Charles stares at the numbers on his arm.
It’s the first proper reaction Erik has seen in years, and never from someone so young. Humanity suffers from a persistent case of amnesia when it comes to history, which is why it repeats itself over and over again, even the darkest pages.
Especially the darkest pages.
Charles was born when the war already was a memory. Erik wouldn’t have held it against him, even if Charles did ask him about his unusual choice of ink.
But Charles doesn’t ask.
His eyes fly up to meet Erik’s for a moment, startled, expecting anything from a shout to a slap. When Erik fails to provide either, Charles’s gaze drops back to the tanned skin of his arm, his fingers tensing momentarily around Erik’s wrist. He leans a little closer for a better look, then brings his free hand up, his thumb following the string of numbers, brushing so very gently.
The touch undoes him. Erik snaps, jerking his arm free. Charles gasps, eyes widening in panic. He goes rigid as Erik grabs him roughly by the hip and the back of his neck, pulling him flush against Erik’s front, holding him fast. Charles breathes loudly through his mouth as Erik’s fingers dig into his nape, gripping, ruthless. Erik is so much stronger than this beautiful, clueless boy, who has no hope of winning a staring contest against Erik but keeps on looking anyway, brave little fool.
Erik inhales deeply, memorizing the already too-familiar scent – a combination of cheap aftershave, too-jarring lavender laundry detergent, and, most of all, cinnamon from that caffeinated monstrosity he’d spilled not ten minutes ago. Charles lets out a quiet, helpless whimper, terrified that the sound will escape before it even does. A tremor runs through him, sinking into Erik like a jolt of power through the conduit of his fingers, and Erik feels a huge flywheel begin to spin slowly inside of him, uncoiling, inevitable, picking up speed.
He will have this. If only just this once, he will.
With a growl of triumph, he bites into Charles’s lips, plump and soft like sweet cherries, savoring the pained, shocked moan he gets in return. He tugs Charles’s head back by the hair, adjusting the angle, and kisses him, rude and selfish, the way he’s certain Charles has never been kissed before, careless, airheaded little heartbreaker that he is, with eyes that promise too much to all the wrong people.
Erik loses himself in the stinging, slick warmth of Charles’s mouth, tight like a fruit just short of its prime, bursting with too much flavor. Charles’s throat vibrates with desperate little noises that can’t escape as his fingers curl in Erik’s shirt, clawing, blunt nails sinking into skin through the fabric, and oh, what wouldn’t Erik do to him if given half the chance. He moves his hand from Charles’s hip to his ass, and the sound Charles makes slams into Erik, goading him away from sanity like a red cloth in front of a bull.
Erik grinds into him, forceful, inconsiderate, the sadistic urge in him to make Charles feel it all – the consequences of his too-bright smiles, of seductive intelligence behind his eyes, of unbuttoned shirt collars and his goddamned freckles. He wants to punish Charles, since he can’t have him. He wants the lesson to linger.
“Erik,” Charles rasps, breathless, once Erik tears away for air.
Erik grits his teeth and looks at him. Charles stares back, his lashes spiky with tears, his mouth a vivid, bruised stain on the pale oval of his face. He’s still clinging to Erik. He’s shaking.
It takes a herculean effort to uncurl his fingers, but Erik does, slowly, his hands heavy as lead.
“You should go,” he says, his voice wooden, remote.
Charles draws in a breath. “Erik—”
“Go, Charles,” Erik growls. “Just go.”
Being an idiot, the boy lingers. The touch of his hand is hesitant but torturously warm on Erik’s arm. “I’m sorry.”
His footsteps are rabbit-fast and unsteady, too light, down the steps of Erik’s porch.
Erik looks up into the vague haze of the sky, at the bright, taunting grin of the new moon. Hands curled into fists, he walks into the house, shutting the door behind him.
The movers show up on a Tuesday, the last week of August. Erik watches the ugly white van crawl backward into the driveway of the house next to his. Looks like it’s been sold at last.
Only the curiosity of a cat rivals that of a writer. Erik pushes away from his typewriter and goes to make tea – black and strong, with slice of lemon. When he comes back, a brick red VW Beetle that looks ancient enough to be a World War II trophy has joined the van. Erik lifts an eyebrow.
He sees the girl first. She’s handsome in a healthy, blond-cherub kind of way that went out of style after Twiggy, much to the chagrin of Earth’s male population. Erik stares at the girl’s thighs without remorse – she’s wearing a miniskirt, and he’ll be damned if he doesn’t appreciate the show – and curses both fashion gods and human stupidity. He’d populate the world with girls like that if he could.
She’s talking loudly, directing the grim-faced men in dull grey coveralls. They seem to ignore her most of the time, and, judging by the look on her face, she’s not the one to let it slide.
Erik smirks, anticipating something explosive, when a boy walks out of the house and smiles at his harried companion, making pacifying gestures with his hands.
Erik’s heart misses a beat.
The boy is… not a boy, so much. Both of them could be anything between 19 and 25. It’s just hard for Erik to regard them as adults when he’s pretty sure his own kids are older. Lorna is 27; the twins are 23. Erik is 49, and as he stares out the window at the sunlit lawn, it hits him that he’s not a young man anymore.
He doesn’t know why the thought suddenly troubles him. After the war, the camps, his mother – Erik had never felt at ease with his peers. They were kids. He couldn’t remember the time when he’d been one, and it had never bothered him in his life.
The boy – young man, Erik corrects himself sullenly – laughs loudly, head throw back, the heap of dark brown locks that are begging for a haircut glinting auburn in the sunlight. He, too, doesn’t quite fit the conventional definition of beauty. If anything, he’s even further from it than his lady friend. He’s too thin, too pale, and too short by far, wearing the ugliest plaid shirt Erik has ever seen. He’s the boy who got picked on from the first day of school to the last. He’s—
There’s something about him that makes Erik’s mouth water and his pulse jump like a racing horse. It’s been so long since he felt anything like that, even longer since another man prompted it. Sharp longing twists his gut in a way that makes Erik think he’s either forgotten or has never known a pull like this. He’s been alone too long.
Outside, the young man wraps his arms around the girl’s waist and presses their foreheads together. She giggles and rubs her nose against his, an Eskimo kiss.
Erik’s lips twist; the tea leaves a bitter taste in his mouth. It’s so unlike him to forget himself. He’s never been a dreamer.
He shuts the blinds and goes back to work. Three shamefully unproductive hours later, he gives up and goes to liberate some whiskey from his liquor cabinet.
Erik doesn’t go out all that often. A bi-weekly trip to the postal office, an occasional grocery run, and, when the walls begin to crowd him, he takes the bike and drives down to the bay – sometimes for a walk, sometimes for a drink or a dozen. Every now and then his editor sells him out to college campuses, and he has to give a guest lecture or teach a master class.
Erik doesn’t really know why they want him back. As far as he’s concerned, you don’t become a writer or a journalist by sleeping through a few classes. Back in the day, papers didn’t hire Erik for his refined style. They needed someone on the front line, and Erik had what it took to survive in the war zone and come back to tell the tale.
Too bad most of them weren’t ones people wanted to hear. The last time a newspaper editor had fired him, he’d clapped Erik on the shoulder and said: ‘You should write a book.’
So Erik did.
Magda had collected the kids and moved back to Poland before Erik came back from Beirut. The house stood empty, not having had the chance to become fat and comfortable. The spoils of war that Erik had always carried in him, married to it the way he could never be to his wife.
He was alone. He sat down and started typing. When he looked up, it was six years and three books later, and the divorce papers on the table were covered in dust, spilled tea, and cigarette ashes.
That night, Erik drove himself down to San Francisco, went to a hole-in-the-wall bar he’d noticed a few times before, and fucked a man in the backroom.
He’d bought apples on his way home. They had looked new and unfamiliar.
He’d called his kids in the morning.
All writers are at least one-quarter stalkers, Erik thinks, lighting up a cigarette. The new neighbors are unusual and therefore distracting.
The girl doesn’t seem like much of a housewife. She’s dragged an old wooden chaise lounge from somewhere and spends half the day on the front lawn, perfecting her tan where any passerby can see. She’s reading Bonjour Tristesse, which should have been Erik’s first clue, but instead only makes him roll his eyes. Not as much as when she gets tired of trying to read in French, though, an annoyed little frown on her face, and grabs a copy of There’s No Place as Far Away. Erik hates sentimental crap wrapped in clever, pretty words, but more than that, he doesn’t think it’s her kind of book. The girl doesn’t look like a fan of staying idle long enough to be an avid reader.
