Chapter 1: Prologue
Once upon a time, many, many years ago in a land far, far away, a young prince lived in a grand castle in the middle of a dark forest. The prince’s parents had died when he was a small child, leaving him without any surviving relatives. No one in the castle knew what to do except to let the child grow up with everything he could ever possibly want given to him at his beck and call. Because of this, the once sweet little boy grew up to be spoiled, selfish, and unkind.
One spring night, on the prince’s sixteenth birthday, just as the winter’s snow was beginning to thaw and young new shoots of grass were beginning to show through the muck and mud of the gardens, a mysterious woman knocked on the door of the castle. She was hooded and cloaked so the prince could not see her face. He was annoyed at her interrupting his birthday celebrations, and demanded she tell him who she was and why she had come.
The prince was disgusted when the woman threw off her cowl to reveal features that might once have been beautiful, but now were distorted and disfigured by horrible scars. She advanced, even as he stumbled back in horror, and held out a single red rose.
“I need shelter,” she implored, “but this is all I have to give you in return for your kindness. It is an enchanted rose.”
The prince pushed her gift away, sneering. “We have no rooms to spare, hag,” he replied. “Go and leave me in peace.”
“Be careful what you call me, young man,” the woman warned.
The prince was outraged. “Young man?!” he snarled. “How dare you condescend to me! I’ll throw you out myself!”
The prince rushed forward to throw her out the door, but suddenly, the woman’s face began to change, features shifting until before him stood a beautiful young woman, her bright blue eyes sparkling with anger. The prince realized she was an enchantress and he had just gravely offended her. Eyes widening in horror, he fell to his knees to beg for her forgiveness, but it was of no use.
“You have shown me that you have a heart of iron,” she said coldly, heedless of his frantic pleas. “You must learn that beauty is found within.”
With that, she placed a curse on the prince and the entire castle, leaving them in turmoil. The foundations of the house shook around the prince and all his servants as, in the prince’s rage and confusion, the metalwork of the ornate staircase behind him began twisting and contorting beyond his control. The servants stared on in horror.
Before she disappeared into the night, the enchantress left two things for the prince. One was a magic mirror, which could show him anything his heart desired. The other was the rose, which had indeed been enchanted. Before she left, the enchantress told the prince that it would bloom until his twenty-fourth birthday. If he could fall in love with someone before the last petal fell, and if they fell in love with him in return despite his terrifying affliction then the curse would be broken. If, however, no one could change the prince’s iron heart, then he and all the other castle’s inhabitants would remain cursed forever.
Years and years passed. The castle fell into disrepair, and the prince locked himself away in the secluded West Wing, cutting himself off from everyone in the castle and the outside world. Everyone gave up hope that the spell would ever be lifted, the prince most of all, for who could ever learn to love a monster such as himself?
Hank wasn’t in his bedroom or the kitchen or the living room, which left only one place. Charles peered out the window, seeing the wind that had been wracking the house all morning bend the limbs of the trees on the outskirts of the forest with its force. Winter was coming late, but the overcast skies seemed to suggest it was finally arriving, so Charles put on his coat and scarf and grabbed the book he had finished last night from the kitchen table before bounding down the steps of the small cottage to poke his head down the cellar doors outside.
“Hank?” he called. He could see his stepbrother’s feet poking out from underneath the wheels of his latest contraption. “I’m going into town. Do you need anything?”
A loud clanging sounded from the machine Hank was working on, and steam began billowing from a small smokestack near what Charles assumed was the rear of the thing. The contraption rather resembled a wooden cart with iron weights, hooks and pulleys fused to it here and there. The front had some kind of spring system attached to an ax. Charles hoped very much Hank knew what he was doing; every once and a while Hank’s experiments got a bit out of hand. Charles hoped he wouldn’t come back from town to discover Hank had lost a limb or worse.
“I’m fine for now, Charles, thanks!” Hank’s voice called from his position under the machine.
Charles nodded as if to reassure himself and straightened up to trot down the pathway towards the village. His breath came out in clouds in front of him as he glanced up at the gathering storm clouds on the horizon. Charles bundled his coat and scarf closer and walked a little faster to keep warm.
People called vague greetings to him as he entered the village, and he smiled and waved in return. The smell of fresh bread wafted from the baker’s, making Charles’s mouth water, but he continued undeterred on his beeline through the town towards the bookshop. The book he was holding was part of a series and he would rather spend the few coins he had saved up in his pocket on the next installment than on food. Sometimes Hank joked that they would both starve and be forced to eat Charles’s growing library if the crops on their small farm ever failed.
A tinkling bell and a gust of chilly wind announced Charles’s presence in the shop, and he quickly shut the door behind him, not wanting to let more cold in. He smiled automatically, undoing his scarf just a little in the comfortable warmth of the room as he gazed around at the walls and walls of books. The shopkeeper, Moira, appeared behind the counter from the back room, grinning when she saw Charles.
“Back already, Mr. Xavier?” she asked in mock surprise.
Charles’s smile turned guilty. “I couldn’t put it down,” he replied, holding up his book in explanation and walking over to join Moira. “I know it’s a bit silly, bringing it to the store with me when there are so many other books here, but it’s kind of like a safety blanket.” Moria smiled knowingly. “Have you got the next one?” he asked.
Moira frowned and shook her head. “It’s not out yet, I’m afraid. Is there anything else that catches your eye?”
Charles chuckled, glancing around the room, taking it all in. “What doesn’t?”
“Good point.” Moira nodded her agreement.
Unconsciously, Charles made his way over to the corner by the window and climbed a small ladder to reach the second tier of bookcases, one hand reaching out to take a particular book from the shelf. He climbed down the ladder and leaned a hip against it, running a finger over the gold embossed title. The book was familiar in his hands, warm and understanding like an old friend, and he had to resist the urge to bring the pages to his nose to take in its musky, intoxicating aroma.
“That one?” Moira asked, breaking Charles out of his revere.
Charles shook his head ruefully, making his way back to the counter. “I can’t buy it, I don’t have enough money.”
“Charles,” she said, rolling her eyes, “if I’ve seen you in here mooning over that book once I’ve seen you doing it a thousand times. It’s yours.”
“Oh no, I can’t,” Charles babbled, his blue eyes wide with surprise. “I really can’t-”
Moira waved away his words. “Yes, you can and you will. I insist. Take it out of my sight.”
“Really?” Charles was smiling so widely that Moira couldn’t help but join him.
“Yes, really!” she replied. “Now get out of here before someone thinks this place has become a charity.”
Charles very nearly skipped to the door, threw one more brilliant smile over his shoulder at Moira before opening it, not really feeling the bite of the wind as he set off for his house once more. He was gazing down so intently at both his new books as he neared the bakery and considered using his money to buy a celebratory baguette that he very nearly ran into the figure that suddenly appeared in front of him.
“Oh dear, I’m so sorry!” he exclaimed, raising his eyes to see who he had almost bowled over. Further apologies died in his throat and his smile slipped from his face when he recognized the man grinning confidently down at him. “Oh. Logan. Hello.” He tried to sound polite, but even if it wasn’t, he knew Logan would not be deterred.
“Hello, Charles,” Logan replied, his grin broadening even as he took a step forward and Charles took a step back. “And how are you this fine evening?”
“I’m doing well, thank you,” Charles said as he attempted to sidestep around Logan, but the other man pivoted and held out an arm to block Charles in between him and the outer wall of the bakery.
“Come and talk with me, Charles,” Logan said silkily. “I haven’t seen you in town in weeks.”
Charles bit back the reply that he had indeed been in town, but had been avoiding Logan’s usual haunts like the plague. Logan’s pursuit of Charles had begun one fateful night when Charles decided to take Hank out for a celebratory birthday drink in the town’s only tavern. Before then, Charles had never seen the tall, burly stranger with an odd haircut and long sideburns, and ever since he had wished Hank was born just a few days earlier so he would have probably never met the man.
Seeing Hank was done with his first pint of beer, Charles had courteously insisted on going up to the bar to refill his mug. No sooner had the barmaid winked cheerfully at Charles and slinked away to fetch more beer than Charles had felt someones eyes locked on his body from down the counter. Expecting to see a friend, Charles smiled and turned towards the man, but his gaze fell on Logan, who was grinning back predatoraly at him, a dangerous glint in his eye.
“Hello,” Charles said, attempting to be friendly, even if his first instinct was to walk as quickly as possible back to his table with Hank.
“Hello,” Logan replied, not moving a muscle, but continuing to stare straight at Charles.
“Are you new in town?” Charles asked when the barmaid still hadn’t returned and the silent staring grew awkward.
Logan nodded. “Just moved here. Heard you had good game in that massive forest of yours.” He did a sweeping gesture towards where the woods lay on the outskirts of the town, near Charles and Hank’s house.
Charles smiled apologetically. “I’m afraid I wouldn’t know. I don’t go hunting.” The hunter’s territorial grin persisted, so Charles had no choice but to continue or run. What was taking that blasted barmaid? “I’d be careful in those woods if I were you, though. Surely you’ve heard the stories floating around about monsters and demons hiding out there, along with the deer and the wolves.”
“Old wives tales,” the hunter scoffed, which Charles couldn’t help but take offense at. They might be old stories, but they were fantastic and intriguing, and at least everyone else in the village had the sense to be respectable towards them. This man had simply brushed them off.
“Well, I’m afraid they’ve scared me away from the idea of the woods entirely, if hunting innocent, defenseless animals wasn’t enough,” Charles said rather stiffly.
Suddenly, the man was off his bar stool and by Charles’s side. “I’m sorry that’s your opinion, bub,” he retorted oily, clapping Charles on the back just a little too amiably for someone he had just met. “I’ll have to take you some time. Change your mind about it.”
Charles opened his mouth to politely refuse, but was saved when the barmaid returned with a full pint.
“Nice talking to you!” he’d managed just before shirking off the aggressive man’s arm and quickly returning to his and Hank’s table.
Back in the biting cold of imminent winter, Charles had fallen silent, but Logan remained uncomfortably close, just looking at him. Finally, he seemed to rouse himself. “What’s that you have there?” he snatched the new book from Charles’s relaxed grip.
“Please, Logan, that’s mine.” Charles attempted to snatch it back from Logan, but the larger man turned away, blocking Charles as he flipped carelessly through the pages. “Give it back!”
Logan chuckled and tossed the book backwards over his shoulder, tearing a page in the process. “I’ll never understand why you want to waste your time with crap like that, Chuck. It doesn’t even have pictures!”
“Charles,” Charles said through gritted teeth. “And it doesn’t need them.” Charles scowled, examining the damage wearily. “Some of us have imagination.”
Logan laughed again, leaning against the wall and watching as Charles tried to piece the ruined halves of the page together dejectedly. After a few moments he slung an arm around Charles’s shoulders and attempted to lead him down the street. “Come on down to the tavern,” he coaxed. “We’ll see if they have some glue and while we wait you can see some of my trophies.”
Charles shoved away firmly. “Thank you, Logan,” he said, but all traces of courtesy had left his voice, “but I think I’d best be getting home now. Hank was working on a rather dangerous project and-” Charles was cut off by a helpful explosion emanating from the outskirts of the woods. A puff of dark smoke rose above the roofs of the buildings in front of them, the source of it coming from somewhere near the cottage. Charles let out a gasp. “Hank!” He shouted, barely registering Logan’s escalating laughter as he ran down the street and back home.
His heart thumped wildly against his rib cage as he approached the cottage and saw black smoke curling up from the cellar doors. He threw them open wildly, coughing at the choking fumes and dropping his books on the ground to pull his scarf over his nose and mouth before descending the stairs shakily.
“Hank!” he called, batting away the smoke with the arm not holding up his scarf. “Hank, are you alright!”
“I’m fine!” Hank’s voice sounded from somewhere to Charles’s right, and he hurried forward through the dissipating haze, guided by Hank’s coughs.
As he stumbled blindly forward, his shin collided painfully with what felt like the steel-enforced rim of a wheel. His grunt of pain turned into a shriek of surprise when he bent down to rub his rapidly bruising leg and found himself face to face with Hank, who was sitting cross-legged on the floor next to his quietly smoldering contraption.
“Jesus, Hank, you nearly gave me a heart-attack!” Charles admonished, dropping to the floor next to his stepbrother and leaning back against the wheel. They were both quiet as their breathing evened out, Charles still winded from running all the way from the village and his foray into the suffocating smoke. “Are you alright?” he asked finally.
Hank nodded. “I’m fine. I can’t say the wood cutter is though.”
“Wood cutter? Is that what this is?”
Hank gestured to the front of the machine and the ax affixed to the spring system. “I was just testing it out, but when I turned it on everything started smoking and then the engine exploded...”
Charles sighed and patted Hank’s shoulder comfortingly. “I’m sorry.” The younger man smiled ruefully back at him. They were silent again, Hank lost in thought about how he was going to fix his machine, and Charles not really thinking at all. After a while, Charles jumped to his feet and held out a hand to help Hank stand. “Come on,” he said. “It’s getting late and I’m getting hungry. You can fix this tomorrow.”
Dinner was subdued despite Charles’s best efforts. In an attempt to cheer up Hank, Charles told him about the new book Moira gave him, and his awkward encounter with Logan. Hank perked up at that.
“He’s still trying to schmooze you?” he asked incredulously. He scoffed when Charles nodded sorrowfully in reply as he dipped a piece of bread in his stew. “You think he would learn how to take a hint.”
“He is quite aggressive,” Charles agreed. “The more he advances the more I pull away. I don’t know why he thinks this tactic of cornering me is going win my heart. I swear I’m staying away from that tavern for the rest of my days, lest he try to trap me in the bathroom again.”
Hank laughed, remembering. “Why don’t you go out with someone?” he asked. “You seem to like that Moira woman. You could talk about books.”
Charles shook his head. “I’m just… Everyone in this town is too… contained within themselves,” he replied, pushing the remaining stew around his bowl. He didn’t elaborate that no woman in the town would ever catch his eye regardless of their intelligence or beauty.
Moira was also probably Charles’s best friend, next to Hank. The townspeople were friendly enough to him, but Charles liked to keep to himself and to his books and had no patience for the general atmosphere of self-important gossip and complete speculation that seemed rampant to the people who lived in the village. Most people also tended to keep clear of Hank, who also enjoyed solitude and the company of his machines. He had become interested in a few girls at the market or when he had still attended school (Charles could always tell from the way his ears would turn red and he would look hastily away when they made eye contact with him), but as far as Charles knew, nothing had come of these crushes.
No. Charles much preferred to be alone, living vicariously through the characters in his books than pursuing anyone in town. Besides, he couldn’t help but feel that there was something else out in the world for him; some greater kind of adventure than settling for marrying Moira for the sake of appearances and keeping the bookshop with her. There was something about the stories he read, stories with beautiful enchantresses, or giant terrifying animals attacking villages like his own, or even ones like the supposed monsters in the forest that made him believe there was something bigger out there.
He had been silent for several minutes, lost in thought, not realizing it until he noticed Hank was looking strangely at him. Charles was spared an explanation of his thoughts, however, when there was a sudden knock on the front door. Charles quirked an eyebrow at Hank in surprise. When Hank made no move to answer it, Charles sighed and slid from his chair. His heart sank as he opened the door and saw Logan, his broad shoulders taking up almost all the space in the doorway.
“Hello, Charles,” he grinned, stepping inside without question. “How are you this fine evening?”
“Logan,” Charles said blankly. “What a surprise. I’m afraid you just caught me and my brother in the middle of dinner so-”
“Came to make sure everyone was okay. After that nasty explosion we heard this afternoon, you know?”
“Of course,” Charles replied through gritted teeth. Logan rested a possessive hand on his shoulder and he shrugged it off as politely as possible. “Well as you can see, we’re all fine. Hank’s wood-chopper-”
“Wood-chopper?” Logan interrupted again. “Another one of your crazy contraptions again, bub?”
“They’re not crazy,” Charles said automatically. “And it’s broken so you shouldn’t have to worry about our safety any more.”
Logan’s answering frown was pathetically melodramatic. “That’s too bad. Say, maybe I can fix it for you, bub,” he said.
“No, Logan, I don’t think-” Hank began, but Logan stopped him with a wave of his hand.
“Nonsense. It’s in your little lab downstairs, right?” And before either one of them could stop him, Logan had bounded outside and towards the cellar, Charles and Hank following helplessly after him.
“Please, Logan,” Charles implored as Hank tugged frantically on his sweater. Charles didn’t have the heart to bat his hand away, not when Logan was surveying the broken wood-chopper, crouching to look at the underside, then straightening up and fiddling with the steam engine. “Come upstairs. Do you play chess?”
Logan laughed, running his hand over the steel-encased wheel Charles had bruised his shin on earlier. “You sure are a funny guy, Chuck. Chess?”
Charles bit his lip, clenching and unclenching his fists in apprehension. Logan made his way around to the front of the machine and the spring-loaded ax head. He ran his fingers along the blade carefully and smiled at the sharpness. Finally, he stood straight again.
“Well, Hanky-boy,” he said, grinning superciliously at Hank, “didja try just giving it a good beating?”
Hank gasped and held out a hand, but Logan had already aimed a well-placed kick at the side. Miraculously, the machine spluttered into life when Logan’s boot collided with its side, a few pathetic bursts of black smoke curling from the exhaust pipes. Hank’s eyes widened in disbelief, and Charles let out a breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding in the form of a relieved chuckle.
“It’s not very scientific, but I guess it wo-” Charles began, turning to Hank with a bemused smile, but his words were cut off when Hank let out a terrified cry.
“No, Logan, don’t!”
Charles whirled around and saw Logan poised underneath the ax head, grinning up at it and the coiled springs holding it back. From the angle of his position, he couldn’t see the springs were beginning to pull back. Suddenly, the ax was falling, falling, falling, almost as if it was in slow motion. Charles was frozen to the spot. He may not particularly like Logan, but he certainly didn’t want him dead. Luckily, Logan wasn’t known as the greatest hunter in the surrounding area for nothing. While both Charles and Hank were frozen in horror, Logan jerked back just in time for the head of the ax to come swishing down centimeters from the tip of his nose.
For a moment, the only sound was Logan’s heavy breathing mixed with the sputter of the wood-cutter’s engine, and the whoosh of the ax sailing through the air in front of the burly man over and over. Then Logan rounded on them, his eyes boring into Hank, seeming to give off sparks. The muscles of his shoulders were tensed, like he was ready to pounce. Both Charles and Hank backed up, and Charles could feel the heels of his shoes as they hit the first step out of the cellar.
“You,” Logan breathed, his voice dangerously low and gravely as he advanced slowly on them. “You tried to kill me, you crazy little shit.”
Hank gaped, unable to find the words to defend himself.
“You shouldn’t have put your head by the bla-” Charles began, reaching an arm out in an attempt to shield Hank, but Logan cut him off.
“You shut up!” he roared, pointing mightily at Charles. “I’ll take care of him myself.”
And before Charles could move any further, Logan was surging forward, his arms outstretched toward Hank’s throat. Logan’s movement seemed to startle something in Hank, and he turned, sprinting up the stairs and off towards the forest. Hank was just that much quicker than Logan, and Charles was able to come to his senses and wrap his arms around Logan’s legs as he started up the stairs, tripping him. Logan shouted in frustration and kicked backwards at Charles, who was forced to let go lest the hunter’s boot connect with his face. By the time Charles had recovered and run up the steps, he saw Hank galloping into the forest atop one of their horses, Logan in hot pursuit on his own mount. Charles let out a noise of frustration and raced off to the stables to get his own horse.
Hank’s blood was pounding in his hears, his heart drumming in his chest as he rode. Logan might be the self-professed “best hunter in the world”, but Hank also knew this patch of the forest particularly well, having spent a good chunk of his childhood playing Robin Hood with Charles underneath the thick canopy of trees. However, as his horse carried him further and further away from Logan’s wild shouts of “Where are you? Come back here, you little weasel!”, his surroundings became more and more foreign. His fight-or-flight reflexes were still screaming for him to keep the horse at a gallop though, and soon he was in the heart of the expansive, dark woods.
He pulled on the reigns and the horse slowed beneath him. Adrenaline still pumping, he tipped his head back, coughing slightly at the frigid air scraping his throat with every deep breath he gasped down. The whole forest was silent around him, and it wasn’t long before he was shivering, not only with cold, but with fright. In the eerie quiet he could hear every snap of every twig under the horse’s hoofs, every rustle of feathers as birds shook themselves and flew up above the shelter of the leaves with a cry. Hank wrapped one arm tighter around himself and set off further into the forest blindly, his teeth chattering.
The wind was turning harsher and Hank could practically smell the snow in the air that had been threatening to fall all evening. His ears were already numb and his nose was starting to run. He sniffed, and urged his horse on faster with a light kick to her side. Although it was likely he was going nowhere fast, moving forward made him feel like he actually had some idea as to where he was, and he glanced around as if looking for a familiar marker. Logically, he knew he was further into the woods than he had ever been, and there was no sign of the road that led to the next village, but he ignored the thought. Panicking would just make his situation worse.
A light snow had just begun to fall when he saw something cutting through the trees up ahead. It was a dark, spiked mass, wide as a mountain and almost as tall, stretching up towards the sky. As Hank drew closer and the trees began to thin around him, he saw that the shape was, in fact, a castle, surrounded by a tall, stone wall into which was set an ornate iron gate. Hank’s heart lifted impossibly. Perhaps he could seek shelter here and return home in the morning when it was light outside. The inhabitants might even be kind enough to lend him a spare coat. He dismounted and walked up to the gate, placing a cautious hand on the intricate metalwork before pushing it slowly open. He took the horse’s reigns and led the way down an uneven brick pathway surrounded by slightly overgrown hedges. Tying the reigns to the hands of a statue that guarded the main doorway, Hank gave the animal a final pat, just as much to reassure her as it was to reassure himself, and made his way up the steps to the door. He only had to push lightly on the worn wood before it gave and he stepped into a dark, musty entryway.
The castle was, if possible, even quieter and more eerie than the forest. Hank would have thought it was deserted if there hadn’t been two candelabras burning apathetically on either side of a massive staircase. Their dim light revealed an iron banister that twisted haphazardly up into the darkness of a second floor. The ceiling was so high that Hank couldn’t see the top of it in the gloom. Once again, Hank could feel his heart beginning to beat a tattoo against his rib cage. Setting his jaw, he walked forwards towards the comforting light of the iron candelabras. He reached out and picked one up from the floor and began to creep unsurely up the staircase.
“Hello?” he called down the corridor when he reached the second floor. His voice was a little surer now that he was armed with light and steel. The creak of a door opening and a quiet popping noise somewhere to his left made him freeze, tightening his grip on the candle holder. He paused, taking a deep breath in an attempt to gather his courage, and, to his amazement, smelling sulfur when he did. “Please, is someone there? I’ve gotten lost in the woods and there’s a storm setting in. I was wondering if I could trouble you with a room for the night?”
He was silent for a moment. Further down the hall, he could hear what sounded like two people whispering frantically. Their voices escalated as their argument got more and more intense, until Hank thought he could pick out one person was male and one was female. He crept closer.
“Excuse me,” he called nervously. “I’m lost. Could you please help me?”
The whispering voices suddenly stopped. There was a pause, filled with tension before Hank heard the decisive clacking of shoes against the marble floor as someone made their way toward him. Hank was rendered immobile by his terror. All tension left him, however, when the figure of a blonde young woman made its way into the ring of light cast by the candles. Her warm smile instantly melted away all his anticipation, and he found himself smiling back at her.
“Good evening, sir,” she said, reaching out to take the candelabra from him and looping her other arm around his back to lead him down the hallway, talking animatedly all the while. “Of course you can stay here! It looks as if it’s about to get absolutely frightful outside. You look chilled to the bone.” As they made their way down the hall, Hank was so entranced by the woman that he nearly jumped out of his skin when he saw another figure alighted by the candle flames. This man was blonde as well, but unlike the young woman, he was wearing a frown, his brow creased in worry.
“Come along, Alex,” the woman continued, never breaking step. “I’ll take him to the drawing room. Be a dear and find Darwin and ask him to bring along some tea, will you? Thanks.”
The blonde man, Alex, nodded tersely before turning on his heel and clacking off down the hall back towards the staircase.
“Don’t mind him,” the woman said, smiling brightly at Hank again. “I’m afraid we haven’t had visitors for ages, and he’s lost what little social graces he had.” She laughed, a pleasant, tinkling sound as she let go of Hank in order to open a door and usher him through the entry way. Inside, a great fire was blazing in the hearth. Hank rushed eagerly over to it and began to warm his still-frozen hands. The woman set the candelabra in a corner and made her way to back to crouch beside Hank in front of the fire. “I’m Raven, by the way,” she said.
Hank smiled at her and extended a hand. “Hank.”
“Nice to meet you, Hank,” Raven said, shaking his hand politely. Her fingers were warm and soft against Hank’s skin, and he found himself reluctant to pull away. He did so anyway, a blush creeping up his neck to his ears, and he stared into the fire. Before the silence could stretch too long, the door creaked open again and Alex stepped into the room, accompanied by a tall, thin, dark skinned man with a goatee. He was carrying a tray piled high with tea and assorted cakes. The new man smiled broadly at Hank, setting the tray on the floor next to him and offering a hand.
“Hello,” he said, shaking Hank’s hand firmly. “My name is Darwin. I see you’ve met Raven and Alex already.” There was a quiet sound of the door opening again and another figure stood cautiously in the doorway, the much smaller- but wiry- frame indicating a young boy. He was red-headed and covered in freckles. Darwin smiled and motioned for him to move closer into the room. “This is Sean.”
Sean smiled and waved sheepishly, sitting cross legged on the floor a little ways from Hank and Raven with his back leaning up against the worn red upholstery of a wing-back chair placed in the middle of the room. His eyes darted surreptitiously to the pile of cakes on the tray.
Hank poured himself some tea and took an icing-heavy confection, not realizing how hungry he was until now that he was out of the cold. He pushed the tray towards Sean with a grin before sitting back to get closer to the warmth of the fire. Sean happily picked his own cake from the stack.
“Thank you very much,” Hank managed, after politely swallowing the huge bite he had taken out of the cake. “It’s very nice to meet you all. My name’s Hank.” He finished the pastry in one more bite, and was about to reach for another one when Alex rushed forward.
