Chapter 1: Act One: April 1930 - Montmartre, Paris, France - Charles
Warnings for this chapter:
- Charles talking about past abuse inflicted upon him by his family, including depictions of physical injury
- Minor character committing suicide
Family most disappointed. Have made all reasonable attempts at contact. No more hope of reconciliation. Westchester is no longer your home.
Charles Francis Xavier read the telegram again, and then a third time - out loud - and the words of the message should have hung around him in storm clouds and an almost palpable sense of irrevocable despair.
Instead, he found himself smiling - and then he started to laugh, long and loud and relieved, until the hollow echoes of his own voice filled the space around him, the space that was bounded by peeling walls and creaking floorboards and a cracked washstand.
“Finally!” he exclaimed, and then he wadded up the telegram in one fist, threw it in the general direction of his unmade bed and the nest of creases that used to be his pillows, before starting for the door, snatching up his battered hat from the hook he’d hammered into the crumbling plaster next to his door. “Free at last,” he whispered to himself, as he ran down the stairs, as he burst out onto the street - and the knowledge of it, the pure certainty of that rejection in writing, propelled him through the puddles and over the rough stones, all the way to the cafe in which he often spent his days. A battered sign overhead, hanging beneath a torn awning: Blackbird.
Familiar faces at stained tables that hadn’t been cleaned in several weeks. Cheap red wine, watered-down beer, chipped glasses, wooden knives and forks.
In the corner near the kitchen, Steve Rogers and Natalia Romanova were having an animated conversation over what was likely not an oblivious James Barnes, for all that his eyes remained stubbornly closed and his breathing stayed remarkably even. Bruce Banner and Ororo Munroe were still holding cards at the table next to them, leaving the others who had already folded - Remy LeBeau, Irene Adler, Sean Cassidy, and the woman who went by the nom de guerre “Kwannon” - to their respective drinks.
Charles’s fine jacket and still-new boots should have looked out of place among the faded silks and the shabby shirts, if not for his own threadbare collar and the layers upon layers of ink stains and dirt on his cuffs.
“Ho, Xavier, what brings you to this place,” Barnes said at last, cracking open one eye to leer at him. “And in such a lather to boot. I’d almost think you ran all the way here.”
“And that is exactly what I’ve done,” Charles said, “because there is an announcement that needs to be made, that concerns your most humble servant.”
“Humble you’re not, but tell us about your announcement,” Banner said as he threw his cards onto the table, revealing the two of diamonds, the jack of spades, and the three of clubs.
“That is the worst hand I have seen today,” Charles said, wrinkling his nose, “and I have been standing here for all of five minutes. If you intend to continue playing, may I suggest that someone else shuffle that deck?”
“As the man said, tell us your news or go away, Xavier,” Munroe muttered, but not unkindly, as she swept up the chips in the pot. “Or we can deal you in, as usual.”
“Or you can come to mine and play something else,” Charles said. “In fact, you’re all invited. I intend to celebrate my liberation. I’ve been disowned, you see! My family has declared that they will have neither hide nor hair of me near their palatial old cemetery of a house - and now I can say, without any exaggeration, that I have never, never been happier in my life.”
“Congratulations,” came a wry voice from behind the bar. Maria Hill, in her customary masculine suit and her short-cropped hair, gestured at him with a corkscrew. Crisp pinstripes and cheeks stained dark red with rouge and too many cups of wine. “And what, pray tell, are you going to serve at this party of yours? Cups of thin air, perhaps?”
Charles grinned. “Perhaps. Or you could let me, ah, borrow a dozen wine bottles?”
“I wouldn’t let you near my stock if all I had were broken barrels,” was the spiteful reply, delivered with much eye-rolling.
“Come now, Marya, it’s not every day a man has his family tell him to - how do you say it, Xavier? - sod off.” Romanova threw a last flirtatious look in Rogers’s direction and a wink in Hill’s, and went to loop her arm into Charles’s. “I’ll come to your party, and I’ll provide the food and the drink.”
“I’m truly grateful,” was Charles’s ready answer. “However shall I repay you for your generosity?”
“Come to me tomorrow, and we’ll discuss terms,” she replied, low and sultry and scorching.
“Gladly,” Charles said, and he started to usher her to the door. “You know where I live,” he added, the words thrown carelessly over his shoulder. “I’ll be expecting the whole lot of you. Bring friends! Bring all of Paris. There should be more than enough conversation, even if the food and the wine should run out.”
Everyone else was already starting to whisper behind his back when he stepped out onto the sidewalk.
Out on the streets, the clash and clatter of the never-ending conversations of Paris covered the concerned twist to Natalia’s mouth as she leaned back in towards Charles, murmuring for his ears only. “Are you sure that you’re happy? Don’t forget, I’ve known you far longer than most of them. I know what you look like when you’re trying to hide something, and you look like that right now.”
He bit his lip and kept walking, and didn’t reply until they had turned the last corner, until they were standing in the shadow of the building in which he was renting the northern attic. “Do you remember,” he asked, the words coming in fits and starts, “what state I was in when you first found me, ill-dressed and wandering these same streets?”
She looked at him, dismay and sadness twisting her fine features. “Charles, I could hardly speak of such terrible times - ”
“But we must, because they are part of today’s story,” Charles said. “Will you remember those times with me?”
“Not without a strong drink to hand,” and then she produced a flask from somewhere on her person, battered silver against her lush red mouth as she took a hurried pull, then offered it to Charles.
He accepted, grateful, even when the liquor lay heavy on his tongue, as full of thick fumes as turpentine. “My thanks.”
“First of many.” By then she was holding out her hand for the key to his room, and he gave it to her with alacrity, following in her wake as she made a beeline for his bed and his blankets. “Sit,” she said, brisk and kind and sad. “If you will insist on talking about such terrible things I will not stop you, but you will come here and be comfortable, after a fashion. Do not think that I do not notice how you are still shivering.”
“It’ll be a cruel spring yet,” Charles said as he sat down next to her, as he let her wrap the many-times-patched sheets around his shoulders. “Rain seems to be our lot in life this year. That, and the infernal mud.”
“Then there’s no need to torment ourselves any further than we’re already capable of doing.” There was a pause, during which she lit one of her usual silver-banded cigarettes, her hands trembling only slightly as she shook the match out to sulfur and smoke. “And to answer your question, dear Charles - I do remember those first meetings. They are as vivid in my memory as though they took place only yesterday.”
He favored her with a bleak little smile. “I looked such a fright then, didn’t I?”
The look she leveled at him in reply was mostly a glare. “Understatement, Charles?”
“No. It was what was normal for me.”
“A high and persistent fever that left you unable to keep down food or drink or medicine? Bruises all over your face and thick in colored layers upon the skin of your arms? Your back very nearly broken? I marvel, Charles, that you traveled so recklessly across the Atlantic without even knowing where you would end up. How can you call those things normal? You were mad, then, and perhaps you still are now. Why dwell on these things? And here I thought you really did have a reason for this little party of yours.”
“Did I ever tell you who did those things to me?”
“You never did,” she said, shaking her head. “But our James is a terrible gossip, much more so than I ever could be, and he - well, he asked around, after a fashion, and when he thought he had the whole story, he came to me and told me about it. We have told no one else, not even Steve. Your family?”
Charles nodded. “To be precise, the man who married my mother, and that man’s son.”
When she took his hand he huddled even closer to her. “How long - ”
“Years,” and then anything else that Charles might have had to say on the topic was completely preempted by the sounds of several sets of feet tramping up the stairs towards them.
“I believe that someone mentioned a party,” Adler said as she thrust the door open and strode on through. The basket she was carrying was exuding a rich scent of herbs and spices, and Charles leaned over in her direction as she passed him by, sniffing so enthusiastically that he almost fell out of bed.
“Steady there, Charles, you don’t even know what we’re drinking yet,” Cassidy drawled as he came in and shook dust off his tattered sleeves.
“I’m always good for a surprise,” Charles said as he made to get up.
Natalia let him stand, but pulled on his fraying cuff to catch his attention. “You owe me that story, Charles,” she whispered, sharp and for his ears alone.
“Yes, Natalia, I do that,” he said in a low voice, looking grave. “And I will tell you everything. Just - let me have this.” He waved his hand at the garret, which was now full of familiar faces and the pop of wine bottles being opened. “Let me pretend that for one night everything is all right in this world.”
She bit her lip, but nodded, and let him go.
Charles leaned in and pressed a kiss to her forehead. “You are my friend, and after a fashion we love each other, and for you I am and will always be grateful. Believe me.”
“Someone is looking for you, Xavier,” Kwannon said, several hours later.
He looked up - blinked briefly in surprise to see that he was sprawled out beneath his own bed, shirt just barely hanging from his shoulders, grease on his fingertips from the excellent roast chicken that had long since been polished off - and rolled to his feet, and looked around, blearily.
There was a stub of candle still fizzing and sputtering in the corner, where Barnes, Rogers, and Banner were sleeping around and on top of each other in various states of undress; Natalia was watching over them, curled up in the only serviceable chair Charles owned, though she seemed hard-pressed to fight off her own yawns.
And they were the only people left, as Kwannon herself was tapping her foot at the door, every line of her impatient to be on her way.
“Everyone else - ?” he asked as he haphazardly buttoned up his shirt and preceded her down the stairs.
“Gone,” she said. “Do not be insulted; you host good parties, but even a great party must end when people need to rest. I have sent them all home, except for those four who insisted on staying.”
“This is a home to them, too, and to you if you should ever need it,” Charles said.
“For that you have my thanks, Xavier. Truly. Do not think that I do not appreciate the offer,” Kwannon said, and then she opened the door - to the jacketed shapes of three policemen.
“We received a complaint, m’sieu’,” the one in the lead said, after he’d stepped back to allow her to pass. “A noisy gathering in your rooms. Your neighbors are finding it hard to go to sleep.”
Charles plastered on his best company smile, the one he’d perfected long before his desperate flight to Europe. An empty expression that stretched the lines of his face and left his jaw muscles aching after just a few seconds. “If we have inconvenienced anyone, sir, we do apologize - but as you can hear, the house is now quiet. You have my word that it shall remain so for the rest of the day. For the rest of the week.”
“See that you do,” but the policeman looked both mildly sympathetic and mildly offended as he led his subordinates away.
Charles closed the door behind them, and sighed to himself. “And so the world is upon me once again.”
A heavy, slow trudge back up the stairs. The cold made his steps slow and painful, ice coating overworked and overstressed nerves.
There were people in his bed, now. Banner was curled up at the foot, naked but for the sheet thrown over him, mumbling crossly to himself as he turned over. Natalia sat amidst the pillows, near the head of the bed frame, arms doubled up behind her to undo the laces on her corset.
“Can I help you with that?” Charles whispered as he closed the door and locked it, as he retrieved his coat and draped it over an oblivious Rogers’s shoulders.
“Please,” she said, and she put her hands down, twisting her fingers together in her lap.
Despite knowing he’d drunk far too much, even by his own reckoning, he made short work of the knots, and then he helped her strip down to the rest of her smallclothes before doing the same for himself.
When she patted the pillows he climbed in next to her so they were lying on their sides, tucked tightly together, and let her burrow around until she got comfortable. Only then did he wrap his arms around her; only then did he put his mouth to the back of her neck and just breathe for a moment.
She smelled like seafoam and smoke and sweet tea roses.
“Story,” she said, quietly, while the echoes from the others’ snoring grew louder and louder, honk and rasp and a log being sawed in half.
“Story,” Charles agreed. “But kiss me first.”
She obliged him, turning around in his arms so she could put her hands in his hair and pull him down to her. She was soft and warm and yielding; she kissed him with a will, taking and taking until he was helpless, until there was nothing he could do except close his eyes and pull her even closer. Her ankles winding around his.
Pressure on his shoulders, and Charles shifted until he was on his back, until she was sprawled out atop him and could fit one of her knees between his thighs.
“Natalia,” he whispered, turning his head blindly, nosing at her right wrist. One of his hands traced phantom spirals up from her waist.
“Tell me,” she said, quiet and commanding.
A pause. A heavy sigh. “I don’t want to. But I must.
“You’ve heard the story that I told all of the others,” Charles said without opening his eyes. “That I don’t remember my father. The truth is a little worse than that. The truth is that when he died I was there, not more than a few feet away. I was his witness. I followed him into his study and watched him open a fine wooden case. I saw him put a gun to his head and I saw him pull the trigger. When I screamed, the whole house came running - and then my mother tried to get me out of the room, tried to turn me away from all the blood. I didn’t want to, but she got help from some of the servants, and they carried me off. Upstairs to my bedroom. I never looked away.
“I knew exactly what had happened. I knew exactly what my father had done. He had killed himself. Just like that, without any tears, without any emotions.
“They didn’t let me go to the funeral - and then they didn’t let me go to the wedding, either. My mother took a new husband within weeks, perhaps months. I can’t truly remember any more. Or perhaps I don’t want to. What I remember is this: the first day I laid eyes on my new stepfather was also the first day I knew what it was like to be struck down in anger. I had not even done anything wrong; all I had done was raise my voice a little, playing the good host, offering him tea as my mother had taught me to do for a guest.”
Something about her voice made him open his eyes.
She was looking at him, and her eyes were filled with grief and apprehension and a knowing fear.
He smiled at her, emotionless, and looked away. “For a moment, I thought that I would never see a bigger fist. That I would never feel a greater pain than that fist crashing into the side of my head.”
Rogers and Barnes in the corner had shifted so that they were holding each other in their sleep, and he was a little envious, because he knew they’d grown up together and run away together, walking the world hand in hand, and he’d never known anything like that.
His eyes lingered over their hands, their easy tilt into each other’s shoulders, as he went on. “Then, in the summer of that year, that man’s boy came to stay with us.
“Before the first month was over I knew, I was completely convinced, that he was determined to see me dead.”
Natalia leaned over and kissed away the tears that he didn’t know were tracking down from his eyes, into his hair.
“The third time he pushed me down the great staircase I broke my leg so badly that it had to be pinned back together in two places.” He tapped his fingers on his right leg, above and below his knee. “The doctors said that I came within a hair of breaking my back, and I could not move, much less walk, without any pain for the better part of two years afterward.
“And what did my mother do? She turned me away when I asked to see her, when I wanted to tell her what had really happened. She took her husband’s advice. She sent me away to school. I suppose that it was a good thing, in the end. Being away from home meant that I could try to heal, and perhaps learn a little about how the world worked. The boys and girls treated me coldly, but I was all right with cold. Cold people didn’t want to hurt me, and I just didn’t want to be hurt any more.
“I took jobs, any I could find, any chance I got, and I carefully saved every penny I earned, adding it to the money that my mother sent me - when she could remember to send me anything. They kept her busy, father and son acting in concert - when they were not dragging her after them all over the world they were buying her the most expensive wines and liquors they could find, and she was only too happy to keep drinking. I do not know what pain she was trying to drown. I tried to find out, when I could write to her, but I never received any replies.”
“And after school - you ran away for good,” Natalia whispered.
Charles nodded, still unable to look at her. “They were angry, you know - they said I had to go home and stay by my mother’s side, and be her good son, be part of the family. But it was explicitly clear that she’d forgotten me, that she no longer even spared a thought for my existence. I wanted none of that, because I knew what they were trying to say: they wanted a scapegoat. They wanted someone to kick around. By then I already knew that the staff had packed up and gone, en masse. I told them that I was not interested in coming anywhere near that house so long as they were there.
“I decided to leave them, to get away from them, and so I bought a one-way ticket across the Atlantic. Before I could take ship, however, the man’s son found me. I don’t know how he did it. All I know is that he brought several friends with him - they dragged me out of the rooms I was renting and they laid into me right there on the street. No one stopped to help - and I understood why. I knew that they did not want to run afoul of thugs and brutes. It was only when they tried to cut my clothes away that I tried to fight back, but to no avail.”
“How did you get away?”
The voice was not Natalia’s.
Charles looked toward his feet.
Banner - Bruce - was awake; he looked as angry as Charles had ever seen him, quiet and glowering, his presence growing until he could have almost filled the room with silent, near-incandescent rage.
It was his way of being protective, and Charles had seen him defend others before. He’d seen the startling transformation, from the quiet man who dealt cards with clumsy hands to the powerful fighter who could lay out a man with one single blow.
Now that he was the object of that fervent regard, he couldn’t help but shiver, and at the same time be grateful, that this man was - in his own way - a friend.
Charles sat up, and reached out to him, and sighed when Bruce took his hand in a strong but careful grip. “I don’t know. All I know is that there were policemen coming out of nowhere. And when they did, that - person - and his friends just walked away, laughing. Casual as you please even with all the blood on their knuckles, on their boots. Even when it was quite clear that they had all but left me senseless in the dust. I remember staggering toward the ship when it was time to board at last. I remember that it was a relief to get into steerage because then I wouldn’t be the only one crying as the ship slipped away from the docks.”
There was a long pause that was broken only by Barnes’s light snoring.
“And so you are here,” Bruce said, eventually. “Crawling through the mud with the rest of us.”
“But I haven’t lost hope,” Charles said.
Natalia fixed him with a skeptical look.
“I really haven’t,” Charles said. “Because if we’re all down here, then where else can we go? Where else can we be heading?” He pointed up, to the sky that none of them could see, with a finger that only shook a little.
“So you believe in the stars,” Bruce said.
“I believe in the stars, yes.” Charles nodded, once. “I don’t mind the mud getting into my boots. I don’t mind the blood, or the broken bones. So long as I can look at the stars and dream about being among them, I cannot lose hope. And now I can look at the stars as I want to, without having to look over my shoulder for fear that those people are going to find me. I can forget about them now, and I can reach up, reach out. Go beyond myself and my fears.”
“Spoken like a true writer,” Natalia said, gently, shifting back to his side so she could hold him. “And how long before you produce your masterpiece?”
“Not long now, I promise you that,” Charles said, putting his free arm around her. “And you and Bruce must be there on premiere night. I’ll be very cross with you if you aren’t.”
“We’ll be there, Charles,” Bruce said, and then he leaned over and kissed Charles, bore him down into the pillows. Gentle but inexorable. “As we are here now.”
Natalia moved in on Charles’s other side, pulling away the last of his clothes. “Yes, as we are here now. We are here with you.”
He sank into their combined embrace, wordless and grateful, chasing them down.
Chapter 2: Act Two: June 1935 - Hollywood, California, the United States - Charles
There were posters everywhere Charles looked, all up and down the streets, and the posters showed a man in an elaborately embellished jacket, and that man was smiling as he flourished a red cape. Curls of pale hair falling into green eyes.
Every time his steps took him past one of those posters he couldn’t help but clench his fists. It was getting more and more difficult to resist the urge to tear those flimsy things down from the walls on which they’d been plastered - the posters were everywhere in this city, corners fluttering in the hot breeze that only fanned the rage growing in Charles’s heart of hearts.
He passed a woman and her companion, and had to grit his teeth as he overheard her words: “Tempest in Spain - isn’t that the film they’ve been talking about all over town?”
“Yes,” the man replied. “If you want to come and see the film, I have tickets. Tonight is the premiere night. All of the cast will be there.”
“Oh, yes, do let’s go,” the woman said. “I’d like to meet the actors.”
The man laughed and promenaded off with her, leaving Charles to suck in a hard hot breath as they tried, and failed, to pronounce the names of the lead characters: Escamillo, Romero, Mercédès.
The same names as in the play he’d written, which had premiered in Paris to a storm of commentary. Two years gone, and his Torero had been on everyone’s minds: he couldn’t even take two steps without hearing an argument for or against the denouement. It had never mattered to him whether the people in the conversation agreed with each other or with him. He’d only wanted to bask in the passion of the arguments and counter-arguments: a far greater response than he could ever have imagined.
He could remember, just, what it had been like for him in the last hours, as he labored over the final lines of the manuscript: the climactic exchanges between the two bullfighters and the woman who had been singing to them of revolution, of change, of reform. The noise of the people around him receding to a distant and muffled roar. He’d hardly noticed that the Blackbird was full, and that he knew every single face at the packed tables - the writing had been all. He had cursed the fingers wrapped around his pen, the ink that clogged the barrel every now and then, because he’d been lagging behind the words taking shape in his mind.
He hadn’t even known that he’d been weeping over the final page until Bruce had offered him a dusty, neatly folded handkerchief.
A story about fighting off despair and darkness, tooth and claw and the faint far-off idea of hope.
That was then, and this was now, in a place called Hollywood, full of vacuous voices and heedless laughter: he knew about Tempest in Spain, and he knew that it bore about as much resemblance to Torero as a roasted joint did to a living, grazing cow. The denunciations of fascism, the songs extolling socialism, the debates about democracy - gone, all of them, gone, and in their place was a pallid shadow of a love triangle, which had never even existed in Charles’s work.
In his mind, Escamillo and Romero and Mercédès had been comrades, nothing more. They recognized in each other a certain purity of purpose, which they could still respect even when they were in the throes of revolution, with two of them arrayed on one side against the other.
Charles squeezed his hands into fists and turned away from all the posters, resolute.
Sunset had lingered too long, had died a death of purple dusk. In its place now was the crushing dry heat of the night, rising from the paved street beneath his feet, relentless. He was sweating and swearing and vastly uncomfortable. And there was the anger again, the thing he’d been nursing for close to two years now. It burnt him from within; it left him hoarse and ready to lash out.
Back to his hotel room, where a hurried bath did little to relieve the fire that lit up his lungs with every breath. He still had one good suit; he took his time with his hair; he put on his best shoes and tried to stand tall even when they pinched at heel and toe.
There was a ticket in a red envelope on the dresser. He was not thankful that he’d managed to stop himself from tearing it in half.
It was easy to find the theater that would be playing Tempest in Spain - all he had to do was find the press. Glitterflash of cameras, one after another after another, rapidfire blindness. It was all he could do to avoid stumbling as he jostled through the well-heeled crowd.
Not for the first time, Charles found himself wishing that someone from the Blackbird, anyone, was with him now. Level-headed Steve, perhaps, or acerbic and composed Ororo. It would have been a comfort, even, to hear Maria’s snide observations. They had been there for the original run of the play, and some of them had even offered suggestions for the original manuscript, and for the revised version that had gone onstage.
But perhaps it was just as well that he was alone. He remembered ranting about the film to anyone who would listen, and in the end, even Natalia had very nearly lost her patience with his complaints.
Now he was on his own, and he had to press his lips together into a grimace as he rushed past the photographers, heading into the cinema itself.
Muted lighting, the stage draped with cheap tinsel and flimsy lace - Charles rushed past the rows of empty seats, straight to the group of men and women who were conferring around a microphone on its stand.
“You’re not allowed to be in here yet, sir,” someone said, a little belatedly, as Charles stormed towards the stage.
“Who is this,” one of the men in the group began - only to be silenced by a peremptory gesture from the woman standing at his side, the mink stole wrapped around her shoulders more than useless in the heat and humidity.
“This film is nothing but a travesty,” Charles said, addressing the woman directly. There was something familiar about her face, but he didn’t waste any time identifying her. “I made an express request that my story be adapted faithfully. What you have done to my work is inexcusable. You have made it into something small, something tawdry, and that is an unforgivable insult indeed.”
The woman’s smirk fell off her face.
Charles took a deep breath and pressed his advantage. “Torero is not a story about petulant children and their unformed desires, madam - it is a story about love of country, love of truth! Why you would see fit to tear it down I can neither fathom nor condone - ”
And then there was someone right in front of him, a familiar black box framed in large, graceful hands, and Charles rocked back on his heels as the all-consuming flash of a camera left him blinded, and stuttering through a series of coarse oaths in Spanish and German and Italian.
“My, the mouth on you,” someone said, after a moment, quiet but mocking all the same.
Charles bristled and stepped forward, even though he was still unable to see who was mocking him. “Stop hiding behind that infernal camera!”
“I don’t believe I will, since what I am doing is not hiding,” was the reply, cool drawl, stern consonants. “I am documenting what is happening around me.”
“You have a real eye for spitfires, Mister Malraux,” one of the other men on stage said, and the others laughed in agreement. “It’d only be right for you to tell us how you do it.”
“I’ll thank you all to show some respect,” Charles growled, “since it is my work that you have been building your foolishness upon - ”
“We know who you are, M’sieur Xavier,” the woman said as she blew out a stream of smoke from her cigarette in its polished black holder. “And you did write Torero, that is true - but the hard truth is that your story, for all of its intricacies and lofty ideals, would not have sold had we stayed true to your words. People are looking for simpler stories, for things that they can easily understand.”
“Why, it almost seems as if you’re calling everyone idiots,” Charles snapped. “I didn’t expect such condescension, but perhaps I should have. I shan’t waste my time then. I wash my hands of this and of you, each and all. This movie of yours, Tempest in Spain, does not in any way or manner resemble my Torero. So I do not see that there is anything we should be speaking about. And will you stop taking those blasted photographs?” That last was directed at the man with the camera.
“Hardly. You make an interesting subject, Mister Xavier.” The man chuckled as he changed the film and placed the used cartridge in his pocket.
“I am not just anyone’s subject,” Charles hissed. “And now I’ll thank you to hand over that film of yours. You’ve no right to just take pictures of me.”
“Debatable,” the man said. “You’re making a fine public spectacle of yourself, now, after all.”
“Film, please,” Charles said, holding out his hand. His voice was beginning to fray around the edges.
Instead of replying, the man raised his camera again - Charles only managed to fling up his hand in time, shielding his eyes from the too-bright flash - and said, after, “Farewell, Mister Charles Xavier - and for what it’s worth, perhaps it might cross your mind that I agree with your assessment of Tempest in Spain. The film is cheap and worthless and petty. Torero was the purer work by far.”
“Thank you, and don’t think that’ll stop me,” Charles called as the man turned his back on him. “I’ll make you see reason yet - Mister Malraux-whoever-you-are.”
“E Malraux,” Charles muttered to himself, later that evening. “Not helpful, is it.”
Natalia’s advice to “Be careful” was still ringing in his ears, tinny and hoarse at the same time due to the great distance between them that could not be adequately bridged by the telephone line. So was his answer, which he murmured to himself as he rang the bell beneath the nameplate: “I can’t be. Not for this.”
He couldn’t stop himself from looking over his shoulder, because he could feel eyes watching him from the corner, from every one of the broken windows in the ramshackle building across the street – and he’d been in some terrible places in Paris, but none of them could actually compare to here, for making the hairs on his neck stand on end.
