The November air has a bite to it that seems to have snuck up on Erik. He wasn't expecting it when he left his apartment and has to stop on the sidewalk, momentarily stunned by the way the breeze nips in under his jacket. He blinks and turns to Charles, who is standing patiently with his hands in his pockets and a scarf the same blue as his eyes wound around his neck.
"Ready?" Charles asks, and Erik nods. He pulls a knit cap out of his pocket and down over his ears and then holds out a hand for Charles, who takes it eagerly--he's wearing fingerless gloves and something about that makes Erik smile--as they walk towards the train station.
It's the first time in a long time that Erik's ridden the Metro-North without a deadline. Normally, he fills the thirty-five minute ride by impatiently looking at his watch and cursing himself for not leaving sooner, muttering about how he should have driven and damn the exorbitant parking fees. As far as Erik knows, though, they have no specific plans for this afternoon and if Charles is relaxed enough to curl up against him and watch the scenery whip by, Erik can be relaxed enough to ignore his watch and, instead, watch Charles.
Erik isn't tactile by nature; he's always preferred feeling the earth by twisting its magnetic fields than by running his fingers over things. With people, too, he sees no need to touch where he's, perhaps, not wanted, especially as it seems to give others carte blanche to touch him as well, which is something he generally tries to avoid. Charles, though, burst his way through all of Erik's barriers within hours of their first meeting. Charles was a stranger, really, but Erik let him hold his hand for hours in the emergency room and, more than that, Erik let Charles see that he deeply wanted a hand to hold.
If he'd been in his right mind and not delirious from pain and painkillers alike, Erik would have known then that there was something different about Charles, something that encouraged that level of deep trust. He'd have already had an inkling of the feelings that were to come in the days that followed. He wasn't in his right mind, though, stoned and hurt and confused, so his first memory of the strange ache in his chest that manifests when he thinks of Charles is the next morning. Getting out of bed, touching his bandaged nose, seeing the handwritten note tucked into the edge of his phone case.
I'm so terribly sorry about last night. Please, please meet me for coffee at the bookshop this afternoon. I know coffee won't make up for a broken nose, but it can be a start, can't it? - Charles Xavier
He'd remembered then, blurrily, the eyes and the smile and the wrinkle that had marred Charles' forehead as he squeezed Erik's hand and did his best to ignore the tears pooling in Erik's eyes when the doctor re-set his nose. The pain was a distant part of the picture, second to the desire to run his thumb over that wrinkle and do what he could to make sure it never came back.
He'd found Charles' number already in his phone and texted, I'll be there at noon.
Erik's nearing thirty and hasn't spent his life celibate by any means, but he hasn't had many Relationships, either. If he's being charitable, he'll mark two of his past dalliances with the capital 'R,' but he knows, likely, most people would only consider one of them. Back then, it was always a game. He knew he should call her after dates, on boring afternoons, before bed, but he had to set alarms in his calendar to remember to do it. He was always on edge to make sure he reacted correctly to her hand slipped into his, to another body curling up against him on the sofa, to her head on his shoulder at the movies. A constant fear that he was going to do something wrong left him tense and exhausted at the end of dates.
With Charles, it's something entirely different. With Charles, he finds he wants to pick up the phone and text him about innocuous things. When Charles moves to take his hand, Erik is often halfway through the motion of reaching for Charles' hand. When Charles is curled up next to him, as he is now, Erik melts into him, hand tucked around his waist, nose buried in his hair, without even thinking about it. He wants to touch Charles, wants to run his hands over every part of him, and not even in a sexual way. He wants to touch Charles just to know him, to feel him, because he's there and strangely beautiful and soft and warm. Erik wants to touch Charles because the idea of touching pleases him, and that's a new feeling, but not a bad one. The opposite of bad, in fact.
Erik is so lost in his tumbling thoughts and the smell of Charles' hair that they're flying past 125th Street before he even realizes it.
"Almost there," Charles says, looking up at him.
"I hardly noticed," Erik admits, pulling Charles a bit closer. There's a suffusion of joy and contentment in the air at that, and Erik would be hard pressed to identify who the emotion came from.
