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Made To Be Broken

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“You’ll thank me for this,” Raven said. 

“I don’t know about that.” Charles had been planning on spending a very quiet New Year’s Eve in his apartment, wrapped in a quilt and watching “Hellboy” movies. Even though Raven had successfully convinced him to change into a nice shirt and slacks before she dragged him out the door, he still longed for his pajamas. 

But his sister continued smiling, satisfied with her triumph, as the taxi struggled through traffic to inch its way uptown. “You always have a good time at Emma’s, and you know it.” 

Emma Frost was more Raven’s friend than Charles’ – he found her a bit chilly, no pun intended – but she knew an endless assortment of fascinating people, most of whom he only got to socialize with at Emma’s bashes: Angel, the stripper who was working on her doctorate in women’s studies – Sean, an actor who somehow made a living only doing voiceover work – and Erik. Of course Erik. Charles found himself smiling a little just at the thought of Erik Lehnsherr’s face. 

Being reminded of his crush was at least as much pain as pleasure. These days, though, if Charles could get pleasure along with the pain, that was about as much as he could hope for. 

Raven didn’t stop gloating until the taxi was nearly at its destination. That was when her usual last-minute dithering took over. “Should we stop and get wine?”  

“We never have before. Emma’s particular about what she serves. Oh – excuse me, right here at the corner – on the left. Thanks.” 

“I just feel like we should have brought something. A gift. Showing up empty-handed feels weird. Maybe it’s a kind of Christmas hangover, you know?” 

“Hardly even seems like Christmas happened,” Charles said as he swiped his debit card. Raven had spent the holiday with her boyfriend, Henry, which meant he’d spent the day alone in the multiplex on 42nd Street, buying tickets for movie after movie. But he’d enjoyed some of the movies, so he looked at it as a sign of progress. 

She gave him a look. Was it concern or disdain? Usually it was the former, but if he’d gotten Raven into a mood, it could be the latter. 

But she said only, “You always liked New Year’s best, anyway.” 

He did. Charles’ generally-optimistic spirit reveled in fresh starts and new beginnings. Somehow he’d never gotten himself together enough to throw his own party, but he was the guy who usually showed up at everybody else’s bash with enough silly glitter hats for everyone. This year he was empty-handed, which seemed fitting, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t get into the spirit. After all, 2013 had to be better than 2012. Didn’t it? 

As they got out of the cab, he ventured, “Made any resolutions yet?”   

“I’m going to stop taking taxis everywhere,” Raven said. “There’s a perfectly good subway system, and I should use it.” Charles glanced back the way they’d come, where their taxi’s red taillights were still visible, and earned himself an elbow in the ribs. “In 2013, I mean. For the next three and a half hours, all bets are off. Now, what about you?” 

Charles turned his coat collar up against the chill and considered. “No more moping,” he said quietly, aware that Raven would be trying very hard to hide her reaction. “It’s been four months. Time to move forward.” 

“Good,” she said, nodding too fast. “I mean, yeah.” 

She really was only thinking about him. Raven was the one who’d dealt with the messiness at the end, who’d seen it in more detail than Charles ever had. How was it that she could cope so well when he was still only barely managing? 

He couldn’t think about that. So he tried to come up with a few more resolutions. “I’ll get up early enough to make coffee at home instead of buying something off the cart every day.” 

“Fasir will miss you.” 

“I’ll still get coffee from Fasir sometimes, I’m sure. Just once in a while I might make my own. Occasionally. You know?”

 Raven glanced sidelong at him. “That’s not a resolution.” 

“True. Okay.” Charles clapped his hands together, the sound softened by the fingerless gloves he wore. “I’ve got an important one. No more straight men.” 

“Excuse me?” 

“I’m not dating any more straight men. Or sleeping with them. Or making out with them.” 

“If they’re sleeping with you, how are they straight?” 

Charles pointed at her. “Ah-hah! You see the contradiction! The problem is, plenty of straight men don’t.” 

She looked more amused than confused. “Is this seriously a problem you have? Come on.” 

“I seem to have a talent for attracting guys like that. And unfortunately, I find straight men really sexy,” Charles admitted. He hadn’t been in the habit of confiding in his sister about his love life, but they’d become closer this year. She was no prude, so he might as well confess. “So a couple times a year, I wind up with a heterosexual guy for a night or two, and then it goes straight to hell.” 

“But – if they’re with you, if they like you – they have to be bisexual at least, right?” 

“So I used to think. Now, though? I’ve seen the truth.” His steps quickened, partly because they were almost to Emma’s building, partly out of temper.  

“I don’t get it.” 

Charles couldn’t yet bring himself to explain to his younger sister. Maybe if he got drunk at this party he could say what he really meant: There are straight men who’ll go to bed with a gay man, but the sex is only on their terms. They’ll let you suck their cock, but they’ll never, ever open their mouths for you. They’ll fuck you senseless, but they’ll never, ever open their legs for you. You get a few sloppy kisses and a hand job and a speech a few days later about how they don’t want to give you the wrong idea. They’ll go to bed with a gay man because, to them, I don’t even really exist as a person; I’m just a tongue, a pair of hands, an ass. I’m only a set of actions. A source of sensation. Something that will suffice if a woman isn’t around. They’re not bisexual, because to be bisexual they’d have to actually want me, not just something I can do for them. 

He suspected these guys didn’t treat the women in their lives much better, but that was no consolation. 

In the past, he’d asked himself why he went after these guys who were only destined to break his heart. Now, Charles suspected, that was exactly why he’d gone after them.  The idea of being with someone who might stick around long enough to really matter – and then leave – well, it was scary as hell. But anything had to beat constant rejection, didn’t it? 

“No more straight men,” Charles repeated as he began scrolling through the apartment directory for Emma’s name. “No more futility. No more pointless hoping and heartbreak. In 2013, I never want to hear the words ‘exception,’ ‘experimenting’ or ‘phase.’ If, God forbid, I hear ‘bicurious’ even once, I may take a hostage.” 

Raven had started laughing, and even he began to smile. It felt good to vent. Better to actually make the change. 

He concluded, “From now on, I hereby resolve to lead the kind of love life that might actually lead to something real. No more straight men, ever.”

 

**

 

Erik was at the party. 

Amazing, Charles thought, the way your brain could focus so absolutely on the one person in the room who most interested you. Emma’s enormous apartment was packed with partygoers, frothy with champagne, filled with chatter and laughter and Duke Ellington tunes – but from the moment he caught a glimpse of Erik, and Erik grinned back, it was as though everything else in the room fell away. 

And wasn’t Erik working his way through the din to reach Charles? 

That wasn’t so odd, Charles reminded himself as he tossed his coat into Emma’s study. He and Erik always had the best chats at these parties. Erik always said they should get a coffee or hang out, because they were better friends than two people ought to be after only meeting at parties over five years’ time. But Erik had also invited Charles to dinner with him and his wife, Magda … which was why Charles had always dodged the friendship. 

Straight men were attractive. And for Charles, Erik was basically the ultimate straight man. That kind of crush couldn’t be paired with a friendship; the result could only be awkwardness and unspoken pain and grinding jealousy of the woman in Erik’s life. 

Erik’s single now, though, Charles thought as Erik approached. He and Magda divorced sometime this summer, so he’s available. 

And still straight. Get over it. 

“There you are.” Erik held his arm out for the customary straight-man’s “one-handed hug,” which Charles allowed himself to enjoy. “Good to see you again.” 

“You too. You’re looking great.” Last year at this time, Magda had been talking about leaving, and Erik had looked positively haggard as he confessed his woes to Charles out on the balcony. Now he was smiling, at ease, his body perfectly outlined by the black turtleneck sweater he wore. “Is it rude to say divorce agrees with you?” 

Then he caught a glimpse of Magda chatting away in the far corner. 

“Oh. Sorry. Awkward.” Charles knew he was blushing as red as Raven’s cocktail dress. 

“Huh?” Erik glanced in the direction Charles had been looking. “Oh, no, no. We’re divorced, but we’re getting along. I mean, there’s still tension, but it’s … okay. We might even wind up friends again eventually. Magda and I simply had no business being married to each other. That’s all.” 

“That’s almost disturbingly mature of you.” Now Charles could laugh, from relief if nothing else.  “You didn’t have to split custody of your mutual friends?” 

“No. Though I’d have been sure to get custody of you.” Erik grinned. “Glad you made it tonight.”   

Something about the way Erik said that last made Charles realize that Erik had heard – well, everything, probably. Now that he thought of it, he noticed others glancing his way. They all seemed pleased to see him out and about for a change, but the attention was more intimidating than welcoming. 

Erik must have seen his gaze darting around the room, because he took one step backward. “Am I monopolizing you?” 

It wasn’t as though there was anyone else here he really wanted to see. “Please, monopolize away.”

 

**

 

During the past few years, Charles had created a pattern for all interactions with Erik Lehnsherr at Emma’s (or, occasionally, Raven’s) parties. 

First, greet Erik happily and get far too excited about the fact that Erik appeared glad to see him too. 

Second, talk to other people at the party. Genuinely enjoy their company most of the time, but be very, very aware of Erik’s presence across the room. Steal the occasional glance at that lean, powerful body. Try not to be obvious. 

Third, finally start talking to Erik in a group. 

Fourth, disengage from the entire party so the two of them could really talk, sometimes for an hour or more, on Emma’s balcony or in the home office where she made party guests stash their coats. Spill his guts. Listen to Erik spill his guts in return. Or sometimes just have fun and make each other laugh. Once, even playing chess on a set they found in the home office, at least until Emma found them and asked if they were deliberately being antisocial. 

Fifth, part ways as the evening wound down. Promise to email, to call, to get together for coffee or come by the house for dinner sometime, and know that promise would never be kept. 

Sixth, go home to suffer the exquisite torment of unrequited passion. And/or masturbate to the fantasy of having Erik in his bed. Usually And. 

Tonight they’d skipped directly to step four. 

At 10 p.m. – 

“Magda brought a date?” Charles whispered, trying to peer over Erik’s shoulder to the corner of the room where his ex now stood. 

“Will you stop that? She’ll see you!” But Erik looked more embarrassed than horrified. “I don’t know if he’s a date or not. She came with a couple of her friends I know, and this guy I’ve never seen before.” 

“Maybe he’s dating one of the others.” 

“Maybe. I don’t know. It’s strange.” 

“Are you jealous?” Charles hated the idea of Erik pining after Magda; he was one of the good guys, one of the people you hoped would get to be happy. 

“No, that’s not it.” 

Charles gave Erik a look. 

“Truly,” Erik insisted. “The situation makes me feel awkward, that’s all.” 

“… and …” 

“And – disrespected, I guess.” 

“Is she rubbing it in your face?” 

“No. If he’s her date, they’re being discreet.” Erik sighed. “You’re telling me to let it go, aren’t you?” 

“You want you two to be friends again, right? Then you have to take pride out of it. I mean, unless she does something really outrageous, but this isn’t that bad, is it?” 

“I don’t even know that it’s anything. You’re right.” After a moment, Erik nodded, as though Charles had said something else, and repeated, “You’re right.” 

