The pale, pitted circle of the full moon was banked behind a thick curtain of murky clouds, and the steady, drumming rain made trudging through the woods a thorough misery. At least he was far enough from the roads and the town and its multilayered stench of entropic humanity; the wood-scent was cut sharp and clean with earth and decaying leaves and bark. Erik sniffed at the air, fur plastered and bedraggled, and sneezed, ears flattening back against his matted skull. Lycanthropy might make him immune to many things, but a cold was not one of them.
He couldn't have stayed in town during a full moon, but Erik silently cursed the leads that had caused him to overstay his time this close to humanity. He should have left the town at least two days ago, found somewhere remote, wild, and preferably dry and waited out the moon before returning. Now he was soaked, running out of woods and padding out into what looked like a vast, unkempt garden. Weeds had choked up slate walkways and a silent fountain; a hedge maze was now an impenetrable nightmare of interlinked branches and leaves, and the thick grass from what had probably been a once-trimmed lawn brushed his belly and smelled as wild as the woods behind him.
Before him was a massive old house, a mansion, Erik mentally corrected himself, stately in its magnificent disrepair. It looked abandoned; several of the cloudy windows were boarded over from within, and it was utterly dark. Perfect.
It took some cursing and nosing around before Erik found a way in; a small door set in the side of the rambling mansion, probably a servant's entrance, left ajar. He nosed his way in gratefully, shaking himself out over the tile, sneezed, and shook himself again luxuriously.
Padding deeper into the house, Erik quickly revised his previous opinion about the house's lack of occupancy. The kitchen looked and smelled used, with a lingering hint of something deplorably vegetarian in the air, hot water, and spices, possibly from someone's lunch, though the kitchen itself was scrubbed clean. Underlying the soap, the stew, the oil, and wood, however, was a scent that Erik would recognise anywhere.
And, Erik realized, with a dawning sense of amazement as he sniffed at the air, a female one. Alone. With no pack. And in America, of all places, the badlands for others of their kind. Small wonder that she was hiding in an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere, but still - females, and young ones at that, judging by the scent of it - were rare enough that had this been the Continent, or the Eastern Bloc, or even in the Orient, she would have long been sought out.
Erik felt an instinctive stir of primal interest that he quickly controlled. If he could smell her, then she too would know that he had trespassed, and if she had survived this long on her own, she was either insane, canny, highly dangerous, or some combination of all of the above. He would announce his presence, stay politely where he was until the rain ceased, and leave.
His inquiring yip was met with silence, at first, then a long, muffled howl that made him crouch, the fur on his hackles trying to stand on end, full of pain and despair. Quickly, Erik found himself bounding forward through the kitchen, sniffing at the ground and its crisscrossing scents, following the ebbing wail of sound until he circled further into a storeroom and to a trapdoor. Dragging it open with his teeth in the iron ring took ingenuity; he pulled it up, grimacing at the ache in his jaws, until he could twist and put his shoulder to it, scrabbling back and careful of the gap until it slammed back, revealing a gaping drop beneath and a ladder that only a human could climb.
A trap, Erik thought, uncomfortably, hesitating by the edge. He was a big wolf, and he couldn't smell anyone else in the house or in the basement level. He could handle most other werewolves and less organized trappers, particularly if he hid somewhere and had the element of surprise. In the morning, he could, at the very least, shift out to his human form if he investigated the basement cellar and needed to get out of it. If he entered it now, he would be trapped in there.
Then there was a scrabbling sound, a bark of pain, and another long, wailing howl that had instinct push him through into the gap before logic could take over. Erik managed to land on all fours, blinking as he looked around the cellar. On a table to his right was a candle on a stand, already burned nearly halfway down, dribbling wax and flickering, and beside it was a set of neatly folded clothes, men's, by the look of it, and smaller than what Erik could wear. The table was one of two pieces of furniture in the cellar. The other was a silver cage, and from within it, a small, common gray she-wolf was eyeing him with evident astonishment, too shocked even to snarl, the tip of her muzzle reddened from where she had accidentally brushed against the silver bars.
Erik carefully controlled his fury. Going into a wild rage now wouldn't help matters. Inspecting the cage, he noted that it was fairly large, set in a corner of the room and able to contain a human comfortably, about a couple of metres or so across, the bars solidly built and bolted to the ground and the low ceiling, the door held closed by a chain and a simple lock. There was a pile of bedding in a corner of it, a bowl of water, and a thick leather-bound book with a red bookmark jutting out of it. On top of the book was a key.
As the gray wolf eyed him warily, Erik sat down, surprised. It seemed that the werewolf had locked herself in the cage. But why would she do that? Insanity? Erik had met insane werewolves before, usually older ones far past their prime, or those maddened by wounds or torture from trappers, and they usually had a sour scent to them and a wild gleam to their eyes that warned others away. This gray wasn't insane.
Safety, perhaps, to prevent other wolves from reaching her during a full moon? But if so, why that despairing howl? Puzzled, Erik gingerly edged closer and pushed his nose close to the bars, fighting the urge to shy away from the silver, but instead of greeting him by touching noses, the gray merely continued to stare at him, as though shell-shocked.
Making a decision, Erik nudged the key out of the cage with a paw, and after several tries, managed to carefully pick it up in his mouth. It was an old key, thankfully made of iron, heavy and big, but it still took a few more frustrating tries until Erik managed to fit the key into the lock and turn it. Steeling himself against the uncomfortable, stinging sensation of silver against his bare paws, he managed to claw the lock off, then the chains, and nudged open the cage door.
The gray wolf didn't move, even when he barked, and after a few attempts at cajoling her, Erik lost patience and snarled. She jumped, blinking but seemingly unafraid, but didn't leave the cage, and Erik gave it up as a bad job for now, padding over to inspect the folded clothes.
The creak of the cage door made him glance back. The gray wolf was padding out, almost shyly, with no apparent hint of fear even though she was faced with a dire wolf whose shoulder almost drew level with her head. Erik flinched when she padded right up to him to sniff at him, without any preamble or a request for permission, and as he snapped at her, annoyed at the presumption, she jumped back a pace, startled, and sat down.
Erik growled in rebuke, but the gray didn't appear abashed in the least, only puzzled. She was behaving like a puppy, with no knowledge of signals or basic etiquette, as though she had never met another werewolf in her life, and as Erik studied the cage again, then the female, he realized with a sort of fascinated surprise that this was probably, somehow, the case. Perhaps she had come to the badlands when she was a pup, too young to remember her sire or dam.
Forcing himself to be patient, Erik bared his teeth when the gray wolf tried to approach him again and leaned out pointedly to touch noses. She reared back, confused, and tried to pad around to his side, only to skip back when he growled at her. It took a few attempts before she finally understood what he was trying to teach her, and Erik sat down magnanimously after the proper greeting, allowing her to sniff him over.
He was still damp from the rain, and when he sneezed again, she blinked at him, before padding off quickly to the cell and dragging out one of the sheets within it that seemed to serve as her bedding. As Erik stared askance at her, she dragged the sheet right up to him and then tossed it over his head with a flip of her muzzle.
Blinded, panic and fury took over, and he shook the cloth off his eyes, snarling and pouncing on the startled gray, bowling her over. Panting and on her side, she merely stared up at him, surprised, and it took a moment for Erik to parse her actions - she had tried to dry him off, the way a human would. Unnerved, Erik backed away to the corner furthest away from the cage, snarling whenever the gray tried to get close, and eventually she simply lay down on the sheets, apparently preparing to sleep.
Erik huffed to himself. He wasn't about to be able to get any rest.
Charles had woken up to the huge wolf watching him, still in its corner, and it followed him with its feral amber eyes as he edged over to the table to pull on his underwear and pants. He wasn't sure where the massive creature had come from, and it looked like no breed of wolf that he had ever seen; besides, if he recalled the last night, it had somehow known how to work the trapdoor and the lock open. Possibly, it was a circus escapee, or someone's pet, judging from how it hadn't yet tried to kill him, or perhaps it was just wary. Animals could sense the other within him, after all.
"I'm so terribly sorry about the confusion," Charles told it, feeling a little self-conscious about apologizing to an animal, "I'm afraid that I'm not really a wolf most of the time. I'll, ah, find some way to get you out of the cellar, I promise."
The wolf got up, shaking itself again. The cellar smelled very strongly of musky wolf and wet carpets, and Charles was fighting to keep his breathing shallow as it padded over to inspect him, circling him at a respectful distance and sniffing him even as Charles pulled on his shirt and buttoned up. "You must be disappointed," Charles said wryly, "But it's going to be a while until the next full moon, and I won't have to change until then."
The big wolf snorted, backing off, and then to Charles' astonishment, its form blurred, flowing upwards in an eye-twisting smudge of unreality, and then a tall human was standing in its place, handsome and broad-shouldered, with an arresting, steely stare, absolutely unselfconscious about his nudity.
"I can't decide whether you're insane or just an idiot," the man started off by saying, curtly, his tone thickly accented - probably German, or at least from East Europe.
"My God," Charles managed to breathe out, after a few attempts, wide-eyed, utterly shocked. "You're... you're just like me."
The man folded his arms, his tone skeptical. "You've never met one of us before? What about your parents?"
"My father passed away when I was young and I never knew my biological mother," Charles found himself answering instantly, his mind still reeling from the revelation. He was not alone! "I lived here with my stepmother and stepfather until they... until the... until they moved out," Charles amended lamely, stiffly.
"And you've been alone here ever since?"
"I put myself through college and university. Oxford," Charles clarified, his interest piqued. His father had left him money for that, at least. He'd gone to Oxford, hoping to find a cure or some sort of explanation, but after a while, having to hide his anomaly while studying in such a large university without drawing any attention at all grew impossible, and he had returned to Westchester, sourcing materials through a mail drop instead, studying genetics alone. He'd come no closer to understanding it all - until now. "You mean that there are more of us? Many more?"
"More enough," the man said flatly and muttered something in German under his breath.
"I'm Charles, by the way," Charles extended a hand. "Charles Xavier. I, ah, think that I may have something that could fit you upstairs." The man might be able to squeeze into one of his father's old bathrobes, and Charles could try to arrange for something from the town to be delivered.
"Erik Lehnsherr," Erik replied, looking him over again, this time more slowly. "So you have been alone here all this while. Small wonder that you have no idea how to behave."
"Pardon me, what?" Charles blinked, his extended hand faltering, but Erik was already climbing briskly up the ladder, all the while muttering to himself, and even as Charles hastily followed, with a sharp, "Wait!" Erik was already a wolf again, loping out of the kitchen and into the grounds.
"Wait, wait, please," Charles followed him anxiously, "Could you at least stay for breakfast? I have so many questions! I've never met anyone like me before, please!"
Ignoring him, the wolf took off in a ground-eating stride, towards the woods, and Charles trotted to a halt, barefoot on the grass, and sighed. There was no way that he could keep up as he was now unless he shifted forms, and he didn't dare to shift again so close to the end of a moon cycle, outside of the cellar. He was always afraid that he wouldn't be able to change back.
Forlornly, Charles trudged back into the house, wiping down his feet and fumbling through the pantry. The kettle was whistling and he had just finished up a slice of toast with cheese when the brown wolf returned, with a duffel bag in its mouth. It stared at him expectantly, then growled when he merely stared back, surprised. When it growled again, this time more impatiently, Charles snapped out of his daze. "If you're looking for a bathroom, it's down the corridor to your left."
The wolf padded off, and even as Charles hastily dug out more bread and cheese from the pantry, he could hear the sound of the shower coming on. He was pouring coffee for the both of them when Erik returned, dressed sleekly in a black turtleneck and tailored pants, settling down at a chair at the kitchen table with his bag at his feet and accepting a slice of bread.
"How old are you?" Erik asked, after a sip of coffee.
"Thirty. Almost." Charles said, peering at Erik closely. "Probably about your age."
Erik smirked, as though Charles had said something amusing. "Not exactly. You're barely even mature."
"Excuse me," Charles said, raising his eyebrows, "I'm thirty, not thirteen."
"And your face has changed so very much since you were twenty human years of age, has it?" Erik drawled, buttering his toast as Charles stared at him, open-mouthed.
Erik scowled. "No. Mein Gott, you're just like a child. This is the badlands, but if you've stayed here so long by yourself without even meeting another one of us... you're damnably lucky, kid."
"Charles," Charles corrected, stiffly, but sheer curiosity won out over his pride. "What do you mean, the badlands?"
Erik stared at him for a long moment, bread and cheese frozen in his hand, then he took another sip of coffee with a jerk of his wrist. "I don't have time for this," he muttered, taking a vicious bite of the bread. "Look. I'll give you one of my guns. You'll have to learn how to cast the bullets but it shouldn't be difficult, an old place like this house probably has a lot of family silver. You should be able to get a mold from the town."
"A gun? What for?" Charles asked, appalled at the thought. "And silver bullets?"
"Silver can kill us. Just being surrounded by it for too long would hurt like hell. You know that. You have that fucking cage in the cellar."
At Erik's accusing stare, Charles sighed. "I had that built just in case I lose control during a full moon and hurt someone. It isn't unbearable. I let myself out in the morning."
"You're thirty. You should have learned control by now," Erik said scathingly. "Take one of the guns. I'll see if I can get a trustworthy Pack to pick you up. I don't have time for you, I'm here on business."
"I don't want a gun."
"You don't understand," Erik growled. "Even though you're just a gray, you're female and you've just entered breeding age. You belong in a pack - you will end up in one whether you like it or not. And if you don't want to be forced into the first one that stumbles upon you, you'll need to be able to defend yourself."
Floored, Charles could only stare at Erik, openmouthed and aghast, as Erik philosophically finished his breakfast, then Charles managed to sputter, "Female? Breeding age? What?"
"Your wolf form is female," Erik said slowly, as though speaking to a recalcitrant child, "Females are rare. Any large Pack would be lucky to have two or three of breeding age."
Charles had known that his wolf form had seemed to lack several... requisite parts... but it had never occurred to him what this meant. Or perhaps he had been mentally blocking out the entire, rather horrific conclusion. "I... er... breeding, you say... er..."
Erik sighed, finishing his coffee and leaning down to root through his bag. He tossed a pistol on the table even as he slung the bag over his shoulder. "It's fully loaded. You know how to fire a gun, don't you? It doesn't require genius. You release the safety and you aim."
"Where's your pack?" Charles asked, too numb to ask any salient questions, his mind still reeling from unwanted revelation.
Erik's mouth twisted grimly, even as he turned to leave. "I don't have one anymore. Stay here and don't try and follow me. I'll arrange for some people to pick you up."
"I don't need a gun," Charles began, only for Erik to disappear from the doorway. With a deep sigh, Charles sank his face briefly into his palms. He could feel a headache coming on.
Erik was cruising down the street in a rented car, annoyed that his initial investigations had all been derailed by the discovery of Charles and his bloody mansion. With the fall of his Pack, he wasn't sure whether the old allegiances were still in place without visiting the other Pack territories, and as such, he had no idea which Pack to call. Deep down, he was a little tempted to just leave Charles alone and keep on Shaw's tail, but whenever he thought that over he felt a sense of social guilt. Charles seemed absolutely unaware of the danger that he was in. Hell, Shaw was in the badlands, with his own, vicious Pack. If they got wind of Charles...
A small, treacherous voice within him suggested that this was an excellent way to flush Shaw out into the open, but he quickly dismissed it. He wasn't about to turn into the monster that Shaw was. Sacrificing one of their own, however unrelated, as bait, particularly one as oblivious and naive as Charles, would be the worst sort of betrayal.
Absorbed in thought, Erik almost crashed into the car in front of him when he slowed down at a traffic light and smelled Charles' unmistakable scent on the afternoon breeze. Snarling to himself, Erik took a quick right turn once the lights turned to green, ignoring the angry blare of car horns, and sped down the side lane, sniffing. Sure enough, Charles was trotting out of a small bookstore, a pack of purchases in his hands and a bag of groceries slung on his arm, and he looked surprised when Erik slowed to a halt in front of him.
"Get in," Erik hissed.
Nodding, all too damn trustingly, Charles obeyed, with his bright, annoyingly boyish smile. "Good afternoon, Erik."
"Where's the gun?" Erik eased back into traffic with an angry scowl.
"I left it at home." Charles said dismissively. "This is Westchester County, I'm not about to get plucked off the street."
Erik fought the urge to slam his forehead against the steering wheel. "You studied in Oxford. England?"
"I'm surprised that you didn't get picked up there." Erik muttered. The English Packs tended to steer clear of populated areas, but still, it showed a remarkable lack of awareness on their part. Had Charles even ventured eastward out of England, into the Continent, he would have been scooped up before he could even introduce himself. The other Packs tended to keep a close eye on their territories, and there was always any number of wandering lone wolves that would have killed for a chance to start one of their own.
"Honestly," Charles said, so very annoyingly primly, "Please don't take any offense at this, but I do think that you may have been exaggerating matters. I have never met any other person like myself in all of my years, not even in Oxford, and it wasn't for lack of trying. This is fascinating. Lycanthropes like us tend to live in pack hierarchies? Like actual wolves? I've bought reading material," Charles added, rummaging proudly through his paper bag, "It never occurred to me that there might actually be a correlation. Perhaps there's a greater biological link than I originally surmised."
Erik rubbed a palm briefly down his face. "Mein Gott." His original conclusion was partially right. Charles might not be foaming at the mouth, but he was insane.
