The sea was already choppy— churning perilously dark, with swells of bone white foam snapping at the shore— and the first hint of snow had just begun to sting the skin of his cheeks with small, icy flakes. This weather had been looming for days, an ominous, quiet tension in the air, and now it was set to make good on the promise that had been making Erik's knuckles ache.
The first real blizzard of the winter; likely the first of many.
Erik pulled the collar of his coat higher, burying his chin a bit deeper in the old, soft wool of his scarf, and was about to check his dock one last time before the storm began in earnest. It was far too late to reenforce anything that hadn't been properly secured already, and he knew this, but that had never stopped him from going through the motions before.
The body tangled in his moorings, motionless and nearly blue from cold... well, that was enough to sway him from checking the berth.
It was mid-November, and neither the ferry nor a single boat he knew had dared cross the strait since the ice had begun to pack weeks ago. The island was all but empty; scarcely a dozen people stayed year-round, few enough that even Erik knew each of them at least by sight.
His first thought was McCoy, that stupid little shit, but Erik hadn't even made it halfway down the dock before he realised the body was not that of their resident scholar and persistent pest. Longer hair, slighter build— the latter, Erik was rather pleased about. Hauling the stiff, very probably dead man up onto the dock was made significantly easier by how slight the body was. The useless, knotted tangle of ropes parted with a few sharp tugs of Erik's knife, but the wind was already picking up, sending frigid spray splattering over the wooden planks.
The body, the man, was still breathing. Barely. He was wearing the tattered remains of what might have been clothing in some distant past, but now was hardly rags, dark and frozen against his deadly pale skin. Long, elegantly shaped bare hands were already splotchy white, fingers almost waxy to the touch, and Erik cursed sharply.
It would have been a short walk back to the cottage, or an impossibly long trudge across the island to the post office-come-clinic. It was at least an hour on foot to the nearest home, besides his own, and that was precisely how Erik preferred it, or had done, every single day before this very moment.
Sighing into his scarf, Erik unbuttoned and shrugged out of his peacoat, then bundled it around the other man, cocooning him in thick wool and lingering body heat. Then he scooped him up, ignoring the bite of the wind through the knit of his sweater, and set off for home.
The pain woke him first, even before the other presence made itself known in his mind. His hands, his feet... his nerves were on fire, the pain so achingly bright it made him shudder, crying out without thinking.
The burst of surprise hit him next, shock and relief, coming from the man sitting at the table across the room.
Charles was in a bed, piled up with at least a tonne of blankets crushing him against the mattress, and his hands...
Good Christ, they hurt, stabbing pain when he tried to push the blankets aside, and suddenly the man was standing beside him, loosening the nearly suffocating cocoon but not pulling the blankets very far down, keeping the quilts tucked up around Charles' chest.
Charles' bare chest. Bare chest, bare legs, naked.
It was just a peek, scarcely more than a cursory glance into the man's mind, but polite or no, Charles needed to know precisely what in the hell was going on.
Blizzard, cold, body, alive, frostbite, warmth, safe, wait—
All right, that explained how he found himself in a strange bed, but not how he came to be in such straits to begin with. One thing at a time.
"Es tut mir leid," he managed to say, though his throat felt as though he'd been gargling broken glass and cheap scotch, and Charles realised he'd miscalculated almost immediately.
More surprise, with confusion and a hint of suspicion this time, and the man narrowed his sharp, pale eyes, crossing his arms and speaking around the cigarette hanging from his mouth. "Sprichst du Deutsch?"
Wriggling awkwardly to sit up a bit more, buying himself a moment or two, Charles allowed his mind to expand farther, to dig a little deeper.
Not Germany, not even Europe, though the man's thoughts had the hard flavour of German, and Charles had simply assumed... Suspicion, because Erik, the man, had not heard German spoken in years, and Charles' accent was so horrendous—
Tamping down a flare of indignation— it wasn't horrendous— Charles cleared his throat, and hoped he wouldn't be forced to tweak the man's mind. His own head was pounding mercilessly, making everything muzzy and unfocused, and if he could avoid taking the risk of scrambling his rescuer's brain, he would prefer it.