Charles hadn’t gotten to be the wise one for quite a while now. He’d missed it. 

At 11 p.m. – 

“So, what happened to that guy?” Erik said through bared teeth, as he struggled with the latest champagne cork. 

“Which guy?” When had he seen Erik last? The Fourth of July barbeque on Sean’s rooftop – the one that broke all the fire codes – that had to be it. “Oh, him. Didn’t last the month.” 

“You were excited about him, I thought.” 

Of course I was. He was the latest straight guy I was going to convert. “You know how it is. When you’re – infatuated, you’re not even connecting to the person yet. Just your idea of what they might be. Then reality comes crashing in. Do you need help with that?” 

“I’ve got it,” Erik insisted, prying at the bottle. “Nobody since then?” 

“Not since then.” 

“We’ll just have to hope your love life picks up in 2013. And mine, too.” 

Just then the cork popped, and people cheered, and Charles laughed as he dodged the flume of champagne foam. 

Just before 12 p.m. –  

Despite the chill, they stood on Emma’s balcony, which was high enough to provide a sliver-view of the mayhem in Times Square. The ball glittered in the near distance, still preparing to drop. Erik had found a blanket to wrap around his shoulders as he sat on the step, while Charles simply hugged himself tightly. It was worth the cold, because at least they had this place to themselves. 

For months he’d avoided talking to anyone besides Raven about this, and now, with Erik, it all came out. 

“Sometimes I’m angry at myself for letting the relationship disintegrate that badly.” Charles leaned against the balcony rail. “Sometimes I’m angry at Mum for – never mind what for.” 

“For the alcohol abuse,” Erik said very quietly. “For your stepfather, and your stepbrother.” 

Charles sighed, and some of the tension drained away. He hadn’t known how badly he needed someone to say it, because he no longer felt like he had the right to say it himself. 

And God, how much about his life had he confessed to Erik? It was unbelievable to think they’d shared so much already; even more astonishing was the fact that Erik had apparently remembered it all. 

He said only, “Raven lived through it too. But Raven was able to make it up with Mum, in the end. She visited her in rehab; I never could. Then when Mum got sick, Raven was there – and neither of us knew it was that serious, nobody did until the last couple of days, but still. Still. She was my mother, and I didn’t even get to the hospital until she was unconscious. Never even told her goodbye. So I feel like a shit. And I expect to feel like a shit about it for the rest of my life.” 

Erik shook his head. “You didn’t do anything wrong.” 

“I left my mother to die in hospital. How is that not wrong?” 

“You didn’t leave her. You got there too late. That could have happened to anyone, regardless of their relationship. What you wanted was closure, for both of you, but be honest – would it have happened? Ever?” 

Charles shrugged. “I didn’t give it much chance to happen.” 

“Neither did your mother, apparently.” 

How dare you, how dare you say that about her, she’s dead – but Charles’ anger trailed away like their foggy breath in the cool night. In his own blunt way, Erik was reminding him that it took two people to have a bad relationship; Mum had contributed her half. 

Yet, still: “Raven got there.” 

“She had a different relationship. Different experiences. And she’s her own person. You can’t measure yourself by her.” Erik rose to his feet, blanket over his shoulders like a cape. His voice was quiet and grave. “You went through a lot. It’s not wrong for you to be angry. I wish you’d come to better terms with her, for your sake anyway, but you have to stop blaming yourself.” 

Charles very much didn’t want to get choked up about this, so he tried to defuse the moment. “What, because I don’t look good when I’m brooding?” 

“Because you miss your mother hurting you, so you’re hurting yourself to fill the gap.” 

For a moment Charles could hardly breathe. It was true – so true it felt as if it vibrated within him, down to the bone. 

Then Erik smiled a little. “And you always look good.” 

“You.” Charles shook his head, rueful. “You get to me. You know that, right?” 

Erik cocked his head, and Charles wondered if he’d just said too much. But to hell with it. He’d just been given a difficult truth; he could give back that much truth in return. 

Besides, his skin was now cold enough to feel as though it wasn’t entirely his own, and Erik’s cheeks and nose were reddening. “We’re fucking freezing out here,” Charles said, nudging Erik. “Let’s get back in the party, okay?” 

“Not just yet.” Erik pointed over Charles’ shoulder, to the Times Square glitter beyond. “Don’t you want to see it live for once?” 

“Is it midnight already?” 

“Almost.” 

Charles grabbed his phone out of his pocket; sure enough, it was 11:58 – no, 11:59. “I’ve been venting to you forever. Oh, my God.” 

“I vented to you too, remember?” 

“I don’t mind. You know that.” 

“Same here.” 

“All right, then.” 

So they’d be out here alone at midnight. Lovely thought – but Charles realized that Erik’s motivation was certainly avoiding Magda at the hour. They might be getting along fairly well now, but a social situation that demanded kissing would have to be awkward for a newly divorced pair. Well, Charles didn’t mind providing an escape. 

From within the apartment, they heard people start chanting: “Ten! Nine! Eight!” 

“Should’ve brought silly hats,” Charles said. 

Erik laughed. “Like the tiaras last year?” 

Five! Four!” 

“You looked fetching in a tiara.” Charles might or might not have kept that photo on his phone. 

“So did you.” 

One!” 

Screams and shouting from within the party – and Charles realized neither he nor Erik had actually watched the ball drop for themselves. They’d only been looking at each other. 

“The world didn’t end in 2012 after all,” Charles said. It was all he could think of to say. 

“No, it didn’t.” Erik leaned a little closer. “Happy New Year, Charles.” 

“—I – Happy New Year.” 

Erik kissed him. 

For the first moment, Charles assumed that Erik was just – humoring him. Demonstrating he wasn’t homophobic, being warm to someone who’d had a rough time, confident that Charles wouldn’t read more into it. Something like that. 

But Erik’s mouth pressed more firmly against his, and then their lips parted slightly, and oh, the world was turning upside down – 

The balcony door burst open, and they broke apart as they were each tackled by about three people at once, all demanding New Year’s hugs. Charles found himself with Raven’s arms around his waist and Armando’s around his neck, and everyone was laughing, and it would have been delightful if the newcomers hadn’t just interrupted … what? 

A kiss. Definitely a kiss. But had it been a kiss kiss? 

His eyes met Erik’s, just as Erik was towed inside to receive another smooch, this one from Emma herself. That one glimpse was enough to make Charles feel as though he’d just been struck by lightning. 

“It’s all going to be better next year,” Raven promised. She smelled strongly of champagne, and somehow she’d got glitter in her hair. “I swear. You’ll see.” 

He hugged his sister tightly. “I love you.” 

“Love you too.” 

Within a few minutes, the immediate post-midnight hubbub had worn off, and the party began to split in two. Those who were either weary or paying $25 an hour to a babysitter began to depart; those who remained began taking the party to new levels of frenzy, not to mention inebriation. Charles had never intended to stay, but Erik didn’t seem to be leaving, which meant he couldn’t go. Not now. Not until – 

--until what? Until you let him be the next straight guy who uses you? 

 No. Erik wouldn’t do that to him. Charles felt sure of very little these days, but he felt sure of that. 

Probably Erik was just a little drunk, and the holidays had made him sentimental. Plus, his ex-wife was here, quite possibly with the new man in her life; Erik might have wanted to a little ego boost. Charles’ crush had to be pretty obvious. So Erik allowed himself to bask in feeling attractive again. Natural enough. No big deal. Besides, it was midnight on New Year’s Eve. Why not a kiss? 

Their eyes met across the room again, and Charles felt it – that physical pull of desire, down in his solar plexus, dizzying him like the champagne. 

And he knew, beyond any doubt, Erik felt it too. 

Let it go, let it go, if you pursue him it’s just going to get messy – and besides, didn’t you just make a Resolution not to do this kind of thing? 

Well. New Year’s Eve didn’t count. 

Charles gulped more champagne from a plastic cup, then weaved through the crowd toward Erik, who was at least pretending to listen to Alex and Angel.  When he reached their little circle, he said nothing, didn’t even join them, but hooked two of his fingers around Erik’s wrist – a light touch, nothing much if Erik wasn’t interested. Nothing that would creep him out or make him angry, just a suggestion he could easily ignore.  

But Erik straightened, turned into the touch and let Charles draw him away. 

Heart pounding, Charles tried to think of what to do next. His first impulse was to lead Erik back to the balcony, but someone had raised the blinds, and he could see that the space was now occupied by Raven; she had her cellphone cradled to her ear and was no doubt having exchanging teary avowals of love with Henry, who wouldn’t come back from Illinois until tomorrow night. That was going to take at least an hour. 

By now, though, the people leaving right after midnight had gone. So nobody much would be entering the home office where Emma kept the coats, not for a while. 

Charles led them inside, dropping his hand away from Erik’s wrist only to open the door. He didn’t bother snapping on the light. Someone had jarred Emma’s computer earlier, awakening it from sleep back into screensaver mode. Soft white arcs of light danced across the screen, shedding just enough light to see Erik’s face as he shut the door behind them. 

Then he took hold of Erik’s collar with both fists and dragged him down for a kiss. 

Their lips met hard and ragged, almost desperate from the first touch. Erik’s hands found his shoulders, then his waist, then shoved him against the wall. The framed pictures on the wall thudded, and Charles heard the silvery slip of coats falling over each other to the floor. But nothing was worth paying attention to except Erik’s touch. 

With a brush of his tongue, Charles got Erik’s mouth open, so the next kiss would be wet and sloppy. Erik groaned into it, a sound that set Charles ablaze. He tugged Erik closer, until Erik was leaning against him; Erik’s fingers tangled in Charles’ hair, and their kisses went on and on and on. 

Charles wanted to do so much more than this. He wanted to hook his fingers in Erik’s belt loops. Grind against him so Erik could feel how hard he’d made Charles already, and maybe Charles could feel whether Erik was hard too. Take Erik’s hand and press it against his erection, a silent plea for Erik to unzip his pants and turn this from making out into foreplay. 

But Erik was straight. A little drunk. And just because he was open to this right now didn’t mean he wanted anything more. 

I wish, Charles thought as Erik’s lips found his throat. Oh, how I wish. 

Maybe – maybe Erik wasn’t totally straight? He could hope. Charles whispered, “Ever do this before? Kiss another man?” 

“Uh-uh,” Erik panted against Charles’ skin. “First time.” 

Well, so much for that. But the end of that brief whisper of hope seemed to fuel Charles’ arousal. Right here, right now: This was all of Erik he was ever going to get. He intended to make the most of it. 

Charles hugged Erik tighter, pressing their bodies closer together. They kissed again, and he made it slow, tantalizing – the kind of kiss he always thought of as liquid sex. “Being bad tonight?” 

“Mmmm-hmmm.” 

“Then let’s be very bad.” 

Then Erik raked his teeth along Charles’ skin just where his neck met his shoulder, and Charles thought he might just have to push Erik down to the floor and find out exactly how far this could go – 

--but then the door swung open, bathing them in unwelcome light. 

Raven stood there, phone still in one hand. Within a second’s time she’d gone from startled to amused to vaguely pissed off. To Charles she said, “I can’t leave you alone for an hour.” 

Erik hadn’t even pulled back at first, and his arms remained around Charles – but only for a moment. As the noise of the party crowd flooded back in, he stepped back, sharply breaking the contact between them. 

Of course. He was embarrassed to have been caught kissing another man. Ashamed. 

Charles knew exactly what it felt like to have someone be ashamed of him

“We should go,” Charles said. He turned away and started sifting through the coats for his own, and Raven’s cape. 

“I – ” Erik hesitated, running one hand through his disheveled hair. “You’re headed out? Now?” 

“Yes. Definitely. We’re going.” Charles found the cape and tossed it toward Raven, who by now was glaring at Erik. That did the trick; Erik slipped out of the room, becoming part of the celebration yet again. 

Even though Charles had made it impossible for Erik to do anything else, he still hated him a little for it. 

They said their goodbyes to Emma quickly. Charles deliberately didn’t look for Erik, who didn’t make any move to say his own farewell. 

Once Emma’s door had closed behind them, Raven said, “Erik hit on you?” 

“Skip it.” 

“I can’t believe that guy! He saw you were – drunk, and vulnerable, and not yourself – ” 

“Raven, seriously. Let it go. You know, New Year’s Eve, champagne … things get out of hand. He’s an okay guy. It won’t happen again.” 

“That’s right,” she said, putting her hand through the crook of his elbow.  “New Year’s Resolutions are now in effect. Next time you kiss a guy, it’s going to be someone who can love you.” 

Their kisses flickered through Charles’ brain, over and over – like film being rewound, except it wasn’t just the sight of Erik that he remembered, but his taste, his touch, the exhilaration of shared desire. For a few stolen minutes, Charles had been able to pretend that his dream had come true. 

And the dream wasn’t about “a straight man.” It was about Erik. Only Erik. And it felt like Charles wouldn’t be able to dream about anyone else for a very long time. 

You did it to yourself, you know. 

Charles sighed as the elevator lowered them back down to earth. “No more straight men,” he said. “Not ever. Not ever again.” 

Chapter Text

 

 

Charles awoke in that no-man’s land between “fine” and “hung over,” absent nausea or a pounding headache but still deeply aware he’d felt better. He threw off his duvet to go get some water, then hastily tugged it back up again. How could he have forgotten the heat was out?

Then all his other memories flooded back in, and he let his head fall back onto the pillow.

Well, shit.

If only this had happened a couple of years ago, when he hadn’t fully IDed his straight-guy problem. Charles could have daydreamed about what it had been like to finally kiss Erik. Gotten off about a dozen times just on the memory of Erik’s tongue in his mouth. Luxuriated in arousal and hope for days, maybe even weeks, before the whole thing blew up in his face. Now he just had to lie here and feel like a failure.

Some New Year’s Resolution, he thought. You didn’t make it five seconds. That must be a record.

But Erik wasn’t like most of those guys. He wasn’t a manipulator or a user. He’d just been … drunk and needy, like Charles himself.  Probably he was lying in his bed across town, completely horrified that he’d made out with another man.

Which was exactly what Charles should have expected, but the thought still depressed him. He and Erik had been friends – really friends, for all that they only talked at parties – and from now on, they’d just be awkward acquaintances. Those chess-game interludes were over.

The loss was more real than anything else about them had ever been.

Charles hugged the duvet to his chest, decided he refused to start 2013 like this, and rolled over to go back to sleep.

He awoke again to the sound of his phone – the generic ringtone, the one for numbers he hadn’t assigned. His fingers fumbled with his iPhone dock until he managed to answer. “Hello?”

“Charles. Hi. It’s Erik.”

“Oh.” Charles pushed himself upright, then tucked the duvet around him more snugly. The chill in his apartment was fierce. “Hi.”

“Did I wake you?”

“Kind of? But it’s –Christ, it’s nearly noon. Don’t worry about it.”

“Sorry.”

“No, no, it’s okay. Really. What’s up?” Then he cringed. What a thing to say to the guy you spent last night groping.

“Listen, I was headed to your neighborhood and I thought – maybe you could use a coffee. I know I could.”

Charles repeated, “Coffee.”

“The smaller places will be closed, but the chains should be open. I can deal with Starbucks if you can.”

He was in fact a Starbucks addict. “Yeah, that works. I – you want to meet at Columbus and 79th?”

“Sounds good. About an hour?”

“Okay,” Charles said, and only after he’d hung up did it fully hit him.

Erik had called. Erik wanted to do coffee. Erik was headed to his neighborhood, which he said like it was no big deal, but Erik lived in Brooklyn, which made the trek in on the subway – on a holiday – well, it would take most of the hour he’d allotted to get here. And what did that mean, “headed to your neighborhood”? What errand could Erik possibly have to run on the Upper West Side on New Year’s Day?

So Erik was coming here to see Charles. Only to see Charles.

He went for his phone again to get Raven.

It took her a few rings to answer, which gave Charles a chance to remember that his sister had drunk considerably more champagne last night than he had. When she finally picked up, there were various thumps and scrapes before he heard her voice: “I hate you.”

“Erik called.”

“… wait, what?”

“Erik called me just now, and he’s headed my way. We’re going for coffee.”

Some rustling suggested Raven had pushed herself to sit upright. “Okay, tell me what you think is going on here.”

Charles had been hoping she’d be the one who explained it all to him – not because he needed an explanation, but so he’d be able to hear it instead of having to be the one who said it. “Erik wants to pursue this, which is a terrible idea.”

“You think he’d just be using you like the others?”

“No. That’s the worst part.”

“Keep talking. Use small words. My head hurts.”

“It’s probably something with his divorce.” Charles wrapped the duvet around himself so he could bear the chilly stroll into his living room. Often the sunlight warmed this area more than the bedroom, but the day was overcast, and so he wound up just huddling on the huge white sofa. “I don’t know if he feels like he needs something new, as in totally new, or whether he’s just rejecting everything that went before or – I don’t know. But he’s straight, which means sooner or later, probably sooner, Erik’s going to freak out.”

Would it be the first time Charles moved Erik’s hand to his cock? The first time Charles took off his clothes before they got into bed together? After their next kiss?

“Are you sure he’s straight?” Raven said. “Maybe he was, you know, in denial.”

“I’m pretty sure.” Amazing how you could know that about a guy even after you’d had his tongue in your mouth.

“So what are you gonna do? Let him down easy, or be the one who does the using this time?”

He winced. “That was uncalled for.”

“Sorry.” A silence fell between them.

His relationship with Raven had been good when they were children. While their father was alive, they’d been so close that people expressed amazement that Raven was adopted; everyone said they should have been more than blood, more like twins.

Then grief came to their house, followed closely by Kurt Marko and his son, Cain. After that, it was as if any honest emotion in their lives had slowly been choked off, like vines withering without sunlight. Marko liked to feel powerful. That meant he liked to hurt and manipulate. Charles and Raven had been small children, unable to fight back. They were taught the sickest lesson of all – attention turned toward another is attention turned away from you. They’d learned to rat each other out for the smallest infractions, in the hope of having one night free from abuse.

Only once in all that time did Charles remember sticking up for Raven – the night in her early adolescence when Cain had told her she was going to have great tits, and Charles had turned to him and said that if Cain ever touched his sister, it would be the last thing he ever did. He’d meant it, too. Maybe Cain realized that, or maybe it had just been an empty taunt, because he never went near Raven.

She had never stuck up for Charles at all, so far as he knew.

The worst was that back then they always understood. Charles never resented Raven making him the scapegoat, or sneaking away when Marko was in a bad mood so her brother would bear the brunt instead. Nor had Raven been angry when Charles got his chance to do the exact same thing. That was the way life worked in their house.

But when Charles went away to university, and Raven was packed off to a boarding school the year after, their relationship fell apart. He thought it was as though neither of them knew how to live without an enemy. Their old habits of blaming each other, looking for faults in each other, didn’t vanish when Kurt Marko was no longer around to be their audience; instead, they intensified. Maybe they’d been attempting to justify their ruthlessness toward each other as children. Charles didn’t know why.

Several therapists had come up with explanations, none of which Charles found wholly convincing.

They were older now. Trying harder. Mum’s death had let them bond again, but the fact was, they just weren’t very good at being close. Last night they’d been able to say they loved each other – when they were drunk, and in a crowd, and it was easy. Mostly those words came hard to them. Hurtful words came easier, as they’d both just been reminded.

After the pause had gone on long enough to verge on the excruciating, Raven said, “Okay, so, you think Erik’s pursuing you because he’s not totally himself.”

“More or less sums it up.”

“But you still said you’d meet him for coffee.”

“He woke me up, and I wasn’t thinking clearly.” This was simultaneously true and a cop-out.

“Well, get out of it.”

“By now he’s probably on the train.”

“I meant, get out of the whole situation. When you guys get together, tell him, like, you met somebody recently, or something like that.”

Erik knew all about Charles’ utter lack of a love life, thanks to last night’s endless venting. Why couldn’t he ever keep his stupid mouth shut? “I’ll think of something.”

“But hey, look on the bright side,” Raven said. “Maybe he’s thinking the same thing, kind of. Maybe this is the let-you-down-easy talk.”

Some bright side. Still, Erik seemed fairly self-aware. It was possible. Now that Charles really considered it, he’d even say it was probable. “Well, it makes a change, anyway.”

“From getting used? Anything’s a good change. Trust me, I know.”

Charles sighed as he drew the duvet more tightly around him. The city outside seemed to be colorless, save for darker and lighter gray. “You have a problem with straight guys telling you they don’t want your body? Because, even speaking as your brother and a very, very gay man, that doesn’t seem like a problem you’d have.”

She didn’t laugh. “I’ve had my own issues, you know.” There was a pause, during which he said nothing because he could tell she was looking for words. “Let’s just say the number of people I’ve had sex with – okay. My number is not a small number.”

“Whose is, these days?”

“Charles.” Her voice was very quiet. “For a few years there, when we weren’t really in touch – I was kind of at loose ends. I acted out. You wouldn’t have to be Amish to be shocked by my number. You’d pretty much have to be a sex worker to not be shocked by my number.”

“… oh.”

“You’re not the only one who tried to fill up the empty spaces.”

He felt a wave of love for her, as naked and protective as it had been in the early years. Maybe, if she had been there, she would have seen it in his face, he thought. Or he might have been able to hug her. But Charles said only, “Yeah, I get it.”

“If I’d been enjoying it at least, who cares, right?” Raven’s laugh rang hollow. “I guess I enjoyed some of it. What the hell. At least Henry knows I’ve sown my wild oats.”

“You’ve got a good man,” Charles said. “I wish I could say the same.”

“Speaking of my good man, he’s going to be back here in a few hours, so maybe the apartment should look a little less like squatters took it over a month ago.”

Raven’s relationship to neatness was both distant and hostile. He sighed. “I’ll let you go. But, Raven – ”

“What?”

“Thanks.”

“Anytime. Except maybe next time when I’m hung over, try to have a crisis in the late afternoon. Or evening. Evenings are usually good.”

“I’ll schedule my crises better in future.”  

