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.
He hadn't meant to fall asleep— sleeping with a strange, unrestrained man in the house was not Erik's idea of a wise decision. He could go a day or two (or longer) without any sleep at all and not suffer much for it; by that time the storm would be over and he'd be marching his guest into the post office and leaving instructions for McCoy to take over Charles' care (he was the closest thing they had to a proper doctor in winter, which was precisely why Erik never got ill).
And that was all well and good, but none of it explained why he woke up in bed beside a strange, unrestrained man, who was beaming some manner of wide, friendly smile at him in the scant morning light, as the cat nuzzled against his fair, blanket covered chest.
"Good morning, Erik," Charles said brightly, miles removed from the mess he'd been the day before. There were still smudges of purple under his eyes, but at the very least he didn't look as though you'd just dug him up.
"Mm, morning." Though how good it was remained to be seen. "You're going to get cat hair in your bandages."
Charles was allowing the cat to butt her head against his palm, sliding his hand over her spine while keeping his fingers uninvolved, and the demanding beast was purring joyously at the attention.
"She's beautiful." She was a ginger tabby. Nothing spectacular. "What's her name?"
Stretching until his shoulders and spine loosened, Erik sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. The house was still too warm, enough that he'd had no problem sleeping above the blankets all night. "It's a cat. She wouldn't come to her name if she had one, so why bother?"
Rubbing the back of his neck, Erik glanced back over his shoulder, only to find Charles in a very intent staring match with the cat. The colour in the other man's cheeks was a bit high, but the damned cottage felt like a sauna.
"I'll look at your hands now, if you like." Erik watched as Charles' gaze shifted from the cat to the bedspread, and he took note of the tiny line of worry that furrowed between the man's brows. "Honestly Charles, I don't believe they were too far gone, but we need to make sure."
"Yes, of course." Inhaling deep, then exhaling slowly, Charles shook his head and finally looked up to meet Erik's eyes, his smile gone wan. "Let's see the damage, hm?"
It wasn't nearly as terrible as Erik had feared, nor Charles, if his trill of relief was any indication. Red skin, sore, with a few small blisters around his knuckles and between his fingers, but no black spots. His toes were the same, when Erik lifted the bottom of the quilts to remove those bandages. Very, very lucky.
"You'll need fluids." Standing, Erik padded over to his chest of drawers and began rummaging for something suitable. Even the floorboards were warm, and he'd stripped his socks off the night before. "And some food. Here."
The trousers would be too long, the shirt and sweater too large, and Erik said as much, but Charles thanked him effusively, regardless. The cat wasn't pleased to lose her new admirer, yowling piteously, and Charles actually apologized for leaving her before shuffling into the bathroom to clean up (with instructions to use whatever toiletries he needed, including the new toothbrush in the drawer beside the sink— Erik's old toothbrush would last a while longer, until he ordered another).
He could hear the water-heater chugging to life, and made a mental note to check on the generator before evening. It was somewhat overcautious— he had enough diesel on hand to last the entire winter, even with another body using his power for a day or two— but he'd check if the tank needed to be topped up. Stoking the fire, Erik put the kettle on to boil, then began putting breakfast together.
There was a small refrigerator inside, but once the cold set in, Erik always kept it unplugged. Once autumn crispness gave way to winter winds, he made use of an ice box outside, insulated to keep his food from freezing solid. Such a recent grocery order meant he had some nice supplies to play with, even though he'd gotten nothing but canned goods from the plane. The drive plate he'd fixed for Darwin had been paid for with a dozen fresh eggs, and the promise of another dozen the next time he saw the man. He'd also had a few bags of venison, a cupboard full of preserves, and a round of bread rolls inside, all traded for labour.
Tugging on his boots and nothing else, Erik slipped out into the frigid morning and felt the sweat on his skin cool immediately. His breath ghosted out in billowing white clouds, and there was over a foot of snow drifted up against the cottage when he first opened the door, but the storm had moved on, leaving a glittering, smooth landscape stretching out over the island. Skin prickling, Erik unlatched the ice box and grabbed a few eggs, then after a moment's consideration, took some sausages as well. The cat had come out with him, scampering off into the woods for its own morning constitutional (though Erik had little doubt she would be back in time to beg a few bites of sausage), and its tracks were the only break in the smooth slopes of snow.
Standing out in the snow in his underwear was unwise, even if the briskness of the air was refreshing after the stifling fire; after one more deep, clean breath, Erik trudged back inside.
By the time Charles made his appearance, with damp hair curling around his ears and one of Erik's thickest sweaters sagging loosely from his frame, the sausages were keeping warm on a covered plate, the eggs were well on their way to scrambling, and Erik had pulled on yesterday's trousers. He'd also laid out two place settings (and in doing so, emptied his cupboards of dishes), the rolls and a jar of raspberry preserves, and Charles' expression was nearly rapturous as he shambled across the room, sniffing appreciatively.
The man had rolled up the cuffs of the trousers, revealing thick grey socks, and every step was cautious but determined— Erik imagined it was a combination of the fear of tripping, and the ache in his toes.
"Oh my lord, that smells glorious." Scraping the eggs around in the skillet, Erik took another drag of his cigarette, smiling a little despite himself.
"Don't wait for me; eat what you like." Charles looked torn between gnawing hunger and politeness, so desperately divided that Erik couldn't help but chuckle. "The eggs are nearly done. Here." Taking up the kettle, Erik poured tea into Charles' mug, having dispensed with the tea ball in favour of brewing a whole pot. "Eat."
It only took another moment of indecision before Charles was tearing apart a roll and delving enthusiastically into the jam. Shortly thereafter, the eggs were suitably firm, and Erik was scraping half the pan (or slightly more than half) onto Charles' plate, before emptying the rest onto his own. Then he sat, lifting the cloth he'd tucked over the sausages, and skewed two for himself, motioning for Charles to do similarly.
They ate in companionable quiet, with little said beyond Charles thanking him again, and Erik's brief inquiry about whether the food was to his liking. As Erik expected, there was a scratching at the door before the last sausage disappeared, and the cat apparently had no issue reclaiming its usual chair, even if that meant leaping up into Charles' lap.
Even if he hadn't been planning to break up part of a sausage into a saucer in the first place, Erik had a strange feeling that Charles' enthusiasm about the idea would have been enough to sway him. The dish usually would have gone on the floor, and the cat with it, but apparently Charles' had enough dexterity in his fingers to feed the cat by hand, a tiny mouthful at a time. It was utterly ridiculous, but Erik didn't do more than shake his head at the sight, gathering up their dishes and pouring the last dregs of the tea into Charles' mug.
"I could probably dry the dishes," Charles said, as Erik put some fresh water on to heat. The man had spent longer in the shower than the water-heater was accustomed to, and using the stove was quicker than waiting for it to fill up again.
"And ruin your hands, or my plates." It had been a genuine offer, no matter how senseless, and Erik quirked a small smile at the man to ease the sting of refusal. "Sit and rest. Read, if you like."
Water for the dishpan didn't need to be boiling, and it only took a few minutes for the kettle to heat. While Erik soaped up the plates, Charles lingered at the table, scratching the cat behind the ears.
After a short while of that silence, it was actually Erik who broke it.
"So you've slept." He heard the creak of Charles' chair, and glanced over to find the man looking back at him mildly, apparently rather content. Erik pressed on. "You've showered, and you've eaten. I think by this point I can ask what the hell you were doing tangled up in my dock without it seeming like I'm interrogating you in your weakened state."
"Is that where I was?" Charles sounded earnest enough, but Erik still turned to watch him more closely as the man gathered his thoughts. Or made sure he had all his lies straight. "I don't recall a thing. I don't... I don't actually remember much at all before waking up here, to be honest. I know my name is Charles, but I have no idea where I am, beyond your home."
Well, wasn't that just perfect. And wonder of wonders, Erik thought the man might just be telling the truth, though it was too soon to say for certain.
Charles paused, running his thumb lightly over the cat's muzzle. "You said I was tangled in your dock? I think I washed enough salt out of my hair to guess we're near the sea, then?"
"Surrounded by it." Turning back to the dishes, Erik explained.
An island. Menigu Island, which Erik said was some local native dialect, translated rather humorously to Island Island. Charles had never heard of it, or thought he hadn't— Erik might not be completely convinced, but he truly didn't remember very much at all. It was... very disturbing.
He knew he was Charles, with nothing but a gaping hole in his mind where a surname might have once resided. He knew what things were called and what they did, like tea and a toothbrush, and he'd known that the thoughts in Erik's mind sounded German. If he concentrated, he could call up notions about Germany, about England, about the world at large, but they were vague, clinical thoughts, as if recited from a book. He had no personal connection to any of this knowledge— he didn't remember learning it.
He could also read minds, and he was absolutely certain that most other people couldn't.
Eventually, the dishes were done, and Erik shrugged on a quilted flannel coat and a pair of gloves, preparing to bring in a few armloads of wood. Flexing his own hands very carefully, Charles didn't bother offering his help this time, feeling more than a little annoyed by his own limitations.
"Don't worry," Erik said, tying his boots. Charles could sense the dry amusement rolling off the man in waves, but no annoyance. "I'm keeping a tally."
Charles didn't stifle his laugh, browsing the books he'd discovered lining Erik's walls. There was a rather impressive collection of philosophy, as well as mechanical manuals and some cheaply bound fiction— mysteries and even a western or two. He decided on a detective novel, not feeling quite prepared to tackle Hegel in the original German at the moment. "Well that is a relief, my friend. I would hate to feel like a freeloader."
The wind that cut through the cottage when Erik opened the door was cold enough to make Charles truly appreciative of the thick jumper the man had provided. The cat seemed of a similar mind, and curled up on Charles' stomach when he moved back to sit on the bed.
"You're quite affectionate, aren't you, puss?" he asked quietly, once Erik was gone around the side of the cottage to the large, covered woodpile. The cat didn't bother to look up, content to knead his thigh. "Are you starved for attention, or accustomed to the cuddling, I wonder?"
It was a foolish thought— and inappropriate, surely— but it burrowed into his mind regardless.
Having Charles walk into town would be a recipe for disaster; the distance was too far, and the weather too cold. Erik did a bit of exploring before he finished the wood, trekking a short distance inland to see how deep the snow had fallen elsewhere, and while the road wasn't clear, it would be passable. He would have to get the truck.
By the time he made it back inside the cottage with the fourth armload of wood, enough to last until the next day, his hair was a mess from the wind and the snow it kicked up, and his cheeks were stinging. Charles was still laid out in the bed, on top of the quilts this time, seemingly engrossed in what Erik knew was a slightly ridiculous but not entirely terrible noir novel. The cat had made itself scarce sometime during Erik's wood gathering.
"There is a doctor on the island," he said by way of greeting, kicking the door shut and dumping the sticks into the wood box with the others. Charles lifted his head, one dark brow cocked in question. "You could get yourself checked over, if you're up to it. We can take my truck."
"I suppose that's not a bad idea." Charles didn't sound exactly thrilled about it, and Erik could sympathize, though he refrained from saying anything of the sort.
"There is a telephone in town as well."
"And I have no one to call." Setting the book on the bed, Charles shifted his legs over the side and stood, carefully brushing back his hair with his palms. "I know this entire situation is more than a little bizarre, Erik; thank you again for all your help."
I'm terrified was unsaid, but Erik could see it clearly reflected in Charles face, behind the faltering joviality. It was an expression that sat very heavily in Erik's stomach, like a smooth, frigidly cold stone.
Charles was entirely alone, and he knew it.
Brushing dirt and twigs from his coat, Erik stomped the slush from his boots and moved toward the hooks that jutted out beside the door. Grabbing his peacoat, he tossed it onto the bed, not directly at Charles.
"You can wear that, and I've got an extra pair of boots. Do you think you can wear gloves?"
Glancing down at his hands, Charles winced ever so slightly. "I'd rather not risk it. Do you think hands in pockets will be sufficient?"
Erik had enough cold weather gear to outfit them both adequately, though he insisted Charles take the warmest articles. By the time he had the man wrapped up in a peacoat, with trousers tucked into boots, a scarf, and a wool cap, he looked a bit less like a boy dressed up in his father's clothes. The only significant problem with fit was an issue of length.
"Damn it, Erik, you're too slim to be this bloody tall," had been a common refrain during the proceedings, especially when Charles discovered that the efficacy of pockets might be a moot point— the coat sleeves nearly swallowed his hands.
Erik snorted, taking off his flannel coat just long enough to layer a sweater over his undershirt, then buttoned the whole thing up again. "We might be able to borrow some clothes for you while we're in town. Though that depends, of course— how do you feel about women's trousers?"
The utterly flat look Charles levelled at him for that shot was at odds with the crooked smile the man couldn't quite suppress, and Erik merely shrugged in response before going to clean off the truck.
It wasn't a long drive into town, or more accurately "town." The island was less than a dozen kilometres long, and even though Erik lived on the far end, most residents clustered somewhere around the middle in some vague approximation of a village. The post office was their community hub, rivalled only by the main wharf— Erik frequented neither.
The truck had been on the island longer than Erik had, but over the years he'd stripped and rebuilt nearly every inch of it, from engine to frame. It could handle the weather and the road, even out at his end of the island, which was so uneven and overgrown in places it might have actually been easier to blaze a path through the woods. Charles appeared only somewhat concerned as they navigated snow-covered potholes that could bury a grown man, occasionally bracing his palms on the dash and sending Erik wide-eyed stares.
When they finally pulled in alongside the large crisply beige building, with its porch already neatly shovelled free of the snow that still heaped on its roof, Erik clapped Charles amiably on the shoulder. "We'll check here first, but McCoy might be out at his station. Come on."
Even after they stepped inside the warm, brightly lit post office, Erik kept his hand on Charles' back, resting just between his shoulder blades, and the man didn't object.
"And the hermit weathers another storm, unscathed." Aza was perched on a stool behind the counter, pen poised over a book of crossword puzzles and a sly smirk on his devilishly handsome face. The postmaster wasn't entirely unbearable, though he thought himself far cleverer than he actually was. "I hadn't thought to see you for a few weeks at least, Lehnsherr, and with a friend no less. Dobryj dyen'."
Ignoring the pleasantries, as Aza no doubt expected, Erik jerked his chin towards the stairs. "Is McCoy in?"
"He is." Tapping his pen absently, Aza motioned towards Charles but addressed Erik. "Tell me you did not take his tongue. Or is he simply an acolyte, learning discourtesy at your knee?"
Erik was very close to grabbing Charles by the coat when the man made a quiet, distressed noise in the back of his throat and stepped forward, lifting his hand to show the redness and blisters. "Apologies, my good man, and I hope you'll forgive me again for not shaking hands, but I was rather foolish during the storm and suffered a touch of frostbite. Charles Smith, and I'm a friend of Erik's, as you guessed."
Aza's dark brows lifted at the sight, and he actually sat up straighter. "Ah, little wonder you are seeking the good doctor, then. Up the stairs, on the right."
"Thank you, sir," Charles said with a cordial smile, then turned back to Erik. "Shall we?"
Something about the look Charles sent him as they crested the narrow staircase made Erik tap out a brief knock on the doorframe before they entered McCoy's workspace, which was actually a spare room he'd appropriated for any equipment deemed too expensive or delicate to leave out at his research station. The young man's head jerked up regardless, abandoning his peering into a microscope to squint myopically at his visitors, with his glasses pushed up onto his forehead.
"McCoy," Erik barked, and the ensuing awkward scramble to settle glasses back on nose was particularly irritating. Then Charles' hand settled very lightly on his forearm, and Erik bit back his annoyed sigh.
"Mr. Lehnsherr—" McCoy stepped back from his microscope, which was likely for the best, and once he could see again, blinked at Charles with clear confusion. "I... uh. Hello."
"Dr. McCoy, I presume." Charles had that same charming smile plastered on as he'd turned on Aza, and Erik found himself scowling without even meaning to do so. "My name is Charles Smith, and it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. It seems I was rather foolish during the storm, and I was told you're the man to see regarding a minor case of frostbite, and treatment thereof."
"Be careful of the blisters, and keep warm? That was his learned medical advice?" They'd made it out of the post office without Erik losing his temper, even after McCoy had stepped on Charles' foot moments after the man had removed his boots. Now, they were sitting in the truck with two pairs of trousers folded on the seat between them, and Charles was sporting a vividly green pair of mittens (all courtesy of Aza's lost-and-found cupboard, which was actually more of a rubbish-someone-didn't-want-in-their-house-anymore cupboard). Erik's grip on the steering wheel was white-knuckled.
"The man's a biochemist, Erik." As if that were any sort of excuse. "Now, any other errands to run?"
"No." Reaching down, Erik yanked the gear shift out of park with more force than the truck deserved.
"Home then," Charles said, so very casually, which should have sounded presumptuous instead of strangely endearing. "And in time for tea."
There were fat flakes of snow tumbling onto the truck's windscreen as they started back to the cottage, but despite their size, the flakes were falling sparse and light. Charles watched the brilliantly white scenery pass by the window, propping his chin on his palm and letting only the strongest of Erik's thoughts wash over him in the amiable quiet. He tuned out the buzz of words as much as possible, feeling a bit voyeuristic about the whole thing, and focused on the man's emotions instead.
Frustration, annoyance— those were directed at poor Dr. McCoy, who's nearly fallen over himself trying to stay in Erik's good graces during Charles' brief check-up. Erik's dark expression as he'd leaned against the door frame, lurking, hadn't helped matters, but Charles had been reluctant to ask the man to step out. As unfortunate as McCoy's discomfort had been, Charles was... embarrassingly nervous to stray too far from his rescuer. The great tracts of nothingness in his memory were enough to make him quite antsy, but Erik's presence was oddly grounding.
Under that gravelly irritation there was still some suspicion, though it wasn't quite so biting as it had been. Mild, nagging concern for Charles' well-being. Curiosity.
"So, Charles Smith, is it?" Charles glanced over, catching just the barest edge of a smirk as Erik navigated them over what was ostensibly a road (by some loose definition, perhaps). The movement served to remind him of his truly unfortunate stubble, scraping against the knit of his natty new mittens.
"Mmhmm, of the Menigu Island Smiths." They rolled over an uneven patch, the truck's left wheels dipping sharply, and Charles could feel his teeth rattling. "Late of your dock, and thus very nearly the late Charles Smith."
"How very common and unassuming, Mr. Smith. I don't suppose— Shit—" There was a whirring as the tires spun in the slush, but easing the accelerator for a moment sorted the issue without trouble. "I don't suppose you were struck by a moment of clarity."
"No, more a moment of creative thinking. Harmless prevarication." The truck drove surprisingly quietly despite the rough terrain; Charles recognised, very abstractly, that it was an old vehicle, for all it looked fastidiously well-maintained. Even the smooth, slate-blue paint had been free of rust and chips, as far as Charles had noticed. "I might have thought of something with a bit more panache, but I was rather on the spot, wasn't I? Are there any legitimate Smiths on the island, incidentally?"
"No, not one." If Erik took issue with keeping the topic light, he didn't complain outright. Shifting his gaze back out to the woods around them, Charles took note of a dark brown rabbit crouched motionless at the tree line, only an instant before the creature turned tail and bounded deeper into the forest. "There's likely not a single person from here to the mainland who's not heard of you by now, by the way. Gossip travels like plague."
There was something odd in Erik's tone, something with a dark shade of self-deprecation, and Charles couldn't help but latch on to it like a burdock. Before he could formulate the proper way to inquire, however, Erik continued speaking, his attention trained on the road ahead.
"They'll be wondering where you came from, and some won't be too shy to ask, so be prepared for that the next time we're in town. It doesn't matter to me in the slightest what you tell them."
It wasn't outright agreement to lie along with him, but Charles got the distinct feeling that Erik's response to any inquiry would be decisive and uninformative. Mind your own damned business. "That is good to know. Any helpful hints, my friend, just to keep the worst of the prying at bay?"
"You didn't come in on the plane or the ferry, and there's not been a boat in the water for weeks." The road was evening out, and the trees were thinning; Charles didn't know the place well enough to be absolutely certain, but he thought they were nearly back to the cottage. "No doubt, the assumption will be I've been hiding you out here for some time." If Charles hadn't been watching Erik so very closely, as he had been since the talk of gossip had begun, he would have missed the brief flash of pale, greenish eyes in his direction. The self-deprecation was heavier now, settling like a shroud, and there was more than a hint of challenge in Erik's next words. "Or possibly that I built you from spare parts, for want of company."
And Erik did indeed have a predilection for... masculine company. Charles had caught a few stray thoughts from Dr. McCoy and the postmaster that hinted at such, wondering about his relationship with the man. It was the sort of small-town gossip that was so often insidious and catty, but neither man had been hotly disgusted. Aza had been amused, certainly, and McCoy had been prudishly embarrassed by his own imagination, but there had been no hostility.
It might have been simple, unsubstantiated rumour, spread about a local recluse who dared to buck well-established convention by caring not at all for the opinions of his neighbours. Now, in the relative quiet of the truck's cab, Charles could pluck the truth of it easily enough from Erik's brain, where it simmered on the surface like foam in a boiling pot. Not simply a rumour, and now Erik was laying his own cards on the table.
He was expecting Charles to question his meaning, and then to kick up a fuss when confronted with a blatant, unapologetic answer— that was achingly obvious from the hard set of his posture, and the sharp, prickly edges of his thoughts. At the very least, Erik could imagine nothing short of discomfort bricking up between them like a wall.
That wouldn't do.
Smiling, just a little, Charles turned his shoulders, his observations no longer surreptitious in the slightest. He looked, and Erik bristled visibly, but the man was radiating confusion more than anything.
"Well, I am an excellent conversationalist, though perhaps you should have built me to be a bit more durable," he said, and for all the humour laced in the words, they weren't spoken lightly. There could be no question that he'd understood the subtle hint. Erik was still coiled like a too-tight spring, but the defensive edge was dulled by surprise. "Or a bit taller. I'm charming enough as a counterbalance, of course, and handsome, if I might say so. You could do worse."
Good God, I flirt as if I'm swinging a maul. It must be the head wound.
There was silence, strained and strange, until finally Erik coughed out a short laugh— a dry, but not at all unkind sound. The tension cracked, falling away, and the silence that remained was actually very comfortable, for all it felt a bit pink and raw.
Erik's cottage was surrounded by forest on two sides, and open towards the sea on the others. When the truck cleared the tree line, rumbling back to park in the sheltered spot beside the large steel outbuilding that sat a short distance from the house, Charles could see the ocean stretching out to the horizon, the surf rolling murky grey-green. On a clear day, if one were not trudging through calf-deep snow, it looked like perhaps a twenty minute walk to the shore.
The view, even wintery and overcast, was magnificent.
Charles sorely missed the dry blast of the truck's heater almost the moment the engine died. Before he could do more than shift in his seat, Erik was reaching over Charles' body to unlatch his door, pushing it open and sucking all the remaining warmth out of the cab. He'd done the same thing when they'd arrived in town and this second time made the muscles of Charles' stomach tighten just as much as the first.
The handle of the passenger side door had a tendency to stick, Erik had explained (somewhat tersely) when he'd noticed Charles' gobsmacked expression, as they sat outside the large, wide shingled building that proclaimed "Post Office" with crisp, wrought-iron letters nailed above the door. This was a mere moment after Erik had clapped him on the shoulder, squeezing a little, and in retrospect, Charles would admit he'd been a tiny bit frazzled.
It was simple courtesy, especially with Charles' hands so sore, and he somehow managed to find his wits and his manners simultaneously. "That's very kind of you, Erik," he'd said, offering an earnestly grateful smile he'd hoped might ease some of the strain, but hadn't received more than a wordless grunt in answer.
Erik's hand on his back, however, like an anchor between his shoulder blades, was certainly not unwelcome.
This time, when Erik reached across to open the door, Charles managed not to make such an arse of himself. After the understanding they'd just reached, he could not dare flinch— it certainly wouldn't have been in disgust, but Erik might not see it that way.
"Thank you." Pulling the peacoat tighter, Charles swung his legs out of the truck and hopped down, boots sinking in the wet snow. He pushed his door closed easily enough, tucking his hands under his arms, but it wasn't so cold that he ignored the outbuilding. When they'd left for town, Erik had pulled the truck nearly up to the cottage's front door— Charles hadn't yet had a good look at the great steel hulk.
About forty feet long and twenty feet wide, the outbuilding was rounded on top, a smooth arch from one side to the other, and the tall curve did not allow much snow to settle on the roof. Charles could see two doors built into the flat front side— one standard sized, and the other significantly wider and taller; a garage door. There were no windows.
"My workshop." Coming around the back of the truck, Erik caught him staring, but didn't seem bothered by his curiosity. "Now, in the house before you freeze again."
Once they were inside, Erik only bothered to toe off his boots before moving to put a log in the stove, which was still glowing with a bed of red coals. It took Charles a bit longer to untangle himself from the near-swaddle in which Erik had wrapped him, being cautious of his fingers as he slowly undid the buttons of his coat. The cat had lifted her head once when they first opened the door, but had since gone back to her contented nap in the very centre of the bed.
"I'll put the tea on." Erik was stripping out of his flannel coat, hanging it on a peg by the door. "Can you get out of those boots?"
Charles considered his answer for a moment, staring down at the footwear in question. The tight lines of dark nylon laces looked almost mocking as they crisscrossed between grommets and hooks, tied crisply and efficiently by Erik in the first place. "I don't believe so, no. Damn it all."
Erik didn't offer either a comfort or a jibe, and neither did his lips twitch into even the faintest smirk. He simply crossed over to stand in front of Charles in three steps, lowering himself to one knee and unknotting his handiwork just as deftly as he'd done it up. "Lift," he said once, tugging the boots off when Charles brought his knees up, one at a time.
There was a brief loss of balance during the removal of the second boot, and Charles reached out automatically to catch himself, grabbing hold of Erik's shoulders. It was a bit like bracing on a boulder, firm and absolutely unmoving, but Charles could feel heat leeching out into his palms even through the thinner knit of Erik's dark blue polo neck. The man was a bloody furnace, and Charles' hands curled into the warmth before his mind had the chance to catch up.
His fingertips stung from the pressure, which was a blessing. The pain reminded him to straighten up, to keep his hands to himself, and burned away a bit of the fog that had descended on his higher thought processes. The boot hit the floor with a thud, and Charles' foot followed after— two feet planted, and balance was restored.
Erik was still kneeling, just a few seconds too long, and Charles swiftly found a very interesting knot to stare at among the wooden beams of the ceiling.
He heard a quiet huff of breath, and felt Erik stand. He realised, too late of course, that he should have offered him a hand up, even if it would have been politely refused.
I'm perverted, and now I'm rude as well. Well done, Charles.
This was not a line of thought he could navigate safely at the moment— his gaffs were going to steady grow worse; he could feel it in his bones. Shoring up a bit of determination, Charles plastered on a pleasant expression and trotted over to the bed, watching as Erik went to fill the kettle.
Charles knew. He knew, and he wasn't fluffing up like a wet hen, or peering at Erik as if he were some sort of specimen of the queer species. He wasn't behaving any differently than he had a half-hour ago, before Erik had laid out precisely what manner of assumptions would be scorching across the island in a wildfire of flapping gums. Aza invariably took perverse pleasure in spreading gossip like a fishwife, the bastard.
Erik was a fiercely private person— the idea that he'd mentioned anything to Charles at all was madness. He simply... he knew they'd be forced back into town sooner or later. Dealing with Charles' inevitable revulsion in public was not an attractive notion.
But apparently things weren't quite as inevitable as Erik had expected. It was a strange feeling, to be entirely wrong and oddly glad about it.
Tea, and a late, light lunch was the next order of the day, and Erik peered into the pantry cupboard. "Soup, Charles?"
After a hearty bowl of scotch broth and a good portion of the remaining bread rolls, Charles looked ready to nod off at any moment, and Erik left him to it. Winter might not be as hectic a season as spring and summer, but there was always work to do.
The workshop was cold, but not enough to justify lighting the small stove in the back. Erik simply kept his coat on, buttoned up over his sweater, and only removed his work gloves delicate wiring. The boat loomed behind him, cradled securely on her blocks, largely untouched since he'd hauled her up from her berth. He already had MacTaggart's engine torn apart and strewn across his benches, down to the nuts and bolts, and he wouldn't touch the Racham until he'd found whatever was causing this overheating problem. Moira usually did her own repairs; it had been particularly surprising when she'd shown up at his door the week before with a badly mangled engine in the bed of her truck, bloodied knuckles, and razor thin patience with all manner of machinery. She'd also promised to cover his grocery bill for three months if he just took the damned thing and fixed it, using whatever crazy German voodoo he had at his disposal.
He knew why she'd come to him, and it wasn't simply a matter of his ability (though he was particularly skilled at most mechanical repairs). Women working in their profession were so rare they were nearly unheard of. Though Moira was generally well-regarded within the community, there would still be a few whispers and jibes if it came to light that she'd been unable to fix her own boat this time. Erik was very likely the only one who didn't care, or care to gossip.
Crazy German voodoo aside, Erik thought he might have the problem sussed, but he'd been wrong about that more than once before with this fucking engine.
Both doors were securely closed, and he hardly expected Charles to burst in unannounced, but with another body on the property he felt oddly hesitant to stretch his power. Working purely by hand was slower, and he did deign to pull a few hard-to-reach wires with a twitch of his fingers, but the idea of attempting anything more complex at the moment simply didn't sit well in his gut. There was something extraordinarily penetrating in Charles' gaze, even when the man was relaxed and smiling. Something that invariably sent all the hairs on Erik's arms prickling upwards… but not in an entirely unpleasant way.
With only two hands at his disposal, and a tight leash kept on his active awareness of the metal around him, tweaking and reassembly wouldn't be finished before nightfall. That wasn't a terrible strain; Moira would wait.
Still, by the time he tossed the work gloves back onto the bench and wiped any grease and faint traces of fluid from his hands, Erik's joints were a bit tight from cold. Outside, the sky was deep, blood red on the western horizon, the sun already dipped too low to catch, and there were already stars beginning to glimmer faintly in the inky blackness creeping from the east. There was warm light streaming around the half-drawn curtains of the cottage, casting bright, crisp shapes on the snow.
The cat was sitting on the front step when he approached, her tail lashing, and she darted inside the moment he opened the door. Charles was seated at the kitchen table, the novel he was reading cracked open beside the mug of tea he was stirring absently. His smile when he glanced up at Erik's arrival was bright.
Supper was beans in molasses and a dessert of sliced peaches, all canned, and though they both wolfed it down without complaint, Erik decided to begin spending some time on proper meals— he had the supplies, and he had the time. Alone, he'd occasionally forgotten to eat, but Charles would have difficulties preparing his own food for at least a few days, possibly a week. It was no hardship to toss some real meat and vegetables into a pot, and his own stomach would likely thank him for it, regardless.
The meal passed with some easy, companionably chatter— nothing too inane, but no earth-shattering debates either. Charles was correct about one thing: he wasn't terrible company, in terms of conversation (anything further, Erik refused outright to consider). The benefits still outweighed the disadvantages, but sometimes, living so isolated, Erik did sometimes want for intelligent, animated discussion. There were only so many things one could say to a cat before the questions of crumbling sanity began to crop up.
Eventually, Erik was wrist-deep in a dishpan of hot water, scrubbing his bowl while Charles gathered up his own dishes with careful fingers, when the man stopped beside his elbow, making a humming, questioning noise.
"What?" he asked as he took the bowl and spoon from Charles' hands. The man hummed again, not stepping back, and Erik glanced over. Impossibly blue eyes were fixed on a spot on the side of Erik's face, and now that he knew it was resting upon him, Erik could feel the weight of attention like an itch under his skin. "What?"
The sharper tone was enough to make Charles blink, seemingly shaking off the intentness of his stare in favour of meeting Erik's gaze. He licked his lips. "Sorry. You've got a—" A hand rose, and fingers waggled, indicating the span of skin between the corner of Charles' right eye, and the shell of his ear. "Smudge. Grease, I think."
The sleeves of Erik's sweater were rolled up to his elbows, and his hands were slick and wet with dishwater. Damn. Before he could wipe at the mark with the back of his wrist, Charles' hand was reaching out towards him, hovering but not yet touching.
"May I?" Erik was not a man who flinched. He did, however, find himself swallowing rather unexpectedly.
Then he nodded. Slightly.
Charles' thumb was soft, without the barest hint of callus. The knuckles that brushed Erik's cheek were chapped, he knew, but the rasp of his stubble blocked any of that sensation, except for a slight tickling.
Three swipes, firm along his cheekbone, and then Charles was stepping back, wiping his thumb on his new, shorter trousers. The charcoal grey of the wool would hide any evidence of the small grease spot. Erik's face was tingling, and he prayed silently, fervently, that the blooming heat was in his mind, and not indicative of a flush.
This was insanity. He was losing his mind, finally, after so long in solitude.
"Thank you." His voice almost sounded normal, perhaps mildly hoarse. Charles flashed another smile, smaller this time, as he trotted over to retrieve his book. If he noticed Erik's momentary lapse, he was good enough not to let on.
"Anything else I can do, my friend, you have simply to ask."
The cottage was still unusually warm— Charles had managed to keep the fire stoked by himself— but after an afternoon bent over steel gears in a cold workshop, Erik found he appreciated a bit of heat. When it grew late enough to turn in for the night, he stripped down to undershirt and boxers, but left his socks on, willing to concede ever so slightly to the climate. Charles was in the bathroom, working slowly through his own preparations for bed.
Staring at the bed in question for one brief, oddly hesitant moment, Erik shook his head sharply and lifted up a few layers of bedclothes, slipping in between them. He was still lying above the sheets and one quilt, but he'd piled up every blanket he owned as part of his attempts to infuse warmth and life back into Charles' frozen body— and that was certainly not a memory Erik would revisit in the current circumstances. He'd be more than warm enough.
Charles appeared eventually, looking somewhat less dwarfed now that he'd shed the thick, brown crew-neck sweater that was loose even on Erik. Now, dressed down to borrowed drawstring trousers and a white henley, sleeves pushed partially up over his forearms, the image of a boy in his father's clothes was firmly dismissed. Somehow, it didn't matter that the shoulder seams of the shirt were sagging, or the cuffs of the trousers were rolled up over his socks.
Erik rubbed one hand over his face, closing his eyes against the sight in a way he hoped was more subtle than he felt. It had been years since he'd spent this much consecutive time with anyone in close quarters, for God's sake. The situation was bizarre, but he would adapt.
The fire was banked and the cat inside for the night— Erik felt the mattress dip beside him, the compression of the springs echoing faintly in the back of his mind.
When he'd first moved into the cottage, the double bed had been something of a luxury. A cot might have been sufficient, but in a moment of unusual self-indulgence, Erik had not simply walked past the plain brass frame and mattress when he caught sight of it in the window of some small furniture shop on the mainland. At the time, he'd been accustomed to sleeping anywhere, usually lightly and uncomfortably, and the idea of stretching out on so much soft space was almost obscene. Unnecessary, certainly.
Now it felt… almost crowded.
There was a tug of the quilt under his shoulders as Charles insinuated himself more comfortably beneath the bedclothes, and Erik shifted, offering a bit more slack. It was a silent process, except for the rumple of quilts and the low purr of the cat at the foot of the bed, until finally Charles settled, huffing out a satisfied sound.
After another moment, the mattress shifted again, and Erik heard a sharp gust of breath. Even with his eyes closed, he recognised the moment the room plunged into darkness, the lamp having been blown out.
Everything felt closer in the dark. As Charles murmured a quiet "good night, my friend," Erik stretched an arm up over his head, letting his fingers curl loosely around one brass post of the headboard. The metal was cool and smooth.
"Good night," he said to the ceiling, then willed himself to sleep.
I need to tell him.
I've known him two days, one of which I was unconscious. I hardly need to tell him anything.
He will despise it. Despise me. I'm already encroaching on his privacy.
The longer I wait, the less chance he'll ever trust me. I… I want him to trust me.
I want him to trust me.
Charles' mind woke long before his body followed suit, which he foggily recalled was an easy way to all but guarantee that he'd wake properly with a biting headache. Regrettably, that morning was no exception.
Well, it was morning by strict definition, but the cottage was still dim when Charles' eyes cracked open. The ticking of the clock on the bedside table was irritating, jabbing at the pain behind his brow, but not unbearably so. There was heat and vibration pressing against the back of his skull where the cat was curled up, having slowly pushed him off his own pillow during the course of the night.
Blinking, feeling altogether muzzy, Charles noticed that he'd appropriated about half of Erik's pillow in response to his own eviction. Every quiet exhale of Erik's breathing ghosted across his forehead, warm and even.
Steady on, old boy.
Their bodies were still separated by quilts and space, though Charles was bowed closer to the centre of the bed, and Erik had shifted from lying on his back to partially on his side. It was mostly an issue of their heads having migrated so close together that Charles could scarcely focus his eyes. He was right at mouth level, staring stupidly at dark ginger bristles and lightly tanned skin, licking his own lips automatically when he noticed that Erik's were rather dry.
Trying to shift back into his own space did more harm that good— the cat was truly entrenched on her misappropriated pillow, pushing against his gentle attempts to oust her. He craned his neck a bit harder, fighting the obstinacy of her tiny body, but then she kicked him square in the nape, her claws raking the skin just below his hairline.
The hot sting of pain made him jerk forward, unthinking, and his forehead cracked against Erik's mouth with a sickening thunk. It wasn't too hard a hit, but it was certainly enough to wake the other man.
"Ach—" Eyes snapping open, hand coming up to cover his mouth, Erik's expression was so utterly hard and deadly that Charles froze. Then the menace faded, flickering away as quickly as it had descended, leaving confusion and no small amount of annoyance in its wake. "Fuck, Charles."
Erik held his hand out, inspecting his fingers as he tongued what Charles could see was a small split on his bottom lip, oozing a hint of blood. It was mortifying, and not simply because of the absolute embarrassment he felt, having head-butted an innocently sleeping man. Some small, shamefully perverse part of Charles' mind wanted desperately to dart forward and lick that poor, abused lip.
His flush felt so fiery, his cheeks might have been blistering, but Charles didn't quite dare moving just yet. Being pinned by Erik's gaze evoked mental images of small rodents being stared down by larger predators, and with the cat at his back, Charles was feeling distinctly disadvantaged. "Oh Lord, Erik, I'm so sorry. The cat— she scratched my neck, and I moved without thinking, and—"
As quick as a snake, startling Charles enough to gasp, Erik reached one arm over Charles' shoulders. There was a furious screech, followed by a thud as the cat hit the floorboards, and then Erik's fingers were on his skin, skimming lightly over the itchy lines the cat's claws had left behind.
"Huh," Erik said, while Charles tried valiantly not to swallow his own tongue, or worse, lean the short distance forward and press a kiss against the firm plane of Erik's chest, peeking out of the low scoop of his vest. "You'll live."
I want him to trust me.
The circumstances were extenuating— he'd just gotten another blow to the head, for goodness sake. He could hardly be blamed for the muddled state of his common sense.
"Erik?" It was only slightly easier to think when the man shifted away again, his brows lifted in inquiry. This was quite possibly a truly terrible idea. "I have to tell you something."
He might have chosen a more opportune moment, Charles reflected briefly, but once the words were out of his mouth, there was nothing for it but pushing forward. Still, he took the time to put some distance between them, scooting back onto his own pillow.
Right. How in the bloody hell was he meant to go about this?
Faced with Charles' uncertainty, Erik's emotional state took a small dip— he was suddenly on guard, slightly sharper around the edges— but the only outward sign of anything amiss was a fractional narrowing of his eyes. "If this is about your skull being made of granite, I think I've figured that out myself."
Prowling around in a snit, the cat meandered over to the door and began butting up against the frame, meowing insistently. Before Erik could make a move, Charles was wriggling out from beneath layers of bedclothes and padding across the chilled floor to let her out into the dim stillness just after dawn. The blast of cold air was brutal, but sobering in a way Charles fiercely appreciated at the moment.
Pushing the door shut again, the very instant the cat's tail was clear, Charles swallowed thickly and turned, peering back at Erik through the shadowed cabin. There was just enough faint light filtering through the windows to allow details here and there, rather than simply vague, dark shapes. A whorl of hair flopped dark onto Erik's forehead as he sat up in bed, and Charles pushed his own hair back at the sight, ignoring the coolness leeching up through his socks as he lingered by the door.
"I know I've no right," he began, and his words were much steadier than he'd feared. Not squeaking like an adolescent was a small mercy, but he'd take it. "But I'd like to ask for your word on something."
"My word about what?" The room stretched wide and yawning between them, and Charles shifted slowly on the balls of his feet. He wasn't precisely beginning this conversation on Erik's good side, and that was not at all his intent.
"Your word that if you truly dislike what I'm about to tell you, that you will at least drive me to the post office instead of simply tossing me out on my ear. I've nearly frozen my arse off once, quite recently, and I can't say I enjoyed it much."
Erik was emanating wariness by this point, practically shouting his silent suspicion, but instead of voicing any of that, he simply sat up a bit straighter, slinging one bare arm over his bent knees. "All right. You have my word."
For whatever that's worth.
Regardless of the unspoken addendum, Charles had a strong feeling that this man's word was worth quite a lot.
Small mercies, Charles. Seize this one.
"Erik." He wondered if he'd ever had to explain his power to anyone before— he couldn't recall having done so. Oh and by the way, old thing, I can read your mind. Pass the toast? "Have you... have you ever considered that there might be people living in the world with certain abilities beyond the norm?"
It was meant to be an easy, innocuous question— non-threatening, and hopefully not so unspecific that it crossed the line into terribly irritating. He certainly didn't expect a great bubble of darkness to rush out toward him, filling all quiet spaces with anger fear confusion red pain run, or for the silverware to begin rattling softly in its drawer, barely audible.
How does he— Erik began to think, but it was the images that accompanied the furious question that drew Charles' attention. Erik, calling out to metal around him, feeling it hum its answer, reacting like an extension of his own body. Spinning nuts onto bolts, untangling wires, twisting and bending and shaping...
That's... my God, that's why you're so bright.
There was a terrible metallic groan, deep and grinding from the bed frame, and Charles realised too late that he might have been astonished enough to project that last bit. Damn it all.
"Erik, Erik please, I had no idea—" It was a gamble, but the possibility of being pinned to the wall by a handful of forks and butter knives was enough to make him a touch reckless. If possible, Charles was determined to avoid anything quite so dramatic as impalement.
My friend, please. Lord, such a gamble, but Erik was so perfectly still, even as the room buzzed, threatening to become a maelstrom. I truly had no idea. I thought I was alone.
Alone. Yes, Erik understood that feeling quite well. Charles wasn't quite holding his breath, but it was a close thing. His heart was hammering fit to crack his ribs.
"Are you—" Erik was painfully hoarse, sounding as if he'd been gargling glass, and Charles winced involuntarily. "Are you in my head?"
"Not exactly." And that was entirely the wrong answer, ratcheting the tension up even farther; Charles scrambled to lay his own thoughts open, blaring the truth outward as clearly but non-invasively as possible.
Look. He didn't push past the boundaries of Erik's mind, not even fractionally, but he did spread out a brilliant tableau of nearly every moment since he'd woken, bandaged and confused. Every time he'd slipped into Erik's mind, to seek answers, to reassure, to check for danger, and every time he'd kept his powers to himself, respecting unenforced boundaries out of some sense of politeness and the warm curl of companionship. He was babbling over the images, a half-sensible narration, but the thoughts spilled forth like water gushing from a broken dam. Didn't delve, didn't dig— not purposely, not deeply— surface feelings, sense of mood, very loud thoughts— things I can't help but hear— Privacy, yes, and I'm trying, I swear but I can't simply deafen myself, and I wanted you to know— wanted you to know, to trust, please, Erik—
"Stop." Immediately, Charles drew back, his mind curling in on itself like a flower. In the dim light, he could see the piercing glimmer of Erik's eyes, flashing, still staring so intently at him.
God fucking damn it. Erik stopped himself from rubbing his temples, from burying his face in the quilts, and also from strangling Charles with one of the iron coat hooks nailed up by the door. He was confident he could manage it, in his current mood, but something made him refrain... and that something certainly wasn't merely the inconvenience of disposing of a body.
I thought I was alone.
Erik had been alone for decades, since he'd woken in that hellish pit, his paper-thin skin and bleary eyes burning with the stink of lime and the fetid thickness of rot and blood and mud. Bodies piled under him, around him, smothering him— buried alive in death, every breath a fiery agony as he fought the weight of corpses and the bullet that had torn into him, shallow, halted before it could pierce anything more vital than his starving flesh.
He'd stopped that bullet, somehow. He hadn't been able to stop any of the others.
There was no time, crawling out of the mouth of his own grave, their grave, with dark, soaking earth crumbing under his hands and the Einsatzgruppen combing the countryside, hunting. He climbed, like Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah from the furnace, but he was only one, not three— his mother and father were limp and cold among the corpses, silent in the rain. There was no time.
And then he'd run. Alone.
And eventually he'd found himself on a spit of an island in the North Atlantic, and for the first time in a very long time, the phantom burning in his lungs was eased, replaced by the bite of salt air. When his fingers and palms were raw and red from hauling nets and wet to the elbows with clean water and fish, he could almost ignore the shadow of blood darkening his hands. And he was still blessedly, damnably alone.
"Stay out of my head." First things first— he needed to deconstruct the situation. He needed his feet under him again. I thought I was alone.
"Of course. I will, of course." Charles moved slowly, carefully, lifting one arm to rub the back of his neck.
There were at least a thousand thoughts buffeting around in his head, and his new awareness of Charles' abilities made his own mind feel incredibly raucous— Erik twisted the tap without a touch, his hands braced on the sides of the bathroom sink. Charles was still out in the other room, and even without looking through the partially open door, Erik could track his movements, feeling the nickle-plated buttons of his henley pacing nervously.
Gathering palmfuls of frigid water, Erik leaned over and splashed his face, his jaw clenching as rivulets trailed down his neck, chilling sleep-warmed skin. One more splash, and then he raked his hands back through his hair, partially slicking down the mess the pillow had left behind. His bottom lip was slightly swollen, barely noticeable, sporting a split from his own teeth that would sting if he tried to smile.
This was absolute madness. It couldn't possibly be happening.
Peering up at himself in the mirror, he looked miserably haggard, hunted; it was a wildness that had been slowly dimming as hard winters, harder summers, and the perpetual wash of the surf beat against his rough edges. Solitude had made him dull and unmindful, but now the fear was back, creeping and crawling under his skin like ants.
There was a clatter, a muffled curse, and Erik snapped out of his contemplativeness. Wool-gathering with a mind-reader wringing his hands in the next room was idiotic.
Wiping his hands on his shorts and his face on his forearm, Erik shored up and walked cautiously out of the bathroom. Charles was crouched next to the kitchen counter, plucking pieces of broken ceramic off the floorboards with uneasy fingers. The casualty was one of the mugs that Erik had found in the cupboards when he'd first bought the cottage— bone-white with an old beige stain inside, dully glazed and unadorned. Erik had brought a pair of tin mugs with him when he'd moved in, in his few boxes of belongings and supplies.
The handle of the mug had broken off cleanly, and the rest had cracked into uneven pieces. Charles glanced up at the sound of his footsteps, and the expression on his face was so apologetic and so very tense that Erik nearly flinched from the sight of it.
"Let me," he said instead, dragging his eyes from Charles' face to the shards of mug, bending down to gather the rest of the mess. The silence was thunderous.
This was absolute madness.
Standing, Erik dropped the pieces of mug onto the counter, then reached out and took hold of the broom and dustpan (the steel wires that held the bristles to the handle were enough, though his grip was less steady on that than on the aluminum pan), levitating them from their corner by the stove, over into his hands. Pausing briefly, he forced himself to glance at Charles, who had straightened out of his own squat to watch Erik with some strange mix of uncertainty and poorly disguised wonder.
Erik pointedly ignored the tiny flare of warmth the latter caused.
"I didn't tell you either." Briskly sweeping up any small slivers of ceramic, Erik emptied them into the sink, then sent the broom and dustpan floating back. "I've never told anyone. I thought... As you said, I thought I was alone."
There were stories of mothers who lifted entire cars from atop their children, of people who walked unscathed from horrific accidents, or could run and swim faster or jump so much higher than average men. People with extraordinary strength or intelligence; the Übermensch, wunderkinder. Flukes, strokes of luck, years of training, but nothing like this.
Erik had never heard of another person who could truly sense and control metal, or look inside a human mind the same way another person might open a book.
"We are not alone." Charles was smiling, small and crooked, still more than a little hesitant. "Neither of us."
As they sat quietly across from each other at the table with two tin mugs of tea steaming between them, dawn had begun to creep warmly through the windows, casting everything in soft shades of pink and pale grey. It was much too... cosy for Erik's current state of mind, but he hardly registered the ambience, regardless.
He was, admittedly, taking no small amount of unexpected (foolish) pleasure in being able to stretch his powers in front of another living person. To trade companionship for the freedom to live as he saw fit had always been an easy choice— the absence of people was much easier to bear than the loss of a natural sense. But the way Charles' gaze kept flickering towards the spoon stirring slowly and untouched in Erik's tea, his expression half-shuttered over curiosity, was reassuring in a way Erik had never imagined.
Having his abilities discovered, observed, studied— considered in isolation, the thought dredged up dark memories and long festering fears. He'd seen what treatment the other should expect, and how quickly dehumanisation could turn so many eyes from atrocity. The Einsatzgruppen were monstrous, still darkening his dreams more nights than not, dragging people from homes and hiding places to be slaughtered like animals before their neighbours. And that was saying nothing of the stories Erik had heard after, when he'd finally been able to take a breath, with Poland hundreds of miles behind. Hushed stories of camps, of unimaginable horrors, and the experiments...
But Charles' curiosity felt genuine, bright, and deeply personal. That made more difference than it should have, if Erik had even an ounce of good sense left.
He'd allowed Charles to stay in the first place, instead of foisting him off on McCoy. Good sense had precious little to do with any of this.
We are not alone. Charles' words, but not Charles in his head. The man hadn't spoken in his mind since Erik had forbidden it. I'm trying, but I can't simply deafen myself.
Can you hear me, Charles? he thought clearly, all but shouting in his own mind. Charles didn't blink, didn't flinch, still watching the spoon surreptitiously. For all his wonderment, the man seemed oddly muted. Stilted.
"Charles." His throat still sounded slightly hoarse; he drew his tea closer and setting the spoon on the table. "You don't... there's no need to shut down completely. You said you weren't digging before." And for fuck's sake, I think I believe you.
The tea was hot enough to send a frisson of pain through his split lip, but Erik drank anyway, watching Charles' fingers play carefully around the handle of his own mug, the discolouration the frostbite had left on his skin faded already. Lucky.
Charles didn't speak for a moment, tapping a rhythm with his thumb against the speckled blue enamel of the mug. His tea rippled in response. Then he cleared his throat, very softly, and favoured Erik with another tiny smile— this one was so achingly brilliant, a lift of red lips and a guilelessly delighted glimmer in wide blue eyes, and Erik yanked brutally at his wandering mind.
"If you're certain," Charles said, obviously trying for calm and composed, though it was barely a question and very nearly a whoop of joy. Erik called up the sensation of stifling his power, of being forced to reach for metal with only his hands, the feeling as unnatural and unnecessary as trying to play piano with his feet— the intense sensory deprivation he imagined Charles experiencing. Then he took all those thoughts, and somewhat awkwardly imagined shoving them in Charles' direction.
One gasping, explosive laugh later, Charles was rubbing his own forehead, wheezing out a chuckle here and there. "Ah yes, quite, my friend." The laughter was nearly infectious, radiating relief, but Erik took another sip of tea rather than join in. "Thank you, Erik."
Nodding slightly, Erik felt a strange, gentle sensation brushing against his thoughts, foreign but bizarrely familiar, and managed not to recoil. He hadn't felt anything of the sort when Charles had touched his mind before, and as another small test, he thought at Charles again.
I can feel you. Tapping the side of his head with two fingers, Erik quirked a brow.
Charles merely shrugged, his laughter fading peacefully. "I thought it would be more polite this way, if that's all right. If it bothers you—"
"It's fine." It wasn't so terribly different from the awareness of another body in the cottage, occupying space that had been empty for so long. Unusual, somewhat jarring, but not necessarily unpleasant.
"Good." Then Charles paused, his head cocking with what looked more like curiosity than suspicion. You're taking this far better than I'd feared.
The words were warm, pleased, and Erik tamped down the ridiculous urge to squirm as they filled his mind. "It's reassuring that I can surprise you," he said dryly, and Charles laughed again.
He was... digesting the information. He'd make no rash decisions; instincts might have kept him alive over the years, but he was still a thinking man. This was unprecedented and fascinating, for all it was also reckless and terrifying.
He could also surprise himself.
The images and feelings Erik had sent him— in such a tidal rush; a nearly clamorous din— had done absolutely nothing agreeable to his headache, but Charles could not bring himself to care. Even an hour of keeping his mind caged so firmly had been suffocating, and Erik… Erik understood, to some extent.
As much as the idea of Charles peeking into his thoughts set the other man's teeth on edge (yes, for all his resoluteness, his stubbornness, Charles knew he was still uncomfortable), Erik was just as amazed by this discovery as Charles. Amazed, and willing to shore up and push his own discomfort aside— Charles was rather humbled by that, truth be told.
And then there was the matter of Erik's power, which was something that still left Charles feeling wholly enthralled, especially now that he was fairly certain he wasn't about to find himself homeless and freezing. He had picked up some cursory details from Erik's mind, but there was so much more to know, to discover.
"I feel very lucky to have found you," he said suddenly, glancing up to find Erik staring back at him, his expression cool and sphinx-like. Charles ignored the brief, unscrupulous urge to slip past that mask and sneak a quick look— circumstances thus far had been extenuating, especially when he'd first woke, but now he was determined to start again as he meant to go on. Somehow, he'd earned a sliver of trust, and he would not abuse it. "What I mean to say is I'm not sure I've ever told anyone either. If I have, I don't remember. This…" Erik was still staring, hardly blinking, and Charles found himself stammering ever so slightly. "This is simply— simply extraordinary."
It may have been an ill-conceived bout of sharing— a mildly embarrassing tangent— but Charles could feel the warm amusement radiating out from Erik's otherwise dour form, the feeling coming strong enough to sense without pressing. Erik understood, and didn't think he was a complete loon.
And Erik… Erik thought he was rather cute when he got so wound up.
Keeping his smile in place, but shifting his attention down to study his tea (intently, subtly), Charles tried very hard to keep from giving himself away. The thought had snuck through, unintended, and he had every intention of ignoring slip ups like that, for both their comforts.
It was… something to think about, however.
Later on, after breakfast and morning ablutions, Charles was settled comfortably in a pair his new trousers (with an inseam that wasn't a mile and a half long, wonder of wonders) and the cosy brown jumper he seemed to have appropriated. The outside the frosty windows the morning looked bright and crisp, with hardly a cloud in the sky and the brightening sun making sparks glitter almost blindingly over the snow. Charles stood at one window, letting his thoughts but not his mind wander, absently scratching soft orange ears as the cat sat, purring, on the sill. He could faintly hear the chugging of hot water running from the heater, but he kept himself firmly barred from even the briefest consideration of Erik's shower.
His hands felt better— not stinging as they had been, though still slightly stiff, especially where the small blisters had formed. There was no swelling, however, and no sign of infection or any of the worsening complications Dr. McCoy had mentioned. His feet were the same, bundled up in thick, soft socks.
The shower stopped, and Charles pressed two fingers against his temple, stretching his mind outward— toward the forest, not into the bathroom. He could sense animal minds, with images flashing quickly and the sharp edges of instinct, and if he concentrated, he could hear whispers of distant human thoughts as well. It was a suitable, effective, and altogether fascinating distraction.
In fact, he was still so deep in exploring the reach of his abilities that he did not notice Erik exiting the bathroom until the man was standing by his shoulder, dressed in a black polo neck and dark grey trousers, unshaven but with his damp hair combed back neatly. Charles blinked when Erik cleared his throat pointedly, dragging his eyes away from where he'd been staring, unfocused, out into the placid scenery.
"Rabbits have terribly frenetic minds, my friend." Rubbing his forehead firmly— really, he should have been kinder to his headache, but now that the bathroom was free, there was aspirin calling his name— Charles continued to stroke the cat's silky neck with his free hand. "And you were quite right. I daresay I'm the talk of the island, or we are, more accurately; gossipy thoughts flickering here and there like fireflies."
Leaning against the window frame, Erik crossed his arms loosely. "You're able to hear thoughts from all the way across the island?"
"Hm, yes. Apparently so." Leaving the cat with a final scratch behind the ears, Charles took a deep, fortifying breath, ignoring the crisp smell of soap flooding his senses. He motioned vaguely at the bathroom before starting off towards it. "Though I could certainly do with an aspirin."
The bottle was tucked away in on the shelf above the toilet, and Charles swallowed two pills with a handful of cold water before padding back out to find Erik lingering just where he'd left him. There was a small droplet of water hanging from the man's earlobe, backlit and glinting in the sun. The sight of it made Charles swallow thickly.
In the back of his mind, shuttered securely against the possibility of projection, some base part of Charles' psyche considered what that droplet might taste like, if he were to lick it off. Probably a bit like shampoo, though such rationality had no place in horrifically inappropriate fantasy.
The head wound had done him worse than he'd originally thought, clearly.
"A woman named Moira," Charles said, his tone perfectly, carefully even as he walked slowly back towards the window, slipping his hands into the pockets of his trousers. "Is utterly aghast she didn't figure out you were hiding someone out here, and she's strongly considering dropping by for a visit. Considering it strongly enough that she was all but shouting in my head."
Shit, Erik thought, harsh with exasperation, while almost simultaneously hissing "Scheisse," under his breath. "When, do you know?"
"Sometime this afternoon, from what I gathered." Erik wasn't particularly angry, simply annoyed, which Charles might have found somewhat surprising. He had, however, gleaned a bit of camaraderie and respect from Moira's mind when he'd brushed by— feelings of friendship, perhaps, by some definition that suited a man with little interest in such.
Pushing off from the wall, Erik sighed shortly. "I've got an engine to finish for her. If you need anything while I'm in the workshop, just call." He touched a finger against his temple, as if the offer were the most natural thing in the world, then went to get his boots.
"I..." Charles' voice threatened to thicken, to imbue his words with more significance than he'd dare at the moment, and so he dared something else instead. Thank you, Erik.
"Do stop thanking me for every little thing, Charles." Lacing up his boots, then shrugging on his flannel coat, one corner of Erik's mouth twitched, lifting into a small, wry smile. "I have a reputation as a ill-humoured hermit to maintain, and your presence alone has blown the latter to hell."
"Mm. Hermits together is a bit too contradictory, I suppose." That earned him a laugh, and the sound warmed Charles to his toes, making him bold. "But don't worry, I won't breathe a word of your secret conviviality." Or the fact that you drool in your sleep.
"Slander and lies, all of it." When Erik pulled the door open, letting icy morning air rush into the cosiness of the cottage, Charles bit back a shrill sort of gasp. "And you snore like an old teakettle, so I'd hardly talk if I were you."
And on that note, Erik disappeared outside, yanking the door shut firmly behind himself. Luckily enough, Charles wasn't forced to brave the cold again to rebut, affecting a terribly saccharine mental tone. Have a good day at work, darling. I'll call you if Moira arrives, shall I?
Erik's reply was a wordless grumble of thought— amusement, annoyance, and a tiny curl of warmth that Charles wasn't entirely convinced the man had meant to send at all.
It's very possible we're flirting, Charles thought, entirely to himself, and scrubbed the heels of his hands lightly over his eyes. I wonder if Erik's noticed?
Both the house and Charles' head offered nothing but silence in answer. The cat meowed, stretching from the sill to bat at his stomach.
It wasn't quite noon when Erik appeared again, cheeks pink from the cold and greasy filth darkening his fingernails. Charles had checked in on his progress a few times during the course of the morning, politely and unobtrusively, catching flashes of concentration and accomplishment here and there— he'd felt Erik's swell of satisfaction as the engine came together, and had felt rather inspired.
Opening a tin of soup was more trouble than it should have been, but Charles had managed without doing any damage to his healing blisters. The soup was hot on the stove, and there was a fresh pot of tea steeping by the time Erik came in— it felt a bit silly to be so damned pleased with himself for succeeding at tinned soup, but Charles was not above enjoying small victories. Helplessness was not a state he enjoyed.
Erik nodded significantly at the stove as he stripped off his coat and boots, then moved directly to the kitchen sink to scrub his hands. "You managed lunch with all your fingers intact, I see. Are you interested in a trip into town after we eat? Assuming Moira's not on her way already."
Getting bowls from the cupboard meant moving quite near Erik, who now smelled more like hot metal and petrol than soap, and the fact that the pungent mix of scents wasn't entirely unpleasant was so bloody sappy and foolish that it made Charles' teeth ache. He concentrated on not breaking dishes, and on stretching his mind out in the direction he'd heard the woman earlier, pressing his temple once the bowls were safely on the cupboard. The touch wasn't necessary, not exactly, but it seemed to help him focus.
"She's... out for a walk, with her dog." Walking, and still considering the news she'd heard from her neighbours, about Erik Lehnsherr's mysterious companion. Happiness that Erik wasn't so entirely alone, brilliant curiosity, and a speck of jealousy coloured her frame of mind, but Charles kept all that to himself.
"Good." Rinsing his hands, Erik glanced over at Charles with a vaguely expectant air; Charles blinked back at him.
Then Erik was leaning so very close, and Charles breath caught, frozen on a sharp inhale. Something brushed against the side of his hip, an arm, but before Charles could look down, Erik was stepping back, holding the kitchen towel that had been hanging on the small metal rack that jutted out from the lower cupboards. The rack that Charles had been leaning against.
Right. Towel rack.
It was all Charles could do to keep his breath from stuttering out in something dangerously close to a giggle, something that would doubtlessly sound completely barmy, but he managed to keep it silent. Erik was speaking again, drying his hands and staring off towards the stove, seemingly ignorant of or unaffected by the state in which Charles found himself.
Outwardly, at least. It was something other than his own arrogance that made Charles certain that the flare of... particular awareness hadn't been entirely one-sided. Something that trust and politeness dictated he not dig to unearth fully.
"The last time MacTaggart tried to get out here with this much snow on the ground, I ended up hauling her out of a ditch, and she's still driving the same piece of shit she was then. I'll go to her, after lunch."
Taking a brief moment to centre himself, Charles cleared his throat, then carried the bowls over to the table. "I'll come along, if you don't mind."
"I did offer. Stop, Charles." Hanging the towel back where it belonged, Erik walked up to where Charles had been coming up on the soup, cream of mushroom, which was starting to look as though a good stir might not go amiss. "You've left the spoon in; the handle's far too hot to touch. Let me."
"Ah." I hadn't thought of that.
"Clearly." With a flick of Erik's fingers, the spoon was stirring away, scraping across the bottom of the pot.
Moira lived in an old two-story house, on the edge of the well-spaced cluster of homes that spread out from the main wharf like roots from a tree. No one lived cheek-by-jowl, not like in some mainland towns, but Erik's was the only permanent dwelling situated so far removed from the rest of the community.
The roads were clearer than the day before, the snow having had a chance to settle and pack, and the truck rumbled along without any problems. Bundled up in the passenger's seat, Charles was still goggling out at the scenery as if it were the surface of the moon, strange and fantastic.
It was beautiful, Erik would admit. As quiet and untouched a place as he'd ever known.
"Moira's dog," he said, apropos of nothing, breaking the amiable silence they'd shared since climbing into the truck. "Is a friendly enough sort, but the size of a pony. And Moira is tenacious, utterly mulish, and generally not quite so unbearably nosy as any other islanders you might meet. Just so you know."
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Charles' mouth lift in a smile, though the man kept watching trees go by out the truck's window. "Tenacious, mulish, and minds her business. Rather high praise, Erik."
"She's earned it." The trees thinned as the road widened, though the latter was well-hidden under the snow— his tire tracks from the day before were the only ones marking the road coming into town from this direction. Erik pointed farther up, toward the post and rail fence that partially hedged the property; Moira's house was sided with the same cedar shingles as Erik's cottage, but painted a rich terra cotta brown instead of having been allowed to grey naturally. "It's just there."
The driveway was clear of snow— no doubt Darwin had been quite busy ploughing out his neighbours for pay or trade— but Moira's own truck hadn't been brushed off since the blizzard. Erik pulled up in front, killing the engine, then reached over to open Charles' door. He could have popped the bad latch open just as easily without a touch, but he made a strict point of never using his powers in town.
This was to say nothing of the fact that Charles' cheeks invariably flushed ever so slightly when Erik leaned close, and not with any apparent disgust, which was an observation he kept as quiet as possible in the depths of his own brain.
The moment the truck door opened, Erik could hear Muir's great, booming barking from inside the house. Still holding onto the handle, he turned his head to shoot Charles a gravely serious glance.
"Fair warning: make no sudden moves, don't look him in the eye, and you should be fine." From this distance, Erik could see Charles' throat bobbing as he swallowed, just above the deep grey of his borrowed scarf. Otherwise, the man's expression was resolute.
"You're having me on." There was the tiniest hint of uncertainty in Charles' tone; whether he was playing along, or truly keeping to his own thoughts that much, Erik wasn't sure. "What happened to he's a friendly enough sort?"
"Friendly is such a relative term." Drawing back, Erik opened his own door and hopped out, just in time. The door of the house opened the moment his boots touched the ground, and Muir was a gigantic piebald blur barrelling off the porch.
"Damn it! Muir!" Moira hollered, but Erik merely braced his feet (purely precautionary), and held out a quelling hand.
"Muir, hier." The dog, still rambunctious at just over a year old, stalled visibly at Erik's command, skidding in the snow as he bounded over. "Sitz."
Tongue lolling, the dog sat, peering up at Erik with equal parts blissful expectance and slobber. "Braver hund, Muir."
The clomp of boots heralded Moira's approach across the porch, then down the stairs, and Erik did absolutely nothing to keep his smirk in check. "See, this is the voodoo I was talking about. My dog does not know German."
"Apparently he doesn't know English either." A slight woman dressed in blue jeans, a thick beige sweater, and an unbuttoned peacoat, not especially tall or imposing by any standard definitions, Moira's glower still might have cowed a lesser man. Erik merely bent to give Muir a brief pat. "Engine's fixed."
"Of course it is, you smug bastard." Behind him, Erik heard Charles' door close. "Oh, hello there."
"Hello, you must be Moira." Muir wriggled excitedly (all one hundred and fifty plus pounds of him), but remained sitting as Charles came around the truck. "Charles Smith. I do apologise for not shaking hands, but I'm in the process of healing a bit of frostbite."
"Yes, I'd heard you were in to see McCoy about that." Erik wondered idly if Moira thought the unspoken curiosity was subtle or not. She might not be so brash as to ask outright, but she wasn't above ham-handed hinting. "Moira MacTaggart— good to meet you, Charles. Come on inside, both of you."
Inside the house was awash with delicious scents, like fresh baked bread and sweets, which put Erik on edge immediately. Most of the time, Moira ate no better than he did, content to live on canned soup and beans if it meant more time to tinker away at some project or other.
Charles, who was being somewhat distracted by Muir's insistent nosing at his thighs, inhaled appreciatively before they'd even made it past the sisal rug by the door. "I hope we're not interrupting, Miss MacTaggart— whatever you're cooking smells lovely."
"None of that; it's just Moira." Erik didn't move to take off his boots, but nor did he step off the rug. Corralled by Muir's enthusiastic bulk on one side, Charles crowded close to him, and Erik laid a hand between his shoulder blades. Always so damned perceptive, Moira's eyebrows rose slightly. "And I was finishing up some baking. Pies and rolls."
Moira could bake, and quite well, Erik knew from experience. That wasn't the odd part. "Pies? Who died?" Then, with a sinking sort of dread, the truth hit him. "It's Friday, isn't it?"
"It is indeed." The near-pained resignation in his voice was enough to put a diabolically amused glint in Moira's eyes, while Charles glanced between them both. "Hang up a calendar in that shack of yours, and you wouldn't have these problems."
"It's not a problem," Erik said darkly, while at the same time, Charles' voice murmured in his mind Friday is significant? "I'm simply here to drop off your engine, and that's all."
Friday, he thought, sparing Charles a brief, bland look. There's a weekly potluck dinner, every Friday, all winter. I do not attend.
"Well, the boat's in storage at the wharf, so we'll have to head into town unless your plan is to just dump it on my porch." Moira waved her hand in their direction, stripping out of her peacoat. "Come in properly, would you? Just wipe your boots; I've got to check on my pies."
Erik should have known that such a simple operation— dropping off that damned engine, even if he took the time to help Moira reinstall it— would turn into a circus act. It had been that sort of week.
Charles was already peeling off his mittens and carefully undoing the buttons of his coat, and it all felt a bit like staring down into a ravine as the ground crumbled under his feet. All but inescapable, and likely very uncomfortable before all was said and done.
"Come," Charles said under his breath, tugging gently at Erik's cuff. "Please?"
A very deep, very craggy ravine. Erik sighed, and wiped his feet.
"Sorry about Muir," Moira was saying, as the three of them made their way into her kitchen; the dog was glued to the side of Charles' leg, huffing. "He's young enough that he still thinks he's a puppy sometimes. And for some reason that escapes me, he's always really liked Erik." There were two dozen golden-brown rolls cooling on the counter, and Moira picked up a pair of quilted potholders laying beside them, bending to open her oven. "Though I suppose you might understand it a bit better, Charles."
Erik narrowed his eyes, unamused even if the quip was meant to be entirely light-hearted. "How very subtle."
Before Moira could do more than throw him a look over her shoulder, reaching in to fetch the first of two pies from the oven, Erik's attention was divided sharply by Charles' hand squeezing his forearm.
"I do, actually," Charles said, smiling. She's being friendly, Erik. My presence is a bit of a shock. "And you say the dog is young? Will he get much bigger, and if so, do you have a stable ready?"
Setting one pie on the counter, Moira laughed brightly, and Erik focused on keeping his expression impassive and his thoughts clear. The feel of Charles' touch lingered even after it was gone. "Not much bigger... ten or twenty more pounds, maybe. My last Landseer topped one-eighty, but he was a giant."
"Giant would be the word, yes." Following Erik over to the kitchen table, Charles sat, only to find himself with a lapful of Muir's drooling head. "And good day to you too, old boy."
"Hier." With a snap of his fingers, Erik called Muir away from his new obsession— Muir's, Muir's new obsession— burying his hand in thick fur once the dog sat beside his knee.
Moira was a lovely woman, with a quick wit and kind personality— Charles liked her almost immediately. Erik clearly liked her as well, no matter his dour glowering.
The pair of them were talking shop, chatting about engines and boats while Moira set the steaming pies carefully toward the back of the cupboard, which seemed prudent considering Muir's head was level with the edge of the pale green Formica. It wasn't a topic of conversation in which Charles had a great deal of knowledge, nor was he honestly that interested in mechanical or marine jargon, so he stayed politely quiet and distracted in his own thoughts.
Distracted, that is, until Erik's fingers tapped against the table in front of him, shaking him out of his preoccupation. Glancing up, Charles found Erik staring at him, looking ever so mildly impatient.
Still standing by the cupboard, Moira chuckled. "I'm shocked he didn't fall asleep, with you droning about fuel injection. I think he might be a keeper, Erik."
Instead of snapping as Charles expected, Erik ignored the jibe, not even sparing Moira a warning look. "I said Moira and I are heading down to the wharf. You'll be all right here for an hour or two?"
"You're leaving me here?" He hadn't meant to sound quite so affronted by the idea, but he'd been surprised. Charles watched Erik's mouth twitch down, a faint frown.
