sirona_fics: (charles/erik regency)
[personal profile] sirona_fics
Title: First Impressions
Pairing: Charles/Erik, Hank/Raven
Word count: ~27,000 overall (~7,200 this part)

Warnings, Summary and Notes can be found in Part One. Link to Part Two here.



The party had retired late last night, and Charles could not quite manage the early start he normally enjoyed. Mr and Mrs Gardiner also remained in bed for longer than usual, and the party was only just setting out to walk to the church at noon when the inn's maid came into the parlour they had rented.

"A letter for you, Mr Xavier," she announced, proffering two letters to him on a small platter.

"Oh! They are from Raven. I had wondered why she has not written yet -- but it is clear, for she has written the direction abominably ill," he said fondly. "Would you be terribly cross if I begged off our walk?" he asked his companions sheepishly.

"Not at all," Mr Gardiner said, and his wife added, "Of course you would want to read your mail. We will walk to the church and call for you in an hour."

"Thank you," Charles smiled at them.

He broke open his father's seal and spread open the paper, covered in Raven's tidy scrawl.

My dear Charles,

I hope this letter finds you well. We ourselves are doing very agreeably, although Mama misses Sean terribly. Papa has expressed his fervent wish for you to return soon, for he is feeling positively besieged by silly people, he says--

--My dear Brother, I do not wish to alarm you, but something has happened. We have just now received a missive from Brighton. Sean is missing, and a letter has been discovered to say that he has eloped--with Mr Shaw.

I will write more when I have anything further.


Charles held the letter in shaking fingers, trying to force air into his lungs. He strode to the window in a daze, unfolding the second letter with sharp, impatient tugs, focus narrowing down to Raven’s familiar penmanship as he turned it towards the brighter light.

My dear Brother, I have news--bad news. It seems that Sean and Mr Shaw are not gone to Scotland, as we had supposed. They have been traced as far as London, but have not been found.

Papa has gone to town to discover them, but I must beg you and Uncle Gardiner to return post-haste. We would rely on you to assist in the search.

Your sister,

Raven, &c.


Charles closed his eyes in despair. He swallowed with a suddenly dry throat, pushed away from the windowsill and made for the door--only to have it open before he could reach it.

"Mr Lehnsherr for you, Mr Xavier," the maid curtsied.

Mr Lehnsherr walked into the room, a ready smile on his lips that slipped at the look that must have been on Charles' face.

"Mr Xavier, what ever is the matter?" he asked anxiously.

"Excuse me, I must go," Charles murmured, so distressed he could barely understand that Mr Lehnsherr was there in the room with him.

"You are obviously unwell, let me call for the maid--"

"No, I am well, sir, truly. I have just received some--dreadful news--" Charles' voice, to his mortification, broke a little.

"Here, sit down, let me fetch you a glass of water--" Mr Lehnsherr offered, guiding Charles solicitously to a chair.

Charles would not settle, however, and rose again immediately. "I must find my Aunt and Uncle," he insisted.

"Very well, but let me go, or the maid--hello there," he called out of the door, directing the maid to run for Mr and Mrs Gardiner, who had walked in the direction of--

"The church," Charles supplied, breathing a little easier now that Mr Lehnsherr was so capably taking control.

"At once, sir," the maid said, running to the door.

"Now. Can you tell me what has happened?" Mr Lehnsherr requested, pouring Charles a glass of water and placing it into his shaking hands. "Is it your family?"

"No sir, they are well. It is just--my youngest brother, Sean, has eloped -- with Mr Shaw!"

Mr Lehnsherr's face grew ashen at the news, and Charles did feel now the urge to sit, and to insist that Mr Lehnsherr sit down also. For Charles well comprehended that this was the first of many shocked reactions that he and his family would have to weather.

"What has been done to discover them?" Mr Lehnsherr demanded.

"My Father is gone to London, and my sister requests that my Uncle and myself return as soon as possible, to assist in the search. But I have not the smallest hope. He is lost to us forever," Charles whispered in despair.

Mr Lehnsherr was silent for a moment. "I am shocked," he said at last. "Shocked, grieved--if I had but been honest with the world about Mr Shaw's true character, this could not have happened."