She talks to the milkman in her bikini, and the man blushes something awful. She flirts, Erik thinks, amused, with devastating grace and all the subtlety of a tank aiming its gun at you. He wonders why she bothers, what her husband thinks about her antics.
The man in question leaves every morning around the same time Erik comes back from his run. He smiles and lifts his hand in greeting from across the lawn. Erik has yet to acknowledge him. He wears one monstrosity of a suit or another, double-breasted and heavy – something a grandfather might have worn back in the day, assuming the grandfather was J. Edgar Hoover.
He comes back, looking strangely harried but still smiling, his arms carrying pizza boxes or white paper bags with restaurant stamps. His smile becomes slightly deranged when he talks to Mrs. Carrigan or Mrs. Rivers as they pass by, surprisingly often at that time of day all of a sudden. It might be, Erik thinks wryly, because of his neighbor’s boyish smile and the fact that he flirts much better than his wife. He’s effortless, a natural.
Erik shrugs and shuts the blinds.
He’s not a bad neighbor. He helps Ms. Ariadne locate her amnesiac dog every other week; he fixed old Mr. Kirsh’s roof; he pays the community fee without grumbling, even though he knows they’ll just spend it on more revolting flower displays. He hasn’t yelled at the Christmas carolers for two years now, maybe even three.
But the day Erik turns up on someone’s doorstep with a bowl of beef casserole and a ‘welcome to our neighborhood’ speech is the day he’ll recover his old gun from the box under his bed and shoot himself.
He’s in his backyard, cleaning his bike, when the girl appears on the other side of the fence, hovering in the space where two boards are missing.
“Nice bike,” she calls out when Erik fails to acknowledge her presence.
He spares her a glance. Her denim shorts are clothes in name only, and she’s wearing her husband’s plaid shirt. It looks better on her, but Erik feels a pang of annoyance. “You think so, do you?”
She grins. “Sure.”
“What do you even know about bikes?”
“That I like to ride them, preferably fast?”
Erik snorts. “Sorry, I don’t whore out this one.”
She sputters, but when he looks at her, she’s grinning.
“You’re rude,” she announces, gleeful, as though it’s some kind of a delightful discovery.
“Well, you came here without invitation, thus invading my privacy. You’re rude, too.”
She laughs, the sound inelegant and genuine. “I can tell we’re going to get along. I’m Raven, by the way – Raven Xavier.”
Erik stands up to shake her hand, smearing grease all over it. “Erik Lehnsherr,” he says, smirking.
She looks at her hand, then up at him. “Mature. You want some help?”
Erik considers her. “Grab a cloth.”
It’s an educational afternoon. Raven learns how to disassemble a carburetor and put it back together, her hands curious and deft and not squeamish at all. Erik learns that her husband’s name is Charles, and they’ve only just come back from England, where he was getting a doctorate from Oxford. He also learns that Raven wants to be a police officer and has already enrolled herself in a training program that starts next month.
Erik lifts an eyebrow at that, but doesn’t comment. He’d only seen a handful of women in uniform in his life, and they were either typing or bringing coffee to the boss. Then again, he thinks, watching Raven frown in concentration as she scrapes the grime with her nails. She doesn’t seem the type to do as men tell her to.
She catches him staring and grins. Erik feels a sudden pang of sympathy for the Force.
It’s ironic that, with numerous people who’d told him he was incapable of listening, most notably his mother and Magda, Erik is actually quite adept in hearing what isn’t being said. Raven clearly believes she’s being clever and mysterious, but Erik has her diagnosed twenty minutes into the conversation.
He knows, for instance, that her husband didn’t want to leave Oxford, but did it anyway because Raven was homesick. The man had been smart enough to never show his hand, and Raven doesn’t know that. It’s also pretty obvious that the couple’s beginnings weren’t bathed in sunlight. Instead of going back to wherever they were from – somewhere on the East Coast, Erik is willing to bet – they chose to come to an entirely unknown place and make a fresh start.
Raven herself is a curious character. She knows she doesn’t need anyone’s validation but wants it anyway, maybe even more than she would if she was less self-aware. It’s also not a question that, for all the interested looks she’s sending Erik, she’s very much in love with her husband, though she’d rather die than admit as much. She looks sweet, but there’s a core of steel she doesn’t hide too well. It had probably taken her a while to find a man who didn’t feel inferior.
Erik smiles. She reminds him very much of Lorna.
It’s close to six when a voice comes drifting over the fence, a slow, inquiring lilt.
She breaks into a grin and jumps to her feet, throwing her hand in the air. “Out here!”
Erik straightens up in time to see Charles appear in the gap in the fence, looking mildly uncertain but smiling. He’s lost his jacket, and his crisp white shirt makes a glaring contrast with the old wooden boards, uneven and scratchy.
“Oh, hello.” Charles smiles politely in Erik’s direction, stepping gingerly over the border between their lawns. “Raven, there’s—”
But Raven rushes toward him and jumps on him, forcing him to take a reflexive step back as he catches her. How he doesn’t end up on the ground on his ass, Erik doesn’t know. The boy doesn’t look particularly athletic.
“Welcome home, honey,” Raven purrs and plants a loud kiss against his chin.
Charles blushes, and shoots Erik a worried look. Erik smirks. It’s pretty clear that Raven is playing some kind of game here, and she isn’t a good enough actress to convincingly sell it, at least not to Erik, but what Charles’s problem is Erik doesn’t know. Has his sense of British propriety been offended?
“There’s a phone call for you,” Charles tells Raven. He gets points for keeping his tone even and unruffled, unlike the rest of him. “A Sergeant Azelowitz?”
Raven squeals and takes off at a run, pushing Charles away unceremoniously. She only pauses slightly to yell over her shoulder, “Invite Erik for dinner, will you?”
Charles turns around and smiles at Erik again. It’s tentative, but painfully sincere. Erik hasn’t seen a smile like that on anyone over five. Charles’s attention isn’t split now, and the difference is staggering. Erik blinks, suddenly aware that Charles’s tie is a wrinkled eyesore, blue and too bright but nowhere near as vivid as his eyes.
“Hello again,” Charles says, stepping forward. “Charles Xavier.”
Erik takes a moment to clean his hands on a cloth before he gives his name and takes the offered handshake.
It’s strong, a good, solid grip, firm in a way that is reassuring rather than intimidating. The skin of Charles’s hand is soft – gentle in the same sense that builds a ‘gentleman.’ It’s a hand of a man who isn’t used to wielding any instrument of labor heavier than a pen.
“I hope Raven hasn’t been bothering you?” Charles is still smiling. “I’m afraid she’s terribly bored, and she doesn’t always recognize social boundaries.”
Erik smirks. “Mr. Xavier—”
“Charles. What gives you the impression that I would allow anyone to take liberties with my time against my will? Even someone as determined as your lovely wife?”
Charles’s eyes widen. “My wife?”
He pulls his hand away, startling Erik, who has forgotten they were still touching. The smirk that curves Charles’s lips is naughty all of a sudden. Without taking his eyes off Erik, he shouts, “RAVEN!”
Somehow it’s not a surprise when an answering yell comes almost immediately, all the way from the other house.
“I never said anything, it’s not my fault he assumed, ALL RIGHT?”
Charles lets out a small laugh, shaking his head. Raven has left his hair hopelessly tousled, and the motion makes him look like an upper-class golden boy who rolled out of someone’s bed at noon – all confusion and amusement and a complete lack of shame.
“I’m missing something,” Erik says.
Charles laughs. “Yes, I’m sorry. Raven has played a little joke on you. I do apologize, but like I said, she’s bored and mad at me because I won’t let her get an interim job.”
“I’m still not following—”
“She’s not my wife; she’s my sister.”
Erik blinks. “Raven and Charles Xavier. I misunderstood.”
“You don’t look anything alike.”
“Raven was adopted.” Charles shakes his head again, smiling ruefully. “For my sins.”
“Oh. I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to pry.”
“Quite all right. But she is right in one thing – I’ve been meaning to say hello for ages, but between my new job and trying to remember which side of the road I’m supposed to drive on, I’m afraid I got distracted. Would you join us for dinner?”
“Not that we have much to entice you, to tell you the truth. Raven isn’t half bad, but she wouldn’t cook because, quote, ‘just because I’m a woman, doesn’t mean I’m your live-in maid’, end quote. I wouldn’t mind myself, except I burn water.”
He gives Erik another bright smile, as though inviting him to celebrate the complete failure of two adults to take care of themselves. Erik feels a pang of astonishment once he realizes he’s an inch away from smiling back.
