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Ritual Self-Torture

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Erik didn't see Charles for weeks afterward -- no quiet bright-eyed figure in the garden paths, no one seated at Sebastian's right hand in the banquet hall. He wondered if the king was taking pains to see that their paths didn't cross... or if Charles was.

Perhaps he was right to do so. Seeing each other without touching -- brushing hands casually without lingering -- it had been torture before. It might be unbearable now, now that he knew the taste of Charles's lips, the trembling warmth of his skin...

He trained his men harder than ever, worked himself to exhaustion so that he wouldn't dream of Charles, of the poisoned joy that would be all they'd ever have. One night, he took a giggling laundress to his room -- only to send her away again, pouting and disappointed. Taking someone else to bed would only cost him the ghostly remnants of Charles's hands on his skin, and leave him still as alone as ever.

A week after the laundress, he went straight to his chamber after dismissing his men, breath pluming in the autumn dusk. His body ached with exertion and bruises, sweat chilling rapidly against his skin, and rest appealed to him far more than food. He'd had little appetite these past weeks and it was beginning to show, his men's eyes worrying at the hint of ribs when he removed his tunic for a sparring session. He didn't care, not tonight. Maybe tomorrow.

But his chamber, he knew the moment he opened the door, was not empty. His senses, scattered and muzzy with exhaustion, snapped into painful focus. It was unlikely that anyone would attack him here, at court, but the King's Paladin inevitably had enemies -- more likely that brainless girl had come back again--

"Erik?"

Charles. Erik had crossed the room before he finished the thought, reaching out to the faint figure, darker than the dark room. "Charles, what are you doing here?" he hissed. "Do you even know the kind of trouble..." He lost his grip on the words, the anger, lost his breath entirely with Charles tight against him, arms around each other, Charles's face pressed into his neck.

"I'm sorry," Charles whispered. "I've been trying to see you, but Sebastian's kept me... busy."

Re-asserting dominance and control of his consort. Erik had no doubt of it. The rush of rage was hot and sickening.

"But I had to see you," Charles was saying, "had to tell you..."

"Tell me what?" Erik pulled back, just enough to see Charles's face. His eyes had adjusted to the dark, now, and he could make out the gleam of Charles's eyes, the shadow of his mouth. He stroked Charles's cheek, thumb brushing his lips, felt fierce satisfaction at Charles's shiver. This stolen touch, this moment in a dark room that the king would never know about, this was theirs. "Tell me what?" he asked again.

Charles drew a deep, shuddering breath. "I'm pregnant." When Erik did not -- could not -- respond, he continued, "Sebastian doesn't know yet. I can't put off telling him any longer, but I had to tell you first."

How would Sebastian react, to have his cruel, drunken joke succeed so? To know for certain now that his own seed that was weak and no fault of Charles's, and that his consort was now defiled with another man's child? What would he do to Charles? What would he do to Erik?

He tried to believe in the best-case scenario, but even that watching Sebastian raise his child, and he couldn't keep the pain and bitterness from his voice. "His Majesty gets what he wanted after all."

"No," Charles snapped, and Erik reeled back at the force of it. "No he does not. I get what I wanted. I get your child, and not his. Our child." He leaned back into Erik, who felt the trickle of a tear against his neck. "Our child. And I'll make sure he knows it, knows his true father, knows he's none of Sebastian's get. He's ours."

Erik closed his eyes, daring to imagine, for a moment, a little one with his chin and Charles's eyes, smiling and running toward him, calling "Papa! Papa!"

He pressed one hand to Charles's belly, still flat but warmer and softer than he remembered, and with the other tilted Charles's face up to kiss him.

The kiss hurt, just as the first one had, burning with the thousand other kisses that should have been and would never be, and Erik fought to keep it gentle, slow -- a fight he lost when Charles rocked his hips forward and caught Erik's bottom lip between his teeth.

There was a haze Erik went into, sometimes, in battle, where his body seemed to move without his direction, his mind hyperconscious of every detail, calculating and deciding, and utterly trapped in the moment, with no past or future, only the battlefield. He felt himself falling into something similar now, but instead of the battlefield it was Charles, Charles, the frantic need to touch every part of him with every part of himself, touch taste smell see touch--

They were on the bed now, Charles gasping and moaning underneath him, hands buried in Erik's hair, legs around his waist, and some dark distant voice in Erik's head was saying this was a bad idea but he didn't care--

Until a knock sounded on his chamber door.

They both froze, eyes locked for a terrified second, a whole new level of adrenaline singing across Erik's nerves. Getting caught like this would mean death for them both, and -- he was surprised by how much this mattered to him already -- the child as well.

Erik's chamber was luxurious for a soldier, but still spartan for a lord, and there weren't many hiding places. There was a cabinet against the side wall, too small to climb into -- but Charles could crouch behind it and be out of sight from the door. Erik pulled him from the bed and settled him there, brushing a kiss against his temple before he turned away. He made an attempt to straighten his hair and clothing as he went to the door.

He chilled another degree to see that the man who had knocked was Azazel, King Sebastian's closest advisor. Where he'd come from no one knew, only that his accent was strange and his sense of humor vile, and that he'd taken the name of a legendary demon with apparent relish. The man's skin, ever as red as if he'd spent a week in merciless sun, had led many to whisper that the name was no alias.

"How can I serve you, my lord?" Erik said, trying to cover his surprise and dismay.

Judging by Azazel's amused expression, he hadn't covered them well. "The king wishes you to attend him at the first light of dawn, in the green room. We have a new plan for the campaign."

"What campaign?" They had just finished a war, curse the king and his demon both for bloodthirsty bastards.

Azazel just chuckled. "Come at dawn, we will tell you all." His eyes sharpened suddenly, nostrils flaring, and he peered past Erik into the room.

"Will there be anything else, my lord?" Erik kept his voice hard, steady, did not turn around.

"No, nothing else. Sleep well, Paladin." He grinned broadly, gave a mocking bow, and left.

Erik let out a long breath, leaning his forehead against the door.

After a moment, he felt Charles's hand on his arm, heard him whisper, "I should go."

"Yes," Erik said reluctantly. "But wait a few minutes -- Lord Azazel might still be in sight."

Charles nodded, gently pulled Erik away from the door and folded himself into his arms. "Everything will be all right, Erik. Everything will be all right."

Erik buried his face in Charles's hair, and tried to believe him.

Chapter Text

Sebastian took the news of Charles's pregnancy surprisingly well.

It may have helped that Charles announced it in front of the entire court, giving the king two options -- delight in the long-awaited conception of an heir, or immediate denouncement and accusation of adultery. The latter would have necessitated Sebastian admitting his sterility, and Charles knew -- hoped -- bet the lives of Erik, himself, and their child -- on his utter and everlasting refusal to do that.

So delight it was, and if an unsettling coldness lay behind it, perhaps only Charles knew the look well enough to recognize it. Delight and joy, and Charles and his pregnancy suddenly the center of every conversation, the subject of every toast, the man of the hour for the next nine months.

And Erik, the very next day, sent off to the front.

This newest war of Sebastian's was a blatant land-grab, one that was costing them allies and piling up casualties. Every report from the front put the king in a sour mood and gave Charles a fresh crop of nightmares, variations of Erik blood-streaked, blank-eyed on a battlefield with crows descending. Every morning he wept with relief to find it had not happened -- yet. Wept and rubbed his swelling belly, murmuring to its tiny occupant that its father was a great warrior and would keep himself safe.

Sebastian, meanwhile, amused himself playing the doting husband and delighted father-to-be, showering his consort with gifts -- clothes and books and jewels and food, always food, meat and milk and candied fruit -- and Charles wasn't fool enough to turn any of it down. He filled Charles's rooms with quilts and goosedown pillows and extra firewood, and the court cooed at how their king pampered his pregnant mate. Charles was paraded before every kind of dignitary and warlord, petted and praised like a good-tempered brood mare.

It made Charles sick, all of it, but at least Sebastian wasn't hitting him anymore, or coming to his bed. Of the two options, Charles would take an eternity of predator-eyed coddling.

A woman's baby could come when it chose, but for an androji, birth was carefully scheduled, attended by surgeons rather than midwives. Charles was numbed, cut, peeled open -- Sebastian held his hand throughout, and Charles gripped back tightly and tried to pretend the hand was Erik's.

All the fear and blood and eager anticipation came together in a wave of dizziness and clouded vision when Charles saw the surgeon lift a tiny body into the air, heard the trembling little wail he'd been waiting for for nine months.

"Congratulations, Your Majesty," said the beaming surgeon. "You have a lovely daughter."

"Daughter," Charles breathed, reaching for the baby, making impatient motions with his hands while the doctors cleaned her up and tied off her cord. She cried and kicked all the while -- strong! healthy! spirited! -- but settled instantly into whimpers when Charles curled her into his chest to nurse. And wasn't that an odd sensation, but androji had been doing it for centuries, surely he could manage. For the sake of his daughter. "Oh, isn't she beautiful?" He looked up at Sebastian, expecting, for a careless moment, to see the same wonder and joy he was feeling. Sebastian had wanted a child--

No, he remembered, watching the king's face settle into cold, angry lines -- No, Sebastian had wanted an heir. A son.

Sebastian put on his well-used mask of good cheer, letting the doctors and passing servants congratulate him, sending out a messenger to make the announcement -- Charles couldn't stop a breath of relief at that, it meant that at least he wasn't planning to take the unwanted child and cast her out to die, as the kings of not-very-long-ago had done -- then shooed everyone out of the room to give him some time with his consort and their new little one.

Once they were alone, Sebastian stared down at the baby girl, eyes hard. Charles swallowed chill and nausea, kept his chin up, unflinching.

"I suppose it'll be useful, someday, to have a princess to barter," Sebastian said at last. "Women. Good for nothing but breeding, and we have androji for that. But some men prefer them, and they're a rare enough commodity. Very well, keep it. If Sir Erik survives to come home, you'll be ready for him in a month or two, won't you, pet?" He laid a pseudo-affectionate slap to Charles's bare flank, hard enough to sting at the periphery of the numbness in his middle. "Try, try again."

"Yes, my lord," Charles said, downcast and demure. When Sebastian had gone, he nestled his forehead against the baby at his chest, trying not to drip tears on her, and prayed for a half-dozen daughters.

***

It was the nastiest campaign Erik had ever fought; treacherous terrain, cold and wet, his men falling to enemy ambushes on the one side, rampant disease on the other. As a young soldier, when the nights were cold and the camp reeking of fear and death, Erik had comforted himself with the belief that he was serving a greater purpose, a righteous cause. Now he lacked even that illusion to keep him warm.

But he had Charles. He had the memory of every glance, every touch, every moment, to re-live until they were worn thin. The memory of a night together that he'd given up hope of ever having. And he had the knowledge that when he returned -- if he returned -- he would have a child.

It was all poisoned, of course, twisted by King Sebastian into a mockery of the family they should have had. But it was something.

When he could sleep for more than an hour at a time, he dreamed more and more often of Charles -- of the day they met, the day King Sebastian brought his knights home victorious and Erik, bone-weary but triumphant, clean and well-fed for the first time in what felt like centuries, caught a pair of brilliant blue eyes across a crowded ballroom. Charles Xavier, resplendent in lace cravat and green silk waistcoat, having only recently reached his majority and wrested the title Duke of Westchester from his stepfather-regent, had been on his first visit to court. One of the few titled androji, charming and beautiful -- two thirds of the court wanted him as husband, and the other third just didn't want such formality.

But though Charles flirted cheerfully with everyone who came near enough to smile at, it was Erik who caught his eye, for reasons still beyond him, Erik whom he danced with four times in succession (quite scandalous), Erik whom he walked with in the gardens until nearly morning, and took his leave from with a teasing near-kiss that left Erik's every nerve tingling, wild with delighted frustration.

It was all tease, and hint, and game, and dance, a warm pure joy after so long on the battlefield, and Charles was -- Charles was everything Erik had ever imagined wanting, kind and clever, fascinating, radiant, a light that could not be hid. And he should have, should have snapped him up while he had the chance, but he'd thought they had all the time in the world.

"If I don't marry Sebastian." Sometimes that was the voice Erik heard in his dreams, on bad nights, Charles's voice dull, hoarse, scraped raw. "If I don't marry Sebastian, he'll... he can prove my stepfather stole from the Crown while he was regent. He can make it look like I was involved. Me, my mother, as many of my aunts and uncles and cousins and family retainers as he chooses. I can choose to marry Sebastian, or I can choose death in disgrace for myself and half my family."

Waking from that memory-dream usually meant a day of his men praying for an ambush, anything to direct their leader's murderous mood onto the enemy instead of themselves.

He tried to think as little as possible about the dangers and discomforts of pregnancy, tried not to fill his head with all the ways a surgical birth could go wrong. Sometimes when he lay down alone in his tent, he imagined he was coming home to his pregnant husband, kissing his forehead, rubbing his sore back and feet, bringing him little treats and soaking in his sleepy smiles and maternal glow. He wasn't sure what was worse -- to think of no one doing these things for Charles, or to think of Sebastian doing them.

It would be one thing if Charles loved Sebastian. If Charles had married Sebastian because he wished to... Erik could, perhaps, have lived that way, pining for Charles from afar, contenting himself with Charles's happiness. Would Sebastian's sterility have come, then, as a less-mixed blessing, Erik knowing himself a distasteful necessity, but happy for the single opportunity to show his love, however little it mattered to Charles? They might both have been happier if Charles had never loved him.

But Erik was a selfish, selfish man, and couldn't bring himself to wish for that. Instead he hoarded the knowledge of Charles's love, carried it like a jewel too precious to show anyone, something for him to touch and stroke and gaze upon alone, and feel its weight tucked against his heart throughout whatever nightmare the days threw at him.

When news of the child's birth reached the front, the entire camp took it as an excuse to drain the last reserves of their beer toasting the new princess.

Princess. A girl. Erik's daughter.

Women had once been just as common as men, before the Virus, or so Erik had been taught. It was hard to imagine. Erik's mother had been a woman, the first in her family for six generations, and Erik had been seven years old before he saw another one. Some men preferred the fragile beauty of women, despite their physical weaknesses and emotional instability, preferred them strongly enough to pay exorbitant prices for female whores or the even higher cost of a woman's bride-price. Others found women unsettling and strange, avoiding them or even preaching against them. Erik fell somewhere in the middle; the occasional tumble with a laundress might be a treat, but it was hard to imagine falling in love with, marrying someone so... different. All in all, he was very grateful to the scientists who, in the aftermath of the Virus, had cooked up androji.

What in the world would it be like, raising a daughter?

Not, he supposed, that he was to be permitted any hand in raising her.

Although rumor had it that the king wasn't terribly interested in the girl himself; he had declined to name her as heir. The kingdom, seeing the birth of a rare and precious girl-child as a good omen, was a little puzzled, but supposed it gave the princess more flexibility as a bargaining chip, if she could be dangled as a prize without attaching the crown to its awarding. Some said Sebastian was reducing a queen to a pawn, while others argued that he was wise to do it, that women made terrible leaders anyway.

What did it mean for Erik and Charles? Erik refused to wonder, refused to sit around and hope for more 'charity' from Sebastian. It was humiliating enough to know he would jump at the chance if it were offered.

A second messenger came a week later, to announce the naming of the princess, and that was another thing to puzzle the kingdom. Because the girl was to be called Raven.

The unhappiness of the king's marriage was an open secret, and ravens and swans, as birds that mated for life, were frequently used as symbols of fidelity and eternal love. Swans were the more popular choice for wedding decor, ravens for epic tales of tragic love. It was a strange, dark name, but one that nevertheless indicated a deep and tender affection between the child's parents. No one knew what to make of it.

Erik excused himself rather brusquely from table as soon as the messenger had finished speaking, and barely made it outside before the tears slipped his control.

Chapter Text

The campaign was unwinnable. If Azazel hadn't mentioned it before Charles announced his pregnancy, Erik would have been convinced the king had cooked it up specifically to get his Paladin killed. The enemy's strike-and-fade assaults, melting in and out of the shadows of the impossible terrain, were nothing his men had been trained to handle. The only thing lower than their supplies was their morale. Week after week, Erik wrote his reports, urging Sebastian with steadily decreasing delicacy to give it up for a bad job.

Blame it on my incompetence and banish me to the islands, Your Majesty, he wrote at last, only get what remains of my men out of this death trap.

No, was the reply. My army will return victorious, or it will not return.

Erik spent three days in a black rage, paralyzed with it, dead certain that neither he nor any of the men around him would live to get home again.

No, he said to himself on the fourth day. No, I am going home to see my daughter. Whatever it takes.

He wished, briefly, that Charles were there somehow, to charm them all out of –

Wait.

Charm. Talk. Discussion.

There was more than one way to end a war.

Permission, he wrote to the king, to use whatever methods will accomplish goal of access to seaport? That had been the point of this land-grab, an attempt to unlandlock Sebastian's kingdom.

Permission granted, came the swift reply.

Within the hour, Erik had ridden out under a flag of parley.

 

The Wakandan leaders, whom Erik knew only by their battle-names of Black Panther and Storm, received him warily.

"You offer to bargain," Storm said, "yet you have nothing at all that we desire."

"You desire our absence, madam," Erik said. The realization that Storm was Black Panther's wife, not husband, had put him off-balance for a moment – a woman on the battlefield? – but a moment only. "We'll be happy to provide it, as soon as our terms are met."

"Your absence will be accomplished easily enough," Storm said. "It is merely a question of whether starvation will get you before our warriors do."

"That is bravado speaking," Erik said. "Even now, we are hardy enough to continue draining your resources and picking off your men for some time to come. And my king will send more soldiers. He will send as many as he needs to. He will send them here to die until he can walk over the corpses to get to your seaport, my lord and lady, because he will have that seaport."

"Then your king is mad."

"That is a distinct possibility."

The Wakandan leaders stared at him. He allowed himself a grim smile, and pulled a folded paper from his pocket. It was King Sebastian's reply to his plea for retreat.

My army will return victorious, or it will not return.

The Black Panther let out a growl not dissimilar to his namesake's. "We will not hand over our land, however you threaten us."

"You don't need to. My king authorized me today to take whatever action I deemed necessary to get him access to that seaport." The grim smile became wolfish. "He did not rule out trade agreements, even ones disadvantageous to himself. And I dearly wish to go home."

***

Knowing his king as he did, Erik felt he could count on being received as a war hero publicly, and punished privately. An accident might even be arranged, depending on how embarrassed Sebastian chose to be. He almost didn't care, as long as he got to see Charles again first, and their daughter.

***

A feast was, of course, held in honor of the returning soldiers, as soon as they were made presentable enough to attend. Erik knew his body was exhausted and aching after the long march home; he shouldn't have had the energy to jitter like a nervous filly. But Charles would be there.

When he and his lieutenants walked into the banquet hall, Erik was dimly aware of a fanfare of trumpets, of Sebastian launching into a warm-voiced, cold-eyed speech as Erik dropped to one knee with his fist over his heart, but none of it did more than skate across his consciousness, because he glanced up and it was just like the day they met – Charles's blue eyes fixed on his across the hall, and all Erik could do not to simply stride across the room and engulf him, breathe him in, kiss and touch and hold and pay the price later.

Those eyes had been bright with interest and challenge when they met; now they were tired, strained, desperate, painful to see and not a whit less beautiful for it. Was he – he was, wearing the same green silk waistcoat he'd worn that first day, a bit tighter now, with childbirth only six weeks gone. Erik wanted to unbutton it, that and every layer below it, peel them away slowly and explore every inch of skin beneath, catalog every change, feel Charles's fingers in his hair as Erik told him how beautiful he was and always would be...

Charles was smiling at him as if he were the first good thing he'd seen in a decade, as if he could hardly breathe just looking at him, and Erik nearly missed his cue when Sebastian motioned the soldiers to rise and take their seats at the banquet table.

From the corner of his eye, as he took his seat, Erik caught a glimpse of one of his lieutenants, Toynbee, looking both shocked and disgruntled as he passed a handful of coins to a triumphant-looking Lt. Howlett. Some distant part of his mind noted that as possibly problematic, but it could wait.

Erik's seat was at the king's left hand, with only Sebastian between himself and Charles. Erik found it impossible to keep his mind on his meal, not with Charles so few and so very many inches away. Fortunately, his body didn't need the supervision – it wolfed down every morsel that came his way, hardly pausing to taste it. More than once, he caught Charles – carefully avoiding eye contact – sending a dish back in his direction, or making sure the butter and salt were within reach.

The feast was blessedly short, the better courtiers pitying the soldiers' evident exhaustion, the worse ones disdaining their smell. Soon the banquet hall began to thin, Erik's men setting off for their bunks or, if they were lucky, the homes of whatever loved ones lived nearest. Erik lingered, hoping the king would take his leave – but Sebastian, paying him no mind, continued making conversation with Azazel on Charles's other side, downing his drinks and picking at his food.

Finally Charles caught Erik's eye and flashed a hand, five fingers spread, then turned to make his excuses to Sebastian, a murmured "think I'll retire now, my lord," that the king waved off without a glance.

Erik waited five minutes, then followed.

He found Charles not far from the hall, in the niche behind the David-and-Jonathan statue where many before them had tucked themselves away for a secret moment. Erik and Charles had not; they had never kissed, barely touched, before Charles's unwilling marriage. Slipping behind the statue now made Erik feel like a naughty schoolboy.

And then finally, finally, Charles was in his arms, warm and safe and whole, and for long, silent minutes they didn't move, wrapped tight together, Charles's breath unsteady against his throat as Erik pressed his face into sweet-smelling hair.

"I near drove myself mad worrying for you," Charles whispered at last, pulling Erik's head down to touch their foreheads together, brushing a hand across every inch of his face like a blind man.

"Likewise," Erik murmured, turning into the touch.

Charles huffed a laugh. "No need for that, my friend. I was as pampered as any breeding bitch. You were the one facing swords and cannon fire."

"And dreaming of you every night." Unable to go another second without it, he pulled Charles into a kiss, slow and tender and gradually deepening, savoring every second, storing it away for his next lonely night. He was lightheaded with lack of oxygen by the time they separated.

"Come with me," Charles said, when he had the breath to speak. "Come meet your daughter."

 

She'd been left with a nursemaid, of course – Moira, Charles said, a dowager duchess from the islands, who had raised two daughters and knew how to go about it.

"I'll go send her out for the night. You wait here until she's gone." He left Erik on the staircase landing outside his chambers with a brief, tingling kiss and went inside.

Erik felt as exposed on the landing as he would have on a sunlit field of snow, but it didn't take long for an auburn-haired woman in mourning black to exit the chamber and turn toward the kitchens. She was startlingly pretty, even for a woman, and younger than Erik had expected – though he supposed, since women tended to marry quite young, she could indeed have two daughters married off by her early thirties.

Jealousy, he told himself firmly, was both insulting to Charles and unbecoming to himself.

He slipped through the chamber door and fought off a flashback to the only other time he'd been inside this room, a surge of remembered rage and despair and joy inextricably mixed. The night that had brought them Raven.

"Here we are," came Charles's voice, a soft cooing tone he'd never heard the man use before and immediately wanted to hear as often as possible. "Looking, darling, this is your daddy."

Looking at the little bundle in Charles's arms, Erik felt suddenly huge, clumsy, and criminally unclean. He tried to take a step back, but it was too late. Charles was pressing the baby into his arms.

She was beautiful, so beautiful, so tiny – how could any person be this small? Her fingernails, her eyelashes – all so tiny and perfect – and her hair – somehow he'd expected any child named Raven to have black hair, but hers was blonde, what little she had, like a shimmer of golden dust over the roundness of her head. His tiny golden daughter. Her face was a wrinkled elfin thing, like a little gnome, chubby-cheeked and wide-eyed, looking up at him with solemn curiosity. He'd hoped for Charles's eyes but these were a more subdued, changeable color, equal parts blue and green and gray – Erik's eyes. His daughter, their daughter, with Erik's eyes.

He was crying, Erik realized, and laughing too, and so was Charles, tucked against his side with an arm around Erik's waist, gazing down at this astonishing thing they'd made together.

She waved a little hand at them clumsily, and Erik pressed a fingertip to her palm, nearly dizzy with joy when she clamped her fingers tightly around it. "She's strong," he murmured.

"She'll have to be," Charles replied, and his smile dimmed, just a little.

The doorknob clanked, as if someone had made a clumsy, unsuccessful attempt to turn it, and Charles cursed under his breath, scooping Raven out of Erik's arms. "Wipe your face, Erik!"

Only one person would enter the royal consort's rooms without knocking.

Erik dashed the tears roughly from his eyes and took a steadying breath, adopting as politely neutral a stance as he could, as Sebastian stumbled through the door.

"Sir Erik!" he cried with patently false heartiness on seeing Erik. "An interesting place to find you, isn't it? In my consort's chambers?"

"Forgive me, sire, I did not mean to intrude," Erik said stiffly. "I was curious to see the child." Curious – not anxious, not eager, no emotional handle for the king to yank – merely curious.

"Yes, I have a lovely daughter, don't I?" Sebastian took a few wander-footed steps toward Charles, leered at the baby, and poked her hard in the ribs. She gave a startled cry, which lengthened into a wail when he guffawed into her face.

Sebastian's tendency toward drink was gaining renown, but Erik couldn't remember ever seeing him quite this bad.

Charles, on the other hand, seemed unmoved. "I'll just get her settled into bed, my lord," he murmured, and moved off toward the side-chamber.

Sebastian swatted at Charles's behind as he stepped away, but missed, almost overbalancing himself.

"Yes, she's beautiful, my daughter." He turned toward Erik, enunciating carefully. "But she is... just... a girl. Weak. Stupid. I wanted a son, a real son. Could have made do with an androji – not ideal, but I've met some androji with balls, it's possible. If uncommon." This last was a shout toward Charles, returning from the baby's side-chamber, straight-spined and expressionless. "But a girl won't do at all. Which is where you come in, my fine Sir Erik." He clapped Erik on the shoulder, and Erik forced himself not to shake the hand off. "Here is the way of it. Tomorrow I depart for Wakanda to re-negotiate the contract you so inadvisedly signed on my behalf, and for which you will punished, presently." He patted Erik's cheek. "For now you serve me better able-bodied. For now. But I return in a fortnight, and when I return, I expect to have an heir on the way. If I do not, you will both pay dearly. And if you are caught, well, the law is clear. If you beg me prettily enough, I might forgo the hot oil and thumbscrews and kill you quickly."

And there it was again, the same nauseating rage at Sebastian for doing this to them, coupled with desperate greedy joy, Charles, Charles...

"Do you understand what I'm telling you, mighty Paladin?"

"Yes, Your Majesty."

"Good. And you, sweetheart?"

"Yes, my lord."

"Excellent." Sebastian was swaying a little on his feet. "Well then, lads, what are you waiting for? Get to it!"

Erik stared. Surely the man didn't mean—

Charles had gone stone pale, eyes hard and glittering. "Go to bed, Sebastian. You'll get your heir."

Sebastian stalked forward and grabbed Charles's hair, yanking him close. "You," he growled into Charles's face, "are mine. You will do what I say, and who I say, and when I say."

Erik's clenched fists ached with the desire to connect with Sebastian's jaw. He tried to force down the red haze rising over his vision, it would only get them both killed. "Your Majesty, I think we can – I think I can handle this on my own."

Sebastian barked a laugh. "I'm sure you can, strong virile thing like you. But this little minx can make things difficult. I'll just get him warmed up for you." Still holding Charles by the hair, he dragged him forward into a kiss, rough and sloppy and vicious.

Erik surged forward, but Charles threw up a hand, behind Sebastian's back, a clear and firm stay back for all that his arm shook.

Finally Sebastian let go, shoving Charles down to the floor, where he lay gasping and curled around his belly. Of course – the birth-cut was probably still sore, and he'd landed right on it.

"Don't be afraid to get rough if he gives you trouble," Sebastian said. "I don't mind a few bruises."

He aimed a lazy kick at Charles's shoulder and staggered out of the room.

The moment the door closed, Charles scrambled to his feet, shaking, spots of fever-red burning on white cheeks. "Get him out," he gasped, "get him out of me, Erik—" He shoved himself into Erik's arms, kissing desperately. It took Erik a moment to figure out what he wanted. Once he did, he was glad to cooperate, licking every trace of Sebastian Shaw out of Charles's mouth, smoothing him out of Charles's hair, erasing him from his skin.

At length, fury appeased, Charles pulled back to rest his head against Erik's chest, panting. "Is the baby asleep?"

Erik took a moment to listen past the pounding of his heart. "I think so. She's quiet, anyway."

"Good." Charles shivered against him, breath hitching, and for a moment Erik thought he was going to cry. But he got control of himself with a deep breath and stepped back, tugging Erik's hand. "Come on. We'll have to be quiet, and – and gentle – my incision's still sore, and it's been almost a year—"

He was leading him toward the bed. "Charles, no! You expect me to – no, Charles, we're not doing this tonight."

"Why not?"

Because you've just been violated and I'm not going to do it again. Because you're still sore from Raven's birth and it feels like a mortal sin to get you pregnant again this soon. Because we're not the king's performing ponies. None of the words would come out, but at least some of them must have shown on his face, because Charles stopped tugging and raised his hand to stroke Erik's cheek, his face soft and loving.

"Erik. This is ours, not his. I'm not his, and you're not his, and Raven's not his, we are all three each other's without any trace of Sebastian in sight. It's a great joke on him, isn't it?"

"Hilarious," Erik said, but let Charles draw him closer, touch their foreheads together.

"I have missed you more than I thought possible," Charles whispered. "I want this. Badly." He brushed a kiss across Erik's cheek. "And I know, I know you don't want to do this because Sebastian told you to." He kissed the other cheek. "So do it because I told you to."

The next kiss was to Erik's mouth, and Erik opened to it, pressed into it helplessly, and let Charles lead him to the bed.

 

They kept it slow – Erik kept it slow – undressing Charles piece by piece, stopping to kiss and caress every new inch of exposed skin, then preparing him until Charles begged him to get on with it. He kept Charles in his lap, arms tight around, because putting him flat on the bed would hurt the birth-cut, and putting him on top would mean not getting to hold him. Charles seemed content to let Erik lead, perhaps sensing how much he needed it, needed to feel that he could control something and make it all right.

Afterward, they curled around each other in the bed, Erik dragging a blanket over them awkwardly with one hand, unwilling to let go with both. Charles lay bonelessly against him, his smile dreamy, carding clumsy fingers through Erik's hair.

"I love you," Charles murmured, the first time either of them had said it outright.

"I love you," Erik whispered back, and held him through sleepless hours, considering ways to kill Sebastian Shaw.

Chapter Text

For one nauseating moment, Charles thought Sebastian was in the bed with him.

Which would have been rather strange; Sebastian was never much of a cuddler, unless he felt like watching Charles recoil from it. In any case, he hadn't bothered to come to Charles's bed at all since he'd learned Charles was expecting. Before that, the night after night of spent 'reclaiming' his consort from Erik had been grueling, but at least he'd never stuck around afterward.

But now Charles was waking up with arms tight around him, warm skin pressed to his down the entire back of his body, and he tensed for a single chilled moment before remembering.

Erik.

Charles relaxed, feeling a warm, tingling wash of sensory memory, hands and kisses and the way Erik had looked at Charles like he was the most beautiful thing on earth... For a moment he felt that all he would ever want was this, this moment, warm and sleep-hazy with Erik curled around him, safe and whole, and their baby asleep just a few yards away.

Erik was awake now, he realized, gliding fingers softly back and forth across Charles's stomach, pressing slow, gentle kisses to the back of his neck. Heat, sudden and shocking, spiked up Charles's spine and raced out along every nerve, and oh, he was wrong, this moment could get better. He turned in Erik's arms to kiss him, moaned softly as Erik pressed him back against the mattress, settling his weight over him (he'd forgotten the incision; Charles breathed through the pain and didn't remind him) and tangling their fingers together.

They were well on their way to a very pleasant morning when a shocked voice from the doorway choked out, "Charles?"

Before Charles could even react, Erik was on his feet, snatching his sword from the pile of clothes on the floor.

"Erik, stop!" Charles scrambled out of the bed and leaped in front of him, between the sword and Moira, standing stock-still in the doorway. "Just stop, calm yourself! Moira, darling, close the door."

Moira swallowed, eyes on the sword, and pushed the door closed behind her. "I knocked," she stammered, "when you didn't answer I thought you must be asleep, I didn't want to wake you--"

"It's all right, Moira, it's all right. Erik, you remember Moira, Raven's nursemaid?"

"It doesn't matter who she is, Charles." He had not set down the sword. "You heard Sebastian, we can't be caught, we'll both die--"

"Yes, but Moira's not going to tell anyone." He turned to face her. "Am I right, Moira?"

She nodded eagerly.

"Come on, Charles, you can't expect her to say anything different, it doesn't mean she won't--"

"Once we explain, I'm sure she'll prove herself trustworthy. Let's all just... sit down and discuss this like adults, shall we?"

The baby chose that moment to cut the air with a wail.

Charles let out a sigh, all affectionate resignation. "Surprising she slept this long, really," he mutterd. "Moira, why don't you go get her while Erik and I get some clothes on?"

Erik reluctantly lowered the sword, and Moira hurried past, still wide-eyed, and disappeared into the side chamber. The wailing trailed off and quieted.

"Put that thing away before you hurt someone," Charles said, and tossed Erik his underdrawers.

 

By the time Moira emerged with Raven, Erik was buttoned into shirt and breeches, Charles contenting himself with drawers and a dressing gown. The baby began fussing again at the sight of Charles -- hungry, of course -- and he hurried to take her from Moira's arms, waving Moira and Erik into the little set of seats by the window. Not for the first time, Charles wished he had a more standard chamber arrangement, with a sitting room between the door and bedroom, but Sebastian had insisted on this layout. He preferred to skip the niceties.

Charles took a seat next to Erik on the sofa, brushing fingers reassuringly over his hand, and took a moment to settle Raven into nursing. He couldn't help blushing a little at the realization of how much this seemed to distract Erik; he'd finally torn his eyes away from Moira, and attached them instead to the pale curve of Charles's bared shoulder and chest.

"Moira," Charles said. "I'm sorry that you stumbled in on such a scene. I should have anticipated your arrival; I'm afraid I let myself be distracted. But you have nothing to be alarmed about. My husband," and still he near-gagged, to hear himself refer to Sebastian that way, "is entirely aware of the situation. In fact, it was his idea."

Erik shifted. "Charles, are you sure it's wise--"

"I think it's better that she have the whole truth, Erik. Anything less would only make her more likely to tattle. And you musn't tattle, Moira, you musn't tell a soul, not a single solitary."

"But why would the king," Moira's voice was dry and shaky, "I mean, he's never struck me as... the sharing type..."

Charles smiled bitterly. "The king must have an heir. And is unable to get one on me himself, for all his efforts."

Moira blinked, her gaze shifting to the baby at Charles's breast. "Then Raven isn't--"

"Raven is mine," Erik said, with a bared-teeth smile. "As the next one shall be. As Charles should have been." He closed his mouth abruptly, as if regretting that last, and Charles hooked a reassuring foot around his ankle.

"Oh," Moira breathed, going a shade paler -- perceiving, Charles thought, the depth of the mess she had stepped in.

"Despite Sebastian's instigation of the arrangement," Charles said, "he has made it known that we will both be executed as adulterers if we're found out. A political necessity, to some extent. Also a personal pleasure, I believe."

"What would happen to Raven?" Moira asked.

"Rather depends on the man's mood, I imagine." Charles drew one hand out from under the baby and leaned forward to set it on Moira's knee. "Moira, I like to think we've become good friends these last few weeks. I know it is a lot to ask. If you're not willing to take the risk for me, will you do it for Raven? Will you keep our secrets," both of them, he could see she understood that, "for Raven?"

Moira took a deep breath, her eyes on the baby. "Yes. Of course I will."

"If you don't feel you can stay here, if you'd rather be out of this situation entirely, of course I can--"

"No. I'll stay. Your next nursemaid might not... I'd better stay."

Charles let out a breath. "Thank you, Moira." He squeezed her knee, then pulled his hand back to support the baby. "Well, Erik? Are you satisfied that Moira can be trusted?"

Erik leaned forward, his eyes intent on Moira's. She didn't flinch. "If you betray us, I will do everything in my power to take you down with us."

"Fair enough," Moira said.

After a moment's awkward silence, Charles said brightly, "Well, it's good to have that settled then. Moira, dear, would you very much mind fetching some breakfast? We don't want anyone from the kitchens wandering in."

Moira obeyed with alacrity, seeming relieved to escape.

"We'll never be safe, though," Erik murmured when she had gone, eyes distant, "as long as Sebastian's alive."

Charles, in the midst of switching Raven to the other breast, looked at him sharply. "Don't, Erik."

"You can't look me in the eye and say the man deserves to live."

Charles just sighed and shook his head. "There's an old book, from before the Virus -- The Lord of the Rings, have you ever heard of it?"

"No."

"One character observes to a wiser one that their enemy deserves to die, and the wiser one says, 'Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.'"

"All very well for a book, Charles." Erik leaned over to run a finger gently, so gently, down Raven's cheek as she nursed. "But here is the end I see: Sebastian Shaw would take everything from us. Would already have done it, if his seed were stronger."

"You're talking about murder, Erik."

"Is it murder when I lift my sword against an attacker on the battlefield? He struck the first blow, Charles, not I."

"Erik." Charles gripped his arm, forced him to meet his eyes. "Sebastian's death right now would start a civil war. He has no heir."

"He has a consort and a child. There might be some scuffling, but if we--"

"We? Erik, do you imagine I want to be king? I don't. Nor do I like the idea of your killing a man to step into his shoes, the thought makes me almost as ill as the idea of our child at the center of a succession war."

"As much as I hate to offend your tender sensibilities--"

Charles put a hand over Erik's mouth. "Just... stop. Moira will be back soon. Much as I trust her, I'd hate to test her discretion with an overheard plot against the king."

Erik sighed. "Later then," he murmured against Charles's palm, and leaned into it as Charles moved the hand to his cheek, caressing.

"I love you," Charles whispered.

"God knows why," Erik said, and covered Charles's mouth with his own before he could protest that kind of thinking.

***

Erik's men greeted the news that they'd been granted a month's furlough with jubilation, but little surprise; it was only reasonable, after the hellish campaign they'd been through. Most of them scattered immediately, to pack their things and start traveling back to their families. Only Lieutenant Howlett lingered, picking idly at the sharp-spiked metal knuckles he so frequently wore, even off the battlefield.

"Where you going on your furlough, sir?" he asked, casually. Erik looked at him sharply; Howlett wasn't given to small talk.

"I'm staying here," he said. "The king has a special assignment for me."

Howlett raised a brow briefly, then shook his head. "Yeah. Yeah, I thought as much. That kind of 'assignment' can get you killed, bub -- I mean, sir."

Erik kept his gaze flat and unfriendly. "I did swear my life to my king's service."
Howlett snorted. "Service. Yeah, you'll be providing service, I'm sure, but not to the king."

Erik grabbed a handful of Howlett's shirt, shoving him against a nearby pole. "Just what are you implying, soldier?"

"Ain't implying a thing, sir," Howlett drawled, unmoved by the violence.

"That's good."

"I'm just thinkin', sir, that sometimes a man is in such a hurry to... serve... that he does stupid things. Things that could get himself and other people killed."

Erik narrowed his eyes, searching Howlett's face for any sign of threat. And found only concern. "I'm well aware of that, soldier," he said at last.

"Things like not watching his reactions." Howlett looked down at the hands still bunched in his shirt, and Erik reluctantly pulled them away. "Things like letting his eyes wander -- or stay too long in one place -- in front of the wrong people. Sir." He paused, let out a breath. "You're the best commander I've had in a while, Lehnsherr. I'm in no hurry to see you or that poor pretty boy strung up in the town square. Other people ain't so friendly to you, and if I see a thing I wasn't even looking for, there's no telling who else might see it when they're looking. Watch yourself. Sir."

Erik stepped back, letting Howlett move away from the pole. "Acknowledged, soldier. Carry on."

"Aye, sir."

***

There was plenty of furlough paperwork and other things to tend to, and Erik fought to keep his mind focused, get it all done today so he wouldn't have to come back to it tomorrow, keep himself busy until after dinner and not go to Charles until he knew Moira would be gone.

Charles met him at the door, yanked him inside and wouldn't even let him speak for kissing, until just as abruptly Erik found himself pushed down onto the couch with a tray of food at one hand and Raven settled in the crook of his arm.

"There now, darling," Charles said, settling himself at Erik's feet with an impish smile, "tell me about your day."

Erik blinked at him. "What is this, Charles?"

His smile dimmed a little, and he leaned his head against Erik's knee. "This is me welcoming my husband home for the evening. As I've never gotten to do before."

"But..." This sort of thing was old-school even to old-schoolers, this was first-generation-androji behavior, something even Sebastian Shaw wouldn't think to require. "Charles..."

"Please." He turned his head just enough to press a kiss to Erik's knee.

"...All right," Erik said helplessly, and used his free hand to pet Charles's face and hair while Charles hand-fed him from the plate.

***

Erik seemed relieved when the plate was empty and Charles got off the floor to join him on the couch.

"Sorry, love," he murmured, chuckling a little and leaning into Erik's side. "I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. It's something that... I suppose I read too many Old Tales as a boy, but it's something I always wanted to do, with my husband, and I just... needed it today."

Erik reached out to tuck a curl behind Charles's ear. "I don't mind it, if it's important to you. But... why today?"

Charles sighed and snuggled further into Erik's shoulder, holding out a finger for Raven to grasp. "Sebastian came by this morning, before he left for Wakanda. He wasn't any more awful than usual, really, but I'd thought he was already gone, so he caught me off-guard."

"What did he do to you?"

"Nothing," Charles said firmly, forcing down memories of invading fingers and hissing breath, "mine, you're mine." "I just needed to choose you over him, demonstratively."

Erik ghosted a kiss over his forehead, spoke into his hair. "Don't choose either of us. Choose yourself."

Charles smiled. "How about if I choose Raven? And the next baby. Our children."

He watched Erik look down into their daughter's eyes, brush the back of his fingers down one tiny cheek. "All right. We'll both choose the children."

Charles slid a hand delicately up the inside of Erik's leg. "Speaking of which..."

 

Much later, in bed, wrapped as tightly around each other as they could go, a tangled sweaty mess with breath gradually slowing, Erik said, "Why me?"

"What do you mean?"

"You could have anybody. Anyone at all. Why did you choose me?"

"Oh, Erik. So many reasons." Charles brushed a kiss across his forehead, combing back sweaty hair. "The first thing that caught my attention was -- well, let's be honest, your astonishing good looks. But that wouldn't have mattered if you'd been like Sebastian on the inside. You were... so unlike everyone else. Yes, I could have had my pick of fawning flatterers, but you actually said what you thought, and didn't pretend to like anyone you didn't. So your regard meant a thousand times more. And you... In my stepfather's house, Erik, I was not a person, it was never considered that I might have feelings or needs or preferences. My stepfather is... not unlike our dear monarch, in a less possessive way. You treated me like a person, an interesting person, a person who mattered.

"On top of which, you kept up with me intellectually, and looked at me like you'd gladly hand over your internal organs at a moment's notice, which is hard to resist. Not to mention the whole world-weary-soldier aura that made me want to comfort you and cuddle you and make you smile. Oh, and you're kind to dogs." He laughed at Erik's surprise. "Yes, I suppose you didn't know I saw that -- the kitchen boy teasing that poor mangy thing, waving his meat back and forth to watch the dog's eyes follow it, and you sent him running and gave his entire lunch to the dog."

Erik grumbled and blushed. "No good deed goes unpunished. Stupid animal followed me around for a week."

"Until you paid off that innkeeper's family to adopt it. Oh, my friend, how could anyone not love you?"

"That's supposed to be my line," Erik said, blushing harder, and Charles chased the blush down his throat, applied himself to the pulse at the base of his neck until Erik moaned and shivered.

"We've done our duty tonight," Charles whispered against his skin. "Now let's do something for us."

If Erik had any objections, he kept them to himself.

Chapter Text

They were the happiest weeks of Erik's life, as long as he didn't think about it too hard. For days they barely left Charles's chambers, lingering over meals, reading to each other, dancing to Charles's antique discs of music, playing game after game of chess as they had during their aborted courtship. Charles taught Erik how to hold Raven, dress her, change her, feed her -- like many  androji , Charles did not produce quite enough milk, and Raven had to take a few bottles of synthetic most days. When he could, Erik convinced Charles to stay abed when Raven cried in the night, got up himself to hum to her and rock her in his arms, memorizing the warmth and weight of her tiny body, the scent of her perfect brand-new skin. What kind of personality was forming behind those wide, changeable eyes? What would she grow up to be?

For the first time in his life, he really thought about the unfairness of a woman's limited options in life, how dependent she was on the goodwill of her male relations. What would Sebastian do to this perfect little girl, out of careless neglect at best?

And here they were, trying their best to get another helpless child and place it in Sebastian's power. And trying they certainly were; even to spite Sebastian Erik could not deny himself that much. In the midst of a dance or chess game or mere conversation, sometimes twice or thrice a day, Charles would suggest Moira take the baby on a stroll through the gardens, or Erik would simply catch her eye and jerk his head at the door. She always obeyed with alacrity, albeit with an air of mortified exasperation.

Gradually, they brought themselves to leave the room on occasion -- walking through Charles's favorite garden, attending dinner in the banquet hall. It was a new kind of torture, keeping that six-inch distance after hardly stepping outside it for the better part of a week, but they couldn't afford to have tongues wag, and that meant a public affectation of indifference.

One night in the banquet hall, with Sebastian's empty seat between himself and Charles, Erik was startled to have a woman claim the seat on his left. She was a vision in white silk and diamonds, but somehow her sharp eyes and shallow smile left Erik more chilled than charmed.

"Have we met, madam?" he asked, when she made no move to speak.  Madam  was a slight, almost instinctive insult -- if she were at the king's table, she was sure to be  lady,  at least.

"Not formally," she said sweetly, "but I've heard a lot about you. Lady Emma, House Frost."

"Sir Erik, House Lehnsherr, and I haven't heard of  you  at all."

She only grinned. "All the more reason to get to know each other."

He looked her up and down, expressionless. "If you're looking for a... more secure position at court, my lady, you'll find your efforts better spent elsewhere."

She laughed aloud at that, a sound like glass breaking. "Oh, sugar. How sweet of you to concern yourself, but rest assured, my position at court is quite secure."

"I'm glad to hear it." He turned away to refill his drink, hoping the dismissal was clear.

She didn't budge, only looking more amused. "You're not at all concerned with making friends, are you? Trust me when I say, Sir Erik, that it's not in your best interest to make me dislike you." To Erik's shock, she moved closer to curl an arm through his, leaning adoringly on his shoulder.

"I beg your pardon, my lady," Erik said after a stunned second, shooting a panicked glance at Charles, whose expression was unreadable.

Emma chuckled, and kissed him on the cheek before getting to her feet in one fluid rush of silk. "Yes, I think you'll give me plenty to work with."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Might get repetitive, though," she sighed. "I'll see you around, sugar." She blew him a kiss and sashayed away.

"Who the devil was that?" Erik murmured, leaning across the empty seat toward Charles, on the pretense of reaching for the basket of rolls.

"Oh, Emma Frost." Charles tipped back a casual swallow of wine. "My replacement in Sebastian's bed."

Erik fumbled the basket and nearly sent rolls in all directions.


"I'm really not sure whether to view her with contempt, gratitude, or pity," Charles continued. "I don't even know how much choice she has in the matter -- her fathers set her majority at thirty rather than the usual twenty-one, and when they died rather suddenly last year, the king inherited her guardianship. He as much as owns her for another five years."

Erik was still wrapping his mind around the idea of a man having access to Charles, and preferring to go elsewhere. Not that he didn't want to kill the man twice for every time he'd touched Charles, but it was still hard to understand.

"I suppose I ought to be offended, since Sebastian hasn't even been particularly subtle about it, but I can't manage anything but relief," Charles said.

"It's a problem, though, Charles," Erik felt compelled to point out. "For you to publicly tolerate a mistress, it makes you look weak."

"And cat-fighting for the favor of a man it's fairly obvious I hate, that would make me look strong? Throwing myself at Sebastian to win him back, when I loathe his every touch? I'll take political weakness in fair exchange."

Erik did not contradict him, but still it made him uneasy. What was the woman up to, draping herself all over Erik in full view of her lover's husband? Was it some kind of power-game with Sebastian? Did she know about their heir-production 'arrangement'? What in the world could it mean?

Erik could be subtle, and patient, and political. But he didn't prefer it. And if this woman was a threat of some sort to Charles, he wanted to know it on his timetable, not hers.

After dinner, when the musicians switched from soft background music to dancing tunes, he asked Emma to dance.

It was hard to say whether she or Charles looked the more shocked, but she acquiesced willingly, and he swept her onto the dance floor, gathered close so no one could hear what they said to each other.

"You like games, Lady Frost?"

"Why, yes. I'm rather good at them, as a rule."

"I get the impression you're the kind of girl who likes them best when there's something at stake."

She smiled dazzlingly. "But of course."

"I don't," Erik said bluntly. "I do enough gambling on the battlefield. Whatever game you're playing right now, leave me out of it, and leave Cha -- His Royal Highness the Prince Consort out of it."

"Charles?" She seemed startled, and amused. Erik did not at all like hearing Charles's given name in her mouth. "I assure you, Sir Erik, I have no particular interest in Charles. I assume that so long as he performs his duty -- which is to bear the king an acceptable brat -- he will do well in life."

Which was either an indication that she knew nothing about the arrangement, or everything. Bugger politics and the people who played them.

"No, Sir Erik, rest assured," Emma purred, pressing up against him, "my only interest lies with you."

Erik drew back as much as the dance allowed. "Then I shall warn you again, I don't play that kind of game."

"Oh, sugar." Her smile did not falter, so perhaps he imagined the faint undertone of sadness in her voice. "There's the players in the game, and then there's the pawns."

***

Every morning, Erik woke when Charles crawled out of his arms and padded into the washroom, a strip of strangely-textured paper in his hand.

"Capable of detecting pregnancy within hours," he had explained. "It'll turn pink when I pee on it. Sebastian made sure I had a mountain of them when he left."

Every morning, Erik strained his ears for the sound of a whoop or laugh from Charles, and heard only a sigh, before Charles came back to bed.

"You're always so disappointed," Erik murmured, ten days into their fortnight, curling up as close around Charles as he could. "I agree it's worrisome, with only four days left," he tried not to let his voice catch on those words, tried to quash the first tricklings of panic,  don't take this away from me , "but you seem... more  personally  disheartened. Surely you can't really  want  to be pregnant again so soon."

 

"I don't mind being pregnant." Charles trailed his fingers absently up and down Erik's back. "It's... uncomfortable, of course, in a variety of ways, but it's worth it. Knowing you're doing it for the sake of a little child, your own little child. Knowing he or she is all bundled up in there, safe and growing... It's wonderful."

Erik could only shake his head and smile. "You should have been a woman."

"Oh, that's rubbish, you know, about women being better mothers. I mean, yes, the science is clear, about hormones and maternal instincts and all, it's what evolution's steered them toward all this time. But  androji  have most of the same hormones, during the first several months when it's most important for bonding, and that's generalities, anyway. Biology is not destiny, and a person of any gender can choose to love their child well, or not." A shadow lurked in his eyes. "My mother, for instance."

"I'd forgotten you had a mother. A real mother, I mean," he said, then winced, terminology being an argument they'd had already. Society was still inconsistent, after all this time, on whether to call  androji  parents mothers or fathers, and Charles was still undecided whether to be Raven's Mama or Papa.

"Oh, yes," Charles said, "perfectly XX, with all the proper amounts of estrogen and progesterone, and she literally didn't care enough about me to bring me in out of the rain. My father, on the other hand, what little I remember of him, was tender and affectionate. And no, he wasn't  androji ." That was another source of irritation, for Charles, the idea that  androji  were allowed to be gentle and nurturing, but "true men," men-simple, had to be strong and hard. Sebastian Shaw, who was as old-school about gender roles as anyone Erik had ever met, was surely the worst possible choice of husband for Charles. Not that he hadn't known that already.

He was lucky, Erik realized suddenly, to be a man-simple, or Sebastian would not likely have made him Paladin, much less chosen him to father his heir. Had he been  androji  like Charles, their marriage would have been lauded by the populationists, who got excited at the chance to double the number of children in a family -- and wasn't that a strange and distracting thought, himself and Charles pregnant together, each carrying the other's child -- but frowned upon by the more conservative elements of society, those who acknowledged only male-to-female and male-to- androji  relationships as correct and acceptable. Anything else -- male-to-male,  androji -to-female,  androji -to- androji  -- were only varying levels of unnatural.


What about female-to-female? Had he ever even heard of that happening? Surely that would never be permitted, with women such valuable procreators. The idea of  two  such precious resources being wasted on a sterile marriage to each other was bizarre.

"You're nothing like her, you know," Erik said, dragging his attention back to Charles's sad and uneasy expression. "You're amazing with Raven, and you'll be amazing with... whoever comes along next."

"Oh, I know," Charles said lightly, though his eyes thanked Erik for the reassurance. "And you're a wonderful father." He stroked Erik's cheek, gazing at him with the kind of shameless adoration that always made Erik weak-kneed.

"Speaking of which." Erik shifted, pulling Charles closer and wedging a knee between his legs, gratified by the gasp that resulted. "Shall we give it another go?"

***

To their mutual disappointment, it was one of those days when Erik was obliged to leave Charles's chambers and take care of some Paladin business. After a leisurely cleaning-up with Charles, the baby safely ensconced in Moira's arms, he slipped carefully out the door, always alert for observers.

" Tsk, tsk!  No good news yet?"

Erik had his sword drawn before he realized the speaker was Azazel, and how had a  bright red  man snuck up on him?

"Though I can see you have been trying hard." Azazel, white-toothed grin startling against his skin, stepped forward and  sniffed  him. Erik did not put down the sword. "Ah, yes, be not so alarmed, Paladin, of course I know about the king's... arrangement with you. Who do you think talked him into it? Persuading a jealous man like Sebastian to share his toys was not easy."

Erik frowned. "Why did you do it, then? What do you get out of this?"

"Maybe I have interest in stability of kingdom,  da?  An heir is necessity. Or maybe I just like causing trouble, what do you think?" He laughed, snuffling at Erik again. It was supremely disturbing. "But this is not good, this lack of success. You  are  trying hard. I must be sure to tell this to the king, maybe he will give you more time, eh? He told me to check every morning but I did not think this necessary, much easier to stroll by window at night and listen to the caterwauling, eh?" He nudged Erik's shoulder and winked. "You are trying hard. It is early yet -- not always easy to catch a child so soon after birth. More time, I will ask the king for more time for you. No, do not thank me," and his eyes glinted, perhaps aware that Erik had had no such intention, "it is not for you I do this. Is for my own nefarious reasons,  da?  Go on, go on, the day awaits. I will get more time for you."

***

Despite Azazel's promise, word arrived the next morning to expect the king's return in three days' time. And still Charles's strips of paper remained stubbornly colorless.

Two days. Then one.

The three of them -- Charles, Erik, and Raven -- spent much of that last day cuddled together on the couch, talking of nothing at all, sometimes silent for minutes on end, simply being together. Erik had not forgotten that he was due a punishment, already, for embarrassing the king with his treaty with Wakanda. Perhaps he could use Sebastian's anger with him to distract him from punishing Charles...

They had one last try, that night, taking their time about it in the beginning, but rough with desperation by the end. Charles's birth-cut was healed enough now to allow for it, and frankly, it didn't displease Erik to think of Sebastian coming home to someone else's handprints on his consort.

"I love you," he told Charles while he was still coherent, though it took effort to gather the breath to speak. "I love you, and I'm glad we had this, even if I die for it, it was worth it, I love you--"

"Erik"  was the only reply, gasped, almost keening, and somehow it was everything Erik needed to hear.

Afterward, lying with his face buried in Erik's chest, sweat chilling on both their skins, Charles whispered, "Tell me about our wedding."

"What?"

"How it would have been. Tell me."

Erik closed his eyes, took a deep swallow of the scent of Charles's hair. "The wedding... I would have left the wedding mostly to you. I know very little about... flowers and clothes and music. We would have arranged things however  you  wanted them. But I know how I would have proposed. I'd already decided. I would have taken your hands, in the garden, by that bank of primroses you love so much, and gone to my knees, and asked you to accept me, though I had so little to offer..." He took a steadying breath, pretending not to see the tears on Charles's face, gleaming in the moonlight through the window. "I had decided on sapphire rings, for both of us. To match your eyes. I wanted to have that color to carry with me always."

"And we could be married from my estate at Westchester," Charles whispered. "Pack my mother and stepfather off to a satellite manor somewhere, and live there together, with our children, away from court, only come to court when I absolutely must."

"Yes," Erik said, almost a laugh. "That was exactly what I hoped. Resign as Paladin and never see another battlefield. Live to old age as a reclusive duke-consort, training the local guard and looking after the babies."

Charles was crying in earnest now, and Erik pressed his face into his hair, stroking his face and back and arms, soothing what couldn't be soothed away.

"Ask me," Charles said.

Erik forced his voice not to crack. "Charles Francis Xavier, will you marry me?"

"Yes." Charles's voice was fiercer than he expected, almost angry. "Yes, I will."

He dragged Erik into a rough, desperate kiss, and it was many hours more before they slept.

***

Charles sent Moira and Raven out at first light, with instructions not to return until they heard from him; there was no reason for them to be in the line of fire. He and Erik waited together through the morning, gripping each other's hands on the sofa. Music drifted from the antique disc-player, but did little to diffuse the tension in the room.

Charles had tried one last strip of paper when he woke. Nothing.

"Raven's the important thing," Charles said distantly, as midday neared. "He could send her to Westchester. Never have to think of her again. Perhaps... perhaps I ought to send her to Westchester either way, with Moira. In case Sebastian chooses to arrange an accident. It might be safer for her to be far away from me."

Erik shifted his hand around Charles's, stroking with his thumb. "He won't kill you, Charles. If he did, he'd just have to start this humiliating process over with another consort. You'll have to be a great deal more troublesome than you are right now, to justify killing you."

"Sebastian's not always a logical man," Charles said, "and he already has Emma Frost waiting in the wings." After a grim moment, he added, "But you're right, you are in more danger than I am. A king may go through many Paladins without comment, it's not as though it's a low-risk job. Although... finding another candidate to impregnate me would have to be at least as humiliating as finding a new consort."

"Let's count on his laziness and pride, then, to keep us alive."

They waited, and waited, and Erik thought of how many ways he would like to kill Sebastian. It was hard to beat a good old-fashioned sword to the gut. Nice and painful, and common, ever so common, like any cannon-fodder on the battlefield.

There was no reason not to do it, whatever Charles said. Sebastian was a terrible king, for more reasons than his personal cruelty; he kept his men and his money mired in endless land-grabs and power battles, let crime and hunger rule the people he purported to protect. Surely anyone would be an improvement.

Erik let go of Charles's hand to pace the room, considering. What if he simply drew steel on Sebastian as soon as he entered the room? It would be impossible to get away with it, of course, but why not be blatant? Why not simply do it and announce to the kindgom that they were under new management? Charles didn't want to be king; very well, Erik would do it himself. Having Charles's support -- and surely, please god, his hand in marriage -- would lend Erik enough legitimacy to fend off idle protest, and he wasn't afraid to fight those who inevitably chose to test the new king's strength.

But if he failed -- if any part of this failed -- Erik would, of course, be executed with extreme prejudice, and Charles with him. No, a blatant kill-and-conquer was too risky. Better that Sebastian meet the sort of accident he had arranged so often for others. Then their path would be clear, untainted -- and if it failed, Charles would be safe, with nothing to implicate him.

"I suppose we could have used the balcony, this last fortnight," Charles murmured, coming up behind him, and Erik realized his pacing had stalled, leaving him staring out the glass doors onto Charles's balcony. "After dark, at least. I'm accustomed to avoiding it -- Sebastian's is adjacent, you see, and he spends a good deal of time there."

"That's it, there?" Erik pointed with one hand, laying the other across the arms Charles wound about his waist.

"Yes. He likes to prop himself on the railing, there, and drink, and... survey his spoils, I suppose."

Erik felt his mind churning. "Bringing along his brownnosers, I assume."

"No," Charles said thoughtfully. "I've never seen anyone out there with him, actually. He entertains in the banquet hall, or the throne room, perhaps even in his sitting room, but I don't think I've ever seen him bring company onto the balcony."

Erik narrowed his eyes at the wooden balcony railing. Wood, such a fragile material. Prone to rot, crack, break. Liable to fail you at any time.

 

 

Early in the afternoon, with the lunch Charles had summoned sitting untouched on the table, there was a knock at the door.

They glanced at each other, startled. Sebastian wouldn't knock. Was it Moira? Some problem with Raven?

Charles went to the door, waving Erik back out of sight -- and opened it to admit the scarlet-skinned figure of Lord Azazel.

"I am on my way to make official announcement," he said, grinning. "The king's convoy has been delayed on the road. Several days, perhaps a week." He gave an elaborate shrug. "It is not as much time as I would like, but is best I could do."

Charles blinked at him a moment, then made an obvious struggle to retain control of his knees. "I see. Thank you, Lord Azazel."

"Eh. As I said before, my own reasons. But I will accept your gratitude graciously." He flourished a bow. "Now. Time. Do not waste."

Charles shut the door, and fell boneless into Erik's arms.

***

That night, after Charles was asleep, Erik discovered he could climb from one balcony to the other, and back again, undetected.

And that the wood of the railing was, in fact, very old.

***

On the fourth day of Sebastian's road delay, Charles slipped carefully out of bed just as dawn began to trickle through the windows. Usually Erik woke at the slightest movement, but today he slept on, and that made it even harder to leave the warmth of his arms, to turn away from the rare sight of Erik's face relaxed and peaceful. But his bladder needed relief, and he was, as always, impatient to see the results of their night's work.

He went to the washroom, and held his breath and prayed as his stream slid over the strip of paper.

And blinked in shock as the paper turned pink.

"Erik," he croaked, after a long moment of disbelief in which the pink remained boldly and inarguably pink.  "Erik!"

He heard an intake of breath, the covers shifting. "Charles? What's wrong?"

"Nothing. Absolutely nothing." He stepped out of the washroom, holding up the paper. He could feel a near-painful grin splitting his face.

Erik stared at the paper. Rubbed his eyes. Stared a little more.

The moment he cracked a smile, Charles broke into a run, launching himself into the bed and into Erik's arms, laughing and dotting kisses across every random bit of skin within reach.

"Easy!" Erik curled one hand around Charles's head to angle him into a proper kiss, tugging him close with the other arm around his waist.

Between kisses, laughing at himself, Charles said, "A baby, Erik, another baby, a brother or sister for Raven. I already love him so much!"

"So do I," Erik said, sounding sheepish and surprised.

Charles would not let himself think about the unlikelihood of Erik being permitted to care for either child in the future as he had Raven, these nineteen days. He would not think about the odds of another girl, and whether Sebastian would let them try again. He would think only about this baby, and Raven, the beauty and wonder of them, the years ahead of singing and scolding and teaching and watching them grow.

He would think about this moment, with Erik laughing and happy in his arms, the early sunlight gilding his hair like a halo, holding Charles down on the bed to nibble kisses into his belly.

***

Going to bed could never be a chore, not with Erik -- Erik who held him like he'd rather die than let him go, Erik who could steal his breath with a glance. Yet Charles had to admit that, with the pressure finally off, their lovemaking took on a liberating new energy, one that kept Moira out in the sun until her skin browned. They could  play  now, explore each other like never before, and since any day could be their last, it only made sense to investigate each new possibility as it occurred to them, with no waiting around.

Charles was speechless the first time Erik asked if he'd like to top. It had never occurred to him that a man-simple would submit to such a thing. He wasn't at all sure he'd even like it.

He did. He liked it a  lot.  And felt a little guilty for it, because Erik, unlike Sebastian, had never given him a reason to feel helpless or unsafe. It shouldn't have mattered, with Erik, feeling that he was suddenly in a position of power. Then again, maybe that was what he loved so much about it -- that he could take that position with Erik and it truly  didn't  matter.

"What do you like best?" Charles whispered as they both slid toward sleep. "I mean, how -- how do you it like it best?"

"With you," Erik replied muzzily, and fell asleep with his fingers tangled absently with Charles's.

***

The king was delayed a full week on the road. They had warning enough his return -- breathless messengers sent ahead -- that the court was able to turn out in full fanfare, Prince Consort and Paladin in their places of honor. Sebastian, informed via Azazel that the goal had been accomplished, looked on them with hard eyes and a smug smile before addressing the court.

The re-negotiation had gone well, it seemed, though not as well as Sebastian had surely hoped. Erik wasn't sure whether to feel more guilty for brokering an agreement that deliberately disfavored his own side, or for making the Wakandans vulnerable to Sebastian's wrath. Storm and Black Panther seemed to have held up well enough; the agreement was now reduced to mere fairness on both sides, which Sebastian presented as if it were a great military victory won on his own command.

"As a symbol of our alliance with great Wakanda," Sebastian announced, after several minutes of self-congratulation, "we have agreed to an exchange of fosterlings." He gestured to one side, and two dark Wakandan children, wide-eyed and gripping each other's hands, stepped into view. The boy, clearly older, stood a bit in front of the girl, as if to protect her. "My friends and courtiers, please greet Princess Angel and Prince Armando, henceforth to be treated as members of my own household."

A whisper of surprise ran through the crowd. The exchange of fosterlings was an old and respectable practice, but somewhat unusual nowadays -- and rather a strange move from Sebastian Shaw, who had shown little interest in the kind of long-term tie between kingdoms that such a thing heralded. Erik wondered if he should call it a victory for Wakanda, arranging so permanent a truce, or if he should fear for the children thrust into Sebastian's path.

And then there was the question of who had been exchanged for them. Charles had gone entirely stiff beside him, and neither of them could keep from glancing at the baby bundled in Moira's arms behind them.

"The Wakandans wished, of course, to have my own precious daughter in exchange," Sebastian continued, voice dry, "but were at length convinced that she is far too young to leave her mother. The fosterlings of our kingdom to be sent to Wakanda will be two of the sons of my most trusted advisor, Azazel."

Azazel, doubtless forewarned, looked perfectly cheerful at this announcement, though his husband Janos considerably less so. Well, they would not be  permanently  separated from their children, anymore than Storm and Black Panther would; if they stuck to the standard fosterling agreement, at least, there would be regular visitation back and forth. Part of the point of a fosterling exchange was to encourage frequent contact between the two kingdoms.

Erik's attention suddenly focused again as Charles stepped forward.

"As Prince Consort, in whose charge all children of the king's house may be lain," he said, clear and crisp and loud, "I am happy to accept Princess Angel and Prince Armando into my personal guardianship." He held out a hand toward the wide-eyed children, warmed and gentled his voice, smiled. "Come here, little ones."

The little prince and princess glanced at each other, then warily crossed the platform to Charles's side, Armando offering his hand.

Charles shook it gravely. "It's nice to meet you," he murmured, speaking only to the children now. "I'm Charles, and I'm going to look after you. You can call me Papa if you like."

Erik was almost rocked on his feet by the surge of  pride  in Charles, the awe and fierce satisfaction of knowing the man he loved would take these two lost kittens so completely into his home and into his heart, not for political advantage, but simply because they needed him.

He looked to Sebastian, whose expression had soured subtly. Charles had just neatly canceled, or at least thrown a wrench into, any plans he'd had to manipulate or corrupt the children for his own agenda. They were no longer under Sebastian's direct authority, and the entire court knew it. And there was little he could do about it, as it was entirely the consort's proper place to take charge of the children. After this, he could not contradict Charles on any part of their care without drawing a great deal of attention and disapproval. In a peculiar way, the fosterlings were now safer from Sebastian than Raven was.

It wasn't perfect protection, of course. Sebastian's power still outweighed anyone else's, if it came down to brute force, either literally or politically. No one could be entirely safe from Sebastian as long as he was alive.

Erik thought of the unreliability of wooden railings, and smiled.


Erik was resigned to a long night of "celebration" in the banquet hall, with Sebastian growing sloppily drunk between himself and Charles. Moira, though invited to the festivities, had gone back to their chambers --  dangerous slip, Lehnsherr, they're not your chambers at all  -- with Raven and the new fosterlings, leaving no one else worth talking to.

Least of all the smug-looking blonde who slid into the seat on his left.

"Lady Frost," Erik said, as politely as he could manage in his thorough bafflement. That seat was normally occupied by Duke Worthington, one of Sebastian's advisors -- surely Emma had made a grave miscalculation, and would be humiliatingly set down any moment.

Instead, Sebastian smiled, exchanging a meaningful look with his mistress, and got to his feet.

Conversation in the hall immediately ceased; Sebastian tapped a spoon against his wine glass anyway, adding drama to the moment.

"As we celebrate the great triumph of our alliance with Wakanda," Sebastian said, "it is only meet that we take a moment to celebrate, as well, the man who made that triumph possible. Sir Erik of House Lehnsherr, who I am proud to call King's Paladin, stand!"

Erik stood, feeling his blood chill.

"As I'm sure most of you know, it was Sir Erik who first forged a treaty with mighty Wakanda, thus ending the bloody war between us. For this he has earned a boon." Sebastian's smile was sharp and surely could not, by anyone, be mistaken for joy. "It is my honor and privilege to grant to Sir Erik a wife, the most exquisite creature of my court -- Lady Emma of House Frost."

After a stunned moment, a wave of whispers and mutters -- and one quickly-smothered laugh -- washed over the banquet hall. Erik could only stand frozen as Emma put her arm through his and leaned her head on his shoulder, the picture of adoring devotion.

He had to admire Sebastian's cunning. To the uninformed, Emma would indeed appear to be a reward. Only those who understood the severity of Erik's sin would suspect otherwise, would understand that Sebastian was installing a viper in Erik's household. Erik got the inestimable privilege of having his spouse chosen by his greatest enemy, of accepting the king's spy into the most intimate part of his life, and the king's sloppy seconds into his bed. There was a certain poetry to it -- he would be cuckolded by the man he was cuckolding. That alone would be worth the discomfort of... sharing this particular toy.

Not, of course, that Erik intended to spend a single moment in Emma's bed.

While Emma mouthed some speech of thanks toward the king, Erik looked only at Charles, who stared back in perfect, painful understanding.

"--wedding to take place in this very hall, in a week's time."

Erik attention snapped back to Sebastian, who was watching him with ugly satisfaction. "That should be just long enough to find a proper dress, don't you think, Lady Frost?"

"Barely, Your Majesty," she replied, "but the day can't come soon enough for me to be with my lord Erik." She snuggled tighter against Erik's side, and her touch felt like ice.

Chapter Text

The celebrating in the banquet hall would go on for hours, and there was no chance of him and Erik sneaking out together, not tonight, with Erik and Emma the center of every toast. Charles excused himself even earlier than usual, his gaze flicking at Erik's and away again as if it hurt.

He made it to his own corridor, at least, dim and empty, before the sobs took him, and he had to lean against the wall to stay upright.

It was ridiculous of him to react so strongly. It wasn't as if Erik wanted to do this – everyone in the hall could probably see that. Emma Frost was a punishment, not a lover. Somehow it still stung to think of Erik marrying someone else, every flickering image – the wedding flowers, their joined hands, the ritual kiss – digging into him like a blade.

But oh, how much more he hurt for Erik, forced to – He couldn't even think about what Erik might be forced to do. Live, anyhow, with Emma Frost like an ice cube in his bosom. If they couldn't be together, Erik might at least, someday, have found comfort in some other companion... and the pain of that would have been catastrophic, but he could have borne it, to see Erik happy. He told himself he could have borne it. But this...

With effort, Charles quieted himself, swallowed the pain down and down until he could smooth his face over it and keep walking. He had children to attend to.

Moira stood up the moment he opened the door, color draining from her cheeks. "Charles, what happened?"

"I... I'll tell you presently. Don't worry yourself. I should see to the children."

"Do you have enough milk for Raven tonight?" She held out the fretting baby, and Charles took her eagerly.

"Where are Angel and Armando?" he asked, settling Raven to nurse.

"I had pallets set up for them in Raven's room. You can barely walk through, of course, they'll need a room of their own tomorrow. I doubt very much whether they're asleep, though."

They were not, Charles saw when he stepped through the door; dark eyes shone in the sliver of light that came through with him.

"Hello, children," he called softly, closing the door and turning on a dim touch-light. "Do you remember me?"

The children eyed him warily. Though there were indeed two pallets, the little girl had left hers to curl up with her brother, who kept a protective arm over her.

"Do you understand me?" Charles asked. "Do you speak our language in Wakanda?"

"Yes," Armando said. "Many languages in Wakanda."

"Good." He sat in the rocking chair, pulling a blanket over his lap. "Are you warm enough?"

A nod.

"Do you… understand what happened earlier? When I said I would be taking care of you now?"

Another nod.

"Do you understand why you two have been sent here?"

"To learn," Armando said. "A prince needs to understand other kingdoms, not just his own. A princess, too. Mama and Baba said. But we don't have to stay forever, it's just a five-year c-conc – contract. And we get to visit in six months. And we can write every single day."

"That's right." Charles kept his smile gentle, no hint of internal aching – why had Sebastian dragged these poor creatures here? "I'll help you write to Mama and Baba tomorrow. How old are you, Armando?"

"Seven."

"And you, Angel?"

She held up five fingers, the thumb of her other hand stuck in her mouth.

"King Sebastian wanted Angel to come," Armando said. "But Mama and Baba said not without her brother to protect her and look after her. That's my job." He tightened his arm around his little sister.

Why had Sebastian wanted a little girl, alone and helpless? Charles felt chilled despite the blanket. "I'm sure you'll do splendidly, Armando. I can tell you're good at your job."

The boy smiled shyly.

Charles switched Raven from one side to the other, and Angel sat up, thumb falling from her mouth. "Mtoto!"

"Baby," Armando corrected, nudging her with his elbow.

"Baby," she said obediently. "Can I see?"

"Yes, do." Charles drew back Raven's wrappings so they could see her face. "This is Raven, my daughter. Be very, very gentle when you touch her, she's brand-new."

Angel carefully patted the baby's head, a smile slowly spreading across her face, while Armando contented himself with a brief stroke of her cheek.

"Are you her father or mother?" Armando asked.

"Mother. I'm to be your mother, too, while you're here. Moira and I will take care of you."

"Who is Raven's father?"

Charles's voice locked in his throat for a long moment before he was able to say, "King Sebastian."

"King Sebastian is your husband?"

"Yes."

Armando looked at him, wordless, and the uncertainty and distrust in his eyes were unmistakable. This boy was afraid of Sebastian, and frankly it would not do to disabuse him of that caution.

Charles gave the only other comfort he could. "Don't worry," he said. "I'm going to look after you."

The little boy's shoulders relaxed a few degrees. After a minute they were persuaded to go back to their shared pallet, and Charles stayed with them, rocking Raven and singing softly, until he was quite sure they slept.

 

Before Erik's return, Moira had spent the night on a pallet in the side-chamber with Raven as often as not. Tonight she volunteered to sleep on the couch, rather than leave Charles alone with three children to mind, but Charles sent her on to her own room. It was vanishingly unlikely that Erik would be able to come tonight; failing that, Charles didn't he could abide human company.

Charles changed to his nightclothes and sat drowsing on the couch with a book, unable to tolerate the too-empty bed, for perhaps an hour. Then the door opened.

"Expecting someone, my pet?" Sebastian slurred.

Charles closed his eyes. He should have known this was coming.

"Well, Charles darling? Aren't you going to welcome me home?" Sebastian staggered into the room and leaned over him.

Charles ducked under Sebastian's arm and got his feet. "Not in here, Sebastian." He kept his voice calm, matter-of-fact; a demand would get him backhanded, and a plea would be worse, make Sebastian feel powerful and aroused. "The fosterlings are in here, we'd wake them."

He half-expected Sebastian to just laugh and throw him down on the bed, but to his surprise the man actually looked disconcerted at the thought of being interrupted by the children. "Fine, then," he growled, taking hold of Charles's arm. "Guess we go back to my place this time."

 

Charles had never seen Sebastian's rooms before, and he had little chance to survey them now, with the king pawing and groping at him, tearing at his clothes. Charles got a fleeting impression of rich colors and a sparkle of crystal, and one mercifully-brief glimpse of an obscene tapestry, before Sebastian shoved him down to the floor.

"Whoops," he panted, "I can't be so rough with you now, can I? Wouldn't want to unseat my heir before he even gets properly started." He rubbed a hand roughly across Charles's now-bare stomach, like enthusiastically petting a hound. Charles swallowed and looked away. "Oho, not at your eager best tonight, are we? What a shame, I was looking forward to hearing you moan like a whore. Guess I'll have to settle for making you cry, won't I, sweetheart?"

He pulled Charles to his feet and crushed him against the wall, clawing and pinching at Charles's buttocks, his rank drink-soured breath burning across Charles's face. Sebastian was not much for kissing, thank heaven, but that didn't make his teeth any more pleasant on Charles's neck.

Once upon a time, in the early days of their marriage, Charles had survived these sorts of things by imagining Erik in Sebastian's place. That was how he'd earned the epithets 'whore' and 'slut' and 'bitch in heat' – this was before he'd learned not to fight, and watching Charles shift from kicking, biting prey-animal to enthusiastic participant was endlessly amusing to the king. "You hate me, but you love this, is that the way of it? You know what that makes you, Charles. Let me tell you all about what you are."

He didn't try to replace Sebastian with Erik anymore. He didn't want to imagine Erik treating him like this – it wasn't really possible to imagine Erik treating him like this, now that he knew so well what a tender, almost worshipful lover Erik really was, and besides, the consequences if he shouted the wrong name did not bear thinking of. No, the only option was to set his teeth and endure. It would be over quickly, as drunk as Sebastian was tonight. I wonder if he'll even notice I'm not prepped...

To his surprise, though, Sebastian didn't manhandle him toward the bed, but rather the glass doors onto the balcony.

"Sebastian, what – People will see – "

"Exactly," Sebastian growled, "they'll all see, every one of them, watch me take you, show them you're mine..."

Charles resisted, as he hadn't bothered to do in years now, tried to fight off Sebastian's grasping hands, dug his feet into the carpet. He could hear shouts outside, merrymakers that had spilled out of the banquet hall. There was no telling who was out there. Erik could be out there.

"No!" Charles fought more fiercely the closer they got to the doors, hampered by the knowledge that if he provoked the king to true violence, the child might pay the price. "No, Sebastian, please. Please—"

Sebastian laughed and shoved him through the doors.

The night air was cold and damp against Charles's skin, where most of his clothing was torn away. He didn't dare look at the crowd below the balcony. Had the noise level suddenly dropped a degree, or was that only in his mind? Then Sebastian was on him again, forcing him down to his knees, wrenching an arm behind his back – Charles couldn't help crying out, and now there was a definitely a change in the tenor of the hubbub below.

"Touch me," Sebastian said, close in his ear, and Charles shuddered, realizing what was being pressed into the hand pinned behind him. "Come on, whore, do your job!"

Charles kept his fingers splayed far apart, his palm cringing away as much as it could. Sebastian tightened the angle of his arm, surely his arm would break any second now, but he'd rather ten broken bones than play this sick game even one more time—

A sudden shout from below drew Sebastian's attention for a moment, and Charles used that moment to throw his head back as hard as he could, into Sebastian's face.

It was hard to say whether the wet, crunchy crack was Sebastian's nose or Charles's arm. Both, most likely.

The pain was like a blinding light in the middle of his brain. Charles was dimly aware of screaming, of Sebastian staggering back from him with a curse – then lurching forward again, blood gushing down his face, and reaching for him. Instinctively, Charles scrambled away, a stumbling half-crouched movement that threw them both off-balance.

His shoulder hit the wooden railing of the balcony, and there was another crack, loud and messy enough that he thought he'd surely broken another bone.

Until he began to fall.

***

"Charles. Charles, I'm so sorry." The voice was choked with pain, and muffled by the blurry veil that seemed to encase Charles's head. But it was still a voice he would know anywhere, and answer through any difficulty.

"Erik?"

"Charles!"

He felt a hand on his cheek and struggled to open his eyes. His head hurt so much, and his arm, everything hurt and the inside of his head felt swampy and off-balance...

"Charles?"

Finally he dragged his eyes open, and there was Erik, and though he could not quite bring his face into focus he could still tell that Erik was distraught. "Erik? What happened?"

"You fell. From Sebastian's balcony." The words seemed to cost him something.

The railing, yes, the railing had given way. Memory of the minutes before trickled in, and he flinched from them. "Am I hurt? It hurts..." He gasped suddenly, hands going to his belly - one hand, anyway, the other arm hurt too much to move. "The baby - Erik, the baby, did I lose the baby?"

"No, Charles, the baby's all right." That was Moira - he turned his head, which was a mistake, an explosion of pain and stars and dizziness - Moira was seated on his other side, Raven in her arms. "There's no sign of miscarriage. You're only a few days along, after all - he's a handful of cells surrounded by comparative miles of padding. He's fine."

Charles let out a near-sob of relief, and let himself rest in that reassurance for a moment, and in Erik's warm grip on his hand.

Until the knowledge trickled in, like cold rain, that he'd been wrong about one thing. His entire body didn't hurt.

"Erik." He heard his own voice from far away, raspy, an octave higher than usual. "I can't feel my legs."

 

He'd been very lucky, the doctors told him, as such things went. The injury was far enough down the spine that he'd retained sensation in his torso, hips, even traces of the tops of his thighs. He still had full digestive and sexual function. He could maintain his own balance. It was even possible that someday - not now, of course, not with a broken clavicle and dislocated elbow, but someday - he would be able to walk, after a fashion, swinging his dead legs along between crutches.

Charles tried very, very hard to be properly grateful for this, but other thoughts kept interfering. Thoughts like never running and playing with his children. Never again straddling Erik's lap on the couch. Being dumped out of his chair, helpless on the floor, the next time Sebastian came for him.

Not that that was likely to happen soon; they'd both gone through the railing. Sebastian was in his own room here in King's Hospital, just down the corridor, with five broken ribs, a near-useless shoulder, and a concussion to match Charles's, not to mention a broken nose. At all hours Charles could hear supplicants outside the windows, praying for the healthy recovery of their King and Prince Consort. They sent gifts, flowers, cards; Charles chose a few every day to respond to personally.

The days passed in a grey blur, helped along by the pain medication. Moira brought Raven and the fosterlings to see him, usually several times a day, and he didn't have to try too hard to muster good cheer for their sake. Armando and Angel, desperate for solid footing in their constantly shifting situation, had refused to be moved from the room they'd slept in their first night; Charles finally gave in and told Moira to have a bunk-bed brought in. Moira said they were a surprising amount of help with the baby.

Erik was at his side every moment, watching him with a desperate, agonized expression that Charles wanted to flinch from. He didn't want Erik's pity. He needed Erik, more than anyone, to see him no differently. He clung to Erik's hand any moment they were alone, or only with Moira, and Erik clung right back.

"Should you be here?" Charles asked at last, reluctantly, as they prepared for bed one night.

"I'm your bodyguard," Erik said. "The king has one, too. That railing may have been sabotaged, after all."

He appeared to be going for a teasing tone, but it failed miserably. Did he actually believe it had been the work of an assassin?

"Erik, that's ridiculous," Charles said, yawning and settling into his pillows. He curled an arm around Erik's waist, tugged him closer in the darkness. Even in hospital, royalty gets nice big beds, how nice. "It just broke. I fell against it fairly hard, you know."

When Erik didn't reply, Charles felt an uneasy something brush through the cobwebs in his brain. He opened his eyes. "Erik?"

"The railing was weakened," Erik said, suddenly hoarse. "It would have broken under almost any touch."

"And how," Charles said, "do you know that?"

Erik was silent for a long, long moment. What he finally said was, "You told me Sebastian never took anyone out there."

Charles felt as if all the breath had been crushed from his chest. His arm pulled away from Erik's waist seemingly of its own volition, and Erik let out a strangled gasp as if the loss physically hurt him.

"Charles, I'm so sorry," he whispered. "I never meant – you know I'd have rather died—"

"You did this." Charles's own voice seemed alien to his ears, leaden and expressionless. "You did this to me."

