When Erik is five, he ruins the surprise about Charles’ birthday present by thinking about it too loudly.
“You promised you wouldn’t do that without asking,” he says reproachfully, after Charles slides into his seat next to Erik, says “Oh!” and flushes a pleased pink, all without Erik saying a word.
“I’m sorry,” Charles says, and he looks like he really means it, so Erik decides he can stop being angry now. (He doesn’t like being angry at Charles, anyway.)
“I do try not to,” Charles continues, nodding earnestly. “It’s just that when people get really excited about things, they...shout, a little bit.”
“Oh,” Erik says, while something in his tummy twists unhappily. “Then...then it’s my fault.” His face heats up and his hands ball into little fists around the hem of his shirt. “I ruined it.”
“NO!” yells Charles, a little too loudly. Miss Moira gives him a look from the front of the room. “No,” he says again, more quietly, though no less fiercely. “You didn’t!”
“It was supposed to be a surprise,” Erik whispers. He keeps his eyes fixed firmly on the desk in front of him and bites his lip. He feels awful, but he is not going to cry. He’s not.
“I’m still really happy!” Charles says. “And I was surprised, just then.”
Erik looks at him doubtfully, unconvinced.
“It’s a really good present,” Charles continues, smiling shyly. “Sharks are my favourite.”
“I know,” Erik says. He’s Charles’ best friend, of course he knows.
“And it’ll still be better than any of my other presents, even if they are surprises!” Charles says, waving his hands emphatically.
“Yeah?” Erik peeks up at Charles through the fringe of his hair. He feels a little better at that. A little.
“Yeah!” says Charles, grinning widely.
That’s why, now that he’s seven, Erik knows better. (Even though Charles had kept telling him that he hadn’t ruined everything, and even if Charles had smiled the widest when he unwrapped Erik’s gift box.) And so, when Erik sees Charles laughing from across the playground as he runs away from Sean who’s It and suddenly realises that the thing he wants most in the world, more than anything, even more than a grown-up bicycle without training wheels, is to kiss Charles on one of his pink cheeks, he knows he’s got to do something if he doesn’t want Charles overhearing it.
It’s not that he thinks Charles will stop being his friend or anything like that. He and Charles are going to be best friends forever, and he knows that because they pinky swore and even signed it on a piece of paper that Charles keeps in a shoebox under his bed, where all his most important things go.
And it’s not that he likes keeping secrets from Charles either, because he and Charles promised to tell each other everything and they pinky swore on that too, besides spitting in their hands and shaking on it. (They even got Charles’ dog to witness it, but Cerebro is kind of old now, so Erik has serious doubts about whether he remembers or not.)
It’s just that Charles is his best friend, so Erik just wants to make sure this isn’t anything stupid before letting Charles find out. Because Charles is important.
And naturally, because Erik is thinking about this and not really paying attention to the game of chasey going on around him, he doesn’t hear Sean come running up behind him until Sean slams both hands into Erik’s back and screams, “You’re it!”
He’ll have to revisit this later, Erik thinks, as he scans the playground for his next target. For the moment, there are more pressing issues that need his attention.
* * * * *
For the rest of the day, Erik very carefully hums “There’s a hole in the bucket” to himself when he doesn’t have other, schoolwork-related things to think about. When it’s time to go home, he tells Charles he can’t come over to his house today, because he has something else he needs to do.
“It’s just for today,” he says, trying for reassuring, when Charles looks at him with an expression that is both confused and a little bit sad. Charles nods uncertainly, and Erik nearly caves anyway when the corner of his mouth trembles and starts to turn down.
“I’ll tell you about it tomorrow, okay?” he says recklessly. He’s not sure if one night is enough for him to think it over properly, but he really can’t stand seeing Charles sad, not even a little bit.
“Okay,” says Charles, nodding. He looks slightly cheered at the prospect. As he heads off to the familiar black car that arrives to pick him up, turning and giving a small wave before clambering in, Erik thinks he can hear Charles humming, “So fix it, dear Henry, dear Henry, so fix it.”
He nods sagely to himself. A powerful weapon, that song.
* * * * *
When Erik gets home, his mother looks surprised to see him there, instead of at Charles’ house. Erik pays her raised eyebrow little attention, just giving her a “Hi Mum,” before making a beeline for his room.
