Charles. Oh my love, the words echo in Charles' mind as Erik thuds onto the mattress beside him, a cruel mockery. Who would have thought that the act would turn Erik Lehnsherr sentimental, of all people. Who would have thought he would say the words Charles has longed and never thought to hear, at such a pass, the only time their meaning could be nugatory.
"Are you all right?" Erik asks after a moment, just as indifferent as he has always been for all that they are lying in the entire in bed together, for all of what they have just done.
Charles laughs, the sound filled with the bitterness he feels, even in the unsteady, sparkling aftermath of physical completion. He was a fool, to think that he could ever be satisfied with one night; he was a fool, to imagine that Erik, after all the intrigues it took to bring him to this pass, would ever want him for more than that.
In point of fact his muscles are sore, and he suspects he will sit his horse gingerly in the morning, but none of that signifies. "Fine," Charles says, tired of himself, of Erik, of the weight of all the impossible things he wants, that very impossibility thrown into high relief tonight. "I'm. It's fine."
"Fine," Erik repeats, and then says nothing more. Charles catches inchoate desires from him, spurred by the ticking of the timepiece on the mantel, out beyond the hangings, but if he knows one thing it's that he can't endure any more of this, tonight or ever, having exactly what he thought he wanted and knowing it's not enough, not what he wanted at all.
"Sleep," Charles says, putting just a hint of compulsion into the words, a touch of insensible pressure onto Erik's mind. "Go to sleep, love," he says, indulging himself, because even if Erik recalls this in the morning--he falls asleep instantly, he's exhausted beneath the fatigue of their exertions, for reasons Charles doesn't know, has no way to find out--he'll attribute it to the same impulse he was overcome by earlier. Post coitum omne animal triste est.
Charles stays awake a while longer, staring at the hangings overhead, invisible in the darkness; the candles have all guttered and the fire in the grate is banked. Erik's breathing is even and regular, his warm presence in the bed beside Charles and the proximity of that delicious, unfathomable mind a comfort despite everything. At length, Charles sleeps too.
Charles rouses at dawn, the house just beginning to stir around him, and forces himself to sit up and slide out of the bed, lightly touching Erik's mind to keep him asleep while Charles collects his scattered suit of clothes and dresses as best he can. His shirt will need mending, but he pulls his coat around him and ties his neckcloth hastily and judges himself presentable enough.
Dressed, Charles pauses, and then decides he may as well be damned in full, and not by halves, and crosses back to the bed and bends over and kisses Erik, a light brush of lips, no more than the gentlest caress. Charles is still employing his power to ensure that Erik remains asleep, and he straightens and looks down at him, handsome features gentled, harsh lines softened by the dim light peeking around the curtains.
Charles does his best to fix the tableau in his mind, against his dull and wearisome future; after all, he has little reason to expect the pleasure of Erik's company again, except perhaps at the most crushed of society parties. He'll never be able to entice him with a similar wager again, either; Charles no longer has the charms of inexperience, of novelty, in his favor after all, and also no excuse for chicanery about money or the falls of a die. He had fancied, before Raven's elopement, that he could somehow be the one to melt that proud heart, to transmute the melancholy light in Erik's gaze to a brighter flame. He knows better now.
He shows himself out of the house and saddles his horse with his own two hands, a deft mental touch keeping the awareness of the few servants who are awake diverted. Erik must pay them a fortune, to ensure their silence; Charles is very likely being overcautious. Still, he shall be damned if Erik goes to the noose because he was less than careful; that after last night he has staked his own neck, quite literally, appears less of an immediate concern.
He rides back home through streets that are almost as quiet as they ever become under a leaden sky, the city awakening around him as he increasingly surrenders to his own fatigue, the ache in his muscles blending with the ache in his heart. The heart is a muscle too.
Roberts meets him at the door, his forbidding expression hiding a very real worry, and Charles holds up a hand. "No cause for concern, Roberts, thank you," he says, putting his genuine gratitude into his voice. "If you could see to Grenadier, that would be most helpful."
