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Love and Other Secrets

Chapter Text

London, England
July 14th, 1851


The carriage wheels creaked as they slowed to a halt, spraying the gravel that had been displaced. Charles Xavier looked out from the enclosed landau to admire the people gathered for the very same purpose he and his cousin had: The Crystal Palace, glittering as the finest chandelier would in the sunlight. Charles found the building not only beautiful but massive, in both height and breadth, and the verdant scenery was little more than backdrop to its translucent panels and iron gridlines; too fragile to be called imposing but too stalwart to be called delicate.

“Remarkable, isn’t it?” Charles managed to tear his gaze away and focus on Raven seated across him, “An entire building made of glass. There isn’t a thing like it in the world, you know.” He donned his hat and brushed the shoulders of his vest to expunge wholly-imagined dust and wrinkles from the heavy black cloth.

“You speak as though you’d built it yourself.” Raven’s tone was far from rebuking, and the curled smile toying at her lips made the mischievousness all the more apparent.

Charles’ own lips formed a small grin, not necessarily sheepish, but carrying an entirely similar affectation.  

“Perhaps Shomron’s enthusiasm is catching,” he explained, and gracefully exited the carriage - paying a cursory nod to the footman and extending his arm for Raven, who accepted it out of genuine need rather than mere societal expectation. Back in their country estate she preferred simpler gowns and favored sensible shoes - or none at all. Charles was certain if it weren’t for his insistence she would dress much the same during their time in London, instead of the multitude of layers that was presently the fashion.

He could not help but grin as she looked up and let awe spread over her features; her eyes widening and her mouth parting at the spectacle. The novelty, the absolute beauty and ingenuity of such an impossibly large edifice comprised of nothing but bits of metal and glass, still captivated Charles. And it was more than just the enormity of the thing, so much more than that. It was innovation - true British innovation . Doing something that had never before been done, and then sharing their success with the rest of the world. Glorious.

“Wait until you see what’s inside,” a voice a few feet ahead and to the right interposed. Charles recognized it and halted his ruminations in favor of seeking out the familiar face of an old family friend.

“Ah, Mr. Shomron! It is a pleasure to see you, as always,” said Charles as they closed the distance between, treading across grass and gravel.

“I trust you are in good health, Sir Charles.” Shomron shook his hand and quickly dipped his head in polite apology to Raven, who returned the courtesy.

“Most assuredly, and I do hope it is the same for you.”

“On such an auspicious day as this my health is more than good.” And that much was apparent for Shomron seemed alive and glowing, which Charles felt he could assume had little to do with the fair and bright weather and rather a great deal to do with the success of the Crystal Palace.

“Please, do join me inside,” said the older gentleman.

Charles gave a nod and Shomron proceeded to lead them to a more private entryway, which involved more careful foot placement as they strode across grass and gravel. Raven’s arm remained looped in Charles’ as they walked and through that connection he could feel every uneven step as she struggled to maintain her balance in terribly foreign shoes. Sensing her frustration, he wisely refrained from comment.

Once the three were inside, Charles had need again to marvel over the sheer magnitude of what Shomron, and British initiative, had accomplished. The Xavier estate could lay claim to numerous large windows, but they were not nearly so impressive as the walls of clear glass - single panes of glass that were his height and half again- through which he could see the rolling landscape of Hyde Park. The scene was only interrupted by the connective iron lattices, which to Charles was rather like staring out from an enormous trellis.  The juxtaposition of being indoors with a perfectly even floor beneath his feet and a stillness to the slightly- smoky air, however, ruined the garden-inspired comparison.

“Is that a tree ?” asked Raven, voice tinged with excitement, and Charles’ attention flickered over to align with hers. The answer was yes, it was a great, solid oak residing just off of the main entrance where more people were pouring in by the minute, and yes, it was very much inside the building; the pellucid vaulting only a foot or two above the foliage.

“My word,” Charles breathed.

Shomron merely chuckled. “It is an inspiring sight. Now if I am not mistaken the ladies have gathered round the fountain should you care to join them, Miss Darkholme, while I show Sir Charles a few of the less delicate displays.”

Charles knew his cousin well enough to sense her discomfiture at the implication something might offend her sensibilities, so he patted her hand gently. “I do believe that is Miss Kinross among them, would you be so kind as to give her my very best regards? And then we’ll return here for tea?”

