Charles, wake up.
His eyes snapped open.
Charles blinked in the darkness, faint lines of green waving outside, peeking through his curtain. It wasn't dawn, nor even close. The house was quiet; no panic anywhere, most of the minds drifting through sleep, and none of his students called him Charles.
Charles, damn it, I need you.
Erik. To close enough to shout and reach him with his mind, he'd have to be–
A flash: The west door, a weight numbing his right arm, his hip, cold biting into skin, looking around, up at the windows, so many dark. Wary, weary.
Erik was here. And the tone of his mind voice, edging on desperate–
Charles flung off the blanket and stretched out for his chair. What's happened?
Relief, apprehension, caution. I need your help. I'm at your door.
Yes, I know, I'm coming. Shuffling on his elbows was never fast, and he'd bumped the chair with his flopping leg while hauling himself into bed last night. He'd sighed and decided there would be time to get it in the morning.
Casting his mind to another part of the house, Charles said sharply, Hank, wake up.
A little too sharp: In his room, Hank bolted upright and scrambled out of bed. What–?
Easy, Hank, I'm sorry. There's no emergency.
Hank slowed down and reached for his glasses.
Erik's here. Something's wrong. I need to you to go to the west door to let him in; I'll be there as soon as I can.
Hank's wordless scepticism flowed back to Charles' mind, but he reached for his dressing gown. Thank you, said Charles.
The damn chair had rolled in at a slight angle, so Charles had to shimmy down the length of his bed to get in without climbing over the arm, and the blankets bunched under him along the way. He grimaced and breathed out, slowly, and took a moment to untangle himself properly and fold them out of his way. Then he tugged his dressing gown up from the footboard, tied it on, and lifted himself awkwardly into the seat.
Getting his carpet slippers up off the floor and onto his feet took the better part of two minutes, but it was not a warm night and he was all too likely to end up with frostbite if he didn't force himself to take proper care of his body, useless bits and all. And, if he didn't, Hank would sigh and insist on fetching them himself.
Finally moving at a decent speed, Charles wheeled himself towards the door, then slowed, wondering which room Hank would have brought Erik to. He listened out again; there was a murmur of activity in a ground floor sitting room near the west entrance. Two flights down, but one of the ramps ended close to it. Charles rolled on.
When he arrived, he could hear Hank through the door, cautious and alert, but Erik– There was just exhaustion there. Exhaustion and deep, raw, screaming grief.
Dear God, Erik, what happened?
They looked up as he pushed open the door. Hank was fussing at the fireplace, stoking kindling and glancing over his shoulder, and Erik was on the nearest couch, hunched over and filthy, dried grass stains on his knees, a long tear in his too-small coat, and cradling–
Her mind was so quiet, frozen, stuck in a loop, that Charles simply hadn't heard her. She was small, trying to make herself smaller, and she clung so close to Erik's chest that the grief and fear rolling off him had hidden her completely.
No, Charles realised as he rolled in, as they looked up; it was her mind that was apprehensive, unsure of this strange place with strange people who talked in funny words at Papa and made Papa shout and cry and run and and Mama, Mama, Mama...
Erik's eyes were red and puffy. He must not have slept for days.
"Oh, my friend," said Charles. "I'm so sorry."
He sent Hank to make tea. It seemed like the thing to do: Hank was so obviously suspicious and Erik's eyes kept flicking back to him, arms tight around his little girl. And it was cold; they were cold. Tea would help.
As the door clicked closed, Erik breathed out.
Charles had wheeled himself up, settling on the hearth rug an arm's length from them. Erik had her tucked in his lap, smoothing back her hair and murmuring in Polish. The little girl's white fingers clenched on his coat, but her mind was as close to sleeping as could be while this tense, and she was so worn out, she barely heard any of it.
And Charles... didn't know what to say.
"Are you all right?"
In another time, Erik would have turned to him, withering and sarcastic; of course not. Now he just stared into the fire. "They came for me," he said, "and they killed her mother."
Screams echoed in Charles's head; bits of memory one of them couldn't keep in. Hot tears and shrieks and Mama, Mama, Mama!
Charles flinched. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
Erik looked up, looked him in the eye, hard and desperate. "She saw it all. She isn't sleeping, Charles; the nightmares rip her out screaming every time. I need you to take them away."
