Chapter Two (pt. 1) of the Regency AU.
Chapter One is here.
"Are you angry with me?"
Erik paused in the bedroom door. The sum of their conversation (once Charles let Erik get to his feet) had been an awkward agreement that perhaps it was time to retire, and Charles had shown him to his room in heavy silence. “No,” Erik said. “I was… irrational. I would apologize, but I was bested so thoroughly that that hardly seems necessary.”
Charles smiled modestly, covering his relief. “One does pick up a few tricks on the battlefield.”
"You were a soldier, then?" Erik’s surprise faded into enlightenment as he eyed Charles’s legs. "Yet your tricks seem to have failed you."
"My Gift is little use against cannon fire." Memory tapped at the doors of his mind, flying shards of glass and wood and metal, the unholy noise of it all. He closed himself tightly away from it. Not now. Not now.
Erik still stood uncertainly in the doorway, glancing from Charles to the unfamiliar bedroom’s interior. Charles could feel how shaken the man still was, how he both feared, and in a peculiar way yearned for, the apparition’s reappearance. “I’m sure you have a hundred war stories to tell, veterans always do,” he said.
"Indeed. I can tell you a few, if you like, while we have a nightcap?"
Only polite interest showed on Erik’s face, but gratitude flowed from him in a warm wave.
Charles rolled his chair over to the fire and began pouring from the bottle he made a point of providing for the guest bedrooms. He knocked back half his glass, and topped it off again, while Erik was still occupied opening his trunk.
"Oh, dear, I’m sorry," Charles said, when he saw that Erik’s clothes had not been removed to the wardrobe. "I meant to inquire if you wanted the servants mucking about with your things, told them to wait on my order before unpacking you."
"No, you did well to hold them off. I prefer to do it myself." He lifted a small pile of clothes from the trunk and moved toward the wardrobe. "Where is that war story you promised me?"
"Ah, yes." Charles flicked through a number of possible tales, shying away from anything remotely distressing, as much for his own nerves as for Erik’s. Finally he launched into an appropriately amusing anecdote – The Epic Tale of Armando Versus the Fishmonger – and felt Erik beginning to calm, though he was so intent on his task that he hardly looked to be listening.
Calm, that is, until he reached the bottom of his trunk, reaching in for one final object that caused an emotional spike that should, by all rights, have been visible. Charles stopped mid-word, knocked quite off-path by the surge of vicious satisfaction, tangled with old traces of anger and pain.
"What have you there?" he called, when Erik passed several moments simply staring down at the object in his hands.
Erik woke from his reverie and finally took his seat across from Charles, pausing to sip from his glass. Charles noted ruefully that he had drained his three times since entering the room, and was beginning to feel it; he took a last swallow and set his glass aside.
"This is me," Erik said, "and Sebastian Shaw." He held out the object; Charles, taking it, saw that it was a graphite sketch in a silver frame. A boy of ten or twelve years sat rigid in a rather gaudy rococo chair. Beside him stood a man, a possessive hand on the boy’s shoulder, his smile holding more sly triumph than good cheer. The artist, Charles thought, had been quite skilled, unless it was his own knowledge of Erik’s childhood horrors that put such solemn despair in the child’s eyes, and attached such meaning to the way his delicate fingers clutched at his own trouser legs, as if to keep himself from cringing away from the man beside him.
"My parents were Shaw’s butler and cook," Erik said. "When my abnormality manifested, he made me believe they had abandoned me to his care, that I was rejected and feared. Many years later I discovered that he killed them precisely because they would not agree to leave me."
It was no more than Charles had pieced together from the chaotic tumble of Erik’s memories, but the pain leaking around his words, bleeding from his mind, still tore at Charles’s heart.
"I wonder, then, at your keeping this portrait." Charles passed the silver frame back into Erik’s hands.
Erik’s smile was sharp as a wolf’s. “Shaw had kept it in my room – to remind me, he said, to whom I belonged, to whom I owed everything in my life. And remind me it has, all this time.”
"Shaw is dead now," Charles said. "You can forget him. You need never think of him more."
"Yes, he’s dead," Erik said, gazing on the sketch with a distant satisfaction that bore little relation to the roiling emotions Charles sensed within. He moved, so suddenly that Charles jumped – a flick of the wrist that sent the portrait, frame and all, into the hottest part of the fire. It landed with a crash of breaking glass, and together they watched the flames catch the edges of the exposed paper, and creep across it, swallowing delicate pencil marks as it went. The predatory smile, the clutching hand, gone. The rigid boy with his hopeless eyes, gone. All gone.
"Erik," Charles said cautiously, "the last thing I desire is your further distress. But if I am to unravel the conundrum set before us – this strange specter of your daughter – I believe I must uncover its origin. I must know what happened to you."
