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Love (is) Love

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Charles stepped out of the taxicab, calling out an appreciative “Cheerio!” to the driver in farewell before the yellow automobile rejoined the crawling traffic of Midtown Manhattan. Early April was a fine time to be in New York, warm enough for Charles to get away with just a cardigan, despite the wind still having a bit of a nip to it. This morning was rather chilly, so Charles had a warming sip of Earl Grey from the takeaway cup that Erik had made him bring along, accompanied by a chocolate croissant in a pastry bag.

Smiling down fondly at the items in his hand, Charles couldn't help feeling ridiculously touched. He bit into the crispy chocolate pastry as he surveyed the exterior of the Harry Winston outlet, admiring the high arches of the French-styled doorway and picture windows. The refined elegance of its creamy travertine exterior made it stand apart from its shiny glass-and-steel neighbours across the road, but Charles wasn’t exactly surprised. All the buildings along this stretch of Fifth Avenue were a mishmash of old and new, much like the rest of NYC itself. And, thanks to the close proximity to Central Park, Charles could still detect the fresh, flowery fragrance of its numerous cherry blossom trees, just in the new flush of first bloom as April trundled along. It was Charles’ favourite time to be in Manhattan. Just yesterday, he had visited a different part of Central Park with Erik, where they had tried to get a chess game going before giving up after attracting too many curious onlookers. They had then gone on a walk instead, hands entwined while discussing psychology, Erik extolling the virtues of Carl Jung’s theories while Charles had listened with rapt interest and barely concealed delight as Erik absently brushed back stray locks of Charles’ hair while talking.

Glancing at his watch, Charles found he still had a few minutes before his appointment, so he stood on the sidewalk to finish his tea first. The perfume of cherry blossoms lingering in the air made him smile to himself, reminding him of that time in Tokyo when Erik had visited him after several weeks apart, and they had held each other tightly while cottony-pink petals had drifted down all around them. It would be a memory forever etched in his mind, and whenever Charles recalled it, he could almost smell the spicy-sharp notes of Erik’s cologne, and hear the soft, calming thumps of Erik’s heartbeat, pressed against his ear.

Charles tried not to burst into a besotted grin, and failed. Aware that a fairly recognisable movie star smiling foolishly to himself in the middle of Fifth Avenue would not go unnoticed, Charles hid behind his cup of tea and tried to blend amongst the steady stream of tourists and Wall Street traders. He received a few curious looks and one double-take from a passing New Yorker walking her dog, but otherwise no one paid him much mind. He was just a man, standing in front of a jewellery store, intent on asking the love of his life for his hand in marriage.

It was ridiculous, the number of times he had come so close to simply blurting out to Erik, “Will you marry me, darling?” at the most random moments, like when they were entwined in bed, or sharing a bottle of wine over chess. This morning had been a particularly close shave, when Charles had woken up to find Erik gazing lovingly at him. “You were smiling in your sleep,” Erik had murmured, before kissing him softly. “Even after so long I still can't take my eyes off you. You're the most beautiful person I have ever seen.”

The heart-rending sincerity in Erik's words had made Charles’ eyes burn, and he had been so, so close to begging Erik to marry him on the spot. To counter this, Charles had pinned him down in bed and ravished him silly. Of course, the unexpectedly prolonged bout of morning sex had made Charles unwittingly behind time for his appointment at the jeweller's, and that had resulted in a mad scramble down to the lobby of the Carlyle, where they were being accommodated for the duration of the NYC shoot for their modern remake of ‘Strangers on a Train’. Erik had insisted on packing tea and a croissant from the breakfast area, overly concerned about him going hungry. In return, Charles had chuckled and called him a ridiculous man, while Erik happily terrorised one of the hotel staff into fetching him a paper bag. Later, they had kissed goodbye before Erik helped him into the waiting taxicab like a perfect gentleman, with Charles promising to return to the set in time for a late lunch as his driver pulled away.

Since he couldn't have told Erik that he was going to collect Erik's engagement ring, he had been forced to half-lie and say that he had an appointment to apply for his green card. It wasn't exactly untruthful; the appointment was later in the morning, but Erik of course believed him immediately, and Charles felt guilty abusing Erik's hard-won trust. It was in Erik's nature to be suspicious and cynical, but when it came to Charles, Erik would believe him even if he one day said that he was a time traveller from the future. Sighing as he finished the pastry, Charles reminded himself that it was for a good cause, and that Erik would definitely forgive him once he realised why.