“Alright, now that you’ve warmed up a bit, I’m afraid you must be off,” he said, pushing Hank’s back just a little to urge him back on his feet. “We wouldn’t want you to get stuck here in the storm. Your family might get worried, wondering where you are.”
Darwin frowned and moving to Alex's side and putting a calming hand on his arm. The blonde man straightened up at the touch. “Alex, come on, let the man rest.”
Raven stood swiftly, her face mirroring Darwin’s, her hands on her hips. She looked ready to pull Alex away from Hank, or use more force if necessary.
Alex turned to Darwin, his face awash with apprehension. “I don’t want to be rude, but I’d also rather not have my hide tanned,” he hissed, making Darwin lower his head to hear him better. “The master will find out about this. In fact, he probably already has. This idiot has been touching all the metal he can get his hands on, it’s like he wants to be felt-”
Tension in the room suddenly mounted. Sean froze, his grin turning to a look of barely-veiled horror, and he pulled his knobby knees up, hugging them tight to his chest. Darwin glanced furtively at Hank before lowering his gaze to Alex’s once more. “I’ll talk to him,” he began. “Try to explain-”
But Darwin’s words were cut off when a terrible, heart-wrenching screech rent the air. Everyone turned in unison to see the iron grate holding the crackling flames begin to turn in on itself, twisting and contorting, white-hot tendrils of metal flicking out onto the floor to scorch holes in the rug. Sean had scrambled up and was now clinging to Raven, who was staring, frozen, at Hank. With a start, Hank saw that her face had completely changed. Where once there was fair skin and curly, cascading blonde hair, he saw her skin was now blue and scaled, her hair bright red in contrast. Her eyes were yellow, and giving him a look of great pity.
Hank was about to shrink away when the grate wrenched itself free from the hearth and the fire fell, extinguishing into nothing but glowing coals. A noise above them made Hank look up, and he saw a golden chandelier begin swinging back and forth before spinning uncontrollably. Another loud screech sounded from the corner, drawing Hank’s eyes to the candelabra, which now didn’t resemble a candelabra at all. Instead, it was a writhing mass of metal, just like the grate. The candles fell, and Darwin quickly ran to stomp them out, casting the room into complete darkness just as the door flew open.
The room was in shadow, but Hank could still make out a tall figure cutting out a darker shape in the doorway. It looked like it was human, but Hank couldn’t see its face. All he could see in the darkness was stooped shoulders, arms outstretched to the side and tensed all the way through to the fingers. The figure stepped over the threshold and the door slammed shut behind it without being touched by anyone. Hank heard the metal of the door frame squealing and, as his eyes adjusted to the light, saw it was also bending and convulsing behind the figure.
“Why have you come here?” it growled, and the voice was male. He drew steadily closer to where Hank stood rooted to the floor. “Who are you?”
“Please, sir,” Darwin began, making his way cautiously towards the newcomer, whose shoulders were shaking with rage. “He got lost in the woods, and it's freezing outside-”
“Silence!” the man roared. He tossed out a hand and Darwin was lifted off his feet by some unseen force and thrown back several feet. He stumbled into the wall with a soft thunk. “You’ve come to stare at the monsters, haven’t you?” the man demanded, rounding on Hank again, who finally found control of his muscles and shrank away until he was backed up against a curtained window. He wondered vaguely if the man was going to throw him out of it. However, the man only said “Stare all you want!” and suddenly the curtains were torn away, the rod securing them to the wall sailing through the air.
Hank gasped at the sight revealed by the soft moonlight filtering in through the grimy window. The man before him was tall, thin, and broad shouldered, and every muscle in his body was tensed as if ready to pounce and rip Hank’s throat out. But what was most terrifying was the man’s face. It was scarred horribly, lines etched on almost every inch of skin. An especially deep gash was carved all the way from his right eyebrow down to the corner of his lip, which was turned up in a terrifying, bestial grin. The smile, which held no mirth, seemed to have too many sharp, sparkling teeth, and Hank could just imagine the man sinking them into his flesh. Icy spikes of terror shot into Hank’s heart as he looked into the man’s eyes. They were a dull grey-ish color, which somehow seemed to detract even more from their humanity, leaving them cold, radiating only rage from their stony depths.
“Please,” Hank managed to choke out, clutching desperately at the window sill. “I just needed a place to stay, I meant no harm.”
The man bared his teeth. “I’ll give you a place to stay,” he growled.
Hank let out a surprised cry as the man grabbed his arm so tightly he could almost feel the skin underneath the man's scarred hand bruising instantly. He barely heard Raven and Darwin’s protestations as he was dragged from the room and down the darkened hallway.
For Valentines Day, I give you... A DOUBLE CHAPTER POST! :D
Thank you so much to everyone who has commented and left kudos!
Also, thanks to gildatheplant for leaving me the picture of Hugh Jackman as Gaston in Australia! You can see it here: http://ym4yum1.tumblr.com/post/7313705666
Charles had followed Logan’s angry shouts as closely as he could, but somehow he still managed to get lost several miles into the woods. It was beginning to snow now. Light flakes that had melted instantly when they hit the ground in the very beginning turned into bigger and bigger clumps after several minutes, sticking together as they fell faster and more frequently than before. Charles shivered, pulling his wool sweater tighter around him, but it did more harm than good since the fabric was already soaked through.
He gave his horse an encouraging kick on the side to urge them on faster. He had hoped to run across the road to the adjacent village, or perhaps even a cottage; surely the entire forest couldn’t be deserted. At this point he would even be grateful to run across Logan, he thought, laughing ruefully. Logan was sure to be back by now, lounging in his regular chair by the fire at the village’s tavern and probably brooding on having lost Hank’s trail in the forest. Charles’s teeth began to chatter. He just hoped that Hank was safely home as well.
The horse plodded on through the steadily deepening snow. Soon Charles’s slight shivers had turned to full, body-wracking tremors. He sniffed and pulled his sweater over his nose in attempt to heat the lower half of his face and his chest with his warm breath, but the wind was becoming so biting that his efforts were futile. Charles wondered vaguely if he was going to freeze to death, and his heart stuttered nervously in his chest. It was at that moment that he first caught sight of the castle up ahead. It was a dark silhouette against a snow-white sky, like some sort of paradoxical beacon, and he urged his horse on towards it.
He followed a high stone wall around until he reached an ornately twisted gate. His heart leapt when he saw Hank’s horse standing by the castle door, sheltered from the worst of the wind by the walls. Hank must be inside, safe and warm. They could stay here tonight and ride back home in the morning, or whenever the storm dissipated. He slid from his horse’s back and eagerly pushed open the gate, leading the way down the path towards the main door and tying his reigns up with the others before running up the steps and knocking on the door. There was no answer. He hesitated for just a moment, then braced himself and threw open the entrance.
Immediately, as he stepped over the threshold and closed the door, he was plunged into almost complete darkness. The only light was coming from what looked like the side of a staircase, but the light was dim, and as Charles drew closer, he saw it was because the candles sitting in the iron candelabra were almost completely burned down. He grasped the iron stalk and set off slowly up the staircase. The upstairs corridor was equally dark, but he could see another dim light far off, presumably at the end of the passage. He hurried towards it.
“Hank?” he called into the gloom. There was no answer. Somewhat shaken, he quickened his pace and soon reached the other light, another candelabra, and the end of the hallway. These candles were much less burned down, so he swapped out his current light source for the new one. Charles held up the candles to better see where he now stood. The corridor was forked. To his left, there was, as far as he could see, more hallway and doorways spaced every so often along the wall. To his right, another staircase stretched up and into the darkness, more narrow than the one in the main entryway. Some nagging feeling in the back of his mind told him to take the right fork and climb the stairs to another level, so he did.
This new corridor was narrower than its predecessor. Somehow, Charles could sense that he was getting closer to something. There was a kind of prickling feeling creeping up his spine and the back of his neck. He shivered. “Hank?” he called again, but just as before, his question was met with silence. Taking a deep breath to steady himself, he gripped the candelabra tighter and set off down the new hallway, the thick carpet of a runner muffling his footsteps.
He would have completely missed the hidden staircase if a particularly strong gust of wind had not blown at the tapestry that covered the entrance. The sudden fluttering motion of the fabric made Charles nearly jump out of his skin, his heart racing as he swung the candelabra around like a sword. He paused, muscles tensed for a moment, but there was no sound to suggest that someone might be hiding behind the tapestry. Charles’s attention was piqued, however. He reached out a hand and cautiously pulled the material to the side, revealing a winding stone staircase. The way was lit every so often with torches which flickered from the wind seeping in through small slits in the stonework but showed no sign of extinguishing. Charles discarded the candelabra and started up.
The staircase spun steeply upwards, the stones on the outer wall freezing to the touch as Charles trailed a hand along them to steady himself. Higher and higher he climbed, until he became convinced that, instead of being some sort of secret passageway for servants, this staircase led to one of the spindly towers he had seen when he first rode up to the castle. His curiosity flared even more at the thought, and though his legs ached from fatigue, he hurried upwards. Soon he reached the top, which was marked by a huge, steel door, barring the way into what was surely the tallest tower. He pushed hard on the cold metal and it gave slowly. Slipping through when the crack in the door was just big enough, Charles spared a moment to catch his breath, leaning back against the door with closed eyes. He let out a sighing breath. Suddenly, he heard a familiar voice further off in the darkness, the only light in the tower coming from a single, dimly burning torch.
“Hello? Is someone there?”
It was Hank.
Charles’s eyes shot open and he rushed forward towards the shadowed, distant side of the room. “Hank!” he cried. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw bars of a prison cell built into the wall. Seated on the floor, hands wrapped cautiously around one of the bars, was Hank. When Charles swam into sight through the gloom, a relieved grin stretched across his features, which Charles noticed vaguely, were paler than usual. Dark circles were beginning to form under his eyes, and his nose was red from the cold bombarding the tower. He reached out and took Hank’s hands, attempting to warm them by rubbing them between his own, but Hank began trying to pull away.
“No, Charles,” he said, looking furtively over his shoulder. “You have to go. How much metal did you touch?”
“What? What are you talking about? Hold still, you’re freezing,” Charles protested, trying to take Hank’s hands again.
“He can feel the metal, Charles!” Hank said, his eyes getting wider, and his voice escalating as he began to panic. "That's how he knew I was here!" Hank's distress made Charles’s heart beat faster with dread and he stopped trying to warm his hands.
He sat back on his knees, peering questioningly at his stepbrother. “Who can, Hank?”
Hank opened his mouth to reply, but before he could, a soft humming noise began, getting louder and louder. Charles cast his gaze around, completely bewildered by who or what could be making the sound until, with a jolt, he realized it was coming from the iron bars of the cell. Hank backed away in terror. “He’s coming!” he shouted. “Run, Charles, you have to run!”
Charles couldn’t leave, even if he wanted to. Over Hank’s pleas, a louder screeching began to emanate from the door until it was thrown open so violently that it made a fearsome cracking noise against the stone wall behind. In the doorway stood the outline of a man, but Charles couldn’t make out his features, only the rippling of his cloak in the sudden circulation of cold air through the open door.
Suddenly, the man was striding across the room, taking care to stay out of the light. The savageness with which the figure advanced made Charles wince, and he held up his arms defensively in front of his face.
“Another trespasser,” the man growled from somewhere above Charles. “I should have known. Whose else is coming?”
“No one else,” Charles said desperately, still not able to look the man in the eye. “Please, I came for my brother. He’s sick, just let him go, I’ll do anything-”
“So he can run off to the village and tell everyone about the monster?” the man roared. “No, there’s nothing you can do. I own this castle. He’s my prisoner and he will stay here.”
The man was turning to go.
Charles looked at Hank for ideas, but his stepbrother was terrified, cowed in the furthest corner of his cell and staring resolutely at the floor. Bile rose up in the back of Charles’s throat at the thought of leaving Hank here, alone and obviously getting sick. There had to be something he could do! Desperately, before he even realized what he was saying, the words made their way out of Charles mouth. “Take me instead.” Blood was pounding in his ears, but he went on. “I’ll stay here in his place, just please let him go.”
“No, Charles, I’m not leaving here without you-” Hank began, but he was stopped short when the man, who had frozen the minute Charles spoke, turned slowly around.
The wave of anger radiating from the man now had a thin veil of curiosity overlaying it, but Charles still instinctively looked down as the man’s gaze traveled over him. Clacking boot heels signaled the man’s approach, the noise echoing around the small room and mingling with Charles’s shallow, trained breathing. He could almost feel the other man’s eyes burning over every inch of his skin, like he was being inspected under a microscope. He had to suppress a shiver.
“What did you say?”
Charles swallowed, and looked up, the other’s face still cast in shadow but getting clearer as he drew closer. Several feet away, the man stopped.
“I said take me in his place,” Charles whispered, just able to keep the tremble out of his voice. “Please.”
Charles’s eyes had adjusted to the darkness enough that he could now make out the man’s features. Extensive gashes marred his face, and his eyes seemed to burn with some kind of unquenchable anger. The thin line of a mouth seemed drawn down in consideration for a moment, but then again, Charles thought, that might just be the way it always looked.
“You would promise to stay here. Forever.” It was more of a statement than a question, but Charles answered a soft, “Yes.”
Without another word, the barred door of the cell swung open untouched. The man strode in and grabbed Hank by the arm, pulling him out. “Azazel!” he shouted, and with a sudden puff of dark smoke, another man had joined them, his appearance even more alarming than the first man’s, for his skin was red, and a spiked tail flicked back and forth behind him like a cat. “Take this man away.”
“Charles!” Hank cried out as the scarred man let go of him, only to have his arm grabbed again by the devil-man. But before Charles could answer they were both gone in another puff of sulfur. Unable to move of his own accord, the owner of the castle threw him into the cell in Hank’s place and slammed the door shut with a wave of his hand. Charles, however, was too numb with shock to be surprised. Just as the man’s dark figure was once again in the doorway, Charles found his voice.
“You didn’t even let me say goodbye,” he called out, anger cutting through his apprehension and disbelief, and he grasped the iron bars tightly. “I’ll never see him again.”
The man froze, and seemed about to turn over his shoulder and say something. Charles willed the tears prickling in his eyes not to spill over, but the man seemed to think better of speaking. Instead, he sped from the room, the door slamming shut behind him with a finality that left Charles feeling completely hopeless . The chill seemed to set in on Charles again, and he sunk to the floor to wrap his arms around his legs, hoping against all hope that Hank really was all right and he had not just thrown his life away for nothing.
Downstairs, Raven, Alex, Darwin, and Sean were anxiously waiting for their master at the tapestry that hid the entrance to the tower. Sean was standing behind Raven, peering around the side of her dress. They had not wanted him to join them; the master had been so angry, and sometimes bad things happened when he was this upset, but Sean had threatened to scream, and Alex immediately agreed to let him come help try and speak to the master. More than that, Raven reasoned with herself, the poor boy had been so excited to find a newcomer in the castle, and devastated when he had been dragged away. Even Azazel hadn’t been able to calm him down. It was best that Sean stay with them to find out about what happened with Hank and the other man who had come into the castle instead of wandering around the castle to find out for himself this late at night.
Darwin was standing close by Alex, whose already pale features turned more ashen as heavy footsteps sounded in the cramped staircase. The steel candle holder in Alex’s hand vibrated slightly. As the thundering footsteps grew louder, Darwin seemed to brace himself both mentally and physically. Hard, armored shells formed themselves all along his upper body with a soft clinking noise. The others had grown so used to this that no one was taken aback. Indeed, as the man crashed through the tapestry and stood, huffing angrily in the hallway, everyone stepped slightly behind Darwin for protection. The man seemed calmer, however, than when he had torn up the stairs earlier, and nothing apart from the iron in Alex’s hand was thrumming with energy.
The master’s gaze turned darkly to each of them. “What?” he demanded.
“We were wondering what you did with Hank and the newcomer,” Raven answered evenly. “Have you locked them both up?”
“No,” he replied. “Azazel took the first man away. The second is staying in his place.”
“For how long?” Alex asked shakily.
“Indefinitely,” the man answered in a tone that dared them to argue. No one did. After a moment, however, Darwin spoke up.
“If he is going to be staying here for such a long time,” he began cautiously, “perhaps you might offer him a room of his own. There is no point that he should be imprisoned for the rest of his life. And it has been so long since we had someone else to talk with.”
“Please, sir,” Raven added in a hush.
Raven, Darwin, Alex, and Sean fell into a tense silence, watching the man’s face. At first the corners of his mouth stayed pulled decidedly down, his brow furrowed, making the scars that disfigured his face even more accentuated in the low light. As the silence pressed on however, his features began to soften. His eyes turned less icy as he considered the fate he had so rashly put upon the young man in the tower.
He opened his mouth, and then closed it, frowning again, but this time it was in contemplation and not anger. The others stayed silent, until finally he spoke. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to let him around the castle,” he said. “And he might as well have his own room.”
“Thank you, sir,” Darwin said, his scaled armor receding as he smiled. “We’ll fetch him right away.” He moved to go up the stairs, but was blocked when the scarred man stepped in front of the entrance to the tower.
“No,” he said. “I’ll take him. Get back to what you were doing.” They hesitated, and the man gave them a look. “Go!” he shouted, and they scurried off.
Charles was still hunched in on himself and shivering when he heard the great iron door swing open again, this time so slowly he wouldn’t have noticed if it hadn’t made a loud squeaking noise on its rusty hinges. He looked up. His captor was standing almost nervously in front of the cell door, but his face was too shadowed to betray any sort of emotion.
“If I let you out, will you promise not to run?” he said.
“I already promised I wouldn’t,” Charles answered. “Even if I did, I would undoubtedly die in this storm, seeing as I have no idea where I am. You’ve won, alright?”
The man let out a huffing breath, and after a moment, reached out and opened the cell door. Charles gaped, hardly able to believe that he was actually being freed- to some extent anyway. The man stood, staring at him.
“Well?” he spat out after a moment of awkward silence. “Are you going to come see your room or do you want to stay here?”
Charles scrambled to his feet. “No, thank you,” he said, stumbling a little at the unsteadiness of his freezing and exhausted legs.
The man nodded curtly, giving Charles an odd, sideways glance as if worried he would suddenly pounce on him. Charles almost laughed at the irony, but before he could say anything, the man had turned around and grabbed the torch from its frame built into the wall. “Follow me,” he instructed, and Charles had to jog to catch up with him.
They wended their way down the stairs and through the dark hallways in silence. Charles was completely in awe of the architecture that he could see clearly now from the torchlight. They walked down marble floors under high ceilings held up by marble pillars. Here and there, bronze and iron statues of creatures with snarling faces dotted the hallways. Parts of them were sometimes twisted inhumanely, others were reduced to formless shapes made of spikes and piles of metal. Charles could only imagine that the man, in other fits of rage, had twisted the statues with his incredible power.
Charles was broken out of his revere suddenly when his captor spoke. “You may go anywhere you wish in this castle. Except for the West Wing. Those rooms are my private quarters. And these are yours.”
The man stopped up so short that Charles almost walked into him, as he was not watching where he was going, but the man shrunk away, extending a hand towards a door.
“There. I… hope you’ll be comfortable.”
Charles nodded and pushed open the door. Stepping over the threshold, he saw the room furnished with a surprisingly warm looking bed with many pillows and a fluffy, dark purple comforter. A fire was already roaring in the granite fireplace, and, Charles noted automatically, there was a half-filled bookshelf in the corner, situated next to a high-backed armchair. The curtains were only half-drawn, and through the unconcealed part of the window, Charles could make out the swirling storm outside. He turned back to the man, who was looking expectantly at him.
“This is beautiful. Thank you…?” Charles trailed off in question. The man looked puzzled for a moment, so Charles prompted him. “Your name. What shall I call you?”
“Erik,” he replied quickly.
Charles nodded. “My name is Charles.”
The man—Erik, Charles thought—nodded back, turning his gaze away.
“I’ll send someone along with something for you to eat and drink.” With that, Erik turned and walked off down the hallway. Confused at his abruptness, Charles watched the man’s retreating back until the darkness of the hallway swallowed him and the torchlight up. Sighing, he shut the door and hurried over to the fireplace.
He was beginning to get quite pleasantly warm when he heard a quiet knock on the door. Standing quickly, he went and opened it, revealing several eagerly smiling people, one of which, a blonde, fair featured young woman, was holding a tray of tea and small sandwiches.
“Hello, dear,” she said. “My name is Raven. This is, Alex, Sean, and Darwin.” She tossed her head in the direction of a blonde, fretful looking young man, a freckled adolescent redhead, and a taller, slightly older man with a goatee and a particularly piercing smile. “We’ve brought you some tea.”
“Thank you,” Charles said, a little taken aback by the sheer force of their smiles. “I’m Charles. Please come in.” He held the door open and the others crowded through into the room.
Raven set the tray down and poured a cup of tea, offering it to Charles. He took it and thanked her.
“Forgive us if we’re a bit overbearing. It’s been quite some time since we had company,” Raven confided.
The blonde man, Alex, butted in suddenly. “Your horses have been stabled. You needn’t worry about their safety.”
“Perhaps when the storm clears we can show you to them,” the other man, Darwin, continued. “If you’re to be our guest here there’s no reason you couldn’t ride through the gardens.”
“We want you to feel at home,” Raven finished.
All this was said very quickly, before Charles could open his mouth to interject thanks for taking care of the horses, or to ask why it was they so rarely had visitors. When they finished speaking, he simply took another long, indulgent sip of the tea that warmed his insides magnificently and cheered his spirits.
“I hope the master didn’t frighten you,” Darwin added, breaking the silence.
Charles had to suppress a disbelieving laugh. The others seemed taken aback by the smile that had flickered across his face instead. “I’m not really sure what to think,” he admitted sheepishly. “First I’m taken captive in place of my stepbrother, now I’m shown my own room with a fireplace and tea and company. If this keeps up I’m going to have whiplash.”
Raven’s face broke into a hopeful expression, not quite a grin, but coming close. “He might seem rash at first, but he means well. Deep down.”
“We all think so,” the freckled boy spoke up finally.
“I guess time will tell; I’m going to have plenty of it,” Charles said with a sigh. Then he had a sudden thought. He sat up from where he had slumped back comfortably in the wing back chair. “Since this is going to be my home now… would you mind terribly showing me around the place? I’m sure a tour would be just the thing to take my mind off the storm… and captivity.”
“Of course!” Darwin piped immediately.
Alex looked uneasily at him. “Darwin… I’m not sure that’s the best idea. You must be tired,” he said, turning to Charles. “Surely you want to get some rest after the long day you’ve had?”
“On the contrary, I feel quite awake,” Charles replied, standing swiftly from his chair. “This is the first time I’ve been in a magic castle. I have to say it’s just as exciting as I’d imagined.”
The tea had warmed him so he had forgotten the menacing atmosphere that seemed to accompany his captor everywhere and the way any metal in the vicinity had practically sung in his presence. Indeed, in the cozy bedroom, with the battering winds muffled by the thick, blood-red curtains, the castle seemed pleasant and safe. The initial shock of losing his freedom and Hank was beginning to dim to a dull throb at the back of his thoughts, replaced by an overwhelming feeling of curiosity. It was as if he was finally living one of the adventures he had always read about, and he would be damned if he was going to sit in his room and cry helplessly over his situation. He wanted to explore.
Alex looked dismayed at Charles’s enthusiasm for leaving his bedroom, but all the other’s faces had lit up brightly at the prospect of a tour. Sean, who had been sitting-cross legged on the rug, sprung to his feet, and Raven and Darwin were halfway to the door already. Charles joined them, and they went out into the corridor, forcing Alex to follow them.
Raven led the group further down the hallway, in the opposite direction from where Erik and Charles had come earlier. “Your room is in the East Wing,” she explained as they walked down the passage, her voice echoing all the way up through the Gothic arched ceilings high above them. “This way leads to a secret staircase to the kitchens, if you ever get hungry.”
Charles walked silently with the rest of them, taking in every detail he could see. There were fewer destroyed metal railings and statues here. It seemed that the man didn’t frequent this part of the castle that much. Charles couldn’t tell if he was relieved or disheartened by this information. Certainly the man’s temper was monstrous, and Charles wondered whether Raven and Sean had just been trying to be optimistic when they said he wasn’t all that bad. However, Charles couldn’t help his curiosity from branching out not just towards the layout of the castle, but also to his captor’s past, and the pasts of his servants. There was no way he could have been this terrifying all his life. Charles wouldn’t believe it. And certainly, if he had been, no one as sweet and caring as the people showing him around now would have stayed with him. No. Charles was convinced that there was something the others weren’t telling him, and he was determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.
While he had been musing, they had made their way down to the end of the hallway and snuck behind another tapestry into a tightly spiraled stairway that led downwards. Sure enough, when they emerged, they were in the northernmost corner of a darkened kitchen, the only light coming from a fire that had probably once been roaring during dinner, but was now on its last, faintly crackling log.
Raven led on. “I’m head of the house,” she explained as she went, “and as such I give you permission to come and get a snack whenever you please if you can’t find one of the staff. Bread and some cheeses are kept in those,” she waved vaguely towards some cupboards built into the wall before pushing open a heavy oak door and holding it for the rest of them. “This is the dining room, where you’ll be taking most of your meals. It’s fairly easy to reach. Just go the opposite way down your hall that we took and you’ll reach the main staircase, which you saw when you came in.”
They walked up another hall, lit here and there with candles on their last bit of wick, and soon enough they were in what Charles recognized as the main hall. The familiar twisted iron banister greeted him to his left, and they made their way towards it.
“What else should we show him?” Raven asked the others.
“We could show him the armory,” Sean piped eagerly.
“Or the ballroom,” suggested Darwin as they walked up the main stair and stopped at the top.
There, it forked into two more staircases, one leading to the left, or east, since that’s the stair Charles recognized from earlier when Erik had led him to his room, and one leading right towards the west. Something in Charles’s mind clicked as the others pondered what to show him next. Erik had told him not to go into the West Wing- that that was where his private rooms were. If there was any clue to the man’s past, it was sure to be up that right stairway. He adopted what he hoped was an unassuming facial expression and began to drift up the stairway. He was halfway to the top, heart racing in triumph, when they spotted him. Alex’s eyes went wide and he rushed forward ahead of the others.
“You can’t go up there unaccompanied!” he cried. “That’s the West Wing. The master’s private quarters are up there.”