Erik swallowed. “But surely you know already.”
"I know fragments. I must see the picture in its entirety."
Erik was silent for long minutes, watching flames lick the edges of glass and silver. Charles could be patient, as patient as Erik was stubborn.
Finally he spoke. “I ran away from Shaw, when I discovered the truth of my parents’ deaths. I took money and papers enough – fraudulent papers, of course, Shaw had plenty of those – to establish myself as a wealthy businessman, under the name Eisenhardt. Magda…” He trailed off, a bittersweet smile ghosting across his face. “Magda was a gentleman’s daughter, and should have been beyond my reach. But her father was a generous and indulgent fellow, and indeed there were few men who could have denied Magda anything.”
Charles was lost, for a moment, in the wash of remembered love – the fascination of a dimple, the joy of a smile, the trembling delight of an inner fire he had never known before. Erik, Charles saw, was not a man who could enjoy lust for its own sake; he wanted only where he also loved. He had had little opportunity to love, in Shaw’s house, and so desire had come on him as a welcome but overwhelming surprise, and it was maiden Magda who had been smiling and confident on their wedding night, soothing her nervous stallion—
—and there, Charles had delved quite, quite too deep into memories he had no right to. He could only hope Erik would not notice the rising color in his cheeks, or would put it down to drink.
Erik did not notice, in fact – seemed hardly to see him or the room around them at all. The flames reflected in his eyes.
"He found me," he said at last, his voice little more than a hoarse whisper, and seemed incapable of saying more.
"Might it be easier for you," Charles said gently, "if I simply… view it directly?" He tapped a finger to his temple.
Erik looked torn, something naked and vulnerable in his eyes. “Charles, I am not at all certain that my mind is a place you should wish to be. Especially on the night in question.”
Charles clasped his hand. “If it will help you, then that is exactly where I wish to be.”
Erik took a deep breath, his hand tightening around Charles’s, then nodded consent.
Charles let his eyes fall closed, and eased his mind forward, gently, ever so gently, keeping his Gift’s touch as light and warm and soft as a dove’s wing. Forward into the maelstrom.
For the most part, Erik’s mind was a very straight-angled place, tightly organized, terrifyingly focused. Erik had trained himself into this strict focus as the only way to control the violence of his emotions. Beneath a surface that seemed calm, even cold, lay the firestorm. Charles had known this already, and thought himself prepared.
He was wrong.
The first few moments were as dizzying as their first meeting in the sea, and Charles had to cling tightly to Erik’s self-built steel girders of mind in order to orient himself. But the place he had to go – the memory of Anya’s death – held little such framework. His self-control that night had been scanty at best. Determined, Charles eased toward it.
Glimpses, first, of Shaw approaching Erik at his club, all smiles and false joy at their reunion, his eyes full of spite. Expressing his expectation that Erik would abandon the unworthy specimens of humanity he had inexplicably surrounded himself with, and come home to complete his ‘training.’ Erik’s tight refusal, believing himself safe, established in his new life, believing Shaw had no more power over him.
And learning differently, when he saw Shaw’s face at the bedroom window moments before the great ripping crash that set the house aflame.
Charles, momentarily aware of his hand crushing Erik’s, forced himself to draw back a step. It was too much – too much like his own experiences with fire and chaos and shrieking fear – he could not afford – only a step, one step back, and he could handle it.
There, now he was able to view and sort and evaluate without losing himself. It was still impossible to construct a full timeline of events, however – Erik’s mind had been in such turmoil that great chunks of data had never been cataloged to begin with. He could remember the night only in dream-like flashes, some hardly more than impressions, others sporting a chilling crystalline clarity. His housekeeper’s face, distorted with terror, dragging a wounded footman out a window. A kitchen maid sobbing in a closet, too terrified to run – Erik had wound an iron poker around her body and used it to throw her from the house. Everywhere the heat and smoke and hungry roar of fire.
The stairs collapsing behind himself and Magda as they ran for Anya’s room, the iron banister bending to Erik’s need. Turning the corner to see Anya’s bedroom door already painted with flame.
Perhaps he only imagined hearing screams over the crackling roar. Perhaps he only imagined that he saw her, for the briefest of moments, a shadow standing in the midst of the flames, when he tore the wall open – and the fire, suddenly granted access to new air, exploded in a billowing inferno.
He had little memory of how he had survived. There had been metal involved, hot enough to burn holes in his clothes, clustering around him and Magda, casting them to the periphery of the wreckage as the house fell in. And that was all, until he woke in hospital, with only a scattering of burns while his daughter was dead, and his wife hovering at the edge of life.
Her eyes were dim with pain and opium, when he limped to her bedside. He had no recollection of how she had come to be injured so much more severely than he. Perhaps the hot metal… but surely without it, she would have died in the house. He tried to speak to her, touched her hand.