"I thought before that I was an anomaly, but now that I know that there are others like me, that we breed true rather than, ah, infect others like some of the more lurid stories suggest... there has to be some sort of scientific correlation," Charles was burbling on happily, drawing out a thick book titled Canis Lupus and holding it up for Erik to see. "A separate branch of evolution, perhaps. Certain animals can change colors and shapes, like the octopus, as a defensive mechanism. Perhaps a set of homo sapiens evolved an ability to-"
"In the beginning there was Adam, then Eve," Erik cut in, annoyed at the pointless chatter, "And the first of their children were Cain and Abel. Cain killed his brother and he and his children were marked to wander the earth as hunters, and their deaths cannot come by man's hand alone. The wolf form is the mark of Cain, and we're damnably hard to kill." He had never been particularly interested in events long past, unlike some of his littermates; as far as he was concerned, the why and how of it all was irrelevant, good only to fill in the time between the sleeps of deep winters.
"You believe that the world was created in seven days?" Charles was grinning impishly at him, as though he had told a joke, though his smile faltered when Erik glared at him. "I do apologize, I'm not making fun of you. Religion is, ah, all very well, it's just that genetics is a personal interest of mine, it's what I studied at Oxford."
"So you believe that whatever it is that allows us to change from a human form into a wolf form is the same as whatever it is that allows an octopus to change its color?" Erik asked, sarcastically. He was belatedly and uncomfortably reminded of the reasons why he'd never been delegated any crèche duties; Erik had little patience with pups and their idiotic questions. He had preferred to train the older ones, closing in on adulthood, on combat, and its various ways, but even that was long in the past. Shaw and that wasteful, ravenous beast of a human war had changed everything.
Charles merely smiled, with a self-assurance that was either irritatingly arrogant or frustratingly naive, or both. "The more you learn, the more you realize that there's even more out there to learn, my friend. Things that we can't explain now may be explainable in the future when technology advances itself. Science with its current concepts serves only as a platform for future discovery. Surely there is a reason. Not that I'm, ah, discrediting your religious views, or anything like that," he added hastily, "It is simply an opinion. I need to get access to a lab," Charles mused, "Compare some blood samples again. This is so exciting."
"Why me?" Erik asked of a God that evidently hated him, pinching at the bridge of his nose for patience as they turned out of the township proper and into the winding roads leading towards the mansion.
"So when are the others coming?" Charles asked brightly, peeking around himself as though expecting other werewolves to spring out of the underbrush at any moment. "You said you were calling others here, weren't you?"
"It's not that simple," Erik muttered. He didn't know which of the surviving Packs were in Shaw's pocket, or which were still independent, and more importantly, which of them would have the patience to handle someone like Charles. Females were usually traded across territory lines, often to strengthen alliances and bloodlines, but Erik had previously had little interest in the mechanics of the process, and he was beginning to regret it.
"Why is that?" Charles asked, looking a little confused. "I would love to meet others like us."
"If you enter a Pack, you'll be forming a mating pair with someone within it," Erik pointed out bluntly, "And if I call more than one pack, they might end up fighting. Over you. And there may be fatalities. Understand?"
Charles' expression assumed the horrified, hunted look that he had previously worn upon discovering that his wolf half was female, and after a long, blessed silence, he said, very meekly, "I only wanted to talk to others. Not... not... Jesus, not, well..."
"You can talk to the others in your Pack once you get one."
"We're living in the twentieth century," Charles said, a little faintly, "This seems so feudalistic. Surely you're exaggerating."
"We belong to a dying race. It's necessary. You've made the mistake of living as a human all this while. It wasn't your fault, and you wouldn't have known any better, but you'll learn." Erik eased the car up a side road in an increasing state of disrepair at Charles' gesture.
"There's nothing wrong with living as a human," Charles said, earnestly, "Most of the time we are human, after all."
"No." Erik rolled his eyes. "We're not. Nor are we wolves when we change. Have you met a real wolf? They know us for what we are. And as to humans, there has to be some reason why you live all by yourself in a house like that, isn't there? You can't live as a human, no more than you can live as a wolf."
"Well," Charles folded his arms, his jaw set, "I'm not about to... to join up with some people I've never met in my life and marry one of them or whatever it is, just like that. I've been fine by myself so far and I think this notion of an... an arranged marriage is terribly old-fashioned. I'll be more than glad to meet others like us, but this is my home and I'm not leaving it, let alone going off to marry some utter stranger."
Erik had to stifle the urge to strangle some sense into Charles. Thankfully, he was occupied in the process of forcing the car past scratching branches and into the overgrown driveway of the mansion without skidding off the badly kept road. "We're here. Get out. And keep that gun with you."
"Please, come in. You have your bag in the back seat," Charles hesitated, though he opened the door and slipped out onto the gravel, "You could stay here instead of at a hotel. I have some spare rooms that could be aired." Charles' eyes were bright with curiosity. "I have more questions."
Of course he did. "I'm busy," Erik said shortly, not particularly relishing the idea of being bombarded for the rest of the day.
"You'll be driving back to the town?"
"Oh," Charles slipped the book back into the package, "Let me drop these off, and then I'll come with you, I wanted to go to the library, but the groceries were getting a little heavy. I'll get the gun," Charles added, with a placating smile, when Erik took in a deep breath.
"It'll be late by the time you finish with the library," Erik pointed out, gritting his teeth.
"I can walk back. I've done it before." Charles looked unconcerned. "Or call a cab. This isn't Harlem or the Bronx, Erik."
"You're staying here," Erik said flatly. "I still have to make those calls." Letea's Pack, perhaps, or Krajna's, those had benign alphas who would know what to do with Charles.
Charles' brow furrowed. "You mean, to other Packs? I look forward to meeting other lycanthropes. Just as long as they understand that I'm just looking to talk," Charles stressed the word. "Not, God, get betrothed."
"I said that my name was Charles," Charles interjected, and although his tone was gently reproving there was steel behind it, "Thank you for your concern, Erik, but surely you can see why I'm beginning to have a few reservations."
"You can't run around by yourself," Erik kept a tight grip on his patience.
"Why not? You are," Charles pointed out, with a quick grin that shouldn't have looked as boyishly adorable as it did. Erik blamed his instincts, the moon cycle, and stifled a groan.
"Not by choice. I didn't leave my Pack. It was taken from me," Erik said curtly, "I'm hunting the ones responsible."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Charles said, uncomfortably, after an awkward pause, the grin vanishing fast.
"Don't be, it wasn't your doing." Erik continued before Charles could attempt to commiserate, or worse, ask some of his bloody questions. "There are wolves without Pack. But none that choose to be, not permanently. It's inbuilt. It's instinct." No sane ones, anyway.
"Do people like us from different packs talk to each other?"
"Obviously." Who did Charles think that he was going to make calls to, a human receptionist?
"So the problem with me wanting to do what I want is because I have, ah, a female wolf form, and have no 'pack'?"
"Yes." Finally, thank God, some understanding at last. "Some Packs have fewer rules than others, but once you have a Pack, you'd probably be free to talk to other allied Packs." His own used to allow quite a bit of leeway with personal freedoms save where it affected pack security or stability; his sire and his dam had never believed in ruling with an iron fist.
"Oh, well then," Charles said, with another quick grin, "Since you have no pack either, and if I won't be able to talk generally to others like us until I get one, or risk conflict, why don't we form one?" Charles made a fluttering gesture with his left hand as Erik gaped at him. "Are there formalities? Do I have to sign something?"
Erik rubbed his palm over his face, slowly. "Do you even know what you're asking of me?"
"I read up on the books that I had in my library before going to the town. Packs are family structures, aren't they? I think we could be friends, or at least, I hope so, and you've only been trying to help me," Charles was using that bloody earnest tone again, "Besides, it's not like you seem to be, ah, interested in me, so that would be fine, won't it?"
"The core of each Pack is a mated pair, Charles," Erik said, as slowly as he could. "That's how Packs form. The formality would be my wolf form, tying with your wolf form, during a full moon."
"Oh." Charles looked pale and vaguely traumatized at the concept. "I see."
"Good! Don't ask me that again."
"I'm now very certain that I don't want to rush my integration into your werewolf society until I know what I'm getting myself into," Charles said wryly, and met Erik's eyes unflinchingly even as Erik scowled at him. Eventually, much to his irritation, Erik had to be the first to look away. Either because of his isolation or his particular brand of insanity, Charles seemed to have no fear whatsoever.
"I won't be in Westchester county for long," Erik warned.
"Oh, well then, that's a pity," Charles said, in a way that indicated that again, he had no idea what this meant.
"If I could find you, so could others."
"And you've been very gentlemanly so far," Charles pointed out, with a blithe, lopsided smile. "I'm sure that even if I were to meet others, we can all be civilised. I don't want to keep you away from your business," he added reasonably, when Erik bared his teeth, "You could just leave me a few phone numbers when you leave Westchester county, and I'll think things over."
It was an out. Even if it was equivalent to agreeing to leave Charles in the shallow end of a shark pool with only an inflatable float to keep him up, it was a way out.
And he couldn't do it.
"I'll stay tonight," Erik conceded, with a deep sigh. Sometimes, he hated himself.
"Will you?" Charles perked up. "I'll prepare a room. The garage's over there."
The garage was probably larger than the living room of most houses, also in thorough disrepair; from the scent of it, as Erik let himself out of the car, there was at least one family of raccoons nesting behind the wall of rotting crates and the oily, rusting shell of what had probably once been a valuable vintage car.
The main door to the mansion was also barred shut - the only entrance that seemed to be used was the same servant's entrance at the side of the house. Charles was arranging his groceries on the table when Erik stepped in, and he glanced up when Erik cleared his throat. "I'm airing one of the rooms, it's down the corridor, fourth door on your right. None of the main rooms upstairs are really habitable right now," Charles added, apologetically, "I'm afraid that the house is rather too big for me to take care of by myself, and I didn't think that employing housekeepers or servants would be a good idea. I just use the servant's quarters."
"That's fine," Erik said curtly, padding out of the kitchen. The fourth room to his right was a small one, almost bare of furniture but an old wardrobe, a desk, and a bed, and the musty scent was slowly being edged out of an open window. Erik dropped his bag on the desk and circled out, peering through the next door to his left out of curiosity. It led out through a dusty corridor lined with shrouded furniture to what looked like the house foyer, darkened, eerie, and smelling faintly of rot and mildew.
Grimacing, Erik circled back to the kitchen, slouching into a chair at the table. "This was your father's house?"
"Yes. I don't remember much of him. My stepmother once mentioned that he made the money from his work." Charles was chopping onions, the scent sharp and unwelcome. Erik carefully edged the chair a foot away. "He was a nuclear scientist."
Erik privately thought that it was highly unlikely that a scientist could have made this much money, but he hadn't heard of any public defections in any of the Packs. Still, it wasn't as though he used to keep track of gossip, even before, save where it involved practical allegiances. It was entirely possible that Charles' parents had left for the badlands, possibly to form their own Pack. If they had done so, it would likely have been without their original Packs' blessings. Or worse.
It was a place to start, Erik realized. Whatever the problem might have been, either one of Charles' ancestral Packs would gladly take him in, and family would have patience with Charles' strange antics. Judging from Charles' skin color and facial features, it could be one of the Western Europe Packs, Scottish, Irish, or English. If it was a family Pack, he might not even be forced into a pairing immediately. "Do you have a name? A photograph?"
"Brian Xavier. I've tried to find my biological mother before. I couldn't find any records. I have a photograph upstairs of my father. Why?"
Xavier wasn't a surname that Erik was immediately familiar with, but if the Xaviers had fled their original Packs, they might have changed their names. "I might start by trying to locate your parents' original Packs. If you join those, you probably won't be pushed into a pair right away."
"Probably," Charles repeated, glancing up briefly.
"I wouldn't know until I find out which Packs those are," Erik said evasively. Even if Charles wasn't immediately mated, he probably would be traded, eventually, especially if the Packs were small ones that would cave easily to pressure from other, larger Packs that wanted a female.
Charles sighed. "I can't say that I fully understand the rush, Erik. Oh, and are you allergic to anything? I'll make dinner."
Erik peered at the food lined on the kitchen bench. "These are all vegetables."
"You're not allergic to vegetables, are you?" Charles looked alarmed.
"No," Erik said, annoyed. "Don't you eat meat?"
"Every time you eat meat, you're taking a life," Charles said, teacherish, and at Erik's raised eyebrow, he muttered, "I once, might have, eaten a chicken. As a wolf. I was hungry and young," he added, defensively. "It was not a very appetising experience. I never did it again. Killing things and eating them, that is."
"You don't know how to hunt?"
Charles probably looked as appalled as he felt. "You eat raw meat?"
"Not in human form," Erik growled. "But it's common for Packs to hunt together." There was nothing like the adrenaline rush of a cooperative kill to maintain hierarchical relationships. "We're werewolves, not weresheep."
"I... er... I'm not sure that I'll be... Erik, why are you taking off your clothes?"
Erik dumped his turtleneck on the chair. "Take yours off and shift forms. We're going for a walk."
Charles froze. "I'm not going to kill something!"
"Just shut up and change," Erik growled, "Or I'm going to shake you until you do."
It had been a very, very long while since he had last allowed himself to shift forms outside of the cellar, and Charles was distinctly aware that he was probably out of shape. He did keep his human form fit, but the gray wolf's muscles felt sadly unused, and he couldn't help the feeling of joy that welled within him as he stretched his legs, scampering over the long grass, new scents exploding over his nose. This was what he knew that he missed, every full moon, that had him bump restlessly against the painful silver bars and howl his wolf's primal frustration until his throat was raw from it. This was the sort of non-human pleasure that he was afraid that he could never come back from.
Erik was trotting sedately towards the woods, ignoring his antics, and eventually, a little embarrassed, Charles drew level at his shoulder from behind, only for Erik to whirl and snap at him. Startled, Charles jumped back a step, leaning forward to offer to touch noses, but this time, Erik shook his head, circling around and approaching him from behind the way he had before. At his puzzled look, Erik shook his head again, and circled back and around, padding towards him from an upwind position before leaning forward to touch noses, then he sat down expectantly.
So he had approached Erik incorrectly, yet again. Wolf etiquette seemed so precise. Charles mimicked the gesture until Erik was satisfied, then the great dire wolf got back up and continued towards the woods. It was probably a predator thing, Charles thought, excited at the concept. Animals bearing jaws that could crush bone as well as a set of honed predator instincts probably had a somewhat more delicate system of greetings and communication.
Erik was a huge wolf. Charles had once visited the London Zoo, to look at the canis lupus exhibits out of a sense of curiosity and pity, and although he had to admit that his own wolf form was probably smaller than average, Erik was far bigger than any of the wolves in the Zoo. He probably could give some of the big cats a run for their money. A dire wolf, Charles thought, having looked this up before he had headed to town today, on one of the old encyclopedias, canis dirus, its 'true' wolf form long extinct. Larger upper carnassials, longer tempora fossa. The Zoological Society of London would probably have fits of joy if they could have but one hour to examine Erik's teeth and locomotion.
Amused at that thought, Charles nearly walked headlong into a tree, only for Erik to abruptly nudge him aside at the last moment and glower at him. Suitably abashed, Charles wondered what a werewolf's idea of apology was. Rolling over seemed embarrassing, and he wasn't sure what to do with his tail. Erik, however, was already padding on again, sniffing at the air, saving Charles from further extrapolation and probable embarrassment.
He would have to ask Erik about wolf breeds, Charles decided. It looked as though werewolves correlated with 'true' breeds, just as their human forms resembled humans down to their DNA helixes. Still, Charles was convinced that genetics, mutations, and theories of evolution were involved. It was possible that he had missed something before, furtively studying his own DNA in the Oxford laboratories. He'd need to get a blood sample from both of Erik's forms-
Erik sniffed at the air again and broke into a brisk trot that had Charles scamper to keep up with his longer stride. He couldn't pick up whatever it was that Erik had sensed; to him, the forest was full of new scents, all equally demanding of his attention, earth and leaves, bark and something small and sharp and alive up above them, something musty, something spicy and wet, and, most of all, Erik's scent, thick and masculine. Now that the wet carpet smell had faded, Charles rather liked the scent - perhaps naturally, given that Erik was another werewolf.
Thinking this over, Charles walked nose-first into the bush that Erik had stopped in front of and ended up scraping at his muzzle awkwardly to rub off residual leaves even as Erik stared at him disapprovingly. The big wolf inclined his head, and at Charles' puzzled look, let out a huff and patted at the ground beside him with a paw. Hesitantly, Charles moved, and peeked over the bush, following Erik's gaze.
Out in the undergrowth, some distance away, a feral pheasant hen was picking industriously through the leaves, probably for worms. Phasianus colchicus, with a flavistic color mutation into fawn colors. Admiring the hue, Charles didn't realize that Erik was sneaking up on the bird, commando-style, belly brushing the undergrowth until he looked to the left and the big wolf wasn't there anymore.
Quickly, he rushed out, barking, and the bird froze, for one startling moment of crystallised fright, glancing back at them, before fleeing quickly, squawking in fear. Relieved, Charles slowed to a trot, turning to regard Erik, only to realize that the big wolf was snarling at him, about to pounce. Alarmed, Charles hastily darted out of the way, and Erik lunged past, his growl all rumbling menace as he skidded on the rotting leaves. Charles whined, hoping that he looked ingratiating, but Erik bared his teeth at him, clearly furious, and at the next dodged lunge, Erik snapped his muzzle back, nipping Charles' flank sharply.
Charles yelped, astonished, as Erik crouched again, ready to spring, and instantly, Charles' mind calculated strategy and trajectory, and at the leap, he darted to the side, squeezed his eyes tight and jumped, twisting at the last moment. His shoulder caught Erik against the big wolf's ribs, and the momentum knocked Erik off his feet, landing him heavily on the ground with a startled huff. Charles scrambled up quickly, triumphant, only to hastily dart off as Erik snarled and snapped at him, surprise bleeding quickly into anger.