“But we’re having fun exploring the local takeout options,” Charles carries on, ever-enthusiastic. “I found this wonderful place today; I think it’s Mexican? I didn’t remember half the names, but whatever it is I brought home smells delicious.”
Erik stares at him, feeling steamrolled. Who is this person, that he’s not intimidated by Erik at all? What was it this boy had faced in his life that he acts so freely around Erik, so completely uninhibited, as though there is no distance between them – as though they are equals?
“What?” Erik asks, suddenly aware that he’s been asked a question.
Charles smiles and repeats, “Would you care to join us for dinner? It’s been just me and Raven for a while now. We’d be eternally grateful if you save us from each other for one night.”
No, Erik thinks, desperate and immediate. No.
“I – would love to,” he says.
The only dream Erik remembers always starts the same way.
He’s in the familiar setting of his house, working or reading, when the air around him thins, and the emptied space begins to swell with bitterness. It takes him a while to notice, until his progressively shallow breath builds up a persistent urge to open his mouth and suck in more air. He clenches his jaws, panicking, because he knows he shouldn’t.
He wonders if he’d left the gas stove on and stalks downstairs, into the kitchen. But it’s all right. There are no gas leaks. Reassured for just a moment, Erik tries to take a slower, deeper breath.
But he can’t. The air tastes like exhaust fumes. His chest is hurting.
He stumbles along the dark corridor, suddenly too long, and outside. There’s a car in his driveway, the ancient Skoda Rapid his father used to own. Erik stares at it for a moment in blank stupor – it had perished during the Pogroms.
He’s coughing by that point and makes his way toward the car groggily, leaning in through the open window and turning the ignition off.
The engine quiets down, but there isn’t even a moment of relief. The smell of gas is overwhelming, and Erik’s eyes are watering as he swivels around, trying to locate its source. He looks up at his house, and, instead of a modest white building, he sees mud-red brick walls and brown roof tiles.
The Little Red House, they called it.
If he’s lucky, as he is tonight, this is when Erik jerks awake, drenched in cold sweat, his chest heaving. He gulps down the cool night air hungrily, shivering. He wants to wail. The attacks leave him nauseous and weak-kneed, and Erik hates feeling this way more than anything.
He swings his legs off the bed, bringing his breathing under control. He’s better at this now, and it seems that the only damage he’s done this time was to rip his top sheet a bit, fighting in his sleep to get out.
He is getting better. He’s had a lifetime of practice, he thinks gloomily, staring at the opposite wall, the weird patch of empty space where Magda’s bed used to be. They told everyone she was Catholic and old-fashioned. Edie was the only one who looked at the two beds and didn’t ask.
Maybe they wouldn’t have bothered now. His reaction isn’t quite so violent anymore; maybe the years are slowing him down. The episodes are becoming few and far in between and two, sometimes three months, he can go without one. But Erik knows he’s never going to be free of them and hates his own weakness.
He won’t get any more sleep this night, he knows, so he puts on some clothes and moves down into the kitchen. He checks the stove before putting the kettle on. There’s no use fighting the impulse.
Erik’s tea is always too strong, almost literally black and probably capable of making a spoon stand. On nights like this, he takes it with two lumps of sugar, brutally sweet to counteract the near-acidity. It’s not as good as the tea that the Russian soldiers had given him after liberating the camp – but then, nothing will ever be as good as that first taste of life after ten months of being a dead man walking.
Erik remembers that chai and the soldiers’ old eyes on their young faces. He remembers the rye bread, sunlight warm, harsh and honest like their accents; remembers how surreal his freedom felt, and how the tears that he’d refused to shed since they’d been first removed from their home had spilled from his eyes when saw his mother, white-haired and rail-thin on the platform in Warsaw, her face torn between hope and despair as she looked for him in the giddy, light-headed crowd.
He feels old on nights like this, old and weary. He picks up his mug and a pack of cigarettes and walks out onto the terrace.
There’s a mild wind from the bay cooling the air, echoing with distant rain. Erik settles at the old wooden table and sets his tea to breathe as he lights the first cig. Gradually, his cramped muscles begin to relax as the nicotine works its way through his system.
The street is sleeping, tranquil and ignorant, save for one other house. Erik knows it well enough by now to be relatively sure that the light is on in Charles’s bedroom. It’s past two in the morning, and Erik’s eyebrows arch. What could possibly be keeping Charles awake? The kid is twenty-four years old, for God’s sake. Most people that age still sleep like babies.
“So what is it you do exactly, Charles, with such glorious education?”
“I don’t know about glorious. I read history. That’s hardly a—”
“He’s teaching ninth grade social studies.”
“At high school? Here in the States?”
“You. You teach Social Studies to a bunch of high schoolers.”
“Is there something wrong with—”
“How have you not been eaten alive yet?”
“I think they feel sorry for him.”
“Yes, thank you, Raven. Your opinion of my teaching abilities is, as always, an endless source of inspiration and encouragement.”
“You bet. But really, Erik, it’s probably because people think he’s so simple they have to be kind to him.”
Simple isn’t the word Erik would use to characterize Charles. He might be not quite right in the head, and the jury is out on the self-preservation instinct, but he couldn’t pass for simple if he tried. His speech alone would give him away instantly. It’s too correct, too effortlessly literate, juggling complex words with the casual, artless familiarity of someone who doesn’t know any different. Just listening to Charles would probably make most of his peers feel intellectually inferior, if they weren’t too busy being charmed by his accent.
Erik glances up at the backlit window, most likely a bedside lamp is on. He can see Charles’s silhouette, stark against the drawn curtains, as Charles moves around the room with no purpose that Erik can discern. He stops for a long moment beside the window, bringing a cup to his lips, the saucer still in his hand. Erik smiles a little. Charles seems to have no qualms against eating pizza out of a box but is struggling with the concept of mugs.
There’s a muffled, squelchy sound, and Charles’s shadow counterpart jumps and flails for a moment. He must have spilled his tea.
Erik’s mirth dies abruptly when Charles crosses the room twice more, making the yellow square of a window emanate frustration, and then starts unbuttoning his shirt. His motions are jerky and nervous, and Erik can almost hear him curse. Charles shrugs off the presumably wet garment and stands stock still for a while, hands on his hips, lost in thought.
“I’m sorry, I’m afraid I’m not an ardent follower of thrillers. Oh God; I don’t think I’ve read anything not pertaining to my thesis in the last three years.”
“Charles, you don’t have to read my books just because we are acquainted.”
“But I want to! Recreational reading is a luxury I was looking forward to when I left Oxford. Military detectives, did you say?”
“They are labeled as ‘historical’ upon release, but I almost always write military-based settings.”
“Something like Alistair Maclean?”
“…You’ve read Maclean?”
“Indeed; HMS Ulysses has been my favorite for a long time, although I’m quite fond of When Eight Bells Toll as well.”
“Perhaps you will enjoy my writing, then. Though I must warn you, for fairness’ sake, that my editor believes some of my novels are more Ler Rois Maudits than The Guns of Navarone.”
“Sounds more like an advertisement than a warning. I adore Maurice Druon.”
“You’ve read Druon?”
“Really, Erik. You seem to be constantly amazed that I can read.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve just never met anyone who’s even heard the name this side of the pond, let alone read the novels.”
“And now that we’ve established I’m a pleasant surprise to your inner literary snob, you’ll introduce me to your books, correct? Anything else is teasing.”
Erik knew he was interested since he’d come back from that first mess of a dinner, filled with siblings’ squabbling and enough inadvertent eccentricity revealed to rival a Mad Hatter’s party.
But it took two more dinners before he admitted to himself that his interest wasn’t platonic.
To a point, he’s regretting having met Charles like this. If they happened to meet in any of the clubs downtown, it would have been so much easier. Erik would have bought Charles a drink, then dragged him to the bathroom and pushed him to his knees. There would have been no regrets, no excuses, no guilt. He wouldn’t have tossed and turned at night, speculating about what Charles would think of his writing.
There’s a sound of a window being pushed open, damnably loud in the night. Erik glances up.
Charles rests his elbows against the windowsill and leans forward, his chest expanding as he draws in a deeper breath, his face chasing after the moon. The silvery light from the outside clashes with the warm splash of soft, electric gold streaming from the room, and Charles is caught in the crossfire.
Erik sits very still, riveted.
No drink. He’d have grabbed Charles by the hair and dragged him into the back alley. He’d have marred his luminous skin with bruises from gripping too tight. He wouldn’t have stopped if the ground had parted beneath his feet.