When Charles had called him that morning at a time that no human being should be awake on a Saturday, he'd simply said, "I want to go into the city today. I'd like it if you joined me." Erik said yes without asking for any further plan, and as they push open the door to Grand Central against the chilled breeze, he discovers that Charles doesn't actually have one.
"I like wandering around sometimes," he admits. His cheeks are red, but Erik can't tell if it's a blush or a reaction to the cold. "To bookstores and parks, mostly. There's something about the city--it's a destination in and of itself."
It's hardly the strangest date Charles has taken him on and being anywhere with Charles is better than being alone in his apartment, so Erik can't actually complain.
"Lead the way," he says.
They take the subway down to Union Square. Charles' intention is to go to a particular bookstore, but they get distracted by the Farmer's Market and easily lose half an hour wandering in and out of the stalls. Erik buys them hot apple cider and a bag full of cranberry orange cookies that they share as they weave through the crowd, shoulders bumping together. Erik wouldn't mind stocking up on some produce, but it's early yet and he doesn't relish the idea of dragging a bag of fruit and vegetables all over Manhattan for the rest of the day. He does buy a hat, though, from a sharp looking older woman selling a range of knitted products. It's the same color as Charles' scarf, almost exactly, and Charles' ears had been like ice cubes just moments ago when Erik had pressed close to ask him a question over the din.
"Erik," Charles chides when Erik has him hold the cider and cookies and then pulls the hat over his head. He's smiling, though, and obviously pleased, and Erik congratulates himself for once again encouraging that smile.
They manage to break away from the tempting stalls, then, and the streets are quieter as Charles leads them down the sidewalks towards the bookstore tucked back on 18th Street. The inside is dimmer, in the best possible way, the result of the soft lighting that all bookstores should have. It's filled with colorful displays of children's books, familiar illustrations decorating the walls.
Of course it is. As if Charles would have an interest in any other kind of bookstore.
Erik wanders the room, eyes falling on volumes he vaguely remembers from school, as Charles chats with the girl at the counter and pages through the various recommendations she hands him. When Erik circles back around to him, both he and the sales girl are looking a little teary.
"It's very realistic," Charles agrees. "And there's so little out there that so plainly explains--"
"Oh, I know," the girl says. "It's my favorite. I mean, I love the whole series, but I've been there with my girlfriend and it's so hard, sometimes, to know there's nothing you can do but ride it out."
Charles wipes at his eyes and Erik realizes they're talking about a picture book, one with two little pigs on the cover that Charles has clutched against his chest. He thinks he should want to laugh or roll his eyes, but instead he finds himself laying a hand at the curve of Charles' hip and squeezing very gently.
"Do you want to go?" Charles asks, looking up at him.
"Take your time," he says, but this time, when Charles and the shopgirl go off, he finds himself trailing behind them, listening less to the words and more to tone of voice, the excitement and enthusiasm, watching the way Charles' eyes light up.
It's an hour, all told, that they spend in the shop, and Erik doesn't complain, even for a moment. He finds he doesn't want to. There's nothing pressing on their agenda and he's not bored, not while he's watching Charles and his nearly comical enthusiasm for a new title from a favorite author that he proceeds to read aloud to Erik, making appropriate voices for each character.
When they finally do leave, they walk approximately half a block before Charles presses him up against the brick exterior of a darkened shop and kisses him. It's not a kiss of intent--there's a warmth behind it, but it's not arousal. It's gratitude, maybe, or affection, something soft that leeches into Erik as Charles' mouth moves against his gently, for endless minutes. The ungloved tips of Charles' fingers stroke the sides of Erik's face and throat, and when he pulls back, his eyes are sharp and bright.
"I love you," Charles says for the first time, and this time the red of his cheeks is a blush. Erik can feel the heat from where he stands, still not a foot of space between them. Erik has known, of course, for weeks now. Charles projects when he's happy, not intentionally and not full thoughts, but feelings, feelings that Erik can recognize easily enough as love because they're the same feelings that rumble through his mind, foreign and new, but warm, every time he looks at Charles.
