sirona_fics: (charles/erik regency)
[personal profile] sirona_fics
Title: First Impressions
Pairing: Charles/Erik, Hank/Raven
Word count: ~27,000 overall (~10,200 this part)

Warnings, Summary and Notes can be found in Part One



Moira removed to Kent with her husband not long after their last conversation, and Charles wasn’t afforded the opportunity to apologise that he so desperately wanted. It wasn’t long before the Militia followed, deployed away from Meryton, and Charles found his life was feeling rather grey in the wake of both departures. He joined his mother in urging Raven to visit their aunt and uncle Gardiner in London, believing a change in scenery would do her the world of good. Charles was indeed worried for his sister -- she had become even more quiet and withdrawn since Mr McCoy's return to town, and Charles' heart hurt for her.

"I strongly advise you to write to Mr McCoy when you are in town. I am sure he should be delighted to see you," he told her, for he was firmly convinced that Miss McCoy was to blame for the group's removal in the first place.

Raven smiled wanly at him, but agreed that she should. Charles saw her off one overcast morning, a hint of a chill in the air despite it being mid-summer. The postman met him just as he was re-entering the house.

"A letter for you, Mr Xavier," the man called, and Charles strode down to meet him. His heart warmed to see Moira's tidy script on the front, and he rushed to pay the man so he could open it and read her news.

The invite to visit her and his cousin in Kent was a welcome relief from the melancholy mood that had fallen over him, and he started packing his luggage as soon as he sent back his confirmation.

The journey was long, but Charles hardly felt it. His head was buzzing with thoughts, and the quiet was soothing to his aching heart. He had not had much chance to speak with Mr Shaw before the man had followed his regiment away, taking with him the only conversation partner Charles had left after Moira married and left Meryton. It had been a bleak few weeks for Charles indeed.

Thoughts of Mr Shaw naturally lead to thoughts of Mr Lehnsherr, who had been a topic of conversation between Charles and Mr Shaw every time they met. The more he listened to Mr Shaw, however, the more he struggled to reconcile the picture Mr Shaw painted of the Erik Lehnsherr he was acquainted with. Mr Lehnsherr enjoyed the devoted friendship of Mr McCoy, who was not someone to attach himself to the kind of person that Mr Shaw described. And too the Erik Lehnsherr Charles had spoken with was highly educated, excessively so; he spoke six languages, was widely read, and from what Charles had concluded ran his estate to considerable profit. This profile did not match the one supplied by Mr Shaw, and once the discrepancy made itself known to Charles, he could not easily dismiss it, no matter how much he sought to.

Charles arrived late in the afternoon, when the weather was still sunny enough for rays of light to glint through Moira's dark hair as she ran out to meet him.

"Welcome to our humble abode, Cousin Charles," Mr Collins called out. Charles could do no more than nod to him, for he was unwilling to be drawn into a long conversation with the man.

Moira had them ensconced within her private drawing room within minutes, leaving Mr Collins outside to tend to his hedges.

"I encourage him, you know," Moira said mildly. "The fresh air does him good."

Charles smiled at her, running a careful eye over her shape. There was a quiet happiness about her, a contentment Charles did not remember seeing before. With some surprise he realised that Moira was happy. Charles was prepared to be very charitable to the man who had made her so; it seemed that while to Charles, who valued independence so highly, marriage to Mr Collins would have been a slow death, Moira thrived under his attention.

"You look surprised, my dear," she said, startling Charles from his thoughts.

"I am happy to see you happy," Charles said earnestly, taking her hand. “I was entirely in the wrong to assume that your wishes were the same as my wishes. I only hope you can forgive me for being such a poor friend to you.”

Moira smiled at him, forgiveness and reassurance in the gentle squeeze she gave his hand before withdrawing. "I never expected to marry for love," she mused quietly as she poured the tea. "And I didn't. But I am... comfortable, and secure in the knowledge of a good home; and with time, God willing, children. It was more than I expected from life, Charles. So yes. I am happy. And I am glad that you can see that, my friend."

Charles found a smile for her. It seemed he was not quite so insightful as he had always imagined -- he never could have said himself that Moira felt this way, but he didn't have to understand it to accept it, and to support his friend in her choices.

A shout interrupted their comfortable silence, sending Moira scurrying to the window. "What is it, dear?" she called out, and then, "Oh! It is Lady De Bourgh's carriage. I imagine we shall dine at Rosings Park, in that case."

"Oh!" Charles echoed, though he did not know what was so important about that.

Mr Collins joined them at the window when the carriage drove away. "We have all been invited to dinner by Her Ladyship," he confirmed. Seeing Charles' bemused expression, Mr Collins went on to say, "Do not fret, Cousin. Her Ladyship will not expect you to wear evening dress."

"Yes, my friend, just put on whatever you've brought that's best," Moira said serenely, though Charles caught the small roll of her eyes that she did not quite manage to hide.

---

Rosings Park was impressive, a large manor built from the honey-coloured stone so often found in the area. Charles could not imagine what the upkeep of such a vast estate might entail.

"Beautiful, is it not?" Mr Collins asked, but did not wait for an answer. "Come along," he added nervously, hurrying his stride even more.

If Charles had thought at all about what Lady Catherine De Bourgh must be like, Charles imagined he would probably have been pretty close to the mark. The woman sitting regally on a plush chaise was not young -- indeed, her skin drooped around her chin and neck, and the skin around her thin lips pursed in displeasure was lined with wrinkles.

Mr Collins' carrying, if possible, became even more obsequious.

"Allow me to present my Cousin, Charles Xavier," he quavered.

Charles rounded the chaise, and looked at Her Ladyship's small, beady eyes.

"A pleasure," he said, bowing.

Lady Catherine observed him through her pince-nez for a moment before deigning to incline her head.

"My daughter, Miss De Bourgh," she said, waving dismissively at a young, ill-looking woman sitting a way away. "And my Nephews, Mr Lehnsherr and Colonel Fitzwilliam," she added.

Charles stiffened, turning on the spot to see Mr Lehnsherr standing by the far window, disguised by the fading light outside.

"Mr Lehnsherr!" Charles exclaimed, before remembering himself and bowing, fighting a faint flush to his face.

