The bell above the door rings, tinny and rustic. Charles looks up from his book, blinking a little at the influx of light the opening door floods in.
“Hullo,” he tells his guest, cheerfully. The man acknowledges his greeting with a quick nod. There’s a casual grace to him, writ in the lines of movement as he eases the door shut behind him, glides into the room.
“Hello,” he responds, quiet, voice smooth. He’s hard and sharp, a lion’s claws shining in the dark. Charles likes him immediately. Charles watches him peruse for a moment, surreptitious and curious.
The beams of the ceiling crash down around him. Sparks fly up at each impact, burnt timber sending it swirling through the air.
The flames seem to sway like willow trees in the breeze.
It's beautiful, he thinks.
His mother’s body crackles, consumed by the flames. There’s the harsh pop popping of bottles swollen with her drink as each one in turn burns itself out in a wild frenzy. The air smells of smoke and charred whiskey.
Somewhere, distantly his brother is crying.
He moves towards the sound. The flames around him sway and sparkle, lit embers floating past his head in swirling patterns of orange and red and blue.
There is a figure crouched over the huddled form of his brother. It looks up at him and the fire is reflected in the pools where its eyes should be.
“It’s alright,” it says and it’s long fingers rest against his brother’s tense back. “I will save him.” It holds out a hand.
There is soot running in tracks down his face from the kindness in its voice. It feels like drowning in boiling water.
“Alright,” he says and steps towards the light.
“Is there something specific you had in mind,” Charles asks him, tones low and even as though he might startle him if he’s not careful. Erik looks at him, one eyebrow arched high.
“It’s not quite something I have the words to describe. I’ll know it when I see it.”
“Ah,” Charles says, face lit beatifically. Erik leaves a half an hour later, frustrated and fruitless.
He lies like a broken bird on the ground, a robin with a breast of red.
A black shape swims into his vision. He grins at it with bloody teeth.
“Hi,” he says. It kneels beside him, still that impossible black shape, stroking sun-bright hair out of his face.
“Foster child,” he adds, because it’s an explanation and absolution. Yet the shape doesn't leave, abandoning him as is his due, his right, his expectation, it just looms greater in his vision until it’s all he can see.
“You are wanted,” it says, mouth a blank mass, voice like the tolling of church bells.
“Oh, in that case,” he answers and lets himself drown.
Go back, he’s told as the force inside him tugs him inexorably to the little shop.
He changes to flee from them. They would rip him to pieces, devour him, destroy him. He runs and he runs and he shifts and flows into everything they do not suspect. He adapts to flee.
But they grow closer everyday and so he fears.
One day, when his watching falters and he collapses in rest, they catch him. There’s five of them moving towards him with intent, arms outstretched and faces masks as they clutch their warded weapons and advance. He flattens himself against the ground, sinking, sinking into the porous surface but they raise their weapons high and they pierce the earth with their force. The vulnerable flesh of his body bursts and runs out into the concrete, sinking into artificial stone and ancient dirt. Again, again, they strike.
“Enough,” the voice vibrates air and soil without discrimination. He feels it inside himself.
“You will not end,” it’s a whisper, quiet but unquestionably certain. He feels the brush of flesh against his immaterial form and then there is light, so bright and so great that nothing he knows will defend against it.
It envelops him and turns the men away. It requests and in awe, he gives himself to it.
Charles’ head jerks up when the bell rings, visage brightening when he sees who it is.
“Oh, you’re back!”
Erik frowns and fidgets.
“Yes,” he says after a pause, then turns away from him to search through the rows once again. It feels like Charles is watching him the entire time, but when he looks up Charles is still buried in his book, flipping the pages one a minute. Unsettled, Erik leaves empty handed once again.
It’s cold in the darkness. Rotten wood and stale ground presses in on her from all sides. It should warm her, like an engulfing blanket. All it does is leach the heat from her bones, sucked up and dissipated into the earth and death surrounding her. There’s wet running down her legs, pooled between them and she squeezes her eyes shut and tries hard not to think about what it is, about the cramp in her belly and the dizziness in her head. She hugs her knees to her chest and lets the creaking of the world lull her into the dead sleep.
She’s woken by an ominous crumbling; dirt splattering against her face. It’s an indeterminate amount of time later. She’s lost without the ticking of a clock, but she’s long stopped shivering.
There’s a noise, a screeching howl and she thinks, sluggishly that perhaps they’ve found her. Machines that sounds like demon’s conversing. She laughs around her dry throat and it rasps in time to the seconds. The quality of air changes against her face.
At first she thinks it’s water, splashing on her cheeks and rolling down the hills of her shoulders and soaking into the dirt beneath her, but it stings at her eyes and blinking rapidly she realizes it’s a sliver of light.
“Wha,” she croaks, barely more than a sigh.
Take my hand she hears, swirling, lost in the rocking of her mind, the rushing in her ears. She’s gone mad until a face appears in her vision to prove her incorrect.
It’s a cherub’s guise, features swimming in blue.
“Oh,” she breathes; sunlight and new growth. He smiles.
“I am here to give peace,” he says. His pale hands reach out, warped against the blackness like grubs. The earth breaks, shatters and light streams over them. She takes his hand.
“It’s nothing,” Erik growls the next time he asks and balls his fists in frustration as the bell chimes his exit overhead.
“Geek,” they shriek, shoving him harshly against the brick. His hand splays out, crushes against tinny metal, knocking it to the ground with a crash. It rolls away, unnoticed and unremarked and he wishes in that moment with all his heart that he could be so overlooked.
Their eyes flash huge in their heads, warped inhuman until there's nothing recognizable about them, their hands bent like claws. He curls in on himself, protection as flimsy as cellophane. They beat and they kick and they rip at him with their alien hate.
He throws his head back and howls, red on red on blue and then something is crawling from them, crawling out from their forms, twisting and breaking them until nothing is left and no sound can be heard.
The world is enveloped in silence so complete that even his heart stills in respect. The air opens before him, a soft voice whispering to him promising him home, home, home. He stands slowly, dripping red onto the pavement before carefully, hesitantly stepping through.
Go back, it hisses, sinuous in his mind. Go back, and it gets louder, louder, until it is a dull, constant roar pounding through his skull. His feet can’t take him there fast enough. The minute his hand touches the metal bar of the door, it falls silent, abrupt. Erik blinks in peace, breathes until he feels his mind is his own, again.
