First part of Chapter 3 of the Regency AU!
Previous parts here.
After dinner, the three of them settled in the drawing room, and Raven made herself quite docile. While Charles and Erik fiddled about with metal and a sporadic game of piquet, she practiced at the pianoforte, read a few chapters of her novel, and embroidered as dismally as ever. She also hid the half-empty wine bottle when Charles wasn’t looking, but that was nothing out of the ordinary. She picked no arguments at all – did not so much as make a joke at her brother’s expense.
If Charles distrusted her sudden agreeableness, he said nothing. In fact, he was so distracted with his guest, his eyes bright and his smiles frequent and easy, that Raven suspected she could have had a hair-pulling, window-breaking tantrum without ever attracting his attention.
She refused to let the idea bother her. After all, it worked in her favor. It meant that when she excused herself early, she received no resistance or suspicion, only an absent-minded ” ‘Night to you, Raven, sleep well” and the doff of an imaginary hat. Mr. Lehnsherr shot him a scolding look, and stood to bow to her properly.
“Goodnight, Mr. Lehnsherr. How nice it is to have a gentleman in the house!”
Charles rolled his eyes, all good humor and loose limbs. She had done well to hide the wine when she did. “Very well, Raven, if it pleases you, I will have Alex fetch my crutches so that I can stand and bow as well. Pray do not be alarmed if I topple over.”
“Ridiculous man,” Raven said, and crossed the room to kiss his forehead. “Be sure to let Mr. Lehnsherr get some sleep tonight.”
He waved her off with fond irritation, and she was free.
Upstairs in her bedroom, she allowed her lady’s-maid to get her ready for bed – and the moment Amy was gone, was on her feet again, the lamp turned up, and pulling her nightgown over her head.
She stood before the mirror with her nerves singing and all her skin pebbling in the cool air.
Do I have the nerve for this?
Yes. A dozen times yes.
She first, instinctively, took Charles’s form, that being the one she was most practiced at. But that would not do at all, would it? Being recognized, even falsely, could lead to disaster, if some acquaintance chose to mention the encounter – and oh, what a very simpleton she was! Charles could not go walking about at the carnival or anywhere else. She cocked her head, and with a flutter of scales replaced her brother’s blue eyes with Moira’s brown ones, and his hair with Sean Cassidy’s ginger mane. A few inches of height added, a few pounds of Charles’s soft cushioning converted to lean muscle, and – yes, perfect. She looked like no one in particular, only a wild-haired young man. Quite a pretty one, with those eyes. She rather liked the effect.
And now clothing. She’d had a half-formed idea of borrowing something of her brother’s, but it would not likely fit this amalgamate form. And after all… she hardly needed it, now did she?
She closed her eyes, drawing up the memory of what Charles had worn on their last trip into town. Jacket and waistcoat, shirt and breeches and boots – it all had to be perfect. She could not afford to draw anyone’s eye to an oddity. A cravat, of course – how very strange it felt to form her own skin into a Mathematical knot! – and she would need a hat.
She would have to nick a hat on her way out, she decided quickly. Making a piece of herself detachable in such a way was quite beyond her. At present.
And there in the mirror stood a perfectly unexceptional doe-eyed young man, dressed and ready for an evening’s entertainment.
She could not suppress a nervous giggle. Did anything of interest befall you since last we spoke, Miss Darkholme? Oh, no, nothing at all. Only I attended a traveling carnival unescorted and, oh yes, unclothed.
She would have to be quite careful, of course, pressing through the crowd in naught but her skin – being elbow-jabbed or trod upon would be quite a bit more painful than usual – and she did fervently hope it would be a warm night. But she was prepared to endure some discomfort in this instance.
Leaving the house proved nerve-wracking. It would occur to her only much later that she could have made it easier by taking the form of one of the servants. That held its own potential for disaster, if she should stumble across the servant in question, but would have been easier to explain than a young man no one had ever seen before. The idea, however, did not occur, and so she was forced to make her way to the door without being seen at all.
She had evaded the drawing room, but Charles and Mr. Lehnsherr had moved into the library, perhaps in search of the chessboard – a fact she did not discover until she passed the doorway and found herself pinned by Mr. Lehnsherr’s piercing gaze.