"Sorry," Charles said again, sending out faint waves of calm. "Right, sorry. English?"
Erik's eyes stayed narrowed, his brows drawn together just slightly, and he breathed out a stream of smoke through his nose. Despite the quiet buzz of cold, snow, blizzard through his thoughts, the man was dressed in a thin, white ribbed vest and a pair of wool trousers, and there was a thin sheen of perspiration above his upper lip and along his hairline. Charles could still feel a chill leeching down into his bones, but the house— the cottage, Erik's home— was swelteringly hot.
"Yes, English." English, with only a hint of the throaty tone and clipped sounds of his mother-tongue. "Don't try to move your fingers."
Charles did not explain that he had already done just that, and felt the pain of it like lightning up his arms. Now that his hands were free of the quilts, he could see the loose wrapping of gauze, separating but not binding the throbbing flesh.
"Damn it," he said instead, holding up his bandaged hands. He could feel his own heartbeat in the tips of his fingers. "Frostbite? How... how bad?"
"You were very lucky." When Erik reached up and took hold of the cigarette (hand-rolled, no filter), then leaned over to stub it out in the glass ashtray on the bedside table, Charles was reminded just where he was curled up, naked and shivering. Erik's home, Erik's bed, Erik's sheets tangled up around my legs. "It's not too bad, though I imagine it hurts now. You won't likely lose any fingers or toes. Your ears and nose are fine."
That was an incredible relief— Charles could see his own body in Erik's mind, corpse-like, pale and stiff from the bitter Atlantic waves. He would have been terribly lucky even if he'd lost a toe or two.
"I'll get you some tea." Erik gave him one more appraising glance, then stalked off towards the few cupboards that made up his small kitchen.
Charles could also see himself stripped naked, still dangerously cold, with an equally naked Erik wrapped around him like a second skin in a den of quilts. Sharing body heat, keeping him alive, and it was all perfectly innocent, but Charles couldn't help the flush he felt creeping up his face. At least he had the blood flow to flush now.
The curtains were open, for all the good it did. Outside the windows, all Charles could see was a wash of white and grey, and the indistinct shapes of what might have been scenery. The blizzard. Right.
Moving pillows with his back, leaning uncomfortably against the brass headboard, Charles watched Erik gather up a mug and pack tealeaves into a steel ball. There was already a kettle on the squatty iron stove that dominated one corner of the small cottage, with steam curling from its spout.
He had never wanted a cup of tea more in his entire life.
"What day is it?" Dropping the ball into the mug with a clink, Erik moved toward the stove with only a flicker of attention for Charles.
"It's November, probably the eighteenth or nineteenth. I'm not sure of the exact date." He lifted the kettle, pouring, and the promise of tea incoming was enough to make Charles' mouth water. "I've got sugar, and evaporated milk."
"Oh no, just like that will be fine." The cottage was only two rooms: the one he was in and a small bathroom built off the side— the door to the bathroom was nearby, on the wall to Charles' right, and he could see the sink inside, and an edge of shower curtain. The main room was cosy but not cluttered, with only a bed and chest of drawers, a table and two chairs, a corner of kitchen counter, the stove, and a few shelves of books and other miscellany. Everything looked neat and orderly, clean, but it was still... strange to see a life so distilled.
When Erik returned with the tea, he offered a slight frown before setting the mug on the bedside table, between the ashtray and an unlit kerosene lamp. Despite the storm, the stark white light streaming through the windows was more than enough illumination to see by.
"Sit forward." Erik motioned sharply with one hand, and Charles obeyed without hesitation, grunting softly as his muscles protested the move. Behind him, Erik rearranged the pillows, piling them into some semblance of a backrest. "Try that."
Leaning back again, now free from the bite of brass against his spine, Charles didn't make any attempt to stifle his appreciative smile, sinking into the soft pillows. "Thank you, my friend. That's much better."
