Charles Xavier, Crown Prince of Chester, known on the front to all but his childhood protector and friend as General Charles Francis, stood on a small outcropping of rock, surveying the river with a critical eye. Charles frowned as he stared at the rushing water: much too deep, and the current was fast here. He had been around water his entire life, and he wasn’t sure he would chance it even alone.
The Genoshan forces, repelled earlier in the week, were now camped on the opposite bank several miles upriver. To battle on the lone bridge was asking for slaughter; what Charles really needed was a way to ford the river. Logan would kill him for scouting alone, he knew – but only Charles knew exactly what he was looking for, and more people would only increase the risk of detection.
So it was with great surprise and concern that Charles watched a man from the other side of the gorge jump headfirst into the rapids.
Charles paused only long enough to shuck his sword, his coat, and his shoes before diving in after the man.
The cold water was a shock to his system, and Charles nearly lost himself to the current in his moment of disorientation. Once he allowed himself to process the cold as bracing instead of debilitating, he opened his eyes and scanned the area as best he could.
There. A flash of color that could only be clothes. Charles swam towards it, trying to make out the scene that greeted him through his blurry vision.
The man was fighting hard against the current to stay in one place, body bobbing around a small, deep underground shelf where Charles could see a glint of something reflecting the sunlight.
He wouldn’t be able to reach it. Not in time, anyway. Charles could see his strokes becoming weaker, with more time separating each one. The man hadn’t even taken off his sword before leaping into the water, and Charles could see it weighing him down.
Charles swam over and wrapped an arm around the man, the other arm reaching up and then in in an attempt to pull them towards the surface. The stranger fought him, tried to shake off his hold, but he held firm, and eventually the man in his arms went limp, too weak to continue to struggle.
Charles broke the surface with a gasp, treading water momentarily before he spotted a small cave in the rocks close to the waterline. He swam to it, aided by the current, the man in his arms deadweight, and shoved his charge towards the lip of it, letting out a small sigh of relief when the man pulled himself into the shelter. Arms free, Charles managed to haul himself in after.
He lay there for some time, unable to do much more than pant, exhausted by his exertion, the breeze and the soaking cold water combining to sap him of what little energy he had left.
The man beside him stirred, rolling onto his side and eventually pushing up into a sitting position. The motion prompted Charles to attempt to move, and after no small amount of effort, he managed to prop himself up against the rough stone of the cave.
A quick glance at their shelter showed it to be a natural cave of some sort that extended back into the cliff-face, farther than Charles could see. There was no obvious exit, but perhaps one would become apparent after further exploration.
Curiosity satisfied, Charles turned his attention to the person beside him, finally able to examine the man whose life he had saved.
It was difficult to judge while they were seated, but given the length of the legs splayed in front of him and the length of his torso, Charles was willing to bet the man was taller than he was. He was still fully clothed – boots, sword, and cloak all still attached. No wonder Charles had had so much difficulty in keeping them both afloat. The wet hair plastered to his head was slightly longer than was fashionable and a little unkempt, and the scruff on his face only added to his disheveled appearance. His cheekbones were sharp, his face was narrow, and his blue-green eyes were filled with rage.
“Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” he growled at Charles in Common.
Charles raised an eyebrow. “I’ve just saved your life,” he replied in the same tongue.
“You’ve just prevented me from recovering something vital!”
“You were drowning,” he said simply. “Without my interference, you’d be at the bottom of the river with that ‘something vital’. I am sorry that you lost whatever it was you lost. I can see that it was important to you,” Charles met the strangers’ gaze again, unflinching. “But I’m not sorry I saved your life.”
“My life means nothing without that pendant. Do you understand? Nothing,” the stranger snapped.
“I find that rather hard to believe. But if that’s the way you really feel, the river’s right over there,” Charles said, tilting his head in the proper direction. “Still, I’m a bit tired. I don’t fancy my chances if I had to fish you out again.”
The man’s anger didn’t disappear; it was just overshadowed by his confusion and surprise.
“Who are you?” he asked, his voice incredulous and his gaze intense, like he couldn’t quite believe Charles was real.
“I’m sorry. How terribly rude of me. I’m Charles. And you are?”
“Erik,” the man said automatically before giving Charles that same dissecting, disbelieving stare.
“Well, Erik, I don’t know about you, but I’m rather cold at the moment. Shall we move farther in to the cave so it’s a bit less drafty?”
Erik’s eyes remained fixed on Charles for a long moment before he shook his head, his lips quirking into something that might generously be called a smile. He pushed himself to his feet before he crossed the mouth of the cave and, to Charles’ surprise, offered him his hand. Charles beamed at him as he wrapped his hand around Erik’s own, using it as an anchor as he hauled himself upright.
“Thank you,” Charles said once he was firmly on his feet, reluctantly removing his hand from the warmth that was Erik’s palm.
The heat had only served to emphasize the fact that Charles was soaking wet, and that the air in the cave was far from warm. Charles wrapped his arms around himself in an attempt to keep what little heat he still had contained in his body. All he wanted was to get far away from the mouth of the cave and the wind as quickly as possible, but his bare feet and the rough floor of the cave meant that haste was not a safe option.
Erik had no such concerns and quickly pulled ahead of Charles. He reached a fairly open, level portion of the cave some 30 feet away: close enough to the opening of the cave to still be somewhat illuminated due to the sunlight reflecting off the water, but far enough back to be spared the breeze. Erik unfastened his cloak and threw it on a nearby outcropping of rock to dry. In the process, he caught sight of Charles who was still picking his way over, closer to the mouth of the cave than Erik. Erik gave him a quizzical look, but said nothing, turning instead to examine their surroundings, his sword flashing in the limited lighting as he turned.
It struck Charles then just how vulnerable he was. Here he was, stranded in a cave without even a pair of shoes, let alone a sword, with a stranger who was in all probability an enemy solider.
If Charles lived long enough to tell the tale, Logan would kill him when he heard it.
Still, Charles mused as he worked his way over to where Erik had left his cloak to dry, it wasn’t as if there was anything he could do about it now. Erik hadn’t done anything to earn Charles distrust. Circumstances simply were what they were, and Charles would have done it again in a heartbeat.
Erik returned with an armful of what looked like driftwood, dropping it down onto the floor.
“There was more, over that way,” Erik gestured vaguely towards the direction he had just come from as he set about organizing the wood he’d gathered into a proper campfire. “But most of it was rotten.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” Charles mused, studying the walls and ceiling of the cave. “Given that this cave was likely formed by the river, I would guess that any wood you would find lying around would have been driftwood from before the water level dropped. Since we’re in a cave, most of the wood would rot long before it had a chance to dry.”
Erik was staring at him again, but after a moment he shook his head and went back to the wood.
“That’s all well and good,” he said as he worked, “but the dry wood will be just as useful as the rotten bits if we can’t get it lit.”
Charles examined Erik’s pile of wood, letting out a noise of triumph when he saw a long, curved piece. He walked over and picked it up, smiling widely when he tested it and found it was surprisingly strong for a piece of driftwood.
“If I can borrow your shoe for a moment, I believe I can solve our problem. I would do it myself but,” he gestured down towards his bare feet.
One improvised bow-drill later, Charles found warmth slowly being returned to his limbs by a roaring campfire.
By mutual unspoken agreement, both men removed their shirts to allow them to dry but left their trousers in place. Erik removed his shoes, but his sword stayed firmly buckled at his side while he glared into the flames.
Charles, for all that their situation was far from ideal, couldn’t help but take note of Erik’s physique. His face and build had already made an impression at the mouth of the cave, but Charles had been too concerned with warming up and drying off at the time to really appreciate what he had been seeing. Now though, with Erik’s well-muscled torso exposed, there was very little else he could do. Erik’s shoulders were ridiculously broad, the muscles across his shoulders and back so well defined that they reached towards his neck. His arms and chest were no better, and as if to counteract the breadth of his upper body and chest, his waist was almost unbelievably narrow. The overall effect was incredibly distracting.
Erik wasn’t just muscled, though. He was covered in scars. The kind of scars Charles had only just recently begun to accumulate.
Charles was exhausted, for all that it was just barely past midday. Almost drowning, he supposed, would do that to you. Still, tired as he was, Erik looked worse. His eyes would periodically drifting shut only for Erik to give a small jerk and have them fly open again. The problem was obvious. Erik was exhausted, but didn’t trust Charles enough to let his guard down enough to sleep. And he was clearly still angry about having lost his pendant, for all that that anger was thankfully no longer directed at Charles.
Charles stared at the fire as he thought. The pendant was important to Erik. Valuable enough that he had risked his life without any forethought in an attempt to retrieve it, and had nearly killed himself in the process. Even then, his first reaction to the experience had not been focused around the fact that he had almost died, but rather that the pendant had been lost to him.
Erik had nearly died trying to retrieve it, but his attempt had been spontaneous and driven by desperation. And Erik hadn’t seemed that strong of a swimmer. Perhaps a more considered approach, made by someone with greater skill, would have more success.
By midafternoon, their clothing had dried and had been replaced, and the crackling of the fire combined with warm clothes seemed to finally lull Erik to sleep.
Charles stepped cautiously, worried this time not for his feet but for Erik’s slumber. For all they’d only exchanged a handful of words, he couldn’t help but feel that Erik had to be beyond exhausted to allow himself to fall asleep in the presence of a stranger. If Charles accidentally woke him, he had a feeling the other man would not sleep again. Judging by the dark circles under his eyes and the lines that accompanied them, he sorely needed it.
Charles managed to reach the edge of the cave without disturbing him, and then set about stripping down to his underclothes. Drying his clothes had been difficult enough the first time. He didn’t fancy trying to do it again. Besides, this way, if he didn’t return, for whatever reason, at least Erik would have something else to burn in his fire.
Charles looked out at the water. If he was going to do this, it was going to have to be now. The light wouldn’t be good for much longer.
He took a deep breath and then plunged.
The water was just as cold as it had been that morning, and the current was still just as strong. Regardless, Charles fought his way back upstream to where he knew the pendant was resting. He could only pray it hadn’t been dislodged and swept father down the river, never to be found again.
Charles didn’t know how long he had been in the water, but his teeth had begun to chatter and he was starting to have some difficulty feeling his fingers. Perhaps, he thought to himself as he dove under once again, it was time to admit defeat and turn back.
He saw it as he was surfacing for air. A flash of light reflecting off gold.
He broke the surface one last time, took a deep breath of air, and drove straight back down.
The pendant had come to rest on a natural shelf about two thirds of the way down, the fine gold chain tangled around several jagged pieces of rock, the pendant itself wedged between the edge of the shelf and a rather large rock. He couldn’t do it in pieces. He’d have to dislodge it all at once, or risk having the current whisk it away while he was coming up for breath.
The chain, for all it was delicate work, came free without too much trouble. The pendant was a different matter entirely. By the time Charles had worked out the proper angle to finally work the pendant out from under the rock, he was almost out of breath.
He kicked towards the surface as fast as he possibly could, but in his haste he had forgotten about the shelf. His foot connected and was caught and Charles was short on air and there was no time for finesse, so he simply yanked, mouth opening in a small inaudible scream as he felt flesh tear, but it didn’t matter because his head broke the surface and then he could finally breathe.
Getting back to the mouth of the cave was work. Dragging himself in was almost more than he could handle. Pulling himself upright nearly had him in tears.
He refused to look at his foot. He really didn’t want to know
Clothing was beyond him at this point. The tremors wracking his body would have made it damn near impossible anyway. What he needed now was to get warm. And to get Erik his pendant.
Charles hobbled toward the fireside, leaning against the rough walls of the cave. His foot refused to accept even the smallest amount of weight, and Charles was so exhausted that it took all the strength he could muster to even remain upright. Still, he thought, glancing down at the pendant hanging from the chain clasped in his hand, it was worth it. He moved forward, one slow, agonizing step at a time until he finally found himself standing close to where the other man slept. Charles carefully allowed the chain to slip from his fingers until the pendant rested safely on Erik’s chest, water causing a small damp spot to spread across his only recently dried clothes.
Charles took a step back, wanting to avoid dripping on his reluctant companion further, only to have his foot refuse to support his weight. Charles’ leg crumpled and he fell to the ground with a wordless cry of pain.
Erik jerked upright, hand flying across his waist to the hilt of his sword only to freeze when he caught sight of the object that had fallen off his chest and onto the ground. Charles watched as he picked it up, his disbelief clear. The reverent way he held the pendant and the incredulous smile on his face gave Charles strength, and reassured him that it had been worth it.
“How…” Erik began, his expression soft, glancing up and freezing. He pulled the pendant around his neck and shoved it under his shirt before crawling across the small space that separated them and crouching at Charles’ side, firelight flickering across unreadable features.
Erik’s eyes scanned Charles before settling on his foot, his lips thinning and his brow furrowing when his gaze finally settled on Charles’ right foot. Erik reached out, long fingers wrapping around Charles’ ankle before gently turning it back and forth, examining the wound critically. Charles took a deep breath and looked down to do the same.
A long, deep gash stretched from just below his instep, up and across his foot ending at his ankle. Blood was oozing from it, and judging by the amount on his foot and the rather macabre trail from the front of the cave, it had been bleeding for some time.
Erik gently placed Charles’ foot back on the ground before whipping his shirt over his head.
“What are you doing?” Charles asked weakly through chattering teeth.
“Drying you off,” Erik responded simply, the gold of the pendant resting against his skin shining in the firelight.
He followed Charles’ gaze.
“I take it you know what this is, then,” he said as he ran the improvised towel over Charles’ chest and back, rough but through.
“On the contrary,” Charles forced out, “I haven’t the faintest idea.”