Erik's not sure how to respond, though, how to vocalize all of the things he's feeling, how to explain that the last people he loved without reservation were stolen from him when he was really too young to deal with it. He doesn't think that Charles wants to hear how he reminds Erik of his mother, sometimes, with his capacity for kindness and the warmth in his eyes and the way Erik finds he wants to be a better person when they're together.
He settles for leaning close and whispering, "I know," and kissing Charles again, putting as much of that as he can into the movements of his lips, the curve of his hand around Charles' shoulder.
Charles is smiling when Erik pulls away and his eyes are soft. He embraces Erik and they stand there on the sidewalk, unmoving, for a long time.
They walk back to Union Square and then down Broadway, veering off once they cross into NYU territory and crossing through the park.
"Don't laugh," Charles warns, turning and walking backwards across the crosswalk, holding a finger up in admonition.
"I would never," Erik lies easily, and Charles rolls his eyes, but he turns around the proper way again and tucks his arm through Erik's as they continue their walk. They pass some student bars and tattoo parlors and end up standing in front of a cafe that seems to mainly serve variations on peanut butter sandwiches. It's so Charles that Erik can't help but shake his head, though he dutifully swallows the snort of laughter and earns a mental wave of approval for his restraint.
It's an interesting choice but not a bad one, as far as lunches go. They take their food to-go, despite the bracing temperature, and double back to the park. There are a few old men and a pair of college students by the chess boards, but the cool weather seems to have discouraged most of the tourists and casual fans away from an activity that involves sitting still. Charles eagerly sets up the pieces, though, undeterred by the wind, and before long they're entrenched in a game.
The first time Charles and Erik played chess, the game became a kind of foreplay. The movement of the pieces didn't matter as much as the looks over the board, the fleeting touches, the curl of fingers around chessmen. While subsequent games haven't had the same sexual overtones, Erik has discovered that the actual gameplay is still the least important part of their matches. They use chess as something to do with their hands while they talk and tell stories, and while Erik has always enjoyed the game, he enjoys it even more when he's less focused on what he's going to do next and more focused on who he's playing with.
Today, they're not saying much, but the silence is comfortable. The sandwiches are really surprisingly good and much more elaborate than the lunchbox fare he had pictured when he stepped inside the cafe. They pass chips and carrot sticks back and forth as they play. Charles' eyes follow a group of children in the midst of an elaborate game and a smile lights up across his face when he sees one of them take off and fly over the others to snatch a ball out of the air. Her landing is sloppy and Erik can actually feel the urge Charles has to get up and give her some pointers on technique. He doesn't know if that's a side-effect of having Charles' mind lapping gently against his own or if he's just gotten to know Charles that well over the past two months. Charles wants to help young mutants, perhaps more than anything else, whole-heartedly and enthusiastically, in a way that makes his whole face light up with wonder.
"Why aren't you a teacher?" Erik finds himself asking, and Charles turns back, frowning.
"What do you mean?" he asks. "I am a teacher."
"I mean, why don't you teach school age children?" Erik asks. "I know you're good with the little ones--" In theory. Erik's only been by Charles' daycare center once and he hadn't actually seen Charles interacting with children yet. "--but you're so interested in helping children harness their powers. Wouldn't you be better off in a grade school?"
Charles scrunches his nose up a little at that, then smiles apologetically. "I suppose I've spent so much energy being on my best behavior around you that I haven't subjected you to my mutant education lecture yet," Charles says.
"You've talked about mutant education before," Erik says, but Charles shakes his head.
"There's a difference between talking about education and going into what Moira call Education Activism Mode." He gives Erik a self-deprecating smile. "I've been told is scares people off, men I'd like to sleep with in particular."
"Well," Erik says, raising his eyebrows, "I've already seen the mess you call a flat and I've not been scared off yet, so I think you should give it a whirl. I see it as a challenge."
