It began with Charles explaining it was impossible.
They’d been traveling through the country, side by side, sharing rooms and rides and ideas so naturally that Charles found himself amazed he hadn’t known Erik all his life. Although he was trying to keep his psychic talents under rein, to earn the trust Erik had shown in him, Charles knew that sometimes they were bleeding into each other.
When Erik suddenly cared about the vintage of the wine they drank, or laughed out loud without hesitation, that was Charles coming through.
And when Charles found himself becoming flirtatious, holding eye contact longer than he would with anyone else – that was Erik.
Well, he considered himself a sophisticated man. There was no need to create a fuss, and no real worry that Erik would misconstrue these moments as anything more, Charles assumed. They had a friendship – a rare and profound one, from the day they’d met – which turned out to fill so many of the places in the soul that normally only love could reach. Nothing was worth risking that.
Not even Charles’ own unrequited wish, different as it was …
“You’re quite sure?” he’d said after Erik had first refused, not long after they’d begun working together.
“Quite. I can’t see the point anyway. Haven’t you already read my mind?”
“What’s just beneath the surface, yes. That I can hardly help; it’s who I am, what it means to be a telepath.” His whole life, Charles had wished for someone to understand this. He would’ve thought Erik would, if anybody could. “I dove a little deeper to speak to you. But actually going into your mind … I’ve always known that’s possible, to really be one with someone.”
Erik’s dark eyes had flickered up to his, perhaps looking for another motivation, one Charles unfortunately could not supply. “You’ve never done that?”
“No. I’d need someone’s consent.” Or an incredibly pressing reason to do it without consent – but that was a theoretical possibility, not a real one. Charles didn’t like to think about the circumstances that could make that necessary. “And your mind – it’s so … disciplined and ordered, but not cold. I admit, I’m interested.”
“I’m not. Forgive me, my friend. But I spent too much of my childhood with no privacy. No control. I had to fight to get any of it back. I won’t give it up again.”
“All right.” Charles had surrendered with good grace, he thought. Their friendship demanded compromises on both sides.
Charles felt sure they both were sure of where they stood until one night in a Savannah hotel. They’d struck out with a potential recruit – yet again – and were easing their sorrows with a couple of mint juleps at the hotel bar. The flirtatious part was getting started again. “You never cease to surprise me, Erik.”
“How is that?” Erik was relaxed, as relaxed as he ever got, his frosted glass suspended only loosely in his fingers as he leaned on their table.
“You know so much of the world in so many ways, and so little in others.”
“Can you still not recover from the fact that I’ve never had a mint julep before?”
Charles grinned along with him. “Nor seen a single production of a Shakespeare play. Or gone skiing. And yet you can identify a Beethoven symphony within two measures, and you’ve read nearly all of Dickens, and fight with a knife like the devil himself.”
“The devil doesn’t need knives. He has other tools.” Erik set his drink down on the table, very near Charles’; this meant their hands were close too. “I’m self-taught. In everything, really. Unless you count the table manners my mother drilled into me.”
“We can’t forget the table manners.”
Erik ducked his head slightly; he seemed to be staring at their hands next to each other. Although Charles sensed he ought to lean back, take hold of his own drink again, he didn’t. Erik bleeding through again. “When you’re self-taught, you learn everything you can about what you love. You don’t bother learning about what you don’t.”
“It seems as if you’d love Shakespeare.” Charles cocked his head. “For some reason I think you’d appreciate Julius Caesar in particular.”
“Will you read it to me? I’d be interested then.”
Their eyes met, and Charles was hit with a wave of desire –
--no, not desire. Not only desire, anyway – that had been thick in the air for hours now. Weeks, really. What overcame Charles now, what Erik was feeling, was love.
Charles pulled back. The soft smile faded from Erik’s face. After a brief, awkward silence, Charles motioned for their check.
Neither of them spoke as they went up to their customary room. Charles always showered at night, leaving the bathroom free for Erik in the morning. It had never been a source of concern to him before, and he’d generally undressed in the bathroom – mostly so that the steam would have a chance to take the day’s wrinkles from his clothes. Tonight, though, he felt as if he were hiding.