Erik froze, his hand pressing the shirt against Charles’ chest just above his heart.
“Why?” Erik asked, staring down at Charles uncomprehending. “Why would you do such a thing, if you did not know?”
“It was important to you,” Charles croaked out.
Erik let out a sharp bark of laughter, an expression of incredulous disbelief on his face. Then he shook his head and returned to his toweling. That task completed, he stood and crossed quickly over to where his cloak had been set out to dry. Erik wrapped it around Charles tightly, cocooning him in the warm fabric.
He stepped back and looked Charles up and down and, apparently finding everything to his satisfaction, he walked towards the mouth of the cave. Charles heard the splash of something being dunked into the water, and then Erik was back, his wet shirt clasped in one hand, Charles’ clothes under the arm of the other.
“Let’s get this cleaned up,” he said simply, placing the pile of clothes close to the fire before kneeling and pulling Charles’ injured foot into his lap.
He used the shirt to wipe away the mess, trying his best to be gentle, but it didn’t prevent Charles from hissing in pain. Erik shot him a rueful look, but kept going.
As well he should. Given how Charles had received the wound and where they were now…well, he was going to need all the help he could get when it came to avoiding infection.
Erik had apparently come to same conclusion, judging by the way his brow had furrowed once again. Still, he maintained his silence as he walked back to the river, rinsing off his shirt and returning to Charles side. He brought it to his mouth and used his teeth to assist in tearing long strips of fabric off the material.
“What are you doing?” Charles protested weakly, trying to sit up.
The firm hand on his chest pushing him gently but irresistibly downwards made that impossible.
“Given how wide and deep this is, stiches would be ideal. Since that isn’t an option at the moment, I’m going to do the best I can with what I have. It would be a poor show of gratitude if I let you lose your foot after everything you’ve done.”
“Don’t owe me anything,” Charles muttered, fighting with heavy eyelids. The fire really was delightfully warm, and wrapped in Erik’s cloak it was hard to resist the siren call of sleep.
“On the contrary, Charles,” Erik said, his hands an almost painful source of warmth as they came into contact with his skin as Erik wrapped the makeshift bandaged around his foot, “I owe you everything.”
Task completed, Erik once again gently lowered Charles’ injured foot back to the ground. Charles saw him reach back towards the fire, but was too tired to make the effort to see what it was.
“Just let me get you dressed and then you can sleep, alright? Stay with me until then. Come on, Charles.”
“Don’t,” Charles said as Erik began to attempt to help Charles into his trousers, causing the other man to freeze. Charles cursed his brain for being so damnably slow and for keeping him from getting his message across, but talking was rather difficult at the moment. He focused more of his energy on getting out his words “No, not that. That’s fine. Thank you for that. What I meant was you shouldn’t feel…obligated or indebted or whatever it is that’s driving this. Anyone would have done the same.”
Erik tied the thongs that closed his trousers (and Charles took a minute to be appreciative of exactly how tired he was, as otherwise he would be finding himself in a very awkward predicament, what with such and attractive man with very distracting hands touching him close to certain areas and all) before he sat back on his heels and stared down at Charles with an expression Charles’ brain wasn’t up to trying to parse.
“No, they wouldn’t have. You could perhaps make an argument for the rescue,” Erik replied, reaching forward and pulling off the cloak. At the instinctive noise of protest Charles made, his face twisted into a sympathetic grimace, and he ran a hand soothingly up and down Charles’ back. “But the pendant?” he continued as he tugged Charles’ shirt down over his head, “No one.”
Charles’ eyes had slipped shut while he was paying attention, so he jerked in surprise when he felt warmth radiating all around him and the unmistakable feeling of another body pressed against his back. There was a fluttering sound and a slight pressure, and Charles opened his eyes just enough to see Erik’s cloak draped across him as if it were a blanket.
“This can’t be comfortable for you,” Charles protested, but let himself relax back against Erik’s chest all the same.
“We could both do with the warmth,” Erik said simply.
Charles’ mind drifted back to their conversation just as he was beginning to drift off to sleep. “Anyone would have done it,” he said again. “I would have done it for anyone.”
“Now that,” Erik said softly, “I would believe.”
Charles woke several hours later with a whimper. His foot. Oh dear gods, his foot. The pain was so intense that it frankly surprised Charles that it hadn’t dragged him out of sleep sooner. Erik was still draped across his back, his arms having wrapped around Charles and his head coming to rest against Charles’ shoulder at some point while Charles had slept, his deep, even breaths suggesting that he was sleeping soundly.
Charles couldn’t see the entrance to the cave and couldn’t turn to look for fear of waking Erik, the cave was dark save for the fire still burning in front of him. Long enough for the sun to have set then, yet not so long that the fire had burned itself out. Given that Erik didn’t seem to have moved, Charles assumed it couldn’t have been more than a handful of hours.
Charles bit back a whimper as he was struck by the pain anew. Still, there wasn’t as if there was anything to be done. Charles would simply have to grit his teeth and bare it. Perhaps there was a chance he could return to sleep.
Sleep took its time in coming, and when it did it was only in fits and starts. Charles had no way to judge the passage of time, and it was only the thought of the man sleeping behind him that kept him from screaming in frustration at each new pulse of pain that wrenched him from his uneasy rest.
The light in the cave slowly increased between Charles’ uneasy fits of sleep, until at last he was woken not by a stab of pain in his foot, but by the adjustments of the man behind him. Erik froze at once, but it was pointless.
“It’s alright, Erik. I’m up.”
“I didn’t mean to wake you,” the other man sounded rueful.
“It was rather inevitable. The night was a restless one for me. I’m only glad I did not wake you in turn. You looked as if you needed the rest.”
“I didn’t intend to sleep, and you needed the rest much more than I did,” Erik said, his voice gruff.
Charles rolled his eyes, but chose to keep his opinion to himself. If Erik had been that adamant about not sleeping and his body had done so anyway, he had needed it. But arguing the point wouldn’t get them anywhere. Erik seemed the stubborn sort.
“Well, the point is irrelevant now. You did sleep, as did I. Now we’re both awake. What now?”
“Can you sit up on your own?” Erik asked.
Charles rolled his eyes. “For goodness sake. Yes, I can sit up on my own. A foot injury doesn’t make me an invalid, you know.”
It did mean he couldn’t walk. Not give the amount of pain he’d been in throughout the night. And not being able to walk meant he was rather helpless. He didn’t mention this though.
Erik unwrapped his hands from around Charles’ waist and scooted back before standing, leaving Charles, suddenly bereft of his body heat, feeling cold. He adjusted Erik’s cloak more tightly around himself as the other man stepped into view.
Shoulders, his brain noticed, followed quickly by muscles, back, ass, and a litany of other things that essentially added up to the fact that there was a ridiculously attractive, very fit man standing in front of him in nothing but a pair of trousers.
The reason, Charles reminded himself firmly, that the man was in nothing but a pair of trousers was because he had sacrificed his shirt to Charles’ foot last night. This was not the sort of thanks he deserved.
“Take your cloak back,” Charles said, unwrapping it from around his shoulders and fighting off the impulse to shiver. “I’m getting cold just looking at you.”
“Keep it,” Erik responded without turning around, and it wasn’t an offer or a suggestion, but a command.
“You’ve already lost your shirt to me. I won’t have you wandering around naked on my behalf,” Charles insisted, glaring up at the man.
At that Erik turned, his expression one of amused exasperation that bordered on frustration. “Charles. You risked you life yesterday to save mine, and then did so again in order to recover this,” he tapped the pendant that rested against his chest, nearly derailing Charles’ train of though entirely in the process, “simply because you knew it was important to me. A total stranger. In the process of recovering my precious item, you injured yourself. You’re without shoes and a few other things, I imagine, because you saved my life, and you’re injured because you saved my livelihood. The very least I can do in return is offer you my shirt and my cloak.”
“But I don’t…Erik, I didn’t do those things expecting any favors…”
“I know,” and the smile that broke across Erik’s face was warm and genuine and made Charles’ breath catch in his throat. “Sit there and rest. I’m going to try and find some more firewood.”
Charles didn’t much choice in the matter. It wasn’t as if he had anywhere else to go.
Still, at this point they must have been frantic back at the camp. Charles’ hadn’t even left a note, not planning on being gone long enough to be missed. He was cursing himself for it now. It was foolish to hope his being missing had gone undetected – the General was always needed somewhere sooner or later. He only hoped his men didn’t do something foolish in his absence.
He was absorbed in these worries when Erik returned, carrying a much smaller pile of wood this time around.
“We’re going to run out of driftwood soon,” Charles observed as Erik added most of his find to what was left of their fire, stoking it back into life.
Erik grunted in response to show that he’d heard, but offered nothing else.
“You should go scouting. Try and find a way out. I’d hate to have spent all that effort saving you life only for you to spend the rest of it here trapped in this cave.”
Erik rounded on him and stared.
“If you do manage to find a way out, might I impose upon you to carry a message?”
Erik swore colorfully in Genoshan.
“Well, I think that’s rather excessive, don’t you?” Charles replied in the same language once Erik had finished, unsure how else to reply to the colorful vocabulary that had been used to insult in his intelligence.
“You honestly expect me to just leave you here? Injured, venerable, unable to defend yourself or even walk?” Erik shot back.
“Well, yes. It’s the sensible thing to do. I’d only slow you down.”
Erik swore again, and for all that it was unnecessary, Charles did have to give him points for creativity.
“You are an impossible man.”
“As if you’re any better, my friend.”
Erik stared at him in openmouthed shock before launching into another tirade, this time about trusting naïve fools, before seeming to wind down.
“I am not leaving this place without you. This is not a question, or up for negotiation. I am not leaving without you. It is that simple. If I manage to find a way out of this cave, I will take you with me even if I have to carry you on my back. Understood?”
Charles let out his breath in a huff and crossed his arms. “Fine. But you will look for a way out, yes?”
“Yes,” Erik said, but then sat down on the floor across the fire, staring at Charles over the dancing flames. “But not yet. They’ll be plenty of time for that later. If we’re friends, as you said, I think we should take the time to get to know one another, hmm?”
Charles froze, panic coursing through him so fast it left him dizzy and breathless (though that could have just as easily been the pain in his foot. It was hard to tell). As soon as the thought occurred to him, Charles’ more rational half dismissed it out of hand. There were far too many variable in play for an assassination attempt, too many of the factor of their meeting dependent entirely upon chance. Regardless, no one had been aware of Charles’ plans to leave on a scouting mission save Charles himself. A poor decision, in hindsight, but one that helped soothe his irrational fears.
“Very well,” he replied, pleased that his voice reflected no sign of the emotion turmoil he’d experienced the moment before. “What would you like to know?”
“What were you doing before you jumped in after me?”
Charles’ spine straightened and his expression froze. He was, at the very least, a General on enemy shores trapped with someone who could very well be an enemy soldier. No one knew where he was. He was unarmed. He was injured. He didn’t even have shoes. If there was ever a time for caution, it was now.
But Charles had already made a decision about trusting Erik. Being injured wasn’t going to change his initial judgment of the man’s character.
“I was out scouting for a way to ford the river,” Charles began.
“Why ford?” Erik asked. “There’s a perfectly serviceable bridge half a milewest of here.”
“More like three-quarters of a mile west now. I think the current managed to pull us quite a ways.”
Erik’s eyes narrowed. “Quite a ways you swam upstream yesterday.”
Charles waved a dismissive hand at him to prevent the conversation from becoming entirely sidetracked. The topic at hand was too important to allow that to happen. “Regardless, the bridge isn’t an option. It’s a choke point and I’d like to avoid bloodshed on that scale at all costs, especially for such little benefit.”
Erik stared at him, eyes calculating. “I wasn’t aware scouts were responsible for such decisions,” Erik replied, having caught the particularities of Charles’ wording and correctly interpreted them.
“They aren’t. Generals, on the other hand…”
“You mean Commanders, surely,” Erik’s voice was completely flat as he named the Genoshan equivalent of Charles’ rank.
It was one last chance to back out, one last chance to keep these secrets to himself.
“No,” Charles said, back straight, staring unflinchingly at Erik. “I mean Generals.”
Erik swore again as he stood and began to pace.
“Though I suppose,” Charles mused aloud, attempting to drown out the sound of Erik’s comments about the star’s alignment on the day of his birth, “Commanders would make those sorts of decisions too, yes.”
Erik stopped mid-pace and mid swear and rounded on Charles.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked, his voice a deadly calm that Charles suspected meant he was anything but. “Do you know anything about me?”
Charles could have responded. For all that they hadn’t known each other very long, he knew a surprising number of things about Erik. Erik was honorable, was brave to the point of reckless, preferred overall to be silent and to keep his own council. He was suspicious and distrustful. He was stubborn and proud and believed in honoring his debts.
Charles knew a great deal about Erik
Still, Erik’s point was a valid one. Charles knew nothing about Erik’s occupation or political allegiance or any number of things that could have made his revelation a dangerous one.
“I rather thought that was the point of our current exercise,” he said by way of response, making his tone as light as possible in the interest of seeing how Erik would react.
The results were spectacular. Erik’s glare alone was impressive, but Charles could see him gearing up for another round of inventive expletives. As amusing as they would be, they weren’t exactly productive at the moment.
“I trust you Erik,” Charles said softly.
The speed at which the other man deflated was actually rather impressive, staring down at Charles in blatant disbelief.
“How on earth have you survived this long?” he asked at last.
“Dumb luck, good instincts, and better friends,” Charles answered with a rueful smile. It was true.
