The town of Westchester might have been pretty in sunshine. There was none when Erik Lensherr arrived there. It was the bruise-purple twilight of a grey day, washing the landscape out into sharp foreboding silhouettes. A cutting wind was blowing up. It would have been no kind of evening to look around for any sort of secrets. Even if he had known what he was looking for.
Instead, he pulled his truck up outside a run-down diner on the edge of town, hoping for a hot meal and another cup of coffee to get him through the last few hours of his long day. The diner was mostly empty when he entered. A young couple sat in one of the booths, whispering together. An older man sipped a chipped cup of what was most likely coffee at a smaller table, and a bored-looking waitress rested her elbows on the counter in front of her. Erik headed straight in her direction.
“How can I help you, sir?” She barely looked up at him.
“Coffee.” It took Erik a moment or two to remember his manners. It might have been more than a day since he’d spoken aloud to another human being. “Please. Are you still serving food?”
Perhaps intrigued by his accent, she finally looked up and looked him in the face. “I’ll get you a menu.”
Erik ordered without putting much thought into it. A cheese sandwich, a coffee with milk. He barely tasted the food, either, and for that he was somewhat glad, he suspected it wouldn’t have been the best experience. His thoughts were on his business here, the immediate needs of his body simply needing to be filled. “Excuse me, ma’am?” Still, his voice was slightly hoarse from too long spent on the road.
“Yes.” The waitress paused, and turned in his direction, her eyes skimming over him with the air of a woman practiced in assessing men.
“I want to ask you something. I was interested in seeing some… local colour, you might say. Any kind of interesting rumours, recent crime cases, that type of thing. There wouldn’t be anything like that here, would there?”
The woman’s face changed, flickered with something dark. “What for? Writing a book, are you?”
“Nothing like that.” Erik assured her. “Just an interested traveler. And it would help me very much if you would tell me.” He looked her directly in the eyes, his steely grey and steady, hers blue and rimmed with flaking dark eyeliner.
She paused for a moment. She was younger than he had thought at first, a teenager rather than a grown woman. She bit her lip. “Well, you might try the Xavier house.”
There. Now he was onto something. “Thank you…” his eyes flicked down to her name-badge. “Angie. And what happened there?” Because clearly, by her tone, there was something.
Angie smiled, seeming thrilled to talk at length on the topic. Perhaps, Erik thought, it was taboo talk. In a small town like this, such things often were. But the taboo always made itself interesting. And every town had its share of local ghoulish teenagers. Erik was just lucky to have seemingly landed on one so fast.
She bit her lip, and started talking in the hushed, solemn tones that would be expected of one telling a ghost story beside a campfire. “I was a baby when it all happened. But my parents told me all about it. A rich family used to live there, the Xaviers, they’d been around since the town was founded, or nearly. The last ones to live there were Brian and Sharon Xavier, and their son Charles. They used to be friendly, you know, like the rest of us. But then Brian died when Charles was only a little kid, and Sharon remarried. She married a man named Kurt Marko. He wasn’t from around here, you know, and people didn’t like him. It wasn’t just that he wasn’t a local, you know,” she looked at Erik as if in sympathy for his also not being a native of the area, “but he was weird. Standoffish, you know, and rough. And he had a son just the same as him. After she got married, Sharon and Charles stopped coming around in town. There were all kind of rumours going around about what was happening up at the house.” She paused, seemingly for effect.
Erik was beginning to feel that rumours were a stock activity in this town. “What kind of rumours?”
“Oh, bad ones.” Angie told him, with obvious relish. “That he was abusive, you know, slapping her and Charles around. My mom says it was true. That she saw Sharon at the grocery store once with a black eye, and where else would she have gotten that?”
Erik could think of several ways, but he had to admit that the most obvious explanation was in this case also the most likely. “Go on.”
“Anyway. They were married for a couple years, and Charles would have been twelve or so. I was two. Then one night, Kurt Marko’s son — Cain, I think his name was — showed up at a bar in town, ghostly white and covered in blood.”
Now that, that had Erik’s interest. “Did he say what happened?”
“He did, but nobody’s sure they believe him. He said that Sharon and his father were both dead. He said that they had fought, and his father pushed her, and she fell down the stairs and died. Well, people believe that part, they already thought he was beating her. But then he said, Charles had been watching. Charles got angry, and Kurt started bleeding. Out of his eyes, his nose, his ears. He just collapsed, and died there on the floor. Just from Charles looking at him. Obviously, it’s harder to believe that part. Charles was just a kid, right? How could he kill a grown man? But they say he did. And that he died that night too, that Cain killed him. They say that the three ghosts still haunt the house.” She rolled her eyes. “Personally, I think Cain killed all of them. It’s more interesting that way. But who knows what really happened?” She finished her story with a dramatic flare.