The little girl with the blue skin mottled like scales over her form looks up at the sounds of footsteps approaching. A boy watches her from the shaded outclave cast between the stairs and the over bright light of the refrigerator. She pulls away, eyes wide, posture tense. This boy should not see her, and she should not see him. Around them, black forms move like smoke. The boy holds out his hand and touches one, its form parting around the tiny, pale shape. He crooks his finger in a caress and his eyes do not look through, but catch and hold like hooks in a net.
"Who are you," he asks, moving through the sea until he stands in front of her.
"I--," she says, eyes wide. "I'm your mother."
The boy tilts his head, a tiny frown furrowing his brow.
"No you aren't," he says. "My mother wants me dead. You don't want me dead."
She has nothing to say to that, but she raises a hand towards him and he lets her. His skin is soft beneath her palm.
"Your hand is cold," he says and she swallows around the heavy seed in her throat, bursting with words unsaid. "Are you hungry?" He asks. "Will you stay with me?"
The scene inside is the same. Charles looks up and smiles. It’s become familiar.
“Hello,” he says, finally. Erik huffs a sigh and cards a hand through his hair, makes a decision.
“I’m looking for something,” he says, finally, gruff. “I don’t know anything about it.”
Charles quirks a brow. He sets his book aside and stands.
“Descriptive,” he says, amused, but he comes around the counter. Erik watches, perplexed as he moves past him, the ghost of his passing ruffling the hair on his arms.
He’s the librarian type, bundled up in sweaters and thick trousers. His hair’s a bit of a mess, like he’s usually got his nose buried so far in a book he barely remembers to come up for air, let alone remembers to get a trim. He stretches up on tiptoes (his mouth barely comes to Erik’s chin), the line of him straining. His shirt pulls up, showing a thin sliver of pale skin. He doesn’t see much sun, lives a soft life. Erik feels his lips purse, on the verge of dismissing him once again when his heels comes back down on the floor. His thin fingers are wrapped around a worn looking book. It’s well read, white creases spidered down its cover. That strange, warm expression still stretched across his face, he presses it into Erik’s hand.
Erik looks down at it, opens it warily. The words swim across the pages, twisting into shapes a part of him can barely look at. It sets his teeth on edge and he snaps it closed, looking up at Charles with a glare.
“How,” he asks simply. Charles cocks his head at him and there’s a moment of disconnect, the world rearranging itself, where Erik realizes he’s known this man’s name all along, when he has never offered it in words.
Erik lets go of the nails in the wall.
“You’re like me,” he says.
He is drawn to the book, as he should be. The quiet depths of him pulls him towards it, shies not from the twisting words as his surface thoughts do. They vibrate in time to the depth. Charles smile shines through the shadow that passes over him.
“Yes,” he answers, taking a step into Erik’s personal space until he can take up his hand, clutching it in the soft fingers of those who’ve never felt hard labor. “You’re not alone.”
Erik swallows inaudibly, in the privacy of his own mind (private no longer?) and if he squeezes it’s only the pulsing of his heart. Charles’ thumb rubs against the back of his hand and Erik shakes himself, gently disentangles himself from his grip. He coughs.
“I see,” he says. “I hadn’t thought. . . .” He trails off and refrains from holding the book to his chest like a talisman. His fingers go white knuckled around the spine.
“Well,” Charles says, a bit brusque and claps his hands together. He pauses and looks outside with a thoughtful look. “There’s a bit too many people out there today.” He glances at Erik and gestures to his head with one hand, an unintelligible wave. “Hard on the old noggin.” He must read something of Erik’s incomprehension in his expression, he extrapolates.
“It’s. . . overwhelming,” Charles says and there’s an almost dreamy look lost in his eyes. “The feel of thousands of minds against your own. Thousands brushing against you, whispering to you, telling you everything of themselves.” There’s pause. Erik remains still, not breathing. Charles shakes himself, his expression falling from ecstasy to welcoming serenity. “I avoid it when I can.”
“I can see where your power might become inconvenient,” Erik says dryly, to cover his discomfiture. “I’m not surprised at all that you you’re employed at a bookstore.”
“Oh I don’t work here,” he says, laughing and something like awareness prickles down Erik’s spine, though he has no time to examine the idea as Charles is pressing onward. “And besides, you’d be surprised how engaged minds can get when they’re reading.”
Men and women sitting still, their thoughts trapped in worlds realities away, bodies bent and frozen while their minds whirl.
“Ah,” Erik says, thoughts jerking in stages, still not quite sure what to think about him being in his head. “Then what do you do?”
“Oh, I run an orphanage. Would you like to see?”
Charles shows him into the back of a very large, very immaculate stretch limousine. Erik gives it a sidelong glance and rests a hand against the buzzing metal of its side. It heaves beneath his touch, rising up to meet each stroke.
“Do you like him,” Charles asks. “He was a gift from one of the Lesser Children.” He pats his side affectionately as he palm the handle, the door creaking open obligingly. “Well, perhaps better to say he is a Lesser Child.”
He laughs, high and bright and Erik follows him inside. There's a driver in the front seat dressed in a sharp hat and a pressed coat. His form pulses alive to Erik's senses. He flows indecipherable from the seat beneath him, from the walls that encase them.
“Oh,” Charles exclaims, airily from beside him. “The projection feels like ice to me. It's curious to know what it feels like to someone else who can sense him.” He leans over and raps a knuckle against the driver’s seat. “Hullo, Darwin,” he says.
Erik slots him a curious glance and almost immediately wishes he hadn't. Charles' expression is overly bright, blinding, cracked open so wide it makes Erik tired just looking at him. Beneath them the Lesser Child rumbles to life, pulling away from the curb.
“Do you play chess,” Charles asks.
“You seem passing fond of non-sequiters, but yes. A little. Why?”
“Wonderful,” Charles says and his joyous expression is dialed down, more pleased than manic, now. He presses a hand to a panel at the side of the door. It unfolds, flows down like ice freezing over water until it stretches across their laps. The little game pieces sat in front of Erik seem to swallow the light. Charles' shine like the sun.
“I hope you don't mind playing black,” he says. Erik wonders why he’s here. Inside him, the Presence twists and later, his king falls under the crushing weight of the white queen.
