"Do you think," Raven murmured, not moving her gaze from the flawless curve of the statue's torso, "that man over there will die of shock or disapproval?"
"I'm sure you're hoping for both."
The man in question wore grey hair and jowls hanging heavily over his collar and an air of affronted propriety. Charles perceived that last as a faint aura, a yellow-green distinct from the afternoon light pouring through the windows of the gallery. Thoughts whispered in his ears, or the impressions of thoughts, their possibilities. The man thought of how improper it was for a girl that age, an impressionable seventeen, to be staring so boldly at such a lush expanse of naked marble, and to be doing so in the company of a young man.
"She was not demure, was she?" Raven asked. Her pale gold eyes fixed on the Venus' face. The de Milo's own gaze had fixed itself in the distance, calmly staring at whoever had caught her attention. Raven grinned. "What do you think, Charles? That robe could slip only a little..."
The disapproving man, now joined by his wife, her own disapproval trailing out behind her like the train of her dress, departed down the gallery, their footsteps rising up to the vaulted ceilings. With her solitude restored, and her brother reduced to blushes, both Raven's goals had been accomplished, and she returned to studying the Venus. Charles, unmoved by cold grey marble and opulently feminine flesh, turned his attention to the rest of the men and women in the gallery, the flickers of their silent and spoken conversation filling the spaces above the statues and paintings.
The crowd seemed fairly evenly mixed between those who, like Raven, seemed to be there in appreciation of the artwork before them, and those who, like Charles himself, had been dragged along. Whiffs of boredom drifted from a few people, though others were entertaining themselves fully with quiet whispers of gossip passed back and forth. The acoustics of the hall made many of the conversations easy to overhear, and Charles let his mind wander as he listened to the discussions in English and French of artistic technique, of history, of yesterday's parties and tomorrow's dinners.
And then he heard a word that broke through his haze. He stiffened suddenly, his hand tightening on Raven's arm where he held her, causing her to give him a curious look.
"Shhh," Charles said softly, turning to look in the direction from whence the word – the name – had come.
The men stood only a few feet away from them; one of them, elaborately mustachioed, was still speaking. "You must see him, truly. The whole town is talking about his work these days; he's really making a name for himself. Not a master yet, naturally, but the potential is there..."
Charles let go of Raven and stepped the few feet towards the other conversation. Interrupting the man and inserting himself into a stranger's conversation was unjustifiably rude, and in any other circumstances Charles couldn't imagine doing so, but—that was a name he had not heard in a decade. One indelibly inked on his heart. He had to know.
"Excuse me," Charles said, clearing his throat. The men looked at him with surprise; though their expressions stayed polite, beneath Charles sensed their judgment of his lack of propriety. "Could you tell me the name of the painter you were just discussing?"
"Yes, of course," said the man with the mustache. "Erik Lehnsherr."
"Ah." Charles fought to stay as tranquil as the lounging marble boy in front of him. The men glanced tellingly at each other and one of them asked, more pointedly, "Did you require any further information, sir?" Charles did not, and, excusing himself as gracefully as he could, rejoined Raven by the Venus.
"Charles?" Raven, distracted from her meditation, guided him over to a niche, a small stone bench hidden behind the Venus' shadows and under a sheltering ledge. "Charles, something's the matter."
His first thought was to deny it, and he did, with all the self-command he had acquired under his mother's demanding eye. Raven made a sound of deep, unladylike exasperation and, with a commanding pressure exerted on his arm, refused to let him stand to resume their tour until he explained himself more fully. "It was those men you were speaking to," she insisted. "Did you know them? What were you speaking of?"
"Nothing important. I thought I had recognized one of them; I was wrong." Charles stared down at his hands, square and solid, resting in his lap. Cuffs brushed the wrists very properly, fastened with links of silver, appropriate for an afternoon out touring the museums with his sister for company. They would need changing for the evening if they went out to dinner at a hotel or one of the restaurants along the golden strand of the Champs Élysées.
Stupid, Erik had said once, hovering in the shadows of Charles's room. The maid had gone to fetch his clothes for the evening; Charles, even at ten, had been expected to dress for dinner when his mother arrived to visit, the anarchy of her absence brushed under the rug for the few days she stayed in the New Salem house. She won't see you anyway, she doesn't care you're here, Erik would continue, and the fledgling flickers of the strange knowledge Charles had about other thoughts told him what Erik meant: that he wanted Charles in the little kitchen with Erik and his mother, that Charles belonged with them and not in the great, empty dining room with only his mother's silent disappointment for company.
They had been young enough then that Erik would still accept his embraces, and Charles had held him close, holding on until Erik's stiff posture had loosened. They had remained that way until the maid had come back and noticed Erik and chased him away back downstairs while she helped Charles dress. Charles had spent dinner staring at his plate, and afterward in the front parlor he had stared silently at his shoes while his mother ignored him, and he had thought about Erik and his mother and wished he were with them instead.
"You know I can tell when you are lying to me," Raven said, the gentleness in her voice not unalloyed with impatience.
Charles forced himself to smile at her. "Really, it's nothing, darling. I was merely caught by surprise." He brushed a non-existent speck of dust off his knee and stood up, offering his arm to her once more. "Shall we continue?"
The familiar face she made told him that she was still unsatisfied with his answer, but she took his arm nonetheless, letting him guide her toward the statues once more. As Raven turned her attention back to the art before her, Charles found himself distracted once more. This time, however, the entire museum might as well have been empty, for nothing, no one, else existed for him except in his racing thoughts.
Erik. Erik was here, in Paris. Erik was a painter, and a successful one, apparently—although that last did not surprise Charles. He had always known Erik was brilliant, that he could be spectacular at anything he decided to do.
He had to see them. Even if Charles could never see Erik again, he could at least see his work. It would have to be enough.
* * *
"We'll need to hurry to dress," he reminded her once they were in the carriage. Raven replied with a muttered comment on the lateness of Parisian dining and then her loathing of having to change clothes only to spend yet more hours in a corset. Erik would have liked Raven, Charles decided, and bit his lip against the bitterness of that thought.
The horses clattered westward along the street fronting the Seine—Raven twisted around to catch sight of Notre Dame's great spire—and into the setting sun. The sunset gilded the other carriages and the horses' sweating haunches, the trees and the iron fencing surrounding the garden of the Tuileries. Charles watched the pedestrians amble along, ladies arm-in-arm with each other or their husbands. The air was aromatic with horse and the late summery ripeness of the Seine and the ranks of trees and flowers, undercut by a new scent—petrol, the exhaust from the few cars growling like lions among the carriages. Raven watched the cars with interest and a not-so-passing comment about taking one into the countryside.
Charles answered her with half a mind to his words. He watched the faces of the men and women on the street, looking for one with cheekbones sharp-planed and harsh, and vigilant grey eyes, and told himself not to be ridiculous. He had last laid eyes on Erik more than a decade ago, and while he could not imagine Erik ever changing, thirteen years must change even the most stubborn boy—they had certainly changed Charles—and he felt that, with the time and the distance, if he should chance to see Erik, his eyes would pass over him as over a stranger.
And that would be a lie. Charles might try (and fail) to deceive Raven, but he could not deceive himself. They drove on through the Champs Élysées into the solitude of the Avenue Gabriel, with the long, quiet lawns and gardens of the estates drowsing behind their granite walls. Their own house, the Hôtel Goscelin, sat even further back than the other houses around it, its columns and archways almost lost in the dim light under the trees. Raven had complained about its retirement, a private house instead of a hotel closer to the heart of the city, but then had remembered Charles's aversion to large crowds when they were inescapable, and had mercifully fallen silent.
If she could hear him now, wondering how soon he could get back out to ask information on a long-lost boy from any likely person he could find, she would laugh.
"It is very beautiful here," Raven said, as the carriage came to a stop. It was said with a fair amount of consideration, as if Raven had been withholding her judgment until now, giving herself time to consider all the facts, time to make up her own mind rather than taking for granted the common opinion.
"It is," Charles agreed, helping her down to the ground. Even as he turned to gaze upon the facade of their home, it was the estate in Westchester he saw instead, rising majestically in his mind as clear as anything.
It was not the only property Mother and Father had owned, of course. There was the summer house on the coast of Rhode Island, the townhouse in the city, the mansion up in the mountains that they always referred to as the cabin—any number of residences that the two of them, and later Mother on her own, had lived in, traveling from one to another as the seasons changed and fashion dictated. But it was the estate—brought over from England, brick by brick and stone by stone, by Grandfather Xavier decades before—where they had placed Charles, with the excuse that his constitution was too delicate, his nerves too sensitive for him to stay with them.
In retrospect, Charles saw it as a convenient excuse; their lack of interest in him was total, and he was only a distraction from their true enjoyments, the society in which they traveled. If Charles had been too young then to know to keep his strangeness to himself, all the more reason for them to keep him at a distance.
But that house... It was where he had grown up, the background of his childhood. With the exception of a few weeks in the summers, when he was sent away to the lake for fear of the heat, he spent his childhood there, from the age of four until he left for Oxford at age seventeen. There was no moment of that time, no inch of that property, that was not impossibly tied up with his memories of Erik. They had always been together, then, after all.
It was a shameful relief to separate from Raven and head to his room. Charles preferred to dress himself; he had the impression that the French manservant took it as an odd quirk, but also that he was used to indulging the whims of whatever strange Englishmen he found himself serving. The room was empty, though Charles' change of wardrobe had been lain out carefully for him.
He was tempted to take his time disrobing and changing, to guard this time alone, where he could give his thoughts free rein. But no; that was foolishness, wasn't it?
Why should you be so eager to learn about him? A young boy's affronted pride rose up in him, a hot, sick rush. He paused, fingers frozen on the button of his shirt. His reflection in the dressing mirror had its brow furrowed, a blush of shame and anger on its cheeks. He cast you off long ago. You shouldn't want this. You should have stopped wanting this long ago.
Charles shook himself and returned to undressing, moving through the routine and forcing his mind to move ahead to the rest of the evening. Raven would want to talk about the day and they would need to plan for tomorrow. The long-deferred visit to Lady Katherine could be deferred no longer; Raven would have to tolerate Lady Katherine's attempts to show off her eldest son for the duration of a half-morning, and to be civil while doing so. He would have to point out that he had reserved a visit to the new Gare d'Orsay, to tour the splendid railway station on its perch by the Seine, and so any invitations to tea or supper could be safely, and civilly, deferred.
Erik would not have bothered with civility. For that matter, he would simply have refused to go where he had no desire to be. Charles snorted, shaking his head as if to shake the thoughts of Erik out of his head.
And that would be why he, despite himself, was even now making plans to leave early on the morrow, to give himself time to search out some of the exclusive art galleries and dealers between their house and the Lady Katherine's residence on the Rue St.-Honore, by the Royal Palace. Erik had woven himself into his life, knitted himself into Charles's very bones and nerves and brain, and perhaps—Charles told himself this firmly—he could begin to untie Erik from himself if he could see, for sure, that Erik was well and happy as Erik could ever be.
He pulled his clothes off and began to exchange them for dinner jacket and tie. Raven's complaints rose to a loud whisper in his mind, nearly audible in her dislike of her corsets, rising in rebellion before cutting out into silence.
Erik had been much the same. Strange, that his first memory was not of his parents, but Erik, a strange, solemn boy gazing at him defiantly from his perch on the granite balustrade along the southern portico of the house. It had been late spring, the world alive all over. The old cook had left only the day before, sent off with a pension and the family's indifferent thanks, and the new one had arrived. The change, to a small boy, was both inscrutable and momentous, and he had not even known that one aspect of the change would be a slim, pale-eyed boy, rather taller than himself.
Hello, Charles had said, and the strange boy, the air around him colored with surprise and resentment, said nothing.
My name is Charles, he had continued.
The boy had responded to that, at least. I know who you are, he said. You're the young master. There was something in the way he said the last words that made Charles feel awkward and a little embarrassed, though he had no idea why.
He decided to climb up and join the boy where he sat, but the boy had jumped up in surprise as Charles began his attempt to hoist himself up on the heavy stone. Don't do that, the boy said fiercely. You're just a baby. You are going to hurt yourself and ruin your clothes and then I'll be the one who gets punished.
I am not a baby Charles answered scornfully, and he managed, finally, to shove himself up onto the perch. There was little room up there, barely enough for one small boy, let alone two, and Charles's balance was unsteady as he tried to raise himself up to stand.
The boy let out a sigh—exasperation now, rather than contempt—and pulled Charles down to sit in his lap, arms wrapped around Charles's belly to hold him fast. You almost fell, you silly fool.
Charles scowled at the insult and bit the boy's arm and then, at that, the boy had burst into a peal of laughter, light and sweet, if short-lived.
He had turned in the boy's lap so he could see his face, rather than the view of the ground below. I didn't know any other boys lived here, Charles said. You have to be my friend now. Tell me your name.
Charles could not remember what Erik's response was; the memory ended there. Nor could he remember the first time he went down to the kitchens and met Mrs. Lehnsherr. His memory was very good as a rule, and there was very little after the age of six he could not recall in almost perfect detail, but much of that early childhood had faded into a long series of afternoons, sun-dappled and warm, exploring and playing on the grounds or eating sweet treats in the dim, cozy kitchen.