"The storage buildings aren't heated, and you shouldn't be out in the cold that long." That... made sense. Even a few minutes outside was enough to make Charles' fingers ache. "So you'll stay here." Are you really going to argue with me about this, Charles?
No one is arguing. We're discussing. Catching a fleeting notion from the fore of Moira's mind, Charles turned a charming smile on the woman. "I do greatly appreciate the hospitality, but I would prefer to take advantage of an afternoon in town. If it wouldn't be a terrible bother, could you drop me off at the post office on your way?"
Before Moira could answer, Erik cut in sharply, verbally and mentally. "The post office? Why?" What are you playing at?
In an obvious but somewhat effective defence against the slowly rising tension, Moira clapped her hands once, rubbing them together and smiling benignly. "This may come as a terrible shock, Erik," she said, thick with mock gravity. "But sometimes people actually enjoy socialising with other living humans. I bet you're glad to be sitting down after that bombshell."
Erik tilted his head with a cool, predatory sort of consideration. "You tore that engine out yourself, MacTaggart, and very nearly ruined it in the process. Do you think you'll have it back in before the new year if I actually did dump it on your doorstep?"
"Enough." This situation was in danger of becoming very unpleasant, and that hadn't been Charles' intention in the slightest. Swallowing back a rush of surprise when both Erik and Moira quieted, their focus now trained on him instead of baiting each other, Charles pressed on carefully. "It's certainly nothing worth arguing over, is it? The post office is warm, I'll stay inside while you two work, and didn't you mention there's some manner of library? That should be more than enough to keep me out of trouble for an afternoon."
"I sincerely doubt it," Erik muttered, then flicked his hand dismissively. "Fine, whatever you want to do. Let's get moving while the light's still with us."
Getting to his feet only a beat after Erik, Charles still felt as though he was scrambling to catch up... possibly catch up with a rolling thunderhead. I didn't mean to upset you, my friend.
"If you're leaving too, Charles, then Muir's got to come along." Moira nodded her head at the dog, whose tail began thudding heavily against the wooden floor. "I'm not leaving him with the pies."
Erik didn't respond mentally, and Charles wasn't about to push. "He'll have to ride in the back," Erik said, his expression dimmed to smoothly impassive. "Unless you want to take your truck as well."
It was only mannerly to offer Moira the window seat, which she accepted with a small smirk. That was how Charles ended up all but plastered against Erik's side as the three of them crowded into the narrow cab, with the stick shift knocking awkwardly between his knees. It wasn't quite cramped enough that Moira necessarily should have offered to take her own truck as well, but the low simmering displeasure Charles could feel radiating from Erik in thick waves made the truck feel oppressive.
I truly don't understand why you're upset, he thought gently, as they settled in and Erik started the ignition. Behind them, leashed in the truck bed out of the way of the engine, Muir was breathing out great cloudy gusts, looking altogether comfortable.
Erik's hand brushed Charles' thigh when he reached for the shift, putting the truck into reverse, then his arm laid warmly along Charles' shoulders as he craned to check behind them. He still smelled of smoke, fuel, and the outdoors, and on top of all that, he now exuded an almost surly sort of discontentment like cologne. Even faced with the first cold, dry blast of the truck's heaters, the air not yet warmed, Charles found himself growing a bit hot.
I don't know who I am, he tried again, as Erik backed them out of the driveway and turned, shifting again. If I can find something that sparks a memory, any memory—
You don't have to explain yourself to me. After even such a short while being so purposely ignored, the sound of Erik's voice in his mind was an aching kind of relief. Charles nestled into his borrowed coat, watching Erik's profile out of the corner of his eye.
And if I want to explain myself? They couldn't keep this silent conversation up for much longer without it becoming strange; not with Moira sitting so nearby. I'd rather it if you weren't annoyed with me, to be perfectly honest.
The truck drove along, the road much smoother here than out near the cottage. A few more houses dotted the landscape, with acres of snow-covered land and the occasional fence stretching between them. Moira was humming very softly to herself, watching the scenery pass.
I suppose asking you to simply be less annoying would be too simple. If it weren't for the brief glance Erik levelled at him, still irritated but now also mildly, begrudgingly amused, Charles might have bristled at that. Instead, he jabbed Erik very lightly in the ribs with his elbow, only to be pushed back by a firm shoulder bumping against his own. Then he ducked his chin, half-hiding his foolishly pleased smile in the folds of his scarf.
Moira, for better or worse, did not miss the brief physical exchange. Charles kept it to himself that she thought they were rather adorable.
"Good afternoon to you, Mr. Smith." Aza was sitting almost precisely where he'd been during Charles' last visit to the post office, perched on a tall stool behind a dark wooden countertop. There were shelves behind the man, one section lined with perhaps five dozen neatly labelled boxes; there were no locks apparent on any of them. A corkboard was hanging nearby, empty save for a few photographs, their edges curling wherever pushpins didn't hold them, and some faded notices.
The postmaster's teeth were very white in his tanned face, his cheeks and the bridge of his nose slightly reddened by what could have been a mild case rosacea. There were also a few scars Charles could see, including one that looked a bit gruesome bisecting his left brow and down his cheek, but taken altogether, the image the man put forward was quite raffish.
"Good afternoon, sir." Slipping his mittens into his pocket, Charles pulled off the knit cap Erik had flung at him before they'd left the cottage, raking his hand back through his hair. "And it's simply Charles, please. May I call you Aza?"
"You may, of course." Sitting up, Aza spun his pen deftly through his fingers, still working his way through a thick book of crossword puzzles. There was a low murmur of classical music coming from the radio sitting on one of the shelves. "Tell me, have you truly managed to drag Lehnsherr into town on a Friday?"
The post office was warm, though not as cosy as the cottage. Still, Charles loosened his scarf and undid the buttons of his coat, approaching the counter. "I'm afraid I can't take credit for any dragging— Erik's gone down to the wharf with Moira MacTaggart. They're both terribly excited about something mechanical, but I'm ashamed to admit complete ignorance of the details."
He wasn't actually completely ignorant, but he knew enough not to advertise the fact that Erik had all but rebuilt Moira's engine. That was her business; if she wanted to divulge it, she could.
Aza's dark brows rose and his pen spun again. "I see. And you have come to keep me company in the meantime, have you? Very kind." Charles was plucking subtly at just how much of a busybody this Aza fellow truly was. The answer, so far as he could tell from a cursory peek at the man's thoughts, was very much, though it wasn't a malicious sort of nosiness, simply persistent.
Charles was hardly in a position to turn his nose up at harmless snooping— dipping shallowly into minds felt as natural as breathing to him, and nearly as essential. "Yes, of course to keep you company, and also take advantage of your library, if I might."
"What library we have—" Aza tilted his pen to point toward an open doorway nestled between the corkboard and a hatstand. There were more shelves inside, Charles could see, lit by the stark winter sunlight streaming through windows, but these appeared stuffed with books, not postboxes. "Is at your disposal. Anything specific you wish for, leave a request with me, and if possible Janos will bring it on the plane next month."
"That's lovely, thank you." Stripping off his coat, paying little heed to the blatant sizing up he suffered under Aza's icy blue gaze, Charles hooked it carefully beside the long, black wool trench hanging from the hatstand. When he automatically pushed up the too-long arms of his jumper, letting them bunch at his elbows for the moment, Aza chuckled quietly. Charles glanced over, but the man had already turned back to his puzzle.
It was a short, silent drive down to the wharf, and Erik wasn't fooled in the slightest by how quiet Moira was being. Backing the truck up to the door of her storage barn, he watched as she unhooked Muir, then unlocked the wide, rolling steel door— the facade didn't crack until they were loading the engine onto a cart to drag it inside.
"So about Charles," she said through clenched teeth, as they lifted it together.
Erik did not wait for her to finish, shaking his head as they settled the engine carefully on the steel cart. "No."
Breathing deeply in the crisp air, while Muir bounded through snow banks nearby, Moira wiped her gloves on the thighs of her jeans. "Just no? Is that all I'm getting?"
"Yes, that's all you're getting. Come on."
His entire upper body was crammed below deck, hanging partially upside down just above the bilge pump in order to reach a few stubborn bolts, when Moira decided to try again.
"Do you remember the summer before last," she said from the other side of the engine block; at least she was contorted up as well, securing some lines. If all the blood rushing to Erik's head hadn't been becoming so uncomfortable, he might have rolled his eyes. "When I hired Cassidy on for herring season?"
"I remember." Tightening the last nut, Erik hauled himself up, making his stomach muscles burn and his head swim just a little. "He thought catching fish would be a much more appealing job than gutting and canning them, not that I necessarily disagree."
"Yeah, and he lasted four months before I kicked his ass back to the mainland. Good kid, but forever distracted, and an absolute misery to wake up in the morning." Sitting on the deck, Erik could see Moira's legs and the curve of her back, but her head and shoulders were still hidden by the engine. Grabbing a rag, Erik wiped his wrench, then dabbed at his damp hairline with the back of one wrist. His sweat was already cooling.
"I'm sure I'll regret asking if there's a point to this story."
"My point—" With a grunt, Moira sat up, bracing one arm on the engine. Her cheeks were vividly red, and small, messy sprigs of hair had begun to loosen from her ponytail. "Is that you are too touchy by half, mostly because you avoid everyone. I had Sean Cassidy working on my boat and living in my house for four months, two years ago, and Aza still ribs me about my little bright-eyed boy toy. I know Alex and Darwin still joke with Sean about it, too. None of them mean it spitefully, but hell, what else is there to talk about on this damned island besides everyone else's business?"
Grinding the heel of his hand between his eyebrows, Erik didn't deign to answer that. After a moment, Moira unfolded herself from kneeling, walking around to kick him lightly in the calf. "One of those pies is for you, you know. My dastardly plan was to drive out and snoop around, with delicious pastry as a sacrifice to appease the wrathful, misanthropic god of the east beach."
"You fiend." Erik glanced up at her flatly. "I never would have guessed."
The western sky was already starting to redden by the time they were finished, though the sun was still hovering over the horizon like too-heavy fruit drooping from a tree. Winter meant dusk was coming earlier every day, but there would still be light enough to get home if they didn't linger at Moira's.
Of course, there were already trucks parked outside the post office when they pulled up.
"And the gang's all here," Moira said with a smirk, getting out and telling Muir to stay put with a stern tone and a gesture. As much as the dog was still excitable, he was good at following most directions, and he'd be better by spring. That was what mattered, when Moira would have him out on the boat.
I'm here, Charles,he thought loudly, feeling a bit foolish about shouting in his own head, but he did manage to get a response.
Erik! Are you coming inside? Even in his thoughts, Charles sounded almost giddy with excitement. It was bizarrely endearing, in the same way the cat was when she left bloody squirrel tails on the doorstep as gifts.
Slapping his hand against the steering wheel, Erik tamped down his frustration. Yes, I'm coming.
The post office had been, at one time, the closest thing the island had to a very stately home. Most business now took place in what used to be the foyer and parlour (several walls had been knocked down but that had been before Erik's time), and the upstairs bedrooms had been converted into storage and space for McCoy's gear, but there was a working kitchen and very sizable dining room farther inside. Following Moira in, knocking the snow off his boots on the threshold, Erik took note that Aza had already abandoned his perch, and that the hatstand was piled thickly with coats and scarves. There were several smells mingling in the air, including the warm scent of roasted vegetables and something distinctly like tomato.
"I'll have to go get the rolls and the pie," Moira was saying, mostly to herself, as she padded off towards the din of voices without hesitation. Erik didn't even bother taking off his gloves, but he did pull off his flat cap, smoothing back his hair as he trailed behind sedately.
Charles' head snapped up the moment they came through the archway from the corridor, and his smile was nearly blinding. Seated at the long dining table, which was still clear of food but currently being milled around by people, Charles appeared to have been engrossed in some diagram McCoy was sketching on a bit of foolscap. The only other person sitting was Mrs. Salvadore, entrenched at the end of the table with knitting needles flitting impossibly fast between her long, veined hands.
"Oh hello Moira—" Charles' looked a bit flushed, but in altogether good spirits. "Erik."
What had been a sea of animated conversations quieted almost comically, and Erik could feel the weight of attention settling on him, but he brushed the sensation away. Standing next to the doorway, holding a beer and chatting with a surprisingly pregnant Margie Christmas, Darwin turned and offered Erik a broad smile of his own.
"Evening, Lehnsherr." The man stuck a hand out to shake, and Erik peeled off his glove to do just that. Darwin's fingers were cool from the bottle, but not unpleasant. That, predictably, began a chorus of greetings, until Erik found himself herded over towards the table.
They are honestly pleased to see you. All of them. Charles pulled out the chair next to himself, while McCoy tensed ever so slightly. "Do we have a moment or two? Hank and I are just discussing plankton."
Across the room, he could see Moira snickering behind her hand. Between the heat of the oven in the kitchen, and the huge fireplace out front, Erik could feel his skin prickling under all his layers. "Sounds fascinating." You're doing this on purpose.
I haven't the foggiest idea what you're on about. As endearing as the cat, and just as damnably smug. "Have a seat, my friend?" Just for a few minutes, for politeness' sake.
When we get back to the cottage, I am going to strangle you. Unbuttoning his jacket as some defence against the stifling heat, Erik sunk into the offered chair. After a few moments of that, Alex Summers meandered over and held out a beer, which he accepted with no small amount of veiled resignation. Charles was still nattering on, and other conversations began to pick up again as well. When Moira asked to borrow someone's keys to fetch her food and drop Muir off at home, Erik swallowed back any argument about it.
And when the serving dishes began being brought out from the kitchen, Erik got up to help carry without a word, earning a surprised look from both Angel Salvadore (the prodigal granddaughter), and Therese Therieau, whose husband Marc had been fishing the same shoals for nearly thirty years. There were steaming bowls of mashed white potato and turnip, boiled beets, a green bean casserole, among other varied dishes; the smell of tomato was from the stew Mrs. Salvadore had brought along, red and thick with chunks of perfectly browned rabbit.
Erik Lehnsherr had lived on Menigu Island for a decade, and this was only the second Friday potluck he'd ever attended. Considering that he hadn't yet strode out to his truck and driven off into the dark of the evening, Charles and his heedless charm be damned, it was somewhat better than he'd expected thus far.
The occasional press of Charles' knee against his thigh, deliberate or not, and the warm flood of gratitude and enjoyment the man was projecting his way admittedly helped matters.
Driving slowly back to the cottage, keeping a sharp eye out for wildlife as they navigated the narrowing road, Erik hadn't felt quite so full in a very long time. The food... the food had been delicious, even if Alex's green beans were hideously overcooked. The company certainly wasn't something he'd tolerate often, but it hadn't been truly unbearable. He had a minor headache from the clamour of so many people jostling and chatting, but that was to be expected.
"I'm going to burst." Curled up on his side of the bench seat, Charles had his head tilted back as he groaned piteously toward the dark ceiling. It was well past sunset, but the pale column of his throat was still visible in the dim, reflected glow of the headlights. "Did I really have seconds and a slice of apple pie? Am I that mad?"
"You had thirds and pie, and yes you are." Erik had no doubt his own grin was just as visible in the shadows, if not more so. "If Therese and Mrs. Salvadore are to be believed, you're wasting away. They were so very determined to put some meat on your bones."
"You're skinny as a rail, and I've got a paunch. Out of the pair of us, it's hardly fair they picked on me." It's the jumper, isn't it? I look as though I'm being swallowed whole.
"You hardly have a paunch." The slight buzz from the beer was entirely to blame for the images that rose up in Erik's mind, of Charles reaching for dishes on a high shelf while his henley rode up in the front, exposing a strip of fair, attractive stomach. Charles darting out from the bathroom with only a towel wrapped around his waist, fetching the clothes he'd forgotten to gather before showering. Charles, nestled in a cocoon of quilts as the colour gradually leeched back into his limp, nearly frozen body, as naked as the day he was born.
Even if Erik couldn't completely blame the beer for the images, the fact that they bubbled up so clearly was not at all intentional.
In the dark of the truck's cab, Charles had suddenly gone very still.
Charles couldn't remember the last time he'd gotten such a vivid, technicolour view of his own naked arse from someone else's thoughts. Granted, he couldn't remember very much at all, but this was a special sort of scenario.
He wasn't exactly sure what to do at this juncture, but sitting in increasingly uncomfortable silence was certainly not the thing.
"That's... kind of you to say," he murmured, with only a tiny warble betraying his nerves. He needed— he needed to change the subject, before he embarrassed himself. He was far too drowsy and possibly a tiny bit tipsy as well. "Speaking of Mrs. Salvadore, you do know she adores you, yes? I caught something about Angel and a city, but I didn't want to pry, especially since most of her current thoughts revolved around fattening me up like prized veal."
If he hadn't been watching so very closely for every reaction, Charles would have missed Erik's gloved fingers flexing on the steering wheel. "Dom Salvadore, her husband, died a little less than four years ago— heart attack. Angel lived with her grandparents since she was a child, I've never asked why, but when she turned sixteen she took the ferry over to shop on the mainland and never came back. They found a note after she was gone."
Erik's eyes were trained out the windscreen, never even flickering in Charles' direction for an instant, and the urge to peek into his thoughts was nearly overwhelming. Nearly.
"Angel had written a few times," Erik went on. "So they had an idea that she might have gone down the coast to one of the larger cities. It was the middle of a bad herring season, but I don't have any family or outstanding debts. I could afford to go look for her, so I did. I told her about her grandfather, and she chose to come back. Now Mrs. Salvadore knits me a sweater, a few pairs of socks, and gives me a dozen bottles of preserves every December. She even calls them Hanukkah gifts despite being exceedingly Catholic." Charles hadn't expected Erik to be quite so forthright, let alone so verbose about the entire incident, but the tension was easing. "She knit the sweater you're wearing, incidentally."
"And you never told anyone that you found the girl working in an exotic club." When Erik snorted out a sharp breath, Charles hastened to continue. "Just a passing memory she projected, nothing terribly sordid."
"No, I've never told anyone that." They were coming up on the cottage now, its windows dark. There was only a faint wisp of smoke curling from the chimney. "It didn't matter."
When they parked, Erik still reached across to open his door. Charles didn't quite trust his voice at the moment. You are a very good man, Erik Lehnsherr.
Erik didn't answer, but nor did he leave Charles to blindly blunder his own way into the house. He came around the truck as Charles hopped out, his tall form all but melting into the incredible darkness that crept in without the headlights to break it. There was no moon, despite the clear, inky sky.
His hand on Charles' back, pressing just between his shoulder blades as they both trudged toward the house, felt like a single anchored point in an endless, formless void.
"I am going to try to shave today." Charles leaned out of the bathroom, rubbing his fingers over his hideously unkempt chin. Four days (at least) was far too long to go without a proper shave, especially when one was a bit too tidy to pull off the ruggedly handsome fisherman look. Erik, sitting at the kitchen table with a cigarette between his lips and some sort of small gear box disassembled before him, glanced up at the pronouncement. "May I use your razor?"
"If you can manage without slitting your throat, have at it." Turning back to his project, Erik lifted a delicate looking ring without touching it, slipping it onto a larger, blockish piece.
Charles watched for a moment, always a bit spellbound by such casual displays of Erik's gift, then smiled crookedly, embarrassed at himself. "Right, then. I'll gurgle if I sever something vital."
"What did you just say?"
Charles froze, and the cat nestled in his arms lamented the loss of stomach rubs with a warning meow. Erik was giving him a look over the top of his novel. "I said who's a lovely girl. I was speaking to the cat."
Erik, lying on top of the quilts in an undershirt and trousers after a long, productive day in his workshop, narrowed his eyes. "No, not that. What did you call her? Did you name the cat?"
"She just—" Turning from the window, where he and Raven had been contently watching small birds pick pine needles from the snow, Charles refused to fidget. "It doesn't hurt her to have a name. She reminds me of someone I can't quite recall, but I feel as though they were quite dear to me— a woman with blonde hair... or red hair. Someone named, or possibly nicknamed, Raven."
If anything, the explanation simply made Erik's expression harder, stiffening into a blank mask. "You want to name my cat after a woman you half-remember?"
Coolness was spreading, even with the fire stoked, though the tips of Charles' ears felt unaccountably warm. "I think she may be family; possibly my mother when she was young. It would make some sense for deeply rooted memories to return sooner, wouldn't it?"
It was Erik's turn to flounder, though for him that consisted of a furrowed brow and a posture gone slight more relaxed than a wooden board. "I have no idea. I suppose that makes sense." Then he shook his head, his gaze darting back down to his book. "Name the lamp as well, if you like. It's just as likely to come when you call."
Another Friday came and went, and Charles made no mention of going into town for the potluck. Erik, likewise, didn't acknowledge the day, though he did put a small roast of venison and some potatoes into the oven for the two of them. It was a very nice meal, hearty but tender and well-spiced, and Erik also brought out a solid bar of milk chocolate to share as dessert.
On Saturday morning, after the breakfast dishes had been cleared away, a somewhat familiar truck drove into the yard. Erik was still showering, and a quick glance outside assured Charles he had nothing to be concerned about.
Moira's here, Erik.
Confusion hit him first, then the notion of slippery skin. Charles swallowed thickly. What? Why?
I'm not certain, but I'll ask when she gets in. Merely a warning if you wanted to make yourself decent for polite company. Charles's hair was still damp, and he pushed a few unruly strands off his forehead before going to open the door before Moira could knock. The cottage was warm enough that he'd foregone his brown jumper in favour of a slate grey henely, though now with Moira calling he did feel somewhat underdressed. Besides jumpers, henely shirts, some plaid button-downs, and a few thin vests, Erik didn't have much variety from which to choose.
"Good morning," he said, ushering her inside before the heat could leech out too terribly. Moira knocked the slushy snow off her boots, while Raven skittered under the bed with a low, growling noise.
"It's the dog hair." Moira pointed at her jeans (which for all they were a bit faded, didn't appear hairy), then at the bed. "Cats don't like me. Morning, Charles; I come bearing gifts."
Moira was indeed holding a large, brown paper bag with one arm, and she shook it playfully before thrusting it out in his direction. Charles hesitated, then carefully took hold of the surprisingly light bag with both hands. He'd expected it to be much heavier, its contents likely composed of some sort of oily metal... or perhaps bread rolls. Moira did make delicious rolls, but it felt like neither bread nor machinery.
"Dare I ask?" Hanging her coat and scarf up for her, Charles motioned for Moira to follow him over toward the kitchen. He did not open the bag immediately, setting it on the table. "Please don't worry about your boots. Is this a gift for me, or for Erik?"
"For you." The smile lighting Moira's face was a tiny bit mischievous, but for the most part it appeared simply amused as she took a seat. "So you should open it."
"Allow me to play respectable host for just a moment longer and offer you some tea, hm?"
"Fine, yes, tea. Milk, no sugar. Thank you, Charles." The bathroom door opened, and Erik appeared wreathed by a few small tendrils of steam. He was scrubbing his hair with a towel, dressed in trousers and a vest, but still barefoot.
When Moira took in the sight, brows twitching upward, Charles very purposefully stayed out of her mind. He turned to Erik instead, reaching for mugs. "Tea, Erik?"
"Please." Padding over, Erik slung the towel over his shoulders and approached the paper bag. "What's this?"
"It's a gift for me, apparently." Setting two clean mugs on the counter, Charles fetched the kettle from the stove and poured. Then he refilled his own cooling drink, and set about fixing them all appropriately. Moira accepted hers with murmured thanks, curling her fingers around the hot mug.
"Really." There were only two kitchen chairs, and Erik slid the other out with a nod at Charles before moving to lean against the counter. "What sort of gift?"
"The respectable host hasn't opened it yet." Rolling her eyes dramatically, Moira jabbed the bag sharply towards Charles as he sat. "It's not even from me. Mrs. Salvadore asked me to bring it out, since the pair of you skipped out on the potluck this week, and her truck wouldn't make it out this far in the middle of June. Everyone missed you, by the way."
"Mrs. Salvadore?" Frowning curiously, Charles finally reached to uncurl the wrinkled edges of the bag, not quite tearing it open. Inside, he found soft, knitted wool. It was some sort of garment... "Oh my lord, she knit me a cardigan!"