“The Gods want something from us,” he says and knocks over a pawn with his bishop.
Charles’ mansion is opulent. There’s rooms upon rooms, hallways that wind, twisting and turning into hallways. They go nowhere, they go somewhere, they go everywhere. It is alive. He has seen Charles’ children turn onto the path before him from empty space that was nothing but a shuttered wall when Erik looked.
The board before him presents an enigma. A curious strategy to place something of value deliberately into the line of fire with so little apparent to be gained.
“They care nothing for us,” he answers, inattentive to his words. Charles laughs.
“It’s strange to me that one so bright with them could believe that,” he admits. Erik shrugs and makes his move.
The children he met immediately on his arrival to the mansion.
They stood outside on the expansive drive all in a line, like dolls on a shelf. The only thing differentiating them from human mockeries is their posture, at turns relaxed and tense, varied as teenagers are. There was Alex, arms folded like he could hold back the world with tense posture and scowl alone, Hank, with his blue fur and glasses perched awkwardly on his feline nose, Angel, proud and straight-backed, herself writ in her posture and her opposite, Sean, laid back and heavy lidded smiling welcome. Darwin flowed out from behind them, the lean lines of limousine compacting into a form tall and gangly; he bowed to them and went to join the line of children.
Raven was scaled blue, naked as a babe. She came forward, breaking the line to take Charles into an embrace, warm and at odds with the prickly skin of her body. Erik rested a hand atop her head stiffly, non-plussed and wary.
“Erik,” Charles said. “These are the children.”
“Hello,” he said.
“Hello,” they chorused as one.
Erik rolls a fallen pawn between his fingers, thoughtful. So far, they always fall like good, loyal soldiers. Erik considers and decides, sets up a defense.
Charles leans his elbow on the board. Erik frowns and glances up, about to admonish him.
Charles’ eyes are very blue.
“Our lives are a string, Erik, connected, yet separate, parallel, and always, always heading towards the end.”
Erik swallows around a dry mouth. The chessboard languishes, forgotten as Charles stands.
“I’m sorry, my friend, but it has been a long time since I have dreamed,” he looks a little sheepish, running a hand through his hair. “Perhaps we can finish another time?”
Erik’s brows furrow in a frown and he taps the pawn against the table.
Tired. Erik has never dreamed, never folded himself into their embrace, never given in to their siren call.
“Perhaps, my friend, it is why you are so on edge.” His eyes sparkle and he reaches out a hand, welcoming, a request. Erik holds himself still, small and taut and refuses, outright, to spring. Charles’ smile falls from his face, but his eyes don’t lose their gleam, or their pleasure.
“Alright,” he gives acquiescence and backs away, leaving Erik to his thoughts. “I’ll be waiting if you change your mind.”
Charles’ beds are softer then he’s had since he was small and they were bolstered by his mother’s hand and when he falls into them hours later, easily, too easily, sliding in to sleep, their essences tangle together like lovers, but drift into sleep like children.
The ice fissures beneath his feet, cracked and towering high over head and dropping mind numbingly down, down into blackness. They’re stretching long canyons that frame a blinding white sky and behind him, his shadow looms.
Erik swears, jerks away, falling over the tattered ground. Hands grip him before he crashes, soft to the touch but steel beneath the skin.
They’re attached to a laugh, chiming like unmanned bells. Erik whirls against the grip, teeth clenched and eyes wide.
His shout dies in his throat.
Charles stands behind him, but Erik can see him only in silhouette. White light burns from his eyes and halos around him, stretching as far as Erik can see. The hand wrapped around his wrist burns, but does not cause pain. Erik’s eyes flick down to it, then back up. Slowly, the light fades, curls up like a bud, sliding back under his skin until nothing is left but an unnatural sheen to his eyes.
“Erik,” he says, warmer by far than their surroundings. “You came.”
“So it seems,” he agrees, holding tight to his reservations, blinking hard from the effects of the bright light. Spots swim in his vision and he knuckles his eyes, tugging his arm from Charles’ hand. When he looks up again the spots are still there.
They’re hazy, phasing masses, moving around them in bubbly waves. His shadow writhes behind him, careens into one, twisting itself out from under his feet to pounce, pulling apart the floating splotches. They stretch until they snap, swirling like ink stains in the air. The shadow, his Presence, hunches within the forlorn mess, tongue lolling like a grinning dog. Erik makes a quiet noise of distaste. Charles snorts.
“Yes, alright,” he says. “It’s not the most pleasant of places to be, but you can grow here, Erik.”
He throws his hands back and reaches into the space between them, unfolding outwards and upwards and into every nook and cranny.
“Stretch,” he tells him. “Stretch, Erik,” and he spreads out into the sky.
Erik spends a month in the mansion contemplating the life Charles has built within his walls. The children flow around him, mobile fixtures that dart in front of him like brightly colored fish in a pond. They do not speak to him unless Charles is present. It is as if he is not a part of their world, that he is the ghost moving through their walls.
But they speak to Charles.
He comes upon them, Charles stroking a hand through Angel’s hair, fingers massaging her scalp. She’s curled up into a warm ball at his side, content. It’s a heartwarming scene, one that settles like a comforting blanket into his mind.
“I never wanted to be trapped like that, again,” she says, chin jutting stubbornly, eyes sparking in the light of the fire. The long insect wings at her back undulate, thin and delicate. “It’s enough.”
Charles’ face is writhing.
“You’re beautiful,” he murmurs, soothing, mouth breaking on the words and splintering into a million pieces. Angel snuffles and buries her head against his thigh.
Erik blinks and his vision clears. Charles is looking down at the girl exactly as he should be, that trace of a warm smile cresting his features into something more than the sum of its parts.
They love us, Erik. No one ever said love was a kind thing.
They’re dreaming, again. Charles stands on a precipice, staring over the edge and when he turns to speak his eyes are the only color Erik can make out in the world.
It’s we who create the horrors, not the gods, Erik replies. But in our actions, we are only following what they want.
Charles shakes his head, smile gone a little sad.
Only, he asks and something blooms in his expression, takes root and flowers bright and full in the dead landscape.
Well. Perhaps not everything.