Erik’s side is wrapped in deeper, darker shadows. He swallows a curse as the forgotten cigarette burns his fingers. Charles must have spotted the tiny spec of red light.
“Oh God, I’m sorry.”
Charles’s first impulse is always to apologize. A preemptive move not brought on by excessive politeness, but because someone had drilled into him that everything around him is his fault until proven otherwise. Erik hates when he’s doing that.
“Charles.” Erik crushes the fag against the cold stone of the ashtray and lights another. When he looks up, he finds that Charles hasn’t moved, but his eyes are now trained on Erik. “Can’t sleep?”
Charles shrugs, his smile audible if not quite seen, tone still apologetic. “One of those nights.”
The streets are so quiet that neither of them has to raise his voice to be heard. There is something elusive and intimate about talking like this, in the dead of night when no one is there to overhear.
“Do you mind if I… come down for a bit?” Charles sounds hesitant.
Erik gestures dismissively with his cigarette. “If you wish.”
Charles disappears. Now that his window is open, Erik can hear him open a drawer, then push it closed again. Erik listens carefully but catches no sounds until Charles appears in the doorway and makes his way toward Erik, sliding through the gap in the fence. He’s wearing a simple white t-shirt and a dark cardigan that dwarfs his frame. It should look ridiculous but instead resembles a subconscious call for protection. Erik has difficulty keeping his seat.
“I made tea,” he says, as Charles settles in a chair across from him, the rustle of fabric over polished wood. “Would you like some?”
“No.” Charles bites his lip. “But if I could bum one of those…?”
Erik pushes the pack toward him, sliding the lighter along. Charles pulls a cigarette out, but his fingers slide along the small, ridged wheel several times, too clumsy to coax a steady spark.
“Here, allow me.” Erik leans over and takes the lighter from Charles, bringing out a flickering light almost instantly.
Charles cups Erik’s hand with his own, leaning in, the cigarette caught between his lips. His fingers are ice cold.
Erik sits back, stuffing the lighter into the back pocket of his jeans. “I didn’t know you smoked.”
“I don’t, normally.” A tendril of smoke slips out from between Charles’s lips, curling, soft and slow, as though caressing them. “This is a bad night.”
“Yes,” Erik says. His mind flashes back to his dream, and he has to suppress a shiver. When he looks up, Charles is watching him, a small smile hiding in the corner of his mouth.
What could he possibly know? Erik thinks, and yet feels no resentment when Charles says, “I won’t ask if you don’t.”
“Fine by me.”
Erik has his jacket on, which is fortunate. He isn’t rolling his sleeves anywhere Charles could see.
“I went to find a falling star once,” Charles says, quiet, peering up at the sky.
Erik lifts an eyebrow. “Like in fairytales?”
“Mhm. I was six or seven, I think. Saw it ‘fall’ out of my window and climbed out. I don’t really know how I didn’t break my neck; my room was on the third floor. There were some vines that were fortunately sturdy enough to hold my weight. I snuck out before any of the servants could spot me and tell my stepfather. He’d yell, among other things. I hate people yelling, Erik, I really do.”
Erik watches as Charles pulls out another cigarette, rolling it between his fingers without reaching for the lighter.
“I wandered into the woods.” A wistful smile. “The trees are much more impressive when you’re less than four feet tall. It was dark, and I was scared, but I think I was excited more. It was as close as I came to having an adventure.”
Erik studies him – the smooth lines of Charles’s face veiled in shadows, the alarming presence of color in his eyes, too-intense in the sparseness of reflected moonlight.
“Did you find your star?”
Charles smiles. “In a manner of speaking. I saw a fire just beyond the edge of our property, but it turned out to be two men who’d driven off the main road and decided to spend the night. They had guns and a truck filled with boxes. I thought they were pirates.”
Erik snorts, and Charles laughs with him.
“I know. I’m pretty sure they were smugglers heading for the Canadian border. They said they’d take me with them, but when I woke up in the morning, they were gone. Thus ended my big star-rescue adventure.”
Erik stares, puzzling him out. He doesn’t know what it is that Charles has just told him. That he was an impressionable, romantically-inclined child? That he was nearly kidnapped at the age of seven by men who most likely were drug couriers? That he’d nearly gone along with them willingly, because it was better than staying at home?
I hate people yelling, Erik, I really do.
“Are you sleepy?” Erik asks him suddenly, not fast enough to track his own split-second decision.
Charles blinks, startled. “…No?”
Erik stands up and considers him briefly – threadbare jeans and old running shoes. He nods to himself; it’ll have to do. “Wait here,” he says.
By the time he pulls his motorbike into the driveway, Charles has joined him, shuffling from foot to foot like a disgruntled cat, wary but curious. Erik straddles the bike and turns toward him.
Charles’s mouth falls open and he stares at Erik. He still doesn’t understand, or, more likely, is afraid to believe he’s understood correctly.
“You don’t have to,” he mutters, coming closer.
Erik wants to shake him. Hasn’t anyone given him a present before, other than his sister? Erik knows Charles wants to – he caught him looking when Erik finally relented and took Raven for a ride around the block the other day.
Charles finally decides against trying Erik’s patience further and climbs up behind him, constantly apologizing when he brushes against Erik. He doesn’t even think to ask for a helmet, still that seven-year-old boy who thought climbing out of a third floor window was a great idea.
Erik kick-starts the bike before he really does shake Charles, demanding to know why he values his life so little. Charles gasps and grabs the hold bars behind his seat, and they are off, the roar of the engine cutting through the sleeping neighborhood.
Erik speeds up before stopping at a traffic light, and it does the trick. The moment they cease moving, Charles lets go of the bars and wraps his arms around Erik, embarrassment defeated by the need to feel safe. Erik smirks as the light turns green.
It’s perfect. They don’t need to talk. The streets unfold themselves in grapes of lights and shadows – some filled with nightlife, some haunting and empty – the air sharp and sweet and the city tantalizing like a neon butterfly.
A few minutes in, Charles starts laughing. Erik can feel him, and a smile creeps onto his own face at Charles finally acting his age, his laughter delighted and carefree, the hold of his arms steady but not too tight, because he trusts Erik, trusts his own youth, believing for this one intoxicating moment that nothing bad can come to him.
They draw looks, but Erik doesn’t care, and Charles has the audacity to wave at passers-by a few times, laughing when it brings on cheers and suggestions whose intents are clearer than the actual wording.
They drive for hours. Erik feels Charles relax against him at some point, going as far as to rest his head against Erik’s shoulder as Erik takes them further away from the city lights. It’s warm, innocent, and intimate in ways that Erik isn’t accustomed to, and he doesn’t want to stop, selfish as it is, much less go back.
Dawn catches them on the beach somewhere between El Granada and Half Moon Bay. The sand is cold, but Charles doesn’t seem to mind, sitting down with his legs folded the way Erik had seen women strive to achieve in yoga classes. Charles seems content and relaxed as he watches the water attain a milky pink color. He hums softly and doesn’t care or doesn’t notice that Erik has moved closer, shielding him from the cool, capricious breeze rolling downhill from behind them.
The way back is shorter. They stop for coffee, and Charles blushes when he realizes his wallet isn’t on him. Erik waves him off. The man at the stand winks at Charles, whose blush deepens to an illegal degree, but the look he shoots Erik is playful, almost sly. Erik burns his tongue on his coffee.
It might be his imagination, spurred on by the sleepless night, but he feels as though Charles’s arms squeeze him a little tighter for a moment when they pull back into Erik’s driveway. Erik sits completely still as Charles slides off the bike with more grace than Erik would have given him credit for.
He waits for Erik to look at him, eyes searching, but Erik can’t meet them. He has no answers for Charles, or even for himself. He doesn’t know what possessed him to drag Charles along to this ‘adventure,’ except that’s a lie. He does know. But that’s – a truth that should never be voiced.
Charles’s hand rests upon his own, still gripping the handlebar, and Erik wants to howl. Charles doesn’t sense the danger, perhaps is incapable of it.
“Erik. Thank you.”
Erik nods. He doesn’t trust himself to speak.
He watches as Charles crosses both their lawns and disappears behind his own front door. He feels like the world’s oldest predator, whose blood should have long stopped egging him on toward another pursuit, another hunt, another conquest. It hasn’t in years; Erik thought the thrill and the urge were long behind him. He’d lived a dozen lifetimes in a better part of his own. He’s earned his peace.
But now there is Charles, and he’s making Erik’s blood sing.
