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A Cage of Silver and Sky

Chapter Text

Wake, says the voice in his dreams. Wake. This is the time. This is the moment.

His eyes fly open. The ceiling is still far too low for his liking, less than an arm’s length away. He has to stretch his arms out to the sides.

It is warm enough that he has gone to sleep without needing to use his thin cotton blanket; still, Erik shivers as he levers himself up onto one elbow and looks around.

The desk next to the bunk beds has been cleared. There had been a computer and a webcam there last night, a sheaf of papers, a battered guide book. Erik glances over the railings, down to the lower bed - the pillows have been piled neatly back in place and the mattress has been stripped of its sheets. The other person who had stayed in the room has left no trace of his presence, not even a stray candy wrapper, which is strange because Erik had seen him buy an oversized bag of lemon-tea cough drops.

Erik is tall, and doesn’t actually need to use the ladder to get out of the bed: he swings his legs over the railings and hops down, and lands in a neat crouch. Knees bent. Feet flat on the floor.

Ready to run, or ready to fight.

So he’s alone, again, in this anonymous hostel room, and the morning sunlight is cutting weak bars into the opposite wall, and the wooden planks beneath his feet are much warmer than they had been when he’d first arrived, just after the turn of the year, when the snow had fallen so thick and so cold on his shoulders and on his head.

He runs quickly through his morning ablutions.

He’s already squared away most of his things: he picked up his laundry last night and rolled the clothes back up to fit into his trekking pack.

Perhaps spring has come at last, in this year of powerful strange weather, of unexpected blizzards melting away into unlooked-for warmth - at least, that is what he’s gleaned from the previous night’s news. Still, Erik shrugs on his leather jacket, battered now from his year on the run.

He thinks back to the voice in his dreams that has woken him up.

Strange whisper, and he doesn’t know why he trusts its words at all.

Just because he’s been hearing it for more than half his life doesn’t mean he has to heed its words.

And yet he’d gone when the voice told him to go to Tokyo. He’s followed those words to this place where he is worlds away from home.

Home no longer really exists for him.

The young man sitting behind the reception desk is too engrossed in his Japanese-language novel to look up when Erik turns his room key in - but he does murmur “Have a good day”, and he even sounds like he means it.

Danke vielmals,” Erik says in return, the same way he’s said “Thank you” to every person who’s helped him.

Out on the street: warmth, and the scent of coffee. Three young women standing a few feet away in school uniforms, suit jacket and long blue skirt and low-heeled shoes. They are all wearing knee socks, and on closer inspection, none of the patterns on the socks match. The one in the middle offers her paper cup to the other two.

As he walks away from the hostel he is vaguely aware of the people walking along with him, or walking in the same direction: young couples smiling excitedly at each other, men in suits talking to the swarm of subordinates surrounding them, a frail old lady in a sober brown-and-green kimono carrying her shopping.

Not for the first time, Erik feels that he’s lost in a place where everyone is glued to some kind of mobile device or another; he doesn’t even have a camera with him, which means that he’s only had his own senses and his own memories - not all of which he can absolutely trust - when he finds himself stumbling over something beautiful, usually something tiny and moving and sometimes something great and unexpected.

He breathes warmth into his chilled hands as he remembers.

A glimpse of a woman in a magnificent purple kimono and a silver-and-jade obi, sitting calm and serene in the back of a sleek black car. Her hair intricately done up, shining in the temporary flash of a streetlight; dark red lips in a deeply curved pout.

A bright red-orange gate against snow and bare trees, mist creeping in around its feet and around his knees, and on the other side pristine snow clinging to rocks and to a group of three pine trees, quiet and bowed.

A little girl in a bright green coat walking, or being walked by, a black chow chow puppy with a red collar and a leash into which several lengths of clashing ribbon had been threaded.

A string quartet in formal clothing from centuries past - lace and petticoats and bloomers and flower-trimmed bonnets, long waistcoats. Three women and one man, standing just next to a busy pedestrian crossing, sweet classical refrains.

Now the people walking with him, walking past him, are talking about the news for some reason. One word is repeated, over and over and over: sakura.

When he’s swept around a corner he catches a glimpse of another shrine gate: red and black, and pale pink against dark brown and gray.

Everyone whispers appreciatively around him, and he can hear cameras clicking.

“Sakura,” someone says next to him, muffled because of the hand over her mouth. He can see the smile in the lines in the corner of her eye.

Erik breathes deep of the fresh breeze and soap and aftershave - and above it all, the faint sweet scent wreathing the trees and the gate and the crowd.

The boy next to him is typing an email in French and English and Japanese: Sakura, c’est si bon! Impressive cherry blossom!

The crowd oohs and aahs around him as the breeze suddenly kicks up and then it happens all at once: the trees sway and shiver, and there are flowers falling away from their branches, graceful fall on the drifting wind.

Just as he’s about to smile, just as he thinks about reaching out for a petal that he could carry around with him, the voice in his head speaks again.

Here. Now. You called. We meet.

He turns around, slowly, desperately. His heart hammers in his chest. He cannot breathe. There are too many people.

Erik searches the crowd, whispering: “Where where where -

A cherry flower falls into his line of sight and flutters past him, seemingly tossed on the capricious breeze, over the head of the girl who’d spoken, over the shoulder of the man in the sweatshirt next to her, back into the crowd behind Erik - and then the wind stops and the flower falls, straight down.

Into the hair of a young man standing just beneath another tree: this one is full of long spidery branches reaching up into the sky. Silver-green leaves whispering a soft song, over and above the crowd’s appreciative murmuring. There is a basket at the man’s feet and there is a paper umbrella, white and furled, leaning against the tree trunk.

Erik stares.

There is no way that the voice in his dreams could belong to this person.

The young man’s dark hair falls in unruly waves around his pale, freckled face; in the faint dappling of the sunlight Erik can just about see the stray red and gold threaded through the dark. Freckles, constellations of them, shadows of them, dusted over the exposed throat and the high arched curves of the cheekbones. Eyes like the sky at dusk, deep drowning blue that takes Erik’s breath away.

He blinks, and blinks again, and the young man standing beneath the tree is still dressed like the lady he’d seen in the car: long trailing silk, pooling around his feet, falling past his fingers. The kimono is stark shocking crimson, bright even when he’s standing in the shade; the sash is black and white, horizontally striped.

Erik watches him fuss with his bronze under-collar for a moment, and wants to fall to his knees, because when the man moves each gesture is swift and spare and graceful.

And then the crowd moves on, suddenly, as if someone has rung a bell and everyone has remembered their errands and destinations and appointments. Erik keeps his feet, somehow, even as everyone seems to brush past him in their scattering motion.

Another cherry blossom falls toward the man in the kimono.

This time Erik moves forward to capture it.

As he approaches, the man rummages in one oversized sleeve and makes a small triumphant sound when he pulls out a pair of horn-rimmed glasses with clear lenses.

Erik watches him put the glasses on, watches him push them higher on his nose by the bridge.

And then he is the target of the man’s sweet sunny smile.

“It’s good to meet you at long last,” the man says - and it is that voice, though it’s quiet and amused and not at all urgent right now. “You’re looking for something, yes?”

“Yes,” Erik says, hoarse with surprise. “You know me?”

“I know of you,” the man says, “and I have known that you were coming for quite a long time.”

“You can’t have been alive that long,” Erik hears himself say.

That makes the man laugh. “I look forward to explaining things to you and watching you get a headache as a consequence. Come with me, I’ve laid a light meal on. Well, perhaps it’s almost like a late breakfast. I know you like a four-minute egg. You must be hungry.”

“Starving,” Erik says. “I haven’t been eating much.”

The man makes a little tsking sound of dissatisfaction. “You must eat. You’ve much to do, and you’ll need your strength.”

Erik hurries after him as he picks up his basket and opens his umbrella, shielding his freckles from the sun. Languid swaying walk, accompanied by a quiet clop-clop sound, and he blinks when he notices that the man is wearing wooden clogs on his bare feet.

“I don’t understand,” Erik says, and he follows anyway.

“It was time for us to meet,” the man says. “We had to wait for the right time - excuse me, for the only time. Weren’t you paying attention? I told you that this was the time. The foreordained time. I am here, now, and you are here who have been searching for me.” He stops and looks over his shoulder at Erik, and his smile is startling against the backdrop of his clothes, of his umbrella.

Erik stops dead in his tracks, shaking his head in irritation and confusion. He growls at the man. “Speak plainly, or else I’ll leave.”

“No, you won’t,” the man says, winking at him, before he suddenly turns earnest and sober again. “Because I know exactly where to find the man you’re looking for, and I can give you the power to deal with him, shall we say, permanently. But all wishes come with a price, and this wish of yours is both necessary and very, very dear. So you’ll come with me and you’ll hear your price, and only after you’ve decided whether you’ll pay it or not will you be released.”

“Release me - ” Erik says, and doesn’t move even when the man starts walking again.

This time when the man turns around Erik nearly does go to his knees. Suddenly there is power crackling around the man, as familiar to Erik himself as his fevered dreams, as completely unexpected as the very presence of the man. “This will be the first time you hear this word, Erik Lehnsherr. First of many. It will be the word that governs you from this moment on. The word is hitsuzen. Think on that, and follow me.”

Erik expects a long walk; but the man who knows his name and who knows his purpose simply turns down a short side-street, lined on both sides by trees in full leaf, their branches touching overhead.

At the end of that road is a plain wooden gate, not even waist-high on Erik, and beyond the gate is a sprawl of a house, close to the ground, framed by the Tokyo skyline and the clear blue of the spring sky.

The man gestures at the gate and it swings open, and he closes his umbrella and steps through - and once he’s on the other side, he puts his things down and turns completely to Erik. That sweet smile reappears, and then he bows, formally, deeply, from the waist. “My name is Charles Xavier,” the man says, “and I would be deeply honored if you would consent to come into my home.”

Erik hesitates for just an instant.

As he watches, the blue of the man’s eyes - Charles Xavier’s eyes - shifts, until he’s looking into something both familiar and strange. Blue like the sky surrounding them both, and darker, calling to him.

He steps through.

Chapter Text

This time, when he wakes up, Erik opens his eyes and is aware of several things all at once:

He’s warm. He’s lying down on the floor - the ceiling is that far away that he can tell - and the immediate surroundings smell faintly and pleasantly of sandalwood and cloves and, incongruously, singed vanilla. Soft bedding, impression of white and lines of stitching, and the warmth yields to his movements, wrapping him securely.

There is no sunlight and there are no windows: the walls of his room are actually sliding doors. The light that falls on him has an oddly subdued quality that makes him think of translucence - and then he thinks of paper lanterns, soft shadowed shift that sways with the slightest breeze.

Speaking of shadow, there is something sitting outside his room. He doesn’t know how he knows that the shadow belongs to something alive - he just does.

As Erik sits up and rubs the sleep from his eyes there’s a soft whuff from outside. The shadow uncurls, sinuous movement: it crouches, long and lean and low to the floors. Something goes thump.

And then the door moves, paws and a nose coming through, until Erik is staring at a silver-gray wolf with golden eyes.

Scheisse,” Erik whispers, quiet and involuntary. He’s torn between fear and admiration as the wolf slinks toward him. Its step is sure and silent and fearless even though it’s massive as wolves go - with Erik still tangled in his bedclothes those eyes are very nearly on a level with his.

He gulps in another breath as the wolf sniffs at his shoulders, at his hands that are frozen in his lap.

Someone speaks in the room, someone who is most emphatically not Erik: “Come to me, Yue. Where are you?”

If a wolf could act chastised, it would act like this one - Yue? - does now, Erik thinks, almost nonsensically. It groans, and lashes its tail from side to side, and then, of all the things, clambers practically into Erik’s lap - it curls up around him, a strange weight that he’s loath to chase away, for all that it had been seemingly eyeing him up for a snack not a few minutes before.

When he gets his wits back around him he only has enough time to wonder where the voice had come from, and then what he has gotten himself into, now that he is entangled with a man in kimono and what seems to be that man’s pet wolf.

Yue snuffles when Erik tries to get to his feet - and in the end he leaves the wolf in his bed and stumbles toward the wash stand in the corner. The water in the basin is still warm, and it smells of lemons, as does the small towel folded neatly next to the bag in which he keeps his toothbrush and his shaving kit.

His bag is propped up against the chest next to the wash stand. A fresh shirt, a new pair of socks, and his leather jacket, and he thinks that he might be ready to face the world at last.

Yue barks at him, once, when he steps out the door - the wolf flows towards him, squeezing past and heading down one of the corridors. Several times it looks back over its shoulder as if to make him follow - and follow he does.

Now that he can think a little, he can understand with absolute certainty that it had been Charles Xavier who had called for the wolf. The question is, how had he done that? Does that answer have anything to do with the odd dark presence of the silent rooms that must open off this silent corridor, if the sliding doors are anything to go by?

Who is Charles Xavier, Erik thinks, exactly the same thought that he had fallen asleep to. Who is he and what is this house of his, full of shifting spaces and brooding silence and the footfalls of a wolf?

So he’s taken aback when Yue opens another set of doors, somehow, and bounds through, yipping joyfully.

Sunlight pools around Erik’s feet, warm and welcome, and the breeze wafts a familiar scent in his direction, washes drifting petals into his path.

White and pale pink, stained with soft golden-yellow pollen.

The garden before him is in full bloom: small, self-contained, and full of spring’s power. He can hear the quiet chatter of running water over stones, and he can feel the cooling breeze that catches playfully at the hems of his jacket. The greenery and the flowers, however, seem to be centered on the cherry tree in the southern corner: it reminds Erik of a weeping willow, except that these branches bear the now-familiar five-petaled flowers.

Yue barks, again, catching his attention - and that’s when he sees the man sitting at the foot of the tree.

Today Charles Xavier is dressed in dark gray robes and a belt in coppery red; as Erik draws closer, the sunlight catches on the ornament in that belt, a long metal pin decorated with what looks like some kind of bright flower.

“Good morning,” the man says at Erik’s approach. He is sitting on his heels on a cushion in the center of a pale yellow blanket of some kind, surrounded by various dishes. “Perhaps you might like some breakfast - again?”

“If I can ask you questions while I’m eating,” Erik says as he takes the second cushion, polite and also cautious.

“Of course you can ask me questions,” Charles Xavier says as he reaches for an old-fashioned teapot, its glaze chipped in several places and its handle showing signs of having been glued back neatly together. “Whether there will be answers to those questions remains to be seen.”

“Who are you, what is this place, and - ” Erik blinks when he’s offered a teacup. “And what is it with that wolf? How did you call it from my room? I heard your voice soon after I woke up. You were not there, but I heard you, as clearly as I can hear you now.”

“I did call for her,” Charles Xavier says as he busies himself with the other dishes. “And I do apologize for disturbing your rest. I had temporarily forgotten that you had come to stay. I assure you, it won’t happen again. I am just used to being by myself in this house, with her as my only companion.”

As he speaks, Yue makes her way to the tree and then curls up nearby, within easy reaching distance; she sniffs at his trailing sleeve before putting her paws over her snout and closing her eyes.

“This is Yue, then,” Charles Xavier says, and Erik hears fondness in that voice. “She is my guardian, and she is part of me. She looks after me when I must be about my errands, and when I cannot take her with me, she guards this house in my stead. Without her, I believe I would be quite lost.

“As for me, well. That would be a rather complicated explanation, so I will do everything I can to speak concisely. I believe that last night I insisted upon you calling me by my first name; I repeat it now, and I will call you by yours, if you’ll permit it.”

Erik raises an eyebrow, but says, “All right - Charles.”

Charles smiles, and busies himself with his own breakfast for a moment. He doesn’t seem to be drinking tea; there is some kind of pink flower steeping in his teacup, which is much smaller than Erik’s, just enough to fit in the palms of his cupped hands. “Thank you, Erik. So now we shall speak of my chosen task, and of this house.

“We are here in a place that is much more than just a dwelling for a man in kimono and for his pet wolf,” Charles says, casting a long look around the garden. “We are here in a place that is safely anchored. Here it has stood through more than a hundred years, unchanging, serving its purpose. The house welcomes all who come and who are in need. And there have been many men and women and other beings who have needed this place, from all of the worlds, from every reality you can think of, and some that you might never have guessed would exist.”

“Worlds? Realities?” Erik asks.

“The world outside this house and its gardens is just one of many,” Charles says. “So very many. Dimensions folded into existences wrapped around worlds.”

“Where the spirits of this city, or this country, reside.”

“That is one of them,” is the prompt reply. “It is good that you can think of it. You must try to keep that mind of yours open, because something tells me that you will need it before you are done.

“Now, you passed many rooms on your way here. Perhaps you might have wondered about their purpose?”

Erik nods, cautious, trying to keep up. “Some of the doors I passed made me think of waiting.”

Charles beams at him. “Good, you pay attention,” he says. “And waiting is right. I said that people have been in need of this place; they come here also because they need something that is stored here. The rooms of this house are full of things that these people must have. Things that will help grant their wishes, if that is what their fates must lead them to.

“Which means: I am the custodian, and I am the shop keeper.”

Erik blinks. “Shop keeper,” he says, slowly, thinking hard. “You say that you help these people who come to find this house, and you. You give them these objects that you keep here - for a price. You told me about a price.”

“Nicely put,” Charles says, and he sips from his cup, delicate movements. “That is the law, you see, that is imposed on this shop, and on the objects it stocks, and on the shop keeper. Help comes at a price, and the price must be paid, always.”

“And you told me that the price for my wish will be very high,” Erik says, and puts his teacup down. Suddenly he no longer feels hungry.

Suddenly the garden is strange and cold and distant around him.

Charles sighs and folds his hands in his lap. “The truth, I must admit, is occasionally its own very steep price: what has been learned cannot be unlearned. And yes, I did tell you that at the beginning. I know what your wish is, and so you must know what the price for granting it is, and so you may come to your choice of your own free will. Very well, Erik.

“You wish the death of a man, do you not?”

Erik looks away. “If you know about that, then I would think that you know why.”

Memory seethes in him, try as he might to push its bitterness away. A broken body in a shadowed corner: blood in the dark hair, eyes wide open with shock. He chokes back the bitter bile in his throat with the terrible ease of practice.

When he blinks back to himself Charles is standing up and Yue is sitting next to his feet, her hackles up and her teeth bared. “Would that I could simply give you that wish,” Charles says over her quiet growling. His voice is soft and steely and strong. “But that is my limitation. I am shop keeper, and I can wish for myself, but only in a very limited capacity. This wish is far beyond that. A price must be paid.”

“So name your price,” Erik says.

“All right. If I am to grant this wish, Erik, then here is the price.” Charles’s eyes go dark, and in the next blink a faint ring of silver appears around the blue.

The cherry tree seems to tremble, as does the rest of the garden.