And she gasped, and drew away in unmistakable fear.
She had not known, of course, that he was Unnatural. It was only then, at her bedside, that Erik remembered her shock and terror when he began to use his ability in the burning house, realized she had tried and tried to pull away from him. While he, focused entirely on Anya, had only tightened his grip on her hand, and pulled her deeper into the fire.
He was not angry at her for fearing him, not then. He had no reserves left for so taxing an emotion. He only kissed her hand, while she cringed away, and went back to his own bed.
When he woke again, she had died.
Charles extricated himself from the memory with difficulty, dimly aware of his body gasping and shaking around him.
It was clear that Erik’s mind held rage and guilt and grief enough to power any number of nightmares about his daughter. It was Charles’s Gift that had added the power to manifest those nightmares in the waking mind. That was, after all, no new trick for it.
It was tempting, so terribly tempting, to lay a veil over those memories, cloud them, or cut them away entirely. Ease Erik’s pain at the source. It might be the only way to keep Anya from appearing to them again.
But Erik’s mind, still loosely entangled with his own, flinched violently from the idea as soon as Charles conceived it. The mental scream of MINEwas enough to send Charles scrambling for the shores of his own consciousness.
He opened his eyes to find Erik staring at him in such hatred and fear that he half-expected to find a sword at his throat once more.
"You will do nothing to modify me,” Erik snarled. “You will not violate my mind, you will take nothing from me—”
"Of course not," Charles said quietly, keeping his voice even and clear. "I told you already, Erik, that I cannot bear to alter the minds I truly care for." He released the hand he had been clutching hard enough to bruise, pressed it to the table as if smoothing a paper he had not meant to crumple. "I will do nothing to you without permission, Erik. You have my solemn vow."
They sat without speaking for a time, and the only sound in the room was their breath, neither of them easy yet after the mental exertion. The fire in the grate had gone down to coals, leaving the room in shadowy chill. Charles watched the faint light brush Erik’s face. His eyes were miles away, and his hand remained where Charles had put it.
"You wish to go to bed, I am sure," Charles said at last. "But let me do one thing more for you. You would not have me dampen your worst memories – but perhaps I can crowd them out."
"What do you mean?"
"I know how little you remember of your life before Shaw. The memories are still there, only buried. Unearthing them all at once would be too much for both of us tonight, I think. But I could easily choose one, and leave you happier thoughts to sleep on."
He did not expect Erik to agree, after his anger only moments before. To his surprise, however, after a tense moment, the hand on the table turned over and opened, welcoming him back in.
Charles permitted himself a relieved smile, took the offered hand, and sent his Gift winging softly toward the brightest corner of Erik’s memory system. It was blocked off by layers and layers of – protection, he realized. Erik’s under-mind had bundled these memories away, so that they could not be poisoned by Shaw’s tale of abandonment. Young Erik had believed what he was told, knowing no alternative – but still he could not bear to think ill of his parents, and so elected not to think of them at all. Even the revelation of Shaw’s betrayal had not been enough, after so many years, to dislodge them from their hiding place.
Carefully, Charles took the edge of a single memory, one that radiated peace and contentment, and pulled it free.
Erik lay in bed, warm and dozy under a double helping of quilts, one small hand reaching out of the covers to rest across his mother’s knee. She was a comforting weight on the edge of the bed, stroking his hair back and singing softly, the same lullabies he had heard in his infancy. When Erik’s eyes finally drifted shut, she leaned down to kiss his forehead, then stood. “Gute Nacht, schatz.” She bent to blow out the candle.
"Nein!" he cried sleepily. She let out a breath of gentle exasperation, then kissed him again, smiling, tucked the quilts up under his chin, and left the candle lit.
With the light of the candle, and the warmth of his mother’s voice still adrift in the room, Erik was not afraid. He had fallen asleep by the time his mother closed the door behind her.
Charles opened his eyes to see Erik looking broken and lost. The dying firelight glinted on a single tear track.
"I didn’t know I still had that," he said, low and shaking.
"You have many things," Charles said, "many good and beautiful things in you, Erik. Not only pain and anger." He was surprised to find he’d shed a tear to match Erik’s, and raised a hand to dash it away. "Thank you for letting me see them." He took hold of his chair’s wheels and began steering toward the door. "I’ll send someone to see to your fire."
Erik caught his hand as he passed and, to Charles’s shock, raised it briefly to his lips. “Thank you, Charles.”
Charles sat frozen a moment, a tingling warmth spreading rapidly out from his fingers. At last he managed an acknowledging nod, and reluctantly reclaimed his hand. “Goodnight, Erik.”
His arms shook only a little as he pushed himself out the door.