sirona_fics: (charles/erik regency)
[personal profile] sirona_fics
Title: First Impressions
Pairing: Charles/Erik, Hank/Raven
Word count: ~27,000 overall (~9,700 this part)
Warnings: very brief mentions of past child abuse
Disclaimer: X-Men belogs to its creators. Pride & Prejudice belongs to the public domain, but the genius belongs to Miss Austen.
Summary It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a spouse -- or the nearest set of curtains to hide behind, if you were to believe Mr Charles Xavier. Little does he know that he himself will soon put test to that very truth.
Notes: First of all, my undying grattitude to [livejournal.com profile] zarah5, without whom this story would not exist. She was wildly enthusiastic when I first mentioned the idea, and she cheerleaded, supplied me with fantastic music, and betaed this thing until it's the more-or-less coherent version you see before you today. I will say that I did not re-read the book or re-watch the 1995 or 2005 films as I was writing -- all the dialogue and events within come from my own memory, and thus portray a mix of the original text, the BBC's and Joe Wright's rather excellent adaptations, so that my favourite moments of all three were reflected. This story follows the plot of Pride and Prejudice throughout, but certain changes have been made to accommodate the fact that Miss Lizzy Bennett is now Mr Charles Xavier. A soundtrack to this fic, most of which is [livejournal.com profile] zarah5's work, can be found here. I am also excessively grateful to [livejournal.com profile] lark for compiling and posting In Revolution, a wonderful Charles/Erik mix that carried me through to the end of this monster of a story. And at last, if you have made it all this way through the notes, there remains nothing further for me to say but, Enjoy, dear Reader.



First Impressions

Charles did not expect the ball to be any different than the dozens he had already attended since the start of the year. Yet he was perfectly willing to be entertained, and he would never frown on an evening of dancing with pleasant people.

"Charles!" Moira called as Charles pushed his way in through the small crowd, extending a pale arm sheathed in a beautiful shade of bronze muslin. "Did you hear the news?"

Charles took her hand, smiling warmly. "If you mean to regale me with the goings-on at Netherfield Park, I assure you we are fully acquainted with the news. Mama would not stop talking about it. Poor Mr McCoy! I expect he shall be positively besieged."

Moira smiled deviously. "Well, you know what they say about single men in possession of a fortune!"

"I suspect the saying should go more along the lines of 'must be looking for the nearest set of curtains to hide behind'," Charles returned.

Moira stifled a laugh behind her hand. "You are terrible, Charles! But I refer to the fact that Mr McCoy is not alone at Netherfield Park! He is here with his sister, Emma, as well as a good friend of his, a Mr Lehnsherr."

Charles frowned. "What an odd name. I have never heard it before."

"Nor should you have any reason to. The gentleman has just arrived from London. I understand that he is a very close friend of Mr McCoy's, and extremely handsome." She noticed Charles' stare. "Your mama was not the only lady in the neighbourhood to be well informed."

Charles shook his head in despair. "She means for Raven to 'try her hand' at Mr McCoy. I simply do not understand this willingness to marry us off, Moira. She will not understand our wish to make a love match. Though, of course, the security of a gentleman’s fortune would be most welcome. Indeed I fear I shall never find anyone to suit my exacting requirements."

Moira laughed again; her eyes were dancing, reflecting the amusement in Charles'. "You never know, my dear," she said, squeezing Charles' hand. "Oh, but here they are now! Look, there is Mr McCoy, and Miss McCoy, and that must be Mr Lehnsherr."

Charles did look, and then wished he had not, for the gentleman in question was indeed formidable-looking. Rather taller than the rest of the assembly, Mr Lehnsherr looked severe in black that highlighted the taut frame of his body. Charles' gaze lingered on the man, but he had such an expression of hauteur on his face that Charles found himself looking away, somewhat affronted by the perceived slight. He diverted his attention to the man next to him. Mr McCoy had an easy grace, an open smile on his lips, and Charles did think him to be a kind young man, happy in whatever company. Charles considered him against his beloved sister's disposition, and indeed this could be a most fortuitous match. Raven was a sweet, even-tempered girl, a little shy with strangers, but once she was comfortable in their company, she had quite the tongue on her. Charles suspected, however, that Mr McCoy was not one of those gentlemen who would brand his sister a hoyden and would not see her for the person she really was.

Mr McCoy's friend leaned close to speak to him; Mr McCoy darted him a glance, but did not heed his remark. They stopped in front of Sir William and Lady MacTaggert.

"What a pleasure to receive you, Mr McCoy. You do honour us with your presence," Sir William boomed. At Charles' side, Moira rolled her eyes.

"The pleasure is ours, Sir William. How kind of you to invite us so we may become acquainted with our neighbours." Mr McCoy spoke pleasantly, in a kind tone. Charles found himself liking him immediately.

At Mr McCoy's side Mr Lehnsherr looked away, a barely concealed sneer on his lips. Charles blinked, but in that time Mr Lehnsherr's face had schooled itself in a mask of polite boredom once again.

"I hear he owns half of Derbyshire," Moira whispered in Charles' ear. This did not excuse the man's rudeness.

"How unhappy he looks to be here," Charles mused. "I wonder that he should attend at all."

"I imagine that Mr McCoy would have insisted."

"Charles, come here this instant," Mrs Xavier called from Charles' right.

"Do not leave me," he hissed at Moira, who simply looked sympathetic.

Mrs Xavier would accept no refusal. She took Charles' arm and nearly towed him behind her in her rush to get to the strange trio. Charles shared a long-suffering look with his sister, on Mrs Xavier's other side.

"My dear Mr McCoy, what a pleasure to see you here! Do allow me to introduce to you my children. This is Raven, my eldest. She is widely considered to be the beauty of the county."

Mr McCoy blinked at Raven; Raven blinked at him. Charles did not think it was his imagination to see a hint of pink flooding both young people's cheeks. Perhaps this meeting would be fortuitous indeed.

"And this is my son, Charles," Mrs Xavier added, a touch less enthusiastically than she had introduced Raven. Charles, used to be regaled to second place, merely bowed.