Then he sat there holding his phone, staring out at the wintry sky, until he couldn’t put off the morning shower any longer. Yes, Charles was reduced to hoping that Erik would let him down gently, but he couldn’t help wanting to look his best.

 

**

 

“You look better than I feel,” Erik said, leaning over the table at Starbucks to buss Charles gently on the cheek.

“Better than I feel too,” Charles confessed. “Though the gingerbread latte is helping.”

“I’ll be right back.” With that Erik went to the counter to put in his own order.

Charles had come here a few minutes early and gotten his own drink, the better to avoid the whole let-me-pay thing if it were to arise, and to get around any awkwardness about a hug or kiss … or so he’d thought. Instead, now, he knew he was slightly flushed from the brief touch of Erik’s lips on his face.

Keep it together, he reminded himself. Just once try to act like an adult about this. Erik matters.

But when Erik came back and sat beside him – not across – Charles felt his resolve melt faster than the whipped cream on his coffee.

“I like the city on New Year’s Day,” Erik said between sips. He took his coffee black. “It’s quiet. And the mood is – ”

“Remorseful?” Charles suggested. “Penitent?”

Erik grinned. “I was going to say ‘thoughtful.’ Though I’m sure there are remorseful people nursing hangovers all across town.”

Interesting that Erik didn’t describe himself as remorseful. Deep within Charles, hope sparked, deceitful and strong.

“I love New York,” Erik continued. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. But sometimes it’s so frantic you can’t hear yourself think. A day like today – you can walk along the streets and think.”

“Is that what you like to do?” Surely a little good-natured teasing was okay. “Meander and brood?”

Straight-faced, Erik replied, “We all need hobbies.”

Charles laughed despite himself. “Want to meander, then?”

“Well – ” Erik hesitated only for a moment. “Sure, let’s.”

They wandered through the Upper West Side, which was less clamorous than usual, talking easily about the minutiae they saw along the way. A few holiday decorations clung to store windows, but most of it had been cleared away now; the makeshift Christmas-tree farm in front of the grocery store had been packed up, leaving the sidewalk feeling strangely bare. Groggy people obviously feeling the effects of last night walked their dogs, which ambled along oblivious to their owners’ discomfort. Instead of carols or Johnny Mathis singing about New Year’s Eve, the radios in bodegas or on food carts again played their usual mix of rap, Middle Eastern pop and Taylor Swift.

“I always think I’m ready for the holidays to be over,” Charles said. “And then they end, and the world feels so … dingy.”

“It would help if they weren’t in midwinter.”

A question sprang to mind that Charles had never considered before. “Christmas is a summer holiday in the Southern hemisphere. I wonder what their traditions are – because snow and holly and all of that has to be totally foreign.”

“In Australia they have a Christmas barbecue on the beach.”

“Really?”

“Really,” Erik confirmed. “I dated a girl from Perth, back in college. She said they’d cook out and surf.”

“So their holidays end more cheerfully than this.”

Erik gave him a sidelong glance that made Charles suddenly, vividly remember their kisses last night. “Our holidays might end well yet.” Before Charles could stutter out a response, Erik pointed at a restaurant up the way. “Is that new?”

Charles had thought the cold air would be bracing. Snap him back into focus. But instead he matched his steps to Erik’s tempo, looked up at him so often he nearly walked into other pedestrians, and realized his shoulder was brushing against Erik’s arm far too much for it to be purely accidental – on his part or on Erik’s.

Tell him you’re focusing on your career right now and don’t want to get into anything. Tell him you’re moving to the family house in Westchester County. Tell him you only like sex when the guy takes a cold shower first and then lies still as though he were a dead body. Tell him you’ve become a Scientologist. Anything that might freak him out and make him leave. Just say it.

Instead he brushed against Erik again.

“Did you come into the city a lot, growing up?” Erik said as they waited for the walk signal at a corner.

“Not that often. More when I was little.” Charles added the detail he wouldn’t have shared with anyone else. “When my dad was alive, I mean. He’d drive us in on the weekends so we could go to the Natural History Museum and growl at the T. Rex. Or play with us in the park.  After my stepfather showed up – not so much. Mom took the three of us to F.A.O. Schwartz once and Cain got thrown out. Can you imagine how bad a kid has to be to get tossed from F.A.O. Schwartz?”

“He sounds like a nightmare.”

“He was.” That was more than a joke, and they both knew it; Charles had shared some hard truths about Cain before. But the conversation was getting too heavy, surely. “Did you ever go there as a kid?”

“Sometimes. I went on my own. My parents couldn’t have afforded much there, but I liked to look. Not even to envy, really. Just to see the things they had.”

“Not to envy? Surely you had to want some of it.” Rather guiltily, Charles reflected that he’d been given most of that junk; Mom had tried buying them things as a substitute for showing them love. He’d even owned a life-sized stuffed gorilla. That thing was probably still moldering in the mansion’s attic.

Erik shook his head. “I didn’t let myself want it. It felt like – like going to the museum, I think. I no more expected to bring home any of those toys than you would have expected to bring home a Tyrannosaurus skeleton.”

“Yeah, we never got anything bigger than a stegosaurus.”

Charles kept from smiling just long enough for Erik to wonder if he wasn’t joking.

Their laughter had just tapered off when they circled back along Charles’ block. He pointed at his building. “Home base.”

“Oh, this is it? Nice.” Although Charles had told Erik about his place, Erik had never seen it before. “What floor?”

“The twenty-first.”

“Must be one hell of a view.”

Now Erik was angling for an invitation, which was Charles’ cue to come up with something to say, absolutely anything besides, Come on up and take a look.

He said, “Come on up and take a look.”

“Sure.”

They both sounded so casual, and neither of them was fooling the other for an instant.

“Sorry about the heat,” Charles said as they rode the elevator upward. “It’s been out for two days.”

“I’d think a place this nice could get a repairman out even on a holiday.”

“There’s some furnace part they have to order or something. It should only take a couple more days, they swear. But for now it’s icy. Consider yourself warned.”

“I’m prepared,” Erik said, and oh, was everything Erik said from now on going to feel like a double entendre even if it wasn’t? Probably.

At least Charles had a better relationship with neatness than his sister did. He despised clutter and tossed it at the first opportunity – often too enthusiastically, ditching bills or Christmas cards along with the junk mail. So he didn’t have to worry about Erik seeing anything out of place. Everything in his house was pale wood and matte chrome and in a palette of pale cool colors that reminded him of the beach in winter.

Charles found it peaceful. Raven called it boring. But he never worried about that too much, because guests always did exactly what Erik did when they walked in the door.

“Wow. Wow. That’s – amazing.”

“Isn’t it?” Usually Charles didn’t like to glory in his physical possessions; it was tacky, and besides, he knew better than most how little happiness money could buy. The view was different, though. That felt like something he had chosen – no, something he had discovered. The broad glass wall of the main room looked out onto the park, which at this height looked less winter-barren, more silvered with frost. In the distance, the skyscrapers and spires of the East Side seemed to be carved from the soft gray clouds overhead, like the city itself was no more than a dream.

“You could stare at this all day,” Erik said, walking forward slowly, as if almost in a trance.

“Sometimes I do.” Too often, lately – but Charles could hardly concentrate on that right now. His pulse was heightened, his breaths shallow. It was as though every cell in his body responded to Erik’s presence. He was utterly aware of Erik, and of the door to his bedroom, only a few steps away.

The dizzying precipice of his view beckoned. Charles stepped forward to stand beside Erik just next to the window; the glass fogged slightly with their breaths. Silence filled the room, simultaneously oppressive and tantalizing. He had to lick his lips before he could speak again.

“Chrysler Building,” he said, pointing to the spire – the most ridiculous thing he could have pointed out to a native New Yorker, but he couldn’t stop himself. “And if you angle yourself just right, you can even see the lake.”

“Which way?”

“Like – ” Charles tilted his body so that the soft shimmer of water was visible through distant trees. “Like this.”  

Erik stood directly behind him. His chest brushed against Charles’ shoulders. Although Charles lifted one hand so that his finger could trace the skyscraper’s silhouette, he knew Erik wasn’t looking. He could hardly see it himself. His entire world had shrunk down to those few inches of contact along his back.

Then Erik’s hand closed around Charles’ arm.

Charles didn’t move away.

Erik nuzzled the side of Charles’ face, then brushed his lips just behind Charles’ ear.

All Raven’s warnings, all his own resolutions, everything he knew about how this had to end wasn’t enough to keep him from turning his face toward Erik’s.

At first the angle was strange, off-kilter, so they had to crane their necks to get their lips to meet. But Charles gave into it slowly, slowly, only another inch for each kiss, so that they were only gradually giving into the embrace. Erik’s hand tentatively slid around Charles’ back as Charles leaned into the kiss more fully. They opened their mouths before using their tongues, as if testing each other every moment, every step.

He drew Erik’s tongue between his lips and sucked softly; Erik responded by thrusting his tongue in a measured rhythm, mimicking sex. Charles imagined Erik pushing into him just like that – slick and strong, maddeningly slow – and knew Erik was imagining it too.

The champagne wasn’t muting this. Wasn’t causing it. He was unshielded, exposed, unexcused. Each touch flayed Charles raw. He couldn’t bear it. He couldn’t get enough.

Finally, when their lips parted long enough for Charles to gulp in a breath, Erik said, “I couldn’t sleep last night. All I could think about was you. This. Us.”

“Oh, God. Yes.” If Erik wanted to use him, he wanted to be used. He’d go down on his knees and suck Erik off, right here, right now, in front of the whole city. He’d get on all fours and let Erik fuck him senseless. So what if it all ended badly? At least he’d know what it was like to have Erik inside him. At least he’d have that just once.

One of Erik’s hands clutched him at the hipbone; the other curved around his head, holding Charles in place. “I want you.”

His knees nearly buckled. Charles looked up into Erik’s eyes, almost dazed with need – and it hit him. What would it feel like to never see Erik again?

He said, “Wait.”

“Charles?”

“Wait.” Charles forced himself to pull back; Erik let go, though he looked both bewildered and understandably frustrated. “I – we ought to talk about this.”

“Ah, okay, sure.” Erik ran one hand through his hair. “Did I do something wrong?”

“No! No. That was all – that was amazing – and you’re – but Erik, you’re straight. You like women.”

“Yeah, but – ”

“So how do I even come into it?”

Erik shrugged. He actually shrugged. What the hell was that to go on?

“You’re confused,” Charles said. That was one of the euphemisms the straight guys offered up most often. Confused. It meant, not that into you.

“It’s a confusing situation. But I know you and I – we have something, don’t we? Or we could.”

It felt like being torn open. Charles stepped further back. His legs shook – all that adrenalin and arousal rushing through his body with nowhere to go – and he sank onto the white sofa, rather than fall. “Think about it, okay? Really think about it. You don’t want to have the kind of sex I want to have. You don’t want to do to me what you want me to do to you. Right?”

Erik stood there, staring hard at Charles, for a long silent moment. Then he crossed to Charles in two long steps and kneeled in front of him. “Okay.” He took a deep breath, then reached for Charles’ fly. “Okay.”

“Erik?”