"No, sir; I am to blame," Charles said, placing a daring hand on Mr Lehnsherr's arm. "I might have prevented this, if I had only confided in my family. Perhaps then the true depth of Shaw’s depravity would have been known." He paused, then added, "I must ask of you to keep this confidence to yourself, Mr Lehnsherr, for as long as you can. I know--I know that it cannot be long."

"You may rely on my discretion," the gentleman replied.

The tense silence stretched for a long moment before Mr Lehnsherr straightened. "You have long been desiring my absence. I will leave you now. Goodbye."

Charles watched helplessly as Mr Lehnsherr quit the room, for what Charles was quite sure was the last time. Much as he was anxious for his brother, and upset for his family, there was another thought that darkened his mind. For what ever had been growing between him and Mr Lehnsherr was now surely no more; no man would align himself with someone who had a fallen brother in the family. And Mr Lehnsherr was not just any man -- his family was known throughout the country, and he had responsibilities to it that would never allow such a union.

No, Charles had better remove Erik Lehnsherr from his mind forever.

Within minutes Mr and Mrs Gardiner had returned, and another half-hour saw them ascend into the carriage and start the long journey back to Longbourn where chaos awaited, every mile taking them further and further away from the one thing Charles had ever wanted for himself.

---

Longbourn, when the carriage clattered its way into the courtyard in the early evening, was in chaos. Raven awaited them at the door, and Charles was truly alarmed to see the grey pallor to her skin.

"How are you, dearest?" Charles asked her quietly as their uncle slipped past him and into the house.

"I am so glad you are back," Raven confessed, the relief in her voice so strong that Charles grew even more apprehensive.

"Where is Mama?"

"She keeps to her room. You and Uncle should go up while I bring Aunt some tea. Papa is not yet back from town."

Charles pressed her hand in reassurance and went to find his uncle. Mrs Xavier was predictably distraught.

"Oh Brother, and still no news from Sean! How could he do such a thing to his poor Mama? He must know what this is doing to me, the shivers, the flushes, oh, it is not to be borne!"

Charles kept to the side, for he could not trust himself not to say something harsh that would upset his mother further. He was extremely vexed with Sean's irresponsibility and thorough disregard for proper behaviour, and was even more aware of how it would reflect not just upon him, but upon the entire family's prospects.

Mr Gardiner assured his sister that he would leave for London at first light tomorrow, and would not rest until his nephew was discovered and returned to his family. Charles added his own pledge to help in the search, and his mother responded with gratifying appreciation.

While Mr Gardiner and his wife stayed with his sister to make her ordeal bearable in any way they could, Charles sought out Raven. He found her with Alex and Armando, sitting in the living room. Armando had taken refuge in the only thing that could calm him -- his pianoforte, while Alex huddled in a chair, looking lost without Sean's constant presence by his side. As for Raven, she was attempting to read, but Charles could see her looking out into space instead.

When his brothers saw him, they all rushed from their seats to embrace him, and clung to him desperately.

"Hey, there, there," Charles soothed, contriving to guide the youngsters to the chaise and lower the three of them down.

His brothers did not cry, but they did look to be comforted by Charles' arms around them, and so he kept them there.

"I'm so sorry you had to cut your trip short; I know how much you were looking forward to it," Raven said.

"Nonsense," Charles replied, watching her fondly. "It is not as if I would have enjoyed it, knowing what has happened."

"Do you think them married, Charles?" Raven asked apprehensively.

Charles shook his head sadly. "I doubt it very much. Sean has no dowry, and from everything we have learned of Mr Shaw, he is not one to marry Sean out of the kindness of his heart."

Alex sighed and disengaged himself from Charles' arms. "Sean will be so disappointed," he said sadly.

Charles stilled. "Why do you say that?" he asked carefully.

"Well, I know how much he wanted to get married in London, and he said there was a church very near to where they were staying."

"How do you know that, Alex?"

"He sent me a letter yesterday."

"And you did not think it prudent to tell the rest of your family?" Charles demanded.

"He told me in the strictest of confidence," Alex said, torn. "I should not have said anything."

"You shall, and immediately," Charles told him severely.

After much cajoling and the application of Mrs Xavier herself, Alex produced the missive. It was not much, but enough to determine the area in which to start the search.

The next morning, just as they were climbing into the carriage, a tearful Mrs Xavier came out of bed and ran down to the courtyard.

"Charles, I must beg you not to go," she implored.

"But Mama, I was to help in the search for Sean and Mr Shaw!" Charles argued.