Which was ridiculous. He’d never minded Erik’s attraction to him – never felt self-conscious about it, never felt as if he had to be childish enough to discourage it. And yet, while congratulating himself about how open-minded and mature he was, he had inadvertently encouraged Erik until that attraction had become more.
He groaned as he thumped his head once against the shower’s tile wall.
Once finished, Charles walked out of the bathroom swaddled in a terry-cloth robe to see Erik lying in bed, but wide awake, and looking at him. A new wave of desire washed over Charles then – so strong his breath caught in his throat – but even stronger was Erik’s sense of resignation, and his determination to resolve the matter for good.
Yet Erik’s expression never changed. “You know, now.”
Charles only nodded.
His eyes were black, unreadable. “I hope I haven’t offended you.”
“Erik. No.” Offend – such a cold word, a distant word. He would allow no distance to come between him and the most extraordinary friend he’d ever found, not even because of this. Charles deliberately walked past his own bed to sit on the side of Erik’s. “How could you offend me by caring for me?”
“You know full well.”
“I’m not small-minded. I see this for what it is. See you for the man you are.” Charles ventured a smile. “It’s my fault. I understood a while ago. I ought to have said something then. But I didn’t want to offend you either.”
Erik breathed out, a sigh of both relief and loss. “That’s – it’s all right, then. That I’m … what I am.”
“Homosexuality’s more common than most people admit. I’ve realized that since I first started reading thoughts. And as far as all that talk about ‘deviancy’ or ‘sexual immaturity,’ it seems to me homosexuals aren’t terribly different from heterosexuals, down deep.” His conversation was taking a turn for the academic – one way he often tried to deal with awkward situations. This moment demanded more. Charles took a deep breath and tried again: “Is there anything I can do to make it easier? I suppose – I could always get my own rooms from now on – ”
“Don’t. Let’s go on as we have. I won’t trouble you with this again.” Erik’s lips pressed together, a thin tight line of resolve.
Charles hated feeling the weight of Erik’s disappointment – heavy and bleak, settling over the room like a cloud – but more than that, he hated being the source of it.
Should he drop the subject now? What he wanted to say next would probably be more painful than helpful to Erik tonight – but in the long term, Charles thought, Erik would probably appreciate it.
So he gently took Erik’s hand in his own and whispered, “I truly wish I could.”
For the first time, Erik’s composure slipped – a look of such raw yearning and pain that it cut Charles to the heart – but he had control of himself again in an instant. He lifted Charles’ hand to his mouth and kissed the knuckles, hardly more than a brush, before letting go.
That night, as they lay in their twin beds pretending to sleep, Charles couldn’t shake the knowledge that of all the girls he’d taken to bed, both of the women he so far felt he had loved, not one of them had touched him with half as much emotion.
He was not in love with Erik. But Erik was more deeply in love with him than anyone else had ever been.
After some minor uncertainty the next morning, they carried on much as they had before. Charles attempted his first joke before lunchtime; Erik was at ease by midafternoon. The longing within Erik hadn’t diminished, but that would come in time, Charles was sure. What mattered now was that Erik felt accepted rather than rejected, assured of the strength of their friendship, and he did. By that evening, when they went to their separate beds rather easily, Charles was almost ready to declare it over and done with. There was even some chagrin at thinking himself so easily put aside.
He couldn’t have been more wrong.
Erik’s desire for him remained under strict control, fenced in by the iron gates of Erik’s considerable will, but it was always there, ever-present. If anything, the emotion only strengthened, until it underlay every word Erik spoke to him, practically every moment of his life at the school. With effort, Charles could turn his attention from it, but it was like walking away from a fire in the fireplace – the heat and light remained, constant and steady. Welcoming. Erik’s love was hard to ignore.
As their friendship deepened the next few weeks, spring warming closer to summer, Charles learned even more about Erik. Yes, his initial sense of Erik’s mind had given him many of the facts of the life he’d led – but understanding, putting knowledge into context, that took time.
(It had taken Charles far too long to understand this.)
Only slowly did he comprehend the depth of Erik’s anger at the world – how far it reached, how easily it might overwhelm the goodness in him.