Unamused muttering, growing louder. The soft screech of stressed hinges as the door swung open. “Who is it that calls on me at such a late hour - ”
Charles bared his teeth in an expression that could not be described as a smile. “I’ve come here to take that roll of film, Mister Malraux.”
“Xavier,” that afternoon’s photographer muttered, rolling his eyes and looking distinctly annoyed. His collar had wilted considerably, and he was walking around in his stocking feet, with his fine sleeves rolled up crookedly. “I don’t even know why you’re so insistent – ach, come in, this stoop is hardly any place to conduct a civilized conversation.”
“For a given value of civilized,” Charles said, only mostly under his breath, as he followed Malraux up a series of steep, sagging steps.
All the way up, as it turned out, because Malraux didn’t stop walking until they ran out of staircase, and only then did he turn sharply to the left and kick open a door that had been left hanging ajar.
A dark room: two sets of curtains were drawn over the windows. Flickering light, and a slide projector rattling forlornly to itself on a scratched, lopsided table that had seen better days. The image on the wall was almost familiar, Charles thought: it was a view of the Königsallee in Düsseldorf, shrouded in mist and shadows. Not a trace of the usual crowds walking along the landscaped canal – he could almost be looking through a strange door into a ghostly place.
Something clattered in the corner, and Charles whirled in surprise.
Malraux gestured at the teapot and the mismatched cups on top of a chipped tray. “I’m not entirely uncivilized,” he muttered. “I can at least offer you something, though I’m afraid that this is really all I have on hand.”
Charles strode to the table, and then held out his hand. “Mister Malraux. While I do appreciate the gesture at civility, you know why I am here.”
“Well, I don’t have the film here precisely,” was the sardonic reply. “All I have right now is this.” And the photographer was rummaging in his pocket, was aiming a small black box at the projector – it clicked, and advanced several frames, and stopped dead on Charles himself.
Charles in a fury, the image captured for posterity. There was a startling contrast between his neat hair, his pinstripes, and the anger in every line of him: the downturn of his mouth, the set of his eyebrows, his hands raised, balled into fists on either side of his face.
“You could almost be attractive in your anger, m’sieur,” Malraux said. “You make for a very fine portrait. But what a waste. Perhaps you’d do better with a smile.”
Charles drew in a deep breath, and another, and tried to fight down his rage as best as he could. “Do tell me, do you get some kind of thrill out of antagonizing pretty much everyone you meet?”
A dark, brief chuckle, quickly smothered. “Not everyone. I hardly have the time or the inclination. I merely deal with the ones whom I find interesting. People who smile emptily, thinking themselves pretty or handsome, are far too commonplace here. I’m not a great fan of the American social smile that I see everywhere I go. A lifeless waste, without anything at all of the human factor.”
Interested despite himself as the man continued to mutter on, Charles had to stop himself from reaching for the notebook that he carried everywhere, for the stub of pencil in his pocket. “And what would this human factor be, according to Mister Malraux?”
“Stop calling me that, for heaven’s sake. Not my real name. It is a name I carry around with me in this place. My true name, the name I was born with,” the photographer muttered as he threw two sugar cubes into one of the cups, “is Erik Lehnsherr.”
Charles stared at him, as though he’d been cut up into several puzzle pieces, and now those puzzle pieces were rearranging themselves in Charles’s mind. “Where in Europe are you from - ”
“Poland,” Lehnsherr rapped out after he’d taken a quick swallow of his tea. “A place full of the human factor – to answer your question. A place where people wore their emotions on their faces. You knew whether this woman had just woken up from a long and sleepless night, or one spent in her lover’s arms. You could try to guess why that man had woken up weeping. You could see the light in a little girl’s eyes when she was presented with a crown of flowers. A boy with a handful of candy; an old man absorbed in Torah study. Human faces full of human feelings and human reactions. They were angry and they were laughing; they knew fear and despair as intimately as they did exaltation.”
“So why take portraits here? Surely there are places where you can find those faces easily,” Charles asked.
“Because the people here have far too much money and they are far too willing to be parted from it. Taking insipid portraits of bland people helps me make my way through the world. Allows me to reach Düsseldorf. Addis Ababa. Phnom Penh. Riga. Mykonos. I want to find the hidden corners. I want to see real things. Real places, real people.”
“I – I see,” Charles said, faintly.
“Do you?” Lehnsherr countered, mildly acerbic. “I don’t have to guess. All I have to do is look at your face and know that you think you know why I left home.”
“I – wondered if you did have a home, still,” Charles admitted, and he covered up his confusion with a sip from his own cup. The tea was strong and dark and oddly flowery.
“My parents are there, and my sister. I have no doubt that they are still living happy and untroubled lives. It was I alone who had to flee.”
“Perhaps I’ll tell you that story some other day.” There was a dark shadow lingering in the depths of those strange eyes: blue one moment and grey the next, shifting to deep green. “That is, if you would even consider speaking to me again.”
“Why shouldn’t I? I have only come here to ask for the film – the slides – on which you have captured my face. I don’t want anything else. The other photographs must mean more to you, perforce, than they ever would to me.”
Lehnsherr watched him over his teacup for a long, long moment. Charles fought off his blush as best as he could; he wasn’t used to being in the reverse of his usual situation. He was normally the one doing the observing; he liked to tuck himself away on park benches and in out-of-the-way watering holes, and he liked to imagine the stories of the people passing through, and put those imagined stories down on paper.
“I would almost say that you and I have something in common, M’sieur Xavier,” Lehnsherr drawled, at last.
Charles thought about that for a moment. “Perhaps you’re right.”
Then he got to his feet and walked around the small table so that he was facing the other man properly, and he offered him his hand. “How do you do, Erik Lehnsherr? My name is Charles Xavier,” he said.
There was disbelief written in every line of Erik’s face – but that didn’t stop him from getting to his feet and doing the same thing. His grip was rough and firm and warm.
A simple touch, an attempt at détente: as quietly as he could, Charles caught his breath. He was hot and cold all over, a single impulse running through him, electrifying - and all from a simple handshake, a meeting between people who might speak to each other.
By the startled look in Erik’s eyes, he could almost believe that the other man had felt the exact same thing.
“I - ” Erik began, and he stepped away, tried to look away.
Charles offered him a quick, lopsided smile, and sat back down. He took another long sip of tea. For some reason, his nerves were alight, jangling beneath his skin.
“Your slides,” Erik continued. Heavy steps on the floor, moving away. The flickering light from the slide projector clicked to black. When Erik came back he was holding a battered white envelope.
“Thank you,” Charles said.
“I intend to keep the negatives.”
“So long as you don’t exhibit them without my permission, you must of course retain your material for your archives.”
The response to that was unexpected: a quick burst of genuine laughter. “Archives? You make it sound like I’ll be famous one day. I am under no illusions, Charles - if I may call you that - I am only an eccentric amateur. Perhaps people will pay attention to my work only because I do not fit the usual image of the pampered, spoiled shutterbug, who is naught but a subject of his own camera. Who, after all, has the time and the desire to look at the hidden corners of the world with the same appreciation? They greatly prefer a path that is already easy to walk upon. Well-trod.”
“And all well-trod paths started out that way, I’m sure,” Charles murmured, letting a hint of mockery seep through. “Laid down for the express benefit of the moneyed and the foolish - who in my opinion are one and the same. I say this as someone who cannot see the future, Erik, only as someone who has a faint understanding of what talent might mean: you are talented. Perhaps one day, someone else will see these hidden corners that you love with the same understanding that you do.”
“That’ll be the day,” Erik grumbled, but he almost sounded good-natured, if that irascible frown of his could ever be called good-natured.
“One day you’ll tell me I’m right,” Charles said.
Erik poured himself another cup of tea. “I’m not entirely sure I look forward to it.”
“I beg your pardon.”
“You tell me I’m talented and you don’t mention yourself? You’re an odd one, Charles, for a writer who claims to catch glimpses of the world as it truly is.”
Charles almost laughed. “I can’t tell whether you’re trying to insult me or give me a compliment. Shall I take it that you intend both?”
“As I believe I informed you earlier, I did manage to see Torero. It is the purer work by far. It speaks of truth. Forget about Tempest in Spain, and forget about Hollywood. No, let me go further: perhaps in future you would consider refusing any and all attempts at adapting your work. It would be a shame to lose those fleeting images of yours. It would be disrespectful to you, and it would be disrespectful to those whom you write about.”
“Of which there aren’t many,” Charles admitted with a shrug. The well-meant words made heat flare up in his face, and he tried to hide it in his tea. “I cannot really say that I always understand what my friends and my comrades talk about. They know of so many things; they are aware of the world in a way that I cannot hope to be. For me, people are perforce difficult to understand, since they hide behind so many masks.”
“You need to meet more people, obviously.”
“I’m trying to do that. I haven’t been back here since - well, you don’t need to know that. And even though I know in my head that this is a large country, I can never quite see that that’s true.” Charles firmly put all thoughts of a lifeless mansion full of fear and of pain out of his mind.
Erik favored him with a sardonic smile. “Time’s a-wasting. Out the door you go and look around. There are many nationalities represented here. There are many ideologies to be discussed.”
“I’d still rather be in Europe,” Charles said.
Erik made a toasting movement in his direction with his cup. “On that we’re agreed. As I said. Hidden corners and true expressions are elusive, here. I’ve been traveling up and down the West Coast, and I keep seeing the same smiles, the same frowns.”
“We must hold out hope,” Charles said. “You and I are people of art, and we can’t escape the disappointment - but we must also keep going. It’s the only way we can live.”
“And that is the truth that we are all chasing.”
“May we never tire of that endless running.” And Charles bowed, then, to take his leave. “Until we meet again, Erik Lehnsherr.”
“Until we meet again, Charles Xavier.”
Chapter 3: Act Three, Part One: July 1936 - five days before the black flag - Barcelona, Spain - Erik
Beginning in this chapter, there will be some use of the Catalan language; the main page I relied on is this one.
Erik Lehnsherr could remember, as if in a distant daze, passing through Barcelona: the whistling winds coming off the Mediterranean; the lilting strange babble that slid from Catalan to Spanish to Portuguese and several other languages besides; the percussive beat of construction going on everywhere. He could remember the dust and the barren stones leading away from the men toiling on the cathedral known as Sagrada Família. Stained and weathered houses everywhere he looked, sand-blasted and sun-warmed, the walls pierced by windows through which he could hear laughter and tears and singing.
The Barcelona of his memories was nothing like the Barcelona that he was seeing now, with his own eyes, through the lens of the camera that he was carrying: people everywhere, a thousand faces and a thousand expressions against a backdrop of sea and sky and a thousand shades of red and yellow and gold.
Something in Erik’s memory stirred: an idea of brotherhood. A man in an embellished jacket, in this Mediterranean place and time, who stood over a dark red stain on dark red sand, solemnly exchanging the sword of his sport for a rifle scuffed and worn down by numerous days of fighting. The man and his companions: three voices and one vow. A silent toast, with a cup of stolen wine, redder than spilled blood.
The words of the toast were the words of the writer, a man who was hiding his wounds beneath the storm of his emotions.
He thought, briefly, of a visitor to his Hollywood atelier: he thought of blue eyes and what they might look like, if they were captured in this place of blue light and blue shadows.
Suddenly, with a tug on his wrist and a sweet, too-girlish voice, the memory whirled away and Erik was forced back to the present.
“There is such life and such spirit here, M’sieur Malraux! And in the movie we have come so close to copying it exactly!” The girl wore a bright purple dress and an impractical hat - the elaborate feathers pinned into the band were already wilting, heavy with the dust that swirled up underfoot. “Listen to the singing! Listen to those voices - I don’t understand a word, but it’s all so grand and exotic! So happy! I want to watch the dancing and - oh, of course we must not forget the bullfighters!”
“Of course, Miss Parker!” said the man next to her. A shabby suit with a sweat-stained collar and bedraggled cuffs. He mopped his brow over and over again with a wrinkled handkerchief. “Wouldn’t you like to get out of this sun, though? I have arranged for drinks at the lobby of our hotel.” The man turned to Erik. “And I must insist that you join us, M’sieur Malraux; I remind you that you must accompany us wherever we might go. You did agree to help document our experiences, did you not?”
Erik couldn’t smile for the contempt that lodged like grit in his teeth, so he acknowledged the words with a curt nod, instead. “I am at your service, Mister Stein and Miss Parker.”
“Please, I have asked you over and over again: call us by our names! I am Ellen and he is Mark,” the girl exclaimed.
There was an outbreak of voices nearby and Parker leapt behind Stein with a cry of dismay - until he explained to her that the men in the military uniforms merely wanted to take a photograph with her.
When she immediately turned on the charm and began to smile so widely at the men she’d cowered from just a few moments ago, Erik managed to stop himself from rolling his eyes, but it was a close-run thing.
“You must come,” one of the men said, afterwards, in halting English. “Olimpíada Popular. We dance, we do sports - ”
“What sports do you play?” Parker said, putting on a show of being interested.
Erik didn’t miss the way she made eye contact with each of the men, the insincere smile plastered on her face, the calculated gestures of coquettishness.
Stein was no better as he fawned over the man who seemed to lead the group: each of the others seemed to glance at him before speaking to the actress, though this leader was wearing more or less the same uniform as they did, bar the red kerchief wrapped around his upper arm.
Instead of looking at them, Erik turned around - and began to aim his camera at the people who were reacting to the strange group standing on the sidewalk. A woman who tossed her long dark hair over her shoulders, as though to contrast against Parker’s blonde bob. A man who frowned briefly at his companion and then kissed her, hard, on the mouth, as if trying to win an argument of some kind. A little boy who tried to get close enough to touch the sleeves of one of the men in uniform, but was pulled away at the last moment by the woman holding his hand, who might have been his mother.
He kept documenting the reactions as the group formed up on Parker and Stein and began to walk away from the hotel. Heads turning to watch them, suspicious glances from many a second-storey window, men and a handful of women knocking on doors and handing out pamphlets on the street corners.
Erik followed the group up a long slope and at the crest of it there were several city blocks seemingly laid at his feet, seemingly falling towards the shores of the Mediterranean - hurriedly he changed out the film on his camera and took several pictures, flashfire and rapid clicking, and then he had to run to catch up with the others, the ground beneath his feet propelling him faster and faster forward and -
Someone was coming his way, running; there was going to be a collision; he had to stop -
He managed it, just barely, and he hung on to the nearby lamp post with all the strength that he had.
Before him, almost entirely too close, a tiny woman swayed dizzily, stunningly beautiful even with the veneer of dust on her face. A shocked expression. Bright red hair like an unexpected sunset, copper and russet woven into scarlet. A mannish outfit: the jacket was a couple of sizes too large, and the boots on her feet looked both well-worn and comfortable. A wisp of dark gray cloth knotted around her throat in place of a tie.
“I’m glad I didn’t run into you after all,” she said, after another moment of staring. There were familiar hard consonants woven into her deliberate drawl, sounds Erik had heard as a child. “If I’d started falling down this slope, I wouldn’t have known where I’d end up. I don’t quite fancy being fished out of the sea, thank you very much.”
“We wouldn’t want that,” Erik said.
She opened her mouth to speak again.
“Natalia! Are you all right?” asked the tall man whose broad shoulders strained the very seams of his suit jacket; there was a piece of white cloth tied around his arm, and the white cloth was crudely marked with a red cross and a red crescent. “And you, sir,” he said as he turned in Erik’s direction, “have you been hurt?”
“If I had, I would have deserved it,” Erik said, blinking against the sun and against his confusion, “because it would have been very rude of me to run your companion down.”
“Oh. Well, in that case, thank you,” the blond said, “though to be honest, I do believe we’d have to be tending to you instead of to her. She has a hard head, and she knows how to use it.”
The redhead chuckled, a dark and rich sound, and aimed a pulled punch at the man’s shoulder. “You’re much better at giving compliments than you used to be, Rogers,” she said as she took a battered beret out of her pocket and set it at a jaunty angle on her head. “You’ve been spending too much time around LeBeau and Cassidy.”
“Oh, and you’re not going to blame James?” Rogers laughed. To Erik, he added, “Excuse us for talking about these private jokes around you. It’s quite impolite of us, truly. Are you in town for Olimpíada Popular, the People’s Olympics, too?”
Erik shook his head. “I didn’t know about it until just about five minutes ago; I came here with an American actress and her producer. Publicity of some kind.”
“Come with us - Steve and I, I mean,” the woman said. “I’ll wager you’ll find more interesting subjects to photograph there.”
“I am very grateful to you for the kind invitation,” Erik said. “Please, lead the way.“
Only when Steve and Natalia had turned away and linked arms - she was at least a head and a half shorter than her companion, and looked him in the eyes without any apparent problems - did Erik raise his camera and take a discreet photograph of the two of them.
“The woman singing right now is known as La Pasionaria,” Natalia explained.
“I’ve heard that name before, I think,” Erik murmured, framing the diminutive woman among the dancers. She had a voice that could shake down the rafters at any opera house, full of strength and a powerful melody. The lines in her face deepened as the song shivered through her. “She writes music for revolutions?”
“Among other things,” Steve said. “Equality for all, respect for human rights, universal suffrage, education from the cradle, rejecting the exploitation of the many by the few.” He looked thoughtful as he watched the singer reach, and hold, a dramatically high note. “It’s a long, hard road, and we’ll fight for it, everywhere in the world that her songs are sung, no matter what obstacles there might be in our way.”
“You sound,” Erik said, carefully, “like you’ve been doing this for some time now.”
The response was an incongruously cheerful smile. “I wasn’t a child soldier - that would be our friend who’s taking a long time to get here. His name is James Barnes. He’s been fighting the good fight for years. The rest of us are just following his example.”
“And some of us have had the revolution happen right in front of our eyes.” There were lines of sadness etched permanently into the corners of Natalia’s eyes. “Big revolutions. Small revolutions. Either way, a change of heart. I knew a man, once, who was still an innocent when he left. Well, relatively innocent, I should say, considering the experiences he had had before ever we knew him.” A pause, and she winced. When she spoke again her voice had become ragged. “When he came back we could no longer recognize him.”
“We should really stop Charles from traveling to the Americas,” Steve muttered. The vehemence in his voice rang loud and clear over the clicking of Erik’s camera. “He was born there and look what happened to him. He went back and we lost contact with him for several months, and then when he did show up he was carrying a pen and a gun. Of all the things for a playwright to know....”
“Charles?” Erik asked, and even to his own ears he sounded startled. “I know a Charles who writes plays.”
“So do we,” Natalia said. He watched her glance over her shoulder. “And here he comes now.”
“Natalia, Steve,” said a voice from behind them.
Rougher and deeper and fractured, but still familiar enough that Erik couldn’t help but reel from the shock.
“And - do I know you? I’m sorry, you remind me of someone I once met - ”
Erik turned around and took the speaker in, and he was surprised that his voice was so even, when he could finally bring himself to say something. “Mister Xavier, I’m quite pleased to see you again. Erik Lehnsherr at your service.”
There was an ache in his chest that went beyond shock, that went farther and deeper than mere surprise, as he looked at the face of the man who’d declared him talented, who’d spoken about running endlessly after art, after truth.
There was certainly a painful kind of art now in Charles’s face, carved into it with the point of a knife: the scar was raised and vivid and far too smooth, slashing across the freckles dotting his cheekbone. It descended from a point near his left temple and stopped just at his jaw, barely missing nicking the corner of his mouth.
Now he smiled, or tried to, and the scar was in the way. All he could manage was a strange amicable grimace. “I - well, this is unexpected indeed, Erik.”
“I suppose that it was a good thing that we didn’t say goodbye,” Erik replied. “And it looks like you have been running, though you will have to tell me about the truth, or truths, that you found.”
“It was the truth that found me,” Charles said.
Erik was sorely tempted to take a photograph of him, just as he was now. Dusty, disheveled, sweat darkening the crumpled shirt and the unbuttoned waistcoat. The battered pen clipped into his pocket, the ink stains on his fingertips.
“...you’ve met?” Steve was asking.
“Natalia,” Charles said, “meet the man who stole a photograph of me, the man from whom I took that same photograph. Steve, I know that she has told you that story - here is the man himself.”
Natalia raised an eyebrow in Erik’s direction - and Erik returned the gesture with interest and a ghost of his usual sardonic smile.
“I like you,” she said, after a moment.
Steve opened his mouth to comment - but a sudden commotion in the crowd of dancers drew all of their attention.
“What’s going on?” Erik asked.
Someone leapt up onto the stage, bruised and carrying a torn red flag, and began to speak to La Pasionaria. From the way her expressions shifted, from concerned to very nearly stormy, it wasn’t about anything good.
“James?” Steve said, confused - and then he tore off, ducking and weaving rapidly through the milling crowd that was growing more and more agitated by the minute. “James!”
“Steve!” Natalia cried. She took a step after him - and then Charles’s hand was on her wrist, holding her back. “Let me go,” she said in a very quiet and very cold voice.
“They’ll come to us,” Charles said, sounding just as determined. “They have to return to you, don’t they? Isn’t that how it works?”
“I want to know what happened to James - ”
“And for your sake and Steve’s, I hope he’s all right, but this crowd is on the edge of madness and I won’t lose you to it. Not when we still have a message to share with them.”
“What message is this,” Erik said, stepping up to stand on Natalia’s other side.
“One you’re familiar with,” Charles said. “Since it is the same message that I have been trying to share with those who would see my plays.”
“I know about it,” Erik said with a nod. “And it is a message that I, too, have embraced.”
“Have you, now,” Charles said.
Steve emerged from the crowd, then, and at his side limped the man with the red flag, a man who could have been his precise opposite: where Steve was all pale and flaxen-haired, he was sunburnt and dark. He was nearly as physically imposing as the man who was guiding him - perhaps a little slimmer, but that was nothing compared to the broad shoulders, the scarred arms.
This man was also sporting the most colorful shiner Erik’d ever seen in his life, and even if he squinted and tilted his head sideways he would still be unable to figure out what had hit the man so hard, leaving those kinds of marks.
This man had presence, and next to Steve they just looked like they could easily shoulder the world into place in its orbit - except, apparently, when they were facing Natalia.
Erik wanted to say that he was surprised that she held the reins, but there was something altogether too natural about the way James leaned in toward her: the apologetic expression in his eyes, the lines tightening around the corners of her mouth. Her hand on his shoulder, tiny and perfectly formed and so pale against dark scars and lighter.
“Do I have to explain anything?” Charles murmured, and that, too, was natural: Erik hadn’t heard him approach but knew he had been there, somehow, circling the others with what seemed to be a wistful look in his eyes, that was still visible when Erik finally unclenched his hands from around his camera.
Any photographs that he would take of Natalia and the two men who were listening to her intently would have to wait.
“About them? Not at all,” Erik said. He was still looking around, carefully, his eyes drawn to the movement and to the stirred-up crowd - the men and women talking at the tops of their voices, and though he could not understand many of the words he could understand the emotions that he could see. Anger was a foundation that he could understand, though he had also come to understand that such a foundation was fundamentally unsound.
He turned again in place, and he caught a glimpse of Ellen Parker and Mark Stein - who had finally appeared, still surrounded by their escort of soldiers - and they were probably going to find him and head towards him, but he was finding that he couldn’t precisely care about them any more. How could Erik care, when she was the living embodiment of artifice, when he worked tirelessly to bring about a vision of the world that was mostly her idea of perfect - but was also, indubitably, as boring as the photographs that Erik had taken of her.
There were boxes and boxes of those so-called portraits in his atelier, moldering, the chemicals degrading and the paper crumbling away, that he kept meaning to throw into the trash.
Erik turned his back on the crowd that was a cauldron of seething emotions and focused fully and completely on the man at his side. “What questions I do have, Charles, will not be about this place, or how you came to be here, or how we just happened to find each other here.
“My questions would be about - that,” and he flicked his fingers in the general direction of Charles’s face. “If you’d permit me to ask them, that is. I’d like to know. What happened to you?”
The first response he received was a sardonic little smile, and it curved like a blade beneath the unforgiving line of the scar - and this time Erik did give in to the temptation. He raised his camera and through the viewfinder he could see Charles rolling his eyes, utterly disrespectful, and he could almost smile, with his finger on the button and the clouds swirling overhead.
A perfect moment, Charles’s face caught in a perfect instant of golden light, just when a group of women behind him began to shout and chant and wave their clenched fists in the air.
“Thank you,” Erik said, after he’d advanced to the next frame.
“You’re welcome,” Charles said. “But now I think you need to turn around.”
There was something wrong with Charles’s smile, then. Eyes growing darker, more glacial, the fury he’d been carrying around with him like an albatross around his neck becoming cold and contemplative and dangerous.
Erik turned around, expecting his erstwhile fellow travelers.
He immediately knew better than to mistake the woman squaring up to him for La Pasionaria. Certainly they shared the same face, the same eyes that were like dark oceans. But this woman in her black leather jacket and white shirt would still have been menacing, would still have raised Erik’s hackles, even if she hadn’t been caressing the shotgun in her hands with greedy grace. As if the gun were her first companion, her first solution to every problem, an extension of herself.
“I am Aguilar,” she said, her voice a cold quiet knife through the roar of the crowd. “And you will give me your camera.”
Erik almost took a step back, and thought better of it. Instead he stepped towards Charles, just as Charles moved towards him. Charles was slightly in front of him now, as if to shield his left side, and the pocket where he was carrying the film he’d already used today. “It’s my camera,” Erik very nearly snapped. “It belongs to me. Therefore, by definition, I won’t be giving it to you.”
“You are not allowed to be here,” Aguilar said, calm malice masquerading as good cheer in the glitter of her eyes. She held her hand out to him, palm up. “And the photographs that you have taken of this festival are not sanctioned by those taking part in it. You do not know what we are doing, and you will not understand why we are doing this. I will take that camera and I will destroy it and your photographs so that these valiant workers, these men and women, will not have their actions misinterpreted by the ignorant, or by those who have their own agenda, who wish only to exploit the purity of their art.”
