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What We All Long For

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Prologue

December 23, 1809

Fanny White had been the proprietress of The Olde Boote Inn since the death of her husband twenty years prior. While she may not have been an educated woman, she did know that a sudden snowstorm on the London road meant profit. Lots of profit. She could charge what she liked for her rooms and stranded travellers would pay double, even triple, for hot stew and fresh bread. For Fanny, the heavy snow falling outside might as well have been farthings falling from the sky.

Which is why she had to suppress a groan when the nobleman walked into her inn.

Most of Fanny’s customers that night were merchant men, traders, metalsmiths and skilled craftsmen heading to London to sell to the holiday crowds. They could afford to pay Fanny’s storm prices, and they didn’t complain about the small rooms or watered-down stew. But noblemen were a different kettle of fish. The gentry, in Fanny’s humble opinion, were more of a hindrance than a boon for a businesswoman like herself. They demanded the earth, ran her staff ragged to meet their lofty expectations, and all the while they had scarcely two coins to rub together. They’d haggle endlessly over the price of a room, if they even bothered to pay their bill. Worse, noblemen were arrogant, haughty creatures who acted as if Fanny should be falling all over herself to thank them for their patronage. No, Fanny preferred the merchants and simple tradesmen.

The young specimen of nobility before her was far from an intimidating example of the upper crust. He was short for a gentleman, thin and compact, and looked to be barely out of the schoolroom. His clothing was of the finest quality, but it was several years out of date and hung badly on his small frame. His unfashionably long dark hair flopped in his eyes, making him look even younger. He was also white with exhaustion, the thin skin under his eyes bruised from lack of sleep and far too much worry for such a young man.

If he hadn’t been a nobleman, Fanny might have pitied him.

“A room, if you please,” he said, and Fanny raised an eyebrow. He’d spoken softly, and without the harsh tone of command she associated with the gentry. Still, Fanny would have to disappoint him.

“Sorry m’lord, we’re full up. Sold out our last room this afternoon when the storm turned bad, and even then folks’ve had to double up. I couldn’t bed down a mouse right now.” Fanny stressed this last idea, hoping to avoid the inevitable suggestion that perhaps she might evict one of her paying merchants in favour of a gentleman who’d want the room on credit. She could hear it now. But surely something can be arranged. As if Fanny could wave a magic wand and an extra room would be miraculously tacked on to the Boote’s upper floor.

The gentleman raised his head, and the look of disappointment in his startlingly blue eyes, along with his wet, sorry state, made Fanny feel as though she’d just kicked a puppy. The lad looked impossibly young, standing there dripping in his ancient coat.

“I see,” he said, despondency creeping into his cultured voice. But it sounded as if the young man actually did see, as though he were accustomed to disappointment and didn’t take it as a personal offence.

“Well,” Fanny said, deciding that some Christian charity wouldn’t go amiss, “you’re welcome to try and squeeze in with the lot down here.” She tried and failed to picture the thin, delicate-looking young nobleman rubbing elbows with the raucous crowd of farmers and day labourers in the pub’s common room. The noise there was almost deafening, with the incessant sound of clinking ale mugs and the chatter of men snowed in for the night and surrounded by strangers who hadn’t yet heard their best stories.

“That’s very kind,” the young man murmured, trying to sound enthusiastic and failing miserably. Not that Fanny could blame him; the prospect of a night spent sitting upright in wet clothes amidst a crowd of noisy ruffians would put anyone off, and the lad looked done-in. He needed a change of clothes, rest, and a good hot meal. Several meals, by the look of him.

“Wait a bit,” Fanny sighed, surrendering to her conscience. “I might have a spot in the sitting room. There’s a…gentleman there already. A foreign gentleman. Perhaps he wouldn’t mind sharing the space.”

The man’s hopeless expression cleared and he broke into a wide smile that Fanny couldn’t help but return. This one was a charmer, that was plain to see. She’d been a widow much longer than she’d ever been a wife, but Fanny could appreciate beauty when she saw it. And the smiling young man was a sight to see.

It wasn’t until she’d left him to go ask the other gentleman if he wouldn’t mind sharing his parlor that Fanny realized what she’d done. The gentleman in question had asked for privacy, and paid handsomely for it. She could hardly blame him for wanting to avoid the prying eyes in the common room.

Still, nothing to be done for it, and the man could always say no. She squared her shoulders, rapped sharply on the door, and marched inside.

She emerged a moment later, paler than before and a little shaken. When the young man caught sight of her rushed to her side.

“Are you well, Madame?” he asked, and she nodded.

“’Course I am. Got a bit of a dressing-down, but the gentleman said you could use the parlor as long as you didn’t try to keep him up all night with chatter.”

Actually the gentleman had said much more than that, and in far harsher terms, but Fanny wasn’t going to let that keep her from coin.

“It’ll be two shillings, m’lord. Three, if you’d like stew and bread.”

“Thank you,” the young man said, fumbling for his billfold in the satchel slung over his arm. He produced two shillings and a single farthing. “Err.” He looking up at her with an embarrassed chuckle. “No meal, please. Just the room.”

Fanny nodded, trying not to roll her eyes. Noblemen were all the same. This one might have pretty manners and a pleasant face, but he was as poor as a church mouse. In fact, she’d realized some time ago that the higher-born the nobleman, the less often they carried money or bothered to settle their accounts with tradespeople like herself. At least this one had enough ready coin to cover the room.

“As you wish, sir,” Fanny said, plucking the coins out of the young man’s hand with practiced skill. “This way.”

****

Charles waited to knock on the door until the inn's proprietress had left. He stood in the darkened hallway, echoes of the loud conversations in the common room providing a background hum that helped him gather his wits. A…gentleman, she’d said, hesitating over the word. As if the inn’s proprietress had had trouble placing the man in the correct social caste. It gave Charles pause. An innkeeper’s ability to instantly place every citizen in their correct spot in the rigid social hierarchy of Britain was an essential skill for one in her trade, and the man in the parlor had stumped the owner of The Olde Boote. Charles wondered if he’d be able to do any better, or if the man he was about to inconvenience would be a danger, perhaps some obscure member of the criminal class.

Charles was so bloody tired of surprises.

He leaned against the doorway and allowed himself a few moments of precious rest. The journey from Cadiz had been a nightmare. He should never have attempted the crossing so late in the season. The Channel waters had been bad enough, but impassible roads, poorly-sprung carriages, terrible food and close proximity to strangers—themselves often ill or dangerous—had resulted in endless delays, an alarmingly rapid diminishing of his already limited funds, a lingering cough, and several challenges to his honour.

Not that he had much of that to begin with.

Charles sighed and pushed himself away from the door, squaring his shoulders. He forced his face to relax into an open, friendly expression, and knocked softly on the door. In response came a commanding, “Come!” that made him scurry inside.

The parlor was very dark. Every candle had been extinguished, and when Charles closed the door the only source of illumination came from the hearth. A roaring fire had been laid there, sending flickering light and welcome warmth into the room. Charles wanted to rush over and warm his aching hands, but he forced himself to first look for his host and apologize for his intrusion.

The room’s sole occupant was leaning against the mantle, elegantly at ease. The man’s head was in profile, the left side blending into the shadows; the right side of his face was backlit by the fire and stood out from the sombre colours of the room, sharp as the profile on a Roman coin.

The purity of the man’s silhouette made Charles catch his breath. He’d never before associated the word beautiful with any masculine visage. He was an admirer of men, yes, but Charles had never seen anyone more striking than this mysterious gentleman.

The man’s tall, lean body was perfectly suited to the current fashion. He wore skin-tight breeches, a long coat, and a snow-white cravat tied high in an intricate pattern of knots. Though it was very late in the day, he still looked as if he’d just stepped from his valet. A small part of Charles envied the wealth his ensemble represented, as well as the commanding ease with which he wore it.

“Good evening,” Charles said. The gentleman was staring so intently into the fire that Charles doubted he even knew Charles was in the room. He didn’t acknowledge Charles’ greeting; instead he put his boot up on the fender, one long muscled leg on display, and sipped at his drink.

Several seconds ticked by, during which Charles went from merely confused to irritated. He was used to being ignored or overlooked in a crowded room, but not when he spoke to someone directly.

“I said good evening, Sir,” he repeated. This time the man did glance his way, but he quickly returned his gaze to the fire.

“Is it?”

The question caught Charles by surprise. In the silence the wind gave a particularly fierce howl, which seemed to underscore the man’s point.

“No,” Charles said. “I don’t suppose it is.”

The man nodded into the fire. “Your name?” he asked, tossing back another sip of his amber-coloured drink.

He should have been prepared for the accent. Charles had been told the gentleman was foreign, but his English, tinged as it was with a slight German inflection, caught Charles off guard. As had his very masculine beauty.

“Charles,” he said, struggling to find his equilibrium. He sketched out a rough bow. When the man made no move to speak, Charles was forced to prompt him for a return of the social nicety. “And you are—?”

The man hesitated, but finally said, “Mr. Lehnsherr will do.” He set his empty tumbler down on the mantle and picked up the fire poker, giving the logs in the hearth a stir. “You understand that I paid for privacy. And quiet. The proprietress assured me I’d have both. Yet here you are.”

“Here I am,” Charles agreed, feeling stupid. He wished now that he’d taken up the proprietress’ offer to sit in that dreadful common room. Better that than to be trapped with someone who resented his very presence. Even if that someone was handsome, intriguing, and carried an air of danger.

“You’re Bavarian? Or Hanoverian?”

Lehnsherr frowned and straightened away from the fire, though he didn’t look at Charles. “Prussian, actually.”

“Oh.” Charles winced. He sounded like a dunce. What was the matter with him? He wasn’t often a man at a loss for words, and certainly not because of the shape of another man’s nose, the spare line of his cheekbone, or the strong angle of his chin.

“So what the hell are you doing in my parlor?”

Enjoying the scenery, Charles almost said. He fought to conquer whatever fantasies those perfect features were inspiring. He’d long thought he’d long banished his particular attraction to brooding Byronic heroes. Charles had ruthlessly gutted any dreams revolving around the presence of such a man in his own life. And finding the epitome of those dreams standing before him in this remote inn didn’t mean he could begin again to believe there was anything to gain by indulging in such romantic nonsense.

“Obviously I’ve been stranded by the storm,” he said breezily. “You know, I’ve spent a little time in Berlin. It’s a lovely city.” It was a bland statement, but at least it was more coherent than, ‘Oh.’

By the tense set of the man’s shoulders, Charles could tell he’d said something wrong. The mention of Berlin? Perhaps Mr. Lehnsherr had unhappy associations with that city.

“I would’t call it lovely,” he said, his tone dark now, and absent the bemused annoyance it had held earlier. “And you? Where is home?”

The man’s question made Charles’ heart twist. What could he possibly say? He’d been ripped from his seat at Eton three years ago, when his mother died. The family seat in Westchester was boarded up and closed, and with Raven away at school in Switzerland, there was no place he would actually call a home. Just that wretched London townhouse where his stepfather and stepbrother lived, and Charles had no intention of ever darkening that particular door again, once he’d fulfilled his stepfather’s orders.

“Oh, here and there,” Charles said vaguely, deciding that now would be a good moment to shed his coat and perhaps avail himself of whatever strong spirit the man had been sipping at.

He shrugged out of his greatcoat, embarrassed by the rumpled, travel-stained condition of his outdated clothing but almost too tired to care.

The gentleman had still had not turned to face Charles. Charles found himself wondering about the colour of his eyes. Brown, no doubt, with that auburn hair. In his imagination the man of his dreams had always had clear green eyes.

After folding his coat over the back of a settee, Charles located the bar and poured himself a healthy finger of brandy. He threw that one back and poured one more.

“Want another?” Charles asked, offering the bottle. He turned to find Lehnsherr watching him. His face was still in profile to Charles, but something in his expression made Charles shiver. He was so intent, so focused, as though Charles were the only object of interest in the world. It was almost unnerving.

When Charles raised his glass the man blinked and snatched his own tumbler off the mantle. Charles carried the bottle of brandy over to him, willing to play barkeep to keep the peace. He expected Mr. Lehnsherr to hand over the empty glass, but instead the man turned to him and held it out, waiting for him to pour. Charles looked up to the man’s face, and nearly dropped the bottle of brandy.

The firelight fell on the side of Mr. Lehnsherr’s face that hadn’t been visible before. As the flickering light revealed his full face, Charles was stunned to silence. The left side of Lehnsherr’s face was mottled and scarred by what could only have been very old, very severe burns. Even the corner of those beautiful lips was slightly twisted by the damage. His arrogant nose was untouched, its perfection almost a mockery in that ruined face, as was the contrast of the beauty of his undamaged side.

His left eye was hidden by an eyepatch and Charles found himself wondering what lay beneath that piece of velvet, considering the damage to the skin around it. He could only guess what could fire do to the delicate tissue of the human eye.

Charles met Lehnsherr’s right eye, which was an extraordinary colour, silvery-grey and depthless in the low light. There was a soul-deep pain there, but before Charles could tease it out, Lehnsherr’s single eye flicked away.

“Did you expect an intimate candlelight dinner?” Lehnsherr asked mockingly. “Was that your intent? Or perhaps you now prefer the dark?”

Lehnsherr was angry, but for once the threat of another man’s anger didn’t shock Charles into a reaction. Instead he felt unable to look away, unable to even meet the assumed mockery of Mr. Lehnsherr’s gaze. He was still tracing the disfigurement when his vision blurred with unshed tears. Charles blinked them back, and the spell that had seemed to hold him motionless was broken.

“They tell me that, in time, one can grow accustomed to my face,” Mr. Lehnsherr said quietly, that anger threading through his voice like a silken red string. “Perhaps, in exchange for the warmth and hospitality of my parlor, you can put that observation to the test?”

“I thought…” Charles whispered, forcing the words past the lump in his throat. Mr. Lehnsherr must think him a fool, standing here with tears welling. “I thought…I thought you were so beautiful,” Charles said, trying to explain what he’d felt before. Wanting to explain why he was crying. His fantasy lover had finally taken flesh, but in the place of the hero he’d always imagined was this caustic, snarling stranger who had been hurt so brutally.

Of all the things Charles might have said, it was perhaps the worst. He saw the impact on Mr. Lehnsherr’s face before he answered with a twisted smile.

“And now you’ve discovered you were wrong,” he said, unable to completely mask the bitterness. “Perhaps some other time.”

Charles’ puzzlement must have shown in his eyes, because Lehnsherr spoke to clarify what he’d meant.

“Some other time for our candlelit supper. Some other occasion.”

With a shock, Charles realized what he’d done. He must not allow Mr. Lehnsherr to think he’d been so affected merely by the scars. It was only because he’d been what Charles had dreamed. Or, at least, he had been at one time.

“You don’t understand,” Charles said, knowing that excuse wasn’t enough.

“Believe me,” Lehnsherr said, “I understand. Better than you can imagine.”

“No,” Charles insisted stubbornly. “You don’t understand. It’s not the scars.”

Lehnsherr laughed suddenly, and Charles thought he’d never heard any laughter that contained less amusement.

“Of course,” Lehnsherr said softly. “It’s the cut of my coat. My accent, perhaps. Maybe you just don’t like Jews.”

“It’s not…” Charles tried, distracted by that admission. He wouldn’t have guessed Mr. Lehnsherr was Jewish. Not that he’d had much experience with any adherents of that faith, confined as they so often were to their remote villages and their ghettos in the large cities of Europe. But the sight of Mr. Lehnsherr’s unmoving, scarred mouth made Charles lose the thread of whatever he’d been trying to articulate.

“Are you going to pour?”

Charles considered the glass Mr. Lehnsherr held out to him. He didn’t want to offer any further offence, and it would be more polite for him to take his leave. But everything within him cried out to stay. He had to repair the damage he’d done with his unthinking reaction.

Charles slid his fingers around the Lehnsherr’s to stabilize the tumbler as he poured. They both watched the amber liquid splash into the glass and Charles felt a faint tremble run through Lehnsherr’s fingers, which were warm, strong and solid beneath his.

“Enough?” Charles asked. Lehnsherr was staring at Charles’ mouth, and Charles felt hot desire, strange and unfamiliar, begin to pound in his veins.

He released the glass and stepped back, holding the bottle of brandy clutched tight against his chest. The warm sensation of the man’s fingers lingered. This was dangerous. Very dangerous.

Mr. Lehnsherr seemed to think so too. He cleared his throat and turned back to the fire.

Neither of them spoke, but before the silence could become too uncomfortable there was a smart rap at the door.

“Yes?” Lehnsherr said, and this time his voice shook a little.

“Your meal, sir.” It was a serving girl. She was already elbowing the door open, a heavy tray balanced on one arm. A hot bowl of stew steamed there, along with a hunk of fresh bread, thick slices of cheese, and a ceramic mug of ale. Charles’ stomach grumbled, but thankfully the sound was covered by the noise of the serving girl setting the tray down on a low table by the fire.

“Anything else, sir?” she asked. Lehnsherr shook his head, digging in his pocket for a coin which he tossed to the girl. She caught it with a grin, oblivious to the tension in the room, and curtseyed, shutting the door behind her.

Mr. Lehnsherr was looking at Charles again, his gaze assessing. Charles wasn’t sure if he ought to be worried or relieved. Lehnsherr seemed calmer now, curious instead of irate. As to whatever he was thinking…well, men had been looking at Charles, in one way or another, his entire life. When he was younger, he’d often wondered if he were marked with some invisible sign. Boys and men had always seemed to know what he was, and much sooner than Charles himself had realized it.

But none of them had ever looked at Charles like Lehnsherr did, as though he were a puzzle to be figured out. Instead, they’d looked at him like an object to be claimed.

“What brings you to London?”

Mr. Lehnsherr’s question caught Charles off-guard. He had time to recover as Lehnsherr crossed the room to sit on a divan near the table with the tray. There was a problem with his stride. Though he was clearly athletic and moved with an admirable confidence and leonine grace, his steps were uneven. There was a hitch to his stride that Charles had seen before, though only in older men or the cripples who littered the streets of London. And wounded soldiers, of course. There had been a surfeit of those in recent years, after the wars with Napoleon.

A soldier. He wondered why he hadn’t seen it before. As Lehnsherr sat and gracefully unfolded a napkin across his lap, Charles realized why the innkeeper had had such a hard time placing Mr. Lehnsherr’s social position. He wasn’t nobility. He was an officer, likely injured in battle, which explained the scars, the missing eye and his limp. Prussian, he’d said. Prussia had been at war with France for several years now, and Charles waged that Mr. Lehnsherr had fought against Napoleon. His proud stature, military bearing, and gentlemanly manners all fit, and Charles understood now why he’d sensed that aura of danger around the man.

“Is something wrong?” Mr. Lehnsherr was watching him sternly, his single silver eye sharp and bright in the darkness of the room. “I thought you were going to take your leave.”

Charles shook himself, realizing that he’d been caught staring again.

“No, no,” he said quickly, wanting to assure Lehnsherr that he wasn’t troubled by the scars or his missing eye. “I just ought to have guessed that you were an officer.”

This caught Lehnsherr by surprise. He’d picked up a knife to cut the hunk of bread but had paused, one aristocratic eyebrow arched in confusion. “Pardon me?”

“The…eye. It was a battlefield injury, wasn’t it?”

Lehnsherr set the knife down, breathing deeply. “No,” he said, and then rose. “Help yourself to the meal. I find I’ve lost my appetite.”

He went to the window and pulled back the curtain, staring out at the blizzard outside. Charles swallowed past the sick feeling in his stomach. He’d offended the man grievously with his unthinking remarks.

“I don’t want your food,” he said to Lehnsherr’s back. “I’m not hungry anyway.”

Mr. Lehnsherr sighed. “When did you last eat?”

Charles didn’t bother to answer honestly. “Not so long ago. It’s…kind of you to offer, but you must be hungry yourself. Please.”

Lehnsherr clenched his fist, obviously praying for calm. He turned, however, and made his slow way back to the table. Because Charles was watching his face and not his leg, he saw how Lehnsherr grimaced slightly in pain with each step. Perhaps the injury had been recent, or the leg hadn’t been set right.

Lehnsherr resumed his seat on the divan and waved Charles over to the settee. “Pull that closer,” he ordered, and began to saw the hunk of bread in two. He slathered butter over one half, and handed it to Charles. “Eat.”

Charles accepted the hunk of bread with some misgiving. What would Lehnsherr expect in exchange? But the ache in his belly was more pressing and he tore the slice of bread apart into smaller chunks, eating them one by one. Each bite of fresh bread and butter was heavenly. He hadn’t eaten in three days, and while it embarrassed him to abandon his manners so thoroughly, Charles was beyond caring about social niceties. It was such a relief to eat.

When he’d finally finished his half of the loaf he licked at his fingers, trying to chase down the last hints of creamy butter. He was so absorbed in what he was doing that he failed to consider how he looked. When Charles raised his head, he caught Lehnsherr staring at him, his face unreadable.

Mr. Lehnsherr cleared his throat and Charles lowered his eyes guiltily. His cheeks flamed in embarrassment.

“Here,” Lehnsherr said gruffly, and Charles was forced to look up. He was holding out the remaining half of the loaf.

Charles shook his head. “It’s yours,” he said but Lehnsherr only smiled, a slight upward quirk of the edges of his mouth.

“And you need it more,” he said. “I can order another meal.” He went to the door to do so while Charles gobbled down the rest of the bread, barely listening to the man’s murmured exchange with the serving maid.

“How old are you?” he asked when he returned. Charles had been dreading the question. He knew he looked much younger than his years—his height was partially to blame, as was his slender build and large blue eyes—but he’d been hoping Mr. Lehnsherr might not ask. He hadn’t wanted the man to be thinking about his age. He’d wanted…well, if he was honest with himself, Charles wanted to replay that moment before the fire, his fingers brushing against Lehnsherr’s, and feel once more that unfamiliar tingle of desire.

“I’m 17,” he said, adding in his head, And I’ve seen much more than you might think.

Lehnsherr frowned, pushing the laden tray towards Charles. “So young,” he said, voice low and soft.

Charles tried to shrug nonchalantly. He picked up the spoon to start on the hot, fragrant stew. “Not as young as some.” That much, at least, was true.

He wondered how Lehnsherr might react if he told him the truth. That Charles was, in point of fact, a whore.

Charles swallowed the troubling thought with another mouthful of stew. “How old are you?”

This surprised a laugh from Lehnsherr, and Charles watched, transfixed, as his face crinkled in amusement. His smile was damaged on one side, yes, but it was wide and full of teeth—a rather alarming amount of them, in fact, though Charles found it oddly endearing—and he liked the way Lehnsherr’s face changed as he smiled, years of worry and suffering dropping away.

“Too old for the likes of you,” he said. He sighed, his amusement fading. “Much too old, I’m afraid.”

Charles sucked on his spoon thoughtfully. “I’ve been with older men.”

Immediately he wanted to claw the words back. How could he be so foolish? Not only had he admitted to being a catamite, but he’d implied that he wanted to be with Mr. Lehnsherr. And despite that moment of hot desire he’d felt earlier, and the way the man before him so closely matched his adolescent fantasies, Charles wasn’t sure he wanted to have sex with anyone. Let alone a stranger. He’d never found the act to be pleasurable beyond a few rare, fleeting moments, and many times it had been humiliating, painful, and degrading.

His stepfather had chosen such poor companions for him.

Though he’d eaten only half the stew, Charles pushed the tray away. Mr. Lehnsherr was radiating discomfort and so Charles stood, wanting to put as much distance between himself and the other man as he could. He went to the window as Mr. Lehnsherr had done earlier, and stared at the desolate wintry landscape outside.

“I’m sorry,” Lehnsherr said, still seated on the settee. “That wasn’t what I meant.”

Charles shrugged. So he’d misjudged him. Here was yet more evidence that he was a stupid fool, fit only for sucking cock and writhing around like a dockside whore. His stepfather had been right: he didn’t belong at Eton, or in polite society. He was tainted. Compromised. He ought to hurry to London and rendezvous with the next man his stepfather had selected for him, and stop this desperate longing for something more.

“My apologies,” Charles bit out, leaning his forehead against the cool glass. His fever was starting up again, or perhaps it was the warmth of the parlor. “You must want your room back. I’ll go.”

The thought of wading back out into the high wind and heavy snow, this time on foot instead of in a coach, sent a flood of exhaustion through Charles’ already overtaxed body. But he’d manage somehow. It wasn’t as though he was unaccustomed to deprivation, and he’d be in London soon enough. Then he only had to endure an audience with his stepfather, and travel north to the residence of this Scottish lord, MacTaggert, the one his stepfather had named in the letter. Once he’d done so he would have food and shelter.

What he had to do for it wouldn’t be pleasant, but he could endure.

“You don’t have to go.” Charles closed his eyes, the glass cool against his hot cheek.

“No, but I should,” he said, pushing himself away from the window. “I took your parlor, ate your food, and then I offended you. I ought to go before I do anything worse.”

“Such as?” Lehnsherr asked, a hint of amusement in his grey-silver eye. “I doubt you’d be able to drown me in here. And I wasn’t offended, Charles. Just…surprised.”

Charles dropped his eyes to the floor, unaccountably comforted by the man’s words. He ought to have thrown Charles out on his ear. And while he seemed dangerous, hostile and reserved, Mr. Lehnsherr evidently had a kind nature. He wasn’t going to toss Charles out, or have him arrested, or even subject him to a sermon on the immoralities of his lifestyle.

“Finish your stew, Charles. And after that, how would you feel about a game of chess?”

****

Erik wasn’t entirely certain what had come over him. From the moment the boy had walked into his rented parlor, Erik had been unaccountably…generous. Gregarious, even, which was not in his nature. He wondered at the change. Perhaps it was because the boy, Charles, reminded him more than a little of himself, back in those early days in Berlin. He seemed lost, and vulnerable, and desperate to hide it.

Yes, perhaps they had a little in common after all.

He was even willing to forgive Charles’ reaction to his scars, now that Erik had calmed down a little. He watched as Charles finished eating, trying and failing to see the young man as some sort of wanton catamite. It was impossible. Charles came off more as a distracted student or an eccentric young professor, not a whore. Erik had known plenty of prostitutes, both male and female, young and old, and Charles didn’t seem the type. He was well-spoken and dressed like a gentleman, albeit a rather unfashionable one, and so far he’d made no real attempt to seduce Erik or offer his body as payment for the room.

And he didn’t have that look of defeat, that world-weariness that Erik associated with those who sold themselves. His mother had worn that look constantly in the last part of her life, and Erik had seen it on the faces of everyone he’d known back in Berlin.

So while Charles looked exhausted, overwrought, and was clearly very hungry, Erik didn’t think the young man had experienced true deprivation. As someone who had, Erik knew the signs. If Charles wasn’t forced into prostitution, why then had he admitted to sleeping with older men?

Not that any of it mattered to Erik. He was in England for a reason, and it had nothing to do with sussing out the motivations of some lost young gentleman. Better he focus on his mission. After tonight, he’d forget that he’d ever met Charles, ever shared a room and a meal with him. Better that, than befriend someone he couldn’t help.

Charles, still seemingly embarrassed by his unintended confession, had set about clearing the dinner trays—Erik’s had arrived and he’d left it half-eaten in favour of more brandy—and then he began to set up the chessboard.

Erik hadn’t expected Charles to take him up on his offer. He’d meant the suggestion of a game as a distraction, a way to keep Charles from wading back out into the storm or, worse, risk a crying jag if he looked at Erik’s face for too long. But he could see, by the gleam of expectation in Charles’ eye, that chess was a passion of his. Just as it was for Erik.

He sat across from Charles, black to Charles’ white, and watched as Charles made the first move. He countered, and after only a few minutes of play he could see that Charles was a gifted strategist who favoured a strong defense and subtle advance over more aggressive tactics. Erik preferred bold strategy and dramatic execution, and so their styles complimented each other well enough to make the game far more interesting than any he’d played with more experienced opponents.

Still, he was able to defeat Charles in twenty moves. The boy actually seemed amused by his loss, and chuckled over the board.

“What do you call that?” he asked, and Erik shook his head, not understanding. “The strategy you employed right near the endgame. It must have a name.”

Erik thought for a while. There was no word for it in English. “Zugzwang,” he said. “It means something like “compulsion to move.” You are forced, time and again, to make a bad decision. You must move. All the options are terrible, but still you must choose. So you pick the least terrible option. It keeps you alive, but it weakens you to the point where I can take all of your pieces, and finally your King.” He tapped a finger on Charles’ ivory king, which lay tipped over on the board in defeat. “It’s a ruthless strategy.”

“But it’s brilliant,” Charles said, eyes shining with amusement and a hint of admiration. “I’ll use it next time. Thank you.”

Erik nodded, oddly touched by the young man’s gratitude. He wasn’t any sort of teacher—was, in fact, the furthest thing from it—but it had felt good, to show someone something, and have them understand it.

He stood and began to mechanically reset the pieces. “Charles, are you in trouble?”

Charles shook his head, the joy of the game fading from his eyes. “No,” he said. “I’m just…” he sighed. “It’s been a very long year. One in a series. I keep hoping something will change, but—” Charles broke off in a sigh.

“I know the feeling.” And Erik did. Those years in Berlin had nearly broken him. And after, in the Pale of Settlement, time seemed to move too fast, until it came to a crashing halt. Then the long, lonely years had marched on and on, hopeless and unchanging. Even now, in a new country with a new mission and fresh resolve, Erik felt as though nothing good would ever happen to him.

It grieved him that Charles, this bright-eyed young man of such promise and beauty, felt as defeated as Erik.

He sighed, weighed the risk, and reached out to grasp Charles’ hand.

The young man’s skin was warm and smooth. He’d guessed right: no one with hands that unmarred could have known true deprivation. Erik’s hands were covered in burn scars and callouses, while Charles’ were soft and supple. He rubbed his thumb along the skin of Charles’ wrist, intending to offer only comfort. He’s 17, Erik reminded himself. Barely a man. And he’s been through enough.

Still, he couldn’t help the ember of desire that began to glow inside him. It sickened him, but it didn’t surprise him. He was a monster. He’d known it for a long, long time. The notion of taking Charles, of sliding into that warm, tight body, of fucking him senseless on the parlor's settee, was only a measure of Erik’s own depravity. He wouldn’t act on the impulse, but that wasn’t the point. He’d had the thought. However fleeting.

He was no better than a rapist. No better than Schmidt.

And yet he still couldn’t bring himself to pull away from Charles’ touch.

“If you’re in trouble, I could help,” he said, the words spilling out before he could think better of them. “If you need money, or—”

“Thank you,” Charles said. His face was glowing, and he was looking up at Erik as if Erik was a champion, some knight in shining armor. But Erik was the dragon, the monster to be slain. Charles was just too naïve to realize it.

“Charles, I—”

“No,” Charles said, rising. He was a full head and a half shorter than Erik, his body far thinner and more delicate, but when he went around the table he stood before Erik like he was the larger man. “You don’t understand. It’s enough that you offered.”

Then, before Erik could say a word or move away, Charles bent down and kissed him.

Charles’ mouth was warm and pliant. He shaped his kiss to Erik’s, soft and hesitant at first, and then bolder as Erik relaxed. When he felt Charles’ tongue against his lips, Erik groaned, hating himself but not quite strong enough to pull away. He opened his lips, and allowed Charles’ tongue to sweep inside his mouth. Erik cupped Charles’ face gently, holding him in place as he returned Charles’ kiss, trying to temper Charles’ passion with soft, slow movements.

It had been years since anyone had kissed him, and never with such apparent ardor. What Charles lacked in skill he made up for in confidence, and it was that confidence which finally made Erik pull back.

Charles was certain that his offer would be accepted. Which meant he’d done this before, had offered himself like this before. Erik couldn’t stand the thought.

He let go of Charles’ face and reached back to pry Charles’ arms from around his neck, breaking the kiss. It required far too much resolve, but Erik was determined. So, apparently, was Charles. He clung to Erik, resisting Erik’s attempts to separate them.

“What is it?” Charles asked. He sounded small, bewildered. His red mouth was swollen, his cheeks flushed, and Erik had to turn away with a groan or start begging Charles to kiss him again and never stop.

“You can’t want this,” Erik said, making his voice as cold and remote as possible. As certain as possible. “Not…not given the way I look. And you’re far too young. You don’t know me.”

“I do,” Charles insisted. “ I do know you. I know that you’re a kind man, and that you’re lonely. So am I. What’s the harm—”

“What’s the harm?” Erik repeated, astonished and suddenly angrier than he’d been in years. “This,” and he waved at the space between them, “is illegal, in case that’s slipped your mind. If we were discovered…”

“We wouldn’t be,” Charles said, far too assured for Erik’s liking. “And it’s not as if it matters to anyone here. I don’t think that innkeeper would even care. Not if you paid her off.”

Erik ran a hand through his hair, pulling at the roots until the sharp pain outweighed his frustration. “You’re still too young,” he said. “And…how can you be sure that this is something you truly want? Just because you’ve been with men in the past doesn’t mean that you, that you’re…a certain way.”

“But I am,” Charles said, angry now. Two spots of red appeared on his cheeks and his eyes glittered dangerously. “I’ve always been so. Everyone knows it. My first professor at Eton saw it. I was only nine, but he knew, and he…” Charles, unable to finish that thought, recovered and spoke again. “And my stepfather. He’s known since I was 11. That’s why he—” Charles bit off the words, pressing his red rosebud of a mouth firmly closed.

“Why he what?” Erik asked, furious. He felt such rage. Rage he’d thought he could only feel for Schmidt, for the bastard who’d ruined his life and killed his mother. But this was worse. Charles’ stepfather had done something. Erik only had a few pieces, but it was enough to finish a tiny portion of the puzzle.

Charles deflated then, shoulders sagging, a defeated cast to his face that Erik wanted, desperately, to wipe away. “Nothing,” he whispered. “He just…sent me away. That’s it.”

Erik could see Charles wasn’t telling the whole truth, but he didn’t know how to force it from him. At a loss, Erik could only stare at Charles’ pale, luminous face.

“I’ve always been this way,” Charles said again, blue eyes shining with hot, defiant tears. “Aren’t I allowed to have something that I want, too?”

Erik staggered back, momentarily losing his balance enough to stumble. He barely noticed. Something that I want.

No. It was time Erik firmly established who and what he was.

“You don’t know me,” Erik said, moving closer until he was towering over Charles. He leaned close until he was only a hairsbreadth from Charles’ face, projecting a cold, deadly fury with every breath. Erik had used this technique before, on subordinates and rivals, and given his appearance and the almost tangible quality of his rage, men twice the size of Charles had cowed before him.

When Charles finally tried to move away, Erik gripped his upper arms tightly—Charles was so thin, through that shabby coat—and drew him closer until they were almost nose-to-nose.

“You don’t know me,” he said again. “I’ve killed people before. Lots of them. I’ve left men broken and shattered. I’ve orphaned children, left poor widows to fend for themselves. I’ve done so many, many terrible things, Charles. Things you can’t imagine. So what makes you think I’d give a damn about you and what you want? In ten seconds I could have you over the table, fuck you until you bled, and nothing you could do or say would stop me.”

Charles was finally crying now, silent tears streaking down his cheeks to drip off his chin. The sight made Erik go cold, and he nurtured the feeling, encouraging the ice to cover his lungs, his stomach. His heart.

“I’m a monster, Charles. You wouldn’t want to know me,” he finished.

To firmly and indelibly make his point, Erik dragged Charles up to his mouth and kissed him again. This time he was savage. He ground their mouths together, using his tongue to push inside Charles’ mouth, forcing his tongue down Charles’ throat until he felt the young man start to choke and gag. He drew back, biting Charles’ lip sharply, and then shoved him away. He watched, unfeeling, as Charles stumbled back and fell to the floor.

He started up at Erik in shock, and pressed the back of his hand to his mouth. Erik laughed, the sound harsh and cruel. Charles was actually trying to wipe away the sensation of Erik’s mouth. But his hand came away bloody; Erik could see the slick blackness of blood in the firelight. And he tasted Charles’ blood on his lips.

“Enjoy the parlour, Charles. And don’t be so eager to offer yourself in the future,” Erik said, yanking his cloak off the peg by the door. He slammed the door behind him, and stalked off into the night.

****

Charles rose shakily to his feet. His lip hurt, and his arms ached where Erik had grabbed him. But the pain in his heart was worse. He didn’t want you. He had to hurt you to make you see it. Charles wiped ineffectually at his face, embarrassed by the watery tracks of tears. God, he was disgusting. Pathetic, really. The first person who’d shown him any kindness in years, and what had Charles done? Insulted him, accosted him, and then pushed him until Lehnsherr had been forced to lash out just to get away from him.

A large part of Charles wanted to run out into the darkness after Lehnsherr, to beg him to come back, to play another game of chess. It was Charles’ fault, and he should be the one marching out into the wind and snow. He’d pushed. He always pushed too much, wanted too much. And now he was alone.

Instead of giving in to his impulse to race out after Mr. Lehnsherr, Charles went over to the fireplace and tried to rub some warmth back into his aching arms. A glint of crystal caught his eye, and he reached for the tumbler that rested there the mantle. Lehnsherr had abandoned it when they’d started their chess game, and for a moment Charles imagined he could still feel the lingering heat of Lehnsherr’s lips on the cold glass.

He retrieved the bottle of brandy from the sideboard, and poured himself a full measure. He turned the tumbler until he could put his lips exactly where Lehnsherr had put his, and drank deeply.

Charles poured himself another drink. And another, and another, and another, until he couldn’t feel anything at all.

****

Chapter Text

Seven Years Later
September 12, 1816

The sudden scatter of priceless gemstones across the table resulted in a collective gasp. Not one man amidst the small collection of gentlemen gathered around dared so much as breathe. The game before them had gone too long, and the play was too deep. The tension between the two remaining players was palpable, as much a presence in the room as the hovering cloud of cigar smoke and the tang of sweat.

The attention of the small crowd shifted from one opponent to the other at the only open table in London’s most elegant gaming house, and caught on the coiled necklace of canary diamonds and blue sapphires resting between the two men.

Cain Marko smirked at the astonished looks on the faces of his friends. None of the cultured aristocrats gathered there had expected him to last an hour of play, much less the entire evening. But Cain had endured, lasted through hand after hand of whist as the wagers had steadily increased. It was now gone four o’clock in the morning, and despite the sky-high table stakes, Cain could taste victory. Yes, he’d had to offer up his final resource, the famous Xavier diamonds, as collateral to fund his final bet. Good thing Cain knew that the smug bastard across the table was bluffing.

He would win, and the hellspawn sitting across from him would finally know how it felt to lose to a gentleman.

“No.”

The simple word, spoken in the man’s elegant, nearly untraceable accent, seemed to echo in the silence of the room. The twelve men who’d stayed all night to observe the final hand swivelled their heads to Cain, as though they were watching a tennis match. Cain took no notice; he was incensed by the man’s audacity.

“No?” Cain repeated, pounding one meaty fist down on the table hard enough to make the glittering gemstones rattle. “It’s my wager!”

The owner of the establishment, and the only man left playing against Cain, remained unmoved by both his opponent’s temper and the glitter of the priceless necklace at the centre of the table.

“And it’s my table,” he intoned. The starched cravat at the man’s throat remained as fresh as when he had come downstairs hours ago, and his hands, which moved with an almost hypnotic grace over the cards, never faltered, except to rise and touch the black patch centred over his left eye.

“Quit fingering that bloody eyepatch!” Cain warned. “Every time you do it I have to look at your ugly Jew face, and you throw me off my game. I swear that you’re doing it deliberately.”

The crowd gathered there murmured in disapproval. The anti-Semitic comment hardly mattered, but to call attention to the man’s unfortunate injury was bad form, and Cain knew it. It only made him angrier.

“And what the hell do you mean, no? The necklace more than covers the wager. You’ll take the bloody diamonds, and—”

“No.”

“Look at them, Lehnsherr!” the viscount demanded. He ran one soft, white hand under the yellow and blue gemstones, their gold settings, and the chain that connected the heavy necklace. “Just look at them. The Xavier diamonds, and you say “no” as if you were turning down a beggar in the street. Have you ever seen anything like them?” Cain asked, allowing the stones to run through his trembling fingers and tumble to the green felt.

One silver-grey eye fixed on the sparkling display for a moment, and then lifted quickly to the bloodshot eyes of the waiting aristocrat.

“No,” he said again. “I’m not qualified to judge their worth. And the rules were table stakes.”

“You arrogant-” Cain stopped the insult with great effort. “You’d give up a priceless pile of gems for some stupid rule? Everyone knows the Xavier diamonds. Been in the family for years. Ask anyone. If you knew anything—”

“If you want to cover the bet, then do so,” Lehnsherr said, his voice utterly calm. He was as unmoved by Cain’s insults as he was by the magnificence of the stones. The Prussian accent echoed through his speech like a vein of iron ore: faint, but lending extraordinary strength and power to his words.

“You’ll take my marker,” Cain continued arrogantly. He was unused to being told no, and was equally unwilling to accept it. Not from the Jewish operator of a gambling den.

“I have your markers,” Lehnsherr reminded him. He said this without raising his voice, but that core of iron—cold, fixed, and as immoveable as the earth itself—leaked through. His long fingers circled an untidy pile of chits at his elbow, and Lehnsherr crushed them in his grip, letting the paper markers fall, rumpled, to the table. “I have more of your markers than I will likely be able to collect. No more. I told you the limit I was willing to hold, and you’ve surpassed that twice. If you have nothing else…”

“The diamonds,” Cain said, shoving the necklace towards Lehnsherr. “Ask anyone. They’ll tell you.” He lifted one sweaty hand in an arc to encompass the gathered spectators, and then closed it in a tight fist to hide the trembling. No one in the crowd was sure if Cain’s hand shook from nerves, drink, or anger. The only thing more legendary than the Xavier diamonds were the murderous rages of the Markos.

The gentlemen began to nod as Cain looked to them beseechingly for support. Some nodded reluctantly—Cain Marko had few friends among the gentry—but most were willing to attest to the value of the Xavier jewels. There was a wild, desperate quality to Cain’s appeal; the handful gathered there believed that Cain must have a winning hand, or else he would not have staked all that remained of his family fortune on the outcome of a single turn.

Sensing he had the support of the crowd, Cain grew bold. His luck was turning. He was going to win, to reclaim everything his father had squandered. He could feel it in the air.

And still, the bastard Lehnsherr didn’t yield. Cain played his final hand. “Or are you simply taking the coward’s way out?” he taunted. “Not that I’m surprised. Your sort are never willing to face a man directly when you can scuttle away in the dark like the rats you are.”

If the silence had been heavy before, it was now quiet as a tomb. No one moved, spoke, or even so much as coughed.

Lehnsherr hadn’t reacted, beyond the slight twitch of his left hand where it rested on a pile of crumpled markers.

“If the diamonds are not real—” he began, that smooth, foreign voice carrying the same edge of warning.

But Cain cut him off. “You have my word. The word of an English gentleman. If you can possibly understand what that means,” he sneered.

The single silver eye studied the sweaty features of his opponent closely. And then, just as the men beyond the table decided the game was over, Lehnsherr reached over and pulled the necklace into the centre pile of coins and paper markers.

The smile of triumph spreading over Cain’s flushed face might have given Lehnsherr reason to regret the move. He quickly flipped over the cards under his waiting hand, revealing their suit and value. There was a small gasp from the crowd; the hand upon which Cain had staked his remaining fortune was a very, very good hand indeed.

He’d won. He’d won the game, won the day, won back his family’s fortune and the life of luxury he’d nearly been forced to abandon. And best of all, he’d beaten Erik Lehnsherr at his own game. For good measure, Cain insolently allowed his gaze to drift over Lehnsherr’s scarred face and eyepatch before returning to meet the gambler’s single silver eye.

Cain’s hands trembled at what he saw in Lehnsherr’s gaze. It wasn’t possible. Only one combination of cards could beat the hand he’d just turned up, and the odds of that occurring were…

But the sudden quirk of the corners of Lehnsherr’s mouth told Cain, and the rest of the men gathered in the room, everything they needed to know. Cain didn’t even watch as Lehnsherr turned over his cards one by one, revealing Cain’s defeat in detail.

Whatever the odds, Lehnsherr had beaten him. He’d beaten them all.

With easy grace Lehnsherr stood and swept the pile of coins, markers, and scattered chits into a velvet bag kept by the house for such purposes. His long, elegant fingers lingered over the jewels, and when he lifted the heavy necklace of sapphire and yellow diamonds Lehnsherr caressed them.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “the House is closed. Goodnight.”

He turned and made his way soundlessly across rich Oriental carpets. Cain noted the man’s limp, watching as Lehnsherr reached the staircase and then disappeared into the darkness beyond.

The servants of the gambling house materialized to bring hats and sticks to the departing crowd of gentlemen. One or two of his fellows clapped Cain on the shoulder as they exited, but most slipped by him without a word.

It was over. Cain had lost, defeated by a man he would not have even considered worthy to be his valet.

****

“It’s not fair.”

The petulant note in the Viscount Marko’s voice set Emma’s teeth on edge, but she was far too skilled a courtesan to show it. She merely sighed, tugged his head closer to her scented bosom, and murmured, “There there.”

It was early afternoon, and Emma’s brothel was just beginning to fill up. The gentlemen of the ton liked to visit their whores and mistresses in the afternoon before they began their nightly social circuit of dinners and balls. After the soirees ended and the plays and operas let out, and after they’d escorted their wives or sweethearts safely home, the gentlemen would come to Hellfire House once again, and avail themselves of Emma’s wares. The house would ring with raucous laughter and the tittering of Emma’s staff of extremely well-trained courtesans.

For now, though, most of the rooms upstairs were empty. Few gentlemen milled about, lazily flirting with Emma’s daytime girls and shuffling through the day’s papers. A handful more were smoking opium down in the house’s basement, and the sweet scent of burning poppy mingled with the expensive perfume of the whores and the hothouse flowers arranged throughout the brothel.

Emma liked this time of day, when lazy indolence settled over Hellfire House and all was calm and quiet. At night the place was charged with sexual tension and sweaty fantasy; inevitably a fight would break out and one of Emma’s bouncers would be charged with escorting the offending gentlemen out. They’d only return the next night, and the cycle would continue.

The truth was, Emma was bored. Hellfire House no longer held any particular interest or challenge for her, and she’d made enough money to last her several lifetimes. But she stayed, mainly for the benefit of the girls. Most of them were young and inexperienced; without her guidance, they’d put themselves at unnecessary risk.

For example, they would have taken the Viscount Marko for a tumble when he was angry and drunk. Luckily Emma had found him first, wandering the entrance level and putting his sweaty hands all over the priceless objects d’art she’d spent a lifetime collecting. Emma had pulled him into the public sitting room on the first floor, keeping them in full view of the other patrons and her security staff. She’d proceeded to comfort him, which entailed of listening him go on and on about his stupendous loss at the tables last night.

“It’s not fair,” he said again. His stale breath, fetid with alcohol, washed over Emma’s breasts, the tops of which spilled artfully from her white corset. She held back a grimace, and stroked her hand through Cain’s greasy hair.

“That bastard must have cheated,” Cain said. “There’s no way—”

“I wouldn’t repeat that, sweetheart,” Emma whispered, mindful of the group of young gentlemen lounging nearby. “The last man who accused Lehnsherr of cheating didn’t come back from the elms.”

This advice didn’t seem to register. Cain shook his head, and lifted his flask to pour more whiskey down his throat. “He’s ruined me, you know. Absolutely ruined me.”

Emma did know. She made it her business to know the finances of all her regular customers, and she couldn’t imagine how the Viscount intended to pay off the markers now held by Lehnsherr. She knew Cain had no profitable investments, and little in the way of property. At least, nothing that hadn’t already been mortgaged to the hilt. The diamond necklace he’d just lost in a wager had been the last item of value still attached to the Xavier estate, and what little he’d been living off—the pitiful interest from his sister’s dowry and what remained of the ancestral Xavier property—barely covered Cain’s living expenses and what he spent here at Hellfire House.

Not that his impoverished situation was entirely Cain’s fault. Emma knew that his family’s long, slow slide into bankruptcy had begun many years before with Cain’s father Kurt, the old Viscount Marko. He’d been a regular customer of Hellfire House, too, and famous for both his largess and his cruelty. Marko had insisted on the best and spent whatever monies necessary to obtain it: women, horses, liquor, Kurt Marko had demanded all of it as his due.

Cain himself was a bit like that, though unlike his father, Cain had never had the full benefit of the Xavier fortune to finance his debauchery.

“Do you know anything about Lehnsherr?” Cain asked, twisting closer. Emma thought for a moment, wondering what Cain was really asking.

“Not really,” she said, mentally reviewing all the little scraps of gossip and rumour that had flooded London after Lehnsherr had opened his gaming den four years ago. “Just what everyone knows, really. He’s a Prussian Jew, he was injured in some sort of battle or accident, and he’s rather dangerous. But he never weights his dice or stacks his decks, he doesn’t water his liquor, and his house always pays out. Which can only be said about perhaps a handful of the Hells around town.”

Cain barely seemed to be listening. Emma was used to it. After all, men didn’t pay to hear her talk.

Still, he’d asked her opinion, and there was one more piece of information Emma could share with him. “I’ve also heard that he’s light on the instep.”

This caught Cain’s attention. His beady black eyes widened and he sat up a little. “Really?”

Emma nodded. “So say the rumours. Granted, the information came from…from a man who might have reason to spread lies about Lehnsherr, but I don’t think anyone has ever seen him with a woman.”

“Don’t those Jews stick to their own kind?” Cain asked.

Emma shrugged. “As I said, it’s just a rumour.”

Cain considered her words carefully. He scrubbed at his bloodshot eyes and levered himself up. He looked…thoughtful, an expression that didn’t sit easily on Cain’s rough-hewn face. He was a broad, burly man, his arms and chest covered in curly black hair, and his heavy features—sloped forehead, thick brow, and small, beady black eyes—made him look more like a day labourer than a nobleman. Cain wasn’t one given to deep thoughts or elaborate plans. As Emma understood it, that had been his father’s province.

“Oi, you can’t just barge in here…” Emma heard one of her bouncers say. Several more raised voices at the front entrance were audible, and the commotion caused a ripple of disapproval to move through the collection of gathered whores and gentlemen. Something was happening that wasn’t supposed to be happening at Hellfire House: the outside world was intruding. Debt collectors, tradesmen, tailors and bookmakers were not permitted in the brothel. It was sacrosanct.

Or it had been, until today.

Emma immediately recognized the tall, arrogant figure cutting through the small crowd of her security staff. It was Mr. Erik Lehnsherr, unexpected and severely out of place among the genteel silks and satins of Hellfire House.

It wasn’t his clothing that set him apart; his garments and their cut was of the finest quality, and he might have easily fit with Brummel’s set. Nor was it his race or religion; Jews were not permitted in Emma’s establishment, but such rules hardly mattered to a man like Lehnsherr. No, it was the aura of danger that trailed him, his icy command and his dangerous reputation that was unmatched by any nobleman in the house.

Emma thought of a tiger stalking through a room full of well-fed tabby cats, right before Lehnsherr reached the sofa where she and Cain were sitting.

“The word of an English gentleman,” Lehnsherr bit out. “That’s the phrase you used, I believe. And you implied that I couldn’t possibly know what that meant.”

Interesting. Now that he was so close, Emma could see why the man had been able to build up the finest gambling den in London. He radiated sheer force of will, and just a measure of the anger he was currently directing towards Marko would have intimidated even the bravest London thug. Emma barely noted the confusion in Cain’s beady eyes; all of her attention was fixed on Lehnsherr.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out the Xavier diamonds, tossing the heavy necklace onto a gleaming oak side table beside Cain. The necklace slid, glittering gold and blue, across the smooth surface until Cain grabbed for it.

“The word of an English gentleman,” Lehnsherr repeated, with even more contempt than before.

Cain blinked. “I—are you giving them back?” It was the only explanation that seemed to make sense to Cain, but Emma doubted Lehnsherr was here to return anyone’s valuables. “I knew it! I knew you cheated! Now that you’ve admitted—”

His words were cut off abruptly as Lehnsherr reached for the lapels of Cain’s elegant navy coat. Without any visible effort, Lehnsherr plucked Cain up from where he’d been sitting beside Emma and held him dangling like a rat caught by a terrier.

“Paste,” Lehnsherr whispered, his silver eye glittering with rage. Despite his hushed tone, the accusation carried clearly to the furthest corners of the room. Everyone in Hellfire House had crowded into the hallway beyond the sitting room to watch the spectacle now unfolding before them. Emma tried to glare at one or two of the girls, worried about a fight breaking out, but the drama between Cain and Lehnsherr kept them locked in place.

“The damned stones are worthless,” Lehnsherr said. “I’m not the one who cheated, Marko. And I’m not the one claiming to be a gentleman.”

“You lying bastard!”

“Paste,” Lehnsherr repeated. “You may see the jeweller’s evaluation. And your esteemed friends, if they like,” he said, nodding to Emma, and then to the eight or nine gentlemen watching from the doorway. “I want to know how you intend to repay your debt to me.”

Cain struggled and kicked, clawing at the large hands that held him so tightly. Lehnsherr didn’t even blink. “You substituted—”

“In six hours? An exact duplicate of that necklace, in that setting, in less six hours? Do you really think anyone in London would be capable of that?”

“Your Christ-killing tribe are all master jewellers,” Cain spit back. “I doubt you’d have to go very far into the Hebrew ghetto to find someone skilled enough to do it.”

Lehnsherr dropped Cain like a hot stone. The Viscount fell back into onto the sofa, making Emma bounce, and they both watched as Lehnsherr grabbed the necklace and manipulated one of the larger diamonds so that it lay apart, yet still connected to it’s fellows on the heavy gold chain. Before Cain or Emma could divine Lehnsherr’s intent, he grabbed a brandy bottle from a nearby table and brought the bottom down onto the priceless diamond.

The sparkling canary stone dissolved into white powder.

Gasps were audible around the room. Emma’s staff had given up trying to oust Lehnsherr, and now everyone’s attention was fixed on Cain, waiting for his response.

Cain’s mouth opened and closed like a fish, his alcohol-drenched mind working frantically for an explanation. Sweat broke out on his fat, flushed face. Paste. There could be no mistake. But how? And when?

A dark suspicion grew in his mind, spreading like a poison. His father. He’d likely sold the real stones when the Xavier diamonds had first landed within his grasp, and replaced them with the paste versions at some later point. God knew there were enough debts and bad investments for the former Viscount Marko to have sold off the diamonds years ago, Cain’s needs be damned. He knew exactly what his father had been capable of, although he’d never expected to be on the wrong end of one of Kurt Marko’s schemes.

The whole house was silent in anticipation of Cain’s response, but his mind was a blank. He knew that the crowd of his peers, and even the assembled whores, expected some defence, but what could he say? The necklace was paste, and everyone knew it now, thanks to Lehnsherr’s dramatics. Cain had nothing else to offer.

He had no more funds, no more properties to raid, no more credit. And now…now he wouldn’t even have his good name. He was a cheat, a man who tried to pay his debt of honour with counterfeit coin.

He was ruined. And it was all Erik Lehnsherr’s fault.

Cain rose on unsteady legs. The sickness washing around in his stomach was not due not to alcohol, but to the ruin of his life. He raised his red-rimmed eyes to meet the icy silver gaze of the man who had destroyed him.

“I’ll call on you tomorrow with the money,” he said, barely glancing at Emma before he brushed past Lehnsherr toward the front door. He didn’t bother to collect his beaver and stick. Nothing mattered but getting away, away from the burgeoning whispers that would soon fill Hellfire House with a cacophony of condemnation.

He had nothing. Nothing. And he’d just promised to hand over seventy thousand pounds on the morrow.

****

Chapter Text

“Charles.” A hard shove. “Charles,” said the Voice again, and Charles groaned and rolled away from whomever was so insistent upon waking him. He dragged the coverlet up over his head, and squeezed his eyes shut tight. He hadn’t slept a wink the previous night, staying up late to work on that piece for the London Biological Society. There was no reason—none—that he needed to be awake now.

Apparently the Voice disagreed. “Charles, wake up!” This was punctuated by another hard shove, and this time Charles tumbled out of bed in a mire of quilts and linen sheets. He landed hard on his hip, which made him grunt in pain, and he cracked one eye open to look up at the woman who’d disturbed his sleep.

“Moira, my dear,” he said, “what in God’s name is the matter?”

Lady Moira MacTaggert, late of her husband’s large estate near Inverness and currently residing in the room across from Charles, tugged at his blankets until he rotated in place, and landed on his other hip. “Ouch,” he said, wondering how the tiny Mrs. MacTaggert had come to possess such Herculean strength.

“Charles, get up!” she ordered, tossing his blankets back on the bed. Though Charles was nearly nude, clad only in his smallclothes, Moira didn’t flush or even spare him a curious glance. She’d seen Charles in far less.

Charles grabbed the top sheet off his bed and wrapped it around himself, toga-style, not wanting to offend her. “Moira, dear, what’s the matter?”

“Cain is here,” she said, her snapping brown eyes reflecting both worry and anger. She hated the Markos, junior and senior, with a depth of fury unfelt by even Charles himself, and Charles was surprised that Cain had been able to cross the threshold without withering from Moira’s glare.

“Why is he—?”

“Ask him yourself,” Moira snapped, and then immediately gentled as she looked at Charles in apology. “I don’t know why he came. He knows he’s not welcome here, but he insisted. I couldn’t refuse him entry without making a scene.”

Charles nodded and went to the washbasin to splash water on his face. As Moira chose clothing for him from the wardrobe, Charles slipped behind the dressing screen to avail himself of the chamberpot. Just as he finished she handed him breeches, a linen shirt, and fresh smallclothes. No jacket, but then Moira wouldn’t expect him to dress for Cain Marko.

Charles pulled on his clothing quickly and ran a hand through his hair. It was fluffy on one side, flat on the other, but it would have to do. The hour was still very early, but if he didn’t get Cain out of here soon the rest of the servants would wake and start their day. One of them would inevitably catch sight of Cain, and Charles would rather perish than allow Raven to hear that her older brother had come calling.

“You’ll do,” Moira said, nudging Charles away from the mirror. “Now go, and get rid of him.” She all but pushed him down the stairs, and Charles almost stumbled in an effort to navigate the stairs and button his cuffs at the same time. He managed to make the landing safely, and went to go find Cain.

The parlour door was closed and so Charles rapped once, softly, not waiting for Cain’s harsh “Come!” He stepped into the room and was brought up short by the sight of his stepbrother, whom Charles had not seen in nearly two years.

The last time he’d seen Cain had been at Kurt Marko’s funeral. Cain had seemed huge then, a vast mountain of a man with coal-black hair, a ruddy complexion, and a single thick black eyebrow that ran in a straight line beneath his protruding brow. Cain was not a handsome man but he looked even worse now, weary and defeated. He’d lost a lot of weight, Charles noted, and most of that muscle. His flesh seemed to sag off him, and his former barrel chest had collapsed into a fat paunch of a belly. His complexion was sallow, and his bloodshot eyes attested to the fact that the family propensity toward overindulgence had transferred from father to son.

In fact, Charles rather suspected that Cain was drunk right now.

“Charles,” Cain said, and though he tried for the customary sneer he reserved for utterances of Charles’ name, Cain couldn’t quite manage it. Instead he sank into a handy chair—Moira would have a hell of a time getting the odour of Cain’s sweat and unwashed body out of the upholstery—and put his head in his hands.

“I’m ruined, Charlie,” he said, voice rising to a wail at the end of his proclamation. “Utterly, completely ruined. S’all that bastard gambler’s fault. And Father’s.”

The mention of Kurt Marko made Charles go still. The elder Viscount may have been dead, but he was evidently still capable of exerting power over the living.

“What did Kurt do, Cain?” he asked, trying to keep his voice level. He wasn’t necessarily on Cain’s side, but if something Marko had done threatened Cain, it also by definition threatened Raven. Cain was still her legal guardian, though he’d not bothered to so much as inquire after his sister’s welfare in years. Charles supported her now, paying for her education with what he could earn from publishing scientific papers under an assumed name. It wasn’t quite enough, but with Moira’s help he’d managed it. And now the spectre of Kurt Marko had risen, threatening to once again destroy all of Charles’ fragile hopes.

“He switched the necklace. The canary and sapphire one. Belonged to your mother, I think. He switched the stones with paste. I’d wagered the necklace in a game of chance, and now everyone thinks I’m a cheat and a liar! You should have seen the looks on the faces of the men at Hellfire House. They stared at me as if I were a bug, lower even than that bastard and his foul Jew tribe. Why in God’s name did Father have to do it?”

Charles absorbed Cain’s little speech with more difficulty than was warranted. His mother’s necklace? He remembered it, canary diamonds and bright blue sapphires, glimmering just above Sharon Xavier’s neckline as she prepared for a ball. He’d hidden himself behind the curtain in her dressing room, and watched as she’d put the shimmering chain around her neck.

It was only one of several priceless pieces of jewellery his father had given his mother. Charles hadn’t thought of it in years. He’d thought Kurt Marko had sold it, along with all of his mother’s expensive jewels, furs, and even her dresses, during those first years after they’d married. Why Cain had assumed Kurt wouldn’t have already sold it was beyond his ken. Kurt had left nothing, not for any of them.

“How much?” Charles asked, shaking himself out of his reverie. Cain blinked at him in question, and Charles had to clarify. “This gambler you mentioned. How much do you owe him?”

Cain closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. “£70,000.”

“70,000 pounds?” Charles repeated, certain that he’d misheard. He couldn’t even comprehend such a sum. He earned an average of 5 pounds per year publishing his scientific articles. £70,000? Cain might as well have named the price of the moon.

“How could you be so stupid?” Charles exclaimed, forgetting to whom he was speaking. Cain Marko was monumentally stupid. Stupid and mean, especially when cornered. He rose from his chair, ham-sized fist clenched, and despite all the years between Then and Now, Charles still flinched when Cain drew back his arm.

Hot shame made his cheeks flush, the tips of his ears burn. He’d endured far worse bullies than Cain Marko in his life, men who treated the infliction of pain as a form of art, not a blunt instrument of intimidation. Yet he’d flinched, which gave Cain power over him. And Charles had vowed at his stepfather’s gravesite never to be the punching bag for another Marko.

Cain dropped his arm, perhaps because he recognized the stubborn defiance glittering in Charles’ eyes. Or perhaps he simply didn’t have the energy to pound Charles’ head in.

“I need your help, Charlie,” Cain said, as if he hadn’t just threatened his stepbrother. “I’ve got to repay that bastard. He holds so many of my markers…if I can just hold him off for a while, I can come up with something, some way to—”

“What do you think I can do to help you, Cain?” Charles asked, unwilling to waste time listening to his stepbrother spin wild plans. There was no possible way that Cain could come up with even a quarter of the amount he’d named.

“You have to keep me out of Newgate,” Cain said, turning to Charles with a desperate light in his eyes. “You can do it. I know you helped Father before…”

“Not because I was willing,” Charles said, shaking his head firmly. “You know that."

Cain shrugged, just as aware as Charles that his willingness hadn’t mattered to Kurt Marko. “But you can…offer your services. Just as you did for Father’s friends.”

Charles had to swallow back on a sudden, sick feeling of nausea. He’d worked hard to put those years behind him. He’d buried the memories of hands pawing roughly over his naked body, pinching and pulling and stretching him into whatever shape they’d wanted. He’d forced himself to forget the hot wash of fetid breath over his skin, the stench of rotting teeth and opium, the pain when they pushed into him, and the pain that had come later, when he was alone, worrying over the telltale pinkness in his stool.

He’d only been a boy then, just a child, small and weak and defenceless. Everything had been ripped from him, stolen by greedy, cruel men, and Cain…Cain saw it as a bargain. Just as Kurt Marko had.

When he could finally speak without screaming, Charles cleared his throat. “I won’t do it, Cain,” he said, his voice firm. He was proud that it didn’t shake. “Not for anything. And certainly not to save the likes of you.”

Cain rounded on him, black eyes flashing surprise and anger. Charles had never before refused anything demanded by a Marko.

“You’ll do it,” he whispered. “If you don’t, then Raven will.”

This pronouncement had the effect of dumping a bucket of ice on Charles.

Whatever small flame of hope Charles had nurtured about Cain, hope his stepbrother could learn to be a better man than Kurt, was immediately extinguished. Charles saw Cain for the man he was: as selfish and thoughtless as his father, and just as much of a threat to Raven. But perhaps he could still be reasoned with.

“What makes you think this gambler enjoys those particular proclivities, Cain? Has he given you any indication that he would be at all interested in my services?”

“Oh, that crippled Prussian bastard will be grateful for the attention. And he’s a Jew, Charlie. Do you believe it? A miserly Christ-killing Jew, and he thinks he can question my honour. Arrogant prick. He’s a sodomite, mark my words. All those filthy Semites are.”

Charles had heard Cain’s invectives about Jews before, but something else Cain said had caught his interest. “He’s Prussian, you say? And…a cripple?”

Cain nodded, rubbing at his bloodshot eyes. “Some problem with his leg. He walks with a limp.” Cain seemed to realize his misstep and quickly added, “Not that he’s malformed, or anything. You’ve seen worse. I’m certain of it.”

“Yes, I'm sure I have,” Charles muttered absently. He’d barely heard Cain’s last words. A Prussian with a leg injury? It couldn’t be. Could it? “What’s his name?” he asked urgently, resisting the urge to grab Cain by the lapels of his elaborate brocade coat and shake the answer out of him.

Cain frowned, his thick black eyebrows drawing together over his face in such a way that he even more closely resembled a Neanderthal. “What does it matter?”

“His name please, Cain.”

Cain licked at his lips. Perhaps it could be carried off after all. It wasn’t as though Charlie had any honour to defend, he thought. What could it matter to him? “Lehnsherr, or so he calls himself. Erik Lehnsherr. He runs a gambling den called The Coin down near Vauxhall.”

Charles’ shoulders dropped, and Cain watched in startled wonderment as Charles sank to the divan and hunched over, elbows on knees. His posture mirrored Cain’s from a moment ago, aside from the astonishment on his face.

“Lehnsherr. You’re sure?”

Cain swung at Charles, and hit home with bone-crunching force. His heavy fist ploughed into Charles’ face hard enough to unseat him, and a mean sense of enjoyment filled Cain as he sent his pretty little stepbrother sprawling out across the parlour’s worn Oriental rug. “Of course I’m sure!” Cain roared. He would have kicked at Charles, hopefully managing to break a rib or two, but the rush of blood from his sudden rage made Cain’s head throb. He sat back down, clutching at his head.

“I’m sure,” Cain bit out, squeezing his eyes shut against the ache. “Hard to forget the name of a man who shamed and cheated you.”

“Yes,” he heard Charles say, an unfamiliar note in his voice. Cain risked opening an eye and found that Charles had gotten to his feet. His lip was bruised and already swelling, and it looked like he might have a black eye by the end of the day. At least Charles no longer looked like an innocent schoolmaster, wretched sodomite that he was. But he didn’t appreciate the light of defiance in Charles’ eye. Charles never looked at Cain’s father like that.

Still, there was plenty of time to beat some respect into little Charlie Xavier. For now Cain only wanted his assurance that he would meet with the Jew and strike some sort of bargain to cancel the debt and restore Cain’s honour. Once that was done, Cain didn’t care what happened to the little brat.

Cain stood, ignoring the renewed pounding in his head, and went to loom over Charles. He had at least four stone on Charles, and several inches of height, which he’d used to his advantage since they were boys. “You’ll do it,” he said. It wasn’t a question; he knew he’d given Charles no choice. It was child’s play to control him. One just had to threaten Raven.

“I’ll meet with Mr. Lehnsherr,” Charles said slowly, looking up at Cain with that same edge of defiance. Despite his blacked eye and swollen lip, Charles didn’t seem defeated, even though he’d agreed to do Cain’s bidding. Cain considered punching him again, if only to teach him a lesson, but his hand stung from when he’d struck Charles earlier, and he was exhausted.

Once he’d had a chance to eat, sleep, and drink a little, he’d be in a much better position to remind Charles who was in charge of their dynamic.

“Make sure you’re convincing,” Cain warned. “And if he tries to retaliate against me, you will be very, very sorry, Charlie.” With that, Cain lumbered out of the room, taking his stench of stale sweat, cheap drink, and unwashed body with him.

Charles stood for a long moment in the centre of the parlour, mind whirling. He’d hardly felt Cain’s blow, still shocked by the knowledge that Lehnsherr, the man from that snowy night on the road to London, was so close. He might have been in London all this time, and Charles’d had no way of knowing.

He took his handkerchief from his jacket pocket and refolded the white square, pressing the cloth to his lip. All of this was done mechanically and without a great deal of thought. The entirety of Charles’ attention was consumed by thoughts and memories of Mr. Lehnsherr. Erik, Charles corrected, thrilled to finally know the man’s full name. He remembered his limp as a soft, uneven fall of footsteps when Erik had crossed the room for the chess set. And his faint accent, that sharp-edged trace of German flowing amidst smooth English syllables, spoken in the deep, rich baritone that had echoed in Charles’ dreams for countless months after that night.

They’d only shared one evening of conversation, but Erik had never been far from Charles’ thoughts. He still remembered the gentle kiss they’d shared before he’d made his ridiculous offer. And he’d often thought of the way Erik had cradled his head so tenderly, holding Charles against him as if Charles were something precious, something which Erik wanted to hold close and never let go. He’d tried to tell himself he’d imagined it all.

But now hope stuttered to life inside him. He had a chance to correct his mistake, and he was determined not to miss it.

****

Chapter Text

The sharp clink of the brandy decanter against a priceless crystal tumbler punctuated the silence of Erik’s study. He hadn’t bothered with candles or a fire, preferring instead to drink and brood in the nighttime darkness.

He could still hear Cain Marko’s arrogant voice in his head. The word of an English gentleman. If you can possibly understand what that means.

That the bastard had tried to pawn off a paste necklace to cover part of a £70,000 table marker was beside the point. Erik had watched Cain’s face carefully when he’d confronted him at the brothel, and the shock on Cain’s face had been genuine. He hadn’t known the diamonds were fake. Still, he’d questioned Erik’s honour, his legitimacy, and then tried to commit fraud against him. Erik typically saved his anger for meatier prey, but he was willing to make an exception for Cain Marko. He’d make the man pay for his insult.

He sighed and sipped at his drink, allowing the burn of the brandy to distract him from more bloodthirsty thoughts. The tables had been full tonight, and even Erik’s thoroughly trained staff had been tested by the demands of so many young noblemen determined to gamble away their family fortunes. He knew the huge swell in patrons was the result of that scene in Hellfire House yesterday, and the thought of it, of Marko’s outrage and his accusation that Erik had switched the gems for paste, made him angry all over again.

He’d have liked nothing more than to have smashed in the young lord’s smirking face in front of the noble gentlemen and their whores at the brothel, but Erik knew that drawing out his revenge against Marko would be far more satisfying. He’d already asked Azazel to track down every outstanding debt Marko had with the other gambling dens with instructions to buy up the markers. By sunrise Erik would own all of Marko’s debts of honour, and tomorrow he’d start collecting bills from tradesmen, lawyers, accountants, anyone to whom Marko owed money. Despite his grand title, Viscount Marko had very little in the way of property (Erik had already checked) but leveraging the debts against Cain would likely be enough to utterly ruin the man, and perhaps see him tossed into debtor’s gaol at Newgate. The thought filled him with cold satisfaction. He might be nothing more than a Jew from the slums of Berlin, but he was perfectly capable of squashing a bug like Cain.

A soft rap at Erik’s door surprised him. Azazel wouldn’t have finished at the other establishments so quickly, and the rest of Erik’s staff knew not to disturb him in his private refuge unless it was an emergency. Erik rose and strode over to the bar, barking, “Come!” while pouring another glass of the brandy. Anything to drown out Marko’s insolent voice. If you can possibly understand what that means.

He heard the door swing closed and hushed footsteps on the carpet, but Erik kept his back turned. If it was one of the maids, Angel or little Kitty, he didn’t want them to see him drinking. Erik indulged so rarely that it might frighten them, and he knew the thunderous look on his face wouldn’t help matters. Intimidating his servants never held any appeal, but he couldn’t seem to control his seething rage tonight. He felt like a wild thing, ready to snap and claw at anyone in sight.

The silence continued, frustrating him—his servants ought to know better than keep him waiting—and Erik finally said, “Speak, then!” in his firmest tone of command, hoping it was one of his pit bosses rather than a timid little maid.

“Hello, Mr. Lehnsherr.”

A man’s voice, and not one he recognized. Except… Erik spun in place, searching out the stranger’s face in the darkness of the room.

Erik nearly dropped his drink. Charles. The man himself, with his creamy pale skin, unruly sable hair, and the extraordinary blue eyes Erik had spent the past seven years trying to forget. Charles stood there before him like a fever dream. There had been days when Erik had been sure he’d imagined the whole thing, that thrilling, horrible night on the road to London, stitched it together out of his loneliness and raw need. But no, Charles was here, now, in Erik’s desolate study, like a ghost come to haunt him.

Those red, red lips were quirked in a smile, and Charles’ face was alight with pleasure and barely-surprised laughter. Erik understood that he wasn’t laughing at him (although Erik was certain that the stupefied look on his face was completely ridiculous), but he couldn’t entirely fathom Charles’ amusement. Not when Charles was sporting a blacked eye and a swollen lip.

“Who—” he tried, then cleared his throat and started again. “Who did that to you?”

Charles blinked. Whatever first question he’d been anticipating from Erik, that hadn’t been it. Erik watched as Charles’ pink tongue darted out to tease at his swollen lower lip.

“I had a rather one-sided argument with a door,” Charles said quietly. Erik didn’t believe for an instant that he was telling the truth, but he was willing to let that go for a moment.

“What are you doing here?” Erik had wanted the question to sound imposing, but instead he’d spoken in a voice of hushed wonder. How could Charles be here like this, after so much time had passed?

“I just found out you were in London.” Charles’ face reflected some of Erik’s startled wonder. “I’d hoped we could…talk.” He blushed at that, and Erik felt almost overwhelmed by a sudden, intense joy and a surge of affection for the man before him.

Charles hadn’t changed, not one whit. Oh, he’d aged—he must be nearly 24—but he was still much shorter than Erik. His body was nicely muscled now, rather than starved-slender, and perfectly in proportion. His coat was a relic and threadbare at the elbows, and his boots needed the dustbin, but Charles was here, whole and real and looking luminous in the faint moonlight spilling in through the windows. His eyes, those bright blue eyes that had haunted Erik so, were cobalt in the low light, and glowing with unfettered joy. Erik couldn’t quite believe that Charles was so glad to see him, but the evidence was hard to ignore. He took a tentative step forward and Charles moved towards him eagerly, that joyful glow in his eyes only intensifying. But before Erik could entirely give in to temptation and put his arms around Charles, he had to know.

“Why are you here?” he asked again, hating the note of aching vulnerability in his own voice. Charles seemed to remember himself. He dropped his arms to his sides (had he truly been reaching out for Erik?) and his expression, so open before, now shaded into uncertainty. He chewed at his lower lip, wincing when he remembered its soreness, and Erik bit back a groan. He’d hear Charles’ explanation, and then he’d kiss the man senseless.

“I wanted to come,” Charles said quickly. Too quickly, as though he sensed Erik wouldn’t believe him. “When Cain told me that you were here, in London, I couldn’t believe-”

“Cain?” Hearing Charles say that hated name was like falling into an ocean of freezing water. All his warm feelings at Charles’ sudden reappearance were suddenly caught up in the ice. “Cain Marko?”

“Y-yes,” Charles stuttered, wary now of the anger creeping into Erik’s voice. “He’s my stepbrother. Not a blood relation, thank God. He came to see me in the country yesterday and told me that he’d lost a wager to you. A rather large one, he said. He’s afraid you’re going to ruin him because he tried to give you a paste necklace. Cain is an absolute heel, but—”

“Stop,” Erik said roughly. He hadn’t heard much after Charles had said that Cain was his stepbrother, but the rest of the explanation hardly mattered. He’d gotten his answer. He knew why Charles was here.

That earlier rage boiled back to life inside of him again. Rage at Cain, at Charles, at their whole wretched class of sycophants and liars. They’d taken so much from him. His father, his mother, his childhood, his face. Charles was one of them. A nobleman. And, as it turned out, brother to Cain Marko.

He clenched his hand into a fist and Charles, face gone white with fear and confusion, took a step back. But he didn’t raise his hands in his own defence. Instead, he turned his face, and waited for the blow.

Erik stared at Charles, at his averted gaze fixed to the carpet, at the dull, vacant look in his eyes. He expected to be hit, but would do nothing to defend himself. Erik had seen such a reaction before in wretched souls so accustomed to abuse that they couldn’t even rouse themselves to care about being beaten again.

His mother had worn that look, in the years before her death.

The thought made him feel sick. Erik immediately unclenched his hand, nausea swirling in his belly. He hadn’t been planning to punch Charles. He’d never even tried to hit Klaus Schmidt.

One thing was clear: Charles had been hit before, and often, but had apparently not lashed out against his attackers. He’d taken the blows quietly and bravely. And then taken them again, and again.

Why? And the larger question, why did Erik even care? Charles was brother to Cain Marko. He was stained by the same ugliness, by the wealth, indolence, and cruelty of his aristocratic class, and by the ruthless contempt the nobility felt towards those they deemed beneath them. What could the son of a nobleman want with someone like Erik?

The suspicion grew from a stray thought to an ironclad certainty in the seconds it took for Charles to realize that Erik really wasn’t going to strike him. He stood there, looking small and disappointed, all of his earlier joy gone like he had never been happy to see Erik at all. And Erik knew. He knew.

“You’re here to bargain for your stepbrother,” he said icily, ignoring the sick feeling of guilt swirling in his stomach at having frightened Charles. “You came to, what, offer money? Though by the look of your coat you haven’t two farthings to rub together.” He instantly regretted the cruel dig, but it wasn’t as though Charles actually deserved any pity. Not if he was here on Marko’s behalf. “And you have nothing in the way of property. I’ve already looked into your family’s holdings, and the Markos have already sold off everything of value. So what, I wonder, do you propose to bargain with?”

Charles hadn’t moved, but at least he’d come back to himself a bit. That dull, flat look in his eye was gone, replaced by…anger, Erik decided. Charles was angry with him. The insolent jut of his chin and the way he’d drawn himself up to his full height was proof that Charles had some backbone, and Erik was relieved to see it. It appeared that, while Charles may have being willing to take Erik’s physical blows without complaint, he was not willing to be mocked or insulted.

“You haven’t changed at all,” Charles said, lifting his chin, his blue eyes snapping with defiance. “You’re still the most arrogant man I’ve ever met.”

The remark surprised a stutter of laughter from Erik, and some of his hot rage cooled. He stalked over to the bar to pour another brandy. He poured one for Charles, too, and handed him the expensive crystal tumbler with all the casual arrogance he could muster. Their fingers brushed as he handed Charles the glass; Charles’ hands were cold, and Erik fought the bizarre urge to take Charles’ hands in his and warm them against his own skin.

Charles was watching him carefully now, as though he had no idea what Erik would do next. Erik himself didn’t know. But he’d at least hear Charles out, and then he’d show him the door.

“What do you want, Charles?”