Perhaps if he wagged his tail? Charles tried it, and Erik stared for a long moment before huffing and trotting over, all the violence in his scent abruptly fading. He grabbed Charles' tail carefully in his mouth, stilling it pointedly, and then sniffed at it, as though as an afterthought, nosing thoughtfully higher. Pre-caudal scent glands, Charles thought, before the rest of his brain caught up with the spirit of scientific enquiry with a horrified where is he sniffing oh my god-
Erik seemed frozen in surprise when Charles hastily sidestepped out of range, as though dazed, then he shook himself out and huffed again, ears flicking back and forth. Charles watched him warily as the big wolf drew close, then Erik abruptly shouldered him off his feet. As Charles yelped, caught off guard, Erik backed off, jaws parting, tongue lolling out briefly as though in amusement before turning to lope briskly back towards the house.
Charles kept himself downwind, caught up in the spirit of mischief, and pounced at the last moment, darting in to land a smart nip on Erik's hindquarters. Erik whirled, growling, and Charles fled, deeper into the forest, pausing for a moment to check if Erik was chasing him, then quickly scrambling into a run when the big wolf bounded forward.
"You're out of shape," Erik told Charles, as he scrubbed at one of the chipped plates in the sink, soap suds creeping up to his elbows. The pasta had been a little over spiced and he had been left with a vague sense of dissatisfaction at the lack of meat, but it had been somewhat more edible than he had originally surmised. "Your wolf form."
He had to be growing soft. They'd spent all of the afternoon and much of the early evening playing around the woods like pups, chasing each other in mock hunts, exploring the old, rambling grounds of Charles' family estates, until the growing dark and damp had finally chased them back to the mansion. Charles had radiated a simple, brightly vivid joy that was almost... gratifying... to watch, and grudgingly, just a little, Erik was beginning to miss more of his Pack than he had allowed himself, of the better times, past the scabs of old grief and rage and hatred.
"Well, yes," Charles was drying off cutlery with a faded old cloth.
"And you're getting rid of that cage," Erik continued, not wanting to think about how Charles' future adoptive pack would think if they ever saw it. "Never mention it to anyone else. Ever."
Charles eyed him with a sidelong glance, then looked back down to the fork that he was polishing. "I don't know the details, but my father remarried a human woman. My stepmother," he added when Erik arched an eyebrow. "When father passed away, she married another man, and they had a son. All fully human."
"Strange behaviour," Erik decided, passing the plate to Charles. Unless Charles' father was somewhat more cunning than Erik would have given him credit for. No sane werewolf would ever attach himself or herself to a mere human... unless he or she was doing it out of sheer desperation, to throw off pursuit, perhaps. "How did your father pass away? We don't die easily."
"I don't know," Charles said, uncomfortably, "I was always told that it was illness. He hadn't been well for as long as I remember. He would drift, and forget that what he was talking about. Things like that."
Pining, perhaps? Some mated pairs went that way, others, particularly the females of their kind, simply found new partners out of social necessity. "And then?"
"The stepson was bigger than I was, and he hated me. When I was thirteen," Charles wiped the plate down and stacked in on the rack, "He waited until my stepmother was out before deciding to push me around in the east wing. Things got out of hand, and he rolled me down a stairway. I hit my head, and the... the wolf came out. It was the first time," Charles said, self-consciously.
Erik stared at Charles, surprised. The full moon's trigger was a biological imperative only upon maturity, but Charles had...? "You had never, ever changed before?"
"Never." Charles swallowed. "Or at least, not that I remember. Ironically, my stepbrother's name is Cain. Cain Marko. Poor kid... he was frightened, and locked me in the basement. I'd figured out how to change back by the time my stepmother let me out of there, and Cain was raving about monsters and wolves... they had him committed to an institution."
"Good," Erik muttered roughly, suddenly angry at the thought of some human pushing Charles down a flight of steps.
"It got worse," Charles said wanly, "My stepmother had always suspected something that was wrong... was different with father, she said. One day she confronted me about it. She was angry, Cain was deteriorating in that institution, and she was waving a derringer around. It went off when I tried to take it from her before she hurt herself, and I lost control again."
"She shot you?" Erik nearly fumbled a cup as he tensed.
"I gather she put the whole clip into me when I changed form," Charles said wryly, oblivious to Erik's growing outrage, "And when I didn't die, she ran for it, she and Kurt - my stepfather."
"They didn't send trappers after you?" Erik grit his teeth, suppressing the spur of protective fury at the very thought.
"No." Charles said, after a moment's thought. "I guess they were too afraid. After that, I built the cage when I started receiving dividends from my father's trust funds directly. Apparently it was part of his Will, that the dividends would be paid to me should my stepmother leave me behind. The family lawyer's very good."
"Tischer Mayhew Playford," Charles said promptly, "They have an office in White Plains. I get enough to keep the house maintained if I wanted to employ servants, but I didn't want to risk hurting anyone by accident... Erik?"
Erik closed his mouth. "We're going to their office."
"Why?" Charles asked, surprised. "I don't want to sue anyone."
Erik fought the urge to roll his eyes. "Because my Pack used to use them - many Packs do. You're going to have to take a look at your parents' Wills."
"Werewolves use lawyers?"
Erik scowled. "Sadly, they've been one aspect of the human world that we've been unable to avoid."
The stately offices of Tischer Mayhew Playford had a good view of Main Street, the walls of its reception bordered by oak paneling and heavy bookshelves lined with leather-bound volumes, most of which seemed untouched. After paging ahead and offering them coffee with a robotic smile, the receptionist resumed typist work behind her curved desk, seemingly having written the both of them out of her immediate universe now that her purpose was served.
At Erik's urging, Charles had rung ahead for an appointment, and then they had driven down, the drive made shorter by (Charles) singing along to Sinatra, Ella, and Nat King Cole on the transistor radio in the rented car. Erik had been sullenly quiet the whole trip, ignoring him whenever he tried to ask questions, and after a few attempts at trying to cajole the other werewolf into small talk, Charles gave up. Erik was probably annoyed at his as yet unknown business being so thoroughly sidetracked, even though Charles had tried to hint that he was certainly in no hurry to fall into the lap of an alien society that was seemingly mired in the Middle Ages.
Charles was still humming the refrain to the lady is a tramp under his breath when a bearish old man let himself out of the door set into the otherwise seamless wood paneling behind the reception desk. Stooped from age, if straight-backed, the man would have been taller than Erik, and he wore a flowing mane of prickly beard, gray chasing into silver, in defiance of all the ground that the rest of his hair had ceded over the smooth dome of his head. His sharp gray eyes were set deep into ridged wrinkles, and he seemed half a size too large for his tailored suit. Walking over to them in the mincing gait of a man hopelessly careful of his weight, he extended a large paw when Charles rose to his feet.
"Charles." Albert Mayhew smiled, warm, yet catlike, looking him over quickly. "The years pass so quickly."
"You haven't aged a day, Mister Mayhew," Charles grinned, though the years hadn't been kind to Albert; when he'd last seen him, at his father's funeral, Albert had worn a little brown in his beard.
"Albert, please." Albert glanced over at Erik thoughtfully, after shaking Charles' hand in a firm grip. "You seem familiar, sir. Schwarzwald's?"
"I was." Erik shook Albert's hand firmly.
"Ah yes. The firm is very sorry about your loss, Herr Lehnsherr," Albert patted his palm. "If you need anything at all-"
"I'm fine." Erik cut in curtly. "Your firm acted for Brian Xavier."
Albert glanced at Charles, who nodded slowly. "I'll like to see my father's Will, Albert."
"Of course. And there is a matter that I must discuss with you, Charles. In private," Albert added, with an attorney's politely insincere tone of apology. "If Herr Lehnsherr would be willing to wait for you here?"
Erik narrowed his eyes, possibly about to accuse the old lawyer of conspiracy or attempted kidnapping or something equally paranoid, but Charles said, hastily, "I'm sure he'd be happy to. Won't he?"
Erik glanced between them, slowly, then the corner of his lip turned up and he nodded, slouching back into the cushioned seat and picking up a copy of the Times. "This way, Charles," Albert said, untroubled, ushering him towards the door. Within it was a corridor with rows of boxed glass offices to Charles' left, and gray cubicles to his right, buzzing with work and a particular blend of caffeine-intoxicated, pressurized stress that seemed characteristic of a busy law practice. Albert was leaning over the edge of a cubicle, towards a harried, slight young man. "Mike, get the Xavier file."
"Sir," Mike bowed his head, scurrying away towards a back room behind the cubicles as Albert strode towards the corner office.
"I apologize for the untidiness," Albert said, as Charles stepped carefully over one of the many piles of paperwork that lay across the carpet, the large mahogany desks, the low shelves and even the window seat in majestically chaotic profusion, waved into a seat before the desk even as Albert closed the door and lowered himself into his creaking chair. "How have you been, Charles?"
"I've been better. I met Erik only a few days ago," Charles said, with a quick grin, "Albert, I've learned things that I never thought possible. What did you mean about Schwarzwald?"
"Packs take names after their territories. His used to hold the Schwarzwald forest. Therefore, Herr Lehnsherr is from the Schwarzwald Pack," Albert said, seemingly oblivious to the way Charles' jaw dropped. "Or more accurately, he's what's left of it."
"You knew about all this?" Charles made a vaguely encompassing gesture. "I mean, of course you know, Erik mentioned that his Pack used this firm, but... why didn't you ever tell me?"
"Client's instructions," Albert said, again with that insincere apology, this time with a wry, mirthless smile. "Your parents were very specific. Thank you, Mike," he added brusquely, as the assistant slipped into the office, dodging treacherous paperwork, and passed a thick folder over to Albert before letting himself out and closing the door. "I was to answer any questions you had only after you had reached thirty years of age - or approached me asking to read your parents' Wills." Albert spread his palms wide. "Ask away, Charles."
"I'm getting billed for this, am I?" Charles said, with a slow grin, his head buzzing with far too much to put into words.
"Your parents have us on a very generous retainer," Albert admitted. "Of which I was instructed to be at liberty to divulge," he added, with ponderous self-consciousness.
Charles had wanted to ask after his parents' real names, or their Packs, or the remarkably primitive system of pairs and hierarchies, but what really came out of his mouth was, "What happened to Erik's Pack?"
Albert raised both of his bushy eyebrows, but he didn't comment on Charles' query. "World War II happened, Charles. I gather that in the chaos, some Packs were exterminated. Dreadful business. Frank - that's Frank Playford - would know better than I. Thankfully, my purview is restricted to this side of the Atlantic."
"Erik said that this was the 'badlands'," Charles recalled, "What does that mean?"
"Many of your kind are a - forgive this observation - a rather superstitious lot," Albert grimaced. "It seems that a prevailing belief is that North America is 'cursed' land because the original Packs upon it - being the Red Indians - were more or less destroyed by the settlers. It is a Pack-less land - 'badlands'."
Charles could almost see every disapproving quotation mark falling into clanging place. "Yet you have an office here."
"Of course," Albert smiled faintly and inscrutably, suggesting that any attempts to weasel out the numbers of his other similar clients, or identities, would be futile.
"Why didn't my parents want me to know that I wasn't alone earlier?" Charles asked, unable to keep some of the hurt from his voice. "Albert, I grew up thinking that there was something wrong with me, that I was some sort of monstrous anomaly."
"I'm sorry to hear about that," the attorney even managed an edge of sincerity, there, "But I do believe your parents - rest their souls - had some rather... radical concepts." Albert cleared his throat, and he didn't smile. "They instructed me to tell you that they wanted you to live as a human, up until you reached werewolf maturity. By then, they believed that you would be old enough to be able to make an informed choice."
Charles mused this over - particularly in the context of Erik's attitude to him of late, it seemed to make a terrible sort of sense. Perhaps his mother had suffered terribly, trapped in a society that seemed to view her as some sort of breeding machine. "Did my parents come here to hide from something?"
"I was not advised of that." Albert opened the old folder carefully, and took a cracked leather pouch from within it, pushing it over the table. "That was for you. Unopened."
"What were their real names?"
"I was instructed to call them Brian and Kayla Xavier," Albert said, expressionless, and as generous as his family's attorney had seemed from the start, this appeared to be the last piece of personal information that he was 'at liberty to divulge', and the attorney seemed to have little interest or detailed knowledge of the Packs on the 'other side of the Atlantic'. A little disappointed after he'd exhausted his questions, but clutching the leather bag to his chest, Charles eventually rose to leave.
"One more thing," Albert added, as they shook hands. "Your mother had a separate, private set of instructions to me. It was to put you into contact with a person, should you choose it."
"Her sister. They were close." Albert said, just as expressionless as ever, even as Charles' eyes widened. "Should you wish to contact her, I have her most recent details. You may use the phone in my office."
"Please," Charles said brightly, his previous reservations about packs and their feudal hierarchies quickly pushed aside by the immediate possibility of speaking to someone else like him. To his aunt. Besides, Charles reasoned, as Albert nodded and approached the black phone on a side table, it wasn't as though his aunt would be able to tell what gender his wolf form was, over the phone, if that was the main issue.
"Madam? My apologies for disturbing you... yes. Albert Mayhew... yes. About Kayla. Indeed. One moment. Here," Albert held out the phone to him.
"What do I say?" Charles whispered, a little panicky as he took the phone from Albert.
"I suspect a simple 'good afternoon' would be a start," Albert said, not unkindly, clapping his shoulder before stepping out of the office.
"Good afternoon," Charles said, into the phone. "Uh. I'm Charles Xavier. May I know who I'm talking to?"
"Charles. A good name." The voice on the other line was low and velvety, feminine yet sharply precise. "You may call me Emma."
"Did you get anything useful?" Erik asked, somewhat grudgingly, seated at the kitchen table with a battered old chess set between them and a supper of toast and dips to the side.
He had been irrationally annoyed at having been left out of the entire, crawlingly long meeting, especially when Charles had come out of it with neither an apology nor an acknowledgment of Erik's patience, holding an old pouch like a security blanket and burbling excitedly about territories and extinct species, up until Erik had lost his temper again and had tuned him out for the rest of the drive back.
"From?" Charles was chewing absently on his lower lip as he watched the board, his bright blue eyes unfocused in thought, and he still smelled of leaves and earth and the wild things from the overgrown estate during their short run before supper. Erik had to take a deep breath to keep his calm and leave his eyes fixed on Charles' instead of sliding down the sleek, pale arch of his neck; but it didn't work - Charles' mansion was inlaid with the other wolf's thoroughly distracting female scent. It made his mouth water; it made him alternatively snappish, alternatively waylaid by the impulse to go up behind Charles and rub against him until that spicy, alluring scent was muted with his own familiar musk.
It was definitely the moon cycle. He had never felt this sort of pervasive interest towards a female wolf before, let alone towards one that was so unsuitable.
Erik had never given much thought towards a future mate; even before the War, he'd always assumed that he'd go without, or one would be chosen for him, across allied Packs. He supposed that if he'd ever had a choice he would have looked for a female with a strong will and a strong mind; a good alpha female led a Pack alongside the male, not behind him. Charles' mind seemed to run in several directions all at once, and he seemed was blithely dense in all practical matters. Utterly unsuitable.
"That law firm, Charles."
"Oh, that." Charles looked up from the board. Erik had spotted it in one of the disused servant's rooms that Charles seemed to use as storage space, and upon his admission that he had used to play the game, Charles had brightened up so quickly that Erik couldn't quite retract the apparent implied challenge. "My aunt's pack is coming for me. Apparently father was alone... I mean, a lone wolf," Charles amended, carefully conscious of terminology. "My aunt assured me that I won't just be foisted off on some random person for the sake of alliances or something awfully primitive."
There was a faint note of gentle rebuke in Charles' teasing tone, but Erik disregarded it. "That's good. Which Pack?"
"Ah," Charles said, abashed. "You mean, like the territory name? I didn't ask. My mother's name was Kayla, though. And my aunt's is Emma." Charles paused, then he flushed a little. "I didn't get a surname. She seemed... polite. Very articulate. Educated."
Emma. Emma. He knew a few Emmas. Cornwall Pack, possibly, one of the English ones. It figured. "Never mind," Erik said, dismissively, moving his queen to d1. Trust Charles to focus on only the irrelevant sort of information. "Mayhew contacted your Pack for you?"
Charles nodded. "My mother left him instructions."
That was good - if Charles' dam had left the instructions, either whatever they had fled wasn't as bad as Erik had envisaged, or it had long blown over, or - like Erik suspected - Charles' mother had known that whatever she had committed that she had run to the badlands from, her Pack would have taken in a female pup, regardless of her dam's transgressions. "When are they coming?"
"Tomorrow. I've given them my address. In the afternoon, I think."
"I'll leave in the morning, then." Charles shouldn't be able to get into that much trouble by himself in the space of a few hours. Hopefully. And besides, if another Pack stumbled upon him, he had the gun, and even though Erik hated the cage, if Charles was truly desperate, he'd be safe within it until his Pack came to save him.
"Really?" Charles' face fell in obvious disappointment, fingers hovering over a black pawn. "I was hoping that..."
"You'll be fine," Erik said gruffly, even as his fingers curled briefly at Charles' plaintive tone. "Family is family. Stay quiet and keep the gun with you until they come. You've lived here long enough by yourself, you should be safe enough until then. At the most," Erik added, a little grudgingly, "If you need help, howl, I'll probably still be close enough to hear you." A wolf's call tended to carry, and he'd keep close to the edge of the town until the evening. He could allow Charles that much.
"I don't mean that, I just thought that I could introduce you."
Erik snorted. With any luck, Charles' Pack would soon gently disabuse him of all his dreadfully human ideas. "No. At the very best, things will be tense. At the worst, I'll be attacked."