He reined in the urge to spit at her feet. Just barely. The sudden appearance of Natalia on his other side helped him keep his temper, as did the shadows looming ahead of him that he knew belonged to her two companions. “I refuse to believe that you’ve just accused me of being ignorant, and I certainly refuse to believe that you think I intend to exploit these people for my own purposes. I am a photographer and my purpose is only to document. It is not mine to interpret what I see or what happens around me. It is only mine to capture these images so that they will not be forgotten, so that they will not be lost.”
“And really,” Charles said with his emotions in his voice, a voice that brought Erik back to a humid evening in an overwrought travesty of a theater, “are you going to talk about repression being the only cure for ignorance? So my friend doesn’t know what is going on here. The only thing to do, the right thing to do, is to let him know! What you’re talking about, Aguilar, is pure and sheer folly. Would you take away a smith’s hammer and anvil because he cannot make you a fine sword, when he does not even know how how to make nails? Then you will have no smith and you will have no nails at all, or ploughshares, or even buttons to hold your fine jacket together.
“And you will never get your sword.”
“He’s right - so keep your hands to yourself,” said a new voice, making everyone turn around, and making Aguilar cock the shotgun.
This time Erik took the opportunity to stand so that he was protecting Charles’s right side.
“Sister mine, I’ll thank you to let that man with the camera go,” La Pasionaria said as she stepped forward, and there was a smile on her face that wasn’t in her voice at all. She was wearing someone’s light, long coat over her bared shoulders, but that only drew eyes down to her elaborately beaded skirt, the hems of which she was holding up in her right hand to prevent them from trailing in the dust. There was a heavy Catalan accent to her English, so that she still sounded like she was singing.
Up close, she was tiny, shorter than Charles by several inches, yet Erik had no doubt that she could look down upon him.
As she was looking down upon Aguilar now.
Erik put his camera to his eye and shot several frames of the cold fury in La Pasionaria’s posture, one hand on her hip and the other holding her coat in place.
“You were told that you had no business being here,” the singer said, “and yet that does not seem to have stopped you from marching in, you and your jackbooted ragtag thugs.” She tossed her head, and Erik took a photograph of the men ranged behind Aguilar: there were no insignia and no names stitched onto their jackets, just guns and knives tucked haphazardly into belts, just pockets bulging with ammunition. “What could you and your killers possibly have to say to justify your presence here?”
Aguilar bared her teeth - but that smile was no smile at all, not to Erik’s eyes. “We are here to protect you, sister mine. You know what is happening outside this city. You know that the army is preparing to move in. You cannot hold, not here, not now. It would be a damned shame if we were to lose you to those fascist fools.”
“Your concern is touching, but I don’t need it,” La Pasionaria spat. Dark and affronted shadows in her eyes. “Neither do I need to listen to you putting us all down. You pretend to be one of us, you pretend to stand with the workers, but you wish only to rule over us. I can defend myself and I can defend this city. I do not need you. You are not wanted here. Me and mine will stand without you.”
Erik glanced at Charles. At the oddly triumphant light in those blue eyes.
“I have my defenders,” La Pasionaria declared. “You see them here before you.” Her hands moved, skin bronzed by the sun and nails painted crimson, expressive and graceful and powerful. “That man is James Barnes and he is the leader of Centuria Olimpíada. A militia unit, composed of the athletes who have come here for the games of Olimpíada Popular, whether they come from this land or not, and many others besides. They have volunteered, every single one of them; they have come to help of their own free will, and I will take them as my soldiers if they will have me as their leader.”
Barnes stepped forward and nodded to La Pasionaria, once; Erik took a photograph of him, beaten to a pulp and still standing tall. The breeze pulled insistently at the flag that he was still carrying. “May I introduce my companions to you, ma’am?”
Erik watched him look at Steve and at Natalia and at Charles, and they stepped up to stand with Barnes. Natalia’s eyes were still watching the crowd that continued to grow around them with every moment; Steve had acquired a rifle from somewhere and the gun was small and delicate indeed in his large and capable hands; and Charles produced an evil-looking knife, still in its scabbard, from somewhere on his person.
The click of Erik’s camera was loud in the hush.
“These are Natalia Romanova, Steve Rogers, and Charles Xavier. We are not athletes ourselves, but the four of us have the honor of being the leaders of Centuria Olimpíada. I’d trust these three with my life - I already have - and you can trust that they have the best interests of these people, this country, at heart. They - we - believe in the same things that you do, ma’am.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Charles said, quietly.
“I have heard of you, Senyor Xavier,” was La Pasionaria’s answer. “I have read the things that you have written. There is a fire that burns within you that I understand all too well.”
“It is a fire that I carry within me,” was Charles’s reply, “and I have been burnt by it. Have nearly lost my life to its brightness. But that doesn’t matter. Still I will go on.”
“Your scar does you credit.” She cocked her head, then, and added, “And will you vouch for your companion with the camera?”
“His name is Erik Lehnsherr,” Charles said, without any hesitation. “And yes, I do vouch for him.”
Erik stepped up to him, then, positioning himself so that he could also watch Aguilar at the same time - Aguilar, who had flushed a blotchy red, whose knuckles strained visibly through the hands clenched around the shotgun.
And then La Pasionaria was regarding him with fierce, knowing eyes. “What do you believe in, senyor?”
“I have known what it’s like to have your freedoms broken down and trodden upon,” Erik said quietly. “I have seen what it’s like to be treated as less than human.”
A fleeting smile, not as cold as her sister’s. The distance in it was tempered with a touch of sympathy. “Then you understand our struggle, though you may not know all of the particulars of this place. You must do what work you can do here. If it is through you that our stories must be told, then you must do everything in your power to tell those stories.”
“You have my word that I will do all I can.”
La Pasionaria held out her hand to him.
Erik took it and bowed to her.
“I like you,” she said, still smiling - but only for a moment, because then she turned back to the other side of the circle. “You see, sister mine,” she said, “Barcelona is in good hands.”
Aguilar sneered. “We’ll see about that,” she all but growled, and turned smartly on her heel. The men with her shouldered others out of the way as they left. Angry shouts arose from the men and women looking on.
Erik held on to his camera and stepped toward the others, but a quelling look from La Pasionaria seemed to be enough for the crowd. No one chased after Aguilar and her group.
There was a hush and Erik took photographs of Natalia, Charles, and La Pasionaria as they conferred to one side, surrounded by the other dancers.
He took photographs of the crowd, too, as it swirled around that tiny knot of urgent whispers: men giving piggyback rides to some of the children who had ventured into the square, women arguing about various ways of barricading the city, a handful of grandmothers and grandfathers discussing the care and feeding of the people who had come for the Olimpíada Popular. Intent faces everywhere he looked, determination warring with uncertainty - truth in every face, in every word that he could hear and most of those that he could not understand. Erik nodded to himself and felt that he was among people that he knew, people who might know him, and kept shooting.
He was just waiting for a handful of girls to start skipping rope just a few steps away from La Pasionaria’s people when someone began to shout: “Barnes! Are you here? Barnes!”
James ran for the stage and leapt back up onto it, and began to wave his red flag. Great sweeping arcs in the air, the movement of which Erik tried to capture, in a hurried series of shaking frames. “Bill! Bill Grant! Over here!”
The man who joined him was all long and lanky lines, and he easily overtopped James by at least six inches, and he looked nothing but worried from head to foot: “Bad news, my friend,” Grant said, and he drew in great shuddering breaths with every word. “We were running out in the countryside and we saw something, Max and I - ”
“Are you all right?” James said, anxiety cracking around his words. Erik watched him look past Grant, to the short blonde with the misshapen fists. “Max,” he said. “What news?”
The lines in Max’s face were made even deeper by his worried frown. “Tanks, on the horizon. Bearing down on this city,” he said in a clipped accent. “And I thought that there were a lot of tanks, but then Bill managed to catch what was marching behind them. Columns upon columns of soldiers. James. There is an army heading for Barcelona, and we do not know when they will get here. But they are coming.”
“We saw their colors,” Bill added. “They are marching beneath a black flag. It was quite visible in the sunlight.”
James’s handsome face twisted into a terrible rictus of a grin. “Those idiot generals in their so-called camps,” he spat. “Slow to enact reforms, quick to march to a senseless fight. We don’t have much time, then. Where are the others?”
“They are on their way,” Max said.
“I’m not going to wait for them,” James said after another moment. “They won’t catch us out unprepared. We have to get this crowd moving now. Bill, take a deep breath, and then go and tell Natalia and Charles to organize the women; Max, you take Steve and start gathering our supplies. You remember the plans that we talked about.”
“Centuria Olimpíada stands,” Bill said, and he and Max vanished into the crowds.
Erik stepped forward, caught up in the urgent purpose that roiled like storm clouds in James’s face. “What can I do to help?”
“I didn’t quite catch your name, stranger,” was the reply. “All I see is that Charles keeps looking in your direction when you’ve got your back turned to him. I just hope you’re good people.”
There was no time to parse the comment on Charles’s behavior; there was only enough time to answer the question. “I believe in something that you hold dear, James Barnes. Freedom for all. Forget about where one might come from, forget about that which one might pray to, forget about who one might choose to love. All must be free, no matter what or why. I’m Erik Lehnsherr.”
He stood tall under James’s dark gaze, until James nodded, once. “Good enough for me, Erik Lehnsherr,” James said. “And yes, there is something you can do. Can you get La Pasionaria to that building over there? It’s the closest thing this place has to a defensible position.” He pointed across the plaza to a building with a strange facade, where the lines of stone seemed to trace out the shapes of waves on the sea. “Tell her I’ll join her shortly. I have to get things moving here.”
Erik nodded curtly, and as he turned away from James he put his camera back in its little leather case. This was not a time for watching or observing. This was a time for action.
Someone was calling his name.
He turned around and the crowd whirled in spirals, gradually moving out and away, and then he could see Charles, pale with determination.
“You were given a task to perform,” Erik said, partly bemused - though he felt better as soon as he offered his hand to Charles, as soon as his hand was taken in a strong, steady grip. “And I’ve been given mine.”
“The women told us to get on with ourselves,” Charles said, laughing a little under his breath. “I’ve had more than my share of run-ins with women who’ve been given a purpose. You can’t stop them once they get started, and all we needed to do was give them that start. They are all on the move as we speak.”
“I see,” Erik said. “As for me, I must go to La Pasionaria. James’s orders.”
Charles nodded. “Then let’s see those orders carried out. I’ll help you, if you’ll have me.”
For Erik, this was the burning truth of here and now, in this place of passions and the melancholy whistle of the faint breeze coming off the sea: there was truly nothing else to say.
For once, what was true was also what was easy: he had to stay near Charles, had to help him, had to be with him.
It was easy to hang on to Charles’s hand when it was offered, and it was easy to walk and run at his side, and it was easy when no one looked askance at the two of them orbiting each other, at Erik following steadfastly in Charles’s footsteps.
Chapter 4: Act Three, Part Two: July 1936 - (the same day) - Barcelona, Spain - Charles
Warnings for this chapter:
- Erik talking about, essentially, people of his acquaintance who have been forcibly disappeared (desaparecidos)
- Charles talking about how he got the scar on his face
The courtyard beneath the shattered glass of the skylight still retained bits and pieces of fallen color and broken life. Charles consulted his memories and remembered, with a start, that this beautiful shell of a building had once been a hotel of some renown, and the ruins at his feet seemed to bear that observation out.
Here was a lopsided table, somehow still upright on three legs, none of which were of the same length. Its surface was still marked with water rings, with the faint impressions of long-ago coffee cups and wine glasses. Nearby was an overturned chair with its rush seat missing, the graceful curves of it still bound with bright red cord. Beneath the chair was a glimpse of blue and white tile, startling against the red grit that lay thick over everything else here - that got into the water and into the food and that was a burr on the wind and on the waters.
Charles glanced over his shoulder as he led the others into the building, eyes alert for traps and the possibility of this building falling in on their heads.
He was expecting focus, he was expecting frowns and hushed voices, but he had to turn away again once he could understand what he was looking at.
Drifting ahead of La Pasionaria and her women was Erik, and he was carrying a little girl in his arms. Green polka dots and dusty lace on her skirts.
They’d found her in an alleyway, crying for her mother and for her brother. Even now there were streaks of dust and salt on her cheeks, but now she was no longer weeping - now she was quiet and wide-eyed and interested, and her hand was chubby and delicate against stubble and a strong jawline.
Erik was humming to her, not quite under his breath, for Charles could hear him clearly. The tune was familiar to Charles, but he knew it as a brisk march, stirring and sung at full volume, with fists in the air.
Here in this place of shadows and overturned tables and chairs, where the rafters were thickly festooned with cobwebs if not with cracks and rot, Erik was humming “L’Internationale” as though it were a lullaby, slow and strange, and it was little wonder that the child was caught and pinned on the melody.
“Stop,” one of the women said to Charles, and she brushed past Erik, but not before she smiled at him and then at the little girl in his arms. “This seems safe for now, but we should all be ready to run at a moment’s notice. Run, or fight.”
Charles went to help her push together the tables that were still standing. “That does seem to be familiar advice, Anita,” he said, taking a large bundle of papers from her arms.
She turned a little away from him, so he could see the battered pistol in the worn holster that hung at her waist. The battered black of it should have clashed with her colors, bright purple edged in worn silver thread and deep forest green with black fringe - it should have been a blot upon the streaks of silver in the deep night of her hair. But the old steel that was streaked in rust and grime sat comfortably against the jut of her hip, the blue veins in tanned skin.
“I can tell you with rather a lot of conviction, Charles,” Anita said as she beckoned the others over, “that it is merely common sense.”
“Yes, it is,” La Pasionaria added as she strode up to the table, a satchel bulging with documents in one hand.
Charles began to lay out the papers at her silent command - a lift of an eyebrow, a sliver of a smile, a flicker of determination in the flash of her eye - and she folded her hands and began to study them, and all the while the women around her began to fuss.
They were not talking about braids or clothes or shoes or music to dance to.
They were not talking about family or the weather or the price of bread.
Charles carefully sidestepped the women as they began to crack open the crates that were being unloaded from a truck that had pulled up to the building, that was well up to its wheels in caked dust, and as he passed he could see the dust motes in the sunlight as it fell upon barrels and bullets and burled wood.
Someone called out a name, and the girl in Erik’s arms started and began to laugh and cry at the same time, a smile stained with tears as she scrambled away from him and ran to the young man who was standing at the door - he threw down his crutch and balanced his weight and hers on one ankle, on his hip against the jamb, and he didn’t seem to be in any pain as he lifted her overhead and kissed her on each tear-streaked cheek.
“I - I’m glad she found who she was looking for,” Erik said, his arms still open to accommodate the shape of a girl who was no longer clinging to him.
“Did you want to keep her?” Charles said.
He watched Erik straighten his shoulders and stand up and sigh, looking away, so that only a fraction of his face was still visible. Fleeting impressions of sadness and regret and grief - for a moment Erik was old and aged and sad, standing half in the shadows, while La Pasionaria and her women cleaned guns and counted bullets.
“I did,” Erik said. A quiet rasp.
“I hope that it was not a recent loss.”
Erik shook his head, a slow and heavy movement. “I thought that I had forgotten all about it. So many years have gone and passed me by.”
Charles looked down at his shoes. Red dust caked into the leather, visible even in the shadows of the alcove in which they were now standing. “We don’t choose when to forget grief, Erik,” he said. “It comes unlooked-for, and it leaves just as suddenly, even when we believe that we must still hold on to it.”
“And what a terrible need it is that makes us hold on to tears and pain as we do,” Erik said.
“I see we understand each other,” Charles murmured.
“In this, yes, we do. As for the rest - I don’t really know.”
Charles watched Erik draw a line down part of his own face.
“All in good time,” Charles said, even as the memory of white-hot pain almost made him fall to his knees. “I do want you to hear the story. I do want you to know how much I’ve changed, and how little.”
“How is it that you still have hope,” Erik asked quietly. He motioned to the women and to the guns, to the boys tottering up to them, nearly dwarfed by the weapons in their hands.
Charles surveyed the chaos and thought about what must be running through La Pasionaria’s mind as she pulled the pins out of her hair and began to put them on the map. She was marking something, and she was talking to Anita and one other woman about the movements, and there was something hard in what Charles could hear of her voice, as of rocks dashed against rocks to leave sharper and sharper edges.
“It is precisely because of my tears and my pain that I cannot stop hoping,” he said, eventually, as James walked into the building, followed by Natalia calling orders as Steve and a handful of other men continued taking stock of the supplies that were being brought in. “For hope is what they need.”
“Your friends?” Erik asked. “The women?”
“The children, the grandmothers, the young women with their schoolbooks,” Charles said, quiet, contemplative. As he watched, one of Anita’s women dropped a handful of red-glazed cups onto the table, holding down the corners of La Pasionaria’s map. It was a surprise to hear the splash and slosh of water being poured, and Charles could not say why the sound of it seemed to lift the heaviness of the shadows that were pressing close from the corners of the room.
Voices rising, the women making plans and the men nodding as they interjected suggestions and opinions. Here, in this most fragile of refuges, where the walls crackled softly under the weight of the dust and the whispers, was the never-ending buzz of conversations. Musical cadences everywhere, Spanish and Catalan countermelodies, until Charles was nearly overwhelmed: words like the drums of war, beating, like acrobatic dance steps to melancholy lyrics.
No one was dancing, now, unless one thought of the movements of the people as parts of an intricate dance, where the patterns and the cadences were very slowly falling into place, where there was a slow soft tempo that was the spur and the lash to every urgent step.
“James,” La Pasionaria murmured, and Charles looked into Erik’s face, the hard lines of him - he saw the weariness and the determination in him, and it wasn’t the first time that they had felt the same thing.
But this could be the first place where they could show it.
So Charles stepped to Erik’s side, leaned up against him, shoulder against shoulder.
Erik never flinched, never reacted, unless it was to press closer.
Together, they watched as James began his report. “Three barricades, as you ordered. They are being built as we speak. We cannot protect all of Barcelona. We cannot even close off all of the old city. All we can do is prevent them from coming into this quarter.”
“We will send scouting teams throughout the city, into the suburbs, as far as we possibly can,” Natalia added. “We will have to use the terrain to our advantage; there aren’t many places with good vantage points, and we will have to find them and hold them.”
La Pasionaria smiled, and Charles thought that she could almost, almost look like her sister - there was strength in that smile, a powerful conviction, a satisfaction that only expected to grow. But that was where the similarities ended. “In that we will have help from our brothers and sisters on Montjuïc,” she murmured. “They will watch the city for us.”
“That doesn’t mean that we should leave them undefended,” Steve said.
“We will not. I would ask you to reinforce the group that is assembling there. Carry my orders to them.”
Steve nodded, and got to his feet. “I’ll do it.”
On his way out, Steve stopped to whisper in Natalia’s ear, and then in James’s. They whispered back to him, held hands - all three linked together for a long moment.
James took Steve’s face in both hands, pressed a lingering kiss to his dust-streaked forehead, and then let him go.
“Charles?” La Pasionaria asked, when Steve was gone, taking a good dozen men and women with him, all armed to the teeth.
“I am at your service,” Charles said.
“I would send you through the city, as well. I want you to escort Senyor Lehnsherr. I want him to see the city and to tell its story, to tell our stories if he can. He must see our people, and he must see these places that we intend to defend, with our very lives if we must. James tells me that you know the neighborhoods and the back streets as though you had been born here instead of across the Atlantic.”
He should have been angry at the reminder of the long nights of his hopelessness, the slow drag of the minutes and the hours when he’d been in such pain that he could hardly see, much less find his way in the tangled streets. He should have flinched away from the memory of fleeing the reflection in his mirror, blood and torn bandages.
He tried to step forward, and tried to say yes, because the others were looking at him and waiting for an answer.
He was shivering, even when the room was warm, and when he opened his mouth no sound came out.
There was a hand on his shoulder and Charles sagged towards it with relief.
Erik was speaking, was drawing all eyes to himself: “Shouldn’t I be taking photos of this place first? Of you and of your people?”
La Pasionaria shook her head, still smiling. There seemed to be something else in her face, too: a sort of slow-dawning respect. “We are not the entirety of this fight, Senyor Lehnsherr. We are the leaders, true, but the people would still rise to defend what is theirs, to defend what is right, without us. So it is their faces that you must commit to film and not ours. We fight on their behalf. The right of this struggle is entirely theirs.”
“Then I’ll go, and be glad for the task,” Erik said.
Charles pulled the tattered remains of his composure around his shoulders and said, “Where do you want to start?”
“You will have to lead me,” Erik said, and Charles watched as he pulled his camera out of his pocket, as he checked to see how much film he had left.
“He looks like he needs supplies, Charles,” Anita suddenly rapped out in Catalan, throaty vowels and x’s, never looking up from her maps.
There was something about the quality of her voice that made him want to write verses about liberty and leadership. Something that made Charles want to stand up straight and charge right at the enemy at the same time.
“I know where Senyor Lehnsherr can get what he needs,” she went on, and while her voice was ruined for singing it worked just fine for giving directions. “Film, and a place to develop the negatives. He’ll need that. Three blocks south of Mercedes’s house, ask for Juanito and give him my name.”
“That’s right, I remember. Thank you, Anita,” Charles said.
“Come back in one piece,” Anita added, after a moment’s thought. “I don’t want any of these foolish girls weeping over you.” The last words were met with various catcalls from some of the people seated with La Pasionaria.
Natalia smiled, and didn’t bother to hide it, even as James snorted and went back to sorting dispatches.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand a word of that,” Erik said.
Charles took a deep breath. “Thank you, Anita,” he said again, this time in English.
This time the response was a shooing motion, and this time he tipped an imaginary hat to the others, before nodding at Erik. “This way.”
“A private joke?” Erik asked, some time later. The sun was beginning to set, and their shadows were beginning to grow long before them, as they continued to walk the quiet back streets of Barcelona.
“Hm?” Charles blinked, and looked away from the chattering women who were lined up to collect water from a well.
Erik’s words were punctuated by the clicking of his camera’s shutter, loud in the hush, in the failing light. “That exchange with Anita - I heard my name in it, or at least I think it was my name. Were you talking about me?”
“Not you precisely.” Charles shrugged, gestured at the camera in Erik’s hands. “You’ll need a place to work with - that. The film. I wonder how much you’ve shot already? There’s a place we can go when you run out, when you need to print - ”
“I see.” Erik nodded. “I still have something, but if I wanted to get the rest, I’ll have to go back to my hotel - ”
“We can check to see if it’s safe to go there,” Charles said. “Tell me where the hotel is.”
“Passeig de Gràcia. But we do not need to go there now.” Erik shook his head, looked away and at his feet. “I should tell you that I did not precisely come willingly to Barcelona.”
Charles remembered a conversation by flickering projector-light, and the ghostly image of a place in Düsseldorf. “I remember you telling me about taking money from rich fools in order to find true smiles and true faces,” he said, lightly. The women at the well began to move off, and he paced after them, Erik following in his wake. “Is that the case today?”
“I cannot be unhappy that you are here, however you got here,” Charles murmured, with all his truth in the words.
A sliver of a smile was his reward.
“Senyor Xavier,” someone called from above.
Charles stopped, squinted, turned around in most of a circle - and waved at the young boy who was sitting recklessly atop the cross-bar of a light post. “It would really help me feel better,” he said, “if you could come down from there, Joselito.”
“I’ve been climbing for years, I’m not coming down from here just because you said so,” was the sing-song response. “Who better than someone small like me to watch from high places? I am doing my part for the fight.”
“All right,” Charles said, swallowing with an effort. There was no point in lecturing the child. “What news, then, of the city?”
“We have friends at Sagrada Família,” Joselito said. One of the lamps lit up almost right above his face, throwing his clever features into startling relief.
He frowned up at the child. “I didn’t think we’d still be able to claim that place as ours. Too obvious, too difficult to defend.”
“I don’t think that matters to my sisters, who went there yesterday morning and haven’t come home since.”
Charles dredged up a smile from the depths of his worry. “Your sisters are being - impulsive again. And I should thank them for it, shouldn’t I?”
“In person,” Joselito said. “Take your friend with you. They like new faces.”
Click of a shutter, laughter from above, and Charles turned to Erik, who was gesturing at Joselito with one hand, asking him to take off his hat.
“Smile,” Erik said, and even though he said it in English Joselito seemed to understand, grinning into the last dim half-light of the falling evening. An expression captured for posterity. The face of a child’s recklessness, a child’s bravado.
“He has a true face,” Erik whispered, afterward, as they began to inch their way down side-streets and alleys. “I can only hope that he can keep it as he grows older.”
“If he grows older.” As darkness fell at last Charles had reached for his knife - he had no reason to draw it, not quite yet, but he could feel his heart beating double-time to the threat of what he didn’t know, what he could only guess at. “I have to hope that we are not running headlong into the jaws of war, into the jaws of Death itself. The black flag of our enemies has been flown over scenes of such blood and pain. Joselito knows all too well what it means.”
“You spoke of his sisters, but not of his mother or of his father,” Erik said quietly.
“I only know the stories about his mother. Anita told me. It happened before we arrived here. Joselito’s mother was a fine woman, good with a gun. Reckless,” Charles said, and he couldn’t help but sigh. “There was a skirmish with Aguilar’s people. Half a dozen bullets that should have struck La Pasionaria down where she stood, and the little mother simply took them all and managed to fire a volley besides. It didn’t matter that she’d missed, Anita said - just the fact that she didn’t fall, that she laughed as she fired, was more than enough to drive their enemies back.
“I was told that all three of her surviving children witnessed that death. And perhaps - perhaps that more than explains why they do what they do.”
A soft noise that might have been questioning and might have been understanding at the same time. “I’ve seen the boy; tell me about the sisters.”
They approached an intersection and Charles stopped, held up a fist to Erik. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Erik crouch behind a heap of rubble, no more than waist-high on either of them.
Someone whistled: a quick, sharp snatch of melody.
Charles permitted himself a tight smile, and whistled back: a phrase from one of La Pasionaria’s songs.
“Pass,” said an old man’s voice, pitched just low enough to be audible. “Here it is safe.”
“Thank you,” Charles replied, just as quietly. “Erik,” he added.
“I’m here, Charles.”
Women in the windows, watching. Shadows with eyes.
“The sisters,” Charles eventually murmured.
In the distance he could see the towers of the Nativity façade, illuminated by torches flickering in the brooding night.