Unfolded, the jumper was a rich Prussian blue, flecked with pale grey, with a shawl collar and a half dozen small dark buttons down the front. Charles stared at it, feeling the fleecy weight of it in his hands, and was completely at a loss. His throat actually felt a bit tight.
"It's a handsome sweater," Moira said after a moment. "And knowing Mrs. Salvadore's eye for that sort of thing, it'll probably fit, too."
Forgetting about his tea entirely, Charles stood, pulling on the cardigan almost delicately. There was no need to be so careful— if the stitches were anything like those of Erik's jumpers, it would take a team of horses to undo them— but Charles would readily admit to being rather thunderstruck by this entire experience.
It did fit, nearly perfectly: the sleeves weren't pooling around his second knuckles, and the shoulder seams sat just where they were meant to. It didn't nip around the middle quite as snugly as it might have, but it would be perfect for layering under. Charles did up the buttons, smoothing the collar thoughtfully, then turned to find Erik watching him closely, wearing a hint of a smile that just showed teeth.
"Very handsome sweater," Erik agreed, sounding perfectly casual, while Charles felt a knot of heat tangle up in his stomach that had absolutely nothing to do with the fire in the stove.
I was smacked in the face by a very insistent bout of inspiration after that last bit, so here's a bonus update! I did not expect to have another chapter finished so soon, but thank you all for your feedback, and for being patient with the usual "sometime around once a week or so" sort of update schedule I've got going on. You, dear readers, are the bee's knees <3
After the fact, Erik was incredibly annoyed with his own idiotic anxiety— he'd been darkly certain (though scarcely daring to even think it) that Charles would not stay long in the cottage after the first potluck. There were a number of people on the island who were decidedly more pleasant than Erik cared to be, and hospitality was by-and-large something his neighbours had in spades.
The idea of Charles going off to spend the rest of his month with McCoy, or the Therieaus, or even Moira... it gouged cruelly at an ache Erik hadn't suffered in a very long time. It was a stupid feeling, utterly irrational, and the only sensible thing would be to figure out some way to cauterize it.
Charles was going to leave eventually— there was only so much playing house either of them would bear, because despite the strange, detached quality of Menigu in winter, this was still reality. The bubble would break, the plane would arrive as it always did, and Charles would disappear off to the mainland to try and discover who he was. Going to hospital for a thorough check-up would probably be a prudent first step, but whatever Charles chose to do was hardly Erik's concern.
At least for now, however, Charles was still a conspicuous presence in his life, like a small, smooth pebble in his shoe. Not painful, but insistently there, constantly making his existence known.
"Permission to come aboard, sir?" For example, sneaking into the workshop while Erik was hip-deep in the Racham's bilge, finally getting around to some winter maintenance of his own. Straightening up, Erik popped his head and shoulders out from below deck; Charles was perched on the ladder, mittens braced on the gunwale.
It was a sunny day, with barely a breath of wind coming in from the west. A relatively balmy day for the first week of December, and Charles was a grown man, with frostbite nearly fully healed. He'd even insisted on helping with the laundry earlier in the week, subjecting his hands to hot water and strong detergent with no ill effects.
Erik wiped his forehead with the cuff of a work glove, then gestured for Charles to get up into the boat properly. "Come on, then. Anything wrong?"
"Not a thing." Swinging one leg over, movements a bit hesitant, Charles clambered on to the deck, then peered back down over the side. "I realised I haven't yet had a good look at your boat, and I hoped you would indulge my curiosity, Captain."
Hidden under the deck, one of Erik's hands clenched, but he kept his expression affable and wholly composed. Charles was forever an incorrigible flirt, and didn't seem to notice a thing wrong with it.
Sweeping out an arm to indicate all thirty feet of neatly maintained boat, Erik allowed himself a brief, half-smile. "Excuse me if I let you find your own way for a few minutes while I finish something down here. Do not touch any of the controls."
Without waiting for a response, he ducked back down again, even more intent on his work with Charles' boots clomping around above his head.
"May I go in here?" Charles called shortly thereafter, and there was really only one place to go in other than the hull in which Erik was currently kneeling.
Checking for rot along the bilge line, Erik simply raised his voice to answer. "In the wheelhouse? Yes, just watch the step." The engine had already been drained and cleaned, shortly after he'd brought her in for the winter, but a new coat of paint and some fresh varnish wouldn't go amiss. The next fine day, he'd open the workshop doors and start that project.
"You have a little stove in here!" Only Charles could sound so thrilled about the discovery of a Coleman stove, instead of the rather expensive sonar unit on the other side of the wheelhouse. "That's brilliant!"
Erik huffed out a quiet laugh. "Beside the helm, Charles— open that hatch with the iron latch." There was a moment of silence, followed by an astonished sounding "Oh!"
A shadow darkened the square of light streaming down into the bilge, and Erik glanced up to find Charles leaning over, silhouetted by the bare incandescent bulbs that lit the workshop. "You have a bedroom on your boat? It's nearly a little house in its own right."
"I have a lumpy mattress stowed under the bow, and you are far too easily impressed. You should see some of the vessels that come in from the mainland in spring."
Charles squatted, balancing at the edge of the hatch with his hands on his knees. "My admittedly unschooled opinion is that this is a very beautiful boat, Erik. You obviously put a great deal of time and care into maintaining it."
An incorrigible flirt, but also remarkably earnest too often for comfort— if he and God were still on speaking terms, Erik might have prayed for deliverance from charismatic, amnesiac Englishmen.
"Thank you." Gathering his tools, Erik stretched up and placed them safely on the deck. Before he could hoist himself up after them, Charles rose from his crouch and held out his hand; Erik paused, looking askance at the kelly green mitten.
"All the blisters healed days ago," Charles said, his offer unwavering. "And if you imply I'm not strong enough to help haul you up here, honour dictates I shall have to challenge you to a duel."
"Perish the thought." The hull wasn't especially deep, but a bit of leverage would be useful. Peeling off his own stained gloves and tossing them next to his toolbox, Erik took hold of Charles' offered hand. When he encountered a firmer, steadier resistance than he expected, Erik braced his other arm on the deck and pulled, bringing one knee up first. Charles grunted in surprise, but managed to avoid falling face first into the bilge.
"You see?" Charles grinned as Erik climbed to his feet, a bright, beaming expression for all that he sounded a bit strained. "And we've avoided pistols at dawn. Well done."
The mention of pistols, even in jest, was still enough to put a chill in Erik's bones, but he brutally suppressed all the dark memories accompanying the sensation. Charles' face fell, now looking distinctly troubled where only a moment before he'd been carefree, and Erik clamped down on his demons all the harder. Ignoring the immediate (sensible) instinct to step aside and reclaim his own space again, Erik found himself reaching up to give Charles' shoulder a squeeze. "Wait, if you were to be the challenger, doesn't that mean I would choose the weapons?"
"Ah, yes." Charles licked his lips, assuring they were not merely sinfully red, but now also moist, and regardless of anything else, the sight was incredibly distracting. Clearly, Erik had angered some higher power. "Quite. In our hypothetical duel, I suppose you would have choice of arms."
Finally, finally gathering enough sense to withdraw, Erik bent to collect both his gear, and his composure. "Pistols are out, then. I choose paperclips."
"Paperclips? Really, Erik." Tucking his gloves into the pocket of his plaid coat, Erik very deliberately did not notice the stiffness in his back. The knot of scar tissue was not tightening against his spine. It was a figment of a little boy's imagination, and a little boy's nightmare. "No powers, then."
"The fact that you think that stipulation improves your chances," he said, putting the wrenches back into the toolbox, but leaving it sitting placidly on the deck. Charles would no doubt want a guided tour, even if there was nothing more to see. "Is actually rather precious, in an ill-conceived sort of way."
It was Thursday morning, they were standing on Moira's porch, and Erik was still amazed he'd allowed himself to be talked into this. Perhaps it had something to do with the sheer amount of talking he'd endured about it, and the threat of the cottage burning to the ground during some unfortunate (and thankfully, thus far theoretical) attempt by Charles to make scones, or biscuits, or perhaps some sort of side dish.
They were going to the potluck again, because despite spending an entire Sunday afternoon being force-fed his weight in cinnamon cake and chatting animatedly with a wholly enchanted Mrs. Salvadore, Charles was adamant that the only proper way to show the depths of his gratitude for his new sweater was by further socializing. They were going to the potluck, and they certainly couldn't stroll in empty-handed, not that Charles had shown any culinary aptitude whatsoever, besides being able to brew a very nice cup of tea.
If he hadn't agreed, Erik had no doubt Charles simply would have commandeered the truck and gone alone— more than likely leaving Erik to sit in the smouldering ruins of his former home.
Knocking again, harder and more insistently this time, he paid absolutely no heed to Charles' tutting at his elbow. On the other side of the door, Muir was barking fit to shake the windows. It nearly drowned out the quickly approaching deluge of Moira's blasphemies, but not quite.
"—goddamn dying thundering Jesus Christ!" The door cracked open a sliver, just enough for Muir's snuffling nose and the left side of Moira's face to squeeze through. "Erik? What the hell—"
"This is entirely his doing." Erik jerked his thumb in Charles' direction. "We're here to borrow some yeast if you've got it."
Moira's eye, the one he could see, blinked owlishly. Erik could sympathize— apparently, he was making challah (one recipe he could still make with his eyes closed, purely from memory. He also could not even smell it baking without hearing the phantom of his mother's lilting, murmuring singing, echoing in his ears), and no one was more surprised about than he.
A day spent varnishing inside the hull of the boat had left Erik feeling ill and a bit groggy, not that the man would ever admit such a thing, but once they'd both settled into bed for the night, he'd slept like the dead. Charles had kept his own mood particularly soothing and relaxed, doing nothing invasive, and the feelings lingered beautifully; drifting into wakefulness the next morning felt rather like floating in a warm bath.
Sometime during the night, they'd curled close together, which wasn't unusual... though it wasn't something either of them discussed. This time in particular, Charles found himself lying on his stomach, with the warm weight of another body settled against his back, a head half-pillowed on his shoulder blade, and fingers that were not his own tangled loosely in his hair.
Charles burrowed deeper into the bed, more than content to ease back into sleep until the light from the windows was a bit brighter (or to be honest, until Erik woke and shifted over to put space between them). It only took a moment, however, for Charles to shake off the fog of sleep enough to make sense of what had made him stir in the first place.
Erik was already awake, and his thoughts were dark— frustration, confusion, disappointment, dragging at the edges of Charles' mind like talons.
Charles immediately assumed it was nightmares again, something Erik suffered far more often than he deserved, not that they spoke about that either. Whether or not Erik realised he projected some of those horrific images, along with the crushing despair and terror that accompanied them, Charles never brought it up. And those mornings after particularly difficult nights, Charles simply allowed his own calm to radiate out a bit stronger, watching the shadows in Erik's eyes ever so slowly retreat once more.
But this... this didn't feel the same. The emotions were negative, certainly, but not the same as the unbearable grief the nightmares dredged up. These were different, fresh and sharp.
Erik? It was not customary for Charles to make any sort of overture before Erik had retreated from whatever intimate positions they'd twisted into during the night, but circumstances felt extenuating. As expected, Erik tensed instantly. What's wrong?
It was not expected that Erik did not immediately pull away, staying absolutely still instead. Do you hear that, Charles?
Bewildered, Charles wasn't entirely certain he would be able to hear anything above the quickening thud of his own heartbeat, but he strained to listen regardless. The cottage was almost eerily quiet, as usual; even Raven's purring was silent.
There was something, however... an odd, distant whirring noise from outside, barely audible. What is that?
"That's the plane," Erik said, and for all his voice was hoarse, barely a whisper, it rang deafeningly in Charles' ears.
Splashing his face again, gritting his teeth against the shock of cold water, Charles tried desperately to gather himself. The plane had arrived. Had it already been a month, truly?
The man who stared back at him from the bathroom mirror was familiar— he was Charles. He could touch minds, he could hear thoughts, and that was extraordinary. He lived with Erik Lehnsherr in a cottage on the eastern beach of Menigu Island.
I am squatting here, taking advantage of his hospitality.
We both always knew I was going to leave. It was why hadn't acted, even when he caught Erik thinking of him, of them, and Charles knew all he needed to do was reach out. No, it wouldn't have been fair to either of us.
He was Charles, and his best hope for ever rediscovering more details about the man he had been before waited on the mainland, with doctors, police, and phone calls.
Drinking a mouthful of water from his palm, he fought the strange, nauseating sensation of vertigo, swallowing back the urge to vomit.
The drive into town was as silent as grave, and nearly as dour. Feeling cold seeping through him even with the heater blasting, Charles wrapped himself tighter in the peacoat Erik had insisted he wear (along with boots, socks, and a henley; the mittens, cardigan, and trousers were all the clothing Charles could strictly call his own. He planned to send everything borrowed back on the next plane, once he'd acquired other gear).
It was not a physical chill, but a psychic one. This entire situation felt excruciatingly icy and brittle, even if it was necessary.
Saying goodbye to Raven had been ridiculously difficult, and Charles could still feel the velvety warmth of her fur under his hands. The notion that he was about to say the same to the rest of the islanders, to Erik...
"Would you mind terribly," he blurted, staring resolutely out into the passing trees, and keeping his thoughts corralled strictly in his own head. "If I wrote to you on occasion?"
"No," Erik said after a long moment, and Charles' stomach plummeted until he continued. "I wouldn't mind. Remember that Aza reads the mail whenever he thinks he can get away with it."
For the first time since they'd climbed into the truck, Charles glanced over at Erik's profile, studying the grim line of his mouth and the tense angle of his jaw. Statues sat less rigidly, with expressions no stonier.
"What in the hell do you mean, you're leaving?" Wincing at the volume of Moira's displeasure, both audible and mental, Charles cupped her elbow and led her just a bit farther away from the other assembled islanders. Everyone was unloading their groceries from the shiny white Cessna, or had been, until Moira's outburst had them all staring at Charles as though he'd just stripped down to his skin and declared himself the King of France. Erik was absolutely no help at all, not even pausing as he loaded his own goods into the truck with efficient, economical movements.
"I'm going to the mainland," Charles said, once they had at least the illusion of privacy. "I have some personal business to attend, and it simply cannot wait."
Moira shrugged off his touch, crossing her arms tightly, and Charles felt somewhat like a recalcitrant student being dressed down by his favourite teacher. "Charles, you'll be gone for the holidays, and you didn't think to mention something before now?"
There was nothing else to say beyond "I am sorry, Moira." Explanations of amnesia and mysterious head wounds were not something he was prepared to discuss, at least not until he'd gotten his own bearings on the matter and sought his own answers. Regardless of anything else, he needed to get to the mainland.
She assumed he would be returning in January, and Charles did not correct her. It was cowardly to leave that for Erik to deal with in the New Year, but Charles could not quite force the words to come, no matter how he tried. When Moira finally relented from crushing his spirit under the weight of her disappointed frown, he found himself clinging rather too desperately to a hug that smelled of floral shampoo and a hint of petrol— if his eyes were reddened when they drew apart, Moira was polite enough not to mention it. He, likewise, did not say a word when she scrubbed her face with the back of one glove and stalked off to collect her groceries.
There was no keeping it under his hat after that, and he was summarily inundated with good wishes and regrets from the whole of the island's population. The handshakes and shoulder claps were all well and good, and the kind sentiments were greatly appreciated, but then Mrs. Salvadore took hold of his hands in both of hers, gazing up at him with fathomless eyes that gleamed deep brown like river rocks, and the sudden torrent of her thoughts stole his breath.
— sweet, handsome young man— truly a blessing to see Erik smiling— so good for him— happy to have someone— deserves that joy— lonesome out there by himself— happiest I've ever seen him—
"—and behave yourself." Charles realised with a start that Mrs. Salvadore had been speaking to him, with only the smallest quiver in her warm, soft-spoken tenor. Her grip squeezed, drawing him closer as though she were about to share a secret, and even through two layers of wool, he could feel the press of her delicate bones. "And do not stay away too long, hm? He is missing you already."
Inhaling deeply, feeling a bite of cold against the back of his throat, Charles nodded. "I'll... I will try my best, madam."
"Good. Are you wearing your sweater?" When he tugged open the collar of his coat for just a moment, showing a flash of blue wool, Mrs. Salvadore's smile was luminous. "That's good. Now, go say your goodbyes to him. Janos will wait as long as you need, or I'll box his ears."
Ignoring such an order could be bad for one's heath, Charles knew, so with a final word of sincere thanks, he excused himself from Mrs. Salvadore's presence. He hit something of a snag, however, when Erik was nowhere to be seen— Charles' heart was in his throat until he noticed that the man's truck was still sitting peacefully, precisely where they had parked it.
The plane's narrow landing strip was laid out some distance behind the post office, and Angel was the one who pointed towards the building, catching Charles' eye with a sly tilt to her mouth. "He's gone inside."
Charles would deny to his dying day that he scurried anywhere, but no matter Mrs. Salvadore's firm assurances, he simply did not feel right about inconveniencing the pilot who was about to fly him across a stretch of pitiless, frozen sea. Perhaps his steps were hasty, but there was nothing shameful about attempting to be considerate or prompt.
The post office was otherwise empty, with Aza busy outside collecting his supplies and exchanging mailbags, but Erik was standing behind the desk with thick black telephone receiver cradled between his shoulder and his ear.
"—not in the mood for your bullshit today." When Erik looked up, seeing Charles appear through the door, his brows knit and his tone evened into something more subdued, but no less menacing than the moment before. "No, Cassidy. No. Listen to me; do I sound as though I give a shit? No, I didn't think so either." There was a pause, and Charles could hear faint chattering from the earphone as he walked slowly over.
"No," Erik said again, a sharp bark that even made Charles flinch, and the earphone was silent. "You'll do so because you like the idea that I'll owe you a favour. Be there when the plane arrives."
And with that final command, he dropped the receiver back on its base with slightly more force than was strictly necessary, the vibration making the chime ring ever so faintly. Leaning forward, elbows braced on the counter, Charles couldn't help but quirk a small smile.
"Are you terrorizing the mainland before I even arrive, my friend?"
Picking up the entire telephone, Erik moved it back onto its shelf, then turned to the counter and leaned in as well, mirroring Charles posture on the other side. "Only a little. You have a place to stay when you get there, if you like. Sean Cassidy has a spare room he's willing to offer, free of charge, and he will be meeting you at the airstrip. Look for ginger hair under a knit cap; you won't miss him."
An image of a young, grinning man was mentally pushed towards him, but Mrs. Salvadore's words were once again fore in Charles' mind. He is missing you already.
Pulling off his mittens, Charles reached across and laid one hand on Erik's forearm, squeezing against quilted flannel and the hard muscle beneath. "As I didn't hear you actually threaten young Mr. Cassidy's person, physically or otherwise, I believe I'll choose to simply be grateful for your forethought. Thank you, Erik, for everything you've done. I cannot begin to imagine how to repay you."
"You're forever so very grateful," Erik groused; his voice was oddly rough. "I'm surprised you don't thank the sun for rising everyday. Here." With the arm not currently within Charles' grasp, Erik reached into the pocket of his coat and brought out a shiny brass key. "Take this, but I swear if you thank me for it, I'll turn it into ball bearings."
Before he could ask, Erik continued speaking, this time silently. The key to the cottage— it's not as though I need it to open the lock. In case you find yourself adrift in the strait again and need a place to dry off.
Conscious of the warning he had received, Charles bit his tongue against the thanks that immediately sprang to his lips. Instead, he took the key wordlessly and without an instant of hesitation, gripping it too tightly in his palm. If the metal seemed to pulse faintly against his skin, just once, it was probably only his imagination.
I am going to miss you, he thought, and sent a rush of emotions along with the words. Gratitude, friendship, wonder, and even his affection, until Erik grunted, glancing sharply away.
"The radio says there is a storm due tonight. Janos will be eager to leave, and rightly so." Straightening, he pulled his arm away from Charles' touch, stuffing both hands into the pockets of his coat. "Take care, Charles."
Withdrawing from Erik's mind left a bitter taste on the back of his tongue, worse somehow than the idea of stepping onto the plane. Tucking his key safely away in his own pocket, Charles cleared his throat, and felt as though he'd swallowed a boulder. "You as well, my friend. Take care."
Then, turning on his heel, Charles strode out of the post office.
He managed not to look back until they were nearly in the air, just he and the taciturn pilot. The propellors were whirring, much louder than they'd been passing over the cottage, and they had just begun to roll along the landing strip, when Charles finally gave in and peered back out the window like a child staring into a sweet shop, one mitten pressed against the glass.
Still standing beside the post office, Moira waved, her cheeks very pink. Charles waved back, and his broad smile was not at all forced— Moira was a fine woman, and he would miss her company and her humour. Everyone else had already dispersed, in deference to the weather.
Everyone except Erik, who was sitting back against the bonnet of the truck, his flat cap tipped low, with smoke curling up from his nose and the cigarette in his mouth. Charles did not have to strain his memory to recall the precise scent of that particular blend of tobacco, and suddenly his bittersweet smile felt too much like a grimace to endure.
Still, he managed a wave, and before the plane had moved too far down the strip, gaining speed, Erik lifted one arm in response, his hand steady and open.
When Erik got back to the cottage, not lingering in town for even an instant after the plane had taken off safely (and if he'd kept firm concentration on all the nuts and bolts of the thing until it disappeared out of his range, that was no one's business but his own), he found that the cat had vomited up a hairball right beside the stove. Which was typical, really, of the sort of day it had been.
"God damn you, Raven," he snarled, kicking off his boots, and did not bother to set them up neatly in their usual spot by the door. That spot was now too fucking barren to bear looking at. "You foul little shit."
Curled up on Charles' pillow, the cat twitched her ears, but made no other indication that she understood just how close she lay to her own swift, gruesome death. For the moment, Erik refrained from educating her, choosing to go clean up her transgression before he did anything he might regret. He needed the cat to keep vermin out, after all.
The anger had drained out of him by the time he finished washing his hands and stoking the few coals that remained of the fire. Drained, but replaced with a familiar, hateful ache... a feeling which had somehow magnified ten-fold in the wake of Charles' presence. The silence was gnawing at him, when before it had been a comfort.
Briefly, he spared a thought for the half-finished book sitting on his bedside table: a copy of The Once and Future King that Charles had found tucked away in the library— probably the most recently published book on the entire island, excluding McCoy's reference texts. He would need to bring it back, eventually, but for the moment he left it untouched.
There was also a thick brown sweater neatly folded up atop his chest of drawers, but Erik found his focus skittering away from that without conscious effort, like jerking his hand away from a hot stove. Outside the windows, tiny flakes of snow had begun to fall, and the wind was already picking up.
The pebble in his shoe was gone, and it was foolish to dwell upon its absence.
I am so sorry.
I've had a lot of lovely, deeply appreciated feedback that compares reading this story to the feeling of curling up with a hot cup of tea— this update makes me feel as though I've kicked you all out in a snowstorm in your skivvies. I promise, dear readers, it will be snuggly blankets and warm tea again before we're through. I'm far too much of a sap for this to end poorly.
Thank you again for reading!
The nor'easter did not begin in earnest until sometime around midnight— Erik knew this, because while falling asleep was simply a matter of willing himself to do so, staying asleep was apparently another matter entirely. He managed an hour or two of heavy, dreamless rest, before jerking awake with a gasp, convinced for one senseless instant that he was falling into nothingness.
He wasn't falling, of course; he wasn't even on the edge of the bed. Lying on his side, curled into the centre of the mattress with one arm flung out across empty sheets, Erik took a few long, deep breaths as he tried to calm the racing of his heart. There was a tinkling noise in the dark, snow and ice pellets pelting against the windows, and the wind was blowing hard enough to howl through the trees.
Charles had come and gone on the heels of a storm. Erik shoved the thought aside brutally, rolling over onto his back and ignoring the cat's unhappy grumbling, his shifting disturbing her lounge behind his knees.
Staring up into the nebulous blackness, Erik could just make out the shape of the ceiling beams, and that was only because he knew precisely where they were. With the draught closed, not even the warm glow of the fire could seep out around the thick iron door of the stove.