Charles' fingers were twisting together, and God, but for a werewolf that had just crested maturity, Charles could really work a wide-eyed look of pleading. "I'm sure that nothing of the sort will happen, Erik. You're my friend. I'll tell them that."
"They won't see it that way. I'm a lone wolf with no Pack. I'll be a threat," Erik pointed out, as reasonably as he could. "Were I in your family Pack, I would have viewed this the same way."
Charles was goddamned persistent. "But you've helped me all this while, at your own expense, when you had no real need to. Surely they would see good in that."
"They won't see it that way," Erik repeated, folding his arms.
He was promptly treated to another wide-eyed, plaintive look, this time complete with a chewed lower lip, and had to bite down on a groan. Charles' brilliant blue eyes were a weapon in and of themselves. "I'll make sure that nothing untoward happens, Erik. Won't you stay for me? I've never met these people before," he said, a little uncomfortably. "Emma seemed nice enough on the phone, but..."
"Charles, you've called your Pack here. If you change your mind on the spot about joining them, I can't stop them from taking you with them, even if I wanted to." Erik said, with studied patience. Technically, he could probably take on at least two other werewolves at one go, particularly if they weren't expecting him, but he very much doubted that Charles would enjoy watching his extended family get torn to pieces. "As far as I'm concerned, I've already done more than enough for you, and though I don't begrudge you that, I've only assisted you to date because of your rarity. Social necessity. Understand?"
Charles looked so stricken that Erik very nearly retracted his words. "I... I see. I understand." Charles exhaled, rising from the table. "Thank you, in any regard. For your time."
"Charles," Erik said, uncertain now, an unfamiliar sensation, ugly and cold, curling guiltily in his belly.
"I'll see you tomorrow morning, then," Charles murmured, and fled the kitchen. Frowning, Erik tidied up their supper, then sat back in his chair and stared at the board, rubbing his hand briefly over his face. He'll have to leave early. The moon cycle and all the older instincts that it awoke within him were throwing him off balance.
Charles had still felt too hurt to say very much at all to Erik during breakfast, and later, when Erik had already said his curt goodbyes and driven off, he had regretted his little tantrum thoroughly. It wasn't as though Erik had lied to him or anything; the dire wolf had been clear from the very beginning what he had set out to do where Charles was involved, and in the end, Charles had ended up acting very much like a spoiled child.
Setting down Canis Lupus on the kitchen table, Charles rubbed his eyes briefly with the arches of his palms and sighed out aloud, the pouch still unopened beside the unfinished chess game. The words weren't getting absorbed into his mind, he no longer had any mood to investigate his ancestry any further at present, his tea was cooling fast, and he was still obsessing, hours later, about Erik.
Logically, he knew that if werewolf society was even half as feudalistic as Erik described, it was entirely possible that there would have been something bloody and awfully primitive on the horizon should Erik have chosen to stay... and a bit of fun running around the woods did not a best friend make... but still. Nothing with Erik seemed logical, not Erik's world view, not his own, admittedly puppyish and probably annoying reactions to the dire wolf. Charles felt restless, like his skin was itching, but he refused to make the change. Erik's lingering scent in the mansion would only seem all the sharper in his wolf form.
He raised his head when the wind changed, sniffing and glancing sharply to the door. There had been something... About to walk to the door to look outside, Charles got up sharply from his seat instead as one of the most beautiful animals he had ever seen in his life padded in, sleek head regally held high, an arctic she-wolf, her rich, thick fur white as driven snow. Instead of a wolf's feral amber eyes, hers were a brilliant, bright shade of blue that Charles had last seen when he had looked into a mirror.
Behind her was a sleeker wolf, an Iberian, canis lupus signatus, with the signatus white marks on his upper lips and dark marks on the tail and legs, which sniffed at the air and began to growl, though he subsided at a glance from the arctic wolf. She blurred upwards, in that smudge of unreality that Charles could never get tired of studying - and then he shut his eyes tightly even as he shrugged hastily out of his long smoking jacket, thrusting it generally forward, flushing.
Emma chuckled, low and amused, though she took the coat. "Is something wrong, nephew?"
"It's not proper, to, to, well," Charles said, all too aware that his voice was pitched high. "This is highly inappropriate."
"I'm dressed now," Emma said dryly, even as Charles opened his eyes a fraction, then relaxed with relief into a world that was now thankfully free of his aunt's bared breasts. Out of wolf form, Emma was equally beautiful, tall, with mile-long sleek legs, with perfectly coiffed, straw blonde hair and ice-blue eyes. "Mm. You have my sister's eyes, but not much else of her. What about your wolf form?"
"Ah," Charles flushed a little, "I'm well, sort of small. Gray wolf, about this high," he elaborated, with vague hand gestures, patting at the approximate height of his wolf's shoulder in the air by his knee, when Emma arched an eyebrow.
"A gray? Pity. A female, which is good, but, it's a pity that the arctus line didn't breed true."
"How did you know that I was... ah... er," Charles trailed off, far too awkwardly, unable to say female, and Emma smiled, inscrutably.
"This is your home, is it not? Your scent's all over it, and it's quite clear what you are. You've had another werewolf around, as well, but he's not here any longer."
"Yes," Charles said, his excitement deflating somewhat at the reminder of Erik's absence. "He was busy. And he didn't want to meet all of you. I can't imagine why."
"What was his name?" Emma asked idly, even as the Iberian wolf sat down on its haunches by her side when she slid daintily into a chair opposite Charles as he sat back down at the table.
"Erik Lehnsherr," Charles said promptly, and added, when Emma's piercing blue eyes widened a fraction, "Is something the matter?"
"I'm surprised that you weren't harmed, dear child," Emma reached one elegant wrist across the table for his hands, but Charles quickly folded them in his lap.
"What do you mean?"
Emma traced an elegant circle over the rough grains of the table instead, inscrutable again. "I've heard of that one. He's dangerous. Lone wolves like him are lost. He's consumed with hatred, with vengeance. He isn't a wolf any longer."
"He's not like that!" Charles flared, then he calmed himself quickly when Emma tilted her head, as though genteelly taken aback by his poor temper. "He was very patient. And understanding. He helped me. Gave me one of his guns."
"No doubt," Emma said, in a tone close to condescension, "Dear child, once you meet others like us, you'll realize that many, many males will treat you with patience and understanding, give you gifts, shower you with attention. They do all so like to ingratiate themselves. After all," she added, with a glance down at the Iberian that was not entirely friendly, "There are so very many of them, and so few of us."
Charles wanted to disagree, but he swallowed the words under Emma's knowing stare. Erik had said it himself. He was assisting Charles because of the rarity of Charles' wolf's gender, nothing else. "I... I suppose you're right."
"Of course I am." Emma touched a hand lightly to the Iberian's shoulder. "Janos will get the car. Pack everything that you need. You should come and meet the rest of my Pack."
"Your information is rubbish," Erik growled, once the phone connected. He was in a public booth, off the street, drumming his fingers on the cloudy glass and glaring at the dial; the booth smelled acrid and foul, and it wasn't helping his mood any.
"Hey, man, it's so nice to hear from you too," Alexander Summers of the Dartmoor Pack shot back, and Erik could almost hear the other werewolf's unrepentant grin from this side of the Atlantic, over the line. "How's it going? Got yourself a tan? Scored yourself some sweet Southern human babes?"
"If you sent me here over a red herring, I'll take the first flight back tomorrow and wring your bloody neck. There's neither hide nor hair of Shaw all over Westchester County!"
Alex goddamned Summers had the gall to laugh. The Dartmoor Pack was a close-knit one, and the youngest of its males, Scott and Alex, had gotten attached to Erik during the last time their Packs had crossed paths, decades ago, for reasons he could never quite discern. Scott had grown up since the last he had met them, but Alex behaved like an eternal, annoying puppy. "Come on, man. Maybe he moved somewhere. My source was golden. Besides, you took this long to call me to complain, you must've found something."
Erik briefly considered resting his head against the glass, decided not to risk infection, and pressed his forehead against his palm instead. "I found something worse. I haven't had time to look for Shaw, I had to deal with that first."
"You found something worse than Shaw?" Summers whistled. "What was it? Pinko pedophiles? Oh, no, let me guess, someone crossed the road the wrong way?"
Erik made a mental note to find some way to hurt Summers the next time he saw him. "I found a female werewolf with no Pack."
There was a very long silence, then Summers said, dryly, "Lehnsherr, only you would think that that's a bad thing. I think you just described the wet dream of a considerable majority of the male werewolf community. Was she hot? Did you bone her? Do the wild thing?"
He was going to drown Summers. Why had he even originally considered calling the Dartmoor Pack as a solution to Charles' problem? It was a good thing that he'd come to his senses before he'd initiated a total disaster. "No, goddamn it, boy, what the fuck. I helped that werewolf find her ancestral Pack, her parents probably were runaways. Then I looked for Shaw. There's no trace of him. Your so-called contacts haven't seen him for months."
"Wait, wait, we were talking about that hot chick here," Summers cut in blithely. "Wasn't it just a full moon a short while ago over there? You totally banged her. You sly old dog."
He was going to drown Alex Summers in a vat of acid. "Will you pay attention?"
"So what was her ancestral Pack? I bet it was Iberico. Those wolves are smoking hot. You know, you're not denying that she was hot."
"Charles didn't say," Erik snapped.
"So we're on a first-name basis already, are we? Come on, feed me a line here. You've got to know something about Charles' Pack."
"He only mentioned that his mother's name was Kayla. His aunt's is Emma. Satisfied? Can we go back to your unreliable sources of information now?"
"Holy shit," Summers breathed, after a long, shocked pause. "I think you need to slap yourself upside the head."
Erik growled. "And why is that?"
"Kayla and Emma, Lehnsherr. Don't you remember? It was big news for a while. Two females defecting from the same Pack, one after another, to mate up with lone wolves of their own choosing? It was radical stuff."
"Pretend that I don't listen to petty gossip," Erik grit out, "Which Pack is this?"
"Kayla and Emma defected from Arctus, you dipstick," Summers said slowly, "Their full names are Kayla and Emma Frost. The latter being a known associate of you-know-who, seeing as she left her Pack for him. I told you that my information was good, if Emma's in Westchester, Shaw has to be around there somewhere. Admit it. Oh, man. If this Charles cat was Arctus, his wolf form had to have been smoking hot. Erik? Erik? You there?"
Erik was already starting for his car in a dead run. He'd lost track of the number of traffic rules that he had broken and lights that he had run by the time he swerved back into the overgrown driveway of Charles' mansion, skidding over dead leaves and thorny weeds, releasing the safety on his gun as he circled around to the servant's entrance on silent feet, every nerve tense and alert for an ambush. The interwoven scents over the wood-rot and the crumbling stone of the house, however, were telling him a different story - Charles and two other werewolves were long gone, one male, and one female - probably Emma. He was alone. He had been too late.
The door to the side entrance was locked, but the lock was old, and Erik forced it open with a sharp twist of his hand even as he put his shoulder to the splintering wood, hoping that there would be some sort of clue as to where Charles had been taken. Lowering his gun, Erik stepped into the kitchen, clenching and unclenching his free hand, furious with himself. He should have stayed with Charles when Charles had asked him to. He shouldn't have let Charles wander off with Mayhew into a private meeting. He should have... he should have done something more.
Letting out an angry breath, Erik circled the kitchen, looking around. There was no sign of a struggle, at least, even though there was no sign that could point him in Charles' direction, and everything had been neatly packed up, as though Charles had known that he was about to be leaving his home for a while. He was too damned trusting... but why would he not have been? Erik groaned and clenched his hands tightly into fists. Erik had been the one to tell him to trust family.
And now Shaw had Charles.
Dropping the gun on the table and shrugging out of his clothes, Erik shifted form, sniffing around the table, then following the sharpening scents out of the door, back out towards the driveway, to the second track of tyres over slowly unraveling grass, where it gave to layers of tar, metal, and rubber. They'd taken a car, and he'd lose the scent of it once it reached the road. He'd have no hope of tracking them now.
Frustrated, Erik raised his nose to the darkening sky and let out a dire wolf's deep-throated howl, that wound its haunted way over the woods and the rambling grounds and set dogs in the distance to barking and whining. Growling to himself, Erik padded back towards the kitchen to get his things. He was going to have to try and pull in some favors.
Charles hadn't known what to expect, but of all the possibilities he had considered during their flight, ending up in a nightclub in Las Vegas hadn't been one of them.
Emma had changed into something highly inappropriate on the way to Vegas, some sort of awful skin-tight white body glove that was missing a considerable amount of fabric, and she had, with graceful indulgence, condescended to wear a white mink coat over it all just to stop Charles from sputtering. It seemed that nudity was not a matter given to concepts of shame or decency where werewolves were concerned; after all, Emma said dryly, it wasn't as though their wolf forms were dressed. Charles had spent the rest of the flight trying very hard not to think of his runs in the wood with Erik as naked libertine frolics, but it had been difficult.
Janos turned out to be a stern, quiet Spanish man who had picked up Emma's and Charles' carry bags despite Charles' attempt to handle his own and seemed to act both as a bodyguard, chauffeur, and servant. Having thought that Packs were a family structure, it seemed off-putting. Admittedly, it was difficult to think very much about Janos; Emma, gorgeous, self-assured Emma, seemed to commandeer the very air around her, like a white Queen, imperiously demanding, and even Charles' natural curiosity ceded to a gawkish sort of shyness in her presence. Charles wondered idly whether the impression that Erik had given him was wrong after all. If females were rare, then it was far more likely that they were treated like royalty rather than like trading tokens in a game of politics.
There was so much that he didn't understand. It was exhilarating.
Emma had gracefully linked arms with Charles when she had walked them into the Hellfire Club, ignoring the scantily dressed hard-eyed human women who slunk around the ludicrously red and velvet decorated club, or the male clientele who ran their hungry eyes over her body, pulling Charles with her into a booth and drawing the curtains.
"What about Janos?" Charles had asked, as Emma depressed something at the table, then sat up straight with a blink as the room seemed to rotate.
"He'll get the bags to our quarters." Emma said dismissively, rising to slink out of the booth and into a room that wouldn't have looked out of place in the Xavier mansion about three decades ago, all antique wood and plush upholstery, a thick maroon carpet and a fireplace to the side with an armchair set before it.
A man was rising from the chair to regard them with a sharp, calculated stare, wearing a pressed dress shirt over tailored gray trousers. He had probably been handsome in his youth, but his face was beginning to edge towards disrepair, with deep, hard lines cut into his face from time, his unruly dark hair beginning to pale and edge up over his forehead. His lips were set in an uncompromising line, even as Emma stalked to his side and met his gaze, then he murmured something to her and she nodded at him.
"Charles, this is Sebastian Shaw, my mate. Sebastian, this is Charles Xavier, of my sister, Kayla."
"An arctus? He has the eyes." Shaw's stride was long and measured, just as self-assured as Emma's, as he approached him and shook his hand firmly.
"A gray." Emma said, even as Charles opened his mouth. "But a female."
"I can smell that much." Sebastian circled around him, then back to Emma's side. "A good find, my dear."
"Of course." Emma smiled her inscrutable smile.
"Well, let's not all stand at ceremony. A drink? Wine?"
A little unnerved by Shaw's forceful self-confidence, Charles followed them into an inner room, where a circle of white couches surrounded a glass table strewn with magazines. Emma poured an oak-scented red for them all, then settled down beside Charles, even as Sebastian sat across from them, taking an appreciative sniff of his glass. "How old are you, Charles?"
"Thirty. Almost," Charles amended, under Sebastian's piercing stare.
"And you've lived without a Pack all this while?"
"I thought that I was alone, sir," Charles said wryly, "All this is rather new and sudden."
"He met another werewolf," Emma interjected. "Erik Lehnsherr. He was gone when we found Charles."
Sebastian raised his eyebrows, his lips curling, as though at some secret sort of amusement. "Well, well."
"You know Erik?" Charles asked, with a trifle more enthusiasm than he'd intended.
"We've met. He does have some rather... shall we say... non-progressive ideas. In that regard," Sebastian said, with a tone that seemed akin to mock sadness, "He's quite similar to many of the East European breeds. It's a pity. If not for his madness, he could quite easily rejoin a pack of his choice and probably even acquire breeding rights. The dirus breed is dying out. The line is almost as prized as arctus."
Emma slyly raised her glass, as though at a private joke. Charles felt a sense of irrational irritation at both the cavalier description of Erik and the terribly Neanderthal reference to 'breeding rights'. "He's not that bad. He helped me. Asked for nothing in return."
"Oh no, he was quite the gentleman, I would think. Many other male werewolves, having found you alone by yourself, would have not hesitated to take advantage of you," Sebastian said, soothingly. "No doubt Erik would have spent the entirety of your acquaintance haranguing you to get attached to a Pack? It would have been his way."
"He did," Charles had to admit. "He had me convinced that I existed to be bought and traded. Because I was rare, or something like that."
"Unfortunately, he was quite right. But that's not the case with our Pack," Sebastian amended, as Charles frowned quickly. "Emma and I seek to ameliorate werewolf society. The way we live hasn't changed very much at all in the last few hundred years. It's holding us back, keeping us in the shadows, slowly clinging on to our ebbing territories even as the humans hunt and kill us when they can. The very low incidence of female wolves and therefore, the low birth rate, is but one limiting factor."
"What are you looking to do? It'll be hard to change the birth rate unless a reason behind the low incidence of female wolves is found," Charles felt his interest begin to perk. "I studied genetics," he added, when Sebastian seemed impressed. "But only at an undergraduate level. It was hard to hide what I was, and I got a few close encounters before I decided to go home."