His own personal Eden, in a way, Charles supposed, though even now he could not be certain what was responsible for the fall. But the sanctuary had been invaded, at the some point; the rest of the world found its way into their fortress, and things developed from there.
Charles finished dressing. In the mirror before him he saw a gentlemen, well-costumed, well-fed, well-educated. He should not have to remind himself how lucky he was in every way that mattered, he thought, rather irritated with himself.
It was useless to lose himself in these reminiscences. Better instead to turn his thoughts to Raven. This voyage was for her, after all, to help her grow into an accomplished, distinguished young lady, to give her the opportunities she deserved to develop her talents. She was Charles's responsibility now, and he was determined to do his best by her, anything better than the attention paid to her before.
Raven greeted him at the door to the dining room, radiating exasperation. "Charles, it is too ridiculous. Only the two of us are dining, and I am sure Monsieur Hardin has seen far, far worse than a lady not in—"
"Leave it be, Raven," Charles sighed. "All is well."
"Except for you," Raven said. She attached herself to his arm, not letting go until he had stopped by her chair. Even then, she did not sit down straight away, but fixed him with a searching look, the more penetrating and unnerving for her pale gold eyes. Charles pretended to ignore it, and eventually Raven capitulated with a groan and an unladylike descent into the chair Charles had pulled out for her.
"I will have it out of you." The butler began to pour the wine, and the servant entered with the first course, and had the soup in its bowls and placed on the table in the ensuing silence. "Please, Charles, for a moment stop pretending you must always take care of me and speak to me as if I'm worthy of knowing your secrets."
Charles didn't dare pick up his spoon to start eating. Her words had struck home, square on the target, quivering against what he had only just resolved concerning Raven and her happiness. He did not, however, dare to start speaking until the butler had seen the second course prepared and in the chafing dish. "Hardin," he said, waiting until the old man seemed satisfied with his work, "if you could leave us? Miss Xavier and I will serve ourselves. I'll ring when we're ready for dessert."
Hardin, like Villiers, absorbed his employer's strangeness without a word, objections concerning propriety swallowed back and leaving his wrinkled face as undisturbed as a deep pool. Charles heard the question and said, "No, thank you, the dish is fine where it is. I'll serve Miss Xavier and myself. Thank you again."
That was more difficult for Hardin to receive with equanimity, but he did, and with a bon appetit, monsieur, mademoiselle that betrayed nothing of his confusion at his employer anticipating his question, left the room.
The dish on the sideboard gave Charles the excuse to stand and escape from Raven's scrutiny by serving both of them. He deliberately lifted the lid from the chafing dish, the rich scent of beef and sauce insignificant, and picked up the spoon.
"Charles!" Raven snapped.
"A friend of mine," Charles said. He set the spoon down again. "I... I heard something of an old friend, at the Louvre today."
Raven's mind was racing through the names of their acquaintance. It was not an inconsiderable list, for the connections the Xavier family maintained in America and Europe were extensive, decades-old webs of association with the great families of the world. But of that great list.... Raven's thoughts faltered, slowing. No name she knew could account for Charles's evasiveness, or the painful confusion she had seen in him since the afternoon. She knew his opinions on the nature of their acquaintances did not lend themselves to this reaction.
"You would not be familiar with him," Charles said, interrupting her thoughts. "I have not seen him or heard from him in many years. He was... he was the son of my family's cook, in Westchester. We were very close as boys."
The words sounded so small and insignificant as they fell from his mouth. They were perfectly true, and yet they did not at all seem to do justice to the history, to what Erik had meant to him.
"I see," Raven said. Charles turned to see her watching him with a furrowed brow and narrowed eyes.
"I suppose I knew you must have had friends before me," Raven said after a moment, "but I must admit it never truly crossed my mind before. For how amiable you are, I don't believe I've ever seen you become intimate with anyone."
Charles bit his lip and allowed himself to concentrate on serving himself and Raven. She waited until he was seated once more in his chair before pursuing the matter further.
"What news did you hear of him? Is he a servant here in Paris, then?"
"No," Charles said.
I don't understand why you must leave, Charles had said, curled up in the top branch of their favorite climbing tree. You could stay here. Ripley could train you so you could be my man when you grow up. We could be together forever.
Erik had refused to look at him, but the rage and trapped, desperate desire had come off him in waves, so sharp Charles could almost taste it. Everything Erik had felt in those days had been that way; when Charles confided in Mrs. Lehnsherr she had put it down simply to Erik's age, advising that Charles would understand in another year or two, but Charles felt there must be something deeper.
No, Erik had said then, low and fierce. I would rather die. I am going to be my own man, Charles, no matter what.
"He is an artist," Charles said.
A gleam came into Raven's golden eyes. "Truly? Is he here in the city? What medium does he work in? What style? Who are his associates?"
Charles waved away the barrage of questions. "I do not know! You know as much as I do, now. I do... I intend to find out more. I should like to see his work."
"Then that is what we shall do," Raven said. She had the subject firmly in her teeth now, tearing Charles mercilessly between the past, the present, tomorrow. "Surely the renewal of an old acquaintance is more than sufficient—"
"You will have to give my regrets to Lady Katherine. No," he added at the mutiny flashing in Raven's eyes and in her thoughts. "Raven, I will go alone, this once. I cannot explain it to you—this is not refusal; I cannot—but I must do this on my own. Erik was my only friend for a very long time, and we did not part well. I would like to lay his spirit to rest in the absence of questions."
Raven stared at him, anger bringing out a rose-red blush on her cheeks, anger for his tone and his dismissal of her questions as childish and intrusive. Once, Charles had been much like her, too many questions and thoughts, and not enough sense to keep them to himself.
Erik's words had hit him as if Erik himself had struck him, as if Charles had been a bird shot down by the gamekeeper's bullet. I would rather die, Erik said, and that was all Charles heard as he scrambled down from the tree, tearing his new trousers (and he remembered, now, with Raven staring at him, they had just come from the city), and pelted up to his room. Erik had not followed him, and so had not given Charles the pleasure of slamming the door in his face. Leave, then, if you hate being with me so much you'd rather die, he had thought as viciously, as hard as he could, and felt a soft, bitter retreating, Erik withdrawing and closing himself up in iron.
He had refused to speak to Erik for the rest of the week.
On that Sunday morning, Erik was gone, and for the first time in his memory, Charles was alone.
"I apologize," he said softly. The smell of the food on his plate had gone wrong, overripe and unappetizing. "Please, Raven, I will answer what I can, when I can, but for now, I must beg you to forgive me. For this and," he set his napkin down, "I find I'm not well. Too much art today, I expect."
Raven said nothing in return. Her anger was obvious in her pursed lips and the flush that still stained her cheeks, over and beyond the disappointment Charles could feel emanating from her. Concern hovered at the periphery of her thoughts; she batted it away, withdrawing into her dissatisfaction.
Charles rose from his seat. He paused briefly by her chair, torn, before pressing a soft kiss to her cheek, and then he left the room, retreating to his chambers.
Most nights he read before bed. He was happy to leave the university in order to travel with Raven, but he meant to go back one day, and so it was important to keep current with the journals and books, as well as the correspondence with his peers. Tonight he could not; there was no concentration in him for such things, not when his mind refused to focus on anything but these memories and nerves.
To sleep, then, early as it was. Perhaps his head would be clearer in the morning.
* * *
He went through the motions of his morning in a haze of lost time and inattention. Afterward he could barely remember eating his breakfast, being shaved, or even informing Hardin he would require the carriage. It was only the ride coming to a halt that seemed to shake him out of his inner world, and he stepped out of the carriage onto the slick sidewalk, breathing in deeply.
Thirteen years, Charles thought. Almost half his life! Surely that should be long enough for him to forget, or at least accept. He did not think of Erik so often these days, only at odd moments when his memories were unguarded. It seemed unfair that with a single mention, Erik should suddenly dominate his thoughts like this now, just as firmly as he had back then.
Charles had thought himself abandoned when Erik left, but he hadn't realized then that was more of Erik to lose. At least in those first years, Erik had written. Every month when his letters arrived, Charles would join Mrs. Lehnsherr in the kitchen, sitting on a stool beside the table and reading aloud to her while she kneaded bread dough or cooked soup. There was always another note, too, for Charles alone.
As soon as Charles left for Oxford, though, the letters stopped coming. To this day, Charles hadn't the slightest idea what caused the change.
His first Michaelmas term had passed, and then the holidays spent at his great-uncle's house in London, and then Hilary term had come. On his arrival in Oxford that first September, he had written Erik with the direction to his rooms near Pembroke, very nearly the first thing he had done after unpacking his writing desk and finding pen and ink. He had written again in November, first to Erik's last address in Boston and then home to Ripley, asking that he forward Charles's address to Erik, if Erik had kept in touch.
I would rather die, Erik had said. Even at the time, a foolish and romantic sixteen, Charles had known the only forces tethering Erik to Westchester had been his mother and Charles, an unruly comet chained to its orbit. When Mrs. Lehnsherr had died, one of those chains had broken, and, Charles thought bitterly, whatever hold he had had on Erik—whatever affection, whatever good memory—must have dissolved away.
Would that his own chains dissolved so quickly. Charles watched the Tuileries creep by, the flowers and trees now drab, subdued by the rain. The carriage turned south on the Pont Royal, which arced lazily over the flat, grey Seine, Notre Dame and Sainte Chapelle distant and shrouded in low cloud. Charles watched the wet backs of the horses going by, and the rain-glossed black carriages like beetles crawling. When the driver turned left again, smaller, closer buildings surrounded them, gentlemen and ladies under umbrellas crowding on the sidewalk, their damp finery standing out like the feathers of exotic birds among the paint-stained, bedraggled men who lived and worked in the Quai Voltaire.
"Sennelier, monsieur?" It was the footman, peering in at him.
"Yes, thank you." After a brief struggle, Charles assumed command of the umbrella and dismissed the carriage. The driver and footman exchanged dissatisfied looks, but obeyed. The near-side horse shook its head, as if joining in the criticism.
The art supplies shop—for that was what Sennelier's was, shop and throbbing heart of the artist community in Paris—was the first stop; the École des Beaux Arts, its huge classical portico rearing in the distance, was the second should the clerks and artists of Sennelier have no information. They must; it seemed impossible they wouldn't, for Charles could not imagine Erik being in any place, brilliant as he was, where no one would take notice of him.
He straightened his shoulders and pushed forward towards the shop. His first sensation, upon entering, was simply the cessation of the cold and wet of the outdoors, followed shortly by the great variety of smells of the supplies, some familiar from Raven's work and some wholly new, chemical or earthy in turns, though none of them unpleasant. Finally, he was struck by that cloud of thoughts and emotions that always came with a good number of people in a relatively small space, piling up on each other like thunderheads.
One of the clerks spotted him immediately. Charles was well aware he stood out from their normal clientele, but his fine clothes were their own appeal; nothing pleased a shopkeeper so much as a man who looked as if he had plenty of coin to spend. The clerk was obviously well-practiced in summing up such possibilities, eyeing Charles quickly before crossing the floor to greet him.
"How may I help you, Monsieur?" the man said, bowing slightly.
Charles took off his hat, shaking his head slightly, causing a few stray rivulets of water to drip below his collar and down his neck. "I am seeking information on an artist," he said. "Can you tell me about a Mr. Erik Lehnsherr?"
The clerk raised an eyebrow in surprise. "Of course, of course. Monsieur is in luck, in fact; M. Lehnsherr was here just this morning."
Charles's breath caught in his chest, a painful clench like a hand around his heart. "Ah," he forced out, words thick. "Do you know—" He had to stop in the middle of the sentence, and try once more from the beginning. "Do you know where I might find him?"
"One might try M. Guyot's gallery," the man suggested. "The two of them have worked together for some time now."
"Can you give me directions there?" Charles said. The expression on the man's face, as well as his aura, made it clear that Charles was being too eager, too abrupt, but he couldn't bring himself to care, not now. He curled his fingers into a fist, letting his nails press hard into the tender skin of his palm, as a reminder to himself.
Get off, Erik had said, but he was laughing as he did it, swatting at Charles playfully as Charles jumped up, hanging on him and trying to give him hugs and kisses. He had always been taller than Charles, of course, three years older as he was, and it was always Charles's firm wish to grow up faster, to catch up with him, though he never managed it; thus he had to climb on Erik instead.
Erik, Erik, Charles said breathlessly, I missed you so much!
You've only been gone a few weeks, Erik pointed out, but his mind was radiating so much affection and relief that Charles knew his absence had been just as painful for Erik as for him. I thought you were swimming and eating ice cream every day up there at the cabin.
I'd never be so lucky. Mother thought him too delicate and too much in danger of drowning to swim, and was suspicious of ice cream and the treats Mrs. Lehnsherr made despite her objections. Charles did not say this, and believed he did not communicate it to Erik, but Erik's bright thoughts darkened anyway, as if turning away from the sun. Not wanting Erik to retreat into seriousness so swiftly, Charles added, But Mother's leaving next week for Newport, and we'll have to go to the pond when we've got rid of her.
