As soon as he had a swallow of coffee in his belly, Erik sought out Charles, to tell him that the apparition had visited again. He wasn’t sure the information would be particularly helpful – they knew the cause already, and the cure was still a mystery – but that was surely for Charles to judge.
It did not occur to him until he had already knocked at Charles’s chamber door that he might be violating etiquette by calling on his host before he had shown himself downstairs. Growing up in Shaw’s house had given Erik little education in the ways of polite society, and he had spent much of his Eisenhardt life trying to recover from social missteps. But if he had intruded, Charles did not seem put out by it; Erik felt a brief brush against his mind, a tinge of curiosity that shaded quickly into pleasure, and then heard Charles’s voice calling, “Come in, Erik!”
Erik entered, and followed soft splashing and clinking sounds to the dressing room, where a tin hip-bath called out to his Gift. He stepped into the room to find Charles ensconced in said hip-bath, steam rising around him with the scent of some expensive perfumed soap. Cinnamon? Yes, cinnamon and roses.
Erik found he had frozen in the doorway, breath stopped in his throat.
“Good morning, Erik,” Charles said blithely. A pink flush floated across his cheeks and down his chest, doubtless a result of the hot water, and his eyes were brighter than Erik had ever seen them. “Yet again you catch me at my most self-indulgent. I find that a hot bath braces me for the day, for all that my doctor would rather see me in a cold shower – those are surely only useful for extracting information from captured spies! I don’t pamper myself so every day, but as one of the servants has a heat-based Gift that reduces the inconvenience, I decline to apologize to anyone for my baths. Alex, a rinse please, and then my shaving kit.”
Charles’s valet, a fair-haired young man who never ceased to look awkward in his proper servant’s uniform, hefted a large, steaming jug and poured it over his master’s head. Water cascaded down what seemed like yards of milk-and-roses skin, leaving Charles’s water-darkened hair clinging to his face and neck.
Erik swallowed hard, wondering if he’d contracted a touch of fever, to feel so odd.
Charles laughed and shook his sopping hair out of his eyes. “So very refreshing! If you would like to use the bath when I am done, Erik, I can have fresh water brought.”
“Thank you, not today,” Erik managed, with difficulty.
The valet handed Charles his shaving kit, and perched awkwardly on the edge of the tub to hold up a mirror. Of course Charles could not stand before a mirror to shave. Erik was gripped by a sudden desire to step closer to the bath and examine the cut-off remainder of Charles’s lost leg. He stamped out the urge immediately; such morbid curiosity would surely be hurtful to his friend.
“I say, Erik, this mirror has a metal frame. It might be easier for you to hold it up than poor Mr. Summers here.”
Erik extended a hand, half-consciously, and the mirror left the valet’s hands to hover at perfect height before Charles’s face.
“Excellent!” Charles threw a brilliant smile at Erik. “Thank you, Alex.”
It took the valet a moment to realize he was being dismissed, at which point he retreated with a rather clumsy bow. Wherever had Charles found the lout, and why did he keep him?
“I needed a valet and Alex needed a position.”
Erik fought a trickle of panic – he’s LISTENING, what else did he hear – without daring to admit to himself what he feared had been overheard. Instead, he merely observed dryly, “A gentleman might wait for a question to be asked before answering it.”
“Sorry,” Charles said, blithely insincere. “It was a very pointed thought. I admit Alex is unpolished as yet, but he’s learning quickly. You should have seen him a month ago. But, my friend, I am sure you can only have called on me so early with something on your mind. Not that you are not welcome at all times! There is no hour of the day when I would be displeased to receive you. But is there not something?”
“There is.” It took a moment’s effort for Erik to drag his attention away from the steel of the straight razor, making its smooth methodical way through the lather across Charles’s jaw. “There is indeed. I was visited again last night.”
“Oh, Erik.” The razor stuttered in its path, and a thin line of brilliant red appeared on Charles’s white cheek.
Erik bit down hard on an entirely bizarre need to lean down and touch that cheek, run the pad of his thumb over that scarlet line, as if he could thereby heal it or, or possess it somehow, and what the devil was wrong with him?