At the thought of better friends, though, Charles lost any sense of amusement. His officers had no doubt discovered his absence by now, and the thought of what they might do when he was missing without any clues to his whereabouts was not a pleasant one. Charles abhorred unnecessary violence, and if his officers in any way suspected the Genoshan camp for his disappearance, there would be needless bloodshed.
Logan would talk sense into them, he was sure. He knew that an attack from within Chester’s borders would make much more sense under the circumstances.
“And where would you place this interaction?” Erik asked, gesturing between them with a bemused expression on his face that was clearly only on a surface level, covering some deeper reaction that Charles’, at this point in their association, couldn’t yet determine.
“Good instincts, though I will confess luck might be playing a role,” Charles said with a smile. “And you?”
The look Erik shot him made it clear what he thought of Charles’ opinion of their current circumstances. “I think that, while luck has played a very strong roll in placing you here, I wouldn’t call it good. At least not on your end.”
Charles rolled his eyes, but refrained from commenting. “Any other questions?” he asked, returning to the topic at hand in the hopes of avoiding a needless confrontation.
“What on earth were you doing scouting? Surely you have men for that. I believe they even give them a specific title.”
Charles rolled his eyes again. “I knew what I was looking for. To send someone else would just have wasted time. And more people would simply have attracted attention.”
“I still can’t believe your officers would agree…” Erik trailed off, staring at Charles wordlessly for a long moment before pinching the bridge of his nose and letting out a huff of air. “You didn’t tell anyone what you were doing, did you?” he said, eyes squeezed shut.
“No,” Charles said, dread once again heavy in his stomach. “Which is why…Erik, you need to find a way out of here. I need to get a message to them. We’re so close to resolving this without too much life lost, but if they act rashly…” contemplating the sheer amount of gore that would undoubtedly be the result left Charles feeling ill. “Please, Erik.”
Erik stared at him. “I’m not leaving you,” he said at last.
“Erik, there are hundreds, if not thousands of lives at stake. I am not as important…”
“Clearly your officers disagree, or it wouldn’t be an issue in the first place,” Erik shot back.
“This message needs to be delivered!”
“And it will be. Just not by me,” Erik said simply.
“By whom then?” Charles snapped.
“Why are you trying to ford the river?” Erik asked.
Charles was thrown by the sudden and drastic change in subjects. “What?”
“Why are you trying to ford the river? Is it not enough that you drove the Genoshan forces back to their shore?”
“No,” Charles responded. “It isn’t. Because that bridge is a death sentence. And with things as they are now, the Genoshan forces are likely to attempt to cross it again in order to engage us. And the casualties…they don’t bare thinking about. If we ford the river and take the camp by surprise, I’m hoping we can avoid a great number of needless deaths. If we capture the camp, then we can negotiate some sort of settlement that will stop the fighting. If not, we will retreat across the river and burn the bridge behind us.”
“Why do you care? They are your enemies. Surely you must want them dead.”
“All life is precious. A life is a life, regardless of nationality or religion or anything else. Why should these men have to pay the ultimate price for two ridiculous, squabbling leaders who don’t care one whit about their subjects?”
“An odd attitude for a General,” Erik observed wryly.
Charles kept his mouth shut. There was nothing he could say to this that would not put him at risk. He had chosen to trust Erik, it was true. But there was trust, and then there was unnecessary risk.
“I tried to negotiate a ceasefire, but the Commander refused to meet with me. I don’t know what else I can do,” Charles told him, hoping he sounded stronger than he felt.
Erik settled back down on the ground across from Charles, crossing his leg. He brought one hand up to the pendant around his neck, cupping it carefully in his palm and running his thumb across it carefully.
“You know, you never did ask me what this was,” Erik said. His tone of voice was conversational, but given the context and the intense look he was giving Charles, Charles knew this topic was anything but casual. “It seems only fair to me that you know what you went to all that trouble for. And after your revelation, I can hardly hold back now, can I?” Erik snorted. “Extreme honesty. Not a technique that ever would have occurred to me, but incredibly effective none-the-less.”
“It wasn’t my intention to try and force a confidence,” Charles told him.
Erik rolled his eyes. “You fret entirely more than is necessary. Except about the things that matter. You appear to be remarkably caviler with those.” His grey-green gaze was intense from across the fire. “What do you know about Sebastian Shaw?”
Not enough. Not nearly enough given the circumstances. What he did know did not paint a pretty picture.
“I know he came to power after killing the royal family. I know that, despite the previous relations between Genosha and Chester, the Regent did nothing,” Charles shrugged, feeling woefully uninformed.
“Shaw is a despot and a tyrant,” Erik said matter-of-factly. “He taxes heavily those who cannot afford it, has brought slavery back to the empire, and kills all those who dare speak out against him. His secret police have people terrified in their own homes. The Commander likely refused to meet with you because Shaw will have him executed for cowardice if he attempts any sort of peaceful negotiations.”
Charles let out a gust of breath. So much worse than he’d thought. And he’d simply sat back and let it happen. He should have fought Kurt harder on the matter.
“I…I had no idea.”
“He didn’t kill the royal family.”
“What?” Charles jerked his head up, completely thrown.
“Shaw didn’t kill the royal family. The crown prince escaped. There is a plot to depose Shaw and return the rightful heir to the throne. This,” he said, tapping the pendant at his neck, “is a symbol of the royal family. It proves I speak on the Prince’s behalf.”
“You’re part of the resistance,” Charles said, understanding at once.
“I lead it,” Erik said simply.
“Then what on earth are you doing sitting around here?” Charles gaped at him. “You need to be out there, helping your people! I don’t…”
“Charles,” Erik said, cutting him off, “without this pendant, everything would have been lost. Do you understand? Everything. There is still a rebellion because of you. I am not going to repay that debt by leaving you alone in a cave, injured and unarmed. I’ll see that one of my people gets a message to your officers, but I am not leaving you. Understand?”
Erik wouldn’t be budged on this. Charles could see that.
“Besides,” Erik said with a self-depreciating huff, “this is all a hypothetical argument at any rate. Who says there’s even a way out of this cave?”
“The draft does,” Charles responded at once.
“The air is circulating in this cave. And judging by the direction, it can’t be coming off the water. Which means it has to be coming from somewhere else. Even if it is a small opening, it could be widened.”
Erik stared at him in silence for a long moment before he threw back his head and laughed. “Is there anything you don’t know?” he asked, smile still tugging the corner of his mouth upwards.
“There are lots of things I don’t know,” Charles said, thinking back to the situation in the capitol, the circumstances he found himself in now. So many problems, and only himself to look to for a solution, and no answers to be found.
Erik’s brow furrowed as he took in the change in Charles’ mood, but he let him be. Charles appreciated that. Erik stood and walked over, clasping him firmly on the shoulder and leaving his hand there until Charles looked up and met his eyes.
“Take this,” Erik said, passing Charles a knife that he had escaped Charles’ notice thus far. “You call me if you need anything, you understand?” Erik said.
Charles nodded, and Erik stared into his eyes for several long seconds before squeezing his shoulder and walking deeper into the cave. Charles took the opportunity to appreciate the view, only realizing once it was too late that Erik had managed to escape before Charles had a chance to force him to take back his cloak.
“Stubborn bastard,” Charles muttered to himself before letting out a weak chuckle.
Without the distraction of Erik’s company and conversation, the pain in Charles’ foot made itself known again, combatting with his fatigue for his attention. He could feel the beginnings of a crippling headache forming behind his eyes from the combination of the two.
Since Charles felt sleep was probably beyond him at the moment, he turned his attention to his foot, hoping perhaps there was something he could do about the pain. He looked down at the appendage in question and grimaced.
Blood had soaked through the bandages overnight, staining the green fabric of what had once been Erik’s shirt a dark maroon. Cautiously, Charles tried adjusting his foot, only to let out a small whimper of pain.
He should clean the wound and apply fresh bandages, but there was no way he would be able to accomplish such a task on his own. He’d have to wait until Erik returned to even think of attempting it.
In the meantime, he needed a way to distract himself from the pain, needed something else to focus on. Thankfully, Erik had given him rather a lot new information to contemplate.
As the prince and heir apparent of the kingdom of Chester, Charles had been learning about the history of his own country for as long as he could remember. Just as important had been those lessons about their neighbors, and the brief description of the diplomatic history of the nation in question and Chester.
Before the conflict that had split his country in two a little over a century ago had arisen, relations with Genosha had been cordial, though not precisely friendly, with trade agreements between the two nations but very little else. After the reuniting of East and West Chester, and the subsequent reforms regarding religious tolerance, relations had grown more friendly. While Charles’ father had helped his mother with her rule, the two households had grown to be very close indeed. There had even been some talk of betrothing the two young princes in order to formally cement the friendship between the two royal houses.
They’d dismissed the idea soon after, of course. The Genoshans felt that self-determination in love was very important, and had customs surrounding the idea of a “soul partner,” and Charles’ father had romanticized notations about marriage, even among royalty, but the fact that it had been raised at all said a great deal about the relationship between the two houses.
Charles knew he had been taken on diplomatic visits, but he had been so young at the time that what memories there were were fragmented and fuzzy.
That relationship had broken down when Charles’ mother had remarried in the wake of the death of Charles’ father. Still, Charles had held out hope that he would be able to revitalize the friendship once he became king. When intelligence had arrived that indicated the royal family of Genosha might be in danger, Charles had wanted to act. Kurt had had other ideas, and Charles could not ignore his stepfather’s edicts or protest them when the man was acting as regent and had the law on his side, for all the thought of doing nothing filled him with a helpless rage.
When he heard what had transpired, he lost his temper for one of the very few times he could remember, firing arrow after arrow at the targets and practicing his swordsmanship with Logan until all the anger had drained from him, leaving him strangely empty.
Charles could have done more. He could have, but his caution and his cowardice had prevented him from acting. And Shaw, in the fourteen years he had been in power, had caused an entire nation to suffer.
The sound of footsteps brought Charles quickly out of his brooding. He stared towards the source of the noise an wrapped around the hilt of his borrowed weapon, barely bearing to breathe. If anyone were to find him now, armed with only a knife and unable to run…
The person finally walked into the illumination of the firelight, and Charles immediately felt foolish. Of course it was only Erik.
“Found us a way out?” Charles asked as Erik came closer.
“Yes and no,” he said, sitting down on the side of the fire closest to Charles’ injured foot. “I’ve found a way out, but it’s not one we can use.”
“Why?” Charles asked, confused by Erik’s phrasing. Surely it wouldn’t qualify as a “way out” unless it could be used as an exit?
“Because it’s a ten foot climb. Lots of hand and footholds and the like, and fairly easy to manage, but I don’t think I could do it with you on my back.”
Charles opened his mouth to suggest the obvious solution, but Erik cut him off with a glare.
“I know what you’re going to say. Don’t even bother.”
Charles gave Erik his most charming smile in return, and Erik rolled his eyes before letting out a reluctant, amused huff.
“What’s the plan then?” Charles asked.
“My camp is about an hours’ walk from here. I’ll go and get supplies for us and bring them back. Fresh clothes, some salve, a needle and thread,” he looked down at Charles’ foot in concern. “We should change that bandage, at the very least. And at this point, I’d rather have a medic look at it if we can manage it.”
“Yes. I was thinking along the same lines myself, but I’d like to wash it off properly if I can. If you could help me over to the river, I would greatly appreciate it.”
It wasn’t ideal. Charles knew the river was far from clean, but it was the best they can do with what they had to work with. Erik’s grim expression suggested he was thinking along similar lines as he got to his feet. Instead of reaching down and offering Charles his hand, as Charles had expected, he crouched, placing one arm under Charles’ knees, the other wrapping around his waist before lifting him upwards.
If Erik shirtless was distracting at a distance, then there were not any words Charles knew of in the five languages he spoke that described what it was to be cradled up against those impressive and expansive muscles while looking into those eyes (they looked more blue than green in this light).
“This is entirely unnecessary,” Charles said once he had recovered from his lust-induced stupor.
“You can’t walk, and helping you to hobble would simply have left us both feeling frustrated and useless,” Erik said, and Charles could feel his muscles shifting as he shrugged.
He focused on safer things than the body he could feel under his fingers and against his skin. The pain in his foot, for example. The war he was fighting. The work Erik was doing.
It was this last thought he mulled over while Erik tended to his foot (despite Charles’ protests that he could handle things once they had reached the edge of the cave that lead to the water).
“Would you tell me about, Shaw. About what it’s like here, under his rule?”
Erik’s eyebrows rose at the request, but he complied. Every story he told of oppression and fear and tyranny made firmer the decision Charles had been toying with since earlier that morning. Erik’s own tale was conspicuously absent, but Charles could hardly blame him for that. It would be hypocritical. Still, what he had heard had been more than enough.
“I would like to ask you for two favors, Erik,” Charles said, once Erik had finished, both speaking and tending to Charles foot.
“I owe you everything, Charles. If it is in my power to give, I will give it,” Erik responded with a serious expression on his face.
Charles took a deep breath. “I would like to negotiate a ceasefire with the commander, though I understand that may not be possible.”
Erik’s expression grew thoughtful. “I think I may be able to arrange that, though I may have to be present. Is that acceptable?”
“That was one favor. The other?”
“When all this is over and settled, when it is safe for him to do so, I would like to request an audience with the crown prince of Genosha to discuss the future of our countries.”
A corner of Erik’s mouth twitched upwards in what was almost a smile before he responded. “That, I can guarantee. An audience, at the very least. What you discuss is up to you.”
“Thank you, my friend,” Charles said with a relieved smile.
Erik smiled back at him, something small and warm and fond that made Charles’ chest clench. It only served to further his resolve.
