactly how aggressive," said Charles, "remains under debate. But then, all remains under debate, all is still in flux. Who knows, Erik and I may still prove to be each a good influence on the other."
They exchanged looks of such wry affection that Raven permitted herself to smile rather than worry. A school for the Gifted, in addition to the Club where they might gather in safety, and do something in their own defense — Raven felt as though she stood on the cusp of a change in the world order, a new chapter of history.
In the meantime, however, they also stood on the edge of missing the first dance-set. Raven gulped down her tea, and proceeded to hurry the menfolk away from the table to dress.
Raven had, Erik saw, known his measurements nearly perfectly. He was sure the servants had been in a frenzy to accomplish the alterations on so little notice, but there were now only a few small modifications to be done.
"Will your stepbrother not be angry, to be so casually robbed of his clothing?" Erik asked, spreading his arms as directed by a housemaid with a mouthful of pins.
Charles, watching cheerfully from his chair, only smiled the wider. "Let me assure you how very little it bothers me to anger my stepbrother."
"Turn, if you please, sir," said the housemaid, and Erik obliged, turning his head a degree further so that he could see Charles in the mirror. Incredibly, he looked none the worse for his alarming spill earlier; the club's healer had reduced his wounds to a mere white scar at Charles's hairline, all but indistinguishable on his fair skin. The tear in the knee of his trousers would not be so easily put right, but they had been replaced now by ball finery — tight buckskin breeches, a very elegant cravat, and a jacket of deep blue velvet over a waistcoat of brighter blue. If the intended effect was to intensify Charles's beautiful eyes, they well succeeded; in the mirror they seemed almost to glow.
In Erik's memory an image flashed, of Charles's eyes dazed and frightened as Erik pulled him from the roadway. He suppressed a shudder; had he caught up to Charles only a few moments later, he might have found all light gone from them forever. He could not bear it, could not endure the thought of Charles gone from the world, lost to him, like Anya, like Magda, like his father and mother—
Erik, I'm right here. As ever, Charles's presence in his mind was warm and tender, carrying an intimacy that he both yearned for and flinched from. He concentrated on the flinch, and let out a breath as Charles politely withdrew.
Aloud, Charles said, "You look considerably better in that jacket than Cain ever did, in any case."
"Whether deliberately or not, your sister chose just the set of colors I would have chosen myself," Erik admitted. The black coat, grey breeches and silver-grey waistcoat gave him an appearance much more severe than Charles's, but he could not have been comfortable in anything brighter, however well it looked on his friend. His one concession to color was the dark blue neck-cloth that awaited him after the fitting. Come to think, it was in fact a very close match to Charles's jacket. The thought pleased him inordinately.
"All right then, sir," the housemaid said, "I'll just take the jacket and have that last hem adjusted. Won't be a moment."
Erik let the woman take the coat, and with her gone dropped into a chair and reached for the drink he hadn't been given time to finish at dinner.
"There's something I meant to give you this morning," Charles said, fishing around in a pocket. "Went and left it on the bureau... Here we are." He held out his hand, with a gleaming bit of something in the palm, something that Erik abruptly realized had been tugging quietly at his Gift since Charles first entered the room. He crossed the room to take it from Charles's hand.
"It's a puzzle ring," Charles said. "Belonged to my grandfather. Eight different kinds of metal."
"Yes," Erik breathed, winding his Gift so tightly through and around the ring that it rose off his hand to turn slowly in the air. "I feel them. Steel, nickel, copper, silver, bronze, gold, tungsten, platinum... each with some bit of nickel or iron in the alloy, nicely magnetic..." Dimly aware that he was smiling like a madman, he flexed his fingers, and the eight strands of metal, interlaced so imaginatively, flew apart. Not one ring, now, but a succession of them, still interlocked, whirling and spinning to his whimsy. "Beautiful."
"Yes," Charles murmured. "But can you — oh! Indeed you can!" He laughed in delight as Erik snapped his fingers, and brought the eight rings clicking back into their knotwork pattern, snug as if they'd never been apart. Charles affected a pout. "It always took me hours to figure that out."
"I may be at something of an unfair advantage." Stifling reluctance and longing, Erik held the ring out to its owner.
"What? No," Charles said. "It's for you, Erik. I'm giving it to you."
"Well, no, it will turn back to a pumpkin at midnight. Of course permanently! It's a gift, Erik."
"But it was your grandfather's."
"And now it's yours." Charles folded Erik's fingers back down over the ring. "A ring for a ring, eh?" He held up his hand, where the long-lost signet ring nestled around one finger.
Without entirely meaning to, Erik took his hand, ran his thumb over the X-shaped indentation in the signet ring, feeling the hum of the metal. A heavy hunk of silver, simple and strong but without elegance. Erik rather thought the brilliant multicolored tangle of the puzzle ring a better fit to Charles's personality, but the silver did have a bright purity that pleased.
It struck him that Charles's hand, almost elfin compared to his own, was nevertheless stronger and more callused than he expected. The man had been a soldier, after all, and the operation of his wheelchair doubtless kept up the muscular development gained on the battlefield. Small but strong, work-roughened yet lively and smooth in motion, and warm, so warm... Metal-song still ran effervescent in his veins, and something hotter and sweeter fluttered in its wake, something that he would not indulge, he would not.
With difficulty, Erik released Charles's hand, and turned his attention to finding a finger on his own long, bony hand that the puzzle-ring would fit.
"Thank you," Charles said, and perhaps it was only in Erik's mind that his voice was hoarse at first, "for coming to the ball with us. I know such gatherings are not entirely to your taste."
"If we are to be partners, I must learn to move in the same circles you do."
"Partners." Charles seemed to taste the word, experimental. "An excellent term, I think. It implies a deeper intimacy, a greater stability of regard, than mere 'friend.'" More softly, he added, "I would not have us be only friends."
It was passing strange, it should indeed have been alarming, how quickly their intimacy had grown. It might have been entirely different, had they met before Shaw's death, when Erik could think of nothing but his revenge. Instead, Charles had found him when he was most uncertain of his path, and provided light, when Erik was so accustomed to darkness that he'd forgotten light's existence. It frightened him how close they had come, only hours before, to parting ways. That would not happen again. As Shaw had once been the center of all things for Erik, so now Charles would be, Charles and their shared work. The things they could accomplish together! He would not let weakness and self-doubt interfere with that again.
Aloud he said only, "Nor would I, Charles," and let Charles's smile, and the tangled song of the ring on his finger, be satisfaction enough for the moment.
The house the Xaviers kept in town was modest for their means, crowded on either side by similar households, meant only as a comfortable place to stay during the Season. The McCoy residence, Erik saw, was something else entirely, a grand family manse on a sweeping lawn, an island of their own in the midst of London. Aglow from within, with flocks of finely-dressed ladies and gentlemen swirling past the windows, it looked like the portal to another world.
"Why so grim, Mr. Lehnsherr?" Miss Darkholme said as their carriage came to a stop before the door. "You look as if you were headed into battle!"
Erik could conjure no response. He suddenly desired nothing more than to return to the house, and think no more of this gathering of shallow people with their pointlessly elaborate social regulations and their cold judgments on every infraction. As Max Eisenhardt he had learned, more or less, to navigate such events as a wealthy man's son-in-law was expected to do, but he had never learned to enjoy it. It was so purposeless, all of it, holding no opportunity of pleasure, only of exposure to ridicule. He was no dancing monkey to display himself for other's amusement. What was he doing here?
He felt a touch on his wrist, and turned to see Charles raising an eyebrow at him. "Frightened, Mr. Lehnsherr?" he asked archly. "Of mere human beings?"
Erik huffed a harsh breath, glaring, and got out of the carriage.
The interior of the house was just as glittering a spectacle as he expected, a whirl of talk and laughter and rustling fabric, beeswax candles and crystal chandeliers, garlands of flowers and ivy. Henry McCoy met them at the door with his mother and father, and Erik made it through the introductions without bolting, though he felt more ridiculous by the minute in his colorful cravat and the less-tidy hairstyle Charles had persuaded him to adopt for the occasion.
Charles and Miss Darkholme, of course, showed to magnificent advantage in the resplendent setting. Charles, dignified in his chair as a prince on a throne, was all sparkling elegance and easy charm, making Mrs. McCoy laugh with some comment about the decor, and Raven practically glowed with excitement. Candlelight nestled into the curves of her golden ringlets, and shimmered on the pearls that wound through her hair, dangled from her ears, and studded her rose-colored gown; Erik could not imagine that any gentleman in the room did not have designs on Miss Darkholme for a dance partner. For a moment he felt a very crow beside her and Charles, but he raised his chin and dismissed that thought immediately. He would not be cowed by ribbons and frippery.
"Come, Miss Darkholme, you must see the ballroom!" Henry McCoy was saying excitedly. "No one has been allowed in as yet, but the dancing will soon begin, and then I'm afraid the sight will not last long."
"Why, the sight of what?"
They all followed McCoy to the door of the ballroom, where they could see that the floor had been covered from wall to wall with drawings in white chalk – intricate patterns of flowers, vines, and delicate birds.
"Both decorative and useful," McCoy said proudly. "The chalk keeps the ladies' slippers from sliding dangerously about."
"Oh, it is lovely!" Raven exclaimed. "Who crafted the pattern? Is it from a book?"
"I based it somewhat on similar designs from a book, yes," McCoy said, blushing a bit, "but the final design was my own."
"I am not surprised, Mr. McCoy. I have seen before that your mind is capable of amazing things." In the glow of Raven's brilliant smile, McCoy seemed visibly to melt.
Erik eyed the young man in unhappy calculation. His feelings for Raven seemed sincere, as far as they went, but Erik had not been impressed with McCoy's character. Intelligence was of little worth without the courage to use it gainfully, and McCoy had shown no sign of ambition of any sort. More disturbingly, he did not seem inclined to treat his own Gift, or Miss Darkholme's, with the respect they deserved. Charles had told him somewhat of McCoy’s physical difference, and how much the young man despised it; bad enough that he should have so skewed an idea of himself, but to regard Miss Darkholme similarly — Miss Darkholme was an extraordinary creature, and Erik burned to think of her married to someone who did not appreciate that.
When Charles inevitably married, would the new Mrs. Xavier appreciate her husband's Gift? His many gifts – intelligence and courage, compassion and patience and humor... Looking around the room at all the laughing, fluttering ladies, it seemed impossible that any of them could love Charles as he deserved.
The McCoys announced the beginning of the dancing, and as one the mass of people moved into the ballroom, skirts dragging through the careful chalk lines. McCoy immediately claimed Miss Darkholme's hand for the first set, leaving Erik and Charles to loiter at the wall.
"And why are you not dancing, Mr. Lehnsherr?" Charles asked, half-smiling, his gaze following his sister's progress through the dance.
"You know full well I am acquainted with no one here but yourself and Miss Darkholme. And Mr. McCoy, for what little that is worth."
Charles laughed. "You do not approve of Mr. McCoy. I do see why, but I wish you might understand, Erik, that not everyone has the happy talent of holding themselves in high esteem, when the world gives them every reason to do the opposite. In fact I know you understand some part of that." Before Erik could react, he continued, "But I can introduce you to almost anyone here, you know. Only indicate to me which ladies catch your fancy, and I will be happy to expedite your journey to the dance floor."
"Do not trouble yourself. I assure you, I have no desire to dance."
"Now that I cannot countenance. It would be the height of bad manners for you to attend a ball and spend every minute of it haunting the wallpaper. It will not do."
I would dance with you. Erik barely kept from saying the words, entirely shocked at himself. The idea was absurd from every angle – Charles could not dance at all, of course, and even if he could, the concept of two men dancing was fit only for slapstick theater. Yet, for a moment at least, it had not seemed amusing at all – had seemed something to long for, Charles's hand in his, eyes sparkling as they circled each other, stepped forward and back again, attuned to each other like magnets.
That was his deviant impulses at work again, and he could not afford to indulge them, now or ever. He could give himself credit for this much, at least – that they arose from a desire to show affection to a dear friend, rather than mere corrupted lust. Such feelings were nevertheless both improper and dangerous. He quashed them.
For some minutes he and Charles watched the dancing in silence, Erik tugging half-consciously at his unfamiliar finery. The gloves, especially, were proving a trial; Erik was not accustomed to being unable to feel his surroundings directly. He supposed he felt toward gloves much as Charles must toward his hat; a necessary social evil, to be discarded at the first opportunity.
"I used to love a ball more than anything," Charles said dreamily, his eyes never leaving the dancers. "Only see how lovely everyone is! How they move, and smile, and talk... There are so many dances going on in this room, you know." He tapped his temple. "Between friends and enemies, lovers and potential lovers and former lovers... It's dizzying."
"You were born to it," Erik said. "Both your Gift and your person. I was not, recall; in your company I am accepted as a gentleman, but you know my parents were servants to a man of business. Disreputable business, at that."
"Good heavens, Erik, don't say that aloud in a crowded room!"
"My point is that I was never trained for these situations. Shaw saw to my... education... as he saw fit. He was not overly concerned with the social niceties."
Charles raised an eyebrow. "Is this your way of communicating that you do not know how to dance?"
"No, only that I know very few dances, and them not well."
"You shall just have to choose your moment carefully, then." By which, apparently, he meant that the moment would be chosen for him; when Miss Darkholme returned from the first set on McCoy's arm, Charles sent her straight back out again on Erik's, to the tune of a country dance that was, luckily, in his limited repertoire.
Dancing with Miss Darkholme proved unexpectedly pleasant. Her Gift gave her a grace and – he suspected – an ability to adapt to his missteps that could not but charm. Exertion and high spirits had made her bright-eyed and becomingly flushed. He couldn't help wondering if that flush had arisen naturally, or if she must think to do such things on purpose, when going about disguised. Her true form had been startling for a moment, when he first saw it, but a moment only. Erik found her dramatic coloring and texture intriguing, and in truth much more attractive than her blandly beautiful facade.
Of course, Raven received only what attention he could spare from the movements of the dance. It was coming back to him better than he'd feared, but still it took a certain amount of concentration, to focus on the pace of the music and remember when to step and turn and step again. Under Shaw's tutelage he had been a stiff and disinterested dancer; here, under the easy smiles of the Xaviers, surrounded by light and laughter and no one who would throw knives at him for making mistakes, Erik was surprised to find himself actually enjoying the process. He felt his movements grow more confident and lively, until by the end of the set he was almost sorry to stop.
"That was excellent, Erik!" Charles said on their triumphant return. "All that worry over nothing. Was he not in fine form, Raven? You were as well, of course."
"Yes, Charles," Raven said with a merry roll of her eyes, but had no time to say more before she was whisked off to the dance floor again by a friend of McCoy's. They were accosted, then, by acquaintances of Charles's – introductions had to be made, and small talk attempted, for some minutes.
"But truly, Erik, you looked very fine indeed," Charles said when they finally moved off again. "Do have a drink, you look as though you could use it."
Erik sipped his ratafia punch obediently. Charles was already deep into a glass, and it was not a particularly weak mix. At Erik's disapproving look, he set his glass reluctantly aside.
"I wish you could have seen yourself," Charles said. "Suffice to say, my friend, that many a young lady took notice of what an elegant figure you presented."
"I wish I could see you dance." The impulsive words were mortifying once they left his mouth, but Charles seemed not to mind, reacting only with a wistful shrug. Emboldened, Erik continued. "You defeated me soundly in a swordfight – surely you could do something similar with dancing? Not here, of course, but back at home."
"Why Erik, are you asking me to dance?"
The words were clearly a joke, but Erik nevertheless felt a scarlet blush take his face. He hid it behind a withering look and a hard swallow of punch.
"Well, it does me no good here, in any case," Charles sighed. "You shall have to dance for us both, Erik. I quite depend upon you to enable my vicarious experiences. We must find you another partner. Look, there are the Dashwood sisters, they will do nicely!"
