The first time Charles meets Erik, Charles falls very much in love.
Charles is six years old.
It's the first day of ballet class. He and Raven are both restless in their dancewear, looking curiously around at the other restless children around them saying goodbye to their parents. Their own mother initially signed only Raven up for the class, but decided Charles should go too. It's a good substitute for daycare.
As Raven finds a girl named Emma Frost to play with, Charles is left alone to wander around the noisy room himself. He also wants to find a friend, and he spots a lone boy standing a little to the side as he watches his mother slip out the front door with a bright smile and a wave.
The boy smiles back at his mother and returns the wave. He has a very nice smile, Charles thinks as he pads over. He looks very friendly and smart, and Charles decides he wants to be his friend.
But before he can make it, a squabble of girls beside him erupts into giggles, and they don't sound very nice. Charles turns, and see with surprise that they're staring and pointing and laughing at him. Charles flushes, confused, looking down at himself but noting nothing strange. He's wearing what everybody else is wearing. The attention upsets him quite a bit, but he doesn't know why, since he doesn't think he's done anything wrong.
A couple of the girls skip over and begins to poke him.
"A boy!" One girl says with a haughty sneer. "You're a boy. Boys don't do ballet. That's gross! Are you actually a girl?" The other girls echo her words, laughing.
Charles flushes harder and blinks back tears. He sniffs a couple times and feels his lower lip wobble.
"Stop it!" cries a voice next to them. It's loud and strong enough to startle the girls into silence. They all look over, and Charles sees the boy he had been about to befriend a few minutes ago. The boy's face is scrunched up with anger as he glares at the girls. "Boys can do ballet. Girls can do ballet. My mom and my dad do ballet. Leave him alone and stop being stupid!"
In that moment, Charles is smitten.
Slightly cowed, since the boy is very tall and has a scary angry face, the girls mutter and sneer quietly but move away from them.
The boy looks over to Charles, who is trying very hard to look tough and not sniff away the remaining tears.
"Are you okay?" asks the boy, looking concerned.
Charles nods, opening his mouth to thank him, but before any sound comes out the ballet teacher enters the room and calls for them all to sit in a circle, and Charles does not get to talk to him again.
Charles remembers all of this very vividly.
For the next ten years, Charles falls in love with ballet and although Raven quits to go to acting school instead, he stays in it, deciding he wants it to become his profession. He certainly has the skills and the marks to support him, along with the fervent encouragement of all the teachers of his academy. Charles passes each of his exams with flying colours, successfully auditions for lead roles, and wins all sorts of awards at recitals and concerts and competitions.
For the next ten years, Charles also never falls out of love with his progressively more gorgeous ballet classmate. Erik Lehnsherr is in all of his classes, taking the same exams and performing in the same recitals each year, and wins almost as many awards, if not more. Erik has the same goals as Charles does, wanting to follow in his parents' steps since he was a child. Charles never even has the opportunity to fall out of love. Erik is strong, lean, but so breathtakingly graceful that all eyes draw towards him whenever he moves, every soul completely spellbound whenever he dances. He trains tirelessly, swallowing critique with relish and always asking for more. He always moves with purpose so focused it steals one's breath. He never holds anything back, baring his entire soul for the world to see and never, ever apologizing for the magnificent force of nature he unleashes in every room, on every stage, in any space he enters.
If anything, Charles falls harder each year.
They both get accepted to the New York City Ballet company. Witnessing their skills and knowing that Charles and Erik have been friends for at least eight years, the company's ballet master decides that they would make excellent partners.
Charles is, of course, elated.
"I'd be delighted to!" Charles exclaims, unable to stop himself from grinning widely.
Darwin smiles. "I'm glad that's settled then."
Still smiling, Charles glances over at Erik. They're both sitting in Darwin's office going over the details of this year's program and their contracts. Darwin is familiar with both of them, having been close to their ballet teacher. He's cast them both in lead roles for several different ballets, and Charles is secretly giddy over the fact that their lead roles have many scenes together.
But… Erik isn't smiling. In fact, Erik looks bored as he nods, his mind already on something else.