Erik took a deep breath. An urban legend, that’s all it was, clearly mired in local superstition and prejudices. Yet, still worth investigation. He would have to go to that house.
The Xavier house stood outside the town, a monolithic block of dark stone surrounded by what might have once been impressive gardens, but were now becoming an overgrown mini-wilderness of their own, tangles of green studded with occasional bright bursts of flowers, and broken open by the expanse of a brown lake that looked deep and murky. The heavy wrought-iron gates in the stone wall around the property stood partially open, but not far enough to admit Erik’s truck. Sighing, he pulled off the road, parking on the verge beside the driveway, and squeezed himself through the gap. The gates scraped at his sides, and he stopped for a moment to catch his breath on the other side, staring down the pitted driveway to the house.
The house remained him of a comatose face, heavy door like a mouth hanging slack and dark, dull windows like empty unconscious eyes. As he got closer, Erik could see shapes and shadows behind those windows, the threatening silhouettes of abandoned furniture.
And then… movement. Just a flicker of it, at one of the large picture-windows at the front of the second floor. A curtain twitched aside — Erik hadn’t even realised part of the shadow over the windows came from curtains, though he should have thought of it, he realised then — and a figure standing behind it. In the moment that Erik saw the figure, he knew it had seen him. The curtain was dropped, and the figure — it had looked human, shorter by a bit than him — fled away.
Erik’s heart was hammering in his chest, and he sucked in a stern breath. He had seen worse than this in his life, he had seen worse than this even on his searching missions. There was no reason why a figure in a window should frighten him so.
And yet. An aura hung over the house, a black cloud as heavy and damp as one foretelling rain. An feeling of sadness and fear, living and breathing and suffocating him. The Xavier house was anything but an empty shell.
Erik took a deep breath, and then another, and headed towards the heavy wooden front door. Whatever lurked behind these walls, or in this wild garden, he had to face it, and there was no time like the present.
Of course, the door was locked. There was a knocker, a heavy one shaped like a lion’s head — because why wouldn’t it be, such a door needed such a knocker, would have looked naked without it — but there was no point knocking. It wasn’t as if the figure lurking upstairs — assuming it had been anything but a trick of Erik’s eyes — was going to answer for a polite knock at their front door. If anyone human, or even close, was living here, they had clearly put effort, significant effort at that, into making sure people stayed away.
Giving up on the front door, Erik began combing the sides of the house, looking for another entrance. There had to be a side door in a place like this, for servants and deliveries back when the house was built.
He found it tucked away behind a dense curtain of ivy, which he pushed away. He made a face at the feel of it, caked with dust and dirt and perhaps some spiderwebs. The door behind it was in no better condition, wood swollen and split from years of exposure to the elements. The lock, too, was rusted and in poor condition, but that was in Erik’s favour. He pulled a hairpin, purloined from a long-ago girlfriend, out of his pocket, and set to picking the lock.
But after a few moments, he found himself distracted. There it was, the ringing in his ears again. The whispering. It had started long ago, when he lay curled around himself in bunk in Auschwitz, shivering and crying into his ears. It must be a result of the trauma of those days, he always reasoned to himself. Where else would the soothing voice, telling him sweet things, calming him and telling him he would be safe, be coming from? Nowhere.
Under his fingers, the door sprang open, and he found himself in what might once have been an entry room, or a mudroom or pantry. Thick sheets of dust and spiderweb lay over everything, and hung from the ceiling. Erik found himself sneezing from the dust, and wiped his nose in irritation.
The place made his skin crawl, and it got no better as he made his way into the grand entrance behind the heavy locked door. Behind him was a staircase with a faded dark green carpet up it, and above his head was a crystal chandelier. At the foot of the staircase he found a dark stain, which sent a shiver down his spine. It looked like blood. Old blood.
Erik found himself wanting to move away from the stairs. Not to look at them, or move closer to them, or even think of them. They made him shiver all over, made dread clench cold and dark in his stomach. He felt sick, lightheaded, and the world began to spin in front of his eyes. He wrapped his arms around himself, shivering, his breath coming fast and shallow.
And then, above him, he heard footsteps. Light footsteps, fast, but unmistakeable and human. Coming from the top of the stairs.