With a final squeeze, Charles had released Erik and asked to go say hello to Mrs. Lehnsherr. Erik did not stray far; he had stayed close as Charles told Mrs. Lehnsherr about his trip, until Charles was summoned upstairs to dress for dinner.
He had come back later, Charles remembered, using his remarkable ability to open the door to Charles's bedroom without a sound, and they had talked for hours, until Charles had fallen asleep.
"Do forgive me, M. Sennelier," he said. Sennelier, seeing a rain-splattered young man with too-earnest eyes and possibly quite a bit of money, seemed inclined to forgiveness. "We have heard, you must understand, nothing but the highest praise of his work, and I have been commissioned to acquire a piece."
"Ah! Well, Guyot will not forgive me if I keep back a paying customer." M. Sennelier gave him the direction to Guyot's gallery, and added, "Do not, however, ask to see M. Lehnsherr's atelier; he will not permit it, and if you attempt to buy your way in, he will not sell to you."
That final comment earned laughter from the artists who had gathered to eavesdrop. Sennelier scowled and waved them away. Charles, under the pretext of finding new pigments for Raven's oil paints and some fresh brushes, thanked him and retreated.
As he stared at the canvases and palettes that demonstrated the richness of the paints—the indigo, carmine, ultramarine, emerald, umber, the colors rich and riotous—Charles composed himself and resolved on a plan. M. Guyot was quite close, at the corner where the rue de Seine ran into the precincts of the abbey at St.-Germain. Really, given the address—the rue de Seine was not inexpensive, and for Erik to attract Guyot as a broker he must have done very well—he ought to return home with oils and pigments and see to pacifying Raven. But no, go he must, to see for himself what Erik had achieved.
You're so good, Charles had breathed, watching Erik sketch on a scrap of paper he had scavenged from Ripley. When Erik protested that Charles had not had so much as a glimpse of what he was drawing, Charles ignored that and said, I don't need to see it to know it's good, but I wish you'd let me look!
Erik had refused to let Charles see, as he often did. Why Erik kept those few drawings back, when he shared so much else, Charles did not understand. He leaned in, in part trying to see but mostly wishing to provoke Erik into pushing at him and playing, breaking that serious, utter focus, and Erik had obliged him, but not without putting the drawing safely away from Charles's sight.
He picked out a selection of paints, almost randomly, for he had no real idea of what Raven might need or want; whatever he chose she was sure to mock him when he returned to the house later. Still, he felt a need to purchase something, whether or not it would ever be used, if only to compensate M. Sennelier for his time and information. Charles would have spent much more to learn less, if he were to be honest with himself.
Charles left his address with orders to have the package delivered this afternoon, and set out again into the rain, insulated once more by his umbrella's protective dome. The rain had only increased during his time in the shop, and had driven many off the pedestrians off the streets, though the streets were still far from empty. Charles enjoyed walking—it was a regular pastime of his, back home in New York, along with the people-watching and observing that went hand in hand with the activity for him. The daily dramas, joys and dilemmas of ordinary people fascinated him; of all the things his strange gift had allowed him, the ability to see a flash of the remarkable inner life of each person, people whom he would most likely never cross again, must be the most amazing.
Today, however, Charles might as well have been alone on the streets, for all the attention he spared the others around him.
M. Guyot's gallery was on Raven's long list of places to visit while they were in the city; Charles had planned to make an appointment for the two of them some time in the next weeks. Would Charles have discovered Erik on his own, then, simply by waiting? Or would he have let his mind wander as he so often did when Raven absorbed herself in her studies, and missed his chance entirely? The thought that he could have been so close, and not even known what he missed...
Charles was a scientist. He did not believe in fate. Erik never had, either. When Charles's father had died, all of the adults had seemed to find comfort in murmuring clichés. Everything happens for a reason, or God has a plan for all of us.
Erik had found Charles in the attic where he had hidden after the funeral, still in his black suit, far more grown-up than anything he had ever worn before. Erik had sat down beside him in the dusty alcove and made no effort to comfort Charles at all. There's no reason, Erik had said. It doesn't work like that. There's people, and what they do, and there's luck, maybe, but that's all.
He had kindly ignored Charles's sniffles—what he had been crying over, Charles wasn't entirely sure, for he could count the number of times he remembered being in the same room as his father on his fingers—and let Charles curl up close against his side and stay there for a long time.
I don't have a father, either, Erik had said after a while. We'll make our own society.
How Erik had proposed to form that society, he did not explain. Charles had imagined them taking over the old hunting lodge in the park, as no one ever used it (and had not in years; Mother hated hunting), and defending it against the adults, like the Knights of the Round Table in the books. They would, Charles had vowed in that moment, never be apart; they would be allies, friends, inseparable. Erik knew his secret, the ability to hear the thoughts of other people like whispers, and he knew Erik's, the secret power in him that made coins land the way he wanted them, and that secret—and so much more—bound them together.
He had been foolish back then. He'd had the excuse of youth, of course, but from the lofty age of nearly twenty-seven, Charles found forgiveness for his younger self impossible to grant. If he had not been so blinded, perhaps he might have seen that Erik was not for keeping, even by a boy who loved him, even if that boy might have been accustomed to having anything he wished.
As the rue de Seine slanted further away from its river namesake, Charles felt himself propelled onward, as if actuated by a force other than his own confused desire. Now that he had committed to this, despite the tightening knot of fear (fear that he would see Erik, fear that he would not), he could not stop; he rushed on, perhaps faster than propriety and the wet pavement dictated, until at last he arrived, breathless, at the huge walnut door and its discreet copper plaque that read Guyot et Fils.
The gallery lived in what must have been an old hôtel, its pale stone front and fluted columns an assertion of ancient richness next to newer buildings of brick belonging to other art dealers. The clock tower of the Abbaye St.-Germain frowned at him in the near distance; from closer by, the few pedestrians braving the weather watched him with rather more curiosity. The air around the gallery was electric, charged with fears and hopes that Charles felt must certainly be visible, be heard, be felt, by the entire city. Charles closed his umbrella and, heedless of the lack of propriety in having not made an appointment and prepared to resort to money to maintain his presence in the gallery, stepped inside.
The foyer was empty, although Charles sensed several busy minds, some calculating, some absorbed, in the rooms further back. Despite the ill-breeding that attended penetrating so far into a private building without being greeted, Charles crossed to one half-open door and stepped through it.
Color greeted him, assertive, vibrant, living color, canvas upon canvas announcing itself with a richness and clarity at once extraordinary—supernatural—and yet of the world. Charles stepped closer to one canvas, a woman posing against a studio wall, a vase at her feet; the color of her body seemed to free her from the confines of her canvas, to enliven her roughly molded and textured limbs so she poised on the brink of a sudden, violent movement. The woman was not correct, having none of the proportions demanded by the classicists or the old masters, nor were the thick curls and lines that made up her face and hair beautiful. She was not the Venus of the Louvre, Charles decided. She was more.
She compelled the eye such that Charles did not immediately see the signature traced out in a dark blood-red in the corner.
It was almost illegible, but he knew the loops of that E, the long trailing tail of that L. This was Erik's work, then. Once he knew, it seemed inevitable that it should be so. Of course Erik's art would be bold, and modern, and uncomfortable, and brilliant, all at once.
Charles stepped away with the canvas with some difficulty, and turned to another. A boy, this time—no, a young man—all sharp angles, lounging across an armchair, nude but for the fabric draped across his lap and thighs. His face was turned half-away from the viewer, his eyes closed and his mouth open to bite into the apple he held in his hand. There was a sumptuousness about the painting, luxurious, and yet matter-of-fact at the same time, an earthy sensuality that seemed all the more real for the striking style.
Charles tried to imagine the painting in the parlor of some Parisian matron, set out where her guests could marvel and jealously admire her latest acquisition. The idea made him smile. No; this belonged in private chambers, somewhere where you could sit and gaze upon on it at your leisure, alone with your thoughts and the curve of that hip.
He turned his head.
There before him stood Erik, looking nearly as dumbfounded as Charles felt.
"Oh," Charles said stupidly. "Oh, hello."
For a moment he had double vision, his memory of Erik side-by-side with Erik's true form. Thirteen years had wrought changes, though not as many as Charles had imagined. Erik's height was the same, though Charles had never reached so high next to him then, as Erik had left before Charles had gained his last two inches. His shoulders were broader, his face more finely chiseled. Erik had always been thin, but he seemed if anything to be even more so now—though perhaps that was a matter of fashion, Charles supposed; his clothes were immaculately tailored, which would speak to how well he was doing for himself even in the lack of any other evidence.
"I was just—just admiring your work," Charles said. The words sounded petty and insignificant, even, for all their truth, foolish, as they left his mouth, but he was at a loss for what else to say.
The emotion on Erik's face left quickly, leaving an unreadable expression. However unaffected he might look, Charles was sure he felt much more on the inside; there was a strong churning of emotions roiling out from Erik, much too complex and knotted for Charles to parse, overwhelmed as he was.
"You did not have an appointment," Erik said flatly. "Your name was not in the register today."
The painting was easier to look at than Erik, until Charles imagined, fleetingly, the model Erik must have used spread in his dishabille upon the couch, exposed to that penetrating and all-comprehending gaze. Erik's pale, grey-green eyes, waiting for Charles when he turned back, were no less difficult to endure than they had been when they had been children and Erik had ruthlessly trampled over Charles's naiveté. "No," he said, when Erik seemed prepared to wait him out in silent judgment. "It was something of a whim, to stop in."
"On a miserable day." Erik's thoughts darkened, angry storm clouds against the grey monotony beyond the front door. He stepped in closer, lowering his head to Charles's, so achingly close to how they had been as boys, bending to confide or be confided in, that Charles ached fiercely, hovering on the edge of abandoning all ten years' resentment, fully ready to damn propriety and embrace his friend, and beg to be regarded as more than a boyhood companion, when Erik continued, "Why are you here, Charles? Do not lie to me."
"I heard your name mentioned," Charles said, stepping back. Erik wore no cologne, only the scent of linseed oil from his paints, and a rich, dark dustiness, organic against the formality of his suit. "I happened to be waiting for a friend, and overheard some gentlemen, not of my acquaintance, speaking of your work. And so I came to see it."
Erik's mouth thinned. It had always been expressive, to Charles, and expressive of far more than he was sure Erik thought. He read in its mercurial corners good humor or frustration, fondness or annoyance, each of them by turns. When they had been children, the servants and the governess and tutor had all thought him dour, doomed to a life of ill-temper or worse. But even aside from those rare times when Erik had gifted him with a true smile, Charles could read Erik's thoughts right there, in the peculiar temper of his mouth and the colors in his eyes. He could read it now, he found with some astonishment—another thing about Erik that had not changed—and Erik was... was angry.
"You came to see my work."
"I did." Charles did not allow himself to flinch from Erik's scrutiny; he had taught himself out of that years ago, being a young boy too stubbornly wedded to his own sense of self to subsume himself in his friend's powerful personality.
A frown manifested on Erik's mouth, in the deepening ridge between his eyes. He opened his mouth to speak, and Charles braced himself for more of Erik's temper, when another black-suited man, the light of the foyer's chandelier falling on slick-oiled hair, appeared at Erik's elbow.
"Ah, M. Lehnsherr," he said, "I need to speak with you about La Vérité, if it will be—oh, pardon me," the man, M. Guyot, had an artist's exacting eye; he saw and perceived the style of Charles's clothing and the quality of the fabric, and had him catalogued appropriately in an instant. "Monsieur, you are welcome, I am sure. Might I have the honor of an introduction?"
"Charles Xavier." Charles stepped forward to shake the man's hand. "You must forgive me, M. Guyot, for showing up so rudely, but I found myself struck with a sudden longing for some artistic surroundings, and I had heard your name mentioned as one to turn to in such circumstances." He smiled, putting on his most self-consciously charming and disarming expression; Guyot, already well disposed to him as a potential customer, softened toward him even more at the flattery, even as Erik grew noticeably more annoyed.
"M. Xavier is coming with me," Erik said suddenly, and both Charles and Guyot looked at him with surprise. "We will finish our business later," he said to Guyot as he set his hand on Charles's elbow, strong and tight as a steel band.
"I shall write to make an appointment for next week," Charles said, with some apology. "I feel sure we can come to some understanding then."
"Of course," Guyot murmured, frowning gently.
Erik made an impatient noise and tugged forcefully on Charles's arm as he began to walk, Charles stumbling on the first step before quickening his step to match Erik's pace. He should tear himself away, ask Erik what on earth he thought he was doing, insist on some sort of explanation for Erik's behavior. But he did not. His curiosity was too strong; he wanted too badly to see what Erik intended to do. And, somewhat shamefully perhaps, he was too stunned by the knowledge of Erik's touch, even diluted as it was through the layers of clothing Charles wore.
In any event, Erik released him of his own accord once they reached the street outside. The rain had stopped, though the sky was still dark with clouds. Erik did not slow down or even look in Charles's direction; apparently he took it for granted that Charles would follow.
And well he might, Charles thought, with a hint of bitterness. Was that not the story of their childhood, condensed? He had trailed Erik everywhere, until finally Erik left him to go too far away for Charles to follow.
"Where are we going?" Charles said, raising his voice above the bustle of the streets, the people and carriages and shops they passed. They turned a corner, and then crossed the cobblestone streets, Charles following in Erik's steps as he dodged horses and excrement with a nimble, expert step.
Charles was not sure if Erik had heard his query, as he did not respond for a long minute. Finally, Erik said, voice short, "To my home."
"I—I'm sorry?" Charles did stop then, at the hinge of two streets, just in the lee of the worst of the traffic. Two tradesmen hurrying on their way eeled around him, and a young woman, herself evidently on a mission, brushed almost too close for propriety but hurried on without apology.
Erik's momentum carried him several more steps before he realized Charles had stopped, and a moment more passed before he seemed to accept that this Charles, unlike the one who had trailed him eagerly all those years before, would not stir without explanation. Something dark and complex passed across his face, and Charles caught the trailing edges of cynical amusement and a bitter disappointment. After all these years, Erik's mind still almost seemed to shout at him; he could hear, as clearly as if Erik were whispering angrily in his ear, Am I too far beneath you? Are you ashamed to be seen with me? Am I surprised at you being so?
(The answer: I am and I am not. You are not supposed to be like this. Not you.)
"Did you have another place in mind?" Erik asked coolly. "A club, perhaps? Or," this with a sardonic curl of that mouth, "your residence?"
"Do not," Charles had his own anger, shaped of ten years of silence, and he used it now. "Do not speak to me so, Erik. Not because of what I am," and that was for the sarcastic of course, as Sir wishes; mustn't be impertinent he could hear just behind Erik's lips, "but because of what we were to each other."
"What we were," Erik echoed. His mouth twisted, as if the words were sour. "Very well. In memory of what has passed, would you deign to come to my apartments?"
Erik blinked, shying back and shaking his head, but after a moment accepting that Charles was willing to go with him. They began to walk again, Erik's steps resuming their unforgiving swiftness, every turn taken without slackening or giving any consideration to Charles's rather shorter legs and unfamiliarity with the area. That was Erik, though, impatient of delay and limitation—the limitations of others as well as himself—and also like Erik, to be resolved on a course of action and to see it through no matter what lay at the end.
At last they came to a granite-fronted townhouse, itself and its neighbors tucked into an alcove near—Charles heard the bells, just now ringing the noon hour—Notre Dame, in a collection of apartments, ateliers and galleries, and antiquities dealers. The other buildings on the street were not elegant, with plain white stone and coppery gables, but seemed snug nonetheless behind their screens of trees and ivy. Men and women, in clothing either practical or bohemian, idled by the shop windows where they did not hurry past, carrying canvases or sculptors' tools. An artist's street, nestled between the bustle of the quays along the Seine and the old student districts, an odd in-between place that seemed to fit Erik and his independence.
For himself, Erik had taken a key from his pocket and opened the front door. "I have the house until next summer," he said, shouldering the door open and turning to let Charles in behind him. "No butler, though; you'll have to forgive me if I take your coat myself."
Charles did not dignify that with an answer. Erik hadn't expected one, had only spoken to deflect Charles's attention from studying the space around him. Erik's space, a territory jealously guarded from intrusion, or from being known by outsiders.
He had done much the same the first time he had allowed Charles entrance to his room at the estate, a great favor granted only after much pleading and then badgering. I don't have silk sheets, Erik had said as Charles ensconced himself on Erik's bed, curious fingers going for the stack of picture books on the nightstand.
Be careful with those, Erik said, a little sharp. Charles had given him his most scornful look, one he had carefully modeled on Erik's own. I know how to handle books, he had said, raising his chin high. I bet I can read better than you.
Erik's face had flushed, a deep awkward red all from his hairline to his neck, and a burst of embarrassment and anger hit Charles suddenly. Charles bit his lip, filled with the knowledge that he had said something terribly wrong, though he wasn't sure what it was.
Not everybody's lucky enough to have our own tutor, Erik said. He was still standing at the door, his arms crossed against his chest, and he was staring out toward the tiny window on the other side of the small room, refusing to look at Charles.
Charles carefully set the books down in the same place he had taken them from, and picked up the stuffed bear that lay across the pillow. It was old, the fur worn off in many places, one of the eyes replaced with a button. It had been Mrs. Lehnsherr's in Germany when she was a girl, Charles knew. It was the only toy in the room—of course Erik was too old, too mature for childish things, as he reminded Charles so often. Charles clutched the bear close to his chest, holding it like something fragile.
Well, you should, he had said, breaking the tense silence. You're the smartest person I know. It's not right.
It's how it is, Erik said.
Charles frowned. We'll do something about it, then. You could hide in the closet during my lessons. Or, or—or I could come find you after my lessons, and I will teach you everything I learned that day.
At that, Erik had looked back to him. A battle played across his face, pride and longing warring with each other. You would do that for me?
Of course, Charles had said. Anything.
It was clear that Erik had let the house already furnished; there was nothing in it that seemed to call to Charles as his taste or style, at least not in these front rooms. Somehow he had imagined that any place Erik inhabited would be immediately recognizable, struck through entirely with that spark of personality.
Any personality in the place, at least the downstairs, came from Erik himself. It filled the air around him, as compelling to Charles now, at twenty-seven, as it had been when they had been children and Erik, like a magnet, drew him everywhere. And now Charles followed him through the front drawing room, all the furniture in it untouched, the air dead save for Erik's presence. Charles had the sense that the rest of the house was empty, not even a servant.
"The maid is out," Erik said, as if he could read minds. He offered Charles a sidelong, baiting look that Charles declined accepting. Erik grunted impatiently and stalked through a door linking the front room to a smaller parlor.
This, at least, looked inhabited, with a fire drowsing in the hearth and books and newspapers stacked on the tables. Charles touched the corner of one, L'Aurore, its pages cracked and stained. He moved the volume of Balzac that served as its paperweight and saw the headline, J'accuse...! and the name beneath it.
"Dreyfus was pardoned, was he not?"
"He was never guilty." Erik moved the novel back to cover Zola's name, and the stiffness in his posture, on the edge of flight or attack, told Charles to move away, and reminded him what had once been childish curiosity was now a freedom he was not allowed. He withdrew into himself, the habit of taking up little space that he had learned from time he had been forced to spend in the company of his stepfather. Unaccountably, this seemed to anger Erik as well, though the sense of the anger was directionless, hovering, confused, darting in at Erik himself rather than at Charles.
"Please," Erik said, gesturing to the chair closest to the fire, "Sit." He proceeded to stoke the fire himself, ignoring Charles's protests that it wasn't necessary, and repeated his order for Charles to sit, already, reinforced with a glare and a jab of the poker.
By Erik's side, the ash shovel and broom trembled in their holder, and the frame of the holder itself trembled, shedding pale ash on the hearthstones. Charles's heart leaped to see that, to know that Erik's ability was still part of him, to see that what he remembered from their childhood was not the memory of a vivid dream, a dream of a happy life.
"You still," Erik tapped his forehead, his expression dry.
"Yes," Charles said before Erik could say anything else. He wished, not for the first time, he could communicate with Erik that way, if perhaps communicating mind-to-mind might bypass the thorns and tripwires of their long estrangement.
"In all this time, I have yet to find another person with differences like ours," Erik said. It was said in a more companionable tone than anything else he had said so far. "Perhaps I have never been close enough to gain such confidence from another. It seems unlikely, does it not, that it could only be you and I in the entire world?"
"It does," Charles agreed. "What are the chances that we would have met at all, let alone at such a tender age? The luck of it would strain credulity."
"Luck," Erik repeated, gazing at him. "An interesting choice of words."
Erik sat himself down in the chair opposite Charles's, falling into the seat with a kind of animal grace that drew the eye. That was one difference from the boy Charles had known: the awkwardness of Erik's teenage years was gone as completely as if it had never existed. In those days, Erik had held himself back, too aware of his position to ever let himself be comfortable, and yet too proud to accept it, either. Not so this Erik, at ease in this space he had made his own, as confident in himself as he was in the streets, or with M. Guyot.
"It is good to see you doing so well," Charles said. "I have wondered, over the years, what had become of you."
"Have you?" Erik said. He was still watching Charles closely; his eyes hadn't left Charles's face for a moment.
"Often," Charles said softly, and it was he that broke eye contact then, looking down at his hands, folded neatly in his lap.
You are a grown man, he scolded himself. You are no longer that hero-worshiping adolescent, you would do well to remember that.
"You know I went to Boston after I left your estate," Erik said. "After that I went to London, where I started my apprenticeship under Samuel Halpern." The name was vaguely familiar to Charles; he and Raven had been in London for several months before they had left for Paris last week, and he was fairly certain Raven had mentioned his work more than once. It had all blurred together, after a while. "I settled in Paris almost five years ago, now." Erik rattled the facts off quickly, passing over the years in a matter of words, as easily as if they had happened to an entirely different person. Charles could only imagine how much hard work, how many difficulties, Erik had experienced. To go from that young man, no money and no connections, to the status and success he had now... What an achievement.
"And what of you?" Erik asked, before Charles could offer an observation or congratulations, neither of which would have been well-received.
Next to Erik's list, Charles's own life telescoped into woeful mediocrity. No, he told himself. You've done much, and you have earned your degrees on your merits.
"I started at Oxford a few years after you left for Boston." It was easier to say that than to say after you left. "I left before I took my doctorate in physiology and comparative anatomy," that had been Raven, her needs superseding his, and Kurt's death forcing him to action in the business, "but I hope to go back."
Rather more than that had happened, but he doubted Erik cared to hear.
"Your mother died."
"Yes." Erik did not offer his condolences, but sank into an unbreakable silence. Charles found himself grateful for it; his own grief at his mother's death had been lacking, felt (if at all) through layers of happiness that he could, finally, strike out on his own. Erik had always been plain about his dislike of Charles's mother, and for him to extend sympathies for a death that could touch him only with relief was utterly beyond Erik's nature. Charles recalled clearly his mother's censure of Erik's presence, the tall, unnaturally silent, watchful boy whose silent gaze served to remind her of the unpleasant truths of her existence, propped up by the dependency of others. She had borne with his residence in the house because his mother had proven herself invaluable, and because Erik had been inexpensive, and because it had been charitable.
But the acknowledgment deserved an answer beyond what Charles had given, and the only answer to give was graceless, heartfelt. "I was very sorry to hear your mother had died," he said softly, forcing himself to look directly at Erik so that Erik might see the truth of his grief. "I wish I could have been at home, to be with her."
Boys! Boys, come now, in out of the rain, or you will catch worse than your death from me. Despite the stern words, Mrs. Lehnsherr's mind was soft and warm, welcoming as the towels she flung around them to rub away the cold rainwater. She had not forbidden their excursion to the apple orchard, despite the grey fall day and her mistress's orders concerning Charles's health and the preservation of the same from cold weather. The governess, either an ally to Mrs. Lehnsherr or simply not caring about her absentee employer's dictates, had permitted the trip.
With the fall wind rumbling behind them, Charles and Erik had stumbled laughing into the warm kitchen, heeding Mrs. Lehnsherr's orders to sit by the fire and take off their wet things.
That day had been much like this, blustery and promising misery. Charles felt the knowledge of the cooling air outside, the year turning slowly towards fall; it made the fire, roaring away in its grate, all the warmer, and it seemed to create a tenuous bubble in which he and Erik might exist together.
Erik's mouth tightened. "She kept her illness to herself, at the end. I would have come home to be with her, if I had known." Charles bit his lip at the choices of words. Home, Erik had said, a slip of the tongue he did not seem to notice as he went on. "I came back for the funeral, but I was too late to stop your mother from burying her in the churchyard," Erik finished. "Did she tell you how I yelled at her? Your stepfather threatened to call the police force on me if I didn't leave on my own, and again if I ever came back."
"No," Charles said. He could imagine it easily, Erik so young and bitter and friendless, without Charles and Mrs. Lehnsherr to shield him from the worst. Charles should have been with him, for his mother's funeral if nothing else, but Mother had not even bothered to inform him until months afterward. I don't make a habit of informing you of every change in our staff, Charles, she had told him frostily when he confronted her. "Mother never told me. But then, she told me very little, on the whole. Even less worth hearing."
Erik nodded in acknowledgment, sharing his sardonic amusement at the statement. He tapped his fingers absently upon the arm of his chair. Charles had the sense he was struggling with a decision. Odd, to see Erik even the least bit uncertain—but then, he had to remind himself again, he didn't truly know Erik, not this Erik. It was so tempting to fall into the trap of assuming otherwise. Even with this distance and awkwardness between them, it still felt right to be so near to him, as if Charles was breathing fully in the first time in so many years. No matter that this Erik was so sharp and brittle, like a shard of broken glass.
"In truth, I did not ask you here to trade reminiscences," Erik said, evidently having made up his mind on whatever dilemma plagued him.
Charles raised an eyebrow. "No?" he said. "I admit, find it hard to imagine what other use you might have for me."
"Do you?" Erik murmured. He pushed himself up and off his chair, crossing the distance between them with a single step. He folded himself over Charles, his hands on either side of the upholstery, neatly boxing Charles in. Charles stared up at him, startled and uncertain—had Erik brought him all this way simply to hit him? Surely he couldn't hate Charles so much, not after all this time, not without any reason Charles could see.