Charles, with a hiss of pain, pulled a handkerchief from a nearby drawer and pressed it to the cut. “You could have woken me, Erik. I am so sorry.”
“It was not so bad. I was able to converse with her this time, and though it was of course painful, it was not… not horrifying.” He heard his voice go distant. “To see my daughter’s face again, when I thought I must wait for death to even hope…”
“Careful, there, my friend.” Worry sharp in his eyes, Charles set a cautionary hand on Erik’s arm, and when had Erik come near enough to the tub for that to happen? “Do not deceive yourself. This is not your daughter restored.”
“I am still considering how we might relieve you of this burden. I confess I have no useful ideas at present. There is, however – I meant to point this out to you first thing – there is something in the newspaper that I believe you will find of intense personal interest!” He gestured to a very badly folded newspaper that sat on the dressing table. Careful to keep Charles’s mirror steady, Erik crossed the room to pick it up.
A paragraph on the last page had been circled and circled again in a wild dash of ink. It was a notice of the death of a London businessman by the name of Sebastian Shaw, whose solicitors were seeking the whereabouts of one Erik Lehnsherr, Mr. Shaw’s former ward, to whom he had left all his worldly goods.
A loud combination of splash, crash and yelp sounded behind him as the mirror dropped into the hip-bath.
“I am well. I cannot say as much for the mirror.”
“Careful!” Erik forced himself to step away from the newspaper. “Don’t move. Let me help you.”
Charles set aside the razor, which he appeared to have been finished with in any case, and let Erik lift him out of the glass-littered water, his arms warm and wet around Erik’s shoulders.
Charles got his one foot under him, but precariously; if Erik let him go, he would clearly fall. What could he do but continue to stand there, Charles’s weight against his arms and chest, Erik’s hands spread on creamy bath-heated skin, Charles’s hair brushing his nose with hints of cinnamon and roses…
Charles tilted his head up to meet Erik’s eyes with his own brilliant blue, and he felt the feather-brush of Charles’s breath on his skin. Erik himself had stopped breathing at all.
“Mr. Xavier?” came Alex’s voice from the chamber without. “I heard a crash. Have you fallen? Mr. Xavier—” The door opened, and Erik had the barest moment to feel awkward and alarmed, heat suffusing his face, before Charles turned toward his valet, all good humor, as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.
“No, Alex, be not alarmed! Only the mirror has shattered, and Mr. Lehnsherr was good enough to help me up before I could cut myself. Do fetch my towel – there’s a lad, excellent, and my chair…”
Erik’s arms felt abruptly cold and useless as Charles lowered himself into the chair, his valet swaddling him in towels.
“We’re invited to a ball in town tomorrow night in any case,” Charles said cheerfully, “and I had already sent word to have the townhouse opened up. London is but two hours by carriage, and it would be no problem to go into town today, if you’d like to inquire after this apparent inheritance. We could have Hank meet us there, if you don’t mind it – Hank is a suitor of Raven’s, I know she’s been all afire to see him again – and let them make a proper day of it.” When Erik didn’t reply, he spoke again, uncertainty shading his voice. “Of course if you wish to look into the matter on your own – it’s entirely your own business and I certainly wouldn’t—”
“No.” Erik’s voice came out rough and tight. “No, you’re welcome to come.”
“Oh, good.” Charles flung him a smile full of bright, easy affection, somewhat obscured by the towel Alex was scrubbing through his hair, and Erik had never felt so entirely unsteady and strange.
“Let me dress, then,” Charles said, “and I’ll meet you downstairs for breakfast.”
Erik beat his retreat. On his way out he picked up the half-empty cup he’d set down absently on entering, and took a swallow of cold coffee. He’d hoped it would settle his nerves, but all he could taste was cinnamon.
It was only proper, of course, that Raven, as the only lady in the carriage, be given the forward-facing seat, and have it to herself. No one could argue with that. One could, perhaps, argue that in so spacious and comfortable a carriage as the Xaviers owned, there was no need for Charles to sit quite so close to his companion. But no one, in fact, chose to voice that argument. No one at all.