"Of course, sir," Roberts says, his tone of voice conveying to a precise degree his disbelief that Charles has any idea of what constitutes cause for concern, much less that Charles is fit to make any such judgment. Like all old family servants, Roberts has notions of himself far above his station; like all old employers, Charles has far more tolerance for this sort of thing than is strictly proper.
"Roberts," Charles thinks to say as the servant turns towards the door, "should anyone call today, I'm not at home."
"Sir," Roberts says again, clearly approving of this decision, and Charles drags himself up the staircase, into his room, out of his clothes and into his nightshirt and nightcap and pan-warmed, empty bed.
He wakes again at half eleven, takes the breakfast that Cook sends up without paying much attention, does his best to attend to his mountains of outstanding correspondence. Now that his parents' debts are paid, Charles is suddenly freed to write to many more people, without fear of what they'll write back. He has a good many letters to write that simply inform the recipient that the debts they are owed will at last be discharged.
Charles can, if he puts his mind to it, compass the entire city of London in his awareness, but only one mind in all that mass of humanity has ever interested him for more than a few minutes put together. Charles? He hears Erik asking, as Charles finishes his morning dish of tea. Can you hear?
Charles can hear; it is merely that for the first time in many months, he has no wish to do so. He ignores Erik as best he can, refuses to reply, tries to deceive himself that he isn't, as always, paying Erik particular attention. He'd thought Erik had been paying him particular attention, all these months; it was only after the breaking of the engagement that Charles had realized that he had merely been projecting his own yearning onto Erik, for whom proximity had bred no more than idle fascination, for whom Charles was little more than a pretty, and ultimately indistinct, distraction.
Charles is not without pride, and his revolts at that, to realize that for Erik he had been merely the latest in a series of inexperienced, aspirated Fs, that he had never felt an inclination to look beyond Charles' features, never done more than tolerate Charles' prattling about his scientific and philosophical opinions, for all that he had counterfeited interest brilliantly. Now that he has had Charles, his fancy will light on someone else, like the tide going out and in again.
Regardless of the fact that Charles knows these things, is painfully sensible of them even now, he is still listening closely enough, while he sits at his desk scratching out yet more letters, to take immediate notice when Erik's thoughts turn, late in the day, to the idea of paying Charles, like a common dockside whore. Charles does not even hesitate before he lashes out across the distance between them, the force of his misery condensing in an instant into a blow that--he can tell--nearly knocks Erik out of his chair.
Good, Charles thinks vindictively to himself, thrusting his pen into the inkwell with far more force than necessary. He can't move Erik's heart, but he can move his body, with merely the power of his mind.
It wasn't an offer, Charles, Erik says in his mind, projecting back to him with as much ease as carrying on a conversation. Just a thought.
Hardly a flattering thought, Charles snaps, nursing his fury while it lasts; already he can feel it crumbling in the face of Erik's attention, the sound of his voice in his mind. I'm not some--I wouldn't--Erik, he thinks, sensible that he has lost the upper hand, but in point of fact he never desired it in the first place. Will you stop--you're smiling. He succeeds at least in keeping his helpless fondness out of his tone.
You can see me? Erik inquires, idly curious, and Charles wants to weep.
Charles cannot win against him, cannot even hold his own, against himself and his traitorous, unreasoning emotions. He does the only thing he can, blocks Erik out utterly, withdraws his awareness behind the high walls of his own mind. As always, it feels like wandering around in deep gloaming, with no torch-bearer.
He can only tolerate the silence of his own mind for so long, but he is sensible of his fatigue again, and the comparative calm of his solitary thoughts, with the world barred without, forms a soothing contrast to the prior riot. Still, Charles finds himself wholly unable to concentrate upon his correspondence, and cannot seem to learn to think over the history of his interactions with Erik less than incessantly.
Thus when Roberts knocks and informs him that Erik has called at this very house, is downstairs waiting for Charles to attend him in the drawing room, Charles is taken wholly by surprise.