“Oh, really?” Charles said apologetically. “I’m sorry, I had no idea…”
Darwin frowned at Alex before turning to Charles. “There are other things to see that way too, though. The music room… or maybe the library?”
Charles’s train of thought derailed immediately. “You have a library?” he exclaimed.
Alex looked as if he had struck gold. “Of course! Follow me!” He eagerly led the way up the rest of the staircase, taking a pointed turn to the left when they reached the top and made his way down the corridor, expounding on the amount of books they kept. But when they reached the ornate, gold-laced door, they found the lock was fused shut. Charles’s face fell.
“It happens sometimes,” Darwin explained apologetically. “When the master can’t control his temper. Sometimes we don’t know that a room’s been locked for ages until we try and open it.”
Charles nodded, ignoring the way his heart sank in his chest at the prospect of a life trapped here with no books to read, even when they were so close. Still, he had the mystery of the man to solve, and he would not be deterred. Getting a sudden idea, he feigned a yawn, which he stifled weakly. Raven frowned.
“Here we were all so excited we didn’t realize we’d tired out poor Charles,” she said, wrapping an arm around his waist to lead him back down the hallway. “Come on, dear, you’ve had a very long day. Let’s get you back to bed.”
“Thank you,” he smiled weakly at her. “We can continue the tour tomorrow. I’m afraid all my energy has run out for the night.”
Raven, Alex, Darwin and Sean took him back to his room and bade him a swift goodnight. When they closed the door, Charles sat on the edge of his bed and listened to their fading footsteps clack down the hallway, staring at the rug, his body tense with anticipation. He would wait just a few more minutes more to ensure that the others had gone off to their respective rooms, wherever they were, and then his investigation would begin.
To his right, the fire crackled and popped softly, and Charles occupied himself by adding another log from the stack next to the hearth. Assured his room would be warm when he returned, he moved to the bookshelf. Some of the tension in his shoulders drained away as his fingers ghosted over the spines lovingly, nails dipping in and out of the divots created by the lettering. He released a breath he didn’t know he had been holding, letting it hiss out through his nose. A few of the titles were familiar; old classics that certainly everyone would have in a guest room. But, luckily for Charles, there were also several new volumes he hadn’t even heard of. Though there were barely three full shelves all told, Charles thought the books could last him a month or two if he took his time.
Shaking himself slightly, he withdrew his hand from the softness of the cloth and leather binding and turned again to the door. Certainly the others would be far enough away now that he could make his way back to the West Wing. His stomach flopped in excitement as he strode to the door, opening it softly and poking his head outside. Seeing no one in the hall, he quickly stepped out of his room and closed the door with an almost inaudible click. Then, taking a fortifying breath, he turned on his heel and tip-toed swiftly down the hall.
Logan was quite buzzed and showing no sign of slowing down his steady stream of whiskey shots. Not only had he been unable to secure a nice evening for himself and Charles looking at his many hunting trophies in the very tavern he was currently drowning his sorrows in, but he had also lost Charles’s crazy stepbrother in the chase, something that had never happened before. Logan always bested his prey. Luckily though, it was unlikely that anyone would ever find out. Hank would be too afraid to brag about escaping Logan, even if someone would listen to him, and Charles was far too absorbed in his own little world to even think about spreading it around town either.
Logan frowned and took his latest shot in hand, tipping it back into his mouth and not even wincing at the taste anymore. What everyone said about Charles in the village turned out to be true; since his first few days in town, people had mentioned the peculiar young man and his crazy brother. At first Logan was only semi-interested in the town gossip, but when he first saw Charles in the tavern, he had fallen completely for him. He was undoubtedly the most beautiful person in town, and so distant it was almost like he lived on another planet. Charles was, in essence, the perfect prize to add to his collection.
If only the other man would cooperate! Because of Charles’s apparent total lack of interest in him, Logan had actually critically analyzed himself for the first time in his life and still had not been able to find any aspect in which he was wanting. He was strong and cunning. He was also undoubtedly the best hunter for hundreds of miles around- probably the best in the whole world, come to think of it. He was well off, having won so many hunting competitions that an entire wall of the tavern was dedicated to show casing his trophies and the giant antlers and heads from some of his grander kills; Charles couldn’t be concerned with his fortune. He was most certainly handsome. The women of the town often flocked to him, sighing and falling over each other with emotion as he walked down the street or burst through the tavern door demanding a tankard of dark ale. But there could be no other reason for Charles’s coldness.
Frowning, Logan looked up into the narrow rectangular mirror above the liquor rack, turning his head this way and that and remarking at his appearance. He smoothed back his hair (perhaps his favourite of his features; he coiffed it impeccably every morning by himself), grazed his hand over the stubble that drifted well down his neck, and pulled at the collar of his shirt, making it dip lower and expose more of his expansive pectorals, dusted with chest hair. He grunted. There was no doubt that he was the best man in town, and why shouldn’t Charles want the best? Maybe some of Hank’s crazy had rubbed off on him. He let out a bark of a laugh at his own thought and tossed back the shot glass that had been refilled during his musings. He nearly choked when the door of the tavern burst open, letting in the freezing wind and a flurry of snowflakes before it was slammed shut again.
“Who in the God-hell-?” Logan began, but his automatic snarl turned into a broad, taunting grin when he saw the figure swaying slightly in the doorway. “Well, well, well, I thought I’d seen the last of you for sure, Hanky-boy.”
Logan swung off his bar stool and started to swagger over to Hank, but as got closer, he faltered. There was some wildness in the man’s bright blue eyes, and he was shaking almost uncontrollably, even though he was dressed for the near-blizzard outside. When Logan halted, however, Hank lunged forward.
“Please,” he said, chest heaving and eyes wide. He looked as if he were about to clutch at Logan’s shirt, and Logan, repulsed, stumbled backwards away from him. Hank raised his voice and looked around at the other patrons of the almost-full tavern, who had fallen silent from their raucous conversations and darts games the second Hank had barged in. “Please, you have to help me! I need your help!”
Logan bared his teeth in a smile that did not reach his eyes. “Had a little too much to drink tonight, have we?”
“He’s locked in a tower with a monster! You have to help me, please, we have to go now!”
Logan frowned. “What’s all this nonsense, Hank? Who’s locked who in a tower?”
“Charles!” Hank cried disparagingly. “And he’s being kept there by this horrible monster!”
“A monster?” Logan actually laughed, before advancing suddenly on the younger man, who drew back against the doorway out of instinct. “Was it big?” he snarled, raising his own arms to pin Hank against the wooden frame.
Hank nodded his head, trembling. “He was huge and tall-”
“With terrifying, sharp teeth?!” Logan boomed, baring his own teeth menacingly.
“Yes!” Hank said, loosening up a bit, some semblance of relief setting over his features now that Logan appeared to be sympathetic. “Yes, and he could twist metal even when he was barely touching it!”
The hunter glared into Hank’s eyes for a moment and then pulled suddenly away, clutching at his ribs and laughing uncontrollably. Hesitantly at first, others in the bar began to join in, until finally Hank was the only one silent, just staring disbelievingly at them all.
Logan finally got enough control over himself to speak. “Don’t tell me you’re trying to spook me with those old wives tales,” he said, wiping at his streaming eyes. “You really have had too much to drink. Now get out before I have you arrested for public intoxication.”
Hank turned panicky again. “Oh no, please! I’m serious, Logan, Charles is in real danger! Please!”
Logan had had enough. While Hank babbled on about Charles and the monster, Logan swiftly opened the door and shoved Hank through into a snow bank outside, slamming the door pointedly shut behind him before striding back to his seat at the bar. Crazy old Hank. He was always good for a laugh.
A woman sitting with a gaggle of her friends (who had all been eyeing Logan for the majority of the night) turned to her companions and, in a stage-whisper that Logan could barely hear over the refreshed noise in the bar, said, “Should be locked up, he should. Running about the town like a mad man at this hour of the night.”
Through his whiskey-induced haze, something began whirling in Logan’s rust-covered brain.
Charles had managed to make it all the way to the staircase of the West Wing without being noticed. The others must have gone to bed. He had been excited the whole time he made his way down the darkened hallway, but now that he reached the stair, his resolve was beginning to waver as nervousness clouded his thoughts. Perhaps the man-- Erik-- wasn’t in bed like the others. What if he heard Charles out in the hallway, poking around when he had been expressly forbidden from doing so? Charles could always say he had gotten lost; that he was hungry or thirsty, looking for the kitchens. But would the man believe him? Or rather, would he even listen to Charles before flying into his uncontrollable rage once more? Charles shuddered to think about being cornered by him again, at the mercy of quivering and snaking metal.
He turned around, ready to trek back to his room, but his curiosity was too strong and he stayed on the landing, immobile. He had to investigate, and he had to do it now. Surely the man was asleep. If he wasn’t, Charles could run or hide; anything to avoid the man’s wrath. Taking a deep breath, Charles gathered his courage and climbed the staircase to the West Wing, taking a right at the top and following down the hallway.
The further he walked, the more mangled statues he noticed; their twisted, sharp silhouettes mixed in with broken busts, and ripped tapestries and paintings lining the walkway. There was a suit of armor lying bent and scratched at the floor of a pedestal it must have fallen off of, and Charles, who was staring at it, almost ran into a spear that was embedded in the wall. He ducked under it and continued down the cluttered hallway, stepping around and over shards of broken vase until he reached a door that was half-open.
His heart was hammering in his chest. Keeping absolutely still, he tried to listen for any sounds of the man within, but heard nothing save for the rush of blood echoing in his ears. Slowly, oh so slowly, he pushed open the door and peeked inside. There was no one waiting for him, nor any indication that anyone had heard the squeak of the door on un-oiled hinges. He paused only for a moment before ducking inside, shutting the door behind him until it was half-closed like before.
Stepping away from the door, he looked around the room. It was as cluttered as the hallway before it. Broken furniture had been thrown pell-mell around the entire area, leaving holes in the walls and knocking paintings from the wall. A bookshelf-- empty, Charles noted-- had been overturned on the hearth of a dirty marble fireplace. The room looked as if it hadn’t been dusted or swept in years, the dankness of the air making Charles cough quietly. Through the gloom and over the wreckage he could see French doors across from the door he had just come in. They were closed against the cold, but Charles could vaguely see that they led to a balcony which was slowly being heaped with snow from the storm. The light that allowed him to see through the French doors got his attention; there must be something obscured by all the clutter that was doing a good job of illuminating the far half of the room with an odd, reddish tint. Cautiously, Charles started forward, picking his way around the remnants of an old tattered armchair. He had almost cleared the worst of the mess when he miss-stepped and knocked a table over with a too-loud clatter, a painting that had been resting on top of it dropping agonizingly onto his foot.
He gasped, wincing with fear and pain, his eyes watering slightly. He paused, watching the door, but there was no noise to indicate the man had heard the ruckus he had just caused. Sighing with relief, Charles bent to put the table upright again, setting the painting back on top. Something about the painting caught his eye as he put it down, however, and he stooped to get a better view of it. The canvas was torn slightly, obscuring the picture so Charles had to smooth it out to see what it looked like. The painting turned out to be of a young man, a young woman, and a boy barely old enough to stand who was grinning blindingly as he clutched at his mother’s dress for support. Charles’s brow creased as he frowned down at the picture. Perhaps these were relatives of Erik’s? Perhaps they had all been lost. They certainly didn't seem to be here at any rate, and that would certainly explain Erik's anger, or at least some of it. Charles would be devastated if he lost Hank.
He swallowed hard, ignoring the fresh sting of tears. He had lost Hank, and it was all that man’s fault. Charles turned away from the picture, disgusted. He would get to the bottom of the mystery of this man. He would not be kept in the dark. Even if he was to be captive here for the rest of his life, he would not be treated like an ignorant child. Once his gaze was lifted, his eyes were drawn to the strange light from before, only now that he saw where it was coming from, his jaw dropped in amazement. Hurrying forward, he made it to the small, dark mahogany table that was the perch for the glowing, floating, blood red rose.
Charles crouched, taking it all in. The flower was protected by a glass covering like a bell, but even so, it was wilting. Almost half of its petals had already fallen to lay crumpled on the table. Charles was overcome with the desire to reach out and touch it. Standing, he carefully raised a trembling hand to lift the glass bell, when suddenly he heard a deafening screech behind him. He turned, gazing in horror as the doors wrenched themselves open and the man stepped through. Seeing Charles, he let out a growl and hurtled himself across the room towards the intruder, who backed up against the French doors in fright.
“What are you doing here?” he roared, shielding Charles from the view of the rose.
“I-” Charles began, but the man cut him off immediately.
“I warned you never to come here! Do you know what you could have done!” Bits of metal began whirling around the room; screws and hinges and the remains of what looked like a picture frame and a candle holder.
The metal hinges of the doors behind Charles began screaming. Charles thought he could feel the very foundations of the room shaking with the man’s rage. He needed no further encouragement. Tearing himself away from the man, he ran all the way back to his room, grabbing a blanket from a pile at the foot of his bed and tying it around his neck like a cape. It would have to do to keep him warm. He couldn’t stay here with that man, promise or no promise. He hurtled out into the hallway and back down the steps, flinging the door open wide. The storm had mercifully lightened, and though snowflakes were still tumbling about on the wind, it was clear enough that Charles could make his way to the stable.
Not even bothering with the tack, he jumped on his horse’s back and burst out of the stable, galloping away into the night towards what he hoped was home. Free from the looming shape of the castle, Charles felt his heart begin to calm, beating with less reckless abandon. He would have smiled if he had the strength. After several minutes, however, when he was safely into the woods, at least a mile away from the castle, the cold began to creep back into his bones. Shivers ran up his spine, and he wrapped the blanket tighter around his shoulders in an effort to get them under control. The adrenaline that had been coursing through his body since the man found him was starting to wear off, and he felt sleepier than earlier. Dinner with Hank that evening seemed like years away, as did the tea in his room with Raven and the others.
The moon cast only a dim light around the forest so he could barely tell where he was leading his horse. He slowed her to a walk, glancing around for any familiar land marks, anything to show that this was the way he had come to the castle, but even if he could see anything, a part of him doubted it would do much good to help lead him home. He chewed his lip anxiously, feeling the skin there beginning to chap from the cold. He was considering going back, maybe hiding in the stables till morning just to get out of the freezing air, when he heard a low growl behind him. At first he thought it was the man. He whirled around, ready to take on his pursuer if need be. What he saw instead made his blood freeze in his veins.
Standing before him, crouched low in the snow, was a pack of wolves. There were at least ten of them, all with saliva dripping from their yellowing fangs and their muscles coiled like springs. One of them leapt forward. Charles didn’t have to tell the horse to start galloping once more; in the blink of an eye they were careening through the forest, the pack nipping right at their heels. Charles couldn’t control where the horse took him if he wanted to. He simply held onto her mane as tightly as he could and closed his eyes, praying he wouldn’t fall off. Suddenly, the horse skidded to a halt and Charles flew over her shoulder, landing in a snow bank. Looking up, he saw they had run into a dead end created by a cliff looming up into the darkness.
He struggled to his feet, glancing around for any kind of weapon to defend himself against the wolves advancing slowly on him, their teeth bared in a way that made a shiver run up Charles’s spine that had nothing to do with the cold. He saw a branch sticking out of a drift to his left and made his way carefully over to it, never taking his eyes off the closest wolf several yards in front of him. He had almost reached the branch when he heard a noise further off in the forest- a surprised shout which drew the attention of the pack off of Charles for a split second, long enough for Charles himself to look up and see the man barreling towards him on his own horse, a sword raised and poised to attack.
For a horrible moment, Charles thought he was going to ride straight through the pack and stab him. He curled in towards his chest, arms coming up to protect his head, until he realized the man had stopped right in front of him and dismounted on the other side of his horse, shielding Charles from the ravenous animals before him.
“If I die, I’ll kill you,” he heard the man breathe, and Charles almost smiled. That was when the first wolf sprung forward, gnashing its teeth at the man, who deftly sliced through the air, causing the animal to yelp as a splash of blood stained the snow. The rest of the pack jumped at him, but he wielded the sword like it was an extension of his own arm, and some of the smarter wolves ran away. Charles watched him over the horse’s back, transfixed by the unusual grace with which the man fought. Nearly all the wolves were gone, wounded or intimidated. Charles was about to laugh with relief when something caught his eye; another wolf, just out of the man’s line of vision, tense and ready to pounce.
“Erik!” he shouted.
The man whipped around just in time for the beast’s teeth to graze his arm instead of sinking into the back of his neck. He let out a startled, pained scream. The blade in his other hand seemed to turn of its own accord, stabbing the wolf in the chest. It fell limply to the ground. The rest of the pack had already run for it.
Charles was frozen for a minute. The man was clutching at his left arm, chest heaving and eyes wide as he watched blood blossoming along the white fabric of his shirt. A part of Charles’s brain urged him to leave, to jump on his horse’s back and ride home, leaving the man to return to the castle and never torment him again. Or, he would bleed here. And die. There certainly was too much blood for a scrape; the wound had to be very deep. The man had just saved his life. Erik had just saved his life. There was no way Charles could ride off in cold blood and let him die, no matter how scared he was. Slowly, frightened the man’s pain would turn to anger, Charles made his way around the horse.
“Here,” he said, and the man turned, his teeth bared as he sucked in breath through them. Charles tore a strip of cloth away from his blanket and held it out, a clear sign of truce. “Let me wrap that up.”
The man frowned, clutching his arm tighter to his chest. Charles wanted to shake him. “Let me wrap that so you stop bleeding and we can go back to the castle and fix you up there.” The man just looked at him stonily until Charles added quietly, “Please.”
After another moment’s pause, the man held out his arm and let Charles tie his strip of blanket around the gash, wincing when Charles pulled the knot tight. Without another look at Charles, the man swept past him and mounted his horse, waiting for Charles to do the same before kicking his horse into action and leading the way through the snow.
The ride back to the castle was silent, much to Charles’s relief.
When they reached the castle Charles offered to put the horses back in the stable and Erik grunted his assent, cradling his arm and dismounting quickly before hurrying inside, presumably for assistance. Charles took his time in the stable, brushing down both horses even though he didn’t need to and was already exhausted. It well into the night, probably nearing midnight, and this was certainly the most excitement Charles had ever had in his life. Giving his roan one final pat, he went back into the castle, ready to head back to his room and pass out immediately. As soon as he stepped into the foyer, however, he was met with the stern looks of Alex and Raven.
“He wants to see you,” Alex said, immediately turning and walking off down a hallway to the right. Charles and Raven followed behind at a slower pace.
Raven looked at him, face drawn with disappointment. “Why did you try to leave?” she asked.
Charles was suddenly hit with a pang of guilt. He hadn’t thought of how he was leaving everyone else when he ran; he was only trying to get away from the man’s anger. He rather enjoyed the company of everyone else, and knew how glad they were to finally have someone else to talk to. He hung his head.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I went to the West Wing. I know I wasn’t supposed to, I was just curious. He frightened me so I ran. I wasn’t thinking. Believe me, it had nothing to do with you all.”
Raven nodded. “He can be quite frightening sometimes. But… you have to trust us when we say deep down we know he has a good heart. We have to believe he does.”
Charles was puzzled at that but couldn’t ask any further questions as they’d reached their destination. The door to another room was halfway open, causing light and muffled voices to seep out into the hall. Alex gestured for Charles to go through, and he did, quietly so as not to disturb the conversation within.
The man was in a large chair by a pleasantly crackling fire. Darwin was crouched next to him, adjusting a sling for his injured arm.
“Now, you won’t be as mobile as you might like for a few weeks, but after that, I promise you’ll be good as new,” he said, smiling encouragingly at Erik, but the man’s eyes were closed. He looked rather pale now that Charles could see him in better lighting. The scars etched across his features seemed out of place in this unbelievably serene state. Charles caught himself wondering what the man looked like under all of them, if the high jut of his cheekbones would give way to a soft, smooth cheek. He shook himself and started forward as Darwin stood up and nodded, bowing himself out of the room.
“You wanted to see me?” Charles asked, hushed.
The man’s eyes flickered open, a scowl pulling the scarred face taught again. “Yes. Why did you leave? You promised not to.”
Charles raised his chin defiantly. “You frightened me. I thought you were going to kill me. I ran in self-defense.”
A muscle in the other’s face twitched, and he was silent for a moment. “I wasn’t going to kill you. But you trespassed. I forbid you from coming to the West Wing and you deliberately disobeyed me.”
“I did,” Charles replied. “If you don’t want someone poking around someplace, you shouldn’t tell them exactly where to look. I’m not one of your servants, I do not have to follow your orders.”
The man bared his teeth. “And if I terrify you so much why did you come back?” he growled, every muscle tensed except for the ones in his left arm.
Charles opened his mouth and closed it again, fighting for the right words. The man seemed delighted by his inability to speak, and Charles glowered at him. “Because you saved my life,” he answered plainly. “And I did promise.” The man, Erik, Charles corrected himself again, seemed stunned by this. Charles allowed himself to draw closer, kneeling by the arm of the chair and tentatively reaching out to touch Erik’s uninjured arm. “Thank you for that, by the way. I would have been mincemeat if it wasn’t for you.”
Erik’s expression softened around the edges, and despite his misgivings, Charles found himself smiling tentatively back. Suddenly the room felt too big, too quiet, the only sound coming from the faintly popping logs in the hearth. Charles drew away in embarrassment. Something at the far end of the room caught his eye as he cast his gaze about nervously. The minute he saw it, Charles forgot all his previous embarrassment, turning to grin again at Erik, who looked taken aback.
“Chess!” he exclaimed, gesturing to the table in the corner. “Do you play?”
A slow smile spread across the other’s face, like he was unused to having it there.
In the end, the chess game was postponed. Charles had just brought the board over so Erik wouldn’t have to move again, (another small offering of truce) when Raven entered and said she was very sorry, but the both of them really were going to have to get some rest after the extremely stressful night they both had. Charles grudgingly agreed, and Erik, to his merit and Charles’s astonishment, said very politely that he promised they would play some other time.
They did end up playing the very next day. Charles hadn’t played chess with a truly cunning opponent for years, and it seemed Erik hadn’t either.
“No one here has the patience for it,” he admitted rather gruffly when Charles asked.
“I’m afraid no one I’ve come across has had the patience for it either. Or the mind.” Charles smiled, but Erik only nodded, avoiding his eye by staring once again at the board.
Though their fragile peace was holding, Charles couldn’t help but feel the slightest bit rebuffed. Whenever he would try to hold Erik’s gaze, or give him an encouraging friendly smile, Erik would frown or turn suddenly and awkwardly away. Charles sighed. He hated the feeling that he had to walk on eggshells lest he awaken the beast that had screamed at him last night.
Erik couldn’t be that much older than Charles. His face was scarred to the point that it was difficult to tell an exact age, but Charles guessed from the agility with which he used the sword last night that he had to be within the range of twenty to thirty years old. At any rate, he was old enough to understand that his seemingly constant state of ill-humor put an instant damper on anyone’s efforts to be friendly towards him. Charles shouldn’t have to kowtow to him in fear of unleashing a monster.
Still, Charles reflected as he watched Erik move his rook into position to take one of Charles’s knights, baby steps were better than no progress at all. Perhaps if they made a habit of these little chess games, Erik would become less skittish around him. If nothing else, they would certainly help ease the boredom of being trapped inside, since the storm outside had begun to rage again.
Charles moved his knight to safety, realizing too late that his musings about Erik had distracted him to the point of ruination. There were so many teeth in Erik’s triumphant grin that Charles briefly wondered if the man was trying to be intimidating instead of smug before looking dejectedly at the board.
Erik reached out his good arm and slid his bishop to a safe square right in the line of Charles’s king. “Checkmate.” His eyes glinted, self-satisfied. Sighing melodramatically, Charles tipped over his king with the tip of his index finger.
“Best two out of three?”
The chess games continued for several weeks, starting every afternoon a little after lunch and ending just before dinner. After dinner, Erik would bid him farewell and retreat to his chambers. Charles figured he must still be getting used to spending extended amounts of time with another person. From the impression the others had given him, Erik was used to spending most of his time by himself in his room, or skulking around the castle, not caring if he came across anyone in his fuming.
Charles didn’t really mind not seeing Erik in the evenings, as it gave him ample time to read. Actually, when he reflected back on life before he had come to the castle, he realized he might have been as anti-social as Erik, preferring to spend time with his books, or simply watching Hank work on his inventions, the two of them normally enjoying each other’s company in silence. On nights when he was left alone in his room, Charles devoured entire books, reading from when Erik left him and continuing well into the night.
Sometimes he would be interrupted by the others visiting. He found he very much enjoyed talking with Raven, Darwin, Sean, and even got used to Alex who started to lose some of his standoffishness after the first few days when it became apparent Charles wasn’t going to try and leave again. One fateful evening, when the others caught him curled up in the wing back chair by his happily crackling fire with a half-read tome resting lazily in his hand, they asked him to read aloud. When Charles went back to the beginning and started reading Gulliver’s Travels out loud, all of them became so enthralled they stayed up half the night, and ate breakfast the next morning as quickly as they could to finish it and move on to Canterbury Tales.
“That’s the third time you’ve stifled a yawn in ten minutes,” Erik remarked, over their chess game that afternoon, bestowing Charles the fleeting ghost of a smile as he looked up from the board. “I hope I’m not boring you.”
“Sorry. Late night,” Charles replied, smiling apologetically.
“The storm kept you up?” Erik inquired, settling for moving a pawn forward one space.
Charles shook his head. “Reading. I started a book with Raven, Darwin, Alex, and Sean last night and we just couldn’t stop. Gulliver’s Travels. Have you read it?”
Erik looked up at Charles again, his gaze even, and the slightest frown creasing his brow as he leaned back in his chair. “I haven’t read in a long time,” he said finally.
Charles opened his mouth, wanting to pursue this sudden insight further, but Erik’s attention was once again trained on the board between them. Baby steps, he reminded himself. “You know, you’re always welcome to join us,” he said quietly before moving his queen into checkmate.
Erik didn't reply. The only noise between them for a while was the whistle of the wind as it blew about the flurries from the earlier blizzard and the clack clack of Erik resetting the board while Charles watched him.
