The ball at Westchester Manor was doing quite well, if its host, the benevolent Charles Xavier might say so. He’d only hoped his dearest companion would participate in the merrymaking.
“Come, my friend,” Mr Xavier exclaimed. “Don’t be shy. There are lots of young ladies who would be happy to dance with you.”
“It is not a question of whether they would be happy to dance with me,” Mr Lehnsherr stiffly replied, “and more of that I would not be so happy to dance with them.”
“Surely there is but a face that you could fancy.”
Mr Lehnsherr frowned at Mr Xavier. Then he sighed, glanced around and picked the first girl that caught his eye. “That McTaggert girl. She is not so beautiful to tempt me, but pleasing enough on the eyes. Tolerable.”
Behind him, he heard the aforementioned girl’s indignant gasp. Mr Xavier attempted to scowl at his friend, but ended up chuckling instead at the toothy smile on Mr Lehnsherr’s face. “You are terrible.”
"Please God I stay that way," Mr Lehnsherr said dryly. "I've been told it's one of my many endearing qualities."
Mr Xavier looked at him disbelievingly. "The person who told you that must have been drunk."
Mirth filled Mr Lehnsherr's eyes. "Yes he was."
The party was drawing closer to midnight, but it seemed to hold no signs of ceasing. Mr Xavier slipped away from his previous dancing partner to converse with Mr Lehnsherr once again. They were ensconced in a corner that provided reprieve from other company.
“Raven seems taken with that McCoy fellow.” Mr Xavier observed coolly. Mr Lehnsherr followed his gaze to where the Xavier sister was dancing a set. “Is there anything you’d like to tell me, my friend?”
“Nothing that you don’t already know.”
“She is a sister to me, nothing more.”
Mr Xavier brushed shoulders companionably with Mr Lehnsherr. “I would have entrusted you to her, if you so wanted.”
Mr Lehnsherr shook his head. “It is not her that I want.”
Mr Xavier took a gulp of his drink and gave his friend a sad look. “You’ll always have me, my friend.”
“But for how long?” To this, Xavier had no reply. He excused himself not long after, and encouraged Mr Lehnsherr to ask a young lady to dance at least once.
Mr Lehnsherr spent the rest of the night skulking about the corners and trying to avoid dancing partners.
The party was not wholly uncomfortable for Mr Xavier, and totally pleasing for the beautiful Miss Xavier, though the same could not be said for Mr Lehnsherr. Meanwhile, Charles had invited Mr McCoy at Westchester to dine with them a month into their acquaintanceship. As luck would have it, the man was caught by the rain and had in turn caught a cold.
“I must apologize once again, Mr Xavier. I had not meant to cause you such inconvenience.” Henry McCoy stifled a sneeze at his sleeve.
“Nonsense, my friend. Your horse was spooked; no fault of yours. I am sorry that this had to happen in such weather.”
McCoy fingered the rather impressive bump on his head. “I shall go home as soon as the storm lets up. I imagine it’s no fun to have to nurse me back to health.”
“Mr McCoy, cease this at once. You are my friend and my guest. It is no inconvenience to me. Also,” Mr Xavier’s eyes twinkled with mischief, “I hear my sister is quite fond of your company.”
McCoy’s ears tipped red. “I—”
“Do you like to read, my friend?”
“I shall have Raven read to you, then.”
“Charles, are you sure about McCoy?” Mr Lehnsherr moved a pawn, distracted.
“Have I ever been wrong?”
“Yes. Multiple times, in fact. You’re very naïve.”
“Only about business. And politics.”
“Everything is business and politics.”
“Ah, but that is why I have you, don’t I? You make up for where I lack.” Mr Xavier took a knight. “I simply... I have a very good feeling about him.”
“He has no fortune, and no connections to recommend him.”
“No, but fortune and connections do not a happy marriage make. You remember my parents, don’t you? I would rather Raven be happy.”
“Her happiness depends on her financial security. On her status in society. It would disgrace her to marry of a class beneath her. You, her brother, would rather see her shamed?”
“Calm, my friend.” Mr Xavier placed a gentle hand on Mr Lehnsherr, settling him back down. Lehnsherr grumbled, his frustrations clear on the twist of his generous mouth.
“Did you ever stop to wonder,” Xavier continued in a placid, diplomatic tone, “About Henry McCoy’s father?”
“What about him?” Mr Lehnsherr’s voice held less bite than before, but it was still wary.