Erik flows forward, then, he opens his mouth wide, slides his tongue between Charles’s lips, invading him. They part on a gasp and Charles’ arms come up around him, stroke into his hair and then they tip forward, Charles’ feet lighting on air and they’re falling, falling down and down and down. Erik thrusts into his mouth, his pliant body wrapped in soft skin as the wind whips about their bodies. Charles opens to him, straining to the limits as they embrace.
With a flash Erik awakens panting, light creeping from his eyes to reveal the darkness of his bedroom.
He does not wait long before his door creaks open with heavy weight from the outside, spilling a lighter grey against his carpet. A darker figure creeps in, stumbling once, before the he reaches the bed and the wide open window casts silvery light onto his features.
Charles looks wrecked, eyes red rimmed and wild. He clambers over Erik in his bed, holding him down with his hips and his hands and his knees.
“Why are you here, Erik? What is in this book that is so important?” His eyes flare in the dark. “You’re so bitter, but so strong. You are a dichotomy to me, a puzzle.” He lets off on pinning him for a moment, strokes a hand over his cheek. “One I am enamoured with, all your hard edges and meandering lines.” He leans closer, pressed chest to chest, hand shifting against his skin. “Show me, please?” It’s a quiet, desperate plea, a tone Erik has never once heard from him. “Please,” He stretches a palm over his temple. Erik opens his mouth to protest but the world opens up underneath him.
The world is stained red, red like the puddle under his knees, the growing stain traveling up the fabric of his trousers, soaking him to the bone.
Metal put her here, metal took her apart. There is metal in her blood, the scent of iron spiking against his nostrils with every heave of breath.
“Mutter,” he says to her corpse, stroking her hair. The strands shine like quicksilver in the half-light. “Mutter.”
She sits him upon her knee and tells him a story, his favorite story.
“The Fair Child is born, the Fair Child lives in death--”
There is a man standing over her steaming body. His hands are outstretched, wide and glorying in his violence. His face is sharp, cutting, teeth gleaming in the red-washed night. He turns that smile to look where Erik is crouched, hiding in the bushes.
To him she turns, holding out a ladle of thick soup. He shrieks and takes it from her, cupping it in his small hands and drinking from it. She laughs and turns him out of the kitchen and away he streaks.
Erik stumbles into the darkness, leaving black holes in the snow, spindly hands clenched over the frozen skin of her cheek. He cannot see for the wavering of the landscape, the tears in his eyes twisting it into grotesque shapes and abstract lines. The only thing that is clear is her expression; dangling bodiless from his fingers, she stares at him in agony.
He drops to his knees by the rushing flow of the river. He bows his head, curled around her. He is shivering, but he does not feel the cold. For a long moment he pays her his respects, he strokes her hair, kisses her frozen forehead, reels in incomprehension.
Her hair disappears into the frosty water, staining the rushing river pink. It is a pathetic funeral; broken as he is broken, as she was broken, as the world has shattered.
He feels the Presence at his back.
He comes to with Charles hovering over, cradling him in his arms.
“Your anger,” he whispers. “It is so strong, so powerful. But there is more to you then rage, my friend. Your sorrow runs deeper than your anger ever could.” His lips brush feather light against his hair. Erik’s face is covered in snot and tears. Charles’ shirt is soaked.
The rage hits him. He wants to stand, to throw him off, to shake him until his teeth rattle from his skull.
But the hand buried, stroking, in his hair is soothing and there is something to his words and Erik has never been anything but pragmatic. He must find his mother’s killer.
“I do know someone, I think,” Charles says, into his quiet. Erik goes lax in his arms and knows he will.
The silhouette of the building towers over them, breaking white like the cresting foam of a wave. It is stone, seamless and gleaming pure in the sunlight.
“There’s no metal here,” Erik grinds out. “I don’t like it.” Charles lays a gentle hand against his back.
“No,” he replies. “But there is a man.”
“I still don’t like it.”
“It’s alright,” Charles answers. “He is the stone.”
Erik rolls his shoulders, not complacent, but what else is he to do? He walks forward.
“Charles,” the walls roar. “You show your face here, to me?” Laughter that shakes the very foundation beneath their feet.
Inside the walls are as stark white and impartial as they are on the outside. There is one path with many doors that stretches deep and unerring into the heart of the place and Charles looks up at the ceiling as if seeing serenity there. Erik stands to his right and just behind him, body vibrating with the needs to hurt and twist and break under his will.
“Of course, brother,” Charles replies, to the rumbling voice, unusually solemn.
A figure presses itself out from the stone. It moves with jerky competence, turning its blunt head towards them. Charles comes to a stop in front of it.
“Your insolence,” it hisses, mouth flexing, gaping and snarling into existence. “Will not go unrewarded.”
He roars and Charles is thrown back, body a boneless marionette that crashes against the farthest wall. He slides to the ground and his brother’s arms twist out and around him, settling encircling his slumped and battered form. Erik makes to step forward, face twisted in an expression of mindless rage, but Charles look up, eyes wide and watery blue. He holds up a hand, a plea for clemency, and settles it on the lifeless, unforgiving cold of his brother’s projection.
“Kurt,” he says.
The walls crumble to dust, shatter and fly away with a huff of wind. The sky is dotted with stars and the moon hangs pregnant and low on the horizon.
A man stands in between the settled form of Charles’ and Erik’s trembling rage.
“Charles,” he says and he sounds tired, weary to the bone. His posture is slumped, hunched in on itself. He is much smaller than his projections, almost feather-like in disposition. He presses a hand to his temple, clearly pained. “What the hell do you want?” Erik circles around him slowly until he’s rejoined Charles. His eyes are black pebbles in his sockets and he does not take them off of Charles’ brother as he reaches a hand down to help Charles up. Charles take it and stands unsteadily, swaying. The metal in Erik’s pockets sing. Charles’ hand is warm.
“I have a question for you,” he says. Kurt fights back a sneer; his lips jump with it.
“A question,” he replies, flat with disdain.
“Hmm,” Charles agrees and steps forward, close to him, crossing into his space.
“Fine,” Kurt says. Charles's smile blooms again.
“Thank you,” he says, laying hand to his temple. “Do you know this man?” Kurt’s eyelids flutter for a moment. When he comes to with a gasp, his mouth falls open and he curls forward, just a little, just enough to broadcast his discomfiture.
“How do you-” he starts, Charles interrupts.
There's no such thing as coincidences, brother," he says. Kurt's eyes blacken.