Before Erik could protest, Charles was wheeling himself along the wall toward a small gathering of people. Erik followed perforce, and suffered the curiosity and polite nonsense of Charles's friends, none of whom were named Dashwood but rather Brandon and Ferrars. At Charles's silent urging he asked one of the ladies to dance, and then the other, and was not, perhaps, entirely displeased to do so.
Whoever he accompanied on the dance floor, however, it was Charles he caught himself looking back at continually. And however often he did, it was always to find Charles meeting his gaze, while he emptied glass after glass of ratafia.
Erik debated with himself how to define the expression in Charles's eyes on these occasions. There was pleasure there, certainly, wistful and bittersweet. Admiration of some sort – appreciation for the spectacle of the ball, perhaps. And something darker, something with a strange hungry edge, not quite angry, a look that was more often directed at Erik's dance partner than at himself.
He missed a step, and nearly caused a disastrous smash-up among his fellow dancers, when he finally realized it was jealousy.
After dancing five sets with no more pause than a few swallows of punch, Raven was forced to admit to herself that sitting out a dance or two was a necessity. Trying not to be so unattractive as to pant, she took a seat beside her brother, and snaked his punch-glass out of his hand for her own use.
"Well, sister, I hope you have been enjoying yourself?" Charles said dryly. "And that you are not about to collapse in a dead faint?"
"Yes and no, respectively," Raven replied. "What, are you all alone? I did not expect Mr. Lehnsherr to abandon you!"
"I have been encouraging Mr. Lehnsherr to dance, as we are, in fact, at a ball. And I have only been alone these last moments — you just missed Mr. and Mrs. Bennet."
"Oh, thank God." She drained the glass of ratafia and set it aside in favor of opening her fan. "Do you know, I have just had the most awkward dance of my life."
"What, with Mr. McCoy the elder? I thought I saw him ask you."
"Yes. I have never felt more like a brood mare being inspected at auction."
"The old fellow means well. He is only concerned for his son's happiness. Speaking of which, I am surprised to find Hank not already at your elbow."
"Well, as a gentleman and especially as the hosts' son, he must divert his attention to the other young ladies on occasion," Raven sighed. "I believe he is dancing with... yes, there, some young Bennet or other." She watched Mr. McCoy make his stiff, deliberate way through the moves of the cotillion, and heaved a sigh. He was a dreadful dancer, poor man. His natural awkwardness combined with the constant discomfort of his feet contrived to doom the endeavor before it began.
Mr. Lehnsherr, on the other hand... She caught sight of him by accident as she scanned the dance floor, and could hardly glance away again. Mr. Lehnsherr moved with spirit and grace, his occasional smiles flaring like sunlight escaping a cloud. And could a man really have such a waist? She would hardly be surprised to wrap her hands around it and feel her fingers meet on the other side.
"Aha," she murmured to her brother. "I see precisely why you have been encouraging Mr. Lehnsherr to dance."
Charles did not laugh or blush as she expected; his smile was brief and absent-minded, his eyes never leaving Erik. Watching him, Raven thought, like a starving man through a baker’s window.
When the dance ended, and Mr. Lehnsherr and Mr. McCoy approached, Raven was quite distracted from her own beau by the look that passed between Mr. Lehnsherr and her brother. They said nothing, but held eye contact with an intensity and longing that she was frankly alarmed to observe in so public a place. More distressing still, their shared gaze was not by any means a purely happy one. Charles looked so vulnerable, and Erik so tormented, the very air between them seemed to tremble in sympathetic agony.
But Mr. McCoy was addressing her, she realized belatedly. With great effort, she turned her attention to him.
“—have set torches here and there, in case we lose the moonlight, so it is entirely ready to be explored!”
“I beg your pardon, I could not hear you over the music,” Raven said. “What is to be explored?”
“The hedge maze!” Mr. McCoy looked even more excited by this prospect than he had been about the chalked floor. “It has been a year in preparation — these things do not grow overnight, of course — and tonight is its debut. One might even call it the guest of honor, for presenting it before the end of the Season is the main reason Father consented to this ball.” He took her hand. “Miss Darkholme, I do hope you will walk it with me.”
Raven smiled; a heart would have to be considerably harder than hers to resist the nervous pleading in his eyes. “Of course I will, Mr. McCoy.”
“Yes, let’s all go,” Charles said, his gaze still locked on Mr. Lehnsherr. “I would welcome the fresh air.”
Raven fought to keep a scowl from her face. Slipping off alone with one’s beau was some three-quarters of the purpose of a hedge maze, and it was not like her brother to interfere.
He redeemed himself quickly, however, once they actually reached the mouth of the maze, steering himself and Mr. Lehnsherr down the right-hand path as soon as Mr. McCoy made a movement toward the left. It was not quite correct to say that she and Mr. McCoy were alone, even then — she could hear voices somewhere ahead of them, and footsteps some way behind — but once they rounded a corner, they were out of all direct supervision. Raven smiled, running a gloved hand over the surface of the hedge that penned them in. On either side, thickly-woven walls of boxwood rose high enough to block even Mr. Lehnsherr’s tall frame from view. Moonlight turned all to silver and shadows, except where the torches cast circles of warmer light, their flames whipping like flags in the breeze. It was a warm night, but sufficiently cooler than the crowded ballroom to be refreshing.
“You like it?” Mr. McCoy asked, watching her expression eagerly.
“I do. Does it meet your approval, Mr. McCoy? I know you have long labored to bring it into being. I had not realized you were so close to success!”
“There are still improvements to be made, but they are minor enough. In truth, the most difficult decision was how to occupy the center of the maze. One must, of course, provide something diverting enough to make the journey worthwhile.”
“And what did you decide upon?”
“I will show you.” He gestured at a new path that had opened to their right. “Having designed the maze, I did of course memorize the route directly to the center.”
Raven laughed. “Yet following it does rather negate the purpose of having the maze at all, does it not?”
“Perhaps it does,” he said sheepishly. “Yet I would have us make the center before anyone else has the chance of finding their way to it. I would have you see it first.”
Could any girl have been other than touched and flattered? Additionally, the telltale sounds of other folk in the maze were growing louder. If she truly sought privacy with Mr. McCoy, it would be best to take the route no one else would know.
“Very well, sir,” she said, threading her arm through his, “lead on.”
He grew more anxious the longer they walked, lapsing into his usual nervous babble, this time on the various difficulties and pleasures of maze-making. Raven felt her own nerves rise in response. There was surely a finite list of things that might put Mr. McCoy in this state.
"Will he ask for my hand?" she had asked Irene.
"Yes. But that is nothing you do not already know."
"Should I accept him?"
"You stand at a crossroads. Which path you should choose depends entirely on which destination you wish to reach."
She wished desperately for Irene’s company now, her warm care and guidance. And that was surely madness, for her to feel so intimate a connection to a woman she had spoken with but once, to hold such trust and affection for her so quickly. But it had been much the same for herself and Charles, had it not? They had met, and perceived each other’s hearts — the hungry girl with nothing, the lonely boy with so much and none to give it to — and been connected at the deepest level from that moment on. Charles and Erik’s meeting seemed to have followed a similar pattern, and though it remained to be seen how that story would end, at least Charles could not accuse her of any imprudence he had not committed himself.
Raven forced her mind to return to the present moment, where Irene was not, and Mr. McCoy was. He was discussing the benches and statuary placed periodically through the maze, to provide interest and opportunities to rest.
Rest, she thought, fighting not to roll her eyes. Yes, I am sure that is exactly what the benches will be mainly used for. And here was Mr. McCoy, alone with a beautiful girl (she did not hesitate to call her false face beautiful, it had been designed exactly so) that he professed to hold in high regard, and all he could think to do was talk about statuary.
Though she was not entirely certain she would prefer him to do otherwise.
At length, the path before them opened onto a wide space, a flood of moonlight filled with the tinkle of falling water. The center of the maze.
There were benches, and beds of flowers, and a few trees that would grow to offer shade, in time. But the centerpiece was clearly the fountain, a many-tiered wonder that glittered and shone in the moonlight. Water fell in curtains here, in thin streams like icicles there, spouted from the mouths of lions and dragons and fish. It was astonishing.
“You designed this as well, didn’t you?” Raven said, looking from Mr. McCoy’s anxious, hopeful expression to the fountain and back. “It’s amazing, Mr. McCoy! It is a true accomplishment.”
Mr. McCoy beamed, and very likely blushed, though the night was dark enough to hide it. “Won’t you sit down?” He gestured at the low wall around the fountain, and Raven obediently sat. Her palms felt suddenly clammy, and she was glad of her gloves.
Mr. McCoy sat beside her and hesitantly took her hand. “Miss Darkholme, I… I feel we have grown to know each other very well, these last several months. I think… I certainly hope you are aware of how high an opinion I hold of you.”
Raven’s reply was entirely true, yet it tasted strangely guilty as it left her dry mouth. “I have grown very fond of you as well, Mr. McCoy.”
“I hope you will call me Hank,” he said softly, “as all those nearest my heart call me.”
She could only manage a nod.
“Miss Darkholme, before I met you, I had so little hope of finding a companion with whom I could share a true understanding. I hardly dared imagine that my secret could be entrusted to anyone, much less that I might find a lady who shared it. Someone with whom I could build a life as proper and normal as anyone’s, with no shame between us.”
“Hank.” She returned the clasp of his hand, took his other hand as well. “Hank, must your life be always proper and normal? Must you and I spend our lives in hiding? No shame between us, you say, but I say there should be no shame for us anywhere. You try — we all try — so hard to abide by the rules of society, to pretend to be like them, when it is they who should aspire to be like us!"
Hank gave a shocked sort of laugh. "Like us? With blue skin or the feet of some malformed beast? No, Miss Darkholme, no one will ever want to be like us. I cannot expect anyone to aspire to freakishness."
Stung, Raven let go of his hands. "You profess to hold me in high regard, and a breath later I am a freak." She stood, but had taken only a step or two away when Hank took hold of her wrist, turned her to face him.
"Raven, wait! Raven..." He set gentle hands on either side of her face. "Raven, I beg you not to misunderstand me. You are beautiful in every way that matters." He hesitated, then lurched forward and kissed her.
She could not call the kiss unpleasant. There was nothing about it that disgusted. She could call it... comfortable, she supposed. No more or less than the warmth of walking arm in arm. Perhaps it was unfair to be disappointed, but she could not help remembering the fluttering excitement of flirting with the anonymous girl at the carnival, and the sweet curve of Irene's hip under her palm as they stood beneath the fireworks.
Tonight, Irene had said, a girl's blush moved you more than a dozen kisses from Mr. McCoy ever could. And before that, You have the love of people who do not understand you.
When the kiss ended, Raven found herself entirely unable to meet Mr. McCoy's eyes.
"Miss Darkholme?" he whispered at last, all agonized uncertainty.
She took his hand, to show she was not angry, but still she did not look up. "I think we should return to the party, Mr. McCoy."
"I see," he said, tight-voiced. "Of course."
He took her arm, and in painful silence they walked back through the maze.
The paths of the maze were lined with shredded tree bark, thank heavens, rather than the equally-popular sand or gravel. Charles was able to move his chair along fairly smoothly, though he suspected Erik more than once of easing the wheels over a rough patch.
They walked in silence, choosing turns at random. Erik at one point tore his gloves off, radiating muted frustration, and Charles followed suit. The inevitable dirt of his wheels cost him gloves by the barrel-full; Raven had been good enough to buy him a fresh pair during her own shopping, and it would be a shame to sully them unnecessarily. Gloveless and hatless, then, how improper; he had somewhat deliberately forgotten his hat on the way out the door, but Erik's was firmly in place. Everything about Erik was firmly in place just now, his lips compressed and gaze locked straight ahead. The only hint of agitation was the copper penny Erik kept in the air, doing increasingly elaborate acrobatics above and around his hand.
Charles debated a dozen different things to say, ranging from the oblique to the blatant. Surely the time had come to say something. Their friendship was a solid thing now, a foundation of shared purpose that could be built on, and after the way Erik had looked at him in the ballroom, aching and burning and desperately uncertain — surely neither of them could continue to ignore—
"I fail to see the point of a maze," Erik said irritably. "How does one enjoy being lost? Are your friends in such despair to fill their time that they adopt hardships for amusement?"
Well. Apparently one of them could continue to ignore. Charles smiled gently. "Some people like to enjoy a journey, without being concerned about the destination. I know you are not one of them, but you must not deny others their harmless pleasures."
"I might expect to hear nothing less from a self-confessed epicurean. Yet what is there to enjoy in this journey? Every path looks the same."
"That is not quite true. Did you not see the sun-dial we passed some minutes back?"
"Yes, a sun-dial, excellent entertainment for eleven o'clock at night."
Charles chuckled. "Well, look there. Just past that torch, there is some manner of statue. That may prove more to your taste." He turned his chair down the branching path where a bench and a flickering torch stood before the statue, and Erik followed.
They were quite close before they could make out the details of the statue. It was a young man with a blindfold, wings spread wide, a bow pulled back with an arrow ready to fly.
Cupid. How subtle.
Erik made a scoffing noise, and took a seat on the bench — facing away from the statue and toward Charles, their knees nearly touching.
"It's quite a well-done figure, I think," Charles said.
"Sentimental and silly," muttered Erik. He took off his hat to fan himself with; the night was rather warm.
“Art, silly? Music and poetry as well, I suppose?”
“Oh, don’t get in a huff, Charles.”
“It is the ‘silly and sentimental’ things, you know, that make life worth living at all. The things that elevate our lives from a mere animal hunt for sustenance, that give it meaning beyond the fear of death. Art and music, dancing and kissing and the laughter of children…” The name Anya blazed in Erik’s mind, and Charles shut his mouth, too late. After a moment, hesitant, he touched Erik’s arm. “That’s what the school is about, you know. Trying to ensure happiness and security for the next generation. There is nothing in it for us, in a practical sense; the rewards will not likely be reaped until we are dead. Does that make it silly and sentimental?” You can still have children, he wanted to say, and did not dare. I cannot bring your daughter back to you, but I can bring you more. We could have a hundred daughters and sons, together.
Erik did not reply, only continued to weave his copper penny back and forth through his fingers.
Another party of maze-walkers could be heard passing on the other side of the wall of boxwoods, with much laughter and talking and scuffing of feet. Charles paid them little mind until he heard his own name on a young woman's lips.
"—Mr. Xavier would even come to a ball is quite beyond me! He only makes people uncomfortable."
"Oh, really, Lydia!" said another girl. "Mr. Xavier has every right to take pleasure in a ball if he so chooses. And there's no reason his presence should be uncomfortable for anyone. It is not as though amputation were catching. The man's a war hero, show respect! You would have felt quite differently, I imagine, if you’d seen him in his regimentals.”
"But it is ever so unsettling to see the way his leg just stops like that. Gives me a chill every time. Oh, I admit it's a bleeding shame, the poor man, I do pity him exceedingly! But I simply can't imagine why he should wish to attend a ball. To have everyone stare at him and try not to let on how much they wish he had stayed at home! Do you know," she let out a scandalized giggle, "he looked right at me not an hour ago — I was terrified he was going to ask me to dance! What in the world would I have said?"
"He is not likely to do that, I should think," the second girl said frostily. "But it shows a distinct lack of character for you to disdain him so. I would dance with him in a trice, if it were possible to do so."
"Indeed," piped in a third, "he is not bad looking, missing leg or no, and very rich. I wouldn't sneer at him if his eye landed on me."
"Well, no amount of money could persuade me to marry a cripple! To be more nursemaid than wife — and only imagine going to bed with such a grotesque—"
"Hold your tongue, Lydia!" the second girl snapped.
Lydia only laughed, and the group rounded a bend and passed beyond easy audibility.
Charles had thought he was beyond being stung by the careless words of the unintelligent. It should not have mattered to him one whit if a trifling goose of a girl considered him too grotesque to marry even for his money. The defense of her more sensible friends should have warmed him enough to compensate, and it did, he swore it did. Yet somehow he found himself clutching the armrests of his chair hard enough to turn his nails white, his cheeks scalding even as the rest of him felt deathly cold.