Of course. "Of course. Of course, anything." He wheeled himself closer, until his knees were almost bumping the cushions. He hesitated, hand lifted towards her tangled hair. "What's her name?"
"Nina," said Erik, and as he did the girl stirred, turning slightly to look up at her father. "Wszystko będzie dobrze, kochanie, ale musisz mnie puścić," he said, tugging on her fingers where they clung to his clothes. He lifted her slightly and resettled her on his lap to face the room; she immediately huddled back, watching warily. "To mój przyjaciel Charles."
As gently as he could, Charles smiled at her, keeping well away. "Hello, Nina."
"On mówi 'cześć'. She speaks no English."
Charles nodded. "Tell her I can make the nightmares go away, but I need to touch her."
"Sprawi, że koszmary znikną, ale musisz podejść bliżej," Erik translated. Nina jerked and tried to curl away tighter. Erik stroked her hair, whispered, "Wszystko w porządku, kochanie, on jest naszym przyjacielem. Wszystko będzie dobrze." Still she clung to him, until Erik took her hand and bent sideways, almost double, to look her in the eye. He held up their hands. "Nie zostawię cię. Jestem tutaj."
Carefully, with a death grip on Erik's hand, Nina uncurled enough to look up at Charles, and, slowly, inched forward. Charles offered a hand, palm up, and she looked from it to him. "Już nikogo więcej nie skrzywdzę?"
Charles looked up for a translation, but Erik had frozen, rage and self-loathing at war on his face. "What is it?"
Erik's jaw worked, but he couldn't, wouldn't put it to words. Nina looked at him. "Papa?"
"Wszystko w porządku, kochanie," he soothed, kissing her hair, and over her head he nodded to Charles. "Do it. Now."
Charles frowned, puzzled, but Erik wouldn't explain. He smoothed his face into something more reassuring and reached out to touch Nina's temple. She cringed a little, but Erik squeezed her hand, stroked her back. Charles closed his eyes.
A forest. Police men, mad at Papa–
Papa holding his hands up, smiling at her as they take him, they're going to take him away–
Mama's arms are around her, too tight– no, they're taking Papa, they're TAKING PAPA!
Noise: her friends screaming for her, angry, flying and screeching in protest. They won't take Papa, they CAN'T take Papa...
Mama pushes her down, shielding her, but it's her friends here, her friends won't hurt her; they'll hurt them, the police men, they'll stop them, they can't take Papa.
Mama looks down at her and–
–an arrow bursts through her.
Nina feels the warm splatter on her lips, tastes it, stares up at the sharp tip dripping red. Mama's mouth hangs open, air puffing out of her, blood spilling down, down, onto Nina. She can't breathe to scream. Her friends scream for her. Papa screams. So much noise, and Mama– Mama–
Mama falls; sideways, a heavy crunch as she hits the ground, half on top of Nina. Part of the arrow slides back out of her, red and sticky, right in front of her–
Papa is there, Papa is pulling her away, covering her face, but she sees, she sees...
She screams. She screams and all her friends join in, and where she can't move they can, and they dive – dive for the man with the bow, for the police men, the ones who hurt Mama, they hurt Mama, THEY HURT MAMA–
And Papa stares as they shriek and run and fall and die, and there's moaning as her friends flap away, satisfied. All she can see is the arrow exploding through Mama's chest, and Papa's looking down at her, eyes wide and mouth open, and...
Her friends didn't do this. SHE di–
Papa bundles her up and runs.
Charles jerked back.
Nina stared at him, blank exhaustion behind her eyes. These memories had been looping through her mind for days. "Już nikogo więcej nie skrzywdzę?" she asked again, but here outside her mind the words got in the way. He shook his head and turned, puzzled.
Erik looked at him, eyes searching. "She asked if you can keep her from hurting anyone."
And Charles's heart broke. "Nina..."
She pressed her cheek into his hand, desperation winning out over fear. "Proszę," she begged.
Charles braced himself, nodded, and closed his eyes.
Nina's mind was like water in front of him, a mad rushing river twisting itself into a roaring whirlpool; he stood in the centre, feeling the pull and push of grief and horror. He breathed, taking his time, slowing it down.