Sure enough, Charles finished the entirety of Canterbury Tales without the addition of Erik to their small book club. The next book Charles selected from the dwindling stack of unread volumes on his bedside table was far too philosophical for the other’s tastes, and they left him to read it on his own. Charles enjoyed finishing the book by himself, draped over the arms of his chair with a cup of tea perched precariously on his knee. As much as he liked the book, however, his mind began slipping to other things, namely the quiet but insistent gnawing fact at the edge of his thoughts that Erik was still keeping him somewhat at a distance.
More annoying than the detachment itself was Charles’s inability to understand why he found it so aggravating. Admittedly, they had only known each other for a short time (two weeks? two and a half?), but all the same, Charles refused to believe that someone could stay so removed for so long a time. He resolved to ask Raven why she thought he was being so reticent. When Charles mentioned his and Erik’s daily chess games to her while helping polish cutlery the next evening, however, she immediately frowned in thought.
“What?” Charles asked, alarmed by her sudden silence.
“You mean he willingly spends time with you every day?” she said.
Charles hit her lightly on the arm with his rag. “You do too, don’t sound so surprised.”
“It’s not your likability I’m surprised by,” she laughed. “It’s his wanting to actually spend time with someone.”
That shut Charles up right away. He returned to polishing the silverware with a fixed vigor he didn’t know he possessed. Raven opened her mouth, her eyebrows raised, looking as if she were about to start interrogating him, but at that moment, one of the maids, Angel, who Charles had mostly seen in passing but seemed nice enough, entered the kitchen laden down with more silver for them to polish, saving Charles from further embarrassment.
Later that night, sprawled over the chair, halfway through the third-to-last book from his pile, Charles found himself reading the beginning phrase of a passage five times before he finally took it in. Exasperated, he rubbed his face hard with his palms, marking the page with a bit of parchment and setting the book on the side table next to his chair. He threw one more log on the fire to make sure it would continue burning through the night and went to his bed, crawling under the warm down comforter. Perhaps when he was done with this stack of books he could find more in other rooms instead of the library, which was still solidly locked.
Maybe he could find a book that would interest Erik and invite him again, or at least give it to him to read on his own. All Charles knew was he hated the way Erik’s mouth would tug down in the slightest frown whenever Charles mentioned some interaction he'd had with Raven, or laughed familiarly at the ridiculous way Alex announced dinner. It was almost as if Erik felt a disconnect with everyone in the castle and resented that the others could get along so well without even trying. Whatever it was, Charles felt inexplicably compelled to ease Erik’s unhappiness. He needed to show him that he wasn’t alone.
Charles woke several days later to blindingly brilliant sun slicing through the gap in his curtains. The seemingly endless chain of storms and overcast days with buffeting winds had finally broken. Eyes snapping open, Charles threw himself out of bed, his legs tangling in the sheets, and hurtled over to the window to make sure he wasn’t imagining it. Sure enough, through an unfrosted bit of glass, he could see the grounds below, the snow sparkling in the light.
Darwin and two other men, Azazel, who Charles recognized from his first night at the castle, and Janos, who usually seemed to work in the kitchen preparing meals and rarely spoke to Charles, were busy clearing the garden paths of icy drifts. Sean was also outside, but he appeared to have abandoned his shovel in favor of creating a large snow fort near the frozen fountain in the center of the grounds. Charles grinned and turned away, throwing another log on the fire before going to the wardrobe to dress.
No one was in the dining room at breakfast, but plates of eggs, French toast, and bacon were all being kept warm under metal coverings. Charles ate as quickly as he could, nearly choking when he tried to drink his tea in one gulp, and hastily buckled the spare coat and pulled on the gloves he had found in his wardrobe as he walked down the hallway to the door of the gardens.
“Good morning, Charles!” Raven called from where she was leading the horses around the grounds. He smiled and waved in her direction.
“Sean, make yourself useful!” Azazel shouted as he broke the sheet of ice that covered the snow drift he was about to attack.
“I’m almost done!” the boy yelled over the top of his fort, fiery hair obscured by a bright orange hat that clashed terribly.
Charles went over to the discarded snow shovel, which was propped up against one of the snow fort’s outer walls. “Don’t worry about it, Sean,” he said, smiling. “I’ll help the others. You have some fun.”
Sean grinned back at him. “Thanks,” he chirped, disappearing behind the wall once more.
Shoveling was oddly pacifying. It gave Charles an opportunity to just think for a while, musing on new strategies to use against Erik in their chess game that afternoon, and wondering how he might pries open the door of the library to get more books. Perhaps, Charles thought, if Erik concentrated hard enough, he might be able to un-fuse the lock without needing to get angry. It was worth a shot. Maybe he would ask him during chess.
Charles made good progress as he thought about nothing in particular. He had cleared almost all the pathway on his bit of the gardens, and was only a few feet away from meeting up with Darwin’s. The other man was leaning against his shovel on the cleared path a few feet away, rolling his head to crack the vertebrae. The burn in Charles’s arms and lower back was beginning to get to him too. He was just straightening up when thwack, something wet and cold collided with the side of his face.
Charles heard a gasp behind him, then Sean’s voice, escalating in pitch with every word, squeaking, “Oh no, Charles, I’m so sorry! I was aiming for Darwin I didn’t mean-”
Charles held up a hand, stopping Sean before his voice could reach a more dangerous frequency. The boy looked horror-struck by his mistake. Charles opened his mouth to say it was all right, but suddenly, he got a better idea. Bending down, he scooped up some of the slushy snow and formed it into a ball, Sean watching as if amazed he wasn’t being rebuked. He was stunned into action, however, when Charles sent the snowball hurtling towards him. He ducked behind his fort, resurfacing with a gap-toothed grin and two more snowballs for each hand.
Behind Charles, Darwin laughed. “Come on, Charles,” he said, arching an eyebrow and smirking. “We can take that little pipsqueak.”
Charles turned to him and grinned in agreement, stumbling backwards a little when a snowball whizzed in front of him. “Let’s go,” he said, darting to the safety of the frozen fountain with Darwin hot on his heels.
Soon, Charles and Darwin had their own sizable pile of ammunition, and Sean, who would soon have to venture out of the safety of his fort for more snow, was getting more and more flustered. Derisive shouts and screeches when someone got hit with pelted snow were echoing across the grounds, mixing with the bemused laughter of Janos and Azazel as they watched.
“Come on!” Charles shouted. “You can come out here and get what's coming to you, or you can break down your own fort, but we all know you’re going to have to show your face one way or the other!”
Darwin tugged at Charles’s sleeve, and Charles ducked down behind the rim of the fountain, laughing when a snowball crashed into the place on the edge where his face had just been. Sean groaned loudly.
“I’ve got a plan,” Darwin whispered conspiratorially. “We cut our ammo in two. I’ll draw his attention by throwing a whole barrage at him so he stays behind the wall, and you go around the side and get him with the other half.”
Charles grinned. “Wonderful.” He gathered as many snowballs as he could in his arms, leaving about half the pile for Darwin, who began throwing, whizzing them just over the top of the fort as a warning.
Charles crept to the edge of the fountain, peering around the side of the marble to check that Sean was safely hidden and would not see him leave. Making sure his ammunition was secure in his grasp, he stood and made his way as quickly and quietly as possible to the fort, flattening himself to the icy wall when he reached it. His eyes were flicked to the rounded side as he tiptoed towards it, occasionally casting a furtive glance behind and up to make sure Sean was staying down. He reached the edge, and grinned, taking a snowball in hand from the pile in his arms.
“Ah-hah!” he cried, jumping around the edge of the fort and throwing his weapon at a dumbstruck Sean.
Sean shrieked, loud and high enough to explode the snowball before it hit him, and Charles promptly dropped the rest of his ammunition to cover his ears.
When it appeared Sean had recovered, Charles lowered his hands, ready to chastise. “Sean, a little warn- agh, wha-? oof!” Several things happened almost at once. As Charles was speaking, the metal buttons on his coat started to vibrate and before he could even begin to process why, a weight like a steamroller smashed into his side, knocking the wind out of him and landing him in a snow bank.
“What the- Erik?” Charles gaped, ceasing his frantic bid for escape in his astonishment.
Erik looked unsure for a moment, his face more clear than Charles had ever seen it as it loomed above him, stark in the sunlight, marred, and oddly endearing from the uncertainty radiating from it. A small part of Charles’s brain registered that Erik was straddling his hips. His stomach twisted.
“I see your arm’s gotten better,” he breathed.
“You said I could join you. Any time,” Erik replied quietly.
Charles smiled. “So I did.”
Without any further ado, if nothing more than to stop the way his insides seemed to be dancing a jig, Charles reached to the side and grabbed a fist full of sludge, tossing it at Erik’s face. Erik reeled back, spluttering and trying to wipe the snow away, but Charles was free. He tackled Erik, taking another handful of snow and attempting to shove it down the neck of his coat and shirt. Sean, at first flabbergasted by the scene before him, soon recovered and started pelting the both of them with snowballs, joined seconds later by Darwin. The morning dissolved into a free-for-all, even Azazel and Janos joined in, and ended only when Alex called that lunch was ready and they had all better wash up and change before they ate or else they’d likely catch pneumonia.
Reluctantly, Charles dropped the snowball he had intended for Darwin and trudged back inside with the others. Only when he walked past the fountain did Charles notice its ironwork had twisted itself into an intricate, beautiful tangle of wire, almost Celtic in appearance. He stopped for a second, wondering at it, but Erik, who was the last through the door turned around and gave him an odd look. Shoving all his questions aside, he hastened forward to join the others and didn’t mention what he had seen, choosing to continue the walk to the dining room in silence. After lunch (roasted turkey and squash soup, delicious), Erik and Charles retired to the study for their game. Despite his previous if unexpected exuberance during the snow fight outside, Erik remained his usual, taciturn self during their first game.
Finally, during their second, Charles broke the silence. “I’m glad you joined us,” he said, moving a bishop forward, not really fully decided in his strategy yet. “Outside I mean. I hope you enjoyed yourself.”
“It was… fun,” Erik replied hesitantly. Charles frowned, sure something else was on the tip of his tongue. Instead of continuing, however, Erik's gaze returned to the board, twirling the top of his queen absentmindedly before moving her towards Charles’s knight. Charles decided not to press the matter, staying silent for a few more minutes until he remembered his musings while shoveling snow.
“I was wondering if you could do me a favor,” Charles began. Erik looked up at him, head balanced on his thumbs, his other fingers steepled around his nose, and elbows perched on his knees. “I’m afraid I’m running a little low on books.”
“We have a library,” Erik offered immediately.
Charles smiled brightly. “Yes, I know, but unfortunately the lock seems to be fused shut.” Erik’s blush was unexpected, but only halted Charles for a moment. “I was wondering if you would be able to open it for me.”
Erik shook his head immediately. “I’m sorry, Charles,” he said, turning away to stare out the open window, “But I can’t control it. Maybe if I was angry enough…” He tapered off.
Charles looked at him for a moment, trying to figure out what to say. “I’m not sure you need the anger,” he began tentatively. “I saw what you did to the fountain outside during our snowball fight. Did you?”
Erik’s eyes went wide with astonishment before narrowing immediately again, his scars becoming more apparent with his scowl. “I don’t know how I did it, so don’t ask me to repeat myself.”
“You weren’t actually angry when we were having our fight, though, were you?” Charles asked, his voice steadier than his nerves at the moment. Even with his unassuming tone, Erik’s temper was beginning to flare again. The pokers by the fire were starting to tremble.
“No, I wasn’t,” Erik admitted through gritted teeth, looking anywhere but at the man opposite him.
Charles leaned forward, instinctively reaching out to touch Erik’s arm reassuringly, but he pulled away, standing swiftly and going behind his chair to make sure he couldn’t be touched. “Erik, please.” Charles’s voice was so quiet it was almost a whisper. Erik stared resolutely at the carpet.
“You have no idea what it’s like,” he said finally, sounding angry and tired and pained beyond anything Charles had ever imagined. “You could never know, Charles. You can’t help me like that. I can’t control it. I’ll never be able to control it. That’s not… that’s not how it works.”
“Not how what works?”
Charles so badly wanted Erik to look at him. His heart was rattling in his ribcage. Now Charles knew Erik was keeping something from him; some great, unmanageable weight that had to do with what he found in the West Wing his first night at the castle. But what could a rose have to do with it? And what was “it” exactly? Would it tell the secret of why Erik could feel metal, and Raven could change her shape, and Sean could scream loud enough to shatter windows and ear drums? Charles had been at the castle long enough to see all its inhabitants display remarkable abilities; Darwin carried plates of steaming hot food to the table with bare hands and often went outside without a coat or gloves, instantly adapting to the cold, and once, when he and Alex were having a fight, his skin turned hard as stone as Alex sent a burning red disc at him, apologizing profusely afterwards for losing control. Charles knew he was now impossibly close to the truth. He could feel it in Erik’s shallow breathing, the way he wouldn’t meet Charles’s eyes, how his knuckles turned white as his fingers dug into the fabric of his chair.
“I can’t say,” Erik said finally, his voice rough with unspoken emotion.
Charles found his eyes were wet. “Let me help you,” he pleaded in a whisper.
Erik looked at him then. A strange expression etched itself across his marred features, softening them for a fraction of a second. The edges of his lips twitched upwards in a rueful smile, his eyes sparkling with something that he did not or could not say. He relinquished his grip on the chair, and Charles stood abruptly, wanting to touch him, to reassure him everything would be alright if he just told Charles what he needed, but Erik stepped back even as Charles stepped forward.
“I think we should both retire,” Erik said quietly, his face schooled into a neutral expression. “Good evening, Charles.”
Charles could only gape at him for a moment, entirely frustrated. He wanted to shake Erik, or scream at him, or both. Instead, he took a deep breath and nodded before turning swiftly on his heel and exiting the study. His feet carried him to his room without him fully registering where he was going, too busy fuming at Erik to think of anything else. Once inside, he began pacing the length of the rug in front of the fire, plans flicking through his mind. He had to find a way to get Erik to trust him. No one should go around with that kind of secret weighing them down. Briefly, he thought about going to the West Wing and making Erik tell him, but that was probably a bad idea. Erik would just get angry. In the end, Charles realized with a heavy sigh that there was nothing he could do at the moment. Picking up the final unread book from his pile, he settled in the chair and read until dinner rolled around, confident he would be able to corner Erik afterwards and try to talk some sense into him then.
But Erik wasn’t at dinner, and when Charles inquired as to his whereabouts, Raven informed him that Erik requested the meal in his room. Charles’s thanked her, dismissing the sinking feeling in his chest. During dinner, his throat began to burn uncomfortably, making him feel all the worse. He returned immediately to his room after eating, stoking the fire and falling into bed, suddenly exhausted from the events of the day.
Thank you to everyone who has been reading, leaving kudos, and commenting! I'm so glad you're enjoying it so far, and your support is really encouraging. :)
Charles’s head was pounding angrily and his throat felt like someone had made him swallow sandpaper. He was also freezing. He thought dimly that perhaps the fire had gone out, but when he opened his eyes blearily against the too-bright light of day he saw the fire was roaring in the hearth. Looking to his left, he saw there was also a pot of tea and plate of scones on his bedside table, along with a note discretely tucked under the china.
Tried knocking, but you were out cold. Stoked the fire and left you some breakfast. Sleep in as long as you like.
Shivering and coughing feebly, he pulled the blankets up around himself before reaching through them and pouring himself a cup of tea to soothe his throat. Half a pot of tea and two scones later his throat was feeling slightly better, but now that he was sitting up, his nose was beginning to run profusely, and he was still shivering. He had no idea what time it was (besides past breakfast), but despite going to bed early and sleeping through the night, Charles felt his eyes drooping once more. Setting his drink aside, he lay back down and raised a hand and to feel his forehead. He was burning up. He sighed and pulled the covers closer around himself, snuggling back into his pillow with a sniffle before sleep claimed him once more.
He woke several hours later, nearly jumping out of his skin when he saw Raven’s blue face looming unexpectedly above him. He had only seen her flicker into it once or twice before, so gazing up into yellow eyes he was not entirely used to seeing startled him. She flinched away, grimacing when he jerked back from her, instantly switching to her blonde form.
Charles reached for her hand immediately, feeling guilty. “I’m sorry, you just frightened me is all. I didn’t expect to see anyone hovering over me when I woke,” he explained, voice scratchy. His throat was dry, making him cough rather violently. “You can change back if you like,” he managed through his choking fit. “If it’s more comfortable.”
“Stop talking,” Raven said brusquely, but she fixed him with a half-smile all the same before her skin rippled into blue once more. She shook his hand off lightly, sitting on the bed next to Charles to cradle his head while she took a glass of water off the bedside table and raised it to his lips. “Here.”
Charles drank gratefully, the cool liquid soothing his raw throat until Raven put the empty glass down, absentmindedly stroking his hair away from his burning forehead. “I hate to tell Alex he’s right, but he did say you would get sick from playing in the snow yesterday.”
“It’s only a cold,” Charles replied croakily.
Raven hummed placatingly, continuing to play with his hair. He closed his eyes, sinking back into the pillows to savor the sensation of her scales against his skin as he dozed lightly. She pulled away several moments later. Charles opened his eyes to protest, but her back was turned as she rummaged in the wardrobe, returning to the bed with an extra blanket, which she tucked around his legs and torso. Her red hair fell in curtains as she leaned down to press a quick kiss to his forehead.
“Go back to sleep,” she whispered. “Your fever’s going to break soon.”
Charles didn’t even try to argue.
It was nighttime when he woke for the last time, and there was someone in his room again, sitting by the fire and reading his book. Charles’s hair was slightly damp from sweat. There was still a twinge in his throat, his head was still achy, and his nose was still running, but he was no longer freezing. Raven was right; his fever had broken. He spotted a tray with food and more tea perched on the side table where his book had been resting before. Still feeling a little weak, he cleared his throat pointedly to get the man in the chair’s attention. He lowered the book and turned his head around the corner of the wing back.
“Erik,” Charles said, feeling a grin steal over his features.
“You’re awake,” Erik replied, standing and setting the book down on the chair. He approached Charles slowly, as if he was afraid he might spook him.
“Yes,” Charles said a little groggily. “Fever broke. See?” Erik had reached the bed and Charles, without thinking, reached out and encircled his wrist, bringing the back of Erik’s hand to press against his forehead.
Erik’s breath seemed to catch in his throat. Eyes wide, Charles dropped the wrist, suddenly coming to his senses. He expected Erik to pull away. Instead, time seemed to grind to a halt as slowly, oh so slowly, Erik sat on the mattress next to Charles, turning his hand so the pads of his fingers were resting lightly on Charles’s skin. While the back of his hand was lightly ridged from scars, the inside of his hand was unexpectedly soft, and only lightly callused around the palm.
Probably from sword fighting. Charles’s thought echoed around his head in the suddenly too-quiet room as Erik’s fingers lightly stroked across his skin, moving the damp hair out of his closed eyes as Raven had before, but there was something decidedly different about Erik’s touch. It was all Charles could do to prevent himself from leaning further into it, wanting to chase Erik’s warmth even though the cold from his fever was gone. He stifled a contented noise in the back of his throat, eyes flicking open to meet Erik’s gaze. There was heat in that look too, and a softness Charles had only seen once or twice before, but before Charles could react, Erik pulled his hand away, looking startled.
He cleared his throat awkwardly. “I brought you dinner,” he said, rising and going to the table with the tray of food to bring it to over to the bed, lifting the metal cover to reveal a bowl of soup and slice of baguette before handing it to Charles. “It’s chicken and rice.”
Charles raised his head, smiling, and was alarmed to see Erik moving towards the door. “No!” he said, holding out a hand and nearly knocking the tray from his knees. Erik froze for a moment before turning to look at Charles. “Stay with me,” he continued quietly. “If you don’t mind.”
Erik stood where he was for a moment, considering. Charles could practically hear the wheels in his head spinning as he thought. Finally, he turned back to the fire and dragged the chair over to Charles’s bedside. Charles smiled reassuringly at him before turning his attention to the food. He ate in silence for a while, Erik watching him and sometimes watching the crackling fire.
“Tell me what happened today,” Charles said when he was halfway through his soup.
Erik shrugged. “I stayed in my room for breakfast. But then you weren’t at lunch, and you didn’t come to play chess, so I knew something was wrong. I was waiting in the study.” A warm, tingly sort of sensation sparked in Charles’s chest at the admittance. “I went to Raven and she said she had taken you scones in the morning, but she’d check on you again.” The slightest bit of resentment entered Erik’s voice. He lowered his eyes from Charles’s as he said, “She wouldn’t let me visit you. She said you were sleeping.”
Charles’s fingers were itching to touch Erik’s arm, but he was too far away. Instead, he opened his mouth, trying to form the complicated emotions swirling through his head into words, but he couldn’t. “I’m glad you brought me dinner,” he managed eventually. Erik looked up at him again, and Charles’s heart felt like it was being wrenched from his ribcage. “Did you enjoy the book?” he asked quickly, before he said anything stupid.
A quizzical frown flickered across Erik’s face for a moment, and Charles gestured to the side table. “Oh. It was... interesting, certainly.”
“Shakespeare not really your cup of tea?” Charles inquired, grinning.
“Not Romeo and Juliet at any rate,” Erik replied.
Charles made a noise of agreement around his mouthful of soup, swallowing before saying, “It’s not really my favourite either, but I don’t really have a choice. It’s the last one from my bookshelf.”
Erik smiled suddenly, making Charles quirk an eyebrow at him, but Erik shook off the unvoiced question. “I have a surprise for you.”
Charles beamed like a child on Christmas. “Oh really, Erik?”
“For when you’re better,” the other man continued, cutting him off, but his smile stayed affixed all the same. He stood to take Charles’s finished tray. “For now, you need to sleep.”
“I’m not tired at all,” Charles protested. “I’ve been sleeping all day.” Erik did not look swayed, so Charles tried a different tactic. “How about one game of chess?” he asked, voice dripping with honey. “I did miss our standing engagement.”
Erik looked ready to object, but after a few moments, his stern façade cracked and he chuckled exasperatedly. “Okay,” he said. “Let me take these downstairs and I’ll bring the board up here. I’ll be back in ten minutes.”
Charles grinned at him.
Charles was confined to his bedroom for the next few days while his nose still ran and his cough persisted. Having not much else to do, at first he amused himself by trying to convince Erik to bring his present to him, insisting it would make him feel much better, but Erik only replied that the gift was much too large for him to carry. This piqued Charles’s interest, so once or twice, while all Erik’s attention was focused on a chess game, he attempted to slyly inquire what the present might be. Erik, of course, was not to be fooled. “You’ll get it as soon as you’re better,” he only said, the corners of his mouth tugging upwards in a bemused smile. Finally, almost a week later, when Charles’s nose stopped running and his cough had completely subsided, Erik deemed Charles well enough to venture from his bedroom and receive his gift.
“You need to put this on first, though,” Erik said, grinning and holding out an old dishtowel.
Charles took it to examine closer, crinkling his nose. “Put it on how?”
Still smiling, Erik took the cloth from Charles’s hands and moved behind him, raising the rag to Charles’s eyes and tying it securely around his head. Erik’s hands then moved to the small of his back and the crook of his arm, guiding Charles slowly out of his room.
“No peeking,” he commanded.
Charles laughed. “I couldn’t if I wanted to, my friend.”
He heard Erik emit a slightly smug snort in response and considered stomping lightly on his foot as a reprimand, but then realized he wouldn’t know where to attack. Instead, he settled for a dignified silence while Erik led him blindly through the hallways.
After several turns and flights of stairs, they reached their destination. Erik pushed open a door and ushered Charles through. The room was dark through the blindfold, and smelled slightly musty, like it had long been neglected, but there was also the distinct, citrus-y tang of the floor polish Angel often used around the castle, combined with something else musky and familiar Charles couldn’t quite put his finger on.
“Stay there. Don’t look,” Erik said quietly, his nervous excitement apparent in his tone. The hands at Charles’s elbow and back were suddenly gone, and Charles could hear the clicking of Erik’s boots on a hardwood floor, followed by the snick of curtains opening. Sunlight filtered into the room, bright enough to get through the blindfold and Charles’s closed eyelids. The boots clacked closer again. Charles found himself holding his hands out automatically to reconnect with Erik, and was a little disappointed to feel only a light brush of Erik’s skin. His frustration subsided immediately, however, when Erik’s fingers began undoing the knot of the old dishtowel, his body close enough to Charles’s back to radiate warmth without quite touching.
“Okay,” Erik said, his voice slightly husky. “You can look.” He dropped the blindfold and Charles opened his eyes, only to gasp audibly at the sight before him.
Books. The familiar scent from before had been books. He was standing in the foyer of the largest library he had ever seen. The ceiling was vaulted almost as high as the main entryway, and all the walls from top to bottom were covered with hundreds upon hundreds of dark wooden bookshelves, containing thousands, if not millions of books. Charles could feel his hands start to tremble as he took in how many there were. Ladders that could roll on tracks were attached to every level of shelves, allowing access to every single tome, and there were spiral staircases with intricate iron and gold metalwork leading from ground floor up to (Charles counted in amazement) the fifth at the very top. As his eyes travelled further upwards, he saw ornate marble and gold statues of men on pillars brightly illuminated by the light from the main window, their arms raised high, giving the illusion that they were holding up the ceiling.
With as much effort he could muster, Charles tore his eyes away from the bookcases, interspersed every fifteen or so shelves with a window, complete with window seat and dark blue curtains just like the ones attached to the giant main window that separated the library in two by taking up an entire bit of wall. He drank in the sight of cozy reading areas on either side of the expansive floor, each containing smatterings of brightly yellow furniture; chairs, a few couches, and end tables, and a pleasantly crackling fire. When he looked down, the dark wooden floor was polished so efficiently Charles could see his own face, agape, shining back at him. He turned, meeting Erik’s gaze.
Erik was smiling nervously. “You like it?”
“Erik, I… I just… I can’t…” Words were beginning to fail him, so Charles, not knowing how else to show his gratitude, threw his arms abruptly around Erik’s neck, holding him tight.
Erik seemed shocked for a moment, stumbling slightly backwards from the force of Charles’s hug. As soon he realized what had happened, however, Charles felt his strong arms encircle his waist, embracing him back just as closely. They didn’t move for a long time. Charles wasn’t sure his legs would support his weight even if he wanted to pull away, and Erik didn’t seem to have any problems with holding them both up.