Erik, he realized, was actually trembling, rage coming off him in black waves. The copper penny was a mere shapeless lump on the bench beside him.
"Fool girl," he said hoarsely. "Fools, all of them, every one that doesn't see — you're better than any of them, Charles, you're — brilliant and beautiful and the best, kindest man I've ever—"
Oh. The world seemed briefly to halt, everything suspended in halos of light. The words were a splendid indication on their own, but there was no mistaking the fierce, strong, angel-bright emotion pouring off of Erik in all directions. Charles had suspected, of course, hoped — but to see it proved, feel the warmth of it settle into an empty place he hadn’t realized he had, was surely near to heaven itself. Oh. He actually is in love with me.
He slid a hand around the back of Erik's neck and pulled him down to press their lips together.
For a moment Erik was shocked still, and Charles feared he'd made a terrible mistake. But then he surged into the kiss, hungrily, desperately, fisting both hands in Charles's shirtfront to pull him closer and then, when that failed to provide satisfactory contact, winding one arm around his back and hooking the other hand into his hair, angling Charles's mouth to better deepen the kiss. The force of it drew a moan of pleasure from Charles's throat, and he threw wide the gates of his Gift, tangling his mind with Erik's. Erik welcomed him, clung to him, devoured him, and Charles gave back everything he received laced with his own half-crazed desire and joy and love, cradling Erik's face in his hands.
It had never been like this, never. Some few of his lovers had known of his Gift, but they had not reacted well to its use at times like this, to having the security of their thoughts compromised in such a vulnerable moment. But Erik wanted it, and Charles could scarcely endure how good it felt to be so intimately entangled with someone, with Erik whom he loved—
A shriek of laughter — probably Lydia's — echoed through the maze, startling them apart. Barely apart — not a full inch — but it was enough. Enough that even as they breathed each other's breath, lips brushing with each minuscule movement, even as his fingers traced unsteadily down Charles's cheek, some forgotten part of Erik's mind woke to lucidity.
Intertwined as they were, Charles was privy to every nuance of the horrified realization, rejection and terror that flooded Erik's mind. He pushed back from Charles, stumbled away gasping and staring.
"Erik," Charles whispered. Don't do this don't do this please don't "Erik, please—"
Erik flinched from the words as if from a blow, but his voice was hard. "No, Charles. I don't know what this... Whatever it is you expect from me, you won't have it." Charles could see Erik's old friend, anger, rising to his defense, sheltering him from any exposure to his true feelings. It made him want to scream. "We have been friends and it pains me to hurt you. But no. This cannot happen."
"Erik..." Charles reached out, his fingers brushing Erik's sleeve.
Erik jerked away with a snarl. "Don't touch me!"
Now it was Charles's turn to gasp as if struck.
"Don't ever touch me again," Erik said, and walked off into the darkness, leaving Charles alone with the statue of Cupid.
When Raven and Hank stepped back into the ballroom, the last dance before their midnight supper was just beginning, and to Raven's surprise, Hank held out his hand. Their disagreement had not irrevocably offended him, then; the question he had not quite asked might yet be asked after all, and she might then be able to answer, one way or the other.
She stepped into the dance with him willingly, and tried to persuade herself to smile.
The dance was a lively one, with skipping steps and very little time to catch one's breath, and Raven could have wished for a more leisurely allemande. She was growing tired, her limbs heavy and slow, and all her nerves were frayed. With a feather-brush of panic she noted how tight and fragile her skin felt, aching to relax back into its natural state. That would not do at all. She breathed deeply, tried to calm and focus her mind as Charles had taught her so many years ago, when she was first learning to maintain a facade for long periods. Letting the facade collapse was unthinkable.
Speaking of her brother, there was no sign of him or Mr. Lehnsherr, but that was not surprising. Her jaunt into the maze with Mr. McCoy had been quite short, as such things went. She hoped Charles's luck was running better than hers, so far as hedge-maze trysting went.
Midway through the dance, something about the light of the room seemed to shift. Raven spared little thought for it, wondering absently if a candelabra had been blown out, or moved to another corner. One of the other ladies in the dance, as Raven moved down the line, frowned up at the ceiling — and then screamed. A scream joined by a dozen others, a hundred others, as the chandelier hanging in the center of the room came crashing down.
Raven found herself on the other side of the room, with no memory of moving, and no memory of the scream that still tingled in her throat. She stood half-crushed against the wall by other ball-goers as terrified as she, her hand strangle-tight around someone's arm — the girl who had been nearest her in the line of dancers. The center of the floor was pure wreckage — floorboards, candles, crystal pendants, all broken and scattered. The wrought-iron frame of the chandelier itself seemed more twisted than broken — surely that did not make sense. As Raven watched, nerves still singing in terror, some of the fallen candles threatened to set fire to the floorboards, and several flustered gentlemen stepped forward to stamp or throw their coats on the budding flames.
Nervous laughter began to bloom here and there in the room, as it grew clear that no one had been hurt. Raven let out an unsteady breath, and forced herself to release the stranger's arm with a murmured "beg your pardon."
The girl turned to look at her, a smile half-formed on her lips, then gave a violent jerk and covered her mouth. Suddenly cold all over, Raven looked down at her arm.
All the people nearest her, she realized, were backing away with wide eyes. Change back, she had to change back, she must do it immediately — but the inside of her head felt like the chandelier now, everything broken and knocked from its place, and she could not get the proper grip on her Gift. Scales fluttered across her skin, but left no change in their wake. That sight proved too much for one of the nearby ladies, who screamed and fell over in a swoon.
The screams spread quickly then, ladies clutching their cross necklaces and gentlemen their walking-sticks.
"Look at her!"
"Did she do this?"
"Get her away!"
Mr. McCoy's wide blue eyes met hers over the heads of the panicking crowd, only a few steps away. "Hank," she said, voice raspy with fear, and stepped toward him, hand outstretched. He flinched, and stepped back.
Raven felt very precisely as if she had been stabbed. She let her hand fall, and swayed on her feet, something grey creeping at the edges of her vision. Was she going to faint?
"Hush, all of you! For shame," snapped a woman's voice, clear and crisp through the fog of hysteria in the room. Sound and movement came to a ragged halt as Elinor Ferrars pushed her way through the crowd and put an arm around Raven's shoulders. "Miss Darkholme, dear," she said, eyeing her with sharp concern, "I think you should sit down. Will you come with me to the dressing room?"
Raven nodded, and let herself be led from the ballroom.
Mrs. McCoy's dressing room was very comfortable, Raven supposed. Luxuriant, even, with several well-cushioned chairs and an Oriental screen. Raven found herself examining the floral pattern of the sofa she sat on with the most minute attention. It was preferable to going into hysterics.
"Here, Raven, do have some water," Elinor said, sitting with her arm around Raven's shoulders and pressing a cup into her hand. "Come now, I’m sure it will do you good." Despite the comforting words, her expression was a study in uncertainty and dismay. They both knew that in the eyes of Society, Raven had just ceased to exist, and Elinor herself would have to move carefully to maintain respectability.
Raven sipped the water, managed somehow to get it down her throat without choking. "Thank you," she whispered. "Thank you so much, Elinor. Oh, Elinor, what am I to do?" She burst into tears, wracking painful sobs that she could not control, and Elinor held her and stroked her hair, murmuring reassuring nonsense, until the storm passed.
"Do you change color, then, when you are surprised or overwrought?" Elinor asked, when Raven could take three breaths together without dissolving. "Is that your... irregularity?"
"Not quite. What you see now is my true appearance."
This startled Elinor, but she pulled away only far enough to see her better, eyes traveling over skin and hair and eyes with curiosity and contemplation. "Has it always been so?"
"Yes. Many Unnaturals do not show their true natures until childhood's end, but I have been thus since my birth. Able to take any appearance I pleased, but always this underneath."
"Oh, my dear Raven. I am so sorry." Elinor embraced her again. "Would you like me to fetch your brother?"
"Please," Raven said hoarsely. "He went into the maze, I do not know where he is now." If only Charles had been there...
"I will find him. Stay here and rest." She kissed Raven's forehead and went out the door.
Raven had hardly been alone two minutes, once again memorizing the floral pattern of the sofa, when there was a knock at the door.
"It's Mr. Lehnsherr, Miss Darkholme," said a muffled voice. "If you can abide company, I would offer mine."
Raven instinctively reached for her Gift, to put on her usual face, but to what end? "Come in," she said.
Mr. Lehnsherr looked remarkably ill, his face drawn and eyes shadowed. "I have just come inside," he said, "and heard what transpired — it is the talk of the party, of course." His drawn look intensified. "Miss Darkholme, the blame for this lies at my door. When my Gift first manifested it was common for me to lose control of it when emotionally agitated, but it has been many years now since... I swear it was the purest accident. I pray you may forgive me."
So the chandelier had been twisted rather than broken. Though it stung mightily to think this incident could have been avoided, Raven forced herself to say, "Of course I forgive you. There is no point in nursing a grudge over an accident." What, she wondered, had agitated Mr. Lehnsherr enough to wrench a chandelier from the ceiling?
"You are not hurt, I hope?" he said. "Did anyone bother to ask?"
"I am not hurt, and Mrs. Ferrars has looked to my every need, I assure you. She has been extraordinarily kind." What a world they lived in, where escorting a friend in distress to a private area and giving her a glass of water was extraordinary kindness.
"One woman out of a hundred people at least..." Seething, Mr. Lehnsherr took a seat beside her, made a gentle, questioning motion toward Raven's hand; she let him take hold of it. "Where has this Mrs. Ferrars gone?"
"To find Charles for me. I am surprised he was not with you."
The lines in Mr. Lehnsherr's face deepened, and he said only, "No, he is not with me."
Something had gone badly wrong between them, then, and so soon after their last quarrel. Oh, Charles. I think we ought to have stayed at home tonight. "Well, I am glad to have you here, Mr. Lehnsherr. To have a friend at my side at such a moment means a great deal."
"I could do nothing else, surely. It makes my blood boil to hear them out there, speaking of you as if... but I would be no friend to repeat it to you. Let me only assure you, Raven, that despite the hissings of ignorant tongues, you are an exquisite creature. You are more beautiful in this moment than ever before, and I for one am glad to see you stripped of disguises."
The words touched her so deeply, and struck so close to what she had wanted so badly to hear from Mr. McCoy, that she felt her fragile composure crumbling again. She leaned trembling against Mr. Lehnsherr's shoulder, felt his arms wrap warm around her, then one hand tipping her chin up — and his lips on hers.
Despite her considerable surprise, and despite her confused and guilty thoughts of Charles, she found herself returning the kiss earnestly. It was a much better kiss than Hank's, whether from the confidence of experience — Erik was a widower, was he not? — or — oh, why was she thinking about that, why was she thinking at all, when this was so sweet and warm and Erik thought she was beautiful...
At length, Mr. Lehnsherr let the kiss trail away, pulling back to move a lock of hair behind her ear. "Raven," he murmured, "I know this may seem sudden to you, but I have been very favorably impressed with you since the moment we met. I think perhaps we would get on well together."
Raven could only blink at him for a moment. "But... Charles..."
"Your brother does not come into this." His voice was low, gruff, pained.
"I must entirely disagree! Erik," surely she could call him Erik now, "perhaps you do not — no, I am certain you must understand the depth of my brother's attachment to you."
Erik swallowed, cheeks flushing. "I cannot return it."
Raven narrowed her eyes, wondering if she should doubt her own sanity or — no, it was Erik she must doubt. More than doubt — disbelieve entirely. Which meant... "You cad," she said grimly. "You cancerous reprobate. You would use me to shield you from him and from yourself. Before Charles's eyes you would court his sister so that he cannot at any moment escape the evidence of your rejection."
"No! Raven, no, that was not my intention. I would not be deliberately cruel to him. Never." He raised a hand to her cheek. "I swear to you, Raven, I have said nothing that I did not mean absolutely. My feelings for you are sincere."
"So far as they go," Raven murmured. "I see it now — You are the one Irene spoke of. Another choice at the crossroads; the man who understands me, but does not love me." For a dizzying moment, she felt she had surely borrowed Irene's Gift; she could see what lay down this road. "I could choose to believe you — I could even choose, instead, not to mind that you are lying. I could let myself fall in love with you, and marry you... and spend my life watching you never quite look my brother in the eye, while Charles hardly looks anywhere else, and slowly drinks himself to death."
"Irene? Whatever are you talking of?" Erik asked, baffled and a little alarmed.
Raven only shook her head with a small, sad laugh. "Never mind, Erik. You are a path I cannot choose, that is all." It was a harder choice than it perhaps ought to be. She was more strongly attracted to Erik than she had admitted to herself previously, and oh, to have a husband who valued her for her Gift, rather than despite it. And it was frankly unlikely that she would ever receive another offer. But she would not build her happiness on Charles's suffering. Erik's, too — for she could not believe he didn't love Charles, and she would not be the millstone that kept him from acting on it.
Raven took in a deep breath, let it out again. "No. I reject that path. Now if you would, please, Mr. Lehnsherr, have the carriage brought 'round. I think it past time to take our leave of this ball."
Charles should not have been surprised when Erik announced he would be staying at the Club that night, but it twisted the knife that much deeper, and his throat tightened so far with unshed tears that he was light-headed from lack of breath by the time the carriage rattled away from the McCoy residence.
Raven sat silent and subdued across from him, still in her blue skin. He had offered, strenuously, to take a stab at fixing the problem, erasing the incident from the mind of every witness, but she had shaken her head.
"It's too many people, Charles, and too much time has passed. At least one party has left already, and I'm sure the tale has made it downstairs to the servants – there is no stopping it now. I do earnestly thank you for the offer, dear brother, but do not distress yourself. I am prepared to face what's transpired."
She was not the only one who would have to face it; Charles could escape suspicion of Abnormality himself, since it was well-known that he was no blood relation to Raven, but his respectability would nevertheless come under fire, particularly when he failed to throw her out into the street or even pack her quietly away to Europe. At the moment, however, he could muster no energy to care about that at all.
Charles reached for Raven's hand, and squeezed it, trying to impart a reassurance he did not feel. She squeezed back and ventured a watery smile, her teeth startling white against cerulean lips.
Neither of them spoke of Erik.
By the time they reached the townhouse, hallucinations were beginning to flicker at the edges of Charles’s vision. Nonexistent sunlight flashed on gun barrels and red regimentals, and his head ached. As soon as he was physically able, he closed himself in his room, dismissing Carson more curtly than he intended, and opened a bottle of gin.
Oh, how he wished he could pace! Once he could have dealt with his shredded nerves by walking the circuit of the room as quickly as possible, until exertion and repetition calmed his mind. Now his poor remaining leg only twitched and spasmed, denying him even the use of his crutches. In his large, thick-walled room at home, he could at least have shouted and wept without embarrassment, but here half the household would hear. So many bloody people with their constant buzz of thoughts! Charles locked his Gift down as far as he possibly could and drained the first glass of gin.
His clothes felt intent on suffocating him, and he tore at them, flinging jacket and neck-cloth and waistcoat to lie wherever they landed. Clawing thoughtlessly at his hair, he accidentally reminded himself how it had felt to have Erik's fingers there, hot and needy, pulling him closer.
"Don't ever touch me again."
He threw his glass into the fireplace, just to hear it break, and began drinking directly from the bottle.
He had not stinted himself at the ball, either, so it took less than a quarter of the bottle to have him muzzy-headed, dizzy enough to worry whether he could make it safely from chair to bed. Still the darker corners fluttered with the shadows of men and guns.
And the smell of burning flesh filled the room.
"Good evening, Anya," Charles said wearily as the child's flame-limned shape came into focus. Well, to the extent that his eyes could focus. "Your father's an idiot."
"He loves you," she said, sad and wistful.