Mr Lehnsherr bowed back as Lady De Bourgh picked up on Charles' surprise.

"Do you know my Nephew, Mr Xavier?" she demanded.

"I do indeed, Ma'am. I met him when he visited his friend Mr McCoy in --shire."

Lady Catherine stared at him for a moment before continuing as if Charles had not spoken. "My Nephew is excessively fond of me. He comes to visit me whenever he can take the time from his duties."

Charles remained silent, noting that the long-suffering look in Mr Lehnsherr's eyes betrayed his impassive facade. He looked at Charles steadily; Charles found himself pleased he was at least being acknowledged by someone, even if it was Mr Lehnsherr.

The other man also stepped forward from the shadowed corner, bowing swiftly. "Colonel Fitzwilliam at your service," he said jovially.

Charles smiled and bowed at him. "A pleasure, Colonel," he said pleasantly.

Charles chose to sit on the far end of the table throughout dinner, hoping to discourage Lady Catherine's sudden and rapid demands for information about his family – he would much rather she had remained distant and aloof. He still had to answer more than he wished, but there was no escape to be found. He avoided Mr Lehnsherr's gaze, but he could feel the man's eyes on him even when he looked away. It left him uncomfortably unsettled. He wished the gentleman would turn to converse with Miss De Bourgh sitting next to him, but Mr Lehnsherr did not spare her the least of his attention fixed on Charles.

After dinner Charles rose to stroll the room, ostensibly to stretch his legs after his journey. He found himself with company through no effort of his own.

"Is your family well, Mr Xavier?" Mr Lehnsherr enquired a few moments after he joined him.

"Very well, thank you," Charles replied politely. "My Sister has lately been in London; perhaps you have seen her?"

Mr Lehnsherr replied that he had not.

"Oh," Charles said, and kept walking until he came to meet Colonel Fitzwilliam, who was walking towards them.

"Mr Xavier, you must regale me. What was my Cousin like when he was at Netherfield?"

Charles felt Mr Lehnsherr stiffen slightly by his side, and his barbed retort died in his throat. "Unfortunately disinclined to dance," he replied lightly instead.

Colonel Fitzwilliam laughed heartily. "Sounds just like Lehnsherr. He never did learn to fit smoothly into a new group of acquaintances. Doesn't know how to talk to people he isn't familiar with, you see."

Charles smiled, and felt the tension at his side dissipate slightly. "No one is born knowing," he rebuffed gently. "Perhaps Mr Lehnsherr just needs to practice."

He dared to meet Mr Lehnsherr's eyes for the first time since the conversation started, and was surprised to find an unusual level of warmth in them.

Later in the evening, he found himself talking lightly with the Colonel while Mr and Mrs Collins conversed with Her Ladyship and Miss De Bourgh, Mr Lehnsherr a severe presence to the side.

"Have you been long here at Rosings, sir?"

The Colonel, nodded, looking resigned. "A whole week already. Lehnsherr conscripted me to suffer with him. He is lucky we have known each other since the cradle, or I would not have agreed."

Charles hummed sympathetically. "It looks like you are doomed, at least until Mr Lehnsherr finds companionship of the more permanent type, whoever the unfortunate lady turns out to be," he could not resist throwing out.

Instead of laughing, the Colonel shook his head. "Whoever she or he is, they would be a lucky person indeed; coming to stay at Rosings Park would be a small price to pay for the privilege of being Lehnsherr’s spouse. Lehnsherr is loyal to a fault, once one secures his friendship and affections."

Charles was surprised by the inclusion of the male pronoun, but it was nothing to the shock he felt when the Colonel spoke again. "Why, he was telling me that he saved a very good friend of his from an inopportune marriage just last month."

Charles felt a chill run down his spine, as if someone had dropped a chip of ice under his shirt. "Who might that friend be?" he asked, deceptively calm.

"A Mr Henry McCoy," the Colonel supplied, believing he was doing his friend an honour by relaying the matter.

Charles could not speak for a moment, but rallied before the Colonel could grow concerned. "Was there an objection to the lady?" he asked, trying not to grit his teeth.

"The family," the Colonel corrected. "It was implied that they were unsuitable."

The breath escaped Charles's chest, and refused to return. He let the Colonel's next words wash over him, choosing instead to stare down Mr Lehnsherr where he stood by his aunt's side. He felt numb, and his head pounded unbearably. It was not long before he excused himself to the Colonel and the others, citing a horrendous headache, and made his way out of the house. He did not see Mr Lehnsherr's concerned gaze follow him out, but even if he had, he would not have cared.

The chilly air calmed his pounding heart, his heaving chest. He walked down to the Collins' home quickly, but he could not settle for long, and instead chose to walk out again, leaving a candle lit in the window to guide his way back to the house. He wandered the grounds for a long time afterwards, feeling shocked, hurt, betrayed, although why he should feel that last was a mystery to him.

"Insufferable man," he growled to himself, over and over again; squeezed his hands into fists and ground his teeth together to keep the angry tears at bay.

The candle guided him back to the house before the others returned, but he did not rest well that night.

The next morning his head was still pounding, and so he begged off going to church in favour of sitting quietly in the parlour, attempting to compose a letter to Raven. It had been far too long since he wrote to her – over a week! -- and so he prepared his pen and paper, and tried to think of what he could say without pouring his anger between the pages.

The door to the room flew open, and he streaked a long line of ink across the paper from the sudden noise. He was not expecting to see Mr Lehnsherr, looking flushed and discomfited and palming his riding gloves in both hands.

"Mr Lehnsherr!" Charles exclaimed.

"My apologies, Mr Xavier. I was told you were still feeling unwell, and I wanted to see whether you needed anything at all."

"Thank you, sir, no," Charles replied stiffly, thinking only 'this is the man responsible for Raven's unhappiness'.

Mr Lehnsherr did not go away, however. He stared at Charles some more, then turned to pace the room in obvious agitation. Charles waited, for he could not imagine what the man might want from him.

Mr Lehnsherr turned swiftly on his heel and came to stand in front of Charles.

"In vain have I struggled," he said, regarding Charles intently. "It would not do. My feelings would not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."

Charles stared back, struck speechless for one of the few times in his life.