It also helped that Charles truly was applying for a green card. Before Erik, Charles hadn't thought about obtaining citizenship in the States, content enough with only his British passport. But now that they were (hopefully) going to get married, Charles had been thinking about their future together, particularly regarding children. It was clear from their conversations that Erik wanted children as well, and Charles thought it would be easier for their little ones if at least one of their parents was also a US citizen. It would definitely help with applications to schools, at least. He didn't know if Erik would want to be naturalised too, but it was something they could discuss after they were married, even though he still wouldn’t be able to sponsor Erik as his spouse under the current laws.

Taking up dual citizenship made sense for Charles, considering all the work that he and Erik were doing here for the Human Rights Campaign in regards to getting the repulsive Defense of Marriage Act repealed. As promised, Charles had shared his plans to help the HRC that morning after the Oscars, ecstatic that Erik had been completely onboard with the idea. While Erik browsed through sites detailing the more than 1,100 federal rights denied to married same-sex couples in the US, Charles had found himself glancing between the man in his arms and their Oscars, standing side by side on the mantle over the fireplace, and wondering how this could possibly be real. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that he had been so far in the closet that he’d found Narnia. In the following couple of months since then, Erik had proven to be even more passionate about the cause than himself at times, even putting them down for the upcoming pride march in San Francisco at the end of June, and Charles loved being able to fight alongside Erik for something they both believed in.

One of the things the HRC had suggested was a video of the two of them appealing to the public to sign a petition for marriage equality, as well as getting people to write in to their elected officials to repeal DOMA. During the video shoot, Charles had talked about how the recent months had shown rapidly shifting public opinion on same-sex marriage, and what had seemed impossible yesterday now looked much like tomorrow’s inevitable. In contrast, Erik had spoken very seriously about his firm belief that same-sex couples deserved the same rights as hetereosexual couples. It ended with Charles appealing to viewers to be a part of this evolutionary cycle and sign the petition, while Erik gazed at him with a besotted, lovestruck expression that Raven and the others had made fun of for days afterward. However, the fans must have lapped it up, judging by how the video had garnered half a million hits within a few hours, prompting congratulatory calls from the HRC committee and an invitation to their gala dinner in Los Angeles. Of course, he and Erik had been too happy to accept.

Amusingly, Erik’s happiness had been short-lived when he had found out that Charles intended to auction off one of his blue cardigans. Charles had known Erik had a strong attachment to all of his sweaters, but even he had been caught off-guard when Erik began bidding on it during the live auction while Charles was onstage. Erik had carried on despite acknowledging Charles’ increasingly raised eyebrows, smirking in satisfaction whenever he got the upper hand in the bidding war. It wasn’t until Charles had pushed the auctioneer aside and announced, fondly exasperated, “For God’s sake, darling. I own five of these in the same shade,” that Erik had stopped, sulking as the rest of the ballroom erupted in amused laughter. Later, Charles had soothed him with kisses when he returned to their table and a whispered promise of some form of ‘compensation’ hereafter. Erik had cheered up after that, and they were both delighted that Erik’s little stunt had helped drive the final auction price of Charles’ cardigan to an obscenely staggering figure.

The sound of a car blaring its horn startled Charles out of his pleasant recollections, and he glanced at his watch. It was just about 9 in the morning, finally time for his appointment. Throwing away the paper cup and smoothing down his cardigan, he made his way into Harry Winston. As he had hoped, there was no one else in the store, apart from a row of extremely attentive sales staff and their manager, a greying older gentleman in a sharp black blazer, as they had made a concession to open the store early just for him. It really wouldn’t do to have Erik find out that Charles had collected his engagement ring from Page Six of the New York Post. He greeted them warmly and shook their hands, and the manager, Thomas, introduced his staff by name before inviting Charles to sit down in a private little nook. “Thank you so much for coming, Mr. Xavier. We hope you will like the final outcome.”