"I know he does. I wouldn't be half this angry at him if he didn't. And I love him, too, so wretchedly." He near-choked on the realization that for all his single-minded pursuit of Erik, he'd had no idea how deep his feelings truly ran. How could he endure this? Losing a leg was nothing in comparison — losing Erik would cripple him.
"He has nightmares about you dying," Anya said. "I smooth them away so he doesn't remember."
That brought him to an unfocused sort of attention. "You mean the... the bit of you that's me can alter his memory? How very disturbing. You mustn't do that, Anya, I promised, I promised I wouldn't..."
"Not alter, just... smooth. He could remember if he tried." She cocked her head, thoughtful. "Everyone dies, you know. Everyone he loves dies."
"Oh, Erik." Charles rubbed his half-numb face. "Oh, my darling. That's a feeling I know well. It wasn't everyone, for me, but it was more than enough..." The faces ghosted through the air before him, the brothers-in-arms he had lost. So many. So many. He had not mourned his mother much, really, and his stepfather not at all, and it had left him entirely unprepared for the pain of watching so many die, feeling them die, every one a great ripping wound. English soldiers, French soldiers, cooks and medics, French civilians...
"Oh," he breathed, straightening suddenly. "Oh, you're her. I mean, you are Anya Lehnsherr — Anya Eisenhardt — but you're her, too, aren't you? That little French girl..."
The memory tried to manifest into the room, but was too muddled by pain and fear to form any coherent narrative. He saw only a pinwheeling jumble of images — blood and shattered glass, flames crawling toward a powder keg. The little beggar-girl, a silent, wide-eyed presence in the shadows that he and his regiment had been tossing bits of food — suddenly a stark silhouette against the billowing fire, before it swallowed her.
"It was the day I lost my leg," Charles murmured. "I remember so little... There are moments of perfect clarity, and then the rest... I remember trying to shout, to warn her. Everything is so disordered, but I think my leg must have been hit not long after. I can't remember why I didn't make it to her before the keg blew, but I should've, I don't know what went wrong..."
Anya smiled at him sadly. "Erik's not the only one who holds on too tightly sometimes. All of us — all of this—" she gestured at the ghosts still eddying about the room "—we're here because you won't let us go."
"How can I? Tell me how to do it!"
She shook her head. "That I cannot say. Only look at Erik, who holds so tightly to the pain of what he’s lost. He would be holding you already if his hands were not full.”
Raven watched Charles vanish into his room with a bottle of gin, a few half-formed ghosts already stalking his heels. She had thought they might sit together for a while, attempt to comfort each other, but Charles was not fit company in his current state. That would have to wait for the morrow.
Oh, how dearly she would have liked to see Irene now! Had they been at home — the townhouse was very congenial but not quite home — she might have snuck away, but it was much too far a trip from London. How much longer would the carnival stay before it moved on again? Monday, Irene had said. Three more days. And then Irene would be gone. A new and even colder blanket of despair fell over her already desolate spirits.
Then she opened her bedroom door, and found the Devil waiting at the fireplace.
She jolted, and stifled a scream only because he held his hands up in surrender and, his voice strangely accented but discernible, said, "Irene sent me."
Warily, she let out the scream as a mere breath. It was the Disappearing Devil, of course, from the carnival. With his Gift, screaming would do her no good at all should he decide to abduct her, so she might do better to hear him out. However improper his location. "I remember you, Mr... ?"
"Azazel," he said with a grin; a demon's name and surely not his real one, unless his parents had been remarkably cruel. But parents could, after all, be cruel, especially to those with a visible Abnormality.
"Mr. Azazel," she said, and curtsied. He bowed, with a gravity belied by his raised eyebrow. "Did Irene send you for a purpose, then?"
"She did. She thought you might like to speak to her tonight. I am to convey you to her side, if you like, and back again whenever you wish."
Raven's heart was racing. "Of course! Of course, I would like that extremely well." Without even thinking to change her ball-gown for something less elaborate, she put her hand in Azazel's outstretched one, and with a burst of smoke they departed the bedroom.
Raven stumbled a bit as the Persian rug underfoot was replaced by sawdust and dirt. She had expected Lady Destiny's tent, but instead she seemed to be behind the stage in one of the large show-tents. On the other side of a curtain she could hear the sounds of a crowd, cheering and gasping in wonder at some invisible feat.
"Mr. Azazel?" she said, looking about, but it seemed he was gone already.
"Welcome back," said a warm, gentle voice, and Raven, a thrill straightening her spine, turned to see Irene rising from a chair in the shadows. "Oh, Raven, darling, I am so glad you came!" She held out her arms, and Raven ran gladly into them, closing her eyes as she pressed against warm curves.
"Do you know what happened tonight?" Raven's words were muffled by Irene's shoulder. "Did you see it beforehand?"
"Somewhat. I could fairly strangle Mr. Lehnsherr, poor foolish man. I am so sorry, Raven — the probability of that chandelier falling tonight was so very slim! I would have warned you else."
"Would you?" Raven pulled back so as to see her friend's face — the sweetly curving lips and silver-white eyes, long dark hair escaping its braid. More beautiful even than she remembered. "Perhaps it is best that you did not."
"What do you mean?"
"I do not think I could have chosen this to occur..." Raven spoke slowly, only realizing her true feelings as she put words to them. "But now that it has... I do grieve it, I do recognize that I have lost much I did not wish to lose. Simultaneously, though, I feel... so very liberated. I need no longer hide. The worst has happened, I have survived it, and now I am free. I feel as if I have run a gauntlet."
"You have," Irene said, smiling as she took Raven's face in her hands. "In more ways than one, I think."
"Yes. Yes, Irene, I do believe I understand you now — what you spoke concerning the crossroads. Henry McCoy was one branch, was he not, and Mr. Lehnsherr another?"
"They were indeed." Irene's fingers stroking her cheeks trembled a bit, smiling in nervous hope. Raven thought of studying that face forever, learning all her expressions to know at a glance whether Irene were happy or sad, hurting or well. "And you have chosen against them both?"
"What option remains to you, then?"
"Well, it seems to me, dearest Irene, that a true crossroads presents three choices in how to proceed. Poor Hank was, I think, not a true branching-off at all, but the same road I had been walking, going straight onward. Erik turned off in a different direction indeed, but not one I truly wished to travel."
"Then what is your third choice?"
Raven knew, was sure she knew. But she did not say it, not yet. "I suppose I could teach at Charles's school. Be maiden aunt to a hundred or more children of the Gifted."
Irene raised an eyebrow. "You should know, I think, that the probability of your choosing to do so is considerably less than the chances were of that chandelier falling."
"Mm. And yet the chandelier did fall." Raven led Irene back to the seat she'd abandoned, and knelt next to her, rose-colored ball-gown spread in the sawdust, to lean against her knee. It felt as natural as anything she'd ever done; she could hardly imagine a better pastime than sitting at Irene's feet, listening to her warm, rich voice, earning those soft, lovely smiles that seemed to insist that Raven was special and loved. "What of your choices, Irene? Why do you choose to sit in the dark behind the stage?"
"I am serving a purpose, in fact. The acrobat who performs as we speak is very new to the job, and personally asked that I position myself so as to call for aid before it is needed, should he chance to fall." She cocked her head. "There are but three minutes left in his routine, and I do not see him falling. I believe all will be well."
"Perhaps we might enjoy the next performance from the other side of the curtain, then. Whose act is scheduled to follow?"
Raven started, but Irene only smiled at her with every sign of innocence. Raven narrowed her eyes. The smile widened.
Raven stood, and flicked her scales experimentally. She had been nearly two hours in her natural form, and the relaxation seemed to have done her quite a bit of good. She was tired, yes, but gone was the aching tightness, the feeling that her skin would soon tear away from herself. She changed to her blonde form, and back, very comfortably; adopted Irene's form, and back again, with equal ease. Irene chuckled at this, though she could not have seen it; Raven could only assume she had instead seen the odds of Raven making that choice become absolute.
Irene reached out to brush her fingers down Raven's cheek, and asked, "How would you like me to introduce you?"
The Mesmerizing Mystique made her debut at the carnival to a profusion of gasps and cheers. Claiming to be a spirit from another world, she showed herself as Maiden, Matron and Crone, as angel and devil, as every color of the rainbow. Four volunteers from the audience were shocked to have their features duplicated in exactitude; a gentleman, briefly blindfolded, was unable to choose between Mystique and his own lovely wife, and a lady likewise unable to detect her husband. Mystique allowed a child to mount the stage and touch her outstretched hand, blue and scaly — and bent to give him a kiss when he stumblingly asked her to marry him.
By the end of the show, Raven was exhausted indeed, but felt it only distantly through the white light of exhilaration that seemed to fill her body.
"Irene! Oh, Irene, I could surely do it every night!" she said, spinning and dancing as they walked through the darkening carnival. Dawn was only an hour or two distant, and on all sides workers were putting out torches and closing up tents. "I cannot imagine anything better!"
"It would not always be so grand," Irene warned. "Anything done often enough becomes a chore, and it is not uncommon to have someone unpleasant in the crowd."
"I know you are right, and yet — and yet to even think of doing anything else! To think of being some dull Mrs. McCoy in a morning dress! Or a schoolmistress in my brother's house... Pray do not mistake me, I am ever so glad of Charles's school and what it could be. Only I do not know if my temperament could stand it, not now..."
Irene pressed her hand. "I understand you perfectly, of course. For all the disadvantages of this nomadic life, I would never trade it."
They stood now at the door of Irene's purple tent. "Is this where you sleep?"
"Yes, in a section to the back of it."
They were both silent a long moment. Irene had not let go of her hand.
"If Mr. Azazel can have me home in an eyeblink," Raven said at last, hesitantly, "then I... not meaning to presume, but I... do not see why that eyeblink cannot take place just as well in the morning."
"Nor I," said Irene, hand tightening. "If you wish to stay."
Raven swallowed, watching the soft curve of Irene's lips, the night breeze playing in the loose dark strands of her hair. "I do wish to stay."
Irene’s face lit, breath leaving her in a trembling laugh, and with a rustle of silk she leaned close to brush a kiss across Raven’s cheek, brief but startlingly warm. “Come, then.”
She led Raven inside the tent, through heavy curtains to a bedroom where trunks, beads and a cushion-piled bed were faint ghosts in the moonlight through the seams in the canvas wall. The darkness was warm and sweet-scented as Irene's hair.
"Will you unbutton me?" Irene asked, low and soft, and Raven did, her hands unsteady and fumbling. Irene turned and did the same to her, running warm fingers down her back. Even exhausted as it was by her night's efforts, Raven's skin seemed to chase after the touch.
Leaving their gowns heaped on the floor, they crawled into the bed, and lay together beneath the covers, not quite touching.
"It's you," Raven said. "The other choice at the crossroads. It's you."
"Yes," Irene whispered, running a light hand down Raven's cheek, shoulder, ribs. "Oh, Raven. For years I've waited to see what choice you would make."
"Here is my choice," Raven said, and pressed their lips together.
Erik's room at the Hellfire Club was extremely comfortable. The mattress was excellent, the furniture was all of the finest quality, the fireplace didn't smoke. He had slept in many a worse place without complaint. There was no logical reason for him to lie awake hour after hour, his brain an ourobouros of circling thoughts.
He had done the right thing, the only thing. Charles was... was precious to him, and rightly so, but those emotions had to be kept within appropriate bounds. To do otherwise was not only unnatural, in the true sense of the word, but it could not — it could never lead anywhere good.
Raven had been right to reject him, as well, for many reasons. In this cooler moment, he could admit he did not love her as she deserved. He had turned to her out of panic, less calculated but just as vile as she had accused him. He would never marry again; it could never be more than a sham now. It was natural to long for the peace of home and family, but that was no longer an option for him. Perhaps it never had been. He would dedicate his life to the betterment of his people, and that would be enough.
Why in the devil's name had Charles done such a foolish thing as to kiss him? Had he infected the man so badly with his own shameful desires? If that were the case, the harshness of his rejection had surely been unjust, in response to a problem of his own causing.
But, very quietly, Erik admitted that he did not believe Charles was only echoing Erik’s feelings. He had never seen Charles be blown about so on the thoughts of others. And he had felt such things from Charles's Gift — Erik's breath caught, remembering. Joy and light and love twined through him and around him so warmly, far too intense and far too Charles to be mere reflections. Exquisite and beautiful and terrifying, curling in past his every defense, unstoppable.
No. He might deeply regret causing Charles pain, but it could not continue. Every cell in his body resisted the idea of laying himself open in such a way. It could not be endured.
You endured the kiss well enough, prodded some traitorous inner voice, and for a moment he was helpless against the wash of memory, skin prickling at the reminder of silky hair between his fingers, that lush beautiful mouth so perfect against his...
He tried to turn his mind to Raven, Raven for whom desire was entirely natural and healthy. But even if she had not already rejected him... it would be like pitting a candle-flame against a conflagration.
If his mind was determined to deny him sleep, he would put it to better use than this. He threw aside the bedcovers, lit the lamp, and sat at the room's table and chair in his dressing gown, sorting through the pile of papers Miss Frost had given him. They contained information on a young duke who frequented the club, and had made heavy losses at the roulette tables. Miss Frost had some excellent ideas for how he might be set to working off his debt. The possibilities were very exciting, and yet could not seem to hold his attention.
"You and I, then, to rule the world, with Raven assisting."
Ruling the world alone seemed a rather bleak prospect.
Erik immediately scolded himself for sentimentality. Achieving the goal was what mattered, not how pleasant he found the road toward it.
"Some people like to enjoy a journey, without being concerned about the destination," Charles had said. And, "It is the sentimental things that make life worth living at all."
The low lamp-light gleamed on the puzzle ring Charles had given him, and he let it float off his finger, expand into the interlocking tangle of its constituent parts — messy to the eye, a lovely and intricate pattern to his Gift. He had vowed to himself, when Charles gave him this ring, that he would not let anything part them, that Charles and their work would be the immovable center of his life.
The work, at least, remained. As for the rest... he supposed he would not be the first man to break a vow.
He brought the interlocking rings back into their places, and onto his finger. Half-consciously he pressed the ring to his lips as he went back to his bed.
((Author's Note: I magically transported a Victorian poet several decades back in time to get Raven her poem. Because that’s just how I roll.))
Azazel delivered Raven to her bedroom the next morning just in time to send her ladies-maid into hysterics. It took some effort to calm the poor girl before she brought the entire household running, but Raven managed it. She felt as though she could manage anything at all this day.
"Of course it was a very shocking thing to see, Amy, I do apologize," Raven said when the hysterics were over. "Do go and get yourself some tea, I'm sure it will do you good. I hope I do not need to impress upon you the need for your discretion?"
"None would believe me anyway, miss," Amy said, her mismatched eyes still wide. "The devil's own chaos might be nothing new around here, but the devil himself is something else again."
With her maid gone, Raven let the bedraggled remains of her ball-gown slip to the floor, and stood before the mirror in naught but her own true skin. She and Irene had explored every inch of that skin together, and she seemed still to feel traces of that glow, flickering along her nerves. The thought of trapping herself behind layers of skirts was stifling now. She entertained a brief fantasy of going down to breakfast just as she was, but that would be more scandal than it was worth. She could, at least, wear nothing while seeming to wear... A moment's thought had her outermost skin transformed into a sprigged muslin morning dress that felt the air around it as no dead fabric could do. She twirled before the mirror, watching her skin-skirt flutter and billow, and laughed like a child. How very good the world was, and everything in it!
On going downstairs, she discovered she had a letter, most unexpectedly — she did not particularly expect to hear from any of her respectable acquaintances again. But of course; it was from Marianne Brandon.
My dearest Raven,
I am very ashamed of my behavior last night. Once again, as she has so many times, my elder sister modeled for me the proper way to behave, only for me to be too overcome by my emotions to follow her lead. Please believe, my friend, that it was only surprise and confusion that kept me from coming to your aid, and not a rejection of your person. I would dearly like an opportunity to express these sentiments in person, if you will receive me.
