The terms of Shaw’s will were very clear. Everything went to Erik. All the investments, all the buildings and their tenants, every share he had owned in a dozen or more successful businesses – and, most prominently, full owner-and-proprietorship of a gentleman’s club on Duke Street. All left to Erik, “in the expectation that he will carry the legacy of everything I labored to teach him.”
Charles’s voice slid into Erik’s head, cutting through the buzz of triumph and disbelief and black amusement. Somehow I don’t imagine, when Shaw made this will, that he expected things to fall out quite this way.
I don’t know about that, Erik replied, keeping half an ear tuned to the pointless droning of the solicitor. Even if he had known, who else would he have left it to? I was… his only family. Very quietly, to himself more than Charles, he added, And vice versa, in our twisted way.
Do you feel guilty? Charles asked, in a tone of neutral curiosity.
Not remotely. The man murdered everyone I ever loved. For the rest, though… He was right, you know. Everything he did to me, all the torture and pain – it was all to make me stronger, and it did. He was right. He continued over the beginnings of Charles’s appalled protest, I think he was proud of me, in the end.
That startled Charles into silence – briefly. Erik was beginning to believe nothing could muzzle the man for long. Proud of you for killing him?
Yes. Erik felt a wolfish smile escape onto his face, and the solicitor’s voice stumbled to a halt.
“Er. Yes, well, I’m sure I’ve taken up quite enough of your valuable time, Mr. Lehnsherr,” he said. “There are still a few papers for you to sign, and then I can let you alone to… grieve.”
“Excellent,” Erik said cheerfully. “Lead on.”
Charles was very happy to accompany Erik on his inspection of his new property. He was less enthused by Erik’s insistence on inviting Raven and Hank to come along.
“Erik,” he said tightly as Raven and Hank climbed into the carriage, “I am not at all in a hurry to take my sister to an establishment known as The Hellfire Club.”
“Surely they will not admit a lady, in any case?” Hank said, and yelped when the seat beside him was suddenly not occupied by a lady at all, but by a ginger-haired young man in a muslin walking-dress.
Erik laughed and applauded. “Quite so, Miss Darkholme. You see, Charles, your sister can fend for herself very well. Though she might wish to see to her wardrobe.”
“Ah!” Raven giggled, and another flutter of scales had the dress concealed behind a set of perfectly acceptable gentleman’s clothes. “I’ve no hat, but perhaps Charles could provide one for me as he does for himself?”
Hank, Charles noticed, was sitting quite as far from Raven as possible, large-eyed and pale. Just skimming the surface of his mind, it was clear they had had some sort of quarrel already that morning, and this sequence of events was only unsettling him further. Raven, of course, he did not attempt to read, but she radiated a nervous defiance that he could easily perceive without his Gift.
“There’s really no need for the two of you to accompany us,” Charles said. “You might far rather continue your walk, and see if the shops have anything to offer for your ball toilette.”
He meant to provide an opportunity for them to reconcile in private, but they did not seem to want it. Hank said nothing at all, and Raven’s response was a sunny, “Oh, we’ve quite exhausted the shops on this street, I would much rather see this club Mr. Lehnsherr has inherited.”
“And I, for one, welcome your company on the jaunt,” Erik said and raised her hand to drop a kiss on her knuckles, despite her gentleman’s disguise. A very brief and proper kiss, but the warmth in his smile, and rising color in Raven’s cheeks, made Charles turn away with a sudden sickly chill in his belly. Hank, across from him, looked similarly displeased.
Charles wished he had a drink.
The building at the address Erik had been given showed no outward sign of being a den of iniquity – it was ordinary dark brick with white columns, nondescriptly handsome. The windows were large, but blocked by thick drapes, even in the middle of the day. The sign out front said only, Private establishment. Members and their guests only.
Charles had to nudge Hank away from offering Raven his arm as she got out of the carriage, then was surprised to see Erik extending a hand to his own aid. He did not need it, having months ago (by force of will) conquered the trick of mounting and dismounting carriages on his crutches, but he rewarded the gesture with a grateful smile, and tried to let the sour jealousy in the back of his throat dissipate.