"I know, my dear, but what could you possibly do that your Father and Uncle cannot? No, you had much better stay at Longbourn and look after your sister and brothers, for who would if you do not?"

Charles was torn, for he dearly wished to help. However, Mr Gardiner weighed in.

"Charles, there is more than one way of helping. Perhaps you might be of more use here, keeping the family together, than in London, tearing after hearsay and ghosts."

Mrs Gardiner nodded her agreement with her husband, and it was decided -- Charles would stay behind and coordinate the effort. Charles was reluctant to agree, but he chanced to look up at the house, and saw his sister and brothers' hopeful faces, and at last he understood -- he was needed here, at least until their father came back and the situation was resolved. And so his cases were removed from the carriage and brought back into the house, and he said goodbye to his aunt and uncle and watched them drive away to London.

The grateful look in Raven's eyes assured Charles that this really was the best course of action.

---

Days passed, full of trepidation and tension, and the atmosphere in Longbourn could hardly be said to be jovial -- rather, it was as if a black cloud was hovering over the household with every day that brought no news.

On the fifth day since the Gardiners' departure, Charles sat in his father's office, seeing to the estate affairs when a shout brought him running outside, to be faced with a messenger's weary face.

"For you, Mr Xavier," the man said.

Charles fished for his purse and handed the man a few coins, receiving the missive in return. He broke the seal impatiently, Alex, Raven and Armando hovering anxiously before him.

"It is from Uncle," Charles announced, scanning the lines. "He has found them."

"Are they married?" Alex demanded.

"They are not," Charles said after a small pause. "However, arrangements have been made to change that, should Father agree to provide Sean with 100 pounds per annum, and settle Mr Shaw's debts accrued in Meryton."

"Will Papa agree?" Raven asked.

"Of course he will agree," Charles confirmed, running a few swift calculations through his head while Alex and Armando ran off to tell their mother the news. "It will hardly cost him more than Sean's upkeep does now. Though I do wonder how much our Uncle must have put himself out on our behalf."

"Whatever do you mean, Charles?"

"Shaw's a fool if he takes Sean for less than 10,000 pounds," Charles said flatly.

"10,000 pounds? Heaven forbid!' Raven exclaimed, but Charles' face remained set.

"I must think of a way to repay him," he murmured to himself, quietly enough that he would not be overheard in the general commotion.

Mrs Xavier was predictably overjoyed at the event, even though Charles could not say the same thing for himself. He was well aware what being married to Mr Shaw would do to Sean; however, there was nothing he or anyone could do, for the die was cast. To renege on a betrothal now would result in precisely the future Charles had so feared when he first heard the news.

And so he could do little more than smile when Messrs Shaw arrived at Longbourn not long after Mr Xavier's return. Mr Shaw looked little different than before, with his charming smile and worldly air, but now Charles was astute enough to see underneath, to the selfish nature, the sly eyes, the vaguely slimy feel of Mr Shaw's words.

Their brother was still in the first flush of infatuation, not yet sixteen and knowing little of the true nature of their world. Charles could only hope that he and his husband would find enough common ground that Sean would not be unhappy, but Charles could not see a future for them where Sean would be truly satisfied with his lot. A single mistake in his youth would haunt him for the rest of his life.

And yet Charles could not be moved to do more than pity Sean. He had knowingly jeopardised the future of his whole family for nothing more than a fancy, and Charles would not condone irresponsibility like that. Not a single thought for his sister and brothers had entered Sean's head when he had taken that fateful decision. To Charles, who put family above all, this was unforgivable.

He was, of course, civil with both Messrs Shaw -- they were guests in his father's house, and deserved at least that. But however, when Mr Shaw attempted to revive their earlier conversational topic of Mr Lehnsherr, Charles swiftly and efficiently gave him to understand that he had recently spent some time with Mr Lehnsherr and his family, including Miss Lehnsherr, and had come to quite a different conclusion for himself. After that Mr Shaw avoided him beyond the required civility.

They were taking a walk towards Meryton on the morning before the Shaws would quit it for Newcastle, where Mr Shaw had purchased a commission, when Charles at last was given the means to unravel the mystery of how Sean and Mr Shaw had come to be discovered in the first place (for Charles' father knew no more than Charles himself).