If you will not, receive this at least: a poem that has often sustained me, when I felt crushed beneath the many conflicting disapprovals of society. I hope it may prove a comfort to you as it has me.
Ever yours in friendship,
With the letter was folded the poem in question, copied in Marianne's hand.
To Thine Own Self be True
by Pakenham Thomas Beatty
By thine own soul's law learn to live,
And if men thwart thee take no heed,
And if men hate thee have no care;
Sing thou thy song and do thy deed.
Hope thou thy hope and pray thy prayer,
And claim no crown they will not give,
Nor bays they grudge thee for thy hair.
Keep thou thy soul-worn steadfast oath,
And to thy heart be true thy heart;
What thy soul teaches learn to know,
And play out thine appointed part,
And thou shalt reap as thou shalt sow,
Nor helped nor hindered in thy growth,
To thy full stature thou shalt grow.
Fix on the future's goal thy face,
And let thy feet be lured to stray
Nowhither, but be swift to run,
And nowhere tarry by the way,
Until at last the end is won
And thou mayst look back from thy place
And see thy long day's journey done.
Raven spent some little time sitting in her morning-room, reading the letter and poem again and again, and dabbing at her eyes. Dear Marianne! Raven might have lost a great deal in last night’s incident, but between Irene’s love and those friends who were proving truest, she felt as if she had gained twice more than lost.
She was considerably startled, skin flickering reflexively to hide all trace of tears, when Carson came to her morning-room to announce the arrival of Mr. McCoy.
“I showed him to the drawing room, Miss Darkholme,” Carson said, “and sent for Mr. Xavier, but apparently he has gone out.” The subtle disapproval in his manner might have been for Charles’s unusual industry at such an hour, or for Hank’s.
“I will come sit with Mr. McCoy,” Raven said, as if it were only a polite duty, when they both knew it was she that Hank had come to see in any case. She was not sure whether to bless or curse Charles for being out, and thus unable to supervise. What in the world had brought Hank here?
When Carson showed her into the drawing room, the gentleman in question stood and bowed with all the energy of nerves, checking slightly at the sight of Raven’s natural form, but making no protest other than widened eyes. Carson showed Hank his blackest warning glare, and Hank wilted beneath it, rallying only somewhat as the butler departed.
Raven took the chair nearest Hank, in contrast to the sofa seat beside him, and gazed at him impassively. “I am not sure what you can have to say to me, Mr. McCoy. I believe last night you demonstrated once and for all your true feelings for me.”
“But I didn’t! I mean, I did — I was — but it wasn’t, I didn’t mean…” Hank gulped, wiped his palms on his trouser legs, and tried again. “Miss Darkholme, in a moment of shock I reacted as terribly as I possibly could, I turned from you in your moment of need and I am so — Raven, I am so sorry.” He took her hand; hesitantly, Raven allowed it. “Raven, can you ever forgive me?"
"I don't know, Hank." His sin against her had been only one measure darker than Marianne's, which she had forgiven as readily as thought. Yet that one measure — a kiss before a fountain, a flinch from her outstretched hand — loomed very large in Raven's vision. "I really do not know."
"I wish to marry you," Hank said, "if there is any possibility that you will still have me.”
For a long, long moment, in which Hank was clearly holding his breath, Raven only stared. "Oh, Hank,” she said at last. She permitted herself to return his hand-clasp. “Oh, Hank. You have been described to me as a dear boy, and it is true. You have many real virtues, but you are—” a coward. She would not say that to him. It would hurt him far deeper than she wished to. “This is very possibly the bravest thing you have ever done, Hank. Don’t think I fail to recognize and appreciate that. But it would not do. You could not sustain it, and it would take only a passing moment of regret from you to shatter my happiness forever, if I were so foolish as to accept you. You have proven yourself my friend, in your way, and I will not forget it. But my answer must unquestionably be no.”
Hank swallowed hard, stilled a trembling lip with visible difficulty. “I love you, Raven.”
“I believe you do. But you do it in spite of my Gift, in tolerance of it, and that is not the way I would live. Speak truth — you would wish me to hide, to wear my false skin whenever someone else might see. Would you not?”
His expression was answer enough — he had not considered that she would do otherwise. And though his cheeks colored in shame, he did not contradict her.
"There, you see?" she said gently. "It would not do."
"I'm sorry," Hank whispered, and pressed a kiss to her hand.
"I would not have you be sorry," Raven said. "I would have you be proud of your Gift, and mine. As I am. As we all should be."
Charles returned a quarter-hour after Hank's departure, wearing a bright smile over wan exhaustion. "What a morning this is, Raven! I've just been making some arrangements for the organizing of the school, but according to Mr. Carson you may have something much more exciting to report!"
"I declined Mr. McCoy's offer."
Charles stopped dead in the middle of the drawing-room, his wheels scraping against suddenly-clenched hands. "I beg your pardon?"
"You are quite correct in assuming Hank came here to offer for my hand. I declined the offer."
"But... I thought you liked Hank! More than liked..."
"I did, once. Even if he had not rather ruined his chances by his reaction to me at the ball, however, I find he has been entirely supplanted." Raven bit her lip. "There is a great deal I have not told you, Charles. Perhaps we should have breakfast brought in here where we might speak privately."
By the time she had ended the tale of Irene and the carnival, Charles was staring at her in flat shock, their breakfast plates cooling before them.
"And you," Charles managed at last, "you are... in love with this Irene?"
"Surely you, of all people, cannot be so surprised at that. Shall I present you with a list of your male lovers?"
"Of course I know such women exist, but you never... and you can hardly know her at all! And to find that you have been sneaking about, going off alone in such dangerous and improper circumstances — and lying to me all the while, when we have never had secrets—"
Raven winced at that. "I am sorry, Charles. I did not expect... things progressed so quickly. As they continue to do. I have two days to make my arrangements, such as they are; then the carnival moves on, and I move with it."
Charles's shock reached a new level now, and Raven almost laughed at his stupefied expression, until she saw the tears in his eyes.
"You would leave me, then?" Charles said. "Now, of all times? When there is so much — for the school — I thought I could depend on your help — and you would leave me when I have already—" He could not finish the sentence, but he did not have to. Raven's mind filled it in well enough. When he had already lost Erik.
"Charles... Charles, I have to go," she said helplessly.
"Why? Raven, I don't understand any of this at all. God forgive me, I have never been more tempted to use my Gift on you."
"You promised," Raven said through suddenly numb lips, as her heart stuttered on an emotion she had never thought to feel — fear of her brother, of his Gift, of his ability to take her thoughts and desires and replace them with his own.
"Raven, no!" Distress pitted Charles's voice, etched such deep lines into his face that he seemed to age fifty years. One hand reached for her, clenched and fell away. "No, Raven, I swear — I only want to understand, I only want some assurance that what you tell me is what you really feel and not..."
"Not what, Charles?" Her voice reflected more anger even than she felt.
"Well, you said there was a mind-Gifted at this carnival. Suppose this is a method of recruitment for them!"
"That's not it at all," Raven said, but of course her saying it proved nothing. A sharp, heavy sadness settled in her chest. Charles knew her very poorly, if her decision seemed so alien to him. She had thought them so much better acquainted with each other. But perhaps that was her own fault, for keeping him locked out all this time; he depended so heavily on his Gift to understand other people... "Look for yourself, then, Charles. I will trust you to look no further than you must."
Charles raised a hand to his temple.
Raven had never liked the foreign sensation of Charles's mind threading through her own. She knew he didn't mean to unsettle, and despite her moment of panic, she knew her brother would never do her harm. The fact remained that no matter how warm and gentle his touch, it did not belong in her head. She shuddered, and endured it, and found it over far more quickly than she expected.
"I had no idea you felt this way," Charles said softly. "I'm so sorry, Raven."
Raven shook her head. "As a child, I thought that you and I would battle the world together. But you are not looking for a fight at all, my dear brother. You are content to play along with the world."
"How can you both misunderstand me so badly?" Charles sounded infinitely weary, and those aging lines had not entirely faded from his face. "I am not at all content with the world as it is. All my endeavors are bent on changing it. But I fear Erik's tactics will only make things worse."
"I am not trying to argue with you, Charles. But you mean to hide at home, behind your stone walls, and let society think you Mundane, and I will not do that. I am done hiding."
Charles nodded, letting out a slow, shaky breath. "But you... you will come back? Carnivals do come back around in time."
"Of course." She left her seat to put her head in his lap. "I will come to see you whenever I can."
"Then you will go with my blessing." He stroked her hair, and if there were more tears, she forbore to remark on them.
Erik endured a full week at the club without communication from Charles. He sent a servant to retrieve his things from the townhouse; he returned with Erik's trunk but no messages, saying Mr. Xavier and Miss Darkholme were not at home at the time. There were some few other items of Erik's that he had left at Graymalkin, but they were not essential, and somehow he could not bring himself to send for them. Not yet.
He ate little, and slept ill, plagued by horrifying dreams he could not quite remember. He learned during the day to keep himself focused and firm, under Miss Frost's glittering eye, and quickly learned his way around the Club, both literally and in the more philosophical sense. Their work proceeded apace, with some alterations to Shaw's custom; Erik made it clear that none were to be blackmailed for their Gift, however convenient, and all under the age of sixteen were relieved of any duty more distasteful than pot-scrubbing.
Miss Frost disapproved. "We are not a charity, Erik. What do you propose be done with these children if they are not to be put to use?"
He did not know how to answer. Was Charles still planning to open a school? Would he permit Erik any involvement in it now?
He missed Charles more every day, a piercing ache in the deepest part of his chest. More than once he made note of something to bring up in conversation with Charles, then remembered with a stab that they might never speak again. Was Charles even still in London? Surely, surely this was not how their friendship would end, a wordless painful uncertainty stretching out to the horizon?
Gossip about Miss Darkholme's recent unveiling made its way into the Club, of course. Rumor was that she had run away with a traveling carnival, and her adopted brother retreated to the country in disgrace, but Erik did not put much stock in the tale.
He was midway through a very late breakfast on the seventh day, sleep having finally caught him near dawn, when a footman informed him that Mr. Xavier was not only on the premises, but seemed to have the idea of taking custody of half the club's staff.
He found Charles deep into the staff quarters, directing baffled footmen back and forth with trunks and bags, collecting children to his side like a line of ducklings. Jean Grey was holding his hand and beaming.
"Ah, Erik, there you are," Charles said cheerily, before Erik could gather the wit to say anything. "I am sorry to disturb you so early, but I am much determined to have the children home this evening, and there's quite a lot to do beforehand."
"You're taking the children now, then." An obvious, pointless observation, but his brain hardly seemed to be functioning at all.
"And those of the staff that wish to come along. The school is still a bit nebulous in form, but adding people will help it take shape, I think. Jean, dear, take Bobby and Warren and – who was this little one again?"
"We call her Storm."
"Storm, you go along with Jean, and pile into the carriage. It will take you to your new home. Something of a long ride, really, feel free to nap."
The children scurried off, leaving him and Erik in something like privacy in the corridor. Charles's gaze on him was unsettling, unreadable.
"How many of my staff are you making off with, then?" Erik asked after a long, awkward moment.
"Miss Salvadore is coming, along with her fiance, Mr. Bohusk; young Mr. Rankin; and two of the mind-Gifted dancers, Miss Moonstar and Miss Xi'an."
Erik sighed. "Rather a hefty loss, but I suppose we can make do."
"Yes," Charles said softly. "We all learn to make do. Despite our losses." He cleared his throat. "I've also begun putting out the word that I'm looking for Gifted teachers and governesses — discreetly, of course, it's not as if they advertise. Lessons may be a bit haphazard until we can find someone with real educational experience. We're already drawing more children — it seems my valet, Summers, has a Gifted brother who would like to attend."
Angel passed them with a sunny smile, carrying an armload of clothes wrapped with paper and twine. Then they were alone in the corridor.
"Charles," Erik said, and faltered there, not knowing how to proceed.
"I'm sure there will be times that the school needs aid of some sort from the Club," Charles said. "And vice versa. But that is not strange. We are still partners, are we not?"
The words yes and no crowded together to Erik's lips, neither able to gain ascendance. How could they possibly — and yet, how could they not be? "Yes, of course."
The hope and relief in Charles's eyes was unbearable. "I'll write you, then," he said, "to show how we get on. I hope you'll do the same." He held out his hand.
It would be unpardonable to refuse the handshake of a friend; Erik therefore reached out, and engulfed that smaller, warmer hand with his own, tighter than he meant to, but all too briefly – Charles pulled away within a moment. Leaving the hard edges of some sort of card in his palm. When Erik looked up from it, Charles was gone.
You and your parlor tricks.
On the card, in Charles's hand, was a short block of text under the heading "Sonnet 43, William Shakespeare."
When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright are bright in dark directed.
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow's form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so!
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay!
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.
"Love poetry," drawled a voice at his elbow – Emma Frost. "Shakespeare, even. How sweetly conventional."
He misses me. If Erik found himself blinking rapidly, it was certainly due to the stifling amount of scent Miss Frost tended to wear. "It seems we shall need a crop of new staff, Miss Frost. We should discuss possibilities for hiring."
"If it helps your feelings, sugar, what he wants from you is technically punishable by death. Rejecting him is but the purest self-defense."
Erik might have said many true things — that Charles's wealth and Gift were sufficient to protect them both; that the law already had claim on Erik, since the club offered gentlemen as well as ladies; that since he would have drowned without Charles's intervention, Erik's life was honorably his for the asking. But all these things paled beside the simple fact that death would be worth risking, to have Charles.
Miss Frost was eyeing him with calculation and concern. "Come now, Erik, let us not be sentimental. I think you will come to see that we are better off without Xavier's foolish nonsense—"
Erik found his fingers clamped around her arm. "Speak of him again, and you will be seeking a position elsewhere. If you are lucky."
Miss Frost raised an eyebrow, but her voice was more docile than usual as she gave a brief, stiff curtsy. "As you say, sir."
He released her arm, the porcelain skin beneath already darkening into a bruise, and walked away without looking back.
By the time he went to his bed that night, he had the sonnet entirely memorized, having pulled it from his jacket pocket at odd moments all the day. Poetry was one of the things to which Shaw had devoted very little of Erik's education, and he had half-forgotten how much pleasure he'd found in his brief study of it. In poetry, a word could be sword and velvet and illuminating lantern all in one. There was an appealing efficiency to it.
If so, he admitted with a sigh, it had been the only efficient part of his day. He could scarcely remember most of it, he'd spent so much time lost in contemplation of the card in his pocket, or the memory of Charles's hand so briefly in his, the sight of his face as welcome as if they'd been apart a dozen weeks instead of one. He had looked tired and fray-nerved beneath his cheery exterior, but still carrying all the beauty of wit and warmth and determination.
Erik had fully intended to blow out his candle and send himself sternly off to sleep. Instead, he was holding the card again, brushing his thumb over the firm, precise, full-bodied shapes of Charles's handwriting.
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.
He was a fool, eight times a fool to dwell so on the impossible, to ask himself whether it was wisdom or folly that put him alone in a cold bed tonight.
He gave a violent start, every bit of metal in the room suddenly quivering under his grasp, when a soft knock sounded at his chamber door. Some sort of emergency with the club? He set the card aside and threw his dressing gown on as he crossed to the door.
"Good evening, Erik," said Emma Frost. "I hoped we might talk."
"As I'm certain you're aware, it is entirely inappropriate for us to talk, or even see each other, at this hour and in this location." At least, he reflected, she was not in her night-clothes, though he wasn't sure the bosom-bearing white gown she wore was any better.
Miss Frost merely smiled and squeezed by him through the door, making certain to brush against him as much as possible. Her candle doubled the amount of light in the room; Erik hoped that would decrease the intimacy of the conversation.