Mr. Lehnsherr had been in the house only two days, he could not know the faces of all the servants. She might have strolled by without notice, had her manner been less guilty. As it was, she could see straightaway that he perceived her to be out of place. His brow furrowed, and he opened his mouth, raising a hand to catch the attention of Charles on the other side of the room.
Raven threw herself on his mercy with a frantic shake of her head, letting her scales ripple just enough to communicate her identity.
His mouth closed.
“Sorry, Erik, what did you say?”
“Only that I could make excellent use of a snack, if we are to continue drinking.”
“Of course. I will ring for a tray.”
Raven flashed a grateful smile, and hurried away and out the door.
There were some, in Charles’s acquaintance of like-minded men, who tried to attract the objects of their desires by being soft and submissive and womanly. They had their share of success, with a certain type of man. At least one of his friends, Charles knew, fantasized about starting a new life, in the Colonies perhaps, a life of skirts and curls and padded bodices, with a husband who might be made to understand – or never to know.
Charles did not want to be a woman. There was something of feminine submission, he supposed, in the desire to have strong arms around him, to feel a man’s weight pinning him to the bed. But the thought of doing the pinning was equally appealing – and in that word, equally, lay the key. He did not, like his poor friend, desire a husband to rule over him, but a partner to stand at his side.
He knew it was a disservice to women, to assume he could never find such a partner among their ranks. His Gift did not let him believe, as so many men were determined to, that women were less sensible than men. It was their upbringing, not their intrinsic nature, that led so many of them to be silly and helpless. He could not disdain them for that – but neither could he love them for it. He sought strength in a partner, the focus and integrity of a powerful mind, and though he still held out hope of finding such a wife, he had thus far been more successful with men.
‘Successful’ being, of course, a relative term. Charles winced, reminded of his many, many romantic disasters, and took another drink.
The butler, Mr. Quested, had brought a tray of pastries, with his usual silent flair, and Charles watched from the corner of his eye as Erik leaned over to take one, moving with all the grace of quiescent power. Erik had just the sort of mind Charles felt most drawn to, sharp and strong and passionate – and damaged. Charles knew that he was never in more danger of falling for someone than when they needed his help, and oh, Erik needed all the help the world could give him. Add a dash of dry humor and astonishing good looks, and Charles was lost.
“Did you lie to your sister?”
Charles blinked awake from his reverie, trying not to let his cheeks color. “I’m sorry?”
“You told her we could not escort her because we had plans for this evening.”
“Oh! Yes, yes we do have plans. I’m rather shocked Raven went to bed without calling me to task.” He lifted his eyes to the clock ticking on the mantle. “Time and past to get started, I suppose.”
“Started with what?”
Charles put aside his drink and turned his chair to more directly face Erik’s. “Disentangling whatever knot in our collective minds is causing your nightmares to manifest in the same way as mine do.”
Erik hesitated. “Are you so sure the problem need be addressed at all? Perhaps it was a solitary incident.”
“From what little I saw, my friend, I do not at all believe that to be the case. The… entanglement looked to be a rather sturdy one, given to ebbing and flowing but not to unknotting itself. Perhaps when I dig deeper I will see differently – but I would prefer to find out now, rather than wait for another incident.” He sat back, reluctantly. “If you feel differently, of course, I will not press you. It is your own mind, and as I have told you already, I will do nothing to it without your permission.”
Erik drew a long, thoughtful breath. “No, if you really think it is not over, I would rather disentangle, as you say, before we are confronted with another apparition.”
Charles essayed a reassuring smile, ignoring the little sneer in his head pointing out that he had been unable to stop his own ghosts from appearing to the entire household; how could he expect to do better with Erik’s? He could do nothing, after all, if he did not try.
“I don’t plan to walk through any more of your memories,” he said, “but I am really not sure where I might be forced to follow the threads, so to speak, if I can even find them. I will stop any time you ask me to.”
“If you are ready, then.” At Erik’s nod, Charles relaxed back into his chair, and raised an instinctive finger to his temple.