The silence stretched uncomfortably, until Mr Lehnsherr seemed unable to take any more of it. "I have fought long and hard against it; it goes against my judgement, my breeding, the wishes of my family, but my desire would not be denied. I must ask you to become my husband."

"Mr Lehnsherr, I..." Charles could not find words, for here was this person who embodied everything Charles hated about society's dictate, asking Charles to put all that has happened aside, and marry him? It was insupportable.

"Sir, I thank you for the compliment, but I cannot agree," he said firmly.

Mr Lehnsherr's eyes bore into his own. "Are you refusing me?" he asked, such disbelief in his voice that Charles became all the more stubbornly determined to keep his decision.

"I am," he said in challenge.

Mr Lehnsherr looked almost wild for a moment, and Charles fought not to shrink away from him. He pushed the chair back and stood, placing them on a more even height.

"What reasons can you give me for your rejection?" Mr Lehnsherr demanded.

Charles could not hold himself back any longer.

"Do you think anything in the world could convince me to marry the man who destroyed the happiness of my beloved sister?" he snapped, holding Mr Lehnsherr's gaze.

He saw the man falter briefly, but then the conviction was back in his eyes.

"I did what I thought was right," Mr Lehnsherr stated.

Charles' eyes widened impossibly at the man's nerve.

"You separated a young couple who loved each other, exposing them to society's ridicule and the pain of a broken heart, and you believe this to be the right thing?"

"I observed Miss Xavier most carefully, and could not ascertain that she loved McCoy, or would be receptive to his feelings for her."

"That's because she has learned not to throw herself at gentlemen she has just met!" Charles argued furiously.

"McCoy, too, was persuaded that she did not care for him!"

"An event that, I would imagine, you facilitated?"

Mr Lehnsherr stood his ground. "Regardless, there are other factors to be considered."

"Such as?"

"It was... suggested that this would be an advantageous union for the lady."

"Did my sister give that impression?" Charles demanded.

"No, but it was amply suggested by your Mother, your younger brothers, even on occasion your Father."

Charles stared at him helplessly, for he could not deny the accusation. His family, while he loved them dearly, could behave in a manner shockingly improper sometimes.

For the first time since the conversation started, Mr Lehnsherr looked chagrined. "Forgive me," he said softly, making Charles look up at him. "You and your sister I must exclude from my accusations."

Charles swallowed weakly, but he was not done. There was one more thing that picked at him, gave him no peace, made him doubt himself and Mr Shaw and Mr Lehnsherr equally. "And what about Mr Shaw?"

Mr Lehnsherr's entire demeanour changed immediately. "Mr Shaw?" he growled, and this time Charles did step back from the man's palpable anger.

"Yes. He has told me of his misfortunes," Charles said.

Mr Lehnsherr unleashed a bitter laugh. "Oh, yes. His misfortunes have been great indeed."

"You dismissed him unfairly after years of loyal service, and yet you mock him?" Charles asked, startled, for he had not expected such a callous reaction to the history he knew of between the two gentlemen.

Mr Lehnsherr stared at him some more, blue eyes burning with an inner fire that drew Charles like a magnet.

"So this is what you think of me," Mr Lehnsherr stated quietly. "Thank you, sir, for explaining so fully. I will not take any more of your time. Goodbye." After another brief moment, he turned his back on Charles and stalked out of the room.

Charles stared at the door, which Mr Lehnsherr closed quietly behind himself. His knees gave out, and he sank down into the chair he had pushed back earlier. Movement outside the window caught his eye, and he watched Mr Lehnsherr stride away with quick, angry steps, hand clenched into a fist at his side.

---

The next morning brought Charles no further clarity. For the second day running his head ached when he made his way to breakfast. The sight of all the food made him feel queasy, and so he begged leave to eat later. Instead, he went for a walk, hoping to clear his head from the shocking discoveries of the previous day. He walked much further than he had before, and a part of him delighted in the fresh air, the lush green grounds, the perfect lawns and the aged oak trees, breathing in lungful after lungful of the sweet scent of summer.

He was following a meandering path through a smattering of fir trees when he became aware of another person approaching from the other direction. When he lifted his head, he discovered it was the last person he wished to see.

Mr Lehnsherr looked up also at the noise, and fixed Charles in place with those penetrating eyes. "I have been walking the gardens for some time in the hope of finding you. I will not bother you further. I wish your would do me the honour of reading this letter," he said, handing Charles a thick envelope.

Charles took it with nerveless fingers, watching Mr Lehnsherr bow to him and leave by the same path that Charles had followed. Against his wish, his fingers edged under the sealed flap containing the missive, and now that it was open it would be rude for Charles not to read it.

Do not be alarmed, sir, on receiving this letter, that I intend to renew the sentiments that were, last night, so disgusting to you. I merely wish to defend myself against some of the accusations levelled against me.

On the subject of your sister and McCoy I will not say more. I believed myself to be acting in the service of a dear friend, and did not perceive that your sister felt genuine affection for him. I will not apologise for caring for my friend's happiness and well-being.

It is the subject of Mr Shaw that I wish to address. You accused me of ruining his future; if correct, the injustice would be great indeed. However, Mr Xavier, I'm afraid you have been labouring under a misapprehension.

It is not easy to write the following words to you, for this is a private family matter and as such I would prefer to keep it from the public eye. But you, Mr Xavier, I am willing to trust with this truth. You deserve to understand the falsehood of what has been said to you, and I know I can trust you to be discreet.

Mr Shaw was indeed my Father's steward, and as such my Father trusted him implicitly, even with the education of his only son. But Mr Shaw's methods were quite unorthodox. For every mistake I made, I was punished. A cane, a belt, whatever Mr Shaw found handy. He believed that pain was a great motivator, and had no problem providing it as often as he felt was required. It was months before my governess realised the bruises and cuts on my back could not be only a result of falls, or rough play with my friends. By the time my Father figured out what had been happening, I was fifteen.

Mr Shaw was removed from the position of my tutor, and his interaction with my sister limited to mere pleasantries. Other tutors were found for me, though soon after it was obvious that I learned perfectly well on my own, and by the time I was seventeen and on my way to Oxford, I was well ahead of my peers.