Charles toyed with the brandy glass, looking into the liquid for inspiration. None was forthcoming. He had no idea what to say to Erik, and so Charles surrendered to the bald truth. “I came because I wanted to see you. And because my stepbrother asked me to.”

He watched Erik’s face carefully for the return of that explosive anger. Charles was still shaking from their confrontation, and he knew he was overwrought by the twin shocks of seeing Erik again—as handsome as ever, and as troubled—and nearly being struck by the man. The moment replayed over and over in his mind, Erik’s angry face, his hand clenched in a tight fist, and the long moment between heartbeats while Charles had waited for the blow to land. It had never come, and he still didn’t understand exactly why. Erik had been furious when he’d learned of Charles’ connection with Cain, and he was still angry. But Charles could see Erik’s reason asserting itself, his quicksilver mind flashing through the list of possible explanations for why Cain would ask Charles to come here.

Charles saw the exact moment when Erik hit upon the ugly truth. His face locked up, that arrogant profile icing over again. He’d expected Erik to be upset, but he hadn’t fully prepared himself to be the target not only of Erik’s anger, but his disdain.

“Cain wanted you to offer yourself to me, expecting that in return I’d cancel the debt.”

Hot shame coursed through Charles, but he forced himself to meet Erik’s cold, assessing gaze. “Yes,” he whispered, hating Cain, hating himself even more. If only he wasn’t so damned weak, so damn useless. “That’s what he’d planned.”

Erik barked out a laugh, but it wasn’t the sharp, surprised sound of amusement Charles had startled out of him earlier. This was a low, bitter chuckle.

“Cain values you rather highly, doesn’t he? £70,000 for a tumble? That’s a bit much, don’t you think?”

“Yes,” Charles agreed, forcing himself to match Erik’s small, bitter smile. He wanted to explain everything, but even a man as compromised as Charles had his pride. “£70,000 sterling is far too much for a single night. That’s why—” he cleared his throat, forcing the rest of the words out. “That’s why you can have me for as long as you wish. As many times as you wish.”

He’d been trying to make the offer sound enticing, but Charles could hear the edge of desperation in his own voice. This had been a lost cause from the moment Erik had heard he was related to Cain. And Charles had no idea how to make this sound like anything other than what it was: a cheap, sordid transaction. That Charles had hoped for more—longed for more—was evidence only of his damned his naiveté. Of course Erik didn’t want him. Didn’t need him, not for a single night or any other period of time. He wouldn’t be interested in helping Charles, and by extension Raven, escape Cain’s grasp.

No. There was only one thing other people wanted from Charles. Why in God’s name had he ever expected this to work?

“As many times as I wish.” Erik was speaking so quietly that Charles had barely heard him. He was repeating Charles’ words to himself, as if still trying to process the meaning. “You’d simply give yourself over to me?”

Charles couldn’t read Erik’s expression. The handsome planes of his face were tight, closed off, and Charles could see nothing in his eyes to indicate how he felt about the offer. He had no idea if Erik was incensed, intrigued, or incredulous. And in the end, it didn’t matter. There was no going back, no edging away. If Charles failed, if he couldn’t convince Erik that he was worth the price, then Cain would sell Raven off instead. Not to Erik, but to one of Cane’s cronies or creditors. Or perhaps Cain would do worse.

The thought of Raven in a brothel, or chained to some abusive old man like Charles had been, made him act.

Charles moved closer until he was standing only a hair’s breath from Erik, and then dropped to his knees. He was eye-level with the fall of Erik’s trousers—better to look there, than at his face—and before Erik could push him away, Charles had opened Erik’s breeches and brought his face to the apex of his thighs, his breath ghosting hot over the tight (and growing) bulge beneath the tail of his shirt.

“I see,” Erik said. His voice sounded strained. “Letting me sample the merchandise, Charles?”

The bitterness in Erik’s words made unexpected tears well in Charles’ eyes. He’d meant for this to go so differently. He’d wanted friendship. Tenderness. He’d wanted to share a drink with Erik, and talk about Cain’s rash idiocy, and plot some way to act against his vile stepbrother that would put Charles and Raven far beyond Cain’s influence. Then he’d wanted to take Erik to bed, and discover all the warm, secret places of his body. To learn what made Erik sigh in pleasure, or surge up against Charles, or cry out his name in ecstasy.

Instead, he was on his knees on the hard floor, blinking back tears and calling himself ten kinds of fool.

Erik seemed to agree. Charles felt a tug on his shoulders, urging him up gently at first, and then more insistently. He was reluctant to leave the warm, fragrant space between Erik’s thighs, if only because he could not stand to see the revulsion in Erik’s face. He’d failed in this, too. The one thing he had to offer.

When Charles finally got to his feet, he wouldn’t meet Erik’s eyes. He stood there, head hanging low, and focused on not allowing himself to tear up. He’d always been ashamed of how easily he cried; Cain had teased him mercilessly about it, and Kurt had done his best to beat it out of him. Yet his eyes burned all the same.

“Charles.” Erik sounded worn and weary. “Charles, look at me, please.”

Charles stubbornly kept his eyes fixed to the floor, and so he was caught by surprise when Erik stepped closer and cupped his chin, forcing his head up. Erik wore that same unreadable expression, the one Charles couldn’t hope to fathom no matter how well he got to know this man. Not that he’d have any further opportunity to observe Erik; once Erik finally threw him out, Charles knew he would never see him again. Despite the horror and shame he’d felt this evening, his heart still ached at the thought. He’d only just found him again.

“You can tell Cain that I accept,” Erik said. Charles wondered if he’d gone deaf.

“You…accept?” he repeated, dumbfounded. Was this Erik’s idea of a joke? He’d just made a complete fool out of himself, and his sorry attempt at pleasuring Erik had been a resounding failure. Erik had barely gotten hard before he’d urged Charles to stand.

“I do,” Erik said, and finally the hard line of his mouth relaxed into something resembling a smile. It was small, bitter and self-deprecating, but Charles counted it as progress anyway. Erik had agreed. Cain’s debt would be put paid, and Raven’s safety was assured—for now, at least. It seemed too good to be true.

“I agree,” Erik repeated, perhaps sensing Charles’ mounting enthusiasm, “but on three conditions. One, you must immediately move into my establishment here. Wherever you’ve been living, this is now your home.”

Charles nodded. He’d made a home in the country with Moira and started to build a life there, but protecting Raven was far more important. He tried to school his expression into something more sedate, but he still couldn’t stop the overwhelming sense of relief flooding into him. Erik had said yes. And even better, he was going to allow Charles to live here, with him.

Erik continued with his list, watching Charles’ face for full comprehension, or perhaps a sign that Charles wouldn’t agree to his demands. “Two,” Erik said, “no one else touches you, particularly in anger. If someone strikes you, hit them back. Or come for me.”

No one else touches you. Could that mean what Charles thought it might?

“And three,” Erik cleared his throat, “I will hold you to your word. I will have you as long as I wish. And Charles,” here his voice deepened, pitched lower in some strange mixture of danger and desire, “I intend to collect fully on Cain’s debt. Make no mistake.”

A delicious shudder ran down Charles’ spine. “Of course,” he said, and added privately, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

****

Once Charles had gone to collect his belongings from wherever he’d been living, Erik spent several moments staring at the two brandy glasses standing side-by-side on the mantle. He’d put them there after he’d shaken hands with Charles to seal their strange bargain. Aside from the glasses, there was no evidence that Charles had ever been in the room, had turned from Erik in fear, had offered himself, had dropped to his knees and…

Erik cut that thought off immediately. He’d been aroused, yes—he suspected that the sight of Charles on his knees would have that effect on men far more saintly than he—but his desire for Charles hadn’t quite eclipsed his powers of observation. He’d seen the tears and the regret on Charles’ face. He knew that some deeper motivation was driving Charles, some sense of duty that propelled him far enough to offer his mouth to a man like Erik, a man who’d done nothing but intimidate and humiliate him since he’d walked in the door.

No matter what had driven Charles to offer to pleasure him there on the floor of the study, on the edge of desperation in the moonlit darkness, if Erik had taken advantage it would have constituted an act of rape. As monstrous as Erik was, he was no rapist.

Truly? The question was born out of the deepest well of his faltering, underdeveloped conscience. He’d accepted Charles’ body as payment for a debt; would consummating their bargain really constitute anything more than an act of rape?

The question was a sobering one, and he considered again the nature of his agreement with Charles. He’d imagined meeting the man again, so many times in the long, dark nights. Imagined deepening that first, soul-searing kiss, imagined stripping Charles out of his shabby, outdated clothing, imagined the revelation of Charles’ soft white skin, pale and luminous in the moonlight.

The thought of Charles’ beauty gave him pause, and Erik felt for the black velvet patch that hid the blind, clouded horror that was all that remained of his right eye. He rubbed his thumb along the rough scar tissue that marred the skin beneath. The thought of Charles’ lips against his fire-charred skin almost made him sick. He was an abomination, and Charles was so young, so fresh and untainted. Even with a split lip and a blacked eye, he was still the loveliest creature Erik had ever laid eyes upon, those turquoise eyes of his bright in the candlelight, that rosebud mouth temptation itself.

Just another whore, he told himself. You’ve paid a few of them before. He’s just more expensive than the others.. But the bitter thought brought no comfort. So Erik repeated it, again and again, trying to engrave it on his mind and his heart, which wanted Charles to be more. Far more.

Before the spectre of his most heartfelt desires could assert itself, Erik crossed the room and tugged on the brocade bell-pull near the door. He wasn’t sure how far away Charles’ lodgings were, but he intended to use the time until Charles came back to begin to spin his web. Erik intended to find out everything he could about the relationship between Charles and Cain.

Sean Cassidy, one of the house’s young bootblacks and jack-of-all-trades, appeared at the door. “Yes, m’lord?” he said anxiously, keeping his gaze fixed to the floor in outright terror.

Erik resisted the urge to rub at his forehead. If anyone was more afraid of Erik than the young scullery maids, it was Sean the bootblack.

“Prepare the guest bedroom next to mine. And the instant Azazel returns, send him to me.”

“Yes, m’lord,” Sean mumbled, tripping off down the hall. Erik sat behind his large burnished-oak desk and opened his writing box, selecting several sheets of paper, a pen, and a nub. He fixed the nub to the pen and dipped it in the inkwell, beginning to write:

Dear Natasha,

I need to learn everything about the connexion between Cain Marko and Charles Xavier, his stepbrother. Any information would be valuable to me, and thus to you.

-E. L.

****

“You’re joking,” Moria was saying, her native Scottish burr thickening as her frustration grew. “Please, tell me you’re joking.”

Charles paused in his perusal of the stacks of books laid out in a circle around him to stare up at Moira. Despite her short stature and narrow frame she was able to project a thunderous disapproval, her dark head tilted to one side in angry concern.

“Not in the slightest,” he said, hefting the first two volumes of The Flora and Fauna of England. He considered for a moment, and then placed the books in the small pile he’d be leaving behind.

“Moira, dear, I would never be so cruel as to joke about something like this,” Charles said, using the edge of his sleeve to wipe away the dust coating his copy of Horne’s Introduction to the Study of Biology. He put that one in the pile he’d be taking with him to London.

Moira let out a frustrated sigh. “Charles, you can’t just go to this Lehnsherr fellow without knowing anything about the man. And what about Cain? Do you really want him to think he can just sell you off to a stranger in exchange for a gaming marker? It’s worse than anything your stepfather ever—”

Charles looked up sharply, and gave a short, sharp shake of his head. “Don’t,” he said. “Don’t talk about Kurt.” He let silence hang between them for a moment, each thinking of the devil’s pact Kurt Marko had made with Moira’s deceased husband, Lord MacTaggert. Best to leave the past dead and buried, to Charles’ way of thinking.

“I’ve made a bargain with the man to help keep Raven safe. And because…” Charles trailed off, uncertain how to explain to Moira just what it was that drew him to Erik Lehnsherr. The man had a violent temper and his arrogant, icy manner should have given Charles pause, but there was something deeply compelling about the scarred, lonesome gambler, some inner light that drew Charles like a moth to flame.

“Erik Lehnsherr is a good man,” he said firmly, hoping it was true. Needing it to be true. “And Cain didn’t sell me. I went of my own volition to keep Raven safe. Cain would offer her up next, and I’d do anything to spare her that kind of humiliation.” Remembering how it felt to kneel on the hard wooden floor in front of Erik and offer to— No, he couldn’t put Raven in that position.

“It’s complicated, Moira,” he finished, rising to heft a pile of books and deposit them in his valise. “But I will be safe in Mr. Lehnsherr’s company. I promise you that.”

“How do you know?” Moira demanded, her brown eyes brimming with concern.

Because he refused me, Charles wanted to say. Back in that inn, when he could have had me and discarded me, he refused to take advantage of me. Charles been so vulnerable that night, filled with longing for some warmth, some tender human touch, for any sign of care and decency. Erik had known, had put Charles’ needs before his own, and had rejected what other men had taken as their due.

Charles still wished Erik had taken him to bed that night, as it would have been a bright memory in a life filled with shadows, but Erik had been the first person to respect Charles enough not to casually use him and discard him like last night’s linen. He was a good man; Charles was convinced of it.

It might have been a shaky foundation on which to build his hopes for the future, but it was better than nothing.

“I’ll be fine,” Charles insisted, praying to God that he was right.

****

Chapter Text

Charles arrived back at The Coin later that afternoon, toting a valise and a single trunk full of books. In the end it was all he could carry with him, and he’d left instructions with Moira to send the rest of his library collection once he’d settled into his new situation.

The “new situation” proved to be much more intimidating than Charles had expected. As he stared up at the imposing façade of the fashionable London townhouse that housed Erik’s gambling den, he felt exposed and out of place on the bustling street. When he’d slipped into the casino the previous night he’d been able to blend in with the late-night crowd of gamblers. Now, standing outside in the cool evening air, trunk and valise at his feet, Charles felt a sharp, sudden longing for the comfortable cottage he’d shared with Moira in Brixton. He’d given up a quiet, peaceful life in the country to share the bed of a virtual stranger.

“Let’s hope you’re right about him, old chap,” Charles muttered to himself before climbing the short flight of steps up to the door.

He knocked, listening to the hollow reverberations echoing through the empty house. Last night, every room in the casino had been flooded with candlelight, the sounds of male laughter and the crack of snooker balls filtering out into the street. But by day the building seemed deserted, and Charles wondered if he’d gone to the wrong townhouse by mistake. The only sign that this respectable building housed a gambling hell was the small placard above the knocker.

The Coin. He wondered what had inspired the name.

The heavy door opened with an ominous creak and a pale, pert face peaked out from behind the oak barricade.

“Yes, m’lord?” The girl behind the door couldn’t have been more than 15. Her dark, wavy hair was captured under a snowy white cap, her immaculate maid’s uniform marking her for a servant. Charles smiled broadly at her, coaxing forth a shy, hesitant answering smile.

“Good evening,” he said, lifting his valise. “My name is Charles Xavier. I believe Mr. Lehnsherr is expecting me.”

The little maid blinked up at him, her dark brown eyes apprehensive. She clearly didn’t know her master was expecting anyone, but she was afraid to offend the gentleman standing before her.

Charles watched as she battled her indecision, smiling at her again in reassurance as she stepped back and held the door open.

“Yes, m’lord,” she said, beckoning him in. “If you’ll wait here, I’ll fetch the Master.”

Charles nodded at her and hefted his valise, setting it inside the doorway before turning to collect his trunk. He grunted with the effort of lifting the heavy item, noting that while The Coin was housed within a fashionable part of the city, its staff did not seem to have the same training as was typical of those who served a noble family. The servants at Erik’s home and business were clearly trained to usher in gambling customers, not unfamiliar visitors. A footman should have already appeared by now to take Charles’ trunk, and yet the hall remained empty.

Even Lord McTaggert’s staff had been consummate professionals, despite the wild nature of the lunatic who’d employed them.

Charles took advantage of the maid’s absence to observe his new home. A grand entryway opened to a large oak staircase that led up to what Charles assumed were the living quarters. He’d found Erik’s office last night, here on the first floor just past the two large parlours that flanked the staircase. Those rooms were set up for gambling, and featured round felt-covered gaming tables in addition to twin well-stocked bars. The next room to the left of the staircase contained several snooker tables, and beyond that was a small sitting room crowded with comfortable-looking club chairs and another bar where tired gamblers could gather, smoke cigars, and ponder their fate at the tables.

It was, Charles acknowledged, a nicely arranged club. He’d never been in a gambling hell before the previous night, but he could discern from the fine furnishings and tasteful decor that Erik had spared no expense to make the club a comfortable place for the gentry to gather and spend their money. The location of the club, as well as the graceful environs, ensured that only the best clientele would frequent The Coin. Erik must do very well here, Charles thought, considering for the first time that Erik was likely wealthier than many of the noble families of Charles’ acquaintance.

Former acquaintance. He hadn’t spent any time in the company of his social peers since he’d left Eton. He’d had a few friends at school, but after being exiled to France, Spain and then to northern Scotland, he’d heard little about his former schoolfellows.

It was better that way, Charles acknowledged. If anyone from the English upper classes knew how he’d spent the last decade, they’d accuse him of unnatural lusts and deep perversion, and his name—his father’s name—would be even more tarnished. He’d thought he’d recognized someone, once, at a party at Bartolomeu’s in Paris. An old friend from Eton. But he’d been only dimly aware of his surroundings at the time, occupied as he’d been by the two men pawing at him and clumsily removing his shirt, their whiskey-drenched breath hot on his throat.

He’d learned by then to retreat deeply into himself and disconnect from his surroundings, from the grasping, punishing hands of Bartolomeu’s friends, from the aching demands they placed on his body. The barely-glimpsed face of someone he’d known in another life had scarcely registered, and Charles still wasn’t sure if he’d really seen Lord Anthony Stark, heir to an English dukedom, at one of Bartolomeu’s debauched Parisian parties.

Footsteps echoed behind him and Charles blushed, embarrassed to be caught wandering through Erik’s home. He started a little as he turned and caught sight of an unfamiliar man, a tall, severe-looking stranger with a long, vertical scar that cut across the left side of his face. The single white line was nothing compared to Erik’s burns and patched eye, but the man’s scar gave him a rough, threatening appearance untempered by Erik’s fine clothing and gentlemanly manner. This fellow was clearly hired muscle, and Charles felt his heart start to beat faster in his chest. Was he about to be forcibly ejected from Erik’s home, tossed out into the street like so much refuse?

“You are Mr. Xavier, jah?” said the man, and Charles had to concentrate to place his accent. Russian, he guessed, still rendered mute by the man’s fearsome appearance. He nodded slowly.

“Is good you are here,” the man said, retreating down the hall to lift Charles’ heavy trunk, which he slung one-handed upon his shoulder. “Boss has been looking for you. I am Azazel. Come with me.”

Charles had no choice but to follow.

****

Azazel led him up the stairs and down a hallway lined by several doors, finally depositing Charles in a small parlor near the end of the hall.

Charles waited patiently as Azazel set down his trunk, fidgeting under the Russian’s intense stare. He wondered what had brought this intimidating man into Erik’s employ, and what other ruffians might be within Erik’s sphere of influence.

“Boss say you wait here,” Azazel told him, gesturing to a blue velvet settee that looked as if it needed a good brushing. He left without another word, and Charles had little to do but sit and wait.

He heard a distant clock chime seven, and winced as his stomach gave a loud growl. The parlor was sparsely furnished, and seemed quite neglected. The furniture was all of the finest quality, oak side tables and lushly upholstered settee and sofa, but there was dust on the mantle. It looked as though the hearth hadn’t been swept in ages, and no fire had been lit. As a result the room was chilly, and lacking in any homey touches of crocheted doilies, fresh flowers, or framed artwork.

Charles thought of the parlor back at the cottage in Brixton with a sudden pang of longing. Moira had painted charming little flowers and branches of curling ivy on the hearth mantle, and Charles had nailed up framed drawings of exotic insects and birds on every wall. They’d both saved what they could spare from the fund for Raven’s dowery and covered the worn, ancient furniture with comfortable blankets and plump pillows. The effect had been warm and charming, if not exactly fashionable.

So why had he left it, abandoning his quiet, comfortable life for this cold, alien place staffed by strangers?

For Raven, he told himself. And, thinking of the remembered warmth of Erik’s kiss, for yourself, too.

There was a knock at the door, and the same little maid from earlier entered bearing a tray laden with hot tea and sandwiches. Charles’ unruly stomach gave another pained rumble; he hadn’t paused to eat all day, and the sight of food was a welcome one.

The maid set the tray on one of the oak side tables and Charles waited, expecting her to curtsey and exit the room. Instead she hovered, looking perplexed. “Should I pour for you, Sir?” she asked politely, biting at her lip.

Charles smiled at her. Poor thing had little training, it seemed, and she looked uncomfortable in her heavily starched maid’s uniform. “What’s your name, my dear?” Charles asked.

The little maid blushed, and dropped her eyes to the floor. “Kitty, sir,” she said, her voice just above a hushed whisper.

“Well, Kitty,” Charles said, “when you bring a tea tray, it’s customary for the guest to pour once you’ve left the room. But thank you for offering. That was very good of you.”

Kitty blushed further, her eyes fixed to the floor. She mumbled a soft, “Thank you, sir” before fleeing the room.

Charles sighed, wondering if all of Erik’s servants were either alarming musclemen or terrified little maids. He tucked into the tea and sandwiches with gusto, but after the first few bites his enthusiasm flagged. The sandwich bread was soggy, and the combination of cucumber and sugary apricot jelly made Charles feel slightly ill. Even the tea so overbrewed that Charles could nearly stand his teaspoon in it.

As focused was he on the poor fare that he was shocked to look up at the doorway to find Erik hovering there, leaning with one elegant shoulder against the door frame.

Charles’ breath caught at the intensity of Erik’s gaze. In the low lamplight he looked just as fearsome as Azazel, the scarred side of his face caught in the sharp relief provided by the flickering candles. He looked like Lucifer touched by the fires of his own kingdom, arrogant and aloof, and Charles felt his pulse start to speed. But, unlike his encounter with Azazel, he wasn’t feeling nervous or afraid. No, that was excitement fluttering low in his belly.

I will have you as long as I wish, Erik had said. The implication of that statement should have frightened Charles but now, firmly pinned by Erik’s silver gaze, eager anticipation flooded his body.

Erik’s stern expression hadn’t changed, but his gaze had softened, that single silver eye regarding Charles thoughtfully. “You came back,” he said.

Charles set aside his plate, wiping at his mouth with a slightly stained napkin. He composed himself carefully, aware that this conversation would likely set the tone for their future interactions. He wouldn’t make any clumsy overtures this time. He would get it right.

“Of course,” Charles said, slipping a hand into his waistcoat pocket and withdrawing the little tissue-wrapped package that had resided there. “I wanted to give you this.”

Erik drifted closer, intrigued by the tiny package. His eye flicked between it and Charles’ face, and finally, like a wary stray dog offered a bit of sausage, plucked the little gift out of Charles’ hand. He unwrapped it slowly, and Charles swallowed hard at the sight of Erik’s long, elegant fingers untwisting the delicate tissue paper. He imagined those fingers ghosting over his skin, caressing his face, his throat, and the thought sent another delightful shiver of anticipation through him.

As the tissue paper fell away and Charles’ gift lay exposed, Erik felt a growing sense of confusion. A large signet ring lay in his palm. The heavy gold ring was embossed with a curling X. Erik raised his eyebrows in silent question.

“It was my father’s,” Charles explained. “It’s…it’s all I have left of him. Kurt Marko took everything else of value, but I kept the ring.”

“And you want me to have it,” Erik said slowly, trying and failing to comprehend what Charles meant by this gift.

Charles nodded. “Yes, I do. If it pleases you.”

The ring looked far too large for Charles. Erik tested the ring’s size, slipping it on to one of the fingers of his left hand. It fit, and the metal quickly warmed against his skin. The ring’s reassuring weight reminded him of another band he’d worn long ago. Another promise he’d made, and then broken.

“Thank you,” he said sincerely, wondering if the gift was meant to be as significant as it appeared. What were Charles’ true intentions? Azazel had gleaned little from his inquiries into Charles’ history, learning only that Kurt Marko, a mercenary gentleman of obscure family, had married the wealthy widow Shannon Xavier and promptly taken control of the vast Xavier fortune. Through some spurious legal means he’d somehow made himself Charles Xavier’s legal guardian, and spent most of Charles’ inheritance before he’d died.

These bare facts didn’t fully explain why Charles had been alone and starving on the road to London seven years ago, or why he’d come to Erik last night and offered himself as payment for his stepbrother’s gaming debt. Erik knew so little of Charles, and Charles knew next to nothing of him. Yet Charles would offer Erik a treasured token of his dead father, and make an unspoken vow that humbled Erik even as it confused him.

Why? he wanted to ask. Why me? Good things did not happen to him. This had to be some trick.

“Will you show me your home?” Charles asked, and Erik blinked at him, breaking the strange spell that Charles’ gift had woven. He crumpled the tissue paper and stuffed it in his trouser pocket, content to wear the signet ring until he could divine Charles’ meaning.

“Of course,” he said, leading Charles out of the receiving parlor and down the hall to the first door on the left. He opened the door, ushering Charles inside.

“This is your room,” Erik said. He’d never entered the guest room before, having had no reason to, but a cursory glance assured Erik that it was at least clean, and that the staff had managed to air it properly. The bed was hung with blue linens, and Erik approved of the simple, tasteful furnishings which included a dressing table, a writing desk, a wardrobe, and a wash stand and basin. He crossed the room to another door on the far wall.

“This leads to my chamber,” he said, watching Charles’ face. Charles’ cheeks pinked slightly.

“You may keep this door locked, if you wish,” Erik said. “I won’t intrude on your privacy. I hope you will think of this as your own space.”

Charles’ gaze flickered uncertainly between Erik and the door that joined their rooms. “But won’t you…”

Erik cleared his throat. “Not until you’re ready,” he promised, willing Charles to meet his eyes. “This is your home now. I want you to be comfortable here,” he said, meaning it.

Satisfied that Charles understood, Erik said, “I’ll have Azazel bring up your trunk. Ring for Kitty if you need anything.” He felt reluctant to leave. “Please let me know if you require anything else.”

He stepped out of the room and closed the door, missing the stunned expression on Charles’ face.

****

As the long evening hours dragged on, Charles began to doubt that Erik would come to join him. The noise from the casino below swelled and faded as different groups of gentlemen entered and left. Charles wasn’t sure how late The Coin’s tables would remain open, but when the hour struck two o'clock he realized that play would likely go on all night, and that Erik, if he came to bed at all, would likely fall right to sleep.

Charles hardly knew whether to be relieved or not. He’d earned a reprieve from whatever physical demands Erik might make of him. What if Erik was as cruel and thoughtless as Bartolomeu? Or as ruthlessly demanding as the Duke of Hempsted? What if Erik enjoyed pain and humiliation, as Lord MacTaggert had?

These were troubling thoughts, and Charles fell asleep with them rattling around in his head. He dreamed of pain and violence.

Some noise woke him, and Charles stared blearily at the clock. It was just gone five. The first faint light of false dawn was creeping in beneath the room’s heavy curtains.

Charles sat, wondering what had woken him. He went to the door Erik had shown him earlier, the one that connected their two rooms. Evidently the townhouse had been a family home before its current incarnation as a gaming den. The guest room had once belonged to the mistress of the house, with private access to the master’s bedroom via the connecting door.

Charles paused at the door, listening intently. He unbolted his door and found another door in his path. As Erik had said, either mistress or master could bar the door against each other. Before he could reconsider, Charles rapped lightly on the wooden barrier and entered.

The room within was dim, lit by the hearth and a few guttering candles. Erik stood beside a small writing desk by the window, his back to Charles. He was still dressed for the evening. His midnight-black coat was perfectly tailored to best show off Erik’s broad shoulders and narrow waist. He was a tall man, fit and lean, and Charles took full advantage of the opportunity to observe him unaware. The tails of Erik’s coat concealed his hips, but Charles could imagine what lay beneath the expensive cloth. His pulse started to thrum, hot and rapid in his veins, at the thought of Erik standing naked before him, all rippling lean muscle, hard thighs, and perfect buttocks.

He drew in a harsh breath at the image, which alerted Erik to his presence. Erik had been standing at the desk, muttering something in German. When he realized Charles was in the room he turned and fell silent, looking for all the world like an errant schoolboy caught in the midst of some prank.

Charles looked to see what Erik held in his hands, and caught his breath at the sight of blood, slick and black in the candlelight. Before he could think better of it he’d rushed forward, but stopped short when he realized that Erik was holding something: a small, trembling puppy whose white fur was matted with filth and blood. The pup was a runt, no bigger than one of Erik’s large hands. He cradled the puppy tenderly, as if worried that Charles would try to snatch it away.

“You’re bleeding,” Charles said dimly. Erik’s mouth twitched in a sardonic smile.

“It’s not all mine.”

Charles closed the distance between them and reached out, gently taking the puppy. The poor thing whined and trembled, his wet little nose nudging into Charles' palm in an attempt to hide itself there.

After a quick inspection Charles was reassured that the dog had suffered nothing worse than a torn ear. He strode over to Erik’s enormous oak bed and spread out his handkerchief to protect the linens, then gently placed the pup there. The dog instantly cuddled into the downy softness of the counterpane and fell quiet.

Turning back to Erik, who was still cradling his hand, Charles poured some water into the basin and wet a washcloth.

“May I?” he asked, holding up the washcloth. Erik looked at him warily, more wounded beast now than chastised schoolboy, and finally nodded. He held out one large hand, palm up, which Charles took and inspected. Blood was welling from two large punctures in the meat of Erik’s thumb, and Charles gasped.

“These are teethmarks!”

Erik only shrugged. “I found the pup in the alleyway,” he explained, “being menaced by a much larger dog. When I tried to chase off the cur he turned and bit me. It doesn’t hurt,” Erik said quickly, examining the wound dispassionately. “Only my pride was injured.”

Charles smiled a little at that, and began trying to wipe some of the blood away. The bite wasn’t deep, thankfully, or ragged, but it would need to be cleaned and wrapped.

“You needn’t trouble yourself,” Erik said. Charles looked up, surprised at the warm, open expression on Erik’s face. His usually stern expression had fallen away, and now he looked only tired and sore. “Azazel can see to it.”

“I’ll clean it, at least,” Charles insisted, turning away to rinse the washcloth. The water in the basin turned pink. “You really ought to be more careful,” he said. “You might have been truly hurt.”

“What would it matter?” Erik muttered, and then seemed to realize what he’d said. Charles looked up at him, surprised, but Erik wouldn’t meet his eyes.

“It would matter to me,” Charles said, “and to the others living under your protection.”

Erik’s expression turned thoughtful at that, his single silver eye considering Charles’ face carefully. He eventually cleared his throat, wincing as Charles made a firm pass over his wound.

“What of the pup?” Charles asked after a while, glancing over at the small creature huddled in the centre of Erik’s monstrosity of a bed.

Erik frowned. Apparently the question hadn’t yet occurred to him.

“Should we keep him, I mean.” Charles kept his eyes firmly on his work, telling himself that the answer didn't matter.

“Would you like that?” Erik asked, and Charles considered it for a moment.

“I…I had a dog, when I was young," he said. "A hound," he continued determinedly, focusing on Erik's injured hand. "His name was Cerebro. He was...he was a very good dog.” He said this dispassionately, not to get caught up on memories of his childhood companion. The dog was long dead; there was nothing down that path but useless pain.

“Cerebro?” Erik teased, trying to lighten the mood, which despite Charles' efforts shadowed the room like a dark cloud.

Charles finally smiled in return, his self-deprecating grin approximating something of his usual good humour. “He was a very smart dog! And I was only a child,” he said in mock self-defence.

Erik’s own smile widened. He’d forgotten about the pain of the wound; he was still thinking about Charles’ earlier statement, that his death might matter not only to his servants and staff but to Charles himself. The sentiment was a strange one. It had been so long since anyone had cared whether he lived or died.

Erik deliberately turned his mind to the here and now. Charles stood before him, handsome features softened by candlelight. He was rumpled from sleep and wearing nothing but his breeches and a white dress shirt that gaped at the neck, exposing his throat and a hint of pale, freckled and nearly hairless chest. Despite his soft features and academic bent, Charles was muscled, finely-formed and flawless in the low light. His beautiful turquoise eyes looked a dark blue in the flickering glow of the candles, and his red mouth, coupled with his rumpled, casual appearance, made it look as though he’d just tumbled from bed after a passionate session of lovemaking.

And oh, how Erik wanted to see Charles thus, spread naked and willing beneath him, pale skin flushed with arousal, on display for Erik like a delicious feast. No one had shared his bed in years, and the few times he’d sought out a hired whore he’d been too ashamed of himself to become aroused. He’d always paid them off quickly while fighting a simmering self-hatred. He was a monster, thoroughly scarred and deformed inside and out. The only human touch he could expect had to be bought.

Which made him consider Charles. Charles, who had touched him so tenderly, cleaning his wound with such care and wide-eyed concern, and asking for nothing in return. The hour was late (or early, depending on one’s inclination) and Charles looked so delectable here in the candlelight, in only his shirtsleeves.

But Erik had to maintain his resolve. He’d decided not to seek any intimacies with Charles until he knew more of the man, and damned if he hadn’t already discovered more than he’d expected. No real facts, not yet, just impressions of Charles’ kindness, his courage. His warm, soft heart.

Perhaps that was the problem. Charles likely pitied him. He was still holding his hand, and Erik resisted the urge to pull away. It wasn’t Charles’ fault that Erik stubbornly clung to the need to be legitimately desired. That was no longer possible. He knew it, but the knowing didn’t help.

Still, he hoped. The way Charles looked at him…it didn’t feel like pity. Almost as if Charles wanted to kiss him. But surely that was just his fevered imaginings.

“Erik,” Charles breathed, looking up at him, head tilted, lips parted. It took every ounce of Erik’s considerable willpower not to bend his head and claim Charles’ mouth.

Instead, he pulled his hand out of the warm grip of Charles’ fingers and patted Charles on the arm with his good hand.

“It’s very late,” he said. “You ought to be in bed.” He watched in surprise as Charles visibly deflated. Had he wanted Erik to kiss him?

But it was too late to find out. Charles was already turning away, heading back to the door that connected their chambers. Erik wanted to call him back, to find out what that flicker of disappointment flashing across his face had meant. But Charles was already gone.

Erik sighed, clutching his wounded hand to his breast, and knew he would not sleep that night.

****

Chapter Text

After a night of fitful sleep, Charles woke to the rattle of porcelain. Sunlight streamed in through the open curtains and he sat up, rubbing at his eyes wearily. He'd managed only a few hours of sleep thanks to the early-morning exchange with Erik. He flushed at the memory, uneasy with the way he'd tried to kiss Erik and been summarily rejected. Again.

The sound of his door opening brought Charles the rest of the way out of fuzzy-headed sleep, and he was surprised to see Erik in the doorway, breakfast tray in one hand, the other concealed behind his back.

Erik was dressed in his customary midnight black, though this coat was a softer cut in deference to the early hour. The jacket still fit him handsomely, and Charles wondered how Erik had managed to tie his elaborate cravat with one wounded hand. Perhaps Azazel doubled as valet, or another unknown servant tended to his master’s needs. Whomever was responsible for dressing Erik, he decided, they’d done a fine job. He looked as smart and as handsome as the finest aristocrat in Almack’s, scars aside.

And even those reminders of suffering, as well as the dark patch over Erik’s missing eye, seemed to have softened in Charles’ mind. He only wished that Erik had been spared the agony of the burns, and he wondered anew at their cause. Fire, obviously, but under what circumstance? He’d assumed Erik had been an officer, given his easy tone of command and stern self-possession. Had he really been wounded in battle?

“I apologize for sleeping so late,” Charles said, tugging at his shirt in an attempt to make himself more presentable.

Erik shook his head and strode into the room, tray balanced on one hand as easily as the most experienced waiter in Paris.

“Don’t concern yourself. We keep irregular hours at The Coin.” Erik set his burden down on a side table. Charles caught a whiff of fresh-brewed tea and buttered scones, and his mouth watered.

Before he could start to wonder why the master of the house was bringing him breakfast, Erik brought his other hand out from behind his back. There, cradled in his wide palm, sat the puppy. He’d been bathed and someone—Azazel, most likely, although Charles boggled at the notion—had taped up the dog’s wounded ear. The bandage caused the ear to flop over, giving the small dog a distinctly lopsided appearance. His short, curly white fur was clean and free of blood and matted clumps.

The little dog wiggled in excitement when Erik set him on the bed. He immediately crawled through the billowing duvet to Charles, who laughed and pressed the dog to his cheek. The puppy wagged his stunted tail and gave Charles a friendly lick.

“Quite the ham, isn’t he?” Erik said, smiling. Charles grinned back, glad to see Erik in a good mood after the seriousness of last night. He set the puppy down and the dog bounded across the bed until it found Charles’ feet, then immediately curled up next to them and fell asleep. Charles turned his attention to the breakfast tray, and felt a warm rush at Erik’s thoughtfulness. No one had ever brought him breakfast in bed before, and certainly no one who cut such a dashing figure.

“I wasn’t sure what you’d like,” Erik said, surprisingly sheepish. Charles smiled to himself. There you are, he thought, recalling Erik’s gruff kindness from the inn all those years ago.

Feeling relieved and far more optimistic than he had last night, Charles picked up a scone and took a large bite. It tasted...well, “awful” was putting it mildly. The scone was stale, doughy in the middle, and far too salty. Who cooked Erik’s food?

Setting down the scone, Charles picked up his tea, took a sip, and grimaced. It was as thick as it’d been last night, over-brewed and bitter. He added some milk and resolved to find his way to the kitchens. No wonder Erik was so slim, if this was the only fare to be found at his home.

“Did you sleep well?” Erik asked, and Charles tried to gulp down another mouthful of tea, mindful of Erik’s intense gaze.

“Perfectly well, thank you,” he lied. He was exhausted, even though he hadn’t slept so late in years.

Erik frowned. “I wish I could let you nap a little longer. But we’ll be late if you aren’t washed and dressed in the next twenty minutes.”

“Late? To where?”

“My tailor’s,” Erik said, stroking the puppy with one large, scarred hand. Charles could see the mottled red- and white-tailed burns on the back of both of Erik’s hands. They extended up his wrists, and vanished beneath his dark sleeves.

“Why do you want me to come along?” Charles asked, looking away. He settled back against the downy pillows and took the dozing puppy into his lap. The dog would need a name, if they were going to keep him. Cerebro was obviously out, but perhaps Scraps, or Lucky, in reference to the animal’s fortunate escape.

Charles was so focused on picking names that he almost didn’t hear Erik’s response. And when he did, a chill began to creep into Charles’ heart.

“You’ll need new clothes. I saw your luggage – you packed mostly books, I see – and your dinner jackets are ancient. My tailor…” Erik trailed off at the expression on Charles’ face.

Charles was trying to control himself, attempting to replace his look of dismay with something more even-keeled. This wasn’t—Erik wasn’t trying to dress him up like some doll to be put on display, as the others had. He was trying to ensure Charles’ comfort. Rationally Charles knew it, knew Erik would never use him like that. But then he didn’t know Erik's true tastes or preferences.

Or perversions, whispered that voice of doubt and dread. But no, Erik was a good man. This was an innocent gesture, or at least one devoid of true malice. Erik simply thought Charles was shabby.

And it was true. His clothing was sadly outdated and ill-fitting, serviceable for a country recluse but hardly something a fashionable young gentleman ought to wear. Erik was ashamed of him. That was all. And though it hurt, this assumption was preferable to the notion that Erik wanted to dress him up for his friends to…

“Charles?” Erik’s voice was soft and filled with concern. Charles blinked hard, and forced himself to smile.

“As you wish,” he said blandly, and nudged the puppy aside so he could slip out of bed. The dog sat back on his haunches and pawed at the air, as if requesting to be picked up. Realizing he’d get no more attention from Charles he crawled over to Erik, who obliged the dog and cuddled him close, just as he’d done last night.

Charles tried to sip calmly at the dregs of his foul tea, determined not to look at the puppy, or Erik’s broad hands as they cradled the dog so gently. They shouldn’t keep the pup. The dog would likely be happier in the country, sniffing out foxes and loping in hayfields.

“Of course we’ll go. I’ll be ready in 10 minutes,” he said, setting his china cup aside.

“Charles, what’s wrong?” Erik asked, but Charles waved him off, stepping behind the dressing screen to prepare for the coming ordeal.

****

The coach ride to Remy LeBeau’s tailor shop was filled with an awkward silence that Erik could not seem to shatter, no matter how he tried to coax Charles into conversation. He’d made some fatal misstep, though what he’d done or said escaped him.

Erik mentally reviewed the conversation between them in the bedroom, trying and failing to determine where he'd gone wrong. He'd been hard-pressed to keep his eyes off Charles, who'd been lounging against the pillows like an offering from a particularly generous god.

Then Erik had gone to open the curtains, chattering about the trip to the tailor's, and Charles had gone pale and quiet.

The light, he realized now. All of their interactions thus far, from the fire-lit room at the inn to his moon-drenched study, had taken place in low, dim light. Charles had never seen his scars in the bright light of day. Erik's appearance had likely shocked him, the full extent of the burns finally fully visible.

He knew how shocking and horrible his appearance was. People turned from him on the street, and small children sometimes broke into tears and wailed at the sight of his face, burned and mottled as it was. The patch helped. It made him look like a ruffian or a pirate, yes, but at least it covered the horror of his cloudy, milky-white dead eye. One of his women in Paris had confessed, in the middle of a row, how she felt it was the eye of the devil watching her. He’d started wearing the patch not long after.

Perhaps, when he’d opened the curtains, Charles had finally seen him in full daylight and been disgusted by the sight.

The thought kept him silent during the tense coach ride, and it wasn’t until they’d almost arrived at the tailor’s that he risked looking at Charles.

Charles was staring morosely out the window, still pale and distracted. Erik wasn’t sure what he might say to bring Charles out of it. He could hardly argue that the scars would heal, that his physical appearance would ever improve. If Charles found him too repellent to bear, Erik would…

He'd let him go. Even the thought of forcing an unwilling Charles to remain with him was anathema. Erik might have been a bad man, but he respected Charles enough to release him from their bargain. He’d even forget Cain Marko’s debt, though it galled him to do so.

Searching for something, anything, to break the tension between them, Erik cleared his throat and said, “Have you been much in London?”

Charles started, as if he’d forgotten Erik was there.

“No,” he said slowly. “No, I grew up at the family seat in Westchester, at Greymaulkin Manor. And then I was at Eton.”

Eton. Erik remembered Charles saying that he’d suffered some form of abuse there as a child. The very thought of it made Erik’s blood boil.

“And after?”

Charles sighed and turned away, that faraway expression back on his face. “Paris. And then Marseilles, Cadiz, and Inverness.”

Erik’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. Charles had traveled extensively for one so young. Almost as extensively as Erik himself, though he was nearly eight years older.

“Did you enjoy your time abroad?” Erik asked, watching Charles’ face carefully. He blanched, and turned to Erik with haunted blue eyes.

“No,” he said simply, his voice just above a whisper. “No, not at all.” He then lapsed into a silence more complete than before.

Erik swore silently to himself. He had no idea what had happened to Charles overseas, but it was obviously painful for him to speak about. And he’d been so thin and desperate-looking on the road to London seven years ago. Erik wondered if he’d been running from his unpleasant associations with the Continent. Had someone there discovered his inclinations?

Men have always known, even before I did, Erik remembered. He could imagine that Charles, young and friendless in Paris or Marseilles, would have made an appealing target for the wolves that circled there.

"I’m sorry,” Erik said. “I didn’t mean to pry.”

Charles didn’t look at him but nodded shortly, gaze fixed on the London streets as they clattered by.

****

Charles and Erik were received by master tailor Remy Lebeau with an unexpected warmth. Charles felt as though he was intruding upon the reunion of two very old friends. Remy, a handsome, dark-haired, brown-eyed man of indeterminate age, greeted Erik enthusiastically in French.

Despite having lived in Paris and Marseilles Charles wasn’t fluent in the language, and most of the few phrases he did know weren’t appropriate for mixed company. He listened with half an ear as Erik and Monsieur LeBeau prattled on, looking around the shop.

It was a clean and well-lit place, and featured bolts of expensive broadcloth and tall beavers in the window. A line of rainbow-coloured silk cravats were arranged beneath a glass display case near the counter, and Charles tried to imagine himself wearing one of the bright silks. He failed miserably, thinking of how much he preferred Erik’s simple, elegant attire of black coats and snow-white cravats.

Erik had been right about his wardrobe. Charles’ single coat had once been a dark navy but, through various mishaps with red wine and wayward ink bottles, it was stained, faded and over-mended. He had no valet, and so he was forced to tie his simple white cravat, now sadly yellowed with age, in an old-fashioned barrel knot which he could never seem to do correctly.

And he was truly ashamed of his smallclothes, ripped and re-sewn so often as to resemble Swiss cheese. His stockings were in a similar state of disrepair (so many holes!), and his scarred-up Hessians were scuffed and the soles worn thin. In short, he looked a ragamuffin. Not that it had mattered a whit before, when Charles had been nothing more but a social castoff hiding in the country. His previous lovers had preferred him to dress in the most outrageous fashions, but he’d left all that finery behind on the Continent, and Lord MacTaggert had preferred him in rags.

He was musing over the bolts of broadcloth when the silence in the shop finally registured. Erik and Monsieur LeBeau were no longer speaking together in rapid French. They’d both turned to Charles, and Charles shrank away internally from the speculative light in Monsieur LeBeau’s gaze.

“This is Mr. Charles Xavier,” Erik said, and oh, how Charles liked the sound of his name on Erik’s lips. “He is…my particular friend.”

Monsieur LeBeau looked back and forth between Erik and Charles for a moment, comprehension dawning in his dark brown eyes. “Ah, oui, Remy understands,” he muttered, inclining his head to Erik. “But he is a beauty,” he said, and Charles blushed.

He’d heard that before, many times, and it had always made him uncomfortable. His soft, almost feminine looks were in current fashion, but he much preferred Erik’s rugged handsomeness and the aura of danger he wore like a second skin. Perhaps, if Charles had been ugly, or at least more masculine in appearance, he would not have suffered as he had.

Wishful thinking, he told himself. He turned his thoughts to Erik’s hesitant introduction. My particular friend. So that was how their relationship would be presented to others.

Monsieur LeBeau said something to Erik in French, which made Erik’s mouth curl up in his strange, sardonic smile.

“I don’t know,” he replied to whatever Monsieur LeBeau had said. “I’ve been afraid to question my good fortune. Charles, how did we come to be acquainted?”

Charles’ cheeks burned. He glanced wildly from Erik to Monsieur LeBeau, searching for a reasonable explanation that didn’t involve gambling debts or unseemly bargains. At his continued silence, Erik swooped in to save him.

“If you recall, Charles, we met at the crossroads outside Maidstone,” Erik supplied, though in point of fact Charles hadn’t remembered the name of the town. “It was during a terrible winter storm seven years ago. We’d both taken refuge at an inn, and Charles indulged me in a game of chess there.”

Monsieur LeBeau was nodding along, his grin as sardonic as Erik’s. Charles was as amused by Erik’s account as Monsieur LeBeau. So much was left unsaid! But if Monsieur LeBeau had no objection to their…relationship, Charles felt comfortable enough to smile in return.

“Oh yes, now I remember,” Charles said, enjoying the sense of play Erik inspired. “I recall that you beat me handily, though I did learn a thing or two.”

Erik’s silver eye was alight with mirth. He smiled at Charles, his real smile, the one full of an alarming amount of teeth. “I’m glad,” Erik said simply, and then the little moment was over. He turned his attention back to Monsieur LeBeau.

“Charles is in need of a new wardrobe,” Erik announced, stalking over to examine the bolts of broadcloth Charles had been considering earlier. “He’ll need at least six morning jackets, and another four for the evening.”

Four?” Charles boggled. He’d had no occasion to dress for the evening in years, and he’d assumed that, while living with Erik, he’d be confined to his room just as he’d been with his other lovers. There would be no grand dinner parties, no balls or operas to attend. He imagined that Erik, as a member of the nebulous social caste between merchant and nobility, would be barred from the social events of the ton. And if they were not to attend the events of high society, whatever would he do with four evening coats?

“Make them up,” Erik instructed firmly. “Whether you wear them or not is immaterial.”

Charles blinked at the oddity of this statement, but he was distracted as Monsieur LeBeau began to circle him, shark-like, observing the breadth of Charles’ shoulders, his height, the length of his inseam. He wrote down no measurements in favour of memorizing them. Charles could see the mind of a world-class tailor at work.

“With his colouring...” Monsieur LeBeau muttered, then continued on in French. Erik was nodding along, and Charles was left to stand in the middle of the room, feeling like a fool. He blushed hotly and turned to Erik with a pleading expression. When Monsieur LeBeau reached out to touch his chin, Charles unconsciously moved closer to the strength and protection of Erik’s body. He saw the way Monsieur LeBeau took note of that small movement, and Charles mentally chastised himself. He would have to learn to be more discrete.

“Four evening coats,” Erik repeated, “and the morning coats. Trousers, shirts, cravats, smallclothes, and stockings. Perhaps you have some ready-made things Charles might take today? I’ll order new boots from Douglas’, and I suppose he’ll need a walking stick and a topper. Do you have a fob watch?”

He’d directed this last question at Charles, who thought for a moment, then looked to the floor and shook his head. That had been pawned long ago, traded in Calais for his passage to England. He’d hardly needed another. A new fob watch was too great an expense, and with a mounting sense of horror he calculated how much Erik must have already spent on this new wardrobe.

“It’s too much,” Charles whispered insistently as Monsieur LeBeau vanished behind a velvet curtain, presumably in search of the ready-made items Erik had inquired about. “I can’t possibly accept—”

“You can, and you will,” Erik said shortly. He’d been looking over the selection of silk cravats Charles had been admiring earlier, and picked out a bright turquoise length of cloth that Charles knew would precisely match his eyes. “I have the money, dammit, and I may as well put it to some use.”

Some use, Charles thought, heart sinking. So he was to be an item of utility to Erik, just as he feared. A doll to dress up and display, though he wondered if Erik’s fierce pride and possessiveness would allow him to share Charles with other men. If not, Charles had no earthly clue why he was to be afforded a fine new wardrobe.

“Charles,” Erik said, holding up the turquoise silk to compare it to Charles’ face. He draped the silk over Charles’ left shoulder, and in the sunlight streaming in from the shop’s window, Charles saw that he’d been wrong; Erik’s eye was a mutable grey-blue-green, not silver as he’d thought. And though the left side of Erik’s face was cruelly scarred, the right was still a work of masculine beauty, and Charles felt his knees go weak. Erik was so close, as close as he’d been last night when he’d promised…

“Charles,” Erik said again, his breath feathering over Charles’ face, “I only want to secure your comfort. I harbour no sinister intentions; I only want you to dress in a manner that befits your station, and your beauty.”

Charles gulped, wondering if he dared to trust Erik. It seemed impossible, that this handsome, rakish man would shower him in gifts for no reason other than he believed Charles deserved them.

“I really shouldn’t accept,” Charles swallowed hard. “It’s too much.”

Erik quirked a smile, and lifted his bandaged hand to stroke his thumb along the length of silk still resting on Charles’ shoulder. Charles could feel the heat of Erik’s hand through the layers of fabric, along with the cold, hard metal of the signet ring, and he wished that Erik would touch his face as he’d done in the inn so many years ago. He wanted to feel the warmth and the strength of Erik’s large hands cupping his face, stroking his cheeks. He wanted the brush of Erik’s lips against his own, the gentleness of his mouth.

But he heard the sound of Monsieur LeBeau’s footsteps in the alcove just beyond the front of the shop, and so he stepped back from Erik and drew the silk down into his hands.

“Ah, merveilleux!” exclaimed Monsieur LeBeau. “It is a perfect choice, non?”

“Yes,” Erik said, a hot look in his eye. “It is perfection.”

****

Monsieur LeBeau bustled Xavier behind the velvet curtain and into a dressing room so he might change out of his worn, outdated clothing and try on one of the ready-made jackets Remy kept in stock. He’d need to alter it to fit the little Englishman, who had surprisingly broad shoulders despite his shorter height and delicate features.

As soon as he’d left instructions with his undertailor, Remy hurried out into the shop proper to find his old friend Lehnsherr examining the beavers in the window.

“A fine selection, no?” Remy said in French. Erik turned, smiled faintly, and nodded.

“You’ve done well for yourself.”

Remy nodded, pleased with Lehnsherr’s understated approval. “We have both come very far.”

Lehnsherr nodded, turning back to the top hats. He ran his hand, scarred and muscled, over the silky-smooth beaver hide. The black topper featured a black ribbon carnation, a touch of whimsy that remained distinctly French. Remy imported all of his accessories from the finest shops in Paris.

“Perhaps it is too much for your little Englishman,” he suggested in English, stepping forward to select another, simpler style of top hat. “He embarrasses easily.”

Erik sighed. “Or he’s embarrassed of me.”

Remy cleared his throat, and Erik was forced to look at him in question. “You think too much of those,” Remy clucked, glancing for a moment at the scars that disfigured the left side of Erik's face. It grieved him that his friend was still so self-conscious about the old injury.

“Besides, your Englishman’s beauty will distract everyone,” he suggested playfully, trying to lighten the mood. Erik just shook his head.

“You ought to say what you’re really thinking,” Erik countered. “I’d expect honesty from you, at least. You think I overreach.”

“Actually,” Remy said, “I wonder if he is good enough for you.”

Erik’s laugh was sudden and brutally short. “What you’re really wondering is how I tricked him into sharing my bed.”

“No,” Remy denied, his brown eyes never wandering from the gentle contemplation of Erik’s stiff features. “I’m really wondering if he knows how much you care for him.”

Erik didn’t answer, because he couldn’t deny the accusation. It was madness; despite what he’d said to Remy, they hadn’t even shared a bed, and he had no expectation that Charles could ever truly be attracted to him, scarred and monstrous as he was.

But he’d told Charles the truth about himself seven years ago, and Charles had yet to shy away. “I’ve killed people,” he’d said then. “I’ve done so many, many terrible things, Charles. Things you can’t imagine.” And yet Charles had come to him anyway.

Erik reached up to touch the black patch that covered his blind eye.

The movement was arrested by Remy’s sharp, “Don’t.”

Erik looked up.

“Don’t do that, my friend. You’ll lose him if you dwell on the past.”

“I don’t ‘dwell’,” Erik repeated sarcastically. “I just wonder what will happen when he starts to.”

The tailor shook his head again, knowing there was nothing he could do to assuage that doubt. Turning to the small dressing room where M. Xavier waited, he left Erik alone in the shop.

****

“It fair gives me the creeps to look at him. Like some kind of gargoyle, he is, with all them scars.”

The whispering voice floated into the small dressing room where Charles waited for Monsieur LeBeau to pin and tailor a few ready-made morning coats. The vulgarity of the common tone was out of place in the elegant continental gentility of Monsieur LeBeau’s shop.

“How one of those highborn ladies could stand to be in the same room with him when he takes off them fancy clothes is what I’d like to know. Imagine having to touch whatever’s underneath ‘em,” the hateful voice continued as Monsieur LeBeau swept aside the curtain.

The ugly words seemed to echo in the sudden stillness. Charles could see the French tailor’s shock give way to anger as he strode to the door that led to the workroom in the back of the shop. A door that had been left ajar.

Monsieur LeBeau’s voice, commanding and clearly furious, quickly set his seamstresses back to their neglected tasks. All conversation was silenced by the force of his anger.

“I’m sorry,” Monsieur LeBeau said, returning to the small alcove. “They’re ignorant young girls—”

He stopped as Charles shook his head. “They’re like my stepbrother. They can only see the scars. The outside.”

“And you?” Monsieur LeBeau asked, curious. “What do you see?”

“What’s inside of him,” Charles replied, conviction lighting up his face.

The Frenchman stood still for a moment, studying the young man before him. And then he smiled. “I was afraid you didn’t know.”

“I know,” Charles said quietly. “Just as I know…” but he trailed off and shook his head. He knew how sensitive Erik was about his scars.

“I’m going to make you more beautiful than you have ever been before,” promised Remy LeBeau. “For him. Because he deserves that.”

Charles wondered briefly what, beyond friendship, might have happened between this Frenchman and Erik. Monsieur LeBeau was unusually accepting of Erik and Charles’ relationship. But the sincerity of Monsieur LeBeau’s offer showed in his eyes, and so Charles knew that whatever the tie between Erik and the tailor, it was nothing he need fear.

“Of course,” Charles said, trying to let go of his earlier anxiety. “Whatever he wants. Whatever you think will bring him happiness.”

“Nothing can really do that, Monsieur,” Remy said. “But perhaps you can teach him that it doesn’t matter.”

When the impromptu tailoring of Charles’ new jacket was complete and Charles and Monsieur LeBeau returned to the shop proper, Erik turned and looked in approval at Charles, nodding at his new hunter green jacket, smart yellow silk waistcoat, and correctly tied ivory cravat.

Erik and Monsieur LeBeau eventually lapsed into French again, discussing the colours and styles that would best become him as if Charles wasn't there. The display of materials—grey and green broadcloth for morning coats, black and navy for evening, silk and brocade waistcoats, ivory and turquoise and canary yellow cravats—seemed endless, and Charles eventually lost track of what, precisely, Erik had ordered. It was far more than Charles would ever need.

“And this,” the tailor said finally, reaching into a smaller display case to pull out a gold fob watch. Charles took the watch with a sense of wonder. He’d never seen anything like it. The back of the watch was made of thick glass, leaving the inner gear compartment visible. Charles was instantly transfixed by the sight of silver and gold gears ticking away in perfect unison. The delicate innerworkings were so tiny and precise that it seemed impossible they’d been crafted by a human hand.

“A fine piece, no?” Monsieur LeBeau asked, watching the widening of Charles’ turquoise eyes.

“But…” Charles whispered, forcing himself to be reasonable. Years of hoarding every shilling intruded. Erik had already spent so much, and there would be, of course, nowhere to wear such a fine piece of craftsmanship. From the moment he’d been deposited by his stepfather at Bartolomeu’s to begin his work as a whore, from the instant he'd proposed their bargain to Erik, Charles had become a permanent exile from the world into which he’d been born.

Charles thought he’d accepted that long ago. But memories of his father, of the importance of the Xavier name, made his fingers tremble as he held the beautiful watch. He fumbled with it, and watched in horror as he dropped the timepiece. The watch tumbled to the floor, and struck the floorboards with a heavy plink, followed by the softer fall of the golden chain and fob.

Erik bent to scoop up the watch and inspected it carefully for any cracks or dents. Amazingly the watch seemed unaffected by Charles’ clumsiness.

“I can’t accept it,” Charles said sharply. Both Erik and Monsieur LeBeau looked to him in surprise. He had let them decide everything else and now, when the watch was so perfect, Charles’ objection was almost shocking.

“I can’t,” Charles said again, controlling his voice. “I won’t need anything so fine as that.”

“Why not?” Erik asked, bemused by his refusal.

“Because there is nowhere I can go now to wear—” Charles stopped, appalled at the effect of what he’d just said.

Erik’s smile had disappeared, wiped out by bitterness. With a frown, Erik stepped closer to Charles and deliberately inserted the watch into the small pocket set into Charles’ waistcoat. He threaded the fob through the buttonhole of Charles’ new jacket, ensuring that, should Charles drop the watch again, the fob would catch and allow the watch to dangle from Charles’ coat.

“We’ll take it,” he ordered Monsieur LeBeau. His gaze never left Charles’ face, and it was to Charles he said, without inflection, “Whether you continue to wear it or not is your decision.”

Erik turned abruptly and made his limping progress out of the shop. The merry tinkle of the bell above the door clashed with the sound of the door slamming shut so hard that the inset panes of glass rattled.

Charles raced after Erik, aware that he needed to explain, to apologize. His bitter refusal of the watch had spoiled Erik’s enjoyment of the afternoon.

I’m as selfish as Cain, he thought in disgust. What did it matter if his family name and reputation were tarnished beyond repair? He’d lost any claim to the Xavier name and fortune long ago. And he would be happy to go anywhere with Erik, polite society be damned.

“Erik, please wait!” he called out on the street to Erik’s rapidly vanishing figure. The crowds of gentry perusing the windows of the shop-lined street turned to stare, and Charles blushed, charging after Erik as quickly as decorum would allow.

He reached Erik in a few quick strides, Erik’s limp slowing him considerably, and Charles fell into a pace beside him.

“I didn’t mean…” he said, keeping his voice low, his face hidden by the brim of his new top hat.

“I am aware of what our arrangement means to your position in society, but after all,” Erik said, “You proposed our bargain. Or was I right earlier? Did Marko force you to make that sacrifice?”

“Sacrifice? No,” Charles denied hotly. “No, I told you—”

“I know what you told me,” Erik said harshly. “But surely you must have thought about what becoming my companion would mean. Or has it just become clear to you that you’ve given up your birthright, and all claim to polite society? It’s a little late for regrets now, Charles."

“I have no regrets,” Charles said. He grabbed Erik’s forearm, forcing him to stop walking and turn to him. “Except now I’m going to have the finest evening wardrobe in London, and nowhere to wear it. That’s the only regret I meant to express. Whatever you’re imagining…”

He stopped suddenly as the corner of Erik’s mouth quirked up in amusement at Charles’ anger.

Unsheathing claws as harmless as a kitten’s, Erik thought, his own anger forgotten. Because, after all, he wanted very much to believe what Charles had just said.

“No regrets?” Erik asked again, allowing his rich voice to caress. He heard Charles’ sharp inhalation of breath.

“None,” Charles whispered. He blinked, as if suddenly aware that they were on a public street and in broad daylight. He turned and began to walk at a brisk pace, forcing Erik to lean heavily on his walking stick to keep up.

“One night you can wear the watch for me,” Erik suggested, “Just your waistcoat, the watch, and nothing else,” he whispered coyly. Erik enjoyed the shock in those beautiful blue eyes even as he finished the thought.

“But probably not for long.”

****

Chapter Text

Erik escorted Charles home, letting him hop out of the carriage at the side entrance of the house that led to the kitchens and the living quarters above. Charles reflexively turned his face away from the busy street, shielding himself from any curious passersby. He caught himself, and glanced up to see Erik’s mocking expression. He was well aware of the impulse Charles had just yielded to, but Charles knew Erik didn’t fully understand why Charles wanted to protect his identity.

Raven, he reminded himself. Raven, who was to debut in society in just a few short month’s time, sponsored by Lady MacTaggert and destined to be the toast of London. Whatever shreds of the Marko name that still existed must stay intact for her sake.

Frustrated with himself, Charles stepped inside the house, and only then realized that Erik had given another order to the hired hack.

“Erik?” he said questioningly.

“I have an errand,” Erik said, “before the casino opens.”

“Of course,” Charles said, watching as Erik closed the coach door and thumped his walking stick on the roof, signalling to the driver to whisk him away.

Charles retreated into the dimness of the side hallway, hearing the muffled sounds of carriage wheels moving against the cobbled street.

“Idiot,” he chided himself under his breath.

He wandered down the unfamiliar hallway, keeping in mind the floor plan of the townhouse, which closely resembled the other fine homes in the area. He knew the kitchen to be just ahead, though he’d had no reason to visit it yet. Thinking of the poor fare he’d been served at tea and breakfast, Charles was looking forward to meeting the house’s cook.

He reached the kitchen and was immediately assaulted by the acrid smell of smoke. Fearing that a fire had started he raced into the room, coughing and waving smoke away, only to discover the charred remains of a roast chicken on the spit in the hearth. The carcass was burned beyond recognition, still smoking, and Charles felt slightly queasy at the burning stench in the air.

He heard a deep heartfelt sigh beside him.

A young lad of about nineteen stepped forward. He was handsome, blond-haired and blue-eyed, though his expression was slightly pinched. He wore a cook’s apron. It was splattered and stained with what looked like pastry and berry juice, and he elbowed past Charles to look at the ruined chicken.

“There goes another dinner,” he muttered. “Cripes.”

Charles heard a stumbling crash behind the doorway leading to the rest of the house and a younger boy, freckled and red-headed, tumbled into the kitchen, gangly limbs flailing as he beheld the ruin of what was apparently another dinner.

“Alex, you turnip head, what did you do?” he moaned, expression grievous. “I told you it didn’t need to roast so long. Did you even think to baste it?”

Alex, the older and larger of the two, shook his head morosely. “I didn’t think it needed it.”

The red-haired boy rolled his eyes dramatically and grabbed two handy rags, passing one to Alex. “C’mon,” he said, taking up one end of the iron spit. “Let’s get it out of here. It stinks to high heaven, and—”

He broke off, apparently just noticing that they were not alone in the kitchen.

Charles drew himself up, trying to look like a commanding aristocrat. It wouldn’t do to appear less than imperious before servants.

The red-headed boy’s mouth dropped open. Alex, clearly the braver of the two, wiped his hand on his apron and stepped forward slowly. Charles was astonished when he extended his hand to shake.

“Alex Summers, m’lord,” he said, his heavy Yorkshire accent making a thick soup of the words. “And this here’s Sean, unlucky Irish bastard that he is. I’m cook, and he’s the bootblack.”

Sean seemed to take offence at this description. “Footman,” he corrected, and now Charles heard the Irish lilt in his speech. “I’m a footman, y’ oaf.”

Summers was still presenting his hand, and Charles, not wanting to appear rude or hurt the boy’s feelings, shook it. He’d never shaken hands with a servant in his life, but he supposed, as this house abided by very different rules than the ones he was accustomed to, he might as well do as Romans.

“A pleasure,” he murmured and gave a stiff bow. “I’m Charles Xavier.”

“We know,” Sean piped up, and Alex quickly elbowed him in the stomach. “You’re the boss’, uh, guest.”

Charles raised one eyebrow at the hesitancy in Sean’s description. He’d forgotten how perceptive servants could be; they often knew the master’s business before the master himself did.

“That’s correct,” Charles said, and turned to Alex. “How long have you been cook here?”

Alex rubbed the back of his neck. “A while now,” he said defensively. “Boss hired me on about three months back. I’ve been learning…” he said, glancing anxiously at the spit and the ruined chicken carcass. “But I’m just no good at it.”

Sean clapped him on the back. Despite their bickering, they appeared to be good friends.

“And you?” Charles asked, addressing Sean. The boy straightened under his regard.

“Been here close to a year,” Sean said stiffly. “I’m jack of all trades. Sweep the hearth, tend the fires, shine the Master’s boots, help clean up after the ’nobs once the gambling’s done for the night.” This recitation of duties was performed by route, as if Sean needed to constantly recall the list of his duties. Charles wondered if the boy had only been told once what to do, and was strictly following those orders. “And I’m to care for the dog now, too,” he said, pointing at a basket in the corner. The puppy was sleeping there, oblivious to all the commotion around him.

“That is…quite the responsibility,” Charles said slowly. “And the other servants? I’ve met Kitty.” He recalled the timid little maid who’d served him tea yesterday.

“Well, there’s Angel,” Sean said. “She’s scullery maid, does the washing-up and such. It ought to be Kitty, as she’s younger, but Master hired Kitty first. And then there’s the blokes who work the casino, but they don’t have much to do with the house.”

“I see,” Charles said, surprised. This was an unconventional household. And, given Erik’s occupation, it would seem that at least few more servants ought to be employed to help maintain both the living quarters and the gambling salon. The house was large, and with two residents and a business to care for, these poor children were clearly overtaxed. No wonder the rooms Charles had seen were in such a sorry state.

“Have any of you had any experience working in other houses?” he asked gently. Alex and Sean shared a speaking look, likely wondering why the Master’s guest was so curious about the domestic arrangements, but Alex shook his head.

“No, m’lord,” he said. “We’s all new to it.”

Charles nodded, satisfied with the boy’s honesty. He’d already concluded as much, and he wondered how the four servants might receive some better training.

He’d have to consider the matter carefully. If he was to be Erik’s guest here, he could certainly spend some time ensuring that better food was prepared and the rooms received a proper cleaning. He’d never managed a large household before, had in fact never even imagined doing such a thing, but it could hardly prove that challenging, could it? He and Moira had done quite well with just a cook and a washerwoman at their little cottage in Brixton.

“Alex, have you any access to household funds? For groceries and the like?” he asked.

Alex hesitated for a moment, clearly unsure how to answer, but finally said, “Yes, m’lord. A bit.”

“Good,” Charles said, smiling. “I believe there’s a bakery on Carlyle Street,” he said, hoping he was correct. What little he’d seen of the area had been glimpsed from a moving carriage, but he was certain he’d seen, and smelled, what promised to be a fine bakery. “Take Sean and purchase some meat pies, bread, and rolls for dinner. If you can find a grocer, get some peas and carrots, whatever is freshest. We’ll prepare a surprise for the Master when he returns.”

Alex and Sean looked at each other, grinned, and in a moment they were banging out the door, leaving Charles alone in the kitchen with only the lingering scent of smoke.

****

Gentleman Jackson’s Boxing Club was filled to the rafters by a drunken combination of aristos, dockworkers, petty thieves and hardened criminals. The stale scent of sweat mixed with the sweet coppery tang of blood and the foul stench of shit and piss. The room was filled with the roar of the crowd and sounds of fists striking flesh and crushing bone. Two separate matches were taking place on either side of the large gymnasium, though none of the fighters in the ring were headliners.

The crowd didn’t seem to care. Bets were being placed at a frantic pace; the swell of the crowd’s approval quickly sank into howls of displeasure when one of the four fighters was knocked out cold.

Cries of “Get up, you cocksucker!”, “Kill ‘em, Frank!” and “Atta boy, Harry!” competed for each fighter’s attention. The remaining pair of fighters were locked together in a parody of an embrace, and the third stood above his defeated opponent, raising his fists in victory, absorbing an equal amount of “boos!” and scattered applause with a bloody, toothless grin.

Erik had entered from the outside stairs and emerged at the rear of the rickety balcony that circled the top of the room. Looking down on the crowd, it was easy to distinguish the rigid class differences that formed the bedrock of English society: the aristocrats sat near the centre ring, the working-class men stood clustered around the sides, and the criminal bosses took the balcony. The bet-takers waded amongst them all, collecting wagers and handing out paper notes and coin.

Today’s headline fight was an exhibition match between a local fighter and Aby Belasco, the infamous and undefeated Jewish fighter who’d captured the imagination of Europe’s boxing circuit. He’d been touring all over England and the continent, and the crowds that came to see him were as interested in his Semetic exoticism as they were his fighting prowess. Erik had read in one Yiddish-language interview that Belasco felt as though he was being displayed like an exhibit at the London Zoo, not as a prizewinning bareknuckle boxer. Still, the curious crowds filled seats and made the promoters happy, which only improved Belasco’s career.

But Erik wasn’t here for the fight. He’d changed in the carriage into a worn dockworker’s jacket and a wool cap borrowed from Remy. In the rough clothing he looked like any other working man in the crowd. Even his missing eye and badly scarred face didn’t make him stand out; plenty of the men watching the fight sported facial scars, missing teeth, and broken or amputated limbs. London’s docks and factories were dangerous places to earn a living, and there were more than few former soldiers in the crowd who’d been wounded in the wars against Napoleon.

Erik leaned against the back wall and feigned interest in the fight, which was going into round 47 with no end in sight. He scanned the crowd and immediately tensed, his heart starting to race.

A cluster of men were gathered around a bench near the back. Not one of them was paying any attention to the fight. They stood in a semicircle around the bench, heads bent, listening intently to the man who sat calmly and delivered their orders.

Schmidt.

The gang of thugs broke apart and scattered into the crowd, giving Erik a clear view. There was a child at Klaus Schmidt’s right, a young boy, and Erik felt a wave of nausea churn deep in his belly. The boy was either very young or very small for his age, and though he was dressed in a jacket that had been tailored to look exactly like the one Schmidt was wearing—the implication made Erik want to gag—he looked impoverished, somehow, his eyes far too old to belong to a child.

Erik’s injured hand was aching, and he deliberately forced himself to relax his fingers. He’d been making a tight fist. The pressure of the bandage had threatened to either cut off his circulation or reopen the puncture wounds. Though part of him wanted to jump from the balcony, stalk across the room and pummel Schmidt with his fists, he knew he couldn’t risk it. Aside from the physical impossibility of such a plan (he’d likely break his neck or his good leg if he tried to jump the balcony, aside from what Schmidt’s goons would do to him) he couldn’t risk such an overtly aggressive move. His war against Schmidt had to continue to be waged in the shadows. If Schmidt suspected who was behind the recent attacks on his empire…

“Lehnsherr, you look like you just swallowed a lime.”

Erik turned to the speaker who’d approached him on his blind side, thinking for a moment that it was one of Schmidt’s hired muscle. He relaxed minutely when he recognized the speaker as a friendly face: Logan Howlett, the current proprietor of Gentleman Jackson’s Boxing Club.

“And you look exactly the same,” Erik replied, turning away to once more watch the boxing. He and Logan weren’t friends, exactly, but they’d done each other a number of favours over the years, and Logan had been one of the earliest investors in Erik’s gaming den. Despite their association Erik barely knew anything about the man, aside from the fact that he was from the Canadian colonies and that he shared Erik’s contempt for the British gentry.

“If we could run our places without ’em we’d probably actually like what we do,” Logan had said once, and Erik agreed.

He tried to fix his face into a neutral expression as he asked, “Is our mutual friend in the crowd today?”

Logan nodded. “Yeah, I saw her around here somewhere. She’s brave - it’s a rough crowd today. Most of these ‘uns are here to see if Belasco’s got horns and a hooked nose,” he said, and then added with a wince, “No offence.”

Erik smiled thinly. “Would you let her know I want to see her?”

“You can tell her yourself,” Logan said, pushing away off the wall. “She’s coming over.”

Erik turned again, cursing his blind side, and watched as a stooped old crone in a hooded cloak made her way through the crowd. She had a hump and a clubbed foot, and leaned heavily on a cane. The men parted in front of her quickly, obviously afraid that she carried a disease. Erik bit back a smile as he heard Logan chuckle.

“That girl oughtta be on a stage somewhere,” he muttered, just as the old crone reached them. She stepped between Erik and Logan, into the shadows near the wall, and instantly the visage of the old crone vanished; she straightened, her hump disappearing, her clubbed foot straightening, and when she tossed back her hood, she revealed herself to be a beautiful young woman with long red hair.

“Hello, Natasha,” Erik said.

The young woman smiled at him, and as always she met his gaze evenly. Everyone else, even hard men like Logan, couldn’t help but stare at his scars, their eyes forever tracking back and forth between the two extremes of his profile. But Natasha Romanov always looked directly at Erik. She barely seemed to notice the scars, and that alone would have made him like her if she hadn’t been an early ally in his war against Schmidt.

He’d asked her once why she was prepared to move against one of the most powerful men in the London underworld. “I’ve got red in my ledger when it comes to Sebastian Shaw,” she’d said, offering nothing further.

“What do you have for me?” Erik asked, keeping his attention fixed on the fight. Natasha drew her hood up over her head. She knew better than to draw attention to herself when Schmidt was around, just as Erik did.

“Shipment tonight, 8 o’clock. West dock, slip seventeen,” she muttered. Erik strained to hear her above the din.

“What’s the cargo?” He felt his heartbeat begin to race, dreading her answer. If the cargo was human…

“Muskets and powder,” she said. “Enough for an army. Rumour is that Shaw has a buyer from the Orient.”

Erik allowed himself to breathe a sigh of relief. Not human cargo, then. They’d managed to rescue Schmidt’s last shipment of poor souls bound for London’s brothels and factories. Most of them had been children. Schmidt was attempting to corner the market on underage labour in the city, and Erik was relieved to learn that he’d taken a respite from that enterprise to focus on gun-running.

“Powder, you say?” Logan interrupted. “Dangerous goods.”

Natasha nodded. “It would be a shame if a fire broke out on board.”

“Do it at night,” Erik said, keeping his voice low. “I don’t want any bystanders hurt.”

“You’ll pay my usual fee?”

Erik didn’t hesitate. “Of course.”

Natasha pushed off the wall, falling back into the painful-looking shuffle of an old woman with a bad leg. “I’ll contact you when it’s done.”

Erik and Logan watched as she melted back into the crowd. Belasco was about to step into the ring; Erik could see the fighter warming up in a small pocket of free space, tossing punches and feinting with quick footwork.

“Should be a good match,” Logan said. Erik had to agree.

****

Chapter Text

The unusually warm and sunny autumn day had brought out the crowds in Hyde Park, and Cain had hauled himself from his bed early that afternoon to promenade with the rest of the gentry, eager to see and be seen. He’d been keeping a low profile since that disastrous meeting with Lehnsherr at Hellfire House, but after spending more than a week sequestered in the dreary confines of the Marko family townhouse, he felt it was time to put in a public appearance.

Cain had dressed carefully and ensured that he was well-groomed, though there was little he could do about the bulbous redness of his nose or the sorry state of his wardrobe, which was no longer in the first blush of fashion. Despite these setbacks he’d begun his circuit of the Serpentine Lakes in high spirits, hoping to run into a few acquaintances and wrangle an invitation to a dinner or a ball. Inspiration had struck late last night after his sixth glass of scotch: he could begin to repair his family’s finances by making an advantageous marriage. After all, there were plenty of rich young debutantes on the market, and he ought to be able to secure the affection of at least one moderately attractive woman with a sizable fortune.

On his first pass around the Lakes Cain didn’t recognize anyone. Despite the hour (fashionable) and his chosen pathway (exclusive to the gentry) he saw only well-dressed strangers. The three pairs of gentleman and two groups of ladies walked past him quickly, apparently so focused on their exercise that they failed to notice him and make the correct introductions. Finally Cain caught sight of an old friend: Janos Quested, a handsome, dark-haired fellow who always moved in the best circles.

Cain slowed his pace and angled towards Quested, ensuring that their paths would intersect. But instead of raising his walking stick in greeting, or even nodding at Cain, Quested did something extraordinary: he sailed past Cain without so much as a glance in his direction. Cain came to a dead stop and started at Quested’s retreating figure, slack-jawed. The man, an old friend, had acted like he hadn’t even seen Cain.

It happened again and again over the course of the afternoon. Cain would spot an old friend or acquaintance and make a slow approach, and the fellow (or, in a few cases, the lady) would pretend he didn’t exist. Cain thought of himself as a sharp man, and it only took three direct cuts to realize what was happening: he’d become a persona non grata, a social outcast.

The knowledge washed over him like ice water and, shaking, he took a seat on a nearby bench that faced one of the lakes. His worst fears had been confirmed. He’d known there would be fallout from Lehnsherr’s blasted theatrics at the Hellfire House, but he’d never imagined…

“A very pleasant aspect, isn’t it?”

A man had taken a seat on the bench beside Cain. By his clothing he appeared to be a gentleman, and he had the appropriate bearing of a man accustomed to getting his own way in everything. But Cain found something unsettling about him in spite of his bland, inoffensive features and friendly expression.

“I suppose,” Cain muttered, shooting the man a dark look. He needed time to process the realization that he’d been made a pariah; chitchatting with a stranger held no appeal.