“He is a landowner, my friend. An esquire. Just as I am. Just as you are. Less profitable, perhaps, but there is no doubt that Henry McCoy will inherit that and their business ventures, as the eldest son. McCoy is bright, from what I’ve heard and have observed myself. Raven’s dowry, of course, should be enough to support her singlehandedly if worse comes to worst. I daresay I’ll find her settled happily.”
Understanding dawned on Mr Lehnsherr’s face. “And you say you were not shrewd.”
Mr Xavier smiled angelically. “I never said I wasn’t. You said I was naïve. I neither accepted nor denied it.”
“Rather fortunate circumstances.” Mr Lehnsherr shook his head and poured them scotch. “Are you sure about the match?”
“If Raven accepts his suit, she would find no complaint from me, so long as it is what makes her happy.” Mr Xavier caught Lehnsherr’s eye before he toppled his friend’s king with a flick of his finger. “Checkmate.”
“Charles, you devil, you have all the luck.”
Mr Xavier grinned and raised his glass. “Chin chin.”
Moira MacTaggert arrived the next morning to keep her stepbrother company.
“Moira,” Henry beamed, happier and more confident that she’d ever seen him. “Have I introduced you to Miss Xavier yet?”
Miss Raven Xavier was a fine young woman, with apples on her cheeks and yellow hair. She was as amiable as her brother Charles and did not seem to notice the muddy hem of her skirts.
“Welcome to our home, Miss MacTaggert.” Mr Xavier said. Moira was struck by the blueness of his eyes.
Mr Lehnsherr cleared his throat and she stifled the resentment that welled up inside of her. “How do you do, Mr Lehnsherr.” She greeted blandly. He nodded coolly, and said nothing more, though he did eye her slightly dishabille state with disapproval. In fact, he held not a hint of remorse for the injury he gave her that night at the ball.
Oh, the nerve of that man! Moira thought.
“We’d be happy to have you with us for dinner, Miss MacTaggert.” Xavier said, and she could not help but think his conversation delightful, despite of his poor taste in company.
The rain continued to poor until the next day. Henry McCoy rested in his guestroom while his stepsister and Miss Xavier enjoyed each other’s company by the pianoforte. Miss Xavier was evidently delighted to have a female friend to talk to.
“Charles,” she said, “is sometimes more of a father than a brother. He’s an old man at heart, honestly. His real love is books and tea. Let him talk to you about science and he’ll never let up. Just like this blasted rain.”
“Raven, language!” Mr Xavier’s head peeped out from a heavy book.
“I told you,” Miss Xavier laughed behind her hand. “The only person who can tolerate him is Erik. I’m Charles’ sister and I can barely tolerate him.” Moira was slightly startled at the use of Mr Lehnsherr’s Christian name. The three of them must be very close. Moira wondered how close Miss Xavier and Mr Lehnsherr were exactly, and if she should fear for her stepbrother.
“I resent that. And might I say I can barely tolerate you too.” Mr Xavier made a show of being indignant, and Miss MacTaggert smiled at the Xavier siblings’ good-natured squabbling. It reminded her very much of her own family. The only dampener on the whole scene was Mr Lehnsherr’s quiet presence.
Except that Mr Lehnsherr seemed quite at ease, here in familiar surroundings. Ignoring the Xaviers, he said to Moira, “I don’t suppose you play, Miss MacTaggert?” It would have been a perfectly innocuous question, if he hadn’t delivered it in the same condescending tone as he had when he criticized her attractiveness the other night.
“I like music, sir. Unfortunately I hadn’t had the chance to learn.”
“Pity. It’s been said that an accomplished lady can play at least one instrument.”
Miss MacTaggert’s cheeks flushed with indignation. “Well I’m sorry if I do not fit your standards.”
Mr Lehnsherr shook his head. “It is not your fault, only your upbringing’s.” Moira was livid now. To suggest that her failures were a result of a poor education—!
Oh, how she hated the man!
When Henry McCoy recovered, he invited them to a stroll about town. “I’m afraid the country has little to offer. But there are a few shops that my sisters like to look at, and I heard Miss Xavier was in need of a new shawl.”
Mr Xavier looked gleeful at the prospect. “Wouldn’t that be nice, my friend?” He addressed Mr Lehnsherr. “I wonder if they have a bookshop here.”