Peace, as it turns out, was never an option.
Mostly, Erik swims at night. There are fewer people – none at all if he’s lucky – just the cold wet sand, the ocean, and the distant lights of passing ships. The ocean becomes more, in the night, than a body of water. In the dark, it has personality; it doesn’t hide its power. It’s dangerous and magnificent.
Erik has been sitting on the sand, leaning against an old tree carcass, for several hours. It’s well past dawn now. He missed his window. Too many thoughts in his head. It’s probably too cold, anyway.
He watches a man walking along the shoreline in slow, meticulous spirals, a metal detector in his hands, hooked on a belt over his shoulder. From time to time, he stops, bending down to pull something from the flat magnetic disc that reaches into the sand like a prying, intrusive hand, pulling out an unwanted gold band or a much-mourned-over earring, never to be reunited with its mate.
Shiny pieces of metal. It always amazes Erik how much value people place into those, and yet how easily they are lost. Hypocrisy? Stupidity? Or maybe they just don’t care as much as they think they do.
The seagulls cry out sharply in some kind of disaccorded unison, making Erik glance up. The birds circle over something in the rocks – a dead cat, probably, or a half-eaten hamburger. Hunters turned vultures. Erik closes his eyes.
Charles is a lure; a bait. Erik has spent so much time in the company of his own characters that it’s hard for him to process all of Charles’s dimensions, the complexity, the depth of him, the devastating reality of his touch.
It’s tempting, perhaps more so than anything he’s previously encountered. But Charles is by no means irresistible, and Erik has spent a lifetime defying temptations of all kinds and shapes. It’s how he survived. No distractions; no detours; no indulging himself. His clock is stopped on 1944. He couldn’t – and then wouldn’t – restart it.
If this was merely a matter of exercising some self-control, it wouldn’t have been a problem. But the abundance of willpower is a double-edged sword.
Much like the magnet in the metal detector, Erik is incapable of letting go.
He tries to pace himself. He only agrees to dine with Charles and Raven two days a week, instead of heading over to their house every other day.
Charles doesn’t seem to notice or doesn’t deem it necessary to comment. Erik is relieved, but it barely registers through the bitter taste of disappointment in his mouth.
He tells himself it’s for the best. Charles is well on his way of forming friendships with his colleagues and Raven’s friends – people his own age. If Erik was a better man, he’d withdraw completely and leave him to it. Watching from the sidelines is what people his age do, isn’t it? Charles’s smiles are too bright. They are safer to enjoy from a distance.
Except, Charles’s middle name should have been Ambush.
An occasional Sunday afternoon at the park in the company of other chess players has been the height of socializing that Erik allowed himself for years. Erik loves chess, loves the strategy and the plotting, the gambits and the traps. He loves how people seldom talk over a chessboard, and how their personalities open up under pressure, revealing every weakness and doubt and, sometimes, the odd spark of genius.
There are rarely any spectators, but there are more than a few today – mostly soccer moms, the kind who, judging by the hungry look in their eyes, make a play for the barely-legal tutors they hire for their kids. There are also several elderly men Erik vaguely knows by appearance, and a few teens who wouldn’t look out of place in a chess club or on the pages of a Victor Hugo novel.
The reason for the turn-up – and Erik’s growing irritation – is hovering between two boards, engaged in simultaneous game. The first one belongs to Mr. Kirsh, who’s old enough to call Erik ‘son,’ which takes not only the actual age advantage but the guts that come with it. The second one is being hogged by Terrence, a grumpy thirteen-year-old and considerably less of a prodigy than his mother believes him to be. Erik has had the pleasure of trouncing the kid more than once to show him his place.
Charles is beaming as he moves between the two tables, taking turns. He’s wearing jeans that are too straight and neat to be trendy and a t-shirt with a print of Abbey Road under a navy blue knitted jacket. Mr. Kirsh probably believes that Charles and Terrence are the same age, and even Erik’s breath catches – Charles looks so young and vibrant that the entire square resonates with energy.
Unable to help himself, Erik mixes with the crowd, watching. From what he can tell, Charles is in a position to win both parties – indeed, he should have won moves and moves ago. If he was any good, that is.
Move the rook, Erik almost says as Charles studies Terrence’s board dubiously. It’s the obvious, unbeatable choice.
Charles hesitates a moment longer and moves a pawn instead. Erik bites his lip in frustration.
It goes on like this for a while. Charles is doing better with Mr. Kirsh than he is with Terrence, but he keeps making amateur mistakes in both games with enough persistence that makes Erik wonder if he’s overestimated Charles’s intelligence or if Charles is doing it on purpose.
Erik reassesses both boards with a quick look, but he still has doubts. It takes catching Charles very nearly rolling his eyes as Terrence fails to make use of one of Charles’s errors for it to finally click. Erik bites his lip not to laugh out loud.
The boy is a fucking imp. He’s letting Mr. Kirsh win, but in such a long, roundabout way that the man suspects nothing. Terrence is hell-bent on being checkmated, no matter how many gifts Charles is throwing his way, but when the kid does inevitably lose, he’ll have the impression that Charles squeezes the win by the skin of his teeth.
Erik realizes he’s grinning.
He waits until Terrence stalks away, muttering about revenge under his breath, while Mr. Kirsh shakes Charles’s hand with age-defying enthusiasm and tells him, “You’re very talented, young man. Better luck next time,” which Charles accepts graciously.
Erik pushes through the bystanders to where Charles has begun to collect the pieces. Erik rests his hand on Charles’s shoulder and murmurs, low in his ear, “Well played.”
Charles starts so badly that he knocks the board to the ground, spinning around and shaking Erik’s hand off as though it’s a noose reaching for his throat.
“Whoa.” Erik lifts his hands up, stepping back. “I’m sorry, I—”
“Erik!” Charles beams at him, his whole frame relaxing instantly. It’s hard not to be affected by the quicksilver change. “I didn’t know you were – that is, I – sorry, what did you say? Were you watching the game?”
Erik nods. “Yes, and, as I said, well played.”
Charles smiles brightly, eyes crinkling with pleasure. “I did lose one.”
“I saw. A masterful touch, Charles. Very subtle. Well, more subtle at any rate than the absolutely abysmal amount of time you gave that kid to make at least one smart move.”
Charles chooses that moment to bend down and pick up the board and a few escaped pieces from the grass. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Yes, you do,” Erik snaps, his amusement evaporating. He never had the patience to entertain people playing coy. “You may dumb yourself for others’ sakes to make them feel better, if you’re that much of a selfless idiot, but don’t ever pretend with me. I won’t stand to be fooled, Charles. Choose your battles.”
Charles chews on his lip for a moment, a frown wedged between his eyebrows. Still down on his knees, he looks up at Erik, studying him with a speculative expression. Erik blinks and suppresses the urge to step back – instead of indignation at being lectured, Charles’s eyes are bright with mischief.
“It wasn’t completely selfless,” he says, quiet and leisurely, licking his lips, the tip of his tongue stilling in the corner of his mouth for a split second. Then, utterly at ease, he holds his hand out to Erik, not so much a request as a benevolent order that Erik obeys before he knows it, pulling Charles up to his feet.
“Did you know,” Charles says, brushing his hair out of his eyes, “that Mr. Kirsh has a stock of the best dry port this side of the Atlantic?”
“Yes.” Charles brightens up. “His daughter is married to a Spanish fellow, whose second cousin works at the vineyards at Baixo Corgo. Or is it his wife? At any rate, well supplied or not, Mr. Kirsh, bless him, is a bit of a grudge, and really, Erik, I just thought the opportunity was too good to let it pass—”
Erik begins to laugh. He isn’t aware of it until he feels lightheaded, his chest too big, his body overcome with helpless mirth.
Beside him, Charles is beaming, pleased with himself to an unfortunate degree, but Erik can’t find it in him to care right at that moment. He wants to reach out and ruffle Charles’s hair, but that would be condescending and overly familiar, so Erik changes direction at the last moment and claps Charles on the shoulder instead, squeezing.
This time, Charles sees it coming and doesn’t so much as tense – his eyes only widen in surprise and his smile grows in wattage.
“Tell me, did you come by this delicious piece of information before or after you decided to throw the game?” Erik asks, because Charles isn’t fooling him even now, though he gets full marks for trying.
Charles dimples and looks down like a coy schoolboy. “Please, Erik, not so loud. Everyone will think I’m easy.”
Erik snorts. “You realize he’s going to remind you of your defeat every time he lets you near his precious bottles?”