The crutches were doing as well as he could have hoped, today. A wheelchair was so very tiresome, in town, and anyway the doctors urged that he rely on it as little as possible, the better to force his remaining leg to adjust to its duties. There were many days that his spastic nerves simply did not permit it, but today they were giving him only the occasional twinge. Charles’s hatred of the crutches ebbed and flowed, his opinion of them dependent on how much they were paining his underarms, and whether anyone on the street tried to give the ‘crippled beggar’ a penny. Today he felt kindly toward them, enjoying having his head at Erik’s shoulder rather than at his belt buckle.
They opened the door into a small but comfortable foyer, well-furnished and stocked with an attractive array of drinks and finger-foods. A trim, alert-eyed young man in a uniform stood before the door that led, presumably, into the club proper.
“Good day to you, gentlemen!” he said. “I’m afraid I don’t recognize you, are you members of the club?”
Seized by inspiration, Charles cut across Erik’s nascent “I own the club” before it could leave his mouth. Don’t. Let’s get the lay of the land first.
Erik tilted his head thoughtfully, then said, “No, I’m afraid we’re not members, but we’re interested in becoming so.”
“I’m afraid a current member will have to vouch for you before it is possible for you to join.”
“We were referred by Mr. Shaw himself,” Charles said, stepping – hobbling – forward. “My name is Charles Xavier.”
The man’s eyes went wide at the word ‘Shaw’; at ‘Xavier’ they seemed likely to fall out of his skull. “I see. You and your friends are certainly very welcome, Mr. Xavier. Pray make yourself comfortable, I will return very shortly.”
He scurried off, and Charles made straight for the door he had been guarding.
Hank made a sort of hesitant gurgle. “Shouldn’t we wait?”
“If we want to see only what they wish to show us, certainly.” Charles smiled archly over his shoulder at Erik, whose answering grin seemed to echo his own feelings nicely. “Raven, won’t you escort us?”
Raven, looking delighted, shifted into the form of the departed servant, and led the way.
The Hellfire Club earned its name, Charles quickly acknowledged. There were rooms devoted to every major vice, from gambling to gossip to gluttony. There was a boxing ring, in the downstairs, and in the upstairs—
Well, it would hardly be a gentlemen’s club if it did not pander to lust.
Charles had inevitably struggled with the stairs, and fallen behind; he looked up to find that Raven and Hank had already disappeared. Erik, however, was waiting patiently only a few steps above him, and after watching his efforts narrow-eyed for some minutes, advised him to hang on tightly to the crutches.
“Whatever do you – awk!” Charles was torn between laughter and outrage as his crutches lifted themselves on their metal screws and carried him quite evenly to the top of the staircase.
When they achieved the top, they passed through a set of double doors, and found themselves in something very like a dance hall, but which managed to be both more shocking and less obviously disreputable than those havens of low entertainment. On a stage at the far end, a trio of ladies danced to the tune of a pianoforte; not raucously, as at a dance hall, but with sensual grace. The rest of the room was occupied by tables – sparsely populated, at this time of day, but every one that contained a gentleman also contained a lady, wearing – as the dancers did – amazingly little, and taking such liberties with the men’s personal space as almost made Charles blush, innocent virgin though he certainly wasn’t. Even as they watched, one dazed-looking fellow was led by his lady-friend away from his table and through a curtain into one of the private niches occupying the walls.
“And all this glory now is thine, my friend,” Charles said, not sure whether to be more amused or appalled. He could see no sign of Raven or Hank.
“Can I show you gentlemen to a table?” The voice was playfully sultry, its owner curvy and darkly exotic. If Charles’s crutches made any impression on her, she did not show it. Her smile deepened as she took in their stunned expressions. “Or perhaps you’re interested in… a more private setting?”
Erik caught Charles’s eye, glinting amusement and perhaps something fiercer, the mere hint of which had Charles’s pulse quickening. “That sounds lovely,” Erik said.
“Right this way, then.” The young woman led them away from the faux dance-hall, to a corridor lined with doors, and opened one to usher them in.
The room had walls hung with velvet and lamps turned comfortably down. It was dominated by a large, very luxurious bed.
“Make yourselves comfortable, gentlemen,” their escort said. “Believe me when I say… you may be just as comfortable as you like, here.”
Charles’s mouth had gone a little dry at the sight of the bed, and his condition only worsened as Erik seated himself against the headboard. “Charles? Are you coming?” When Charles continued to stand frozen, his expression softened with concern. “Would you rather go?”