"You insufferable know-it-all little shit," he snaps, vicious. He straightens and his hand raises, threatening and Erik steps forward, wrapping fingers around his wrist. Kurt shoots him an ugly look.
"I don’t know why you’re looking for him, but you better back off,” he says, eyes not leaving Erik’s. Erik shows his teeth, all of them sitting perfect in his skull.
“I already know,” Charles says, gently, into the pregnant pause. “I only need you to say it.” Kurt yanks his skinny arm from Erik’s grip, one last scathing look, and turns to frown at Charles, incredulous.
“Why the hell for,” he asks. Charles smiles enigmatically. Kurt’s nostrils flare. Erik’s hands flex.
“I only agreed to work with him because I thought I understood what he wanted,” he says, finally. He shrugs. “He agreed to work with me because he didn’t want what I was selling.” He shows his teeth, a sardonic grin. His naked toes flex against the ground. “Guess being stuck wasn’t appealing.” He laughs and it’s without humor.
“So, my point is,” he says. “You knew, yeah? Did you know, too, that he’s heard of you?” He runs a hand through his stringy hair. “He’s looking for you. I told him I had no idea where the fuck you were. I didn’t, yeah? How the fuck was I supposed to know you-” he stops, pauses, takes a breath. “Whatever. Anyway, it wasn’t out of loyalty to you is all I’m saying. You got a cigarette?”
Charles reaches into his pocket and pulls out an ancient, crumpled pack. Kurt eyes it like he’s seeing something of a ghost, then barks a laugh.
“Same fucking one,” he says, gingerly sliding a stick from the crumpled aluminium. “You goody-two shoes son-of-a-bitch. That’s a joke, boy-toy,” he smirks at Erik and lights the stick with a snap of his fingers. Erik doesn’t bother responding. “Don’t get the wrong impression, brother, only I told him if I saw you I’d run you straight to him.” His smirk turns into a grin.
“Yeah he’s been looking too, you know. He came around last week and asked if I knew anything about some big mansion out in Westchester.” He barks a laugh. ”And wasn’t that a fucking knee slapper? Yeah, I told him I knew about the place. He said there was a lot of activity there, a lot of our kind hanging around and I thought that was funny, told him you’d been collecting strays since you were a kid and wasn’t he fucking interested to hear that?”
Charles goes very still.
“You mealy little shit,” Erik says and advances on him. Kurt’s grin grows. Charles backs away. He takes Erik’s arm.
“You left me here, Charles,” Kurt says and his face twists, fracturing into pieces. They break and pull apart, revealing a hidden core. It is green light, washing over the fields granting the foliage a radioactive glow. The glowing stone twists around the light, swirling faster and faster and faster. His voice distorts, bodiless. “I would break you, brother, darling brother, he of the easy life. You took my father from me, you and that mother of yours, you think I didn’t know? You took everything from me, and you come here like I owe you?!”
Watch out, Charles’ mental voice snaps Erik to attention. Pieces fracture from the swirling sphere, flinging sharp and heavy flakes unerringly towards them. Erik dives to the ground, pulling Charles bodily along with him.
Kurt laughs, human again and there’s ugly bitterness laced in his words.
“Better run,” he says. “He’s looking for you.” Erik bares his teeth one last time and, arm still wrapped protectively around Charles, they pull themselves to their feet and go. Kurt’s laughter chases their heels, his arms stretched out like taut wire glinting silhouetted against the sky.
The walls are smoking around them, shattered and heaving as if the house itself feels its injury. He stands before them, straight-backed and tall. There are others at his back, out of focus and indistinct.
“Come,” he implores. “Come to me and enjoy something greater than yourself.”
The children stand in a row, planted stubbornly, each with a varying degree of defiance sprawled across their features. A grin stretches across the man’s face; Sebastian Shaw, he’s introduced himself as, a self-proclaimed collector of oddities, but the children know as their protector does.
Angel steps forward, head held high.
“You’ll never have it from me,” she says, smug. “There’s only one of you, one useless little thing. All it can do is swallow.”
Shaw smiles and takes her hand, brings it to his lips. She smirks.
“Oh my dear, you sweet thing. The taste of you is like honey.” He purrs.
Her hand begins to smoke.
She tries to snatch it back, eyes growing wide. Alex hisses and shoulders his way forward, shoves Shaw with all he’s got, but Angel’s hand comes with him. It scatters like ash between his fingers.
“No, no what is this?”
“Swallowing,” Shaw answers with a laugh, unconcerned that he’s sprawled against the wall. Darwin makes some noise, stretches forward until he’s clutching Alex’s arm and shoving him harshly behind him. Alex snarls, angry but Darwin shushes him with a look.
He stands before them all, heavy stone laced with shots of red. Shaw grins and stands and takes it from him with a touch. He drains the hardness from his skin until he is a withered husk at their feet, almost before any of those still alert can register what is happening.
He reaches for Raven next, hand outstretched.
There’s the screech of metal and then he’s knocked away, to the side, flying and crashing against tables and chairs, skidding half a meter on his side. Erik comes into the room like a hurricane, dragging metal like an endless wave behind him. He bares his teeth at Shaw who is wrapped beneath a cocoon of grey and silver, arms and legs lashed tight to the ground. The tip of Erik’s shoe touches his boot.
There’s a flash of red, white teeth shocking and the smell of sulfur. Azazel grabs hold of Shaw, hands grasping under arms. Brown eyes meet blue and then smoke and sulfur and they’re gone.
Erik lets out a wordless roar and stabs the air where they’d been viciously with a ton of stainless steel. He whirls on Charles.
“Did you get something from them, anything,” he snarls.
Charles turns his gaze away from where they’d stood with a shake of himself.
“Water,” he says, slowly. “Endless depths of it.”
Erik shoves a hand roughly through his hair, muttering in German.
“They’re dead,” Alex says, kneeling in dust and letting it fall through his fingers. Charles’ face crumples in concern. He kneels with him, resting a hand light on his back. He draws him to him, curling his arms around his form in a protective, regretful embrace.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers and Erik turns sharply away and leaves them to their grief, the over-gentle cadence of his footfalls his only concession to their pain.
“I have a plan,” Charles says, and there is a hard set to his face, a cold core like ice. Erik looks up from where he’s sprawled across the lounge, glass of scotch glittering in his hand.