Charles feels his own smile falling, and bites his lip to keep his face as neutral as possible. But as he looks away, he catches Darwin's eye, who's looking at him with a silent question on his face. Charles looks down and exhales quietly.
Yes, Charles has known Erik for ten years, but not well.
They're friends, but Erik has never really made any move to go beyond being more than… casual acquaintances, which is the more correct term for their relationship. They certainly trained together, took classes together, and danced together in many many recitals and competitions, but for some reason there has never been an opportunity for Charles to really get close to him. Their schedules outside the dance halls rarely coincided, and Erik seems to prefer his own posse of friends he makes in his own life.
"Congratulations," Charles says to him once, after they had both finished their last ballet exam.
Erik grins at him as he sucks on a bottle of water, still sweaty from the exam. Charles tries to breathe slowly.
"Congrats to you too," Erik replies, ruffling up his hair.
Charles ducks his head, blushing a little as he tentatively asks, "Would you… would you like to go out and celebrate?"
The apologetic smile gives Charles a short second to brace for the rejection, but even so he feels his heart sink as Erik says, "Sorry, I've already made plans with my parents tonight."
Erik spots his parents' car then, and runs off with a hasty farewell that glaringly lacks a "maybe next time" that Charles could hold onto for a repeat advance. Charles is too shy to ask him out a second time without it, and so never tries again. The fact that Erik didn't imply a next time probably meant that Charles isn't high on his list of people he cared to see often.
After so many years, though, Charles has learned to keep his yearning on the down low and accept the fact that Erik simply isn't… interested.
The thought hurt, but it doesn't stop Charles from wanting, still. So he's happy enough that he's still next to Erik, and hope that maybe… something might still happen, in the future.
Their debut in Romeo and Juliet, their first ballet with the New York City Ballet, is an immense, mind-blowing success. The shows completely sell out, everyone wanting to see this new, supernaturally talented young couple whose on-stage chemistry can nearly blow up the theatre and the audience inside.
Their second ballet, Swan Lake, is an even bigger success, so big that the company decides to extend the show times to over four months.
"We're keeping you here forever," Darwin jokes.
Onegin, The Nutcracker, Giselle, Cinderella rake in almost as much profit as their first two ballets, and the two of them become the celebrities of the company. Charles thinks he ought to feel like he is on top of the world, having pretty much achieved all his life childhood life goals, but even with the hundreds of fan letters and the genuine smiles of approval and admiring attention poured into his senses everywhere he goes, Charles can't help but feel empty, when he sees Erik walk away without a backward glance when the curtains fall.
Well, he gets a pat on the back and a congratulatory smile, and sometimes even a "great job" from Erik, but it's all so platonic that water tastes sweet in comparison.
But on-stage… oh.
On-stage, it's a completely different story.
On-stage is the only time when Charles can show his love to Erik and pretend that Erik loves him back, especially when the choreography calls for Erik to gather Charles up into his arms. And, oh, Charles feels so happy during rehearsals and on-stage with Erik’s strong arms around his waist, when he can use the dance as an excuse to get snuggly with Erik and subtly trace the lean lines of the taller dancer’s body, breathe in Erik’s musky, manly scent, press himself against the firm muscles when he otherwise never could.
And he doesn't have to restrain his facial expressions; Erik already makes him feel such a kaleidoscope of emotions over and over again that all Charles has to do is look into his mind and pull out the right one for the scene. He can grieve when he remembers the impossibility of love between them; he can easily be nervous when Erik is hurt, or angry, or so close he can feel the heat radiating from Erik's body; and when he recalls Erik's unapologetic laughter and incandescence, and thinks about the fact that he is able to share a stage with this man, dance alongside this man, Charles can smile so widely that the entire theatre can feel the warmth of it on its skin.
And Erik is so amazingly, stunningly, beautifully, absolutely magnificent in his performances, and so painfully convincing whenever he plays Charles’ lover that Charles wishes he could spend forever on-stage. At no other time does Erik ever stare at him like he does on-stage, like he's the only person to exist in the world, like he's the most wonderful sight Erik could ever behold. At no other time does Erik touch him the way he does on-stage, so firmly and confidently but also so gently and sweetly, cradling Charles with such a soft expression it leaves Charles breathless for hours on end. His long, elegant hands never fail to give Charles the strength he needs, caressing every part of Charles' body with utmost reverence, so real in their love that Charles almost believes maybe… maybe it isn't just an act.