“No.” Charles gulped and forced himself to move toward the bed, set his crutches against the wall and shifted himself as close to Erik as he could get, a line of unbroken contact scalding from shoulder to ankle.
Their young lady had not been idle during this exchange; Charles saw that her clothes had been subtly repositioned to draw more attention to her bosom and shoulders, and she had unpinned her hair, which now fell in a dark river down to her elbows. They could hear no trace of any sound from outside their door, so there was nothing to prevent enjoyment of the silver flute she pulled from a loop on her belt, and presented to their view with a curtsy.
“My name is Angel,” she said, less playful, more sultry, “and I’ll be providing entertainment for you today.”
She played well, Charles thought, but the performance was mostly lost on him; he could not drag his attention away from Erik for more than a moment at a time – the heat and scent and weight of him, denting the mattress so that it was a struggle for Charles not to fall into his lap. There were so many things they could do with this bed, and surely in an establishment like this no one would care if he turned, braced one hand on Erik’s thigh, pushed himself up just enough to press their lips together…
Erik seemed to be watching Angel’s performance raptly, and Charles would not have dared to look closer except for the slight tremble to Erik’s hand as he pushed his hair back. Charles had been in Erik’s head; he knew the man’s disinclination toward casual, indiscriminate lust, knew he could not feel more than an aesthetic interest in a stranger like Angel. The implication, then… if Charles was not deluding himself…
He had to look, just briefly, just the tiniest glimpse of the surface—
He didn’t have to look any further than the surface. Beneath Erik’s utterly impassive exterior was a roil of nervous confusion, frustration and want that left Charles breathless, and no, not an ounce of it was directed at Angel. Erik hardly knew she was there.
Until, quite suddenly, all his attention was focused on her, sharp to piercing, and Charles’s was not far behind.
The girl had begun to dance as she played, a sinuous swaying and twisting that he might ordinarily have found compelling, without so sweet a distraction at his side. As she moved, her hair had fallen off her shoulders, revealing the delicate lines of insectoid wings.
Tattoo? Erik asked, but they both knew how unlikely that was. For a woman to have a tattoo at all, and one so extensive – the wings seemed to spread across both shoulders – was hardly imaginable, and in any case the lines looked much too even and precise to have been made by a man’s imperfect hand. As a soldier Charles had seen his share of tattoos, and had never seen anything to compare to Angel’s wings.
Of course, there was only one way to be sure. Charles raised a hand to his temple. The truth took only a moment to ascertain.
“You’re Gifted,” Charles said.
Angel managed a sort of bow without a pause in her playing.
“No, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean as a musician, though your performance is magical.” He touched his temple again. I meant a different sort of Gift. How much I should like to be able to fly!
The song of the flute cut off instantly, and Angel stared at him in shock and alarm. “How – how could – are you—”
“We mean you no harm,” Erik said quickly. “We were just thinking… you might show us yours, if we showed you ours.” He turned to Charles with a smile. “Care for a drink, Charles?”
A shining metal champagne bucket at Erik’s elbow rose and floated over to Charles.
“Ah! Don’t mind if I do,” he said, eagerly helping himself.
Angel looked amused. “Welcome to the Club, gentlemen.”
And now Charles saw – she had not been startled that they knew she was Gifted, only by the sounding of a voice inside her head. Being Gifted was, in fact, par for the course around here. Now that his mind was open, Charles found that a very great many of the minds in the club held some variation on the frisson he felt from Erik and Raven and all the other Gifted of his acquaintance. “Good heavens, Erik,” he breathed, “she’s not the only one – in fact the vast majority of the staff are Gifted, and a significant amount of the clientele!”
Angel frowned, still half-laughing. “However did you come to be here without knowing that?”
“By sneaking in without permission.” A blonde woman in a white dress stepped through the door. With a jerk of her head she dismissed Angel from the room, closed the door behind her, then stood regarding them with ice-blue eyes. “Erik, I believe.”
How had she managed to sneak up on them? On Charles? He cast his mind toward the woman, and had it reflected back at him in painful fragments like shards of glass that left him gasping. Her Gift, then, was something like his – but different enough that he wasn’t certain how to counteract it. He turned his mind to Erik’s to whisper a warning—
—and found an ice storm, Erik frozen and screaming while a foreign presence drilled deep into the tenderest parts of his mind.