“Shame there’s no one here to keep you company.”

That got Cain’s attention. He stared at the stranger, shocked into silence. Was the man…was he propositioning him? But the man’s next words made Cain’s growing rage evaporate.

“Between us gentlemen,” he said, “that dirty Jew ought to hang for making those accusations against you.”

Cain blinked. This unexpected show of support—from a perfect stranger, no less!—was exactly what he needed to hear.

“Thank you,” he said honestly, turning toward the man. “You’re right, although I think a hanging is too good for him.”

The man threw his head back and laughed, revealing a row of very white, very even teeth. He sobered quickly, seeming to evaluate Cain.

“You could make sure he learns his place,” he suggested, and Cain frowned. The man clarified quickly. “A public challenge, perhaps. He did question your honour.”

“I’ve thought about that,” Cain said, remembering what Emma had told him. The Jew had an intimidating reputation when it came to duels: he was, by all accounts, an excellent shot. But then so was Cain.

“I think it’s worth a try,” the man said, looking out over the water. “Unless you enjoy your solitude.”

“It doesn’t seem to agree with me,” Cain muttered, thinking of the bleak future stretching out before him. Charles might have kept him out of the poorhouse, but what good was freedom if he had to live without the parties and the balls and the hunting trips he’d attended his entire life? This stranger had a point. Permanent exile from his class held no appeal.

“But,” Cain said, still worried about Lehnsherr’s reported skill with a pistol, “it seems…risky.”

“What’s life without risk?” The man said, extending his hand out over the water. “But if you’re truly concerned about your chances, I could make a few suggestions.”

“Oh?” Cain prompted. This stranger appeared to have all the solutions to his problems.

“Yes,” the man said, and his smile was all teeth. “You can trust me.”

Cain extended his hand. “Viscount Marko.”

“Sebastian Shaw,” the man said, taking Cain’s hand in a bruising grip. “It is a true pleasure to meet you.”

****

They held dinner as long as they could, but when Erik hadn’t returned by 8 o’clock, Alex and Sean had to abandon the kitchen to help prepare the casino for operation. The theatres would soon be letting out, Charles realized, and the gentlemen of the ton would begin to seek out their evening’s true amusements.

Charles wondered where Erik was as he ate his solitary dinner in his room. He regretted the morning’s mistakes, his sullen silence in the coach ride to the tailor’s, his unthinking remarks about the watch, the way he’d turned his face away from the street in shame as he’d entered his new home.

It appeared he would not be given the chance to make amends for his errors, and he’d spend another night alone in an unfamiliar bed.

He picked up one of his old biology texts, leafing through pages long memorized, and let out a sigh of frustration.

“What are you doing?” Erik asked from the doorway.

Charles glanced at him furtively. “Trying to read.”

Erik slowly approached the writing table where Charles sat. He reached out and touched the cover of the book. “Prodromus Entomology,” Erik read the title. “Insects. Is that something you enjoy?”

Charles blushed a little, and shrugged. “I enjoy the study of the natural world. Biology in particular, though I’ve read several exciting texts on geology and physics, and—” he trailed off, certain he was being a bore. He’d ever met anyone who shared his academic interests, and indeed he’d encountered many who actively discouraged him from any scientific or intellectual conversation.

“When?” Erik asked, and Charles blinked at him in confusion. “When did you conduct your studies?”

Charles tried not to look at Erik. “I've never studied formally,” he admitted. “But an associate of mine had a wonderful library, and he gave me free use of it.” Charles didn’t add that the “free use” of the Duke of Hempstead’s library had come with certain conditions attached, some of which still had the power to make him blush and tremble in shame.

“I've read as much as I could on the subjects,” Charles continued, the words tumbling out of him. “My…associate even let me keep a few volumes.” These treasured volumes were the foundation of his little library, most of which he’d left back with Moira at the cottage.

He felt a sudden pang of homesickness, not just for his books and the warm comfort of the country cottage, but for Moira too, and the friendship and camaraderie they’d shared. He’d written her two letters since arriving in London, and he wondered when he might hear back. Thursday, he guessed, if her reply had made the evening post the day after he’d left.

Distracted by his thoughts he looked up to find Erik watching him, his face inscrutable as always. Charles gave himself a mental shake, reminding himself how dull others found his conversation. No one was interested in speaking with him, after all.

“You must be hungry,” Charles said, rising and heading for the door. “Let me fetch you something to eat.”

He stopped instantly when he felt Erik’s warm fingers curl around his wrist. “That’s not why I brought you here,” he rumbled, drawing Charles back against his chest. Charles, clad in his waistcoat and shirtsleeves, felt the heat of Erik’s body along his back and shoulders. He leaned back into Erik’s warmth, trying to calm his racing heart.

Be brave, he told himself. Don’t lose this chance. He tilted his head back until he came to a stop at the join of Erik’s shoulder, his forehead pressed to Erik’s neck.

“Why did you bring me here?” he asked, bringing his backside into contact with Erik’s hips. He undulated slightly, rubbing against the front of Erik’s trousers, and he felt the expected hardness start to form there, Erik’s erection pushing against the soft flesh of his buttocks.

“I think you know,” Erik murmured, his voice a throaty whisper against the shell of Charles’ ear. Charles shivered, and brought a hand up to curl over the back of Erik’s neck, bringing his face even closer. It was the unscarred side of his face, and so Erik could clearly see Charles’ intention when Charles forced his head lower and brushed his mouth against Erik’s lips.

Though the angle was awkward, Erik felt an electric jolt go through him at the touch of Charles’ mouth. He groaned and inclined his head further, deepening the kiss. He pressed into Charles’ warm mouth, seeking entrance, and was gratified when Charles’ lips parted, allowing Erik to sweep his tongue inside.

He kissed Charles hotly, one hand still locked on Charles’ wrist, the other reaching up to stroke low on Charles’ belly. Though there were layers of waistcoat and shirt beneath, Erik fancied he could feel the steadily increasing beat of Charles’ heart. He worked his hand beneath the fall of Charles’ shirt and the waistband of his trousers, desperate for skin. When he found the hair-rough texture of Charles’ belly he groaned again, stilling his tongue inside Charles’ mouth for a moment as he focused on the warm softness of skin, the texture of the sparse hair that dipped below Charles’ waistband. God, how he wanted this man, this odd little English aristocrat. He wanted to claim Charles as his own, bury himself inside and mark his body as his own.

He pressed his hips closer to Charles’ backside, delighting in the feel of smooth, firm buttocks outlined by the thin material of Charles’ new trousers. Encouraged by Charles’ soft moan, he opened the fall of Charles’ trousers and slipped his hand inside.

Erik fumbled slightly with the smallclothes until he found the smooth, hot skin of Charles’ thigh. In another breath he’d have Charles’ erection in hand, and then they could…

Erik’s searching hand stilled. He’d found Charles’ cock, but it lay flaccid in his trousers. There was no hint of the expected hardness or the proof of desire he’d expected to find. He released Charles’ mouth and bodily turned him so he might see the expression on Charles’ face.

Charles’ wide blue eyes were glassy. Shame, or desire, or disgust pinked his cheeks. His red mouth was full and swollen from Erik’s kiss, and his hair was tousled. Already he looked thoroughly debauched, the very picture of aroused sensuality, but…but he hadn’t responded in the slightest.

Erik frowned down at him. He knew his expression must be thunderous but he couldn’t understand why Charles would pull him close and kiss him, grind against him as he had, and still feel nothing. He tried to form the question and couldn’t, and was doubly shocked when Charles reached up to loop his arms around Erik’s neck and pull him close again, kissing him frantically.

“Please,” Charles said, “please, I want this. I want you. Please don’t leave me again.”

Erik’s heart thumped in his chest, caught between his desire for Charles and the evidence that Charles didn’t share that desire. Or, rather, Charles himself might, but his body didn’t want Erik, perhaps couldn’t bear Erik’s touch.

Still, he was only a man, and Charles’ lips were soft and insistent. He wouldn’t shame Charles by refusing him a third time. And so Erik opened his mouth and let Charles kiss him.

Charles wasn’t accustomed to kissing another man, that much was clear. Erik wondered what, exactly, Charles’ experiences had been. He was overeager and undisciplined, but his mouth was hot and wet and exactly as captivating as Erik remembered. He tilted his head and let Charles explore his mouth, trying to temper Charles’ frantic energy with his own slow, guiding hand. He reached up to rub at the centre of Charles’ back, his touch reassuring and undemanding. He kept his lips relaxed, letting Charles set the pace, and soon Charles took his hint and slowed, the desperation in his kiss slowly shading into something gentler, more reverent. He gained confidence quickly, drawing back to nudge Erik’s mouth open wider, his tongue tangling with Erik’s until Erik felt his desire return, that pounding need for Charles loud in his veins.

He pressed Charles a little closer, hoping to feel that answering hardness, but when he did not Erik sighed, deciding to try another tactic.

“Take your clothes off,” he ordered in a hushed voice. “I want to see you.”

Charles bit his lip, a motion that inspired another low groan from Erik, and stepped back to undo the buttons of his waistcoat. Erik admired the movement of Charles’ broad chest as he slipped the garment off, exposing his white shirtsleeves. Erik moved forward, nimble fingers plucking at the uncomplicated knot of Charles’ cravat until the long piece of material gave way. He unwound the length of cloth until Charles’ throat was bare, and stepped forward to suck at the newly-revealed skin. Charles tasted like soap and sweat, dust from the road mingling with his own unique musk. He wore no cologne, and the knowledge that he was smelling Charles, and only Charles, made Erik feel a little heady.

He kissed Charles’ throat, nibbling at the swell of his Adam’s apple before moving to lick and kiss the join of Charles’ neck. He felt Charles shiver, and then Charles slid his hand through Erik’s short hair, cupping the back of his head to draw him closer. He moaned, shuddering at the insistent vacuum of Erik’s mouth, and Erik pushed away the material of Charles’ shirt until it slipped off one shoulder, leaving half of Charles’ upper body exposed. Erik drew back to look at him, at his pearly pale skin, perfect and unmarred, and Charles’ surprisingly firm pectorals. He must do some exercises, Erik thought, just as he bent his head to lick at Charles’ nipple.

Charles moaned again, whispering, “Good God” and twining his fingers more tightly into Erik’s hair. Erik smiled against Charles’ nipple, catching it firmly between his teeth. He felt Charles rear up toward him on his toes, and Erik chuckled darkly against Charles’ skin. The man was so damn responsive. He had to be feeling something now.

Rather than check on that possibility, Erik deliberately stepped away, his mouth making a wet pop as he released Charles’ nipple. Looking at Charles now, shirt slipped off one shoulder, chest heaving, hair mussed, Erik revised his earlier assessment. Now Charles was the incarnation of wanton desire.

He reached for the tails of Charles’ tucked-in shirt and wrenched the material free of his waistband. He’d already unbuttoned the fall of Charles’ trousers, and with the pants parted, he could just glimpse Charles’ dark pubic hair and what appeared to be a generously-sized cock.

Erik’s fingers itched to reach out and stroke Charles, to see if he’d grown hard yet, but instead he grasped the hem of Charles’ shirt and pulled it off over his head, baring Charles further. It felt a little like unwrapping a gift and Erik crushed Charles to him, devouring his mouth as he rubbed his hands along the breadth of Charles’ bare back, dipping down his curving spine to the small of his back, and then lower, easily brushing aside Charles’ gaping waistband to clutch at Charles’ buttocks, taking greedy handfuls of the warm, plump mounds.

Charles stilled, and Erik slowly withdrew his hands. He pulled back to look at Charles’ face, but Charles wouldn’t meet his eyes. He’d been kissing Erik so fervently only a moment ago, with such sincere desire that Erik couldn’t doubt his ardor, but he’d gone cold again, and Erik didn’t need to check to know that Charles’ burgeoning hardness had softened once more.

“Charles?” he said, his voice rough and scratchy with desire. “Please, tell me what’s wrong.”

Charles swallowed and blinked, his pleasure-glazed eyes clearing and, to Erik’s alarm, watering.

“I…can’t. Please. Not that. I’ll do anything you want, but not…that.”

Despite the stuttered request, Erik understood what Charles meant.

He frowned, brow scrunching in concern, but decided that his questions could wait. For now. He wanted to return Charles to that place of arousal and pleasure, to brush aside any painful memories of the past and make him focus on the here and now.

“Charles,” Erik said, “I would never hurt you. And I will not do anything you haven’t given me express permission to do. Understand?”

Charles bit his lip—God, the man could tempt a saint!—and dipped his head in acknowledgement.

He still looked uncertain and so Erik drew him into his arms again, this time only to offer comfort. He wrapped his arms around Charles, his chin grazing Charles’ soft hair, and murmured, “Anything you want, and nothing you don’t. I promise. I won’t touch you until you want me to.”

The look of disbelief on Charles’ face spoke volumes. He clearly couldn’t fathom ever wanting Erik to touch him there, and Erik wondered about the exact nature of Charles’ experiences. Perhaps he’d never been tupped by another man. If so, Erik could understand his uncertainty and fear.

He stepped back and stroked Charles’ cheek gently with his unbandaged hand, waiting for Charles to raise his head and meet his eyes.

“I swear to it, Charles. I won’t touch you below the waist unless you ask me to.”

With a shaky nod, Charles seemed to accept him at his word. He drew Charles close again and, after a moment, Charles wrapped his arms around Erik. He closed his eye, swearing his own silent vow not to betray the gift of Charles’ trust.

****

Chapter Text

Charles woke shortly before dawn, his sleep disturbed by Erik’s absence. After they’d spoken, after Erik had made his extraordinary vow, they’d curled up together in the large bed. Charles had fallen asleep like that, resting against Erik’s broad chest, and he’d fallen into a deep sleep. He was untroubled by nightmares or the memory of other hands that had touched him, other bodies that had pushed into his. He’d dreamed of Erik, of his large, gentle hands on his skin.

It bothered him that Erik had slipped out of bed before dawn. He’d said that his household kept unusual hours, but Charles hadn’t expected to be left alone before the servants woke. It crossed Charles’ mind to use the connecting doors and go find Erik in his bedroom, but eventually he decided that it would be better to respect Erik’s privacy.

Hopefully this was the first night of many, and Charles intended to keep Erik with him next time.

Next time he may want more, whispered Charles’ fear-voice, the one that insisted only bad things ever happened.

He sighed and flopped over on his belly, trying to go back to sleep. But his darker thoughts intruded even into his light doze, reminding him of the time Lord MacTaggert had—

Charles woke with a start to find an unfamiliar maid staring at him, her wide, dark almond-shaped eyes meeting his with cool appraisal.

“I apologize for disturbing you,” she said quickly, rising to her feet.

Charles, suddenly mindful of his state of undress, grabbed the coverlet and drew it up to cover his bare shoulders. Suddenly he was glad Erik wasn't with him. “What’s your name?”

The girl raised her head and executed a very correct curtsy. “Angel, m’lord.” She moved with a gracefulness that wouldn’t have been out of place in a grand ballroom, and Charles smiled at her. So this was the other maid Sean had mentioned.

“Well, Angel, I think I have everything I need right now,” he said, pleased to see that she’d already laid a fire in the cold hearth, and brought up a tray of tea. “Thank you very much.”

“You’re welcome, m’lord,” she murmured, backing out of the room. Charles stared after her for a moment and then bounded out of bed, searching for his worn, threadbare banyan. He found it next to his trunk full of books and wrapped himself up securely before going over to fling the drapes open. It was a glorious day. The autumn sun was shining brightly outside, pigeons were cooing at each other, and even the dismal back lot view of the privy didn’t diminish Charles’ good mood.

In fact, his good mood lasted all the way through his morning ablutions, shaving, and dressing in his new, fashionable clothing. Even the blasted barrel knot for his cravat cooperated, and soon Charles was clean, decently attired, and ready to face the day.

His good mood evaporated the instant he saw Sean hovering nervously at the foot of the great staircase.

“Sean?” Charles asked, alarmed by the boy’s body language. “What is it?”

“There’s a gentleman here to see you, Sir,” Sean said, pale under his freckles. “Said he had to see you. 'e’s been waiting a while, and the longer he waits, the angrier ’e gets. He looks a bruiser, that one.”

Charles closed his eyes and rubbed at his forehead. Cain. Of course Cain would come to him here, of all places, and Charles wasn’t naïve enough to think it was because Cain Marko was concerned about his welfare. No, Cain wanted something, and he wasn’t above terrorizing the domestic staff until he’d forced Charles to see him.

“Thank you, Sean,” Charles said. “Would you and Alex take this list, please,” he said, handing Sean the grocery list he’d composed last night, “and collect the necessary items? We’ll have a cooking lesson today.”

Sean accepted the list with some trepidation, but finally nodded and left Charles alone in the hall.

Grateful for a moment to collect himself, Charles straightened his waistcoat, smoothed his hair, and prepared to meet with his odious stepbrother.

****

Charles found Cain seated at a small, elegant table in the third gaming salon. His hulking mass dwarfed the beautiful cherry table with its gilded edges, and Charles winced whenever Cain shifted. Just the weight of his meaty fists resting on the table caused the wood to groan.

A fan of cards was spread before Cain, and Charles raised an eyebrow in curiosity. He hadn’t thought of it before, but Cain was likely a regular at this establishment, given the amount of money he’d lost to Erik. The thought of Cain sitting in one of these salons, sipping Erik’s wine and playing at his table, was an odd one.

Cain glanced up at Charles’ entrance, and then back down at the cards. “Pick one,” he said.

Trying not to roll his eyes, Charles asked instead, “What do you want, Cain?”

“Oh, I can’t come and visit my stepbrother?” Cain collected the cards and shuffled them. His thick fingers were slow and clumsy, making a mess of the shuffle. “I am still legally responsible for you. And I wanted to ensure you were enjoying your new situation.”

Charles felt that old anger welling within him, the anger that had once sent him, as a child, tearing after Cain, striking him before Cain hit him back so hard he’d knocked Charles out cold. Cain had always been bigger, and had never failed to use his size to his advantage. Nothing had changed.

“Go on,” Cain said, his tone once more light and airy, as if he hadn’t a care in the world. “Pick one. Let’s see if your luck’s in.”

“No.”

Cain's beady black eyes narrowed, heavy brow furrowing in confusion. “Charlie,” he chided, “I hope you’re not unhappy with your bargain. Our bargain. It’s too late to back out now.”

“Why did you come to my house, Cain?” Charles asked tiredly, wanting to get this confrontation over. “I don’t want you here.”

“Your house?” Cain said in mock-surprise, looking pointedly at the scattered gaming tables, piles of chits stacked neatly in the centre of each one. “I could have sworn...”

“I did what you wanted, Cain,” Charles said, clenching both his fists in an effort to control himself. “It’s finished. Whatever you want now, the answer is no.”

“Charlie, what makes you think I want anything?”

“Because I know you.”

Cain shook his head, tsk tsking at Charles. “I want to wish you every happiness. You’re my only family, you know. Aside from our dear sister, of course.”

Cain’s mention of Raven stilled Charles entirely. He couldn’t allow Cain anywhere near Raven, not now, not when they were both so close to escaping the Markos’ grasp forever.

“And how is our mutual friend the Jewish gambler? They say the Hebrews aren’t very skilled in the carnal arts, but perhaps he’s surprised you.” Cain paused, smirking at Charles. “Or maybe you’ve shown him a thing or two, disgusting sodomite that you are.”

“Mr. Lehnsherr is fine,” Charles ground out. “And the weather is lovely. I hear that the Regent’s health is improving. Are there any other topics of polite conversation you’d like to cover?”

“So he doesn’t know anything exotic enough to make you forget his face. And perhaps even his body. Someone said that the scarring underneath all that expensive Parisian tailoring is even more…” He paused delicately.

“And how would someone know?” Charles countered, determined not to let Cain know that he was succeeding in angering him.

Cain raised his eyebrows. “I’m only repeating what I’ve heard. You, I think, would be in a better position than I to know the truth of that statement.”

Charles didn’t answer but tightened his lips in disgust. Cain knew that Charles was reaching the end of his patience. Shame; he always did like ruffling the little bugger’s feathers. But hopefully he’d annoyed and threatened Charles enough that he might be willing to do what Cain wanted, if only to get rid of him.

“I met an old friend yesterday,” Cain said. “Janos Quested, heir to the Dubois title and fortune. Known him since we were both in swaddling cloths. Cut me dead. Can you imagine? Such an old friend, and he pretended I wasn’t there. Suddenly for him, Cain Marko didn’t exist. And do you know why?”

“No, but I’m certain you intend to tell me,” Charles said dryly, urging Cain to get to the point. He didn’t want Erik to arrive back home early to find Charles entertaining Cain in the third salon.

“Because your new lover brought his filthy accusations from the gutter that’s his life into my circles.”

“His accusations?”

“About the necklace. He said I cheated him.”

“Cain,” Charles said patiently, “the necklace was paste. It was worthless. You told me that. What did you expect him to do? You owed him seventy thousand pounds.”

“I didn’t know the damn thing was paste!” Cain roared, smashing his meaty fist down on top of the fan of cards. The delicate table shuddered under the force of his blow. “It wasn’t my fault, Charlie! Lehnsherr could have come to me privately, like any gentleman.”

The word hung in the air between them. But both Cain and Charles were aware that Erik Lehnsherr made no pretense of being bound by that definition.

Finally Charles sighed. “I don’t know what you want me to do.”

“Everything you’ve done has been pointless. It’s all been in vain. Your…sacrifice. Clearing the debt. None of it has made the slightest bit of difference in the face of that accusation. I can never regain what I’ve lost.”

Charles stared at Cain, stunned by the depth of the man’s thoughtlessness. Cain’s father had sold Charles, then little more than a child, to a complete stranger on the basis of a single accusation. And as a result Charles had been cut off from his inheritance, his good family name, and any hope of being anything more than a plaything for wealthy, perverted old men. And Cain had done the same, bargained away Charles’ body, his freedom, his very life, to a virtual stranger.

The lack of self-awareness was astonishing, even to Charles, who’d known Cain since childhood. He’d never considered just how selfish Cain really was, to hold his own reputation in such high regard even as he and his father had obliterated Charles’.

“Cain, I’m sorry,” Charles said, even though he wasn’t, “but I don’t know what you think I can do.”

Cain shook his head. “I need to restore my good name. If I can’t, I can never get you out of this…situation. Not if everyone’s turned against me. Not if I’m an outcast to my own class. Don’t you understand?”

Charles almost laughed. The idea of Cain trying to extricate him from the bargain he’d struck with Erik was ludicrous. Cain would never help Charles, not unless he was helping himself at the same time. No, if Cain ever did try to remove Charles from the terms of his agreement with Erik, it would only be because Cain wanted to sell Charles off to someone else.

And there would always be someone else eager to make use of Charles’ body.

But Charles couldn’t tell Cain the truth. The knowledge of his genuine care for Erik was not a weapon Charles would give Cain. He might not be his father, but Cain shared the same blood and the same cold-blooded self interest as Kurt Marko. Charles had learned his lesson all too well: never give the Markos anything they could use against you. Even his love for Raven made him vulnerable, but that couldn’t be helped.

“Charles?” Cain said, watching Charles’ face. Charles blinked, realizing that he was being foolish. Cain would never suspect that Charles held any affection for Erik. And he must never, ever know.

“What do you think I can do?” Charles asked, and this time Cain didn’t deny the purpose of his visit.

“Make him take it back. What he said.”

“But it was true!” Charles exclaimed. “You told me it was true! And he showed them, didn’t he? At the Hellfire Club. How could you ask him to—”

“He can come to the club and make a formal apology,” Cain said calmly. “Tell them he was wrong. That he switched the diamonds. That he was the one who—”

Charles laughed suddenly. “Oh my dear,” he said, “can you really imagine him doing that?” He was amazed that Cain would even suggest such a ridiculous scenario.

“He will if you ask him to.”

“No,” Charles said, shaking his head. “You know that’s not true. You know how…arrogant he is,” he finished.

“If you ask him,” Cain repeated doggedly, “You could make him.”

“How?” Charles said, “How do you imagine that I can compel him to lie, to admit publicly to a dishonourable act that he didn’t commit?”

“Dishonourable?” Cain laughed. “God, Charles, he’s a sodomite! A dirty Jew gambler! He has no honour to lose. I’m the one who’s the outcast. And you can remedy that. It’s a simple choice: clearing your stepbrother’s honour, clearing your family’s name, in exchange for a lie that means nothing to him.” Cain finished this little speech with one final nail in the coffin. “And consider Raven. The success of her debut depends on my good name. How will she ever find a husband if her beloved brother is a pariah?”

Charles would have laughed at the idea of Cain being Raven’s beloved anything, but he did have to admit that Cain had a point. Raven was a Marko, not an Xavier, and without Cain’s social standing even Moira’s sponsorship wouldn’t help. Raven would be an outcast just like Cain, like Charles himself. She would be refused entry to the ballrooms and fine homes of the ton, and without any hope of a good marriage she would be forever vulnerable to Cain and his machinations.

Charles couldn’t allow that. Not even for Erik’s sake.

“You could make him do it,” Cain said, his voice turning low and ugly. “Withhold your…favours. I would imagine, now that he’s tasted your sweet wares, he’d be more than willing to—”

Charles itched to slug his stepbrother. He hated Cain’s foulness, the implication that Cain knew anything about his physical relationship with Erik. But Cain saw Charles’ anger and misinterpreted it as shame.

“Do you mean you haven’t serviced him yet?” Cain laughed. “Charlie, I’m surprised at you! Have you lost your courage? Can’t bring yourself to share his bed, eh? I can’t say that I blame you - even someone with your unnatural inclinations would balk at being fucked by that scarred bastard. But whatever you’re using as an excuse, he won’t accept it for long.”

Cain’s ugly words touched on the string of insecurity tied tight around Charles’ heart. He’d refused Erik his arse last night, and Erik had seemed willing to accept his demurral. But for how long? How long could Erik be patient before he demanded more?

“Make it a condition,” Cain suggested, and it took a moment for Charles to remember that they weren’t speaking about the same thing. “If you do it at the right moment, he won’t be able to refuse. He’ll agree. If you ask him…nicely.”

Cain’s smug surety that Charles would use his body made Charles feel slightly ill. “No,” he said again, as he had at the beginning.

“And I wonder, why not?” Cain asked suddenly, comprehension dawning in those small, piggy eyes. “There is, I admit, a certain dark sensuality about him, which I suppose is something those who share your perversion would find attractive. You aren’t beginning to be swayed by all that Jewish sangfroid, are you?”

He isn’t stupid, Charles reminded himself. Don’t mistake his selfishness for stupidity. Don’t ever let him suspect…

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Charles managed to laugh, forcing himself to meet Cain’s eyes.

Cain studied Charles, calm and indifferent. “You were remarkably easy to persuade into this arrangement, Charlie,” he said. “I’m beginning to wonder why you so willing to fall in with my plans. I know you, Charles, and I know how you fought Father’s arrangements. I also know—”

“You know how I feel about Raven,” Charles said. The lie, or half-lie, was an inspiration. Cain didn’t have to believe that Charles had any other motive.

“I do know that,” Cain admitted, still smiling, “so I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. How do you think she would have fared with our gambler friend?”

Charles tried to imagine it, tried to imagine Raven sold to Erik to pay off Cain’s debt, but he had a hard time picturing the two of them together. Raven, stubborn and combative, would have lashed out at Erik, and Erik in his pride would never have accepted a woman so unwilling. It would never have worked.

Charles was very glad for that.

“Ask him,” Cain continued. “For me. And for Raven. Let’s put this whole unpleasant incident behind us as quickly as we can, restore the Marko family name, and let Raven have her debut. I know you can do it. A public apology is all I’m asking.”

“I’ll try,” Charles promised, “but I can hardly control his mind, Cain. Lehnsherr will do as he will.”

Cain nodded, having heard little but Charles’ assent. “Good man,” he said, clapping Charles roughly on the shoulder, hitting him so hard that Charles swayed forward.

“I’ll leave you the deck,” Cain said generously. “Try playing a hand,” he suggested, turning to the door. “Your luck might be changing already.”

****

Charles spent the afternoon following his disturbing visit with Cain in the kitchens with Sean and Alex. Charles had prepared meals for himself and Moira in the months before they could afford a regular cook. He thought he’d done well for himself then, but the vegetable pies they were attempting now seemed to be a bit beyond Charles’ skill set.

“This one’s fair burnt to a crisp,” Alex said, removing yet another charred pie from the oven. “I said we shouldn’t leave it in so long.”

“We’ll do better with the next one,” Charles promised, wiping at his brow. He’d long ago abandoned his smart green jacket and worked now in his waistcoat and shirtsleeves. His hair was likely mussed and he was certain he had flour on his nose, but improving the food at The Coin was more important than maintaining artificial appearances.

Besides, he rather liked cooking with Alex and Sean.

“Do we need more peas?” Sean asked. He was seated at the long, scarred kitchen table, busily shelling a mountain of fresh green peas. Those, along with carrots, potatoes and a thick gravy, constituted the inside of the vegetable pies. It had sounded like a very good dish when Charles had thought of it yesterday, but in the harsh light of day the pies were proving a stubborn task to master.

“I don’t believe we do,” Charles said, eyeing the towering mountain of peas. “We need more pastry.”

Both Alex and Sean groaned. It had taken hours of messy, sticky work to mix and roll out the dough for the pie shells, and the thought of making more was too much for the young men.

“Come come, we’ll be faster at it this time,” Charles said encouragingly. He hefted a sack of flour up onto the kitchen table. One of the boys grabbed a ladle of fat from the larder, and Charles worked with a knife to mix salt, flour, and fat together for the pastry dough.

Sean busied himself cleaning while Alex chopped up more carrots. Both boys were clumsy with their kitchen tools, obviously more accustomed to tasks that required brute manual labour rather than finesse. Charles wondered how they’d come to be in Erik’s employ. He’d meant to ask Erik, but as the master of the house had been gone all day, he’d have to get his answers from the boys directly.

“Alex,” Charles said, wetting his hands a little in preparation for handling the dough, “you said you’ve never worked in a house before. What did you do before you found employment with Mr. Lehnsherr?”

It was difficult to tell in the low light, but Charles could swear Alex was blushing. He was intensely focused on chopping the carrots, so much so that Charles could tell he was deliberately avoiding Charles’ eyes.

“Alex?” Charles said, “I asked you a question.”

Alex closed his eyes and sighed. He set down the knife and rubbed at his forehead, a gesture of defeat far too advanced for Alex’s tender years.

“’e found me at Newgate,” Alex said. “Mr. Lehnsherr saw me in the prison. When they told ‘im what I’d done, he said that I ought to be paroled under his charge. I thought he just wanted to bugger me and be off, but he gave me a decent job here, made me a cook in charge of ’is house. And he never laid a hand on me.”

Charles absorbed this information with no little sense of shock. He’d never heard of anyone actively recruiting household staff from a prison. He could understand Alex’s suspicion: no man of character would ever enter Newgate and order an inmate’s release for anything but a nefarious purpose.

“What…” Charles cleared his throat, trying to put this delicately, “What was your crime?”

Alex sighed and pushed away from the table, folding his arms over his chest. His expression had hardened, and he looked very much as though he expected Charles to run from the kitchen and call the night’s watch down on the house.

“I was a house breaker,” Alex said, a stubborn set to his chin as if daring Charles to reject him. “Worked for this mean old tosser. He caught me when I was young, five or six, and had me shimming down the chimney or wiggling through a casement to get into a ’nob’s house. Then all I had to do was unlock the door.” Alex shifted in his seat. “I got bigger and couldn’t do that part no more, so then it was me running a boy, choosin’ the houses, saying what to steal, that sort of thing.”

Charles tried and failed to imagine the recalcitrant young Summers as a hardened criminal. The young man with whom he’d become acquainted over the last several days was a bit rough-edged, yes, but hardly a master thief. And he’d been caught, so obviously Alex hadn’t been very successful in his life of crime.

“And Mr. Lehnsherr just plucked you out of Newgate?”

Alex shrugged. “Not sure how he found me,” he admitted, “but when I went before the magistrate, Mr. Lehnsherr paid a lawyer to present my case, and they let me go.”

“Remarkable,” Charles murmured, considering that what Alex had admitted to was enough of a criminal history to warrant hanging. Why had Erik saved the boy? Erik didn’t seem to be naturally altruistic, and it certainly wasn’t because he’d identified Alex as a potential world-class chef. So why had he done it?

Charles turned to Sean, who had been watching the exchange with wide eyes. Apparently he hadn’t known anything about Alex’s background.

“And you, Sean?” Charles said, “How did you come to be here?”

Sean hung his head, all of his usual animation drained away under the force of some private shame Charles couldn’t guess at.

“’E found me on the street,” Sean said. “Offering m'self to gents. Penny a tumble, half of which went to the man who was pimping me out. I had my sisters to feed, and it wasn’t—”

He looked up and glared at Alex as if daring him to laugh, but Alex looked only glumly empathetic. He clapped Sean on the shoulder.

Charles nodded, unwilling to stir up more bad memories for either young man. Still, the question itched at him. There had to be some reason why Erik had chosen these two particular boys as household servants.

“And what of the girls?” he asked, “Kitty and Angel?”

Sean and Alex glanced at each other, then at Charles. “They might not like us to say,” Sean said.

Alex was staring at Charles, weighing his sincerity, the lack of malice in Charles’ question.

“You can tell 'im,” he finally decided. “Mr. Xavier don’t mean no harm.”

Charles nodded, humbled by the trust the boys had placed in him. “I promise to keep your secrets,” he said, “and your past has no bearing on the work you do here. You’re both very loyal to Mr. Lehnsherr. He was lucky to have found you.”

The two boys grinned shyly in the face of Charles’ compliments.

“Kitty come from an orphanage,” Alex offered. “She’s Hungarian, I think. Her people were suffering there in the old country, and her parents put her on a ship to come here. She just made it; her kind were being turned away.”

“Her kind?”

Sean shrugged. “Jews.”

“Ah,” said Charles, deciding that at least Kitty’s presence in the house made sense. Perhaps Erik’s religion dictated that he take in a Jewish refugee girl. “And Angel?”

“Worked in a bawdy house owned by Mr. Shaw,” Sean supplied.

Charles paused, struck by the name. There was something familiar about it, as if were a name he ought to recognize. “And who is Mr. Shaw?”

“A gent who has ’is hand in some underhanded things,” Alex replied. “He ran me as a housebreaker, pimped out Sean on the streets. He’s got a big network in London, lots of people working for ’im. And Lord but the Master hates his guts.”

So that was the connection. All of Erik’s staff, with the possible exception of Kitty, had been rescued from a life of crime and drudgery under the thumb of this Shaw person.

“Well,” Charles said, deciding he’d interrogated the boys enough for one afternoon, “it sounds as if you’re well clear of this Mr. Shaw.”

He clapped his hands, deliberately ignoring the puff of white flour this sent spiraling up into the air. “What’s say we finish these pies?”

****

Chapter Text

Despite the difficulties of transforming the vegetable pies into something edible, by the dinner hour they’d created at least one successful batch. It wasn’t quite enough for dinner, though, and so Charles had sent Sean out to find a roast suckling pig. Together with the pies and fresh bread from the baker’s, it would be an appealing meal.

Sean laid dinner out in a small private room just beyond Erik’s office. The room had originally been intended as a small sewing room for the lady of the house, but with the gaming salon in operation it wasn’t used for anything but storage. Charles had supervised Angel and Kitty as they cleaned out the room, wiped the small table free of dust, and moved two chairs inside. He’d taught Sean how to lay the table correctly, each piece of silverware in its exact spot, and by 6 o’clock dinner was ready to be served. The food was already on the table, kept warm by silver chaffing dishes, and there were even fresh-cut flowers in a vase for a simple centrepiece. All in all, Charles was pleased by his domestic efforts. There might be hope yet for Erik’s eccentric little collection of criminals and cast-offs.

Of which you are one, Charles reminded himself. Despite his title and family name, he was no better than Sean, Alex, Angel or Kitty. Erik seemed to collect strays, and Charles was just one more, though he served a very different purpose within this house. It was important, he told himself, not to forget his place, or the nature of his duties.

He heard the scrape of Erik’s boots outside, that distinctive thump-tha-thump that signaled his limping progress down the hallway. Charles stood, hands behind his back, and waited as Erik pushed the door open. He looked first at Charles, now clad in his fine new evening wear, and then down at the candle-lit table. He noted the roses at the centre with a sardonic quirk of his lips, and then looked back up at Charles, a warm light in his eye.

“I had no idea I was possessed of a china set,” he said dryly, and Charles frowned, fumbling for an explanation. He’d sent Sean out that morning to purchase two place settings, as the only dishes in the home were porcelain tea cups and clumsy tin plate. He hadn’t thought Erik would mind the nominal expense, but perhaps—

“Charles,” Erik said, “I’m only teasing. This is beautiful.”

Charles looked up in relief. “Thank you,” he said sincerely, “I’m glad you like it.”

Erik nodded and made his way over to one of the chairs. He pulled it out, waiting for Charles to take a seat. Charles did so, remembering to sweep the long tails of his coat out of the way so as not to sit on them. Erik rounded the table and sat in his own chair, lifting up the lid of one of the chaffing dishes. A cloud of steam drifted up into the air. Erik frowned down at the dish.

“And what is this?”

“Roast suckling pig,” Charles said proudly. “There are vegetable pies as well, and good fresh bread.”

Erik stared at him for a moment, still holding the lid of the chafing dish. Steam condensed and dripped off the edge of the lid. It fell to splatter the recently-cleaned wood floor.

“I see,” Erik said finally, setting the lid down on the table. He stared at the pig for a long moment, and then slowly picked up his knife and fork. He shaved off a few slices and placed them on one of the plates, handing it to Charles.

“Thank you for all of your efforts,” Erik said stiffly, taking a vegetable pie and a thick slice of bread. “The food looks very good.”

“Do you not favour the pig, sir?” Charles asked, and Erik looked at him for a moment.

“I…abstain from eating any pork,” he said quietly. At Charles’ questioning look, he continued. “I respect the dietary laws of my mother’s religion.”

Charles tilted his head. He’d never heard of such a thing. He knew Erik was Jewish—one would have to be deaf to ignore Cain’s ugly ranting on the subject—but he was uncertain as to what that actually meant. And Erik had said ‘his mother’s religion.’ Was he not a practicing Jew?

Years of etiquette training urged him not to discuss religion at the table, but Charles was curious, and Erik was the one who’d brought it up. “Do you subscribe to the tenants of her faith, as well as the dietary restrictions?”

Charles’ question was met only with Erik’s sardonic smile. “It’s a little complicated, Charles. Suffice to say that I follow some traditions for my mother’s sake, but I have no faith in any higher power.”

No faith. Charles had never met an atheist before.

“And sin?” he asked, hiding his anxiety behind a mouthful of bread. “What of Hell?”

Erik sat back in his chair, one long, elegant finger tapping out a tuneless rhythm on the table. He cocked his head, considering the question.

“Jews have typically left the notions of damnation and hellfire to you Christians.”

“So you don’t believe in sin.” Charles’ eyes were fixed keenly on Erik’s face, seeking an honest answer. He had no idea how Erik regarded himself, save that he maintained that he was not a gentleman. But what did he think of their unnatural urges? Didn’t it bother him, to be a sodomite?

“No,” Erik said, looking directly at Charles. “No, I don’t believe in sin. I’ve seen evil,” he added, “but that isn’t the same thing.”

Charles stared down at his plate of roast pig and vegetable pie. Yes, he too had seen evil. He’d known Kurt Marko. But letting go of the notion of sin, particularly as it applied to his own inclinations, was difficult. He still felt ashamed of what he was. Perhaps that would never leave him.

“Charles?”

He’d been silent too long. Charles looked up to find Erik’s single eye fixed on him.

Charles let out a shaky sigh. He was fine. Aside from the unsettling visit with Cain, things had gone rather well today. He was living in a fine home with many luxuries, friendly servants, and his current paramour was not cruel or unfairly demanding. Yes, he missed Moira and his sister, but in a few months’ time Raven would have her debut, she’d quickly become engaged to some wealthy young man, and then Charles…Charles would be free. Free to live as he chose, with whom he chose. His fondness for Erik notwithstanding, he eagerly anticipated the day he’d truly be his own man.

“I’m well,” Charles said. “Please don’t concern yourself.”

“It’s my duty,” Erik said, smiling his shark’s smile as he leaned closer. “You’re under my protection now. You know that, don’t you?”

“Y-yes,” he said, blushing. He knew what Erik thought that meant: rich food, and soft kisses, and visits to the tailor. But Erik, proud and fierce as he was, was no match for the Markos and their poison. That was Charles’ burden to bear.

“I thought that our arrangement would offer you an escape.”

“From what?"

“From whatever Cain used to make you come to me,” Erik said slowly, his words filling Charles with a middling sense of panic. Erik mustn’t know the truth. He’d guessed at some of it, yes, but he could never know about Raven. Charles would not involve her in this. “When I’d met you at that inn all those years ago, I knew you weren’t a man who would blindly follow your brother’s orders. There’s more to your decision than that. Something—”

“I told you why I came here,” Charles insisted. Erik was crediting him with a courage he didn’t possess. He may have had his own motives for coming to Erik, but he’d always done as his stepfather had ordered. Except once, and the consequences of that mistake had cost him dearly.

Erik’s lips tightened but he didn’t continue the line of thought Charles had interrupted. “I suppose it doesn’t really matter,” Erik said with an elegant shrug. “Whatever your reasons, you are here now. Nothing can change that.”

Charles spoke quickly. “But I don’t want—”

“I have something for you,” Erik interrupted Charles’ denial, almost as if he didn’t want to hear Charles make it. He rose and made his way to the door, and returned a moment later, his hands behind his back. He paused for dramatic effect, and then, much as he’d revealed the puppy the other morning, he brought a small white box out from behind his back.

“Thankfully Monsieur LeBeau was able to provide exactly what I needed,” he said with his sardonic half-smirk.

Charles accepted the box and slowly pried off the lid. Inside lay a dark blue velvet domino and a matching half-mask. Charles hesitantly unfolded the long hooded cloak, the rich folds of which reached to his knees. He raised his eyes to find Erik watching him with that enigmatic half-smile Charles found so intriguing.

“I thought you might give me a chance to prove that our arrangement may also give you a freedom you’ve never enjoyed,” Erik said.

“I don’t understand.”

Erik smirked. “Have you ever seen a fireworks display at Vauxhall Gardens?”

“Of course not!” Charles denied, scandalized at the thought of attending the less-than-genteel pleasure ground. Ten years ago the ton had made the gardens fashionable, but now they were widely recognized as the province of the lower classes.

“Of course not,” Erik echoed, gently mocking. “Even if our arrangement is in some ways a prison, you've been liberated from all the old rules. You have the freedom to do exactly as you wish, if you have the courage to grasp that freedom.”

Erik’s challenge brought Charles’ head up and he stared at the other man, surprised. He’d never thought of it that way before.

“Or are you not romantic enough to be tempted by moonlight and fireworks?” Erik teased, which coaxed an answering smile from Charles. Lord, the man could be dangerously charming when he wished.

“I’ll come,” Charles promised, wondering what he might spy of Erik’s true world.

****

When they left the next evening for Vauxhall in a hired coach, Erik seemed almost a stranger to Charles. His formal evening wear was hidden beneath a midnight-black velvet domino. Unlike Charles, who wore a simple half-mask, heavily jeweled, that framed only the area around his eyes, Erik’s black mask covered his entire face. Only his chin and beautifully shaped mouth were revealed by its arching cut, and Charles knew that Erik had chosen the mask deliberately, to hide his scarred visage from the stares of the public.

He wondered if this was the reason Erik found the prospect of an evening in the gardens so pleasant. The night offered an opportunity for Erik to escape, if only for a few hours, the disfigurement that the world found so abhorrent.

With that thought, and under the cover of the darkness in the carriage, Charles slipped his hand into Erik’s and laced his blunt, narrow fingers with Erik’s.

“Nervous?” he asked, and again Charles heard his amusement.

“No,” he said. “Not with you.”

“Then there’s nothing to be frightened of,” Erik said. “I’m the undesirable element your noble family was afraid you’d be exposed to at Vauxhall. And since you and I have already met…” His teasing voice trailed off suggestively, and he was rewarded by Charles’ soft laugh.

“Then I think I’ll enjoy the night very much.”

He was surprised at how true that prediction turned out to be. Erik was the perfect guide, his familiarity with one of London’s most notoriously romantic locations obvious. Charles wondered briefly if Erik had sought out the company of men before here, at the gardens. He quickly blocked that question from his mind.

Erik treated him with charming courtesy, as if Charles was a fragile boy of sixteen. His life might have been very different had he met someone like Erik when he’d been that age. But the sad thought faded in the face of Erik’s sophisticated company, and Charles found himself relaxing. He also found himself enjoying Erik’s wit and his open appreciation of the world that teemed around them.

“Look,” Erik said, turning Charles’ chin with one long finger so that he could see the elderly gentleman bestowing a tender kiss on the cheek of the buxom and rather grandmotherly lady he was accompanying. The old lady’s blushing response might have been better suited to a fresh young debutante, but Charles’ smile as he watched them was as tender as the old man’s kiss had been.

“Shockingly vulgar,” Erik said sternly, but below the darkness of the mask he wore Charles could see the slant of his smile.

“You’re jealous,” Charles teased. “No such lovely lady on your arm.”

“The gentleman in my company would surely object to such a public display of affection,” Erik said daringly. He turned away from the scene and guided Charles to a spot that he’d promised would offer a better vantage of the fireworks.

Charles made no response to Erik’s reply but he tucked his hand into Erik’s arm and felt Erik’s other hand warmly cover his own. Arm in arm they strolled to the spot he’d suggested, away from the milling crowd.

They were alone, silhouetted against the backdrop of the trees as they waited for the fireworks to begin. Charles shivered a little in the slight breeze and felt Erik move around behind him, just as they’d stood the night Charles had stripped bare for him. Erik’s arms brought the dark folds of his midnight-black domino around them both, shielding Charles from the coolness of the night air. Charles was pulled up against the hard heat of Erik’s tall body, his fingers warm on Charles’ upper arms.

Charles could feel Erik’s breath stir against his hair, and suddenly he was flush with the memories of that night, the way Erik had reached down to stroke him through the fall of his trousers, the hot, sucking kisses Erik had bestowed on the side of his neck. Unconsciously, or perhaps in response to the heat of the memories, Charles deliberately leaned back against Erik, both comforted and aroused by Erik’s arms around him.

The fireworks display began. Bright pops and flashes of light spangled the dark sky above, a cascade of shimmering stars that fell like a chandelier made of diamonds against the black night. Charles was captivated, his mouth a small round “o” as he watched the dazzling show, though at some point he became aware of the fact that Erik was thinking of something other than the fireworks. In embarrassment Charles eased away from Erik’s growing erection, and without protest Erik released him. They stood, not speaking, until the last trembling shimmers of light had faded from the sky.

“That was so beautiful,” Charles said breathlessly. “I didn’t want it to end.”

“There will be other nights,” Erik promised, offering his arm. “Now, we must hurry to our next delight.”

“And what is that?” Charles asked, smiling up at him. Erik had again placed him on his right, and now Charles realized, given the loss of Erik’s left eye, his position there was a necessity.

“The lovers’ maze,” Erik said.

“A real maze?” Charles asked, delighted by the prospect. There had been a maze at Greymaulkin Manor when he’d been a boy, beautifully cultivated and manicured by a team of gardeners.

“The most challenging maze in London,” Erik promised. “And in the centre…” He paused.

“And in the centre?” Charles repeated, a more-than-willing participant in whatever this evening held. The entire night had been an adventure for him after the long, dreary years of exile.

“There’s a fountain. Lovers meet there at midnight and share a kiss,” Erik explained.

Charles laughed. “And if they’re still hopelessly lost in the maze at midnight?”

Erik favoured him with a smile, “Then they never admit it.” He turned without another word and began to weave through the dispersing crowd. Charles worried he’d lose track of Erik in the throng, but eventually they made it to one of the less populated sections of the gardens where the hedge maze began.

The hedges were well above Charles’ and even Erik’s head, and all Charles could see was one long line of boxwood, broken by the passageway that allowed intrepid explorers into the maze. He had no sense of the scale of the thing, or how the geometric pattern that formed the maze would unfold.

“Ready for a challenge?” Erik asked. Charles turned to say that he was, but in a swirling flourish of his black cape, Erik was gone.

Charles chuckled to himself. So he was to complete the maze on his own, and his reward would be a midnight kiss from Erik. Considering the heat of their earlier kisses, and Erik’s obvious excitement when he’d held Charles against him during the fireworks, that kiss would certainly prove interesting.

“Let’s begin, old chum,” Charles said. His words still echoed against the high, dense walls of the hedges as Charles began to get his bearings. He knew that most English mazes were concentric—the maze at Greymaulkin had been—and so he ought to choose one direction in which to turn, and make that choice at each turning.

The maze was challenging to even Charles’ keen sense of direction. He made several wrong turns, fetching up against a barrier of the thick green boxwood and its slightly sharp oval leaves. A few times Charles passed very close to the fountain; he could hear it burbling on the other side of the hedge wall. He wondered if Erik was already there waiting for him, growing impatient with Charles and his inability to solve the puzzle.

The thought spurred him on and, after a moment of consideration, Charles took a left instead of the righthand turns he’d been making. Then right, right, another left, another right, and he rounded the turn to find yet another green barrier. But this time the fountain was much louder, and he imagined Erik standing just on the other side of the hedge wall, perhaps in the same spot as Charles. If the dense boxwood had allowed, he might have reached his hand through for Erik to take.

Fanciful thoughts, he chided himself as he retraced his steps and made a left at the earlier branching. As he made the final turn, the fountain came into view. The fountain featured a beautiful white marble ring with a stone mermaid rising from the centre. A steady jet of water surged out of her open mouth.

The fountain carried an air of neglect, though, as if it had been secreted away in the heart of the maze for years without another person laying eyes on it. Cracks had formed along the mermaid’s tail and even her face was starting to crumble. Unlike the carefully studied follies of the ton, who paid handsomely for ‘ancient’ ruins to be constructed on the grounds of their vast properties, this fountain was truly genteel in its decay. Along with the moonlight and the mysterious intimacy of the hedge maze, there was a lost, lonely, romantic feeling here, hovering in the air like the silk of a spider’s web.

And in the centre of that web was the tall figure in the black domino, who stood looking down into the waters of the fountain like Lucifer surveying his kingdom.

Smiling, Charles lifted his fingers to place them lightly on those familiar broad shoulders, the only part of Erik’s body not hidden by the cloak. At Charles’ touch he turned, and Charles gasped in shock.

The man standing before Charles wasn’t Erik. He was a total stranger. He wore no full-face mask; in fact, he wore no mask of any kind, his face unadorned save for a small, neatly trimmed goatee. Now that Charles was closer he could see that the stranger was shorter than Erik, nearer Charles’ own height but still broad of shoulder. He was handsome, too, in a dashing, mischievous way, his brown eyes dancing with mirth and an unexpected, obvious joy de vivre.

“Why hello there,” he said, clearly delighted by Charles’ interruption. “Aren’t you a saucy thing.”

Charles, alarmed by both the man’s assumption and his close proximity, took a step back. The man followed, bringing himself closer to Charles.

“Like a bit of a chase, eh?” the man said, and Charles took another step back, his heart starting to race. Could he run from this stranger and hide somewhere in the maze?

“You are mistaken, sir,” Charles said stiffly, holding up both hands in a clear ‘come no further’ gesture. “I mean no disrespect, but I’m here to meet someone else.”

“Ah,” said the stranger, “well, if your paramour has failed you, perhaps you’ll consider me as a substitute?”

He took yet another step closer and Charles backed away again, locked in a mockery of one of the country dances favoured by the gentry. The man was smiling now, and looked so much like a wolf that Charles wanted to flee. But he was determined not to run. He’d been bullied enough, pushed around by other men and forced to do things against his will. No more.

“Don’t come another step closer,” he warned, making his voice ring with conviction. “I shall strike you if you do.”

The slightly mocking gleam faded from the man’s eyes and he stopped his slow advance, holding up his hands. “I’m sorry,” he said, sounding sincere. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“I’m not frightened,” Charles insisted, feeling like a child. But he was frightened; terrified, in fact. Old ghosts danced before him, snatches of ugly memories when he’d said no and other men still hadn’t backed away. And what could he do, if the stranger wished to ravish him here in the heart of the maze? Charles could not box, or use a sword, or even handle a gun. The martial education typically afforded to a gentlemen of his class had been denied to him, and so he was left defenseless.

“I wouldn’t—” the man was saying, hands still raised, when his expression changed. His whole body stiffened, muscles going rigid, but he seemed to stir himself and strode over to Charles, reaching for his mask.

Charles instinctively flinched away, but not fast enough. The man had surprisingly good reflexes, and snatched Charles’ mask off his face before Charles could duck.

“Charlie Xavier? Is that you?”

Pinned and exposed like one of the butterflies under glass in the Duke of Hempstead’s study, Charles simply nodded. He wanted to disappear into the boxwood. He’d been recognized.

“It’s good to see you, old man!” said the stranger, who clapped him on the arm. “It’s been years, hasn’t it? Since Eton?”

Eton. Charles felt a flush of shame wash over him. He’d loved the school, loved being around other boys and far away from his horrible stepfather. And having the opportunity to learn, to read, to experience the vast knowledge of the world. God, he’d loved everything about his time there, right up until the moment it had all been ripped away.

His stepfather had arrived one spring morning, already stinking of alcohol and in one of his rages. He’d marched right into Charles’ Latin class and demanded to see him.

“You’re going home,” Kurt had announced. “I’ve plans for you.”

Charles had refused. Right there in the hallway at Eton, he’d finally refused Kurt Marko instead of quaking in terror. His refusal earned him a sharp, stinging slap to the face that had left a clear red handprint there. But he said it again.

“I’m not going with you.” Another slap, and this time he was rocked off his feet and sent sprawling on the waxed floor. Kurt had loomed over him, massive and red-faced, his broad chest heaving with every breath. He wasn’t a large man but in Charles’ memories Kurt always towered over him, furious at the notion of being disobeyed.

“You’ll come,” Kurt said quietly, viciously. “You don’t have a choice, my boy. I’ve made arrangements with the Headmaster.”

Charles shook his head. His ears were still ringing from the slap but he couldn’t believe what Kurt was saying. He’d seen Headmaster Stryker only yesterday, favoured with a short audience for being top of his class. The Headmaster had had nothing but praise for him. What had Kurt done?

“I’ve informed Lord McCoy of Uppercross that you’ve been tupping his son,” Kurt said, smiling down at Charles. “The boy will swear to it. And Lord McCoy has of course insisted that you be immediately ejected from school.”

Lord McCoy, Charles thought desperately, trying to suss out who Kurt meant. He’d glimpsed the younger McCoy hovering at the edge of the football pitch. He was a small, shy underclassman named Hank, skinny as a rail and with a nervous constitution. Worse, he’d been cursed with a clubbed foot. As a result Hank was the target of constant teasing and abuse from the older boys. Charles had once intervened on his behalf, sending the crowd of bullies away by distracting them with good humour and a promise to sneak a nip of whiskey into the dormatory for them.

He’d never laid a finger on Hank. Had never even so much as looked at another boy with any sexual intent, not since his Maths teacher had, four years earlier, forced him to—

But that memory was an old one, long forgotten until he’d mentioned it to Erik back at the inn, and his stepfather’s cruel betrayal smarted more. In one fell swoop Kurt had forever destroyed Charles’ reputation, his education, and any hope he might have had to escape the Markos. He’d left Eton that day, red and shamefaced, feeling as if the eyes of every boy in the school were upon him. And those boys had grown into the gentlemen of society, and all of them knew—or thought they knew—what Charles had supposedly done.

To bump into one of those former schoolmates was to relive all of it over again. Charles looked away, at the fountain, at the boxwood maze, at anything other than this former school chum who must have swallowed Kurt’s lies whole.

“Well, this is a surprise,” the man was saying. He clapped his hands together. “Sorry for the misunderstanding earlier. I thought you were here to…well, this is a notorious spot for a rendezvous.” He was speaking so quickly that Charles hardly had time to respond, and then he finally looked up, comprehension dawning.

“You’re Anthony Stark,” he said, shocked. Yes, he remembered Anthony—the Duke of York now, most likely—from his schooldays. Charles had even thought he’d seen him among the assemblage at one of Bartolomeu’s debauched parties in Paris. That Lord Stark also seemed to prefer the company of men was less shocking than his sudden reappearance in Charles’ life.

“I am,” Stark confirmed, smiling at Charles. “I’d wondered how you were. I recognized you in Paris, once, but I thought…well, never mind all that,” Stark said, waving the thought away.

Charles tried not to blush. He’d been in a decidedly indelicate position at that party in Paris, and the thought of Anthony Stark, or anyone from his former life, seeing him like that was not a pleasant one.

“Charles?”

Erik’s slightly accented voice broke through the spell of Charles and Anthony’s unusual reunion. Charles had never been so relieved.

“Mr. Lehnsherr,” Charles said quickly, turning to face Erik. He was watching them, his expression hidden by the full-face mask. “This is an old acquaintance of mine. Lord Anthony Stark, the Duke of York.”

“Herr Lehnsherr,” Anthony said, correctly identifying Erik’s nationality despite the single word he’d heard. “A pleasure. I’ve heard so much about you. Any man who scuttles Cain Marko’s boat is a friend to me.”

Charles wished he could see Erik’s face. To be claimed as friend to a Duke was no small matter, and he wondered if Erik realized the honour he’d just been paid. Or if he even cared, considering Erik’s opinion of the gentry.

Erik inclined his head, willing at least to acknowledge Anthony’s sentiment. “Marko was easily dispensed with.” Charles shivered. Erik were tempting fate. He didn’t know about Cain’s visit, didn’t know what Cain had demanded, and Charles vowed that Erik never would.

“Charles is an old friend from Eton,” Anthony explained, slinging a comfortable arm around Charles’ shoulders. Charles managed not to flinch. Anthony’s body felt warm and solid against his own, but nothing like Erik’s. There was no sudden thrill, no yearning for a more intimate touch. Nothing but the heaviness of Anthony’s arm, and the fear that Erik might misinterpret their old friendship as something more.

“He was quite the hellion back in the day. The teachers all loved him because he was brilliant and they let him get away with murder. He once convinced Peter Parker—Sir Parker, now that he’s finally got his title—to eat paste every day for a week because Charles said it would help him grow taller.”

Anthony laughed at the memory, and even Erik managed a small smile. “And he was always a damn fine horseman. Charles here trounced us all every time we were able to go for a ride. I’d never seen anyone before or since who was as comfortable on a horse.”

The thought of riding sent a cold chill through him, and Charles slipped out from under Anthony’s arm. He had no desire to continue this conversation. Discussions about his days at Eton were bad enough, but to bring up horses… And he wanted to put an end to their reunion before Anthony could ask about Paris, or what Charles had done in the intervening years.

“Well, it’s been lovely to see you again, Tony,” Charles said, offering his hand, “but Mr. Lehnsherr has promised to show me more of the gardens.”

“His Grace might accompany us, if you wish,” Erik said, and Charles realized that he was being…chivalrous. Polite, even, and playing by the rules of Charles’ society, which would have considered Charles’ abrupt dismissal of the Duke unforgivably rude.

Stark’s eyes were flicking back and forth between Erik and Charles, quickly assessing their relationship. He knew what they were to each other. Charles could see it. But Stark wouldn’t say anything, because he shared their inclinations and because…because he was Charles’ friend. The notion of even having a friend was so odd that Charles hardly knew what to do with it, aside from making some small gesture of apology for his rudeness.

“It was good to see you again, Tony,” he said.

Stark broke into a wide grin, teeth white against the darkness of his goatee. “And you as well. Herr Lehnsherr, it was a pleasure to meet you,” he said, rounding on Erik to click his heels and make the short, formal bow favoured by German nobility. “I’ll leave you to it, shall I?”

And with that, and a dramatic flourish of his cape that rivaled even Erik’s exit, he stepped back into the maze and vanished.

Silence reigned in the heart of the maze, punctuated only by the soft gurgling of the fountain. Charles folded his hands in front of him and waited for Erik’s questions, or even his accusations. But he said nothing.

“I’m sorry,” Charles said, if only to fill that terrible silence of anticipation. “I thought he was you. And when I went up to him he recognized me.” He deliberately left out Stark’s blatant sexual invitation. “I thought you’d be waiting.”

Erik frowned, his mouth thinning into one smooth line. “I was behind you the entire time.”

“I didn’t hear you,” Charles said, and Erik’s mouth relaxed into his usual sardonic smile.

“I’d be a poor soldier indeed if I couldn’t sneak up on someone,” he said, tapping his bad leg. “Even with this.”

So you were a soldier, Charles thought, filing that information away for later.

“Did you really think I’d leave you in the maze alone?” Erik asked, and Charles shrugged.

“I didn’t think about it. I was focused on solving the puzzle.”

Erik nodded, shoulders releasing some of their tension. “You did very well,” he said, smiling. “It took me a quarter-hour longer to solve it the first time I came here.”

It was on the tip of Charles’ tongue to ask how many times Erik had been here, as it was clearly one of those spots gentlemen of their bent used for romantic assignations, but the words died in his throat. He didn’t want to think about any other lovers, either his own or Erik’s.

“At any rate,” he said, “we’ve reached the centre of the maze. But it must be well after midnight.” He tried to sound flirtatious. “Surely too late for a kiss.”

“Perhaps,” Erik agreed, “but some rules cry to be broken. And I have never had the respect for them that you seem to possess.”

“Our bargain is against the rules,” Charles pointed out, feeling a little cheeky. He was having fun, and Erik could be very charming when he wanted. “Perhaps I’m not so obedient to society’s dictates as you think. After all,” he said, wrapping his arms around Erik’s neck, “I did promise to stay with you.”

“And I’m still attempting to discover why,” Erik said. Charles dropped his eyes, uncomfortable with Erik’s insistence on questioning Charles’ motives. What could he do to convince Erik that he’d come to Erik because he’d wanted to? Apparently he would always have to fight Erik’s suspicion that loyalty or fear of Cain had governed his consent, instead of his own desires.

Erik touched Charles’ chin, forcing his eyes up to meet Erik’s too-serious contemplation.

“Tell me,” he urged, “what hold does Marko have over you?”

“I’ve already told you,” Charles insisted, “I wanted to come to you. I don’t understand why you won’t believe me. I struck that bargain with you because…because at the inn…”

Charles paused, realizing where his frustration had led. He couldn’t finish that sentence. Because I thought you were the lover I’d been waiting for. He could never tell Erik. He would think Charles a fool, too young and simple to know his own mind, his own desires. And Charles knew the insecurity that Erik hid beneath layers of pride and arrogance - that due to his scars he was too monstrous to love.

Not knowing how to begin to address either his own complicated feelings or Erik’s deeply-buried self loathing, Charles turned slightly, hiding his face from Erik’s relentless pursuit of the truth.

“Because at the inn?” he reiterated patiently, waiting for Charles’ explanation.

Annoyed with himself, Charles said the first thing that came to mind. “Because you kissed me. And because you turned me away.”

“Because I kissed you,” Erik said, remembering only the angry punishment he’d thought he’d been inflicting. He was not aware that Charles was remembering that first, tender kiss.

“I knew that I wanted you, seven years ago. And then when Cain told me about his loss to you, it felt like…like an answer to a prayer.”

Erik had gone very still, the murmur of the fountain the only sound in their isolation. He had ceased even to breathe as he listened to Charles’ response.

He couldn’t know, couldn’t understand what that night had meant to Charles. How Erik’s kindness, his conversation, his consideration of Charles had shown him that people really were capable of decency. And that, perhaps, Charles could love another man, despite the dictates of their society.

“An answer to a prayer,” Erik repeated sardonically, denying that Charles’ words meant what he wanted them to mean.

Charles turned back to face him. “We could pretend that it’s midnight,” he invited.

And despite whatever doubts still lingered in his mind, Erik’s body responded to that invitation. His lips touched Charles’ and he felt them part. But instead of answering that unconscious appeal, his mouth lifted to caress Charles’ eyes, which closed under his gentle caress. And then Charles’ temple. Erik’s lips’ progress across Charles’ skin was feather light, like the velvet of flower petals. But it wasn’t what Charles wanted.

He lifted his hands to the back of Erik’s head to find the velvet ribbon that secured the mask he wore, but Erik’s hard fingers caught his and prevented him from loosening the knot.

“Don’t,” he ordered, and then his mouth covered Charles’. The sure authority with which Erik had kissed him before was overlain with the same tenderness from that night at the inn. There was the heat of desire, the firmness of possession, but no anger. Whatever his command about the mask had meant, it was not a reprimand.

He kissed Charles for a long time. At some point during his gentle assault Charles relaxed into Erik’s arms, which held him with the same security he’d treasured when they’d watched the fireworks together. Erik seemed to instinctively know how Charles wanted to be touched. And there was no awkwardness in his possession, no fear or self-consciousness that they could be discovered here, at the heart of the garden maze.

Instead, Erik brought to their embrace an assurance Charles found relaxing, so much so that he was able to concentrate only on the demands made by Erik’s tongue. He had known Erik was strong, but the demonstration of his hard body’s power over Charles’ shorter frame was the most comforting force he could remember in the turbulence of his troubled life. Never before had he enjoyed another man’s embrace. Always before, he had endured.

At last, Erik’s lips lifted from Charles’ so that he could feel the coolness of the night air brush over the moisture Erik’s lips had left. His mouth felt hot and swollen, like a bruise. He wanted back the warm pressure Erik had just removed, but his mind was incapable of formulating any coherent expression of thought. He stayed in Erik’s arms and met the dark intensity of his eye.

His fingers lifted, compelled by some emotion he didn’t bother to name, and traced the full underlip that had just deserted his own.

“Why don’t you believe me?” he asked. Erik held Charles’ questioning gaze a long time, but he didn’t answer. Finally he shook his head, releasing Charles.

Charles straightened, suddenly embarrassed by his too-willing surrender to Erik’s spell.

“Would you join me for a midnight supper?” Erik asked, instead of replying to Charles’ soft question.

Charles hesitated, not because he didn’t want to share the quiet privacy offered by an intimate late supper, but because he wanted to resolve the doubts that remained between them. The firm line of Erik’s lips denied that he would have that opportunity, and finally Charles nodded, turning to walk at Erik’s side as they exited the maze.

By the time they had returned to the lighted environs of the gardens, Erik had resumed his casual ease of manner. Again Charles willingly allowed himself to relax into his care. There would be time enough to assure Erik that he had not, as Erik apparently believed, been forced into their arrangement. That instead he had grasped at Cain’s order as he had so often wished he’d taken advantage of fate’s overture at that small country inn so many years earlier.

****

Apparently Charles had never before tasted champagne, and at his involuntary start of reaction to the tingling bubbles, Erik could only shake his head and smile fondly at the younger man. He refrained from teasing, refilling Charles’ glass without comment as he drained the first too quickly. Much later, sheltered by the booth’s dimness and replete with a carefully selected supper and far too much champagne, Charles had practiced his schoolboy German on Erik, unconsciously plucking at the white bandage on Erik’s hand.

He smilingly corrected Charles’ slightly slurred pronunciations, knowing that it would be wise to begin the homeward journey before he’d have to carry the other man though the park. He could imagine what the wagging tongues of London would make of that spectacle.

“And where did you learn to speak English?” Charles asked. He dipped one finger into his drink and daringly ran the moisture along Erik’s bottom lip. In the privacy of the back booth Erik had finally removed his mask, and he thrilled to Charles’ touch, to Charles’ tipsy good humour.

“I imagine the same way you learned German and Latin,” Erik answered. Charles laughed.

“I doubt it. I find it hard to imagine you with a tutor, or endlessly conjugating verbs at Eton.”

“Then no,” Erik agreed, smiling. He treasured the image of Charles as a schoolboy, slightly naughty but smarter than any of the other boys. Or their teachers. “Perhaps not exactly in the same way. But I’ve found it useful to make my acquaintance with a variety of languages.”

“But you have more than an ‘acquaintance’ with English. And French.”

“And you, Mr. Xavier, ask far too many questions,” Erik said, pouring the last of the champagne into Charles’ glass. He had no intention of ever telling Charles how he’d learned his languages, or of anything from that period in his life. Some secrets were better left buried.

“Forbidden and mysterious,” Charles suggested, smiling. His turquoise eyes challenged Erik over the rim of his glass.

“The champagne?” Erik asked blandly.

“The past,” Charles supplied.

“And why not?” Erik said, lounging back into the cushions and trying to affect a carefree air. “The past is dead and better forgotten.”

Suddenly it was there again, reflected in Charles’ beautiful eyes. The expression that had bothered Erik before. The expression he’d worn when he’d told Erik that he didn’t want to have anal sex.

“Not forgotten,” Charles denied.

“But I’m going to make you forget,” Erik promised. At the surety of his whisper, Charles glanced up into his face. “Eventually,” he finished.

“Yes,” Charles said. “That’s exactly what I want you to do.”

The casino was dark and silent when Erik at last brought Charles home, the aristocratic gamblers who had played tonight under the supervision of Erik’s well-trained staff having long since retired to their beds. Charles had rested his head against Erik’s chest during the coach ride home. Erik had smilingly helped him out of the carriage, knowing from Charles’ unsteady movements that he was rather charmingly inebriated.

The staircase had proven the turning point. Charles had laughingly attempted to negotiate the steps with Erik’s help, finding that they had an alarming tendency to swirl beneath his feet. More than once he’d been forced to clutch at Erik’s sleeve until he’d righted himself, at least until Erik took matters into his own hands and pulled Charles close, half-carrying him up the flight of stairs.

Charles was vaguely aware of standing, swaying and holding the tall post of his bed for support as Erik threw back the counterpane and linens. He remembered because of the sensation that moved through his stomach at what was in Erik’s face.

Tonight, Charles thought, feeling his stomach quake. He lifted trembling fingers to untie his complicated cravat but proved so unsteady that he knew he would never be able to accomplish what he’d intended. Instead he turned to Erik and tilted his chin up, exposing his throat.

Finally, after the pause of several moments, Charles felt Erik’s nimble fingers working at the knot, and then the relief of cool air against his bare skin. He felt the soft brush of Erik’s lips over his throat, right at the pulse point, and shivered into the touch. Erik paused at the involuntary movement, his mouth hesitating, but then he proceeded to tug at the long shirttails tucked into the waistband of Charles’ trousers. He quickly divested Charles of his jacket and shirt. Clad only in his breeches, Charles stood silently before Erik, chest heaving slightly at the twin thrills of anticipation and fear coursing through him.

Erik’s features were almost hidden by the dimness and by the downturned position of his face.

“Erik,” Charles whispered, and Erik lifted his head.

“I think…” he began, and found his mouth dry with anticipation. He wished he hadn’t drunk so much of the champagne. Erik, in contrast, had partaken of only a single glass. He’d assured Charles, in smiling response to his question, that gamblers had a professional obligation to remain sober at all times.

The images of the gardens floated in and out of Charles’ consciousness like dreams. The fireworks and the music. The maze and the supper booth. He remembered touching Erik, his fingers caressing Erik’s hands and the gleaming auburn of his hair that curled at the back of his neck, dark against the whiteness of his collar.

Charles raised his arms to clasp around Erik’s neck, and then Erik was lifting him, carrying him backward to the guest bed where Charles had woken alone that morning. He placed Charles in the centre and stood up to remove his clothing, making short work of his own elegant cravat, trousers, and smallclothes. He did not remove his shirt.

Charles’ eyes closed involuntarily, long lashes drooping to fan against his flushed cheeks. When he felt the weight of Erik’s body beside his they lifted, the blue gaze unfocused. Erik’s mouth trailed over Charles’ pale shoulder. He murmured something, his breath moving with sweet warmth against Erik’s face.

Erik raised his head in response to that whisper and saw that Charles’ lips were slightly parted, relaxed, and that he was…

Unconscious.

Erik’s damaged mouth lifted in self-mockery as he contemplated Charles’ sleeping beauty. While he wanted to run his hand through Charles’ dark hair, to suck at one of his perfect pink nipples, he allowed himself none of those satisfactions.

Instead he placed one soft kiss at Charles’ temple. Charles stirred briefly and then fell back asleep. Erik pulled the coverlet over Charles’ shoulders and as dawn began to light the sky, left Charles to sleep alone once more.

****

Chapter Text

Charles slept through the morning and awoke in the afternoon with a pounding headache. Kitty appeared with a milky potion beside Charles’ breakfast and said cryptically, “Azazel said you’d need this.” She insisted that Charles drink it. By the time he’d finished his meal, his headache was gone.

In the absence of Erik, who had according to Alex disappeared ‘on business,’ the hours stretched long. Charles passed some of the time reading through his biology texts, and once more made the short journey down to the kitchens to see how Alex and Sean were getting on with the cooking.

The fare had improved somewhat, if the lunch they ate together was any indication. Charles would have never have thought before of dining with servants, but when Alex, Sean, Kitty and Angel had sat down at the scarred wooden table in the kitchen for the midday meal, he couldn’t bear the thought of eating alone in the small room off Erik’s office. So he’d sat and helped himself to the stew and bread Alex had prepared.

None of the servants seemed to think anything amiss. Charles found himself laughing along with the others at Sean’s stories of his trials at the grocer’s, and they persuaded Angel to perform a few steps of a country dance she’d seen at the bawdy house where she’d worked.

All in all it was an enjoyable afternoon, and Charles missed the company of the servants when he retired upstairs to his solitary pursuits. The mail came at 3 o’clock but there was no letter from Moira, and Charles found himself slightly out of sorts at the lack of communication from his friend.

I knew she disapproved, but not that much, Charles mused. Thinking of Moria led to pondering Raven’s debut, and he wondered how much he could help with the planning while living here, at Erik’s casino. He and Moira had saved enough to purchase Raven a new wardrobe of clothing suitable for a woman of some social standing, and they’d paid dearly for a sponsor at Almack’s. The rest of the money, for rented carriages and a supper party and admission to the other events of the Season, would quickly empty their scant reserve. He hadn’t made nearly enough with his scientific publications, and Moira’s meager inheritance from her husband had left them little to live on.

Charles considered asking Erik for the money, but the idea only reminded him of Cain’s demand for an apology. He had no clue as to how to solve that mess, and so his thoughts ran in circles all afternoon. He was feeling out of sorts when he rang for Kitty an hour before dinner, hoping that a wash might help settle his mind.

“Would you please bring up some water from the kitchens?” Charles asked. Kitty frowned, looking deliberately at the small water pitcher on Charles’ washstand.

“For bathing,” he clarified, and saw Kitty nod.

But there had obviously been a lack of communication. Kitty’s return trip included Angel, Sean, Alex, and eight buckets of steaming water, which the boys poured into a slipper-shaped copper tub that had been stored in one of the long cabinets lining the guest room. When the task was complete, Kitty stayed to test the temperature of the water.

“I didn’t mean—” Charles had begun, but the steaming water looked too inviting. And they had accomplished the task with speed and no great effort. “Thank you, dear,” he said to Kitty instead. She gave a wobbly curtsy.

“Master washes all the time,” she confided, “We’re used to it.”

Charles controlled his amusement at the little maid’s confession. She acted as if she were sharing a deep, dark secret. But Brummell’s obsession with cleanliness had revolutionized attitudes about hygiene among the upper classes, and it didn’t surprise him that Erik, with his elegant sense of fashion and fine manners, had adopted the practice of bathing regularly.

Charles dismissed Kitty and glanced at the small tub, trying to picture Erik’s long form trying to fit into that confined space. He probably bathed standing up, with Azazel nearby to pour water over his body when necessary for soaping or rinsing.

However, the tub looked just large enough to accommodate him. Although all Charles had intended by his request was enough hot water to ensure personal cleanliness, this was surely more inviting.

He was well-used to dressing and undressing without the service of a valet, and so it was only a few minutes until he stepped into the still-steaming water. The soap he’d found on the washstand was unscented, or so he’d thought until he’d lathered it. The faint aroma of sandalwood he associated with Erik filled the room.

Charles rested the back of his head against the lip of the tub and brought the bar of soap to his nose, savouring the fragrance. And, of course, thinking of Erik. He closed his eyes, breathing deeply of the sandalwood smell, and felt his cock twitch. He reached into the warm water and took himself in hand, imagining it was Erik’s touch on his hot skin. He felt his cock grow to full hardness and he groaned at the pressure of his hand. God, it felt good. He hadn’t touched himself like this in so long, and now, surrounded by Erik’s scent and the private heat of the bath, he felt comfortable enough to indulge.

He imagined Erik’s long, elegant fingers stroking him, thumbing the sensitive head of his cock before twisting his hand slightly—ah, just like that!—and stroking down to the root. Erik would watch him with that intense, singular focus, eye on Charles’ face as he pleasured him, his sharp mind carefully calculating exactly what movements of his hand made Charles twist and writhe under him. Charles lifted a hand to pinch at his nipple, groaning again, imagining it was Erik’s mouth, his teeth, that brought the pebbled nipple to such aching awareness.

He sank down a little in the tub, widening his legs, and tipped his head back further. Charles thrust up into his hand, his strokes shorter now, faster, and he ignored the sloshing of the water as he gave into the sensation of mounting pleasure. He spiraled upwards, driven by the image of Erik’s hot hands on his skin, his whiskey-warm voice in Charles’ ear whispering encouragement.

“You’re beautiful like this,” Erik would say, his softly-accented voice melting away any of Charles’ anxiety in performing such a private act for another person. “I love to watch you.”

And he thought of Erik’s long, graceful fingers reaching down to cup his testicles, massaging them delicately, an act he mimicked without hesitation. And then…and then lower, to the place where he’d only been touched with violence. Charles frowned and bit his lip, eyes still closed, and wondered if…

He hesitated, one finger at the breach, and thought, Take it for yourself. Don’t let those bastards keep it. He tensed and then, with one long, slow upward stroke on his cock, pushed in the tip of one of his fingers.

It didn’t hurt, or at least not like it had hurt when men had rammed themselves inside before. It felt…good, actually, to touch himself there. A soft pressure, a counterpoint to the stroke of his hand on his cock. He pushed a little further, the soapy water of the bath helping to ease the way, and leaned back to allow himself more access. He kept stroking himself, Erik’s imaginary soft whispers of encouragement still echoing through his mind. It was Erik’s finger inside of him, slowly pushing past the resistance of his body, not his own. Erik, who didn’t want to hurt him, who wanted to make him feel so good…

He jerked upward into his hand, a soft cry escaping his mouth as he felt something spark deep within him. Some pleasure-point he hadn’t known existed. He touched himself again, pushing his finger deeper inside and crooking it just so, until Charles once again felt that electric jolt, that bright starburst of pleasure.

“Good God,” Charles said, stroking up with his hand and in with his finger. Soon he found his rhythm: back, in, up, and it all felt so good, so much like he’d always wanted it to feel. Charles was closer now, almost at his climax, and he withdrew his finger to wrap both hands around his cock. He imagined one was Erik’s—hard, demanding, wringing every ounce of pleasure out of him—and came with a loud groan of relief, come pumping out of him to cloud the water.

He sank back against the tub, boneless, every nerve tingling, and opened his eyes.