He had to press forward, he realised, if he wanted to unravel any of this mystery. As he climbed the stairs, he shook all over with dread, and his vision swam and darkened to the point where he could barely see. And yet, he made it up them nonetheless, step by step, second by second.
Until he found himself at the top. Where the pressure and darkness suddenly lifted from him, leaving him feeling nothing but the ordinary apprehension of the strange house, and shivering with nothing but the cold of the air around him.
TW for a reasonably explicit Holocaust flashback in this chapter.
Twenty-two years ago
Erik closed his eyes and tried to hear nothing but his own ragged breathing. His body ached, every bone sharply exposed under paper-thin skin, his scratchy tunic and pants offering him no protection from the biting cold. His dirty skin itched, and he was exhausted from a day’s work. He wanted to cry. He wouldn’t be the only one. There was always someone crying in the barracks with him. Grown men, old men, children and teenagers. All of them broke down and cried eventually. Erik’s tears were already spilling, hot for a moment before they froze to his cheeks. He hugged his knees tightly to his chest.
“Erik.” A soft voice spoke to him out of the background noise of soft sobs and rough breathing and quiet prayers, a whisper right in his ear.
He startled. “Who’s that?”
His bunkmate turned to glare at him. “Quiet down!”
Erik sat up properly, and looked to his left and right. “Who called my name?”
“Nobody called your name, kid! Who’d bother?” The man’s tone was harsh, but Erik was used to that.
He shook his head, and sighed, lying back down. He must have been imagining it. He didn’t have a name anymore, after all. None of them did.
“Erik!” There it was again, several long minutes later. He sat up again, this time only partway, but now the men to either side of him were asleep, or at least pretending to be. Or dead, but he doubted that. They might be in the morning, but for now they were still warm.
Erik closed his eyes, and put his hands over them, and tried to think at the voice. “Who are you?”
“My name’s Charles.”
“Where are you?” The voice sounded younger than him, but as far as he could tell, he was the youngest of the group of men sleeping in his barracks tonight. “I don’t see you.”
“I’m a long way away, I think. I don’t know where you are either, but I know it’s a bad place.”
“Bad place.” Erik repeated. “Very bad place. How are you talking to me?”
“It’s what I do. I can reach into people’s heads, and talk to them, and see what they’re thinking. I don’t know why you, though. I can usually only do it with people I’ve met. Must be something special about.” The voice paused, as if taking a breath. “Are you all right, Erik? Can I help you?”
“No. Nobody can help me.” And then he reconsidered. Maybe this phantom voice was offering him at least some reprise from the crushing fear and loneliness of the freezing, all-too-short nights. “Wait. Keep talking to me. Keep talking to me until I fall asleep. That might help.” Even his mental voice could crack, he realised then. He was scared. Scared to ask for even that.
“Of course, Erik. I’ll talk to you if you’ll talk to me.”
The house had been leading him into this upstairs corridor all along, or at least for the past several minutes, that much was clear now. And it wasn’t so hard to figure out why. This corridor was absent the clutter of the downstairs or the stairwell, absent the dust and spider-webs and broken furniture that had created the maze that led him here. This corridor looked lived in, swept, tidy, rugs laid on the floor and the lights on. This did nothing to lessen Erik’s fear. On the contrary, it only enhanced it. Nonetheless, dragging his feet, he reached the door at the end of it, and pushed it carefully open.
A man sat before him, in a heavy brown leather armchair with bronze studs along the seams. He was smaller than Erik, both in height and in solidity of his body — slight, one might say. Dark hair framed a pale face, and piercing blue eyes stared out at Erik, framed by bruise-like shadows. Erik felt naked in that moment, that stare stripping him down to his bones, laying his very soul open for this man to read. He shivered, wanting to hug himself, to run away and hide.
But on the outside, he straightened his shoulders. “Is this your house?” His voice came out with the brusqueness and bluster he had carefully crafted, to his gratefulness.
“Yes.” The man’s voice was level and calm, as if this were any social engagement. No, not social. Professional. That being said, he spoke with a warmth that Erik had not anticipated. As if he knew him. As if he had expected his visit. Had been waiting here, with his cup of tea in hand, for Erik to reach him. “I am Charles Xavier. This is my house, as you say. Who are you, and what are you doing here?”
“My name is Erik Lensherr. And — “ He had had words for such a scenario, but suddenly they all escaped him. “You should have locked your doors if you didn’t want people to come in!”