"How do you do," Mr McCoy said, no less polite, but Charles noticed the way his eyes returned to Raven over and over again.

"A pleasure, Mr McCoy," Charles murmured.

Mr McCoy jumped, as if startled. Charles noticed Miss McCoy shift subtly away from where she had been standing very close to her brother.

"Do forgive me," Mr McCoy rushed to add. "This is my sister, Miss Emma McCoy, and this is my friend, Mr Erik Lehnsherr."

Everyone exchanged murmured pleasantries, with the notable exception of Mr Lehnsherr, who contented himself with standing back and glaring at everyone apart from his friends. Charles was not impressed in the least, but for the sake of Mr McCoy he would be civil.

"What brings you to Derbyshire, Mr Lehnsherr?" Charles enquired politely.

Mr Lehnsherr looked at him for a moment, during which Charles felt like a piece of metal, stripped bare of its furnishings. "I am here at the request of Mr McCoy, of course."

"Of course," Charles echoed, and could not smother the faint note of amusement in his voice.

Mr Lehnsherr glared at him, but did not deign to continue the conversation.

"Do you dance at all?" Charles asked, steeling himself for the unpleasant man's undoubtedly cutting reply. He really should try to stop himself from making an effort when it was obviously unwelcome.

"Not at all," Mr Lehnsherr replied, which did not surprise Charles. The clear dismissal in the man's voice did.

"Indeed?" Charles said faintly, but the man was already walking away.

'What an odious man,' Charles said to himself. He was not at all used to judging his fellow men so, but there was something about Mr Lehnsherr that set Charles on edge like no one in the room ever could.

He said as much to Moira.

"Oh, my dear Charles! Do you mean to say that you have found a person whom you did not approve of?"

"You need not sound so surprised; it happens often."

"Indeed, but not so soon after you have met them! What is it about him that bothers you so?"

Charles did not reply immediately, for it was indeed unlike him to feel so strongly about someone as soon as they met. He watched his sister dance with Mr McCoy instead -- Mr McCoy did not seem to share his friend's aversion to dancing. He had asked for Raven to accompany him as soon as the first strands of a country dance had filled the air.

Raven looked flushed and delighted with her partner when the dance ended, and Charles lost her slender frame in the crowd when Mr McCoy led her away from the space set aside for dancing. It hid them from Charles’ somewhat limited view from behind the seating tiers, where he and Moira had taken refuge from the crush. While listening with half an ear to Moira recounting her most recent trip to the ribbon shop, a certain tall frame caught Charles’ eye through the benches.

"Come, Lehnsherr, I must have you dance," Mr McCoy spoke at Mr Lehnsherr's side.

Mr Lehnsherr looked down fondly at his companion, but his reply was short: "Indeed I had better not. You were dancing with the only pretty girl in the room, and your sister was otherwise engaged. I do not see anyone whom I would desire to accompany me on this chore."

Mr McCoy laughed, as if Mr Lehnsherr had not sounded perfectly serious. "Miss Xavier is indeed beauty incarnate, but come now. Her brother Charles is perfectly handsome. I am sure he would make an excellent dance partner."

"He is... tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me. You had better return to your partner, McCoy, and enjoy her smiles. You are wasting your time with me."

Beside Charles, Moira gasped with affront.

Mr McCoy looked like he wanted to argue, but thought better of it. "I shall, then. But you are being perfectly terrible, my friend."

Mr Lehnsherr's face composed itself into a frown, although even from afar Charles could see he was not at all angry. Mr McCoy seemed to agree, for he rolled his eyes at his friend and took his leave. Charles was gratified to see that Mr McCoy made straight for the side of the room where Raven partook of some punch.

Mr Lehnsherr looked after him for a moment, before sweeping the room with his sharp gaze, as if dissecting it. Charles resisted the urge to shrink against the flimsy protection of the shadows provided by a few tiers of wood. Of course, Mr Lehnsherr did not spot him, but for some reason that did not prevent Charles' heart from beating far too fast.

"I do not believe that man," Moira seethed. "He is the most unpleasant creature I have ever beheld."

Charles strove to laugh lightly; it took slightly more effort than pleased him. "My dear, you must not be so easily swayed. It is not like I wanted to dance with him in the first place; indeed, he has done me the great favour of not having to converse with him at all."

Moira took both his hands in hers. "But Charles, he was perfectly rude to you!"

"A misguided soul, to be sure, but it will save me the trouble of having to pretend to like him."

"If he should ask you to dance again, I desire you shall not agree at all!"

"Moira, I believe I can promise you never to dance with that man," Charles said, meaning every word.

---

The table was not as quiet as Mr Xavier hoped the next morning, for Mrs Xavier saw necessary to regale him with every single thing Mr Henry McCoy had said and done with regards to Raven the previous evening.

"Would that he had sprained his ankle at the first dance," Mr Xavier grumbled just quietly enough that only Charles overheard him. Charles had to hide his face in his teacup so that his mother would not see the twinkle of mirth that he knew resided in his eyes.

The morning post was quite an event.

"A letter for you, Miss Raven," the maid curtsied by Raven's chair.

Raven took it curiously, contriving to remove it from her mother's reach while at the same time maintaining her mild expression.

"Oh, it is from Emma McCoy. She has invited me to dine with her. Her brother will be dining out," Raven added quickly, to stave off Mrs Xavier's excitement.

"Dining out?" Mrs Xavier exclaimed, outraged. "But that is simply insupportable!"

"May I take the carriage?" Raven enquired eagerly.

There was a foreboding look in Mrs Xavier's eyes when she supplied, "Certainly not. You shall go on horseback."

"Horseback?" Raven and Charles repeated, surprised. Charles did not like the way his mother was observing the overcast sky.

His trepidation was confirmed shortly after his sister had departed, for no sooner had she gone out of sight that the heavens opened and the dry earth was thoroughly drenched. Charles could not help but worry for the remainder of the afternoon and well into the early evening, when a missive arrived from Netherfield Park.

"'There is nothing wrong with me other than a sore throat and a mild fever,'" Charles read out loud, fighting the impulse to clench his fists and wrinkle the letter. "'My friends are being very kind, offering to shelter me for the night so I may rest comfortably.' This will not do, father! We must go and fetch her at once!"

"You will do no such thing," Mrs Xavier declared before Mr Xavier could even open his mouth. "She is perfectly fine where she is. No one dies of a simple fever."

"Mother," Charles snapped, but he could see it was so much water off a duck's back. "Father," he appealed next.

His father looked at him with the helpless detachment Charles disliked most. "Do not fret, Charles," he said. "She will be perfectly fine in a few days."

Charles pushed back his chair and stormed from the room. Darkness had fallen already, and not a single ray of light penetrated the thick cloud cover. He would have to delay his trip until the morning.

He did not sleep well that night.

---

"My goodness, Mr Xavier, did you walk here?" Miss McCoy sneered over her small nose firmly pointed in the air.

"I did," Charles replied, tugging his dignity around himself like a cloak.

He cursed his luck that he should come across Miss McCoy and Mr Lehnsherr enjoying a stroll through the estate's perfectly sculpted gardens, but there was no way to avoid them -- the path through the meadows came out right at the edge. Still, how unfortunate that he should be forced to endure the barely-veiled contemptuous stares.

"Excuse me," he ventured when the silence stretched too thin. "Where is my sister?"

To his unhappy surprise, Mr Lehnsherr stepped forward. "I will take you to her," he volunteered.

Charles was too well-mannered to refuse him out of turn, and so he braced himself to bear the awful man's presence. "Thank you," he said.

Miss McCoy was looking distinctly unimpressed when he and Mr Lehnsherr walked away, and that was the only consolation to be had.

After the first five minutes, the silence started to grate on Charles. Mr Lehnsherr walked by his side, shortening his strides ever so faintly, just enough that Charles did not feel like he should run behind him to keep up. The man was just as taciturn as the previous evening, and Charles amused himself by thinking that such behaviour in a person who did not own half of Derbyshire would not be quite so accepted by polite society.

Nevertheless, stubborn silence was not one of Charles' traits.

"How are you enjoying Netherfield Park, Mr Lehnsherr?" he asked lightly.

"Well enough," Mr Lehnsherr replied shortly.

Charles remained silent for a moment, gathering his patience. "I am given to understand that the library here is substantial. I have long desired to be able to visit it."

Now Mr Lehnsherr was the one who kept his peace for a short while, before rousing himself to reply. "Indeed it is very well maintained," he supplied grudgingly. "Do you read a lot, Mr Xavier?"

"As often as I am able," Charles confirmed. He did not think it was his imagination that the silence from Mr Lehnsherr was marginally less icy that time. "I was much impressed by William Blake's most recent poetry collection," he added.

Mr Lehnsherr turned to look at him, for what Charles fancied was the first time he had taken proper notice of his person. There was unmistakable approval in the man's assessing gaze. "At least you did not quote The Mysteries of Udolpho. It is a small blessing."

"You do not approve of Mrs Radcliffe, I take it?"

"You may take it however you like, so long as you never mention that woman's name to me," Mr Lehnsherr declared.

Charles' attempt to stifle a smile at Mr Lehnsherr's tone did not go quite as planned. "And what of Miss Austen?" he enquired, knowing full well that he was inviting Mr Lehnsherr's disapproval but prepared to weather it in that case. "I found her novel Sense and Sensibility most engrossing."

Mr Lehnsherr curled his lip. "Mr Xavier, you surprise me. For someone who seems more educated than many men of my acquaintance, I did not take you for a reader of frivolities."

"Ah. On this matter, Mr Lehnsherr, we shall have to agree to disagree. I find Miss Austen's sharp wit and thorough study of character to create one of the most interesting novels in my family's possession."

This conversation had brought them to the manor's side entrance; Mr Lehnsherr swooped Charles a quick bow. "Excuse me, I must return to Miss McCoy. Pray take the second staircase to your left; your sister is resting in the third bedroom on the right side of the hall."

"Of course. Thank you, Mr Lehnsherr, for the pleasure of your company," Charles replied, unable to completely force the amused smile from his lips.

Mr Lehnsherr blinked at him twice before spinning on his heel and striding swiftly away. Charles spared him no more than a glance before eagerly ascending the staircase the gentleman had indicated.

---

Raven, thank the Lord, was indeed resting comfortably, taking up most of the luxurious double bed in her sprawl.

"Charles!" she exclaimed when she saw him enter in the wake of his knock; the obvious pleasure in her voice at his appearance warmed him deeply. There was but a rasp in her voice, and she was looking tolerably well for a person with fever.

"How are you feeling, dearest?" he asked, sitting carefully at the edge of the plump mattress.

"Very well under the circumstances," Raven replied, smoothing a hand over the long braid of her hair self-consciously. "Everyone has been so kind even though I am certain I am a dreadful imposition to them."

"Nonsense, love. I am sure they are delighted to have you in their house. Especially Mr McCoy," Charles could not help but tease.

Raven blushed most fetchingly. "Mr McCoy has been excessively obliging," she conceded.

"Oh course he has," Charles said fondly. "My dear, he is quite taken with you."

Raven tried to turn her face away, but Charles could see that the flush now extended to the tips of her ears. "Charles, you must not tease so."

"Upon my word, I am telling you only what I have seen with my own eyes," Charles assured her.

Raven smiled happily, and Charles' heart flipped over in his chest to see her almost glowing with pleasure.

The afternoon passed quickly, for brother and sister were very close, and often conversed for hours even in normal circumstances. Charles supplied news about their brothers - Armando having learned a new concerto to play for her when she was well enough to come home, Sean and Alex taking it upon themselves to tend to the garden that was usually Raven's domain, so that no flowers met their demise for lack of care. That last did not reassure Raven as much as Charles had intended -- but he conceded that their two younger brothers could be relied upon to create trouble wherever they went.

"They are trying," Charles reproached, and Raven looked chagrined.

When the half-hour gong went, Charles left his sister's side most unwillingly, for she had bid him attend supper and express her thanks to the family on her behalf.

"Indeed I would much rather dine with you here," Charles tried to protest, but he was ill equipped to handle her imploring gaze. "Oh, very well."

He had no clothes to change into, as he had not anticipated remaining at the manor for longer than an afternoon, but Mr McCoy was adamant.

"Mr Xavier, I would not hear of you leaving. Miss Xavier is so much more comfortable with your presence at Netherfield, I really must insist. Of course you may borrow whatever items you require from my valet."

"I am most grateful, Mr McCoy, but surely it would be an imposition," Charles attempted, but for the second time that evening found himself unable to refuse the request. "You are most kind. My sister would not have been cared for half as comfortably at home, I dare say. But I promise you that we shall take our leave on the morrow, and leave you to your guests."

Mr McCoy looked crestfallen, and Charles hated to remove his sister from Mr McCoy's company, which she obviously enjoyed very much, but he could not in good faith trample over the man's kindness any more than they already had.

And so Charles emerged not long after from the room adjacent to his sister's, freshly attired in a forest green dinner jacket, a clean shirt and a snowy white cravat, feeling much more like himself even when wearing another man's clothes. He and Mr McCoy were of a height, and Charles truly felt the most comfortable he had been ever since receiving Raven's missive the previous night.

He was surprised, when he arrived downstairs, to see all three of his hosts waiting on his appearance before settling to dinner. Miss McCoy was wearing a beautiful pink gown that offset her milk-white shin to perfect advantage, but it was Mr Lehnsherr who captured Charles' attention effortlessly. Clad in severe black again, he still managed to look stylish, and was without a doubt one of the most handsome men Charles had ever beheld. If only he was not so arrogant and prideful as to lower himself to converse with the inhabitants of Meryton, Charles felt he could have come to really appreciate his company.

Conversation during dinner was light and flowed easily. Charles kept to himself, for it was obvious that the three friends knew each other exceedingly well. This gave Charles the opportunity to study his unexpected companions. He found Mr McCoy to be just as genuine and pleasant as first impressions had suggested. Miss McCoy believed she was subtle in her approach, but to Charles it was perfectly obvious that she had set her sights on Mr Lehnsherr. Charles found himself feeling sorry for the man, coveted because of the chance circumstance of his birth and not for his own merits as a person. But he then reminded himself that such an unpleasant man deserved someone like Miss McCoy -- she would make him a perfect wife.

After dinner, they retired into the sitting room, where Mr Lehnsherr made his way swiftly to the writing desk in the corner, and looked to settle to it for the duration. Mr McCoy, having somehow found out that Charles was a voracious reader, offered him the freedom of the estate’s library in the next room, thus endearing himself to Charles for life. Charles browsed happily through the thousands of titles on the bookshelves, stroking an affectionate fingertip over many a volume. In the end, he settled on Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason, which he had meant to ask his father to obtain for him for some time, and reluctantly returned to the sitting room.

Alas, he was not to be left in peace to peruse it.

"You write uncommonly fast, Mr Lehnsherr," Miss McCoy simpered.

"You are mistaken. I write rather slowly," Mr Lehnsherr replied shortly. Charles was gratified to discover that he was not being more deferential to Miss McCoy, even though she was his dear friend's sister. Charles began to suspect that this was simply Mr Lehnsherr's habitual disposition, rather than a slight upon his conversational partner.

He had shown much more animation talking to Charles that afternoon that he displayed now towards Miss McCoy. How strange this man was!

Mr McCoy himself regarded him perfectly amiably, and Charles could not suppose that a man like Mr McCoy would be such close friends with someone like Mr Lehnsherr if the same did not have some redeemable qualities.

All of Miss McCoy's attempts to engage him were in vain, however, for Mr Lehnsherr would not be deterred from writing to his sister Angelique. Charles strove to focus on his reading, but the words danced before his eyes in a distracting manner, for his attention was elsewhere.

"I do find that improving one's mind by extensive reading is an imperative for anyone who desires my acquaintance," Mr Lehnsherr replied now, to a remark of Miss McCoy’s which Charles had missed, and Charles gave up his purpose.

"But from your own words, Mr Lehnsherr, a person should read only authors you yourself approve of, if they were to gain your esteem."

Mr Lehnsherr stopped in his writing and turned in his chair.

"You are giving me too much credit, Mr Xavier. I merely desire that the people I speak to do not attempt to convince me that someone who writes Gothic novels to the exclusion of all else is someone worth reading, for we shall not agree."

"So you are willing to be persuaded as to the merits of other authors with whom you are not familiar?"

"I find that the ones worth reading are few and far between. However, I must say I prefer French and German philosophers' writings to almost any of the drivel the Italians or Spaniards can come up with."

Charles blinked. "How many languages do you speak?" he blurted.

"Mr Lehnsherr speaks six languages fluently," Miss McCoy supplied adoringly.

Charles smiled at the barely-concealed sneer on the man's lips at Miss McCoy's insertion. "I wonder, Mr Lehnsherr, if, amongst your busy reading schedule, you have also perhaps had the chance to peruse Mrs Wollstonecraft's manuscript, A Vindication--"

"--of the Rights of Woman? Certainly. Just because I do not approve of some women writers, it does not follow that I do not give all due attention to those that deserve the recognition."

Charles was taken aback. He had certainly not expected this in light of their recent conversations, and did not have a ready reply.

"Shall we have some music?" Miss McCoy enquired, clearly bored with a conversation she did not take part in, making her way to the pianoforte and beginning to play.

Mr Lehnsherr held Charles' gaze for another moment before turning back to his letter. Charles' own endeavour to lose himself in his book once more was even less successful than before.

---

The next morning brought with it an unwelcome surprise. Charles was strolling outside, waiting eagerly for the carriage that would take him away. He could not honestly say that he had enjoyed his stay -- he would be leaving Netherfield Park much more unsettled than he had been when he arrived. He was rather happy that Raven felt well enough to travel, for he could not be certain what another night under that roof might bring.

The carriage, when it arrived, was not empty. Charles watched in barely hidden dismay as his mother and three younger brothers disembarked with unsuppressed excitement.

"What is going on here?" he hissed at Armando, the most sensible of the four, and that included Mrs Xavier.

"Mother insisted," Armando said gloomily.

Charles watched Sean and Alex run inside, and only just stopped himself from closing his eyes in despair.

It was worse than he had imagined. Mr Lehnsherr's face, which had started to lighten a little in Charles' presence, grew shuttered once again, the very moment when he saw the rest of the Xavier family enter the house. For quite the first time in his life, Charles saw his mother and brothers as another, not of their family might see them -- and he was ashamed.

The younger boys were brash, uncaring of proprieties, and his mother was barely any better. The only light on the horizon was Armando, but he appeared to be in one of his lecturing moods. Charles watched Mr McCoy's bewildered face, Miss McCoy's obvious contempt, Mr Lehnsherr's impassiveness, and for a very brief moment wished he had not come at all. His attempts to check his family fell on deaf ears, and short of evicting them from the room there was no deterring them.

"Mr McCoy, did Lady MacTaggert hear correctly, that you intend to give a ball?" Sean asked, patience evidently failing past the pleasantries.

"Indeed," Mr McCoy answered politely, good humour coming back to carry him over the strange invasion of his house by Xaviers. "When your sister feels well enough, you yourself shall name the date, Mr Xavier."

Sean barely stopped himself from clapping his hands at the news. Alex looked beside himself with excitement. "And will you invite the officers?" he asked eagerly.

This was the first time Charles had heard of the Militia’s arrival at Meryton beyond the recent rumours, but of course, his family could be relied upon to know all the latest gossip.

Mr McCoy looked even more confused, but acquiesced out of good manners, Charles suspected. Mr Lehnsherr's look was thunderous upon the mention of the Militia, and Charles felt even more like a child being chastised. He threw his brothers another cowering look, which worked not at all.

It was altogether a relief when it was time to leave.

"I really cannot tell you how grateful I am," Raven said sweetly as she took her goodbyes with the McCoys. Mr McCoy looked very sorry to see her go, and even Miss McCoy was extremely solicitous, for which Charles was grateful. Mr Lehnsherr thawed enough to sweep her a bow, which she acknowledged with a graceful nod.

"Mr Xavier," Miss McCoy said, no more, no less, a mere pretence at civility. Charles afforded her a perfunctory bow.

Mr McCoy was, once again, perfectly genial in his farewells, and Charles shook him by the hand with pleasure. And then there was only Mr Lehnsherr, standing to the side of the small group.

"Mr Lehnsherr," Charles said, torn between offering his hand and bowing. In the end he bowed, because he assumed Mr Lehnsherr would not like to shake his hand.

He was therefore much surprised that Mr Lehnsherr was the one to brace his hand on Charles' elbow and help him into the carriage. Charles had not sought it, and the touch burned even through the two layers of his jacket and now-clean shirt. Mr Lehnsherr let go as soon as Charles had his balance, and turned and walked away before Charles could even open his mouth to thank him.

He had never been so confused by a person in his life; his mother's endless prattle did not help. He spent the half-hour journey staring out of the window, rubbing a spot on his arm that felt too cold.

---

"My dear, I do hope you have ordered a good dinner for us tonight," Mr Xavier said one morning not long after the two eldest Xaviers had returned from Netherfield Park. "I have reason to believe we are to receive a guest."

"Oh!" said his lady, "is it Mr McCoy? I have expected him these past three days. Alex, ring for Hill, we shall have to order a joint of pork--"

"Before you order half a farmhouse, Mrs Xavier, be advised that we are not expecting Mr McCoy," Mr Xavier said, with a note in his voice that made Charles instantly wary.

With good reason, it appeared.

"Mr Collins," he complained to Moira mournfully a few hours later. "He is to inherit the whole Xavier estate. An old feud between his father and my grandfather, which was decided by the courts in favour of the Collinses."

"Everything?" Moira asked.

"Everything," Charles confirmed gloomily. "Even Armando's piano stool is his property."

"Oh, my poor friend," Moira soothed, drawing him into a brief embrace. Charles allowed himself to wallow for a moment before pulling himself back together.

"I must go, we expect him momentarily," he said.

"I will walk you to the edge of town," Moira offered, and Charles gratefully accepted.

They walked arm-in-arm down the main street, each lost in their thoughts and not paying their surroundings enough notice -- and so they did not notice the startled carriage horse rearing to their right before it was nearly upon them.

"Hoy!" someone shouted, and the horse startled away from them. The soldier -- for he was wearing the red livery of the regiment -- dashed after him, and within moments he had the heaving animal settled.

"Are you all right?" the man enquired urgently.

Charles was the first to recover. "Yes! Yes, we are well, thank you so very much, Mr--"

"Sebastian Shaw, at your service." The man bowed.

"A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr Shaw. My name is Charles Xavier, and this is my good friend Miss MacTaggert."

"Your servant," Mr Shaw bowed again. His smile was warm and his features pleasant, and Charles found himself liking him immediately.

"Are you with the Militia, Mr Shaw?" Moira asked.

"Indeed I am. I have just now arrived in town."

"And at a most fortuitous moment," Charles couldn't help but add.

"I am happy to have been of assistance. Perhaps you would be kind enough to show me the way to the barracks?"

"Certainly," Charles agreed, and they walked together to the edge of the town, where Moira said goodbye.

"It is not long North of here," Charles supplied, indicating the direction to Mr Shaw.

"And you, Mr Xavier? Which direction are you headed in?"

"East. My family resides in the Longbourn estate."

"A pity we shall have to separate here, then." The man did look regretful, and Charles was charmed by his sincerity.

"Perhaps we shall meet at the ball at Netherfield Park tomorrow evening? I understand that the entire regiment is invited."

"I shall very much look forward to it," Mr Shaw replied, smiling. There were tiny wrinkles around his eyes, betraying his age, for he was certainly more mature than Charles.

The whinny of a horse behind them startled Charles, and he whirled around -- only to come face to face with Mr McCoy and a white-faced Mr Lehnsherr, riding in from the direction of Netherfield. Mr Lehnsherr stared at Mr Shaw for a moment before whirling his horse back around and galloping away without so much as a 'How do you do?'.

"Excuse me," Mr McCoy said in his friend's stead, riding off after him.

Charles was mystified. "Do you know the gentleman?" he enquired.

There was a pinched look in Mr Shaw's eyes. "Indeed I do," he replied, but did not look happy to be saying so. "We are not in the best of relations, I'm afraid."

Charles knew that he should not pry, but he was helpless to resist. For some reason, the mystery of Mr Erik Lehnsherr was not one he could leave unsolved.

"May I walk with you?" Mr Shaw asked, and Charles readily agreed.

They strolled some way before Mr Shaw felt moved to speak. "Is Mr Lehnsherr well regarded by society here at Meryton?" he asked.

Charles shook his head. "Not at all, sir. The consensus is that he is an unpleasant sort of man who derives pleasure from nothing and cannot be pressed to converse with those he feels below him."

Mr Shaw sighed. "I cannot say that I am surprised," he admitted, drawing to a slow stop by a sturdy oak and lending Charles a hand to help him sit in its shade, after which he followed.

Charles tried to hide his curiosity, but it prevailed against his better nature. “Have you known Mr Lehnsherr very long?” he asked.

Mr Shaw watched the comings and goings into Meryton, looking reluctant to relay the circumstances of his and Mr Lehnsherr’s acquaintance. In the end, he acquiesced to Charles’ obvious interest in the subject.

"I have known Erik Lehnsherr his whole life. I was a steward for his father at the Pemberley estate, where the Lehnsherr family resides. I was also employed by the elder Mr Lehnsherr to tutor his son when he became old enough to teach. I was excessively fond of Mr Lehnsherr, and so of course I agreed immediately.”

He paused, brow furrowed, as if to think of this was unpleasant to him. Charles waited patiently, silently urging him to go on; after a moment, Mr Shaw composed himself and complied with the unspoken request.

“The boy had a keen mind, but unfortunately his character was of such arrogance and conceit even then that I was unable to teach him much in the end. When I confessed my failings to Mr Lehnsherr, he was extremely disappointed in his son, and the boy came to resent me for it.

"I know not how his other tutors fared, but I had to concede defeat when the younger Mr Lehnsherr started lying to his father about the subjects I was teaching him, and my methods. His Father did not believe him, and this only embittered him further. When his Father passed away, Mr Lehnsherr dismissed me immediately, and had me escorted away from the estate, after which point he severed all contact.”

Mr Shaw’s jaw clenched then, and he looked angry and resigned. Charles’ heart ached for him.

“You need not continue, sir, if it would distress you,” he said, contrite.

“No, Mr Xavier, pray do not make yourself uncomfortable on my account. There is but little of my history with the family left to relay, though it pains me to burden you with all this,” Mr Shaw said kindly.

“No, no,” Charles replied, needing very much to follow this dreadful story to its bitter conclusion. “Do go on.”

Mr Shaw’s generous mouth twisted as he obliged him. “The last blow to me was dealt by Mr Lehnsherr’s sister, Miss Angelique. She had used to be a darling child who was very partial to my company, but over the years I am sorry to say she has grown up much like her brother, arrogant and unwilling to engage with those whom she believes to be below her station.

"And so I confess I am not at all well-disposed towards Mr Lehnsherr, or his sister. He may well have changed as he matured, but I'm afraid that for me he will always remain the prideful child that could not be taught."

Charles, upon hearing the last of this tale, immediately applied himself on Mr Shaw's behalf. "Such atrocious behaviour! Oh, it is a wonder you can stand to be in the same vicinity as the man!"

Mr Shaw smiled bravely. "You are too kind, Mr Xavier. But like I said, I held enormous respect for his father, and it is for his sake that I hold my tongue around the son."

Charles sat in silence for a moment, resettling his first impressions of Mr Lehnsherr against this evidence against his character. He was so absorbed in his thoughts that he did not realise the time until Mr Shaw stood regretfully.

"I am afraid I must rescind your delightful company, for I'm expected at the barracks momentarily," he said apologetically.

"Oh! Yes," Charles exclaimed, jumping to his feet in chagrin. "Of course, and I am expected at home. It was wonderful to make your acquaintance, sir, and I hope to have the pleasure of your company at the dance next Friday!"

"I shall count every minute," Mr Shaw said, very handsomely in Charles' opinion.

They parted amicably, and Charles had never looked forward to a ball more. It was to be hoped that Mr Shaw was a much more willing dance partner than Mr Lehnsherr.

---

When Charles hurried home, it was to find his father pacing the front hall, attempting a nonchalant air that had not worked on Charles for years. Charles was about to enquire as to his father's worries when the sounds of an arriving carriage filled the air. It stopped outside the doors to the house presently, and a man only slightly taller than Charles alighted with none of the usual grace.

"Mr Riptide Collins at your service," the man supplied obsequiously.

His arms were filled with books, but while the sight would normally excite Charles, it was clear from the faded letters on the binding that these were dry volumes full of self-righteous sermons, not something Charles could resign himself to. He had no doubt that they will be filled with cautionary words against relations between members of the same sex, which had been accepted for some years by polite society, but not at all by the church. Charles would feel himself a false witness before God and himself if he pretended to approve of such writings, as to do so would be a direct contradiction to his own predilections.

Nevertheless, he contrived to be civil enough towards the man, since he was a guest in his father's house.

"Did you have a pleasant trip, Mr Collins?" he enquired politely.

"Indeed I did, I thank you. It is, of course, entirely due to my patroness, the esteemed Lady Catherine De Bourgh, who graciously lent me her second-best carriage for my journey. I have no doubt you are familiar with Her Ladyship?"

"I'm afraid not," Charles supplied, striving to be cordial.

"Oh!" Mr Collins exclaimed, perturbed. "But of course I shall tell you all about Lady Catherine, for she has been wonderfully obliging to my humble self."

"I shall wait with bated breath," Charles assured him, endeavouring not to catch his father's eye for fear of losing his composure.