“The older is Daniela, the younger Nicola. They worked in the kitchen of a convent, before all of this. Nicola was considering the idea of becoming a nun. Now she teaches others to fight with cudgels and clubs, though her own weapon of choice is somewhat - more delicate. Daniela’s lover deserted her to join the army, and hasn’t been heard from since.”
“The one that is marching on this city.”
A quiet hiss of indrawn breath. “And she wishes to defend this city from the likes of him. That is a tragedy in the making.”
“Yes.” Charles stopped again, and darted across the street, toward the shadows of Sagrada Família. “Come on.”
He looked over his shoulder. Erik was standing on the corner and his hands were frozen around his camera. “I had heard of this place,” he said, quietly, “and I had hoped to see it - but not like this.” He looked unsettled and awed and skeptical all at the same time.
“You will have to brace yourself, then,” Charles said, beckoning him over. “We have to go inside.”
“Is that possible?”
“It shouldn’t be.”
He slipped through a hole in one of the walls, listened carefully for Erik following in his footsteps.
“Can you see?” Charles whispered. “A little lower, and we can find a torch and light it.”
“Don’t worry about me,” was Erik’s response. “I can follow you well enough.”
The vast cavern of the unfinished cathedral, still open to the night in several large sections, swallowed the sounds of their footsteps.
Charles led Erik towards the altar, toward a mass of unfinished forms in strange stone, draped in heavy cloth caked thickly with dust. The ground beneath their feet began to shiver, to resonate, with the faint echoes of a melancholy song. “Do you hear that?”
Silence. Erik stepping up to his side, still looking dazed. “What is it?”
“A sign,” Charles said. “It means we are among friends.”
Off to the side was a niche hung with a tattered cloak in bright red.
“This way,” Charles said, pointing towards the spiral staircase. “They are in the crypt.”
He could hear Erik’s breaths as they descended, too controlled. Steep steel steps, one after the other, leading deep into the earth. The song grew louder with every movement, and now and then Charles could hear clapping hands, the low humming throb of a guitar.
There was a woman standing guard at the foot of the staircase. A face that could have been carved from flint, beautiful, rough-hewn. “Identify yourselves,” she said.
“La Pasionaria sends her regards,” Charles said. “The song we sing is hers.”
“A song that will not end until we are all free,” the woman replied. “You are one of us?”
“Yes. I am Charles Xavier of Centuria Olimpíada. My companion is Erik Lehnsherr, and he is a photographer.”
“Pass, Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr. You are here to speak to Daniela and Nicola?”
“Yes. Joselito told us that they were here.”
A nod, a tightening of the mouth that could have been a smile, and the woman stepped aside, and Charles could make out the axe and the cut-down shotgun leaning against the wall, easily within arm’s-reach.
Lights all around, torches and lanterns, the surprising must of fresh flowers. At the far end of the crypt, a woman in a white veil and a black dress was singing a melancholy air, a solemn beat for the people dancing around her - the echoes of her voice pounded against the weathered stone walls, rolling waves of wedded determination and resignation.
A whisper from nearby: “I don’t understand a word she’s saying,” Erik said. “But somehow I don’t think she’s singing about defeat.”
Charles tipped him a slight smile. “You’ve heard songs like hers before?”
“Not in the same language, perhaps.” Erik’s own smirk was drier than high noon. “But I know about drinking songs that sound like dirges.”
Before Charles could answer there was movement in one of the knots of people scattered here and there, and a man who had been watching the dancers got to his feet, to good-natured abuse from the others. “You’re just trying to get me drunk and I’m not interested,” the man said, around a brief grin. “On any other day, yes; tonight and tomorrow, no. Barnes will kill me, and I’m thinking none of you’ll be friend enough to give me a proper burial.”
“Come on, Bill,” one of the girls said, planting her fists on her hips. “We don’t know what will happen tomorrow, not to any of us - you have to live, tonight - ”
“I appreciate the sentiment, but please, I can’t.”
That got Bill an extravagant pout in response. “You’re no fun.”
Charles chuckled dryly, and stepped towards the girl. He felt a pang of relief when Erik followed him. “I might be half English but that’s enough to make me want to defend my flag and my countryman.”
The girl laughed. “You, an Englishman? I cannot believe it. You look nothing like Bill at all.”
“Which is a relief.”
He saw Bill roll his eyes and aim a mock-punch at his shoulder; Charles dodged the taller man easily, and mimed a blow of his own.
“Ha, so much for defending a countryman,” Bill snorted.
“Half English, remember,” Charles said.
Bill shook his head, then held out his hand. “It is always good to see you, Charles. Do you bring us news from the others?”
“Somewhat,” Charles said, shaking the proffered hand. “Our forces are moving across the city: Steve is coordinating with our allies at Montjuïc, and James and Natalia are protecting La Pasionaria.”
“She’ll be safe with them,” a woman in dusty brown trousers said as she joined them. The flickering light caught in the strands of her ash-blonde hair, which hung in unruly waves to just below her shoulders. “So what brings you here, Charles?”
Charles looked over his shoulder at Erik, who was hovering on the edges of the group, camera in hand but not taking any photos. “Friends, I’d like you all to meet Erik Lehnsherr,” he said instead of answering directly. “He is a photographer, and he thinks as we do, and La Pasionaria has charged him with an important duty: he is documenting this revolution, so that the world might someday see the faces of the men and women who are fighting to set Barcelona free.”
“Charles,” Erik muttered. A flash of surprise in his eyes. Red spots high in his cheeks. “You make it sound like I’m doing something important, when I just stumbled into this - ”
The woman laughed softly and raised her hand to interrupt. “And what makes you think we did otherwise? Certainly when I arrived I was carrying a sword - but I am a fencer, not a soldier.” She tapped a spot on her hip. “I came here to win medals, but it looks like that’s not happening now. Still I will fight, and still I will serve Centuria Olimpíada, with everything I have.”
Cheers and applause greeted her words.
Charles stepped aside as Erik came forward to offer the woman his hand. “Point taken.”
“My name is Hanna, Mister Lehnsherr.”
“Please call me Erik,” was Erik’s reply.
That set off a chorus of introductions from the others, who to Charles were familiar comrades. The names and faces of Centuria Olimpíada; the places that they had come from. Tariq the wrestler; Theresa the marathon runner; Jeanne the gymnast.
After a brief scuffle, Max emerged from the crowd, red all over. “I remember you,” he said, going to shake Erik’s hand. “We were never properly introduced, though, were we? James never seems to follow the social niceties.”
“Look where that got him,” Tariq snorted, to knowing grins from the others. “Though yes, it is just as well that Steve and Natalia are better with people than he is.”
Charles walked away from them as they began to ask Erik about the people and places he had photographed, and waded through the crowd to look for his friends - but he was diverted from his purpose by a sudden scuffle in a corner, and by a voice that he knew, rising in agitation.
“...you are forbidden from these gatherings,” the woman in the silver dress was snapping. The target of her ire was a man in a worn jacket. He had rough hands and an ugly scowl. “I know who you are,” she went on, “and I know who you’re with. That jacket of yours does not fool me. Underneath beats a black heart, and one I know well. So I have a suggestion for you: leave now, while you can do it of your own free will. Because if I must set the others on you, you will have to be carried out.”
“I just want to speak - ” the man began. A rough, guttural accent.
“We know what your message is, and we do not want to hear it,” the woman said. “Back to Aguilar you go! Tell her that she is not welcome here!”
Charles stepped forward. Daringly he touched the woman’s shoulder. “Nicola. Do you need help?”
“Charles Xavier, come to save my life once again?” was her answer, but the relief in her eyes belied the sharp edges in her tone.
“As many times as I’ll be around to do it.”
She glanced at the other man. “I have this matter under control.”
“Then you’ll permit me to stay,” Charles said.
“Please yourself.” When she looked back at the man she pulled a fan from her skirts and brandished it at the man. “Leave! Do not make me say it again, or else suffer the consequences.”
The man growled, and took a step forward, hands bunching into fists at his sides.
Charles took a silent breath and put his hand on his knife, began to draw -
“What is this, Nicola,” called another voice, “are you getting into another fight? You said I could join you next time. Is this next time?”
Nicola laughed, though it sounded strained around the edges. “It might be.”
“Good!” A face very nearly like Nicola’s, except for the star-shaped marking at her temple, a long-faded scar. Daniela smirked and threw Charles a quick wink. “You often seem to be around when we’re in trouble, hm?”
“Your brother told me you were here,” Charles said. “I am quartering the city at La Pasionaria’s request.”
“How is she?”
“Hip-deep in plans.”
“Good,” Daniela said again. “We will hear them from you, as soon as we deal with this idiot.”
The man cocked a fist, took another step forward -
And Nicola grinned and lunged, a whirling movement that brought her into the man’s guard and allowed her to land several cracking blows to face and shoulders and wrists.
Sudden silence all around, and the man let out a series of bellowed oaths - only to be cut off by the distinct sound of a revolver being cocked. The revolver was in Daniela’s hand, and it was pointed straight between the man’s eyes.
“I believe my sister gave you fair warning,” Daniela said, very quietly and very coldly. “You’ll only have yourself to blame, if you persist and we kill you.”
“Not if I kill you first - ”
Charles blinked red haze from his eyes. Suddenly he was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Daniela. The very tip of his knife against the man’s nose, pressing in slightly, just short of drawing blood.
Commotion on the edges of his vision; the action of a camera’s shutter.
“Leave,” Nicola said, again. “This is your last chance.”
Even as the man sneered he began to back away from them. “Aguilar will know of this, and you’ll pay the price. Every last one of you.”
“Let her come,” Daniela said. “We’ll be waiting for her.”
Charles didn’t lower his knife until the man began running for one of the doors. Every muscle in his arm shook. He wanted nothing more than to throw the knife - he knew he could take the man between the shoulder blades: a quick death, more merciful than most, and certainly more than what he deserved -
He blinked again, and turned back to Daniela and Nicola. Their arms around each other’s shoulders, the two of them leaning affectionately on each other. “Should I apologize for almost jumping in?” he asked.
“It’s good to be in a fight with someone who can be relied to on follow orders,” Daniela said, raising an eyebrow in her sister’s direction.
Nicola giggled and swatted at her with her fan. “See if I lead the cavalry in to rescue you the next time you get in trouble.”
Charles took advantage of their bickering to slip into one of the corridors leading to and from the crypt - but as soon as he turned the first corner he knew he hadn’t gone unnoticed.
In just one short day of sharing the streets of Barcelona, he had become suddenly and completely familiar with the sound of Erik’s footsteps following his.
“Upstairs I could see you, but this is another place entirely,” Erik said, a little rueful and a little worried around the edges, as he came closer.
When Charles’s eyes had adjusted to the darkness, he could see Erik’s frown, and the hand that he’d placed on the wall for support. “You didn’t have to come,” Charles said, mildly.
“I didn’t, but I did.”
“Thank you.” Charles clenched his hands into fists in a vain attempt to stop them shaking; he leaned back on the wall and felt the cold begin to slide into his skin.
Erik was a nearby presence, almost close enough to touch.
They could still hear the voices of the group in the crypt.
“What is it,” Erik whispered, eventually, “that they are doing in here, exactly?”
“Guarding an armory,” Charles replied, just as softly. “Several of the tunnels are large enough to store crates of ammunition in. And each of those tunnels is packed right to the ceiling. Enough bullets, perhaps, to turn the tide. At least I fervently hope that it will be so.”
“And the workers?”
Charles sighed. A soft, dusty rasp. “You haven’t been here long enough to hear from the army that is on its way.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“They intend to destroy this church, Erik. It is one of the first things they plan to do. They have announced it. It is part of their rhetoric: Sagrada Família will fall and in its place there shall be a black flag instead. Down with the spires and the years of useless building.” Echoes in the tunnel, low and chilling. Charles took a deep breath, and went on. “I imagine the workers, some of whom are already the sons and grandsons of the men who laid the foundation stones, would disagree with that.”
Silence, brief and horrified, and then Erik said, “I do not believe in gods or devils or angels. But that seems - ignoble. Barbaric, perhaps.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
A quiet sigh.
Charles shuffled to the left to get away from a rock that was digging a bruise into the small of his back, and found himself coming into contact with Erik: a line of warmth from shoulder to wrist.
“Will you tell me your story?” Erik said, after a moment.
“Yes,” Charles said again. “Do you want the long version or the short one?”
“Whatever you want.”
“That means I could be lying to you.”
He felt rather than saw Erik’s answering shrug. “If you have to.”
“Why?” Charles asked. The last time he’d had a conversation like this was when he came back to Paris with his face still freshly bandaged, with his stitches still painfully raw. He remembered Bruce staring at him, the utter lack of rage, the pure sadness in his eyes.
He’d considered lying to Bruce and had even gone so far as to warn him that he wanted to do just that.
Bruce’s arms around him hadn’t faltered. Not that first time.
After - that had been another story completely.
Erik’s answer, though, was different from Bruce’s: “It’s not really the story I want to hear, so much as your feelings. Tell me how it felt. Tell me what you wanted to do, what you actually did, to the person or persons who struck you.”
“I killed them,” Charles said, hard on the heels of Erik’s words. “Near-blind and screaming and incapable of reason. I was so angry I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was going to die. They had broken several of my fingers, and to this day I still think it something of a miracle that I disarmed them, considering my condition. Their weapons were oversized blades, something we had used ourselves, good for hacking a path through a forest. They had threatened to blind me. I would have accepted that - I would not have fought - ”
A quiet sound from very close by.
Charles ignored it and kept going, and the words began to run together: “I was bound hand and foot. They killed my companion and threw his corpse over my legs. To keep me still, I suppose. One of them put his boot on my chest. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t cry even when the blade cut into me. The knife was still wet with my friend’s blood. It wasn’t the wound that almost killed me; it was the infections, after - ”
Charles clapped his own hand over his mouth. He was breathing hard; he felt like he’d just been running up the long slopes of Montjuïc.
Movement in the darkness: warmth, closing around his other hand.
He had offered Erik his hand in the plaza, after the confrontation with Aguilar.
This time Erik was reaching out for him, and this time Charles took a deep breath and held on. A fierce grip, the two of them shaking. He would fly to pieces without it.
“I will not say that I wanted to have been there with you,” Erik said, quietly. “I will say only that I have thought of you. I wondered if you had found that which you were searching for.”
“I found a truth,” Charles said, remembering a night with a cup of strong tea and a handshake of an introduction. “I ran towards it until I was compelled to run away.”
“Was it a truth still worth knowing, when you had to run away from it?”
Charles thought about it. “Yes. Would you call me perverse for thinking so?”
Erik’s hand moved in his: a tentative press of fingers. “I would hear your reasons first.”
He wanted to joke about “Mister Malraux”, and decided not to. “It is a truth worth knowing because it is a truth I can share with others. It is a truth that they can understand for themselves without having to pay a bloody price. It is a truth that I wrested from the jaws of death with my own shattered hands.”
“Hands heal,” Erik said, “and we can use them again, to help others. To help ourselves.”
“You once accused me of having lofty ideals, Erik,” Charles said, and tried to smile - and to his quiet surprise, he could feel that he meant it. “Should I be applying those words to you now?”
His reward was a rasp of a chuckle. “Maybe. I do not know. These hands, after all, are still merely stained with chemicals. Still separated from the world at large, because I put my camera between it and myself.”
“Not true,” Charles countered, as gently as he could. “I saw these hands lift up a child who was crying, who was alone. I saw these hands hold that child close and make her feel that she was not alone.”
“I did do that, didn’t I?”
“And if you can do that, then think of what else you can do, here. Whether with your camera or without it.”
“Don’t get your hopes up.”
Charles laughed, softly, and then let Erik’s hand go.
In the depths of his mind he could admit to himself, if very quietly, that he missed the contact now that he was deprived of it.
Their side-by-side warmth wasn’t the same. Wasn’t quite as complete.
“Thank you,” he said, apropos of anything and everything else.
“For what?” Erik sounded baffled.
“I’ve been carrying more than just the scar on my face for a long time. Grief and loss and regret and fear, and far too much guilt besides. I forgot that there are other ways to honor a sacrifice. To remember a loss.”
“For our friends who are gone. For our friends and for all who created this path,” Erik said. “Forward, always forward, with one heart.”
Charles blinked, and was thankful for the darkness that hid his wonder from Erik. “You really did read Torero.”
“I might have committed some of it to memory. The words seemed to speak to me, you see. They gave me great comfort, when I - when it was my turn to mourn.”
“Tell me,” Charles said.
“I will, but - will you do me a favor?”
“Stay there,” Erik said, and for some reason he was whispering.
“Erik?” Charles leaned in, quiet alarm beginning to beat at his heart.
Warmth. Closeness. Sea-winds and sun and salt.
Those were Erik’s arms around his shoulders. Clinging. Looking for something or someone to hold on to.
Charles wondered, who had been holding on to who, when Erik picked that little girl up, when she’d soaked his collar and his shoulder with her tears?
This was Erik, shaking, and Charles stopped wondering and knew what he had to do.
He wrapped his arms around Erik’s torso, dragged him closer. Close enough that he didn’t need to hear the runaway tattoo of Erik’s pulse, of Erik’s heart - he could feel it instead. Frantic and fearful.
“Erik. What happened.” Charles marveled at his own voice. Calm. Patient.
“Another child. A baby. Younger than - she wasn’t even mine,” was the muffled reply. “I had nothing to do with how she came into the world. But she must have thought of me as someone who could be her father. I could soothe her when she was hungry or cold or needed changing, when her mother could not come home. She would not fuss even when I had to step into my darkroom and leave her to her own devices. She slept in my arms, held on to me with both of her tiny hands.”
In response Charles held him even more tightly.
“Her mother was a kind woman.” Erik’s voice, but not the rest of him, seemed a little steadier. “We should have been friends - actual friends and not just people who happened to be occupying adjoining rooms. Not just mere nodding acquaintances. She was never without a kind word for me, not even when I was a gruff stranger knocking around next door.
“They were taken away in the dead of the night. I was away - I was working - more false faces, more pointless smiles, but I was planning to return, and to give them everything I was to be paid. A not-insignificant amount.
“I came home and every room in the building aside from mine had been ransacked. The mother’s cot and the child’s cradle - reduced to ashes, a heap of broken wood and torn clothes. Blood in the corners. The smell of gunpowder and cheap cigars.”
“Nothing was left of them,” Charles said, as bleakly as he felt.
“One thing,” Erik said. “One thing alone. I found it among my things when I packed up that night. I was in a hurry to leave.”
“I can imagine.”
“There was something in my bags that was not mine, when I all but fled that place. I cannot know when she could have put it there. She wanted me to find it, eventually, perhaps. It was her copy of Torero. One page was dog-eared: the page with Mercédès’s final speech.”
Charles knew those lines well. He could remember weeping as he added the stage directions to the margins of his original manuscript.
A voice speaking to a hushed room. A lone spotlight illuminating center stage and the sword driven into the floorboards. “For as long as one heart hears these words and remembers. One heart is enough to carry on. Enough to carry us all.”
He could hear Erik whispering the words with him; he could hear the catch in Erik’s voice on the last words.
“You have lost a companion. I lost - not my family, but a child and her mother. You are my connection to those who were taken from me. To me, your words are hers, too.”
“Is this how you came to believe - ”
“They were the final catalysts, yes.”
Charles remembered: Erik speaking to La Pasionaria for the first time. The heavy shadows that hung from his face, despite the blinding sunlight.
“I should apologize,” Erik said, after a moment. Now he was tense in Charles’s grasp.
Charles held on to him, still. Kept him steady. “Nothing to apologize for.”
A soft sound, different from a sob.
“Even if you can’t find them any more,” Charles murmured, after a moment, “you’ll still have them with you. One heart. Yours. And theirs.”
“Yes,” Erik said. “But it hurts.”
“It does. I know. Not your hurt specifically. But I know what it’s like.”
“You do. So you’re not alone. So I’m not.”
Charles nodded, and shifted in Erik’s grip. He laid his forehead against Erik’s temple - and sealed that touch with a kiss, soft contact against Erik’s warmth and Erik’s trembling. “There is a word that is used here, that some in Centuria Olimpíada have adopted. They talk about the bonds of something that is greater than friendship, that is different from that of lovers and family and friends. They say that they are camarada: those who stand together. They share the path, and create it with their own footsteps, with their own strengths.
“I know something of you, Erik, enough to think that you and I - perhaps we might be this, too. You and me. Though I do not wish to presume - all that binds us, after all, is a set of words - ”
“A set of words. And understanding. We offered it to each other when we met. We walked away from each other then and we did not say goodbye,” Erik said.
This time when he stepped away - when he took one step back and out of Charles’s arms - Charles let him go, though not without a pang of regret, sharp icy edges cutting into his heart.
“And here we are again,” Erik said.
“We are no longer the same people,” Charles said.
“And perhaps we were meant to be different when we met again. Except - you still have that look in your eyes. A man in pursuit of truth. You’ve been hurt in the bargain, you’ve acquired scars. And yet you’re still running.”
“As you have been.”
Erik bowed his head, briefly, in acceptance.
Greatly daring, Charles moved back in Erik’s direction - and so focused was he on his intentions that he almost didn’t notice that Erik had mirrored him. Not until it was too late, until he looked down at their hands, joined once again.
“Your hands fit mine,” Erik murmured, still looking down, and the words sent a thrill through Charles. “Or my hands fit yours.”
“Both,” Charles whispered back.
The voices in the crypt began to rise again: shouting, now, agitated. Charles could imagine the whirl of the women and of the members of Centuria Olimpíada.
Trouble. The city that slumbered uneasily above their heads. The soldiers marching beneath the black flag. The woman who sang of freedom and of the people, standing against the woman with the shotgun and the avaricious eyes.
“Camarada,” Charles heard Erik whisper, making him look up -
Erik’s face, the lines of fear and determination and pain -
Charles closed his eyes, pulled his hands away, caught Erik up and hauled him in -
Erik’s mouth was hot against his, eager, pliant - Charles tasted tears and a long-banked rage on him, almost as fiery-copper as fast-flowing blood.
A powerful grip on his wrists, and Charles thought faintly of carrying bruises - only for a moment, because Erik was groaning so sweetly against his lips, and he had to take that in, before it was lost to him -
“Charles,” a voice called, echoing distantly in the corridors.
Erik hissed and followed Charles when he tried to pull away. “Charles.”
His name on Erik’s lips: the same word, the same sounds, but so different.
“Charles!” called that other voice, closer and closer with every passing moment: he thought that it might belong to Jeanne. “Where are you?”
Charles glanced at Erik, at the sweat beading in his hairline, at his eyes gone darker than the night and the shadows that they were standing in - and he took another kiss from him, as brutal as it was swift, his teeth sinking into Erik’s lower lip for just a moment, before pulling away, reluctantly. “It won’t be the last,” he whispered, his voice as hoarse as though he’d been screaming for hours. “I’ll promise you that. I didn’t kiss you goodbye - ”
“Never say goodbye, Charles. Not to me,” was Erik’s response, rough and raspy and real. “Promise me.”
“Never, Erik.” Charles grinned, suddenly, lit up by coruscating need, by feral determination. “Duty calls. We must answer.”
“We must join the others.”
“To wherever they’ll lead us.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he suddenly saw Erik shake his head.
It wasn’t until they emerged into the crypt and the voices of the others began to wash over them that he understood: Erik pulled him close, his back to Erik’s front, and whispered, urgently:
“Hang them all. I follow you, Charles. Now and always. I will go where you lead me.”
Chapter 5: Act Four, Part One: July 1936 - two days before the black flag - Barcelona, Spain - Erik
Warnings for this chapter:
- Children fighting in a war, carrying weapons, and being injured as a consequence
- Erik carrying weapons though he has absolutely no experience with them
A knock on the door, expected, but not entirely welcome.
Erik took a deep breath and kept counting off the seconds in his head.
The chemical smell clung to everything in the darkroom: like grease and grit on his teeth, like a slippery film on his hands.
He prayed for patience and reached the end of his countdown, reaching to disable the alarm before it went off - shrill and piercing and more than likely to give his location away.
Five seconds, ten, and then he switched the safelight on. Dark red light in the room. He could see the vague outlines of himself in the mirror that was precariously perched over one of the basins.
He plunged his hands into the last container, the deepest one, filled nearly to the brim with lukewarm water and pieces of photographic paper. Two dozen prints from three long days of shooting: he hung each one of them up on the clothesline strung the length of the little room. Images of men and women and children, images of the unforgivably photogenic city.
High noon over the sands of the beach in the La Barceloneta neighborhood, crisscrossed by innumerable footprints. Flocks of pigeons flying in to roost among the fountains and the aged stone sidewalks of Plaça de Catalunya, a whirlwind of dull-colored wings. A set of doors, barred and chained shut, beneath a pointed arch in weathered brick and a sign that read Cercle Artístic de Sant Lluc.
As beautiful as Barcelona itself was, Erik’s fascination remained riveted to its people. A girl weaving a necklace of flowers next to a woman who was sharpening a long knife. An old man with a basket full of bits of food wrapped in intricately woven leaves, chatting with James Barnes as the latter nursed a cup of water on the doorstep of someone’s house. Members of Centuria Olimpíada and other groups, all standing in a line, drilling with rifles under Natalia Romanova’s watchful eyes. Steve Rogers sitting in a corner, stealing a moment from his duties to hunch over a notebook, with a stub of chewed pencil in one hand. La Pasionaria from their first meeting, in her light coat and the wind tossing wayward strands of her hair.
And here was Charles. An image from the other day. Erik peered more closely at the photograph. He was running and he was carrying a little boy in his arms, and his hands were stained with blood.
Erik could remember taking the photograph and then putting his camera away, could remember running forward to offer assistance. The boy had sliced his leg open on jagged metal as he was making his way back to La Pasionaria with news of Aguilar’s movements. He could remember the boy babbling at Charles, could remember Charles asking questions even as he carefully cleaned and bandaged the long but shallow wound.
He could remember holding Charles’s hands in the aftermath. Red spots migrating, that turned into dark crusts underneath his fingernails.
After that they’d gone back to the others in hopes of a meal and a drink or two - but orders had arrived while they had been gone, and Charles had almost immediately left him, heading for the lookout point over Barcelona on the road to the town of Sant Cugat del Vallès, some twenty kilometers to the north.
“I will come back,” had been his whispered and worried promise. “I will see you again. This is not goodbye, Erik.”
He hadn’t been heard from since.