Another choked sound, and Charles felt unsteady fingers brush over his cheek – hesitant, pleading. Charles didn't brush them away – but he didn't lean into them either.

For all of his body's stillness, his mind was whirling, half-coherent thoughts battling for precedence – I told him not to, I told him not to – murderer – could have killed me – killed the baby – if Sebastian ever suspects – you could at least have gotten it RIGHT –

"I need you to go," he said faintly. "I need you to... not be here right now. I need you to go." When Erik didn't move immediately, his voice rose to a near-shout. "Go!"

Erik slid away and out of the bed. In the darkness, Charles felt his hands tucking the covers carefully back around him, felt a brief, light kiss to his temple. Then footsteps, and the door closing, and the room was dark and silent as any tomb.

A tear had dropped to his skin during the kiss. It seemed to burn there for the rest of the night.

Chapter Text

Charles must eventually have slept, because he woke to the sound of heavy, pained breathing, and a weight settling into the chair by the bed. Erik?

No, he realized on opening his eyes. Sebastian.

He looked terrible – his face pale and sweating, his nose purple and swollen, bandages around his ribs. He had a death-grip on a sturdy cane and, once seated, clung to the armrests with trembling hands.

"Strange, isn't it," he said casually. "Doctors list off the broken bones and add 'and significant bruising' like it's hardly worth mentioning, when what they should have said is 'your battered legs aren't going to work right for weeks.' But perhaps it's rude of me to bring that up." He patted the dead lump of Charles's leg under the covers. "A shame, my darling, such a shame."

"What do you want, Sebastian," Charles said dully, his mind chanting die die why didn't you die.

"Can't I just want to see you, darling?" His smile was sharp even through his exhaustion. "It would look odd if I didn't visit my husband in his convalescence. Especially with another little one on the way."

"Fine. You've visited."

"Spirited today, aren't we? As it happens, I have other news to share. It's all very shocking, Charles. Someone, this very morning, made an attempt to switch my pain medication with a much heavier drug, at a lethal dosage."

Charles let his surprise show, hid his disappointment that the attempt had failed. "What? Who?"

"The investigation is underway, of course, but the switch seems to have happened when no one was looking. I doubt we'll ever identify the culprit. Don't worry, Charles, I don't think you were behind it." He waved a reassuring hand, as if Charles had been on his knees begging forgiveness. "But I thought it might, nevertheless, behoove me to alert you and my dear Sir Erik to a few... changes in policy that I put into place immediately after my fall. I called my most trusted advisors to my side as soon as I woke, made some changes to my will – and left other, less traceable orders besides. This is the result: Should I die, by any means, however natural or accidental in appearance, before the age of sixty-five, all of the children of the Prince Consort will be disowned and cast out. And the consort and Paladin, whether publicly or... quietly, as the situation requires, will die within the week."

Charles could only stare at him.

Sebastian smiled, a ghastly thing on his white, exhausted face, patted Charles's leg again, and hove painfully to his feet, cradling his ribs with one arm. He made his slow, stumping way out of the room, and slammed the door behind him.

***

"Is true," Azazel told them, after Charles sent Moira to find him. "I try to talk him out of it, but he will not."

His voice was casually regretful, as if Sebastian were, perhaps, making an unwise racing bet. More than ever, Charles was unsure what to make of the man, whether to consider him an ally or merely a breeze that occasionally blew their way.

"Could I hold baby?" Azazel asked, looking wistfully at Raven nestled in the crook of Charles's good arm. "I will not drop."

Charles and Moira stared at each other a moment in shock at the request, but Charles bit his lip and nodded. Moira hesitantly picked up the baby and passed her into Azazel's arms.

He held her against his chest, gentle and secure, and gazed down at her with a crooning adoration that Charles found bewildering. He murmured at the child in some language Charles couldn't decipher, stroking her cheek, and for a moment – surely this was the lingering effects of concussion, but for a moment Charles could swear he saw Azazel absently flick a tail back and forth.

"Good, strong girl," Azazel said. "She will do well." He kissed her forehead and handed her back to Moira. "One fear I can settle for you, Prince. If Sebastian die, and children are cast out, I will make sure they are well. Whatever I have to do."

"Thank you, Lord Azazel," Charles said faintly.

Azazel bowed and left.

"I wish Erik had been here for that," Moira said. "He's known the man longer, might have been able to tell what he's up to. Where is Erik, anyway?" Then answered herself before Charles had to – "Oh, wedding preparations, I guess."

Of course. The wedding. Emma Frost. He hadn't forgotten, exactly, only allowed – perhaps encouraged – the events of the last few days to drive it out of his mind. "Of course. The wedding. That's in, what... three days?"

Moira gave him an odd look. "Tomorrow, Charles."

"Tomorrow?" Had he lost track of the days that badly?

"I thought surely they'd delay it, with King Sebastian injured, but he gave them leave to go ahead." By the tone of her voice, Charles gathered that 'gave leave' translated as 'demanded.'

Charles looked down at his half-useless body in the bed. "I can't even push myself in a chair until my arm and collarbone heal..."

"I could push you. If you want to go."

Charles closed his eyes. "No," he said at last. "I don't want to go."

"Then we won't go. Your injuries make an excellent excuse."

Charles was quiet for a while, staring sightless out the window. "I'm so sick of this room. Is there any reason I can't be moved back to my own rooms tonight? I want to be near the children."

"I'll ask the doctor about it." Moira stood. "Would you like me to leave Raven with you?"

"Yes, please do. I'll give her a bottle." He still had too much medication in his system to nurse. He missed it.

Moira helped him sit up. It took some doing to get things arranged so that Raven was secure and Charles could hold the bottle with his good hand, but they managed it.

"Who's Erik's best man?"

Moira paused on her way out the door. "One of his lieutenants. Howlett, I think."

"Do you... Do you think Emma actually cares for him at all?"

"No. I don't."

"Is it true Sebastian's sending them on a three-month honeymoon to the islands?"

"That's what I've heard."

Charles gazed down at Raven, serenely engrossed in her bottle. "Erik will look amazing in his wedding clothes."

"Yes.

Charles fought to keep his voice steady. "Three months."

"I'm so sorry, Charles."

Charles managed to flick a smile in her direction. "Go on. Go talk to the doctor."

 

They did move him back to his room, under Moira's solemn promises to look after him, with a nurse to visit in the morning. Charles spent the evening more happily than he had since his fall, reading aloud to the children, playing round after round of Candy Path, and helping them compose a letter home to their parents.

During dinner, Angel swiped a piece of his fruit, a transparent bit of thievery that had all of them giggling into their sleeves. When Charles crept a hand over to steal it back, she grabbed the fruit and dashed across the room.

Charles instinctively tried to follow. And hit the floor in an awkward heap, swearing and near-weeping with pain and frustration.

"Stay back, children, it's all right," Moira said calmly, already stooping at his side. "Everything's fine, he just fell down. Charles, are you hurt? Do you want me to get the doctor?"

Charles looked up at the wide-eyed fosterlings, tried to scrounge a reassuring smile. "No, no, I'm fine. Just get me back up. And perhaps we'll call it an early night, hm?"

It took some time to get everyone to bed, but at last the chamber was quiet and dark, even Moira breathing sleep-slow on her pallet next to his bed. Charles's body was sore and exhausted, but he kept his eyes open, the same wheel of useless thoughts spinning behind them.

It was hours before he admitted to himself that he was waiting for Erik.

And hours more before he admitted that Erik wasn't coming.

 

He dreamed three times that Erik came slipping up on him in the dark to kiss and caress him, both of them spilling apologies on every breath.

The first dream ended with Erik stabbing him in the back, and he woke gasping.

In the second, he bound Erik with magical unbreakable chains and dragging him away into a secret room no one else could enter. He woke alone.

In the third dream, Erik brought his legs back to life with a touch, but before Charles could thank him, he was waking to Angel and Armando leaping onto the bed, and brightly illuminated windows looking out onto the wedding pavilion.

***

It was a beautiful wedding, Erik was dimly aware, far nicer than it had any right to be on such short notice. Autumn had been very slow in coming, so the day was bright and warm. There were flowers and lace tablecloths and violins warming up. Lieutenant Howlett looked grumpy and uncomfortable in his finery, and Sebastian looked to be in merciless pain just standing there breathing. Both those sights lifted Erik's spirits momentarily, and he tried to keep them foremost in his mind, instead of other thoughts.

"You did this. I need you to go. GO!"

Tonight he would be in a creaking ship's cabin on the way to the islands, trying to pry Emma Frost out of his bed. He wouldn't see Charles or Raven for three months. If he ever saw them again at all.

No, that was unlikely. He was King's Paladin; he would inevitably be at court off and on. Surely that would be worse – to see Charles, trapped in a chair, brush his gaze past Erik without warmth or joy.

Erik stood wooden while a bevy of servants locked him into layers of linen, velvet, and leather. He eyed the shining ceremonial sword strapped to his side. It wasn't much of a sword, but it was sharp enough. If he—

No. No, it was far too early in the game to give up entirely. He'd had other moments when it seemed all possibility of joy in life was gone, and if he'd given up then, he would never have had these last weeks with Charles.

And Charles would have been the better for it.

He could think of no counter to that. Nevertheless, he kept his hands still, and away from the hilt of the sword.

***

The wedding pavilion was a temporary structure, all canvas and gauze and garlands of ivy, and Charles had no doubt Sebastian had chosen its location deliberately. It was in perfect, clear view from Charles's balcony.

Like a child reaching for the stove burner, he insisted Moira push his wheelchair out. She set up a picnic breakfast for the children on the sun-warmed tiles of the balcony, and set a tray of sausage and toast in Charles's lap. He managed a nod of thanks, but couldn't bring himself to touch the food. In his peripheral vision he could see the shattered, splintered railing on Sebastian's balcony.

"Is that a party?" Angel asked.

"It's a wedding," Moira said.

"Who's getting married?"

A hesitation, and then, "Charles's dearest friend, Sir Erik."

"Ooh." The children pressed against the railing to watch.

For a while people milled about the tables of refreshments set up outside the pavilion, but violin music striking up was their cue to take their seats within. The roof of the pavilion was only gauze, flowing and fluttering with the breeze; Charles could see everything as Erik and the officiant took their places before the Book.

Erik did look amazing, even from this distance. He would not have stood there alone, if – if things had been different. In weddings without a bride, the grooms approached the Book from separate directions, arriving together; but the traditions involving brides were old and ironclad. Emma's fathers were dead, so it was Sebastian who escorted her down the aisle to her husband-to-be. Emma was, of course, gorgeous in shimmering white, elegant gloves past her elbows, her pale hair in a gleaming chignon. Charles hated her.

He could, possibly, have heard the words of the officiant, if only all sounds hadn't been muffled and tinny and distant behind the rushing of his blood. He took deep, steady breaths, fingernails digging into the armrests of his wheelchair.

"We could be married from my estate at Westchester... Live there together, with our children, away from court, only come to court when I absolutely must."

"Yes. That was exactly what I hoped. Resign as Paladin and never see another battlefield. Live to old age as a reclusive duke-consort, training the local guard and looking after the babies."

The talking ended; they signed the Book; and Erik pulled back Emma's veil and kissed her.

It was done.

"Why are you crying?" Armando asked at Charles's elbow.

"Lots of people cry at weddings," Charles said, wiping at his face.

Armando frowned. "You're crying because you're happy? Because he's your friend?"

"Yes."

The boy didn't look convinced, but shrugged and went back to his breakfast.

Music played and people cheered as Erik and Emma came up the aisle, arm in arm. Emma was beaming, less joyful than triumphant. Erik was entirely expressionless.

The wedding guests rose and followed them out to the coach that would take them to their ship at the Wakandan seaport, showering the new couple with seeds, flower petals and bits of white ribbon. Erik handed Emma into the coach, then followed, and closed the door after. The coach began pulling away.

Stop come back
"I need you to go"
I'd already decided to propose by that bank of primroses you love so much
Erik
"You did this"
You did this to me
Don't you dare leave me
I'm glad we had this, even if I die for it, it was worth it
Three months

Charles was dimly aware of the breakfast tray sliding off his lap and shattering, of Moira's concerned voice, of his hand against his belly where Erik's child was growing.

He watched the coach until it was out of sight. Not once did the windows open for someone to look back.

Chapter Text

They would be hard-pressed to make the seaport before nightfall, and in fact the more Erik thought on it the more he doubted they would; more probably his wedding night would be spent at a roadside inn, and frankly he saw no reason why it shouldn't be. The ship couldn't leave until morning anyway, and an inn would likely be more comfortable than a ship's cabin, with more opportunity to get away from his bride.

After a half-hour's jouncing, Erik informed the driver that he had no desire to kill their horses trying to reach Wakanda tonight, and the pace of the carriage slowed to something more comfortable.

Emma, until now content to watch Erik in silent amusement, gave him a wide smile. "Why, Erik, you sly thing, maneuvering extra time for us to be alone together."

"I'd as soon be alone with a cobra." He didn't give her the compliment of eye contact but turned his attention to removing his gloves, jacket and sword, and loosening his neck-cloth, just as he might if he were alone in the coach.

"Oh, you are going to be fun," Emma murmured. "Really, sugar, don't you think you ought to make the best of things? I'm not going anywhere. And I have—" she settled back against the seat in such a way as to draw attention to her admittedly arresting chest area "—a lot to offer, if you rub me the right away."

"I'm afraid I'm not interested in what you're selling, Lady Frost."

"Oh, it's Lady Lehnsherr now, darling, how could you forget?" She slid forward to run a hand up his leg. "We're united now, Erik. We're practically one person."

Erik took her wrist delicately in his thumb and forefinger and moved her hand away. "Then what a terrible victim of self-loathing I must be."

Emma narrowed her eyes at him, and for a moment he saw the flicker of a genuine expression on her face – puzzlement – before the icy smile was back. "Oh, my. Don't you like women, Erik? Are you one of those poor souls who've grown so accustomed to... deprivation that you don't know what to do with a feast when it's handed to you?"

"Women are fine."

"So it's personal, then?" She arched a brow, well on her way to artificial affrontment.

"Not particularly. I wouldn't want anyone else Sebastian threw at me, either."

"I see. That's completely understandable. But the thing is, sugar, we're stuck together now. I, for one, see no reason we shouldn't take advantage of—"

She had began a slow slide into Erik's lap; he took hold of her shoulders and pushed her firmly back to her side of the carriage.

"Oh," she said, in a tone of startled enlightenment.

When she gave no further indication of moving or speaking, Erik took out the book he'd hidden in his jacket pocket, and pretended, at least, to drop her from his attention entirely.

He was somewhat surprised when she did the same – her book she had apparently secreted away in the coach itself. This was a woman who thought ahead.

They read, and watched the scenery, and more than once Erik caught her regarding him with a thoughtful sort of calculation. They did not speak the rest of the day.

 

He nodded off against the window, and dreamed that Emma was the dream, that it was Charles he had joined hands with, kissed and sworn to care for as long as he lived. Charles laughed at his ridiculous nightmare about marrying an ice-woman, and slid over his lap to kiss him, long and slow and thorough, and pushed him down onto the seat with their fingers laced overhead.

"Erik!"

He woke, and glanced around in confusion. An inn yard. They were stopping for the night. He and his wife.

He wrenched himself out of the carriage, and left the servants to help Emma down.

 

He was surprised to learn they were expected at the inn – "King's messengers said you might stop, anyway, depending on how the journey went, so we made sure to have a room ready" – and surprised, too, to finally realize that their coach had an escort, five guard-valets on horses. Sebastian wouldn't make the social misstep of sending his ward and his Paladin away unprotected and without servants. Erik's alarming and unsoldierly failure to notice was a measure of his distraction throughout, not just this day, but the entire wedding-planning process. He'd spent every possible moment with Charles, after all. Right up to the moment Charles sent him away.

He hadn't really expected Charles to come to the wedding. Of course he hadn't. And after all, what did it matter whether he actually said goodbye to his daughter before leaving for three months? She wouldn't know the difference. She wouldn't remember him either way.

He wanted sleep – no, he wanted a bottle of ale or three, and sleep – but the bedchamber held potential horrors he was not ready to face. Instead he let himself be toasted and treated by his cheerful fellow-guests, forcing a smile and letting drink dull his mind – though not incapacitate it, he couldn't afford that – before making his way to the room, where Emma had retired hours before. Maybe she would already be asleep...

He opened the door to find her stretched on her side across the bed, propped on one hand, with the sheet pulled demurely over her chest.

Her sweetly seductive expression relaxed into something more sincerely dry as Erik froze in the doorway. "This can hardly be a surprise, sugar."

"Get out, Emma. I want to go to bed."

"There's only the one, you know."

"Sleep on the floor, then. Or I will. I can be a gentleman." He walked around the bed, giving its occupant a wide berth, and pulled a pillow from the opposite side.

With an exasperated sound Emma sat up, still primly covered. "Come now, Erik, I know how to use a mirror, and I can't believe I deserve this kind of rejection." She smiled dazzlingly. "There must be something you like about me."

Erik looked at her a moment, frowning. "After all," he said, "men always like something about you. And you use that to get your way. Can't blame you; what else do you have to work with?"

Her gaze was sharp now. "Well, I had money, once," she said. "Until my fathers died. Then Sebastian had my money. And now you do."

Erik grimaced. "I'd just as soon not, with the millstone that comes attached."

"Well, that's just insulting," she drawled. "But... if you actually mean it, then perhaps we can come to a mutually beneficial arrangement after all."

"Is that so?"

She shrugged off the sheet and crossed the room to throw open one of her trunks. Erik couldn't help gulping, but didn't give her the satisfaction of either averting his gaze, or letting it linger on her bare backside.

And frontside, when she returned, and tossed a sheaf of papers between them on the bed. "Sign these," she said. "Give me back control of my inheritance. You even get an allowance – I know your position comes with more prestige than pay. You give me back my fathers' estates, and you stay out of my way."

"And what do I get out of this?"

"Well, for starters," she said sweetly, "I won't kill you like I'm supposed to if dear Sebastian kicks off early."

Erik goggled at her. Sebastian had, of course, told him about the "change in policy" – and oh, it was stupid of him not to think of Emma as a possible threat...

She rolled her eyes. "Yes, I know about his mad plan. Hand me my robe please? Good boy." She shrugged it on, managing to make the motion elegant. "I imagine the plan will be... refined, at least, once he's off the pain meds and realizes how stupid it is. But at the moment, he's convinced you are out for his blood and that this is the only way to protect himself. I don't know what reason you have to kill Sebastian – though I'm developing a theory – but I find it amusingly predictable that he's fixated on the strongest, more virile man around as the threat, and trusted little old me to help him take care of the problem." Her smile could have been edged with diamond.

"The medication switch," Erik said. "That was you."

"Sebastian's such a trusting man, in his peculiar way. He seems to think that because I came willingly to his bed before he could get around to raping me, that I actually like him. Erik, sweetie, I can see you're having trouble following – you did have an awful lot of ale – so just sit down and let me walk you through this."

Obediently, Erik sat down on the edge of the bed. Emma took the chair facing him.

"I am ninety percent certain Sebastian arranged my fathers' accident," she said. "For that alone I would love to watch him die slowly, but that's beside the point. The point is that Sebastian had me and my money exactly where he wanted. And now? Now I am out from under the bastard. Instead of the king's helpless ward, I'm now Lady to the King's Paladin – an entity in my own right, and married to the one man in the kingdom who might stand up to Sebastian." She tapped the papers. "You give me what I want, and I'll have every reason to love you."

"And if I don't?"

There went the diamond smile again. "Widows have a great deal of financial and societal independence, don't they?"

Erik picked up the papers. "I'm reading every word of this before I sign it. Tomorrow, when I'm sober."

"Fair enough." But she smiled as if the victory were already won. She put out her hand. "A pleasure doing business with you, Sir Erik. I look forward to a long, happy business relationship."

They finally went to bed, with a good three feet of space between them, Emma clad in a surprisingly modest white gown. Erik watched the dark ceiling move in a slow, drunken circle overhead.

Emma had gotten where she was by lying to Sebastian and probably others like him, telling them what they wanted to hear, convincing them she was on their side. It was too soon to tell where her allegiance truly lay. It would not do to trust his new wife.

But he was sorely tempted to like her.

***

 

Boredom had occasionally been a problem for Charles, since he married Sebastian. Some Consorts were basically a second king, and virtually all had duties of some sort. But Sebastian – probably to keep Charles feeling helpless and dependent – had denied all requests for occupation, and told him half-laughingly to keep his schedule open for child-rearing.

Well, Charles was child-rearing now, and he certainly wasn't bored. Even with Moira's help, there was plenty to do keeping three children fed, clothed, healthy, bathed, and out of trees. Charles bought toys until Moira made him stop, arranged for the fosterlings to play and attend lessons with the other noble children, spent hours going through careful 'mental stimulation' exercises with Raven, talked to and sang to and massaged his growing belly, and generally ran himself ragged.

It was much more pleasant, he found, when he did not leave himself time to think about Erik, or about the fact that his legs wouldn't move.

The doctors continued to dangle the idea of walking, or a locomotion somewhat like walking, but it could not be attempted until his collarbone healed. Charles stayed docilely in his chair, and let the nurses move his legs every day so they wouldn't atrophy, and told himself it was temporary, temporary, because he had to, because screaming and tearing at his nerveless flesh would frighten the children.

Anger at Erik came and went. It was an unusual sensation for him, being angry at Erik. They'd hardly had enough time together to get truly annoyed with each other, so he had no idea how to handle it. He wrote letters full of rage and profanity, and wept as he watched them burn, aching for Erik's arms around him. He had always thought of himself as a forgiving man, and he knew Erik had had no intention of anyone but Sebastian being harmed – had even, in his way, taken precautions against it. Neither of them could have known that Sebastian would take Charles onto the balcony.

The fact remained that Charles could not walk, and never truly would again, because of something Erik had done, and done deliberately.

Charles's injuries – as well as, perhaps, the vague unseemliness of this second pregnancy so soon after the first – meant that he was not so much the paraded brood mare this time around, though Sebastian continued to provide whatever treats and comforts he asked for. He asked much, peevishly, asked more than he needed or wanted, and gave the excess to Moira and the children, or dropped it to the occasional priests and peasants who gathered under the balcony to pray for him.

Sebastian began spending time in Charles's chambers. They were both still too fragile, physically, for him to torture Charles in the usual way. Instead he focused on Raven, insisted on holding her and carrying her around, always just a little bit carelessly, and smiled at Charles's helpless frustration and fear. He lavished attention on Angel, as well, in a way that made Charles's skin crawl. Perceptive Armando turned out to be his ally in quietly steering Angel the other direction any time Sebastian appeared.

Sebastian had revised his anti-assassination plan, Azazel confided to Charles, when his advisors pointed out how easily civil chaos could result from an honest accident. He'd been persuaded at last to name Raven as a secret emergency heir, with Azazel as her regent, if the worst should happen – Raven to be replaced by the unborn child, on his arrival, should he be a son. The rest remained unchanged – any non-heir children exiled, Charles and Erik killed.

"That is good enough motivation, I tell him, to keep your ambitions in check," Azazel said. "He is determined you have these ambitions, I give up convincing him otherwise. This way, you are deterred, you are motivated to keep him alive, but overturned royal carriage or unfortunate fever does not mean succession crisis."

"And if you were to become Raven's regent," Charles asked, as casually as he could manage, "would you carry out those orders?"

Azazel shrugged. "Not my orders, Highness. Two separate assassins for each of you, and I only know one of them. But I mean what I say before, the children will be well, I will make sure."

"I see," Charles said softly. "I appreciate that. Speaking of children, how do your sons do in Wakanda?"

At this Azazel grinned broadly, brimming over with stories of his clever sons, and Charles listened with half his mind, while the other half wondered, very quietly, if it might be worth it to kill Sebastian anyway.

***

The rumor mill, already hysterical with theories about the balcony fall, had made Charles's second pregnancy widely known within days. (One rumor, short-lived for lack of any apparent motive, had even speculated that the king threw his consort off the balcony to make him miscarry.) Nevertheless, they waited until the third month, only days before Erik was due home, to make the official announcement. By that time Charles was noticeably rounder in appearance. The baby had started kicking already, much sooner than Raven, and the fosterlings were fascinated, constantly pressing their hands to his belly in hope of catching a flutter of movement. In fact, Charles had to disentangle Angel from his clothes and coax her back to her seat during the announcement.

"—great hope, a son, to be named Sebastian Augustus Cornelius Shaw, the Second. Please raise your glass to a strong and healthy heir for Genosha!"

Charles fumbled his glass of fruit juice and nearly spilled it before he could join in the toast. He spent the rest of the evening trying to figure out a nickname for Sebastian that he could bear to call his child.

***

Erik chose to come back into town quietly, rather than summoning the court to fanfare. Emma was disappointed, but three months in each other's constant company had inured him to her pouts – and she to his tempers. They had spent their honeymoon taking dinner together, sleeping in the same bed, and otherwise delightedly ignoring each other as they pleased. Some days they had scarcely crossed paths at all, Emma taking herself off to attend musical performances or spend her newly-reacquired money, while Erik availed himself of the library and stables attached to the royal cottage in which they were staying. They did visit the seaside together, twice – Emma remaining somehow cool and crisp as ever under her parasol, hardly getting her sandals wet, while Erik chased the housekeeper's children roaring up and down the beach and into the water, then bought them ice cream – which he had never before tasted, and would have desperately liked to share with Charles.

Emma was good company, trustworthy or not. She was sharp and witty and beautifully inconsistent about the importance of social proprieties. She had insisted on buying Erik clothing she could be seen with – out of his allowance – and then woken him the next morning with a sharp slap after she dreamed he spilled chocolate on them. He imagined she would make a terrible wife, but thus far she was a tolerable travelling companion.

He missed Charles so much he shook with it, woke in the night hardly able to breathe.

He started fifty-six letters and finished none of them.

He bought two sapphire rings, exactly the color of Charles's eyes, and wore them on twin chains around his neck.

 

They would be living, Emma had informed him, in a house of her inheritance just outside the palace walls, and Erik, with only a soldier's barracks to offer as alternative, made no argument. He left his bride and her two carriages full of purchases there, and without setting foot in the house went immediately to look for Charles.

It was impossible to avoid being seen at all, but he made certain to draw no attention, gentling his soldier's walk and casually avoiding eye contact. His travel-grimed clothes probably helped; he hardly looked the Paladin right now.

Outside Charles's door, he stopped, hand frozen mid-knock, and throttled down panic. What would he find, on the other side of that door? Forgiveness, hatred, some horribly painful middle territory?

Even in the islands, the balcony fall had been the whisper in every corner. Little shrines for the health of King, Consort, and unborn child had popped up on sidewalks and in drawing rooms, and Erik, never a religious man, made offerings to every one he saw – though he always blew out the King's candle first. Rumors raged. Prince Charles was bedridden and pain-haggard, begging for death; Prince Charles was fat and happy and playing up his condition for the attention; Prince Charles was dead already, his blood pumped by machines until the child could be safely extracted.

This last, though he knew it to be untrue, had given him nightmares that had Emma shaking him awake, alarmed at his strangled screams.

Erik had been there when the doctors explained Charles's condition to him. Barring a miracle, which he surely would have heard about, he could expect to see Charles in a wheelchair, one arm still in a sling to protect the broken clavicle. He couldn't afford to let the sight unhinge him. He was here to talk to Charles, not blubber at him.

Assuming he was permitted entry at all.

He took a deep breath and knocked.

Moira opened the door, with Raven in her arms.

Erik's mind derailed at the sight of his daughter. She'd grown so much, surely she had doubled in size, and her hair was thicker, a shimmering little field of gold. She twisted her head to look at him, and her eyes actually seemed to focus, more or less. The gnome-like wrinkles of her face had largely smoothed out into sleek peachy curves.

"Oh," was all that managed to come out of his mouth, and he brushed the back of his hand down her cheek.

Moira's eyes had gone wide. "Come inside."

A glance around the room as Moira closed the door behind him showed no sign of Charles. "Where is he?"

"In the gardens somewhere. He had a rough morning, wanted some time to himself." Moira bit her lip, looking at Erik like a gifted vase that couldn't be returned but didn't match the furniture. "Would you like to hold Raven while you're here?"

"Yes. Please." He let Moira settle him into a chair with the baby in his arms. She was heavier, but she still smelled the same, clean and sweet and warm. Something in his chest constricted when she raised a hand and fumbled her tiny, clumsy fingers across his chin and lip. "How... how is she? She's grown..."

"Babies do that," Moira said with gentle humor. "She's meeting all her milestones. She definitely recognizes me and Charles, smiles all the time, giggles, waves her arms around. She'll be crawling before we know it." The gaze she turned on Raven was soft and proud, and Raven responded to it with a distinct chuckle. Erik swallowed a pang of jealousy. It wasn't Moira's fault that she'd been here and he hadn't.

"How is Charles?"

The happiness in Moira's eyes faded. She let out a careful sort of sigh. "Keeping up a good front, which I seldom get to see behind. The children are a consolation to him, but... I don't know if they're enough."

Erik swallowed. "Will he be happy to see me?"

Moira looked startled. "Why wouldn't he be?"

He shouldn't have been surprised that Charles knew how to keep a secret. "We quarreled, before I left," he said, truthfully enough.

"Ah. That... explains a few things. I can confidently say, however, that he's missed you desperately."

That doesn't mean he wants to see me. The constriction in his chest grew tighter.

 

He found Charles at the bank of primroses, fighting with his wheelchair. One wheel had caught in a rut in the gravel path. While Erik hung back, uncertain, Charles yanked savagely at the wheel, rolled it backward and forward, swore and shoved and pounded on it with his fist. His cheeks were blotchy red, eyes wet with frustration. Finally, with one last vicious jerk, the wheelchair came free – and tipped over.

Erik dashed forward and caught it, one hand on the chair and the other on Charles's chest, and settled it carefully to the earth.

Charles went still, glancing up and quickly away, cheeks reddening further. He passed a frantic hand over the tear tracks on his face, and looked at the ground, fingernails digging into his armrests.

Erik could feel Charles's rapid heartbeat through the hand still on his chest. Awkwardly, he let his hand fall away, stepped to the front of the chair and knelt at Charles's feet.

He'd rehearsed a dozen speeches; all of them stopped in his throat now. He could only pray the most important parts made it to his face. I love you. I miss you. I would do anything to fix this.

Charles continued looking at the ground. Slowly, one hand detached from the armrest and inched toward Erik – only to falter halfway and fold back in on itself.

Erik caught it gently in his own hand, hesitantly pressed it to his lips.

Charles closed his eyes. His hand trembled.

Erik turned the hand palm-up and pulled one of the chains around his neck over his head, the ring it carried glinting as it moved. He lowered it into Charles's hand.

Charles looked at it and let out a strangled sob, his fingers clenching around the ring.

Hope, Erik thought, was a painful thing, cutting your feet as you balanced on the blade's edge, waiting to see which way you would fall.

After a long, quivering pause, ring still clutched in his hand, Charles pulled Erik across the expanse of his numb legs and crushed their lips together.

Erik kissed back frantically, hands sliding up Charles's arms and around his shoulders. They could probably never be close enough, he could never feel enough of Charles's body pressed against his, but this gap between them was unbearable. He gathered Charles tightly against him, tight enough that he could stand and pull Charles along, propped on unfeeling legs.

Charles jerked back with a gasp, looked down at his position in wondering delight, and Erik didn't know how he could bear the joy of seeing Charles smile at him like that, like he'd done something amazing. Still smiling, Charles leaned his forehead against Erik's, and ran his hands slowly, gently, up and down Erik's back, ribs, neck – Erik could feel the cool line of the chain wound around Charles's fingers – he followed Erik's own chain down to the ring and back up – traced every line of Erik's face as tenderly as if he were gossamer. Erik shivered and closed his eyes.

Finally Charles kissed him again, soft and slow and deep, and Erik was going to die if he didn't get this man to a bed soon...

In the meantime, he was kissing the king's husband in the middle of the Royal Gardens, without having so much as looked around first.

He stifled panic and managed to pull away slowly so as not to frighten Charles. He sagged in relief when a glance around revealed no curious gardeners, no shocked Dukes or Baronets.

"We should go inside," Charles whispered, sounding as shaky and breathless as Erik felt.

Reluctantly, he lowered Charles back to his chair, and began pushing it back down the path.

"No," Charles said, taking hold of the wheels. "I'll do that. You walk beside me."

Erik complied, and brushed his hand against Charles's at every opportunity as they went, even though it meant barking his knuckles on the wheel.

***

Moira made a quick exit the moment they came through the door, Raven already bundled into her pram, the other children – she assured Charles – safely at their lessons for hours yet.

"Have a nice afternoon," she murmured with a smile, cheeks reddening, and closed the door behind her.

"I could grow to like that woman," Erik said.

"Get me onto that bed," Charles said, "wearing nothing but your ring, in the next sixty seconds, or I'm sending you right back out the door."

Erik grinned. "Yes, Your Highness."

***

There were difficulties involved, now that Charles couldn't move his legs. Allowances that had to be made, alternatives explored, on both sides. They didn't talk about it, not a word. They just did it.

***

Erik woke in the late evening, sunset colors spilling across the bed. Charles was still asleep beside him, one arm slung over Erik's hip, the other back in its sling. Someday, Erik fervently hoped, he'd be able to make love to Charles without worrying about hurting him – no incisions, no broken bones – someday it would be simple and easy...

No, he remembered, his gaze straying to Charles's motionless legs. No, that would never quite happen now, would it? Because of him.

But I'm forgiven. Erik closed his eyes, still trying to absorb it, make himself believe it. He hadn't lost Charles. It was almost exactly like waking from those nightmares of Charles dying, and remembering that it wasn't true.

He felt the chain on his neck move, and opened his eyes to see Charles fiddling with the ring.

"What would you have done with these," he asked sleepily, "if I'd sent you away?"

"Worn them," he replied. "Worn mine, at least – put yours away somewhere, to torture myself with." He reached out, rubbed his thumb over the sapphire in Charles's ring. "Charles... I never meant..."

"Don't. There's no need to ever apologize again, not for this. It's done, it's forgiven, we move forward."

Erik let out a slow breath, nodded and kissed the ring before letting it fall in favor of pulling Charles closer.

"How was your honeymoon?" Charles asked wistfully, brushing his lips lightly over Erik's collarbone.

"Not as terrible as it might have been. Emma is... not what I thought her to be." He explained as briefly as he could the almost-friendly relationship that had developed between them.

"Careful, there, I might get jealous," Charles said. Erik, seeing the fear behind the joke, pulled him in for a leisurely, possessive kiss.

"Charles," he whispered against his lips, "I will never love anyone but you."

"Don't... don't say that. You know we can never... I want you to be happy, Erik, and if you ever truly get a chance for that..."

"I am happy," Erik said, running a lingering hand down the line of Charles's body, stopping to splay over his rounded belly. "I am as happy as I've ever been in my life, right now. Don't you dare try to take that away from me."

Charles bit his lip and nodded. He took Erik's hand, Emma's diamond ring and Sebastian's ruby clinking as he laced their fingers together.

***

In the morning, Erik watched in awe as Charles somehow managed to feed himself, nurse Raven, and keep the fosterlings in their own seats, with one arm in a sling.

Moira was still in bed, after threatening to defenestrate the first person to speak to her before noon. Erik had no idea where she and the children had been most of the previous day, but they'd returned rather late in the night, the children giggling and dashing dizzily about the room before collapsing exhausted into their beds. Erik's only reaction to their entrance had been to pull Charles closer and drag the covers up over their heads.

"How long do you have?" Charles asked now, refilling Armando's juice glass. "I heard you were to be sent out again once your honeymoon was over."

"Four days," Erik said. "We're to take over the border patrol of Essex while King Nathaniel deals with that little civil war issue. Not what I'd usually call our concern, but Essex is one of our few remaining allies. I can't really blame Sebastian for staying on his good side." He took Charles's hand, dropped a kiss to each knuckle. "It's a low-combat position, for once, and I have everyone's assignments – mine included – worked out to permit a ten-day's break every three months."

Charles blinked, doing the math. "Does that mean you'll be here for the birth?"

Erik turned his hand over to kiss the palm. "Come hell or high water."

 

Erik wanted little more than to spend the next four days curled around Charles in bed, but there was far too much that needed doing before he and his men left for Essex. He managed to avoid seeing much of the king – an endeavor Emma proved willing to help him with, keeping Sebastian distracted in return for owing her a favor later – and only crept back to Charles's side after nightfall, usually just in time to help put the children to bed. Erik had nothing against the fosterlings, but his interest in them was limited; he mostly concerned himself with Raven, and paid little attention to the older ones.

Until the night Armando asked him, "Is Charles your husband?"

Erik froze, and looked at Charles.

"No, darling," Charles said with strained casualness. "I told you, King Sebastian's my husband."

"But you act like husbands."

"Sir Erik and I are very good friends. He's my very dearest friend in the world."

Armando raised an eyebrow so eloquently that Erik couldn't help but laugh. Charles grimaced, glanced at Angel, already sound asleep in the bottom bunk, and pushed his chair close enough to the bunkbed that he could reach up for Armando's hand.

"Listen to me, son. It's very important that you not talk about Sir Erik. All right? Don't ask questions about him or tell stories about him. Just don't mention him. To anyone. Can you do that?"

Armando looked from one of them to the other, in a far more aware way than Erik was comfortable with. "Yes, sir."

Charles squeezed his hand. "Good boy. Thank you. Now go to sleep."

Once the door was closed on the children, Charles turned troubled eyes on Erik and Moira.

"They say two can keep a secret, if one is dead," he said. "We're at, what, seven now? The three of us, Armando, Erik's two lieutenants, and I think Azazel must know..."

"Eight," Erik said. "Emma hasn't asked where I keep spending the night. She very pointedly hasn't asked."

"It would help if you two weren't always eye--" Moira glanced at the thin door separating them from small ears. "--eyeing each other in public the way you do."

"We don't exactly do it on purpose," Erik muttered.

"Well, you're just going to have to hope Sebastian's self-absorption keeps him out of the loop."

Charles let the subject drop, but much later, Erik woke in the stillest part of the night to find Charles wide awake beside him, his eyes shadowed.

"I didn't mean to wake you," he murmured, stroking back Erik's hair. "Go back to sleep, love."

"If the wheels in your head were spinning loud enough to wake me, then I want to know what's got them going."

Charles sighed, let his head tip forward to rest on Erik's chest. "I just... We can't go on like this, can we? Eventually we'll be caught. I can't bear to think of what will happen."

"Don't." Erik gripped Charles's shoulder tightly. "Don't let him take us away from each other, any more than he already has. He can take everything from us, at any time, for any reason. We'll never be safe. We can bow to his every whim and still never be safe. There's no use trying."

"I know. I know you're right." He breathed a bitter laugh. "Why couldn't he have landed on his head?"

Erik lifted his eyebrows. "This from Duke Thou-Shalt-Not-Murder, Lord of Tender Sensibilities?"

"The night before you came back, he slapped Armando across the room, and threatened Moira when she protested. I wasn't there, or I can't swear I wouldn't have killed him where he stood."

Erik stared a moment at the entirely unaccustomed fire in Charles's eyes. He couldn't quite decide if he was disturbed or pleased. Both, his backbrain supplied, and a little bit turned on.

"We can't, now," Erik said. "My life might not be too high a price, but yours is."

"Likewise," Charles sighed, "which of course is what he's counting on. I think there's little that we can do, at least for now, for our own situation."

Erik cocked his head. "But?"

Charles smiled. "But there are other ways to fight back. Sebastian's done his best to make me forget I'm a duke – I held the position so briefly before my marriage, never even casting a vote in Assembly, that it was shamefully easy. But it came to my attention a few days ago that my stepfather's grown too old to hold my proxy. He's petitioning me to pass the position to my stepbrother, but I intend to deny him."

"Don't you have to have a proxy? I didn't think you were allowed to actively hold both positions, Consort and Duke..."

"That's tradition, not law. I looked it up."

Erik let Charles's wicked grin spread to his own face. "And in the middle of a pregnancy, too. You're going to cause quite a scandal."

"And there's nothing he can do to stop me."

Erik felt his smile die away. "He'll find ways to punish you, you know."

"I know. But I'm tired of cowering. The next hand he raises to me or mine is going to come back bloody."

Erik's veins ran hot, at that, and he moved his body over Charles's, kissing him hungrily. Charles's eager response was as much a bite as a kiss, fingers tangling in the chain around Erik's neck.

Chapter Text

Lehnsherr was a noble House – or Erik knew he would never have been made Paladin, for all that it was supposed to be a merit-based position. House Lehnsherr was noble by virtue of an ancestor who saved the life of a long-ago king, but it had never held a vote in Assembly. It owned no land, wielded no influence, gathered no riches. When Erik was fourteen years old, House Lehnsherr had consisted of himself, his parents, his androji brother, and two uncles. All lived in a single tumbledown fortress, overseeing patrol of the hotly-contested border between Genosha and the Fourth Reich.

Erik was the only survivor of the New Aryans' midnight raid.

By the following sundown, he had almost two dozen confirmed kills, and the soldiers who had served under his father were already calling him Sir.

He'd never been disposed toward following politics, except as they impacted the battlefield. He had no vote in Assembly; it had nothing to do with him.

The first thing he did after making camp in Essex was find the nearest Books-and-Papers, and shell out most of his remaining allowance from Emma to have the public-release Assembly minutes delivered daily. He kept score on a piece of cardboard under his pallet, tallymarks under C or S.

By the end of the first month, it was clear Charles was winning.

---

6 February
2:00 - Duke of Westchester moves to increase funding for the Royal Orphanage by re-allocating thirty percent of the Royal Carriage and Stablery fund.
2:37 - Motion carried, 18-9.

13 February
11:17 - His Majesty the King moves to append Bill of Restrictions to the Hollyoak Inheritance Act.
11:18 - Duke of Westchester moves to append Bill of Restrictions to the King's personal budget.
11:30 - Westchester's motion not carried.
11:34 - King's motion not carried.

20 February
1:14 - Duke of Westchester and Duchess-Regent Romanova present for consideration a Proposal for the Rights of Women and Androji.
2:37 - Proposal is denied by vote of 16-11.
2:40 - His Majesty the King moves to ban Duke of Westchester from next Assembly session by reason of blatantly disruptive behavior including an assault on the king's person.
2:42 - Motion carried 14-13.

---

Erik was dumbfounded when Lieutenant Howlett approached him after mail call and handed him an envelope.

"Seems I have an admirer," Howlett drawled. "Some dowager or other from House MacTaggert."

The envelope in his hand was, in fact, addressed to Howlett, and the first sheet of paper within was addressed to his attention, in a woman's hand. But behind that was a much thicker letter, inside a smaller envelope, and that one, when opened, began with My Dearest Erik.

---

5 March
3:01 - Duke of Westchester, Duke of New Brooklyn, and Duchess-Regent Romanova move to expand the Disabled Veterans Act.
4:44 - Proposed Amendments 1-4 and 8 are passed, Proposed Amendments 5-7 and 9-10 are denied.
4:50 - Duke of Westchester admits testimony from witnesses; see footnote.
5:28 - Duke of Westchester requests vote be re-taken.
5:31 - All proposed amendments to Disabled Veterans Act are passed.

12 March
10:00 - His Majesty the King requests Duke of Westchester remove all children from Assembly room.
10:01 - Duke of Westchester moves to establish an annual Bring Your Children to Assembly day.
10:09 - Motion not carried.
10:14 - His Majesty the King moves to award a Medal of Honor to King's Advisor the Earl of Leland, for Courage in Adversity and Conduct Glorifying the Kingdom.
10:16 - Duke of Westchester moves to award a Medal of Honor to all women and androji who have borne a child within the borders of Genosha, for Courage in Adversity and Conduct Glorifying the Kingdom.
10:18 - Westchester's motion not carried.
10:20 - King's motion not carried.

---

'I have mostly annoyed Sebastian, thus far,' Charles wrote. 'I will not call it effort wasted, because the good I have accomplished is real, if subtle. In addition, it has served to sharpen my wits, which I needed, and distract His Majesty from my deeper plans. This next move on the chessboard will be much bolder, Erik, and if it passes might change every aspect of the political landscape. If it does not pass – or perhaps all the more so if it does – I fully expect to suffer punishment at Sebastian's hands. Over and over I've debated waiting until after the baby is born, but I think I must strike now, while Sebastian is still off-balance at my sudden presence in Assembly, and still unaware of how quickly I've managed to draw allies. (The man is even less popular than I thought!) Perhaps it is cruel to warn you and leave you more time to worry, but I knew you might never forgive me if I didn't. I don't believe the danger outweighs the possible benefits, but just in case, my love, I want you to tell you just once more how very much I love you.'

Erik spent hours convincing himself not to forbid Charles from taking the risk. It would have done no good, he knew. Finally he throttled his panic long enough to write only, 'I love you, Charles. Be careful.'

---

19 March
11:21 - Duke of Westchester, Viscount Murdock, Duchess-Regent Romanova, Duke of New Brooklyn, and Baron Coulson present for consideration a Proposal to Define the Rights of the Monarchy.
12:46 - Viscount Murdock moves to eject Duke Worthington from Assembly room due to disruptive behavior including an assault on the Viscount's person.
12:50 - Motion carried, 17-10.
1:56 - Assembly breaks for midday meal.
3:00 - Assembly reconvenes.
4:12 - Duke of New Brooklyn moves to eject His Majesty the King from Assembly room due to disruptive behavior.
4:15 - Motion not carried.
6:16 - King's Advisor Lord Azazel moves discussion be tabled until the following session.
6:17 - Motion carried 25-2.

26 March
10:00 - Discussion of Proposal to Define the Rights of the Monarchy continues.
12:00 - King's Advisor the Earl of Leland moves discussion be temporarily tabled so that other Assembly business may be addressed.
12:01 - Motion carried, unanimous.
12:02 - Baron Coulson presents amendments of tax code of Coulson Barony. Amendments accepted without objection.
12:05 - His Majesty the King moves to increase military funding via re-allocation from Medical Research Fund.
12:11 - Motion carried, 19-8.
12:12 - Duke of Westchester moves to increase funding for Medical Research via re-allocation from Royal Kitchens budget.
12:30 - Motion carried, 16-11.
12:31 - Assembly breaks for midday meal.
2:30 - Assembly reconvenes. Proposal to Define the Rights of the Monarchy restored to discussion.
7:20 - Duke of Westchester moves discussion be tabled until the following session. His Majesty the King uses King's Privilege to deny motion and demand immediate vote; ayes for the drafting of such a proposal, nays against.
7:24 - The nays have it, 14-13. Assembly session closed.

2 April
10:00 - Duke of Westchester excused from Assembly session due to ill health. Westchester proxy to be held this session by His Majesty the King.

---

Erik felt hardly able to breathe until Charles's next letter arrived.

'I am sorry to have kept you waiting a minute longer than necessary with this letter, love, but this is the first day I have been well enough to write, and dictating these sentiments aloud, even to Moira, seemed an unforgivable risk. I believe my pregnancy protected me from the worst of what Sebastian would have liked to do to me. However, there are many parts of the body that may be harmed without affecting the womb. Please, Erik, don't work yourself into a fit. I promise you I am already mostly recovered.

'As I'm sure you know by now, the grand move has failed. All the same, the attempt has taught me much about how the game is played, and lost, and who my friends and enemies are. (For what it may matter to you in future, Steve – that is, the Duke of New Brooklyn – and Baron Coulson are entirely trustworthy, and would be particularly able and inclined toward a military man who needed aid.)

'Sebastian has defeated this gambit, but the game is far from over. I have been hard at work making friends, offering favors, and – when all else fails – ferreting out secrets. When I report to Assembly next week, the king may find he has not so many props to lean on as he thinks.

'In the meantime, I swear I will rest and eat just as the doctors tell me to, and re-read every word of your letters until the paper grows soft, and hold your ring over my heart, and count the days until I see you again.

'All my love, from your husband and children.'

---

9 April
11:20 - Duke of Westchester moves to adopt Bill on the Rights of Parents.
11:40 - Motion carried, 17-10.
11:42 - Duke of Westchester moves to amend the Legal Evidence Act.
11:59 - Motion carried, 15-12.
1:30 - Duke of Westchester moves to amend Article Seventeen, Segment Five of the Criminal Code, regarding the definition of rape.
2:16 - Motion carried, 19-8.
2:18 - Duke of Westchester moves to rescind the Leland Taxation Act.
2:51 - Motion carried, 21-6.
2:55 - Duke of Westchester, Duke of New Brooklyn, and Duchess-Regent Romanova present for consideration a Proposal to Standardize Judicial Definitions.
3:18 - Motion carried, 23-4.
3:20 - His Majesty the King moves to establish a limit on the number of motions Assembly members may make per session.
3:25 - Motion not carried.
3:26 - Duke of Westchester and Duchess-Regent Romanova move to adopt Romanova-Potts Women's Education Act.
3:48 - Motion carried, 26-1.

---

When his first ten-days' furlough arrived, Erik had his horse saddled before dawn. There was a wagon waiting to take the other furlough men, dropping them off wherever they wished along the Capital road, but he wouldn't wait for it. He could be there a day and a half earlier traveling alone.

He arrived exhausted and filthy, his horse no better, and reluctantly stopped off at Emma's house (he couldn't think of it as his home) to rest for an hour.

"Welcome home, darling," she said dryly, looking him up and down and gesturing to a servant, who immediately scurried off. "I've assembled a precis of things that need your attention, though there's nothing urgent. I didn't bother leaving it in your bedroom, which I doubt you've ever seen. It's on the desk in your morning-room."

"Did your man go to get me a drink, by chance?"

"No, to draw you a bath. You're not coming one step further into my house in this state."

 

Erik found himself thoroughly scrubbed, fed, watered and re-dressed before he was permitted to leave. By then it was nearly nightfall.

Charles was watching for him from the balcony. By the time Erik made it inside, Moira and the fosterlings were passing him on their way out (the nursemaid barely managing to muffle their enthusiastic Hi, Sir Erik's), and the sliver of light under the door was promisingly dimmed.

He opened the door slowly, struck by sudden nerves, and was rewarded with the sight of Charles in his wheelchair stretching up to light a candle-sconce, lip between his teeth, candlelight sliding warm across his skin. His pregnancy was roundly obvious now, and Erik was struck anew by the idea that there was a child, half him and half Charles, a wonder as rare and fascinating as Raven, slowly building itself just beneath Charles's skin. He would be almost perfectly formed by now, for all that three months remained before he could enter the world safely. How much was he aware of, swimming in his dark warm cave?

Charles turned and saw him, eyes brightening, and Erik locked the door behind him.

He had thought he would run to Charles, but found himself moving slowly instead, savoring the feeling of distance narrowing between them, letting his eyes rove over every inch. Charles looked so warm, and soft, and beautiful—

He faltered suddenly as his eyes caught on the fresh scar across Charles's forehead. A bold slash, slightly diagonal, clipping the edge of one eyebrow as it trailed away toward his temple.

Charles blinked at the change in his expression, then raised a hand to the scar, chagrined. "It's nothing, Erik. It's fully healed, and the doctors say the scar may fade entirely, in time."

"Sebastian."

"Yes."

"How?"

"Erik—"

"How?"

"The corner of a table," Charles sighed. "Please, Erik, there are much more pleasant things to dwell on right now."

Erik took a deep breath, tried to let his rage drain away on the exhale. Unfortunately, that meant stripping all defense away from the fear beneath. He closed the last few steps between them swiftly, and pulled Charles to his feet to hold tightly against his chest. Still warm, still breathing. His brave, stupid, beautiful Charles.

"Let me take care of you," he whispered. "I have a full week to wait on you hand and foot. I know you don't need it. I know you can handle yourself. But please. Let me."

Charles, who had once fed Erik by hand while kneeling at his feet because he needed to do it, said, "You can start by carrying me to bed."

Chapter Text

The second three months passed much as the first had. Between his parental and political duties, Charles stayed frantically busy, to the point that there were days he hardly noticed that he was in a wheelchair. Oh, there were moments of burning frustration, annoyances that threatened to remind him of just how serious a change his life had undergone, but he suppressed them, shoved them to the back of his mind. He had no time for that. He even put off the physical therapists who offered to start in on the crutch-assisted locomotion; he was terrified by the idea of falling this late in his pregnancy, and besides, he just didn't have time. It could wait until he wasn't so heavy and awkward with child.

Pregnancy also proved a serious drain on his energy and focus, as the weeks progressed. He had to excuse himself from more than one Assembly session because he simply felt too tired and ill to keep his head in the game. It was nothing he hadn't experienced with Raven, but it was more frustrating now that his days held more purpose. He had to lean more heavily than he liked on his political allies to keep the wheels moving, wheels that crept along under Sebastian's notice as much as possible, changing little things that paved the way for big things to come. For those few months Charles was content to let Sebastian think him intimidated, subdued by the defeat of the Proposal to Define the Rights of the Monarchy and his subsequent brutal beating. Lull the man right to sleep; that was well and good for now.

Missing Erik was not unlike hanging his wheelchair on a corner; reminders of what was missing that came out of nowhere and hurt breathtakingly until he could focus his mind on other things. In the dead of night, the empty feeling would wrench him from a sound sleep. Moira learned to doze through the lighting of the lamp at all hours, the scratch of pen on paper as he wrote I miss your eyes, your smile, the way you touch me, the way you laugh. Please be safe, my love, please come back to me soon.

Come hell or high water, Erik had said, and his letters indicated that everything was on schedule. But the day of the birth arrived, and Erik did not.

Worry outweighed disappointment; Charles watched Sebastian's smile, as he was wheeled into the operating room, and tried to decide if its smugness was due to the imminent arrival of the long-awaited son, or some crueler mischief. Surely not. Surely Sebastian had no idea of the depth of his attachment to Erik; possessive rage would have shown itself far sooner and more obviously.

Speaking of rage, Charles shuddered to think what might happen in a half-hour or so, if the child was finally brought forth and proved to be another girl. Before the Virus, it was said, there had been technology that showed a picture of the inside of the womb, and parents could know beforehand the sex of their baby. It was a wistful thought, for Charles; he would have loved to see the child, in addition to feeling him turn and kick. But perhaps it was for the best, in his situation; if it was another girl, or even an androji, he wouldn't put it past Sebastian to demand they rip it out and start over. Charles would kill the man where he stood, and then where would they be?

The doctors were bustling around him now, applying things to his spine that made it go dead further up than usual. Charles breathed deeply, twisted his clammy hands into the sheet beneath him. Sebastian moved to take one hand in his, but Charles evaded without even looking his way. He couldn't prevent Sebastian from being here, but he was done, long done, going along with the Loving Couple act.

Another hand touched him from the other side, warm on his shoulder, and Charles looked up, startled. A nurse. He drew breath to politely decline this stranger's comfort – he'd been through this before, there was no need to treat him like a spookish horse – but the breath froze as he recognized the shifting blue-green-gray of the eyes above the surgical mask.

Erik looked a bit sweaty and harried, from what little he could see through the nurse's mask, gown, and hair-cap. But he was safe, and here, and smiling – his eyes showed that well enough – and more tension than Charles had known his body held suddenly drained away. He fought the urge to reach out to Erik – Sebastian would notice that – and contented himself with leaning into the hand on his shoulder.

During his distraction, the surgeon had drawn the curtain across his middle. For a moment, Charles debated telling him to remove it; it rankled a bit to be treated like a fainting maiden. But he could not, in all honesty, say he wanted to watch himself be cut open, so he let the curtain stay, and tried to breathe evenly. The operating room was a study in tense silence, the doctor occasionally muttering to his nurses, things Charles didn't understand. They were cutting – he could feel the pressure of it – and now a very peculiar discomfort that must mean they were pulling the baby free...

A thin, quavering cry from beyond the curtain, and Charles felt a smile break over his face, Erik's hand tightening on his shoulder.

"A boy!" came the surgeon's delighted voice. "Let's see your heel, lad..."

Silence stretched, beneath the baby's continued wailing. Charles felt his smile falter, could sense Sebastian tensing beside him. Checking the right heel for the circled-X androji mark should have taken barely a moment. Were they that afraid to tell Sebastian the boy was androji? He'd be disappointed, Charles knew, but he rather thought the king would resign himself to the less desirable sort of son, rather than hold out for another try.

"Androji, then?" Sebastian called, his voice neutral enough.

"Yes, sire," the doctor replied. "But..."

At the same moment, Sebastian and Erik crossed to the other side of the curtain, Erik reaching to take the child that Charles had yet to see. He was surprised when the doctor let him. Did he know who Erik was?

He watched Sebastian step closer, then recoil, face twisting with fury and disgust.

"What sort of freak is this?" he spat. "What's wrong with it? Is it clubfoot?"

"No, sire." The doctor sounded miserable. "Clubfoot could likely be corrected, in time. This is... something else, perhaps a congenital defect—"

"Not my genes," Sebastian said, and his voice was now a dangerous growl. "Sit down," he snapped at the messenger hovering in the doorway, "you're not making any announcement yet. It's not too late for this... unfortunate incident to be corrected."

Charles could feel a faint intermittent tugging in his abdomen as one of the junior surgeons sewed him back together. He tried to quell the trembling under his skin, the cold fear and hot frustration. He needed to be on the other side of that curtain. What was Sebastian getting at? The baby's cries were fretful and weak, but persistent despite Erik's careful soothing. Why weren't they giving Charles his baby?

"Give me my son," he said, pitching his voice to cut through both the baby's whimpering and adults' muttering.

Erik stepped toward him, but Sebastian grabbed his arm. "That mutant freak is no son of mine," he said. "It's exactly the sort of deadweight the old ways were made to deal with, and I see no reason to turn my back on tradition."

The silence in the room now was absolute. Erik had gone still in a way Charles knew to be very, very dangerous. Charles could not remember how to breathe.

The old ways. The old tradition of putting a quick, merciful end to a child that a community on the edge of starvation could not afford to support.

The surgeon straightened and pulled off his mask. "I beg your pardon, Your Majesty. I don't think I can possibly have heard you correctly."

"You did, in fact." Sebastian was not spitting rage now; he was steady, cold, his course of action decided on. "You know what your king requires of you, and you know – all of you know – that your silence is required as well. Now do your job."

"Sebastian," Charles croaked. Erik's stance had gone distinctly combat-ready – if Sebastian realized who he was – there had to be something one of them could do – Charles had no blackmail dire enough, no favor plummy enough – and physically he could do nothing at all – "Sebastian, please—"

"I beg your pardon once more, Your Majesty," the doctor said, and his Adam's apple bobbed but his voice was steady, "but I'll do no such thing."

"What?"

"This isn't the old days, Your Majesty. This is no civilization struggling at the edge of survival. You could afford to raise a dozen 'deadweight' children on your House Shaw income alone, never mind the crown. There are already too many witnesses to this boy's birth for you to hide it, sire. Everyone would know that you murdered your own infant son." The doctor's voice went wheedling, full of understanding, full of concern. "No other nation would deal with you, Your Majesty. You would lose all moral authority over the peerage – I wouldn't be surprised if it sparked a coup. I know this situation is... deeply displeasing, sire. But I'm sure a moment's tranquil thought will clarify your options."

For a long moment Sebastian was silent, staring at the now-quiet bundle in Erik's arms. Finally he let out a breath – a hiss between his teeth, frustrated but resigned. "Let it live then. And I suppose it'll have to stay in my household. But keep it out of my sight, Charles. It's no son of mine." The glare he shot at Charles was pure poison, but Charles hardly noticed. His eyes were on the baby.

Sebastian swept out, the uncertain messenger on his heels, and the entire room seemed to sag. One of the nurses sank, trembling, to the floor.

"Dismissed, all of you," the doctor said. "Watson, did you – yes, I see you did. He's all done, then? And we took the baby's vitals before – ? Yes, here it all is. Yes, you may all go."

The room emptied rapidly, until only Charles, Erik, and the doctor were left.

"Let me see him," Charles said, less steadily than he would have liked. Erik helped him sit up, and then finally his son was laid in his arms, whimpering a bit, eyes watery. Trying to bite back a sob, Charles touched his forehead to the baby's tiny, fluid-smeared one. The child he had come so close to losing.

"Here, let me clean him up a bit," the doctor said, "and then you can nurse him." With gentle efficiency, he unwrapped the baby – prompting new wails, heartening in their strength – and began wiping the wet debris of birth from his skin. Charles got his first look at the deformity that had so disgusted Sebastian.

The baby's feet were twisted and gnarled, the toes too long and possibly too many. They looked more like clenched fists than feet. It was far too soon to tell if the boy would ever walk – Charles's mind was already whirring with possible therapies, but they might all be pipe dreams in the face of such blatant malformation. The androji mark was discernible, but barely, in the tangled mess.

Well, if he doesn't walk, we'll simply have father-son wheelchairs, won't we?

The doctor handed him back, and Charles settled the tiny warm weight of him against his chest, maneuvered his head until he began to suck, falling quiet at last with his tiny fingers flexing. My son. My second-born.

"He has your eyes," Erik said hoarsely, and it was true, the child's eyes, now half-lidded with contentment, were unmistakably blue. So had Raven's been at first; Charles knew they might well darken later. He might have said so, but Erik was still speaking. "He's beautiful," he said.

Erik was a soldier. It wouldn't have been strange for him to look darkly on a child who might never be useful in the conventional sense.

"Beautiful?" Charles repeated, smiling softly at Erik, and treasuring the somewhat shaky smile he got in return. Erik had taken off the surgical mask – the doctor did know who he was, then.

"Beautiful," Erik confirmed. "It's not... ideal, certainly. For his sake. But it's the way he was born. The way he was meant to be."

Charles shifted the baby's weight onto one arm, and reached for Erik's hand. Their fingers laced tightly together.

The doctor cleared his throat. "He seems perfectly healthy aside from – I mean, all his vitals are strong, there seem to be no internal problems. You will, of course, let us know, Your Highness, if he becomes weak or fevered or unduly distressed, or any such change in his condition. We'll send someone to check on you both in a little while."

"Of course."

"I'll take my leave, then."

"Wait!" Charles disentangled his hand to gesture the doctor closer, close enough to pull the doctor's hand to his lips. "You saved my child's life. At great risk to your own – and that risk may not be over. I will do what I can to protect you. You may call upon me at any time, for anything you need."

The doctor looked flustered, managed a bow.

"I... I'm afraid I don't know your name." Charles had never paid a great deal of attention to Sebastian's doctors, assuming them to be the mere extensions of his will he had clearly thought them. An embarrassing mistake for them both.

"Dr. Henri."

"Henry." Charles looked down at the baby boy now nursing vigorously at his breast. "Since 'Sebastian the Second' is, thank God, out of the picture. Henry." He glanced at Erik, who nodded assent. "Would you like to hold your namesake, doctor?"

Dr. Henri swallowed and nodded. When the baby, loudly protesting his removal from nursing, was settled in his arms, Charles saw the man's eyes grow wet.

"Thank you, Your Highness."

"Thank you, Dr. Henri."

When the doctor had gone, Erik squeezed into the bed beside Charles, warm against his shoulder and side, and brushed the back of his fingers down the baby's cheek.

"My son, Henry," he murmured, perhaps experimentally. "I had an uncle named Henry. We called him Hank."

"Hank," Charles repeated. "I like that."

"I'm sorry I was late," Erik said. "We were delayed on the road. Apparently Dr. Henri is a friend of Moira's; she got him to let me in."

Charles said nothing, only leaned into him a little harder.

"I thought it was about to become a bloodbath," Erik said. "I still have a knife, under this gown, but I couldn't think what to do. I wanted to kill him, grab you and the children and run. But you were laying there cut open like a fruit – I didn't know what to do." Charles felt Erik's face press into his hair, felt the tremors under his skin.

"It's all right, Erik. We're safe. It's all right." He burrowed into Erik's side, tightened his grip on the baby, and tried to think only of the disaster Dr. Henri had averted, and not of the hundred possible disasters to come.

Sebastian still had no heir.

Chapter Text

Baby Hank, Charles soon realized, acted as a sort of magic talisman against Sebastian, the king so disgusted by the sight of his ersatz son that he avoided Charles's rooms completely. More than once he turned around in the middle of a corridor when he saw Charles coming with bundle in arms. Charles considered bringing the baby to the banquet hall at dinner, just to put the man off his feed, but why go there at all when he could eat with Erik in the comfort of his own chambers?

The children, of course, were fascinated by the baby – the older ones especially, but even little Raven, eight weeks shy of her first birthday, crawled close whenever Hank was in reach, babbling at him excitedly. None of them seemed to care much about his feet.

Keeping two babies well-fed was, of course, an issue, since Charles didn't produce enough milk for even one. He and Moira shared a strong preference for avoiding synthetic milk as much as possible; to that end, Moira volunteered to have the hormone injections that would prompt her own body to start lactating. By the second day, she was nursing as much as Charles was.

"We need to make arrangements," Erik said, the third afternoon after Hank's birth. "Just in case."

He and Charles were sitting together on the couch, Charles nursing Hank while Moira did the same with Raven in the chair nearest. Angel had clambered into Erik's lap, determined to have her share of attention; he absently stroked her hair while she sucked her thumb and called instructions to Armando, on the floor with a puzzle. Charles, who had sunk dreamily into the sweet domesticity of the moment, took some time to realize Erik had spoken.

"Arrangements?" he repeated. "For what?"

"For the children," Erik said, grim and subdued. "In case anything were to happen. I know Azazel said he'd take care of it, but I'm reluctant to put all our trust in his word."

"Oh, that," Charles said. "It's all quite settled, actually. It wasn't difficult to arrange, once I knew which of the other Assembly members I could trust. Ambassador Thor Odinsson has everything in place to move them to Asgard, far out of Sebastian's reach, any time I say the word. Armando and Angel will be safely returned to their parents, as well – I would not have them left to Sebastian's mercy, contract or no. All Azazel has to do is get the children and Moira to Thor, should the need arise – and the Duke of New Brooklyn is apprised of the situation as well, should Azazel prove unreliable." He chuckled at Erik's startled expression. "I've been quite the busy boy, Erik, in your absence. It… helps to have distractions."

The reminder of their separation, and how brief this reprieve from it would be, spurred him to lean toward Erik, who was himself already moving in for a kiss; Charles swallowed the tightness in his throat as Erik's lips wandered slowly over his mouth and cheeks and eyelids, the tender place beneath his ear…

Moira cleared her throat.

"Right," Charles murmured, pulling reluctantly away. "Right. The babies will sleep soon, and then perhaps Moira could take Angel and Armando on a walk through the gardens?"

"I expected nothing else," Moira said dryly.

"I have to report to the King in an hour or two," Erik reminded, and Charles grumbled under his breath. Sebastian had demanded an unusual amount of Erik's time, during what was supposed to be his furlough – all trivial chores, hardly fit for servants.

"He blames you for Hank's… irregularity," Charles said.

They exchanged a silent look on that thought; the likelihood of Sebastian letting Erik father another of "his" children couldn't be high.

Little Hank finished nursing and went immediately to sleep; Raven dithered and whined, and Charles had Erik break out the chessboard while he rocked and shushed her. They were halfway to checkmate by the time she finally consented to doze off and let him put her to bed.

By the time Charles returned from the children's bedroom, Moira was already gone with the fosterlings. Without further ado, Erik transferred Charles from the wheelchair into his own lap, and picked up where he had left off, mouthing hungrily at Charles's neck.

"Easy, love," Charles murmured as Erik's hand drifted too near the throbbing birth-cut, but could hardly blame him for not listening when Charles's own hand was already considerably further down on Erik's person.

The doorknob rattled, the sound cutting off abruptly when the door failed to open – then resuming with a distinctly irate air.

Charles scrambled to escape Erik's lap, found himself all but dumped onto the sofa, to arrange his legs and fight down the red in his cheeks as Erik went to the door.

"Your Majesty," he said, bowing. "Do come in."

"I will, thanks," Sebastian said acidly. "Considering this is my husband's chambers. One is forced to wonder what business you have here, Paladin."

"Merely enjoying a game of chess." Erik waved a hand toward the board with its half-finished game.

"I can see why you chose Sir Erik as your Paladin, my lord," Charles said brightly. "He has an excellent grasp of strategy. If you'd like to join us we can choose another—"

"And why did you feel the need to lock the door for a game of chess?"

Sebastian's jaw was clenched, his eyes narrowed; Charles felt certain he was taking note of every minute disarrangement of their respective clothes and hair. With an act of iron will, he kept his manner natural and easy.

"I told Moira to be sure she latched the door behind her – I suppose she misheard it as 'locked'. My apologies, my lord. But what brings you here? You know I would have been happy to come to you, there was no need to walk so far out of your way."

Sebastian smiled sourly. "It was no trouble. I was happening by my own chambers and, having seen your nursemaid leave with the children, I thought it a good opportunity to have a few private words with my consort."

Ah, so Sebastian thought Hank was out of the room; Charles had been wondering at the sudden lack of freak-avoidance. He contemplated mentioning that Hank was merely asleep in the bedroom, but perhaps it would not do to further antagonize the man. "Well, here I am," he said instead, bright and courteous. "Sir Erik, we shall have to finish our game another time."

"Of course, Your Highness." Erik bowed to Charles, then to Sebastian. "Your Majesty."

"Yes, go, Sir Erik," Sebastian said. "And don't bother coming to our appointment this evening. I'll save our conversation for later."

Charles could not suppress a nervous swallow; Erik's face remained impassive, but for one worried, longing glance when he reached the door, with Sebastian's back safely turned.

Then Charles and Sebastian were alone.

"It's a strange thing," Sebastian said, settling onto the couch beside Charles. "All this talking. I talk to you, I talk to Erik, you talk to each other. The servants talk, too, you know. Sometimes they even talk to me."

"Is that so, my lord?" Charles said politely, his mind racing. Who could have seen, what could they have seen—

"Inconsequential things, of course. Launderers, for instance, are quite the gossips, did you know that? They amuse themselves keeping tabs on whose bedsheets are sullied and when."

Silence sat between them, so heavy it seemed to press all the air from Charles's lungs.

"This is all mere talk, as I said," Sebastian said. "And what care I for talk? I am a man of... action." His smile was blatantly unpleasant. "But, talk there must be. And tomorrow, there must be talk between you and I, and a new friend of mine. Come to dinner at my chambers. Perhaps I'll invite Sir Erik as well."

"I'll look forward to it, my lord," Charles said stiffly.

The smile widened. "Do that. Until tomorrow, then, dear husband." He bent low over Charles's hand and dampened it with a kiss before finally taking his leave.

***

In almost seven years of marriage, Charles had seen the king's personal rooms exactly once – the night the balcony rail had broken. He had rather hoped never to see them again. He contemplated trying to wriggle out of attending tonight's dinner, but knew he didn't dare; not only would Sebastian react badly, but he'd be leaving Erik on his own in the spider's parlor.

Erik. Charles fought down a pulse of threatening panic. He'd spent the entire afternoon replaying Sebastian's interruption of their... chess game, worrying it like a dog with a bone. Had they been convincing enough? Did Sebastian suspect? Really, the only question was how strongly he suspected. For Charles to spend any unsanctioned time with Erik was surely a red flag to him. Yet Charles had friends enough – Steve, Thor, Natasha, and Phil Coulson had all spent time in Charles's chambers with Sebastian's full knowledge, if not exactly approval.

But none of them had fathered two children on Charles.

Biting his lip, Charles opened his wardrobe, and wheeled his chair backward to survey its contents. What did one wear to a dinner that would include one's legal husband on one side, and the husband of one's heart on the other? And some unnamed guest besides. The guest surely made the occasion a formal one, he decided, and rang reluctantly for his valet. The man was Sebastian's creature through and through, and Charles therefore made use of him as little as possible. With the difficulty he now faced in dressing, however, the valet was a necessity whenever Charles wished to look entirely presentable.

More than presentable, Charles decided, while he awaited the valet's appearance. His instinct was, as always, to displease Sebastian in whatever small way he might, and since he had started taking an active place in Assembly their relationship had grown more and more openly antagonistic – but perhaps now was a better time to smooth feathers than ruffle them, to back away from open enmity before it became literal warfare. Perhaps, if he were gracious and charming tonight for Sebastian and his guest, played the obliging consort with a smile, it would ease Sebastian's suspicions about him and Erik.

Reluctantly, Charles removed the chain that carried Erik's ring around his neck, and concealed it in his desk. It would not do for the valet to see him wear any ring but Sebastian's ruby.

"The red jacket," he told the valet when he arrived. "The one that matches my ring. And that ruby ear-drop Sebastian gave me for my birthday."

 

Charles was received into Sebastian's chambers by a servant, just as formally as if he had been entering a stranger's home, and escorted from the outer chamber to a more private parlor. They passed dozens of candles gleaming on glossy wood, leather and fur, the furnishings just as opulent as Charles remembered – but with an edge of barbarism, a primal violence, that he did not expect. He was fairly certain that, even in the state of fear and distraction he'd last experienced in these rooms, he would have remembered the taxidermic tableau taking up the far wall, if it had been there. The lion leaping for the throat of a terrified gazelle would have struck him as an alarmingly accurate metaphor, if nothing else.

The entire suite was also startlingly cold – perhaps because of the balcony doors propped wide open to the October air.

The servant announced Charles at the door of the inner parlor, and the gentlemen therein stood to bow him in – Sebastian, Erik, Azazel (that was unexpected, but then Azazel usually was), and a fourth gentleman, seated beside the king, who was undoubtedly the mysterious guest.

'Gentleman' was, perhaps, the wrong word, for the man fit easily into the king's new taste in decor. He was a large, leonine man, bulky and muscular, with an uncontained mane of golden hair, and his smile held a cruel amusement that nearly had Charles bolting instinctively for the door.

"At last, our party is complete," Sebastian said, satisfaction glittering in his eyes at Charles's reaction. "Charles, darling, let me introduce you to my new Head of Personal Security, Sir Victor of House Creed. Victor, make your bow to His Highness, the Prince Consort."

Sir Victor stepped forward, just a little too far into Charles's personal space, and bowed, just a little too low, bringing them to eye level. The motion brought a wash of pungent, gamey odor into Charles's face that he struggled not to choke on.

"A pleasure to meet you, Your Highness," Sir Victor growled.

"Charmed," Charles said without inhaling.

Etiquette demanded he raise a hand for Victor to kiss. Both hands remained firmly in Charles's lap.

 

Dinner was served on the balcony. Charles, of course, sat at the king's honored right, putting him in the perfect position to view the newer section of railing, a slightly different color from the rest. Across from him sat Sir Victor, and beside him Lord Azazel; the king seated Erik at Victor's side, as far from Charles as the table would allow.

The night was cold, even for the season, and a stiff breeze set the lanterns to swaying. Charles's teeth were chattering by the time the soup was served.

Vichyssoise. Of course.

Erik, warmer in his military dress whites, eyed him with concern, but Charles waved him off with a twitch of his fingers. Looking at Erik in that uniform for long would warm him up, certainly, but past the point of propriety; with an effort he turned his eyes to Sebastian, who was making some sort of toast in welcome to Sir Victor. And there was a sight to warm Charles's heart; Sebastian's grip on the wine glass was clumsy and insecure, trembling slightly. Charles might always carry a scar from that table-corner, but last he'd heard, the doctors were not sure Sebastian would ever regain full function of the hand Charles had bitten. I did say that the next time he raised a hand to me or mine, it would come back bloody.

But his goal tonight was to charm and disarm, and he had already snubbed the guest of honor; reluctantly Charles tamped down anything resembling smugness, and drank to Sir Victor's health.

For the entirety of the first course, conversation revolved – naturally enough, really – around the guest of honor and how he had come to be in Sebastian's service. Charles was startled to hear that he had first come to the king's attention as part of his escort on the re-negotiation trip to Wakanda that had resulted in Angel and Armando being fostered here. Whatever was brewing – and he knew something was brewing – it had been longer in the making than he could have guessed.

Nor was that the only disturbing thing Victor had to say. Charles lost his appetite halfway through an otherwise pleasant serving of broiled salmon when the man began reminiscing about the various things he'd done to stray dogs in his youth, including drowning them, skinning them, and tying burning branches to their tails, to see if they'd burn or run themselves to death first.

Charles was surprised to hear a grumble of discontent from the red-skinned man beside him.

"I am first man to enjoy good fight," Azazel said. "But what honor is in fighting weak ones, helpless ones? No challenge, no honor. Sir Victor, you are kind of man who take pleasure in dishonor?"

"I am kind of man," Victor said with a wolfish grin, "who takes pleasure wherever I wish. With, of course," he gave Sebastian a sort of seated bow, "my king's permission." His gaze slid to Charles, grin widening into a leer.

And Erik, who had been surprisingly quiet and well-mannered thus far, was suddenly halfway out of his seat, already reaching for Victor's collar or possibly his face. Charles felt a shout leave his throat, violent motion blurring before his eyes faster than he could quite comprehend it – Erik's chair sliding back and jostling a servant as he brought out the next course, the man pitching forward over Victor's shoulder, shattering porcelain and tumbling fruit, Victor leaping up with a roar and turning, not on Erik, whom he didn't seem to have noticed, but on the servant, whom he slammed facedown onto the table, one enormous hand clutching the man's hair while the other wrenched his arm up behind his back.

For a long, disbelieving moment, the only sound in the room was the choked whimpering of the servant. And Sir Victor growling.

Charles looked wildly from Victor to Sebastian, muzzle your monster before he kills a man on our dinner table – but Sebastian only took a lazy bite of his broiled salmon, looking mildly entertained. Charles's head whipped back toward Victor when he heard the sound of steel leaving a sheath.

Erik was standing with his dagger's tip pressed to the side of Victor's throat. Very calmly and clearly, Erik said, "Release him."

Victor glanced at Sebastian, who gave a sort of face-twitch halfway between a nod and a roll of the eyes.

With dragging reluctance, Victor released his hold on the servant, who staggered back from the puddle of blood his broken nose was leaving on the tablecloth. Clutching his bloody face, not daring to look at anyone, he fled the room.

"How terribly unpleasant," Sebastian said, and rang a bell. "Bring a new tablecloth," he said to the wide-eyed, unbloodied servant who stepped out onto the balcony in response, "and the next course."

Neither Erik nor Victor had returned to their seats, nor had Erik returned his knife to its sheath. They stood glowering at each other, every muscle tight to quivering.

"Sit, boys," Sebastian said. "Let's not let this nasty incident ruin our dinner."

Charles breathed only a little easier when the two men were back in their chairs. His heart was beating much too fast, he felt dizzy, dizzy with rage and fear and realization.

Sebastian had chosen Erik to be his Paladin, and later to father his heir, because Erik was strong and swift and courageous, the epitome of masculine virtue. But fathering Hank had cost him that crown. And Sebastian had found a new paragon of virility to put in his place.

The new tablecloth was brought, and the first meat course set before them. Rather than a single large roast of beef or pork to carve from, they were each given a baked game-hen of their own. It was a dish Charles had enjoyed more than once before, yet tonight he could hardly bear to look at it. The tender little body with its legs and wings splayed looked suddenly so much like a human infant that he nearly retched.

"Well, Charles," Sebastian said, rubbing absently at the bite-scar on his hand, "I was of course terribly sorry to interrupt your chess game this afternoon. I had no idea you were an aficionado of the game."

Charles tried to fix a natural-looking smile on his face. "Just a casual player, my lord, when I've the opportunity."

"Opportunities must be few indeed, if you must wait for Sir Erik's company. I wish I'd known before of your fondness for the game; you might have played with me, instead of going so long without an opponent."

"Well, Your Majesty is so very occupied with matters of state, I couldn't dream of intruding on your time," Charles murmured.

"Nonsense, I always have time to see to my husband's needs," Sebastian said, his smile glittering with too many teeth. "And after all, Sir Erik has responsibilities of his own, a wife and growing family – at least, I assume there will be a family? I had rather expected, with a wife as beautiful as Lady Emma, that my good Paladin would have increased the population of Genosha already. Only think, Charles – you are interfering with Sir Erik's duty to wife and country."

Erik's answering smile was every bit as toothy and mirthless as the king's. "I've spent the majority of my nine months of marriage away from home on Your Majesty's service, sire. Even the most potent of men cannot always sire on the first attempt."

Cold as the balcony was, Charles was more thoroughly chilled by the pure, flat hatred in Sebastian's eyes. Beside him, Azazel made some insufficient attempt to choke back a laugh, and Sebastian's face went nearly white with rage.

"But of course you are right, Your Majesty," Erik said, "every moment I spend away from my lady wife is a failure of my duty. I can see, too, that the Prince Consort is pale and tired, not yet recovered from the little prince's birth. I pray you will forgive the impertinence of my suggesting we call it a night."

Charles's breath stopped entirely; a private dinner with the king did not end until he said so, particularly if that king were Sebastian. To his surprise, however, Sebastian smiled and nodded acquiescence.

"It is so good of you to think of the Prince Consort's health," he said. "Certainly we may adjourn. Charles, darling, do stay behind for but a moment; I have some trifling matter of personal business to discuss with you."

Erik's jaw clenched – that had not been at all what he had in mind, of course – but Charles shot him a warning look. He'd offended Sebastian quite enough for one night; if he meant to survive the evening, he would do well to escape while the opportunity lasted. Reluctantly, a familiar muscle jumping in his jaw, Erik stood, bowed to the king, and took his leave.

No one else left the table, or said a word as Sebastian called the servants to take away the table and chairs.

With those props removed, Charles found himself looking up from his wheelchair as the king and his two dearest favorites loomed over him. Azazel and Sebastian stood to the side while Victor Creed walked a slow circle around Charles, his gaze greedy and calculating.

"His injury poses certain difficulties, of course, but it does mean that he can't run away." Sebastian stepped forward and flicked Charles's ruby eardrop, set it to swinging. His mouth was a curl of amused contempt. "I'm touched that you chose to dress up for me tonight, my sweet. But I'm afraid you and I are beyond flattery. I do adore red, but these days I much prefer to see you in black and blue." He slapped Charles with a force that rocked him back in the chair, and while he was still seeing stars, grabbed his chin to crush him into a kiss.

Charles, choking and gasping, tried to twist away. When that failed, he punched Sebastian in the face.

It wasn't much of a punch, awkwardly angled and with more panic than power behind it, but it was enough that Sebastian staggered back, holding his jaw. Charles held his gaze a moment, a silent warning that worse would come if he tried again, then wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and spat.

It was the first time Sebastian had touched him like that since his injury; he'd beaten Charles, yes, but there'd been nothing particularly sexual about it. Charles had rather thought they were done with that, that Sebastian had ceased to find him desirable. He should have known that his inability to escape would hold its own twisted allure to a man like Sebastian.

"As you can see, Victor," Sebastian said, making a visible decision to be amused, "he's still quite capable of putting up a fight. Can't escape, won't lie still – A perfect balance for your tastes, I'd say."

"Oh, yes." Victor's voice was somewhere between a growl and a purr, and Charles swallowed nausea as the brute made another contemplative circle of him. At least he made no effort to touch. "You know how I usually feel about androji – if I'm to have a man, why bother with one that might actually like it? – but this one's pretty enough I can almost pretend he's a girl."

"It's too soon just yet, of course," Sebastian said, giving Charles an unexpected jab in the middle, squarely on the birth incision, that had him gasping and doubled over in pain. "My doctors tell me to wait six months at least before trying again, for the consort's health. It would, after all, be a crying shame if I lost him."

"Yes," Charles hissed, "I'd hate to see you forced to blackmail some other poor soul into marrying you."

"Is too soon, as you say," Azazel said, his expression remarkably neutral. "He pass inspection, yes? And that is all for tonight."

"Very well, Azazel," Sebastian said, rolling his eyes. "Go on, make sure he finds his way back to his own bed tonight."

Without a word, Azazel took hold of Charles's chair and steered him out of the room.

Not until they were in the corridor outside Sebastian's rooms, with Charles's own door in sight, did Azazel speak.

"Do not take too seriously, his poking and prodding," he said. "Concerning Erik, I mean. He is but enjoying a game – if he thought you unfaithful in truth, there would be none of this dance of threats, you would simply be dead. He wishes to unsettle, so you must not be unsettled."

"That is easy for you to say," Charles muttered, rubbing his cold-numbed hands together. He felt as if he might never be warm again.