But, no, that’s not the way things are. The ballets always end, and when they end, Erik returns behind the wall that's always been between them and Charles always has to pretend they’re nothing more than friends.
It hurts. So much.
But he can't do anything about it. Charles surmises that if he acts on his feelings, Erik might feel disgusted and reject him, and that’s not a risk Charles is willing to take.
Not only would Charles be left broken, he’d also lose Erik, and any chance he would ever have with him, forever. If on-stage, pretended love is the closest he can get to his fantasies, then he’ll take it.
Then, belatedly, Charles begins to see a pattern in the ballets Darwin casts them in.
They're all love stories. All of them.
"You finally noticed," Darwin comments dryly, when Charles stomps into his office one day with his revelation.
"That's cruel," Charles pouts.
Darwin shrugs. "It works for everyone."
Charles also notices that Darwin only ever casts Charles in the “female” role in the ballets, like Odette in Swan Lake, or Giselle in Giselle, Tatyana in Onegin, and so forth. In turn, Erik always gets the respective “male” roles and, somehow, that pisses Charles off to no end.
"Why do I always have to play the female?” Charles asks hotly. They are rehearsing, and this question erupts from his mouth after a particularly trying move where Charles has to leap and twirl at the same time, while Erik needs only to stand, stare, swoon, and then steady Charles by the hips when he lands. Charles feels sweaty and gross and a little distressed that he has to show his soaked backside to Erik, repeatedly. "Why can't Erik play the female for a change?"
Everyone blanches and shivers in horror. Even Darwin can't suppress a grimace.
Erik merely snickers and goes, “That’s what you get for being smaller and prettier than me.”
Charles is torn between indignant and stupefied that Erik might think he's attractive.
But one day Charles is completely fed up with playing the female role. He's sick of pining and the stresses of rehearsals cloud his head and it feels like a slap to the face when he starts thinking about the possible meanings behind being cast as the female counterpart to Erik's roles. In his irritated state of mind, none of the meanings are nice.
Foremost is the highlighting of the fact that any mutual love between him and Erik will only ever be a performance.
"I am sick of this!" Charles explodes one day during a rehearsal, when he tripped and fell into an ungraceful heap on the ground. "Is there something you want to tell me, Darwin? I can do other roles. You know I can do other roles. Why are you always casting me as… as…" Charles can't finish it, or the whole world would see his stupid crush and laugh at him.
Darwin stares at him for a long time. Everyone stares at him for a long time, but Charles doesn't care and just huffs at the ground, nursing his ankle, willing the heat from his face to cool. Eventually Darwin throws up his hands.
In an absolutely exasperated voice, Darwin says, "Fine. You don't want the role. Fine. I'll give it to Emma instead."
Emma Frost, their childhood ballet classmate, is the next best dancer after Charles and Erik, and so obviously she is the logical choice. She's playing a smaller role at the moment, but as soon as Darwin says it, Emma steps up and radiates a beautiful smile in Erik's direction. Charles' heart skitters when he sees Erik smiling very nicely at her as well.
Charles realizes that she’s really quite pretty, and hell no, that is not happening.
"I'll do it!" Charles bursts out. Emma and Erik stop short and everyone looks at him. The heat he's been fighting to keep down rises once again. "I'm sorry. I'll do it. That was in the heat of the moment and I wasn't thinking clearly. I'm sorry. Sorry." He looks back up at Darwin with what he hopes is an appropriately apologetic expression that leaks none of the intense flare of jealousy he had a moment before.
Almost microscopically, so that only Charles sees, Darwin smirks.
The bastard knows, Charles thinks resignedly. Of course.
Erik sighs audibly, and Charles bites his lips, sure now that even if he did have any chance with Erik prior to this moment, it's been dashed completely into the negatives from that little temper tantrum he just threw.
To his surprise, however, Erik extends a hand towards him, and after a second Charles gracefully accepts the help to stand up.