My sister Angelique is eight years my junior. By the time I had graduated from Oxford, my Father was greatly ill, and unable to look after her as much as she needed. After my Father died and I took over the management of the estate, I myself was home infrequently, and I am afraid I, too, was lax in my own responsibilities towards her. A governess was found, different from the one I had, because she had resigned in order to look after her sister's orphaned daughter. The new woman, Mrs Younge, I am sorry to say did not have my sister's best interests at heart.

My sister expressed the desire to visit the seaside one summer, and I dutifully sent her there under the care of the selfsame Mrs Younge. I travelled down for an unannounced visit some weeks later. You can imagine my surprise when I found my sister in a passionate embrace with none other than Sebastian Shaw. My sister, who looks to me like a father, could not support deceiving me, and she told me the entire story. They were planning to elope to Scotland, where they would be married. Mrs Younge had been instrumental in engineering the deceit, and was in the employ of Mr Shaw himself.

When it was made clear to Mr Shaw that he would not receive a penny of my sister's considerable dowry, he quit the town and severed all connexions with our family. I will not attempt to convey the depth of Angelique's despair. She was then but fifteen.

This, sir, is the faithful account of my family's dealings with Mr Shaw. For its veracity you may appeal to Colonel Fitzwilliam, who as the executor of my Father's will knows the whole of it. I trust that you will see the need to keep this confidence to yourself.

I remain,

Erik Lehnsherr, &c.


Charles folded up the letter with shaking hands, staring unseeingly into the distance. There was a palpable weight in his chest, pressing down on his heart, that felt very much like regret and mortification at misunderstanding the truth so thoroughly. His whole body ached as he remembered the words he had flung at Mr Lehnsherr, and could only marvel at the patience of the man in writing him this letter and going to the trouble of defending himself against Charles' unfounded accusations.

By the time Charles walked back to the house, he had managed to calm down a little, but his heavy heart had not lifted. It sunk even lower when Moira greeted him with the news that Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr Lehnsherr had come by to take their leave of them, as they were returning to town. Charles could not be sorry that he had missed them, for he was still reeling from his newfound knowledge.

Charles himself took his leave of Moira the very next day. She was sorry to see him go, but Charles knew from Raven’s previous letter that Raven was due back from town tomorrow with their aunt and uncle, and when he said so Moira did not voice any further objections.

"I shall miss you so much, my friend," she murmured as she embraced him. "Write to me often."

"I promise," Charles vowed, holding her just as tightly.

That journey passed even more quickly than the last one, for Charles' mind was occupied with his own shortcomings and appalling behaviour, and Mr Lehnsherr's unexpectedly gracious handling of Charles' misunderstood accusations. It was almost a surprise when Meryton came into view, and with it the welcome relief of his father's carriage waiting to take him home.

---

It was strange, how little the house had changed in the time he had been away. He felt like the whole world had shifted on its axis, but the house he'd grown up in remained the same as it had been when he left. The sun still slanted off the windows in the afternoon, blinding him for the moment it took to disembark from the carriage, and when his eyesight cleared, he saw his mother waiting for him at the door.

"Oh, my dear, you are arrived; do come quickly. Raven is back with my Brother Gardiner this morning." She hurried forward to unwind the long travel scarf Charles favoured from around his neck.

"How is she?" Charles asked.

"She's in the drawing room," Mrs Xavier supplied fretfully, which was answer enough.

When Charles entered, Raven looked up from the book she was pretending to read on the settee, and Charles fairly startled at the wan look on her fine features.

"I am so glad you are back," Raven said, and the low, weary tone of her voice worried Charles even more.

"As am I, my dear," he replied, hurrying forward to take her hand and press a kiss to her cheek.

He called for tea immediately, for he felt the urgency to get a hot drink into her forthwith. Raven sipped daintily, warming her hands on the cup.

"Charles, do stop looking at me like I am going to break," Raven spoke after a moment. "I am quite over Mr McCoy. If he should pass me on the street I'd hardly notice."

Charles merely regarded her, unconvinced.

"It's true!" Raven insisted, her voice turning brittle. "London is so diverting. There is so much to entertain."

Charles took his tea in silence, feeling distressed at the shield Raven felt the need to erect between them. He wished he could read her mind, but even if he couldn't, it was perfectly clear that his sister was thoroughly unhappy. Yet she refused to speak of it, or to even acknowledge the subject.

"What news from Kent?" she asked instead.

Charles considered long and hard confiding in her -- the Lord knew he needed a friendly ear in which to pour his uncertainties and apprehension, but to burden Raven with his own problems, after what she had been through? To tell her that it was Mr Lehnsherr who had been instrumental in her present unhappy circumstances? No, he could not. She would never see Mr Lehnsherr with dispassionate eyes if she knew the truth, and for some reason Charles wished to preserve Mr Lehnsherr's integrity before her. He would not examine his reasoning further, for it would bring him only unhappiness. He had used Mr Lehnsherr abominably ill, and had no excuse for his wilful belief of every awful thing he had been told about him. Perhaps he could atone for it now, at least a little.

"Nothing," he said upon reflection. "At least, not much to entertain."

---

"My dear Charles, you would be more than welcome to accompany us on our tour of the Lake country," his uncle Gardiner said to Charles one morning, not a week after Charles' return from Kent.

Charles turned from his perusal of the rose garden behind the house, drawing his thoughts back from a pair of eyes only a shade less blue than the cloudless sky above them.

"Are you certain it would be no trouble, Uncle?" he asked, for he could not deny that a change of scenery would do him a world of good. It had only been a few days since his return to Longbourn, but already Charles was feeling restless.

"Dear boy, you could never be trouble," his uncle said fondly, throwing him a reproachful look. Charles had always been particularly close to his aunt and uncle Gardiner.

Charles hesitated, but it was a need he felt as deep as his bones, especially after recent events.

"Uncle, I have desired to talk to you these months. I wish, if of course you are agreeable, for you to prepare me to enter into Trade."

His uncle looked surprised, but far from displeased. "Charles, what has brought this about? Is there trouble?"

"Not at all, sir. I have only become more aware of the family's circumstances, especially since the visit of Mr Collins. And there are... other considerations which have prompted me to take this decision. This estate shall never belong to me, or to any of my brothers, and it is time we faced that truth. I have learned to manage it throughout the past years, but I know, now, that I need to find my distance from it if I am to make my way through life as an independent gentleman, one who does not rely on his estate or on a convenient marriage for ready funds."