“Not at all, Thomas. And please do call me Charles,” he reassured the manager. It was rather dim in the store, and the chandeliers hanging from the ceiling reminded Charles of the ones in the main dining hall at the Westchester mansion. Thomas nodded at the nearest sales associate, who quickly made her way to the backroom. She emerged a few minutes later with a beautiful glass tray, on which perched a black velvet box. She carefully placed this down in front of Charles, who immediately sat up in excitement.

“We made sure to adhere to every specific requirement and detail of your design, Mr. Xa- I mean, Charles,” Thomas explained, lifting the lid of the elegant black box with just the tips of his fingers. Inside, there was a plush, dark blue jeweller’s ring box with the Harry Winston logo embroidered on the top in gold. Charles could feel his heartbeat begin to race at the mere thought of getting down on one knee and offering this very box to Erik.

“Brilliant. And the inscription?” Charles asked, unable to disguise the excitement in his voice.

Thomas deferred with a little bow. “As you specified, of course.” He nimbly took the cover off, then opened the clasp before unfolding the box. Harry Winston’s ring boxes were unique, in the sense that instead of having a top and bottom that opened like a clam, the boxes had butterfly flaps that surrounded the jewel in the middle. Each flap bore the embroidered gold Harry Winston logo as well, but Charles only had eyes for the ring tucked into the centre. It was a thick platinum ring, embedded with a 2 carat diamond that sparkled brilliantly even in the dim light. Thomas slid on a pair of white gloves, then gently retrieved the ring from its nest, showing Charles the inscription inside, just like he had requested. Pleased, Charles nodded with a grin, after which Thomas returned the ring to its box.

“We will leave you to inspect the ring at your leisure, Charles. Do ask if there is anything we can do for you.”

“Thank you, Thomas,” Charles said, smiling at the staff as they flitted out, leaving him alone with the ring. He couldn’t resist picking the box up and peering at it from all angles, imagining the ring nestled snugly right where it belonged, around Erik’s long, elegant finger. The ring was exquisite, and Charles could only hope that Erik would say yes to spending the rest of their lives together. He studied the ring for a while longer before closing the flaps of the box and fitting the cover back on top.

Calling for the staff, Charles arranged for payment and thanked them again for their help. If this had been any other store, they might have asked for his autograph, but he knew that the Harry Winston staff had far too much decorum to make such a request. Besides, Charles was willing to bet that they had served several other high-profile customers, so they were probably used to it. Instead, Charles requested that they called a taxicab for him, declining politely when they offered him a carrier bag for his purchase. The last thing he needed was for Erik to find a Harry Winston bag in the rubbish bin, and Charles planned on sneaking down to Westchester as soon as possible so he could lock the ring in the safe before Erik stumbled upon it.

Charles weighed the small velvet box in his hand, unable to stop himself from grinning as his giddy mind came up with a hundred different ways in which to propose, his heart set on going for a grand romantic gesture that would make all his past movies pale in comparison. He was so caught up in his daydreams that he barely registered the time it took for his transport to arrive, and would have probably missed his ride entirely had the doorman not alerted him. Charles smiled wistfully as he slipped the ring box into the safety of his trouser pocket, stepping out of the boutique and towards a hopeful future.

* * * * *

* * * * *

[Seven years ago...]

It was common sense that checking the mailbox constantly every five minutes would not make the mail arrive any faster, but Charles just could not help himself. He had already checked the mail five times that morning, and was just about to contemplate a sixth visit when he heard heavy footsteps and the cheerful humming of the FedEx delivery man. He flew out of his seat by the window and clattered downstairs, just in time to catch the courier with his finger hovering over the doorbell, eyebrows raised in surprise when he spotted Charles. “Mr. Charles Xavier?”

“That’s me,” Charles said, beaming as he reached for the pen and clipboard.

After signing for the package, Charles excitedly brought it into his living room. Carefully, he ripped open the package and slid out the framed cover, staring in awe at himself on the glossy cover of ‘Interview’. It was one of the more relaxed shots the photographer had snapped towards the end of the shoot, where Charles had his head tipped forward, smiling shyly at the camera. The headline, ‘Prepare for the British Invasion’ was printed across his collarbone, followed by the smaller subtitle, ‘Charles Xavier Takes Hollywood by Storm’ underneath. He still couldn’t quite believe that he was on the cover of a magazine. He had to sit down.