"You and I," she said, leaning a hip against his desk and trailing a casual finger through his papers, "did not begin our acquaintance on the best of terms. We each had our reasons, and I don't feel apologies are necessary on either side. But that does not mean we cannot forge a pleasant and beneficial working relationship now."
Erik slid his papers casually out of her reach. "Come now, Miss Frost, I much prefer us to be honest with each other. You would rather see the back of me, if only so you might drive a dagger into it."
"Indeed, you think me much more vicious than I am. Well," she chuckled, "than I am in this instance, anyway. I see no reason we cannot work well together, Erik. It's true that I'm accustomed to wielding a great deal of power in the running of the Club – but I have always wielded that power from the shadows. My skills are not best suited to overt leadership, and frankly I have little taste for it. It rather paints a target on one's back."
"You would prefer to act the puppet-master, and watch me dance at your bidding."
"Oh, I've given up hope of that, dear, you are most ill-suited for puppetry. I would have to break down so very much of your rigid mind that I'd be left with something more doll than puppet, fit only to be propped against the wall and dusted now and again. That would leave me at center stage, which I've already expressed my distaste for." She smiled widely, and Erik did not let himself be unsettled by the predatory sharpness of it. In a contest of toothy smiles, she would not win.
"You offer a truce, then? An alliance?" he said, letting distrust color his voice. "With the man who killed your lover?"
She shrugged elegantly. "I cannot call you unjustified. Sebastian was useful, but he was also blatantly despicable."
"Charles said you mourned him."
A shadow flickered briefly over her features. "Sebastian was... a complex man. He did have some admirable qualities, and when I was young he gave me things I sorely needed. But that did not make me blind to his faults, which were many and creative. You, I think, possess many of his virtues and very few of his flaws, and you share his vision of a future in which it is the Mundanes who are scorned and kept down." She had eased herself slowly closer to Erik as she spoke, sliding her hip along the edge of the desk, and was now only inches away. "I see no reason we cannot be friends, Erik," she said, raising a hand toward his cheek. "I think perhaps you could use a friend, at present."
So that was the way of it. Miss Frost had seen him vulnerable in the wake of his quarrel with Charles, and sought to take Charles's place, in every way. Erik briefly considered letting her – or rather, letting her think he had let her – but the thought of going to bed with this woman, whom he neither loved nor trusted, was abhorrent. All the same, it would not do to reject the professional end of the alliance. If Miss Frost had chosen to join him when she couldn't beat him, he hardly wanted to discourage the sentiment.
He intercepted her hand before it quite touched his cheek, converted the gesture into a handshake. "Use a friend," he repeated. "Miss Frost, I make every effort not to 'use' my friends in such distasteful ways. But I would be happy to count you among them."
Miss Frost looked surprised, then disappointed, which Erik chose to find flattering. She returned the handshake with a sigh. "Very well, then. It seems we have an agreement. I look forward to working with you, Erik."
"And you, Emma."
She took her candle and went to the door, pausing to blow him a kiss before she stepped through. "Do let me know if you ever change your mind, sugar."
"You'll be the first to know."
It was a safe enough promise to make, he reflected as the door closed behind her, since the only person he could imagine sharing his bed with ever again was no option at all.
He blew out his candle, and forced himself to lay his head on the pillow with eyes closed, and not touch the poem on its card so very few inches away.
To his own surprise, he slept – and dreamed of an endless maze, flames leaping along its walls to race ahead and trap him, the greedy chewing sound of fire. He woke gasping, and found his bedroom in flames, smoke searing his lungs, and Anya standing in the far corner, weeping as flames crept up the edges of her hair.
"I'm not awake," Erik said, more from hope than belief. "I am dreaming still."
"Help me." His daughter's voice was a smoke-roughened croak. "Please help me."
Fire caught at him with burning hands as he crossed the room to her, but he paid it no mind. He should not, of course, be surprised to see Anya here; leaving Charles did not solve the problem of their mental entanglement, but rather removed all hope of its solving.
"Anya, it's Papa," he said. "All is well, schatzi, Papa's here."
But this was no lucid ghost whom he could comfort and converse with; she was as she had been in the beginning, a manifestation of his own pain, that cried blindly for help, and vanished with a scream when he touched her.
That quickly, the room was dark and tomb-silent, lacking even embers in the grate. Erik drifted back to the bed, but did not sleep until dawn.
Within a few days, they had the children in a respectable routine, if not a particularly educational one. They had regular meals and bedtimes, at least, and access to the library and the great outdoors. Between acquainting himself with the needs and characters of each of the children, doing the same with the adults, and organizing the household to accommodate its new inhabitants, Charles's days were full to bursting. Each of the students — and he privately thought them all students, even those whose aim was to teach — was fascinating and lovely and in need of so much that he could give them.
The constant footsteps and voices and hum of minds was almost enough to drown out the terrible silence where Erik and Raven should have been.
"How is your brother doing?" Charles asked as Alex readied him for bed. Summers, he reminded himself. He really ought to refer to his valet as Summers, first names were for mere footmen.
"He can have the respect due to a valet when he learns to act like one," said a very dry voice by the window, and Charles swallowed hard, refusing to look toward it. No different than his other hallucinations, he reminded himself. No point in reacting to it.
Alex leapt half across the room. "Mr. Lehnsherr! What — where did—"
"He's not real, Alex," Charles said dully. "Ignore him. Tell me how your brother is doing."
Still twitching slightly, Alex resumed hanging up Charles's clothes. "Oh, he's... he's very well, Mr. Xavier. Struck up quite a friendship with little Miss Grey, it seems." He glanced continually at the window, and Charles finally looked over as well, to see Erik outlined in lamplight against the dark glass, arms crossed and smiling slightly at him, as if he and Charles were privy to some joke no one else understood.
"I'm glad to hear that, Alex." Charles fastened his dressing gown more tightly around him. "Have Moira send up an extra bottle of scotch with my supper, please."
Moira was another one he ought not to address so familiarly; as housekeeper she was due every syllable of Mrs. MacTaggert. But they had been friends too long to bother, and if he'd had any doubt of that, it was dispelled when she arrived, sweeping past Erik’s ghost with Charles’s supper tray and an unservantly scowl for both him and the apparition. "Don't think I don't know what you're doing, Mr. Xavier."
"Getting stupidly drunk? It wasn't a secret, my dear." He plucked the bottle from the tray and took a long pull from it.
Moira glanced uneasily at the false Erik at the window, still watching with an air of patient amusement. "I've always wondered — can you touch them? Your ghosts. They always pass right through us..."
"No," he said shortly, though that wasn't always true, was it? He could feel the heat of fire, sometimes, when Anya appeared, and there had been one or two others... He glanced at Erik with new fear. What twisted game might his mind play with him next?
His next line ought to have been Goodnight, Moira, but he was suddenly in no hurry to be alone. "I hope the children are not being too terrible a burden on you and the staff," he said. "I am making every effort to hire additional help, but I know you understand how carefully we must proceed. One bad apple..."
"Of course, sir, I understand completely. The children are no worse than we expected." She smiled wryly. "How many students do you aim to have here, once the academy is in full service?"
"As many as I can manage," Charles chuckled. "Possibly more."
"They're lucky to have you, Professor."
He blinked at that. "Oh. I suppose I am a Professor now. I've all the education for it, though I never thought, at the time, that I would use it quite this way... It'll help awe the students, I suppose, for me to be something more than a 'mister.'"
Moira's face softened. "I don't think you'll often need the help. They love you. If I may speak boldly, sir, I'd say that anyone who doesn't—" her eyes tracked briefly to Erik at the window "—is very foolish, sir."
"I entirely agree," Charles said, with all the cheek he could muster, and a swallow of scotch. "Goodnight, Moira."
When she’d gone, Charles filled his glass, raised it to Erik, and downed it in one swallow. It took most of the bottle to make Erik disappear, and then only because he passed out.
The gossips, Erik was astounded to discover, were entirely correct. Raven had run away to the carnival.
He would not have come, of course, if he had not already heard about The Mesmerizing Mystique from other gentlemen at the Club. Seeing it for himself was somehow no less shocking for having been forewarned. Charles's sister on the stage? Displaying her Gift for the amusement of the drooling masses? The idea was bizarre.
Yet there she was, dancing through changes of form as elegantly as she had ever graced a ballroom, and smiling as though every moment of it were a treasure. Of course any performer must smile, but the energy and confidence of her movements convinced Erik that, though it were a show, it was not an act. Raven was happy. Happy, in a carnival.
Raven’s showy red dress contained no metal — he had to wonder, in fact, if it even truly existed, since her clothing had changed as easily as the rest of her — so when she left the stage, Erik made his way through the crowd following the metal-buttoned dress of Raven's companion, a blind woman who had acted as announcer throughout the show.
What he intended to say to Raven, even he was not sure. What conversation could he hope to have with her now, after her rejection of him and his rejection of her brother, that would be less than awkward? Yet he could not bring himself to leave without speaking to her. He told himself it would be rude to do so, but the truth, he suspected, had more to do with the brilliant smile she wore so easily. Was she truly happy? How could she be?
He trailed the two women to a dressing area, where he kept himself straight and casually confident, as if he had every right to be there, though he doubted he could remain unchallenged for long. For a few moments at least he stood unobserved, and watched Raven laugh and twirl through the open doorway, her skin rippling through colors and textures too quickly to count. The blind woman said something Erik could not hear, except to interpret its tone as dry, and stepped out of the first layer of her many-paneled bead-bedecked dress to hang it in a closet.
Raven only laughed again in response to her companion's words, and stepped closer to wrap her arms around her and lean into a lingering kiss.
For all that he knew he was in no position to throw stones, Erik could not deny he was shocked at the sight. For a moment he tried to convince himself the kiss reflected only friendly affection, but there was no believing that when it went on so long, and involved so much traveling of hands through one another's hair, and down backs, and around waists...
Erik thought perhaps he ought to be disgusted. Instead, his predominant emotion was envy, that Raven could have this so fearlessly, and he could not.
But he was intruding on a private moment, and ought to retreat before he was noticed. He turned to go.
Raven's voice was surprised, but her — friend — did not seem to be; when Erik turned around, her sightless gaze was fastened directly onto him, accompanied by a warm, almost expectant smile. Her cheeks were still a little flushed from her... exertions.
"Erik, I never expected — I do hope you're well?" Raven did not seem especially displeased to see him, he noted in relief. He tried not to note how clear it was now that Raven's stage clothing had all been affectation, dismissed entirely with a thought.
"Yes, I am well enough. I must heartily apologize for... disturbing you, it was not my intention. Good day." He jerked a bow and turned away again, but again Raven called him back. The other woman had leaned forward to whisper briefly in her ear.
"Erik, an old friend ought not to depart so soon, surely!" Raven said. "We can send for tea." Absently, she fluttered her skin into the approximation of a muslin dress, in respect, he supposed, for his sensibilities.
"I cannot stay. I only wished to..." He willed away awkwardness, and forced himself to calmly say what he had come to say. "Raven, I wished to know if you were truly happy. If you are in need of aid, I am eager to supply it."
Raven chuckled. "You wish to know I did not come to the carnival for lack of any other option, after my social disaster? Indeed not, Erik. This is quite the best decision I ever made. I do thank you for your concern."
"I am very happy to hear it."
"I know you say you must go, and I will not delay you. Only, if it is not too much trouble, could I prevail upon you to carry a message to my brother? I am sure you see one another so often, you may deliver it to him much sooner than the post."
Before he could stammer a coherent reply, she had chirped a careless, "Excellent! One moment," and strode from the room.
This left him alone with her blind beloved, who smiled as if she knew something he did not, and gazed directly at him in a most unsettling manner.
"You must forgive Raven for forgetting to introduce me in her excitement," the woman said. "I am Lady Destiny. And yes, I love her very, very much."
"I would not have dared to ask that," Erik said, "but I am glad to hear it."
"There was a better chance of your asking than you might think," Lady Destiny said, her smile warming further.
And then Raven was back, and pressing an envelope into Erik's hand. "There. I can depend upon you to see that Charles gets it as soon as possible?"
Erik swallowed twice, glancing from one expectant face to the other, before saying, "Of course."
The Hellfire Club kept a decent stable, and Erik had come to the carnival on horseback rather than bothering with a carriage and driver. The horse was sound and well-mannered, and still fresh after the short journey, and it was several minutes before Erik admitted to himself that he had turned her head, not toward the Club, but away from the city entirely, down the road they had taken on their way into London for the McCoys' ball.
Raven had asked him to deliver the letter as soon as possible. Surely that justified some amount of haste. Had she not been concerned that the post was too slow? Was it not reasonable to assume that the matter she wrote on was urgent?
How blithely she assumed that he and Charles were in daily contact! He could only assume Charles had told her nothing of their falling-out, though he might have thought his own words the night of the ball would have made the situation between them clear. In truth his only communication with Charles since their encounter at the club had been a letter detailing the first few days of the school's workings. It had read like any friendly missive between business partners, almost to the point of parody, until the very end, where it was signed With all my love, Charles. Erik had not yet written a response, though he sat for an hour with the quill continually drying out in his hand.
This was quite mad, he admitted, once he had ridden quite a bit too far to justify turning back. He would likely arrive after the household had gone to bed. What could he possibly say? Would Charles even be pleased to see him?
Yet he did not turn back. Every stride that brought him closer to Graymalkin seemed to awake, by degrees, some part of him that had been dead or sleeping. He would see Charles tonight. For good or ill, he would see Charles.
The great house was indeed dark and silent when he rode into sight. Pounding on the stable door brought a groggy stable-boy blinking stupidly into the moonlight; Erik tossed him the horse's reins without a word and turned for the house. He would wake no one else; there was no need to put the household into uproar. It was not as if the locked door provided any obstacle whatsoever.
He made his way easily through the dark hallways and staircases, only to find himself paralyzed outside Charles's bedroom door. He was quite mad to be here. The envelope in his pocket was surely an excuse thin as gossamer, and he had no other to offer. Why had he come here so thoughtlessly? Charles might well be asleep.
Carefully, quietly, Erik eased the door open, using his Gift to smooth the hinges to silence. He meant only to ascertain whether any candle or lamp still shone in the room, but just as the light of the fireplace reached him, so too did the sound of Charles's voice.
"You're not real. Be gone, curse you, you are not real!"
Erik opened the door a little wider, and stared in shock at the tableau he saw before the fire. Charles sat in an upholstered chair, still dressed, his crutches propped nearby, and before him knelt... Erik, looking as if he had stepped out of his looking-glass the night of the ball.
"You can see me," said the – hallucination, surely, another of Charles's projected ghosts – in a tone of gentle persuasion Erik was fairly certain he had never actually used. "You can hear me. Feel me. I am as real as you want me to be." He leaned forward, hands sliding up Charles's thighs, and kissed him.
"No!" Charles cried, and smashed a hand – holding a half-full bottle of scotch – across the ghost's face, knocking him back.
"I know how much you want me, Charles," the ghost said, unperturbed.
"But I don't!" Charles said miserably. "I want him, I want Erik, not some twisted facsimile out of my own brain. Why won't you be gone?"
A hard pain pulled tight in Erik's chest. Oh, Charles, what have I done to you?
The hallucination only smiled and moved back toward Charles purposefully.
Erik shouldered through the door and caught the thing by the shirtfront. To his surprise, it put up no fight of any sort – in fact it looked delighted to see him.
"Finally," the false Erik said. It threw its arms around him – and vanished, seeming to melt into Erik's body. Erik shook his arms violently, as if flinging off a vile liquid, but the ghost was entirely gone.
"Oh, what new game is this?" Charles said wearily, fumbling to pull the cork from the bottle. "Are we to have Russian nesting dolls, an Erik within an Erik? I assure you, one is quite enough for anyone to handle."
"It's me, Charles," Erik said.
"Well, I can see that it's you, and you look terrible," Charles said with drunken petulance. "Your face is all hollow and bony, you look like you haven't slept in a year, and I swear you never had gray in your hair before. What's wrong, love, you miss me?" The words came out on a smile so bitter Erik could have choked on it.