Raven’s face went through a series of mild contortions before she relented. “Of course, Charles.”

He felt her arm slide through his own and watched as she fussed with her burgundy skirts to make her way over to the ornate fountain, where he had in fact spotted Moira Kinross, though the distance and the multitudes had made it difficult to ascertain.

“I see things are the same between the pair of you,” observed Shomron and motioned for Charles to follow as he began to snake his way through the masses.

“She is as a sister to me; I doubt my fondness towards her will ever change.” Charles assured, well-aware of how their closeness could be misconstrued. The circumstances between them were hardly matters of secrecy ; when the Darkholme seniors had been lost to illness Raven was left to the Xaviers, raised alongside Charles and later Cain Marko. That their relationship became liken to that of siblings could hardly be unexpected - or at least that was how Charles viewed the matter. His friends and acquaintances in London tended to feel somewhat differently.

Together, Charles and Shomron moved through the cloistered throngs of people until they reached the desired exhibit, at which point the rationale behind Shomron’s dismissal of Raven became evident: The room was filled with various Grecian statues and artifacts  of both antiquity and a modern effort to recreate the Hellenistic aesthetic. Charles took to it as a bird would take to the skies.

“I thought you might appreciate them,” said Shomron.

Charles flashed a puckish smile and began exploring the area. He did possess a keen interest in the Greeks, which was also no secret. Athenians in particular captivated him; in fact, their pursuit of knowledge and understanding guided and shaped many of his personal mores, and may have had more than a hand in the development of certain proclivities that, were he ever to give voice to them, most of society would find disagreeable.

“Extraordinary,” remarked Charles, “that such craftsmanship was possible all those years ago.”

He circled one of the expertly carved marble statues, studying the intricate detailing of human musculature. The Grecian ideal, a broad defined upper body swelling into a firm backside held up by powerful thighs and calves. Observing the statues had always given Charles pause. The human form was beautiful, whether masculine or feminine, so why was he - and all of civilized society besides - to be limited in his appreciation?

Shomron interrupted his musings with a murmured, “There’s an interesting fellow: Mr. Erik Lehnsherr, we have him to thank for the metal work, though I did hear he has since sold his plant to Bessemer.”

Charles lifted his head and found the Erik Lehnsherr his friend referred to standing beside one of many painted vases. He was a tall figure, dressed in an overcoat despite the near oppressive summer heat.

“I’ve not heard of him,” admitted Charles with notes of curiosity lending a lilt to his voice .

“And I don’t suppose you would have, you were back in Oxford when he arrived. Why, it was only late February when he moved to London. A queer fellow, that one.”

“Is that so?” Charles interest shifted from a subtle flute chime to a reverberating trumpet blast, piqued by not only Shomron’s words, but by the peculiar manner the gentlemen carried himself . The man seemed to be doing his utmost to obscure his features , adjusting the tilt of his hat and even brazenly covering his face with his hand. Gloved hands no less, in such stifling temperatures.

“Yes,” said Shomron, reaching into his pocket for his cigarette case and drawing one out, “ he moved from France, though he is no Frenchman. He bought a flat and a factory, only to sell the latter shortly thereafter. As far as I am aware he has no acquaintances here, and he certainly hasn’t gone out of his way to make them. I should say that makes him a rather strange fellow. ” He placed the cigarette his mouth and lit it, inhaling and then exhaling a plume of smoke.

It did make Mr. Lehnsherr an unusual character, and Charles did so enjoy unraveling riddles.

“I recognize that expression—Sir Charles, what are you trying to accomplish?” asked Shomron as Charles began weaving through statues and displays and other guests. It should have been obvious, really, considering the direction he was heading and the topic under discussion.

“I’m going to introduce myself.”

Shomron choked on the smoke he had been attempting to exhale, rendering him a spluttering mess of coughs and a barely articulate, “Introduce yourself ?”

“You did say the man has no acquaintances. If that is the case, then I don’t have much choice in the matter!”

Charles’ smile was boyish to accompany his jocular tone, though Shomron did not seem to appreciate either when he hastened after Charles and rounded on him. The knitted brows and slightly down-turned corners of his mouth were a clear indication that Shomron thought little of the disregard for proper decorum.