Under his hand, he felt Nina relax.
Gently, he looked in. Most of her mind was a bright, playful thing, full of sunlight and green leaves. Glancing over it, he saw her smiling mother holding her hand and Erik singing lullabies, the kindest look on his face; Charles ached to see it. The melody danced faintly along, following him, a reassurance. He searched, looking for shadows, looking for the darkest corner, and when he found it–
A forest. Police men, mad at Papa–
He pushed it back, down, and folded it away.
Mama looks down at her and–
He wrapped up the memory like an unwanted Christmas present, it and everything after: The nightmares and the hazy memories of driving all night, of Erik threatening someone, of a cold plane with noisy engines, everything but arriving at the mansion, the first moment of safe again. He cut off the paths leading to them, breaking the links in her mind that could tug something free; he took the ones that said forest and turned them to a day spent running with her stag friend, took the ones that said police and numbed them into nothing more than a faint image of uniforms. He raised a wall around the folded black terror, lining it with bricks of playtime and supper and friends and laughter till it was sealed. He camouflaged it, wrapping it in misdirections until it sat like a blurry mirror in the corner of her mind, to be skipped over without notice until she buried it in new memories or whatever fantasies she might create.
He stepped back, letting the dust settle and her consciousness rushed through, the river bouncing off the mirrors, snarling and stumbling a bit as it missed a step; in her subconscious, she would know something was missing, but he couldn't, wouldn't create false memories for her. This would do for now. The water bobbed around around him, finding its way again, and settled into a steady, smooth flow.
Charles opened his eyes.
Nina blinked, sleepy eyes trying to focus as her head lolled against his hand. She yawned, and Erik shifted to take her weight as she turned to her father and slumped against him, exhaustion winning the battle. Erik sagged in relief. "Czas spać, Nina. Wszystko będzie już dobrze. Kocham cię."
"Ja też cię kocham, Papa," she mumbled, and Charles didn't need a translation; he found himself smiling at the two of them, for them, warm in a way he hadn't felt since Raven–
Behind them, ceramic clicked quietly. Erik's head snapped up, bristling– then relaxed a little. Hank had returned, slipping in with a tray of tea and biscuits and... "Is that hot chocolate?" Charles asked.
Hank shrugged, stepping softly and setting the tray down as quietly as he could. "I didn't know if she liked tea."
"Thank you, Hank. I'm sure she'll enjoy it in the morning." He looked pointedly at Erik, who either didn't notice or ignored him.
"So, you're staying ...for how long?" asked Hank.
Now Erik did look up, meeting Charles' eyes over Nina's head, and whether he wanted it heard or not the thoughts spinning from his mind were a whirl of uncertainty and flashes of place after place he instantly dismissed as not safe.
"For tonight, at least," Charles decided. "We'll talk about it in the morning. For now, I think... the room two down from mine, on the south side? Hank, I'm sorry to ask it of you–"
He shook his head. "It's fine. I'll go open it up." He hesitated, looking at Nina, then said, "A few of the students aren't that much older than her."
Charles thanked him with a smile. "Unfortunately, she doesn't speak English."
Hank shrugged, stepping out the door. "Kids learn faster than we do."
Erik watched him go, a frown set on his face, and held Nina tighter. Charles had to
chuckle. "Hank won't be stealing her away in the night, my friend."
His smile faded. A forest. Police men, mad at Papa–
Charles shook his head and wheeled himself backwards. "Come on. It'll take me twice as long to get upstairs."
"I've been here before, Charles," Erik said dryly, but he shifted Nina carefully until he could stand without waking her, and the door swung open before Charles reached it.
"We've made some changes," he explained; "rearranged the layout a little to suit classrooms and bedrooms, and to keep the children away from... other areas."
Curiosity peeked through Erik's exhaustion. "What have you done, Charles? Made a secret laboratory?"
"I'm afraid words aren't quite enough to describe it. I could show you tomorrow..."
Erik said nothing, and Charles cursed himself.
They made their way through the house quietly, for Nina's sake and for the other sleeping children. Erik, of course, had never been patient, and before they reached the end of the first hall had taken it upon himself to push Charles' chair along at a brisker pace – which, given how tiring the ramps were at the best of times, Charles was hardly going to argue with.