"He is quite a find," Sebastian told Emma, who inclined her head. "Well then, Charles, it appears that you have fallen in with us at a most opportune time. Werewolf society will stay mired as it is with the imbalance in the gender ratio as it is now. I am looking for a solution. Both to the gender ratio, and to our attitude to human relations. You can take over the former, and I will therefore be free to devote all of my attention to the latter."
"Human relations?" Charles repeated, puzzled.
"There are rather more humans in the world than us," Sebastian mused, with an absent gesture of his glass. "Were they to become aware of our existence, we could be exterminated. That's the reason for all the secrecy, why Packs tend to hold territories in remote locations, all our squabbling and feuding over the little of the world left to us that the humans have not yet seen fit to touch. A different approach to human society is perhaps in order."
"Reconciliation?" Charles mused. "It could work. There could be peace, but not if we always assume the worst of them."
Sebastian exchanged a glance with Emma, then he began to chuckle, even as his eyes remained narrowed and cool. "Let me worry about that."
Sniffing around town for blonde, blue-eyed women with expensive tastes might have been easier elsewhere, but in affluent Westchester County, it was a lesson in utter futility. By the time Erik had exhausted all of his leads, he was fairly certain that he was wasting his time. Charles could have been spirited out of the country already, in all the time that Erik had spent poking around in the sort of expensive hotels that Shaw liked and developing a headache from the confluence of humanity around him.
Besides, if Emma had been to Charles' mansion, then they would have sensed that Erik had been there. If Shaw was in Westchester County - and that was a very big 'if' - then no doubt he'd have already been forewarned.
Hungry, exhausted, and still furious with himself, Erik trudged back towards his rented car around the corner of the hotel, only to find it missing, with a black stretch Lincoln limousine sitting smugly in its place.
Lounging against it was Alex bloody Summers.
"How's it going, man?" Alex grinned, then hastily darted away with his hands up when Erik snarled and started menacingly forward. "Whoah, whoah, whoah, down boy! I'm here to help."
"How did you get here?" Erik hissed, fingers curling.
"I might have told Sean about what you said, then he told Angel, Angel told Raven, and then we all flew down here."
Erik stared, the world seemingly unraveling into nonsense before him. "What are you talking about?"
"Sean Cassidy of Caledon, Angel of Iberico -"
"I meant," Erik said, with studied patience, "What the fuck are all of you doing here?"
"...and Raven of Arctus," Alex added, with a shit-eating grin that was making Erik's hands itch. "Do you want to get into the car, or what? Your stuff's already in the boot."
Erik got into the car. Which, as it turned out, was already lined full of semi-tipsy young male werewolves, mixing at least three types of alcohol and singing raucously along to Heartbreak Hotel. Alex caught his wrist quickly as he tried to step back out of the car, and raised his voice. "Guys, come on, guys. Seriously."
A dark-haired girl reached behind herself to fumble at some hidden controls, and the music switched off even as Erik's eyes adjusted to the dim light. Alex and himself were seated on the deep red leather back seat, and to his right, slouched against the length of the limousine on a side-seat, was a grinning, tawny blond kid that probably wasn't much older than Alex - Sean Cassidy, Erik recalled vaguely, from one of the few inter-Pack meetings, before the War.
Facing them were two werewolves wearing human female forms, being a dark-haired Iberico male and, smiling, cat-like, in a human form like a young blonde bombshell, her eyes bright blue, a male Arctus. Erik stared hard at her as Alex did the introductions, but she didn't flinch.
"Apparently I have a long-lost cousin," Raven purred, once Alex finished.
"What is this about?" Erik growled, as Angel rapped over at the driver's panel, signaling for the limousine to pull away from the curb.
"We have common grounds," Raven rolled a shoulder into a graceful shrug. "And Arctus has decided that it's expedient to recover one of our long-lost scions."
"Charles isn't an arctus, he's just a gray," Erik snapped. "And he's already chosen a Pack."
"A gray? Grandsire will be so disappointed," Raven murmured. "Blue eyes, though?" When Erik pointedly didn't answer, she smiled, lazily. "Blue eyes is good. That means he's a carrier. The line will breed back in, sooner or later. Faster if he breeds in with some current stock. Maybe any of the third gens that we bred out over in Letea. He's still valuable."
"I may understand what she's doing here," Erik said slowly, biting down his instinctive retort, pointing at Raven, "But what about the rest of you?"
"Charles might have chosen a Pack," Alex said innocently, "But everyone knows what you've been haring to do to Shaw. And if anyone could get rid of him, it'd be you. And we'll help you, that cat has it coming. After which, Charles won't have a Pack any longer, would he? Iberico, Caledon and Dartmoor are interested."
"Neither would Emma have a Pack," Erik said coldly, an ugly curl of anger twisting within his chest.
Alex coughed. "Ah yes, the lovely White Queen," just as Sean shuddered and Angel muttered, "Bitch."
"Play nice, she's related to me," Raven cut in, though she smirked as she said so. "Besides, Arctus would take her back. Not that she would come, of course. She and Kayla were two of a kind. Once they fixed their minds on something, there was no budging them, come hell or high water."
"Kayla was nice," Sean disagreed, then added, defensively, "My mother always said so. It's just that she met that American wolf, Xavier, when she was in London, and got some funny ideas. Mother had no idea why Kayla would have run off with a common gray. Maybe this Xavier was something special."
"Or she was crazy," Summers suggested, if with a quick glance at Raven. Raven, however, shrugged, as though disinterested in speculation.
"Lone wolves," Angel muttered, with a touch of disdain, then added, with a glance at Erik, "No offense."
"I don't need your help," Erik said flatly, disregarding the comment.
Nor was he about to preside over a pissing match over who got to have Charles if Erik managed to get rid of Shaw. The very idea of it made him furious all over again, inordinately so, though he couldn't immediately put his finger on why. He'd known that something like this would happen, after all, if news of Charles had gotten out. Even if Charles hadn't been part prized Arctus blood.
"Oh, come on," Alex grinned, even as Raven inspected her nails and added, "Of course you do. You don't have leads, or you won't have been running around like a headless chicken all this while."
"And you have better ideas?" Erik asked, disdainfully.
"Naturally." Raven smiled, smugly. "Arctus might not usually get involved in all the skirmishes and little political byplays that the rest of you love to waste your time on, but we do keep an eye on our own. I know where Emma is."
The building complex behind the Hellfire Club's faux-decadence facade was quite possibly illegal, Charles felt, two levels down and within a sprawling laboratory space that was probably larger than the ground floor of his Westchester mansion. Sebastian was pulling him gently but firmly away from where Charles was gawking openly at a goddamned submarine, suspended from cabling and propped on struts, its belly a disembowelled mess of carefully tagged wiring and coils.
"Hank," Sebastian called, and at the rows of workbenches, bent over a microscope with glass slides to his right and sheaves of printouts to his left, a young man with large black glasses looked up quickly. "Come here and greet our guest."
"Oh, Mister Shaw!" Hank was tall, hunched and lanky, his hair in an untidy nest of brown strands, his black glasses sliding slowly down his nose, his lab coat stained with grease marks over the bulging left pocket and something brightly bluish and unidentifiable over his sleeves. He regarded Charles with a blink, then he sniffed at the air. "Uh. Hello?"
"Hank, this is Charles, Emma's nephew. Charles, this is Hank McCoy."
"Pleased to meet you," Hank's handshake was tentative and limp.
"Charles has a degree in genetics and an interest in Project Genesis, Hank. I'm sure that you will take care of him?" Sebastian's smile was thin, his eyes cool.
"Of course, Mister Shaw." Hank said hastily, a worried look crossing his face briefly. "Ah, let me show you the improvements I've made to your submarine."
"How would we get that out of here?" Charles asked, looking around the gray-walled room with open curiosity. Humming machines with blue-lit consoles lined the rightmost walls, and on floor to ceiling shelves books and printouts were stacked in a sort of haphazard chaos. Doors were set into the wall, one unlabeled, and one marked 'Genesis Room - KEEP CLOSED', and there was a cot set next to the workbench, the sheets rumpled and unmade.
"An excellent question, Charles, but it is an eventuality that we have prepared for," Sebastian said, with a touch of impatience. "Hank, how have you progressed with my submarine?"
Hank started to chatter about nuclear engines and hull breaches, even as Charles slowly lost interest and wandered over to the workbench to look at the microscope. Clustered under the scope was an instantly familiar array of hematocytes in a blue slide stain, and, absorbed in reading Hank's cramped handwritten observations about werewolf helix strands and comparison arrays with 'common' human blood, he jumped when someone abruptly tapped him on the shoulder.
Sebastian smiled his mirthless smile. "I have business to attend to, Charles. If you have any questions, ask Hank. When you're tired, just tap that button over there, at the lifts. Janos will come and show you to your rooms."
"Thank you, sir," Charles nodded, impatient to get back to the notes, and Sebastian inclined his head before padding out. Instantly, Hank let out a deep sigh, as though of relief, and then glanced over at Charles guiltily as if to check whether he'd noticed.
"Hi," Hank said, awkward again, sidling up against the submarine. "Er. Did you need anything?"
"Did you build that submarine by yourself?" Charles asked, unable to help the awe in his tone.
"I designed it. As to building it, not really, I had help," Hank was almost pressed up against the sleek hull of the submarine now, as though defensively, ready for flight. "You're Miss Frost's nephew? Then you must be Arctus?"
"Arctus?" Charles repeated, puzzled.
"Arctus, as in, from the Arctus Pack," It was Hank's turn to look confused. "You've got the blue eyes."
"Ah, no, I'm in, er, Sebastian's Pack," Charles said, a little awkwardly, with a self-conscious grin. "I'm never going to be able to get used to saying that." At Hank's wary glance, he added, "I spent most of my life thinking that I was an anomaly, Hank. I lived alone in Westchester. Please forgive me if I say anything that seems utterly inappropriate or out of place."
"I can't imagine what that would have been like," Hank said, sounding wistful, as though he was envious. "I was from Glencoe... my family Pack was one of the very traditional ones. Rights by combat," he elaborated, when Charles tilted his head. "I never did like trying to tear my siblings apart with my teeth, and I was always far more interested in scientific principles than hunting and eating animals, so I ran away from it all."
"And here you are," Charles grinned, with a nod at the submarine, "A brilliant scientist."
Hank flushed a little at the praise and seemed to edge even closer to the submarine. "Hardly."
"What did Sebastian mean by Project Genesis?" Charles glanced at the heading of the sheaf of notes beside the microscope.
The other werewolf seemed to be ostensibly studying printouts stacked on a low table under the belly of the submarine. "Uh, that's one of his favourite ongoing endeavours. He's trying to solve the birth rate problem."
"Do you have any ideas to date?"
"Yes, well, but I wouldn't want to bore you-"
"Hank," Charles sighed, and Hank flinched a little, skittishly. "Is there a problem? If I'm making you uncomfortable, let me know. I'll leave."
"Well, you're, well," Hank looked around shiftily, "You're female."
Charles fought the urge to bury his face in his palms. "And?"
"If you're here and you're Frost's nephew," Hank muttered, "Then you're possibly Azazel's mate? Hierarchy wise I guess he would have been the next one with breeding rights. We're not exactly on speaking terms. At all. To put things lightly."
Charles groaned. "No. I don't have a mate, I've never met this 'Azazel' person, and I think the entire concept of it all is ludicrously outdated. So does Sebastian."
"Oh. Oh well then." Hank didn't look reassured, but he seemed to concede the point. "I've got books of comments on the shelves, but I think I've narrowed down a possibility. Some traits from some of the wolf breeds seem to carry over into human form... in particularly, Arctus blood might not breed true in the wolf form but any Arctus werewolf with more than thirty percent Arctus blood always has blue eyes in both forms. I think there's a link between our forms, and the solution to the gender divide is within it. After all, in our human form, the male-female divide is spread equally, but our human forms are sterile."
"Oh yes. Werewolves can only breed in werewolf form - and once pregnant a werewolf female can't change out of wolf form until the birth... and they only go into heat at the end of a moon cycle during a full moon. True wolves tend to have litters, but it's common for a werewolf female to only bear one or two pups at once and commonly miscarry... uh... are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Charles said, somewhat faintly, as his brain was promptly derailed again by terrible concepts of pregnancy and pups and moon cycles. Come to think of it, during the last full moon, it was probably a massive stroke of luck that the werewolf who had found him had ended up being someone as thoroughly principled as Erik. "It's just, well, it's a shock. I didn't realize what, ah, gender my wolf form was, really. Never thought about it, that is. Ah, you were saying?"
"Well, humans are fertile almost all the time," Hank said, if awkwardly. "And our human forms feel, ah, well, inclinations outside of the moon cycle, unlike our wolf forms. I thought that it might be possible to get that trait to carry over, along with the gender differential. It'll be good to study, er, fresh female werewolf blood tissue, but I only have Miss Frost's, and asking her for anything is rather intimidating."
"Thankfully," Charles said encouragingly, rolling up his sleeve, "That shouldn't be a problem any longer."
"What sort of wolf would want to live here?" Erik hissed in disgust, as the others gawked openly at the bright neon lights on Fremont street in front of the garish hotel that Raven had just booked them all into. "Do we even have the right place, or are you wasting my time, Frost?"
"Emma's in Vegas," Raven shrugged, unconcerned by Erik's temper, "Or she might be. Sebastian Shaw owns a club here under a layer of pseuds. The Hellfire Club. It's near the Sahara, you can't miss it."
"How did you know that?" Alex tore his eyes briefly away from a glaringly bright red and pink sign. "I've been trying to dig up dirt on that cat for ages."
Raven smiled smugly, but didn't answer. She didn't need to - after a while, even Alex quickly dropped his eyes. The valued nature of Arctus blood and the vastness of its ancestral territory, even if a large part of it was more or less inhospitable to non-Arctus wolves, had placed its Pack on the supposed apex of the other werewolf Packs. Arctus didn't tend to get involved in territory disputes, or trading games for power or resources; it seemed to trade only to buffer up its own bloodline. As Packs went, however, prior to meeting Raven, Erik had no personal impression of the Arctus wolves - he had never even met one before. His own Pack had never been particularly interested in expensive acquisition trading.
"I'm going to this club, then," Erik growled. "To get this over with."
"Is he normally like this?" Angel asked Alex, all the while wiggling her fingers around her head to indicate psychosis.
"Firstly, you'll never get into the club without getting riddled full of bullets. Possibly silver bullets," Raven said reasonably, "The place is pretty fortified, if I recall the reports correctly, and you're not the only cat after Shaw's blood. Secondly, if you barge through the main door, even if we survive, they probably have some escape routes. Thirdly, we're not entirely sure if Charles is here."
"If we can get close enough to scope out the club," Alex suggested, "Maybe Erik can tell us whether Charles is there."
"I'm here for Shaw," Erik corrected coldly. "And in a city like this, all the scents would get overwritten within a day."
Besides, he wanted to look at the club by himself, without the incessant, annoying commentary from the young werewolves in the background that he'd have to endure otherwise. Hopefully, he'd be able to shake them off. If they came along with him, if the club was as well-defended as Raven described, they'd most likely all get killed, and as irritating as they'd all turned out to be, Erik didn't want that on his hands. By himself, he was sure that he would be able to find a way into the club.
"Side entrance? Sewer entrance?" Sean suggested. "Back entrance?"
"Not every castle has a bloody secret side entrance," Angel retorted, then muttered something undoubtedly rude under her breath in Spanish. "And we're looking at a club, not Cassidy Fort."
"All of you can do whatever you want," Erik said dismissively, striding towards the road to hail a cab. "But don't follow me."
"You're not seriously going to try and barge in there," Alex said, raising both eyebrows.
"I understand the concept of subtlety, Summers."
Sebastian had evidently been researching werewolf genetics for a very long time; the shelves were stocked full of books and sheaves of notes in different hands, with detailed anatomical diagrams with dates spanning decades of work. Most of the extremely detailed diagrams and observations, Charles noted, were dated during the last World War and written in German, which Charles couldn't read, much to his disappointment.
Hank had warmed up to him considerably after their initial meeting, probably after he became reassured that Azazel wasn't about to appear and attack him at any moment. Charles had come across a large wolf with a reddish, russet coat of fur when he had last returned to the living quarters that he had been allocated, but it had utterly ignored him.
The 'Genesis' room was also fascinating - it held tiers of vials of werewolf blood, all numbered and tagged, as well as specimen jars of preserved organs from both forms, as well as oddly striated lumps of grayish tissue that Hank said, looking uncomfortable as he said so, were from werewolves that had passed away in the middle of a shift. The cell slides from those were unlike anything that Charles had ever seen before, under a scope; the hematocytes were all misshapen, as though trying to contract or divide.
Sebastian tended to drop by once or twice a day at first, to discuss his progress generally, before the visits petered away, and Emma had come by once, sweeping the lab with a disdainful stare before straightening his collar, absently, as though adjusting a painting. Charles decided that he was relieved once Sebastian had stopped checking in on them. Emma he tried to like, since she was his mother's sister, but Sebastian he found disconcerting despite his best efforts.
"It's just how he is," Hank said, when Charles confessed this to him. "Don't get me wrong, he took me in when I had nowhere else to go, got me an education and this lab, but he scares me."
"I don't find him scary," Charles said, with a quick grin that he hoped was reassuring. "Just unnerving. He's very direct."
"That's not what I meant," Hank muttered, looking around himself quickly, then lowering his voice. "Mister Shaw's dangerous. He'll talk about being progressive and modern, but if you cross him, he'll kill you. He's done it before. There was another lone wolf who joined up close to my time, a lycaon called Armando. He got wind of something that Mister Shaw did that wigged him out, and he tried to leave. Said that he was going to tell the other Packs about whatever it was." Hank stared at his hands, grimly. "He disappeared."