“With that settled,” Charles said, and then, with some effort and no small amount of pain, shifted so that he was kneeling, his injured foot just barely resting on the ground behind him with his left foot in front of him taking most of his weight, “Erik, I offer my sword and myself to your cause.”
Erik stared down at him in openmouthed shock.
"Allow me to help right the wrongs done to you and your people, and restore the rightful heir to his throne.”
Charles was at least partially responsible for this mess. He was going to help clean it up.
“Charles…” Erik said, and the expression on his face was one of anguish, clearly torn.
“Erik, what Shaw is doing is wrong and goes against everything I believe in. Now that I know about it, I cannot simply sit back and do nothing. I want to help, and I know I can be useful. Let me help you.”
Erik stared down at him in silence for another few moments before finally moving, crouching down and placing a hand on Charles’ shoulder in order to man-handle him out of the kneeling position. “Stop that. It can’t be good for your foot.”
“I’m not moving until you give me an answer.”
“Damn you, you impossible man,” Erik said, pulling back so he could meet Charles’ eyes, staring into them as if searching for something before shaking his head in resignation. “Yes. How could I turn you away?”
Charles beamed. “Excellent.” He shifted, only to wince in pain. Erik caught the movement and glared at him until he confessed. “If you would be willing to assist me in shifting out of this position, I would be grateful,” Charles told him with a rueful grin.
Erik stared at him. “At least,” he said at last, moving to help Charles back into a sitting position, “I’ll be able to keep an eye on you. My god, but for someone so brilliant you can be incredibly stupid.”
“Thank you for that,” Charles said, rolling his eyes.
“You deserve much worse, and you know it.”
Charles closed his mouth and smiled. It was true.
Erik left once he had finished rebandaging Charles foot, but not before glaring at him until he had secured Charles’ word that he wouldn’t try and move. Charles only gave it in exchange for Erik taking possession of his cloak once again. He took with him a message from Charles to his officers, setting up a meeting in a week’s time, which would hopefully allow his foot to recover enough to permit him to exit the cave, and make light travel possible.
Erik had promised to return before nightfall, but as it wasn’t yet midday, this left Charles stranded with no company but his own thoughts, and he didn’t care to examine them too closely at the moment. Rest, he decided was the solution to his dilemma, and one his body approved of heartily.
Charles finally fell into an uneasy sleep an hour or later, waking periodically. The pain in his foot had not decreased, but his headache had been building to such a point that it eventually grew large enough to vie with the pain in his foot for his attention. He could only really focus on one at a time.
By the time Erik returned, just after the sun had begun to set, it took all of Charles’ concentration to keep from whimpering. Conversation was outside the realm of possibility. He opened his eyes just long enough to ascertain that it was in fact Erik before closing them to protect himself from the stabbing pain behind his eyes that only intensified whenever he looked at the light from the fire.
Erik swore, and Charles heard him approach before there was the pressure of a touch against his forehead, followed by even more swearing.
Erik said something, and Charles could recognize the words and knew he should be able to understand them, but it was beyond him at the moment. He could barely think, let alone try and carry on a conversation in another language, never mind it was one he had been learning since his lessons had begun.
Charles felt himself being pulled gently upright, and then there was something being pressed against his lips and an arm at his back holding him upright so he didn’t choke as he swallowed down the cool, bitter liquid being poured down his throat.
He coughed weakly as soon as he had finished, choking because of the awkward angle, but the hand at his back helped soothe the pain and calm his coughing.
He was lowered back down to the ground, soon after the coughing had ended. He curled in on himself as best he could, letting out a small whimper as he jostled his foot and received a stab of pain for his trouble.
Charles didn’t realize he was shaking until he felt arms wrap around him, steadying him, Erik’s voice muttering something that it was beyond Charles’ capability to understand. There was a pause, and the muttering took on a lyrical quality as Charles felt something cool being pressed against his forehead.
He finally drifted off, cradled in strong arms, a cool cloth pressed against his forehead and a rough, deep voice singing him to sleep.
The next few days passed in a blur of cool clothes and water and a rough voice coupled with strong arms. Charles finally came back to himself, and couldn’t help but be horribly embarrassed, but Erik brushed away his concerns.
“It was nothing, Charles.”
“It wasn’t nothing,” Charles croaked out, sitting fully upright without support for the first time in too long. “I was a wreck and in pain, and you not only helped managed the illness, but you kept me calm through my delirium. That was more than I would have dared hope for.”
Erik rolled his eyes, “but no less than you deserve. Still, I’m glad you’re well again. It was probably just due to your multiple ill-advised trips into the river.”
“Without those trips into the river, you would be…”
“I know. And I’m grateful. But that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy watching you suffer as a consequence of your generosity,” Erik replied before passing Charles a battered tin cup filled with what Charles could now identify as tea, though it was not a variety he was familiar with. Erik watched Charles intently as he brought the cup to his lips, only continuing when he saw that Charles had no trouble keeping the drink down. “To tell the truth, I’m grateful. I was afraid it might have been an infection from the wound on your foot.”
Charles looked down at the appendage in question only to have his eyebrows fly up in surprise when he saw the state of it. It was wrapped carefully in actual bandages and looked much better than it had when he had last been aware. It felt much better too. Charles flexed his foot and let out a surprised but pleased noise when he felt only the vaguest twinge at the movement, and that seemed to stem mostly from disuse.
“Where did you get these supplies?” Charles asked, bringing his foot closer to examine the bandage, smiling when he experienced no pain.
“When I went to deliver your message to the commander, I made a stop at the medic’s tent and picked up some supplies,” Erik said with a shrug. “I was worried about your foot, and I knew there was a chance of something like this happening. If you had been out of it for much longer, I would have dragged the medic himself down here, regardless of my personal reservations. If someone hadn’t stolen my horse, I would have gone regardless, but as it was I didn’t want to leave you alone that long.”
“Well, I’m glad it wasn’t necessary, though I am sorry about your horse,” Charles said, flexing his foot with a grin simply because he could. “And you’re care seems to have been excellent. As a matter of fact…”
Erik had rounded the fire before Charles even had a chance to adjust his weight and was glaring down at him. “If my care was so good,” he said in a frustrated tone of voice, “then please do me the favor of not undoing all my hard work. You’re only just now coherent after days of a fever. Don’t even think about trying to stand.”
“Fine,” Charles acquiesced with a sigh. Searching for something to distract him from the itching desire to move that was taking root after so long trapped in the same position within the cave, he sipped the tea from the cup again. As he did, important, if small, bits from what Erik had said made themselves known to him.
“You talked with the Commander? What did he say?”
“He was reluctant at first,” Erik said, settling down beside Charles, “but once I had explained the exact reasoning behind your desire for a ceasefire, he agreed to listen.” Catching Charles’ curious look, he eyed him speculatively before grabbing a small sack nearby that Charles hadn’t noticed. He rooted around inside before pulling out a small chunk of a loaf of traveling bread. “You eat, I’ll talk,” he compromised. “You haven’t had anything solid in days now.”
Charles rolled his eyes, but reached for the loaf nonetheless.
“I’ve been traveling all over the country trying to get organized. People, supplies, that sort of thing. I was here to talk to the commander, to see what kind of support we could expect, if any for our rebellion, or what kind of action he might be willing to take if we managed to start an uprising. He is…sympathetic to the cause, but cautious, which I understand, for all that I find it frustrating. He’s promised me all the supplies he can spare, and support if we ever manage to get something off the ground. When he heard that you were planning on joining us, he went from reluctant to eager.” Erik tilted his head thoughtfully, “he offered me more supplies in the wake of that revelation too. And he didn’t promise his eventual support until after you were onboard.”
Charles wouldn’t normally brag about himself, but it was important that Erik, as a leader, know about all the resources at his disposal in order to strategize properly. And as Charles was one of those resources, he needed to report on his own skills as accurately as possible.
“I have been told that, as a tactician, I am…somewhat skilled,” Charles said carefully.
“Define ‘somewhat’” Erik said with shrewd eyes.
“Four months ago, the Genoshan forces were some forty units into what is traditionally Chester territory. Two weeks ago, they were driven back across the river. In that time, I have lost two-hundred and thirty seven men.”
Erik stared at Charles for a long time. “I take it you came here four months ago?”
“And before that, were you by any chance stationed at the front on the other side of the lake?” Erik asked.
“It’s possible...” Charles hedged.
“Charles,” Erik said at last, staring at him intently, “what is your last name?”
That he could not answer. He could give the answer to the question Erik actually wanted to know. “General Francis at your service,” he said, giving a salute.
“No,” Erik said.
“Yes,” Charles responded simply. “I take it you’ve heard of me?”
Erik boggled at him. “I would call that a bit of an understatement. As was your assertion that you are ‘somewhat skilled.’ My god, Charles.”
“Whatever you’ve heard is probably more hearsay than anything else. I’ve been fortunate enough to have some incredibly talented men working under me. That’s where most of the credit is due, I assure you.”
For the first time since he woke, Charles realized that they had been speaking the local language of Chester.
“We’re speaking Chestan. Why are we speaking Chestan?”
“As you may recall, you spent the last several days delirious. As impressive as your grasp of Genoshan is, it was beyond even you in the grips of the fever. I thought this was probably the best way of getting through to you despite your confusion.”
“Oh. Thank you.”
Erik gave a vague noise of acknowledgement in response.
“Did you deliver my message?”
Erik nodded again. “I had one of the Commander’s messengers sent under a flag of truce. Don’t worry, I made him repeat it back to me until I was satisfied he had the wording exactly right. They’ll know it’s from you. And the Commander was persuaded to allow us safe passage to and from the meeting place.”
“Thank you.” It then occurred to him that he hadn’t spelled out his intentions when he had offered his services to Erik. It would be best to clarify exactly what he had meant to avoid any confusion later on down the line. “Erik, I realize I wasn’t exactly clear when I pledged myself to your cause. I want to clarify that I was speaking for myself, and only myself. I can’t order my men to fight for a cause that isn’t theirs, that isn’t Chester’s. You understand, yes?”
“Of course,” Erik responded. “I never thought…you alone were more than I had ever expected from our encounter. And that was before I learned that you were the man who singlehandedly changed the tide at the Battle of the Beigh.”
“It was hardly single-handed,” Charles said, flushing at the undeserved praise. “I wasn’t the only man on that field.”
Erik gave him a fond smile. “If you say so, Charles.”
They spent the rest of the day conversing easily, Charles telling Erik about his childhood in the capitol, carefully skirting any damning secrets while still being as truthful as possible. Erik listened with rapt attention, and in exchange offering his own stories about growing up with his parents with a fond, if bittersweet, smile on his face. He forced more of the strange tea and solid food on Charles as the day progressed, hovering nearby with unspoken concern which Charles tolerated with quite amusement, but Charles was feeling better than he had in days. By midafternoon, Charles was speaking of his time in the military, brief as it was, thus far.
“If you’re so against senseless violence,” Erik asked at last, “what on earth are you doing in the military in the first place?”
Charles thought carefully about this phrasing before he spoke. “The Regent requested I be sent to the front.”
Erik nodded, no doubt thinking Charles meant that it had been because of his tactical prowess. It was not a notion Charles cared to disabuse him of. “Why here though? Surely there is a command headquarters somewhere, not in any real danger, where you could plot things to your heart’s content.”
“I won’t order men to take risks I wouldn’t take myself,” Charles said. “It isn’t right. Why should they place themselves in danger if I refuse to do the same?”
Erik shook his head in what had become a familiar manner, that same small smile on his lips.
After that, talk turned to the rebellion, what Erik had been doing, what their numbers were, what the next steps should be, though Erik called a halt to the conversation a few hours after the sun had set. He took the opportunity to redress Charles’ foot, spreading a salve over the stitches that closed the gash, no doubt applied while Charles had been in the throws of the fever, before wrapping it tightly once again.
The driftwood had run out, so they were forced to sleep curled close together, like they had that first night, in order to conserve heat. Charles certainly wasn’t going to complain, though the possibility of awkwardness in the morning did gnaw at him.
Thankfully, Charles rose well before Erik, and was thus able to escape before things became uncomfortable. He reluctantly pulled away from Erik’s warmth, body a solid mass behind him, one arm having come to wrap around Charles while he slept. He managed work his way out without waking Erik, making his way quickly over to the river once he had done so.
Charles cupped his hands and brought the cold water up to his face, scrubbing vigorously in an attempt to calm himself and trying desperately not to think about the length of the firmness he had felt pressed against his back that morning or exactly what that arm wrapped around him and chest pressed up against his back had looked like bare, and then promptly had to lean over to dunk his head entire into the rushing water.
Charles pulled his head back out, shaking away the excess water before brushing his hair out of his eyes. In the wake of the sudden shock of cold to his system, he felt much more in control, and thought he was ready to return to where Erik was still curled on his side, sleeping.
It wasn’t until Charles had crossed half the distance that it occurred to him that he was walking. He was walking, and he had walked, and he was doing so without pain.
He spend the remainder of the morning walking around simply because he could again, ignoring Erik’s protests once he woke and the way Erik shadowed him as he explore the cave once it became clear he wasn’t going to listen to the other man’s protests. Erik did force him off his foot in the afternoon, grumbling at Charles that he was still healing and not to push himself.
The next day was spent in a nearly identical fashion, and on the morning of the day before Charles was due to meet with his officers, it was decided that he was fit enough for the climb up and out of the cave.
Being out in the open was wonderful again after nearly a week of being cooped up in the same place, and he couldn’t resist the impulse to run over the grass, laughing as he did. Charles spun and caught sight of a peculiar expression on Erik’s face, but he didn’t have time to ponder it any further, because when Charles met his eyes, Erik’s smiled wide, exposing all his teeth in an almost predatory manner. It was all the warning he had before Erik was sprinting after him.