"I miss you desperately," he said tightly, and would have liked to seat himself at Charles's feet, but he hesitated to so directly mirror the appalling hallucination's behavior. "I am no ghost, Charles. Test me and see."
Charles frowned at him, then touched his temple, and Erik inhaled sharply at the sudden mental intrusion. The touch of Charles's Gift was usually gentle and light, but drink had made him clumsy. Tonight his mind was no brush of feathery warmth but something closer to a blow, a sharp throb of Charles that traveled to the end of Erik's every nerve and made each hair stand on end. It ought to have been painful, might have been painful, yet Erik's eyes fell closed, and he felt himself chase after Charles as he withdrew, trying to hold onto the sensation.
He opened his eyes to see Charles looking pale and shaken. "Erik?"
"I have a letter from Raven," Erik said quickly. "That is why I'm here. She said it was important that I deliver it to you immediately."
"The carnival came near to London and I..." Words seemed slippery things, of a sudden, that he must cast about for. "She's happy. She's in love with a woman — did you know?"
"She has... chosen everything I would least have recommended. And is happier than I ever..." The words slipped away again, and he fumbled for the envelope in his jacket pocket. "Here."
Charles read the letter without changing expression. He glanced up once at Erik, intently, returned to the paper in his hand, then folded it and set it on the little table at his elbow, weighed down with the half-bottle of scotch. His eyes were clear now, his movements steady; not so drunk after all. Perhaps he had merely wished to be inebriated beyond sense.
"Erik," he said, his voice very soft, yet thrumming with a peculiar tension. "Do you love me?"
Erik's throat closed entirely, leaving no room for breath, much less words. He would have liked to look away, but that was impossible, he defied any creature on earth to look away from Charles now.
"I already know that you do," Charles said, infinitely gentle. "I am only curious to know if you will admit it yet."
Erik wetted his lips. "I have never had a dearer friend—"
"No, I'll have no courteous half-answers, if you please. Let me clarify the question. Are you in love with me?"
Erik felt that surely he had been turned to stone, his body a cold and rigid thing that could never move of its own will. Yes and no were equally impossible answers; what could he do but remain silent? At length he was, at least, able to drag his eyes away from the brilliant blue ones that threatened to drown him; he fixed his gaze on the bookcase instead, as if it were remotely possible that he was interested in books right now.
"The frowns of society have told you that you cannot love me," Charles said, and anger was sparking through the gentleness now. "And yet you are a man who scorns to bow to the judgments of those you consider beneath you. You are a man I might have expected to value the truth of your own feelings above the arbitrary rules of propriety, to have faith and pride enough in your own nature to—"
"Nature?" Erik turned back toward him with something like a snarl. "Nature never allowed for this!"
"How not? Was it induced in you? Forced by some external hand?"
Erik swallowed hard. "No."
"And does it harm any, for you to love me as I love you?" Eyes blazing, Charles snatched up a crutch and put himself only inches away from Erik, where he could not escape his gaze, could feel the radiant heat of his skin. "My sister loves a woman of the carnival. Will you judge her for it? Will you expect me to call down shame upon her?" On his single crutch, without momentum supporting him, he listed dangerously to one side, and Erik took hold of his arm. Mistake, mistake, surely he could never let it go again. "What of my own self, Erik? You might sorrow to know it, but I have loved before. I have dallied as much with men as with women. Will you call me all the monstrous things you have called yourself?"
"No," Erik said hoarsely. "Never." Without intending to, he put a hand to Charles's cheek. The other man closed his eyes briefly, leaning into the touch.
"No," he agreed softly. "Because you do not truly believe it at all, do you? It is an excuse, a shield. So long as that stands between us, incontrovertible and no fault of your own, you do not have to face your own terrifying vulnerability. I’ve suspected that for some time now, after Anya pointed out to me that everyone you ever loved has died. I can see it in your face now, even if your mind were not screaming it. Love has only ever brought you pain and loss, and I'm so sorry for that, Erik, I would give anything to change it. But I hope... I hope I might still raise the average." He raised a hand to Erik's cheek, in mirror of Erik's previous motion, and now it was Erik's turn to strain toward a touch, hungry and breathless. He was not quite certain how he had come to have all of Charles weight and heat gathered tightly against him, but he was nowhere near letting go.
"My friend," Charles whispered, "I can give you no guarantee against my death, I am as mortal as any man. But I swear by everything I've ever loved, I will never abandon or betray you. Nor, I assure you, are you any more powerless in my grasp than I am in yours."
Trembling, Erik let his forehead fall against Charles's, feeling as though something was slipping irrevocably away from him — something he did not want as much as he had thought. His fingers skimmed lightly over Charles's face, thumb brushing his lips to feel his sharp inhalation, then finally — finally — he crossed that last inch between them and pressed their lips together.
The kiss caught like tinder, spark becoming flame in the space of a breath. Charles's mind wound around the edges of Erik's, asking, offering, and Erik all but dragged it inside to tangle himself in. Erik's mind might be his own domain, but oh it was a cold and lonely one, a series of echoing caverns, and he all but wept to have them filled, to be suddenly overflowing with warmth and light and the sweet pressure of skin.
Not nearly enough skin, a sentiment he felt Charles heartily agree with as Erik began yanking impatiently at his waistcoat buttons. Charles nearly overbalanced himself tugging Erik's coat down his arms; half-dragging-half-carrying him to the bed to prevent further such incidents was only logical. Jackets, boots and belts hit the floor on either side of the bed, unregarded, neither of them willing to stop kissing the other long enough to undress more efficiently.
Charles's lips were soft and full as any woman's, but the accompanying body was sturdy and straight and muscular — small, yes, but more compact than delicate. Some part of Erik expected to be repelled by that masculinity, however tidy and contained, and was pleasantly surprised to experience the opposite reaction. Everything about Charles's form was pleasing, if nothing else because it was Charles's — he could have looked like anything at all, Erik thought, and been still an object of endless fascination.
That did not keep Erik from immensely enjoying Charles's smaller stature, maneuvering him onto his back to lay over him blanket-like. Charles, finally successful in removing Erik's shirt, chuckled against his mouth, and in one expert move managed to flip them, turning the tables. The unexpected pleasure of finding himself Charles's captive shocked the breath out of Erik, and for a moment they were both still, re-learning the inhalation process.
Then Erik reached up for Charles's cravat, and Charles tipped his head obligingly, letting Erik unravel the cloth with unsteady fingers, and reveal by degrees the pale, elegant stretch of his neck. At the touch of Erik's mouth to it Charles gasped and rocked forward, pressing his throat into Erik's teeth and his hips into—
Oh. Erik froze, suddenly arrested by the reality of what he was doing. This was Charles, he was in bed with Charles — had he gone mad? Panicked, he fought to a sitting position, pushing Charles away.
Erik could feel traces of Charles's surprise and dismay through their still-entangled minds, but no sign of those emotions showed on his face; Charles only smiled softly, reassuringly, kneeling before Erik on uneven legs, and eased forward as if toward a frightened animal. Despite himself, Erik let him. This was Charles. Charles would never hurt him.
They were close enough now that their chests brushed with each breath. Charles cradled Erik's face tenderly in his hands, grazed feather-light kisses over his cheeks and forehead. His presence in Erik's head was a steady pulse of joy and reassurance, and devotion deep and fierce as the sea.
Do you love me?
Yes, Erik answered, and let all his doubts drain away into the dark as Charles kissed him back down into the mattress.
Charles normally loathed mornings. Waking to a new dawn seemed less a gift than a penance when one had drunk oneself into a stupor the night before, as he so often did. Last night, however, he'd spent intoxicated by something far better than scotch or brandy, and waking to find Erik still at his side put him near tears of joy. The sunlight through the curtains signaled full morning, and the hum of minds in the mansion was beginning to pick up speed, but he bundled all that into a quiet, distant corner of his mind, and shifted deeper into Erik’s arms.
Erik mumbled something incoherent into Charles’s hair, one hand moving sleepily down his back to the truncated remnant of his left leg, tugging him closer. Charles smiled fiercely into Erik’s chest; that had been a gift most unlooked-for, Erik’s almost careless acceptance of his amputation. In dark moments Charles had believed it an impenetrable barrier between himself and any future lover. With Erik it had been reduced to a single breathless exchange — “Does it hurt, is it all right to touch—” “Yes, oh, touch anything, everything, please!”
Which he had proceeded to do, with an enthusiasm completely at odds with his earlier hesitation. Making up for lost time, Charles thought, and stretched as far as he could without breaking their mutual holds on each other, glorying in the various aches and twinges the movement kindled. He could feel Erik waking, now, surfacing from the dreamless deep to a much shallower doze. I love you, he whispered into the mind curled so warmly against his, love you, love you, love you, and hardly dared breathe as Erik echoed it back to him, half-aware, the sentiment tangled around dreamy memories of Charles’s mouth and skin and arching back. Charles shivered.
“Mmm. Cold?” Erik murmured slyly, taking the excuse to wind himself all the tighter around him.
Charles’s response was to lay a trail of kisses up Erik’s chest and throat to his mouth. He spared a fraction of his attention to touch the mind of the cook, downstairs, and give detailed instructions involving things he would like brought up on a tray. Erik was too distracted to notice; very well, then, it would be a surprise.
By the time the tray arrived, it was Charles who was thoroughly distracted, by Erik’s slow, delicate exploration of his left arm — palm and wrist and fingertips, the soft skin of the inner elbow, the faint peppering of freckles on his shoulder. When the servant arrived, he had to still Erik with a hand to his mouth, and scramble for the necessary focus to block Erik’s presence from the housemaid's perception.
“What’s this, Charles?” Erik asked with fond exasperation when the maid had gone.
“Oh, nothing much. Coffee for you, chocolate for me. Some sticky buns.”
“And a vase of roses.” The sweet fragrance of the flowers mingled in the air with the cinnamon of the buns.
Charles grinned. “I couldn’t help noticing how much you liked that scent…”
Erik growled, and leaned in to nip his ear for his impudence, tarrying afterward to breathe deeply of the scent there, remembering helping Charles out of the bath with an intensity that left Charles hot-cheeked and breathless. Then, grinning, he slipped out of bed to lay hold of his coffee.
Along the way, Charles felt his eyes fall on Raven’s letter, left beneath the half-empty bottle of scotch.
“Read it, if you like,” Charles said. “It may amuse you.”
He did, the words flickering past Charles’s mind’s eye as they did Erik’s physical ones.
I love you always, Charles, and hope you know it. I miss you, more even than I expected. But I am not lonely, and if Irene's Gift and my own machinations come to the fruition we hope, you may thank me for ensuring you will not be lonely either. —Raven
“So she is taking the credit?” Erik said, voice rippling with laughter.
“Not entirely without reason.” Charles sat up to take the bun and cup of chocolate Erik brought him. “Without the encouragement of this letter, I might never have dared ask the question I asked you last night. And you might never have been there to answer.”
Erik sobered, setting his coffee aside on the bedside table. “All honor to Raven, then,” he said, and crawled onto the bed to straddle Charles's lap and kiss him, long and deep and leisurely.
They managed — mostly — to stay far enough apart to have breakfast, sharing each other's sticky buns liberally and licking sugar from each other's lips and fingers. Erik laced their hands together and kissed Charles’s knuckles.
"What changes now?" he asked.
"My club, your school, they shall each need close attention."
Charles leaned his forehead into Erik’s shoulder. "I cannot bear, just now, to think of your returning to London. Yet I know you must, and that it will not, in fact, be unendurable. We will not be so very far apart, you know. We can see each other weekly at the least."
"It will be easier to spend time together," Erik said, "both in fact and in the eyes of society, if we have the excuse of being business partners as well as friends."
Charles smiled as if Erik had offered him his choice of the stars overhead. "Say, a forty percent share in each other's ventures? I do think it best that we each retain majority ownership of our own particular projects."
"I concur," Erik said ruefully. "It is inevitable that we shall disagree – constantly, I expect – and a certain amount of autonomy would serve us better than coming to loggerheads at every turn."
"Let us sic our respective legal advisors on each other, then," Charles said, "presently," and tipped Erik's chin up, to better accommodate being kissed within an inch of his life.
He had never entirely withdrawn from Erik's mind since being welcomed into it last night. He would have to withdraw, he knew; even the most devoted of lovers did not want to share their every thought all the day long, and frankly he didn't either. But for now he could think of nothing sweeter than this connection between them, this entanglement so much more intimate than the merely physical. Nothing that happened to his body could please him as much as steeping himself in so beautiful a mind, and seeing firsthand how deeply Erik loved and wanted him.
Stay, Erik said, as soon as Charles even thought of pulling his Gift back, and tightened his arms around him, and that was the best part of all.
Erik maneuvered Charles casually onto his back and pinned him with his weight; Charles allowed it with a chuckle, and closed his eyes to focus on answering each physical caress with a mental one, an exercise that had Erik breathing unevenly within moments. Almost by accident, Charles brushed over the place in Erik's mind that was drawn into so tight a knot around the lost thread of Charles's mind — and found it loosened.
Not entirely, not enough for the scrap of foreign mind to escape. But the difference was dramatic, and running the softest, gentlest of mental fingers over it, Charles thought he could see why. In choosing to allow himself Charles's love, Erik had eased his mental defenses, his need to hold onto the pain and darkness of his past. That alone would not be enough... but he thought he could see now what might be.
“Charles? What is it?”
"Erik, my friend," he said, drawing away from him just far enough to speak, "I think I know how to help you and Anya."
Erik's unspoken terror had been that he would encounter, at the graveyard, someone he knew as Max Eisenhardt. There was no possible way he could explain his presence to them, explain that Eisenhardt had died with his wife and child and would not be returning.
When they arrived at the little churchyard in Sussex, however, there was no one in sight. He and Charles made their way along the dirt path in silence, unmolested, and Erik focused all his attention on Charles's wheelchair, easing it along with his Gift when it might have snagged or tilted. It was easier than thinking of what he was here to do.
"I haven't been here before," Erik said. He knew Charles knew it already, but his guilt required him, somehow, to confess it aloud. "I left before the funerals, and never came back."
Charles said nothing, but his mind pressed warmly against Erik's, giving what comfort it could.
It took some searching to locate the proper graves, but the churchyard was not large, and they found them soon enough – two headstones within easy reach of each other, carved with the same year of death.
MARY MAGDALENE EISENHARDT
BELOVED MOTHER, WIFE AND DAUGHTER
ANNA JANE EISENHARDT
TAKEN FROM US FAR TOO SOON
Still several steps away from the graves, Erik lost all ability to move forward. Charles took his hand, that warm point of contact anchoring Erik so that the tide of memories – Magda smiling and dressed for a ball, Anya crawling into their bed in the night, himself walking into this very churchyard with his wife on his arm and their daughter running ahead – could not entirely sweep him away.
"Are you ready to do this, Erik?" Charles asked softly.
Erik breathed in slowly, carefully. "We'll know soon enough."
Charles nodded, and pressed his free hand to his temple, expression going absent. Here was, perhaps, the trickiest step in a prospective series of tricky steps – persuading the apparition of Anya to manifest. Charles had never before attempted to encourage a hallucination, and Erik knew he was not sure it could be done.
Yet it was done easily, whether because of Charles's efforts, or simply because she was so strongly present in Erik's mind now. Smoke and heat burst briefly across their senses, and there she stood. Flames flickered briefly in the shadows of her hair and clothes, but then faded, and she was simply a little girl in a white dress.
"Good morning, Papa," she said, solemn and shy. "Good morning, Charles."
"Good morning, schatz." Erik's voice wanted to fail him, but he forced it onward. "I brought your story-book." He pulled it from his coat pocket – a much smaller copy than the grandly illustrated one that had burned, but it contained the same collection of fairy-tales. "Would you like me to read to you?"
"Yes," she said. "Yes, I would like that. But first, you shall have to catch me." With a sudden wicked grin, she took off running through the churchyard.
