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Transmutation

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2 weeks ago

 

The microwave beeped, three times in succession. It took Charles a few moments to gather the resolve to lift his bottom off his nest of blankets and pillows to walk the five stepped to the kitchenette in order to retrieve his supper. His hand hovered over the drying rack, locating a spork – the only eating utensil in the house. He winced as he reached inside the microwave to take out the plastic container; it was overheated, and it burned against his fingers. Supper is a defrosted, reheated mac & cheese from a few weeks ago. He sat down, and promptly realised that he was not actually hungry.

He had been staring at the steaming amalgamation of cheese and what used to be individual macaroni pieces when somebody tried to open the door. He stared. It was not a knock – just a simple, wilful attempt to wrench open the locked door. The someone tried again, and Charles grinned. The only person he could think of who would try to wrench open his door at 11:24PM on a weekday night was Sean, and that meant drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll. Well, not exactly, but he hoped that Sean would at least have thought to bring a six pack and perhaps a thumb-drive full of some new tunes. Charles went up to open the door.

He was so certain that the culprit was Sean that he did not bother to check before opening the door, and his mouth hang open slightly when he found himself face-to-face with a tall boy clad in a brown leather jacket, blue jeans, and riding boots, holding a suitcase and drenched from top to toe in rainwater.

“Uhh… may I help you?” he asked, altogether quite uncertain about what this stranger – handsome, yes, but a complete stranger – was doing at his student apartment door with a suitcase. Nevertheless, the shackles of habit and childhood conditioning constrained him to politeness.

“This is my room,” said the tall boy. His voice was slightly nasal, and from what Charles could tell from the four words that he had spoken, there seemed to be a hint of an European accent. German, perhaps – or Swedish.

Charles stared at the tall boy, raising his eyebrows.

“Erm… I don’t quite think that’s right,” he said, opening the door a little more and gesturing around. “I spent my holiday overseas, and then I moved back in here two weeks ago, before the start of term. This has been my room ever since I was a freshman.”

The boy just stared, trying and failing to control his shivering. Charles sighed softly, and opened the door as far as it will go.

“Please, come in.”

“Uh, actually, it’s all right. I’ll just go and find somewhere else to stay for the night,” said the boy, shifting his weight between his two long legs. He moved his suitcase slightly so that it covered his groin area. Charles raised an eyebrow and wondered if he was in need of the toilet.

“Look, it’s smack in the middle of summer, but you’re drenched, and if you camp outside, you’re going to catch your death. The boarding office has obviously given you the wrong room number, but they won’t be open anymore. You’ll need a place to stay for the night, so you might as well stay with me,” he explained, and offered a smile.

The boy nodded, and stepped inside the room. Charles closed and locked the door. The boy’s teeth began to chatter, and Charles regarded him with a raised eyebrow for a moment before the realisation hit him.

“Oh. Um. I suppose I’ll switch off the air conditioner until you get dry. Sorry about that, I didn’t realise…”

He punched the orange button on the remote control, stopping the blasts of freezing wind coming out of the air conditioner in the ceiling.

“The door next to the kitchenette is the toilet, you can go in there and change into… oh dear…”

When Charles turned around, the tall boy had already stripped to his boxers, and was rummaging inside his suitcase for some fresh clothes. His bottom, though boxer-clad, stuck upwards towards the ceiling. Charles took a deep breath.

“Uhm, excuse me, would you possibly mind using the… oh God…”

Charles covered his eyes and peeked through his fingers as the boy took off his boxers to reveal a chiselled and slightly freckled bottom that streamlined perfectly with the muscles on his lower back. He cleared his throat.

“We do have something called public decency here, you know.”

The boy, stark naked, turned around with a confused look on his face, scratching at his head. Charles froze as his eyes found the half-hard appendage swinging softly between the boy’s legs from the sudden motion.

The boy looked down at his crotch and raised an eyebrow, making no effort to cover it up. Charles stared at the boy in horror and clutched at his sleeves. The boy took a step towards Charles, who was forced to back up. His back made a thump as it hit the wall. Like a cornered animal, he looked up at the boy and trembled.

“Get away from me.”

“What…”

Get away from me!

The boy backed up, covering himself with his jacket,and turned to his suitcase, unsure of what to do. Charles breathed in short, shuddering gasps, hugging himself in an attempt to calm himself down.

“I’m sorry.”

“If you’d like to have a shower before you put on the rest of your clothes, please feel free to use it. Door’s to your right, next to the kitchenette.”

The boy glanced at the bathroom door, nodded, and marched inside, eager to get away from this puzzling situation. Charles sat down in the middle of his nest and concentrated on the breathing meditation techniques he learnt at a class last year, forcing the image of the half-hard penis in to the back of his mind. Slowly, he regained his composure, and made himself some tea. What in the world was the boy thinking, barging into his apartment and walking around naked as if it was the most perfectly normal thing to do? To be fair, Charles had invited him in, and he had, at least, been partly responsible for the boy’s turning around in his direction – but nothing excused the fact that he stood there, his erection swinging with the pendulum motion. He tapped the screen of his phone to check how much battery he had left. Good – there was 65%, which was more than enough to make a couple of emergency calls if things came to that. It helped to know that the boy was definitely a student; nobody without a student card could get into Rosalind Hall. He tucked the phone safely into his pocket.

He was only halfway through his essay on Japanese Zen Buddhist paintings in the Muromachi Period when the tall boy came stalking back out of the bathroom, Having apparently learnt his lesson, he was clothed; not as much as Charles would have liked him to have been, but the vital parts were covered with a pair of boxers and an undershirt. He hung his towel up on the towel rack, and hovered in front of Charles.

“Please, sit down.”

The boy sat down in front of Charles, who took a deep breath and strengthened his resolve. The weight of the phone in his pocket gave him more confidence.

“My name is Charles Xavier, and I’m a 2nd-year student doing a double major in visual arts and philosophy. And… you are?”

The tall boy pulled out a set of very worn-looking checkered pyjamas from his suitcase and pulled them on as he answered. “Erik Lehnsherr, also a 2nd year. Majoring in sculpture, minoring in theatre.”

Charles raised an eyebrow. “I haven’t seen you around.”

“I’m here on exchange, from Germany.”

“Oh, I see!”

“Are you also on exchange?”

“Me? Oh, no. I’m just a regular full-time student.”

“But you are not American?”

“I’ve got a dual citizenship, actually – both American and British. Mostly I grew up in the suburbs of Westchester, though. My accent comes from my father, who was British.”

Charles expected Erik to make a comment about his use of the past tense with regards to his father, but Erik simply nodded and eyed the container of macaroni and cheese still lying in the middle of the table. It was rapidly cooling, and filling the room with the smell of processed cheese. Thankfully, Charles was quick on the uptake.

“Have you had dinner?”

Erik shook his head as Charles passed him the spork.

“It’s yours. I’m not hungry.”

Erik nodded his thanks, and wolfed everything down before Charles had the chance to ask him if he would like it to be reheated.

“You were that hungry, huh?”

Erik blushed slightly, which was a relief – at least he was capable of some kind of embarrassment.

“I haven’t eaten in one and a half days.”

“Oh, why is that?”

“Flying to America.”

Charles raised his eyebrows.

“Frankfurt to New York?”

Erik nodded.

“That should only take about…”

“35 hours, give or take.”

“What?”

Erik shrugged, and licked at the spork. It reminded Charles of a National Geographic documentary that he had once seen, in which a satisfied lion licked the blood off a zebra bone. There was something about Erik that made Charles think of predators – something about the way he seemed to have too many teeth, and how his face was rather angular. Charles shivered a little. 

“The cheapest flight I could get was from Germany to Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro to New York.”

Charles gaped. “How does that even save you money?”

Erik shrugged again. “The direct flights are almost two and a half times more expensive that the ones with lots of stopovers.”

“Well, I suppose that balances out, then. Didn’t they feed you anything on the plane?”

“I was airsick. First time flying.”

“Oh.”

Charles fiddled with his pen.

“If you’d like more to eat, I could heat up some more food for you. There’s more in the freezer.”

Erik raised an eyebrow.

“I… I’m too busy, so I don’t cook everyday. I just sort of make lots of meals, usually to last me about two weeks, and put them in the freezer.”

Erik nodded.


 

Eventually, Erik ended up gobbling up what would have been 5 nights’ worth of supper for Charles, who was still rather anxious about having a complete stranger in his apartment. Out of politeness, he offered Erik his futon, but the taller boy refused flat-out, curling up on his jacket instead.

Charles woke up at 8AM to the sound of Erik rummaging about in his suitcase. He rubbed his eyes, and once again pushed the memory of the “penis incident” to the back of his mind. It didn’t bother him as much as it once have – Charles knew this. Still, it was unsettling to have a stranger walk around stark naked in his house as thought it was the most normal thing in the world. Once they had both taken a shower and dressed, they went down to the Housing Department of the Student Services Centre, Erik’s luggage on tow.

“Good afternoon,” piped Charles, flashing his pearly white teeth at the sour-faced woman sitting behind the counter. “This is my friend Erik Lehnsherr, and uh, he seems to have been placed in the wrong room. More specifically, it appears that he’s been assigned to my room, which is odd because, well, I’m already living in it, and–”

“Hall and room number please.”

“Rosalind Hall, North Block, 04-214.”

The woman hit a couple of keys on her keyboard and pored over the screen.

“He hasn’t been placed in the wrong room.”

Charles stared, and blinked.

“Excuse me?”

“Your room is located at the end of your corridor, am I correct?”

“Yes, but…”

“Then it’s a double room, meant for two residents.”

“No, I… if I may say so, I really think you might be mistaken. You see, I’ve been living in this room by myself since I was a freshman last year, and nobody has told me that it’s a–”

“Didn’t you read the bulletin? Corridor-end rooms are now to be used by two residents instead of one since they are 20% bigger than corridor rooms. In any case, I’m afraid there isn’t anything I can do for you. Your friend has been assigned to room 04-214 with you for another year, so I suggest you bugger off and deal with it.”

“B-but… but…”

“Look on the bright side, kid. Your rent is gonna be halved.”

Charles rubbed at his face as they stepped out of the office, and sighed.

Erik smirked, leaning against his suitcase with his legs crossed. “You don’t have to look so upset about the whole thing, you know.”

Charles looked from his hands to Erik. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean it that way. It’s just… after College I really counted on having my own room at university and… there’s all these… I mean they didn’t even tell me about it beforehand, and–”

“It’s all right. I survived not having a room to myself for 19 years. You’ll live.”

“You didn’t have a–”

“Nope. Big family and all that.”

“Goodness. Look, I’m terribly sorry, I’m making an arse of myself and we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot. Why don’t we drop off your suitcase back in my… our room, and go for a walk along the pier? It’s very nice and windy out at this time of year… and I’ll treat you to a chai latte.”

Erik raised an eyebrow.

“Or whatever you like. Coffee.”

A smile crept onto Erik’s face. “Sounds good to me.”

 


"Penis incident" aside, Charles found that Erik was really quite handsome, more handsome than some of the boys he had had vague pre-relationships with at Eton. He supposed it was worth trying to get to know him, if not for that, then at least for the fact that they were now somehow expected to share his apartment – their apartment now – for an entire year. It made no sense to make his own life more difficult than it was, and as they walked along the lake, Charles made it a point to try to be nice to Erik.

“…so this is called Norton Pier, and it’s where all the art students like to hang out. It’s kind of picturesque, you see – a lot of people like to paint or draw pictures of the lake. Maybe you could do an interpretative sculpture that represents the waves. That might be fun.”

Erik snorted. “A modern reinterpretation of Hokusai? That could be interesting.”

“It could, couldn’t it?” Charles said in earnest, completely oblivious to Erik’s snort. “If you feel like going sailing, we could do that sometime, if you like.”

Erik murmured in assent and leant on the railing, looking down into the water.

“So I’m an exchange student from Germany studying sculpture and theatre, who is here in America hoping to do some work while I’m here so that I can eventually set up a studio here…”

“Uh huh.”

“And you’re a British-American studying art, who wears long-sleeved cardigans in the summer, always has the air con on full blast, and has penis anxiety.”

Charles sighed, grimacing. “Jesus, Erik.”

“It’s true! You should have seen the look on your face – it was worthy of Edvard Munch. Seriously though, what is that, are you really afraid of penises?”

“Well, no, but…”

“You’re a homosexual in denial?”

No!”

Erik really had no idea what personal space and privacy meant. Charles wondered if it was an Erik Lehnsherr thing or a general German thing. He suspected it was the former; he had known some peacefully ordinary German boys at Eton who had managed to be delightful friends without having to ask awkward questions.

“Are you going out with anyone?”

“No.”

“Have you ever been out with anyone?”

“N– Erik, why are you asking all of these questions?”

Erik grinned. “I just want to get to know you! So you are single and a virgin. What is your sexual orientation?”

Charles blushed fiercely. “I never said I was a vir–”

“What is your sexual orientation?”

“What’s yours?”

“I’m gay,” Erik declared with a casual wave of his hand.

Charles turned to Erik and stared, his mouth hanging. Erik raised his eyebrows.

“Do you have a problem with that?”

He quickly shook his head. “No… no, but…”

“Then how about you? Are you straight, gay, bisexual, asexual, transsexual, pansexual…” he listed on, counting off each category with his fingers. “Hmm?”

Charles rolled his eyes and sighed dramatically. “Well, if you insist on knowing, then yes, I am also gay.”

“Brilliant!”

Charles stared, one eyebrow disappearing into his hairline.

“We can go to gay bars together,” Erik explained.

Charles exhaled through his teeth, making a loud hissing noise. “No, Erik, we are not going to go to gay bars together.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t like them.”

“But–”

I don’t like them, all right, Erik? If you want to go to a gay bar so badly, I’ll introduce you to my friend Sean, he probably knows some. In fact, you know what, once you start going to classes properly, you’ll meet lots of fun people who actually would want to go to gay bars with you, and you can go with them, you won’t have to ask me to do everything with you because you’ll have plenty of other people to do things with.”

Charles turned around and walks to a bench, sitting down and running his hands through his hair. He was fucking up again, like all the other times he’d fucked up over the past four years. He hated that he didn’t even realise that he was doing it again until it had happened. Every time someone had shown the vaguest sort of romantic or sexual interest in him, he would get defensive and end up scaring them away. The worst part of it was that it was he himself who was doing these things, and somehow he was powerless to stop it. He wanted to cry.

“I’m sorry.”

Erik furrowed his eyebrows and sat cautiously down next to Charles.

“It’s all right.”

Charles made a strangled noise.

“May I put my arm around you?” Erik asked.

Charles hesitated before responding. “Yes. Please. But not too tightly.”

Erik slid closer to Charles on the bench so that their thighs touched, and put his arm around Charles’ waist. Charles began to tremble, but when Erik looked at him in alarm, he saw that the brunet was giggling.

“What?”

“It… tickles.”

“Well, I can’t help it, if I’m only holding you lightly.”

“Fine. You can hold me a little harder, then.”

Erik did so, and Charles leant into him,, putting his head on the taller boy’s shoulder. Erik returned the gesture, resting his head on Charles’.

“You smell nice.”

Charles blushed. “You do too.”

Chapter Text


6 years ago

 

“Seriously, Charles, we mean it. Just bugger off.”

Tears welled up in his eyes. He looked down, letting them fall down onto his black, polished shoes. It was only yesterday that they were at Mark’s house together, all five of them, and worked on the history project. It was only for the project, and they’d never talk to him again – Charles knew this – but it had been nice, being able to pretend that he had friends, even if it was an illusion for just one day.

“But… I have nothing to do with this.” He looked up at them in earnest, meeting their eyes. “It’s just Matt, you know that. I never said anything.”

Carson rolled his eyes, and David gave a snort.

“Oh, give me a fucking break. You’re twins. Of course you’re both gay. Now, piss off.”

“But… I thought we were friends.”

“Well, you obviously thought wrong,” Mark spat.

Charles turned to Kieran, who stood a half-step or so behind the other three, and looked at him pleadingly. “You gave me a high-five yesterday.”

“In your dreams, fag.”

Charles let out a shuddering sigh and turned on his heel. He spotted Matt sitting by himself at one of the tables in the deserted cafeteria, and stomped toward him, pulled a chair roughly, and sat down.

“Why did you have to do that?”

Matt looked up from his sandwich. “What?”

“Announcing to the whole school that you’re gay. Why did you do that? Why didn’t you ask me first? Didn’t you think about what would happen?”

Matt shrugged.

“I was that close to making friends with them. They went out with me yesterday; we worked on the project together at Mark’s house. They really liked my idea of making actual models for the flat earth model and the Copernican model, and we spent so much time making them and putting it together for the class presentation. Then Mark’s mother took us to the bowling alley and I teamed up with Kieran and I scored five strikes! They said I was great at bowling and that I should come bowling again with them sometime.”

Charles stopped to pant, his cheeks growing red.

“And then you decided to go around telling everyone you’re gay. You just ruined everything for me.”

Matt snorted. “That’s great for you, Charlie, but you know as well as I do that they would have just ignored you once the project was over.”

“That’s not true!” Charles retorted, indignant.

“And besides, I didn’t ‘go around telling everyone’ that I was gay, I just told Aiden.”

“You knew he was going to tell everyone anyway!”

Matt shrugged.

“Why on earth would you do this? It was a terrible idea – you couldn’t honestly have thought that people were going to start treating you better because you announced that you’re attracted to guys.”

“It was just… I don’t know, okay? I had to do something and that was the first thing that came to my mind. I didn’t plan it or anything, it just happened.”

“You weren’t thinking.”

“No, I guess I wasn’t.”

“You’re an idiot.”

Matt crumpled the sandwich wrapper in his hand, and hurled it at the wall. It flew past Charles’ cheek, missing it by a mere inch.

“Why are you acting like I’m the only one here who’s gay? What happened to all that fancy talk about being who we are? Why do I suddenly have to hide because you want to make some friends who will treat you like shit anyway? You’re such a fucking hypocrite. No wonder nobody likes you.”

“It’s not as if anybody likes you either!”

“Fuck you!”

Hot tears fell down his face faster than he could blink them away, and Charles lifted the hem of his cardigan and sobbed into it. After a few moments, he felt Matt’s familiar warmth cocooning him.

“Matty, I’m so sorry.”

He felt Matt shake his head. “‘s all right. I said some pretty nasty things too.”

Matt let go of Charles and looked into his eyes, blue meeting blue.

“We’ve got to stick together.”

 


 

4 years ago

 

“Don’t you remember?” Charles asked as he paced around their bedroom, left hand tucked into his cardigan pocket. “You said we’ve got to stick together.” With his right, he took a long swig from a large bottle of scotch. They’d both taken up drinking, a habit inherited from their perpetually drunk mother and the overflowing supply of hard liquor in the cellar.

Mother didn’t notice the bottles missing from the cellar, nor did she notice the increasing amount of empty cans and bottles that were being thrown away in the trash every week. They weren't sure that she would care, even if she had noticed.

Matt was sitting on his bed, flipping through the pages of his notebook and nursing his fourth can of beer. He was clad in a black round-neck T-shirt with blue jeans – a sharp contrast to Charles’ white button-ups, frumpy wool cardigans, and slacks. There was a time when they used to share their clothes, but this is no more; Matt’s clothes would hang off Charles, and Matt refused to touch Charles’, arguing that Charles wouldn’t look much different if he went downstairs and dug up their grandfather’s old clothes from the basement. Matt looked like an ordinary teenager on the verge of a growth spurt, while Charles is skinny and has a tendency to hunch, which makes him look shorter than he is. People on the street don’t recognise them as identical twins anymore; Matt was a few centimetres taller, and has a rounder, mature face with a smile always tugging at his lips, while Charles’ was boyish, angular, and serious. Matt ate three square meals a day, sometimes four. Charles barely ate two.

Matt thought that this whole thing had had more of a physiological effect on Charles than it had on him; Charles just joked that he got more of the youthful genes.

“I can’t live without you, you know that. So if you’re going to kill yourself, I’m going with you. We’re doing it together.”

Matt looked up at Charles.

“Charlie, you can’t fucking–”

“If I started telling you detailed plans about how I planned to kill myself, you’d probably insist on joining in.”

“Fuck, Charles, you can’t do this to me. You’ve actually got a chance in this… this thing,” he said, dropping his book and gesturing around the room. “Not like me. I can’t drag you into hell with me. You can actually do this.”

Charles smiled, walking up to the window, and looking down the driveway. The gardener was balancing himself on a ladder, trimming the topiaries on either side of the asphalt. He took several gulps of whisky and sighed.

“You can’t seriously be thinking of leaving me here, all by myself. And you know that if you did that, I’ll just waste away here and die anyway.”

Without warning, Matt began to sob. Charles strode over to Matt’s bed, flopping down next to him and squeezing his shoulders.

“Come on,” Charles whispered into Matt’s ear. “You knew the moment you decided you wanted to die that it was a decision made for both of us.” His breath reeked of alcohol. Matt downed the rest of his beer in one swallow, and crushed the can in his hand.

The next morning, Charles woke up to the sound of Matt retching in the bathroom. He’d had too much to drink again. Charles looked at the clock and turned over to go back to sleep, remembering that it was a Saturday.

 

*

 

They spent the next couple of nights discussing methodology.

There was some disagreement; Matt wanted to go out drunk, while Charles wanted to be completely lucid during the experience. They both agreed that they did not want their deaths to involve any sort of firearm, and that they should not disguise their deaths as an accident. Both strongly agreed that they didn’t want to burn to death; it would be unnecessarily painful. Matt had a vengeful streak and suggested that they should do it at school, leaving their bodies to be found by the students in the morning; Charles thought that this was a bit too much, although he agreed that they should leave behind a note implicating some of their classmates and teachers. Charles suggested drowning together in the nearby river, but Matt was adverse to this, since he wanted there to be intact corpses. Neither of them wanted to overdose – Matt couldn’t swallow pills very well, and Charles didn’t like the idea of waiting to die after taking the pills. Charles was attracted to the idea of cutting his wrists, but Matt was averse to the pain aspect.

They eventually came to an agreement that they should do it the old fashioned way, by hanging themselves in the basement.

It was kind of funny, Charles thought. They had spent so much time discussing the details, but once they had come to a decision about the exact circumstances of their suicide, there was inertia and silence. In retrospect, he thanked fate for small mercies. Life went on normally, or as normally as it could be for the Xavier twins. They stuck together at school as always, but power in numbers did not work very well for two young boys against what seemed like the indifference of every other student and adult in the same building. Later, Charles would think back to their middle school days and imagine that under different circumstances, they might have been the kind of children who snapped one day and shot at their classmates.

At school, Charles was usually the one to fall and break down, an easy target for manipulation and physical violence. Matt usually got hurt in the process of protecting Charles. At home, Matt was usually the one to break down from the pressure of the day’s events. Charles would comfort him, holding him in his arms and whispering “It’s all right” like a mantra into his ear. Matt coped by running, eating, and sleeping – Charles coped by losing himself in his books and studies.

Charles wondered about the lack of action after their decision to hang. He wondered if Matt was afraid of dying. He realised that he, at least, was. He noticed that in between the particularly bad days, when they would get pushed around and laughed at, there were days that were not too bad – days when everybody seemed to just ignore them and pretend they didn’t exist – and on these days, he began to wonder if there was a chance for them after all.

It was a fairly ordinary day.

Charles woke up first as usual, and stared at the ceiling for a few minutes before getting up to shower. When Charles came out of the shower, he found Matt finally waking up and rubbing his eyes. While Charles dressed, Matt took his shower. Once both of them were dressed, Charles sat in the library and read his biology textbook while Matt ate breakfast in the dining hall. The chauffeur drove them to school.

It was not a bad day – in fact, it was a good day.

“Good morning, Charles. Good morning, Matt,” said Mrs. Harrison as they walked into the English classroom – the first lesson of the day. They (or at least Charles) returned the greeting, and they sat down in the usual seats. The lesson began as usual, with Mrs. Harrison collecting their homework essays.

Then, Mrs. Harrison asked them to arrange themselves into groups of four for a discussion and presentation about Act 3 of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Charles and Matt looked at each other. The protocol for such situations was always ambiguous; if it was absolutely necessary to work in pairs rather than groups, the twins usually sat silently for Mrs. Harrison to put them into a group with some other students. Sometimes, when it was not strictly necessary, Mrs. Harrison would allow the twins to work on their own, being aware of their situation and having deemed it irresolvable. Charles fiddled with his pen, staring at the cover of his notebook. There was a tap on his shoulder. He looked up.

It was Sebastian.

“Hey, Charles. Would you and Matt like to be in our group?” he asked, gesturing at Emma and himself.

From what he had overheard in class, Charles knew that Sebastian was a couple of years older than the rest of the class. He had missed two years of school because of some kind of family trouble, and was now back. He was much bigger than the other boys, and although he did not socialise much with the students in his year apart from Emma, everyone knew to stay out of his way, if not out of fear of Sebastian himself, then for fear of the two boys he liked to hang out with – Azazel and Janos from the 12th year. Charles smiled.

“Yes!”

“What are you doing?” Matt whispered into his ear.

Charles turned around so that Sebastian and Emma could not see, and whispered back. “They want us to be in their group, Matty.”

“Like fuck they do.”

“They do!”

Emma pushed the transparency sheet and a marker in Charles’ direction. “Here, why don’t you write our points for us while we discuss the Act? You have such fantastic handwriting.”

Charles beamed at the compliment and took the marker from Emma’s hand. “Sure. And thanks.” He turned again and raised his eyebrows at Matt, who shook his head and sighed. Sebastian grinned; his teeth glimmered in the bright classroom lights.

“So Charles. We’ve never really talked to you before. What kind of music do you listen to?”

As the class drew to a close, Matt felt the atmosphere in the classroom change. Charles was discussing the theme of deception in Macbeth with Sebastian and Emma, and the other students were paying attention. David and Carson, who were responsible for most of Charles’ cuts and bruises, frowned and crossed their arms, muttering into each other’s ear. Kieran sat, his mouth hanging open, with a look on his face that suggested both incredulity and apprehension. The rest of the classroom seemed to buzz with conversation, all eyes on the three. With a sinking feeling, Matt noticed that Charles, usually hunched over with his eyes cast to the floor, seemed taller and brighter than Matt had ever seen him.

The class drew to a close.

“Charles, why don’t you come and have lunch with us?” Sebastian asked. Matt tugged at Charles’ sleeve.

“Of course, your brother is invited too.”

Charles nodded. “That would be great, Seb! I wonder what they’ve got at the canteen today.”

“Oh, didn’t you know? It’s shepherd’s pie every second Thursday of the month.”

“Really? Shepherd’s pie is my favourite!”

“Me too, Charlie,” said Sebastian. “Me too.”

By the time lunchtime was over, the whole school seemed to have noticed that the Xavier twins, whom everyone knew to stay away from for fear that whatever made them such easy targets was catching, were eating lunch and talking animatedly to the feared Hellfire Club. The Club consisted of Sebastian Shaw – whom everyone knew had been taken out of school for two years for stabbing his own mother in a fight, Emma Frost – the daughter of the town council head, Azazel – the red-faced boy whom nobody knew much about apart from the rumour that he had black belts in three different martial arts, and Janos, who terrorised the younger students without so much as speaking.

Being outside of the gossip circles, Charles and Matt knew nothing about all this. Nevertheless, Matt was glad when the bell rang for the last class of the day – physical education, which Sebastian did not partake in. Since he was an older student, the administration had deemed it unfair to have him do sports with the 10th years, and he spent his time studying in the high school office under the head of year’s supervision.

“Bye, Seb!” Charles shouted and waved as Matt pulled him towards the gymnasium by one hand.

Sebastian waved back. “See ya, Charlie! Have fun swimming!”

“I will!”

Charles turned around and was immediately hissed at by Matt.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

Charles furrowed his eyebrows. “I’m making friends! See, this is good. Everyone thinks we’re all right now. Sebastian talks to us. Emma talks to us. Nobody is going to hurt us anymore, Sebastian said so.”

Matt sighed and ran a hand through his hair.

“God, Charles. Why are you so blind? He’s plotting something.”

Charles looked scandalised. “He isn’t! He likes me. I don’t know about you, but he likes me.”

Matt rolled his eyes.

“Matty, are you jealous?”

“No, I’m not.”

“Yes, you are.”

“Am not.”

“You are,” Charles said, and squeezed his twin’s shoulder. “Look, you don’t have to be jealous. We’ll still hang out together. I’ll introduce you to Seb and Emma and Zazey and Janos properly when you’re in a better mood. It’s going to be all right, Matty. We’re going to be okay. You’ll see.”

Matt sighed and looked up at Charles. He was smiling from ear to ear, his round teeth glimmering under the sunlight. He blushed with excitement, bringing out the smattering of light freckles on his nose. Matt felt something tighten in his chest.

“Be careful, Charlie.”

“Don’t worry, I will.”

They parted ways. Their last class after lunch on Thursdays was the only class in which they were not together; physical education, where all of the students were split into groups depending on athletic ability. Matt had scored well on the fitness test at the beginning of the year, which meant that he was doing track and field outside this week. Charles, on the other hand, was swimming. He wasn’t exactly sure why he had done so badly on the fitness test; he didn’t consider himself unfit, although he definitely wasn’t very fit. Perhaps he was just bad at running from one end of the gymnasium to the other between shrill beeps.

Swimming was not nearly as terrible as Charles expected. The teacher did not expect him to swim more than a few laps, and nobody tried to dive and pull his legs from underneath. In fact, he found, to his awe and gratitude, that people were actually giving way to him, letting him dive off first from the board and avoiding him when they were swimming in the same lane. As a result, he swam better than usual, and the teacher flashed his thumbs up at him.

Impatient to report to Matt about this latest improvement in his life after befriending Sebastian, Charles was the first to bolt into the empty showers to change into his clothes in order to meet his twin at the school gate as quickly as possible.

Charles let go of the heavy shower room door and jogged to the cubicle where he had left his bag, taking out his school uniform. He took off his swimming trunks and stuffed them into a plastic bag. The crunching of the plastic bag echoed throughout the showers, and he realised that it was altogether too silent. The class had been dismissed – he was sure of this, and even if he was the first to reach the shower, it seemed odd that nobody else would be catching up with him.

He stuck his head out of the cubicle and found himself face to face with Sebastian Shaw.

Chapter Text


Present Day

 

Charles mumbled as he opened his eyes and waiting for his thoughts to slowly settle into place. He stared at the ceiling for a few minutes, the warmth of the morning almost sending him back into sleep, before turning his head to look at Erik sleeping on his futon barely a metre away, his hand outstretched towards Charles. Erik snored lightly, and Charles noted with a private smile that his mouth hung slightly open. Charles fiddled with the blue knitted scarf that he always slept with.

To Charles’ gratitude, Erik had decided to go with the environment that Charles had already established, and bought himself a second-hand set of thick Japanese-style mattresses from an elderly Japanese-American couple who had listed it on eBay instead of buying an actual bed. The advantage of the futon was that if they needed the space, they could always fold up the futon and stuff them into the closet – due to the lack of Western furniture, this would open up most of the living room space. Similarly, he had agreed to share Charles’ low table for homework and dining purposes, instead of buying a desk or a table.

In fact, negotiating living arrangements with Erik had gone much better than Charles expected; it was almost as if they were designed to be roommates. As it turned out, Erik was a brilliant chef who could whip up delicious, healthy, and filling meals three times a day with ingredients as scant as zucchini, tomatoes, and bread. He had taken charge of the kitchenette and the fridge, and the freezer was no longer stacked to the top with tupperwares full of frozen meals. On some days, Erik even found the time to bake, and left a basket of muffins and cookies on the low table for Charles to devour after class. As it also turned out, Erik not only kept kosher but seemed to prefer mostly vegetarian dishes with only the occasional fish or chicken – but Charles found that he did not miss meat at all, given how delicious Erik could make anything taste. Charles had been the sort of boy who ate his vegetables without complaining, but now, he was almost convinced that he could live as a vegetarian, if he could be assured that Erik would cook for him for the rest of his life.

In turn, Charles took charge of the housekeeping and the laundry, which he enjoyed, since he seemed to get his best ideas while cleaning things. In any case, it wasn’t as if he would trust anybody else to wash his precious wool cardigans anyway. After classes and before homework every day, he would hum to himself and do the laundry, sweep the floor, mop the floor, wipe the surfaces, clean the toilet and the bathtub, and wipe the windows, in that order. He wiped the windows last, because Erik thought that it was dangerous and wanted to be there when Charles did it. After dinner, Charles would collect the contents of the trash cans in the living room, bathroom, and kitchen, and take it out to the trash area outside. More often than not, Erik would go down with him, and they would take a slow jog around the Hall before their evening shower.

Charles was surprised to find that despite his apparent weirdness, Erik was quite an affectionate person who seemed to genuinely appreciate Charles’ over-the-top speeches about his delectable muffins and succulent aubergine pies. In Erik’s company, Charles found himself beginning to think of himself as an actual art student, rather than a caffeine-addicted hobo who peed on canvases and passed it off as art. They enjoyed deep conversations about art, culture, and philosophy over wine and chess, and Charles noted that this was really rather pretentious, even by his family’s old-money British standards. Despite this, there was something about Erik that made it genuine – he was equally serious about these things, and Charles loved these conversations, not only for their academic value, but also for the faint glow of red that would appear in his roommate’s cheeks when they got into heated discussions about theories of art. It was a world of a difference from what Charles was used to, with his classmates who still hadn’t managed to grow out of quoting Nietzsche on their social networking pages. It also made Charles wonder how rigourous German universities must be – or perhaps it was just Erik, with all of his passion and enthusiasm.

Above all, Charles was surprised at the lack of discomfort with this proximity with a complete stranger, living with him, sharing breathing spaces with him, and being in vulnerable positions in his presence. Neither of them had mentioned the “penis incident” since that very first day, and Erik made sure since them to keep himself clothed in Charles’ presence, although “clothed” for Erik seemed to mean “boxers”. Again, Charles was surprised that he did not mind this.

He shook his thoughts out of his head, and sat up to stretch. He bit down on his lower lip to stop himself from howling as he used to in the mornings when he had lived alone, but nevertheless, a moan escaped from his mouth. Erik scanned the room sleepily for the source of the sound, and then smiled when he saw Charles sitting up in his futon. He rolled over and gave Charles a peck on the cheek. Erik rolled the covers off his body, looked downwards, and covered himself up again with a swift but obvious swing of his arm. Charles chose to ignore this, and crawled over to their chest of drawers to take out some fresh clothes for the day, pointedly not looking in Erik’s direction. Having selected a light blue button-up and a pair of navy slacks, he took these and sauntered over to the bathroom.

Fifteen minutes later, Charles came out of the bathroom fully dressed, drying his hair with his towel, to the smell of eggs being fried. He hummed softly and sat back down at his futon, where he opened his laptop and scanned over the morning headlines for the day. None of them were very happy or relevant to his interests, and he closed the lid of his laptop as Erik placed two plates of fried eggs and toast on the low table, sitting down in front of Charles.

Charles loved to watch Erik eat. Erik always ate topless, and Charles was glad for it; the dance of his muscles were quite a sight to behold, from the rhythmic movement of his jawline to the bob of his Adam’s apple to the tightening of his neck muscles as he swallowed. He was lean but muscular – the muscles on his chest and arms rose and flexed when he so much as stretched his arm to reach for the pepper shaker, and Charles made a habit out of setting such things a little far away from Erik just so that he could see this.

His casual display of his body was a stark contrast to Charles, who every morning by breakfast was fully clad in his undershirt, button-up, slacks, and socks. Charles wondered what it was like to eat like Erik did. He certainly looked more carefree than Charles felt; but then again, Charles was used to this by now, taking care to fold his sleeves up so that they did not wrinkle too badly, and making sure that he did not spill anything on his clothes.

Charles nibbled at his toast as he watched this spectacular show, which had become something of a morning ritual. The air conditioner whirred in the background, an ever-present sound.

Erik, on the other hand, had never been with anybody, but was quite sure that this counted as a relationship. From the American shows that he had watched late at night back in Germany while he did his homework, he knew that even roommate did not sleep together in the same room in such proximity, and give each other kisses. He tried to think of cultures or places where this kind of behaviour would be considered normal and carry absolutely no romantic implications, but could not. In any case, they were both gay, he told himself. With this thought, it dawned upon him that in the two weeks that they had been “together”, he had never, not once, been allowed to see Charles unclothed.

“Charles?” Erik asked, breaking the quiet peace of the morning.

“Mmmmph?”

“Can I ask you something?”

Charles nodded happily, licking off the runny yolk from the edge of his lips.

“Why are you always so dressed?”

He giggled. “I’m not a nudist like you. I’m sure most people don’t eat breakfast wearing little more than their pants. I can understand not wearing trousers, but I think most people would at least wear a shirt.”

Erik furrowed his eyebrows. “Yes, but you’re overdressed. And it’s the middle of summer.”

Charles shrugged. “Poor circulation and all that.”

“You know, you could solve this problem by simply switching off the air conditioner. It’s not that hot outside, after all.

Charles looked down into his plate.

Had he been too forward? It struck him as strange that Charles would allow Erik to kiss him, but kept secrets about something as mundane as the air-conditioner and “poor circulation”. A thought popped up in Erik’s mind: perhaps he was simply being used. Charles went on and on about how delicious Erik’s food was. Erik remembered the terrible frozen dinners that he was sure were only edible on that first night because he had been so famished. Perhaps they were just roommates after all, and Charles was just happy that he had someone to prepare decent meals for him.

Erik shook away his thoughts, and they finished their breakfast to the sound of birds chirping outside.


*

 

Charles, on the other hand, was having some troubles of his own. He had done some quiet thinking by himself while working on his latest watercolour, and it had dawned on him that he was, in fact, in love.

This was quite new to him. He had been in love – or rather, he thought he had been in love back in England. He was gay – he knew this, at least, for a fact. He was Rory McGarrity from Edinburgh, and Charles had been immediately enamoured by his lilting brogue and his unabashed, easygoing ways since the first day of school.

 


Three years ago

 

Charles strode across the courtyard, spotting a familiar figure in the distance. His black uniform coat billowed in the wind, and he adjusted the cravat around his neck. 

“Rory, there you are!”

The boy called Rory was sitting on a bench at the edge of the courtyard, his Latin notebook laid out on his lap. The courtyard was otherwise deserted, most of the boys either taking part or watching the He brushed his shocking red hair back as he looked up and grinned at Charles, who closed the distance between them with a trot and sat down.

“Charlie! I tho’t ye’d ha’ gaun doon tae the field by noo.”

“Nah, I thought I’d sit it out today.”

Rory closed his textbook and set it down. He laid a hand on Charles’ left shoulder.

“It hurts, doesnae it?”

Charles looked up and nodded.

“Ye should go’n see the nurse, ye ken?”

“I know, and I have, but the painkillers don’t do any good. I’m not sure if they’re not strong enough, or if it’s because the pain is psychological.”

“Shouldnae they be takin’ ye tae a proper hospital?”

Charles shrugged. “It’s not as if it’s infected, so I suppose they don’t really see the need to.” He shivered.

“Ye cauld?”

Charles nodded.

“Here, pit yer heid oan me shoulder.”

Charles did. Rory threw his huge blue knitted scarf – a 17th birthday present sent to him by his grandmother – over Charles, and rubbed at Charles’ left arm with his warm hands. They used to joke that Rory had “healing hands”. When Charles hurt, all Rory had to do was to hold Charles, and the warmth would gradually make the pain disappear.

Charles sniffed.

“Whit’s wrang?”

“Nothing’s wrong. I just… thank you.”

“‘s awright, Charlie.”

“I love you,” Charles blurted out.

Rory froze. In that horrible moment, Charles thought that he had blown it, that Rory would be disgusted by his confession, and that all of this was over. He supposed it wasn’t much different from what he had before; he didn’t have Matty any more, but then again, Eton boys were all right. He could cope.

Then, Rory squeezed his shoulder and whispered back. “Ah love ye tae.”

Two nights later, they arranged to meet outside their dormitories after lights out. Charles tiptoed out of his room and into the hallway, where Rory was already waiting.

“Sorry for taking so long,” he whispered.

“‘s awright,” he said, and pointed down the hallway. “I tho’t our best bet wid be the changing room bathrooms. Tha’s far awa from nethin’.”

Charles stared.

“Everythin’ awright, Charlie?”

Charles blinked. “Yes. Yes, everything’s fine.”

Rory smiled down at Charles as he undid the buttons on his shirt. He ran a hand down Charles’ chest, his hands sliding carefully over the scars.

“‘m sorry,” Charles mumbled.

Rory raised an eyebrow. “Wha’ever for?”

Charles gestured vaguely at the left side of his chest. “It’s not nice.”

“Don’ be silly,” Rory whispered, closing the distance between them with a kiss to Charles’ nose. “Ye survived it. ‘s a mark of yer strangth. Don’ let ‘nyone tell ye otherwise.”

Charles put his arms around Rory’s shoulders and brought his lips over the other boy’s mouth. Rory grabbed Charles’ head and held him against the wall. He didn’t notice Charles freezing up as he did so. He continued to kiss Charles, sucking at his lips and grinding his body against him. Charles felt something hard push up against his stomach.

Letting go of Charles to unbuckle his trousers, Rory realised with a rush of horror down his spine that Charles’ face was wet with tears.

“Charlie?”

Charles looked down at his feet and pressed at his face with his hands.

“Charles, I’m sorry, I didn–”

“You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s me. I just… I don’t know. I can’t do this anymore.”

“Tha’s awright. Ye only do wha’ yer comfortable with.”

Rory put a hand on Charles’ shoulder. Charles recoiled from the contact and sank down onto the bench.

“Rory, I’m so sorry. This isn’t your fault.”

“‘s awright.” Rory stepped back to give Charles space and gazed down at him.

“This is not your fault."
“Okay.”

Charles picked up his shirt and did up the buttons with shaking hands. He wrapped himself in his coat and hugged his knees to his chest.

“Should I…”

“Yes. Please. I need some time to myself. I’m sorry.”

Rory nodded and walked out of the changing room.

Charles avoided Rory the next day. He couldn’t bring himself to face him. He had ruined what was supposed to be a night of fun for the two of them. A day turned into a week, a week turned into a month, and a month turned into a year, and Rory’s healing hands never found their way onto Charles again.

On their graduation day, Rory walked up to Charles, sitting alone in the courtyard. They stared at each other, both unsure of what to do, until Rory broke into a smile. Charles followed.

“Rory.”

“Charlie. Wha’ are yer plans?”

“I guess I’ll go back to America. My mother died two months ago, and I have to meet with some lawyers. Inheritance and all that.”

Rory shook his head. “‘m sorry to hear tha’, Charlie.”

“It’s all right. She didn’t really care,” said Charles, with a half-smile. “How about you?”

“Ah’m gaun back to Edina, takin’ after me father’s business.”

Charles nodded. “That sounds like fun.”

“Ye bet.” Rory grinned, and then unfurled the blue scarf around his neck – the same one he had so often thrown around Charles to keep him warm. “Charlie, I want ye to have this.”

“But… that was from your grandmother.”

“I kno’, an’ it reminded me of ‘er, but I still want ye to have et. Besides, the blue goes well wi yer eyes.”

Charles took the scarf from Rory’s hands.

“I don’t know how to thank you.”

Rory grinned, running a hand through his hair. Charles reached for his tie and took off the tie clip – a slim, golden clip carved with an intricate floral pattern. He handed it to Rory.

“This is for you. It used to belong to my grandfather.”

“Aw, Charlie.”

Rory made to hug Charles but stopped himself, unsure of how that would go down. In response, Charles flung himself around Rory’s shoulders and drew him into a tight embrace.

 

*

 


Present Day

 

Charles glanced at the bathroom door and sighed. They had finished breakfast, and Erik was in the shower, singing in some language that Charles initially thought was German but was now rather confused about. He wondered if it was some kind of dialect. In his first year, he had taken an introductory German class that had gone so badly, he had barely scraped a C. From this, he at least knew that although Hochdeutsch was the standard, there were various funny-sounding dialects that were almost impossible to understand.

He smiled to himself. He rather fancied the idea of spending every morning of his life from university onwards listening to Erik hold private concerts in his funny German dialect in the shower.

He opened up the document containing his essay and pored over it. The submission deadline was noon, and he wanted to have one last read before turning it in – but he couldn’t bring himself to concentrate on the words on the screen. He fiddled with the scarf lying on his pillow.

He didn’t want to lose him. He didn’t want time to move forward; he knew that Erik’s exchange would eventually end, and that he would have to go back to Germany. He knew that if they moved on with what they seemed to have going on between them right now, that it would end up like Rory again – he would freeze up at the crucial moment and would be unable to continue. He shivered and submitted his essay as it was.

Erik came out of the bathroom, and Charles watched as he hung up his towel on the rack and poured himself a glass of milk.

“What was that, a German folk song?”

Erik looked up, his cheeks slightly red. “Oh. Uh, no. That was Yiddish. My grandmother used to sing it. Sorry.”

“No, I like it." Charles pointed a finger at Erik. "Don’t you stop singing in the shower.”

Erik laughed. “If it pleases you.”

“How would you like to go boating today?”

 

*

 

Erik was thrilled; his home back in Germany was next to a small river, where he and his siblings would go to swim. Water for him represented the odd days he could relax and have some fun. Moreover, this was his chance to finally see Charles naked. 

“Erm, Erik… why are you packing your swimming things?”

“We’re going to a lake, aren’t we? Don’t people usually swim in lakes?”

“We’re going sailing, not swimming.”

“The two can happen together, can’t they?”

Charles sighed. He supposed he only had himself to blame for not foreseeing this. “Well, I suppose you can jump off the side of the boat if you’d like, but don’t expect me to join in.”

“What, why?”

Charles shrugged. Erik was about to complain, but held back – he had a plan.

 

*

 

Erik’s hand brushed against Charles’ as they walked down the pier along which a large number of boats, large and small, were parked. Some of them were quite small and shabby, while others were larger, stylish affairs with roofs and proper sails. Charles carried a picnic basket full of some drinks and snacks that Erik had packed.

“So… how much are boat rentals around here?”

Charles stopped and raised an eyebrow. “Boat rentals?”

“We are renting a boat, aren’t we?”

Charles shook his head. “Oh… no, not exactly. It’s not technically mine because it belongs to the family, but nobody else uses it or knows how to operate it, so it’s… mine.”

Erik gaped. “Wait… you have your own boat?”

“Yes,” Charles blushed. “Is that wrong?”

“No, no it isn’t, but… wow. You own a boat. That’s cool. My Uncle Avram has a boat.”

Charles shrugged and pointed at the luxury yacht parked at the edge of the pier.

“That’s the one.”

Erik gaped. “Er, Charles, this is not a boat. It is a ship. You can probably sail across the Atlantic with this if you wanted to.”

Charles grimaced as he hopped onto the boat and unwinded the rope keeping her ashore. “If you tried to cross the Atlantic in this old thing, you’d either get shipwrecked or suffer horrible seasickness for the entire duration of your trip.”

Charles gestured toward the letters carved into the helm. “She’s called Seonaidh, after a Scottish water spirit.”

Erik nodded, wondering how on earth “S E O N A I D H” could possibly be read as “Shony”. He supposed it couldn't be English. Something Scottish - Gaelic, perhaps.

“‘She?’ Your boat is a woman?”

Charles blushed. “No… no… in English we call ships she. It’s just a… a thing we do.”

“So it’s like how words have gender in German?”

“Uh… I guess so?”

“Okay,” said Erik, snickering at Charles’ obvious uncertainty.

“Hop in before I start the engine.”

“It has an engine?”

“Of course she does.”

“Jesus. And I thought we were going to be sailing,” he complained, flexing his arms. Charles rolled his eyes, and started the motor.

The lake was green and lovely as usual. There weren’t many other boats around, and the ones that were out were mostly parked on the shores, with families who wanted the privacy of an isolated spot to do some camping. Charles opened the window to feel the wind beat against his face. He loved sailing; it was one of the rare times he felt free, and he felt at one with the boat, flying across the water.

Erik watched in awe as Charles hand hovered over the the steering wheel and the various buttons and levers. Charles knew how to take care of himself, apart from anything involving the cooking – but he hadn’t taken Charles to be someone who could do something this practical. He stood next to Charles and watched the view ahead of them. He pretended that the ice caps had long since melted, submerging all of the cities of the world. The two of them were the only people left on this side of the world, and it was up to Charles to navigate the seas in search of mountain ranges, to find others who may have survived.

Charles’ voice brought him out of his daydream.

“You have siblings, don’t you, Erik?”

Erik looked up and nodded.

“How many?”

“I’ve got one younger sister, and two younger brothers.”

“That’s quite a large family.”

Erik nodded again. “I miss them.”

“Tell me about your siblings.”

“Well, there’s Anya – she’s turning fifteen this year, and is in the German equivalent of what you would call a high school here. She skipped year seven and year nine. She’s very intelligent, much more so than me, and hopes to become a doctor when she graduates. I’m not worried about her; she will definitely get a scholarship to study at a top medical school. She likes to play football – soccer is what you call it here – and plays as a striker on her school team. My grandmother teachers her the violin as well, but she’s complete rubbish at it.”

Charles laughed with Erik.

“The younger two are twins – Baruch and David. Their names mean ‘blessed’ and ‘beloved’ respectively. They are turning ten this year, and my mother spoils them rotten. They are not as smart as Anya, but they seem to have a talent for art and mimicking other people, so I guess they take after me and my dad.”

Charles smiled, thinking of what Erik’s home life back in Germany must be like, with two young artists and a budding doctor running around. He couldn’t help but feel a tinge of jealousy at how happy it must be.

“I feel a little homesick now,” he said, clearing his throat. “How about you? You have a twin brother, don’t you?”

Charles was so surprised that he steers sharply to starboard by accident, making the ship lurch. “What!?”

Erik raised his eyebrows, uncertain whether to be amused or alarmed at Charles’ reaction. “I was reading your copy of A History of Japanese Zen Buddhist Art when the photograph fell out. It was some kind of school photograph, I think. You two were standing together in your uniforms, looking quite serious. I would say that you were perhaps fourteen or fifteen.”

Charles stared at the steering wheel.

“I’m sorry if it was something I shouldn’t have seen,” Erik added.

Charles shook his head. “No… no, it’s fine.” He forced a smile. “Yes, that was my twin brother.”

“Was?”

“He um… yes. He was my twin brother. He uh… he’s not around anymore.”

“Oh.” Erik frowned. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

Charles shook his head again, rather violently. “No, it’s all right. He wanted to.”

Erik raised an eyebrow. “He killed himself?”

“Yes… well, something like that.”

Erik looked at Charles as if he has more questions, but decides not to probe. “I’m sorry.”

Charles shrugged. “I have a sister.”

“Tell me about her.”

“Her name is Raven. She’s nin– er, eighteen. At the moment, she’s working. I don’t think she really knows what she wants to do with her life yet, and is kind of trying to sort things out. She… um, yeah. That’s pretty much it.”

Erik nodded, frowning slightly. “You don’t seem to be very close.”

“Well, she’s a girly sort of girl. We didn’t really have much in common growing up together, since I was into things like studying and theories and how machines work while she was into typical girly things like dolls and fashion. I was much closer to Matthew."

“Matthew – was that your twin?”

Charles nodded and sighed. The conversation wasn’t going anywhere he liked at all. He decided to put a stop to it by attempting to teach how to steer a yacht – attempting being the key word. Charles was quite sure that it was impossible to capsize even a small yacht like this, but Erik came close.

They eventually made it to the middle of the lake, where Charles set about releasing a set of metal steps from its hatch and letting it down into the water. It hadn’t been used in a while, and had gone slightly rusty, making the job harder. Meanwhile, Erik stripped down to his swimming trunks.

“Don’t jump in until I’ve let this down. If it doesn’t work, then you’ll have no way of getting back up.”

There was a loud splash as Erik dived head-first into the water.

Charles rolled his eyes. Encouraged by a sense of need, Charles managed to disengage the steps and lowered them into the water with a hand-crank. He wiped his hands on a towel hanging from the cabin door, and brought out a deck chair and a massive green parasol. He poured himself a glass of apple juice and sat down, nursing a large book. Erik looked up at him from the water and splashed.

“Erik! You’re going to get my book wet!” he shouted, putting his hands on his hips and pouting. Erik cackled.

“Charles, we’re supposed to be relaxing, having some fun. Why are you reading a textbook?”

“It’s not a textbook,” he lied.

Erik rolled his eyes and dived underwater. 

After twenty-odd laps around the yacht, Erik grew bored and climbed back up, dripping lake water all over the wooden deck. The water shined on his body, accentuating the definition of his muscles as he leant on the side of the boat, next to Charles. Charles smiled up at him.

“Had fun, dear?”

Erik grinned, mouth full of teeth.

“Come on, swim with me.”

“I can’t. I didn’t bring my swimming trunks.”

“You have swimming trunks? Why didn’t you say so?”

“I don’t! I don’t swim.”

Erik knelt down and tugged at Charles’ sleeve.

“Just strip down to your boxers and swim with me. There isn’t anybody around to see.”

“I can’t swim.”

“Let me teach you.”

“I’ll drown.”

Erik frowned. “You think I’d let you drown?”

“No, but…”

“Then come on!”

Erik pried Charles’ book out of his grip, and set it down on the table. He put one arm under Charles’ back and another under his knees, and carried him, princess-style, to the side of the boat.

Charles grabbed onto Erik’s neck.

“Erik, what are you doing. Put me down." he said, his voice tense.

Without warning, Erik gave a mighty heave and dumped Charles into the water, jumping in after him. There was a huge splash as Charles belly-flopped into the water, screaming. He immediately resurfaced, gasping and treading water.

Erik!

“You can swim!”

“Of course I can swim!”

“Then why aren’t you swimming?”

“Well I’m swimming now, thanks to you.” Charles looked down at his shirt. “Fuck.”

“What?”

“The fuck, Erik. You don’t just throw people into the water.”

“Charles, calm down, I was just…”

“Go away!”

Charles swam to the steps and climbed swiftly back onto the yacht. Erik followed, staring helplessly at Charles, who walked back into the cabin facing the steering wheel with his back turned to Erik.

“Charles, I’m sorry. What’s the matter?”

“Look, it’s showing,” he said, gesturing at his shirt. His white shirt was soaked, revealing the pink of his skin underneath.

Erik frowned. “I don’t follow.”

“Take off my shirt.”

“What?”

“Take it off.”

Erik stepped closer to Charles. This wasn’t how he imagined his first time undressing Charles at all. His hands shook as he undid the first few buttons. Then, his hands stopped.

Charles shook Erik’s hands aside and undid the rest of the shirt, hauling it off and throwing it onto the floor. The skin on the left side of his chest, extending to his wrist, was uneven and coagulated. At some parts it looked as if his skin had simply begun to melt from the heat and then tried to seal itself back onto his arm. At one particular spot, his chest had been burnt so badly that the skin dipped, as if a small chunk of his flesh was missing.

Erik swallowed. “So that’s why. The air conditioner. Long sleeves in the summer.”

“Yes, because I have to hide, from people like you,” Charles snarled.

“What? Charles, I never said…”

Charles rubbed at his face and sighed. “I’m sorry.”

“Charles…”

“I didn’t want you to see. I tried to keep it a secret from you, even though at the rate we were going, I couldn’t hope to stay clothed forever, could I?” He gave a weak laugh, and turned back into the cabin. “We should go back.”

“Charles, wait.”

Erik followed, putting one hand on Charles’ left shoulder. Charles flinched.

“I’m sorry, does that hurt?”

“No.”

“Then let me.”

“Don’t.”

“Please. Let me kiss you.”

“No.”

“Then let me hold you, at least.”

“No! Erik, just go away. I’ll take us back to the pier.”

Erik crossed his arms. “Look, I don’t know what happened to you, but I don’t care, all right? I don’t care what you look like, because you’re beautiful anyway.”

“Shut up.”

“I love you, Charles.”

Charles snorted, grabbing a towel from the bench and covering himself. “You’ve known me for two measly weeks. Shut the fuck up.”

He started the engine, and Erik slammed the cabin door.