Suddenly, a sharp pain shoots up from his ankle and he falls down hard on his knees with a cry. Erik and Darwin are instantly by his side, asking if he is okay, and Charles wants to nod, but he feels his heart stop as he finds that he can't move his ankle.
He says as much to Erik and Darwin, who both pale.
Charles tries in vain to blink back the tears as Darwin breaks the news that the role will go, after all, to Emma Frost. The tears fall anyway. He feels like such a fool, crying over a thing only worthy of the attention of a teenage girl. Thankfully, everyone thinks he's only crying about having to give up the lead role.
For the rest of the rehearsals, Charles sits on the side, and watches. The doctors have told him very strictly that he must not put any weight on the half-cracked ankle, but in those four weeks of recovery, Charles almost doesn't care.
He can’t do anything as he watches with a cracking heart Erik lavishing upon Emma the same sort of beautiful expressions and gestures he’d given Charles during their dances together. In Charles’ biased perspective, Erik seems even more affectionate towards Emma than he did with Charles, and Charles can feel his heart corroding in jealousy so bitter he tastes bile in his mouth. Erik places his hands on her hips and caresses her as he had Charles, and Charles feels dirty and pathetic, having mooned over what Erik does without thought to any competent partner.
Darwin wants him at all the rehearsals in case they reuse the ballet in the future, but most times, Charles can't bear to sit through the entire period. He often leaves before they finish, lying about feeling unwell.
Erik’s on-stage affection is just a generic thing; it doesn’t stem from anything real after all.
He’d been hoping so hard otherwise.
That really fucking hurts, and Charles may or may not have cried a bit over this at night.
Eventually, everyone has a limit, a breaking point. There is no such thing as infinite tolerance. His heart grows so heavy and painful to carry that he seriously considers switching companies. He knows it’s rather stupid and downright pathetic to make such a major change over one person but he’s loved Erik so intensely for so long he can’t survive continuing to perform as Erik’s “pretend lover” while remaining distant and platonic off-stage and… and seeing him treat Charles the same way he treats everyone.
And, very probably, date and marry someone who is not-Charles.
Just thinking about that hardens Charles' resolve to get as far away from that inevitable heartbreak as possible.
When his ankle heals, Erik and Emma's ballet is still rolling through shows, so he's free at the moment. Charles takes the opportunity to fill out his resume and the forms for auditions for several receptive ballet companies, all quite a ways away from New York. Most on the west coast, and couple overseas in Europe. He tells Darwin about this, quietly, one day in the office he and Erik had stepped in together for the first time.
"Don't tell Erik," Charles adds at the end.
Darwin doesn't say anything, but his expression is heavy with sadness.
A week later, on a rainy night, Charles is hurrying along the wet pavement to the nearest mailbox when a hand catches him roughly by the shoulder and turns him around.
"What the FUCK do you think you’re doing, Charles," Erik shouts. He's soaked to the bones, wearing only a thin, fabric jacket and a flimsy t-shirt. He appears to have been running for quite a while, because his breath is being heaved out short and fast.
Charles is quickly getting soaked too. He'd been running cover to cover.
"Goddammit, Darwin," Charles swears under his breath.
Erik doesn't miss it. "You were going to hide that from me all the way until the day you leave, weren't you?" He sees the manila packages under Charles' arm and moves forward to snatch them away, but Charles is faster. "Why the fuck would you do that?"
Charles loses it. "What do you care, Erik?" He spits back. "Emma's as good for you as I am - I know you like her even better. The two of us aren't even friends, dammit, this doesn't concern you at all - "
"What are you talking about? Of course we're friends - "
"No, we are not. I've seen you with friends and you are not like that with me. Don't be thick. You tolerate me, Erik, and even on stage, you're only - you're only pretending to like me. You're only - performing." He can't help the waver in his voice near the end and blinks back tears.
Erik stares, dumbfounded, so Charles charges on. He's too angry to understand what he might have just implied.
"It shouldn't matter to you what I do," Charles says hoarsely. "Now let me go."
But Erik refuses, hand still gripped tightly on Charles' arm.
"I will not let you go," Erik seethed, suddenly equally pissed off at Charles for some reason Charles can’t discern. "You are being a complete idiot."