“A life for a life,” Charles says at last. “You wish my help in taking the life of a man. Then the price is that your life becomes mine. I will spend a long time paying back the great debt that this will incur, and you will spend the rest of your days in penance for this worthy and terrible deed.”

His first thought is to refuse.

There must be some other way.

He can find Schmidt - Shaw - on his own, and he can kill him with his own hands. He doesn’t need help.

His quarry is protected from harm, somehow; there are whispers that Schmidt is working with someone or something terrible, that guards him from all who want him dead.

That is a long list of people. Erik knows he’s only one of many.

It doesn’t stop him from being consumed by his thirst for revenge.

Only Schmidt’s death can satisfy him.

He opens his mouth to say No.

What comes out instead is this: “A life for a life, shop keeper. We are agreed.”

Charles’s answering smile is small, and framed in sorrowful lines. “So it begins.”

Chapter Text

He remembers Charles’s instructions:

“This house has welcomed you, Erik, under the terms of your wish and under the terms of the price that you have agreed to pay. If you wish to stay here, I will see that you feel at home; if you wish to stay apart, I will welcome you without fear and without prejudice, at any time that you need to come here.

“While you are here the doors of the house will be opened to you and the rooms will allow you to come and go as you please. The gardens will show you their paths and their intersections. Perhaps Yue may be inclined to join you; I ask that you will not send her away if she walks at your side or guards your back. She has better instincts than I for danger that is still forthcoming - and this path that you have chosen is fraught with many, many dangerous things.

“There is one other rule that I must impose on you, and I hope that you’ll understand the necessity for it when I explain. As you explore the house you may find strange and interesting objects. As I’ve explained, part of my work involves keeping these items against a future need or a future wish - and another part involves studying these items. I do not know everything about all of the objects that are stored all throughout this house. I ask you to be cautious should you find yourself with something that might seem out of place in this house.

“When in doubt, ask. I spend much of my time here, and if I am not here, you may rely on Yue.”

Now Erik is sitting just inside the doors to a room that Charles has just opened, and it is all he can do to avoid staring around him, wide-eyed and open-mouthed with fascination.

Charitably speaking, the place is a mess: there are all kinds of weapons and bric-a-brac and books piled together, spread out over every inch of floor space, seemingly without any rhyme or reason to the arrangements. In the corner nearest to him he can see a pile of books with strange symbols in cracked and fading gilt all over their spines, teetering precariously atop a fragile-looking three-legged bench in cracked and yellowing paint; on top of the books is perched a copy of Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne in what looks like black rock or opaque glass, so small that he suspects that it might fit easily into the palm of his hand.

Yue sniffs curiously at his hand and weaves past another pile of objects to get to her master: sure-footed and silent. Erik had never even noticed her approaching. As he watches, her tail brushes against an empty frame, something that might have held a portrait of some kind, causing it to wobble and creak threateningly.

He’s on his feet and halfway to reaching for the frame to help stabilize it - but Charles beats him there, and not for the first time, Erik wonders how the man moves around so quickly when his clothes seem to be constructed precisely to limit movement.

The lantern-light in the room casts sheen and shadows over Charles’s dangling sleeves, and if Erik squints, he thinks he can just about see the figures woven into the cloth: straight lines and V-shapes that make him think of arrows. It’s a little hard to see the pattern, given that the kimono is dark gray to begin with, accented with a turquoise sash tied into a one-looped bow at the back.

“Everything is all right,” Charles says as he picks up the frame; his movements are adroit and economical, and he doesn’t jar the pottery figures at his feet, or the large but frail-looking box covered in what looks like images of human skulls.

“Is that the item that you came in here to find?” Erik asks, eventually, out of boredom and curiosity both.

“Not at all. I happen to know a little about the story of that frame. Do you remember, Yue?” As he watches, Charles props the frame against one of the walls and then straightens up, and his hands move toward his head. He’s been wearing a sort of oversized kerchief over his dark hair, presumably for the dust, and he pulls it off now and uses one of the trailing corners to mop at his forehead and temples and cheeks. “It used to hold a painting of larks in flight,” Charles explains as he moves further into the room once again. “The painting was actually a prison, and the larks had been captured, and they wished to be freed.”

“You granted their wish.”

“I had to burn the painting, that was all,” Charles says over his shoulder. “Unfortunately, there were - consequences. The one who brought us the painting had her lifespan shortened a few hundred years.” There is a pause, a soft sound like Aha, found you!, and then Charles turns back around. “The larks were being imprisoned to keep that being healthy. I cannot abide slavery. I would have granted that wish without asking for a payment if I could have.”

“Except that this place won’t let you,” Erik says. “So what price did the larks pay for their freedom?”

The answer to that is a quiet laugh. “They must live here. Or, more precisely, at least one of them must always be within calling distance of the house. As I have plenty of trees and quite a bit of birdseed about the house, they do not find this a heavy price to pay, and I have been treated to quite a lot of performances from them, when mating season comes and the males sing to attract females. They are also happy to help me in case there is a need to send or receive certain messages - their song is also an effective cipher, you see, if you speak their language.”

“I don’t,” Erik says with a shrug. “I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as larks’ language.”

“Most bird species have their own - I suppose that makes sense. As for these larks, I only know a few of their words,” Charles says. “Just enough to ask for help.”

“That tends to be enough, sometimes,” Erik offers.

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Charles’s raised eyebrow. “You are someone who would be in a position to know the precise truth of that statement. And perhaps I would be a second example, yes?”

“Tell me that story,” Erik says.

“If you will tell me one of yours.”

“...Eventually.”

“Then my story can keep, as well. Now, look, I was right about this room. I said that it would contain what I will be needing today - and here it is.”

Erik steps closer to look at the box in Charles’s hands. Sturdy and well-polished wood on the outside, the entire outer lid covered in fine carving, in a pattern of scrolls and stylized leaves.

“The craftsmanship is exquisite,” Charles says. “Look here, and here: there used to be precious stones inlaid into the wood. I’d say it looks beautiful whether it retained its decorations or not. A shame about its fate, however.”

“What makes you say that?”

“I think I’ll be asked to break it.”

Some kind of horror must show on Erik’s face, because Charles winces and looks mildly sympathetic. “Yes, quite. I am holding out hope that there will be a reason behind that possibility of destruction. I will not know until the person who is looking for it arrives. Here, will you hold it for me?”

The box is unexpectedly heavy; it feels as though there must be something inside.

Out in the corridor, Charles pulls the sliding doors closed and then murmurs a few words, nothing Erik can recognize.

The doors glow in response.

By now, Erik can recognize the pattern of light that spreads to encompass the doors, floor to ceiling: an intricate figure of straight lines and nested circles. Some of the symbols are familiar to him, and some of them are still nigh-indecipherable.

What is important is this: the completed pattern turns slowly and fades out gradually as Charles pulls his hands away - and then he pushes on the doors as if to open them, but this time they do not yield to him.

“Well, that’s locked,” Charles says. “And that is part of this day’s work done. Will you join me for lunch? Fruits and bread and butter and cheese?”

Erik raises his eyebrows, but nods.

Yue snuffles irritably at Charles’s feet.

“Yes, yes, and something for you,” Charles says with a laugh. His hand in the scruff of the she-wolf’s neck.

When they get into the kitchen Erik feels a little more sure of himself. There are things that he can do here, in this place, and not all of them have to do with reaching for things stored away on higher shelves. Apparently at least one other person who had lived here had been pretty tall, or at least that is the tale that Charles tells him, and the massive, asymmetrical bow that Erik had found in the room next to his seems to bear that out as truth.

Again, he catches himself wondering just who could be capable of fighting with that weapon.

“Erik?”

He blinks, and finds himself still reaching into one of the cupboards for plates and saucers.

Yue is more or less sitting on his feet, head tilted as if to show the concern that is also in Charles’s voice: “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” he says, and he sets the table. Plates and cutlery, glasses and cups. None of the items on the table actually match, with the possible exception of the butter and cheese knives, with their warm wooden handles.

“If you’re sure,” Charles says, placidly, though if Erik looks closely he thinks he might see worry, or something else, lurking in the lines of the shop keeper’s face.

There is a small dish of strawberries in the center of the table, bright startling red in a kitchen full of gently shadowed spring sunlight: small and cold and sweet. They crunch between Erik’s teeth and add their flavor to the mild and creamy cheese and to the dark, hearty bread.

Even as he’s up to his elbows in warm soapy water, even as he’s busy scrubbing the kitchen things, Erik finds his eyes being drawn back to the box they’d unearthed, and he shakes his head, because it’s none of his business. The box belongs to someone else, or will be used by someone else. He shouldn’t be dwelling on it.

Still, he can’t help but be curious.

So it’s a surprise when Charles lingers after drying the dishes, and asks, “Perhaps you’d like to join me in the shop later on, when I speak to our - ah - client.”

“It’s your work,” Erik says, “I wouldn’t want to be in your way, and I don’t particularly think your clients might be interested in meeting some oversized foreigner who’s only there to look menacing.”

That seems to startle a laugh out of Charles; his amusement raises quietly chiming echoes from the warm room. He quickly smothers it with his sleeve, however, and he clears his throat before shaking an admonishing finger in Erik’s direction. “I would not ask you to be there,” he says, “if I did not wish you to be fully aware of what it is that I am doing.”

“I’m not good with people; how do you intend to educate me?”

“Are you interested, then?”

Erik shrugs and leans closer, listening intently.

Charles nods, once, and smiles up at him. “I will have Yue guide you through the house when our visitor has arrived. There will be a room waiting for you; you may then observe the transaction without yourself being part of it, and without being seen by others. Will this suit?”

“Yes.”

“Splendid,” Charles says. “Now I will go and prepare for this afternoon. Do not go far.”

When the she-wolf comes to collect him some time later, Erik is more than halfway through a book that he’d borrowed from the same room that held the bow: the cover proclaims it a college-level physics textbook, but apparently the student who’d once owned it had disagreed if the complicated equations squeezed into the margins are any indication.

He leaves the book behind and throws his jacket back on.

Yue sets a rapid pace down the corridors, some of which are familiar and some of which are absolutely new.

By the time he steps through the thin gap in a series of standing screens - partitions in green cloth thickly embroidered in black and green - he can see Charles as he pours his visitor tea.

Erik settles in, just in time to hear the young woman’s voice, tremulous and sweet. “I didn’t know that a place like this existed.”

“Not many people do. But perhaps you might have known of someone who had had an impossible wish granted?” Charles asks.

Erik blinks, because that is Charles’s voice, the same voice he’d heeded in the years of the dreams that had finally brought him here to this place.

“I - yes, sir, I do. My mother,” the girl says at last. “But how can I ask her about this place, about you, when she has been gone all this time?”

“Does your wish have to do with her?”

A quiet sob. “No. The wish is mine alone.”

Erik believes in Charles’s guess about the fate of the box, and after he hears the girl’s story he can’t really say that he’d begrudge her that fulfillment - still, the sharp crack of the lid shattering open pierces him, leaves him wrapped in echoes that he knows he’ll be hearing for some time yet.

After the girl leaves, Charles is still sitting on his couch when he calls out, softly: “Are you both there?”

“We’re here,” Erik says, and he hurries to Charles’s side, heedless of the stiff over-robe he’s thrown on over his shoulders, rustling black material with a pattern of white-outlined butterflies. “Are you all right?”

“It’s the wish,” Charles says. “It’s how these things go.”

“You’re part of the price,” Erik says, half in horror, half in weary understanding.

Charles merely sighs, and closes his eyes, and is suddenly, completely asleep.

Chapter Text

“Erik. Would you perhaps permit me to, ah, impose on you today?” Charles asks over the remnants of breakfast, a morning after the cherry blossom front has moved northward and away from Tokyo.

The question catches Erik off his guard, and he finds himself pausing to crumb the last piece of golden-brown toast on his breakfast plate. “I think I’m the one imposing on you and on your house,” he mutters after a moment. “I have been here two weeks, after all, and it seems that here I must stay. I should be doing something more to help.”

“Yue and I greatly appreciate your help in the storage rooms.”

“I’m happy to do more,” Erik says. He dusts the remnants of the meal from his hands. “What needs doing?”

Charles reacts by blushing: sudden dark red over his cheekbones, creeping up to his hairline and down to his white collar.

“What?” Erik asks as gently as he can, though he still winds up raising an eyebrow.

In response Charles takes a piece of paper, folded neatly in half, from his sash. “I would do the shopping if I could, but it’s - it’s an important day, and I also have other preparations to make here - ”

“It’s fine. I’ll do it,” Erik says, and he reads the list carefully. “Fish and vegetables and fruit. I know that you sometimes offer your clients something to eat - will this be for them? Are you entertaining clients today?”

Charles shakes his head, and when he speaks, he sounds sweet and sober at the same time. “Today is no ordinary day, Erik, and so the shop will not be open. We will be granting no wishes today.”

“An important day?” Erik asks.

“Yes. A day of remembering. And we would like you to join us.”

“I’ll be here,” Erik says, “or at least I will be after I finish with the shopping.”

Charles reaches out for him, then - a brief clasp of his forearm. “Thank you.”

Erik has picked up enough of the language that he doesn’t have any trouble with pronunciation or understanding; there’s not much he can do about his accent, however. At least once he has to settle for pointing out a word on the list. Luckily, Charles’s handwriting is much better than his, and that allows him to get through most of the task without a lot of trouble.

The last item on the list, however, is written in English: caramel candy squares.

Erik actually stops on the sidewalk and puts down the bags he’s already gathered, just to squint at the phrase.

A laugh creeps in around the edges of his mind as he puts it all together: clear plastic wrappers left behind in a storage room or two; Charles retreating to the kitchen to drink a glass and a half of water, as though he were on some sort of schedule, or worse, under some kind of compulsion. Most damningly, he suddenly remembers catching Charles wincing, or rubbing his cheek or jaw with one hand, while otherwise absorbed in some other task - most recently the previous day, when they were both playing with Yue.

A man who dressed in vibrantly colored kimono, who owned a shop stocked to the rafters with all kinds of strange and unusual things, who granted wishes - and had a sweet tooth. Not just any sweet tooth, at that - a man who was a shop keeper who loved cheap American candy.

There were probably stranger things out in the world - he hears Charles’s voice whisper, amused, “Worlds” - but Erik’s not sure he’s going to be seeing anything stranger than this for now.

The girl behind the counter at the confectionery shop that he ducks into is American, dark-haired and dark-skinned, and festooned in silver jewelry; she raises an eyebrow at him when he asks for the largest package of caramel candy squares that they have in stock. “That’s a lot of candy,” she drawls even as she goes to look around in the shelves climbing to the ceiling. “Good luck with the sugar rush.”

Erik shrugs, and thinks about making fun of Charles - but all levity evaporates when he steps back through the doors of the shop and suddenly finds himself transported from the foyer to Charles’s audience room, or the place where he sees his clients, in one single step.

He’s been here for a fortnight and he’s slowly beginning to see what it is that Charles does, but what he’s just experienced, and what he’s seeing now, is completely unlike what he’s already witnessed or figured out for himself.

Charles is dressed in nearly unrelieved black from shoulders to ankles, the only exceptions being his white collar and the scarlet lining of his robes, slivers of visible color at his throat and in his dangling sleeves.

Erik is more than used to facing the world in black: it hides stains, it’s easy to replace, and it is still a symbol of his hunt, of being in mourning.

He’s never seen Charles wear the color that means the absence of all light, and of all color.

He’s never seen Charles do anything as spectacular as fly, either.

He blinks, and his mind scrambles to catch up with everything he’s seeing, and even after he takes a deep breath and another look Charles is still floating above the polished wooden planks, arms slightly out to the sides, and head thrown back.

The air inside the room ripples and catches at Charles’s dangling hems, but not at the short tail in which he is currently wearing his hair.

As Erik watches with his heart inexplicably caught in his throat, Charles moves his arms up until his hands are at shoulder level. Light in his upturned palms, shifting silvery strange, shimmering into shapes. The curve of a bow, much taller than even the tallest possible wielder. A short stick with one end tapered, and the other terminating in some kind of small deep bowl. A double-edged sword, straight-bladed and trailing a long tassel, with the hilt shaped like a pair of wings pointing forward. A sedge hat made of straw and silk.

Charles turns slowly in mid-air, and as he moves it sounds like there are so many voices speaking in the room, multitudes of whispers, the words and meanings just out of Erik’s reach.

After what feels like several brief eternities, Charles opens his eyes - and he drifts down, gently, slow controlled descent, until his feet are on the floor again, and in the midst of the complicated circles that Erik remembers from locking the storage rooms. Stars and circles and symbols and characters, softly glowing light running in the clearly visible lines.

“Thank you,” Charles says. “Thank you so much, wherever you might be.”

As if to reply, the figure surrounding him flashes brightly, long and short pulses, before winking out completely.

Too many afterimages. Erik shuts his eyes and looks away.

Something large and warm huffs nearby and sits more or less on his feet.

When he opens his eyes, Charles is also on the floor next to him, deft fingers tearing into the bag of caramel candy. He offers Erik the first piece. “You look like you could use it.”

Erik sits down hard, and ungracefully, and Yue’s expression would be full of some kind of sympathy if she were human; as it is, he pulls back a little when she attempts to touch her nose to his. It takes him a moment to speak. “What. In hell. Was that?”

“Communication,” Charles says. The candy wrapper crinkles in his fingers as he extracts the caramel and tucks it into his cheek. His next words come out only a little garbled. “Excuse me. I do need the sugar. There is a reason why I only do that at certain times of the year: only when I absolutely have to.”

“Communication with what?” Erik asks. He leans against Yue for support.

“We’ll call it a message into the worlds,” Charles says. “A one-sided conversation. They are gone, you see - gone from this shop, gone from this level of existence.”

Foreboding is a sudden sharp weight on Erik’s shoulders, like someone’s thrown him a millstone to hang on to. “They’re dead.”

“One of them is. She died, and after so long she finally went to her rest, and back into the realm of all possibilities. Perhaps she will be reborn. Perhaps she will just keep on sleeping. From all the reports I’ve received of her, she more than thoroughly deserves that long, long rest.” Charles swallows, and his already soft smile fades further into something wistful. “I should have liked to meet her, but I suppose that it is for the best that I do not. The first shop keeper is - was - always someone to step most carefully around.”

“Then you’re not her successor,” Erik says, feeling adrift.

“I inherited the shop from her successor. Specifically, from him and from his companion. I had two masters for there was never one without the other. They came to the shop by hitsuzen, and they came to each other as though they had always been meant to be together. Here they lived and loved and worked together, two kinds of magic, powerful and protective and joined. I do not know where they are now. All I remember is waking up the morning after accepting the charge of the shop keeper, to an empty house, the lingering sense of people having stepped out the doors, and one last day’s worth of meals cooked for me.”

Erik glances around him at the bags full of fresh produce. “You’re remembering them today.”