Mr Gardiner watched him with pride etched clearly into his faded grey eyes. "It does you honour to think in this way, Nephew. Indeed, I shall be more than happy to begin your education in the Trade. We may start when you travel with us, if you are agreeable?"

Relief flooded Charles, lifting his spirits a little. He would not allow himself to become useless, and the past few days had brought with them the unwelcome realisation that if he remained firm in his decision to only marry for love, he may yet be disappointed. And so it fell to Charles to take control of his life, and control he would have, no matter what it cost him.

"Sir, I would be delighted. I cannot tell you how grateful I am for your generosity--"

"Now, now, none of that," Mr Gardiner waved him away. "You are aware that your Aunt Gardiner and I have no children, and I have long despaired of leaving my business to a member of my family. I am very happy indeed to have been proven wrong."

And so Charles' education in his uncle's trade began. He left Longbourn behind, and travelled with his aunt and uncle to London, where he proceeded to bury himself in the specifics of his uncle's trade. It was not easy, but Charles found that his troublesomely keen mind when it came to trifling matters served him well now; he learned quickly, and was found to be perceptive at sums and the weighing of investment risks. Before the month was out, he had made his uncle a small profit, and Mr Gardiner could not be more effusive on his behalf.

He missed Raven, and wrote to her often, almost every day; her letters continued to be listless and withdrawn, but little by little Charles was pleased to note a certain lifting of spirit, the more time his sister spent at home, engaged with pen and paper, for Charles was very persistent in his insistence for quick replies. One reply in particular, however, distressed him greatly.

"This cannot be supported," he said soon after to his uncle. "Sean, to be allowed to leave for Brighton with the regiment! He is not old enough to know how to condone himself properly! He will make a fool of himself," he declared, wringing his hands. "I must write to Father at once."

"My dear boy, calm down," his uncle requested. "You are straining yourself over nonsense! Sean is young, yes, but what could possibly happen to him? Colonel Forster is a reasonable man, and he has taken your brother under his wing. He will look after him. The only possible cause of concern would be if he took up with that Shaw character, but I am sure even your brother is too sensible for that."

The fear in Charles' chest wound tighter. "Mr Shaw? Why do you say that, Uncle?"

Mr Gardiner looked surprised. "But do you not know? When the regiment left several weeks ago, it soon came to light that Mr Shaw had left behind a rather large sum in debt at all the finest shops in Meryton, and Mr King's daughter, Mary, had almost married the scoundrel before her Father found out about Mr Shaw's circumstances. --Oh! But of course, this happened while you were gone away having fun in Kent, and you did not have much chance to learn of it before we departed again. --Charles, are you well? You have gone rather pale."

Charles strove to recover himself. So it was true! He had been taken in like the most ignorant of dolts by the man's easy charm and silver tongue, while all the time Mr Shaw was a veritable viper in disguise. Well, at least his true nature was known, and none may be deceived by him again.

"I am well, Uncle. I am simply concerned for Sean's welfare. You will recall that he is not prone to good discipline."

Mr Gardiner sighed, but smiled reassuringly. "To be sure. However, I maintain that Colonel Forster can be trusted, and will see that Sean is cared for. And you never know -- perhaps this experience will be good enough to teach him his own insignificance. Do not worry, Charles."

It was not so easily done, but Charles trusted his uncle's good judgement, and contrived to put the matter behind him.

---

Soon enough it was time to embark on their travels. Mrs Gardiner, who was from the Lake country, was effusive in its praise, and Charles became more and more eager to see the beauties of the Lakes that she spoke of often. His one moment of weakness came when the journey's route was discussed, whereupon he professed a particular desire to visit Derbyshire. He would say that it was because he was curious to see its sights with his own eyes, but in the dark of night, lying alone in the guest room of Mr and Mrs Gardiner's house, he could admit to himself that he wished to travel the same paths as Mr Lehnsherr must once have taken. And so to Derbyshire they would go.

The beauty of the area had not been exaggerated. For the first time in months Charles felt himself able to breathe deeply of the clean country air, feast his eyes on the lush green of the moors, watch like a bird in flight the scenery spread underneath him from one of the rocky outposts overlooking the county. He stood at the very edge, closed his eyes, and allowed the steel band around his chest to loosen a little. His distress for his sister, his grief for a chance lost, his worry for Sean's own departure, all of them lifted a little under the gentle caress of the afternoon breeze, the warmth of the sun on his face. There, Charles could just be.

Later that afternoon they arrived at Lambton, where they meant to spend several days. The light was slanting already, turning the streets to liquid gold and the air to a gossamer veil of precious stones. Weary, the party retired after an early supper, but not before Charles' composure was sorely tested.

"My dear Nephew, what say you we visit Pemberley tomorrow?" his aunt said to him.

"Pemberley?" Charles repeated, startled out of his musings.

"Yes; it is but five miles from here. The maid was telling me earlier that it is open for visitors."

"Oh! yes, I have a hankering to see it," said his uncle agreeably.

"Must we? Surely we have seen fine houses aplenty in our tour. Blenheim Palace is unlikely to have competition in Pemberley."

"If it were just a fine house, I would not be so eager to see it," Mrs Gardiner said reproachfully. "But the gardens, Charles, they were the work of 'Capability' Brown, and I understand they rival the Royal gardens for beauty and charm. Surely you, who enjoy nature so much, would wish to see them?"

Charles felt terrible for upsetting his aunt so. "I am sorry. Of course, Aunt, we shall go if you wish."

His aunt looked radiant, and Charles could not begrudge her the pleasure, no matter what turmoil it should unleash inside him. He did take the liberty, later, of asking the same maid whether the family were in residence, and was assured that it was not the case. Thus fortified, Charles managed to spend a somewhat restful night in expectation of visiting the home of the one gentleman that had so captured his attention.

The next morning dawned bright and lovely, the sun warm on Charles' back as they made their way across the moors and past the small forest shielding the manor from their view. When they passed it, however, the breath escaped Charles' chest, and he stared in astonishment at the beautiful house now visible across the vast gardens. Built from honey stone much like Blenheim, it spanned the landscape, like a behemoth against the background of nature. A small lake sat to one side of the property, nearly obscured from sight by the tall grasses surrounding it and the small hill cresting nearby. The gardens were beautiful, so well situated that Charles could not help but love the picture they created.