Erik was there, standing just inside the closed door. He was watching Charles, had been watching Charles, grey-blue-green eyes hungry and alive with desire.

Charles would have blushed, would have stammered something banal and foolish, would have wanted to sink through the floor with embarrassment, except Erik didn’t give him the chance. He crossed the room in two quick strides and bodily lifted Charles out of the tub, crushing him against his chest. He was kissing Charles passionately, holding his arms in a tight grip, and Charles, so recently sated and fantasies still rolling through his mind, kissed him back. He opened his mouth, allowing Erik full access, and Erik brushed his tongue against Charles’. It surprised a moan out of him and he leaned into the strength of Erik’s body, uncaring for a moment that he was soaking Erik’s shirtfront, and that his cock was likely leaking come on Erik’s trousers.

“Your hand…” Charles whispered, worried that Erik’s bandaged hand would get wet.

Erik’s passion subsided a little, enough for him to pull back and murmur, “To hell with my hand. May I take you to bed, Charles?”

Charles, still struggling through a post-orgasmic fog, nodded. He felt a little like the champagne, light and bubbly. He’d follow Erik anywhere.

Erik had to help him step out of the tub. Charles was still feeling weak-kneed and wobbly. Erik even assisted him over to the bed, where the servants had laid out some towels earlier. Erik rubbed Charles down briskly with the terrycloth before pulling back the linens, allowing Charles to slip in between the sheets.

The soft cloth felt silky-smooth against his oversensitive skin. He was still warm from the bath, and the laxity of orgasm made him arch into Erik’s touch when Erik lay down beside him and ran his hand down Charles from chest to knee in one long, sweeping motion.

“That feels very nice,” Charles murmured, closing his eyes and drowning in the sensation as Erik did it again, his hand strong and sure against Charles’ skin. He slipped his hand around to caress Charles’ lower back, and Charles, muscles lax and feeling blissfully content, rolled toward Erik, seeking more of that confident touch.

“I’d like to massage you,” Erik said. “Will you roll onto your stomach? I won’t touch you below your waist.”

The reminder of that soft promise brought a blush to Charles’ cheeks. He rolled over, hiding his red face in his folded arms. He hadn’t had to say anything. Erik understood it all anyway. He was equally shamed and gratified to find that he was so easy for Erik to read.

Erik began to massage him, starting at Charles’ neck. His muscles were already loose from his time in the bath but Erik’s expert hands unknotted them further. He pushed the heel of his palm into the muscles of Charles’ shoulder, releasing some of the pent-up tension there, and Charles relaxed further into the bed’s soft embrace. He felt Erik’s nimble fingers dance down his spine, lightly massaging the muscles at the small of his back, and then Erik made long, sweeping strokes up his sides, calling the nerve endings there into sharper focus. The contrast between the warm, slightly calloused skin of Erik’s uninjured hand and the rough drag of the cotton bandage on the other made his skin feel even more sensitive and alive to Erik’s touch.

It all felt incredible, and when it ended Charles rolled over to look at Erik looming over him, the scarred side of his face a counterpoint to the perfection of the other. Charles reached up and touched Erik’s scarred cheek, rubbing his thumb at the sensitive skin just below Erik’s eyepatch, and he watched in wonder as Erik’s remaining eye drifted closed. He reached up and grasped Charles’ wrist, but instead of pulling his hand away, as Charles had thought he would, Erik pressed his hand closer there, to where the fire had branded him. Even in the dim light Charles could make out the burn scars as they marched down the side of Erik’s neck and lower, beneath the collar of his snow-white cravat. Erik had never taken off his shirt in Charles’ presence, and Charles wondered how far the burns extended. Was Erik’s chest mottled by scars as well, or just the top of his shoulder?

But it wasn’t out of mere curiosity that Charles wanted to see Erik shirtless above him. He wanted to feel Erik’s warm skin pressed against his own bare chest, wanted to see Erik’s muscles and nipples and ribs, wanted to know if Erik was hairy or smooth-skinned. He wanted more of Erik, and he wanted it now.

“Will you…” he trailed off, licking his lips. He watched as Erik followed the movement with interest. “Will you take that off?” he asked, breaking Erik’s grip to pluck at his shirtfront. “I want to feel you against me.”

Erik searched his face for a moment, and Charles wondered what he was looking for. Whatever he found there made him step back. He moved around the room, dousing every candle.

Outsmarted, Charles sat up and clutched his knees to his chest, watching Erik’s limping progress as he cast the bedroom into darkness. When Erik was done, only a thin sliver of moonlight cut through the gloom. It was just enough for Charles to make out the dim outline of Erik’s body and the whiteness of his bandaged hand as he undressed and slid into bed beside Charles.

“I want you like I’ve wanted no one else,” Erik said, fingers tracing down Charles’ spine. “The things you do to me…”

“I want you too,” Charles said, flopping down beside Erik. “I’m sorry that I…that I can’t give you everything, but—”

“Hush,” Erik said, cupping Charles’ cheek with his bandaged hand and drawing his thumb over Charles’ lip. “You’ve already given me more than enough. I’d like to give something to you, now,” he said, easing Charles back further onto the bed. He kissed Charles then, slow and sweet and lingering, until all Charles could think about was the heat of Erik’s mouth.

And then that warm, mobile mouth trailed lower, down his throat and across his chest, over the flat plane of his stomach, down his belly, and then…then, God, Erik took him into his mouth.

Charles gasped at the sudden shocking wet heat, and gripped a fistful of the sheets to keep from crying out. He wasn’t fully hard, not yet, not so soon, but he could feel himself getting there as Erik licked at him with long, hot strokes of his tongue that made Charles feel as if he was burning from the inside out. He arched into the touch. If he’d been watching Erik’s face, he would have seen him smile.

“You’re so damn responsive,” he heard Erik say, his tone warm with approval, and Charles made no reply, merely closed his eyes and gave himself over to Erik.

It lasted a long time. Longer, Charles suspected, because he had already come once, but Erik appeared to be enjoying himself and Charles was in no mood to stop him. He lifted his head and watched as Erik sucked him, eyes closed, cheeks hollowed. Charles even felt so bold as to run his fingers through Erik’s dark hair.

Erik, mouth occupied, nudged against Charles hand in an unspoken request, and so Charles clenched his fist, tugging a little. Erik sucked him down further and Charles began to feel the first liquid spike of orgasm. The feeling built within him so quickly that Charles was caught unprepared, and he could barely warn Erik before he spilled into Erik’s mouth, into that warm, inviting wetness.

Erik sputtered and coughed a little. He wiped at his mouth with a handy corner of the sheet and lay down beside Charles who, after coming twice in one evening, was in no state to acknowledge him. He’d forgotten his eagerness to explore Erik’s body in the midst of his pleasure. He’d forgotten everything, even the way Erik had watched him, his single eye dark with pleasure, as Charles had…in the bath…

He threw one arm over his eyes and drew in a deep breath. He refused to be embarrassed at having been seen like that. If he’d known Erik was watching him…well, if he’d known, he’d probably have come even faster.

The thought was a daring one, and it made Charles chuckle. He felt Erik stir beside him.

“Charles? Care to share the joke?”

“There’s no joke, my friend. Except the one God plays on us all. He has a way of showing us our deepest desires by the most unconventional means.”

That inspired no reply from Erik and so Charles drifted, utterly content and blissfully relaxed. The warmth of Erik’s body was a solid, steady presence at his side, and he thrilled to feel the brush of Erik’s smooth skin against his arm whenever the other man breathed.

I could stay like this forever, he thought, wishing it could be so. But he’d lived through enough to know that wishing never had any effect on the world. He was always at the mercy of others, and even strong, kind, damaged Erik exerted vast control over him. What would freedom feel like?

A bit like this, he decided. Free to lie beside a man of his choosing, and feel no sense of shame. Perhaps that was all the freedom anyone could wish for.

“You’re quiet,” Erik said a few minutes later. “I didn’t—I didn’t alarm you, I hope.”

“No, of course not,” Charles said, sitting up a little. “Why would that have frightened me?”

Beside him, Erik shrugged. “Perhaps I was too demanding. Or the scars…”

“I can’t see them,” Charles murmured. He reached out tentatively to touch Erik’s shoulder. When Erik didn’t flinch away, he kneed up on the bed to explore the breadth of Erik’s chest. The texture of his skin changed as Charles moved right to left, smooth skin giving way to scar tissue. The burns did extend down Erik’s chest, and over his left upper arm to his elbow. The backs of his hands were scarred too. Charles had known that, but he was surprised at the extent of the damage.

“I can’t imagine—”

“Don’t,” Erik said roughly, but he didn’t pull away. Instead he kept so still and so quiet under Charles’ touch that it was several moments before Charles realized that Erik was trembling. He didn’t think he was hurting Erik—the burns had healed long ago, whatever their cause—but he was making him uncomfortable. He went to pull away but Erik caught his wrist, pressing Charles’ hand against his scarred pectoral.

“You can ask.”

Charles shook his head. “When you’re ready, you’ll tell me.”

Erik’s answering shudder and sharp intake of breath told him that he’d given the right answer. He didn’t want to pry into Erik’s past, not now, not in the warmth and intimacy of their bed. He knew the story would be ugly when Erik was finally ready to tell it.

What had been concealed by cloth and immaculate lawn linen was now laid out before him, and Charles bent to feast on the texture of Erik’s bare skin. He skated his fingers across Erik’s chest, once more contrasting the texture of the burned side with the smooth, and moved his hand down, across Erik’s stomach, one half slightly furred with hair, and lower still. He took Erik in hand, and Erik closed his eye, leaning his head back.

Charles tilted his head to kiss Erik, one hand still on his cock, and stroked the other man to full arousal. He finally broke their kiss only to move his way down Erik’s chest and belly, as Erik had done to him. And took Erik into his mouth.

In the darkness, all else was forgotten.

****

Erik was still sleeping when Charles woke. They hadn’t bothered to pull the heavy draperies across the window, and the morning sun had moved into that rectangle, dimly lighting the dark chamber.

The others had never stayed with him, not even the old man in Cadiz, but Erik had held him last night, held him after his long, shuddering release. And Charles thought that, beyond the pleasant strength of Erik’s arms, that might be important.

Erik’s face was turned towards Charles’ now in the growing light, its spare planes relaxed and vulnerable with sleep. The reddish shadow of his beard darkened the beautiful undamaged side, and long auburn lashes rested against the faint lines under his eye.

The low light softened the scarred landscape of the other side of his face. The eyepatch was twisted slightly against Erik’s cheek. Charles resisted the impulse to straighten the cloth, remembering the way Erik’s long fingers habitually lifted to assure that the patch covered whatever it was intended to hide. The ribbon that held the small velvet oval in place disappeared into the darkness of Erik’s hair.

After he’d climaxed, Erik had held Charles for a long time, his fingers smoothing against Charles’ skin. But sometime in the night Charles had moved out of the circling heat of Erik’s arms. Moved to the cool, empty space on the other side of the bed. His side now, he supposed. His bed now, too.

Erik stirred slightly, still asleep, turning to find a more comfortable position against the slight curve of Charles’ hip and thigh. His hand moved to lie loosely curled over Charles’ stomach, the darkness of his scarred skin and the golden gleam of the Xavier signet ring highlighted by the gathering light. He’d not known harshness could be so sweet, nor strength so delicate, until Erik had shown him.

Charles’ toes brushed against the hair-roughened length of Erik’s calf and he turned into the warmth of Erik’s body, comforted again by his presence. Reassured that he was still there. Despite the restrictions Charles had placed on his body, Erik hadn’t demanded more, had seemed satisfied with what Charles had been able to offer. And so Erik would probably return to touch him again. Charles had enjoyed that. Almost too much, he thought with a smile.

He closed his eyes against the invading light of dawn and drifted back to sleep.

****

Erik awoke much later, used to sleeping through the early light of morning and unbothered by the sun’s touch on the bed. He turned to look at Charles’ sleeping face, his red mouth and dark hair a sharp contrast against the whiteness of the sheets.

His mouth. Erik almost groaned at the memory of Charles’ lips wrapped around him, his tongue stroking up his shaft, his mouth obscenely hot and wet and determined to coax an orgasm out of him. Erik would never have expected a man so seemingly innocent as Charles would possess such skill. He kissed like a virgin, hesitant and sweet, and yet—

And yet. He knew he was missing something. The mismatch between Charles’ expertise in one area and relative inexperience in another was a troubling mystery. He’d guessed that Charles had only shared rough, fleeting encounters with other men, perhaps in a place like the maze at Vauxhall, the danger and thrill of getting caught ratcheting up the intensity of the experience. But that didn’t seem to explain why Charles had reacted the way he had that first night, or the sharp rigidity of Charles’ body, his soft refusal of anal sex.

Charles wasn’t afraid of Erik. He knew that from the peaceful rise and fall of Charles’ chest as he slept beside him. And he seemed to trust Erik, had trusted him the other night when he’d led him into that maze. But perhaps…perhaps he was repulsed by Erik’s body. Perhaps, despite any seeming lack of revulsion when he’d touched Charles, Charles had been imagining what his body looked like. And when he’d removed his shirt, in spite of the darkness, Charles had—

Not wanting to torture himself over the question, Erik twisted and reached down to the floor where he’d tossed his shirt the night before. He drew it quickly over his head, folding the collar to prevent the shirt from gaping open, and stood, reaching for his trousers.

“Erik?” he heard a sleepy Charles mutter. “What’s wrong?”

“Alles ist gut.” He mentally cursed, realizing he’d spoken in German. “Everything is fine,” he repeated in English. “Go back to sleep.”

“Are you—” Charles sat up, rubbing at his eyes. His dark hair was a mess, tousled and matted, and in the bright sunshine his eyes shone blue as a robin’s egg. He was almost too lovely to look at, and so Erik looked at the floor.

“I have some work to do,” Erik said. He had been negligent in making his usual rounds and there were markers to collect, wagers to place. People to find. And he had to meet with Natasha to hear how the takedown of Schmidt’s munitions shipment had gone. “Sleep a little longer,” he suggested, turning to glance at Charles once more before he had to force himself from this room, this bed, this man who had moved into his carefully-ordered life and turned everything upside down.

Charles still looked a little dazed from sleep and Erik watched, transfixed, as he lifted his arms over his head in one long stretch, showcasing a nicely muscled upper body, hairy armpits, and those perfect pink nipples that made Erik’s mouth water.

He really ought to leave. If he was going to go instead of stay and ravish Charles, he had to depart now. But still he remained, helplessly rooted to the spot.

“What business do you have?” Charles asked, and Erik blinked.

He tried and failed to think of what to say. He knew Charles, as a good Christian gentleman, would never approve of his quest for revenge. He wasn’t even sure if Charles approved of his legitimate work as a gambler. And he didn’t want to lie.

So Erik said the only thing he could. “It’s complicated.”

The bright light in Charles’ eyes died. Nothing else about his expression changed, no telling shift or slump in his posture, no disappointed frown. But Erik made his living reading people, and he could tell the instant Charles’ good mood vanished.

“I see. It’s too complicated for me to understand,” he said, and Erik turned away in frustration. He hadn’t meant to hurt Charles, or imply that he wasn’t intelligent enough to grasp the basics of his business. But he couldn’t let Charles enter that world of vengeance and blood.

“I’m sorry,” he said, meaning it, and leaned over to kiss Charles on the forehead. “I won’t be back until late tonight.”

“Will you be downstairs?” Charles asked, furrowing his brow. “Or out seeing to your…your other business?”

Charles really was sharp as a tack. Erik hadn’t meant to be so obvious. “I’ll be working the tables,” he said, finally going to the door that separated their bedrooms. “Don’t wait up for me.”

He closed the door on Charles’ troubled expression, silently begging for his forgiveness.

****

Chapter Text

The altercation began innocently enough. The patrons of these exclusive rooms were always as carefully screened as Erik’s instincts and experience could guarantee. But occasionally a customer brought a less-desirable companion and then, of course, the decision had to be made whether to accept the friend, or alienate a profitable client.

But he had not even been aware of the group of elegant young bucks. There had been no sixth sense of danger. On later reflection, Erik admitted that his mind had been on something other than his clientele, and he knew well enough what that distraction was.

Throughout the evening he had been forced to ignore several discreetly speculative glances. He realized that some gentlemen within the ton were aware of Charles’ presence in his home, and what that signified. Rumours were beginning to swirl, and even though he’d anticipated it, Erik was still disturbed by the level of scrutiny that accompanied the gossip.

Several of the patrons of his establishment openly stared at him, tracing the marks on his cheek and the trail of scars as they disappeared under the high collar of his evening shirt. They even stared at the clean white bandage on his hand, as curious about the new injury as they were about the source of the old burns. Erik had schooled his face to calmness and had fought to control his anger as he identified the thoughts forming behind those veiled glances.

He hadn’t heard the beginnings of the man’s muttering discontent. Whatever he had said had been quickly covered by the group of young bloods who were sharing his table. Erik had been standing in the doorway of the gaming salon, wondering if it might be safe to leave the supervision of the few remaining die-hard players to his staff. And he had been remembering, as he had all evening, Charles’ slim, muscled body, head tipped back in pleasure, when he finally became aware of the tension in one corner of the room.

“I don’t care if the bastard does hear me…”

Erik deliberately turned his head from the quickly suppressed voice, allowing his gaze to focus on another table. He watched the play there for a moment until the same voice rose again out of the subdued noises of the salon.

“It’s simply foul, to allow such things in a civilized society…” The rest of that sentence was also quickly shushed into silence by the efforts of a familiar-looking nobleman seated beside the speaker. Erik recognized him as the man from the night in the garden maze at Vauxhall. Charles’ friend. The Duke of York.

He, wiser than the other gentlemen at his table, had already begun the operation of getting the drunk to his feet. But the man wasn’t in the mood to cooperate; he shook off Lord Stark’s hand and stumbled, almost uprighting the velvet-lined table. Chits and playing cards scattered to the floor.

“Come on, Bruce, you’re drunk,” said Lord Stark, finally succeeding in getting the other man to his feet. He slung an arm around the man’s shoulders and half-lifted, half-dragged him toward the door. The other young gentlemen in the party trailed behind, busily collecting their gloves and hats.

Erik’s fury was enough to cause him to react in a way foreign to his usual cool avoidance of trouble. He remained obstinately in the doorway leading to the foyer as the speaker and his escorts approached, all the unspoken insults of the evening now crystallized in this one drunken aristocrat. Erik allowed his disdain to show clearly, and met the eyes of the man who had spoken.

“You fairy bastard.” The drunk’s words accompanied an unexpected lunge which carried him away from Lord Stark and into Erik’s space, along with a strong waft of whiskey. “Charlie Xavier was a gentleman,” he slurred, “before his damned stepfather sold him to that filthy French pervert. Now you’ve corrupted him too.”

The information had taken Erik unaware. The drunk’s words made no sense, and he didn’t connect any of it to Charles for the vital few seconds that might have made a difference. His surprised silence was, perhaps, the catalyst for the ridiculous attack that followed.

Everyone in the half-empty casino watched in stunned horror as the drunken nobleman snatched a wine bottle from the sideboard and smashed it against the frame of the door. He swung the broken half like an avenger’s sword. Erik had already begun the twisting evasion when the jagged edge sliced into his side.

He felt the glancing blow, but there was no pain. Not yet. The pain would come later. And even as he was thinking it, his left fist connected with the exposed chin of the drunk, who fell as if he’d been poleaxed. When it was over Erik wasn’t even breathing hard. But he kept his elbow pressed tightly against the gash that had been opened in his side.

“God’s teeth, Banner,” one of the well-dressed young gentlemen said in disgust, “You’re a bloody idiot when you’re drunk.”

Several of the young men stood over their prone friend, staring down at him, but it was the Duke of York who drove everyone else to action.

“Rogers, would you grab his arms?” Lord Stark asked, nodding at a tall, handsome blond-haired gentleman with a square jaw and deep-set blue eyes. “And Howard, take his feet.” A shorter, brown-haired man with a large nose bent and did as Stark asked, and soon the drunk was being carried out of the gaming house like a side of beef from the butcher’s shop.

“My apologies,” the Duke said to Erik. “But we all knew Charles at Eton. And word’s gotten around about what Marko did to him. That you forgave the wager after Charles came to live with you here. It’s dangerous to be so—”

The Duke of York fell silent as Erik stared at him, body coiled tight with menace. He swallowed, stunned by the gambler’s arrogance. Even a man of the Duke’s position knew that the consequence of his predilections becoming public would be disastrous, and the man before him was no Duke. Just a Prussian gambler, and a Jew, and heavily dependent on the good graces of the ton to keep his business in operation.

“Be careful,” Stark said. “That’s all I wish to say. And that Banner will meet you, if you want satisfaction. I assure you, he’s not nearly such a bore when he’s sober.”

“I’m sure a duel would restore the damage this melodrama has done to Charles’ reputation,” Erik said sarcastically, still keeping one arm tucked close to his side.

“No,” Stark agreed, thinking of the gossip a duel would inspire. “I simply thought—”

“Get him out of here,” Erik ordered quietly. He pressed his arm more tightly against the pain that was beginning to burn in his side, an involuntary grimace tightening his lips.

“Are you all right?” the Duke asked, noticing the sudden pallor in Erik’s complexion. “Bruce didn’t manage to—”

At the challenging amusement in Erik’s steady gaze, the English nobleman realized that his friend’s drunken lunge had had some success.

“Nor would that particular piece of information staunch the gossips,” Erik said quietly. “The less said, the better. If you are Charles’ friend.”

“Of course,” Stark agreed. “Is there anything that I can do?”

“Get out,” Erik said. “All of you. Just get out.”

Surprisingly the Duke obeyed, taking efficient charge of his group’s exit from the gaming hell.

The shocked silence of the patrons who remained after the group’s departure reminded Erik that Charles’ good name, or whatever shreds remained of it, was still at stake. He signaled a hovering Sean and Alex to refill the glasses, and eventually the soft flow of cultured masculine voices replaced the quietness that the sudden and unexpected violence had produced. The shattered glass and spilled liquor were swiftly and unobtrusively cleaned up. It was not until the salon returned to some semblance of order that Erik allowed himself to move out of the doorway against which he’d been leaning since the attack.

He had felt for several minutes the warm blood trickling down his side, and at the first step he felt its quick, hot gush down his thigh. He pressed his elbow more tightly against the gash, thankful for the concealing blackness of his evening wear. The stairs up to the living quarters seemed endless, the pain growing worse with every step, but at least the upper story was away from the eyes of the men who drank his wine and smoked his cigars. He hoped someone on his staff would have had the sense to send for Azazel.

He climbed slowly into the dark at the top of the stairs. Finally reaching that sanctuary he leaned, exhausted, against the wall.

“Erik?”

He closed his eye in response to the whispered question that floated at him from the doorway of the guest bedroom, and then opened it again. The soft light of the lamp behind Charles outlined his strong, slender body, silhouetted through the thin cotton of his nightshirt. So damn beautiful, Erik thought.

The light shimmered around Charles, dancing suddenly with spots that hurt his head. He only wanted to lie down. But if he went with Charles into the bedroom he’d be forced to reveal what had happened below. And Charles would contrast that sordidness, that violence that was a part of Erik’s life, to the quiet existence Charles had known before. And again Charles would have cause to regret the decision he’d made. Been forced to make, Erik amended mentally, remembering Banner’s words, a reinforcement of all he’d ever suspected about Charles’ reasons for their arrangement.

“Go back to bed,” Erik said, and even to his own ears his order sounded too harsh.

“This morning…” Charles began, and his voice quavered a little on the words. The pause lengthened, and Charles began again. “I hope that I didn’t pry. It’s just that I want to know more about you, about the work you do, and…”

Erik straightened from his position against the wall, unable to listen to whatever reproaches Charles wanted to make about his unwillingness to share the details of his life. He knew that he’d hurt Charles. That had not been his intent, but he’d done so anyway. There was nothing he could do to erase that hurt. No words he could use to convince Charles that it was safer this way. Better, if he didn’t know Erik at all.

“Go back to bed,” he ordered again, instead of trying to explain anything. Nothing of his intention to keep Charles safe and untainted, and certainly nothing of what had happened tonight. Certainly nothing of the blood that continued to flow unpleasantly from the burning wound in his side.

Erik gathered his remaining reserves of strength and took a staggering step across the top of the stairs. He was forced to lean against the banister on the other side.

“You’re foxed,” Charles said, and Erik heard the surprised accusation in the quiet whisper.

A spurt of ironic laughter escaped him, as much occasioned by Charles’ use of the cant phrase as by his conclusion. It was as good an explanation as any, he supposed. One more mark against whatever he’d hoped for in this relationship. What a fool he’d been.

“Drunk as a lord,” he agreed mockingly. Using the banister rail as support he began the seemingly endless journey to the sanctuary of his bedroom. There, at least, he could sit down away from the turquoise eyes of the man who was watching him in condemnation as Erik proved himself guilty of all the vices Charles had already attributed to him.

Suddenly Charles was beside him, slipping his body beneath the arm Erik was using to prop himself against the railing.

“You’re going the wrong way,” Charles said, smiling at the look of surprise on Erik’s ashen face. “Our bedroom’s on the other side of the hall.”

Charles tried to turn him but Erik staggered again, and then Charles pulled his arm to drape over the support of his shoulders. Unable to find the strength to resist, Erik let himself be guided into the bedroom where a welcoming lamp burned. He tried not to imagine what Charles would think when he saw the blood.

“Charles,” he whispered. It was an effort now even to form any words. “I need Azazel. Go down the back stairs. The kitchen stairs.”

“I can help you undress,” Charles scoffed, smiling. “I thought you said you had a professional obligation to remain sober. That gamblers shouldn’t drink. I thought that’s why Cain lost so often.”

“Cain loses,” Erik said, suppressing a gasp as Charles began to ease his coat off his shoulders, “because he is very stupid and very arrogant, and therefore very reckless. He doesn’t believe anyone would have the gall to beat him.”

Charles moved the elbow Erik had been pressing hard into his side to maintain pressure over the wound. He heard Charles’ soft laugh at Erik’s description of his stepbrother, and then Charles’ fingers were suddenly still. His coat dropped unheeded to the floor.

He heard Charles’ small, shocked intake of breath, and he looked down to see blood, slick and dark, glistening on Charles’ hand. He watched the sudden tremor of those fingers, and then Charles began to guide him over to the bed. He helped Erik ease down on the high mattress, and Erik almost fell into the comforting softness.

And then he was alone. He supposed Charles had left him, disgusted by the vulgarity of the life he was now expected to lead. He wanted to tell Charles that this was unusual even in his line of work, that he was very rarely wounded, but that would have been a lie. And Erik wasn’t sure if he would ever have the opportunity to tell Charles anything at all.

He closed his eye in regret because he suddenly remembered that there had been so many things he’d wanted to say to Charles. And now it was too late.

****

Erik was jerked back to consciousness by the sting of Azazel’s needle. He flinched against that new pain, half-thinking it was the bottle again, slicing into his flesh.

“Be still,” Charles advised. “Azazel says you only need a few stitches to close the cut. It’s not that deep.”

Erik relaxed slightly in response to the calmness of Charles’ voice. He sounded as if he watched his lover being sewn up every night. Charles was holding his hand, and he squeezed Erik’s hand gently in response to the shuddering breath Erik took when Azazel set the next stitch.

Erik struggled for control and was relieved when he allowed no outward reaction to the next invasion of the needle. He found himself focusing instead on the perfection of Charles’ features. His eyes were too wide and his paleness the result, Erik supposed, of shock. But his luminous blue eyes were filled with empathy.

He looked like one of the renderings of St. Thomas Erik had seen in a Spanish cathedral long ago, serene and ethereal. Erik had thought then that he’d never seen anything so beautiful as that portrait of the saint, but now he’d seen Charles keeping watch over him. Praying for him, it looked like. It had been so long since anyone had prayed for him.

Suddenly, as if he felt Erik’s intensity, Charles’ eyes met his. Charles smiled at him and his hand tightened over Erik’s cold fingers.

“It’s almost over,” Charles whispered. “Just a few more.”

Erik nodded, allowing his eye to close. He used a technique he’d developed to deal with the endless agony of the burns. He returned to last night, to the memory of the scented steam of the bath and how Charles had looked, skin flushed from the hot water, one hand wrapped around his cock, stroking slowly, the other behind him, fucking into himself, head tilted back with pleasure. He forced himself to focus on that image. The pain of what Azazel was doing began to fade, to drift away in the remembrance of Charles’ unselfconscious pleasure, and then later…

“What happened?” Charles asked, seeing the relaxation in those rigidly controlled muscles around Erik’s mouth. He’d thought Erik was slipping into unconsciousness again, and Charles was unaccountably afraid that if he did he might not wake up. There had been so much blood. He glanced down at the stains that marred the maidenly whiteness of his nightshirt. So much blood.

“A drunk,” Erik whispered. And gave no other details.

“They fight about you,” Azazel offered in his heavy accent, setting another stitch. The Russian's face was absolutely emotionless. He might have been sewing a button on a shirt for all he seemed affected by the jagged gash in Erik’s side.

“No,” Erik denied, but Charles had already gone still.

“About me,” he repeated, trying to imagine why a drunk patron of Erik’s establishment would concern himself with Charles. A horrible suspicion bloomed in his mind, fed by the images of Erik’s blood smeared black and sticky on his palm.

“Who was he?” Charles asked, and at Erik’s blank-faced confusion, added, “The man who stabbed you.”

“Banner,” Erik said, his voice low and hoarse. “Bruce Banner. A gentleman.”

Azazel finished the last stitch and clipped off the thread with a flourish, and Charles helped Azazel bandage Erik up. Erik seemed to drift in and out of consciousness, sometimes mumbling incoherently. After what felt like a small eternity, they'd finished. Azazel even checked the bandage on Erik’s hand and, seemingly satisfied, removed it to expose the still-healing puncture wounds. The injury, at least to Charles’ inexpert eyes, appeared to be healing well. Azazel seemed to think so; he didn’t bother to rebandage Erik’s hand.

Satisfied with his work, Azazel rose to collect his supplies. He pointed to a cup he’d brought up from the kitchen. “Boss drink this,” he instructed Charles. “All of it. Will help with fever, ja?”

With that, he left Charles alone with Erik.

“Sit up,” Charles said, slipping his arm under Erik’s shoulders. Erik, awake now, struggled to obey, wincing at the pull against his stitches. Charles slipped behind him, between Erik’s upper body and the head of the bed. He guided Erik to lean back against him, and he held him for a moment, his arms encircling Erik from behind.

I almost lost you tonight, he thought to himself, wanting desperately to bury his face in the join of Erik’s neck, to breathe in the scents of sweat, smoke, and sandalwood, to reassure himself with the warmth of Erik’s body and the steady pounding of his pulse.

But he had to be strong, for Erik. He reached for the cup waiting on the table by the bed and placed its rim against Erik’s lips.

“Drink it,” Charles whispered. “Azazel says it’s good for the fever. And it should help with the pain.”

Charles coaxed Erik to drink until the cup was empty, and then replaced it on the table. He leaned his head against Erik’s, absently caressing the scarred skin of Erik’s torso just above the bandage he and Azazel had wrapped around his ribs.

“My mother used to hold me like this when I was sick,” Erik said, his voice low and slurred by whatever drug Azazel had put in the bitter tea. “I always thought—”

“What?” Charles asked. He hardly dared breathe, having never expected to hear Erik talk about his mother.

“That it was the safest place in the world.”

Charles nuzzled at Erik’s temple, holding him as tightly as he dared. He felt Erik’s body slowly go slack as he slipped away into a deep, dreamless sleep, but Charles remained where he was.

Banner, Erik had said. He’d known a Bruce Banner at Eton. He was the son of a baronet, a boy who shared Charles’ enthusiasm for biology and nature. They’d ranged over the surrounding countryside together, visiting the local creek to search for unusual insects when the weather was nice. He’d been a friend.

And he’d stabbed Erik tonight. Because of Charles.

He spent the last few long hours of the night hugging Erik close, listening to him breathe as he slept, thinking about what Cain had asked him to do. The attack on Erik had most certainly been a warning. Cain didn’t like to be denied, but Charles wondered how he’d managed to convince Baronet Banner to attack Erik. It would’ve had to appear as if it had nothing to do with the diamonds, but Charles knew how Cain’s mind worked. It was no coincidence that Erik had been hurt. Charles hadn’t done what Cain wanted, and so Cain had hurt someone Charles cared about.

With the aid of the drug Erik slept through the morning and well into the afternoon. Charles eventually moved from behind him into a chair he’d pulled up beside the bed. When the hour chimed two, Lucky wandered into the bedroom, and whined until Charles finally picked him up and held him in his lap. He stroked the pup absently, lost so deep in thought that he only belatedly noticed that Erik’s eye was open. He was finally awake.

“How do you feel?” Charles asked, smiling at him tiredly. He allowed none of the long night’s worry and desperate prayer to show on his face. He touched Erik’s forehead lightly with the back of his hand, testing for the fever he feared might develop in spite of Azazel’s potion.

“Like I’ve been asleep for days,” Erik said, turning his head away so that Charles’ fingers no longer made contact with the reassuringly normal warmth of his skin.

“Only hours,” Charles answered, his smile now forced in reaction to Erik’s rejection.

“Have you slept?” Erik asked.

“A little.”

“In that chair?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Charles said. “I can sleep later. I wanted to be sure that you were all right.”

The silence stretched a moment, and then Erik closed his eye. Despite his lack of fever, the grey tinge that underlay his complexion reminded Charles of the bloody clothing Kitty had brought downstairs to burn that morning. So much blood, Charles thought again.

“I thought you had a fitting with Remy this afternoon,” Erik said suddenly.

“A fitting?” Charles repeated, momentarily at a loss. It was so far removed from the direction of his thoughts that he had trouble compensating.

“For the new jackets.”

“I’d forgotten,” Charles murmured. “I’m sure Monsieur LeBeau can rearrange it. It really doesn’t matter if—”

“I’ll send someone with you,” Erik interrupted. “You’ll be late, but you should still make it.”

Charles rose and set Lucky down. The puppy, sensing Charles’ building anger, tucked his tail between his legs and scuttled from the room. “If you think I’m going to the tailor’s while you’re—”

“I don’t need a mother!” Erik said harshly. “I don’t want you for that, either. Go get the damn jackets fitted. I’m tired of you looking like someone’s poor relation. Tell Remy I said to finish at least two of the jackets today. I don’t really care which ones.”

“I’m not trying to be your mother,” Charles said, his voice reflecting only hurt and confusion. “You don’t need a…a companion, you don’t want a mother. I’m not to see to your house or instruct your servants or worry about you when you’re hurt. I’m beginning to wonder why you keep me here at all.”

The pause was only a heartbeat.

“So am I,” Erik said, turning his face away.

Charles couldn’t believe how badly those few words hurt. What had happened to the smiling cavalier who had escorted him to Vauxhall? To the tender lover who’d coaxed him from the bath and had…

That was the answer. In spite of the fact that Erik had not left him that night, Erik had been disappointed. He’d wanted more. He’d wanted to fuck Charles, but Charles had denied him that, and Erik had only agreed to their bargain because he’d wanted access to his body. Even Cain had said as much, and now…

“I’m sorry,” Charles said bitterly, fighting the loss of the dream that had sustained him for so long. But something of his anguish must have been revealed by the low whisper.

“Go try on the new finery, Charles,” Erik said, hearing the pain in Charles’ strained voice and hating what he was doing to him. “Wear something nice for me tonight,” he added.

“I don’t understand you,” Charles whispered.

“Go on,” Erik ordered. Charles raised his eyes and saw that Erik was watching him again. But before he could identify what was in that look, Erik allowed his dark lashes to fall, concealing his feelings as effectively as he’d hidden them from the very beginning.

Charles changed his bloody nightshirt before he obeyed Erik’s order and went down to the kitchen. He asked Azazel to arrange transportation to Monsieur LeBeau’s, expecting that either Azazel, Sean, or Alex would accompany him. But the tall, silent escort was no one Charles had ever seen.

One of Erik’s dealers, Sean had explained.

Charles was vaguely surprised when his escort handed Monsieur LeBeau a note, and he was aware of the tailor’s quick glance at Charles’ set features after he’d read whatever instructions Erik had sent. But it hardly mattered what the note contained. Erik had been given Charles his own mandate. Wear something nice for me tonight. As if he were on display back at Bartolomeu’s. Nothing but a particularly expensive whore.

And why not? Charles reasoned. That was, of course, why Erik had accepted their bargain.

Seventy thousand pounds for a tumble, he remembered Erik saying harshly. That’s a bit much, don’t you think?

Charles took a deep breath, fighting the bitterness that threatened to overwhelm him. Erik wasn’t responsible for Charles’ foolish hopes. Why should Charles be angry if Erik didn’t conform to the fantasy he’d been creating about Erik since the night they first met?

Dear Lord, he thought, I’ve been such a foolish, romantic child. But it had seemed… He shook his head, blocking any memories of their intimacy. Today had been the reality, not whatever he had been imaging before.

****

Monsieur LeBeau was as kind as he’d been on Charles’ first visit with Erik, and although the fitting seemed more interminable than any Charles had ever before endured, even as a boy. But Charles had to admit that he’d never worn anything so becoming as the sea green jacket in which he left the shop.

When he stepped out into the street, he was surprised to find that it was well after dark. He wondered if Erik would be worried about him, and then smiled bitterly at what he now knew was wishful thinking, remembering Erik’s response to Charles’ speculation. He should have known better. All his fantasies about a dark and tender lover were only that. He was a grown man. Too old to indulge in the futility of dreams.

He dreaded the forthcoming meeting with Erik for the entirety of the coach ride home. He’d done as asked, but there was no pleasure in the new coat. There was no pleasure in any of it anymore. Such a child, he thought again.

The guest bed where Erik had spent the night was empty. So was Erik’s bedroom through the connecting passage. Charles’ panic grew as he hurried down the back stairs that led to the kitchens. Perhaps Erik had come downstairs to eat supper, but surely Azazel and the other servants wouldn’t have allowed such a dangerous attempt.

Alex was serving Charles’ escort his delayed meal at the kitchen table. Both Alex and Sean, who was scrubbing pots at the sink, looked up at Charles’ entrance, but there was no surprise in either of them.

“Where is he?” Charles asked. Alex, Sean, and the unfamiliar dealer all looked at each other in conspiracy, but the dealer shrugged his shoulders, feigning ignorance.

Charles turned to Alex and repeated his question. His hesitation was so prolonged that Charles thought that he, like the dealer, would deny any knowledge of Erik’s whereabouts. But Alex clearly couldn’t bring himself to lie to Charles.

“Mr. Lehnsherr’s in the salon,” he said finally.

“But…but he’s in no condition to be out of bed!” Charles said angrily. “Why would you let him come downstairs? What if the bleeding starts again?”

Alex, Sean and the dealer all looked at each other again, and then Alex said, “You think I could stop the boss if ’e wants something? You couldn’t stop him.”

“Me?” Charles said, not believing what he was hearing. “I wasn’t here. I couldn’t…”

Realization struck like a thunderbolt. Erik had deliberately sent him away this afternoon so Charles couldn’t try to prevent him from working that evening.

“But why?” Charles asked. “Surely whatever is happening in there tonight isn’t worth risking his life?”

Again Sean, Alex and the dealer looked at each other in perfect understanding. And gave Charles no reply.

“Then I shall have to tell Erik exactly how I feel about this—”

“Don’t,” Alex said, catching Charles’ arm. “Don’t go in there. If you do, you’ll destroy everything he’s trying to do.”

Charles waited for Alex to finish his explanation but he politely removed his fingers from Charles’ arm and stepped back, apparently having said all he intended to say.

“And what does Erik hope to accomplish with this idiotic display of bravado?” Charles asked finally.

Again the pause was so long that Charles thought the others intended to let the question go unanswered, but finally Sean piped up, “Half the ’nobs what’ve come here tonight heard what happened last night. A lot of ‘em are here because of what they’ve heard. If the Boss don’t show up then they’ll gossip even more. So he’s dealing tonight, acting as if nothing’s happened. Maybe some of them’ll buy the act.”

“It’s because of me,” Charles said, and it was not a question.

“Of course,” Alex said. “Y’don’t think he cares about what they think about him, do you?”

Charles could hear Alex’s gentle mockery of his world in the simple question. The opinion of the ton, the approval of those self-important fops and dandies that Cain cared so much about, didn’t matter a jot to Erik. But because Erik knew it still mattered to Charles, because Charles had so foolishly made him think he cared, he’d sent Charles away so he could carry out this dangerous charade.

Charles shook his head, an unnecessary answer to Alex’s rhetorical question, and turned, making his way through the heavy silence of the kitchen to the bedroom upstairs.

****

Charles had long ago taken off the new coat. He’d waited in the chair he’d occupied the previous night and this morning, dressed in one of his old threadbare nightshirts. It was several hours after midnight before Charles heard Erik’s slow steps on the uncarpeted stairs. He’d forced himself not to move, not to go rushing out to help even when the sound of Erik’s footsteps faltered, even when Charles knew Erik had been forced to stop and rest. Finally his tall form blocked the open doorway.

Even in the low lamplight, Charles could read Erik’s shock when he saw him. He had apparently expected Charles to have long ago retired to the guest bedroom, sleeping soundly while he played cards downstairs for Charles’ sake.

You don’t believe he cares about what they think about him, do you? Alex had asked. And Charles knew he didn’t.

“I took off the new jacket,” Charles said. “I didn’t want to ruin it while I waited for you.” And then, defiantly, the hours Charles had spent worrying about Erik coalescing in his voice, “I’ll wear ‘something nice’ for you tomorrow. Tonight you’ll have to be satisfied with the poor relation again.”

Erik didn’t move from the doorway. He could hear the anger threaded through Charles’ voice and, after what he’d said today, he couldn’t blame the man. But he’d faced too many openly mocking stares tonight, heard too many whispered conversations die at his approach. And his side hurt like hell. He was in no condition to deal with Charles’ humiliation, even if he had deliberately inflicted it.

“I thought you’d be asleep,” he said finally.

Charles snorted. “While you played cards with my friends?”

“I wasn’t aware…” Erik began, and then realized that saying no one there seemed like your friend would be hurtful. He shook his head, too tired to think what he might say that would change the situation between them.

He began to loosen the intricate folds of his cravat and found that his fingers were numb with fatigue. He finally managed to remove the lace-edged cloth, but in his exhaudtion it fell from his nerveless fingers and fluttered to the carpet where it lay, mocking him. Erik knew he couldn’t bend down to retrieve it.

“Sit down,” Charles said with a sigh. Whatever emotion was in his voice now was too subtle to identify, but it was a change, at least, from the anger.

Charles drew him to the chair in which he’d spent his long night’s vigil, and Erik obeyed because he had no choice unless he wanted to fall at Charles’ feet. He’d managed this long only out of sheer bloody-minded determination, but he was forced to acknowledge (to himself, at least) that his strength was at an end.

Before Charles allowed Erik to sit he gently removed Erik’s black coat. He helped him down to the chair, hearing Erik’s soft grunt of pain when the movement pulled at the stitches. Charles knelt before him then, and pulled off Erik’s boots. Erik was too tired to do more than watch as Charles kneeled before him, too tired to understand what Charles intended. Finally Charles stood and began the painful process of divesting Erik of his shirt.

When Charles had succeeded he touched the bandage encircling Erik’s torso, running his fingers lightly around the startling whiteness that was such a contrast to the fire-mottled darkness of the skin above. And, surprising Erik, Charles bent to drop a slow, lingering kiss on his damaged shoulder. And then Charles stepped away from Erik while Erik struggled to understand what that unexpected action meant.

“Stand up,” Charles ordered, putting one strong hand beneath Erik’s arm.

“I’m not sure that I can,” Erik confessed, but he used Charles’ support and the tall bed post to accomplish what Charles wanted.

When Charles began to unfasten the flap at the front of Erik’s formal trousers he heard, above his head, Erik’s soft chuckle.

“Charles, meine lieben, have you no shame?”

Charles glanced up at that dark, scarred face, smiling down at Charles as he had in the gardens.

“Apparently not,” Charles murmured as he began pulling the fitted trousers down the long length of Erik’s muscled leg. “At least, not where you’re concerned.”

Charles helped him ease back onto the bed and began to remove Erik’s fine silk stockings. He didn’t even try to resist the impulse that forced his hand down the long length of one shapely, hair-roughed calf and over the strong, very masculine foot. Charles looked up to find Erik watching him.

“And the rest?” Erik asked, his damaged mouth sternly controlled. But Charles could hear the teasing challenge in his question.

“Those you can sleep in,” Charles said, ignoring Erik’s deliberate provocation as he reached over to trim the lamp.

“Are you going to sleep in that damn chair again?” Erik whispered in the darkness.

“After the way I let you trick me this afternoon,” Charles said, “I doubt you still want me in your bed. But if you do…” he offered, and waited.

“I’ll always want you in my bed,” Erik said. “I don’t know how I ever managed to convince you of anything else.”

Charles slipped under the covers beside Erik and felt the warmth of Erik’s arms enclose him. Erik wouldn’t be able to make love to him tonight, but it was enough. Erik still wanted him, even after Charles had reacted so foolishly to his ruse.

And slowly, dream by dream, Charles allowed the familiar fantasies he’d spent the long afternoon destroying to reoccupy all the empty corners of his heart.

****

Chapter Text

Erik woke to the glide of Charles’ fingers across the scars on his chest. He was sitting beside Erik, crosslegged, the thin cotton of his nightshirt carelessly bunched across his muscled thighs. Erik studied the seriousness of Charles’ expression for a moment, trying to read what was in his face. Finally, alerted by the change in his breathing that he was awake, Charles glanced up at Erik's face.

Erik reached down and stopped the gliding motion of Charles’ fingers, putting his hand flat over Charles’ and pressing the other man’s palm to his chest. He looked down at Charles’ hand, studying it.

“I never intended that you’d be exposed to them.”

“Exposed.” Charles repeated his word choice with a tone of disbelief. Smiling, Charles shook his head. “How did you intend to ensure that I would never see these? Did you intend to sleep in your clothes for the rest of our lives?”

The rest of our lives. Erik struggled to comprehend the incredible promise of those words.

“If necessary,” he said.

“But it’s not necessary,” Charles insisted, frowning at him.

“No?”

“No,” Charles said, leaning over to touch his lips to the thick ridges of scar tissue that marred Erik’s shoulder. He could feel the shuddering breath Erik took against his caress. Charles wondered if, after all this time, the scars could still be that sensitive, if he could possibly be hurting him with the softness of his mouth.

But it wasn’t any pain Charles was causing that evoked the shivering intake. Erik was instead momentarily reliving the agony that caused the scarring. With the concealment of clothing, only the marks on his face were a visible reminder of what had happened. And those were enough, Erik thought. But every day he, at least, was reminded of the hideousness of his body, and the way it reflected what was in his soul.

But now Charles was kissing his shoulder as if he weren’t bothered by the ugliness. Just as he no longer seemed to notice the discoloured texture of Erik’s cheek, or the patch that covered his damaged eye. As if Charles no longer even saw the scars, he realized in wonder.

In response to that thought he reached out and threaded his hand through Charles’ dark hair, cupping his head tenderly. At his touch, Charles lifted his head and smiled at him again. Erik pulled him closer, wondering at whatever he’d seen in Charles’ eyes. It wasn’t pity and it certainly wasn’t revulsion. Or any of the other things he’d always expected someone to feel when exposed to his bare, damaged flesh.

Admitting finally what had been in Charles’ eyes, Erik used his hand against Charles’ scalp to guide him closer, and pressed his mouth against Erik’s. He felt Charles’ lips open to his tongue, as welcoming as he had been before. He put into his kiss all the thankfulness that he felt because Charles had just removed the need for any barriers between them. He didn’t have to hide from Charles, because Charles accepted him as he was. He had given Erik the gift of freedom, too. A freedom he’d never expected to have.

It was ironic, considering the standards of the world they occupied, with its rigid social order and prejudiced sexual mores. With their relationship had come an opening of prison doors that no one else would ever understand, or condone.

Charles’ turned to fit his mouth more securely against the heat of Erik’s. He could feel Charles’ body melting into his hold, unconsciously seeking to strengthen the bond that was flowing between them, the one that had been growing ever since that night at the inn. He put his other hand behind Charles’ broad back and pressed him closer to the hard muscles of his chest.

Charles hesitated over the scars, wanting to cup his fingers around Erik’s shoulder but unsure after Erik’s reaction to his previous touch there. Erik caught Charles’ hand and, holding it captive under the strong warmth of his, he moved Charles’ hand down his body, sending it gliding over the swell of muscle under the small, hard nub of his nipple. Skimming along his rib cage. Across the bandage, and over the protrusion of his hip.

The thin knitted drawers Charles had declined to remove last night offered little concealment of Erik’s desire. He drew Charles’ fingertips gently along the rigid length of his cock, which tented the overlying cloth. He was surprised when Charles struggled against his hold, and Erik obligingly released him.

“Surely you’re not shy, Charles,” he teased. “After all, you did undress me last night.”

Charles sat up quickly, suddenly too far away from Erik’s aching body.

Erik’s hand found his, entwined as they rested in Charles’ lap. Erik held both of them in his, the scarred backs of his hands a contrast to Charles’ pristine skin, the gold signet ring gleaming between them. Charles was twisting his fingers in the long tail of his nightshirt.

Finally Charles raised his eyes to meet Erik’s.

“But last night you weren’t…”

“No, regrettably, I wasn’t,” Erik agreed, smiling. “Are you afraid of me? Because that night…after I took you out of the bath…” He paused, wondering how to explain. “You apologized to me for not wanting to make love in the Greek style. And you seem…inexperienced, in some aspects of bedsport. I’d thought, because you had been with other men before…”

He stopped, seeing the delicate vibration of the breath Charles took. His hand tightened over Charles’.

“Don’t,” he said. “Don’t remember. Just tell me. Is that why you’re afraid that I’ll…take you, in that way? Has someone hurt you before?”

Charles sat still, head again lowered, and when he answered he never looked up from his hands.

“I’m not afraid,” Charles said. “Not of you. You promised me that you wouldn’t touch me there, and I believe you. It’s just that sometimes I don’t know what you want me to do. I know what the others wanted, but it doesn’t seem the same.”

The whispered confession faltered as Erik pressed against Charles’ fingers, communicating his strength to hear whatever Charles needed to tell him.

“I want you to do whatever you want to do,” Erik said. “Whatever you feel you need.”

He didn’t ask what ‘the others’ had wanted Charles to do. He didn’t want the memory of that between them, to make the other men spectators in their lovemaking. He'd thought from the beginning that was one ghost he could exorcise, whatever the bastards had done to his Charles.

His Charles. He took a deep breath, acknowledging how true that had become. His to care for and protect. Even from Charles’ own memories.

“That damned stepfather of his sold him to that filthy French pervert.” He remembered Banner saying that before his ridiculous drunken attack. What had happened to Charles?

“I want to do that with you,” Charles said. His eyes finally lifted to Erik’s face.

“And I’d like to show you how good it can feel,” Erik said. “Someday. But Charles, what we do together…if it’s never anything more than this, it’s fine for me. More than fine.”

Charles hung his head. “It’s never been enough for anyone else.”

Erik reached up and cupped Charles’ cheek, stroking it gently with his thumb. “I’m not them,” he reminded Charles.

“No, you’re not,” Charles agreed. His mouth firmed in resolve and he nodded, having reached some internal decision. “I…in the past, I haven’t always been a willing participant. Quite the opposite, in fact.”

Erik’s hand stilled and he watched Charles carefully, afraid that anything he would do would stop the flow of words. Don’t remember, he begged Charles silently. Just tell me so I know how to move forward with you.

“I was only 14,” Charles said quietly, trying not to get bogged down in the past. Just the bare details, he told himself. Just enough to make Erik understand. “My mother had died, and my stepfather came to collect me from Eton. He accused me of…interfering with a younger boy, and said that the boy’s father would press charges unless I left the school immediately. Once I returned home, my stepfather told me about his plans.”

He remembered the long trip from Eaton back to Westchester, and thence to the old Xavier family seat at Greymaulkin. The manor house had been shrouded and empty, all of the expensive furnishings and paintings gone, sold off to pay his stepfather’s debts. They’d passed a tense dinner together, Cain making snide comments to Charles between bites, and then Kurt had invited Charles to withdraw to the smoking room. Kurt had never done that before.

God, he’d been so naïve. He’d thought that perhaps the invitation was a sign that Kurt was finally beginning to accept him and would start treating him as a son. He’d been missing Raven, and Eton. His hope that Kurt had thawed towards him had only been wishful thinking born of loneliness.

Instead of acceptance, the smoking room contained only a trap. Kurt’s lawyer and man of business, a sniveling creature named Pennington, informed Charles that Kurt was now his legal guardian until he reached 25 years of age.

“Mr. Marko will have full control over all decisions related to your finances and education,” Pennington had announced.

But it wasn’t enough. Pennington presented a statement, dictated by Kurt, that would cede all control of Charles’ inheritance to Kurt. From the first Charles had known not to sign the document. He knew that, when he reached his majority, he’d have more than enough money to ensure his and Raven’s future. He was not about to sign it away to a snake like his stepfather and said so, which earned him a vicious backhand. He’d fallen and struck his head on a chair, and then Kurt had proceeded to beat him until he was bruised and bloody.

When Kurt finally stopped raining punches and kicks down on Charles and went over to pour himself a drink, he said, “You’re bleeding on the rug. I’m trying to sell that.”

He’d downed a long slug of whiskey. “You’ve forced my hand now, Charles. I’ll have you convicted of sodomy. I’ve got the McCoy boy’s word, and his father is certainly willing to prosecute.”

“But it’s not true!” Charles had said. He was in such pain from the beating that he’d scarcely been coherent, but Kurt hadn’t cared.

“And what about your sister?” Kurt had asked. “What do you think will happen to her if you’re sentenced death? Or to ten years hard labour? While you’re off breaking rocks I’ll sell her to the highest bidder, whether or not he’s interested in marrying her. Or perhaps,” he said, an ugly gleam in his eyes, “I’ll just keep her for myself. She’s a pretty young thing, don’t you think?”

Charles had reared up then, forcing himself to his feet where he’d stood swaying, cradling his arm to his chest. Kurt had broken it, and Charles was certain he had a concussion. But he would not tolerate any threats to Raven.

He wanted to say, “Do your worst.” He wanted to call Kurt’s bluff and let him move forward with his ridiculous charges. But it was the thought of Raven and, to a lesser extent, poor young Hank McCoy, that made Charles surrender.

“I’ll sign,” he’d ground out. Two of his molars felt loose, and his face was already swollen with bruises. “I’ll sign it.”

Pennington had rushed forward and provided Charles with ink and a quill. He’d used his uninjured arm, scratching out a name that was barely legible. But he’d signed it.

“Good,” Kurt had said. His approval was short-lived. He dismissed Pennington, who’d slithered out of the room with only a single backward glance at Charles.

“Now,” Kurt had clapped his hands, “I think we ought to discuss your future.”

What future? he’d thought gloomily, wanting only to crawl away to his bed upstairs and nurse his wounds. He’d have to find someone to set his arm, too. A stableboy had helped him last time when Kurt had dislocated his shoulder, but most of the horses had been sold, except Charles’ favourite mount and a few other older mares. The stableboy was long gone.

“Well,” Kurt said, pouring another drink, “I think we ought to make use of your unnatural desires. Several well-placed gentlemen could use a companion of your ilk, I should think.”

The suggestion made Charles go cold. For a moment he forgot his injuries, and even the way Kurt had trapped him. He was attracted to other boys, yes. And when he fantasized about touching someone, holding them, kissing them, the person in his dreams had always been male. But to be sent off to a ‘well-placed gentlemen’ as a companion?

Even Kurt wouldn’t pimp out his own stepson, he’d thought. But he'd quickly been proven wrong.

“Once your face heals,” Kurt continued, “you’ll go to visit a friend of mine in Paris. He’s already expressed an interest in you. This friend of mine is a powerful man. Make it good for him, Charles, and I promise that nothing bad will happen to Raven. I’ll even continue to pay for her schooling, as long as you behave yourself.”

And so he’d gone. Instead of going to study the sciences at Oxford as he’d dreamed, Charles had made the crossing to Paris where he’d attended Bartolomeu and his parties. Then to the Duke in Marseilles. The old man in Cadiz, and then…then McTaggert, the last and the worst of the men who’d had him.

“Charles?” Erik was saying. Had been saying several times now. He was rubbing Charles’ cold hand. Charles blinked, slowly returning to himself. He’d gotten lost in the past after all.

“What were his plans for you, Charles? What did your stepfather do?”

Charles drew in a shaky breath. “He sold me. Three men on the Continent, and one in Inverness. It lasted for years.”

Erik shut his eyes, mouth thinning to one white line. When he’d finally composed himself he looked at Charles with such sorrow, such empathy, that Charles could hardly breathe.

“If the bastard wasn’t already dead I’d kill him myself,” Erik said, and Charles shivered at the quiet menace in his tone. “And the men he sold you to…they’re the ones who hurt you, aren’t they.”

Erik hadn’t phrased it as a question but honesty compelled Charles to answer. “Not all of them. It wasn’t unendurable. A few of them were even kind, especially the old man in Cadiz. The worst was in Scotland. He was…” Charles paused, uncertain how to explain. “He liked pain. At least, he liked the pain of others. He was a monster, Erik.”

Erik nodded shortly, his silver-grey eye flickering with some emotion, and Charles wondered if perhaps Erik had also known a man like that too, once.

“But I befriended his wife Moira, and we helped each other survive it.” Charles smiled, thinking of his friend. “So something good did come out of it. And then my stepfather died, and I was free.”

Erik cleared his throat. “For a while, at least.”

Charles’ eyes dimmed, and he swallowed hard, throat working. “It’s not the same. Not with you.”

“Isn’t it? You were coerced, Charles. Please don’t lie about that.”

“I’m not lying!” Charles said sharply, and then tried to gentle his tone. “I wasn’t coerced,” he repeated, but Erik had seen his split lip and blacked eye. He would never believe that Charles really had come of his own free will. “Cain did ask me to offer myself to you, but that’s not why I did it.”

“Why, then?” Erik asked, withdrawing his hand, suddenly desperate to put some distance between them. “I don’t think, given your history, that you are capable of separating what you want from what other people demand of you.”

It hurt to hear him say it. God, but it hurt. Charles almost physically flinched from the words. But he clung to his conviction, to his memory of that night at the inn and the kindness Erik had shown him. The night at Vauxhall, the night of the bath. He’d placed no demands on Charles, physically or otherwise, and indeed had turned him away when he was young and desperate, and again when he was inebriated. Erik would not take advantage of him. Charles trusted him completely.

But how could he convince Erik of that? How to put it into words?

“I’m not sure what to tell you,” Charles admitted. “Perhaps I don’t know my own mind. But I do know what’s in my heart, Erik. Being with you isn’t wrong.”

Erik turned his head, his long, lean body showed pale and strong in the light, broken into sections by his white smallclothes and the bandage winding around his ribs. He was everything Charles had ever wanted in another man.

I’ve chosen you, Charles thought. For myself, I choose you.

“It still bothers you,” Erik said, sitting on the bed with a resigned expression. “You’d rather…if your stepfather hadn’t interfered with your life, wouldn’t you be Lord Xavier now? Married to a wealthy heiress, perhaps father to several young children?”

Charles tilted his head. He'd considered that question before, and thought of what his life might have been. Yes, Erik was probably right. And perhaps he would even have been happy, if he’d been lucky enough to find someone like Moira, a woman who understood him.

But then he would never have known Erik.

“I would have liked to have had children,” Charles said, trying to imagine those babies that would never be born. “But it’s not an option for me, Erik. I…I am what I am.”

Erik threaded his fingers together in his lap and sighed.

“I had a child, once. A little girl. Her name was Anya.” His voice sounded very sad, and very far away.

Charles reached over and put his hand over Erik’s. He squeezed once, then let go.

“I am so very sorry, my friend,” he said.

They sat for a moment in silence. Charles wanted to ask more. He was shocked to learn that Erik had been married to a woman, once, or had at least loved a woman enough to have a child with her. And what had happened to the little girl?

But he knew that was something Erik needed to share in his own time, and in his own way. They’d spent too long thinking of mournful subjects. He needed to lighten the mood.

Decision made, Charles caught Erik’s chin and drew his head to the side, laying a gentle kiss on his lips. After a moment he deepened the kiss, and as Erik’s attention shifted from their conversation to Charles’ touch, Charles could feel his interest in the desire between them grow.

Soon they were kissing passionately, and Charles pulled back enough to say, “Can we…?”

“You’ll have to help me,” Erik said, “unless you want to undo all of Azazel’s handiwork.”

“What do you want me to do?” Charles asked, feeling a little uncertain. He’d been fucked in many different positions, but he knew that wasn’t what Erik wanted.

“Come here,” Erik said, wanting Charles to participate fully in their lovemaking. He watched Charles swallow, the slender column of his throat moving beneath a renewed rush of colour.

Charles hesitated so long Erik thought he was going to refuse, but at last Charles shucked off his nightshirt, exposing the broad, freckled plane of his creamy white chest, and leaned slowly toward Erik. As he did so Erik found he was holding his breath. Finally, unable to wait any longer, the ache in his cock making him wonder why he was doing this to himself, he placed the tips of his fingers against Charles’ chest.

“Closer,” he said. Charles blushed a little and then, after taking a determined breath, threw one leg over Erik’s. He then pulled himself astride Erik, kneeling over him carefully so as not to pull on any muscles and therefore the stitches.

The position of Charles’ body put Erik’s head at eye-level with Charles’ chest, and he couldn’t resist leaning forward to capture one of Charles’ rosy-pink nipples between his lips. Charles gasped, responding instinctively by arching his back and driving closer to Erik’s mouth.

Erik pulled against Charles’ nipple, and the suction caused a shiver of reaction to rake through Charles’ entire body. Erik caught Charles’ shoulders and steadied him, holding him securely so Charles was forced to concentrate on nothing but the pleasure of what Erik was doing. He couldn’t see Charles’ face and he silently damned the inconvenience of his blind eye, but he could feel Charles’ heartbeat and the almost continual shivering of the broad shoulders he held as his teeth and tongue teased the sensitive tissue Charles had offered him. And finally he was rewarded by a gasping moan of desire.

At that sound Erik released the pressure and touched a gentle kiss against his wet, pebbled nipple. With that he expected Charles to sit up, to react in some way to what had just happened. Instead, he guided Erik over to his other nipple. Charles never saw the small smile that Erik briefly allowed before his mouth closed over the dry warmth of Charles’ skin.

After a long time, Charles writhed against him, body twisting unconsciously, and whispered, “Please, Erik. Please.”

Knowing that he would not for some days be able to answer that whispered request, especially given the restrictions Charles had imposed, Erik gently pushed Charles away. Removing temptation, he thought.

He could make love to Charles, or at least allow them both some release, but given the painful stiffness of his injury and the very real possibility that he would reopen the wound, he decided that the torture he was inflicting on them both had gone far enough.

“Soon,” he whispered. He released his hold on Charles’ shoulders to touch the sheen of moisture on the darkened nipple he’d just released.

Charles jumped in response, and looked at him. His cheeks were flushed red, eyes dilated so much that only the thinnest rim of turquoise showed. The smatter of freckles across his nose were highlighted by his pink blush. When Charles shifted against Erik he nearly moaned. The grind of Charles’ backside against his erection was almost too much, but he didn’t want to alarm Charles. Particularly not after what Charles had just told him.

“I could suck you,” Charles suggested, fingers ghosting over the bandage wrapped around Erik’s ribs. “I’d like that.”

Erik closed his eyes, struggling to find the strength he needed to refuse. If Charles only knew what those words did to him. “When this heals,” he said, glancing down at the bandage, “I intend much more between us. Not,” he quickly clarified, seeing the way Charles avoided his gaze, “Not that, unless…unless you’d like to try being the more active partner.”

He made the suggestion carefully, wondering how Charles would react to that possibility. He’d never been topped by another man before, but perhaps it would show Charles that such an act could feel good, and therefore reduce his fear of being penetrated. Erik had meant what he’d said. If lovemaking between them never went beyond pleasuring each other orally, he would still be satisfied. However, a large part of him wanted to help Charles reduce his anxiety. To show him just how good lovemaking could be when both people were willing participants.

Charles looked scandalized by his suggestion, and Erik fought a twinge of disappointment. But then Charles licked his lips thoughtfully, clearly giving the idea some thought. He could see the images flickering behind those blue eyes. “You would…you would do that? For me?”

“Of course,” Erik smiled. “I doubt it would be any great sacrifice, Charles. In fact, I imagine I would rather enjoy it. My previous partners have.”

Tilting his head to the side, Charles bit his lip. He’d never imagined not being on the receiving end of anal sex. “I don’t know—” he started, stuttering to a halt, trying to put into words why he was hesitating. He’d found the act so painful, and to inflict that on Erik…he wasn’t sure he would be capable of it. “It wouldn’t be proper,” he decided.

Erik chuckled. “Proper? Charles, anything we do together here, in the privacy of our bedroom, is ‘proper’. We don’t have to play by any rules but our own.”

Charles searched Erik’s face at the calm surety of that answer. So much about Erik was unconventional, even defiant, and he wished he knew how Erik could so easily throw aside the rules that governed their society.

And Erik had been with women before. It seemed a petty thing to focus on when Erik had been describing the loss of his daughter, but he couldn’t overlook the fact that Erik was, unlike himself, ostensibly attracted to women. So why had he given up on having a conventional relationship? He was wealthy, successful, and, at least to Charles, incredibly attractive. Erik ought to have had his pick of women. Why then had he pursued relations with men, and thereby put himself at risk?

The question was on the tip of Charles’ tongue when he remembered Erik’s words from that night at the inn. I’m a monster, Charles. Perhaps he was driven by self-hatred, not desire. But then he was such a proud man…

Troubled by the dissonance, Charles shifted in Erik’s lap. Unbidden and unwanted came the memory of Cain’s demand, the way he wanted Erik to humble himself. Charles’ eyes flicked down to the broad bandage that spanned Erik’s narrow, ridged stomach. Charles’ procrastination had caused that. If he could only get Erik to agree to do what Cain wanted, maybe Cain would leave them alone. Maybe this time…

“What is it?” Erik asked. He brushed an errant lock of hair out of Charles’ eyes. Charles lifted his head, knowing that he had to ask Erik. During the long hours he’d watched Erik sleep, Charles had been able to think of nothing else that would satisfy Cain’s demand. Only Erik could undo the damage done to Cain’s reputation with the ton. Only he could retract the accusation that Cain had faked the diamonds.

“I have to ask you something,” Charles said, wondering how he could compel Erik to do this without telling him about Raven. Concern for his sister was not a burden Erik needed to carry, and Charles didn’t want Erik to know about the danger Cain still presented. He might try to threaten Cain, to frighten him. And he didn’t know how ruthless the Markos could be when they wanted something. No one could understand unless they had lived through it.

“It certainly appears to be very serious,” Erik said, and Charles could hear the teasing caress in his beautifully accented voice.

“Something very important,” Charles agreed, still at a loss as to how to pose his request.

“And you’re going to ask me while you have me here at your mercy, unmanned with passion and immobilized with—” He stopped suddenly because there had been no answering amusement in Charles’ eyes.

“What is it?” Erik asked again, all humour erased from his question.

“For Cain,” Charles said, and watched the slight narrowing of that silver eye, the small reactive twitch in the corner of Erik’s lip.

“And what does Cain Marko want from me?” There was something in Erik’s voice that should have warned Charles. But other warnings intruded, far more pressing and effective than the possibility of Erik’s anger.

“He wants…” Charles stopped because, as he had told his stepbrother, Charles couldn’t imagine this man humbly confessing to a lie he hadn’t told. Not in a public place, before men he despised.

“Charles,” Erik commanded. “Tell me.”

“An apology,” Charles said quickly. “At the Hellfire Club, or White’s, or some other venue. Before Cain’s friends. In front of the same people you told about the diamonds.”

The silence grew and Charles became afraid, aware for the first time in a long time the power of the man who had just touched him with such gentleness. Under the spell of that gentleness Charles had forgotten the aura of icy danger Erik wore like a second skin.

Then that damaged mouth lifted in the one-sided, mocking smile. “And for what am I apologizing?” He asked the question reasonably, but there was nothing reasonable in Erik’s face.

“He wants you to tell them that you lied about the diamonds,” Charles said. “That you’re the one who replaced the real stones with paste.”

Again Erik was still, his lips now stern and taunt with the control he was exerting to stay calm. “And is that what you want, too, Charles? For me to walk back into that brothel and say, ‘Gentlemen, forgive me. It seems that I lied about the actions of one of this illustrious brotherhood?’”

The sardonic disdain was so evident in the question that Charles realized, for the first time, what he was really asking of Erik’s pride.

“Please,” he whispered, knowing that he couldn’t explain why this was so necessary. Both Raven’s and Erik’s security was at stake, and if Cain’s reputation was somewhat restored, perhaps Raven would not suffer socially, or Erik physically.

“If you do what Cain’s asked, perhaps he won’t bother us,” Charles said, thinking out loud.

“Cain’s not bothering me, Charles,” Erik said, and then with a deadliness of tone Charles had never heard before, “Is he bothering you?”

Charles shivered at the icy threat Erik managed to inject into that quiet question. I’ve killed people before. Lots of them, he’d said once. Charles had assumed he’d meant that, as a soldier, he’d killed during wartime. But perhaps…perhaps Erik had done more than that.

“We have so much,” Charles whispered, suddenly aware that was the only thing that might make Erik consider doing what Cain had asked. “And poor Cain…I know you don’t understand, but their opinion means so much to him. His place in society is something he’s enjoyed since birth. But now—”

“Is that why Marko came to see you?”

Charles tried to suppress the shock he felt at learning that Erik had known about his stepbrother’s visit. But of course he’d known. This was his domain, and despite Charles’ growing friendship with the servants, their loyalty ultimately lay with Erik.

“Yes,” Charles admitted.

“And you didn’t tell me because?”

“I hated to ask you,” Charles mumbled, deliberately not looking at Erik.

“Why now, then?”

“Because we have so much,” Charles said again. “And Cain has nothing. I feel sorry for him.”

It wasn’t entirely a lie. Charles did in some way pity his stepbrother. He hadn’t asked to be the son of a man like Kurt Marko. But he couldn’t chance anything happening to Raven. Or Erik, who had no idea how merciless Cain could be.

God, I couldn’t live, he thought suddenly, if anything happened to you. Especially if it happened because of me.

“If I do this, Charles, I want something in return,” Erik said slowly, that aura of icy danger still surrounding him.

Charles swallowed. He couldn’t imagine what Erik wanted from him. It seemed that he already held everything of value that Charles possessed.

“What is it?” Charles asked, trying to prepare himself.

“I want you to release me from my promise,” Erik said.

“I don’t understand,” Charles said, trying to remember any promise Erik had made to him. When he couldn’t recall anything, he looked to Erik in confusion.

Erik met his eyes evenly. “I want the freedom to touch you in any way I desire,” he said. “In any way that I think will give you pleasure. No restrictions. No limits when I make love to you again.”

Erik watched Charles’ sharp intake of breath as he thought about what Erik had asked. He could see the suspicion forming, the fear that Erik would do to Charles what the others had done to him.

"I won’t hurt you. I would never hurt you. But I need…” He paused, thinking how he could explain that he required every weapon in his arsenal of experience if he were to overcome what had been done to Charles. Whatever all of them had done, he thought bitterly, including Marko and his bastard father. Erik hated them all. The others were perhaps out of reach and Kurt Marko was dead, but Cain was still alive and able, apparently, to manipulate Charles into doing whatever he wanted.

Like making him fuck a scarred, mutilated murderer, his conscience mocked, who crawled out of the slums of Berlin to ruin his life. And because Erik couldn’t bear it, he banished the thought.

Bitter frustration at having to placate Marko burned in his gut. He would far rather kill Cain than apologize to him. He wondered why he’d agreed. Because Charles asked you, he mocked himself. Because it seems that you can refuse Charles nothing. You poor bastard, he thought grimly. He was lost, lost because Charles had blue eyes, and trembled when Erik touched him, and because Erik believed that response was out of passion, not revulsion.

Once more the frightening idea that he might be wrong touched what was left of his heart. He’d rejected the possibility because he acknowledged to himself, at least, that if Charles were false then nothing else really mattered.

Not even the one thing that had kept him going all this time, the beating heart of the revenge Erik had planned against the man who’d taken so much from him, would be worth pursing. Not if Charles didn’t care for him.

At that frightening admission, Erik realized he was truly lost.

“Yes,” Charles said, pulling him back from that dark reality. “Yes, whatever you want.”

Instead of touching him and putting them back on the brink of sure failure, Erik lifted Charles’ fingers and brought them to his mouth. Charles shivered as Erik brushed his lips across the back of his hand.

Charles didn’t understand whatever was in the glittering eye that rose quickly to Charles’ face when he felt that flicker of motion. But he smiled anyway.

He could not have denied Erik anything when he touched Charles as he had today. Even Charles had forgotten Erik’s promise. But Erik, apparently, had not. He had asked to be freed because he would never break his word to Charles.

You are a good man, Erik Lehnsherr, Charles thought silently. And he acknowledged, to himself, if not to Erik, exactly how much he cared for him.

****

Chapter Text

At the hour just after dinner, when the Hellfire Club was sure to be full of crowds of gentlemen pleasure-seekers, Erik presented himself at the door. He’d steeled himself as much as he could for his appointment with Cain Marko, reminding himself of the key lesson he’d learned as a child: one wasn’t allowed to have emotions. Internalizing that knowledge had cost him dearly, but it had made the transition to his life as a professional gambler much easier.

He searched the crowd for Cain Marko and finally found the disproportionately tall, heavyset man in a crowd of well-dressed gentlemen, some of whom Erik recognized as regular patrons of his own establishment. The Duke of York was among them, and Banner, the baronet who’d stabbed him.

Erik became conscious of again of the now-familiar ache in his side. Another debt he owed these bastards.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” Erik said to the group that surrounded Cain.

The animated murmur of the men he’d addressed suddenly stilled, and the resulting silence spread through the room like the ripples from a pebble thrown into a standing pond. Again something alien and dangerous had invaded these protected confines, and they were all aware of it.

“I have something to say to Lord Marko, and I believe that all of you should hear it.”

The silence was total, except for the ticking of the grandfather clock in the hallway.

“I was mistaken about the necklace,” he said, watching a slight smile of satisfaction play about Cain’s thick lips. The viscount’s eyes were full of derision, but Erik continued. Because Charles had asked him to do this. Erik would carry out his wishes and then leave, and free Charles from the contamination of Cain Marko forever. Free them both.

“Mistaken?” Cain said mockingly.

“The jeweller who made the initial evaluation tested only two of the stones. The only two, it seems, that had been tampered with. The only two that had been replaced. The others are genuine. So I’ve come to apologize, and to return this,” he said, handing Cain the case in which he’d placed the Xavier ‘diamonds’.

Cain’s eyes dropped to Erik’s outstretched hand, and then his brows arched in feigned disbelief.

“And you think that, after what you’ve done, you can simply hand over the stones and apologize?” Cain said, anger underlying his cultured tones. “After accusing me of lying? After forcing my dear stepbrother to…to have unnatural relations with you? Do you honestly believe that these gentlemen and I would allow you to get away with that?”

“Don’t push your luck, Marko,” Erik growled.

“Don’t threaten me, you Jew bastard,” Cain countered. “You may be able to intimidate and manipulate my weak-willed stepbrother, but I warn you that it won’t work here.”

“You have your apology,” Erik said, setting the jewelry case down on a nearby table. “And you have the necklace.” He moved to leave, but felt Cain’s hand on his sleeve.

Suddenly furious, he turned back. Cain struck a righthand blow across Erik’s left cheek. The gold signet ring the viscount wore, the one that was an exact match for the ring Charles had given Erik, save for the inscribed ‘M’ instead of an ‘X’, broke the fragile, damaged skin at the corner of Erik’s mouth.

“You’ll meet me for this,” Cain said.

Erik touched his thumb to the welling blood. He held out his hand so he could clearly see the evidence of that blow. And he knew, without a doubt, that Cain’s target had been deliberately chosen. Not only had he struck the damaged side of Erik’s face, but his blow had split Erik’s lip just like Charles’ had been, the day Charles had come to him with his offer.

Erik concentrated on control. He’d never wanted to kill a man as badly as he wanted to kill Cain Marko.

“If you need a second, I shall be honoured to make the arrangements,” said a man to Erik’s right.

Erik knew he shouldn’t be surprised at the Duke of York’s offer. Anthony Stark had claimed to be a friend of Charles’, and he seemed to extend that courtesy to Erik. He waited with that distinctive quirk of one arrogant brow for Erik’s answer, and Erik wondered fleetingly what the men gathered around them thought of the Duke’s offer to stand as second for a Jewish gambler.

“I appreciate the offer, Your Grace, but it won’t be necessary. I don’t intend to accept the challenge,” Erik said.

Stark bowed, accepting that decision. “I hope you know that, if at any time in the future you have need of my services, you have only to ask.”

Erik’s nod acknowledged the Duke’s generosity, and then he returned his attention to Cain Marko’s shocked face. Neither he nor Erik had anticipated Stark’s move. The Duke was one of the wealthiest and highest-born men in England; few members of Almack’s would have felt free to ask him to serve as second. That he’d made the offer to Erik would certainly cause a ripple in the confined world of the beau monde.

“So you refuse to meet me,” Cain said into the stunned silence, somewhat recovering himself. “I should have known better than to expect you to settle this like a gentleman. My mistake. I should have had you horsewhipped instead.”

“I don’t intend to kill you, Marko,” Erik said. “I don’t think Charles would like that.” He nodded politely to the silent watchers. “Gentlemen, I bid you good day.”

He turned and began the long journey out of the brothel. But before he left, something in what Cain had said made him turn and face Charles’ stepbrother again.

“And Marko,” Erik said softly, his warning clear to all, “whoever you send to horsewhip me, make sure they bring a very big whip.”

The crowd watched in silence as Erik made his limping progress out of the Hellfire Club.

“Well, that was exciting,” said Emma Frost from her position behind the crowd of gentlemen. She signaled for the piano player to resume, and for her hired girls to begin to circulate once more. “I apologize for the interruption,” she said smoothly.

Cain turned to the Duke of York, realizing that this was one man he could not afford to alienate. But he was curious about the relationship between Stark and the gambler.

“I wasn’t aware you knew Lehnsherr,” Cain said, and Stark’s amused brown eyes came to rest on his face.

Finally the Duke said, “Our acquaintanceship is recent, but very important to me. But I suspect that there are a great many things you don’t know about me or Lehnsherr, Marko. Which is surely a shame. And dangerous as well.”

With that Stark turned his back to Marko and nodded for an attendant to retrieve his hat.

Cain stared at the Duke, feeling a wave of anger as the man’s veiled threat washed over him. The encounter with Lehnsherr hadn’t gone as he’d planned, and part of that was the Duke’s fault. Cursing silently, Cain’s thoughts turned to plans of revenge.

He’d see them pay. Every last one of them.