“Yes. Today is for remembering all three of them,” Charles says, and he rummages in the bags, carefully smelling the wrappers. One of the packages produces a complicated pucker-smile reaction, and he unwraps that and shows Erik the contents: tiny white crystals clinging to a double handful of small, roundish red fruit. “Salt plums,” he says, still looking like he’d like to wince. “Don’t be put off by the smell, or by the way I look right now. I actually do like this stuff. It’s as delicious as it is good for you.”

“All right,” Erik says. And: “You remember them by cooking for them?”

“Yes,” is the simple answer. “It is as good a way as any other that I can think of.”

At last Erik nods in agreement. “It’s a better way than mine.”

Charles raises an eyebrow at him. “You do owe me a story about asking for help.”

“I do, but this is your day of remembering.”

“If you wish to make it so, it can be yours as well.”

That millstone sensation returns to Erik’s heart as he gets to his feet and helps Charles carry the shopping bags to the kitchen - but with that weight comes resolve, as well. Unexpected, and startlingly welcome.

Still, he is silent for a good long while, taking in the sounds of Charles murmuring to himself over chopping boards and heavy pots and a large, shallow bowl full of seeds and parings and fish bones.

“Taste, please,” Charles suddenly says.

Erik blinks, and looks up to see Charles back at the stove, and then down to the small white bowl on the table. It is filled with a cloudy, reddish-brown liquid. Bits of leaf and slivers of white onion. “Soup?”

“Yes. It’ll be part of our lunch. Is it too salty?”

As he’s seen Charles do at other meals, he lifts the bowl to his lips, both hands cupped overlapping. The scent of brine fills his nose, pleasantly overwhelming, dark and fresh and delicious.

He empties the bowl in three quick sips, and cannot help but lick his lips after.

“It’s very good,” Erik says at last. “Almost as good as the soup my mother used to make.”

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to recreate that for you, but I’d certainly like to try,” he hears Charles say over his shoulder. “Will you tell me about your mother’s soup?”

Erik closes his eyes. “She always began by making stock,” he says. He stops and starts over the words. “I would go with her to the butcher, and she’d buy meat, and then get extra bones. I always carried the second package for her.

“The stock would be on the stove all day, over the lowest fire she could manage. As it reduced, she would transfer it from the biggest pot to something smaller. After it was finished, the stock went into everything - mostly sauces, and soup three times a week.

“On Sundays she would join her friends in volunteering at a shelter for the homeless; they normally took the evening meal to them, so she’d always take a double batch of soup. I couldn’t always go with her, because the hours at my part-time job were a little erratic.

“I wasn’t there when - when that shelter was attacked.”

Someone or something makes a wounded sound, very close by, and Erik looks up just in time to see the color draining out of Charles’s face. His freckles, and the frames of his eyeglasses, are suddenly much darker against his skin.

Erik swallows, and goes on, talking past the dry grit of silent sadness, barbs lodged in his throat. “It’s still an open case, though cold now for a long time. The police didn’t know what to make of it; they felt that it could have been just a random attack performed by a madman, or it could have been worse, like a ritual murder of some kind. The bodies were all torn limb from limb.”

He takes the square of cloth that Charles offers him, and doesn’t use it. “She still haunts my dreams sometimes, her eyes wide open, the way she died. But in my dreams she’s - not injured. That’s not what actually happened. The police never found her missing hands, same as with the other victims.”

“Erik,” Charles says. “Erik, I am so very sorry - ”

He thinks he might smile, though his vision is so blurry that he cannot make out the shapes of Charles or Yue. “I want to forget that that happened. I have to remember that it did.”

A sudden and absolute silence falls over the kitchen.

“If you do want to forget, temporarily,” Charles murmurs after a long moment, careful and kind, “I think I can help you with that.”

“I really don’t know,” Erik says, and only then does he blink and look around. There are drops of water on the tabletop. Yue is leaning on his leg and one of his hands is white-knuckled in her fur; in his other hand Charles’s kerchief is crumpled into a tight wad.

He forces himself to unclench his fists, forces himself to take one deep breath after another.

Eventually he hears Charles say, “Stay there,” and he’s grateful. He can’t breathe. He’s rooted to the spot.

He’s never told anyone else the story.

The table does not remain empty for long: Erik watches, blankly, as Charles sets out platters of food, knives and forks and spoons and chopsticks. Four extra places. A pitcher of water and a pot of tea in the center. Last comes a dish full of food that goes onto the floor for Yue.

Erik’s stomach rumbles. He feels like something has been gouged out of him. Grief and hunger are the twin weights of his pain.

Charles sits down - not opposite him as is usual, but next to him. “They’re here, with us, right now,” he says quietly. “Those who are gone, and those who live, and those who are dead.”

Erik nods, and passes him a dish of steamed vegetables, and no one minds when his trembling hands mean that his utensils clatter against his plate and his bowl and the tabletop.

Chapter Text

When Erik wakes up, he finds himself still murmuring the names of the missing.

Repetition means that the other names are no longer difficult for him to pronounce. He’s had hours to get the accents right.

“Ichihara Yuuko. Watanuki Kimihiro. Doumeki Shizuka.”

A deep breath. He always takes a deep breath before saying the final name on the list.

“Edie Lehnsherr.”

Only then does he open his eyes and look around.

He remembers Charles explaining the location of his room.

Erik sleeps just a few steps away from the physical heart of the shop, of the space occupied by the house and its wings and its gardens: as near to the center as Charles has ever been able to figure out.

It means that Erik is nowhere near any doors or windows leading to the outside world, which at the very least protects him from mere physical attacks - and, apparently, from many attacks of the spectral type as well. The way it was explained to him, those other worlds and their denizens must operate by certain rules, many of which involve particular methods of entering space that has already been claimed.

Not that he can’t defend himself should anything crash into him; he’ll always bear his scars, and he has far too many of those on his hands and arms. The way he lives, and the reason for which he lives, means that he always has to be ready for violence, though he’d much rather defend against it rather than inflict it himself.

If he understands this house correctly, he thinks it might operate in a similar way.

“Every inch of your room is warded,” he remembers Charles saying, the first time the man had come fully into the room, carrying a small, low table - a polished piece of dark wood, roughly shaped into a circle, and placed atop three legs carved to look like dragons. “Some of the magic was mine. Some came from the others. I make a point out of refreshing the protection spells every few months or so. But mostly it is the house itself that generates the energy required for protection - and there have been days when that protection has been sorely needed, and tested. Some day I will tell you some of those stories.”

There is one story that Erik already understands about this particular space that he’s been given to inhabit.

It used to be someone else’s room. An accidental discovery: he remembers rummaging in the closet for a wayward sock, and patting blindly on a shelf, all the way to the back and what he thought was the wall of the room itself.

Instead he’d touched something that moved away and rustled when he moved his hand, and found himself pulling out a small piece of paper, folded unevenly into a square.

He’d been careful with opening it out, since it was smudged and creased, and he remembers being surprised because he’d been expecting ruled paper.

He’d unfolded the sheet to find it printed with a sort of grid. Many of the squares in the grid had been filled with someone’s handwriting, thick and unsteady strokes that trailed off abruptly. He remembers being able to read just a bare handful of the characters. Ten lines of twenty squares in two sections. The impression of learning, as though the person who had been writing hadn’t yet been sure of what he or she had been doing.

Erik glances at the table now. The piece of paper is folded back up, and tucked away beneath a little blue desk lamp, the only thing on top of the table Charles had lent him.

Three days have passed since Charles’s ritual, since he told his story, and since they ate and drank with the missing and with the dead.

He’s been spending his time thinking about the facts of his mother’s case, about the facts of Charles’s stories, without reaching any new conclusions. That his mother was killed and that the killer is Schmidt - impossible as it might seem - that to him is the unwavering truth. It doesn’t matter that the one time he’d managed to get close enough to Schmidt to actually see him, he’d seen a man, or something shaped like a man, in a sleek steel-gray business suit. No human could have been able to commit those killings, no matter what the police say.

“At least I have facts,” Erik says quietly, into the shaded quiet of the room. “I don’t know what Charles has, or what he knows. I don’t know what he can get, now.”

Years have passed since Charles’s people have vanished. His family, perhaps. There was, and there probably still is, a strange whispering echo of fondness in his voice now.

The only way to know for sure is to ask - so now he steels himself to step out again. Out and into the rest of the house once again. Out and into the world that whirls on, oblivious and willfully blind, once again.

He squares his shoulders and puts his jacket back on, and rolls to his feet. He crosses the room in one quick stride -

There is movement in the corridor. A shadow moving toward him.

Erik reaches for the sliding door, counts softly - “One, two, three” - and he pulls, one quick motion, elbow and wrist, toward himself. The wood-and-paper frame whistles almost inaudibly.

Loud huffing breath. Three colors: silver and gray and gold.

Yue runs in and slides to a graceful halt when she’s nearly to the far side of the room, claws skittering quietly over the floor.

Erik blinks when he sees what she has, because she is carrying something in her mouth - not food or her bowl or any of the toys that Charles keeps up his sleeves just in case he needs to distract her.

“Yue?”

Erik knows that voice.

He glances back to the wolf and raises an eyebrow at her.

Charles sounds exasperated and affectionate all at once. He doesn’t sound angry at all.

Erik puts his finger to his lips, and slides the door closed once again.

Yue wags her tail and trots silently up to him, and as she draws closer he squints at whatever it is that she’s carrying.

Rough-hewn wood, bark and knot and branches, twine and glass and a quadrilateral shape.

The light catches on frozen colors and on a shape that looks like a flat cap.

“For me?” Erik whispers when Yue sits down at his feet.

She huffs around the item, and seems to nod.

“Okay, let me take that,” he says, and the item comes away neatly.

It only takes him a moment before he recognizes what he’s holding: a frame of some kind. Beneath the glass is a photo, a little worn around the edges. The little boy looks like he’s torn between laughing and frowning.

Blue eyes. Familiar blue eyes.

“Is this Charles,” Erik asks, consciously trying to keep his voice down.

Yue huffs at him again, and wags her tail.

All thoughts of the outside world flee his mind.

He crosses the room and turns his lamp on, and he holds the photograph into the light, tilting it this way and that so he doesn’t get stray flares or reflections from the glass.

The Charles in the photo cannot be more than twelve or thirteen, if the fullness of his cheeks and the roundness of his wrists are anything to go by. Bits of his hair are sticking out from underneath the brim and the back of the flat cap.

As strange as the twist of the little boy’s mouth is, Erik can’t help but pay more attention to the odd combination of his clothes: white button-down shirt with wide cuffs - he counts three buttons. A small band collar, pressing creases still slightly visible, turned up with almost military precision. Because the photo only shows the boy version of Charles up from the waist, there’s no way of telling whether he’s wearing proper trousers.

When he was younger, Erik had been subjected to the indignity of wearing shorts even to formal occasions until he was ten. It’s a memory that he can laugh at now, if only because it’s a brilliant memory, one with gilt around the edges, because it had been so associated with his mother’s vibrant smile. A smile that was like roses flushed pink in the early morning sun.

He thinks the Charles in the photo might have been wearing shorts too.

In any case, the idea of shorts versus trousers is as nothing compared to everything else that the boy is wearing.

One item, actually, and Erik finds himself tracing the drape over his shoulders, the sleeves in the photo that are much longer than the ones Charles wears in life.

Because thrown over the shoulders of the younger version of Charles is a kimono in, of all the things, bright red tartan, black and white and dark green lines crisscrossing into regular, neatly overlapping squares.

He peers closer, until his nose is almost touching the glass, because he can’t tell whether the stylized little images of grumpy cat faces are actually part of the kimono cloth itself, or were added to the photo after it had been printed.

When he finally manages to tear his gaze away from the photograph, he locks eyes with Yue - with her tongue lolling out of her mouth and her ears pricked forward, the shape of her face almost makes her look like she could be laughing - and he suddenly wants to follow suit.

Still, he surprises even himself when the incredulous laugh claws its way out of his throat - a short burst, at first, and then another, enough to draw breath in between - until Yue offers Erik a paw to shake and he takes it, and he breaks down at last.

He forgets about keeping quiet. He laughs until the tears run down his cheeks, and never hears the sound of approaching footsteps, never sees Yue start and then lie down, rolling over onto her back so she ends up with all four paws waving in the air.

All Erik knows is that one moment he’s holding on to the frame while he fights to draw a proper breath, hilarity that topples him over onto his back like shockwaves rattling up and down his nerves, and then he’s looking upside-down at Charles, who is standing over his head, who is leaning down over him, hands on hips.

As he watches, eyes still watering, he thinks that Charles tries very hard to look stern and disapproving, but he might not precisely be succeeding. The lines surrounding those blue eyes are deep in the way they’re deep when he’s smiling, though he’s wearing his best frown right now.

“The two of you are going to have quite some explaining to do,” Charles says, wagging one finger at Erik and another at Yue. “I will take confessions in, well, all the languages I can speak.”

“Which includes what, exactly,” Erik says, and he’s proud of himself for sounding both insolent and amused. “How many languages do you speak?”

He watches as Charles cocks his head to the side and finally starts to smile, though this one is also partly mocking, as if in response to Erik’s tone and not his words. “Several dialects of Chinese and Japanese, including those that have not been spoken by living souls in a few hundred years. Passerine, obviously, or I wouldn’t be able to communicate with the larks. I can speak wolf and dog - those are two different things, Yue, don’t give me that look.”

Erik glances at Yue, who does look skeptical, if an animal could wear that expression.

Charles wrinkles his nose when Erik looks at him again. “English and Japanese, duh.”

“Did I actually just hear you say ‘duh’,” Erik says. “You’ll excuse me for saying so, but that kind of language clashes with your clothes.”

Charles chuckles, a rich and warm sound. “Does it?” He looks at himself. Today’s kimono is a lush shade of cream, just a shade or two darker than the boy’s shirt. The obi is checked in two dark shades of green, neat square knot at Charles’s back. “What should I say that might suit, then? Something like this?”

His body language changes as he steps away from Erik: he turns his feet in, delicately, so his toes are pointing at each other; he arches his neck and cups his own jaw with the spread fingers of his hand. “Shall I say it? Eigo o hanasu koto ga dekiru, ne?” On the last syllable, he winks at Erik, broad and humorous.

Erik swallows hard, and fights to meet Charles’s eyes, and says, as seriously as he can, “Don’t ever do that again.”

“Please be more specific, I’m kind of doing several things right now.”

“You’re imitating a schoolgirl,” Erik says, already halfway back to laughing himself breathless once again. “You are no schoolgirl, Charles. You are the shop keeper.”

“Of course I am, Erik, what else would I be?”

And then Charles sways over to Yue and pushes her over onto her side, and he slumps over her and Erik looks up in alarm when his shoulders begin to shake - but he quickly recognizes the laughter for what it really is.

Charles laughs until he’s gasping and making Yue’s sides shake, and the sound of it fills Erik with a feeling that bubbles and chortles and whispers of warmth and of refuge.

He gives it back: he laughs, too, until the world outside no longer exists, until there’s nothing here but the scent of warm leather and she-wolf and the lingering ghost of scorched sandalwood. It often makes him think of a candle lit and allowed to burn and then gently snuffed out - rich ash, pleasantly smoky.

Something that Charles has said catches his attention, when he can put his mind back into something resembling its normal working order; he makes his way back to the table next to his beddings, and extracts the square of paper from beneath the lamp.

Yue flicks her ears and tail to catch Charles’s attention, and as Erik watches he takes a deep breath and slowly levers himself back upright. “Yes?” he asks, looking composed for now, but his hair is still disheveled and his eyes are still wet at the corners from his laughter.

“I found this here,” Erik says.

There is a long silence, and the expressions on Charles’s face change so quickly that Erik has a hard time keeping up.

“Master,” Charles says at last. “I had no idea - ”

The hand that beckons Erik closer shakes a little - but there are no tears in Charles’s eyes, just a wistful kind of amusement that goes oddly well with the lines around his mouth. “Look at this,” and he points to the second line on the right-hand side, near the bottom of the page. “You will likely encounter these characters again while you are here.”

“Whose name is it?”

He’s expecting Charles to mention one of the others.

“Mine.” Charles’s fingers move over the uneven strokes. “It was the tradition in the Doumeki family to give their sons - particularly the eldest in each generation - names that were feminine in derivation, for rather elaborate reasons that had to do with the boys’ continued health and survival,” Charles says. “They were heirs, you see, with all the weight upon their shoulders that you can imagine and then some. They had to be alive to carry out their family responsibilities, after all.

“I suppose my masters felt that I was either worthy of the tradition - or, more likely, they thought I could use all the help that I needed. As it was impossible to put my name on the Watanuki family register - none such has ever existed, or exists today - I was assigned to the Doumeki, and given a name that means ‘scattered blossoms’.

“These characters are read as Doumeki Chika. Adopted son and heir to the two shop keepers, and third in the lineage.”

“So this is yours,” Erik says. “This piece of paper, I mean.”

“Yes, it’s mine,” Charles says.

“And so is this place - this room, I mean. I found it here. Was this your room?”

“It wasn’t the one I slept in, no.” Charles shakes his head gently, and looks around. “It used to be another storage room. One of the more secure ones. There was a sort of guard posted on the doors at all times. Do you know, I think I can remember that I had a misadventure just to get in here in the first place - and then another when I came to clear it all out and make it all ready for you.”

“I’d like to hear those stories,” Erik says.

Charles nods, and gets to his feet. “Tomorrow, and in the days after that, we shall be pointed back on the trail that leads to the one whose death you seek. But today, yes, we shall smile and laugh. You will also tell me your embarrassing stories. Today, we’ll amuse ourselves. We will need all the light we can get, for the days ahead will be dark and strange. All right?”

Erik thinks about it, but only for a moment. “All right.”

“Good, then come on. I’ve made an upside-down cake, and I want your opinion on it.”

Chapter Text

Erik’s sleep is broken several mornings later by a long, low rumbling, sudden and sullen and startling - a sound that rattles his very teeth and bones, even as it seems to fade and then grow louder and then recede again.

“What the - ” When he glances at his wristwatch he can only feel more unsettled.

It’s far too early to be awake, even for him and even for this house. He’s learned that Charles wakes early and tends to turn in late. The shop and his duties keep him busy: there is always someone to attend to, no matter their world of origin; there are messages to deal with from all kinds of places; and when he is not cataloguing his own shop he is cooking and cleaning and taking Yue for walks.

He’s learned to take over some of the chores, more out of a sense of wanting to help: he likes the rhythm of washing the dishes and doesn’t mind it when Yue leads him on a merry chase up and down the shop’s corridors whenever she feels capricious about being bathed. At present, the vague memories of his mother looking after a handful of miniature roses in their little clay pots is leading him toward the idea of caring for one of the gardens - perhaps the smallest one with its Western layout of fenced-off plots. Charles is thinking about letting him.