“Thank you, my friend,” Charles whispered finally, the sound muffled slightly against Erik’s neck and the fabric of his shirt. Even then, neither pulled away, Charles breathing in the scent of books, lemon, and that heady smell almost like the forest that was completely Erik.
“You’re welcome, Schatz.” The quiet reply rumbled through them, Erik’s breath ghosting though Charles’s soft hair.
An unexpected snowstorm hit the castle several days after Erik gave Charles the library, which confined all the members of the household inside for the better part of two days. Those two days, however, seemed like mere minutes to Charles, spent as they were in countless chess games and exploring the books in the library. After the first hour he had already pinpointed several novels he wanted to read, and a history of the castle and the surrounding area. There were also several medical journals and textbooks which caught Charles's eye.
The second afternoon of their captivity, a sudden thought struck Charles as he surveyed the chess board where he was losing spectacularly.
“How did you get the library door open?” he asked, raising his eyes to meet Erik’s steady, watchful gaze.
Erik frowned. “What?”
“I was too stunned to think of it before, but that lock was fused shut. It’s not damaged, and it hasn’t been replaced. You must have un-fused it.” Charles was grinning now, a fact which only served to deepen the furrow in Erik’s brow.
“I don’t know how I did it,” he replied. “Raven told me I couldn’t see you when you were sick. I wandered around. Things were… moving. I happened to come to the library and I remembered how you said you were almost out of books, so I held out my hand and… I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking. It just sprung open.” Charles’s smile widened. “Don’t look at me like that, it’s not like I can duplicate it,” he added quickly, but his voice was unsure.
Charles held up his hands in defeat, turning his gaze to the board again, but his expression refused to remain neutral.
“Are you going to tell me what you’re thinking?” Erik inquired grumpily several minutes later as Charles moved his queen forward. “It’s like you’re screaming at me to listen without even opening your mouth.”
“I’ll tell you as soon as I’m sure what it is I’m thinking about,” Charles countered, sitting smugly back in his chair and crossing his legs. “Checkmate, coincidentally.”
A harsh wind blew the snow from the previous storm around the grounds for almost a week, creating a nightmare of shoveling for Darwin, who seemed to be in charge of keeping the gardens looking immaculate, even if no one ventured outside to see them. Charles only found this out because he overheard an argument between Darwin and Alex when he was sneaking down to the kitchen to grab a midnight snack, having spent most of the night in the library.
“No one’s going to care if you spend an afternoon inside helping me clean the guest room curtains instead of catching your death hauling snow,” Alex said, a bit louder than he probably would have if he had known Charles was just in the next room; Alex’s voice had come from the cracked door to the dining room.
A sigh, and another, quieter voice. “You and I both know that’s not possible, Alex,” Darwin replied. “Besides, I like my job. It gets rid of some of the monotony of this castle.”
Charles’s heart sank. In all his delight for spending time with the others and seeing their amazing abilities, he had forgotten that they were probably condemned to living only within the close parameters of the castle, its grounds, and the barest amount of forest beyond. If anyone else was to find out about their powers, they may not understand as Charles did; they might be afraid and lock them up, or worse yet, lock them up for more sinister purposes. Charles crept back up the spindly wooden staircase that led to his hallway as quietly as he could, suddenly not as hungry as he was before.
So far, everyone at the castle refused to tell him how exactly they had come across their powers, and while Charles was convinced it had to do with the rose in the West Wing, whenever he brought the subject up to any of the servants, they just told him it happened a long time ago and they weren’t supposed to talk about it. Charles didn’t even dream of breaching the subject with Erik again. He was sure if he did, he would only be met with anger or stony silence, despite all the progress they had made in their relationship in the past three months he had been resident at the castle.
Still, Charles couldn’t help but feel he needed to do something to help everyone. He had been thinking about the snowball fight since it happened, and how Erik had twisted the metal of the fountain into a beautiful, intricate knot without even thinking, how he had even been happy while he did it. That incident, mixed with Erik’s explanation of opening the library door had been swirling around Charles’s head since Erik had told him. Somehow he knew there was a way the other inhabitants of the castle could control their abilities so they wouldn’t feel so tempestuous as they often did. He was almost there. He just needed a while longer to think over his theory.
The castle was bludgeoned with a barrage of storms soon after Alex and Darwin’s furtive conversation, so everyone was once again captive inside. Only Azazel would pop out of the castle in a puff of sulfurous red smoke for a few hours at a time to take care of the horses. However, having lived in the area for his whole life, Charles could tell the winter was blowing itself out. Spring would soon be here.
Since everyone seemed to be suffering from cabin fever, Charles expected Erik to be happy when he mentioned the idea of winter ending over dinner one night. To his great alarm, Erik paled, and would have dropped his fork and knife if they hadn’t immediately fixed themselves to his palms. Charles’s own cutlery was shaking in his grasp. His heart leapt in his throat. This hadn’t happened in a very long time.
“What’s wrong?” Charles asked, forcing himself to stay seated while Erik tried to shake the silverware from his hands. The sight would have been comic if Erik’s expression wasn’t bordering on manic.
Erik stood suddenly, letting out an exasperated yell, and all the metal- candelabras, eating utensils, serving trays, everything- flew from the table, landing haphazardly around the dining room and trembling slightly.
“Erik…” Charles said quietly, standing and making his way to the other man slowly, like approaching a spooked animal. He stretched out a hand to place comfortingly on Erik’s arm.
Erik flinched at the contact at first, his eyes wide and jaw slack in horror at what had just happened, but some part of him seemed to recognize Charles and that his touch wasn’t harmful. Permitted contact again, Charles encircled Erik’s wrist, rubbing soothing circles on his skin, keeping his gaze steady and calming.
“Erik, please tell me what’s wrong,” he breathed. “I want to help you.”
“You can’t,” Erik croaked, twisting his wrist in Charles’s grasp and beginning to pull away.
“You mean you won’t let me.”
“I mean you can’t!” Erik shouted.
Charles dropped his hand like it was on fire and shrunk back. They stared at each other, Charles fuming and Erik looking more and more hopeless by the second. The silence was broken by footsteps echoing down the hall.
“What’s going- oh my God.” Raven’s angry reprimand turned into a barely concealed gasp as she glanced around the room and took in the wreckage. “What happened?”
“I don’t know,” Charles gritted through clenched teeth, still staring down Erik. His hands were balled into fists. “Because despite living here for months and coming to trust all of you, apparently everyone in this castle insists on treating me like a child and keeping me guessing as to why they’re all miserable when I’m trying to help them.”
Erik opened his mouth to reply, but Charles glared at him, turning swiftly on his heel and sweeping past Raven down the hall to his room. By the time he was ready for bed, he realized he might have been a bit dramatic, but his point remained. They had trusted him with everything else in the past few months, why couldn’t his friends trust him with the incredibly heavy secret they all carried?
Charles did not sleep well that night, and woke early enough to sneak down to the kitchen and steal a pear for breakfast. Still feeling snubbed, he decided to spend the morning in the library and see if he felt better by lunch. Once he had reached the spacious room he found some of his tension lessened. The fires had already been lit, and the grand window that looked out onto a spectacular view of the forest and grounds was open, allowing sunlight to filter into the room. He made his way up one of the staircases to his favorite window seat- the one that provided a good view of the garden and the fountain. He picked a book from the shelf, flopped down contentedly, and began to read.
He was a good hundred pages in before he heard the door creak open. Marking the page with his finger, he looked up and saw Erik, looking somewhat out of place. Erik slowly made his way into the room, his eyes darting from one reading area to the other, before sweeping up to where Charles was seated on the third level. He smiled nervously. Charles dog-eared his page and set down the book, making his way over to the railing.
“Come up here,” he called, smiling softly back.
Erik nodded, climbing the spiral staircases quickly, and stopping a few feet in front of Charles when he reached the top. He looked down at his feet, one hand knocking nervously against the side of his leg. Charles waited.
“I wanted to apologize,” Erik said finally, still not meeting Charles’s gaze. “For yesterday, I mean. It’s been a long time since I did something like that, and I’m sorry if I frightened you.”
Charles smiled softly. “It’s alright,” he said reassuringly. “I’m not afraid of you, Erik. And I’m not afraid of what you can do.” Erik’s head jerked up, his eyes big as dinner plates and his mouth open slightly as he gaped at Charles. Charles continued. “I’ve thought about it, and I guess, if you won’t tell me what happened to make everyone… the way they are… then I can’t force you. But even if you won’t tell me what’s going on, I think I’ve found a way to help you control it. A little bit at least.”
Myriad emotions flickered across the other man’s face as Charles spoke. At first he looked ready to object, to expound for the millionth time that there was no conceivable way Charles could help him, even if he couldn’t explain why, then he looked confused for a moment. Finally, the corners of his mouth twitched up and his features settled into an exasperated half-smile.
“I’m not sure it’ll work,” he said, his voice barely a whisper. “But… if you really think it might help… I suppose it’s worth a try.”
Charles beamed at him. “Come on,” he said, clapping a hand to the small of Erik’s back as he moved past him towards the stairs. “Let’s go outside.”
Several minutes later they found themselves standing in front of the fountain, bundled up tightly against the cold. Charles pointed with a gloved hand to the iron knot. “See that?” he said, voice somewhat muffled from the proximity of his scarf to his mouth. His cheeks and the tip of his nose were already red. Erik gave him a pointed look that said, “Of course I see it, I’m not blind”, and Charles chuckled slightly before continuing. “Try to move it.”
Erik looked extremely skeptical, but there was a spark of hope in his eyes that Charles knew must be reflected in his own. He watched as Erik raised a hand and splayed his fingertips towards the metal, his brow furrowed in concentration. Almost immediately Charles could feel the power, the slight change in the air as Erik’s magnetism focused on an object, trying to beat it into submission, but several seconds passed and nothing happened. Erik growled angrily and dropped his hand, shooting Charles another look.
“See?” he said. “I can’t do it on command. I need to be angry.”
Charles shook his head. “The anger isn’t enough.” Erik quirked an eyebrow at him, as if daring him to continue, and Charles, undeterred, did. “When you use the anger it becomes destructive. I’m not saying it’s not okay to get mad; I understand you get frustrated when you can’t control it. But look at what you can do when you’re happy. Or excited. Look at what you made.” He gestured to the fountain again, and Erik gazed at it like it was the first time he had actually seen it. The knot truly was beautiful, and intricate, and gave off the faintest sense of un-channeled, unspeakable feeling.
Just like Erik, Charles thought, smiling suddenly.
His voice dropped. “Think about what you felt that night when you opened the library door.”
“I can’t-” Erik began, still looking dazedly at the fountain. His hands were shaking at his sides. Charles cut him off.
“You can,” he said confidently. “What were you thinking about?”
Erik looked pained. He swallowed hard before saying somewhat hoarsely, “I was… I was thinking about you, I guess.”
Charles instantly felt right. It was as if the moment the words escaped Erik’s lips, Charles had everything he wanted or needed. Everything was clear for a long, beautiful moment, and, Charles felt a little giddily, moving a mountain didn’t seem as if it would be that difficult, let alone the metal in a fountain. It was all he could do to not wrap his arms around Erik’s neck and pull him down for a kiss that he hoped would put all he couldn’t say into words. His hand twitched forward of its own accord, and he twined his fingers with Erik’s. Erik looked very much like he was either going to faint or be sick, as his eyes traveled from their interlaced fingers to meet Charles’s own, deep blue ones.
“Can you try again now?” Charles asked quietly.
Erik swallowed again and nodded, tearing his gaze away from Charles, but keeping a firm grasp on his hand while he raised his free arm, stretching towards the iron structure again. This time the metal moved without hesitation. Soundlessly, it snaked into a new shape, twined together as closely as their fingers. A moment later, Erik’s arm dropped and he let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding.
They both stared at the reconstructed fountain for a moment before, suddenly, Erik began to laugh, softly at first, until it crescendoed into a loud, carefree sound that Charles had never heard coming from his friend. Elated, he laughed along with him.
“It’s beautiful, Erik,” he said when they had calmed down a little, stepping closer so their arms were pressing together along with their still-clasped hands. “What is it?”
“It’s a lover’s knot,” Erik replied, turning to look at Charles again. Goose bumps that had nothing to do with the cold and everything to do with the clear blue-grey color of Erik’s irises sprung up the length of Charles’s arms. “My mother gave me a necklace with one on it. I still have it somewhere…” he trailed off as Charles drew closer so he could almost see his features reflected in Erik’s eyes. Erik’s breath was hot and stuttering against his lips. He raised a hand, cautiously placing it against Erik’s warm chest, feeling his heart beating through the layers of his shirt and coat. Or maybe that was Charles’s own pulse he was feeling. Not that it mattered; both their hearts were hammering in anticipation. Charles’s eyelids began to flicker closed, and he stood on tiptoe as Erik leaned down, letting their noses brush together. Erik took in a sharp breath.
“Lunch is ready, si- oh.”
They were frozen for a moment, Charles’s eyes snapping open to look panicked at Erik, before he pulled away a second later, letting his hands drop to his sides. Erik looked like someone had smacked him in the face. They stood, Erik looking at Charles, Charles looking at the ground, and Darwin watching the both of them uneasily for a moment before Erik said, his voice dangerously quiet, “Thank you, Darwin. We’ll be inside in a moment.”
Darwin nodded slightly, then ducked back inside the door that was standing slightly ajar behind him. Charles was still staring determinedly at his shoes. He could feel Erik’s gaze burning upon him, but he couldn’t look up and meet his eyes.
“We should go inside,” he said to the ground at long last.
“Charles…” Erik began, and his voice was so filled with longing that Charles had to look up. The expression on Erik’s face almost broke his heart; he looked absolutely wrecked. “I…” Charles’s heart began thundering in his chest again, but Erik paused for a long time, visibly wrestling with his thoughts. “Thank you.”
And just like that, reality came crashing back down around Charles. He had never been a romantic, particularly, but he thought he might feel an actual ache in his chest. His smile was forced, and he hated it as much as he hated the way Erik was looking at him now. But if Erik wasn’t going to say what he was feeling, Charles certainly wasn’t going to either.
“You’re welcome,” he replied evenly. “Come on. Let’s go get something to eat.”
Thank you to everybody reading, and leaving me wonderful comments and kudos! I really, really appreciate the feedback.
I'm probably going to update again sometime this week (maybe Thursday) since I'm on spring break and I feel terrible for leaving you all with this ending. You're all too beautiful! You don't deserve all the angst and ~*~feelings~*~ I keep throwing at you. :P
Once again, thank you to everyone who is reading, and leaving me lovely comments and kudos. You are all absolute diamonds!
Charles was not his usual chatty self during lunch, and Erik was even more stonily silent than normal, not even glancing at Charles when otherwise he would take every opportunity to meet those brilliant blue eyes. Instead, whenever Raven entered from the kitchen to see if everything was to their liking, Charles would simply say “Perfect as usual” in his smallest voice, and Erik wouldn’t even acknowledge her, preferring to devour his steak and potatoes with unreserved animosity. When they went their separate ways afterwards instead of heading to the study to play chess as usual, all Raven, Alex, and Darwin could do was gawk at their retreating backs.
“What’s the matter with them?” Raven asked incredulously. “This isn’t about last night is it?”
Alex shrugged, moving to the table to start clearing it, but Darwin made a face that stopped Raven before she could join in the cleaning. “What?”
“I don’t think it’s… entirely about that…” Darwin said slowly.
Alex stopped in his tracks, turning back to give Darwin a quizzical look. “What does that mean?”
Sean entered with a wet dish towel, ready to start wiping down the table, but when he saw the looks Darwin, Alex, and Raven were giving each other he immediately made a beeline straight for them. Seeing he couldn’t get out of discussing it, Darwin motioned, and they clustered together in a conspiratorial huddle, Alex glancing over his shoulder to make sure that neither Erik nor Charles had returned, and nodding to Darwin to speak when he saw the coast was clear.
“I think,” Darwin said, slowly and quietly in the hopes that the other’s reactions would not be too tumultuous, “that Erik might have finally found the right person to break the curse.”
Alex’s jaw dropped, Sean clamped a hand over his mouth to keep from shouting, but a slow smile spread over Raven’s face in answer to Darwin’s news.
“I had wondered...” she said softly, grinning at Darwin who smiled back. Her skin flickered from cream to blue in her excitement.
Alex looked back and forth from Raven to Darwin. “Wait, who?” he asked. “He hasn’t left the castle in years. No way Azazel’s been carting him around either, we’d know about it. There’s no one…” he suddenly trailed off, a look of dawning comprehension overtaking his features.
Sean was still miles behind everyone. He tugged irritably at Raven’s sleeve. “What are you guys talking about? Who’s going to break it?”
Raven smiled down at him. “Who do you think? Out of all the people in the castle, which one do you think Erik would fall in love with?”
Sean’s eyes widened. Raven nodded, touching a finger to the side of her nose and winking.
“There’s just one problem, though,” Darwin said, grimacing apologetically. “I think I might have set them back a little bit.”
“But it’s almost Erik’s birthday! We can’t afford to lose any ground if we don’t want to stay like this!” Raven exclaimed.
The others shushed her, waiting to see if they heard approaching footsteps. Darwin made another quick sweep of the room before ducking down to speak to the others again.
“Believe me,” he whispered, “I don’t think timing is something we have to worry about. I might have… intruded on them when they were about to kiss.”
“Kiss!” Sean exclaimed this time, the others frantically motioning for him to keep his voice down.
“Kissing’s good,” Raven said quietly. “You’re right. We should be able to get them to say it. We’ve got...” she counted on her fingers. “Eight days.”
“Eight days to convince Erik to say it, and eight days to make sure Charles is even close to falling in love with him,” Alex said gloomily.
Darwin chuckled. “Oh believe me, he’s close if he isn’t in love already. All we need is to give them a little shove.”
“Something romantic enough that they’ll both be ready to confess,” Raven mused, crossing her arms and tapping her finger against her bicep as she thought. The others lapsed into silence.
Sean was the one who finally spoke up. “What about a birthday party?” he said, looking expectantly at the other’s faces for a sign of approval.
Darwin beamed. “Yeah! A really romantic birthday dinner. With wine.”
“And dancing,” added Raven.
“And music,” Alex said. “Janos plays the violin, doesn’t he?”
“I could sing,” Raven put in eagerly.
Everyone frowned at her.
“You’re not singing,” Alex said. Darwin and Sean nodded vigorously in assent, and Raven was forced to concede defeat.
Erik was less than thrilled when they presented their idea to him later that afternoon. They had found him, unsurprisingly, in the study, staring down at the game of chess set up on the board. When Sean asked him why he was here and not in his room, he had simply shrugged and muttered, “Old habits.”
Raven rolled her eyes at him. “Oh don’t pretend like we don’t all already know.”
“Know what?” Erik spat automatically in an attempt to be contrary.
“You want Charles to break the curse,” Darwin stated.
Erik glowered. “What I want makes very little difference in the equation, I’m afraid,” he said.
“Actually, that’s wrong and you know it,” Raven countered. “If you’re already in love with him, that’s already half the battle. And we’re pretty sure he’s in love with you too-”
“If his dopey, love-sick glances are anything to judge by,” interjected Alex.
Raven glared at him before continuing. “So we think it’d be in everyone’s best interests if you two just cracked on and told each other you’re head-over-heels and never want to part.”
Erik managed to sustain his foul expression for exactly ten more seconds before his face fell, shoulders dropping. “That’s a lot easier said than done, Raven,” he muttered, dejected. “He has to really mean it. I can’t force him into saying anything just because I want him to. Besides if he said it and… nothing happened…” Erik trailed off, the prospect of what he was thinking about obviously too painful to voice.
“That won’t happen,” Sean said gently, surprising everyone. “Charles loves you. You gave him an entire library, but he still wants to spend his afternoons playing boring chess with you. And sometimes all morning too.”
Raven looked astonished. “You know, the kid does have a point, Erik,” she said.
“Well, that and he tried to kiss you, so-” Alex began exasperatedly, but he shut up immediately when Darwin shot him a look. Erik remained silent, but the beginnings of a smile was starting to show on his face.
“We’ve got eight days until your birthday,” Darwin said, getting down to business when he saw Erik was done fighting them. “That doesn’t give us much time to repair the damage I accidentally did today… sorry…” Erik inclined his head in a gesture of forgiveness and Darwin plundered on. “Anyway, that’s alright. The feelings are still there, and eight days is more than enough time to make sure Charles isn’t doubting your affections and, therefore, his own. We’ve got a wonderful plan for the eve of your birthday that is sure to make him say the words out loud. However, we’ve also got some things planned for the days leading up to it just to be extra safe.”
“Leave everything to us,” Alex said, throwing out his chest proudly.
Erik still looked a little skeptical. Raven crouched by the side of his chair, resting a comforting hand on his forearm. “Don’t worry, Erik. Everything will work out. I promise.” He smiled at her, but it did not quite reach his eyes. She figured that was the best response they would get, so she stood and punched him lightly on the shoulder. “Now go tell him about the party and let the wooing begin.”
“I believe it’s already started,” Alex said quietly, but the others ignored him as Erik rose and swept from the room in the direction of the library.
The tavern was not busy, as it was a Monday night, but Logan had still insisted on booking a private booth to discuss his plans with his guest for fear that someone might overhear them. He sat, nursing a tankard of dark ale and drumming his fingernails impatiently on the table as he waited. Finally, twenty minutes after their agreed meeting time, the tall, thin figure of Doctor Shaw appeared in the doorway, dark eyes scanning the room until he saw Logan in the farthest corner. He smiled, the expression looking slightly oily as he sauntered over to the booth.
“Logan,” he said amicably, although the two had never met before. “Sorry for the tardiness. I’m afraid there was a bit of a debacle at the asylum. One of the patients decided to hang themselves rather than go in for their scheduled lobotomy, poor soul. I’m afraid I have a lot of paperwork to attend to as soon as we’re done here so if we can be as brief as possible…”
“I understand,” Logan replied. To be honest, he didn’t like the vibe he was getting from the other man, but he was a necessary part of the scheme and couldn’t be replaced. “I’ll just come right out with it. I want Charles Xavier but he’s being… difficult. I haven’t seen hide nor hair of him all winter. Whenever I knock on the door no one answers and it’s locked.”
Shaw quirked an eyebrow. “I fail to see what that has to do with my business.”
Looking around to make sure no one was paying attention, Logan motioned for Shaw to draw closer. “His brother. Hank. He came in here months ago raving about a monster, and you’ve seen him with all his crazy contraptions. One almost took my head off once. I’m sure if Hank was in any danger of being locked up Charles would do anything to prevent it from happening.”
The grin stretched wider across Shaw’s face. Logan had to suppress a shudder. “My good man, I’m sure something can be arranged. Provided you have the payment of course.” Logan reached under the table, producing a large coin purse filled with gold. The doctor’s eyes sparkled. “Excellent. How does next week look for you?”
From the quiet knocking at his door, Charles had expected to see Raven or perhaps Darwin, coming to apologize for earlier. He started, however, when he pulled open the door to reveal a very nervous looking Erik standing only a few feet away. His heart leapt in his throat once more and he fought to keep his blush under control. He wasn’t sure he was ready to have a talk about what occurred between them that morning, especially not when he was in naked underneath a dressing gown, as he was now. Angel had just left after helping him carry heated buckets of water to the tub in his bathroom; Charles had hoped for a nice, cleansing soak to help organize his thoughts, as reading certainly had not helped.
“Erik,” he finally managed, drawing the robe closer around himself and casting his gaze anywhere but at his visitor. “I was just about to have a bath.”
“I can see that,” Erik said somewhat gruffly. “Sorry to bother you. It’s just-- Raven just reminded me. My birthday’s next week.”
Charles brightened, despite his nervousness. “Oh really?” he said, smiling.
Erik nodded, his lips twitching up as he continued. “Apparently they’re planning some sort of party. I was wondering if you would like to come as my… as my… special… guest.” He finished lamely, but his eyes shone with something more that he couldn’t quite seem to voice.
“Special guest?” Charles repeated, a hint of suggestion in the lilt of his voice. Erik nodded again, his smile stretching further across his face. “Well, when you put it like that how can I refuse?”
Erik blushed and tore his gaze away from Charles’s. “I’ll let you…” he gestured vaguely to the door of the bathroom. “See you at dinner?” The question had hope barely concealed underneath its nonchalance.
“Of course,” Charles replied. It was as if the awkwardness after their almost-kiss never happened. His stomach flipped a little, and he reached out to close the door. “Until then…”
Erik smiled and inclined his head. “Enjoy your bath.” He seemed horror struck for a minute, and Charles fought the urge to laugh, biting his lip in a vain attempt to hide his smile. Erik offered him another slight, embarrassed nod, which Charles returned, before fairly sprinting down the hall. Chuckling, Charles shut the door behind him. It seemed Erik had recovered from the incident that morning and was looking to do things the proper way, wooing and all. As he slipped into the warm water he wondered vaguely if Darwin and the others had anything to do with this.
If he was surprised to see Erik at his door after the awkwardness of their interrupted moment, he was even more surprised the next day, when, as he was draped across a couch in the library reading, Azazel appeared with a burst of smoke in the middle of the room. Charles straightened up as the teleporter, having spotted him, made his way over to the couch, hiding something behind his back.
“These are for you,” he said shortly, his accent clipped and precise. He brought his hand around to reveal a bouquet of exotic looking flowers, bursting with color and life. “From Erik.”
Charles smiled incredulously as he took the bouquet. They smelled amazing. “These are beautiful,” he breathed, his nose buried in the blooms. “Will you please tell Erik I said thank you?”
Azazel nodded tersely before disappearing just as abruptly as he had arrived.
To Charles’s amazement, the flowers were followed by chocolates two days later, jasmine scented bubble bath the day after that, and finally, three days later, Erik presented him with a book of short stories after dinner in the silent dining room.
“I know you already have so many books to get to,” he said quietly as Charles trailed his fingers reverently over the cover and first few pages, “but this is my favourite collection. My mother used to read it to me before bed when I was little.”
“It’s wonderful, Erik,” Charles said softly, smiling up at the other man. Feeling sure he was allowed, and since there was no one else in the room, Charles took Erik’s hand tentatively. “I really don’t deserve all these gifts, you know,” he said as Erik drew slightly closer. “You’re spoiling me.”
“Well,” Erik breathed, “my birthday is tomorrow. Perhaps then you can get me something.”