Erik tried to swallow down the thick taste of bile and fear, and forced himself to focus on his work. Earlier that morning he’d made it back to his hotel for the last of his supplies of film and for a change of clothes. He’d put the suit jacket away, exchanging it for a stained and battered bush jacket, still bearing the marks of his own clumsy mending.
After he’d changed into new trousers and put the jacket on, there had barely been enough room in his pockets for all the film that he had left.
He hadn’t gotten very far from the hotel when he was called back. “A telephone call for you, Senyor Lehnsherr,” the boy had said as he tried to catch his breath.
“I’d like to take that call in a private room.”
“Certainly,” the boy had said.
He made sure to lock the door behind him, and he waited a moment to see if there was anyone trying to listen in from the outside, before finally lifting the headset. “Lehnsherr,” he’d said, gruffly.
“I have been trying to contact you for days now,” said the voice on the other end, cold and formal and angry. “Where have you been? Why are you still in Barcelona? Stein and Parker got out on one of the last flights and now they’re throwing fits about you not taking enough photos of her - ”
Frost. It was Emma Frost. He’d had to think fast. Her family owned a publishing house, and she was friends with far too many newspaper and magazine editors to count.
He could use her help - Barcelona could use her, and people like her, if he could convince them.
So he’d interrupted her tirade - not something one did lightly to a woman of her stature. “Miss Frost. I will apologize to all concerned at a later time. As for the reason why I remain here - I assume you know something of the troubles this city is currently facing?”
Her voice went even colder, glacial now. The last time he’d heard it she had been tearing an upstart gossipmonger named Sebastian Shaw to pieces. Now he was on the receiving end. “Erik Lehnsherr. I am going to pretend that you did not just ask me an inane question. Of course I know what is afoot in Spain. From all reports you are in a city on the brink of civil war.”
Erik had taken a deep breath. Had debated how much he wanted to reveal. Had thought of James and his organization, of La Pasionaria and her people, of the hatred that he could still remember in the hard lines of Aguilar’s face when she’d seen his camera.
In the end, it was the look in Charles’s eyes that had strengthened his resolve: they’d been talking almost until sunrise, just before the incident with the little boy, and Charles had confessed that he couldn’t bring himself to write about what was going on. “I’m too close. I’m right in the middle of things. I can’t write about the songs we sing, not objectively. I can’t show people what La Pasionaria sings about, because I can’t understand half the words.”
“But you can write about what the songs make you feel.”
“In a very roundabout way, yes, I suppose I can. Too indirect. We need the words to come from the people themselves. From their faces, from their movements, from the ways in which they come together.”
He’d lifted his camera into Charles’s line of sight, then. “So we can tell their stories in another way. A way like this.”
Charles had stared, just for a moment, before taking his free hand and holding on tightly. “Yes, Erik. Exactly like that.”
To Emma, he said, simply, “I’ve been walking in the streets of the city. I’ve been looking at the faces of the people who are preparing to defend what belongs to them. Not just the streets or the buildings or the homes of their friends and families. They’re going to fight because what they have here is theirs, not something that can be destroyed by some windbag military men with delusions of grandeur.”
“Watch your words, Lehnsherr,” Emma began, but the cold was falling out of her words, to be replaced by mild, carefully controlled concern. “Those generals marching on the city - they are nothing if they are not powerful. People are beginning to support them.”
“And what I have is the other side of that story. Hundreds of frames of people and of their ideals. You might be able to make something of them.”
Silence on the line.
Erik held his breath.
“How will you be able to send me these - stories - of yours?” Emma asked, eventually, carefully.
“Will you be able to give me some kind of guarantee that they will be used?”
“I’ll look them over, Lehnsherr, and what I can’t use I’ll give to Fury. His newspaper’s been printing messages of support for the ‘freedom fighters of Barcelona’. Fair?”
“That is more than fair, Miss Frost,” he’d told her. “I will print a selection for you, and try to send them over at the soonest possible time.”
“As soon as you can,” she’d said, and then there was a sound that sounded very much like a sigh. “Lehnsherr?”
“Could I possibly ask you to come back alive?”
“I do wish to stay alive,” he’d told her. “I wish to continue living. But there is an army knocking on the doors of this city. That army marches under a black flag, and I think we both know what happens beneath a flag like that. I can only tell you that I’ll do what I can.”
“You do that.” That was the Emma Frost he was familiar with: businesslike and formal and shrewd.
Another knock on the door of the darkroom, now, and this time he strode to the door and opened it just a crack. A single bar of late-afternoon sunshine came in to illuminate his feet and the floor of his cramped workspace.
“Done?” the old man, Juanito, asked in a broken accent.
“A few more minutes,” Erik said slowly and carefully.
Juanito nodded. “And then?”
“A post office, if you know one that we can trust. These prints have to go to the United States.”
“Take them back to her,” Juanito suggested. “The roads into and out of the city are being watched, but if anyone knows a way, it’ll be La Pasionaria, or Anita, or one of their people.”
“Thank you,” Erik said, and closed the door.
The old man’s words made him think, again, of Charles. Cold hands. Worry and fear like brambles growing around his heart, holding it fast, imprisoned.
He forced his hands back to some semblance of steadiness. He had his tasks to work on, as did Charles. He disposed of the chemicals, wiped down the surfaces of the darkroom. The prints went into an envelope, which he tucked into the lining of his jacket.
It was dusk when he finally emerged from the back of Juanito’s house.
“All done?” the man asked.
“Yes,” Erik said, and handed him a few crumpled bills. “Thank you.”
Juanito shrugged, and made the bills disappear into his worn and creased shirt. Lines of kindness framed his smile. “De res. It is nothing. And you are quite welcome to come back, as well. I and mine offer you our help not because we were ordered to. It is because we wish to do so. Now, senyor, do you want something to eat? We are about to have dinner.”
“Thank you but no,” Erik said, as politely as he could. “I have to get back to the others. And I do not want to put you in any more danger.”
“Everywhere in Barcelona is dangerous now, why should my dinner table be any exception? But I understand your hurry. Go, and tell Anita we are well.”
Erik nodded, and stepped out onto the street.
There were many rumors of enemy soldiers already walking the streets of the city; as a result, La Pasionaria had ordered both a curfew and a series of patrols to guard major streets and landmarks in the parts of the city that she held.
Erik turned left at a corner, then left again, heading for one of Centuria Olimpíada’s three barricades. Broken furniture, doors torn from their frames, all braced against a ragged line of wood and stone and metal piled shoulder-high. The barricade was built to span half of an intersection of three roads.
Four shots in the gathering dusk. The sounds of an argument, far too loud after the shock of the flying bullets. He fought the urge to look over his shoulder. Fought the urge to run and hide. He was heading towards people he knew and he had to let them see his face. He wouldn’t be in danger if he didn’t skulk.
A lamp flared into smoky life overhead. A hiss and a sizzle.
A voice, calling out warning: “Halt! Identify yourself!”
Erik took a deep breath to quell the desperate furious skittering of his heart. Opened his hands, moved slowly and carefully. He did not make any sudden moves. “I’m Erik Lehnsherr,” he called. “I’m trying to get back to the old city.”
“Erik?” a second voice asked. “Is it really you?”
Footsteps, coming closer. The shape of a woman in a bulky coat, a pump-action shotgun pointed at the stones of the street. Her hair fanning out around her face like a luminous halo in the night.
Erik fumbled for her name. “Hanna?” he asked, still keeping his hands in plain sight. “It’s me.”
She strode up to him, peered into his eyes. “What are you even doing out here?”
“What I needed to do,” he told her, honestly. “La Pasionaria’s task for me is to chronicle the struggle in these streets. I’ve been taking photos of the people, and I went to a place where I could print the photos.”
She looked stern. “Next time you will not do so without an escort. I would have thought Charles would have done something of the sort, or made arrangements - ”
“He has been called away.”
Hanna made an unhappy noise, then called over her shoulder. “It’s him, he’s with us.”
“Thank Allah for that,” was the response from one end of the barricade. “Come on back here, both of you!”
“Give me your flask,” Hanna was saying to one of the men as Erik ducked into shelter and half-fell onto a weathered stone bench.
Tariq ambled over, hands in his pockets. He made a long shadow on the torn-up street. “Are you all right?”
Erik shook his head, answered the question with another question. “Any word from the others?”
“Safe, and holding. I heard something about a scuffle that Natalia and her patrol were part of. I also heard that she is all right. They stripped those soldiers of their weapons and their uniforms and let them go free.”
“That leaves us with the problem of Charles,” Hanna said as she came back to them, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
Erik opened his mouth to object.
The words were snatched from him by the thunder of boots in the street, and a stern voice: “This barricade does not belong on the streets of Barcelona! Tear it down and let us through!”
Hanna’s eyebrows drew down, and she darted back to her post. Erik watched her climb onto an overturned box. Steady hands, and a clarion voice, responding: “This barricade belongs to Barcelona and to its people. It was made to be here. Why do you want it torn down?”
A mocking reply: “You speak of Barcelona and its people when you were not born here? Get down from there!”
Hanna said, “No. Here I and mine stand.”
An angry hiss from the other side of the barricade, and the unmistakable sound of guns being cocked.
Erik didn’t think: he leapt to his feet and ran for the barricade, snatching a pistol from one of the others as he moved.
He stood near Hanna, cocked the gun as he’d seen Natalia and Steve do.
Now he could see the men on the other side and they looked familiar to him - he tried to remember where he’d seen them before - and then he said, “You follow Aguilar.”
The more he looked at the man who was standing behind the person threatening Hanna, the more certain he became: the same two knives thrust into the belt, the same belligerent expression. “I’ve seen you before,” Erik went on. “Did she send you here?”
Stony faces, stony silence.
“Maybe you’ll remember my face,” Erik said. “I stood within arm’s reach of you the first time we met. Maybe you’ll remember this, and pass it on to Aguilar. Tell her I can see the people and the workers with my own eyes. Tell her that I am beginning to understand her, and that means I pity her. I feel sorry for her. She is not fighting for this place or for its people. She is merely looking out for herself. I hope that you understand what that will mean for you, in case she should fall.”
A hand on his arm. He looked at Tariq, who seemed torn between fear and encouragement.
“Be careful, Erik - ” Hanna began.
Anything else she had to say was drowned out as Aguilar’s man let out a piercing murderous howl and began to run towards the barricade.
Faster than thought Hanna brought up her gun, racking it even as she aimed at their enemy -
Erik pointed his gun at the man leading the charge - and at the very last moment pulled his hand up, towards one of the buildings overlooking the barricade, and fumbled with the trigger until the thing finally fired, and the sound of it was shockingly loud -
Smoke everywhere, and uneasy mutterings from their side of the barricade -
But only one more shot was fired and everyone was still standing when the smoke cleared: the number of shadows on the street had not changed. Aguilar’s man was down, flat on his face in the street and hands flung up to cover his head, but he was unharmed, as were all of his cronies.
“This is the difference between La Pasionaria and Aguilar,” Hanna said, loudly. “We do not kill unless we absolutely must. These are our leader’s orders. We have given you more than enough warnings, gentlemen, and you know that we will not be leaving this barricade. So withdraw, if you please, or there’ll be blood on the cobblestones next.”
“We’ll be back,” the man who had been in the lead snarled, before he picked his companion up and started to haul him away.
“Go look after our people,” Hanna told Tariq.
He nodded, and slipped away.
Erik carefully put the gun down on the ground between them. His hand burned, and he was sure that he wasn’t imagining the pain.
“Don’t do that again,” Hanna said as she picked the gun up and turned it over carefully in her hands.
After a moment Erik noticed that she was careful to point the business end of it away from the two of them.
“Fire a gun, that is,” she went on. “Not until and unless you can be taught by a competent instructor.”
“Can you give me any names?” Erik asked.
“All I know.” She held up her hand and began to count on her fingers. “Natalia Romanova. James Barnes. Steve Rogers. And Charles Xavier. That last one is murder with a knife, though. He says that he had very good teachers. But I don’t believe him, not completely. There’s something else in his eyes when he fights. Something mad. I’ve only ever seen him fight once. I never want to see it again.”
“I want to hear that story,” Erik said.
“Another day, Erik.” She stepped down to the cobblestones, then paused, and dug in one of her pockets. “I thought I’d just returned this,” she said, and offered him a small flask. From the sloshing sounds it sounded about half-full. “Drink a little, then go and wash your hands.”
He stared at her. “How did you know - ”
“One learns to deal quickly with powder burns, when one is first initiated into the art of shooting. And deal with those you must, else the pain will throw your aim off.”
“You just said I wasn’t to touch another gun.”
“Who said I was talking about guns?”
She stepped away, then, and Erik watched as she gathered some of the men and women and began to speak in hushed, urgent tones. No smiles, no kindness in her face. Now she just looked like her face had been roughly hammered out of flint: too many shadows, wavering outlines in the night.
One of the younger women pointed him in the direction of the nearest well and Erik did as he was told, gulping down a measure of harsh fire-water that stung his tongue before going to wash the grit and black powder from his hands.
He was surprised to find out that his hands weren’t shaking at all.
The thought of killing Aguilar’s man had crossed his mind for an instant. A cold, brief thought, there and gone again.
When he crossed back to the barricade Tariq was talking to three women: a grandmother with stooped shoulders, a pregnant woman whose belly strained the seams of her dress, and a little girl dressed in trousers that pooled at her feet and nearly hid her battered boots.
Erik dried his hands on his sleeves and got down on his knees to turn her hems up. He didn’t want her to trip and fall flat on her face.
The little girl giggled and patted his cheek in thanks. “Margarita,” she lisped, pointing to herself.
“You’re welcome, Margarita,” he said, and he wished he could use his camera, for he’d rarely seen such a bright and guileless smile. The little girl lit up the dreary night.
Tariq laughed - soft and quickly smothered. “You are going back into the old city? Erik, weren’t you - ”
“I was,” Erik said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, to be honest. You might need me here at this barricade. I do need to get my - ” He patted the back of his jacket. “ - My things to La Pasionaria. I suppose I’ll go where I’m needed.”
“You’ll have to decide,” Tariq said, kindly. “The ladies can lead you back to her, and you can watch their backs for them. They will do the same for you. On the other hand, if you stay here, Hanna or I will find you things to do. Fetch water, shore up the barricade.”
“Anything,” Erik said.
The mother-to-be groaned softly, and began to list to the side.
He went to her, looping her arm around his waist and holding her carefully upright.
“I suppose that’s as good a decision as any,” Tariq said.
Erik nodded. “If I can make it back here - ”
“If you can return, you’ll be more than welcome. But you have your own errand, as well, as vital as ours.”
“Tell Hanna I’ll see her again. She owes me a story.”
“She owes us all stories,” Tariq said, and offered his hand.
Erik shook it, then turned his attention back to the woman at his side. “I’m here to help,” he said, as reassuringly as he could.
She nodded, murmured to the other two, and set off.
Slow progress. The night was a shroud, and a reminder to be alert. Erik divided his vigilance between the streets and the women who walked with him.
They passed an alleyway that was very nearly familiar to Erik - he thought he could remember it from the first walk to Sagrada Família, looping in and out of Charles’s footsteps - and then there was a sound up ahead that made them all stop in their tracks.
Erik had already heard that sound today, just within the past few hours or so.
Boots against stone. The sound made his blood run cold.
The older woman sighed and spoke quietly, vehemently - and grabbed little Margarita by her collar.
The girl gasped, not loudly, and turned a fearful look on the old woman.
Erik nodded as the old woman gently pushed Margarita to stand behind her - and he moved to do the same with the pregnant woman who’d been clinging to him.
She went willingly, but first she pulled on his wrist. “Senyor,” she said, and offered him something.
Not a gun. The blade she offered him was longer than most knives he’d seen, except perhaps for Charles’s - and it had been hidden somewhere in her skirts all this time.
He didn’t know what it was called, but its purpose was plain for him to see. Two or three feet of sharp steel, a dull sheen that seemed to swallow what little light there was on the street. The handle was made of weathered and cracked wood that had been lashed back together with an intricate lattice of leather straps.
The weapon fit perfectly into his hand, as though he had always been meant to carry it.
Except that he didn’t have the faintest idea of how to use it. He wasn’t interested in lopping off his own hands, and he wasn’t interested in hurting any of his companions.
There wasn’t much he could do with it except look threatening, and that was just about the last thing he thought himself capable of.
He resolved to do it anyway, for the sake of the others.
A deep breath. He held the blade in what he thought might be a defensive position, and called out: “Halt! Identify yourself!”
Silence. A sound that might have been a sharp intake of breath.
Erik risked a glance at his companions. The old woman just looked resigned - and Margarita was trying to imitate that expression, with little success.
The pregnant woman was holding on to her enormous belly with one hand. Rapidfire muttering, earnest and indistinct.
One footstep. Two. Movement ahead.
Erik just barely stopped himself from swearing, focused on holding on more tightly to his weapon. He could hear his fingers creaking in protest. “Identify yourself,” he said again, “or else!”
“Or else - what?” asked a voice in the night. Unexpected.
The voice of Erik’s heart.
Erik fell to his knees.
But it wasn’t him who spoke.
Little Margarita darted out and away, before the old woman could scruff her again, and Erik watched, blurry and still shocked, as she leapt into Charles’s arms.
For it was Charles, coming out of the night, unlooked-for, and there when Erik needed him. Blood on his torn sleeves, the left side of his face one huge bruise.
Erik watched, speechless, as Charles drew closer. He seemed to be favoring his left leg.
Margarita was busily whispering into Charles’s ear. Erik blinked as he caught sight of her hand, which was pointed more or less at him.
Charles let her kiss his cheek and, in his turn, kissed her forehead, before letting her slither back down to the ground.
Erik watched her come closer and reach for his free hand. He gave it, readily.
Charles closed the distance between them and sank to his own knees. Put his arms around Erik’s shoulders. “Hello,” he whispered, warm breath fluttering against Erik’s throat. “I did tell you I’d come back.”
The weight and warmth of Charles against him had to be real.
Erik let go of the blade and pulled Charles close. So many things he wanted to say, a crowd on the tip of his tongue. What happened to you? Don’t you ever leave me again. Take me with you wherever you must go. Who hurt you? Are you all right?
He held his tongue; he held Charles for a moment, as tightly as he dared - and then he let go.
“Erik,” Charles said.
“We have to get to safety,” Erik said. He tried a smile - something encouraging. “You need looking after - and by that I mean all of you here with me right now. You and the little mother, and the ladies.”
“Well, how could I refuse,” Charles said, and he got to his feet with only a small and slight wince.
Erik rose, and nodded to the old woman; she hobbled forward and picked up Erik’s erstwhile weapon, before saying something that made Charles cover up a smile.
He followed in her footsteps, Charles helping to prop the pregnant woman up on her other side. Slow and steady progress once more.
When they ducked into another churchyard there was a muffled shout in the shadows, voices speaking in French and English and Spanish. A handful of names: the women, and -
He recognized the third voice. Natalia. A dark scarf covered her vivid red hair, helped her hide in the night. He tried to stand up straight under her sharp gaze.
“All here,” Erik offered, at last, watching Margarita and her companions go.
Another moment of scrutiny, then: “You were expected several hours ago.” Something in her voice shifted, became slightly warmer. “I trust your errand has been fruitful?”
He nodded, and patted the pockets of his jacket. “I’ve brought all the film I still had left. There should be enough for several more days.”
She nodded, and looked satisfied.
“There’s more.” Erik took his jacket off, carefully. The envelope he’d tucked into it was battered and creased after his long day in the streets - but when he opened it the photographs were all there, the images clear even in the hazy light of lanterns and torches. “I was delayed because I - I received a phone call from a contact in the United States. Emma Frost. I don’t know if you’ve heard of her - but her family owns newspapers and magazines, and she’s friends with other publishers.”
Natalia hmmed under her breath as she perused the stack. “So you printed some of your photographs. To go out to these people.”
“Some of the American newspapers are starting to talk about what’s going on here,” Erik said. “If I can get my photos out to them - then more people will know about you. About La Pasionaria. More people might be able to learn about what you’re fighting for. And maybe some of them will understand.”
A soft noise from nearby, half support, half resignation.
“I know, Charles,” Erik said, favoring him with a look, letting his own frustration show for just a moment. He was frustrated because Emma wouldn’t commit herself to the cause. Because he had no idea who this “Fury” that she had mentioned might be. Could they trust this person? Could anyone be trusted now, other than Charles and his companions?
“Natalia,” Charles said; Erik divided his gaze between the sharp weariness that tightened the lines around her eyes, and the easy movement of Charles’s hand as it wrapped around his once again. “I know we’re taking a risk here.”
“A risk that could mean the end of us,” she hissed, though there was neither rancor nor malice in her voice. A statement, cold and rational - that was all. “A risk that could mean Barcelona fallen or lost.”
“It is a necessary risk, and you know it.”
“What is a necessary risk?” A piercing question, delivered in a voice that cut through the night.
Erik couldn’t help but stand up straighter when La Pasionaria joined them, trailed by James Barnes and Bill Grant and a dozen women. Every single person was armed, including La Pasionaria herself: two belts around her waist, the one supporting a brace of pistols, the other with a scabbard for a long, curved sword.
His stance forced him to look down at her, but he felt quite the opposite instead: he still felt like he was craning up to look her in her imperious eyes.
Charles nudged him, then. “Tell her what happened, Erik.”
He told her about his hotel, about the film that he was carrying around in his jacket. About the unexpected phone call, and the equally unexpected results of that phone call. “I agree that it’s a massive risk,” he concluded. “I do not even know anything about Emma Frost’s circle of contacts. She mentioned a name to me. ‘Fury’. I cannot tell you anything about him - ”
“Fury?” Bill suddenly said. “Excuse me, La Pasionaria.”
“Go on,” was her reply. Caution and care warred in the lines of her face.
“Erik,” Bill asked, “you mentioned Fury? I know someone by that name.”
“I don’t have a first name for you,” Erik said. “All I know is that whoever Fury is, he seems to be running a newspaper, too. Emma mentioned that he was printing messages of support.”
He was expecting suspicion, and he was expecting a blank-faced reply.
He was not expecting Bill to nod, once, decisive and satisfied. “That does quite sound like the Fury I know.” He began to explain as La Pasionaria lifted an eyebrow in his direction: “His name is Nicholas Fury, but he prefers to be called Nick. I wasn’t expecting him to run a newspaper, but if he is, if it’s the same person, then he can help us, all right.”
“What is he like?” Charles asked.
“Sly,” was the instant answer. “But trustworthy. He is dedicated to the cause of freedom for all, all over the world. And he answers to no one but himself. I’ve rarely seen a man so fiercely independent and so devoted to keeping so. I’ll vouch for him, if I must.”
Erik watched La Pasionaria’s now-impassive face carefully. “If he has been turned against these ideals you have in one way or another - ”
“Then it’ll be a painful and humiliating death for each and every one of us.” James met Erik’s stare head-on. “So? Am I supposed to act like this is new information to me? Hasn’t that been the sword hanging over our heads all this time?”
“And if our hearts be true,” La Pasionaria murmured, “then no threat can break this resolve that we have each formed. Not even that kind of death.”
Erik nodded, and saw a flickering smile, wan and knowing, cross Charles’s face.
He held on more tightly to Charles’s hand, and watched as that friendly flirtation with death appeared in all of the faces around him.
When La Pasionaria turned back in his direction, Erik was ready.
“You will want a way to make sure that the photographs fall into the right hands,” she said.
“Yes. But please do not ask me to leave. As I said,” Erik said, patting his pockets, “I brought back all the film I had left. I intend to use every last frame I have. Here. I will document the struggle, your struggle, until I have nothing left. And perhaps I’ll continue, even after.”
Erik handed over the envelope when she motioned for it.
“Be assured we will care for this,” La Pasionaria said. “Now you must rest. Look after each other,” she added, seemingly in Charles’s direction, before she led her people away, Margarita and her companions included.
Erik wasn’t entirely sure that James wasn’t smirking at him - but then he saw Natalia sweep off after him and caught a glimpse of her rolling her eyes in Charles’s direction.
When they were gone, he finally let himself look right into Charles’s eyes. Let himself show some worry. “You’re hurt,” he murmured. He was allowed to say it here: men and women and children milled around them, and the buzz of so many whispered conversations filled up the spaces of the night and of the crackling fires, that their words could pass without remark.
Charles shrugged, one-shouldered - elegant despite the dust and the dirty hands, the torn-up cuffs of his ragged shirt. “It is nothing. I’ve been through much worse.”
“Someone must care for it, and for you.” Erik pulled him close. “Please. If not me, then someone else - ”
“I wasn’t aware that there was someone else,” Charles said.
But he sighed, and caught at the arm of a passing soldier. A rapidfire exchange of words. As Erik watched, the man dug a battered-looking leather pouch from his bag. A faded red cross on the front flap.
“Gràcies,” Charles said.
Erik began to follow him across the courtyard, past knots of familiar faces, past whispers of faint sad songs. He found himself walking carefully, avoiding stepping in the prints Charles’s boots left behind in the dust.
At that moment, he felt that strange feeling again, that desire to walk in Charles’s footsteps for the rest of his days.
Chapter 6: Act Four, Part Two: July 1936 - (the same day) - Barcelona, Spain - Charles
Warnings for this chapter:
- This is the part where I first earn the Explicit rating. Charles is on top here.
- Depictions/descriptions of physical injury and the care thereof
By now Charles was more than used to the way that Barcelona’s dust and sand got into everything. Fine crystalline grains, smoothed by the sea-winds, settling on the pieced-stone steps and on the cracked and fading walls, in the nooks and crannies of the rough-hewn wooden door that he had to shove open with one shoulder, on most every surface in the little windowless room that was revealed to him and to Erik.
Only the bed itself seemed to have escaped the dust, but that was primarily due to the tattered mosquito net strung up from the ceiling on fraying cords. White sheets, the startling pristine decorated at head and foot with vivid lines of colorful embroidery. A sturdy wooden frame and a thin mattress. He thought of the bed as a witness to nights of dreams and whispered conversations, to days of restless sweat and quiet love.
“We’ll need water,” Erik said, breaking the silence and taking the first-aid kit from him.
“There should be a jar of some sort in the corner,” Charles murmured as he took a deep breath and pulled his shirt and undershirt off. “If it’s empty, I can tell you where the nearest well is.” Fresh lines of pain, fresh trails of blood. There was no mirror in the room, so he couldn’t see the full extent of the damage.