'Of this all I could have been master!' he thought to himself mournfully, unable to help recalling the look in that gentleman's eyes when he had confessed his feelings for Charles.

His aunt and uncle were no less impressed by the property, and wished more than anything to be shown inside. For that purpose they applied to the housekeeper, who obliged in leading them through the many grand rooms of Pemberley. Charles could not help the admiration bursting in his chest, nor the bittersweet joy to be walking the home of Mr Lehnsherr. He was further tested when they arrived at the manor's sculpture gallery. Dozens of marble shapes were scattered throughout the enormous room, sensuous curves capturing Charles' attention, drawing his eye to wander from statue to statue. Charles enjoyed the beauty laid out for his appreciation, and moved from one to another with slow, languid steps that seemed appropriate in the comfortable silence of the hall.

Until Charles lifted his eyes and saw a much-familiar face, carved out of the same stone as the others, lifted on a plinth so that it was a little taller than Charles. It was the same height as Mr Lehnsherr was in real life, and Charles' eyes were drawn to the likeness' beautifully shaped lips, the strong chin, frozen in time like their owner never was. Charles let his eyes linger on the image, standing much closer than he ever would to the originator. He allowed himself to imagine what it would be like to stand this near to the living Mr Lehnsherr; how the gentleman might look down at Charles with warmth in his gaze, a faint smile twisting the mobile mouth. All fiction, of course, but to his surprise, greatly desired.

"And this is Mr Lehnsherr now," the housekeeper's voice broke through Charles' reverie.

"Such a handsome man," Mrs Gardiner declared. "Charles, is it a true likeness?"

"Oh! Does the gentleman know Mr Lehnsherr?" the housekeeper inquired, delighted.

"Only a little," Charles replied wistfully.

"And is he not a handsome man, sir?"

"Yes. Very handsome."

"The best master anyone could wish for, and the best man. Just like his Father," the housekeeper avowed.

"Indeed?" Mrs Gardiner asked, stepping away and drawing the woman with her.

"Yes, ma'am. And this is Miss Angelique. The portrait was commissioned only last year. Such an accomplished young lady, she sings and plays all day long."

"How charming," Mrs Gardiner replied, throwing Charles a shrewd glance where he still stood in front of Mr Lehnsherr's bust. "Do keep up, Charles."

Charles started a little, and stepped back, but he could not tear his eyes away from Mr Lehnsherr's face.

"Is the family at home?" he enquired, but was met only with silence. In his distraction, he had missed the group's exit, and now stood alone in the vast room.

He took the doorway through which the others had walked a short time ago, and continued to the one on the other side of the hall. He entered cautiously, for he did not wish to disturb the occupants, if indeed there were any. It was clearly a study, and judging by the amount of volumes in the bookcases lining the wall, it likely belonged to Mr Lehnsherr himself. Charles breathed in the air, the faint smell of leather and fine cigars, and again allowed his thoughts to drift to the room's owner. He could see Mr Lehnsherr sitting behind the large walnut desk, perusing ledgers and jotting down notes, or reclining in one of the comfortable-looking leather chairs by the fireplace, long legs stretched before him, lost in a book.

Charles needed to put some space between himself and the lingering memory of the man, like a bruise on his skin long after the event itself is passed; and so he unhooked one of the French doors, trusting the housekeeper to lock it again behind him, and took to the gardens. He emerged at a long stone pathway, meandering through the rose bushes lining both sides of a set of steps. Charles walked down them, and immediately found himself on a lawn leading to the small hill overlooking the lake. Needing the fresh air, Charles did not hesitate to walk towards it, breathing in with full lungs, trying to drive the insistent scent of the house from his mind. The air smelled sweet, of just-cut grass, of roses in late summer. Charles clasped his hands behind his back and strolled down the gentle slope, watching as the lake came into view.

A splash caught his attention, and he turned his head; the sight before him drew out what air he had managed to retain. For there stood Mr Lehnsherr, stripped to his undershirt and britches, emerging from the water like a scene ripped straight from Charles' imagination.

Mr Lehnsherr did not see him immediately -- he sat on the selfsame slope Charles was descending, dried his feet in his discarded shirt and tugged his riding boots on before straightening and stretching his shoulders back, head lifted towards the sky. The position exposed his long, muscular neck to the blowing breeze, and Charles felt his mouth grow dry and his body react uncomfortably quickly to the view presented to his eyes.

Mr Lehnsherr turned, undoubtedly intending to ascend the hill and head for his house, when he froze in his tracks, eyes fixed firmly on Charles. Charles felt himself flush from head to toe with embarrassment and mortification, for not only was he invading Mr Lehnsherr's home, after he had behaved so atrociously towards him, but he was also thinking vastly inappropriate thoughts about the man without having been given leave to do so.

"Mr Xavier!" the gentleman exclaimed, looking startled.

"Mr Lehnsherr," Charles replied. "I am so very sorry, sir, I have intruded on an inopportune moment. I will take my leave."

"No!" Mr Lehnsherr called out as Charles started to turn, hoping to hide his face and his body's humiliating betrayal. "No, Mr Xavier, I beg you do not leave on my account."

Charles turned back, but avoided the man's face, feeling exceedingly uncomfortable.

"Sir, I am afraid we are greatly imposing on your hospitality. We were informed that you were in town, not expected back until tomorrow."

"I was," Mr Lehnsherr replied, walking closer to Charles, his wet hair falling across his forehead appealingly. "I have only just returned ahead of my party. You say 'we' -- are you here with your family?"

"My Aunt and Uncle Gardiner, from London. My sister Raven resided at their house when she was in town," Charles could not help but add, wanting to see the man's reaction.

"Ah," was all Mr Lehnsherr said in reply, but Charles did observe a minute flicker of understanding in his eyes.

There was silence, turned tense by the way Mr Lehnsherr's wet shirt outlined his torso, a line of muscles that drew Charles' eyes like a lodestone, again and again. Charles pressed his hands together behind his back, thoroughly discomfited by the way Mr Lehnsherr's eyes remained on him.