Mr Lehnsherr nodded. “They do. Quaint, but serviceable. I spotted a few novels you might want to read.”
Moira MacTaggert could not help but feel exasperated with Lehnsherr. He was being his quiet, broody self, but seemed to make an exception for a certain Charles Xavier. In fact, she thought vindictively, if it were not for Mr Xavier he might not have any friend at all.
“Don’t worry about it,” Miss Xavier told her later, when she and Moira were fitting for hats. “That’s the way Erik is. You simply aren’t used to him.”
“I don’t know if I want to,” Moira confided in her new friend. “He seems so…” Rude, aloof, arrogant. “Taciturn.”
“That he is,” Miss Xavier conceded.
“Your brother, meanwhile…” Moira blushed and ducked her head. Miss Xavier smiled and bit her lip.
“I have a feeling Miss MacTaggert does not think too well of you.” Mr Xavier remarked later that night.
Mr Lehnsherr snorted, reclining comfortably in his seat. “Whatever made you think that?”
Mr Xavier glanced up at him and captured a bishop. “She is not unattractive, my friend. You could try a little harder.”
“I don’t want to. And either way, she will not respond to my advances, unlike yours.”
Mr Xavier blinked. “What?”
“You like brunettes, don’t you, Charles?”
“Well, I do have a preference but—”
“I see that as soon as Raven is settled, you would as well. Miss MacTaggert is not unattractive, as you say. I’m pleased to hear it.”
“I weary of chess.”
“Now, wait, Erik! What are you saying?”
“Can you truly be so oblivious?” Lehnsherr said, exasperated. “Do you not see the way she looks at you?”
“Erik.” Xavier placed a gentle hand on his friend’s arm to comfort him. He said, softly, “I have no interest in Miss MacTaggert. My first friend is you, always you.”
“Don’t, Charles. Don’t give me pretty words and fail to follow through.”
Mr Xavier simply looked dumbstruck at him, and did not move when Lehnsherr roughly shook him off and took his leave.
Mr Xavier and Mr Lehnsherr seemed like they were walking on eggshells around each other recently. Miss Xavier did not notice the new dynamics between them at first; her head was filled with Mr McCoy—Hank, he made her call him Hank—these days. When she did, however, it was because the conversation between them had become so strained it was painfully obvious. It worsened when they attended a public ball at the behest of the McCoys. Charles had danced with Miss MacTaggert twice and Erik danced not at all.
The day came when Mr Lehnsherr decided it was easier to leave than suffer the awkwardness that had wrapped Westchester.
“Oh, Erik, do you have to leave so soon? Won’t you stay a bit longer?” Raven pleaded.
“I’m afraid there are business matters to attend to at the estate.”
“Too urgent to properly say goodbye to Charles?”
Mr Lehnsherr’s face twisted as if struck. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It doesn’t—well, I never! Erik Lehnsherr, what has gotten into you! And here I thought you were the best of friends! What kind of friend would—”
“Raven, please. Please.”
Miss Xavier quieted, shocked to be the recipient of Mr Lehnsherr’s imploring tone. “I don’t understand this at all, Mr Lehnsherr,” she said, formally and if not a bit coldly, “but I expect you to have a completely logical, I repeat, completely logical explanation for why you are quitting our company so abruptly.”
“It will make sense.” Mr Lehnsherr mumbled. “But not now. Too many tangles, and your brother at the center of it all.”
Miss Xavier was at a loss for words. “Give Anya my love.”
“Charles will miss you.”
Mr Lehnsherr gave her a sharp glare. “Goodbye, Raven.”
Miss Xavier had invited Mr McCoy and his stepsister Moira to tea that day, but her brother seemed absent-minded, if a bit lost.
“I think a walk might do me good. But please, stay and enjoy the tea.” He excused himself from the garden, seemingly unaware of the stepsiblings’ looks and his sister’s attempts to engage him.
“Is he alright?” Moira asked. Miss Xavier waved her concerns away.
“He’s only sulking because Erik left him.”
“Oh my. Are they all right?”
“I don’t know. I’m not even sure that they know what they’re fighting about.”
Mr McCoy nodded. “I’m sure it’s all a misunderstanding. I understand that they’ve been friends a while?”
“Oh yes. The very best. I can’t recall a time when they weren’t. Erik might as well be another brother to me even though for a time I,” Raven’s cheeks pinked. “Well, no matter. I’m so happy to have new friends to share these things with. You must understand that Erik and Charles continue to be in each other’s pockets and I sometimes feel like the unwanted baby sister.”
