The village was small, obviously impoverished, but well-kept. Homes were made rudely, of poor materials, but clean and kept in good condition. That, at least, he could be grateful for.
Children played in the middle of the dirt road that seemed to function as a main street. They looked up as he approached, wary-eyed. "I'm looking for Django Maximoff," he said in what was hopefully passable Romany. He had been his Romany grandmother's favorite grandson, and she had spoken to him in her native tongue, though technically with three Jewish grandparents he was gajo. Later he and Magda had shared the language in common, using it occasionally as a private tongue when they were surrounded by strangers they distrusted. Undoubtedly his accent was strange, but then, he was from far away -- Magda's accent would probably be strange to them as well.
Hearing their language from him melted their suspicion away -- the Romany were very hospitable to traveling visitors, provided that the visitors were also Romany. One of the boys jumped up. "I'll take you there, mister!"
Erik followed the boy to a house near the edge of the small village, close to the base of the mountain. There was a man outside it, trying to fix a cart. He looked up as Erik approached, and his face went gray. "God above," he said softly. "You must be their real father."
Erik was taken aback. He hadn't expected such an immediate admission. "You expected me?" he asked.
"No, no. But my son. He looks exactly like you."
"I was told there were two children? A girl and a boy?"
"Who told you? Where have you come from?"
Erik gestured at Mt. Wundagore, looming behind them. "The master of Mt. Wundagore gave my children to you. One of his servants, a midwife named Bova, told me. I've come to take them back with me." He didn't feel the need to mention that Bova was a talking cow. If Maximoff didn't already know how odd the inhabitants of the mountain were, Erik was not going to tell him.
Maximoff sighed sadly. "I will call my wife, and the children." He turned toward his home. "Marya! Bring the children!"
A woman came out of the small hut, holding a little girl in her arms. Erik stared. The girl was Anya, except that she had Magda's wild red curls instead of Anya's straight brown hair. Big brown eyes peered out at him from under the pile of ringlets. "Peeto hair!" the child said, pointing at him. "Man got Peeto hair!"
"Marya," Maximoff said. His voice was hoarse, cracked. He swallowed and started again. "Marya, this man is Wanda and Pietro's real father. He's come to take them back."
"He is doing no such thing!" the woman said sharply. She stepped back toward the house. "Wanda, go inside."
"Go inside! And find your brother, tell him to stay inside as well!"
As the child toddled back toward the dwelling, Marya Maximoff looked up at Erik, eyes blazing. "We have raised these children since they were in swaddling clothes. You ran away when your wife died birthing them! You wanted nothing to do with them, and now you want them back?"
Rage rose up. Erik forced it down -- he would not terrorize his children by murdering their foster parents, however their ignorance enraged him. "What are you talking about, woman?" he asked. "I never knew my wife was with child. She ran from me because I avenged the murder of our daughter, and she feared me for what I'd done. I have searched for her for almost three years, only to find that she is dead and I have twin children she never allowed me to know. Had I been there when my babies were born, I would never have rejected them, never have run from them. Who told you otherwise?"
The two looked at each other. "The master of Mt. Wundagore," Django said. "He said that the children's parents had special powers, but that their mother died in childbirth and their father ran away, too fast for anyone to catch. That he refused to acknowledge them as his children."
"I do not run away. Fast, or otherwise. And my daughter is the very image of her mother, of her dead older sister -- how could I fail to acknowledge her?" The rest of what they'd said caught up with him. "What special powers were you told we had?"
"Only that their father could run faster than any human could, and their mother had had some powers as well. They were Americans, heroes. They fought the Nazis."
"But you aren't American," Marya said. "And it is true, what Wanda says. You have Pietro's hair."
"Yes, I am not American. And I was too young to fight the Nazis," Erik said. "But had I had the power then I have now, I would have. They destroyed my family, and my wife's. Neither of us could do more than escape. As for special powers, that much is true, for me. Not my wife. But I do not have any unusual gifts of speed. My powers are... otherwise."
"Perhaps another woman died in childbirth at Wundagore as well?" Django said uncertainly.
"I was also told Magda did not die in childbirth. She feared my power so much, she fled into a blizzard days after giving birth, believing I would find her." He shook his head. "I swear to you, she was my wife. I loved her, I never raised a hand to her. But I did kill those who burned our Anya to death, with my powers, and for that apparently she feared me enough to abandon our children, and die. They never found her body. But they said that in her weakened condition, so soon after giving birth, she could not have survived."
The girl came out of the house again, running to Marya Maximoff's leg and hanging on it. "Peeto pay owside," she said.
"Where is he, Wanda? In the chicken yard again?"
"Peeto like tickens," the girl agreed. "I no like tickens."
"I'll go get him," Django said, and headed around the side of the dwelling. "Pietro! Get out of the chicken yard and come here right now! And don't let the chickens out!"
Erik knelt down on the ground and extended a hand to Wanda. "Hello, Wanda," he said.
"You got Peeto hair," the child said.
"Perhaps I do. Would you like to see my hair? You seem to think it's very interesting."
"She's saying you have the same hair as her brother Pietro," Marya said nervously.
"Yes, I'd gathered that. I'd like to hold her."
"Wanda, go over and give this man a hug. He's your new daddy."
From the stricken note in Marya's voice as she said it, Erik wondered if perhaps she'd deliberately planned such a misstep. Of course Wanda didn't react well to that. She shrank back behind Marya. "No! No new daddy! Want daddy!"
Django arrived, carrying Pietro. And Erik could see why even a two-year-old was taken with the resemblance -- Pietro did have the same hair he did. Not just the same unusual color, but even the odd forelocks that wouldn't behave themselves and lay alongside the rest of the hair properly. "Stop it, Wanda," Django said sternly. "This man is your true father. He's come to take you home."