Calling Erik into the bath had been a gamble, but oh, a beautifully successful one. Erik was now aware of Charles and his own reaction to him. The cat-brain was tip-toeing into daylight, and Charles was certain that now was the time to deploy his best lures.
He spared a moment to laugh at himself. Put into words, his plans seemed such a cold, calculated seduction, the campaign of a hardened rake – when in fact it was almost embarrassing to contemplate how tender was the warmth and need he felt, how easy it would be for Erik to devastate him with a word. Believe me, my friend, I would not pursue you with half so much care if I did not so desperately wish to catch you.
Erik turned suddenly toward him, and for a moment Charles was terrified that he had accidentally projected that thought, but the man evinced no surprise or alarm, only affectionate exasperation.
“Charles, you’ve left the house without a hat again.”
“Dash it all, so I have!” Charles ran a hand through his hair, as if searching for the offending headwear. “My valet has quite failed me. I blame him entirely.”
Raven, who had been leaning sleepily against the side of the coach, bestirred herself to say, “It’s a wonder you’re not shunned by all and sundry, Charles, going about bare-headed as often as you do.”
“I have money enough to be eccentric,” Charles snorted. “In any case, it’s little matter – in fact, it might well turn out in my favor, for I shall be spared the burden of wearing one, while still satisfying all the propriety of it!” He raised a hand to his temple, and grinned at the others’ surprise when, to their eyes, a perfectly respectable top hat appeared on his head.
Raven only rolled her eyes and went back to sleep, which was uncommonly dull of her, but then the steady motion of a carriage on a good road could make the stoutest heart go drowsy. Without her conscious attention to hold her disguise in place, she quickly reverted to her natural form; he would be sure to wake her in time for her to put herself together before they arrived.
In the meantime and much more importantly, Erik was gazing at the imaginary top hat with amusement and delight. With a half-shy glance for permission, he reached out to touch it.
Charles could easily have convinced Erik’s mind that there was an entirely real and solid hat beneath his fingers. Instead, he chose to let the illusion melt away when touched, and Erik’s hand lighted on his hair instead.
Lighted, and lingered, and caressed, a brief motion so full of casual affection it stole Charles’s breath.
“I suppose one advantage of the current preference for tousled hair,” Erik said, “is that it is less obviously disarranged by one’s hat.”
“On the contrary, my friend,” Charles replied with cheerful indignation, “my hair is styled with the utmost care, and I deeply feel the misplacement of even a single strand!”
“But is it not the point to look wild and careless?”
“Of course, but stylishly so. And I am quite convinced that you would benefit from a similar approach. Come, let me attempt it.”
Erik looked startled and uncertain, but did not protest as Charles removed his hat and ran rumpling fingers through his hair. A moving carriage with no hair-styling tools was hardly the best place for the experiment, and it soon became obvious that Charles was not going to achieve anything worth showing in public. That did not keep him from spending several minutes in the attempt, stroking and tousling – Erik had excellent hair, much thicker and softer than it looked in its severe styling, and Charles permitted himself to openly enjoy every moment.
Erik kept himself very still and upright, making no response to Charles’s half-conscious soothing murmurs. If once or twice he turned into a touch, just slightly – if once or twice his eyes fluttered shut for just the briefest moment – if in fact the glow of contentment and pleasure radiating from his mind utterly betrayed him – well, Charles was hardly going to point it out.
“Well, I fear I’ve made nothing but a mess of you, my friend,” Charles said at last, forcing his hands to pull away. “I think you might do best to comb it all back just as it was.”
“Gladly.” Erik pulled a comb – metal, of course – from his pocket and swiftly put his hair back in order, betraying no hint of the cat-brain’s disappointment. His gaze fell belatedly on Raven, and he gave a start. “Oh,” he said after a moment. “That is her natural appearance, then?”
“How remarkable. I wonder how she can bear to cover it up.”