Charles laughs. "Don't say I didn't warn you," he says, and then, "The current mutant education system is a joke. It was started in the sixties, at the start of the mutant rights movement, but we're evolving faster than it is. In the sixties, most mutants manifested at puberty, with only physical mutations present at birth, by and large. However, as a larger percent of the population is being born with advanced mutations, the manifest age is dropping. In 1962, 89% of mutants manifested between the ages of eleven and fifteen. The last conclusive study was done in 2005 and it found that 61% of mutations are now manifesting between the ages of three and nine. Our children are evolving, but our education plan is not. In the eighties they introduced the early stages of the E.A.C. program--then called the Special Abilities Classes, changed to Enhanced Abilities Classes in the early nineties--at a grade school level, but we haven't updated it at all. It made sense, when powers manifested at puberty, to have classes in middle school devoted to helping mutant children explore their powers, but the classes were always better in theory than practice. Teachers were under-trained and children of all abilities and occasionally all age groups were lumped together under one curriculum and one assessment scale. It was bad enough then, but now that children are manifesting before they even start grade school, it's even worse."
Erik has abandoned the game all together. He's leaning back, watching Charles talk and gesture, admiring both the way his cheeks are flushed with passion and the easy way he can articulate the history of mutant education. Erik's not a snob, not really, but he does sometimes forget that although Charles seems to be nothing more than a glorified babysitter, he's overwhelmingly, breathtakingly smart.
"How so?" Erik asks as Charles takes a breath, though he thinks Charles needs little encouragement to finish his explanation.
"When did you manifest?" Charles asks Erik. Oddly, it's probably one of the most personal questions he's ever asked in the whole two months of their relationship. Charles is quiet about his past, and Erik thinks, for that reason, he's careful about what he asks of Erik.
"I was twelve," Erik says, remembering the feeling of airplane armrests crushed between his fingers as he left his homeland behind.
"You were old for our generation," Charles remarks, but almost objectively, like he's merely making a curious observation. "I manifested much earlier, if not at birth, so early that I don't remember a time I didn't hear people's thoughts. By the time I started school, I'd been dealing with my powers for years. I knew much more than my overworked E.A.C. instructor. The classes were a joke and taking time from actual academics. What I needed was someone encouraging me as I grew into my powers, teaching me not only how to cope and how to use my abilities, but that they're a part of me. The same goes for all children--E.A.C. classes can be terrifying to children who haven't been around other mutants before and they enforce the feeling of being different than other children. If a child's power presents in infancy, they need to develop it the same way they develop motor skills and language skills. They shouldn't be forced to figure it out themselves, biding time until they start school to seek instruction."
He smiles at Erik, head cocked to the side. "Daycare is more than naptime and finger paints, you know," he says. "I do want to help young mutants. And, right now, until we update our education model, mutant-targeted early childhood education is the best way to do that."
Erik is at a loss. He doesn't know how to follow that up, how to express the feeling in his chest at those words, at that tone.
"You're...extraordinary," he says.
Charles looks away, blushing.
"I'm sorry," he says, picking up a knight and turning it in his fingers. "I tend to go on."
"Don't apologize," Erik insists. "You're really...you're something else, Charles."
"You say that now," Charles says, looking up almost shyly, "but you'll get sick of hearing me talk about it eventually."
Erik can see it, all at once, with perfect clarity. Weeks, months, years of being with Charles, of rolling his eyes as Charles goes off on something he reads in the paper, ranting about education as they shop for groceries, explaining his theories to new friends. He understands exactly what Charles means, because he can see himself playfully rolling his eyes and saying, with affection, Yes, dear, we know as long familiar rants fall from Charles' lips and it's like a punch in the gut, how much he wants it.
"With any luck," Erik says, swallowing carefully against the sudden dryness in his throat, "I will."
The implications of it seem to hit Charles like a bucket of cold water. His eyes widen almost comically and he licks his lips before saying, "I certainly hope so."
They play the rest of the chess game in the same near-silence as before, smiling at each other like loons.
Erik has no idea who wins.
In addition to the location of every bookstore in lower Manhattan, Charles also seems to know every place worth hitting for coffee and dessert, even if it means going to two different shops.
"The coffee here is wonderful," he says as they exit a tiny, hole-in-the-wall shop, "but if we're going to be on the lower east side, we must get a cupcake."
"Cupcakes," Erik says flatly.
"Have I steered you wrong yet this afternoon, Erik?" Charles asks. Erik has to concede that he has a point. Not all of Charles' favorite bookshops cater only to children, and he has his own hefty bag of purchases, including an embarrassing amount of horror films that were on post-Halloween sale.