Now Erik forces himself to get dressed, though he feels like he’s being pulled down, forced to sink toward the ground. Some of his laundry has come back and he sorts through the clothes, trying to be methodical and failing. Haphazard heaps on the shelves. He has to remember to be gentle when he finally opens the door and steps out into the rest of the house.

He starts shivering almost as soon as he’s away from his room. There is a cold wind whistling just above the floor, as though it’s trying to tear the fragile planks apart. What it’s looking for or where it’s going, Erik doesn’t know; all he knows is that the whispering moan of its passage leaves him weary and irritated and lost.

He navigates the twists and turns of the house reluctantly. He wants to find the kitchen. It’s warm there, even when no one is cooking, and right now he wants to cook or at the very least put the kettle on. Erik is no stranger to the cold and has never been a fan of it. He’s spent too many nights trying to stay warm - the operative word being trying.

Sometimes he thinks that the memory of that first winter alone in the world has been seared permanently into his very skin and sinews, and that is why he cannot ever seem to get comfortable when the temperatures start falling again.

He hears the rain before he sees it - and when he does, when his mind connects the dull constancy of that soft roar, almost inaudible, to the pattering streaking shadows falling onto glass and reflected on translucent paper, he stops dead, disheartened.

From snow to sakura to storm - Erik’s sojourn so far has been marked by the sky and its moods, and many of those moods have meant things falling down and taking his spirits with them.

By the time he realizes that the house has pointed his footsteps in the direction of one of the other gardens, it’s too late, and he can no longer find the strength to backtrack to either his own quarters or to the audience room.

As he approaches the end of the corridor, he picks up on a sharp voice, unknown, new, and its belligerent tone pierces through the haze of his despondency - rising in anger and what sounds almost like fear - and what could come to this house and feel both so powerful and so afraid? It’s enough to make him hurry down the last part of the path, multiple rattling impacts as he opens and closes doors in rapid succession.

The woman standing just in the garden is - dry, a startled Erik thinks - the rain falls in an endless torrent and it falls around her, but not on her. There is not one drop of water in her hair, which falls in long luxuriant waves to her feet - startling bright blonde, all the more for the contrast provided by both the dreary weather and her own dead-black wardrobe.

Pale skin, eerily unblemished; dark red lips in an overly lush pout that almost seems like an exaggerated parody of feminine beauty. One of her hands is raised to chest level, palm pointing down to the ground, and when Erik squints he can see abnormally long nails that seem to have been lacquered in dark purple.

There is something else about her that sets his teeth on edge - and then he looks carefully at the material covering her arms and her legs: a network of thin stuff, trailing threads in intricate patterns of spiral and semi-circle, radiating from the crooks of her elbows and knees.

Spider webs.

“And who is this, shop keeper,” the woman says. “You swore off looking for a successor, did you not?”

“I am still not looking for one,” is Charles’s reply.

Erik sees him, then, sitting on his heels. Where he seems placid and a little curious where he is framed by one of the sets of sliding doors that lead into the rest of the house, Yue next to him is baring her teeth at the newcomer.

He cannot see into the room behind Charles.

“One of your strays? A tiresome affliction you share with the others. He is intruding on this meeting,” the woman in the spider webs says. “Send him away.”

“I will not, queen of spiders,” Charles says, threads of steel in his quiet voice. “This man is my guest, and he is under my protection. Besides, I was not aware that we were meeting. You are here entirely unexpected. I do not recall inviting you here, either. Has my memory failed me? For I remember that you have the burden of an interdict upon you. Were you not to stay away from this shop and from its inhabitants, on pain of banishment? Were you not forbidden to come here unless you were in direst need?”

“That time of need has come now. Your power greatly exceeds mine, now, and I demand that you use that power to protect me and mine.”

“I expect you to come here solely to mock me and those who stay with me, queen of spiders; I do not expect you to come here to ask for protection. Particularly when you demand it of me, as though I were your vassal and obligated to you for my very existence.” Charles sounds cold, suddenly, and it’s the kind of cold that sends an electric chill through Erik - he wants to sit down and he wants to run away and he wants to find a place to hide, all at once.

If he had been afraid of the newcomer and the anger that she carries nearly palpably around her, he’s more afraid of Charles now, who is speaking as though he’s sitting in judgement.

“I think it’s the opposite condition that’s the true one, isn’t it? The one with the obligation is not me, Jorou-gumo, but you,” Charles continues. “You are not supposed to be here. You are supposed to stay far away from this shop, lest it remember what you have done in the past, and seek to take revenge.”

“Then where am I to go,” the woman - the Jorou-gumo? - hisses. “Would you stand idly by, shop keeper, when you know what has come to this city - when you know what is threatening your place of refuge? Something is here that we do not know of and we cannot stand against, and it comes carrying chaos and oblivion in its wake. Death itself is on the wing, homing in on this place, and it is terrible and dreadful and I cannot stand against it.”

“I wish that I could believe you,” Charles says, shaking his head and looking concerned. “You speak of something powerful? Wasn’t it you who reached into the very heart of this house in order to hurt someone whose only fault was that he didn’t know? This house, that is warded and protected and that is still filled with objects that must be delicately handled for we do not know what they can do, is yet powerless against you.”

She looks away: she looks up at the sky and down to the grass, to the unending rain that continues to fall around her, to the mist creeping into the garden. “Then you lead me to believe that you are powerless against what is coming - which means that there is no shelter here, not for me or for you or even for your guest.”

“Where one believes in one’s cause, where one knows one’s power and one’s limits, there is always shelter, Jorou-gumo,” Charles murmurs. “There is always hope. I have learned about what it was like to bow to the inevitable, and what it was like to fight against it. Still I believe that there is a way.”

“So show me that way, shop keeper. Give me shelter here. Protect me and mine.”

“If that is truly your wish - and you know what that means when you are standing here, in my home - ”

Charles is interrupted by a sudden sound, something different - a hiss through the mist that catapults Erik to his feet, that makes Yue howl and bound down to the grass.

Perhaps it’s the time he’s been spending in this place, perhaps it’s the part where he’s spent hours and hours around Charles, but as soon as the garden changes Erik thinks about fighting, even though he doesn’t have any weapons - not even his own fists.

A shadow in the garden that makes Jorou-gumo hiss and then, suddenly, fall to the ground, like a puppet whose strings have been cut.

A voice that sounds kind and also sounds like death itself, sweet rasp, coercive: “So you are the shop keeper, the power in this city. You have considerable strength. Will you ally with me?”

As Erik watches, Charles gets to his feet, looking completely unconcerned and completely unafraid. “And who are you?”

“Something new,” the voice replies, and Erik trembles, needing to fight, unable to do so. There is nothing in the garden - even the clouds and the rain and the trees have receded from his sight, and Yue is only a shadow in the landscape - gone. “Something different. There is a part of me that was human, and that part recognizes the value of alliances.”

“And what of the part of you that is not human?” Charles asks. “What does that other part value?”

“Flesh and blood, and the screaming,” the voice replies. “All things must feed. I must sustain myself. Men and women and children will do nicely. There is great benefit in allying with someone or something that holds such power - power that I have a great capacity for.”

Charles shakes his head and reaches for something behind the sliding panel on his left. “You also have a great capacity for underhanded tactics, stranger spirit. You could have come in through the front door. There was no need for you to enter this domain in this way.”

“The woman will survive,” the voice replies. “I wanted to learn about you. Surely you would have done the same.”

“Without subterfuge, yes,” Charles says.

“I believe your predecessors were aware of the value of a good ruse.”

“This was not a good ruse, stranger spirit.” Charles squares his shoulders - and now Erik can see that there is a single black butterfly dyed into his kimono, taking up almost all of the cloth from his knees to his hems.

More than that, he can now also see that Charles is armed - for now he knows that Charles had been reaching for the great asymmetrical bow. He seems impossibly dwarfed by his weapon - but his hands are steady on the string and on the grip.

As Erik watches, Charles closes his eyes and begins to draw. His hands are still connected by a brightly glowing line, pure searing light.

At full extension, Charles opens his eyes. “Still here?”

The voice replies, “You disappoint me, shop keeper. Could you really be contented when you have such great power and yet you adhere to such great limits?”

“If I did not have those limits, stranger spirit, I would not be here, for there would have been no shop, and no shop keepers as a consequence.”

“I will sweep you away, you and those you try vainly to protect.”

“Only hitsuzen knows,” Charles says, and then he adds, “Don’t look, Erik” - before he releases.

Erik looks. The line of light streaks past him, toward the target - the shadow hovering over the fallen form of the Jorou-gumo. As the arrow strikes the shadow temporarily assumes the form of another human being - and the light illuminates that form’s face, that man’s face.

“You,” he whispers, and then he cries out the name, screaming as he dashes forward. “Schmidt!”

His fist, cocked and coming, all the power of his rage, speed that drives him right toward that hated form and he connects at the same time as the arrow strikes. The impact makes him scream - it smashes through him, bone and muscle and sinew, and somehow the spirit - Schmidt - is laughing even as it dissipates, dissolving into the rain and the mist.

Erik crashes to the ground, groaning.

It’s him. It’s him. He’s here.

Fear crashes through him, but it’s quickly swept away: determination. The wash of Charles’s power. The shadow over him, four paws and a familiar weight.

The fight is coming, and he has to be ready.

Chapter Text

He comes back to the world very gradually, very slowly.

A pale haze behind his eyelids. Light - he’s in a place where there’s light nearby. At times the light flickers and wavers and sways, and at times it is steady, soft, and crossed by the occasional shadow.

Movement, pressure, temperature, touch. Blankets piled atop him, forming a protective shell. The sensation of something breathing very close by. Sometimes he thinks that someone might be holding his hand, though he does not know who it might be.

He can hear, as if from very far away and as if in other languages, quiet singing and quieter conversations. He remembers enough of the shop to know that there was only one person roaming its rooms and corridors before his arrival, which means that he does not know who is here now, and that he does not know what the voices could possibly be talking about.

Hunger and thirst are distant memories to him, until he remembers that they exist, and then he feels weak - but he is given sips of tea and of soup, bites of fruit and of bread, and bit by bit he feels his strength being restored.

Eventually, Erik wakes up, and when he opens his eyes the ceiling is half wreathed in shadows and half illuminated in golden glow.

A soft whispering breath from very close by catches his attention; someone is here with him, though he’s not sure where here is. He’s still in the shop, he’s sure of that, but there’s something different about the light in this particular room that makes him think about being elsewhere.

When he turns his head to look at whoever is here with him he can’t help but groan, softly, because the movement causes him pain, swift flurry of sparks. Quickly Erik slaps his hands to the sides of his head, quickly he closes his eyes against the mad ringing in his ears.

“Hush,” someone tells him. “You’re safe, you’re all right, you’re in the shop. What hurts?”

“My head,” Erik mutters.

“Does it feel like someone hit you with a cudgel or with the flat of a sword or with an oversized dictionary?”

It takes a moment before he can absorb the words in the question. “You use very specific comparisons,” Erik says at last. “Have you been hit by all of those things? Did you hit back at the person or persons who hit you?”

“Sometimes it feels like I have been hit by everything,” the voice replies, kind and amused at the same time. “I have lived for so long and I have seen so much, and I have also had more than quite my fair share of adventures.”

Erik blinks, and opens his eyes more cautiously. “Charles?”

“He is not here at the moment. I’m here in his place. I thought you might need someone to keep you company when you wake up.”

There’s another soft exhalation, and then a quiet click as of something being put down.

Moving slowly and carefully, Erik manages to sit up.

The man sitting at the side of his bed does not look like Charles at all: his hair might stick up in a few places as Charles’s does, but it’s darker, a little shorter, wispy instead of wavy, and threaded with far too much silver, incongruous against the seemingly youthful face. Strange mismatched eyes, one blue and one gold-brown, behind large circular eyeglasses. Pale skin that only seems so much paler against the kimono he is wearing: dark pink with a pattern of cranes in flight.

The man breathes out, and a thin stream of smoke wafts up around him.

Tobacco and cloves and a strange hint of something sweet, and Erik suspects he’s found one of the reasons why there is a lingering scent of burnt sugar in the shop and in its corridors.

“Hello, Erik Lehnsherr,” the man says. “So it’s you. You’re the one who made that wish.”

“Hello,” Erik says. “Who are you?”

“Watanuki Kimihiro at your service,” the man says with a grave little smile.

Recognition hits, and Erik desperately wants to get to his feet, desperately wants to call out for Charles. “You - you’re one of his missing people, you’re one of his masters....”

He gets a soft, sad smile for that. “So you know about me.”

“How are you here?” Erik asks. “Where is here?”

“Erik. Please calm down,” Watanuki murmurs. “You are not at your best right now; you are still recovering from, ah, the intrusion into the shop.”

The words strike cold into Erik’s very bones. “Schmidt,” he whispers. “Or whatever he is now. I know he’s not human any more. He came to the shop. Charles fired on him. I tried to hit him.”

“You tried, and you managed to connect, which is why you went down afterwards,” Watanuki says. “That - thing - fed on your vital forces and knocked you out, and you have been sleeping for a day and a night.”

Shit,” Erik says.

“Yes, quite,” Watanuki says. “That strike took quite a lot out of you.”

“I need to do more,” Erik says, almost growling now. “I need to hurt Schmidt. I need to kill him. He killed my mother. Tore her limb from limb.”

“I am aware of your story, Erik, and you have my sympathies. But you know full well that you will not be able to do as you wish without making preparations beforehand.”

“Charles said he would help me,” Erik says, and he catches his breath and slumps over, suddenly worn out again.

“And I have no doubt that he will do so. You will only have to wait. He does what he does when he can do it, and he has never once failed to do well. That is just one of the many reasons why I am proud of him.”

“He remembers you,” Erik says after another long pause. “He misses you. I understand that even though I haven’t been here long.”

“And Doumeki and I miss him greatly,” Watanuki murmurs. “But such is life: there are meetings and there are partings. We come and we go. What matters is that we live, and that we reach out to others. What matters are the connections. And the bond that ties him to us, and us to him, was and is a profound one, that still remains.”

“Have you died?” Erik asks, quietly, solemnly. “Are you gone from him completely?”

“Yes, we have died. The end came peacefully, and at the appointed time. But we have not left him at all. We remain with him, and we will always be with him. The truth is this, and it is simple and strange and complicated all at once: he is our son. Long before we drew up the papers, from the very moment we opened the gate because we felt his wish.” Watanuki reaches toward the side table and picks up what looks like a stick - and puts the tapered end between his lips. Smoke curls up from the deep bowl at the other end of the item. It makes Erik think of a very anorexic pipe.

“What wish was that?”

Watanuki smiles, but there seems to be an ancient grief in his eyes and Erik is reminded of the wistful lines around Charles’s mouth. “He wished to be loved.”

A simple statement, and yet it catches Erik completely off-guard. “What? You mean he wasn’t?”

“He was not.” Watanuki takes another deep drag from his pipe. When he exhales he does so away from Erik. “I do not know how much time we will have for this conversation, or if we will be able to meet each other again. So even if this might not be my story to tell completely, I will tell you what I can. It will likely not be the whole thing. Will you be content with that?”

Erik nods.

“Very well. As I said - Doumeki and I found our son on the sidewalk outside the shop. We had been here a while. It was a relatively peaceful period, in terms of the existence of the shop keepers. Charles could not have been much older than twelve when we found him, under skies that heralded a cold snap and a snowstorm.” Watanuki re-folds his hands in his lap. “He was practically smothered in all his layers; we were wondering why he was wearing two coats and two sweaters.”

“He doesn’t like being cold?”

“Or wet. Spring and winter are times of torment to him.” Watanuki shrugs, looking briefly amused. “Doumeki and I invited him into the shop - we were going to feed him up, give him a cup of tea, and then send him on home. We thought that someone would be missing him, you see - we thought that a boy like that, polite and rather sweet, would have a place to go, a home to return to.

“That could not have been further from the truth. I do not know if you can imagine the shock that we felt when Charles began to tell us his story. I remember passing him a tray of candies, and I remember him asking if it was all right to take two. Doumeki told him to take the whole tray - and then he began to cry. Those were not precisely the words that he was used to hearing from those who raised him.”

“And those people were - ”

“He still uses his real name,” Watanuki interrupts. “He introduced himself to you as Charles Xavier, did he not? A British mother, an American father - but that father died when Charles was still a babe in arms. He was not exactly mistreated, if you define ‘mistreat’ as physical abuse. But you have not asked me how he came to Japan in the first place, so we could find him on a street in Tokyo.”

Erik swallows past the sudden lump in his throat. “He came here with his family, and got lost, and they never looked for him,” he guesses.

Watanuki says, with a blank face and a carefully neutral voice, “You’ve missed the important part, Erik. They lost him.”

“Deliberately,” Erik says.

Watanuki grimaces, and nods.

Erik is left temporarily speechless, and angry. Rage and pity roil up in him - and with the emotions comes a sudden flash of insight. He thinks of Charles’s reactions while he was telling his own story, while he was talking about the death of his mother, and slowly begins to understand.

“You can perhaps forgive us,” Watanuki murmurs, his voice gentle and even again, “for acting a little hastily in taking him in. He’d been in Tokyo a month and a half on his own. We gave him the room across the corridor from ours and kept watch over him as best as we could - especially since he had an unfortunate tendency to sleepwalk during that first year.”

“I - see,” Erik says, faintly.

“Do you?” Watanuki counters. “Can you understand that we are speaking about the man who has claimed your life? Can you understand that he’s already been down some dark paths, and that what you have wished for may well lead him to worse places? Can you understand that and stay with him?”

“I - ” Erik begins.

“Our time together is almost over,” Watanuki suddenly says. “I cannot stay here now. Please, if you could, think very carefully about what you have learned here, and what you will still need to learn. Think both of yourself and of Charles. It is a terrible thing that the two of you must do - terrible, and necessary.”

“He said the same thing - Charles told me that when we met.”

“Yes.” Watanuki smiles and brushes his fingertips against Erik’s shoulder - and then in the next instant he’s suddenly gone, and the room fades into something Erik thinks he might recognize.

“Erik?” The sliding doors whisper open and Charles tiptoes in, and the closer he gets the more clearly Erik can see the lines in his face. “Erik. You’re awake,” Charles says. “How do you feel?”

“I’ll recover,” Erik says shortly. “Tell me how you feel, Charles.”

“Ah - ” Charles blinks, hard, and sits next to Erik’s quilts, shoulders a little slumped. “A little tired. It is not easy taking care of a patient such as Jorou-gumo, though perhaps I should be a little grateful that she is perhaps, hm, subdued by her recent experiences. Were she in top form I would be run ragged by now.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you,” Erik says. At Charles’s confused look, he adds, “You told me that I shouldn’t be looking when you shot Schmidt. Not only did I look, I tried to punch him.”