“Is that so,” he inquires, dryly. “Well,” he raises the glass, tips it to Charles in a solute. “Good for you.” He does not drink, but lets it rest back at his side, face drawn and pinched.
Charles kneels beside him, sinking into the plush carpet.
“Erik,” he whispers, laying a hand tentatively against the softness of his trousers. When Erik does not move, Charles rests his forehead next to the long fingers of his hand. “Erik, Erik, I have lost today. I-- please.”
A muscle in Erik’s jaw jumps as his eyes squeeze shut, but the hand he lays in Charles’ hair is gentle and flutters lightly before it settles.
“I have a plan,” Charles repeats, muffled by fabric.
“Yes,” Erik relents and Charles tells him.
They stand in foyer of the great silver beast. Erik feels the metal thrumming against his senses, ocean currents lapping against the barrier and tries not to show his discomfort.
“For this to work Erik you have to not draw attention to yourself,” Charles says, brusquely as he fidgets with the cuff of his shirt.
Erik quirks a brow at him.
“I’m your, what, your ‘valet/’, how precisely can I not be visible,” he grumbles and adjusts his weight.
“Just hold very still, Erik,” Charles replies and shifts into a beautiful, open expression as the metal swings open and reveals the source of Erik’s secret hate.
Shaw’s smile is as open as Charles’. Watching them look at each other feels like a moment at a ridiculous theater play; two clowns, lips painted red, sizing each other up, only one of those laughing figures killed his mother. Erik scowls.
They sit in an opulent white room, decorated in clean white lines. Shaw and Charles sit angled close together on the soft bleached leather couch and Erik stands, just to his left and behind him. They’ve spoken for nearly two hours and the strain of not murdering the bastard is wearing on Erik’s nerves.
Shaw strokes his knuckles down Charles’ cheek. Erik bristles.
Shhh. . . . he hears, barely a whisper in his mind tagging alongside insidious calm.
His power retreats back into his mind and the hands he’s clenched tight release. His palms are wet from the crescents of skin his nails have taken from his palms. Shaw is slanting him a curious look. He is still speaking.
“-amenable, I’m sure,” he finishes. Erik blinks red spots from his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Shaw says, and now he’s standing, focused on Erik, crowding nearer. He’s so close Erik can smell his cologne and his breakfast, but still, Shaw does not recognize him. Charles’ power holds and fleetingly, Erik wishes it wouldn’t so that he would have an excuse to gore him. “What gift were you given?”
There’s a touch of soothing concern feathering across his thoughts. Erik bares his teeth at Shaw, a parody of greeting and warmth.
“I didn’t say.”
Shaw laughs, full and throaty. Erik’s skin crawls.
“Even your help is charming, Charles,” he says, dry, amused sarcasm dripping from his tone, turning away and ignoring Erik completely again. He snakes an arm around Charles’ shoulder, tainted grin tilted down on him. “Why don’t I show you where you’ll be staying?”
Erik finds he’s following the lyrical sound of Charles’ voice, once he’s flowed to his feet to follow, without making a conscious decision, mind curiously blank.
“I left him alive because he promised me a telepath -his own brother, no less, and look at this. Five years later, he delivers.”
The woman in white guides him to his room.
He awakens an indeterminate time later, groggy and disoriented. It takes him a moment to realize what happened and when he does he shoots out of the bed, cursing wildly and throwing the covers off himself.
He slips down the hall, sneaking glances around every corner and making his way as quickly as he can towards where he can feel Charles shining in his senses, cold and monolithic.
They are in the drawing room and there is the wobbling, tell-tale haze to their essence that speaks of drink. He shoves the door open, vicious and hard, slamming it into the wall. Charles turns to him, with hidden outrage sparking from his gaze.
“Stop it,” he says. “I almost have it.” And he turns back, but Shaw is close, so close to him, they are locked in an orbital embrace whose permanence is blocked only by inches. Charles lays a hand against Shaw’s cheek. Charles’ glamour holds and Shaw slides his paws over his bare flesh, fingers ghosting over the hard nub of his nipple that's outlined sharply by the thin fabric of his shirt. Charles slaps his hand away. Only Erik sees him cringe; by the time Shaw looks up at him, eyebrows raised high, his discomfort has hidden itself small once more, masked in garish paint and fake welcome.
The last thing he's conscious of is Shaw's sallow, ugly grin.
Erik comes back to himself covered in blood. He stands over the body of Shaw, dripping his lifeblood back into the wounds he's torn into his flesh.
There's a howling in his head, raucous and biting.
No, Erik no. You've released him, Erik no. You’ve done enough.
Erik stares down at the mangled body at his feet. He's probably just doomed the world and can't seem to find it in himself to care.
Shaw is dead. Shaw is dead and broken at his feet. Erik won and he's never given a shit about the humans and their ridiculous societies, anyways. Let them rot in their excess. He feels powerful, swollen with it. His face twists up into a sneer and he raises a booted foot, brings it down to grind into his dead man's face.
But Charles is still yelling, he's yelling and he's coming closer. He crashes into Erik, hard enough that he stumbles, falls. They roll and Charles ends up on top, his hands cradle Erik's face, a prison. Erik roars and rails against it, though no words pass his lips.
Erik please, come back to me, my love please. Look at me, look at me. Get away from that thing, I am the only one you need to know, do you remember, you remember, please Erik, please.
Erik stills, panting, chest heaving. Charles bounces along with him, a miniscule rocking.
With effort he pulls his insubstantial self away from the lure of Shaw’s death. It lets him go and shrieks into the distance and inside of him, his Presence recedes, angry still, it wants, but it listens. Erik watches the shadow flee, and where it goes the air rends, splitting like ripe skin. The nearness of what almost happened, what did happen makes him sick. He swallows bile.
“There,” Charles cooes. “There. You are well. You did not become the monster that haunts your nightmares, waking and sleep. I-- I am going to let you up. Is that alright?”
He does not answer, but slowly, he does so anyway, pulling himself physically away, though his essence hovers like an ill-cloud, a mother hounding her chicks. Erik scowls.
“I’m fine,” he tells them, raspy. “I’m fine. Let me be.”