"We are on a tour of the Lake country," he said at last, hoping to converse the feeling away.

"Indeed? And are you enjoying Derbyshire?"

"Very much," Charles replied earnestly, wondering at the way Mr Lehnsherr had voiced the question like a plea.

"And... Pemberley? You approve of it?"

Charles' flush deepened furiously, burning the skin of his cheeks. What a question to ask him! The home this gentleman had once offered him, to be expected to evaluate it like a mere house he had happened upon!

"It is a beautiful home," Charles said at last, looking away from Mr Lehnsherr's searching gaze.

The gentleman said nothing, though when Charles looked at him from under his lashes there was a gentle smile hovering over his lips.

"I am very sorry once again, Mr Lehnsherr. We shall leave at once."

"I beg of you do not," Mr Lehnsherr hurried to reply. "Will you and your Aunt and Uncle not dine with us, Mr Xavier? I should like very much to introduce you to my sister, Miss Angelique."

What cruel games was the gentleman playing? His sister, as if he would allow her to make the acquaintance of someone as ill-behaved as Charles, who had insulted her brother in every possible manner?

"Sir, I am afraid we must depart. We go to Matlock tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?" Mr Lehnsherr echoed faintly. "Your friends will be disappointed. Mr and Miss McCoy arrive tonight from London. They would hope to see you."

Charles was torn, for he dearly wished to see Mr McCoy again. But to impose his presence upon Mr Lehnsherr, no matter how that gentleman professed to desire it, it would not do at all.

"Charles? Ah, there you are, dear boy! We thought we had lost you," his uncle called from further up the hill. Charles fought another flush at the sight he and Mr Lehnsherr must present.

Mr Lehnsherr looked up, waiting patiently for Charles' aunt and uncle to join them.

"Mr Lehnsherr, may I present to you my Aunt and Uncle, Mr and Mrs Gardiner? Aunt, Uncle -- Mr Erik Lehnsherr," Charles supplied politely, stifling a flutter at speaking Mr Lehnsherr’s given name for the first time.

"A pleasure to make your acquaintance. You must excuse my lack of proper attire; I am just arrived from London, and I was not expecting visitors."

The charming manner in which Mr Lehnsherr acquitted himself was a thorough surprise for Charles, who expected more of the severe reserve that Mr Lehnsherr had displayed earlier in the year at Meryton.

"Charmed," his aunt replied, curtsying as Mr Gardiner bowed. "You must not trouble yourself on that account, sir, for we are to blame. We did not expect to find you here, or we would never have intruded."

"Not at all, ma'am. If you but allow me to change my clothes, I would show you the grounds. Mr Gardiner, do you fish?"

"I do indeed, sir," Mr Gardiner replied.

"I have a well-stocked lake whose inhabitants have been left in peace for far too long. Will you not join me?"

"I should be delighted!"

Charles watched, stunned, as Mr Lehnsherr treated his aunt and uncle like guests of high importance. He had never expected the proud Mr Lehnsherr to acquit himself so graciously, or so amicably.

"What a fine-mannered gentleman," his aunt mused, taking Charles' arm as they followed Mr Lehnsherr and Mr Gardiner some steps behind. "It is quite a surprise, for rumours abound at Meryton that he was taciturn and ill-disposed to conversation."

"Yes indeed," Charles answered, distracted. "I cannot imagine what could have brought such a change."

"Can you not?" his aunt replied, looking at him archly. Charles felt his cheeks heat.

Mr Lehnsherr did indeed refresh his attire, and proceeded to spend the afternoon with Mr Gardiner at the trout lake, while Charles and Mrs Gardiner partook of a picnic nearby, where the staff had thrown a blanket over the grass and brought out sumptuous delicacies for Charles and Mrs Gardiner to savour. Throughout the afternoon Charles could feel Mr Lehnsherr's eyes on him, and it took all his composure not to turn and acknowledge him. Instead, Charles helped himself to a volume of William Blake's Jerusalem and spent several hours trying to will his breathing under control.

Mr Lehnsherr's nearness was like a bottle of fine cognac -- delightful even in its mere presence. Charles would hear snippets of voices travelling on the breeze, and Mr Lehnsherr's drawl was so different from Mr Gardiner's rumble that there could really be no mistake as to who was speaking. Once or twice Charles thought he heard his name being mentioned, and every time his heart beat faster, his blood rushed into his ears, and he had to fight not to betray his agitation.

The sun was slanting towards the horizon before the two men quit their positions and walked towards the picnic blanket.

"Mr Lehnsherr has invited us to dinner this evening," Mr Gardiner informed them jovially. "Let us to the inn so we can freshen ourselves and be back in good time."

"How lovely," Mrs Gardiner exclaimed. "We are much obliged to you, Mr Lehnsherr."

"Not at all," the gentleman demurred.

Charles murmured his own thanks, but dared not speak further. He could still feel a steady gaze on himself, and as Mr Gardiner offered his arm to his wife, so Mr Lehnsherr fell into step with Charles.

"Your Aunt and Uncle are such pleasant company, I could not resist," he said now to Charles.

"Mr Gardiner is my Mother's brother," Charles supplied, out of an ill-advised desire to see Mr Lehnsherr's reaction to that information.

"Indeed," is all Mr Lehnsherr said. "I was informed he is in Trade."

"Yes; I am to follow into that profession myself."

"So I was given to understand. I think it admirable," Mr Lehnsherr said.

Charles could not help himself that time -- he turned his head to peruse Mr Lehnsherr's face, and see for himself his meaning.

Mr Lehnsherr looked back, and Charles fancied that the warm look in his eyes was not just Charles' too-active imagination.

The carriage was brought round for them immediately, and Mr Gardiner handed his lady in before climbing up himself. Charles was set to follow before he felt a hand touch his own, and turned to see Mr Lehnsherr patiently waiting on his decision. Charles did not think in that moment, but allowed himself to take the offered hand, skin to skin for the first time, Mr Lehnsherr's fingers warm against Charles' palm, squeezing his own reassuringly.

Charles stepped up, bracing against Mr Lehnsherr's quiet strength, basking in the man's unwavering presence.