Erik gave chase.
This had been one of her favorite games, something she played only with her father – running and hiding while he pursued, roaring and lumbering monstrously after her. She giggled and shrieked, flitting from headstone to headstone, and to his own surprise Erik found himself laughing as he chased her. The sound caught painfully in his throat, came out uneven and raw, but it was laughter nonetheless.
He nearly caught her at the edge of the churchyard, before she took a sharp turn to avoid the fence, and his hand brushing her shoulder found it as solid as his own. She seemed perfectly real in the golden sunlight, and yet – and yet, he realized gradually, nearly every move she made could be traced to a specific point in his memory. Moments from a hundred bright days, Sundays and Christmases and sleepy afternoons, all stitched themselves together to make this facsimile of his daughter laugh and run and dance before him.
She's gone. My little girl is gone.
"Catch me, Papa!"
Only a soft mental nudge from Charles, left behind in his chair over the top of the hill, enabled Erik to return to the game. With his best roar, he swooped down and scooped Anya into his arms, swinging her in a circle and nibbling her ear as she kicked and shrieked in delight.
"You are now my prisoner!" he cried.
"Very well," she sighed, rolling her eyes primly, a mannerism picked up from her mother's reaction when she felt Erik was being silly. "I am caught. Will you read to me now?"
"I will indeed," he said, and hefted her onto his shoulders to carry up the hill.
They sat on the grass, leaning against her tombstone as they would have against the headboard of a bed, and Charles wheeled closer to listen as Erik read to her from the story-book. Anya nestled in his arms, warm and heavy and smelling of sunlight and grass, and Erik's throat tightened, watching her eyes drift closed as he read.
He glanced up at Charles, who was smiling at him as if he could hardly believe the beauty of what he was seeing. An image traveled from Charles's mind, possibly without his direction, and Erik saw himself for a moment as Charles saw him – his hair and clothing disheveled, the little girl cradled trustingly in his arms, all of it saturated with the near-painful intensity of Charles's love for him. How could he ever deserve that? What place had he in a heart as bright and pure as Charles's?
Nonsense, my friend. You fit there so well that I cannot imagine it ever functioning properly without you.
Anya's drowsy voice drew his attention. "I don't think I ever woke up, Papa."
"What do you mean, schatzi?"
"You think perhaps you saw me, but you didn't. There was too much smoke to see. So much smoke, Papa – only think, how much more reasonable for me not to wake. No pain, no fear. I never woke." She spoke simply, with sleepy unconcern.
Erik could not be so casual; he kept his arms relaxed around her, but tears roughened his voice. "You don't know that."
"You don't know otherwise. Will you not choose to believe the less painful of two choices, when that is the only difference between them? I don't want you to hurt, Papa."
"I know. I know you wouldn't want that."
"You either, Charles." She reached out a hand, and Charles squeezed it gently. "It's all right, you know. I know you would have saved me if you could have."
Erik glanced at Charles with a questioning frown.
I'll explain later, Charles said, and pressed a kiss to Anya's hand before letting her reclaim it. His eyes had gone a bit red, shining with unshed tears.
"Will you sing me to sleep?" Anya said, snuggling deeper against Erik's chest. "It's time for me to sleep, and not come back any more."
His arms tightened around her in sudden panic. "You don't have to go." Don't go. Don't go.
"No. It hurts you for me to stay. You have to let me go. Stop hurting yourself and let me go." She let the fingers of one hand fumble gently back and forth across his cheek, as she had always done when sleepy and contented. He began, haltingly, to sing – the half-remembered German lullaby his own mother had sung to him. Anya had always loved it. She smiled now, and hummed along dreamily, her breath coming deeper and slower. She seemed to be growing transparent around the edges.
"Good-bye, Papa," she murmured, when the song was over.
"Good-bye, Anya," Erik whispered, and bestowed her customary three bedtime kisses — one to her forehead and one to either cheek. She returned them, then settled back with a sigh. In the next moment, his arms were empty.
From Charles there came a very quiet sigh of satisfaction, enough to show he had reclaimed the piece of himself that had been trapped in Erik's mind. Erik tried to be glad of it, but it was hard to think past the blinding pain of knowing he would not see his daughter again in this life.
He was not conscious of weeping until he felt Charles's fingertips on his face, brushing away tears. He leaned hard into the comforting pressure, both of Charles's hands and his mind, and when Charles half-tumbled from his chair to join him on the ground, wrapped his arms around him tight enough to bruise. For quite a while they remained there in the grass at Anya's grave, Erik hiding his face against Charles while warm fingers smoothed through his hair and a warm voice murmured in his ear.
"I'm here, Erik. Things will get better. And you will not be alone. You will never more be alone."
The words seemed to sink deep into Erik's chest and settle there, slotting neatly into an empty place he had not known needed filling. Slowly, he gained control of the tears, and was at length able to rise to his feet, pulling Charles along by his buttons
"You will not be alone either," Erik said, and kissed him gently. Charles's only reply was a smile and another kiss, but the slender mental thread that almost always connected them now was enough to tell him how much Charles had needed the words.
While Charles settled himself in his chair, Erik turned to kiss his own fingertips and press them to the two headstones he was leaving behind. Then he and Charles made their way back through the churchyard toward their waiting carriage.
Somehow the sun seemed brighter now than it had when they arrived, the air clearer, his body lighter and his breath easier. He wasn't certain what to call the bright, easy, quiet new feeling.
He thought it might be peace.
Chapter 12: Epilogue
ONE YEAR LATER
Author's Note: This is the one piece of prompt art I was not able to work into the story as I would have liked (though I at least managed a mention of bath chairs!) but here it is anyway because it has Logan and that makes it… semi-relevant?
"The name is a calculated risk," Charles said, taking the vial of powdered cinnamon from Erik's hand and applying it to the orange slice before him. "Like so many things involving the school, we must constantly walk a balance between getting the word to the right people and keeping it from the wrong ones."
"I, for one, still think you are too concerned with secrecy." Raven scarcely looked up from her novel, one hand absently stroking Irene's hair where she lay sleeping beside her on the sofa, head in Raven's lap.
"Yes, Raven, I'm aware of your opinion," Charles said with fond weariness. "Yet our discreet situation is serving you and Irene well enough at present, is it not?"
"It is, at that," Raven admitted, and her teeth flashed white-against-blue in a dreamy smile, her hand drifting from Irene's hair down her shoulder to her rounded belly. Irene had not foreseen any particular problems with the birth of their son, but Charles knew they were both happy nevertheless to be in a more stable and comfortable environment for the event.
Charles was, of course, thrilled at the thought of being an uncle. He had to admit, though, that he was still laboring to adjust himself to the idea of his sister having fathered the child in question.
"Though I agree with Raven in theory, I can say little enough on the subject," Erik said, pouring a swallow of honey-gold tequila for himself, then for Charles. "Half the efficacy of the Hellfire Club depends upon those in power not suspecting its true nature."
"And you would never stoop to hypocrisy," Raven said dryly. "For instance, pouring a drink for one whom you have long berated for his overindulgence — that would be entirely abhorrent to you."
Charles laughed. "Here I must leap to my friend's defense. I would have you know, Raven, that this is to be my first taste of alcohol in a solid month, and that I am indulging now only for sentimental reasons." The sentiment in question being, first, Erik's amusing fixation on cinnamon, but more importantly, his recollection last night (with Charles's aid) of watching his grandfather drink with his friends in just such a way, and promise his little grandson that he could do so as well, when he was older. "Are we ready, then, Erik?"
"Whenever you are," Erik said, raising his glass.
Simultaneously they tossed back their tequila, and followed it instantly with the cinnamon-sprinkled slices of orange. The resulting burst of tangy-sweet fire was entirely worth the trouble and expense of acquiring the foreign fruit. Charles made a sound of enthusiastic approval, licking his lips — and found them suddenly occupied, Erik leaning across the table to tip his chin up and attack.
"Oh, really," Raven said, but Charles only snapped off a mental Hush, you, speaking of hypocrites and devoted his attention to the kiss.
Even after a year — almost exactly a year, next Tuesday being the anniversary of the night Erik had delivered Raven's letter in such a rush — kissing Erik had not become routine. Or routine, perhaps, only in the sweetest possible way, his ever-deepening familiarity with Erik's lips making them all the more dear, to be missed all the sharper during that one week out of three when they were separated — neither together in London nor together at the school, but each gone to his separate task. Every kiss was a gift to be treasured and hoarded up for the lean times.
"Your symptoms are improved, then," Raven said some little time later, "if you are no longer finding it necessary to medicate yourself with drink.”
"Much improved, I am happy to say. Not eliminated, sadly, but lessened both in frequency and intensity. The staff are all excessively pleased."
"What of the students? Were any of them given a shock?"
"Thus far my precaution of sleeping in a separate wing has prevented their crossing paths. Did I tell you we've a full three dozen now?"
"I beg your pardon, sir," said Mr. Quested from the doorway. "There's a Mr. Logan here to see you."
For a moment Charles could only gape. Once the first shock was past, he felt as if he might boil over from joy. "Show him in! Show him in here at once!"
Quested departed, and Raven cocked her head. "This is the Logan you went to war with? He ought not to mind my Gift, then, but will Irene's condition offend?"
"Oh, it takes much more than that to offend Logan," Charles chuckled. "If anything, his manner may offend you."
"I concur," Irene said sleepily, sitting up and adjusting her hair and skirts for company. "You'll want to put away the tequila if you wish to have any left when he departs."
"Is this the fellow who could grow armor over his entire skin?" Erik asked, hastily concealing the tequila bottle.
"No, Logan is the one with the claws and the self-healing Gift," Charles said, and floated into Erik's mind a precis of the man's personality — the gruff, even brutal exterior, concealing a capacity for tenderness and fierce devotion that somehow never failed to surprise. He took a great deal of care of me, in the war. Frequently while bemoaning my general uselessness.
And then the man himself was stepping into the drawing room, somewhat cleaner than Charles had seen him last but otherwise unchanged. Charles wheeled forward and called an effusive greeting, holding out his hand to shake — and only then noticed that the man was not alone.
If he had thought Logan's visit a surprise, it was nothing compared to the shock of recognizing his companion. A little girl, perhaps nine years of age, with long chestnut hair and large dark eyes — a mind that had been shy and frightened and hungry, a face he had last seen illuminated by deadly flames as they reached a powder keg on the battlefield.
"I’d half-forgot about your leg, Chuck," Logan said, shaking the hand Charles hardly remembered extending. "Bloody shame, but I figure, now you've got wheels you can maybe get yourself out of the line of fire for once, 'stead of waiting on me to do it." He followed Charles's open-mouthed stare behind him, to where the girl was smiling shyly. "Yeah, I bet you're surprised to see this chit on our side of the Channel. This is Marie — took me three weeks to get the name out of 'er, and then it turned out to be the commonest name in France. Wasted effort. Marie, you remember Chuck? Professor Xavier, that is, to you."
"Yes, sir, I remember you," Marie said softly in accented English, bobbing a curtsy. A white streak he didn't remember being in her hair fell out from behind her ear and was brushed back again.
"But," Charles managed at last, "but I thought you were dead!"
Logan blinked. "Huh. Hadn't thought of that, but I guess you would, wouldn't you. You was all laid up getting your leg sawed off at the time, and then shipped home before I got to talk to you. Happens that the little thing's Unnatural as a five-footed frog — that came through on her for the first time when the keg blew. I went over there like a right fool, after dragging you away kicking and screaming—"
That was why he hadn't been able to pull her away from the powder keg, he remembered now, Logan had held him back—
"—figured I was just torturing myself over a corpse, only for her to grab my hand — she near killed me saving herself, not that she could help it, but it sure hurt like the devil."
"What exactly is your Gift, then?" Charles asked Marie.
"Whatever other people can do," she said, "I can, how you say, pull it out from them?"
"Fascinating," Charles breathed. "Absolutely fascinating."
"No, it isn't," the girl said miserably.
"She can't control it, see," Logan said. "She can't touch nobody, not ever, or she sucks the life right out of 'em."
"Oh. Oh, poor dear. Well, have no fear, Marie, I'm quite sure we can find a way to help." He shook her gloved hand. "But good heavens, the two of you have shocked my manners quite into hiding! Mr. Logan, Miss Marie, this is my sister, Miss Raven Darkholme, and her, um, very dear friend, Miss Irene Adler. And this gentleman is," he couldn't quite keep a silly grin from his face, "my very dear friend, Mr. Erik Lehnsherr, who helps me run the school."
Erik stepped forward to shake Logan's hand, and Charles hardly needed his Gift to interpret the way Logan glanced from one of them to the other, nostrils flaring.
"Friend, is he," he said. "I can see that. Well, any friend of Chuck's is a friend of mine. Within reason." He and Erik proceeded to compete in who could better crush the other's hand. Charles rolled his eyes.
"Come, both of you, have a seat. Here's a bit of an orange, Marie, would you like it? Let me ring for tea."
They ended up spending a very merry tea-time, Charles and Logan both eager to hear how the other had fared since they parted ways. Erik, half-shy and half-jealous of this stranger with whom Charles shared such a bond, would have liked to hang back, stony-faced, but Charles insisted on drawing him into the conversation at every opportunity. Before long he and Logan were debating spiritedly on some point of tactical theory.
Of course they discussed Marie's needs in great detail, a conversation in which Charles would have liked to involve the child herself, but her reticence seemed impossible to penetrate. At least until Raven began showing off her Gift as a diversion; before long, Marie was calling out suggestions and requests, everything from extra eyeballs to yellow fur, which she stroked wonderingly. Charles, watching both ladies coo over the white streak in Marie's hair — a souvenir of her brush with death, apparently — and give her advice on gloves, noted with great interest the amount of protective, maternal emotion radiating from them. They were both primed for parenthood, of course, and he suspected Marie was about to benefit from the overflow.
"I suppose Marie has never had a mother," he said to Logan.
"Not that she recalls. One reason I started looking for a school — I've done the best I can with her, dragging her all over creation with me, but that ain't no life for a little miss."
Marie, overhearing, dashed back across the room to lean against Logan's arm. "I like being with you."
"Just shows what a fool you are," Logan said, blushing mightily and tucking his arm around her.
Tea-time stretched to supper-time and then bed-time; they toured the school and grounds, introduced Marie to a few of her new schoolmates, but ended the evening in the drawing room where it began, Marie dozing with her head in Raven's lap, carefully cushioned to avoid skin contact. Charles caught Erik watching her wistfully, not for the first time during the course of the day, and took his hand under the table. Marie's resemblance to Anya was more a product of their own associations than any physical similarity; all the same, Charles suspected the French orphan would now have her pick of parental figures, male and female.
"She is precisely the sort of child this school was founded to serve," Charles murmured, while Logan lit his cigar. "Her situation would have been dire enough — orphaned and alone, too young to care for herself — but the dangers of her Gift, if anyone discovered it... Her odds of survival would have been poor indeed, without our interference. Your interference, primarily," he nodded at Logan, "yet I hope we may yet play our part in bringing her to successful womanhood."
Logan grinned. "Rumor is painting this place as something like the corner of Mecca and Heaven itself. Knowing you're at the helm, I'm half-tempted to believe it. You always had more dreams than sense, a'course, but I figure that's what Lehnsherr here is for."
"Among other things," Erik said with a toothy smile.
"I think it's time this little one went to bed," Raven said, lifting her carefully. "Oh, hush, dear, you may rest easy. Logan will not leave without bidding you goodbye."
"See you in the morning, runt," said Logan. “I ain’t going to run out on you.”
“No, in fact, Mr. Logan will stay as long as I can persuade him to,” Charles said.
As they passed Charles's chair, Marie wriggled suddenly, reaching for him. Raven set her on her feet.
"Thank you, Professor Xavier," the girl said, attempting a sleepy curtsy, "for letting me come here."
"There are no thanks needed, Marie," Charles said, pressing a kiss to her gloved hand. "Welcome to Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters."