Erik knows they blame him. He can see it in the way their gazes too-easily slide away from him like water on stone. He hears it in the whispered conversations that fall silent as soon as he enters a room.
He never leaves Charles’s side and so he knows they blame him for the way Charles’s condition continues to deteriorate, as well. Sometimes Charles goes whole hours without speaking - he breaks off in the middle of a word and falls into silence, gazing at Erik without really seeing him. It’s terrifying, the way Erik sees nothing behind those eyes anymore. Sometimes he feels Charles’s thoughts brush up against his mind and the contact is so sudden and rough it makes his skin go cold. It’s not the way it used to be. It’s not the way it used to feel, and Erik flinches every time.
But other days things almost seem normal. Charles still smiles, still laughs. He schedules training sessions, too, but no one ever shows up and Charles never seems to notice.
He touches Erik sometimes, as well. Not that it leads anywhere. Erik tried once, that very first time. Charles was lucid and flush-cheeked, his hands tangled in Erik’s hair - and Erik had half-convinced himself he had cause to hope, that maybe at last things were taking a turn for the better. He’d kissed Charles like he meant it, pouring everything he had into the slip of their tongues together and Erik’s hands sliding down Charles’s thighs, as if he’d somehow found the key to Charles and that key was him —. And then Charles had grabbed at him and pushed him back; Erik could see the panic in his eyes and feel it in the way Charles’s nails dug hot crescents into his upper arms. He could hear it in the way Charles’s voice broke, high-pitched and breathless. I can’t feel my legs. Erik - Erik, oh god, I can’t feel my legs —.
After that, Erik always carefully lifted Charles’s hands away, placing his arms down by his sides, safe atop the bed. There were complications in surgery, the doctor had said. An infection in Charles’s bloodstream. They had fought it with antibiotics and by their reckoning, they had succeeded. He would live. The infection had reached his brain, but he would live. He would live out a hundred thousand days.
Charles is cheerful today, chattering away at Erik about some book he is reading, waving his arms around and gesticulating to illustrate some point. Erik sits on the sofa, close enough that if Charles has another seizure he can reach out and catch him before he falls out of the chair. He’s placed a cup of tea on the table by Charles’s elbow but Charles has forgotten about it already, caught up in rambling about evolution, and it has gone cold.
Erik glances at the clock on the wall. It’s nearly ten-thirty. He stands and leans over to undo the brake on Charles’s chair. “It’s getting late,” he says. “You should get ready for bed.”
Charles glances down at him and for some reason Erik thinks he’s going to dive right back into his lecture on genetics. His expression looks temporarily frozen, something odd and bright shifting behind his eyes, his tongue flickering out to wet his lips. Erik thinks about kissing him, a wild fantasy that flits across the forefront of his mind before he can push it away. He thinks maybe it wouldn’t be so terrible, if they reclaimed some part of what they once were. It would be different, yes, they would have to start over from near the very beginning, but they could do it. Together, they can do almost anything.
He is leaning in, lifting a hand to touch Charles’s cheek and then Charles tilts his head to the side and opens his mouth, says, politely curious and very British:
“I’m sorry - but who are you?”
Sometimes Erik blames himself, too.