Erik's weight settling onto the bed beside him, as the man perched on the edge of the mattress, was rather unexpected. One large, roughly callused hand taking gentle hold of Charles' wrist, even more so.
"You have a few blisters." Erik's touch was very, very warm, and almost delicate as he traced the bandages carefully, loosening tightened edges. "We should have a look after your tea, to see if the colour is better."
Charles wondered vaguely if the sound of his swallowing was really as loud as it seemed. The headache pounding behind his eyes was making him lose focus.
His fingers twitched under Erik's attentions, and the stab of pain at the movement was momentarily grounding. "You, ah, wouldn't have any painkillers, would you? Aspirin? My head feels ready to pop off my shoulders."
"I may have some aspirin." Just as carefully as he'd picked it up, Erik laid Charles' hand back onto the bedspread, and stood. A quick trip to the bathroom, and Erik returned with a bottle of pills and a small glass of water. "They're expired, but only a few months."
"Thank you," Charles said again, then paused, considering how he might take the pills without the use of his hands. Erik answered the question before Charles could think too long about it, sitting on the bed again and setting the water beside Charles' tea.
And how am I meant to drink that, come to think of it?
The lid was unscrewed, and two white pills tumbled into Erik's palm. "Open up."
Well, that was certainly one way to solve the issue. Licking his lips absently, feeling the dried, cracked state of them with some concern, Charles opened his mouth as he was bid. The aspirin was pressed lightly against his tongue, and then Erik was reaching for the water, holding it up for Charles to drink.
The water was cold, making Charles vividly aware of the cottony, unpleasant feeling clinging in his mouth, but also sent a shiver through him. The pills went down easily, despite the torn feeling in his throat; the chill remained.
"Tea," Erik said firmly, replacing the glass with the steaming mug the moment Charles tipped his head forward again. "You need some warmth inside, as well."
Charles wasn't about to argue, even if the tea was hot enough to nearly scald his tongue. It was ambrosia, sweet as mana, and Erik kept a slow, steady stream flowing into his mouth while Charles drank greedily. He could feel the heat pooling in his stomach, radiating out from his core, and it was enough to make him moan loudly without a second thought.
Thankfully, Erik just chuckled, a quiet rumble of breath, and allowed Charles to drink the entire mug at a controlled pace, in small sips and swallows.
By the time the empty mug was placed back on the table, Charles could feel his consciousness dragging downward with all the inescapable force of total exhaustion, putting a sag in his shoulders and a droop in his eyelids that was impossible to hide. Erik's hand on his shoulder made him jerk, but even that movement was clumsy.
"Go back to sleep," Erik said, and Charles felt himself being physically pulled down, until his back rested against the mattress again and the pillows cradled his head. The blankets were settled up around his neck again, but the weight of them felt much less oppressive.
He felt Erik move, heard the creak of the bedsprings, and shifted his face free enough to blink up at the other man. Any thoughts beyond sleep, now, sleep felt like swimming upstream through heavy custard, but there was something Charles needed to ask before he slipped up about it.
"Do you have a name, my friend?" he murmured, as Erik gathered up the mug and the glass, and the question earned him a sideways look. The pause was just long enough that Charles thought he might not get an answer.
"Erik." Dredging up another smile, this one sleepy and probably foolishly toothy, Charles curled into the warmth of the quilts.
"Charles. Thank you for all this, Erik."
His eyes were closed, his brain already barrelling towards unconsciousness, but Charles was fairly certain he wasn't imagining the sensation of hair being brushed away from his temple.
"Go to sleep, Charles." And just like that, Charles did.
He wasn't being especially stealthy, but there also wasn't a need for smashing dishes around just to wash up a pair of mugs and a glass. Erik finished the last mouthful of his own tea, lukewarm, and dipped the mug into his washpan, rinsing out the dregs.