Easing into Erik’s mind, the first thing he encountered was, of course, the man’s current emotional state. Beneath his steely calm he was nervous, uneasy both about this procedure and the need for it, naturally uncomfortable with the invasion of his mind.
And yet another part of him welcomed it. Charles paused – he surely could not be blamed for pausing – to examine this unexpected emotion.
A part of Erik, and not a small part, though it hummed just beneath the surface of consciousness, was remembering Charles’s last assay into this territory with a sort of longing, and was not just resigned but eager to have it repeated. Charles had then, as now, taken every pain to be a considerate guest, feather-edged and gentle, and Erik had been strangely comforted by it. He had expected to be repulsed by the sensation of not being alone in his own head, and instead found it a solace.
No one had ever welcomed Charles before. In response, and almost without his direction, he felt his presence within Erik’s mind grow warmer, deeper, from a mere brush of fingertips to an outright caress. And the greater part of Erik’s mind leaned into that caress with something like a purr.
In the physical world, Erik’s body shifted uneasily, and Charles drew back, sending tendrils of reassurance to the parts of Erik that keened at the lost contact. He had to focus on his purpose here, before he tricked Erik into something the man was not at all ready for.
Any hopes that he might, eventually, be ready, belonged to a later time.
Gathering himself with a deep breath, Charles skimmed carefully across the sharp-angled gridwork of Erik’s mind, looking for anything that did not belong. He had a moment of excitement at the discovery of a pulsing, unhappy place walled incompletely off from the rest of the mind, but it was only the pain of the wounds Erik had sustained in the water, which he was attempting to suppress. Charles focused his search on the area of memory containing Anya’s death, without result. He then slid down the grid to the other possibility – the moment where he and Erik had first made mental contact.
And there it was, the raw, writhing place where Charles had tried to take away Erik’s pain, and been repulsed with all the ill-aimed strength of panic. There, some piece of Charles’s own mind had been trapped by Erik’s frenzied mental defenses, still intertwined with Erik’s most painful memories.
It was quite a knot, swollen and bleeding and still frantic to protect itself, flinching from Charles’s touch like a wounded animal. It could not heal with a foreign mind infecting it, yet it would not let go. For at least an hour Charles hovered near it, blanketing it with comfort and calm and reassurance, but it was not moved, and the more he prodded it, the tighter it curled into itself.
Finally Charles withdrew, and found himself back in a body that ached with tension and effort, a thin sheen of sweat over his skin.
“You found it,” Erik said, looking little better than Charles felt.
“I did,” Charles replied, and explained the situation as clearly as he could. “It is only the tiniest thread of my own mind – leaving it behind has not harmed me. But it will harm you, I think, all the more the longer you hold onto it.”
“But I have no intention of holding it! Why should I want it? You may have it back with my goodwill!”
Charles spread his hands helplessly. “You are not holding it consciously. It is only your panic, that subconscious fear of losing yourself, which has tightened around everything in its grasp and will not let go. It is forcing a continuing contact between that scrap of my Gift and your most painful memories. Thus the hallucinations.”
“How am I to let it go?”
“That I cannot tell you. Yet,” he hurried to add as Erik’s frustration visibly mounted. “Come, my friend, the doctor has only just made a diagnosis! Do give me a day or two to concoct a plan of treatment.”
Erik shuddered. “I am not fond of doctors.”
Charles winced; yes, of course. Sebastian Shaw had called himself a doctor, though his education supported no such claim. “Your tailor, then, has yet to decide how best to mend this tear. Nothing more can be done tonight; I have prodded your poor knot into a state of hysterics. Best to let it calm before attempting anything else.”
Erik nodded. “I believe I shall go to bed then. I would advise you to do the same; your efforts have left you quite pale.”
“Thank you, that sounds an excellent idea. Do go on ahead; I believe I will finish my glass first.”
Erik eyed the glass with disfavor, and set a pastry beside it.
“Very well, if it pleases you, Mother,” Charles laughed. “Hie thee to bed now.”
As Erik went to the door, Charles could not resist reaching out one last time, toward what he was beginning to think of as Erik’s cat-brain, the part of him that purred and arched its back into every touch. Goodnight, my friend. Sleep well.