"Mr. Lehnsherr?" he repeats, unable to disguise his own astonishment. "Here?"
"Yes, sir," Roberts says, misinterpreting Charles' consternation completely. "Should you wish, sir, I should be happy to inform him that you do not wish to receive anyone--"
"No," Charles interrupts, frowning. Whatever Erik intends, Charles knows his determination; the best course of action is to meet him directly, and put an end to the matter with all dispatch.
Charles, in his distraction, has neglected to shave today, and now it cannot be helped; he descends to the drawing room with no particular alacrity or tardiness. Now that he extends his apprehension, he can readily perceive the bright blaze of Erik's mind, so close to Raven's, but cannot bear to delve any deeper than that. Let it be over soon, good God, he thinks, and then brings himself up to the threshold.
"When--when did you--" Erik is demanding of Raven, who is sitting on the divan looking perfectly collected.
"Erik," Charles says involuntarily, still in the doorway, and Erik looks up, and oh, he is angry; Charles can read the emotion easily in his tense frame, the tightness of his jaw, and it is apparent what has brought Erik here; by some means he has discovered the truth or heard the report of Charles's circumstances. There can be no wonder at his direct appearance; any man would take offense at being so deceived, and by nature Erik is very rarely indirect.
Charles forces himself to encounter Erik's gaze forthrightly, is sensible that he has drawn himself up to his full height, cannot seem to bring his hands away from his sides. "Raven," he says, not glancing at his sister. "Would you excuse us?"
Raven looks between the two of them and is gone directly, forbearing to give either of them any particular courtesy. Doubtless she can apprehend that they are well beyond such manners.
"Did you need the money?" Erik asks in time, his voice perfectly transformed from its usual pleasant, serious tones.
"I did a week ago," Charles allows, and his thoughts seem to stumble when Erik's gaze drifts to his neck, appraising Charles with some unreadable feeling. Anger is more than indifference, surely, but less than the sentiments that Charles would desire, were his hopes given free rein. "But not. Not that night. No."
Erik's eyes narrow, and then he stands and moves across the room and seizes Charles by the shoulders, pressing Charles up against the drawing room wall. His grip is strait, nearly painful, but Charles welcomes it all the same, makes no effort to resist. When this interview is concluded, embarrassing and difficult as it is, there will be nothing more.
"Then why?" Erik demands. "Is this your idea of sport?"
Charles cannot bear the weight of his gaze, so close and so impassioned and so greatly other than what he could wish. He shuts his eyes for a moment, regathers his wits as best he can, licks his lips to speak when a stray thought from Erik distracts them both. Pretty little--
Charles cannot help but grimace slightly; the recollection of that exchange, pleasurable as the interlude of which it forms a part was, gives him no delight, as much as Erik seems to enjoy thinking on it.
"No," he replies quietly, voice hoarse; he is striving to keep his sentiments tacit. "Of course not."
"Then," Erik says, and Charles can feel his befuddlement enveloping his anger. "Why would you--I don't understand."
Charles prefers Erik's anger to the disbelief he feels now, the disdain that is only too evidently in the offing. He sighs, heartfelt, but compels himself to open his eyes.
Honesty is the only possible course now; he owes Erik that much, after he has used him so abominably, presumed so horridly on affections Erik has never professed, in thought or in word.
"You wouldn't ask," Charles tells him baldly. "You kept thinking these, these things but you never said a word to me about them. And I wasn't precisely myself that night. Raven had told me about the money, that very afternoon, and I was so relieved that I--and I'd been--drinking."
His words are truthful, if not the entire truth; this confidence is evidently distressing Erik enough without expressing affections which he cannot but receive with scorn, has greeted with total disdain. Charles is not so much a masochist as to subject both of them to further cruelty.
"You'd been drinking," Erik says, clearly incredulous, his voice nearly cracking, and Charles forgets his own discomposure, wants only to see Erik restored to that natural self-possession which had so attracted Charles to him, at the beginning. One of them at least ought to be as happy as they may.