“I’m glad you did,” Charles says. “We’ve weakened him a little. We’ll still have time to prepare for his return.”

“Stay and rest,” Erik says after a moment.

“Yes, please,” Charles says.

Again he finds himself bracing a sleeping Charles.

Again Erik watches out for him, but this time he leans on Charles, too.

Chapter Text

He struggled toward wakefulness from the mists that wrapped around his dreams, and instinctively reached out for Doumeki’s hand - but all he encountered was a quilt, cooling, thrown aside in a hasty heap.

He should be surprised, he knew, but this wasn’t exactly the first time that such a thing had happened.

Not the first time, since they opened the doors of the shop to a boy with startling blue eyes, whose tears had been halfway to frozen, frost trapped at his temples and the corners of his mouth.

Watanuki sighed, feeling the first strands of concern tangling up around his heart, and got up: slow, reluctant movements. He could not correctly be called someone who loathed mornings - that was more Doumeki’s style - but this was an early hour even for him, too early that he couldn’t yet step out to do the day’s shopping.

As he pulled a second robe on over his shoulders - it was cold enough that he could see his own breath in faint plumes around his face - he glanced at the nearest side table. The ornate, old-fashioned clock atop chimed softly at him: three in the morning. It made him sigh, and shake his head - he could feel the worry as it caught at him, as though it were plucking at his sleeves.

He didn’t have to glance across the corridor to know that the room they’d given to the boy they’d found was empty.

Threading the spiraling labyrinth of the shop was easy.

Looking for reassuring words was not.

He heard the whispering long before he found the two whom he sought.

Watanuki thought about the layout of the shop and about where he had to be at this time - one set of sliding doors away from the garden with the sakura tree. It had bare branches now, of course, but come the spring he was looking forward to breathing in its soft fragrance, to shaking fallen petals out of his hair and trailing sleeves.

“You both speak English very well,” said a quiet voice, that should have been high and happy and laughing but instead sounded like a precipice all the time, as if its owner was breaking, and not only on the treacherous shoals of impending adolescence.

“It’s something we learn at school.”

Doumeki could almost sound indifferent. Almost. It made Watanuki smile, because now he was one of the few people who could really listen to that voice and know the depths of emotions running underneath each carefully chosen word.

“Will you teach me Japanese?” the younger voice asked, quaking. “I should be able to communicate with you in both languages, should I not?”

“We’re not going to tell you what you should or should not do,” was Doumeki’s reply. “But if you want to learn, of course we’ll help you. Though perhaps I will not be your primary teacher. Watanuki was always better than I was with literature. It’s all those books that he reads, you see. There are libraries in this house and I’m fairly sure you’ll wind up working your way through every single one of them.”

Watanuki put a smile on, and opened one of the doors so he could step out to join them on the outer passageway that ran around the main body of the house. “I’ll draw maps,” he murmured.

“Hey,” Doumeki said.

“Hello,” said the boy who was leaning heavily into Doumeki’s left side. “I’m sorry to disturb you.”

“Don’t apologize, Charles, not for this,” Watanuki murmured as he sat down next to the boy. “We’re here for you.”

Charles said nothing, merely turned his face into Doumeki’s robes, so Watanuki took his free hand in both of his own.

He looked at Doumeki and raised an eyebrow.

Doumeki shook his head and quirked his mouth slightly to the side.

Watanuki kissed Doumeki’s cheek, then the top of Charles’s head - the brief contact allowing him to catch the shivers wracking the boy’s frame. “Bad dreams?” he asked, gently.

The reply was a long time coming, and was partly muffled. “I keep thinking you’re going to make me leave. That you’re going to tell me I should go back home.”

“Don’t count on it,” Doumeki muttered vehemently as he put his arm around Charles’s shoulders.

Watanuki bit his lip. Not for the first time, he felt a deep and profound anger at whoever had raised Charles, at whoever could have so thoroughly hurt him - but he let none of that show through in his voice when he murmured, “You are free to leave if that is what you want, but I’d really rather you stayed with us.”

“I want to stay,” Charles said quietly, immediately. “Because you’re warm. Both of you. Not like that thing I can feel coming - ”

And that was when Watanuki saw Doumeki’s shoulders go rigid, that was when he felt something push against the protective barriers surrounding the shop.

“Should’ve known there was something unnatural about the snow,” he heard Doumeki mutter. “Too much, too cold.”

“No use complaining now,” Watanuki said. “Look after Charles for me.”

Doumeki nodded and held his hand out to the side as a look of concentration appeared on his face. A moment later he was holding what looked like a small blue flame in his hand - it shimmered for a moment and then turned into a silver bow that trailed blue ribbons from the top and bottom nocks.

“Thank you,” Watanuki said, before stepping into the garden itself, then raising his hands and concentrating. Magic against magic: he gathered his power up from the four cardinal directions, from the house and its rooms and its surroundings, and began to weave a shield against the enemy that was lying in wait for them.

“Show yourself,” Doumeki called. He was still on the passageway, standing tense and upright and steady. He’d managed to nudge Charles to stand behind him, mostly safe.

“Can I help?” To his credit, Charles sounded more determined than frightened.

Watanuki glanced over his shoulder - and blinked when he saw the shimmering aura surrounding him: an unformed strength, wavering and powerful at the same time.

He made his decision on the instant.

“Yes, you can,” Watanuki murmured. “Will you let me draw from your strength, Charles?”

“I don’t know what to do,” was the reply, that only shook a little around the edges.

“Watanuki - ” Doumeki murmured, sounding slightly apprehensive.

“It’ll be fine,” Watanuki said.

He looked over his shoulder, and saw Charles looking up at Doumeki, even as the boy wound one hand tighter into the sash of his sleeping robes. “Let me help,” Charles said. “I want to do this.”

“...If you’re sure,” Doumeki said, at last, relenting, “because this might hurt.”

“I’m sure,” Charles said, and, “Please.”

Watanuki met Doumeki’s eyes and nodded, once, and that was the last thing they did before the wind picked up and the snow began to rise in dark flurries that shrouded the garden in strange menacing shadows.

Watanuki took a deep breath and reached for Charles’s strength - and sent that in Doumeki’s direction. A faint aura of light sprang up around the bow in those steady hands. “Ready?” he asked the others.

“Ready,” Charles whispered, barely audible over the moaning wind.

“Your will, shop keeper,” Doumeki said.

Watanuki took their power into his own, and turned to face the entity that was attacking them, and murmured, “You don’t stand a chance against me, not when I’ve my family at my side.”

Chapter Text

Here is a lesson that Erik has picked up from a handful of afternoons wandering around the incomprehensible murmuring of the streets of Tokyo - and, more importantly, from the days and nights listening to the clients who come calling, who wish to speak with a shop keeper:

He’s never been happier to be proven wrong before.

There is something about his past that haunts him, continually; it’s the impulse that makes him look down at his feet wherever he walks, wherever in the world he might be. It’s the weight on his shoulders that makes him breathe in a slow, careful way, always controlled - he doesn’t want to disturb others, because he’s already unsettled enough that he carries it unceasingly, whether in his waking moments or in the battles that he fights in his dreams.

He’s always thought of himself of someone who had to be singularly alone because of his singular burden. Unsavory mix: guilt at being alive and guilt at being half-dead; rage on behalf of those who were gone and rage within himself; bleak black despair that on some nights leaves him needing to weep and leaves him completely unable to shed a single tear. Who he is has sometimes stolen the savor from his very breath.

But it turns out that he’s not alone - that he’s never been alone.

True that his burden is only his own, and in the quiet moments he’s ready to admit that it is no burden that he would wish anyone to carry, because the terrible isolation of it is endlessly crushing, endlessly killing.

On the other hand, however, he’s learning that suffering comes in so many shapes and sizes and voices - the latter including those who cannot or will not speak. Charles, for example, who spends a sizable part of his time every day in a gentle, meditative silence that asks for nothing and offers nothing to whoever happens to partake in it: it is just a silence that is, that exists in the world among all of its other clamors and other conflicts.

Men and women and spirits asking for help, for solace, for an ear to listen: and Charles welcomes them and offers them silence or sound as per their requests. The final transactions, however, are almost always completed without any words being necessary - or the words that Charles uses might not even exist in any real language, because even the stranger visitors look mystified as they’re ushered out by Yue, silent strength.

Shapeshifter, incorporeality, revenant, anthropomorphic manifestation, man or woman - Erik hears their stories and learns. As full as the world might be of laughter and boisterousness, it is just as fraught with sorrow and strained compassion.

Which seems to be the hallmark of this house, or at least that’s what he chooses to take away after each time he sees Watanuki - who appears to him briefly, and very erratically. He doesn’t always stay that long when he appears in Erik’s dreams, but what he tells Erik is often more than enough to be going on with: an explanation of Charles’s clothes, a story about the chips in the porcelain plates, the reason why most of the cutlery doesn’t match, the night Charles and Yue met.

“I suppose you might say that Charles entered into a sort of peculiar understanding with each of us,” Watanuki murmurs, this time.

Erik sits up abruptly; he can count the number of times he’s actually managed to have a conversation with this man on one hand.

Seemingly unperturbed by Erik’s reactions, Watanuki enters Erik’s dreams as he always does, opening the door into Erik’s own room and pulling it most of the way closed. As always, he is wreathed in thin threads of smoke and faint ash from his pipe, which Erik has learned is called a kiseru.

“Each of you - ” Erik says softly. “Ah. You must mean yourself and your beloved.”

Watanuki chuckles. “Doumeki would never let me live it down if he found out I called him that, even if only with you. We are simply together, you see. We don’t think of ourselves as, hmm, how do people refer to themselves when they are in relationships? Are we a couple, are we lovers, are we married, are we family? All of the above and none of the above. Though,” and that smile becomes a little smaller and a little warmer at the same time, “I suppose that if he had been able to hear that last bit, Charles would have an actual reason to chase me around the house with a broom. We are a family, with him, and he knows it. He runs very quickly and he hits very hard, and he doesn’t even need to use magic.”

Erik covers up his snort of incredulous laughter with one hand. “He does that? He did that? Run after you, waving a broom, shouting at you?”

“I did it to him. Too many times to count. And Yue would chase me because I was chasing her master, barking madly even as we nearly ran everything down.” Watanuki laughs just as softly. “Not as a punishment or something like that, you understand. It was how I liked to make him laugh. While there is something to be said for a boy who thinks things over very seriously and very gravely, there is something equally good in watching that boy go red in the face with laughter. And you might be able to guess what I’m about to tell you; you might be able to sympathize - ”

“Not much laughter in his life.”

“Not before coming here,” Watanuki agrees. “My son had already experienced such terrible things and dark depths before he ever thought about running away - so I put a lot of time into helping him to forget some of it. I could never have erased all the scars, and I would never have thought about doing that to him. I had better things to do. I made him laugh.”

Erik nods, smiling a thin smile. “And Doumeki?”

“He was a good teacher, and he had a very, very gifted pupil to work with. So Charles absorbed almost all of the knowledge that he was already carrying around with him. Archery, mathematics, the Japanese language both spoken and written, classical music.” Watanuki makes a mock-irritated face. “I’m afraid that means my son picked up Doumeki’s terrible sense of humor as well, and some of his strange ideas about alcohol.”

“Such as?” Erik raises an eyebrow at his ghostly visitor.

“Charles really likes to drink,” Watanuki says after a moment. “I should be glad he stays here - someone should drink the sake that we still have. But I suppose I will always be worried about someone who insists on drinking alone. Who will help him if he should drink too much? Who will assist him if he should be badly affected by a hangover?”

There is an even longer pause, and then, Erik says, “I could drink with him.”

Watanuki looks a little hopeful. “Would you? In return, I will teach you a few important things....”

And Erik might be covered in dust bunnies when he emerges from that lesson only to plunge into one specific set of storage areas near the center of the shop, but he thinks it might all be worth it when he encounters Charles in the evening.

“I - is that sake?” Charles asks once he picks his jaw up from the floor.

Erik has to suppress a laugh, because once again there is a great difference between the formal robes - golden-yellow shading to copper at the hems, belted in maroon - and the gobsmacked light in Charles’s eyes.

Erik hefts the small cask in his arms carefully, the better to keep its contents level.

Contrasts suit Charles, Erik decides, in the back of his head - and he resolves to cause them, or at least the good kinds of contrasts, more frequently in the future.

“I think you’ve been holding out on me,” Erik says with his best grin.

Yue huffs, making him look down, and again she looks like she could be amused.

“A man can get tired of drinking nothing but beer,” he adds. “I’d like to try something new.”

Charles rallies beautifully, though - he turns right around and crooks his fingers over his shoulder. “And try something new you shall. Though a drink like that - and who gave you the location of that particular storage room, I wonder - deserves to be served in a nice place. Follow me.”

Erik does, and he’s fully expecting to stop in one of the gardens, or perhaps in the audience room.

Charles does nothing of the sort, and doesn’t stop walking until Erik’s pretty sure that they must be heading back into someone’s quarters, if the doors, worn down until they’ve acquired a pretty kind of sheen around the notches where they can be slid open, are any indication.

He’s partly right, because Charles stops in the corridor in which Erik’s own rooms are located - except that he goes one door further, toward the room where Erik had found the physics textbook. This is the original place where he’d found the great bow that he’s since seen Charles use.

“Doumeki Shizuka used to sleep in this room,” Charles says as they step through.

Yue flops into a puddle of warmth and fur next to the doors. She snores, quietly, almost soothingly.

Erik watches Charles click his fingers together, three times softly, and then the room comes to life: without anyone touching flame or switch three lamps placed at the corners of the room flicker alight. Each lamp is made of paper stretched over a wooden frame; one panel on each lamp is covered in sparsely elegant handwriting, lending soft shadows to the wavering light.

As soon as the cask is safely on the floor in the center of the room, Erik looks around with interest. He’s heard about Doumeki; he’s never seen him before - still, the room seems to hold a fragment of the man’s life. There are more textbooks piled up neatly next to a pair of identical chests in dark wood. A quiver of arrows in one corner, the fletchings still a pristine white.

Eventually he makes his way over to the corner near the wall, where Charles is kneeling at a low desk. “I was never very good at Japanese calligraphy, and it took a while before Doumeki would allow me to work with ink and brushes.”

“You used a felt-tip marker in that scrap I found,” Erik says, sitting cross-legged nearby.

“Because I couldn’t always find the ballpoint pens,” Charles replies, sounding amused. “Anyway, these are his things: this is an inkstone, that is an inkstick, and these are his brushes.”

“Did he write on the lanterns?”

“I think he did. I can’t remember.”

Erik picks up the inkstick and turns it over, wary of getting black all over his fingers.

Next to him, Charles is muttering as he rummages in the third chest, located next to the desk - and then he says, quietly, “Aha!” And: “I knew he still had a cup in here.”

From Watanuki’s impromptu lesson, he’s expecting something in ceramic, at least, or lacquerware - but the box-shaped cup in Charles’s hands looks like it’s made from plastic, scratched-up plain black with a thin red stripe on the inner surfaces.

“Shall we begin?” Charles says with a familiar smile: an invitation.

Erik blinks, puts the inkstick back where he found it, and follows Charles back to the center of the room, where he puts the cup down and runs a reverent hand over the cask.

“In the West, champagne was discovered by a monk; they do something similar in many of the temples and shrines here - they brew sake,” Charles explains. “Doumeki’s grandfather carried on the tradition - and yes, some of those casks eventually found their way to this shop. I may have drunk this, or something like this, to celebrate my adoption.”

“So - good memories?” Erik ventures.

“That is a bit of an understatement,” Charles says, looking pleased and wistful all at once. Then he blinks, and gestures negligently at the cask, producing a quiet sound of something cracking open.

Erik nods. Charles’s magic has broken the cask open in such a way that there is a lid that can be easily opened; from there it’s a simple matter of dipping the cup into the cask, and then he presents it to Charles, who accepts with both hands. His squared-off fingers holding the full vessel delicately, balanced just on the tips.

“What shall we drink to?” Charles asks.

Erik shrugs. “To life, and to laughter, and to being chased around with a broom?”

Charles drains the cup, wide-eyed. “One of them has been visiting you.”

“Yes.” Erik nods. “Watanuki.”

“That explains quite a lot,” Charles murmurs. “And if his spirit has gone walkies to see you - ”

“I’m sorry, Charles,” Erik says, and he truly feels it - regret as sharp as a knife in his skin. “They’re gone.”

Charles looks solemn for a very long moment - and then he dips the cup back into the cask, but instead of drinking he passes the cup to Erik. “Then please drink that cup for them,” he says. “And for me.”

“If you will drink the next cup for Edie,” Erik counters.

“With pleasure,” Charles promises.

Chapter Text

“I’ve been meaning to ask,” Erik says after Charles passes him a chef’s knife, a handful of onions, and a bowl that looks like it’s been painstakingly glued back together at least twice, “can you tell me about the text on the lamps in your master’s room? I mean Doumeki’s room. The one next to mine.”

The response to that is a chuckle that might be wicked and might just be amused; when Charles comes back from washing his hands again, Erik’s not entirely sure that Charles isn’t shaking the dripping water down the back of his neck. “I was wondering when you were going to ask me about that. Though I confess I’m curious - I thought you said that you had a knack for learning languages?”

Erik shrugs, one-shouldered, and pours himself some more tea. The kitchen is warm and full of fragrant steam, and not all of the moisture in the air is coming from the pots on the stove. It’s been raining for the past three days; it’s been a week and a half after the first drinking session with the voices from Charles’s past.

That first night seems to have changed something in the shop once again, because when Erik walks its corridors now he feels more and more familiar with the polished wood beneath his feet, with the plain papered-over lattices of the doors and walls.

He remembers working in one of the rooms that opened on to the gardens surrounding the shop when the rain began to fall again, and trying to figure out an unusually tricky problem in what looked like some kind of practice examination. He remembers Charles reading softly nearby, though because he’d been so focused on his numbers and variables he couldn’t remember what the text had been about. He remembers the tray of pale pastel confectionery between them, delicately shaped flowers and rabbits, some of them dusted with a fine white grit, sweeter than sugar. He remembers Yue curling up on his other side, turned away from the sudden downpour, her tail twitching delicately next to his knee.

“I’m only human, Charles,” Erik says now, dry as dust and blinking the fumes from the onions away, “and Japanese is not exactly an easy language even for me. I can cram three alphabets into my head and maybe memorize a few basic words and phrases, but I don’t think you can expect fluency, not this soon, not when I haven’t even been here a year.”

Charles’s grin widens some more at that, and Erik watches him brandish his paring knife threateningly over the rest of the vegetables. “Of all the places that you could have ended up in, it had to be this one.”

Before he can respond, Erik sneezes over the onions, loudly enough that Yue looks in at him from where she’s stationed outside the kitchen door.

When Charles is done smirking to himself they fall back into a welcome silence, a comfortable one, until:

“I came here because you called me here.” Whether he means to include them or not, Erik can suddenly hear and feel the weight of his own emotions in his words. Sincerity. Gentleness. A hint of an idea of being grateful. Loyalty. Courage.

The faintest wisp of something that Erik wants to call happiness. An elusive emotion, fragmentary, and he doesn’t want it to be taken away from him too soon.

“I followed you, Charles; I followed your voice. I found myself here,” he murmurs, instead.

There’s a long silence in the kitchen, sudden and complete. For a long moment, Erik no longer needs to strain his ears to hear the persistent whisper of the rain as it continues to fall.

When he dares to look up at last, Charles is still and unmoving at the counter, seemingly frozen in the act of turning around. The light in the kitchen falls subdued onto his exposed forearms. There is a cord looped tightly around his sleeves, keeping them away from the work and the mess of his chores: stark contrast of white braid with one strand of red against a green so dark that it could almost be called black, and the plum-and-red sash tied neatly in the small of his back.

It should have been less attractive a scene than most: the steam of the kitchen is pulling down like strange weights at Charles’s hair, leaving lank strands hanging into his eyes, stuck in the corners of his mouth.

Instead Erik smiles at the shop keeper in what is apparently his other natural habitat, and keeps looking. He’s determined to fix the memory in his mind: a rare and precious glimpse of a different truth that Charles carries around within him.

Finally, the soft and rising wail of the kettle breaks the stalemate - if the scene in the kitchen could be called that. Charles moves toward the stove and turns off one of the burners with an expert flick of the wrist, but instead of going on to make the tea itself he crosses the tiled floor again, until he ends up standing next to Erik’s chair.

Erik tenses, and prepares to stand.

Charles’s hand on his shoulder, powerfully warm, pins him in place.

So Erik says, “Charles,” instead.

As much as he would like to look into Charles’s eyes, he can’t, because the blue has been thoroughly hidden by dark hair, falling every which way and mostly in his face.

“Erik,” Charles says, eventually. “I - I really wish that there could be some other price that I could name, that I could make you pay, for the fulfillment of your wish.” He swallows, just enough for the nervous sound to be clearly heard. “There was no way that you could have anticipated that price, the idea of staying here permanently. The idea of this shop, and me, being your cage. You’re not someone to be penned up. You’re someone who should be free. I wish that there had been any other way - but I cannot really make wishes here. I grant wishes.

“If I could wish that you would be set free from this price, I would.”

After, there’s a quiet, suspicious hitch in Charles’s breathing. That sound is not repeated.

“Are you done speaking?” Erik asks. His words are still gentle and deliberate, and now cautious.

A part of him wants to take Charles’s hand, or at the very least touch the weight and portent of those fingers on his shoulder. Instead, he catches up a fold of dark green sleeve instead, which has fallen from its bindings.

Charles doesn’t pull away; he nods, once.

Erik takes that as a good sign.

“I made a wish, and I heard the price for its granting, and I said I’d pay the price,” Erik murmurs. “Do you think I regret anything now?”

“You’d be stuck here, Erik,” Charles whispers. There is a real and rising distress in his words. “As you are here now, so will you be here, all the days of your life.”

“I understood you the first time, Charles, when you told me about my price. I thought about it then. Have I taken my wish back?”

“No, Erik.”

It’s Erik’s turn to nod, then, and smile. He lets a hint of gentle mockery seep into it. “Then don’t hold your breath. Don’t wait for me to break away. I’ve no regrets.”

And then he sticks out his tongue for a punch line.

Silence falls in the kitchen once again, except for the faraway faint falling roar of the rain.

Charles’s laugh, when it comes at last, is like sudden sunshine bursting into the room: a startled sound, incredulous and hearty and not a little pleased.

Erik takes a deep breath, and smiles, and if he feels a little smug he thinks it might be justified, just this once. “I see the appeal of making you laugh,” he says, lightly, though all he wants to do is warm himself next to the bright spark in Charles’s eyes, revealed anew.

“Don’t make me chase you around the house,” Charles says, chuckling warmly as he goes back to preparing the vegetables. “You’ll never escape me, and you’ll never be able to hide from Yue. Now, as for your original question: the calligraphy in Doumeki’s room. He was not quite a fan of Heian literature, but he could easily use the short verse forms for writing practice....”

The shadow in Erik’s heart is lightened by Charles’s easy smile, by the stories that he shares from his childhood, and so he lingers over noodles in a rich, dark sauce, over bowls of steamed vegetables. He manages to coax Yue into eating from his hand.

To that, Charles makes a mock-exasperated face.

Erik hears him murmuring fondly to the wolf: “Traitor.”

Charles stays in the kitchen with him even as he gets up to start washing the dishes, and even lends a hand - desultory though it might be - with clearing the table.

The peace of running water and the soft whisk-whisk sounds of scrubbing is suddenly shattered by a discordant melody, rough song right outside the windows over the sink.

He’s caught up in the adrenaline rush, barely sparing the presence of mind to put the ceramic bowl in his hand back in the sink; light glows hotly next to him, the arcs and stars of Charles’s magical circle.

Fists are not much good against spirits, but Erik draws closer to Charles anyway. He can at least offer up his own body as a shield against anyone who might attack them.

“Let us in,” a voice calls, strange and feminine, and Charles starts next to him, a frown pulling his eyebrows into a straight line.

“My lady,” Charles says, and hurries past, as quickly as he can. There’s a quick sharp clack and the sound of doors sliding open and closed, and then there are two women following him into the kitchen.

Erik takes them in with a series of rapid glances. The woman standing next to Charles is pale and slight, and her dark eyes are full of suspicion. A crown made of brown and white feathers rests on her shadow-black hair; her only other adornment is the plain silver ring on the middle finger of her right hand.

The second woman, who seems to be hanging back from Charles, is also wearing head-to-toe black, decorated in several places: a bracelet of silver braid on her wrist over her long sleeve. A leather cord around her neck, from which is suspended a large bird-shaped form in another type of metal. Multiple piercings in her left ear: seven small hoops connected by a slender chain.

“You have a visitor, shop keeper,” the woman wearing the crown murmurs. “Please forgive us our hastiness. We are intruding upon you.”

“He is not a visitor,” Charles says, crisp and commanding tones. His magical circle is still turning slowly at his feet. “He dwells here with me. In his presence you may speak freely.”

Erik gets to his feet, and proffers a brief, abbreviated bow to the two women.

They bow back to him, more formally.

“Erik,” Charles murmurs, “allow me to introduce these ladies. They are the two leaders of the exaltation that I told you about.”

Erik blinks, looks down at Yue who is now sitting by his feet, and back up at the two women. “An exaltation?”

“That is what we call a group of larks.”

“Larks,” Erik says, carefully. “As in the painting you told me about. As in the larks who live within calling distance of the shop.”

Charles smiles approvingly.

“You are not from here; neither are we, originally,” the woman with the crown murmurs. She might seem agitated, but that does not stop the words from coming out underlined by the faintest hint of a song. “Your name is Erik. Please call me Moira. My companion is Angel.”

“Please, sit,” Erik says. “It’s good to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Angel drawls, roughly melodic. “We’ve come to ask for help.”

“Whatever I can offer, I will give,” Charles says. “What is the matter?”

Erik watches the two women trade glances, watches Angel wince and look down at her booted feet. There is something stilted about her movements; she refuses to move her shoulders, even when she finally crosses to the kitchen table to sink into one of the chairs.

He shoots a look at Charles, who winces before asking, “Angel - who attacked you?”

The story comes out in fits and starts and is as terrifying as it is now familiar. “Strange shadow. It had a deep voice. It wanted me to get close to this house. It wanted me to enter, and to seek you out. I fought it off.”

“I helped her,” Moira says. “But I can only do so much. I brought her here to be healed by you, shop keeper.”

“Gladly,” Charles says.

As Erik watches, Charles places his hand atop Angel’s head. The magical circle at his feet flares into bright startling clarity, and additional light ripples from his fingertips, over her bronzed skin. “A lighter touch,” he murmurs, absently. “But the effect is the same, as is the intent. He wants the power of this place, and of the position I am currently holding.”

“He has been here?” Moira asks, looking shocked.

“Yes, not too long ago. We refused to parley with him. I do not think he was best pleased by that idea.” The light in Charles’s hand pulses, once more, and then fades softly out into a glittering dust that settles lightly onto Angel’s shoulders. “You are free from him,” Charles says, “but I warn you that you must rest. Someone else must guard Moira for now, Angel. You need to build your strength back up.” He pauses and clears his throat. “And you will not fight him, not singly, not as a group. You must leave that spirit to us.”

“Can you - ” Angel hesitates. “Can you defeat that spirit? Can you banish it completely?”

“I do not know,” Charles says. “But this is an expected fight, so I will do all I can.”

He’s looking straight at Erik when he adds, “Besides, I will not be alone in this fight.”

Erik nods, once, and steps to Charles’s side.

Moira inclines her head, regally. “We will not fight that spirit, but we will assist you. Whatever you might need, shop keeper.”

Charles smiles. “Then in payment for this I ask you to find something for me. All I need is the trail that leads to that item; you will not need to bring it to me yourselves. We’ll need all the weapons we can get.”

“Show us this item and we’ll find it for you,” Angel says.

Charles smiles at them, and then smiles at Erik.

Three days later Charles leaves with Yue, and comes back with an ornate box of dark wood inlaid with some kind of twisting metal on the lid, like handwriting that Erik can’t recognize, in a language he doesn’t read. “This is for you,” he says.

Cushioned in plain white silk is a dagger in what looks like black glass. Short blade, plain wooden handle, two cutting edges. Light scatters off the blade and creates strange shadowed shapes on the walls of the audience chamber.

“Do you know anything about knife fighting?” Charles asks.

“It looks like I’ll have to learn a little more than the basics,” Erik murmurs. “This is no ordinary knife, or you wouldn’t have asked for help to find it, nor would you have gone to retrieve it yourself.”

“It was being held until it should be needed,” is the reply. “You’ve paid for it, it’s part of granting your wish - so it’s yours, for now.”

“I’ll use it as best as I can,” Erik says. “Thank you.”

Charles smiles, and offers his hand, and Erik shakes it, firmly.

He lets go even though he doesn’t want to.

Chapter Text

“So being dead means I can’t touch things,” a voice says very nearly in Erik’s ear.

Erik all but flies up and out of his quilts. His breath comes quickly, erratically, and forms wispy plumes in the smoky air surrounding him. The elaborate three-legged stand nearby casts the faint pale light of a guttering candle-flame upon him. Upon his bandaged hands.

Upon the man sitting an arm’s length away, who is turning a pale porcelain cup around in the fingers of one hand.

The more Erik squints at those fingers the more certain he becomes that this man has had his hand broken, possibly both, and possibly several times.

“Doumeki Shizuka,” the man mutters after a moment. He sets his cup down: there is a definite little click but he also winces when he moves his hand in a particular way. “What were you thinking,” he continues, still sounding entirely neutral and entirely bored. “Making that kind of wish from my son?”

Erik stares, and Doumeki doesn’t so much as twitch or even blink.

“What was I thinking,” Erik counters after a moment, “asking for that wish to be granted after hearing the price I have to pay?”

That wins him a thin sliver of a smile, and Doumeki turning fully to face him. “All right, I suppose you’ll do. It’s not like I haven’t been hearing about you from Watanuki anyway.”

“I’ve been in your room,” Erik mutters after a moment.

“You’re reading my books, you’re drinking from my cup, you’re talking to my lover, and you’re walking in my son’s footsteps,” Doumeki says.

Erik looks up. The thin smile has turned into an entirely amused smirk.

But he doesn’t deny anything.

“I’m here,” Doumeki says after another brief silence, “because Watanuki and Charles are immensely powerful people who prefer to wage war with fine words and diplomacy. Strange weapons to use when they have those magical circles of theirs. Maybe we’re lucky that they never decided to unleash their full powers.

“Me, I’m mostly just an ordinary person who has to find another way to fight.”

Erik shoots him a disbelieving look. “You can repel evil from a room just by standing in the middle of it. You’re a living shield against things like Schmidt. That does not fit any possible definition of ordinary.”

Doumeki shrugs. “You want to learn something or not?”

“Anything that’ll help me survive,” Erik says.

“Show me the knife,” Doumeki says.

Since the presence of the man next to him tells him that this is a dream, Erik only has to look at the small table next to his quilts to see the black knife. Its blade is shaped like a leaf. Odd scalloped texture that plays merry havoc with shadow and light alike, creating a faint hazy aura around the sharp edges.

Out in the real world, he’s been forced to remember what it means to use a knife in a fight. There is nothing fancy in it; he can just barely remember the right verbs. Slash, thrust, stab. Defense only matters so long as he doesn’t bleed out from a wound. Any one of those can take him out of the fight: a slash to his arm, a hit across his ribs, a slice into his back. The mere fact that he has to get right inside his enemy’s guard means he opens himself up to some other attack. There is nothing pretty or formal or ritualized about fighting with a knife: it’s just close combat, blood-soaked and chaotic, and that is all.

“You won’t have much time,” Doumeki suddenly says, startling Erik from his contemplation of his bandaged hands. “You’ll be lucky if you can get in two strokes. That’s if you fight by yourself. Two strokes, no more, and even if you land the first one you might not be able to survive that impact.”

Erik shrugs. It makes a certain morbid sense. He does, after all, know exactly what he’s dealing with. Schmidt might have actual weapons, actual strength, but who needs brute force when just standing too close to the miasma surrounding his form can possibly kill?

Doumeki raises an eyebrow at him, at the weapon, and adds, “If you let Charles lead the fight your chances improve. Slightly.” He holds up three fingers.

Erik just nods, feeling a little impatient now. “I’m just the bait, aren’t I.”

“Little bit more complicated than that. I know your story.” Underneath the bland inflections Erik hears something that might very nearly be concern. It makes him cock his head at the other man, but before he can say anything Doumeki continues: “We were here, you know. While you were recovering. I wondered how you survived.”

“I only saw Watanuki.”

Doumeki shrugs. “I was here. And I was with Charles, too.”

Erik smiles at that. “Did Watanuki tell you that your son misses you?”

“Yes. And I miss Charles. Which is why I stayed by him when I could. Watched him shoot. My bow.”

“I figured. Is he any good?”

Doumeki’s smile returns, thin and satisfied. “I know why you asked. I also know that you already know the answer. Take care of him, if you’re to stay.”

“I intend to,” Erik says. “I really need you to know that. You and Watanuki both. I want to stay with him.

After a moment, Doumeki slants a different look in his direction, but offers no explanation; in one smooth movement he’s up on his feet and he’s striding for the door. “Like I said, you’ll do. Wake up for real. He’s looking for you.”

There’s a sudden surge of fondness in Erik’s chest at that. “When doesn’t he?”

And sure enough as the vision dissolves into the familiar straw mats and translucent walls the tall ghost of Doumeki is replaced by the tall shadow of Charles’s bow. There is a bulk at his feet that doesn’t look like Yue, and when the door slides open Charles pushes a large red-lacquered box in ahead of him.

“How do you feel?” Charles murmurs as he sits down next to the quilts. “Do your hands still hurt?”

Erik flexes his fingers, makes fists, uncurls them. One of the joints on his left hand cracks ominously. The pain is a little like getting cut up by the black knife.

In real life Erik keeps it locked away in his trekking pack, which is stashed away in one of the chests in the room.

“Knife later,” Charles says, sounding fond and exasperated both, “give me your hands first. That crack worries me.”

At least one of the bandages comes away still stained with red, making Charles bite his lip with worry. “I don’t want to hurt you any further,” he murmurs.

“Do it,” Erik says. “And after we finish this we can get back to practice.”

“I appreciate the need for haste as much as the next man, but Erik. There is a difference between hastening and rushing in blindly.”

Erik stills both of Charles’s shaking hands in his own, firm and steady grip, and pulls him gently closer, so Charles’s knees are touching his. “The more quickly you move the more quickly I can get over the part where it hurts. I know it worries you; I’m worried, too. If I bust up my hand I won’t be much use in any kind of fight, much less this one. So let’s put a little more haste into me healing up. Okay?”

“Yes.” Charles nods, once, and gives Erik a smile that trembles just a little around the edges.

For all his hesitation beforehand, though, Charles with antiseptic and bandages in his hands is just as assured and competent today as he has been on the other days. A cotton ball held in a forceps, quickly doused with antiseptic and then run over Erik’s skin, swift thorough swipes that spread the stinging sensation nearly everywhere and all the way up to the wrists.

Erik winces, as he did on the other days, but he can also almost completely ignore the pain because through the stinging he can still feel the heat radiating from the tips of Charles’s fingers.

“All done,” Charles says.

Erik shakes his head and brings the knotted bandages up to his mouth so he can tighten them even further with his teeth.

“Tch, how unsanitary. You’re undoing all my good work,” Charles grouses, but he’s grinning when he says it, and he doesn’t stop Erik, so it counts as a victory.

He changes his shirt quickly and hurries back out into the corridor with the knife in its box under his arm.

“We really have to find another way for you to carry that,” Charles mutters.

“Like we can find another way for you to carry that bow,” Erik says.

“Point.”

They pass Yue, who is lying down in the shade of a large stone. By now Erik has been around her long enough to know that she really likes to look like she’s sleeping, when in fact nothing gets past her steady, serious watch.

There is more than enough space in one of the gardens for the two of them to work, yet Charles insists on staying no more than seven feet from his target. The glove on his right hand is dark against his arm, worn and napped in several places; it is a decided contrast to today’s robes, pale blue-gray with a dark orange sash.

For some reason the bow suits the entirety of the outfit.

The other thing is that Charles closes his eyes to draw the bow, and keeps them closed even as he completes the follow-through and release.

It isn’t the first time Erik has watched him practice, but when he does ask it is the first time he’s voiced the question. “You’re not going to actually be shooting blind, are you?”

That gets him a slight smile. “I don’t need my eyes to shoot, do I? I trust my other senses.” Charles completes another shot, and then takes a deep breath before letting go of the string and putting the bow down, carefully, so he falls out of his focused stance in a controlled way. “Maybe you should think about doing the same thing. Come here.”

As Erik approaches, Charles pulls a piece of scarlet cloth from his sash, and folds it into a wide strip.

“If I’m blindfolded, I might nick you,” Erik warns, but only when he’s standing right in front of Charles.

“No, you won’t. Not even if I stood close. I have faith in you,” Charles says, and his smile is the last thing that Erik sees because he’s stepping around until he’s out of sight, standing right behind Erik.

The blindfold is a gentle pressure of darkness upon Erik’s senses, and the knot at the back of his head is just the right side of too tight.

“And do you have faith in me, Erik?” Charles asks. His voice is quiet, almost far away, though Erik can still feel the heat of him right where he’s still standing, not an arm’s length away.

“Yes,” Erik says, with everything that he has, because it’s the plain and simple truth.

“Then do as I say, that’s all you need,” Charles says. “That’s all I ask.”

Erik wills the jackhammering beat of his heart back to calmness, and listens for Charles.

Chapter Text

This is not going to be pretty, Erik thinks as he throws himself to the side in an awkward tumble of a roll. He sees stars for a moment when his shoulder hits the floor wrong – but he can’t focus on the pain, not now, because the man who’d barged into the shop is still moving towards Yue, beady black eyes nearly disappearing into the lines of rage contorting his face.

At the front of the room, Charles is holding his kiseru in one absolutely steady hand. It could be a weapon, Erik thinks. A few months could not be sufficient for him to decipher all of the mysteries surrounding this house and its living inhabitants; he’s not even sure he’s even started to scratch the very surface of what this place is and was and could be. Sure, he has help, but Watanuki and Doumeki are not exactly what anyone could actually call reliable, and that state of affairs is no fault of theirs.

Were they alive, were Edie still around, Erik honestly believes that they would all be living happily together, practically in each other’s pockets all the time.

Now there is only him and Charles and Yue and he has to protect her first so they can both get to him. He untangles himself and gets to his feet and takes in the scene.

Yue is down. So is the man. Her teeth are bared and stained red. The man is already jerking himself back to his feet.

Erik smiles thinly to himself, grim and practical, and he explodes forward, crossing the audience chamber in skidding strides. At the last possible instant he puts his head down, leads with the shoulder that isn’t already protesting, and the blow lands home, solid and true when he connects with the man in the suit, right in the small of his back.

Something cracks when the man hits the floor.

Taking the man down is only the first order of business. Erik gets back up on his knees and makes a fist, drives that into the body beneath him, right above the belt – aiming for the kidneys. His reward is a loud grunt, shocked and enraged, and that only makes him want to do it again.

So he does: once more on that side and then two in rapid succession to the other.

The man screams and starts bucking, trying to either flip himself onto his back or, failing that, to throw Erik off.

Erik’s on his feet before he can even realize that he’s moved, stepping backwards into the space between the man’s flailing legs. The next movement is natural and there is nothing at all honorable about it: he kicks the man right in the groin, and the thing is, he wishes he was allowed to wear shoes inside the shop. That hit would have been far more satisfying if it had been delivered with a steel-toed boot.

As the man half-screams and half-whines in pain Yue slinks up to him; without any ceremony she opens her mouth and bites down on the back of the man’s neck.

“Are you two quite done,” Charles murmurs, though there’s a certain grim satisfaction in the lines bracketing his mouth. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you two were rather enjoying yourselves.”

Yue huffs, no small feat considering that she’s about a heartbeat away from ending this confrontation in spilled crimson.

Erik simply walks back towards Charles’s chair and assumes a defensive position right in front of him.

“Really, Erik, there’s no need for that,” Charles says, quietly. “I do know how to defend myself.”

“I’m not doing this for you,” Erik says, “I’m doing this for – well, that.” He jerks his chin in the fallen man’s direction. “I’m very much aware that you’re a weapon of mass magical destruction.”

“Is that what they told you?” Charles asks, and Erik can hear him half-strangling on his own amusement.

“Not them. Just Doumeki.”

And Erik looks over his shoulder just in time to catch Charles rolling his eyes extravagantly. “I really do wish to see him right now. I would have words with him. And secondhand scoldings are no fun at all.”

“Kick a man when he’s down, why don’t you,” Erik growls, teasing, and for that he gets a very light tap on the head, the kiseru flashing briefly into his peripheral vision.

“I’ll deal with you later,” Charles promises, and then he says, “Yue, let him go.”

She does, though Erik can see and sense her reluctance, and sympathize.

“Do let me know if you intend to carry on with this foolishness,” and where he had been playful earlier Charles is now nothing but cold and calculating as he speaks to his erstwhile client, his voice seemingly matching his outfit, a close approximation of head-to-toe white. Even the sash at his waist is a very pale green, the hue nearly washed out completely.

Erik knows what white means in Japan and wonders if the shop keeper must have had some kind of premonition about today.

“And if you do,” Charles continues, “I will respond accordingly.”

The man rears up to his knees. He’s ugly, now, monstrous, where he had at least looked like he could pass for human when he’d come in. Now he’s masked in fury and self-loathing. Blood runs from his nose; his shirt collar is already turning dark red.

“You’ve broken his nose,” Charles says quietly, an aside. He could almost sound as though he approves.

“I wanted to do much worse than that,” Erik mutters without taking his eyes off the man.

This time, the kiseru taps his shoulder, though this touch is much more gentle. Still, he expects to have the pain already boring into him there aggravated, and he blinks when that doesn’t happen.

Erik is about to comment on that when the man says, “You’ve killed me, shop keeper. You are a murderer.”

Charles lets out a controlled hiss of a breath.

For some reason that sound makes Erik brace his feet, waiting for something to crash down upon them all. Whatever reaction Charles is going to have to that cannot be anything good.

There is a long, trembling pause.

“Have I killed you? No, I have not,” Charles whispers at last, breaking the absolute silence; his words fill the entire room with thready echoes. “Did I not take pains to make sure that you heard about the price that you would pay when first you came here with a wish? Did I not ask you if you understood me? Well do I remember that you ordered me to get on with my work. You claimed that you knew what you wanted and you knew what the price had to be.

“I granted your wish – and in so doing I took the price that you and I have agreed upon. Now you wreak havoc upon me and mine and accuse me of murder? What did you ask of me? What was your price?

“I wanted you to hide all the evidence,” the man begins, and his words begin with a whisper and end on a roar.

But the roar dies out immediately when Charles interrupts him: “Evidence. Yes. Little signs to point to your little misdeeds. Which means that you yourself are the evidence. The sole perpetrator, and the sole witness. So your price was fair, was it not? You could only be with one other person at a time, at all times. Just one other. Any more than that and hitsuzen would do the rest: lay you bare and reveal all your sins. How many people went to that party that you organized, the one that all the society pages were talking about? A hundred guests? Two hundred, perhaps?

“Your guests included the men and women who were investigating you. The victims of your petty schemes. These people and everyone else attending had been invited personally by you. You knew what your wish was and you knew what your price was and you went ahead with that party of yours. So I have not killed you. You raised your own hand against yourself.

When the man’s façade cracks at last, there is nothing pretty about it: injured, bleeding, dwarfed despite his bulk by the watchful wolf at his side. The tears fall, and the man is reduced further and further, until he is no more than a weeping heap before Charles. “Save me,” he whimpers, at last. “Save me.”

Yue bares her teeth once more as she backs away from him, and this time Erik thinks of her and of disdain.

“You asked me to do that and I did everything I could, I truly did,” Charles says, and now the words are touched with an icy regret. “There is nothing more I can do for you now. Please, begone.”

Power surges through the room, and there is a faint faraway crack as of lightning striking on the very edge of the horizon, and when Erik blinks, the man is gone from the audience chamber, leaving only his blood on the floor.

“Yue? Come, my dear,” Charles says next. “Let me see if you’re all right.”

She has to pass Erik in order to get to her master; in the process she noses at Erik’s hand, then flicks at it with her tail.

Erik smiles and turns around.

Charles is already sitting down, but his eyelids are fluttering and he’s starting to lean on Yue again, and protectiveness surges up in Erik’s heart and clenches around his throat like a fist.

“Can you stand?” he asks, gently, when Charles opens his eyes once again.

“I’m not sure I’m entirely willing to get up at all.”

“Okay,” Erik says, and he closes the distance to Charles, offers him both hands. “Hold on to me.”

The effort makes him wince in pain, though he tries to hide it as best as he can.

Charles catches him anyway. “Oh, Erik. I’m so sorry. Your shoulder....”

“Not important. You need to rest. Come on – but you’ll have to give me directions.”

“You’ve never been to my room,” Charles says, laughing softly and ruefully. “While I have been tromping in and out of yours.”

“Your house, your rules,” Erik says as he pushes one of the sliding doors open.

“Turn right,” Charles says. “But this is also your house, now, isn’t it?”

That makes him feel warm inside. “Yes, it is.”

“That’s good,” Charles says.

More instructions, more twists and turns through the labyrinthine corridors of the shop. Erik actually passes his own room and that of Doumeki’s – but the real surprise is that Charles directs him to turn left and then there’s nothing in front of him but a set of sliding doors emblazoned floor to ceiling with the outline of a butterfly.

“You’ve been here all this time? Just around the corner?” Erik asks.

Charles pushes himself upright, though he keeps hanging on to Erik’s elbow with one hand. He chuckles, but weakly. “For now, yes. These rooms shift from night to night and I do not know where I will wake, when I lay my head down to snatch a few hours’ rest.”

“Another one of the shop’s security measures.”

“Yes.”

Erik shakes his head. “Can I open these doors?”

“Of course you can,” is the answer, and Charles’s smile is a little brighter, a little more firmly looped into his words. “And thank you. I’m not sure I can manage this by myself right now.”

“You need to rest,” Erik says again as he opens and, after Charles comes through, closes the butterfly-marked doors. Perhaps the words are a little more vehement than they probably should be, but they are flying from him now, unchecked, trembling in the spaces enclosed by Charles’s rooms. “You told me this morning that Schmidt could come back any day now. That you’ve been expecting him for a few days.”

“The signs are unmistakable,” Charles murmurs as he sits down next to what looks like a dresser in very pale wood. Everything else in the room is ornate in one way or another, the rest of the objects done in dark lacquer or elaborate carving. Only the dresser is very nearly unadorned.

The mirror is large and round and there are several photographs pinned into the frame. Several show Charles with either Doumeki or Watanuki, and sometimes there are other faces wreathed in smiles, except for one. The woman in that photograph isn’t even looking into the camera; in her long dark hair she wears half a dozen silver hairpins decorated with intricate openwork butterflies.

She is also holding on to the pipe that is now in Charles’s hand.

Charles catches him looking, and he smiles and plucks the photograph out of the mirror. “This is Yuuko.”

“She’s alone,” Erik says, without thinking.

“By design,” Charles says. When he moves toward the inner set of doors, he moves slowly. Too carefully. “And by the workings of hitsuzen. Long story. You must forgive me. I don’t quite have the strength to tell it properly right now.”

Erik shrugs. “Then I’ll leave you to your sleep.”

“Actually, I wanted to ask if you would stay.” Charles is blushing when he says this, but only a little. Faint smudge of red across the bridge of his nose. “I feel safer when you’re around.”

“Yue – ?”

“Will watch over the house in my place, so she cannot be here.” It’s Charles’s turn to shrug. “You don’t have to. Be here, I mean. I just thought I’d ask.”

Erik eyes him carefully, then takes off his jacket and places it carefully on top of the nearest chest. “Lead the way.”

The inner room is as plain as the outer room was rich; it almost reminds Erik of his own bare quarters. The only sign of life in here is the pile of quilts in the center, wider, and stacked thickly: the coverlet is heavily embroidered in swirling blue and gold.

Charles pulls off his sash and robes with a heavy sigh. Underneath, he’s wearing a thin inner kimono, the white broken by blue and black hatchmarks. He sinks into his quilts and closes his eyes.

“Where do you want me,” Erik says.

“Come here,” Charles says.

His eyes are still closed when Erik clambers in next to him; his eyes are still closed when he dips his forehead to rest against Erik’s shoulder. “Do you mind?”

“No,” Erik says, and thinks very quietly about putting his arms around him.

“Thank you,” Charles says, and, “Good night, Erik.”

There’s a brief touch that soaks warmth into Erik’s skin through the sleeve of his shirt.

Erik smiles, and when he’s sure that the other man is asleep, he murmurs, “Good night, Charles,” and presses a kiss to the dark thatch of his hair.

Chapter Text

Charles’s quilts are still warm when Erik finally shivers himself awake.

He remembers little of the entangling dreams that have been following him for about a week now; instead, he wraps his arms around himself and tries to banish the fear that has sunk into him like claws.

It’s not just his own life that’s at stake here. He knows this now, and he thinks that he finally understands. There is no more room for recklessness - because he still remembers what happened the last few times he got reckless. True that he’s been able to assist Charles or Yue; true that his actions still help to protect the shop.

But he’s paid a high price for his rashness every time, and now that he knows how that affects Charles, he’s no longer interested in being self-destructive.

He remembers Charles whispering to him, half-angry, half-worried: he hadn’t been admonishing Erik, then, or at least not directly. They’d been lying down next to each other in one of the other rooms, partly opened on to the garden and its moistly scented breezes. Hands brushing very softly with each breath. A tale of a man who almost fell to his death from a second-storey window, drops of blood staining shards of glass and falling leaves.

There had been such anguish in Charles’s voice that it was all too easy to guess that the man had to have been someone he was close to, someone he loved - and then Charles had whispered, nearly in tears, “Father,” and Erik knew.

He remembers Doumeki glaring at him on the one and only occasion Erik had mentioned the story. Plain cold fury like banked fire in those shrewd eyes. Every line of him tense and corded and protective. He’d muttered Watanuki’s name with singular vehemence.

Erik thinks of Edie, now, of how she’d loved and protected him. Not by words but by deeds. A hand on his shoulder that never held him back. Praise and encouragement, all the more precious because both rare and true. The bedrock of her example, the silent bravery. Even now he consoles himself with the idea that she had faced her own terrible death with her head held high.

And thinking of that death makes him think of coming here, of coming to this place. Of being placed under the protection of the shop keeper and of his companion.

He has a headache, now, and he’s not entirely sure that it’s not because of the weather, which has grown dark and unpredictable: overcast skies more often than not, which persist from sunrise to sunset and obscure their views of the stars in the sky.

“The weather means something,” had been Charles’s only comment about it. Easy enough to understand.

Trouble is a storm that is heading for the two of them. Wild winds lashing at the walls of the shop.

He’s never had any reason to comment on the fact that the sleeping quarters are embedded so deeply within the house, much less complain; now he takes real comfort in it. Here they’re a little bit safer. Here they’re a little bit more protected.

He thinks of defense and of fortification and reaches for the candle that burns fitfully near the quilts, far away enough from the flammable cloth that he has to nearly get up on his knees to put out the flame with the tips of his fingers.

Beneath the well-worn bronze of the candlestick is the box that contains the black knife; Erik pulls it closer, keeps it near, as he climbs to his feet and gets dressed for the day.

Next to his socks and his pressed jeans is a robe folded into a neat bundle; it looks very much like something Charles would wear, though the sleeves do not quite descend to such a depth as the shop keeper’s do.

There is something familiar about the pattern woven into the silken stuff that flows easily through Erik’s fingers.

He throws the kimono on over his shoulders - he doesn’t normally put his arms into the sleeves if he’s just going to be staying within the boundaries of the shop - and steps out of Charles’s sleeping quarters, past the butterfly doors.

Only when he’s in the bright light of the kitchen does he see the kimono clearly - and when he understands what he’s wearing, he finds it in himself to laugh.

A kimono with a pattern of arrows, dark gray on dark blue, like very fine stripes running up and down from shoulder to ankle.

Yue comes in when he laughs and looks half-curious even as she noses at his feet, at the hems of his robe.

“Your master thinks he’s being funny,” Erik says after a moment. “It’s a good thing I want to be easily amused today.”

“And if you heard the whole story, you might think it even funnier,” Charles says when he steps into the kitchen with an oversized cotton shopping bag in one hand.

Erik puts the kettle on and gets the eggs started, slices bread and cheese and lays out the makings for a light salad. “All right, then,” he says around a sip of coffee, “let’s hear it.”

Charles is smiling gently as he slices up some of last night’s leftover chicken. “Show a little respect; you’re participating in a Doumeki family tradition.”

That catches Erik’s attention, though he only raises an eyebrow at Charles’s back. “Explain.”

“It was something Watanuki explained to me, which had been explained to him in turn by Doumeki Haruka - that would be Shizuka’s grandfather.”

“Which makes him your great-grandfather.”

“From a certain point of view,” Charles agrees as he gets down on one knee to offer Yue her filled bowl. “When he was still alive, Haruka’d collected kimono. Not as a connoisseur would, you understand. Just a few pieces here and there, including some of the little girls’ colorful robes that Shizuka had been made to wear when he was a child.

“Not all of those robes were for children, though; he’d apparently brought home a couple of really beautiful, really old pieces. Full-sized robes. Heirlooms in their own right. And he wasted no time in passing them on when the opportunity presented itself. Shizuka’s father got first pick, of course, but he only took one piece and asked Haruka to give the rest directly to his grandson, to do with as he saw fit. Except for one.

And Charles interrupts himself, looking more wistful now. “Can you tell me what Watanuki is wearing, when you see him in your dreams?”

Erik blinks and puts his chopsticks down to think about it. “The last time - I think he was wearing a dark brown piece. It was patterned with large red Xs, clustered very close together.”

“That’s the most important one,” Charles says, nodding thoughtfully. “The prize of Haruka’s little collection. Apparently nobody ever figured out just how old it was; all we knew was that it was expensive. Important.

“When that robe came to him, Shizuka decided that he would never wear it. That he would keep it until the day that he found his most important person. I guess he always intended it for a wedding present.” He chuckles softly, as though his mirth is muted by his other emotions. “I think you can guess where this is going.”

Erik nods. “Shizuka gave the robe to Watanuki.”

“Yes. Watanuki always wore it on Shizuka’s birthday, and on - I guess that had to have been the anniversary of the day they pledged their lives to each other. I do remember seeing it about twice a year or so, but no more frequently than that.”

Erik surprises himself by smiling; he can feel his heart thudding rapidly. There are too many implications in Charles’s story, quiet beautiful weights wound into the words. A gentle sweetness permeates the air in the kitchen now, almost visible, a welcome presence.

He has to swallow several times before he can get his question out. “So this thing I’m wearing and that family tradition are related how - ?”

Charles colors, a decided contrast to the rich black of his kimono, which is broken near the hems by swirling lines and fine dots in silver.

He still looks Erik right in the eyes, however. “You’re a friend, and you’re staying, and you’ve been marvelously kind to me and mine. So this is my way of showing appreciation for everything you’ve already done since you came here to stay. That robe was mine - I received it from Watanuki and Doumeki at the New Year, when I came of age.

“Now it’s yours.”

Erik knows he’s gaping like a landed fish. “I - ” he begins, and then he gets to his feet and walks around the table, and he sinks into the chair on Charles’s right. His arm brushes Charles’s shoulder with every slow, unbalanced breath.

As he works through Charles’s words, the weight that had been in the room settles in Erik’s chest, somewhere next to his heart: welcome and comforting. He thinks of something Edie once said, something that had to do with how she met Erik’s father. “How do you know that some people are destined to meet?” he asks softly.