At that Erik felt a brief spasm of guilt, because he had no home. The moment his wanderings had brought him to Wundagore and he'd learned of his wife's fate, and his children, he had headed directly here to collect them. He had no safe or comfortable place to put two-year-olds; he had been sleeping in caves, in quickly assembled metal huts, in cheap hostels and in barns. While he could build a new home for himself and his children quickly enough, it would lack soft things and colorful things. He'd need mattresses, blankets, toys. It had been so long, he'd almost forgotten how to be a father instead of a lone wolf.
The boy didn't react any better to the idea of a new father than his sister had. He kicked free of Django, darted forward, and punched Erik in the leg, hard, then ran back. From his thundercloud expression, it was obvious that this wasn't just childish rambunctiousness; he'd been trying to hurt Erik.
For a moment, Erik felt rage. How dare this boy reject his true father this way! How could his children turn to humans for their parents and deny their blood?
"Pietro!" Django shouted, grabbing the boy. "No! Apologize to your father!"
"Not daddy!" Wanda wailed. "Not daddy not daddy not daddy! Want my daddy!" Meanwhile, Pietro was twisting and thrashing in Django's grasp, yelling without words.
And suddenly Erik saw the children on the train platform at Auschwitz being separated from their fathers, torn from their mothers, crying and screaming and destined to die in the gas chambers. His heart twisted. These children didn't know him. He was their true father, they should never have been taken from him, they might need him someday if they proved to have strange powers like his... but right now Django and Marya Maximoff were the only family they knew. And if he took them away from the only family they knew, he would barely be better than the Nazis. He saw the naked grief on Marya's face, Django's grim expression as he tried to force his son into something he himself did not want.
He took a step backward. "No," he said softly.
And then more loudly. "No. I won't take them right now. They know you as their parents; they're too young to understand."
"But... you're their father," Django said hesitantly.
"I am. But they don't know that." Erik took a breath. "I will make a home for them, near here, and I will come back as often as I can, until they know me. I will give you money to help with their care, and I expect to be included in any major decisions you make regarding them. But I will allow you to keep them, at least until they know me well." He looked down at the crying children, and swallowed. "They love you. They don't know me. I will not make my children suffer this way, being torn from the parents they know to live with one who is a stranger to them."
He knelt down again. "Wanda, Pietro, I am not going to take you away from your daddy. Now you have two daddies. You'll still live here, and I'll come visit you and bring you presents. But your mother and father will still take care of you."
Pietro stopped squirming. "Pesent?"
"Yes." He had a sudden idea. Django and Marya had claimed they'd been told of his powers already -- or at least of someone's powers; the story they told of the children's origin was so detailed, he felt sure a case of mistaken identity was involved -- and he needed to know if the people raising his children would fear his power as Magda had. He concentrated, pulling iron out of rocks and dirt lying all about, and fashioned it into a toy car -- red, because he didn't know how to make any color in metal except for red, silver and black. Pietro and Wanda watched the process wide-eyed. Marya held a hand to her mouth, but did not scream or try to flee, and Django seemed as fascinated as his children. When he was done, Erik handed the car to Pietro, who grabbed it eagerly. "What zis?"
"It's a car, Pietro," Erik said, wondering if the boy had ever seen one. In an impoverished Romany encampment, perhaps not.
Erik smiled. All little boys loved red toy cars. His son was apparently no exception.
"I want car!" Wanda shouted. "Peeto car, me car!"
"Wanda, you're a little girl. You should have a doll," Marya advised her.
"I don't know how to make a doll," Erik admitted. "If she wants a car, she shall have a car." He pulled more iron up from the ground and made Wanda a car, lodestone black with a red stripe. "Here is your car."
"My car!" Wanda caroled happily, and swung it around as if it were an airplane. "I got car!"
"How... how did you do that?" Django asked, with more wonder and amazement in his voice than fear or trepidation.
"I control the force of magnetism," Erik said. The man's face was still blank. "Metals. I can control metals, such as iron and steel."
"The axle of my cart is iron!" Django said. "It's rusted through and broken. I was trying to replace it with wood, but perhaps you could fix it?"
Erik almost laughed aloud. They'd be far more afraid of him if they knew he wasn't actually Romany, he knew, but apparently since he was the father of their children, he was family and his power was simply a useful skill to be called on, much like a village midwife or a man who could track down missing pigs. "I would be happy to," he said, and gestured. Most of the cart was wood, but it was resting on the rusted axle in such a way that the moment he solidified the rusted rod back into pure iron, the cart righted itself.
"Beautiful! Thank you greatly, I should be able to get to the market with no trouble now!"
"My pleasure," Erik said. "I'll take my leave of you now. When I return I'll have some more presents for the children -- such as a doll for Wanda --" he nodded at Marya as he said this -- "and some money for you. My powers have helped me earn a great deal as a blacksmith and tinker, and I'd be pleased to share it with you for my children's sake." This was true as far as it went, although he'd also stolen more than a bit of gold and currency in the course of his search for Magda.
"I make dolls," Django said. "I give too many of them to Wanda. Give her a stove that a doll can cook at, or bring her something pretty to wear."
His children were playing with their cars together, cooperating far better than he ever remembered cooperating with his own older sister. In fact his older sister would never have deigned to play cars with him. Wanda had stuck her arm out and Pietro was driving his car up it and onto her shoulder, which made her giggle and drop her arm.
"When will you come back?" Marya asked.
"Soon. I need to find a place to establish my trade near here."
"The gajo near here won't trust a Romany blacksmith," Django said. "But you look like you could pass."
"Yes, I do it all the time," Erik said.
"You never said your name," Marya pointed out.
He considered whether to use a false name or not, and decided against it. "My name is Erik Lehnsherr."