Sean was eagerly describing their wedding-- "I had so hoped that my dear Shaw would wear his blue coat, and we would have our friends from the regiment to bear witness for us, but however the officers could not be spared from their duties. It was fortunate that Mr and Mrs Gardiner came in time, else it would have only been us and Mr Lehnsherr there!"

Charles stopped in his tracks. "Mr Lehnsherr? How did he come to be present at your wedding?" he demanded.

"Why should you ask that, Charles? Of course he was there! He was the one who discovered us, paid for the wedding, purchased Shaw's commission -- everything!"

Charles could not speak for a moment. "Mr Lehnsherr?" he blurted again.

Sean gasped and covered his mouth with a hand. "Dear Lord! But I was not to say anything! Oh dear, and I promised Mr Lehnsherr so faithfully! Charles, you must not tell anyone, or he would be very cross indeed!"

The rest of the walk passed in a daze for Charles, lost in his thoughts. Mr Lehnsherr had taken it upon himself to do all this, had expended thousands of pounds, had swallowed his pride in the service of the Xavier family -- Charles could hardly understand it. He could not dare hope that it might mean that Mr Lehnsherr did not despise them for Sean's appalling conduct, and that he and Charles may have an opportunity to perhaps retain their friendship -- Charles could not expect more from the gentleman, but that did not mean that he did not wish for it with all his heart.

It was almost a relief to see the Shaws off, for Charles found it difficult to focus on anything outside his thoughts. After the carriage had driven off, Charles went on a long walk through the grounds, finding himself without meaning to on the border with Netherfield Park. He smiled self-consciously to himself, for his feet had taken him there without consulting his head. He spent some time watching the house, remembering, as he was wont to do, the first days of his acquaintance with Mr Lehnsherr. That he should have been so blind, so prejudiced towards that gentleman he could hardly fathom now, after he had spent so much time understanding what made him behave that way. Oh, that Charles should have the chance to remedy what he had done! He could wish for nothing more important.

He was so lost in thought that at first he did not realise what he was seeing, but as the sun slanted across the sky he became aware that a carriage was clattering its way up the drive towards the manor. He watched it roll to a stop, and his heart almost burst out of his chest as the door opened and the very gentleman that had occupied his thoughts stepped out, followed by Mr McCoy on the other side. Charles watched avidly as the two gentlemen ascended the steps to the manor, and he ducked behind a nearby oak tree when Mr Lehnsherr turned and looked straight in the direction of Longbourn for some moments before he followed his friend inside.

Charles stood frozen to the spot in his hideaway behind the enormous tree, trying to catch his breath. He was here! He had come, with Mr McCoy, and he had looked towards Charles' home, and Charles did not know what to think; he was so confused, it could not be borne; his thoughts were in an even worse tangle than when he set out from his house, hoping a walk would help clear them.

Several minutes later Charles came to the realisation that he was hiding behind a tree, spying on Mr McCoy's house. He felt a flush climb its way up his neck, and finally he turned to leave, filled with more questions than answers.

---

"Mr McCoy has come back to Netherfield," he told his family that evening when they gathered for supper.

He did not miss the way Raven's hand shook a little when she lifted her fork to her mouth, nor the way her knuckles had gone white on it when she brought it down again, yet Raven's expression never changed.

"Is that so?" Mrs Xavier demanded. "How did you come to know this, Charles?"

Charles faltered for a moment, before rallying. "I met with Mr Rutherford, Netherfield's steward, when I walked into town this afternoon," he said at last. He did not want to admit that he had almost been caught spying on the house.

"That odious man! That he should think we would seek out Mr McCoy's company, after the way he behaved towards poor Raven those months ago!' Mrs Xavier declared, incensed.

"Indeed not, ma'am; Mr Rutherford was simply being polite in letting us know," Charles hurried to say.

"Hm," Mrs Xavier scoffed. "We shall not seek out his acquaintance again, that is for sure," she declared. "Mr Xavier, you are not to visit the gentleman this time! Would that you had not insisted on going before!"

Charles kept his peace, even after he saw his father look beseechingly at the sky for help with wayward women. He did however spend more time than he normally did in watching Raven for any distress.

"Charles, do please stop," she told him later, after supper had been over and they had retired to the parlour. "I am fine. I admit that our next meeting fills me with trepidation, but I shall remain firm and polite, I am determined."

Charles said nothing, only took her hand in his, squeezing it reassuringly.