“I did. I locked the front doors, but I left one open for adventurous types like you. You see, can’t have those that won’t be discouraged going and breaking our windows and our locks. We need those. But every trouble-making teenager or too-daring child stopped once they saw the downstairs. Once they felt the fear. Heard the whispers, the phantom footsteps. Why didn’t you? Brave man, aren’t you, but that can’t be all?”
“I knew someone was up here.” He managed, weakly. “I saw movement in a window. And it — well, it wasn’t real was it?” And then he paused. “A minute. You were doing that, weren’t you? Not my mind playing tricks at all!”
Charles smiled then, a more gentle expression than Erik had seen on him before. “Oh, no, my friend, your mind is quite solid. Yes, that was my work. With a little help from my sister, Raven. It must have been her you saw at the window.”
“It’s you.” Erik breathed out, soft and shocked. The voice was familiar, in a shocking, burning way, bright as flaming steel. A voice he had been hearing for upwards of twenty years. The voice of the only man who knew him inside and out. The one he hadn’t thought was even real. “Charles.”
Charles smiled at him then, a small, mysterious smile.
If Erik would have been able to put a face to the voice — not that he hadn’t tried, but he never seemed to be able to — it might have in fact looked something like this. Something like that pale skin and bright blue eyes, something like those luscious red lips.
Charles’s smile vanished. “You shouldn’t have come here. Nobody should come here. It isn’t any of your business.”
“You came for me.”
“You shouldn’t have come!” Charles’s voice rose in anger.
Erik’s mind was suddenly filled with a blinding rush of images. A skeletal man in striped pajamas threw himself against an electric fence. A man’s meaty fist struck a blonde woman in the cheek. A little girl was crying. Erik’s mother was crying, and so was he… he collapsed to his knees, breathing roughly, hands pressed painfully hard against his eyes.
“Erik.” Charles’s voice called out to him, soft and cool against the burning chaos of his mind. “Erik, shh. I’m sorry. Come back to me. Here my voice and come to me.”
Erik pressed his face into his knees, breathing in shuddering gasps. He couldn’t hear. He didn’t want to hear. Didn’t want to admit any more pressure onto his shattered mind. Then, a touch. Charles’s hand, light and cool against the back of his neck. “Erik.” His name, again, just as steady and gentle as before. “I’m sorry. I know it hurts, but it isn’t here, it isn’t now. It was real, but it isn’t where you are.”
Erik opened his eyes, wet and red and glistening with tears. “Charles…” There was something so achingly familiar in the voice soothing him then.
“Yes, Erik. Darling.” Charles’s voice was sweet as anything Erik had tasted, and when he looked up at him, he knew something in those tender blue eyes. Like ice, he had thought, but no more. No ice could be so warm and soft.
“How?” Erik barely dared to ask, barely dared to breathe out the words. “It’s really you. Isn’t it?”
“It always has been.” Charles’s hand reached out to cup his cheek. “Ever since you came here. I caught your mind, so fragile, such a lovely, broken thing. And I knew you belonged to me, and I belonged to you. We were made for each other.” His fingers hooked into Erik’s collar, and he pulled Erik to his feet. The other man willingly followed, obedient to the touch. Thinking of nothing but the burn of Charles’s fingers against the back of his neck, and of falling into his gaze with his whole heart and soul.
And then their lips met, and nothing else mattered. Nothing but the kiss, deep and gentle, questioning, probing, learning.
Charles was gasping under his lips, and at that moment Erik knew that they were both equally affected. That realisation sent blood rushing through him in a heady surge. Heady perhaps being the wrong word, as his head was in that moment left quite empty of blood, as it rushed to swell and thicken other parts. He pressed himself against Charles, keening softly under his breath.
Charles’s hands slid around to Erik’s hips, holding him gently. “I want to touch.” He managed, voice shaking. “Erik. I’ve wanted it since I knew you, and I’ve known you… may I?”
Erik put his fingers over Charles’s, and smiled. “Of course. Gently, now.” And then he paused, squeezing Charles’s fingers. “You’ve been shut up here for so long. Have you ever had the chance to be with anyone before?”
The rosy blush that rose in Charles’s cheeks at the question was worth all the effort to get to this point. “I, well, uh, that is to say… that no, I haven’t. You don’t… mind?”
“No, of course not! I guess the burden is on me to be gentle, then.” Erik smiled, and leaned down to capture Charles’s lips once more.
Charles made a surprised sound, low in his throat, and Erik kissed him harder, nipped at his soft and tempting lips.
Charles was smiling, and he was beautiful, and the fear Erik had felt since arriving at the house was gone. This was right. This was where he belonged. Who he belonged with. Belonged to, even. He felt dizzy, once again, but this time, not with fear.