Charles gave his hand a quick squeeze before letting go. “Perhaps,” he said, flouncing suddenly toward the hallway that led back to his room. “Goodnight, Erik.”
He caught the smirk in Erik’s voice as he called, “Goodnight, Charles.”
Here you go, kids. I couldn't keep you in suspense. :)
And as always, infinite thanks to everyone reading, commenting, and leaving kudos! I cannot tell you how insanely happy all your support makes me feel.
Expect another chapter on Tuesday. And now, without any further ado...
Over the course of the week the servants of the castle had worked almost non-stop to make the entire household (and gardens; the days were beginning to grow warmer and longer as the winter storms raged their last) spotless. This effort included Erik’s rooms in the West Wing, which was why, halfway through his and Charles’s third chess game, the others had whisked Erik back to his half of the castle to get ready for dinner.
“It’s in two hours!” Raven had piped over her shoulder to an extremely amused Charles still seated in his chair, watching Erik’s retreating back as he was practically dragged down the hallway by Darwin and Alex. “I’ll stop by to make sure you’re ready. Don’t be late!”
Erik heard Charles’s tinkling laugh, both bracing and terrifying, echoing in his mind as he brought himself back to the present. “And you’re sure this will work?” he said skeptically as Alex fussed with his hair, pulling too hard with the comb in his haste so Erik winced.
“Positive,” Darwin answered confidently. “There’s a magnificent dinner, romantic candlelight, Janos is playing the violin, and have you seen the sky? There’s not a cloud in sight. It’s maybe a bit colder than we would have liked, but the stars are beautiful.”
“I don’t see how Janos is going to be of any help. I can’t dance,” Erik protested.
Erik caught Alex rolling his eyes in the mirror as he worked. “It’s not too difficult. Just put your hand on his back and sway a little.” Somewhere in the corner of the room Raven made a disparaging noise. Alex frowned at her over his shoulder. “Well whatever he does it’ll be better than nothing,” he huffed, patting Erik’s shoulder to signal he was done.
Glancing up, Erik caught the eye of his reflection in the mirror and smiled, despite himself. His hair was still shining from his bath earlier. The light brown, slightly wavy strands framed his face nicely. Normally Erik avoided mirrors like the plague, unable to stand the sight of his own marred visage looking back at him. However, tonight, the scars seemed less apparent; something in the gleam of Erik’s eyes draw all the focus away from them.
Raven cleared her throat, getting his attention as she made her way to his side. “I’m going to go make sure Charles is ready. Be in the dining room in ten minutes.”
With that she and the others left the room, Darwin tossing him an encouraging smile before he shut the door, leaving Erik to his own devices. He donned his suit jacket and swung his arms experimentally, not used to the minor constriction that came with the extra clothing. Crouching down, he looked at his reflection once more to adjust his cravat, grimacing at his obvious nervousness as he did so. He was making faces at himself in the mirror in an attempt to find one that masked his nerves when there was a soft knock on the door. Erik froze, looking around when the door opened a crack, and relaxing a little when Sean’s freckled face poked around the frame, grinning.
Erik’s stomach flopped, and his panic must have shown on his face because Sean’s smile widened. Gathering all his courage, Erik walked quickly across the room and down the hallway towards dinner.
Charles was standing by the window looking at the clear night sky and fiddling anxiously with a cuff link. In the time between Raven whisking Erik away and when she had returned to escort him to dinner he had taken a bath using the jasmine bubble bath Erik had given him, gotten dressed in dark blue vest and black jacket that he thought brought out his eyes, and had managed to read the same page of his book ten times without once taking anything in. He had been pacing anxiously when Raven knocked on his door.
The scent of roasting chicken and simmering vegetables wafted in from the kitchen as he stood, gazing out onto the grounds which were illuminated by bright moonlight. For a moment he considered popping in to the kitchen to see what the others were cooking to ease his nerves, but then he heard footsteps coming from the hallway. Charles turned, straightening up at once. He beamed, unable to contain himself when he saw Erik step nervously across the threshold into the dining room. His gaze immediately found Charles’s and he smiled back as he made his way over to the window.
“Hi,” Erik said, throat sounding constricted.
Charles’s smile widened when he looked up into Erik’s eyes, made to look just a little more green then gray from the light mint color of his vest. “Hi,” Charles breathed. “Happy birthday, Erik.”
Just then the door from the kitchen clattered open, making both Erik and Charles jump as Alex wheeled in a tray of elegantly arranged tossed salad. He cleared his throat pointedly. “Dinner is served.”
The food, as always, was marvelous, and there was so much of it Charles barely made it halfway through the third and final course when he finally had to set his silverware down. Erik, who had the uncanny ability to eat as much as he liked of whatever he liked without appearing any less slender for it, had barely eaten anything tonight. He set down his knife and fork with Charles, looking relieved at having an excuse to stop picking at his food.
“Don’t stop on account of me,” Charles teased.
Erik smiled apologetically. “I’m just not very hungry tonight, I guess,” he said.
“But it’s your birthday!” Charles exclaimed. “What else are we supposed to do to celebrate?”
That hadn’t meant to come out quite so suggestive. Charles flushed and opened his mouth to try and repair the damage, but luckily, Raven chose that moment to enter from the kitchen.
“All finished?” she asked quickly, then continued without waiting for them to answer. “Well then, I guess it’s time for dancing.”
Charles brightened at once. “Dancing?” As if on cue, Janos stepped into the dining room from one of the hallways, violin in hand. Charles beamed and Janos smiled back, tucking the instrument under his chin and beginning a lilting waltz as Raven disappeared conspicuously into the kitchen. Charles turned to Erik, who, to his surprise, looked suddenly very pale.
“What’s the matter?” Charles asked. “Come dance with me.”
“I… uh… I don’t dance. I can’t,” Erik replied, but Charles would not take no for an answer. He swept across to the other man’s chair and took his hands, all but forcing him to his feet.
“There are so many things you say you can’t do,” he said mischievously, leading Erik out of the dining room and to the ballroom, which was just down the hallway. “I assure you, waltzing is much easier than moving metal.”
“Says you,” Erik grumbled, but Charles was laughing good-naturedly, and he allowed himself to be dragged down the hall.
It seemed the others had really pulled out all the stops, for when Erik and Charles reached the ballroom, the latter let out a surprised gasp. The room, which had been largely neglected even in the days before the curse, was shining. Floor-to-ceiling windows sparkled, reflecting the light from a massive chandelier made with thousands of diamonds, and illuminated by hundreds of candles within its crystalline depths. Erik and Charles’s shoes clacked on the polished marble floor as they made their way into the center of the room. It was perhaps a little big for just one couple, but, when the strains of violin followed them into the space and Charles looked at Erik to begin their dancing lesson, none of that seemed to really matter. Just like a week earlier by the fountain, the world seemed to narrow to just the two of them, and Charles supposed, in this case, the music as well.
He took a deep breath. “Now, here, put your arms like this.” Charles demonstrated the frame, holding out one hand for Erik to take and standing back a little to mime putting a hand on his shoulder. He stepped forward and Erik took his still outstretched hand, placing the other on Charles’s collarbone. Charles smiled. “Right. Now, you’re actually the girl right now, seeing as you don’t know how to lead. But, when you dance with a girl, you’d put your other hand here.” He moved to rest his free hand on Erik’s shoulder blade, closing the space between them considerably. He looked up, blue eyes locking onto greenish-gray. He cleared his throat. “Now you step back with your right, and I’ll step forward with my left.”
At first, the waltz was more of an awkward shuffle, but Erik was a fast learner, and soon they were sweeping around the entirety of the ballroom. Feeling a bit giddy, Charles pushed on Erik’s shoulder and lifted his arm. Erik instinctively ducked under, twirling on the spot (and in rhythm- Charles was impressed) before linking back up. Charles laughed and Erik, despite his apparent shock at what had just happened, and what was happening, joined in. When Charles looked back up to meet his stare, his smile went softer around the edges, laughter dying away from the look in Erik’s eyes.
“See? You’re a natural,” he said quietly, part of his brain registering that the music had ceased and they appeared to now be alone. They didn’t stop swaying in time to the beat in their heads.
“Or maybe you’re just a good teacher,” Erik countered. “Professor. Tucked away in your little library all day.”
Charles scoffed, a soft sound that still echoed in the expanse of the room. “It’s hardly little. And I’m hardly a professor.”
“But already you’ve taught me so much,” Erik replied, his tone teasing. “How to dance, how to control my powers…”
“Oh two whole things, yes, I suppose that does deserve some praise, doesn’t it?” Charles quipped sarcastically. “I’m probably the best teacher in the whole world.”
Erik smiled gently, as he said with utmost sincerity, “Well, I think you’re wonderful.”
Charles returned the smile. “I think you’re pretty wonderful too,” he said easily, feeling he could spend the entire night just looking at Erik the way they were looking at each other now and he would be happy.
Wordlessly, they stopped swaying. Erik was staring at Charles with such intensity that it felt as if he was trying to read his mind, his pupils big enough that they had almost blacked out his irises. He moved his hand from Charles’s collarbone to the curve of his jaw, sliding back until his fingers tangled in the dark brown waves at the nape of Charles’s neck.
“Are you happy here?” he whispered, softly caressing the skin underneath his fingers.
Charles leaned into the touch. “Yes. I think coming here has made me the happiest I’ve ever been.” Even as the words left his mouth in a hush, Charles’s smile faded a little and he lowered his eyes from Erik’s gaze.
“But?” Erik asked quietly.
“Hank. I miss him terribly, and he must miss me just as much. More so, probably since he doesn’t have the distractions I do. I just wish I could see him again,” Charles answered, looking up to see Erik’s eyes cast downwards.
A frown settled across Erik’s features, making Charles acutely aware of the deepest scar, the one that went from his right eyebrow to the corner of his lip, as it drew taught. Then, unexpectedly, the corner of his mouth turned up in a half-smile. He looked up at Charles as he said, “Actually, I think I might be able to help.”
Erik led the way back upstairs to his room in the West Wing, Charles trailing slightly behind him. He recognized the pathway, although it seemed the other’s cleaning streak had reached these remote parts of the castle as well. Some of the iron statues and fixtures on the wall were still twisted, but the suit of armor was righted, bits of vase gone, and the spear which had been sticking out of the wall the last time Charles visited this room, was, of course, at its rightful place next to the suit of armor.
When Erik pushed open the door and Charles stepped through, he wasn’t as surprised as he might have been to see the room had also been cleared. There were bookshelves now, completely filled with books, and several couches and a chair situated next to a roaring fire. In the opposite corner, there was a liquor cabinet and a roll-top desk. The picture with the ripped canvas had somehow been repaired and was hanging on the wall next to a door, which Charles had not noticed his first time in the room. Charles presumed it must lead to Erik’s bedroom.
What drew his attention most, however, was the pedestal with the rose, glowing, as it had been all those months ago, still enclosed under the glass bell. As if hypnotized, Charles found himself drawing closer to it when Erik went to retrieve something from the roll-top desk. Charles crouched next to the dark wooden table to peer closer at the flower. It was almost completely wilted now. Only two petals remained. Somehow the sight made Charles sad; he tore his gaze away from the rose with little difficulty when Erik began making his way over to him. He pushed open the French doors that led out onto the stone balcony beyond, holding out a hand to show that Charles should go through first. There was a marble bench on the balcony, and Charles sat down, looking out at breathtaking view of the forest and the beginnings of the mountains further to the west until Erik sat beside him and he immediately turned to meet the other man’s gaze.
Erik cleared his throat and held out his hand, offering Charles a small mirror, the handle and back gilded in silver. “It’s enchanted,” he explained, sidling closer as Charles marveled at the beauty of the object in his hands, turning it over to see a rose, much like the one underneath the glass case had once been, embossed in the metal on the back. “If you look into it and say the name of who or what you want to see, the mirror will show you.”
Charles looked up at Erik in astonishment. “Enchanted?” Erik nodded. Charles smiled lightly. “Just like everything else in this castle.”
Erik shrugged, smiling back depreciatively. “I wish I could tell you the whole story, but I can’t. Not right now.”
Charles nodded, tearing his gaze from Erik to concentrate on the mirror. He took a deep breath, biting his lip as he frowned at his reflection, not quite sure how to begin. Erik took pity on him.
“Show us Hank,” he said quietly, leaning over Charles’s shoulder slightly to address the mirror. Charles could feel the warmth of Erik’s chest pressing against his back as the image in the glass warped, Charles and Erik’s faces disappearing and the inside of the mirror seeming to frost over as Hank’s face came into view. Charles’s eyes widened. His stepbrother was huddled up against a tree trunk, shivering as he looked across the expanse of a frozen lake, eyes glassy. His lips were blue, his teeth chattering even as he tried to clamp his jaw closed. After several, mortifying seconds, the image finally faded to reveal Charles, eyes wide in fear. He turned over his shoulder and saw Erik, also looking frightened.
“Erik, he’s freezing. And sick. He could even be dying,” Charles said, his voice rising as hysteria began to take over. “I have to go find him.” He stood abruptly, Erik following suit a second later.
“I know that lake,” Erik said softly. “You can take Azazel and go back home… I… you… you’re free to leave.”
Charles gaped up at him, unable to process this new change of events along with what he had just seen. “You’re serious?”
Erik nodded, raising a hand to card through Charles’s hair slowly, tenderly, as if it was the very last thing he would feel. “Take the mirror too. Just promise me sometimes you’ll use it and… remember me?”
Charles’s eyes were wet. There was a lump in his throat. “Erik,” he whispered, unable to find the right words for what he wanted to say. Finally, he stood on his tiptoes, and kissed Erik gently on the corner of his mouth. “Thank you,” he whispered, his voice shaking. He forced himself to pull away, Erik’s touch lingering on his skin for just a moment before he turned and practically ran from the West Wing, because if he didn’t, he knew he would never leave, not after seeing the broken look on Erik’s face.
He found Azazel in the entryway extinguishing candles. After a quick explanation, he held up the mirror and saying Hank’s name, turned it to show the teleporter where to go. A second later, Azazel grabbed Charles’s arm and they were gone in a puff of sulfurous smoke.
Charles opened his eyes as soon as he felt the cold of the forest wind. Both he and Azazel had been too hasty to put on coats before vanishing. Not that that really mattered; Charles immediately spotted Hank, still leaning against the same tree that overlooked the frozen lake, and ran to him, Azazel quickly following.
“Hank!” Charles called, and Hank stirred, blue eyes big as dinner plates as they saw the two figures running for him.
Hank opened his mouth to shout something but immediately started coughing, full, body-wracking breaths. Charles reached him and fell at his feet, putting a hand against his forehead. Frozen as the younger man was, his forehead was burning with a fever.
“Azazel, take us home,” Charles commanded, wrapping his hand around Hank’s bicep and holding out the other for the red-skinned man to take. Hank began to shrink away immediately, despite his weakness, but Charles shushed him. “It’s alright,” he said softly. “He’s a friend.” Hank still looked unsure, but before he could protest further, darkness surrounded them and a second later they were in the kitchen of Charles and Hank’s modest cottage. It was only slightly warmer inside than it had been in the forest. Apparently the house had been deserted for some time.
“Help me get him into bed, please,” Charles said frantically, looping one of Hank’s arms around his shoulder to help him stand. Azazel acquiesced, taking the other arm so the two of them could drag a limp and shivering Hank down the hall to his room.
“Could you start a fire?” Charles called to Azazel, removing Hank’s shoes and coat. Poor, absent-minded fool, he thought ruefully when he took his stepbrother’s hands out of the coat pockets to see his right pinky was slightly purple from frostbite. He had apparently forgotten gloves.
Azazel soon had a fire roaring in the grate and Charles, thanking him, hurried outside to gather some of the snow still in small drifts to heat for a bath. When he returned, Azazel had gone. Hank was sleeping, wrapped tightly in a single wool blanket in an attempt to keep warm without keeping the cold in. Luckily, Charles had somewhat of a penchant for medical journals as well as novels, and had read several times that a bath was the best way to safely heat someone who had frostbite. Finally satisfied once the bath was almost filled with lukewarm water, Charles stood from the side of the tub and woke Hank. His eyes flickered open, still glassy in his confusion until his gaze settled on Charles. He sat upright as quickly as he could.
“Is this real? Did you escape? How did you escape?” he asked stumbling over his own tongue in his haste.
Charles smiled resting a hand on Hank’s collarbone and pushing slightly to signal that he should lie back down. “I didn’t escape. He let me go.” Hank looked absolutely flabbergasted, but Charles didn’t feel like elaborating. Thinking about Erik made an uncomfortable feeling settle over his chest. “Come on,” he said finally. “I’ve made you a bath to warm you up. Go get in. I’ll make you some dinner.”
Erik was in the library when Alex, Darwin, and Raven found him.
“Erik!” Raven exclaimed the minute she saw him, slumped in a window seat on the third level. She and the others flew up the spiral staircase and to his side. He was curled up against the window, his knees drawn up to his chest as he looked out at the gardens and the fountain at its center. He had changed out of his dinner clothes. “Erik,” she began softly, “Azazel just got back. He said he’d taken Charles and his brother home.”
“Good,” Erik answered, his voice somewhat muffled by his knees. He looked so much smaller and younger than he normally did. It broke Raven’s heart.
“I thought everything was going well,” Darwin whispered. “Why did you let him go?”
Erik laughed, a strangled, tired sound. “You know why.” When the others were silent, he sighed, finally shifting on the seat to look at them. “He saw Hank was sick in the mirror and needed to leave. I love him. I couldn’t make him stay if he wanted to go.”
Alex’s mouth sounded dry as he asked, “You mean, he didn’t say it?”
Erik silently turned back to the window, drawing his legs closer to his chest.
“Do you feel any different?” Raven asked quietly in answer to Alex’s question. All four of them fell silent. Everyone was too preoccupied with their own thoughts to wonder where Sean was.
“C’mon, Az, just tell me,” Sean pleaded, clinging to the teleporter’s arm so he couldn’t disappear.
“I’ll get in trouble, which means you’ll get in trouble,” Azazel replied, attempting a stern tone while shaking his arm in a vain attempt to free himself. He sighed when the boy’s grip failed to dislodge.
“You won’t get in trouble because everyone will be so happy to have Charles back,” Sean retorted, staring Azazel down determinedly. “He shouldn’t have even gone home in the first place. We have plenty of room here for his brother.”
Azazel sighed. “I hardly think that’s the point. But very well. If I tell you will you let me go?” Sean nodded earnestly. “Okay. If you follow the path that leads from the castle and take a right the first fork that you come to and follow that road for about twenty minutes, you’ll get to Charles’s house. Now let me go.”
Sean released Azazel’s arm, grinning as he sprinted off for the front door. Charles had left his horse, after all, and would probably want it returned...
Almost an hour after being rescued from the forest Hank was sitting up in bed, clean and warm, and munching on porridge with bits of raisin and apricot. Charles, who had changed out of his nice dinner clothes and into something more comfortable from his own closet, was seated in a rocking chair by the fire, sipping his tea and staring blankly into the fire. He looked up when Hank cleared his throat.
“I looked for you,” Hank said croakily. “All winter. I kept going out further and further into the forest. Four days ago I went out, but I got lost. I didn’t bring any food or water with me. It was stupid, but I didn’t think I’d be gone long enough to need it.” He swallowed hard. “Thank you for finding me when you did. I probably would have died.”
Charles smiled from his spot by the fire, but something in the expression did not quite reach his eyes. “I’m glad to see you again, Hank.” His brother smiled back. Just then there was a knock on the front door.
“Stay right there. I’ll get it,” Charles instructed, setting his teacup down on the floor and getting up.
For a moment his heart fluttered impossibly. He rushed to the door, somehow expecting to open it and find that Erik had followed them. Erik would be standing just in the doorway, snow from the sudden wind that had appeared as soon as Charles left the castle caught in his hair, looking devastated and hopeful and so perfectly Erik that Charles would instantly wrap his arms around his neck and bring his lips down to give him what Charles had intended to be his birthday gift. When he opened the door, however, his whirling imagination ground to an instant halt. “Logan,” he said, not even trying to hide his disappointment.
Logan was beaming, a smile that was all teeth, but somehow more terrifying than Erik’s had ever been. “Well, well, well, Charles,” he purred, stepping into Charles’s space and forcing him back into the foyer. “I haven’t seen you in a while.”
“I’ve been away,” Charles replied through gritted teeth. “Logan, please leave, now’s not a good time. My brother is sick I have to take care of him.” It wasn’t until Charles pushed against Logan’s chest in an attempt to get him out the door that he noticed all the people in his yard, and, more specifically, the carriage with iron bars on the windows and "Shaw’s Asylum" painted in black on the side. Charles backed away immediately. “Logan,” he breathed, “what are you doing?”
The burly man stepped out onto the porch and threw his arm wide to encompass the crowd and the carriage. “Well, since you’ve been gone, you must not have noticed how crazy your brother’s been acting all winter,” he shouted loudly enough for the people in the yard to hear as well. Charles saw many of them nod, and caught the eye of Moira, who had jostled her way to the front and was looking worriedly up at him, clutching a shawl around her shoulders. “Hank’s gone a bit loopy, I’m afraid, Charles, and Doctor Shaw has kindly agreed to take him to the asylum where he can’t cause any more damage.”
As if on cue, the infamous Doctor stepped out from where he had been leaning against the carriage and sauntered toward the house. “You can rest assured, your brother will be safe in my care, Mr. Xavier.” He started to make his way up the steps, but Charles blocked the doorway with his body, throwing his arms out to either side.
“You’re not taking Hank away,” he said firmly, trying to keep the panic out of his voice. “He’s not crazy.”
Logan’s smiled broadened, and Charles tried not to shudder at the look in his eye. “You know, there may be a way to convince me otherwise,” he said, voice rough and low enough that no one else could hear it.
Charles was speechless for a moment, horrified at what Logan seemed to be outright suggesting.
“Charles, what’s going on?” Hank’s voice from several feet behind him almost made him jump.
Charles turned around, trying to look as calm as possible in the circumstances so as not to frighten Hank. “Go back to bed,” he said gently. “I’ll take care of this.” But Hank didn’t look convinced.
“Take care of what?” he asked, shouldering past Charles to see Logan and Shaw on their front stoop. “What are they doing here?”
“After your ramblings earlier, the town decided it would be safest if you were put up in Shaw’s asylum for a while. We can’t have some lunatic running around and raving about a monster in the woods,” Logan fairly growled, advancing on the two of them as Charles did his best to stand between the hunter and his prey.
Hank’s eyes widened. “I’m not crazy! There was a monster. He could feel metal and do things to it,” he said desperately, suddenly turning to his stepbrother. “He took Charles! Charles saw him!” He lowered his voice, pleading into Charles’s ear, “You have to tell them.”
Charles silenced him by placing a hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay,” he said. “I can do better than that.” He turned to Logan, glaring. “If I show you what he’s talking about will you promise not to hurt Hank?”
Logan shrugged. Charles knew it was as good of a promise as he was going to get. He hurried inside and grabbed his coat, feeling the mirror a hard weight in the right front pocket. Taking it, he hurried back to the doorway and held the mirror out, glancing at his reflection in it uncertainly before saying, “Show me Erik.”
When Erik swam into view, Charles knew immediately something was terribly wrong; he was in the armory, a room Charles had only seen in passing while exploring the castle. There was no sound, of course, but Charles could imagine with terrifying clarity the screams of the metal cloud of weapons that surrounded Erik, some flying off randomly to embed themselves in the walls or ceiling. His face was as intimidating as it had been the night Charles met him, contorted as it was in his anger and pain, and making the scars the most apparent Charles had ever seen them.
Darwin was standing in the doorway, his skin hard and shiny like armor, apparently trying to plead with him to calm down and control himself, but Erik was paying no attention. Charles saw Raven poke her head around Darwin’s side, her appearance flickering through several different faces until finally it turned blue and scaled as she shouted, also trying to quiet him, but to no avail. Grimacing, he held out the image for Logan, Shaw, and the crowd to see. This is not how he would have wanted everyone to find out about Erik and the others, but it was the only way he could save Hank.
“Do you see now?” he shouted. “Look at the metal!”
There were gasps from the townspeople. Below him Charles saw Moira’s eyes grow wide, and Logan backed away from him and the picture in the mirror in shock. Charles heard people begin to shout in alarm. “The stories are true!”, “He’s a monster!”, “Did you see the girl? She’s blue!”. Charles held out his hands to try and stop the uproar.
“No, no!” he said hurriedly. “I know he how he looks here, but that’s not who he truly is. He can’t control it that well when he’s upset.” Unconsciously, Charles lowered a hand to the image in the mirror, stroking his fingers over Erik’s furrowed brow in an attempt to soothe him. “He’s really intelligent and gentle and understanding… I… he’s my friend.”
Logan looked utterly bewildered for a moment as he eyes darted from Charles’s face to his fingers against the glass of the mirror. He looked like he was on the verge of saying something, but to everyone’s surprise it was Shaw who broke the silence.
“Amazing trick, that,” he said in a voice so dangerously quiet in the aftermath of all the hubbub that it made Charles look up immediately, holding the mirror protectively up to his chest. “But imagine what a danger he is to himself and others…” he turned to Logan, a terrible glint in his eye. “Perhaps our deal can be salvaged.”
A dreadful sneer stretched itself across the hunter’s face, and he looked Charles candidly in the eye as he said, “Yes indeed, Doctor, I believe it could.” Abruptly, he shot forward, yanking the mirror savagely out of Charles’s grasp, waving it in the air triumphantly above the townspeople’s heads. “This beast will kill us all!” he shrieked. “Man, woman, and child! He’ll rip the town down around us nail by nail if we don’t stop him!”
“He’ll bring his army of monsters with him,” Shaw oozed. “The shape-shifter could impersonate any one of us. No one is safe.”
“No!” Charles tried to yell against the approving shouts that were growing louder as more and more townspeople exchanged their looks of terror for angry scowls, but it was no use.
“We need to take action before he does!” Logan roared. “I say we go straight to his lair and kill him before he can come to us!”
There was a great cry of approval from everyone present, except Moira who looked absolutely mortified as she tried to hush the people next to her. Desperately, Charles jumped at Logan, trying to wrestle the mirror from his hands, but the man held it high out of Charles’s reach.
“Get their axes and pitchforks from the cellar!” the hunter shouted. “Arm yourselves, men!”