But Erik apparently could, because he heard a sharp intake of breath from behind him, and a damp, cool hand on his shoulder.
“Charles,” Erik asked, “what happened to you?”
He let the quiet and dark little laugh escape, because if he didn’t let it out now, the laughter would turn into hysterics.
Charles closed his eyes, let the scenes from Sant Cugat del Vallès play out in his mind. “I got into a fight,” he said, simply. “The outpost in Sant Cugat asked me for help in finding some of their friends. And by ‘friends’ I do not mean other fighters, other believers. Well, they are believers, but in something else entirely. Monks. From the abbey of Santa Maria de Montserrat. Peaceful people.”
The bedframe creaked, and Charles moved to give Erik some room to work. A patch of color was set down by his feet: a pale green basin, half-full of water. “A group of those monks were set upon by - I don’t even know who those thugs were with. I wouldn’t have thought that Aguilar would go so far afield to recruit.”
There was a sound behind him of cloth being torn up, and when Charles turned around Erik had taken off his jacket, was folding up the sleeve he’d taken from his own shirt. The white sleeve turned almost translucent as it soaked up the water from the basin.
“You couldn’t have used something else?” Charles asked, but not unkindly. “There must have been something in the kit - ”
“This is fine. It’s an old shirt,” Erik said as he folded the wet cloth into a square pad.
At Erik’s gesture, Charles gave him his back again - and he couldn’t help but sigh in relief as Erik began to wash his back. Circular movements, rivulets of water - cool on his skin, and in the slight draft that slid in through the cracks in the doorframe.
“Go on,” Erik murmured presently.
Charles swallowed, and picked up the tale. “There was a young monk - I can’t remember his name - they’d almost beaten him to death by the time we found him. The others crept around to ambush the poor boy’s assailants. I just leapt straight into the fray. I protected him with my body; it was all the shelter I could give.”
“Hence - this.”
Charles winced, though Erik was touching his battered left side very gently. “Yes. Hence - this.”
“What happened to the monk?”
“We couldn’t leave him alone, and it seemed foolish to send to Barcelona for help. We sent two of our number to the abbey instead. The brothers came down to look after their own, and after the others. Only after that could I come back down.”
“All right,” was all Erik said. That, and: “Turn around.”
Charles took a deep breath, and did so.
He watched Erik’s reactions carefully. The man did not even so much as flinch, though Charles was sure he was black and blue from forehead to waist.
He bore Erik’s ministrations without complaint, though he couldn’t stop himself from hissing as Erik found the more painful spots.
“Sorry,” Erik whispered.
Charles couldn’t speak.
The rippling movement of the water in the basin. The steady beat of Erik’s breathing. Charles watched him wash the blood and the dust away, too lost in wonder to break the silence.
There were just enough bandages in the first-aid kit to go around Charles’s torso. He watched the expressions playing across Erik’s face - the sheer stubborn determination that melted away into a half-smiled apology when he pulled the knots tight against Charles’s protesting ribs. “Sorry,” Erik said again.
Charles swallowed, thickly; found his voice again. “Please don’t apologize,” he said. “You’re not hurting me.”
“But it does hurt.”
“It does. I don’t mind it at all. I swear I’m not just saying that to make you feel better.”
Erik snorted softly. “What about your hand?”
Charles raised an eyebrow at him. “What about it?”
“We’re out of bandages.”
“Leave it alone. I can do without.”
Instead of answering, Erik shook his head and in one smooth motion tore off his other sleeve.
Charles covered his mouth, but it wasn’t enough to stop the shocked half-chuckle from escaping.
Erik offered him a lopsided smile and bent to the basin once more, to wash the makeshift bandage thoroughly.
His hands were too gentle on Charles’s, winding the cloth twice around battered knuckles, and tying it off with one final firm twist.
When he got up to pour the water in the basin away, Charles wondered why he suddenly felt so alone - and, inexplicably, cold, or something that made him shiver and half-reach out to Erik’s back.
He dropped that hand back to the bed just as Erik turned back around and recrossed the space to sit next to him.
“And you?” Charles asked, after a moment. “Your hands are clean, but you’re moving as if you’ve been hurt.”
Erik looked startled and then sheepish, and Charles grinned at the sudden flush in his cheeks.
“I might have left one thing out of the story I told them downstairs,” Erik said.
Charles motioned him closer. Sat with him, touching him, from shoulder to hip to knee to ankle. “Tell me?” he asked, deliberately speaking lightly.
“On my way back from Passeig de Gràcia I had to pass one of the barricades erected by La Pasionaria’s people,” Erik said.
Charles thought for a moment. “I think I know where that is,” he said. “Hanna and Tariq?”
“Yes. I had to identify myself to them, and they let me through. But I wasn’t the only one who attempted to cross.”
He watched Erik’s eyes darken. Watched the convulsive movement of the skin of Erik’s throat as Erik swallowed with some difficulty.
“I recognized one face in the group that challenged that barricade,” he said, in fits and starts. “One of Aguilar’s men. He’d been there when I met you and everyone else, and nearly had my camera taken away from me. I’d have known him anywhere. His group wanted the barricade torn down. There were - insults.”
Charles winced. “And Hanna doesn’t suffer idiots lightly.”
“Yes, precisely that,” Erik said. “She was armed, and so was I - I took a gun from one of the others. I - I wanted to fire on that man so badly. I didn’t even really know what I was doing. It’s a wonder I didn’t hurt myself or anyone on our side.”
“And on theirs - ”
“I didn’t hit anyone, Charles.” Erik gave him a brief bleak smile. “At the last moment I remembered to fire into one of the empty buildings. Hanna, apparently, shot the stones in the street.”
Charles smiled, and turned that smile in towards Erik’s shoulder. “I’m glad.”
“So am I. Hanna said I shouldn’t touch a gun again unless I was being instructed. And she said that you could teach me.”
“If you want me to,” Charles told him, “I will.” A thought occurred to him then. “Powder burns.”
“Your hand, Erik. The one you used to fire the gun. Did that hand hurt, after?”
“Powder burns.” Charles smiled. “Left or right?”
A brief flicker of confusion. “Right. Why do you ask?”
“Because I wanted to know,” Charles said, and very carefully he wrapped his fingers around Erik’s right hand. He stroked small circles over the knuckles. “I’m glad,” he said, once again.
This time Erik responded with a question. “Why?”
Charles kept looking at him, even as he brought Erik’s right hand up to his mouth. He held Erik’s gaze as he turned that hand over, and pressed a kiss to the pale, broad palm. He leaned into the fluttering movement of Erik’s fingers, coming up to touch his cheek, his jaw, his eyebrow. “Because you picked up a gun to defend others. Because at the very last moment, you decided you wanted no part of killing someone for the sake of a few foolish words.”
He kissed Erik’s wrist, next. A strong pulse beat just beneath his lips.
He felt rather than saw Erik take in a labored breath as he ran his tongue up to the base of Erik’s thumb.
“Charles.” Erik’s voice was thready and quiet, just enough to fill the few and far between spaces separating the two of them.
Charles didn’t look up from his scrutiny of Erik’s fingers. There was a sort of smoothness to the pad of Erik’s pointer finger, a faint indentation in the shape of a hollowed-out circle. That indentation was the exact size and shape of the shutter button on a typical camera. “Do you want me to stop?”
“I want you to - ” The words cut off in mid-stream.
Charles put the tip of Erik’s middle finger into his mouth, and bit down very lightly, very carefully. “Yes?” he asked, after. “What is it, Erik?”
He didn’t get an answer. At least, not an answer in words: because Erik was moving his hands, because Erik was taking him by the shoulders, because Erik was holding him still and moving in to kiss him.
A hungry, yearning sound.
Charles wasn’t sure who had made it. Perhaps it had been both of them, meeting at last, like this, in a place like this. A different kind of meeting: not the type that was a war of harsh judgements and sarcasm. Not the type that was sealed with a friendly handshake over cups of tea and the flickering light of a projector. Not the type that was interrupted by crowds and dust and a song of revolution.
Something else completely.
Charles smiled into Erik’s needy kiss, put his hands up to Erik’s wrists - and pulled away.
Erik looked dazed, wild-eyed, and confused, and Charles could remedy that last, at least, by leaning back in and bestowing a quick, firm kiss.
“I don’t know what you want,” Erik said, at last, after several futile attempts at trying to speak. “I - is this all right - did I do something wrong?”
Charles hastened to reassure him. “Absolutely not. And I want this, I want you.”
“Then why - ?”
Charles reached for the buttons of Erik’s now-ruined shirt. Began to undo each one. He ran his fingers over Erik’s chest and torso as the skin was exposed to him. “Freckles everywhere,” he whispered, delighted.
“Not as many as yours. You’re, you’re like a negative image. Of the sky at night.” Erik waved a hand, looking badly distracted. “Dark stars and constellations, wheeling in a pale sky.”
“I’m afraid I don’t quite look as majestic as you’re making me out to be,” Charles said, rueful and amused. He motioned at the livid bruising. “Not now, at the very least. And that will only get worse before it gets better.”
“When the stars are hidden in clouds or in smoke, have we lost them? Those bruises do not obscure who you truly are.”
Charles laughed and leaned in and took a deep breath. This close he could smell Erik again: the same salt, the same sweat. The faint burn of the chemicals he used to develop his photographs, and the equally half-imagined harshness of mixed gunpowder and fear.
He put his hands on Erik’s shoulders, drew him in.
A second series of kisses, like being tossed this way and that on rough waves, in the middle of a fierce storm. He could feel Erik fighting to get closer, shifting restlessly on the bed. Cloth rustling against cloth, the normally quiet sounds seemingly amplified in the intent silence of the room.
Charles licked coaxingly at Erik’s lip and followed that up with a deep kiss, chasing Erik’s quiet needy whispers back into him. Breathing in all of him, from the tremor in his fingertips to the swift grazing sharpness of Erik’s teeth, biting at his mouth as Charles had done to his hand.
Erik’s hands were moving all over him, and Charles shuddered and tried to press even closer, shivering with every sweeping stroke. Startling contrast between being touched over the bandages and being touched on bared skin.
“Charles,” Erik said, suddenly, as if from very far away.
He drew in a ragged breath and opened his eyes without really remembering when he’d closed them.
Erik smiled at him: tentative, again.
Was Erik asking for permission? Didn’t he already know that he had it?
How could he tell Erik more clearly that he had Charles’s permission to do anything? Anything he wanted, here, now?
“I’m going to do something that I think might make you uncomfortable,” Erik said, after a moment.
Charles shook his head, a brief movement. “Not until you tell me what it is. Then I’ll decide.”
Erik nodded. Moved the hand that had been resting in the crook of Charles’s left arm, upwards. Rough skin dragging over freckles.
Charles shivered, and not because Erik was touching his bruises.
The touch moved upwards, to his throat and to the angle of his jaw.
“Here,” Erik whispered.
One finger alongside the length of Charles’s scar.
“You want to touch - that?” Charles asked, honestly surprised, but he shifted, anyway, tilting his face into Erik’s hand. “I don’t feel anything, Erik, when you touch me where the stitches were.”
Something glittered in Erik’s eyes, then. “But you’ll feel this.”
Charles held still, let Erik crowd him, let Erik kiss his left temple.
Then Erik kissed him again, but this time, right on his cheek - and right on the scar.
He’d never been hit by lightning, never touched a bare electrical wire while it was in use - but the sensation was shattering all the same. In the middle of Erik’s lingering kiss there was an area of near-complete blankness, where he knew the deadened skin was - while the nerves on either side of the red raised scar seemed to be twice as sensitive, thrumming to the heat of Erik, and Charles bit down hard against the urge to cry out.
He couldn’t, however, stop himself from hanging on to Erik’s shoulders.
“Tell me to stop,” Erik said, rumbling against his sensitized skin, “and I will.”
Charles hissed out an obscenity, something he’d picked up from Anita, a long low rolling moan. “No,” he growled. “Don’t stop.”
He felt Erik’s smile widen against his cheek. “With pleasure.”
Sweet shaking madness, in the circle of Erik’s arms: Charles felt that he would fly apart as Erik bore him carefully down into the embroidered sheets. His heart beat to a savage pulse, to a baser instinct - he arched up into Erik, felt the answering press of Erik’s body into his, the two of them falling into each other.
Everything was entirely new. Erik’s mouth, swollen and bruised from their kisses - a far more pleasurable bruising than his own, Charles hoped, as he ran his thumb gently over those slick soft lips. It made him gasp, and then smile, as Erik sucked that finger in, now swiping hungrily up and down the length, now sucking and swallowing around the sensitive fingertip.
“Something tells me,” Charles whispered after an awe-struck moment, “that you might just be satisfied with nothing more than that.”
Erik let him go and grinned, lust-drunk, raspy-voiced: “Never. I’ll never be satisfied. I’ll want you and want you and want you.”
“And I you.”
Erik’s hands on his shoulders, holding him down.
Charles raised an eyebrow at him.
“I want to know what you like,” Erik said, in between kisses scattered up and down his neck, his throat.
“Or I could just tell you,” Charles gasped as Erik tasted the sweat in the hollow between his collar bones.
“Then tell me,” Erik said - then Charles felt him press his mouth to the juncture of shoulder and arm, and suck. Pinprick-flowering pain, brief and startlingly good, fading into something very much like wildfire licking along Charles’s nerves. All-consuming pleasure, white-hot and powerful, and he hung on blindly and called Erik’s name as that mouth moved lower and lower still.
When Erik’s hands moved to his trousers Charles drew in a shaky breath, nodded, trusting.
When he was naked on the sheets he made himself open his eyes, made himself look into Erik’s face. Erik, frozen as he knelt upright, knees on either side of Charles’s legs.
What he saw there - wonder, need, joy - it was nothing he’d ever seen before. Pure pleasure: Erik’s parted lips, the thin rim of dark shifting color around darker deep pupils, the red flush in sweat-sheened skin.
“Erik,” Charles said, and he could hear a different wonder in his own voice, one that needed and that needed to give - and he carefully sat up. One hand curved around Erik’s throat, a gentle but firm grip - and he began to smile as Erik pressed forward into that hand, ever so slightly, so he could feel the hammering pulse of Erik’s heart.
The other at the fly of Erik’s trousers.
Charles whispered Erik’s words back to him. “I want to know what you like.”
“Your hands on me,” was the ready whispered response.
Charles undid the buttons, one-handed. Smoothed his fingers over the front of Erik’s undershorts, the hardness of him. He couldn’t help but smile, and lick his lips, and look up at Erik through lowered eyelashes.
Erik made a strangled sound, struggled for words, gave up. Said, quietly, Charles’s name.
Charles pulled Erik’s clothes away. Coaxed him to sit back down near the pillows. Crawled into the circle of his arms.
He breathed Erik in, breathed in the musk and the sweat of him. He slid his arms around Erik’s waist, around the lean lines of him, and whispered nonsense into the damp skin of his shoulder.
He leaned up when Erik cupped the back of his head with one hand.
“I can think of a few exciting nights,” Erik said. “And I can think of a man striding into a theater, all but ablaze with righteous indignation, cutting people down with the truth of his words.”
Charles laughed softly. “You didn’t seem to be affected.”
A pause, then: “I was.” Erik sighed quietly. “I was even more struck, however, by that same man and that same truth, standing in my quarters, telling me about the truth I was carrying around in my heart.”
“Erik.” Charles leaned in, kissed the corner of his mouth. Quietly awestruck. “I said we were running after the truth, weren’t we, in our own separate ways?”
“Now we’re running.” Something shifted in Erik’s expression - something that could almost be called hope. “Together?”
“Yes.” It was Charles’s turn to take a deep breath. There was a lingering seed of doubt in his heart. He wanted it gone. “But what happens if I should lose my way? It’s happened before, you see. And no one - no one came to find me.”
“No one?” He felt Erik’s arms tighten around him.
“No one. The people I was with - they couldn’t do anything for me.” He closed his eyes. “Bruce was the first to walk away. He and Natalia and I, we made a set, during my years in Paris. I think that I loved him, and I know that I loved her. But - all of that is different now. She’s found the two people she needs, the same two people who need her.”
“Steve and James.”
“All three of them, yes. And Bruce - Bruce was the one who took care of me, who took charge of me. But perhaps we could never have been truly together. He saw me so wounded, so broken and bleeding, and in the end he couldn’t bear it. In the end, he apologized, and he said goodbye. Now there’s you. You knew me, just, before the scar. And now you know me with it.”
“And knowing you, I’ll stay. I’ll be here. You won’t need to run after your truths by yourself. I’ll run with you. I’ll carry you, too, but only if you need me to.”
Charles took a deep breath, looked up into Erik’s eyes. Unshed tears, mirroring his own. “I’ll be with you,” he said, at last. “And you’ll be with me.”
“Then be with me now,” Charles said, and pulled him down into the sheets.
Shared pulse, shared breath, shared need. Eyes on each other.
“You said you wanted my hands on you,” Charles said.
“Will you put your hands on me, too? Will you let me feel you?”
He smiled and kissed Erik again, pulling away after a few heated moments only to kiss a path down Erik’s throat, his chest, his stomach.
Down to Erik’s cock, thick and hard, the tip already damp.
He sent Erik a reassuring smile. Took a deep breath of him, overwhelming smell of man and need, and took that cock into his mouth.
Soft breathless sounds fell from Erik’s lips, and Charles took them for encouragement. Began to work slowly and carefully down the shaft. The stretch of his lips around that girth. He himself was so hard he could barely think. But he was focused on Erik, wanted to give Erik this pleasure - he pushed all thought of his own neglected cock out of his mind and kept going.
When he could swallow around Erik, Erik called out his name, once, and then clapped his own hand over his mouth.
Charles hummed and began to set up a rhythm, deep insistent suckling. Tilting his head this way and that, trying to find the right position.
“Charles, please - ”
Reluctantly, Charles pulled away. His own voice a breathless rasp, nearly identical to Erik’s own hoarse whispers. “Erik?”
“Don’t want to finish - ”
He blinked at Erik. “Why not?”
He watched Erik prop himself up on his elbows. His mouth moving, as if trying to find the words.
“Tell me, Erik,” he said, nearly running right over Erik’s response:
“I want you to take me, Charles.”
He went utterly still. “Truly, Erik?”
Charles blinked, and looked around. The first-aid kit was on the floor where Erik had apparently left it near the remains of his shirt. A brief tussle with a handful of little bottles and tubes yielded what he sought: a container of petroleum jelly. He held it up into Erik’s line of sight; Erik nodded and dropped back to the bed.
He could see Erik trying to relax, and he opened the container, left it on the bed next to Erik’s hip. Crawled back up to him so they could kiss, so he could guide one of Erik’s hands down the curve of his back. That broad touch settling just above his backside.
The other hand he put around his own cock.
“Charles,” Erik said, reverently, taking him in a firm grip.
“Touch me,” Charles whispered. “Please.”
“Tell me if I’m doing it right,” Erik said, and then -
Friction, frisson of lightning down every nerve.
Fast strokes alternating with slow. Erik’s fingers shifting, a different grip every time.
Charles bit at the inside of his cheek to claw back a measure of self-control. Somehow he was able to reach for the container of petroleum jelly; he scooped a generous portion onto his fingers.
“Stop,” he said, and Erik let him go.
Charles smiled. Moved Erik’s legs apart. Planted one of Erik’s feet flat on the sheets. “You’ve done this before?”
“It’s been a long time.” Erik grinned at him, needy and self-deprecating all at once.
Charles smiled back. “As with me. Tell me if I’m doing it right.”
He kept watching Erik’s face, Erik’s reactions, even as he began to prepare him: slow, methodical, careful.
At some point in the proceedings Erik reached out for his free hand, and Charles gave it without pausing, without thinking. “Is it - good?”
“I don’t ever want you to stop,” was Erik’s reply. “But - ”
Charles looked up, just in time to see him swallow. “Erik?”
“I want you, Charles. Please. Will you fuck me?”
Charles stared at him. Stared at Erik’s mouth shaping the obscenity. “Say that again,” he said, working his fingers back into Erik.
“Fuck me, Charles,” Erik said.
Charles swore again, another of Anita’s oaths, and pulled his fingers away. Scooped up a new handful of petroleum jelly, coating his cock liberally.
Erik began to turn over.
“No,” Charles said. “I want to see you. As you were, please.”
Erik laughed softly, arranged himself on the pillows.
Charles bent over him, lined up. “Erik,” he said, and pushed in.
Slow, slow, he had to be slow - he wasn’t planning to hurt Erik.
Erik’s hands around his wrists, tugging, insistent. “Come on, Charles, please - ”
Charles gritted his teeth, moved one hand and then the other to Erik’s shoulders, and thrust in completely.
A soft sound spilling from Erik’s lips, like triumph and need and more.
Carefully Charles eased out - waited a moment - pushed back in.
Erik was so, so tight. So good around him: the insistent pressure of Erik’s body, clutching at him, needing him. It left Charles temporarily speechless.
Erik, for his part, was under no such constraints. “Please, Charles, please,” he began to whisper, over and over, like the relentless pulse of lust in Charles’s ears.
“Put your legs around me.” The hiss of his words turned into a quiet groan as Erik complied, changing the angle, white-hot pleasure searing him from head to foot.
He began to thrust to the erratic rhythm of Erik’s filthy words, falling from kiss-burnt lips; he watched as Erik rocked up into him, face twisted by all-consuming lust.
Closer, closer, together they strained for that glorious precipice, desperate for release -
“Charles, more, more, harder,” and there was nothing he could do but obey - Erik’s imperative and that of his own body.
“Erik,” Charles whispered, and Erik broke, at last, beneath him, going impossibly still and impossibly tense -
That powerful grip was the last straw - Charles choked down a cry, and spilled into Erik’s willing body.
Dimly he could register arms wrapping around him, a contented hum that made for a strange contrast with the sticky slick drying against his skin.
And then lucidity kicked back in, together with a bite of the lingering pain from the day’s exertions, and Charles carefully, wearily raised himself up on his elbows, in the process pulling completely out of Erik. He watched as an expression of pain flitted briefly across Erik’s face. “Does it hurt?” he asked, offering an apologetic kiss.
“I’m all right,” Erik said.
Then - an unexpected, slow smile. “Better than all right,” he added.
Charles caught his breath. Wiped both hands off on the sheets so he could touch Erik’s face properly, tracing the lines of his smile, the curve of his eyebrows. “I hope you enjoyed yourself.”
“Very much so. You?”
Charles smiled back, somewhat more restrained compared to Erik’s, but no less sincere. “It was - you were incredible. You felt so, so good. I wanted to go on - ”
“And so did I. But it was too good. Too difficult to hold back.”
“Next time,” Charles began.
“Next time,” was Erik’s reply. “I would like that very much.”
When they began to shift on the bed, ending up lying side by side with hands clasped tightly, Charles whispered, “And if this night was all we could ever have?”
“Then nothing changes,” Erik said. “If tomorrow we die, then we’ll die having had this.”
“If tomorrow we die, Erik, I want to die holding your hand.” Charles smiled, and laid his cheek against Erik’s shoulder.
“And I yours, Charles.”
Chapter 7: Act Five, Part One: July 1936 - the day of the black flag - Barcelona, Spain - Erik
Warnings for this chapter:
- Major character deaths (not Charles or Erik)
- Depictions of blood and battlefield medicine
- Possibly inappropriate reactions to a traumatic event
Dark red drying to brown on his hands, caught in the lines of his palms.
Heat, merciless, radiating up from the ground, burning the soles of his feet.
Every time he breathed in he thought his lungs had to be filling up with acrid smoke, thick, choking, everywhere. Smoke in the dusty half-rooms with the shattered tiles crunching underfoot. Smoke on the balconies where men tied carbines and old pistols to their shaking hands. Smoke on the streets, whirling and eddying, revealing every path, every footstep, every passing patrol.
Erik put more of his weight on the knees of the wounded man moaning on the red-brick floor.
At the man’s head were Steve and James.
All three of them had that man’s blood on their hands - Erik himself more than most, because his hands were on the man’s chest, applying pressure to the wound near the heart.
Light, flashing: the sun’s glare reflecting briefly off the needle pinched between James’s white fingertips. Black thread against red blood and deep-tanned skin.
The man suddenly went limp but did not stop talking: broken syllables falling from his dust-stained mouth.
Still holding down the man’s hands, Steve made calming noises, to no avail. Eventually he just looked up and asked, “Have we heard what he’s saying before?”
“Perhaps you have,” James said, a gritty rasp of concentration. He tied off the last set of stitches, waved a hand in Erik’s direction. “Knife, I gave you the knife - ”
Erik fumbled for the leather sheath next to his foot and passed it over. “What was he saying?”
“The Lord’s Prayer,” was James’s answer, clipped. “And a few more lines at the end of it. I don’t know what that’s called.” He bent down to their patient, whispering, and touched the man’s forehead gently.
“For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and for ever. Yes, I see. That’s the form they use here.” Steve nodded his understanding as he carefully inched away, laying the man’s head gently on the floor. “Will he be all right?”
“Get some of the men to take him back to Max’s position,” James said, instead of replying. “Tell Max to tell the Benedictines to hurry up. Politely,” he added, somewhat belatedly.
That got him a smile from Steve, and a brief hand-clasp.
Erik tried not to look too hard at the knees of Steve’s trousers, which were still wet with more than just one man’s blood.
Instead, he busied himself with folding the man’s clothes back over his now-closed wounds.
“Makes a neater photograph, doesn’t it?” James asked, but not unkindly. “A more dignified portrait can do so much.”
Erik showed him his hands, covered in blood, empty of his camera. “I think you know damn well I haven’t been taking pictures here.”
“Which was something I wanted to ask you about. I thought you wanted to tell their stories - ”
“It would also be very remiss of me,” Erik said, accepting a helping hand up from Steve, “to simply stand by as those stories play out before me. I won’t just be a passive watcher.”
“You sound like Charles,” Steve said, with a brief flicker of a smile.
The rag he offered Erik was as covered in dust as the rest of them, but he wiped his hands on it anyway, before passing it back. “I will take that as a compliment, if you don’t mind.”
“It was intended as one.”
Two women looked in, then. Sunlight catching on three sets of dark braids. Erik thought he recognized the one in the lead. “Hello, Theresa,” he said.