Charles smiled, relieved by his friend’s easy acceptance. “Yes, her true coloration is very striking. There are not many, though, who would appreciate its beauty.”
“All too true,” Erik muttered. He fell into silence then, watching the scenery creep past, and just to be polite Charles asked instead of peeking.
“What’s on your mind, Erik?”
Erik shook himself. “Nothing of import. I am naturally curious as to what awaits us at this solicitor’s office. I almost wonder if it is not some sort of trap.”
“What, laid by Shaw? Surely not. You and I both saw him die.” He tried to repress the uncomfortable reminder that Erik, his own lovely sharp-witted, strong-hearted Erik, was in fact a murderer.
“A man’s will and testament can spring a trap even while its author moulders,” Erik replied. “I wonder if it would be better not to go. What need have I to claim anything of Shaw’s?”
“If you do not wish to go, then we will not go,” Charles shrugged. “But I think… I think you do wish to go. And I would not see you have regrets.”
“I do wish to go,” Erik admitted. “You may think less of me, Charles, to know that I do take some animal satisfaction in claiming for myself what once was his. My victory over him seems all the more complete. And, more practically, an inheritance may give me some means of entering society again – a livelihood, an identity.”
“I urge you, accept nothing for that reason alone, if you find it distasteful. You are in no extremity of need – I assure you, you are welcome in my home for as long as you like—” Barely he prevented the words ‘as long as you live,’ that much generosity would only unsettle so suspicious a mind as Erik’s – “and I can offer as much aid as you may need in re-entering society. I pray you will not make yourself uncomfortable on that score.”
“You are very kind,” Erik replied, with all appropriate warmth, but from his mind Charles heard not only kind but extraordinary and beautiful and something very near to angel, and then far more than I deserve, and I too selfish to leave him as I ought.
In reply, Charles could only stammer and blush, and suggest a game of chess – projected onto their laps – to occupy the rest of their journey to London.
Raven had no idea how to feel about seeing Mr. McCoy again. He is one branch at the crossroad, Irene had said, and You are not deceived in his character – though your knowledge of his faults is incomplete.
In the early days of their acquaintance – not far in the past – he had seemed to have no faults at all. She had walked in on him showing his Gift to Charles, and been immediately captivated by his awkward earnestness, his bright-eyed sweetness of temper. He was well-mannered, honest, intelligent, handsome in his adorable, ungainly way, and Gifted. What more could she ever want?
That he was also a bit flutter-brained and easily cowed became evident later, but did not significantly decrease his appeal. She knew herself to be headstrong and moody; she was prepared to tolerate a husband’s flaws as well as he tolerated hers, and Hank McCoy had thus far been a paragon of patience on that score.
It was true she had not missed him as she thought she would while they were away in Brighton, had thought of him affectionately but infrequently and without urgency. In contrast, she even now thought of the bustle and flash of the carnival with longing, and wished heartily that she were back in Irene’s company there.
But however dear Irene might be to her – and Raven knew she felt a peculiarly strong attachment to the woman, despite their brief acquaintance – Mr. McCoy was surely her best chance at happiness, at a successful marriage based on mutual affection, a life of comfort and security and respectability. And children. Whatever she was beginning to suspect she felt for Irene, was she willing to forfeit children to have it?
All this passed through Raven’s mind as she pretended to sleep the last quarter-hour of their journey, half-listening to the chatter between Charles and Mr. Lehnsherr. From the well-known and well-beloved tones of her brother’s voice, she gathered that his courtship of Mr. Lehnsherr was going well. She could not say she was surprised – the man hardly seemed to look away from Charles anytime they were in the same room – but she was mightily relieved. And, perhaps – she chuckled softly to herself – perhaps a little jealous. After all, Charles’s victory meant one more gorgeous Gifted male removed from the pool of marriage candidates.
“So, Raven, you are awake after all,” Charles called. Her chuckle must have been louder than she thought. “Just as well, we are nearly there. I sent word to Hank to meet us at the address, but there was no time to receive a reply. I do hope we haven’t – ah, but there he is!”