Mr Collins, Charles was sorry to discover, did not improve on further acquaintance, and it was a trial to withstand his frequent and often misguided readings of the sermons contained in his many books. He had been a guest at Longbourn for only a few days, and already Charles' patience was wearing thin. He contrived to be absent from the house on every possible occasion, using the excuse of overseeing the estate in his father's stead -- he was learning more and more how to manage it, as the responsibility fell to the eldest son. But to his distress, he did not manage to escape the man completely, for Mr Collins had taken a fancy to Raven, and her helpless, beseeching looks tore at Charles' soft heart. And so, against his best intentions, he found himself keeping company with the man far more than he would have liked.

Fortunately, the next day was the eagerly expected Friday of the ball at Netherfield Park, and soon enough it was time to ready themselves for the evening. Raven retired earlier than the rest of them, but not long afterwards Sean was calling for the family's valet and attempting to convince his brother Alex to lend him his ivory britches, to little success.

Charles gladly used the excuse to retire himself and escape Mr Collins' presence. He desired to present himself in his best light, and took the chance to draw himself a bath, after which he debated for some minutes between his forest green and navy blue evening jacket, and the bronze waistcoat versus the cream. At long last, he settled on the navy and cream combination, brushed his hair until it shone, and made his way downstairs, eager to make his way to Netherfield.

Raven waited in the drawing room, looking delightful in a peach silk gown that lent a golden sheen to her flawless skin.

"You look beautiful, my love," Charles said, lifting her hand to his lips in exaggerated admiration that was no less sincere.

"So do you, Brother. Dare I ask whom you hope to impress?" Raven asked slyly, for Charles was quite aware that he had spoken of Mr Shaw to her at some length the night before.

Charles flushed a little, but did not deny the accusation, for he was very much looking forward to meeting the gentleman again tonight. After another half hour, the rest of the family joined them, and at last the Xaviers were ready to embark on the short journey to the neighbouring estate.

Netherfield Hall was lit up with hundreds of torches and candles, until it was fairly blazing into the night. Charles disembarked first, and immediately turned to offer Raven a hand down. The seven of them piled into the spacious entrance hall, to wait their turn to greet the hosts. Mr and Miss McCoy were waiting by the tall double doors into the ballroom, exchanging pleasantries with guest after guest. Charles took the time to crane his neck to try and see over the heads of the crowd for a tall auburn-haired man, but he was nowhere in evidence, even with the line moving forward and Charles’ changing view.

"Are you looking for someone, Mr Xavier?" Mr McCoy enquired kindly. Charles started. He had not been aware that they were so far along the line already! How very ill-mannered of him!

"No! Not at all," he supplied quickly. "I am simply admiring the general splendour."

"It is breathtaking," Raven chimed in sincerely.

Mr McCoy beamed at her. "I am so glad."

"Do enjoy the ball," Miss McCoy said, signalling the end of the conversation. Charles was no longer feeling even remotely charitable towards her.

The ballroom had wonderfully high ceilings, and when Charles entered it he felt like he was walking into a glittering cave, all crystal chandeliers and candlelight glinting off ladies' jewellery and men's cravat pins. He lost himself a little in the reflections, so much so that he nearly jumped out of his skin when Raven took his elbow.

"Your Mr Shaw isn't here," she supplied hurriedly as they tried not to be separated by the throng. "He had to leave for town on a moment's notice."

“How did you find out so quickly?” Charles asked, surprised.

“I met with Colonel Foster by the punch bowl just now,” she said, stepping closer to Charles’ solid frame to escape the push of those passing behind her. “I mentioned that you’d made his new officer’s acquaintance the other day, and were looking forward to meeting him again.”

Charles would be lying if he said that he was not disappointed. Fortunately, he spotted Moira's presence not far from him once Raven left him again, and distracted himself with pleasant conversation until he had managed to swallow his disappointment sufficiently to enjoy the ball.

He was making his way towards the punch table, holding Moira's hand tightly against the flow of people jostling them on all sides, when he bumped to a stop against another man's chest. He looked up into Mr Lehnsherr's startling blue eyes.

"Mr Xavier," Mr Lehnsherr murmured.

"Mr Lehnsherr," Charles replied, bemused that Mr Lehnsherr had troubled himself to stop and talk to him.

Mr Lehnsherr's eyes drifted down Charles' frame. For a moment Charles was acutely aware of the extra effort he had gone to tonight in the hopes of impressing a certain other gentleman. Mr Lehnsherr's eyes locked on his again.

"May I have the next dance?"

Charles said 'yes' automatically, barely a thought passing through the shocked blankness in his mind.

Mr Lehnsherr bowed perfunctorily in the crush, and strode off. Charles blinked a few times before he managed to move again, dragging Moira behind the nearest corner.

"Did I just agree to dance with Mr Lehnsherr?" Charles whispered, shocked.

"I daresay you will find him very agreeable, Charles," Moira said, thoroughly amused.

"That would be most inconvenient, since I have sworn to loathe him for all eternity!" Charles exclaimed, and the two friends burst into laughter a moment later.

All too soon Charles found himself standing opposite Mr Lehnsherr as the first strands of a violin thrilled through the air. He moved smoothly, accustomed to the steps since he had been fourteen, and noted with approval that Mr Lehnsherr was himself a most graceful dancer, for all that he professed to hate the activity.

"This is a perfectly turned-out room," Charles said after a minute of dancing in silence.

Mr Lehnsherr said nothing. Charles huffed a little to himself.

"It is your turn to say something, Mr Lehnsherr. I remarked upon the size of the room; perhaps you might comment on the number of people."

"Do you always talk when you dance?" Mr Lehnsherr enquired dryly.

Charles smothered a grin at the put-upon tone. "No," he answered primly. "No, I prefer to be taciturn and silent."

A few more moments passed, during which Charles contented himself with observing the close, intimate touches being exchanged by Mr McCoy and Raven, who were dancing a little further down the line, hardly looking away from each other. That his sister should be so fortunate to have love as well as security in her marriage was everything Charles could want for her, and he could only wish himself as lucky. Looking away, he noticed Sean's simpering form at the end of the line. He endeavoured not to look too closely, for fear of upsetting himself at his brother’s lack of decorum.

"Do you often walk into Meryton?" Mr Lehnsherr said suddenly, drawing Charles’ attention back to him. He was gazing down at Charles intently.