Azazel snorted. "You think I risk nothing, in the help I offer you and your vozlublenni? Little as it is, it might be enough to string me up. And still I help you. I point out to king, why would you wait around for Erik when you have beautiful woman sleeping in your chambers?"

"What? No, leave Moira out of this!"

"Is distraction, my prince, is muddying of waters. A lie has better chance of being disproven than a truth, eh?"

"Please, Lord Azazel, do not turn Sebastian's attention onto Moira, she has done nothing!" It near-killed him to even think of Erik executed for treason, but he would at least be guilty of it. Moira's involvement was no one's fault but his own.

"I take no orders from you, prince," Azazel said, not unkindly. "I have my own purposes, recall, and I will see them fulfilled. But we both are best served by averting king's suspicion entirely."

Charles let out a breath, rubbed his hands again. "One of these days, Azazel, you shall have to tell me what these mysterious purposes of yours entail."

"One day," Azazel said agreeably. He opened Charles's chamber door for him, bowed, and departed.

***

Later, curled tightly around Charles in bed, Erik whispered, "Why wait for the worst to happen? Why not flee to Asgard now?"

"I've thought about it," Charles said miserably. "But I couldn't ask that of Thor. He is among the best of men and I think he would try to help us, but... It is one thing to take in exiles, children the king will not claim. But if we left now, he would pursue us to the ends of the earth. It would mean war between Asgard and our own people. I couldn't bear that on my conscience."

"I could," Erik said, but Charles closed his eyes and pretended not to hear.

Chapter Text

If the Wakandans expected him to roll over and surrender again, they were in for a surprise, Erik reflected as he stepped from the gangplank to the salt-scoured wood of the pier. Despite their last negotiation, he didn't actually make a habit of undercutting his own side. And in any case, if they wanted his goodwill, they shouldn't have insisted he be called immediately from his post in Essex, thus throwing the furlough roster into disarray, again. Bouts of illness among the men and an urgent problem with the supply line had conspired to delay, and delay, and ultimately cancel Erik's September visit to Charles and the children; if this nonsense cost him the furlough he'd scheduled for January, heads would roll.

A trio of Wakandans waited for him on the pier, lantern-light warming the bright colors of their formal robes. The tallest of them, a wrinkled man with patches of white in his short fuzz of hair, bowed and spoke. "We welcome you to Wakanda, Sir Erik of House Lehnsherr of Genosha, King's Paladin and honored guest of our Chieftains. I am called Eagle; these are my sons."

It was still odd to him that the Wakandans called both their leaders Chieftain rather than King and Queen. Wakanda kept a much less formal hierarchy than Genosha; though Storm and Black Panther wielded unmistakable power, they wielded it like the alpha pair of a wolf-pack, with snaps and snarls as needed, and nuzzles of affection likewise. Erik had always felt that their system allowed too much disorder and dissent – but then, Sebastian's iron grip wasn't serving Genosha much better, was it?

"I am honored to be here, Eagle," Erik said, returning the bow and trying not to visibly shiver in the winter dusk. "I hope I may be of use to both our leaders' satisfactions."

"Well said, Paladin." Eagle grinned appreciation of Erik's diplomatic sidestep. "My sons will bring your belongings, if you will accompany me."

"I've only the one trunk, we might as well travel together."

The four of them, plus Erik's trunk, were loaded into a coach, and set off away from the docks into the town. The coach was open-topped in the local style, and though Wakanda had warmer winters than Genosha, the night was cold enough to displease. Still, it was preferable to his stuffy cabin on the ship.

"I must admit, Eagle," and how strange it was not to preface a stranger's name with some form of honorific, but of course Eagle was the honorific, the man's battle-name, "I am still unclear as to my purpose here. I was told only that the Chieftains had insisted on my presence for some manner of negotiation."

Eagle gave a formal sort of shrug. "There is some unpleasant business occurring between our own patrolmen and the Genoshans stationed at this port. But I am not informed about the matter; the Chieftains, I'm sure, will tell you all."

Erik settled back against his seat, suppressing a growl. If it turned out he had been brought here for nothing, if a trivial move in someone else's political game cost him the chance to see Charles, there would be 'unpleasant business' indeed.

Absently he fingered the chain around his neck, not daring to touch the ring it carried. Leaving Charles and the children had been harder than ever, knowing Victor Creed existed at all, much less was living in the same palace. He'd given Charles a knife to keep by the bed, which Charles resisted accepting until Erik pointed out that he might need to defend the children.

"I'll see that Moira learns how to use it," Charles had said with a sigh. "I wouldn't be much use, in the event."

"Don't underestimate yourself," Erik said, because whether his legs worked or not, it was hard to imagine anything surviving an encounter with Charles when he was protecting his children.

It ought to be me protecting them, Erik thought, no longer seeing the Wakandan city as it passed. What good is any man, particularly a man-simple, if he cannot protect his family?

Erik little allowed himself the memory of his father, but for the briefest of moments he saw firelight on steel, the shouts and the crash of boots as the New Aryans poured into the fortress. Sir Jakob of House Lehnsherr had shielded his fourteen-year-old son from the fall of a battle-axe, and from that moment Erik was the head of his family, the safety of his mother and brother fallen onto his shoulders. And he'd failed, utterly, within a quarter hour.

He could not fail Charles, or Raven, or Hank. He would not.

"The decorations are beautiful, are they not?"

Eagle's voice shook Erik from his reverie, and he looked up to see the old man gazing raptly at the dark streets as they passed. Tiny multicolored lights twinkled on all sides, hanging along roof-edges and the branches of trees.

"What's the occasion?" Erik asked.

"Krismas, of course! If you are here over the holiday, which seems likely, as the Chieftains' honored guest you will be invited to celebrate with their family."

"Oh," was all Erik could manage. He had heard, before, that Krismas was extremely significant in Wakanda; in Genosha, where most people followed a peculiar paganistic take on Unitarianism, it was little more than a few songs and a family dinner. And to Erik's family, quietly following their own, older and more demanding religion, it had been even less. He hoped he wouldn't make any particularly awkward mistakes.

"Here is the Chieftains' House," Eagle said, as the coach passed through a gate and down a drive. The house at the end of it, decorated with ribbons and wreaths and white-gold Krismas lights, was large and well-built, but certainly not the palace he had expected. "You have been given the use of a cottage behind the house. The Chieftains thought you might prefer the privacy."

"Certainly. I appreciate the thought."

The cottage lacked decorative lights, he was relieved to see, and was frankly quite small, but he'd certainly had worse. Eagle went inside first, to light the lamp and stoke the fire, followed by his silent sons with the trunk. Erik found the little cottage very comfortable indeed, the sitting room offering comfortable furniture and a well-built fireplace. A jug of water and covered dish sat on a table by the hearth.

"Through that door, Sir Erik, is the bedroom, and beyond that the necessary. You will generally dine with the Chieftains, but as you can see, a meal has been brought to you tonight. With the lateness of the hour, the Chieftains believed you would likely prefer not to audience with them until morning...?" Erik nodded swiftly; the last thing he wanted tonight was to begin the political dance. He wanted his dinner and his bed, and the first was optional. "Then we bid you goodnight, honored guest," Eagle said, and bowed his way out the door.

Alone at last, Erik allowed himself to collapse onto the sofa and tip water from the jug into the cup provided. He'd barely taken a swallow when he heard the bedroom door open behind him.

Steel sang as it left its sheath, and he was on his feet, water dashed to the floor and sword point dimpling flesh, faster than conscious thought.

Blue eyes gone moon-round met his, and their owner's throat moved weakly against the blade as he whispered, "Surprise?"

"Charles!" Erik dropped the sword with a clatter, and rushed forward to engulf him. "Charles. Charles, what – of all the – don't you ever—"

"Yes, I can see now that was unwise," Charles said, but had no opportunity to continue since his mouth was otherwise occupied.

"What are you doing here?" Erik mumbled between kisses.

"Mm, complicated," was the only response.

It was some minutes before Erik consciously noticed that Charles was standing, that the hard edge of crutches were digging into his arms. "What's this, Charles?"

Charles grinned. "Back up a step, and I'll show you." Reluctantly, Erik complied, and was rewarded with the sight of Charles crossing the room under his own power. His progress was slow and thumping and awkward, his legs held out stiff by braces of some sort beneath his clothes, but progress it was. Charles was walking.

It didn't undo what Erik had done, the damage he'd caused to the one man he'd rather die than hurt. Nothing could ever make up for that. But it still felt like some measure of lost grace handed back to him, surely some near-kin to a miracle.

"Oh, Erik." Charles raised a hand to Erik's tear-streaked face as he came back within reach. "Erik, don't – it's all right, really, Erik, it's—"

"Of course it's all right. You're walking, Charles," Erik said, his voice muffled by Charles's shoulder as he hugged him tightly.

"More or less," Charles said, half-laughing. "I'm not very good at it yet, my arms get sore and I fall down a lot – but it's nice, it's ever so nice to be out of the chair, even for just an hour or two a day! The children like me to chase them, they run just slowly enough... Oh, it's wonderful, Erik." Charles melted entirely against him, letting the crutches fall in favor of getting his arms around Erik's waist.

For several minutes they stayed like that, quietly soaking in each other's presence.

"How are you here in Wakanda?" Erik asked eventually. "I almost expect to wake up any moment, alone on the sofa..." He shivered.

"I'm really here, love, I promise you. I've been in Wakanda the last fortnight, in fact, giving Armando and Angel a long-overdue visit with their parents. Raven, Hank, Moira, we're all here."

"Thank God." Erik pressed a kiss into the side of Charles's neck. "I've been worried sick, I never should have left you with that psychopath on the loose."

"We've been just fine, Erik, I promise. It's not like you had any choice." He pulled back far enough to run his fingers over every inch of Erik's face. "I've missed you so much."

"Funny chance, isn't it," Erik said, raising an eyebrow, "my getting called here on the Chieftains' insistence, during your visit?"

Charles gave a smug little chuckle that woke up what few of Erik's nerve endings had not already responded to Charles's presence. "As it turns out, Storm and I get along like a house afire. I merely mentioned to her how very useful you would be in our current predicament, and how very pleasant I would find your company – and behold, here you are."

"Here I am." Charles's arms were starting to shake with the effort of keeping him upright; carefully Erik maneuvered both of them onto the sofa, Charles ensconced in his lap. "You don't think it'll look odd to Sebastian, you and I being here at the same time?"

"As far as Sebastian knows, the Chieftains' family is wintering in the capital city of Taji, fifty miles away, and I with them. And it was Duke Worthington, official liasion to Wakanda, who signed the order to bring you here. The paperwork crossed Sebastian's desk, no doubt. Whether he actually noticed anything about it, well." He leaned in for a brief, gentle kiss. "There's always risk, of course. Do you think I shouldn't have done it?"

"Not for a second."

Charles smiled. "Tell me how you've been."

Erik let out a long breath, leaning into Charles's temple. "Cantankerous and lonely. Howlett was glad to see the back of me, even if it did mean postponing his furlough. Speaking of Howlett, I skinned my knuckles punching him yesterday. Sparring match."

"My poor darling," Charles chuckled, and began kissing Erik's knuckles, very gently, one by one.

"How have you been? And the children. Tell me everything," Erik said.

"Later," Charles said, and pushed Erik down flat on his back on the couch before he could protest.

Not that he'd been planning to, of course.

***

At dawn, Erik walked to the main house with Charles thumping along beside him, and they joined Storm and Black Panther for family breakfast, which was a pleasantly chaotic tumble of laughing children and steaming food. Erik found himself trying to eat with baby Hank bundled in his arms and Angel tugging his sleeve, Charles keeping one hand on his thigh under the table even as he spooned honeyed porridge into Raven's mouth and wiped syrup from her cheeks. Angel and Armando apparently had two brothers, one elder and one younger, who contributed their share of noise and activity, and were as intrigued by the stranger in their midst as their siblings were eager to show him off.

After breakfast, Erik made reluctant political noises, but Storm waved him off. "Far too early for that," she said. "Ask me again after luncheon." Erik was happy to oblige.

While Storm and her family belted out half-familiar carols and hung bits of greenery and ribbon all over the house, Charles took their half of the party into another room.

"Physical therapy," he said. "Moira, show Erik what we do for Hank? I'm sure he'd like to help." He himself started making deliberate laps of the room on his crutches, and Erik watched with his mouth open as Raven reared up on her chubby little legs and followed him, squealing and babbling, her golden curls bouncing with each clumsy step.

"I did tell you she was walking now," Charles laughed, catching sight of his face.

"Yes, but seeing it is..." He stepped closer, held out a hand, and Raven gripped it tightly, giving him a grin and a spate of urgent babble. Moving very slowly and half-crouched, Erik followed her across the room.

"It still hurts that I missed her first birthday," Erik murmured.

"She loves the music box you sent," Charles said with a soft smile. "Won't sleep without it."

Charles started another circuit, and Raven led Erik over to where Moira sat with Hank on the floor, kneading and pulling at his feet. Raven's pointing and gabbling at Hank were on the very verge of making sense, Erik thought; how had she grown so quickly?

Hank, too, was considerably changed from how Erik remembered him, a babe of six months rather than seven days, though he still looked unimaginably fragile next to bright, sturdy Raven. He looked up at Erik with eyes exactly the brilliant blue of his Papa's, and gummed messily at his fist with an expression of deep thought.

Half me, Erik thought. How can either of them be half me when they're so perfect?

"As you can see, his leg mobility is fine," Moira said dryly as Hank kicked his feet out of her grasp. "As far as Charles and Dr. Henri can tell, there's no reason he shouldn't be able to walk, in time, if we can only get his feet into the proper shape." She recaptured a foot and resumed massaging it, her motions clearly aimed at molding the tiny appendage out of its twisted knot. Erik couldn't say with certainty whether it was doing any good -- it was the sort of thing that would only work very slowly -- but he decided to believe that his son's feet did seem somewhat improved.

Erik took up the other foot and began imitating Moira's movements. After a few minutes, Charles pulled up at his side in his wheelchair, and Erik half-consciously leaned against his leg, so that Charles could run warm fingers through his hair. Raven fumbled with a handful of wooden blocks beside them, the sound of off-key Krismas carols crept under the door, and at the moment even Moira's presence wasn't especially irritating.

Erik turned his face a little more into Charles's thigh, and tried not to think about Essex or Genosha or anything but this one moment in this one room.

***

Days passed all too quickly, wonderfully unstructured mornings giving way to business in the afternoons. There was, in fact, a purpose to Erik's presence in Wakanda; a dispute, as Eagle had said, between the Wakandan port authorities and the Genoshan troops guarding their ships. It boiled down to a cultural misunderstanding, sorted out quickly with the arrival of an authority respected by both sides. Erik set his men's behavior to rights immediately, but lingered over the accompanying paperwork, stretching it out over a schedule that would keep him in Wakanda a full fortnight, including Krismas Day.

Every night Erik helped put the children to bed – even Armando and Angel, at their insistence – and bid his hosts goodnight, then went out to his cottage. Charles arrived perhaps a half hour later, sooner if he could manage it.

"I don't think that's necessary," Erik finally said when Charles moved to blow out the bedside lamp the third night in a row. "The curtains are thick and in any case, this window faces away from the road and house. Are you worried about offending the sensibilities of the birds and foxes?" He ran his fingertips down the curve of Charles's cheek. "Leave it on. I want to see you."

Charles turned away from the lamp with clear reluctance. When Erik unbuttoned his shirt, following it off his shoulder with a trail of kisses, Charles immediately pulled the blanket up over them.

Erik pulled back, frowning.

Charles's face was set in a false, nervous smile, cheeks blooming red. "Nothing. It's fine. Do keep going."

Erik's frown deepened. "Charles, tell me what's wrong."

"Nothing. It's just..." He looked into Erik's implacable face and sighed. "It's just that I've... I'm... I mean to say, Erik, I've two birth scars now, the second rather uglier than the first, and the flabby stretch-marked fallout of back-to-back pregnancies and a bloody lot of time sitting on my bottom while my legs wither, not to mention I'm breastfeeding which never contributes to a masculine appearance and I know I'm being silly or at least I hope I'm being silly but I'd hate for both us to find out the hard way that aesthetically speaking my body just isn't what it was." He swallowed and breathed tightly through his nose, waiting.

Erik, torn between several reactions, settled for pulling his own shirt over his head and tossing it to the floor – a move that certainly drew Charles's eye, though it seemed to confuse as much as intrigue.

"This isn't very pretty, is it?" Erik said, taking Charles's hand and pressing it to the long, puckered scar that crossed his left pectoral. "Souvenir of a New Aryan swordsman the night my family was massacred. What of this one?" He moved their hands to the shallow groove down his ribs. "This one I received during the campaign here in Wakanda. This one on my arm – I don't even know how it happened, didn't realize I was bleeding until the battle was over. All my scars are signs of the things I've survived. I've never been ashamed of them, and I didn't think you were either."

"No! No, of course not," Charles said, tightening his hand around Erik's bicep, "but there's a world of difference between the battle-scars of a soldier and—"

"No. There is no difference at all. Pregnancy and childbirth and paralysis, these are the wars you have fought, the battles you've survived." He cupped his hands around Charles's face. "You will never be less than beautiful to me." He leaned in to kiss the scar that ran through Charles's eyebrow, and worked his way down from there, until Charles was in no fit state to argue with anyone.

***

The exchange of Krismas gifts was apparently a source of great fuss and excitement in Wakanda, even for adults. Erik, silently panicking at the idea of buying an appropriate and diplomatic gift for his hosts, did not resist as much as he normally might have when Charles woke him at dawn to take him shopping.

Erik had seen very little of the town of Yakuti Bay; his last visit hadn't exactly been for sight-seeing, after all, and this time around, he'd declined to accompany the family on their trips to town in favor of getting his work done or spending time alone with Charles. Now he found himself more interested than he expected in the cultural history and trivia Charles spilled excitedly as they made their way through the shops, Charles trying very hard not to roll over anyone's toes.

"—very much a Christian holiday in these parts," he said as they exited a crowded bakery with a box of frosted cakes, "despite the mishmash of pagan and secular traditions rolled into it through the years. I hope that doesn't bother you?"

"Why would it bother me?"

"Well, I... I mean, we haven't actually discussed the matter, but I... couldn't help noticing..." Charles's cheeks were reddening, Erik was fascinated to observe. "I mean, I don't know of any group other than the Jews that practices..."

Erik barked an involuntary laugh as he realized what Charles meant. "Circumcision?"

"Yes, precisely." Charles's blush deepened, and Erik had to fight not to lean down for a taste of warm skin.

"It's been many years since I practiced my faith in any meaningful way," he said instead. "Even if I did, I've hardly a right to prevent others practicing theirs."

"Don't you miss it?" Charles looked both curious and sad. "The faith you grew up with. We don't have to talk about it, of course," he added swiftly, when Erik hesitated. "Particularly not on a crowded street."

Erik made a noncommital noise, reaching for a cake from the box in Charles's lap. The truth, he realized as frosting melted on his tongue, was that he did miss it, that he was even jealous at times of Charles's easy devotion to the reigning beliefs of Genosha. That all life was sacred and beautiful, children most of all, and that replenishing the post-Virus earth was both privilege and holy duty – these were ideas that Charles would likely have embraced regardless of religion, and they were not ideas Erik objected to. He could, if he chose, have joined Charles in his prayers and candle-rites at any time, and had a little of that peace and comfort himself, but it simply didn't seem meant for him. If he were to pray, he wished to do it as a Jew, and that had not seemed possible for many years. He realized now, suddenly, in the midst of a crowded Wakandan sidewalk with a half-eaten Krismas cake in his hand, his irrational assumption that his religion, like all good things in his life, had died with his parents.

"I wouldn't know how to go about it, now," he said at last, low-voiced. "I wouldn't know where to start."

"Hanukkah starts tomorrow," Charles said. "I looked it up."

"Mmm," Erik said, and let the matter drop.

By the time they stopped for a late lunch, both men were weighed down with ragdolls, gameboards, wooden animals, hats and scarves for the children.

"If we were in Genosha, I'd get Armando a dollhouse," Charles said as they took a table at a cafe, asking for coffee and the local specialty of peanut soup and doughy fufu. "I think he'd really like having a whole little family and house of furniture to play with. But I'm not sure if it's considered appropriate for a boy here. I don't want to set him up to get teased."

"He's androji, though. It shouldn't matter."

"Cultural differences, my friend. Androji aren't treated as differently from boys-simple here as they are at home. In Genosha people have been debating for generations whether androji are boys at all or some third sex altogether, though that idea has yet to gain any wide acceptance. Here, it seems they settled the issue long ago. Androji are men who can have babies, tale concluded. I've heard some fascinating stories from the East, where it seems things are quite different indeed – androji are considered some sort of holy union of opposites, praised and emulated, with their own pronouns and everything. Perhaps that would be an improvement over the Genoshan tendency to treat them like weak, effeminate men..."

"Note the distant use of 'them' from an actual androji who has borne two children," Erik said dryly.

Charles's cheeks colored a bit. "Well, yes, I suppose... It's easy to discuss these things in terms of other people, where it's not my own masculinity at stake. I certainly do feel male, personally – a fiercely maternal male but there you are – but would I feel that way if I'd not been raised to it?

"Here you are, gentlemen." A waitress set coffee, soup, and fufu before them on the table, then laughed suddenly, glancing at something overhead. "Why, look! You've chosen the mistletoe table. You've no choice but to kiss now."

Erik looked up; yes, there was indeed a sprig of mistletoe hanging above their table. An uncommon and loosely-enforced tradition in Genosha, but one he'd seen before. There might be heavier expectations here, but they could surely wriggle out of it nonetheless by explaining they were both married to other people. If they chose.

Erik leaned across the little table and found Charles already meeting him in the middle. The kiss was short and decorous – or intended to be – but Erik grabbed the back of Charles's neck and let it turn hungry, just for a moment, for one moment so he could pretend they had every right to each other, and no reason to fear others' reactions. They were surrounded by strangers in a foreign land, Sebastian did not even know where they were, they had the shield of local tradition – surely they could risk a single moment.

Someday, Erik promised himself as they drew back, neither breathing quite evenly. Someday they would be together in the sight of God and man and none have the right to question it.

 

"What are you talking about, Erik, you don't have to get me anything," Charles said absently as they looked through the offerings at a swordsmith's shop – blades, sheaths, slings and arrows. "Believe me, your presence is present enough."

"And how would that look, when Krismas morning arrives and the representatives of Genosha have snubbed each other? Besides, I saw you getting that book wrapped on the sly, and I'm the only one around to hide it from."

"All right, yes, of course I'm getting you a present or two—"

"Then it's settled." Not that he had the slightest idea what to get Charles. He couldn't remember ever getting anyone a Krismas present before. He had little experience with gifts at all – even birthday presents, in Genosha, were mostly for children – and these would be opened in front of the Wakandan royal family, so the sort of thing his mind might immediately leap to was obviously out of the question. "But can't you give me a hint what you want?"

"Nope." Charles gave him a cheeky grin. "Not going to make it that easy on you, my friend. What do you think of this?"

Erik picked up the dagger Charles had indicated, and grimaced. "Terrible balance. Tell me again why we're looking at weaponry? It would seem to violate the harmonious Krismas spirit."

"On the contrary, it's quite the harmonious gesture," Charles said. "Giving weapons to an ally is a gesture of trust, you see, and we need all the goodwill we can get."

"But we've already chosen gifts for Black Panther and Storm." He should know – the enameled box of imported Genoshan tea Charles had insisted Black Panther would love, and the tortoiseshell combs that he said would look gorgeous in Storm's dramatic white hair, were even now weighing down the bag on Erik's shoulder.

"Those are my gifts, Erik, I'm afraid you'll need some of your own. If we were married we might get away with joint gifting, but as it is..." Charles gave a tiny, sad smile and brushed their hands together.

Erik grabbed the hand before it could escape, and laced their fingers together. "Very well. What do you think of this? A matched pair of whetstones."

"That's a possibility..."

 

On the first night of Hanukkah, Erik spent hours after dinner hammering out a last-minute treaty problem with Black Panther and Storm. When at last he arrived at his borrowed cottage, he found Charles there with Raven and Hank, and a rather battered menorah.

Charles watched his gaze catch on the candelabrum and its attendant candles and matches. "Just in case you wanted to," he said casually, switching their nursing son to the other side and dangling a bit of string for Raven, who batted at it like a kitten. "I hope you don't mind that I brought the little ones – I know this is usually our time, but you've hardly seen them all day..."

"No, I'm glad you brought them." After all, if they became inconvenient, Erik was not above turning the nearby wicker hamper over them to keep them out of trouble while their parents were otherwise engaged. Grinning, Erik scooped Raven into his arms, and peppered her face with kisses while she squealed and laughed through a spate of her customary babble. He tucked her onto one hip and bent to kiss Hank's damp, rosy cheek, then Charles's lips, leaning in deepen it when the kiss threatened to turn perfunctory.

"Mmm," Charles said appreciatively, "never let it be said you can't show a fellow a good time."

For a couple of hours, the little cottage was a quiet, cozy scene, Erik sharing his plate of fruit and bread with Raven and adjusting the blue bow in her hair, then settling a dozy Hank onto the bed, all the while complaining to Charles about bureaucracy and hearing his complaints about the uselessness of one of the spies he'd left at court. All the while, Erik's eyes wandered repeatedly toward the menorah on the table.

When Erik tore his gaze away from the candlestick for the tenth or eleventh time, he turned to see Charles holding out a matchbox. With a sigh and a flutter of nerves, he took them.

He hadn't thought he would remember the sung prayers – the tunes, perhaps, but not the Hebrew words, which he'd barely understood even as a child. But after a false start or two, they seemed to flow from him like water, the cadence catching at his heart and dragging up memories he'd thought were lost long ago.

his father's voice, "Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam"
his mother's eyes shining in candlelight
her hands guiding his as he moved the lit shammus from one candle to the next

Erik lit the rightmost candle, as befit the first night of Chanukah, and put the shammus candle back in its place, blinking tears from his eyes. He glanced over at Charles, who looked a little watery himself, and whispered, "Thank you. I wouldn't have done this without... Thank you."

Charles's only reply was to squeeze his hand.

Raven, who had been hanging unsteadily on Erik's trouser leg, strained a hand toward the little flames, bright in the night-shadowed room, and said, softly but very distinctly, "Pretty."

Charles gasped, hand at his mouth, water-bright eyes overflowing.

For a moment Erik just stared down at Raven, while his mind processed the idea that his firstborn child had just spoken her first word.

"Pretty," Raven said again, more insistently, and waved her hand toward the candles.

"It is pretty," Erik said unevenly, picking her up. "Mustn't touch, though, baby. It hurts if you touch."

Raven pouted but let her fingers latch onto Erik's hair instead of the candles. Erik knelt beside Charles's chair, leaning into the hand Charles pressed to his face, and together they watched the candles until they burned out.

***

On Krismas Eve, Erik was invited – very insistently, when he tried to demur – to stay the night in the house proper, and help with the wrapping and arranging of gifts after the children went to bed. Charles seemed excited about the prospect, which was beyond Erik's comprehension, but he stopped protesting after Charles whispered that they would get to stay in his bed for once, which was much larger and softer than Erik's.

"If I can bring my menorah along," he said.

"Of course," said Black Panther. "We can put it up next to the Kwanzaa candles."

It was a pleasant enough evening, much occupied with carols and sweets and games. When night fell, Storm eased the children into sleepiness by telling a half-dozen Krismas tales, both religious and secular in nature. At the end of it, Erik helped carry the slumbering children to their beds, and then the work began.

It was past ten o'clock, and Erik had exchanged many a longsuffering look with Black Panther and Moira, before all was done to Storm and Charles's satisfaction. Erik let himself be escorted to his bedroom, and when he was quite sure of being unobserved, stepped two doors down the corridor and let himself into Charles's.

"A fine joke on me, Charles," he said, sliding under the covers. "I'm far too tired to make any use of this large and comfortable bed."

He was considerably startled when Charles's response was to flinch away with a wet-sounding gasp.

"Charles?"

"Sorry, you startled me," Charles said, thick-voiced.

"Charles, are you crying?"

"No," he said, but his voice broke, and Erik's searching hands found his face wet. Charles sighed. "It's stupid, I know it is. It's just that... tomorrow night will be the last before you have to go back, and I don't even know when I'll see you again, and this has all been so lovely and I don't know how I can bear to give it up, to send you back out onto the battlefield and take the children back to court and dive back into the whole bloody backstabbing mess there. Trying to get anything done in Assembly makes me think of those fish that try to swim back up the river before they spawn, idiots the lot of 'em..."

"You're no idiot, Charles." Erik wrapped himself around him, matching rings pressing into their chests. "And you've already spawned."

The joke won a laugh and a swat on the arm, to Erik's relief, and he busied himself kissing the tear tracks from his husband's face. "As far as the battlefield, don't you dare worry on my account," he murmured against Charles's skin. "We've yet to encounter anything more fearsome than the occasional smuggler or refugee, and mostly we're disinclined to meddle with either."

"I know. I know I'm being stupid, and that it won't be more than a few months, probably." He sighed, long and deep, relaxing against Erik on the exhale. "Sometimes I'm quite sure that if I had any sense, I'd run away – here, or to Asgard, or wherever would take us. But I can't. Not only would Sebastian decimate anyone who took us in, but it would be... it would be letting Sebastian win. Letting him have Genosha all to his sick self to do as he will. As long as I can fight him – I am doing some good, surely I am—"

"Of course you are. Charles, of course you are. I've kept score!" Disquieted, Erik pulled him closer still, stroking his hair and down his back. "Where is all this coming from, Charles?"

"I'm overtired, I suppose," Charles murmured into his chest. "And hungry. You know how I get when I'm hungry."

"You didn't eat much at dinner."

"I wasn't really feeling well. But now I am, and I'm starved."

"I'll bring you something."

"Just some bread, if you would," Charles said sheepishly. "With cheese, lots of cheese. And maybe a mince pie? And some of that orange marshmallow dessert?"

Shaking his head, Erik brought everything requested, and Charles eagerly ate every crumb. It was a joy to watch his enthusiasm and satisfaction, and to feel that for once Erik had done the man he loved some concrete form of good, however small.

"That feels much better," Charles said when the food was gone, and to Erik's surprise he pulled Erik down on top of him with a sly smile. "Now, I believe there was some talk of making use of this remarkably comfortable bed?"

Part of Erik wanted to plead exhaustion, but this was their second-to-last night together for who knew how long, and could he ever be too tired to respond to that sparkle in Charles's eyes?

Maybe someday, he thought, brushing his thumb back and forth across Charles's bottom lip, but not tonight. He bent to replace thumb with lips, Charles's hands tangling in his hair.

Afterward, Erik managed to stay awake just long enough to hear the clock in the hallway chime midnight, and feel the brush of Charles's breath as he whispered, "Merry Krismas, Erik."

"Mrr'Krsma," he mumbled back, and kissed Charles's shoulder, and wondered how he was ever going to bear leaving him again.

***

"Wake up, Papa, wake up! It's Krismas!"

The impact of a knee against his solar plexus had Erik jolting upright with a cough, and only a supreme effort kept his soldier's instincts from loosing themselves on the two little bodies bouncing across the bed.

"Oh, hi, Sir Erik!" Armando cried cheerfully. "I didn't know you were in here. Papa, are you awake?"

"Yes," came the very muffled reply from beneath Charles's pillow.

"Where is you?" Angel said, and began burrowing under the covers.

That wouldn't do at all, since neither of the bodies under those covers had a stitch of clothing on. Erik grabbed Angel and lifted her high in the air, her belly balanced on his hand. She kicked and giggled, clinging to his wrist.

"Are you sick, Papa?" Armando said, lifting the edge of Charles's pillow to peer beneath.

"No, 'Mando, I'm fine," Charles said with a sleepy, resigned chuckle. He unearthed himself from the pillows, groaning, and kissed the boy's forehead. "Did you wake your parents yet?"

"My brothers are doing that. They said 'divide and conquer!'"

"I see. Well, we are now quite awake, and we will join you downstairs as soon as we can get dressed. Go help your brothers, hmm?"

"Sawa sawa!" Armando clambered off the bed, and Angel struggled against Erik's hand, shouting "Down, down!" until Erik set her on the floor to scamper after her brother.

Erik collapsed back into the bed and wrapped his arms around Charles, mashing his face into Charles's chest.

"Wake up, love," Charles chuckled, stroking his hair, "don't you know it's Krismas?"

"I'm Jewish," he mumbled into Charles's collarbone.

"Well, this might be your only chance to get some trousers on before the children expose the evidence of that."

"You're not usually this chipper at dawn."

"It's Krismas morning, Erik! I do hope you got me a good present."

"Here's a present," Erik said, and kissed him.

What he'd intended as a casual, teasing kiss lingered on significantly, while Erik tried not to remember that this time tomorrow morning, he would be reporting to the ship that would take him back to Essex.

 

The children dove onto their gifts like wolves swarming an elk. Charles left his chair to sit on the floor and help Raven unwrap hers; Erik joined them, letting his shoulder brush Charles's, hanging on his daughter's every change of expression as she examined the colorful wrapping paper, the shape of the box, and finally the wooden bathtub-boat inside, which she immediately began pushing through the sea of discarded paper.

When the children were all occupied with their new toys, the adults began opening theirs, Charles returning to his chair. The Chieftains passed out their offerings first, and Moira looked so surprised and touched at receiving a box of expensive Wakandan sweets that Erik felt a flash of guilt for having bought nothing for her himself. Maybe she wouldn't notice.

Apparently Charles had been right about the value of weaponry as a gift between allies; Erik received a very high-quality longknife, its leather sheath tooled with the crest of House Lehnsherr. Charles's gift was surely even more expensive, a tiny pearl-handled revolver and twelve bullets. It was exactly the sort of thing one could carry about discreetly, just in case of assault by the king's mad bodyguard. Erik approved wholeheartedly.

His matched whetstones were received with gracious enthusiasm, Erik was relieved to note; it seemed he would escape Wakanda without causing an international incident.

He held his breath as he handed Charles the box he'd wrapped in red paper, as neat and sharp as any military man could make it. He'd debated endlessly between three different things for Charles, and finally just gotten all of them – but the others would have to wait.

Charles tore the paper away and gasped, looking suddenly about seven years old, eyes a-glow. "Erik – oh, Erik, is it the blue and gold? Oh you shouldn't have!" The words were belied by his possessive grip on the box as he carefully opened it to pull out a single blue-and-gold tea cup. "Getting a tea-set home intact is going to be a nightmare but oh, Erik, it's beautiful!"

"Charles, you're the Prince Consort. If you tell the ship's captain this box is to be treated gently, he's likely to sleep in a chair and let your tea-set have the bed."

"Don't be ridiculous, Erik," Charles said, but didn't look quite entirely displeased by the idea, turning the tea-cup toward the light and regarding it with shining eyes and bitten lip.

"I think you chose well," Storm murmured in Erik's ear, looking amused.

"I think I did, too," Erik replied, and pretended he meant the tea-set.

“And Moira, this is for you,” Charles handed her a package, “from me and Erik.”

Moira’s arched eyebrow said she wasn’t fooled, but she opened and cooed over the jeweled bracelet with every appearance of delight.

Finally, then, Erik had his own gift from Charles heavy in his hands – very heavy, in fact, and cylindrical, with a rather ridiculous bow on top. Erik grinned, suspecting the contents, and quickly ripped it open.

Yes. It was coffee, his favorite roast, the largest tin of it he had ever held.

“Sir Erik has told me at some length about how difficult it is to get decent coffee at his post in Essex,” Charles said smugly to their hosts, while Erik fought not to visibly hug the tin. He could already taste it, hot and sharp in his mouth while the rising sun pulled steam off the grass at his feet – and his men looked on in rank jealousy because Erik did not intend to share.

It took hours to get the children ready to greet the day – every attempt to get them washed, groomed, and decently clothed was derailed by the siren call of their new toys. Only their traditional flapjack breakfast successfully distracted them from it, and Erik, helping Moira clean a layer of maple syrup, powdered sugar, and whipped cream off a squirming Raven, thought perhaps that did more harm than good. Storm and Black Panther, who normally enforced high expectations for their children's behavior, today only smiled and rolled their eyes as their little ones ran amok.

"Are you still sure you want to raise the children with a Krismas tradition?" Erik muttered to Charles as Angel, Raven and Armando ran past, screaming at the tops of their lungs with Armando's new toy birds held over their heads and half-buttoned clothes hanging off their bodies.

"Of course!" Charles said, eyes shining, "Look how much fun they're having!" and Erik could only palm his face in resigned disgust.

When the children were at length ready to leave the house, everyone was loaded into the open-topped carriage, bundled with hats and coats and blankets 'til they could hardly move (the temperature having dropped sharply since Erik's arrival), and taken round what felt like all of Yakuti Bay, for the Chieftains to wave and exchange Krismas greetings with their people. The town was a riot of decoration – strings of lights, banners and flags, bells and candles and little houses made of sweets. Despite himself, Erik was entertained by it all. More importantly, he got to spend a few hours snuggled under a blanket with Charles, with Hank squirming in his arms and Raven staring around in wide-eyed wonder until she fell asleep in Charles's lap.

Even the church service that followed was less boring than Erik had feared; the building had lovely stained-glass windows, they were given hot chocolate and frosted cakes as they came in the door, and watching Storm's increasingly irate attempts to keep her husband awake was entertainment all in itself. Eventually the droning sermon gave way to a bell-ringing choir, which woke the children (and Black Panther) and provided music considerably more lovely than Erik expected. He was a little sorry when it finally ended.

By then, it was nearing dinner-time, sunlight draining from the sky in pink streaks, and they were all very glad of the blankets heaped in the carriage. The lights on the roofs and trees showed to much better advantage in the creeping darkness.

"It's so lovely," Charles mumbled, leaning sleepily against Erik's shoulder.

Erik put an arm around his shoulders, tucking him in close, and after a glance around, dared to kiss his forehead. "Beautiful," he agreed, and pretended he meant the lights.

 

After an excellent dinner, Erik felt his face freeze at the mention of another church service. Storm laughed.

"You do not have to come, Sir Erik. I know you and Charles and Lady Moira are not accustomed to our ways. You may stay here and rest."

"I would like to come to the service, actually, if you don't mind," Moira said, to Erik's surprise.

So Erik and Charles found themselves left to their own devices, curled up in Charles's comfortable bed with Charles spooned against Erik's chest, their sleeping children spooned against his in turn, and Erik's arm around them all.

"I have more presents for you," Erik admitted sleepily. "Shall I go fetch them?"

"While you're up you can fetch the rest of mine for you," Charles chuckled. "But not yet. This is too comfortable." As if to emphasize, he wriggled backward a bit, further into Erik's arms, and Erik was happy to snuggle in closer, dotting kisses along his husband's neck and shoulder.

Twelve hours. Less than twelve hours before he had to be at the dock, boarding a ship bound for Essex. And only a few days after that before Charles and the children returned to Genosha.

"I wish you could just stay here," he said. "I know you can't. But it drives me half-mad to think of you and the children anywhere near Victor Creed. As if Sebastian weren't bad enough."

"We'll be all right, Erik."

He couldn't, Erik noted, offer any evidence to back up that statement. "Don't be afraid to use that gun if necessary," Erik said.

"To be honest, it terrifies to think of keeping a gun in the same room as four children. I can't possibly have it easily accessible, which rather limits its emergency usefulness." He sighed. "I shouldn't have even told you that. I should have told you I'd sleep with it loaded under my pillow every night."

Erik bit his ear gently. "No, you should not have told me that. Don't lie to me."

"I don't."

"Keep the door locked at all times. The balcony, too, at night."

"The balcony? Really, Erik, he'd have to climb the bloody wall—"

"Please. Just lock it. Don't ever get caught alone with him. Never let him into your rooms. Make sure Moira doesn't either."

"Erik." Charles laced their fingers together and kissed the back of Erik's hand. "I don't want you to worry about me."

Erik closed his eyes, took a deep breath of the scent of Charles's hair. "Then you shouldn't have let me fall in love with you. You have people you can go to, if you need help, right? New Brooklyn, Romanova, Coulson?"

"Yes. And I will go to them the moment I need to, I promise."

Hank chose that moment to wake and begin fretting for his dinner. Erik helped Charles get into a sitting position without jostling Raven and settled Hank into his arms. Then, since their comfortable tableau was broken anyway, he retrieved their Krismas presents from their hiding places in Charles's closet and his separate cottage.

When he stepped back into Charles’s bedroom, he had to stop a moment to simply look. Lamplight painted the room in shades of gold and shadow. Raven had shifted to throw her arm over her papa’s leg and bury her face in it. Hank was fussing, knotted feet kicking inside his bundle of blankets, and Charles, shirt unbuttoned, was murmuring down at him in some kind of cross between teasing and adoration, hair falling in his eyes.

Everything in the world Erik truly loved was in this room, and he was expected to leave it.

How many times would they have the conversation, with each other and with themselves, and every time be forced to conclude that, though the price of appeasing Sebastian be high, the price of defying him would be higher still? How long before they simply broke, and leaped to at least trade their accustomed torments for different ones?

Shaking those dark thoughts from his mind, Erik stepped into the room and set the gifts out on the foot of the bed.

Charles laughed and rolled his eyes to see how they had both gone a little overboard. "Open yours first, love, since I'm a trifle occupied."

Erik looked down at the presents awaiting him, and thought at last he understood something of why the children had anticipated this event with such excitement, and woken their parents at dawn to speed it along. After a moment's pointless dithering, he chose one of the two at random and tore the paper away.

Inside was a mahogany box, inlaid with vines and flowers of gold. It opened to reveal a half-dozen pockets, drawers, and trays containing pens, inkwells, blotting powder, envelopes, postage stamps, and a thick pad of stationery.

"A writing box," Erik said, stroking the glossy wood and metal admiringly. "Charles, is this your subtle way of asking me to write more often?"

Charles grinned. "I only wish you to never have a reason not to write to me, love."

"Writing to you is by far the most pleasant of my many tasks, I assure you," Erik said, leaning down to kiss Charles's forehead. "Many times, the thought of complaining to you of events is what enables me to bear them!"

He would have kissed him more thoroughly, then, but Charles batted him playfully away. "Go on, open your last gift."

The last gift was, of course, a book. The size and shape of it gave that away, even if Erik had not seen Charles sneaking one to a shopworker to be wrapped. Which book, of course, he couldn't say, except that it was immensely thick and heavy.

Tearing the wrapping paper away revealed that the book, leatherbound and very, very old, possibly pre-Virus, was The Complete Lord of the Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien.

"Is this the one you told me of, ages ago?" Erik asked, flipping through it with interest – and care of the fragile pages. "With the line about people who deserve life or death? Are you still trying to make me believe the world would not be immensely better without Sebastian Shaw in it?"

"Yes to the first, no to the second," Charles said with a rueful chuckle. "I think you'll enjoy it, Erik. I see something in you, at times, of Aragorn son of Arathorn, the exiled king. He is a brave warrior and fierce protector of his people."

King. If only. The idea of shouldering Sebastian aside, taking everything that was his for Erik’s own – his consort, his supposed children, his power to wage war and grind Genosha under his boot – to be safe at last, to make his family and his country safe—

A ridiculous dream to indulge in, and a dangerous one. Erik made an effort to shake it off, focus on the book he had been given. He flipped through the pages again, taking note of the lovely, delicate illustrations spaced throughout – a house in the side of a hill, an ominous black tower, a spider larger than a man – and found an inscription on a blank page at the very end, a single line written in Charles’s hand.

"What's this?"

"You weren't supposed to find that until you finished the book," Charles said with a pout. "It's just a line of poetry – I learned it somewhere ages and ages ago, I've no idea what poem it came from, some ancient pre-Virus thing, and I… I tend to think of it a lot when you're around."

Erik traced his fingers across the handwritten line – I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach – and swallowed sudden, mortifying tears. "Open mine, then, it's your turn," he rasped.

 

Charles grinned, his gaze turning from glowing affection to twinkling childish glee, and shuffled Hank so he could extend a greedy hand toward his gifts. "The big one first!"

One-handed, he managed to wrangle the paper from the package, but could not unseal the box. Erik stepped in, and Charles's mouth formed an O as he lifted the expanse of blue silk out of its package.

"What is that, Erik?"

Erik just smirked and lay the nightgown up the length of Charles's body, covering right over Hank. "Do you see the embroidery at the collar? I thought you would like that. And it's very… easy to get in and out of." He pulled the kimono-esque gown open as a demonstration.

Charles blushed, and if his smile wavered a little, possibly on the thought of how very little opportunity they would have to enjoy that, Erik smothered it in a kiss that went on until Charles's inattention allowed Hank to detach from his dinner and begin to fuss.

One last present to open, and Erik was tempted to spirit it away, hide it, refuse to let Krismas be over so quickly. But the hours would pass anyway, and tomorrow arrive unimpeded. Erik took a deep breath and helped Charles tear the paper.

Within lay a pair of shoes, cut from the finest leather in light brown on the upper half and dark brown below, with a line of bold golden buttons up the side.

"I measured your feet myself while you slept," Erik said. "I expect, you understand, that the ones you've been wearing will be worn to flinders fairly soon."

Charles, to his astonishment, dissolved entirely into tears at this – not the mere glimmers of appreciation and excitement he had shown before, but honest weeping, which he immediately tried to hide behind a sudden attention to the baby.

"Charles?" Uncertain whether to be alarmed, Erik set the shoes down and hurried to Charles's side, gathering him as close to his chest as he could without dislodging Hank.

"They're beautiful, Erik," Charles said between sobs, pressing his face hard into Erik's collar.

Raven, awakened by the noise, crawled up to them and pawed at Erik's arm, babbling in distress.

"It's all right, lovey, Papa's fine, I'm just happy," Charles said, kissing the crown of her head.

Erik wrapped his arms around all three of them, buried his face in their mingled scents, and there they stayed until the lamp burned out and they heard the unwelcome voices and footsteps of the others returning from church.

***

Krismas night wound down with an excellent dinner, a few last carols, and a blessing at the doorway whose purpose Erik didn't entirely follow, and then the lengthy process of readying for bed.

Nine hours before Erik left Wakanda. Eight. Seven.

Six hours, and the house was finally dark and quiet, Hank and Raven fast asleep in their Wakandan-style bedside baskets, and he and Charles were at last able to put the blue silk kimono to its intended use. It hurt to see how well Charles, so naturally enthusiastic, had learned to keep himself quiet in moments when such worries should have been far from his mind; this was their life together, every moment a theft that dared not be discovered. But if he was unnaturally silent, still his eyes glowed and his nails dug into Erik's skin, a pain Erik arched into eagerly, greedy for a mark to remember this by.

Afterward Erik stroked Charles's back, slow and sleepy, and kissed the fingertips Charles trailed over his face.

"I don't want to go to sleep," Charles whispered. "I don't want it to be morning."

"I know," Erik whispered back, wishing he could offer something more comforting. "It's just for a few months. I'll have another furlough in a few months. And he can't keep me in Essex forever."

"He already has. Forever and a half, at least."

Erik muffled a chuckle in his husband's hair. "Sleep, Charles. You're going to need all your strength in the morning."

At length the man in his arms grew boneless and relaxed, breath whistling just slightly, like a baby bird -- and Erik was about to drift off on that sentimental thought when one of the babies began to cry.

Erik was groggy enough that he staggered first to the wrong basket, and fumbled a hand over baby Hank, who fortunately slept through the event without a twitch. By the time Erik made it to Raven's basket, she was sitting up and screaming.

"Papa! Papa!"
'Papa' had been the first word Raven picked up after 'pretty.' She'd also taken to calling Moira 'Mama,' which they weren't sure how to address.

"No, no, baby, don't wake Papa." He rocked her against his bare chest, shushing her as he'd seen Charles do, and she clung to him, still crying and babbling urgently. "Bad dream," he guessed. "Shush, baby, just a dream, it's all right, Da—" He bit off the words Daddy's here, with a jolt of pain that seemed to stretch out to his toes and fingertips.

Raven and Hank could never call him Daddy. No one could know Sebastian wasn't their father – perhaps not even they themselves. When Charles had first conceived Raven, he'd sworn to Erik their little one would know her true parentage, but it was madness to think of entrusting so dire a secret to a child. She would have to be ten or twelve at least – old enough to understand the vital importance of discretion – before she could know. "I'm here," he whispered into her hair, while she gradually calmed. "I love you, Raven."

She snuffled against his neck, and fell quiet, her tiny hands fumbling at his chest.

"I can't nurse you, sweetheart," Erik whispered, "but you're all right. Shhh, you're fine, you're fine."

After a minute, Raven heaved a heavy sigh, as if finally letting go of her nightmare, and relaxed against Erik's chest, raising a hand to pat at his face.

"Baba."

At first Erik thought it was a tear-clogged version of 'Papa,' and paid it little mind. If she were older, it might sting that she preferred one parent to the other, but she was a baby; Charles was there taking care of her every day, and he wasn't.

But she said it again, looking directly at Erik, and it was clearly 'Baba.' Something in the way she lengthened the vowels was very different than when she said Papa, almost like a Wakandan accent. 'Baba' was what the Chieftains' children called their father.

"Baba," Raven repeated, patting his face again.

His throat closing entirely, Erik caught her little hand and kissed it. "Yes, I'm your Baba," he whispered. "And you're my baby. My Raven. Mine."

***

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach.

Erik read the inscription over and over, long into the night, and first thing when he woke in the morning, when the entire family showed him to the dock and waved him farewell as his ship left the harbor. Erik stood at the rail and kept his eyes on the knot of paler faces in the crowd, Charles with Raven standing in his lap, Moira holding Hank up and waving his little hand, until they faded from view.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach.

The words sustained him until Yakuti Bay, and in fact all land of any stripe, had passed beyond sight, before the light they kindled inside him was finally overshadowed and lost.

***

By the time they boarded the ship back to Genosha, Charles was almost as anxious to return to court as he was to avoid it. He spent the journey trying to get his head back into the political game. For nearly eight weeks, he had not had to think of Sebastian at all, had not had to consider the ramifications of every word and glance like a chess move. Who knew that visiting foreign heads of state could be so much more relaxing than diplomacy at home? Storm and Black Panther were both highly intelligent, but straightforward, with little patience for games of intrigue. Which wasn't to say there hadn't been unpleasant moments – mostly awkwardness over parenting Armando and Angel, as was surely inevitable under the circumstances. But when Charles declined dessert, there was no move to, say, call it a Genoshan insult to Wakandan hospitality; it was simply Charles declining dessert. He wished fervently that his fellow Assembly-members were that sensible.

Of course, though Charles would have liked to spend the entire time giving no thought to politics at all, he knew it would be disastrous to let the game get ahead of him. So there had been progress reports from a variety of sources (some official, some emphatically not) and he had even been able to head off a problem or two through written advice to his allies. On his return to court and Assembly, the Duke of Westchester would not be blindsided by any of the tricks Sebastian and his cronies had planned. He would come out of the gate at a dead run.

And so Charles spent most of the voyage holed up in his well-appointed cabin, studying voting histories and the fine print of old laws, while Moira looked after the children and tried to coax food down Charles's throat. That last proved difficult; perhaps due to the ever-tightening stress of going home, or the amount of time in the stuffy cabin, Charles was exponentially more seasick than usual. Some days all he could keep down was a steady stream of tea served from the tea-set Erik had given him for Krismas.

He tried to think of Erik as little as possible. During the day, he was busy enough to succeed, more or less; at night, when he put on the blue silk pajamas Erik had dressed him in, and then removed with lingering, caressing delicacy on Krismas night, it grew far more difficult. He took to letting the fosterlings sleep in the bed with him, so he wouldn't feel quite so alone.

Of Victor Creed, the most urgent reason for their flight to Wakanda, Charles did not think at all. If he had the occasional nightmare about terrified dogs trying to outrun the flames on their skin, he refused to remember them.

 

"There's a note here from Dr. Henri," Moira said, when they achieved their rooms at the palace at long last. The children were running to and fro noisily, excited to be back among their familiar toys and furniture; Raven did a sort of dance as she rediscovered a half-forgotten doll. "He says you're overdue for your Cleansing."

"I know. I was due when we left." Charles collapsed very carefully into a chair. His crutches had gotten him all the way from the carriage to the rooms, one of the longest distances he'd used them for, and his trembling muscles were now calling it quits. "Ring for tea, won't you, Moira? Now that we're on solid ground at last, I think I could down the entirety of a banquet table."

"Shall I reply to Dr. Henri?" Moira said as she reached for the bell-pull.

"I'll do it in a bit. He won't be very happy with me; there'll be another fortnight's delay before I can consider it."

"You'll make yourself ill, Charles!"

"The Cleansing will make me ill and no mistake! I've only just gotten back, I can't afford to be bedridden for a month." A woman's reproductive system was self-regulating, cleansing itself every month or so; androji were not so lucky. An androji's annual Cleansing was the result of medical intervention, and meant three weeks or more of debilitating abdominal pain, nausea, migraines, fatigue, and emotional turbulence sometimes bordering on psychosis. Moira had told him, in some horror, that it looked something like all twelve of a woman's yearly cycles experienced at once.

"Two weeks from now," Moira said now. "No longer. I certainly understand that you don't look forward to it, Charles, but if you leave it too long..."

"Yes, yes." Too long a delay would mean the internal decay of the outworn eggs and placental lining, which could get ugly or even fatal very quickly. But doctors had confided to him before that the buffer period was longer than most people supposed, and anyway there would be warning symptoms before it got that serious. "No longer than two weeks. Make the appointment for me if it makes you feel better."

"I will," Moira said darkly, and tucked Dr. Henri's note into her own pocket.

 

He used the fortnight wisely. He shored up the fledgling Romanova-Potts Women's Education Act through Sebastian's blatant attempt to dismantle it, rescued Baron Coulson from the king's wrath with some well-placed blackmail, and if he could not prevent the king's appointment of a brutal and bigoted judge, he did at least manage to sneak in his own candidate as the judge's head clerk, where he could do something to mitigate the man's cruelty. In the meantime, Raven was now talking ceaselessly, seeming to learn a new word every day, and Hank had begun attempting to crawl. Charles received a letter from Erik through the Moira-Logan pipeline, which had him smiling for days, and though his encounters with Sebastian and Sir Victor were nauseating, neither of them attempted, for now, to interact with him outside of Assembly and the banquet hall.

One advantage of his Cleansing, he reflected dispiritedly as he arranged himself on the bed for Dr. Henri's visit, was he could be sure that the king wouldn't dare visit him until he was returned to full health. Sebastian, like many of his sort, considered the symptoms of Cleansing to be a sign that androji were weak and faintly unnatural. During the five miserable years of their marriage before Raven's conception, Charles had almost looked forward to Cleansing, as the one time Sebastian was certain to avoid him as scrupulously as a plague victim.

"Good morning, Your Highness," said Dr. Henri, entering with a bow. "I'm very pleased you found time in your busy schedule to let me see to you." His voice was shaded just slightly with rebuke, and Charles hung his head sheepishly.

"Timing, you know, doctor. One must make preparation for being more or less out of the world for weeks at a time."

"It will only be the worse for having put it off. But there, it's your own decision, of course. Let's not delay it any further." Dr. Henri began setting out the necessary supply of instruments and equipment. They made conversation about Raven and the doctor's infant namesake, then Charles's progress with the crutches, while Dr. Henri drew blood to test for various levels of hormone, that he might calculate the precise dosages Charles would need of the various Cleansing chemicals.

"If you can keep your walking practice steady and frequent, the underarm soreness will fade," Dr. Henri said absently, examining the blood test results. "Not soon enough for your preference, I'm sure, but there..." He went suddenly silent.

"Doctor?" Charles said after a moment.

"I'm very sorry, Your Highness, I believe I shall need another blood sample."

"Is something wrong?"

"Just an... irregular result. It could be an error. I beg you will pardon me from answering until I am quite sure."

He drew more blood, and they waited in tense silence for the result.

Dr. Henri let out a long, unhappy breath. "I was right, then. Your Highness, I'm afraid the results are quite certain. You are with child."

Charles just stared at him for several moments. Then a hysterical laugh bubbled up his throat. A dozen little things about the last weeks were suddenly cast into relief – his mood swings and fatigue, his alternating nausea and insatiable hunger. "Oh. Oh, I have been quite an idiot. I have been an idiot, why didn't we – but I've never not been trying to get pregnant, I didn't even think of..." He managed, with difficulty, to swallow a crow of You see, Sebastian, it doesn't take much at all for me to conceive, just more than YOU!

"You're about five weeks along, Your Highness."

Charles sobered, or tried to, though strangled giggles kept working their way out. Five weeks, and he'd been back in Genosha only two. Obvious to the good doctor, then, that this was no child of Sebastian's, though he suspected Henri had deduced much of the truth already. Only a three-week gap to the public, which would go unnoticed; he could already hear the tittering gossips calling the pregnancy proof of how much the king had missed his consort. Sebastian, though...

Charles lost all desire to laugh. There would be no fooling Sebastian. He had not authorized this pregnancy.

"Your Highness, I..." Dr. Henri swallowed, lifted his chin. "Tell me what you want me to do, Your Highness."

Charles knew what he was offering. It was strictly forbidden for a doctor to perform a Cleansing on a pregnant androji, and the penalty if he was found out would be steep indeed – the loss of his medical license, at the very least. It was a great risk that this man was offering to take for him.

And oh, the idea was tempting, Charles admitted in some dark corner of his mind. Tears stung in his eyes. He didn't want to be pregnant, he was so tired of being pregnant, and he nearly choked on terror, thinking of what Sebastian might do when he found out. Everything they most feared might come to pass– himself and Erik dead, the children exiled, Genosha left to Sebastian's uncontrolled clutches. Surely it made no difference to the growing child whether he died now or when Sebastian beat Charles to bloody fragments.

At the mere thought of that future beating, Charles could feel his arms folding across his middle, as if to protect the baby. He couldn't bear this, he couldn't. However tiny and half-formed it was now, he couldn't stand to think of harm coming to this baby, his own child and Erik's, the most sacred thing thing this world had to offer, as beautiful and precious as Raven and Hank… There had to be another way.

Charles buried his face in his hands, felt his own breath coming fast and hard against his palms. There had to be another way. That Charles would bear another child was inevitable – Sebastian still had no heir. This child could easily be the son Sebastian hungered for, the key to a new future, and Charles would ten thousand times rather he were Erik's son than Victor Creed's. The problem was how to make Sebastian think this one was Victor Creed's, and conceived on his own command. If he acted quickly, very very quickly, with the doctor's cooperation, the time gap might be covered. But speed would be hard to manage; the doctors had made it clear to Sebastian that conceiving again this quickly could be dangerous to Charles's health. He would be terribly suspicious of Charles suddenly speeding up the timetable. Difficult, this would be difficult – but not as difficult as killing his child.

"Thank you for your faithful service, Dr. Henri," Charles murmured, touching the doctor's hand, "but it will not be needed today. There are other ways to handle the situation."

He straightened his spine even as he swallowed bile. Charles would do what was necessary to keep his baby alive - even lie with Victor Creed, and beg Sebastian for the privilege.

Chapter Text

"Your Majesty, might I have a word in private?"

"Of course, Dr. Henri. I am always eager to lend an ear to the man who holds not only my own health but that of my beloved consort and children in his hands. I hope you have no bad news to impart?"

"Not at all, sire. In fact, sire, that's... I mean to say, I came only to tell you that the royal family is in quite excellent health. The Prince Consort especially – the milder climate of Wakanda, the opportunity to rest and relax, they seem to have had quite a fortifying – I would say even a revitalizing effect on His Highness."

"That is, of course, excellent news. And yet your manner is less than pleased."

"Oh no, sire, I am far from displeased! It is only..."

"Only what? Out with it, man. I am sure it cannot do your own health any good, to withhold information from your king."

"Er – quite so. Exactly so, in fact. Your Majesty, the truth is that I find I must rescind my earlier recommendation concerning the Prince Consort. When the young Prince Henry was first born, I felt quite certain that His Highness could not tolerate another pregnancy in the near future without quite shattering his constitution. But his health is so much improved that I was happy to inform him, at my examination yesterday, that I felt he would no longer be endangering himself to pursue another child as soon as he wished. I know how he and Your Majesty do long for a proper heir."

"I do believe I suspect what you will say next, Doctor. The Prince Consort was not, perhaps, as pleased by this news as you had expected."

"I'm sure it's nothing at all, sire – it is no wonder if the man is somewhat weary of the many physical demands of pregnancy – I would have thought nothing of it, sire. Except that... well, he asked that I not inform Your Majesty of the change to his condition. I... may have led him to believe I agreed, but of course I cannot be comfortable with myself – exactly as you said – withholding information from my king."

"I see. Yes, Dr. Henri, have no fear, you have done precisely the right thing in coming to me. You need not worry any further about it – the Prince Consort and I will discuss the matter privately."

***

Charles tried not to fidget as evening deepened outside the French doors onto the balcony. He had expected Sebastian to act immediately on Dr. Henri's "information" – had something gone wrong? He picked at a rough-edged page in the book on his lap, praying he hadn't gotten the good doctor killed. Praying, too, for the strength to face what was coming. He had no illusions about how bad it would be. At least Dr. Henri had been able to assure him that, this early in the pregnancy, even fairly severe body trauma was unlikely to cause a miscarriage. Not, he reflected bitterly, that fate had had any trouble kicking him in the face before, but surely to lose the baby in the act of saving it would finally be more than God could expect him to bear.

Oh, why didn't Sebastian get it over with? Tonight Moira, though puzzled by the request, had taken the children to her own room – he was prepared to pass that off as a normal, occasional thing, in the unlikely event that Sebastian asked about them – but he couldn't simply keep doing that night after night, waiting...

Would Sebastian come himself, Charles wondered, or would he simply send Sir Victor, get straight to the point? Charles rather hoped the latter. Victor was inevitable; if Sebastian was optional, Charles would much rather pass.

He tried to turn his attention to his book, but the words swam and fluttered before his eyes. Charles tipped his head back against the sofa and rubbed one hand thoughtfully across his belly. Was he the tiniest bit rounder there? Not noticeably, surely. He'd had no time to lose the weight gained from Hank's pregnancy – or even Raven's, really – so he was something of a spherical gentleman now in any case. It wouldn't be noticeable. Victor would have his way, Sebastian would be deceived, and his child would be safe.

Grow slowly, Charles begged the little one he carried. But grow strong. And please, please be a boy. Give the bastard the heir he wants so he'll leave us alone.

But would he? With his goal finally accomplished – his bloodline secured and virility established, at least to outside eyes – would he feel more kindly toward Charles, reward him for doing his duty as consort? Or would he simply decide that Charles had served his purpose and was no longer needed?

Before Charles could reflect any further on that disquieting notion, his chamber door swung open.

Sebastian, of course. Charles had considerable practice controlling his expressions by now; he could be confident that he looked only curious and wary as he glanced up from his book.

"Good evening, my lord," he said. "Did you want something?"

Sebastian lounged against the doorframe, exuding a lazy anticipation that made Charles's nerves twist. "Do you know why I married you, Charles?" Sebastian asked, absently running a finger across the scar Charles's teeth had left in his palm.

"No, Sebastian, I don't. In fact I've often wondered."

"It's simple enough. I am King. The King always gets what is most desirable in life. And you were desired by all." He paused, eyebrows raised, as if expecting Charles to – what, blush at the compliment? When no such response was forthcoming, Sebastian chuckled, stepping into the room and closing the door behind him.

The room seemed immediately half its usual size.

"I thought, at the time," Sebastian continued, "that despite your stubbornness, you would come to appreciate the favor I had done you."

"Favor?" Charles stared at him. "Sebastian, I'm honestly not sure if you're playing with me, or if you're truly that delusional. In what world might blackmailing someone into marriage by threatening their loved one's lives be considered a favor?"

Referring to his family as loved ones was perhaps a stretch for Charles; he'd hardly seen them since his marriage, and mostly been glad of it. If it had been only his stepfather and stepbrother threatened, Charles wondered if he might not have shamed himself and let them twist in the wind. But he could not have abandoned his mother, however lackluster a parent she'd been, much less the collateral uncles and cousins who had never done him harm.

In any case, Sebastian had continued as if deaf to Charles's words. "Of course your stubbornness has triumphed after all, and my own consort become an incessant thorn in my side, instead of the comfort and joy you should have been. You have failed even in your most basic duty – the production of an heir – and that is but one of the many reasons you've given me to regret our marriage. In my place, many a man would have had you... removed from the equation already."

The cold calculation in his eyes should not have surprised Charles, really, yet it raised the hairs on the back of his neck.

"You are fortunate that I am a generous man," Sebastian said, casually turning the doorknob. "I am prepared to give you one last chance to prove... useful."

The door swung open to reveal Sir Victor of House Creed, turning a knife thoughtfully in one hand, and unbuttoning his trousers with the other.

***

Moira opened the chamber door, and the children tumbled inside on a wave of cheerful babble, waving dolls in the air and clapping their hands to some song Moira was humming. Charles pulled the bedclothes up over his head.

"Papa!" Angel and Raven pawed at the blanket over his face and moved to climb into the bed.

"No, darlings, not right now!" Charles said frantically, breathless and slurred. "Moira, please—"

"Come on, girls, don't you want to put on your pretty dresses? Go pick out your dresses!" Concern and alarm lurked under Moira's bright, chirpy voice. She ushered the children into the other room and closed the door. "Charles?"

Reluctantly, and very carefully, Charles moved the blankets aside and pulled himself upright.

Moira gasped. "Charles, what happened?"

"Do you really have to ask?" Moira knew nothing about the plan – secrecy was safer for everyone – but she'd seen the aftermath of Sebastian's visits often enough.

Admittedly, Charles thought as he raised a shaky hand to the worst of the splits in his lip, this was beyond even Sebastian's usual level of punishment. He could only see a little out of one eye – the other was swollen entirely shut – but enough to see that Moira was white-faced and trembling. He didn't realize it was with rage until she actually growled.

"Moira. I'm all right, my friend." Talking hurt, as did moving and, for that, matter, breathing, but he forced a hand out to grasp Moira's. "Get the children off to their lessons – Raven can go play with Steve or Natasha's children – and then fetch the doctor, please. And please keep it quiet."

"Of course." Moira took a deep breath that almost quelled her trembling, absently stroking the baby in his sling across her chest. "Come, let's get you back under the covers so the children don't see. And lie still. I'll be back with Dr. Henri as soon as I can."

Lying still was not going to be a problem. Charles listened hazily to the children laughing and chattering as they were dressed and herded toward the door.

"Is Papa sick?" Armando asked as the passed the bed with its well-veiled occupant.

"Yes, dear, Papa's sick. He'll feel better soon. Come along, now."

When the room was silent once more, Charles pulled down the covers just enough so he could breathe, and otherwise made no attempt to move at all. At first he tried to catalogue his injuries, from top (he could feel blood in his hair where Victor had torn at it) to bottom (the numbness of his legs seemed a blessing now, but he had a sick suspicion that one of them was broken). That exercise only increased his own awareness of his pain, which came in an astonishing array of flavors and from all directions. The one he least wanted to think about – the pain just above his dead legs, the one that made it excruciating to sit up or even lie flat on his back – was the one that seemed most determined to hold his attention. Was he still bleeding?

Sebastian's breath in his ear do leave some for me, Victor dear

Charles swallowed nausea with grim determination – vomiting might actually hurt enough to kill him – and began to listing off the legal grounds for divorce under Genoshan law.

Habit of intoxication, check. Abuse, triple check. Desertion or Neglect – I wish. Adultery – valid on both sides, what do you know. And my personal favorite – Impotence, or Other Inability to Provide Spouse With Offspring. Charles laughed aloud, which hurt. Neither of us would have any difficulty unloading the other if only he would let me go!

That would never happen. If Charles proved impossible to tolerate, there were much less embarrassing ways to be rid of him than divorce. Chillingly, death in childbirth came to mind.

Then, finally, Moira and Dr. Henri were there, fluttering over him with sounds of distress and outrage that he couldn't help taking some pleasure in. It felt good to be fussed over when he hurt so very much. He let his friends' concern wash over him comfortingly while he was dabbed with witch hazel and alcohol (he'd almost forgotten that nick on his throat from Victor's knife until the alcohol found it) and Dr. Henri's efficient hands evaluated the integrity of his bones and major muscle groups. The leg definitely wasn't badly broken, but possibly cracked. He'd wrenched a shoulder rather badly, but Dr. Henri was confident that the hand Sebastian had bitten would heal much more nicely than the injury it had been given to avenge.

Thinking of Sebastian's ruined hand, how satisfying it had felt to fight back, Charles was briefly ashamed that he hadn't put up any resistance the night before. But no, that would only have inflamed Victor all the more; he didn't put it past the man to have accidentally killed him, had Charles made the situation any more exciting for him. And at least Sebastian would have nothing to reproach him for, aside from the original "lie" that had brought him to Charles's rooms to begin with.

"You think you can keep secrets from me, Charles? Let me show you how big a mistake that was." And Charles, his face safely buried in the pillow, had been unable to stop a fierce and painful grin at just how many secrets he kept from Sebastian.

"This hand needs stitches," Dr. Henri said. "Will you bring me that black bag, milady?"

Moira stepped away, and the doctor's guarded expression changed to one of pain and guilt. He whispered, "I shouldn't have let you persuade me to this, Your Highness."

"Not a word of that, doctor. You've done me a great favor. My child is safe. Only warn His Majesty away from my bed long enough for me to reasonably discover and announce the pregnancy – three or four days, a week – and all will be well."

***

My dearest Erik,

Now that all is well arranged, I can finally tell you the unexpected fruit our time together in Wakanda has borne – or will bear, come autumn. Dr. Henri says we may expect our new child in late September. I confess I already cannot wait for his arrival. There were some difficulties, of course, in covering for the time gap, but Henri is willing to attest to the child being premature when he arrives, and Sebastian's medical knowledge is not so great that he will know to argue.

I'm afraid the only way to accomplish so much was to give Sir Victor reason to believe the child his. I'm more sorry for that necessity than I can express, but I beg you will think of it no further. It is done, our enemies are deceived, and so our child is safe.

I wish you had been there to see Sebastian's face when I announced my pregnancy. He believes, of course, that I have once again conceived at the first opportunity, as soon as I was given a man more virile than himself. It is not so very far from the truth, and I take great vindictive pleasure in his frustration. Oh, I am a bad man, Erik. Perhaps I ought to believe that it is the sorrow and shame of Sebastian's infertility (which would indeed move me in another man) that drives him to his sins. But I believe we have suffered enough at his hands to justify whatever small enjoyments we can gather at his expense.

It seems an age since you wrote me last; I have nearly read the ink off your last letter. I convince myself hourly that this means the situation in Essex is simply too dull to bear writing of. Do not keep me in suspense, love.

The children are doing well; Dr. Henri is very pleased with the progress of Hank's feet. He is such a cheerful baby, smiling and laughing – and putting into his mouth anything he can get his hands on, including his feet! Henri says we may soon begin to give him rice porridge and other soft foods; Raven is already eating a good deal more than she nurses, and thank goodness for it! She will certainly have to be weaned before the new baby is born; even between the two of us, Moira and I cannot possibly nurse three babies!

Raven has been fretful of late, demanding a great deal of attention. I am sorely tempted to say she misses you, for she certainly did not act this way in Wakanda, when you were there to scoop her up in your arms and swing her about, or pay such close, grave attention to her babblings. I must admit I never dreamed you would be so kind and patient a father. If I had not already loved you as much as I could stand, I would say watching you with our children had increased that love fourfold.

I miss you so much, Erik. I often dream that you have somehow come home in the night, and are lying warm beside me when I wake, your arms around me... It hurts to wake in truth and find myself alone, but still I would not give up those dreams. I would rather have your shadow than nothing at all.

Do you know anything yet of when your next furlough is to be? I would count the days if only I knew them!

Always remember that I love you to depth and breadth and height my soul can reach.
Charles

 

My dear Charles,

I cannot bear that I am not there to hold you right now. Though you deflected the subject with admirable skill, I can all-too-easily imagine what you had to endure at Victor's hands, and what little furniture my tent contained has suffered for it. Can you forgive me for not being there? Heaven knows I can't. Charles, my Charles. I can hardly think of anything beyond taking my sword to that dog and hacking him to pieces, but I know my anger will bring you little comfort. Think of this instead – think of me beside you right now, with my arms around you – if you can bear to think of being touched by any man – think of me kissing any part of you that hurts, and everything else besides. Think of me stroking your hair and promising that I will never leave you again. I know it's a lie, but it's all I have to offer you. Pretend to believe it for a little while and maybe I can, too.

I wish I could share your joy for this new baby, but it's difficult knowing his existence has cost you so much, and could cost you even more – I have not forgotten what the doctors said of your delicate health tolerating another pregnancy so soon. I could beat myself bloody for failing to even think of taking measures to prevent this. By the time he arrives, I hope I'm sure I will love him as much as you do. After all, it can never be an ill thing to have more of your flesh and blood in the world.

I can tell you all this in person in another eleven weeks; my furlough is finally in place for the end of April. A deucedly long delay, I can hardly bear to count the days, but my unexpected departure in December threw the schedule into more even disarray than I feared, not to mention the problems that accumulated in my absence. The delay burns even more now that I know your situation, but there is a finite goal at last. In eleven weeks I can see you and our children – I have even missed the fosterlings – and say my first hello to the child-in-progress. Tell him to save an especially strong kick to greet his father with.

For my delay in writing I must apologize, and I wish I could spare you the reason behind it, but I would not hide things from you. Up until now the border of Essex we have been guarding has been quiet to the point of boredom, which incidentally is not a complaint. That changed a fortnight ago. The civil revolt against King Nathaniel has only gained strength, and it finally ranged into our vicinity.

We came upon what seemed a large party of refugees set upon by bandits, and our first instinct was to intervene on the refugees' behalf – until we discovered they were, in fact, revolutionaries fleeing the King's soldiers. On the one hand, our nominal loyalty while in Essex is to King Nathaniel; on the other, our actual contract states that the King is not to involve us in the revolt, but only use us to substitute for the border guards that have been moved to more urgent duties. To say there was confusion is to understate matters. In the end I was put in the awkward position of trying to negotiate between the two parties. You will perhaps be pleased to hear that the refugee-revolutionaries were permitted to escape across the border, though what welcome they will find there I cannot vouch for. The delay in writing was caused by a minor – minor, I swear to you – wound I took to my right arm in the first confused bit of fighting.

I fear this marks only the beginning of our involvement in King Nathaniel's mess, and suppose I ought to give thanks that it took this long. I have, most reluctantly, written to King Sebastian about the incident; I cannot in any way argue that it's not his concern, and I think surely he will step in to protect his men this time, if only as part of his power-game with Nathaniel. Our contract, after all, is very clear.

Give my love to all the children, though I think the bulk of it must always belong to you.
Eleven weeks until we see each other again, minus the hours it took to write this letter.
Your own Erik

 

To my darling husband,

It feels like forever since I saw you last. Especially since you didn't even pretend to 'come home' to me until three days into your last furlough. You're not giving me much to work with here, sugar. For my part, I'm perfectly thrilled to have an absentee husband – but Sebastian attached me to you for a purpose (for several purposes, really) and I can't pretend to be fulfilling any of them if it's obvious we spend no time together. It's in both our best interests to let His Majesty think he's having his way. I'm resigned to giving the man the occasional tumble to keep him from noticing I no longer follow his orders, but I'd prefer to keep that to a minimum, so do us a favor and spend a night or two at your nominal home when next you visit. Do warn me beforehand, however, so I can be sure to have your poor neglected bedroom properly aired.

Your loving Emma

***

As the slushy dregs of winter ever-so-slowly gave way to spring, the borders of Essex became an ever more dangerous place. Sebastian had, indeed, been infuriated to hear of his men getting tangled up in the civil imbruglio; unfortunately his anger had been directed as much at Erik as at King Nathaniel, for not withdrawing entirely the moment he realized the truth of the situation. Erik's orders were to remain uninvolved, even if battle ranged into their very camp.

Up to this point, Erik had had no opinion on Essex's civil war; it was mere background noise. Since that first confused semi-battle, however, he'd had opportunity to learn something about the conflict, and what he'd heard from men on both sides had been enough to leave him sick with rage.

King Nathaniel wanted to "purify" his kingdom. Those bloodlines that the king felt had nothing to offer humanity – showing a family history of disease, criminal tendencies, low intelligence, or merely an inclination to "disrupt society" – faced blatant oppression ranging from blocked career opportunities and substandard health care to forced sterilization and even execution for minor infractions of the restrictive regulations being built around them. Nathaniel did not call himself a Neo-Aryan, but the differences were surely academic.

My men know I will flog to shreds any of them that impede the escape of refugees out of Essex, Erik wrote to Charles. I require nothing more from them, knowing the punishment they'd face from Sebastian if they were caught working actively against our supposed ally. For myself and a small group of trustworthy lieutenants, there is more to do – supplies to casually leave behind in specific places, King's patrols to subtly misdirect and delay. For the first time in many years, it chafes that I have so little opportunity to make battle. Though it's doubtless for the best; I would certainly get myself executed for treason, fighting on the side opposite my king's orders.

With his duties growing more demanding, it became more difficult for Erik to keep up with the Assembly minutes – but he put in the effort, hungry for every scrap of contact with Charles.

6 February
5:45 - His Majesty the King moves to adopt Livestock Tax to increase funding for military operations.
5:46 - Duke of Westchester moves to adopt official 'Let's Tax the Poor to Death!' theme song.
6:25 - After considerable disruption, His Majesty the King moves to establish a rule against singing in Assembly.
6:32 - Motion not carried.
6:38 - King's previous motion not carried.
6:45 - Westchester's motion not carried.

13 February
10:11 - Amendments to the Basic Medical Care Act presented for voting.
10:15 - Voting suspended due to sudden illness on the part of the Duke of Westchester.
10:18 - Duke of Westchester issues public apology to all Assembly members, with special attention to Earl of Leland.
10:20 - His Majesty the King excuses Earl of Leland from Assembly for thorough washing and change of clothes.
10:21 - Baron Coulson moves to suspend Assembly session for an hour and allow janitorial staff access to Assembly room.
10:22 - Motion carried unanimously.

Erik laughed himself to tears at the image of that cocksure idiot Leland wearing Charles's breakfast, but thereafter his husband's constant pregnancy-sickness became much less funny. He began leaving Assembly sessions earlier or missing them altogether – sometimes, apparently, with no time or no strength to appoint a proxy, so that Sebastian ended up wielding his vote. On one occasion, when (Erik presumed) there were no better options to hand, Charles tried to send the children's new kitten to Assembly as his proxy, the little fellow being, he claimed, a Genoshan native of noble blood, and one who possessed better judgment than many current Assembly members. (After lively debate, the kitten was disqualified for being underage.)

During the March 19th session, one of Charles's own allies moved to excuse him – eject him, really – from the session on grounds of severe illness, and the Duke of New Brooklyn 'escorted him from the room,' from which Erik gathered he was too weak to operate his wheelchair.

He received another letter from Emma the next day.

I know how you pant after Court gossip, darling, so I'm sure you'll be interested to know how the Prince Consort's latest pregnancy is galloping on. I've never seen a man or woman grow so large so quickly. Half the Court is convinced that death-by-childbed is Sebastian's plan to rid himself of his tiresome husband, and the young Duke is so pale and shaky these days that it looks likely to succeed.

When, again, is your next furlough?

***

"One vote," Charles moaned, leaning into his hand. "My vote. I could kill Sebastian – not that that's new, it's just, I thought for sure we had this one in the bag..."

"We can present it again in a few months," Steve said comfortingly, tossing another handful of wood onto the fire. The room was already more than warm enough, but Charles had to admit his incessant shivering seemed to indicate otherwise. He didn't tell Steve it wasn't cold that made him shake, only the fatigue and weakness that dogged him at every turn these days.

"Half a year," Charles said. "We have to wait half a year. And in the meantime, students are sharing one textbook between four children in the rural schools... but yes, all right, it could be worse, we did get those healthcare amendments through..." He made an effort to sit back, look alert, take in his surroundings. Steve's family parlor was a fascinating place, really; while the front parlor was a neat field of serene blues and whites, nearly lifeless, this room was a slow-motion collision furnished in gold and scarlet and mahogany, scattered with piles of books and papers, half-empty mugs and half-assembled clockwork toys. Most of the mess, Charles thought, belonged to Steve's husband Tony, but he also saw some of the sketches Steve denied having any talent for – mostly portraits of Tony and their two sons, Peter and Jamie.

A roar sounded from the corridor, followed by the excited shrieks of children and a stampede of footsteps past the door.

The door opened after a moment, and Tony's dark head popped through. "Have you seen any particularly tender-looking children come by here? No? Let me know if you do, my android requires human flesh to complete its regeneration." He grinned, then took off down the hall, shouting something about enzymatic reactions. The reverberation of the slamming door made some fragile bit of machinery on a corner table fall apart with a puff of sparks.

"What even is an android?" Steve chuckled, still looking at the door with a sort of helpless affection.

"I've no idea," Charles said. "Most of what Tony says makes me think he's either rediscovered some pre-Virus breakthrough, or he needs to be locked up."

"I don't see why it can't be both," Steve, as a shout of "Peter, get down from there!" echoed down the corridor. "Eat something, Charles. Come on, Lady Moira will have your head if you lose weight while she's gone."

"I hardly think that's likely." Charles patted the belly that seemed to grow inches daily, but yes, all right, it had been nearly twenty-four hours since he was able to keep anything down. Obediently, took a sip from the cup of ginger tea at his elbow, then popped one of the accompanying biscuits in his mouth. "I don't know how I'm going to make do without Moira, I really don't. Not that I told Moira that – itwas hard enough to get her to go." The birth of Moira's first grandchild was considerably more important than her childcare duties with Charles, though pointing that out only made her groan about how strange it was to be a grandmother at 37. "Sebastian's offered a list of substitute nursemaids, of course, but I wouldn't touch any of his candidates with a stick."

"You'd be welcome to stay here," Steve said, "let us help out. Goodness knows Tony could use more to do, there is nothing more dangerous than a bored Tony Stark."

Of course Tony was no longer a member of House Stark, in most respects, but Tony and Steve nevertheless frequently called each other "Captain" and "Mr. Stark," even after nearly a decade together. Once a holdover from the rather hostile early days of their marriage, the titles now seemed purely affectionate.

"But there's the travel to consider," Steve continued with a sigh. "It's one thing for me to flit back and forth between here and the city for Assembly sessions, but you? Look at you. I probably shouldn't have let you come all the way out here at all."

Charles would have liked to protest, but he knew his own condition too well – pale and shaking and exhausted, with pains in his belly and head, spots of blood that turned Dr. Henri's mouth to a grim line. As if cued to provide reassurance, the baby gave a heartening – if uncomfortable – kick. I can't wait for you to get here, little one. For more reasons than one.

"Frankly, I'm sick just thinking about putting you back in a carriage in the morning," Steve said.

"I'm not in any hurry to go home, frankly," Charles muttered – then paused, teacup half-raised to his lips. He and Steve locked eyes for a moment, then slowly began to smile. "In fact, Your Grace, though I hate to burden your household with myself and my children, I find my condition is so much worsened that I couldn't possibly travel home."

"Perhaps for some weeks," Steve suggested. "What about Assembly, though?"

Charles chewed another biscuit, thinking. He'd been making do with single-vote proxies, who couldn't be used twice in a row, and that had been a mess even with him on the ground to direct things. If he really planned to sit out Assembly for several weeks – and it was a measure of how ill he felt, that the prospect filled him with relief instead of panic – he needed a long-term proxy, and his usual allies wouldn't do for that. A long-term proxy, in addition to being a Genoshan of noble blood, could not hold a vote in his or her own right.

Outside the parlor door, there was another stampede of squealing children, followed closely by heavy adult footsteps and a growling rhyme about child-eating androids.

"What was that you said earlier," Charles murmured thoughtfully, "about Tony needing more to do?"

***

On the whole it's working out well. In some ways Tony seems a born politician – he certainly has talent with fast-talk, and his own flamboyant form of charisma – though his diplomatic skills could use work. A lot of work. I told him if he gets thrown out of one more session, I'm replacing him with Emma Frost.

Sorry, Emma Lehnsherr. Forgive me for not wanting to think of her as your wife any more than I must.

