Erik was standing on the threshold: improbably, incredibly returned. The sight of him stifled the words building in Charles’ throat, gave pause to the CIA Agent at his desk. Charles smiled. For all of his smug posturing the night before, he had been unsure that Erik would stay, had managed to convince himself over the course of the night that you can’t reign in a killer. He had attempted to quash all ridiculous notions of, dare he say it— animal magnetism— that he had felt as soon as they made contact in the churning waters of the Atlantic, the electric tingle that ran through his body the moment skin met skin.
“Erik!” he started, but quickly checked his excitement and with a steadily eager tone, continued. “You decided to stay.”
Erik nodded curtly, and turned to address the CIA Agent. “If a new species is being discovered, it should be by its own kind. Charles and I find the mutants. No suits.”
‘Charles and I. Us,’ Charles allowed himself to hear. Something warm and heavy was unfurling in his throat and in his chest, but he forced himself to ignore it, being far too rational to believe in silly things like love at first sight and the possibility that Erik’s motivations were based in attraction and not a self-serving desire to avenge his mother. Besides, men like Erik weren’t gay. But when the Agent protested, Charles found himself slipping, saying in a voice lined with something like hope,
“I’m sorry, but I’m with Erik.” And an infinitesimal part of him, beyond his own control and beyond reason, hummed contentedly with the belief that he soon would be.
There was, in the study of the Westchester mansion, a high, arching window, framed in oak. In the early hours of the morning, long before the students roused themselves and began their days, Charles ate his breakfast there ritualistically: one cup of Earl Grey tea, a warm bagel, and a small plate of fruit. And when the sun broke wildly across the treetops shortly after dawn, its sharply defined rays would stream through the expansive panes of the window, catching the motes of dust that drifted in the thick air and making them glint like fragments of glass. It was the crescendo of the sacrament that breakfast had become to Charles, and the quiet beauty of it never failed to leave him somewhat awestruck. He treasured this silent hour and trusted for many years that it could not be improved.
When Erik entered his life, Charles was pleased to find that he, too, was an early riser. One morning, before he fully registered what he was doing, Chares invited him to join him for breakfast in the study. Erik accepted. As Charles dragged a second chair to the window, prepared twice as much food as normal, and poured two cups of tea, the beginnings of regret began to brew quietly in the back of his mind. He worried that he had tainted his routine with the addition of a second person, that to add conversation would be to pollute the sacred silence.
But when he sat down across from Erik at the small table, no words were spoken. Erik noiselessly accepted his food, crossed one leg over the other, and leaned back into his chair. And without discussion or convolution, they both turned their eyes to the window and watched reverently as the sky pinked in anticipation of morning. Daybreak surfaced over the tree-lined horizon, stretching its wide arms and bathing the landscape in gold; the dusty air lit up in response, glowing with warmth and life like an answer to the sun’s brilliance.
Charles smiled at Erik. And Erik smiled back.
Charles saw candles. A woman’s face, pale and sunken, came into view in their flickering orange light. The scarf wrapped around her head was bright red: worn, but clean. A delicately spicy scent hung in the air as a young boy slowly began a foreign prayer, heavy syllables rolling in his throat and across his practiced tongue. But almost as soon as he began, the world sunk away, dissolved into springtime and an obstinate satellite dish looming on the horizon.
“What did you just do to me?” Erik had reached out a hand to steady himself on the low wall. His eyes were a tumultuous mixture of panic and relaxation, glassy with unreleased tears.
“I accessed the brightest corner of your memory system.” Charles paused, unsatisfied with his clinical answer. He allowed himself to move a little closer, venture further into their connection. His voice was softer when he said, “it was a very beautiful memory, Erik. Thank you.”
The happiness Erik radiated was polluted with a sharp twist of pain and longing. “I didn’t know I still had that.” He swallowed heavily, swiping at his eyes with the back of his hand.
“There's so much more to you than you know. Not just pain and anger. There's good to you, I felt it.” He was leaning dangerously close. He forced himself to pull back, to drain his own feelings from the situation. ‘This is about Erik,’ he told himself. ‘This is about learning to harness his powers.’ He steadied himself on the wall, too. “And when you can access all that, you'll posses a power no one can match. Not even me. So, come on. Try again?” ‘This is not about love.’
Erik turned and met the wide face of the satellite dish with a face tear-streaked and determined, his hands reaching out and twisting in the warm morning air. Swimming in the memory of a childhood lost, a memory that Charles had salvaged from the ruins of his happiness, Erik performed a miracle on the great green expanse of the Westchester lawn. And as soon as he did, he turned, faced Charles, and laughed. Charles laughed with him. Things were going to be better now. Things were going to be okay.
As they laughed, their heads turned together, faces lingering mere inches apart. From that distance, Charles could detect subtleties in Erik’s face that he had never seen before: a myriad of shallow creases in his skin, a small scar indented in his cheek, flecks of green in those piercingly blue eyes. He wondered if Erik was looking at him in the same way, and searched for the affirmation of something shared in the magnificent lightness of his expression.