After a few minutes of trying to absorb the enormity of it all, Charles finally got his phone out and texted Raven to let her know that he had received the cover and advance copy, and her reply was a wordless “!!!!”, which made him laugh out loud. Carefully, he set aside the framed cover before reaching for the magazine which was encased in a separate manila envelope. He gingerly slid it out, brimming with barely contained excitement as he gazed at the actual magazine in his hands. It seemed like only yesterday when he was a skinny unknown actor, hoping for his first big break.

He flipped through the pages, bursting into a wide grin as he came upon the cover story. ‘Interview’ had decided to go with a serious photo of him with his forehead leaning against the wall, head tilted sideways to face the camera. He eagerly scanned through the text, remembering bits and bobs from the lengthy interview and photo shoot which had taken almost the whole day. But it was worth it, judging from the beautifully polished article and accompanying photos. Charles almost felt like he was looking at another version of himself, a far more glamorous and media-savvy doppelganger.

There was a very nice, in-depth mention about Moira and their natural, sizzling chemistry onscreen, and Charles had taken the opportunity to praise his co-star to high heavens. That section was accompanied by a publicity still from ‘The Blind Date’, where Charles’ and Moira’s characters had met for the first time. Of course, the interviewer had followed with the obligatory question of whether they were seeing each other offscreen, if rumours were to be believed, to which Charles had responded with an empathetic, “No, but Moira is my dearest friend.”

There was also a paragraph on how Charles had given up his post-graduate studies at Oxford to pursue acting, and Charles cringed at the way the text waxed lyrical on his ‘intelligent answers and impeccable manners’ being a testament to his ‘sterling education and posh upbringing’. If only they knew of the huge argument he had gotten into with Mother when he had announced his plans to give up his post-graduate studies, culminating in threats of disownment being hurled around until Father had stepped in. Yet, all that seemed like a lifetime ago now, along with the days of being able to walk into a pub and order a pint without having the place turn into a carnival.

Charles read through the entire article twice, just to keep an eye out for errors or misquotes. When he was finally done, he realised he needed a minute just to let the reality of it all sink in, just so he could accept that he had ‘made it’ on some level.

Letting out a pleased, happy sigh, he decided to flip through the rest of the magazine just for kicks, at least to take a break before his third re-read. But something on the very next page caught his eye, and he found himself staring at the glossy photo of a man whose eyes were neither blue nor green, but some intriguing shade in-between. The man’s stare was direct and completely unafraid, his white shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest. Charles’ gaze trailed down his lean body, before noticing the headline: ‘Last Action Hero’ and below it, the name of this mysterious man – ‘Erik Lehnsherr’.

Charles was already more than intrigued. He continued reading.

It turned out that this Erik Lehnsherr was also an emerging star like him, but instead of romantic comedies, Erik’s area of expertise was blockbuster action movies. Erik’s first lead debut had hit the screens around the same time as ‘The Blind Date’ a few months ago, and there was a mention that Erik had two more upcoming roles. Making a mental note to drag Raven with him to the cinema to catch those movies, Charles eagerly continued to devour the text.

‘The German-born Lehnsherr does not apologize for the fact that he still has traces of an accent, or that he rarely smiles for photo opportunities. “I see no point in being fake,” he says bluntly, even as his agent flinches in the background. “Hollywood is made entirely of plastic. You can never be sure when someone is lying to you. Therefore, I choose not to do that. Being honest with someone is affording them respect.”’

Having himself been twisted and shaped by his PR team to fit the Hollywood mould, it was truly refreshing for Charles to read about someone who absolutely did not give a damn about his image or his reputation. In fact, Erik’s words made absolute sense, and he was just stating what everyone else was too polite to say. Hollywood was too plastic, and Charles knew from painful experience that people would say and do anything for fame and money. As he scanned through the rest of the interview, Charles couldn’t help agreeing with many of Erik’s shrewd, candid statements and observations about the business. Erik also had a very wry sense of humour that made Charles chuckle here and there, especially when pointing out cultural differences between Europeans and Americans.

Despite his blunt honesty and sharp tongue, it was clear that Erik also had a softer side that emerged when he was talking about his parents, who still lived in Germany. He had no qualms about admitting that he missed them, as it had not been financially viable for him to visit them until only recently. He spoke at length about the many sacrifices his parents had made throughout the years to afford acting lessons for him, as well as a plane ticket to LA. This struck a chord deep inside Charles, who found himself wishing that his own mother had been half as supportive. Erik was a very fortunate man to have come from such a loving family, of which he was obviously fond, and Charles briefly wondered what it was like to know these people, to find out if they were as warm in person as Erik had made them sound.