“At least allow me; Mr. Lehnsherr and I were colleagues—of a sort.”

Charles would grant his older friend that. Then he noticed Mr. Lehnsherr, a few strides away, abruptly lift his head in their direction. His gaze remained on them as they reached a more polite distance for conversation.

At only a foot away and without the obstruction of the hat, Charles had a clear view of Erik Lehnsherr; everything from his strong, stubbled jaw line to the striking blue-green of his eyes. For a brief moment Charles’ thoughts turned to somewhat impure lamentations that the man was not dressed to match the surrounding statues, but only for a moment and then higher faculties returned.

“Mr. Lehnsherr, Sir Charles Xavier would like to make your acquaintance.”

Lehnsherr looked from Shomron to Charles and then, almost grudgingly, held out his hand without removing the black leather glove. Charles was not deterred in the slightest and shook it warmly.  If anything, Charles was more interested in the man. He had grown accustomed to receptions of a warmer variety; partly because of the Xavier wealth he had access to, and partly because of his comely appearance and amicable disposition.

“A pleasure to meet you. Mr. Shomron tells me that the iron is of your supply?”

“You as well, and it was,” answered Lehnsherr and he withdrew his hand. His accent was no more French than his features.  Instead it sounded - to Charles’ ear at least- a blend of several.  It was a lovely blend, though, and Charles felt he could stand to hear more. Unfortunately, before he could formulate further inquiry and coax another word out of the man, Shomron intervened.

“Why, if it isn’t Mr. Collins; I daresay you’ll enjoy one another’s company.”

Shomron stepped between them and led the way towards another gentleman, one that Charles had met the previous summer. It wasn’t in Charles to outright refuse Shomron, so he did follow his friend, but he had every intention of returning to Lehnsherr the moment he was able to extricate himself. He turned and bowed his head in farewell, a gesture Lehnsherr mirrored.

Navigating the less dense crowds made the walk a quick one, and their interaction with Collins was cordial. Handshakes and how-do-you-dos, followed by more unctuous words than Charles cared to hear, but he did his best to listen in spite of that. It was Charles’ further misfortune that Shomron was called upon by another acquaintance and subsequently left him alone in the company of the somewhat corpulent gentleman. Collins was a well-meaning fellow, but his conversational skills lacked and Charles found his interest waning. His line of sight continually drifted back to Lehnsherr, who had moved from the vases to the sculptures.

Apparently, his observation had been unsubtle, for Collins turned to find what preoccupied him. “Ah,” Collins said softly, “Mr. Lehnsherr.”

“You know him?” Charles asked, latching onto the potential for a conversation that would hold his attention.

“Yes, we’ve spoken,” an undertone of disdain colored the words, “told me he didn’t want solicitors.”

It took Charles a considerable effort not to smile, or laugh, and he thought he might like the strange gentleman a bit more. He opened his mouth to prompt Collins to speak further on the topic but found there was no such need.

“I believe him to be the worst sort, a thief. See how he hides his face? What cause does a man have to do such a thing, other than to avoid being recognized? He claims he lived in France, but hear him speak and the falsehood is obvious.” Collins leaned in to whisper conspiratorially, “I’ve heard a large sum has gone missing from the Austrian stores and Mr. Lehnsherr’s accent is rife with that harsh sound.”

“That is something of a stretch,” Charles commented.

Collins was hasty to convince him otherwise. “Not at all, for how else does one explain his wealth? Lehnsherr is not a name I recognize, and he has no trade to speak of.”

“I thought he dealt in metal.”

“That manufacturing plant? How did he afford it? A clever ruse is all that factory was. Steal the money, move to another country and pay for a factory. Now he can claim that his gains are simple profit from selling it. He shuts himself away, speaking to no one. A man doesn’t behave like that unless he has something to hide.” Collins had such a self-assured tone that Charles felt certain it wasn’t true. The dark haired gentleman was too proud of his own idea, and too prone to denigration to be taken for his word. Still, it was a curious thing.

Without Charles’ realizing his gaze had fallen back to Lehnsherr, and shortly after he noticed his faux pas their eyes met. Charles extended a smile, but Lehnsherr’s expression remained stoic. Of all the similarities to statues for the man to take on, Charles thought ruefully.