Charles’s expression turns grave. “That port is ambrosia and nectar, Erik,” he deadpans. “Humiliation is a small price to pay.”
Erik is able to control himself this time, but the urge to laugh is still there, bubbling in his chest like a doped volcano. Charles can probably sense it, since he grins, disarming and sweet, like a well-mannered time bomb in the shape of a kitten.
All of Erik’s instincts are screaming at him to run – or to wring Charles’s neck.
“Would you care for another game?” Erik asks.
Charles’s eyes light up more, if possible.
He’ll never know what possesses him.
Charles tips his king off and says with a smile that is all admiration and no pretense, “Your game.”
Erik twines his fingers together, resting them briefly against his lips. “So what’s my prize, then?”
Charles lifts his eyebrows. “For winning?” Erik nods. Charles bites his lip. “What, um. What would you like?”
Erik fixes him with a look, watching Charles’s freckles melt into his rising blush. The man is dangerous. If for no other reason than that he likes to play with fire.
“I get to ask a question,” Erik says, quiet. “Any question. You’ll answer, no matter how personal or intrusive.”
Charles stares at him for the longest time. “All right,” he says at last, voice heavy with commitment.
Charles looks away, a gust of wind tickling his hair. He shivers.
Black and white have the power to bring out the beauty in beautiful and emphasizing the ordinariness of the rest. Charles had been dressed to impress earlier in the day for some kind of teacher-parent event. Now, with his jacket missing, waistcoat open, and the top two buttons of his shirt undone, he’s the brightest spot in the monochrome environment of Erik’s living room, not Spartan so much as austere. He’s staring into the amber depth of the glass in his hand, mesmerized by the hypnotic glow of the spirit.
“I do come from money, but I’m not a rich man.” His voice is soft, words – easy. Too easy. “My stepfather spent much more time in Atlantic City than he did with his new wife. After he killed himself and my mother while driving drunk from one of their parties, Raven and I were mostly left with debts to settle.”
Charles shrugs. “To tell you the truth, I don’t care. At the risk of sounding like a bad cliché, money never made me happy, so I never cared much about it. We have enough saved for Raven’s education, and this house is ours. What more could we possibly want?”
“I meant about your mother.”
“Oh.” Charles makes a sound caught between a snort and a sigh. He straightens in his seat a little, running his hand through already tousled hair. “Yes. Well.”
They’ve been here a while. Some nights they play over at Charles’s, but Erik’s liquor cabinet is much better stocked, the importance of which can’t be overestimated since the ‘lose a game – answer a question’ clause became the rule.
Charles loses a lot and talks a lot. Erik is careful with the power it gives him, stalking his prey with gentleness and subtlety, prolonging the delicious torture of pursuit.
Tonight, though, Charles has arrived smelling of some woman’s perfume, his eyes glazed over and stuck on petrified, and Erik’s desire to hold back had sunk into negative numbers the moment Charles had stepped through the door. He doesn’t feel inclined to show mercy in his game, his question, or refilling Charles’s glass.
“That’s not why,” Charles says. He catches Erik’s eye and tries to smile. “Forgive me; I’m rambling tonight.”
“You’re always rambling.”
Charles winces. “Yet you ask me back for more.”
“Let you in, more like. It’s raining outside; I’m not a monster.”
“What hardship must you endure on my behalf, Erik. Another game?”
Erik lifts an eyebrow. “You have yet to answer my question.”
“Oh. Right.” Charles sinks back into the couch, his shoulders slumping. He takes another sip of his drink, his throat working.
Erik’s knuckles go white where he’s gripping the armrests of his chair. Charles is easy. Vulnerable. Trusting. He’s everything Erik has never been, and Erik’s chest feels too tight and boiling hot, legs locking into position—
Charles sighs, stretches, rolls his neck. “Raven has started her classes,” he says, oblivious as usual. It’s maddening.
Erik takes a deeper breath and lets him change the subject.
Later, Charles gives him a warm smile goodnight and fishes out his jacket, his motions sleepy and reluctant, as though begging for an invitation to stay. He stumbles as he walks, and Erik catches him, grabs his arm to steady him. Charles laughs, quiet in the darkness of the hallway, his hand wrapping around the handle and pulling at the door.
Erik slams it shut again, resting his weight against it. He doesn’t remove his hand as Charles looks up, questioning. They’re too close; Charles’s eyes are black in the dark.
“Why can’t you sleep, Charles?” Erik repeats the question from hours ago, the question Charles never answered.
Cornered against the door, Charles is silent, not wavering, not intimidated. Somehow his free hand comes to rest against Erik’s side, and it’s a shock – the harsh smell of raw electricity, the touch too innocent and too intimate at the same time. He sucks his lip into his mouth, twisting the knife, then smiles. Erik can almost taste it.
“I won’t go back on my word.” Charles’s words are a soft, warm breath against his skin. “But not tonight, Erik. Please?”
This time, when Charles pulls at the handle, Erik lets him go.
If anyone asked Erik what Charles is, he wouldn’t have to think long. He knows now.
Charles is that horrible, exhilarating feeling that you experience when falling from a great height so fast the air feels like sandpaper, then coming to an abrupt stop, crashing into the ground and shattering every bone in your body before realizing you didn’t die.
It’s probably fortunate that no one asks Erik.
“No,” Erik says.
Raven pouts, and, when it doesn’t work, frowns. “He’ll burn the house down. Do you really want that on your conscience?”
“You can always hire someone to man the grill.”
“If we do, will you come?”
“On a Saturday?”
“Books don’t write themselves, Raven.”
“You won’t be able to concentrate anyway,” she promises brightly. “We’ll be awfully loud.”
“That’s not really an incentive. Also, I might call the cops.”
Raven snorts, rolling her eyes. “Right, I’ll just send Charles over, shall I?”
Erik doesn’t deign to answer, but when Charles shows up on his doorstep later that day, looking thoroughly harassed by obnoxious teenagers and their lecherous parents, Erik hands him a beer and is somehow saying yes before he knows it. Raven smirks and takes off, her hips swaying in an exaggerated manner to mark her victory. Erik glares after her, and Charles looks confused.
“Um, Erik?” Charles hesitates. “Perhaps I should have warned you about Raven from the beginning, but—”
“Oh, for God’s sake.” Erik rolls his eyes. “Charles, upon my word, I harbor no untoward intentions in regards to your sister.”
Charles blinks. “I’m – glad to hear it, but that’s not what I was going to say.”
“Yes, I was just… Raven can take care of herself. I’m a little worried about you, though. She’s used to getting what she wants.”
Erik stares at him for a moment in suspended disbelief, then bursts out laughing. “You can’t be serious. Raven is a lovely girl, but she’s three decades too young for me.”
Charles grins. “The heart wants what it wants, Erik,” he says, and actually winks before patting Erik on the shoulder. “Thanks for the beer. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
There isn’t even a token effort to make it a question.
In the twenty years that he’s lived in the neighborhood, this is the first barbecue party that Erik has attended. Together, he and Raven manage to keep Charles away from the grill for the greater good of everyone in general vicinity. Erik doesn’t mind being stuck with the duty – it gives him a perfect opportunity to observe without being forced to socialize.
Charles’s colleagues are exactly what Erik had imagined – a young crew of bright-eyed enthusiasts who want to reform the country one teenager at a time, intermixed with a few silent types who have been at it longer and are beginning to suspect better. Charles flits from person to person, smiling and laughing, not the gracious host so much as an exuberant tennis ball of genuine welcome. He’s easily the youngest teacher on staff, yet most of his peers seem to be looking up to him; they’re flowers under the sun, basking in moments of his attention.
Erik shakes his head, concentrating on the roasting steaks in front of him. He’s never wanted to be part of the crowd in any way imaginable, but he’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel good to know he’s not the only one in trouble.
“We must seem like a bunch of savages to you,” Charles says, grinning, as Erik hands him a plate with grilled vegetables.
“This gathering does bear an uncanny resemblance to the summer of love stills,” Erik says, glancing at the flowery patterns on shirts and dresses. Charles’s blue Oxford t-shirt is a welcome exception.
Charles laughs. “Don’t be a grouch, Erik.”
He loops his arm through Erik’s, as though it’s the most natural thing in the world, and begins to steer him away from the safety of his position. “Come on, I’ll introduce you. People are beginning to think you’re going to bust them for drugs any minute now.”
After a while, Erik has to admit that, up close, they are more than a band of stereotypes. Charles, bless his tact, introduces him as ‘my friend and neighbor,’ leaving it to Erik to decide if he wants his literary name revealed or not. Mostly, Erik doesn’t.