A glance out the window confirmed this assertion; Mr. McCoy’s tall, lanky form was hard to mistake, loitering outside the solicitor’s office as the carriage pulled to a stop.
Raven nearly forgot to ‘dress’ as Charles would put it, remembering the state of her skin only when Charles made a pained noise in his throat as she reached for the door. Quickly she swept her skin and hair into their long-familiar disguises – and her eyes, at another warning sound from Charles. Stepping out onto the street in her blue skin – that would have been disastrous! And in front of Mr. McCoy – he had never seen her true face, and however Charles accused her of enjoying an ambush, she had no desire to spring it on him without warning.
So she was safely pink and gold by the time Hank handed her out of the carriage, and the dazzlement in his eyes was nearly enough to make the mask worth it.
Their carriage departed for the townhouse, and the predictable round of pleasantries and introductions began (“Mr. Henry McCoy, this is my friend Mr. Erik Lehnsherr – no need to look so alarmed, Hank, he always smiles like that”). The conversation was enlivened by discussion of the ball being held at Hank’s house the next day.
“I am ever so glad you are coming!” Hank exclaimed. “I was not at all looking forward to the event, with Miss Darkholme away in Brighton – but since you have returned early, I am all anticipation! And of course you must bring Mr. Lehnsherr as well, I hope that goes without saying.”
“It is good of you to invite me,” Mr. Lehnsherr said, with notable stiffness.
“I don’t know if Mr. Lehnsherr is quite up to a gathering of strangers,” Charles said. “As a good host, of course, I could never impose on him…” Balanced precariously on his crutches, he turned to Mr. Lehnsherr with a look almost comical in its bright-eyed pleading, and Raven stifled a laugh. Erik Lehnsherr was a hard man, she knew, but he was not hard enough to resist those eyes.
“It sounds marvelous,” Erik said with palpable reluctance. Charles, beaming, squeezed his arm in gratitude, which seemed to soften the man’s antipathy significantly. Oh, yes, her brother had great reason to be sanguine about this one.
“But you will have to give Raven the particulars, Hank,” Charles said, “as Mr. Lehnsherr and I have pressing business – that is, Mr. Lehnsherr has pressing business and I am sticking my nose in. Do enjoy the shops, and we will find you when we may!”
So the two of them disappeared inside – Erik putting a hesitant hand to Charles’s elbow to help him with the stairs – and Mr. McCoy offered Raven his arm to make their way down the street.
It was not a part of town Raven was familiar with, which meant – as if she could not already tell – that it was not terribly fashionable. Nevertheless, there was plenty to see – displays of ribbon and lace, flowers and fruit, an organ grinder with a monkey. Mr. McCoy talked unceasingly, as was his wont when nervous, telling her all about the preparations for the ball and how disagreeable his mother had been about the date and how it was surely the last ball of the season, what with August drawing to its sticky close. That led to a monologue on the weather and how beastly hot it had been but how excellent the breeze was today. Raven listened with half an ear and a fair amount of amusement, waiting for him to burn through his nerves.
Her mind wandered inexorably to Irene, gentle hands and flashing ear-loops, the way she seemed not merely to know but to understand Raven’s deepest thoughts without even having to be told. She struggled to pull her focus back to the present, to Mr. McCoy. He deserved to have more than the leftover fragments of her attention.
At last, as they lingered in the window of a milliner’s, Mr. McCoy dammed his flood of inconsequential speech, stopping himself mid-word and taking her hand.
“My dear Miss Darkholme, I do beg your pardon most ardently,” he said, the tips of his ears going red. “I have not permitted you a word in edgewise, when I ought to have been inquiring after your activities more than blathering on about my own. You have been in good health, I hope?”
“Yes, entirely,” Raven said with grave dignity, letting her eyes dance so that he would blush harder. “And yourself?”
“Perfectly well, but I am not the topic of conversation! How was Brighton? Do tell me all! Why have you returned so much earlier than you intended?”