“Are there no such factories in France?” Charles asked. Innocently enough, but meant to discourage the conspiracy. Collins made a perturbed noise like that of a cough.  

“It still raises questions, how did he obtain the means in France? And what prompted him to move here?” The man persisted.

“Why not ask him?” asked Charles, eliciting another perturbed noise. It was a fair question, he felt. Certainly less of an unkindness to ask a simple question than to spread the idea the man was a thief. But Collins was a man of habits, and his penchant for creating sensational news had to be among the worst.

“I’ve told you, he won’t speak to a soul. Intensely private sort.”

Charles very nearly smirked outright. He was well-aware of his own charm; surely his social graces could more than compensate for Lehnsherr’s alleged lack.

“But, enough of him, I have another matter I wish to discuss...” Collins began and went on to describe an event he hoped Charles might sponsor. Dutifully Charles listened, smiling and nodding his head at appropriate times before giving Collins an excuse - and slipping away before the man could press for details. He nimbly picked his way through the spectators and displays until he joined Lehnsherr beside a statue of Hermes.

“Won’t you be missed, Sir Charles?”

It would seem Lehnsherr had witnessed much of the interaction, and Charles let a chuckle escape. “I should think not. Mr. Collins assumes he has a baronet’s ear, and he shall no doubt tell everyone that he spoke with me at length. It isn’t me that he gets on with, but my title. The perils of nobility, I suspect.”

“Such hardships you endure.”

Charles could not recall the last time he had been spoken to with anything less than sincerity from a stranger; it left him off-kilter, and he forced a humorless laugh. “My friend, suffering is relative; because I do not suffer the most does not mean that I do not suffer.”

Lehnsherr scoffed, turning to look at him for the first time. “Do you honestly believe that people wanting your company is a form of suffering?”

“No, it isn’t others desiring my company I find so distasteful, but the fact that it isn’t truly my company they desire at all. Besides, if what Mr. Shomron tells me is true, I believe you are ill-suited to speak on suffering another’s company.”

That had Lehnsherr’s attention - and Charles felt his skin prickle under the man’s stare. It was severe and arresting, though not precisely harsh. Considering, scrutinizing possibly, however even that fell short of what those vivid eyes were conveying.

“Looking at you I doubt you’ve suffered a day in your life. Tell me, have you ever wanted for anything? Is not your every need met, Sir Charles?”

The words curled around him, and his heart felt inexplicably tight in his chest. The bitterness was near tangible and Charles was left to wonder who had had muddied Lehnsherr’s coat earlier in the day that the man should be stirred to agitation so swiftly. But, there was also a thrum of excitement. People were rarely so forthright; it reminded Charles of Raven, albeit vaguely, when she decried the role her gender was forced to accept.

“Looking at you, I could say much the same, could I not?” Charles arched a brow .

Something softened in Lehnsherr’s features.  It seemed he was also used to a certain reception, and to have his expectations defied perplexed him. Eventually the expression gave way to an upward quirk of the lips.

“Trust me, I am not a man whose suffering you would wish to know,” he said and made to depart, though not before adding, “Go back to your friends, Sir Charles.”

Charles had never been so thoroughly dismissed in his four and twenty years, and by someone of such ill-repute...  

“I’m hosting a party on the eighteenth!” Charles shouted after him in earnest. When the man paused, Charles felt confident in continuing. “Please, since you do not consider another’s company to be a form of suffering, say you’ll come.”

Lehnsherr glanced over his shoulder, their gazes locked and a tautness returned to Charles’ chest, before the connection severed and Lehnsherr waded into the crowd without giving an answer.

July 15th, 1851

The hour was late, with only the half-moon and the scattered stars serving as sources of illumination. The glow cast by them was weak, enough to conjure ominous shadows against the bricks and wood of ramshackle homes competing with one another for space but little more. But neither the blackened sky nor the inconsistent shadows held Erik Lehnsherr’s attention; that rested solely on the broad-shouldered gentlemen clutching at the walls and sloshing mud around while humming an old sailor’s song - missing several key notes by a few pitches.