He did not sleep much that night, thoughts of how near and yet how far Mr Lehnsherr was to him keeping him awake well past a reasonable hour. He was quiet at the breakfast table, sipping his tea slowly, nibbling on a piece of toast just enough to stop his family noticing his distraction -- not that there was much chance of that. Mrs Xavier was fretting about what to order for dinner; Mr Xavier was attempting to ignore his wife and read; and Raven was lost in her thoughts -- Charles was perfectly certain what they held.

And so no one was expecting that, just as they were rising from the table to attend to their daily tasks, the maid would come rushing in to announce that they had visitors.

"Mr McCoy and Mr Lehnsherr, here to see the family," she announced, curtsying nervously.

"Oh Lord," Mrs Xavier exclaimed. "That they should come so early! I had not expected them before noon!"

That their guests were expected was news to Charles, but he believed he bore rather well under the circumstances. He ran a practiced eye over his sister, who was blushing fetchingly and looking like she was trying not to hope too fervently that she might know what they were here for. Charles sent her a calming smile, and offered her his hand to make their way to the parlour. Mrs Xavier led the way, bustling forward like a force unto her own. Right in front of the door to the parlour she stopped, brushing a hand down her skirts to compose herself. Contriving to look like she was not at all surprised at the visit, she swept the doors open and strolled into the room, followed more sedately by her children.

"My dear Mr McCoy! What a joy to see you again in the neighbourhood! You quit us in such a rush last spring that we had not the chance to have you to dinner, like we had planned."

Mr McCoy opened his mouth to join the conversation; alas, he was not afforded the opportunity.

"A great many things have changed since you were last with us," Mrs Xavier went on regardless. "Miss Lucas is lately married to Mr Collins, and my own son Sean is married, too, to Mr Shaw. And at only fifteen! But I do hope you shall dine with us now that you are back in the vicinity, and you shall hear all the news!"

"Thank you," Mr McCoy managed at last, looking startled at the influx of information he had not requested.

Charles decided to bear in and save the poor man from further well-meaning news. "Will you be staying long, Mr McCoy?"

"Two weeks, I hope," Mr McCoy responded gratefully. "We are here for the shooting."

"Ah. Will Miss McCoy be joining you?"

"My sister has elected to stay in town. But will you not join us, Mr Xavier?" Mr McCoy asked, with a quickly thrown glance at Mr Lehnsherr that Charles did not miss.

Mr Lehnsherr had so far remained quiet, standing to one side of Mr McCoy. He had not taken his eyes off Charles the entire time since they had entered the room. Charles dared not look at him, for fear of his composure breaking.

However, not to do so would be rude, and so he glanced up as he replied, "Thank you, no. I do not wish to intrude, and there is much to attend to after my brother's fortunate event."

His eyes locked to Mr Lehnsherr's, and Charles saw a flash of rueful recognition in them that Charles had learned of the events that had transpired to bring about the union in question. Charles dared not say more, for he did not wish to expose Mr Lehnsherr to his family's effusive gratitude, even though the gentleman deserved it. Perhaps this was better done in private. Charles could only hope such a moment presented itself in good time.

Mr Lehnsherr's piercing gaze did not move from Charles, and Charles fancied he saw them crinkle slightly in the corners, like a smile that did not reach his lips.

"I hope the weather stays fine for your sport," Charles added.

Mr McCoy leapt suddenly to his feet. "Do excuse me. We must go. It was wonderful to see you all again. Lehnsherr?"

With a last lingering glance at Raven, whom Charles had seen Mr McCoy observe ardently all the while, he swept from the room.

Mr Lehnsherr looked after him for a moment before remembering himself. "Do excuse me," he said, bowing at Charles more than at the rest of the family, and exited.

"How very odd," Mrs Xavier mused, staring at the empty doorway.

Through the window Charles saw the two gentlemen stride away, Mr Lehnsherr a little behind his friend, walking with measured steps that made the most advantage of his considerable height. Watching the fluid movements, Charles could not help but sigh wistfully.

When he looked back, he saw Raven staring at the floor in confusion, high colour infusing her cheeks. He hurried to her side, leading her solicitously to the nearby chaise.

"Oh, Charles, do not fuss," she implored. "I am well. Now that we have seen each other again, I imagine that we shall meet as indifferent acquaintances."