It wasn’t a long chase. Charles had been ill and was still recovering from his injury. It was only a matter of moments before Erik had tackled Charles to the ground. Charles laughed as he found himself with his back on the grass, looking up into the blue sky for the first time in far, far too long. That view of the sky was soon blocked by now familiar features, Erik’s eyes glowing as laughed as well, pinning Charles to the ground.
Charles’ laughter trailed off when his brain truly processed how they were oriented, Erik following suit not long after. Charles didn’t say anything, simply stared up at Erik, feeling the hands wrapped around his wrists, the knees pressed against his thighs as they bracketed them, the feel of Erik’s breath against his face. The smile dropped of Erik’s face as Charles watched, the mirth in his eyes slowly being replaced with heat and intent.
Charles found his gaze moving from Erik’s striking eyes to his lips. Without thought, his tongue swept out and over his own.
As Erik began to lean forward, Charles caught sight of movement over Erik’s shoulder. A figure dressed in what Erik had told him two days prior were the colors of Shaw’s secret police, advancing on Erik rapidly with his sword drawn.
There wasn’t time to warn him. There was only one course of action to take.
Charles tugged his left wrist down sharply, throwing Erik off balance. He then used his core muscles to bring himself upwards, shoving sharply with his right hand to push Erik out of his way. Erik had released his hold in his state of shock, and Charles reached out with his right hand to draw Erik’s sword before he was completely flipped, and then pushed himself up to his feet.
Their attacker was thrown by the move, and Charles took advantage of his shock to thrust past his guard and into the man’s stomach. When the man dropped his sword, Charles pulled Erik’s blade out of his stomach and slashed it quickly across his neck, sparing him a long, painful death and eliminating him as a risk.
Charles kicked the blade out of his reach, just in case, and then bent down to check for a pulse. Finding none, he carefully wiped Erik’s sword clean on the grass before turning around and straightening.
Erik was still sprawled on the ground, staring up at Charles and the body with an expression of shock on his face. Charles walked over, wincing slightly as he put weight on his right foot, which apparently wasn’t quite ready for such excitement. He offered Erik his left hand and helped haul him to his feet before changing his grip on the sword in his right hand, passing it over hilt first.
“I believe this belongs to you,” Charles told him with a weak smile.
Erik took it from him wordlessly, returning to its sheath.
“Where do you think he came from?” Charles asked, staring down at the body.
Erik crouched down and began sorting through the man’s things as he answered Charles.
“I assume he came down here with the man who attacked me a week ago.”
“The pendant didn’t throw itself into the river, Charles,” Erik said. “I was too busy dealing with the man who threw it in and then following after it to investigate or see if he had any compatriots who might come looking.”
“Shall we investigate this time around?” Charles asked as Erik stood.
Erik shook his head. “Not now. No time. Besides, it looks like they were only checking up on the general, making sure to keep him in line,” Erik said, passing a handful of papers over his shoulder to Charles.
Charles took them from him and brought them closer to examine them. They were covered in scribbles he could make neither hide nor hair of.
“Either I’ve let my Genoshan get appallingly rusty, or this is in some sort of code.”
“The latter. We’ve cracked it, though actually getting our hands on samples is a difficult enough process that I don’t want to pass up what we have. You can learn from these.”
Erik, apparently finished with his search of the body for information, turned to divesting the body of anything that could prove useful – in this case, his purse, his shoes, and his sword. All but the first he handed to Charles.
“I know you have your own, but in the meantime…” Erik said as he offered them.
“An excellent thought. Thank you my friend.”
Erik’s next excellent thought involved scavenging a branch from a nearby tree and working at it with his dagger. When he had finished, he passed Charles a serviceable walking stick.
Thankfully their trip to the camp was uneventful, for all that Charles spent the latter part of it leaning heavily on his walking stick and eventually Erik to spare his now aching foot as much strain as possible.
The camp was, as Charles had anticipated, perched on the top of the hill closest to the river, extending down into the small valley on the other side. If Charles had managed to find another way around the river and come at the camp from behind…
Erik, seemingly sensing the direction of his thoughts, shook his head, his lips twisting into a small smile. “Come now, Charles, that isn’t very sporting of you.”
Charles tossed Erik a chagrined smile and a shrug. “I’m sorry my friend. It’s hard to switch out of a mindset I’ve inhabited for so long, but I’ll do my best. It certainly isn’t my intention to abuse this…”
“I know Charles,” Erik said, turning his eyes skyward as if he were asking for patience.
A small handful of men stood waiting at the entrance of the camp, all standing smartly at attention. All were familiar, glimpsed numerous times across the battlefield, and all were in dress uniform. Charles suddenly became aware of the figure he must present – clothes that had seen better days even before they’d endured a river and a week on the floor of a cave, much of which was spent feverish, an unkempt weeks worth of growth on his chin, and leaning heavily on Erik for support. Hardly the impression he wanted to give, but there was nothing to do about it now.
Commander Azazel Charles knew at once, the man’s dark hair and almost red skin distinctive enough without the scar across one eye. He knew the names and faces of all of his officers as well, but was only able to make a handful go together in a way he was remotely confident was right.
Charles pulled away from Erik’s supporting arm, certain that his walking stick would be more than sufficient to support him for the duration of this first encounter.
“Commander Azazel,” he greeted as soon as they were close enough, holding himself straight and offering a deep nod out of respect. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with me.”
“General Francis. Commander Lehnsherr,” he said, nodding at Charles and offering Erik a welcome befitting an officer of the same rank greeting someone he considered his senior, a fact which Charles filed away for more examination at a later date. “If the rumors around our meeting are what Lehnsherr has lead me to believe, General, than it is I who should be thanking you. We have a spare tent set up for your use this evening, perhaps you would like to refresh yourself before joining me in my own to discuss matters? You as well Lehnsherr.”
A change of clothes (not Genoshan military, for which Charles was grateful) and a shave made a great deal of difference, and when Charles carefully ambled his way to the Commanders’ tent, escorted by one of the Commanders’ officers. The officer in question held open the tent flap and gestured Charles inside. Sword a reassuring weight on his hip, he entered. The Commander was just pouring a second glass of an amber liquid Charles hoped was Scotch, and Erik had yet to arrive.
“I always intended us to share this particular bottle,” he said, gesturing for Charles to sit down before passing him a glass. “Though I had imagined it would be over a victory. Mine, I had hoped, but given the way these past few weeks have gone…well, I am more than content with our present circumstances.”
Charles raises his glass with a tilt of his head in the Commander’s direction. "Given the probable toll of such a victory on either side, I find myself pleased with the circumstances as well.”
“Though neither of us,” Commander Azazel said with a small twitch of his mouth “could even approach Lehnsherr’s level of enthusiasm at the circumstances.”
“Oh?” Charles asked, an eyebrow quirked. “And what, pray tell, would have Lehnsherr so excited?”
The Commander…there was no other word for it, the Commander snickered. “You of course, General Francis. I personally admire your strategy a great deal, but my respect is nothing compared to Commander Lehnsherr’s…shall we say, enthusiasm? Yes. Enthusiasm for your tactics.”
Charles honestly had no idea how to respond to that, so he turned to his glass. It was indeed scotch, and it burned pleasantly as it went down. “Does he now,” he settled on eventually.
“Indeed he does. I’m surprised you haven’t heard about it. The rest of the world is well aware. Ever since the first battle of the Beigh,Lehnsherr has talked of little else. And speak of the devil,” he said, a small smirk on his face, and Charles heard the rustle of heavy fabric behind him as the tent was pushed open.
Erik’s face set in a glare the likes of which Charles had not seen since their first encounter in the cave.
“Commander Lehnsherr, how nice of you to join us,” Commander Azazel said with a nod of respect. “We started without you. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Had I known you were waiting, I would have been here sooner,” Erik said, his expression closed and his tone clipped. He pulled a chair out and deposited himself in it, seemingly haphazardly, but Charles noted that the seemingly random angle of the chair gave him a view of both the entrance to the tent and a view of the Commander.
“Lets get down to brass tacks. Commander Azazel, I would like to negotiate a cease-fire so that I might join the Genoshan resistance without feeling I had done my men a disservice.”
“And why should I negotiate when I could simply kill you now?” Commander Azazel asked.
Erik snarled, his hand flying to his sword, but Charles put a restraining hand on his shoulder and said “Erik” in as calm a tone as he could manage. He was touched that Erik was so willing to jump to his defense, and reassured while he was so out of his depth, but he didn’t fear for his life. Not today, at any rate.
“Because if you kill me now,” he said, turning his gaze to the Commander, “when my officers are expecting me tomorrow, due to a messenger sent from your camp, I can guarantee that they would feel the need to avenge me. And as I’m sure you are aware, Commander Azazel, my officers are incredibly competent and share none of my reservations around unnecessary bloodshed. The battle would be long and bloody, and the death toll would be catastrophic, but you would lose and we both know it. Killing me would be a very poor move, Commander Azazel, and we have been opponents long enough that I know you know it, too.”
Commander Azazel’s lip twitched before he took a sip, eyes darting over to Erik. Charles would not go so far as to say he had relaxed, but he had lost the majority of the tension in his frame. Charles offered the Commander a small nod, both acknowledging what he had done and thanking him for it.
“You may have your cease-fire, General Francis. I can do nothing but benefit from such a situation. If it were anyone else across the battle-field, the numbers would be very different that they are now, and for that I am grateful. My only request is that once you and Lehnsherr have met with your officers and you have crossed back, you burn the bridge. Best to avoid temptation on all sides.”
The three enjoyed drinks and conversation until the bottle of scotch was gone. At that point, Erik dragged him to the medic’s tent, where he was seen to by McCoy, an apprentice with a keen mind. Charles enjoyed the conversation they began while his foot was seen to, and he had a feeling McCoy prolonged the procedure in order to prolong the conversation, something Charles felt no need to complain about. They talked on a variety subjects, leaving Charles with the sense that the man was immensely overqualified and experienced, for all that he had only been training formally for two of the required four years.
As Charles lay in his tent that night, staring at the shadow outside his tent that could only be Erik, he couldn’t help but fear that tomorrow, for all that he would be on his own territory and dealing with his own men, would not go nearly as well.
Charles and Erik had arrived at the meeting place several hours ahead of schedule, and Charles, still thrilling in having recovered the use of his foot and thus his mobility, wasn’t content to simply sit still and wait, and the thought of pacing back and forth for hours on end was frankly tedious.
Besides, there were skills other than walking he would need sharp in the days to come, as yesterday had so clearly demonstrated. He refused to allow himself to be a liability in the time it would take to travel to Erik’s base of operations, wherever that might be.
Or the outpost where he would leave Charles. It was really the height of arrogance to assume anything else, for all that Charles hoped…they had become friends, at the very least, these past few days, had they not? And before the member of the Secret Police had shown up, he had thought they were rather on the cusp of something.
Still, it was entirely possible that Charles had misread the situation. Erik hadn’t attempted anything since then, and all of his actions and attentions could just as easily be explained away as gratitude and gestures of friendship than they could be interpreted as an indication of a desire for something more. One was certainly far more probable than the other. Charles was likely only seeing what he wanted to see.
Regardless, Charles had to work on getting himself back into fighting shape, or at least to the point where he would be able to properly defend himself if the need arose.
With this in mind, Charles drew his recently acquired sword from its sheath, simply holding it for a few moments to grow accustomed to it’s weight, different from that of his own blade, and to determine if his foot would allow him even the attempt.
When it became clear that his foot would tolerate even that much, Charles did a few simple practice thrusts and parries, once again trying to get a feel for the new weapon and for his own limitations with his injury. Satisfied, he adjusted his stance and began the first and simplest of the sword exercises he knew, slowly transitioning from one form into the next.
“What,” Erik said, his tone flat in a way that Charles knew meant nothing good, “do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m rather out of practice, after this week,” Charles answered as he slowly began to increase his speed, “and I thought, since we have some time, I should do my best to try and fix that.”
“You’re injured,” Erik snapped.
“Yes. And it’s important to be aware of the effects that will have on me in a combat situation.”
Erik growled in frustration and stormed over, no doubt intending to force Charles to stop, but he was brought up short as the tip of Charles’ blade suddenly blocked his path.
“Charles…” he said, glaring down at him, “this isn’t funny.”
“It was not my intention to amuse,” Charles said with an arched brow.
Erik’s frustration was visible, but Charles cut him off before he could begin to speak.
“My friend, I understand what you are trying to do. Your concern is noted, and appreciated. Under other circumstances, I would be delighted to allow you to coddle me for a bit longer before I began pushing myself.” Erik opened his mouth again, this time his expression a defensive one, “Don’t bother,” Charles cut him off again, this time with a grin. “You have been coddling me, don’t pretend otherwise. You are the worst mother hen I have seen in ages. But in our current circumstances, I cannot afford to be anything but the best condition I can be in, and as quickly as possible.”
“If you injure yourself again because you pushed too hard too soon…” Erik said, his eyes filled with genuine concern for all the rest of his face betrayed little.
“Do you trust me?” Charles asked.
“With my life,” Erik answered at once.
“Then trust me to know my own limits, please.”
Erik stared at him for a long moment, eyes unreadable, before finally letting out a short, reluctant nod.
“If I truly cannot dissuade you,” Erik began, looking to Charles who shook his head with a smile, to which Erik responded with a resigned sigh before continuing. “If I cannot dissuade you, perhaps I can help?”
“What do you mean by help?”
“Not sparring. I don’t care what you say, you aren’t ready for it yet. But slashing at the air is entirely different from actually bringing your sword down against someone else’s. We could go through training forms together.”