“Yes, alright, of course,” he says, but he does not fit words with action. He too is watching where Shaw’s power has left him. Shaw never bothered to tame his Presence, and now it is loose, the rules of their contracts shattered and the world itself will pay for this negligence. Already, the air stinks of acrid smoke, teasing and cloying and sticking in the throat. “I almost had him,” he mumbles. “I almost had him.” He turns back to where Erik has sat up, looking up at Charles from below. “Why did you-- No, no, I know, I understand, but the devastation it will cause. . . .
“We have to stop this, Erik,” Charles finishes and his face is so earnest. Erik barks a laugh.
“Why,” he sneers, for humanity has never made favors for them and though he may have avoided the monster chasing him, it does not mean at all that they do not share opinions on this matter.
“I did not think your bitterness ran so deep,” Charles says, and before him, he fractures. It is the first time that Erik has seen him brought so low. He grits his teeth.
“They are a disease, Charles. You see that, you see what they have made of themselves, their viciousness and their hatred of their unknowns.”
Charles straightens, a hint of steel in his spine.
“Even your mother?”
Erik’s nostrils flair and he scowls, and looks sharply away, teeth grinding.
Charles sighs. Erik’s eyes fall shut.
“Erik, you have to help me, this, you have released this, and you know the horror it will bring.”
He kneels, falls forward and Charles kisses him, tongue licks past his lips, stroking his own.
I'm not ready to give this up, yet.
It is not us they would kill.
Ah, but was it not you who said they had no care for us?
Erik sighs and pulls away, not much, just enough to rest their foreheads together.
“Bring me the book,” he says.
“The one I gave you?”
“Among others, yes. There is something there, something great. I will find it, but I ask-- Ah, I know you blame this on me, but I ask. Will you help me?”
Charles lips twist, shaky and stands. There are lines cutting delicate scars into his cheeks, bright with reflected light. He does not bother to wipe the signs of his sorrow away.
“Oh Erik. How could I do anything else?”
He finds their solution buried deep. His discovery rockets through him, a roiling in his gut. It's horrible.
Erik shudders and strokes a finger over the words, the sprawling diagram. He thinks of Charles, slight and kind. The pictures overlap in his mind. He has to set the book down, very carefully so that he does not destroy the binding.
“There is one thing we can try,” Erik says on bringing it to him and Charles immediately leans in to look. He cringes, hands clenching in ineffectual fists. He shoves them in the sleeves of his coat.
“I was afraid of that,” he says quietly, miserably. Erik frowns.
“You know of it?”
“Of course,” he answers, rubbing his arms beneath his sleeves. He stares at the swimming pages unseeing “Of course. I had hoped-- But no. No, it is the only way.” He glances up, blue eyes meeting steel. “You have found nothing else?”
“No,” Erik replies, hard, too quick. It is true, but truth does not make any less of a certain. . . eagerness to see this done.
“But you're sure, then? That this is the only way?” He asks. That I can even be that strong.
“Yes,” Erik says, on a breath to all questions both spoken and left unaired. Charles shudders, hangs his head.
“It’s you, only you Charles. Only you can hold it, only you can make it pure.”
Charles chews on his lips, looks up at him from under sooty lashes. Erik steps forward and lays a hand against his cheek.
“Not even they have touched you, my love,” he reassures. Charles closes his eyes and swallows.
“Well then,” he says, faintly. “We’d better prepare.” His steps are fumbling when he walks past Erik; he stumbles and nearly falls. Erik feels an intense pang of affection. Rightly, this should be his to bear, but Charles, his beautiful Charles who will give him anything, anything at all that is his to gift. On that impulse Erik overtakes him, slides his arm around his belly, presses a kiss into his neck. Charles stills, but does not relax in his grip.
“I must remain pure for at least twenty-four hours before the ritual, Erik. You know this.” His voice strains. Erik sighs out a breath that ruffles his hair, nuzzles his neck.
“It can wait,” he says, quietly. “I have waited years for this.” Charles shakes his head, hair brushing against Erik’s cheek.
“I haven’t,” he says, quiet, but filled with steel. “I need this to be done and finished.”
Charles steps forwards, arms outstretched. An invisible wind whips his hair, caressing his skin. His form seems to warp,
He whimpers and shakes, gooseflesh standing obviously on exposed skin.
Erik catches it in snippets and glances, only when he looks sideways.
Something wraps itself around Charles. It’s endless, giant, stretching back and up, on into eternity, sticking out from white clouds and gloating in endless, cold, empty space. It clings to pale skin. He throws his head back and pants, chest heaving. His hands are caught up, held to his sides and just over the height of his shoulders. It seems to pulse around him, insinuating itself around him, in him; white and black swirls that roil beneath his skin, stretching and straining. Charles moans, low and half-pained, half something Erik doesn’t want to name.
Charles sighs against his mind, a blast of sounds and feeling that radiates out from him. The thing moves over him, seems to swallow him whole. Erik can’t see it, not really; it’s twisting skin and senseless eyes. It is only a shape that occasionally descends into the visceral, eyeless gaze fixing on the taint inside him.
Charles’ body undulates, his eyes open wide and unseeing, mouth hanging open. The form pulses around him, insinuating itself into every pore.
Charles cries out.
They crash into him, shattering against him, one after another after another after another. Charles makes a noise, little ones every time his body is wracked, twitching and jumping and pushed by the invisible.
Charles goes limp, stumbling, just barely getting his feet under him. Erik, free now, rushes forward and catches him under his arms, lowering his swollen form gently to the ground. He groans, limbs twitching.
His body is covered in little spidered vines sinking into every pore, sliding through his ears and into soft tissue. Erik lays a hand over the swell of his belly, reverent and amazed.
“Charles,” he whispers and Charles’ whimper is bit off by a howl and his back arcs, stomach spasming wildly. Then, just as quickly as the convulsions appear, Charles goes limp and his stomach heaves itself flat. The black lines fade into his skin.
Fine tremors run up and down his arm
And though Charles is once again outwardly no different, Erik can feel beneath his hand the change.
“So many of them,” Charles moans, voice a rasping breathless croak. “So many of them, Erik.”
"Shh," says Erik, stroke his damp hair back from his pale face. "It's alright, my beautiful one, my strong one. You did it. It's over."
Charles' sightless eyes close and he heaves a sigh.
"No, now we will begin."
They step out of the room, the great onyx doors swinging back and open with a bang. It’s unnerving, but he strokes his hand over Charles’ lightly furred arm and feels the power surfaced there. He rests against him, a warm weight.