A wave of superheated terror and rage left Charles near incoherent, and he blasted into that ice, crashed through it, ripped and clawed and tore at it, scoured every trace of it away from Erik. The woman screamed and fought, and finally did – something – that blocked him out, scattered his attack into harmless sparks.
Charles opened his eyes and found that the woman before them was now a living statue of crystal, her skin turned to glittering facets. She turned as if to flee, but did not make it a step before the brass bedstead dragged her back, wrapping tight around her wrists, arms, throat, until she was immobile.
Dizzy and disoriented from his mental exertions, Charles grabbed blindly for Erik’s arm. “Are you all right?”
“Yes. Thank you.” Erik’s voice held both strain and grim foreboding; he squeezed Charles’s hand briefly, then pulled away to walk around the bed and crouch before the captive woman. “Give me one good reason,” he growled, and the coiled metal tightened around her throat, “not to kill you here and now.”
“Erik.” Charles wasn’t sure whether he meant to calm Erik or warn him. Whatever the woman had done, he wasn’t going to be party to her murder. Erik is accustomed to murder, his mind whispered to him. This is the sort of man you’ve chosen. He tried to get up, but his head was still spinning.
The woman laughed, a tinkling crystalline sound. “Whatever makes you think you can kill me? It takes more than brass to cut through diamond. And your friend there will find himself equally powerless against me now.”
“Metal frequently finds it can do whatever I ask of it.” The bedstead tightened further, and further.
Charles managed to get his foot on the floor and a crutch under him. “Erik. Answers might be more useful than a sparkling corpse, hm?”
Erik did not seem to be hearing him. His gaze on the diamond woman’s neck was alarmingly intent, and when Charles rounded the foot of the bed, he nearly stumbled at the sight of fine cracks spreading across the woman’s shining skin.
“Erik! That’s enough!”
Before Erik could respond, the woman slumped in defeat, human skin reappearing as the diamond layer sloughed off into shimmering dust. She glared at them both with clear loathing.
Erik turned to him with a serene smile. “All yours, Charles. If she tries that again, just give her a light tap.” With that, he crossed the room to pour himself a glass of champagne.
Charles let out a breath, half relief and half frustration. “Well, madam, will you tell us why the devil you just assaulted my friend’s mind?”
“The man who murdered this club’s previous owner sneaks in behind my back and I am to assume his intentions are noble?”
“Do not offer that excuse. You could not have known the truth of Shaw’s fate until you gleaned it from Erik’s mind. We offered you no harm, so what were you attempting to do to him?”
“If I tell you, will you believe me, or will you go on a jaunt through my brain afterward anyway?” She sounded almost bored.
“Good point,” Charles said, and raised two fingers to his temple.
“Her name is Emma Frost,” he murmured to Erik, “and she’s been Shaw’s right hand – and lover – for nearly a decade.”
“Was she trying to avenge him?”
“No. No, she’s far too practical for that – though I think she mourns the man more than she’s admitted to herself.” She gave him a sharp look; he only raised an eyebrow, Deny it if you like. “No, she was not going to kill you, Erik – merely re-make you in her preferred image, a puppet who would smile and nod and let her hold all the true power.”
“Remind me why her violent death would be objectionable?”
Charles was finding the answer hard to remember, himself. If you touch him, he shoved the words into Miss Frost’s mind, burned them into her like a brand, if you touch either of us ever again, I will take you apart.
Oh, don’t worry, sugar, came the poison-sweet reply, I don’t bother to touch men like you. We have boys on the payroll for that.
Charles felt his nostrils flare, cheeks heating – with anger or embarrassment, he couldn’t tell.
But of course, you won’t be needing them. She cut her eyes toward Erik, one corner of her mouth tipping up. Erik will make such a very interesting employer. “You are, of course, already on the membership roll, Mr. Lehnsherr,” she said aloud. “And any friends of the club’s owner must always be welcome. There was no need for this skulking about.”
“Yes, speaking of friends.” Charles dipped back into her mind, and was unsurprised to find the memory of Raven and Hank. “You will take us to our other companions immediately.”