“Thank you, my friend. Yes. That would be wonderful.”
Charles allowed himself to be lulled into the rhythm of the forms, the ache of his body in familiar ways that made him smile, too caught up in what he was doing to be aware of his surroundings. He was thus unprepared when he head a familiar voice let out a small shout of outrage.
Charles’ officers had arrived, and all they saw was a stranger in Genoshan colors with a sword drawn on their General.
They reacted in the predictable fashion, which was to say that seven soldiers drew their weapons and advanced as quickly as they could. Erik, of course, being unaware of the identities of the people clearly moving to attack them, sprung into action, placing himself between Charles and the oncoming troops before raising his sword in challenge. This only served to motivate Charles' officers into swarming faster.
This was bad. This was very, very bad. If Charles didn't act quickly, this would end in tragedy and needlessly so.
He shoved his sword into it's sheath before working out from behind Erik just as his officers arrived. With no time to do anything else, Charles simply threw himself in front of Erik, standing as a barrier between him and Charles' officers, holding up his palms.
"Stop!" he called to them.
Charles heard movement behind him and angled himself so he could see Erik as well, just in time too, as the other man was moving forward, no doubt intending to shove Charles behind him into what the other man assumed was safety.
"I said stop," he repeated, looking back and forth between the two groups, each glaring around him at the other with hostility yet fear, and each too far away to move towards him without giving the other an opening to do the same.
"Charles," Erik hissed urgently, the grip on his hilt white-knuckled.
"Erik, these are my officers," he said gesturing towards them with one hand.
Erik eased out of his obvious combat stance at Charles' remark, but he was by no means relaxed, clearly poised to spring back into action at the slightest provocation. Still, he lowered his sword, which was enough for Charles to feel comfortable turning his attention to the others in the clearing.
"This is Erik. He is an ally and my friend, understood? Put down your weapons."
"He was attacking you," Alex spat out, nearly vibrating with rage.
Charles sighed and did his best to appear outwardly calm, though it was taking all his self-control not to scream with frustration. He had to tread carefully here to avoid conflict.
"We arrived early. Erik was helping me spar. I assure you I am in no danger from him, nor," he said, turning to face Erik once again, "am I in any danger from them. If we could all dispense with the weapons, we can then delve fully into the explanations."
"Oh Charlie," Logan said, staring at him with an all too familiar expression on his face. "What've you gone and done this time?"
Charles shot Logan a glare, but the other man met it head-on with an unimpressed expression. Charles sighed heavily.
"Weapons down, everyone," Logan called out, and Charles officers slowly obeyed, albeit with clear reluctance. No one, Charles noticed, actually put their swords away. They simply lowered them so that they no longer appeared threating at the moment.
It was an improvement, but nothing would get done if everyone was constantly on the edge of violence.
“Excellent. That accomplished, perhaps we could all put the weapons away?”
Charles was met with eight stony glares, indicating that it was highly unlikely. But eight glares was one too many – Charles’ officers numbered only six. Charles took stock of who exactly it was who had come to the meeting and gave a long blink of surprise when he spotted who the extra was.
“Jean? What on earth are you doing here?”
“When a high-ranking officer on an important front goes missing, it’s generally something that makes one’s officers nervous. I volunteered to come down here to investigate what had happened to you and to man your post until you could be returned to it.”
The “and to replace you if you did not” went unspoken, but everyone in the clearing heard it anyway.
“Where the hell have you been, Charlie?” Logan snapped. “You just…vanished, and then we get a message from behind enemy lines days later, and when you finally show up it’s with a Genoshan solider in tow.”
“It’s rather a long story. And one I am not willing to tell until everyone has put there weapons away.”
There was the unmistakable sound of metal against leather behind him. When Charles, turned, Erik had indeed sheathed his sword and was now walking forward, stopping when he stood just behind Charles’ left shoulder. Close enough that Charles could feel the heat emanating off his body.
“Thank you, my friend,” Charles said, tilting his head back to give Erik a grateful smile, which the other man answered with a short nod.
Erik’s closeness also meant that it was relatively easy for Charles to lean back without being noticed, allowing him to take some of his weight off of his injured foot.
He felt Erik stiffen slightly behind him, and he could practically feel the worried gaze boring into his head, but thankfully Erik said nothing aloud.
Charles turned his attention back to his officers, whose only change had been to step closer and glare at Erik even more fiercely due to his proximity, Logan’s the sharpest of them all, swords slowly migrating up away from the ground.
“I’ll ask you again, my friends. Please dispense with this nonsense.”
No one moved, and Charles’ spine straightened and he one step forward and away from Erik’s support in order to properly convey his displeasure in the most imposing and leader-like manner he could manage before he glared at his officers with narrowed eyes,
“Don’t make me make it an order.”
They all complied, albeit slowly, and Charles actually felt himself sag in relief. Erik was at his side within moments, and while he didn’t physically pull Charles up against him, it was clear he wanted to.
“Sit down, you impossible man,” he whispered, low enough so that Charles’ men couldn’t hear, which Charles greatly appreciated. His officers were already on edge enough without knowing he was injured, and he’d rather keep them in the dark about it as long as possible. “If you collapse, you won’t be able to fool anyone.”
“It doesn’t appear as if I’m doing a suitable job on that front as it is,” Charles answered with a small, chagrined smile. Charles turned his attention back to his officers, raising his voice so that all could hear him. “Let’s get comfortable, shall we? This might take some time.”
Watching the way they warily arranged themselves would have been comical if it wasn’t for the circumstances at hand. Still, they all managed to settle down without any bloodshed, a fact for which Charles was grateful.
“I think introductions are probably the first order of business. Erik, these are my officers. On the end is General Jean Grey, who has been supervising our efforts on the front to the East of Beigh Lake.”
Jean gave a polite nod of acknowledgment, which Erik returned.
“Beside her is Lt. Colonel Scott Summers, her betrothed.”
Scott didn’t bother with feigned politeness. If looks could kill, Erik would have been dead on his back as a result of the intense glare Scott was giving him. Charles suppressed a small sigh and carried on with introductions.
“Next to Scott is his brother, Major Alex Summers.”
Alex was even worse than his brother, and so Charles moved on quickly, decided to speed through the rest of the introductions as fast as he could without appearing rude.
“Specialist Moira McTaggert, Major Sean Cassidy, Lt. Colonel Ororo Monro, and beside me is Colonel Logan Howlett.”
Everyone offered a nod when they were introduced, though most were coupled with a glare. Logan, upon his introduction, gave Erik something that might generously be called a smile, though a baring of teeth might have been a more accurate description. The fact that Erik returned the favor did nothing to quell Charles’ fears that this meeting was going to be a disaster.
“Everyone, this is Commander Erik Lehnsherr,” Charles said, introducing Erik with the last name and rank Commander Azazel had used to address his friend. Charles took a deep breath and met each of his officer’s eyes one by one. “Commander Lehnsherr leads the Genoshan resistance against Emperor Shaw.”
Logan looked at Charles for a long breath before he began swearing colorfully. “Charlie,” he said once he had gathered himself, “what the fuck have you gone and done now?”
“I’ve negotiated a ceasefire with Commander Azazel,” Charles began cautiously. He had hoped to build to this point, in all honesty, not jump right in.
Logan, contrary to Charles’ hopes, but not his expectations, did not look reassured, his brow only becoming more furrowed.
“What changed? Last I heard, he wouldn’t even agree to meet with you to discuss anything.”
Charles took a deep breath. “In light of this cease-fire, doing my duty, keeping you all safe, no longer requires my presence.”
They all stared at him, knowing more was coming.
“I have pledged my support to Erik and his cause, and as such plan to be an active and participating member of the Genoshan resistance until their goals have been achieved.”
“This is not a defection. I will return, and will face the consequences of my actions upon my return. But this…this is something I have to do.”
The silence erupted. Charles shifted himself in front of Erik in case that eruption became violent, but no one made a move toward his or her sword.
When the dust settled, Erik had not one new volunteer, but six. The only reason it wasn’t seven is because Charles needed to leave the charge of his soldiers in capable hands.
“I don’t care about the rebellion,” Alex had said when Charles attempted to dissuade them all from following him, once it became clear they knew they weren’t being ordered to do so. “and I wouldn’t trust this asshole even as far as I could throw him,” Alex said, jerking a thumb at Erik. “I couldn’t give a fuck about the Regent or the Price or any of that bullshit. But I give a fuck about you. I follow you, General Francis. I trust your judgment. And if you think Shaw needs to go down, then by gods I’m going to do everything in my fucking power to make sure it happens, consequences be damned.”
When everyone nodded in agreement, it was all Charles could do not to cry.
When they all camped by the edge of the river that night, minus Scott and Jean who were staying here to keep things calm on the home front, Erik came up next to Charles where he sat staring out at the water.
“Your men are very loyal,” he said.
“Yes. Too much so, perhaps,” Charles said. “And don’t let Moira or Ororo hear you calling them my ‘men’,” he said with a small laugh. “Their ire is not something I would wish on an enemy, let alone a friend.”
Erik said nothing for some time, staring out at the river as well.
“You trust their judgment, don’t you?” Erik asked at last.
“Yes,” Charles responded immediately.
“Then trust that this decision is one that they are capable of making,” echoing Charles own argument. “Trust it here. Trust it now. You did not force them to do anything. This is their choice, and one you must respect.”
“I know,” Charles said, with a heavy sigh. “Still,” he said at last, forcing a smile on his face and the conversation to slightly lighter tones, “you must be thrilled.”
Erik snorted. “Not at all.”
“Really?” Charles asked, eyebrows shooting up as he turned to face his companion. “Why ever not? You’ve just gained seven new recruits with combat experience and tactical training. I would have thought you’d be over the moon.”
“Six of those recruits are only hear because of the seventh, and are just looking for an excuse to cut me to ribbons.”
Charles gaped at him.
“They don’t trust me anywhere near enough to allow me to steal something they hold precious. Not that I can blame them. I wouldn’t trust me either.”
“I must admit I’m confused. What have you stolen, exactly?”
Erik’s lip twitched. “You, of course.”
“I can’t trust them, you understand,” he said after a pause.
Charles nodded. For all that Erik seemed to trust him, he understood that the stakes were far to high for Erik to be taking any sorts of chances.
“And they obviously won’t be going anywhere without you. Which makes things…difficult.”
There was really nothing Charles could say in response to that, so he didn’t even try. He let the silence build between them, looking out on the water and feeling homesick, not for the first time.
“I miss it,” he confessed.
“What?” Erik asked.
“Home,” Charles told him. “But I can’t go back.”
“Why not?” Erik asked softly.
“Because it isn’t there anymore,” Charles answered. “Not how you’re thinking,” he said, waving away Erik’s questions before they could be voiced. “Physically, it’s still standing. It’s just…all the things that made it home are gone.” Charles took a deep breath, struggling to stay calm as he looked out at the river, so similar to the one that surrounded the Island of Cerebra. “I haven’t had a home in nearly twenty years. I miss it. That feeling…I want it back. And there are times that I feel close, but those are the worst. Because it only reminds me that something is missing.” Charles trailed off, his lips twitching in a self-depreciating smile. “I’m talking nonsense and babbling more than the water. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not nonsense,” Erik said, his voice rough with emotion. “It’s…I know. I know what you mean. I haven’t had a home in fifteen years, not since…it’s not nonsense, Charles.”
“Do you think you’ll ever find it again? Home?” Charles asked.
“I didn’t used to,” Erik said.
“For the first time since I lost it…I feel like there’s a chance.”
“I’m glad,” Charles said with a smile, thankful that Erik couldn’t see how watery it was in the low light.
He turned to look, and found Erik staring at him with an expression more raw than anything he’d seen before.
“Thank you,” Erik said, and he was so sincere it was almost painful to hear.
“For that chance.”
“Charlie!” Logan’s familiar voice called, and it was only when Erik pulled back sharply at the call that Charles realized exactly how close together they had drifted.
“Logan,” Charles greeted his longtime protector and friend with something he hoped resembled a genuine smile. “Was there something you needed?”
“You bet your ass there was,” he snarled out in his gruff way. “Tell pretty boy” and here he shot a venomous look at Erik “to buzz off and we can discuss it.”
Erik was visibly bristling next to Charles, but as he stepped forward, Charles put a hand on his arm. Erik stopped, glaring down at Charles.
“Erik,” Charles said simply. He couldn’t have them coming to blows. Not these two. “Please.”
Erik’s jaw remained tightly clenched, but something in his eyes seemed to soften as he stared down at Charles. He gave a curt nod before pulling away from Charles, seemingly reluctantly, and turning towards the fire where the remainder of Charles’ officer’s waited.
“Don’t wander too far now,” Logan called after him. “You and I have some things that need discussing.”
Erik said nothing, but he did shoot the older man a venomous glare before turning and walking back towards the fire.
“Logan,” Charles said, his tone a mix of reprobation and weariness.
“Don’t you ‘Logan’ me, bub. You have a lot of explaining to do. And that shit you tried to pull with the rest of them isn’t going to cut it. What the hell happened?”
Charles sat down, knowing his foot wouldn’t be up to standing for the entirety of the conversation and patted the ground beside him. Logan sat where he indicated, staring at Charles.
“I was out scouting,” Charles began after a deep breath, and Logan swore a blue streak. The swearing by no means tapered as Charles recounted his tale, carrying through from their meeting until he had returned to his officers.
“It’s my fault Shaw is in power. It’s my fault it all happened,” Charles concluded quietly. “And I want to set that right.”
“Charles...” Logan said, staring at him in disbelief, “you were ten. What the hell do you think you could have done?”