The range of topics is about what one could expect, from Martin Luther King to women’s rights, political activism on campuses, and numerous local initiatives. Erik considers himself above any and all of it, so it’s all the more surprising to find himself in the middle of a heated debate with Charles, who seems to be even more naïve than Erik had given him credit for.
“People evolve, Erik – society evolves. Just look at the amount of social change we’ve seen in the last two decades.”
Erik snorts. “I have; it hasn’t gone past acknowledging an occasional injustice. And don’t even start on how identifying the problem is the first step to solving it. That’s bullshit, and in a way, it’s even more immoral than turning a blind eye. How many politicians have you heard lately saying that America is a country with huge racial challenges? Oh, they’re acknowledging it all over the place, all right, so much that it’s become a mind-numbing refrain. Have you seen the number of hate crimes dropping? Even a little bit? It’s an exercise in hypocrisy.”
“But don’t you see, this is exactly why we should start at the very beginning – with teenagers, with children. Educate them better. Hate crimes are a product of ignorance.”
“No, Charles, hate crimes are a product of hate. If you think you can cure them through education or anything other than brutal force, you’re deluding yourself. You have no idea how much hate the human race is capable of.”
Charles stares at him long enough for Erik to realize he’s been practically shouting in his face – if not in volume than in vehemence.
“In that case, the only alternative would be tyranny.” Charles speaks softly. “I would agree that it’s an effective solution, but a temporary one, and the aftermath would be even more disastrous.”
“You’re an utopist.”
“And you’re a cynic. I’m not that naïve, Erik. If it makes you feel any better, I don’t believe that non-aggressive resistance is the only answer.”
“Thank God for small mercies. But you are incredibly naïve, Charles. You still think you can change the world.”
Charles smiles suddenly. “And you think you don’t?”
“Of course I don’t; I’m too old to be fighting windmills. The world doesn’t want to be changed, or saved for that matter, and I’m not going to waste time and effort trying.”
Charles leans closer, impish smirk in place, and murmurs low in Erik’s ear, “I’ve read your books, my friend. I happen to know better.”
Erik is left gaping after him as Charles strolls across the lawn to rejoin the others, whistling a tune, carefree and off-key, hands stuck in his pockets. Unexpectedly, Erik laughs.
Charles is so much more than he’s ever bargained for.
Raven brings home a guest.
That, in and of itself, is not unusual – in fact, she does so frequently. A few classmates of the more adequate kind; a couple of girlfriends she meets while out in the city. Erik especially likes the bespectacled student Hank – for terrorizing purposes – and the stripper-turned-hotel-receptionist Angel, who always carries a gun somewhere on her person and puts a whole new spin to feminism – the kind that Erik actually likes.
Charles invites some of his colleagues sometimes, most frequently Jean the English Lit teacher and Logan the football coach. Erik is shared custody with an almost proprietary spin to the implication, considered invited by default.
He can’t help but find it curious that, for all that the Xavier siblings would die – and kill – for each other, they feel at their most comfortable surrounded by other people. It’s a normal occurrence to have four or five people at their dinner table, even if it gets a bit tricky in a household where no one cooks.
Erik’s own instincts are the exact reverse. It’s been too long since he could trust someone enough to let them in, and even then he hated sharing.
He wonders if Charles and Raven had any friends as children – if they were allowed to.
This time, however, is different. Raven’s friends usually fall into two categories: those who want to sleep with her and those who want to take on the world with her.
Janos Quested is neither.
The moment he steps into the Xaviers’ living room, Erik stills in his seat. He knows this man. They’ve never spoken a word to each other, but Erik has seen him in a few clubs downtown – those clubs – and he’s certain he’s not mistaken. The man’s features are too right, his face almost too beautiful, framed by the perfectly styled hair and his pale lilac suit is too showy, fitted too well. Erik has never been attracted to the Ken doll type, but this man’s is not an easy face to forget.
Janos shows no signs of recognition as they are introduced. Erik almost feels disappointed, even as he congratulates himself with being sufficiently discreet.
Erik isn’t really listening when Raven explains their connection, except apparently Janos is some kind of lawyer at his day job and had helped Angel out once. Erik is much more interested in the way Janos stares at Charles, holding the handshake a few seconds too long, his smile a little too intense. Charles beams his customary welcome, but the looks he keeps shooting at Janos are more than polite curiosity. He’s intrigued. Erik swears under his breath.
Not everyone sticks around, but Janos comes back. Again. And again.
How can he not? Charles lets their fingers brush when passing the salt, asks him about the poetry Janos had confessed to writing, treats him to the slow, lingering smiles and sweet little jokes that seem to be made for Janos alone. Of course the man comes back.
Erik watches the spectacle for two weeks before it reaches his boiling point. He comes into the kitchen, carrying a stack of dirty dishes, to see Charles holding his fork to Janos’s lips, cajoling him to try the dessert. Janos looks ravenous, but not for the treat. He’s staring at Charles with smoldering intensity, his face flushed and hands clenching and unclenching at his sides as he grasps for control that’s teetering on the brink of snapping.
Charles is smiling an innocent smile that would tempt a saint, and Erik wants to shake him, perhaps even backhand him a few times. He does nothing of the sort, of course, merely puts the plates down with a loud clang, making both men jump.
“I’m going home,” Erik says, gruff. “Things to do.”
He doesn’t go back, ignoring his neighbors completely when he can manage. He doesn’t want to see Charles. The peculiar thing is, Erik expected jealousy, but he wasn’t prepared for disappointment. Somehow, disillusioned as he is by humanity’s flaws, he expected Charles to be better than this.
Four days later, Charles knocks on his door, a bottle of wine in his hand. He lifts it up to eye level. “Chess?”
Erik lets him in.
Charles drains his glass three moves in, and Erik suppresses a wince. He tries to ignore that Charles looks like shit, dark circles under his eyes, his whole frame wilted.
He refills Charles’s glass, and Charles catches his hand, bold in his desperation, pulling at it until Erik looks at him.
“Erik, what did we – what did I do?” His eyes look tortured. “I know it wasn’t the food.”
Erik is not a forgiving man. He’d held to his grudges too long as a boy, had never excused ignorance or weakness nor forgotten a single face of those who hurt him.
It’s a shock to feel the tight knot in his chest starting to unravel, without his permission, without a thought, powered only by the way Charles is looking at him, by the too-strong, desperate grasp of his hand.
Erik pulls free, leaning back in his armchair. “It wasn’t the food,” he says, slow and cold. Charles flinches. “I was tired of the show. Watching you torture Janos was only entertaining the first two times. Ironic coming from me, I realize, but I never pegged you for a cruel man, Charles.”
“I don’t—” Charles’s eyebrows furrow in confusion. “I’m not sure I—”
Erik’s patience runs out. “You know he’s queer, right? And don’t give me that wide-eyed innocence, Charles. You know full well he hasn’t been coming to your house for Raven – half the time she wasn’t even there.”
Charles closes his mouth after a moment, swallowing. He straightens up, and even though Erik is still angry with him, he can’t help a twinge of admiration at Charles’s ability to collect himself.
“I know Janos is gay,” Charles says, his tone resembling his usual self-assured mode. “And even here and now people are not entirely accepting, so I tried to make him feel as welcome as possible. I don’t see how this makes me a cruel man, Erik.”
Erik hits his hand against the armrest. “Damn it, Charles, knock it off. You could have made him ‘feel welcome’ without flirting with him, but instead you did everything in your power to lead him on!” He shakes his head, sneering. “Did it feel good? To see how easy you have it, how helpless he is before you? I thought you were better than this. Yes, it’s fantastic to feel desirable, to feel wanted, to know that you could have anyone, man or woman, at your feet, but it doesn’t mean you have to gloat! If you acted this way toward a woman, you’d be a right bastard and you know it, so what the hell makes you think that it’s acceptable when the person you’re toying with is a man?”
“You’re a historian, Charles; you’re familiar with the term ‘agent provocateur?’ Do you know how many of those the Nazis used to lure the homosexuals out before slipping them a pink triangle?”
“Jesus Christ, Erik, I—”
“Of course, it’s nothing as glamorous these days. The contemporary term for what you were doing would be ‘cocktease.’ That doesn’t sound quite so glorious now, does it?”
Charles’s hastily regained composure has crumbled completely. He’s a ghost-white, slack-jawed image of horrified shock, frozen in an awkward ice sculpture on Erik’s couch, ringing with tension. A single motion would shatter him.