When Charles' poise failed him, and he turned back, it was to see Mr Lehnsherr still standing on that very spot, watching the carriage as it rolled out of view.

---

Charles was unaccountably nervous when he slipped into his bronze waistcoat and his navy evening coat, and his fingers were shaking when he fixed his cravat in the Oriental style. The gravity of the upcoming evening was further pressed upon him by the memory that Mr and Miss McCoy would also be present at the dinner table, and thus Charles must maintain his distance and composure when it came to Mr Lehnsherr. He did not wish to endure Miss McCoy's thinly-veiled ridicule; indeed, he wished he might avoid the lady altogether.

"Charles, do hurry up, we will be late," his aunt admonished, and Charles stopped picking at his already-perfect cravat, and made his way out of his room.

'Just breathe,' he reminded himself as they travelled the already familiar road from Lambton to Pemberley. The sun had set moments before the house came into view, and Charles could not help his gasp when he saw the blazing lights outlining the silhouette against the rapidly darkening sky.

"Oh!" Mrs Gardiner exclaimed, charmed.

Charles' heart beat a strong rhythm in his chest, and he chastised himself for even thinking that he might be the reason for Mr Lehnsherr's extravagant welcome. Of course -- his friends had arrived, that must be it.

They were taken to the front entrance, where they disembarked to find a curious head of curls peeking through the window to the left. The head disappeared as soon as Charles spotted it, and by the time they ascended the steps Mr Lehnsherr was waiting for them at the door, looking dashing in his black coat and britches. At his side was a lovely young lady dressed in pale pink, a fetching flush to her cheeks. Charles noted the curls left loose to frame her face, and knew it must have been the same person spying on them a moment ago.

"Mr Xavier, allow me to present to you my sister, Miss Angelique," Mr Lehnsherr said.

The particular attention with which he introduced Miss Angelique to Charles first did not go unnoticed. Charles saw his aunt and uncle exchange a look to his side, but he only had eyes for Mr Lehnsherr's faintly apprehensive gaze. Charles put on his most charming smile.

"Delighted, Miss Angelique," he said amicably, bowing over her hand. She smiled at him, displaying a hidden dimple in her right cheek that endeared her to Charles immediately.

"Mr Xavier, I have heard so much about you, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance at last," she said, voice sweet and melodic.

Charles wondered at what she could mean, but refrained from asking when Miss Angelique turned to greet Mr and Mrs Gardiner. Mr Lehnsherr hovered anxiously until they moved inside, at which time he fell into step with Charles again, in the wake of his sister accompanying Mr and Mrs Gardiner. Not much was said, but his presence at Charles' side was enough to bring every nerve to life, and Charles' skin sang under the confines of his clothes, as if responding to the man's nearness. It was terrible; it would not do at all. Charles could not possibly spend the evening comfortably with his entire being stood to attention.

"Mr Xavier, how wonderful to see you again," Mr McCoy said as soon as Charles stepped into the parlour leading to the dining room.

"Mr McCoy, a pleasure. Miss McCoy." Charles spared her a brief bow, and noticed the distaste in her eyes when she dropped him the slightest curtsy.

Dinner was quiet, at least for Charles. He was gratified to hear Mr McCoy ask after Raven, and upon being told she had been in London, looked truly sorry to have missed her. Mr and Mrs Gardiner held a steady conversation with Mr McCoy and Mr Lehnsherr thereafter, while Miss McCoy looked on in mild disbelief and Miss Angelique applied herself to her soup.

"I understand you play and sing very well, Miss Angelique," Charles said gently, drawing the girl from her quiet reserve. He understood at once that in this instance, too, Mr Shaw's comments were completely fabricated when Miss Angelique smiled shyly at him.

"I do indeed enjoy playing very much. My brother bought a pianoforte for me last year, and I have been practicing every day."

"But then you must play for us," Charles encouraged, noticing immediately when she looked apprehensive. "Please, Miss Angelique. I do so love music, although I cannot play at all. I must beg of you to indulge me."

"Very well," Miss Angelique acquiesced with another shy smile. "I should be delighted, although I hope to be up to your expectations."

"I do not doubt that you will exceed them admirably," Charles assured her.

When he looked away from her again, he immediately noticed two pairs of eyes fixed on him and his companion. One was welcome; the other less so, for Miss McCoy's mouth was twisted sourly, and she looked exceedingly displeased. The other person's eyes were even warmer in their regard than earlier in the day, and Charles could not help the small smile the sight effected from him.

As promised, Miss Angelique took to the beautiful pianoforte as soon as dinner was over. Charles settled on a chaise to listen, and was soon enraptured, for Miss Angelique had flawless technique and a true sense of rhythm that made listening to her play a joy. She would not be persuaded to sing, but Charles had sensed her discomfort immediately and had not pressed beyond the initial enquiry.

"Your family must be very disappointed, Mr Xavier, to have the Militia withdraw from Meryton," Miss McCoy said. Charles wondered at her rudeness to talk over the playing of one whom she professed to be her dear friend.

"Indeed not, ma'am," Charles replied shortly, turning back towards the front of the room.

"Oh, but it must be," the lady insisted. "You in particular I hear has cause to be upset, for I believe you are quite attached to a certain gentleman in a red coat."

"You must be mistaken," Charles replied. "I cannot imagine to whom you refer."

"Oh, to Mr Shaw, of course," Miss McCoy replied blithely.

The music faltered, and Charles was on his feet within an instant.

"My dear friend, my apologies. How can you play without one of us turning your pages?" he lamented, striding swiftly to the pianoforte. "Here, allow me," he added, doing so carefully and returning Miss Angelique's grateful smile.

Looking back at the room, his gaze was snagged by a pair of clear blue eyes, so warm now that Charles felt it fill him to the brim with a giddy sense of anticipation. This time he could not mistake it -- Mr Lehnsherr was looking right at him, and there was a faint smile playing on those lips that Charles had so admired of late.

Even though caution raised its head, Charles could not heed it. He allowed himself to smile back as Mr Lehnsherr settled against the settee from which he had looked poised to spring. Charles felt a fierce protectiveness bloom to life in his chest, and only wished he could reassure the gentleman that he had nothing to fear from Charles, not again, not after Charles had learned the truth.


Part Three
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