****

Charles had just returned from his evening appointment at Monsieur LeBeau’s. Scattered waistcoats and tall hat boxes cluttered Erik’s bedroom. Charles stood on his toes before a small, clouded mirror, attempting to tie his new yellow silk cravat.

He had realized belatedly that this small shaving mirror was the only looking glass in the whole house. Before today he hadn’t noticed the lack of mirrors as he could shave himself well enough without one, and his cravats had all been simply tied. The barrel knot required more focus and, unfortunately, a looking glass. Which had brought him here, to Erik’s private chamber, a room he’d only glimpsed a handful of times.

Charles heard the door open behind him but, wanting to dazzle Erik with the transformation of his poor relation, made one last adjustment to his new cravat.

“You need a proper mirror,” Charles said lightly, his fingers busy with the neckcloth. “I can hardly—”

Charles stopped immediately, remembering the simple and obvious reason why Erik had no mirrors in his home.

The quality of the silence behind him thundered painfully in Charles’ heart.

He turned, still touching the bright yellow silk tie, but its complicated knot was forgotten in the unthinking cruelty of his remark.

Erik was leaning against the frame of the door, still dressed in the black coat and striped silk waistcoat he’d worn to the Hellfire Club. His tight breeches outlined his muscled thighs, and his expertly-fitted coat highlighted the unusual narrowness of his waist and the breadth of his shoulders. Charles felt again that sharp ache of desire. God, he’d never stop wanting this man. And instead of telling Erik that…

His single eye was focused on Charles’ face. There was, however, no reaction to Charles’ unthinking remark in the serene calmness of his features.

“I’ll have Azazel see to it,” Erik said softly.

“No,” Charles said quickly. “It doesn’t matter. I didn’t—” He stopped again, and dropped his hand from the silk tie around his neck. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“Just because I don’t want to look at my reflection shouldn’t mean you must be deprived of the pleasure of looking at yours,” Erik said. “And it would be a shame to be denied the effect of that neckcloth. It’s charming.”

“You were right,” Charles said, gratefully seizing on the topic. Seeing the puzzled frown form between Erik’s brows, Charles explained, “About the colour. This is the one you chose. Monsieur LeBeau—”

“Insisted I was wrong,” Erik interrupted, and Charles smiled.

“And you are always right,” he teased, affection lighting his face.

“I hope,” Erik said, but there were echoes of something Charles didn’t understand in the quiet answer.

Charles turned back to the mirror, using the excuse of making unnecessary adjustments to his cravat. “How was your meeting with Cain?”

He had blocked out images of that confrontation throughout the long afternoon and evening. Charles didn’t want to ask, didn’t want to know how the ‘apology’ had gone, but he knew it was better if they openly discussed the unpleasant situation Cain’s request had caused. He should have told Erik earlier about his stepbrother’s visit. Things that were hidden, even innocent things, could lead to distrust. He refused to let any of Cain’s machinations come between them.

“I gave back the necklace,” Erik said, “with the proper apology.” Mockery was strong in the pleasant timbre of his voice.

“And so it’s over,” Charles sighed.

“Is it, Charles?”

“If Cain has his apology…” Charles paused, biting his lip.

“But Marko wasn't satisfied with my apology. It seems that your stepbrother had other plans in mind. Objectives that you, apparently, had forgotten to tell me about.”

Charles, surprised by the accusation and not understanding what Erik meant, finally turned. Erik was looking at him so strangely.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said honestly.

“Your stepbrother wants to kill me, Charles,” Erik said. “Something you failed to mention, perhaps?”

The quiet suggestion about Cain’s motivation was a realization of all of Charles’ fears and suspicions.

Erik waited for the shock to appear in those turquoise eyes, for the stunned denial that Marko could even contemplate such an action. But instead an emotion was moving behind those dark, dilated pupils that was not disbelief. And not surprise.

Cold anger coiled in the pit of his stomach. G-d, Charles, tell me you didn’t send me there to die, he prayed.

“I didn’t know,” Charles said softly, but to a man who made his living reading the emotions of others, the lie was as evident as if Charles had just confessed his complicity in whatever Marko had intended today.

Erik released the breath he’d not been aware was frozen in his lungs, and forced himself to breathe. Forced himself to accept what he’d seen in Charles’ face. Forced his brain to form the next question, and his mouth to utter it.

“Did you know Marko intended to compel me to meet him? To issue a challenge in front of all those blueblooded Gentiles who call themselves his friends?”

Watching the slow, negative movement of Charles’ head gave him no peace of mind.

“No,” Charles whispered, unflinching under Erik’s intense scrutiny.

“How good a shot is Cain, Charles? Good enough to accomplish what he wants?”

Charles waited a long heartbeat before replying. “Yes,” he whispered finally.

“Yes,” Erik echoed. “I suspected as much.”

“When…” Charles paused and swallowed. He drew a rasping intake of breath, and closed his eyes. “When do you meet him?”

“Never,” Erik said, and saw the shock he’d hoped for, waited for, appear only now as Charles’ eyes flew open.

“What?”

“I refused the challenge, Charles.”

“But how can you refuse?” Charles said quickly. “If he challenged you, then…”

“He made his ridiculous challenge, to which I said ‘No thank you,’ and then I bid them all a good evening. It was as simple as that.”

“But why would you refuse?” Charles asked.

The one-sided smile lifted in mockery of Charles’ question. He’d forgotten that Charles was a product of the same world that had produced those gentlemen who’d looked at Erik with such stunned belief at the club. The idea that a gentleman had the option to refuse a duel was totally foreign to his upbringing. To forever be branded a coward was, in their eyes, a fate worse than death.

“Because I don’t intend to stand in some empty field and let Cain Marko shoot at me, Charles,” Erik explained coldly, “despite what you might want.”

“What I want?” Charles repeated, bewildered. And then, realizing exactly what Erik was saying, repeated it louder, furious. “What I want? God, Erik, you can’t think that I—”

Charles stopped in the rush of accusations, touching his throat. Feeling the silk neckcloth that had only moments before seemed so important, Charles ripped at the cravat and finally tore it off his neck in frustration. He threw it as hard as he could, but the fine cloth only drifted to his feet, its lightness making the gesture ridiculous. A child’s tantrum.

Charles put the heels of both hands against his temples, pressing hard, his eyes closed. Slowly his fingers curled into fists. He breathed once deeply, then again, seeking control.

Erik watched, wondering if Charles was this fine an actor. But of course he is, Erik mocked himself. All the hesitant shyness, the delicate shuddering reaction to Erik’s hands and mouth, the soft moaning pleasure as he’d sucked Charles…all of it was an act. All of it carefully orchestrated to make him believe exactly what he’d began to believe. That Charles cared for him.

“You think that, because I asked you to go today, I knew what Cain wanted?” Charles was saying. Erik frowned.

“You tell me, Charles. What did you want when you sent me to the Hellfire Club? If it wasn’t to answer Marko’s challenge, then why?”

“I intended to get Cain out of our lives,” Charles said, truly furious now. “I thought—”

“Was this the plan from the beginning?” Erik interrupted harshly, not wanting to hear Charles fabricate more lies. After all, he’d read the answer in Charles’ first response. Charles had known very well what Cain had planned.

“If Marko shoots me on the field of honour,” he said mockingly, “you would have accomplished it all. Cain’s debt cancelled by my death, and his reputation restored by my confession today. And with my death you’d regain your freedom.”

“Stop it,” Charles said fiercely. “Stop. You know that’s not the truth! You have to know it, Erik,” he said, and the intensity of Charles’ desperation held him a moment.

“I know your bastard of a brother wants to kill me,” Erik said softly, dangerously. “And I know that you knew it, too. Beyond that, Charles, I’m not really sure what I know.”

“I didn’t know about the duel,” Charles denied hotly. “He asked me to get you to apologize. He wanted his name cleared. I didn’t know about anything else.”

“Then why, my dear Charles,” he said, the endearment made a bitter mockery, “were you not surprised when I told you? Why wasn’t it a shock to you that Cain intends me harm?”

“I didn’t…”

“Damn you to hell, Charles, don’t lie to me again. I saw it in your eyes. You know that Marko wants me dead.”

“I knew Cain hated you,” Charles admitted. “And Banner—”

“Banner?” Erik repeated, the name catching him off guard. Finally Charles had surprised him.

“I knew Cain had gotten Bruce to hurt you,” he said, his anger lost as he remembered the blood, and clinging to Erik’s hand as Azazel had set that endless row of stitches.

Erik straightened away from the door and took the three steps that separated them, the forgotten silk neckcloth crushed beneath his gleaming Hessians.

“You think…” he paused, trying to make sense of what Charles had suggested. He remembered the scene downstairs. Banner had been blind drunk. He’d stake his life on the reality of that fact. Erik was too accustomed to judging the inebriation of his patrons to have been fooled. Banner had fallen like a tree with just one blow.

“He was drunk, Charles. Drunk. That’s all. And Marko wasn’t there.”

“You don’t understand,” Charles insisted, face flushed red with frustration. “You don’t know Cain.”

“Explain it to me,” Erik said. Against his will, he wanted to believe whatever elucidation Charles might offer.

“He told me to make you apologize.”

“To make me?” Erik interrupted, mocking. “And how were you to accomplish that?”

“By…by denying you,” Charles said, stumbling over the explanation, a renewed rush of colour staining his face. “Until you did what he wanted.”

Charles lifted his eyes to Erik. He noticed for the first time the cut beside Erik’s mouth, but he fought the urge to touch the bruised and broken skin. He caressed that hurt only with his eyes, and then flicked his gaze back to meet Erik’s.

“But I didn’t. I was afraid to ask you. But then Banner stabbed you, and I knew it was Cain’s message. That I had to do what he wanted.”

“What’s his hold over you, Charles?” Erik demanded. “How the hell can he still pull your strings, and you still jump to do his bidding? How can he get to you while you’re living under my protection?” Anger threaded through his voice, his accent thickening with emotion.

“I told you,” Charles said, not knowing what else Erik wanted from him. He’d told him the truth, and he seemed even angrier than before.

“Tell me again, damn it,” Erik said. “I don’t understand. What does Cain do to make you obey?”

And, seeing only one way out, Charles told him. “He hurts things.”

“He…hurts things?” Erik echoed, his bewilderment clear. “What kind of things?”

The silenced lengthened until Charles finally found the courage to speak. “Things I care about,” he said, carefully evading any mention of Raven. “Things I love.”

“Things,” Erik repeated, still without the least comprehension of what Charles was talking about. “Things like what, Charles? I don’t understand.”

“Like you,” Charles said, his thready whisper even lower than before.

“Like me,” Erik repeated, the idea of what Charles had just suggested holding him motionless.

“Banner was a warning. If I didn’t do what he wanted, he’d hurt you even more. I hoped that if you went today, if you did what he’d asked, he would leave us alone. But there must be something else Cain wants,” Charles said, thinking out loud. “I should have known, but I’d hoped…”

His faltering explanation faded because he knew nothing more than what he’d told Erik. Only a long familiarity with the way Cain’s mind worked, and a brutal familiarity with the Markos, drove him on.

Charles raised his head and met Erik’s gaze, and he didn’t understand what was in Erik’s face. He hadn’t made any response to what Charles had said. He was so still. And Charles knew with sudden despair that Erik didn’t believe him. The Markos were going to win again and he, as always, would lose. Not again, damn it, Charles thought, finding a shred of the courage they’d stolen from him. Not me, and not Raven, and not Erik. No more losing.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Erik asked.

“I thought you’d be angry. That you’d threaten Cain, and then…” Her fear of what revenge his stepbrother might devise stopped that whisper.

Suddenly Erik was fighting to control his amusement. He looked down briefly, wondering how he could convince Charles that he could take care of any threat the Viscount Marko posed to either of them. Charles was afraid of his stepbrother. Damn it, he should have known. But he’d seemed so brave, his Charles, that Erik had never thought that simple fear would be enough.

“But it’s not for yourself that you’re afraid,” Erik pointed out. Something odd, some flicker of guilt, crossed Charles’ face, but it was too fleeting for Erik to analyze. But he held Erik’s gaze.

“No,” Charles whispered. “Not for myself.”

“I wish you’d told me, Charles,” Erik said. “I wish you’d trusted me to—”

“It’s not that,” Charles interrupted, and Erik waited a long time for him to say the rest. “But…but I couldn’t bear it if anything else happened to you. Especially if it happened because of Cain. Because of me.”

“I’m sorry,” Erik said. So little to offer against the enormity of his error.

“I should have told you,” Charles said quickly. “I knew it was wrong, but…but you don’t understand.”

“It doesn’t matter, Charles,” Erik said. “Nothing matters but what’s between us. Forget Marko. It’s over. I promise you. You don’t ever have to be afraid of him again. But Charles—” he caught Charles’ chin and forced his eyes to meet his own, “—no more lies. No more omissions. You have to trust that I can take care of you. And I will,” he swore. “Let me worry about Cain from now on.”

In the face of Erik’s demand Charles was left no choice but to nod. Erik held his gaze a moment longer, aware of the doubt that still clouded those beautiful turquoise eyes. But since that doubt was, as Charles had admitted, out of concern for Erik’s safety, he lowered his lips to meet Charles’. His mouth trembled beneath Erik’s touch and it opened, again sweetly welcoming. The kiss was brief, a promise, not a fulfillment.

Erik raised his head and looked at Charles. “I’ll buy you another necktie.”

Charles shook his head, trying to find an answering smile. He questioned again his decision not to tell Erik about Raven, but decided once more that he couldn’t allow Erik to get tangled up in concerns about his sister. That was Charles’ lookout, and he alone knew how ruthless the Markos could be. He wouldn’t risk Erik’s safety.

Not for anything. Not even for Raven.

****

Charles was still deeply asleep by the time Erik slowly climbed the stairs that night. He’d intended to wait up for Erik but the bed had stretched invitingly, and Charles had slept so little the night before, worrying about Cain’s machinations. He’d intended only to rest, to close his eyes for a few minutes, sure that he would hear Erik and wake up. Or if he didn’t, perhaps Erik would touch him into wakefulness.

Charles had helped Erik change after he’d refused Charles’ request not to go downstairs tonight. Again, Erik had known that he had to make an appearance, particularly after the encounter with Cain at the Hellfire Club. The rooms below would be too crowded with the curious to allow only the supervision of his staff, as competent as they were. Erik was the one they would be coming to see. The cowardly Jew.

Erik had fought a duel shortly after he’d opened The Coin. He’d been accused of cheating, and fighting in the duel had been a professional necessity. A business imperative. But he considered the practice a ridiculous charade that proved nothing of guilt or innocence. So he had refused a meeting that was only an empty ritual of the idiotic codes that governed a society he despised.

And then the Duke of York had made his unbelievable pledge. Erik had known that the Duke’s offer would make him seem even more interesting to the ton. And so he had endured the considering glances, bolder and more insulting tonight because he’d refused Marko’s challenge.

The night had been as abhorrent as he’d anticipated. As he stood in the darkened bedroom, Erik rotated his left shoulder and turned his neck from side to side, trying ease the deep ache that had settled there. It was not only the old burns and the new injury but also tension, a reaction to the hostility that had emanated from the throng in The Coin below. The crowd there hated him, and after Marko’s challenge, they’d felt freer to express their animosity.

He slowly began to remove his formal evening attire, pain and stiffness prolonging the process. Finally Erik was nude except for the broad swathe of bandaging around his ribs, his scattered clothing the only sign of disarray in the silent room. All of Charles’ new clothing had been put away.

Erik moved to stand beside the bed, looking down on Charles’ sleeping form. He didn’t know whether to be glad or sorry that Charles was already asleep. Erik was so tired, so bone-weary, and every one of his injuries, old and new, hurt in an increasingly demanding chorus. It was probably just as well Charles was sleeping so soundly, he thought, but against his will his body reacted to the sight of Charles, one rounded, muscular shoulder exposed by the pull of his nightshirt’s neckline.

The corner of Erik’s mouth lifted at the contrast of Charles’ enormous, rumpled nightshirt and the unintended sensuality of the exposed skin.

And then Erik’s throat filled and tightened as he thought about what Charles had said that morning.

Things I love, he’d whispered. Like you.

Erik had made no corresponding confession, but he knew that it was true. And he knew how vulnerable his feelings for Charles made him. It was a vulnerability he’d never wanted, but not one he could, in any honesty, continue to deny.

He cared for Charles. And his feelings went far beyond the insatiable desire that Erik had felt from the beginning, in that fire-lit room at the inn.

Charles stirred in his sleep and Erik’s mind drew back to the present, back to this darkened room, where he had the right to touch Charles, to claim him, to satisfy the aching demand of his body and bring Charles pleasure.

Erik brushed at a thick lock of hair that fell against Charles’ forehead. Charles mumbled something and Erik waited, hoping Charles would wake. But he relaxed again into sleep, his mouth parted on a sighing breath. Erik wondered if Charles was dreaming of Erik’s lips moving over that pale, freckled, perfect body of his, suckling against Charles’ rose-tipped nipples, or trailing lower, down to his thick, vein-lined cock.

He bent and pressed his lips gently against Charles’ forehead. Charles curled towards him unconsciously, just as he’d always turned towards Erik.

Erik closed his eyes against the sudden, unfamiliar prick of tears. And then he stood erect, away from the heat and warmth of Charles’s body, wishing he could as easily move away from Charles’ hold on his heart.

He had always known that this relationship would hurt Charles. It was, given who and what Erik was, inevitable. Now he knew that the danger was just as great, perhaps even greater, to his own wounded heart. And he hated the idea of exposing himself to the kind of agony today’s doubts had inflicted.

Worse than that, he’d questioned his purpose, the one driving force in his life: his need for revenge. If he was too distracted by his love for Charles to seek vengeance, what further purpose did he have? All of it, from The Coin to his daily expeditions into the darkest corners of London, to the years of training, to the endless letters he’d written, all of it would be in vain.

Charles is worth it, whispered his traitorous heart.

With firm resolve, Erik silenced that voice. He would not give up on his life’s mission, not even for Charles. Perhaps, afterward…

There is no after, that voice reminded him. Not once you destroy Schmidt.

With that sobering thought, Erik turned bleakly back to Charles. There was no future for them. He’d always known that. Only now, with Charles so close…it felt like there might be some hope, some wild chance that he could claim his revenge and somehow manage to keep Charles as well.

Just a dream, perhaps, but he’d lived long enough on blood-soaked dreams of revenge. For now he’d seek a better future.

And so Erik reached out to touch the sleep-warm smoothness of Charles’ shoulder, then lower. He flipped back the counterpane, exposing Charles’ slim, muscled legs and his rucked-up nightshirt. Charles reacted a little to the sudden rush of cool air but quickly fell back to sleep. In the midst of doing so he turned so that he was no longer on his side, but on his back.

Erik began stroking the hairy roughness of Charles’ thigh. The texture was so different from the smooth skin of his shoulder that Erik lost himself in sensual exploration, watching in wonder as Charles twisted again and bent his knee in an unconscious invitation to explore the rest of his thigh. And higher.

When Erik put a soft, hesitant hand on Charles’ cock, he found to his surprised pleasure that Charles was already growing hard. He wrapped his hand around Charles. Instantly Charles stilled, and then thrust forward into Erik’s hand, his body seeking pleasure even before his mind was aware of what was happening.

Erik felt the ripple of Charles’ reaction even before he saw Charles open his eyes and fight to focus.

Charles had thought it was a dream. He’d been remembering their lovemaking from a few days before, when Erik had taken him in hand and, later, into his mouth. It had been the most exciting moment of Charles’ life, watching the reserved Mr. Lehnsherr take the length of Charles’ cock down his throat.

But this…when Charles had opened his eyes, Erik was watching him, his face as still and composed as it had been last night. All of what he was feeling effectively hidden.

Charles thought he ought to move, ought to turn away from the incredibly intimate way Erik was touching him. But Charles didn’t want to. He wanted what Erik was doing. And so he lay, languidly acquiescent, and allowed Erik to stroke him. He watched with hooded eyes as Erik, realizing that Charles had tacitly given him permission to continue, lowered himself to sit beside Charles on the bed. But he never interrupted the agonizingly sweet movement of his stroking hand on Charles’ cock.

Charles heard Erik’s hissing release of breath when the pain occasioned by sitting down had eased.

“Relax,” Erik said before Charles could rush to speak. “Relax,” he said again, smiling at Charles. Charles didn’t return the smile but his body shifted in response to the sensations gliding up from Erik’s grip on his cock. It all felt so good, as if Erik had read some manual on exactly how to pleasure Charles. Like flickers of lightning, jolts of pleasure were zinging their way up his body, and Charles could only lie back and let them come.

He closed his eyes against the sensations. In doing so his legs drifted further apart, inviting what Erik was doing, allowing him greater access.

Erik wanted to bend and put his lips over Charles’, to feel the deep breaths that were beginning to move in and out in involuntary response, but his aching side and the reality of the stitches quashed that urge. He continued the slow, relentless strokes until Charles opened his eyes and looked at Erik.

“Please, don’t stop,” Charles begged, and took a deep breath as Erik continued.

This time Erik held Charles’ eyes as he increased both the pressure and the tempo of what he was doing. He felt his own response build as Charles’ breathing quickened and his body arched up in unspoken demand. Finally Charles’ eyes closed and he thrust blindly into Erik’s hand, driven by instinct to find the right rhythm. All his inhibitions were lost and forgotten at the moment of his climax, as Charles shot into Erik’s hand.

His breathing was as rapid as if Charles had won a horse race back at Eton. When he was again capable of thought, he raised trembling fingers to touch Erik, to find the painfully engorged fullness below his waist that had been ignored while he was pleasuring Charles.

Charles’ touch was soft and far too tentative to do anything more than add to the slow and exquisite torture Erik had already endured from watching Charles’ response.

“Do you want me to…” Charles began hesitantly, not knowing the words to finish the invitation.

“More than you can imagine,” Erik said, smiling. “But I don’t…” He found himself reluctant to admit the level of the pain and exhaustion he was dealing with. “I think we’d better wait for that. Another night. When I’m not so…” Again he hesitated, giving no explanation, and finished. “Go to sleep, Charles. We have lots of nights.”

He felt Erik carefully stretch out beside him and heard his soft sigh when his body was at last allowed to rest. Charles knew there was a way to grant Erik release without causing him any pain or effort. The problem was, how to do so without putting any strain on that row of stitches?

Even in this he’d have to depend on Erik’s remarkable self-restraint. Charles drew his nightshirt off and over his head, casting it out into the darkness where it landed somewhere to lie crumpled on the floor. Next he turned to Erik and, without another word, reached for the other man’s cock.

Erik was rigid and hard beneath the caress of his fingers, steel covered by soft, hot velvet. He turned his head to watch Charles as Charles began to stroke him, holding, as Erik had before, Erik’s silvery gaze.

He noted the steady change in Erik’s breathing, the way his nostrils flared and his eye drifted shut at a particularly good stroke. He moaned when Charles tightened his grip and quickened the pace, and he thrust up into Charles’ hand, eye opening to connect their gazes as Charles made Erik moan and writhe under his touch.

When the explosion came it was so unexpected that Charles might have pulled away, save for the way Erik’s hard fingers encircled his to tighten his grip around his cock. Erik’s head twisted on the white pillow, the brutal scars and black patch turned first toward Charles, and then as he twisted away Charles saw only the perfect, beautiful, undamaged side of his face. Erik contorted, as if in pain. Charles wondered if he’d been wrong to try this. He’s probably going to tear the stitches, Charles thought, but he lost that realization quickly in his fascination with what was happening.

Eventually Erik stilled, his eruption over, and he pulled Charles over to lie against the dampness of his chest. Charles felt the softening of Erik’s cock in his hand while Erik’s moved slowly along Charles’ bare spine and down over his smooth buttocks.

“That was so fast,” Charles said, still surprised by the contrast.

He felt the laughter move through Erik’s chest and stomach, a low rumble of amusement.

“Oh, damn,” Erik said, in response to what his sudden ironic amusement had cost in the aching gash in his side. He could feel a seeping wetness that was not the evidence of his own release. The cut hurt like hell. He suspected he’d torn at least a few of the stitches, but he found that he didn’t really care.

“I’m only glad that you weren’t waiting for me to satisfy you, given the lack of control I just demonstrated,” he said, smiling and turning to drop a kiss on Charles’ temple. “You would still be suffering, liebling.”

“I’ve never…” Charles began and then paused, hating to remind Erik, to remind them both, that Erik had not been the first man to touch him. But it was so different with Erik. So different from all Charles had endured, all that he had known before Erik.

“I know,” Erik said, his lips finding Charles’ temple and nuzzling the sweat-dampened hair there. “But you will. Soon I’ll show you other things that will drive you wild.”

“It will be better? Truly?” Charles asked, caressing the small, hard bud of Erik’s nipple. Doubt was clear in his voice.

The crooked smile lifted again in the darkness above Charles’ head. “A hundredfold,” Erik promised, and Charles shivered in response.

“That’s impossible,” he said, and Erik felt the negative movement of his head. “I don’t believe you.”

“I’d never lie to you, Charles.” Erik asked, his tone still teasing. “I promise, a hundredfold better.”

“Because I think I’d die. Even now, just with what we’ve done, I think I’d die.”

Erik’s grin in the darkness was wide and wolfish. “Oh, I think you’ll survive,” he predicted.

****

Chapter Text

“Good morning,” said Charles, from somewhere above him.

Erik opened his eye to find Charles beaming down at him. He was already dressed in a bail blue coat that somehow, along with his striped yellow waistcoat, highlighted the extraordinary blue of his eyes.

Erik almost flinched from the strong afternoon sun and knew it must already be late in the day. Charles had probably been up for hours. Erik closed his eye.

“What time is it?” Erik asked, reaching out to find Charles’ hand

“Time you were awake,” Charles said cheekily. “Azazel will be up soon to rebandage that.”

Erik reopened his eye and carefully raised his head enough to look at the bloodstained bandaging over his ribs. No wonder he ached this morning.

“Sit up,” Charles said, reaching over to prop a pillow up behind Erik’s back. “I brought you breakfast.”

Obediently Erik raised his body enough to allow Charles to place the pillow behind him. As Charles leaned over, Erik nipped at his ear, and he felt Charles’ start of surprise.

“Stop it,” he hissed, backing away in embarrassment. But Erik knew he wasn’t angry. Erik caught Charles’ hand again and pulled him down to sit on the bed.

“Kiss me,” Erik said, tugging Charles closer. Charles, mindful of the stained bandage, gave Erik a quick peck on the lips. But Erik grabbed Charles around the waist and pulled him closer. He couldn’t quite prevent the soft grunt of pain that escaped him when Charles fell against his side, but then Charles settled his mouth firmly over Erik’s, and all thoughts of pain fled. Erik kissed Charles very thoroughly, and only released him when he realized Charles’ struggle wasn’t feigned.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, hating his sudden doubt. Maybe Charles only liked Erik to touch him in the dark, where he couldn’t see…

“Your beard,” Charles said, rubbing the back of his hand against Erik’s chin. “You need to shave.” He saw where the rub of his stubble had reddened Charles’ own freshly-shaven cheek.

“Well,” Erik suggested, not allowing himself to think again about the possibility of Charles’ revulsion, “there’s no beard here.” He leaned towards Charles, and rubbed his scarred profile against Charles’ cheek. Catching Erik off guard, Charles turned his head and nuzzled the scar tissue gently with his lips, and then sat back.

“How do you shave that?” Charles asked, nothing but curiosity in his voice.

“Very carefully?” Erik suggested, and was relieved to hear Charles laugh. “Luckily I don’t have to,” he said. “There really aren’t any whiskers there. I suppose…” he stopped.

Charles knew that Erik wasn’t going to tell him anything else. But it had been a beginning. A relaxation.

“Go away,” Erik commanded. “I have to get up, and…” He paused again, for some reason not wanting to confess that he needed to relieve himself. But he saw by Charles’ sudden quick amusement that Charles knew exactly why Erik wanted him out of the bedroom.

“And you’re too shy to do that in front of me.”

“Get Azazel,” Erik said gruffly, carefully leveraging himself into a sitting position. “I need to get dressed, and if he’s going to rebandage this…” His eye fell on the tray Charles had placed on the small table at the foot of the four-poster. The slightly fishy aroma of whatever was on the plate beside the pile of eggs and toast suddenly made him queasy.

“And you can take whatever the hell that is back to the kitchen. Tell Summers I said to send up something edible.”

He put his hands on the bed and pushed up, his eye falling closed at the effort, and so he didn’t see what was in Charles’ face. By the time Erik was upright and in control again, Charles had picked up the laden tray and was moving through the open door. He never even thought about the force with which it closed behind him.

Erik had pulled on last night’s formal trousers and was standing by the window when Azazel brought a tray with Erik’s usual breakfast chocolate and roll into the room. He could smell the familiar yeasty aroma through the clean cloth it was wrapped in.

“You want bandage first? Or food?” Azazel asked him in Russian.

“Do whatever you’re going to do with this and get it over with,” Erik ordered, moving to sit on the unmade bed. Azazel made no comment about the blood or the broken stitch, and set down his tray. A small pot of the salve Azazel made to heal all the casino employees’ small cuts and gashes rested on the tray. He opened the jar without comment.

Erik watched Azazel’s face carefully. They’d known each other a long time. The vertical scar that ran in a jagged line down Azazel’s face was as familiar to Erik as his own marred countenance. He could tell that the Russian didn’t approve of something.

Despite the fact that they’d saved each others’ lives on more than one occasion, he and Azazel rarely talked about anything personal. And the few times they had, they’d only shared a few sparse facts about their lives. But Erik had never detected any hint of disapproval from Azazel before. He’d acknowledged Erik’s sexual preferences only once, when he’d discretely pointed out a club in Smolensk that catered to men of Erik’s bent. At the time Erik had thought it was tacit acceptance, but now he wondered if, when faced with the reality of Erik’s romantic inclinations, Azazel was unwilling to accept either Erik’s employment, or his friendship.

“Something on your mind?” Erik asked in Russian. Azazel shrugged. He rubbed the salve into the gash along Erik’s side, and then began the process of rebinding the wound with long strips of clean linen.

“He tries hard, your Englishman,” Azazel said, entirely focused on his task. His pale blue eyes never lifted to meet Erik’s. “You should be more kind.”

“I…pardon?” he said, unsure if he was more surprised by Azazel’s unprecedented interest in his personal life, or the advice he offered. “What the hell do you mean?”

“The food,” Azazel explained, sticking stubbornly to Russian. “He worked hard with Alex to make you a ‘hearty English breakfast.’ But you sent it away.”

“Charles made that?” he said, dumbfounded. “But…what was it?”

“Kippers,” Azazel pronounced carefully. “Something English. Something dead.”

Erik pulled away just as Azazel finished tucking in the end of the bandage. “Where is he?”

“In kitchen,” Azazel said, switching finally to English. “Not angry.”

“Not angry?”

“Not angry maybe?” Azazel tried.

The soft profanities Erik uttered then were not in Azazel’s vocabulary, English or Russian, and it was probably just as well. They were certainly nothing he would have the occasion to use in polite conversation.

The bed was suddenly empty and Azazel’s boss had disappeared down the stairs barefoot and, more surprisingly, bare-chested as well. Azazel gave another shrug, Slavic practicality beating out whatever small curiosity he held regarding Erik’s romantic affairs. He sat down on the bed to eat Erik’s breakfast roll and drink his morning chocolate.

After all, there was no reason to let all the morning’s food go to waste.

****

Erik found Charles in the bare little plot of dirt that served as the back garden. The elegant townhouse faced a bustling city street, but the back lot was only a scrap of muddy earth and home to the house’s privy.

Charles was staring out at the ramshackle fence that divided the townhouse’s lot from the neighbours’. It was a bleak view, aside from the sunshine and bright blue autumn sky above, and Erik wondered what Charles was thinking.

Likely how much he wants to escape, came the unbidden whisper of doubt. Erik pushed that aside to slip his arm around Charles’ waist and pull him against Erik’s uninjured side. He was immensely relieved when Charles leaned into his embrace. Erik touched his lips to Charles’ hair, and the fragrance of it moved him back to last night.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know you’d prepared breakfast. I can never manage much when I first wake up. A roll, sometimes, but…”

Charles turned to face him, and Erik realized Azazel had been right. Charles was no longer angry, but the telltale flush still coloured his face, making the freckles scattered across on his nose and cheeks stand out in the bright morning sunshine.

“It doesn’t matter,” Charles muttered. “I don’t suppose you brought me here to cook for you, either.”

Erik looked down, at a loss. He no longer knew why he’d agreed to Charles’ bargain. He couldn’t remember when he’d only wanted Charles’ body. Now he wanted so much more.

“I didn’t accept your offer for any of the right reasons,” he said finally, because it was true. He laced their fingers together, Charles’ short, blunt fingers captured by Erik’s long, lean digits. “But…” He hesitated again, and Charles didn’t rush him or question him.

Another thing he liked.

“But I appreciate the effort,” Erik said. “Very much.”

Charles nodded and leaned against him. Erik held him a moment and then bent his head to kiss Charles.

“Blimey,” he heard someone say.

Erik turned and found Sean the bootblack watching them, his wide eyes rising in shock at Erik’s sudden movement.

“Haven’t you ever seen anyone kiss before, Sean?” Charles asked. Erik felt a sudden unbearable lightness flood his chest at Charles’ resolve. He wasn’t going to flinch away in shame, or pretend that they hadn’t been doing what they’d just been doing.

“’Course I have,” Sean said. “I wasn’t watching you kiss ’im.”

“Then what the hell are you looking at?” Charles said, and Erik fought the urge to laugh at Charles’ unaccustomed use of profanity, his ruffled outrage.

“Them,” Sean said, pointing.

It was only with his servant’s remark that Erik realized he wasn’t wearing a shirt. The burn scars and the extensive damage to his shoulder, which he had always carefully hidden, were now on full display to the entire household staff. Only Sean had been foolhardy enough to comment. But they all stood looking at him, the motley crew of young criminals, cast-offs and refugees he’d recruited. Kitty and Angel, Alex and Sean. Even Azazel was there, his dark eyes sliding away when Erik looked at him.

“Get back to work,” Erik growled. Everyone scattered to find make-believe tasks around the townhouse.

“What a shame,” Charles said quietly, laughter lurking under his words. “Now you’ve gone and frightened everyone to death, and it’s so hard to find good staff these days.”

Erik turned to find Charles with one hand pressed carefully over his lips, but he could see the amusement quirking the corners of his mouth.

“If you had seen your face,” Charles said, chuckling.

Presented with Charles’ pleasant acceptance, which held no trace of discomfort over Sean’s comment about his scars, Erik found the will to smile, too.

“Come back upstairs,” Erik invited.

“Why?” Charles asked, daring him.

“Because my feet are cold,” Erik responded. “Maybe that’s why I brought you here.”

He turned and almost stomped through the kitchen. Every member of his household staff was busily engaged in some demanding activity. He could hear Charles’ occasional snort of amusement as he followed Erik up the stairs.

And after a while, nothing was cold anymore. Not even his feet.

****

“No,” Charles protested, again.

“Hush,” Erik whispered, moving his tongue with deliberate slowness over Charles’ overheated flesh.

“Erik, please,” Charles begged him. Erik caught the hand that attempted to push him away.

“Shh, Charles, you’ve forgotten your promise,” Erik murmured, brushing his fingertips against Charles’ muscled thighs. “I did what you asked, in front of all those arrogant fops.” He blocked the memory of his apology to Cain Marko, of anything but Charles and the pleasure Erik wanted to give him.

“No,” Charles repeated, but it was only a token refusal. He’d already started to relax, to surrender to the proximity of Erik’s mouth, breath ghosting over his hard cock. It was gratifying to see Charles so aroused, and more so because Erik hadn’t even touched him yet. Just the steady brush of fingertips against Charles’ thighs, and the circulation of air over his cock.

So sensitive, Erik thought. So responsive. Charles really was a delightful surprise.

“Don’t you know it’s bad form to refuse a man who’s on his knees before you?” Erik said mockingly. “Never give him such an abrupt denial. Didn’t they teach you anything at Eton, Charles?”

He licked out at the head of Charles’ cock, making the other man jump and unconsciously thrust his hips in an attempt to get closer to that warm, wet mouth.

“‘You must ask my father’,” Erik mimicked, “or, ‘This is so sudden.’ Or ‘You do me too great an honour, sir. I’m quite bereft of words.” He mocked the conventional phrases every debutante was taught.

Erik then bent his head to his task, swallowing Charles down to the root. Charles gasped, the world narrowing to Erik’s mouth and Erik’s tongue, and the precise way in which Erik was beginning to undo him. The hot, sweet warmth of Erik’s mouth was both demanding and satisfying at once, and Charles covered his mouth with his wrist to fight back a groan as Erik drew back, and off.

“Are you bereft of words, Charles?” Erik whispered.

“Don’t talk,” Charles begged. “Please, don’t talk.”

“As you wish,” Erik said, breath hot against Charles’ stiff flesh. He sat back and helped Charles ease up on the bed until Charles lay, feet propped up on the bed, legs bent at the knee. His thighs fell open, exposing him more fully, and he shivered under Erik’s intense gaze.

“Turn over,” Erik said, and almost before he knew it, Charles’ body had started to obey. He wondered if Erik was going to give him another massage. He’d enjoyed that, and as much as he craved Erik’s mouth, he thought that feeling Erik’s hands on his skin would be just as good.

He turned, and moaned a little when his hard cock met the silky-soft linens of the bed. Caught by surprise at the sensation, Charles ground down into the mattress, seeking some kind of friction. The bed linens were a poor substitute for Erik’s mouth, but he needed…God, how he needed.

Erik seemed to take pity on him then. He felt the hot press of Erik’s hand against his hip, easing him up onto his knees. Charles went without question. Only a small fraction of his mind still seemed capable of rational thought. He trusted Erik implicitly, and he knew he had nothing to fear from the man who’d already shown him such loving attention. And so Charles hovered on all fours, wondering what Erik intended.

He was just starting to second-guess his decision when he felt the first shattering glide of Erik’s tongue.

Charles immediately backed away with a gasp, profoundly shocked and more aroused than he’d ever been in his life. Erik had licked him there, in the most intimate of places. He’d never imagined—

Erik put both of his large, warm hands on Charles’ hips and tugged him backwards, back into reach of his mouth and wicked tongue. He licked Charles there again, one long, slow, agonizing sweep of his tongue, and Charles shivered, panting.

“What—”

“Shhh,” Erik said, urging him to calm. “Remember your promise.”

Charles bit his lip. He was so achingly aroused and shocked by Erik’s behaviour. The cognitive dissonance was almost too much for his lust-addled brain. He shuddered again as Erik’s tongue began to explore him in earnest, brushing up against his arsehole with a delicate heat that made Charles feel like he was going to come out of his skin. And when Erik arrowed his tongue and penetrated him there, Charles could only gasp and shift helplessly against Erik’s hold, desperate again for some kind of friction. If only he could rub off against something. Anything. He needed to answer the silky touch of Erik’s tongue with something firmer. Rougher.

And then wonderful, beautiful, amazing Erik presented him with a solution, as though he’d known exactly what Charles needed. He reached around and wrapped one large palm around Charles’ cock. The calloused roughness of his hand, along with the slightly cold metal of the signet ring, was the perfect counterpoint to the soft invasion of his tongue. Charles rocked between the two, caught and held on the knife’s edge of pleasure.

“Erik,” he gasped, feeling his climax begin to build. He couldn’t help but come, suspended as he was between the almost punishing grip of Erik’s hand and the sweetness of his tongue, so hot where it pressed and licked against him.

Suddenly the warmth of Erik’s mouth vanished, and Charles thrust helplessly into his hand and then back, keening low in his throat and desperate again for that velvety touch.

But instead of his tongue, he felt the press of Erik’s thumb against his hole, rubbing lightly over the rim. He could hold out no longer; he came with a cry into Erik’s hand.

Charles collapsed into the soft give of the mattress, breath sawing in and out of his chest. He felt flushed and sweaty and far, far too hot. He almost jumped when Erik put his palm over the swell of Charles’ left buttock, kneading the muscle there. Charles couldn’t summon the energy to roll over. He could only manage a short moan of pleasure, and when Erik slid his finger between his cheeks, pressing against the hot, distended flesh, Charles shocked himself by opening his legs a little wider, allowing Erik free access.

When Erik had touched him before, he’d thought that there could be nothing more pleasurable. But he’d been wrong.

And this was a pleasure, basking in the warm afterglow of an intense orgasm and allowing Erik to simply stroke into him. He was enjoying the back-and-forth glide of Erik’s fingers, their way eased by his saliva. Little strokes of warmth worked their way up his spine each time Erik grazed his hole.

Wanton, Charles thought. This was what they meant by that word. This was what it felt to be wanton. Uncaring of the fact that he was half-dressed and had just allowed a man to… And would allow him again, Charles thought with a smile that he hid in his pillow. Allow. As if he could deny Erik anything.

He chuckled at the irony, and Erik finally withdrew his fingers to ease down beside Charles on the bed.

Charles turned his head to look at him. Erik was lying on his right side, his head propped up casually on his palm. The strong, square line of his jaw was a sharp outline against the sensual curve of his mouth and the warmth of his gaze. He was so beautiful, Charles thought, aware that Erik would never, by anyone else’s definition, be considered so. But to Charles he was. Far more beautiful than any fantasy Charles had ever entertained, because Erik was warm and real and so very human.

Lifting his fingers to touch Erik’s cheek, Charles found that his hand was heavy. He felt so relaxed and drained that he almost lacked the strength to complete the gesture. But he managed, gently touching Erik’s scars. He wondered how he’d ever thought they could diminish Erik’s attractiveness. And then he touched the velvet patch, surprised that Erik allowed such an invasion.

Erik was watching Charles’ face. Whatever he saw there made him resist the urge to move, to shy away from the gentle brush of Charles’ fingers.

“What happened to you?” Charles asked, too relaxed and satiated to guard his tongue.

Erik turned his head to kiss the caressing hand, but he didn’t answer. Charles waited, and finally, slowly, Erik began to speak.

“We were living in a small village near Kiev. Anya was still so small I could hold her with one hand, and Magda…Magda was beautiful. Bewitching. I thought she was the answer to all of life’s mysteries. She’d given me Anya. I’d never—

His voice caught, and he swallowed hard before continuing. “I’d never loved anything like I loved my daughter. We all lived together under some enchanted spell. That was…” Erik stumbled over the words, trying and failing to express what he’d felt. “That was the happiest year of my life. And then it was gone.”

Charles squeezed Erik’s hand, trying to lend him the strength to tell the rest of the story. Which inevitably, given the scars on Erik’s body, had a tragic ending.

“I was only seventeen. As young as you were when we first met,” he acknowledged to Charles. “And I was still so angry at the world. I’d left Prussia because…” he hesitated again, and Charles could see Erik’s mind working, editing details as he went. There were parts of this story he would not tell Charles. Or could not.

“You can’t imagine how much they hated the Jews. I thought…I thought it might be better, in another country, in the Pale of Settlement. I'd found work as a blacksmith and, because my work was good, I believed that was enough to overcome their hatred. But no one from the village would trade with me, because they would not trade with a Jew.” The bitterness in Erik’s voice was unlike anything Charles had ever heard before.

“So rather than let Anya and Magda starve, I traveled to distant places where no one knew what I was. Kiev, Moscow, any city large enough. And I did well, until winter came.”

Charles knew Erik was there again, a part of that winter, the memories so strong he was no longer even conscious of the present. Charles held his breath, determined not to break the spell. From the beginning, Erik had told him nothing.

“I was away for weeks, and then I found out that there had been a pogrom. Half the countryside was rioting against the Jews. We were being chased down, eradicated. I could think only of Magda and Anya.”

Erik swallowed. “I made it back to the village, to the little farm where we’d been so happy. The house was on fire.” He closed his eye, seemingly still lost in the long-extinguished flames.

“I could hear them inside. Magda and Anya. Anya was crying, and Magda was screaming for help. But the bastards who’d started the fire held me back. I fought them—I fought them with everything I had. But it wasn’t enough. By the time I broke away, the screams had gone silent. I rushed to the door anyway, and…”

A small muscle jumped beside his mouth. “The heat was unbelievable. I put my shoulder against the door, but it was on fire and I felt it give way… That’s the last thing I remember. When the door fell in and the fire just seemed to leap out—”

The halting story stopped, but Erik’s grip on Charles’ hand, the tension in his long fingers, communicated his feelings more than anything he might have added.

“You did everything you could,” Charles said thickly. He knew there was no comfort for Erik’s inability to save his wife and child. Only regret, and a burning hatred for the men who’d murdered them.

Erik raised his head and looked at Charles, finding forgiveness and acceptance in those wide turquoise eyes. He deliberately loosened his hold on Charles’ fingers, which he’d almost crushed, and lifted Charles’ hand to his mouth.

“I need you so much, Charles,” he whispered, moving his lips against Charles’ palm. It was as far as he could go in admitting the truth. It was far more than he’d ever thought he’d say to another living person, after the fire.

“I know,” Charles said. He lifted his other hand to wind his fingers through Erik’s hair. He was thinking of the intensity of the need Erik had revealed the other night, the physical desire he had for Charles’ body. He moved then, moved lower until he could try and satisfy that desire. To grant Erik the relief Charles thought he sought.

Because he wanted Charles, Erik didn’t question what he was doing. He didn’t explain that he had meant something far different from the physical ache Charles was beginning to ease. Something that went far beyond his body’s needs.

And later, when Charles rested against the sweat-sheened skin of Erik’s chest, Erik realized how lost he truly was.

****

Charles hardly slept that night. He held Erik close and listened to him breathe, trying to fathom what he had suffered. To have to listen to the screams as one’s wife and child burnt to death, and then to nearly perish while trying (and failing) to save them…how could Erik have survived it?

And Charles ached for Magda and Anya. To murder a woman and a young child like that… The men who’d done it had been monsters. Yet their actions were a reflection of the broader anti-Semitism held by most Europeans. The members of the aristocracy had always expressed hatred and contempt for the Jews, but Charles had never considered what it really meant, how precarious Erik’s position really was in a Gentile society.

To be in a semi-public relationship with another man, coupled with his identity as a Jew… No small wonder that Erik had carefully cultivated such a dangerous and deadly reputation for himself.

No one, save the servants of the house and Charles himself, had any idea of Erik’s true nature: kind, considerate, and loving. He’d saved all of the children—Alex, Sean, Kitty and Angel. Had given them employment in his own house. Saved them from that man Alex had mentioned.

Shaw.

Charles wondered again about the internal workings of Erik’s mind. There was far more to the story there. But after hearing Erik’s confession about the fire, Charles thought it best to leave off pestering Erik with troubling questions about his past.

At least, he’d leave off for the moment. Instead he planned to ask someone who might be able to actually shed some light on Erik’s history with this Shaw person.

The carriage ride to Monsieur LeBeau’s was becoming familiar to Charles. London would always feel foreign to him — he’d spent far too long on the Continent and then buried in the country to ever feel truly comfortable in the capital — but he enjoyed the reprieve from his sojourn in the rooms above the casino. Taking in the sights, sounds, and even the unfortunate smells of the bustling city was far preferable to marinating in the stew of worry and uncertainty at home.

He watched the scenery pass by outside, market stalls and freight wagons, well-dressed ladies and gentlemen strolling the streets while urchins scurried among them, barefoot and starving.

By the grace of Erik’s protection he lived a comfortable life. Fine clothes, rapidly improving meals, a space to call his own free from bullying and harassment. And best of all he had Erik, a man who seemed willing to devote himself to Charles’ pleasure and contentment.

But was it enough?

What if, after losing his wife in such a way, Erik had vowed never to love another? Could Charles live in the shadow of love’s absence? Would it be enough to partake of Erik’s company and the security he provided if Erik would never be capable of any deeper emotion?

The question haunted him all the way to Monsieur LeBeau’s.

****

Monsieur LeBeau received him with his usual élan, shaking Charles’ hand in a firm grip and stepping back to survey the product of his own labours.

Charles was certain he didn’t disappoint. The ‘poor relation’ was long banished, replaced by a smart, well-groomed young man clad in a wine-coloured coat of superfine, white cravat tied carefully in one of the complicated knots so favoured by the beau monde. Monsieur LeBeau nodded in approval and ushered Charles inside the shop.

“Bonjour, Monsieur Xavier,” he said smoothly. “What can Remy do for you today? Another evening coat, perhaps?”

“No, no,” Charles said quickly. Erik had already purchased him enough clothing. Too much, really. “I’m actually here about Erik.”

Monsieur LeBeau’s expression shifted from friendly helpfulness to suspicion. “Oui, is that so? What does Monsieur Lehnsherr desire?”

He should have guessed, from Monsieur LeBeau’s dangerous shift in tone, that he would get no answers. But Charles was determined.

“How long have you known him?” Charles began, hoping LeBeau would at least answer a few fact-based questions. “How did you meet?”

“We were soldiers in the Emperor’s army,” LeBeau answered shortly. “Many years ago.”

The revelation was shocking. Erik had fought for Napoleon? But why? Erik was Prussian by birth, and France had gone to war against Prussia. Charles knew Erik was no idealist. He was, if anything, bitterly pragmatic, and no revolutionary spirit would have called him to arms. Particularly after the injuries he’d sustained prior to that in the Pale of Settlement. So why had he fought for Napoleon?

“Erik was a French loyalist?”

Monsieur LeBeau licked his lips, visibly weighing the potential cost of sharing this piece of Erik’s history with Charles. Finally he shrugged.

“Monsieur Lehnsherr never talks politics with Remy,” Monsieur LeBeau said. “But the Emperor, he made some promises to Monsieur Lehnsherr’s people. Voting rights. Freedom to practice their religion. The right to enter any public building in París. For a man such as Monsieur Lehnsherr…that would have been a powerful motivation.”

Charles digested this fact silently. Napoleon had promised emancipation to the Jews of Europe if they fought in his army? It was just the sort of promise Old Boney would have made, if it meant swelling his ranks with devout loyalists. Charles had never before considered what full legal rights would have meant to Erik, or what he might have been willing to do to secure them.

Monsieur LeBeau interrupted his musings with a polite cough. “You should put your questions to Monsieur Lehnsherr,” LeBeau said. “He is a private man, non? He would not like me to tell you these things.”

Charles shook his head. He’d learned only a little of Erik’s history, and talking about it had seemed to cause Erik tremendous pain. Charles would spare him that, if he could.

And he might not tell you anyway, whispered that voice of doubt. After all, you’re nothing but a play-thing to him. A pleasant diversion.

“Who is Shaw?” Charles blurted out, desperate to ignore that awful internal voice. Just because Erik didn’t trust him with his deepest secret didn’t mean…

“Where did you hear that name?” LeBeau asked sharply. If his tone had been dangerous before, it was downright deadly now.

“I—that’s not important,” Charles said, determined not to betray Alex’s trust. “But who is he?”

LeBeau licked his lips. “A very, very bad man. And a very dangerous one. If you’re smart, Monsieur Xavier, you will forget you ever heard his name.”

“I know Erik hates him,” Charles said quickly, deliberately ignoring LeBeau’s warning. “And that he’s interfered with this Shaw’s business plans. But who is he?”

LeBeau sighed, rubbing at his high brow. “He is a man Erik would move heaven and earth to protect you from, Monsieur Xavier. He would kill Remy, or at least very seriously consider it, if Remy tells you anything. Suffice to say, he is a man who hurt our mutual friend very badly. And one does not want to become an enemy of Monsieur Lehnsherr.”

Charles blinked. LeBeau’s explanation raised more questions than it answered. But he would say nothing further on the subject. Despite another minute or two of Charles’ insistent questioning, LeBeau refused to answer.

Charles finally stepped out into the busy London street, defeated for the moment but determined to know more.

****

Chapter Text

“How would you like an occasion to wear one of your new evening jackets?” Erik asked later that evening.

Charles was lying on the bed, playing tug-of-war with Lucky and watching Erik deftly tie his elaborate cravat. Charles had been surprised to discover that Azazel didn’t act as Erik’s valet. He had been glad, too, assured of the intimate privacy of the chamber they now shared. No one but Lucky, Azazel or the boys bringing bathwater ever entered Erik’s room, and only at his express invitation.

“Another evening at Vauxhall?” Charles asked, remembering with pleasure the beginnings of their relationship.

“A dinner party.”

Charles waited, but no further explanation was forthcoming. He cuddled Lucky close and buried his nose in the puppy’s soft fur.

“Friends of mine,” Erik said casually, slipping on his elegant black coat. He didn’t look at Charles.

Charles hesitated, knowing that he didn’t really want to go. During the weeks he’d spent with Erik he’d all but forgotten the existence of wider society, the vast differences that loomed between Erik’s world and what had once been his own. And he truly had no idea whom Erik might classify as friends, and what kind of party they might arrange.

An errant memory of Bartolomeu’s parties in Paris ignited, but he snuffed out the thought before it could flame to life. He hated himself for the sudden doubt. Erik wasn’t Bartolomeu, as he’d proven time and again. He would never share Charles, never pimp him out to friends or business acquaintances.

But still, the fear lingered. Despite his curiosity about Erik’s mysterious friends, Charles remained silent.

“Then I take it the answer is no?” Erik said quietly, less a question than an affirmation. He was watching the emotions clearly revealed in Charles’ face, and did not allow anything he felt to reflect on his own face. So different from the expression he usually allowed only in this room.

“I don’t know,” Charles said, shaking his head, and then his eyes fell before the slightly mocking twist of Erik’s lips.

“It’s entirely your decision,” Erik said. “I thought you might want a change of pace. Your existence at the moment seems remarkably confined.”

Charles thought he might be teasing, but when he glanced up at Erik’s contained face, he knew Erik believed what he’d just said.

“It’s not” he insisted. “I have ventured out.”

“To the tailor’s,” Erik said quietly, dismissively.

“And to take Lucky out,” he argued, wondering if watching Lucky romp around the back lot counted as ‘going out.’ “And I’ve gone to the bookstore.” He’d also considered a journey to Brixton to visit Moira and determine why she hadn’t answered his letters, but he hadn’t wanted to spend a night away from Erik, and his small personal savings would only allow for a one-way coach journey.

“Anyway,” he said finally, “I don’t want anything to change.”

Erik’s answering smile was a relief. “Then I’ll tell them no,” he said, apparently indifferent, and turned to the door. He hated to leave Charles, hated what he knew he would face downstairs. The atmosphere in The Coin had become increasingly hostile, and Erik was struggling to pretend he was unaware of the comments that were, out of fear if not respect, still spoken just out of earshot.

Erik stopped suddenly and walked back to the bed.

“Come here,” he commanded softly.

Charles set the pup aside and scrambled to his knees, reaching out to fasten his arms around Erik’s neck. Erik lowered his head to kiss Charles, feeling the familiar ache of wanting begin. He held Charles for a moment after ending the kiss, Charles’ slender form fitting against his chest.

“Don’t wait up,” he said, and heard Charles laugh again.

“You say that every night,” he whispered, nuzzling at Erik’s chin.

“And every night you’re awake,” he said. “I worry about you.”

“You’re supposed to,” Charles replied, eyes alight with good humour. “That’s what it’s all about.”

And slowly Erik straightened away from Charles. That’s what it’s all about. The simplicity of it made him smile, but he didn’t deny the reality of what Charles had just said.

“Good night, Charles,” Erik said. “Don’t wait up,” he added automatically, and forced himself to leave the warm security of their bedroom.

****

“My name is Banner,” the aristocrat said as he joined the table at which Erik was dealing. Erik in no way indicated that he recognized the baronet from his previous visit, but he was well aware of who Lord Banner was. Aware also that Charles believed Banner had been Cain Marko’s representative in the attack that had resulted in the still-healing gash along his side.

“We’ve met,” Erik said, never faltering in the task of dealing.

“But we’ve never been properly introduced,” Banner persisted.

Allowing his amusement to show, Erik finally looked up from his cards to meet the Englishman’s hostile stare.

“You’re right,” he said softly. “It’s the small niceties that are so important. And now we’ve met.” He held Banner’s brown eyes a moment. They were much like Cain Marko’s, seething anger masked by only by the polite restraint imposed by society. He noted that a flush stained the Englishman’s cheeks.

“I’d like to see Charles,” the baronet said, his voice too loud, the words forced. He’d fortified himself for this mission. A little Dutch courage to beard the lion in his den. Erik wondered for a moment exactly how much Banner had had to drink.

“I’m afraid that Mr. Xavier is not receiving guests,” he said politely.

“I’m an old friend,” Banner insisted.

“Not of mine,” Erik said quietly, but as it had in the Hellfire Club, a pool of silence was spreading to surround him. It seemed that all the players at the nearby tables were aware of the confrontation.

“We were children together,” Banner said. “My father gave Charles his favourite gelding. I’m sure you don’t intend to prevent Charles from seeing his old friends.” The look in his angry brown eyes said exactly the opposite.

He probably envisioned himself in the role of the hero, Erik thought. Perhaps that’s how Cain Marko had managed to work Banner to a fever pitch. Or perhaps there was a simpler explanation. Perhaps Banner, fueled by Christian righteousness, was determined to save his old friend’s soul from the purgatory afforded to sodomites.

“I’d be delighted to take up your card,” Erik offered, the essence of politeness embodied in his frigid voice. “And if Mr. Xavier wishes, he is certainly free to renew your ‘old acquaintance’.”

“I don’t believe that will suffice,” Banner said, as full of angry menace as before. “Not in this situation.”

“In this situation?” Erik questioned. “What exactly is this situation?”

“Don’t play games with me, you arrogant prick,” Banner said, finally dropping his voice. “I know exactly what you are. And what you’ve turned Charlie Xavier into. I won’t let that stand.”

“Hmm, I see,” Erik said calmly. He’d learned long ago how to turn fear into anger, and he stoked the embers of his outrage. He would not be threatened, not in his own casino. And not by a blue-blood who’d never suffered or fought for anything in his life. “You sound very determined, Lord Banner. Why not go to the authorities, if you’re so concerned about my corrupting influence on young Mr. Xavier?”

“You know why,” Banner bit out. “I won’t see Charles hang because…because some foul creature like you took advantage of him. He’s a gentleman.”

Erik allowed himself to relax slightly. He knew who to bribe, which watchmen and magistrates could be persuaded not to arrest either himself or Charles for sodomy. But it was chancey work. Balanced against the force of public outrage, he might not be able to keep either of them out of the hangman’s noose if Charles’ aristocratic friends made their sexual relationship public. Here, at least, was one card he could play: perhaps Banner’s concern about the reputation of a member of his class would be enough to protect Charles, if not Erik himself.

“No one’s seen Charles since he came here,” Banner continued. “I simply wish to determine if he’s…if he’s been harmed in any way.”

“I assure you, that’s not the case,” Erik said carefully. “If you’ll excuse me, these gentlemen are waiting to play.”

These gentlemen,” Banner said, his voice as openly mocking as Erik’s, “are as anxious as I to assure Charles Xavier’s well-being.”

Erik took a quick survey of the table, recognizing two of the men who had been there the night Banner had attacked him. Rogers and Howard, he remembered, placing the muscled blond and the shorter brown-haired man with the large nose.

“Your concern for Charles’ welfare is touching,” Erik asked caustically. “I wonder if you’re as anxious now as you were when Charles was under his stepfather’s tender care?” He pitched his voice lower. “I wonder, gentlemen, where your concern was then? Or are you motivated to inquire about Charles’ well-being now only because Charles is a guest in my home?”

“Whatever else he was,” Banner said, brown eyes sparking with anger, “Kurt Marko was a gentleman.”

“But it was, my lord, the ‘whatever else’ that should have sparked some interest in Charles’ fate,” Erik pointed out, calmly shuffling the deck and ignoring the glares offered by Banner’s compatriots.

“We’re not concerned with Kurt Marko,” Banner said. “We’re concerned about Charles’ safety.”

“His safety,” Erik repeated, smiling. “How noble. I’ll express your concern for his safety to Charles.”

“My concern is for what you’re doing to him, you perverted bastard. We’ve all heard how you’ve—”

“Be very careful what you say,” Erik interrupted, his voice scarcely above a whisper. “It’s been a long time since I’ve killed a man, but I haven’t forgotten how it’s done.”

“Someday…” Banner began again. He hesitated at the lethal reality in Erik’s face. “Someday you’ll have to answer for what you’ve done to Charles. Someday you’ll be outside of Stark’s protection, and then—”

“Get out,” Erik said, hands moving over the cards with the professional composure he’d learned to maintain. “You are no longer welcome here. If you wish, one of my staff will escort you to the door.”

“I’ll leave,” Banner conceded, “but too many people in London know what’s going on. I don’t know how you think you can get away with this. Maybe this sort of thing is accepted in the shetel, or whatever hole you crawled out of, but not here. Not in England, by God.”

“Gentlemen, place your wagers,” Erik said calmly, ignoring Banner’s fury.

Howard, the brown-haired man, rose and took Banner’s elbow. “Come on, Bruce. I’m going to take you home before you get yourself killed,” he said, shaking his head.

The other man who had been a part of the group, Rogers, rose as well, but lingered a moment as Banner was coaxed away from the table by his friend.

“Bruce is right about one thing, Lehnsherr,” Rogers said. “Too many people are talking. And none of what’s being said is pretty. If I were you, I’d watch my back.”

Briefly Erik met Rogers’ blue eyes, surprised to find that they held no hostility. But Erik never verbally acknowledged the aristocrat’s warning, and moved on to deal at the next table as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.

****

Jarvis, the Duke of York’s butler, had held his position for more than thirty years. He’d served the Starks for the entirety of that time, first father, then son. And as necessitated by his role, he believed himself able to assign the proper social status to any caller who presented himself at His Grace’s door.

But even Jarvis was perplexed by the gentleman calling at Stark House this morning.

When he had politely knocked at the door and had asked for the Duke, the gentleman’s manner had been perfectly correct. And one could not argue with the elegance of his attire. But aside from the man’s obvious disfigurement, there was something about this particular visitor that caused an uneasiness in Jarvis’ usual imperturbability. Prussian, of course, and the butler wondered if the man had something to do with the Duke’s work in espionage. There was a certain air of danger…

“I believe His Grace is away this morning,” Jarvis intoned, carefully walking the line between insult and a simple lack of commitment of his master’s precious time. “However, if you would be so good as to wait…?”

“Of course,” Erik said, recognizing the butler’s inability to place him on the rigid scale that governed the beau monde.

“And whom should I say is calling?” Jarvis inquired politely, avoiding entirely the question of title.

“Mr. Lehnsherr,” Erik said. He didn’t attempt to hide his bitter smile at the almost imperceptible shifting of the butler’s features.

“Mr. Lehnsherr,” the butler repeated carefully, a hint of disapproval creeping in under his tone. He’d obviously identified the Semetic origin of the name.

Erik nodded, his dark brow lifting in sardonic amusement. At that suddenly familiar gesture, Jarvis decided that there was only one person in the household at the present who could decide what should be done about this particular caller.

“A moment, if you please,” Jarvis said politely, leaving Erik alone in the vast foyer.

As Erik waited he gave no sign of anxiety or impatience. He had known about Anthony Stark’s title and position, but the opulence of Stark House made him uncomfortable. The elegance reminded him of a certain residence in Berlin. Too many memories.

He wondered why he had come. Perhaps because this was the only place in London where he might be assured of welcome. And because, once the idea had come to him, he had been unable to resist it. He’d hoped that today’s mission might give Charles back at least a part of the world that he had lost because of his stepfather’s cruelty, and because of his bargain with Erik.

The butler spoke almost at his elbow, pulling Erik away from the thoughts that had become increasingly painful over the last several weeks.

“Her Grace the Duchess of York has consented to see you, Herr Lehnsherr.”

It seemed that the butler had solved the problem of what to call him. But Erik wanted nothing to do with the Duchess of York, and he had already begun to place his hat on his head in preparation to leave when a feminine voice spoke from the open doorway of Stark’s study.

“Tony would never forgive me if I let you go. I’m Pepper.”

The woman who advanced to him across the wide expanse of marble that separated them was tall and slim. Her straw-yellow hair was dressed in the latest style, and her topaz morning dress had been cut by a master. She was a beauty, though her eyes flashed with an intelligence considered to be unfashionable in a woman. Erik liked her immediately.

“I think, Herr Lehnsherr, that you are the man about whom I have heard so much.”

Erik hesitated and then, knowing that he had no choice other than outright rudeness, moved to accept the slender hand she presented. He kissed it, his self-possessed assurance in carrying out that gesture standing in marked contrast to the average gentleman’s awkwardness.

He looked up to find an amused twinkle in the Duchess’ dark blue eyes. The amusement, whatever its cause, was quickly hidden, but the Duchess’ smile was as gracious and friendly as her greeting had been. She briefly examined the damaged and unmoving corner of Erik’s lips and quickly traced upward over his scarred cheek and black eyepatch. Her gaze moved serenely to meet his and she smiled again. At her total lack of reaction to his scars, he finally felt himself beginning to relax.

“Forgive my intrusion,” Erik said quickly, “I was hoping to speak to the Duke.”

The Duchess—unusual name that, Pepper—offered a reassuring smile. “I don’t know that I can help you with whatever you wanted to see Tony about this morning, but you only have to ask.”

“I came seeking advice,” Erik said simply.

“Oh, I love to give advice,” said the Duchess, “but I’m not sure mine would be of any use.”

“Only if you know something about horses.” He didn't really expect Her Grace to make any claim to expertise. He didn’t even know if the Duke himself was knowledgeable, but he’d thought that Stark would at least be able to steer him to someone who would be both open and honest about the world of thoroughbreds.

But the slow smile the Duchess gave him was answer enough.

“Horses?” she asked.

“Suitable for a gentleman,” Erik said. “For Charles Xavier.”

Some thought began to move behind the Duchess’ lovely features, some subtle realignment of expression, much like the transformation in the butler’s face when he’d given his name.

“So you’re the Jewish gambler everyone—”

“Is talking about,” Erik finished for her. And waited.

The Duchess’ slight nod acknowledged that simple fact.

"I suppose you’ve heard the rumours regarding my relationship with Mr. Xavier,” he said, determined not to sound self-conscious about the truth.

“Yes,” said the Duchess. When the silence moved beyond a natural pause into discomfort, Erik allowed himself a small smile, controlling the bitterness that welled up within him.

“I understand. There’s no need to see me out. And please don’t bother the Duke. I assure you that—”

“A horse for Charles.” She tapped her chin, acting as if the last few sentences had not been spoken. "Do you know what kind of mount he'd prefer?"

“I believe so," he said, considering her question. “From some comments that have been made, I gather that he’s an excellent rider. A young gelding with some spirit would do very well, I think.”

“If you don’t mind waiting for me to change, and then taking a short walk, I think I have just the one. You will wait, won’t you?”

“Your Grace, I never intended that you should be put to the trouble of—”

“Horses,” she said for the third time, already beginning to move to the huge staircase, “are my passion. Tony could tell you. I’ll be only a moment.”

However, not able to resist giving advice, even if it had not been solicited, Pepper turned back on the fourth riser and met his eyes. “The things they’re saying…” She paused delicately. “The gossip is rampant even among the ladies, and frankly, the stories that are being told…”

Erik wanted to interrupt her, to offer the easy denial that would smooth over her question. He knew that someone was feeding the fires of outrage about his relationship with Charles. And he knew, of course, who that person must be. Erik was well aware of Marko’s animosity, and recognized the clumsy hand of Charles’ stepbrother in the campaign. But if the rumours took the form of public condemnation or retaliation…he had to admit that even he had no way of protecting Charles should that happen.

He could lie. He should lie, and convince this highborn lady that no, he was not a filthy sodomite, that he and Charles were nothing more than good friends who shared a home together. And that the Duchess’ husband’s excursions to places like Vauxhall Gardens and the parties Charles had endured in Paris were simply innocent visits to exotic locales.

Oh, the lies people told one another. He had no stomach for it.

“I promise you…” Erik began, then faltered. “Whatever you’ve heard about the situation isn’t true. When Charles came to me…” He hesitated over the explanation. He knew the Duchess would never accept the fundamental truth about his relationship with Charles, but he did want to make one thing clear.

“I didn’t ‘corrupt’ him, or force him,” Erik said quietly. Given his religion, his appearance, and the innate prejudice of society towards men of his inclinations, everyone assumed he had forced Charles into their arrangement, and continued to hold him there by force. To use him as Charles had been used before. And instead… The remembrance of what had grown between them threatened to overwhelm him. But there was no easy way to convince anyone that what he felt for Charles was anything other than a perversion.

The Duchess appeared to give Erik’s words some consideration. She tilted her blonde head and pursed her lips. “Then why have you allowed the gossips such an open field? Charles ought to go about in society. He’s still very popular among his old school friends. If he distanced himself from you and attended the right sort of parties, that might staunch all but the most vicious of tongues.” In belated realization of her husband’s motives, Pepper answered her own question. “The dinner party. That’s why Tony arranged it. To demonstrate that Charles still has his support and friendship. To provide a smokescreen thick enough to hide the truth.” She stopped. “I…I’m sorry, but I don’t see why you refused.”

“I didn’t refuse,” Erik admitted. “Charles did.”

“But surely, if he knew what was being said…” The Duchess stopped again. “But of course he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know, and you won’t tell him. But you must realize how dangerous your situation is. I’ve heard that Cain Marko challenged you, and that Baronet Banner nearly killed you in your own establishment. The risk to your life won’t end if this scandal continues. You must convince Charles that his appearance in public, among those powerful enough to protect him, is essential.”

The Duchess paused, folding her hands in front of her. She looked at the floor for a moment, and then back up at Erik. “I…with Tony, I’ve had some experience in squashing rumours and idle gossip. If Charles were to marry…”

Erik nodded sharply, averting his eyes so the Duchess would not see the sympathy for her situation forming there. So she did know about her husband’s proclivities. Their marriage was another smokescreen, another lie to protect a highborn aristocrat’s reputation. Had she known before their wedding that she was marrying a man who preferred the company of other men?

At least when he’d married Magda he’d been honestly devoted to her, and to their child. Erik could never do what Anthony Stark had done.

“Have you considered that your separation is in everyone’s best interest?”

“I’ve considered it,” he said, because it was true. He had considered sending Charles away, but discovered that he was not strong enough to do it. It was nothing but brutal self-interest, of course. He wasn’t thinking of Charles’ safety, or his reputation. Monster that he was, Erik could only cling to the one thing that made his wretched life worth living and damn the consequences. If he lost Charles…

“You won’t do it,” the Duchess concluded. “That’s…that’s either very brave, or very foolish. You know it can’t last.”

“I know,” he said shortly. No, the endgame would come soon enough. He’d laid out all his pieces, and now the zugzwang had begun. He would be hunted down, boxed in, annihilated. Worst of all, he could spare Charles from that fate, if only he was a better man.

But Erik Lehnsherr was not a better man. And so he said, “Charles is safe for now. And I promise you, in private, as long as we’re alone, Charles is happy. And that he wants for nothing.”

The Duchess waited a long time for any other information Erik might wish to add, but Erik had already confessed far more than he’d ever intended to reveal about their situation. He kept his head down, eyes locked on his own hands.

“How disappointing,” the Duchess said. He looked up to find her eyes moving once again over his features. “The ladies would be so vexed. No perversion, or dark degradation, or sexual captivity. The other makes for much more titillating conversation, for shocked and excited whispers hidden discreetly behind their fans. But it’s only a love story. And one they couldn’t possibly understand.”

There was an undercurrent of bitterness in the Duchess’ soft words, and Erik considered again what it meant to be married to a man like Anthony Stark.

Their eyes held, and Erik read in hers compassion and understanding. When she spoke again, all darkness had cleared from her voice.

“I’ll only be a moment. Tell Jarvis if you’d like anything. I promise you, I have just the horse…”

Her voice faded as she disappeared up the stairs and into the upper reaches of the Stark mansion. He wondered if the Duchess of York might, indeed, understand what it meant to care for someone like Charles.

****

“I don’t understand all the secrecy, and I’ve told you that I really don’t—”

“For me, Charles. Surely I haven’t requested so many favours that you’d refuse me a simple request.” Erik caught Charles’ shoulders from behind as he tried to turn away, tugging his body back against Erik’s.

“No, of course not,” Charles said. “You’ve asked for nothing. But you’ve refused to tell me anything about where we’re going, or why.”

“Just trust me,” Erik said. “A short carriage ride.”

“I don’t want—”

“But I want. For me, Charles,” he said, touching the side of Charles’ face and stroking across his cheek.

“That’s not cricket,” Charles accused softly, turning his head so that his cheek rested against Erik’s shoulder. “You take unfair advantage of all my weaknesses.”

“I know,” Erik said, and breathed against the soft chestnut warmth of Charles’ hair. “And I hope you continue to be weak where I’m concerned.”

“Are you describing my knees or the state of my morals, sir?” Charles asked, smiling.

“I’m not sure there’s a difference,” Erik admitted. “As I remember they have both, on occasion, gotten in my way.”

Laughing, Charles turned in Erik’s arms so he was pressed up against the long length of Erik’s nude body.

“I notice the past tense.”

“Is that what it’s called in English?” Erik asked in mock astonishment as he molded his aching body against Charles’. “What an interesting construction.”

Charles’ fingers glided across his shoulders and then down lower to trace the slight swell of Erik’s buttocks. “Indeed it is,” Charles whispered. “And trust a Prussian to know exactly how to use something without knowing the proper name for it.”

Laughing, Erik flipped Charles over on the wide unmade bed.

“I want you to make love to me, Charles. I want to show you how good it can feel. And that it needn’t hurt.”

Charles bit his lip in uncertainty, pearly-white teeth against pink, and Erik bit back a groan. “I…I don’t want to hurt you.”

“You won’t,” he promised, palming Charles’ cheek. He leaned over and kissed him soundly, and then released his mouth with a wet ‘pop’. “I’ll show you how. All right?”

He waited a moment, and at Charles’ short nod he rose and went to one of the cabinets that lined the room. He opened the door and found the small wooden box that had accompanied him all over Europe as he waged war and sought his vengeance. Inside there was a small vial of oil, rarely used but critical if he was to teach Charles how to find pleasure in this act.

He returned to the bed and lay down on his back, uncapping the small vial. Charles watched him curiously, attention fixed on Erik’s hands as he upended the vial and drizzled the oil over his fingers.

“The preparation is very important, if you haven't made this a regular habit.” Eyes wide, Charles nodded.

“Kiss me,” Erik beckoned, and Charles leaned forward to brush his lips softly against Erik’s, then with more force and passion as Erik’s mouth opened under his. They kissed for a long time, tongues brushing, and Erik finally broke away. He was panting and Charles looked equally aroused, a satisfying pink flush darkening his skin beneath his freckles. Erik held Charles’ eyes as he bent his knees, and then, with a deep breath, plunged an oiled finger into himself.

Charles gasped, and Erik grinned. Still such an innocent, despite what had been done to him. Just the sight of Charles’ flushed, shocked arousal pushed Erik to the brink, and he closed his eyes, focusing on the stretch and pull of his inner muscles as he moved his finger. He hadn’t done this in a long time, but his body remembered how it worked. He swirled his finger, groaning. The burn of the stretch felt good, and it felt glorious to do this in front of Charles. He opened his eye and caught Charles’ gaze, and then put another finger inside himself.

Charles blushed again and looked down, fascinated as he watched Erik’s two fingers disappear inside his body. Shaking himself, Charles seemed to catch the hint and tentatively wrapped his hand around Erik’s cock, clearly seeking more familiar ground. Erik grunted in response, eyes rolling back in pleasure, and Charles gave him one long, firm stroke that matched the movement of Erik’s fingers as he fucked himself.

Unable to watch any longer without spilling, Charles bent over and took Erik’s cock into his mouth. He closed his eyes and focused on giving Erik pleasure, sucking his length down and pulling back to swirl his tongue around the tip. Erik arched up into his mouth and Charles, emboldened by Erik’s moan of approval, pulled back and stroked Erik with his hand as he watched, fascinated, as Erik inserted a third finger into himself.

“How many…?” he asked shyly, and Erik opened his eye, pupil blown wide with pleasure.

“As many as I want,” he said softly, closing his eye again as he did something with his finger. He let out a long, loud groan, and Charles knew exactly what it was that Erik had just done to himself. He remembered that feeling from the night of the bath, that amazing spike of pleasure when the right spot was finally located. It seemed extraordinary to find that Erik could also trigger that response in himself. The human body was an amazing creation.

Erik finally opened his eye and withdrew his hand, wiping the excess oil off on the sheet. “Come here,” he said to Charles. Charles scrambled up and Erik caught his hips, drawing Charles down to lie between his legs. This was a familiar position; they’d lined up their cocks like this before, many times, thrusting against each other and riding their way to climax. Charles had found the whole thing remarkably exciting.

But this was different. He knew what Erik intended, but he wasn’t sure…

“Charles,” Erik said quietly, catching his eyes. “You can do this. It will feel good. I promise.”

Charles bit his lip, and then sucked in a deep breath. He jumped when Erik touched him, coating his cock in more oil from the vial. None of the other men who’d fucked him had used any kind of lubrication, and Charles realized why, exactly, it had hurt so much before, why he’d bled after. The realization angered him. The others…they should have known.

But Erik knew precisely what he was doing. And so Charles decided to trust him in this, and waited patiently as Erik finished stroking oil over his cock. He missed the warm pressure of Erik’s hand, surprised when Erik leaned back.

“It’s a little trickier this way,” he said, nodding down at his supine position, knees bent. “But I want to see your face.”

Charles nodded breathlessly. Erik caught at his wrists, tugging him closer.

“Just guide yourself in. Move slowly, and watch my face. Listen to my breathing. You’ll know when to push forward.”

With one hand on his cock, Charles stroked himself a few times to full hardness, and then kneed forward until he was pressed up against him, Erik’s thighs framing his hips. He felt with one hand for Erik’s arsehole, brushing his fingers over the hot, swollen flesh. Erik jerked a bit, and then smiled.

“That’s good. Yes, Charles, right there.”

Charles closed his eyes, praying for strength, and then guided the tip of his cock to press against that tight entrance.

“Go slow,” Erik reminded him, opening his legs wider. Charles felt an incredible heat, and an appealing softness that made him want to thrust forward. But he listened to Erik’s instructions and, gripping Erik’s hips, pushed the tip of his cock inside.

Erik’s eye fluttered closed and he leaned his head back, exposing the long length of his throat. Charles waited, listening as Erik’s harsh breathing evened out, and then he slowly inched forward. His cock was being enveloped in the hot, incredibly tight clutch of Erik’s body, and he fought the sudden, frantic urge to thrust forward until he was fully buried in him.

“That’s good,” Erik was saying, and Charles had to carefully refocus to understand him. “I…that’s perfection, Charles.” He moved his hips slightly, enveloping Charles further, and Charles trembled with the effort to not thrust forward. His hands were shaking and sweat coated his body, and he felt fresh beads drip down his forehead. He wiped these away with the back of his hand, returning immediately to grip Erik’s slim hips.

Erik’s cock was flushed a dark red and straining up against his stomach, and Charles let go long enough to wrap his hand around Erik’s cock, pumping once, twice. Erik groaned again and rotated his hips, bearing down on Charles’ cock until he was even more firmly seated.