If the acrid odor of alcohol on the ruddy-faced man had not convinced Erik of his state his stumbling would have. Erik gave a furtive glance and sniffed at the air. He saw no one but the man, and only the same smell that encompassed all of Cheapside filled his nostrils. It was a rank blend of wet refuse and byproduct of the factories; a vicious clash of human stench and artificial fetor. It was one he had grown accustomed to in his travels, and one he could dismiss so long as he refrained from inhaling too deeply.

“Where is me bed? Me noggy, noggy… noggy b-ed ?” warbled the man, louder than before. Then Erik conceded he was no noisier - Erik had merely closed some of the distance between them without conscious decision. The smell of alcohol drowned the other scents, now. The man must have spilled some on his clothes; blood did not smell that strongly of drink while it remained inside the human body.

“Oy! Wha’re ye doin’?” he asked as he whorled around. He keeled over shortly thereafter to retch. Erik grimaced, but said nothing as the man moved to prop himself up against the wall. He made a single feeble attempt to stand before sliding back down and staring at Erik with unfocused and half-lidded eyes. He swung his arm out and missed by a wide margin.

“Who’re ye?”

Erik remained silent as he knelt down next to the man, the opposite side of where he’d retched. At this distance he could smell the blood. Alcohol, iron, and slightly sour. It would not taste pleasant, but he had not chosen his victim for the pleasing flavor. He pinned the man to the wall, and turned his head to expose the neck. The man again asked what Erik was doing, and once again Erik remained silent. The less he spoke the less memorable he would be - or the less believable the man’s story would seem. To make a clean breast of it, the thought of speaking with his victims held little appeal; and so it was without a word that Erik extended his fangs and bit down.

The flesh punctured easily, and after a tiny pained noise the man fell into a stupor. Blood welled up and Erik drank it, forcing himself to ignore the foulness of the undernourished and boozy tang.  

Sometimes he wondered if the difference in taste between men like this and men more like the young baronet was as vast as it seemed to be between their scents. Sir Charles had smelled both sweet and savory - a bit strange, but pleasant all the same.

Erik finished, having consumed enough to sustain himself and no more. He licked his thumb and smeared saliva over the wound; to his satisfaction it healed, leaving not even a mild discoloration. The man remained still and Erik situated himself directly across, stared the man in the eye and concentrated.

“Forget me.” said Erik, willing the man to submerge the memory. He grimaced when the man didn’t acknowledge the command. Nearly fifty years and still some aspects of his condition were not under his control. With no small measure of disgust Erik straightened to a stand, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand and ensuring not a drop of blood went to waste.

Another human would find the man in the morning hours, and perhaps he would remember and recount everything and perhaps he would not. Erik doubted anyone would believe the ramblings of a man who had clearly imbibed too much drink the previous night. The precise reason he had been chosen.

Erik spared one last glance, and then silently walked away. Being freshly feed meant his senses were sharper, and the rancor of Cheapside was all at once upon him. The smell of too many people in too small an area leaving it rank with sweat and mud while perfumed by smoke and smog. Erik held an empathy for them and their plight, truly, however he also held a desire to continue his existence. It was an unfortunate truth that his existence entailed such doings.

Erik moved swiftly, the cloying odor of the slums lingering in the weave of his clothes while the air around him cleared. He thought again of the baronet, lamenting the fact that his scent was not so pervasive while ultimately being thankful for the very same because it would surely drive him to distraction. Sir Charles had been a curious thing, sporting the same veneer as many of the social elite though very aware and even resentful of the charade.

Erik considered that as the shambles of the slums gave way to the bourgeois structures that lined the majority of Cheapside. Larger and sturdier due to better materials and craftsmanship that the poor could not hope to afford. His thoughts grew less kind with it. A curious thing, yes, but nothing about him suggested Sir Charles was more than a pampered socialite entirely too conscious of his appearance.

The grime was well behind, but Erik could feel it on his skin, in the fresh blood coursing through him. It should have been the baronet’s blood, not some poor sod barely able to care for himself. It should have been Sir Charles’ smug countenance reduced to one of stupefaction...

He caught himself, cutting the thread of thought before it unspooled. There was no cause for this preoccupation with the young man; other than, perhaps, Erik had gone unsatisfied in a number of ways and Sir Charles had an exquisite scent. Were they to meet again his interest would not be so consumed.

Erik was certain of that, and could prove it to himself should he feel inclined.