There is no trace of the power he released on killing Shaw. It is done, it is over.
Charles tilts his face up and his eyes shine.
“Thank you,” he says, taking his hand like on the first day they met. Erik looks at him sidelong.
“It is you who has done me a favor,” he answers and Charles smiles.
“Always you are the beacon I guided my path with,” he replies. Erik’s brow furrows.
“I don’t understand,” he says, but Charles is gently disentangling their fingers and stepping away from him. His step falters once, then steadies. He sighs, and he stretches his arms wide, outspread, like they are back in their dream world. His hands splay and his body goes limp, relaxing into the power that rushes up inside of him.
His body disappears into light and Erik falls to his knees.
“The Gods only appeared after my mother was murdered,” Erik says, voice deceptively casual. “Perhaps they are drawn to suffering, instead.” Charles taps his glass, scotch on the rocks, ice tinkling in their prison, against his lips, pondering this.
“So then, you believe our pain, the pain of us lesser creatures, feeds them?”
Erik frowns at the board.
“Feeds, no, not exactly. They are drawn to it, a curiosity?”
“Ah,” Charles says. “Of course. Feeding from us would be preposterous, yes? If they devoured parts of us it would mean something in us was the same.”
The twist of his lips has gone secretive and Erik gets the odd impression that he’s teasing him about something. He quirks a brow.
“Quite,” he replies, dry. “But I suppose, for that to follow, all our kind would emerge from sorrow.” He glances up at Charles, looks him over. He is small in the folds of his sweater, hidden in his layers. He wears his mansion like a badge. Erik knows it is he who commands it. “So where, then, is yours?
The shattered woman shoves the little boy forward, into the reach of the thing pulsing within the whirling circle. Behind them, a body lies broken and bloody, new dead.
“Take it,” she hisses. “Take it, I only want him back. I don't care what he looks like, as long as it's him,” The stench of death bursts forth, stinking and old, sinking needle fingers into the still figure. The woman grips the boy's head between her hands, soft pink lines of flesh swallowing hair and bone and skin. He squirms, eyes wide as the presence fills his vision and swallows him whole.
Charles chuckles and leans over to push a piece forward.
“I suppose I haven’t, then, have I? Ah well. I suppose we will never know.”
Charles wins their game when he sneaks his knight past Erik’s front lines with his bishop trailing behind. Erik is left flummoxed.
The world shifts beneath, above him. The sky is red. It scatters, cracks and flakes away, carried on an invisible wind up and away. Erik shakes himself and turns away from the sight. It has been three years since that day. Three years of nothing but himself for company.
His hand rests in passing on the slight shoulders of a young girl, her face fresh with her youth and blooming with ecstasy. Her face is turned up to the sky. Her lips move, chanting, the same lines that Erik has long since tuned away from. He would go quite mad if he did not, and there is enough in this world that is endeavouring to drive him there as it is. He snakes through the broken embrace of two lovers, interrupted in their trist to feign worship.
He is somewhere in Africa today. Not all of it is gone. There is enough that he can walk upon it and see, the frozen scene, the single moment in time that he is doomed to peruse for as long as eternity yearns for existence.
But he is getting ahead of himself.
Light bursts forth from his drawn form, white hot, splattered with sucking black. Around them, the temple dissolves and Erik throws his arm over his face to protect his eyes; but even then he still sees it. The pattern of black and white play behind his closed eyelids, shaking and shuddering, snapping from one to the other faster than he can process. He cries out, but like that it is over. Charles’ hands drop to his sides. He is wrapped in fuzzy, soft light and the stars stream behind him in smokey waves.
“Erik,” he says. “Erik,” and slowly, Erik unfolds to his feet, stepping towards him. Charles turns to him and enfolds him in an embrace. He is hot to the touch, warmed by an inner fire. He kisses his temple, and the pressure burns, burns until it is engulfing him, setting every nerve on fire. He opens his mouth to scream, but even that is drowned out.
Forever he hears, formless, soundless, the pain itself and his skin wrapped around his bones. Forever.
Outside of the temple, the children stand in a line.
“Raven,” he shouts, but she does not turn to him. Her body is twisted, staring up at the sky behind him. The others are much the same. He reaches her, takes her in his arms, shakes her. “Raven,” he repeats.
"Hello Erik," she replies. Her eyes focus somewhere behind him; it is not her speaking. "Erik, oh Erik. Are you proud? We've done it, Erik, we've done it all." She sways, and that is when he notices, when her body reveals the secret behind it, an eclipse of moon and sun.
Above him, there is a great shape, hovering, horrible and twisted, it swirls with the face of a great storm.
And it is familiar.
“Charles,” he says, slowly, confused. “Charles?”
“Mutter, will you tell me a story?”
She laughs, the warm buttery sound suffusing though the sepia-toned warmth. He leans into the softness of her and she presses a kiss to his head.
“What would you like to hear?”
He tilts his head back to look up at her, a scowl crossing his features, and again she laughs. He loves it when she laughs.
“The story of the Fair Child. Ah, but it is a tale too frightful for you, you are much too young to hear it.”
He rolls his eyes and kicks his feet and she tuts in disapproval.
"Alright, alright, don't let your impatience bring in the Spirits."
She begins, the words rolling around in her mouth, coming out thick and syrupy, the cadence of sleep.
“The Fair Child is born, the Fair Child is reared by Death. The Matron will sell him to bring a dead soul back to life and so the Fair Child will move with Their intent. He will grow with Them, and he will live among them, and They will be as his own. He will bring to him eternity, within Him lies the essence of all things that have been and will be and through them they will become One. They burn sorrowed thoughts into Life.
But the Fair Child is human, and He will fall to Life, he will live. He will gather to him the Hands of the Lost, the Broken, and with his light He will make them Whole. The Lover will take his hand. The Lover will nurture him, show him light in darkness, and what truth lies in deceit, and he will rejoice. Though the Fair Child has lived in indecision, the strength of the Lover will inspire him into action. His eager need he will veil in the guise of the meek, and in so doing the Lover will follow and offer to Them willingly what is his to give, and together, to the Fair Child, they will feed the strength of all things. The Lover will revel in His glory, and Their power the Fair Child will bear and in their wake, he will become Himself, the Eater-of-Worlds.”