“It’s all right to move, Charles,” Erik said, eye closed, face flushed in pleasure. A lock of dark auburn hair had fallen over his forehead and Charles brushed it back, cupping Erik’s face for a moment. Erik nuzzled into Charles’ palm and then opened his eye, meeting Charles’ gaze with steely determination. “Move,” he ordered, and Charles hurried to obey.

He pushed forward one long, smooth stroke until he was buried to the hilt in Erik’s body. Erik breathed in and out, and then began to twist in a thrust-rotate motion that made Charles groan. The friction and heat was almost unbearable. He felt like his cock was caught in a vice grip and he could scarcely imagine trying to move again, but the movement of Erik’s hips encouraged him. He stroked Erik’s cock a few more times with his free hand, and then settled his hands back on Erik’s hips. He slowly rocked forward, and Erik moaned in encouragement. He moved a little faster, pushing in and withdrawing with slow precision, and Erik arched forward, matching Charles’ slow thrusts.

“Faster,” Erik panted. Charles repositioned himself slightly, putting more weight on his knees and drawing Erik closer, shoving himself forward as he tugged on Erik’s hips. The upward thrust seemed to strike at that spot deep within Erik and he shook, hands tightening over Charles where they gripped his hips. “Just like that, Charles, yes,” he murmured.

Charles repeated the motion, watching in hot fascination as Erik trembled again, grip going lax and then firm again. His trembled and Charles gripped Erik’s hips tightly, thrusting up again into Erik. He did so again, and again, and again, until Erik was reduced to shuddering breaths and the occasional murmured encouragement, eye closed tight. At one point he pressed the back of his hand over his lips, trying to conceal his moans of pleasure, and Charles dove forward again into that tight heat.

His climax built slowly, focused as he was on Erik’s reactions. He slid in and out of that wet heat again and again, seeking oblivion, and Erik lifted his hips in answer, allowing Charles even greater access to his body. He reached up and wrapped his hand around the back of Charles’ head, drawing him down for a wet, messy, misaligned kiss, and Charles thrust helplessly, chest heaving against Erik’s. Each shallow thrust, each snap of his hips, made stars burst behind his eyes, like the fireworks from the night at Vauxhall. He buried his face in Erik’s neck and rocked forward once, twice, and came.

For a long moment, before the world returned in a rush of heat and sound, Charles lay on top of Erik, breath sobbing in and out. He felt boneless, weightless, adrift on a wave of pleasure so strong he thought he’d died. It wasn’t until Erik stirred beneath him that Charles realized he must be a heavy weight across Erik’s chest, and he pulled back slowly. Their bodies were still joined despite Charles’ rapidly softening cock and he gripped himself at the base, withdrawing slowly, carefully. Erik winced slightly but didn’t say anything, and Charles leaned back to look at him.

Erik had come. Sticky white painted his belly and chest, and Charles realized he was covered in Erik’s seed, too. “When did you—?” he asked, and Erik grinned, the white flash of his teeth bright in the dim room.

“You didn’t notice?”

Charles felt his cheeks heat. “I must admit, my mind was on other things.” Erik's smiled widened, and Charles watched, a little light-headed, as Erik used the corner of the sheet to wipe them off.

“Come here,” he said, holding out his arms. Charles lay down gratefully beside him. He was still breathing hard, as though he'd just gone for a ride on a galloping horse.

“That was…that felt wonderful,” he whispered, and listened to the rumble of Erik’s dark chuckle.

“I told you,” he said, and Charles lifted his head so he might see Erik’s face.

“And you’re sure I didn’t hurt you?”

“No, you didn’t,” Erik promised. He was mindful of the time - they were due to meet the Duchess’ stablemaster in an hour - but he wanted to luxuriate with Charles for a moment. The rest of the world could wait.

****

He had known by Charles’ face that he had been wrong. But he couldn’t understand how terribly wrong. Not even when he’d raised shocked, wildly dilated eyes to Erik’s.

“No,” Charles whispered.

The groom was turning the Duchess’ beautiful Arabian, putting him through a formalized pattern of movements designed to show off the thoroughbred’s delicate breeding to the best advantage: the large, elegant head, darkly intelligent eyes, the incredibly fragile-looking legs that would prove so tireless when called upon by a beloved rider.

“No,” Charles said again, and Erik could see that a shimmering tremble had begun to move through Charles’ entire body. “Oh, God,” he whispered as the groom began to lead the Arabian closer to where they were standing at the end of the paddock. Charles turned and stumbled back in the direction they’d come, past the Duke of York’s stables, past the groomed lawns and neat fencing to the open paddock.

He caught up to Charles long before the other man had reached the carriage. Erik turned Charles’ face to his, relieved to find that he wasn’t crying. And then, reading what was in those brilliant turquoise eyes, he’d known that what he was seeing was far worse than tears. It was pain beyond the comfort of that easy release.

“Charles,” he said softly, at a loss. He’d been so sure that Charles would be pleased. He’d wanted to give Charles something he could enjoy. The tailored clothing from Remy’s had been greeted with smiling gratitude, but the fine coats and accessories were unnecessary in Charles’ continued isolation. So he'd purchased the horse and made arrangements for the stabling of the Arabian close enough that Charles could ride whenever he wanted. But instead of giving him pleasure…

He thought suddenly of the red coat, black breeches and tall, shining riding boots that Sean was to bring upstairs while they were gone. The habit would be there, laid out on the bed, when they returned. He’d have to send someone ahead to make sure the habit was removed before Charles saw it.

“I told you,” Charles accused bitterly. “I explained it to you.” His shoulders twisted as he attempted to break Erik’s hold. “Why didn’t you understand?”

“Charles, what’s wrong? I thought you’d be pleased. The horse is yours. You can—”

“No,” Charles said violently, pushing against Erik’s broad shoulders. “He’s not mine. He can never be mine.”

His attention was suddenly directed to a point somewhere over Erik’s shoulder, and when Erik turned to look he could see the puzzled groom leading the Arabian to where they stood arguing in the sun.

The distraction caused Erik to loosen his hold and immediately Charles ripped away from him. He was breathing heavily and had gone chalk-white, freckles standing out sharply in relief against his pale skin. His eyes darted back and forth between Erik and the Arabian, now only thirty yards away.

“How could you?” Charles said, and to Erik’s great shock, Charles swung at him. Erik’s reflexes were sharp enough that he jerked back in time to avoid the blow, but he felt the brush of Charles’ fist against his cheek. He’d swiped at the patch, knocking it askew. Erik reached to straighten it, the instinct so ingrained that his fingers moved automatically to begin that self-protective gesture even in the midst of trying to deal with Charles’ unleashed emotions.

Seeing that familiar gesture, Charles caught at the ribbon that secured the eyepatch. Again Erik dodged, but Charles ripped the whole thing away, revealing for the first time Erik’s blind, clouded eye enclosed in its misshapen socket.

The impact of what Charles had done held them both motionless. Charles’ hand fell slowly to his side, still holding the black velvet patch.

Erik took a deep breath and clenched his fingers. He did not snatch the patch back, much as he wanted to. Charles had wanted to humiliate him in retaliation for whatever he’d done to make Charles so angry. And so Erik would allow Charles the satisfaction. He controlled his breathing and watched Charles’ face.

Charles’ appalled gaze fell from what he’d just uncovered. And when he spoke, all anger had faded from his voice.

“You hide your past. You keep it carefully covered, so no one can see how you’ve been hurt. So no one will know what’s been done to you. You even hide it—parts of it—from me. But I told you the ugliness in mine. I didn’t hide. I told you.”

Despite what Erik was feeling, he responded to the quiet desperation in Charles' voice. The pain of that whisper. Oh, liebling,, he thought. “What did I do?”

Charles looked at Erik, his gaze locking on the damaged eye and then shifting to meet the other.

“It was the horses. I told you,” he said.

“I don’t—didn’t—understand. Tell me again,” Erik said patiently.

“He hurt my horses,” Charles whispered. And then of course Erik knew. Kurt Marko. He hurts things. Things I love, Charles had told him. But because Charles had included Erik in that circle, he’d lost the full meaning of what Charles had said.

“Your stepfather?”

Charles nodded, the movement barely more than a twitch.

“He’s dead, Charles.”

The caustic smile that answered that assurance was more chilling than anything Charles had said. As if Marko’s evil could reach out from the grave and still touch their lives.

“He can’t hurt you anymore,” Erik insisted.

Charles shook his head. He turned away and began to walk back to the carriage, seemingly unaware that he still held the black velvet patch and ribbon in his hand.

Erik gestured to the groom who’d been standing there in shocked silence, signalling to the man to take the horse back to its stall. He tried to catch up to Charles, cursing his slow limp.

“What did he do?” Erik asked when they were almost to the carriage. He didn’t know if he was wise to make Charles talk about it, but he needed to know as much as Charles was willing to tell him.

You hide your past, Charles had said, and even Erik could admit that there had been times when he’d longed to tell Charles all of it, Berlin and Schmidt and the endless thirst for revenge. Only fear, and the desire to keep Charles away from anything that had to do with Schmidt, had kept him silent.

Charles turned at the question, studying Erik’s face for a moment. He glanced down at the patch and the trailing black ribbon in his hand. He handed it back to Erik almost as a peace offering.

He’d expected that Erik would immediately put the patch back on, but instead Erik took the proffered cloth and made no move to cover his ruined eye.

“Talk to me,” he said instead. “Tell me what your stepfather did.”

Charles waited a long time, the sun warm enough that he could feel its heat against his shoulders, a contrast to the chill inside of him. Because what he’d done to Erik had been unforgivable, he honoured Erik’s request and forced himself to answer.

“He shot the first. A gelding I’d had since childhood. But it was cleanly done and…I was heartbroken, but it was done. I thought it was all over. I couldn’t conceive that there was anything else, anything worse, that he could do. And so, blindly, stupidly, I still refused. I didn’t want to go to Scotland, to be forced to whore for another old man. I knew what I wanted: the man I’d dreamed of for so long. And I was so young. And stubborn.” Charles hesitated and he shivered again, but he continued.

“I’d tried to defy Kurt before, but he would always threaten…” He cut himself off, determined not to mention Raven. “He would punish me. Beatings, locking me in the cellar. He even took away my dog. But he’d never…he’d never done anything like the horses. He was desperate. He needed the money—he’d drained my trust fund and all the funds from the estate—and then, when Lord MacTaggert offered for me, when my stepfather had thought he’d found the solution, I refused. I’d…I’d just come back from Cadiz, and I’d met you, and I thought…I thought that it was finally time to make a life for myself. To free myself from Kurt. I thought, if I held out, then he’d realize he couldn’t get what he wanted.”

Charles’ quiet voice halted, remembering.

“But he’d learned that I could live with death. And so he locked me in my room. After he shot the gelding, Heart's Fire, he took Mendel out of the stable and brought him under my window. And he…he began to whip him.” Charles’ voice was only a whisper.

“I tried to make him stop. I screamed at him that I’d do anything he wanted, if only he would stop. But he wouldn’t. Maybe I’d been too late from the beginning. It was his punishment for refusing to do what he wanted. And then he brought out the next horse, and the next…” Charles wrapped his arms around himself, shuddering.

“He’s dead, Charles,” Erik said again.

“I know,” Charles whispered. He didn’t tell Erik that Cain had been at the house that day. Raven had been away at boarding school, thank God, but Cain had been there. He’d watched the whole thing. And had, apparently, taken a few notes.

“He can’t hurt you anymore,” Erik said.

Charles shook his head. There was so much he couldn’t explain. If he told Erik about Raven, if Erik realized that Cain still had some power over Charles by threatening his sister, Charles knew that Erik would do something. Something that might drive Cain to retaliate.

Erik had smiled at his fears before, so confident that he could protect them both. But Charles had already seen Cain’s long reach into their lives through Banner’s actions, and in the challenge to the duel. Cain clearly wanted something; he’d never put himself in danger, not in a duel, not unless he was playing for very high stakes. Charles wondered again what his stepbrother wanted. He knew that, unless Cain found some other way to bring his plans to fruition, Charles would be hearing from him again.

“You don’t understand,” Charles said. “I don’t want the Arabian. I don’t want to ride again. Not ever. That’s over and dead. If I even think about horses…” Charles stopped, swallowing the bitter taste of fear, forcing away the memory of what Kurt had done. Forcing away the image of his own impotence that day. He hadn’t been able to protect Mendel, or Heart’s Fire, or any of the horses his stepfather had shot or beaten to death. And if Raven had been at home that day, he wouldn’t have been able to protect her from his stepfather’s wrath, either.

“I’m sorry,” Erik said. “I only wanted to give you pleasure. I never intended to hurt you, Charles. Or to make you remember.”

Erik was apologizing for something he’d done to please Charles. Something he had no way of knowing would make Charles unhappy. There had been in his actions no deliberate attempt to wound. And Charles, on the other hand, had done the cruelest thing to Erik he could imagine. Deliberately, and with malice. Maybe he’d lived with the brutality of the Markos so long that it had marked him, perverted him in some way beyond his unnatural sexual desires.

Charles reached out and brushed his thumb along the drooping lid that half-hid Erik’s blind eye. Erik didn’t avoid his touch, so Charles put his palms against Erik’s cheeks, gently guiding Erik’s head down until Charles could touch his lips against the scarred socket. And then Charles released him and stepped back, waiting for whatever it was Erik wanted to say. Knowing that, whatever it was, he deserved it.

“Am I forgiven?” Erik asked softly.

Feeling the sting of tears, Charles closed his eyes against that quiet question. He could hear the concern and, yes, the love in Erik's voice. Am I forgiven? Charles wanted to ask in reply, but he knew he didn’t deserve Erik’s forgiveness for his assault.

Wordlessly, Charles nodded.

“Then let’s go home,” Erik suggested, his voice as caressing as when they made love.

Erik helped Charles, still feeling shaky, into the carriage. But Charles held himself carefully erect as the horses began to move. Emotionally drained, he denied himself the comfort of burying his head against Erik’s dark, elegant coat, of feeling Erik’s hard arms around him. Instead he sat stiffly in the corner of the coach, consumed by guilt and regret.

“It’s over, Charles,” Erik said, watching him. “Let it go, meine liebe. It’s all over, and things are exactly the way they were before. I’ll keep you safe. I promise.”

Charles turned into Erik’s chest, and Erik hugged Charles close, as though he’d never let him go.

I’ll keep you safe, his thoughts echoed. But unlike what Erik had said, Charles’ vow was not spoken aloud. He knew Erik still didn’t understand.

****

Chapter Text

“But my lord…” Cain’s man of business protested.

Cain pushed away from his oak desk and heaved himself to his feet, staring down at Pennington. “That’s enough,” he said, striding around his desk to snatch his top hat and gloves from the dressing stand. “I’ve signed your damn papers and given you your instructions. Stop pestering me every time a tradesman presents a bill. What the devil am I employing you for?”

Pennington, a short, bespectacled man of middling age, turned red and almost huffed with indignation. “My lord, the Xavier estate will bear no more. I’ve tried to tell you…”

“And I’ve told you,” Cain snarled, “to appease the creditors. That’s your job. I’m a Peer of the realm, and cannot be hounded by tradesmen. Just because my financial affairs are slightly in arrears—”

“Slightly!” Pennington exclaimed, incredulous. He adjusted his spectacles on the bridge of his nose and referred to the ink-stained report in his hand. “Sir, there’s nothing left except the entail, and you can’t access that.”

Cain turned to adjust his top hat in the mirror. He tilted it at a rakish angle, ignoring his reddened nose and watery eyes. “The tide of my fortune is about to turn,” he told Pennington, ensuring that his valet had tied the complicated cravat knot correctly. “I’ve made a new investment that even you would approve of.”

“I should be very interested to hear what that is,” Cain’s man of business said, allowing no trace of the disbelief he felt to enter his tone.

“Destiny,” Cain announced, with a distinct tone of smug self-satisfaction.

Pennington blinked owlishly, the loose skin beneath his chin sagging. “Pardon me, my Lord?”

“Destiny. Bloodlines that trace back to Eclipse. The sweetest goer—”

“A horse,” Pennington said. This time disbelief did leak into his voice. “You’ve invested in a racehorse.”

Cain’s already florid complexion took on a decidedly dangerous hue.

“A sure thing,” he said insistently, not pleased with his secretary’s lack of enthusiasm. “I have it on best authority. My new friend Mr. Sebastian Shaw said—” Cain cut himself off. He had no reason to justify his business decisions to a sniveling servant.

“At any rate, she’ll run in the Derby, and when she wins we’ll have more than enough to pay all the creditors. Even Father’s. Soon we’ll be turning down poor relations looking for a handout!” he said, pleased to think of the country Markos, his father’s sister’s family, brought low and come begging. They’d turned him away when he’d come asking for money, and it would be glorious to turn the tables on the wretches.

“Mark my word, man,” Cain said, “by this time next week the duns you’ve shown me this morning will be nothing but an unpleasant memory.”

“Indeed, my lord,” said Pennington halfheartedly, “I trust you are right. However—”

“Blast it, not today!” Cain roared. “Don’t waste any more of my time! I’m engaged for lunch. The Dowager Countess of Fanshawe has invited me to meet her niece. So take another mortgage. Sell something. Do whatever’s necessary. But for God’s sake, don’t pester me with the business.”

“Indeed, my lord,” Pennington murmured, his desperation over the affairs of the Xavier estate, and thus the Markos’, driving him to a desperate courage. “But if there were anything of value left to sell or mortgage, believe me, I should have done so already.”

“Good,” Cain said absently, the meaning of Pennington’s declaration escaping him entirely. He was leafing through a stack of letters and invitations on his desk, trying to find his lunch invitation, when he paused, rescanning one of the letters.

He started again at the top, slowly and carefully reading over every word. “Good God,” he said. His eyes left the closely penned page to stare into the air before him as if considering the meaning of what he’d just read. “Pennington,” he said, turning to face his startled man of business, “Do you know what this says?”

Settling his spectacles more firmly on his nose, Mr. Pennington glanced at the sheet Cain was holding out for his inspection. “It’s from your agent in Cuba. I believe I wrote to you about that, my lord. Twice, if memory serves. Once last month, and again on the third. However, receiving no reply—”

“Dammit man, do you actually think I read all of that drivel you send me?” Cain demanded, pounding his fat fist down on the desk.

“Forgive me, my lord, but I did try,” Pennington held up his hands in surrender. He was accustomed to the rages of the Markos, first the father’s and now the son’s, and he recognized the signs of real danger.

“Trying isn’t good enough,” Cain hissed. “Don’t you know what’s happening right now in the markets?”

“Yes, my lord,” Pennington said quickly. “If you’ll remember, I suggested in my letter of the third that—”

“How could I remember something I never read?” Cain roared, advancing now from anger to pure rage. He clenched his fists and came to loom over Pennington. “You fool,” he said, “this is the answer to all my problems. And you’re writing me letters about it while I’m racking my brain trying to find a solution to all of the setbacks I’ve encountered. Why, don’t you see? All I have to do is arrange for the replanting of…”

He stopped short, momentarily struck dumb. Then his face went slack. Pennington wondered if Lord Marko had had a stroke.

Cain turned on his man of business then, and said quietly, “Damn you, Pennington. Damn you and your insufferable letters. You’ve had this for more than two months, and you never brought it to my attention. I ought to kill you. I ought to strangle you with my bare hands and throw your worthless carcass out the window. My God, I believe I could do it.”

“My lord, I beg you,” Pennington said, panicked by the thunderous expression on Cain’s face. His employer’s small, piggy eyes were black with bloodlust. “You must realize that nothing prevents you from selling this property now. The market for sugar and tobacco is still very strong and looks to be growing. Indeed it is so strong and offers so much possibility that, as your agent, I advise you to hold on to—”

“You ass!” Cain roared, “thanks to you, I no longer have the opportunity to hold or to sell. Thanks to your idiotic letters, it’s gone. Gone, you fool. Do you understand?”

“But my lord,” Pennington said, confused, “if it’s been sold, I assume I should have handled that transaction. How could it be gone?”

Cain ignored the question, having already moved on from the realization that the solution to all his problems was out of his reach to the contemplation of how he could get it back.

“I wonder how that bastard knew,” he said quietly, bitterness and fury added to the cold hatred that was already lodged deep within him.

“My lord?” Pennington’s voice barely intruded into Cain’s consciousness.

“That’s two hands you’ve won,” Cain muttered. Still without understanding the situation, Mr. Pennington shuddered at the quiet vindictiveness of his whisper. “But the game isn’t ended. Not by far. And there are a few trumps you couldn’t possibly know I hold.” The faint smile that lifted the aristocrat’s thin lips were as frightening to Pennington as the whisper had been. He waited silently, unwilling to draw attention to himself again, as Marko dropped the sheaf of paper he’d been holding back onto the desk. Except for the one that had caused so much excitement. That one he folded carefully and placed in his coat pocket.

“I’m going to see Mr. Shaw,” Cain said, slamming the door behind him.

After he was gone, Pennington spent a long moment gathering his scattered wits and wiping the perspiration off his brow. He was very glad that he was no longer the bastard the Viscount Marko was blaming for this bit of bad luck. Very glad indeed.

****

Charles and Erik usually had dinner together every night—much earlier than was custom in the fine homes of the city—before Erik went downstairs to deal in the casino. Later, Azazel or Alex would bring up some small repast to break the tedium of the long hours Charles spent waiting for Erik to conclude the night’s business at The Coin.

Azazel brought the envelope up with Charles’ supper that night. Charles recognized the handwriting immediately: Cain’s scrawl. The bile rose so strongly in his throat that Charles thought for a moment that he’d really be ill. He swallowed back against the nausea and sat perfectly still, trying to think calmly about what he should do.

Charles had promised Erik that he’d tell him if Cain bothered him again. And Charles didn’t want to lie to him. He wanted their relationship to be as open and honest as the secrets they both carried would allow. But the envelope lay on the tray beside the fruit and cheese, as innocent as a viper coiled to strike. What could Cain possibly want? Charles needed to know but, if he did, he’d have to lie again. And deception and mistrust would follow, poisoning his relationship with Erik.

Charles took a deep breath, trying to think. Without giving himself time to change his mind, Charles rose and hurried to the small writing desk in his (now unused) guest bedroom. He dipped the pen there into the well and scratched out his own name and direction, then re-wrote Cain’s on top.

When Azazel returned for the tray, he found that nothing had been touched.

“Would you see that delivered, please?” Charles asked. He was standing by the window, looking down into the London street, but Azazel doubted he saw anything there. Unconsciously the Russian shrugged, but Charles’ attention had shifted back to the darkness below, and so he missed the look of confusion that filtered across Azazel’s tight-lipped, scarred face.

****

During the next two days Charles waited, almost dreading Azazel’s arrival every night. But there were no more messages. No attempt by Cain to communicate. Gradually Charles allowed himself to relax, to drift back into the warm cocoon of Erik’s care. Back into the security of the narrow world they shared, the world which was now all that Charles wanted. Just to be left alone.

Charles was sitting on the bed reading when the door opened. Alex had already picked up the supper tray, and he knew it was too early for Erik unless, as sometimes happened, Erik had come up before the casino closed. When that happened Erik had admitted it was because he couldn’t bear to stay away from Charles a moment longer. Charles’ sudden gladness at that thought must have shown in his eyes as he stood and looked to the shadowed figure in the open doorway.

“I’ve come to take you out of here,” Bruce Banner said, seeing and misinterpreting the leap of joy in Charles’ expressive blue eyes.

Charles’ expression changed, pleased anticipation fading to puzzlement, and then something else. Fear, perhaps. Maybe he was afraid for Bruce, afraid if that Prussian bastard came upstairs before he could get Charles away, Lehnsherr might…

“What are you doing here?” Charles asked. He stood up, the biology text he'd been reading falling forgotten to the floor. Charles’ feet were bare, and he wore only his oversized nightshirt, which gaped at the throat and had pulled back to reveal one bare shoulder.

“I’ve come to take you away from here,” Bruce said, moving into the room. “No one else would do anything, not even Rogers, and I…I knew that I had to. It’s not right.”

“What’s not right?” Charles asked, eyes wide with surprise.

“What Lehnsherr’s doing to you!” Bruce hissed. “What he’s done. Don’t be afraid, Charles. I won’t let him hurt you again.” Charles only started at him in confusion, and Bruce wondered if the other man’s mind might be unhinged. If only half the things he’d heard were true, then he would be surprised indeed if Charles’ reason was still intact. But Bruce would help him. He’d find a way. They had institutions for this sort of…problem.

“What are you talking about?” Charles whispered into the silence.

“The Prussian Jew. Lehnsherr. He’ll never touch you again, Charles, I promise you. I promise you’ll be safe.” He held out his hand but Charles drew away, taking a step back. He could make no sense of Banner’s invasion of the private space he shared with Erik. Banner had been the one who had hurt Erik. Had he come here to attack Erik on Cain’s behalf, as he’d done before? If so, why was he trying to get Charles to come with him? None of it made any sense, until he finally caught the whiff of alcohol that clung to Banner. The smell of spirits was so strong that Charles’ eyes watered. Yes, he remembered now, how angry and belligerent Banner could be when he drank. He’d been like that even as a boy, docile as a lamb until he’d had a nip of something, and then he turned into a raging beast.

“My God,” Banner said. Charles glanced up at that shocked whisper and saw that Banner’s eyes were locked on the line of bruises that darkened Charles’ wrist. “My God,” he said again, looking up into Charles’ eyes.

Banner put his hand on Charles’ arm but Charles jerked away.

“Don’t,” Charles said, shocked by the liberty Banner had just taken.

“I’m not going to hurt you, Charles,” Banner said, trying to calm Charles as if he were a panicked horse. He put his hand on Charles’ arm again, but once more Charles pulled away. “I’m not the one who—”

“I think you should take your hands off Mr. Xavier,” Erik said from the doorway. “He doesn’t seem to appreciate your attentions.”

Banner whirled towards Erik, shoulders bunched, chest heaving. “I really don’t care what you think,” he snarled. “I’m going to take Charles out of here if I have to kill you to do it.”

“No,” Erik said, and Charles could see the small, deadly smile of amusement tugging at the corner of his mouth.

“Now that I’ve seen with my own eyes…now that I have proof what a perverted, sadistic bastard you are, do you think I’d leave Charles a moment longer under your control? Do you really think I’d let you hurt him again?”

“Charles,” Erik said, “have I hurt you?”

“No,” Charles denied, wondering what this was all about. What proof was Banner talking about? “Of course not. But what in the world—”

“Do you want to go with Banner, Charles?” Erik’s question interrupted Charles’ spate of confusion. Erik’s steely eye never left the baronet’s face.

“No,” Charles said strongly. “You know I don’t want to go anywhere.”

“My God, Charles,” Banner exploded. “What the hell has he done to you? Don’t you understand? You don’t have to be this filthy pervert’s plaything any longer. You’re a gentleman, Charles, not some sodomite’s whore. Come with me and I’ll help find you somewhere safe. You won’t have to go to prison. Or…or worse.”

“But…” Charles’ mind had caught on that phrase, or worse. Sodomy was a hanging offence. God, how many people knew? He’d thought, aside from Cain, that no one knew about his relationship with Erik. He’d scarcely imagined that anyone would care. And there was real concern, and not just moral indignation, in Banner’s eyes.

Charles’ shock at the realization was quickly followed by an almost hysterical urge to laugh. Now, when Charles had found a lover of his choice, a lover who was kind and considerate and with whom he’d fallen in love…now someone wanted to rescue him?

Where were you in Paris? Charles wanted to scream. Or Marseilles? Or Cadiz? Or Scotland? Where was your knightly rescue then?

It was enough to drive a man to hysterics. He was biting back the urge to laugh, and then there was a small gun in Banner’s hand, slowly moving to train on Erik’s midsection. And nothing was funny anymore.

“Go away, Banner.” Erik sounded as if he were merely annoyed by Banner’s implicit threat. “Charles doesn’t need you to rescue him. He’s perfectly fine.”

“Fine?” Banner exploded. “Fine? How can you possibly say that, when you’ve kept him tied while you…I never wanted to believe it. I couldn’t imagine that any sane, civilized human being would do that to another person. But I know what you’ve done to him, Lehnsherr. His mind is gone.”

“It is not!” Charles said, shocked at the accusation. “My mind is perfectly sound, Banner. And I don’t want to go with you. Mr. Lehnsherr is my friend and my host. We’re not…” he drew a deep breath, knowing how important his denial would be. There was no actual proof that he and Erik shared intimacies on a regular basis. No witnesses, other than the servants, and they could not testify in court against a gentleman. But Erik was at risk, and so Charles lied.

“We’re not sodomites, Bruce, or whatever it is that you imagine we are to each other. Erik and I are just good friends.”

Erik’s eye widened a bit at the audacity of Charles’ blatant lie, but luckily Bruce was looking at Charles. The hand holding the gun wavered. “Charles, please,” he said. “Save yourself.”

Charles shook his head. “No,” he said, looking directly into Banner’s eyes. “I don’t want to go with you, Bruce. I’m sorry you came. I don’t know why you did. But I’m perfectly safe. I don’t know what you think is going on here, but—”

“I know damn well what’s going on here!” Bruce said. The muzzle of the gun was once again fixed on Erik. “All of London knows. Everyone knows Lehnsherr is keeping you prisoner here in order to…to use you.”

Unable to find the words to convey the ridiculousness of Bruce’s accusation, Charles focused on the part of his statement that confirmed his worst fears. “All of London knows?”

Banner finally looked at from Charles, slackening his grip on the gun. “Of course they do,” he said, and Charles closed his eyes.

Erik had been waiting for Banner’s distraction. The second he looked at Charles, Erik kicked up. His booted foot knocked the gun out of Banner’s hand. It dropped to the ground with a loud BANG, though the weapon failed to discharge. Erik quickly snatched the gun up and held it in a loose grip at his side.

Charles took a breath, wondering how long it had been since he’d remembered to do that.

Banner was holding his right hand carefully with his left. He stared defiantly at Erik, as if he expected Erik to raise the gun and put a ball through him.

“Get out,” Erik ordered. “And don’t ever bother Charles again. I’m warning you this time, Banner, because I believe your intentions were honourable, but I’ll tolerate no more interference in my affairs. Do you understand?”

“You bloody bastard,” Banner said, his voice filled with hatred. “I’ll see you in Hell.”

“Probably,” Erik nodded. “But not tonight.” He moved across the bedroom and, expertly twisting the Baronet’s uninjured arm behind his back, Erik pushed the struggling Englishman out the door and to the head of the stairs. “I imagine that, since you found your way in, you can manage to see yourself out.” He turned and walked back into the bedroom, locking the door behind him.

Erik waited for Charles to look at him. “I’m sorry,” he said, thinking about how he’d failed yet again to insulate Charles from violence.

“Explain to me what he was talking about,” Charles said, meeting Erik’s eye.

“About what?”

“About what all of London knows. Explain to me what Banner meant.”

“I don’t know,” Erik hedged. “And frankly, I don’t care what London thinks. I only care what you think.”

“Bruce said that everyone believes you’re holding me prisoner. That you’ve kept me tied in order to ‘use me’.” His voice rose in sharp mockery.

“Now that’s an interesting image,” Erik said, tilting his head. “I’ve never personally found bondage to be an aphrodisiac, although I know some people do find that very exciting. Would you like to tie me to the bed, Charles, and ‘use me’?” Erik raised his fingers to Charles’ lips and caressed them, his gaze considering Charles’ face, waiting for the fright and tension to leave.

Charles pulled away from his touch. Erik watched his quick intelligence replace his fear. He wasn’t about to be sidetracked with the suggestion that they make love.

“Tell me.”

“Oh, I think he’s partly in love with you," Erik waved the idea away, as if batting off a fly, "though I doubt a man like Banner would ever acknowledge it. He’s jealous you’re mine, I suppose, and he envisioned himself the hero. He probably thought—”

“Don’t,” Charles cautioned. “Don’t lie to me. You made me promise that I’d not conceal things from you, and now, when one of my friends has just attempted to kill you again, you’re trying to make me believe he’s some kind of lovesick suitor. What did he mean that all of London knows you’re holding me prisoner? Is that what they imagine about our…about our relationship?”

“They…they think I forced you to come to me. That I went behind Cain’s back and demanded you in exchange for forgiving the debt. And that I’ve kept you prisoner to prevent your leaving me.”

“But surely,” Charles whispered, “surely they can’t believe that an adult man could be so easily bought!” But he stopped. He’d gone to Scotland under his own power. Nothing of the brutal methods his stepfather had used to compel his obedience had been allowed to show.

Erik said nothing. He knew Charles could never imagine all that was being suggested about their relationship. Charles had, despite his cruel tutelage, retained much of his innocence. He had no way of conceiving the viciousness of the rumours rampant in the capital. The whispers about the dark perversions that Erik supposedly visited upon his helpless body night after night. “They can believe whatever their poisoned minds can conceive,” Erik said bitterly. “They look at me, and they remember what you look like, and they know there can be nothing but perversion in our fucking each other. Add that to the fact that we’re both men, and…”

“Stop it,” Charles said sharply, hating the word Erik had chosen for their lovemaking. Hating, too, the pain underlying the mocking tone. They look at me, and they remember what you look like.

God, he’d been so stupid. He’d held the key all along to protecting Erik from this particular threat. Even Monsieur LeBeau had told him. And Charles had lost that determination in the sensual pleasures of this room, in Erik’s hard arms and the sweet touch of his mouth. Charles had not used his power to protect Erik from the twisted minds of society, and their sickening corruption of the love Erik had given him.

“It’s because I’ve hidden in this room,” Charles said. He watched Erik exercise firm control over the stern line of his lips. “Because I haven’t gone out in public by myself, or seen my old friends, they think you’re keeping me prisoner.”

“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” Erik said quietly. “I refuse to let my existence, or yours, be governed by what that circle of perfumed fops and whispering old dragons think. If you don’t want to appear in public, it’s none of their affair.”

“If I don’t want…” Charles repeated, wondering. And the full reality of the cruelty he’d practiced struck home. Erik believed Charles was too ashamed to be seen with him. At first he’d given him cause: his unthinking remarks at the tailor’s, hiding his face when he got out of Erik’s coach, his hesitation to go with Erik to see the Arabian at the Duke of York’s estate. All of the actions Erik had interpreted as a reluctance to be seen in public. Because Erik was not of his class, or his religion, and because they were lovers.

Charles glanced up to find Erik’s uncaring mask back in place. Nothing of the endless hurt Charles had inflicted was allowed to show.

“I’m not ashamed,” Charles said, and recognized, unbelievably, that bitter smile of Erik’s quirk upwards. He’d not seen that mocking expression since the earliest days of their relationship. But the idea that Charles didn’t want to be seen with him had always been beneath Erik’s seeming acceptance of his love.

“I would have been proud to go with you anywhere. Why didn’t you…” Charles began, and saw Erik’s sardonic smile deepen.

“The dinner party,” Charles whispered, remembering. “That’s why you suggested we go.”

“But you refused,” Erik replied.

“Because I didn’t know your friends,” he said, trying and failing not to think about Bartolomeu’s parties in Paris.

“And because you were afraid that, when you met them, they’d be vulgar and common. Like me.”

“No,” Charles said fervently, shaking his head but acknowledging to himself, at least, that he’d wondered what kind of people Erik’s friends might be. If they too were sodomites, given to debauchery and vice. And Charles hated himself for his innate prejudice. How could he claim that he wasn’t ashamed of what he was, of what Erik was, and then in the next breath think that other men of their persuasion were perverted reprobates?

He saw the quickly hidden disappointment in Erik’s face. “No,” Charles repeated, his voice stronger. “I didn’t want to leave this room. I only wanted what we shared. There was nothing out in that world I remember with any pleasure. Nothing I wanted to return to. Only you were important. You comprise my whole world, Erik. I don’t want anything else. I love you,” Charles whispered. “How can you not know that?”

Erik held Charles’ gaze a long time, trying to read what was in his voice, in his eyes. His years of experience reading faces seemed useless now. He would stake his life on the fact that Charles was telling the truth. Because you want to believe it. Because you won’t have a life if he’s lying. At least, not one that you’ll want to live.

His eye fell before the sincerity in those beautiful turquoise eyes. Slowly Erik shook his head.

“Not a dinner party,” Charles said finally. He had to force himself not to touch Erik, afraid that he would shift away, just as he’d avoided answering that anguished confession. Charles had given Erik the ultimate power over him. I love you, he’d said. And Erik had said nothing in return.

“I think it must be the most public place in London. Covent Garden, perhaps. We shall dress well, and behave strictly as friends. Perhaps I can meet some of my former acquaintances there, and we might lose ourselves in a group. If you’ll help me…”

“Charles,” Erik said, and Charles watched him swallow. “You don’t have to do this.”

“Yes, I think I do,” Charles said. “I don’t like it when someone points a gun at my lover.” He forced himself to smile, to find a shred of humour in their situation. “And I think you mentioned something about me tying you to the bed and having my way with you. If you’re still willing…”

“No,” Erik said. Again he took a deep breath. His hand caught Charles, and his thumb brushed the soft skin on the inside of Charles’ wrist. “I have a much better idea. If you trust my perverted mind to find something that will give you pleasure.”

“You’ve never given me anything but pleasure.”

“I’d like,” Erik began, and then forced the words back into his brain. I’d like to give you what you’ve just given me, he allowed himself to think. But his was a silent admission. I love you, Charles had said. And he had echoed it in the dark chambers of his monster’s heart.

Instead of saying the words, Erik pulled Charles into his arms, pushing the painful fullness of his body against Charles’. Charles dropped his hand, caressing Erik’s erection through the thin material of his trousers. Unable to wait, Erik lifted the hem of Charles’ nightshirt and slipped his hands beneath, running his palms over Charles’ warm bare skin. He tugged the nightshirt off over Charles’ head and Charles stood before him, beautifully nude.

Charles moved back against him, finding the waist of Erik’s evening trousers and quickly unfastening the flap at the front. Despite the number of times Charles had touched him, his breath still caught when Charles freed his cock from the constraints of his clothing. The cool air of the room washed over his hot flesh. His skin cried out for Charles’ touch. Oh, how he needed him.

Erik took Charles’ hand and led him to the bed, where Erik quickly shimmied out of his trousers and ripped off his cravat, then his fine lawn evening shirt. Once he was as nude as Charles he kneed towards him on the bed. Charles watched him with wide blue eyes, his cheeks pink and rosy in the candlelight. “What did you have in mind?”

“This,” Erik said, capturing Charles’ mouth as he bore Charles down to the bed, covering Charles’ body with his own. He groaned at the sensation of Charles’ beautifully bare chest against his, and for once Erik didn’t contrast his scarred upper chest with the perfection of Charles’ unblemished skin. Instead he moved down Charles’ body, dropping kisses as he went, until he’d reached the apex of Charles’ thighs. Believing he was in familiar territory, Charles spread his thighs and arched his back, trying to put his cock within easy reach of Erik’s mouth, but Erik put a hand on Charles’ hips, holding him down.

“Trust me, liebling,” he murmured, and slid his hands down to cup the full mounds of Charles’ ass. He dragged Charles down the bed a little, and helped him to bend his knees. Finally satisfied with the way Charles was arranged before him, Erik bent and licked a wet stripe up Charles’ cock. As always, Charles’ responsiveness both surprised and pleased him. He arched forward, crying out, and Erik stroked his hip with his thumb in soothing circles, urging him back to calm. He palmed Charles’ cock and then licked lower, swirling his tongue around Charles’ testicles, lifting the fragile sacs with his tongue and sucking on each one gently. Charles lay back, panting, seemingly unable to do more than give himself over to the sensations. Erik smiled at his capitulation, and then shifted Charles’ hips again, this time to give him access to his arsehole.

He licked at that rosebud circle gently, and Charles gasped again, instinctively pulling away from the shattering glide of Erik’s tongue.

“Erik!” Charles hissed, which only made Erik grin. Still such an innocent, to be so scandalized by this act. He dived back in, using his tongue to breach the entrance of Charles’ hole. The tight muscle constricted but he was patient, and slowly he felt Charles relax, to drop self-consciousness in favour of finding pleasure in this act.

“Until you…I didn’t know—” he heard Charles sob, and Erik shook his head, abandoning the movements of his lips and tongue long enough to speak.

“They were fools, Charles. Damn fools not to give you this. Not to see you like this.”

And Charles was a sight to behold. His dark hair was tousled and curled at his temple, damp with sweat. His passion-bitten lips were swollen and looked obscenely red, even in his flushed, freckled face. And his eyes were fully dilated, pupil-dark and only slightly rimmed with turquoise. Erik allowed himself a moment to drink in the sight of Charles so fully undone before bending once more to his task.

He continued lavishing attention on Charles until his jaw began to ache, until Charles was shuddering and shivering with overwrought nerves. His cock was hard and leaking, and Erik didn’t doubt that, if he so much as touched Charles’ swollen member with the tip of his finger, Charles would immediately explode. He wondered briefly why Charles wasn’t already begging for release, and sat back on his haunches to check his expression. Charles was still panting, staring up at the ceiling, pupils blown wide with pleasure. He looked down and met Erik’s eyes, and leaned up on his elbows. He grinned sheepishly.

“That was…I hardly know what to say.”

“Save your breath,” Erik suggested. “We’re not finished yet.”

Charles frowned, the skin between his brows pinching together, and because Erik wanted to kiss him there, he did. Charles wrinkled his nose at that, but Erik refrained from teasing him. “I was hoping to try something new tonight,” he confessed, holding Charles’ gaze. The amusement in Charles’ eyes slowly faded, replaced with curiosity and a hint of suspicion. It was only natural, Erik told himself, considering what had been done to Charles. Still, his heart sank at the reminder that Charles didn’t trust him fully. “I thought we might…”

Charles bit his lips and glanced down, focusing on some point just above Erik’s navel. Erik waited, knowing that this was a decision Charles needed to make for himself. Erik wasn’t going to try seducing him into it, coaxing him step-by-step to surrender. Charles needed to say the words.

“You can refuse if you like, Charles,” Erik said quietly. “I won’t be hurt, or upset. This isn’t something I need to be satisfied. But I…” he sighed. “I think you need this. You shouldn't have to live in fear.”

Charles tilted his head to the side, considering. Truthfully he wasn’t afraid of anal sex. At least, not with Erik. He trusted him completely. But what the head knew and the heart felt weren’t always the same thing. “We can try,” he said finally. “I want to. Just…slowly, all right?”

Erik nodded. “Of course.” He rose and went to the cupboard where Charles knew the box was stored, the box with the vial of oil. He lay back to rest against the pillows, watching the flex of Erik’s muscled backside as he stalked over to the cabinet and retrieved the box.

He felt…not nervous. Not quite. Excited, yes, and anticipatory, but the fear and anxiety that seemed to swallow him whole whenever he contemplated this act was absent. Perhaps Erik had helped by setting the example; Charles had learned so much from penetrating Erik, and now he knew that he could expect pleasure and intimacy from this act. Still, he quaked a little as Erik came to stand beside the bed, his hard, muscular body limned by candlelight, his enormous erection jutting out proudly from its nest of dark pubic hair. Though he’d taken Erik in his mouth and hand before, numerous times, Charles was still intimidated by the size of Erik’s cock. It looked impossibly large, much bigger than those of the other men who had forced him to endure this act.

But this was Erik, he reminded himself. Erik, who would rather die than hurt him.

“Charles?” Erik asked, and Charles blew out a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding. He looked up at Erik’s face, shadowed by the flickering light, and felt a wave of calm crest and break against him. Everything would be all right.

“I’m fine,” he said, meaning it. He readjusted himself, bending his knees and resuming the posture he’d held earlier. “Let’s begin.”

Erik grinned, teeth flashing white in the dark, and Charles wondered when he’d begun to find that terrifying smile so endearing.

He expected Erik to settle between his spread knees but instead Erik cupped his face tenderly, bending forward to press a gentle kiss against his lips. He kept his mouth soft and pliant, relaxing into the heat and pressure of Erik’s touch, and sighed when Erik began stroking his chest, his belly. There was nothing particularly sexual about Erik’s caress, aside from the fact that they were naked and planned to… But Charles found the gesture soothing rather than overwhelming. His body began to react as it always had to Erik’s proximity and he shifted, bringing his hardening cock into contact with the outside of Erik’s hair-rough thigh. It left a smear of clear liquid that caught the light and shone as Erik moved, and Charles felt the sudden, hot urge to come on Erik’s skin, to mark him in some way that would match the indelible mark Erik had left upon his heart.

Erik deepened their kiss as he continued stroking downward, briefly—too briefly—wrapping his big broad hand around Charles’ cock before abandoning it in favour of brushing his finger over the place he’d so recently worshiped with his tongue. Charles broke off kissing Erik to draw in a deep breath. He closed his eyes, concentrating on the way Erik was touching him, memories of their lovemaking—the brush of Erik’s thumb, the shattering glide of his tongue, the sight of Erik fingering himself open in preparation for Charles’ own entrance—pushed him further into a state of distracted arousal, and so it took a moment to realize when Erik had pushed his oiled finger up inside of him.

It wasn’t painful. Or even unpleasant. It just felt…oddly full. An unusual sensation, but not one Charles minded. He felt his erection flag slightly, and he looked to Erik’s face. Erik was keenly focused, and the intensity of his expression made Charles bite back whatever nonsense he’d been about to babble. Instead he closed his eyes again, concentrating on the pressure of Erik’s long finger. When Erik began to move the digit, Charles shuddered and sank down further onto Erik’s finger in an unconscious request for more. He was shocked at how good it felt. He oughtn’t have been; he remembered well the night of the bath when he’d done this to himself. Still, there was a world of difference between doing it, and having it done.

Because Erik seemed to know everything worth knowing, he understood what Charles was asking for. He pulled out briefly to add another finger and Charles groaned, throwing his head back and thrashing against the pillows. Again the sensation skirted the edge of overwhelming him. He was beginning to sweat now, panting against the delicious pressure inside. And when Erik crooked his finger just so, as Charles had done weeks ago in the bath, he let out a muffled, “Erik, yes!” and fell back against the sheets. The world seemed to shimmer and he felt an enormous wave of hot pleasure erupt within him; instinct drove him to thrust down against Erik’s fingers, and Erik obligingly pushed deeper into Charles. He swore, and rotated his hips against that wonderful pressure.

“This feels…” he gasped, and Erik stopped moving his fingers. Impatiently Charles shifted his hips, trying to nudge Erik into resuming that particular motion. “This feels so good,” he managed. “Don’t stop!”

“I won’t,” Erik promised with another broad grin, and Charles almost moaned. Erik was enjoying this.

“Don’t look so smug,” Charles huffed, arching back when Erik brushed that pleasure-point deep inside him once again.

“I assure you, it’s not smugness I feel,” Erik said darkly, which made Charles shiver. He withdrew his fingers slowly. Charles felt an odd aching emptiness there, one he knew would soon be replaced with a glut of sensation. He angled his hips towards Erik, cracking one eye open just enough to observe Erik pouring more oil from the vial onto his hand, and then slicking up his cock. The sight of Erik’s long fingers moving over himself was almost too much for Charles, and he shut his eyes tightly, waiting for the first hot press of Erik’s cock against his arsehole. When he finally felt that velvet-steel pressure he opened his eyes to find Erik watching him carefully.

“Let me know if anything hurts,” Erik said. “Tell me immediately.”

“Of course,” Charles nodded, the notion of pain so far removed from what he was experiencing that he had to concentrate to recall what it was that Erik was talking about. The exercise distracted him for a moment, and in that moment Erik began to move. He pushed into Charles slowly, so slowly that Charles felt nothing but a steady increase of pressure and the glide of hot skin. Just as he breached Charles’ entrance Erik paused, and Charles felt him draw a deep breath.

“Is it all right?” Erik asked, and Charles wanted to weep at the tender concern in his voice.

“More than,” Charles assured him, looping his arms around Erik’s neck and drawing him close for a hot, sloppy kiss. This had the added benefit of inching Erik further inside, and Charles smiled against Erik’s mouth. The hot pressure was easing as his body adjusted. Before long Erik was fully seated; Charles could feel Erik’s hair-rough thighs pressed against his backside. He shivered with the sensation of being filled, overwhelmed by Erik’s scent and body heat. He focused on breathing, or at least tried to, until Erik took firm hold of his hips and began to move.

It wasn’t anything like the glide of Erik’s fingers, or his tongue. Those, while pleasurable, were limited in comparison to the consuming gratification of Erik buried deep within him. He felt again that fullness, though this time it felt as natural as drawing air into his lungs, and as Erik moved, the head of his cock dragged against that spot inside, the one that lit Charles up with pleasure and made him shake and quake in ecstasy. He wrapped his legs around Erik’s slim hips, pulling him closer, further, deeper. And Erik obliged, driving a little harder against Charles, each thrust punctuated by a snap-twist of his hips that made Charles’ vision blur at the edges. He fell back and leveraged his shoulders against the bed to provide more stability as he thrust up to meet Erik. Erik took firm hold of his hips and held him in place, fucking into him in earnest now, each smooth thrust controlled and balanced on the edge of too much and not enough. Soon Charles was keening, crying out a garbled mess of cant phrases and blasphemy mixed with Erik’s name and pleas for ‘more’, for ‘harder’ and ‘now’ and ‘yes.’ He forgot everything but the sensation of Erik’s body moving into and against his own, and for the first time in his life, Charles allowed sexual gratification to sweep away all conscious thought, until he was only sensation, a physical being that moved in perfect unison with his lover.

He came with a shout, though Charles didn’t know what it was he’d said. Erik’s name, likely, given that he’d been gasping and mumbling it for the last few minutes. He felt Erik spill within him, the wet slide of Erik’s cock suddenly wetter, and then Erik stilled the slow, deliberate thrust of his hips. He sagged against Charles, breath hot against Charles’ neck. Neither of them made a sound aside from their harsh breathing. Down the hall the grandfather clock chimed the hour.

“Did I keep my promise?” Erik muttered against his cheek. Charles could feel the pull of his mouth as he spoke.

“You always do,” Charles whispered. He winced a little as Erik sat up and withdrew, though the pain was only a momentary pinch, come and gone before he fully registered what had happened. And there was the expected seep of liquid, which quickly cooled against the sheets and made Charles shift away from the spot. He’d bled before, with the others, but this time the wetness was evident of nothing but Erik’s pleasure and Charles’ own hazy satisfaction.

“Did you…” he asked mindlessly, immediately forgetting what it was he’d wanted to say. Instead he thought to mumble, “Was that good?”

“You were wonderful, liebling.

Charles flushed at the compliment, and ducked his head down to rest on Erik’s scarred, muscled chest. “Thank you for that,” he said honestly. “You were right, you know. I’m glad that we…”

“Good,” Erik said, dropping a kiss on his damp brow. “That’s very good, Charles.”

In the drowsy aftermath of orgasm, Charles felt safe enough to ask the question. “Have you…have you been with many men, Erik?”

He felt Erik’s breathing still, and then resume. “A few,” he said carefully.

“And women?”

He felt the movement of Erik’s other arm, and he lifted his head to see that Erik was fingering his eyepatch, checking to ensure it was still in place. “A few of those as well.”

“Why—” It was on the tip of Charles’ tongue to ask why, if Erik desired women did he still carry on with men? But a large part of Charles didn’t really want to know the answer.

Erik guessed at Charles’ unfinished question. “Loneliness, I suppose. I never thought I’d remarry. What woman could overlook these?” he asked, indicating the scars on his face and upper body. “And I don’t…I don’t want to have any other children. To bring a child into this world…” He broke off, and shook his head. “It’s easier with men. The ones I’ve been with since…since the fire, haven’t minded the scars. I suppose they were simply happy to have a chance to indulge their desires, no matter what I looked like.”

Charles’ breath caught painfully in his chest. The buried torment in Erik’s voice ripped at his heart. Charles understood, better than most, how lust could turn men into rutting animals incapable of thinking beyond their own desire, much less of the needs of the person beneath them.

But there was nothing in Erik’s touch, or in his treatment of Charles, that indicated he was thoughtless or uncaring. In fact, he’d done everything he could to ensure Charles’ pleasure. It didn’t matter that Erik didn’t love him. It’s enough, Charles thought, though his heart rebelled against the very idea. Yes, he wanted Erik’s love, but Charles would take his kindness and consideration. It was much more than anyone else had ever given him.

It’s enough, he told himself, hoping that one day he’d come to believe that it was true.

****

Chapter Text

After dinner and the occasional game of chess, Charles helped Erik dress for the evening. And every night Erik went down the stairs with a sinking heart. Erik never told Charles about the increasing hostility of the men who gambled at The Coin, of the diminishing numbers that came to play in the once-crowded rooms. Night after night Erik left Charles, safe and unknowing in the world of pleasure they created together, to descend into an atmosphere of contemptuous stares and ever-more daring whispers.

As the rumours continued to swirl around the narrow world of London society, the hatred they engendered was increasingly reflected in the attitudes of the men who came to the casino each night. Erik could feel the tension build as the days passed. And he did not share his growing sense of danger with Charles.

With Charles he buried the smirks and half-heard insults. In Charles he found relief for his growing frustration, and in giving Charles pleasure he soothed the strain created by the tightrope he walked below stairs each evening. He taught Charles with an endless patience the things that pleasured them both, carefully at first, and then with more authority as Charles lost the look of uncertainty that had haunted his expression since their first night together.

It was his most fervent wish that Charles could begin to heal from the wounds inflicted upon him by other men. Erik in turn felt the gradual healing of his own old wounds. He allowed Charles to breech the walls he’d constructed around his emotions since childhood. Allowed Charles finally where no one else had been given complete admission: into the shadowed recesses of his heart.

“You lied to me,” Charles said.

Erik could vaguely feel the gentle movement of Charles’ mouth against his forehead as, propped up on trembling forearms, head lowered, he rested against him.

His shuddering breath eased at last, his body beginning to relax after the culmination of the incredible climb that had left them both exhausted and shimmering on the response of overextended nerves.

“No,” Erik said, finding the breath to answer a question he didn’t understand. But knowing he’d never lied. Only by omission. Only by his lack of an open confession about his past, about that which had brought him to London in the first place. “No,” he said again, finding Charles’ mouth.

“It wasn’t a hundredfold,” Charles said when the long, deep kiss had ended.

Erik smiled. “Perhaps a slight exaggeration,” he confessed.

“An underestimate” Charles said, lips tracing slowly over Erik’s face and, finally, over the velvet eyepatch. “At least a thousandfold.”

“And you didn’t die,” Erik said, his amusement clear in the rich, softly-accented voice.

“Are you absolutely certain?” Charles asked, sated and exhausted.

He jumped when Erik reached down to confirm that he was not, after all, near death.

“Would you like me to demonstrate?” Erik asked.

“Yes,” Charles said, and in the darkness heard Erik’s answering laugh.

****

“I have another name for you,” Azazel said, catching Erik before he mounted the stairs later that night. The Coin had closed just a few moments ago, and Erik was eager to return to Charles. But he paused on the first riser and turned to Azazel.

“What’s the source?”

“The shylukha who runs the Hellfire Club,” Azazel said, keeping his voice low. He switched quickly into Russian. “He’s selling girls. Young ones. He offered a few to the shylukha, but she said she won’t take children.”

“Noble of her,” Erik said bitterly, remembering the icy blonde from the Hellfire Club. “Where’s he getting them from?”

Azazel shrugged. They both knew that, in a city as large as London, unwanted children were easy to come by. The slums were filled with orphans, the streets clogged with beggars. Shaw had the money for bribes; he could pluck children from the workhouses and the foundling homes with impunity.

“How many?” Erik sighed, rubbing at his eye. He hadn’t been sleeping well, given the state of his business and the long hours he spent with Charles. Not that he regretted the latter.

“Not too many to buy,” Azazel said. “But we’d have nowhere to send them.”

Erik nodded, acknowledging the point. He’d been able to offer domestic roles or jobs in his casino to some of the children he’d rescued, but it was much harder to place younger children. And time was running out.

“See what you can find,” he told Azazel. “If we can determine where he’s keeping them, perhaps we can free them en masse. I’ll check with Natasha. She might know where we could send the children.”

“It’s a dangerous gambit,” Azazel said, the low lamplight making his skin seem to glow red. “If Shaw realizes you’re behind it—”

“Shaw’s the least of my worries,” Erik said harshly, and then realized it was true. His mission of vengeance had fallen by the wayside as he’d grown closer to Charles. Fear of reprisal or arrest for their very public relationship occupied the forefront of his mind now. He had to protect Charles and the children he’d already managed to rescue from Shaw’s clutches. What did it matter now if Shaw realized Erik had been working to undermine his interests all this time?

“Did you secure the items I asked for?”

“Da,” Azazel said. “I have the bank draft for you. And the passage tickets. There’s a boat that leaves from the east docks every Tuesday evening at midnight.”

Erik nodded and clapped Azazel on the shoulder. “Good work, my friend,” he said, reassured that, should the worst happen, he would be able to get Charles out of London on short notice. He would not see Charles hang because of their relationship.

He dismissed Azazel and climbed the stairs, trying to calculate how much time they had. Not long, given the waves of anger and resentment flowing off the few men who still frequented The Coin. He and Charles could be arrested at any moment, though he doubted the magistrate had enough evidence to convict them of sodomy. But such technicalities could be waved away, given the public outrage massing against them.

He was tired of thinking about it. His thoughts ran in circles all day, fear and anxiety swirling low in his belly, relieved only when he was pressed skin-to-skin against Charles and once more certain of his place in this world.

Erik stopped before the door to their bedroom, carefully erasing any trace of tension from his face. Despite the danger, and Charles’ plea for honesty, Erik couldn’t tell him that they were teetering on the brink of annihilation.

Just a few more days, he thought desperately.

***

Charles was seated at the writing desk, composing a letter. Erik had seen the envelopes written in Charles’ precise hand, always to the same person—a Lady Moira MacTaggert of Brixton—but Charles had never received any reply. He remembered Charles mentioning a Moira once; he’d said she was a dear friend. But Erik had never looked at Charles’ letters. As long as Charles wasn’t in contact with Cain Marko, Erik had decided he was entitled to his privacy.

When Erik entered the room Charles looked up with a wide smile, set aside his pen, and came to stand before him. He looped his arms around Erik’s neck and drew him close for a long, hot kiss, and Erik, feeling the warning prick of tears, kissed him back ardently.

He was suddenly overcome by a desperate need for Charles. Despite the number of times they’d made love, he could never seem to get enough of him—the warmth of his skin, the sounds he made, his shy, tender smile. And even though Erik’s body was weary and aching, he was suddenly hard and ravenous, thinking only of Charles, Charles, Charles.

Erik stepped back deliberately and began to strip out of his clothes, allowing his expensive evening wear to drop in untidy piles on the floor. Charles’ breathing had changed; he’d caught the edge of Erik’s desperation. He shucked off his trousers and loose shirt—Charles tended to dress very casually, alone as he so often was in their room—and soon they were both naked, bodies outlined by candlelight and the flickering light of the fire.

Erik limped over to the bedside table and picked up the vial of oil that rested there now, no longer banished to the box in the closet. He quickly rubbed oil over his painfully hard cock, and rejoined Charles as quickly as he could. He pulled Charles firmly against him, pressing his arousal into Charles’ belly. He felt an answering hardness in Charles, and then he walked them backwards until Charles fetched up against the wall, bare back pressed to the wood.

“Put your legs around my waist,” Erik growled, uncaring for the first time in their relationship what Charles wanted. Erik’s breath was coming in gasps, his need so intense he couldn’t think of anything beyond burying himself in the hot clasp of Charles’ body.

Charles obeyed without hesitation, wrapping his arms tightly around Erik’s neck as Erik lifted him, supporting Charles’ weight by grasping the firm globes of his buttocks.

Erik used his hand to find Charles’ entrance, and guided himself in. His breath sawed in and out, mocking the almost frantic movements of his body as he rocked closer, into Charles. He plunged deeply, trying to lose all the worry and fear in Charles’ sweet acceptance. Trying to remember Charles’ words. I love you. And the force of that remembrance drove him. He could hear the soft, repeating impact of Charles’ body as he rammed himself into the smaller man, desperate for friction.

Charles’ fingers bit into his neck and Erik was suddenly afraid that he was hurting him. He’d sworn never to do that, or to frighten him. His care had to be so exquisite, so gentle and undemanding, that Charles would forget all that had happened before.

But now…now he was treating Charles as he’d seen men treat his mother, in the house where he’d grown up.

Once he’d wandered out into the hallway in response to this same rhythmic thump against the wall of his room. The sound that he couldn’t stop produced the memory, sharp and painful. A tall, gangly, dark-haired boy standing silently in the doorway, watching as a drunk use his blank-eyed mother up against the wall.

Exactly as he was now using Charles.

Charles, he thought in bitter self-disgust. But nothing could halt the throbbing necessity that was feeding whatever emotion now directed his actions. Charles’ teeth caught fiercely at his shoulder, almost breaking the skin, smothering a moan. In response to that sound Erik tried to check the pounding movement of his hips.

I’m destroying everything, he thought. Just as I always do.

“Don’t,” Charles begged, and Erik’s heart stopped, his veins clogging with ice.

He forced himself not to move. He couldn’t trust himself because, despite that anguished plea, he wanted only to drive forward into Charles again, into the tight, hot grip of his body. Oh, Charles, I’m so sorry, he thought, sick with despair over what he’d done.

“Don’t,” Charles pleaded again. Erik exercised the rigid control that Charles had never called upon before. But he paid the price. His breath sobbed once and he bit into his bottom lip until he could taste blood. His body sagged slightly against the sweat-slick nudity of Charles’.

And then he heard the soft words whispered against his cheek.

“Please, Erik, don’t stop…” Charles moved his hips, tightening his legs to raise himself and push down onto Erik’s cock. Charles licked the sweat that was trickling down Erik’s dark, scarred cheek. “Oh, please,” Charles moaned.

And, with Charles’ movement, Erik’s body betrayed him. The hard muscles of his thighs bunched and he thrust upward. He heard Charles whimper. So much like the sounds he’d always made in response to Erik’s lovemaking.

With those memories the force of his need overcame him again, and Erik lunged forward relentlessly. Unthinkingly. Unaware of everything but the proximity of Charles’ body, the slick slide of his cock inside Charles, the thrusting motion of his hips. I love you, Charles had said. And he needed to believe that Charles could.

Finally, after endless moments, it was over. The violence that had never before held any place in their relationship was gone, washed away by the hot jet of his seed, followed only seconds later by Charles’ climax. He felt Charles shake and then go still against him, a splash of wetness hitting his belly. So beautiful, his Charles.

His Charles. And he’d used him just as the other men had. Just as men had used his mother, with no concern for what she was feeling or what she needed.

His breathing eased, the gasping inhalations gradually becoming easier to drag into his burning lungs. Charles was shivering in his hold. His own legs trembled with reaction.

Please G-d, don’t let him hate me, Erik prayed silently. But he knew there was nothing he could say. Nothing he could ever do that would make up for what had just happened between them. Nothing…

“Nothing…” Charles gasped, as if reading Erik’s mind. Because Erik still held him crushed against his body, Charles’ mouth moved against the soft velvet patch that covered Erik’s ruined eye, that horror of an eye Charles had once caressed with his beautiful, perfect lips. Erik’s heart hurt with the thought of all that he’d lost. A strangled sob caught in his throat but he knew he couldn’t let Charles see him cry, and so he fought for control.

At that strange sound, Charles leaned his head back against the wall to look at Erik. His face was half-shadowed beyond the warm glow of the bedside lamp. Erik’s hair, normally styled into fashionable gleaming waves, was wildly disordered, clinging in damp strands to his forehead and neck.

“I’d thought,” Charles began, his own breathing gasping and harsh, “that there was nothing else you could do. Nothing that you hadn’t done...”

“Charles, I’m so sorry—” he began, interrupting Charles’ confession.

“But that,” Charles continued, as if Erik hadn’t spoken, “You’ve always touched me as if I might break, might bruise if you did anything more than brush your fingers over me. Or your lips.”

From somewhere in his bitter regret he found a tentative smile to answer Charles’. He had no idea what he could do or say. Bracing Charles’ body against the wall with his hips, he could already feel the softening effects of his release. He caught at Charles’ wrist, licking the delicate skin there.

“Because it’s true,” he said, thinking of Charles’ bruised eye and swollen lip on the day Charles had come to him, the bruises he’d left on Charles’ skin that night Banner had come to ‘rescue’ him.

“But I don’t care,” Charles insisted. “And if there are bruises, no one will ever see them but you. You can kiss each one and make it well. Because, my darling, I have never experienced anything like that. Despite all that you’ve made me feel, I never dreamed…”

Charles stopped at what was on Erik’s face.

“Then you don’t hate me? You don’t mind?”

“Mind?” Charles repeated. And his laughter, when it came, was so beautiful. “No, my sweet, very experienced idiot, I don’t mind. How could you believe that? It was so…”

“So what?” he asked, his relief so powerful, so overwhelming, that his legs had begun to tremble again. He didn’t want Charles to know how afraid he’d been. He hid what he was feeling by nuzzling into the soft space between Charles’ jaw and the curve of his shoulder.

“I don’t know,” Charles said slowly. “It was so powerful. So undeniable. So elemental.”

“It was certainly undeniable,” Erik agreed bitterly. “But I never intended to hurt you. Not even to give you pleasure.”

“I know,” Charles said, his lips finding Erik’s ear. His tongue traced against the curved shell, caressing. “I love you,” he whispered again, nipping at his earlobe. And although Erik’s body responded to Charles’ words, slowly swelling into hardness again, his lips never formed the necessary response.

“Come here,” Charles said.

“Here?” Erik asked, finally amused, finally accepting that he wasn’t going to lose Charles. “I couldn’t be any more ‘here’.”

“Yes,” Charles said, one hand slipping down to caress Erik’s left buttock.

“Charles,” he warned.

“Don’t move,” Charles said, focused on clenching his inner muscles tight against the long length of Erik’s cock. His back was against the wall but it was still a tight fit, their bellies pressed together, Erik a heavy weight against him.

Erik obeyed as long as he was able, letting Charles set the pace. In bondage, he thought in amusement. But eventually his body betrayed his iron control, causing him to thrust up against Charles, into him.

“Charles,” he said, all that he seemed capable of saying, of thinking.

“Now,” Charles whispered, tightening his inner grip over Erik and welcoming the surge of Erik’s body that rolled against him like ocean waves.

“Now,” Charles urged again, and once more Erik obeyed. Lost. Lost in Charles. Because he loved him.

****

Chapter Text

“Do you suppose anyone will remember what’s on the playbill tonight?” Charles asked, fidgeting as Erik tied his cravat. He looked down, watching Erik’s large, scarred hands as he worked the silken material into the complicated evening knot. Occasionally Erik's fingers brushed against Charles’ throat and he felt a familiar heat pool in his groin. He was a hopeless case, Charles thought with a small, private smile. The merest brush of Erik’s hand aroused him.

With a final firm tug on Charles’ cravat, Erik stepped back. He examined Charles critically, unaware of how handsome Charles thought him, the smooth sheen of his evening dress and his auburn hair catching the soft light of the lamp.

“What do you think?” Charles asked. “Will I do?”

Erik’s lips quirked slightly, and Charles wondered if he were amused at the question or Charles’ palpable nervousness. Charles only wanted this night to be over. He’d put in his public appearance at Covent Garden tonight, hopefully say hello to a few of his old chums from Eaton, and put an end to the ridiculous rumours about his relationship with Erik. All that seemed wrong would be made right.

“I think,” Erik was saying, his voice low and serious, “that you are the best-looking man in London. And I don’t want to share you with the society fops that will ogle you tonight. Are you sure, Charles, that you wouldn’t rather stay home? Just the two of us?”

But remembering Bruce’s words and the terror of the small pistol he’d waved at Erik, Charles shook his head.

“I want to go, now, before this elegant cravat strangles me,” Charles said, looking around for his jacket. He was still in his shirtsleeves, and wearing a white brocade waistcoat, black trousers, and a traditional white cravat. He felt a bit like a waiter at one of the posh hotels in Mayfair.

Charles tugged at his waistcoat, ensuring his beautiful pocket watch was sitting firmly in its pocket. He wished now that he’d taken Erik’s offer to purchase a dressing mirror. He must be perfect, not a hair out of place. He must remember to smile, and to flirt with the ladies, and say exactly the right thing at the right time. As much as he’d resented his mother’s constant drilling on matters of deportment as a child, tonight he’d thank her for the lessons. He’d need every scrap of that early training to convince the Covent Garden crowds that he was a perfectly normal, perfectly unremarkable gentleman.

Someone flung open their door and Erik turned with a crouching fighter’s stance to confront whatever threat had entered their very private sanctuary. Charles saw him straighten and relax at the familiar sight of Sean.

But something was wrong. Sean rushed into the room and stood panting, trembling with emotion, the paleness of his face almost lost under the mass of freckles that spotted his cheeks and forehead. He pointed with one shaking finger in the direction of the staircase.

“They got Azazel.” He gasped out the words, raising wide, panicked eyes to Erik and then Charles. “Genty-coves in the alley. Said you need to come or they’d carve ’im to bits.”

Erik was pushing past the terrified Sean and running down the stairs before Charles had even made sense of the message. He caught Sean’s shoulder and spun him around, snapping his fingers in front of Sean’s face to bring him out of whatever stupefied trance he’d lapsed into.

“Who were they, Sean?”

Sean swallowed, and seemed to recover himself a little. “’Nobs,” he said. “Genty-coves.”

“Why do they want Azazel?”

“They don’t want Azazel,” Sean said. “They want him. The boss. You’d best stay here, sir. Where it’s safe. Me and Alex will protect you.”

It was an echo of the internal pledge he’d sworn to Erik. And what was happening now, as Charles stood stupidly gawking at a child, was all that he had dreaded through the long days as he’d awaited Cain’s next move. Nobs, Sean had said. Noblemen. Like Cain. And Bruce. The men who were going to punish Erik for the love he’d offered Charles.

Charles’ limbs unfroze and he was running down the dark stairs with as little regard for his footing as Erik had displayed. Through the deserted casino, the empty kitchen. He saw the door to the alley was open. They’d probably dragged Azazel through the kitchens and out into the dark alley, someone to use to get Erik into their hands.

There were shadows on the kitchen wall thrown by the torches carried by the mob. Distorted shapes danced against the red brick. Over the suffocating pounding of his heart, Charles could hear the swell of angry voices.

“But I can take a few of you with me!” Erik was saying, his accented voice not raised to the din but penetrating it in its depth and clarity. Like the men who stood hesitating in the circle of light made by the smoking flame of their torches, Charles too heard the ring of conviction in Erik’s voice.

“Which of you shall be first?” Erik’s amused question urged them on. And in mockery of the phrase the crowd had heard night after night as they played in The Coin Erik said, “Gentlemen, come. Place your wagers. For some, it will be the last bet you ever make.”

Charles slipped out the open door to Erik’s left. He appeared to be totally relaxed and in control of the situation, standing about three feet in front of Charles.

One of the men in the crowd held Azazel. Even in the darkness Charles could see the silver gleam of a knife as the blade was held, trembling, at the Russian’s throat.

Erik felt the reaction to Charles’ presence move through the crowd. The men shifted and began to murmur. Erik didn’t know what had caused that response, and he knew that if he so much as glanced to the left, he wouldn't be able to see anything. The new player in this game had entered on his blind side.

“You’re making a mistake,” he heard Charles say, and like last night, when Erik had thought he’d destroyed all that was between them, he felt icy fear course through his veins and arteries, paralyzing his nerves and muscles with its terrible coldness.

“Charles,” he said, trying not to let any of the fear show in his voice, “go back into the casino.”

“No,” Charles said, oddly calm. “Not until I’ve made them understand.”

“Please go," Erik begged, sensing the gathering anxiety of the crowd. Charles’ presence was making them remember the reason they’d come here tonight. Erik had held the mob under his control, his surety robbing them of theirs. But now Charles’ presence was a visceral reminder of the outrage that had motivated the men to form a mob in the first place. He could feel their anger at what Erik had supposedly done to Charles—and what he was—become almost tangible in the narrow confines of the alley.

“Charles,” he said again, and heard the uncertain pleading in his own voice. If anything happened to Charles… He took a deep breath, forcing power into his words. “Go back inside, and wait for me.”

“He doesn’t have to obey you anymore, you scarred bastard!” Banner’s voice rose from the shadows. “Not any more. Not after tonight.”

“Bruce,” Charles said from somewhere behind Erik. He sounded just as calm and certain as Erik was pretending to be. “Baronet Banner. I told you. Mr. Lehnsherr has never hurt me. And…and there is absolutely nothing between us other than friendship.”

“You don’t have to lie, Charles,” Bruce replied from among the crowd of gentlemen. “You certainly haven’t done anything wrong. Not if you were forced to service that goddamn bastard.”

“No,” Charles said, suddenly sounding desperate. He stepped out of the shadows at Erik’s back, closer to the ring of torches that illuminated Erik and the braver members of the crowd. Erik couldn’t see Charles’ movement on his lefthand side, and because of that he missed the opportunity to catch Charles’ arm as he passed by and pull him back into safety. Even if, to do that, he would have had to drop one of the two pistols he was holding.

But Charles was beyond his reach by the time he moved into Erik’s field of vision. He was walking towards the crowd, and from its heart a figure came to meet Charles. Baronet Banner.

Erik felt an overwhelming sense of relief. If nothing else, Banner would protect Charles. He wouldn’t let the crowd string Charles up, as they clearly intended to do to Erik. He’d seen a noose in the hand of one of the men in the crowd, and he was unspeakably glad that it wasn’t meant for Charles.

But now Charles was between Erik and the throng, in the direct line of Erik’s pistols. He’d risk hitting Charles unless he fired into the edges of the mob.

“I’m not being held prisoner, whatever you’ve been told,” Charles said, his strong schoolmaster’s voice rising above the crowd. “Mr. Lehnsherr has never treated me with anything but respect. You must understand.”

“Charles,” Banner said, his words slightly slurred by drink. “You don’t have to be afraid of him anymore. That’s why we’re here. To take you away. To see justice done. Come, Charles. You’re safe now.”

Banner came toward Charles and Charles took an instinctive step backwards toward the muzzles of Erik’s twin pistols. “Bruce, please believe me,” he said, trying to compel his old friend by the sheer force of his own sincerity. He held out his hand in entreaty and Banner caught Charles’ wrist. Charles twisted, pulling against Banner’s hold. He’d realized too late that approaching Banner had been a mistake: Banner was trying to shift Charles from his deliberately chosen position between the crowd and Erik.

“Let me go, damn you!” Charles said angrily, struggling against Banner’s unexpected strength. In response to that request Banner’s fingers loosened. The unexpected release caused Charles to lose his balance and he stumbled backwards. Towards the pistols.

Erik automatically lowered the weapons, keeping Charles from falling by shoving his shoulder towards Charles’ stumbling figure. He waited a moment until he was sure Charles had regained his balance, then used his forearm to try and sweep Charles behind him.

The moment the menace of the pistols had been blocked, one man in the crowd, reacting more quickly than everyone else, began to move. He’d uncoiled the heavy whip he carried wrapped around his shoulder. It was a weapon with which he was very skilled. And he’d been paid a satisfying amount of money to come here tonight and demonstrate that skill. The men who’d paid him had indicated that he would, for once, be allowed to finally demonstrate just how effective a weapon a whip could be.

“You’re not to be deterred, no matter if the others turn squeamish,” the aristocrat had ordered, smiling. It was the kind of unflinching order Mark Scarlotti enjoyed the most.

The weighted end of the whip whistled out of the darkness just as Erik turned back to face the crowd. He hadn’t identified the sound before the whip did its damage. He never even saw the movement of the lash.

His blind side, Erik realized bitterly. And, just as when Bruce Banner had stabbed him, there was a fraction of a second between the shock of the lash across his face and the pain. But the pain, when it came, was far worse than the other. Because, fighting to keep his damaged eye open, fighting to see through the agony and the blood that was pouring from the stripe of the whip laid open across his face, he knew.

He instinctively raised his hand to what had been his good eye, and realized only with the cold touch of metal against his cheek that he still held the pistols. Reacting to sound alone, which was all Erik now had to rely on, he forced the pistols back in line where he hoped the crowd was still standing.

Despite their brief uncertain wavering, the black eyes of the pair of pistols intimidated the crowd again. The surging flow of the mob halted, arrested once more by the danger the guns represented. Then the lash struck again, curling this time around Erik’s shoulders. He had no way to avoid what he couldn’t see.

Whoever you send to horsewhip me, you be damned sure they bring a very big whip. He’d taunted Cain Marko, and apparently Erik was to be repaid for his arrogance.

He knew that he should shoot, but unable to see anything beyond the hazy glare of the torches when he briefly forced his damaged lid to open, he was afraid. What if Charles had once again put himself between Erik and the mob?

“Dear God,” he heard Charles say. Erik tried to open his burning eye, but there was nothing visible now beyond the warm liquid that was spilling down his face. Tears, perhaps. But more likely it was blood.

“Erik,” Charles whispered, closer to Erik now, his hand suddenly on Erik’s arm. Charles pulled him as the whip whistled through the darkness. He felt Charles’ start of reaction, and realized with horror that the whip must have touched Charles.

He struggled fiercely to push Charles away, but he was hampered by the pistols he knew he couldn’t drop. Charles threw himself against Erik’s chest. Not expecting the blow, Erik stumbled back against the brick wall. The whip whistled and cracked again in the darkness, but Charles was against him, his arms covering Erik, his body protecting him.

He heard Charles’ voice shouting angrily into the darkness. “Stop it, damn you!” he said. “Stop it! Haven’t you done enough? What do you want from us?”

Knowing he had no option, Erik raised his left hand and discharged one pistol into the air. The surging movement of the crowd, which he had judged by noise alone, was halted once more. There was no sound now, only Charles’ heavy breathing.

“I’ll shoot the next man who moves,” Erik said, injecting authority into his voice despite his fear that it would tremble. It was a gambler’s bluff, one he prayed that no one would call. He held the second pistol unwavering in the direction he hoped was the centre of the mob, and waited.

“Look at Xavier,” a voice from the crowd said finally. Erik’s finger tightened over the trigger. He’d heard that voice before, but it was a moment before he placed it. Anthony Stark. The Duke of York. Charles’ friend.

“What more do you want?” Shark’s voice, sharp with anger and disgust, asked. He received no answer. “What more proof do you need that what you’ve been led to believe isn’t true? Do you intend to flay Mr. Xavier in order to save him?”

Charles stared back at the crowd, still shielding Erik with his body. The dark marks of the whip were visible through his white lawn shirt. Blood welled there in long, dark streaks. Charles was defiant, hating himself as much as he hated the crowd.

This was all his fault.

He barely recognized Anthony Stark’s voice. He didn’t even watch as Bruce Banner furiously wrenched the murderous whip from an unfamiliar man in the crowd. One by one, the mob melted into the shadows. Finally recognizing the reality of the situation, they’d all disappeared from the confrontation with their own cowardice.

“Charles?” Erik asked, turning his head, trying to understand what was happening. There were no more torches to light the night, and the casino itself was dark.

“It’s all right,” Charles reassured Erik, taking his arm. He pulled Charles against him, holding Charles as if he would never let go. He was safe, and apparently the threat no longer existed.

“It’s over,” the Duke of York confirmed. He’d remained behind the dispersing mob to offer what help he could.