"You've changed." Erik's gaze cut beneath his skin, peeling Charles's layers back, dissecting him. This must be what Erik had done, painting that woman and boy, digging up what lay beneath them and bringing it to the surface. Charles forced himself not to look away, or press back into his chair, and met Erik's eyes as squarely as he could. Erik leaned in, and his breath brushed softly against Charles's face, stirring eddies under his skin. Charles swallowed, his entire being suddenly constricted, as if his soul had suddenly grown too big for his skin to contain, or wanted to hurl itself beyond the confines of his body and reach across the ever-vanishing space between them.
"You've changed," Erik said again, "But not that much."
"What do you mean?" Charles whispered, hating how his voice broke, cracking on the tension. Warmth had spread up from his belly, coloring his face, eddying dizzyingly in his head.
Erik hummed. "You have grown, but you're still you, aren't you? Still generous, kind, trusting. Above all the rest of us." One hand half-lifted, checked in the very same motion that would have carried it to rest against Charles's face or the thundering point of his pulse.
Every breath he took had Erik's scent thick in it. "I've never been those things. Not above you."
"You truly do not know," Erik said, as if marveling at something. Erik did touch him now, stroking his cheek. From any other person save Erik or Raven, it would have been an impermissible liberty, but this—the last time they had touched had been before Erik's departure for Boston, when Erik had permitted no more than a handshake, holding himself carefully aloof. Charles, fourteen and faced with the endless, lonely prospect of Erik's leaving, had been heartbroken, and quietly, viciously jealous as he watched Erik embrace his mother. But this, now; Charles recalled gentle, affectionate touches, so at odds with Erik's sharp edges, Erik touching him as if not quite believing this was permitted.
The majority of time it had been Charles doing the touching, Charles making his way into Erik's space, setting himself in there as if there was no doubt he was wanted, no doubt he would be accepted and welcomed. He had not even realized how presumptuous he was until he no longer had the opportunity.
But now it was Erik who was crossing that boundary, so confident and sure, so close that there was nothing but him filling all of Charles's senses.
"What don't I know?" Charles said. It was hard to form the words into anything sensible when he was so distracted, when every cell in his body felt like it was waiting for something to happen, anticipatory for something Charles could not even name.
Erik let out a breath that Charles wanted almost to classify as a sigh. His eyelashes fluttered against his cheeks as he blinked, long and black and silky, and Charles couldn't help but stare at them, wonder how soft they might be to his touch, when everything else of Erik was so hard.
Erik said, "I have waited fifteen years to do this," and then he was crossing the chasm that was those few inches between them, pressing his lips firmly against Charles's.
Oh, Charles thought wildly. He had never thought—he had never allowed himself to think—
Erik's hand still cupped Charles's cheek, holding him still as Erik kissed him, warm and careful. His tongue played gently against the crease of Charles's mouth until Charles let him in, and then the kiss changed into something deeper, and more desperate.
Charles surged up into the kiss, arching his back against the chair and bringing his hands up to Erik's shoulders to steady himself. His entire body felt hot and aching, and he could feel the rising of the goosebumps on his skin, the tightening of his belly, the awakening of his groin. He was a normal young man, as far as these things went, and he had felt desire many times—had performed the act of love before, too, in Oxford, with friendly barmaids or a prostitute (the latter only once, as he had found quickly that it was difficult to find pleasure when he could sense how unpleasant or boring it was for her)—but this felt different. It was more; it was stronger.
Erik was stronger, taking charge of Charles's mouth, licking in deeply and stealing Charles's breath from his lungs. As Charles leaned up, Erik pressed in, until Charles gave away and melted back with a sigh that won a broken, almost grieving, sound from Erik's throat. The weight of his shoulders and chest kept Charles pinned, leaning up awkwardly to match Erik mouth to mouth, and Charles in that moment would rather have died than try to pull away—as if there were anywhere to go—or ask Erik to stop.
Stop Erik did, for a long and breathless moment, staring down at Charles with the most shocked, vulnerable expression Charles had ever seen. He still supported himself, hands on either side of Charles's head, but now uncertainty was there, and if Erik still had his fingers dug into the damask fabric of the chair it was as much to anchor himself as to keep himself from collapsing atop of Charles. Charles stared up at him, feeling scarcely less overwhelmed, and saw the churning of surprise and hunger and then inevitably, suspicion, about Erik's head, the aura one of thunder rumbling ahead of a storm. He held himself quite motionless, unwilling to give Erik any pretense to withdraw, and after a long moment that stretched itself out painfully, Erik pushed himself upright and stepped back.
"Did you learn more than your Greek at college?" he asked, a razor's-edge smile to finish off the question. "Did you change that much?"
"You said fifteen years," Charles replied. Erik had his stubbornness; Charles had his own determination. "You waited. You waited that long."
That won him a sardonic inclination of Erik's head. "Are you shocked?" Without waiting for an answer, Erik stepped away, pacing across the room to the fireplace. Charles struggled for calm and remained sitting, and felt the distance between them acutely. This, at least, had changed either, how mercurial Erik was, calm and willing to be close one minute, a stalking, caged cat the next, ready to claw anyone who attempted to soothe or tame. He watched the tense line of Erik's back, silhouetted by the fire, a strange, nearly uncivilized shape under his jacket, and Erik himself out of place among the stylish furniture and gilding. The poker and shovel had begun to tremble again.
"I am shocked," Charles said, "because I never knew. You never told me."
"Really." Erik's shoulders shook. "I was the fifteen-year-old son of the cook and you were barely twelve, and the only son of the woman who controlled my family's future. Are you really that surprised? Are you that innocent, Charles, that you know nothing of how relations between men are spoken of, much less relations between different classes?"
"What was the rest of the world to us?" Charles shot back, anger rising in him now to mirror Erik's own. "I loved you! You were everything!"
Erik shook his head disbelievingly, and the harsh sound emitting from his mouth was not something Charles was willing to classify as a laugh.
"I know you think me naive," Charles continued. He barely recognized his own voice, as quiet and deadly as it now was. "Perhaps I am, but at least I'm not a coward."
The sally struck home, as precisely as Charles could have wished. Erik's jaw fell open in shock. "How dare you call me a coward?" he hissed. "You have no idea what I've lived through—"
"Because you left," Charles answered. "I don't know because you left. Because you were too scared to stay."
"It's not that simple," Erik said. His brow was drawn, his hands fisted against his side. He looked dangerous; like a madman in a story. "You have grown up with everything you ever wanted handed to you—you haven't the slightest clue what it's like to have to work for everything and to know it might be taken away in the barest instant. To be hated and scorned and wretched. You have no right to judge me, you spoiled, selfish prig."
Charles sucked in a deep breath, and rose from the chair. "You have no idea what I've lived through, either," Charles said, forcing himself to let the words out slow and calm. "But very well; prove me wrong, then." He raised his arms, palms up and open between them. "Fifteen years of waiting, you said. I doubt it was really for just a single kiss. Take what you want, if you're not too afraid."
I dare you to jump off the roof of the shed, Charles had said gleefully. It was on the far side of the estate, not visible from the main house, and it was the gardeners' and groundskeeper's day off; they had the entire thing to themselves, and the temptation was heavy,
Erik had rolled his eyes. Why would I do that? It's stupid.
Is not, Charles retorted. It will be fun. Look, I'll go first. He started to run off, but he was stopped by Erik's hand of his arm, holding him back.
You could hurt yourself.
I won't, Charles promised. Trust me.
They had jumped off together, holding hands, and no more dire consequences had resulted than skinned knees, grass stains, and a mild scolding when Mrs. Lehnsherr saw them next, and saw the state of their clothing.
What they might face if the world discovered this did not bear thinking of. Nothing bore thinking of, not with heat flashing through Erik's eyes and lighting him up like electricity, transfiguring him. In one, two, three, strides he crossed the room, his determination and desire rushing before him in a wave that swept Charles up and engulfed him and pulled him under. The third step brought Erik into Charles's arms—or Charles into his—and Erik's mouth down upon Charles's own, opening him up again without any of the politeness of that first time. It was more heat, impatience and lust, and refusal to allow Charles to take back what he had already offered.
Invisible fingers (and they were invisible; Erik had both hands in Charles's hair, tugging and tangling in the strands) pulled at the bits of metal about Charles's body, his watch and buttons, the ring on his right hand. Erik's ability seemed to hesitate over that for a moment, but a moment only, for he still kissed Charles deeply, wildly, incoherent words murmured when they had to part for breath. In those moments, Charles breathed him in, a faint cologne he had not noticed earlier but mostly the rich scent of paints and the organic salt of Erik's skin.
"Come," Erik whispered roughly, nipping Charles's ear.
He radiated challenge, and a half-formed expectation that Charles would take this opportunity to denounce him and leave; Charles, already on fire and impatient enough not to suffer Erik's suspicion, asked, "Is your bedroom upstairs?" It won him a tug on his hand, Erik's fingers weaving through his to tug, to pull Charles in and keep him close. Erik led him swiftly through the door and into the narrower back part of the hall, up stairs unlit and blurry in the shadows, but with portraits gazing inscrutably down at them. Erik took the stairs in twos or threes with those long legs of his, and at the top, turning the corner alongside the mahogany bannister. The turn spun Charles around and back into Erik's arms again, and before Erik could kiss him, Charles leaned up, drawing Erik down to him. The balustrade took their weight, Erik settling back to permit Charles between his thighs, and it was then, pressing in to take more, as much as he could get, of Erik's mouth, that Charles felt the hard bulge of Erik's cock, pushing at the constraints of fine, civilized wool.
"I won't be satisfied with these kisses, either." Erik bit at Charles's lips, and rocked against him, a pointed angling of hips to rub his cock against Charles's thigh. "Do you still want this?" Do you still, Erik meant, want me.
Charles was hard-pressed to think of anything he had ever wanted more. "Yes," Charles said, "My god, yes." He ran his hand down Erik's jacket to his waist. Charles's hands were not particularly large, but Erik's waist was small enough to envy anything Raven ever managed with her nemesis of a corset, and so when Charles spread his palm across the curve of Erik's flank, it felt as if he was covering a great deal. He pushed down firmly with the pads of his fingers, against the soft fabric down to the hard, lean flesh beneath, pressing into the sharp angular bone of his hip. Charles imagined how Erik's skin would look — the sight of his long, rangy body — and he sucked in a shallow breath in anticipation.
He took a step backwards, dragging Erik along with him, unwilling to let the connection of touch break for a moment. A moment would be all it would take, Charles suspected, for Erik to change his mind, and Charles was determined not to give him any such chance.
"Take me to your bed," Charles said, lacing their fingers together once again.
Erik's eyes searched his face for a moment, and Charles tilted his head up, allowing the examination to continue until Erik seemed well satisfied. Finally, Erik leaned in, stealing another kiss — just a quick peck this time, a promise of more to come — before he began to pull Charles down the darkened hall.
He let go of Charles's hand when they reached the second door, taking another key out of his pocket to unlock it before placing his hand between Charles's shoulder blades and pushing him inside. The room was even darker than the rest of the house, no lights and drawn curtains, and Charles could make out nothing but vague shapes. He could hear Erik moving around behind him, though, and after a moment a lamp came on, filling the room with a soft glow.
The room was messy. The bed was unmade, clothes lay discarded on the floor, and everywhere—everywhere—there was paper. Half-finished sketches and practice studies, or pages full of words that Charles could not make out at this distance and light, or discarded crumpled piles of whatever had failed to meet Erik's exacting standards.
Charles turned toward Erik, who still stood next to the lamp, watching him with a shielded, wary expression. A shiver of irritation went down Charles's spine — Erik still did not believe him, still seemed convinced that Charles was looking for some excuse to judge him or reject him. Part of Erik would probably be relieved by it, Charles suspected, satisfied to have his assumptions of Charles proved correct.
Charles caught Erik's gaze and kept it as he removed his jacket. He folded it over his arm and lay it down on the nearest dresser. Straightening his shoulders, he met Erik's eyes again as he began to unbutton his clothing.
The hunger on Erik's face was gratifying; it made up for any self-consciousness Charles might feel. Fifteen years, Erik had said. How blind must Charles have been back then?
He had always, until the moment of Erik's rejection, known they would spend the rest of their lives together, although it had not been until Oxford he had suspected all the dimensions of that coexistence. And even then, he had only imagined it, unwilling to accept the possibility of it ever being real, seeing in his wounded pride Erik's affection as the affection given to a younger brother, or to the only friend a solitary boy like Erik might have for himself. In those few moments when he had permitted himself to see Erik in his mind's eye instead of the girls at Lady Margaret, he had fumblingly constructed what an older Erik might look like when disrobed, and how he might touch Charles, and how he might feel under Charles's hands.
Now—the present surpassed all fantasy, Erik's hungry gaze as heavy as a touch, as hands pulling him apart and dismantling him. Erik, stepping forward, put his hands on Charles's naked sides, sliding up underneath his shirt, one long trail of heat spreading out where his hands had been. When Erik kissed him again, folding around him, Charles caught the edge of pleasure at how his body felt against Erik's, firm skin and muscle and perfect to gather close and keep him there, where he might be Erik's and Erik's alone. Held like this, trapped in Erik's arms, shirtless now—Erik had slid it off his shoulders, pristine whiteness perilously close to being trod underfoot—sent his heart galloping, desire riding his blood and making him dizzy with the speed of it.