He sits down on his bed and does some serious thinking. “There’s a hole in the bucket” had worked for the afternoon, but probably only because they’d spent it working on sums, and Charles had been mostly occupied with explaining them to Alex on his other side. Erik won’t be able to do the same thing for the entire day tomorrow, especially at lunch. He’ll need something better to keep Charles from overhearing his thoughts.
Erik glances out his window and catches sight of crazy old Mr Shaw coming out of his house, darting suspicious glances up and down the street as he shuffles to his mailbox to check it for mail. The sun gleams off the small silver tinfoil hat perched on his head.
A tinfoil hat!
“Telepathy, boy!” Mr Shaw had explained when Erik and Charles had asked him about it. “It’s for protection against telepathy!”
“Protection?” Charles had asked, confused.
“The government, boy, the government!” Mr Shaw had said impatiently. “Spies everywhere!” He’d illustrated this with a wiggling of his fingers.
“Everywhere?” Erik had gasped, eyes wide.
“Everywhere,” Mr Shaw had said, nodding with narrowed eyes.
“But why does the government have spies everywhere, Mr Shaw?” Charles had asked, breathless in anticipation of the answer. Mr Shaw had not disappointed.
“They’re waiting,” he’d said ominously. “Waiting for the right moment, when people least expect it. And then,” Mr Shaw had continued dramatically, “the spies’ll jump out and take over their minds!”
Erik and Charles had jumped a foot in the air. And after Mr Shaw had retreated into his house, muttering, they’d spent the afternoon diving into bushes and peeping around trees, trying to find and capture a government spy and shivering with the thrill of it.
Erik has heard people call what Charles can do, hearing other people’s thoughts, telepathy. Even though, Erik thinks, he’d never use it to take over people’s minds or anything like that. But maybe, just maybe, if Mr Shaw’s hat could protect people’s minds from the government taking it over, it could protect Erik from Charles noticing the shouting about kisses.
His mother barely blinks when he asks her for a sheet of tinfoil, used to his escapades by now. Erik carries it back to his room very carefully, with both hands. He folds it, the way that they’d learnt in school, into a sailor’s hat and presses the corners down gently before putting it in his schoolbag so he doesn’t forget it.
* * * * *
The next morning, sitting at his desk, Erik pulls the hat onto his head with a feeling of great satisfaction. He ignores his classmates’ curious glances and refuses to answer their questions until eventually they lose interest.
When Charles comes in and sits down in his usual seat beside Erik, he, too, directs a curious glance at Erik’s head.
“I’ll explain after school,” Erik says, and Charles still looks like he really wants to know, but nods and doesn’t press further.
Erik is pleased with himself. Everything is going to plan – that is, until Miss Moira comes in.
“Erik,” she says. “That’s a very interesting headpiece. Would you mind taking it off before we start class?”
Erik freezes. He hadn’t thought of this happening at all. He should have. He shakes his head nervously.
Miss Moira looks at him steadily. “No? Well, I’m sorry, Erik, but I’m going to have to ask that you take it off.”
The whole class is silent now and looking at him. Erik swallows. “I can’t, Miss,” he whispers.
“And why not?” Miss Moira asks.
Erik just shakes his head, unable to answer.
Miss Moira is silent for a moment longer. Erik’s heart is thumping high in his throat. She sighs. “All right, you may leave it on for now,” she says. “But you will remain and see me after class, when everyone else goes out for recess.”
Erik nods and slumps into his seat with relief.
* * * * *
“I’ll wait for you outside,” Charles tells him after Miss Moira dismisses their class, and the rest of their classmates file out for recess.
Erik nods and returns the reassuring smile Charles pauses in the doorway to give him before slipping outside.
At the front of the room, Miss Moira is waiting for him.
“What is the rule about hats, Erik?” she asks him, not unkindly.
“Off in the classroom,” Erik mumbles.
“That’s right,” she says. “So should you be wearing that on your head?”
Erik shakes his head, no, but makes no move to take it off.
“This isn’t like you, Erik,” Miss Moira tells him, looking into his face with a slight frown. “You’re usually such a good boy. It’s not like you to play up like this. So I’m going to give you a chance to explain. Why won’t you take your hat off?”