Erik reversed his hold on the pistols, holding out the grips for Charles to take. Charles took them gingerly, and handed them over to Anthony Stark. “Let’s go inside,” Charles said, shock at what had just happened making his voice sound flat and almost disinterested.

“Are you all right?” Erik asked, turning his head towards Charles.

“Other than a stained shirt and a few cuts across his shoulders, he’s fine,” Stark said. “I swear to you it’s the truth. I’m only sorry I didn’t arrive in time to stop them.”

“I think you arrived just in time,” Erik said grimly. “And now, if you’ll take Charles inside…” he suggested, still worried that the crowd would return for further retribution. He groped for the door frame, infinitely relieved when his knuckles brushed against the rough stone of the outer wall.

“This way,” Stark said, no trace of emotion showing in his cultured voice. He caught the hand that Erik lifted to touch the door, and put it instead on his shoulder. “Charles knows,” he said, and then louder, “Let me help you.”

At Erik’s small nod of acquiescence, Stark turned towards Charles, who stood trembling at Erik’s side.

“We need to get him inside and send for a doctor,” Stark said.

Charles nodded and shook himself, trying to clear the aftereffects of shock. He led the way towards the kitchens, and behind him he heard Anthony Stark’s quiet directions as he guided Erik across the threshold and to the kitchen table.

Whatever Erik said in response was too quietly spoken for Charles to hear. And it really didn’t matter. In his heart, which had earlier tonight held such hope, there was nothing. Because Charles had failed again.

The Markos had won.

****

The Duke of York left to find a doctor as soon as he had placed Erik in his manservant’s care. Azazel cleaned the blood from Erik’s face and gently spread salve on the diagonal slice across his right eye. He held open the swollen lid, intending to introduce some of the ointment directly onto to the damaged eye.

“Don’t,” Charles said in horror. They had to wait for the doctor. This was too important for any of the Russian’s primitive treatments.

“It’s all right,” Erik reassured Charles. He held out his hand to the dark corner in which Charles stood.

All my fault, Charles thought for the thousandth time. He didn’t notice Erik’s outstretched hand, which eventually dropped to lie quietly in Erik’s lap as Azazel worked.

Azazel carefully examined the cut across Erik’s shoulders and began tearing strips of white flannel to use as a bandage. Charles watched the process mutely, overwhelmed by guilt and grief. But he reacted instinctively when he became aware of two men standing in the dark, still-open doorway of the kitchen.

Charles found the pistol Stark had left on the table and pointed it with unwavering menace at the two gentlemen in the doorway. He held it with as much surety as Erik had used in front of the crowd just a quarter-hour ago.

“I’m a physician,” said one of the men, stepping forward into the light. He was tall, balding and distinguished-looking in his dark evening dress. “Would you allow me to examine Mr. Lehnsherr’s injury?”

“He’s an excellent doctor,” said the second man, who also stepped out of the shadows. Charles recognized him; his name was Stephen Rogers, son of a minor house that had risen to prominence long after the fall of the Xaviers. “I’m so sorry about what happened here tonight.”

“Rogers?” Erik questioned, wondering what was happening to produce that particular note in Rogers’ voice.

“Mr. Xavier seems to object to our presence,” Rogers explained carefully.

“Charles, Mr. Rogers is a friend of Anthony Stark’s.” Erik said. “It’s all right.” He wanted so badly to hold Charles, to determine with his own hands that Charles was whole and uninjured. But the thought of groping his way across the unremembered obstacles in the kitchen held him prisoner. Coward, he mocked himself. He was afraid to let Charles see him now, to see the reality of what had happened tonight. A reality that Erik himself was just beginning to accept. A reality that he feared was too much to ask Charles to deal with. He’d already been forced to accept so much of what Erik was.

“Mr. Xavier is holding a pistol on Lord Rogers,” the doctor said into the strained silence.

“No, Charles,” Erik said. “Rogers came because he’s a friend. He’s here for your…for our protection.”

Erik turned to where he believed Rogers stood and addressed him directly. “I want your word, Rogers. No matter what else happens, I want your promise that Charles will be safe.”

“You have it,” Rogers vowed. “No matter what,” he repeated Erik’s deliberate wording. He spoke directly to Charles.

“I think you should allow Dr. Erskine to begin his examination. The longer we delay—”

Rogers, the doctor and Azazel all watched as the barrel of the elaborately chased French dueling pistol slowly lowered. Erskine started to move across the dimly lit kitchen to his patient before Charles had finished lowering the gun.

The doctor’s thin white fingers were as gentle as a woman’s. He carefully examined the damage the whip had caused, both across Erik’s cheek and lid, and then inside the eye itself. Erskine’s words were soft and noncommittal, touching on the major damage and inflammation in “cases such as this,” but Charles caught the way Dr. Erskine exchanged an anxious glance with Stephen Rogers.

The doctor also removed Erik’s patch, glancing with professional interest at Erik’s old scars, and then, using the white strips Azazel provided, wrapped the bandages tightly around Erik’s eyes.

“Do not remove this until I do so myself,” Dr. Erskine warned sternly, looking first at Charles and then at Azazel. Silence reigned as Erskine finished wrapping the bandages around Erik’s head. The finality of the action robbed them all of conversation. Not that it mattered; Charles didn’t heard half of what had already been said. He was thinking that the strip of white was too bright against Erik’s dark auburn hair. Too alien. The blackness of the patch was a familiar sight, but this, this stark announcement of impairment, was too much.

“Charles?” Erik asked.

Charles moved then and sank to the floor in front of the chair in which Erik was so calmly sitting. Erik didn’t turn towards him and Charles found himself hating the aloneness, the isolation. Uncaring of the presence of Lord Rogers and the doctor, Charles rested his temple against Erik’s knee. His eyes were dry and burning. He hadn’t cried: the realization of his guilt and sense of failure was too deep to allow any other emotion to penetrate.

Erik ran his fingers lightly through Charles’ hair, caressing and comforting against his scalp. Charles finally reached up and caught Erik’s hand, bringing it to his cheek. He held it there a moment, the familiar warmth and subtle fragrance of Erik’s skin a buffer against tonight’s horror. Charles turned his face and pressed his lips into Erik’s palm. His fingers cupped Charles’ face, thumb brushing gently under Charles’ eye.

“I thought you were crying,” he said.

“No,” Charles whispered. “I’m not crying.”

“You’re not afraid?” Erik asked, and Charles could hear the concern in his voice. “Stark will be back soon, and—”

“Don’t,” Charles said. “I’m not afraid.”

Azazel pressed a cup of tea against Charles’ shoulder, and when Charles turned, Azazel caught his eye and nodded, jerking his chin at Erik. Charles took the delicate porcelain cup and raised it to Erik’s lips. He recoiled at the acrid aroma of the tea.

“Drink it, darling,” Charles begged, and was relieved when Erik finally obeyed. He lifted one large hand to wrap around Charles’, and together they tipped the cup against Erik’s lips until it was empty.

Rogers stepped forward to help Charles get Erik on his feet. Charles remembered how quickly the drugged tea had taken effect before. When Banner had…

There had been nothing but pain and injury since he’d come into Erik’s life. He’d brought him only destruction. Charles had thought he could escape his own pain by offering himself to Erik, but he should have known that he’d only bring devastation.

“Charles?” Erik asked. They’d paused at the bottom of the stairs, waiting because Charles wanted to say something. “Are you coming upstairs?” Erik hated to ask, but he knew he couldn’t sleep unless Charles was safe, unless he was holding him. G-d, how he needed to hold Charles.

“Of course,” Charles lied. “As soon as Dr. Erskine’s had a chance to look at my shoulder.” Charles saw the sudden agony in Erik’s face but his words had the intended effect. He let go of Charles. Charles guided one of Erik’s hands to the railing, Rogers supporting Erik’s other arm. Charles met Rogers’ eyes, nodded, and slipped away.

He waited until Azazel went upstairs to see to Erik before slipping out of the door into the alley, one of the dueling pistols clutched tightly in his hand.

****

Chapter Text

Charles should have known that Cain wouldn’t be at home, but he’d lost all sense of time. It seemed like an eternity since he’d dressed with such painstaking care for an evening at the theatre. A hundred years since he’d stood in that dark kitchen and watched others care for Erik. But the hall clock in the Marko townhouse confirmed it was not yet midnight, and Cain might not be back for hours.

If anything, though, Charles’ stepbrother was a creature of habit. When he finally arrived home Cain would go into his father's study and pour a nightcap from the French brandy on the silver tray. Even in the heart of the French blockade that supply had never failed. Cain would go there. And so Charles went to the study.

He had no idea how long he waited. The images from the alley flickered endlessly before him. Erik'd had control of the mob. He’d tried to convince Charles to leave, and if he had, perhaps nothing would have happened. But in his determination to convince them they were wrong, Charles had refused. And then…

“You’re out very late, Charlie. Or up very early,” Cain’s voice interrupted from the shadows.

He’d stood watching the still, silent figure a long time before he’d spoken. Cain wasn’t really surprised to find Charles there. Not given the account from his hired man about the events in the alley behind the casino.

Cain well knew Charles’ courage, which he’d demonstrated for the mob tonight. But because he’d lived so quietly with Lehnsherr, Cain had managed to put any question about his stepbrother’s feelings out of his mind. He’d never dreamed that Charles would, as he obviously had, fall in love with the bastard gambler.

Those brilliant blue eyes, darkened by emotion and deep shadows of pain, rose to Cain’s face. But Charles didn’t speak.

Cain lumbered over to the table with its beckoning decanter and poured two generous measures of brandy. He took a long pull on one drink, and set the tumbler back on the tray. The other he brought to Charles. His stepbrother wore no coat, just his whites shirtsleeves, and even in the dim light Cain could make out the telltale seep of blood through the white cotton.

“A difficult night?” he asked conversationally, holding out the tumbler.

At Cain’s question, Charles’ worst fears were confirmed. Cain had planned the attack in the alley.

He was pleased to see his smirking smile fade when Charles raised Erik’s dueling pistol and held it to Cain’s broad chest. Cain took an instinctive step back, the liquor in the tumbler sloshing over his hand.

“What the hell…” he began.

“No more, Cain. It’s over,” Charles said. He saw the realization move through Cain’s eyes. But as Charles had expected, he denied knowledge of what Charles meant.

“No more?” he questioned.

“I’m going to kill you,” Charles said calmly. “I know it’s the only way to be free. I don’t think warning you will be sufficient. You’ve never had to give up anything you’ve wanted, and I know that you want something from Erik. Or myself. And tonight, whatever it is you wanted cost Erik his sight. So I’m going to kill you, and then it will finally be over.”

“Charles,” Cain protested, trying to laugh at the ridiculous threat. But his laughter faded at what was in Charles’ face. And in his eyes.

“No more,” Charles repeated. The Markos had done everything they could ever be allowed to do to the people he loved. In his hand, Charles held the key to their protection: Erik, Raven, even Moira. He’d been such a fool not to use it before.

“You don’t understand,” Cain argued, entreating creeping into his tone. “You’re mistaken.”

“No,” Charles said, shaking his head. “I’m not mistaken. You’re the one who sent Bruce after Erik before.”

“No, damn it,” Cain denied hotly, “I had nothing to do with Banner’s idiotic attack. You know as well as I how Banner behaves when he’s drunk.” It was almost the truth, but Charles spoke over his denial.

“But you’ve been fueling the rumours. That vile gossip. You’re the one who set tonight’s events into motion. I don’t know why you did it, but there’s no doubt in my mind that you’re responsible. And this time—”

“I wasn’t there tonight,” Cain pointed out. “I had no part in what took place. It was Shaw who—”

“Shaw?” Charles latched on to the familiar name. Was Cain…were he and Shaw working together? “So you had nothing to do with it. But you know all about it,” Charles clarified. “Coincidentally, I suppose?”

Cain paused, and Charles could almost see the mind working behind those black, beady eyes, trying to devise the best explanation. The glib excuses.

“Not this time,” Charles warned. “There’s no way out this time, Cain. I’ve come to call due all the debts the Markos owe me.”

The pistol lifted slightly, aligning itself exactly with Cain’s heart. Cain’s retreat was instinctive. Charles didn’t bother to question that backward step. He was still well within the rage of the weapon.

“And who will care for the Jew?” Cain asked in a sudden fit of inspiration. His voice was a little higher-pitched than normal, but he still maintained some semblance of calm. And his words dropped like stones into the shallow pool of Charles’ certainty.

“After they send you to prison for murdering me, I mean,” Cain continued. “Assuming he doesn’t hang for sodomy, your lover will become just another blind beggar clogging the streets. Is that what you’re willing to condemn him to? You’ll have your revenge, Charles, but will you enjoy it, knowing that his fate was all your fault?”

The phrase caught like a knife’s edge against his mind. All your fault. And he knew it was.

Cain didn’t understand the pain that moved into Charles’ wide eyes. He couldn’t know that Charles already blamed himself for Erik’s injuries. Shaw's hireling, the man who’d introduced himself as Whiplash, had not been that perceptive. He still couldn’t fathom his stepbrother’s affection for that bastard, but Cain no longer doubted what he had been told about Charles’ actions in the alley. Not with that unwavering pistol trained on his heart.

His words had made an impact, and Cain was shrewd enough to follow up whatever advantages his wits could devise in this situation. If he could make Charles believe that there was another way out…

“It needn’t come to this, Charles,” he said. “There’s a better way. A way that will allow you to tend to Lehnsherr and protect our dear sister without ever worrying about me again. My wants are simple. And so easy to gratify.”

Charles watched as Cain’s lips moved into an ironic smile that he didn’t understand. But he knew that Cain had once again gained the upper hand. That’s what happened when you loved someone. That love could always be used against you.

“It’s especially easy to gratify given your lover’s present…misfortune,” Cain suggested. With Charles’ help it would be easy to accomplish what he’d suggested. All these weeks he and Sebastian had plotted and schemed, hoping to incite someone to either kill the Prussian or bring the law down on his head. But all it had taken was a touch of the whip and Charles’ blessed naiveté, and Cain could have it all.

“What do you want?” Charles asked, and Cain began to breathe again. He hadn’t been wrong. The Jew was the key to manipulating Charles. Once it had been Raven, but Lehnsherr was a far better target now, easily within his reach and so very vulnerable.

Part of him had despised what his father had done to Charles, but now he understood Kurt’s motivation. Desperate circumstances sometimes called for actions that one normally wouldn’t undertake. As this one certainly did. “The plantation in Cuba,” he said, and then realized by Charles’ puzzlement that he, at least, didn’t know what Cain had lost in that damned game with Lehnsherr.

“Cuba?” Charles repeated. “I don’t know…” He could see the sudden remembrance stop Charles. “My father’s sugar farm? But why? We’ve known for years that it would never be profitable. Why would you want—?” Charles shook his head, trying to make sense of what Cain was suggesting. The operation in Cuba had been worse than worthless; after the end of the Atlantic slave trade and the revolts on the island six years earlier all production had stopped. Even Kurt Marko hadn’t been brave or foolish enough to defy the British patrols to bring new slaves into Cuba.

“The Spanish are in better control now,” Cain said, “and the price of sugar and tobacco is high enough to justify the…” He stopped, wondering why he was bothering to explain his business plans to Charles. “God, Charles, it doesn’t matter why I want the farm. Just give it to me and we’ll call it quits. I promise you. If I get what I want, you and Lehnsherr are free to go and do whatever you wish. I swear on Father’s grave, I’ll never bother you again.”

Charles was watching Cain’s face, and he heard the desperation in his voice. He thought of all that had happened because of what Cain wanted. Bruce’s attack, the rumours, and then tonight… Could it all be fixed so easily?

“And Shaw?” Charles asked. “What does he want?”

“Does it matter?” Cain frowned. “He’s just a concerned friend, that’s all. I understand there’s some bad blood between him and Lehnsherr, but Sebastian is just as worried as I am about your welfare. And our good family name.”

Charles shook his head. “Why didn’t you just ask me?” Charles said, unable to believe that this was what it had all been about. Just a small plantation in Cuba. “Why didn’t you tell me? Is this…is this why you’ve done these things to us? God, Cain, money?” he whispered, thinking only of Erik’s outstretched hand groping for the railing of the stairs.

Cain heard the whispered us, and knew that he had won. Charles had allowed himself to be caught in the trap of caring more about someone than he cared about himself. Poor Charles, he thought. So easy to manipulate when your heart is so vulnerable.

“But the farm is not yours to give, Charles,” Cain reminded him. “I’m still your legal guardian. The property was mine until you turn twenty-five, and I lost it to that Jew bastard of yours in our game of chance. I did write to you offering a solution,” Cain pointed out, angered at the memory of the letter that had been returned to him unopened. “But no matter how willing you would have been to give up ownership,” Cain continued, “I doubt Lehnsherr would have been as accommodating.”

“He doesn’t care—” Charles began, and Cain’s taunting voice interrupted.

“About money?” he jeered. “But I thought that’s why your relationship began. Because Lehnsherr couldn’t wait the few weeks it would have taken me to set our finances aright. Don’t tell me he doesn’t care about money. That’s all his dirty tribe cares about. You’re blinded to his true nature, Charles, but rest assured, I’m not.” He saw Charles wince at his wording, and Cain smiled.

“No pun intended, my dear brother.”

“How?” Charles whispered, needing this nightmare to finally be over. He would do whatever Cain wanted if he could guarantee that Cain would be out of their lives forever. That’s all he’d ever wanted: to be rid of the Markos and their poisonous influence, and whatever threat this Sebastian Shaw represented.

“You get him to sign a bill of sale. Guide his hand to the right line of the document, and make him sign it.”

“And if he’s so concerned about money, how I am to convince him?”

“He’s blind, Charles. He won’t know what he’s signing. Tell him it’s a tradesman’s bill. He’ll never know the difference.”

“No,” Charles said, straightening the pistol from the slight droop he’d unconsciously allowed. “No, Cain, I would never do that. I won’t lie to him.”

“Then you have no choice, Charlie. You’ll have to shoot me, and damn Raven, and condemn Lehnsherr to grope his way through the streets of London. The very dangerous streets,” Cain reminded him. “If he doesn’t sign the bill of sale, then killing me is your only way out. Because I intend to have that property. It’s not his. It belongs to our family.”

It belongs to me, Charles thought, feeling numb. It was my father’s, and it should be mine. But such things hardly signified. Not when he had to choose between murdering a man, or betraying the one he loved.

“A blind man is so vulnerable to accidents, Charles,” Cain taunted. “So many dangers lurk in the darkness…”

Cain knew he’d gone too far when he saw the reactive tightening of Charles’ finger. He couldn’t be sure about the trigger tension of the antique dueling pistol. Some men preferred them sensitive to the slightest pressure.

“Charles, watch what you’re doing!” he warned, a note of panic creeping into his voice.

Charles looked down at the gun as if seeing it for the first time, and then deliberately forced his finger to loosen. “Don’t threaten him again,” Charles warned. “Or Raven. Now, if I do what you want, what guarantee do I have that you’ll never bother us again?”

“My word, Charles. The word of an English gentleman.”

He heard Charles’ small, bitter laugh. “That’s what you promised Erik. The card game. He told me later…” But he would never share with Cain anything that had happened with Erik. Those memories belonged to Charles. “I want a signed contract. If anything happens to Erik, any ‘unforeseen accidents,’ then the plantation reverts to my ownership.

“Of course,” Cain said, his mind busy with the obvious flaw in that plan.

“And if anything happens to me, it becomes Raven’s.”

“Then you intend to tell her about this agreement?” Cain mocked, smiling.

“I intend to put the agreement you write into the hands of the Duke of York, to be opened if anything—anything—happens to either Erik or myself. If you want to keep your plantation, you had best pray nightly for our continued health and safety. You’d better hope that Erik meets with no accident. Because if he does, Anthony Stark will see to it that you profit no longer from Cuba. And I don’t think you want to tangle with the Duke. He’s a good friend of mine, you know,” Charles said firmly, allowing a trace of sarcasm to colour his voice.

“Damn you, Charles,” Cain said, meaning it. Charles had learned all that Kurt Marko had taught him. Cain was only glad Charles hadn’t taken a hand in what he was plotting until now. Because he could still carry this off. He still had Shaw’s assistance, and he could use Raven, and Charles’ very real feelings (as unfathomable as they were) for that scarred, blind bastard, to gain the upper hand once more.

“All right. An exchange,” Cain proposed. “The signed bill of sale for my agreement to your terms. I’ll send the document for Lehnsherr’s signature as soon as I’ve had my man of business draw it up.”

“And I’ll write up the other,” Charles said quickly. “When you’ve signed it, you can have the bill of sale for the plantation.”

“Agreed,” Cain said finally. “I don’t think we’ll need this any longer.” He reached out and Charles handed him the dueling pistol. Cain held it by his fingertips, it as if it might explode at any moment.

“Was it even loaded?” he asked sarcastically, feeling bolder now that the muzzle wasn’t pointed at his chest. He laid the intricately chased gun on the table beside the decanter.

“Aren’t you glad you weren’t forced to find out?” Charles said. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to return home. I need—” He broke off, knowing that Cain already knew how he felt about Erik, but instinctively wanting to hide his feelings from his stepbrother.

“Of course,” Cain said, smiling. “So much to see to. For you both.”

He walked Charles to the entryway, and when he opened the massive door of the townhouse they were both surprised by the sunrise staining the eastern horizon. Cain found he still held the brandy he’d poured for Charles.

“A toast, Charles,” Cain said, taking a long pull of the fiery liquid, grateful that he was still capable of enjoying that simple pleasure rather than lying in a pool of his own blood on the worn Turkish carpet of his father’s study.

Charles turned back, puzzled. His blue eyes were shadowed by the costs of the night. Cain raised his glass in salute.

“To the success of our joint venture,” he explained, euphoric that he was going to get everything he wanted after all. And at a very small price. An easily kept promise.

“To our success,” Charles echoed. Anything that would ensure Erik and Raven’s safety. He’d make a pact with the devil himself to assure that his loved ones would suffer no more because of the Markos.

Cain laughed and closed the door, and Charles was left alone on the stoop. He shut his eyes against a sudden, overpowering sensation of relief. He’d wanted so badly to pull that trigger. It had been so hard to bargain for safety when all he’d wanted was revenge.

”And who will care for the Jew?” Remembering Cain’s question, the one that had prevented Charles from avenging Erik, Charles sagged against the door frame. He waited a long time for the vertigo to stop, afraid to open his eyes and feel the blackness threaten again. He’d never fainted in his life, but he knew what was happening now.

Despite his surprise, he was grateful when a strong hand grasped him under the elbow and steadied his swaying figure.

“I’ve come to take you home,” Anthony Stark said. He’d finally found Charles Xavier in the last place in London he could have imagined he would be. The last place Charles should be, if what Stark believed was true.

Stark was trying to understand what was in Charles’ face in spite of the condemning toast he’d overheard, but as always the Duke exercised a practiced control over his features. Despite the doubts and suspicions that were beginning to ferment in his mind, he wanted to believe that Charles wasn’t capable of plotting against Erik Lehnsherr.

Charles nodded, meeting Stark’s eyes with complete trust. They’d known each other since boyhood. And because of that, Charles allowed Stark to direct him to the waiting ducal carriage.

He’d faced Cain and won. And now he’d have to face the man he’d injured. The man he’d spend the rest of his life caring for, in hopes that one day Erik might forgive him for ruining his life.

Beyond his original greeting, Stark said virtually nothing to Charles on the journey back to the casino. Charles supposed, when he briefly considered Stark’s silence, that the Duke was feeling bitter anguish about what had happened. And then Charles forgot all about Stark and tried to picture Erik, and to consider what he might do to make the unbearable bearable. Because it must be borne. Again and again his thoughts jarred against the painful, inevitable reality.

Erik was still asleep when they arrived back at The Coin. Charles managed a quick wash and a change of clothes in his old guest bedroom, not wanting to risk waking Erik. He denied Azazel’s efforts to see to the cuts across his shoulders. Charles had forgotten all about them until he tried to peel off his shirt and found the material was stuck to his skin with dried blood. He'd had to use hot water to sponge away the material. The marks the whip had left were deep and still seeping blood, but Charles didn’t bother to see to them beyond wiping the blood away with a towel. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered but carrying out the arrangement he and Cain had agreed to. And then he and Erik would be free.

Hopefully the Duke of York could be prevailed upon to help Charles get Erik out of London. He didn’t know where they could go, but anywhere would be better than staying in this city, prey to vicious gossip and the looming penalty for loving as they did.

Charles sat most of the day by Erik’s bedside, simply watching him sleep. He knew the instant Erik woke, and caught the hand that Erik extended to him.

“Charles?” Erik asked.

“No, it’s your other lover. The one you keep only for emergencies,” Charles teased, blinking away the sting of tears.

Erik’s lips moved upward slowly in his familiar one-sided smile, and Charles was relieved. He could do this. Erik would never know how he felt. He’d never reveal any of his guilt and remorse. Only his love. And his acceptance.

“Are you all right?”

“Of course,” Charles said. “I told you last night.” He tried to inject a smile into his voice. He hadn’t bothered to put a shirt on and so he leaned forward, guiding Erik’s hand up over the two long stripes that tracked across the top of his bare shoulders. Erik’s fingers were gentle as they traced the cuts, and then his hand fell to rest in his lap.

“Satisfied?” Charles asked, bending to touch his lips to Erik’s forehead, just above the swath of white bandaging.

“I don’t think so,” Erik said, “but if that’s the best you have to offer…” he finished suggestively.

Charles smiled. Erik was trying, too. And also hiding the cost.

Answering that teasing challenge, Charles placed his lips over Erik’s and felt them open, welcoming. Erik tangled his fingers in Charles’ hair as his tongue invaded. Nothing had changed. Charles’ body responded as it always did to Erik’s touch, the sparking sensations travelling up his body like embers up a chimney. The hot moisture of Erik’s mouth, the press of his tongue, the hard strength of his hand cradling the back of Charles’ head…it all conspired to undo him. Charles’ breath was coming shallow and too rapid. His cock was painfully hard and he’d begun to tremble at the thought of moving against Erik. Taking him, as he had before. And travelling to the place only they had ever been.

“Touch me,” Charles breathed into Erik’s mouth. “I want you. I need you so much, darling,” he whispered, sliding his hand under the sheet to find that Erik was nude, and that he needed Charles as much as Charles needed him. Charles palmed his hard cock, stroking it and feeling Erik’s shivering response.

Erik found Charles’ waistband and began to fumble at the flap that held his trousers together. Charles never thought to help him. He kept kissing Erik deeply, his tongue melding with Erik’s, until Erik pulled away from him in frustration. Charles unwillingly opened his eyes, slightly disoriented by Erik’s sudden withdrawal.

“Damn it Charles, take them off. I can’t…”

“What’s wrong?” Charles asked, still lost in the familiar spell of seduction.

“I can’t undress you. I can’t manage the damn buttons. Take off your trousers. I want you.”

Erik’s anger and frustration made no sense. He’d undressed Charles so often before in the dark, laughingly dealing with cravat knots and buttons. This was only one of the barriers they would have to overcome. Every hindrance would loom larger; Erik would blame every problem on his blindness.

But that didn’t matter now. The only thing that mattered was to give Erik what he wanted. What they both needed.

Charles stood up too suddenly, hurrying to do as Erik asked. And the darkness that had threatened outside Cain’s door engulfed him. Charles caught at the post as he had the night at Vauxhall, when he’d had too much champagne. After the supper. The thought of that night’s rich food made Charles gag and he began retching, trying to control himself as he stumbled to the door and out into the hall. He heard Erik’s voice raised questioningly behind him, but Charles couldn’t answer him. He reached the hallway before the spasm of nausea had its inevitable result.

After it was over Charles leaned weakly against the wall, exhausted and still dizzy. He heard footsteps on the stairs and suddenly Azazel was there. He forced Charles down to the floor of the hallway, pushing Charles’ head between his folded knees.

“Breathe, malyutka,” Azazel ordered. Charles caught his hand and held on until the darkness passed.

“What is it? What the hell is happening?” Erik’s furious voice finally broke through Charles’ effort to compose himself. “What’s going on?” he demanded again.

Charles looked up to find Erik standing, beautifully nude and still slightly aroused, in the open doorway. He watched his strong Roman nose wrinkle against the unpleasantness in the hallway, and Charles closed his eyes at that evidence of Erik’s disgust.

“Go back,” Azazel said, rising and guiding Erik back into the bedroom. “The malyutka, is sick.” The rest he said in muttered Russian, and Charles listened to the fading explanation as Azazel led Erik away. He closed his eyes and leaned back against the wall.

It was shock, he supposed. Shock, and no food or water in hours, and the guilt that was still twisting through his gut. The cool wood felt good against the cuts on his shoulders, which were throbbing as if on fire, and his head was pounding. The nausea gradually passed and Charles waited, hearing again the soft pad of footsteps as Azazel returned.

Erik lay rigidly in the bed he’d been ordered back to like a child, listening to the murmured conversation between Charles and Azazel in the hallway. Despite Charles’ words, despite his attempt to act as if nothing had changed, Erik supposed this was Charles’ reaction to his sightless, inept lovemaking.

Despite Dr. Erskine's assurances, cold fear began to spread inside him. What if he were always condemned to this unending darkness? And more frightening even than that, what if Charles found he couldn’t cope with that possibility?

****

Azazel installed Charles in the guest bedroom and Alex brought up a cup of drugged tea a few minutes later. While Charles slept Azazel finally cleaned and bandaged the cuts from the whip, and the rest of the servants retreated downstairs to mull over the events of the previous night.

“Isn’t there anything else we can do?” Angel asked as she bent over the hearth, boiling more water in case it was needed to cleanse any further injuries. Alex, who was busy at the table ripping strips of linen into bandages, shrugged.

“I s’pect the worst is over,” he said, tearing away another long strip. “Boss’ll be leaving England soon, though. ’E can’t stay here.”

“Why not?” Sean asked. He dumped the load of firewood he’d just brought in from the lean-to at the back of the house. “They can’t do any worse to him, can they?”

Alex rolled his eyes. “’Course they can. What he and Mr. Xavier do - it’s a hanging offence. ’Sides, I reckon that The Coin is closed for good. Who’ll come gamble with a blind Jew?”

“What about Mr. Xavier?” Kitty finally found the courage to say. She’d been huddled in a corner of the kitchen, still shaking from the aftereffects of seeing the angry mob crowded so close to the home she’d thought was a safe haven. The other servants hadn’t known the kind of violence she’d seen in the Pale of Settlement, where an angry crowd of men, also bearing torches, had come for her father and mother.

“Dunno,” Alex said, focusing on his task rather than risk tearing up. “Be best if ’e cleared out too. It’s not safe here. Not for either of ‘em.”

“But it’s their home,” Kitty whispered, eyes filling with the tears Alex wouldn’t risk shedding. “It’s our home. What will happen to us?”

Angel frowned, using a folded towel to transfer the heavy kettle from the hearth to the large cast-iron stove. “What do you think’ll happen? We’ll find other positions, Kitty. Or it’s back to the workhouse.” Or brothel, she didn’t say, although she knew at a glance that Alex was thinking the same thing.

“Boss will not let that happen,” Azazel said, thick consonants cutting into the fire-lit intimacy of the kitchen and the concerns of the frightened children who gathered there. “You will all be safe.”

Alex stood, bandages slipping through his fingers to pool on the rough-hewn kitchen table. “You don’t know that,” he insisted, jabbing a finger at Azazel. “Don’t…don’t make promises you can’t keep. Boss is injured, Mr. Xavier’s sick, and both of ‘em could go before the magistrate any time. Don’t pretend everything is fine, ‘cause it ain’t!”

Azazel listened to Alex’s outburst, his scarred face impassive. He alone knew about Natasha Romanov’s friend in Calais, about the plan to rescue these children and others like them. And he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that their employer would rather die than allow any of the children to fall back into Sebastian Shaw’s clutches.

“You will be safe,” Azazel repeated, his decision made. He left the kitchen without another word, heading out into the foggy morning to carry out his duty.

****

Chapter Text

Sean woke Charles late that afternoon, insisting that Charles drink the bitter tea he’d brought up from the kitchens. Apparently the concoction worked, because when Charles rose to dress he felt no giddiness, and certainly no nausea. He was hungry. But since he had eaten nothing the day before, that was hardly surprising. Sean brought him toast and a soft-boiled egg, and when he’d finished, Azazel came in to check his shoulders.

“You take Boss his uzhin,” Azazel suggested. At Charles’ blank look, Sean stepped forward.

“His dinner,” he clarified, and Charles nodded his thanks, noting how pale and worried Sean looked. The servants would be terrified, Charles realized. He wondered how much they’d seen the previous night, if they understood how perilous the situation truly was.

He gave Sean a comforting pat on the shoulder. “Thank you,” he said simply. “I’ll take Erik’s tray in,” Charles said, dismissing Sean and Azazel so he could finish dressing.

Azazel stopped at the door. “Boss is worried,” he said. Charles paused in the midst of tying his cravat and nodded, acknowledging Azazel’s point.

“So am I,” he said.

He accepted the small breakfast tray from Azazel, which held only a roll and a steaming mug of chocolate, and escaped to the bedroom next door. He silently cursed himself for not trying to reassure Erik earlier. He’d never stopped to consider how Erik might be feeling about his desertion last night. Now that he thought about it, that had been the first night they’d slept apart since the bath.

Erik was sitting at a small table near the open window. His face was lifted into the lingering warmth of the setting sun, a faint breeze stirring his dark auburn hair.

Charles stood silently in the doorway a moment, enjoying the purity of Erik’s profile and the strong spread of his broad shoulders, which were highlighted against the light. His hand rested loosely on the table, the curve of his long fingers relaxed and graceful in their supple strength, and Charles could almost feel them touching his skin, smoothing across his chest or tangling in his hair as Erik pulled him down for a kiss.

Charles’ body responded as it had yesterday, wanting him. Even moreso now, perhaps, because of the danger they were in.

“Good evening,” Charles said quietly.

Erik turned to his voice, and even the stark reminder of the bandages wrapped around his head couldn’t intrude on Charles’ pleasure in being with him. The guilt was beginning to fade now that he’d finally taken action. Soon it would all be over, Charles repeated in silent litany. Soon he’ll be safe.

“Azazel said you were feeling better,” Erik said.

“I’m fine,” Charles said, trying to keep his voice cheerful. He set Erik’s dinner tray down on the table with a soft rattle. “It was a reaction to everything. I didn’t sleep and I forgot to eat. No harm done,” he finished, worried he was babbling.

“And last night?” Erik couldn’t stop the question. None of the decisions he’d reached in the long, lonely hours of the night would stay his tongue. He couldn’t force Charles to stay if the blindness was permanent. But he still couldn’t stop himself from asking where Charles had been when he’d needed him.

“I slept in the guest bedroom,” Charles said, knowing what Erik’s simple question implied. Erik had wanted Charles, and he’d failed him. But soon he’d be free to explain. “I brought you dinner,” he said, trying to put them back on more normal footing. To pretend that nothing had changed. He turned to face Erik but was at a loss as to how to begin.

“Where’s Azazel?” Erik asked, sensing Charles’ hesitation.

“In the kitchen,” Charles said, rubbing his forehead. “But I can help you as well as Azazel.”

“No, damn it, that’s not why I brought you here—”

Charles laughed, interrupting Erik’s expression of his reluctance to accept Charles’ help. The shock of his amusement stopped Erik’s words.

“I never thought I’d hear that again,” he said, still smiling. “All those reasons why you didn’t bring me here. Be careful, Erik, or you’ll have to decide all over again exactly why you did.”

“Damn it, Charles—”

“Chocolate,” Charles broke into the heart of Erik’s furious protest. “And a roll. That hardly seems like enough.” As he talked he lifted Erik’s hand, and Erik was too surprised by the action to resist. Charles directed him to touch the top of the porcelain cup that held Erik’s beverage. His fingers automatically closed around the rim; Charles removed his hand and began to break up the roll into bite-sized pieces.

“Alex didn’t send any jam, but maybe Azazel decided that we shouldn’t try that until we’re a little more coordinated about this,” Charles said matter-of-factly.

The silence from the other side of the table was ominous but he ignored it. Finally Erik’s fingers moved carefully down the cup to the handle, and he lifted it, bringing the cup up to his mouth.

Charles allowed a small smile at Erik’s surrender.

Erik found the saucer with his other hand and carefully replaced the cup after he’d taken a few sips. Without any hesitation Charles touched his fingers again, and Erik relaxed enough for Charles to direct him to the small plate where the pieces of roll waited.

Charles watched Erik eat, finding nothing distasteful about the slight uncertainty of his movements. He could see the concentration in Erik’s face and so he didn’t talk, unwilling to distract Erik from learning the new skills he had to master.

When Erik finished, the relaxation of his body was almost visible. He sat back in the chair and turned his face back to the vanishing warmth of the setting sun.

“Dr. Erskine’s coming tomorrow,” Erik said.

“Oh?” Charles said, knowing that it couldn’t matter.

“There’s no pain now,” Erik told him, offering reassurance that what the doctor had thought must be true. If there was no inflammation, then the cut on his eye shouldn’t affect his vision. He’d still been able to see that night in the alley, at least before the swelling of the damaged lid and the blood had obscured his vision.

But because, in Charles’ shocked reaction, he hadn’t heard half of what Erskine had explained that night, Charles read nothing into those words beyond the simple statement.

“I’m glad,” Charles said, tidying up the dinner tray.

“Charles?” Erik said, turning back to face him.

“I’m still here.”

“Do you think…” Erik’s question faltered and then died.

“What is it, darling?” Charles asked.

“You seem so far away. Almost as far as last night.”Don’t beg, damn it, Erik cursed himself silently.

He heard the creak of the chair Charles had been sitting in, the soft susurration of the material of his trousers, but he was still unprepared when Charles settled in his lap. Overcome suddenly by the very fragrance of Charles, the warm familiar sweetness of his clean body, Erik felt again that ridiculous prick of tears. Charles could unman him by simply touching him. He’d never cried, not even as a boy.

Charles touched his cheek and Erik leaned into the comforting smoothness of his warm palm. Charles found his lips and pressed his open mouth against Erik’s.

“Charles,” Erik breathed, his hands finding, without any hesitation, Charles’ back, and then his waistband. He slipped his fingers beneath Charles’ waistcoat and shirt, bunching up the material until he found soft, warm skin and the hard bone of vertebrae. He didn’t allow himself to think about yesterday. He only felt and savoured the strength of Charles’ hands, which clung to his shoulders, communicating his need with the increased pressure of his fingertips, nails digging in to demonstrate his body’s urgency. He could feel Charles growing hard and his body answered in kind, pushing up into Charles’ weight.

He nudged Charles’ knee until Charles slid off his lap and stood, and then Erik rose. But the small table tipped as his hip brushed against it, sending the table crashing over along with the dinner tray, the porcelain cup, saucer and plate, and the lamp, all of which shattered on the floor.

Erik froze. He lifted his head, turning his face to the sound, and only then did Charles realize what had happened. “It’s only the table,” he said, dismissing the entire incident until he saw Erik’s face. He swallowed at the barely-contained fury gathering there. “It doesn’t matter. It’s always been unsteady. I think one leg—”

“Damn it, Charles,” Erik ground out.

“It doesn’t matter,” Charles repeated more insistently. “There was only the tray and the lamp.” He gripped the back of Erik’s neck, trying to urge his mouth down to Charles’ waiting lips, but Erik resisted. His jaw was rigid. A small muscle jumped beside his mouth.

“Hell, I can’t even…”

Again he stopped. Charles moved his hand down Erik’s arm, never losing contact with him until he could take Erik’s hand. Erik’s fingers closed over his, but Charles could feel the trembling reaction to the shock that had interrupted them.

“This way,” Charles said, directing Erik around the upturned legs of the table. He followed without protest, and Charles hated most of all the loss of Erik’s easy assumption of leadership in their relationship. Before, Charles had done whatever Erik wanted, willingly following Erik’s lead. And now…

He blocked that thought and led him to the bed where they had spent so many hours relishing their growing intimacy. He placed Erik’s hand on the tall post and then stepped back quickly to shed his clothing. Charles took the time to push his pants and shirt out of Erik’s way with the sweep of his foot, but when he looked up he saw the same tension in Erik’s jawline.

Charles put his hands on Erik’s shoulders and lifted on tiptoe to kiss him. There was no response; Erik’s lips were cold against his. He pressed his body along the thin, muscled length of Erik’s and realized that Erik had lost the urgent desire that had begun this. Determined to overcome any obstacle, Charles began undressing Erik. He wanted his skin against Erik’s, with no barrier of clothing between them.

Finally Erik began to help and Charles smiled, infinitely relieved. This meant too much to them both to allow any regret over what had changed to interfere with all that had not. The flame that had burned between them from the beginning could not be extinguished by any shift in their circumstances. Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds. Nothing here had changed. Nor would it ever.

He led Erik at last to lie down, but as Erik sank down to the bed he pulled Charles after him. Again, it was Erik’s sure authority, his experienced mastery, that dominated from then on.

There was now no uncertainty in the movement of his hands as they traced over the familiar landscape of Charles’ body. Nor did his tongue need Charles’ instruction in its intent or destination. He tenderly teased Charles’ nipples, pulling gently and then with a fiercer demand. Charles’ breath feathered against Erik’s ear as he nibbled and sucked, and then as he trailed lower, he listened to Charles’ rapid breathing as he kissed the tip of Charles’ cock, slipping his hands under Charles’ slim hips to lift him up and bring his cock closer to Erik’s mouth.

Slowly, skillfully, Erik sucked him until Charles cried out and pushed him away, breathlessly close to orgasm but unwilling to come until Erik had spilled. Erik reacted to Charles’ gasp and slid up his body, dragging his own hard cock over Charles’ stomach. He arched, needing Erik, needing the return of his kiss, the fullness of him. He reached for Erik’s cock but Erik pulled away from Charles’ grip. Here, his was the guidance, the direction. And because he wanted that, Charles obeyed. He angled his body until their cocks lined up, and then deliberately shifted his hips, brushing his cock against Erik’s.

“Charles?” Erik whispered.

“Now,” Charles begged. “Please, Erik. Now.”

Erik reached down and cupped them both in one hand, and Charles gasped at the hard warmth of Erik’s hand and the hot velvet-softness of Erik’s cock against his own. Erik thrust against Charles, up into his hand, and Charles shivered, his body thrusting up to meet Erik’s. Together they set a driving motion and Charles closed his eyes against the intensity of the sensation, feeling the tightness of Erik’s grip, the surety of his movements as he worked to pleasure them both.

Just as he came, Charles opened his eyes to smile into that single, silver, glittering eye that was always waiting to acknowledge his rapture. And instead he found the unrelenting whiteness of the bandages.

Fighting the inertia of his body’s release, Charles lifted his chin until his lips found Erik’s. He should have spoken first, he realized, when Erik started against that unexpected touch. And then his mouth opened to receive Charles’ kiss. He was still hard and full and so Charles broke away, sliding down until he was faced with Erik’s cock, long and thick and flushed red with desire. Charles couldn’t resist brushing his lips against the jutting bone of Erik’s hip before licking a long, wet stripe up Erik’s cock.

He took Erik in his mouth and began the motions he’d perfected through so many endless nights with Erik. They’d spent so many hours giving and receiving pleasure, unhurried and, finally, uninhibited. Erik had given him so many gifts, but this was the one Charles appreciated most: in Erik’s arms this act had turned from one of subjugation into one of intimacy and love. He felt joined to Erik, his movements matched to the soft groans and thrusts Erik made, advance and retreat, like movements on a chess board.

Erik tangled his fingers in Charles’ hair, tugging gently at the roots. The clean, warm smell of Charles’ skin invaded his nostrils. If the other, lost ability to find Charles’ face, cheeks hollowed and face soft with passion, was never to return, Erik knew suddenly that this would be enough. To smell and touch and taste Charles and know with certainty that Charles was his forever. How much more of paradise was anyone promised?

After he’d come he held Charles too tightly, the feel of Charles’ damp, panting body so right against his own. So precious. He could bear anything as long as it wasn’t losing Charles.

“I was so afraid,” he admitted, the confession torn from him, too weakened by gratitude to stop the words.

“Of what?” Charles asked. He drew Erik’s mouth down to caress over his eyes. He didn’t realize that he was echoing the desires of his own heart. To touch Erik there. To kiss what had been taken from him, and assure him that his blindness didn’t matter. He knew Erik wouldn’t want that, and so Charles found delight in the movement of Erik’s lips over his own closed lids.

“That I’d lost you,” Erik said. “That you couldn’t bear this now. That you didn’t want me.” The gentle nudge of his lips was such a contrast to the hard demands his body had made before. Strength and gentleness. Always they had been his weapons in this arena.

“How could you believe…?” Charles shook his head in amazement that Erik still didn’t understand the power he had over Charles.

“I’ve lost everyone else,” Erik said.

Charles waited but there was nothing else, no follow-up to that statement.

“But not me,” Charles whispered. “I’m not going anywhere, Erik. I want you too much. I’ve always wanted you, ever since…ever since I was a boy.”

Erik laughed but then, hearing Charles’ sincerity, he stopped and waited.

“I dreamed about you,” Charles confessed. “About what you’d look like, and how you’d touch me.”

“Before we met?” Erik asked, his fingers moving tenderly over the curve of Charles’ shoulder.

“Long before. That’s why, at the inn, I knew it was you. You thought…you thought I wanted you because I was too young and inexperienced to know any better. Because I’d been hurt before, although at the time you didn’t know exactly how. But you were the man I’d imagined. Before the fire. And I was so sorry you’d been hurt.”

Erik tilted his head, uncertain how to respond. “You were sorry that I no longer matched the fantasy you’d created?” he suggested, but there was no anger in his voice.

“I suppose,” Charles said. “Until you kissed me. And then I knew that you were the man I’d always wanted. The other didn’t matter. And I tried to tell you that, but you’d gone. And then Cain…”

He froze. Cain again. Because of Cain he’d agreed to trick Erik, to use the blindness Charles had caused to deceive him.

“And then Cain sent you to me. Remind me sometime to tell your stepbrother how grateful I am. But don’t do it too soon,” Erik said. There was something in his voice that Charles hadn’t heard before. He shivered with the deadly promise it held.

“You still don’t believe that I came to you because I wanted to,” Charles pointed out, driving the dark thoughts from his mind. “Because I’d already fallen in love with you.”

“You were in love with the man you’d created,” Erik said. “The man you’d imagined me to be. The good, honest, decent fellow who wouldn’t force you or degrade you. How long did it take you to realize I wasn’t that man?”

“You never forced or degraded me,” Charles insisted. “I’d never imagined a man could be so…gentle. I knew you were dangerous—” He paused at Erik’s soft chuckle at that description, “—and then instead, you were tender. You made me feel safe. And you seemed to know exactly how to touch me, to hold me.”

“Remind me not to tell you how I knew those things,” Erik said, smiling.

“You never tell me anything,” Charles chided. “You demand honesty, and then—” Honesty that he wasn’t giving.

Erik interpreted Charles’ hesitancy to finish that thought as a silent request that he finally share one of his closely-held secrets. Something of his life before he’d met Charles. He drew a deep breath, breaking his own internal vow not to ever tell Charles about Sebastian Shaw.

“I grew up in a whorehouse,” he said, with no explanation to soften the fact. “I learned a lot about people there. Languages. What people feel. What they desire.”

Charles could think of nothing to say, no way to answer that shocking confession.

“Surprised, Charles?” he asked, the quiet bitterness clear.

“I thought… I thought you grew up in a shetel,” Charles whispered, at a loss. “One of the Jewish ghettos.”

Erik shook his head. “I was born in one, yes. But when…when my father was killed, my mother and I—” He swallowed. That part of the story was so hard to speak of. “I’m very different from the gentlemen you’ve known before,” he said instead.

“From Kurt Marko? And Cain? And the other men who brutalized me?” Charles drew a deep breath. “Then yes. You’re very different. But in a good way.”

He let that quiet statement sink in before asking the next, inevitable question. “Erik, what happened to you?

Erik closed his eyes. He’d never told anyone. Azazel had guessed at some of it—he knew why Erik was determined to destroy Schmidt—but no one knew the whole story.

“My father was murdered,” he said slowly, wondering where to begin. “He was a jeweller in Danzig. A gifted metalsmith. Everyone came to him, even the Gentiles from across the river. One of them, an aristocrat, asked my father to make him a piece of jewelry. He offered my father a handsome amount to do it. But when the gentleman came to collect his ring, he refused to pay the price my father had quoted him.” Erik held still, breathing through his nose. He could finish this.

“It was such a small difference in price, really. Just a half-thaler. And he shot my father over it. He dropped the coin on my father’s body as he left.”

Charles squeezed Erik’s hand. “That’s…that’s why you named your casino The Coin?”

Erik nodded, searching out Charles’ face in the dark. “That man ruined my life. And my mother’s. We didn’t know it at the time, but the man who killed my father visited us not long after the murder. He said his name was Klaus Schmidt, and that he was a doctor. He said he’d heard about our ‘misfortune,’ and claimed he’d found work for my mother as a domestic in Berlin. At the time…I suppose it sounded like the solution to all of our problems. But he lied to us. When we arrived there, my mother discovered that she was expected to work in one of the brothels he owned.”

He heard Charles’ hushed intake of breath. He felt as though he ought to defend his mother’s decision. “She had no other options. We’d spent every penny on the journey from Danzig, and we were starving.”

“But the authorities—?”

Erik shrugged. “Why would they care? My mother was a Jew from the east. They would have only thrown her in a debtor’s gaol, and I would have gone to a workhouse.” He waited, but Charles said nothing more, and Erik continued. “So she worked for him. For six years she serviced the men he brought to her, until she fell ill. Then I was alone, and Herr Schmidt said that I had to ‘earn my keep’ just as my mother had.”

“Erik, you didn’t—“

“No,” Erik said quickly, hearing the pained concern in Charles’ voice. “No, I ran away. I lived on the streets and begged or stole to survive. I learned how to fight. How to gamble. Finally I met an old rabbi whose son was a blacksmith. He taught me the trade and I went east to the Ukraine. A fresh start.” He smiled bitterly, the conclusion of his story obvious. What had begun there in hope had ended in fire.

He brought Charles’ hand up to his scarred chest and laid it over his heart. “I vowed when I was a child that I would destroy Klaus Schmidt. And I will, Charles,” he swore. “I found him here in London living under an assumed name. He’s still a pimp and a thief, and he’s murdered dozens of people. He has to be stopped.”

“But what can you do?” Charles interrupted, clutching at Erik’s hand. “He sounds like a powerful man. And now that you’re injured—”

Erik twisted away but Charles caught his face, his thumbs brushing in soothing strokes over Erik’s cheeks, just below the bandages.

“Please don’t put yourself at any further risk,” Charles begged. “Not now. Not when we’ve only just found each other.”

That stilled Erik. He’d known that he’d eventually be forced to decide between a future with Charles and getting his revenge on Schmidt. But he hadn’t wanted to make that choice so quickly. Just a few more days. That had been his mantra for the last few, desperate weeks, and Erik knew that time had finally run out. He had to ensure that Charles was safe, that the children he’d rescued were protected. And kill the bastard who’d ruined his life.

So much to accomplish, when all he wanted was to lie here next to Charles and ignore the incoming tide.

“I’m sorry, Charles,” he said, meaning it with all his heart. He wanted to say more, to apologize for everything: the danger he’d brought into Charles’ life, the horror of his history and his driving need for revenge. Everything he touched crumbled to ash. He was cursed, and Charles was far better off without him.

If only he didn’t need Charles so badly.

“You have nothing to apologize for,” Charles said quietly, his breath ghosting across Erik’s cheek. “Just please, promise me that you won’t put yourself at risk. I couldn’t bear it if—”

Erik pressed his finger against Charles’ lips, stopping the request. He couldn’t make Charles any promises. Especially not now, when everything was so uncertain.

Instead of allowing him to speak the words, Erik found Charles’ mouth and kissed him deeply. Eventually Charles’ mouth softened under his and he surrendered to the distraction, shifting under Erik until their bodies realigned and they began again that mindless plunge towards ecstasy.

We’ve only just found each other, Charles had whispered. And Erik moved to prolong what little time they had left.

****

Chapter Text

“Cain was certainly the instigator of the most vicious gossip,” Anthony Stark was saying. “Tracing the beginnings of rumour is like trying to catch smoke, but the inner circle of Marko’s friends remember that the first time they heard those stories about Erik and Charles, it came from Cain’s lips.”

Erik nodded. “That’s only what we suspected. And Banner’s attack?”

“Spurred on by Cain’s earliest interventions, perhaps, but I’m sure Bruce acted on his own. He’s quite…protective of those he thinks of as his friends.”

“And the bastard with the whip?” Erik asked softly. The Duke, a dangerous man in his own right, was not surprised by the venom in Erik’s question. Not considering the circumstances.

Natasha Romanov cleared her throat, glancing briefly at the Duke before directing her words to Erik, who sat in a chair in front of them, bandaged head tilted towards her. “He’s a mercenary. Calls himself Whiplash. He’s…he’s one of Shaw’s men.”

The silence was broken by Erik’s soft curse. “Shaw and Marko are working together.”

Natasha chewed her lip, considering. “I doubt it was actually a partnership. Shaw’s likely been manipulating Marko to move against you so that he doesn’t have to get his own hands dirty.”

“Sebastian Shaw has never been overly concerned about dirtying his hands,” Erik pointed out.

Natasha looked at Anthony Stark once more. “You’ve made some powerful friends. And Shaw has a lot of enemies. He couldn’t afford to strike at you directly. But if Cain…”

“Marko’s a rather inept plotter,” the Duke said.

“Too arrogant,” Erik agreed. “Whatever Cain Marko wants, he believes the world owes him. And be damned to anyone who stands in his way.”

“As you do, apparently,” the Duke said dryly. “So be damned to you. Even if you are Charles’ paramour. Or perhaps because of it.”

“What does that mean?” Erik interrupted, caught by the note of tension in Stark’s voice. He’d never thought of the Duke of York as a man who played coy with what he wanted to say.

“Charles disappeared the night you were hurt,” Stark said carefully. “I searched for him all night.”

“And?” Erik asked impatiently.

“I finally found him in the one place he should never have been, considering what we know now.” Stark hesitated and continued with the bitter truth. “I found Charles at Marko’s townhouse.”

“And obviously you took that to imply…what? That Charles was somehow involved in what Cain had planned?”

The silence grew until Erik spoke again.

“I think you’re right not to answer that,” he told Stark. “I don’t have enough friends that I can afford to lose one. And Cain is Charles’ brother. That was his home. You seem to have forgotten that.”

Stark sighed, and Erik heard Natasha shift her weight uneasily. “What is it?”

“Is there any doubt in either of your minds as to Cain’s involvement in what happened?” she asked.

“No,” Erik said. “Not given that the man with the whip was Shaw’s hireling.”

“And you don’t believe that Charles must have known that?” Stark countered.

“Whatever Charles knew,” Erik said tightly, “wherever you found him that night, Charles didn’t have a part in the attack. He’s the one who put an end to it.”

“But not until—”

“This?” Erik said, pointing at the white swath of bandaging that covered his eyes. “You think they could have planned this?” Disbelief joined the anger that had begun threading through his slight accent as soon as Stark and Natasha had made their careful suggestions. “This is the result of…Charles came into the alley, and I tried to get him out of the way, to put him behind me. I turned around just as that bastard let fly with the whip. They couldn’t have known that particular sequence of events, unless you truly believe Charles wanted to achieve just this result. How could they have planned to blind me? It’s a little too precarious a plan.”

Stark didn’t argue against that denial, and neither did Natasha, but again the silence stretched between them.

“No, damn you. That I won’t believe,” Erik said finally.

“Charles and his brother were sharing a toast when I arrived that morning,” Stark said. “They were unaware that I could overhear their conversation.”

“I assume you feel that I ought to know what was said,” Erik suggested bitterly, hostility thick in his voice. But somewhere inside a sickness was growing, and against his will he remembered what had been in Charles’ eyes the day he’d returned from delivering his ‘apology’ to Cain at the Hellfire Club. Charles had known then that Cain had end his life.

“They drank to their joint success,” Stark said, watching the reaction to his words in Erik’s scarred face.

“No,” Erik said again. “I’m no Othello. I know Charles—”

“And I’m no Iago,” the Duke interrupted. “Damn it, I’ve known Charles since we were children. Do you think I want to tell you this?”

“You believe Charles is involved in what’s happened,” Erik said. It was a statement, not a question.

“I believe…” Anthony Stark hesitated, unwilling to condemn on the slight evidence he had collected, but knowing in his heart what men were capable of. And there seemed to be no other explanation. “I have no idea. But why would Shaw or Cain start those rumours? What purpose could they serve?”

“I should think that was obvious,” Erik said. “To get me killed. I refused Cain’s challenge. And I can imagine how that duel would have been set up. You spoiled that plan by your offer to second. He and Shaw would never have been able to carry out anything underhanded with your supervision. And then the rumours began. The more gruesome stories about what I was doing to Charles. They were hoping someone else, someone noble or self-righteous like Banner, would eventually put a ball through my heart.”

“But how would your death benefit Cain Marko?” Natasha interrupted. “Cain might be arrogant, but he’s not stupid. What does he have to gain by your death?”

“Charles’ freedom?” Erik suggested. “Is that the answer you’re looking for? Dammit, I told you…” The rigid lines of his body conveyed his anger and frustration at his inability to do anything about the situation.

“Do you have a better reason? You continue to insist…how can you be so sure that this doesn’t all come down to Cain’s desire to release Charles from your bargain? The bargain Cain got him into, a bargain that Charles no longer wants?”

“No,” Erik interrupted. He clenched his fists, and deliberately released the tension in his hands, using the arms of the chair to push himself up without stumbling forward. “You have a wife, I believe, your Grace?” Erik’s voice was frigidly polite. “Would you believe that she’d ever plot to have you killed?”

There was no answer to that challenge for a long time.

“No,” Stark finally admitted.

“No matter what evidence was shown to you?”

“No,” the Duke repeated, this time without hesitation. “Despite my…indiscretions, Pepper would never—”

“Even if someone could give you a reason for believing her capable of hurting you, of wanting you dead? Could you then give that person a reason for your certainty?”

“Perhaps not.”

“But you would still know. Yourself. Without a doubt.”

“I’d know,” Stark said. “And you’re right. You’re no Othello.”

“Hamlet,” Erik said softly. “At least until this comes off.”

The Duke and Natasha watched as Erik lifted his fingers to touch the bandage, as they had often lifted to touch the velvet patch. Stark hoped Dr. Erskine was right, and that Erik’s sight would return in time. Otherwise, he knew that the revenge Erik deserved would be left up to him and this female mercenary.

Stark was afraid Pepper would never understand that necessity.

****

In the midst of Erskine’s protracted examination of his eye, Erik began to wonder what bad news the doctor was delaying. He’d thought only of this moment, and of the suggestion Natasha and the Duke of York had reluctantly made about Charles, since yesterday afternoon.

All night he’d held Charles against his heart, listening to his gentle breathing. He’d buried his face in the fragrant softness of Charles’ hair after they’d made love, the knowledge of the toast Charles had made with his stepbrother running through Erik’s mind. Over and over in the long hours he’d held Charles he remembered, too, what had been in Charles’ eyes after Cain’s challenge. And in the cloying darkness that surrounded him, Erik had endlessly relived those moments in the alley, trying to prove to himself that what the Duke and Natasha had suggested couldn’t possibly be true.

“Warm water,” Dr. Erskine said to Azazel, who hovered over his shoulder, a silent spectator since the examination had begun.

“What is it?” Erik demanded. It was so hard not to know what was going on, not to be able to read the expressions on the faces of the men around him.

“A slight suppuration,” Erskine explained. “I’m going to clean it away and try to open the lid. There’s still some swelling but the outside laceration seems to be healing rather well.” The quietly professional voice faded as the doctor made his skillful examination.

“Suppuration?” Erik repeated, questioning the silence.

“An infection. It’s not surprising, given the nature of the—”

“Yad,” Azazel said in Russian. Poison.

“What the hell does that mean?” Erik asked harshly, his sudden fear making him want to strike out at the voices that surrounded him, the voices of people he couldn’t see. If only he could read their faces, see what was in their eyes when they talked to him. He’d always been able to tell by a man’s eyes if he was lying.

Determinedly he buried the memory of what had been in Charles’ eyes that day.

“A slight inflammation,” Erskine said. “I told you this was a possibility, given the nature of the wound.”

“You told me if there was no inflammation—” Erik took a deep breath to control his voice. “Does this mean…?”

“It means the eye needs cleaning, and then given time to heal. That’s all it means, thus far. The body has remarkable abilities to recover, if we let nature take her course.”

“Meaning that you don’t know how to prevent this slight inflammation.” Erik frowned. “There’s nothing you can do? No potion you can try?”

“No,” Erskine said firmly. “And if I did know of any medication that could prevent suppuration and discharge, I’d hesitate to use it on a delicate organ like the eye. You may certainly call in another physician,” Erskine paused, just as aware as Erik that there were very few Jewish doctors, aside from Erskine, who would practice outside London’s shetels. And a Gentile doctor would never treat a Jew. That Rogers had found the man at all was a small miracle. “But in my professional opinion your best option is to wait and see.” Realizing the inappropriateness of that expression, the doctor amended it. “Wait and let nature heal, if she can.”

“And if she can’t?”

“Then you’ll lose whatever vision you have left in the eye,” Erskine said bluntly, but his honesty was a kindness. At least he knew that the doctor wasn’t hiding anything. “But I’m not willing to concede yet. The discharge is light, and the outer cut is healing so well…”

As he talked, he applied a cloth soaked with warm water to the bottom of Erik’s damaged lid, soaking away the brown crust that had glued the long, dark lashes to Erik’s skin.

The doctor worked patiently, and there was no pain. When the doctor finally lifted Erik’s swollen lid, he could see light. There was nothing in focus and the world was lost in a hazy glow, but there was light.

“I can see the lamp,” he said softly.

Erskine released his lid. Erik felt the doctor’s gentle hand brush over his shoulder.

“That’s a good sign,” he said. “As I said before, the inflammation seems to be slight. If all goes well—”

If,” Erik echoed bitterly.

“I never lie to my patients,” Erskine said. “I can give you no guarantees. Have your man bind this again, and I’ll reexamine you in three days. Please don’t disturb the dressing until I return. Perhaps we’ll know more then.”

Azazel left to show the doctor to the door, and when he returned he found Erik with his head in his hands, slumped over the table.

“We can fix the eye,” Azazel said in Russian. Erik brought his head up sharply. “We can fix the poison. Like the other cuts.”

“How?” Erik said in English, feeling a sudden leap of hope at Azazel’s surety, despite what the doctor had said.

“Same as on the cut on your side. We can heal the…” Azazel stopped, hesitating over the unfamiliar English word. “Sup-pur-ation,” he said, repeating Erskine’s word carefully.

“The salve?” Erik asked. “Have you ever used it on an eye before?”

He heard the creak of Azazel’s boot as the man shifted his weight. “Net,” he admitted. “But I think it could work. We can heal the cut. The medicine I make is good. Not like this English horseshit.”

Erik was silent for a long time as he weighed the limited options. He really had no choice. Erskine had, in his brutal honesty, offered no guarantees, and Azazel’s skill had never failed Erik before.

One chance to save what he had. One roll of the dice. Against the odds, he acknowledged bitterly.

Charles. There was now so much to lose.

And slowly, Erik nodded.

****

Chapter Text

The document Cain had promised came that afternoon. Azazel brought it up to the guest bedroom where Charles had retreated to write his half of the contract. Erik was asleep in the other bedroom, catching up on the rest he’d missed the previous night.

“Will send it back, yes?” Azazel said. He’d placed Cain’s sealed letter on a silver tray and presented it to Charles as if he were handling a snake. Charles looked up from his task, utterly absorbed in ensuring that he’d left no loophole in the contract for Cain to slip through.

“No,” Charles said, shaking his aching head. “Not this time. Thank you, Azazel. You may leave it.”

The Russian placed the envelope on the edge of the small writing desk. Charles stared at Cain’s messy handwriting, wondering why Cain had been careless enough to trust this to the casino servants. What if Erik had—

“He’s blind, Charles. He won’t know what he’s signing,” Cain had said, dismissing the intelligence of the gambler. Charles closed his eyes briefly, unaware of Azazel’s dark, considering gaze.

“You tell boss?”

Charles looked up, surprised to find that Azazel was still in the room. “Tell him what?”

He nodded at the envelope, and Charles sighed. “Soon,” he promised, hoping that Azazel wouldn’t take it upon himself to inform Erik about the letter’s arrival. He had no idea where Azazel’s loyalties lay, and the man was, like Erik himself, impossible to read. He gave nothing away in his voice or his face, let no trace of emotion leak through his scarred visage.

After a moment’s consideration, Charles had to admit defeat. Azazel would do as he willed, and there was nothing Charles could do to ensure his secrecy. “Thank you, Azazel,” he sighed, dismissing the servant. This time he held Azazel’s eyes until he gave a quick half-bow and left the room.

Charles touched the envelope that contained the bill of sale. Erik won’t know. But Charles would. He would always know he’d betrayed Erik, able to deceive him because Erik was blind. But weighted against that betrayal was all that they might lose. If Cain had the plantation, and if Charles and Erik left London, left for somewhere Shaw and the Markos could never reach them…

There are no Markos, Charles’ rational mind argued. No Markos. Only Cain. His stepfather was dead.

He found the letter opener on the writing desk and slit the seal on the envelope. He read the document and, although he wasn’t qualified to decipher the legal language, it appeared to be exactly what Cain had promised. A bill of sale for a worthless plantation in Cuba.

The sooner he had Erik’s signature on it, the sooner they could be free. Free of the taint Charles’ past had put on their relationship. Free of the dangers that came with the Markos’ association. There were no other options. No way out but to obtain Erik’s signature, give Cain what he wanted, and then escape.

****

Azazel helped Erik with his supper after he’d applied the ointment and redressed the damaged eye.

“Where’s Charles?” Erik asked.

“Brother sent a letter,” Azazel said, replacing the supper dishes on a tray.

“Charles’ brother?” Erik questioned sharply, and there was no way Azazel could misinterpret the importance of his answer.

He cleared his throat and spoke carefully in English. “Brother’s letters come and go. This one come,” he said, hearing Erik’s sudden, sharp inhalation. He watched as Erik gripped the edge of the table, his long fingers turning bone-white with the strength of his grip.

“Want some tea?” Azazel asked in Russian, picking up the tray and balancing it on one hand.

“No, damn it,” Erik said harshly. “I don’t want your drugged tea,” he replied in Russian. “I don’t need anything. Just get the hell out.”

****

He was sitting in the darkness trying to make sense of it all when Charles came in. He could smell him, the familiar fragrance of Charles’ body carried on the soft breeze that drifted in through the open window. And even in the face of what he now knew, Erik wanted him. His body betrayed what his mind had finally come to accept. He’d wondered before if Charles was that good an actor, and now he knew. A consummate actor.

Charles must have been a wonderful whore, Erik thought savagely, remembering the desperate, keening noises Charles had made when Erik touched him, the shivering responses. A very talented whore. And he knew, of course, that that was exactly what Charles was. He’d accused Charles of that at the very beginning. Of selling his body for his brother. But he couldn’t understand why…

“Do you mind if I light the lamp?” Charles asked.

“Why the hell would I mind? I certainly won’t know whether it’s lit or not.”

Charles hesitated, wondering what was wrong. Erik’s tone was so different from the careful pretence he’d maintained the last few days. And then Charles remembered. Erik had told him, but he’d forgotten in the midst of making his own plans for their future. Dr. Erskine had come today.

With fingers that trembled only slightly, Charles lit the lamp. Erik’s face was still in shadow, turned toward the open window and the slight breeze that stirred the curtains.

Do it, Charles urged his heart. Do it, and put London and Cain behind us.

“Azazel sent up a draft for you to sign,” Charles began, relieved that his voice didn’t shake. His heart was pounding and he could feel himself starting to sweat, but he kept any trace of his nervousness out of his voice. “Something about the household accounts. I told him not to bother you with it tonight, but apparently there’s some urgency-”

He knew he was talking too much. But the abrupt cessation of his explanation was wrong, too. He could feel it in the quiet tension that had invaded the room.

“A draft for the household accounts?” Erik asked. There was something dark in his tone, and Charles shivered. In the face of Erik’s tenderness he’d long ago lost any awareness of the threat of violence that surrounded Erik, but for some reason, with that quiet question, Charles’ knowledge that Erik was a dangerous man was back in full force.

“I can help you sign it,” Charles said. He could hear the strain in his own voice and he knew, by the slight tilt of Erik’s head, that Erik had heard it too. He swallowed and closed his eyes. If Erik looked at him now…

Charles forced himself to breathe and opened his eyes, faced with the sterility of the white bandage. Erik couldn’t see him. Now, he told himself, before you spoil it all. Before you destroy whatever chance you have to get him away from Cain’s reach.

Charles placed the bill of sale before Erik, putting the ink and quill he’d brought from the guest room into Erik’s lax fingers.

“Everything ready for my signature, Charles? This must be of ‘some urgency’.”

Charles wasn’t prepared for the mockery. He didn’t understand it. But he knew what Erskine’s visit today must have meant. Until today Erik, at least, had had some hope.

“You’ll have to show me, Charles,” Erik reminded him.

“Here,” Charles whispered, feeling tears start to well. He blinked them back and placed his index finger just below the line where Erik needed to sign. With his other hand, Charles guided Erik to the spot. He swallowed. Let it be done. And then he could start to teach Erik that the blindness didn’t matter. He could fight the black depression that surrounded Erik tonight. But first he had to protect him from Cain.

Charles watched him sign, realizing that he’d never seen Erik’s signature before. It was clear, and bold, and only slightly slanting across the line Charles had directed him to. So unlike Cain’s careless scrawl.

Seeing the indelible proof of his success, Charles began to breathe again. The sense of relief was tremendous, and he put a hand on Erik’s shoulder to keep his balance.

“And now it’s time for my reward, I suppose,” Erik said, bitterness and anger threading through his voice. “You do that so well, Charles. You always have. But it must have been easier these last few days, now that I can’t see what’s in those beautiful blue eyes.”

Charles shook his head, comprehending nothing but Erik’s pain. “Do you…do you want to make love?” he asked uncertainly. He could understand Erik’s anger. After all, he was finally being forced to accept what Charles had known ever since that night in the alley. He reached past Erik for the precious document but Erik reached out, lightning quick, and closed his fingers around Charles’ wrist like a vice.

With a gasp of pain and surprise, Charles struggled against Erik’s hold, but Erik only tightened his grip, grinding the bones in Charles’ wrist.

“Now why don’t you tell me what I’ve really signed?” Erik suggested.

“I told you,” Charles said, fumbling for an explanation. “Something for Azazel. The household accounts…”

“Azazel!” Erik’s shout interrupted the lie and, realizing what was about to happen, Charles struggled again, determined to break free.

“You’re hurting me,” he said.

Erik’s fingers bit more deeply into his wrist. “Good.”

“Erik,” Charles began, trying his best to sound reasonable, but old memories surfaced and he found it was suddenly difficult to breathe. “Please, let me go.”

They both heard the note of entreaty in Charles’ voice, and Erik’s lips curled back in a sneer. “Don’t beg, Charles. Truth is what I’m after. And I’ll begin with a truth you apparently didn’t know. Azazel doesn’t have the household accounts. He can’t read English. So you’ll have to tell me what I actually signed.”

And Charles could think of nothing, no other lie. Azazel would be here soon, and he’d confirm that he hadn’t sent up the document.

“It was a bank draft for a bill,” Charles said desperately. Cain’s ridiculous suggestion was all that he could dredge up in the midst of his fear. A fear that was growing like a poisoned mushroom in the darkness of the forrest floor. “From Monsieur LeBeau. I had a new jacket made and it was very expensive. I was afraid you’d be angry.”

“Because I’ve always been so parsimonious about your clothing allowance?” Erik asked maliciously. His grip on Charles’ wrist tightened further. “You’ll have to do better than that.”

“Boss?” Azazel asked from the doorway, and they both turned in reaction to his shocked voice.

“Get Anthony Stark,” Erik ordered, not relaxing his grip in the slightest. “Send Sean for the Duke and then come back. I’m going to need you.”

“Why?” Azazel asked, his dark eyes on Charles’ too-white face.

“Get Stark,” Erik repeated, then switched to Russian. “Damn you, Azazel, I told you to send for Stark. I need his help. I can’t… Just get him, damn you, and then come back up here.”

Azazel’s eyes locked with Charles’, and slowly Charles nodded. Azazel disappeared into the hall.

Maybe if Erik knew the Duke was on his way he could talk to him, calm him down by explaining what he’d intended. Erik would be furious that Charles had deceived him, but he could make him understand.

“Erik,” he began, but Erik cut him off viciously.

“Don’t. I don’t want to hear any more of your lies. When Stark arrives we’ll sort it out. Until then, we wait.”

“You don’t understand,” Charles said desperately. Erik’s laugh was bitter and short.

“You’re right, libeling. I’ve never understood. I thought I could read what was in a man’s eyes, and in his voice. I thought I could tell when someone was lying. But you…” He stopped, a mocking smile twisting his lips into a grimace. “You’re so damned talented at lies and deception. Did you learn that from Cain? All those pathetic lies about what your stepfather and the others did to you. Or did they just get tired of your damned betrayals? Did they find you out, Charles, as I have?” He took a deep breath.

“It’s been a lie from the very beginning, hasn’t it? And now, when I’m blind-” He halted sharply, and Charles ached for him. Despite the cruelty of what Erik had said, Charles knew that he was lashing out because of his blindness. He couldn’t see, and Charles had tried to trick him. He deserved Erik’s anger, but he was so wrong about the other.

“I never lied to you-” Charles began, but Erik’s laugh interrupted him, bitter and dark, and Charles flinched against it.

“Damn you,” Erik said, his voice too soft, deadly now. “Damn you for the lying whore you are.”

Erik locked his fingers more firmly around Charles’ wrist and pulled him towards him, and raised his fist to strike Charles. Whether it was his blindness or his memories that prevented the blow Charles didn’t know, but Erik suddenly released him with a jerk and Charles stumbled back against the small, unsteady table before falling hard to the wooden floor.

The table toppled, the lamp crashing to the floor in a shattering dissonance. The only light now was the glow from the hall and the rising moon outside the window.

“Erik, please, you have to understand,” Charles said fervently. “I couldn’t let him hurt you any longer! You or my sister!”

“Sister?” Erik repeated sharply, and then, after an interval, his tone entirely different, “Sister?”

“Yes, my sister Raven,” Charles said quickly, regretting his error in not telling Erik about Raven beforehand. He hadn’t wanted to burden Erik, but perhaps if he’d known how much was at stake… “I didn’t want to tell you until—” Charles began, but Erik’s laughter broke against the whispered words. Charles had never heard anything like Erik’s laughter, the bitter, horrid shock of it.

“Erik,” he whispered in protest.

“And now, finally, it begins to make sense,” Erik said, a note of aching hopelessness in his voice. “God, how simple. I couldn’t understand why you’d struck that bargain with me. Why you’d begun all of this. What did you have to gain? I thought you were afraid of Cain, but…of course. Your sister. That was the key to all of this. You wanted to protect your sister.”

“Of course I did!” Charles said, “but that wasn’t why—”

“You needed my protection. The protection of a man who’d leap at the chance to have you, as I certainly did. It must be very satisfying to know what a fool you can make of a man who loves you, Charles.”

“I don’t know what you…”

“Is she that young?” Erik asked suddenly. “So young that she’s still under Cain’s influence? Or was it just that you needed money, and Cain offered to buy you off if you came to me and cancelled his debt?”

“No, I told you why I came to you, and Raven had nothing to do with it!” Charles insisted, ignoring the small tug of guilt that came with the words. He had been thinking of Raven, of seeing her safely out into society and away from Cain, but that wasn’t why he’d come to Erik. It certainly wasn’t why he’d stayed.

“That doesn’t make sense, Charles.” Erik was shaking his head. “There was no reason for you to come to me, a scarred and deformed monster, raised in a Berlin whorehouse, unless you…” He paused again, remembering how much he’d revealed. His voice broke. “Do you know you’re the only person to whom I’ve told that story? Because I trusted that you loved me enough to… G-d, what a fool,” he said again, his voice etched in acid.

“That’s not why I came here,” Charles repeated patiently. “What does the reason matter? I love you. I’ve stayed because I love you, Erik.”

“You’ve stayed to protect someone you love,” Erik acknowledged. “Or for the money. But you’re right: it doesn’t matter. I—” He stopped speaking, but the silence was too sudden. Whatever Erik was thinking had taken his breath. His lips parted and then closed, and Charles watched his mouth harden into one tight, white line.

Charles couldn’t imagine the thought that had suddenly entered Erik’s mind. Despite its horror, it seemed to explain everything. Because he loved him, Charles felt his eyes smart with tears as he watched what was happening in Erik’s face.

“That’s it,” Erik said, “of course. It’s Cain. It’s always been Cain. You’re his whore, as well as his brother.”

The words were only a whisper, and before Charles could make sense of the perversion Erik had suggested, before he could grasp the awful idea that he’d made love with his stepbrother, Erik turned his head sharply toward the window, his face tilting against the acrid odour of burning cloth.

“Azazel!” Erik cried out, groping in the blackness that surrounded him. He could taste the bitter tang of fear in his mouth. Fire.

Charles blinked away his tears and followed Erik’s blind stare. The bottom of the curtains were in flames, caught by the slowly spreading trickle of kerosine from the broken lamp.

“Erik,” Charles breathed, momentarily transfixed by the smoky flames.

“Charles,” Erik said, starting across the short distance that separated them. He ran into the overturned table and fell against it, only preventing himself from going down by groping for the upturned leg. “Charles, where are you? Damn it, answer me!”

“I’m here,” Charles said automatically, then realized with horror that the sound of his voice would draw Erik closer to the flames.

Azazel appeared at the doorway and grasped Erik’s groping hand, untangling him from the obstacle of the table. He tried to turn Erik away from the fire.

“Charles!” Erik demanded again, unable to judge how far the flames had spread.

“I’m coming,” Charles promised. “Let Azazel get you out. You can’t help me, Erik,” he said, unthinking.

Azazel pushed against Erik’s body, leveraging him away from the danger. Erik struggled but he was disoriented in his darkness, unsure now where Charles might be.

“Damn it, Charles!” he shouted again.

Malyutka is coming,” Azazel said, pushing against the still-resisting body. “He’s coming. You leave now!”

They were almost to the door, and Charles knew that Azazel would get Erik to safety.

He put his hand to the floor to push himself up and found that the bill of sale was under his fingertips. He grabbed the precious document and tucked it into the inside pocket of his jacket, safe now against his racing heart.

Once he was standing Charles could see that the fire had touched only one side of the curtains. The flames were slowly eating upward. He grabbed the pitcher from the washstand and, taking careful aim, doused the material. Black smoke poured across the room, pushed back inside the room by the breeze. Coughing, Charles pulled the chair closer to the window, climbing carefully so he could reach above the smouldering ruin of the curtain. He ripped the whole thing away from the window and, wadding it up, threw the sodden mess into the street below. He jumped down off the chair and ripped the counterpane off the bed, throwing it over the singed wooden floor. He stamped on the coverlet, smothering any remaining sparks, and then threw that too out the open window.