Somewhat haltingly, Raven related the tale of her brother’s meeting Mr. Lehnsherr and inviting him back to their estate. There was some in that story that she did not know, and more still that she dared not tell, so that the account of it was short and rather vague. Mr. McCoy asked no awkward questions, however, only observing that Mr. Xavier and Mr. Lehnsherr had become surprisingly intimate friends in so short a time.
“Yes,” Raven said, trying to steer her mind away from Irene. “Well, it – it does happen that way, sometimes. Particularly with Charles,” she added with a laugh.
“That is true! Your brother has a most delightful and engaging manner, so that even the most perfect strangers must feel kindly toward him. I suppose his, er—” Seeming to remember they were in a public place, Mr. McCoy swallowed his words, and contented himself with, “I suppose he has a unique advantage in that area.”
Raven snorted – remembered too late how unladylike that was. “For a man with such a ‘unique advantage,’ he can in fact be shockingly obtuse.” The breeze fluttered against her skin, sending her curls swinging, and she smiled to think of how it had caressed her entire body at the carnival, from the tough leathery hide of her ‘boots’ to the delicate ribbony skin of her cravat.
There was an idea – Mr. McCoy might like to see her cravat! What a good joke it would be! He was always pleased to see her being clever and bold. “I have been practicing my own unique skills, you know, Mr. McCoy! If we could find a private spot for a moment, I might show you some of the things I have learned.” He looked rather scandalized, and Raven had to laugh. “Nothing shocking, I assure you, sir!” Not that I am going to show you, at least. ”Only a few… parlor tricks.”
“I… Miss Darkholme, I think that would be most unwise in our current circumstances.”
“Oh, come, no one will see.”
“I have always believed that any venture begun with the stipulation ‘no one must see’ is not one a gentleman should undertake.”
Raven stopped walking. “Mr. McCoy,” she said, a little breathless with outrage and hurt, “I do not… I cannot… Mr. McCoy, I may have teased just now, and been – perhaps a bit reckless. But you react as if I had suggested – as if I had tried to ensnare you into some moral wrong!”
Mr. McCoy’s cheeks were blooming scarlet. “Indeed, no, Miss Darkholme, I meant nothing of the sort! Only…”
“Yes? Only?” Her voice was rough with anger even to her own ears, and she tried to decide whether she cared.
“Only it really is not at all proper, Miss Darkholme, for you to – to even suggest showing me such a thing, and I am quite surprised that you did so!”
“How improper? Mr. McCoy, I assure you, I had no intention of showing you anything more shocking than you might see in any direction at this very moment!” Tears were gathering in her eyes, and she fought frantically both to dispell them and to lower her voice. “I can – I can make a cravat, now, that is all, and I thought it would be a great joke to show you – I thought we would laugh, that you might even admire – it is not easy you know and – oh, dash it all!” That, she saw instantly by the way her beau recoiled, was not at all the right thing to say, however it relieved her feelings. The realization did not help her to calm herself.
“Of course not, I never suspected – I never thought you would do anything untoward, I only – to exercise your—” His voice fell to an agitated whisper. “—your Abnormality in company – in public – I know you are always quite as bold as you wish, Miss Darkholme, and truly I admire it in you. But surely you cannot blame me for being surprised!”
Raven took a few deep breaths, keeping her eyes strictly away from the strangers’ gazes they were attracting. She could only pray her eyes had not reverted to yellow, as they sometimes did when she was upset. She was, at length, able to speak calmly. “Surprised. Yes, I – I can understand your being surprised. You were… you were only surprised, though? Not… not disgusted? By my Gift?”
He shifted uncomfortably. “No, of course not. Only surprised, I assure you.”
She permitted him to take her arm once more, and they proceeded down the street, not daring to speak to each other, while Raven tried to decide whether she believed him.
Pray forgive the liberty, my stranger-friend, but I would dearly like to see your face. No, no! Your face, Raven…
It really is not at all proper, Miss Darkholme, for you to even suggest showing me such a thing!
Mr. McCoy might be a “dear boy,” but in some comparisons he definitely did not show to advantage.