It's been marvelous staying at Steve's estate. Steve and Tony are fantastic company, and the children love exploring a new place and dashing about with Peter and Jamie. With the relaxation of being far away from Sebastian and Victor, my health has improved. I had hardly realized how much I dreaded seeing them around every corner until I left. Without them I am sleeping easier, eating better, and have stopped picking so at the half-healed flesh of my hand.

Unfortunately, it cannot last. There is a series of particularly sensitive votes approaching that I'm reluctant to trust Tony with, and in any case Sebastia grows impatient with my absence. He has written to tell me so, couched all in terms of concern for my welfare, of course. I choose to take it as proof that I am a threat to him, for him to be so uneasy when I am out of sight. I would not like for Sebastian's wrath to fall upon Steve for sheltering me, so I will return to the city at the end of this week – likely before you get this letter, considering it must travel by way of Moira. I will be back in my usual rooms well in time for your arrival at the end of the month.

And now I find this letter must be longer than I intended, for I cannot close without giving you some idea of what you can expect from me when you arrive. Sit back and relax, love, this may take a little while...

***

For several moments Charles was quite sure he was dreaming. It wasn't unusual for him to wake, or rather think he had woken, with the ghost of Erik's body curled around him. He had learned to enjoy these dreams for what they were rather than wallow in disappointment, so when he opened his eyes to dawn's light in the window and warm arms around him, warm lips on the nape of his neck, he turned to meet them with a smile.

It didn't take him long to realize something was different. For one thing, there was an excitement and urgency to Erik's manner that seldom appeared in the dreams, which were usually interludes of lazy domesticity. For another, Erik's hands were cold, and he smelled more than a little like sweat and horses.

Charles jerked back from the kiss with a wet pop. "You – you're real, you're real,, you're actually here!"

"I got away two days early," Erik whispered, stroking Charles's cheek lightly with one finger, and staring at him hungrily. His smile was an unbearably tender thing, fragile as spun glass. "I couldn't stay another hour – Charles, I've missed you so much—"

"Not half as much as I've missed you!" He barely had time to get the words out before his mouth was otherwise occupied. He stopped trying to talk, there was far too much else to do, so much skin to touch, and oh that went both ways, didn't it? Oh. Erik had apparently shed all his clothing before crawling into bed with him; now it was Charles's turn. He raised his arms to facilitate the removal of his nightshirt, and moaned as Erik began mouthing his way down the newly-exposed chest.

Somewhere in the periphery of Charles's attention, Moira made an exasperated sound from the children's bedroom doorway and closed the door.

Erik chuckled into Charles's skin, kissed the wedding ring on its chain around Charles's neck, then shifted down to nuzzle his rounded belly. "Hello in there," he murmured. "You've caused quite a bit of trouble, little one. What have you to say for yourself?"

Charles laughed as the unborn baby squirmed noticeably under his skin.

"Ah, well then," Erik said, "I suppose I can forgive you." He pressed a long, hard kiss to Charles's belly, then crawled back up to kiss his mouth. "I want to see the children and hear all about everything," he murmured between kisses, one arm around Charles's back while the other hand slid down his hip, "but first things first, hm? You made me a lot of promises in your last letter..."

"Of course." Charles nipped gently at Erik's upper lip. "One must keep one's promises, after all."

Somewhere in the minutes that followed, Charles would realize later, he heard a click, as of perhaps a door opening, but paid it no mind at all. He told himself later it wouldn't have changed anything. It was possible that was even true.

As it was, the first inkling they had of Sebastian's presence was when he sank a knife into Erik's back.

Chapter Text

For the first few moments, Charles could only stare in confusion. Erik's cry of pain, his frantic scramble from the bed, blood suddenly spattering the sheets – none of it made any sense, what—

Then he saw the wound, like a ragged bloody mouth next to Erik's right shoulderblade, blood pouring down his back – and Sebastian with the knife in his hand, his eyes blazing with rage.

For the next few moments, Charles was certain it was a nightmare, of course it was a nightmare. It had started like his usual dreams and then thrown Charles's worst fear into the light – what a cruel trick for his own mind to play on him.

Erik staggered away from the bed, dodging another knife thrust from Sebastian, and metal scraped as he pulled his sword free of the heaped clothes on the floor. A clumsy sweep of the sword was enough to block Sebastian's next attack, but the effort nearly cost him his grip on the hilt. His arm didn't seem to be working right, Charles saw, and his hand was slippery with blood.

Cold hands. Smell of sweat and horses. This was real.

Sebastian was screaming something about betrayal and the hearts of thieves. He drew his own sword with one hand, keeping the blood-wet knife in the other, and lunged again.

"Sebastian, stop!" Charles shouted – uselessly, pointlessly, Sebastian was focused entirely on Erik and he'd never listen to Charles anyway. What could he do?

In that moment, he would have paid any price short of his children's lives to have the use of his legs back. But they remained unresponsive weights, trailing behind him as he dragged himself over the bed to a pillow, which he heaved at Sebastian's head. Any distraction might be enough—

Sebastian batted the pillow away and turned on Charles with a snarl. "You, my dear traitor, stay quiet and still like a good whore and I'll deal with you lat—"

Erik's sword snaked through Sebastian's distracted defense, and the rest of the King's words were lost in a cry of mingled rage and pain as Erik left a scarlet slash down his chest – not deep enough to put him down, apparently, since he threw himself back into the fight with a will. His attacks, Charles noted, were aimed largely at Erik's exposed privates. Of course they were.

Charles's crutches were propped against the footboard. Could he reach—

The door to the children's bedroom came open, barely an inch, and Charles could see one wide brown eye peering through. Moira. The children. He waved her back frantically stay back stay away! She shut the door, and he might have heard it lock between Sebastian's incoherent raving and Erik's labored breaths.

Charles tried to crawl toward his crutches without taking his eyes off the swordfight. Erik had switched his sword to his left hand, and was visibly flagging, blood streaking the floor around him. His face was set in a balance of grim determination and almost gleeful bloodthirst. He was going to kill Sebastian if he could.

And if he did, they'd both be dead by nightfall.

Maybe not, Charles told himself, maybe we could – we could run or even – stay and stand our ground, take the throne— It was so terribly tempting to think of Sebastian dead at last, gone, where he couldn't level any more horror at them as long as they lived...

I believed in the sanctity of life once, came a tiny, despairing whisper from somewhere in Charles's chest. Even his. What happened to me?

He knew the answer. Sebastian had happened to him.

He reached his crutches at last, but there was nothing like time to get the braces onto his legs – could he even—

A great splintering crash resounded through the room from the other side of the children's bedroom door.

That room, Charles remembered with a faint sort of amusement, had once been connected to the one beside it – a door that Sebastian had had sealed, when Charles took the suite, since the connecting room belonged to someone else.

It seemed Moira had found a way to get the children out.

Charles's attention whipped back to the fight at a strangled cry of pain. Sebastian, perhaps taking advantage of the distraction, had knocked the sword from Erik's hand, and the next slash of his sword landed on the arm Erik raised to protect his face.

Charles felt a scream – probably Erik's name – rip from his throat as Erik fell to the floor. With only the vaguest idea of how he did it – there was at least one crutch involved – Charles launched himself across the room and tore his fingernails into Sebastian's face.

Sebastian swore and threw Charles to the floor. "You want my attention, Charles? Very well, it's all yours!"

He gathered Charles into his arms, fighting and spitting, and threw him onto the bed to straddle him.

"Touch me again, you bastard, go right ahead," Charles snarled, and smashed his head forward into Sebastian's nose.

The wet crunch was rather satisfying, the sudden gush of blood into his face less so – Charles choked, turned his face instinctively away – had it turned the other way for him when Sebastian's fist hit it, and before the resulting stars had faded from his vision, found Sebastian's hands clasped tight around his throat.

Charles could feel some part of his mind whirling at the speed of panic, yet his senses seemed suddenly slowed, everything brilliantly clear and sharp. His pulse was a loud, throbbing thing filling his body, an agonizing pressure. He could see one edge of Erik's body on the floor, unmoving, blood slowly spreading around it. He could hear the endless stream of profanities spilling from Sebastian's lips, growing more obscene by the second as Charles fought to breathe. Blood dripped from Sebastian's face onto Charles's chest. One hand was trapped painfully under the weight of Sebastian's knee. Charles flung the other in all directions, clumsy and frantic, feeling for anything, anything – he caught the edge of the shelf above the bed, maybe he could pull himself away—

The shelf collapsed under his pull, wood splintering, books and candles and knick-knacks raining around him.

The gun. He'd hidden the gun Storm gave him in a little enameled box on that bedside shelf. Dark clouds swirling through his vision, Charles fumbled frantically at the tumble of objects. Found the box. Found the gun.

Pressed it up under Sebastian's chin and cocked it.

Sebastian froze, his grip on Charles's throat loosening. Air came in a cold, painful rush. Charles gasped and shook but kept the gun aimed squarely at Sebastian's brain, by way of the rest of his head.

"You wouldn't dare." Sebastian's eyes belied the confidence in his voice.

"What exactly," Charles rasped, "do you imagine I have to lose right now?"

Sebastian stared for another moment, then, when Charles nudged the gun barrel forward, climbed slowly off the bed, hands raised.

Breathing hurt, like handfuls of razor wire moving up and down his throat. Charles winced, coughed—

Sebastian moved like lightning in the half-second of distraction, snatching up his dropped sword and resting its point in the hollow of Erik's throat.

"Drop the gun, darling," Sebastian purred, "or your paramour dies."

Charles bit back a curse, but his only movement was to adjust his aim. "On the contrary, Sebastian, drop the sword or you die." Erik hadn't moved. Why hadn't Erik moved?

"You have no way out of this situation, Charles," Sebastian said. "Thus far I see no reason not to have you both strung up for treason. I wonder if your feet would still twitch?"

"If you kill me," Charles rested a hand on his rounded belly, "you have no heir. And if you kill Erik, I will kill you."

"You can't kill me without killing yourself, have you forgotten?"

"If Erik dies, I won't care."

"The children—"

"Will be exiled, yes – far away from you, and well provided for, do you think I didn't make arrangements for that long ago? Not actually much of a threat, Sebastian. So much for your contingency plan."

Sebastian's gaze was locked on Charles's belly now, and Charles wondered if he was putting the pieces together, the truth of this child's paternity. His nakedness hadn't been relevant until now, but suddenly he ardently wished he were covered.

"I suppose it wouldn't do to endanger the heir," Sebastian muttered. "Not until we know... Perhaps we can come to an arrangement, then, Charles?"

Charles felt something cold trickle into his stomach. Sebastian was smiling now, not like a man who wanted to come to an arrangement, but like a man who had won. Like a man – because this was Sebastian – who would make any promise while Charles was holding a gun, and then do what he wanted when the gun was down. 'Arrangements' were for people who could trust each other's word.

The cold trickle was panic, and it was clawing its way back up from his stomach now, the gun wavering as his hand trembled. Erik wasn't moving, and if Sebastian just kept the stalemate long enough for Erik to bleed out, he'd be halfway to victory.

They both jumped when bedroom door slid open.

"Good morning, Majesty and Highness," Azazel said. "Bozhe moi, so many naked people! And all this blood! Sebastian, put away that sword before you hurt someone."

"This is no time for your humor, Azazel," Sebastian growled.

Charles met Azazel's eyes and, throwing all caution and dignity to the wind, begged as silently and abjectly as he could, Help us, help us.

As Azazel closed the door behind him, Charles thought he caught a glimpse of Moira in the corridor.

"May I assume the situation is... exactly as it seems, then?" Azazel said, glancing down at Erik.

"If it seems," Sebastian said, "that my consort and my Paladin are guilty of the darkest treason, then yes, that is correct."

Azazel stepped delicately through the room, examining their tableau with bright curiosity. "Sir Erik, you live?" he asked, nudging Erik with his toe.

The answering groan, hardly a breath, nearly sent Charles reeling, lightheaded with relief. He could not contain a ragged sob, but he steadied himself before Sebastian could act on his distraction, keeping the gun trained on his king's face.

"You seem to be at quite a stalemate," Azazel said at last, and gave a firm nod. "Negotiation, then."

Sebastian growled.

"Now, now." Azazel's voice was brisk but sympathetic, as if he were talking a child out of a tantrum. "You will not win here, my king."

"I might," Sebastian said between gritted teeth, "if you intervened on my behalf."

"I do not wish to be shot, my king," Azazel said with a bark of laughter. "Besides, Sebastian, you know I always do precisely as I please." There was no laughter in his voice now, and Charles felt his eyes widen – had Sebastian gone a little pale? "So, negotiation. Minimum requirements, first. Prince Charles, I assume you wish to live?"

"Yes. My life and Erik's – that is the minimum requirement. Non-negotiable."

"Fair enough. And yours, Sebastian?"

Sebastian smiled, all gleaming teeth, eyes bright and mad. "I make them wish they were dead."

Azazel clapped his hands. "Excellent! You see, now we have material to work with. We negotiate!"

***

"Sit up now, Erik."

The pain of being jostled roused Erik from the haze of blood loss. He opened his eyes and pulled himself slowly upright, feeling bandages stretch and pull across his skin. When had he been bandaged?

"Good news, Erik," Azazel was saying, and yes, they were still in Charles's chamber. "You are not to be hanged for treason. In fact, none of you are to make any attempt on each other's lives. I will enforce this. On all parties." His ice-blue eyes, so striking in the bizarrely red face, took each of their gazes in turn, so cold that none could doubt the nature of that enforcement. "In exchange for your life, Erik, you are no longer knight, no longer Paladin, no longer Genoshan at all. You will be outside Genosha's borders by nightfall, and you will never return, on pain of death."

Erik took a few unsteady breaths, dimly aware that his entire life had just been stripped away from him. His voice came out hoarse. "What about Charles?"

"Charles will stay here. He will never leave the city without his husband's permission, and he will give up his seat in Assembly."

Erik wouldn't have thought there was much blood left in him lose, but he felt it drain from his face nonetheless. The idea of leaving Charles here – to bear Sebastian's rage alone – "No! No – M-Majesty, my king, the blame is mine, Charles did not – I forced him, he is innocent, I will gladly offer my life, only don't—"

"Erik, stop." Charles's voice was a weary whisper. He was still on the bed, with a blanket drawn over his lap. Were those bruises on his neck?

"No! Charles, no, I won't leave—"

"You will, actually," Sebastian said, smile glittering through a mask of blood. Broken nose? "And you will do so immediately. Out of Genosha by nightfall, or I've every right to tear you to pieces."

"Get up, Erik," Azazel said, and half-hauled him to his feet. "Here, tunic and cloak – after all, we are not causing a scandal, hm? Cover up."

Soon he was something-like-dressed, though his efforts to help the process were impeded by the unnerving lack of response from his right arm. He could hardly tear his eyes away from Charles, who stared back in helpless agony, silent and still.

"Sebastian, he needs a doctor," Charles said.

"He'll need a pine box if I'm still looking at him in five seconds."

"Go now," Azazel said, nudging him toward the door. "Go."

"Go," Charles whispered, and then, a voiceless motion of his mouth – Go to Emma. I'll find you.

Erik swallowed hard, tried to swallow dizziness and despair with it, and let that silent promise keep him on his feet, get him out the door.

Moira caught him in the corridor, got a shoulder beneath him when he would have sagged against the wall.

"Erik, what's happening in there?"

"Get me to Emma," he said. "I'll explain on the way."

If he could stay conscious that long.

***

Azazel ushered Sebastian out of the room not long after Erik, and Charles was left in the bloodstained wreckage of his room, trembling and naked and alone. He could feel bruises blooming around his neck, heavy and hot as if Sebastian's fingers were still there.

He had set the gun aside, at Azazel's insistence, during negotiations. He picked it up now, unsteadily, and opened the cylinder.

Empty. As he'd thought.

Hysterical laughter bubbled painfully up through his chest and throat. For all they had just lost – and right now he could not even comprehend much he had lost – he had gained them their lives, at least. With an unloaded gun.

The knock at the door startled him, thankfully, out of the burgeoning hysteria. "Your Highness?" a voice called softly through the door. "Your Highness, Lord Azazel said you might need my services?"

"Dr. Henri! Yes, come in." Charles began looking around for clothes as the doctor came into the room, his eyes going quite round at the blood and mess. "I assure you, I'm well, doctor," Charles said, "if you will only help me dress. But I'm quite sure you are needed at the Lehnsherr residence."

 

Charles had no doubt that Sebastian would have guards on his every move soon enough, but at the moment, Dr. Henri said, the king's spectacularly broken nose was being tended by another physician. The only obstacle to getting out of the palace was Charles's own very confused valet, who of course was a spy for Sebastian and had clearly received some garbled order to keep an eye on Charles. Escaping his supervision proved as easy as tasking him with getting the unholy mess of the bedchamber cleaned up, while Charles went with Dr. Henri "to his office for treatment."

Erik was laid out in a bedroom when they arrived at Emma's house, already being tended, though the frantic physician looked more than happy to have Dr. Henri's help.

"That gash on his arm goes to the bone – I can't get a good look at the one in his back – he's going in and out of consciousness – do you know his blood type?"

"I'm a universal donor," Dr. Henri said, rolling up his sleeves. "Get started on those stitches. Please excuse us, Your Highness, my lady. I'm sure you'll be more comfortable waiting outside."

"Erik..." But Erik didn't stir, and Charles forced himself to go along when Emma tugged his wheelchair toward the door.

"This way," Emma said, and led him through several corridors to a tiny house-chapel, where there were already candles lit at the shrine, and a slender brunette woman on her knees.

"Moira! Oh, my clever Moira, going out through the wall, I'm so glad you—"

"Charles!" Somewhat to his surprise, she flung her arms around him.

"I'm all right, love, really." Charles returned the embrace with a will, finding a startling amount of comfort in it. "Oh, Moira. Thank God for you, Moira. Was it you that brought Azazel?"

"Yes," Moira said into his shoulder. "His rooms are nearby – I knew you had said he would help the children if the worst happened – the children are with Lord Janos now. Did I do right?" She pulled back to see his reaction.

"Yes, of course you did."

"I worried, after – despite everything he seems loyal to Sebastian, and I worried—"

"I'm not sure loyalty really applies to Azazel at all. No, you did right. Azazel's one of the few people Sebastian will listen to, and for whatever reason – maybe it just amuses him – he has some interest in helping me and Erik. He probably saved both our lives today. The children are well?"

"Shaken, but not hurt. I didn't know what to tell them."

"They ought to have one of us with them, do you mind—"

"No, of course, I was about to suggest it. Is Sir Erik...?"

"Under the doctors' care." Charles swallowed. "Is that for him?" he asked, nodding at the candle Moira had been kneeling before.

Moira hesitated. "For you, actually." She kissed his cheek, then hurried toward the door, limping a little – from kicking through the wall, perhaps. "I'll see to the children."

"See to that ankle, too," Charles called, and she made a vaguely affirmative noise before commandeering a servant to see her out.

Emma was watching Moira's retreat with thoughtful eyes, but Charles hardly noticed, busily lighting his own candle for Erik. Emma joined him, and soon the tiny chamber was bright with unsteady little flames.

"What happened, Charles?" Emma asked. "Erik wasn't particularly coherent, and your little dowager didn't know very much."

Charles closed his eyes, and began, haltingly, to explain. If they were to have Emma's help – and they would very much need Emma's help – it was time to give her the full truth. She surely suspected most of it, and he didn't have the energy to lie, anyway.

Emma showed no sign of surprise at any of it, though her face tightened at the news of Erik's banishment.

"I suppose that explains the royal goons lurking outside my home," she said.

"Here to harry him out of town, I suppose."

"On the contrary, I expect they'll be doing their best to delay him."

"Ah. Of course."

"What is the public story to be, then?" she asked. "I'll not volunteer for duty as Poor Lady Emma, wife of the exiled traitor."

"I doubt that will happen. For Sebastian to disgrace Erik would necessitate confessing he was cuckolded. I'll wager the story is to be no story at all, merely his mysterious disappearance. Sebastian will need a new Paladin..." His throat closed. He knew exactly who that would be.

"I believe I can handle a mysterious disappearance," Emma said.

"I suppose you'll want to divorce him. Desertion, all right and tight..."

"Oh, not at all, sugar," she said, smiling. "I am very much where I want to be in life, and dear Erik is a key part of that. Without him, I might find myself under the power of... men considerably less pliable."

Pliable had never been Erik's key descriptor, in Charles's experience. He found himself just exhausted and wrung out enough to say, "I've no idea how to feel about you, you know. Whether to hope you love him or hope you don't."

Emma gave a brittle sort of laugh. "Be of good cheer, my prince. I will never be so foolish as to love anyone the way my idiot husband loves you. Only see where it's gotten you both."

 

When Dr. Henri sent word for them to return, Charles beat Emma to the bedroom door, wheelchair and all. While Emma stayed in the corridor to speak to the doctors, Charles pushed past them, to where Erik lay in the bed.

He looked astonishingly fragile – certainly not the bloodless white of before, but still pale and weak. Azazel's rudimentary makeshift bandages had been replaced by thick, clean-white wrappings, neat and secure. There were an awful lot of them. He was propped on his side – to keep pressure off the knife wound, Charles supposed – and his eyes were closed.

"We've given him a bit of laudanum, for the pain," Dr. Henri said from the doorway. "Not much – at his insistence – so you should be able to rouse him."

Indeed, Charles had hardly touched Erik's hand before his eyes opened, though they seemed cloudy.

"...Charles? Charles!"

Erik pulled him in, and he went willingly, but kept the kiss short and gentle. He almost feared to do otherwise, with Erik in this condition.

"How do you feel? Can you sit up?" He couldn't possibly ride – surely Emma could give him a carriage...

Slowly, grimacing, Erik pushed himself into a sitting position, favoring his left arm. When he swayed forward, Charles caught his shoulders; Erik seemed content to stay there, leaning their foreheads together. He raised his left hand to Charles's cheek, touching lightly, so lightly.

He's not trying, Charles thought, suddenly frightened. He's not even going to try.

"Erik, you have to get up. We have to get you into a carriage. The Wakandan border is your only hope of getting out of Genosha by nightfall, and it's already mid-day—"

"Do I look like I'm going anywhere, Charles?"

Charles slapped him across the face.

Erik reared back, mouth open. His eyes had finally focused.

"Yes, you are going," Charles hissed. "You will keep yourself alive, and you will come back to me. Do you understand?"

Erik took a deep breath, his spine straightening. Charles held his gaze until he nodded. "I understand."

"Promise me."

"I promise."

This time the kiss was neither short nor gentle, and Charles came out of it with his lips scraped and stinging, his scalp smarting from pulled hair. Erik still had one hand tangled in his shirtfront, and he made no move to dislodge it.

"Come with me," Erik whispered against his lips. "Come with me. The children, all of us."

Charles thought he might actually die from the pain of saying, "I can't, Erik, you know we can't—"

"We can protect each other. He wants to keep us apart, Charles, don't let him." Erik kissed him, over and over, pleading. "Come with me. Or let me stay with you, I don't care, but don't send me away, don't tell me to leave you."

"Stop it!" Charles fought to keep a sob out of his voice. "You have to leave or he'll kill you, you have to leave quickly and you won't get far with two infants and a pregnant paraplegic as baggage. You know he'd hunt us to the ends of the earth and I won't be responsible for that. Now pull yourself together, you have a long way to travel before nightfall."

It took him the space of a long, shuddering breath, but Erik steadied himself. He offered one more kiss – agonized agreement, sweet and soft. Then he sat back and took the chain off his neck.

Charles had only a moment to be confused and hurt before Erik slipped the ring off the chain and put it on his finger, setting Emma's diamond on the bedside table.

Why not? There was little point in secrecy now. Sebastian knew. And he could bar Charles from Assembly and keep him a virtual prisoner in his own home, but he couldn't make Charles wear his ring, not one more minute. Charles sent the ruby skittering across the table, replaced it with Erik's sapphire, and fought tears as Erik trailed kisses along his ring finger, palm, and wrist.

Charles had exchanged wedding vows with Sebastian some seven years ago now, knowing neither of them meant it. He meant every word of them now, as he whispered them to Erik. "To have and to hold you, to honor you, to treasure you, to be at your side..." His throat closed before he could finish.

"—in sorrow and in joy," Erik continued, "in the good times and in the bad, and to love and cherish you always, all the days of my life."

"The carriage is waiting, Erik," Emma called from the doorway, her voice unusually gentle. "It's time to go."

 

The carriage in Emma's courtyard loomed like a dragon in Charles's eyes, a monster that would carry Erik away in its belly. A muscular footman heaved a trunk onto the top, where several others were already lashed into place, then took his seat next to the driver. Both were armed, as were the handful of horsemen gathering around the carriage.

"I've packed you food and clothing," Emma said. "Genoshan money will be little good where you're going, but jewels are acceptable everywhere. My men will see you safe to an inn just the other side of the border." Moving briskly, she buckled a sword around his waist. Charles wondered where it had come from; Erik's own long-carried weapon had been left in the pool of blood in his bedchamber.

Erik, swaying slightly on his feet, brought her hand to his lips. "I've been little enough husband to you, Emma, to deserve such effort."

"Thus the basis of your appeal." Emma raised an eyebrow. "Your funeral would be expensive, too. Now get in before you tear your stitches and bleed away all my hard work."

"Yes, dear," Erik said with a half-smile, but instead of stepping into the carriage, he sank painfully to his knees beside Charles's wheelchair.

Charles was only dimly aware of the wet tracks down his face, the white-knuckle grip on his lap-blanket. Erik stared at him, wordless, eyes hungry and over-bright. Charles released the lap-blanket to reach out and trail his fingertips over Erik's face, memorizing every bump and line and angle.

"Give my love to the children," Erik said hoarsely. "All of them." He spread a warm hand against Charles's belly, the child he might never meet.

"Always," Charles choked. "Always."

One last kiss, then, deep and desperate but oddly gentle, neither of them willing to hurt the other now, even for pleasure's sake.

"Remember your promise, Erik."

"I'll come back to you." He brushed his lips over Charles's knuckles, someday and somehow hanging heavy in the air.

Then the footman was helping Erik into the carriage, and the carriage was rolling out of the courtyard, already moving at an almost dangerous speed. Erik held his gaze through the window, until the last possible moment.

And then the carriage had passed out of sight, into the street, under a high sun that gave no warmth at all.

Chapter Text

The Court rumor mill had whispers, soon enough, of the King's Paladin seen leaving the city when he should have been nowhere near it; whispers, too, from servants who cleaned a great mess of blood from the Prince Consort's chambers. Some said the Prince had miscarried, and that was why he lay in bed seeing no one at all, hardly even his own children. Other variations of the gossip included the bloody weapons on Charles's floor, and grew uncomfortably close to the truth – all the more so when several weeks had passed, and word came from the Genoshan forces in Essex that their commander had never returned from his furlough.

"Poor Lieutenant Howlett is beside himself," Moira said to Charles, stroking his back as he lay shaking after the latest round of vomiting. "I won't tell him anything without your permission, of course, but he's more than earned our trust, and the men need to know they can't expect Erik back."

"I suppose you're right," Charles croaked, "They should have w-what w-warning they can against the new Paladin. It's no mystery who he'll b-be."

The stutter was new – a sign, Dr. Henri said, of his mind trying to process all the recent trauma – and Charles knew it worried Moira. Everything about his current condition worried Moira, and Dr. Henri too, because in truth he was not any more ill than he had been before – but now he stayed in bed, curled around his belly, and stared out the window while the children stayed large-eyed and quiet, and Tony Stark ran wild in Assembly.

Tony, at least, was left to him; Charles tried to take comfort in that. At first Sebastian had wanted to name his own proxy, to take the place Charles had agreed – had been forced – to give up, but Azazel had talked him down from that. Charles had a proxy in place whose weaknesses Sebastian already knew; better to let him stay, Azazel argued, than draw attention with a blatant ousting.

"I should talk to Tony," Charles said, easing himself very cautiously into a sitting position, and taking the glass of water Moira offered. "He has no idea he's now become my permanent proxy... I must talk to him."

"I'll send him word," Moira said, obviously excited that he was showing some interest in the outside world again. "Should he come this afternoon?"

"Evening, I think," Charles said, rubbing circles into his belly. "I seem to feel strongest in the evenings. Where are the children now?"

"Hank is sleeping; the rest are playing with Janos and Azazel's boys. The older ones are back from Wakanda for a while, and their fathers are so excited – do you remember me telling you? Armando and Angel like to talk to them in their home language and get all the news from home."

"That's marvelous, I'm very g-glad." He could not bear to think of their foster arrangement with Wakanda, it was too close a connection to Krismas and the conception of the little tadpole under his skin. Three more months before he could meet his child – two thirds of the way there!

"Give my love to the children," whispered a voice in his memory, with the ghost of a warm hand on his belly. "All of them."

Grief and longing threatened to suck him down into the bedclothes again, but he took a deep, shuddering breath and stood against them. If Erik were here, he'd be the first to hand Charles his shoes and tell him to get to work. Genuine illness had given him too good an excuse to wallow; it was time to fight back.

"Moira," he said, "I'd like to put on my shoes, if you don't mind." He pointed toward the gold-buttoned ones Erik had given him for Krismas.

Moira bit her lip. "Charles... I know it's frustrating but Dr. Henri said trying to walk right now—"

"Yes, yes, I know. I'm not trying to walk. I want to wear them anyway."

"Well... very well."

Charles couldn't help raising an eyebrow, as Moira applied the shoes to his limply uncooperative feet, and reflecting that the Prince Consort shouldn't have to wheedle his servants' permission to get his shoes on. Of course, even laying aside her noble blood, Moira was far more than a servant; she had long since become Charles's dearest friend and essentially his co-parent. And at this point she was regularly taking care of things he should have had a staff of three or four to deal with.

"I should have a valet," he said.

"You do have a valet," Moira said, raising an eyebrow as she buttoned up his second shoe.

"The little spy Sebastian hired does not count. I won't have someone around me that I can't trust. I'm getting a valet I can actually use. What's Sebastian going to do about it, throw me down the stairs? Have the poor spy sent in this afternoon, I'll give him a generous farewell package. I should write to Coulson, he usually has a few wounded soldiers hanging about, looking for situations. I wonder if I should have a secretary?" It had never seemed wise, before, to have anyone around who felt justified in looking through Charles's letters... He stopped and swallowed hard, refusing to consider whether he would ever, ever again have a letter that couldn't be discovered.

"The valet this afternoon, and Tony this evening," Moira said. "And what of the morning?"

"A bath," Charles decided, electing not to think of how long he'd been without one. "A decent breakfast, and the Assembly minutes. And..." He looked around at his chambers in their long-hated, Sebastian-proscribed arrangement, the bed in plain view from the front door. "After that, if you might gather a few strong footmen with good backs, I believe it's time to rearrange the furniture."

***

An honest man, Erik reflected, was one who stayed bought. The keeper of the inn just outside the Genoshan border took a mighty helping of Emma's jewels with every sign of eager greed, but in return Erik received good accomodations, unstinting meals, and competent medical care. Even when fever left him delirious for days, an easy mark if there ever was one, he came back to himself to find all his belongings still in place, and a hired nurse at his bedside with a bowl of soup.

Recovery was not swift. Erik was a soldier, and it was foreign to his nature to lie in bed indulging his own weakness – but what else was there for him to do? He had no men to command, no enemy to guard against, no husband and children to treasure and protect. He had nothing.

(And where was Charles now? What was he enduring even now at the hands of the cuckolded king? And the children – would Sebastian vent his anger at Erik on Erik's children? Horrible possibilities haunted his thoughts like waking nightmares.)

When he left Essex for furlough, he had taken with him only three things of any value -- his horse, left in Emma's stable; his sword, left in a pool of blood on Charles's floor; and the book Charles had given him for Krismas, The Lord of the Rings. It had been in the pocket of his tunic, and somehow remained there when Azazel wrapped him clumsily back in clothes and ejected him from the room, remained there all the way to Emma's house, and been packed into the trunks Emma stacked on the carriage. Erik had wept when he found it, alarming his nurse, and stayed in bed for hours, running his fingers back and forth across the inscription.

I love you to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach.

It was reading the book itself, however, that brought him slowly up from the darkness that threatened to swallow him. Charles had been right thinking he would like the character of Aragorn, the exiled king. Not that they were that much alike; Aragorn had always lived in hiding, denied the rights of his birth, whereas Erik had been born to little, but earned a position of respect and then had it stripped from him; Aragorn was separated from his beloved by circumstance, and Erik by another's deliberate malice. The comparison between them was limited, but Erik couldn’t help noting with keen interest that Aragorn didn't sit around moaning about the crown he should have worn. Instead he did all he could with what he had, whether it was thanklessly patrolling the wilderness for half-forgotten dangers, or fighting to destroy the enemy's greatest weapon.

What could Erik do?

He had never been anything but a soldier. His only marketable skills involved weaponry that his dominant arm wouldn’t currently support. Still, he had talent and experience with strategy, tactics, and leadership, and could be useful with a gun if he could get one. Almost any army would likely take him on and at least see whether he earned his keep. But every part of Erik recoiled from the idea of hiring himself out as a mercenary. Erik had never flinched from shedding blood, but always in the service of his country and people, or to preserve his own life. He'd known mercenaries who were decent men, and thought of their situation as a simple skills-for-hire transaction, but Erik couldn't imagine himself doing the same. If he had anything left, it was his honor, and he'd starve before he gave that up.

Here in Wakanda, he might go to Storm and Black Panther for help – but it wasn't help he needed, truthfully. His needs were well-addressed here, thanks to Emma's jewels. He needed direction, purpose, and if the Chieftains gave him any permanent engagement it would draw Sebastian's wrath. He could not stay indefinitely in Wakanda.

In the meantime, his men in Essex were likely just now moving from irritation to unease about their commander's failure to return from furlough. Over and over again he was tempted to rejoin them, and to hell with Sebastian's banishment – but the King surely had spies in the ranks, and getting knifed in his sleep would mean breaking his promise to Charles.

While reading at the window one afternoon, he wondered idly if Sauron, the great villain of Tolkien's book, were really much worse than King Nathaniel of Essex. Well, of course he was, surely – if Sauron's goal was not the extermination of all life, it seemed clear that the unwholesome effects of his rule would have that effect anyway. Yet somehow it was Nathaniel's "purification" policies, his determination to cull his people like a gardener pulling weeds, that provoked Erik's rage. He hoped Howlett was continuing the secret measures they had undertaken to aid the revolutionaries.

Wait... Essex. The revolution against King Nathaniel.

Erik smiled and set down his book. Now there was a war he'd fight for free.

***

The King's "investigation" into the whereabouts of his missing Paladin turned up exactly one piece of evidence, a young soldier who testified that Erik left for furlough several days early, and confided that he was going to the islands and did not intend to return. Charles hoped Sebastian had paid the young man handsomely; his performance was fairly good. Two months after Erik's banishment – the moment it could be considered proper – Sebastian appointed Victor Creed as Acting Paladin, and sent him off to Essex.

Charles made no attempt to fight the appointment; it was the King's choice right and tight – but he did campaign to at least send Sir Victor with advisors, since however great a warrior he stood, he had never led a campaign. Even Sebastian's staunchest supporters got behind that, and in the end the new Paladin left with Lord Azazel at his elbow. Charles's feelings about that were quite mixed. He trusted Azazel's ability to control Victor, but not his inclination – likewise his intelligence as a strategist, but not his intentions. He hardly even knew whether he was losing an ally or merely a wild card. In any case, he had done the best he could for Erik's men; Sir Victor of House Creed was their lookout now, and Charles could sleep that much easier at night.

Or so he thought.

He slept now in a lovely single-person-sized bed installed in his former study. The front chamber's monstrosity was gone forever. He had watched it go with an unexpected pang, for in the end he'd spent as many nights with Erik there as with Sebastian – but the sight of the blood soaked into the mattress had steeled his resolve. He was quite happy with his cozy new bedchamber. It felt much safer than sleeping out in the open.

Until the night after Victor's departure, when he woke there with Sebastian looming over him in the dark, delicately stroking the dead lumps of his legs.

"Some husbands would find it hurtful," he purred, "you rearranging the house without so much as a by-your-leave."

"Ah, Sebastian. Could have sworn I locked that door."

"You did. I think you'll find that lock is faulty." From which Charles gathered it was now broken. "Really, my dear," Sebastian continued, his fingers trailing up Charles's legs to circle his belly, "one would almost think you didn't want me around." He leaned down to kiss Charles, breath heavy with alcohol.

Charles calmly pushed him back, and propped himself up on his arms. "I don't, of course. I can only assume that's the basis of my appeal, but don't you ever grow tired of the silly game? Wouldn't you like to lie with someone who doesn't want you to drop dead? I'm sure you could find one somewhere."

Sebastian's face twisted into a snarl, but before he could speak, Charles continued. "No? You don't think so? It has to be me, does it? Oh, very well." He lay back down, rucked up his nightshirt and hooked his arms under his knees, pulling his legs up out of the way. "Have at it, then," he said in his boredest tones. "There's some lubricant in that drawer there. Just don't take all night about it, I am rather tired."

And there came the fist, right across one cheekbone, then the other, one two three. A pause, just long enough to make Charles think he was finished – and then one more, and all the stoic intentions in the world couldn't keep him from crying out. But perhaps that was for the best; it seemed to satisfy Sebastian, give him some feeling of victory.

"Not tonight then, darling, if you're tired," he said, kissing Charles's forehead and tucking the covers around him. "I'll see you in the morning."

And he did see Charles in the morning, breakfasting calmly in the banquet hall as he nursed baby Hank. Once upon a time, Charles would have hidden from the public eye until the bruises on his face faded; no longer. None, he knew, would dare ask him about them, but it was interesting to see which of the Court members' eyes flicked from the bruises to Sebastian's hands, surmising – and which of them then reacted with shock, unease, outrage, and which with satisfaction or approval. There were a few surprises on each side, all of them educational.

Besides, he couldn't very well hide in his rooms today. The workmen were very busy there, replacing the broken door with one reinforced with steel.

***

Joining the Essex revolution proved more difficult than Erik anticipated. To start with, Essex was on the opposite side of Genosha from Wakanda; he had to travel the long way around, by boat, which took a solid fortnight and most of his remaining jewels. Then, once he arrived, he spent weeks in a shabby boarding house, trying to ask the right questions of the right people. In the end luck was with him; the landlord's son's lover's brother got Erik invited to the "Community Improvement" meetings that disguised revolutionary gatherings.

He only missed one meeting; the night of Raven's second birthday, which he spent getting stinking drunk alone in his room.

He ran out of money shortly thereafter. When he hadn't eaten in two days and was facing eviction from his shabby rooms, Erik took a leap of faith, and came clean to the Community Improvement leader about his identity and his intentions.

"You're – You're Lehnsherr? General Lehnsherr of Genosha? And you... want to fight for us?"

"Yes, sir."

The man looked almost ready to faint. "My superiors are going to pee themsel—begging your pardon, sir. They'll, um, be very excited, sir. We've been debating trying to contact you for months."

***

"Lady Emma spoke very movingly today, I hear." Dr. Henri adjusted the blood-pressure cuff around Charles's arm and began pumping air into it.

"She did indeed," Charles said with a grin. As soon as Erik was declared a deserter, the rumor mill had begun to speculate whether Emma would divorce him. Few people truly believed the marriage had been a love match, public fiction aside; she had perfectly sufficient grounds, and more than enough clout to get it approved; surely it was just a matter of time.

This morning, however, an acquaintance had apparently said something to her about it in the banquet hall. Charles rather thought the incident was scripted, since Emma seldom came to the banquet hall in the mornings, and since her response had been so very well-spoken. In any case, before Sebastian and almost everyone else of social or political import, she had declared in the most heartfelt tones her perfect faith in Erik's innocence, her conviction that there had been some terrible misunderstanding, which he would – soon, she hoped! – return and correct. When he did, he would find his beloved wife waiting, faithful as Penelope, to welcome him back with open arms.

"Lady Emma has proven more loyal to Sir Erik than I might have expected," Charles admitted, as Dr. Henri noted down his blood pressure with a dissatisfied expression. "Though I think her loyalty to herself will always run deeper."

"Mmm, yes, it did occur to me that a divorce for the good lady might cost her more than a husband." The doctor began wrapping his tape measure around Charles's belly. "Have you had any more spotting?"

"Not a bit."

"I'm extremely glad to hear that! Goodness, you are still growing by leaps and bounds." He put away the tape measure. "But you're eating better, I can tell. Less nausea?"

"Yes, thank heaven. The peppermint has helped a good deal, though the heat certainly hasn't." With summer in full swing, Charles had had to forego visiting the gardens, at least during full daylight, and twice now he'd let Moira call a servant to fan him for a while. Ridiculously self-indulgent, yes, bordering on the shameful – but when the alternative was bringing up yet more of the food that should have been nourishing his baby…

"How much movement do you feel?" the doctor asked.

"Oh, more every day. He's an extremely active little fellow!"

"Another excellent thing to hear. Let me get your pulse." He grasped Charles's wrist, and Charles saw the moment the doctor's eyes snagged on his ring, the glimmering sapphire where there had once been a ruby. But he didn't ask, and Charles didn't explain.

The Court, of course, was going mad whispering over the changed ring, the rearranged chamber with its steel-boned door, and the growing state of open, almost cheerful enmity between their King and his Consort. Charles wondered when folk would begin to notice his 'retirement' from Assembly; thus far all but Tony and Steve were assuming, very reasonably, that it was only Charles's difficult pregnancy that kept him employing a proxy. When the babe was born, well, caring for him would be the excuse; but when he was three months, six months, a year old? How long before people began to ask questions? And what would Charles say? He might wear his bruises defiantly, refusing to be ashamed of Sebastian's sins, but this was different. He had as much to lose as Sebastian, if he broke their deal. Azazel would see to that.

"—time, I think, to discuss scheduling the birthdate, Your Highness," Dr. Henri was saying, and Charles hurriedly focused his attention. "Since the timing issue is going to be... unusually delicate."

"Ah. Yes." Despite the discovery of Charles's infidelity, Sebastian had shown no sign of suspecting this baby was not Victor Creed's, and Charles was eager to keep it that way – which meant scheduling the birth for as late as possible in the pregnancy, and praying the baby wasn't too large to be passed off as premature. "My due-date was what, September 17th? I'd love to go as close as possible to that, perhaps the 14th—"

"Your Highness, I'm not at all comfortable with that. Why do androji never seem to understand – the due-date is an estimate, my lord, not an oven timer! You could easily go into labor a week or two before the expected due-date."

"I've never gone into labor before, I have no family history of androji labor, none of the risk factors—"

"But the risk always exists, my lord, and the results... Have you ever seen an androji in labor?"

"Well, no. I mean, it is very rare."

"It's rare because we take care to schedule the births at least two weeks before due-date. Otherwise it would merely be uncommon, and the death rate among androji mothers and their babies would be considerably higher."

"But it's better for the baby to continue in the mother's body as long as possible, I've read every—"

"I want you to imagine for a moment, Your Highness, what it will do to your body to have all its resources suddenly routed toward pushing a baby out through a passage that doesn't exist in the androji body? What it will do to the baby, who has nowhere to go?"

Charles was silent, and his queasiness now had nothing to do with morning sickness.

"September 7th," Dr. Henri said. "Not a day later."

Charles sighed. "Yes, doctor."

***

Lt. Howlett,

I'm sure you are surprised to get this letter, especially in such a fashion. I hope you will consider it a compliment to my faith in your competence and discretion. As you may have surmised from my choice of messenger, I have secured a place for myself among those who would free themselves (and rightly so) of King Nathaniel. I see no reason why this should put us at odds, since King Sebastian has not ordered his men to weigh in against the revolutionaries. If, however, you feel I've put you in an unfair position, I ask only that you pass along the one letter I have enclosed, and notify me that I should find another confidante for the next. To be honest, I have no idea how often I will be able to send such letters; not nearly enough for my liking, but then nothing would be.

I don't know what you may have heard of my disappearance; perhaps you will not wish to burden yourself with a complete knowledge, but I will tell you whatever you like, on the condition that the letter (like this one) be burned once it is read. For now I will say only, first, that I left Essex fully intending to return in all proper course, but that that is impossible now; and second, that my love and loyalty for Genosha remain unchanged.

If my replacement is Sir Victor of House Creed, as I suspect he will be, I hope you and all the men will be properly wary of him. He is a remarkably unbalanced man. I advise you not to test him.

If you do feel able to correspond with me in some measure, I ask that you might send me the writing box I left beside my bed when I departed, packed carefully so that it comes to no damage. My other belongings may go wherever you see fit.

With gratitude for your faithful service,
Your former commander,
Sir Erik of House Lehnsherr

***

"Whose brilliant idea was it to bring four children and a pregnant man out into the summer heat?" Charles moaned, half-collapsed on the arm on his wheelchair.

"Yours," Moira said pitilessly, splashing a bit of water from her bottle onto a handkerchief. He took it gratefully, dabbing his face and neck, then bending to do the same for fretful baby Hank. He had reached his first birthday a week past, and his feet were much improved, but walking was still beyond him. He crawled like a fiend, however, and Charles had cheerfully provided him with knee- and hand-pads, and put him on a leash when they went anywhere he might wander off. The child stayed covered in summer dust, but he didn't usually seem to mind -- except for today, with the heat making him sticky and irritable.

Ahead of them, Angel and Armando dashed about, exclaiming over the tigers on one side of the path and the bears on the other. Both enclosures contained pools of water, and Charles watched in rank envy as a tiger slid into one and began paddling across. On the other side, a bear flicked an ear at the children's noise, grunted, and shifted deeper into the shade.

"Papa! Look, Papa, teddy!" Raven cried, smacking her tiny hands against the bars.

"Yes, my dear," Charles said faintly. "I'm sure he's a very nice bear." On the other side of those bars was six feet of space and then more bars; even if the bear chose not to be very nice, he couldn't reach Raven. Thus far, the zoo had shown an excellent degree of concern for both its patrons and its occupants; Charles made a note to look into making a donation.

"Perhaps we should go," Moira said, looking Charles up and down with disfavor.

"No, I'm fine, really. And the children are having such a good time."

"Mm-hmm. We'll get to the end of this pathway and then go home."

"Where it will still be beastly hot and the children will be bored and fretful. No thank you."

"You should be resting, Charles. You're having a baby in two weeks – you'll wish you'd rested then while you had the chance!"

"Another two weeks," Charles moaned. "I cannot wait for this pregnancy to be over. Why didn't I let Dr. Henri talk me into an earlier birthdate?" Of course he knew why, and the reasons were still entirely valid. It was just hard to assign them the proper urgency when he was so exhausted and sticky and relentlessly uncomfortable. "If you'll wet this handkerchief again, love, I'll be your sworn slave forever."

Moira rolled her eyes and did so. "Remind me again whose nursemaid I am?"

"Speaking of lightening your load, didn't you say there was a letter from Baron Coulson?"

"I did, and a few other letters besides – and I think this is the perfect place to read them."

"Shade! Thank God!" They had just turned a corner and found a sort of gazebo just off the path, overlooking a field of deer down the hillside.

Moira helped his wheelchair conquer the single step up into the gazebo, and tied Hank's leash to the wheelchair.

"He'll be happier here, I think," Moira said. "I'll go with the others to the end of the path while you rest. Come along, Raven. Do you see those pink birds? Can you say 'flamingo'?"

"Fingo!"

Charles smiled, watching them wander down the path hand in hand, with the fosterlings darting back and forth around them, and reached down to pet the baby. His beautiful children. He couldn't wait to see the new one added to their number, and not just because the pregnancy had been so horrific. If the world had produced anything sweeter than a child, all bright-eyed wonder and curiosity, innocence and potential, he had yet to encounter it. (Also a greater source of noise and noxious excretions, but such was life.) For the child to be his own and Erik's was an excellent bonus.

And what, he wondered, if the child had been Victor's? Or Sebastian's? He'd spent the first few years of his marriage expecting to conceive by Sebastian at any time, and been starkly relieved when he didn't. Part of him feared finding himself unable to love his own child. But a bigger part of him feared loving the child fiercely, lavishing him with every attention and guidance – and watching him grow to be like his father anyway.

Charles swallowed hard, shaking off these disturbing thoughts, and turned his attention to the letters in his lap.

Yes, there was Coulson's. The good Baron, known for finding alternative employment for former soldiers, had a candidate for Charles's hypothetical manservant. Clint Barton, Charles read, had been an archer, but a battlefield explosion had taken the majority of his hearing. So much for his military career. If Charles was willing to work through the communication issues, Coulson thought Barton might do very well. He was cool-headed, competent, and very discreet. Reading between the lines, Charles thought that he was also distraught at his sudden losses, with no idea what to do with himself. That was sadly familiar territory for Charles. Perhaps he and Mr. Barton could both be of use to each other.

He flipped through the rest of the letters – some mildly interesting, some entirely pointless – and then stopped dead as a rather battered envelope, addressed to Moira, fell into his lap. From Lieutenant Howlett.

He stared at it full five minutes, heart racing. Did he dare to hope – or had Howlett simply written to Moira on his own behalf? Surely not – and yet the odds of Erik—

He had to open it. How could he not open it? He had no desire to invade Moira's privacy; any portion of the letter addressed to her would be set aside unread. But he could not spend another moment wondering… Surely Moira could forgive him for that.

He tore the envelope open with shaking hands.

Two packets of paper – different shades, different textures. One said, in Howlett's aggressive handwriting, "To MOIRA -- not you, Your Highness." It was surprisingly thick. Charles set it aside, still folded.

The other was closed with a smear of wax in an unfamiliar seal. Charles swallowed hard, and broke it open.

My dearest Charles,

With all the faith my battered heart can muster, I pray this letter finds you well. I am as well as I can be, separated from you – though I have little time to write. I have found my way to falling in with the revolutionaries in Essex. My physical strength lags still, making me unfit for the battlefield (which may give you comfort), but there is much to do for anyone with a military mind. The revolutionaries have more spirit than sense, sometimes – or more accurately, their needs outstrip their training. I am working to rectify that.

I know I have missed two birthdays, and the new baby must be surely be arriving soon. I beg you will tell me everything that goes on with you, news about the little ones, pages upon pages, everything you can think of to say, if only so i can pretend to hear your voice that much longer. A hypocritical request, given the brevity of this letter – nor can I promise more soon, since getting letters to Howlett, a not-quite-enemy soldier, will be awkward at best – but I hope you will honor it nevertheless. In fact I am sure you will, since it is generally so difficult to make you stop talking.

Oh, love, I miss you. We have been apart much longer than this before, but always with some hope in sight – and so there is now, though I must remind myself of it continually. However dark things seem now, I will keep my promise to you, and be back at your side someday.

All my love, until we meet again,

Erik

 

Charles read the letter three times, once quickly, then lingering over every word, only noticing his own tears when he had to blink them away to see Hank, who was gurgling at him.

"Your daddy loves you," Charles whispered, hauling his son into his lap to kiss his swear-damp hair. "Daddy loves you. Oh, my darling." Charles packed the letter and its fellows very carefully into the little bag attached to his wheelchair, then gave himself over to rocking Hank and sniffling. A clenching pain in his chest threatened to steal his breath entirely, growing by the moment.

...No. No, the pain wasn't in his chest, but in his belly, and he could see the tight-stretched skin there tensing over its rounded burden. The seat of his wheelchair, he realized, was flooded with warm, near-odorless liquid.

Premature rupture of amniotic membranes, recited some far-too-calm area of his brain. I'm going into labor.

Chapter Text

"You did this twice?" Charles panted, clutching Moira's hand as the carriage jounced and rattled toward the palace. "How did you survive it?"

"Not funny," Moira muttered. "Angel, dear, stay in your seat."

The children were gathered on the other side of the carriage, their eyes turned to saucers by this alarming end to their outing – their Papa gasping and choking down cries of pain, clutching his belly.

"Papa, what's wrong?" Angel demanded. "Are you hurt?"

"The baby's coming," Armando said, tugging Angel back to her seat with one hand, holding Hank in his lap with the other. "Right, Papa?"

"Yes, that's ex-exactly right." He was stuttering again. That had mostly faded since he got out of bed and started doing things again. Charles dredged up a smile nevertheless. "There's no need to w-worry. It hurts now, but when the baby is b-b-born, all will be well." Armando, after all, had a woman mother; any familiarity he had with the birthing process was surely based on that. There was no need to tell the children that without surgical intervention, this would not end well at all.

"We're almost there, Charles," Moira said. "You're going to be fine." Her face was composed, but the trembling of her hand, clenched tight around his own, gave her away.

 

The coachman was shouting for someone to fetch Dr. Henri the moment they pulled into the courtyard. Servants swarmed the carriage, all of them much more alarmed than helpful, and Charles scuttled Moira's attempts to calm them by doubling over with a muffled cry as another contraction hit.

"I want you to imagine for a moment, Your Highness – what will it do to your body to have all its resources suddenly routed toward pushing a baby out through a passage that doesn't exist in the androji body? What it will do to the baby, who has nowhere to go?"

"You four," Moira said, "get His Highness up those stairs to the surgery."

"Wait! Put me down!" Charles batted away the hands trying to lift his wheelchair and opened his arms to the children, who rushed to his side in varying states of panic – all but Hank, who squirmed in the arms of one of the more reliable housemaids.

"Don't worry, darlings, everything's all right," he said, very calmly. "Go with – Jen, yes? – go with Jen now. She'll take you to Uncle Tony, and Moira will be there soon." It might be rank selfishness, but he could not bear for Moira to leave him just yet, not until he was safely in Dr. Henri's care.

"Don't worry, Papa, I'll take care of them," Armando said staunchly, taking Angel's hand on one side and Raven's on the other.

"I know you will. You're such a good boy. Go on, now. Next time you see me, we'll have a new baby to coo over!"

About that time, another contraction hit, and it was probably for the best that the footmen swept him away before he could say anything more.

A bevy of nurses received him at the surgery, and transferred him to a high table in the same room where Dr. Henri had saved baby Hank from Sebastian. Sebastian, blast, someone had probably run to notify the king about this already – maybe no one would think of it if he didn't say anything – he'd so much rather not have Sebastian here...

Erik, keened a strangled little voice in the deeps of his mind, he wanted Erik here, he ached to have Erik here, holding his hand and worrying himself to shreds, kissing his temple and reminding him to breathe—

"Breathe, Charles," Moira said, rubbing his shoulder soothingly. "Long, easy breaths. That's right. Here's the doctor..." Her voice faltered, and Charles looked up, to see a wholly unfamiliar face approaching, strapping on a surgical mask and barking orders to the nurses.

"I beg your pardon," Charles said, his voice very loud and flat.

The doctor stopped mid-sentence and turned to Charles, who realized he did recognize him after all. This was one of Sebastian's doctors, one Charles had had no contact with since Hank's birth, when he'd specified that all his medical care was to come through Dr. Henri alone. "Sorry, Your Highness," the man said briskly. "I know you weren't expecting me, but it looks as if I'll be the one performing your surgery."

"What? Why? Where's Dr. Henri?"

"No one knows, my lord. No one's seen him all day."

***

Morning training had gone on through the noonday meal, thanks to the new recruits' exceptional cluelessness. The sun was past its apex, the air inside Erik's tent heavy and hot, when he returned to the half-written letter in his nightstand drawer.

He had left off with I find at last that I can hold a sword again, and he could not help snorting now as he massaged his arm. After hours of trying to train idealistic boys and stubborn farmers, it hurt to hold so much as a pen. Sebastian's blade had split the arm down to the bone, and it wasn't healing very prettily, but he was more concerned about function than form. After all, there was no one for a hundred miles in any direction who cared what Erik looked like.

I miss you, he thought, and did not write, because he had already said it in the paragraph above. He'd managed to write it as an amusing story about keeping the recruits in line, and how he imagined them responding to Charles, if he were their trainer – how some would fall over themselves to please a kind, soft, smiling figure like Charles, and be thoroughly chastened, when necessary, by a mere expression of disappointment. Others would run roughshod over an authority they perceived as weak – or try to, only to discover the hard way how much steel lay beneath the gentle surface.

The second sort respect me, he had written, and we get on well enough. The first sort are terrified of me, and I often wish I had you at my side to take charge of them. Among other reasons.

What else should he write? So much of what occupied his mind throughout the day concerned the details of the revolution's tactics, goals, and resources – information that would not be especially interesting to Charles, nor safe to write down and send away.

Charles would like to hear that he was going to synagogue now, Erik thought. He had found a surprisingly large Jewish population in Essex; his duties didn't always permit him to gather with them, and he had to take care not to betray his true identity (except among those who also happened to be comrades-in-arms), but he was finding it... he wasn't sure how to say it. Satisfying? Cleansing? It made him feel more aligned in himself, somehow...

"General Lehnsherr?" came a timid voice at the tent flap, and Erik suppressed a groan. What now?

"Yes?"

"There's... something odd going on out here, I think you need to come—"

The rest of his words were swallowed by the explosion that knocked them both to the ground.

***

The doctor reached toward Charles's belly, but he slapped his hand away. "Get out."

"But... Your Highness..."

"Get out of this room immediately."

"Charles," Moira murmured, "I don't think—"

"OUT!"

The attendant nurses took one look at Charles's expression and scattered. The doctor followed suit, reluctantly, his face rather white

"Lock the door, Moira." Charles shifted uncomfortably on the surgery table; where had his wheelchair even gone?

"Charles," Moira said, very very calmly, "you are in labor. You need to let the doctor in."

"Lock the door."

Moira threw her hands up and obeyed.

"Now move that chair in front of the door. And that table, if you can."

"Not until you tell me what on earth is going on."

"Isn't it obvious? Moira, I've been waiting for the other shoe to drop ever since – since April. I kept expecting Sebastian to come at me, really come at me, and instead he's... smiled slyly and let it go. Barely made token efforts to hurt me. Because he knew this was coming, knew I would inevitably be vulnerable—"

"He couldn't know you'd go into labor."

"No, but he knew I'd be under the knife at some point. And that always has risks, doesn't it? Anything can go wrong. Especially with a doctor who's unfamiliar with the patient."

Moira looked at him a long moment, then turned and started dragging furniture in front of the door.

***

Erik staggered out of his tent to find two other tents in flames, and men in Essex military uniforms pouring into the camp, swinging swords and axes.

Erik drew his sword without having to think about it, feeling a sick dismay as his arm protested the movement. He yanked the young lieutenant to his feet. "Gather the recruits, get them to the woods! Strike and fade, just like we practiced! Go!"

"Yes, sir!"

Erik took a deep breath, spun his sword once around to test his arm, and stepped into the fray.

***

"For heaven's sake, Charles, don't push!"

"I'm trying!" Charles said between clenched teeth as another contraction bent him double. Someone was pounding on the door and shouting. He knew he was crushing the life out of Moira's hand, but what else could he do?

"Oh, Charles, darling!" came a familiar singsong voice from outside the window, and Charles had a moment of chilled fear before remembering that this particular surgery was several stories up. Moira tried to move toward the window, but Charles didn't release her hand. "This is pointless, Charles," Sebastian continued. "You have to let the doctor in, or you'll die. It's that simple."

"Tell him I want Dr. Henri," Charles gasped, letting go of Moira and digging his nails into his palms.

"His Highness the Prince Consort insists on being attended only by his personal physician," Moira shouted down from the window.

Charles heard a faint chuckle before Sebastian's next shout. "Dr. Henri is not in evidence, I'm afraid. Perhaps he's deserted us, like my treacherous former Paladin."

Charles rocked back and forth, biting his lip, and prayed Dr. Henri wasn't dead in a ditch somewhere.

"I suggest you look for him, sire, if you want a living heir," Moira said coolly, and closed the window.

"He's right, though," Charles said, dragging in long breaths as the contraction eased off. The pain didn't abate as much as it should have. Half-consciously he massaged his belly, his baby that had nowhere to go... "We're bluffing and he knows it. The baby and I will both die without surgery. We'll have to let someone in, and soon."

"Very soon," Moira said, swallowing hard and pointing. Charles glanced down – and found blood streaming from his body and off the edge of the surgery table.

***

The afternoon was not far advanced, Erik thought, but under the trees sunlight was fading quickly, and the stiff breeze carried an edge of rain.

"He's not doing well, General Lehnsherr."

Erik turned to the half-panicked recruits he'd found wandering through the underbrush. Grantaire was the one who'd spoken, a dark-haired young man with far less love for the cause than for the more-dedicated revolutionary currently bleeding on his shoulder.

"We've done everything we can for Enjolras until we get to the rendezvous," Erik said. "We can't afford to stop moving."

"I'm fine," Enjolras murmured, breathless and pale, and made a visible effort to support more of his own weight.

"You will be," Erik said, as firmly and casually as he knew how. "It's not deep. Keep yourself together for a few more miles."

He turned to start walking again – and paused. Had he heard the snap of a branch? Seen the glimmer of eyes in the shadows behind them?

This was no time to question his instincts. "Keep moving," he said quietly, and dropped back behind the group.

***

Sebastian's men soon started the process of breaking down the door, great crashing noises rattling the surgical instruments in their trays. They could occasionally make out Sebastian's voice, urging the men with the battering ram to move faster, harder, again, again.

"What of Lord Azazel?" Moira held a glass of water to Charles's mouth; his hands shook too much to do it alone. "Didn't he say he wouldn't let either of you harm the other?"

"But Azazel isn't here," Charles said. "In my great wisdom, I let him sail away to Essex with Sir Victor. Would he avenge me on his return? Perhaps. It will hardly matter to me by then."

"I could... Perhaps I could climb down from the window, go for another doctor – Duchess Romanova's, perhaps, or—"

A tap against glass brought her to a startled halt, and they both looked to the window – where a strained-looking face looked back at them.

"Your Highness," called the man in the window, "will you speak with me, please?"

Moira and Charles looked at the each other.

"Let him speak," Charles decided. "Push him off his ladder if he tries to come in."

Cautiously, Moira opened the window, and stood well back of the man's reach.

"Thank you, my lady," the man said, nodding at Moira. "Your Highness, um… do you recognize me?"

Charles frowned a moment. The man was small and neat, with short-cropped fair hair and an appealing, comfortable sort of face. "You're one of Henri's junior doctors. Didn't you sew me up, when Hank was born?" Yes, he remembered – the steady-handed little man who had quietly kept Charles from bleeding to death while everyone else in the room was focused on the drama of Sebastian and Hank.

"Indeed I did, Your Highness. Dr. John Watson, at your service," he said. "I... I found Dr. Henri, my lord."

Charles swallowed cold fear. "And?"

"He's alive, at least for now. He's been beaten to..." His voice faltered. "Beaten very badly. I imagine he was left for dead. He's with one of the other juniors now... He came around enough to talk, a bit, he seemed to be very concerned about you, but he calmed a bit when I told him I'd take care of you." He hesitated, eyes widening as he caught sight of the blood dripping off the edge of the table. "The rumor is you're in labor, my lord. You know your baby will die without swift intervention, and you not far behind."

"Charles," Moira said, voice low and pleading, "you've got to let someone help you..."

Charles could feel another contraction starting, crushing his own insides against each other, doing God only knew what to his child... "All right. Let him in. All right."

With Moira's help, Dr. Watson crawled through the window and closed it behind him. Within moments he was washed up, scrubs cast over his clothes, and was examining Charles with firm, competent hands. Crashing noises continued at the door, rhythmic, rattling Charles's bones. Moira helped him move into position for the spinal block, and the nascent contraction died abruptly as numbness set in.

"I had forgotten how much I hate this part," Charles murmured, trying to remind himself that yes, he could breathe, that no, his paralysis wasn't actually spreading, not permanently. "Don't bother," he called when he saw Dr. Watson fumbling around for a curtain to draw across his belly. "Just do it, I'll be fine. Speed being of the essence."

Watson's lack of argument was a bit sobering. Before Charles could really brace himself, almost before he could get a good grip on Moira's hand, the doctor was cutting him open, right along the track left by the other birth-scars.

That was when the door splintered, furniture screeching, and Sebastian climbed through the shattered mess into the surgery.

***

Erik wasn't certain how he had come to be lying in the leaf litter, gazing up into stormclouds and the wildly-waving tops of trees. An attempt to sit up ended in dizzy gasping and collapse. The hand he touched to his forehead came away bloody.

Ah, yes. Head injury. There had been someone following them. Were his poor idiot recruits safe?

With great difficulty, Erik rolled over, and levered himself onto his hands and knees. One hand landed in a puddle of blood, not his own. Further investigation – consisting of moving his head carefully back and forth – showed two dead men in Essex uniforms, and now he could remember, pieces at least – he and the soldiers mutually ambushing each other. Flashes of steel, burning pain in his sword-arm, a brighter flash of it as an enemy blade caught his hip...

He'd done himself proud, he thought, right up to the moment his arm simply stopped supporting his weapon.

There had only been the two, he remembered that much, and apparently he'd done for them both, however narrowly. His recruits were safe, then, if they could keep their heads and get to the rendezvous. This head injury... this was bad luck and no mistake. How had it happened? He might never remember; that was the way of these things. But the last thing he needed now was to be slow-moving, slow-thinking, unable to defend himself.

Slowly, with the help of a nearby tree, Erik was able to get his feet, and lean there, breathing unevenly, braced against the slant of the hillside beneath him. Pain pulsed with every heartbeat, pain in his head, and his arm, and the gash in his hip… Somewhere else, too, somewhere in his middle, he was bleeding, a hot trickle over his hand, but couldn't get his head clear enough to figure out where.

Rendezvous. Get to the rendezvous.

His sword was sticking out of one of the dead men; Erik took a few slow, cautious steps in that direction, unsure how far away it would prove to be. Not as far as he thought, good. It still took him three tries to get a grip on the sword's hilt; there seemed to be several hilts, moving in slow circles while he tried to catch them.

He pulled, and accomplished nothing; braced himself with one foot on the dead man's shoulder, and pulled again, as hard as he could. The sword scraped free, and Erik staggered, slipped – and tumbled down the hillside, cracking elbow and ankle against trees, scrabbling with fingers too clumsy to catch at anything, until the ground opened beneath him.

When his head stopped spinning enough for him to breathe, he came to the gradual realization that he was at the bottom of some sort of ravine. And it was raining.

***

"Sire, I don't recommend—"

"Get your hands off me!"

"One of you wash up and bring that tray of instruments."

"You get in there and—"

"Your Majesty, the surgery is already under way and Dr. Watson is perfectly competent."

"Get out of here, Sebastian. Someone get him out!"

"Stand back, all of you!"

"God in heaven, I've never seen this much bleeding—"

"Clamp that!"

"Is this sterilized?"

"There's no time!"

"Don't you touch me!"

"I can see you're distraught, Charles, but there's really no—"

"With all due respect, Your Majesty, get out of the way!"

"You men stay back and clear that furniture! Charles, look at me."

"More gauze."

"How long has he been bleeding like this?"

"Suction here! Suction, oh god—"

"Charles?"

The thin wail of an infant brought Charles up, in some measure, from the sea of voices and swirling lights, made him fight to focus his eyes. "Dr. Henri...? I mean... Watson, Dr. Watson. Baby... Is the baby well? Boy or girl?"

"This one's a boy. Androji."

"This one?" That was Moira's voice.

"Twins. There's another in here. Nurse, tie that off!"

"Let me hold him…" Charles tried to reach for the baby but his hands weren't quite working right.

"Charles? Doctor, he's not… something's wrong…"

"Everything's torn to shreds in here!"

"Another boy! Man-simple, this time."

"No," Charles tried to say as Sebastian took hold of the second baby. "No, don’t touch him," but nothing came out, everything felt like syrup and his head hurt.

"Behold the birth of an heir!" Sebastian cried. "My son, Sebastian the Second!"

"Erik," Charles corrected, or tried to. "Erik the second, if anything – why are you even here, Sebastian, they're not yours… Erik, I want Erik…"

Someone pinched his wrist, gauging his pulse, and began swearing loudly. What was everyone so upset about? Someone was calling his name but they were being awfully quiet about it, he couldn't hear a thing, everyone was so far away…

"I don't think it's supposed to be doing this—"

"Clamp that!"

"Erik." He felt the word scrape in his throat, but he couldn't hear if it came out properly. "Where's Erik?"

"Stay with me, Charles," someone was saying, which was silly, where else would he go?

Well, to find Erik, perhaps, since he didn't seem to be here. Maybe he could go find Erik…

***

It was full dark now, and the occasional flare of lightning was the only illumination. At least, he reflected distantly, the cold rain was dulling the pain of his injuries. It also made the steep sides of the ravine slippery as he pulled himself up, inch by torturous inch.

Below him, the waterline was rising steadily, rushing with a gurgle he could barely hear over the roar of the rain, and the ringing in his own head. If he fell, it seemed unlikely he would get another chance to climb out.

Panting, he pulled himself up another few inches, numb hands scrabbling in the mud, his arm protesting keenly. He tried to shift his weight to the other arm – and slipped.

He may have cried out, grabbing frantically for something, anything, roots and stones tearing his hands. It was his injured arm that finally caught something, and he jerked to a halt, pain screaming from whatever sword wound he'd half-forgotten he carried in his middle – pain everywhere, wound and arm and hands and head, why did his head hurt so blasted much...

He couldn't do this. It couldn't be done. He was going to die in this ravine – drown, freeze, bleed to death – and if he didn't, if by some unthinkable miracle he made it to the top and out, he'd just die in the mud instead.

"You promised."

The sound of Charles's voice, clear and sharp over the sound of water, nearly startled him into losing his grip again.

"You promised, Erik, you promised you'd come back to me."

He closed his eyes and rested his face against the cold mud. "I'm sorry, Charles."

"Don't be sorry. Be here. I need you, Erik."

Head injury, Erik told himself. This was the head injury. Did that matter?

"Don't leave me, Erik, don't you dare."

Erik glanced up through the driving rain – and there he was, he could see him, peering over the edge of the ravine, with his eyes flashing and jaw set, in the bright anger Charles wore to keep himself strong through fear.

"I love you," Erik whispered.

"Prove it," Charles snapped, and reached out a hand. "Come to me."

Erik clenched his teeth and started climbing again.

***

His bedroom was so dark. The sun wasn't up yet, then. What had woken him?

"Wake up, Charles."

"Erik?" He turned over – it was so easy to turn over! – and yes, there was Erik, beside him in the bed. "Erik, you're here early!" Beaming, Charles reached out to draw him closer, wrap their bodies together.

Erik moved away. "No, Charles, you have to get up."

"What? No, it's far too early. It's dark, and it's so comfortable in here... isn't it comfortable?" Had this bed always been so very soft and warm? Hadn't he been talking about getting rid of this big bed in the front room? Why would he do that when it was so very comfortable? "Come here, Erik, and hold me."

"No, Charles. Get up."

Charles felt his face crumple with hurt. "I don't... I don't understand."

"You have to get up. The children need you."

He looked toward the door to the children's bedroom. "No one's crying."

"Yes, they are. Can't you hear them?"

"No, I don't hear anything. You're being ridiculous, Erik." Again he tried to move closer, but again Erik moved away.

"You can't just lie here, Charles. You have to get up."

Charles huffed impatiently. "Fine, you bossy thing. Will you give me a kiss if I get up?"

Erik's expression softened. Charles could see him so clearly, even in the dark room. "Yes, I'll give you a kiss. I'll even give you one now, for motivation – but then you have to get up."

"Deal." Charles leaned eagerly into the kiss, but before he could hardly get started Erik was moving away again, getting to his feet by the bed. Charles huffed at him again, but made to follow – only to flinch back again. Trying to sit up hurt. "Erik—"

"I know it hurts, but you have to. Can't you hear the children crying?"

"No! I don't hear anything! I'm going back to sleep!" He flopped back down, pulling the covers up, but Erik snatched them away.

"Get out of the bed, Charles!" His voice was a tight contest between anger and fear, and Charles stared a moment, startled.

"All right," he said. "All right, I'll get up." But it hurt so much to try and it was so cold outside the covers... "Erik, help me."

Erik took his outstretched hand. "I'll help you. Come on, you can do it."

"I've always loved your hands," Charles murmured, leaning forward to press a kiss to Erik's wrist as he moved toward the edge of the bed. "They were one of the first things I noticed about you, when we met. So strong and so big and... well, handsome, if you don't mind a pun."

"Keep moving, Charles."

"It hurts." The room was getting brighter – the sun coming up outside the windows, he supposed, but it didn't feel warm and lovely like sunshine, it was cold and painful and it burned.

Finally he was standing, which... seemed odd, somehow... and the room was so bright he could hardly stand it, burning all over him so badly his breath caught on sobs of pain.

"It's going to be all right, Charles," Erik said, holding him tightly.

"No. I want to go back to bed."

"You can't. The children need you."

"But you're not here!" Because he knew that, he remembered that now, Erik had been stabbed in this bed, he could see the bloodstain, and Charles had sent him away in the belly of a dragon, Erik was gone and Sebastian would never let him come back. Charles found himself fighting Erik's grip, shoving at him, angry and sobbing. "You're not here so why should I stay? I don't want to stay here without you!"

Erik held him tighter, pinning Charles's arms to his sides and leaning into his neck. "I'll come back to you," he whispered. "I promised to come back to you and I will. Until then, you have to take care of the children."

"No!" Charles clung to him, tried to inhale his scent but he couldn't remember it well enough. "Moira can take care of them. They can all go to Asgard with Thor. I want to stay here with you."

"You're their papa. They need you. You can't leave them."

Charles clung to him all the harder, knowing he was right. Behind the bedroom door, he could hear the children crying.

"I have to go to the children now," Charles whispered. "Will you go with me?"

Erik kissed him gently. "I can't. I wish I could."

One last kiss, then Charles let him go, and crossed the room, shaking and hurting more with each step, to open the children's bedroom door.

Light poured through, swallowing him, bright cold hot painful—

And then faded, slowly, leaving Charles to grow slowly aware of a dim room, a soft bed, a furtive sound of motion. His body felt cold and weak, and burning with pain, mostly from his abdomen, where he'd been cut... the baby... two babies, he'd had twins, where were his babies?

He opened his eyes, and found Sebastian standing over him, the dim light glittering in his eyes and the hypodermic needle in his hand.

***

"Just a little further, love. Keep trying, you're almost there."

It felt like he'd been climbing for years. His muscles ached and trembled, and some of them had simply stopped working – his right arm was all but useless.

"None of that, now. Come up another foot. You can do it."

"I'm not so sure of that."

"We've already had this conversation, Erik. Look at me." When he didn't obey fast enough, Charles snapped his fingers, every inch the commanding prince. "Keep looking at me, Erik. Climb."

Erik dragged in a deep breath, and climbed. Rain continued to pour down, stinging in his eyes, but Charles's face remained clear. Whenever Erik started to flag, Charles would call out to him.

"Keep looking at me, Erik. Come to me. The sooner you get to the top, Erik, the sooner you can hold me in your arms. Don't you want to be here with me?"

For a long time, it seemed that no matter how far Erik moved, he didn't get any closer to Charles. And then suddenly, his hand closed over Charles's, and he would have sworn – though he knew, he knew it was a hallucination – not only that he felt the warmth of his husband's grip, but that Charles helped pull him up and over, out of the ravine.

"There now," Charles murmured, curling up close to his side as Erik lay gasping on the ground. "There now. Good boy. Aren't you glad you listened to me?"

"Very glad." Erik closed his eyes and relaxed into the sensation of Charles stroking his hair.

He opened them again, some immeasurable time later, and blinked in confusion. The rising sun was flicker-flashing behind a moving shape – a face – someone bending over him, saying, "General Lehnsherr?"

Grantaire. That was the boy's name. Grantaire.

"I found him!" Grantaire shouted. "Get over here! I found him!"

***

Charles tried to cry out, tried to knock Sebastian's hand away, but he didn't seem to be fully inhabiting his body somehow; his arms barely moved, and his voice came out as a dry croak.

Sebastian smiled broadly and pinned Charles's wrist without apparent effort, turning the arm to expose a vein. "Goodbye, darling," he whispered. "Don't worry, I'll take good care of the children."

Charles was still struggling when he felt the prick of the needle against his skin.

***

Erik always woke suddenly and completely; this time it was to a blinding headache and unfamiliar surroundings, which left him reeling for a moment until a nurse hurried over with soothing words and a cup of water.

"You're in the hospital tent, General Lehnsherr."

"At the rendezvous?"

"Yes. Some of the men found you in the woods, do you remember?"

"I..." He remembered Charles... the ravine... "Grantaire. I remember. How many made it?"

"We're still taking headcounts," the nurse said. "More come straggling in every few hours. Captain Enjolras has tried his best to keep things organized."

"He's alive?"

"And kicking," came the younger man's voice, from the next bed over. Squinting through the headache, Erik turned to see the golden-haired recruit grinning at him, his lap littered with papers, bandages on his face and chest.

"You're a recruit," Erik grumbled. "Isn't there someone here who outranks you?"

"Just you, so far, and you were indisposed."

"For how long?" His body, for all its pain, didn't hurt enough for this to be the morning after the attack.

"Two days, sir."

Erik cursed and tried to get out of the bed.

"Lie back, sir," the nurse said, pushing him firmly back onto his pillows. "You have several significant injuries and you are not leaving this bed yet. Drink your water."

Moving had woken new pain from what seemed every region of his body, in addition to the headache. Reluctantly, teeth gritted, Erik let himself settle back into the bed. He sat some while, sipping water and trying to sort out exactly what needed to be happening at this makeshift camp, what questions he needed to ask and what to check on first – trying not to simply drift on the memory of Charles curled up against him and stroking his hair – while Enjolras talked with Grantaire, who, Erik noticed, kept absently touching his friend's hand, as if to make sure he was still there.

"...bad news for us if it's true," Grantaire said. "Prince Charles was a moderating influence, they say – or at least, a hurdle the king had to jump before he could do anything particularly stupid. Without him, how long d'you think it'll be before Genosha allies outright with Good King Nat?"

"What are you talking about?"

Both recruits jumped a bit at the violence of Erik's words, and blinked at him in confusion.

"What do you mean without Prince Charles? What happened?" Erik demanded.

"I—I've a friend in Genosha who sends me whatever gossip she comes across," Grantaire stammered. "I mean, if she thinks it might be relevant to the cause. Which this would be, if it's true. You'd think they'd have made an official announcement, but then again, would we have heard about it out here?"

"Announcement about what?"

"The Prince Consort, sir. I mean, he's had quite the rough go of this pregnancy, to begin with, but the rumor is he went into labor the same day our camp was attacked, sir. And died on the operating table."

***

The needle pricked his skin, but before Sebastian could drive the plunger home, there was a burst of smoke and someone grabbed Sebastian and slammed him against the wall.

"You think you can break to your word to me? You think this, Sebastian?" The voice was a low snarl, but Charles easily recognized Lord Azazel's strange accent. The tenuous grasp on consciousness that had made it so hard for him to fight Sebastian made it difficult, now, to focus his eyes, but he thought he could see his semi-ally's distinctive red skin, even in the shadows of the room.

"You think I will not keep my end of deal, Sebastian? Of every deal we have made? Answer me!"

Charles rather thought he heard Sebastian's teeth clack as Azazel shook him.

"No, my lord," he gasped. "No, I would never dream—"

"This needle, this is a dream?" Azazel plucked it from Sebastian's hand and shattered it against the wall. "Oathbreaker! This is the word, yes, for a man who cannot be trusted? Who has all the honor of swine in the mud? We have made deals, you and I. Why should I keep my end, if I cannot trust you to keep yours?"

"You wouldn't dare—"

Azazel's only response to that was a snarl, no more human than a wolf's or tiger's, and Charles, still too weak to so much as sit up, tried to convince himself he did not see what he was seeing – Azazel with a long scarlet tail, one that ended in a pointed blade, and which was perhaps an inch from plunging through Sebastian's eye.

"You may wish," Azazel said, "to reconsider your words. And actions."

Sebastian, pale as death in the dim corner, stood frozen and silent for several minutes. Finally he whispered, "Please have mercy on me, my lord. Forgive my foolishness. I swear there will be no more such... incidents."

Azazel growled, a sound full of weariness and distaste, and withdrew the tail-blade. "You are useful still, in your way. Your death would cause much trouble. And after all you did no harm. This time."

"Thank you, lord, thank—"

"Ah, but you must be punished, Sebastian. You would have broken your word. I will not permit this. Also, it is not so wise to leave you here with Prince, hmm? You come with me. No worries, I will bring you back." His voice seemed to curl around a feral smile. "When I am done with you."

Charles caught a glimpse of Sebastian's wide, terrified eyes before both men vanished in a cloud of smoke.

***

For nearly a fortnight, Erik and the others survivors hid in the woods, nursing their wounds, trying to restore contact with the other revolutionaries, and watching for signs that Nathaniel's men had found the new camp. The doctors scolded Erik continually about the shadows under his eyes and the meals he skipped, to no avail. Everyone ascribed his behavior to distress over the attack, which was certainly enough to be distressed over; only about half of Erik's men found their way to the rendezvous, and forest patrols found considerably more dead than living stragglers. How many of the remainder had been taken prisoner rather than killed was impossible to say. Yet even with their reduced numbers, they were scrambling for food, weapons, and medical supplies, virtually everything having been left behind at the camp.

If there were days that their General seemed to be sleepwalking, days when putting one foot before the other seemed as much as he could manage – if in fact most days there was at least one incident of Erik staring blankly into the distance, or down at his own hands, looking hollow and sick – well, he had suffered a fairly severe head injury, after all.

"The bad news is, we weren't the only ones attacked that day," said their scout, returning from finally making contact with the revolutionary leadership. "It looks like they'd known where we were for some time, and were gathering the resources to hit several places at once, try to shatter us in all directions. The good news is, it didn't work as well as they thought. We may be gutter-rats, a lot of us, but that just means we know all the best places to hide."

Erik fought to make his brain work through all the ramifications of this, and for hours he, Enjolras, and the rest of the training camp's surviving leaders debated plans of action and milked the scout for every scrap of information he could impart. It was deep dusk before they got around to any gossip from outside Essex.

"Oh, yes, that's another bit of good news," the scout tossed off casually, refilling his glass again. "We don't have to worry about Genosha weighing in against us, for a little while yet, at least that's the theory. Rumors of the Prince Consort's demise were premature, it seems; the official announcement from Genosha is that he's alive and – not well, perhaps, but expected to become so. He's given the king two more sons, Sebastian II and… Alexander, I think it was."

Erik stared at the man in blank-faced silence, unbreathing. "You're sure?" he asked hoarsely, bringing conversation – which had gone on to the topic of supply line disruption – to an uncertain halt.

"Sure about what?" asked the scout. "The twin princes?"

"No. Yes. But – Charles, he's alive?"

"Apparently. He's supposed to hold an audience introducing the little heir, in a few days. Are… are you quite well, General?"

"Excuse me a moment," Erik said curtly, and walked out.

If anyone saw him at the edge of the woods, fallen to his knees with tears on his face, they did not mention it.

***

"I'm very glad to see you awake at last, Your Highness! How do you feel?" Dr. Watson asked.

"I'm not entirely sure, really," Charles murmured, blinking through amorphous discomfort and bleary traces of painkiller. "How are the… babies? I had twins, didn't I?"

"You did indeed, my lord. One androji, one man-simple. They were in some distress at first, from the labor, but they've improved marvelously."

"Twins," Charles repeated, with a breathless laugh. "And you're sure they're all right?"

"They're doing fine," Dr. Watson said, smiling warmly. "I'll have them brought in to you, once we're finished. Let me measure your pulse, if you please." Charles complied. "They're both rather small, as twins tend to be," Dr. Watson continued as he measured various elements of Charles's body. "Little Sebastian is 3 lbs., 4 oz., and his brother is 3 lbs., 15 oz. Lady Moira has been calling that one Alexander – she felt it wasn't fair for one to have a name and not the other."

Charles smiled. "She knows I love that name. I imagine we'll keep it." Little Sebastian, though... what in the world was he going to do about that?

"No sign of infection," Dr. Watson murmured, carefully examining the incision. "That's excellent. I was rather worried, after the... unconventional circumstances of the surgery."

"Yes, about that. I want to thank you, and I – I want to ask about Dr. Henri. How is he?"

"Perfectly stable," Dr. Watson said, and his expression warmed further at Charles's relieved sag. "Full recovery is... uncertain, as yet. He'll live, thank God, but among his more serious injuries is extensive damage to his hands, which seem to have been... crushed underfoot." He swallowed hard. "Quite a blow for a surgeon, as you can imagine."