"My bed, you said," Erik muttered. The embrace turned to a command, pulling Charles forward as Erik stepped back, four clumsy steps through each other's need and the papers and books on the floor, until Erik turned and lowered them so Charles was spread out against the disheveled sheets. Awkward, unused to being looked at like this, with such honest, unmasked desire, Charles shuffled backward, and Erik followed him, crawling atop him and bracketing him with arms and legs until Charles was spread across the mattress and Erik was spread atop him.
"Perfection" was all Erik said before bending to kiss Charles. Charles leaned up, eager for more of Erik's mouth on his, but with that old, wicked smile, Erik kissed his neck instead, and then his collar bone, and then his chest, one nipple and then another. It was either cling desperately to the sheets or to Erik's hair, and Charles chose the latter, holding himself steady against Erik's body and keeping his mouth precisely where Erik might tease and lick and call up the most delicious shudders out of Charles's body.
He dug his nails lightly across Erik's scalp, causing Erik to jerk slightly beneath his hands, losing his steady rhythm of suckling against Charles's skin. Erik raised his head, then, pushing back against the force of Charles's hands trying to keep him where he was, until he could look at Charles's face once more. All the places where Erik had kissed him, all the places Erik was no longer touching him, seemed suddenly too cold, contrasted with the enticing heat Erik gave out everywhere, and Charles shivered a little, biting his lip.
"I could do anything I want to you," Erik whispered, stroking the flat of his hand down Charles's chest and belly. "You would let me wreck you." His fingers stopped at the fly of Charles's pants, a warm pressure against the hardness beneath.
"Erik—" Charles said, noting, as if it was very far away from himself, how broken his voice sound. "I want you—"
Erik inhaled sharply, almost a hiss, and Charles could feel it, the spike in his arousal and how it bled into the air all around them, heady and intoxicating and irresistible. And then they were kissing once more—already Charles was growing familiar with Erik's mouth, its luscious variety, and he thought he could become a scholar on this as well, devote his life to studying the minute variations—
Erik's hands were moving even as they kissed, tugging and attacking Charles's trousers with a savage impatience. Charles shifted his hips beneath him in encouragement, and together they succeeded in the task of divesting Charles was the remainder of his clothing, leaving him bare and exposed utterly. It was then that Erik broke the kiss, rising up to sit back on his haunches, knees on either side of Charles's thighs, and gazed down.
Charles stared up at him. "Touch me," he said, unsure if it was a plea or a command. Erik looked no more certain, but he obliged, either way, sighing as his hand wrapped itself around Charles's straining erection.
"Look at that," Erik said;. His voice sounded almost casual, as if they were engaging in polite small talk, perhaps something on the weather. If Charles had not known him so well, he would never have been able to see the strain necessary for Erik to sound so uncaring. "Look, Charles, how perfectly your cock fits in my hand."
Awkwardly, Charles lifted his head, struggling to obey and focus down the length of his body. He did, finally, and Erik laughed at his soft cry, more bitten-off sob than anything, when Charles saw that yes, yes it was perfect, Erik's big hand with its graceful fingers wrapped around him, his cock set perfectly in the fleshy groove of Erik's palm. Erik's hand was damp, with sweat and the fluid his touch encouraged from the head of Charles's cock, spreading both up and down his shaft. The sight of it, Erik stroking him, holding him tight, coupled to Erik's skin wet and firm against him, pulled another moan from him, the sound stretched tight and painful with pleasure.
"Please," he gasped, arching his hips up to chase more of that delicious pressure.
The plea won him a laugh and another firm stroke, and Erik leaning on his elbow over him, his free hand running along Charles's arm. "Have you done this often?" Erik asked, the edges of his voice tattered and beyond Erik's control to smooth them out. "Have you touched yourself like this? Did you imagine me doing it?"
Yes, Charles thought. Although he had imagined it, he never dared wish for it, and now he had it it transcended even the most vivid, lush fantasies he had allowed himself. And all the times he had touched himself, it had never once been as clear and visceral as this, had never broken him and reduced him to indignity like this. Shivering, he thrust again and felt acutely the tight, callused glide of Erik's fingers, and when Erik stroked him in turn, the sharp, threatening edge of a nail across his cockhead.
He yelped, and half-expected Erik to laugh again, but when he got his eyes open—they had fallen shut, concentrating all that pleasure inside his body—he saw Erik staring down at him, wide pale eyes incredulous and still so hungry, the face of a starving man given anything he might desire, who could only look because he could not bring himself to believe the reality of the end of privation. Shakily, Charles touched Erik's sharp-curved cheek and guided him down to have that wonderful, broad chest and shoulders atop him, keeping him in place and holding him together, and Erik's mouth to take the last of the breath from his lungs.
There was nothing in his world except for Erik, his body, his flesh, his touch. The feel of Erik's hand was a study in contrasts, soft skin alternating with the rough calluses from years of pen and brush, sensation upon sensation for Charles to drown in. Erik's strokes were knowing, practiced, and Charles wondered how often he had done this before, how many other people had been in his bed. The swell of jealousy that rose up in his chest took him by surprise, for he had never thought of himself as a jealous man. But Erik was his—Erik had always been his—and the thought of him with another was unbearable. It should have been Charles, all these years. They had wasted so much time.
Erik was still dressed, and every time they moved together the fine fabric rubbed against Charles's bare skin. Any other time it might have been an irritant, but now he could barely bring himself to notice. Erik's cock was still hidden away, though, and Charles longed to see it, to touch Erik as he was now touching Charles.
Their foreheads were resting against each other as they panted into each other's mouths. "Let me do something for you," Erik said softly, nuzzling against Charles's chin and jaw. "Will you?"
"Anything," Charles said.
Still, he couldn't help but let out a soft noise of protest as Erik shifted away; Erik merely shushed him gently, though, and kept going, crawling down the bed until his head was even with Charles's groin. His cock was still in Erik's lovely grip, and Erik stared down at it a moment with the utmost concentration, causing it to twitch and jump under his careful regard. Erik looked back up at Charles and smiled, wide and utterly self-satisfied—Charles spared the slightest moment to remember that same rare grin in their childhood, Erik so self-conscious then about his animal-like teeth—and said, "I would wager no one has ever done this for you before. You'll have to tell me if I'm right."
He lowered his head then, swiping his tongue wet across the head of Charles's cock.
The prostitute he had been with had tried this, had knelt and undone his trousers before her boredom had quenched any ardor Charles might have felt. He had read the sly references to it in Greek and Latin, and heard the conversations of his fellows, but had never experienced it. How Erik might have known his inexperience, prior to the undignified noise Charles made when Erik's tongue touched his hot and aching skin was, like the rest of him, a mystery, and Erik's mouth sliding further down Charles's cock dispelled any possibility of solving it.
He heard nothing from Erik other than low, harsh breaths and a sigh that seemed to throb in Erik's chest, and then the soft, wet sounds of his tongue lapping and sliding; sucking, Erik's mouth drawing the pleasure out of him, tightening the knot of it low in Charles's stomach. He had his hands anchored in Erik's hair again, trying, trying so very hard not to shove or demand, and when Erik grunted knew he was not successful.
"Erik—" he began, intending to apologize.
"Don't." The word rasped, deliciously rough and lowering Erik's voice to darkness, to a texture that raised shivers across Charles's body. Erik gazed up Charles's body, grey eyes fixing his uncompromisingly. "I love this, Charles, knowing only I can do this to you." He nuzzled Charles's cock, which jolted a laugh from Charles and even won a slight, blissful smile from Erik, before Erik renewed his attentions. His eyes flickered shut again, and it seemed beautiful, beautiful and wrong, that Charles should see him this way, vulnerable and so given up to Charles's pleasure; shameless, perhaps, which pulled another moan out of him and had him burying his fingers in Erik's hair again, knowing what they did here would earn them opprobrium in the world beyond Erik's walls, and knowing Erik did not care in the least.
Distantly, he heard the great, swelling buzz of Erik's thoughts, a clamor of disbelief and satisfaction, of an aching need that Erik was content to leave unsatisfied if only for the delight of knowing he was taking Charles to pieces.
It seemed impossible that Erik could possibly want this as much as Charles, but there was no denying the evidence that he did. Their pleasure and desire seemed to Charles to be twining together in his mind, building up and pushing to some unimaginable high, almost unbearably sweet. He could feel his climax approaching rapidly. He curled his toes tightly and forced himself to yank on Erik's hair, not gentle at all, to signal him to stop. Erik pulled his mouth off, producing an astonishingly obscene wet noise and leaving Charles's cock slick with his saliva, glistening visibly.
Erik wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, licking his lips after. "Charles?" he asked hoarsely.
"I didn't want to spill in your mouth," Charles said, with what little breath he could draw together.
Erik merely frowned—disapproval, scolding, the same expression Charles had seen from his face a hundred, a thousand times, but suddenly new and strange and unexpected in this context—and said, "I thought this was about what I wanted. You said I could do as I like."
Charles shook a little. Fine, then, if Erik did not wish him to control himself, then Charles would let go. Charles closed his eyes, turning his head against the pillow, and lost himself in it, as Erik held his thighs with a hard, demanding grip. Erik's tongue licked across his testes, and he did not stop, even when Charles cried out; when Charles arched up violently from the bed, Erik merely pushed him back down and returned to his cock, swallowing it down deep into his throat.
It was only a matter of time, then, and it was not very long at all before Charles reached his peak, ejaculating into Erik's mouth for what seemed like an endless moment, feeling Erik taking in his seed, hearing that joy and satisfied pride that echoed from Erik's mind. Erik held him in his mouth even as he began to soften, and once again Charles had to pull him off.
"Come here," Charles said, tugging him back up the bed. "Come and kiss me."
Erik laughed, low and dark, and climbed back up, lowering himself once more to blanket Charles's body. Charles tilted his head for the kiss, licking his way into Erik's mouth to chase the strange bitter taste of himself. He ran his hands up and down Erik's broad back, encouraging the way Erik thrust helplessly against his thigh.
Charles turned his head, taking Erik's earlobe into his mouth and tugging it between his teeth. It caused Erik to groan, a rumble that went through his chest, where Charles could feel it against his own. "Tell me what to do," he murmured into Erik's ear. "I want to make you feel as good as I do. What else did you think of all this time?"
"Too many things," Erik whispered, turning his face to the sweaty curve of Charles's neck. His eyelashes brushed Charles's skin, the only delicate thing in this moment. "Everything. Touch me."
With inarticulate fingers, Charles tugged Erik's shirt from his trousers and then, with the aid of Erik's abilities, opened the buttons, pushing the waist over the narrow slope of Erik's hip. Hesitantly, he reached between Erik's legs, brushing sweat-damp skin that trembled under him, and then a thatch of rough hair, and then, teasingly—Charles was not so overcome he couldn't play or torment—Erik's cock.
"God," Erik choked out, thrusting up and into Charles's hand, his cock riding the hard pad of Charles's thigh. He got an arm around Charles and tugged him in close, the weight of him enough to trap Charles and hold him down. Charles took Erik as best he could and worked his hand around Erik's cock, a whispered, You are this way because of me when he felt how big Erik was, his erection thick and heavy in Charles's palm. Erik shuddered and thrust again, a mindless rocking and chasing after sensation. One thigh slid across Charles's, grappling him even closer, one of Erik's hands held Charles's down, the one not trapped between them, stroking Erik full-length now, from the base of his cock to the wet tip. Erik had begun kissing him, bites and breaths and licks that trailed down Charles's neck and up again, up to his jaw, and, when Charles turned his head, his mouth again.
The light and air around Erik had changed, charged with his desire and the need that had burned almost all of him away. He shoved urgently against Charles's hand and thigh, his pace uneven and whatever coordination he had fragmenting as he came to pieces. Charles encouraged him with soft words, hoping that Erik might see and know all the things Charles had had to leave unspoken, and told him how lovely he looked, how good he felt, how perfect his cock was in Charles's hand—under them endearments he thought distantly might be innocent or too sweet, nothing like the lovely filthiness that seemed to touch the words Erik had spoken to him earlier. Still, the words wrung more shivers and incoherence out of Erik, and Charles's name whispered over and over again in a pitch increasingly desperate.
"Can you—" Charles began, and did not finish; Erik reached his climax with a cry, spilling wet and hot between them, all over Charles's fingers and wrist and the bedclothes. In that moment Erik's was painful and vulnerable, his mind an echoing whiteness of ecstasy, and all Charles could do was hold him and whisper all he could let himself whisper into Erik's ear, and pet and stroke those swathes of trembling muscle.
There was no sound in the room but the heavy rasps of Erik's inhalations as he fought to catch his breath. After a minute, he raised himself up on his elbow and rolled gently to Charles's side. Immediately Charles missed the heaviness of his body, pressing him down into the mattress. He turned onto his side as well, so he and Erik lay facing one another. Their hands were still clasped together, like a wire conducting electricity between their bodies. Charles did not want to ever let go. Erik's grip was almost painfully tight.