"Oh fuck off. I don't like it here, isn't that enough reason? Not that it's any of your business."
"Not any of my business? You're my partner."
"Emma is your partner right now! God, Erik! You have a perfect partner right now, who is actually the right gender for the roles. And she fits you, so perfectly - "
"She's not the one I've danced most with - "
"It's chemistry, not quantity, and we have none of it - "
"Charles, you're not being reasonable - "
"Oh just stop - "
“No, I won't!” Erik shouts suddenly, features twisted.
Charles is shocked speechless at the vehemence in Erik's voice.
They both breathe hard, struggling to keep their tempers in check. Only the soft crash of rain around them and the distant sounds of cars fill the air now.
Then, much, much more quietly, Erik speaks again.
"Charles, I need you."
His face is so broken that… that Charles has absolutely no idea how to respond.
"…I don't think you do," Charles replies softly, equally broken.
The rain continues to pour, hard, and both of them are hopelessly drenched. It hides Charles' tears, and if his eyes look a little red, it would be because of the yellow glow of the street lamps, which throw everything into twisted shadows. A few figures hurry along the streets, head low, eager to find somewhere warm and dry. Charles and Erik are the only two people in the world, and they're staring at each other, neither able to look away.
Then in the silence Erik asks, “Just one more dance with me. Please.”
Like every other time, any request of Erik's draws an automatic yes to Charles lips. But unlike every other time, Charles doesn't let the word escape. He thinks about it, even as his entire soul is in utter heartbroken chaos, but he thinks about it and decides that, yes, perhaps he could honour that. It would make a nice farewell, anyhow.
“…All right,” he agrees
Charles’ ankle is fully healed, and the ballet with Erik and Emma as leads is over too - though Charles still scowls with jealousy every time he thinks about it; it was a very good performance and the only solace is that the reviews aren't quite as good as the ones for his and Erik's performances. Darwin, beaming at Charles decision, decides to choreograph an original ballet for the two of them, and Charles and Erik are, unsurprisingly, once again chosen as the romantic leads.
Everything’s back to the same as usual. Erik “loves” him beautifully on-stage during rehearsals, but makes distance off-stage. But Erik's certainly much warmer than before, asking Charles out to coffee for a couple of times, and even a play, once. Erik seems to be making an effort, and that cheers Charles up a bit. Still, it's hardly enough, and still too platonic and painful to make Charles want to rethink his decision to switch companies. Charles grits his teeth through it all as he’s promised Erik he’ll do one more show with Erik before leaving.
And then it comes. The official day of the show.
Erik is even more beautiful, charming, affectionate, and loving towards Charles during the performance than ever before.
It's a complete disaster for Charles' heart.
If Erik gazed at him before like he was the most precious being in the world, it was nothing like the way Erik is gazing at him now, as they dance. No, not gazing - Erik is staring at him like nothing else in the world even exists, like he's seeing colour for the first time, like Charles' very existence gives him life. The audience is forgotten. His movements are completely centred around Charles. He's furious and passionate as he dances away, soft and reverent whenever he draws near; it is as though being apart from Charles for any length of time agonizes his soul into blinding, torturing fits of passion. And when Erik is right next to him, bodies a mere inch apart, legs entwined, he runs fingers softly and hesitantly along Charles' skin like Erik is unworthy of touching him.
He doesn't understand. During all their rehearsals for this show, Erik had been perfectly normal, cradling and carrying him gently and lovingly as he had for the past several years, but it was never like this.
It takes all of Charles' effort not to break character. Holy fuck is Erik making it difficult for Charles to want to go through with his decision to leave. Charles wants to punch him in the groin, right then and there, in front of three thousand riveted eyes, for so cruelly entertaining what Charles can never have.
And then too slowly, too soon, it’s the final act.
Now it’s ending, and there's a move at the very end where Erik sweeps Charles off his feet and cradles his “lover” in his arms. Usually, Erik lets go right before the curtains start falling to bow to the audience, but this time, to Charles' confusion, Erik doesn’t let go.
"Erik, what are you doing?" Charles tries to hiss but fails as Erik’s face is suddenly, really, distractingly close. The crowd is giving them a standing ovation, but Charles hears and sees nothing except Erik being so close, oh god that skin those eyes those lips...