"You haven't," Erik allows, and Charles beams at him and takes off down the sidewalk towards Houston. The sun is beginning to dip low in the sky, a sea of brilliant oranges and reds that reflect in the windows of the buildings around them. They pass, by Erik's count, at least three bakeries before they end up at the one Charles has in mind, a tiny place with a large glass case dedicated to cupcakes and some other cakes on display off to the side. There are half a dozen tables inside, most occupied by chatting twenty-somethings, but Charles manages to lay claim to the one in the corner.
"Sit," he orders, and Erik does so, unloading his packages and trusting Charles to pick something decent for both of them. He returns with four cupcakes on a plate and a plastic knife.
"The red velvet here aren't actually very good," he says in a low voice, cutting each cupcake in half. "Which is really too bad--I'm normally a fan of red velvet. But everything else far outstripes most of the other cupcakeries in the area."
"I can't believe there's a word for cupcake-dedicated bakeries and I can't believe you know it," Erik says, shaking his head.
"Shush," Charles says, lifting half a cupcake to Erik's mouth, "and eat."
Erik does as he's told, letting his lips brush Charles' fingers accidentally-on-purpose. Charles gives him a wry, indulgent smile, but then Erik is no longer paying attention because that is possibly the best cake he's ever put in his mouth.
"Told you," Charles sing-songs cheerfully.
They make short work of the plate of cupcakes and Erik seriously considers getting a dozen more to take home, but he fears that if he does, he'll sit down with the box and eat all twelve for breakfast in the morning. Instead, he fishes a few dollars out of his pocket to stuff in the tip jar, which makes Charles nod approvingly and Erik feel absurdly proud.
"That was really all I was planning," Charles says as they slowly begin to gather their belongings. "The Charles Xavier tour of Manhattan, as it were, though we should really have also taken tea uptown and gone to a museum for the full effect."
Erik holds open the door for Charles and bites his lip thoughtfully. It's not quite late, though the sun is just setting, and it's not like they have anywhere to be in the morning. They're a block away from the F Train. It feels like kismet.
"Come on," he says, taking a deep breath of crisp November air. "I want to show you something."
Erik only lived in New York City for two years as a child and he was too angry and sullen to explore Manhattan, preferring to rattle around the streets of Brooklyn, finding quiet hiding places. He can pick his way to the F train, though, and lead Charles down the steps and onto the platform. They're quiet on the trip across the river and into Brooklyn, their thighs pressed together, their laps overloaded with bags as they zip underground and underwater, lurching to a stop at York Street. Here, the scenery is more familiar, and despite the changes and developments, the walk from the subway to the park is still like second nature.
Charles looks around, eyes wide and curious, but doesn't say anything. The streets aren't quite deserted, but while summer would frequently find families and couples and tourists exploring the area around the bridges, a November night means that once they reach the park Erik is looking for, they have the expanse of rocky shore line to themselves.
Of all of Erik's hiding places, this was, perhaps, his favorite. The park is situated between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, several levels of steps and benches scattered through the grass. There's a playground, a newer addition, and a railings facing out across the river. Erik's favorite part, however, is past the reeds, right up against the river, where you can perch on the rocks and see the lights of Manhattan stretching out between the bridges on either side of you. As a child, in a foreign country where the customs and language and landscape were all a mystery, being between that much metal--sturdy, reliable, understandable--was soothing. He can feel it singing to him still as he leads Charles carefully down to the cold rocks near the water. The wind is sharp this close to the river, but with their bags stowed safely near the top of the incline, they can sit wrapped in each other's arms to share body heat and stave off the chill.
"Erik," Charles says quietly, eyes fixed on the Manhattan skyline, "this is...beautiful."
"I know," Erik says. "When I was--" Today, Charles opened up parts of himself to Erik, his passion and his love and his favorite parts of a city he clearly holds dear. It won't hurt for Erik to do the same.