Hank took another deep breath, and his voice dropped into a whisper. "And then the next day, there was a new vial of blood in the Genesis room. A lycaon sample."
Ice drew a slow line down Charles' spine. "What... what are you saying, Hank... those blood vials, those samples..."
"I'm saying," Hank said, quietly, "That the reason you never see me touch anything in there is because I don't know where it comes from. And I didn't tell you this from the start, because I thought you were Arctus, I thought that you'd rat me out to Mister Shaw or just flat out laugh in my face. I don't want to disappear, Charles."
"But this... that..." Charles gestured angrily at the door to the Genesis room, at the, God, at the slides of samples that he'd drawn from the striated flesh, bile rising in his throat, "You're telling me...?" He felt sick. Unclean. "They're all...?"
"I'm saying that I don't know." Hank repeated flatly. "But there are an awful lot of samples in there. Packs burn their dead, he can't have gotten donations. And those anatomical diagrams... you can't read German, but I can. Someone conducted a lot of experiments on werewolves during the last World War. Maybe it isn't Shaw's work, God, I hope not, but all those documents over there, they're SS-Totenkopfverbände files, from secret Nazi-funded research labs, in Birkenau and Lublin. The files are unmarked, but it's obvious from the text."
"Werewolves disappeared during the War," Charles recalled Mayhew's conversation, about Erik's Pack. Exterminated. He squared his shoulders, curling his hands into fists. "I'm going to talk to Shaw."
"Wait, didn't you remember what I said? Armando disappeared," Hank said sharply, grabbing at Charles' arm as he tried to head for the lifts. "You can't. And besides, I heard Janos mention that Mister Shaw's been busy the last few days. They've caught an intruder."
Hank squirmed under Charles' stare, staring at his feet. "There's a level underneath this one. It's secure, you need a pass to get down there. Now and then, lone wolves attack Mister Shaw. It's not uncommon, Mister Shaw's getting on with his years and he has an Arctus mate... besides, we're in the badlands where territorial Pack law isn't as formal... he'll definitely get the occasional challenge by lone wolves passing through Vegas that pick up Miss Frost's scent. When they lose, however, they disappear. I think that's where he takes them."
Charles tried ineffectively to yank his arm out of Hank's grasp. "We didn't get any new samples recently. Maybe the prisoner's still alive! Let me go!"
"He's still alive because he's a special one," Hank stubbornly hung on. "The intruder was dirus, Charles, that's what Janos said. Mister Shaw has a special interest in them."
Dirus. Erik. "Hank, Hank, you have to let go of me. I think that I know who might be down there!"
"You're going to get yourself killed, and Mister Shaw has the right to kill intruders, that's Pack law," Hank disagreed, plaintively, then he hesitated. "Unless... listen, Charles. There's always a set of wolves who are more or less immune to Pack law. If you really, really want to get yourself and your friend out of this alive, this is what you're going to say. Though with Mister Shaw, I can't guarantee that it's going to work."
"I need a pass," Charles muttered, as Hank let go of him.
"I have that." Hank fished a card out of his pocket. "I designed the security system. Listen carefully, Charles. If you're really set on this, this is what you're going to have to do."
Shackled to the operating table, Erik grit his teeth and watched Shaw cut a seam down his palm to his wrist, digging a nail into the wound and watching as the skin and flesh tried sluggishly to close around it. "You're slowing down, Lehnsherr." Shaw tutted. "That's disappointing. Perhaps we should try your wolf form."
Erik didn't bother to waste his breath on threats, biding his time instead, refusing even to cry out. Someone would have to loosen his bindings to get him into wolf form. He'd have a chance then, to escape. It was, after all, how he'd originally escaped, all those years ago in the laboratories in Birkenau, though he'd been lucky, then. He'll need to be lucky again, now. He'd lost far too much blood and too much energy healing up; he'll have to escape, lick his wounds, and come back and try again. At least he knew where Shaw would be.
As much as he hated to admit it, Raven and the other brats were right. He shouldn't have tried to enter the club himself without backup. But it had been far too tempting, seeing Shaw stroll through the main entrance as though his hands weren't soaked through with the blood of Erik's Pack and all the other Packs from the annexed lands. He hadn't managed to get far, though he was fairly sure that the experience had been costly for Shaw's trained cronies.
"No conversation? Your litter mates were rather more chatty." Shaw smiled thinly, as he drew the scalpel over to Erik's bared belly. "Your cousin, for example, what was her name, Lorna, I think. When we sewed the silver marbles into her to observe silver poisoning progression, she was quite talkative."
Erik let out a low snarl, but cut himself off quickly. He wouldn't give Shaw the satisfaction.
"It's really a pity that your line is so rare, and so terribly bloody-minded. I would have liked to keep a few for observation," Shaw mused, setting the blade of the scalpel down over his navel. "You were quite a good subject. High tolerance for pain, none of that fainting business unless pushed into shock. I'm quite pleased. What shall we do with you this time..."
At a knock on the door to the cell, Shaw sighed, like an old man fussily annoyed at trivial interruptions. "What is it?"
"It's Charles," the werewolf that Erik knew as Azazel said, gruffly, muffled by the thick door. "He's here. Janos is holding him at the lift doors."
Shaw frowned. "How did he even...? Get him back upstairs."
"Ah," Azazel said, sounding uncomfortable, "He claims that Lehnsherr is his mate, and that this was a misunderstanding, and he asks, very 'kindly', for you to release Lehnsherr immediately."
Erik blinked, even as Shaw glanced sharply over at him, then he smiled thinly. "Interesting. But now that I recall, you did encounter Charles during the full moon, did you not? As I thought, few male lone wolves would have passed up such a chance to thoroughly ingratiate themselves, at the very least." Shaw smiled a thin, merciless smile. "Under Pack law, I suppose that means that I now can't kill you for trespass. But Pack law is such an outdated concept, isn't it? Perhaps I should discuss this little revelation further with our mutual friend."
Erik instinctively opened his mouth to protest Charles' declaration, and only managed a hoarse, wet cough, even as Shaw dropped the bloodied scalpel delicately on the gurney, opened the door and stepped out. After a seemingly eternal moment of dread, jerking weakly and ineffectively at his bonds, in which Erik imagined Shaw murdering Charles in the room right next to him, or worse, tying him down and cutting him up, Charles walked into the cell. He paled instantly once he saw Erik, and all but snatched the key to Erik's shackles from Azazel behind him.
"What are you doing?" Erik hissed, once Azazel left the cell, as Charles loosed his left hand.
"Saving your life," Charles retorted, unlocking the rest of the shackles, then he seemed to abruptly realize that Erik was naked, averting his eyes with a flush and looking around the room. "I don't, uh, have any clothes."
Erik rolled his eyes, waiting for the wounds to close up before shifting into wolf form and leaping off the table. He wasn't as weakened as he was in human form, but the constant regeneration still affected him, and he followed Charles on unsteady paws out of the room, with Charles' hand curled tight in his scruff, guiding him into the lift, then up to a room that smelled of blood, metal, paper and formaldehyde, guided into a cot where he curled up instantly. There was another male werewolf in the room, one that smelled nervous, having an argument with Charles that Erik couldn't quite concentrate on, the exhaustion from being unable to sleep well for the last week finally catching up with him.
When he woke, Charles' gray wolf form was curled against him, deeply asleep in a puppyish way that instantly annoyed Erik. Even in his sleep, Charles was far too trusting; wolves in his Pack soon learned to sleep in a semi-alert doze, in case of hunters. At a sharp nip at his ear, Charles woke up with a surprised yip, then he yawned, stretched and licked at Erik's face, before curling back up again. Snorting, Erik rested his muzzle over Charles' scruff, breathing in the other wolf's warm, female scent. As stupidly reckless as Charles' gamble had been, now that he was still too weakened to be angry at Charles over it, he could see that it did have its strategic benefits.
Shaw seemed to obey basic Pack law, or at least he did where Charles was concerned, which was good enough for Erik's purposes. He very much doubted that Shaw would simply accept Erik into his Pack, but at least he was inside Shaw's stronghold, for now, and in a position where he could keep an eye on Charles while recovering his strength. In a normal Pack, now that he was technically part of a breeding pair, Erik would also have the right to challenge Shaw into combat for leadership. If Shaw accepted, Erik fully intended to kill him.
If he did not... Erik needed to find silver weapons. Preferably one of his guns.
Charles woke up again, this time with a whine, when Erik got to his feet and shook himself out, yawning. The laboratory was empty save for the both of them, and on the work bench closest to the cot there was a plate of sandwiches, a jug of juice and two sets of folded clothes. He had dressed and started on the sandwiches by the time Charles reluctantly slunk off the bed, making a bee-line for his own clothes. The clothes were ill-fitting, short at the wrists and long enough at the ankles that they had to be folded into cuffs, and the new shoes pinched; probably purchased hastily while he was still out for the count.
"You'll choke," Charles said, with a quick grin, buttoning up his own shirt.
"And you're an idiot." Erik told him evenly.
"A 'thank you' would have been sufficient, darling," Charles drawled, with a mischievous, inviting humor in his eyes that Erik decided that he didn't like.
"What happened to the gun that I gave you?"
"I have it in my room," Charles said, with a vague wave upwards at the ceiling.
"Let me borrow it for a while."
"You can have it back if you want it, Erik."
"It was a gift," Erik disagreed, and before Charles could argue, he added, "And what was in that pouch that you received from those lawyers?"
"Photographs." Charles selected an egg sandwich with delicate care. "Black and white photographs. There were only a handful of them." His smile was slow, wry. "The latest few were all of my parents. Some of the house. My mother had dark hair in her human form. Her wolf form was white - Arctus, I mean - from the photographs. The earlier ones were just of her and Emma. There was even an adorable puppy photograph, Emma confiscated that one, though." Charles sighed. "I probably shouldn't have said that she looked cute and fluffy in it. She refused to speak to me for days."
Erik felt vaguely disappointed. He'd hoped that whatever legacy that Charles' parents had left him would have been more useful to Charles. "She probably did. Look 'cute and fluffy'." He had met the imperious White Queen briefly, while being dragged down to the cells, and he could take a certain petty satisfaction in the mortification she would have felt at her puppy photographs.
Charles grinned at him, mouth full, then he swallowed, looking away, at the ludicrous submarine that some crazy person had built in a room with no water or exit. "Erik, what happens when... with what Shaw did to your Pack, why didn't the other Packs stop him?"
"Because there was no proof. No witnesses. Of all of his victims, as far as I am aware, I am the only survivor," Erik said grimly. "Besides, Packs moving in to eliminate another Pack - it isn't our way, not when there isn't a territory dispute. From the evidence, it looked as though the experiments were conducted by the Nazis."
"And if there was proof?"
Werewolves that went mad and started murdering other werewolves for no reason were put down, either by their own Packs or by the Packs that had been attacked. Shaw, however, was not currently in occupation of any Pack territory. Few, if any Pack would risk Arctus ire over alliances with dead Packs, given that Shaw had an Arctus mate, and besides, even if they did, Erik very much doubted that any Pack would want to enter the badlands to chase another, let alone one as dangerous as Shaw's. Shaw's particular brand of monstrous insanity had never been taken into account with the ancient laws of the werewolves; there was no real prescribed recourse. Particularly since Erik was fairly sure that he was the only survivor.
"I don't know. It doesn't matter. I'll be the one who kills him."
Charles sighed. "Erik, killing Shaw, it won't bring back your Pack. It changes nothing."
"You saw what he was about to do to me. What he had already done. Killing him will stop that," Erik shot back. "There's no court or justice system in our world, Charles. Blood feuds are repaired by blood, one way or the other."
"That's so... all right," Charles said, unhappily. "If you're hell-bent on this, I'll help you."
"You've done enough. I need to get you out of here. I have allies outside, they can take care of you until I'm finished here." The brats should be useful for that, at least. Hopefully.
"I've seen what Shaw is capable of. I want to help you." Charles retorted, stubbornly.
"Do you?" Erik growled, exasperated, crowding Charles against the workbench, teeth bared, "Can you kill someone, Charles? You with your proper accent and your principles and your ideas of appropriate behavior, Mein Gott, you don't even eat meat. Because that's what I intend to do, Charles. Kill him. And if I can, I'd do it slowly," Erik hissed, inches from Charles' lips, "Push a silver knife into him just below his heart and twist it as I pull my hand up. Watch the light fade from his eyes as he bleeds out. Make sure that my vengeance is the last thing that he knows."
"I want to help you," Charles repeated, slowly, and even as he paled visibly, his gaze remained unwavering. "Let me. You'll need it."
"You are the most infuriating werewolf I have ever met!" Erik snarled.
Charles - bloody Charles - merely grinned impishly, folding his arms, undeterred in the least by his temper. "It's always good to get challenged once in a while, isn't it? After all, your attempts to try this alone didn't seem to work, the last time."
A strong will and a strong mind. The words dipped unbidden into his mind, and Erik hesitated, startled, holding Charles' fearless, bright blue eyes, abruptly punch drunk with the revelation that he'd been blithely, utterly stupid all this while, running in a wide circle away from the very obvious, blinded by his own obsessive hatreds. The world was cruel this way, Erik felt, bitterly, that he would have met a female that was his equal only long after he had lost everything that he could have had to offer.
"Charles," he began, uncomfortably, wanting to ask what about afterward , or do you know what you have done, the words stilling in his throat when Charles pressed a forefinger over his lips.
"You can think about that afterward," Charles murmured, as though he'd read Erik's mind, his smile hesitant. "I mean, if you don't want, ah, this, well, it was a ruse anyway, so..."
"I don't have anything to offer you," Erik said the first thing on his mind, into the empty silence after Charles' words trailed away. "You're half Arctus blood. Gott, I should have realized that from the very beginning, called them here instead of taking you to those goddamned lawyers, and saved you all this trouble. Even if you didn't join the Arctus Pack, you could get into any Pack that you wanted."
"Funny thing, that's what I've heard about dirus blood," Charles quipped, then he sighed as Erik's expression remained stony. "Look. I don't want to, Christ, force you into anything, all right? I said what I said to save your life. And if I'd gone with Arctus from the beginning, I won't have been here if you'd gotten caught. I don't regret anything. If you want to walk away after all of this, I'm not going to stop you. It's not like anyone knows about this other than Shaw and his Pack."
I don't want to walk away, Erik wanted to correct, but that would have been the selfish thing to say, and he swallowed it. "All right."
"There. Now that we understand each other," Charles said, even as his smile slowly faded, as though Erik had said the wrong thing altogether, his eyes liquid with what seemed like unhappiness. "Are you still hungry? I'll get Hank to find more food if you need it."
"You must have smelled another werewolf in this room, I'm sure. He's the scientist, the one who built that submarine. He's brilliant," Charles said, brightening up again, "You should hear some of his observations about werewolf genomes."
Hank, Erik thought, with a touch of viciousness that surprised himself, another male werewolf, and then he thought rival before rationality caught up with him, and he took in a deep breath. "Just get me your gun. You probably haven't even cleaned it properly. If at all."
Hank was visibly spooked when he finally slunk back into the lab only to see Erik seated cross-legged on the cot, the pistol in several pieces on a cloth, cleaning the weapon industriously, giving him a wide berth and slinking up to where Charles was seated beside the microscope and reading the second book of Hank's notations. "Ah, Hank. Hank, this is Erik. Erik, Hank."
Erik nodded curtly, without even looking up, and Hank deflated further. "And to think that I thought that you'd have to pretend," Hank muttered, almost inaudibly. "I was so worried. I thought that I'd ended up getting you killed."
"Pretend? About what?" Charles lowered his voice in turn.
"About the dirus being your mate. He actually is your mate, isn't he? That's a relief, I was so scared about sending you down there that I nearly went to get Miss Frost... I thought Mister Shaw wouldn't buy it and would hurt you or worse. I guess you didn't have to act at all."
Charles was so startled that he laughed out loud. "What makes you think that?"
"Really? How's that?" Charles fumbled for a pen and blank paper, ready to take notes. Whatever Erik was doing to give Hank this particular impression, Charles probably had to reciprocate, for the sake of the ruse, at least.
Even if thinking about how Erik was probably struggling to tolerate the situation made him feel sick all over again, as though he wanted to crawl out of his skin.
"I can sense it. Look," Hank muttered, "I'll show you, but if he attacks me, you'd better stop him."
"He's not going to..." Charles paused when Hank put a palm on his shoulder. At the bed, Erik's gaze instantly snapped up, his eyes narrowing, even when Hank hastily removed his hand and held up his palms. After a long moment, with Hank's eyes fixed on the microscope, Erik seemed satisfied, and turned his attention back to the gun. "Possessive behaviour, then." Erik was a very good actor. "Is that meant to be for both parties? What would be the point? Don't werewolves mate for life?"
"Well, technically, yes, but in your case..." Hank mumbled something that was far too soft even for Charles' enhanced hearing.
Hank briefly squeezed his eyes shut. "The next full moon is in two weeks or so, all right? If you haven't, er, gone through the formal process during the last one, and you didn't smell like you had when I first met you... any male werewolf is going to be, ah, concerned, until then. The deal hasn't been sealed, you see. As it is. Um."
"Formal process?" Charles repeated, then he remembered Erik's previous blunt observations and flushed. "Ah. Well, don't worry about that, Hank. We're just pretending." Besides, it was clear that Erik was only enduring the situation because it bought him the time had he needed to recover.
"If you say so," Hank said dubiously, "But I'm going to stand away from you for now, if you don't mind."
"Oh, don't be silly," Charles said dryly, reaching out to grip Hank's arm, then they both froze, as Erik made a low, rumbling snarl that a human throat shouldn't have been able to produce. Instantly, Hank jerked away and shuffled quickly towards the lifts.