And then Erik whispers into his ear.
“I was never performing.”
Charles is speechless. He stares, and Erik's lips begin tilting upwards into his signature grin, but there is a soft fondness in his face that is so beautiful not even all the gazing during the performance could compete with.
His head is reeling, shooting sparks, spitting rainbows. Is he dreaming? This is impossible. It can't be - Erik's -
"You - ?"
And that's as far as he gets before Erik stoppers his thoughts completely by claiming his lips in a deep, deep kiss.
*** epilogue ***
Later, Erik reveals that he was so affectionate towards Emma when Charles was injured because he was pretending Emma was Charles all along.
"Really?" Charles squeaks as Erik draws him in for a kiss.
"I can't imagine dancing with anyone else. Why else do you think I stopped you that day?"
"Gosh," says Charles, and he can’t help but blush to the ends of his toes upon hearing this.
Erik also confesses that he’d been so “cold” towards Charles all these years because he’d realized he liked Charles a few years back. However, by then their status quo had already been set, and Erik didn’t want to upset what they had, however little it was, in case Charles rejected and left their dance partnership.
Erik thought Charles was the one being distant off-stage, and so didn’t bother even trying to pursue anything.
Charles gapes, jaw open. “Then what made you change your mind?” he asks. “About pursuing me.”
“Your admitting you were jealous of Emma,” Erik answers.
Charles sputters indignantly, flushing maroon. “Wha–? I said no such thing!”
“ ‘Maybe you like Emma even better, we aren’t even friends dammit, you only pretend to like me on-stage’?” Erik quotes casually, raising an eyebrow.
Charles looks down, groaning.
“It’s not a bad thing,” Erik says, grinning, patting him on the shoulder. “At least I know now. It’s been a few years and I pretty much gave up all hope.”
You never even tried. “…I’ve liked you for much longer,” Charles says quietly.
Erik’s grin sobers. “Charles…"
“Oh Erik you idiot, why didn’t you say something,” Charles huffs, suddenly frustrated, pained about all the years they’ve missed being together.
Erik chuckles and mutters apologies into Charles’ fluffy hair and gathers him into his arms. He knows Charles loves this move, if the slow, charming blush creeping up Charles' neck and cheeks is any indication. A loving kiss to the forehead completes the blush. Erik presses his slightly cooler cheek against the warmth, and Charles nuzzles into it.
"When did you start, um..." Charles begins, but gets a little flustered before he can finish asking such a personal question.
Erik's mouth twitches. "You first."
Charles pouts but guesses it's only fair. "Do you remember in our first ballet class ever? You came over and saved me from some girls with very... unkind comments. You were so fierce and strong about it that I couldn't help it."
"That long ago?" Erik stares at him.
Charles blushes fiercely again. "Yes."
Erik suddenly tugs him close and devours his mouth, sucking his lips until Charles is gasping and keening for breath and seeing fireworks bloom behind his eyelids. Charles is aware that he's probably a very unattractive shade of red at the moment, but Erik suggests otherwise when he presses a cool kiss to his heated cheek, this time much more tenderly.
Clearing his throat, Charles asks, "W...what about you?"
Erik's eyes goes soft and distant. "There wasn't a really a moment. Not really. It was gradual, over the years, and when I realized it, it felt like just another thought. You're just so... beautiful, everywhere. Always. I couldn't help it either."
It was said so earnestly and passionately that Charles blushes even more fiercely, to the point that he feels he's going to pass out. He feels like such a teenager, and he burrows into Erik's chest, hoping to hide his frankly ridiculous emotional transparency. His scalp tickles as Erik noses his hair and breathes into it.
"What are you thinking now?" Erik murmurs into his hair.
Charles is silent for a few moments before he answers. "Fifteen years. I just… yeah."
"Why didn't you say something?"
"After no indication of anything from you? No way."
"Well then. Same here."
"I wasn't obvious?" Charles asks incredulously. "A few people apparently knew."
"Not that I was aware."
Charles pouts. "Of course you weren't."
"Shhh. Just. Just kiss me," Charles pleads softly.
Erik complies with a smile.