Erik's eyes were closed; in repose the hint of tenderness in his face was less hidden. His thoughts were quiet, for once, though Charles doubted that would last for any amount of time.
Charles's gaze drifted down the length of Erik's body, feasting on each scrap of skin that lay available, and finally resting on his cock, which he had still not seen in all they had just done. Even now, as it began to relax into its flaccid state, it was impressively—thrillingly—large. Circumcised, of course. There had been a time when Erik's body was familiar and unremarkable to him, as they had seen each other naked often enough as children, bathing or swimming in the pond on the property. The first time had been not long after they had met; Charles had been so young then that he was ignorant enough of religion and custom that Erik had had to explain to him why they looked different, and what it meant that he was a Jew.
Looking at Erik's cock now, Charles felt a stirring in his belly rising anew—although it would be some time, he knew, before anything else would be able to rise.
Although... perhaps not that long, he amended, as Erik twisted a little, rearranging himself more comfortably, and causing his clothes to shift as well, exposing more of his sharp hipbones and well-muscled buttocks.
Erik let out a soft sound, almost like a sigh. His breaths were quiet and even, his mind still tranquil, and Charles realized with some surprise that Erik had fallen into a light sleep.
Another surprise quickly followed: a spirited rumbling from Charles's stomach. Although the lamp still burned, with the curtains drawn and his pocket watched abandoned on the floor with the rest of his clothing, Charles had no method of ascertaining how much time had passed. It could well be midday already. It was unlikely that Erik had food worth eating in the house, but Charles seemed to remember they had passed by a small cafe on the last corner they had turned. Charles could go and fetch them both some pastries or baguettes, and come back to join Erik in a feast of a picnic in bed, daring and unconventional. The only other item they would require would be a bottle of wine, and that Charles felt sure Erik could provide.
He watched Erik's sleeping face for a moment, reluctant to wake him, but acutely aware what Erik might do if he woke to find Charles gone. If Charles left without a word, even for the half-hour it would take to dress and fetch a meal, Erik's pride—his damnable, beautiful pride—would not permit Charles back, and perhaps Erik would decide that he had taken all he could, that to take more would be dangerous. That, Charles reflected, would strike at the heart of what Erik was: too proud to admit need, too determined to accept his vulnerabilities.
That he might be such, a chink in Erik's armor, struck Charles to the core. He shivered with the knowledge, wishing Erik might not see love for him as a weakness that might, one day, drag him down.
Do you swear to be a faithful comrade, companion, and brother to me Charles had asked. Focusing on the words and the significance of the moment meant not thinking of the sharp edge of Erik's pocket knife settling against his skin. He trusted Erik, of course, with everything a seven-year-old boy could think to trust to another, but the silvery sharpness of that blade and the split-second foolishness of jumping off a shed offered different kinds of pain, the former worse for being thought about, for knowing it was coming.
Of course, Erik had said gruffly.
"Erik?" Charles asked softly. He rubbed a finger across the ridge of Erik's knuckles, just as softly. "Erik?"
"Hm?" Erik stirred, and his eyes, so sleep-soft and open, sent affection surging through Charles.
"Should I fetch us anything?"
"Do you want to leave?" Erik asked, the softness fading and suspicion creeping back in.
"I want to leave to get food," Charles said, unwilling to be graceful or yielding, not after he had come so far, not after finding Erik again. "I didn't have breakfast this morning, or at least, not much of it."
Erik's hand slid out of his. Charles chased after it, imprisoning it again. "No, I don't want to leave," he said, once he was sure of having Erik trapped. "But I am hungry."
Erik snorted, even as a bit of the tension of his muscles was subdued once more. "We can't have that," Erik said, his mouth curving up ever so slightly at the edges.
It gave Charles the strong urge to kiss him, right there at that lovely corner of his lips—and there was no reason not to, not anymore, and so he gave into the desire, leaning in to kiss Erik once more. There was no desperation in it, with the hot thirst of their lust so newly slaked: only affection, clean and bright, dancing before them like dust motes in the sunlight.
Part of Erik still hung back—Charles had not yet managed to strike down all of his walls upon walls, convince him that his suspicions and fear were needless—but he would, he vowed. He would.
"I shall go then, and fetch some food," Charles said, after the kiss came to an end. He stroked his fingers across the nape of Erik's neck, pleased at the instinctive way Erik turned into the caress. "I expect you to still be in this bed when I return, or I shall be very cross."
"Do I strike you as a man of leisure, Charles?" Erik stretched, and Charles was once again distracted by the interplay of his muscles, both those exposed and those only half-visible through his clothing. "I assure you I do work, whatever useless trappings of gentility you may think I have picked up."
"I have no doubt you work very hard indeed," Charles said truthfully. He suspected, indeed, that Erik worked harder than anyone else Charles had ever met. "All the more reason to take this occasion to rest."
"Very well," Erik grumbled, though there was no real heat in his tone.
Charles kissed him once more for good measure, and then he rose from the bed himself. He was still sticky and soiled with Erik's ejaculation, as well as some of his own, and he looked around in vain for something with which to clean himself off before reluctantly wiping himself down with the edge of the bedsheets.
His clothes were still in a rumpled pile on the floor,. As he dressed he was quite aware of how disheveled he must look. The last time he had appeared in public in such a state, he reflected, he had been an undergrad at Oxford, facing the early morning after a night of rather too-much alcohol, surrounded by a pack of chums in the same position.
When he turned back to the bed, Erik was still lying on his side, his eyes fixed on Charles, and Charles flushed a little with the knowledge that Erik had been watching him dress again, as closely and approvingly as he had removed his clothes. He smiled at Erik nonetheless, and Erik returned the smile, albeit with an edge of fond mockery.
"Your hair looks ridiculous," Erik informed him. Charles's hands went immediately to his head, in an attempt to feel and perhaps smooth it down, but Erik continued, "No, don't. I like it like this."
Charles took a breath, settling himself with the knowledge that if he gave in every time he wished to kiss Erik again, he would never manage to leave the room. Food, he reminded himself. "I will be back shortly," he told Erik.
"I believe you," Erik responded, and if the air around him was filled with a surprise at meaning that, still, Charles thought, it was progress.
"Wait." Charles paused with his hand on the door. Erik had sat up, apparently bent on ignoring Charles's order to stay where he was, and Charles braced to tell Erik to just give over for once. But Erik had shifted to pick the key ring off the table at the bedside and then—then, Charles saw with delight, lofted it up and floated it over to Charles for him to take.
"Lock the door when you go out and come back," Erik said severely.
"I will." The key felt as any other key would feel, faintly warm from Erik's hand, perhaps an echo it the metal of Erik's power. Charles held it tight, and a flicker of satisfaction passed over Erik's face, as if he could feel whatever the metal might feel.
Charles tore himself away from the temptation to stay and discover more. With a last look over his shoulder, at Erik stretched across his bed, watching Charles with hawkish eyes, he managed to get out into the hall, closing the door safe behind him. After that, and a reminder that the sooner he finished his errands, the sooner he could return, sent him hurrying down the stairs and out onto the street.
A glance at his watch had told him the midday hour had passed, although not by much. The morning had cleared into a tentative afternoon, with thin clouds at the edges of the sky, drifting over the roofs of the houses. Puddles stood in the valleys of the cobblestones , and horses still splashed through the rainwater, and so did pedestrians, dodging the horses and each other. Charles turned into the chaos, making for the cafe.
Sustenance procured, he returned home, and while fumbling the key from his pocket and wishing for Erik's abilities, he heard an impatient exhalation on the step behind him.
A young woman faced him, staring directly at him without a trace of propriety or maidenly shyness. Like many others venturing out on such an uncertain day, she carried an umbrella; unlike them, she seemed fully prepared to use it as a weapon, should she be called upon to do so. Her brown eyes fixed on him uncompromisingly, and with a great deal of suspicion that was not wholly unlike Erik.
"Puis-je vous aider?" he asked.
"Peut-être," she replied, not the least bit softened. "Mais—qui êtes-vous? Que faites-vous ici? Où est Monsieur Lehnsherr?"
He started at her accent, as awkward as his own school-taught one next to the silk of genuine Parisian French, and that despite the rapid pace of her questions, which did not slow for lack of fluency. Her clothes were not properly Parisian either, simply cut and untroubled by awkward drapery or whalebone.
"He is inside," Charles said, in English now, and had the satisfaction of seeing his interlocutor also start. "May I ask your business? Are you a patron?"
She laughed. "Hardly. But I should ask what you are doing here and who you are, for I have never seen your face in this neighborhood."
"I am an acquaintance of Mr. Lehnsherr's," Charles said. "Charles Xavier, at your service, madam."
"Moira MacTaggert." The lady offered her hand, an impropriety that would have shocked Charles's mother and delighted Raven. He accepted her hand, and the strength that her thin kid gloves could not hide. "And," Miss MacTaggert continued, indicating Charles's satchel with her umbrella, "you are such a close acquaintance that you are bringing him luncheon?"
He hoped that the flush her innocent question brought to his face was not noticeable—or, if it was, that she would put it down merely to the brisk air and breeze that surrounded them. "We were childhood friends," Charles said. "We met today quite by chance, and have been celebrating the reunion."
"How extraordinary," Miss MacTaggert said, raising an eyebrow. "It seems so unlikely to think of M. Lehnsherr as ever having been a child. One quite imagines him as somehow springing fully formed, like Athena from Zeus's brow, as stony and bullheaded as he is now."
Charles smiled. "Or from the cabbage patch, perhaps, simply appearing under the leaves one day, already grown?"
"Precisely," Miss MacTaggert agreed. "Something along those lines. I refuse to believe he suffered through the indignities of childhood as we average folk did."
"I assure you," Charles said, "Erik—pardon, M. Lehnsherr," a silly mistake, and one that caused Miss MacTaggert to look at him thoughtfully, "was a child just as you and I were, and grew up in much the usual way."
"I suppose I will have to trust your word," Miss MacTaggert allowed. "Well, I will not disturb your party, but might I ask you to give a message for M. Lehnsherr for me?" At Charles's nod, she continued, "Let him know that I am available to meet on Thursday morning, say at ten o'clock? I will expect him then, in the absence of any note otherwise."
Charles's curiosity was piqued as to what purpose such a meeting would be arranged, but no matter how much he might crave details of every aspect of Erik's life, he had no right to inquire further. "I will be certain to tell him," he informed her.
"Thank you," Miss MacTaggert said simply. "It was very nice to make your acquaintance, Mr. Xavier. Farewell." She nodded her head to him, and he bowed slightly in acknowledgment. He stood at the door as she walked away, head high and back perfectly straight. He wondered if their paths would cross again while he was in Paris; he rather hoped they would. There was something about her that he felt would make her company quite rewarding.
Once Miss MacTaggert had crossed the street, disappearing behind a pair of men arguing in loud, rapid French, Charles turned back to the house, unlocking the door and slipping inside. He locked it up once more, and as it clicked into place, he could feel the freedom wash over him in an overwhelming cascade. The rest of the world, and all it thought, and expected, and decreed, was out there; he and Erik were in here, separated from any of it, their own society of two.
He found Erik upstairs in bed, as promised, but with two bottles of wine and a pair of glasses on the stand, the chaos of papers slightly—slightly—cleared away. Erik had stripped off his shirt, and the socks and shoes he had not bothered with earlier, and now sat up in bed, back against the wall, in a worn shirt that bore the stains of paints and charcoals. A book rested against his thighs, although Erik was not reading it; rather, he used it as a desk, sketching quickly across the paper he'd placed atop it. Charles set his purchases atop Erik's bare feet and set to undressing himself down to undershirt and trousers like Erik, clothes folded and set on the bureau near the foot of the bed.
"I'm not one to stay abed, unless I have reason," Erik murmured, having caught Charles's bemused look, gazing up at him with eyes already gone hot, a slow heat like molten glass. He slipped the paper into the book and set both aside, tucked out of the way behind the wine and glasses. "You would not have found the wine cellar without wasting time better spent. And I wanted to make myself comfortable."
"I suppose I can forgive that," Charles said, and charitably ignored Erik's derisive snort. He set out their lunch, a banquet of bread and cheese, apples and grapes from a fruiterer next to the cafe, and had the pleasure of watching Erik's face quicken with interest, his lithe body angling forward in anticipation, then twisting hypnotically as Erik remembered and turned to pour the wine.
"You had a caller just as I came up." Erik gave him a sidelong look and then, after pouring a second glass, his wine. "A Miss MacTaggert? She seemed familiar to you."
"She did, did she?" Erik snorted. He sipped his wine.
"And expected your attendance on her." Charles began to assemble his own meal, warm bread and crumbling cheese, as he recounted the conversation. "I believe she expected you to meet her Thursday, come hell or high water, note or otherwise."
"She would." Erik had curled himself up, long limbs folded gracefully around themselves. His hair had fallen out of its rigid neatness, and Charles found himself, already, aching to disarrange it further. "Her company is company you might find interesting," Charles smiled; that came close to his own thought, "if you would not be scandalized by being in the presence of a known socialist, suffragette, and agitator."