"I can," Charles breathed. "Oh, Henri. Whatever he may need, Dr. Watson – anything at all – I want it understood that you have my direct authority to arrange it."

"I appreciate that, my lord. I'm sure he will, too."

How can I ever make up for this... Charles rubbed wearily at his face. Sebastian's doing, not yours, he told himself firmly, though he couldn't escape the feeling he ought to have expected, prevented... "Where is Sebastian?" he murmured, because surely what he remembered could not be real. Azazel was away in Essex, and he certainly did not have a tail.

"The King has been at your bedside whenever his duties permitted. I'm sure he'll be back presently. Would you like me to send for him?"

"By no means." At Watson's raised eyebrows, Charles managed to suppress further deprecations of Sebastian, and instead settled back against his pillows, trying to get comfortable. His head was beginning to spin with all the things he needed to be doing immediately – seeing the new babies, checking on the other children, visiting Dr. Henri...

"My lord, there are... particulars of your condition that I must discuss with you," Dr. Watson said hesitantly. "Particulars that may be difficult to hear. Are you sure you wouldn't like me to send for your husband?"

Oh, I would desperately like to have my husband here, Charles thought wistfully, through the unease the doctor's words provoked. "I'd really rather you told me now, Dr. Watson."

"Very well, my lord." Watson took a seat for the first time. "The King is already aware of this, as are quite a few people, thanks to the unusually public nature of the birth... You may remember that we encountered complications during the surgery?"

"Yes, I believe my loss of consciousness alone would indicate that."

"Quite. Your Highness, the contractions damaged some of your internal organs. Mostly I was able to patch them back together, but I'm afraid the womb was... well, it was beyond saving, my lord. Torn apart. I had to remove it, or you probably would have bled to death."

"…Oh." Charles stared down at his hands, clenched over his curiously deflated middle. "I see," he managed after a long minute. "No... no more children, then. Ever again."

"I'm sorry, my lord," Dr. Watson said, putting a hesitant hand to his shoulder. Charles put his own hand over it, clinging to whatever comfort a near-stranger's gesture could impart.

"It doesn't... matter that much, I suppose." Charles's voice was a distant thing, barely connected to the rest of him. "Sebastian has his heir now. It's unlikely he'd let me... unlikely that I'd be having any more. I knew that, I suppose. That we'd be done, once he had his heir. And really it's for the best, without…" Without Erik, it would be Victor he'd have to endure. Yet he found himself curling forward, over the carved and hollowed belly that would never hold another child. "It probably shouldn't hurt this much. It shouldn't matter."

"I would never say it didn't matter," Dr. Watson said softly. "My lord, isn't there someone I can get for you?"

Charles drew in a deep breath, blinking back the tears he hadn't let fall. "My babies. I would like to see my babies now."

"Of course, my lord. Right away." He left Charles alone.

You have four of Erik's children, Charles said, and your own two fosterlings. That should be more than enough to keep you busy. Later, he knew, there would also be important political battles, ways to help his country survive the stupidity of its king, but it was hard to care about all that right now.

In the shadows of his memory, he could still feel Erik's hands on his cheeks, hear the dream-whisper of his voice. "I promised to come back to you, and I will. Until then, you have to take care of the children."

"I will," Charles whispered fiercely to the empty room, "and you'd better."

Chapter Text

Intellectually, Charles was quite aware that a newborn baby was one of nature's most repulsive offerings – red and wrinkled and covered in slime, its limbs and features often distorted by the birth process. He persisted, nevertheless, in believing them to be heartrendingly beautiful all the same, especially when they were his.

By the time he was awake and well enough to meet the new twins, they were nearly twelve hours old and considerably prettier than he imagined they'd been at birth. The realization that he'd lost the chance to see their birth was an unexpected pang, but it blended in nicely with the chorus of other pains and discomforts currently assaulting Charles's body, so he tried to pay it no mind.

"Here they are," he cooed as Moira settled the twins carefully into his arms. "My new boys. Oh, just look at you!"

"I hope you don't mind my naming Alexander," Moira said. "Of course you can change it, but I..." She bit her lip, moved her hands inarticulately. "Everyone was ignoring him. The unneeded androji twin that his own father – supposed father – didn't bother to name or even touch... I wanted to make him real to everyone, I suppose."

"That's this little fellow?" With his nose, Charles nudged the left-hand baby, a square-faced child with a dash of colorless hair that would probably turn out blond. Moira nodded. "No, I don't mind at all. You know I'd considered that name anyhow, and really I think it's only right you should have a voice in the naming. After all, you're basically Mama to my Papa, aren't you?"

For a moment Moira looked surprisingly moved, but she covered it quickly. "Too bad neither of us got a vote on this one," she said, running light fingers over the other baby's head, which bore a patch of brilliant red hair.

"It's just a name," Charles said feebly, knowing he was fooling neither Moira nor himself. 'Sebastian' was a name inextricably connected, in their minds, with terror, pain, hatred, and disgust; he could no sooner call this innocent babe Sebastian than Maggot or Dung. 'Son' or 'baby' would have to do for now, until he could find an acceptable nickname.

Charles had still too many drugs in his system to nurse; Moira had done what she could, with synthetic milk to pick up the slack. It would be synthetic for everyone now, in some measure, for even he and Moira together could not nurse four – three, rather; Raven was two years old and could be weaned at last. How entirely bizarre, and every blame to Sebastian's heir obsession, that Charles now had four children and the eldest was barely two.

No matter. For now, Charles enjoyed simply holding his new sons, getting to know each one's weight and scent, watching the sleepy shift of their facial expressions. He unwrapped one, then the other, to examine them in detail; tickled the androji mark on Alexander's heel, trailed kisses down his twin brother's tiny ribcage. They were both only half the size of Raven or Hank at birth, which was not unusual for twins, but did make him unreasonably fearful of breaking them. He rather thought Erik could have held one child in each long, callused hand.

That thought, helped along by his physical weakness and the drugs still muddling his mind, threatened to bring inconvenient tears; Charles moved swiftly away from it, distracting himself with the babies' hair. He tended toward hairy babies, it seemed – every one of his had been born with some measure of fuzz. How strange, though, that he and Erik, both dark-haired, should have produced, out of their four children, two blondes and a ginger! Of course it was no great mystery, really – Erik's hair had quite a bit of gingery tint to it, and Charles's mother had been blonde. It would serve them well, in this instance; Victor Creed's hair was a wild red-tinged gold, all the better to allay Sebastian's suspicions, if he had any.

Ugh, Victor. Charles spared a moment to pray that the man would show no interest in his purported offspring.

"How does Dr. Henri fare?" he asked.

"I'm told he woke up, at last, and was able to speak, which is a good sign. The official story is that he was robbed."

"When he can travel, I plan to offer him Westchester as a place to rest and recover. Far away from Sebastian, but where I can still keep him under my protection in some way." For all the good that protection had done him here...

"I think that's a splendid idea, Charles. Will your parents object?"

"There's no reason they should, the manor's more than large enough for him to stay out of their way – a course that I will, naturally, recommend to him."

A knock sounded on the door to his hospital room, and Moira opened it to reveal a young man in a palace messenger's uniform. "Your Highness," the fellow said with a nervous bow, "I'm afraid I have urgent news."

Charles felt a stab of fear, and wished once again that he were feeling stronger. "Speak, then."

"The King is injured, my lord. Very badly beaten – it looks as though he may have been set upon by the same ruffians who attacked your doctor. He is under the care of his doctors as we speak, my lord."

For a moment Charles could only blink in bewilderment. If it were the 'same ruffians,' then surely the king had a mutiny on his hands.

Or... The memory of Azazel's voice came through a fog of drugs and pain. "No worries, I will bring you back. When I am done with you." Perhaps not a hallucination after all...

"Your Highness?" The messenger shifted anxiously.

"Oh. Yes. Um, very distressing, that's very... Is my presence needed? Should I dress?" Charles was dimly aware that he was not playing the part of concerned spouse very convincingly, but oh well, did anyone still expect that from him?

"Yes, my lord, I was told to bring you back with me, if you're well enough."

Charles was sorely tempted – emphasis on sore – to claim he was not, in fact, well enough. But if there was some matter of legal authority to disentangle, his presence could very well be necessary. With a heavy sigh that edged toward an outright moan, Charles handed the babies back to Moira (pausing to kiss each tiny head), and managed to pull a dressing gown over his unseemly state of undress. He even got a comb through this hair. That would have to do.

"I can push you, my lord," the messenger offered as Charles settled painfully into his chair.

Charles bit back his instinctive refusal, knowing he was truly in no shape to do it himself. "That would be marvelous, thank you."

As the messenger steered him down the corridor, Charles's mind sped ahead, wondering how badly the king was injured and what it would mean for himself, the children, Genosha... He didn't realize they were moving away from the royal hospital wing until the messenger pushed him into an empty chamber, and locked the door behind them.

"What are you—" The words died on Charles's tongue as the messenger aimed a pistol squarely at Charles's head.

"I thought you were aware, Your Highness," said the messenger, with no trace of his previous hesitant manner, "of the consequences to yourself, should the king die?"

Charles, with great effort, kept his voice steady, his manner calm. "And is the king dead?"

"Not yet. I expect to receive word shortly." He glanced out the window, where Charles could see the shadow of a figure on the opposite roof – prepared to signal the assassin, apparently, the moment his services were needed.

"Whatever he's offered you," Charles began, but the assassin waved a hand.

"Don't bother, my lord. You wouldn't live long enough to pay me, and if you did I doubt I'd live long enough to collect. You'd do better to use your time to square yourself with God." With that, he settled himself into a chair, keeping full view of Charles and the window, the gun's aim unwavering.

Escape was surely impossible; the distance to the room's only door was much further than Charles, in his wheelchair, could cross before the man caught up to him. The window would lead only to a messier death. Attacking the assassin bare-handed was a laughable prospect, and Charles saw nothing that he might use as a weapon. They were in some manner of dining nook, perhaps for the servants' use; the room bore a sideboard and two tables with chairs, everything clean and well-made, but heavily used and some steps down in fashion and quality from what Charles saw in his own chambers. There might, perhaps, be knives in the drawers on the sideboard, but Charles's first hint of movement in that direction won a calm order to stop moving or die all the sooner. Trapped, then.

However did they plan to explain his death, in such a place and in such a manner? Likely it would be blamed on the same 'ruffians' that had allegedly beaten Dr. Henri and now Sebastian. Perhaps he ought to be grateful that his end would, it seemed, come from a bullet to the head, clean and quick. But of course beating him to death was too risky; Dr. Henri had survived, after all. The beating would be post-mortem, to cover their tracks.

He felt curiously little fear, considering. Childbirth had been terrifying; the struggle with Sebastian over the syringe had been worse; by this point he was mostly irritated. How many brushes with death could he be expected to take in a 24-hour period? If he was going to die, he'd rather get it over with. This way, at least, he'd know Sebastian was gone, too, the children and Genosha free of him permanently. There was Erik to consider – that thought brought a brief tremor to his body, but he quashed it. Erik was far away; by the time any assassin could reach him, he would have heard of Sebastian's death, he would be on his guard. Between Azazel, Thor, and Moira, the children would be fine; perhaps, in the long run, Sebastian's death was what would do the most good for the most people, despite the collateral loss of one Prince Consort.

Which wasn't to say he wanted to die. The longer he sat there, staring down the barrel of the "messenger's" gun, the more he desperately wanted to live – to raise his children, to lead his country, to eat strawberry tarts and watch sunsets and finish that novel about the Chinese warrior. To see Erik again – and there he had to stop, because he would not die weeping. He utterly refused that indignity.

Square yourself with God, the assassin had said. Charles didn't believe he had much squaring to do, having successfully avoided the darker sins (he flatly refused to count himself an adulterer) – but he supposed he had his share of minor ones, and there was no use leaving them on his conscience with so much time thoughtfully provided to resolve them.

With his head bowed in prayer, however, he found himself pleading more on behalf of others than for himself – asking that his children grow up safe and loved, and that Erik survive not only any attempts to kill him, but his own grief as well. Erik had nearly given up on life at the prospect of mere earthly separation from Charles; he didn't think it was arrogance to fear his husband might not let death come between them for long.

He could, in theory, pray for Sebastian to survive his injuries, so that he in turn would be spared. For good or ill, he couldn't quite bring himself to do that. If God wanted to take Sebastian off the mortal plane today, Charles wasn't going to try and talk him out of it.

The sun moved slowly outside the window; the assassin lowered his arm for better comfort, but his aim never wavered. Charles's breasts began to ache with excess milk – colostrum, whatever – probably still too drug-tainted to give the babies, but he would need to express it in order to keep it flowing for the future.

The unlikelihood of that being relevant came closer to breaking through Charles's calm than anything else had. He felt his breath catch, his eyes water, despite all his efforts to hold back.

The assassin tensed, looking out the window; Charles caught a glimpse of movement from his compatriot on the roof. This was it, then.

He had resolved to die in peace and dignity, but suddenly Charles was furious, gripped by a determination not to go down without a fight. He could tip the chair – crawl – bite – whatever it took—

But the assassin's gun, for the first time since they entered the room, had lowered. Had, in fact, been put away.

"Well, well, Your Highness," said the young man. "It seems the king is going to pull through after all." He bowed with impeccable courtesy. "I bid you good day, my lord."

He walked out without another word, leaving the door open.

It was ten minutes before Charles stopped shaking long enough to leave.

***

King Nathaniel likely thought the revolutionary movement in his country had guttered and died in the wake of their heavy losses, or so Erik hoped. It was not the truth, but it was uncomfortably close, and it would take some time for them to regroup enough to make their presence known again.

Establishing a new training headquarters was both the most difficult and the most important task they faced; it wasn't until the beginning of October, when they were safely settled into the "abandoned" ancestral home of a wealthy ally, that he could even think of getting a letter to Charles.

Which wasn't to say he heard nothing of Charles. Erik followed the Assembly minutes as avidly as ever, but he didn't even need them to hear the news of King Sebastian's mysteriously-acquired injuries. The Essex newspapers listed a broken leg, four broken fingers, four broken ribs, considerable damage to the face, and internal injuries to the kidney and intestines. Erik read that article over and over like a bedtime story, imagining how each injury might have come about, how it would have felt to deliver the blows.

The king, only intermittently conscious at the time of the article, was expected to be bedridden for months, and the Prince Consort, therefore – though still in fragile health himself – was declared Prince Regent until Sebastian was well enough to resume his duties.

At this news, Erik pulled together his meager supplies, and shocked his recruits with an all-night celebration.

 

Letters to and from Charles were more difficult than ever to relay, in their new location; as autumn settled firmly around them, however, Erik was finally able to send Marius, his personal messenger, out to the border, to give Howlett a handful of envelopes to send along to Charles, and collect what turned out to be nearly a dozen that Howlett had been keeping for him.

Those letters immediately replaced Sebastian's news article as repeat bedtime reading. They came with several sketches, done by Charles's friend Steve – Charles holding the baby twins, Raven petting the cat, Armando giving baby Alexander a bottle, and Charles's new valet, Clint Barton, carrying Hank on his shoulders.

Armando has quite adopted little Alex, Charles wrote. His brother gets so much more attention, as the heir, that I quite encourage the attachment. As Alex gets old enough to perceive how little Sebastian cares for him, I think it will do him good to know he is someone's favorite. Clint seems to have taken to Hank in a similar way; they've come up with a hand-language that the rest of us are picking up as well. It's a much faster way to talk to Clint than writing everything, and it's astonishing to realize how much more Hank and even Raven can say that way than they can verbally.

The letter before that had shared the news of Hank's first intelligible word – "book" – though it had apparently come out something more like "bug."

It made Erik quite ill to think of his youngest son being named Sebastian, so he was very glad to read, in the latest-dated letter, that there was no need to think of him by that name.

I had been trying out several nicknames for the little fellow, including Sebby, Ginger, even Banshee (on account of his piercing shrieks), but the one I elected to stick with was Bastian, pronounced the French way, bas-tee-AHN. I'm happy to say the name has drifted further even than that; the little ones, unable to manage the pronunciation, took to calling him ba-Shawn and then merely Shawn, which I've decided to spell the Gaelic way, Sean, so as to remove the 'Shaw' from it.

Less welcome news was the level of interest Sebastian took in his heir. The moment the man was able to string words together, he began asking for his son; Charles was forced to at least occasionally bring Sean to the king's bedside, to be petted and cooed over in what seemed, surprisingly, to be honest affection. The other children Sebastian ignored more thoroughly than ever; Erik trusted they would come to see that as a blessing.

It will be months still before Sebastian can stand or even speak clearly, Charles wrote. Until then, I must admit I find the position of Prince Regent almost intoxicating. There is very little that I cannot do, though doing it in such a way that Sebastian cannot reverse it when he returns is more difficult. I find, too, that a great many of Sebastian's lesser followers are just as willing to follow me, so long as I am the one in power; I try not to judge them too harshly for it, knowing this is the way the game is played. I do not fool myself that I have their permanent allegiance, but I'm quite willing to make as much use of them as possible, while the opportunity lasts.

I've also been in a position to learn quite a bit more about the situation in Essex. His penmanship faltered a bit here. I know the revolution has taken heavy losses, and that Howlett has not seen you nor any of your men in months. I have forced myself not to worry, nor beg you for replies you are clearly in no position to write one way or ano but my fear curiosity is finally getting the better of me. Oh, please, love, write to me. A single line to tell me you are safe would be the greatest possible gift.

Erik reminded himself he had several letters already on their way to Charles, via Howlett. There was no need to immediately set pen to paper for Charles's reassurance, however strong the instinct. Instead, he opened the last letter.

It was actually the earliest dated of the lot, he realized, somehow shuffled to the bottom of the pile; he thought it would mostly be things he already knew, but reading just how near-disastrous the twins' birth had been had him reaching for a stiff drink, and Sebastian's murder attempt afterward nearly made him break his glass.

My memory of it is terribly unclear, but certain bruises and scratches on my flesh bear me out – the attempt did occur. Whether it truly was Lord Azazel who intervened, and whether it is by his efforts that Sebastian now lies incapacitated, I cannot say with any certainty.

Erik, for one, found it disturbingly easy to imagine Azazel with arcane powers. It would actually explain quite a bit. He took a moment to treasure the mental image of Sebastian begging for mercy while Azazel kicked him in the face. His smile faded, however, when he read on, and the next paragraph told of Charles's near-assassination while Sebastian lay on the operating table.

It's something, I suppose, to know Sebastian hasn't been leading us merrily along on a lie. The 'contingency plan' is very definitely in place, and now at least I know the face of one of my two assigned assassins, though I've been unable to discover anything else about him.

You were, of course, very much in my thoughts throughout all these trials, my love. In truth, I needed you so much that my brain apparently decided to produce you, in whatever way it could. I saw you, heard you, felt you encouraging me – forcing me, really – to cling to life despite the pain. Without that, I doubt I would have woken at all after the twins were born.

Erik's mind flashed with the image of a Charles who couldn't possibly be there, holding out a hand to urge him up out of the flooding ravine.

As silly as it may sound, I can't help hoping that somehow, in some tiny way, you really were there – and that I might be there for you in the same way, whenever you need me.

Erik, pressing the letter to his lips, didn't think that sounded silly at all.

***

12 November
10:58 – His Majesty the Prince Regent moves to increase allocation of funds for rural schooling; see footnote for details.
11:30 – Motion carried, 17-10.
11:52 – King's Advisor the Earl of Leland proposes amendment to the Local Governance Act, including but not limited to the creation of a new federal position overseeing the gubernatorial level.
12:11 – His Majesty the Prince Regent moves to create a new federal position overseeing the actions of Assembly members, reporting to the Prince Regent.
12:15 – Prince Regent's motion not carried.
12:30 – Earl of Leland's motion not carried.

19 November
12:19 – Baronet Winters brought before Assembly to face charges of treason in the form of appropriating the Crown's proper gold. (for full transcript, see attached)
1:28 – Witnesses heard against.
4:46 – Witnesses heard in defense.
6:03 – Final arguments. The accused speaks in his own defense.
6:53 – Baronet Winters found guilty of treason by unanimous vote. In addition to a sentence of death, the Baronetcy and all goods and properties belonging to the house of Winters revert to the Crown.
7:02 – His Majesty the Prince Regent moves to commute sentence of death in favor of lifelong banishment, with seven days' delay before enforcement.
7:31 – Motion carried, 21-6.
7:40 – His Majesty the Prince Regent moves to transfer all dependents of House Winters into the custody of the Duke of New Brooklyn, for a period not less than one or more than nine years.
8:07 – Motion carried, 16-11.

10 December
9:12 – King's Advisor the Earl of Leland, Duke Worthington, and 4 others (see footnote) present for consideration a Declaration of Alliance with King Nathaniel of Essex.
11:10 – His Majesty the Prince Regent moves to eject Duke Worthington from Assembly due to disruptive behavior.
11:20 – Motion rescinded.
1:27 – Assembly breaks for midday meal.
3:05 – Earl of Leland moves discussion be resumed despite absence of His Majesty the Prince Regent.
3:18 – Motion not carried.
3:21 – Discussion of Declaration of Alliance with King Nathaniel of Essex resumes with full attendance.
4:13 – Duke Worthington moves Lord Anthony of House Stark, Westchester Proxy, be ejected from Assembly due to disruptive behavior and threats against the Duke's person.
4:20 – Motion carried 19-7.
5:22 – Unauthorized entry into Assembly room of Dowager Duchess MacTaggert and Her Royal Highness, Princess Raven. Baron Coulson moves for recess.
5:24 – Motion carried 16-10.
5:40 – Dowager Duchess MacTaggert departs, Princess Raven remains. His Majesty the Prince Regent moves to resume discussion.
5:59 – Motion carried, 15-11.
6:01 – Earl of Leland lodges formal complaint against Prince Regent for allowing an unauthorized and underaged person to remain in Assembly room during discussion.
6:06 – Prince Regent moves to adopt Her Royal Highness, Princess Raven as official Assembly room mascot.
6:09 – Motion not carried.
8:31 – Duke Worthington moves for immediate vote on the consideration of a Declaration of Alliance with King Nathaniel of Essex; ayes for the drafting of such a contract, nays against it.
8:39 – Motion for immediate vote carried 22-4.
8:56 – The nays have it, 14-12. Assembly session closed.

***

The surprise attack of the December 10th session left Charles's nerves shredded; Genosha had come within two votes of throwing full support – not mere supplemental border guards or supplies, but active military intervention – behind King Nathaniel against the revolutionaries. Charles would have voted against supporting Nathaniel's cruel, brutal reign even without Erik in the danger zone, but that certainly lent urgency to the matter. It made him half-mad to know that most of the votes in favor had come less from loyalty to a longstanding ally than queasy fear that the idea of revolution would spread from Essex's common people to Genosha's. Well, that, and the fat trade agreements Nathaniel was offering in exchange for aid. Charles had actually been glad of Raven's fussy, feverish refusal to leave him; keeping her soothed and quiet distracted him from strangling anyone.

It was a balm, then, to have nothing more unusual in the next week's session than his own motion to adjourn Assembly and most other government work for the celebration of Christmas and Hannukah. His peers were surprised, both holidays being considered minor by most, but not displeased to have a break, especially after Charles spent some minutes waxing poetic about how he had enjoyed the occasion in Wakanda (with, of course, certain details left out). In fact, it was so well received (motion carried 25-2, only stubborn old Leland and a rather dotty old Baron dissenting), that he rather thought he'd make more of a push, next year, to spread the observance to the public at large.

He had hoped to spend the holiday at the manor in Westchester, and look in on Dr. Henri's progress in person, but nothing could be got from Sebastian that looked remotely like consent. They stayed at the palace, therefore, but kept almost entirely to their own rooms, refusing to receive any other visitors than Clint Barton, Tony and Steve, and on one occasion, Natasha with her two daughters.

Their rooms, with the advent of the twins, had been considerably expanded, Charles taking over the suites to either side (with compensation to their inhabitants) and renovating extensively. It had been a month of hammers and dust and retreating to an inadequate alternative suite, at a time when Charles badly needed peace, but at least it was done now. Moira had her own chamber again, as did Armando; Angel and Raven shared, as did the three infant boys. They had a Christmas tree, a kitchenette, and a new bath arrangement that was easier to use in a wheelchair. If Sebastian were to somehow find his way past the reinforced door now, he wouldn't even know the place.

On Christmas Eve Day, Lieutenant Howlett showed up beneath their balcony, calling for Moira to help him carry the back-breaking pile of luggage he'd been saddled with for reasons beyond his ken. Moira flushed and hurried down the stairs with no more than a bright-eyed glance at Charles. When she returned a few hours later, it was with a package from Erik.

Christmas presents. A stuffed rabbit for Raven, lavender in the stuffing, to give it her favorite scent. A book for Hank, a child's bestiary with sturdy binding and gorgeous illustrations. For the twins, soft blue-and-green striped blankets, with the names ALEX and SEAN sewn in Erik's own hand, inexpert but strong. He'd even remembered the fosterlings, a stuffed bear for each. And for Charles, two boxes – one of bath salts, a sweet-but-spicy scent Erik said he had also purchased for himself; the other a chess set carved from onyx and marble, his first move already written out.

"From Santa Claus," he told the children as they opened and exclaimed over their gifts.

"From Daddy," he whispered later, when they had all fallen asleep with gifts still in hand.

***

My dearest Charles,

I have had no opportunity to send or collect letters since Christmas, and I know it shall be a week more at least, full into February – still I write at every opportunity, watching the pile of sealed envelopes grow. I like to envision a similar stack growing in poor Howlett's keeping, no doubt irritating him more each day.

I can only trust he delivered my Christmas-Hannukah gifts in proper time. My own version of a chess set is paper and bits of scrap wood, but it awaits your next move eagerly. By this time I assure you I have a cunning answer to any possible response.

We have finally regrouped and recovered from our losses enough to start moving forward again, though cautiously. We have had a handful of border skirmishes, and plan to soon liberate the prisoners taken by King Nathaniel's forces. With any luck, that will lead to larger actions.

But all is not combat and strategy, even in a secret revolutionary hideaway – I'm sure it will surprise you to know we had a wedding here, three days past. My second in command, Captain Enjolras, finally wised up to the intentions of his poor devoted idiot Grantaire. I'd begun to think someone should paint a sign. I officiated the wedding, for lack of anyone better; the legality of that is almost irrelevant, since marriages between men-simple, worse than the disapproval they face in Genosha as childless unions, are outright forbidden in Essex. It is one of the many injustices the revolution plans to eliminate, so if we win, all is well, and if we do not, they are both dead anyway. You and I know, more than anyone, the value of the heart's choice over the law.

Oh, beloved. I would not lower your spirits by dwelling on a pain you can do so little to mitigate, but I would have you know, always, how much you are loved and missed. I think often of the life we could have had, the country duke and his cantankerous hermit of a husband, teaching our children to ride their ponies and suffer through art lessons. I have been a warrior since I was hardly more than a child, and there was a time when I would have disdained to give up the sword – but the desire for a soldier's life was dying when I met you, and it is only a withered memory now. I would not have you think me unhappy in my current position; but for your absence it is well enough, and a cause worth fighting for, if fight I must. Some days I still have some warrior's fire in me – but tonight I can think only of how many hours' ride would bring me to you.

On that note, I am off to abuse my command privileges, and put our greenest recruits through the trouble of drawing me a bath, so I can soak in our scented salts and think of you.

With you always, in heart if not body,
Erik

 


My sweet Erik,

I hope spring has brought blooms and greenery to your secret camp, wherever it is. As I am lucky enough to spend the winter in well-warmed rooms, generally holding two children and a cat at any given moment, I do not find the cold difficult to bear – nevertheless, it lifts my heart to see the gardens return from their grey sleep, filling the air with color and scent (and pollen, but I will forgo giving you the details of my watery eyes and nose; I hardly want you to envision me so).

I am sorry to report that Sebastian's condition is much improved. He can walk for short periods, and he speaks frequently of returning to his kingly duties, but the doctors will not hear of it just yet. If Lady Emma is taking some care to keep the head doctor in that opinion as long as possible, in return for certain favors, that is neither here nor there.

I am in a dead rush, now, to do as much as I might before I lose the Regency. I try not to think how much it will hurt to be banished again from Assembly. Tony has settled into his proxy position fairly well by now, which is good in most ways, but as he grows more confident and knowledgeable, he sometimes resists my instruction and advice. I never thought I need worry about the Westchester vote coming against me, but it has happened once since I became Regent. Tony is a good man doing what he believes to be right, and I cannot fault him for that, yet it is more aggravating than ever to think of leaving Westchester permanently in his hands – or anyone's but my own. I know my other friends and allies will be bewildered when I am ousted as Regent and still fail to reclaim my position as Duke; it cannot help but make me seem weak and untrustworthy. But there is nothing for it. I know the children, at least, will appreciate having my full attention once more.

Sebastian is not the only one working on his locomotor skills; I'm getting to be a fair hand at my crutches these days. I try to take comfort in the idea that at least my progress will not be derailed by any further pregnancies. Truly, I know it is silly for a parent of six to mourn that; in truth I think it is less a matter of wanting more children (though I would have liked them) as is it losing a dream – of having a child with you openly, having you there to care for me through all of it, seeing you smile as you hold our newborn baby. That was never likely to happen, of course, but losing the faint possibility hit me harder than I expected. Still, as I said, there are many advantages to having the whole fertility mess over with – no more Cleansings, no more morning sickness, easier motion – I can finally lose some portion of my fat layer – and I will never again have to submit to Sebastian's attempts to impregnate me, either himself or by proxy.

You, of course, I entirely except from the list of trials Sebastian has put me through, in case you ever doubted it. You are likely the only reason I'm still sane. Assuming that I am – I suppose I'd be the last to know otherwise – but at any rate Moira has not spoken of locking me up yet.

Yours, as ever,
Charles

***

18 March

10:30 – Assembly opens, delayed by Royal Reinvestiture Ceremony, in which the Regency is officially ended and His Majesty King Sebastian returned to full duties and privileges.
10:36 – Assembly formally acknowledges the return of His Majesty the King and thanks His Highness the Prince Consort for his service as Regent.
10:38 – His Majesty the King moves for a Declaration of Alliance with King Nathaniel of Essex.
11:25 – His Majesty the King instructs bailiffs to escort His Highness the Prince Consort from Assembly room on grounds of unauthorized presence, as the Westchester vote is currently under proxy, as well as disruptive behavior.
1:58 – After prolonged discussion, His Majesty the King uses King's Privilege to demand immediate vote; ayes for alliance with Essex, nays against.
2:20 – The ayes have it, 20-7. Alliance with Essex formally declared.

Chapter Text

It was stunning, how quickly Charles went from the most powerful man in Genosha, a heartbeat away from the Crown – to being no one at all. Carried bodily from Assembly and sent back to the nursery to care for the children like a good androji.

For months he fought with the limited tools at his disposal to prevent Genosha's going to war. Sebastian could not keep him from merely socializing with Assembly members; he debated and persuaded as fiercely as anyone with a vote. A few well-placed bribes and threats did something to slow the preparation of men, supplies, and ships. It was not enough. The ships sailed.

Inevitably, the Duchess Regent Romanova asked when Charles planned to return to Assembly as the Duke of Westchester. Charles couldn't bear to look at her confusion and dismay when he said he didn't.

"Tony and Steve are apprised of the situation. We're making things work with Tony as my long-term proxy." Charles rubbed his forehead and continued hesitantly, "Natasha, I have had to make certain sacrifices to Sebastian's..." What word could encompass it? 'Evil' was surely too melodramatic. "To Sebastian. To preserve myself. And others. My Assembly seat is but the second-hardest to bear."

Natasha looked at him piercingly. "There are rumors, you know. Of a lover."

"Are there."

He was surprised when Natasha touched his shoulder, her expression softening a little. Natasha had never named the father of her two girls, despite all the pressure society and government could bring to bear; Charles hoped to God she knew the pain of being parted from a lover, as preferable to being a victim of assault.

Natasha might have personal sympathy for him, but he noted that she, and most of the others, were not as certain to include him in discussion after that, but went straight to Tony. They were practical people, after all. Why waste precious time with someone whose moves in the game had grown so limited?

***

It wasn’t terribly odd for people to gather under Charles’s balcony, hoping for a glimpse of the royal family. Sometimes they brought gifts or sang songs, and when possible Charles tried to take a moment to acknowledge them, if only with a wave. The guards kept any real mischief-makers away.

Charles, simultaneously signing to Clint about a letter to Baron Coulson and soothing Raven’s emotional crisis as the loss of a doll, therefore took little notice of the crowd gathering below. Until one of them threw a rock through a downstairs window.

Take children inside, Charles signed, and pushed his chair over to the balcony railing.

This was no gathering of sight-seers and well-wishers. There were dozens of them, generating a distinctly angry murmur. A few held signs. NO MORE WAR. KING NAT’S PROBLEM. KEEP OUR SONS OFF ESSEX SOIL.

The first casualty report from Essex, Charles remembered, had been released that morning.

The unprepared guards were trying to disperse the crowd. Even as Charles watched, a shouting match between a guard and a man with a sign became an exchange of blows. The noise level skyrocketed.

“Papa, are those people angry?” Angel asked at his elbow, evading Clint’s attempt to catch her.

“Go pack up some of your toys, love,” Charles said. “We’re sleeping somewhere else tonight.”

 

“Papa, wake up.”

It took Charles several seconds to identify the strange angles and shadows around him as their new rooms, in the inmost area of the palace. He rubbed his eyes, squinting up into Armando’s nervous face. “What’s wrong?”

“I think they’re getting closer. Listen.”

Even here, they had found they could hear traces of the protest taking place outside, and Charles had lain awake for hours listening to the shouts and chants. It was past midnight now, and occasional wisps of noise had become a constant tide of voices, hoofbeats, the clash of weapons and blare of horns.

The protest had become a riot. And Armando was right, it was getting closer.

Charles woke Moira and Clint, who had his own chambers but had refused to leave them tonight. Moving quickly and quietly, they pulled the children’s beds as far from the door as possible, behind a screen of other furniture. Clint, unable to hear the commotion, let Moira sit slightly in front of him, so that he could cue off her reactions. Between Clint’s crossbow, Moira’s knife, and Charles’s pistol, no one would find the royal family easy prey. Charles hoped.

All the children were awake now, the babies fretting in their cribs. Armando shushed them, calm and casual, only his eyes giving him away. He sat on his bed with Alex in his lap and Angel clinging to his side, singing some Wakandan lullaby under his breath. It made a peculiar counterpoint to the sinister cries and crashes from outside.

Minutes dragged on into hours, most of the children dozing off again despite the noise. Uneasily, Charles let Raven curl up in his lap, her distinctive golden hair under a blanket in case someone came through the door.

Charles didn’t realize he’d nodded off himself until sudden noise woke him with a jolt of terror – glass breaking, crashing and thumping, a scream. Moira grabbed his arm as he instinctively raised the gun, shook her head. The noise had come from above them; they weren’t in immediate danger yet.

Hank began to cry; Moira hurried to calm him. Footsteps pounded by their door, in one direction, then another – palace residents? Soldiers? Looters?

More breaking glass. Closer, this time. Charles kept an arm over Raven in his lap, his gun trained on the door.

When it flew open, he restrained himself from firing by the barest margin, recognizing Lord Azazel. Clint had no such compunction, letting an arrow fly – Charles couldn't fathom how it missed, in truth, but he heard it thunk into the opposite wall of the corridor, invisible behind a layer of smoke.

"Slava bogu," Azazel said with heartfelt relief, seemingly unperturbed by his brush with death. "Still safe. Come, we must hurry."

"What's happening?" Charles asked. In his peripheral vision, Moira was frantically signing friend, friend to Clint, which was possibly an overstatement, but the man had certainly caused no trouble for them since his return from Essex.

"Rioters inside now," Azazel said. "These things get life of their own. Too much anger unbottling at once."

Charles nodded. On a normal day, the people liked their Prince Consort and adored the royal children – but that might not protect them tonight. "You have somewhere to take us?"

"Yes. Safe place." He stooped to lift Raven from Charles's lap, settling her against his own chest with surprisingly gentle hands and shushing her sleepy grumble. "No need to bring things, I will provide. But hurry."

He led them through back corridors echoing with distant shouts and crashes, past broken windows, walls dark with smoke and scored from combat, more than one pool of drying blood. They made for an inelegant band, Charles in his wheelchair, Angel trotting at her brother's side on overworked little legs, each adult bearing a weapon in one hand and a bundled babe in the other.

"I have carriage waiting," Azazel murmured as they entered an area that was vaguely familiar to Charles – he was fairly sure the next door would open out near the stables. "Will be tight fit, but—"

The very door they'd been heading toward burst open with a splintering crash, the corridor flooding with angry howls, men with clubs and torches. Charles raised his gun, but surely – these were his own people, surely there was a way—

There wasn't. The intruders were already rushing toward them, weapons raised, faces set in grimaces of blind rage. An arrow streaked over Charles's head, and one man fell, taking down two others with his weight; Azazel's sword flashed and the foremost intruder leaped back, clutching what remained of his arm.

"Link hands," Azazel shouted. "Everyone link hands!" He grabbed Angel's wrist, Darwin grabbed hers and Moira's – Charles was bewildered but followed suit, clutching little Hank with one hand and Clint's arm with the other.

There was a loud sound, something between an explosion and the rush of wind, and a billow of sulfurous red smoke.

And instead of the back corridor full of rioters, they were in the perfect calm of an unfamiliar front parlor. The only sound or movement was the crackling fire in the grate.

"Lord Azazel," Charles said, after several seconds' stunned silence, "pray do not think me ungrateful for your aid, but I really must request an explanation for this."

"Of course, of course," Azazel said. "Children to bed first, yes?"

But when the children were bedded down in the rooms he showed them to – clean and quite well-appointed, only a shade below royal standards – Charles turned to find Azazel gone. Searching, they found more sleeping children and Azazel's husband, Janos; still debating whether to wake anyone, they stumbled across a thoroughly surprised housekeeper, just taking up her duties. She, at least, was able to confirm that the house was Azazel's, and far enough from the palace that they'd had no trouble from the riot.

One could see signs of it, however, from the upper windows – the red glow of fire, hints of movement and noise, columns of smoke blocking the stars. Charles stayed by the window, one hand fisted stiffly in the curtain.

"Your master has quite the gift of coming and going," he said to the housekeeper.

"Aye, my lord Prince," she replied in a nervous half-whisper. "He's a... an unsettling man, to be sure. But he's a fair master, so what have I to say about it?"

He's a demon, Charles thought but did not say. That had long been the rumor, and Charles had scoffed at it as ignorant and hysterical. Azazel was odd-looking and odd-mannered and possibly an enemy, he'd thought, but only a man. Perhaps the rumor was not so very ignorant after all. What man could transport them a mile or more across the city in an eyeblink? And do the same, perhaps, from Genosha to Essex, to prevent the king murdering his consort? Whatever Azazel was, Charles owed him his own life and his children's.

He stayed watching from the window the rest of the night, wondering whether Sebastian was in the thick of the fighting, what the odds were that he might be killed, and whether Charles ought to hope for it or not. Only as the first traces of dawn crept up from the horizon did the fires at the palace die away, and only then could Charles bring himself to seek a bed.

 

When Azazel returned, far into the day, Charles and Janos were in the midst of making arrangements to leave the city for their respective country estates.

"It's so kind of you to lend us a carriage, Lord Janos, and to host us here so unexpectedly. I know I must inform His Majesty of our destination, but hesitate to send a messenger into the mess of the inner city; do you suppose your husband, when he returns—"

"I am here." Azazel looked weary and somewhat exasperated. "Go on, beloved, get our children away – you are wise to have begun already. But my lord Prince will not be going."

"What?"

"His Majesty the King demands that you and the children return to the palace immediately."

***

The streets were quiet now, covered in debris and heavily patrolled by soldiers. The two carriages necessary to transport four adults and six children wound through backways and detours, eager to avoid both the worst damage and the most visible routes. Charles, peering through the curtain, kept it angled so Armando and Angel couldn't see, but the attempt to shield them proved futile; when they arrived at the palace, they had to pick their way through the rubble of the east wall to reach the entrance. Charles's wheelchair proved entirely unequal to the challenge, so once the children were indoors, Clint and Azazel came back to carry Charles and the chair separately.

Sebastian was waiting for them in the foyer, grinning, streaked with grime and smoke and blood. Moira, Charles noted, was holding Sean very tightly, angled away from the king. "Ah, there you are!" Sebastian said heartily, as Clint settled Charles back into his chair. "All my little chicks back home to roost."

"Sebastian, I can only assume you've called us here to better organize our departure from the city."

"Departure? How absurd. The danger is passed, why leave now?"

Charles just stared at him, an all-too-familiar helpless rage kindling in his middle. "You say this to me with the blood of our attackers still drying on your clothes? Have you sustained an injury to the head? More riots might come at any moment, Sebastian. The danger of the remaining palace walls falling around us deserves a mention as well."

"Oh, trust me, my dear," Sebastian said, grinning all the more broadly, "there will be no more riots. None at all. As for the palace, why, rebuilding has already begun. I'm afraid your usual chambers were rather badly damaged, but we will be perfectly safe in our new quarters in the most fortified area of the palace. Come, let me show you"

We? Our quarters? Charles swallowed nauseous dread, and, lacking other options, followed Sebastian down the corridor.

The chambers he led them to seemed secure, Charles had to admit, located deep in the bowels of the palace's core. But they were also dingy, drafty, windowless, and quite small, three connected rooms perhaps half the size of their usual ones.

"Sebastian," Charles said carefully, "I understand if, as king, you feel bound to stay here. But ensuring the safety of the children—"

"Where could they be safer than under the immediate protection of their father, the king? Really, Charles, I don't know how you could expect me to let them – or you! – out of my sight in such unsettled times. And I do believe we agreed you would not leave the city without my express permission?" Sebastian's smile seemed to have grown permanent. "Lady Moira will, of course, be granted her privacy in the nearest rooms available, which are on the next floor. We shall make it work splendidly, you'll see." He plucked Sean out of Moira's arms and crossed the room to sit on the room's only furniture – a large bed, positioned in full view of the door. "We'll have the children's things brought in to the other rooms, of course, and this one, this shall be ours. Won't it be marvelous, Charles, to all be together as a family?"

***

My dear Erik,
When I wrote to assure you of our safety after the riots, I did not quite have the heart to mention Sebastian's insistence on our sharing chambers, as a "security measure." I hope you will forgive the omission; at that time Moira and I had already concocted a plan to change the situation, and it was my hope that I would not have to give you distressing news until I could say it was already in the past. I am happy to say that it has worked out exactly so. Sebastian stated his intention to seek chambers of his own yesterday, and by nightfall had moved his things out. This morning I have a locksmith working quietly to render Sebastian's key a moot issue.

Would you like to know what accomplished this marvel? Annoyance, my dear. Pure trivial irritation and annoyance. I knew that insisting would only dig his heels in deeper, and any attempt at force would end in blood, but it did not take me long to realize Sebastian had no concept of the realities of sharing space with small children.

Nap schedules being already disrupted by the excitement, it look little effort to arrange them so that the children were at their tiredest and crankiest when Sebastian was most likely to be in the room. We took some pains, when possible, to save their most horrific nappies to be changed at this time also. And of course, I am still nursing Alex and Sean, all the more so with Moira unavailable in the night; it became quite the game, acting as if I were trying not to wake Sebastian, while actually doing the opposite. Keeping our rooms in a constant state of chaos and noise, with toys strewn about and half-chewed snacks underfoot, did rather grate on our nerves; Moira, especially, has always taken pride in being clean and tidy. But it was worth it to watch Sebastian's face every time he stepped on something sharp, hard, or soggy; once he fell flat on his bottom in a puddle of spilled juice.

We thought, then, that we might have pushed too far, too fast, for he became quite a tyrant for cleanliness; but Raven saved us there. After Sebastian watched us spend hours getting everything just so, she came streaking in from her lessons and left a trail of mud, books, papers, and leaves right through the middle of the floor. Sebastian stormed out and never mentioned it again.

The fosterlings seemed to catch on, quite without our meaning them to, and gleefully contributed to the chaos. I believe Armando to be behind the subtle, steady vanishings of Sebastian's belongings – cufflinks and cravats, knives and coins and bootlaces. I would say that this was what drove Sebastian mad more than anything else, except I believe Raven and Angel's music lessons take that prize.

Even more so, the last straw seems to have been Hank. The poor fellow has had an ear infection this last week or so, which I would never have induced, but of course took full advantage of, exposing Sebastian to as much of his fretfulness and crying as possible. The night before last, poor Hank was so miserable and feverish that he would not sleep unless I held him; perforce, I brought him to our bed. You are well aware that little "mutant" Hank is Sebastian's least favorite child, and he will not have him within arm's length if he can help it. Having Sebastian keep to his side of the bed for once – a fraction of it, even – was quite the joy. If I loosened Hank's nappy the least bit, so that His Majesty woke to a soiled and stinking bed, well it was only to help his suffering from the fever.

Charles set down his pen for a moment, uncertain how to continue. Surely there was no point recounting to Erik the deep horror it had been, sharing a bed with Sebastian – how had he lain sleepless for hours every night, terrified the man would move in his direction, and suffered frequent nightmares – not of Sebastian, curiously enough, but of Victor, the twins' faked conception that had left him bruised and bleeding, jumping at shadows for weeks. Though in some versions of the dream, as in the event itself, Victor and Sebastian became inextricably mixed, a two-headed monster...

Twice only, in the first week in their shared chambers, Sebastian had moved to assert his husbandly rights. The first time, Charles had looked him dead in the eye and begun screaming like a wild thing. As per Sebastian's own orders, the room was immediately flooded with guards, to whom Charles sweetly explained he'd stubbed his toe. If the guard captain had raised an eyebrow, glancing from Charles's position (entirely in bed) to the wheelchair and back, he'd said nothing. It had taken hours to get the children back to sleep.

The next night, Sebastian held a knife to his throat and told him to stay quiet. Charles grinned and screamed for the guards anyway; they responded, if anything, slightly faster than the first time. He'd paid only with a very slight nick to his throat, due more to Sebastian's surprise than anything. Killing Charles would have brought Azazel down on him, rather less forgiving than last time, and they both knew it. He didn't try again.

One night Charles had woken, at the hour the twins usually wanted nursing, to find Sebastian giving Sean a bottle. In the dim room, thinking himself unobserved, Sebastian had cradled and crooned at his heir with unmistakable tenderness and affection. Charles had lain utterly still, trying not to be physically ill, until Alex's fussing gave him an excuse to get up – at which point Sebastian transformed immediately into the smirking lowlife Charles knew and hated so well.

That Sebastian might be capable of honest human emotion was another thing he'd rather not mention to Erik.

***

Genosha's involvement changed everything in Essex. With the influx of manpower, the revolution was flushed out of the shadows within weeks. This did not lead, as King Nathaniel probably expected, to its immediate decapitation and collapse, but rather to unapologetic warfare in the streets – and swelling of the revolution's ranks as the people of Essex rose in outrage against the foreign troops sweeping their towns. Erik and his men were called out of their secret headquarters and into full service; by the end of the year, the western third of the country was under revolutionary control, calling itself Free Essex.

The borders of Free Essex moved forward thirty miles, and then back ten; forward fifteen, back sixteen. Erik had to fight a dizzy disorientation, now and then, to find his own sword cutting through Genoshan uniforms. It was getting easier, though. He tried not to dwell on that.

Writing to Charles grew both more and less difficult. Howlett was certainly easier to get to on the front lines than he had been from their isolated training manor, but correspondence was also easier to intercept, and the consequences of that interception ever more dire. Erik depended more and more heavily on a single trusted messenger, Marius, who thus far had asked no questions – but they crowded closer and closer to the surface of his expression, and Erik knew he was leaning on a slender reed. What choice did he have? To establish some new line of communication would be riskier still, and the prospect of ceasing communication with Charles was too agonizing to contemplate.

You feel like a dream sometimes, he wrote, as the last chill of winter clung to their slow-thawing camp, two years into outright war, nearly three since he'd seen Charles. Another life, lived by another man – but a life I loved more than my own heartbeat, a dream I would trade this reality for without a thought. Will you have your friend sketch you again? The last one was lost to rain some nights ago, and I miss it terribly. He did not write his fear that he would forget Charles's face, his terrified suspicion that he had already lost the precise shade of his eyes, the texture of his hair. Three years was not so very long, he told himself. He could endure three years.

But how much longer?

***

When Sebastian gave orders for a second wave of personnel and supplies to be prepared, eight months in, Charles dreaded another riot, undoubtedly to be put down as brutally as the first. Instead, some enterprising souls took a more direct route of protest, and torched those of the King's fields that were slated for military use.

"Not that I don't agree with the sentiment," Charles fumed to Tony at their strategy meeting the next afternoon, "but for heaven's sake, couldn't they have thought it through? All they've done is provoked Sebastian into commandeering civilian crops instead. It's the common people who will suffer for that, not the soldiers. Nor should the soldiers suffer – that's our own men! It's not their fault the King is a bloodthirsty maniac."

Tony was watching him with the casually curious look that so often preceded the snap of a steel trap. "What would you suggest, then?"

"Well..." Charles huffed a laugh. "Well, in fact, there was this fungus that got into the hay on the Westchester farms, years ago. It wasn't so much toxic as irritating – any of the horses or cattle that fed on the stuff got desperately loose in the bowels. Ship a bit of that to Essex, and see how much good our men do King Nathaniel when their mounts are too sick to march."

Tony leaned forward, a grin stealing over his face. "And what if I told you I knew exactly the man who could put that plan into action?"

That was how Charles found himself a member of the Natural Science Society, alongside Tony and his friends Dr. Bruce Banner, Dr. Jane Foster, and Dr. Erik Selvig. If they spent more time studying shipping orders and guard schedules than star movement and bird migration, no one could prove it yet.

Meanwhile, the children remained largely oblivious to the tensions pulling the adults around them ever tighter – with the exception, perhaps, of the ever-perceptive Armando. Raven turned three, and then four, old enough to attend the occasional public event in full princess regalia, which she enjoyed immensely. Hank, reading voraciously (if at a simple level) at age three, was content to let Clint carry him everywhere and had to be scolded into doing his physical therapy, but it was at least making a definite difference now. His feet were close enough to normal that Dr. Watson said he might well be walking if they had thought to develop his leg strength in the early days as well. The twins liked to run circles around their older brother while he cheerfully knocked them down with toys and books. Alex, in particular, loved to tease and poke at Hank, then toddle swiftly out of his reach. It seemed to be their version of bonding.

Charles endeavored to keep little Sean out of the public eye as much as possible, though demand to see the Crown Prince was always high. Between his wild, frizzy red hair, the copious freckles he seemed to pick up by the mere mention of sunshine, and his habit of falling off things, earning constant bruises and smudges, Sean seldom looked the part of princeling – but he was, at least, a mild and easygoing boy who didn't mind being peered and poked at by strangers.

Sebastian dropped in to see his heir two or three times a week, his schedule permitting; Charles used the riots as an excuse, however thin, to keep his door locked, so that they had at least a moment's warning before letting the King inside. Sometimes, of course, Sebastian surprised them in the gardens, the banquet hall, at lessons or any number of places, which kept Charles in a constant state of nervous dread. Perhaps soon the novelty would wear off of the King's latest prize. Comfortingly, he still showed little interest in the other children.

Little interest in most of the other children, Charles corrected himself, because as Angel inched from babyish childhood into the fragile land just before adolescence, Sebastian began spending more attention on her, as well, and to Charles's dismay she lapped it up. Despite his peculiar determination to get the girl to Genosha, Sebastian had seemed mostly content to let her be until now – but whatever interest he had in her had returned with a vengeance. For the moment, he seemed to have nothing more nefarious in mind than making Angel and Sean like and trust him, though that was far from harmless. Charles felt helpless to do much about it; warnings to stay away from Sebastian would surely come back to bite them, parroted to the wrong person at the wrong time.

One thing, though, Charles found he had to utterly insist upon, whether it angered Sebastian or not; Victor Creed was not to come anywhere near the children.

In the midst of a Natural Science Society meeting, he found Angel at his elbow, breathless with running, near tears of fear and fury. "The King insisted we let him in," she said. "When I left, he was tossing Sean at the ceiling."

They rushed back to Charles's chambers and found Victor in the front room. Moira had evidently gotten Sean away from him – she was clutching him and Raven to her chest, shaking with impotent rage – but he was now casually swinging a screaming, sobbing Alex by his ankle. With his other hand, he dangled a sweet just out of Hank's reach, laughing when the little boy couldn't stand up to grab it. Armando, tall for twelve but no kind of match for Victor, was brandishing a stout stick and demanding that Alex be set down immediately. They all looked up at Charles's entrance.

"Get out, Victor," Charles said flatly.

"And if I say no?"

Charles rang the klaxon for the guards.

Victor grinned at him, all predatory satisfaction, looking Charles up and down like a dessert he'd sampled before and couldn't wait to try again. He dropped Alex and swaggered toward the door as if it were his own idea; the guards arrived just in time to escort him from the palace as Charles double-bolted the door behind him.

It took most of the afternoon for Charles's hands to stop shaking, and nothing he ate the rest of the day would stay down.

"He's on furlough, didn't I tell you?" Sebastian said when Charles cornered him before dinner. "Of course he wanted to see his sons."

"Not his sons," Charles snapped. "Your sons, or do you want people to wonder why Sir Victor has such an interest in them? I won't tolerate him, Sebastian. Do your worst to me, I don't care, but I won't have him anywhere near my children."

It was never wise, attempting to give Sebastian commands; it won him a bruised cheekbone and a split lip. He held firm, as if the blow had never happened.

"According to you, Sebastian, my entire reason for existence is to raise your children. Very well, then, let me do my job. You enjoy Sir Victor's reckless violence and brutality; you enjoy watching me flinch from him, fine. For those very reasons, you can't be unaware that the man is a menace to everyone around him. He is a danger to Sean, do you understand that? He will hurt him for fun. Suppose he drops him and breaks his neck, what will you do? I couldn't give you another heir now, even if I wanted to."

Somewhat to Charles's surprise, this seemed to provoke Sebastian to thoughtfulness; he fell back a step and regarded Charles with narrow eyes.

"Very well," he said at last. "I'll see to it little Sebastian is not exposed to Victor. Now, shall we?" He held out his arm, as if to escort Charles in to dinner, and laughed when Charles turned away.

Some days later, Charles heard that Victor's furlough had been cut short, and he was already back at the front.

***

Erik was halfway through a letter to Charles when he realized what day it was. Five years exactly since Sebastian had nearly killed them both. Five years since he had last seen or held his husband, his children – two of those children he had never met. They were both walking and talking, long since, would likely start lessons soon. Erik could only assume they called Sebastian Daddy.

He tore the half-written letter into pieces and cast them into the fire – only to dive after them within moments, and burn his hands pulling the singed fragments out of the flames. The skin of his hands welled into blisters as he copied the letter over again, but he kept going until they bled.

***

The gardens were in full blaze of color under the May sun, and the four-year-old twins rooted happily through the grass and dirt at Moira's feet, likely ruining their clothes; Raven and Hank, now at lessons, would be jealous to have missed the fun. Charles loosened a hand from his crutches long enough to return Alex's wave, and started another lap round the path.

He was doing quite well with the crutches these days, though it would never be a terribly quick or elegant means of locomotion. Having the time and means to move had, at least, finally allowed him to work off the fat of his pregnancy marathon; at just shy of Raven's seventh birthday, his weight had finally returned to where it was before her conception, though of course his figure would never be quite the same.

What does it matter? observed a bitter little voice in the back of Charles's mind, and he could come up with no reply. His regard for his body had been mixed at best ever since his paralysis. Once upon a time Erik had given him reasons to love the poor clumsy thing, and even in his absence it had been, for a while, admirable as a source of nourishment and support for his children; these days it was only a trial to be endured, an obstacle to overcome.

He finished his last lap, and maneuvered himself onto the bench beside Moira, who looked up from the twins on one hand and her novel on the other to give him a warm smile. "Clint probably has the day's mail by now. Do you want to go in?"

"Not until I can breathe again, thanks." He leaned back against the bench, waiting for his heart rate to slow. Mail... he'd not had a letter from Erik in months. The gaps in communication had grown steadily longer since the beginning of the war, though when letters came it was in hearteningly thick bunches. He himself had a half-written letter in the bedside table that he ought to finish; he mustn't forget to mention that Raven had won a fractions competition against the other noble children. Charles let this thought persuade him back onto his crutches.

"Oh, look out!" Moira caught his shoulder as he tottered a bit; he clutched at her arm.

They were both very still for a moment, faces too close, and that was another thing – what very few sparks of life his body showed had to be ruthlessly quashed, had to be.

Was Erik doing the same, lonely in a strange land, surrounded by handsome young soldiers?

Charles broke eye contact, shifting his grip on the crutches; Moira managed an almost-casual smile, and the red in her cheeks, as she gathered the children, could be easily blamed on the sun.

 

Clint did, in fact, have the day's mail when they got back to their rooms (their original rooms, thank God, as of several months earlier, though with the balcony walled off for security), and Charles's breath caught when he saw an envelope from Essex, addressed to Moira. When she opened it, however, she did not hand any portion of it to Charles. Instead, she sat down rather suddenly, fumbling blindly behind her as if not sure the sofa would be solid.

"Moira?"

"This is from Lieutenant Howlett's commanding officer," she said. "H-He listed me as his next of kin."

Charles's stomach sank. "Oh, Moira—"

"He's alive. At least when this was written, he was alive. The commander wanted to wait until he could tell me... more definite news, one way or the other, but as James has lingered in this uncertain state for several days now, he didn't think he should put off writing... Charles." She looked up at him in a way that reminded him wrenchingly of Raven, bringing him a torn doll, begging him to fix it.

"We shall bring him here, of course, to King's Hospital," Charles said. "If he can travel at all. Clint!" He began signing rapidly to his secretary, as Sean climbed into Moira's lap, brow wrinkled in concern. Moira hugged him tightly, her eyes overbright.

Yes, immediately, sir, Clint signed briskly, glancing at Moira in some concern. He turned toward the writing desk, but Charles touched his shoulder to add one last instruction.

Make sure all Lieutenant's things sent along. Correspondence, everything.

Yes, sir.

As a human being, Charles's first concern ought to be the well-being of a friend, which Howlett had become, in his own way – and it was, it was his first concern.

But he also couldn't help thinking of the unfinished letter in his bedside table, and wondering what he was to do with it now.

***

Creeping into a Genoshan camp under darkness and a heavy cloak, a tight-wrapped package in his hand, had become routine for Marius. He supposed that made it less terrifying than, say, this same group of soldiers running toward him on the battlefield with swords raised, but frankly he would be no less dead if he were discovered.

Howlett's tent, with its blue First Lieutenant's banner, was seldom hard to find. Marius kept his shoulders straight, his stride unhurried – a furtive scurry being far more likely to draw attention than deflect it – as he passed a trio of men coming off watch, joking wearily as they made their way to their own tents. The Genoshans had enough civilian nurses, cooks, and launderers that a lone, unarmed man with no uniform drew hardly a glance, even at this hour. Marius itched to engage in a spot of sabotage, but General Lehnsherr had strictly forbidden it.

Yet another reason to feel uneasy about these missions.

Marius reached Lieutenant Howlett's tent, but paused with his hand raised to scratch at the canvas. Voices murmured within. He couldn't recall that happening before; he supposed Howlett was an unsociable fellow, which certainly fit his impression of the crude and somewhat odorous man. For whatever reason, it seemed he had visitors now. Marius sighed, anxiety mingling with his impatience; there was only so long he could linger outside a tent without drawing attention.

As he waited, he turned the bundle of correspondence over in his hand. The temptation to open it grew stronger with every mission. For General Lehnsherr to write to a countryman had seemed innocent enough at first, if a bit awkward in his new situation. But 'awkward' had shaded closer and closer to 'sinister' as Genosha became an ever more blatant enemy. Suppose it never had been innocent? Suppose Lehnsherr had never truly left Genoshan service at all? Marius had seen no sign of disloyalty or sabotage in the General's actions, but then, one wouldn't, surely, if a spy were any good at his job.

And if he is betraying Free Essex, I am helping him, not only with each letter delivered but with every hour I keep silent.

The conversation inside the tent had drifted closer to Marius's position, and he found that with a little concentration, he could make out the words. Neither of the voices, he was startled to realize, was Lieutenant Howlett's distinctive rough growl. Marius leaned in closer.

"—has departed but his stench remains, dearheaven what is that smell?"

"Those terrible cigars, I'll wager. I suggest you let the place air tomorrow."

"Ah, new chambers. The privileges of rank. Here, set that one on top of this."

"Admit it, my good fellow, Howlett was a first-rate lieutenant."

"That's 'my good sir' now, you know. You're right, of course. I don't guess there's any hope of his being sent back to us."

"First I'd ask for hope that he survives at all. Of course, I thought he'd be dead in the first hour, and he's hung on this long. If he lives to reach King's Hospital, maybe they can do something for him."

Carefully Marius backed away from the tent, turned and made his way out of the camp as swiftly and calmly as possible. The packet he carried seemed a heavier burden than ever.

When he reached the Free Essex camp, he stood on the hillside outside the perimeter, turning the packet over and over in his hands. He ought to return it to General Lehnsherr, heknew he ought. Yet having it prove undeliverable felt like some sort of sign, freeing him from his duty.

He could take the letter to Enjolras. As Camp Commander, Marius's long-time friend would have both the wit and the rank to deal properly with the situation. If Enjolras told him it was nothing of concern, Marius could take the letter back to General Lehnsherr with no harm done.

Yes, Marius thought, relief washing through him as he let his feet steer themselves toward, not the General's tent, but the Camp Commander's. Enjolras would know what to do.

***

Erik woke already reaching for his sword as armed men burst through the flaps of his tent. He sat back in confusion, still gripping the weapon, when he realized the men were his own, led by Enjolras and Marius. Whom Erik had sent out with a packet of letters for Charles, hours before.

"Put down the sword, Erik," Enjolras said calmly, not drawing his own, though it was clear he wanted to. "We need to talk."

"This is a strange way to start a conversation."

"Nevertheless."

Erik, moving slowly, set the sword down, then pulled on breeches and a shirt, determined to be at as little disadvantage as possible, before sitting back down on the edge of the bed. "What is all this?" he asked, but he knew, he knew. He could see the letters clutched in Marius's hand.

"Erik, there are some who have doubted you from the first," Enjolras said, pulling up the chair from Erik's desk. "You came to us so easily in our dire need, with no explanation for your apparent exile from Genosha. But all seemed to be well. Some were uneasy when you showed distress at having to fight Genoshan soldiers, but I felt that was the only response from a man of natural emotions. But then this." He took the packet from Marius's hand, and Erik took the chance to spear his messenger with a hard look. Marius lifted his chin even as his gaze slid away, color high in his cheeks.

"I had long been uneasy in my mind about your letters," Marius said. "When I found myself unable to deliver these latest—"

"Wait, unable? Why unable?"

Enjolras said, "To find that, from the very beginning, you have been in constant contact with Genoshan military forces—"

Erik barked a laugh. "Military – no, I have had no significant communication with the military."

Enjolras raised his eyebrows. "These are letters in your own hand, addressed to Lieutenant Howlett of the Genoshan army."

Erik rubbed his forehead wearily. "Howlett is a go-between. An old subordinate, barely a friend." He suppressed a twinge of worry at what had become of him. "I take it you haven't opened the letters."

Marius shook his head, still looking slightly ashamed of himself.

"No," said Enjolras. "I wanted to speak with you first."

"Well, you've spoken. I know nothing I can say will allay your suspicions half as well as seeing those letters' content for yourself. If that doesn't change your mind, well. I'd as soon be hanged for the truth as for a mistaken assumption." He eyed the dozen or so swords still pointed his way.

"Very well," Enjolras said. He tore open the packet, removed an envelope.

It burned to see another man's hands on his letter, unworthy eyes scanning his most private confessions, but Erik knew the fragility of his position. They would have read the letters anyway. By volunteering it, he might keep himself alive.

And if Enjolras judged against him? Would he permit himself to be strung up as a traitor, or would he fight his way out through the broken bodies of men he had trained himself, men he had at least occasionally thought of as friends? He had promised Charles he would live…

The letter Enjolras was reading so avidly was the latest one he had written. Erik swallowed bitter bile, recalling the words as clearly as if they lay before him.

My beloved Charles,

Summer here brings little more than insects and glaring sun, but I joy to think of you in your much-missed gardens, surrounded by bright blooms and drowsy bees. I like to think of your cheeks pink and hair mussed, all your freckles awakening to the sun—

The following paragraph involved reminiscences and fantasies of those freckles, and Erik fairly vibrated with rage at the violation, the horror of having a sweet and tender thing exposed and sullied by outside eyes. But Enjolras neither laughed nor sneered; he paused a moment, blinking once in surprise, but then continued without comment.

With Raven's seventh birthday approaching, I must adjust what I think of for gifts. She is no longer a baby, as I can clearly see in your friend the Duke's sketches. Perhaps it is wishful thinking that gives me a glimpse of myself in the set of her jaw and shape of her eyes, as she gets older. I know that my gifts, anonymous in the crowd, cannot mean that much to the children, but it means a great deal to me, having even so tiny a thread of connection to them. They may have no memory of me all their lives, but if they have fond memories of even one toy or book or embroidered blanket that touched my hands, I will feel they had a father in some measure.

I am very glad to hear the 'Natural Science Society' is keeping you occupied. I know how much the frustration of helplessness wore on you. Free Essex may never know what it owes you, but on their behalf I thank you fervently.

Enjolras, Erik realized, had grown tense as a bow-string; he looked up from the letter, his eyes holding no accusation now, but a sort of wondering bewilderment. Erik felt he could see the puzzle pieces coming together; surely Genosha held only so many men named Charles with daughters named Raven, who were friends with Dukes, and were in any position at all to aid Free Essex.

"Put away your swords, my friends," Enjolras said softly. "This man is no traitor, but an emissary."

Chapter Text

My dear Charles,

Please don't be alarmed when I tell you we have been discovered. I assure you it is far better news than I ever anticipated.

***

Charles smoothed the letter across his knee over and over, stopping only when he realized his sweaty palms were smearing the words. Not that he hadn't already read them a dozen times, a hundred times, in the last three weeks. Again and again he'd been tempted to burn it, to safeguard the secret it held – but he'd never burned a letter from Erik before, however incriminating, and couldn't bring himself to start now.

The carriage jolted, knocking Raven out of her doze against the windowframe. Hank continued snoring against her shoulder, thick-framed glasses askew, and she carefully did not jostle him as she stretched and yawned. Raven took her big-sister responsibilities very seriously, for all that she and Hank were, in fact, the same age for most of the summer; Hank had turned six just a month ago, and Raven would not be seven until August.

"Are we almost there?" Raven asked, making a visible effort not to whine, as she swiped sweat-darkened hair out of her face.

"Yes, almost," Charles said. "Look." He nodded out the window.

Raven gasped at the sight of the towers of the Westchester mansion rising against the sky. "Hank! Hankie, look! There's Papa's house!"

Charles stared at the approaching grounds almost as eagerly. He had not seen Westchester in over a decade, and had not thought he missed it particularly. Seeing it now, though, the scents of his childhood drifting in through the window, his heart felt full to overflowing.

There were better reasons for that, of course. His heart knocked hard against his ribs, wondering if the ambassadors of Free Essex – if Erik – were waiting there yet.

Should he say anything to the children? he wondered for the hundredth time. Should he try to ascertain what, if anything, Raven remembered of her father? You called him Baba, and he held you when you cried at night, and you missed him when he went away...

"Will Daddy be there?" Hank asked, kneeling on the seat to look out the window, and Charles blinked before remembering he meant Sebastian.

"No, darling," he said reassuringly. "Daddy had to stay home, remember? The King has to stay at the palace and look after things." Thank God, he added silently, and Hank and Raven's posture mirrored the sentiment, tension draining from their shoulders.

He'd had a very bad moment, while persuading Sebastian to let them leave, when he thought the man would, in fact, insist on accompanying them. Only a well-timed word from Azazel had distracted him from the idea, and that in itself made Charles uneasy, wondering if Azazel suspected Charles's true plan. Surely that was impossible; he'd not even told Moira until they were safely away, and Natasha had only hints even now. The official reason for their departure was that he wanted to take his old friend Lieutenant Howlett to Westchester for recuperation and a consult with Dr. Henri, who was now a Westchester resident, and that was all true. Sebastian, of course, believed it to be a thin cover for escaping the latest round of riots – short-lived and nowhere near the palace, but alarming all the same – and that was true as well. There was no need to look for further reasons. But still Charles would not have dared beg permission to go himself were it not for Erik's letter.

If you can find a way to visit the land of your inheritance this summer, only give a date, and I will be there – with certain companions who dearly wish an audience with you.

Evicting his stepfather and stepbrother for the summer had turned out to be nearly as difficult as getting Sebastian's permission. They were not accustomed to being challenged by their distant Duke, and since Charles had no better excuse than not wanting to see them ever again in his life, they had some reason to feel ill-used. In the end, they had gone, if only to avoid a "royal escort" off the premises – Charles had even sent a few men to confirm their absence – but there would, no doubt, be consequences to so deeply offending so petty a pair of men. Charles was content to worry about that later.

He would see Erik soon. Within minutes, he could have Erik in his arms again. Maybe not immediately – there were the other Free Essex ambassadors to consider, and other members of his own party, such as Natasha and her daughters in the third carriage – but soon, soon. He watched out the window, grinning like a child, and drummed his fingers against the seat, willing the mansion closer.

It was all he could do to disembark from the carriage without toppling over, too busy scanning his surroundings to pay proper attention as the footmen helped him down onto his crutches. They were unfamiliar with the task, which didn't help, and that was something he hadn't thought of; all the palace staff were well-accustomed to his physical difficulties, whereas these were trying hard not to stare. That could be inconvenient.

"Papa, can we go inside?" Raven was bouncing with her eagerness to explore.

"Wait here a moment, love. And keep hold of Hank's hand." Hank was walking for short distances now, but he was wobbly at present, his legs stiff from hours in the carriage. Moira was helping the twins down from the second carriage, while a footman and the medic they'd brought along helped Lieutenant Howlett. A few weeks at King's Hospital had done the lieutenant considerable good, but the wound to his head had left him with odd gaps in his memory and severe problems with balance and movement. Only time and rest, the doctors said, would improve him further.

Clint was helping one of Natasha's daughters down from the third carriage; Charles wasn't quite sure how he'd ended up riding with them. He hoped it had been no bother to Natasha, being trapped in a coach with a servant and near-stranger...

But Natasha, stepping down with skirts gracefully gathered, did not look annoyed. She glanced sideways at Clint under her lashes, smiling wider and more honestly than was her wont.

Charles tore his attention away from whatever that was about and toward the butler, who had stopped before him to make his bow. "Welcome back to Westchester, my lord!"

"Molesley! How wonderful to see you again!" Molesley, a mournful-looking androji that Charles remembered as being quite good at his job, had aged remarkably since Charles last saw him. Well, Kurt and Cain were surely not easy masters. "I hope you're well?"

"Oh, yes, my lord, perfectly well." A shy smile broke through his professional demeanor. "On behalf of the whole household, my lord, we're all extremely pleased to have you here again."

"I'm extremely pleased to be here, believe me. The guests I wrote to about – have they arrived?"

"Indeed, sir, just yesterday. I've taken the liberty of bringing them into the white parlor for you."

"Excellent. I can find my own way there – show the others to their rooms, if you will."

Molesley hesitated for a moment as Charles and the crutches battled their way up the front stair, clearly wishing to offer assistance, but Charles paid him no mind. Erik.

For all his breezy assertions, he did take a wrong turn on the way to the white parlor; the house had changed somewhat in a decade, landmark furnishings replaced and rearranged. Nostalgia was dizzying, but the childhood flashbacks could wait. There – there was the door to the parlor.

Stepping (or lurching – the crutches were hard enough when he wasn't stiff from travel) inside, the first face he saw was not Erik's, but that of a younger man with blond curls and intense eyes, and next to him a stockier, scruffier dark-haired fellow. The ambassadors, he assumed, Commander Enjolras and his husband Grantaire. His eyes slid past them immediately to the figure just turning away from the window.

Erik's hair was streaked with silver now, and flowed down to his shoulders, partly tied back. There was a half-healed bruise at the edge of his jaw, the trace of a scar across his nose; souvenirs of a soldier's life. A respectable jacket and breeches looked slightly unnatural on him, unaccustomed and imperfectly fitted.

He was the most beautiful thing Charles had ever seen.

Charles hardly had time to register movement before he was engulfed in Erik's arms, gulping lungfuls of Erik's scent and choking back tears. He let the crutches fall in favor of wrapping his arms around Erik's shoulders, burying his face in Erik's neck. This was what it felt like, to be loved and safe and happy. He'd almost forgotten. "Charles," Erik whispered hoarsely, seeming incapable of anything further, "Charles," and Charles pulled his head down and kissed him.

His poor, battered, half-forgotten body seemed to wake instantly from a long slumber, transformed from clay to fire and light. Nothing existed outside the heat of Erik's chest against his, the pressure of Erik's fingertips down his back, the catch of stubble against his own palms, and above all else, the tingling brilliant rapture of Erik's mouth—

He nearly cried out at the loss when Erik pulled away, promising "Later, later," into Charles's hairline, "everything, later." He cleared his throat. "Grantaire, hand the Prince his crutches, if you would be so kind."

Right. Ambassadors in the room. Charles swallowed hard, trying to will away the fire in his nerves, focus his mind on the alleged reason he was here. Grantaire – the dark-haired one – was standing ready with the crutches, looking rather more amused than was proper, but Charles was in no position to complain about impropriety. Being appalled at his own lack of restraint didn't keep him from leaning heavily against Erik, who returned the favor with an arm around his waist.

Erik introduced his companions, who made their bows – Grantaire still grinning wickedly, Enjolras shooting him quelling looks.

"We're very grateful for your willingness to have us here," Enjolras said.

"Not at all, not at all. It's a pleasure," Charles said, which was certainly true, though for reasons having little to do with Free Essex. "Of course, as I'm sure you already understand, I cannot speak for Genosha officially. The very fact that we've met like this must be a close-guarded secret."

"I do understand, Your Highness," Enjolras said. "I hope we can still be of use to each other. But there is plenty of time to discuss these things once you've recovered from your long journey. I believe your excellent butler spoke of tea in the drawing room."

"Yes, wonderful idea," Erik said, only a little distractedly. "I'll just – see the Prince to his room, then we’ll join you for tea."

“I feel like a procurer,” Grantaire murmured, earning an elbow-jab from his husband, as Charles and Erik left the room.

Charles had not been given his old chambers, but new, unfamiliar ones; something to ask about, later. This room faced west, and was lit by shafts of honey-colored afternoon sunlight, falling around the half-open curtains. Charles sat on the bed, rubbed an aching thigh, and eyed the fresh suit of clothes alread laid out for him, on the other side of the room.

"Erik, can you help me with my buttons?" he asked.

The moment Erik knelt down before him, reaching out to open his shirt, they both knew there was no chance of their making it to tea.

They did pretend, for a bit, that they could indulge in a few passing touches – a sweep of fingertips down Erik's arm, a brush of lips on Charles's bare shoulder – and go no further. Until Erik untied Charles's cravat and kissed the warm, tender throat beneath, and Charles let out a breathless, hungry sound, dragging Erik closer with fingers knotted in his hair. In the next moment Charles felt his back hit the pillows, Erik nipping at his jaw, lips, throat, shoulder, Charles digging fingernails into his back. It was all a glorious frantic tangle for several moments, but then Erik stilled, trembling, eyes closed as he pressed their foreheads together.

"What's wrong?" Charles whispered, hardly able to hear himself over his own pounding heart.

"Nothing," Erik said, and laughed, a fragile, disbelieving sound. "I just... don't want to rush. Trying to slow down."

Charles tilted his head upward, just enough to almost touch lips. "Whatever for?"

It got the desired response, which was Erik groaning and attacking his mouth, but Charles made no further move to sabotage his efforts. Slow was a good idea, if difficult to execute; they both needed to savor this, savor each other.

He let Erik undress him, and run gentle, thorough hands down his chest and arms, all the way down to his feet, then back up to neck and face and hair, like a blind man trying to memorize by touch. Charles knew that no part of his body had weathered the years with particular grace, but Erik was staring at him like he was a gift from heaven, and frankly Erik's was the only opinion Charles valued on the subject. He swallowed his doubts, therefore, and reached for Erik's shirt-buttons. It wasn't easy to focus, Charles's hands and all the rest of him trembling as Erik's mouth followed the path his hands that set, but at length he succeeded in getting Erik out of all the inconvenient clothes and, as Erik settled himself warmly skin-to-skin on top of him, pulled down the half-ponytail to run his fingers through unaccustomed long locks.

"Like that, do you?" Erik murmured, smiling into Charles's ribs, which he was kissing his way down.

"Mmm. I even like the gray. You look like a wolf."

"Wolves bite," Erik observed, and proceeded to nibble his way around the curve of Charles's hip and into the crease of his thigh. Charles clutched at the bedcovers, and let out something appallingly like a giggle; his thigh had just enough sensation to tickle when Erik's hair trailed across it. Erik glanced up, startled, then moved his head to do it again, a grin spreading across his face.

"No – Erik, don't you dare—" He dissolved into shrieks of laughter as Erik attacked his ribs, slapping at Erik's hands and trying to wriggle away. "Erik! I hate you so much, I will make you regret – ack! – stop it! Ahahaha!"

Abruptly his mouth was muffled, Erik kissing him with sudden desperation, and Charles returned it fourfold, twisting the hands Erik had pinned to the bed until he could lace their fingers together.

"Missed you," Erik managed between kisses, "missed your laugh—"

"Missed laughing," Charles said, and pulled one arm free to throw around Erik's neck. How he wished he could wrap his legs around Erik's waist (still ridiculously tiny, had the man eaten at all these five years?), he missed that feeling of cradling their bodies together...

A knock at the door. "My lord?"

They both froze, then simultaneously burst into frantically-muffled laughter at the sight of each other's wide-eyed faces.

"My lord Prince, are you... well?"

"I'm perfectly fine, Molesley," Charles called, struggling to keep his voice even with Erik now lavishing attention on his neck and collarbones.

"Shall we wait tea for you?"

"No, I shan't come down, I... the traveling... I think I'll stay here and – rest!" This last came out as a squeak of surprise, Charles shoving Erik away from his nipple with an outraged glare.

"Very well, my lord," Molesley said after a long pause. "If you need anything, of course, you have only to ring the bell."

"Excellent, thank you, Molesley."

They each held their breath as the sound of footsteps vanished quickly down the plush-carpeted, thick-walled corridor, then collapsed against each other, cackling.

"You are a bad man," Charles hissed.

"And you love me."

"God help me, yes." He felt his eyes drift closed, laughter segueing into a more focused sort of rocking against each other, and it was really time to do something about that, why had he thought it a good idea to go slow? "This is lovely," he said around an entirely unintentional moan, "but if you have any... more adventurous... ideas for our happy reunion..."

Erik chuckled into the hollow of his throat, then hefted Charles up to roll them over, taking a moment to comfortably arrange Charles's legs around his own. "Adventurous, hm? I can think of a few possibilities."

"Just a few? In five years of abstinence, my friend, I've come up with more than a few."

"Do tell." Erik's wicked grin was a not-unpleasing contrast to the tender reverence of the hand he cupped around Charles's cheek, thumb brushing back and forth. "Or better yet, show me."

***

Guilt, of course, set in about the time their heartrates eased back down to normal. The lazy afternoon light was distinctly lower than it had been, and Charles realized he had left his children and his guests to flounder about for hours with little idea what was happening. It was inexcusable, but really, he'd have been useless all afternoon anyway, transparently, embarrassingly useless. Now, though there were still a hundred conversations he wanted to say to Erik, and quite a few more indecent things he’d like to do to him, they had at least taken the edge off. They could function in polite society again.

Once they were meticulously freshened up and presentable, they joined the others in the main drawing room. Moira read a book to the children while the rest chatted over drinks – Enjolras and Grantaire, Natasha, Dr. Henri, and Clint, who was watching everyone's faces with the sometimes-unsettling intensity of the lip-reader.

Charles and Erik made their apologies (the taxing nature of travel, and a sudden headache, respectively) and watched the others politely pretend to believe them. He and Erik should have staggered their arrivals, Charles realized – an amateurish mistake, and disturbing proof that he needed to get his head in the game. Ah, well; of those present, only Natasha and Clint had not been perfectly aware of the situation already, and Natasha had suspected a lover, if not his identity. Neither she nor, interestingly, Clint looked remotely surprised.

All that remained to be done was introducing Erik to the children.

Raven gave him her best curtsy, and received a kiss on her hand with a giggle, then flounced off to play with Natasha's daughter Katniss; Erik watched her go with a visible pang. Hank wobbled forward, then, to shake hands, a study in the sort of adorableness that delighted adults and mortified children – all awkwardness and baby fat, enormous blue eyes behind ludicrous glasses.

"You're walking," Erik said, in some awe, though of course Charles had written him about Hank's progress.

"I fall down a lot," Hank said matter-of-factly. "I like reading better than walking. Daddy says if I'm smart maybe I'll be good for something."

Silence fell, and even Charles was taken aback; he hadn't thought Hank and Sebastian interacted enough for the child to notice his "father's" disdain. Erik made a visible effort to tamp down his fury, and give Hank a smile.

"I think you're good for a great many things," he said, ruffling Hank's hair. "We'll have to talk about that later. And look at you, you are the spitting image of your Papa."

"I like Papa, he's pretty," Hank said, and toddled off to a chorus of chuckles.

Sean, so accustomed to being presented to strangers, took to Erik with his usual cheery nonchalance, letting himself be picked up and bounced and held on Erik's hip – all without really looking away from the toy fish clutched in his hand. Alex was a different story, glaring sullenly at Erik even when he crouched down to offer the boy a biscuit.

"Alex, come say hello to Sir Erik," Charles coaxed. Alex's response was to sit down with his back to Erik and pick up a storybook. "Alex!"

"It's all right," Erik said. "We'll have time to make friends later." He leaned in to murmur, "I guess one of them had to take after me, hm?"

Charles snorted. "He'll come around, he's just moody."

"Where are Angel and Armando?"

"With their parents for the summer." Possibly permanently, in fact. Their foster contract, extended once, had been finally fulfilled over six months ago, but Sebastian had delayed sending them home. Even now he was pressing for another extension. Charles, though he already missed his fosterlings terribly, was tempted to sabotage that attempt, and scuttle whatever diabolical plan Sebastian had in mind.

“Moira, Clint, Dr. Henri,” Charles said, “I thought you might like to show the children the grounds, while there’s light.” Taking the hint immediately, they gathered the children and departed. Moira, at least, would be getting a full account of everything later, but it wasn't entirely proper to have here now.

"My friends," Charles said when the room's occupants were reduced to himself, Erik, Natasha, and the Free Essex ambassadors, "I must apologize again for abandoning you this afternoon. I know most of you are still uninformed about each other's full identities and the reasons for your presence here." He nodded at Natasha. "Duchess-Regent Romanova, these men are friends of Sir Erik's and ambassadors from Free Essex, where Sir Erik has been employed for some time. Commander Enjolras, Lieutenant Grantaire, Duchess-Regent Romanova has been one of my staunchest allies in working against King Sebastian's lunacy, and unlike myself she is an active member of Assembly. I'm certain she will be a major part of any success we have, assuming she consents to participate in this secret conference." He met Natasha's startled eyes. "If you want no part of this, Natasha, you may leave as soon as you please, with no ill will."

"You brought me for this? Not Tony and Steve?"

Charles smiled grimly. "Sebastian has learned to be wary whenever I spend much time with Tony and Steve. You, he doesn't see as a threat."

Natasha raised an eyebrow, the hint of a smile crooking her lip. "But you know better."

"I do."

She looked Erik, Enjolras, and Grantaire over with calculating eyes. "What is the goal of these secret negotiations, exactly?"

Erik bared his teeth in a fierce grin. "Victory for Free Essex, peace for Genosha, and any convenient humiliation for Sebastian Shaw."