Erik shakes his head again, miserably. Miss Moira sighs.
“Then I’m afraid, Erik, I’m going to have to take it off you.” She reaches for his head.
“You don’t understand, Miss,” Erik blurts out desperately. “It’s just for today, I just have to keep it a secret from Charles – “
There’s a gasp from the doorway. Both Erik and Miss Moira turn to see Charles standing there, hurt written all over his face.
Erik has absolutely no idea what to do.
“You’re keeping secrets from me?” Charles asks in a small voice.
“No,” Erik says, “I – “ but Charles turns and runs out the door.
Erik looks at Miss Moira helplessly, torn between having to stay and speak to her and needing to go after Charles and explain so much it almost hurts.
Exasperated, she waves him off. “Go on, then.”
He shoots her a grateful look and doesn’t wait to be told twice.
* * * * *
Erik takes off down the hall after Charles, careening around a corner before catching sight of Charles pushing open the door to the courtyard outside and running after him.
When Erik first emerges into the sunlight, he can’t see which direction Charles has gone in. He tears the tinfoil hat off his head in frustration, angrily crumpling it up and throwing it into a nearby bin. It wasn’t worth anything near having Charles upset with him.
He scans the courtyard frantically for the back of Charles’ head and feels a huge flood of relief as he finally catches sight of it heading towards the fence on the far edge of the school.
He finds Charles curled up on himself, arms around his knees with his face buried in them and his back against the fence. Erik slows to a stop in front of Charles and just stands there for a moment, catching his breath. Charles refuses to look at him.
“Charles,” Erik pleads brokenly, not knowing what to do.
Charles raises his face from his arms, but keeps his eyes fixed firmly on Erik’s shoes. “You promised we’d tell each other everything,” he says quietly. Erik feels like everything inside him is simultaneously twisting up into knots and trying to get out all at once.
“Charles – “ he starts again.
“That means no secrets,” Charles interrupts. “You promised.”
“I know,” Erik admits softly.
“I don’t have any secrets from you,” Charles says. “But you. And then you even made a hat – “
“NO!” Erik yells.
Charles finally meets his eye. But now that he’s listening, Erik doesn’t even know how to begin to explain.
“Can’t you just look into my head?” he asks wretchedly.
“You don’t want me to,” Charles says sullenly. “You made a hat.”
“I want you to,” Erik insists. “Please.”
Charles looks at him for a long moment before raising his fingers to his temple.
“Oh,” he says, sounding surprised. Erik can’t bear to look at his face and takes his own turn at staring at his shoes.
He hears the rustle of Charles getting to his feet.
Erik keeps his eyes stubbornly on his shoelaces.
Charles’ fingers skim his cheek. Erik looks up. Charles is smiling at him fondly, and Erik feels the knots inside him finally begin to unravel. Charles opens his mouth to speak again.
“I knew you wanted to kiss me a week ago.”
Erik freezes. Charles steps up on tiptoe and pecks him quickly on the cheek.
“But I’ve wanted to kiss you for even longer,” he admits shyly, taking Erik’s hand.
Erik’s cheek feels tingly in the place where Charles kissed it. His heart feels like it’s suddenly too big for his chest, but Charles’ hand in his is a perfect fit.
He squeezes it gently.
Charles’ smile could light up the sky.
Twenty years later, Erik is sitting cross-legged on their bed, idly directing the loose change from his pocket in an intricate pattern in front of his face when he suddenly realises that the thing he wants most in the world, more than anything, even more than for his idiot subordinates at work to suddenly grow some competence, is Charles. And he has that thing, has had it for over twenty years, and so they may as well make it legal, because he’s sure as hell that nothing about that is going to change if he has anything to do with it.
“Oh,” says Charles from the doorway to their bedroom, flushing a pleased pink that Erik knows from experience spreads halfway down his chest. The coins drop to the bed.
And while Erik has since replaced his tinfoil hat with mental shields that even Charles’ friend Emma grudgingly admits are “more than acceptable”, it seems even these aren’t enough to muffle his mental shouting when Charles is involved.
But, with a sudden armful of Charles and a future of the same spread out before them, Erik can’t say he has any complaints about that at all.