"Oh! Yes, very indifferent," Charles replied with a smile. "My dear, did you not see the way Mr McCoy watched you?"

"But you cannot believe me to be in danger now!" Raven appealed.

Charles looked at her fondly. "I believe you are in very great danger of making him more in love with you than ever," he said.

Raven tried to deny it, but Charles saw the pleasure in her eyes at the thought.

---

Unable to sit still with the anxiety of expectation, Charles decided to take another long walk to clear his head from the cobwebs of exhaustion. The past week had been a seething pit of emotional ups and downs, and it was taking its toll on him.

He purposefully made sure not to walk in the direction of Netherfield, choosing instead to follow the brook that ran through the Longbourn estate downstream, where it joined a larger river. It was peaceful, summer turning to autumn before his eyes. The colours of nature's cloak were changing, yellows and reds emerging from the green, the long grass by the riverbank turning golden with age and the sun's affectionate caress.

His mind grew quiet, yet he could not remove a certain gentleman's presence from his thoughts. How strange it had been, to see Mr Lehnsherr's gaze fall on him again and again, how torturous to not know for certain whether it was contempt or something kinder that had tinged his regard.

Charles let the rhythm of his steps draw the thoughts from his mind, until without quite knowing when he had made the turn, he approached Longbourn from the North end, on the opposite side from where he had started, and thus he was startled to come into alignment with the two gentlemen who had thrown the whole family in turmoil this morning.

"Mr McCoy! Mr Lehnsherr! What a pleasure to see you again so soon!" he said earnestly, noting the agitation of Mr McCoy and the calm demeanour of his friend.

"Mr Xavier, I apologise for my earlier conduct," Mr McCoy said, bowing quickly. "You must think me very untoward, but I have come to request a private audience with Miss Xavier."

Charles could not contain his delighted smile. Seeing it appeared to settle Mr McCoy somewhat, for he straightened and composed himself better.

"I believe it shall be our pleasure to oblige you," Charles assured him. He could not stop himself from looking at Mr Lehnsherr, and saw that his lips were curved in a smile also. It transformed his face, until his eyes glowed with an inner warmth where they rested on Charles. Charles dared not hope, but a growing conviction was taking over him that fate may have, indeed, decided to give him a second chance.

He had lingered too long. Mr McCoy, however preoccupied, could not have helped but to notice Charles' attention to his friend. Fortunately, his own feelings must have taken precedence, for he refrained from commenting. Instead, he followed Charles to the same parlour as before while Charles went to fetch his mother and Raven. Charles felt Mr Lehnsherr's eyes on him until the very last second before he entered the house.

He had never been more vexed with his mother, for she refused to let him walk downstairs again. Instead, she sent Raven down alone, and held her sons behind until some twenty minutes later, when she relented. Charles hurried downstairs, but Mr Lehnsherr was nowhere to be found. Charles agonised that Mr Lehnsherr must have thought Charles had preferred not to come back to him, but there was nothing to be done but to see how things were progressing on the other front.

He opened the door to the parlour loudly but slowly, giving the couple within a moment to compose themselves before they faced him. When he at last lifted his eyes, he saw Raven flushed with pleasure, hand held firmly in Mr McCoy's, whose eyes were shining with love and the triumph of securing the affections of the lady he desired.

"Oh! Excuse me," Charles said, and turned to leave.

"No, no! Charles, do come back," Raven called, and Charles heard Mr McCoy's voice join her.

"I hope that you would not mind that henceforth I shall call you Brother," Mr McCoy said earnestly, and of course Charles could not mind when the gentleman was about to bring so much happiness to his family, and to his sister.

"Not at all, sir," he replied warmly. “It would be my pleasure.”

Mr McCoy beamed at him, and bent his head to Raven's for a moment. Charles looked away, to give them a moment of privacy. Soon thereafter Mr McCoy hurried from the room in the direction of Mr Xavier's study.

Charles turned to Raven at last, and held out his hands to her, bussing her cheek.

"Congratulations, my love," he said, smiling effusively. "I believe you shall be disgustingly happy."

Raven laughed delightedly, a sound Charles had heard all too rarely in the past weeks. Soon the whole house was roused, and Mrs Xavier graciously allowed all the servants a glass of punch to celebrate their mistress' engagement.