“Count me in.”

***

Erik had forgotten it was possible to be this happy.

He went to bed with Charles every night, and woke beside him every morning, and for that alone he would have given nearly anything. They spent lazy mornings with the children, and that was a treasure beyond what he'd dared hope – getting to know his sons and daughter, holding and teaching and playing with them. They knew him only as Sir Erik, Papa's friend, but were young enough to accept his presence without much question.

Raven might have been old enough to see the oddity of this stranger seeking such intimacy with them, but in fact she took to Erik faster than any of them, and followed him through the house and grounds showing off her skills at singing and riding and multiplication tables. Erik liked to pretend she remembered him on some level, however unlikely that was. He certainly saw plenty in her of the baby he'd known, cheeky and strong-willed, yet always hungry for approval and attention – things he was more than happy to shower her with.

With Raven, then, things were easy, and likewise with Hank. In another life Erik might not have been close to his shy, nervous, bookish son, so different from himself. In their present circumstances, however, Erik felt an overpowering need to give Hank the affection and acceptance he so clearly didn't get from Sebastian. He would always have been proud of Hank's obvious brilliance – already reading as well as Natasha's nine-year-old daughters, constantly taking apart clockwork items and putting them back together. Add to that his charming resemblance to Charles, and it took no effort at all for Erik to like him. Hank, for his part, seemed to view Erik as an acceptable playmate, if distinctly inferior to Clint of House Barton. Erik tried hard to swallow his jealousy.

Alex was difficult for the first while, some days refusing to talk to anyone but his twin; Charles said he missed Armando. Erik and Alex had a breakthrough, though, at the end of the first week, when Alex went missing during a game of hide-and-seek. It was Erik who discovered he had locked himself into the coal cellar. The poor boy was in an awful state – he had never liked being imprisoned in small spaces – and clung to his rescuer for hours, sobbing off and on. After that, he didn't seem to mind Erik nearly so much.

Surprisingly, it was Sean who proved hardest to win over, due not to dislike but to indifference. He was so very easygoing a child that he almost seemed incapable of deeper emotion, caring no more or less for his twin brother than for a stranger like Grantaire. As they spent more time together, Erik came to see signs that Sean was in fact extremely attached to his siblings and caregivers – but people outside that family circle were kept at a benign, perfectly cheerful distance, and he was in no hurry to let Erik any closer.

Meanwhile, there were also Natasha's nine-year-old twins, Katniss and Merida, who seemed bemused, if not exactly offended, by Sir Erik's obvious attachment to all the children but them. At first Erik thought perhaps Clint Barton was spending so much time with them in order to make up for that – until the day he passed by an archery lesson in progress, and saw Barton with his chin over Katniss's shoulder. With their faces so close together, the resemblance was undeniable.

That night, tangled together in bed while they fed each other tidbits from a fruit tray, Erik asked Charles about it.

"Ah, you noticed that, too!" Charles replied around a grape. "I'm rather pleased with myself for figuring it out. The girls' paternity is one of the great scandalous mysteries of the court, you know. And it certainly explains the wide-ranging variety of emotional glances flying between the Duchess and my excellent valet." He wound his arms around Erik's neck. "So we are not the only long-separated couple to find refuge here. I do hope they're using their time as wisely as we are."

Erik dipped his head to give Charles a kiss before continuing. "How did they ever come to be together, I wonder? Didn't Barton work for Coulson's little spy ring? Not an occupation that would put him much in the path of Duchesses."

"Ah, but Natasha wasn't always a Duchess. Once upon a time she was simply a Duke's daughter, with two brothers to safely inherit ahead of her. She was schooled abroad, supposedly, and didn't return until the fire that killed her family. Her eldest brother survived, more or less – that's why she's Duchess-Regent, you know, just in case he ever wakes up."

"And by 'schooled abroad' you imply she was spying right next to Barton."

"Until she was called home by tragedy. The girls might be a souvenir of their farewell." Charles smiled and reached for a strawberry. "Operatic, I suppose, but operas do come from somewhere."

"But... a woman, in that line of work? Her fathers would never have permitted it, surely even Coulson—"

"Can you really see Coulson turning away a competent operative of any sex?" Charles held his gaze and took an exaggeratedly flirtatious bite of the strawberry. "Now," he said, nudging the remainder of the berry past Erik's lips, "if we are quite finished discussing other people's love lives..."

 

So nights and mornings were a joy – but then there were the afternoons.

Each day, from luncheon until tea-time or later, they gathered in the east library to discuss what Genosha and Free Essex could, unofficially, do for each other. It all turned out to be much more complicated than Erik had thought.

Enjolras had apparently expected that Erik could call his beloved to heel, and have him agree to whatever terms they liked. Erik could have disabused the man of that notion earlier, but even he was surprised by the strength of Charles's resistance – sometimes to the last ideas he'd expected resistance to.

One afternoon, Enjolras looked on the edge of throwing his hands in the air. "You want your men to stay in the field longer?"

Charles crossed his arms. "Tell me what the advantage would be to Free Essex."

Enjolras rubbed his forehead. "Shorter service terms means more resources devoted to recruiting and training new soldiers, and to transporting new soldiers in and the old ones out. Most importantly, it would lower the number of experienced men in the field—"

"Yes. Exactly. Leaving inexperienced men that yours could kill more easily and that is not what I had in mind for these negotiations."

"Your Highness, you have to expect that we are here to negotiate for own benefit—"

"I'd expect no less. But I am not here to help Free Essex; I consider that a happy side effect, certainly, but I am here to disentangle my soldiers from the mess their king has dropped them in. Actions that aid both of us are music to my ears; actions that aid you alone may require compensation; actions that aid your men while actively harming mine are off the table."

Enjolras looked to Erik for support, but Erik only raised his eyebrows. They moved on.

Charles and Natasha consented readily to most other ideas for decreasing Genosha's military presence in Essex. Charles committed to working with the Natural Science Society to delay the construction of ships and manufacture of weapons, and aid those who wished to desert from the Genoshan or Old Essex armies, as well as whatever handful of Free Essex refugees they might come across. Natasha was in a position to take more direct action; they plotted ways she could tighten the requirements for joining the military, such as adjusting the age and health requirements, so that recruitment became more difficult. Of course she could not promise getting anything through Assembly, but even many of Sebastian's usual allies were becoming disenchanted with the war, and Natasha could play the game with the best of them.

"Of course, if we become too hard up for soldiers, conscription will be Sebastian's next step," Natasha pointed out.

"Not under current law," Charles said firmly. "A draft is permissible only when the nation is in a state of war, and we are only assisting an ally – we've declared no war in Essex. Best of luck to Sebastian if he tries to change that, either. He'd have a riot on his hands, and not from the ignorable peasantry this time."

Their efforts were not, of course, to go unrewarded. Should Free Essex prove victorious, Charles would have first shot at plummy trade agreements, and a slice of borderland with a seaport. In the more immediate future, Genoshan prisoners of war were guaranteed excellent treatment.

"It's too bad we can't just take all the Genoshans prisoner," Grantaire said absently. "That would surely please everyone – no more fighting at all. Though we couldn't afford to feed them, I suppose."

Charles straightened as if pinched. "That's perfect!"

"Er," Grantaire said, "I was joking, we really can't—"

"No, of course not. But I could pay to feed them – I could pay to ship them home!"

"You mean a ransom?" Erik said. He seemed to recall references to that practice in the early days post-Virus.

"Exactly. I can offer Free Essex a ransom for Genoshan prisoners – out of my own funds as Duke of Westchester, so I won't even need Sebastian's permission. Oh, it works beautifully! We get our men back home, you get funding, and your men are motivated to take prisoners rather than kill whenever possible."

"On the condition, of course," Enjolras said, "that ransomed prisoners are not returned to military duty."

"Only sensible."

"The only problem," Grantaire muttered, "will be organizing the hordes of Genoshans lining up to be taken prisoner."

"This won't even have to be secret," Charles said, "it's a perfectly honorable offer, for all that it's seldom done nowadays. I can have the official papers drawn up as soon as I get home – perhaps sooner, I can write to Tony... The question is how much to offer per head? I am a rich man, but not inexhaustible..."

They shook hands on a number by the end of the day. Charles was too ecstatic to sleep for hours, and Erik stayed up half the night just to watch the dance of his hands and sparkle of his eyes as he chattered about peace and cooperation and unity and hope.

"I don't really believe in any of that," he whispered, stroking Charles's cheek, feather-light, when his eyes finally drifted closed. "But I believe in you. Always."

They had planned to stay a month; it would be hard for Free Essex to do without such key players longer than that, Charles could only stay away from the city for so long, and after all it did neither side any good to come to agreements unless they put them into action. A long month, thirty-one days together – it had seemed an age, a paradise stretching out in all directions. But the days flowed by faster than Erik could have dreamed, and his nights with Charles had hardly lost the urgency of reunion before they took on the desperate edge of looming separation.

It wouldn't always be like this, they swore to each other. They wouldn't let it be another five years. Once King Nathaniel was defeated, Erik would have a position in the Free Essex government, clear and legal. Sebastian couldn't touch him there, as long as they kept to the agreement – or kept it as far as Sebastian knew. There would be ways for them to contact each other, as representatives of their countries, things Sebastian couldn't forbid without provoking gossip or outright scandal. It wouldn't be another five years.

***

One evening in the second week, negotiations wound down a good hour before tea, and Charles invited Erik to try out the chessboard in the library.

Their fingers brushed over the board one time too many, and they were in a thoroughly compromising position together in Charles's wheelchair when Molesley walked in.

Erik went tense as iron, and one hand moved for a sword he wasn't wearing; Charles grabbed his wrist, took a deep breath, and turned to the butler with a thoroughly casual smile.

"Yes, Molesley?"

The poor man had gone scarlet, gaze fixed on the floor. He stuttered for a moment before managing, "Sorry to disturb you, my lord, I d-d-don't, I didn't, I'll j-just—"

"Erik, love, perhaps you could give us a moment?"

Erik glanced from one to the other, uneasily.

Charles snorted. "What danger do you imagine Molesley poses, pray tell? Go on up to our room, I'll join you shortly."

Reluctantly, Erik climbed off his lap and straightened their respective clothing, while Molesley continued to look at the floor. Erik bumped the butler's shoulder and glared at him as he left the room.

"Do come here, Molesley," Charles sighed. "It's just as well, we needed to have this conversation in any case. I'm sure I don't need to explain that your discretion, and that of the rest of the staff—"

Molesley looked up at last, his expression rather affronted. "Of course not, my lord."

"I'm sorry, I don't mean to insult you. But I know the staff is in an awkward position, between my orders and Mr. Marko's. When he returns, I'm sure he will want every detail about what transpired in his absence. It's quite imperative that neither he nor anyone else know the particulars. My guests' identities, for instance. The Duchess-Regent is known to have travelled with me, but the rest must remain anonymous."

"It's quite clear to me, my lord, who the Duke of Westchester is, however confused Mr. Marko might be," Molesley said, straightening his spine. "And if you'll forgive my saying it, sir, I'm no stranger to keeping Mr. Marko's nose out of House Xavier's secrets."

Charles blinked, wondering what sort of secrets... another time. "I'm glad to hear it, Molesley. It does occur to me that others in the household, perhaps hired by the Markos, may not have their loyalties so clearly cut. Can I trust you to apportion this," he drew a fat, clinking purse from a pocket on his chair, "wherever you feel it will do the most good?"

"Certainly, my lord." Molesley took the purse with a thoughtful expression; Charles was satisfied to see no sudden gleam of avarice in his eyes. "I hate to admit it, but I think this will prove helpful to some parties, my lord."

"I hope it will. Now, what was it you came here to say to me?"

Molesley looked sheepish. "I haven't the foggiest memory, my lord, but it was nothing urgent."

"You may return to your duties, then, with my thanks."

Alone in the library, Charles stared sightlessly at the scattered wreck of the chessboard. The enormity of what he was doing here settled belatedly onto his shoulders. His eagerness to see Erik had eclipsed all else, but if this secret conference with Free Essex were found out, it would certainly be called treason. Charles didn't particularly feel like a traitor – he was working for the good of his people, and betraying Sebastian and Nathaniel pricked his conscience not at all – but the law would not be on his side. Moira and Clint, Natasha and her girls, the silent staff of the manor, even the absent Markos, would all suffer if they were caught.

But that possibility felt distant and unreal next to the terrible certainty of being parted again from Erik, when this was over.

Charles dreamed, that night, that he woke to find the house cold and dark, and himself utterly alone in it – Erik, the children, Moira, even the servants, all gone, leaving him helpless and trapped. The terror and grief were overwhelming, and he wept in relief when he woke to find Erik beside him.

"Charles, what's wrong? Are you hurt? What happened?"

"Just a nightmare." Charles wrapped himself around Erik as best he could, Erik completing the process and holding him against the tremors that shook his body. "Erik, tell me you'll never leave me, promise me, please – I know, I know," he pressed his fingers to the reluctant protest trying to leave Erik's mouth, "I know, just say it anyway. I just want to hear you say it."

Erik swallowed. "I'll never leave you. Never, Charles, I swear."

They held each other tight enough to bruise, and did not sleep again until dawn.

***

Erik and Howlett had never exactly been friends, but the lieutenant had served him loyally, and rather beyond the call of duty; Erik felt that visiting during his convalescence was the least he could do.

At the three-week mark, Howlett was walking again, with assistance; Erik found him one morning inching his way down a garden path, cursing in a constant growl with Dr. Henri under one arm and Lady Moira under the other.

"Lieutenant!" Erik barked. "Is that any way to talk in the presence of a lady?"

"She's heard worse."

"I've said worse," Moira chuckled. "Come on, you pussywillow," she said as Howlett's dragging steps slowed, "get to the end of this path and I'll let you cry on my shoulder."

"More like nap," Howlett groaned. "Time was I could march three days and still have breath to bellow at the stragglers."

"You're lucky to be alive, Lieutenant," Dr. Henri said mildly. "It might do you good to focus on that."

Howlett drew breath, doubtless for a caustic remark, then glanced at Dr. Henri and let it out again without comment.

Erik was impressed to see his cantankerous lieutenant show anything like sensitivity, though it should have been obvious Dr. Henri knew whereof he spoke. He'd only barely survived Sebastian’s goons, and four years later, his walk was stiff, his shoulders uneven, his face scarred, and, most cruelly for a surgeon, his hands only crooked claws. To protect him from further attacks, he'd been snatched away from whatever life he'd had in the city, and dropped at this country estate where he could not have been much welcomed. Yet his calm, pleasant demeanor seemed undamaged; in fact, with color in his cheeks and a sparkle in his eyes, he looked happier than Erik remembered him from the city.

In fact... he looked happier than when they'd first arrived three weeks ago.

And he kept glancing toward the young medic they'd brought with them, a very pretty dark-haired androji who was now standing in the shade with a clipboard, apparently making notes on Howlett's progress, and biting his lip shyly whenever he caught Dr. Henri looking at him.

Erik struggled to swallow an exasperated laugh. Between Enjolras cuddling and talking to his husband's barely-pregnant belly, the Duchess and Barton doing their dance of haunted looks, and – he might as well admit – his own dramatic carryings-on with Charles, he was beginning to think he had entered one of those overwrought romance plays for young people. "Passion and Politics," they could call it, or "The Summer of Love"...

Howlett had finally achieved the bench at the end of the path, and his helpers lowered him onto it with a grunt. Moira took a seat beside him, and reached over to pat his head.

"What a good boy, walking!" she cried in precisely the same voice she used with Hank. "Look at you, big strong man!" Howlett snorted and shoved her halfway off the bench. Laughing, she settled herself back in place, and tucked herself under Howlett's arm. He grumbled and rested his chin on top of her head.

Another one. Good grief. Erik rolled his eyes and stalked off to study the nearest bank of primroses. He should have expected to find them here, he supposed; they were Charles's favorite. He cupped a blossom in his hand and thought about a little boy, remarkably similar to Hank, running wild through these gardens when his parents weren't watching...

He was wondering who had charge of the children, with Moira occupied, and whether he could whisk them away to go wading in the stream, when a few half-heard words brought his attention sharply back into focus.

"—Prince Charming Charlie, but I clean up alright."

"I'll have to take your word for that, having never witnessed it."

"Are you disdaining the sweat of honest toil, my lady?" Howlett said with exaggerated offense. "I bet even Charming Charlie smells pretty ripe after a day in the sun. But maybe he sweats perfume, and craps gold – after all, he is 'the most perfect gentleman of your acquaintance' – with eyes that shame the stars and lips like a whore's pillows—"

The sharp sound of a slap. "I never said that!" Moira sounded about one third amused to two thirds shocked and angry.

"Wow." Howlett was rubbing his jaw. "Touched a nerve, did I?"

"Insulted your Prince, is what you did, who happens to be both my employer and my dearest friend."

"Insult? I'da called it a compliment."

Erik, looking at the backs of their heads, could only imagine the strength of the glare this provoked. His fists, he noted, were clenched hard enough that they were shaking.

"Fine, fine," Howlett said after a moment. "All due apologies to the Prince. I'll keep my compliments to myself."

"Good."

"And maybe just one or two for you?"

Moira continued glaring.

"You know," Howlett added, "I thought I was your dearest friend. You've led me on, Lady, and I think you owe me an apology."

"You are such a barbarian," Moira sighed, settling back against him. Howlett just chuckled and kissed the top of her head.

Erik withdrew quietly, fighting the urge to smash his former subordinate's face in. The man's comments, however crude, had clearly been intended only to provoke Moira. It was Moira's response that Erik found more troubling.

So Moira had spoken – written? – to Howlett about Charles. Whom she regarded as ‘the most perfect gentleman of her acquaintance.’ Howlett, feeling out his place in Moira's heart, had found Charles threatening enough to denigrate. And Moira had defended Charles with actual violence.

She had chosen Howlett, Erik tried to reassure himself as he made his way back across the grounds. If Charles was a dear friend, Howlett was clearly more than that.

But she would not have Howlett for much longer. He would stay in Westchester when Moira and the royal family returned to the city. Where Charles would be lonely and in need of comfort...

Erik stopped at the manor door, leaning his head against sun-warmed oak. He trusted Charles. He did. Charles was the best human being ever born.

But he was still a human being. One who loved other people almost by default. One who had already suffered through so many years alone.

If it happens, don't tell me, he pleaded, safely in the silence of his own head. Don't tell me. I know I could forgive anything else. I don't want to find out I can't forgive that.

***

They had five days left, and their conference had mostly wound down, discussion centered now on how to implement the decisions already made. They had just decided to end negotiations early, before tea, when Molesley stepped in to tell them there was a visitor at the door.

"He's asking for a Mr. Hugo, my lord. I've told him there's no one here by that name, but he's quite insistent."

"He is here for me," Enjolras said, blank with surprise. "I beg your pardon, my lord. Hugo is a name I have used on occasion. This must be an emergency communication from my superiors."

When Enjolras returned from speaking with the visitor, his color was high, his hands nervous.

"Erik, Grantaire, we have intelligence on the king's position. He had to come to ground eventually and he has – here, in Genosha!"

"What?"

They all gathered round as Enjolras spread a hastily-drawn map over a table. "Not thirty miles north of here. He waits to meet with Sebastian in the governor's mansion of this backwater town, likely the best place he could get to after a fast and secret boat ride. We have men on the way but the three of us are closer by far – by the time the others arrive he may be gone."

"What can three men do?" Erik said, glancing at Grantaire as if not certain he even counted.

"There are four at least of the king's guard that will assist us – they are the source of this information. Seven men to kill one – surely it can be done."

"Wait," Charles said. "What exactly is under discussion here?"

"King Nathaniel," Erik said impatiently. "If he dies, we win, to put it simply. There are few who are truly loyal to Nathaniel, and even fewer who will continue to fight in his name when surrender will save their skins."

"So this is to be an assassination?" He did not mean for shock and disgust to color his voice, but they did. Erik turned on him with hard eyes.

"I would kill better men than Nathaniel to end this war. What is the life of one enemy to thousands of our own men?"

"You can't argue the bastard deserves to live," said Grantaire. "Or maybe you haven't seen the reports, of what happens to what he calls Undesirables? He keeps the children alive, sometimes, for research purposes, but babes in arms are too much work, and usually all you have to do is drop them—"

Charles swallowed. "Peace! I've no particular desire to see Nathaniel achieve a ripe old age. It's only... even in war there are rules, there is honorable combat—"

Erik laughed, a sharp, bitter bark that made Charles jump. "Honorable. No, Charles, there is no honor on the battlefield, there is only your sword and whether you can put it through the other fellow before he does the same."

"Even so, there are things that a decent man does not do."

"I'm sure it comforts you to think so."

Charles felt himself prickle with embarrassment and anger. "I'm no soldier, Erik, but don't accuse me of naivete. I've certainly seen the dark and terrible things people do to one another. I've had a very close seat indeed to that stage."

Erik's face darkened. "This is nothing like what Sebastian's done to you. This is war against an evil man—"

"I never said—"

"Gentlemen," Enjolras interjected, and waited until they had both turned their attention to him. "Your Highness, I, too, once believed war could be honorable. Perhaps with a different foe it could, but adhering to rules of honor when coming up against Nathaniel would only ensure his victory and our deaths. Erik, come look at this map. We need a solid plan."

They seemed to expect that Charles would leave, then; Natasha certainly encouraged him to, raising an inquisitive eyebrow as she herself moved for the door. Charles only pushed his chair closer and listened intently to the proposed plan of attack.

"—have to wait until we can run a proper reconnaissance, but I think we can count on him being in an inner room, upper floor—"

"—governor's mansion in a backwater town, highly doubtful it'll be designed for defense, but there's sure to be guards—"

"This is a backwater town of Genosha, correct?" Charles said. "So the governor whose house you are attacking, his family and staff, they are Genoshan, and likely innocent of anything but being in a convenient location."

"No one who surrenders will be harmed."

"Why on Earth would they surrender when their home is under attack by foreign nationals?"

"What would you have me do, Charles?"

"And have you given any thought to the fact that if an allied king is assassinated on Genoshan soil, it just might corner Sebastian into declaring war on Free Essex after all?"

"That would be pointless. The Essex he's allied with would have already ceased to exist."

"And Sebastian always does the rational thing, he's never motivated by rage or vengeance or petty spite—"

"Charles." Erik turned away from the map, and for the first time in a very long time Charles was aware of how much Erik loomed over him, when he was in the wheelchair, how far down Erik had to look to see him. His voice was calm, but distant and hard. Not Erik at all, but General Lehnsherr of Free Essex. "If we can take out King Nathaniel, however, wherever, it will be done. It is the cleanest possible way to end this war, establish a better government for this people, and rid the world of a monster."

"Even if it means killing innocent people. Our own people!"

Erik had already turned away. He stared fixedly down at the map.

Grantaire spoke, hesitantly. "If we had more men, things could go more smoothly – you have a well-trained guard here—"

"If you're asking me to send Genoshan guardsmen – not even soldiers, country guardsmen, some of whom I've known since childhood – to attack their own countrymen—" Charles choked down the rest of the sentence.

"Supplies, then," Erik said heavily. "Food, transportation, weapons—"

"You may take exactly what you would have taken for your journey back to Essex." Charles tried not to let his hands shake, gripping the arms of his chair. "Not a jot more. I'll not support this horror in any fashion."

"Will you try to stop us?" Erik had not looked up from the map; his knuckles were white on the edge of the table.

Charles drew in a slow breath. He could send word to this backwater governor, certainly. A warning that would send Nathaniel into deeper hiding, tip Sebastian off to his consort's activities, and possibly – in fact very probably – get Erik and his companions killed. "No," Charles whispered. "No, I'll do nothing to decrease your chance of success. Surely only your success can begin to justify..." Between your life and the lives of strangers, however innocent, I will choose you, God forgive me.

Erik nodded. "Then we'll leave at dawn."

Charles's head snapped up. "Leave?"

"Didn't you hear Enjolras? We can't wait, or he'll be gone, God knows where."

"But we were to have five days still..." He sounded inane to his own ears, child-like.

At last Erik looked at him again – a brief glance, agonized. "I'm sorry, Charles." He grabbed up the map, the movement convulsive and forced, and marched out of the room, Enjolras and Grantaire trailing behind.

***

Erik and his companions did not come to tea, or dinner. Charles made excuses to the children, and did not tell them Erik was leaving. Erik could bloody well say goodbye for himself.

Natasha was present in body, but not in spirit; Charles had never seen her so distracted. She drummed her fingers, picked at her food, nursed a single drink for an hour only to finally toss it back in one gulp. She continually touched and twisted a ring, dark metal with a purple stone, that Charles didn't remember her ever wearing before. As Charles couldn't imagine her preoccupation had anything to do with Erik, Essex, or ethical combat, he took little notice of it, but it certainly contributed to the unsettled atmosphere.

After dinner, Charles gave the children to Moira to put to bed, and went in search of Erik.

Navigating the grounds on his crutches in the growing dark would surely bring Erik out of the woodwork to scold him, he thought, but it didn’t. Charles had just finished talking to the stablemaster – who confirmed that m'lord's guests had been by to have their mounts prepared for the morrow – when he saw a flutter of movement. Peering into the shadows of the herb garden, he saw two figures standing close together, gesturing emphatically at each other.

He recognized the gestures before the figures; Clint's hand-language, the signs for stop that, talk to me, and some sort of reference to a debt.

And the other figure, Natasha, who had been in the process of turning away, stopped, and rubbed her eyes, and turned back to face Clint again.

Too many years, her hands said, moving with ease and confidence – she had not learned this language in the last three weeks. One night. Forget.

One night, and six years before. Clint watched her face, hunger and pleading under his usual stoicism. And all years since. Don't lie.

Nothing different—

Everything different!

For you. Natasha's expression was never less than controlled, but her hand was gentle as she raised it to Clint's cheek, continuing to sign with the other. Nothing different for me.

Clint leaned into the touch, placing one hand over hers. Two big differences.

See girls any time. Any.

And you? Their faces were inches apart now, and Charles knew he ought to leave, but the thud-thump of his crutches would draw attention – not from Clint, but certainly from Natasha.

She stepped back. Clint. At least, Charles assumed it was a sign for his name; it seemed to combine the letter C with what had to be "arrow" or "archer." Ten years. You don't know me now. I don't know you.

Don't care. Love you, signed with a startling fierceness, even anger.

Natasha just shook her head; Charles could make out the traces of a sad smile. Love is for children. She reached for the ring with the purple stone, as if to take it off; Clint closed his hand firmly over it.

For a long moment, they stared at each other – glared, really – and then Clint leaned forward, and Natasha jumped up to meet him, grabbing his face with both hands. The kiss was fierce but brief; Clint didn't quite have time to get his arms around her before she stepped back, and turned away, signing No. Sorry. No..

"I wish love were enough," she murmured as she walked away – her hands still, the words meant for no one's ears but her own. Charles stayed very still until she disappeared into the shadows of the herb garden.

Then he began stumping off down the path, hoping he'd be out of sight before Clint turned around.

Alone in his bedroom, Charles lit a candle against the encroaching night, and waited for Erik. He puttered about the room, as well as one could putter on crutches, adjusting pillows and curtains and sconces that didn't need to be adjusted. He set out the chessboard, though unsure he really wanted to play; he and Erik had been adversaries enough today.

Ten years. You don't know me now. I don't know you.

It wasn't true, he told himself fiercely. He and Erik knew each other... not perfectly, perhaps, there were details of each other's lives that they inevitably missed, but they knew the things that mattered. They wrote to each other constantly, they talked about everything. Being together again felt like coming home, far more than returning to Westchester. There was no strangeness, no uncertainty. It was like they'd never been apart.

But they had been apart. Erik had lived as an outcast, homeless and friendless, and caught up in war when he'd been tired of soldiering before he even met Charles. Charles had been in battle, too, in his way, on political and psychological fronts. War, as they said, could change a man.

Had war changed Erik? Or had he always been this hard, this ruthless and bloody-minded, and Charles never knew him well enough to see it? Which was worse? Could he live with either?

Of course he could, he could live with anything, anything for Erik, he loved Erik.

The minutes ticked by, alone in his room, and he heard the ghost of Natasha's voice. "I wish love were enough."

***

There were many preparations to make before their morning departure, and most of the household was in bed before Erik made his way to the room he'd been sharing with Charles. Not the room Charles had lived in as a child; his stepbrother had taken that as an office, apparently. It was almost a shame the Markos were away from home; Erik would have liked to give them a piece of his mind. He paced up and down the hallway for a bit, thinking of the punishment he might rain down on the father and son who had given Charles so much pain. It was blatant stalling, and hypocritical besides. It wasn't Kurt or Cain Marko who was hurting Charles now.

Not that Charles had any reason to feel hurt. This attempt on Nathaniel was a necessity and a precious opportunity and it would save lives in the end. Who under heaven was Charles Xavier to judge Erik for protecting his people? Both his peoples – Free Essex, who had given him purpose and support when he had none, and whose ideals lay close to Erik's heart, and Genosha, which could stop throwing away lives in a conflict it never should have been involved in. Yes, people would die – people would die either way! Charles was missing the forest for the trees.

Even more than Charles's shortsighted squeamishness, Erik was stung by his refusal to give them aid. They were seven men, four of them untrusted strangers, ill-supplied and poorly armed, with little idea what they were going up against; tactically speaking, it was the toughest corner Erik had been in for quite some time. And Charles could have helped them. And he would not.

At the moment, though, all that was crowded aside by the image of Charles's gutted expression, "But we were to have five days still..." Because this much Charles could hate him for and be justified – that Erik was leaving him, five days early, to go back to war.

Enough stalling. Erik took a deep breath and opened the door.

The room was still and quiet, a single candle-flame fluttering through its last moments in a pool of wax. Their chessboard was set out next to a plate of withered fruit, untouched. Charles lay in the bed, his breath even and slow in sleep, burrowed down into the pillows.

Moving quietly, Erik skimmed out of his clothes and slid into the bed, smoothing a hesitant hand down Charles's side. Charles stirred immediately – a sigh and sleepy smile, the aborted movement that meant he was trying to roll over toward him. Tears unexpectedly prickled Erik's eyes; holding his breath to keep them down, he wrapped himself around Charles's body, which molded itself eagerly to Erik's, warm and boneless and perfect.

If Erik woke him, would he smile, reach out for him, apologize? Or would he turn away, lay tense and untouchable, perhaps even tell Erik to leave? He couldn't bear that tonight. If that made him a coward, then he was a coward, but he couldn't do it.

Erik buried his face in his husband's hair, breathing his scent, and tried to sleep. He would need all his strength tomorrow.

***

When Charles first woke, he was conscious only of the same hazy, golden contentment that had attended most mornings in Westchester – Erik's arms around him, Erik's breath soft against the back of his neck.

Then he remembered that Erik was leaving.

Turning over to face Erik would certainly wake him – it involved too much laborious shifting of limbs – so Charles lay still. The only part of Erik he could see was one hand, thrown over Charles's waist to tangle loosely with Charles's own fingers. Moving slowly, Charles brought the hand up to his lips and brushed the lightest of all possible kisses over one knuckle.

He loved Erik's hands, long and sure and elegant. He knew them like he knew the voices of his children, the scent of candles, the worn places of his favorite pen – things that were part of him, deep and immovable. But what Charles knew was loving touches on his own skin, the care and gentleness Erik used with the children. There were scars and calluses on those hands that did not come from love or play. There always had been, but there were more now. Parts of Erik that he knew nothing about.

Feeling sick and unsteady, as if the ground were tilting under – ha! – under his feet, Charles extricated himself from the bed, and took his chair into the dressing room. When he came back out again, the bed was empty.

***

Erik was not so much of a coward as to leave without telling the children.

He went to the twins first. Sean woke easily, and crawled into his lap, an unusual sign of affection; Erik hugged him tightly, and kissed his wild red hair. Alex, groggy and scowling, batted at Erik's hand when he tried to stroke his cheek.

"Don' wan' get up," he mumbled around his thumb. Not a surprising sentiment when the sky held only a few pink streaks.

"You don't have to get up, son." Erik thought about pulling the thumb out of his mouth – they were trying to discourage that habit – but in the end he couldn't bear to. "I'm just saying goodbye."

"Where you going?" Sean asked, limp against his shoulder.

"I have to go away for a while. A long while."

"Come back tomorrow," Sean said.

"No, I can't come back tomorrow. I can't come back for a long time. Will you remember me? When I come back, will you be happy to see me?"

Sean nodded. "Happy come back." He patted Erik's chest, then his own, and Erik realized he was using the hand-sign for 'happy.'

"Yes, I'll be very happy when I come back," he whispered, closing his eyes. "You go on back to sleep, now."

"Okay."

They were both snoring by the time Erik had their blankets tucked around them.

Hank, he discovered in the next room, was awake already, sitting on the rug with his eyes fixed on a book and his hands twisting a puzzle-ball.

"My brilliant boy," Erik murmured. "Good morning."

"Morning," Hank chirped, in his absent-minded way, without looking up from his book. He squinted hard and rubbed his eyes.

"You need your glasses, Hank." Erik plucked them from the bedside table and worked them onto Hank's uncooperative face. "There, isn't that better?"

Hank sighed deeply, as if glasses were the greatest trial anyone could be called upon to bear. He looked like a little owl with them on, unbearably adorable. Erik scooped him up into his lap.

"Sir Erik! I'm trying to read!"

"Of course you are! Because you're my very brilliant boy, aren't you?" Erik peppered Hank's face with kisses while the boy squawked and squirmed and giggled.

"Yes, okay, I'm your brilliant boy!"

"And you'd best remember it." Erik set him down on the edge of the bed, knelt in front of him. "I came to say goodbye, Hank. I have to leave."

Hank frowned. "Why?"

"There are... things I have to do. Far away from here."

"When are you coming back?"

"I don't know." He ruffled a hand through Hank's hair. "I'm going to miss you very much."

Hank continued frowning, still fumbling with the puzzle-ball in his hands. It was a favorite, Erik knew, one he'd solved a hundred times; the layers, twisted in exactly the right way, unlocked a secret compartment inside, which Charles usually stocked with candy.

"You're nice," Hank mumbled. "I want you to stay."

"I wish I could stay. But I have to go." And the others were probably waiting on him already. Erik took a deep breath and pressed a final kiss to Hank's forehead. "I love you, Hank."

"Love you," Hank replied, with the thoughtless ease of a child accustomed to affectionate caregivers. "Here." He held out the puzzle-ball.

Uncertainly, Erik took it. "You... want me to put this away for you?"

"No. It’s for you. It can be yours now."

"Are you sure?"

Hank nodded. "Carriages are boring. You need to keep yourself occupied." That last carried more than a hint of exasperated Charles in it.

They were going on horseback, not carriage, but there was no need to mention that. He slipped the puzzle-ball into his pocket. "Thank you very much, Hank."

"You're welcome." He was looking past Erik now, at his book. Erik shook his head and set Hank back on the rug, then went to the door, where he paused to look back.

"Goodbye, Hank."

"Goodbye, Sir Erik." Hank tore himself away from the book long enough to give him a sad, owlish look as he closed the door.

Raven lay sprawled in a tangle of covers, gripping the lavender-stuffed rabbit he'd sent her for Christmas. A veil of blonde hair over her face puffed with each breath. For a moment, Erik didn't know if he could bear to wake her – but she, of them all, he could not leave without bidding farewell. A parent should not have favorites, he knew, and he told himself he didn't – he loved his sons dearly and individually, would die for any one of them. But Raven was special. Perhaps because she was the first, the one he had spent the most time with, perhaps because she was a rare and precious girl, but he felt a deeper connection to Raven than to anyone in his life but Charles.

"Raven," he called softly, sitting on the edge of her bed and brushing the hair from her face. "Wake up, my golden bird."

Raven shifted, mumbled, opened her eyes. Her brow creased at the sight of him by her bedside. "Hi, Sir Erik. Where's Papa?"

Erik's throat closed for a moment. "I don't know. He's somewhere about."

"Are we going to go riding?" Raven sat up, rubbing her eyes, her face lighting up at the idea of imminent adventure.

Erik smoothed her hair down and pulled her nightdress back up onto her shoulder. "I'm afraid not, sweetie. I have to leave."

"Where are you going? Will you be back for tea?"

"No. I won't be coming back, Raven. At least not for a very long time."

The boys had all taken it quietly, which was hardly odd since they hadn't known Erik a month, so he was not expecting Raven to fly into a full-blown fit. Before he knew it, he had a lap full of screaming, sobbing 7-year-old girl that he was trying frantically to soothe and shush.

"You can't go! You're not allowed to go!"

"I'm sorry, baby, I have to."

"But you're my friend! You're my favorite friend! You can't leave!"

Moira came to the door, blearily alarmed; Erik waved her away.

"I have to go, Raven. I don't want to, but I have to." And less than a week early, after all; he tried to tamp down his guilt with that, the knowledge that Raven's distress would still have happened whether he'd bowed to Charles's wishes or not.

"Now, you stop this," he said sternly, when several minutes of attempted comforting got him nowhere. Gently but firmly, he detached Raven from his lap and set her on the bed beside him. "You know better than to throw a tantrum, trying to get your way. That's not how your Papa operates."

Raven wiped her nose and glared at him sullenly.

"I know you're sad. I'm sad, too. But I still have to leave. Is this how you want to spend our last few minutes together? Having a tantrum?"

After a long, thoughtful, sniffling moment, Raven shook her head.

"What should we do instead?"

"Horses?"

"Not enough time, sweetie." He smoothed her hair. "How about a story?"

"Okay." She scampered across the room, and returned with a storybook that had turned up in the rooms, possibly left over from Charles's childhood – a beautifully-illustrated version of "The Ugly Duckling."

 

They had just gotten settled in the bed when Hank came wandering in, crawling as he tended to do when he felt too lazy or distracted to walk. Erik hesitated, unsure if Hank was about to cause a scene, or how Raven would feel about having her farewell invaded. But Raven waved her brother forward with perfect cheer.

“Come on, Hankie. Sir Erik has to go away but he’s going to read us a story first.”

So Erik read with Raven and Hank both snuggled against his chest, a feeling he tried to fix steadily in his memory. He found his feelings about the story he read to be quite mixed. How blithely the story judged the cygnet to be uglier than the ducklings, as if being different were inherently bad! And while he liked that the cygnet found his real family eventually, he was less glad that the "happy ending" involved the cygnet being “beautiful” by duck standards after all. Why should the little fellow still care about his bratty childhood playmates' opinions?

Raven, now calm and even a little sleepy, traced her fingers over the last illustration in the book – the cygnet, now grown into a graceful swan, gliding gracefully through the water with his true brothers and sisters. "Sir Erik, do you think I'll be beautiful when I grow up?"

"I think you're beautiful now," Erik said. "But even if you weren't, would that make you less important?"

Raven crinkled her brow at him.

"Our little feathered friend, here. Didn't he have feelings and thoughts just as much as the ducklings did, even when he was awkward and strange-looking? Wasn't he just as good as them, on the inside?"

She nodded. Hank, Erik noticed, was listening intently.

"Then why does the outside matter?" Erik prodded.

"I guess it doesn't," she said thoughtfully.

"Da—Quite right it doesn't. Remember that, both of you." He kissed the side of her head, then Hank’s. Remember that. Remember me.

Enjolras and Grantaire were, in fact, waiting in the stableyard, already packed and mounted with their horses fidgeting in secondhand impatience.

"Good of you to join us, General," Grantaire said, draining a mug and handing it off to the stableboy. By the minty scent on the wind, it was the herbal tea for his morning sickness. It went quite against Erik's grain to lead a pregnant androji into battle, but Grantaire was barely showing, not enough to hamper him as a fighter, and they couldn't afford to let anyone sit this one out.

Erik tied his pack to the horse and swung into the saddle. "You're one to scold for punctuality, Grantaire."

 

"Are we ready, then?" Enjolras asked, and Erik saw the unspoken question as he glanced around the stableyard, at the absence of their host.

"I..." He couldn't leave without seeing Charles, surely. Yet Charles had taken such pains to avoid him this morning. He'd known what time they planned to leave, and they were even somewhat late, the blush of dawn quickly brightening to morning. If Charles wasn't here by now, he had no intention of coming. Erik took a deep breath, feeling a weight settle into his stomach, heavier by far than mere physical separation, and sharp-edged, to cut and bleed with every movement. "Yes, I suppose we're ready."

***

In his hurry to reach the stableyard, Charles fumbled his crutches on the stairs, and earned himself a collection of bruises, scrapes and aches that would do Sebastian's goons proud. It seemed to take an age to win free of the servants who tended his wounds, and even then they insisted on carrying him out to the stables in a makeshift sedan chair.

All to no avail. They arrived to an empty yard, and a stableboy who said the departed guests were out of sight even from the tallest tree.

Chapter Text

Charles could learn only bits and pieces of what happened at the house of the governor that had sheltered King Nathaniel. The governor and his household could say only that a portion of the visiting king's guard turned on them, and let in some three or four unfamiliar soldiers; all that followed was chaos and confusion. At the end of it, half the mansion was burned, and eight people were dead, including one of the attackers. Charles vomited three times in the hours it took to confirm the dead attacker was one of Nathaniel's bodyguards.

Nathaniel, of course, of course, was not among the dead. As far as anyone could tell, he fled into the forest east of the governor's mansion, and the attackers pursued. Sebastian had the place crawling with armed searchers within a half-day, but they found nothing.

Two weeks later, they received frantic reports – rumors, then confirmations, and finally an announcement from Free Essex itself – that General Lehnsherr and Commander Enjolras had beheaded King Nathaniel on a dais in the middle of New Marseilles, and declared the nation a democracy.

Sebastian declared war the next day.

***

"It's strange how near you happened to be," Sebastian said, "when everything went south for poor Nathaniel."

Charles barely glanced up from his writing desk. Sebastian had come to see Sean, of course, but the twins were napping; in the absence of children to torment, he settled for his consort. "I am hardly the one who decided where to hide the fellow, Sebastian."

"No, but you did decide to have a sudden craving for Westchester."

Charles tamped down a black laugh. How typical, for Sebastian to be so near, and yet so laughably far from the truth. It would be entirely his luck, Charles thought, to be hanged for the one treason of the summer that he had not committed.

"You know how I feel about your moronic war," he said, folding his just-completed note and sealing it with wax. "I could have told anyone that killing Nathaniel would only increase our involvement in it. I'm afraid you can't blame this one on me." He caught Clint's eye and motioned him over. Deliver this to Tony, please, he signed, and this to Natasha.

Clint bowed and left, Sebastian glaring sourly after him. It burned Sebastian that Charles had replaced his little spy with a real valet/secretary, and seeing them communicate right before his eyes in a way he could not understand had to be a trial for a man as paranoid as Sebastian.

Ironically, while Charles had signed nothing to Clint that he could not have said aloud, he had sat right in front of Sebastian and written to Tony and Natasha about their plans to scuttle the war effort. He trusted his smile was only cheerful, rather than smug.

"You will lose, you know," he said casually. "You're only fighting out of pure temper, and it won't accomplish anything."

"Especially with my darling consort undermining me at every turn," Sebastian growled.

Charles was far too experienced at the game now to betray any hint of alarm. Sebastian was merely whining about the ransoms again. "I've already paid that first batch of twenty-five. I've gotten word of fifty more. You know you can't stop me, Sebastian. Why not simply bask in the public approval? You get little enough of it."

Sebastian merely grumbled and sat back in his seat, twiddling with a paper clip. Despite all the growling and accusations, he seemed to be in an... oddly companionable mood, content to simply hang about – no violence, no tirades, no sexual demands. That had been happening a lot lately. It reminded Charles a bit of the first years of their marriage, before they quite entirely hated each other, when Charles still hoped to scavenge something like a functional relationship from their marriage, even if he had been blackmailed into it. He hated Sebastian now, more than anyone on Earth, enough to want him dead, and he knew Sebastian felt the same. But after twelve years together, towering rage was just too much effort.

Sebastian, he realized suddenly, was looking older these days. Tired. He was still King, with all the fawning hangers-on that attracted, but the gang of devoted friends – or at least dependable allies – that had surrounded him ten, even five years ago was... considerably smaller now. Some members had died or lost political power, but most had simply fallen out with the king, and never reconciled. Azazel was one of Sebastian's few remaining stalwarts, and Charles had never forgotten the terror in Sebastian's eyes when Azazel took him away to be punished. If Azazel was truly a friend to anyone, it was not Sebastian.

You'll die a sad and lonely old man, Sebastian, one who's watched everything slip through your fingers, Charles thought. Perhaps someone will feel sorry enough for you to keep you comfortable. It will not be me.

That night, with Moira reading the children's current favorite ("The Ugly Duckling") to them in the background, Charles sat once again at his writing desk, the ink drying in his quill as it hovered over the page. There were so many things he wanted to tell Erik. The children still ask about you. The fosterlings return in a week – Sebastian negotiated another three years on their contract. Natasha and I have kept our words, everything we agreed to in Westchester. I miss you. I love you.

He could not write a single word, not with this quarrel lying heavy between them – no, standing between them, a wall stretching up to the heavens and away to the horizons on either side, impossible to say how thick. There was no way to address it, nothing to say that had not already been said. You killed seven Genoshans who had done nothing to you. Your 'quick, clean end to the war' dragged out for weeks and ended with a public execution – and lo, the war still rages. I don't know yet if I can forgive you, or if I have any right to.

He wouldn't even know how or where to send a letter, now. He put the pen and paper carefully away.

***

Enjolras was elected President of Free Essex just in time to celebrate the birth of his daughter, aptly named Patria. A girl-child was just the sort of good omen the public needed, and she was immediately the nation's darling, often called "princess" despite the abolition of all noble titles. She'd inherited Enjolras's golden curls, and Erik often found that the sight of her, being doted on by her happy parents, tore at him enough to drive him from the room.

Erik was Secretary of Defense now, and had plenty to do, trying to integrate the old and new Essex militaries and largely dismantle them both at the same time. As glad as he was that the war was over, it looked like peace would be every bit as complicated.

He'd been given an excellent house with his new position; not a grand one, as the new government was anxious to remain "among the people," but more than fine enough for his purposes. He lived there with one pair of servants, a married couple who cooked and cared for the house and left him largely alone. He often felt strangely as if he were a guest in their home, they seemed so much happier and more connected to the place than he did.

The silence between himself and Charles seemed to weigh down his every movement, heavier every day, but he was at a loss how to break it. He wouldn't apologize for doing what he believed was right, not even to Charles, and what other words would Charles be willing to hear from him?

He sat at his desk, one rainy spring afternoon, and stared at a blank sheet of paper, as uselessly as he had the day before, and the day before that. He turned Hank's puzzle-ball over and over in his hands; he had yet to get it open.

One of the servants knocked at the study door. "I beg your pardon, General, but you have a visitor. A lady."

That brought Erik up short. He'd had few visitors here, mostly former brothers-in-arms – no ladies. Perhaps someone from the synagogue? He'd celebrated Purim with the Pryde family a week ago, which had been awkward but surprisingly enjoyable in the end. Perhaps Mrs. Pryde had come by to invite him to Pesach?

"I'll meet her in the sitting room," Erik said, and put away his letter-writing with a certain shameful relief.

But it was not Mrs. Pryde he found in the sitting room.

"Well, sweetheart," said Emma, with a dazzling smile, "aren't you going to say hello to your wife?"


Emma had not traveled lightly; the carriage that had brought her from the docks groaned under a pile of trunks and cases, and she airily informed Erik that more would be delivered as the ship was unloaded.

"You're not here for a short visit," Erik said, watching the parade of luggage through the doorway as Emma sipped tea across from him.

"Visit?" Her expression was almost hilariously innocent. "But don't you want me to stay, darling?"

"Stay? Permanently?"

"Of course! Now that you're finally safe and settled after so many difficult years apart—"

"There's no one here to perform for, Emma. Feel free to take off the stage makeup."

"Fine," she said, with visible distaste at his inelegance. "I've grown... bored, with what Court life in Genosha has to offer. A change of scene, the excitement of an infant government—"

"So exciting that you couldn't write ahead?" Erik raised an eyebrow. "What in the world did you do, an experienced dancer like yourself, to make all of Genosha too hot a bed for sleeping?"

"You're mixing metaphors, darling," Emma said primly. She set aside her teacup and stood. "If you'll just show me to my chamber, I've had quite a tiring journey. I'll get settled in later. But Erik, you needn't look as if the executioner's shown up on your doorstep!" She patted his cheek with a sparkling smile. "Really, my pet, you'll hardly know I'm here."

She proceeded, of course, to turn Erik's entire household upside down. Within a week, the house was in a horrifying state of renovation, with at least triple the staff, and Erik had to keep the key to his rooms on his person to prevent them being redecorated in his absence. Once Emma deemed the house presentable (which happened with astonishing swiftness), Erik found himself at the center of a social whirl he had never remotely desired, and took to spending evenings and sometimes nights at a club he'd never intended to join, dodging his somewhat bewildered acquaintances' congratulations on reuniting with the wife he'd never mentioned before.

He wasn't sure whether to be mollified or suspicious that Emma took great pains, in between pressing engagements, to spend time with him. They frequently took meals together, went on outings to interesting corners of New Marseilles (where she inevitably complained of the city's cornucopia of odd smells), and sometimes in the evening she joined him in his study to read quietly together. She even bought him gifts, some of them curiously thoughtful, such as a sturdy new coffee mug after his favorite broke. Her company was always stimulating, and despite himself, Erik found it... not unpleasant, to have something like a friend.

She offered no information about Charles, and he could not gather the nerve to ask.

One night, about a month after her arrival, Emma settled in beside Erik on the rather small sofa in his study, bearing a bottle of wine and a tray of ginger biscuits. A day of political nonsense and straightening out others' mistakes had left him weary and snappish, and Emma looked little better; she'd even taken down her hair, which she seldom did before getting into bed.

"You look as tired as I feel," Erik said, helping himself to a glass of wine.

"What a thing to say to a woman." Emma swirled her own wine, wrinkled her nose at it and set it aside. "What made your day so terrible, sugar?"

Erik didn't entirely mean to start a rant – he didn't kid himself that Emma actually cared very much – but he'd had no dinner, and the wine hit him hard. The more he drank, the more he talked, and Emma helpfully kept his glass full. It had been a very long time since Erik had drunk to excess, but why not? He wasn't on a battlefield anymore. He was safe in his own home, and he would drink if he wanted to, drink until the petty annoyances of the day didn't matter, drink until he didn't miss Charles anymore.

"In that case, I'll need to top off your glass again," Emma said, and he realized he'd said that last part out loud.

By the end of that glass, the world did, in fact, feel like a better place, warm and comfortable. He was sprawled bonelessly across his sofa, Emma a curvy, sweet-smelling weight against his chest. She gave him a drowsy smile, fiddling with the buttons of his shirt. Undoing the buttons of his shirt. And wasn't that an interesting idea? Emma. He liked Emma. And she smelled so good, and he missed that, he wanted to hold somebody and want them and be able to have them...

"Emma... no, wait..."

"I know, I know." She pressed a finger to his lips, looking amused. "Your heart is spoken for. But," she leaned closer, brushing their noses together, "it's not really your heart I'm interested in right now."

He couldn't really say which of them kissed the other, and it didn't quite feel right, Emma's mouth wasn't quite what he wanted but it was here and it was so much better than nothing, and Charles hadn't even come to tell him goodbye, so what could Charles say about him pulling Emma closer and shifting to get both his legs up onto the sofa—

The sound of breaking glass startled him, and he sat up enough to look over Emma's head.

"Just the wine," Emma said, and tried to kiss him again, but Erik was still looking at the broken glass, at the crimson pool of wine soaking into the carpet around it.

"You didn't drink any," he said.

"Better things to do." Emma's smile was wicked – and just a little false.

"You didn't drink your wine," Erik said again, "but you made sure I drank mine. Over and over." He sat up, forcing Emma backward. "You've been... tired. Took your hair down. Tired, and sick, always... eating..." He rubbed his face, trying to make his thoughts clear. "Eating ginger biscuits. And complaining how much everything smells. Just like Charles. When he was pregnant."

He was drunk enough that Emma could have played it off, had she reacted just a little bit smoother. But he wasn't drunk enough to miss the way the smile slid off her face, color draining from her cheeks. He shoved her away, to the other end of the couch, and wiped his mouth.

"You planned this. You're pregnant and you wanted me… you wanted me to think it was mine."

Emma looked down at her hands, saying nothing.

"Why, Emma?" Erik was dimly aware that he was shouting, that his body was shaking, frustrated arousal transmuting to rage. "Why the game? I've given you everything you ever asked, and this is your thanks? To trick me into—" He choked on the words, had to stop and breathe, swallow, regain control. "Emma, I've never had the slightest interest in your affairs, you know I wouldn't care. You know I'd slap my name on whatever brat you chose to bear, it's not even my money supporting it. As long as it's not Sebastian's get, which is impossible—"

Emma flinched.

Silence filled the room, heavier with every breath. Erik had never wished so ardently to be sober because surely, surely he wasn't thinking clearly. "But Sebastian can't. That's – that's the whole—"

"So I had surmised, from several separate indicators. Which is how I came to be so... careless." She grimaced in self-disgust. "Apparently he can. It takes a decade or so, is all."

"And you're certain? Entirely certain? It couldn't be one of your other... companions?"

"I am entirely certain," Emma said grimly. "I would hardly have left the country if I thought there was any hope of blaming it on someone else."

"I don't understand. Most women in your position dream of bearing the king's bastard. You'd be set for life."

"Set? Oh, yes, quite. He'd have me snug in a bower by nightfall, never to want for anything again. Gilded cage is such a clichéd term, so let me just point out how unlikely it is that I would be allowed, as you say, other companions, ever again in my life. One example of what I could look forward to; I could give you a dozen more."

"And that's why the game." Erik rubbed his eyes, leaning back heavily. "To smuggle in the one bastard you knew I'd balk at raising. Get me to stand between it and Sebastian. You're quite the cuckoo, Emma."

"It was worth a try." She began pinning her hair up. "I suppose this is the part where you throw me out of the house? I do hope you'll give me time to pack."

"Throw you out? Hardly. What sort of gentleman throws his pregnant wife out in the cold?"

Emma let her hair drop again, turning to him with a cautiously raised eyebrow.

"Emma, you haven't thought this through. What do you think would happen to my children if Sebastian discovered he had a child of his own blood?" He lifted Emma's hand to his lips, his voice very dry. "I'm ever so happy, my dear, to be starting a family with you."

***

Exactly one person had to know the truth, of course; Erik would not risk word getting back to Charles without explanation. Emma balked at the idea of committing the secret to writing and sending it straight into the household of the one they most needed to hide it from, but Erik would not hear of doing otherwise.

It took him over a week to piece together a letter, one agonizing phrase at a time. In the end he chose to address their quarrel only very obliquely, by stating how much he loved Charles despite any disagreement they might have, and that he therefore could not think of letting Charles believe him unfaithful. The letter was short, but enough, he hoped, to communicate the point. He addressed it to Moira, from Emma, for security's sake, and posted it via the next ship to leave New Marseilles harbor – the Reclamation, a name that struck him as a good omen. His hand only shook a little as he dropped the letter in the postal bag.

***

Dear Erik,

I hope you are well. I hear many good things about the progress of the new government of Essex and I hope you are pleased with your part in it –no, that was surely too snide, that wasn't at all what he meant, strike that—

I hope you find your new position satisfying

I hope you are in a better position to write

I hope you miss me every bit as horribly as I miss you, you cold-blooded son of a

Clint stepped into Charles's study with a perfunctory bow. Lord Tony here, sir.

"Of course." Charles turned the letter over, pulled himself together enough to sign. Give him tea. I'll be there right away.

He composed himself, made sure his face was not flushed nor his hair disheveled, then wheeled out into the sitting room, where Tony was already building some kind of... something out of biscuits, string, and a teacup.

"Tony! I expected you at half-past, I thought perhaps you weren't coming after all."

"Yes, sorry about that," Tony said, barely glancing up from his construction. "Had a bit of a mess – parts that should have arrived today are at the bottom of the sea, apparently. Reclamation indeed, there'll be no reclaiming that ship. No one drowned, which is nice, means I don't have to feel bad about cursing the whole crew for fools, but all the cargo, poof."

"Yes, well, that's very unfortunate," Charles said patiently. "But you said you had important news, something to tell me privately? Is it about the vote tomorrow?"

"Not directly, no." Tony's smile was usually some degree of smug, but this was more than most. "I'm sure you recall how Steve and I took that nice little holiday a couple months back, off to the islands. Lovely place, just lovely. His mother kept the boys for us, and we got to spend a lot of time just... watching the surf, drinking tropical things with umbrellas in them – reconnecting, you know, as a couple." The smile went still more smug. "We reconnected on the beach, and in the hammock, and in the kitchen—"

"Tony."

"—even in the water, that one time, which, let me tell you, not nearly as fun as you might think—"

"Tony!"

He chuckled and popped a biscuit in his mouth. "You get the idea. But I do have a point, I swear I do."

"Kindly introduce it."

"Well, interludes like that, they tend to produce certain results. And we expect those results – result, singular, please God, I am not prepared for multiples – sometime in February."

Charles blinked for a moment, deciphering this. "Oh, Tony, congratulations! How wonderful!"

"Wonderful, yeah, I'd forgotten how magnificently uncomfortable this whole process is, I'm not even showing yet and I'm just – I'm exhausted and moody and I can't stop eating, it's ridiculous—" He stuffed two more biscuits in his mouth. "Which brings me, finally, to the point, which is that I can't possibly function on an adult level through all this, not reliably, not that I do anyway, but I'll be much worse than usual."

Charles's heart sank. "Meaning I'll have to find a new proxy for Assembly."

Tony grinned. "Actually, since you officially transferred all your Assembly privileges to me, I can choose a proxy for myself without even consulting you."

"...You're worrying me, Tony."

"The requirements are that my proxy be of noble blood and not have an Assembly vote in his own right. You meet both requirements."

Charles felt his mouth fall open. "I – You – You want me to be my own proxy? That's surely not legal, that's got to be—"

"On the contrary, it's been done before, more than once. I checked."

It stole Charles's breath, the possibility of getting back into Assembly, even temporarily. He'd never dared hope for it, not once in five years – to have it dangled before him like this was almost painful. "Sebastian would never permit it," he forced himself to say. "We have an agreement, you know that."

"Yes, but he doesn't know I know it. So when I ambush him with the idea in Assembly, in front of everybody, he'll have no reason to see it as a deliberate jab—"

"Because Sebastian's always so rational—"

"—and no excuse to deny the motion, except transparent spite."

"It would be lovely if we could pull it off," Charles said wistfully. "Maybe, since it's temporary, he'll let it go..." Or only give me a few bruises for it. It would be worth that. "But I couldn't bear to see you – you don't know what he might do to punish you—"

"I'm a big boy, Charles. And I'm doing this. Just thought I'd give you the heads-up before I did." He put the last of the biscuits in his mouth with an expression of great joy. "Did I mention I'm always hungry now? Haven't had much nausea yet, I'm sure I have that to look forward to, and swollen feet, and back pain, and a whole new crop of stretch marks... I wonder how Lady Emma's holding up? I imagine it's a deeply horrifying experience for such a delicate lady."

Charles frowned. "What about Emma?"

"You haven't heard? You know she moved off to Essex to be with her long-lost hubby. Shocked everybody."

Charles felt something heavy begin falling through his innards. For a moment he couldn't speak. "No, I... I didn't know that. I heard she had left town, but I assumed she'd gone back to her country place for the summer."

"Nope. Moved to Essex, lock, stock and barrel."

Charles reminded himself Tony didn't, in fact, know quite the whole story, and had no idea that news regarding Erik would be of such great interest to him. "So she's living with Erik now."

"Yep. I didn't even think she liked the guy, but apparently they're in a family way now. One of her maidservants wrote to one of mine, something like that. All the women in town seem intensely interested in the whole thing. They all idolized Lady Emma, they're still in mourning for her soirees."

"They... Erik and Emma are having a child." The heavy object in his stomach had finally landed, and Charles wished he could blame the sudden nausea on – on pregnancy, in fact, he suddenly wanted to be pregnant so badly he could scream, him, not Emma, what right did Emma have—

"Is it really so shocking?" Tony asked. "Except, I guess, that they've been married so long, everyone had almost decided they were sterile."

Charles choked on a laugh. Erik, sterile. Erik, father of four, only one of them on purpose. Five, now. Father of five.

He managed to get Tony out the door without a visible breakdown. Then he wheeled silently back into his study, tore his disastrous attempt at a letter into tiny pieces, and threw them in the fire.

***

It was deeply satisfying to see Sebastian's surprise when he walked into Assembly and found Charles sitting at Tony's side. That surprise darkened into helpless rage as Tony informed the Assembly that Charles would be his long-term proxy as needed during Tony's pregnancy and likely the first months after. Tony then cheerfully excused himself, leaving Charles to hold his vote for the remainder of the session, and Charles wielded it like a sword. Bolstered by the element of surprise, he took opponents more accustomed to Tony's bombastic political style and cut them into neat ribbons with calm logic and kindly smiles. They would adapt, of course, but Charles would use what he had while he had it.

When the session ended, Charles made no attempt to avoid the king. In fact, he made certain that when Sebastian caught up to him, they would be alone in the anteroom of the Assembly chamber. No one else need be party to this conversation.

He waited for Sebastian to get his first fit of temper out of the way – there was no use talking to him before that. When Charles was on the floor with the beginnings of bruises on his forehead, shoulders and forearms, the echo Sebastian's shouts dying in the corners of the room, he calmly hauled himself back into his wheelchair.

"I hope you feel better now, Sebastian. I'm afraid that little tantrum is the only vengeance you'll have for this particular infraction."

"Oh, I beg to differ, my dear. You have broken our deal, and when I speak to Azazel—"

"You will tell him that you and I have an understanding and all is well."

Sebastian gaped at him for a moment. "And why would I be doing that?"

"Because if you do otherwise, I will inform the Nipponjin ambassador that you are sleeping with her husband. When that happens, you will lose any possibility of her support in... well, anything, ever again. And considering how heavily you are depending on that support for your iron and steel, your ships and safe harbors to put them in, I think you will find that my presence in Assembly for some few months is not so unendurable after all."

Sebastian's face was set in the deepest of glares, but he held his tongue, visibly considering Charles's words.

"So you can be brought to use dirty tactics after all," he said eventually. "I thought you considered me the villain, and yourself the bright and glorious hero, in our little drama."

Charles shrugged, trying not to let on how close to the mark that came. "A warrior must use the weapons he's given."

"Consider yourself a warrior, do you." He looked pointedly at the wheelchair. "And you strike a blow for freedom and justice, by breaking your word to your king."

"I decline to feel any guilt over that, considering how many of my bones you have broken. But it will not be so very bad, I think." Charles bared his teeth. "Admit it, you've missed having a worthy opponent in Assembly."

Sebastian laughed, and it was by far the heartiest, most sincere laugh Charles had heard from him in years. "Do you know, Charles, I have. Very well, then, you win this battle. I look forward to the war."

***

Though he'd never been with Charles for as much of the process as he would have liked, Erik thought he had some idea how to care for an expecting spouse. He'd forgotten to account for the basic difference between Charles and Emma's personalities. Charles was an eager parent, in love with his baby before it was half-formed, with a natural, determined good cheer that let him accept the discomforts of pregnancy with a minimum of complaint.

Emma, on the other hand, started each day screaming curses at men, babies, and her own traitorous body as she vomited into a chamber pot. It generally went downhill from there.

It was Erik, therefore, who had preparations made for the baby's nursery, laid in stores of bottles and blankets and diapers, and asked around for the wet nurse he knew full well Emma would want. It was all... rather more enjoyable than he expected. It was nice having something to look forward to.

About the time of her sixth month, when the worst of the sickness passed off, Emma found him examining a selection of tiny hats with a foolish smile on his face, and rolled her eyes so severely he thought she was fainting. Thereafter she took more charge in the proceedings. The baby's wardrobe, at least, was of interest to her, and in the end she hired the nurse on her own – a shy, wide-eyed girl who was distressingly young for the child she carried (due some two months before Emma's). Erik strongly suspected Emma of rescuing her from some sort of brothel.

Emma made no further attempt to get Erik into bed, and their friendship resumed nicely. Erik adopted an air of amused patience while he listened to her complaints, bringing her ice, chocolate, and salted crackers as bidden, massaging her back and swollen feet, cheerfully joining in when she cursed Sebastian's name (as she did often and creatively). The doctors assured them all was proceeding normally, which seemed to make no dent in Emma's conviction that no one had ever suffered as she did now. (Erik exchanged more than one roll of the eyes with the little wet nurse, Fantine, who bore her own burden much more stoically.)

Despite the distractions of caring for Emma and preparing for the baby, it did not escape Erik's notice that there was no reply to his letter. Even now, in the wake of such a startling announcement, Charles had nothing to say to him? The movement of cargo between Essex and Genosha was slow and unpredictable, he reminded himself, due to both physical and political obstacles; his own letter and Charles's reply could both experience delays. By the time he felt certain that he should have received something by now, it was too late in Emma's pregnancy to think of leaving her.

That wasn't to say he heard no word of Charles; when Genosha ceased hostilities at last and acknowledged the new government of Essex, it was widely known to be the Prince Consort's doing. How he was restored to Assembly, Erik couldn't guess, but he was certainly glad of it. He only wished he could hear the tale of it, or anything at all, from Charles's own hand.

Fantine's baby girl arrived safely, which Emma seemed to take some comfort in; in fact the entire household took the new baby and her young mother so much to heart that Erik almost wondered if he should be jealous on his own child's behalf.

His own child… He encouraged himself to think of Emma's baby as his own, but some days were easier than others. It helped to know that doing so was a victory over Sebastian, a theft, a poetic revenge. Sometimes it still burned to think of himself raising the King's seed in his own bosom, showering it with everything Sebastian kept him from giving his own sons and daughter.

Not the child's fault, he reminded himself, and hoped to heaven it would be a girl – of less potential interest to Sebastian, and bearing as little resemblance to him as possible.

***

"It's a boy," Charles said hollowly, when Moira found him sitting alone in his study, the hearth and candles unlit despite the deepening shadows. "Emma's servant wrote to Tony's servant. Androji – they've named him Hazel, after one of Emma's parents. I guess it's stylish again to have unisex names for androji, I can't imagine Emma doing it otherwise. He's to be circumcised at Erik's synagogue – has been, by now, I'm sure. I'm glad he's going to synagogue again, I know it means a lot to him, I know he... it means a lot to him, he looks for something there, I hope he's finding it..."

"Charles," Moira said, and Charles made himself stop babbling, staring down at his hand on the surface of the desk. Silently Moira pulled up a stool next to him and took his hand. "Charles, I'm so sorry."

"How did I lose him, Moira? After... everything else... so much horror, so many years, and now I've lost him? Now he just... starts a new family, with a new..." He choked on the word. "One quarrel, Moira! One quarrel and I'm forgotten!" And that wasn't fair, but the pain clawing through his chest demanded it of him anyway.

"Never forgotten," Moira said, surprisingly fierce. "Charles, that man will love you until the day he drops down dead. It's just… sometimes..."

"Sometimes that's not enough," Charles finished, when she couldn't.

They sat in silence for a while, Charles staring down at his desk through the blur of tears, holding tightly to Moira's hand. Outside the study, he could hear Armando directing the other children through some game, everyone whooping and laughing. He pictured Erik holding his new son, bending to kiss Emma's forehead, that disbelieving smile he always wore when something good actually happened in his life. That smile would surely lose its disbelief as Erik grew comfortable and secure in the knowledge that now, finally, he had a real family, something solid that he could keep, something better than Sebastian's scraps.

"I want you to be happy, Erik," Charles had told him once, "and if you ever truly get a chance for that—"

"I am happy," Erik had said, and "I will never love anyone but you."

With a tear-choked curse, Charles snatched his hand away from Moira's and swept everything off his desk, desperate to find something like release in the smash and clatter, the shattering of inkwells. Moira didn't recoil, as he expected, but wrapped her arms around him instead, holding him tight against the shaking.

"No one could do it forever," she whispered. "He needed someone who was there. It's not your fault."

"Of course it's not my bloody fault," Charles said, knowing full well that it was. "Erik's done any number of idiot things that weren't my fault. Underappreciating me is the least of them."

"No, it's not." Moira pulled back and smoothed his hair out of his face. "Anyone that – Charles, anyone who could hurt you this way – however much he loves you... You deserve better."

Charles had tried for a long time now not to notice certain things about Moira. The way she smiled at him, the way she watched him from the corner of her eye. How her eyes glowed when she'd been out playing with the children and came in with windblown hair and sun-pinked cheeks, how natural she looked with his children in her lap. How she was the only adult person, anymore, who ever touched him out of kindness. Out of love.

Why should he ignore it? Why should he be lonely while Erik did as he liked?

So he didn't move away as Moira slowly, shyly leaned forward and kissed his lips. And when she would have pulled back swiftly, he deepened the kiss instead, sliding a hand around the back of her neck.

Little hands pattered against the door, knocking and opening in the same motion, and the two of them jerked apart as Raven and Angel bounced into the room.

"Papa, Mama, come look! Clint brought us a watermelon!"

"A watermelon!" Charles said brightly, after a slightly-too-long pause. He did not look at Moira. "Probably the last of the season. We shall give it the reception it deserves. Run along, I'll be right behind you!"

Moira stood and ushered the girls away, but glanced back at him from the doorway. He had no idea whether to interpret her expression as hopeful, uncertain, frightened, or any combination of the above, and no earthly idea what she might be seeing in return.

They maintained a facade of normalcy throughout the evening, until the watermelon was demolished and the children washed and tucked into bed. Charles readied himself for bed as well, moving automatically; he knew Moira would come as soon as all was well settled. She often did, to sit by the bed and talk over the day, things that couldn't be said in front of the children. Tonight's conversation would be... rather different.

She opened the door just as Charles got his pillows properly arranged behind him. She was still dressed, her expression grave, and she made no move to touch him as she came to her usual seat. For a time they were silent, and when at last she looked at him, Charles knew that what he had to say would not surprise her. It seemed insulting to be visibly relieved, so he contained it; he would not hurt her any further than he must. Instead he took her hand and kissed it softly.

"I'm sorry, Moira."

"No," she said, "I'm the one who should apologize, Charles. I had no business... I knew you were hurting and I swear it wasn't my intention to take advantage, I only meant to – but I shouldn't have—"

"It's all right." He folded her hand more firmly into his. "I... I have tried not to be aware of your feelings, I thought it best for both of us, but perhaps it's only been more cruel. I cannot return them, Moira, even now – to be with you now, I would only be doing it to hurt Erik, not out of love for you, and you deserve so much better than that."

Silence again, while they both tucked in the edges of their composure.

"I thought there was Lieutenant Howlett to consider, too," Charles murmured.

Moira breathed a slow, heavy sigh. "There is. But I see so little of him, and... you pre-date him." She gave him a small, soft smile. "But yes, that's another reason I shouldn't have."

"Perhaps this would be a good time for you to visit him – I mean, visit Westchester," Charles said, edging a little playfulness into his voice, and was pleased to see Moira perk up a bit. "The fosterlings have never been. I'm sure they'd all enjoy watching the last of the harvesting. Cain will be away, and I hear Kurt's mellowed considerably. I could keep the twins, you'd manage the older ones very well on your own."

"I think that will work nicely, if you can manage it." Moira bit her lip. "Charles, you're not... sending me away? Permanently, I mean? I know I may have made things awkward but I... You're my family, Charles, regardless of anything else, you and the children—"

"No, never!" Charles struggled to sit up straighter, the better to meet her eyes. "Moira, never. You'll always be part of this family, whatever happens."

The tension in Moira's shoulders softened. "You and I are at harmony, then?"

"Always." He squeezed her hand.

This silence was better, warm and relieved. It felt like something settling back into place.

"Oh, I forgot," Moira said. "When I first came into your study, earlier, it was to tell you something. Good news."

"Oh? I could dearly use some of that."

"Sir Victor of House Creed is home from the war."

Charles grimaced. "This is good news?"

"He lost an eye."

"...what?"

"He's been sent to recover at one of King Sebastian's country estates, and is expected to formally retire there."

"Well. Well now." Charles rolled several potential reactions around in his mouth. "Well, far be it from me to rejoice in another's suffering, even one such as him. But I can't say I'll be sorry not to see him again, nor for Genosha to have a new Paladin."

"Officially, of course, he lost the eye in battle," Moira said, a smile dancing at the corners of her mouth. "Rumor has it, though, that he actually lost it to an eldery woman who crept into his tent to avenge an... injury done to her granddaughter. Rumor also has it that this elderly lady also cost him something more dear than an eye."

Charles choked, Moira's smothered smile broke free, and they both laughed until their bellies ached, feeling for once that there might be justice in the world.

***

Emma seemed happy to let Erik take charge of most things Hazel-related; it was largely Erik and Fantine who changed diapers, sang lullabies, and snugged him into tiny hats and socks for adventures out of doors. She was at least casually supportive of Erik's determination to have the boy raised Jewish, though it seemed to amuse her somewhat.

"Lying to God, isn't it?" she said, in a conversation about Erik's synagogue's liberal willingness to assign Jewish identity through the father's line, and that had taken Erik aback. But surely, if God existed – which he wanted to believe, even if he hadn't attained the certainty he might have liked – surely He would forgive this as a measure to keep an innocent babe away from Sebastian. Or even as an act of justice, since Sebastian had taken Erik's children, and thus kept them from the heritage they ought to have had.

Hazel was circumcised with the Hebrew name Atzil, which Erik chose largely because of its similarity to Hazel, though he also liked the meaning. Nobleman, gentleman, knight – it went well with Lehnsherr, which was itself descended from a word for 'lord.' Another way, whispered some back part of Erik's mind, to make him feel like yours.

So Hazel had his Hebrew name, and wore the little knit hats his father picked out for him, and slept in a basket on Erik's side of the bed. And Emma, when she had a mind to it, and usually when no one was watching, cuddled and cooed at him, replaced the knit hats with more stylish ones – and handed him back to Erik if he so much as looked likely to cry.

"He'll be more interesting later," she said. "When he's capable of more than converting milk into stink. His resemblance to me is very promising."

He did, in fact, resemble Emma strongly; the near-invisible fuzz on his head seemed destined for blondness, and his eyes were Emma's same cool blue. (Not the warm, vibrant blue of Hank's and Charles's, but Erik knew it still softened his heart more than it logically ought.) Much less pleasing was the one definite trace of Hazel's natural father.

"Leave it be, Mr. Lehnsherr," Fantine scolded, when she caught Erik picking at the red V-shaped mark that marred Hazel's left shoulder. "It's only a birthmark, nothing to worry over. Chances are it'll fade away by the time he's walking and talking."

But it was something to worry over, because such marks sometimes ran in family lines, and Emma had confided to him that Sebastian had an identical mark, faded with age, in the very same place on his body.

It won't matter, he told himself. Sebastian will never see him. He'll grow up here in Essex, the son of a Jewish ex-general, and never think of King Sebastian of Genosha in all his life, beyond what gossip he might hear on the street.

He tried not to take that thought to its conclusion – that if Hazel never went to Genosha, it would be because Erik never returned there. Never saw Charles again.

"Be patient," Emma advised him, whenever she caught him fretting over Charles. "You quarreled rather severely, you know, and your last communication was not exactly a plea for forgiveness. He's still angry. Give him time."

Hazel began crawling at six months, desperate to keep up with Fantine's little Cossette, and it was dizzying to Erik to realize the little fellow had been around for an entire half-year.

He had heard nothing from Charles in half a year. Plus the time of Emma's pregnancy. Almost fourteen months since he'd sent the letter.

"Something's wrong," he told Emma that night, and cut her off with a sharp gesture when she tried to speak. "No. No more delay. He would have answered by now."

"You act as if he might be in trouble. We hear news of him all along, we would know if anything were seriously wrong."

"Something is seriously wrong, even if no harm has come to him. I don't think he ever received my letter."

"Very well, send another."

"And spend another six months in limbo? No. I have to go to him."

Emma gaped at him. "If you set foot on Genoshan soil, you'll be strung up for treason."

Erik grinned, showing all his teeth. "Only if I'm caught."

Chapter Text

Azazel's husband's funeral attracted a better turn-out than Charles had expected. Janos had been a very quiet man, not much given to socializing, so it was a pleasant surprise to see how many people had appreciated his competent and caring nature. Charles hoped it was a comfort to Azazel.

"I didn't even know he was sick," Natasha said, looking unsettled as she took a seat beside Charles.

"I didn't either, until a few weeks ago," Charles said, "when Azazel petitioned to have their sons brought home from Wakanda to be with him. Janos always hated making a fuss, he wanted it kept private."

"I'm glad his children were here."

"Yes, extremely. And mine as well; Janos was one of their frequent babysitters, so I'm glad they were able to say goodbye." He'd shortened their visit to Westchester with Moira by a week when he heard the news.

The little chapel glowed with candles, increasing steadily as more mourners arrived and lit their share. Prayers and respects at the little altar bearing flowers, offerings, and Janos's portrait were a quiet, constant presence. The body itself was held in the next room, to be viewed by those who wished, and avoided by those who didn't. Charles kept himself to the second category; he'd rather remember Janos as he last saw him, weak and tired but joyfully welcoming his sons to his bedside.

"Tony made it," Natasha said, gesturing with her chin toward the entrance. Charles turned to see Tony and Steve hanging their hats and cloaks by the door. Tony looked a bit wilted, not quite his usual flashy self, but it was surprising he was here at all, only two days after the birth of he and Steve's third son, Ian. Charles stifled a sigh at the reminder that with the baby safely arrived, his time in Assembly was coming to an end. A month more, at the outside. Sebastian had celebrated this imminent victory with a very generous birthing gift to little Ian.

Where was Sebastian, anyway? They had arrived together, a propriety they seldom bothered to observe anymore, then separated as quickly as they decently could. Surely the man wouldn't cause trouble at a funeral where Azazel was the chief mourner, but it always made Charles uneasy to have the king out of easy supervision.

And for good reason, this time, Charles realized, as Sebastian exited the viewing chamber with his arm around Angel.

Charles had not permitted any of the children to attend the funeral; it was too solemn an occasion for the giggling and running about that children inevitably indulged in, if they didn't pout and whine instead. At sixteen and fourteen, he supposed the fosterlings were old enough to come, but he hadn't realized they particularly wanted to. At their age he'd have been glad of an excuse to avoid the occasion – he'd be glad of it now, for that matter.

Angel looked on the verge of tears, huddling into the arm around her shoulder; Sebastian was murmuring into her ear in his best pretense at comfort and sympathy. As always, it came out much closer to oily condescension. Angel's walking dress, rather revealing and not half formal enough for a funeral service, was already attracting looks of startled disapproval; Charles supposed it was the only black gown she'd had on hand.

Charles felt his nostrils flare, but swallowed the instinct to march – well, roll – straight up to the pair of them, demand explanation, and send Angel straight back to her room. It could only pain Azazel and his grieving sons to cause a scene, and it would likely be more scandal than it was worth anyway, to have a public row with the king over a parenting decision that he technically had every right to make. Charles couldn't resist catching Angel's eye, at least, and raising an eyebrow that, he hoped, eloquently communicated his surprise, disappointment, and annoyance. Angel's cheeks darkened, but she raised her chin and turned her gaze resolutely back to Sebastian. Her hair, Charles realized, was done differently than her usual – much curled and ornamented, an adult style not at all suited to a fourteen-year-old girl. Exactly what sort of nonsense was Sebastian filling her head with?

Everything about Angel's appearance would have appalled Lady Emma, Charles thought suddenly, perhaps even provoking her to take the girl under her wing – if only, she would claim, to spare herself the trauma of viewing further such attempts to dress. Charles had near glutted himself on pain and anger toward Erik for taking up with Emma, but to miss Emma for her own company, and be stung by her end of the betrayal, was a new and novel torment. He had thought he and Emma were friends.

Oh, stop your snivelling, he told himself firmly, though some other traitorous part pointed out if he were ever to get away with weeping in public, a funeral was surely his best chance.

The sight of Sebastian steering Angel out of the chapel distracted him from his sorrows; it was a slow process, the king being required to make a number of excuses and acknowledgements along the way, so perhaps he could catch up, whelchair and all... No, he couldn't leave without speaking to Azazel. Who was installed firmly in the viewing room.

Very well then. I'm a big boy. I can face the body of a dead friend. He excused himself from Natasha, whose presence he had almost forgotten in his ruminations, and wheeled into the viewing room.

This chamber was dimmer than the chapel proper, and much quieter. At the moment, aside from the deceased, it contained only Azazel and his eldest son, who was pleading quietly for his father to eat something.

"Later, my boy, later."

"Something to drink, then. You mustn't fall ill, you know. It would quite terrify the little ones."

"A dirty blow." Azazel's haggard expression quirked, briefly, into something resembling a smile. "Very well, then, fetch me a drink."

"Yes, Father." The boy bowed to Charles and scurried away.

Charles parked his chair beside Azazel's, and sat quietly a moment, not wishing to press. He tried not to look toward the coffin.

"Is good of you to come," Azazel said at last. "He would be glad."

"Of course I came," Charles murmured. "Janos will be much missed."

"Yes, he will." Azazel's voice was distant, wistful. "More than I expected. I thought... Well, I knew I would not have him for long. I thought, oh, I like him, we will pass the time together, that is all. I grew to like him much more... Stupid of me. It does not do to grow attached."

Cautiously, Charles stepped within reach, metaphorically speaking, of a subject they had never addressed. "Your... people, they live longer than we do?"

"Much longer. Humans, they are like pets, here for a while and then gone. I tried to take good care of him, so he would last longer..." He touched a hand to the side of the coffin. "He did not even have gray in his hair."

Charles thought of the long wolf-gray locks Erik had sported when he last saw him, and struggled to swallow a lump in his throat. "What of your sons? Will they live as long as you?"

"No, there is nothing of my people in them. I knew there would not be. It was foretold to me – all my life I will have but one true son, one who is like me. All these others, they are sweet little things, I love them well. But all are human, and all androji. Only one true heir will I have, and I knew it would not be by Janos." He looked at Charles with a hesitance most unusual for him, and for a moment Charles thought he would say something more, but he seemed to decide against it, turning his gaze back to the coffin. Only after a long pause did he continue. "I regret now, every night I spent away from him, every silly argument. Of course such things happen to all. But I wish we had had more time."

Charles looked at the body at last. The undertaker had done well; Janos looked peaceful, and close enough to natural. As Azazel had said, there was no gray hair to be seen. Had he been even forty years old? Erik was nearing forty-two. He had survived so much, but that was no guarantee for the future.

"I pray you will forgive my leaving you," Charles said, suddenly wanting nothing so much as to leave this chamber. "Sebastian is up to some sort of mischief and I must intervene."

Azazel snorted. "My patience for that man grows thin. He was entertaining enough once, but I think his purpose is..." He trailed off, shook his head. "Never mind me. Go on, go on. Hear comes my sweet boy to nurse me."

Charles took his leave, and tried not to feel like he was fleeing in fear.

***

It took the better part of a month for Erik to travel from Essex to the crown city of Genosha. He might have done it in a week, had he no fear of being recognized and no particular affection for his horse, but since he had no desire for his own death or poor Marguerite's, a month it was. He constructed a persona for the journey – a blacksmith, displaced by the war, shabby and tired, rather older than Erik himself – and adopted the clothes, accent, and weary movements to match. No one questioned him.

Inside the city, Erik stabled Marguerite at an inn, and, with a rush of relief and anticipation, shed the shabby blacksmith in favor of his true self – hunter and soldier and traitor to the king, risking life and limb to creep in to his lover. He wrapped himself in a dark cloak and made for the palace.

It was more heavily guarded than it had been when Erik left, but he expected as much, after the riots. He might not know the schedules and names of all the guards anymore, but he knew the palace and the rhythm of life within it – knew which garden walls could not be seen properly from any distance, and which corridors were likely to be empty at what hour, and how and where to stand so that the eyes of anyone passing slid right over him, with no thought that he did not belong.

Charles's balcony had been boarded over for almost a year after the riots, but was now only surrounded by netting, a barrier against thrown stones and the less-determined sort of intruder – a category to which Erik certainly did not belong. He had scaled the outside wall more than once, in the earlier years with Charles (a strangely nostalgic thought), and his bones and muscles still knew the way – even if, he realized partway up, they did not find it as easy as they once had.