Their next kiss was rougher, bruising. Passionate. Their teeth crashed together, lips meeting at the wrong angle, and Erik couldn’t hold himself back from laughing, breathless and giddy. “I want you.”
“I’ve wanted you for twenty years. I wanted you since I dreamed and found your mind.” Charles answered, sounding as breathless as Erik felt. He put his hand against Erik’s cheek, staring at him dreamily. “You have beautiful eyes, you know. I’ve always thought so.”
“Says you.” Erik laughed, and then, “always?”
“I saw you before. When you looked in the mirror. A long time ago. You were twenty, I think. I thought you were older, for a moment I was confused. Because you had…” He trailed off, and blushed again.
“Because of my hair?” Erik reached up and ran a hand through his too-long, silver-white hair. “It’s been white since it grew back.”
“I think it makes you look interesting.” Charles confessed in a rush. “I think just about everything about you is interesting.” He grabbed at Erik’s hand. “Come with me.”
Erik lay back, sprawling out into Charles’s worn-but-clean sheets. He felt sated, heavy and relaxed in a way he had not felt for a long time. Maybe not since Magda, even. He turned his head to the side, looking at Charles. “Come away with me.”
Charles stiffened beside him. “Why don’t you stay here?”
“Because you and Raven are wasted here! You could be doing so much good, but you stay shut up in here instead! When you could be helping others like you, like us!”
Charles’s face was blank. “They never helped us, though, did they? Or you.”
Erik winced, but he was not dissuaded. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t want anyone to be in pain or alone or left without help like we were. I want to be… I want to be the help that I never had. And you could do so much. Your mind, Charles, it’s wonderful! Just think about it, please. You don’t have to make any choice right now, of course not.” And then an idea came to him. “You don’t even have to leave! You could help people right here, if you stopped pretending to be a ghost!”
Charles turned to look at him, his blue eyes huge in the dim lighting of the bedroom. “They never helped us.” He repeated, but with a different inflection this time. Tears swam in his eyes. “The people in the town. They knew what was happening to me and my mother and Cain. I know they knew. They talked about us. But they never tried to do anything to help. They laughed about it. They called me and Cain freaks, and my mother frigid and antisocial and an alcoholic. Like that was all her fault! They never cared!”
“So what?” Erik didn’t mean to shout, but he did, sitting up and grabbing at Charles’s hand. “Nobody cared what was happening to me either! That’s not an excuse for me to be just like them!”
Charles winced from Erik’s loud voice, and was stunned quiet, watching him.
Erik sighed, and ran his fingers over Charles’s cheek. “I didn’t mean to shout.” He told him, voice much quieter now. “My apologies. But my point still stands. Just because others have done you wrong is no excuse for you not to do the right thing. We were children then, and the world was cruel to us, and people were cruel to us. But we’re adults now, and we have a choice. We can fight.” Passion rose in his voice again, but he kept his volume under control. “Make no mistake, I’m not talking about sitting by passively while others do us and our kind violence. I’m talking about fighting back. About finding those children the world will be cruel to, and standing between them and those that harm them. About showing them what we are. We aren’t weak, we aren’t helpless anymore, we won’t be victims anymore! We can make them see! Make them bleed!” He was squeezing Charles’s hand almost painfully tight.
The colour was rising in Charles’s cheeks again. “Do you really think that? Do you really think that I can… help?”
“Of course I do! You more than anyone else! With your power, and with your determination, you could do anything! I know you’ve done things you aren’t proud of. I know you killed a man, didn’t you?”
Charles bit his lip, and nodded slowly.
“That shows, doesn’t it, though? It shows you wouldn’t stand by and watch your mother hurt. Maybe you didn’t act early enough, but so what, you were ten years old!”
“I was twelve—”
“It doesn’t matter! You were young, that’s the point! And now you’re not. Now you can control yourself, and your power, and do good. Come with me.” He asked again.
Charles closed his eyes. “Yes, Erik.”
In the years that came after, the ghost story of the Xavier house would still be told. But now it would be told with a wry twist of lips, and an ending paragraph about how, after years of isolation, the reclusive Xavier siblings returned to the town. About how they still lived there, and now with another man, a stranger to the town. How bright, cunning Raven had become so popular among the town’s young men and women. How Charles and his stranger would leave for days at a time, and return with children in the backseat of their car. Those children lived there now, people said, a whole hoard of them. Nobody knew where they came from. Nobody dared to ask. Charles was a murderer, after all, and his stranger a mystery.