Mr McCoy smiled at her shyly. “Believe me, your company is never unwanted, Miss Xavier.”
Mr Xavier stood at his desk and grabbed a roll of parchment. He dipped his quill into the ink and began to write:
My dearest friend.
No. He crossed it out.
He crossed it out.
The nib of his quill broke, dotting the page with an ominous blotch.
“Oh, Charles, terrible news!” Raven burst into her brother’s study one morning, weeks after Mr Lehnsherr’s sudden departure.
“What is it, dear?”
“Hank’s sister!” She shrilled, out of breath.
“No, the other one. The youngest! She...” Raven took a breath at her brother’s urging, and composed herself. “His sister, she’s been seeing Shaw—”
“Shaw? Sebastian Shaw?” Charles Xavier rarely ever cursed; however, he spat this name out like it was the worst of filth.
“Yes,” Miss Xavier whispered. “They’d eloped. Oh, that poor girl. That poor family.”
Mr Xavier embraced his distraught sister and set her down the sofa, ringing in the maid for something sweet. “It will be all right, darling.”
“What are we going to do? It’s Shaw, Charles.”
“Yes, I know.”
“What are we going to do?”
Mr Xavier placed a comforting hand on his sister’s shoulder, understanding her pain. It seemed the ghosts of the past were here to haunt them once more. Raven had grown attached to the McCoys, as did he, and any slight to them were felt in kind. “You will stay here, calm your nerves and eat some cake.” Her brother reassured her. “I will be writing some important letters.”
Erik, the letter read in loopy scrawl.
I have missed your company here at Westchester. The days are quite dreary with only my paperwork or my books for company. I’ve taken to haunting the library like a ghost or riding alone. The McCoys frequently visit, but none of them play chess and I feel I’m not inclined to teach them. Hank, I’ve discovered, shares a love for the sciences. Miss MacTaggert is sweet and a good friend to Raven, but we cannot agree on very many things. You and I do not agree either, my friend, but I relish the discourse while we agree to disagree. I have met the rest of their family, and I approve of them. They approve of Raven as well. It is a good arrangement.
His writing had drooped in tone, Mr Lehnsherr had noted, like a plant without enough sun. It was dry, dragging. Oddly, terribly sad.
I wonder constantly what I’d done to warrant such coldness from you. Surely the bonds of our friendship are not so weak that they strain under a small misunderstanding? I’ve known you all my life, my friend. You cannot question my loyalty to you.
Erik, of course I
Here the words were crossed out and blotted with ink, indecipherable.
Urgent news about the McCoys. Sebastian Shaw has convinced their youngest to elope with him. I suspect he has had his eye on her for a while. The McCoys had very interesting tales to tell me, none of which put you in very complimentary light. Of course, this was all orchestrated by Shaw. Erik, if word ever comes out of this, the McCoys will forever be ruined by this scandal. I trust McCoy with my sister, but I worry about letting her marry into a family that will make her vulnerable to the vultures of society.
I do not know what else to do. I have sent out search parties and informed the authorities, but I’ve no idea what to do once we find them.
Come back to Westchester. We never finished our game.
It was a rather peaceful day when Mr Lehnsherr met Sebastian Shaw again for the first time in four years. He drew himself to his full height, reining in the urge to throttle the man, for what he did, for what he’s done, and for what he is doing now.
Attached to Shaw was a girl on the cusp of adulthood, bright-eyed, in love and foolishly naïve.
That had almost been Anya, four years ago. And before that, Raven. Never again.
“Shaw,” Mr Lehnsherr, willing himself not to growl, smiled instead, the acerbic one that showed too much teeth. “I have a business proposition for you.”
Mrs McCoy wept openly at the sight of her youngest returned to her safe and sound. Henry breathed a sigh of relief and shook Mr Lehnsherr’s hand vigorously. They exchanged a few words with each other before Lehnsherr left for Westchester.
Moira noted the exchange with a strange look on her face, before she drew her sister to a corner and slapped her soundly. Sebastian Shaw received double her ire, as was his due.
Anya Lehnsherr joyfully called her guardian’s name when he finally arrived at Westchester, the first to greet him. “I was here days ago!” She exclaimed.
“I’m sorry, liebling,” Mr Lehnsherr kissed her on the forehead. “I was busy with business.”