"Yes, I often walk into Meryton," Charles answered, unwilling to be cowed. He did not know what made him say it, but he found the words slipping out of his mouth regardless. "In fact, Miss MacTaggert and I were in the process of making a new acquaintance when you happened upon us on Monday. I believe you are familiar with Mr Shaw?"

Mr Lehnsherr's gaze snapped away from Charles', and he glared at the back of the room. "I am," he replied, and Charles was a little taken aback by the growl that had entered the gentleman's voice.

"I received the impression that relations between you were not amicable," Charles ventured.

A muscle in Mr Lehnsherr's jaw started to twitch. Charles forced himself to look away; it was much more difficult than it should have been.

Mr Lehnsherr stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Why do you ask me these questions?" he asked, obviously agitated.

"I am trying to make out your character, Mr Lehnsherr. I hear such different accounts of you as puzzle me exceedingly."

Mr Lehnsherr was quiet as he swept Charles back into the dance, and remained so for the duration. As the music was drawing to a close, he spoke at last.

"I hope to provide you with more clarity from now on," he murmured.

Before Charles could reply, the music ended. Mr Lehnsherr bowed to him gracefully and walked away, leaving Charles to stare at his back in confusion.

For the rest of the night Charles was so busy placating various family members, and preventing them from embarrassing themselves and the whole family, that he did not have time to think on Mr Lehnsherr's words until he was lying in bed that night, exhausted and bewildered.

---

“What?” Charles snapped in horror, recoiling from Mr Collins' professed hand.

"I believe our union would be most beneficial for all involved -- for you, Cousin, are not unattractive, and I have reason to believe you have quite a lively mind. Of course, it would mean that your family home will be secured for your Mother and Father, and the rest of your brothers after you and your sister marry. And I flatter myself that I can set an example amongst those slow to accept that same-sex relationships are perfectly normal and not to be shunned."

Charles steeled himself. "And what of love, Mr Collins?"

Mr Collins looked taken aback. "What of it?" he asked, confused.

Charles huffed. He would never be able to make this man understand what Charles desired, that he would marry for love or not at all, inheritance be damned. He would find a way to support himself and his parents if it was the last thing he did, for he would depend on no one other than himself.

"Sir, I thank you for the honour you do me, but please understand. I cannot accept you."

Mr Collins' expression did not change. "I am certain that once you and your parents have conversed on the matter, you will change your mind," he said confidently.

Charles had always been a calm person, brought up to be polite and well-mannered. He always strove to see the good in people. But this was too much even for Charles' famed even disposition.

"Mr Collins. To begin with, insulting me in such a way will not endear you to me. Secondly, I am convinced that you cannot possibly make me happy. You see, you profess not to believe in the talk denouncing same-sex relationships, and yet you preach the works of men violently opposed to it. I am afraid this duality will not be so easily resolved as you imagine. And thirdly, sir, I do not, could not grow to love you. That is why I must refuse you. I do hope you can understand."

Leaving Mr Collins gaping behind him in affront, Charles strode out of the house.

Mrs Xavier was not so easily put off. It took Mr Xavier taking a rare stand for her to cease badgering Charles to 'stop being so silly and go back before the man believed him and left'. But Charles could not do it; indeed, he would not. There had to be somewhere to draw the proverbial line, and this was where he was making his stand.

The tension was thick between him and his mother, and Charles did not relish it, for Mrs Xavier was relentless in her disapproval. They were in the middle of another argument when an unexpected letter from Netherfield arrived. Mrs Xavier took it eagerly to her daughter, argument with her erstwhile elder son forgotten in favour of the possibility of a much more desirable connexion taking place. But when River opened it, it was to find a missive penned by a careless hand, delivering the news that the McCoys were returning to town, taking Mr Lehnsherr with them, and did not plan to return.

His poor Raven. She tried to put a brave face on it, but Charles could well see she was distraught. For her heart to be crushed in such a callous manner, oh, it made Charles' blood boil, and he had a few choice words he wished delivered to Miss McCoy -- but Raven staid his hand. Rather than upset her more, Charles acquiesced.

Heart heavy, he escaped the house at the earliest opportunity, desperately needing to clear his head from everything that had recently happened. He knew he ran the risk of encountering his awful cousin if he quit the confines of Longbourn, but it was a risk he was willing to take if it would allow him to regain his clarity.

He was inspecting the farthest end of the estate when, to his short-lived pleasure, Moira came to find him. Charles saw straight away that his friend was apprehensive, and he hurried towards her in concern.

"My dear Charles," she started, trying and failing to look him in the eye. "I have come to tell you the news."

"What is it, Moira?" Charles rushed to ask. "Has anything happened?"

"A great deal has happened," Moira replied tentatively. "Mr Collins has proposed to me, and I have accepted him."

Charles could do no more than stare at her in dismay. "Marry Mr Collins?! But he is ridiculous!" burst from his lips.

Moira's expression hardened. "Yes, well, Charles. You can judge all you like; you are a man, you have more ways than marriage for caring for yourself and your family. But what of me? I am a woman; I cannot take a profession, or earn my own support.”

Her voice shook, and she paused, taking a moment to compose herself. Charles watched her helplessly, shocked and chagrined at the bitterness in her voice.

“I am twenty-six years old,” she continued after steeling herself. “I have no prospects. Mr Collins is a good, honest man, and he has offered me a home of my own. Of course I accepted.”

Charles opened his mouth, reached forward – to try and reason with her, to reassure her, he knew not what – but she would not listen, simply talked over the interruption.

“If you cannot understand that, well, I shall be very sorry not to talk to you again. You are my best friend, Charles, but you do not have the right to judge me."

Her face crumpled for the briefest moment before resolve stiffened her features again. Charles started forward again, meaning to draw her into his arms and reiterate his unshakable high opinion of her, but he had taken no more than a step towards her when she turned away, pausing for a mere second before striding quickly back in the direction of Meryton.

Charles stood frozen to the spot in the falling dusk, staring out into the fields surrounding Longbourn. He felt wretched, that he had made his friend feel this way, to think that Charles thought her beneath him. Nothing could be further from the truth; he respected Moira all the more for the strength it took to make such a decision with her eyes wide open.


Part Two
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