The house was too quiet without someone else's breathing— without the faint, wheezy sound of Charles' ridiculous snores. Reaching down, Erik scratched Raven behind the neck, making her purr.
The bed wasn't too large, but it was too empty. With his other arm, Erik reached up and gripped the headboard, wrapping his fingers tightly around a brass post. The metal was warm and responsive, as always, but the comfort of it felt infuriatingly meagre compared to the memory of a tangle of thick brown hair.
He could not have felt any more pathetic if he'd been tearfully pacing a widow's walk.
The final touch of Charles' mind in his own had left a conspicuous weight pressing against his chest, and traces of warm, gratitude, friend, tenderness, caring, affection, hurting, miss you, lingered like the smudges of fingerprints all over his thoughts. Erik may not have had the advantage of Charles' gift, but the fact that Charles was attracted to him had been impossible to overlook. That didn't mean anything— Erik knew, objectively, that he was physically attractive by some standards, but it had been years since he'd spared more than brief consideration for his looks. It was something that had seemed much more important when he'd been younger, before he'd come to Menigu, when sex had been readily available in any number of dark, smoky clubs, the act preferably both quick and anonymous.
He had chosen solitude, in the end, which provided a more lasting sense of tranquility than a thousand filthy blow jobs in alleyways. A decade spent hauling nets, being battered by salt spray and the beating sun, had put lines around his eyes and more scars on his flesh, but Erik did not fail to notice the rare, speculative glint in Moira's eye when she thought he wasn't looking. Angel was far more blatant about it, never failing to wolf-whistle whenever she saw him working in his shirtsleeves, which always made him grin even if he tried to hide it.
Charles... Charles had been subtler about it than even Moira, but the milky fairness of his skin did not hide the flush Erik could trigger with the proper flex of his arm or pitch of his voice. The fact that his infatuation was tempered by a growing friendship and a strangely effortless sort of affection had been startling, and more than Erik had ever been prepared to deal with. Charles slotted into his life as though a place had been hollowed out especially for him, and Erik was more than a little alarmed to find he could not dredge up any significant objections to such a bizarre turn of events.
Charles was attracted to him, and genuinely (miraculously) enjoyed his company— privately, Erik would admit the same. There was something incredibly tempting about Charles' guileless joy, his brilliant wit, and his genuine kindness, and that was saying nothing of how damned handsome he was. It was some sort of cosmic joke, obviously, that such a thing would happen just like this.
If Charles had washed up on the beach in July, there would have been no sense of dependency and careful equilibrium shoehorned between them— Charles could have come and gone as he pleased, not trapped on the island for weeks with no supplies of his own. But then, if it had been July, Charles could have been on the mainland within hours of being found, and Erik would never have known him as more than that unfortunate idiot who nearly drowned.
Feeling daring, the cat twisted around, kneading firmly at Erik's hip through the layers of quilts. He hadn't stripped the bed— drying sheets and blankets in the middle of winter was a pain in the ass— and everything still smelled of Charles. Erik refused to consider whether the eventual, inevitable fading of that scent would leave him relieved or not.
It was late afternoon on the next day before the winds died down enough that Erik could finally see more than a few feet outside the windows. He'd spent the morning tinkering with a few small parts he had on hand, which was just barely enough to keep him occupied, drinking tea, and eating some toast and beans when his stomach growled. The cat prowled around from window to window, her tail lashing, but even she was intelligent enough to make no effort to go outside.
When the storm finally blew past, Erik dressed immediately, the tenseness in his muscles moving him forward, out, away from the cavernous silence of the cottage.
The sky was still overcast, with low, ominously grey clouds, but the worst of the weather had eased. Kicking the drifts away from the threshold of the door, Erik shivered as the harsh chill snuck into his clothing, the air having gone frigid in the wake of the storm. Wiping snow away from the glass front of the thermometer nailed to the side of the house, he was hardly surprised to find the temperature had dropped more than twenty degrees since the day before. Hopefully, the cold snap would not last too long, but Erik wasn't about to hold his breath.
Raven darted out behind him, disappearing around the side of the house, but Erik wasn't concerned. They had survived much colder days, and the cat had never come back with frozen paws— unlike Charles.
Inhaling deeply, even through his scarf, nearly made him choke on the bitter, freezing sting. Still, it was bracing enough to keep his mind from wandering too much. Grabbing the snow shovel he kept propped next to the door, Erik began clearing the step, then proceeded to cut a neat path around to the woodpile. The snow was heavy, drifted well over a foot high in places, with a crisp layer of ice already formed on top, and it wasn't long before sweat and exertion had him him forgetting the cold.
If only it was quite so simple to work Charles out of his system, he might not feel like such a fool.
It was another restless night, even after making every attempt to exhaust himself with more shovelling than was strictly necessary and an hour chopping kindling after that, but it would pass. The next morning, Erik woke tired, and with every joint in his body hurting at least a little, but that would pass as well. In the meantime, he would do his best to ignore it all.
Eventually he ended up digging through the pantry, looking for the evaporated milk he knew was there somewhere, seeking the feel of that specific liquid against the aluminum. It would have been easier if he'd concentrated a bit harder, but his head was pounding, and frankly, he had nothing more pressing to do with his afternoon besides shoving cans around.
Erik? It was a whisper of sound, but not true sound, barely brushing the edges of his awareness, and before Erik could think better of it he was straightening out of his bend, only to have the whole world flare with pain and light. Stepping back with a hissed curse, he brought his hand up to the back of his head, where he'd just so gracefully brained himself on one of the pantry shelves.
Erik? The whisper again, less hazy now that it was pointed with concern, and Erik leaned back against the counter with a incredulous noise. There were flickers of white and black dancing at the edges of his vision, but they were fading quickly. Erik, are you alright? What happened?
Hit my head, he managed, though how clearly the message would be received was dubious. It was challenging to focus his thoughts without knowing where Charles was; the dizziness didn't help. You startled me.
A swell of apology rushed through him like a tide, making his head spin even more, and Erik swatted a hand through the empty air in front of his face in a useless attempt at clearing the emotions away. Charles, stop it. I'm fine, but you keep that up you're going to make me vomit.
I'm sorry— The feelings eased, and Erik found he could breathe properly again. Are you certain you're all right, my friend?
I'm fine, I said. Standing alone in the cottage with a lump throbbing on the back of his skull, he felt mildly uncomfortable, but certainly not enough to call a halt to the conversation. Where are you?
Sitting in a café overlooking the port, enjoying a cup of tea. Sean only has instant coffee and cheap wine at his flat, and I wanted some fresh air after the storm. I'll be stopping by the police station tomorrow. Erik could suddenly feel the cushion of upholstery under his ass, and taste bergamot and honey. It wasn't nearly as overwhelming as Charles' apology had been. I wasn't sure you would be able to hear me from this distance.
You're a bit quieter, but yes, I can hear you. Perhaps it was the bump on the head, or the lack of sleep, or perhaps it was just the idea that no matter the voice in his head, Charles was gone, beyond his reach. Whatever it was, Erik found himself unable to repress the thought that came next. I'm glad you made it over safely. It's... it's good to hear from you.
The words themselves weren't especially damning, but there was sentiment woven through them that Erik had kept so tightly leashed before; it was hardly surprising to hear Charles gasp in his mind. His chest constricted, but it wasn't entirely clear from which of them that feeling originated. It didn't matter, regardless.
After a moment, Charles spoke again, and his thoughts were noticeably softer around the edges, making the back of Erik's neck prickle with heat. That, he was almost sure, was purely his own reaction. How did you weather the storm over there? You sound tired... and you've nearly thrown your back out, haven't you?
Oh, hardly. Twisting his shoulders, Erik ignored the biting pain that reminded him of every lift of the shovel and swing of the axe the day before. Just sore. What about you?
I'm still in one piece, and I haven't taken any more dips in the sea. For an instant, the only thing Erik could see was a wide smile, all red lips and brilliantly blue eyes. Sean is a very mellow young man; pleasant and accommodating. The flat is not kept as warm as I'd like, but I do have my cardigan. Oh yes, and I also found the money you squirrelled away in my boot.
And that was enough to make Erik smile, hiding the too fond expression behind his hand even with no one but the cat to see. Remember I agreed not to argue about that? Now there is no argument.
Remember I told you that I was not going to take your money? The rejoinder came twined with a thread of annoyance, but also tempered with healthy doses of both amusement and resignation. You sneaky bastard.
It hadn't been much difficulty at all to retrieve sixty dollars from his lockbox (not an accurate description; it was actually a solid steel box, with no seams, joints, or locks), then fold the bills flat enough that Charles wouldn't feel them through the thick knit of his sock. After nearly ten years of fishing, without a family to feed and only his own equipment and home to maintain, it hardly put a dent in his savings. He and Charles might both be stubborn as mules, but he was damned crafty, as well.
Erik? Caught up in a moment of self-satisfaction, Erik shook his head, focusing on Charles' voice in his mind again, sending back an impression of query. There was a pause, silence but not solitude as Charles' presence remained; when Charles finally continued, he was so much quieter than a moment before. Even with Sean in the next room, it is too quiet to sleep. I miss you.
Closing his eyes, Erik tamped down a dozen different responses, each more pathetic or defensive than the last, before settling on one that was almost bearable. We are quite a pair of idiots, you and I.
The impression of Charles laughing, without the true sound of it ringing in his ears, was a hollow sort of comfort. Yes, my friend, we truly are. In the spirit of our shared idiocy, I am going to try and call on you again tonight, when I'm back at the flat. Just... just so I might speak with you before I sleep. Is that all right?
It would only make things worse in the long run, and Charles was more than intelligent enough to realise that as well. Luckily enough, they were both idiots.
Yes, it's all right. Erik's hands were gripping the edge of the counter; his eyes were still closed. You can speak with me whenever you like.
Until you go too far; until you leave, was an unexpressed addendum that neither of them seemed willing to address at the moment.
Sean was sprawled, fully dressed and dead asleep across his bed, with his bedroom door wide open and his record player still blaring Ray Charles at a volume the neighbours did not appreciate one whit (Charles could hear their exasperated thoughts even through the music). Tiptoeing inside, Charles clicked the power switch off, lifted the needle, and after a moment's hesitation, even pulled Sean's quilts up to cover him loosely. The radiators were pinging, but they never seemed to get quite hot enough.
With his host suitably settled, and very unlikely to stir at all before morning, Charles eased the young man's door closed, then trotted back to the pull-out chesterfield, turning off lights as he went. The door was locked and dead-bolted, and the flat was finally quiet; laid-off from the fish plant for the winter, Sean had a slew of excess energy making him antsy and excitable, even though he was taking dishwashing shifts at a local restaurant. He was a very nice young man, but apparently suffered a mildly deranged sense of cabin-fever. Or, more likely, he had simply been put on earth to make Charles feel like a doddering old man.
Flipping down his own blankets and crawling underneath, Charles snuggled into the fleecy, flannel pyjamas he'd purchased that day at a small consignment store. In fact, he'd managed to find several very serviceable articles in the tightly packed racks of old dresses and worn suit jackets— he now owned enough clothing to fill a duffle (which he'd also bought), and he'd barely spent five dollars of Erik's money. It was a reasonable figure to replace before the month was out, when he would send it all back with Janos, the money hidden away in Erik's spare boots.
And speaking of Erik, Charles gave the clock ticking away on the far wall one final glance before taking a deep breath and reaching out, seeking a familiar, blindingly bright mind. It felt as though he was stretching muscles that were weakened from disuse, but held the memory of strength. He hadn't realised his power had atrophied until distance from Erik encouraged him to test it.
Erik, can you hear me?
For a moment, there was nothing but wordless frustration, and Charles stretched a bit farther, insinuating himself into the warm glow of Erik's mind with all the ease of slipping on a favourite pair of slippers. Good evening, my friend. Can you hear me?
Yes. With only a little concentration, Charles could see the cottage through Erik's eyes, feeling the yielding mattress under Erik's back, superseding the crooked springs jabbing at his own spine. They were both in bed, it seemed, and though Charles had expected it, the intimacy still struck him like a physical blow.
Reeling, Charles may have been less cautious about projection than he had planned; Erik, intimate, and bed were key phrases in any number of indelicate thoughts he kept cordoned off in the back of his mind. At that precise moment, he found himself too focused on Erik's body and Erik's warmth, curled up amid the quilts, and received a sharp burst of surprise, arousal, resistance, frustration for his blunder.
Erik thought they were being foolish, indulging in weakness that would make everything more painful in the end. Charles clung doggedly to the hope that he was wrong.
Erik. Reaching over, Charles pulled the chain on the only lamp left lit, plunging the flat into shadow before laying back down and curling up on his side. With the port town outside the windows, night here was a pale imitation of the true darkness of Menigu's east beach. Tell me about your day?
Instead of indulging him, Erik's thoughts sprang up grumbling, rough with displeasure. You're cold; I can feel it. Doesn't Cassidy pay his heating bill?
I've not asked, but I'm sure he must. The radiators are hot. Not blistering hot, but it wasn't as though the pipes were in danger of freezing. I'm not sure if you've noticed, my friend, but it is bloody cold outside, and this flat is just a titch draughty. It is nothing to worry about, I promise.
A dense wall of silence greeted that, and Charles resisted the urge to prod through it. Then, eventually, Erik responded. Not with words, but with an image: Charles, still lying on Sean's chesterfield, but awash with the warmth of cosy wood heat, banishing the damp chill that had crept into his bones. Sharing Erik's sensation, feeling as though he was curled up beside the other man. Can you do this?
Swallowing thickly, pressing his heated face into a cool cotton pillowcase, Charles nodded slowly, knowing Erik would sense it. Then he shifted his concentration, pushing aside carefully constructed walls, and let Erik's mind soak him up.
He was blessedly warm almost immediately, easily overriding the temperature of his own body; the flat wasn't dangerously cool, but neither was it especially snug. In Erik's mind, but also still himself— Charles' sense of form wavered, from being a passenger in Erik's body, to being something separate, a sort of false form created from their shared memories of Charles being there, right there, nestled next to Erik. Either would do, but Charles breathed deeper, pressing two fingers against his temple to ground himself, and slowly everything began to settle.
He was there, pressed up against Erik, with his head pillowed on the other man's bicep and their legs tangled loosely. He was warm, and so very comfortable, and his heart was aching.
Go to sleep, Charles. He was— they were both— completely exhausted. Charles could feel fingers in his hair, a light, soothing scratching against his scalp, and back on the mainland, he sighed softly. We'll talk in the morning.
There was a niggling fear that he would not be able to maintain this illusion while he slept, but Charles cleared his mind of everything else, focusing all his attention on imprinting this moment, this perception, into his dreams. With any luck, it would hold, but if not it would likely be no worse than waking up alone again. He would bear that, to have this now.
In the morning, then, he thought gently, imagining then feeling a firm chest under his palm. Erik's breath stuttered, ever so slightly. Good night, Erik.
I've got a particularly long week of work beginning tomorrow, and a few other bits of writing requiring my attention, which means the recent burst of updating has come to an end. It will probably be about a week before I get the next bit up, but I truly didn't want to leave you all on the sad note of the last chapter. It was necessary, but painful, and I'd rather pause for breath on bittersweet. Is the angst over? Not really, but I hope this provides a bit of a respite while I work on the rest.
As always, thank you for reading!
EDIT: I'll be posting this with the next chapter, too, but I wanted to mention it now as well. Somnian did a very lovely bit of fanart for this chapter, which I am terribly thankful for and thrilled about. Look!
Chapter by littleblackdog
I wanted to mention again that I was gifted with a very sweet piece of fanart for this story, which can be found here.
Charles woke to the sound of dishes and pans clanking and a husky, unconcerned voice belting out some tune or other; for the first few moments of consciousness, he had absolutely no idea where he was. With the exception of the clamour, however, he was certain that he was very comfortable.
Beside him, now snugly pressed along his back, Erik growled quietly. Hot breath tickled against Charles' neck, and one broad hand was splayed across his stomach, fingertips pushed between the buttons of his pyjama shirt to touch bare skin.
Erik was still there, or Charles was still both places— the semantics did not matter at the moment. It had worked, had maintained, even through a night of peaceful sleep.
If he were being completely honest, the giddy feeling that swelled up in his chest was partly joy at Erik's continued presence, but also partly due to the pleasant surprise of learning a new talent his power allowed. Unconscious projection, sharing perception... This is... this is so groovy.
The grip Erik had around him tightened, just enough to sharpen his awareness of every point of contact between them, from calves to shoulders. Even Erik's nose was brushing against his throat. You've spent too much time with Cassidy already, clearly. There was a distinctly overcooked scent wafting in from the small kitchen, not quite burning, but Charles was much more focused on Erik's hand and the slip of those long, callused fingers just a tad farther under his shirt. Is he always this damned noisy in the morning? Moira said he was usually the walking dead until noon.
I believe he's working an early shift today. As though summoned by the silent discussion, Sean popped his head into the living room, spatula in hand, and gave Charles' prone, solitary form a crooked smile.
"Hey, you want eggs?"
Not moving a hairsbreadth, even if good manners dictated he should at least sit up, Charles offered a drowsy smile of his own in return. "No, thank you Sean. I'm fine." With a small shrug, Sean disappeared again, alternating between humming and singing about Georgia being on his mind.
With that distraction gone, Charles sunk back deeper into the projection, until the smell of blackened toast and eggs faded to a minor nuisance, replaced by wood smoke and cedar. He might be turned the wrong way to see Sean's clock, but the familiar alarm clock on Erik's beside table was perfectly clear.
Is it really almost eight o'clock? That was at least an hour too late for Erik to still be abed (Charles scarcely wanted to consider the obscene hours the man admitted to keeping during fishing seasons), but he showed no intention of extracting himself.
Something like that. No wonder the light streaming through the curtains was so unusually bright. Neither of them moved, and Charles could not think of a thing to say that wasn't either inane babbling, or something on the topic of Erik, conscious Erik, wrapped around him like a vine. Their breathing had synced, slow and even, and the tickle of Erik's increasingly stubbly jaw across his skin was not as rasping as he had imagined.
And yes, he had certainly imagined.
Eventually, Erik made another rumbling noise, markedly different from the annoyed growl he'd had for Sean's morning serenade. This noise was lower, barely audible, and breathed damply just under Charles' ear. Charles—
In a flurry of boldly patterned scarf and clashing plaid jacket, Sean burst into the room, shrugging a grey canvas sack over his shoulder. His knit cap pushed his hair down to spill out around his neck like licking flames, and he had two dark pieces of toast sandwiched together in his gloved hand, the edges of what looked like a fried egg peeking out between the bread.
"All right, I'm gone, I'm late— " Waltzing around the end of the pull-out, Sean took a monstrously large bite of his breakfast, mumbling between crumbs as he made for the front door. "Going out after work, be back sometime tonight... probably late. I got my key, so lock the door when you turn in. Later, man."
Another moment of bizarrely graceful fumbling, and Sean was gone, pushing a pair of red-tinted sunglasses up the bridge of his nose.
And then just as suddenly, Erik's hand withdrew, making Charles shiver. I never in my wildest dreams imagined I would say this, Erik thought, and Charles could sense the same mix of frustration and tightly leashed arousal from the night before, though now it was stifled to a faint simmer. But Cassidy has a point. It's past time to start the day.
That... that had not been what Erik was going to say, Charles knew even without digging. For a brief, selfish instant, the idea of strangling Sean with his own garish scarf seemed like a reasonable reaction, but that had as much to do with Erik's annoyance tinting his thoughts as it did the unfortunate interruption.
Quite right, Charles agreed, rather than put words (or actions) to the thousand other responses clambering to be let loose. Not the least of which being to simply roll over and see if he had concentration enough to push Erik down on the bed and then proceed to follow that feat to its logical conclusion.
Erik had just been rubbing tiny circles on Charles' bare stomach with the pads of his fingers, and nuzzling his neck. It was nothing short of a minor miracle that Charles had the fortitude not to make an arse of himself by pouncing on the man.
Sitting up as Erik pulled away completely, Charles untangled their thoughts to a less intense degree. Having his consciousness split between two places had indeed been very groovy, but it would not lend itself well to engaging in other complex social interactions simultaneously. The separation was a bit jarring, but not intolerable— Erik remained just there, burrowed in the back of his mind, but now the only room Charles could see was the living room of Sean's flat, faded floral wallpaper and all.
His nose was cold when he rubbed his face, but the thick brown carpet was forgiving under his socks when he swung his legs off the edge of the low mattress. The linoleum in the bathroom would be chillier, but now that Charles was up and moving, the cold was of less concern than the promise of a hot shower in the near future.
I'll just go clean up, then. Gaining his feet, Charles stretched, and his spine reminded him exactly how supportive Sean's chesterfield was not. His skin was tingling where Erik's touch had been, and while neither of them seemed eager to untwine their minds completely, Charles was not quite so shamelessly smitten that he would suggest a shared shower.
Neither would he have stopped Erik's hand from wandering lower, but that was a different matter altogether.
It was a very strange sensation to have Charles lying next to him while logically knowing the man was miles away, but it had been Erik's idea in the first place, and to say he regretted it would be a blatant lie. He hadn't thought... he had never expected to feel Charles again, in his mind or otherwise. To be found so suddenly, flooded with Charles when he'd barely had a chance to process how much it actually ached to be alone again, was obviously enough of a shock to make him reckless.
Reckless enough to pull Charles close, or at least the spectre of Charles he was permitted now, and reckless enough to nearly say something (do something) painfully stupid. Reckless enough to pretend, even for an instant, that he could touch without stretching his own restraint past breaking.
He might owe Cassidy two favours now. Or just one favour and a punch to the jaw.
The fact that Charles could still creep into his head, and the fact that he could project himself across the strait and drive Erik mad— none of that truly changed anything.
Erik was simply torturing himself to imagine otherwise.
Tipping his head back into the steady spray of the shower, Erik slicked the shampoo out of his hair. He may have been being quicker about his shower than usual, but he'd slept in. That was more than sufficient excuse. If he wanted to get anything done that day besides dozing slothfully and watching Charles sleep in the soft light of dawn like some sort of pitiful lecher, he needed to get a move on.
Wait, sorry? Shifting the weight of the ladder in his arm, Erik was admittedly devoting more concentration to manoeuvring out of the workshop than he was to Charles incredulous mental questioning. Erik, wait. Did you just... Why in God's name are you going up on the roof?
Because, Charles— The ladder was mostly wooden, but the thick steel bolts attaching the rungs to the frame were enough to grab hold of with his power, balancing the thing as he carried it. There will be more snow before the month is out, and I'd rather the house not fall in around my ears. Aren't you at the police station yet?
Very nearly. The warm presence in the back of Erik's mind expanded; tendrils of concern brushed against him, feeling almost exactly like Charles' hand stroking up his bare arm. I've stopped for the moment, window-shopping, while I try to determine whether or not you are about to do something insane.
Propping the ladder up against the cedar shanks, Erik went to retrieve his shovel from the front of the house. This is not my first winter here. Would you rather it be the first winter my roof collapses?
Another shift in his mind, and suddenly Erik could feel air gusting across his earlobe, where it peeked out from under his heavy knit hat. It was a brightly sunny day, especially now that the morning fog had burned away, but it was still far too cold to explain the unexpected warmth of that faint breeze.
I would rather— Charles voice was a whisper now, all but audible and breathed just against Erik's skin. It was a very close thing, but Erik managed not to stumble at the sensation, and thankfully he was still firmly on the ground. If you didn't fall and break your neck. Please, do be careful.
Then stop distracting me. The breeze, the ghost of Charles' breath, huffed with a chuckle before retreating.
Keeping a portion of his concentration on Erik, even while engaged in complex tasks of his own, was quickly becoming easier. It helped immensely that Erik's mind shone so much brighter than others, and more specifically, that Charles was rather comfortable settling into the familiar atmosphere of his thoughts. So, as he turned his attention away from the storefront he had been blindly browsing, Charles stayed tethered to Menigu, and to the madman currently clambering up onto a snow-covered roof.