“You’re always busy,” Anya scolded, tapping his nose. Mr Lehnsherr regarded her fondly. His ward was young enough to be his daughter, and he treated her as such, when he was not being the overprotective older brother she claimed him to be.
“Erik!” Raven rushed down the flag steps and bowled him over with a teary hug. “I can’t tell you enough how grateful I am, really I’m so, so thankful!”
Mr Lehnsherr gave her a reassuring smile and a pat on the back. “Anything for family.”
Miss Xavier burst into another round of noisy tears, and Anya, though confused, did not ask questions and steered them in for tea. Mr Lehnsherr felt oddly proud of her for that. Warmth infused him. He was finally home.
Mr Lehnsherr found Mr Xavier ‘ghosting around the library’ as he’d said. For a while, he simply looked at his childhood friend, from floppy brown head to neatly booted toe. His brows were drawn together in concentration over a large tome. Mr Lehnsherr had to clear his throat to be noticed.
At first Mr Xavier did nothing but stare. Then he removed his spectacles, dropped his book and flung himself at his friend.
Mr Lehnsherr grunted with the force of the embrace but could not find it in himself to complain of the way Mr Xavier nestled against him warmly. It felt natural to hold him like this, as if the fragile glass that kept them apart had finally shattered.
“I,” Mr Xavier began, licking his suddenly dry lips. He had a few false starts before he finally said, “I missed you.”
“As I you.” Mr Lehnsherr rumbled affectionately.
Mr Xavier’s eyes were an astonishing shade of blue, and they drew their faces close together for a shared breath.
Unfortunately, someone at the door knocked, and Mr Xavier drew back. Miss MacTaggert asked to be led in.
“Oh,” she said when she saw them together. “I’d not meant to intrude. I can come back later.”
“It’s no trouble, Miss MacTaggert.” Charles Xavier cleared his throat. Mr Lehnsherr shot him a tender look, which made Moira blush.
“Ah, well. I’d just like to say a few words to Mr Lehnsherr. It’s very short, sir. I’ll be out of your hair soon.”
Mr Lehnsherr adopted his cool façade. “As you wish.”
“I heard from my stepbrother... about who paid for my sister’s wedding.” Miss MacTaggert fidgeted. “And I am here to apologize for how wrongly I’ve treated you in our previous encounters. I was prejudiced towards you and I let that hinder me from knowing the real you. Sebastian Shaw was lying when he said you were cruel. You’ve actually been very kind to my family, Mr Lehnsherr. I cannot doubt your character now.”
“Apology accepted,” Mr Lehnsherr said, softer than he would have liked. “I am sorry if I had been rude to you as well, if unintentionally. I am not…fluent in social niceties, not like Charles is.”
“I accept your apology as well.” She left with a curtsy and scuttled out of the room, shutting the door behind her.
“Erik,” Mr Xavier turned Mr Lehnsherr to him and smiled. “She’s right. You’re a very kind and giving man.”
“On the contrary, I have actually been quite selfish.”
Mr Lehnsherr took one of Mr Xavier’s hands and kissed the center of the palm, his thumb brushing the rabbit-quick pulse on the underside of the wrist. “I had a misunderstanding with a dear friend of mine. My pain made me blind to the truth, and in consequence I let the argument drag out, hurting us both.”
Xavier stayed quiet, partly out of disbelief. Lehnsherr continued to plant a kiss to his other palm, before placing them both on his chest, against his beating heart.
“I was jealous, you see, and angry. There was a girl who I thought caught his eye. She was quite taken with him, and they were friends. I did not see how a match was not possible. Unfortunately, I failed to take into account his side of the story, only hers, how she despised me and adored him. I thought after their marriage he would not want to see me anymore.
“A circumstance arose that would have me confront my old enemy Shaw. You know his story already; I will not elaborate further. Suffice to say I would rather hang myself than face him again. I did, however, not for the McCoys, and not even for Raven, but for the man who would have been unhappy if his loved ones suffered.”
Xavier swallowed; eyes were shiny with emotion. “Do you mean to tell me…”
“All of this, Charles. All of it. All for you.”
“Oh…oh, Erik. Stay with me, this time. Please.”
“I will. For as long as you’ll have me.”
“I always want you by my side.”
Mr Lehnsherr wiped a stray tear away, smiling, and they held each other close, souls sewn together as if they had never been apart.