---

Charles was, of course, thrilled for his sister, but his own happiness was marred by a rather unpleasant event that followed later that afternoon. It was just past four o'clock that a well-appointed carriage came up the drive and stopped by the house. Charles, who had been walking through the gardens to give his mother some moments alone to rejoice with his sister, noticed it immediately and walked up to it. It was not until he spotted the livery on the door that he began to realise whose it must be. His suspicions proved correct when he saw the coiffed head through the window.

"Lady Catherine!" he exclaimed in surprise, for it was the last person he expected to see on this very day.

"Mr Xavier," she answered severely, "I require a word with you, sir."

Charles was taken aback, but of course acquiesced -- he could do nothing else. He handed Her Ladyship down and followed as she led the way decisively into the gardens from whence Charles had come.

At last she deemed the distance satisfactory, for she swirled to face him, a distasteful frown on her face.

"Reports of a most alarming nature have reached me, Mr Xavier, that you intend to ensnare my Nephew, Mr Lehnsherr, into matrimony. Well, do you deny it?" she demanded.

"It is the first time I have heard of such reports," Charles replied, too startled to make any other claim in answer to the accusation.

"Are they not circulated by yourself, to embarrass my Nephew? For they could certainly not be true!"

"If you believe them so, I wonder that you put yourself to the trouble of coming here, Lady Catherine," Charles said, disinclined to be intimidated.

"I came here to have that report universally contradicted," Her Ladyship replied sternly.

"Your coming here would rather be seen as a confirmation, if such a report did exist."

Lady Catherine attempted to stare him down. Her double chin quivered threateningly, and she certainly believed herself to hold the high moral ground.

"Mr Xavier, it is clear to me that you do not hold my Nephew's interests dear, for if you did you would not propose such a monstrous scheme! My Nephew, marry a gentleman? And rest assured, sir, I use the term in its most broad definition, for your family is far from being worthy of the shades of Pemberley!"

Charles tried not to rise to the lady's words, for he would most surely lose his composure if he did.

"If your nephew has no objection to it, I wonder that you should feel the need to voice yours," he said haughtily instead.

Her Ladyship bristled. "And what of children?" she demanded, with the air of one presenting an insurmountable argument. "Is the noble Lehnsherr line to be brought to a close by the upstart pretensions of a young man who cares naught for the background of the gentleman he proposes to bring so low as to marry him?"

"Lady Catherine, your Nephew possesses superb intelligence and sense of social decorum. You cannot imagine that he has not considered these points if he was inclined to marry me."

"infuriating, selfish man! You do not care about what my Nephew owes to himself! He happens to be engaged to my daughter! Now what have you to say?"

"Only this -- that if he is so, you have no reason to suppose he would make an offer to me!"

"And does such an offer exist?" Lady Catherine asked quickly.

Charles dearly wished he could say otherwise, but-- "It does not."

Lady Catherine looked relieved. "And will you promise me that you would not enter into such an agreement?" she asked benevolently.

"No," Charles replied without further thought, for no such was required to answer that question. "I will not."

Lady Catherine's face closed down again, and she looked furious. "Selfish boy! You refuse to oblige me!" she thundered. "And this is what my Nephew can expect in an alliance, a fallen brother and a family without means or connexions? I will not allow this to pass. I take my leave of you, sir!"

She stormed back to the carriage, whence the driver hurried to hand her inside. He climbed back up on the seat and turned the horses deftly around, driving off with a clatter. Charles was left standing in the garden, wondering what on earth had just happened.

---

Luckily, his parents were far too involved in his sister's engagement to pay him much attention, and the episode passed with no more than a vague question that Charles deflected easily. Mr McCoy stayed for dinner, but Mr Lehnsherr was nowhere to be seen, and Charles spent his evening agonising about the excruciatingly uncomfortable conversation he must be having with his awful aunt. Oh, why had Charles not been able to say that he would not accept Mr Lehnsherr? This could all have been avoided, and they would have gone their separate ways comfortably.

But he had been unable to speak the words, or even to think them, for to let go of that hope would be tantamount to letting go of his dreams, and that Charles could not do. Still, it may yet come to nothing, for he could not imagine what Mr Lehnsherr's reaction could possibly be but to agree with his aunt's reasoning.