Satisfied that the fire was fully extinguished, Charles leaned against the wall. Cain’s whore seemed to reverberate in the room. If Erik could believe that…

But it no longer mattered what Erik believed. Because it was over. Whatever Erik had felt for him before, Charles had destroyed it with his deception. He’d lied to Erik, betrayed him, and Erik wouldn’t want him now. Not after all that Charles had cost him. Certainly not if Erik believed half the things he’d said.

He stood for what felt like an eternity in the dark, smoke-filled room. Time stretched endlessly, like the night in the alley. The night he’d blinded his lover. He’d only wanted to make up for what he’d done, to protect Erik from Cain.

Cain’s whore echoed again. But with that poison now in Erik’s mind, that black perversion that Charles’ betrayal had made him believe…

Charles shook his head against those whirling thoughts and then, taking one last look around the bedroom in which he’d known such joy and pleasure, he slipped into the hall and out to the servant’s stairs that led to the kitchen and the back alley. He could hear raised voices from the front of the house, people responding to the emergency. Anthony Stark, perhaps. And he remembered the agreement for Cain’s signature.

He returned to the guest bedroom, casting an eye over the few belongings he’d kept there despite sharing Erik’s bedroom almost exclusively. All the fine new clothing Erik had purchased for him was tucked away in the wardrobe and tallboy. His books now lined two shelves in Erik’s study downstairs. His grooming implements—comb, pomade, teeth cleaning stick and tooth powder—were laid out on the dressing table. His shining beaver rested atop a wooden valet stand, cocked at a jaunty angle, and there, on the accessory arm, was the gold watch Erik had given him.

He could leave the rest. He could leave it all: his precious books, the clothing that had made him feel like a gentleman again, every small memento of his life with Erik. But he’d take the watch. He’d never sell it, no matter how desperate the coming days might be. It had been Erik’s gift to him, and he intended to treasure it.

Tucking the timepiece carefully into his vest pocket, Charles located the paper he’d composed for Cain. He hurried back downstairs and out into the alley, away from the shouting inside the house. At least he had the two documents. When he secured Cain’s signature, his stepbrother would no longer have any reason to harm Erik. Stark and Azazel would care for Erik, and for the rest of their little household. Though it pained him to leave without saying goodbye to Sean, Alex, Angel, Kitty and the other staff, he knew that the safest course would be for him to disappear.

That way he could never hurt any of them again.

****

“He’s not there. I promise you,” the Duke of York insisted. “The room is virtually untouched. He must have put out the fire before he left."

There was no response from Erik, who sat quietly in the empty salon of the casino he’d run so successfully. He’d long ago decided that Stark and Azazel were lying. Charles was dead. He’d burned to death, screaming, because Erik had allowed Azazel to wrangle him away from the reaching flames. He’d been too much of a coward to face the fire and find Charles.

When he’d realized that Azazel had lied and that Charles wasn’t with them, he’d had to be forcibly restrained on the stairs, physically prevented by the efforts of Azazel, Alex and Sean from returning to the room. In his mind’s eye he saw Charles caught behind the wall of flame, burning to death just as his wife and child had so long ago.

It didn’t really matter what lies Azazel and Stark concocted to save his sanity. He would always know what he’d done. After what he’d said to Charles, Charles had chosen to remain in that room.

“All right, damn you,” the Duke said in exasperation. “I’ll take you up, and you can see for yourself.”

The unfortunate choice of words stopped him for a moment, and then Stark put his hand on Erik’s arm and urged him to his feet.

“He’s not dead. He’s just not there. And I’m not lying to you, Lehnsherr.”

Even in the silence of the smokey bedroom, Erik’s face didn’t change. He traced over the undamaged objects in the room again and again, each of them holding some memory of Charles. His fingers searched blindly for some shred of what had been. What he’d destroyed. And when Erik had completed that self-appointed task, there was still no release of the tight control in which he held himself.

“Charles isn’t here,” Stark said again, trying to break through whatever rigid barrier of emotion was holding Erik together.

Finally defeated by that continued silence, Stark took Erik’s arm and led him back down the stairs.

“There was a paper,” Erik said. “On the table. Would you look for it, please?”

But there nothing there. Nothing at all was found of what Charles had gotten him to sign, despite the careful search Stark and Azazel made after they’d installed Erik on a cot in the study.

And it was there, while keeping watch through the long, dark hours over a man he knew didn’t sleep, that Anthony Stark began to wonder if he’d been terribly wrong.

***

Chapter Text

“...with Cain Marko?” Pepper said in disbelief, watching her husband’s face as Stark told her the story the next morning. He’d spared nothing of his role in the tragedy that had played out the previous night. “Tony, how could you be such a fool as to believe that?”

“It never occurred to me that that might be the reason Charles was conspiring with Marko. It seemed to Lehnsherr that an…involvement with his stepbrother might explain everything. That it was the reason Charles stayed with Erik, despite…” He hesitated over the admission that Lehnsherr, in his grief, had repeated early that morning before he’d rebuilt that wall of bitter silence and regret.

“Despite what he is,” Pepper finished for him, remembering Erik’s words as he’d stood in the foyer that day. Misunderstanding, her husband’s warm brown eyes rose to meet hers, blazing with an intensely felt emotion.

“What he is, Pepper, is my friend,” Stark said.

“Who’s a bigger fool than you if you could believe that about Charles. Didn’t you ever see Charles and Cain together before their father died? He was terrified of Cain. And with good reason; I’ve never met a more unpleasant child,” Pepper said in disgust. “I remember them from a few of the assemblies before Charles was shipped off to Eton, before his mother died. Kurt Marko was always too much of a penny-pincher to hire a proper tutor, and Cain was allowed to run wild. I remember seeing both father and son strike Charles several times, in public. If Charles ever had an ‘improper’ relationship with Cain, it was without his consent,” Pepper finished with utter scorn. “He’s certainly not going to… Men are such fools.”

Anthony shook his head slowly. “I think the life Lehnsherr’s led has exposed him to more depravities than you can imagine exist, Pepper.”

“I know plenty about depravity, my dear,” Pepper said. “I’ve been married to you for long enough, after all.” She said this with a smile, but the warmth of it didn’t reach her eyes.

Tony coughed to cover the awkwardness of the moment. He and Pepper had long ago come to an agreement about his…extracurricular activities. They understood each other, but he knew that Pepper’s acceptance of who he was didn’t come without pain. He took her hand gently and raised it to his lips, brushing his mouth over the back of her hand in silent apology.

The moment passed, and Pepper withdrew her hand. “But surely Herr Lehnsherr can’t really believe that Charles could… He should know better.”

“Perhaps,” Tony acknowledged, “but if Charles is entirely innocent, as you seem to think, why then did he leave? Why has he disappeared?”

“You said that he’d finally told Erik that he had a sister,” Pepper said, screwing up her forehead in a frown. “Perhaps he left to protect her. But now that I think about it, I don’t remember hearing that Charles Xavier had a sister. Was she Marko’s daughter, perhaps? A stepsister?”

“I believe so,” Tony said. “I’ve known the Xavier family since I was a boy, and I don’t remember ever hearing about a daughter. She must have been Kurt’s child, too young for Marko to trot her out. Though I’m surprised Kurt didn’t try to marry her off when he sold Charles to that filthy Frenchman.”

Pepper’s frown deepened. “I still can’t believe that no one tried to intervene when that happened. Why didn’t your father—”

“No one knew until the deed was done,” Tony said, then sighed. “But you remember how terrifying Kurt Marko was, especially when he was in one of his rages. No one would gainsay him, not with the power and fortune of the Xavier name behind him. And he was Charles’ legal guardian. Even my father wasn’t willing to untangle that mess.”

She nodded in acknowledgement, thinking of the small, freckled, blue-eyed little boy she’d glimpsed in the crowded assembly rooms of her youth. Charles Xavier had always seemed so sad and vulnerable. Her heart ached to think of that defenceless child growing up under Kurt Marko’s brutal hand.

“There must be some rational explanation for Charles’ actions,” Pepper mused. “For the deception. For his continued contact with Cain. There must be another…”

“Forgive me, Your Graces,” their butler Jarvis interrupted, stepping into the Duchess’ private sitting room with a deferential bow.

“What is it, Jarvis?”

“There’s a gentleman to see you. He asked to for you specifically, Sir. I explained that you were en famille, but he was most insistent.”

“Charles?” Pepper suggested to her husband’s back as he hurried before the dignified butler into the foyer.

But the tall brown-haired man who stood waiting there was no one Stark knew.

“Monsieur le Duke?” said the man.

“I’m Stark,” Tony acknowledged.

“I am Remy LeBeau. I am a friend of Monsieur Lehnsherr’s,” he began to explain. “Remy has something from Charles Xavier. Something Remy is to give to you, and no one else. Comprenez vous?”

“Oui,” Tony said. “My wife is in the study. You can tell us both. If you’ll come this way…”

“For the Duke of York only, he said,” LeBeau interrupted. “And you see, Your Grace, it’s to be opened only if something tragiqué, some disaster, happens to Monsieur Lehnsherr. Monsieur Xavier was adamant that you understand. Remy is not to leave this,” he said, gesturing to the envelope, “unless you swear that it will remained unopened.” He paused and looked expectantly at the Duke.

Knowing that whatever was in the envelope contained the key to all that had happened, Tony nodded unwillingly.

Reassured, the Frenchman hurried on. “Remy promised to bring the paper and gave Monsieur Xavier some money. He said that Monsieur Lehnsherr…I think they had argued. Remy had warned him not to go prying into the past. But whatever has happened, I know it was not Monsieur Xavier’s fault. There was something in his eyes…” LeBeau paused, remembering the empty blue eyes, and shivered. “And so Remy gave him the money and took the paper. You understand, Your Grace? A gentleman understands these things,” he said. “He seemed so distraught, and Remy was afraid…”

“Of course,” Tony said, smiling in reassurance at LeBeau. “Of course I understand. Now, the important question: how much money did you give Xavier?”

“Everything I had in the shop,” LeBeau said. “Ten guineas,” he clarified, relieved that the Duke of York didn’t think he’d done anything so terribly wrong. He bowed to the Duke, his duty discharged. At Tony’s nod, Jarvis returned with Monsieur LeBeau’s hat and gloves.

“Thank you, Monsieur,” Stark said, eager to share this latest news with Pepper. “You have done well by both Mr. Xavier and Mr. Lehnsherr.”

”Merci, Your Grace,” LeBeau said. “And if you ever need a good tailor, I hope you will come find Remy.”

Tony smiled at the opportunistic, if honest, tailor. “Good day, Mr. LeBeau.”

He returned to the study to find Pepper pacing by the window. He told her about the tailor’s visit, and Pepper sank to the settee with a sigh.

“How far could Charles get on ten guineas?” she asked, having no idea of the fares for public transportation.

But her husband knew that there was no point in that kind of speculation. He simply shook his head.

“As far as Calais and beyond, if he so wished. Particularly if he had anything else to pawn.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to make sure our gambler friend doesn’t do anything foolish.”

“Foolish?” Pepper repeated. “Like putting an end to Cain Marko’s miserable existence?”

Tony smiled ironically. “I don’t think, my darling, given the provocation Lehnsherr’s had, that killing Cain Marko would be foolish at all. Nor would I blame him if Lehnsherr went after Sebastian Shaw.”

“Nor would I,” Pepper said. “For once, we’re in total agreement.”

“But I prefer he wait until we have some answers. With my promise not to open Charles’ letter, those answers may have to come from Marko himself.”

****

Charles finally arrived in Brixton at sunrise. The jolting coachride down from London, coupled with the traumatic events of the last twenty-four hours and the still-healing wounds on his shoulders, had left him feeling sore and exhausted. He was relieved to have the chance to stretch his legs on the short walk from the coachhouse to the cottage he’d shared with Moira.

Faint streaks of pink light were beginning to paint the horizon, and the grass framing the roadside was dusted with frost. Autumn was slowly giving way to early winter, and the chilly morning breeze felt good on Charles’ skin. The coach had been crowded and stuffy, and he still reeked of smoke from the fire. When he finally reached the cottage he’d have a hot bath and collapse into bed. Everything would seem clearer after he’d had a good sleep.

As he rounded the lane the cottage came into view, and he saw with a sinking heart that the windows were shuttered, the garden path overgrown with a tangle of dead weeds. The cottage was clearly abandoned, and he had no idea what had happened. Where was Moira? She hadn’t answered any of his letters for months, and now it appeared that she’d left their home.

What in the hell had happened?

The iron gate opened with a shriek of protesting metal. It wanted oiling, but Charles was too distracted to care. He tried the front door but it was locked and barred, and so Charles made his way around to the back of the house. The lock on the kitchen door had always been flimsy and he forced it open with a sharp crack of splintering wood.

Deserted. The kitchen table was dusty, the stove long gone unlit. There was no sign of life in the still, silent house, and Charles shivered in the cool emptiness of the home that had always held such warmth and comfort.

He hugged himself, closing his eyes and praying for calm. This wouldn’t do. He wouldn’t give in to despair or panic. He would light a fire, wash, change his clothing, and go to the village to inquire after Moira. Surely someone would know where she’d gone.

Resolved on his course of action, Charles passed through the empty downstairs rooms and mounted the steps to his old bedroom. The room was exactly as he’d left it when he’d packed to leave for Erik’s. Pale grey light shone through the thin curtains, casting the room in a forlorn, depressingly dim light. Discarded clothing was strewn across the narrow unmade bed. Several tottering stacks of abandoned books circled the room; these were layered with dust, and for once Charles found no comfort in the sight of the familiar tomes. He’d left the best of his collection at The Coin, and these castoffs only reminded him of what else he’d left behind.

Erik, he thought helplessly.

His plans to sweep the hearth, light a fire, wash and dress and go find out about Moira faded. He shook out the blanket on the bed and then lay down, drawing it over himself. He knew he was mainly exhausted and overwrought, but he couldn’t fight the overwhelming sense of defeat that engulfed him. Everything was gone, swept away by the currents of his soiled past and muddied by his betrayal and lies. If only he’d been honest with Erik. If only he’d done more to convince Erik that he loved him. If only…

And with those troubling thoughts, Charles sank into a deep, uneasy sleep.

****

The sound of voices woke him. Charles blinked and rubbed at one eye, groggy and disoriented. He thought for a moment that it was Sean and Alex bickering outside their door, and he rolled over to wake Erik. But instead of turning into the warmth and fragrance of Erik’s body, he found only an empty, unfamiliar expanse of vacant bed. He blinked again, heart sinking as the knowledge of his collapsing life reasserted itself.

The voices outside his door resolved into high-pitched feminine conversation, and with a weary sigh Charles forced himself out of bed. The grey light of early morning that had penetrated his curtains was gone now, replaced by the blue glow of evening. He’d slept through the whole day. The realization should have made him feel guilty but Charles felt only a terrible numbness. What did it matter?

He crossed the room and opened the door. With the sound of his footsteps the voices had gone silent, and when the door swung open Charles was faced with two pale, wide-eyed women. Two familiar, beloved women.

“Raven! Moira!” he exclaimed, shocked to see not only his old friend but his beautiful, golden-haired sister, alive and well and here, just when he thought himself bereft of everything.

“Charles!” Raven said, throwing herself into his arms. She almost knocked the breath out of him with the force of her embrace and Charles closed his eyes, feeling the familiar prick of tears. Raven. At last.

“Oh my dear,” he murmured into her hair, squeezing his eyes shut tight. He could hardly believe she was here. He hadn’t seen his sister in years, not since before he’d left for Paris. She’d been only a child then, and he was shocked to discover that Raven had blossomed into a lovely, self-possessed young woman.

Raven released him reluctantly and stepped back, her cornflower blue eyes sweeping over him and lingering on Charles’ unshaven face. “Charles?” she said uncertainly, her cupid’s-bow mouth caught in a frown. “Are you all right? What happened to you?”

“Yes, are you all right?” Moira interrupted. “I was so worried about you!” She elbowed Raven aside to wrap Charles in a tight hug.

“I did try to write,” Charles said calmly, “but my letters were returned unopened. Where were you? What happened?”

Moira’s anger quickly evaporated and she pulled back enough to address Charles. “I left for Switzerland as soon as you struck that idiotic bargain with the Prussian,” she explained. “I left instructions for any letters to be forwarded to Raven’s boarding school. I thought…I thought that if Raven was safe, you’d give up that scheme of giving yourself to that—”

She broke off at what was in Charles’ face. He was grimacing as if in pain. She’d never seen Charles look so despondent.

“So you never did get my letters,” he said, evading her penetrating gaze. Moira licked her lips and put a gentle hand on Charles’ shoulder, wishing she hadn’t gotten so angry. Something was obviously very wrong.

“Charles?” Raven asked, touching Charles’ stubbled cheek. He leaned into her touch, closing his eyes.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” he murmured. “Both of you,” he amended.

A sharp CLANG! echoed up the stairs, followed by a heavy thud. Charles jumped, half-expecting a mob bearing torches to surge up the stairs and clap him in irons. He was shocked when Raven and Moira rolled their eyes, smiling at each other in sisterly conspiracy.

“Don’t worry, Charles,” Raven said, patting him comfortingly. “That’s just Hank. Henry. I think he’s trying to light the stove.”

“Who?” Charles muttered, confused. It was only then that he noticed the gold ring on his sister’s finger. “Raven, are you—?”

“Married?” she flushed, happiness shining from her eyes. “Yes. Last month. Moira was there,” she said, bumping a companionable shoulder with Moira. “I would have…I wanted you to be there, Charles, but we were leaving Switzerland for England and I didn’t think it would be proper to travel unless we were wed,” she said in a rush. “Oh, Charles, he’s wonderful! You’ll love him. He’s a botanist, very interested in the natural sciences, and he’s so sweet and kind—”

Raven broke off, dismayed by the shock and disbelief in Charles’ face. He looked crushed by the news of her marriage, and she’d held out such hope that he’d be pleased.

“But what about your debut?” he asked, shocked and befuddled. He’d planned for Raven to marry a wealthy gentleman, thereby escaping Cain’s clutches. How could this obscure botanist protect her from their brother?

“Hang the debut,” Raven said firmly, finally coaxing a smile from Charles. His little sister hadn’t changed that much, apparently. “I love him. Hank and I met at a salon in Luzern. He was studying science at the Universität, and I’d gone to see the galleries. We just…fell in together. Like we’d known each other our whole lives. It was…” She broke off, blushing, and Charles ignored the irrational tidal wave of jealousy that suddenly washed over him. He didn’t begrudge his sister her happiness. Indeed, he was relieved she’d found someone to love who loved her in return. He only wished…

“Well, congratulations,” he said belatedly, realizing that he was being unforgivably rude. “I’d love to meet the fellow. You said his name was Henry…?”

“McCoy,” Raven supplied. “Lord Hank McCoy.”

Charles stilled, breathing shallowly. It couldn’t possibly be the same Hank McCoy he remembered from Eaton. The small, timid boy with the club foot? The one his father had accused him of ‘interfering’ with?

“Charles?” Moira was saying, touching his elbow. “Are you all right?”

Charles swayed, unsteady on his feet. It was just a shock, that was all. He’d had far too many of them over the last few days.

“I’m fine,” he said, regaining his balance. “I’d love to meet your young man, Raven dear, but I’m afraid I’m not very presentable at the moment. Would you give me some time to shave and wash?”

“Yes, of course,” Raven said quickly, her creamy complexion pinking with Charles’ gentle admonishment. After all, she and Charles hadn’t seen each other for a very long time, and she was being overfamiliar.

Moira turned to her, kind brown eyes warm with understanding. “Raven, would you go and make sure Hank isn’t going to burn down the house? I’ll help Charles get himself sorted.”

“All right,” Raven said, shifting her attention between Moira and her brother, wondering what was between them. She knew that Charles and Moira had shared a home together, although Moira hadn’t mentioned marriage or any other formal arrangement. And who was ‘The Prussian’? But her questions could wait until Charles had a chance to refresh himself.

She turned and tromped down the stairs, preparing for whatever disaster her new husband had made of the lighting of the stove.

Moira slipped past Charles and entered his small bedroom, sighing at the deplorable condition of the room. She’d left for Switzerland in a rush only hours after Charles had departed for London, and she hadn’t had time to hire any household staff to properly shut the cottage. Every room was likely to be in disarray, and there were no clean linens or any food in the pantry.

“I’m sorry for the confusion about your letters,” she told Charles, checking the chipped wash basin and pitcher for dust and spiders. “I suppose, in the rush to catch the coach, my instructions to the postmaster were misunderstood. I would never have—”

She turned to find that Charles was slumped against the bed, looking out the window with an unfocused expression on his face. He looked terrible. His face was streaked with soot, and lined with exhaustion and heavy sorrow. His floppy dark hair, usually combed back and tamed into some semblance of order, was unwashed and matted with sweat. He was dressed in wrinkled trousers and his shirtsleeves, the linen rumpled and stained.

In short, he looked like hell, and Moira despaired to find him in such a state. She’d seen Charles at his worst back when they were both prisoners of old Lord MacTaggert, but even then Charles had never looked so desperate, or so hopeless.

“Charles?” She set down the washbasin and stepped forward. Charles didn’t seem to hear her. He kept staring sightlessly out the window at the darkening night sky.

“Charles,” she said again, catching his face and turning his head to force him to look at her. He blinked, and Moira gathered him into a hug.

“Oh, Charles, what’s happened to you?”

****

Hank McCoy was, to Charles’ relief, a kind and sensible young man. He clearly didn’t remember Charles from Eton, which was in itself a blessing. Charles noted that Hank hadn’t lost the awkward shyness that had so defined him as a child, but he’d gained some measure of self-assurance. Charles wondered how much of that was Raven’s doing, and he couldn’t help but smile at his sister, who sat across the dinner table beaming at the sight of her brother conversing so genially with her new husband.

“So you disagree with Lamarck’s principle of transmutation?” Hank was saying, face alight in pleasure as he debated the natural sciences with someone who shared his interest in the topic.

Charles nodded, just as pleased to meet a fellow scientist, though he still looked tired and anxious. Raven frowned, hoping she could find out from Moira exactly what was troubling her brother. He was older than she remembered, of course, but she’d never known Charles to be so sad and careworn. Perhaps it was simply the hero-worship she’d felt for him as a child, but in her mind’s eye Charles was invincible, brave and funny and so protective of her. Perhaps the latter hadn’t changed, but Charles was different. What had happened to him in the last ten years?

“I subscribe to Paley’s notion of benevolent design,” Charles was saying, taking a generous sip of wine, “though I’m not convinced that divine intervention in the development of a species overlaps with scientific fact. I suspect that the mechanism is far more complicated.”

Hank nodded thoughtfully, taking a more measured sip of his own wine, and was still formulating his reply when Moira stood. The gentlemen rose as well, and Moira nodded to them, beginning to collect their dinner plates. With that signal Raven, Hank and Charles prepared to retire to the sitting room. They’d made do with a roast chicken supplied by a neighbouring farm and what vegetables Raven could scavenge from the garden. This little cottage was in deplorable condition, and she wondered how her brother and Moira intended to carry on here. She and Hank had planned to make their home near the university in Bern, but first Raven wanted to spend time with Charles and determine what, exactly, was haunting him.

“Charles,” she said, catching his elbow, “may I speak with you?”

Charles exchanged a quick glance with Moira, but whatever passed between them was beyond Raven’s ken. She stood her ground and finally Charles sighed in defeat, nodding at her.

She exited the dining room, Charles trailing her, and as she passed Hank Raven lifted on her tiptoes to press a quick kiss against his cheek. Hank blushed and Raven smirked at him, looking forward to the coming evening and another blissful night spent in her husband’s arms.

She led Charles into the sitting room off the kitchen and shut the door.

Charles sat stiffly on the settee, thinking about his last meeting in this room, and the sharp blow he’d received from Cain. That had been the start of his bargain with Erik, and he wondered at his own naiveté. Something that had begun in such violence could only have ended in pain.

“Would you tell me what’s happened to you?” Raven said, startling Charles with the directness of her question. His heart sank. He’d hoped to keep up a brave front for Raven’s sake, intending that she would never know how troubled and broken he felt. His instinctive desire to shield her warred with the knowledge that Raven was a grown woman now, married and safely under the protection of a husband who loved her. She’d never know poverty or depravation now, never have to endure the brutal cruelty of Cain’s guardianship. He was immeasurably relieved, happy to know that his sister was protected from the appalling forces that had so shaped his own life.

Still, a small, ugly part of Charles wished that Raven knew something of what he’d endured. He didn’t want her to know suffering, but in sheltering her from the Markos’ abuse he’d ensured that she’d have no deep kinship with him. Now he was truly alone.

“Didn’t Moira tell you—” he tried, but the words failed to form. What could he say? I struck a bargain with Cain to protect you, and in doing so I surrendered all hope of having a normal life. But that wasn’t fair. As he’d insisted to Erik, over and over, he’d chosen to go to Erik because of the draw he’d felt to the man, not because of the threat Cain posed to his sister. And Kurt’s threat to Raven had ended with his death. Yes, he’d gone to Paris because he’d been afraid of what Kurt would do to Raven, but that had happened over a decade ago. He didn’t resent Raven because of the decision he’d made then. Did he?

But Charles couldn’t share his messy internal conflict about that point. Raven wouldn’t understand. He’d made damned sure that she never could.

Instead of going into the ugly details, he considered how to explain to her in the simplest terms what had happened to him.

“I…I fell in love with someone, Raven. And then I betrayed that person.” He was amazed at how calm and clinical he sounded. His sister cocked her head, listening. The Raven he’d known would have interrupted him then, demanding answers or offering some facile form of comfort. Instead she remained quiet, and gave Charles the space to find his words.

“I can never see them again,” he said quietly, considering the finality of that statement. Even if he could somehow bear to face Erik again, Erik wouldn’t want to see him. He’d been disgusted with Charles, bitter and resentful. And Charles had deserved all of it.

Cain’s whore echoed again, and he closed his eyes against the pain of that accusation.

Raven reached out and covered his hand with her own, squeezing his fingers briefly. “Surely it’s not as hopeless as all that?”

Charles smiled in bitter mockery. Moira had said the same thing when he’d told her the whole story only hours ago. She’d listened to him just as gravely as Raven, but she knew about Charles’ true nature, his unnatural inclinations, the abuse he’d suffered at the hands of her own husband and the others. She alone knew and understood what he’d found, and then lost, with Erik.

With a shaky breath, Charles nodded. “I assure you, it is.”

Raven frowned and bit her lip. “Then…then you’ll come to Bern with Hank and I,” she said decisively, with the conviction only the young and headstrong possess. “There’s nothing to tie you down here.”

“There’s Moira,” Charles said immediately, feeling a sharp pang at the thought of living so far away. God, Switzerland. He might as well take up residence on the other side of the planet.

You’re a fool, he thought. You could live right next door to Erik, and still never be close to him again.

Raven shifted uneasily at Charles’ silence. Clearly she’d expected him to jump at the offer to leave England. Really, it was the most sensible plan given that the authorities could arrest and prosecute him on sodomy charges at any time.

But he was loathe to leave, just in case there was still a chance…

“I don’t know,” he said quietly. “Moira and I have a home here. And you and Hank will need your privacy. All newlyweds do. When you have children—”

Raven dipped her head and blushed, and Charles fell silent. Into that silence came realization.

“You’re already with child?”

To his great relief, Raven broke into a wide, sunny smile. She looked so happy that all his worst fears were beaten back instantly. “I am,” she said quietly. “I haven’t told Hank yet. He thought I was rushing the wedding because I wanted to get back to England and see you—and that’s true—but I suspected…”

She blushed again, and Charles patted her on the hand. “I’m very happy for you.”

“You are?” Raven said, raising her head to look at Charles. “I was worried that you’d judge me for it. Or worse, blame Hank. But I love him, Charles. And it felt right, to…even before we were married.”

Charles held up a hand, not wanting to hear what might follow that sentence. She was, ultimately, still his little sister. “Of course I don’t judge you,” he said quickly, wondering how Raven would react if she knew even a fraction of his own indiscretions. “If you’re happy, I ask for nothing more. That’s all I’ve ever wanted for you, Raven.”

She smiled again, and Charles felt one of the small fractures in his heart begin to heal. He’d spent so many years worrying about Raven, but now…now she was her own person, no longer his charge to care for but, perhaps, an equal. A friend.

Erik would have liked her, he thought sadly, but kept a smile on his face for Raven’s sake.

****

Chapter Text

Two Months Later
December, 1816

“All of them?” Cain repeated incredulously.

“Mortgages bought for a pittance from your creditors, who were glad to get what they could. Others called due as payment for gambling debts,” said Pennington. Lord Marko made an inarticulate sound of protest.

“Quite legitimate debts, my lord,” Pennington assured him. “You may be very sure I verified their authenticity. And of course, since the estate could not hope to redeem even a fraction of the debt, I’m afraid that the Xavier and Marko properties are gone, my lord. All of them,” he reiterated. He could not prevent a small note of righteousness from creeping into his voice. He had, of course, warned the Viscount of the eventual outcome of his lifestyle. But the young today…

“Let me see those damn things,” Lord Marko demanded, grabbing the sheaf of papers from the ink-stained fingers of his man of business. He did so with such violence that a few of them fluttered to the floor. The small number that escaped his lordship’s furious scrutiny were unimportant. There were quite enough of them bearing that name. All the attacks on the Marko financial house of cards seemed to have been carried out by the same man.

“Lehnsherr,” Cain whispered.

“Indeed, my lord, it appears that that particular Prussian gentleman held a remarkable number of your markers. And had held them for several months. As to why he should choose this particular time to call them due now…”

“Because the bastard learned just how precarious the negotiations were for restoring that plantation. He knew that word of this would get back to the prospective investors, and then… Damn his black soul to hell! We had an agreement! Those markers were redeemed. And I kept my part,” Cain said bitterly. “That’s what comes of dealing with someone who isn’t a gentleman. That bloody Jew bastard.”

“An agreement, my lord?” Pennington said, latching on to the relevant part of Cain’s statement. “Indeed, this is the first I’ve heard of it. If it was a legal contract, then perhaps you’d like me to take a look at the document and see if—”

“Document?” Cain said blankly. “There was no document, you idiot. My brother. Charles. That was the exchange. And how does Lehnsherr repay me? With this treachery. Damn him to hell.”

“A…a family arrangement, my lord?” Pennington repeated, trying to understand what Marko was telling him. “Surely you know that it’s far more desirable, from a strictly legal point of view, of course, to have everything in writing. Even within the family.”

“The family,” Cain repeated bitterly. “God, what a joke.” He fell quiet, mulling over the problem. Pennington sighed. He was far too familiar with the innerworkings of Cain Marko’s mind to take the silence as anything other than disturbing.

Cain sat up straighter, and Pennington braced himself for one of Cain’s moments of ‘inspiration,’ the farfetchedness of which were usually measured in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol Cain had consumed.

“Lehnsherr’s ruined any chance of getting the backing I need for the venture in Cuba. And so I believe that it might be time to carry out my promise to my brother, and arrange for his freedom.”

“His freedom, my lord?” Pennington asked uncertainly.

“Yes. Charles’ freedom. I’m sure I can find another wealthy pervert who might enjoy his company, and will pay handsomely for the pleasure. Once Lehnsherr is removed from the equation, of course. If you take my meaning.”

“Indeed my lord, I don’t believe that I do,” whispered the shocked Pennington.

“That’s probably just as well,” Cain said, laughing at his own joke. He stood, still smiling, humming the Prussian folk song “Du, du legit mir im Herzen” as he left. The Jew wasn’t nearly so clever as he imagined himself to be. And whatever promises Cain had made to Charles, he now considered them null and void. After all, it was Lehnsherr, and not Cain, who’d violated the original agreement.

As for the constraints imposed by the document he’d signed for Charles…well, if by the gambler’s death he lost the venture in Cuba, he’d at least regain what was rightfully his: all of the Xavier properties that that bastard had stolen from Cain. And he’d deal with Charles’ threats about the Duke of York when he had to.

“Sufficient unto the day,” said Cain piously, his unshakable faith in his own abilities intact, “is the evil thereof.”

****

The trouble with hiring an assassin, as Cain had learned from his quixotic experience with the man who’d called himself Whiplash, was that they were both expensive and unreliable, despite their assurances to the contrary. Even though Shaw had vouched for the man’s competancy, the assassin had failed to accomplish Cain’s objective. And now, with his lack of funds, he couldn’t afford to hire anyone else.

And so there was really no option but to take matters into his own hands.

At least he had a willing accomplice.

“You’re sure this is the best way to go about this?” Cain whispered. His voice echoed off the narrow walls of the alley, and ahead of him he saw Sebastian Shaw stiffen and turn.

“You’re not getting cold feet, are you, Marko?”

Cain grimaced and shook his head. He had nothing to fear. After all, how difficult could it be to dispose of a blind man?

The Coin had never reopened after the affair in the alley, and everyone was aware of the reason. With the Prussian no longer able to direct its operation, the entire staff had been released. Sebastian had learned that the household maids, the chef and the bootblack had been sent to one of Lehnsherr’s friends in Spain, so it was very likely that there was almost no one else in residence after dark. Only a blind man and his valet. And Charles, of course.

But Shaw, ever resourceful, had a plan for that. He’d suggested that Cain send a message to Charles. He’d needed to come up with something that would draw Charles away from the casino during the hours they intended to carry out their plan. Something to which his stepbrother could not fail to respond. Cain had finally settled on an urgent request from the Duke of York. To meet him at a certain secluded spot near enough the casino to which Charles could easily walk, even at night, yet was far enough away that Charles would be out of the way.

A meeting to discuss a threat to Lehnsherr’s safety. He and Sebastian had chuckled over the irony.

Cain had carefully printed the message to disguise his hand, and sealed it with the most impressive seal in his father’s collection. Not ducal, of course, but in his haste to examine a message from the Duke of York, Charles would never notice that. Since he’d willingly confronted a violent mob to protect Lehnsherr before, surely Charles would be brave enough to venture out into the London night if he thought there was a risk to the Prussian’s safety.

“Let’s get it over with,” he muttered, waving at Shaw to continue. He kept his eyes locked on the other man’s back, stepping carefully out of the mouth of the alley. The kitchen door was there in front of them, and Cain watched as Shaw expertly picked the lock. The heavy door swung open with a soft creak.

For a brief moment Cain wondered where a gentleman like Shaw had learned how to pick a lock, and then decided it didn’t matter. If it seemed almost too easy to gain entry to the Coin, Cain’s self-confidence did not lend itself to questioning fate’s benevolence. He followed Sebastian inside.

The empty salon was eerie in the silence, its vast proportions and massive furnishings under their Holland covers giving evidence of the owner’s previous success. He supposed Lehnsherr had used the profits he’d acquired during those more affluent days to carry out the acquisition of the few Marko properties he hadn’t won at these very tables. But soon, Cain thought, moving smoothly from shadow to shadow, all would be as it should be once more.

Shaw had argued that, to be plausible, the fire must start in the upper story, in the living quarters. They checked each of the downstairs salons and then climbed the stairs into the darkness above. At the landing they were confronted with two doors, both open. Shaw waved at Cain to check the closest room, and upon examination Cain found a bedroom, dimly touched with light from the streetlamp below. There was no one there, the sheets of the bed smooth and undisturbed.

“Sebastian?” Cain whispered, tiptoing across the hall. The glow of the moon through the window of the opposing room was almost bright enough to give a sense of normality to his passage. He entered with less stealth than he’d employed in the first bedroom, having decided that this was probably a fruitless journey. The entire building seemed deserted. Perhaps the Prussian had done the smart thing: taken Charles and left London with the rest of his staff.

“Who’s there?”

The question came from the darkness and, despite his shock, Cain could perceive the shadowed outline of a figure in a chair near the bed. Sebastian stood just a few steps ahead of him; they’d both heard the voice at the same time.

Cain recognized the accent. They’d found their quarry, alone and unprotected.

“I thought we had an understanding,” Sebastian said, and Cain frowned. Shaw had an agreement with Lehnsherr? But Cain was certain Shaw had told him he’d never met the gambler. Cain strained to make out any details hidden in the darkness. He could see nothing of the features of the man in the chair.

“Did we?”

“Of course,” Shaw said, almost as if he was amused by something. “You were supposed to stay out of my territory, and in return I was willing to let you continue operating. Alive and unharmed.”

“Ah, but I never agreed to that particular bargain.” There was no trace of amusement in Lehnsherr’s voice.

“No,” Shaw agreed. “No, I thought of it as more of an unspoken arrangement. A…truce, if you will. I was even willing to let you keep that cheap little blue-eyed whore. You seemed so happy together.”

In the shadows, Cain thought he saw Lehnsherr shift, his body stiffening with tension. “And what would you know about it?”

Shaw finally turned and acknowledged Cain’s presence. He nodded at him. “Only what Marko told me.”

“Marko’s had a lot to say about my relationship with Charles.”

Cain cleared his throat. He had no idea what was going on between Shaw and Lehnsherr—all this time, Shaw had known the man?—but he had to defend himself.

“I had nothing to do with what happened here that night,” Cain said. His voice sounded hollow, even to himself. “I hope you’re not blaming me for the actions of a few firebrands. Charles was very popular, you know. The rumours that resulted from your arrangement were unsavoury, yes, but…”

“And I suppose you had no part in those either, Lord Marko,” the quiet voice interrupted to mock him.

“I never…” Cain began, and then swallowed the lie. What did it matter? He and Shaw had come here tonight to kill Lehnsherr, not argue with him. But it suddenly seemed a little more difficult than he’d thought it would be. It was one thing to set a fire and leave, unaware until later of its consequences, like the rumours he and Shaw had set in motion. But Cain was finding it was quite another thing to cold-bloodedly put an end to a man who was calmly discussing their past interactions.

“It’s a little late for visitors,” Lehnsherr admonished. “Or did you come to see Charles? He’s not here, you know.”

“I know,” Cain admitted. “I sent him away.”

“Did you?” The small laugh was bitter. “Somehow I thought that I was the one who’d accomplished that. But perhaps you’re right. You always had more control over Charles than I did.”

There was something in the deadly quietness of that voice that was beginning to bother Cain. Almost as if the gambler was aware of something Cain and Shaw hadn’t thought of. Or was waiting for something.

“How is Charles?” The question floated out of the shadows.

“Charles?” Cain repeated. “Good God man, how should I know? I haven’t seen Charles in months. Not since…” Cain paused abruptly.

Not since Charles had brought the agreement for his signature. But Cain couldn’t reveal that. That would lead to a discussion of the plantation in Cuba, the one valuable piece of property that Lehnsherr had not yet acquired.

“Somehow I would have thought that Charles would have gone to you. Or to your sister.”

“Raven? Why?” Cain repeated in bewilderment. “She’s sequestered away at boarding school in Switzerland. Haven’t seen her in years. Neither has Charles.”

“But then why—?” Lehnsherr started, and then stopped. Cain wondered what he’d been about to say, trying to fill in the gap for himself.

Suddenly he laughed. “Oh, Raven? Poor Charles would do anything to protect her. Even sell himself to a whoreson like you.”

There was absolute silence now from the dark figure in the chair. Cain felt the mood shift in the room. The very air seemed to thicken with a black sense of foreboding.

Shaw felt it too; he rushed to speak. “Well, all of this is fascinating, but Erik, I believe you owe me an apology. Your pathetic attacks on my business were very…expensive.”

“Oh?” There was a hint of satisfaction in Lehnsherr’s reply.

“Yes,” Shaw insisted. “I think you owe me restitution.”

Cain thought he saw Lehnsherr’s shoulders move in what had to be a dismissive shrug. “Is that why you and Marko are here? Planning to arrange my departure from this world? Aren’t you concerned about the mark of Cain?”

“You’re not my brother, you bastard!” Cain said hotly, “and don’t quote holy scripture to me. We all know what you are. A sodomite and a heathen.”

“You’re right, of course,” said the man in the chair. “We all know exactly what I am. But what about your friend Sebastian Shaw?”

Cain paused and considered the outline of Sebastian’s broad shoulders, the smartness of his coat. He’d never really questioned why Shaw had been so willing to assist him. He’d thought Shaw had offered help because he was, like any right-feeling Christian, offended by the Jew’s flagrant antagonism towards the values of their class and culture. But now that it was clear Sebastian knew Lehnsherr…

“Does it matter?” Sebastian asked, and Cain reflected that no, it did not.

“No,” Lehnsherr relented, as if he heard Cain’s thoughts. “Not if you two are here to kill me.”

“It is a bit overdue,” Sebastian chuckled. “Only Cain had reason to delay the inevitable, and I did so enjoy the idea of you shut up in here, blind and helpless. I thought I’d watch you suffer for a little before I pulled the trigger.”

Cain swallowed. All of this was spinning out of control. He couldn’t just stand here and listen to Sebastian talk so calmly to the man they planned to murder. Just get it over with, he thought.

Lehnsherr was far calmer than Cain. “Might I be allowed to know the method by which I’m to meet my maker?”

There was no hint of fear in the question. Indeed, the tone seemed to verge on amusement, and once more Cain felt a momentary touch of unease. He forced that lingering disquiet back by remembering that this time, he and Sebastian held all the trumps.

“Your Maker?” Shaw questioned with a sneer. “Meet your master, I should think, you charred devil.” And enjoying his own wit, Sebastian laughed. “Although it appears you’ve had a head start, we’re going to send you to Hell in a proper fashion.”

“I don’t think so,” said the Duke of York, who was standing behind Cain.

Cain jumped, and turned at the sound of that assured voice.

“I shall be happy to testify to the threat you and Mr. Shaw have just made,” said the Duke of York. “And I would venture to say that you might even be found to have upon your person the materials needed to carry it out.”

“Testify and be damned,” Cain said, hot black anger pounding through him. The bloody Jew and his keeper. “No one would lose any sleep over Lehnsherr’s death. Most of London would think we’d done a service in killing a blind pervert. And you’ve made your championship too obvious, Your Grace, to pretend to be an impartial witness now.”

“And I, Cain?” Lord Stephen Rogers said, stepping from the shadows behind Stark. “Do you suppose they’ll believe me to be impartial?”

Cain’s vision narrowed to the Duke of York’s smug goateed face. He curled his fist, wanting to smash in the man’s skull. The unfairness of it all only fanned his anger. They were all against him. Gentlemen improbably aligned with the filthy Jew instead of lending their support to one of their own. Well, he wouldn’t go down without a fight. Not Cain Marko.

He made a fist just as Sebastian brought up his arm, and Cain saw the flash of the gun’s silver muzzle in the moonlight. He recognized the weapon; it was the duelling pistol Charles had left at his townhouse.

“Shaw has a gun,” Lehnsherr said, voice oddly detached. Startled by the observation, Cain turned in response just as the Duke slammed into him. He heard gun go off, shockingly loud in the confined space.

“Light a candle!” Cain heard the Duke of York order. But before Rogers had managed to light the lamp on the desk, it became obvious that the crisis was over. The illumination of the smoking wick showed Sebastian Shaw lying prone on the floor, a black pool spreading out beneath him.

Lehnsherr was standing just a few feet away, holding an exact replica of the gun that Sebastian had tried to use. The muzzle of the duelling pistol was still smoking, and Cain almost gagged on the stench of gunpowder and sulfur. He twisted against the Duke of York’s hold, feeling sick to his stomach at the sight of Shaw’s lifeless corpse on the floor.

“How…” was all he could think to say. “How did you know he had a pistol?”

“The moonlight,” Lehnsherr said, the still-mobile corner of his scarred mouth raising slightly as he met Cain’s disbelieving gaze. “The silver glinted in the moonlight.”

“But…” Cain began, then halted, the question made ridiculous by the obvious. “I thought you were blind.”

“We thought it best to keep Mr. Lehnsherr’s recovery a secret,” the Duke of York said, tightening his grip on Cain’s wrist until Cain whimpered in pain. Ashamed of his weakness, he forced himself to summon a glare.

“You bloody idiot,” he snarled at Lehnsherr. “You’ve just murdered a gentleman. They’ll hang you for it.”

“Sebastian Shaw was no gentleman,” Lehnsherr said, quite calmly. “And I owed him a debt. One that I’ve waited a lifetime to repay.”

At the coldness of his tone, Cain shivered.

“Speaking of blood,” Stark interrupted.

“I know,” Erik sighed. “The bastard shot me.”

“Bastard?” Cain spat out, still defiant despite his helplessness. “Shaw wasn’t a bastard, you blackguard.”

“Do you know, Cain,” Erik mused, “I think you might be wrong about that.”

****

“A fine piece of workmanship,” Rogers said in admiration of the two duelling pistols he was holding. They were beautifully crafted and perfectly weighted, each one a work of art. To produce such perfect copies would have required tremendous talent and skill.

“These were made by a master silversmith,” Rogers pointed out.

“Yes, they were,” Erik said quietly.

“Well,” Rogers coughed, trying to ignore the grim undertone of the conversation, “it’s been quite a night.” He wasn’t being facetious. He and the Duke had dealt with Shaw’s body while Dr. Erskine had arrived to clean and bind the deep furrow the ball had made in Erik’s upper arm. And then they’d had a discussion with Cain Marko, the details of which Rogers would have given his entire fortune to forget.

Erik’s injured limb was resting, somewhat more comfortably, in a sling. The gambler was sipping brandy as he watched Rogers and the Duke of York examine the pistol Charles had left at Cain’s house the night he’d gone to bargain for Erik’s life, comparing it to the one Erik had kept in a drawer in his study.

“And what will you do about Charles?” the Duke asked.

They had avoided the topic for the last several hours, though Cain had confessed everything about his machinations and his callous use of his stepbrother to carry out his wishes. When Stark had finally opened Charles’ agreement, the attack on Erik certainly fulfilling the conditions the Duke of York had agreed to, the last hint of uncertainty about Charles’ motivations had been washed away.

“Are you going to go to him?” the Duke continued.

“No, you are,” Erik said, and added, “if you will, of course, Your Grace.” He used the formal address with polite, deliberate coldness. “Or perhaps I could ask Lord Rogers, if you don’t have the time.”

“Don’t be a fool,” Stark said, waving off Erik’s suggestion. “What do you expect me to do?”

“Make Charles aware of the financial provisions we’ve decided upon for his future. And let him know about Cain’s imminent departure, of course. Knowing Charles…”

“The financial provisions?” Stark said sarcastically. “That’s all you have to say to him? After everything?”

Erik glowered at the Duke. “What would you have me say? ‘I’m sorry, Charles, that I accused you of…of fucking your stepbrother, because I—’” Erik broke off, unable to finish the ugly truth. What he’d said to Charles had been unforgivable, the notion borne of the darkest, most troubled recesses of his mind. It was too far late for apologies. There was no way to snatch the words back, no way to repair what he’d destroyed.

Rogers shook his head, blond hair gleaming golden in the candlelight. “You can’t know unless you try to make things right,” he began, but Stark cut him off before he could finish his well-meaning sentiment.

“You’re a coward,” Stark said bluntly. Erik, single silver eye glittering with anger, raised his head. He stared at Anthony Stark for a moment, and then dropped his gaze to consider the amber liquid in his glass.

“What would be the point in going to Charles?” he asked quietly.

“Because you owe him an apology, at least,” said the Duke.

“An apology?” Erik bit off harshly. “For saying that which is unforgivable? For having uttered the unspeakable?”

“Yes,” Stark said, without compromise.

And after a long moment of silence, Erik agreed. “Yes.”

****

Chapter Text

The winter snows made the roads running north from London a muddy nightmare. A driving sleet had begun by the time they finally reached the wrought-iron gate of Greymaulkin, the old Xavier family seat. As they passed by the rusted barrier the once-grand home came into view, and Erik was shocked at the decayed, decrepit ruin of Charles’ childhood home. There was nothing remotely aristocratic about the old stone mansion. With no money for upkeep or repairs, the roof of one wing had caved in, exposing a vast section of the home to the elements. The circular drive was overgrown with ivy, the fountain marking the entrance cracked and filled with dead weeds. The entire scene looked like a set piece from The Mysteries of Udolpho, and Erik was horrified to think of Charles living in a drafty old ruin like this.

But Moira MacTaggert, the recipient of Charles’ unanswered letters, had directed Erik, Azazel and the Duke of York here after they’d interrogated her in Brixton. She hadn’t wanted to tell them where to find Charles, but Erik had eventually convinced her that he only wanted to make his apologies and finally exit Charles’ life for good.

“A damned shame, isn’t it?” the Duke of York said, quietly observing the ruined edifice before them. “It used to be one of the finest homes in the country. But after a decade of neglect, and Kurt Marko’s ruthless looting…”

“It looks like shit,” Azazel said in Russian, and Erik couldn’t help but agree. “Why would malyutka come here?”

“Safety,” Stark ventured. “I doubt Cain Marko would ever have thought to come here. Perhaps Charles believed that if he were out of sight, he’d also be out of mind.”

Erik frowned. “You have to get Charles out of here and back to Brixton. Or send him to his sister in Bern. Anywhere but here.”

“Of course,” Stark agreed, still peering out the carriage window. “But given the lack of reaction to our arrival, we may need to return to the village. We were perhaps misinformed; there doesn’t seem to be anyone here.”

“There’s a fire,” Erik said quietly, pointing to the smoke wafting out of one of still-standing stone chimneys. Azazel and the Duke shared a quick, speaking glance.

“Let’s get you settled, then,” Stark suggested, opening the carriage door. He stepped out and turned to help Erik exit the carriage. Erik’s left arm was bandaged and wrapped in a sling, and he clutched it protectively.

The deep furrow left by Cain’s gunshot had become inflamed despite the saltwater poultices Dr. Erskine had suggested and the liberal application of Azazel’s ointment. Even in the Duke of York’s well-sprung carriage, every jolt and bump had reverberated through the throbbing heaviness of Erik’s arm, and he was in pain and exhausted by the long journey from Brixton. The anxiety churning in the pit of his stomach at the thought of seeing Charles again hadn’t allowed him any rest.

The Duke of York strode imperiously up to the massive oak door and knocked. The sound echoed despite the muffling effect of the snow, but after a few minutes had passed there was still no response from within the house. As the silence stretched Erik allowed himself to relax: he had a brief respite from facing Charles.

As much as he wanted to see him, Erik knew he had forever relinquished whatever expectation he might have of Charles’ forgiveness. There was no way to make amends for what he’d said and done. As he’d promised Moira, he could apologize, admit what a fool he’d been, give Charles the papers Stark had prepared, and say goodbye. He’d leave Charles to forge a new life for himself free of Erik’s stain.

Azazel abandoned Erik’s side and approached the door, reaching past Stark to touch the handle of the door. The oak barrier swung open with an ominous creak. Azazel entered and vanished into the darkness of the interior, only to return a moment later.

“Empty,” he said, confirming their first impression. “But there is a fire.” He switched to Russian. “At least you’ll be warm.

“I think I should return with you both to the village and help—” Erik began, but Anthony Stark cut him off.

“And risk inflammation of the lungs as well? Don’t be an idiot, Lehnsherr.” Seeing the nervousness in Erik’s usually controlled face, Stark softened his tone. “We won’t be long. Maybe Mrs. MacTaggert was wrong about Charles’ whereabouts, but whomever is living in this house won’t begrudge an injured man the use of his fire and shelter from the snow.”

“Especially if we grease his palm with enough gold,” Azazel added, leading them into the house.

They passed through cold empty rooms that had long ago been stripped of their furnishings and fixtures. There were faded patches on the walls where expensive paintings and family portraits had once hung. Erik tried to imagine this house as it must have been when Charles had been growing up. Even stripped down, barren and neglected, the Xavier mansion still managed to retain some of its ancient dignity, and he could see the potential in the place. With enough time and money, the house could be restored. And he wanted to give Charles the opportunity to make that happen. At least some of what had been stolen from Charles ought to be returned, and Erik certainly had no better use for Sebastian Shaw’s blood money.

He’d taken over the remains of Shaw’s business empire and ruthlessly stripped it, dismantling all of Shaw’s smuggling operations - both goods and people. Now there was nothing left of Shaw’s empire but ash.

Azazel and the Duke went ahead of Erik, not bothering to match their pace to his slow limp. They checked through each deserted room and finally Azazel returned to lead Erik to the kitchen far from the main entrance. A fire was lit there, and the kitchen was clean and surprisingly welcoming.

A stack of books rested on the butcher’s block, and there were a few other piles stacked around the fireplace. Erik squinted, reading some of the titles embossed on the spines. Insects and Mammals of Arcadia. Geological Formations. The Romance of the Forrest.

They had not been misinformed. Charles was here, somewhere.

Azazel took his arm again and helped Erik to a battered wingback chair that had been pulled near the fire. While he appreciated the assistance, Erik shrugged off Azazel’s help as soon as he could. It all reminded him too much of those weeks when he’d fought off the threat of permanent blindness.

Erik sank gratefully into the chair’s soft embrace, hating the effects of the fever that sapped his strength. He eased his aching arm against his body, carefully supporting his elbow, and allowed Azazel to come forward and remove the sling. Once it was done Erik rested in the worn chair, closing his eye and allowing himself to savour, for what he was aware was likely the last time, Charles’ scent and the reminder of his presence. He never knew when the Duke and Azazel left.

But he was aware when, only a short time later, Charles slipped in through the back door.

Charles laid down the bundle of kindling he’d scrounged from the nearby woods and brushed the snow off his shoulders. The kitchen had darkened with the dusk of evening, and now only the flames from the hearth provided any light. Charles turned to see if he needed to add more wood to the fire and his heart stuttered in his chest.

Against the backdrop of the fire he saw again that perfect profile he’d first glimpsed in a country inn eight years before, highlighted against the darkness.

“I’m not a ghost,” Erik said softly in response to Charles’ gasp. “At least, not yet.” His one-sided smile moved upwards briefly, and Charles ached at the sight. Erik was here. He could hardly believe it.

“If you give me a moment of your time, Charles, I promise that you’ll never have to see me again.”

Charles waited, hardly daring to breathe. Erik was here, and despite that unpromising beginning, perhaps it meant…

“I know everything,” Erik said. “Everything Cain made you do, and how he did it.” He paused, and then continued in a less-assured tone, “I know that you and Cain…that you never…” He broke off, and Charles bit his lip. “There’s nothing I can say, Charles, except that I was wrong. So terribly wrong. And I am sorry for what I did.”

Charles licked his lips, hesitating. So much depended on what he said now. “How do you know what Cain did?”

“Marko became remarkably voluble, under the right persuasion. He admitted everything.”

“And you believed Cain?” Charles’ laughter wasn’t caustic, simply amused. “How could Cain convince you, when I…” He stopped, as desperate to make his confession as Cain had likely been. “But then Cain never lied to you, so perhaps you had more reason to trust his word.”

Misinterpreting that quiet declaration as a reminder of his lack of trust, Erik winced. He hadn’t looked at Charles because he knew if he did, if he allowed himself to remember what they’d once had, he’d never be able to do what he’d come here to accomplish. To give Charles the security he’d arranged, and get out of his life for good.

He eased his right hand into his pocket and drew out a folded piece of paper. He laid it on a small table next to the chair.

“Your estate,” he announced. “The Xavier estate, or as much of it as I could assemble, cleared of all encumbrances. The properties are all in your name, and your ownership is perfectly legal. Cain’s man of business arranged it. I think he felt some guilt at what the Markos did to you.”

“And Cain?” Charles asked, a sudden fear that what Erik was offering had been purchased at the price of his stepbrother’s life. If ever anyone deserved to take revenge it was Erik, but he still didn’t want the stain of Cain’s blood on Erik’s hands.

“The Viscount has decided to seek his fortunes in the New World,” Erik said. “He’s bound for the Canadian colonies. A friend helped arrange for his passage, and will act as an escort.”

“Cain?” Charles said, amusement again tinging his voice at the thought of Cain lost in the wilderness of Canada. He was aware of Erik’s responding smile, slight as it was. “But the properties? How in the world…” Charles began, confused about the sudden restoration of his family’s estate. “Did Cain’s plantation scheme in Cuba have any merit?”

Erik smiled at Charles’ justified doubt about his stepbrother’s business sense. “Marko might have stumbled upon something that may succeed. Eventually. With careful supervision, and some smart backing. The Duke of York has undertaken the task of overseeing that venture for you.”

“For me? But…”

“By the terms of your agreement with Cain, the plantation has reverted to your ownership.”

“I don’t understand,” Charles said, confused. “The agreement was very specific. And Monsieur LeBeau promised that he’d have Stark’s word before he gave that copy to the Duke. Anthony would never—”

“Obviously Stark’s word means less to him than you imagine,” Erik lied smoothly, having no intention of telling Charles that Cain had violated their agreement by working with Shaw to put a ball into him. It smacked of trying to find redemption by seeking Charles’ sympathy. And his duty was almost discharged. “We needed to know what Cain was up to. And that envelope of yours held the only clue as to why Cuba was so important.”

“I see,” Charles said, still doubtful. The idea that someone like Stark would break his world was difficult to grasp, as it ran so contrary to the strictures which governed the lives of gentlemen. But, too, he knew of the Duke’s more clandestine activities, so perhaps…

“Then, I think, that’s almost everything. Except this,” Erik said, using his good hand to push himself up out of the chair. Awkwardly he reached into his waistcoat pocket, and withdrew a small item wrapped in a white linen handkerchief. “Here.”

Charles approached him cautiously and Erik deliberately did not look at him. He stared into the fire instead, and only felt the brief brush of Charles’ fingers as he plucked the little package out of Erik’s hand.

“My father’s ring,” Charles said, his voice thick with some emotion Erik didn’t dare to identify.

“You should never have given it to me,” Erik said. “I…I never deserved to wear that, Charles.” He sighed then, duty discharged, and said, “Stark can answer any further questions you might have.”

“And you?” Charles whispered.

Erik still hadn’t looked at him. If he did, he’d never find the will to leave.

“I’m going back to Prussia,” Erik said simply. “I have some investments there I need to reassess.” He didn’t bother to mention that he was going to continue to continue dismantling Shaw’s businesses in Prussia. It hardly signified.

“I see,” Charles murmured.

“Goodbye, Charles.” They were the only words Erik could allow. And the final truth. “Please believe me when I say that I am truly sorry.”

“Erik,” Charles said, and at the familiar sound of his name on Charles’ lips, Erik felt his vision glaze with tears he was determined not to shed. Before G-d, he would not let Charles see him cry.

He took a step, blindly seeking escape, and stumbled against the small footstool set before the fire. Erik looked down, not yet in control of the emotions he fought, and couldn’t see what he’d blundered into. He stopped and turned his face away, blinking rapidly.

“I’m sorry,” Charles said, suddenly at his side. “I didn’t think to help you.” He cupped his hand under Erik’s injured arm.

“Don’t,” Erik ordered sharply, as much in response to the fact that he couldn’t bear Charles’ touch as to the agonizing jolt of pain that radiated up his injured arm.

Charles’ hand fell away immediately, and he stepped back.

“Of course,” Charles whispered, and Erik heard the tremor in his voice. “I should have known that whoever brought you would have explained the layout of the kitchen. It’s only a stool,” he said more calmly, stooping to move the footstool out of Erik’s way.

It was only with that gesture that Erik understood what Charles believed. There was no way Charles could have known that Azazel’s treatment had been successful. And that, of course, explained why Charles had allowed Erik to stay and talk when he ought to have shown Erik the door. Pity, Erik acknowledged bitterly. There was nothing else between them now.

He’d managed the short, obstacle-free distance to the kitchen’s entrance when Charles’ voice stopped him.

“You know,” Charles said, “just because someone stumbles and loses their path, it doesn’t mean they’re lost forever.”

The words were like an assassin’s whip against Erik’s naked heart. With his good hand he gripped the facing of the kitchen door. “How can you say that?” he asked, his voice harder than it should have been. “I…I’ve forfeited any right to expect you to forgive me, Charles.”

Charles took a deep breath. “I wasn’t talking about you. I was talking about me.”

Erik stopped at that, stunned. He didn’t know how to respond to that quietly-worded statement.

In the silence, Charles finally spoke. “Erik,” he said, “please, don’t go. I…I want you by my side.”

Erik turned slowly, needing to see if what was in Charles’ voice was matched in his face, and found that Charles smiling at him. Charles stepped closer and cupped Erik’s face, brushing his thumb against the wetness of Erik’s lashes.

“Am I forgiven?”

Oblation for a sin that was his. Unable to believe he was being offered a chance to reclaim the paradise he’d lost, Erik closed his eye and tipped his head down, resting his forehead against Charles’. He breathed in the scent of the man he loved. And when he opened his eye, he saw that Charles was studying his face carefully.

“Erik, did Erskine manage to…?”

“Erskine be damned,” Erik said, laughing. “Azazel’s concoction was far more effective than anything that London quack had to offer.”

“That’s reassuring.” Charles leaned forward and kissed Erik, shyly at first, in a way that reminded Erik of the earliest days of their relationship. And then, once Erik wholeheartedly returned the gesture, Charles deepened the kiss, his lips warm and pliable and so very right against Erik’s own.

“You can’t imagine how much I’ve missed this,” Erik sighed. He felt like he hadn’t seen Charles in years, instead of just a few months.

Charles nodded and murmured his agreement, seemingly more interested in kissing Erik than talking with him. The notion made Erik smile and he surrendered fully, giving himself over to the taste and sensation of Charles’ kiss. He plucked at Charles’ neckcloth, trying to undo the knot one-handed. But Charles pulled back.

“Erik, how did you get here?”

“Your friend Mrs. MacTaggert,” Erik said simply, tugging Charles back into closer proximity. He continued to work determinedly on the blasted neckcloth. “Once I explained that my intentions towards you were honourable, she told us where we could find you.”

“We?”

Finally the knot gave way, and Erik could part Charles’ collar to expose the creamy skin of his throat. “Azazel, the Duke, and myself. We came up from Brixton this afternoon.”

“Where are Azazel and the Duke now?” Charles’ question was breathy and low-pitched, as Erik was intent on licking and kissing the hollow of Charles’ throat. He knew he’d sufficiently distracted Charles when Charles twined his fingers in Erik’s hair and pulled him closer.

“They went to the village for more information. We weren’t certain you were here.”

“Ah,” Charles said. When Erik began pulling the tails of his shirt free of his trousers, he seemed to regain enough presence of mind to process what Erik was saying. “So…they’re coming back here? When?”

“We have enough time,” Erik said, smiling against Charles’ neck before dropping a kiss there. He ran his good hand under Charles’ shirt and up his side, noting that Charles was thinner than before, almost as thin as he’d been in that country inn so many years before.

“What if they come back sooner?”

“Peg a note to the door,” Erik suggested, brushing his thumb across Charles’ sensitive nipple. Charles let out a scandalized gasp.

“And what should I say to Azazel and the Duke of York in this note that I’m to fasten to the door?”

“‘Come back tomorrow,’” Erik suggested. “Or, ‘Go back to London.’ Anything that will allow us to retire gracefully. And alone,” he suggested, peeling off Charles’ shirt.

“But they’d think they’re not welcome,” Charles insisted, though he sounded less than concerned about that problem.

“Unless they’re both blockheads.”

“But they’ll take that to mean…”

“Exactly what I intend it to mean. Go away. I want to be alone with my lover. With whom, I might add, I have not been alone in months.” He emphasized this point by bending to nibble along Charles’ collarbone. He was lovely like this, red mouth swollen from kissing, dark hair tousled. Just as Erik liked to see him best.

“Two.”

“What?” Erik mumbled against his skin.

“Two months,” Charles clarified, catching at the fall of Erik’s trousers before slipping his hand inside. “A very, very long two months.”

“Charles,” Erik warned in response to Charles’ expert touch. “Don’t. Unless you want this to be over before it’s properly begun.”

“I don’t mind,” Charles replied, kissing him soundly on the lips as he found the slit in Erik’s drawers. “I don’t expect either of us to last very long.”

“Don’t make predictions,” Erik advised. “Let me surprise you. Just lock the door and—”

“I cannot lock the door against the Duke of York and your best friend, who are both in the blasted country in the first place because they’re trying to help us. That is simply not done, Erik. Even you—”

“Barbarian that I am,” Erik interrupted, smiling.

“Barbarian that you are,” Charles agreed, “should know that we have to at least make a pretense of being nothing more than old friends glad to be reunited after a falling out.”

Erik snorted at the notion. There was nothing about the nature of his relationship with Charles that remained a mystery to either Azazel or the Duke.

“And we ought to make Anthony and Azazel feel welcome,” Charles continued. “We really should ask them to stay the night, but I don’t…”

“No, Charles. That we will not do. They are both sophisticated men,” Erik said, though sometimes he had his doubts about Azazel. “They’ll understand that we need some time to properly…reconcile.”

“Don’t you dare,” Charles admonished, horrified that Erik would say anything of the like to Azazel and Stark. “Don’t you dare tell them that we need anything. I warn you, Erik.”

Fortunately the knock on the door prevented Charles from having to think of a threat that he might possibly have the willpower to carry out. He’d been trembling since Erik had first touched him, and all he wanted to do was to be inside Erik, or have Erik inside him.

Erik stalked out of the kitchen and Charles raced to catch up with him, surprised at how quickly Erik moved despite his limp. They arrived at the front door at the same moment and Erik flung the barrier open to reveal Azazel and the Duke on the steps, both of them obviously cold and wet from the falling snow.

“Azazel,” Charles said, wrapping his arms around himself in an attempt to conceal his bare upper body. “Your Grace,” he said, nodding at Anthony. The two men seemed slightly surprised that Charles had answered the door, let alone shirtless, but as Erik had pointed out they were too sophisticated to say anything. “I’m so sorry you’ve been sent on this wild goose chase. Particularly on a night like this. You’re both positively drenched. Please come in, and—”

“Tomorrow,” Erik interrupted.

Both Azazel and the Duke had removed their top hats and were shaking the snow from them in order to enter. At the gambler’s single word they both looked to him, equally amused.

“Mr. Xavier,” The Duke said, turning to Charles with a perfectly controlled face and just the right amount of self-assured charm. “You are kindness itself, but I fear that Azazel and I have urgent business in the village that prevents us from accepting your invitation until tomorrow.”

“Afternoon,” Erik suggested.

The Duke’s graceful refusal died as he lifted one eyebrow in sardonic criticism of that proposal. But he replaced his hat and bowed, first to Charles, and then to Erik. Azazel did the same, but with a pronounced smirk.

“Take care of him,” Stark advised, and then stepped back out into the snowy night. Azazel met Erik’s eyes.

“Khvastun,” he said.

Charles and Erik stood together in the doorway until the sound of the carriage faded into the night.

“What did he say?” Charles asked, leaning against Erik as Erik slipped an arm around his shoulder.

“It translates roughly to ‘braggart’,” Erik explained, dropping a kiss on Charles’ dark hair. “I think they’ve found us out.”

Charles slapped the flat of Erik’s stomach with the back of his hand, and Erik laughed.

“Stop it,” Charles chided, finally laughing with Erik. He had to stop so he could listen and enjoy the sound of Erik’s warm chuckle.

“Lock the door, liebling,” Erik said. “I don’t think I’m up to any more interruptions.”

Charles did as he asked and led him back to the firelit kitchen. They kissed for a moment before the hearth, before Erik drew back to ask, “Where is your bedroom?”

“Well,” Charles said, biting at his lip. “That’s a bit…complicated.”

“You do have a bed?” Erik asked, finding the alternative unbearable.

“Of course I have a bed,” Charles said. “Only…” he glanced at the corner of the dimly-lit room. Erik saw that there was a curtain there, hanging from a rod fixed to one end of a shelf to make a flimsy partition. He crossed the room and pushed aside the material to reveal what was, in actuality, no more than a cot. He stood a moment looking down on that depressingly narrow mattress in its rather fragile-looking frame.

“Not exactly what I’d been imagining,” Erik said, but he turned to smile at Charles.

“I didn’t think you were the sort to romanticize,” Charles said, leaning against the table where a stack of books teetered. “What did you imagine would happen if we ever did manage to reunite?”

“A bed,” Erik said, and then amended, “a real bed. And candlelight. The champagne you liked so much, only this time…”

“In moderation,” Charles agreed, smiling at him. “And what else?”

“A steaming bath, with you in it. Just like that first night we—”

“Yes, yes,” Charles said, blushing. “But if you’d rather stand around all night talking about our colourful past instead of attempting to add new memories…”

“I’m attempting to seduce you,” Erik said. He caught Charles’ hand and kissed his knuckles. “And I’m doing a damned poor job of it. Charles, liebling, come to bed?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” Charles said, unbuttoning his trousers. Erik stood watching in silence as Charles skinned out of his pants, leaving him standing in rather threadbare smallclothes.

He glanced up to find Erik’s eyes on him. Embarrassed by his sudden vulnerability, Charles folded his arms across his chest. “The poor relation again,” he said, aware of the sorry state of his tattered trousers that now lay on a heap on the floor. “I left everything in London the night I fled to Brixton. Well, everything except the watch you gave me.”

“I know,” Erik said, remembering what had happened that night. What he’d accused Charles of, and wondering if Charles would ever forgive him. The silence stretched a moment before he spoke again.

“Cain?” Charles said, also remembering. Erik waited for Charles to say whatever it was he had to say. No matter what it was, Erik knew he deserved it.

“Cain?” Charles said again, and unbelieving, Erik heard him giggle. “How could you think, after everything we’d shared, everything that you’d shown me, how could you possibly think I would…with Cain?”

Still pained by the memory, and more than a little embarrassed, Erik pulled Charles against him and began kissing him with all the expertise he could muster. He backed nearer the bed, drawing Charles with him, although his injured arm was throbbing with renewed agony.

He felt the edge of the cot against the back of his knees and he fell into the small bed, pulling Charles down on top of him. He was desperate now to hold Charles, to touch him, to drive out the remembrance of his anger and the pain he’d inflicted.

But there was a splintering sound from beneath them, and a resounding crash as the simple cot gave way. Since there was no great height to the cot they didn’t have far to fall, but they landed with a distinct ‘thud’. There was a stunned silence, the dust from the ancient mattress rising around them in a cloud.

And then the quiet was broken by Charles’ laughter, peal upon peal of it. Laughing still, Charles rolled off Erik and on to his injured arm. Erik’s startled expletive was involuntary and heartfelt, but apparently expressive, even in German. Charles scrambled away from him as rapidly as the remains of the shattered bed would allow.

Erik pulled his damaged arm against his stomach, rocking slightly and still cursing. When the unexpectedly vicious pain had eased somewhat, he looked up to find Charles’ blue eyes still locked on his face.

“What in the world…?” he asked, his concern obvious.

“Cain,” Erik said simply. “Your damnable stepbrother shot me.”

“Let me see,” he ordered, reaching to unbutton Erik’s waistcoat.

He twisted away. “You can’t see. It’s my arm. I’d have to undress.”

“And you hadn’t planned to?” Charles asked. “Or did your fantasies involve taking me fully clothed?”

“I told you, you were nude, beautifully nude and I—”

“I see,” Charles interrupted. “You were planning to start wearing your clothes again all night. Are we back to the silliness of you not removing your shirt because you have a few scars?”

“A few scars!” Erik repeated, hurt that Charles would ridicule the effort he’d made to spare Charles from what he considered the horrors of his body.

“Just a few,” Charles repeated firmly, and kneed over to Erik. “Let’s get your coat off and see what damage you let Cain do to you this time.”

“I’ve let Cain do?” Erik said, incredulous. “It seems to me that Cain’s done whatever he pleased from the very beginning. I should have killed the bastard months ago. And instead, because you asked me to, I waltzed into the Hellfire Club and apologized to him. I must have been out of my mind.”

Charles sad back on his haunches and folded his arms across his chest, frowning. “But at the time, I truly believed it would help us. And…and it was partly to help Raven. Her debut was supposed to be in January, and I was hoping that if Cain’s good name was restored via your apology it would improve her chances of securing a good match for herself.” He sighed then. “It didn’t matter anyway. She married several months ago, in Switzerland. I like her new husband very much.”

Charles didn’t bother to hide the fondness in his voice when he spoke of his sister, and Erik felt an irrational surge of jealousy, which he quickly repressed.

And then he realized what a ridiculous tableau they made. Charles, wearing only his worn smallclothes and with a smudge of dirt on one pale cheek; himself, fully clothed and stretched out over the remains of the ruined cot, carefully nursing his arm, which he held tight against his body.

It was not at all as he’d imagined it would be.

And Erik knew that it didn’t matter if their reunion didn’t match his fantasies. Or Charles’. Because they were together. Whatever the situation, that was all that was really important. That’s what it’s all about, Charles had said so long ago. It had taken him so much time to realize the truth of that statement. Love, and trust, and opening his heart enough to let someone in. Lessons that had taken him a lifetime of agony to understand.

“I love you, Charles.” It was the first time he’d said it aloud.

He watched tears well in Charles’ brilliant blue eyes, and despite the dust that covered them both, and the smudge of dirt on Charles’ cheek, he’d never thought him more beautiful.“I love you so much,” he whispered again, and Charles saw the truth in his eyes.

“And I love you,” Charles said. “I always have. Forever. It just took me a long time to find you.”

“Well,” he said, teasing a little to lighten the mood. “You always have to do things properly. I, on the other hand, believe in taking action. Action that will lead to somewhat quicker results.”

Charles broke into a smile as he devised Erik’s meaning.

“Do you have a chair, Charles? A sturdy, straight-backed chair?”

“A chair?” he repeated, eyes widening at the thought. Finally fascinated by the idea, he nodded.

“Good,” Erik said. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”

****

“Slowly, love,” he whispered, his hand helping guide himself into Charles’ body. “Slowly.” His injured arm was resting between their joined bodies.

Charles stretched up on his toes again, lifting himself up to bear down on Erik’s erection. He took a shuddering breath, working through the stretch of it, and soon Erik was fully seated within him. He watched Erik’s face, that one silver eye locked with his, and after a moment of acclimation, he stretched up again, beginning to roll his hips.

Erik’s eye drifted closed and he drew his own stuttered breath, and then another. Too quickly. Charles knew what was happening even before Erik did, focused as he was on holding himself back for Charles’ sake. Charles leaned into him, arms tightening around Erik’s neck, and together they rode out Erik’s climax. The strength of his orgasm surprised Charles. There was none of the control Erik had always exhibited, the subtle, patient lover who had shown Charles the pathway to pleasure, love, satisfaction. Instead…

“Charles. I’m so sorry,” he said when the effects of his shuddering release had finally ebbed. He caressed up and down Charles’ spine, apparently attempting to comfort him because he’d left Charles behind with no chance to join him. “I thought I could…I’m so sorry.”

Charles leaned back slightly to look at Erik’s face. He smiled at him.

“And now will you let me put you to bed? You have a fever, you’re in pain, and you’ve been travelling in that condition all day.”

“No,” Erik said, as impossibly stubborn as always. “Not until you’ve— I don’t intend to leave you unsatisfied.”

“I know what you intended,” Charles said gently, cupping his face. “I remember your intentions very well. But things don’t always happen the way we plan. It doesn’t matter.”

“It matters to me,” Erik insisted.

“I know,” Charles said, leaning forward to kiss him. “And that’s one reason I love you. One of the many reasons. But you need to rest. You know you do, Erik.”

“I need to watch what happens when you…”

“Voyeur,” Charles suggested, laughing.

“You’re so beautiful when you’re like that. So relaxed. Uninhibited. Not concerned at all with the ‘proper’ thing to do.”

“I feel like this is the proper thing to do,” Charles said pointedly, feeling Erik’s cock harden against his backside as he undulated against the other man.

“You’re going to be the death of me,” Erik predicted, tracing down Charles’ spine. “Will you…could you turn around?”

“Turn around?”

“Sit facing the other way,” Erik explained, waiting for Charles to visualize what he meant. Charles rose and turned, presenting Erik with his very appealing arse. He couldn’t help but smooth his good hand down Charles’ flank, which rippled like that of a nervous horse. Charles turned to look over his shoulder.

“How should I…?”

Erik took himself in hand, cock already stiffening at the sight of Charles’ creamy bare skin and mischievous grin. He stroked a thumb down the crease of Charles’ arse and parted the flesh there, dipping the digit inside to brush up against Charle’s slick, swollen hole. Charles groaned.

“This way, love,” he murmured, abandoning Charles’ hot flesh to help guide him back into a sitting position. It was difficult with only one good arm but he managed to line them up properly, and soon Charles was sinking back on his hard cock. Erik bit his lip, determined not to spill again so quickly. He would do things properly.

With his right hand he trailed down Charles’ smooth, muscled chest, over the small mound of his belly, and then lower to find his erect cock curving up from his body. Erik focused on wrapping his hand around that lovely member, satisfied when Charles relaxed fully against him, his head falling back onto Erik’s shoulder.

“God, Erik,” Charles moaned, every atom of his being focused on the sensation of Erik’s hand moving on his cock, and the feeling of Erik buried deep inside him. They had never made love from this angle, and though it was hard to leverage himself enough to fuck himself on Erik the way he wanted, Charles was more than content to let Erik set a leisurely pace. Erik’s gentle stroking hand felt so good, and the fullness of Erik’s large cock buried within him…it all felt rather too good to be true, as though any moment Charles would wake up alone in the chilly ruins of his childhood home. Instead…

“I didn’t say so before,” Charles whispered, reaching up to twine his fingers through Erik’s dark hair. He gripped the nape of his neck and tilted his head back further to brush a pleasure-soft kiss against Erik’s lips. “But happy Christmas, darling.”

“Hmm,” Erik grunted, quickening the pace of his hand. “You know I don’t—“

“I know,” Charles said quickly, “but I thought it ought to be said anyway.” He blew out a deep breath, catching at Erik’s wrist only to curl his fingers over Erik’s. Together they stroked his cock. “It’s the season of miracles, after all.”

“I suppose so,” Erik said, thumbing the head and gathering up the clear moisture he found there to help ease the movements of his stroking hand. He nuzzled at Charles’ neck, inhaling the smell of him, warm and aroused and entirely his.

“I…oh, God, yes, that’s—” Charles blurted out, his only warning before he spilled over Erik’s fingers in ropey strands of come. The hot clench of his body prompted Erik’s own release, and they sagged together, breathing hard.

“Thank you,” Charles said, and Erik laughed.

“My pleasure, Charles,” he said. “Always, my deepest pleasure.”

****

Chapter Text

Epilogue

There is a house in Cuba that sits on a hill overlooking the sea. Behind it lies a wide swath of green sugar fields, where freemen labour under the hot sun for a share of the land and its profits.

Inside the house, which rises white and airy from its hillside view, two men have made a home. Their servants are their family, children and young adults rescued from a life of drudgery and exploitation. The house is a haven, and new refugees arrive every year. They learn to read, to master a new skill or a trade. Some leave, never to return. Others remain.

While old scars never heal, they can be seen in a new light. Erik’s grow white against his tanned skin, and when he swims in the ocean he imagines them dissolving in the salt water and the wind, old pain carried away by the tides.

And Charles feels the ache of his memories fade into the green void of the Cuban jungle and its endless shoreline. There he finds new insects and shellfish to catalog, and he as slowly starts to unravel the mysterious origins of life, he begins to understand his place in the world.

They live, and they love. There are no more battles to fight, no more hard choices to make.

All is as it should be.

THE END