"And you just wouldn't ask," he repeats, hearing his voice take on imploring tones. "I didn't think you'd really. Take me up on it." His mouth has gone dry again; Charles swallows, and lifts his chin. His affections merit no censure, beyond the fact that they are profoundly unnatural, and while he will not flaunt them, nor will he perjure himself. "Anyway," he continues; "It's all moot now, don't you think?"
"Is it," Erik says, with no emotion in his voice, but his thoughts are a welter of conflicting images and impulses, overwhelming Charles, leaving him no vantage from which to form a coherent impression. Strongest of all, as Erik releases him at last and sets himself back slightly, regaining a semblance of propriety, is a bitter longing that Charles cannot fathom. For what?
"Erik," Charles says, but does not know how to continue.
"I'm," Erik says, halts. "I don't understand you in the least, Charles."
Charles stares at him, carefully opening himself to Erik's surface thoughts. What he finds there is nonsensical--an image of Charles talking animatedly about some new hypothesis, the taste-memory of Erik taking his tea the way Charles prefers it. What does he think Charles intended? Does he think that Charles does not want to want him?
"Yes," Charles says quietly, the word entirely inadequate to express his consternation. "I'm beginning to see that."
Erik smiles, and Charles flinches at the pain in his expression, in his thoughts. "Just beginning?" he asks. "I thought you could read my mind. Doesn't that tell you every thing you might need to know?"
"No," Charles says vehemently, with all the force of his dismay at how deeply he has been mistaken. It's almost amusing, and he can't help but laugh a little under his breath, has to pass his hand over his face to hold that same dismay at bay.
If nothing else, he will make Erik understand, although he has never been adept at conveying any of this in words. "I'm afraid not," he says, making an effort to speak more moderately. "Your mind is--it's, I never know where I am. I never know what you mean." As much time as they have spent in each other's company, Charles has never understood Erik's mind, merely been utterly enchanted by it.
"I thought I made myself tolerably plain," Erik says, voice entirely dry, and Charles colors a little, the same recollections occurring to them both. But he cannot answer Erik's humor with any but a small, rueful smile.
"Do you remember the first time we met? At Almack's?" he asks, because he cannot think how else to make himself understood.
Erik blinks, expression abstracted as he thinks back; Charles catches the flow of his thoughts, but he doesn't think Erik can remember their first meeting; he is quite certain that he made no favorable impression.
"You were terribly bored," Charles informs him; he, in contrast, remembers the moment indelibly, the stream of disdainful thoughts behind the proud, handsome features. "You were thinking about these English gentlemen--soft hands and soft heads and conversation about the weather--and then you shook my hand and you thought." He stops talking; if this memory was embarrassing before, it's painful now.
"What?" Erik asks, his thoughts unaccountably tinged with anxiety.
"Nothing," Charles says, laughing a little as he admits it. "Another one. That was all." It's all so predictable, in retrospect.
"Charles," Erik says, his thoughts communicating clearly that he's appalled that Charles still believes that to be Erik's impression of him, but Charles knows what he wants to say and he cannot afford to be distracted from saying it.
"Let me finish," he interrupts, pointedly. For once, Erik will listen to him, if Charles has any influence in the matter.
"I don't know what you want," Charles says, speaking quickly to keep ahead of his own reticence. "Beyond the obvious, and you've had--that."
Erik's only perceptible feeling is a vague formless nervousness. Charles scowls at himself, his own inability to speak plainly.
"You've had me," he says, and this is the real question. "What else do you want?"
He regards Erik, lowering every barrier he customarily raises. For his part, Erik is staring at him as though transfixed, the turmoil of his mind caught between those earlier, incongruous impressions. He can't seem to speak.
For the first time in months, Charles begins to think that he may perhaps have been mistaken in his convictions, is now quite certain that Erik's have been mistaken as well.