And yet, and yet... It was another sleepless night for Charles, tossing and turning in his narrow bed, helpless to stop thoughts of Mr Lehnsherr following him into an uneasy sleep. His body grew tight and uncomfortable, too hot, too tense; yet it was too mortifying to imagine availing himself of the usual method to fight sleeplessness. Even a touch was too much, and had him fighting to stifle a cry into his pillow. This would not do.

It was near dawn that he climbed his way out of his bed, when the morning song of the blackbird lured him from between the tangled sheets and into the fresh air. He blew out the candle that had burned through the night, fetched his heavy overcoat and made his way quietly down the stairs and out of the back door to the house.

He walked along the brook again, sending trails of mist swirling by his legs, hastily stuffed into walking boots. The chilly air quickly took care of the tightness in his body, and Charles drew it into his lungs with heaving breaths. His mind was racing, like it had done all night, and the sense of trepidation and imminent upheaval was all-encompassing. He sought out the brook with his gaze, strolled over to the small bridge and looked out across the meadows towards Netherfield. He had no hope of glimpsing it, of course -- it was much too far, even if Charles' eager imagination conjured a certain figure striding towards him through the mist.

It took him a moment to realise that the sight was not a figment of wishful thought but a flesh-and-blood reality, long legs bringing the man closer with every step to where Charles was frozen to the spot. Soon enough the veil of mist parted and released the unmistakable figure of Mr Lehnsherr making his way towards the bridge.

Charles took a few uncertain steps until he was standing on the grass at the other side, and Mr Lehnsherr was slowing to a stop before him.

"I couldn't sleep," Charles confessed, searching out the beloved face with his gaze.

"Nor I," Mr Lehnsherr said. "My aunt..."

"Yes, she was here."

"How could I ever make amends for such behaviour?" Mr Lehnsherr asked earnestly.

Charles hurried to interrupt. "After what I believe--no, I know you have done for Sean, and I suspect for Raven also, it is I who should be making amends," he said, unable to look away from the look in Mr Lehnsherr's eyes.

Mr Lehnsherr did nothing but trail his eyes over Charles' face, lingering on what Charles hoped were his lips.

"You must know," Mr Lehnsherr said, with the air of a confession. "Surely you must know, it was all for you. Quite contrary to my aunt's intentions, her visit taught me to hope as I had scarcely allowed myself to hope before. You are too generous to trifle with me, Mr Xavier--Charles.” He paused for a moment, eyes holding Charles’, beseeching. “My affections and wishes have not changed, but one word from you would silence me on the subject forever."

Charles remained silent -- he would not speak if his life depended on it. Mr Lehnsherr stepped a fraction closer, and Charles' breath stuttered in his throat at the nearness. He could feel the warmth of Mr Lehnsherr’s--Erik's body so close to his, and all he wished was to press himself closer against his chest, feel the beating of Erik's heart against his, splay a possessive hand over Erik's stomach and claim him, as surely as Erik was claiming Charles.

"If, however," Erik spoke again, so much closer this time that Charles could feel the thrum of his voice enter his chest and curl in his belly; it was low and insistent, and so very intent, "if your answer has changed, then I would have to tell you that you have bewitched me body and soul, and I--I love you. And never wish to be parted from you from this day on."

Charles felt like a vice was unclenching from around his chest with Erik's every word, until at last it was sprung free, letting him breathe Erik in, irresistible, warm and musky and male, delicious.

"Well, then," Charles said, daring to take Erik's hand at last, skin to skin with the man he had wanted for so long. His thoughts were derailed at the feel of it, the shift of small hairs against his fingers as he brought the back of it to his mouth, brushed a kiss against the knuckles, drank in Erik's stifled gasp. "Your hands are cold," he said at last, lost but for the man before him, the only thing anchoring Charles to the world.

Erik nodded, and in so doing brought their heads closer, until their foreheads touched. Charles could feel Erik's breath whisper against his lips, Erik's own lips so close, so tempting. He pushed up on his toes and brushed their mouths together, ever so faintly, a caress full of promise. It drew a small sound of sheer relief from Erik's lips, and Erik's other hand rose to curl against Charles' waist and bring him closer.

In the space between them, Charles could see all the days and months and years to come, filled with shared laughter, small moments of tenderness just like this, unfathomable happiness in the society of one another, nights filled with need and days filled with joy. With them standing together, there could be nothing to challenge their resolve.

It was more than Charles could have ever hoped for, and at last, it was all his own.

-----
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