Charles found his eye occasionally wandering from the text to the photos of the man himself, distracted by Erik’s grim, smouldering gaze half-hidden in shadow. Even with such an in-depth interview, Charles still had no idea what Erik was really like.

“Stop it, Charles,” he told himself sternly. “You know the drill. It’s either your career or seducing handsome, brilliant actors to bed, you can’t have both. A gay Hugh Grant is not going to fill cineplexes.” Charles tried to force his hand to turn the page, but it was near impossible. His eyes were captivated by that icy, pale blue stare and he just couldn't look away.

After re-reading Erik’s interview for the fourth time, Charles decided there was no harm in admitting that, all right, perhaps he now had the tiniest crush on this enigmatic stranger. Besides, it wasn’t as though they were likely to be cast in the same movie. Sitting back, Charles couldn't help feeling a little deflated at this realisation that it would be quite a feat for him to ‘run into’ Erik in Hollywood, as they barely moved in the same circles. But it wasn't impossible, and in the meantime, he could always watch Erik’s movies and read his interviews while trying to think of a devious way to meet the man himself in the flesh, as it were. Dreading the merciless teasing that would surely arise from Raven’s end, he decided not to tell her anything in the meantime. What she didn’t know couldn’t hurt her.

There was a sharp rapping on the door. Speak of the devil. “Charles! Quick, I want to see your magazine cover!” Raven bellowed, probably for the benefit of his neighbours. Chuckling, Charles quickly rose to let her in. Erik Lehnsherr would be his secret, for now.

It was two weeks later when Charles was out shopping with Raven that they happened to pass a newsstand, and the issue of ‘Interview’ with himself on the cover caught his eye, causing him to slow down and contemplate purchasing another copy. “Don't you already have the advance copy?” Raven demanded to know when she followed his gaze and noticed what he was staring at. “If you want more, I could always ask the publisher directly.”

“It's all right, my dear, no need to trouble them,” Charles said hastily as he dug out his wallet. He would feel bad asking for a free copy just so he could get to ogle Erik some more without all the creases, so he would rather purchase his own copy to do with as he pleased.

“It's no trouble! After all, you’re their cover star, dah-ling,” Raven drawled with a chuckle, draping an arm around Charles’ shoulders as he nudged aside a small rack – filled with maps to celebrities’ homes and picturesque postcards of Santa Monica – to procure a pristine copy of ‘Interview’.

“Raven, it’s not like I can’t afford it,” he reminded her. After paying for the magazine, he securely tucked it under his arm with a secretive little smile as Raven rolled her eyes at him. Since she wasn’t aware of his primary motive, he wondered what she must be thinking.

“Don’t go getting an ego now,” she teased him with a nudge as he felt his cheeks warm in a blush. “One day you’ll let fame get to your head and date only tall, gorgeous supermodels who are out of your league.”

Charles’ smile only widened. If only she knew the truth.

* * * * *

[Present day...]

Ever since the Oscars, Erik’s and Moira’s attitudes towards each other had somewhat improved, and at least they could now stand to be in the same room together, even sharing the odd joke here and there. But Charles wasn’t fooled, as he knew both of them far too well for them to pull the wool over his eyes. Now that they were all working on ‘Strangers on a Train’ – with him playing Guy and Erik cast in the role of the antagonist, Bruno – and spending a lot more time together, there were bound to be lapses of their forced harmony, and Charles spotted them all. Charles hadn’t missed the strained expression on Erik’s face whenever Charles was filming his scenes with Moira as his wife, Miriam, even though their ‘marriage’ was collapsing due to their mutual infidelity. Also, more than once, Charles had caught Moira pulling a face behind Erik’s back.