Something was changed. It was there in the way Erik looked at Charles, the feelings rolling off of him in waves, the set of his mouth, the pace of his breathing: everything was more urgent but somehow more painless. Charles dared himself to lean a little closer, to exalt in their mingled breath and chance at contact; his hand was reaching out, he was so close, just a touch on the shoulder, a bridge to finalize their connection, just—
Moira called from the window. The president was about to give a speech.
The tenuous connection between them died. They pulled away from each other and turned to look at the window out of which Moira was leaning. As Charles started toward the door, he clapped a hand on Erik’s shoulder, just to prove to himself that he could. The charge in the atmosphere surrounding them was gone, but it was enough for Charles to know that, for a brief moment, it had been there.
Charles was reading in his study when he caught a whisper of something deep blue and foreign floating through his mind. A dream.
‘Erik’s,’ he realized with a smile. When Erik dreamed, it was seldom calm, manifesting often in sharp black screeches and the smell of ash. This was different. This was soft and warm; it felt as though a blanket had been wrapped around Charles’ mind, a sense of dappled candlelight and steady pulsations of something intangibly comforting filling the air around him. He caught in the atmosphere a familiar scent, the same one he had known when Erik granted him access to his brightest memories. The scent of a mother, an old wooden floor, bread. If he concentrated, probed intentionally into Erik’s unconsciousness, he could detect visions, flashing quick as a spark across his eyelids. He saw that same red head wrap, the same patina on the same menorah. Erik’s mother was praying. Erik’s voice followed, and though Charles could not speak the language, he felt he understood the words.
On the breath of Erik’s mother the scene melted away, reconstructed its pieces into a tapestry in dark and heavy green. The scent of a home was replaced with one much more familiar to Charles: the heady incense smell of his own study. A chess board materialized and faded away. He saw himself, standing behind a lamp. He watched his own hand turn the light on through a haze of smoke.
Erik’s mind rolled on a pulse of longing. Charles felt the ache echoing in his own chest, pulling their sensations together across the atmosphere, and winding, in Charles’ mind, a cord around them, cementing a bond he had previously tried to deny. He stood from his chair, wobbling a bit on unsure knees, and moved across the room in steps like a waltz. He allowed the dream to dissipate around him, adjusting to the sudden emptiness of his mind in the dearth of Erik’s presence.
What he had felt in those final moments of the dream were familiar to him. The feeling was love. And Erik had felt it thinking about him.
Sometimes you just know.
“Charles.” Erik nodded politely as he slid into the chair across the chessboard. “Good evening.”
“The same to you, my friend. Did you enjoy your run?” Charles raised his glass of brandy to his mouth and took a sip, glancing outside at the snow-blanketed ground. “It seems a bit too cold for jogging to me.”
“I enjoyed it immensely,” Erik assured, leaning forward in his seat. “You might say it was invigorating.” He smirked, and Charles laughed somewhat breathlessly.
“I shall have to take your word for it, as I have no intention of subjecting myself to that kind of cold. I rather like all of my extremities: I don’t particularly want to lose them to frostbite.”
“That’s why you run. It keeps the blood moving.” Erik slid his first pawn forward two spaces. “Besides, I’ve found that if I exercise directly before a match with you, I tend to do much better. I do enjoy winning.”
“Oh, Erik, you did all that running for me? I’m flattered.” Charles grinned, and moved his own pawn in response, planning three moves ahead into the game as he did it. “Although I’m afraid it won’t help you much. I may just be in rare form tonight.”
“I think I’ll try my luck.”
They played in companionable silence for a while. In the spaces between moves, Charles would listen to Erik’s breath, watch the way his fingers skated over the rim of his glass. The distraction provided by Erik’s unrelenting attractiveness was making Charles lose terribly, though he hoped his face didn’t betray the frustration this caused him. Erik smirked at him.
“So much for your ‘rare form’. What do I get when I win?” he chided, taking out Charles’ second rook.
“I hadn’t realized we played for stakes now. And I may just be deceiving you. What if I’ve been lulling you into a false sense of security this whole time?” He smiled, executing an ill-planned defense. Erik laughed, and the sound was throaty and deep.
“I think you may just be a sore loser.” He leaned closer, and Charles could just barely catch the musk of his cologne in the air. “So what’s my prize?” he breathed. The breath in Charles throat hitched.
Sometimes you just know.
“Perhaps…” blood was rising to his face, hastened by the furious beat of his anxious heart. “a kiss?”
The world stopped. Charles blanched, longing desperately to reclaim his words from the atmosphere, to undo his forwardness. If Erik wanted to dance around their courtship, that was what should be done. He knew that they both felt the same way. Erik wanted him, too. He had to.
Erik pulled back slowly, a deep line drawing itself between his brows as they knitted together, and the air rushed from Charles’ lungs as though a vacuum had opened in his chest. He was moving away. He wasn’t saying anything. Charles tried to force words from his throat, assurances that he had been joking, but they would not come. Erik rose from his seat.
“I need to go,” he said. Charles watched the door close behind him, listening mutely as Erik’s footsteps faded down the long hallway. On the board, his shattered line of defense looked helplessly into the force of Erik’s challenge. And as the snow blanketed the grounds in cold silence, Charles reached out a shaking finger and toppled his own king. The game was over.