"Is there anything she is not?" Charles asked, and Erik laughed. The expression caught Charles by the heart, open and unabashed and happy, its joy utterly unfiltered and so much like the boy Charles had once known. Erik shook his head, the smile fading to something softer, amused rather than delighted. "A teetotaler, perhaps," Erik said, after a toast and a sip of his wine.
"Raven would love to meet her." More accurately, Charles thought, Raven would be drawn to her as an angry moth to a flame.
"Raven," Erik repeated, his face growing shuttered and far away; a chill entered the air between them, and Charles, concerned, set his bread down and reached out to take Erik's hand in his. Erik allowed the intimacy, stroking his fingers over the gold of Charles's ring. "Is that your wife's name, then?"
It was so far from what Charles expected him to say that he could not help but laugh. "Raven, my wife? No, no, of course not. Raven is my ward—my sister, really, in all but blood. My stepfather had been her guardian, and I took over her care when he died. She is the reason I am in Paris at all, in fact." He was aware he was speaking too much, and too quickly, but he could not help it. She and Erik were the two people most dear to him in the world, and as reluctant as he had been to speak to Raven about Erik last night, he was that eager and more for Erik to know of her. "Of course Kurt neglected her education dreadfully, and I'm afraid she's rather wild, but she's very intelligent, and I thought a trip across Europe would be effective in giving her an opportunity to learn. She has a passion for the arts—she's quite talented, as far as I can tell—I know you two would get along famously..."
He drew to a close, frowning down at Erik's hand clasped in his own. The implications of what Erik said had been slow to dawn on him, distracted and enthused as he was to describe Raven to him, but they had caught up with him now, and his face was hot as the shocking anger filled him. "You—" Charles said, choking a little on the words. "You thought I was married?"
Erik blinked at him; Charles thought he could see the guilt behind Erik's eyes, though Erik attempted to conceal it. "Of course I did," Erik said, his tone too light and ironic. "What else would I have thought? I was certain your mother would have had a lovely debutante picked out for you before you were halfway through your degree."
"She picked out many. I did not marry any of them, because I did not love them," Charles said coldly. He took his wine in his free hand, and swallowed some down before setting the glass back down with rather too much force. "I don't know which insults me more—that you seem to believe, despite all the evidence you have seen to the contrary, that I would be a passive slave to my mother's wishes, or that you could think I could lie with you as I did when I had given my promise to another."
"What a charmingly old-fashioned morality," Erik murmured, sipping at his own wine. "It's positively middle-class."
Along with her wedding ring, Mrs. Lehnsherr had worn a locket around her neck, almost never removed. Often it was concealed beneath her dress, only the fragile chain visible, but at times when she cooked, it would fall out, dangling over the table or counter as she chopped vegetables or rolled out a pie dough. When Charles saw his mother, she always wore jewelry as well, but never the same thing; it was matched instead to her outfit and the occasion. Mrs. Lehnsherr's was always the same.
When Charles had asked about it, Mrs. Lehnsherr's hand had immediately gone up to touch the locket at her breast, and a sad, gentle smile had passed across her face. She reached behind her neck and unclasped it, holding it in the palm of her hand for Charles to see. He leaned over, resting his head against her warm, soft shoulder, and she opened the locket. On one side there was a tiny portrait of a serious-looking man with a mustache; on the other, a lock of dark brown hair. This is Erik's father, Mrs. Lehnsherr explained.
You must miss him very much, Charles said, staring down at the face, try to pick out something of Erik in his features.
Every day, Mrs. Lehnsherr replied. He was the love of my life.
The love of my life.
That idea had grafted itself in Charles's mind as he stared at the portrait, squinting to catch the similarities between Erik and the man in the locket. The portrait had not been well-done, although Mrs. Lehnsherr cherished it far beyond any care Mrs. Xavier might have shown for her rubies and diamonds, but Charles could see some likeness in the cheekbones, in the somber, pale eyes. Mr. Lehnsherr must have passed before Mrs. Lehnsherr and Erik came to Westchester; he felt sure he would have remembered another person breaking into the solitude of the estate. At the time, Charles had been eight, and Erik eleven, and to an eight-year-old four years seemed nearly an eternity. He passed not long after Erik was born, Mrs. Lehnsherr had said. She'd touched the portrait once more before closing the locket, the tiny catch snapping shut. The air around her ached with love and grief.
The boy Charles had been, and the one he had grown into, and the young man he'd become, still thought love must mean permanence, steadfastness, a refusal to shift or change or diminish no matter the time or distance. And so, when he had first thought I love Erik, even when the thought had been nebulous, with no real idea of love beyond a child's affection for a friend, he had thought as well I will love Erik forever.
"Then," he said softly, "perhaps I should be more insulted that you'd think I could marry anyone—that I would follow in my parents' conjugal footsteps—while I loved someone not my spouse."
Erik went still. "You know as well as I do those marriages are business contracts," he said, frowning down at his wine and the bread and cheese untouched on his plate. "Nothing would prevent you from sleeping in my bed once you'd gotten an heir, or felt reasonably sure of it."
"Nothing except my own convictions," Charles said. He fought against the desire to use his own weapons, to cut at Erik the way Erik seemed determined to cut at him. He remembered Erik when they had first met, wild and wary, willing to claw at Charles if it meant safety, the reassurance even a harmless little boy posed no danger. He has not changed, in many respects, he thought, but found the explanation unsatisfying.
"Do you," he said quietly, "think so ill of me? Do you believe what I truly am is what my mother wished me to be? If you do believe this, tell me so, and as much as it would hurt me, I will leave."
Erik hesitated, biting at his lip. Each moment that passed without an answer caused Charles's heart to ache all the more, but he forced himself to be patient. He must not push. Eventually, Erik looked up to meet Charles's gaze.
"I do not know what I think of you," Erik said, a stark honesty coating his every careful word. "All this time we have been apart, it has been easier for me to think the worst of you, to think you must have grown to be the type of man who represents all I hate in the world. But all I have seen of you today... it is more difficult to accept that now." He paused again. "I do not want you to leave, Charles."
Charles let out a deep breath. "All right, then," he said, blinking rapidly against the tears that threatened to form. "All right."
Erik reached out, a shy hand stroking a stray lock of hair off Charles's brow. "You seem so like the boy I remember."
Charles shook his head. "I am not the same boy you knew," he said. "I've grown up, Erik, and I've lived half a lifetime without you. I've gained wisdom and experience and had my own pain. But in the core of myself—in the things that make me me—in that, I think, I am unchanged."
"I am glad to hear it," Erik said softly.
It was a truce, if not a permanent peace. They were both silent for some minutes, devoting themselves to their food and drink. The most comfortable way to sit, Charles found, was beside Erik, back to the wall so that their shoulders and thighs pressed alongside each other, a constant awareness in the back of Charles's mind. They ate silently together for several minutes before they began their conversation once more.
"What were you working on, as I came in?" Charles said. He pressed himself closer against Erik's side, and Erik dutifully wrapped his arm around Charles's shoulder, pulling him in and tucking Charles's head under his chin. It was the same pose they had frequently adopted as boys, sharing a book between them, whether it be Charles's Latin primer, or a history book sneaked out of the library, or one of the dime novels Erik would bring back on occasion after accompanied his mother into town to do the shopping. It was years later before Charles realized these latter were almost certainly stolen, carefully pocketed by Erik in absence of any money to speak of.
"Merely an idea. A small painting for the gallery." Erik ate quickly, if gracefully, while Charles picked thoughtfully at his plate. "Guyot becomes anxious if I don't send him new canvases when he needs them."
"He must need them often," Charles said, remembering the men and women clustered around Erik's paintings and the enthusiastic discussion of Erik's talents yesterday. Only yesterday, he marveled; not even a full day ago he had not suspected he and Erik were only a river apart, separated by a few twisting streets.
Erik snorted. "I expect the vogue will pass, and I'll be a starving artist again soon enough."
The body under his was hard-muscled but slender, the muscle a skim over Erik's rangy bones. When Charles's parents had been absent—which was more often than not—Charles and Erik had eaten together, food meant for growing boys and not food meant to keep an invalid hanging on to life, as Mrs. Lehnsherr had said, ignoring her mistress' commandments regarding Charles's diet and following her own inclination. She had inclined to delicious dishes and generous portions, urging them on both Charles and Erik with the expectation they would capitulate. Erik had remained stubbornly skinny no matter his mother's efforts.
But in those years afterward, when Erik had set out on his own, he would not have accepted money from his mother, or money from anyone. He would have had to survive only on what he had been fed as an apprentice, and then what he could afford on the meager salaries he earned while working his way to fame. What, Charles thought, recalling those dime novels, he might have had to steal. He kept the protectiveness and anxiety that inspired to himself, knowing Erik would not take kindly to any expression of concern, and would instead read into it dimensions of patronage and condescension. He settled for pressing himself a little more firmly along Erik's side, and saying, "You'll never be that. You're too good."
"The one doesn't always guarantee the other," Erik said drily. "Only those born successful are so confident cream will always rise."
Charles shook his head, but chose not to argue the point further. Instead he slipped his hand beneath Erik's shirt, palming his ribs. Erik hummed at the sensation, and Charles went further, tapping his fingertips one at a time between the bones. Like piano keys, he thought, he could play a sonata on Erik's body.
Erik took another sip of his wine, but rather than place the glass back by his side afterward, he lowered it to Charles's mouth. Charles opened his lips obediently, letting Erik trickle it onto his tongue. As he swallowed, Erik's pleasure at the act washed over him, delicate, molten gold.
Erik moved the glass away again, but he brought his hand back, and so Charles opened for that, too, licking the callused pad of Erik's index finger just as Erik had done to Charles's cock not so long before.
"Oh, Charles," Erik said, and Charles closed his eyes against the tenderness of it, moving to take the fingertip fully into his mouth. Erik's breath went ragged in response, but when he spoke again there was uncertainty in his voice. "I would keep you here forever, believe me, but will your sister not be expecting you home again?"
Reluctantly, Charles let Erik's finger slip from his mouth. He rested his forehead against Erik's shoulder, nuzzling blindly as he considered. Erik was right, of course. Raven would be returned from her visit to the Lady Katherine by now, and in addition to her irritation at Charles forcing her to go it alone, she would be dying of curiosity to know of his discoveries on his mission today.
He was unwilling to leave Erik without knowing when and where he would see him again, however. The sooner, the better. "Come dine with us tonight," Charles said, pressing a dry kiss to Erik's shoulder. "The food is nothing on your mother's, of course, but it is delicious nonetheless. And you and Raven can discuss art while I stare at the walls and pretend to be interested. Say that you'll come."
"Isn't it your responsibility to guard her reputation?" Erik said. "I am no appropriate dining companion for a well brought-up young lady."
"Raven would contest that fiercely." Charles winced, remembering the first days of their relationship, when any attempts to enforce propriety had been met with rebellion, first open and then covert. "She looks on me as some terrible hybrid of a protective older brother and a despot, and I... I try not to be." He looked away, unable to bear the thought of, already, showing Erik he was far more like the other men of his station. "I want to see her have the freedom I enjoyed as a young man, and all the opportunities for learning about anything she pleases. But it is not easy. I fear... I fear."
Erik had gone very quiet. Charles sensed a flood of unspoken thoughts waiting behind Erik's shut mouth, a turbulence that pulled Erik down into silence. He must be struggling with an order to Charles to let Raven be, the affection for Charles that wanted to soften any harsh comment and the stubbornness in Erik's nature that refused softness even to those he loved. That had not changed either, and Charles wondered if the boy he had known had simply grown taller; the boy he had known had also fought against Charles attempting to talk him out of anything Erik had wished to do, or attempting to reason him into better behavior.
If I tried, I'm sure I could, Erik had said in response to one of Charles's pleas for forbearance regarding Kurt, a rare and much-despised visitor and suitor to Charles's mother. He hates you, Charles; I don't need your gifts to see that. I hear plenty on my own. Erik's face had twisted in contempt. He hates me, too. I heard him asking your mother why you permit us to associate, why she even has a Jewish cook with a burden of a son to feed and care for on top of her salary.
A few days later, all of Kurt's pocket watches had broken, and the expensive bronze buttons on his waistcoat had popped off, and the silver head of his cane had tarnished. When Charles, attempting indignation and failing but still striving for severity, had confronted Erik with his hypothesis regarding these events, Erik had shrugged unrepentantly. I can't hurt my mother, and I don't want to leave you. But I won't let him speak of me, or my mother, that way, and if you had the nerve, you would tell him to stop.
If I told him to, he would tell my mother to fire yours, and she might actually do it And then he would do much worse to me, Charles had thought, but did not say. He had never spoken to Erik of the particulars of his relationship with Kurt, and had taken pains almost greater than those Kurt dealt out to keep that knowledge from him altogether.
"Please come," he said, before Erik could speak. "She would be so very happy to meet you, and I... well," he touched the back of Erik's hand, still lying loosely atop Erik's thigh, "If I am to become acquainted with Miss MacTaggert, it would be hypocritical, would it not, to keep you and her to myself?"
Erik turned his hand so that the palm was facing up, and he tangled his fingers with Charles once again. "Very well. I will come."
"Excellent," Charles said, as a smile spread wide across his face.