It was a good thing then that Jessica Chastain had come on board as the genteel, elegant Anne. Not only did the presence of a fourth person help to break up the lingering tension between Erik and Moira, but everyone really liked Jessica and, as a result, Erik and Moira seemed determined to be on their best behaviour whenever she was around. Charles was relieved that at least all four of them would be present for this morning’s official photo shoot, where publicity stills of the main cast would be taken. It was no secret that the reason Charles was getting to work with both Erik and Moira again was because of their director’s infamous penchant for stunt casting. Terrence Malick was obviously aware of the hype the movie would generate due to his casting choices, and Charles didn’t blame him for wanting to take advantage of it. Besides, any opportunity to work with Erik (and to a lesser extent, Moira) was a boon for Charles.

“Okay, Charles and Erik,” the photographer, Peter, called out, gesturing for them to move to the centre of the studio set. “You guys are up first. Erik, I want you to stand face-to-face with Charles and glare hatefully at him.”

Standing facing each other, Charles brushed his hand against Erik’s before trying to school his features into a serious expression. But it was difficult, because Erik looked absolutely gorgeous in his suit, and Charles could barely control the upwards twitch of his lips, aching to break out into a smile. Erik himself was obviously holding back a smirk, and his eyes were soft as he gazed at Charles.

“No, no, no,” Peter said impatiently, adjusting his spectacles. “Erik, stop gazing at Charles like you want to kiss him, man. You’ve gotta look at Charles with a lot more hate than that or I’m not taking the picture.”

“I’m trying,” Erik replied, a little irritated. Taking in a deep breath, Erik’s eyebrows drew together in displeasure as he frowned heavily at Charles. But only a moment later came a crack in the veneer and Erik’s attempt at a frown melted into a sheepish smile as he ducked his head. “Damn it, I can do this...”

“Think of Shaw, darling,” Charles murmured in a low voice, and Erik’s head whipped up immediately, a flash of anger in his eyes.

“There we go! You got it, Erik!” Peter announced in joy, followed by the frenzied clicking of his camera. “Okay, now angle your body to the left to face the camera more...”

They took a few more shots like that, followed by a set in which they recreated the iconic scene where Guy and Bruno met on the train, and then it was time for Charles’ shots with Jessica. Her studio makeup was thick and immaculate, and she was standing close enough that he could smell the floral scent of her high definition finishing powder. To the side, he was aware of Erik keenly watching the proceedings, and Charles fought hard not to smile when he heard Moira telling Erik to ‘lighten up’.

Peter directed Charles to place a hand on Jessica’s hip and the other on the small of her back, as though they were slow-dancing. Once the photographer was satisfied, he arranged them in a few more poses, including one where they looked as though they were about to kiss. To be honest, Charles was more than used to this, having gone through several takes of close-up kissing scenes for almost all his movies over the years. But he found himself wishing he could do this with Erik, instead of Jessica or any of the dozens of actresses who had previously been Charles’ co-stars. He glumly wondered when society would be ready for movies with gay leads to be the norm, not the exception.

After the ‘romantic’ photos, Peter wanted some shots of Charles and Moira together, but he made it very clear that he wanted them to look as strained and unhappy as possible. Exchanging a quick, amused smile with Moira, Charles closed his eyes and tried to put himself in a mental state of utter despair. Instantly he thought of one of his most miserable nights in Japan, when he had just said goodnight to Erik over Skype and was badly craving his touch, his kiss. That night had been one of the loneliest in his life.

He opened his eyes again. It must have worked, because Moira seemed startled by the look on his face and Peter was gleefully yelling out, “Perfect!” and snapping picture after picture.

He did some individual photo shoots as well, and when they were finally done, Charles had never been more glad to drop the false animosity he had been forced to harbour towards Erik and Moira. He slung an arm each around both of them as the four leads laughed and chatted in a little circle while they waited for Peter to get the set ready for Erik’s shoot, and Moira was muttering, “Erik, don’t look so relieved that they aren’t making us take a picture together.”

Jessica tittered with laughter as Erik rolled his eyes. “Well, what could they have taken a photo of? Me strangling you? That’s our only scene together, really,” he said.

“True,” Moira mused dryly. “Although I have to say that you did seem to enjoy throttling me a little too much.”

The ghost of a smirk flashed across Erik’s face for the quickest of moments. “Stop being ridiculous, Moira,” he said, coming off entirely serious.

“Uh huh.” Moira was smiling, as though she didn’t seem to have bought it. “I suppose it wasn’t revenge for all those love scenes I shot with Charles in the past.”