"You know I grew up in Germany," Erik starts again, and Charles nods. His head is tucked in the crook of Erik's neck, his arms tight around Erik's chest. "Well, we moved to Brooklyn when I was twelve. My father's company was opening an office here. It was good for him--a promotion, a commendation. I hated it. I barely knew the language and I didn't make friends easily. It was entirely foreign to me. I was the only mutant in my class and between that and my accent and my intelligence, I was an easy target. I would come here to forget all of that. It was--" He blushes and murmurs, "Don't laugh."
"I would never," Charles assures him.
"It was like metal was my only friend," Erik says. The words feel silly on his tongue, but he can viscerally remember the truth to them, the way he'd carry coins and paperclips and bits of iron in his pockets wherever he went because it was soothing to mold it in his hands, hold it, warm and attentive to his powers, in his fist. "And I could sit here, between these huge bridges, and feel like there was at least something in this stupid country that understood me, that I understood." He closes his eyes and rests his forehead against the crown of Charles' head, burying his face in his hair. "It was like home," he says. "I...wanted you to see it." He pauses and then adds, "I love you too, you know," because he can't think of a good reason not to.
Charles' breath hitches. They sit there in silence, huddled against the wind, their breath mingling between them, moist and warm. Erik knows they should really go--it's getting outright cold and they still need to get all the way back to Grand Central to catch the train home--but he doesn't want the moment to end.
"I grew up in England," Charles says, so softly it's almost lost on the wind. "My mother is British and met my father--he was American--when he was working at Oxford. I think they were happy--my mother seems to think they were--but then I came along and things changed. My mother wanted to love me, but...I don't know. My father, though. My father loved having a son. He loved having a child and playing and teaching and explaining his work. He'd make up stories and read through research at the table while I colored pictures. He loved my abilities and invented all sorts of games to help me hone them. I was...utterly devastated when he died."
Charles takes a long breath and lets it out slowly. It's the most he's ever talked about his past, where he came from. Erik knows his childhood wasn't very happy, knows he was brilliant and suspects he was neglected at the very least, if not abused. He knows Charles comes from money, but worked for everything he has now, despite his hefty trust fund. He's wondered for a few weeks now if Charles is as well-adjusted as he appears to be.
He doesn't want to scare Charles off of this. If Charles doesn't want to talk about his past, Erik isn't going to push him, but that doesn't mean he's not insanely curious. He wants to know every part of Charles, every nuance, every cell. He's eager for it, even, and he's clinging to these bits tightly while keeping his actual grip on Charles warm and relaxed to encourage the rest of the story.
He kisses Charles' ear, squeezes him reassuringly, and nuzzles his temple.
"I'm sorry," he says quietly.
"Thank you," Charles says. "It's silly, I know. It was years ago. But I wonder if things--it was probably the closest I've ever been to my mother, our shared grief, I mean. And after that, she just began to drift. She didn't know how to raise a child and left most of the actual raising to the staff. We moved back to my father's estate in Westchester and I was expected to behave like the rest of the society children and I didn't. And she didn't know how to deal with me. And I was stuck with these memories of how clearly my father did, how nurturing he was, how much he appreciated and encouraged my powers and I knew I wanted to make sure that other children felt that appreciated as well. I wanted them to be accepted for who they were and what they could do, to be praised for it. So I skipped out on a substantial family tradition of attending Harvard, found the education program with the best mutant education professors I could, and...here I am."
There's so much Erik can say to that--he can empathize about losing a parent, he can share stories about his own issues fitting in with the children around him. He can tell Charles about the way his mother always praised his own ability, delighted in it the way Charles' father seemed to. He can tell Charles to fuck anyone who doesn't realize how amazing and magnificent he is, how brilliant and beautiful and accomplished. To hell with all of them, his mother included. He can tell Charles he loves him three, ten, two dozen more times, because now that he's said it once, he wants to be sure that Charles knows, that he understands that Erik doesn't give those words lightly, but that he'd give them to Charles constantly if that's what he wanted.
None of it feels right on Erik's tongue, though. It's all hollow and awkward and dull, and instead he says, softly, right against Charles' ear, "Here is a good place to be."
"I think so too," Charles replies.
Erik's fingers and toes are numb and the cold is seeping from the stone through his jeans, but his heart is more at peace than it's been in a long time and Charles is warm and alive in his arms, so there's no need to move, really. Not just yet.