He couldn’t breathe or even think. Sensation kept crashing into him, wave after wave, stunning him over and over again: Erik’s hands fumbling with the button of his jeans, pushing down the elastic of his boxers. Erik’s fingers circling his swollen, sensitive cock. The shock of cold air against his groin; the greater shock of being warmed by Erik’s breath.

Erik opened his mouth slightly, hesitated, then slowly licked the head. Charles sucked in a sharp breath. Erik licked him again before dipping his head a little farther down, enough to kiss the tip. Then he opened his mouth wider and took Charles in.

“Oh, fuck.” Charles clutched at the back of the sofa, his arms spread wide, as he tilted his pelvis up into it. Erik swirled his tongue around Charles – the motion almost clumsy – but it was Erik’s mouth hot and wet around him, and that was all Charles needed.

Only then did Erik start to suck. Two pulses, three, and Charles already was near the point of writhing – but Erik tried to take Charles in deeper, and then he coughed and came close to gagging.

Not that deep, Charles was going to say when he looked down at Erik. Take it easy. But at that moment Erik looked up at him, his eyes searching for Charles’ even as his mouth was stretched wide and full. He saw how uncertain Erik was. Remembered that Erik had never done this before, had probably virtually never even thought about doing this before.

And he realized he’d pushed Erik into doing this before he was ready.

Charles framed Erik’s face with his hands as he gently eased him back. “Hey. It’s okay. All right? You don’t have to.”

“I can do it better.”

“No, no! That’s not it. No. You were – oh, Jesus, Erik. Don’t do this.”

“What?” Erik shoved back from the sofa, back up to his feet. He looked hurt … no, worse. Humiliated. “I don’t understand what you want!”

“You’re the one who doesn’t understand what you want. You just said so.”

“I’m not the one sending mixed signals here.”

Charles tucked himself back in. “I don’t want to pressure you into proving something to me, all right?”

Erik bit back whatever it was he’d been going to say; his mood ever so slightly gentled. But he still sounded miserable as he said, “Am I allowed to not know how I feel about this?” he said. “I never thought about having sex with a man before you. No, I don’t know what that means. But that doesn’t mean it’s not real. Can’t we find out what this is? Can’t I just once find out if I want something?”

What do I do? I don’t know what to do. Not for the first time, Charles felt the despair that came with knowing he still had no idea how to love someone.

After a few moments’ silence, Erik shook his head and started toward the door. They both still had their coats on.

Charles still didn’t know how to handle this – what to say or what to think. But he did the only thing he could think of. He rose from the sofa and got between Erik and the door. “Don’t go.”

They stared at each other for a long moment. Erik didn’t move, but he didn’t speak either.

“Not like this,” Charles said. If he had to plead, he’d plead. He didn’t know what he’d do with another chance, or if another chance would do any good, but he wanted one. “Please, Erik. Please don’t go.”

 

Chapter Text

Erik didn’t go.

He didn’t speak, either. For a few long, wretched moments they simply stood there, staring at each other, while Charles tried to figure out what the hell to do next.

Stupid. So fucking stupid. You were so scared of Erik hurting you that you hurt him first.

Charles imagined he could still feel the wetness of Erik’s mouth on his cock. Could Erik still taste him? Nothing of that brief heat lingered in this freezing apartment, or in the way they struggled for words that wouldn’t come.

He always kept coming back to moments like this – moments where he had so much to say that he couldn’t speak, where he felt so much that he couldn’t take it and went numb. When he looked at Erik, he thought they were probably both at the end of their ropes.

There was nothing to say that would fix this. Nothing. So if he couldn’t say anything, he’d just have to do something.

So Charles went to Erik, quickly, and slid his arms around his waist. He bent his forehead against Erik’s chest.

For a moment Erik didn’t move, but then his hands found Charles’ shoulders, and the contact felt like a lifeline. They remained there like that for a few seconds, awkward and uneasy, but unwilling to let go. In the chill of the room, Charles found himself grateful for Erik’s warmth. He hoped he was warming Erik, too.

Finally Charles managed to say, “I’m so sorry.  I’d never have wanted to hurt you.”

“Why did you make me stop?”

“I pressured you into doing something you weren’t ready for.”

“I wanted to. I mean, I want to.”

And now Charles wanted to just drag him back to the sofa and start all over – but he remembered the confusion he’d seen in Erik’s eyes. He had to trust his instincts here. This wasn’t just about self-protection; he needed to look out for them both. “Okay, but I think we rushed it. Right?”

Erik hesitated. His frustration was palpable, evident in the tension of his body, and yet he slid his hands down Charles’ back, deepening their embrace. “I don’t know.”

They held on to each other like that for a while longer. It was as though they couldn’t trust anything they might say, Charles thought, only how they touched.

Finally Erik said, “This isn’t just about me, though. Is it?”

“No, it’s not.” Charles leaned back just far enough to see Erik’s face. “We need to talk. A lot.”

“Then we’ll talk.” Clearly Erik was encouraged to have a place to begin. “But we might want to find someplace warmer.”

The damned apartment was only a few degrees warmer than outside. Still – “I can’t quite see chatting about this at Starbucks.”

“Well. No.” Erik smiled slightly. They both knew that precious few things would break through New Yorkers’ protective bubble of inattention, but an in-depth conversation about sexual history could do it.

“Just sit down, okay? And ditch the coat.” Charles motioned at the sofa. “Hang on just a sec.”

Then he dashed into his bedroom and grabbed the duvet. When he came to sit beside Erik on the sofa, he chucked his own coat, tossing it carelessly to the floor, and tugged the duvet over them both. Erik let Charles settle himself, then tucked one edge of the blanket around Charles’ shoulder – a gesture both careless and gentle, a glimpse into someone who took care of others without questioning it, without even thinking about it.

Now they were cocooned together on the sofa, sitting so close that it was almost cuddling. Charles had done this just so they’d be warm enough, but now he realized it was almost the smartest thing he could have done. They couldn’t be stiff with each other, not once they were snuggled under the same blanket. Erik’s smile was easier now, and Charles felt the tension slowly beginning to fade from his body.

“Okay,” Erik said. He leaned one arm against the back of the couch, almost – but not quite – bringing Charles into his embrace. “Where am I going wrong here?”

“Let’s start with where I’m going wrong. I’m sure that list is longer.”

Charles took a deep breath and started talking. For once he didn’t edit himself. He didn’t wonder what Erik would think, whether he was sending the right impression. Instead he just tried to tell the truth, the real truth of himself, if he understood what that was. Maybe, finally, he did.

So he told Erik about his thing for straight men. About how easy it was for a lot of straight guys to take advantage of that. About some of the men he’d dated, and how badly it had always ended.

This time, listening to his own words, Charles saw other truths as well. Yes, some of those guys had used him; he knew that often it had come down to no more than that. But a few of them – maybe they’d only been honestly confused, the way Erik was. Maybe other, weirder things were going on in their lives. And maybe it had been easier for Charles to despise them as opportunists and takers than to see them as people just as fragile and flawed as himself.

“For the longest time, I asked myself why I always went for the ones who were guaranteed to leave me,” Charles confessed. As he had throughout, Erik listened silently, gray eyes studying Charles’ face intently as he spoke. The vast silver city beyond the window seemed like a far-away dream; nothing was as real as Erik’s nearness, his attention, his breath. “Finally, recently, I realized – I went for straight guys because they were guaranteed to leave me. That was the only thing I knew how to deal with, you know? People stick with the pain they know. At least, I do. But I don’t want to do that any longer. Most of all, I don’t want to do that with you.”

Erik nodded. “All right.” Those were the first words he’d spoken in several minutes. “Thank you. I understand better now.”

“You mean a lot to me.” Charles wanted to touch Erik’s face, or lean into that outstretched arm, but he contented himself with the closeness they already had. “You always have.”

“So have you.” Erik’s fingers traced along Charles’ shoulder, tugged slightly at his sweater. “Remember when we met? That weird theme party of Emma’s?”

“Where we all had to wear blue? Yeah. What was that about, anyway? I can’t recall.”

Erik shrugged. “Who knows? But I remember we started arguing right away – I mean, I think I hadn’t even put up my coat. I was campaigning for Hillary, and you were wearing the very first O button I’d ever seen, and we got into it. On everything. I almost wanted to be mad at you but I couldn’t. Were you mad at me?”

Charles was taken aback; he’d obviously argued passionately at the time, but over the years his memory of that incident had faded. Well, not faded, exactly: All that remained was how hot he’d found Erik, and how badly he’d hoped his instant crush wasn’t obvious. “No, I wasn’t. I just thought you were – beautiful.”

Erik’s eyes searched Charles’ then. What was he looking for there? He said, “That night, I dreamed about you. It was the first time I’d ever had a, you know, a sex dream about another guy. And it was, ah, extremely vivid.”

So much for thinking about anything else for a while. Charles could stop himself from asking, “What was the dream?” 

“We were backstage, like, at a play, maybe? Mostly I remember we were behind these red velvet curtains, and people were all around but nobody could see us, and you –“ Erik hesitated, then said, “You gave me a hand job while we kissed. I woke up hard. I got Magda up in the middle of the night to – okay, you get the idea. She wanted to know what got me into that mood, but I couldn’t tell her. From then on, though, I knew.”

This wasn’t about Erik’s divorce. This wasn’t about champagne and loneliness and opportunity. This went all the way back to the night they’d met.

Charles couldn’t let himself hope. He couldn’t. But the only other place his mind would go was backstage at a play in a dream, to the vision of Erik’s mouth on his, Erik’s cock in his hand.

“I wasn’t going to do anything about it,” Erik continued. “Magda and I were still happy then, and besides, I thought – you know, it was a crush. Just that. Proof Kinsey was right about nobody being absolutely gay or straight, something like that. It wasn’t a big deal for me. Whenever I saw you around, I admit, I got a charge out of it. But mostly I just wanted us to be better friends.”

“I did too. But I couldn’t. Not wanting you the way I did.”

“You did?” Erik’s eyes lit up. His hand found the back of Charles’ neck, and now they were undeniably embracing.

“Yeah.”

For a second, anything might have happened. Charles knew if he leaned forward just slightly, or touched Erik in return, they’d wind up kissing. He’d managed to stop them last time, but did he have the strength to do it again?

Instead of making a move, Charles said, “So what changed? Besides Magda leaving.” If that was all there was to it, he knew, that wasn’t nearly enough to go on.

Erik’s thumb rubbed back and forth along Charles’ shoulder. “This summer, when you were telling me about the new man you were seeing – you know, before, when you mentioned someone, I always hoped it would work out. You were obviously such a good guy, and I wanted you to be happy. But that time I didn’t. While you were talking about him, I kept looking for problems, or flaws, something. I didn’t want you to end up with him. At first I didn’t get it. I wondered if the divorce was making me bitter, making me hate love or whatever. Then I realized it was simpler than that. I was jealous.”

That was promising, wasn’t it? Or was he fooling himself once more? Charles was still so bad at this. He knew his weaknesses, every one, an endless list that had scored its way through his soul, and yet he was better at seeing them in the rear-view mirror than he was at understanding them in the present. He couldn’t tell the difference between wishful thinking and a real chance at something good.

“For a while I wrestled with that,” Erik continued. “I knew I didn’t have any right to be jealous if I wasn’t going to do something about my attraction to you. But I didn’t know whether I even wanted to. Maybe I enjoyed looking at you, and my subconscious might dream about you, but the reality – that would be different.”

Hopes already fading, Charles said, “You didn’t actually want to have sex with another man.”

“I didn’t know. I can’t know. How can I know unless I’ve done it?” Erik no longer met Charles’ eyes. Was that embarrassment only natural, or did it reflect his inner doubts?

So Charles voiced doubts of his own. “You didn’t come back to me at the party. After the balcony.”

“You came back to me so fast.”

“But – but when I asked if you were being bad, you said yes. Like kissing me was a bad thing to do.”

“You asked the question! Besides, I thought you were just talking dirty to me. You were, weren’t you?”

Charles had asked the question. Maybe, down deep, he still wondered if guys were doing something wrong by kissing him. Whether he was doing something wrong by kissing them. Yet he felt certain he hadn’t been the only one with hang-ups. “When Raven came in, you pulled away from me.”

“I wasn’t going to keep groping you in front of your sister.” By now Erik looked exasperated. “Besides … you know, Magda was just outside. I didn’t want to rub her face in it.”

Erik hadn’t been rejecting Charles, or his own actions. He’d only meant to be kind to his ex-wife. Charles shook his head, and though he laughed softly, he felt childish, even stupid. “Sorry.”

Erik’s fingers resumed their soft circles against his back; one fingertip brushed against the bare skin at the nape of Charles’ neck. “You’ve had some rough experiences. I get that now. I don’t want to be one of them.”

“What do you want?”

He expected to be told again that Erik didn’t know, but Erik surprised him. “After I realized how jealous I was, I figured I should get to the bottom of it. I knew I’d see you on New Year’s Eve. So I decided I’d be with you at midnight. We’d kiss. And if I liked that, then I was going to do something about it.”

Their eyes met. Charles remembered their long conversation on the balcony, and how he’d never once suspected that Erik was doing it all deliberately, in hopes of a kiss.

Erik smiled softly. “That was my New Year’s Resolution, I guess.”

Charles had to laugh. “Mine was to swear off straight guys for once and for all.”

“Okay, that was bad timing.” Erik pretended to groan, and they were both smiling, but the tension between them had tightened to a breaking point. His eyes searched Charles’ intently. “One of us is going to break his resolution. Who’s it going to be?”

Erik’s hand on his shoulder, the scent of his skin, the way they were wrapped up together away from all the cold – it was more than Charles could resist. He didn’t know whether he was making a terrible mistake or seizing the opportunity of a lifetime. He only knew he couldn’t pull away. “I’m pretty sure it’s going to be me.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

They leaned closer. Erik’s face was softened by the pale light from the window behind him. Charles tilted his head, fixed his eyes on Erik’s mouth. Every detail was vivid – the stubble on Erik’s unshaven chin, the sliver of cool air against one shoulder when their posture changed and the cover slipped away, the way he resisted closing his eyes because he wanted to drink in every second, every aspect of this moment.

Then Erik kissed him, and he shut his eyes, and nothing else mattered.

Why had he fought this? Wrong or right, Charles didn’t care – not as long as he could slide his tongue in Erik’s mouth, run his hands along Erik’s thighs, or feel Erik pulling them tight against each other. Not when Erik’s fingers wound into his hair, or when he could almost crawl into Erik’s lap.

Charles dragged Erik after him as he lay back on the sofa; the chill in the room was sharp enough that Erik took a moment to recover them with the duvet before lowering himself over Charles. Erik’s knee prodded between Charles’, until they were thigh to thigh. Classic straight-guy move – but one Charles liked. A lot.

Let’s see how this goes. Charles slid his hands down Erik’s back to cup his ass. Taut muscle beneath tapered waist – Jesus – but the magnificence of the physique his hands were discovering didn’t matter as much as how Erik would react. A lot of straight guys acted weird the first time he went for their ass.

Erik groaned into Charles’ open mouth, and thrust down against Charles hard enough to make them both gasp. The kiss that followed was messier and more passionate than all the rest.

When they broke the kiss, Charles licked his wet lips and was rewarded with a fierce smile. Erik whispered, “Want me to pick up where I left off?” Then his smile became stiff, almost awkward. “I mean, if I was doing it right.”

Charles kissed him swiftly. “You’re lovely. But I tell you what.” He grinned. “Let’s go in the bedroom for a tutorial.”

 

**

 

Back and forth, back and forth.

First Charles would push Erik onto his back (with the coverlet always over them, always, sealing out the cold), and he’d demonstrate. Cupping the balls firmly, sucking soft, then hard, responding to every grunt, every moan.

Just when Charles would think Erik was going to give in to it, Erik would tug away and roll Charles over for his turn. Each time, he grew more skilled at mimicking Charles’ movements; each time, the blow job got better and better. Before long, Charles was the helpless one, the one who didn’t think he had the strength to hold out.

“Touch yourself,” Charles breathed as he looked down at the shadow of Erik under the covers, head bobbing as he worked.

Erik pulled back just long enough to say, “Don’t need to. You’ve got me so hard.”

As Erik took him in again, Charles writhed against the sheets. “Don’t – didn’t mean – I want you to. I want you to touch yourself – so – so it’s as good for you – oh, fuck, fuck, Erik.”

He was close, so damn close. As much as he wanted to be the one who made Erik come first, Charles wasn’t sure he could hang on much longer.

Sensing this, Erik wrapped one fist around Charles’ cock and pumped him as he pulled his face away – the transition wasn’t seamless, but it was still pretty damned good. “Come for me.”

To hell with restraint. “I don’t come like this. I mean, with you sucking. With anyone sucking. I need to fuck your mouth.”

Erik hesitated, but only for an instant. Voice low, he said, “Then I want you to fuck my mouth.”

“Only if you touch yourself for me.”

Charles waited while Erik propped himself on one elbow, the better to get his massive cock in his free hand and start stroking. For a moment Charles thought he might come just from watching that. But then Erik opened his mouth wide, waiting for him.

One thrust upward with his hips – not even much of a thrust – and the head of his cock was back in Erik’s mouth. But only the head, and only just. It was that sensation, the wet resistance of lips back and forth right there at the tip … that was what got Charles off every time.

He thrust faster, shallower, his breaths catching in his chest, feeling the heat of Erik’s mouth spreading through him, spiraling up to his solar plexus, his heart, his throat as he cried out and came.

For the first moment, Charles was boneless and insensate with pleasure – but almost immediately he thought of Erik. He had come more on Erik’s lips than between them, and as hot as it was for him to see the stuff dripping from his mouth and chin, he knew it might be different for Erik. Charles managed to whisper, “You okay?”

Erik smiled. No, he grinned, not even wiping his mouth, and it was the hottest thing Charles had ever seen. “Yeah.”

Charles flipped Erik onto his back so swiftly that Erik gasped. Then he kissed him, reveling in the taste. With one hand he worked Erik’s erection, planning to return the favor in just a moment – but after only a few pumps of his fingers, Erik spurted wet and hot against Charles’ palm. It was so good to see that grimace on Erik’s face, eyes screwed tightly shut and mouth open, and to know he’d made Erik feel this.

“Was it good?” Charles panted against Erik’s cheek and temple, between kisses.

“Very good. I like this.” Erik started to laugh. “I really like this.”

“Mmm. Me too.”

They pulled the duvet more tightly around themselves, its warmth even more necessary now that they were naked, wet with each other’s spit and sweat and come. Erik burrowed his head into Charles’ shoulder; his breaths slowed and became more even, and Charles realized Erik was falling asleep.

Post-coital drowsiness tugged at him, too. Probably they hadn’t had even one good night’s sleep between the two of them. But Charles managed to remain awake for a little while, stroking Erik’s hair. He wanted to memorize this moment, this feeling, in case it never came again.

Now he knew that Erik could enjoy having sex with him. But other straight men had enjoyed the sex, too, even if they hadn’t been as generous as Erik. That hadn’t kept them from wanting something else and walking out the door, usually sooner rather than later. Charles couldn’t forget that, not even with Erik drowsing against his shoulder.  

Maybe this wouldn’t work for very long. Maybe this spark, this flame, was at the end of a fuse.

Charles closed his eyes and tried to hope for better things. But he wasn’t very good at it. Out of practice. 

Chapter Text

Charles awoke to see the city lights peeping through the blinds of his bedroom’s floor-to-ceiling windows, each gleam brilliant against the last glow of twilight. The chill in the room was by now near the point of refrigeration, but he was still warm under the blanket, nestled next to Erik.

For a few moments Charles just watched Erik sleep. As always, he was struck by Erik’s handsomeness – but also by the trust Erik had given him.

Words welled up, words too dangerous to be spoken out loud: You’re so beautiful. I want to be with you all the time. I could fall in love with you. He mouthed the last so that there was nothing to hear.

One of Erik’s shoulders was exposed to the cold, and Charles gently tugged the cover over him. The rustle or the motion was enough to make Erik stir, then blink. “Sorry,” Charles whispered. “Didn’t mean to wake you.”

“Oh. Shit. Sorry. Charles, I apologize. I didn’t mean to nod off like that.”

This didn’t make sense. “We just had sex. Of course you were sleepy.”

Erik paused before he started to laugh. “Women usually hate it when you fall asleep right after.”

“We’re both Neanderthal men, so we can pass out as soon as we like.” Charles grinned as he tugged Erik closer. At least Erik hadn’t awoken with regrets or awkwardness. That was something, wasn’t it? “Nighttime, almost. Do you have to be anywhere?”

“Not until work tomorrow morning. Speaking of which – ” Erik gave Charles a look that seemed almost shy. “You live closer to my office than I do. If we ran down to a Duane Reade, I could grab a toothbrush, change of underwear, stay here for the night?”

Charles’ face actually hurt from smiling. Not that he’d smiled all that much today, but those muscles had atrophied considerably in the past few months. “You’d stay in this icebox with me?”

“Duane Reade also sells space heaters.”

“I like how you think.”

They didn’t dare climb out from under the warm blanket naked; instead, Erik managed to fish their abandoned clothes from the floor beside the bed, and they put their sweaters and jeans and socks in the covers with them to warm up. Once they’d wrestled through the process of getting dressed while horizontal, they grabbed their coats and headed out.

In the past day, the weather had turned from merely wintry to truly bitter cold. Thank God the apartment building retained a little heat thanks to its sturdy construction; otherwise, Charles thought, staying there would have been dangerous.

Right now, though, if Erik wanted to stay with him, there was no place else Charles would rather be.

The whole errand was surreal – being able to put his arm through Erik’s as they walked along the sidewalk. Watching Erik select a toothbrush and hearing him say, “I guess I can leave this at your place.”

Saying, “Sure. Yeah,” and trying to wrap his mind around the idea that Erik would stay over. Realizing that Erik meant to stay over for many nights to come.