He achieved the top, slit the netting, and ducked inside without hearing any shout of alarm.

"Alex! Put that down!"

Startled by Moira's voice – somehow he always seemed to forget about Moira – Erik pressed himself into the curtains around the open balcony door. Inside, the children sat around a table in a living area quite unlike the one Erik remembered. Of course he knew Charles had renovated, and been fiercely satisfied with the triumph of it, but seeing it was somehow a pang; gone was the bed he and Charles had shared, gone the couch where they had played chess...

He was quickly distracted by the sight of the children themselves. It was nearly two years since he had seen them, and that somehow seemed a much longer time when he saw much taller they all were, Raven's hair grown longer, Hank's baby-fat melted away...

"Sean, eat your potatoes."

There was no sign of Charles. Erik was relieved; he needed a moment to gather his nerve, decide what he was going to say. He'd had a month's journey to think of that, but now that the moment was at hand, nothing he'd rehearsed seemed good enough. With a single, graceful step sideways, he slid through the nearest doorway into what he thought might be Charles's study.

His bedroom, Erik corrected himself, and could not resist taking a seat on the low, cozy-looking bed – designed for one, but surely if they were creative... Was that a presumptious thought, or merely optimistic? Charles always wanted him to be more optimistic.

The pillow smelled like Charles. Tears rushed unbidden to Erik's eyes.

"Papa! Papa!"

"Back to your seats, you pack of mongrels, I'm not providing an excuse to avoid your vegetables." Charles's voice, indulgent affection with a troubled edge underneath. Erik crept up to the crack of the door, heart pounding. Charles.

He was in the wheelchair today, gripping a sulky-looking Angel's elbow – dear heaven, was that really Angel? He still thought of her as a thumb-sucking little sprog. She and Charles were exchanging grim looks, followed by a few quietly angry words before she shook his hand off her arm and stormed off, slamming a door behind her. Ah, the joy of raising adolescent girls. He hoped Raven would never behave in such a way; at least she had a few years of childhood yet.

"—sure where she'd gone," Moira was saying quietly to Charles. "I suppose I should have known. Sebastian's been taking every opportunity to get her under his bat-like wing."

"As if a funeral were some party to sneak off to." Charles rubbed his forehead wearily, and Erik ached to kiss away the line between his brows. "Never mind Angel, how are you holding up? You looked so ill when I left."

"It's passed off, mostly." She pressed a hand to her middle, and Erik's eyes widened as he saw what he hadn't before, with the table between them – the unmistakable rounded swell of a pregnant belly. "Oh, he's kicking again! Here." She pressed Charles's hand to her side. Charles laughed, eyes wide with joy and wonder, and leaned forward to kiss the spot.

Erik jerked back from the door. He couldn't seem to draw a full breath. He was still attempting it when the door opened.

Charles stared at him in silent shock. He turned and closed the door; when he turned back, his expression was carefully neutral and composed, and Erik wanted to claw the mask away. Are you happy, angry, sad, give me some clue where I stand, where we stand—

Charles just continued to stare.

"I—I saw Moira," Erik blurted, "she's—"

"Yes. We're thinking David for a boy." His voice was clipped, defiant, hands shaking in his lap. "How's Hazel?"

Erik closed his eyes. He bottled an urge to scream, break, tear the walls. He could tell Charles the truth – spit it like acid and watch him burn. Charles would never stop torturing himself, as long as he lived, for being unfaithful when Erik had not. In this moment, Erik had it in him to do that to Charles.

Or he could swallow that acid, swallow it down to burn only the deepest parts of Erik himself. Let Charles believe they had both found comfort in others, and could call themselves even.

Emma would be pleased, he thought distantly. Hazel would be that much safer.

"Hazel's fine," Erik said at last, hoarse as if he'd been screaming. "Looks more like my mother every day."

***

Charles had hated himself before, on occasion. Watching Erik's face age a decade before his eyes took that hatred to new depths, and Charles was quite certain he would be sick before the night was out. But he didn't take back his petty, vengeful lie. What right had Erik to tremble in pain when he had broken first? What right had Erik to feel betrayed?

And curse him, curse the man, what right had he to forgive Charles, how could he, violent possessive Erik, how was it possible that Charles saw no trace of anger or hatred in his eyes, only breathtaking pain and – and love – Didn't he know that Charles was supposed to be the gentle, forgiving one? If Charles couldn't forgive this betrayal, how dare Erik be the better man?

"I'm sorry, Charles," he was saying now, every word choked and painful. "I – I came here to tell you – I love you, not Emma, I never loved Emma, I was – weak and lonely, I swear it was only once and never again, it will never happen again. But if," his breath caught sharply; he closed his eyes and swallowed hard. "If you're... with Moira now... Do you want me to leave?"

"No," Charles breathed.

"Good." A smile like a knife, more like the Erik he'd known so long. "Because I'm not letting you go that easy." He went to one knee by the chair, and it was both of them, really, that leaned in for the kiss, achingly slow and uncertain but unstoppable. When their lips finally touched it was lightly, feather-soft, and Charles kept it that way, mere brushes of warmth as he threaded slow fingers into Erik's hair, felt answering fingertips glide up his collarbone and throat.

A burst of sound from outside the door startled them apart, Erik leaping to his feet with sword half-drawn. Urgent voices and footsteps, Moira sounded confused and alarmed—

"Your Highness?" someone called – one of the guards, Charles realized. "We have reason to believe there's an intruder on the premises."

Charles swore under his breath. "A moment, my good lads!" he called. "Erik—" He turned to see that Erik was a step ahead of him, slipping deep under the covers of the bed. Yes, that might work. Charles quickly heaved himself out of the chair to join him, yanking his shirt off as an excuse to keep the covers pulled up high. Erik plastered himself to Charles's body as Charles threw pillows and spare blankets about to disguise the bulk of an extra form.

"Your Highness?" The voice was at the door now, the knob already turning.

"Come on in! I do beg your pardon, you've woken me," Charles said, rubbing his eyes, "I had just lain down for a nap."

"Very sorry to disturb you, my lord," the guard said with a deep bow, his compatriots already fanning out to search the room. "But there are rumors of... unsavory persons in the area, and I observed a very distinct cut in the security netting of your balcony, large enough for a man to climb through. I'm sorry for the inconvenience but I would never forgive myself, my lord—"

"No, no, of course, you're quite right," Charles said cheerily. "I'm glad you take the job so seriously, you know, my children's lives may depend on it, after all. But I've seen nothing amiss. Perhaps a bird became tangled in the net or some such?"

"Perhaps, my lord," the guard said doubtfully, as his fellows gathered back at his side, shaking their heads and bowing belatedly to Charles. "I should check the other rooms—"

"Of course."

They lay still in the bed as footsteps and voices moved through the suite, the children chattering excitedly. Charles tried not to be distracted by the invisible weight of Erik's arms around his body, lips roving slowly down his side and hip. He gasped when a hand worked its way around that hip and... and down...

"Stop that," he hissed, but not very loud, and if Erik heard him he gave no sign.

"All clear, my lord," the guard said in the doorway, and Charles jolted, hoping he didn't look as flushed and guilty as he felt.

"Excellent. I'll resume my nap, then."

"Yes, my lord."

Finally they were gone, and Erik, who had to be half-smothered by now, made his way up out of the blankets – leaving a trail of kisses as he went. Charles shivered and arched into them.

"Still angry with me?" Erik murmured into the nape of his neck, along with one exactly-sharp-enough nip.

"Furious," Charles snapped, and dragged him in by the hair for a proper kiss.

He had only just gotten Erik's shirt off when someone knocked at the door. "Charles?"

"Bad time, Moira," Charles snarled.

"Charles... The guards are looking for Erik."

They both froze, twitching a bit in frustration. "What do you mean?"

"Someone told the guards that Erik's in town. They're searching local inns and boardinghouses, and I think there's someone watching our rooms."

Erik swore fervently, burying his face in Charles's shoulder. "Someone must have recognized me."

"You have to go." The words felt like shards of glass in his mouth.

Moira sighed on the other side of the door. "He's in there, isn't he."

"I have to go." Erik didn't move.

"Get up, then." Charles set his teeth and pulled himself into a sitting position, out from under Erik. "Erik. They mustn't find you here."

"I left my horse at an inn. They'll find her. I have to go." Erik was on his feet now, rebuttoning his clothes, raking fingers through his hair. Charles hurried to follow suit, trying not to mind the frustrated ache in his lower region. "We have to figure out how to get you out of here. They'll be watching the balcony now."

Erik narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. "Not if they're busy watching something else."

Which was how the children acquired not only permission, but immediate encouragement, to set off fireworks on the palace grounds.

 

The moment the guards rushed out of sight of the balcony, Erik slipped back through the gap he'd cut in the netting, and turned to lean back over the balustrade and kiss Charles.

"Erik..." Words clogged Charles's throat, all the things he needed to say and couldn't, somehow, couldn't jar the words loose. Erik waited, watching him with unbearable tenderness and hope. "Be careful," Charles said at last, and pulled him back for one last kiss.

"I love you," Erik said, when they finally pulled back. "Oh – this is Hank's. I never could get it open, but I thought he might want it back." He held out a wooden puzzle ball.

Charles smiled. "Oh, no, he's forgotten it. Keep it. You might like what's inside." Another last kiss, then, "Go on, hurry, before the guards come back." And he watched Erik disappear into the darkness of the gardens.

***

When Erik reached the inn, he barely glimpsed the uniformed guardsmen through the window before he entered. As a longtime player of this game, it was little effort to make his retreat smooth and casual, as if it might be a perfectly natural business to walk up to an inn, lay one's hand on the door, and walk away again without opening it.

He circled around to the back, casually broke open the window to his room, and was in and out with his pack in thirteen seconds. He then crept into the stable to retrieve Marguerite, tossing a coin to the stableboy to stop his mouth mid-protest.

He was just leading his horse out of her stall when a guard appeared silhouetted in the wide doorway. He and Erik looked at each other, and for a moment Erik hoped he wouldn't realize—

"Sir Erik?"

A guard that had been around long enough to remember him. Of course.

"Captain! Captain, it's him!"

Erik swung onto the horse's back and rode straight at the guard, who dove out of the way, his shouts bringing a half-dozen comrades running.

He might have gotten clean away, if their captain hadn't had a horse. Erik led him through backstreets and alleys, up peculiar corner staircases and over flat roofs, more than once afraid the horses would fall straight through. He was lucky there, but the guard captain proved impossible to shake, and gathered more men to his side as they went. Once they almost cornered him behind a baker's, where a once-familiar alley had acquired a dead end since he saw it last; only by spurring Marguerite to half-jump, half-climb a crumbling wall did he escape.

After that he nearly made it out of the city before the guards came into sight again. There was nothing for it; he put Marguerite to a full gallop and made for Bayonne Nouveau, the tiny seaport Free Essex had ceded to Genosha on some political pretext Erik couldn't recall, but in reality, of course, in exchange for Charles's help during the revolution. He had friends there, if he didn't run his horse into the ground before he could reach them...

***

Raven found Charles throwing up in the washroom in the middle of the night.

"Oh, no, Papa, are you sick?" She moistened a towel and started dabbing his face with it.

Charles tried to arrange himself comfortably on the floor, tilting his face up into the towel; it actually did help. "No, I'm not sick, love. Or only heartsick."

"Your heart is sick?" She gave him a wary look. At eight years of age, her grasp of metaphorical language was shaky.

"No, not actually sick, I only... feel poorly, in my heart." He should have just told her 'yes.'

"You're sad?"

"Yes, I'm very sad. About grown-up things that you don't need to worry about."

She scowled at being thus shut down. "Well, are you done being sick? I can help you back into your wheelchair."

"Yes, I think I am."

Once back in the chair, he stopped to catch his breath, Raven now petting his hair.

"I thought you were Moira," Raven said after a minute. "Throwing up. It's usually Moira."

"Yes, poor Moira. I hope that improves for her as her baby gets bigger, it often does."

"Some of the other girls at dance lessons say Moira's baby is from you. That's what everyone thinks."

Charles winced, but that had, to a certain extent, been the plan.

"I know it isn't, though."

Charles did a double-take. "What... makes you say that?"

Raven gave him an 'oh please' look. "A mommy and daddy have to sleep together to make a baby. Moira doesn't sleep with you, she slept with Mr. Howlett." Charles could only stare as she continued. "When we were in Westchester, Mr. Howlett would come throw little rocks at the window and she would sneak out to see him and not come back until morning, and I could see them kissing sometimes. Are they going to get married?"

Charles dabbed his face with the damp towel again, buying time to articulate an answer appropriate for eight-year-olds. "They would like to get married, darling, but Moira's family would never let her marry someone like Mr. Howlett. Right now they are very upset that she won't tell them who the father of her baby is, and it's very important that they not find out, or Moira and Mr. Howlett would both be in a great deal of trouble."

Raven frowned. "But everyone thinks it's you. They call you awful things because you're married and you're only supposed to sleep with your husband when you're married."

Charles strangled a laugh. For this he was called an adulterer. "I'm a big boy, Raven, I can handle a few stupid people calling me names. I'm happy to put up with it if it'll help Moira. You didn't tell the girls at dance lessons about Mr. Howlett, did you?"

Raven was still frowning. "No, I only told them to shut their stupid faces."

This time the laugh made it out. "Well, you certainly don't have to agree with what they say, but you must keep the truth to yourself, all right? I had no idea I had a girl so smart, to figure it out for herself." He stroked her cheek, turning the frown to a hesitant smile. "You mustn't tell anybody at all, do you understand? Not even your brothers and sisters, they might not be able to keep the secret."

The praise and sense of inclusion brightened her mood, as he'd expected. "I understand. I won't tell anybody at all."

"Good girl. Back to bed, now."

Once back in his own bed, Charles stared blindly into the darkness, wishing there were just one other person who knew the truth.
***

They galloped all night, Erik occasionally leaving the road to hide and let the guards ride past, but they never fell for it, and the third time it nearly got him killed he gave up the ploy and simply made for Bayonne Nouveau as fast as possible. Marguerite did him proud, and at the first blush of dawn he reached the town gates.

He had thought he could lose them in the bowels of an unfamiliar city – he even thought there were times that he was sure he had – but in truth the place was as strange to him as to his pursuers, and at least once he shook them off only to unwittingly stumble straight back into them again. They were stupid with exhaustion by then, their aim haphazard, or he would have died.

He stumbled onto the seaport itself almost by accident, and would not have dared sneak aboard a ship for fear of being cornered, except that he had lost his unwelcome escort (for the moment) and heard a crewman announcing a ship departing to Essex.

Within moments, a liberal application of money had him and Marguerite belowdecks, and though he heard shouts and pounding hooves from the pier, dock security was in no mood to let even the king's guards cause delays and bad will by searching the ships without a writ. The dockmaster might suffer for it, when all was set to rights, but that was truly none of Erik's doing. And by then he would be long gone.

He made sure brave, loyal Marguerite was cared for, first thing. Then, when the ship was long departed from the shore, he ventured on deck to watch the last thin line that was Genosha fade into the brightening day. He was exhausted and aching and thirsty to near-death. His journey had not gone nearly the way he'd hoped, and ended far sooner than he'd ever feared.

All the same, he went below to rustle up a drink and a bunk with a weary smile on his face, Hank's puzzle-ball in his hand and the warmth of Charles's last kiss on his lips.

***

"I know you did your duty to every extent you could," Charles assured the guard captain. "Rest easy, my friend, I am not displeased with you in the least. It is quite an accomplishment that you were able to stay on his trail as long as you did." He didn't let any trace of the ache in his chest appear in his expression. If only you had been less competent, he might have been able to sneak back...

"My lieutenant only caught a brief glimpse of the man, but surely the fact that he fled is enough to prove that he was, in fact, Erik of House Lehnsherr, the traitor—"

"Ah," Charles said delicately, "It's not really necessary to include that in the report, surely."

The guard captain frowned. "It's... not, my lord?"

"No, I'm quite sure it's not. After all, His Majesty the King would find it so terribly upsetting to hear that Sir Erik might have been here." He brushed a hand through his hair, taking care to expose the livid bruise on his wrist. "After all, we don't know anything for certain – as you said, only the briefest glimpse – and what does it matter, with him well away by now, whoever he was? I would so hate to upset the King unnecessarily."

The captain was watching that bruise. By now it was the most open sort of secret that Sebastian's bad temper frequently left its mark on his consort. In truth, Charles had hardly spoken to Sebastian for a month, and the bruise on his wrist was the result of Hank kicking him during a tantrum – but the King would do him a harm right enough if he got any inkling that Erik had been here.

"I... I see, my lord," the captain said. "I'm sure there's no need to upset His Majesty."

Charles let his relief show freely. "I'm very glad to hear that. Here – you have performed so far beyond expectation, surely you and your men deserve some sort of reward." He pulled a bit of paper near, scribbled on it. "Take this to your superior, it's authorization for a week's leave for yourself and anyone who accompanied you last night."

"I – Thank you, my lord! Thank you very much!"

With the guard captain sent on his way, sufficiently bribed, distracted, and packed off out of town until the hubbub died down – and the added heart's-reward of knowing he had done his Prince a good turn – Charles turned back to his desk, and reached for another paper.

My dearest Erik, he wrote, before his hands could fail him again, and had the letter – inconsequential, even distant, but a letter at last – written, sealed, and on its way to Essex before the sun went down.

***

Angel had not been to this part of the palace before; instinctively she kept her steps quiet, and told herself it was in deference to the late hour, not fear of being discovered and ejected. She had every right to be here; she had Sebastian's personal invitation.

The thought made her lift her head, step a little more boldly. Sebastian was the king, and he sought her company. He respected her and let her make her own decisions, while Papa Charles still treated her like a baby.

A guard stood at the doorway to Sebastian's private study. His face remained impassive, as guards always did, but she thought some trace of a frown pulled at his mouth as he bowed his head. "Princess Angel. You are expected."

What did she care whether a guard approved of her presence here, unchaperoned in the dead of night? Sebastian trusted her to walk down a few hallways alone; who was this guard to contradict the king? She told herself the heat in her cheeks was anger, not shame, as she entered the study.

Like anything of Sebastian's, the room was grand and richly decorated; Angel smiled, studying the beauty and splendor she walked past, and not for the first time wondered why Papa Charles kept their own rooms so plain. Surely as Prince Consort he could – even should – have rooms just as grand. Why did he not insist on the honor he was due?

"Ah, there is my pet," Sebastian said, rising from his seat by the fire. He put a hand on her shoulder to lead her to the seat beside his, and as always Angel didn't know whether to preen or pull away from the contact. Surely it was flattering, and yet – well, she couldn't shake the idea that Papa Charles wouldn't like it – had clearly seen that he didn't, in fact, at Janos's funeral – and yet what did that matter?

"I hope Charles didn't give you too bad a scold, after the funeral," Sebastian said, offering her a glass of wine, real wine, not the silly fruit juice Papa gave them. Armando was allowed a bit of watered wine, sometimes, but never Angel, and it was entirely unfair.

"I can handle a scold, sire," Angel said airily, and tried not to choke as the wine burned down her throat.

"I knew you could." He patted her hand. "You must have left, I think, after your scold – stolen away out the window perhaps?"

Angel blinked. "How could you know that?"

"Because I'm told you are the one who caught the arm of a street-guard, this evening, and whispered to him that you had seen Sir Erik the Deserter."

Angel looked away, and took another sip of wine to cover the confused roil of her feelings. She had debated strongly with herself whether to say anything at all – she remembered Sir Erik as her Papa's beloved friend, but surely her duty to the king came first. In the end she'd asked the guard not to say who had told him, suddenly unwilling for Charles ever to know.

"It was bravely done, my pet," Sebastian said. "He escaped, unfortunately, but without your perceptive eye and bold action, we might never have known he was here at all."

"Why would he come, sire? I have tried to think of why. Surely he knows he risks his life in coming here."

Sebastian smiled. "Men do foolish things, my Angel, and lovely as you are, you will learn soon enough how to drive them to it. Erik's foolishness, I am very sorry to say, may have been helped along by my consort's."

Angel frowned. "Do you mean that Charles helped him get away?"

"Among other things. You know Charles's kind, trusting heart. Who knows what mischief a traitor like Erik might accomplish, with the support of someone so powerful, and so blind to his harm, as Charles?" He sighed deeply, then gave her a warm smile. "It eases my heart to know there is one person I can trust to help me – to keep an eye on things, as it were."

"Of course, sire." Angel sat up straighter, almost dared to touch the king's hand in reassurance. He saw the aborted gesture and his smile warmed further as he folded her hand into his.

"Of course," he repeated. "My sweet Angel. I knew I could depend on you."

Chapter Text

They had once sworn to never again let five years pass without seeing each other. They kept that promise – barely.

The first year, there was no talk of trying to meet. There was hardly talk at all; Charles's letters were infrequent and centered mostly on the children, Erik's replies earnest but shy, unwilling to press. Many a more passionate letter, on both sides, was written and never sent.

It is hardly fair to resent your lack of appreciation for a gesture of love that I've taken every pain to hide from you, Erik put to paper, and then tore apart.

Every time I think I could forgive you, and that I must tell you the truth, you mention Hazel in a letter and I am sick with hurt all over again, Charles wrote, and then fed it to the fire.

Moira's man-simple son David was born near the end of July; for nearly three months Charles could not bring himself to mention him to Erik, though Erik could not have missed news of it if he kept any sort of ear turned to Genoshan court gossip. It was a bit insulting, really, how few people were surprised by Charles's alleged siring of a bastard on a woman in his employ.

Even more insulting, despite the massive relief, was the ease with which Sebastian believed his vow that he hadn't.

"I imagine a lovely woman like the dowager Duchess has a number of options open to her," Sebastian said cheerfully. "I'd be rather surprised to see her stoop to the nearest available cripple."

"And what about your family, Moira?" Charles asked. "If they are as concerned with propriety as you say, they cannot be taking the news well."

"On the contrary," she said wryly, "it seems that bearing a royal bastard is quite the respectable thing. My mother's latest letter urges me to milk you for every advantage I can get."

Charles offered, of course, to let her go home to her family for the birth and the months following, but was not surprised when she declined.

They did manage to travel a bit, when David was old enough to crawl – with Sebastian to his country estate for a fortnight. Sir Victor was removed from the premises for the event, at Charles's insistence. Nevertheless, it was a deeply unpleasant interlude; Charles had to contend with the king's continuing attentions to Angel and his blatant favoritism toward Sean, which, at eight years of age, the twins were more than old enough to perceive and resent.

I had hoped none of them would like the man well enough to care who he favored, Charles wrote to Erik, and that seems to have been the case for Hank, at least, for whom Sebastian never had a word of praise to begin with. He keeps to his books and out of Sebastian's way. But dear Raven does so thrive on attention, and Alex cannot bear to be outdone by his twin in any way. I rather suspect Sebastian of encouraging that rivalry. Poor Sean, it is not as though he much enjoys being the object of such scrutiny. He receives all Sebastian's praise, yes, but also all his sharpest rebukes. He is not the fierce and ruthless soul Sebastian would have him be, and I fear he will never be quite good enough in his purported father's eyes. Oh, Erik, I would give anything for them to know their true father and how much you love them. In that much I know I could never fault you.

He did not mention to Erik the other unpleasant aspect of their little family holiday – Sebastian's attempted return to his bed.

He felt curiously little fear when Sebastian crept under the sheets behind him and slid an arm around his waist. In fact, from a purely physical standpoint, his long-starved body was not entirely opposed. Giving Sebastian what he wanted, Charles reasoned, might serve to distract him from his unsettling pursuit of Angel, and restore Charles to some position of leverage... It might not be too bad, really, if he could pretend it was Erik...

He was ashamed of himself in the next moment for even considering it. Sebastian was the source of every evil thing that had ever happened to him or his loved ones. He had chosen not to fight Sebastian many times in the past, and he wouldn't condemn himself for that – his options had been so limited. But now, when the state of their relationship allowed him to kick Sebastian out with few consequences, failing to do so would provoke a degree of shame and self-loathing much outweighing any advantage.

So Charles considered his response carefully, and kept his voice almost bored. "Stay if you like, but you'll get nothing exciting from me."

And Sebastian, somewhat to his surprise, heaved a heavy sigh and pressed no further – but did stay, an awkward but painless weight against his back, the whole night. The next day he bestowed his attentions on an androji serving boy (who seemed rather charmed to have caught the eye of the king), and pestered Charles no more for the duration of the visit.

The man was in his mid-fifties now, Charles reflected, and they had not been gentle years. Would he wear out his more vicious habits through sheer weariness with life? It seemed a backward sort of victory, to rejoice in Sebastian reaching a mellow old age, but if the alternative was to continue as they had in years past, he would take it.

At the end of the fortnight's holiday, the roads were kind and they arrived at the palace a day early. Charles, preceding the luggage with the twins (whose excitement to see their own toys again could not be contained), opened the door to his chambers and surprised his valet/secretary and the Duchess-Regent Romanova on the sitting room couch.

After a moment of mutual mortified stares, all three faces (and some other exposed skin) blushing scarlet, Charles merely signed Congratulations, Clint, Natasha and backed out of the room, one hand over Alex's eyes while Sean, behind him, demanded to know what was going on.

As soon as the door was closed, Charles collapsed into laughter so intense he feared he would fall out of his wheelchair. "Come, boys, let's go downstairs and find some paper," he managed to gasp at last. "You two can draw. I have a letter to write."

***

Their second year apart crept, day by day, into being, and Erik was poring over Charles's latest letter (so much longer and warmer than those first sad missives), absently working Hank's puzzle ball in his hand, when the unthinkable occurred.

The ball clicked open.

He stared down at it in shock for quite a long time. He had long since given up hope of solving the puzzle, choosing merely to be glad his little son had inherited Charles's brains rather than his own. Nor had he solved it now; it was the merest chance that his unconscious hands had finally stumbled onto the right chain of movements, and he knew he would never replicate it. So if he wanted to see what lay inside, this was surely his only chance.

Some long-spoiled sweet, most likely, and silly to be reluctant about it. He took a deep breath and opened the ball.

There was the sweet, right enough – a twist of paper holding a half-dozen hard-coated little candies, perhaps not spoiled after all. And beside that, another bit of paper, containing the words I love you, my darling in Charles's strong, steady hand.

Intended for Hank, of course. But he had tried to give the ball back to Charles, and been told, "Keep it. You might like what's inside."

Erik pressed the tiny scrap of paper to his lips for a long, long moment, then tucked it into his jacket pocket, over his heart.

***

I hardly know what to make of it, Charles wrote halfway through the second year. Even now I am watching as Azazel helps her onto her horse; they have been riding together twice this week already. Raven is only eleven years old, he surely can have no designs on her, nor does his interest seem predatory – I daily have Sebastian's example to contrast him to, after all, and there is a topic for later. Azazel seems to be merely and genuinely interested in her friendship. As always, Raven thrills to the attention, especially from a father figure. Azazel is lonesome, I think, with Janos gone, and his sons largely grown, and he has always had a soft spot for Raven. I suppose this is a natural outgrowth of that longstanding affection, but I shall keep a close eye on their interactions.

Concerning the topic of Angel and Sebastian, we face a problem. The foster contract, already twice extended, has run its course, yet Sebastian will not hear of Angel and Armando going home. She is sixteen years old – marriageable age, if young for it – and Armando a man grown, and it is past ridiculous to keep them fostered away from their home kingdom. Especially since their parents allowed Azazel's sons to return early, and stay for their father's grieving, and there has been no talk of sending them back to Wakanda. Armando I think would be permitted to go, but he will not leave his sister – nor would I have him do so, since he is one of the few still able to check her behavior. (She has worsened even since my last letter; only two days ago she stumbled drunk into a diplomatic reception and managed to set fire to the ambassador's son. Even on sobering up she insisted everyone was overreacting and we needed to "loosen our corset strings." Seeing her so convinced of her own maturity and wisdom would be amusing if the consequences were not so disastrous).

Communications from Wakanda grow increasingly negative in tone, and of course any message I might send them would be closely monitored, but it occurs to me that you, whom they know and know that I trust, might be in an excellent position to inform them of the state of things. Pray tell them I am doing whatever I can to get their son and daughter returned to them.

Erik was perfectly glad to help. In truth, he would have done practically anything to earn that absent-minded you, whom they know that I trust.

***

Erik tried not to mention Hazel and Emma overmuch in his letters; leaving them out entirely seemed silly, it was not as though Charles would forget their existence, but he tried not to throw them in his husband's face. Charles, in turn, shared little concerning Moira and David.

This became more difficult, however, as Hazel grew older, and Erik grew more and more attached to him. Sometimes he could not help sharing some tidbit of the little fellow's brilliance and charm – the day he took his first steps, the first time he called Erik "Dada," the day he threw a handful of half-chewed blueberries down Emma's bodice. Charles very rarely returned the favor, scarcely mentioning the baby boy who had to be growing up in the thick of Erik's own children, so Erik was all the more surprised to receive a letter all but encouraging his shy anecdotes.

I think it does my soul good to know that, after all the torments loving me has brought you, including knowing your children only from afar, you have the joy of raising one of them at least. It is clear you dote on little Hazel and I cannot begrudge you that comfort. If our hearts are still united in any way – which I hope they are – I should try to love wherever you do. After all, I would only think the less of you if you did not care for him. I must not make myself impossible to please.

Erik was still reading and re-reading this paragraph when a wail of "Dada!" drifted to his study from Hazel's room. It was no use to hope Emma would wake and go to him – she never did – and Fantine's chamber was across the house, to give her and little Cossette some space of their own. With a half-smiling sigh, Erik crossed the hall to Hazel's bedside and hefted him onto his hip.

"Shh, little man, Dada's here."

Hazel buried his blond head in Erik's shoulder, sniffling. His diaper was dry; perhaps he'd had a nightmare. Erik thought of the night, so many years ago, when he had comforted Raven in the night just like this, and heard her call him Baba; he held Hazel a little more tightly.

"Juice? Wan' juice," Hazel murmured into his shoulder.

"Your mother doesn't like you having too much sugar," Erik said, but he was already moving toward the kitchen.

They had juice and crackers by candlelight, and sang very quietly a three-year-old's garbled versions of two lullabies and a counting song. Finally Hazel leaned back against Erik's chest and closed his eyes, a half-eaten cracker still clutched in one sticky little fist.

The last thing Erik did after tucking his son back into bed was pull his nightie firmly up over the birthmark on his shoulder.

***

It had been nearly a decade since the riot that nearly destroyed the palace and everyone in it, but no one had forgotten, and in the winter of her 16th year, Angel caused a full-blown panic by letting a dozen of her rowdy wastrel friends in through a window in the middle of the night. She had at last managed to pull a stunt that enraged and embarrassed even Sebastian, and to Charles's surprise he consented to let all the children be taken out into the country, and thus out from underfoot, for the Christmas holiday. To Sebastian's own estate, of course – access to Westchester was strictly rationed – but Victor would be gone and Sebastian would not be accompanying them, which was holiday enough for everyone.

This is a terribly risky thing to consider, it being Sebastian's land he wrote to Erik, hands shaking with nerves at the idea, and I swear I will think no less of you if you decide against it. But you would be welcome to meet us there, if you think any remotely safe plan could be concocted.

He had to leave the letter there for a time, his hands too clammy to continue, and distract himself with crutch practice around the garden, watching Azazel play croquet with Raven and the twins.

Three years, he thought as his crutches, then his braced legs, beat against the garden path. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Three years since he had seen Erik, for those desperately painful ten minutes. In those three years, he had felt himself progress from a brokenly angry mess to a merely sad and aching one. He felt – most of the time – that he might see Erik now and feel no need to lash out at him. That he might even find it in himself to tell the truth about David's paternity.

And speaking of David – at three years old the little fellow was always where you least expected him, up to his ears in whatever activity was most likely to get him killed. Charles called a halt to the croquet game when he spied David's curly brown head in the bushes, obviously ready to pounce into the fray. Moira caught up with him soon enough, harried but grinning, and swept a squealing David up into her arms to whisk away.

"Papa, I'm upside down!" he laughed, kicking and flailing in Moira's grip.

"See if you can count the flowers that go by under your head," Charles called, which sure enough kept the boy occupied long enough for Moira to get him safely away. Charles chuckled to himself; David was a joy to have about, if not a very restful one. They hadn't intended for him to call Charles Papa, but as all the other children did, it was proving hard to stop him. Still, he knew in theory that Charles was not his father; hopefully he'd have a chance to know his real one someday.

That seems to happen a lot around here.

With that in mind, Charles braced himself to go back to his chamber and finish his letter to Erik.

***

Angel wasn't spying on Charles. Sebastian depended on her to keep an eye on things, that was all. It was for Charles's good as much as anything; more than once in the last couple years she had saved him from making a mess for himself. She had taken the outlawed books from his closet before he could be caught with them, for instance, and dropped them in the river; she had turned away the wrong sort of people when they tried to come talk to Charles, people Sebastian would have been very upset to see coming around.

Upsetting Sebastian was never wise.

Sebastian wanted her to get into Charles's study; he'd been very concerned about it for weeks now, ever since she mentioned that Charles kept it locked at all times. "What secret is he so determined to hide?" he had asked. "It can't possibly be a good one."

Sebastian seemed to have this idea that Charles was leading a conspiracy against him, which, in Angel's opinion, gave Charles too little credit morally – he was a good person at heart, however misguided – and too much credit politically. He didn't even go to Assembly, how much trouble could he really desire, or achieve if he sought it?

But it would ease Sebastian's mind if she could tell him what was in the study, and surely she owed him that much. He'd always taken care of her, hadn't he? He was so kind to her, and gave her gifts, and tried to shield her from Charles's ridiculous attempts to control her – if he asked for a favor in return, now and then, it was ungrateful of her to refuse. She knew he was right to say that.

She was sewing some new jewels onto the neck of a gown, and arguing with Raven about whether they looked gaudy (they didn't, and what did a 12-year-old know anyway), when Charles emerged from the study and went thumping by on his crutches. He looked a bit shaky and odd, and his eyes were distant; he didn't seem to hear when Raven called out to him.

"I hope nothing's happened," Raven said, frowning.

"What could happen?" Angel snorted. "Nothing ever happens around here. This palace is dull as dust."

"I'm just as glad, considering your idea of entertainment is to let in rioters," Raven said, and it wasn't until after they had argued about that, and Raven had stormed away, that Angel realized something very important.

Charles hadn't locked the study behind him when he left.

Angel had broken a lot of rules in the three years since she first slipped down a dark, unchaperoned corridor to Sebastian's chambers; she still got a little thrill sometimes, that naughty no one can stop me feeling, but lately it felt, more and more often, that having someone stop her might be a relief. Instead of exhilirated, she felt soiled and – and small, like she was less of herself than she had been. That feeling came sometimes, too, when Sebastian touched her cheek or embraced her, as he liked to do before bidding her goodnight. She didn't understand it. Sebastian was her friend – that wasn't the right word for it, he was more than that, but in any case he cared about her, he respected her, they were important to each other. There was no reason for her to feel that way about anything he did or asked her to do.

This was one of those times that the naughtiness didn't feel good, she realized as the study doorknob turned in her hand. After all, how would she feel if she found Charles snooping through her private things?

But Sebastian knew best, he always did, and he'd been more and more insistent about her getting into that study… If she didn't have something to tell him soon, he'd be angry, and she hated it when he got angry, when his eyes went flat and cold and his touch turned from a caresse to an iron grip on her arm or in her hair, voice hissing too close to her face…

She pushed through the door into the study.

A handsome desk full of pigeonholes and drawers; shelves of books; a crackling fire with a few oddments on the mantle – a perfectly normal study, really, except for the wheelchair in the corner. She recognized a painting on the wall with a start; it was a portrait of Charles that the whole group of children had painted together, years ago. It looked about as hideous as one would expect – one eye fairly good, in a stylized way, while the other was a messy blue blot; the hair a mess of contradictory brush strokes; a terrifying pair of scarlet fish-lips. She hadn't thought of that painting in years, but that was her own handwriting, in the painted word "PAPA" hovering above the monstrosity's head.

It was framed as carefully as any masterpiece, with gilded ebony, and kept in easy view of the desk.

Sebastian, Angel reminded herself. Sebastian doesn't want to know about children's stupid paintings. He'll want to know about letters and contracts and such...

She moved to the desk. A thick folder labeled Health Education, a tattered parchment in a language she couldn't read, a blueprint with nonsensical notations in Charles's hand, and a half-written letter—

My dearest Erik

"What," snapped a voice behind her, "do you think you are doing?"

Angel whirled so fast she nearly fell into the desk. Charles's eyes were as blazingly cold as she'd ever seen them, his mouth flattened to a grim line.

"I, I, I was just—"

Charles cut her off. "You know very well that my study is off-limits, not that it should matter as the door is kept locked—"

"No! It wasn't locked. That's why I – I mean, I thought it was all right to come in, since it wasn't locked."

"You're not a very good liar yet, love, though I admit you're getting plenty of practice at it."

"It wasn't locked, Charles, I swear!" Somehow it seemed very important that he not think she had stooped to breaking in, and some shift in his expression hinted that he believed her.

"Nevertheless," he said, his voice not a jot less grim, "you know you are not allowed in here without my express invitation. What is that in your hand?"

She twitched the letter behind her, but he had already recognized it, judging from the half-snarl as he surged forward, trapping her against the desk. Panic tore along Angel's nerves; it was too much like Sebastian, when he was angry, shoving her down or slamming her against the wall – Papa Charles was supposed to be gentle and kind! Angel struck out instinctively, feeling the paper in her hand tear as Charles fell hard, crashing into the desk chair and then to the floor.

She wanted to apologize, wanted to cry, wanted to have never opened the study door, but she couldn't do any of that because she was already running, running to Sebastian with the letter that would keep him happy, and she couldn't stop.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 23

Sebastian was very pleased with Angel when she brought him the letter, pleased enough to pour her a glass from the bottle of brandy in his desk, and stroke her hair while she sipped. Pleased, until he heard why it was ripped – heard that she had been caught. The hand in her hair tightened painfully, and Angel gripped the glass with white knuckles, trying not to move.

"That," he said, "is very disappointing to hear. I really thought you were more reliable than that, Angel."

"I'm sorry, my lord," she whispered. "I thought he would be gone longer—"

"Excuses, I don't want to hear excuses, my duck. Who was this letter addressed to, that's what I'd like to hear."

The words hovered on the tip of her tongue. My dearest Erik, that had been the salutation on the letter. It had to be Erik the Traitor, Erik the King's Paladin who had deserted and cast in his lot with Essex, against his home and kin. Sir Erik whom she had known as a child, who had played hop-skip with her when the others grew bored, and bandaged her elbow when she fell and skinned it.

Sir Erik, who was surely Papa Charles's lover, though it had taken an inexcusable amount of time for her to figure that out. Three years ago, before she'd had occasion to doubt Sebastian's kingly wisdom, she had felt duty-bound to set the guard on Erik. She was glad, even then, that he'd escaped, after watching how Charles pined and fretted for days.

"Well, my Angel? Who was the letter written to? You must have seen."

She'd also seen the portrait on the wall, still so obviously treasured after all these years. The word PAPA in her own childish handwriting.

"I don't know," she whispered. "I'm sorry, Sebastian, I didn't see."

For a long moment, the tableaux held – Sebastian looming over her, gripping her hair, mouth set in a grim line while she trembled, looking away.

"Well, no matter," Sebastian said at last, and his voice was light – but his expression was not. "I can still make use of it. I know you must have been very brave." He released Angel's hair and crossed the room to the settee by the fire, pouring himself a new drink. When Angel remained where she was, he raised his eyebrows and patted the seat beside him.

Angel wobbled a bit as she got to her feet, and scolded herself silently for her foolish nerves. True, Sebastian was moody and mercurial, more spiteful and less wise than she'd thought at fourteen – but he was still her friend and benefactor. He wouldn't hurt her, not really hurt her. He might lose his temper now and then, might need to make a point, but he loved her.

She tried to take a seat next to him on the settee, only for him to pull her into his lap instead.

Angel felt her entire body go rigid, breath freezing in her throat.

"My brave girl," Sebastian murmured, fingertips gliding along the curve of her thigh, "such a lovely girl – woman, rather. You're not a child, after all, are you?"

"No," she said, and tried to convince herself the racing of her heart was excitement, flattery. Hadn't she always wanted this? For him to return her regard? He was married, yes, but it was easy to see that Charles cared nothing for him – and to be the King's Mistress was no sad fate.

But the breath on her cheek was hot and rancid, and the fingertips tracing across her hip and belly made her want to run away.

"If your mother could see you now." Sebastian chuckled under his breath and brushed his nose against her throat; she gulped and leaned away. "If Charles could see you… It helps me sleep at night, imagining it, how it tortures him to watch me lead you further and further down the path…"

He was, Angel realized, considerably more intoxicated than she'd thought. There was no denying now that the lump in her throat was fear.

"Not to mention your stubborn, pestilential parents," he continued. "I haven't found a way to screw them, but I can still screw you—"

He tried to kiss her, and Angel gasped and squirmed away. He held on too tightly for her to get away; she could only manage to hang very awkwardly from his knee, arms stretched out to keep him back, feet digging and scrabbling at the floor. "Sebastian, please – please let me go—"

"Go? And where, precisely, would you go?" He yanked her closer, crushed to his chest. "To Charles? If Charles had any power to truly hurt me, I'd have been dead years ago. Oh, he tries – he'll claw and bite, take any kind of beating rather than lie with me, his husband – did you know that's how he crippled himself, jumping from a balcony to get away from me? And then you – you who have tripped him up at every turn for the last three years – would come to him with my taste in your mouth, my scent on your skin, and expect him to be anything but disgusted with you?"

Angel gave up struggling, sitting rigid and trembling, fighting to breathe. "Please. Please, Sebastian, let me go."

After a long, long moment, some haze of rage and alcohol seemed to clear from Sebastian's eyes – not much, but enough that he relaxed his grip on her, chuckling darkly. "Go, then. You'll be right here again tomorrow, because you have no choice." She got shakily to her feet, and he caught her wrist, kissed her hand. "You threw in your lot with me, Angel mine. Make the best of it."

She ran for the door the moment he released her hand – ran until the corridors were dark and unfamiliar, and found the deepest corner of a dark, empty room. She curled up there and wept, far into the night, knowing Sebastian was right about everything.

***

Angel did not come back to their rooms that day; she often hid away in shame for a while when she had done something really wrong, and came back more brashly defiant than ever. Charles had sent Armando and Clint to look for her, with no success; Clint was able to tell him only that she had been seen leaving Sebastian's private office, looking distraught. That could not bode well for anyone, least of all Angel herself. Charles sat up half the night, hoping to hear her footsteps over the agitated tapping of his own fingers. (How he wished he could pace!) By the time he gave up and went to bed, he told himself perhaps it was best he not see her just yet; he was still too angry to handle the situation as he ought. He would have liked to know she was safe somewhere, but that was surely ridiculous; she had friends aplenty to go to for shelter, and she was away from Sebastian, at least.

The next morning, as expected, came the summons to the King's rooms. Charles made sure Moira had his will and the letter to Erik that was kept reserved in case the worst should happen, and wheeled himself to Sebastian's sitting room.

The room was overwarm, Charles noted as he entered; that seemed to be Sebastian's preference these days. It was as unnervingly decorated as ever. Without Sir Victor as a staple of his life, Sebastian had gradually gentled the brutish barbarian motif, but in a way the remnants of it – including that horrifying tapestry with the deer – were only more jarring for being framed by conventional fine art and elegance. Sebastian knew how Charles hated this place, and hoped, Charles assumed, to put him on edge by meeting here, but Charles was well beyond such amateurish moves. In any case, he was two steps ahead of Sebastian already. He hoped.

"Of course it was very wrong of Angel to read this letter," Sebastian said casually. "But you did, after all, leave it open on your desk. And I can't blame her for being concerned, when she sees such words as these." He cleared his throat, and read. "'—a terribly risky thing – I will think no less of you if you decide against it. But you would be welcome to meet us there, if you think any remotely safe plan could be concocted.' Whatever are you up to, Charles, that involves such secrecy and danger?"

Angel had not seen the salutation, then? Charles did not let hope or relief show. "Nothing that concerns you, my lord," he said coldly. "And I certainly did not leave it open on my desk."

"How can it not concern me, Charles, really? A 'terribly risky thing' that may not permit 'any safe plan'? You are the Prince Consort of the realm and mother of the heir to the crown. Anything that concerns you concerns me."

Charles gave a heavy sigh and rubbed his brow, hoping his body communicated the proper degree of reluctance and frustration. "I was inviting David's father to come and see his son. A delicate matter, as I'm sure you can understand."

"And who is this gentleman?"

Charles smiled thinly. "I have spent the better part of three years protecting his identity, for his own sake and Moira's. I'm hardly going to give it up now. All you need know is that it would be a risky venture only because of the various complications keeping him and Moira apart. It does not involve the crown, the realm, or either of us, in any way."

"And I am to take your word on that."

"It is all you will get."

Sebastian sat back and regarded him narrowly for a long moment. Charles's only response was to raise an eyebrow.

"Very well," Sebastian said at last. "Invite the gentleman. It will do no harm, I suppose."

Charles laughed. "No, I don't believe I will, with you looking over my shoulder like a vulture. The opportunity is lost."

"Your choice."

"Indeed."

 

Angel finally returned that night, stony-faced and silent. She refused dinner and went straight to her chamber.

"Angel, let me in. We need to talk," Charles said to the door. There was no response. Could she even hear him? "Angel, please," he said, and let his forehead fall against the door when he was still met with silence. "I don't know how things got so bad between us," he murmured. "I can't regret trying to keep you away from Sebastian, and yet the more I've tried to tug you back, the harder you've pulled away from me… What did I do wrong? Tell me, my little one, tell me how to get you back." He raised his voice. "Angel, please let me talk to you."

The only response was a click as she locked the door.

 

Far into the night, when every room in their suite was dark and quiet, Charles finally permitted himself to grieve the chance that had glimmered so briefly. He could not even think of risking a visit from Erik now; Sebastian would be paranoid and hypervigilant for months, and he could not be certain Angel had not seen the words My dearest Erik on Charles's end of the torn letter. Sebastian might have withheld his knowledge of it as a test, a game; Angel might even have seen it and not told him, not told him yet. It could not be risked.

Silently, in the darkness and solitude of his bed, Charles let himself weep. Three years, then, and counting.

***

The unhappy stalemate was shattered at last by Wakanda. With the foster contract now a year and a half past its conclusion, they announced at the first blush of spring that unless Angel and Armando were returned within the month, Wakanda would declare war against Genosha.

The Assembly had mostly stayed out of the fosterling matter, but was forced now to sit up and take notice. A war with Wakanda would go no better now than it had thirteen years before, and if the public had rioted in the streets during war with Free Essex, that outrage would double if arms were turned against their longstanding ally. It was time, even Sebastian's closest allies agreed, for this foolishness to end.

But Sebastian would not listen. Age might be making him less violent, but apparently no less stubborn and petty. If there was an edge of querulous-old-man to his barked orders now, it didn't mean he wouldn't hang anyone who disobeyed them.

First he'll have to catch me, Charles decided, and, hand shaking with excitement as he dipped his pen in the inkwell, he set a long-deliberated plan into action.

It began innocently enough. Charles pleaded with Sebastian, as often and as publicly as possible, to be allowed to take the fosterlings home. Charles could see him casting about for some way to appease the immense public pressure without actually giving in on the issue – or, more accurately, without giving up Angel. As the day neared when a ship had to depart for Wakanda or miss the deadline, Charles provided that way out.

"Let me take only one of them," he said, as if he didn't know which one the king would choose. "With that gesture of good faith, they will surely give us more time to... settle things, here." As if there were anything to be settled but Sebastian's frank refusal to keep his word.

Sebastian hemmed and hawed, the Assembly looking on with bated breath, but Charles knew the hook was set. An opportunity to delay war, avert public pressure, and get both Charles and Armando away from Angel? He would never pass it up.

We have our permission, Charles wrote that night. The ship leaves in two days. Wish me luck, my love.

The letter then went into a complex layering of envelopes, to be sent from Moira, to Emma, to her friend at the Genoshan embassy in Wakanda, and thence to the Chieftains' home, where Erik was already waiting.

***

Sebastian easily gave permission for Hank and Alex to accompany them to Wakanda. Raven and Sean he balked at – Sean for obvious reasons, Raven (Charles uneasily suspected) because she was approaching marriageable age, and he wanted to start collecting bids without her papa's interference.

Charles bent his neck and made no protest, valiantly hiding a smile.

***

"Papa? Is something wrong?" Raven came awake the moment Charles touched her hand; across the hall, Charles could hear sleepy murmurs of protest as Clint and Moira woke the boys.

"No, darling, nothing's wrong." Charles knew he was grinning, perhaps a bit maniacally, could feel the adrenaline singing under his skin with every heartbeat. "But you must get up right away and come along. Don't even bother to dress, you can go back to bed on the ship."

"The ship...? But the ship isn't leaving until morning, and Father said I couldn't go!"

Charles raised an eyebrow, felt his grin widen. "We're changing the plan a bit."

Wide-eyed, Raven rose from her bed and threw on a dressing gown. Charles gestured for her to take one of the bags piled in his lap. "Clothes, jewelry, a few of your favorite books. Can you carry it?"

Raven rolled her eyes as she hefted the bag's strap onto her shoulder. "Of course I can carry it. And Hank's, too."

Yes, his darling girl's insistence on fencing, archery and horse-riding as pastimes had given her much greater strength than most of her friends. He had never bemoaned it, but it seemed especially worth celebrating now. "Good. Now go with Moira and the boys; Clint and Armando and I will not be far behind, but don't wait on us."

"Papa... Father's not going to be happy about this."

"My dear, the time has come for Sebastian's opinion to take its proper place in the hierarchy of our needs. Somewhere very near the bottom. Now go."

She went, and Charles tried not to be distracted by the thought of her, Moira and the other children slipping through dark, unguarded streets in direct contradiction of a royal order. He needed to focus on the other half of this night's scheme – twice as delicate and dangerous as the first.

"She was supposed to be sleeping," Armando whispered as Charles rolled up to Angel's chamber door. "Charles, what are we going to do?"

Charles bit his lip and pressed his ear to the door. On the other side, clumsy footsteps stumbled to and fro, punctuated by the sound of paintings falling off the wall, pens and cups tumbling from the desk, books from the shelf, and Angel's harsh, heavy breathing.

"Whadidyo do d'mee?" she snarled, and Charles jumped as something crashed against the door – thrown, he assumed.

You said she would sleep, he signed to Clint. Tipping Clint's mysterious elixir into Angel's evening tea had gone smoothly enough.

She didn't drink all, Clint replied, mouth in a grim line. No time now.

Charles opened the door an inch; she threw a vase at the narrow opening, but missed, porcelain shattering against the wall. "Angel," he called softly. "It's all right, love."

"Don't feel right," she shouted threw bared teeth. "Drug, I knew, didn' tasse right – Why?"

"Angel, sweetheart, I know you don't feel well, but there's nothing to worry about, there's no—"

"Don't. Lie to me." She came to the door, moving with exaggerated caution; with one hand flung out for balance, her hair and nightgown in disarray, she looked less drugged than mad, and miserable with it, and Charles wanted to weep. "Everyone. Lies to me. Stop." She glared through the door at him, a tear catching the light as it slipped down her cheek.

"I'm sorry," Charles whispered. "You were meant to be asleep, that's all. We're taking you home, Angel."

"Did you ever think," she whispered back, "of asking me if I wanted to go home?"

She opened the door, and slid down the frame to huddle on the floor, leaning against Charles's legs as sobs shook her body.

"Take me home, Papa. Take me home."

***

Charles watched the sun rise over Bayonne Nouveau, Genosha's single prized port city, as their ship left it swiftly behind. Would that be his last glimpse of Genoshan soil? With any luck their early departure had not been discovered quite yet – and it would take some while afterward to ascertain where they'd gone – but he knew Sebastian's reaction would be a thing to behold. Banishment, official or not, was a compelling possibility.

In fact, he almost hoped for it.

"Angel's sleeping now," Moira said, walking up to him at the railing with David dozing against her shoulder. "Most of the others are still much too excited. Armando is sitting with her. Charles..."

The hesitance in her voice drew his gaze away, finally, from the retreating shoreline. "What is it?"

"There are bruises on her arms. And... more delicate places."

Then they could guess the reason for her startling change of heart about Sebastian. Charles swallowed nausea and leaned his forehead momentarily against the spray-chilled railing. "Send for the ship's physician immediately. Would she talk to you, do you suppose, or—"

"Actually, she's asking for you."

 

Overtired and swaying a bit on his crutches (the wheelchair was no option at all belowdecks), Charles hesitated in the doorway of the little chamber given to the older children. Raven and Hank were nowhere to be seen – squeals of laughter from the next room hinted at their location – but Armando sat on the bunk beside his sister. Angel stared down into her lap, nodding silently at something Armando murmured to her.

"Charles is here," Armando said, glancing up at him. "Do you want me to stay?"

She shook her head.

"All right." He sighed and kissed the top of her head, then squeezed past Charles at the doorway. He paused there, looking at Charles as though he might say something, but in the end only gave a haunted, pleading look; Charles returned as reassuring a nod as he could muster, and thumped across the narrow room to take Armando's seat.

For a long minute Angel was silent, still gazing dully at her own hands in her lap. She had lost weight in the last few months, he noted with surprise. She so seldom stayed long in his company that he hadn’t realized. Had she deliberately dressed to cover it? She'd covered the bruises on her arms, certainly, but they were clearly visible now despite her dark skin. She wore only a nightgown, her hair loose and tangled, and without her usual armor of style and provocative clothing, she looked vulnerable, child-like.

“Moira told you,” Angel said dully, after a long silence.

“Of course she did. Angel…” He reached tentatively for her hand; she didn’t protest. “Oh, my darling, why didn’t you tell me?”

“What could you have done?”

“Well, this, for instance,” he gestured around them at the ship, “quite a lot sooner.” And possibly shot the man in the groin, whatever the consequences. He fought to keep his hands from shaking with rage.

Angel still hadn’t looked up, only shaking her head slowly, as if his words didn’t make sense. “He wouldn’t let me go. He won’t let me go.”

“You have gone,” Charles said firmly, “whether he let you or not, and he will never get you back again, Angel, I swear it.” Black, despairing guilt made his insides twist; this was almost precisely what he had feared when the fosterlings first arrived, but he had done everything in his power, he thought, to prevent it. How had he not known this was happening, how could he not have seen – but Sebastian’s behavior had always been inappropriate with Angel, he hadn’t noticed any particular change – Surely he could have prevented this, surely he had done something wrong…

But Angel’s spirits seemed to have lifted, just a shade; she looked down at their joined hands, and darted a glance at his face. “You… you’re not angry at me?”

“At you? Of course not!” He slid an arm around her, pulled her cautiously closer. “Why in the world would – Did he tell you I’d be angry?”

“Over and over,” Angel whispered. “He said you’d hate me just as much you hated him, that you’d never want to touch me again, or even look at me…”

“How could he even say that?” Charles choked, closing his arms around her at last. “Angel, I’ve been your Papa since you were five years old, I could never – Look at me. I could never hate you, no matter what you did, or what was done to you. Never. Do you understand? Oh, little one, I wish I could have taken this in your stead—"

Tears burst suddenly through Angel’s dull, stony demeanor, washing it away. Charles, helpless and guilty and sick, stroked her hair and whispered soothing nonsense to get her through the storm.

 

The ship’s doctor said she’d taken no great harm, physically, and saw no sign of pregnancy or venereal disease. Moira produced an herbal tea that alleged to prevent conception; Charles said nothing of Sebastian’s sterility, figuring one could not be too careful. Angel rejected the offer of another tea to help her sleep, but did manage to doze on her own eventually.

Charles left Moira and Armando to watch over her, then, and got himself into bed before his legs entirely buckled beneath him. Years of pushing the borders of what he could do had improved their mobility and sensation some bit; the disadvantage was that those sensations included pain and fatigue, and occasionally spasms that could drop him to the hard deck if he wasn’t careful.

She’s safe now, he told himself, staring at the knotted wood of his chamber wall, his stomach sloshing unpleasantly with the motion of the ship. You’ve gotten her away from him. It seemed a thin victory, when he could have stopped Sebastian’s evil any time this last decade, had he been willing to pay the price. Did that make him Sebastian's accomplice, buying his own safety with others' suffering?

He knew what Erik would say to that – that Sebastian's sins were on his own head, and the best solution was that head's removal, not Charles's self-flagellation.

Erik. In spite of everything, Charles had to smile, knowing Erik was waiting for him in Wakanda. Erik wasn't normally a diplomat, but since he had a working relationship with the Wakandan Chieftains already, Essex had sent him to open negotiations for an extradition agreement. The timing was largely fortuitous, though Erik had delayed his departure for home when Wakanda made the demand for the fosterlings' return.

In a few days, Charles would see his husband for the first time in four years. The thought filled him with a fluttering nervousness he hadn't felt since the days of their lighthearted pre-Sebastian courtship. He wanted to see Erik – ached for it – but at the same time, had no idea what he would say to him.

The truth, part of his mind whispered. You have to tell him the truth.

One truth – that he was as much in love with Erik as ever, and no longer angry that in a moment of weakness he had found comfort elsewhere – he had all but said already, in his letters, but he was more than willing to reiterate in person. The other half of the truth – that David was not Charles's son – he hesitated to speak, and for more than one reason. That Erik might be angry at the lie, and their agonizing standoff begin anew, was a thought hardly to be borne.

But perhaps even more importantly… what peace they had built rested on the supposition that they were, at least, equal. They had both stumbled, and fallen, and reached out to each other again for forgiveness. Neither could reproach the other more than himself. If Charles revealed that Erik was alone in his infidelity, it would unbalance things again. Erik might well feel worse, rather than better. Perhaps he ought to leave things as they were.

***

Storm and Black Panther met them at the dock, along with at least a dozen other people, waving flags and singing to welcome their prince and princess home. Erik, Charles noted in disappointment, was not among them. He worried how Angel would handle the boisterous reception – she had spent most of the voyage crying softly in her room – but in fact she broke away from the group as they disembarked and ran into the thick of it, flinging herself into her mother's arms.

Armando followed close behind her, embracing his father and the brothers he had seen so little of, while the other children sidled a little closer to Charles, surveying the cheering crowd with wide eyes.

Charles came to a stop at the appropriate distance and waited to be noticed, bowing as well as he could on crutches when he eventually caught Storm's eye.

"Prince Charles of Genosha," she called, "you have proven yourself our true friend once again, and saved your nation a deal of heartache that neither of us truly wished. You are as welcome as my own heart, and so are all your children and companions. Come! Into the carriages, and we will hear the tale of your voyage and the troubles I'm sure you faced, on our way to the celebration!"

 

'Celebration' meant that the sturdy, sensible Chieftains' House was a riot of ribbons, lights, music, and people. Charles scanned the crowd for Erik, heart in his throat – but saw no sign, and his inattention to the delicate process of descending from the carriage on his crutches nearly sent him sprawling.

"Just how angry is Sebastian likely to be?" Storm asked, steadying him with a touch to his arm. "The idea was to avoid war…"

"His anger will be directed at me, not you," Charles assured her. "I am prepared to deal with the consequences, however they turn out. I might have done better," he admitted, watching Sean and Alex disembark from the nearest coach, looking pleasantly awed by the party before them, "not to have stolen Sean away, but having no idea when or if I will return to Genosha, I simply could not bear to leave him in Sebastian's clutches."

"I cannot blame you." Storm touched his arm again, drawing him to the side as the last few people left their carriages. "Charles, there is only so much I can promise you as a Chieftain of Wakanda. I must think of my own people first. But as your friend Ororo, I will help you as much as I possibly can."

Charles blinked, startled and touched by the use of her true name. "I deeply appreciate that, my friend. I hope I will not be too great a burden."

"I owe you my children's safety. No burden is too great."

Charles’s heart sank to think of how little safety he had given Angel, in the end, but that was for her to tell, or not, as she pleased. With difficulty he swallowed the compliment and nodded.

They were led up onto the steps to overlook the crowd, and announced one by one to wild cheers – the wildest, of course, reserved for Angel and Armando. Again Charles searched the crowd fruitlessly for blue-green eyes and silver-shot hair. Would Erik's hair still be long? Would he have finally grown the beard he kept threatening?

No Erik. Charles tried to turn his attention to the children. Armando and Angel were well under their family's collective wing, and Raven and Sean were taking to their gathering crowds of admirers with their usual panache, but Hank and Alex looked a little overwhelmed. Charles came to their sides, and helped ease them into conversation with a gaggle of young Wakandans eager to make the acquaintance of two handsome foreign princes. All the while, he could not prevent his eye from wandering through the crowd of dancers and talkers and musicians…

Black Panther stepped quietly up to him. "Ah, Charles, I can see my wife forgot to tell you," he murmured. "The Essex delegation was most unexpectedly called away. Not for long," he added hastily, Charles's expression doubtless betraying his gut-punched desolation, "not all the way back to Essex. They only had to give reports to some superior officer in the city of Taji. General Lehnsherr hated to leave, but he swore to be back again as soon as possible. In fact he had hoped to return this morning, but obviously that did not occur. I'm sure he cannot be much longer delayed."

"Ah." Desolation receded, replaced by mere – if aching – disappointment. "I thank you for thinking to tell me, sir. I do hope the delegates return safely. And soon."

"As do we all," Black Panther said, eyes twinkling, and moved off again.

When the real dancing began, Moira, Clint and all the children were claimed by partners, and one hesitant androji even hinted at asking Charles, who graciously declined. Even if dancing had been a true possibility in his condition, he needed to sit for a while, or risk losing his ability to walk at all.

He installed himself at a corner table on the courtyard, with a lovely cinnamon-flavored drink and a plate of tidbits, and watched the swirl of color and noise. Everyone seemed so genuinely happy, and so eager to make sure of everyone else's happiness… A royal ball in Genosha would have been considerably more organized, but also rife with gossip, power plays and backstabbing. This gathering was probably not as free from political undercurrent as it seemed to his foreign eye – even in breezy, congenial Wakanda, there was a social hierarchy – but merely basking in willful blindness was refreshing enough for now.

To his surprise, he was not allowed to remain alone for long; any number of people dropped by his corner table to welcome him to Wakanda and thank him for returning the prince and princess. It was rather nice to be so well-regarded; he certainly had his friends in Genosha, but also his share of folk who would choose to make his night unpleasant merely for the joy of it. If anyone was venturing insult at him tonight, he was oblivious enough to miss it entirely, and happy to be so.

Afternoon faded quickly into evening, then night, and no one spoke of ending the celebration. Some people departed, to be sure, but others arrived, and on the whole Charles thought the ranks swelled. Groups of people drifted to and from his table – Storm and Black Panther with nobles to introduce, the children with new friends, well-wishers of all sorts, even a group of musicians wishing to dedicate a song to him. Moira winked at him from across the dancefloor, happily ensconced in the arms of a starstruck Wakandan. At one point, realizing he had not seen Clint in some time, Charles inquired of Hank, who grinned and pointed upward. Sure enough, perhaps overwhelmed by the spectacle, Clint had taken refuge on the roof, and was nursing a drink and a half-smile there.

He saw little of the fosterlings – former fosterlings – and there was a thought that stabbed hard and unexpectedly. Wherever he went now, whatever happened, two children he had nurtured and cared for as his own were removed from his hands. He could not imagine they would ever come back to Genosha, not while Sebastian lived. Charles was sure he could depend on Armando to maintain contact and all ties of affection; he would have had less certainty of Angel a fortnight ago, but was considerably more hopeful now.

There was the girl herself, leaning against her mother with a childlike expression of comfortable exhaustion. Just beyond them, Armando was laughing as he danced with 11-year-old Alex. Yes, his fosterlings were much better off here, and after all, returning them eventually had always been the plan. His own children would grow up and leave him in due time, as well. That was the way of the world.

And Erik was not here. Suddenly the disappointment was more than he could bear, his throat closing on unexpected tears. He was tired, that was all. Surely his hosts would understand his begging leave, after their long voyage, and Moira and Clint could watch the children. Even the twins he would allow to stay up, this one night.

He heaved himself onto his crutches and thumped across the edges of the dancefloor to Storm and Black Panther.

"—some manner of scuffle at the border," Storm was saying thoughtfully. "I'm sure it's nothing, but under the circumstances it shouldn't be ignored."

"Can it wait until morning, do you think, or should we send someone tonight?"

"Tonight, without question. But Charles!" Her face brightened as she noticed his approach. "My poor friend, I believe I know that look. You are taking your leave of us?"

"Alas, I admit I am weary, I hope it would not—"

A voice from behind him, voice, hoarse and breathless but achingly familiar, interrupted. "Might I have the honor of a dance?"

Charles nearly lost his balance in his hurry to turn and see – Erik, Erik, windblown and damp and disheveled and gorgeous, holding out his hand.

He nearly fell again in his hurry to take that hand, but after that Erik was supporting him; he could have dropped the crutches altogether and not fallen. It was possibly the best thing he had ever felt. For a long, long moment, nothing existed but Erik's arms around him, the solid warmth of Erik's shoulder beneath his cheek, the brush of Erik's breath through his hair.

"I think perhaps I'll stay a bit longer after all," he remembered, eventually, to say to Storm and Black Panther, but they were already gliding off through the crowd, waving at them over their shoulders and looking amused.

"I was delayed," Erik said, "it was torture being delayed by that pompous fool Enjolras sent to check up on me. I left the rest of the delegation to travel in the morning and rode hard – are you all right?"

"I am better than I have been in a very long time," Charles said, making a fierce effort not to cry. Then, since it was truly inadvisable for him to start tearing off Erik's clothes amid a crowd of hundreds, he settled for, "Shall we dance, then?"

"We shall. You there," Erik brought a serving boy over with a jerk of his head, "take the Prince's crutches until they're called for again."

"Please," Charles added, poking Erik in the ribs.

"Please."

"Certainly, sir."

With the crutches out of the way, Charles was truly dependent on Erik to hold him upright. Their dance mostly consisted of swaying gently back and forth, right on the edge of the dancefloor against a row of palm trees strung with lights, wrapped as tightly around each other as they could physically manage. Charles lost the battle against tears, but managed to at least keep them silent, pressed into the rumpled and sweat-damp material of Erik's shirt.

"No beard," he observed at length.

"No beard," Erik chuckled. "Hazel complained that my kisses were getting itchy."

Charles couldn't help tensing, just the tiniest jot, at the mention of Erik's son with Emma. But it was easy enough to let go of the feeling; by the next heartbeat he was relaxed again, and he knew it would be easier still the next time.

"You worried me to rags," Erik said. "So casually mentioning your plan to steal out in the middle of the night with the three children you had been expressly forbidden to take. I haven't slept a night since then without nightmares of you getting caught, flogged, strung up, any manner of—"

"Shhh." Charles pressed a hand to Erik's mouth. "I know, love, I'm sorry. I'm here now, safe and sound. We all are."

Erik closed his eyes; Charles felt lips pressed to his palm and was quite sure he would have gone weak in the knees, if he could feel them anymore.

"I saw some of the children as I came in," Erik said when Charles reluctantly pulled his hand away. "They seem to be having a great time."

"They are. I imagine the lot of them will keep going until they fall over asleep in a corner."

"So they won't miss you," Erik murmured, warm against Charles's ear, "if I take you to bed now?"

Charles shivered, heat washing over his skin. "No. No, they won't."

 

Erik and his family had been given the little guest cottage Charles remembered so well from Krismas of over a decade ago. Emma, Erik assured him, was still in Taji; Hazel and the nursemaid would be gone to bed. It would, Charles admitted, be more private than whatever rooms he and his family had been assigned. He caught Moira's eye – the sight of Erik more than enough to communicate the situation – and crept off together, pressed close and laughing, half-drunk on each other's company.

Finally alone in the master bedroom of the cottage, Erik fumbled half-heartedly at the lock, then gave up and simply crowded Charles back against the door. This move was hardly unexpected, but to Charles's surprise Erik did not immediately begin the anticipated attack on his mouth. He stood with his forehead pressed to Charles's, eyes closed.

"Charles," he breathed, the word released like a single precious stone from a treasured hoard. After a long breath, he opened his eyes, their gazes locking. "Charles, are we… do you… I need to know how things stand between us. For good or ill."

"Oh, Erik." Charles pulled him closer, hands sliding up his hips, ribs, shoulders. "I could never cease to love you, whatever you did, not in this life or any other. Of course I was angry, and hurt, but… I'm not, any longer. We are both of us only human." He stroked a thumb along Erik's cheekbone, breath catching when Erik leaned into the touch. "For my part, things stand as well between us as they ever have."

Erik made a broken sound halfway between laugh and sob. "I love you," he said, and finally kissed him, slow and deep and gentle, irresistible as the tide.

That tide carried them to the bed soon enough, where they relearned each other again – every scar, every freckle, the texture of silky hair and calloused hands. Urgency built beneath their skin, but they would not be rushed, not this first time. Charles thought he might have been happy merely to have the weight of Erik, the scent of him, the heat of Erik's skin under his palms. The rest – the rest was almost unbearably generous of fate to have given them.

Afterward, Erik arranged them on their sides, and traced Charles's face with lazy, delicate kisses – one brushing a sensitive spot behind his ear in just the right way to tickle. Charles gave a startled laugh and batted him away.

Suddenly, as though some fever in the air had broken, they were both laughing, bubbling over with joy and relief, clutching each other close and rocking back and forth with the strength of their happiness. The second round, then, proceeded in a much faster and grabbier fashion, with Charles backed up against the headboard and tickling Erik's hindquarters as he straddled him.

I might never have to go back to Genosha, Charles thought, and permitted himself not to consider the more dire consequences of that. I might never have to leave him again.

Three rounds, and starting on a fourth, before the exhaustion of the day caught up with him, and Charles dozed off mid-kiss. He was dimly aware of Erik huffing laughter into his hair and giving up with a resigned, affectionate sigh. The last thing Charles knew before dropping off entirely was Erik nestling their bodies together for maximum contact, and pressing a kiss to Charles's sapphire wedding ring.

***

Erik always woke early, and it was no punishment when waking meant finding Charles in his arms, already giving him a sleepy smile. They did not get far into a promising set of kisses before Charles hissed and rubbed at his legs – overworked last night, they were threatening to go into spasms.

"I can help with that," Erik said with a wicked grin, and re-opened the scented oil they'd made such good use of last night, massaging it into Charles's legs while he hummed and whined happily.

"Erik," he said afterward, running fingers through Erik's hair, "perhaps it's unfair of me to ask you – but I promise you, love, anything you tell me now – after that – I can forgive as easy as breathing."

"Ask." Erik brushed a trio of kisses down the center of his chest. "Anything."

"Have you… been with Emma any more than… with anyone, I mean, but… more than the once? I shouldn't even ask, I'm sorry—"

Erik pressed a finger to Charles's lips, shutting off the apologies. "I haven't. I swear, Charles, I haven't." He swallowed. "Have you?"

Charles's smile was luminous with relief. "No. In fact, Erik, I have to tell you – I should have told you long ago…" He came to a breathless stop, growing more tense by the moment, and Erik frowned.

"Charles, what is it?"

The bedroom door they had never quite locked flew open, and a tiny fair-haired explosion hit the bed at top speed. "Daddy!"

"What – Hazel, what are you – yes, son, I love you too." Erik returned the little boy's embrace, looking helplessly at Charles over his shoulder, but Charles didn't seem distressed – perhaps even relieved to find himself interrupted.

"So this is Hazel," he said. "I'm happy to finally meet you."

Startled by the unfamiliar voice, Hazel whipped around, and with all the grace and aplomb of a five-year-old boy, shouted, "Who the hell are you?"

Choking on mingled laughter and horror, Erik managed a strangled, "Hazel, this is my dear friend Prince Charles. And don't swear! Where did you even hear that?"

"From Mama. This is your friend?" He crawled out of Erik's lap and into Charles's, looking intently into warm blue eyes with the icy ones inherited from Emma. "You're my daddy's friend?"

"Yes." Charles's eyes danced. "He's my very best friend in the world."

"I guess that's why you're having a sleepover. Sometimes me and Cossette have sleepovers with Patria."

"Erik, I am so sorry!" Fantine hurried into the room, frazzle-haired and in her dressing gown. "Cossette spilled the syrup and I didn't realize—" She did a double take at the sight of Charles, who smiled winningly and managed a half-bow. "Ah, that is, Hazel dear, we really must get you dressed. Your mother will be home before long." This was said a bit pointedly at Erik, who rather thought Fantine would have noticed by now that he and his wife had an understanding. Emma had certainly had lovers enough.

A burst of noise from outside the cottage distracted them both, and Fantine went to the window. Erik's assumption that some group of revelers was resuming the celebration died half-formed when Fantine leaped back with a shriek.

Erik was out of the bed and at the window faster than conscious thought. Outside the cottage, shouts and screams rose from a roiling crowd – bewildered half-awake revelers, scrambling Wakandan guardsmen, and bloody-bladed attackers. In Genoshan uniforms.

There was no time to swear, no time for the stabbing fear in his chest. Erik grabbed for his trousers and his sword. "Hazel, into the closet, right now. Fantine, get Cossette—" She was a step ahead of him, running for the other room.

"Erik, what's happening?" Charles said, white-faced, pulling himself upright with his arms, and Erik could only stare at him in despair, he can't run, can’t fight, can't even stand in the closet—

Then the front door was crashing open, boots thundering, Cossette shrieking, and the cottage was full of them.

"Barricade the door! Cover the windows!"

"You stay on the floor, woman, and stay quiet!"

Three of them were in the bedroom, aiming muskets out the window, before they saw Erik at all – just in time for the first of them to fall choking on his own blood. Before Erik could swing his sword at the second, Charles shouted a warning, and he ducked and spun, dodging a blow from behind. He struck at the new attacker, but his arm faltered in surprise when he realized who held the sword his had clashed against.

"Well, well," Sebastian said, grinning with blood on his teeth. "Fancy meeting you here, Erik."

During that moment of shock, the room filled to the brim with Genoshan soldiers, and Erik knew raising his sword again would be suicide. From the corner of his eye, he could see Charles on the bed, body rigid and mouth a grim line, and the tiniest slice of Hazel's terrified face in the crack of the closet door.

"Fetch the Chieftains!" someone shouted from outside. The Genoshans were firing from the window, keeping the Wakandans back.

"Sire," one of the soldiers said, "if we're going to break for the main house, now might be our only moment."

"I don’t think that will be necessary, Captain." Sebastian looked filthy and exhausted. The light in his eye was pure malicious glee. Surely this was a nightmare, this couldn't be happening, Sebastian couldn't be here—

"How do you manage it, Charles?" Sebastian said pleasantly. "How do you manage to be so troublesome, yet so utterly predictable? I should have know what company I would find you in, the moment you left my sight, and in what… condition." He looked Charles up and down, eyebrow raised.

Erik's mind was spinning, uselessly, trapped in place. The sword was firm in his hand, but there were half a dozen men before him, and more outside the door. Cossette was still wailing from the sitting room.

"My spies alerted me when you left, of course," Sebastian continued casually. "I wasn't in time to keep the ship from leaving, and pursuit by sea would have been noticed, but as it was hardly a mystery where you were going, traveling overland was fine by me. Never ride a horse to death, Charles, you can easily break a leg when they collapse on you. Not that it will ever be a problem for you, I suppose. Well, my dear, haven't you anything to say?"

Charles took a ragged breath. "You have no jurisdiction over Erik," he said shakily. "He's a citizen of Essex now."

"Oh, I'm sure I could find a way," Sebastian said with a sharp-toothed smile. "But for the moment, I will content myself with arresting you for high treason. Start thinking over what you'd like for your last meal, dearest, I doubt the trial will last long—"

Erik made no conscious decision to lunge toward Sebastian with a snarl, sword arcing toward his throat, but he made no attempt to stop himself either.

Three guardsmen intercepted him, metal clashing on metal, and threw him back against the wall. He was dimly aware of Charles crying out—

"Leave my daddy alone!"

Hazel burst from the closet and buried his teeth in the leg of one of the men standing over Erik. The man yelped and ripped the boy off him, tossing him to the floor with his shirt torn and his lip bloody. Erik struck out with his sword again, roaring rage at the man who'd hurt his son—

"Wait!" Sebastian snapped. "Everyone be still!" The guards knocked Erik to the floor and held him there. In the sudden silence, Sebastian advanced on Hazel, eyes fixed on – his torn shirt?

The birthmark. The birthmark showing clearly through the torn shirt.

Erik pushed back to his feet, no no no!

"You there, child," Sebastian said. "You're Emma's son, aren't you? Look at you, you must be."

Hesitantly, blood and tears trailing down his face, Hazel nodded.

"Oh," Sebastian breathed. "Oh, that ice cold bitch. Let me see your arm, boy." He snatched Hazel's arm into easier view without waiting for him to cooperate.

Erik tried to scramble up, drawing blood as he went, but the guardsmen threw him down again, wrenching his wrist as they took his sword.

Sebastian had pulled his own coat and tunic away from his shoulder, revealing the faded red birthmark that mirrored Hazel's perfectly. Erik saw Charles's mouth drop open, putting the pieces together.

"Lads," Sebastian said, "make way back to the ship, and bring these gentlemen along by whatever means necessary. You, my boy," he said, hefting a terrified Hazel into his arms, "my boy, my son – you are coming with me."

Chapter Text

The Genoshans had to fight their way back the direction they had come, which unfortunately was not as difficult as it should have been, with so much confusion and disarray. They had bound Erik's hands behind him, and blindfolded him when that proved insufficient; Charles they had merely bundled naked into a blanket and slung over a Genoshan's shoulder. He punched, clawed and bit everything he could reach – right up until Sebastian, Hazel still balanced on his hip, drew a pistol and cocked it against Charles's jaw.

"Ah, my sweet, does this seem familiar at all?" he purred. "Doesn't it fill you with nostalgia for that beautiful morning I found you in bed with your lover and so nearly managed to kill you both? Alas for Azazel and his deals. Of course you were on the other side of the gun that time. How does it feel to have the tables turned? We haven't time for me to enjoy it properly, but rest assured, if either you or Sir Erik becomes troublesome, I won't hesitate to shoot whichever of you is closest."

Like any predator, Charles thought bitterly, Sebastian always went straight for the jugular, the guaranteed weakness. If Charles could have gotten Erik and the poor child out of this by sacrificing only himself, he wouldn't have hesitated, and they both knew it.

He could see little of what was happening, but several times, judging by the noise level and the ferocity of his carrier's swearing, they were close to being trapped and taken down by the Wakandans. Charles prayed fiercely under his breath, but then there was the sound of boots on weathered wood, the docks passing under his eyes, and they were aboard the ship Charles had arrived in.

While his men held off the Wakandans crowding the pier, Sebastian knocked the terrified captain out of bed to get them underway, and barked at his men to slap together a cell – two cells, Sebastian corrected sharply – in the ship's hold. Crates were lashed together to his satisfaction, and Erik was flung into one, unbound but bleeding from the nose and cradling his wrist. When Charles was dumped on the floor of the other cell, Sebastian kicked him onto his back.

"Well, my dear," he said, "the long-awaited day has come. And not even any Azazel here to protect you."

"Yes," Charles wheezed, "he'd find you a hard enemy now, grown powerful enough to kick cripples and frighten children."

"Oh, Hazel's not frightened of me, is he?" Sebastian grinned at the little boy on his hip, who stared back in unmistakable terror, his porcelain face flushed and bloody. "There's no need for it, you know, my boy. You have less to fear from me than any person on this earth. How good it is to hold my own flesh and blood at last! After giving up hope years ago. Prince Hazel of House Shaw, only look at you!"

"Daddy," Hazel wailed, reaching over Sebastian's shoulder toward the other cell. Erik's face, barely visible between crate-planks, was grim and strained.

"It's all right, son," he said, fighting to keep his voice even. "You're strong, you're smart. You'll be all right."

"Call him 'son' again," Sebastian said lazily, "and I'll have your tongue cut out before you're hanged. And you, Charles, just in case you were wondering," he stooped, balancing the boy carefully, and ran a gentle finger down Charles's cheek, "you'll die second, so you get to watch."

Charles bit down on Sebastian's hand, tasting blood – Sebastian's and then his own, when the defiance bought him a blow to the head. The world spun to the sound of Sebastian swearing and Hazel crying in earnest, kicking and thrashing in Sebastian's grip. The king swore harder and – slapped him, from the sound of it. Hazel fell silent with a stunned gasp.

"Sebastian," Erik said, in a distant, eerily calm voice, "I didn't know it was possible to hate you any more than I already did."

"A day for discoveries all 'round, then," Sebastian snarled, and stepped out of Charles's cell. "You two, stand guard. If they give you trouble, feel free to punish them… creatively."

"Hazel," Erik shouted, as Sebastian turned to leave. "You are my son. Whatever he says to you, whatever happens, remember that. You are my son."

"Daddy!" Hazel screamed, the sound cut off as the trapdoor into the hold fell shut.

***

Silence reigned in the hold of the ship for a very long time. Their two guards, looking more daunted than pleased by their orders, began an uneasy card game. Erik leaned against rough wooden planks and tried to make himself understand that this was happening, that his little boy was in Sebastian's hands, that he and Charles were beaten and captive and would probably soon be dead.

He ought to be doing something. Even with a sprained wrist and no weapon, there had to be something he could do. He should have fought more before they reached the ship, should have made them carry him, blind and bound and kicking…

A sound from the other cell – Charles pulling himself across the rough wood floor, clumsy and slow with his legs dragging. I will kill you, Erik promised Sebastian in his head, not for the first time or the hundredth, for this alone I would kill you. The last blood your heart pumps will spill on my hands.

Charles reached his goal – a gap of a few inches in the makeshift wall – and looked through it at Erik, his expression unreadable.

Erik shifted position, kneeling before an uneven gap of his own, so they could see each other. His voice came rough from a tight throat. "Charles, are you all right?"

"Well enough," Charles said quietly. "You?"

"Well enough." He rubbed absently at his throbbing wrist. "Charles…" He trailed away, with no idea what to say now.

"You knew Hazel was Sebastian's." Charles's face was still unreadable, his voice flat. "I saw you – you weren't surprised. You knew."

Erik took a steadying breath. "I wrote to you, when it first – when Emma – I swear I wrote to you. But the letter was lost at sea – I learned later – and by the time – when I came to see you—" He had been more articulate than this, he was sure, when he planned this conversation in his mind.

"By then I had heard from other sources," Charles finished, almost more to himself than Erik. "And Moira was expecting David."

"How could I tell you then? Surely it was kinder not to."

"Kinder to let me believe…" Charles rubbed at his brow, looking weary and breathless. "Were you ever unfaithful to me? Ever once? The truth, Erik – you know I've already forgiven you, I just want the truth."

"No," Erik whispered, and surely that should not have felt like its own kind of betrayal. "Never once."

Charles made a ragged, breathy sound – a sob, he thought at first, and perhaps it was, but what followed was laughter, thin and bitter and shocking. "Oh, my darling. What magnificent idiots we have both been."

"Charles, I've never blamed you—"

"And well you shouldn't," Charles giggled, "except, I suppose, for wanting to hurt you as badly as you'd hurt me. A grievous enough sin, really."

"What… Charles, what do you mean?"

"David's not mine. Everyone on the bloody planet thinks he's mine, and most of the time he might as well be, but he's not. Your Lieutenant Howlett has that honor, and hopes to someday enjoy it openly." Charles's laughter was verging on the hysterical now, for all that he kept it muffled enough to draw no attention from their guards. "I was going to tell you – several times – but then I thought it kinder not to."

Erik leaned his forehead against rough wood. "Yes," he managed after a long moment. "Magnificent idiots. That seems to about cover it."

"Are you angry? I wouldn't blame you if you were."

"Angry?" Erik shook his head. "No, I won't waste any of our time being angry."

"Time…" Charles's laughter died away to nothing, and he stared at Erik across the five-foot chasm of the ship's hold with haunted eyes. He glanced at their oblivious guards, and lowered his voice. "Run, Erik, you can run – you could break out of here in a trice if you put your mind to it. Go."