The police station was a large, imposing building built of wide bricks of grey stone, the same as many of the older structures Charles had seen around town. The officers inside, likewise, were largely unassuming and as perfectly ordinary as most other mainlanders he had met thus far. Being a port town, though a small one, did make for more crime than Charles had expected before he began scanning minds around the station, but he heard absolutely nothing that raised any sort of memory for him.
"Can I help you, sir?" From behind the tall, expansive desk partition that separated the entryway from the rest of the station, a very square-jawed, uniformed man caught Charles' attention with a pleasant if brusque sort of expectance. The shiny gold nameplate on the man's breast pocket proclaimed Cst. Kendals, and he was leaning over an empty chair, where Charles assumed some manner of secretary was ordinarily stationed.
Smiling at Constable Leon Kendals, twelve year veteran, husband of Mary, father of Diane and Margaret, Charles managed to pluck some pertinent information out of all the superfluous data swimming through the good constable's thoughts. "I do hope you can, yes, Constable. I have an appointment to speak with a Detective MacInnes."
Which of course was entirely a fabrication, but pinning down the mind of Detective MacInnes (who was luckily engrossed in writing reports at his desk) and placing a tiny suggestion that yes, he did indeed have an appointment this morning, was a simple operation. A call from Constable Kendals was met with assurances, indeed MacInnes was expecting him, and after only a few minutes and an unsigned logbook, Charles was led into the bullpen.
Explaining his situation would be trickier, Charles had little doubt.
And just over two hours later, as he slipped out of the station as subtly as he could manage, Charles felt no satisfaction at proving his assumption correct. Acting on pure speculation, he tried and succeeded at obscuring his presence by applying his powers similarly to projection, but in this case projecting the absence of himself, and not a single person took note of his exit. Detective MacInnes and Constable Kendals would remember his face, but would not remember his visit.
Stepping back out into the brisk, now afternoon air, Charles tugged up the collar of his coat around the wrap of his scarf, trotting off without a backward glance at the station. Erik?
Here, Charles. There, and down from the roof. A peek through Erik's eyes showed the interior of the workshop, dark save for the wide shaft of light streaming from the open door. I have this odd feeling things did not go as well as you'd hoped.
Reeling in his own disappointment and frustration from where it had begun to bleed over into Erik, Charles turned a corner, walking back towards Sean's flat in a rather roundabout way. There was little danger of getting lost when he could snatch directions from any passing person, and he needed some time to clear his head.
Things could have gone better, my friend. It was just past noon, and exasperated or no, Charles was beginning to suffer the first grumbles of hunger in his stomach. Farther up the street, on the opposite side, he caught sight of another grey building in a row of several, this one much smaller than the station. The swinging wooden sign above the door called to him like a siren, and he changed course abruptly, darting out across the slushy street. Things could have gone so much better, in fact, that you would be happy to treat me to a lager, and possibly some lunch.
Would I, now? Even though his boots kept the wetness and cold from reaching his feet, Charles still shivered when he tramped in a frozen puddle he had not been expecting. I am a considerate sort, aren't I? If you've gone to the Selkie, I recommend avoiding anything they call stew, but they usually have decent cod.
The tavern was comfortably dim and smoky inside, for all it was only early afternoon. A scant few patrons were already installed on barstools, and fewer still in the booths that lined the walls, but the place felt oddly comforting. Almost familiar, though Charles did not remember ever having stepped through the door before.
Taking a seat in one of the booths, far opposite from the double galley doors, he pulled a few folded sheets of paper from the depths of his coat, smoothing them flat against the scratched tabletop before absently stripping off his hat and mittens. When a waitress sidled up almost immediately, blonde curls knotted up in a bun and a small apron tied over her wool skirt and tights, Charles ordered a pint of beer and, after only a moment's hesitation, a basket of fish and chips.
The papers were covered in notes of black ink— some of it Detective MacInnes' small, blocky script, and some of it his own neat handwriting. None of it was the information he had hoped to discover, but it was something of a start... if a slow one. Well, I've not been reported missing anywhere near here. I still have no idea who I might be, and I've just had to sneak out of a police station. They were going to detain me, which is utterly ridiculous.
Really, Charles? A mysterious man claiming no knowledge of his own identity, waltzing into a police station. Propping on elbow on the table, Charles rubbed his forehead. The dry humour coiled around Erik's thoughts was only slightly helping his mood. Why ever would they be anxious to keep you? It boggles the mind. Did you learn anything at all?
Nothing terribly useful, but I did speak with a detective who will be looking into reports of missing men matching my description in the surrounding areas, whenever he has a few moments between other cases. I hardly wanted to place myself above important police work, but there are contacts I simply don't have. The waitress reappeared with his lager, and Charles offered her a charming smile.
"Thank you very much, miss." The young woman, who had wide brown eyes and several appealing sorts of curves, went a bit pink around the cheeks as she smiled in return. He allowed himself a peek as she walked away, dipping momentarily into her thoughts before taking a long sip of his beer.
The rather comely waitress thinks my accent is remarkably sexy. I suppose the day isn't a complete wash. The beer was good, smooth and crisp. Erik's thoughts, conversely, were suddenly distinctly less smooth, though not quite sharp; Charles immediately sent out a wave of tired amusement and reassurance. Erik, it has been a very trying morning, so I do hope you will forgive me if I circumvent our usual pattern of speaking around the issue. You do know there is only one person I would choose to share a bed with tonight, don't you?
Strained silence greeted that, and Charles kept mostly to his own thoughts as he absently tapped the side of his glass, waiting. If asked, he would not have hazarded a guess regarding what would arrive first: his lunch, or Erik's response.
Eventually, his waitress (whose name was, rather prettily, Opal) arrived with his food, and Charles thanked her politely again. The muteness in his head was distracting, but his meal looked and smelled delicious enough to overcome any desire to delay for Erik's sake.
He was more than half-way through his chips when the silence was finally breached, and Erik's voice sounded hoarse even in his mind. You are determined to make this as difficult as possible, in the end.
I am determined to have hope, my friend. That is not so terrible a thing, is it? Charles reached out, finding Erik sitting on the edge of the bed, still in his coat. For just a moment, he concentrated on the warmth and texture of Erik's skin, cupping one hand over the nape of his neck. Alone in the cottage, Erik was as still as a statue, but Charles kept focused on the contact.
After a pause that was nearly too long for Charles to bear, Erik exhaled a long, weary sigh and leaned back into the sensation.
A pair of idiots, Erik thought again, quietly, and Charles could feel the soft brush of sweat-damp hair through his fingers. Damn you.
Don't damn me yet. He could have leaned in that tiny bit more, brushing a kiss against Erik's ear, his cheek, even his lips. He could have, but no, he would not— it would be a product of imagination, of conjecture rather than memory, and that would not do. A pair of idiots, perhaps, but stubborn. Trust me, Erik; have a spot of hope, and trust me.
"Everything all right here?" Blinking, Charles was back sitting in his booth, with Opal the waitress beaming shyly at him. When he didn't answer immediately, her expression crumpled around the edges. "With your food, I mean?"
"Hm, yes." Shaking off the sensation of the cottage around him (he should have known better, he was in public, for God's sake), Charles focused on the tavern, forcing the clinging fog to clear. It was akin to waking from a particularly beautiful dream, thick with the same sense of loss. "I'm sorry, my dear. The food is delightful, thank you."
A small mental push and she was gone without any fuss, back to her few other patrons. Charles finished the last mouthful of his beer, keeping the damp glass well away from his dubiously useful notes, and listened to Erik's tacit assent simmering in the back of his mind.
Chapter by littleblackdog
First things: another piece of amazing fanart can be found here. It's simply beautiful, and I remain incredibly grateful.
And one more thing, before you begin reading: I try not to do the cliffhanger thing, truly, but if I hadn't ended this chapter where I do, I wouldn't have had a chance to post anything until sometime closer to Wednesday.
So... trick or treat!
Trust me, Charles had said. Have a spot of hope, and trust me.
Erik tried very hard to stop that easily spouted sentiment from looping through his mind, where it was dredging up disbelief, damnable fear, and small, tattered bits of foolish hope. He tried to put it out of his thoughts, knowing Charles would likely hear it repeating, and feel Erik's uncertainty.
He was doubtful of how well he succeeded. Every whisper of Charles in his head was a reminder.
He considered, briefly, telling Charles to close the mental connection between them and simply leave well enough alone. He considered it, and was surprised when a rush of hurt and disappointment did not sweep over him with all the sudden, lethal drag a riptide— perhaps Charles was truly keeping to the peripheries of his mind, picking up little more than Erik deigned to send.
His own clenching gut at the thought of being relegated to a quiet, solitary consciousness again was both irrelevant and irritating. Charles' voice and presence were more soothing than Erik wanted to consider.
Have a spot of hope.
Crawling into bed that evening, Erik decided that the best decision for the time being might simply be to not think at all. There was something to be said for the clarity of mind that came with sleeping soundly through the night, and he knew beyond doubting that Charles— optimistic, foolish, hopeful Charles— would not easily agree that the longer they maintained this connection, the more difficult things would be when Charles left. When he moved inevitably, permanently, beyond the already astounding range of his powers. It was not an argument Erik would gladly stomach at the moment.
So he slipped under his blankets, and when Charles appeared next to him in bed (seeming so unbelievably real, so solid and true, even down to his scent and the texture of his hair), Erik allowed them both the illusion.
Moments of weakness aside, he could not help but pick and prod, as though digging at the edges of a healing wound. Charles never seemed to tire of his bouts of blunt realism, at least not enough to simply throw up his hands and disappear in a blink. Likewise, no matter how convincing his own commonsense became, Erik never once asked Charles to get out of his head.
Have you considered, he thought one evening, not glancing up from the thick novel he had propped on his thigh. He hadn't yet made a trip into town to return the book, and he would admit that this White fellow spun an engaging tale. That you might be married? Or otherwise committed?
Charles, nursing a headache and weary eyes, had abandoned all pretences of innocent distance between them and was already curved against Erik's side under the quilts, his head pillowed on Erik's shoulder and his arm flung over his chest. Though the question had a keen, almost dangerous edge, Charles' muscles did not tense even slightly.
Mm, I have considered it, yes. Sharpness was met with a tired murmur, though not slurred as it would have been with the heaviness of Charles' tongue tangling up over the words. Before Erik could react to the lazy dismissal of a legitimate query, Charles continued, one socked foot slithering over to wedge between Erik's calves. I could, I suppose, have a wife and a half-dozen sweet, chubby babies pining for their father, but would you like to know why I'm sufficiently convinced that is not the case?
For all Charles was being outwardly glib, there was a thick foundation of seriousness underpinning the discussion; it was the only reason Erik was not yet bristling with annoyance. That was not to say he wholly ignored Charles' unnecessary cheek. Oh, I have no doubt you've some sort of deeply convoluted explanation at the ready. Please, do enlighten me.
Erik endured a light smack to the ribs, noting his page before closing the book over one finger. Charles turned his head to look at Erik properly, with his chin resting on Erik's collarbone and his hair mussed at odd angles. My memories may be muddled, but even from the start I've not been an empty vessel. I have lingering impressions, sentiments, even if some of them are dim... Even if I didn't remember her name, or his name, I believe I would know it if I were in love with someone. The details might not be there, but the feeling certainly would.
That was completely senseless, and Erik merely stared, silently willing Charles to be slightly less starry-eyed and self-assured for even one moment. Eventually, Charles' sleepy smile faltered, but Erik refused to feel like a bully for chasing it away.
I know my own mind, Erik. Charles did not vanish, which was hardly unexpected, but neither did he move to put any distance between them. Ducking his head, he butted against Erik's chest as though Erik were a particularly lumpy pillow. Whether you believe me or not is entirely your prerogative.
The question of closing the mental connection did not come, but Erik knew it was a standing offer, as always.
He stayed quiet, and after an age of bottomless silence, he lifted his left hand, the one laying on the quilts behind Charles' back, and slid his fingers slowly under the collar of Charles' pyjama shirt to touch his nape. Even if Erik did believe Charles' instincts, his lingering impressions, his explanation did not account for the possibility of a marriage of convenience, or some other union with token feelings.
The threat of which apparently bothered Charles about as much as it bothered Erik— that is to say, not very much at all. The mere fact that Charles was not concerned spoke to things Erik had been trying very hard not to contemplate, however. He knew down to his bones that Charles was not the sort to shirk obligations, even inconvenient ones, unless the reasons for doing so were exceedingly important.
Feeling as though he was considered so exceedingly important to any other living person turned his blood to ice, but Erik simply blinked at the crisp cover of the novel and kept rubbing circles over the back of Charles' neck.
Arguing with you is a hopeless endeavour, isn't it? Stretching out, Erik set the book on the bedside table, careful not to upend his ashtray. Like keeping sand in a sieve.
Then perhaps you ought to try a bowl instead. Charles' shift from true pique to blatantly false grumpiness was enough to make him chuckle, low and dry.
Perhaps I ought to stop listening to some of the voices in my head. What he ought to have done was spoken, thought, with more conviction and less briery notes of apology. At least one of them is a madman.
And at least one of them is going to sleep. Charles relaxed even further, impossibly loose-limbed. Good night, my friend.
The pulse in Charles' throat was steady under Erik's fingertips; his skin was ridiculously soft. With a flick of his free hand, the wick of the oil lamp turned down enough to douse itself and the cottage sank into darkness. Good night, Charles.
Charles filled his days buried in newspapers and microfilm, all but installed at the local library, while Erik very purposefully ignored the fact that his own work was going quicker and easier without the gaping hole of Charles' absence yawning in the back of his mind. It helped that he wasn't exhausted; it also helped that he wasn't especially irritable.
It would be incredibly stupid to become irritated about not being irritable, but queasy feelings of dependency and habituation chafed at him. On a baser level, while Charles' presence in his head was soothing, the man's quasi-presence in his life (more specifically, in his bed) chafed in a different sort of way. There was a certain amount of frustration— a low burn, flaring on occasion, reminding them both quite starkly of the distance between them.
And then, on the sixteenth day since Charles had gone to the mainland, Erik's dick shattered what had become a gradually deteriorating truce.
It was a quiet morning, barely past sunrise— far too early for Sean to be up and about, especially when he wasn't due at the restaurant until the supper shift. Waking with the illusion of Charles wrapped up in his arms or curled around him like a limpet had become routine, which was one of those increasingly frequent things that Erik was not thinking about, and as he eased awake, he noticed no immediately obvious variations from the norm. He was turned on, certainly, but that was par for the course; he would ignore it until he and Charles separated to shower, then tend to the issue.
Until Charles shifted, ever so slightly, and Erik was instantly hyper-aware of how snugly his insistent, barely clothed erection fit against Charles' naked ass.
Erik groaned into the crook of Charles' neck before his mind caught up with every detail of the situation, and even barely awake he could tell the sound was much more like something torn from a wounded animal than a man. They were lying back to front, with his arm slung over Charles' side, and Erik felt abdominal muscles tighten under his hand even before Charles' body stiffened out of the bonelessness of sleep.
Oh, fucking hell— Rolling away was more jarring than it ought to have been, but the figment Charles created was so much less real without the illusion of physical contact. Erik could still see him, lying across the mattress, shifting to peer at Erik over one shoulder, but now the quilts were also flat and empty. Erik was sweltering, panting as though he'd just run ten miles, but he was no longer warm from the heat of another body.
It took a great deal of willpower not to scramble up and sprint to the bathroom, but he refused to flee like an embarrassed child. Instead, he brought his hands up to rub his face, breathing harshly into his own palms. His cock was still furiously hard, pressed up against the blankets and his tented shorts.
For a few long, silent moments, Erik was left alone with only his own hammering heart. Perhaps, if he was unbelievably lucky, Charles would keep his mouth shut and his thoughts to himself.
Erik. Of course. No one was that fucking lucky. Erik, look at me.
When Erik did not move, did not react to the command, he was treated to a free show regardless. Burying his face in his hands was little defence against an image being shoved directly into his mind, and the sight of Charles flushed and rumpled beside him was much more than his sanity could bear at the moment.
Then the covers were shoved down, and Charles' pale stomach was laid bare between the rucked up hem of his pyjama shirt and the too-loose waist of his trousers bunched sinfully low on his hips. The drawstring of those damned flannel trousers had come undone sometime in the night, Erik noted absently; that explained the bare ass he'd been so recently rutting against. Erik squeezed his eyes shut tighter, and just as quickly as it had appeared, the image vanished from his mind. In its place, Charles' honeyed words whispered instead, coiling up and taking root.
Erik, please, at least listen for a moment. The laugh that bubbled out of Erik's throat was pitched high with incredulity, vaguely manic, but Charles' presence did not seem to waver. If you like, I'll close the connection for now; I will certainly not force you into anything. Tell me to close the connection at any time, and I shall, for as long as you ask.
What are you planning? Even as the thought took shape, loud and pointed enough for Charles to pick up, Erik knew the answer. Hearing it purred out in Charles' sleep-hoarse voice added some weight to the already consuming notion.
At the moment, I am simply planning to have a wank. It should have sounded ridiculous and juvenile, but Erik shivered with the frisson of electricity that phrase sent skittering through him. Sean is sound asleep, and I literally do not remember the last time I've had a proper wank in a proper bed. Somehow, scampering off to a freezing bathroom is much less appealing than being splayed out across warm sheets, thinking of you.
Alone and motionless in his cottage, Erik could hear fabric rustling nearby. The darkness behind his eyelids might block the sight of Charles debauched, but nothing short of a severed mental connection would spare him the sounds.
The wet, smacking noise of Charles spitting should not have been enough to make Erik's hips stutter, pressing against the weight of the quilts. It should not have been enough to dissolve the last vestiges of his resolve.
Dropping his hands from his face, Erik stared up at the ceiling for a moment, breathing slow and deep. How exactly do you imagine this will play out, Charles?
That depends. Phantom fingertips stroked lightly over his cheek, down over his jaw; it wasn't as tangible a touch as he knew Charles could manage, but it was the hint of contact. It was more than enough to make Erik shiver again. On your willingness, and the limits of my concentration. Will you look at me, please?
Oh, that way madness lies, Erik thought, mostly to himself, though he made no attempt to keep the words from Charles. The phantom touch paused, so faint it tickled against the tendons of his neck.
Madness, undoubtedly, but would he shun it?
It was a foolish question. Turning his head, Erik drank in the sight of Charles laid out next to him, curled near enough to fondle Erik's neck with the hand not already tucked under the hem of his pyjama bottoms. Erik's eye was drawn to the slow, deliberate movements of that hidden hand, and he watched unashamedly. At this point, truly, he would just as willingly be hanged for a sheep as a lamb; at this point, he could see the inevitable precipice over which he would follow Charles gladly.
Hermitry aside, my friend, we are neither of us ascetics. The stroking touch resumed, a thumb brushing his pulse and fingers in the hollow of his throat, and Erik tilted his chin back, seeking more. I know you've already deduced we have been sharing some of our dreams, with our minds so entwined. Do you recall the dream from which you woke, just now?
It had been a hazy, hedonistic sort of vision of hot, bare flesh and the heady rush of Charles flooding every one of his senses. The sort of dream he'd been having much more often in recent weeks.
We have been sharing some of our dreams.
He had imagined that Charles would flush a sweet, obscene pink all over his fair skin, with high spots of crimson on his cheeks, and he was not disappointed. Both of those wicked hands kept moving, and Erik felt his own palms itch to join in.
Leaning closer across the pillows, he was very pleased to discover he could feel the heat of Charles' breath, panting out from between those persuasive lips. The hand on his throat slid around, carding through his hair and cupping the base of his skull.
You know, Charles, I might be insulted if I can't manage to shake your concentration. He felt coltishly nervous, as if this entire ill-conceived exercise might turn to smoke in an instant and leave him cold and wanting, but his arms were already reaching out of their own volition. The feel of Charles' body, the plane of his ribs and the curve of his jaw, was both familiar and inflaming. I know my own willingness. What are your limits?
What are your limits?
Well, that was certainly the question of the hour.
The problem as Charles saw it was data, or the lack thereof. When he projected himself into Erik's bed, he was working within the confines of his own memories, and allowing Erik's mind to fill in all the other necessary blanks. Most of the sensory perception, like smell and touch, and all the other little details that made this a viable, incredible experience— Charles took credit for creating none of that. Erik saw the Charles he remembered and as he anticipated, just as Charles saw Erik and the cottage, patched together from a jumble of memory and expectation.
He could build a kiss using precisely the same elements; he could, theoretically, build a perfect kiss.
It would be one more fantasy to keep with the others, the only difference being that he and Erik would both be awake to share this one.
The ideas were too complex to articulate with his hand already stroking his own cock and their shared arousal threatening to boil-over between them, but they were also rather important ideas to share at the moment. Staring into Erik's eyes, wondering not for the first time if he recalled every fleck of stormy colour perfectly or not, Charles bundled up all his theories, his hopes, and his doubts, and pushed them gently into Erik's mind to unfold as they would.
Confusion came first, knitting Erik's brow. That melted slowly into consideration, calculation, and finally resolved into a strange, heady mix of disappointment and determination. Erik's hand on his jaw slid forward, one callused thumb brushing Charles' bottom lip, pushing in ever so slightly until he could taste salt and skin.
All right. Charles knew what Erik was going to say before the verbal thought was fully defined. The idea, raw and delirious, roared wildly on its own. Touch yourself for me, Charles. Let me watch you come apart for me.
Foreknowledge or no, it was a different thing entirely to have the words wrap around his thoughts, gravelly and imbued with a thousand more filthy, alluring promises. The world sparked a bit around the edges, and Charles nearly lost his grip on Menigu, managing at the last instant to catch himself on the shining light of Erik's mind, mooring himself firmly.
When he opened his eyes, the sparks were easing, and Erik was watching him with an expression gone dark and concerned.
I'm all right... Still here. Nipping at the thumb resting between his lips, Charles called up his toothiest grin and shimmied, allowing his loose pyjamas to slide farther down his hips. The rasp of flannel over his cock made him groan, craning his neck back until Erik's thumb slid wetly down his chin. Sean's flat was cold, as usual, but hunger was burning in Erik's gaze, hotter even than the friction of Charles' spit-slick hand.
The angle was awkward, and as much as he ached to jerk himself to orgasm tucked as near to Erik as humanly possibly, Charles rolled over, giving Erik's hair a final tug before settling himself comfortably on his back. It would have been better with something slicker, but the vegetable oil in the kitchen and the vaseline in the bathroom cupboard were impossibly far away.
Tell me. Erik moved with him, pressed close and looming, with one hand on Charles' chest. Even through his thrice-damned pyjamas and miles of physical distance, it felt like an anchor and a brand. Erik, tell me what you would do if I were there with you.
Charles wasn't surprised by the immediate rush of half-formed, disordered images that assaulted him— Erik's mind had been supplying flashes of lewd, glorious fantasies even in dreams, and Charles hadn't taken any great pains to stop the increasingly common mental leaks springing up between them— but it still felt rather like careening into a hurricane. This was consuming, sudden and fierce, and Charles couldn't stop himself from digging his heels so hard into his lumpy mattress that the springs creaked in dangerous protest, jabbing him painfully.
“Christ,” he gasped, the word echoing incredibly loud to his own ears in the relative quiet of Sean's flat. His heart was pounding, and not merely from the pornographic deluge currently flooding his neurons, but he managed to scrape together enough sense to sweep his mind out towards Sean, finding the young man undisturbed, lost in his own heavy sleep and gently pleasant dreams.
Which was very, very good, given that Charles was currently bare-arsed in the living room, fisting his own cock while Erik slowly reined his own mind back into some semblance of its usual order.
For the record— Charles was mildly chagrined to find that his mental voice was far huskier than he had anticipated, but the sound made Erik shudder, his thoughts flickering again. Allowing himself a slow curl of a smile, Charles decided to refrain from clearing his throat, figuratively speaking. I would be game for any of that.
How very bold of you, Charles. If his own voice was husky, Erik's was obscene, a hot, growling purr rasping directly beside Charles' ear and sneaking under his skin, trailing fire down though sinew and muscle, deep into his bones. Possibly deeper. Though I'm hardly shocked. We've already established that you are a madman.