"I, um, I'll be back later then. Or so."
"Hank!" Charles called out, if uselessly, then he sighed as the lift doors pinged shut. "What did you do that for, Erik? He's already in on the ruse."
"And if Shaw had walked in at that very moment?"
"But he didn't," Charles pointed out. "I think that you owe Hank an apology."
Erik merely snorted, assembling his gun and wiping it down. "What did you say to Shaw, anyway?"
"I told him that I went with Emma because you and I had a bit of an argument and I thought that you needed some space, and I didn't think that you'd follow me, and I didn't explain things to Emma or to Shaw because I hadn't had a full grasp of the implications until I'd read Hank's notes, and besides, they kept telling me that you were dangerous." It had been mostly true, at that.
"You're lucky that he bought it." Erik muttered, shoulders hunched, his expression still grim.
Fight or flight, Charles thought, looking at the tense lines of Erik's arms and the curve of his back. He didn't quite blame him. If Hank's suspicious were right, Erik had probably spent an extremely harrowing set of years in a Nazi laboratory, being cut apart and stitched back together, or worse, and recent events definitely would have ripped open all the scabbed-over memories. "What did Shaw do to you? You and your Pack?"
Erik stared at him, his eyes glittering and hard. "I don't want to talk about it."
Charles took in a deep breath, fidgeting and wondering whether or not to talk about the notes, the Genesis room, about how Erik would react, whether he'd try and attack Shaw now, while he wasn't yet recovered. Erik probably would. "You said that you had allies outside. Are they going to help you?"
Erik's lip twisted up briefly. "They're here for you. Not me."
"They're from other Packs. One from Arctus... others from Dartmoor, Caledon, Iberico. They're hoping that you'd pick one of them after I kill Shaw. You should go with Arctus," Erik continued, when Charles froze, feeling a headache coming on again. "They don't trade for the same reasons. Or Dartmoor - I'm not familiar with Caledon and Iberico, but Dartmoor isn't too bad."
"I'm not going to 'go with' anyone," Charles said firmly. "But maybe they could help. Somehow."
Erik looked annoyed again. "Charles. The moon cycle is going to peak again in about two weeks or so. You had better be in another Pack by then, for your own sake."
"I was fine the last time," Charles pointed out dismissively, turning a page on Hank's notes, though he couldn't concentrate; Erik's scent was thick with something sharp, almost metallic, that put his teeth on edge; it was what Charles imagined that adrenaline or tension would smell like, like a pure shot of excitement, a perfect thrill.
"The last time," Erik said slowly, "I found you in a silver cage, which was already unnerving, and then you tried to wipe me down like a human, which was even worse. If I had met you in the woods outside of your house..."
"You'll have, what," Charles kept his voice light, unable to bring himself to meet Erik's eyes, "Jumped me? Even if I hadn't wanted you to?" That would have been pretty traumatic, actually. He didn't really want to think about it.
Erik exhaled, and looked away. "I don't know."
"I don't believe that you would have," Charles said simply.
"Many lone wolves would have."
"Not you," Charles said, and grinned to himself when Erik muttered something harsh and irascible in German, enjoying the minor triumph.
"We're all instinct during a full moon," Erik said at last, when he'd apparently exhausted his vocabulary of foreign invective. "During the next full moon, if you're alone... Other Packs know about you now. Word spreads quickly."
"Would you stay with me if I haven't chosen a Pack by then?" Charles asked, hands clenched tight over Hank's notes until the paper was crumpling.
There was a deep, long, drawn-out sigh that was answer enough, and Charles was grinning again, madly gratified; it felt like his blood itself was humming from contentment. From anticipation. "I wouldn't fully trust my self-control during a full moon," Erik warned, finally, and now, Charles caught his gaze again, keeping it steady.
"Maybe I won't want you to hold back."
It was an extremely clichéd thing to say, and in the silence that followed, as Erik's expression seemed to freeze, Charles wondered if he'd have to end up retracting his words, or laughing them off; the words had tumbled raw from him, sawn from the depths of his soul and he found that he meant them, every word, as insane as it was. He'd only known Erik for a few days. If it was some sort of biological imperative, or God, some sort of imprinting because Erik was the first werewolf he had ever met, logically, he knew that this was about to become a disaster.
Yet still he waited, and eventually, just as he tried to think of a way to back down gracefully without offending Erik any further, Erik whispered, hoarsely, "Come here."
Charles stumbled in his haste, his mouth dry, though when he tried to sit down beside Erik on the bed, Erik instantly tugged him over to straddle his lap, and Christ, he could feel him, a hard, hot brand of arousal, pressed against the curve of his ass. Charles flushed and sucked in a high, sharp breath when Erik set his big hands on his hips and pointedly ground them together.
"Is this what you want?" Erik's tone was gruff, deep and compelling; it made Charles want to moan and rub against him like a schoolboy, "Do you even know what you want? This will be permanent, Charles, until death. After the next full moon, I'll never tolerate being apart from you again. Is that what you want, when you've only known me for a few days?"
"Yes," Charles folded his arms over Erik's broad shoulders, drunk on the other werewolf's scent, rich and spiked thick with arousal, "If you'll have me."
"Liar," Erik said fiercely, his gaze hot with anger and lust, but he groaned when Charles swept his palms up to Erik's cheeks and dragged him close, pouring his own heady desire, the visceral need, the intoxication that he felt into the kiss, turning it sloppy as he licked into Erik's mouth. The world spun for a moment as Erik growled deep in his throat and rolled them over, pulling back as he did so to sink his teeth into Charles' neck and suck, making a mark higher than any collar could hide, then another, mirroring it on the other side of his neck, before Charles managed to drag him back down for another bruising kiss.
"Have you done this before?" Erik demanded, then added, roughly, "Charles," when Charles grinned and leaned up to mouth against his jaw, licking down over the curve of his neck to his pulse.
"Oxford gave me a very well-rounded education," Charles said dryly, "I doubt that you'll be able to surprise me."
Jealousy chased irritation on Erik's face for a moment before his handsome features settled into a wide smirk that Charles wasn't entirely sure that he liked. "I'll take that as a challenge, darling," he growled, reaching for the buttons on Charles' shirt.
"I'm still not surprised," Charles said breathlessly, when their clothes were long divested and forgotten on the floor and Erik was kissing a slow, sucking path down his spine, "And I still think that we should have moved this to my roomnghh...!"
"You were saying?" Erik asked, innocently, as though he hadn't just dragged his tongue up from behind Charles' tightening balls to a place where no tongue should ever have any business being.
"That's awfully unhygieni... oh, oh God," Charles breathed, as Erik spread his cheeks with his hands and did it again, a slow, lingering lap this time, chuckling when Charles twitched and choked and tried to pull away. "Erik, stop that, please tell me this isn't a wolf thing, Christ, aahnghh, fuck, fuck-"
That had to be the single most obscene kiss that anyone had ever given him and was Erik... God, Erik was moaning from having Charles clench over his tongue, and the thick, heady scent of Erik's own desire was growing heavier in the air, making him dizzy, and he was gasping, whining, as Erik lapped a long stripe up between his legs and kissed him again there, deeper now, wet and filthy, and just as Charles realized wildly that he was just about on the verge of coming, Erik began to fuck him with his goddamned tongue.
Charles was going to lose his mind, this felt far better than it should have been, and even as his brain tried to skitter away and hide behind logic and common decency his voice was pitching higher and higher with each wet thrust of Erik's tongue, until he was sobbing from it, back arched and trying blindly to move with Erik's rhythm, cheek pushed into the pillows and hands twisted tight into the sheets. "Erik," he managed to gasp, voice cracking, "Please, please, Christ, please..." his rambling pleas twisted into an undignified squeal as Erik took his neglected cock in hand and began to stroke him roughly, dry and on the verge of discomfort and somehow that was all that he needed, bucking into Erik's fist with a cry and spilling all over his long fingers.
Erik was rubbing his cheek against the back of Charles' shoulders, rumbling drunkenly as he tried to catch his breath, his erection nestled in the cleft of Charles' ass, and when Charles turned to look he could see Erik's arms trembling, the other werewolf's eyes dark and feral with lust. Charles took another, steadying breath and tried to squirm around, he'd use his mouth or his hands, both maybe, but Erik pressed a palm to the small of his back and held him down. A long finger, slick with Charles' own come, pressed into his spit-wet ass, and Erik growled when Charles merely shifted to push himself down upon the digit, breathless again.
He wasn't about to be able to get hard again anytime soon, but God, he could feel the thorny ache from his body trying, as Erik managed three fingers and hooked them high, chuckling and rasping something in German as Charles let out a squeak and bucked back like he was trying to take all of Erik's hand into himself. Then Erik was murmuring something broken that he couldn't quite make out, into his hair, as he set himself behind Charles with his fingers twisted with Charles' hands and pushed inside him in a gritty, inexorable slide that hurt as all hell - sweet Jesus, it had been too long - but it was good, so good; his heart was hammering out of his chest and he couldn't breathe and above the roar of blood in his ears he could hear Erik moaning stuttered words against his neck, reverent and dazed.
Erik stilled once he was buried as deeply as he could go, his breathing harsh on the back of Charles' shoulders, big fingers squeezing Charles' hands in an erratic rhythm. He whispered something in German against the arch of Charles' right shoulder, then when Charles blinked at him, uncomprehending, switched to English. "Are you all right?"
"Need a couple of minutes," Charles replied, strained and shaky, then a thought occurred to him. "Ah... Hank said our human forms are sterile... that's right, yes?"
Erik huffed a wicked laugh against his spine. "Yes, and besides, you don't have a womb in this form, do you?"
Charles shut his eyes briefly at the notion of a 'womb'. Good God. "And you've done this before."
"Sure," Erik sounded a little wary at the questioning, "The humans in the towns, sometimes. Is this going to be a problem? It won't happen again."
"What about with wolves?"
Erik muttered something again, this time so low under his breath that Charles couldn't catch it. "No. Wolves won't come near us. Even if we had the inclination."
"So a werewolf's desire," Charles said, thinking this over, "Changes track in wolf form... must be due to a reshaped brain with different synapses and impulses... different biological imperatives..."
Erik growled, and rolled his hips deliberately, making Charles squeak. "You can analyse this afterward, Professor."
"You're not doing a very good job of distracting me," Charles shot back, with a tone of mock innocence, and Erik nipped him smartly over the nape of his neck before rearing back up.
"Hands and knees," Erik commanded, and Charles was about to try and crack a decidedly terrible joke about doggy style and playing to character when Erik set his hands on Charles hips and drove forward, with enough force that Charles was scrabbling to support himself against the headboard and yowling embarrassingly like a cat in heat. "Good enough for you, dear?" Erik whispered harshly over his ear, chuckling at Charles' quick, eager nod, then he thrust deep again with a grunt, keeping his thrusts measured, in punishingly deep, slow strokes up against his prostrate that seemed calculated to drive Charles insane.
Erik was stroking him with his soiled hand, ignoring Charles' batting fingers and his weak protests, making a rumbling, satisfied sound when, still sore and aching, not quite all pleasure or pain, Charles' body surprised him, flesh filling out again in Erik's rough palm. Even as Charles tried to think of pheromones and scents and refractory periods Erik was picking up his rhythm, until he was fucking Charles into the bed with sharp, rough snaps of his hips, punctuated by his harsh grunts and panting breaths, dragging Charles' second orgasm of the night from him with a drag of his palm. Erik took him through it, angling to go deeper, then he was gasping Charles' name and clutching at his shoulders.
"Thank God," Charles breathed, dazed and boneless when Erik carefully pulled out of him and scooped his back up against his chest, rubbing the pads of long fingers briefly and possessively between his thighs, over his dripping entrance. "I thought that you were going to knot or something. That would have been terribly awkward."
He couldn't see Erik's face, but he was fairly sure that the other werewolf was probably rolling his eyes. "You think too much, Charles."
"Our human forms aren't entirely human," Charles said defensively, "Enhanced senses and accelerated healing?"
Erik was nuzzling against his neck, even as he scratched blunt nails over Charles' ribs. "You're giving me a headache. Do you normally talk this much after you get fucked?"
"I also kick in my sleep, and I've been told that I sleep talk," Charles said, with a wry smile, "I'm compulsive and terribly opinionated and argumentative, and I'm not going to be able to sleep until I've folded our clothes back up neatly. Full and frank disclosure," he explained, when Erik raised his chin and frowned at him.
"If I'm going to have to share," Erik said dryly, seemingly amused all of a sudden, "I'm single-minded, short-tempered and unforgiving. Also, I drink milk out of the carton."
"Really? Right out of the carton? We're never going to be able to get along," Charles said, holding his best poker face, up until Erik arched an eyebrow at him. He was still laughing when Erik bent down to slant their lips back together.
"Oh. You're really still alive," Raven seemed unimpressed when Erik emerged onto the top floor of the hidden complex, then her eyes slid over to the grip that Erik had on Charles' palm. "Tch. And we're too late, I see. Still, Grandsire might find dirus blood acceptable. Perhaps this trip wasn't a total loss."
"Oh man," Summers sighed, sniffing at the air, even as Angel chuckled and Sean looked worriedly at Erik. "I knew it. Raven, I told you we should have gotten the backup here sooner."
Erik pinched at the bridge of his nose with his free hand. "Why did you have to bring everyone?"
"They wanted to come. Obviously." Raven inclined her head at Emma, who was arrayed on the white couch that had been moved up against the wall of the circular room, and Emma smiled thinly. Apparently satisfied, Raven turned to regard Charles. "Hello, Charles. We haven't met. My name is Raven Frost. I'm your cousin."
"Pleased," Charles put forward his hand, as Raven did a round of introductions of the other brat werewolves, then he shook his head at Erik when Erik immediately growled. "Oh, don't be silly, Erik."
Grudgingly, Erik subsided. He supposed that attacking Raven would be counterproductive when he had been the one to call her here.
Raven smirked as she shook Charles' hand firmly. "Suddenly, it's very obvious that you have Arctus blood, dear cousin."
"Really?" Charles smiled winningly at the Arctus male, making Erik's teeth itch at the sight. "I'm afraid that I'm not blonde, tall and classically beautiful."
"You just told one of the dirus to shut up and sit up, and he's listening to you," Raven countered, blithely ignoring Erik's glower, and from the couch, Emma chuckled, malicious and tinkling. "Emma, Grandsire extends a formal invitation for you to return home, by the way."
"Do tell Grandsire to go fuck himself," Emma said, with her inscrutable smile, pronouncing the invective with a silky sense of satisfaction, making Charles wince. "Thank you, cousin. You can remove yourself, your friends, and all the armed thugs clustered outside from the premises. All of you do so clash with the decor."
"But we haven't even had tea," Raven said, with mock horror. "Besides, they're there to make sure that everyone behaves."
"And why would that be necessary?" Emma asked, her brilliant Arctus-blue eyes narrowing.
"Call Shaw here, Miss Frost," Erik said coldly, with a glance at Emma, tiring of the sniping. "I want to challenge him for leadership. These other werewolves will be my witnesses."
"Erik," Charles gasped, the color draining from his cheeks, and Emma's eyes flickered over to her nephew for a brief moment before she rose to her feet and stalked out of the room.
Erik used the moment to drag Charles over to Raven's side, and she nodded slowly at him, curling a hand around Charles' elbow. "Charles. If something happens, go with Raven."
"What do you mean, 'if something happens'?" Charles demanded, "Erik, you can't possibly be thinking of-"
"You said you wanted to help me, Charles," Erik forced himself to meet Charles' bright blue eyes. "This is how you can help me. I don't want to have to worry about you. If I lose, I want you to choose to go with Arctus. Raven can get you out of here. You've given me something more to think about over the last few days than I've had for almost two decades," he added gently when Charles opened his mouth to protest, "Thank you."
"Oh, this should be good," Angel murmured, even as Charles said, desperately, "Erik, wait," and Summers shook his head slowly, sniffing at the air.
The door reopened, with Janos and Azazel loping into the room in their wolf forms and sitting down beside the couch, and Hank standing awkwardly at the door, as if unsure of where to go. Emma settled down between them, glancing at Raven and Charles enigmatically before turning her gaze back to her mate, who was striding through, his hands shoved into his pockets, his eyes dark and steely.
Sebastian Shaw was wearing a gray smoking jacket and pressed dress pants, the smile on his lined face sharp and cold. "I hear that you want to challenge me, boy. Are you sure about that?"
"I'm sure." Erik said grimly. "No guns, no silver, none of your drugs or your electric shocks. A fair fight."
"I haven't lost a fair fight before, Lehnsherr." Shaw was removing his steel timepiece, tossing it onto the couch, then he began to shrug out of his jacket even as Erik started to unbutton his shirt.
"What a coincidence. Neither have I."
"To the death, then?" Sebastian made a tsking sound. "Such a waste."
"To the death," Erik echoed, ignoring Charles' protests behind him, dropping the shirt on the ground, then his belt and pants, and pushing himself into the change, shaking off the rest of his clothes. He could see Raven dragging Charles up against the wall, the others following suit, to give them as much space as possible.
Shaw smiled, once he had stepped out of his dress pants, and then he blurred into the change. Erik waited, impatient to see what Shaw looked like, and from the murmurs of the other werewolves at the wall, he knew that they were waiting to see the same. No werewolf alive other than those in Shaw's Pack knew what Shaw's form was, but Erik was confident. He had fought other Packs before, usually in ritualized battles, never to the death, but he knew how to handle them-
Then Shaw's form coalesced, and for once, in a very, very long time, Erik felt uncertain.
He had never seen this breed of wolf before.