Even more slowly did Charles realize how extraordinary that goodness was – how unlikely it was in the heart of someone who had known far more cruelty than kindness, far more coldness than comfort. How strong it was to have survived so long, and how that was no guarantee it would survive forever. Erik awed him … in his menace, his gentleness, his resolve, his anger, and in the way that at the heart of this storm, a tiny flicker of hope burned on.
The hardest knowledge to take in was the understanding of just how profoundly Erik loved him.
When Erik awoke, he woke thinking of Charles. His sexual fantasies – curtailed, out of courtesy to the telepath in the house, but unavoidable – took endless inventive twists and turns, never losing their passion or fire. Every conversation they had fell into Erik’s waiting hands like a stone to be polished into a jewel; he relished every compliment, every confidence Charles could give. Charles found himself giving more and more. How could he not give the best of himself to someone who treasured it so? At night, when they parted for their separate bedrooms, Erik’s heart broke a little. Every night. The pain never got worse, but never got better. It was as much a part of the day’s end as the sunset.
That kind of love deserved to be returned.
“Deserve” had little to do with love, as Charles knew full well. He’d been on the wrong side of that exchange a time or two. But the boundless emotion he found in Erik couldn’t help but affect him. Erik not only deserved love; he needed it. This man had been far too alone for far too long. And they were already so close. Was it impossible to imagine getting closer?
He cherished Erik’s company. Looked forward to seeing him every morning. Thought of him even when he was absent. Smiled when he entered the room. It wasn’t unlike having a crush.
Slowly, deliberately, Charles turned his imagination to the stray glimpses of desire he sometimes caught from Erik’s mind: His naked body beneath Erik’s, their mouths hot against each other, his hand on Erik’s cock. Viewed through Erik’s mind, they were portraits of pure desire; through his own, they seemed – ungainly, at best. But that lessened the more he made himself think of it, and if Erik were really there with him, if that torrent of emotion surrounded Charles the whole while –
It might be all right, mightn’t it?
Charles had gotten no farther than that the night they sat up until one in the morning, stretching a chess game out deliberately to amuse each other. The challenge was no longer checkmate; it was to prolong the game by any means necessary.
“Your last rook?” Charles laughed as he took a sip of his brandy; they were on their second bottle. “We’re going to be down to pawns and kings in a moment.”
Erik slid the black rook into the sacrificial square. “Imagine how long this can take now. If we don’t exchange any more pawns, we could be at it until noon.”
Out of perversity, Charles refused to take the rook, instead edging his king farther into a corner where no one would pursue. “It’s interesting, really. Turning the game to a whole new goal. It makes you see the pieces in a different way.”
“Hmmm.” Erik never took his eyes from the board, but a surge of emotion rushed through Charles – Erik’s desire to keep the game going, the better to keep Charles close to him just an hour or two longer. All he asked was to be near him, and to hear his laugh.
Maybe it was the humility of that wish. Maybe it was the glass of brandy. Maybe it was the moment Charles’ last wisp of good sense was worn away. Whatever it was, everything changed in that instant.
Charles gulped down the last of his glass; Erik hardly seemed to notice. When Charles spoke, it came out uneven, almost shaky: “Erik?”
“Yes?” Erik’s concentration remained on the game.
“I could try.” The words came out in a rush, and yet it felt so good to say them – like Charles had been holding his breath for hours and only now allowed himself to exhale. “For you, I could try.”
“Try what?” Erik glanced up, only his eyes moving.
Charles leaned closer; his hand rested on the chessboard between them on the sofa, tilting the board so that a few pieces fell on their sides. As Erik straightened, confused, Charles hesitantly put the other hand to Erik’s cheek.
Erik breathed in sharply; hope and fear mingled in his mind, equally overpowering. Charles wanted to take away all the fear and leave only hope behind.
So he brought his mouth to Erik’s. The kiss was quick, dry, clumsy. And yet the surge of happiness and need that washed past Charles made it as passionate a touch as he’d ever shared with anyone.
Erik lifted his hand to cover Charles’ against his face as he whispered, “You said you were – ”
“I am. But I – Erik, I love you.”
The look on Erik’s face then – Charles could have drunk it down like wine. And it was astonishing to realize he’d spoken from the heart, spoken the truth, and how blurry the line between “love” and “in love” truly was. Maybe they were closer than Charles had dreamed.