Charles could feel Erik’s arm around his waist tighten, and he flashed a warning look to a self-satisfied Moira. Why did she derive such pleasure in needling Erik every chance she got? Then again, Charles had to be fair. Erik had looked a little too gleeful with his hands around Moira’s throat when they had shot the scene where Bruno strangled Miriam. In fact, he had admitted as much to Charles in the aftermath. Terrence had called it an early day because Moira had ended up with a couple of minor lacerations after they tried a take where Erik ‘choked’ her using Miriam’s necklace instead. He and Erik had squabbled on the way back to the hotel, after Charles had made sure Moira was all right. Erik had insisted that the injuries were accidental, and Charles did believe him, but he had also been trying to coax Erik to admit that he had gotten carried away in his role and exerted a little too much force during the scene. “So what if I did?” an exasperated Erik had finally said when they were back in their suite. “It’s not like I deliberately meant to hurt her. I don’t know my own strength sometimes.”

At this, Charles’ gaze had flickered down to Erik’s hands; strong, square, and long-fingered. Perfect for manhandling. A rush of heat flared up in Charles at the thought of Erik roughing him up. “But I do,” Charles had said, his mouth twisting up as he took one of Erik’s palms and placed it on his own collarbone. “Your strength is very intense, darling.”

Erik had seemed confused as he stared at his hand sprawled on Charles’ chest. “But you know I’d never use it to hurt you.”

Charles had taken this opportunity to grab hold of Erik’s shirt and pull him closer. His heart was thumping at the thought of Erik pinning him down and just taking him as he pleased, a hand wrapped around his throat to hold him in place. “What if I wanted you to?”

Erik’s eyes had widened, and it had taken a fair amount of coaxing from Charles while in the midst of their bedroom activities before Erik had finally given Charles what he was begging for. Erik had tightened his long fingers around Charles' throat, the pace of his thrusts quickening, and Charles had been briefly aware that he was harder than he'd ever been in his life before both of them spiralled into blissful oblivion. The next day, Charles had blushed to find a matching set of bruises around his throat that pretty much mirrored Moira’s, and the chief makeup artist had sworn up and down to kill Erik as she hunted for a shade of concealer pale enough for Charles’ skin. Moira had only laughed when she saw his set of identical bruises while Sean, who had shown up that day to make sure Erik didn't overdo it again, had been appalled at the sight, even toying with the idea of telling Erik off. “Don’t bother, it’s some weird sex thing for them,” Moira had drawled, and Sean’s horror had dissolved into comic disgust.

The assistant coming over to hurry Erik away drew Charles out of his thoughts, and he gave Erik a quick kiss before Erik went back in front of the cameras. Charles watched as Erik posed for the shots, his presence commanding and with that slight air of danger about him that was starting to get Charles rather flustered. He turned to Moira for a moment, who was on her phone. Judging from the wide smile on her face, she must be talking to Sean. Charles remembered her telling him that, after her part for ‘Strangers on a Train’ was done filming, she would be flying over to Scotland to begin production for ‘Muir Island’, the movie that Sean had spent most of last year writing for her, much to Alex's chagrin.

Feeling a pair of arms wrap around his waist from behind, Charles didn’t even have to turn to figure out who it was, instantly relaxing in Erik’s embrace. “I need a shower desperately,” he heard Erik murmur in his ear, before planting a kiss right below his earlobe.

“Sounds like a brilliant idea,” Charles replied, stroking Erik’s hand which was clamped across his abdomen. “Which is just as well, because I’d like to try something again.”

He felt Erik turning him around so that they were facing each other once more, his eyebrows raised. “You mean…what Bruno did to Miriam?”

Laughing as he nodded, Charles could feel the heat suffusing his cheeks. “I was just pleasantly reminiscing about it.”

Erik’s eyes went dark as they darted down to Charles’ throat. “So that’s why you were staring at me so hungrily just now.”

Charles stood on his tiptoes to fondly kiss Erik. “Darling, I’m offended. I’m, always staring at you like that, you know,” he said, and they both laughed as they exited the studio, their arms wrapped around each other.