God damn, but the cottage was hot. He'd kept the fire blazing all day, stoked with more wood than he'd usually use in three, and the snow didn't even dare cling to the outside of the windows, melting away like raindrops. Still, his guest, Charles, had been shivering like a dry leaf in a stiff breeze. It was better than his eerie stillness when Erik had first dragged him inside, but still not warm enough.
Charles. Erik racked his brain, sifting through the kind of inane information he'd gathered through years of half-heard gossip on those occasions he stopped by the post office, or those rare visits he made to other homes, looking to trade. Charles... was he someone's grandson? A nephew?
That was quite possible, but Erik couldn't think of anyone on the island with a relative named Charles, except Peter Christmas' father, but Charles Christmas was well into in his nineties, and very much not a reedy, white Englishman.
Regardless, Erik had been to the post office only two days before, picking up his order (groceries and some steel for machining, no mail) from the plane. Everyone had been milling about like ants, eager to stock their pantries with this first proper winter order— there was no guarantee the plane would be back in a month as scheduled, depending on weather. If there was someone new on the island, whether someone's family or just some poor bastard McCoy had dragged over to help run cable or count seals or whatever the hell he was up to these days, that rumour would have been more the topic of conversation than the blizzard. Erik hadn't heard a single word spoken about this man.
Even if he had, though, it hardly explained what the idiot was doing half-naked and hanging from his dock.
Drying the last mug and setting it back in the cupboard, Erik leaned one hip against the counter and watched the shock of dark, salt-tangled hair that sprang out of the mountain of quilts.
"I don't like surprises," he said quietly, then looked down at where the cat had begun winding around his ankles, no doubt shedding tawny hair in abundance. "Though I suppose you've no complaints about the heat, hm?"
Wide yellow eyes peered back at him, unblinking, and the cat rumbled out a deep, resonant purr. Erik sighed, rubbing the cat's chest with his toes. Even his socks felt sweaty. "No, I didn't imagine you would."
Wrapped up in his bed, Charles slept on, seemingly undisturbed.
When Charles woke again, he could feel sweat pooling in the small of his back, and there was something warm and furry trying to suffocate him. The only thing that kept him from lashing out was the sense of peaceful animal— the cat purring on his head— and the vaguely familiar presence exuding steadiness and calm assurance quite nearby.
He could smell salt, cigarettes, and a spicy, masculine scent (not his own) that was embedded in the pillow in which his nose was currently buried. Groaning and twisting his neck until the cat shifted, meowing its objection, Charles blew tufts of fur out of his nose and found himself being watched.
Erik was lying beside him, on top of the quilts but stripped down to vest and shorts, drawn in soft shadows and warm light from the kerosene lamp. He was partially propped against the headboard, with a book open in his hands and an unlit cigarette tucked behind his ear. The rest of the cottage was lost in darkness, and the curtains were drawn.
Flipping his book closed but keeping his place with one finger, Erik continued to watch him silently, letting the corner of his mouth quirk in what looked like mild amusement. Charles tried very hard not to imagine the bloody awful sight he made, bleary and rumpled, with a cat pawing at his forehead.
"Go," Erik said after a moment, flicking one hand out, and the cat was gone almost instantly, hopping off the bed entirely without so much as a yowl. "How are you feeling?"
"Alive, for the most part." He said it wryly, grinning a bit as he turned onto his side, but his head still felt as though he'd been beaten smartly about the skull with a cricket bat, to say nothing of the ache in his hands and toes. "I think there may be quite an egg on my head, in the back. If you could, that is, if it's not an imposition—"
Erik reached over, carding his fingers slowly through Charles' hair without hesitation, and the first poke against the swollen knot he found was lancing. Charles hissed, and Erik's touch gentled but didn't retreat, mapping the edges of the egg. There was a grittiness, a tug against his hair, that probably meant a bit of blood was scabbed up around it.
"It's a bit late for this," Erik said, once they both had a better idea about the size of the lump— literally, about the size of a duck's egg. "But I should check your pupils."