Charles continued, “If this is what you want, what you need, I can see if – maybe – maybe it could work.” He brushed his thumb along the line of Erik’s cheekbone. “Shall we try?”
The answer was another kiss, far more involved than the last. Charles found himself in Erik’s arms, let Erik open his mouth and tried to surrender to the touch. It wasn’t as hard as he would have thought; kissing, at least, wasn’t that different whether you were kissing a woman or a man. If he was all too aware of the chessboard tilted between them, if his own body remained unmoved, the consolation was the heat radiating from Erik – the heat and the pure, blinding joy.
“I love you too,” Erik whispered between kisses on Charles’ throat. “My God. Is this happening?”
“Yes,” Charles murmured as their mouths came close again. “This is real.”
When he shut his eyes and gave in completely to the emotions coming from Erik, this was nice. Better than nice. Charles imagined himself a surfer, catching waves he didn’t create or control, enjoying the thrill of the ride. And it was incredible to sense that sorrow within Erik lifting, to know that for once this man who so desperately needed happiness had been given as much as he could feel.
They remained like that a very long time, entwined in each other’s embrace, necking like teenagers in a movie theater balcony. But Erik wanted so much more than this, no matter how hard he was trying to control that wanting for Charles’ sake.
And yet Charles had to struggle for the courage to give it to him.
Finally, after nearly half an hour, when Erik pulled back to gulp in a deep breath, Charles whispered, “Will you come to my room?”
From Erik came a sharp spike of desire, combined with nearly as strong a sense of uncertainty. “Are you sure?”
Charles ran one hand through his floppy hair. “Not in the slightest. But it’s like I said. For you, I’ll try.”
“We don’t have to.” Good God, Erik was practically glowing. His fingertips brushed along the lines of Charles’ face and neck almost reverently. “This alone – it’s more than I expected.”
That sounded good to Charles, but Erik had been forced to control his desires long enough. Charles began this to set him free.
He took Erik’s hands in his own. “I don’t know how much I’ll be ready for,” he confessed, “but let’s find out.”
“Charles – ”
“I want to,” Charles insisted. His breaths came shallow and fast, catching their rhythm from Erik’s body, which thrummed with anticipation. “Will you?”
“Yes.” The word was hardly out of Erik’s mouth before he kissed Charles again, long and hard.
If there was lots of kissing, Charles thought, really, he’d be fine.
They stumbled into Charles’ room, half in each other’s embrace, and he heard the lock twist shut behind them. Erotic, the thought of Erik wanting to seal the two of them away from the world –
--until Erik’s hand cupped his ass, and Charles realized he had greatly overestimated his comfort level with this kind of thing.
“Slowly,” he whispered against Erik’s cheek. “I need you to take it slowly.”
Dear God, Erik’s grin could be fierce. “I can go slow.”
Charles had to laugh at himself. “I’m acting like some bashful virgin.”
“You are a virgin, in a way. I’ll take care of you.”
So protective. Charles felt as if he ought to make some sort of joke about that as well, but he didn’t want to. He liked the idea of Erik being slow and sure.
Erik walked Charles backwards toward the bed, until the edge of mattress caught him at the back of the knees and he fell onto the silk coverlet. Charles expected Erik to instantly pounce upon him, and was trying to brace himself for it. Instead, Erik knelt on the bed beside him, bending to caress the side of Charles’ face with his hand. “That first day, when you saved me – within an hour of meeting you, I wanted you.”
His fingers trailed along Charles’ throat to the collar of his shirt. Erik began unfastening the buttons, one by one, taking his time. Charles knew his heart was beating so hard Erik had to be able to see it thumping in his chest.
“When you said you knew everything about me, I thought you had to be disgusted by what I was. What I wanted. That you’d believe I was deviant or sick.”
Erik peeled open the unfastened shirt, revealing Charles’ bare chest. His thumb brushed from Charles’ Adam’s apple, along his breastbone, into his navel, down to the band of his trousers. Charles breathed in sharply.
“Then I realized – you were asking me to stay. You knew everything about me, or at least you had to know that much, and you still wanted me with you.”