Erik closes his eyes against a sudden wave of dizziness.
He’d lost control. The last time it had happened was thirty-six years ago, on a railway platform, when a soldier in a black uniform had looked at his limping father and said, ‘Links.’
A quiet sound brings him out of it. Charles reaches for his glass but, instead of picking it up, he pushes it further away from the edge of the table. His fingers are trembling. He clasps his hands together in his lap.
Erik watches. If Charles tells him he didn’t mean to, if he dares say he didn’t know—
Charles looks up and clears his throat, the sound strangely delicate amidst the sharp edges.
“If I was leading him on,” he says carefully, picking his way through a minefield, “what makes you think I had no intention to follow through?”
Erik stares, no longer breathing, as Charles finally meets his gaze.
“Did you?” Erik croaks.
Charles stands up slowly, his motions wooden. “I don’t know.”
Erik doesn’t follow him to the door the way he normally would. He doesn’t think he can move just yet. Charles pauses in the doorway.
“Erik? You were talking about Janos… weren’t you?”
The stinging taste of blood fills his mouth, and Erik can’t produce a sound, confirmation or denial, but hours after Charles has left, he still can’t shake off the instinctive, involuntary response.
He doesn’t see Charles the next day, but when he comes back from a grocery run, Raven is sitting on the steps of his porch, ruffled and unhappy like a disgruntled – raven. It’s an unusual time of day for her to be around, now that she’s started her training.
“You don’t know shit about my brother,” she says without preamble.
“Please come in,” Erik says dryly. “By all means, make yourself at home.”
She follows him into the kitchen, ignoring the unspoken warning. Arms folded across her chest, she watches, frowning, as he puts away the groceries.
“Charles was at this boarding school. He had a roommate, an upperclassman. The sweetest, cutest guy you can imagine. I don’t know what Charles told you about our family, but neither of us had ever looked forward to holiday breaks. That guy, Ben, didn’t beat him up, didn’t call him names – he listened to Charles, treated him like a person. Charles latched onto him. Ben was the only friend he had except for me.”
“Is this going somewhere?”
“Ben had a crush on Charles,” Raven continues, the words pointed, sharp. “Our stepfather did a number on his head, and what he missed, our stepbrother finished. Charles is the last person to believe anyone could like him that way, or, to be precise that much. It always takes a year and a day to convince him, so no, he didn’t realize that Ben wanted their tender friendship to maybe go somewhere. Ben was a perfect gentleman; he never said a word, never slipped. Charles was oblivious and happy.”
Erik closes the fridge and doesn’t move to pick up the rest.
“Other boys were more perceptive. They found Ben’s diary and decided to out him for fun. Ben was a scholarship kid, not one of the first families. They sent him to jail.”
Erik’s eyes slide closed for a moment.
Raven tilts her chin upward, defiant. “Charles was a mess. He begged and yelled and cried, trying to explain that Ben had never touched him, let alone hurt him. No one listened. He was sixteen and Ben was eighteen. They convicted him for corrupting a minor, and Charles’s testimony was used as further proof of Ben’s guilt.”
“What happened?” Erik asks, even though he knows already.
Raven’s eyes are filled with tears – anger, not sympathy. “He killed himself two months after the trial. They didn’t forward the note he left for Charles until two years after that.”
Erik doesn’t have the first idea of what to say. There’s nothing to be said.
Raven marches over and backs him up against the fridge, her hand splayed on his chest, strong and furious.
“You think you know it all, Erik, but you don’t. Charles is the smartest person you’ll ever meet, but he’s an oblivious idiot when it comes to himself and is the last person on the planet to knowingly do what you accused him of, you arrogant prick. You have no idea what losing Ben like that did to him, thinking it was his fault.”
“Janos is fine, by the way. I told him my brother was straight from the get go – he knew what he was getting into. He knew he’d be leaving for Buenos Aires by the end of the month, too, and he did, two days ago. No one’s heart was broken, Erik. They were just having fun.”
She pushes him again, solidifying an already impressive bruise. “You think you’re so high and mighty, but you have no idea. No. Idea.”
She doesn’t wait for him to offer a reply and instead storms out of the house, which is fortunate.
Erik’s mind is a void.
The Xavier house stands dark and empty for two days. Raven is spending her nights on campus; where Charles might be, Erik can’t begin to guess.
It’s a relief to see Charles’s dusty red car crawl into the driveway in the early evening, Charles himself stepping out in his shirtsleeves, cradling a white paper cup to his chest in an impressive balancing act with his books. It proves to be less impressive when the car door jolts him and the cup springs from his fingers, the lid jumping away like a plastic frog. The only choice Charles has is between his shirt and the books, so it comes as no surprise that, in a split second, he has coffee streaming down his front.
“Shit.” He hisses, dropping the cup altogether, and tugs at his shirt, trying to pull the suddenly-scorching fabric away from his skin.
“Need a hand?” Erik calls out from his porch.
Charles turns around and looks up. He doesn’t quite smile, but there is nothing in his demeanor that suggests hostility or embarrassment, nothing that so much as hints at being broken or fragile. He seems calm and collected, and if Erik didn’t know better, it would have been enough to fool even him.
He’s always been keenly aware of all the differences between them, but for the first time, Erik thinks in wonder that he and Charles might be more similar than he could hope or imagine.
“Erik,” Charles greets him, polite and neutral. “Er, no. No, I believe I no longer present any danger.” He prods the paper cup with his toe, a rueful half-smile hovering in the corner of his mouth.
“You’ve been away?”
“Yes.” Charles does smile then. “Field trip.”
He settles the books on the hood carefully and walks over to Erik, his approach hesitant and determined at the same time.
“I was… hoaxed, shall we say, into being a chaperone. I’m beginning to think my colleagues are not as trustworthy as I previously believed.”
Erik can’t help a snort. “You’re an easy target, Charles.”
“Yes, but, in my defense, only once.”
“I very much doubt that.”
The silence is awkward. Erik has never quite mastered small talk.
“Your sister came to see me.”
Charles winces. “Oh dear.”
“She told me about Ben.”
The frown on Charles’s face deepens. “I’m sorry, Erik. Raven has no business interfering. She gets overly protective sometimes, I really do apologize—”
“Don’t. I’m glad she told me.”
“I’m not. It’s water under the bridge.”
“Charles – it’s not something you can dismiss.”
Charles huffs. “I’m not dismissing anything, Erik. But I also don’t want to use what happened to me and Ben as an excuse for every morally ambiguous thing I do for the rest of my life.” He sighs. “You were right about Janos. I didn’t realize at first – you give me too much credit – but I did notice later, and – and I didn’t stop. Maybe if I hadn’t known he was leaving, I’d have been more careful, but yes; you were right. It felt good.”
Erik watches him, struggling not to reach out. He won’t be able to let go.
“Is Ben the reason why you can’t sleep at night?”
“Sometimes.” Charles sighs. “Other nights, it’s Cain. I have a lot of demons, Erik.”
Charles laughs. “Please, Erik, not all at once. Let’s save some mystery to spring out and humiliate me at some future date. I don’t know how you can stand to look at me right now as it is.”
“What the hell are you—” Erik grabs him by the shoulders, hauling him up the steps. “Charles, for God’s sake. I’m not ashamed of you, I—”
He draws in a deep breath. “I opened the door once to find a stoned eighteen-year-old girl with green hair on my doorstep, who told me she was the product of a loveless affair I had with a married woman when I was twenty-one. I didn’t even remember her name, Charles – I only slept with her to prove to myself that I wasn’t queer. Are you shocked yet?”
He shakes Charles, not giving him the time to answer.
“My wife, Charles, my wife, loved me so much she never remarried, but she left me and took our kids with her because I was raising them as though the war had never ended, because for me it never did. I can’t even blame her – I don’t. They’re better off.”
“Erik,” Charles tries. “Please. You don’t have to tell me.”
Erik pushes him away, not listening, and jerks his sleeve up to his elbow. “And I have this.” He thrusts his arm up into Charles’s face. “I have demons, too, Charles – a legion of them.”
For a moment, it’s like he’s blacked out all over again, the pulsing of blood roaring like an angry tsunami wave in his ears. It’s a fit of madness he only ever experiences in his sleep, and he should be more capable of controlling it now that he’s awake, but he isn’t.
His breathing quiets down at last, and he becomes aware again, blinking.
Charles is still there, holding him by the wrist, staring aghast at the cord of numbers, the world’s ugliest calligraphy string, burnt into the once-tender skin of his arm.