—biggest, bluest eyes I've ever seen—
Charles blinked, reining his wandering mind back in from where it had spread out like a puddle of consciousness, lapping at the edges of Erik's brain. Catching a stray thought here and there might be par for the course, but damn it all, he was being sloppy. "Yes, yes certainly."
Erik leaned even farther over him, and it took a great deal of self-control not to inhale sharply when that tanned, tightly muscled chest rolled towards his face, the thin white vest stretching with the movement. There was a rummaging sound behind him, and Charles didn't dare move— the smell in the pillow was Erik, of course, but it was so much stronger now that Charles' face was nearly pressed into his clavicle. Heat and musk, clean sweat and soap, something almost minty—
"Here." Erik moved back to his own side of the bed, torch now in hand, and Charles suddenly had exactly zero words at his disposal. The torch clicked on, and the tips of Erik's fingers were the lightest possible touch against Charles' jaw (he needed, desperately, to shave).
Charles' couldn't see much beyond flashing circles of light dancing through his vision when Erik finally turned the torch off again, seemingly satisfied only after searing Charles' eyes out of their sockets.
"You're alive, for the most part." Down by Charles' feet, there was an unexpected compression atop the quilts, but it wasn't heavy enough to hurt his toes. When Erik's attention snapped in that direction, Charles felt as though he could finally take a deep breath again, if only for a moment. "I told you to go, cat."
"She's fine." Finding language again after a brief respite was relieving, even if his first foray back into spoken English was so entirely nonsensical. Erik looked nearly as puzzled by this turn of events as Charles felt, furrowing his brow again. The expression wasn't even slightly less intimidating now that Erik was down to his shorts, compared to when he'd been dressed and looming over Charles' shivering body. "I mean, she, the cat... she's rather warm, isn't she?"
The cat meowed plaintively, but very softly, and started to knead at the blankets. After a tense moment, Erik let out a lengthy sigh and rolled onto his back, rubbing absently at one eye.
"Fine. The thing's just tetchy because I'm in its spot."
You're in the cat's spot. I'm... I'm in your spot, aren't I? Oh Christ.
It was idiotic, but Charles felt fractionally dizzier at that thought. He was in bed with a particularly handsome, near-stranger (not true, not a stranger; I've been in his brain), he was suffering from a head wound and very likely from mild hypothermia, and his pillow smelled so very good.
Rolling onto his own back, pulling his knees up to avoid curious cat paws pressing his sore toes, Charles willed his weariness to return. Sleep would be his refuge here, at least until he could get his thoughts back in order.
"What time is it?" Do shut up, mouth. There's a good chap.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Erik lift his head, glancing somewhere over Charles' prone body. "Eleven-thirty." Erik's gaze shifted, and suddenly Charles was caught watching. Caught staring. This felt like a perfect opportunity for the bed to swallow him whole; instead, the cat started crawling up beside his calves, and Erik smirked at him, with just a hint of brilliant teeth. "P.M."
The cat was butting her head against Charles' hip now, keeping to the outside of the bed. If he'd had working hands, he might have scratched her neck.
Erik wasn't going to sleep. He didn't trust his guest enough, despite a minor hang-up on the blueness of Charles' eyes and... oh good lord, the pinkness creeping back into his chapped lips. Clamping down firmly on the tendrils of his powers before they could take any further liberties, Charles sent out a very gentle suggestion that perhaps sleep wasn't such a terrible notion, and that the mysterious man so recently saved from a frigid death was too weak and rather too trustworthy to worry about so much.
Rest. Safe. Sleep.
The cat settled easily, winding herself into a sleek, ginger ball in the quilts. Erik looked a bit more suspicious about the whole thing, cocking his head and letting his smirk fall away, but Charles wouldn't do anything more invasive.
Closing his eyes, nestling into the pillow, Charles let himself slip back into a soothing, healing rest.
And when he woke again, as the faint light of dawn began creeping in around the edges of the curtains, Erik was breathing slow and even beside him, deeply asleep.