"I don't," he says, but then he interrupts himself; this isn't what he wants to say. "I want you, Erik. You know how much." That, at least, he can sense that Erik knows. "But I don't want to be another one of your"--another one, albeit of not quite the same type as Erik had initially classified him--"another boy who wants you to, to be his--"
"Bit of rough," Erik supplies, and the bitter scorn he hears in the thoughts behind the words cuts Charles to the core.
"That was never how I saw you," he tells Erik hotly, crossing his arms over his chest, trying futilely to ward off the old pain they've exposed.
At least Erik is finally, finally attending to what Charles is telling him. "I know that," he replies, thinking that he didn't know it until now, thinking of himself in all the terms of infamy that Charles can't bear, at which he flinches violently, to hear in Erik's mind, to sense Erik believing Charles is thinking.
"Erik," he says, "don't."
"How would you put it?" Erik asks him directly, looking at him, and Charles flushes again. How would he put it? How would any man violently in love put it? Charles is sensible of such distinctions, but cannot find in any of them any objection that would support his regard for Erik being any less than what it is.
"Erik," he says, unable to keep his astonishment out of his voice, which has slipped back into tones of unmistakable intimacy. Inconceivable, that Erik had no notion of the nature of Charles' affections; undeniable, that he still does not.
And in the end Charles' sentiments are less to the point at the moment than Erik's. And Erik, at the moment, is thinking of a very particular moment, and Erik's recollection of entering him brings Charles' own memory to the forefront of his mind with all dispatch. Experiencing the recollection from both sides is too much for Charles; just his own memory is evidently too much for Erik, who inhales sharply before he encounters Charles' gaze, which he knows is all too communicative of his passions. "Just--tell me what you want," he says, clenching his hands at his sides to stop himself reaching for Erik.
"I don't know," Erik replies, "I--impossible things."
The images in his mind, however, are any thing but impossible, and Charles feels a blush springing to his cheeks as Erik's thoughts roll over him, sees himself through Erik's eyes for what may well be the first time: entrancing, intoxicating, beloved, united with Erik day after day and night after night, telling Erik the latest news over the breakfast table, linking arms with him in Rome--
Charles realizes what he's seeing, what it means, and starts to smile. It's the last thing he would have believed, the only thing he wanted; it's incredible.
He puts a hand to Erik's sleeve, grips his forearm through the fabric of the coat, pulls him back into intimate quarters. "Impossible is--something of a relative term," he says, nearly laughing with happiness. "As you and I both know." Erik is looking at him in disbelief, plainly astonished, and Charles pulls him down and kisses him, transmuting astonishment into joy. He can feel it bleeding over from Erik into him, a bouyant feeling not unlike what he imagines riding in a balloon must be like, and then Erik pulls him closer, putting more force into the kiss, and Charles can't help the noise he makes in his throat, heat chasing along in joy's wake--
And then Charles catches a distinctly blue mind caught in utter astonishment, and he jerks away from Erik before he can give it a moment's thought. "Raven!"
He can feel Erik's bemusement, catches an image of what Erik thinks. "Don't be disgusting," Charles tells Erik, but he can only look at Raven over Erik's broad shoulder, feeling how wide his eyes are. "Raven--I can explain."
Raven is plainly dumbfounded, her eyes like saucers; she knows that Erik's a mutant, and something of his predilections--it's not as though she doesn't share them, for all that Azazel has captured her heart--but Charles has told her none of their latest goings-on. Charles feels as much as perceives Erik's flinch, the spike of pure alarm that splinters through him, but he can't spare the attention to attend closely to the rapid flow of Erik's thoughts, though he catches the attempt at projecting reassurance.
"I'm in love with him," Charles tells her, smiling, knowing that he must look positively besotted, and in front of him Erik nearly falls over. Charles puts a hand on his shoulder, trying to bolster him, and Raven's expression has shifted into one of pure delight even as her skin ripples back to its natural indigo hue, beautiful and beloved. Raven steps forward, still smiling, and kisses Erik's cheek and gives Charles an affectionate embrace even as Charles takes Erik's hand, and Charles realizes that they are, however improbably, deliriously overjoyed.