He had been hard before Erik woke him up, and after weeks of tension and now the phantom of Erik's breath warming his neck, Charles would admit that his nerves were drawn somewhat taut. Please don't spoil this, he thought, loosening his fierce grip on his erection for the moment, letting his thumb slide up to press just under his crown. It was nearly torturous and more than a little absurd to tease himself, but if Erik was feeling playful, he would try to refrain from palming himself as quick and desperate as a schoolboy.
Perish the thought. Erik's nose pressed under his ear, nuzzling, and Charles pressed into the sensation, twisting his fingers down slowly at the same time, drawing down his foreskin and trailing slickness. If you were here with me now, Charles, you wouldn't still be wearing that shirt. Take it off for me.
For anything beyond tugging his prick, his fingers felt useless and rubbery, but Charles was determined to undo every tiny button, one-handed and fumbling. He could feel Erik’s amusement at his clumsiness, paired with the ghost of a chuckle breathed out against his throat; the amusement petered off, however, as he managed to free each additional inch of skin, pinching and gasping as he went.
Unbuttoned just over halfway, Charles paused, pushing flannel aside just enough to bare his chest. Squeezing the base of his cock as a precaution, he reached down with his other hand and gently swept his thumb over his sensitive cock head, gathering up precome and trying very hard not to buck up into the touch. Erik was breathing hard now, his shared thoughts kept largely silent, and Charles gnawed at his own lip as he brought his thumb up to circle one tightened nipple, making it damp and shiny, as thought it had been licked.
I wish this was your mouth on me. Pinching himself, twisting and chasing the heated sensation of pleasure-pain that travelled from his nipple straight to his cock, Charles stared up at Sean’s ceiling with hooded eyes. Your tongue and your teeth, just here. Mm, still with me, Erik?
There was a pause, scarcely more than a heartbeat or two, before Erik projected his answer.
Still waiting. Your shirt, Charles. Abandoning his chest for the moment, smirking just a little at the cracks beginning to show around the edges of Erik’s thoughts, making him sound throaty and already ruined, Charles dared a bit more and brought his thumb up for a quick suck, cleaning off his own flavour. Damn you.
He suffered a brief flash of panic when Erik rolled away, afraid he’d pushed the man too far already, but then there was a clattering noise, distant and distracting, heard through Erik’s ears. Before Charles could ask, Erik was kicking himself free of quilts and underwear, baring the generous, darkly flushed curve of his own erection, and holding one empty hand up above the bed. There was a whoosh and a quiet slap as something smacked against Erik’s palm, and Charles had only a moment to realise what terrible trouble he’d gotten himself into before the tin of vaseline was being twisted open.
Tearing his eyes away from Erik’s cock did not prove to be the relief from rushing arousal that Charles had expected— if anything, the intense expression on Erik’s face and the heat darkening his sharp eyes only served to make the fire in Charles’ belly burn brighter. Charles was caught, feeling every inch the cornered prey, and it was more than a little embarrassing to realise that Erik could reduce him to a gibbering mess with little more than a glance and a tub of slick.
The only saving grace was the fact that Charles could not in fact remember the last time he’d had sex, beyond a deep surety that this was far from his first time. That could explain away at least some of his gnawing desperation, surely.
If you were here, Charles– It was a strain to keep Erik’s thoughts clear in his mind, while at the same time keeping hold of the image of Erik sneaking slick, shiny fingers down between his own spread legs and taking up his sleek cock in the other fist, but Charles would happily suffer the headache afterward. Would you watch me do this, or do it yourself, hm? You do strike me as something of a voyeur.
Feeling himself flush, Charles was foolishly relieved that Erik was a bit too distracted to notice. While the man’s thoughts might be clinging to focus and clarity, his body was a study in tightly coiled need. Eyes mostly closed and head craned back, Erik was obviously giving himself over to touch in a way Charles had not anticipated.
It was... beautiful.
Abandoning his own taut yearning for the moment, Charles shifted around until he was kneeling on the lumpy mattress, anxiously checking on his flatmate once more (and again, finding Sean unmoved by the antics happening on his chesterfield).
Oh God, keep doing that.
Cracking his eyes open, Erik spared Charles a dark, heated glance that was also far too sarcastic. Incapable of following simple direction, but eager to order me about. You are terribly overbearing, aren’t you?
Terribly so, yes. Moving nearer, not quite teetering despite the distinct lack of blood flowing to his brain, Charles knelt between Erik’s widely spread thighs, stroking his own cock in time with the slow, steady slide of Erik’s fingers. This... this I could not simply watch, not the first time. I want to feel the heat of you, working my fingers inside and slicking you open for me. It was difficult to decide which to watch: Erik’s shiny fingers disappearing up into his pink, stretched arse, or Erik’s face, with his colour high and his lips moist and swollen from worrying them between his teeth. Charles could not imagine a more erotic sight than the banquet laid out before him, even if he wasn’t permitted a proper taste, and he squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, etching every detail into his memory.
With any luck at all, he would be in a position to compare it to the real thing sometime in the near future. Tell me how you feel, Erik. Tell me before I go mad from it.
I might do one better. That strained growl of thought was Charles’ only warning before the sensations flooded over him, shoved from Erik’s mind into his own with all the subtlety of a stampede. Charles could feel the mattress under his knees, and softer sheets under his back; the squeeze of a hand on his cock was amplified, echoing with strange, phantom touches as Erik tugged his own slicked erection with fiercely quick motions. And oh good lord, the lightning scalding through his nerves as Erik rubbed his own prostate, firm and merciless— it was bizarre, to clench around a stretch and burn he could not feel, and to shudder in time with Erik’s groaning as the feelings went on and on. Bizarre and not nearly enough, but if Charles could not have Erik hot and yearning under him, this was a damned fine facsimile.
Jesus— Leaning forward, curving over the image of Erik he could see coming apart before him, Charles gave himself over to feeling as much as possible, losing his tether on everything except the link between them. The urge to let go was growing with every twist of his wrist, but he didn’t dare— spilling himself on empty sheets while his brain short-circuited was not how this experience was going to end.
It was all sight and sound now, reality blurring together, and Erik was watching him through slitted eyes. Need was coiling at the base of Charles’s spine, threatening to unravel or burn him alive, and he would have been embarrassed by the speed of it if he couldn’t feel the desperation driving Erik on as well, just as painfully overwhelming as the man flushed crimson and writhed, sweating and grunting with every rough jab of his own fingers...
When he came all over his fist, gasping out Erik’s name in the stillness of the flat, it was exactly as he’d feared— Charles was suddenly, jarringly braced over cool sheets, alone. He was fizzled, thoughts scrambling together, but panic proved very effective at tearing through lethargy. Reaching out, even before he’d caught his breath again, Charles sought that familiar glow, reaching determinedly towards Erik’s mind.
He found brightness, nearly blinding, and a tangle of sensation that made him shudder again, flopping down onto the mattress with a quiet, pained sort of sound. Even catching the tail-end of Erik’s orgasm was enough to make Charles’ own cock twitch pathetically, but he managed to anchor himself just enough to lay his clean hand on Erik’s chest, focusing on the pounding thrum of heartbeat.
Welcome back. Despite the speed of his pulse and his breathing, Erik was already smirking lazily, wiping his own filthy hands on the corner of his sheets and stretching out like a basking cat. A little too much for you, Charles?
Enjoy that smugness while you’re able. Dredging up another ounce of control, Charles briefly tweaked the nerve endings he could remember singing with pleasure moments before, and Erik was thrashing and cursing in an instant. He might not be able to actually slide fingers deep into Erik’s sensitive arse, but he wasn’t without his methods.
Sneaky son of a bitch, Erik gritted out, aloud and in his mind, and Charles retreated with a smirk of his own, but the playful feelings didn’t last. They were both wrecked, sweaty and spent, and the true distance between them hadn’t seemed so damnably wide since the first moment Charles had stepped off the plane onto the mainland. The sweetness of sex after so long a wait was souring far too quickly, and it simply wasn’t fair in the slightest.
Silence widened, gaping and dark, and melancholy twisted thornily in the space left behind in the absence of words; after a few long moments Erik shifted over and pressed his nose against the top of Charles' head, not quite a kiss. Swallowing tightly, Charles was unaccountably glad that he didn't need to use his voice to speak at the moment.
I’m coming back. Reaching down, he grabbed hold of the blankets’ edge and hauled them up to armour himself against the chill of Sean’s flat. It was a bit easier to bear the weight of Erik’s razor sharp attention— confusion, uncertainty, disbelief— if he focused on the bedclothes. A trip to the laundromat would be called for in the near future, before Sean caught on to the mess Charles had made of the borrowed sheets.
Lying beside him, Erik had gone very still. What... what do you mean, coming back?
I’m making little progress here; there is only so much the public library can offer when I’ve no idea where I should be searching. Charles had be considering this for some time, ever since he’d discovered his powers truly could stretch this far, and the notion had simply become more persuasive as his search continued to yield nothing but frustration. Pouring through reels of local newspapers had been fruitless, and he with no idea where he might have come from, he was stymied on where to branch from there. My best hope is police resources, and if I can hear you from here, I can certainly check in on Detective MacInnes’ progress from Menigu.
That’s idiotic. The words were harsh, but Charles did not miss the warm sliver of hope that wound through them. Erik would grumble, but hiding true feelings from a telepath when their minds were already tangled together was a nearly impossible challenge. You can’t... there’s nothing for you here.
Oh, isn’t there? Flopping down to curl on his side, Charles steeled himself to meet Erik’s cynicism with wry optimism. This was a fine plan and they both knew it, even if Erik denied it for now. Then I suppose I’ll simply stay with Moira when I get back. She has the space; I’m certain she wouldn’t mind a roommate.
Damn it, Charles. The sensation of Erik’s mind prodding clumsily at his was unexpected, but Charles opened his thoughts wide regardless. He had nothing he cared to hide, and perhaps experiencing the strength of his resolve would be enough to quiet Erik’s arguments (though Charles would hardly hold his breath for that).
After a moment of feeling a bit like a card catalogue being riffled through, Charles sensed Erik’s withdrawal with a tiny stab of loss. He stretched, not quite following, and ended up with his hand rubbing slow circles over Erik’s bare chest. The touch wasn’t shrugged off, and Charles was more than willing to count that as a small victory.
You’re coming back. Still sceptical, but at least Erik wasn’t actively arguing against the idea for the moment. The room, with details still shimmering somewhere between his vision and Erik's, felt as though it was spinning around him more than their shared consciousness could adequately explain. That, coupled with the slight ache building behind his eyes, warned Charles that he may have overextended himself, just a bit.
A headache was a small price to pay for what they'd just gotten up to; he couldn't bring himself to regret it, even if he woke with the mother of all migraines (though, admittedly, he might not feel so agreeable come morning if that did come to pass). For the moment, however, Charles smiled and shifted a bit closer.
Indeed, my friend.
You’re being an ass, Charles. Picking up a morsel of canned chicken that had fallen from his sandwich, Erik held the bit of meat out for Raven to sniff at suspiciously. As though the damned prissy cat hadn’t been staring him down with unblinking golden eyes since he’d first cracked open the tin. If you’re still so intent on scuttling back from the mainland, you’ll need some proper clothes. Misplaced pride will not keep you warm here in February.
Charles didn’t answer with any firm thoughts, but the sense of simmering frustration with just a tinge of embarrassment spoke volumes of the man’s state of mind. Still, there was no more argument about the merits of new winter gear compared to whatever thinning, ratty things he might find at consignment— frugality was all well and good, but Menigu could be pitiless. Boots and coats were not the place to skimp for the sake of a few dollars.
Outside of fishing season, Erik hadn’t found himself so concerned with the passage of time in years. His days were still spent elbow-deep in busywork and maintenance, but the warm hum of Charles’ presence at the periphery of his mind kept him hyper-aware of every dragging hour.
There were moments, of course, when time slipped by more quickly than others. Compared to a lengthy afternoon shovelling out around his workshop, fifteen minutes in the shower with his dick in his hand and Charles whispering in his head felt like an instant.
Erik, damn it, I’m in public. Taking another bite of his sandwich, Erik conceded to tamp down a few of his lewder wandering thoughts. Distracting Charles from his obstinacy was a fine strategy, but also a delicate one. Good lord, that saleswoman thinks I’m flushed red as a beet about a pair of long johns, and it’s entirely your fault.
Erik snorted out a laugh that startled the cat. Buy them, and later I’ll give you a few reasons to get hot and bothered about long johns.
It was less than a week now until the grocery delivery, barring bad weather, and the word from Moira was that the plane would come earlier if even the hint of a storm began to loom. Margie Christmas’ baby was coming due quite soon, and even joking about delivering it on Menigu was enough to suck every ounce of colour out of McCoy’s face.
I have every intention of holding you to that, my friend. As much as Erik wanted to respond to the dark thread of promise wound around those words, the saleswoman chose that moment to wandering over and engage Charles in some inane prattle. Holding two simultaneous conversations, one on either side of the strait, without seeming either rude or daft as his attention wavered was more challenging than Charles preferred.
Erik didn't imagine he'd be nearly so concerned if he found himself in such a position, though there had been no real opportunity to test that assumption. He hadn't actually seen another person since Charles had left Menigu, besides one brief visit from Moira earlier in the month.
The plane was due in five days, a fact Charles was not likely to let him forget. Five days left for Charles to realise that returning to the island was soft-headed madness, and five days of Erik vainly pretending that he wasn't quietly, shamefully aching. Five days to deny the itch under his skin, and the hollow silence of a home that hadn't felt this empty in a decade.
Make sure it's real wool, not cotton, he thought purposefully, never quite certain whether or not his words made it over clearly until he felt Charles' reaction. In this case, the response was a warm, wordless caress through his mind— acknowledgement, gratitude, affection— and the faint awareness that Charles was inquiring about fabric.
Sitting primly on the other kitchen chair, Raven stretched out to paw at his wrist, letting out the most piteous meow in her extensive repertoire as she eyed his sandwich. A month under Charles' influence had her completely ruined, and Erik shuddered to think of the heedless terror she'd be by the summer.
Not that he dared think so far ahead, especially not when Charles was lurking around the periphery of his mind. He wasn't quite stupid enough to give the lunatic more ammunition for his war against good sense.
Summer was an eternity away, regardless, especially when five days already seemed like an eon.
Sighing, more than a little disgusted with himself, Erik dug out another piece of chicken and held it out for Raven to nibble from his fingers.
Four days before the plane's scheduled run, Erik found himself pulling up beside the post office, tires crunching over crisply packed snow. The bitter cold that had crept in just after the last storm hadn't quite shaken loose yet, though the days had been largely sunny. What little snow that had fallen in the past month had been icy, frosting everything it touched, making trees and roofs glitter like crystal.
No proper storms had hit in weeks and none were looming either, as far as Erik could tell by the feel of the air. He'd considered asking Charles if he'd picked up any rumours of inclement weather approaching, but dismissed the notion almost immediately. It would have been just as easy to start up the Racham's radio and get his forecast that way, and less likely to end with Charles being unbearably self-satisfied as Erik continued to play along with this foolishness.
Coming into town wasn't necessary, but he had a few new pairs of shears he'd machined for the Salvatores that had been cluttering up his workshop, as well as the coat hooks that Aza had been harping about since September. Nothing that wouldn't wait until delivery day, but he was restless for a bit of fresh air and, more surprisingly, the sound of another voice actually in his ears (even if that voice was Aza's, God help him).
If Charles had an opinion about the needless trip, he kept it to himself. Aza, of course, did not.
“Surely my eyes are not so old or my mind so turned about; it cannot be Lehnsherr come to call on a Sunday, can it?” The snarky bastard was actually doing some work for once, spreading a fresh layer of sand and salt on the porch. Pausing, Aza leaned against his shovel like a cane, wrapped up neck to knees in his vibrantly red woollen coat. Erik was always surprised the blinding thing couldn't be seen from the mainland. “What brings you to civilization on this fine day, moy droog?”
Hefting the intricately twisted iron rack out of the bed of the truck, complete with a dozen sturdy hooks and made to match the sign above the door as requested, Erik grabbed his toolbox as well. “Dropping this off, for one. Where do you want it hung?”
Putting such a dumbfounded expression on Aza's face was satisfying, even if the man quickly rallied back to his usual poise. “Well, well— I never took you for Ded Moroz, Lehnsherr, but I suppose you are just on time. Come, I will show you where.”
Hanging a coat rack was hardly taxing, and Erik was back in his truck before he could act on the urge to make a phone call to the mainland. It hardly helped that Charles was spending his Sunday lingering around Sean's flat, likely still engrossed in the novel he'd picked up on his last trip to the public library if the lack of his presence in the back of Erik's skull was any indication. It would be a simple thing to grab the phone from its shelf and dial, but Aza had already gotten enough of a chuckle from his inquiries about weather, not bothering to hide his smirk as he assured Erik that the plane was still on schedule.
Erik knew he'd be the topic of some chattering even as he pulled away from the post office, ignoring Aza's jaunty wave, but it would hardly be the first time.
Angel was just as surprised to see him on her doorstep as Aza had been, though Mrs. Salvatore seemed to take the visit in stride, as she did most things. The shears changed hands only after he'd agreed to stay for a cup of tea and a piece of carrot cake, midway through which Charles decided to check in, only to slip back out of his mind again with a long-suffering whine. Apparently enjoying the cake vicariously was just too torturous an experience after nearly a month of Sean's cooking.
“We miss that honey bread on Fridays, you know,” Mrs. Salvatore said as he was shrugging his coat back on, set to head home again while the sun was still with him. She'd taken the opportunity to load him down with the customary bottles of preserves, thick socks, and a new turtleneck— mossy green this year. The cosy hat and scarf she pressed into his hands, both knit in wide stripes of varying blues, were for Charles.
Unsure of how he wanted to respond to that unsubtle comment on his absence from potlucks since Charles had gone, Erik chose to say nothing, doing up the snaps of his coat instead. Mrs. Salvatore simply clicked her tongue at him, shuffling closer in her woollen slippers, and took firm hold of his hand before he could draw away.
“But I am happy to see you today.” She smiled, revealing a perfect row of porcelain teeth, and her slender fingers squeezed around his. “And thank you again.”
It was thanks for the shears, but also for the granddaughter currently swanning around their warm kitchen. Erik dipped his head in a shallow nod, extracting himself with as much politeness and as few words as he could manage, and Mrs. Salvatore was good enough to allow his retreat without argument or insult, as usual.
Oh, please tell me one of those is raspberry jam. Charles' voice in his head might have been enough to startle him, if the man hadn't already announced his presence with a gentle prod as Erik climbed back into the truck, pushing the basket of jars and knitwear onto the passenger’s seat.
I haven't checked, but no doubt. Pulling away from the Salvatore's, Erik headed east along the widely ploughed road, sparing a glance towards the main wharf and the packed ice beyond as he passed. The mainland was a dark band along the horizon. I've also been promised I'll have a batch of fresh biscuits on Thursday.
He felt Charles' quiet laughter more than he heard it, a warming rush down his spine and into his chest. Luring me back with baked goods is clever, if unnecessary. Biscuits or no, I'm rather invested now.
The words sounded more sincere than such banter had any right to be.
If you forget my boots, you'll be walking back for them. It was Thursday, and the sky had been grey with dawn and perfectly clear of clouds when Erik had first ventured out of the cottage that morning. Without the threat of weather, the plane wouldn't be arriving quite so early in the day as it had last month, but neither would it be waiting for Charles if the man couldn't manage to get himself packed and down to the airstrip. Whether or not the ice is thick enough.
They're already in my bag. Frazzled around the edges he might be, Charles didn't rise to the bait, still maintaining that enviable, infuriating serenity he'd maintained for days. Don't worry so much, my friend. I'm leaving for the plane now, plenty of time to spare.
Leaning against the kitchen counter, hands still damp from washing up the breakfast dishes, Erik considered how difficult it would be to drown himself in the sink. Surely no more difficult than the situation he was blundering into at the moment, inviting Charles back into his life.
Right then, I'm off. Charles allowed him a vision of Sean's flat, the sofa folded back in place and a canvas duffle bag stuffed to near bursting resting on the cushions. Charles had his own clothes, his own shaving kit, his own damned toothbrush, and now he was dragging the lot over to shoehorn into Erik's space. I'll speak to you again when I arrive, shall I?
I'll be there. Erik forced himself to breathe deeply. The cat was winding around his calves, purring, and he was reminded rather sharply of the first day Charles had spent in the cottage, deathly still and blue from cold.
How Charles had ended up there in the first place was perhaps only a slightly bigger mystery than how he'd ended up moving in to the cottage, of all the fucking things. And discovering the answer to either would not be beneficial to Erik's mental health, he was nearly certain.
“Curiosity can be a dangerous thing,” he murmured, watching Raven rubbing her whiskers against his socks. If he hadn't wandered out to check his dock in the eerie tension heralding that fateful storm, he'd have found a corpse afterwards, or perhaps nothing but broken ropes and churning waves. “Eh, cat?”
Not that he expected either of them, him or Charles, to stop delving into deep, dark waters.
Charles watched his breath billow white in the crisp morning air, mittened hands tucked into his coat pockets as he waited for Janos to finish whatever preparations had the pilot elbow deep in the guts of the Cessna. Janos had assured him it wasn't anything serious, just some triple checks and de-icing, but to be honest, Charles main concern at the moment was getting out of the bloody cold. The only additional waiting passenger, on the other hand, seemed less than enthused about the impromptu maintenance.
“For the love of... d'you hold this thing together with chewing gum and hope, Janos?” The scruffily bearded man in the thick flannel coat, who'd introduced himself simply as Logan, was gnawing on a cigar and pacing along the paved airstrip, looking decidedly green around the gills already. Charles wasn't precisely thrilled by the possibility of arriving back on Menigu with his new boots covered in this Logan fellow's vomit; the briefest foray into his agitated mind revealed both a fear of flying and a tendency towards motion sickness. “Jesus Christ, I've seen sturdier kites.”
Janos favoured him with a narrow look, then returned to his work without saying a word. Logan glared back and kept growling to himself, spitting a bit of loose tobacco onto the pavement.
“So, bub,” Logan said after a few more moments of grumbling, turning his attention to Charles. “McCoy rook you into coming out to the island, or what?”
“No, though Hank is indeed a friend.” The fellow was gruff, not the most charming conversationalist, but also clearly looking for some kind of distraction. If it meant they would make it to Menigu without incident, Charles was more than happy to oblige, even if a bit of creativity with the truth was required. “I actually moved to Menigu a few months ago, admittedly more for the peace and quiet than the climate. What brings you over, sir?”
Shifting his jaw, rolling his stubby cigar tight into the corner of his mouth, Logan crossed his arms and leaned his weight back on one heel. The expression he wore under his thatch of beard and dark, windblown hair became much more considering, tinged with dubiousness, and Charles made a point of staying out of the man's mind no matter how his curiosity piqued.
“Work. Do a bit of trapping.” Jerking his head towards his own luggage— a rugged canvas rucksack, and a sleek barrelled rifle propped up against it— Logan took a drag of his faintly smoking cigar, the broad tip glowing red for a moment. “Taking care of some pests that must've come across the ice. Probably coyotes.” The sound of metal clanking against metal had stopped and when it didn't begin again, the silence drew both of their attentions towards Janos, who was closing up a panel under the plane. “Hey, we ready?”
Janos nodded, wiping his hands clean on a rag before pulling his leather gloves back on, then walked around to pop the hatch and lower the stairs. Charles shouldered his own pack, eyeing the rifle with mild unease. He had found he didn't care for firearms, not after having his mind touched so often by the deafening bangs and burning stench of Erik's nightmares. The details were still nebulous and vague, and Charles had no intention of pushing for more, but the dreams left him sickened by the thought of the hot, metallic scent of spent gunpowder.
Climbing up into the plane, Charles watched Logan begin to pale again, and swallowed back a sigh. It was going to be a long flight.
I'm not going to clutter this up, but if you're interested in some info about my hiatus, pop on over to my tumblr. I'll be posting some explanations there soon, and hopefully posting new chapters of "Island, Island" here as often as my schedule permits (currently, I'm aiming for a chapter every two weeks or so).
But let me just say... I'm sorry for the wait.