“I wasn’t ten,” Charles said, jaw clenched.
“I think I remember it a little better than you do, and trust me...”
“I wasn’t just ten. Ten wasn’t all I was. I was a crown prince of an allied nation, and I allowed...”
“Logan,” he said harshly. “I need to do this, do you understand? I need to help these people.”
Logan stared at him for a long time in silence. “This is dangerous, Charlie.”
“More dangerous than the front lines?”
“Crown Prince of a rival nation sneaking around behind borders? Yeah, just a little bit.”
“Kurt’s people won’t know where to find me, the Genoshans won’t recognize me, and if we do this right...the new ruler would be deeply in my debt. And if things go to hell it isn’t as if I’m any worse off than I am right now, is it?” he asked sharply.
Logan had no response to that, apparently.
“What about tall, dark, and toothsome over there?” Logan asked, jerking his head over to where Erik sat at the periphery of the fires’ glow. “He’s got nothing to do with this?”
“I would have done this once I’d known about it regardless of who had brought it to my attention,” Charles said, neatly sidestepping the issue.
Logan had known Charles long enough to know what he was doing, but he let it be. “You’re a moron, you know.”
“And here I thought I was the tactical genius of my generation,” Charles shot back glibly, bumping Logan’s shoulder with his own.
Logan threw an arm around his shoulder, tugging him close in a one-armed hug before kissing him on the top of his head. “I’ve been looking out for you since you were five. Try not to put all my work to waste, alright?”
“I’ll do my best,” Charles said simply.
“Get some rest,” Logan said as he rose. “We got marching to do come morning.”
“Where are you going?”
“To fetch your sword and cloak,” Logan said. “Pretty boy! Come with me. I could do with some company, and you and I need to have a conversation.”
“Be gentle please,” Charles called out after him as Logan began to walk away, a stiff-shouldered Erik trailing behind him.
“When am I ever anything but?” Logan called out over his shoulder, his smile downright dangerous.
After several days on the move, the party had made their way into the forest by the Genoshan border. Charles was staring at the ground in order to watch his footing, Erik’s crutch left behind at one of the campsites several days back, and was trying not to sigh too heavily at the thought of his friend.
Given Erik’s behavior over the past few days, it was clear that Charles had misinterpreted his motives that day in the field after they had emerged from the cave. In light of his now reserved, almost brusque behavior, Charles was willing to write all of Erik’s affection off as a simple expression of his feeling of indebtedness and guilt surrounding his role in Charles’ injury. Perhaps the majority of it could be attributed to unease around his unfamiliar traveling partners (and given the glares Erik was almost constantly shooting Logan, the thought didn’t seem too far off the mark), and given the way Erik seemed to open up around Charles, he knew that their fledgling friendship was not at risk.
Still, he couldn’t help but think, fighting the impulse to kick at the ground petulantly, he had allowed himself to start hoping that perhaps they might be more.
And who could blame him, really? That Erik was attractive, devastatingly so, was obvious. That would have been more than enough for a purely physical relationship. But Erik was also intelligent and loyal and brave and so determined it was frustrating at times and surprisingly gentle and sweet and caring and Charles…Charles wanted more. To know now that he would not have the chance after having entertained the hope was...crushing.
Still, the friendship and esteem of a man like Erik was something to be treasured. For all that it was not what Charles had allowed himself to hope for, it was far more than he deserved.
Charles was jerked roughly out of his head and into the present when a strong, far-too familiar forearm pressed across his chest, bringing him to a halt. Charles stared up at Erik, noting his friend’s furrowed brow and narrowed eyes before the man in question leaned down, bringing his face close enough to make Charles’ breath catch in his throat.
“Something isn’t right” he whispered, barely loud enough for Charles to hear for all that Erik’s lips were practically brushing against his ear.
Charles shoved his emotions aside as he processed the words, brow furrowing. There had been no signal from either Moira and Sean, nor Ororo and Alex, whom had been sent in pairs to scout out the forest ahead, yet Charles already knew Erik’s intuition was not to be discounted.
He turned to look his friend full in the face, and in doing so caught sight of movement out of the corner of his eye. Behind them of course.
Charles fought the urge to hit himself repeatedly in the head. For all his precautions about what was in front of them, he’d left their backs completely exposed, and had sacrificed half their party in order to do so. This was what he got for tying himself up in knots over someone who wasn’t interested, and the sooner he stopped moping, the better it would be for all of them.
Charles pulled his sword from its sheath before turning to face their opponents, letting out a long, loud whistle to let the scouting party know they had run into trouble.
He felt Erik turn beside him and could hear Logan doing the same as he evaluated the sight in front of him, feeling his stomach sinking. He was well aware of the skills of both himself and his comrades, including Erik after watching him spar with Logan almost every morning, but the sight that greeted him was far from encouraging. Apparently having abandoned stealth since Charles’ whistle had made it clear they had been discovered, their pursuers were now rushing at them.
Eight men on the ground, but those weren’t what had Charles worried. Eight barely trained men would not pose too difficult a challenge for three skilled fighters, even with Charles’ injury. The three men on horseback, however, were a different matter entirely.
“What,” Charles asked, catching sight of the expression on his friends’ face, “could you possibly be smiling about right now?”
“The horses,” Erik responded, lowering his sword momentarily.
“Why on earth would the horses possibly make you smile?”
“One of them,” he said, grinning wide as he brought the thumb and forefinger of his hand to his mouth, “is my horse.”
At the shrill whistle one of the horse, who had already been jerking against the reigns, fought even harder, turning to bite the thigh of the man who rode it, but that was all Charles had time to observe before the men on foot were upon them.
Charles aimed for the neck, vulnerable no matter what sort of armor the man might have been concealing under his cloak, being sure to put as much power behind his swing as he was comfortable risking without the fear of putting himself off balance. In the process of blocking the strike, his foe made the mistake of leaving his torso completely exposed, an error Charles exploited ruthlessly, bringing his blade to bear across his opponent’s exposed abdomen.
He could hear Erik and Logan behind him as he returned to guard, easily blocking the wild, desperate thrust of his enemy, who Charles had begun to suspect was not at all experienced.
“The riders!” Charles called out as he once again avoided his opponent’s guard, this time scoring a hit to the shoulder.
If either made an acknowledgement, Charles did not hear it, but given that he saw Logan go rushing past to engage the one rider within his view, he assumed he had been heard.
They’d managed to dispatch one of the riders and three of the footmen. Charles had sustained no injuries so far, but his foot was making the strain it was under known when he saw a flash of movement in one of the branches overhanging the path.
Moira. Charles let his eyes track to the other side of the path and sure enough there was the telltale flash of white that was Ororo’s hair. A chorus of shouts from behind them let them know Sean and Alex were not far behind. Charles felt renewed strength course through him, and threw himself back into the fight with a yell.
Charles, engaged in close quarters combat with one of their foes did not notice the throwing knife being drawn by the remaining horseman. It was Logan’s cry of “Charles, knife!” that alerted him to it, but at that point it was too late for him to do anything but turn and stare as the weapon in question came flying towards his face.
He was aware of broad hands on his shoulders, shoving him forward and out of the way, pressing his sword deep into his other enemy by pure happenstance.
He turned in time to see the knife strike Erik, now in it’s path as a result of shoving Charles out of harm’s way, squarely on the temple, hilt first. His eyes rolled back in his head as he crumpled, falling to the ground.
Charles froze, looking down at Erik’s prone form in shock, unable to process what he was seeing. Erik was…Erik was…
Charles threw himself into the battle with a ferocity he hadn’t known he possessed, the pain in his foot completely forgotten as he defended his fallen friend. Everything was simply a haze of repetitive actions, slashing and stabbing and blocking, shifting weight from foot to foot as cloth and flesh gave way under his blade.
He didn’t know how long it took, but eventually the cries grew fewer and farther between until there was only one man left standing. He tried to cut and run, only to have one of Moira’s ruthlessly accurate arrows cut him down before he could make it a handful of feet from the sight of the skirmish. All dead, including the one on Erik’s horse, though the animal in question was nowhere to be seen.
Danger passed, Charles fell to the ground beside Erik, carefully grasping his face between his hands as he stared down at him intently. He didn’t stir, and Charles could feel panic building in his chest.
Erik’s breaths were even and his heart, when Charles pressed his ear against Erik’s chest, was beating steadily. That didn’t settle the almost blinding panic that was quickly taking root in Charles’ chest. He’d seen enough head injuries on the battlefield to know that for all Erik’s body might appear to be perfectly sound, his mind was another matter altogether.
“We make camp now, off the road,” Charles said aloud, proud that his voice somehow managed to conceal the terror in his chest. “Is anyone else injured?” Upon receiving a negative response from the rest of his party, he carries onwards. “I’ll stay here and keep an eye on him while my tent is set up – he shouldn’t be out in the open like this. Sean, run back to the Genoshan camp and ask for a doctor. Make certain they know it is Erik who is in need of assistance. Ask for McCoy if you can – I don’t care that he’s just an apprentice, he’d brilliant and far above his mentor. In fact, it probably means they’ll be more likely to spare him.”
Sean nodded before taking off down the road at a sprint, and the others went off into the woods to begin setting up camp. Logan paused as he passed Charles, placing a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
“He’ll be fine, Charlie. He’s a tough son of a bitch, and too much of a stubborn bastard to die from something as run-of-the-mill as a head wound.”
Charles nodded once, trying to take comfort from the words, but the more logical side of him knew better. Still, it was enough to send Logan on his way, the burly man following the rest of Charles’ officers into the woods to begin establishing camp for the night.
Charles stared down at the prone body on the ground and had to fight to keep himself composed. His officers were not ten feet away, and it wouldn’t do to allow them to see their commanding officer fall to pieces. He could hold it together, for them. He had to.
“Stay with me,” he pleaded, brushing Erik’s hair back from his forehead, which only exposed the bruise forming on his temple. “You have to stay with me, Erik.”
There wasn’t a chance to do anything more, as at that moment Alex and Logan returned, apparently having set up Charles’ tent in record time. Charles watched them carry Erik off with his heart heavy as he hobbled along after them. He arrived at his tent just as the others were coming out, having placed Erik on the bedroll in Charles’ tent that he recognized as being Erik’s own.
“Thank you,” he told them as he passed them on his way into his tent. “And please call me when Sean returns. Work out a watch between yourselves.”
They nodded and left, and Charles pulled the flaps of his tent closed behind him, alone with his fears at last.
Charles didn’t know how long he sat there, staring at Erik’s prone form with feelings he didn’t dare examine at length coursing through him, unable to think of anything beyond the steady rise and fall of Erik’s chest, but after a time he heard the sound of hoof beats on the road, followed by the sound of familiar voices in quick conference before Sean was pulling open his tent.
“Medic’s Apprentice McCoy here to see to Erik, sir,” he said simply.
“Thank you Sean. Please send him in,” Charles replied, unwilling to look away from Erik, terrified that the man would disappear if he did. His voice, when he spoke, was rough, and he hoped Sean would think it was from disuse instead of unexpressed emotion.
There was the flutter of fabric as the tent flap closed, and then again as McCoy wrenched it open.
“What happened?” he asked as he crossed the tent.
“A blow to the head, from the hilt of a knife,” Charles responded as McCoy crouched down in front of Erik’s prone form.
Charles hauled himself to his feet, body protesting the movement after having been stationary for so long, and walked over until he stood at the foot of Erik’s bedroll, the better to both see what McCoy was up to and in order to quickly offer his aid should it prove needed.
The medic (Charles refused to think of him as an apprentice, regardless of his official title) opened Erik’s eyes one by one, staring at them intently before giving his head a thorough examination, asking Charles questions all the while, which Charles answered as best he could.
At last McCoy drew back. “I do not believe he is in danger of death. More pressing is the question of his mind. I assume that you have tried to rouse him?”
When Charles indicated that he had, McCoy asked after his saddle bags, which Charles went to fetch himself. McCoy eyed him seriously when he returned, but Charles paid him no mind, too intent on getting the medic what he needed as quickly as possible. McCoy took the bag and flipped it open, rummaging inside for only a moment before pulling out a vial filled with white crystals. Removing the stopper, he held the bottle under Erik’s nose as Charles watched with baited breath.
Erik’s eyes fluttered open, and Charles couldn’t help the small sob of relief that escaped him.
Erik groaned, eyes clenching shut and a hand coming up to press against his head. He tried to open them again, only to swear colorfully in Genoshan, the sound so familiar that Charles couldn’t help but let out a chocked laugh even as he sank down to sit on the floor, fearing his legs were too unsteady to support him.
McCoy asked Erik a series of questions, which the man answered gruffly with irritation, his limited patience eroding with every seemingly pointless inquiry about his name, the time of year, and equally innocuous general knowledge questions.
“Well,” McCoy said at last, “everything appears intact, but I wouldn’t let him sleep tonight just in case. I shall remain in camp as well if my services are needed further.”
“Thank you, McCoy,” Charles offered over his shoulder to the medic as he exited the tent, receiving a small nod for his trouble.
Charles turned around and simply stared at Erik for as long as he dared, drinking in the incredible sight of him awake and alert and alive.
Erik’s grey-green gaze swept over him, pinning him in place kneeling at the end of the bedroll. His eyes narrowed in concern, no doubt taking in the end result of hours worth of soul-rending terror in Charles’ countenance.
“Are you alright?” he demanded, propping himself up on one elbow and clearly attempting to sit up.
Charles was spurred to action, crawling over quickly to Erik’s side and placing a firm hand on his chest and forcing him back down.
“Am I alright? You nearly died and you want to know if I’m alright?” Charles asked, fighting to keep his voice even. “I’m fine. I’m not the one who took a knife to the head to keep me safe.”