The room they were heading for was a guest bedroom that had once been Raven's, but renovations and the influx of students had left him no choice but to lend it out time to time, sentiment or no. They met Hank as he came out, a large pile of drop sheets in hand. "I've started a fire but there isn't much wood; it probably won't last until morning."
"That's fine, Hank, we'll take care of it," said Charles. "Sleep well."
Hank hesitated, eyes on Erik, waiting with a very slight air of a challenge. Will you say it?
Erik's face was blank, but Charles pinned him with a stare until he, irritated, said, "Thank you."
"You're welcome," Hank replied, satisfied, and stepped past, bundling the sheets.
Inside, the room was cold and smelled faintly of dust, but given the mud and oil ground into their clothing, Charles doubted either of them would notice, or care. Nina was deep in sleep, finally at peace, not stirring in the slightest as Erik carried her to the bed and tucked her under the blankets. He smoothed her hair back and kissed her forehead.
Charles found himself smiling again. "I never thought I'd see you like this," he said softly. "It suits you. Fatherhood."
A wryly raised eyebrow answered him. Erik took a seat in front of the struggling fire, pulled off his soiled coat and began unlacing his boots. The laces crackled, spraying a fine mist of dry mud onto the carpet. "Sorry," Erik muttered.
"We'll clean it up in the morning," Charles replied, shrugging. "Just get some rest."
"I can't," he said sharply, tight control cracking. "You saw what happened. They murdered Magda."
Magda. He wondered if Erik realised how carefully his voice cradled that name, how close he sounded to breaking. "It was an accident," Charles said quietly. "They–" were only following orders "–never wanted it to come to violence, especially not for her."
With a hiss that would likely have been a shout if not for Nina, Erik wrenched himself up and stalked to the window in his socks. "You don't understand, Charles, someone told them about me. Someone sold us out."
Heat, sparks – heavy, falling– a thought; it moved – a clang, a crash – relief. – Stares – fear– Ah: A co-worker. "Someone who, most likely, acted only out of fear for their own family," Charles replied evenly. "You would have done the same in their place."
Erik said nothing. In the faint light he was barely more than a shadow, stooped and rubbing his eyes.
Charles bit back the urge to press the point. Those men were halfway across the world, safe for now. "There are towels in the dresser," he said instead, gesturing. Erik didn't turn to see, so he added, "I'm sure I can find you something clean to borrow."
Erik twitched but said nothing. The silence ticked on. "Well, we might have to prevail on Hank's good nature again; I don't believe any of my students are as tall as the two of you." Nor, he thought, would Erik be willing to wear any of what these children called fashion, though it would be quite a sight. He wondered if– No. No daydreaming, Charles. Stick to the basics. So he just said, "If you want to shower the washroom is down the hall to the left."
"I remember, Charles," Erik said, turning back and finally, finally sounding more fond than wary. Charles smiled.
"Then you best get a move on; you're asleep on your feet," he bantered back. "It's a long drive from the airport–" buzzing, whirring – control stick – twinkling lights– "You flew a plane? From Poland?"
The fondness faded under irritation. "Stay out of my head, Charles."
"I'm not in your head, you're shouting. You're so tired you have no defences up whatsoever."
He stiffened, hackles rising... and sighed wearily. "All right," he muttered, and dug through drawers until he found the towels. He slowed down as he pulled some out, hands tight on the fabric. He looked over his shoulder towards the bed, then the door, then the bed again.
"I'll stay with her," Charles said quietly. "I'll keep her asleep until you're back." Still, Erik hesitated, and try as he might, it hurt. "Please trust me."
"I always trust you, Charles," he said, immediately and without artifice, like a reflex, and it was good to hear. Charles relaxed as the warmth seeped through him again.
The drawer slid closed and the door opened itself. Erik made for it, steps slow as he thought about something. Charles kept well away, giving him privacy, so he was genuinely startled when Erik said, "If we stay–"
He broke off, frustration warring with fear and caution and want on his face. Charles waited, heart hammering in his chest. "Yes?"
Erik turned, and their eyes met. He opened his mouth, closed it, and said, "I'm tired. We'll talk in the morning."
Charles nodded, glowing warmth and hope flooding him. He fought to keep from beaming. "In the morning. Goodnight, my friend."