And Shaw was larger than he was, at least half a meter longer from nose to tail, and taller at the shoulders, his coat thick and shaded in russet, brown and white. Shaw yawned, showing yellowed, sharp teeth, and shook himself out, tongue lolling out as though in silent laughter at Erik's shock.
"What the hell," Cassidy was saying, from the wall. "What sort of wolf is that?"
"A Kenai Peninsula gray," Hank said from the door, softly, "Canis lupus alces."
"The actual alces wolves are thought extinct," Charles sounded worried. "He's massive."
"This is going to be an interesting fight," Angel observed, as Erik and Shaw began to circle each other. "You've seen dire wolves fight before, haven't you, Summers? They're the biggest breed around... or at least, I thought so until now... so they go on strength and try to use that against you. Iberians like me prefer finesse, but brute strength works when you know how to use it."
"I've seen Erik fight before, he's good," Summers said, if doubtfully, but Erik tuned him out, trying to think. He'd won fights before against wolves larger than him, against his own Pack members when he was still growing into his prime. It wasn't impossible. He knew that he himself was fast for his weight class, and if he could slip in and get a chokehold on Shaw's neck, size would count for little.
Abruptly, Shaw bounded in, with a startling run of speed for a wolf so big, but Erik was already darting away, wheeling to counter, only to have to sidestep hastily as Shaw lunged - the original attack had been a feint - and he let out a growl as jaws snapped shut on his flank and ripped off a chunk of fur and flesh. It stung, but it'd close up in under a minute; first blood to Shaw, Erik thought, as they fell to circling again.
"This is a blood sport," Charles was appealing urgently to Raven, "We have to stop it!"
"There's no stopping us when we get like that," Raven, Erik noted in his peripheral vision, was thankfully keeping a tight grip on Charles.
When Shaw bounded in again, Erik gave him a bigger berth, this time, pushing himself into a sprint before darting back to hamstring the bigger wolf. Shaw growled, limping now, at least for the next minute or so, but even as Erik tried to close in on the other leg, Shaw had whirled around to meet him head-on, colliding heavily with Erik and forcing out a surprised yelp as the wolves went tumbling, snapping and tearing blindly at each other, snarling until Erik managed to drag himself out and into a safe distance, his muzzle dripping with blood and scored with lacerations.
Shaw's tongue lolled out again, as though utterly unaffected by his own injuries, amused, God damn it all, but Shaw's tactics were simple and no doubt brutally effective. He knew that he was the biggest wolf around, and he was using a combination of dire wolf brute strength strategies and sheer intimidation, trying to knock other wolves off balance and then doing as much damage as he could with that massive tearing jaw, wearing them down until he could kill them off easily.
"They used to hunt moose," Hank was telling the others, "The actual subspecies, that is."
"Well, Erik is a dire wolf, they probably used to hunt dinosaurs," Summers said loyally. "The actual ones were extinct ages ago."
"Pleistocene epoch," Hank muttered, "Nothing to do with dinosaurs."
If Erik was wearing human form, he would have rolled his eyes. Trying to tune out the annoying background chatter, he kept carefully out of Shaw's range, thinking as quickly as he could. He could try and last Shaw out; the other wolf was far older than he was, judging from the white on his muzzle, and Erik had long been training for a battle like this. While Shaw was still fresh, Erik would have to be wary of his jaws and his strength.
He began to doubt his strategy several skirmishes later, when their furs were matted with blood and Erik was beginning to slow, his body reallocating energy automatically into healing, and Shaw seemed utterly unaffected, still as viciously quick as before, teeth bared into a silent, mocking snarl. "He's toying with Lehnsherr," Emma said idly, from the couch, sounding bored. "Violence energizes Sebastian. He'd just get better, faster, while Lehnsherr will slow down, bleed out, and in the end, Sebastian will break his neck and choke out his life."
"Stop this, Emma, please," Charles was begging his aunt. "Surely Sebastian will listen to you."
"Pack law," Emma said, with cool, distant disdain, and Erik noted dimly as he circled at Raven's grip on Charles' arm was white-knuckled, and the others were uneasy, edged closer to the exit and Raven's guards beyond it.
Erik was running his mind back over the last few battles that he'd had, fighting smaller wolves, trying to recall their tactics. Iberians he left out of the picture - they were fast, and he didn't have a greater speed than Shaw, and as to grays...
At Shaw's next bounding lunge, Erik darted to the side, copying Charles' move in the forest, and made a leap of his own, twisting as Charles had done. Shaw let out a yelp as he was knocked off balance, and then they were twisting and snarling on the ground, but this time Erik was on top, and it took a few attempts for him to get his jaws on Shaw's neck. Shifting and scrabbling to get a better grip, Shaw roared, furious, rolling free and ignoring the chunk that Erik's teeth took out of his neck, his jaws darting over to slam shut on Erik's foreleg, crushing bone with a wet crunch that made Erik cry out in pain.
Shaw rolled up and rammed up against him again, bowling him over, and even as Erik scrambled to try and get out range, rearing up to snap at Shaw's muzzle, Shaw snapped his jaws shut on Erik's other foreleg, again crushing bone. Crippled, Erik made a lunge for Shaw's neck, but Shaw had darted out of range, and his tongue was lolling out again, licking at the blood at his muzzle. Grimly, Erik knew that this was the end. The damage would take at least ten minutes to mend, and ten minutes he did not have.
Instead of closing in again to finish him off, however, Shaw circled around him, and deftly took a grip on Erik's right hindleg as he instinctively kicked, crushing his paw and wrenching and only letting go when Erik let out a howl of pain, panting, watching Shaw wildly as the big wolf sniffed up to his belly, as though about to rip him open. Werewolves could bleed to death, but it would take a long, long time, to be left gurgling and choking on his life-blood if Shaw disemboweled him and waited... but he wouldn't cry out again. Shaw might torture him until the very end, but Erik had tried his best, and the souls of his murdered Pack would have to be satisfied with this.
"Charles," Raven said sharply, and Erik looked up to see that Charles had somehow broken out of Raven's grip. He tried to warn him off with a snarl, but Charles ignored him, crouching over him with his hands splayed deep in his fur.
"Don't kill him, please," Charles told Shaw urgently. "He's already lost, can't you see? You've done enough."
Shaw snorted, shaking his head, even as Erik growled and tried to shift Charles off him, but Charles clung on stubbornly, hands slippery with Erik's blood. "Please, Sebastian," he continued, holding the massive wolf's stare, "He's of no use to you now, is he? I've seen your records on the dire wolves, all those... those samples that you keep in the Genesis Room. He's no use to you now. Let him go. I'll give you a life for a life. You don't have any records on the Arctus, do you? I'm part Arctus blood, you can learn what you want from me."
Erik snarled, shaking his head, horrified at the very thought, trying to wrench control over the regeneration imperative to shift out of his damaged frame, to tell Charles no, that he couldn't, that he had no right to, but Shaw abruptly nodded, padding away to his clothes, even as Emma sat up sharply from the couch, her eyes flint-hard. "Finish off that dire wolf, Sebastian. Charles is speaking nonsense."
Shaw glanced at her, then back at Charles, and bared his teeth with a low growl. Emma curled her fingers tightly into the couch, but in the end, she looked away, and Shaw shifted into the change, dressing quickly before turning around, with no hint of a limp or a stagger in his stride.
"Well," he purred, "That was invigorating. Raven, I trust that you'll immediately remove Lehnsherr from the premises. Charles, to me."
Charles squeezed fingers once, lovingly, into his scruff, as though in farewell, then he got to his feet, stepping around his body.
"Sebastian," Emma said flatly. "This was not in our agreement. Listen to me."
"Agreements change, Emma. Know your place." Sebastian said, without looking around, then gunshots rang out, three precise volleys, painfully loud in the confines of the room. For a moment, from his skewed perspective on the ground, horrified, Erik thought that Charles had been shot, but then Sebastian crumpled down onto the wood paneling, choking, wide-eyed.
Behind him, Emma rose gracefully to her feet, a derringer in her hands, and strode over to his side, emptying the last three shots with studied precision into Sebastian's head, then she blew the smoke delicately off the tip of her gun and dropped it cavalierly onto his twitching body. Circling around the growing pool of blood, she approached Charles, who was frozen in shock, and carefully adjusted his collar, then pushed a strand of hair away from his forehead.
"Smile, child," she told him in a clipped tone, "When you frown like that, you look far too much like Kayla."
Pressing a brushing kiss on Charles' forehead, Emma glided regally over to Raven, who watched her warily. "Emma."
"I've changed my mind, Raven. Let's go home," Emma said, with imperious disdain, and Raven glanced at Erik, then at Shaw, and smirked.
"The rest of you will come with me," Emma told the shaken-looking Janos and Azazel, and added, sharply, "Well?" when they didn't immediately respond. Quickly, Janos padded over to her side, followed more slowly by Azazel, then she glanced over at Hank, who looked down at his feet. "McCoy?"
"Oh. Yes. All right," Hank said, uncomfortably, walking over to Charles to clasp him briefly on the arm, then padding over to Emma's side.
Raven glanced down at Erik, with pursed lips. "He'll be fine in about half an hour. Do you want a lift?"
"No, thank you," Charles had turned around, with a wry smile. "Could you leave us, please? There are some things that we'll have to take care of, downstairs," he added, when Raven hesitated.
Once the rest filed out, Erik growled when Charles sat down beside him and carefully pillowed the dire wolf's head on his lap, ignoring the blood soaking through to his pants, stroking gently under his jaw as Erik's wounds knit back together. Grudgingly, Erik closed his eyes, waiting out the regeneration. He had to heal back up, and then he'd have to find a way to destroy the third level, and finally put his Pack to rest. Haranguing Charles about his sheer idiocy would have to wait.
The sun was slowly sinking lower into the horizon by the time Charles declared himself the winner of their latest philosophical argument about the travails of 'feudalistic' werewolf society, folding his arms contentedly over his robe. Oddly enough, Erik didn't bother to argue any further, sinking deeper into the deck chair and watching the skyline. "You received a telegram from Emma today."
"I did." Charles said, casting his gaze out over the newly trimmed grounds. It had taken a small fortune to reinstate the mansion and its sprawling gardens, but it had been worth it. It wasn't as though he needed to hide, any longer, and he could take a quiet sort of pleasure over the now orderly Xavier estate. "She's doing well, I think."
Erik shuddered. Of all the things that had happened that day, it seemed that what had shaken Erik the most had not been the prospect of imminent death, but the sight of a werewolf calmly executing her own mate. Emma, however, was no ordinary werewolf; and from his brief encounter with Raven, along with what little that Charles knew about his mother Kayla to date, it did seem that this was some sort of Arctus family trait.
A few days ago Charles had decided to write a letter to Emma, sending it care of Tischer Mayhew Playford, to advise her that he was well; he had dutifully asked after her and his ancestral Pack, and at the end, had asked somewhat tentatively about Emma's memories of his mother. The return telegram had held a simple, short message: She was beautiful.
"Don't worry," Charles grinned at Erik, as mischievously as he could, "I won't shoot you, ever."
Erik scowled at him before turning his gaze back to the skyline. "Only because you'll shoot yourself in the foot if you ever had to handle a gun. I've seen how you hold the damned thing."
"That's very likely," Charles admitted, with a chuckle, and took a sip of his Earl Grey, his head buzzing with a low, growing restlessness that had nothing to do with bergamot and caffeine. The full moon was coming.
"Nervous?" Erik was watching him carefully. "Last chance to back out, Charles. I won't hold it against you."
"I want you," Charles reached over the table to press his fingers over Erik's rough, cool palm. "It's just the concept of pregnancy that I'm unable to get my mind around."
Erik snorted, though he seemed to relax further. "It usually doesn't happen when you're this young. Werewolves aren't exactly very fertile. You'll have perhaps two litters at the most in your lifetime-"
"Let's not talk about that please," Charles said faintly, squeezing his eyes shut.
"I don't see what the problem is," Erik said, though he was smirking, toothy and sly, "You'll be a wolf for the whole of it, after all. About four months or so."
"Four months!" Charles yelped. "Good God. If I suddenly find myself unable to change back," he growled, as Erik began to chuckle, "The very first thing that I'm going to do is bite you. Hard."
"I'll keep that in mind," Erik said, though he squeezed Charles' palm possessively, his half-lidded eyes taking on a gleam that Charles had long learned to associate with possible public indecency, and he hastily pulled back his palm.
"Let's not. I don't want to know what it's like to shift forms suddenly halfway through intercourse."
"'Intercourse'," Erik mimicked his accent, and snorted, watching the sky again, until Charles began to tire of the wire-thin tension that was emanating from the other werewolf, undoing the knot to his robes. "What are you doing?"
"Going for a run," Charles said, as casually as he could. "You could join me, or you could sulk here and keep doubting how much I really want this. How much I want you."
Erik glowered at him, though the annoyance in his stare melted to something else altogether when Charles shifted forms and wriggled out of his human clothes, hot and possessive, then he was snorting and pushing at Charles' scruff as Charles pounced on him, licking at his face. "Stop, stop that, move," he pushed Charles off the chair, grumbling to himself, and soon the big dire wolf was perched on the deck chair, watching him silently. Waiting.
Charles didn't hesitate; he darted in, nipped Erik smartly on the flank, and danced away, jaw parted playfully, tongue lolling, then he dug his claws into the turf and sped off towards the woods as the dire wolf growled and leaped after him.
Charles balanced the tray of sandwiches, biscuits, tea, and milk carefully as he pushed his feet into his slippers and padded out onto the grass, heading down towards the trimmed meadow before the maze, before the repaired fountain, the cherubs upon it scrubbed free of moss. Arctus had been kind enough to lend him a groundskeeper and a small housekeeping staff, all of whom were quiet, efficient, and clearly used to werewolves and their special needs.
However, it had already been over a year and Charles was still unused to servants, after having spent so much of his life alone, and for a quiet day in the afternoon, he preferred to bring out tea himself.
Erik glanced up briefly when he approached, seated cross-legged on the grass with no apparent care about the stains that doing so would leave on his jeans, reading a newspaper while Pietro slept on his lap, his white-furred side rising and falling slowly, still about the size of a small terrier. His sister Wanda was already larger than him, and far more adventurous... and...
"Erik, where's Wanda?"
"She's close by, I can smell her." Erik didn't look up as Charles set down the tray beside him and petted their son, looking around quickly for a ball of dark fur... which was rooting over under a shrub, her fat, tiny tail fluffed horizontal to her body in an expression of utter interest.
"Wanda," Charles approached her, "Come here, it's time for tea... good God, what are you eating, spit that out!"
Erik looked up again as Charles futilely attempted to confiscate a grasshopper before Wanda swallowed it, and then went back to his newspaper. "Don't worry, it won't kill her. It's probably even nutritious."
"What do you mean, nutritious," Charles squawked, Wanda scooped in his hands and looking all too pleased with herself. "I asked you to watch them!"
"I am." Erik patted his hip, and Charles belatedly spotted the gun. "Charles, give that back," Erik said, as Charles thrust Wanda into Erik's hands and settled for confiscating the gun.
"Not near the children," Charles growled, marching back to the house and handing the gun to the startled housekeeper with instructions to lock it back into the bedroom safe. When he returned, Wanda and Pietro were fighting in a squeaking ball of cookie-crumbed fur while their oblivious father seemed to be perusing the sports section, and by the time Charles sorted out the fight, calmed down a sullen Pietro, and scolded a clearly amused Erik, the tea was cold.
Erik pulled Charles into his lap once the refreshments had been duly demolished and the little terrors were curled on the grass next to the tray, in an undignified sprawl of tiny paws, asleep again. "I don't remember being like this," Charles allowed himself to be petted, already tired out. The twins were exhausting.
"Probably not. Neither would they when they're older." Erik inclined his head at Wanda and Pietro, then he squeezed Charles high on his thigh, stroking higher, and chuckling when Charles slapped his hand away and glared at him.
"I know. 'Not in front of the children'," Erik smirked, mimicking Charles' accent, though he bent to kiss Charles anyway, taking his mouth until Charles stopped squirming and struggling and leaned into it, hands curling into Erik's collar with an eager moan, his eyes fluttering shut and... and Erik was pulling back, frowning. "Pietro, come back here."
Pietro looked up guiltily from where he was about to try and climb up into the fountain, and trotted back over to his sister, taking one pointed ear into his mouth and gumming at it until she woke with an enraged squeak. "Pietro," Charles said, aghast, but Erik's arm was pinning him down on his lap.
"Don't bother. That's just pups playing, it's normal."
"That's what you said the last time when they were rolling in that patch of mud and fell into that pond!"
"Yes," Erik said, with exaggerated patience, though his lips quirked. "Don't worry so much, Charles. Werewolves are rather indestructible. Even as children. I'll help you clear up and tuck these two back into their crib."
"It's a nice afternoon to be out," Charles said, doubtfully, comfortable where he was.
Erik smirked and bent close to whisper roughly into his ear, "Not for what I have planned. Unless you don't mind being stretched out on the grass with me inside you, for anyone walking by to see?"
"Ah," Charles said, flushing brightly and looking quickly over to Pietro and Wanda, who had both padded off to inspect a tree root, apparently by chewing on it. "All right."
"I knew you'd see it my way," Erik said, swatting at Charles' ass when he got off with a laugh, then instead of helping to clear up the mess as he'd offered, Erik walked straight over to Pietro and Wanda, scooped them up, and headed back towards the house. Left to clean up, Charles smiled to himself, shook his head, and stacked plates back onto the tray. Erik was impossible at the best of times, but Charles wouldn't have it any other way. Life, somehow, despite all odds, was perfect.
Sometime afterwards, when Wanda somehow escaped from her crib and made it into their bedroom in the heat of things, throwing up a partially digested grasshopper onto the carpet, Charles quickly revised that thought.