“Tell me,” Charles says.

“Edie once told me that some morning after you meet the most important person in your life, you wake up to find that you’ve crossed into another country together - that you’re nowhere familiar, and that you’re home. Because home is where that most important person is with you.”

There is a long, reverent pause, but an easy one, something that wraps around him and Charles.

“That’s lovely, Erik.”

“She’d have been happy to tell you that.”

Charles smiles. “Of that I have no doubt.”

Erik watches, transfixed, as Charles puts his joined hands right next to his own.

There is a pulse in his blood that grows and grows until he realizes it’s not coming from within - a feral noise, a terrible beat, heading straight for the two of them.

Yue howls, suddenly, and Erik has heard this long mourning note before, has already felt it shaking in his very bones.

“It’s time,” Charles says.

Erik watches him blink, long slow movement, and when Charles opens his eyes again the blue is depthless and shocking. “It’s a good thing,” the shop keeper continues, “that we’re not caught unawares this time.”

“Not this time,” Erik agrees, and he gets to his feet and strides to the door, where Charles’s bow is propped up - strung and waiting, and startlingly heavy. He’s spent a lot of time looking at it; this is the first time he’s actually touched the weapon, perfectly balanced and tense in his hand.

He doesn’t hold on to it for long; he offers it to Charles as he strides out.

“Thank you.” And: “Are you ready for this, Erik?”

Erik thrusts his arms into the kimono’s sleeves.

Where he’s holding it in one hand, the black blade seems to blend perfectly into the pattern that represents arrow fletchings.

“I’m ready if you are, Charles,” and he dashes forward, deliberate and defensive, and Charles is right on his heels until Erik bursts out into the storm roaring around the shop. The clouds are almost as dark as the ghostly form of Schmidt, who is talking - ghostly whispers that are probably supposed to be frightening - but Erik hears only the pure clear note of Charles firing, the whistle of air being displaced by bright bars of streaking light.

He doesn’t feel the rain soaking into his hair and into his skin; he only feels the robe as it flies around him, bright streamer to his every movement.

Three strokes, no more, Erik thinks, and he’s just there so Schmidt doesn’t focus on Charles, and he smiles and thinks of Edie, and charges.

Chapter Text

The voice that calls to him is treacherous and deep and it burrows. It pulls at his mind. It flows in his blood. Unfathomable weight in every inch of him, nerve and sinew and skin strained to the limit.

Death is easier, little human. Tiny tiny drops of blood. Meat and blood and flesh. What color are your eyes? I will know when I put them out, that color will be on my fingers. She wept as she died. All of them, the tiresome tears, the useless cries for help. Broken skin broken bones.

Erik is trapped, and he doesn’t know where he is, and when he opens his eyes all is dark and confused and sickening.

The voice in his head cannot be stopped, and yet he has to fight it, he has to be not listening to it.

He had a knife, didn’t he? He had a weapon, and when he clenches his hand into a fist he feels nothing. Not even the pain, when he thinks he digs his fingernails into his palm. Nothing flowing. He can smell blood everywhere, hot iron and copper and rust.

The voice rants of death and a terrible endless hunger. Mindless. Human beings? Lark spirits? A wolf familiar? What are these but morsels to be consumed? They cannot slake thirst. They cannot satiate hunger. The need to take. The lethal appetite.

Erik drowns in it, again and again, and with every breath he feels like he’s dragging the hooks deeper into his own skin. Self-inflicted death. Not suicide. There is a spark in him that is dying that wants to live. He wants life, wants routine and unpredictability living side by side, wants strangeness and domesticity. Not things he can have when he is dead.

One breath. Two. Three.

Darkness slithers into him, and he fights it. He is small and he is drowning in this strange lethal night. The voice hisses madly at him.

You are nothing and you will be nothing. She was nothing. I tore her limb from limb. She gave way so easily. She did not scream but she wept and wept and maybe she said your name. I knew you were hunting me, little boy. Microscopic. You look to the stars and your feet are fastened into the mud beneath you. You walk among spirits and never see that they can grant such power. Life batters you down. Then death shall be a release, and what I do with you after, you need never know.

As for your shop keeper, well, him I have plans for. He is the watcher at the gates. His hands are the keys to the doors. He knows where all the worlds are. He is the map of all the planes. I will keep him. I will make him learn to like me.

Erik blinks. There is something in his head that was not there before. Defiance. Disbelief. He knows a gentle man who is also destruction in color-drenched silk.

Bit by bit he claws back to himself.

Bit by bit his awareness of the pain that’s been eating at him recedes: he knows he might not survive, he knows he’s still going to be spat back out a bloody pulp, but while he hasn’t been consumed yet, he might still be able to do something good.

Slowly. Carefully. Erik remembers. There are names.

“Ichihara Yuuko. Watanuki Kimihiro. Doumeki Shizuka. Edie Lehnsherr.” Those who were gone and missed and never forgotten.

“Charles Xavier. Yue. Moira. Angel.” The living ones. The ones waiting for him. The ones he wants to see again.

Erik pulls himself back together.

Here is the black blade. There is blood on the plain wooden grip. It doesn’t matter. He can hold on.

The problem is hitting something.

Worlds and worlds and power, the voice whispers, broken, mad. The shop keeper will open the doors. I will make him open the doors.

Erik finds his voice at last. Finds his smile.

“I’d like to see you try,” he says, and though the words are swallowed by the darkness that surrounds him he can hear himself clearly.

The other thing he can hear, now, is the rhythmic slap and twang of a string pulled tight so it can play a melody - he knows how that feels, he understands the bow and he understands the man wielding it, and he calls that man’s name now.

“CHARLES!”

The word freezes the darkness and the dark voice in its depths of whispers seems to stutter; Erik takes a breath and clears his mind and tries to see Charles, silver rippling in black and the storms in his blue eyes.

Welcome back! Charles’s voice. I hope you’re all right!

“Let’s finish this,” he whispers.

Let’s. Follow my voice. I will tell you when to strike.

“Three strikes, Charles, I can give him three - ”

We’ll make that enough.

Bright light slashes a startling line through the blackness surrounding Erik. It streaks into the dark and it leaves a wake of shattered shadows, and he catches a glimpse of green, of falling rain -

Charles’s voice, indistinct but indisputably here, and he sounds like he might be singing or praying or -

The low rumbling growl of a wolf on the hunt -

Now, Erik, now, hit him with everything you have!

Erik grips the blade in both hands - and turns it point downward. He leaps, and throws his whole strength into the blow.

He has almost forgotten about the mad voice chittering in the darkness - but he remembers it now, because the garbled words choke off, rise and rise and rise into a cry.

“That’s one,” Erik whispers.

The second bolt of brightness punches through just a hair’s breadth away from Erik’s cheek.

It makes him smile.

This time he doesn’t wait for Charles’s cue. He changes his grip on the knife. Pulls back his arm, his shoulder, the entire weight of his body - and the second strike is a punch forward, straight into the darkness that surrounds him.

The cry becomes a roar. Schmidt’s anger shakes the darkness and drops Erik painfully to his knees - but he gets back to his feet and he fights for his balance and the black shell all around is starting to crack. Audible rents in the world.

Yue howls and Erik takes it as encouragement.

One more blow, Charles says in Erik’s mind.

“One more blow,” he agrees.

Stay still.

And maybe Erik knows what’s coming, because he looks down at his own chest just at the right moment to see it be pierced by the third arrow -

He smiles, and thinks of Charles’s hands next to his, and he touches the hilt of the dagger to his forehead before he throws it point foremost.

The blade is invisible in the darkness. It doesn’t matter. The world is rushing in on him.

There is a woman imprisoned in the black and she smiles at Erik, faded red hair and laugh-lines worn in around her eyes, and she whispers, “You did so well.”

“...Edie,” is Erik’s reply, followed by: “Mama!”

“Thank you,” she says, and the ghostly form of her drifts towards him - her arms, warm around his shoulders one last time - intangible tears in her intangible eyes.

Erik doesn’t need to look in a mirror to know that he inherited his eyes from her: green flecked with gray.

“Goodbye, my Erik.”

“Goodbye, Mama,” he says, and he smiles and falls to his knees but he lands in grass instead of shadows.

The sky above him is still overcast, but the clouds are on the move, and the sunlight is starting to show through.

Before him there hangs a lingering black spot, deeper than any shadow, darker than any starless night in winter’s depths. Lines of force warping the world around it, spiraling in and eating away the depths, and then - silently - it vanishes.

The blade is gone, and the palms of his hands are bloody - but here is the garden, and here is the unmistakable weight and scent of Yue leaning into his side, and Erik can’t help but lean back into her, can’t help but throw his arms around her and begin to weep. Relief like chains falling away at last, painful and good and welcome.

And the weight on his shoulders is a different kind of black, is solid and right and real and those are Charles’s arms holding him close.

“Is it over?” Erik asks after a long, long swaying moment of breathless disbelief.

“Schmidt and whatever possessed him are gone,” Charles says. “But for a shop keeper, there is no such thing as over. The task continues. The work goes on.”

“Which means - we’re alive.”

Charles smiles, then, bright and blinding and pleased; he is upside-down to Erik’s eyes, beautiful and strange and powerful. “Yes. We are alive, Erik. You and me and Yue. We won.”

“I’m glad,” Erik says.

“Do you need help getting up?”

“I can’t take your hands,” Erik says, and shows him the gashes he’s left in his own skin. “Bleeding.”

“I don’t care,” Charles says.

Erik watches him pull his sleeves out of the way and come around to stand in front of him, and offer him those powerful hands - and he comes to a decision that makes him reach out and close his eyes at the same time.

“Erik?” Charles asks, so near Erik can drink in the warmth of the question.

Erik smiles, and catches at Charles’s wrists, and tugs him down into a kiss.

Erik, Charles says in his mind, before pulling him closer, before pulling him deeper. And there is a refrain beneath that one word, that Erik is hearing for the first time:

Don’t go, please don’t go.

And maybe there are echoes of him in the garden: the voices of the one who loved him and the voices of the ones who loved Charles - all saying the same thing.

All asking him to stay.

Sweet as the kiss is, there is a certain pleasure in breaking away, so he can look Charles right in the eyes and say, “I’m not going anywhere, Charles.”

Charles nods and takes both of Erik’s hands in his own.

It doesn’t hurt at all.

Chapter Text

One more client, one more cup of tea, and these days, he tends to linger over any excuse for warmth that he can get. Slow sips. The cup is small and deep, infusing its welcome heat into his chilled skin.

The snow falls in soft flurries, shrouding the world in white.

The gardens sleep beneath bare branches and overcast skies.

“I will do everything I can,” he tells the woman, and she leaves with a smile that trembles.

The doors close on her, and Charles is alone.

Shadows close in around his footsteps as he makes one more round of the shop and its spiraling labyrinth, turning and turning on the fading gyres of his failing strength.

The mirrors guarding the intersections are hung high enough that he doesn’t need to see his own face in them, but they still reflect wavering light off his hair. Mostly silver now. A few persistent strands of black remain, near his temples.

Footfalls on the floor, and Charles summons up a smile, and crosses to the heart of his home, just past the doors marked with the sigil of the butterfly.

Yue is already curled up in her bed, deeply asleep, insensible. Her water and food bowls are empty.

The scars along her flank do not seem so harsh, and he has learned to appreciate the odd lopsidedness of her face, now; it’s been years since she lost her left eye.

There is a cushion on the floor in the center of the room. A low table. Charles shuffles into position and folds his hands together in his lap, and just before he closes his eyes he glances at the unlit taper on its ornately turned candlestick.

Faint sizzle and hiss and spark of light flickering against his eyelids.

Good evening, he thinks, and he summons up a smile, frail around the edges. The years are starting to weigh on him. Another day is over. And I miss you.

The light from the candle doesn’t chase the shadows of the room away, and that is just as Charles intends it to be, when he opens his eyes again, when he pushes his eyeglasses up the bridge of his nose. He doesn’t need it, not really, but the symbolism appeals. It’s something he can hold on to, and he needs every anchor he can get, now.

Still, it doesn’t hurt to have that light, so he can more easily gaze upon the faces of those who have gone.

Four portraits. Faces composed as if in deep sleep. Charcoal on handmade paper, framed in glass and cypress.

Ichihara Yuuko. Watanuki Kimihiro. Doumeki Shizuka.

The fourth portrait is placed a little below the others, and it is the portrait that Charles has spent the most time on. For some reason it had been more than difficult to get those exact lines and contours down on the paper. The subject had had an unusual face that resisted easy depiction.

Erik Lehnsherr.

Charles still remembers that terrible year, when the shop stood dark and empty through the days because he would not receive visitors. There was one who lay here who had needed his strength more.

And he had not been able to bring himself to leave his beloved alone.

Dwindling at last. The shop had done its best to keep Erik young and hale, but he had chosen to decline the position of shop keeper, and so neither the place nor Charles could do anything to stem the rising tide that slowly washed in on him: the tide of his own frailty, of his own age. True that Erik had lived such a long and full life - always at Charles’s side, always protecting him and loving him. True that Charles had used his considerable power to keep Erik safe.

But human lives were and are always made to end, and inevitably, Erik had come to his, unwilling.

He looks up now and casts a fond smile at the portrait of Erik, eternally calm now. That had been a hard-won calm, Charles remembers; Erik fought his own decline like a mad thing. He’d been so afraid. Again and again he’d woken up and woken Charles up to say, in increasingly hoarse whispers, “I can’t leave you. I can’t. I don’t fear death - I fear what my death will do to you.”

“I am still here,” Charles tells that portrait now. “I carry on for you. I want to stay here and be shop keeper. You wanted me to live. We wanted the same thing. I am alive.

“And you are gone and life is no longer the same, but you are at peace, and I console myself.

“Someday I’ll take a successor and he or she will carry your name. I made you that promise and I do not forget it.

“But that day is not today. The shop stands and I am the shop keeper. I grant all wishes except for my own.”

Something wet falls onto the back of his hand. He is weeping.

Thirty years have passed since he laid Erik to rest, and Charles is old. When he walks in the shop his steps are slow and faltering.

“I miss you,” he murmurs, to all four portraits - and to Erik’s most of all.

As if in answer the wind whistles through the corridors, forlorn and sweet.

Chapter Text

Rapid footsteps approaching the doors into the garden.

Deep in his archer’s trance, Charles only has enough awareness to cock his head to the left, briefly, before he relaxes his shoulders once again and reassumes his shooting position. The string twangs loudly: an encouraging note that he feels in his fingertips, in the wind-chapped skin of his cheeks.

It’s a good thing he’s only practicing his form, now. This year’s winter is a windy, fierce beast, and any arrows he might have been shooting might have been blown off course.

When he comes back to himself he has an odd little moment of clarity, where he sees the deep turquoise-blue of his sleeve fluttering against the snow falling thick and fast into the garden, and thinks that happiness is a rare and fleeting condition.

“Charles,” Erik says, from behind him. Thanks to the weather he’s switched back to wearing his leather jacket and his sturdy but battered jeans.

Perhaps happiness is not so fleeting, not in his case, Charles thinks, and he smiles and unstrings the bow before he turns back around with a smile. “Is something wrong?”

Erik shrugs; there is something baffled about the lines in his face, as though he has surprised himself once again. It’s something that’s been happening with some frequency in the past year or so; Erik’s abilities are taking a little time to settle in, so Erik himself has been unsettled for a while.

“Who did you see?” Charles asks as he steps back up onto the outside passageway. Almost reflexively, he reaches up to smooth the lines in Erik’s forehead away.

Erik’s skin is warm, and a little damp with sweat and steam.

“Not who, what,” Erik says as he leads the way back to the kitchen. “I thought your avian friends had gone south for the winter?”

“One or two larks will always stay, to fulfill the terms of the bargain,” Charles says. “Are they in trouble?”

“Wrong kind of bird,” Erik says.

The kitchen is filled with the savory smells of broth and boiled bones, and Charles takes a long, appreciative breath. Warmth rushes into him, slides into his skin, chasing away the morning’s chill. There is sliced bread and a dish of butter waiting on the table, together with a twist of paper containing three salt plums. Charles laughs, blows Erik a kiss, and tucks a plum into his mouth.

When he’s done wincing and shuddering he sucks the pit clean and pours the tea. “So what kind of bird did you see in your visions?”

“A raven,” Erik says. “It was wearing a silver band around one of its feet. Does that mean anything to you?”

He thinks about it for a moment, and then nods. “Yes, I think it might.”

“You’ve worked with it - them - whatever - before.”

“One raven, a female, rather young,” Charles says. “She came here to claim a sword from the shop, said my masters had kept it for her. Or was it Yuuko who had been guarding the sword? I cannot remember.”

“She’s coming,” Erik says as he chops vegetables. “I don’t know when. This gift you’ve given me can be very imprecise.”

Charles hides his smile in his sleeve. “You’ll regret saying that,” he teases. “That gift is more exacting than you think it is. You’d better make more soup; that won’t be enough for all of us.”

That makes Erik put his knife down, very carefully, and when he advances on Charles there is a scowl on his face that is threatening to turn into a grin, but it’s not until he gets to the table that Charles gives up hiding his amusement, gives in to his laughter. “Really, Erik,” he says, “haven’t you spent enough time around the others? You’re a shop keeper now, haven’t you figured it out yet?”

“Shop keepers give each other a hard time,” Erik growls, but he’s laughing, too.

“In every possible way,” Charles says, trying to catch his breath. His face hurts from smiling, but he finds that he doesn’t mind at all. “I think there are still rooms in the shop where you can hear the long-ago echoes of Watanuki scolding Yuuko or, especially, Doumeki for some horrible prank they’ve pulled on him.”

“Your fathers have weird ways of showing their affection; should I be concerned?”

“You mean you weren’t already?”

Erik rolls his eyes, mutters, “You’re ridiculous,” and drops a kiss on top of Charles’s head.

Charles catches him by one kimono sleeve and pulls him into a second kiss, and then into a third.

Heat builds between them, until Charles knows he’s blushing. When he pulls away at last Erik’s pupils have dilated.

At the same time, they’ve both sobered down a little. It’s very rare for the shop to get repeat business; there are only a handful of incidents that Charles knows of, in the long existence of this place.

“Is there anything else we can do to prepare?” Erik asks, still holding on to Charles’s sleeve, and to his hand within the layers of silk.

“You’re not just talking about this kitchen, I hope,” Charles murmurs.

Erik shrugs and shakes his head, the two movements flowing into each other.

“Just be here, with me, when she gets here.”

“I hardly think I could be anywhere else.”

“Thank you for that,” Charles says.

Happiness, wariness, the sounds of a knife striking a chopping board, the bubble and hiss of a full stockpot. Such is Charles’s life now, the one where he’s never alone, and he wouldn’t trade any of it for the world - for any world.