Erik was already shaking his head. "I won't leave you."

"This might be your only chance, before the ship can leave harbor—"

"I won't," Erik repeated through his teeth, "leave you, and I won't leave Hazel."

"You can't just lie down and die."

"No. I'll watch for the right moment. But it'll be our moment, all three of us."

They fell silent again, just looking at each other as if glancing away would mean losing each other forever. Naked and bruised on the floor, face drawn and eyes shadowed with fear, Charles was still the most beautiful thing Erik had ever seen and he ached to touch him, just a little, there had to be some way to touch… Without breaking their gaze, he sank down to the floor and stretched his arm out between the wooden slats. Charles quickly did likewise. Erik strained, splinters digging into his shoulder – and their fingertips met, warm and perfect, just enough to hook together.

Erik closed his eyes, keeping all his focus on that one point of contact, as shouts and gunfire drew further away outside, and the ship pitched and swayed through the water.

***

"They won't be going anywhere." Her mother's voice was grim satisfaction over ice-cold fury, and Angel borrowed hard against that strength to keep her hands from shaking.

She was supposed to be safe from Sebastian now. She was supposed to never see him again. How dare he, how dare he come here? He'd left a swathe of death and destruction from the borders of Wakanda to the Chieftains' House itself, and it was her fault, it was her fault for trying to run away from him.

"I expected them to surrender by now," her father said, his voice a harsh rumble. "They're blocked in. Do they plan to make us sink them?"

"A tempting idea," Storm answered, but they wouldn't, surely they wouldn't, not when Sebastian had Papa Charles on that ship.

Wakandan cruisers, steam-powered and faster than the wind-and-oar-dependent Genoshan ship, had blocked it in just short of the harbor mouth. From their vantage on the hilltop looking down at the docks, Angel and her parents could see the flash and hear the thunder of cannons. It was too far to make out any individual on deck, and yet Angel could swear she felt Sebastian's eyes on her, felt as if he might at any moment grip her by the hair and throw her to the ground. Perhaps if she were further away from the ship – but leaving her mother's side was an even more terrifying prospect.

Armando crested the hill behind them, breathless and dirty, one bandage around his arm and another over a bloody scrape on his forehead. He took one look at Angel and sidled up behind her shoulder, giving her something to lean against. "The other children are safe," he said. "Shaken, but no one came after them once Moira and Clint got them upstairs."

"Thank God for that, at least," Storm said. "General Lehnsherr's nursemaid and her child?"

"I left them in the care of their countrymen, who only just returned. You can imagine how confused and frightened they were to find us in this state. Lady Emma is on her way to speak with you."

Storm looked grim. "I imagine she is. I could not blame her for anything she might say to us now, when her child has been kidnapped from our custody."

The ships continued to exchange fire, and Angel felt her nails biting into her palms. What if the ship sank? Surely Charles couldn't swim. And the little child they'd taken, Sir Erik's child – whyever they had taken him – who knew whether he could swim? The ship could not be permitted to sink, however lovely it might have been to watch Sebastian drown.

Was that a flag? The Genoshans were waving a flag! Not surrender, she realized, but parley. They had ceased firing and wanted to parley.

Storm hissed between her teeth, and beside her Black Panther rumbled unhappily, deep in his chest. But he turned and nodded to their own flagman, who had been exchanging signals with their men on the ships at the harbor mouth.

A long exchange of semaphores later, the flagman said, "King Sebastian will negotiate the release of his captives in exchange for his own safe passage away from Wakanda."

"I am tempted to promise his blood to the Wakandan soil he has stained," Storm growled. "He will not be permitted to leave, but say nothing of that at present. We will send negotiators, to extract the captives safely before all other considerations."

"He will have only Princess Angel for negotiator."

Angel felt the blood drain from her face, but her mother only barked a laugh. "You may tell him hell will freeze over before he lays eyes on my daughter again. I'll happily sink the ship first, no matter who is on board."

Her father had gripped Angel's hand comfortingly as his wife spoke, and Armando tightened an arm around her waist. She had protectors, Angel realized. For the first time she could remember, she felt that even if Sebastian came for her, she might not be entirely at his mercy.

"Ask if he'll speak to me, then," said a voice behind them, grim and cold. Angel turned to see a woman cresting the hill. She was pale and fair-haired, wearing traveling robes over a fine white gown; it took Angel a moment to recognize her as Lady Emma, Erik's wife, who had been an occasional ally of Papa's before she left Genosha.

"Sebastian and I are old friends," she continued with a sharp smile, "or at least, he may still think we are. And that's my son he's holding hostage. I aim to get him back."

Black Panther nodded to the flagman, and soon enough the answer came. Lady Emma was an acceptable negotiator.

"My eldest son and four of my warriors will accompany you," Black Panther said gravely. "The warriors because I mistrust Sebastian's honor, to say the least, and my son because he can speak for Wakanda and what we are willing to trade for the hostages' safety."

"Lady Emma," Angel blurted, stepping forward to take this near-stranger's hand. "Be careful."

Lady Emma gave her an arch smile. "Oh, honey. I learned what a viper Sebastian is long, long ago. Let's see if I've lost my touch at snake-charming."

***

Charles had kept his hand in Erik's through all the crash and shudder of the battle around them. If the Wakandans sank the ship and drowned them all, Charles wouldn't be able to blame them for it, not after the trail of bodies Sebastian had left across their country. Still, it was a heady relief when the cannons ceased at last, and the shouts on deck above them began including the words "parley" and "ceasefire."

When the negotiators arrived, Charles reluctantly released Erik's fingertips – not before passing him a kiss, lips to fingers – and arranged himself in an upright position, blanket wrapped over his shoulders and legs and across his lap. Erik, who at least had trousers, stood and stretched, rolling his shoulders; Charles surprised both of them with an appreciative whistle. Erik's scandalized glance quickly melted in an amused huff of breath, easing, for just a moment, the lines of strain around his eyes. There was a sort of liberation, after all, in knowing they had lost. A distinct relief of pressure.

The guards swept their card game hurriedly into pockets as Sebastian descended the stairs – little more than a ladder – into the hold.

"—to impugn your word, of course, but the Chieftains want confirmation that the prisoners are still alive," said the woman following him, a dry, familiar voice that made Charles blink and sit up straighter. Emma looked as though the dingy, salt-crusted surroundings were a divine test of her fortitude, but she nonetheless brushed past Sebastian and the Wakandans flanking her to peer into their cells.

"Charles, lovely to see you," she said, as graciously as at any garden party. "Setting a new fashion, I see."

"The very latest in early-morning-kidnapping couture," he assured her.

"And Erik, my darling, as dashing as ever. There is always something about a man in a cage that compels my attention… Don't give me that look, now that I've seen that you two and Hazel are unharmed, I'm here to negotiate your release."

"I already told you my demands," Sebastian said, looking not at Emma but Charles, eyes roaming up and down his blanket-cocooned body.

"Yes, but darling, that's called a starting point. Since I assume you're not mad enough to think Storm and Black Panther will actually let you and all your men sail away unmolested in return for one hostage out of three."

"You've no idea how it pains me," Sebastian growled, "to think of parting with even that much. But as my loyal consort pointed out, Erik is, after all, the one I have the least claim to."

"Erik the least claim – but surely Hazel—" Emma looked honestly flummoxed for a moment. Then color began to drain from her face, porcelain fading to paper.

"Yes, I think you see my point," Sebastian purred, low enough that Charles, two feet away, could barely hear. The Wakandan escort glanced among themselves uneasily. "But surely we've spent all the time we must in this dank hold, my lady? Let us to go abovedecks." He turned in the narrow space and motioned the Wakandans walk ahead of him back to the ladder.

A moment came, undoubtedly by Sebastian's design, that the Wakandans were all out of earshot, but he and Emma remained. Sebastian grabbed both her arms, twisting them up behind her back, and over her gasp of pain he hissed, "Here is how the land lies, sweet Emma. I have my heir at last. And you, you may either reign as my queen after your convenient widowing, or you may die alongside the boy's most unnecessary stepfather. Hazel will make a more legitimate heir with you along, but I'm quite certain I can make it work either way, once I've disowned all of that traitor's get. What will it be?"

"Sebastian, really," Emma said, bored and impatient. "I'm surprised you have to ask. I've never been known for acting against my own interests. In fact," she eeled free of his grasp, "now's as good a time as any to take formal leave of my tiresome spouse, since he's handy." She walked back to Erik's cell, working a ring loose from her finger, and flung it at his face through the slats. He caught it without effort. "It's been lovely, Erik," Emma said, "but the wheel must keep turning, don't you think?"

Without looking back, she returned to Sebastian's side, and ascended the ladder with him close behind.

The guards returned to their card game, and Charles spent a moment keeping his breaths determinedly even before he turned to Erik. "Well, I don't know that I could blame the lady for throwing in with Sebastian at this point in the game," he murmured. "The two of us do not make for compelling protectors for her interests – or her son. I never – Erik?" For Erik's expression was no version of the anxiety and trepidation Charles felt. He was gazing down at the ring in his hand with every evidence of vicious glee.

"I never gave this ring to Emma," Erik said, soft as snowfall. "I gave it to Marius, when he became my personal messenger." He pocketed the ring, grin widening. "They're coming for us."

***

Sean couldn't sleep. He wasn't sure how anyone could, after a day like this.

It was doubly awful since the night before had been so glorious – definitely the best party Sean had ever attended, and as Crown Prince he'd attended a surprising number, for eleven years old. For once he'd been able to run and dance and laugh and eat whatever he wanted, with nobody scolding or looking scandalized. All the Wakandans had been so nice to them, and even Papa had looked happy, dancing with that man Raven kept staring at. Sean had stayed up later than ever before in his life, even later than Moira, who fell asleep with her head on the table.

And then they'd woken up to the sound of people screaming.

They'd spent most of the morning shoved into a tiny upstairs room, everyone scared and David crying, Moira and Clint and a couple of Wakandans watching the doors and windows with guns in their hands. Sean had kept asking for Papa, couldn't make himself stop even when Moira told him to be quiet, and when they were finally let out Chieftain Storm said the bad men had taken Papa and wouldn't give him back.

Moira said everything was going to be all right. She said the Chieftains and Lady Emma were going to get Papa back. But Lady Emma had come back from the ship and said negotiations were going poorly and would have to be resumed when Sebastian's head had a chance to cool.

And that was the first Sean knew of his father being there at all. The bad men who had killed so many of their new friends, who were threatening to kill Papa if they didn't get their way, they weren't bandits or invaders. They were Genoshans, being led by Father himself.

"I don't understand," Sean had said over and over, hoping someone would explain what was happening, but it seemed nobody understood. Raven and Hank looked just as bewildered as he did, and Moira only turned away with sad eyes, looking older than she had yesterday.

Father coming here like this, as an attack, didn't make any sense. Wakanda and Genosha were allies. Sean could understand Father being angry that Papa brought Sean along without permission, and his stomach churned with the possibility that he had caused this – but if that was why Father had come, why did he try to leave again without Sean? He hadn't even tried to find him, not that Sean could tell. It didn't make any sense.

He was Father's favorite. Father had told him, many times, how everything he had worked for all his life depended on Sean, depended on his being strong and smart and quick enough to be King. And he had tried so hard, even when he was tired or bleeding or sick, he had tried so hard to be what Father wanted. Why would he leave without him?

He wouldn't have wanted to go with Father, of course. He would so much rather stay here with Papa. He should be glad to be forgotten, he was glad except that Papa was in danger – but what had he done wrong that Father left him behind?

Sean lay awake with his thoughts for what felt like years in the dark bedchamber. Last night, when they all finally grew too exhausted for the party, they had all staggered wherever Moira pointed them, and gone to sleep on the nearest flat surface, all together in one room. They could have had separate chambers tonight, but no one wanted to be separate now, so once again they piled up wherever they could – Raven and Moira and David in one bed, Alex and Sean in another, Clint and Hank curled up on couches.

Alex wasn't asleep either, Sean realized, when Hank's snores quieted enough for him to hear the sniffles his twin was trying to smother in his pillow. Sean turned over and put a hand on his shoulder.

"I miss Armando," Alex whispered. "I want to see Armando."

"Fine then, let's go see Armando."

Alex stopped mid-sniffle and turned over to look at him, shocked. "It's the middle of the night."

"Armando won't mind. You know he won't, not if it's you."

"Well…"

"Come on. Anything's better than just laying around in the dark." And Armando was always comforting, always strong. It might do them both good to see him.

They crawled quietly out of bed, pausing now and then if anyone looked likely to wake, but made it out the door unimpeded. The Chieftains' House was very small compared to the palace at home; Sean had already been surprised to see that Armando's chamber was but a few doors down from theirs.

Before they reached it, though, they passed Angel's, where lamplight and shadows moved under the edge of the door.

"Sean?" Alex whispered when he paused. "You coming?"

"Go on," Sean replied. "I want to see if Angel's okay." All day she had looked fragile and teary, which was no surprise. Maybe he could bring her along to see Armando.

Alex went on, and Sean heard Armando's voice call a sleepy welcome as Alex crept through the door. Sean pressed his ear to Angel's door.

"You won't dissuade me," Angel was saying to someone, ringing anger and determination overflowing a voice that she tried to keep low. "I can help you, and I will."

An unfamiliar voice, female with an Essex accent, frustrated and impatient. "You weren't even supposed to know about this."

"Well, I do, and we're wasting time."

"We can use all the help we can get, Eponine," said another Essex voice, this one male. "And we do need to move."

"Fine then."

Sounds of motion, and the lamplight vanished; Sean stepped away into the shadows just as the door opened. Out crept a man and woman, dressed in dark clothes, with tools and weapons on their belts. And after them, Angel, dressed likewise and trying to wrestle her hair into a braid.

In confusion and some alarm, Sean made a half-movement forward, and she caught sight of him.

"Well hello there, little brother," she murmured. "Would you like to help rescue your real father?"

***

Their tiny rowboat sat so low in the water Sean was afraid to shift his weight too much; it moved through the water as silently as the clouds across the moon. The dark-clothed people with them were friends of General Lehnsherr's, apparently, named Marius, Eponine, and something Sean could only pronounce as Corfie. They weren't happy about having Angel along, and at the sight of Sean had nearly gotten themselves caught with the volume of their arguing – but Sean had kept a tight grip on Angel's hand, and made it onto the boat with them, and out onto the pitch-black water.

He still had no idea what was happening. General Lehnsherr of Essex, Erik the Traitor Paladin, and Sir Erik whom Sean had the faintest memories of playing with on holiday in Westchester – all were one man, according to Angel, and she had it from Lady Emma, Sir Erik's wife, that Sean and all the rest of them were Erik's children and not Father's at all. And they were going to rescue him and Papa from Father.

It all left Sean's head spinning, and there was no opportunity to ask further questions. They had to glide through the water in silence, or be shot by the guards on Father's ship.

He ought to be upset, surely, Sean thought. The very idea of not being Father's son – what in the world was he, if not Father's son, the Crown Prince of Genosha? Perhaps he also ought to be upset at the idea of Papa being unfaithful to his husband – but Sean had been disabused of any notion of romance between his parents at a very young age. Instead of upsetting, this idea of another father… Sean found himself trying not believe it, only for fear of disappointment.

They bumped up against the side of the ship, and one of the Essex men whistled softly; a rope ladder fell over the side, and they started up it without a word.

"Emma bribed one of Sebastian's guards when she was here earlier," Angel breathed in Sean's ear, guiding him onto the ladder. "But we can't trust anyone else."

"Are they still in the hold?" someone – Marius? – was asking a dark figure, presumably their bribed guard, who nodded and murmured back, "Two guards. Asleep, like as not."

"We do this fast and quiet," Eponine whispered over her shoulder to them. "If there's trouble, boy, you hide, or throw yourself on the King's mercy. For you, he might have some."

If so, Sean thought, it would be the first time. He rubbed absently at the scar on his wrist where he'd raised his hand against Father's horse-crop, after a riding lesson in which Sean had shamed the family line by falling off his horse.

Angel gripped a stout cudgel in one hand, so tightly her grip trembled, and Sean had to wonder at her being here. He would have thought her the last person to act against Father; they had always been close, however little Papa liked it. What had changed?

Guards paced the deck, and they kept to the shadows as they made their way across the ship, sometimes ducking behind barrels or tangles of rigging until someone had passed.

The others made Sean hang back when they dropped into the hold; he saw lamplight, moving dizzily as the lamp swung in whatever commotion was taking place, heard thumps and grunts, and then Papa's voice crying a sharp "Stop! Don't!"

Sean crept down into the hold then, and saw Angel and the others holding down two of the Genoshan sailors, men he recognized after the long voyage to Wakanda. Eponine had paused with a knife to one man's throat.

"These are my countrymen," Papa continued, gentle but urgent, like when David picked up something sharp. "They've only been following orders. Now that they've been honorably subdued, I'm sure they've no desire to put us in the position of needing them silenced. Am I correct, gentlemen?"

The sailors nodded frantically.

"Very glad to hear it," Papa said. Sean could see him now, on the floor behind a ramshackle wall of wooden slats. Was he only wearing a blanket?

"Bind and gag them, just in case," said another man, behind a similar wall on the opposite side.

The Essexians fell to it, Angel digging through the guards' pockets. "There's no key."

"There's no door," Papa pointed out, dryly amused. "You'll have to literally break us out, I think – and then perhaps share the magnificent tale of how you came to be here, Angel."

"Sean?" said the other man, eyes widening, his voice balanced between surprise, pleasure and dismay. "Is that Sean?"

No further use in sneaking. Sean skirted the ongoing binding-and-gagging of the guards, and stood between the ramshackle cells.

"Sean," Papa choked. "What are you doing here?"

Sean turned to the other man – surely Erik of House Lehnsherr – and peered at him through the slats as best he could, looking for any trace of himself in the man's face. "Is it true that you're my father?"

The way he and Papa both went still, and looked at each other – that was answer enough. Sean felt a slightly hysterical laugh bubble up his throat.

"How could you leave us?" he said, which wasn't at all something he'd planned to say. "How could you leave us with him?"

"I had no choice." Erik's voice was hoarse, and he curled his fingers around a slat, as if resisting the impulse to reach through, reach for Sean. "Sebastian would have killed me – he tried, I have the scars."

"I swore once that your children would know their true father," Papa said from the other cell, sounding miserable. "They always seemed too young to carry such a secret… I'm sorry, Erik, I should have told them."

Erik shook his head. "They were safer not knowing."

"He didn't abandon you," Papa said, this time to Sean. "He even sent birthday presents – you remember that yellow kite you loved so much? And the tin whistle?"

"You sent those?" Sean said, and Erik nodded.

"Charles would write to me about you, all of you… I tried to get things you would like."

"Watch your head, sir," Corfie said, stepping up to the cell with a prybar. "It's time to go."

Sean stepped back as Corfie and Marius broke open the cells, Angel anxiously watching the stairs and Eponine standing over the guards. Erik stepped free of the collapsing slats, and Sean got his first unimpeded look at his alleged father – tall, with broad shoulders and a muscular chest crisscrossed with scars, long dark hair streaked with silver. Sean could see nothing of himself in that body, nor in the sharp features and grimly determined expression, but – his eyes were the same color as Raven's, and there was something in that expression reminiscent of Alex at his most stubborn.

"We have a boat, sir," Marius said, "but with the… extra assistance we ended up bringing, it won't carry us all away at once."

"That's perfect," Erik said, scooping Papa into his arms with hardly a sign of effort. Papa laced his arms around Erik's neck comfortably. "You can take Charles and the children to the nearest Wakandan vessel and then come back, while Marius and Eponine help me find my son. My youngest son," he amended, eyes resting on Sean for a moment in a sort of… wistful hunger, as if there were more he wished he could say.

"I'm sorry, are you including me with 'the children'?" Angel said testily.

Erik raised an eyebrow. "My apologies, Princess Angel. Last time I saw you for any length of time, your head almost came up to my elbow."

"Please come, Angel," Papa said. "It would be a great rest to my mind to have you with me."

"Time to move," Eponine snapped, ducking down from her watch position. "There's some kind of commotion out there, and I don't want it to find us trapped down here like fish in a barrel."

The commotion, Sean saw as they climbed up from the hold, was a group of sailors shouting and laughing at something in the middle of their circle – possibly a brawl. A handy distraction, at least, but the violence might expand and scatter at any moment. Definitely time to go.

Erik, Papa in his arms, stayed resolutely on Sean's left as they crept across the ship toward the boat, occasionally nudging Sean one way or the other to keep them together, and Sean realized he was keeping his own body between Sean and any chance of danger.

Father would never have done that.

When they reached the edge of the deck, Corfie and Eponine hopped over the rail and slid down the rope ladder into the boat that had brought them.

"Come along, little prince," Corfie called softly, holding out his arms, while Eponine and Marius did something with ropes – arranging a way to lower Papa into the boat.

Sean climbed over the rail, hands catching on salt-rough wood, and looked back over his shoulder. Erik and Papa were having some kind of argument all in facial expressions; as he watched, Papa let out an angry breath and kissed Erik.

Sean had never seen his papa kiss anyone, not on the mouth. Certainly not Father. In fact, the only couple he'd seen kiss that he actually knew was Uncle Steve and Uncle Tony, and that was… casual and friendly, something they did before Uncle Steve left the house in the morning. What Papa and Erik were doing now, that was more like something from one of Raven's love songs, like the young couples in the corners at the summer dances. It was strange beyond measure to see Papa acting that way.

"Hold up there!" came a shout from somewhere behind them. "What are you lot doing?"

For one second, everyone froze in place; then someone (or several someones) cursed, Marius drew a pistol, and Erik stepped forward to drop Papa over the side.

Corfie and Eponine caught him with startled grunts all around. Corfie immediately raised his arms again and shouted, "Now, boy!"

With one last glance over his shoulder at his father, now brandishing Marius's sword, Sean dropped into the boat.

***

Erik knew that Charles wouldn't want him to kill Genoshans if he could help it. They weren't there for battle, anyway; all he wanted was Hazel. He had to engage the Genoshans long enough to draw them away from the side, give the boat time to get away, but as soon as they were well involved in pursuing him, Marius, and – Angel, dammit, how had Angel ended up staying aboard? At least she was armed, firing a pistol wildly enough to provide some cover though he doubted she was hitting anything.

"The captain's cabin," Erik shouted, "that's where Sebastian and Hazel will be," and he led the way, staunchly ignoring the way his twisted wrist kept trying to buckle under the weight of his sword.

He kicked in the door of the captain's cabin, when they found it, and barked for Marius to start barricading it behind them. Inside, the ship's captain stood white-faced with his sword drawn, standing between them and his king like a loyal Genoshan. The king in question leaned against a table with a goblet in his hand, eyes half-lidded, unconcerned. Hazel sat at the table before an untouched plate of food, his face tear-streaked and shadowed with bruises.

"Well, Sir Erik," Sebastian drawled, swaying slightly, and Erik realized he was dead drunk. "Fancy meeting you here."

"If you want to live," Erik said to the captain, "get out."

Sebastian waved a hand negligently. "Run along, captain. Believe me, I am in no danger whatsoever."

The captain did not need to be instructed twice. Marius and Angel let him out the door and resumed fortifying it with the nearest pieces of furniture.

"All I want is my son, Sebastian," Erik said, sword at the ready. "Let him go and you get to live." The words were bitter on his tongue, but for Hazel, he would spare even Sebastian Shaw.

Sebastian laughed and took another sip from his goblet. "I would say, let me keep the boy and you get to live," he said lazily, "but really, Erik, there is nothing at this point that can dissuade me from your death."

Erik glanced over his shoulder at his companions. Angel was untrained and, frankly, unreliable; he'd heard enough from Charles about her attachment to Sebastian to be uncertain which way she might jump. And Marius, he realized, was bleeding heavily, one arm hanging useless. It would be only himself against Sebastian, it seemed. Very well.

"Fight me, then," he said to Sebastian. "For once in your life, fight me fair and square, no minions to hold me down, to blackmail to make me pull my punches. Fight me, and one way or the other, we'll not bother each other again."

"An intriguing offer." Sebastian had caught sight of Angel, his eyes narrowing. "What do you think, my pretty one? Shall I take him up on it?" His voice had turned to velvet, but his posture tightened; Erik thought perhaps he wasn't the only one uncertain of Angel's loyalties.

Angel gave Sebastian a cold look. "I hope you die begging for mercy."

Sebastian's face drew into a snarl, metal whispering as he unsheathed his sword. "We'll see who begs, my sweet. To the victor go all the spoils."

He lunged, but Erik evaded easily, and nearly ran him through with the first counterattack. The shock of that seemed to wake Sebastian from his show of sneers and threats; his next attack was neater and faster, and though Erik again circled away from it without difficulty, he was reminded that Sebastian was by no means an inexperienced fighter.

Good. Victory would feel that much better if he had to work for it.

Erik knew the danger of overconfidence, and kept his focus tightly on his opponent as their swords began clashing in earnest – but he couldn't help grinning fiercely all the same. He felt like a wolf, long caged and beaten, finally let out to dig his teeth into his captor. On another day, with another enemy, he might have felt it dishonorable to fight a man so clearly disadvantaged by drink. Not this time. All Erik could think was how often the reek of alcohol had served as background while Sebastian left scars and bruises on Charles's body.

This would be the king's last burst of drunken violence. He would never hurt Charles or anyone else again.

***

No one seemed to notice their little boat gliding away from the ship, despite Eponine cursing steadily under her breath – Sean got the impression she had not intended to come with them.

"Sean, are you all right?" Papa asked, pulling Sean down next to him in the bottom of the boat. Sean could hardly tear his eyes away from the ship to answer. Angel was still back there. And Erik.

Papa, he realized, was having a similar problem, but finally focused on Sean enough to run shaking hands down his face, his back and shoulders. "I'm not hurt, Papa," he said, and Papa pulled him into a tight embrace.

"What were you thinking, coming along, what were they thinking letting you – oh, Sean." He swayed them back and forth, and Sean made no move to wriggle free. They'd had his Papa boarded up in a cell without clothes. What had Father been planning to do to him and Erik? And Erik's little boy...

"Papa, why wasn't the little boy in a cell, like you and Sir Erik? Did... did Father want to put him somewhere nicer, because he's a child?" How he wished he could believe Father had done it out of kindness.

Papa bit his lip and didn't answer, but Eponine did. "Has no one told you, little prince? The man you call Father, he's found a better heir. Hazel is no blood of the General's, for all that he's raised and loved him as his own. Lady Emma got the boy by King Sebastian, and now that Sebastian knows it, no force on Earth is going to keep him from having his own blood on the throne at last."

"You mean... Father... Sebastian," what was he to call the man, nothing felt right, "he knows I'm not his?"

"He's always known," Papa said. "It was good enough for him, before, that he have an heir, and the people think him man enough to sire one, when he thought he could never have a child of his own. I thought he had come to love you, as far as he could love anyone... perhaps he does, but not enough. Oh, Sean, not enough to put aside his own son for you."

"I don't understand. We're Erik's children, and Hazel is Sebastian's, but we're switched, why are we switched?" Sean clawed at his hair, a childhood mannerism of frustration he thought he'd outgrown.

"All you need to understand for now, princeling," Eponine said, "is that the king has no further use for you. I highly recommend you throw your lot in with the fathers who care whether you live or die."

***

Angel was no expert on swordplay – Raven could have better read the situation – but it looked to her as if Erik and Sebastian were worryingly well-matched. It was clear they both had cunning and experience, and while Sebastian was clumsy and overconfident with drink, Erik was clearly exhausted and in pain, with some injury to his wrist that Sebastian pressed mercilessly. Within a few moves Erik had transferred his sword to the other hand, with a notable drop in fighting quality.

Angel felt her mind moving in frantic circles as Sebastian backed Erik across the room – a ploy, she hoped, Erik feeding the king's overconfidence, putting distance between them and the little boy. Poor Hazel was hiding under the table now, fresh tears joining the half-dried tracks on his face. There had to be something she could do. If only she hadn't used all her bullets on their way here…

"Hazel, lad, come to me," Marius was calling, beckoning the boy toward him with his uninjured hand. Angel supposed that, as a friend of Erik's, Marius might at least be familiar to the boy; in any case Hazel let himself be coaxed out, scurrying along the wall furthest from the flashing swords and into Marius's arms.

The moment Hazel was in a more protected position, Erik went on the offensive, surprising Sebastian enough that he fell back several steps. Neither of them had shields or armor, but Sebastian was at least wearing a full set of clothes; Erik had no protection on his upper body, and Sebastian's sword left a long scarlet line across his collarbone when Erik deflected a blow a moment too late.

"Perhaps we should take the boy and run," Angel murmured to Marius. "I know Sir Erik wants him safe."

"There hasn't been enough time for the boat to return, and in any case we're surrounded," Marius replied, jerking his head toward the barricaded door and the noises beyond it.

Across the room, Erik had flung a book from the captain's desk into Sebastian's face, and used the opening it bought him to cut him deep across the thigh. Sebastian stumbled and slashed blindly at Erik's face, a move unexpected enough that Erik had to jump up onto the desk to evade it. He leaped from there to the heavy oak table, pitting his agility against Sebastian's slowed reactions.

Sebastian, sweeping his blade at Erik's legs, knocked over the candlestick on the table. Flames began licking their way across the wood, and spread swiftly, crawling up curtains and cushioned chairs as Erik and Sebastian's dance of swords intensified. Erik, forced to rush Sebastian in order to escape the burning table, took a wound to the leg, even as he smashed Sebastian's face with his hilt.

No one who thought of dueling as an elegant sport, Angel thought, could ever have seen it done in earnest, between two men intent on killing each other. It was fast and brutal, stark unadorned violence. If Sebastian won, his victory celebration would be equally violent, and she knew what would mean for her. God alone knew what it would mean for the wounded man and frightened child beside her.

"Marius," Angel said. "Do you still have your sword?"

He shook his head. "Dropped it when they got my arm."

Trying to intervene unarmed was surely suicide. So was remaining in this room as the fire spread to the ceiling and walls, smoke stinging their eyes. Hazel coughed and buried his face in Marius's shirtfront.

"Right then," Angel said, and threw her weight against the furniture barricade until a chair leg broke off. She looked down at it in her hand for a moment, lightheaded with disbelief that this was happening. Not only was she considering wading into a swordfight, which was eight different kinds of madness, but she was stepping in against the man that, not so long ago, she would have called both her friend and her hero. A man who might very well kill her for this, if he survived.

There was a hint of bloodthirsty anticipation under the fear, though. To give Sebastian any fraction of the pain he'd given her…

There was a better plan for this chair leg, though, than bludgeoning Sebastian over the head. That was too likely to get her killed. Instead, she watched for a moment when Sebastian was well-positioned for it, and with a careful flick of the wrist sent the rounded stick of wood rolling under his feet.

Sebastian cursed and pitched backward, and Erik advanced eagerly for a killing blow as Sebastian's back hit the floor. But Sebastian landed a solid kick to Erik's knee, and he fell, sword clattering away. The next Angel knew they were both wrestling for control of Sebastian's sword, too close together for either to wield it properly, while Erik's lay outside their reach.

Angel shook off Marius's restraining hand stepped away from their sheltered corner.

Sebastian had gained the upper position, even as he struggled to breathe around the hand Erik had clamped to his throat. "You know, Erik," he wheezed, "there was a time you were something of a favorite with me. You threw that away, and for what? A pair of pretty eyes? He was never more than a half-decent lay to begin with."

Erik spat in his face. Angel feared he would throw Sebastian off, but he didn't. He had seen her coming.

"You can judge a man by the enemies he makes," Sebastian continued. "How foolish you were, to make one of me. And how much you'll pay for it now."

A fierce smile opened through the blood on Erik's face. "I agree. Only a fool would make enemies of those who would have been his friends. Put your weight behind it, Angel!"

Sebastian just had time to look confused, then surprised, as Angel plunged Erik's sword into his back.

It was harder than she expected, somehow. She really did have to put her weight into it, metal sliding gritty and juddering into solid flesh. Her stomach clenched, and she staggered back, releasing the sword as if it burned.

Erik threw Sebastian off him, the other sword in hand, and gave him another deep stab to match the first. He looked ready to go for a third when a gust of air – Marius, she realized, had pried open a window – made the fire leap, seeming almost to grab for him deliberately.

"Daddy, let's get out," Hazel cried. "Out the window, please, Daddy, let's go!"

Raising an arm against the growing heat of the flames, Erik kicked Sebastian over, pulled the sword out of his back and sheathed it. Angel, staring down at her shaking hands, was hardly conscious of moving as Erik pulled her to the window and guided her out into the cool, salty air.

***

The Wakandan cruiser they were aiming for, a dark shape against darkness, didn't seem to get any closer as their little boat slid through the water. Sean wished it would hurry, so the boat could go back for Angel and Erik, but at least no one was following or shooting at them. Everyone seemed to have chased after Erik and Angel instead, as the boat glided off, and once away from the Genoshan ship's lights, they were essentially invisible.

Speaking of the Genoshan ship's lights, the windows in the stern – the captain's cabin, Sean thought; they'd had dinner with him there many times during the voyage – were getting brighter against the night sky. Much brighter, too bright to be a candle or even a lamp, though it did move and flicker like fire.

Then a window opened, people climbing out to inch along the ledge beneath, and within moments there were flames leaping out into the air.

"Papa," Sean said, tugging his sleeve. "Papa, look."

They looked, and the man rowing, Corfie, said a word Sean wasn't allowed to say.

"There'll be ready gunpowder in the sterncastle," he continued. "Not the main magazine but enough to blow the ship in half."

"Go back," Papa said, not a request at all, but the crisp, urgent voice he used when he was being the Prince Consort. "We're taking the boat back right now."

"You want us go back to the exploding ship?"

"The survivors are going to need help and it will take us time to get there. Go back."

Corfie and Eponine looked at each other, then Corfie turned the boat around, rowing hard.

They traveled silently, Papa clutching Sean to his chest but never looking away from the ship. They could hear all manner of shouting now, and see men running about, trying to put out the fire. Some of them were already jumping overboard.

"We shouldn't get any closer," Eponine said after a while. "Not until—"

Something louder than thunder hurt Sean's ears, and the sky turned briefly bright as daylight, a bell of flame rolling upward as the ship blew apart.

 

They spent the next several hours maneuvering the boat through the debris peppering the water's surface, fishing out survivors and coordinating with the Wakandan rescue vessels that came swiftly to join them.

Dawn found the ship still afloat but listing badly, almost unrecognizable, with bits of fire still clinging to its outline. Papa, now wearing tightly-belted robes brought by the Wakandans, tried twice to send Sean to one of the cruisers. Sean wouldn't hear of it. He couldn't leave until they'd found Angel and Erik.

And Father. He shouldn't care what happened to him. Father was going to throw him out like an emptied fruit rind and have both of his real parents strung up as traitors. But somehow he couldn't not care. He wasn't even sure if he wanted Sebastian to have survived or not, but he couldn't not care.

Papa described their missing friends to everyone he came across, rescuers and survivors. The ship's captain, when they pulled him from the water, said that Erik, Angel, and Marius had locked themselves in his cabin with the king and the little boy. That was where the fire had started.

"We saw someone climb out the window," Papa said, again and again, "at least three people," but no one else seemed to have seen them.

Finally, when the last traces of dawn had brightened to outright day, the head of the Wakandan rescue team looked from Papa to Sean to the others, and said if they didn't go to their beds, they would become a greater liability than help. Papa swallowed hard, brushing a hand through Sean's hair, and acquiesced. Sean tried to protest, but a Wakandan had already hopped into their boat and taken the oars from Eponine.

Papa settled further into the bottom of the boat, pulling Sean close. They were both asleep long before they reached their destination.

 

Sean woke to a roil of confusion – shouts, heat, a blast of sulphur and a dizzying sense of motion. After a moment he could comprehend his surroundings again, but confusion remained – he was not on the boat, nor was he on the Wakandan cruiser. Around him, smoke drifted across water, and veiled the blackened, shattered walls of the slowly-sinking Genoshan ship.

"Steady on your feet, boy."

Sean whirled toward the familiar accented voice. "Lord Azazel? How are you here, how am I here, what's happening?"

"He ask for you." Azazel sighed gustily, with an air of resigned indulgence, and gestured toward a figure before them, lying face-up on the floating span of broken flooring on which they stood.

It was Sebastian.

For a long moment Sean stared at him, this man who had been his father until a few hours before, with no idea what to say or do. Sebastian was pale as milk, blood soaking his clothes and the floorboards around him, and what little that didn't touch was dark with soot.

"Hazel?" Sebastian rasped, his eyes not focusing as he looked sluggishly around.

"No, malchik. I told you I would not be bringing him. Much too young for this sort of scene. But here is Sean – little Sebastian."

"Ah. A disappointment." Sebastian reached out blindly toward Sean's ankle, and gave a small, choked laugh. "Always a disappointment. But I know you tried, son. I was… hard on you…" He choked again, coughed, blood spattering. "You had to earn… place in the bloodline… Didn't work, never worked. Not your fault, boy. Blood will out, that's all." He pawed at the air, reaching for Sean; feeling sick, Sean knelt, the motion rocking their fragile raft, and let Sebastian take his hand.

"What would you have done with me?" he asked; his voice felt like iron forced out of his throat. "With all of us, the children that aren't yours?"

Sebastian waved vaguely. "Set you up in the country somewhere, I guess. Westchester. You'd be fine."

In Westchester, with Papa dead, they'd have been at Grandfather Marko and Uncle Cain's mercy. Sean wanted to scream, wanted to shake Father by the shoulders, hit him in the face. I tried everything to be what you wanted and you would have thrown me away.

It wasn't a matter of wanting to be king. Sean had always found that destiny daunting, to say the least. But he'd wanted his father to be proud of him.

"You made me a promise," Sebastian said, to Azazel now, accusing and petulant. "First of a line of great kings, that was the deal."

"And so it shall be. Hazel will be king, and his son after, and his. I always keep my word."

"And how am I to keep mine," Sebastian replied, with a pause for more coughing, "if I die before I have a daughter as well?"

"The eldest daughter of your House, that was the deal," Azazel said. "Princess Raven is no blood of yours, but that suits me just as well. My poor boy…" He came closer and crouched, finger-combing the hair back from Sebastian's forehead. "You had great potential, and I cannot be sorry I gave you a chance, for all that you squandered it. But I would not have my sons descended from you."

"What are you talking about? What did you promise him?" Sean was dreaming, surely. He'd gone to sleep in the boat and he was dreaming, having a nightmare about his father dying right in front of him and Lord Azazel, who couldn't possibly be here, who was saying things that made no sense…

"Ah, yes, of course you would not know," Azazel said. "No one would think to tell you, because they never think of it anymore themselves – part of the deal. They never think about how the old king had no surviving sons, and chose his Paladin, Sir Sebastian of House Shaw, as his heir. Sebastian who came from nothing and no one."

"You said I would be a warrior, and a king," Sebastian said, and his voice a rasping whisper, his eyes entirely blank. "Like the stories. You said… I would never be hungry again. I would have everything… I ever wanted."

"And so you did," Azazel said gravely. "It worked out well for us both, I think. We needed each other to ride to the top, hm? Both hungry and alone, dreaming of how great our sons could be. But now, for you, the ride is over. Goodbye, my little king."

"No," Sebastian said, a broken sound, a child's plea. "No. Please." His voice faded away to nothing. Azazel passed a hand across Sebastian's face, closing his eyes; it almost seemed like he gathered the last bit of light from them as he went, and tucked it – tucked something – into his pocket.

"Our deal is completed," Azazel muttered. "And you are better off here than where you were going, malchik."

It made as much and as little sense as anything else that had happened today, so Sean paid it little mind. Sebastian's hand had fallen limply away from his, and he was crying, and angry at himself for crying, and angry at Sebastian for so many things, not least of them getting himself killed before Sean could learn to properly hate him.

Then Azazel touched his shoulder, and there was the smell of sulphur again, and he was on the deck of what was surely the Wakandan cruiser, watching Angel and Sir Erik rush to help Papa out of the boat.

Chapter Text

Sebastian was dead.

Charles faced responsibilities in the wake of the explosion – making sure the Genoshan survivors were cared for, that bodies were recovered and identified, that Sean and Angel and Hazel were not left to cope alone with the trauma they'd just experienced. He struggled to focus on them, the better part of his mind repeating an endless loop of Sebastian is dead. Sebastian is dead.

It had been the first thing Erik told him, once they recovered from finding each other safe on the Wakandan ship, and Angel concurred. Sean, who, pale and shocked, had hardly spoken for hours, murmured agreement, though what he could know about it Charles could not guess. He had not dared to believe it, whatever Erik said, until they pulled Sebastian's body out of the water.

Charles had identified it himself. Sebastian had seemed so… small. An empty thing, with empty eyes, and no expression at all on a slack and bloodless face. It was impossible to feel triumphant or vindictive, looking down at such a pitiful thing.

Impossible for Charles, at least. Erik, judging by his expression, had no such obstacle. And it was certainly possible, even for Charles, to feel heady, overpowering relief.

Sebastian was gone. He could never hurt them again.

That wasn't strictly true, of course. But Sebastian's assassins couldn't know anything yet – they could only be far away and several key pieces of information behind. He and Erik had time to prepare for them. They had hope – they had real hope that this could all work out in their favor at last. They could have peace.

Nightfall found Charles on dry ground, but still moving at full speed, negotiating with the Chieftains for medical treatment for the men who had attacked them a day before, and arranging for a messenger to depart for Genosha with news of the king's death.

"You're not thinking, Charles," Erik said, his hand warm against the nape of Charles's neck. They'd hardly left each other's sides all day. "Telling Genosha means telling Sebastian's assassins. You've not slept or eaten – you're going to push yourself until you fall over."

"That would be difficult in a wheelchair. And you haven't slept or eaten either, you marvelous hypocrite. And you're injured besides."

Erik grumbled under his breath, adjusting the sling around his arm. "Then we'll both rest a while, and get one of these useless people fluttering around to bring us something to eat. Is that acceptable?"

The courtyard outside the Chieftains' House, where their business had been conducted most of the day, had benches of comfortably-crafted stone; Erik found one beneath the first of the torches lit against the encroaching night, and Charles situated his chair beside it. Once a servant had been summoned by Erik's bark, and sent scurrying away again, he dared to reach over and touch Erik's hand.

"We can't be too open yet," he murmured, drawing subtle circles on Erik's wrist with his thumb. "Not with Sebastian's body hardly cold. Not," he said, forestalling the protest in Erik's eyes, "because I feel we owe him one second's mourning. But because the circumstances of his death are already murky in the extreme, and the last thing we need is someone starting rumors that the Prince Consort and his paramour did away with the king for their own sordid reasons."

"They'll be saying that anyway, since I intend to marry you as soon as humanly possible."

Charles froze a moment in pure startlement, then lifted his eyes to Erik's, a wondering smile blooming across his face. He was widowed now. He could marry... he could marry Erik. "Your wife might have an objection."

"The one and only reason I'm not marrying you tonight."

"Awfully certain of your chances. You haven't actually asked me."

Erik snorted, but the mischief faded from his eyes as he leaned close, cradling Charles's face in one hand, breath brushing his lips. "Marry me?"

"Yes," Charles whispered, and closed the distance between them, kissing him fiercely.

So much for subtlety.

***

"They killed one hundred and seventeen of my people," Storm said grimly. "According to Wakandan law, since I witnessed their crimes myself, they don't even have to have a trial."

"They were just following orders," Charles said desperately. "They were doing the bidding of their king, as they were oath-bound to do."

"Will their victims' families take comfort in that?"

"I'm not trying to deny your people justice, but these men were only the tools of their true attacker. Sebastian is already dead."

"What justice can you offer, then?"

"Genosha is, of course, responsible for any and all property damage caused by Sebastian's men. And since the men themselves are in your custody, it is only right that I pay you their ransom."

"You offer money for the lives of my people?"

Angel, who had been listening in silence, stepped forward to put a hand on Storm's arm. "Mother. To serve Sebastian is to do distasteful things, and to defy him is – was – suicide. Can we really blame these men for choosing to preserve their own lives?"

Storm sighed, visibly softening, and Charles could not help thinking that here was the reason noble houses fostered their children with each other. He would have allies now in the Chieftains' House of Wakanda, a princess and prince who understood Genosha when their parents did not.

"Call it a weregild," Charles said softly. "Honorable restitution that will help your people, in place of more blood that would not."

The price Storm and her husband agreed on was staggering, but no more than they deserved after being betrayed by an ally. Charles could take his soldiers home.

***

Erik could not, of course, openly move into Charles's chambers, stolen courtyard kisses notwithstanding. He had to wait until after dark to slip out of his guest cottage and through a window into the Chieftains' House. And he had to wait quite late, until Hazel had been soothed back to sleep after his first round of nightmares, and Fantine set to watch him for any further disturbance.

"He'll be fine," Fantine said when Erik hesitated in the doorway. She looked down with soft eyes at Hazel and Cossette, curled up together in the blankets, and absently touched the bruise Sebastian's men had left on her own cheekbone. "We'll take care of each other."

Erik swallowed, nodded and left.

He found Charles still sitting up against his headboard, and slid in beside him to gather him into his arms. For a long time they simply stayed that way, too tired and too dizzied by the changes in their circumstances to do anything but breathe each other in.

"It was hard to leave Hazel," Erik confessed eventually. "He's so young to have witnessed such a thing. He has nightmares."

"Sean's been having them, too," Charles said. "He told me some tale about watching Sebastian die… It had to have been a dream, but of course it's disturbing nonetheless." He shifted closer to Erik, resting his forehead against Erik's clavicle and running light fingertips down the side of his body. "Getting them away from here may help them feel safe again. The Chieftains are lending us a ship, ours being in multiple pieces at the bottom of the harbor; it should be ready to leave in two days' time." He bit his lip. "Are you… You do intend to come with us? I suppose you may need to go back to Essex for a while first—"

"I'm coming with you," Erik said. "All of us are. There's nothing in Essex that can't wait. I won't send you back there alone."

"Thank you," Charles said, closing his eyes and relaxing against Erik's chest. Erik tightened his arms around him, pulling Charles fully into his lap. Freedom was so near, he thought as dropped unhurried kisses until Charles's hair. One divorce away, and he couldn't imagine Emma would fight him on it, so long as he made no attempt to keep her money.

"We have to send a messenger," Charles was saying, toying absently with the edges of Erik's hair. "I know you don't like it, but there's no telling what disarray Sebastian left behind him when he came storming after us, and the voyage back will take weeks. We can't leave Genosha in chaos. We have to at least let them know their Prince Consort is on his way home. Not telling them the king is dead… will certainly be seen as a strange choice, but you're right that we can't risk that. Even if it would be more convenient to have arrangements for the royal funeral already done when we arrive."

Erik snorted. "We ought to just dump him over the side somewhere out on the ocean."

"Tempting," Charles admitted. "But the situation is irregular enough as it is. We don't need to do anything that would give rise to a conspiracy theory."

"Irregular – that's one word for it. I suppose, with Sebastian dead, Hazel's paternity returns to being our little secret?"

"Not quite."

Erik spun toward the new voice, reaching for his sword, but Charles pulled him back.

"Lord Azazel," he said, casual, as if entertaining their sometimes-ally while entwined with a lover in bed were a perfectly usual occurrence. To be fair, it did happen more often than Erik would have liked.

He also didn't like to think about the impossibility of Azazel having come in through the locked door.

"I must assume you have important news," Charles was saying, "to be here at such an hour."

"Ah, I must apologize for the hour, Prince. I had to be certain to find you alone. Or near enough." He grinned at Erik, who glowered back. "I came to tell you that all is ready for your return to Genosha. Sebastian's funeral arrangements are underway, and preparations are being made for the coronation of the new Crown Prince."

Charles found his voice first, in the wake of this pronouncement, while Erik was still battling outrage and dismay.

"Lord Azazel, you are surely aware that it was not your place to do any such thing—"

"Not the place of Sebastian's advisor, no," Azazel said with an almost-respectful incline of the head. "But as one who owes little Hazel nearly the same allegiance I owed his father, I could do no less."

"Owes Hazel – what are you talking about?"

"Did young Sean not tell you of the promise between myself and Sebastian? Perhaps he did not understand. I swore that Sebastian would be the first of a great royal House. The son of his body must inherit the throne. I do not break my word."

"Sean thought he was dreaming," Charles said faintly.

Azazel cocked his head, frowning, but then his expression cleared. "Ah, yes, I forgot," he said. "You were all so very upset when I took him away that I clouded the memory of it, to keep you from launching a search or some nonsense. Here." He waved a hand, and Charles gasped, clutching at Erik's arm.

Erik growled. "If you've hurt him—"

"I'm fine, Erik," Charles said breathlessly. "I only… I remember now, you popping in and taking Sean from the boat. And I am, to be frank, extremely alarmed that you could make me forget it."

Azazel shrugged. "It was necessary, or I would not take the effort. But my point, Prince, is that what Sean witnessed was fact. He heard me speak of the promise I made to House Shaw, which I must now keep. Hazel will be king."

"Sebastian's dead," Erik snapped. "You can't owe him anything now."

Azazel only shook his head. "I keep my word. Whether to the dead or living, it makes no difference."

"And where does your promise leave Sean?"

"Relieved beyond measure," Azazel said with a chuckle. "Do you even know your son? The crown has been a terrible burden on such meek little shoulders. Hazel, he is a fierce, snapping thing. He will do better."

"He may not be wrong there," Charles murmured. "I have seen how Sean struggles. But how are we to explain this to the people?"

"I will tell them whatever you like," Azazel shrugged. "My suggestion would be some version of the truth."

"That Sebastian thought he could not father children," Charles said thoughtfully, "and I conceived by Erik with Sebastian's full knowledge and permission, but we've now discovered a true heir of the king's blood... It will be quite a scandal, but we're in for several of those already, between Sebastian's bizarre death and my upcoming indecent remarriage. Frankly this one will pale in comparison."

"There is more you should know of my deal with Sebastian," Azazel said. "I was promised the eldest daughter of his House. Raven is, of course, the closest thing available, and more than acceptable to me."

Charles paled at this, and this time Erik did draw his sword, though of necessity with his non-dominant hand. "You will not touch my little girl."

"Tch, of course not! How very excitable you are. I would never force a woman, much less a young girl – but she is thirteen years of age, it will not be much longer before you seek a husband for her."

"Five years at least!" Charles exclaimed, which was longer than was traditional – many a princess had found herself wed at sixteen – but Erik approved wholeheartedly.

"And what is five years to me?" Azazel replied. "Thousands of years have I waited for her. I will wait five more. And then I will court her, not carry her away like a beast. I mean to win her heart, and keep it."

"Thousands of years," Erik repeated. "I shouldn't be surprised, I suppose. But what could you want with a mortal wife? What would you do with our Raven?"

"All signs point to Raven as the one foretold to me," Azazel said, almost dreamily. "My one true mate, the one who will bear my one true son. If I am right, she will not leave me so soon as Janos, not nearly." He patted his pocket with a peculiar satisfaction. "In fact, I have some means of guaranteeing that. Dead as he is, Sebastian may yet prove useful to me one time more."

Erik wasn't at all sure he wanted to know the meaning of that.

"I will grant you whatever courtship Raven herself is willing to permit," Charles said. "Nothing more. Erik, may we agree on that?"

"Absolutely."

"Then we are happily agreed," Azazel said, utterly unconcerned. "Sleep well."

He vanished in a cloud of smoke, and only Charles's deeply uneasy expression kept Erik from wondering if he'd ever been there at all.

***

Every morning when Sean woke, his first thought was of Father's – Sebastian's – the king's body in its tight-sealed box belowdecks. He never had to see it, because their borrowed Wakandan ship was very big, to hold all the people who needed to get home to Genosha, and all the Wakandan sailors as well. But he knew it was there. When they got home, there would be a grand funeral, because kings always had grand funerals. But no one would ever open that box, not even for a funeral viewing, not after the body had been in there so long. Sebastian would never come out of that box again.

Sometimes that seemed very terrible to Sean, that anyone could be put inside a box and never come out again. Other times he said it to himself over and over as a comfort. He could never come out. He could never hit Sean, or shout at him, or even sneer at him, ever again.

The voyage to get home from Wakanda was longer than the one to get there – because of the wind, according to Papa, and the size of the ship.

"And that's for the best in some ways," he said, "because we all have a lot of new ideas to get used to before we get home."

Ideas like Father being dead. And not being Father at all. Ideas like Erik and his family coming back to Genosha with them, and Erik marrying Papa as soon as he could get divorced from Lady Emma.

"It's all very irregular, I admit," Papa said, "and many people would call it inappropriate for me to tell you children so much about it. But I can't see how hiding it from you would help anything. Truthfully, I think now that many things might have been helped by my speaking to all of you more openly. You might have been less vulnerable to Sebastian's… pressures."

Sean never had to worry again about whether Sebastian would disapprove or punish him for saying something or doing something wrong. They had a new father now, and while Erik gave the impression of being a severe man, he still looked at Sean – at all of them – with this soft, amazed expression that Sean had never seen on Sebastian's face, never once.

Compared to all that, the other idea to get used to – his new brother Hazel, who was going to be king – didn't actually seem like much.

"But you should be king," Alex said, as they stood at a railing looking out at the sparkling water. "It's what you've always – it's the whole – Father picked you out when you were born! You're the one who's going to be king, and they can't just take that away and give it to somebody else!"

"I'll still be a prince, Alex, it's not as if they're throwing me out in the street!" Sean laughed. "And I don't really want to be king. It's not just getting what you want and bossing people around, you know. Even Father knew that. Being in charge of everything means you have to be in charge of everything! When there's problems, and hard decisions, and bad things happening, all of it comes to you. And I'm so bad at it. Alex, you've seen how I get when things are bad."

Alex grinned. "You used to hide under the bed anytime something happened that you didn't like. Moira said you'd grow up hunch-backed if we couldn't get you to come out now and then."

"Exactly! But not Hazel. Did you hear Papa talking about how he attacked Sebastian? One little kid? He won't hide under beds."

"He'll kick and scream a lot, though," Alex grumbled.

"He's just little," Sean shrugged. "And he's upset all the time because he's away from home and had something scary happen to him. That's what Papa said."

"You were there, too. You don't kick and scream about it."

"But he's little, he's just David's age. Papa and… Erik… They'll get him straightened out."

Alex snorted. "And Moira, if they give her half a chance." He was quiet a minute, scratching a nail absently against the railing. "I like Erik, I think. We… we could maybe call him Daddy, by the time we get home."

"Maybe." Father would have been too much, but he'd said if they could call him Daddy someday, like Hazel did, it would mean a lot to him.

"You're talking about Erik?" Raven came up behind them with something in her hands – a kite, he realized, cobbled together from scraps of paper and string.

"That's not going to fly," Sean said.

"Yes it is!" Raven stuck out her tongue and started trying to get the kite into the air. "I'm glad you like Erik."

"Tell us about when we were little and he was there," Alex said. Raven had told them she remembered Erik, that one summer they went to Westchester and so did he.

"He played with us all the time," Raven said. Her hair was whipping in her face; she kept taking it down, after Moira spent half an hour getting it properly braided and pinned, which Sean thought was pretty rude. Sometimes he wished he could get his hair put up like a girl – it was blowing in his face just as badly. "He went riding with me a lot, and read us stories… You and Alex were about the same age as David and Hazel. So, too little to be much fun." Now it was Sean's turn to stick his tongue out. "But he'd carry you around and play with you… He never seemed to get tired of you the way most grown-ups do. And I remember him helping Hank learn to walk. Hank only remembers him a little bit, but he liked him a lot."

Her kite, which she'd been bouncing and tossing and balancing, finally caught the air; she laughed, poked Sean smugly in the shoulder, and started giving it string.

"It's all so confusing," Alex scowled. "Sebastian was our fake father and Erik is our real father and also Hazel's fake father but Lady Emma is his real mother and Moira is basically our fake mother, and Hazel is our new brother but he's a fake brother like David because we're not actually related to him at all."

"Don't say fake!" Raven swatted Alex on the shoulder, her kite veering and dipping. "It's not like they're not real or they don't matter. Unless you're saying you don't love David because we're not related to him?"

"Of course I love David!" Alex looked offended.

"Then don't call him fake. Say… heart-brother. Instead of blood, we're related in our hearts."

"Does that make Sebastian our heart-father?" Sean said, and they both went silent for a long minute.

"Only if we want him to be," Raven said at last. "And I don't. But it's okay if you do. He was our father for a long time."

"I don't know that I want him to be," Sean said, staring down at his fingers against the railing. "But… like you said, it's not like he wasn't real. It's not like he didn't matter. He may not have mattered in good ways, but he mattered."

"Well," Raven said thoughtfully. "Maybe someday Erik will be your heart-father and your blood-father both."

The kite was skimming the water now. It was going to crash, but Sean didn't say anything. Raven would just stick her tongue out at him again. "Maybe," he said instead. "I think I'd like it if he did."

***

"Are you sure you want to divorce me?" Emma asked, as casually as if she were questioning his choice of waistcoat. No, rather more casually than that; Emma cared deeply about Erik looking his best, if only as a reflection on her.

Erik looked at her in the mirror where he was tying his cravat. She was already dressed, of course; she'd likely been planning what to wear to the king's funeral since the moment his body was pulled from the water. He suspected she was irked at being forced by propriety to wear black, but of course she wore it astoundingly well, her gown shimmering with jet beads, the dark color highlighting her porcelain fairness. "You're right, Emma, what am I thinking? How could Charles, love of my life, mother of my children, and best person I've ever met, compare to your warm and gentle nature?"

Emma chuckled and stepped forward to tug his jacket into a better fit. "I knew you'd come to your senses."

"You've seen the contract. You're losing nothing but a cantankerous roommate."

"Not even that. Living in the same palace, we'll likely be seeing more of each other than we did when we were married." She sounded archly displeased, a teasing smile turning up one corner of her mouth.

"Alas, there's no help for it," he replied, in much the same tone. "All joking aside, though, Emma, if you wish to stay in Essex—"

"Stay in Essex," she repeated. "In backwater humility-obsessed Essex, when I could be a Princess of Genosha. Was it your arm you injured, or your head?"

"Both, and don't forget my leg," Erik said dryly. He was out of the sling, at least, but still walking a bit stiffly from the sword-slash Sebastian had delivered to his thigh.

Sebastian, who would be laid to rest today to great fanfare, the Genoshan people making every outward sign of grief in his honor, even as they whispered feverishly about how he'd run mad and nearly started a war, before lighting his own ship afire and perishing in it. Erik stepped past Emma to the decanter of wine by the window. He was going to need some fortification to get through this funeral.

"Consider, though, that it may to your advantage to remain the Crown Prince's stepfather," Emma said. "Politically speaking."

"As opposed to the great shabbiness of being the Prince Regent's husband?" Erik raised an eyebrow. "He won't be one inch less my son, and for that I'll fight you, old friends or not."

Emma rolled her eyes. "You've nothing to fear there. You may continue wiping his nose and lacing his shoes as much as you like. I, on the other hand, can hardly wait to resume my proper place in this beastly complex and bloody political landscape." This last was spoken in the same tones most women might reserve for discussing their lovers' best attributes. "And it will be very fine to watch Fantine have a chance to bloom properly."

Fantine had been very startled to find herself promoted to lady-in-waiting. She'd certainly come a long way from whatever brothel Emma had dug her out of. Erik hadn't realized Emma was this invested in her success, but it rather warmed his heart to see it.

"You're not afraid that being the divorced mother of a bastard child will hurt your political capital?" Erik asked, finishing off his wine. More was probably a bad idea.

"It will take more than that to hold me down, sugar." Emma made the decision for him by easing the wineglass out of his hand and setting it aside.

"The divorce will be easy to come by, at least, seeing as how our respective adulteries are now the basis of the nation's government."

"What a time to be alive." Emma's smile glittered with her usual mix of honest pleasure and glee at others' discomfort. She held out her arm to hook through Erik's. "Now if you're quite finished primping, husband-of-the-moment, I believe we have a grand circus of hypocrisy to attend."

 

The funeral was not so bad, in the end. It took place in the luxurious royal chapel, draped with enough riches to cross from tasteless to absurd, and stifling with the crowd. And yes, it was full of backstabbing nobles who could barely hold onto their decorum, faced with the king's mistress, his semi-adulterous consort, and Sir Erik the Traitor. Erik had to dance political circles that he'd always hated and never been good at, remaining blandly pleasant to people he wanted to either avoid entirely or punch in the face. But he could stand at Charles's side throughout, able to brush hands and exchange eloquent expressions with him. And if he had to sit through speaker after speaker praising the late king and commending his soul to Heaven, at least that was only necessary because Sebastian was dead. They had won.

The children had to make an appearance, but Charles kept it very brief, only long enough for them to pay respects to the silk-draped coffin and receive condolences from a carefully-selected handful of nobles before Moira and Fantine spirited them away again. Hazel, looking bewildered, clung at first to Erik's leg, and would not leave.

"People keep saying my father's dead, but you're not dead, Daddy, you're not dead!"

Erik could feel Hazel trembling through the fabric of his trousers. He crouched and put his arms around the little boy. "Of course not, Hazel. They're talking about the bad man who tried to take you away, he's the one that's dead. He thought he was your father, too. It's a bit confusing, and I'll be sure to explain it all when I get home later, all right? Go with Fantine now, and you can go play with David and Cossette." When Hazel still balked, he gently pried the little arms out from around his leg and clasped Hazel's hands. "I'm just fine, Hazel, I swear, and I'll be home soon. Go with Fantine now, please? There's a good lad."

"He'll be all right," Charles whispered, when Erik stared too long at the door through which they'd departed. "It's a lot for a little fellow to understand. He just needs time."

"I know." It was obvious to Erik now that he had not explained things sufficiently to Hazel, and he would have to remedy that immediately. It was no good dancing around the fact of his son's origin, not when the entire country – entire world, really – knew all about it.

He had never wanted Hazel to know anything about Sebastian, and now that knowledge was not only inevitable, but would shape virtually everything about Hazel's life from now on. Curse Azazel for engineering this.

And curse himself for fearing, somewhere in the deepest shadows of his heart, that the more Hazel knew about his biological father, the greater the chance he would imitate him. That whatever trace of Sebastian lived on in Hazel's blood would find its way out.

Charles derailed his uneasy thoughts through the simple expedient of hooking his little finger discreetly through Erik's. He did not even look at Erik, as that would have been rude to the courtier he was exchanging pleasantries with, but the warm, tiny touch communicated as much as a look could – that he perceived Erik's agitation, if not its cause, and wished to offer comfort, support, calming sympathy. Dear heaven Erik loved this man.

And with this man would Erik be raising Hazel, and all their children. The more he thought of it, the more he defied any Sebastian-like trait to survive the combined nurturing efforts of Erik, Charles, Fantine, Moira, and even Emma. Erik felt something in his chest ease loose. Hazel would have more positive role models than he knew what to do with. He couldn't turn out as badly as all that.

***

It was a relief beyond measure when Charles's appointment as Regent to Prince Hazel went through Assembly all but uncontested. It was true that there were few other options, especially once Lord Azazel threw his unhesitating support behind Charles, but a relief nonetheless.

Emma, as the child king's mother, would have been the obvious choice, had she been Sebastian's Queen. But she was a mere mistress from a non-noble House, and the wife of a man who was controversial at best. No one suggested Emma as Regent, but Charles made it clear she would be a Princess of the Realm and one of his close advisors. He would not have Hazel's mother put away in a bower, congratulated on her successful heir-production and then stripped of all power to protect her own and her son's interests.

All that had been taken care of the day before the king's funeral, as it was traditional to crown the new king as soon as the old had been laid to rest. Thus Charles had barely time to get back to his rooms, change his clothes, and spend some time with the subdued and shaken children (with Moira pressing tea and bites of buttered bread on him at every opportunity), before they all had to prepare themselves for the coronation.

This part, at least, he and Erik had taken great care to fully explain to Hazel – that he was a king now, but would have a very long time to learn and grow before he was expected to do the job. He would have to wear strange clothes and sit through some very boring parties, learning to be polite to strangers, but that was all he had to worry about for now.

He had taken it all fairly well, and didn't seem especially daunted by the idea of being crowned. It was still peculiarly heartbreaking to see the boy, only four years of age, done up in finery that Charles himself would have found suffocating and uncomfortable. It was no worse than Sean had endured – that all of them still endured, to an extent – but it was no joy to see that trial repeated for another child.

Moving with stiff, uncertain caution, Hazel walked up to Charles and said, "This king stuff is going to be a pain in the butt, isn't it?"

Charles couldn't contain his peal of laughter. "I'm afraid so, my friend. You'll get accustomed to it."

"Yuck," Hazel said, and marched off to join the other children gathering at the door.

 

The coronation took place in the same expansive royal chapel as Sebastian's funeral, now done up even more lavishly and with even more seals of House Shaw draped about. It was hard for Hazel not to look a little swallowed up in all the grandiosity, but even so, he did not look cowed, watching all his surroundings with a keen and unruffled alertness.

Genoshan tradition required the crowning be performed by a pregnant woman or androji, to symbolize the rebirth of the nation under a new reign – one who was of humble origin, to show that it was through the common people that a king received his power. This androji had been a beggar found outside the palace kitchens; Charles had seen to it that he and his soon-to-arrive child would have whatever they needed in return for his service on this occasion. Now clean and freshly (if plainly) attired, the man kept any nervous reaction to his noble audience out of his voice as he asked Hazel for his Oath to the People as King.

"Will you solemnly promise to govern the people of Genosha according to the statute of law, with justice and mercy in all your judgments, defending them from all outside powers, and doing all in your capacity to see to their security and well-being?"

"I will," Hazel answered, clear and earnest.

Charles let out a slow breath. One part done. He and Erik had spent quite a lot of time, the previous night, making sure Hazel had at least some grasp on what all those big words meant. Sebastian had sworn them as well, so many years ago – but this little king, Charles was determined, would actually mean it.

The crowded room was shockingly silent as the former beggar lifted the crown from its cushion and placed it gently on Hazel's head. It had been commissioned for a six-year-old princess generations before, and was a bit heavy for its new owner; Hazel ended up pushing it out of his eyes with one little hand while the nobility began queuing up to give him their oaths of fealty.

Charles, of course, was first in line, followed by Emma, Erik, the other children, and Azazel. Somewhere in the mix of dukes and earls came the new King's Paladin. He had not been Charles's first choice, but Erik had told him in no uncertain terms that he was entirely finished soldiering. He seemed to feel, however, that Lieutenant Howlett would do the job admirably in his stead. Moira had burst into tears at the news, and even now was exchanging a tender, knowing sort of look with Howlett from across the throne room. As Paladin, the formerly shabby, nameless soldier would finally be respectable enough for them to marry. Little David would have his father at last.

Hazel held up to the long, repetitive process of the oath-taking better than Charles expected, needing only the occasional gentle touch from Erik to keep him from fidgeting or slumping in the ridiculously large throne. After each oath he gave the proper response – a simple "I accept your service" – with minimal prompting and adequate solemnity. By the end of it, though, the strain was beginning to show, his little gilded shoes clinking against the throne as he swung his feet. Fortunately, they had never planned to make the children endure the tedious repeat of the process as each of the nobles gave their oath to Charles as Hazel's Regent. As soon as their part was fulfilled and her own oath given, Moira would be permitted to whisk the princes and princess away.

Before anyone else had the opportunity, however, Erik broke protocol and cut in line, shamelessly stealing the honor of being the first to kneel before the new Regent.

"I give my solemn word," he said, eyes locked to Charles's and intensity ringing in his voice, "I will be faithful to thee, Charles, Prince Regent of Genosha, never do thee harm and serve thee always, with all my honor and strength, so help me God."

Charles's breath stopped in his throat, overwhelmed; he could barely force a whisper.

"I accept your service."

He laid a hand on Erik's head – an archaic gesture, not required for centuries – the slide of hair through his fingers intimate as a kiss.

***

"I admit," Erik said, taking Charles's knight with his rook, "I'm a bit surprised we're still alive."

Charles's only response was a shift of expression, but Erik could read that easily as a book. Charles was surprised too, and trying to convince himself it was a good sign, but he, too, felt the mounting tension as they waited for Sebastian's assassins to strike. They had established security around their persons at a level that raised eyebrows – even now a pair of guards haunted either side of Charles's chamber door, with another on the balcony – but Erik still felt an itch between his shoulder blades any time he went too long without looking behind him.

"One down, at least," Charles murmured, blocking Erik from a potential check with his remaining knight.

"Mm." When Azazel told them he knew the identities of the first pair of assassins Sebastian had engaged, they had all but considered them handled. As it turned out, however, while one of the assassins had been "persuadable," as Azazel put it, the other had escaped Azazel's clutches with every apparent intention of fulfilling his orders. And there were still the back-up assassins, whom even Azazel could not identify.

Erik reached for his drink – only ginger beer; though he could have used a stiffer beverage after the nerve-wracking drawn-out business of the coronation, he wouldn't endanger Charles by slowing his reactions – and eyed the guards standing with blank-faced dignity at the door. "Are our friends staying the night?"

"No," Charles said firmly. "Not inside the chamber, at least. I won't live like a prisoner, not when it could be weeks before anything is resolved."

"Good," Erik said mildly, letting the corner of his mouth tilt up as he caught Charles's eye. Charles returned the look with a mischievous sparkle of his own.

"I'm less willing to take risks with the children," Charles added, merriment fading. "While they're under no direct threat, I can't bear to think of them caught up in some sort of collateral damage."

"This is no time for their parents to be mysteriously distant," Erik said. "There are worse dangers for a child than physical attack."

"I know." Charles regarded his pieces broodily. "They're well enough for tonight. A visit with Natasha's girls makes a nice treat for their good behavior at the coronation. But we can't send them away indefinitely."

Erik raised his glass. "Then here's to the assassins attacking as soon as may be, hm?"

Charles huffed a laugh and shook his head. "You have a most peculiar version of optimism, my friend." But he raised his glass to the toast.

They declared the game a draw when Charles started having trouble keeping his eyes open, and dismissed the inner set of guards. At that point, however, Charles found he had a bit more energy after all, and they spent some time desultorily enjoying each other's company, slow and sleepy on the sitting room sofa, rather than going immediately to bed.

The knock on the door was therefore an unwelcome interruption, as well as an alarming surprise.

"It's long past midnight, who in the world—" Charles began, but could not finish before the door was opening. Erik was instantly on his feet between Charles and the intruder, but relaxed marginally on recognizing Charles's secretary-valet.

"Clint?" Charles sounded baffled. "I thought you went with the children—" He belatedly remembered to echo the words with his hands, but Clint was already signing as well. Erik had spent just enough time around the man to recognize the hand-motions for 'let in' and 'Natasha.'

"Natasha's here?" Charles hardly had time to speak before the lady herself was sweeping through the door. Erik gaped; in the Essex army, the few female soldiers, such as Eponine, dressed as practically as the men, but he had never seen a lady of rank so attired. Natasha was dressed all in black, tight against her body – in breeches, not skirts – with her hair securely bound. A pair of pistols clung to her belt.

"Is something wrong with the children?" Charles demanded. He made an attempt to lever himself onto his crutches, but Natasha plucked them away.

"Stay where you are," she said flatly, and crossed the room to the balcony where, Erik was startled to realize, there were no longer any guards. Natasha locked the balcony doors, drew the curtains, and turned back to face them – now with a pistol in her hand.

On the other side of the room, the chamber door locked with a heavy sound, Clint turning away from it with a crossbow drawn.

"What," Charles said, his voice tense and low, "is the meaning of all this?"

"Isn't it obvious?" Erik felt a sort of roaring in his ears, fear and adrenaline and dismay that they had been so stupid. "Didn't you tell me yourself, Charles, that the two of them were Baron Coulson's secret operatives? Which is to say, the king's personal assassins." His sword was across the room, his mind already plotting ways to get to it, and other nearby objects that might do for weapons.

"That's not how it was," Charles said, his voice even and calm. "In any case, Clint and Natasha are quit of that game. They're our friends." This seemed to be directed more at the pair in question than at Erik.

Clint and Natasha did not respond. They exchanged a set of hand signals, then Clint went to the window with his crossbow, obviously a lookout. Gun aimed at the floor but held tight and ready, Natasha turned toward Charles and Erik, stepping neatly between them and Erik's sword.

"Charles," she said, "I'm sorry about this—"

The balcony doors shattered in a spray of glass, smoke billowing into the room. Natasha spun toward the sound, and Erik shoved Charles down into the couch, covering him with his own body. He glanced over the back of the couch just in time to see Natasha dash forward and kick the source of the smoke – it had to be some manner of bomb – back out through the shattered doors. It only just cleared the balcony rail before it exploded, bright flame against the midnight sky. The balcony fell in charred fragments to the gardens below.

"Well, that was fun," Natasha said, and turned to exchange more hand signals with Clint.

"Natasha," Charles said, sounding peeved and slightly muffled by the sofa cushions, "if you have an explanation, now would be an excellent time—"

A man swung in through the balcony doors – from the roof, perhaps? – and opened fire with a pistol. Natasha's evasion cost her a clean shot; Clint got him in the torso with an arrow, but it didn't seem to truly penetrate, and the man tossed it away. Some kind of armor beneath his all-black clothes.

Erik gritted his teeth, eyes on his sword across the room. "Stay here, Charles."

"I can't just—"

"Stay here."

The moment Erik stood, he seemed to have all the intruder's attention, and bullets hit the walls and furniture around him as he ran. He dove for the sword, and used the motion to roll into the scant protection of an upholstered chair.

A glance around the edge of it showed him Charles, still obediently hidden on the couch and looking furious about it, and Natasha fighting hand-to-hand with the intruder, while Clint hung back, waiting for a good shot. At least the man had been disarmed, it seemed. No more bullets flying. Why Natasha hadn't shot him was less clear; she still had a pistol clipped to her belt.

The chamber door opened with a crash, splintered around the lock, and Erik was halfway through swinging his sword before he recognized Charles's friend Stephen, Duke of New Brooklyn. It didn't stop him, not with this much uncertainty over who was friend or foe, but the Duke dodged the blow with an efficient grace that spoke of his military past, and held up his hands in surrender.

"I'm here to help – I can talk him down, please, please let me try—"

"Talk who down?"

Steve was already looking past him to where Natasha fought the intruder. "Bucky!"

Long unkempt hair flew around the intruder's face as he whipped his head toward them. His expression didn't change, and the pause lasted only the barest moment before he turned back to the fight, but it was enough for Natasha to gain the upper hand. She slammed him face-first to the floor and knelt on his back, snatching his arms up behind him.

In the next moment Clint and Steve were tearing down curtains and binding the stranger hand and foot with them.

"It's all right, Bucky," Steve kept saying. "I've got you now. It's going to be all right."

Bucky, if that was his name, looked more bewildered than comforted. But he did watch Steve's every move with an intensity that spoke of some internal struggle.

"I know him," Charles blurted, advancing carefully on his crutches. "His hair was shorter then, and of course he didn't have the blacking on his face, but I would swear – he was the messenger, when the twins were born, the one who… well, of course. Who turned out to be Sebastian's assassin."

"Bucky's a very old friend of mine," Steve said quietly. "We were in the army together, and he… It's complicated, but he's faced years of torture and manipulation by men who only wanted to use him. Such as Sebastian. I know I can help him, given a chance – Charles, will you let me help him?"

Charles looked down at the broken-looking man on the floor, and Erik sighed, already knowing what his answer would be.

"Only if you can swear he'll not harm anyone," Charles said.

"You have my personal guarantee," Steve said, bowing deeply. "I have men coming behind me who can help me get him safely away – I'm sorry about your door, it was locked – ah, here they are now."

The underlings the Duke had apparently left behind came into view, frantic expressions fading into relief as they caught sight of their unharmed lord. Steve set them to work lifting the bound assassin.

"Natasha knows I've been seeking Bucky for a long time," Steve said, giving her a respectful nod. "I'm very grateful she was able to get me word he would be here. Though I confess I'm… not sure why he was here, or how she knew."

"I, too, would like to ask the good Duchess and Mr. Barton several questions about tonight's events," Erik said. He saw everyone in the room take uneasy note of the fact that he had not put away his sword.

Clint was signing urgently, much too fast for Erik to follow; Charles signed back and said aloud, "Let's hear it then, Natasha."

Erik twitched when Clint stepped toward Charles, but he was only giving Charles a hand to help him sit up on the sofa. Erik watched him narrowly until he stepped out of arm's reach again.

"Erik." Charles sounded exasperated.

"He's not wrong to be suspicious, Charles," Natasha said, as calm as ever, taking her exertion-mussed hair down and combing it with her fingers. "We're exactly what he says, or we were. The king's pet assassins. It's not what Coulson and Fury intended us for, but there was only so much they could do against the king."

Erik wondered who Fury was, then wondered if he was ever supposed to know.

"When Sebastian decided you two ought not to outlive him if he could help it, he picked out the first pair of assassins himself," Natasha continued. "For the back-up killers, he gave Coulson sealed orders to pass to two of his agents, to be opened after the king's funeral."

"And the agents were you and Mr. Barton?" Steve wore a deep frown, and Erik remembered he'd known nothing of Sebastian's contingency plan – probably nothing of Clint and Natasha's shady past.

"Lucky for you." Natasha gave Charles a half-smile. "We left active service, but the orders weren't rescinded. Imagine our surprise when we opened them tonight."

Clint was signing, Charles following it with intent eyes. "He's saying the orders warned that if we were alive, it meant we'd survived previous attempts and would be on our guard."

"That's how we knew Bucky was coming," Natasha confirmed. "Sebastian's pet monster – he would have been his first choice."

"There was another, as well," Charles said, signing to Clint. "Azazel says he's no longer a problem." Clint's shoulders sagged with relief.

"Bucky's not a monster," Steve said, "pet or otherwise."

"Bucky might not be," Natasha shrugged, "but that man on the floor is. If you can turn him back into Bucky, I'll cheer you on. From a safe location."

"Did you never actually consider following your orders?" Erik raised an eyebrow. "Given by the king and all."

"The king is dead," Natasha said dryly, and bowed deeply to Charles. "Long live the king."

Prince Regent, Clint corrected, and Natasha rolled her eyes.

"I swore my oath to the ankle-biter, didn't I? When he starts giving the orders, I can think about following them. Meanwhile, he and the other children were still running in overstimulated circles when we left, and have probably burned the place down by now. Goodnight, Charles, Erik, Steve."

The lot of them, bound captive included, were gone before Erik could even think to thank them.

Instead, he joined Charles on the couch, and sat with arms around him, staring at the sparkling glass and charred, shattered balcony that were, thank heaven, the only casualties of the night. They sat together that way, shuddering with relief and useless adrenaline, until royal guardsmen – at least some of whom must have been bribed, and in the morning Erik would deal with that with extreme prejudice – rushed belatedly in to take control of the situation. He glared them into silence and carried Charles off to bed.

***

Erik and Emma's divorce was approved by the Assembly (as all noble divorces had to be) with a great deal of comment but no actual resistance. Two weeks to the day after Sebastian's funeral, Erik was a free man.

He and Charles married that evening.

They kept it quiet, inviting only a very select few; Moira, Emma and Fantine, Tony and Steve, Clint and Natasha, Lieutenant Howlett – Sir James, Erik reminded himself. Howlett was Paladin now, and had to be addressed accordingly, however little patience either of them had with that. Since the wedding was to be held on the front lawn of the Westchester manor house, Dr. Henri was invited as well, with his lover the androji nurse, who happened to be visiting. Azazel was invited but declined, grinning in a way that hinted he knew full well his absence would be a relief.

Charles's stepfather, Erik discovered, had died sometime while he was away, the event so unregarded by Charles that he had never thought to mention it. His stepbrother was informed in no uncertain terms that, with the manor about to become the children's main residence, he was now moving to the North Cottage.

("I've indulged him far too long, honestly," Charles admitted. "Too distracted by my own troubles. It's been easier to leave him be than worry about caring for the estate myself, but I doubt the estate or anyone on it will thank me for it."

"I think you're being too kind as it is," Erik snorted. "He'll still have a little tinpot kingdom of his own, in the north, if considerably less grand than he's used to. And that letter you sent him was too apologetic by half."

"Well, I am evicting the man from his home of several decades. I doubt anything will soothe his feelings, but it makes me feel better to try.")

So the wedding party was small, and the decorations only what the frantic Westchester staff could manage on a few hours' notice. The rabbi they had more-or-less kidnapped was rather bemused by it all, Erik could see, but had agreed to officiate despite the interfaith nature of the event.

("I won't try to dictate to the other children," Erik had said, "they're old enough to have decided on their own beliefs in some measure, but I intend to continue raising Hazel as Jewish, and at the very least introduce the others to the heritage they've—" He bit down on been denied. It would sound too much like an accusation, when Charles had been in no position to teach them Erik's faith. "Missed out on," he said instead, and had the reward of seeing Charles's eyes light up as he began suggesting ways to make that happen.)

"I feel like I'm in a novel," Tony said as they gathered before the ceremony. "'The Prince's Secret Wedding' – so romantic."

"It's not a secret," Charles said. "We just… haven't told anyone."

"We will," Erik clarified. "Once it's over and no one can try to stop us. Not that they'd succeed."

"We'd just rather not deal with the scandalized nobles until they actually have something to be scandalized about." Charles smiled and hooked his arm through Erik's.

Fragile-looking old Molesley, the butler, approached and bowed. "If the guests are ready to take their seats, my lord?"

They did so, and it was surely time for Erik and Charles to proceed to their places – the Origin Points where, according to Genoshan tradition, the grooms would be released by their parents to make their way to each other. As neither of them had parents living, their oldest children were doing the job, and a glance across the lawn showed both of them in position – Raven waiting for Erik, and Hank for Charles, their stations marked by little gauze-draped tables full of flowers.

"This is happening, Erik," Charles said, looking almost stunned. "This is finally happening."

"Do try not to faint, Charles." But Erik was a little overwhelmed, himself. This was the dream he'd never dared hope for, not since the day Sebastian set his sights on Charles, the dream they'd wept for together – their wedding, on the Westchester grounds, with heaps of primroses fresh from the manor gardens. The bright yellow flowers glowed in the slanted evening light like hundreds of tiny torches, filling the air with a sweet scent like milk and honey. He reached for Charles's hand, careful not to unbalance his crutches. "Is it what you wanted? I won't stand for anything less. Do you wish we had… more people, finer things…"

Charles rolled his eyes. "No. My one regret, I think, is that Armando and Angel couldn't be here. That's… hm, yes, that's all. You?"

"I only regret this didn't happen twenty years ago."

Charles squeezed his hand. "Then let's not keep it waiting another moment."

 

Raven, gorgeous and startlingly grown-up in a cobalt-blue gown, teared up a bit as she released him from the Origin Point. "He deserves a husband who actually loves him," she whispered.

"He has one," Erik murmured back. "And he's had me for a long time." He kissed her forehead and began his Walk.

The Walk was one Genoshan tradition Erik rather liked. It had never been more appropriate to symbolize the long path of life that had brought the grooms together. It was considered good luck for them to arrive simultaneously, so Erik slowed his pace to match Charles's as they made their separate ways toward the wedding pavilion.

Somewhere, there were guests watching, and servant girls playing sweetly on pipes; somewhere a rabbi waited under a gauzy white chuppah to watch them sign a Book that would double, in their case, as a ketubah. Somewhere, people would tell him later, Hazel was being dragged back to his seat by the twins after getting up to chase a butterfly. But all he saw was Charles, a beacon of light in the gathering dusk, meeting his eyes across the expanse that kept them apart, moving steadily toward him. Years and sorrows and men whose names did not deserve to be spoken here might have changed his gait and the shape of his body, left silver in his hair and lines in his face. But they hadn't killed or even clouded the light in his eyes, the light that had ensnared Erik from across a room almost exactly twenty years before, and never let him go.

In later years – and there were many, many long years, full of beautiful mornings and frustrating politics, fierce arguments and warm embraces, children laughing and storms raging – Erik would remember little of what the rabbi said before he joined them together. But he would remember the way it felt to kiss Charles for the first time as his lawfully wedded husband, to wrap his arms around him without worrying who would see. He would remember their children dashing into the pavilion to embrace them and each other all at once, arms and bodies overlapping, while their friends showered them with seeds and flower petals to signify growth and birth and life, the moon rising over their first night as a family.