On their way back, they swung by Reginelli’s and picked up a pizza, then ducked in a market for a bottle of cheap red wine. Charles at first thought they’d set their meal on his kitchen island, but the space heater could only work on so much of his apartment at a time – and keeping the bedroom warm was definitely top priority. So they wound up laying their meal out as a kind of picnic on his bedroom floor, paper towels taking the place of a tablecloth. The view wasn’t as spectacular from his bedroom, but nighttime offered the city lights. So Charles didn’t turn on the lamp; instead they saw each other by the heater’s glow.

“Best seat in town,” Erik said.

They had pulled up one of the blinds, defying the cold. Charles said, “It’s not quite the Rainbow Room, but I’m glad you like it.”

“I didn’t mean the view. I meant being next to you.”

Charles couldn’t resist a grin, then wondered why he was trying to resist it. “You’re more romantic than I thought you’d be.”

“I’m not, usually.” This was Erik’s cue to say something like You bring it out in me, which Charles would simultaneously cherish and doubt. Instead Erik’s expression became thoughtful. “That’s not exactly true. I’ve always wished I could … express myself more, in that way. But I used to hold it back.”

“Why?”

“The usual male bullshit. Didn’t want to lose the upper hand in the relationship. Didn’t want to seem needy. Didn’t want to come across as weak. So I came across as cold instead.” Erik ran one hand over his close-sheared hair and sighed. “Magda hated that. I tried to change for her, and I guess I must have, but by the time I could’ve really told her how I felt – I didn’t feel it anymore, and neither did she.”

Charles might be happy he had a shot with Erik now, but he could still see the waste. “That’s sad.”

“Yeah. But it’s done.” Erik’s fingers sought Charles’. “Just so you know I’m still figuring this out.”

“That makes two of us. From where I’m sitting, you’re doing wonderfully so far.”

They kissed once, just a brush; by now they were both hungry enough to dedicate more attention to dinner.

However, Charles kept thinking about what Erik had told him, both tonight and in their past conversations. He turned the facts over and over in his mind, like twisting a kaleidoscope to reveal new patterns and see the colors as though for the first time.

Erik had more or less raised himself; his parents, though loving, had suffered from serious illnesses since his early childhood – multiple sclerosis for his mother, recurring cancer for his father. This meant Erik had largely been responsible for getting himself to school, buying groceries, and keeping house, though he scoffed at the idea that this was anything special.

Most kids, throughout most of history, did all that and more, Erik had said while telling Charles his history at one of Emma’s grand dinner parties. I’m glad I didn’t grow up spoiled. Instead I learned something about the real world.

But most kids didn’t have to learn how to give their mother injections before they’d learned how to drive. Most kids didn’t have to be alone when a doctor gave the bad news of a father’s certain and imminent death. Most kids didn’t take a break between their freshman and sophomore years of college because they had one parent to shepherd through dying, then the other only months later. Erik had spent his whole life having to control his own emotions and put bigger concerns ahead of his own happiness.  

Charles remembered, also, the way Erik had described being a child in F.A.O. Schwartz who didn’t even envy the fantastical toys there, because his imagination didn’t extend far enough for him to believe such things could ever be his.

And in the first miserable moments after Charles had pulled away on the sofa, Erik had said, Can’t I just once find out if I want something?

While Charles had been trying to protect himself emotionally for once, Erik had been finally reaching out. While Charles was trying to limit his desires, Erik was trying to explore his. While Charles had responded to loss by convincing himself he couldn’t love others and shouldn’t try, Erik had rushed at a chance for love too fast and too hard.

They were equally vulnerable. Equally scared. And equally fucked up. Wasn’t that proof positive they were doomed?

No, Charles realized. It wasn’t.

In fact, it felt more like a reason to hope.

He understood something deep about Erik, something true. He understood more of the emotions that had fueled their sudden romantic collision, and the barriers they might face. The sex wasn’t the only consideration. It wasn’t even the main consideration. They’d already started figuring out how to fuck each other; it was going to take a long time to learn how to love each other.

Maybe they’d get that time.

“Normally I’m too romantic,” Charles said as he poured more of the wine into his glass. “Too demonstrative, too clingy, too – well, too much. One guy said it was like he’d wanted a sip from a water fountain and been hit in the face with a fire hose.”

“That was a cruel thing to say.”

“Not necessarily untrue, though.”

Erik’s hand curved along Charles’ cheek, his fingers rasping against stubble. “You don’t have to change yourself for me.”

Charles turned his face to kiss Erik’s palm. “No. But I need to change a little, for myself.”

“Okay.” After a soft stroke of his thumb against Charles’ lips, Erik resumed eating their pizza.

Charles took a few bites himself, stealing glances over at the man by his side. Maybe … maybe he could say some of what was going through his mind. Trust his romantic side a little. “You’re beautiful, you know.”  

Was Erik blushing? Surely not. That had to be the orange glow from the space heater. “So are you.”

“I’ve always felt like, every time I saw you, I had to struggle not to stare. Or to drool. The daydreams I’ve had about you the past few years!”

“We’ll have to act them out,” Erik said, with a grin that made Charles very, very glad they were right next to the bed. “Hope the reality lives up to the dream.” 

“Are you kidding? In case I somehow failed to make this clear earlier, the sex was really, really amazing.”

“For me too.” Erik’s smile was almost smug, and who could blame him? But then Erik hesitated and asked, “Would you call that sex, though?”

“Uh, yes. You do remember it, right? The part with the penises and the orgasms?”

That made Erik laugh, as it was meant to. “Yeah, of course I do, but – we didn’t – you know.”

This was a fairly common misperception among straight people, including most of the straight guys Charles had dated, who’d wanted to fuck him every single goddamned time. “Listen. Anal sex is not the be-all, end-all of gay male sex. Yes, it can be absolutely awesome. Yes, I enjoy it, both giving and receiving. But I don’t do it every time I go to bed with someone.”

Erik had paused with his wineglass in mid-air, like he was now too interested in their conversation to remember anything else he was doing. “Why not?”

“Hmm. Lots of reasons. You have to really trust your partner, for one – trust them overall, in the moment, and so on. Physically, you have to be ready, too. Getting fucked ...” How many of the drawbacks did he want to get into right now? Introducing the word hemorrhoids would probably cast a certain pall over the romantic mood. “It’s, um, strenuous, and it helps to … pace yourself. You need to have certain things handy, like condoms and lube, and sometimes the moment strikes when those aren’t around. Besides, there are so many other fun things to do. Why focus on only one?”

“Like what we did tonight.”

“Sure. That was lovely, wasn’t it? Or we can just use our hands– in bed, in the shower, up against the wall, totally naked, half-dressed – any way you like.”

Erik’s eyes had taken on a fiery light that couldn’t be blamed on the glow of the space heater. He shucked his sweater and pushed it aside, so that he only wore a T-shirt. The room was warmer now, definitely, but Charles knew the real reason.

Charles pitched his voice slower, more dreamily. “We haven’t tried it Oxford style – ”

“What’s that?”

“Between the thighs.”

“I’d like that,” Erik said.

“Yeah. You will.”  

Erik kissed him, rough and sweet. As much as Charles enjoyed the kiss, he could tell Erik was holding back words. But what? Had something Charles said unnerved Erik? It wasn’t like anything he’d described was so incredibly different from straight sex.

So, when their lips parted, Charles said, “Is that all okay? Is there something else you want to do? Something you don’t want to do? Just say it.”

“Well. This summer – after I realized I might want to pursue this – uh, I might have checked out some gay porn online.”

Charles couldn’t help smiling. “What did you think?”

“It didn’t do anything for me.” But before Charles’ smile could fade, Erik added, “At least until I imagined that you were the guy on screen. Either guy. All the guys. Whatever. Then it was hot to me.”

“Only then?” That was so odd, to Charles. How could you be male and not find porn hot – at least, porn portraying the kind of sex you wanted to have yourself? Charles even found himself in the mood to watch straight porn once in a while; while he didn’t want to do it, he occasionally got turned on watching it.

“Yeah, only then.” Erik stroked one hand through Charles’ hair. “I don’t want to have sex with ‘a man.’ I want to have sex with you.”

Okay. Charles could deal with that.

Erik added. “I’m not gay. I guess you’d have to say I’m … bicurious?”

God grant me strength. Charles sighed and let it go. “Are there other men you’ve been attracted to?”

“No. Maybe Daniel Craig a little. But that’s just – ”

“Being human.”

“Right. Exactly. Okay, I’m getting sidetracked. The point is – you’re the only man I’ve ever wanted. But I want you so damn much.” Erik’s fingers in Charles’ hair tightened into a gentle fist. “When I watched those videos, I asked myself, can I do this for Charles? And they were always fucking each other. I mean, every time.”

“Gay porn resembles gay sex about as much as straight porn resembles straight sex.”

“… all right. Point taken. Still, though. I’ve thought about it a lot. About what it would mean to do all those things for you. To have you do them to me.”

Charles turned his head so he could kiss the inside of Erik’s forearm. “So far so good. Right?”

Erik nodded, but the tension was still there, equal parts desire and uncertainty. He whispered, “I need to know.”

Finally Charles understood. “What do you want me to do?” His voice was low, his gaze intent. “Just say it. Whatever you want, I’ll give you.”

They leaned closer, kissed, kissed again. With their mouths so close that their lips brushed, Erik said, “I want you to fuck me.”

The sound seemed to tighten around Charles’ heart, his ribcage, and around his cock like Erik’s hot fist. His voice breathy and strained, he managed to say, “You know it doesn’t have to be tonight. We can take our time. Wait until you’re ready.”

“I’m ready,” Erik said. At least, he wanted to be. “I want it to be tonight. Now.”

Charles understood, so quickly and so completely that the knowledge astonished him. Erik had his own fears about this relationship they both wanted so badly. As long as he was unsure whether he could be sexually satisfied – and whether he could satisfy Charles in turn – Erik would remain afraid. He wanted to prove something. That wasn’t a good enough reason.

But if Charles could actually get Erik into the moment … make his body want it as badly as his mind did …

“Listen.” Charles kissed Erik again. “We’ll go to bed. I’ll use my hands. If you like that, we can keep going.”

Erik nodded, very quickly.

Charles continued, “You have to make me a promise, though. If anything I do hurts past the point of pleasure – if you feel like you’re bleeding, anything like that – or even if you’re just scared, Erik, we have to stop.”

“I’m not scared.” 

“Bullshit. Taking cock for the first time is scary. I would know.” Charles’ first lover hadn’t been very worried about how it felt for Charles, either physically or emotionally. The encounter was consensual, certainly, but thinking back on it, Charles wondered how any guy could keep it up while thrusting into a teenage boy who had been shaking with fear. He said what he wished had been said to him: “Promise me that if this is too much, you’ll move back, say something, whatever you need to do. Okay? Don’t try and get through it because you think I want it. There’s nothing I want that’s worth hurting you for.”  

“I promise.” The pent-up energy within Erik changed, became less nervous, more anticipatory.  “Come here.”

Their kisses quickened. Roughened. Erik went after Charles’ clothes as if he were only just restraining himself from ripping them off – hands clutching at the hem of his shirt, the waist of his jeans. Charles let himself be stripped before helping Erik get undressed as fast as possible.