Charles watched in abject horror as their cellar doors were flung open, and the men from the village stormed down into the basement, returning with hammers, axes, shovels; anything that could be used as a weapon. Logan tucked the mirror into his belt and grabbed Charles by the shoulders, forcing him down the cellar steps. Hank was shouting some feet behind him, and Charles knew someone else must have grabbed him. Logan and Hank’s captor tossed them down the last few feet to land on the hard stone floor.
“Are you insane?” Charles heard Moira’s shouts of protest and the awkward scuffle of dragging feet before she too was thrown into the cellar, landing face-first on the floor next to Hank with a pained noise.
Above them the doors snapped shut and there was the scrape of something being placed over them. Charles steeled himself against the sound and struggled to his feet to check on the other two.
“Are you alright?” he asked, glancing over the both of them as they slowly rose.
“Nothing hurt but my pride,” Moira replied, stooping to help Hank to his feet.
Hank was wincing. “I’m sure I’ll be fine,” he said through gritted teeth. “I just landed on my hand wrong, that’s all.”
Charles nodded, knowing that Hank was probably in more pain than he was letting on; the hand he was holding gingerly was the one with the frostbitten finger. There was nothing Charles could do for him in the cellar however, and more important than treating Hank’s injury, they had to get out so Charles could ride back to the castle somehow and try to stop Logan. With Moira’s assistance, Charles managed to walk Hank over to the bench in front of the large wooden desk where Hank normally kept his sketches and tools. Above the work space was a small window which looked out onto the rallying mob in the front yard. Charles scrambled up onto the tabletop to see what was happening. Out in the yard, Logan was on horseback, circling around his small band of troops, the mirror clutched tightly in his gloved hand.
“Show us the way to the monster!” He heard Logan shout, and the mirror obliged. With an exultant shout, the crowd took off on a quick march towards the forest.
Fear not, dear readers! There will be another update, most likely on Thursday.
PS Ten points to everyone who caught the Jane Eyre reference. :P
“No!” Charles shouted at the retreating backs of the mob as they trickled into the forest. He pounded on the glass of the small window with his fists, since the entire cellar had been stripped of anything that could be used to break out. He yelled in frustration, resting his forehead against the cold windowpane, willing the prickling behind his eyelids to stop. Now was not the time to panic or get too emotional. He needed to focus. He took a deep breath and looked up, feeling his stomach flop sickeningly when he saw the crowd had completely disappeared into the woods.
“I’m sorry Charles,” Hank said quietly.
Charles turned over his shoulder and saw Hank and Moira, misery written plainly across their faces as they looked up at him. They looked as helpless as he felt. He tried a brave smile and said gently, “It’s alright. We’ll think of something. There’s got to be a stray hammer hidden around here somewhere.” He was about to jump off the desk when Moira suddenly gasped and pointed to the window.
“Look! Someone’s here!”
Heart racing, Charles whipped around, his smile turning genuine and blinding as he met the wide eyes of Sean. The poor boy was so pale his freckles stood out even starker than normal, but he was here and he was outside.
“Sean!” he cried happily, hurrying over to the window again and putting his hands on either side of the frame. “Sean, can you hear me?” Sean nodded. “Okay, I need you to go open the cellar door for us.”
“I can’t,” Sean said disparagingly, his voice muffled through the glass. “They’ve put a chain around it.”
For a horrible moment, Charles’s heart sank. Perhaps there was a stone or something he could find to throw through the window? Then it hit him so obviously he didn’t know why he hadn’t thought of it in the first place.
“That’s okay,” he said, smiling bracingly, for Sean looked so helpless Charles thought he might start crying. “Sean, can you scream really loudly? Just like you did when I surprised you with the snowball?”
Sean paused for a moment, then smiled back. “Yeah,” he said, shifting so he could get a better breath. “I can do that.”
“Good,” Charles replied. “On the count of three, okay?” He turned to the others. “You’ll want to cover your ears,” he warned, placing his own hands to the side of his head before focusing his attention back on Sean. “One… two… three!”
Even through Charles’s hands, the force of the sonic scream sent a painful shock straight to his eardrums, making them ring. There was no reason to complain though, as the window had obligingly shattered with the impact of Sean’s scream, leaving shards of glass and slivers of wood scattered on the desk around Charles’s crouched figure.
“Moira, your shawl,” Charles said, motioning for her to hand it to him. He laid it over the bottom pane to protect against the glass and reached out a hand to help the other two up onto the desk and out the hole where the window had been. Charles was the last to crawl through. As soon as he did, he gave Sean a strong hug.
“How did you get here?” he asked, pulling away.
“Azazel told me how,” Sean explained, puffing his chest out a little as they made their way inside. Charles ruffled his hair affectionately. “He said you’d left to find your brother but I thought I could convince you to bring him home and stay with us. When I got here, though, there were people in your yard and they all looked so angry. I hid in the forest, but I saw them lock you down there, and then they all came marching past. The big one in front had Erik's mirror.”
Charles could feel adrenaline starting to course through his veins again. He made his way to the door and took his coat from its peg by the door. Christ, he thought, it’s been hanging here all winter. I didn’t even bring it when I found the castle. So much time had passed and he had barely noticed. But, he decided, shaking himself as he shrugged the coat on and buttoned it swiftly, wrapping a scarf around his neck as well for good measure, that now was not the time to dwell on such things. Everyone at the castle needed his help, Erik especially. He turned again to the others.
“Do you remember the way back?” he asked Sean, certain they could follow the mob’s tracks if they had to, but it would be much easier if they galloped without stopping the whole way back to the castle. Sean nodded eagerly, so Charles then looked at Moira. “If I leave you and Hank here will you take care of him?”
“Of course,” Moira replied.
“Thank you,” he sighed. He gave her a reassuring hug. “I’ll send someone as soon as I can. And don’t panic, but he might be red and have a tail.” He released her and turned to Sean. “Come on. Let’s go.”
After the fiasco in the armory, Raven, Darwin, and Alex had all decided it was best to leave Erik alone for the time being and had retreated to the small parlor at the front of the house on the second level to while away the time before bed. No one was particularly tired, however, or in the mood for chitchat, so they sat silently in the armchair and on the couch, staring aimlessly into the fire. The quiet had been pervasive for almost half an hour when Darwin suddenly cocked his head, listening.
“Do you hear that?” he asked, still as a statue.
Alex frowned. “Hear what?”
“That,” Darwin said emphatically. “It sounds like…shouting.”
Raven got to her feet exasperatedly. “It’s not Erik, is it? If he’s started hurling things around in frustration again I’m going to run into the fray and knock him out.”
Darwin shook his head. “No, it’s not him. Angel told me he’d gone back to his room. This is like… chanting. Like a big group.”
They looked at each other worriedly. How could there be a group of people this close to the castle? No one had been near for many years (excepting, of course, Charles and Hank), and those that had wandered by had gotten one look of the inhabitants, blue, red, screaming super-sonicly, or shooting plasma and run away screaming, never to return. Alex and Darwin rose and the three of them walked swiftly to the window. Sure enough, through the naked branches of the forest, they could see the lights of at least two-dozen torches, revealing an angry mob that seemed to be making its way up the path to the castle with a small carriage at the rear. Light glinted off the metallic shine of axes and shovels, saws and pitchforks, and, it seemed, off of a small object held high in the hands of the man on horseback leading the way.
“The mirror!” Raven shouted, pointing as the crowd drew closer to the iron gates.
“We have to warn the others,” Darwin said, looking at them all, wide-eyed. “Run as fast as you can and gather everyone you can find. We’ll meet in the front hall in two minutes.”
Alex and Raven nodded their acknowledgement then set off at breakneck speed, splitting up when they reached the corridor and shouting, “Everyone in the front hall now!”, “The castle is being attacked!” Darwin took a split second to consider joining them, but someone had to tell Erik of the approaching horde, and it might as well be him. He sprinted out of the room and towards the West Wing as quickly as his long legs would take him.
The door to Erik’s room was wide open to Darwin’s surprise. He could see a dark figure hunched over, bracing his hands on either side of the table where the rose hovered, relieved of its protective covering. He stepped forward cautiously. If Erik noticed his presence, he did not care to acknowledge it.
“Sir?” Darwin began quietly. “Erik, I know this is a terrible time…” he winced and broke off as another glowing petal fell from the blossom and joined its fellows on the tabletop. “But, the castle is under attack. There’s a huge group that’s going to be here in about thirty seconds, and we need your help.”
For a horrible moment, Darwin thought Erik was bottling up all his rage to unleash another swirling metal fit on him. However, after several silent moments, all Erik did was sigh. “Let them come,” he intoned softly, still not meeting Darwin’s eye. “There’s hardly any point in resisting anymore.”
“Go now, please, Darwin,” Erik continued as if the other man had not spoken. “I want to be alone.”
Darwin wanted to argue with him or maybe give him a good hard slap to knock some sense into his thick skull, but in the end, all he could do was stare, torn between frustration and heartbreak until he heard the first deafening boom of the mob trying to break down the front door. Seeing Erik was still unresponsive, he raced back down the hallway and staircase, arriving panting at the clustered group of people in the center of the darkened foyer.
“Darwin, there you are!” Raven hissed at him, drawing him closer to the circle. “Here’s the plan: we’re going to hide around the main staircase and as soon as they’re inside, we surprise attack them. Hopefully they’ll be frightened away like all the others.”
“And if they aren’t?”
Raven’s expression turned dark. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, but we’ll have to use excessive force if necessary. Janos can make bigger whirlwinds, Azazel can put all his fencing skills to use, Alex can up the power on his little red circle things, Angel can use her fireballs,” Raven gestured with a scaled hand to each person as she said their name. “But let’s hope 'Plan A' works well enough instead.”
Darwin was about to ask where Sean was, but before he could there was a petrifying crash from the door, like it was almost about to give. “Everyone hide!” he whispered as loudly as he could. They had all just barely made it into the shadows of the giant staircase when, with a sickening crunch, the doors fell open.
An impossible silence fell over the room. Raven, Darwin, Alex and all the others could feel their hearts beating in anticipation as the first members of the mob stepped carefully over the threshold. The first man to enter the foyer was tall and thin and wearing a smile so sharp it looked like it could cut steel. Raven felt goosebumps spring up on her arms.
“Knock, knock,” the man purred. He slinked forward, head questing back and forth, the rest of the crowd silent and waiting for the inhabitants to make a move or their leader to beckon them onward. The quiet was broken by another, much burlier man swaggering into the hall.
“Come on, Shaw, there’s no one here,” he fairly growled with impatience. “Let’s go look for the metal freak.”
Raven’s blood boiled, her form flickering in her anger, unable to control herself. The light clicking noises that accompanied her skin change caught the attention of both the burly man and the man who he had referred to as Shaw, who held up a hand in acknowledgement, looking somewhere over Raven’s head.
“We know you’re here,” he called out into the darkness, stepping further into the castle. “Why don’t you come out and chat? That would make this all a lot easier.”
Raven gritted her teeth. He was too close. Soon he would be able to see them. She was about to move, maybe to run forward and give Shaw a solid punch across the jaw, when Darwin leapt out of the shadows instead.
“Alex, now!” he shouted, and Alex also jumped from his hiding spot to send an arch of burning red energy right at Shaw and his companion.
All hell broke loose. The other members of the castle immediately charged at the intruders, some of whom fled in fear, but a large number, though shaking, held their ground, clutching desperately at their makeshift weapons. In her peripheral vision, Raven saw Janos sending small tornadoes at the interlopers, several of them getting swept out the door in their wake. She ran forward and reached a baffled looking man who looked as if he had never before held a hacksaw in his life. She sneered, her skin flickering again as the man watched, trembling so hard Raven wondered how he didn’t drop his weapon.
“Boo!” she said. The man ran away screaming, Raven laughing at his retreating back before turning to see how the others were faring.
They seemed to be doing well. Only a scant few townspeople remained. With a frown, Raven noticed that the bigger, broad-shouldered man had disappeared. Shaw, however, seemed to be perfectly well occupied with dodging Janos’s whirlwinds and Alex’s energy beams, attempting to rally his troops back into order. Azazel was appearing and disappearing in clouds of smoke, taking hold of intruders and teleporting them somewhere else. Overhead, Angel flitted back and forth, yanking weapons out of the air from unsuspecting hands, the owners of which shrieked and ran back into the night. Raven’s grin widened. It looked like they weren’t going to have to revert to violence after all.
Just then there was a desperate yell behind Raven and she whirled around to see Shaw had given up trying to stop the other townspeople from running away and instead grabbed a shovel and was sprinting at Alex, whose back was turned as he shot plasma beams at the last stragglers in the hall. The flat, shining blade whipped through the air, and Raven stood horrified, unable to cry out to warn him. Before the shovel could come crashing down on Alex’s unsuspecting skull, however, Darwin plowed straight into Shaw, knocking them both to the ground and the weapon out of Shaw’s grasp to clatter across the marble floor.
The two men were tussling, Darwin gaining the upper hand, since his skin seemed to turn slick and ungraspable whenever Shaw attempted to hold him, or hard and shiny whenever he threw a punch. Dodging Shaw’s flailing limbs, Darwin pinned him to the floor, his knees holding down the other man’s arms.
“Be. Good,” Darwin said through clenched teeth, glaring down at Shaw, Shaw looking equally mutinous up at him.
The entryway was quiet except for the two men’s rapid breathing, everyone else having finally fled seeing their leaders had disappeared or been defeated. Raven surveyed the chaos around her for a moment. The other servants were standing close together, Alex, Darwin, and Janos talking in hushed voices about how best to handle the situation with their captive. A few feet away Azazel was attempting to wrap a makeshift bandage made out of his tie around a deep gash in Angel’s bicep which was freely flowing dark red blood. Suddenly, there was the sound of hoofbeats on the cobblestone path outside and everyone looked up, expecting another attack. Raven gasped when she took in the figures riding into the hall through the ruined doorway.
“Charles! Sean!” she cried, rushing forward to take the reins when the two of them pulled the horse to halt, Charles jumping from its back at once.
“Where is Erik?” he demanded immediately, helping Sean distractedly down from the saddle.
“In his room,” Raven replied, nonplussed. “But it’s okay, everyone’s run off.”
Charles shook his head. “Not everyone,” he said, gesturing to the scowling Shaw. “Did you capture Logan as well?”
“Big. Dark hair, sideburns, swarthy,” Charles answered, eyes widening in apprehension.
Raven almost jumped, still tense from all the excitement, when Angel answered from directly behind her. “He ran off once the commotion started. Towards… the West Wing, I think.”
Eyes widening in horror, Charles bolted up the staircase, taking the steps two at a time.
Everyone looked at each other for a moment, confused, the many emotions connected with Charles’s return flitting over their faces. Unfortunately, in their moment of pensiveness, Shaw saw his opening. With a tremendous effort, he threw all his weight forward, dislodging Darwin’s knees and rolling quickly away to stand. He grabbed a discarded knife from the floor that one of the townspeople must have dropped and, before anyone could do more than advance on him, grabbed the person nearest to him, who just happened to be Sean. He pulled the boy close roughly by the arm, and clamped a hand over his mouth. He smiled, all teeth and no humor, as he pressed the blade of the knife against the pale skin of Sean’s throat.
“Now,” he began, his voice deceptively smooth, “I think I’ll be leaving, thank you. No funny business from any of you, or the boy might just get his pretty little throat cut. It would be a shame to spill any of his blood. Well... at least now when I don’t have the proper conditions to examine the repercussions.” His gaze flickered down to Sean’s head for a split second. But a second was all it took.
Azazel disappeared from where he had been standing with Alex and Janos, re-appearing behind Shaw with a pop. The doctor turned his head just in time to see the silver flash of Azazel’s curved dagger before it dug into his back. A look of disbelief fixed itself to Shaw’s features and he dropped his own weapon, falling to the floor without a sound. Azazel stepped over his body, glowering down at the lifeless face.
“You do not touch the boy,” he said matter-of-factly, putting his hands on Sean’s shoulders and leading him forward before he could turn around and take in the sight on the floor.
The others rushed forward, Raven shushing the sobs that were building up in Sean’s throat and stroking the curly ginger hair out of his eyes. Darwin muscled his way to the front of the group and picked Sean up, the boy’s arms instantly wrapping tightly around his neck.
“You’re all right,” Darwin cooed, rubbing soothing circles on Sean’s back as he hiccuped into his neck. Darwin eyed the others with a commanding look. “Some of you need to stay and clean this mess up. The rest of you come upstairs. Let’s see if Charles has calmed Erik down.”
Expect the final update either tomorrow or on Saturday. Thank you everyone who has been reading, commenting, and leaving kudos! I can't believe we're this close to the end!
The shouts from the battle raging in the front hall followed Logan as he sprinted up the staircase, still following the route to his prey by the mirror. It led him down a long corridor to a door slightly ajar before the image suddenly faded. As quietly as he could, Logan grabbed a silver-tipped arrow from the quiver on his back and slotted it into position on his bow, holding it steady with the index finger of his left hand. He poked his head around the door, grinning when he saw the figure of a man silhouetted against French doors by the moon and a dimly glowing rose hovering several inches off the table the man was crouched over. Logan flattened himself against the heavy wooden door, took aim, and fired.
The man, however, suddenly looked up and straight at Logan, eyes wide as he dodged and held out his hand. The arrow swiveled in midair, turning just in time so the tip only grazed the man’s arm. Logan swore. Hank had said something about the freak being able to feel metal around him; he should have known he could sense the arrow flying towards him. Luckily, the hunter had come prepared for any eventuality. There was a knife in his boot, but he knew it would be useless. He settled instead on the small but lethal wooden club hitched to his back. He had used it to bash in the skulls of half-dead animals before. It would work just as well on the monster as it did on them.
With a fluid motion, the hunter lunged forward and unhooked the club from the sling on his back at the same time, but the man had braced himself for it. He caught Logan’s arm before he could bring the weapon down on his head, holding it firmly away as he tried to toss Logan backwards. Logan sneered at the man, who was strong, but obviously inexperienced in hand-to-hand combat.
“So this is the monster I’ve heard all these stories about,” he leered. “We meet at last.”
The man’s grip loosened just slightly, a pained look crossing his face, and Logan took the opportunity to aim a hard kick at his torso, which sent his opponent sprawling backwards, knocking open the French doors as he fell onto the balcony beyond. A satisfied smirk plastered itself across Logan’s face and he sauntered forward, aiming another swift kick at the man’s ribs before he could dodge. He yelped, clutching at his stomach. Logan laughed, a harsh, feral noise, grabbing the man by the lapels and hauling him to his feet.
“Did you really think you could get away with that, freak?” asked Logan, shoving the man backwards until he collided with the edge of the balcony. “Locking him away all winter. Did you think you could just steal what is mine?” He made to give the man one final shove, but something in his last words finally triggered a reaction.
The man looked up, eyes glowing with a terrible anger so consuming that Logan faltered, his hands pausing mid-motion. Before Logan could react, Erik had grabbed his forearms.
“He’s not your property,” he snarled, head butting Logan hard in the face so blood began gushing from the hunter's nose. “He’s not anyone's property.”
Erik whirled around so quickly Logan didn’t quite know what was happening until he felt the cold press of marble against his back. A few raindrops began to fall, wetting the stone and making Logan aware just how cold it was as the wind whipped around them. Erik’s arm tensed, ready to toss the hunter over, but Logan made a grab for him, the force of Erik’s throw and gravity pulling them both over the slippery ledge.
They tumbled over and over, hitting each other and smacking against the tiles as they slid down the sloping roof beneath the balcony. For a brief second, they were free falling until they landed on the ledge of a lower level, the edge of which was lined with gargoyles. Logan was the first on his feet. He swung at Erik as he was straightening up, landing his fist solidly against the man’s solar plexus. Erik cried out, aiming a kick at the hunter, who sidestepped. This ledge was also slick from the rainwater, however, and Logan’s feet slipped beneath him, granting Erik the window he needed to punch Logan in the jaw, sending him reeling backwards. Instinctively, he grabbed for the knife in his boot, but Erik seemed to know what he was doing right away, for no sooner was it in his hands than it was clattering away across the stone landing.
Logan lurched suddenly, unaware of quite what was happening until he realized the man still had his hand outstretched and felt the tug of force at his belt buckle and the clasps on his shirt. For the first time in his life, the hunter let out a cry of terror. He tried to lunge forward but the man’s powers had him fast, and, despite all his efforts to stay firmly on the ledge, he felt the metal lift him effortlessly, carrying him over to the edge where the gargoyles stood watch, until he was hovering hundreds of feet off the ground.
The man’s hand shook with anger as he held the hunter fast, the same rage burning in his eyes as when Logan had first mentioned Charles. “I should let you go right now,” Erik breathed through bared teeth. Logan’s heart hammered in his chest at the sight; it was far more terrifying than anything he had ever seen before in his life. “You came to kill me and my friends, and God knows what you would do with Charles if you thought you could get away with it.”
The metal holding Logan in the air began to hum and he let out a noise close to a sob. Withering determination was etched into the man’s face, the gashes marring his skin dark and deep in the patchy moonlight and spattering rain. Logan whimpered.
The man whirled suddenly, eyes wide with disbelief. Charles was leaning over the edge of the balcony, holding out a hand as if he could stop the force that was holding Logan aloft.
Erik’s chest heaved. “Charles?” he said, only audible enough for Logan to hear, but Charles smiled with relief all the same.
“Erik, please put him down,” he cried. “Put him down and come up here to me.”
The man looked incredibly torn, his gaze flickering from Charles to Logan. “He was trying to kill me, Charles. He would have killed the others too if they stood in his way.”
“I know,” Charles replied, his voice placating even as he had to yell over the wind. “But that doesn’t mean you have to turn into him. Please, Erik, be the better man. This doesn’t have to end in bloodshed, especially at your hands.”
There was quiet for a long while, the man’s face drawn in thought as he considered what his instinct told him to do, and what Charles wanted him to do. It wasn’t until Charles said, barely audible over the storm, “Please, Erik,” so desperately that Erik’s resolve cracked. Scowling, he pulled Logan back over to the safety of the ledge, grabbing him by the lapels to bring them face-to-face. Logan trembled terribly.
“If you ever come back here again,” Erik whispered, his many teeth bared once more, “I will not hesitate to finish what you’ve started.” With that, he sent the hunter sprawling to the hard stone floor and climbed carefully back up towards the balcony.
Charles was beaming at him and Erik found himself smiling as well when he reached the safe marble edge. Cautiously, he pulled himself up to stand on the opposite side of the railing across from Charles.
“Charles,” he breathed, leaning forward and holding himself steady with one hand to use the other to tangle in Charles’s rain-damp hair. “You came back.”
“Of course I did,” Charles replied softly, covering Erik’s hand on the railing with his own. He grinned shyly up at Erik, and somehow, the danger of the recent past faded slightly. Not gone, but not as terrifying as it had been now that Charles was here. With a familiarity that made Erik’s heart ache, Charles tilted his head closer, eyes drooping closed. Charles’s breath was warm and sweet against his lips when suddenly he felt a pain shoot through his back so powerful it made him cry out and sent him rocking out away from the ledge. He would have fallen had Charles not flung himself forward, wrapping his arms under Erik’s to hold him securely.
Behind him, Erik registered a shout and a drawn out scream getting further and further away as Logan fell backwards toward the ground hundreds of feet below. Erik cried out again, feeling warm blood flow hot and fast down his back from where the pain was concentrated.
“Erik!” Charles exclaimed, using all his power to help pull Erik back over the ledge to the safe side. As soon as he was on the marbled surface he collapsed against Charles, making them stumble and slide. Charles had just enough warning to catch most of Erik’s weight, easing them both to the ground and holding Erik’s head up just enough so he could slip his knees underneath for support. He couldn’t say anything. It was as if his vocal chords were paralyzed in his shock. Instead, all he could do was smooth his hands over the pained creases on Erik’s face, trying to ignore the steady seep of his blood as it slowly soaked Charles’s trousers and boots.
Blue-gray eyes blinked open. When Erik saw Charles he smiled, despite his labored breathing.
“I’m so sorry I wasn’t here sooner,” Charles finally managed around the lump in his throat, willing his hands to stop shaking.
Erik’s answering chuckle quickly turned into a wet sounding cough and Charles couldn’t keep the tears that had been stinging his eyes from finally falling. “You’re here now, that’s all that matters,” Erik said weakly when he caught his breath. “I wasn’t particularly planning on dying tonight, but if I guess if I have to, I’m glad you’re with me.”
“Don’t talk like that,” Charles choked out over a sob. He took one of Erik’s hands with his free one, lacing their fingers together. “I’m going to take care of you now. You’ll be good as new in no time.”
Erik smiled ruefully, running his thumb over Charles’s knuckles almost absentmindedly. “Its okay, Charles,” he said through shuddering breaths.
Another sob wrenched itself free from Charles’s throat. “Don’t do this, please, Erik,” he begged, clutching tighter at his hand.
Erik’s eyes were starting to go misty. Desperately, in an impossible, last-ditch effort to get some form of control over the situation that was swiftly spiraling away from him, Charles leaned down, brushing their lips gently together. “I love you,” he whispered, pulling back just far enough to form the words. He felt rather than saw the corner of Erik’s mouth twitch up. Then the rise and fall of his chest stuttered to a halt.
Charles froze for a moment, unable to quite process what was happening. Then, in a rush, he buried his face in Erik’s neck, hugging him close and crying harder than he ever had before in his life. He was sobbing so much he almost didn’t catch the first tug of Erik’s body being drawn into the air. When he realized what was happening, he pulled slightly away in alarm. Whatever force had been trying to drag Erik out from underneath Charles immediately pulled him into the air, where he dangled, half on his back, arms and legs akimbo as if he were floating in water.
Charles noticed Raven, Alex, and Darwin were standing in the doorway that led out onto the balcony, Sean wrapped tightly around Darwin as they all watched Erik suspended in midair between them, transfixed. Suddenly, Charles felt a tug on the metal of his coat buttons and the nails in his boots. Across the space, under Erik’s floating arm, he saw the others frown, looking about themselves as if they felt it too. Raven struggled as a ring she was wearing began to slip from her finger, suddenly flying off the end and hovering around Erik. Charles heard a shout, and watched as Alex ducked, a candelabra from the room behind them just missing his left shoulder, joined almost immediately by a gold bookend. Darwin shoved them all down to the floor, throwing his arms over their heads protectively as more and more objects flew from the room, creating a whirlwind of metal that spun faster and faster around Erik’s body. Charles felt the buttons pop from his coat, whistling through the air to join the chaos.