“Almost even now,” Erik said at last, lip quirking upwards into something that could almost be called a smile.
“You stupid man,” Charles said, voice thick with unshed tears.
He bent down and pressed his lips firmly to Erik’s.
Before he had a chance to panic, to pull back and apologize profusely, one of Erik’s hands fisted in his hair, his mouth moving enthusiastically against Charles’ own. He had managed to work himself into a sitting position and his tongue into Charles mouth before he pulled back.
“I thought… you and Logan,” he said reluctantly, as if the words were being dragged from him.
Charles stared at him in openmouthed shock before tugging him down into another kiss. “Logan has cared for me since I was five. He is an older brother when he is not an overprotective father.”
Erik seemed to take that as his cue to pull Charles into another kiss, mouth hot and demanding against Charles’ own. It wasn’t long before Charles was swinging a leg across Erik’s lap, Erik’s hand migrating down from his hair to his back while he used the other to cup his face.
“I thought I’d lost you,” Charles said between pressing desperate kisses along Erik’s face.
“Never,” Erik swore. “If there is any way for me to come back to you, I will find it.”
The conversation ended there, both their mouths occupied in far more interesting, and in that moment, for Charles at least, important ways. He learned the taste of Erik, of his lips and skin, mapped out Erik’s mouth with his own tongue, let his fingers begin exploring the topography of scars on Erik’s back beneath his shirt. Erik made his own study of Charles’ mouth and lips and skin, pausing to use teeth and tongue to make his mark on the junction of Charles’ neck and shoulder.
“Sir, I wanted to let you know I found ...” Sean’s voice sounded from behind Charles.
The two jerked apart, Erik shooting a venomous glare at the Major that had him taking a step back as he finished, his voice gone quite with fear and surprise “the commander’s horse.”
Charles, fighting the impulse to lead down and burry his face against Erik’s chest to avoid the humiliation of the moment, said stiffly, “Thank you, Sean. Was there anything else?”
“Medic’s apprentice McCoy, sir,” Sean responded, and when Charles looked he saw that the boy’s eyes were fixed firmly on the ceiling of the tent. “He would like to examine your foot again, out by the fire so he can actually see what he’s doing.”
“Thank you, Cassidy. Dismissed.”
The rustling of fabric let Charles know he had been obeyed, and he finally allowed his head to fall forward against Erik’s chest as he let out a groan. Erik said nothing, but ran a hand up and down his back.
“They’ll never leave us alone now, you realize,” Charles said at last, words muffled by Erik’s shirt.
“We’re almost there now,” Erik murmured soothingly. “Three days at the most. As soon as we arrive, they’ll be sent off for orientation and I’ll pull you aside for a special debriefing.”
“Promise?” Charles asked, pulling away to look up into Erik’s eyes.
“I swear it,” he said with a small grin. “Now, go and let McCoy look at your foot,” he ordered as he gently pushed Charles up and off his lap.
Charles nodded, but leaned down for one last kiss, pulling away only when the tent flap opened again, revealing Logan, who claimed he was there to ensure Erik remained conscious while Charles was occupied with McCoy.
“I hope for their sakes,” Charles ground out as he limped to the mouth of the tent, “that we arrive soon.”
He heard Erik’s laugh as the flap swung shut, warm and joyful and genuine.
Three impossibly long days later, all Charles’ good humor burned away by the fire that Erik’s touch had ignited under his skin that his officer’s interference had ensured remained burning brightly, only stoked higher by the interrupted fumbling and kisses he and Erik managed to exchange, Erik drew to a halt in what appeared to be simply another small clearing within the forest.
“What is it?” Charles asked, drawing his sword as he walked forward to stand beside him.
“Nothing,” Erik said, lips parting in a smile that had Charles weak at the knees, banked fire flaming back into an inferno, “we’re here.”
“Is it an invisible camp?” Alex asked, his tone acerbic.
“Leave the horse tied. This is as far as it can come. Someone will take it to the paddock later.”
Erik lead them all over to a thick oak tree, indistinguishable to Charles from all its fellows, but it became unique as he pulled aside a rather thick handful of ivy to reveal a rope ladder leading upwards.
“There are traps between here and the camp. This is the only safe way to get across.”
Charles felt his eyebrows rise, impressed. It would never occur for anyone to look for it unless they had been told.
Erik gestured at Charles’ officers to go first, telling them to stop after the first bridge and wait for him. A hand on Charles’ shoulder held him back as his officers climbed one by one.
“Are you fit to climb, do you think?” Erik whispered in his ear, sending shivers down Charles spine. His thumb rubbed circles against Charles’ shoulder through his shirt while his pinky stroked back and forth against the bare skin left exposed by Charles shirt, brushing against the mark he’d left there.
“I won’t be if you keep that up,” Charles replied, placing his hand on top of Erik’s and tracing a pattern of his own on the back of Erik’s hand with his index finger.
Erik tugged his hand away, and the smirk he wore was doing Charles no favors. “I’d best stop then, hadn’t I? It is your turn, after all”
“Tease,” Charles hissed, shooting Erik an annoyed scowl before he began to climb.
“You’d best not be talking about teases, General, because I frankly can’t think of a greater one that climbing up behind you,” Erik called out from below him as Charles made his way up the tree.
Charles laughed. “You ridiculous man. Is that why you held me back?”
“Perhaps,” Erik responded, and Charles could hear him grinning his predatory grin.
They passed the rest of the climb in silence, because quite frankly Charles was wound tight enough as it was, and it wouldn’t take much at all to set him off. Best not to risk it, for all that they were so damn close. He said nothing as Erik passed by him after the first rope bridge to whistle out the password before crossing the second one. The third brings them in view of large rocky crag with a wide top, and the fourth brings them onto that crag. Even when a few steps reveals that the last twenty or so feet of rock, for all that the moss and coloring make it look like a natural arrangement, is anything but, instead concealing and protecting a large number of tents and an open space no doubt meant for training, Charles said nothing, for that he was impressed. He could ask later. There were more pressing matters now.
Charles climbed down the rope ladder into the camp proper, Erik’s hand on his back to steady him and other on the rope to steady it, but the former didn’t move when he reached the ground.
“Right,” Erik said at last, speaking to Charles’ officers. “You lot are off for orientation with Mystique,” he said, gesturing at the unfamiliar woman who stood beside Charles’ troops. “General Francis and I will be in my quarters discussing tactics.”
Logan let out a snort. “‘Discussing tactics’. Is that what they’re calling it these days?”
“You will all go with Mystique,” Charles snapped out, his voice almost unrecognizable to his own ears. “You will undergo orientation. You will get to know the camp and the people in it. Tell stories, compare histories, spar. I don’t care what else. But so help me, if I see a single one of you before I am ready to, you’ll find yourself on a quick march under orders back to Chester. Do I make myself clear?”
“As crystal, Charlie.”
“Good. Now fuck off, the lot of you.”
Erik dismissed Mystique with a quick nod before he grabbed Charles hand and all but sprinted into the mass of tents. Charles wouldn’t have been able to trace the route, but frankly he just didn’t care.
Erik threw back the flap of a tent before tugging Charles inside and tight against him, kissing him desperately.
“If your officers,” he informed Charles in a low growl when he finally pulled away, “interrupt us again,” he paused, pressing a kiss to the underside of Charles’ jaw while Charles fumbled with the buckle on Erik’s scabbard, “I will not be held responsible,” was murmured against Charles’ neck as Erik’s sword fell to the ground with a clatter and Charles finally worked his way under Erik’s tunic, making the man groan slightly, “for my actions,” he finished before sucking a mark onto the other side of Charles’ neck, higher this time.
Charles moaned at the sensation, digging his fingers into the bare skin of Erik’s ridiculously narrow waist as his head fell back. Eventually he gathered himself enough to push Erik away just long enough to tug the man’s tunic up and over his head, tossing it unceremoniously on the floor before getting a grip on the man’s broad shoulders and pulling him down into another deep kiss.
There was another loud clatter as Charles’ sword fell to the ground as well, and his own tunic soon joined Erik’s on the floor. Erik’s hands came to rest on his hips and then he lifted and everything was a blur of motion until Charles suddenly found himself staring up at the ceiling of Erik’s tent, mattress bouncing slightly at the sudden application of his weight.
The sound of something hitting the ground prompted Charles to prop himself up on his elbows, just in time to watch Erik shed his second boot before his hands flew to the buttons that kept his trousers fastened.
Under other circumstances, Charles might have demanded the privilege himself, or request that Erik remove them slowly so that Charles could enjoy the display. Things being what they were, he instead watched with avid interest while toeing off his own boots and reaching for the thongs that held his own trousers closed.
Erik’s dexterous fingers had the buttons undone in a matter of moments, and Charles observed the rippling of his muscles as he pulled his trousers and underclothes down and then stepped out of them. Charles barely had time to take in the glorious sight that was Erik unclothed, muscles and scars and impressive endowment all on display, before the man was above him, mirroring their position in the field what felt like months ago but in reality was just under a week.
Erik’s face vanished momentarily as he leaned back to help Charles shimmy out of his trousers and undergarments, not even taking the time to fling them to the floor before leaning down and capturing Charles’ lips once again.
They were both far, far too tightly wound to go slowly. A thorough, careful exploration of one another would have to wait. For now, it was all desperate kisses, Erik hard and hot in his hand and warm and wet as he sucked against Charles’ nipple, his thumb rough and wonderful as it circled around the other.
He pulled off with a gasp, pressing his forehead against Charles’ chest.
“You need to stop,” he gasped out. “You need to stop or I’m going to…”
“Then do it,” Charles told him. “Do it.”
“Wanted to be…inside you,” Erik worked out between pants, fingers digging bruises into Charles’ hip. “Please, Charles.”
At that, Charles swore, releasing his grip on Erik’s cock in favor of one on his shoulder, bucking up once in search of friction.
“Yes. Gods almighty, yes.”
Neither could say anything for a long while, mouths occupied with other things.
“Under the pillow,” Erik said as he pulled away, pressing his forehead down against Charles’, “there’s a vial of oil.”
Charles reached up and under the pillow he was laying on, scrabbling until his hands hit upon glass. He grasped it and thrust it outwards to Erik.
He watched, biting his lip as Erik liberally soaking his fingers before placing the vial down beside him on the bed. Erik’s preparation was methodical, though thankfully quick.
“Are you sure?” Erik asked, staring down at him redfaced, concern and lust warring.
“I was ready that first night in the cave you stupid man. Don’t keep me waiting any longer,” Charles said through gritted teeth, punctuating his remark by thrusting down onto Erik’s fingers.
Erik pulled them out with a curse, fumbling with more of the oil to slick himself while Charles threw one leg over Erik’s shoulder and wrapped the other more tightly around his waist.
Erik pressed in slowly, allowing them both time to adjust to the new sensation before beginning to thrust, slowly at first but quickly picking up speed. He wrapped the oil-slicked hand he had used to prepare them both around Charles cock, stroking in time with his thrusts.
It wasn’t long before Erik succumbed, coming with a hoarse cry of what might have been Charles’ own name. He followed soon after, care of a deft twist of Erik’s wrist and a particularly filthy kiss.
They lay together in a limp, satiated heap for a time before Erik moved, quickly cleaning them both off with the sheet already soaked with spilled oil before throwing it on the ground alongside their clothes.
When Erik finished, Charles tugged Erik back down beside him, his head resting beside Erik’s on the pillow, legs entwined, fingers trailing along Erik’s shoulder even as Erik slid his hand under Charles’ arm in order to stroke his back. They lay like that for a time, staring into each other’s eyes and caressing skin as they recovered.
“What is this to you?” Erik asked at last, voice soft and expression tender. “I know what I wish it to be but…what is this to you?”
Charles continued stroking Erik’s skin as he struggled to put his thoughts into words properly.
“Your bed is a comfortable and pleasurable place, and not one I care to leave” Charles began with a small smile.
Erik returned it, for all that it did not reach his eyes, “I cannot confess myself eager to see you go.”
Charles took a deep breath before continuing. “I am your friend, and I would not forsake that for all the world. But…I would be more. I don’t just want to lie with you, but to sleep beside you.” Charles struggled to find the words to convey his desires. “I want to dance with you when music plays and share our warmth when the fire is not enough. I want to kiss you when the mood strikes me and have you do the same. I would share your burdens and have you help to carry mine. I want…”
Erik silenced him with a kiss, the sweetest they had shared by far. “You want what I do,” he said, face breaking into a wide, joyful smile.
Charles returned it with one of his own, letting out a laugh as he did so.
“Come now, Erik. There are hours yet before my officers dare come looking for us. We’d best put that time to good use.”
“What would you suggest?” he inquired with a suggestive smirk.
“You promised me a debriefing,” Charles reminded him.
Erik’s gaze slid to the pile of clothing on the floor. “I rather thought I had delivered.”
Charles smacked him. “Yes, and neither of us is young enough to be ready for another ‘debriefing’ of that variety for at least a half hour. We might as well put the time to good use. The layout of this camp, the traps outside, our numbers…is this the only camp of this sort, or are there others like it? What purpose does this outpost serve?”
Erik shook his head and laughed. “Right to work, I see.”
“Of course. I have a reputation to uphold. I’m supposed to be a tactical genius, you know. How can I do that if I don’t have any information?”
“Welcome to the Genoshan Resistance, General Francis,” Erik said running his fingers through Charles’ hair.
“Happy to be here, Commander Lehnsherr,” Charles replied with a fond smile.
Erik returned the grin with one of his own before pulling Charles into another lazy kiss.
For the first time in a long time, as Charles lay there in Erik’s arms, he felt content.