“Hello, Erik,” was the warm reply. “We were told there was someone who needed to be taken to the back ranks?”
Erik stepped aside. “Your patient, ladies.”
One of the other two women leaned over, nose almost touching the unconscious man’s skin, as if to inspect the stitches. Her mouth twitched, once, twice, then she said something to Steve, who snorted quietly and shook his head.
A third woman came into the room, and behind her she was dragging a handcart. It listed rather heavily to the left. A rough burlap sack in the bottom.
He took his camera out, then, and framed that woman’s hands, briefly at rest on one of the wheels, and the click of the shutter was loud in that enclosed space.
“Excuse me,” Theresa said.
Erik watched the women carefully lift their patient into that cart, and took another photograph of them - three shadows against the relative brightness of the man’s clothes, three sets of hands protecting him, cushioning him, and - eventually - carrying him away.
He followed them out onto the street, and blinked as he saw a little boy run to catch up with the cart, staggering a little under the shotgun strapped to his back.
He took a photograph of the boy, too, and then - “Explain,” he said to Steve.
“The gun belongs to one of the women,” was the reply.
“Catch,” said a voice behind Erik, and he turned around and caught the floppy object sailing towards his face in one hand. A black leathery receptacle. When he shook it he caught the sound of liquid sloshing inside. “It’s water, what do you take me for,” James added, and Erik caught him rolling his eyes in Steve’s direction.
The childish expression was quite at odds with what he’d exchanged needle and thread for: a belt in which two pistols were holstered, and a rifle with a pattern of X’s scratched onto the stock.
He’d never used a waterskin before, so he passed it to Steve - who expertly twisted the nozzle on one end open and offered it back. “Hold it at the neck and at the bottom,” Steve instructed, “squeeze lightly, then aim the stream of water into your mouth.”
Erik promptly spilled some of it onto his face, his throat, down the collar of his shirt. Lukewarm though it was, however, it helped cool him off. He hadn’t been paying attention to the heat while they were looking after the injured man, but now he could feel it once again, redoubled, hammering at him from all sides - even from the breeze that blew rough salt against his skin.
“Come on,” Steve said after drinking the waterskin dry. “I sent a runner to Natalia to tell her we’d be delayed, but she’s likely to be having kittens by now. Which way, James?”
James grinned, a brief wolfish expression that Erik knew fairly well by now. Of the photographs he’d produced after a second visit to Juanito’s house, three had stood out the most: the one of Natalia demonstrating a shoulder throw on Tariq, the one of La Pasionaria with her arms folded as she looked over her maps and the wooden cup next to her sword, and the one of James on his knees at an intersection of three roads - the one where he’d been firing at enemies from behind the scant shelter of an overturned and bullet-riddled dining table.
The James in the photograph had had the same smile as the real James did now.
“I know what that smile means,” Steve was muttering as he checked around a corner before waving Erik forward. “It means Natalia is going to be yelling at us.”
“He’s one for heading into trouble, then.” It wasn’t a question, not for Erik. Charles had passed a few stories on to him, and the other members of Centuria Olimpíada had filled him in with progressively wilder tidbits of gossip, but he’d seen the scars riddling James’s arms. The man’s defensive wounds had piled up on his skin, opened and stitched back together and then reopened, over and over again.
“Trouble is his mistress, and they flirt every chance they get,” Steve said.
They caught up to James, who was squinting irritably at the next set of intersections, and didn’t take his eyes away as he spoke. “Talking about me again, Rogers?” James’s feral grin widened. “I’d have thought you lot had run out of stories by now.”
“I haven’t come close to hearing the half of it,” Erik said.
“Hm. That is a valid observation. But let’s to business, gentlemen. There is rather a big problem between us and the others.”
Steve shaded his eyes. “Aguilar herself,” he hissed after a moment’s staring. “What does she think she’s doing here?”
“I never know,” James said, very conversationally, despite the lines tightening in the corners of his eyes, “why I’m just not allowed to shoot her on sight.”
“Don’t be stupid, it’s because there’s a long line of people ahead of you who want to do that. And unfortunately the woman can only die once.”
Erik watched as James sneered at the distant knot of jackbooted fighters, at the woman with the shotgun in the center of the knot. “Well, I’m here and La Pasionaria is not. And I could shoot her and leave her alive, couldn’t I?”
“And then you’d make me drag her to her sister.”
“Finding every sharp cobblestone on the way, and every patch of dust and sand,” James muttered, vehement agreement.
Now it was Steve’s turn to laugh, very quietly, and not at all amused. “Perhaps our time will come soon enough. Not now, however.”
Erik tuned them out. Focused on getting a shot of the people around Aguilar. There was more than enough light to make out a handful of familiar faces: the men who’d threatened Hanna’s barricade. The man from the crypt of Sagrada Família.
And speaking of Sagrada Família - Erik hissed angrily, refocused.
He was still looking at the faces of Daniela and Nicola and Joselito. “No,” he whispered, horrified. He swallowed hard. “James. Steve.”
Immediately he felt their weight, their presence, flanking him. “What do you see?” James asked.
“The people from the crypt,” Erik said, forcing the words out through gritted teeth. “Aguilar is holding Joselito and his sisters - ”
“The armory,” the other two said, together - followed by Steve uttering a vicious oath.
Erik risked a look away from his camera. The little he could see of James and Steve’s expressions resembled thunderclouds before a storm.
A whispered conversation, half-angry, half-terrified. Cold and calculating all the same. “ - we certainly won’t be doing anyone any favors, charging in - ”
“ - take us days to resupply - ”
“ - pick us all off - ”
“We can’t stay here, and we can’t just leave!” James snapped at last.
Erik watched Steve fold his arms across his chest. “The priority is to warn the others: all of the others.” He began to count off on his fingers, quiet fierce concentration in the lines of his face. “Montjuïc. The brothers and sisters at Montserrat. Whoever’s left at Sagrada Família. Natalia and Centuria Olimpíada. La Pasionaria herself.” He paused, and looked up at the buildings around them. “James?”
“Steve,” was the answer, and Erik watched the wariness turn into something almost like resignation and something almost like pride.
“We’re between the old city and the new. If we make a big enough noise, the whole city will fall down on this place like a ton of bricks.”
James sighed heavily. “Yes. I know. It’ll also alert the army outside.”
“All the more reason for us to make sure the others have enough time. Fight or flee, their choice. Which they must be able to make in the first place. As for Daniela and Nicola and Joselito - we will just have to find a way to make amends. Here? Not likely. In heaven, or in hell. Wherever it is that we find ourselves, afterwards.”
Erik had been watching the exchange with a growing sense of horrified comprehension. He broke in now. “What,” he asked, very carefully, “are you carrying that could make the kind of noise that you’ve been talking about?”
Instead of replying, both men dug in their pockets for - bracelets?
“Plastic explosives,” James said, holding his out to Erik. A series of large black discs strung onto a papery cord, slightly overlapping. Each disc carried a stylized N in the center. Where the knot that closed the loop of cord should have been dangled two ends of electrical wire, partly stripped. “Natalia’s invention.” He laughed quietly, grim humor in his voice. “She calls them Widowmakers.”
“I don’t think she planned to be the widow, however,” Steve said, looking solemn as he donned his bracelet.
“Just one more bit of red in our ledgers,” James muttered, and went to embrace Steve.
Erik was torn between dissuading them, taking what would possibly be a final photograph of them, and joining them.
“Erik. Use the explosion as cover,” James said, quietly. “Get out of here. Find the others, find Charles, but first: find La Pasionaria and explain this. All of this. What you saw here, and what we are about to do.”
“You will have to be our voice,” Steve added as he seized one of James’s hands.
“Charles is going to be so disappointed in us,” James said, gripping back just as tightly. Erik could see his knuckles turning white.
“Maybe he’ll write about us one day.”
“I’ll make him write about you,” Erik said, suddenly, finding his voice again.
James grinned, and stepped forward to offer his free hand. “Please do.”
Erik shook hands, firmly - then: “One more photograph. I don’t have one of the two of you.”
“You don’t have to - ” Steve began.
“I insist,” Erik said. “How else will Charles remember you? How will Natalia?”
A long pause, and then: “All right,” James said. “How do you want us - ”
“Just stand together, however you’re comfortable.”
He watched as Steve bowed his head, closed his eyes - then reached out and pulled James in with his hands cupped around James’s face, bringing their foreheads together. Sunlight shining full on the two of them, and Erik took the photograph just as James put his hands on Steve’s shoulders and let out a deep, shuddering breath.
When the two of them moved together, meeting for one last kiss, Erik averted his eyes, respectfully.
His hands had been steady as he took the photograph. Now they shook wildly as he tried to put his camera back into its case, back into his pocket.
“No more delaying,” Steve said, reluctantly prying himself away from James. “We must give the others the time that they will need in order to get ready.”
James nodded - to him, and then to Erik. “Farewell, Erik Lehnsherr.”
“Goodbye, Erik,” Steve said. “It was good to know you. You’re good people. You’re camarada. Our path does not end here - only our lives. Tell the others that.”
“Start running,” James added, sardonic and kind at the same time. “For your own sake. For Charles’s.”
Erik shook his head.
Couldn’t see them leave for the clouds in his eyes.
Remained rooted to the spot as Steve began to sing, the words falling into the suddenly silent dust, into the quiet moan of the sea-wind: he couldn’t quite reach La Pasionaria’s high notes, but all that mattered, suddenly, was the song, and the sudden shouting, a knot of angry voices.
Erik dashed the tears from his eyes, turned, ran. Blinded, mourning, tripping and struggling down the twisting streets, to the voices raised behind him. A sudden outcry that sounded like a desperate command.
Then: the blasts.
Running, and the almighty roar behind him. The raging shockwave that picked Erik up, bodily, and threw him to the stones several feet away. The tears that he could feel trickling through the dust on his face. Stinging points in his back, on his legs, but he didn’t feel any pain. He couldn’t shed tears for himself - if he was hurt, the pain would be as nothing compared to that of Charles’s, to that of La Pasionaria’s -
To that of Natalia’s -
Erik ran, blindly, and he passed a familiar series of lopsided buildings and swerved nearly into one of the doors, knocking wildly, shouting: “Juanito! Open up!”
“Senyor Lehnsherr - you’re hurt!”
He pulled away roughly. “Don’t - ! You heard that explosion?”
“Yes, yes we did,” the old man replied, wary lines etched into his wizened face. “Are we under attack?”
“It was a warning.” Erik forced himself to say the words. “You can’t stay here. You and your family have to leave, now. Pull back to La Pasionaria’s position. With any luck, Aguilar and her men are dead and won’t give you any trouble.”
A hard grip on his shoulders. Erik flinched back. Couldn’t make himself look the old man in the eyes.
“Senyor Lehnsherr. Who is lost.”
“Steve Rogers. James Barnes,” Erik began. “The children from Sagrada Família - I don’t know their last names, Charles never told me - Daniela, Nicola, Joselito - ”
He caught a glimpse of tears on the old man’s face, unthinkingly dug in his pocket for a handkerchief - ragged creases, still mostly clean.
Juanito waved it off. Looked over his shoulder at the three other women in the house, one of whom was clutching a little boy to her breast.
Erik heard familiar names in the brief storm of rapid words: Anita, La Pasionaria, Natalia Romanova.
He fought to shut out Steve’s song, and another one came to mind.
“For our friends who are gone. For our friends and for all who created this path.... One heart is enough to carry on.”
He wanted to say something for the departed, and couldn’t even remember the old words, the words his mother and father would have used to mourn.
“We are ready,” Juanito said, after a moment. “Let us go to La Pasionaria.”
Erik eyed their bundles, the weapons they were carrying. Two of the women were carrying pistols, and the third, the one with the child, wore a set of three knives on an ornately decorated belt. As for Juanito, his gnarled hands were steady as they fixed a spike bayonet onto the muzzle of a weathered old rifle.
Shocked silence on the streets. Their footprints in the suddenly-thick dust, a clear trail. Even as Erik glanced over his shoulder for the fifth time he knew that there would be no one to follow them. Not today.
A commandeered building, desks overturned to partially block most of the doors, providing cover and shelter to those within the rooms.
Erik strode straight into the courtyard, bustling like a kicked ant-hill, past familiar faces, past women armed as Daniela had been, past children who were Joselito’s age.
He was distantly aware of the other members of Centuria Olimpíada joining him. Faces full of worry and fearful anticipation.
“You’ve come back alone.”
He felt the blood drain from his face as Natalia stepped around one of the stockpiles of weapons.
“Out with it, Lehnsherr,” she said. “We heard the blast. The whole city did. What have they done?”
There was no need for her to specify who they were.
Erik ached, watching the shadows lengthen and grow around her, never to be cast by her companions again -
“Erik!” Clattering steps and people scuttling out of the way of a dark horse, of Charles leaping from its back, looking terrified and resolute at the same time.
“Tell me, Charles, if you know,” Natalia said in a cold hard voice.
Erik gathered all his courage and closed his eyes and said, “Aguilar and her men had had hold of the leaders of the armory at Sagrada Família. Steve and James and I found them, and - they took care of - of that group of enemies.
“We - we’ve lost them, all five of them. Widowmakers,” he said, and he felt his shoulders began to shake, and he swallowed down the tears. “James and Steve - ”
“Have done what they must,” she said.
Behind Erik: shocked gasps, a strangled sob or two, soft angry oaths.
“They wanted to warn you,” Erik went on, and his jaw was starting to hurt. “All of you. Not just the ones who are gathered here.”
“I have already sent to the others, and to the outposts.”
He forced himself to look up when La Pasionaria strode to Natalia’s side and took her hand in a tight grip. “What other messages?”
“That it’s time to choose,” Erik said. He could feel the tears running down his cheeks again, but he owed it to Steve and James to look their leader right in the eyes. “Fight or flee.”
“And so we will fight. That blast will bring our enemies straight into the city; they will use it as an excuse to ‘defend’ this place that has already refused them. Natalia,” La Pasionaria said as she turned back to the woman at her side. “There is no shame in mourning - ”
“Not today. Not tonight. Not tomorrow. Centuria Olimpíada stands,” was the clipped answer. Tears spilling onto pale cheeks. “I cannot mourn now. The battle has come. I and mine must fight.”
“Natalia,” Erik heard Charles say.
“Spare me, Charles.” A sharp answer, but not a cruel one. Brilliant unshed tears in her eyes. “We went into this knowing what would happen, what would be waiting for us, all four of us. And the two of them and I.”
“We did, but - ”
She crossed the space between La Pasionaria and Charles, took both of his hands in hers. “Think not of me, my friend. There is no more need for that. The time for us has long passed. Think of what you have now.”
Erik watched her lead Charles over. Obeyed, when she said, “Lehnsherr. Give me your hands.”
Natalia placed Charles’s hands in his. “The enemies will use the cover of this night to come into the city,” she said to both of them. “You’ll have a few hours at most. I would suggest that you do as I did with Steve and with James.” Her voice cracked, just a little, on the names. “At sunset, go to La Pasionaria; I imagine she’ll have orders for all of us by then.”
“Come, Natalia,” La Pasionaria said. “You will want something for the pain.”
This time she didn’t deny it - she left, and the rigid set of her shoulders, the way she clutched at La Pasionaria’s offered hand as though she were a child clinging to her mother - Erik had to look away, and couldn’t stop staring.
“Erik,” said a quiet voice next to him.
He turned to look at Charles. “I - they said - Steve and James - ”
“Come tell me,” and there was such sweet pain in those blue eyes, such terrible sympathy.
Erik allowed Charles to lead him down a set of stairs this time, into a large room full of gray shadows and muted light. Motes of dust drifting in the corners, in the wind caused by their entrance. When his eyes had adjusted, he saw that the place had been converted into a warren of cobbled-together bunks. Some were separated from the others by torn curtains.
Charles closed the door of the entire room behind them, and Erik heard the unmistakable loud scraping sound of a key being used.
Hands on his shoulders, gentle but heavy, guiding him to a bunk - Erik refused, dropped to his knees on the floor.
When Charles sat down Erik bowed his head, his cheek resting against one of Charles’s knees.
“Erik. They were my friends, too. Did they have a message for me?”
“I said I’d make you write about them,” Erik said. He was no longer really aware that he was still crying. “Even if they thought that you would be disappointed by what they were going to do.”
A laugh that also sounded like a sob. “I am disappointed. And I will write about them.”
“I couldn’t do anything,” Erik said.
“You came back. You relayed the message. You don’t think that’s doing something?”
“I came back,” Erik repeated. “And after - ? Charles, what happens next?”
He expected Charles to answer him in terms of battle plans. Instead, Charles said, “Erik, look at me.”
Charles’s eyes, full of unshed tears.
Yet there were his fingers, smoothing away the salt on Erik’s face. “Here you are. You came back,” Charles said, once again. “You are here. We are together.”
“But Steve and James are gone, and Natalia is alone - ”
“Did you hear what she told me?”
Erik blinked. Took a deep breath. “That you and I should do what the three of them did.”
“Yes. Do you know what that is - was?” Charles shook his head roughly at himself. Lines of pain in the corners of his eyes.
Erik shook his head.
“They came to an understanding, the three of them, together,” Charles said, quietly. “At first it was a promise, a heavy understanding, that James extracted from Steve: every moment was tied to loss, to tears, to separation. That every moment had death’s shadow over it, because of who James was, because of what he did. And in turn Steve took a promise from James that was more like a command: that he would live, precisely because of that shadow.
“Then Natalia decided she’d love them both.”
“She said that there’d been a time for you.”
Charles’s sigh was a soft gust down his collar. “Yes, I mentioned that, didn’t I?”
Erik nodded. Asked, eventually: “She made them promises, and vice versa?”
“She promised she’d lead them both. They promised to follow her.”
Charles’s hand in his hair. Erik groaned, softly, and leaned up into it. The need to touch was a fire that was slowly building in his skin. He wanted to know he was alive. Being in a conversation could only convince him that he was still thinking.
He needed more proof of life - his own, and Charles’s.
“And all three of them promised to live,” Charles was saying. “I was there for the argument and I was there for that part of the making up.”
“How?” Erik asked.
“They were in my rooms.” Charles tried to smile. Erik watched him lift a corner of his mouth. “Or, rather, I should say that they ended up in my rooms.”
Erik shifted off his knees, moved to sit next to Charles. Leaned briefly into Charles’s welcoming arms. “And then, eventually, they came here to fight.”
“We all agreed with La Pasionaria’s goals, one way or another,” Charles said.
“They were soldiers who made promises to each other.”
“And that was what she was telling you - us - to do.”
Charles smiled, and kissed him. “I am not entirely clear on the part where we might both be soldiers. As for the rest? I think we already did. Made promises to each other. Do you know what I’m thinking of?”
A pause in the semidark of the room. Enough to hear the melancholy singing from outside - voices laden down with sorrow and fear.
“I said,” Erik said, at last, slowly, “that I’d follow you.”
“And I said,” Charles said, “that I would never say goodbye.”
Erik looked into Charles’s eyes. Looked at their joined hands. “Tonight - later - when the fighting begins - don’t you leave me.”
Charles moved his hands away, and Erik felt them come to rest just at the collar of his shirt. A hot breath, a fierce promise.
“I wouldn’t dream of it, Erik,” Charles very nearly growled.
Then the hands on his collar bunched into fists and Erik gasped, surged forward, bent closer -
They crashed together, into each other. He could taste the salt of Charles’s tears.
Charles was calling his name.
He needed to touch Charles, needed for Charles to touch him.
Time was not on their side.
Erik wrenched away, caught Charles’s keen on the tip of his tongue.
Charles fell back onto the bed, and Erik climbed onto him, bearing down into him.
“Erik,” Charles said.
His name, hanging precariously from the barest whispered thread.
“Are we alive?” Erik asked.
He didn’t wait for Charles to answer - he yanked Charles’s shirt up and away, fastened his mouth to the freckles stretched over Charles’ right pectoral, and began to suck.
Weight around his waist, Charles’s legs wrapping around him at the hips, holding him in place. “Feel that,” Charles rasped. “Me, and you, and us.”
Charles’s cock, a hardness pinned against Erik’s belly.
His own need, neglected, already leaking fluid so that he could feel the rasp of his sensitized skin against his clothes.
Erik was coming apart at the seams, caught between a desperate yearning for contact, and the equally desperate pit that only mourning could cause. Did he even have the right to mourn? Were they here, watching him and Charles rut frantically against each other?
Could he fill the vast spaces of the years, of the loss, in Charles; could Charles fill the gaps in the world where they had stood with him, if only for a moment?
Erik closed his eyes, licked over the dark bruise he’d branded into Charles’s skin. Fought his way up over freckles and wind-burn to capture Charles’s lips in a searing kiss fraught with need and tears.
“Erik, please,” Charles was pleading. His eyes blown wide open and blank. “I just - let them go, let’s forget - ”
“Just for now,” Erik agreed, and he put all his weight on one hand and forearm. Worked his free hand between Charles’s heaving body and his, fighting past buttons and heavy cloth to tight superheated skin.
“You - you - ”
Erik shook his head though he knew Charles couldn’t see him. Kept up the punishing pace. Slow, brutal, each stroke wrenching a gasp from Charles as though he were in pain - but his astonishing grip on Erik’s shoulders, bruising and burning, seemed to give the lie to the animalistic snarl that was frozen on his face.
Filthy words falling from Charles’s lips, only some of them in English.
Erik hissed encouragement at him.
Charles tensed beneath him, called out his name - a startlingly loud sound in the frantic soft silences that they’d been locked in together - and came, hard, covering Erik’s hand in white wet.
He watched Charles come down from his high, trying to catch his breath.
Those eyes focused on him sooner than he would’ve liked - fixing on his face, and then on his groin.
“You?” Charles rasped, voice broken for the moment.
Erik swallowed, hard. “I don’t - ”
Charles never let him finish the sentence.
A strange sense of déjà vu: he was watching Charles touch him once again. Hands along his length, clenched just a little too tightly - pleasure and pain lashed together, desire and despair, throwing him towards his breaking point.
Erik’s vision whited out at the moment of release, and for a moment he was flung free of his emotions, existing apart from them - a brief reprieve from the grief and from the fear and from the rage.
And Charles was the way back to himself - Charles’s kiss, sweet and soft and sad, coaxing him back to his senses.
“You look a wreck,” he told Charles, unthinkingly, once he could see again.
“I certainly feel it.” Charles tore a corner off the sheet to clean up with, and afterwards began to poke gingerly around the edges of the bruise that Erik had left on him.
“I’m sorry,” Erik said.
“If you’re apologizing for this, I won’t accept it. We didn’t know what we were doing. We were only doing what we needed to do.”
His answer was Charles very nearly crawling into his lap. His arms came up around Charles’s shoulders, unthinkingly. “With you? Never.”
Erik tried to smile, and failed, and settled for kissing Charles’s hair, his damp temple. Dark strands curling beneath his lips.
“We’ll have to join Centuria Olimpíada soon,” Charles said, when the last light in the room began to fail and fade away. “The night will be upon us soon enough.”
Erik remembered something. “Will you have time, Charles, to teach me?”
“Teach you what?”
“I need to learn how to use a gun properly.”
He met Charles’s searching gaze without flinching. “You wish it?”
“Not just because of Steve and James. For you, too. For Natalia and La Pasionaria. For everyone here.”
Charles nodded, after a moment. He should have been ludicrous, standing up on shaky feet, shirt hanging off his shoulders, Erik’s love-bite still darkening on his skin, flies undone. “We’ll make the time we have left enough. Clean up. Come on.”
Chapter 8: Act Five, Part Two: July 1936 - (the same day) - Barcelona, Spain - Charles
“Hold your fire!”
Natalia’s voice, harsh and steady.
“Second rank, prepare to shoot - front rank, reload!”
Charles stayed locked in place, down on one knee on the cobblestones, until there was a hard thump on his shoulder and he looked up into the grimly determined face of Max.
The street ahead of them was full of groans and men trying to crawl away. Torn and bloodied uniforms, rank upon rank of the same weapons, dust and smoke on black leather boots.
“Reload, Charles,” Max grunted. “Move.”
He got to his feet. He let Max shield him from the enemy.
His hands moved over the gun. He knew these motions well. Clear it, make sure it was ready to fire, reload. Finger off the trigger at all times. Muzzle pointed down to the stones. Pockets full of extra ammunition - for himself if he needed it, and for others so that their line could hold together, for longer.
He wasn’t really seeing the gun.
He looked over his shoulder. From his position, not far from the plaza where he and Erik had found each other again, it was difficult to see the fallen enemy forces as little more than blurred shadows against the ground.
His thoughts spun around ancient blood on the cobblestones, on the buried streets and corners of history.
He’d brushed up on his history, and he’d asked La Pasionaria questions about her city. She’d been born here and she’d spent several years wandering the continent, singing her songs, a lonely voice singing of the home she’d left behind.
Barcelona’s ghosts, Barcelona’s buildings, Barcelona’s shores. The winds that came from the sea and from the mountains. Salt-worn and sun-warmed stone, a cornucopia of herbs and spices from all over the Old World, cantors and imams and friars and teachers, and the incredible weight of centuries of existence and building and rebuilding.
He understood the idea of bloodshed, and perhaps he could learn to condone the idea that some bloodshed might be justified - but to think of red on these streets was almost physically painful for him. It made him think of broken music, of shattered songs, of silenced voices.
“Charles,” said a voice nearby.
He looked up, and while he couldn’t smile, he could at least reach past the eddying thoughts of death and the futility of wars, of this particular fight.
Erik’s pockets bulged with extra rolls of bandages even as he leaned against a wall and brought his wrist up to his mouth to tighten a black-dusted bandage with his own teeth.
“Does it still hurt?” Charles asked.
“I’m growing used to it,” was the reply.
“Let me see,” he said, gently, and he watched Erik’s face settle into lines of resignation.
Charles eased the bandages wrapped around Erik’s left arm loose. Red welts and burnt areas, but the inflammation seemed to be going down. “Some of those grains might work out, and some of them might not,” he murmured, tracing a careful fingertip around one such spot. Black powder, and burns caused by that same powder. “How are your hands?”
“Still getting cramps,” Erik admitted after a moment.
“You did spend more than two hours holding on to a rifle before someone could correct your grip.”