His belt buckle was undone. His trousers unzipped. When Erik reached to tug Charles’ slacks away, Charles lifted his hips to help, then shrugged the shirt away. Now he wore only his boxers, was covered only by the heat of Erik’s gaze. He was still more nervous than turned-on, but the rush of pure arousal radiating from Erik – it suffused Charles. Subsumed him.
“That was when I realized I didn’t just want you. I loved you.”
Erik peeled off his turtleneck, rose from the bed just long enough to impatiently tug down his jeans. The magnificence of his naked physique was something Charles could appreciate, even in the abstract. But seeing another man’s cock hard for him – jutting from Erik’s body, wanting release from Charles – it took some getting used to, and Charles wasn’t used to it yet.
“That was as close as I ever came to leaving. Did you realize that?” Erik crawled back onto the bed, but he only lowered himself beside Charles, not atop him. His nude form appeared so strangely vulnerable curled upon the bed. “In the end, I was more afraid of loving you than being controlled by your mind. I could have conquered your mind, in time. But not this.” His hand rested against Charles’ chest. “I never dared to hope you’d want me too.”
Charles turned toward Erik, a tide of warm feeling pushing him past his reluctance. “Dare to hope,” he whispered. “That’s what I want for you, more than anything else. I want you to dare to hope.”
Erik kissed him again, then pulled the coverlets over them, perhaps understanding that Charles needed to feel less exposed. They curled together, making out as they had downstairs – Erik’s tongue in his mouth, along his neck, tracing the curve of an ear. But now Erik’s naked body was pressed against his, his erection hard against Charles’ thigh. The desire Charles drew from Erik couldn’t entirely erase his own nervousness, or the strangeness of it all.
Well, it was one thing for it to be strange for him; Charles didn’t see any way around that. But he didn’t want it to be strange for Erik. He wanted this to be good. Against Erik’s shoulder, he whispered, “Tell me what to do for you.”
Erik hesitated, and through his mind came a series of images both dizzying and intimidating for Charles. He whispered, “I want you to touch yourself. What do you use?”
“Oh – here.” Charles fumbled for the lotion in the bedside table drawer. As he squirted it into one palm, Erik took that hand, so that the cream spread and warmed between them. Then Erik began stroking himself, slow and steady, waiting for Charles.
It wasn’t like he hadn’t jacked off in front of other boys before. Charles hadn’t done that since middle school, but this wasn’t so different, was it? He took his half-hard cock from his shorts and got to work. Erik groaned as he watched him, working himself the whole while, and Charles wondered if that was really going to be it.
Then Erik said, “Now do me. I’ll do you.”
Charles took hold of Erik just as Erik’s fingers closed around him. That first moment when he touched Erik – the arousal arced so sharply between them that Charles wondered if Erik was going to get off just from that, and whether he was going to get off just from feeling it happen for Erik. It was incredible, to be wanted like that.
Erik bit his lip, sucked in a breath, regained control. Then he got to work. God, Erik had large hands – strong hands – and he was jerking Charles off just right –
It’s not so different than a circle jerk, really, Charles thought as he returned the favor. Simple. Easy. Just work him with the wrist – faster – faster again.
“Charles,” Erik choked. He tried to kiss Charles again but they were both moving too fast; they could only pant into each other’s mouths. Charles found himself moaning, shutting his eyes, thinking of nothing but the pressure sliding up and down his cock, squeezing him tight.
He screwed his eyes shut as he came, the world going black as he spurted across Erik’s hand, on both their bellies and chests. In the moment Charles thought he would lose his grip, Erik climaxed too, crying out hoarsely, just once. Then they were breathing hard, sticky, wrapped around each other.
Charles hadn’t asked himself how he would feel afterward. It was deeply strange to have made love to another man, even one he treasured as he did Erik. But his body thrummed with satisfaction, and from Erik he felt all the happiness, all the peace, Charles could ever have wished for him.
And just a sliver of doubt – “You’re all right?” Erik whispered. He trailed two fingers through Charles’ hair. “You’re sure?”
Charles rolled onto his back and grinned up at him. “A pleasure being deflowered by you. We’ll have to do it again sometime.”
Erik muffled his laughter against Charles’ shoulder, and Charles finally, finally relaxed completely in his embrace.
Sleeping beside him turned out to be even easier than the kissing.