Soon the swirling cloud of metal was so thick Charles could barely make out Erik’s shape through it. He wanted to rush forward, to force his way through and tug Erik down even though he knew it was pointless. He had taken half a step forward when a pulsing light, much like the glow from the rose, broke through the gaps in the wall of metal, which had begun to spin faster and faster. Charles watched, eyes wide and disbelieving. Reading about magic and fairytales as a young child had been exciting and fun, but now that he was seeing something so incredible, it scared him, especially since it was happening to Erik. A violent shock exploded from the center of the mass of rotating objects, rippling through the air visibly and forcing Charles backwards a little as he threw up his arms instinctively and closed his eyes. A sharp pain flashed through his skull for a fraction of a second before it was gone, replaced with a haze that made his head swim.
Several loud clanking noises made him open his eyes again and he gasped when he saw the metal surrounding Erik falling as his body lowered gently to the ground as if on strings, twisted so Charles couldn’t see his face. For a horrible moment, Charles watched, blinking fuzzily against the throbbing in his head and thinking that perhaps nothing had really happened. Then he saw Erik’s body shudder and heard his gasping intake of breath. Charles’s heart thundered in his chest. He was rooted to the spot in amazement, only able to stare as Erik gingerly lifted himself from the ground, looking around at the metal all around him, then down at his own hands. Charles saw that the back of his pure white shirt, which should have been stained with blood, was completely spotless. Back and forth between his splayed hands and the scattered metal Erik looked for what felt like an eternity for Charles until slowly, oh so slowly, he turned over his shoulder and his eyes found Charles’s constant blue gaze.
Erik stepped closer on experimental feet, like he wasn’t quite sure anything was real. The smile he offered Charles was excited, but somewhat contained and, Charles was amazed to see, almost completely different from the one he was used to. The gashes etched deeply into Erik’s face were now completely gone. His eyes and teeth were the same, and the high jut of his cheekbones was familiar in structure, but the skin was now smooth and pale. Charles wanted nothing more than to run his hand over the light stubble along his jaw. Still grinning cautiously, Erik stepped clear of the ring of metal and held out a hand.
“Charles,” he said, and it was that same deep, accented rumble that Charles remembered.
An answering smile finally broke across his face and he took Erik’s offered hand. There was instantly a flare of something in his mind, like an echo of Erik speaking his name twining along his thoughts that mixed the feelings he knew were his own with something else, more foreign in essence, but similar in sentiment. Some of his confusion must have shown on his face, for Erik’s smile faltered and at the same time, Charles sensed, physically sensed a wave of uncertainty flowing from him.
“What is it?” he asked, taking Charles’s other hand and pulling him closer protectively. The closer he got, the more concern rippled out from him.
“I… I think I can hear you,” Charles said, bewildered, and once again, he felt Erik’s confusion. He let go of one of Erik’s hands just long enough to tap his temple in explanation. “In my head. It’s like I can feel what you’re feeling and thinking. Not all of it just… when you’re really thinking hard about something.”
Erik’s eyes widened for a moment. Then he frowned, but it wasn’t angry, more like he was trying to understand.
You mean like this?
Charles heard the thought within the confines of his own mind as clearly as if Erik had spoken it out loud. He started in surprise, but after a second of adjustment he laughed. Erik was smiling again.
Yes, like that, Charles thought.
Erik looked startled, and for a second Charles though he had overstepped his boundaries, but then Erik’s grin returned, a little wider than before.
Then you know what I’m going to do next, don’t you? he asked, stepping closer so their bodies were almost flush together.
Erik’s warmth and intoxicating scent washed over him a moment before the image flickered into his head. Charles blushed.
“Yes, I think that would be the next item on the agenda,” he said softly.
Erik lowered his lips to Charles’s, whispering, “Good,” before he brought their mouths crashing together. Charles hummed appreciatively deep in his throat, throwing his arms around Erik’s neck and standing slightly on his tiptoes so he could deepen the kiss. He felt an arm wrap around his back, pulling him the minuscule remaining distance to Erik’s chest, while the other hand threaded itself through his hair. In his head, there was a symphony of Erik and Charles and I love you bouncing back and forth between them, making relieved tears prickle behind his closed eyelids. Desperately in need of air, Charles pulled away for a split second before fiercely attacking Erik’s lips again, a small, choked laugh escaping despite his best efforts.
Erik seemed to know exactly how he was feeling, however, because his hand suddenly dropped from its place in Charles’s hair and the next thing Charles knew, he was being lifted off the ground with surprising strength. Erik’s mouth muffled his amused squeak as he braced his legs on the sharp ridge of Erik's hips. He tangled his own fingers in Erik’s rain-darkened curls, moaning a little when Erik’s tongue gently teased apart his lips.
The roaring inside his head was so great, and he was so lost in Erik’s mouth that Charles almost didn’t hear the pointed cough coming from the doorway. Reluctantly, he pulled away, dropping one last kiss to Erik’s cheek as he spun the two of them around to face their forgotten audience.
Raven was quirking an eyebrow at them and standing with one hand on her hip, the other covering Sean’s eyes. From the motion of her skirt, Charles highly suspected she was tapping her foot. Alex was staring as if someone had hit him over the head with a blunt object, but Darwin was smiling and shaking slightly with the effort of not laughing. He turned to catch Alex’s eye, but when the other man met his gaze, something in both their expressions changed and they both looked quickly away again. Charles had to suppress a giddy laugh.
“Now that you two have been so kind to join us,” Raven said dryly, dropping her hand from Sean’s eyes to hold out in front of her; the boy blinked, a little angry and confused, “would either of you like to take a guess as to why I can still do this?” Her hand flickered blue and scaled before returning to the usual pale skin she wore.
Erik looked at Charles, who nodded in understanding and slid to the ground with Erik’s help. The two of them walked to the others, Erik waving the metal objects out of the way with a sweep of his hand.
“I don’t quite know,” Erik responded honestly, gesturing to the rose that was now laying flat against its table, seeming for all the world like a completely normal flower. “Look, the last petal hasn’t fallen.”
Charles chewed his lip uncertainly. The others watched him as though he would have an explanation, waiting patiently for him to break the silence. “I mean, I don’t know exactly what was supposed to happen,” he began slowly, trying to find the right words, which was quite difficult in the mental din of the other’s confusion, “but... I’m different now, too. I can hear you all thinking. And I think maybe… this wasn’t a curse. This is a gift.”
Raven, Darwin, and Alex were looking dubiously at him (Sean just looked stupefied), but Erik was watching him steadily, his thoughts tranquil as the calm after a storm. For once, Charles believed they both understood each other perfectly. He took a deep breath and began his explanation.
“Look, I understand it’s difficult to think that way first, but look at all the control you have now. Raven, your mind is absolutely buzzing, but you’re holding your blonde form. And when you changed your hand just now, you were so precise about it. Nothing else changed.” He turned to Erik, taking his hand earnestly. “And you! All those pieces of metal just brushed away back there. You can control it so much better than you ever have before.” Erik smiled at him, and he grinned back, facing the others. “I’m sure you all can. What you do is amazing, and you wouldn’t be the people I love without your powers.”
He fell silent, hoping his argument was enough for them. Alex looked especially skeptical, but Raven and Darwin’s worried expressions seemed to soften a little. Erik’s grip on his hand tightened. They all stood there for a moment, grinning stupidly at each other, even to the point that Alex eventually joined in. Then abruptly, Raven jumped forward, throwing her arms around both Erik and Charles, pulling them in for a tight hug. Almost immediately Charles felt Darwin, Alex, and Sean’s bodies join the impromptu cuddle-fest and he smiled.
Finally they broke apart, Sean sniffling even as he grinned toothily. Raven wiped at her eyes, shaking herself as she said, “Come on in out of the rain, you two, you’ll catch your death.”
“I should get Sean to bed,” Darwin said gruffly.
“And Raven and I should help clean up the mess downstairs,” Alex added. “Don’t you love birds worry; we won’t miss you if you don’t join us.”
“Goodnight!” Sean piped.
“Goodnight,” Erik and Charles answered. The others were almost out the door when Charles remembered his promise to Hank and Moira.
“Oh, Raven!” he called. She stopped, looking over her shoulder to acknowledge him. “Will you please ask Azazel to return to my house and bring Hank and my friend Moira back here? They’ll be worried about me.”
Raven beamed at him. “It’ll be my pleasure,” she said, before exiting the room, closing the door behind her.
He immediately leaned into the solid warmth of Erik’s chest, nuzzling against his neck and pressing a soft kiss to the skin there. Erik folded him into his arms, resting his nose in Charles’s drying hair.
“So what happens now?” Charles half mumbled, half sighed. He could feel the warm wash of affection from Erik’s mind when he brushed his lips over Charles’s temple.
“Now,” he replied huskily, “we get out of these wet clothes and into a warm bed and you can give me the birthday present you were making such a big to-do about.”
Charles smiled, tilting his head up so he could meet Erik’s gray eyes, crinkled slightly around the edges with the breadth of his smile. “Anything for you, love,” he breathed before claiming Erik’s mouth once more.
Okay kids! There's still one more chapter, which will be posted tomorrow and.... is more than a little bit porn-y. Brace yourselves! :P
As always, thank you lovely readers for your comments, kudos, and overall wonderfulness.
Erik’s sitting room was a complete mess, due to the way all the metal had soared out of it. On its way outside the metal had knocked books off the shelves and collapsed chairs when all their screws had flown loose. Too soon, Charles broke away from Erik’s distracting mouth, smiling as they rested their foreheads together.
“You’d better bring all that in from the rain,” he said. “It’ll tarnish.”
“I’ll buy more,” Erik answered, dipping his head for another kiss, but Charles only laughed and pecked him lightly. With a sigh, Erik pulled away. “Fine.”
Charles’s smile widened as Erik’s left hand wrapped tighter around his waist to make up for the way he had to sweep his right arm out towards the balcony. Charles watched as the metal migrated inside, hovering over their heads to land on the carpet in front of the fireplace with several loud clanking noises. Erik, on the other hand, made good use of his newfound control and didn’t even glance at the metal as he guided it, choosing instead to nuzzle at Charles’s hair.
“Happy?” he asked when the last item had fallen to the ground. Erik’s voice was husky, and Charles inhaled sharply, taking in the calming smells of the spring rain and Erik’s own scent.
“Very,” Charles replied, his eyes sparkling as he looked up to meet Erik’s gaze.
Erik smiled and leaned down to kiss him again, slowly, and with intent. Cautiously, so Charles barely noticed it at first, one of Erik’s hands began to tug at the back of Charles’s shirt, lifting it out of the back of his trousers so Erik could slip his hand underneath. They were both still cold from the rainstorm outside, but that wasn’t what sent a shiver through Charles’s body. All along his mind, Erik’s thoughts were a jumble of want and love and wonderment at having Charles here with him, kissing him.
Charles groaned, pressing closer to Erik so his growing erection brushed up against Erik’s answering one. Gasping, Erik pulled away.
“I’m sorry,” Charles began immediately, “I-”
Erik shook his head furiously. “Don’t say sorry. Come on.” And taking Charles’s hand, he led them across the room and through the door in the corner. As Charles had previously suspected, it led to Erik’s bedroom. They stopped short once inside. Erik reached behind Charles to pull the door to the sitting room shut, leaving them in the dimly lit bedroom.
There was a fire burning in another fireplace to their right, and across from the fireplace was a giant four-poster bed. Velvety purple drapes were pulled back on either side, and a matching purple duvet covered the top of the mattress. Stacked up against the dark wooden headboard was a plethora of silken red pillows that looked soft and inviting. Other than a large wooden chest at the foot of the bed that matched the headboard, and two bedside tables with oil lamps each, the room was rather Spartan. It suited Erik perfectly. Charles smiled.
“Its beautiful, Erik,” he said, turning again to the taller man.
Erik’s mouth quirked up in a returning grin. Charles took a moment to take in how different, but how similar it was to the smile he was used to, and to the waves of affection he felt flowing from Erik. Everything was quite so new, it made Charles’s skin tingle a little, like his nerves were dancing live wires.
Slowly, Charles reached for the edge of Erik’s shirt. Erik’s grin slipped from his face to be replaced by a slack-jawed expression as Charles slid the fabric up his torso, nudging at his shoulder with his nose to motion for Erik to raise his arms. He obliged, as if in a trance, and when the garment was over his head, all he could do was stare down at Charles.
“Now me,” Charles said quietly, and it took a moment for Erik’s brain to catch up. As soon as it did, however, Erik moved immediately, lifting Charles’s own shirt over his head when the telepath lifted his arms.
They stood, facing each other. Erik could see the Charles’s shoulders rise and fall as he breathed, taking in the sight before him. Erik smiled at the look on his face; eyes wide and mouth slightly open. Unconsciously, Charles sucked his bottom lip into his mouth, biting it lightly, making Erik groan.
The sound seemed to break the daze that had settled over them, and Charles surged at Erik again, kissing him fiercely and licking his mouth open. Clumsily, they made their way over to the bed, Erik guiding Charles in front of him by firm hands on his hips. As they stumbled along, Charles reached for the fastenings on Erik’s trousers, unlacing him feverishly until they fell and slid down Erik’s legs. Erik paused, pulling away from Charles long enough to kick them off, along with his shoes, then automatically sought Charles’s lips once more.
Apparently, Erik had miscalculated the distance from the door to the bed, for as he pushed Charles backwards just a little further, Charles fell away from him with a surprised yelp, landing on the mattress. Erik froze in shock, but Charles seemed to recover almost right away.
“Eager, are we?” he asked cheekily, propping himself up on his elbows and quirking an eyebrow at Erik.
“Can you blame me?” Erik returned, licking his lips and lowering himself on top of the smaller man. Never breaking eye contact, he began divesting Charles of his trousers, undoing the laces on his breeches tantalizingly slowly. Charles gasped when Erik’s fingers purposefully brushed over his evident erection. “Hush now,” Erik chided, lowering his lips to Charles’s throat and nipping at his pulse lightly.
Charles whimpered, instinctively canting his hips upwards to chase Erik’s touch. Shaking fingers twined in Erik’s hair, holding him in place and stroking reassuringly at his scalp as Erik deliberately slipped the trousers down to Charles’s knees. Underneath him, Charles wriggled and kicked, taking care to avoid hitting Erik, until finally they were both completely naked, their clothes leaving an obvious trail from the door to the mattress. The grip on Erik’s hair loosened, and he placed one more kiss to Charles’s skin, then looked up to meet Charles's heavy-lidded gaze, his lips inhumanely red from Erik’s kisses.
“You’re perfect,” Erik breathed.
Charles smiled, blushing. He pulled Erik close and pressed their lips together sweetly. “Come here,” he whispered.
He slid further up the bed, graceful and fluid as water, Erik chasing him, until they reached the headboard, and Charles sunk back into the pillows. He gave Erik another slow, heated kiss. “Will you touch me?” he breathed as they pulled apart, and Erik, already hard, felt his cock give an insistent twitch.
“Yes,” he groaned. “God, yes, Charles.”
Charles’s head tipped back on the pillows with a sigh, his half-dried hair fanning out in a halo of dark curls that, combined with the red of the sheets, seemed to make his skin look even paler. Erik watched him, mouth dry, as he cautiously reached down and wrapped a hand around Charles’s length. Charles gasped, red, red mouth falling open in an “o”, and his brow creasing for a second at the sensation. Encouraged, Erik ran his thumb over the head. A quiet, keening moan dropped from Charles’s lips, making Erik smile. He lowered his head to Charles’s collarbone, kissing and biting at the skin as he set a languorous rhythm with his hand.
Charles’s breath was coming faster and faster, his hips bucking in rhythm with Erik’s hand, and Erik felt his own release building at the base of his spine. Reflexively, Erik pressed himself alongside Charles, rutting against his hip, but as he did so, Charles suddenly pushed at his shoulders, forcing him off and back.
“What’s the matter?” Erik asked, a little incoherent with lust.
Charles was looking very seriously at him, a flush spread across his cheekbones and chest. “Erik…” he began nervously.
Seeing the tension in Charles’s shoulders, Erik took a great effort and pushed away his stupor. Frowning, he cupped a hand to Charles’s cheek. “What is it? Am I going too fast?”
“No,” Charles replied, smiling and biting his lip again. “No, I was quite enjoying it. I was just wondering if maybe there’s something else we could do that we both might like better.”
It took a moment for Erik to catch on, but when he did his heart started hammering in his chest. His surprise must have shown on his face, because Charles chuckled a little, despite his obvious anxiousness.
“You want to?”
Charles nodded. “If you want to. Which, if your thoughts over the past few minutes have been anything to go by…” he trailed off, and this time it was Erik who blushed.
“I’m sorry, Charles,” he stammered. “I didn’t mean-”
Charles shook his head dismissively. “I want this, Erik. I want you.”
Erik just looked at him for a moment, feeling the vivid blue gaze waiting patiently for him to give in. It wasn’t long before he did, pressing their lips together hungrily and pulling away too soon.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” he protested weakly, dropping a kiss to Charles’s forehead.
“You won’t,” Charles replied, carding a hand through Erik’s hair.
Erik sighed, leaning into the touch for a moment, then straightened up and jumped from the bed. “I’ll be right back,” he said, giving Charles another quick kiss and then going to a door in the corner.
Charles lay back against the pillows and looked up at the canopy, willing his sparking nerves to calm for a moment. Closing his eyes, he breathed in deeply. The hard lash of rain against the windows had lightened without their registering it, so the raging storm was now a pleasant patter. He hummed contentedly and pressed further back into the comfort of the silky sheets and plush bedding. Only when Erik returned, padding cautiously across the floor and thinking loudly about how perfect Charles looked, naked and comfortable in his bed, did he open his eyes.
“Its lotion,” Erik murmured, laying down next to Charles and putting the container in between them. “I couldn’t find anything else. Is this-?”
“This is wonderful,” Charles broke in before Erik could begin to berate himself. “Come here.” Erik scooted closer; while Charles sat up and moved so he was straddling Erik’s hips. “Is this alright?” Erik nodded. Gathering his nerves, Charles reached over and unscrewed the lid of the lotion jar, Erik watching him silently with huge eyes. When he was done, he looked up at Erik. “Do you want to do it? Or do you want to watch me?”
Erik’s mouth fell open wordlessly, but his thoughts were a sudden barrage of possessiveness, and an eagerness to please Charles. The telepath smiled, and handed the lotion over. Sucking in a breath, Erik dipped three shaking fingers in, covering them liberally with the contents of the jar until Charles moved it to the bedside table closest to them.
Erik’s mind was simply buzzing with astonishment and desire so strong that Charles didn’t know how to respond, except press forward and kiss him silly. He didn’t stop kissing him either, not when Erik’s hand crept lower along his back, nor at the first, slick press of his finger against him, teasing and not quite hard enough to penetrate. A gasp tumbled from his lips, swallowed up by Erik’s eager mouth.
Please, Erik, just do it, he sent, a little impatiently.
Erik seemed to get the message, because he smiled into the kiss. Slowly, carefully, he pressed in again, making Charles hiss when the digit slid inside him with minimal effort. Their foreheads rested against each other as they breathed heavily in tandem. Erik was only still for a moment, then Charles rocked back a little onto his hand, and he was spurred into action again.
Erik was extremely attentive, working Charles open slowly and carefully, keeping track of his breathing and the tension in his muscles to see if he was going too quickly. Charles, however, kept sending reassuring feelings to him, pressing kisses against his lips and whispering, “Yes, Erik, please, keep going, its alright, I’m not made of glass, you aren’t going to hurt me.”
It wasn’t until Erik had all three lotion-covered fingers inside that he crooked them in such a way that Charles cried out and bucked against him.
“Oh, God, Erik,” Charles gasped, his breath hot against Erik’s cheek. “Do that again, please.” Erik did, and Charles moaned into his neck, dropping a sloppy kiss to the skin there. Charles moved his hand from where it was braced against Erik’s clavicle and spat abruptly into it. Before Erik could register what he was doing, Charles had wrapped his hand around Erik’s aching erection, making him inhale sharply and thrust upwards in response.
“I’m ready,” Charles rasped, kissing him hard again and then pulling away. “It’s okay.”
Erik slowly withdrew his fingers, slurring a little dumbly as he did so, “Charles, what are you doing to me?”
Charles smiled and looked up to meet the steel-gray gaze once more. “Trust me, love, I’m just as mystified as you are.”
Erik was going to respond with something as wittily as he could in his current state, but Charles shifted closer, and Erik quickly lost all coherent thought as, brow slightly furrowed, Charles guided the tip of Erik’s cock to his entrance, and rocked back experimentally. Erik immediately groaned, fighting the urge to buck up into the tight heat that was slowly enveloping his cock as Charles eased himself down onto it. Heart hammering, Erik looked up and saw Charles’s eyes were closed. He was biting his lip, and his forehead was still creased with concentration and the slightest bit of pain. Feeling a pang of guilt, Erik reached out a hand to cup the side of Charles’s face, running a hand over his cheekbone, and finally the worried lines on his forehead.
Charles opened his eyes, locking his gaze onto Erik’s once more, and the corners of his mouth twitched up just a little in a bracing half-smile. “Shh,” he chided lightly. “I’m just not quite used to… this. Stop worrying you’re going to break me in half or something, because, while you are quite well endowed, I assure you, you will not.”
Erik had to smile at that, pulling Charles a little closer so he could start pressing kisses into his neck and collarbone once more. His lips had trailed up to suck lightly at the junction of his jaw and neck when Charles sunk all the way down. Charles sighed, his head tipped back again, as Erik let out a groan against his skin. In a haze, Erik tangled his fingers in Charles’s hair and brought their mouths crashing together. Charles licked at his bottom lip, pulling slightly away to gulp in air.
Apart from their heated kisses, they were still for a moment. Finally, when he felt somewhat used to the stretch in his body, Charles experimentally lifted himself just an inch or so, then quickly slid back down. It still burned a little unpleasantly, but the oddness of it was overwhelmed by a warmer sensation curling itself around his spine and running through every nerve ending in his body. Erik groaned against his lips, pleasure crashing against Charles’s mind like waves against a shore. He could tell Erik was holding himself back for fear of hurting him, but Charles wanted him to move, to be the one who sent those electrifying shocks of bliss through him.
He broke away from Erik’s mouth, breathing heavily and twining his fingers through Erik’s hair. “Come on,” he whispered in Erik’s ear, Erik’s breath hot against his neck. “You can move.”
A somewhat guttural noise sounded from the back of Erik’s throat, and he shifted, bracing his feet against the mattress and his back more firmly against the headboard. His hands gripped tight at Charles’s hips as, slowly, he rocked his own hips upwards, letting out a moan at the feeling. Charles’s grip tightened almost painfully in his hair, but it didn’t matter. Their foreheads pressed together once more as Erik thrust up again, harder this time, making Charles cry out weakly. Erik could feel Charles inside his head and around his body, wrapped closely into what felt like every molecule of him, intensifying his rapidly building orgasm.
Charles was matching Erik thrust for thrust now, rocking with the motions of Erik’s hips. He was so incredibly close, but when Erik started to wrap a hand around his cock, Charles swatted it away and placed it back on his hip.
“Don’t need it,” he gasped brokenly. “Just keep- keep- God, Erik.”
Erik moaned in response, his hips starting to stutter a little in their rhythm whenever Charles would grind down against him. “Charles,” Erik began warningly, moving one of his hands to cup Charles’s cheek, “I- it’s too much, I’m going to-”
“It’s okay,” Charles answered immediately, taking Erik’s hand and holding it to his chest against his beating heart. He leaned forward and kissed Erik’s reddened lips hungrily as Erik’s hips rolled upwards one last time, and clenched just so slightly around him.
Erik’s cried out as his orgasm hit him like a shockwave, making him drive blindly up into Charles. It felt as if he was being completely wrung out, every nerve in him sparking white-hot and pure for a long moment. Distantly, above him, he heard Charles shout as well. There was a warm splash of semen against his stomach, and he registered, hazily, that some of the sensations washing through him were not his alone. His mouth seemed almost beyond his control, and he heard, as if through someone else’s ears, his own voice saying, “I love you” over and over again.
When he finally became aware of the things outside the overwhelming pleasure he had just felt, he noticed he had slumped back against the headboard. Charles was draped across his front, Erik’s arms locked tightly around his middle, and Charles’s arms braced around Erik’s shoulders as he breathed heavily against Erik’s neck. It was as if they’d both just run a marathon.
Neither one of them wanted to move, so they simply held onto one another for a long time, feeling each other’s heartbeats slow back to normal.
Erik brushed his lips over Charles’s temple, nosing into his sweat-damp hair. “I love you,” he murmured, and he felt rather than saw Charles’s smile.
“I love you, too.” The arms around Erik tightened, and Charles pressed a kiss to his shoulder.
They stayed like that for a little while longer, then Erik shifted slightly, and Charles loosened his grip so he could slip off the bed and back into the bathroom. He returned with a damp washcloth, which he ran over both their bodies to get rid of the stickiness, kissing Charles on the forehead when he finished. He set the cloth off to the side on top of the jar of lotion on the bedside table, and they finally slipped under the warm sheets together.
Erik immediately curled himself around Charles, pressing his forehead against Charles's cheek and nuzzling against his jaw, somewhat scratchy with stubble. Charles grinned again and pulled him closer, twining the fingers of his left hand with Erik’s right.
“I love you, Charles,” Erik said once more. Now that he knew he could, he wanted to say it as often as possible.
“And I love you, Erik.”
They fell asleep tangled together, mind, body, and soul, and brilliantly content. In the morning, they would wake up feeling much the same, except perhaps a little sorer. They would show Hank and Moira around the castle with the others, and perhaps play a game or two of chess.
But what is most important to note, dear reader, is that from that day on they lived happily ever after.
IIIIII am a hopeless romantic, and I regret nothing!
I can't believe its over! Thank you so, so, so much to everyone who read this and left comments and kudos. Your support and feedback was really encouraging and really just overwhelmingly amazing. I hope you enjoyed reading this story as much as I enjoyed writing it! Thanks again everyone! And of course, and extra-special thank you to thefrankensteinmonster and shercock for beta-ing. :D