That won him a very small chuckle, freighted with pain, but genuinely amused all the same. “It’s a wonder I didn’t shoot anyone, or myself.”
In his turn, Charles tried to smile after he’d put Erik’s bandages back on. When Erik touched him with his free hand: shoulder, elbow, and then the leather scabbard still on his hip. “What is more difficult to learn to use, the gun or the knife?”
“Yes,” Charles said, simply.
Erik actually rolled his eyes. “Not helpful.”
“You’ve seen my scars, Erik, and I’ve told you my stories. You know when I fought and when I didn’t. Most of the time, I was too busy being injured from the lessons.”
“I don’t know if I want to meet your instructor or run away from him or her or them.”
Charles shrugged. “One of them is leading this part of the battle. Make of that what you will.”
Erik looked like he was thinking it over, looked like he was about to continue the conversation.
All Charles really wanted was to lean against him. He wanted to cover his face with his hands. He wanted to forget the charge they’d just repelled minutes before. Young men, boys, with gritted teeth and pale faces: what did they believe in? What was their creed? What could make them swear allegiance to people who were the living embodiment of selfishness and of treachery and of deceit?
Some of the women in La Pasionaria’s orbit claimed to be able to predict the future: one of them used a battered deck of tarot cards. Another claimed to dream about events that would, she claimed, inevitably come to pass. Yet a third laughed at them and preached the efficacy of horoscopes and astrology instead.
But Charles needed none of those methods to be able to know, just from where he was standing now on the edges of Barcelona’s history, what would happen if the men who marched under the black flag won this struggle. The effects went far beyond tear-tracks etched into children’s faces, beyond silence where the songs that once rose in passion and patriotism alike would be lost, beyond Sagrada Família reduced to old stone and steel and mortar.
He’d been pinned under the boots and nails of small minds more than once, and once had been more than enough.
A voice, calling out, breaking him out of his reverie.
“Is Erik Lehnsherr here?”
Instinctively Charles moved closer to Erik, standing right in front of him and a little to the side, defending him. Instinctively he relaxed his shoulders, adjusted his breathing. Hands steady on his rifle, though he was still nowhere near touching the trigger.
Footsteps, steady and unhurried, bearing down on them.
Charles felt his eyebrows crawl up towards his hairline as Anita strode out of the smoke towards them. Gone were her skirts and most of her brilliant colors. The only way to tell that it really was still her was the multitude of jeweled pins in her silvering hair.
It was Erik who said her name. “Anita?” And: “What are you doing here - is La Pasionaria safe? Is she all right?”
Anita favored him with a tight, clipped nod. “She is well. She is safe.”
“What news?” Charles asked.
Anita nodded, once. “It is well that you use that word. News. That is what we have. And to interpret it we will require Senyor Lehnsherr’s help.”
“Me?” Erik asked. “What’s going on?”
“You are wanted, senyor. You must come with me.”
When Anita reached for Erik’s arm Charles stopped her with his hand. “Take me with you. I intend to stay at Erik’s side.”
“Your wish to protect him does you good, Charles,” Anita said.
He reached for Erik’s hand, and found Erik already reaching for his.
“I’m not going anywhere without Charles,” Erik said.
“So be it,” Anita said. “Charles, I will put you to use. You will protect the two of us.”
“You came here without escorts?” Erik asked.
“I had them. But now here they must stay,” she said, “because this place must remain defended. Three will remain where I will take two away.”
Charles nodded. “Then let’s go.”
On the way out they had to pass Natalia. She said nothing, and never looked up from her maps. All she did was offer Charles a small bundle.
He stopped. Slanted a look at her before taking what she was holding out. “Something tells me that I already know what this is.”
“Then there will be no need to ask any questions. Then you will take it and use it, with my compliments.”
Under Erik’s curious gaze and Anita’s impassive one, Charles unwrapped the bundle.
Inside was something shaped very nearly like a black cross, with the longest arm tapering down to a fine, sharp point and the other three arms decorated with scrolling lines that made him think of vines.
“This is your stiletto,” he said, eyeing Natalia.
Still refusing to meet his gaze, she nodded, sharply, once. “It was.”
“You used this when you were training me to fight.”
“Now it’s yours.”
“And what weapons have you kept for yourself?”
That made her look up, and now Charles could see the extent of the bruising under her eyes: long nights of fighting and weeping and planning, all etched plain as day into her skin.
When she stood up he saw that she was wearing a familiar belt, too wide for her.
He was also familiar with the three revolvers clipped onto the belt.
“I am not unarmed,” Natalia said, “And I am not alone. Stop worrying about me, Charles.”
“Force of habit.”
“Break it, or transfer it to someone else.”
Charles took a step towards her. “Natalia - ”
“Go, Charles. Protect Anita. Protect Erik. All three of you are vital to the fight. I would like to hold on to a foolish little hope: that perhaps we’ll see each other again, after all of this is over.”
Charles felt rather than saw Erik come up to stand beside him. “If that’s a foolish hope,” Erik said, “then permit me to share it.”
A shadow passed over her face. It was as gone as quickly as it had appeared. “If that’s what you want,” was all she said, however.
Charles looked over his shoulder. Caught a glimpse of Erik’s own thin smile. It should have been a familiar expression from a long-ago night in Hollywood - but there was nothing mocking about it.
He looked at Natalia, one more time, and then turned away when Anita cleared her throat. “Come on, Erik.”
Erik fell in beside him. Touched his hand on the rifle. “Charles. I’m here and so are you.”
Not a creature stirred in the streets leading back towards La Pasionaria’s position. Not even the dust, which fell back to the stones as soon as they’d passed.
Rat-tat-tat in the distance.
“I hope that’s ours,” Erik whispered.
“We can hope, and walk at the same time,” Anita said.
Charles cut his eyes in Erik’s direction. Just enough to see that he was worried, too.
For a moment he found himself wishing it were possible to borrow the camera that still resided in one of Erik’s pockets. He wanted to take a photo of Erik, now, just as he was: the deepening tan that threatened to obscure his freckles. The mask of dust and sweat on his face. His bandaged arms, his shirt with the torn-up hems.
He’d been standing over Erik and Theresa, somewhere at the beginning of the fighting, as Erik sacrificed that part of the shirt to bandage a wound on her arm.
One thing he’d noticed about Erik as he went about his duties on the battlefield: he’d learned to stop flinching away from blood and screams and tears very quickly.
All Erik said was that running around with Steve and James had been more stressful than battling it out in the streets of Barcelona.
“Hola,” someone called around the corner.
Charles squinted, hands tensing briefly around his rifle.
But it was Anita who shook her head and strode forward, affectionately pulling on Juanito’s ear. “Back to your watch,” she told him in very informal Catalan.
“Hola, Juanito,” Erik said, the words coming out mangled but warm all the same.
“All is well with you, senyor?” Juanito asked.
“For now. Perhaps.”
Unfazed, Juanito snorted and shook his head and looked at Charles. “You’re protected, here. We’ll help watch your back.”
Charles watched the old man’s eyes move upward, and followed that glance.
Three women in the various windows of the house that overlooked their conversation. Steady hands and steadier weapons.
“Gràcies, Juanito,” Charles said, getting another snort and a wave that could have been jaunty and could have been mocking - and could have been both and nothing all at once.
As the sun began to fall toward the horizon Anita hollered up to the guards surrounding La Pasionaria’s position. “Tell her I’ve returned with Xavier and Lehnsherr!”
“You still pronounce my name very differently,” Charles murmured to her as a handful of guards formed up on them and began to move forward.
“Because that is how we read your name here,” she said.
“It’s not what I heard from - the people I knew, when I was growing up.”
She raised an eyebrow in his direction.
“I think I like it,” Charles concluded after a moment’s thought.
“As you should, Javier.”
As soon as Anita turned her eyes forward once again Erik leaned in and murmured, “You told me a little about - the place where you were born. The people who were there.”
“The people who weren’t my family,” Charles said.
Erik nodded, and said nothing more. Just took Charles’s hand.
It felt good to hold on to him.
“There you are,” La Pasionaria said, three flights of stairs later.
“Anita said you needed me,” Erik said.
“I think you might be able to help me understand this information I’ve just received.”
Charles waited her out, patiently.
On the large moth-eaten desk in the corner there was a stack of - “Newspapers?” Charles asked out loud. “The local presses have not run for at least two weeks now.”
“That was the first surprise,” Anita said.
He was truly confused now. “There are others?”
La Pasionaria extracted a broadsheet from the pile, the pages creased and the ink already starting to blur, and handed it to Erik. “Turn to the front page, if you please.”
Charles peered over his shoulder at grainy black-and-white.
Two images on the front page.
Odd, the things that one noticed more quickly. Charles saw that both photographs were focused on Natalia. Tariq sent flying over her shoulder, and Centuria Olimpíada intent on their firearms.
“Here is the text,” La Pasionaria said, holding up another copy of the section Erik was holding. She cleared her throat: “...They are being described as the International Brigades. Volunteers to the last man, and to the last woman. That is a good description. Very flattering.”
“There is more,” Anita said, next to her. “It is claimed that their goal is not to advance any ideology or philosophy but the plain and simple truth. It is said that they fight for no cause but the highest and noblest one of all. It is believed that they share no creed, other than this:
“It’s the truth.” La Pasionaria shook her head. “It is so different from the lies that Aguilar and her men had been spreading. From the propaganda being organized by the army marching under the black flag. From them we hear only that the men and women in the streets of Barcelona have naught but hidden motives, that they fight only to seize power for themselves.
“How have these truths emerged into the world? How do they know? Erik Lehnsherr, you will have to explain this to us.”
Charles took a second issue from the bundle that Erik was holding in white-knuckled hands; he rifled through the pages, looking for the editorial columns.
Bold type leapt out at him from the top left corner of the page that he sought. A simple box, filled with a simple statement.
“We stand with the International Brigades of Barcelona. We strongly urge the international community to support its sons and daughters as they fight for freedom and truth.”
And below, a list of names, some of which he repeated to himself, and many of which he could even recognize. Names from the worlds of literature and theater and dance. Names of politicians and names of groups - a university’s faculty, a company’s board of directors, a town’s “concerned citizens”. The famous and the notorious and the unknown.
“Erik?” he said, quietly, as he got to the bottom of the list. “I think you need to read this.”
Something in his voice must have caught Erik’s attention, because he strode over, crowded in at his side.
Which was all to the good, because that meant that Charles could point the sentence out to him more easily, and because that meant they could find the publisher’s name on the masthead, which was just below the list of supporters:
Nicholas Joseph Fury
When Charles looked at Erik once again he reached out to his pale cheek. “Erik,” he said, quietly.
“She did it,” Erik said, haltingly. “She kept her promise.”
“Who do you speak of, Erik Lehnsherr?” La Pasionaria asked. “Is it your contact? The woman you wanted your photographs sent on to? I cannot now remember her name - ”
“Emma Frost,” was Erik’s reply.
Charles reached out to steady him, though he was himself starting to shiver with realization. If the news had gotten out, if others knew what they were fighting for, there might be an occasion for hope - but he ruthlessly suppressed that last, for now. It was difficult to think about an end to hostilities when he could still hear gunfire and the screams of the wounded and the dying.
He contented himself, now, with putting an arm around Erik’s shoulders.
“Here,” Anita said, after a few moments’ rifling through the rest of the bundle. “Here is a newspaper that has Emma Frost’s name as publisher.”
“Have they a statement?” La Pasionaria asked.
Anita nodded, and began to read, and every word filled Charles’s heart with a curious mix of dread and courage and that terrible stabbing hope: “To support the men and women who oppose the black flag in the streets of Barcelona is to support the cause of freedom, not just in Spain, but in every corner of the world. This newspaper stands with those brave men and women, wherever they come from, whatever they believe in, however they fight.
“Action! Action is urgently needed. Barcelona calls, and that call cannot be ignored. It must be repeated to all, it must be spread to all, that all may fight for the cause of freedom.”
“I didn’t know that it was possible for a newspaper to write with such fervor,” Charles said, breaking the hush that followed.
“I’ve never known Miss Frost to be that - impassioned.” Erik seemed dazed.
“It is well that she is, in this instance,” La Pasionaria said. “For now, we will not think of whether we shall indeed receive this help at all. It is enough to know that we have incited such emotions.
“Charles. I would ask you for a favor.”
He looked at her with alacrity. “Of course.”
“Will you translate these statements from these newspapers, and share them with our comrades? We can try to give them hope, however we can, in any way they can understand it.”
He nodded. “I will get to work immediately.”
“Let me help,” Erik said.
“Yes,” Charles said.
He went to the desk, and sat down at one end of it, and thanked Erik when he fetched paper and pens and, surprisingly, a worn Catalan-to-Spanish dictionary. Where he found them, or how, was a mystery to Charles.
His mind was already churning. So many words, so many nuances - he felt like he was being plunged into the trance of writing, once again, though these words were not even his to begin with -
As he made his way through the newspapers, through the printed statements of support, he thought he was aware of Erik’s presence at his side.
They were halfway through a French statement, printed in the pages of a newspaper that had declared itself an ally to both Frost’s and Fury’s publications, when Erik said, “What about you, Charles?”
He paused, and laid his pen down, and let Erik take his sore hand in both of his. “What about me? I don’t understand, Erik.”
“You are writing, but these words originally belonged to others.”
Charles shrugged, and picked idly at the blots of ink already on his hands. “And fine words they are, too.”
“What about your words? What about your feelings? Is there nothing that you would like to say?”
He had to smile, and though his fingers protested he squeezed Erik’s hand, tightly, briefly. “What would you have me say, Erik? And who would I say it to? I am part of Centuria Olimpíada, and Natalia is our leader. We are but one group of many. What can I say that the others don’t already know, or believe in? What new words can I give Jeanne, Max, Bill?”
Erik seemed grave for a moment. “Steve and James - ?”
Gently, Charles shook his head. “It is not my story to tell, remember? And even if she could, if she had asked - I don’t know what to say about them. They simply did what needed doing. They didn’t hesitate - they stood their ground, they chose their path.”
“It seems to me that I cannot make myself forget them.”
He gave in to his impulses: he kissed Erik. It was chaste, quick - but that did not mean that it was a kiss without passion, without emotions.
When he looked around Anita was rather conspicuously looking out the window that overlooked the still-deserted street, and La Pasionaria was nowhere in sight.
The expression on Erik’s face was somewhere between a smile and shame, and Charles was familiar with it - he’d seen something of the like in the mirror, in the days after unwinding bloodied bandages. “I’m here, Erik. I understand what you’re going through. And I remember you telling me that I’m not alone. Neither are you.”
He waited, with bated breath, for Erik to blink and nod and catch up the fingers of his hand, to raise them to dry lips pressed gently together.
Charles fell back into the work, then, and quietly he took in Erik murmuring as he read out the statements translated into French and into Spanish.
For help with the Catalan he asked Anita, eventually, and he shook his head and laughed ruefully to himself when she picked up a different pen from the desk and crossed out nearly everything he’d written, so far. New words with rapid slashing movements.
“Should I look forward to ever seeing you in combat again?” he asked, as she frowned and started over on one sentence.
“Perhaps. If the situation calls for it - and it might come to that, whether we receive any help from the rest of the world or not.” A sliverlike smile, sharpening the lines in her face. “Here,” she added. “This is a fairly free rendition of one of the other statements. You were not quite getting some of the words right.”
“I will spend a lot of time yet in learning Catalan,” Charles said.
“I haven’t even started yet,” Erik added. “May I look at that?”
Charles passed Anita’s sheet over, muttering to himself about an idiom in English as he did - but his reverie was broken when Erik tugged on his sleeve. “Yes?”
“What does this phrase mean?”
Charles squinted at Anita’s handwriting. At the end of the statement, at the two words underlined three times.
He tried to say it, carefully, quietly, and heard Erik echoing him, and then he looked up as Anita spoke from the door: “Perhaps you might be more familiar with the French version?”
“And what would that be?” Erik asked.
She smiled, and lifted the rifle that she was holding into shooting position. “On ne passe pas.”
“They shall not pass,” Charles said, nodding. “Yes. That is a good thing to say, here. Words to remember, having just been used, and to such powerful effect.”
“We are the men and the women who will not be moved from the streets of the place that we have taken as our own,” Anita said. “Some of us were born in Barcelona. Some of us were searching for our kin, our homes, our souls. Some of us were called to come here. Where we came from, matters not. What matters is the here and now, that we are part of Barcelona, and that we fight so that it remains free. So that it remains our home.”
Footsteps, after, as she left them there, and Charles looked at Erik and said, “I don’t think I could ever come up with something so simple and powerful.”
“Someday you will,” was Erik’s reply. “For now, however - ”
“For now, her words will be the final statement we need.” Charles glanced at one of the pages, where he’d tried to transcribe Anita’s words - he took up a fresh sheet, and began to write, and when he finished the first draft he showed it to Erik. “I think that’ll do.”
“I agree. It will be enough.”
They kissed again, now that they were alone, and Charles held on to Erik as tightly as he could, with Anita’s words still ringing in his ears, and both hope and fear clawing at his heart.
Chapter 9: Finale: April 1950 - New York City, New York, the United States of America - Charles and Erik
Please accept our sincerest apologies for the intrusion into your lives. We would not be writing to you except that needs must. Our newspaper has been keeping abreast of developments in Spain, and that includes the fresh rumors of the possibility of war in the so-called Spanish Empire. We would like to send someone to speak with you, and to ask you for your insights and commentary on these events.
Charles stirred a little sugar into his third cup of tea, and contemplated getting up and going into the hall closet where he kept a small supply of brandy for emergencies, and kept eyeing the letter that had arrived the previous week with a certain moroseness.
Just then, however, the timer sitting on the kitchen counter went off with a shrill and piercing cry.
He aimed a backhanded slap at it and it mercifully fell silent, though the echoes kept battering at the walls and at the windows. The curtains were tied open, but the panes remained resolutely shut. April in New York was capricious and full of moods, and though the room was filled with golden warmth and sunlight now the weather could turn into thunderstorms with little or no warning, and he wasn’t interested in mopping rainwater up from the floor.
After another two minutes he reluctantly got to his feet and pulled the oven door slightly open: just enough to let the scents of salt and sugar and warm bread escape into the kitchen. He didn’t bother with calling out, or otherwise letting anyone know that breakfast was almost ready. They would come home soon enough.
He pulled a battered pen from his pocket and used it to flip the letter over, revealing, once again, the signature of their unexpected correspondent.
Yours in truth, Nicholas Joseph Fury
“Why us,” he said into the empty kitchen, into the house that was still empty and quiet and waiting for its other residents to return. “Why now?”
But these were questions that Charles already knew the answers to.
There were boxes of photographic slides and spooled-up negatives all over the apartment, the products of Erik’s continuing search for true faces and real expressions, and perhaps that was one of the reasons why they had just a handful of actual photographs scattered here and there throughout the rooms.
One, however, occupied a prominent position. It was the only photograph on the oversized desk that he and Erik shared in the office that took up most of the second floor. Solemn faces behind glass, black clothes for some and black armbands for others.
There, in a simple silver frame, they kept the memory of Centuria Olimpíada alive: their friends and comrades now scattered to the four corners of the world, those of them who’d fled and those of them who had, eventually, been able to escape.
In this photograph the black stood for mourning, and not for the flag that, even now, was flying over the streets of Barcelona.
Here was La Pasionaria, wounded and bandaged and no less severe for it, no less beautiful. Here was Anita, haunted and hunted and stalwart through it all. Natalia, Tariq, Hanna, Max: the four of them clinging to their weapons.
Someone else had taken the photograph, and that was why it was a little bit blurry around the edges, but that also explained why he and Erik were standing next to each other at the back of the group. Max’s broad shoulders concealed their joined hands from view.
Not in the photograph: Jeanne, who had fallen on the beach of La Barceloneta. Bill, who had been captured by the enemy, not to be released until after a year and more of captivity.
Steve and James.
In the kitchen, Charles passed a weary hand over his eyes, and very carefully did not look in the direction of the study.
It was the same hand that, similarly hidden in the photograph, had been sliced open from palm to fingers in a particularly bloody skirmish with the soldiers of the black flag. Erik had patched it up, and they’d had it operated upon when they came to the United States, but the scars remained, as vivid and distinct as that on his own face.
A step in the hallway.
A quiet voice - beloved, familiar, and now a little tired. “Charles.”
Charles rose from his chair and welcomed Erik back with a fierce embrace, and after a moment Erik put his arms around him, as well, and gripped him just as tightly.
“Strange, how we hold on to each other so,” Erik said into Charles’s hair, now more graying than dark. “It is not as though we have ever been separated so profoundly from each other.”
“Unless you count the years between California and Barcelona,” Charles said as he stepped back - but that was only so that he could open his arms to the girl who was setting the shopping bags on the kitchen table. “Come here, Margarita,” he said, warmly. “No embrace for your papa?”
Her eyes sparkled with fondness and mischief, clear to see in even the sunlight that had dimmed and gone silvery-pale. “Papa,” she said, kissing Charles’s cheek and holding him in her slim strong arms. “Will you want another cup of tea?” she asked, as she turned her attention once again to the things they’d brought back from the market.
“No, thank you,” Charles said. “Don’t forget to eat breakfast; the bread is ready, and the coffee should still be hot.”
“Thank you,” Margarita said, smiling and humming to herself as she began to open cupboards and cabinets. “Coffee, dad?”
“Yes, please,” Erik said. “I’ll be by for it in a moment. Your papa and I have something to discuss in the study.”
“Yes, we do at that,” Charles murmured, and he picked up the letter and his cup of tea and followed Erik upstairs.
They could both hear Margarita humming to herself as they left her in the kitchen: soft sweet melody, powerful and painfully familiar.
“You can take the girl out of the Barcelona that rang with songs of revolution,” Charles said as he sank into his chair. Almost as an afterthought he dropped the letter onto his blotter.
“But you cannot take those songs away from the girl,” Erik finished. He picked up the photograph in its frame, hands shaking around the silver. “When I think of how we met her, and of how she came to us, how she came to be here - ”
“It’s like being back there, isn’t it,” Charles murmured. Again he passed his hand over his face. Drops of water on his fingertips. “It’s like we’re still there. Like we can still hear the sea, even as we look towards the mountains.”
“It’s like we cannot forget,” Erik said as he replaced the frame in its usual spot. He was smiling, now, and the smile was bitter and full of an old and weary anger. “Is this what it’s like to have lost?”
Charles looked into his cup, and did not see the dregs of his tea. “Would you really say that we had lost,” he said, slowly, “when people still oppose that black flag? Oh, certainly, the fighting has been suppressed.” He shuddered, put the cup down, so that he could wrap his arms around himself. “I do hate that word, and what it means. I hate those who perform such a terrible act. And yet, every now and then, we hear of quiet little rebellions. Basque verses splashed onto the streets in vivid red paint. People singing ‘El Cant dels Ocells’. The mere fact that Sagrada Família still stands - ”
“And that letter.” Erik rounded the desk, leaned against it. He watched the expressions shift across Charles’s face: regret, sadness, thoughtfulness. “I should be able to guess by now that you’ll be writing to Fury to accept.”
“I won’t, not if you don’t agree.” Charles folded his hands together. “As you said, we cannot forget. And we make ourselves remember these things all the time. We are doing what we can, I suppose, to keep on fighting. We speak Catalan, you and I, what we remember of it. We write to friends and comrades and members of the International Brigades.”
“You write about repression and about freedom,” Erik said.
“And you search for truth and passion in the faces of people, that which you found in Barcelona.” Charles smiled, and it was tentative, but it was real.
Erik reached for his hand, and held on tightly.
After a moment, there was a knock on the door of the study, and they both looked over at Margarita, who was carrying a laden tray in her hands. “I got tired of waiting for the two of you to come down to breakfast, so I thought I’d bring breakfast up to you.”
“Oh, Margarita,” Charles said, laughing and embarrassed at the same time. “I’m so sorry. You didn’t have to do this. I know you’ve school - ”
“Physics can wait, papa, and so can my books and my friends. I’ll do extra work for the rest of the week, so I don’t fall behind. But today - today I’ll be here, because you’ve both been thinking so much, ever since that letter came, and I’ve been afraid. You - you’re not leaving, are you? Both of you this time?”
“Of course not,” Charles said, gentle and firm at once. “I swear it to you, we are not going anywhere. We are staying here. Staying with you.” He stood, and once again he wrapped his arms around her.
She no longer looked like the little girl she’d been, running toward him in the streets of Barcelona, with Erik fallen to his knees in her wake - but she clung to him now as she had at that unexpected meeting.
For a moment, Erik’s fingers itched for his camera, but he didn’t retrieve it.
Instead, he unfolded the letter, and placed it gently into Margarita’s hand. “Read,” was all he said.
Somehow she pried herself away from Charles.
Erik watched her dash the tears from her eyes, watched her reread the letter, several times.
“They want to come here and speak with you?” Margarita asked, eventually. “Why?”
“Perhaps they think we might still have something new to say,” Charles said, “that we haven’t already said before.”
A thought occurred to Erik, then, and he crossed to Margarita’s side, and put his arm around her shoulders. When she leaned into him, trusting and affectionate, he asked, “Do you think you might have something to say about the black flag, and the people who continue to fly it?”
“About them - yes, dad, I do.” She bit her lip. “You and papa saw that essay I turned in.”
By this time Charles had caught on to Erik’s words, and was nodding encouragement. “I want you to think about that essay, Margarita, and about your memories. Perhaps we can find a way for you to share those thoughts with others. Perhaps you could join us when we speak with Fury’s reporter. Or if you do not like the idea of speaking about these matters with him, we will do it for you.”
Erik pressed a kiss to the top of her head. “It is up to you to speak or to stay silent. There will be other ways of sharing your thoughts with the world. Only know that we will be there, if you choose to join us, and we will support you either way.”
“I’ll do it.” Margarita spoke quickly and decisively. “I’m not afraid. I’ll join you and I’ll speak with the reporter.” She smiled, unexpectedly, and reached out for Charles’s hand. “I remember something you told me about when I first came here.”
“What is it?” Charles asked as he wrapped his free arm around her waist so that she was tucked between himself and Erik.
“One heart,” Margarita said.
Slowly, Charles and Erik met each other’s eyes.
Hope, and wonder, and truth - and they held tightly to each other and to their daughter.
To the memories of the past and to a dream of the future.