Thank God for the space heater. The sensation, Charles thought, had to be a little like standing on the edge of the dark side of the moon: one half of his body still chilled and dark, the other bathed in light and warmth. They crawled together into the bed, which still smelled of sex. Already his cock was hard for Erik, but he had to be patient. Patience had never mattered more.

Charles started by kneeling over Erik’s outstretched body, giving him a slow handjob. As Erik began stiffening in his grasp, Charles whispered, “I’m going to slick you up, okay?”

“Okay.” Erik braced his hands against Charles’ thighs.

Leaning over, Charles could just reach the bedside table. He let go of Erik for one moment, long enough to get out the condoms and lube – and to let Erik ache for that touch again. As he squirted lube onto his fingers, giving it a moment to warm, Charles said, “I feel like you know I would have said something long before now, but just to be clear, I play pretty safe. I get tested.”

Erik blinked, caught off guard. “I – God. I haven’t been tested since I got my marriage license. But Magda and I never cheated on each other, and I only went out with a couple of women since the divorce – I used condoms every time – ”

“Shhh.” Charles resumed stroking. “We’re good. Okay?”

“Okay.” Then Erik closed his eyes as he relished the touch.

For a while Charles just kept giving him a lazy hand job, enjoying the heat of Erik’s cock in his grasp and wondering how best to continue. His first impulse was to rim Erik, use his tongue to warm him up and start easing him open. But he suspected Erik hadn’t done that before either. He didn’t have to do everything to the man for the first time tonight.

So instead he sat back on his heels and slid his other slippery hand between Erik’s legs. Erik tensed – unavoidable – but Charles was patient, teasing Erik right at the entrance. Only after several seconds did he slip one finger inside.

“That’s okay,” Erik said, relief obvious.

“Good.” So, Magda probably hadn’t used her fingers when she went down on Erik. Charles would never ask Erik for more details of his married sex life; he sensed that Erik would want to protect Magda’s privacy, and besides, Charles didn’t want to hear about anyone else touching Erik. He wanted both of them to forget there had ever been anybody else. Any before.

Charles went to two fingers. Erik breathed in sharply, but his thighs fell farther open. He liked this.

So far Charles had only been moving his fingers very slightly; now he began using his wrist more, simulating very gentle thrusting, as he scissored his fingers. The response from Erik was a deep groan.

Where should I angle this to –

Erik’s eyes opened wide, and he gasped. “Oh, fuck.”

That was a good oh fuck. Charles grinned. “Right there, huh?”

“Charles. It’s like – unnnhh.”

Three fingers, and Erik barely even seemed to register the change. Carefully Charles scooted farther back on the bed, the better to see Erik with his legs splayed open, to see his own hand pumping into him. Erik reached up with both hands to grab the pillow beneath his head.

“That’s the spot,” Charles murmured. “When I fuck you, I’m going to get you right there.”

“Please.”

By now Charles was so hard it hurt. But he ground out the words, “We don’t have to tonight. I could just keep going with my hand. You like this, right? You want more?”

When Erik opened his eyes, he looked dazed, but he said, “I want you to fuck me.”

There were reasons to wait. This might be easier for Erik if Charles got him to use a plug first, or take a smaller dildo. Getting Erik off with his hand would ensure that the next time was more relaxed, more eager.

But Erik was hot and tight around Charles’ fingers. His taut balls brushed against the heel of Charles’ pumping hand. The head of Charles’ cock throbbed, as though every single beat of his heart was repeating now, now, now, now.

All of that meant nothing compared to the need in Erik’s eyes. Erik wanted to break down one of the barriers between them. Charles was going to bring him over.

“Use your hand on yourself for a minute, okay?” Charles pulled his hand out just long enough to suit up. Although the condom was lubricated, he smeared on extra, an almost absurd amount. For a second he considered asking Erik to roll onto his belly; that would make tearing less likely. Still, that way Charles wouldn’t be able to see Erik’s face. He needed to see him. They’d just take it gentle.

Charles leaned over Erik and kissed him, wet and sloppy. Then he said, “Bring your knees up for me. Farther – far as you can go.”

Erik bent until his knees were almost touching his shoulders. His body was angled so that Charles could stand beside the bed instead of kneeling on it; keeping his weight off Erik would help. He crouched over Erik, one hand braced beside Erik, the other around his cock as he angled himself.

Charles pushed – pushed harder – and with a small soft pop, he pushed in.

Even the sudden crush of heat and pleasure couldn’t blind Charles to Erik’s face – the way his eyes went wide, the way his jaw dropped open. It was unbelievable, how shock and pain and ecstasy all rippled across Erik’s face as he panted for breath, raw emotion torn from him.

Every cell in Charles’ body was telling him to start fucking. Instead he whispered, “You okay?”

“… yeah …”

“Are you sure?”

Erik licked his lips. Nodded. His breaths were still coming shallow and fast, but he managed to say, “More.”

Charles began rocking back and forth, very gently, very slowly. The pressure narrowed his whole world to this – that heat, that movement, the way Erik looked in the darkness, half his body painted in soft orange light. He sped up only gradually, stroke by stroke, keeping his motions shallow.

But he finally got deep enough to make Erik swear again … to hit him there, right there, where it felt so good that you thought you’d go blind. Erik’s hoarse cry gripped Charles in the solar plexus, in his balls, in his brain.

As he leaned onto one hand, Charles used the other to start pumping Erik’s cock again. The pitch of Erik’s shout changed, becoming more desperate.

Yes, that’s it, that’s it, Erik –

“Let go,” Erik groaned. “Let go.”

He meant to surrender to it. For Charles to stop restraining himself.

That wasn’t possible, but Charles began thrusting in earnest – still not pounding Erik the way he longed to, but faster, deeper strokes. His hair flopped into his eyes, sticking to his now-sweaty skin. But he could still see how beautiful Erik looked, how the overwhelming emotion on his face had become more purely pleasure.

And Erik was so tight in his hand now, the skin of his cock stretched like a drumhead, the thick swollen tip begging to be squeezed.

Erik clenched around Charles as he came, spurting across both their bellies. Just knowing he’d brought Erik off like this was the ultimate – or so Charles thought for the two seconds it took for him to catch up. The pulse seized his cock, his gut, his brain, blacking out everything but the wave of orgasm that made him cry out.

When Charles could think again, he very tenderly pulled out as he met Erik’s eyes. A few moments to ditch the condom, and then he could gather Erik into his arms and kiss him, endless kisses that felt like they could go on forever.

“You’re okay?” Charles whispered between soft, feathery kisses on Erik’s face. “You’re sure?”

“Fuck, Charles, that was amazing.”

“You liked it.”

“I loved it. I loved it.” Erik kissed him back, but his gaze was distant as he sought words. “It’s so – intense.”

“Yeah.”

“Like there’s nothing else left in the world. Nothing but you.”

Charles thought, say it. Just say it. And the words came out: “I could fall in love with you.”

Oh, shit. Was that too much?

But Erik smiled. “About time you caught up.”  

 

**

 

The next morning the apartment was almost dangerously cold outside the radius of his space heater, and his phone blinked with an advisory message from the co-op board. Although they’d already kissed goodbye dozens of times in the bedroom, counting on allowing Erik a quick dash toward work and heat, they wound up kissing again in the hallway for a few minutes.

“You can’t stay here any longer,” Erik said as he brushed back Charles’ hair, tugged the collar of Charles’ bathrobe more tightly around his neck. “It’s not safe.”

“I’m grabbing my stuff and going to the gym.” Only the promise of heat could make a morning on the elliptical sound inviting. “Then I’ll head to the library, get some research time in. By tonight maybe they’ll have done something.”

Erik kissed him again, this time on the forehead. “If they haven’t fixed your heat by tonight, you could come stay with me in Brooklyn.”

Charles tried to show a little restraint. “I don’t want to crowd you too soon.”

“I’m not crowded. I’d like if it you stayed with me tonight. Even if they do fix the heat here.”

God, it was nice not having to play it cool. “Then okay. I’ll come. Oh, wait – text me your address! I don’t know it.”

“We’re doing this out of order, aren’t we?”

It was a joke, but it made Charles pause. Quietly he said, “I get it all wrong, sometimes. I don’t know how good I am at making relationships work.”

To his surprise, Erik laughed. “Relationships don’t work. We all strike out every single time, until we don’t. We all get it wrong until we get it right. That’s how it goes.”

“I never thought of it like that.” Slowly, Charles began to smile. “See you tonight. Around 6:30?”

“Perfect.”

Charles’ morning sped by. It was amazing how time on the elliptical flew by when his mind was filled with erotic memories from the night before, memories that demanded to be relived again and again. He concentrated a little better once he got to work, mostly because he was actually interested in his latest paper. But thoughts of Erik stayed with him, no longer dominating his thoughts but instead surrounding him like a warm blanket.

Just before lunch, his phone rang: Raven. She turned out to be worried about his heat. “Seriously, it’s bitter out there today. Tonight’s going to be brutal. Do you want to hang out with us? Yeah, I know, you’d probably rather check into a hotel, but still, you could come by for dinner. Hank would love to see you.”

“Let’s all do dinner soon. But I have plans for tonight.” He hesitated. “I’m going over to Erik’s, actually.”

“You didn’t talk to him yesterday?”

“I did. He stayed over.”

She fell silent for a moment, during which Charles resisted the urge to defend himself, or Erik. Finally Raven said, “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“That makes two of us.”

“You’re sure he’s going to treat you right?”

“Yeah.” Charles tried to think of how he could explain this. “Erik wants this to work. I do too. We’ve been honest with each other. Really honest. So I think we have a chance.”

“That’s worth a lot. Telling the truth, I mean,” Raven said. “That’s been hard for both of us.”  

They’d been raised in a household where honesty could only mean punishment. “True.”

“But – when Henry and I started going out –“ she swallowed so hard Charles could hear it over the phone. “—well, we had that talk. You know, who else have you had sex with, how many, yadda yadda. And I told him the truth. It nearly killed me, but I got it out, because I could already tell Henry was different. He was the one I wanted to be myself with, my real self. Always.”

Charles said, “He was okay with it, wasn’t he?”

“Actually, Henry admitted that it freaked him out a little, but he said that was his issue, not mine, and he’d get past it. Which he has. But that’s not even the point, really. It was more like – when he told me that, and he said he was sort of screwed up when it came to sexual history, all I could think was, Wait, other people are as fucked up as I am? Other people walk around confused all the time too? It’s not just me?”

They were both laughing by now. “Yeah, I know what you mean. Erik – he can’t solve my problems for me. I can’t solve his for him. But I think maybe we can be there for each other while we try to figure it out.”

“That’s as much as you can hope for,” Raven said. “Well. That and great sex.”

“Check and check.”

“I am so getting you drunk to make you tell all.”

“Not tonight, you aren’t.”

“Okay. So I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

“Sure.” Charles hesitated. “Love you.”

After a pause, she said, “I love you too.”

As Charles left the university at the end of the day, he wanted something to warm during the long trip to Brooklyn. So he stopped by Fasir’s cart and bought a cup of coffee. Only as he stood on the subway platform did he remember that he’d promised himself he’d make his own coffee from now on. Another New Year’s Resolution made to be broken.

But to hell with it. The coffee was great.

 

THE END