* * * * *

* * * * *

Throughout all the years that Raven had known Charles, she had never seen him this blissful and content. For so long he had always put others first before himself, and she knew all too well the number of sacrifices he had made just to appease everyone. So it was almost a shock to be witness to the complete turnaround in Charles’ life, as Erik placed making Charles happy as his number one purpose for existing, and devoted his time and energy to him accordingly. Raven instinctively knew that Erik was the genuine article, and that he wasn’t after Charles’ wealth or looks. He was madly in love with Charles.

So, one day when Raven was in her suite with Darwin to discuss Charles’ upcoming schedule for the next few months, she wasn’t at all surprised when Charles came to them with the biggest smile and the biggest plans. After all, it was really only a matter of time before one of the two lunkheads would get down on one knee to propose to the other. In fact, Raven even had an ongoing bet with Emma about it. She sat passively as Charles rattled on and on about his plans to ask for Erik’s hand, trying not to snicker at how Darwin’s eyebrows climbed increasingly higher and higher.

“I just want to make the grandest gesture I can think of,” Charles said, his eyes alight with excitement as he waved his hands around. “I want to romance Erik, I want to sweep him off his feet–”

“In other words, you’re going to treat Erik like one of the girls in your rom-coms,” Raven said flatly.

Laughing, Charles whacked her on the arm with the stack of papers he was holding. “Thank you for that, I appreciate the encouragement.”

Raven grinned, patting his hand. “I was just teasing. Besides, we both know how long you’ve been fantasising about this moment, ever since you were drooling over Erik in a loincloth in ‘Sparta’.”

Poor Darwin cringed. “Ugh, can we please not talk about Erik in loincloths? I still have PTSD from having to watch that movie so many times.”

A grinning, slightly flushed Charles held up his hand apologetically as he made his way to the hotel phone. “My apologies, let me make it up to you.” When he ordered a bottle of Dom Pérignon from room service, Raven and Darwin exchanged gleeful looks.

After the bubbly was delivered and poured into three flutes, Raven took hers from Charles and sat cross-legged on her bed, inviting Charles and Darwin to do the same. “To Charles and his proposal!” she announced, lifting her glass in a toast.

“Hear, hear!” Darwin said, and they all clinked their glasses together before downing the fizzy champagne.

“Mmm, so good,” Raven murmured, even as Charles was dutifully topping up her glass again. “And what are your plans to propose to the shark again?”

Darwin laughed heartily, swaying on the bed while Charles couldn’t help chuckling. “Well, I’ve got to get a ring big enough for his dorsal fin first, haven’t I?”

“Liar,” Raven said, smiling widely. She knew Charles like the back of her hand. “You already have it locked up somewhere.”

Charles conceded with a tip of his head. “Guilty as charged. It’s being kept safely at Westchester, because I plan to propose to Erik there.”

“Ah, a proposal at their own love nest,” Darwin said with a dramatic sigh that made Raven giggle. “So what are some of the ideas you have?”

Tilting his head in contemplation, Charles swirled the champagne in his glass thoughtfully. “I know Ellen and Portia celebrate their anniversaries by means of skywriting. How about I ask them for the contact of their skywriter, then hire him to write, ‘ERIK DARLING WILL YOU MARRY ME’ above the general vicinity of North Salem?”

The giggles were out before Raven could stop them, because she could just imagine Erik’s mortification at the whole state of New York looking up at the sky and gawking at Charles’ proposal to him. “Are you sure Erik will be on board with that?” she asked, once her giggling fit had subsided. Damn champagne, why did Charles always order the good stuff?

“Well, why not?” Charles asked, his excitement not at all dampened one bit. “Darwin, what do you think?”

“Er.” Darwin’s brow was furrowed; he was probably trying to imagine Alex’s reaction if he had come up with such a public proposal. “It’s hard to say. Alex might think it’s cheesy, but then again, Erik thinks you can do no wrong.”

“Erik does think the sun shines out of Charles’ ass,” Raven agreed, as both Charles and Darwin spluttered.

“No more champagne for you, young lady,” Charles pretended to chide her, but when he was topping up their glasses, he gave in to her pleading pout and filled hers as well.

“Well, you know what I meant,” she said by way of apology. “Erik would love the mere fact that you’re proposing, he would say yes even if you proposed to him while standing on your head with Shaw hired to breakdance in the background.”

Darwin laughed out loud while Charles tilted his head at her in amusement. “I want to ask Erik to marry me, not scar him for life, you know.”

“Good point,” Darwin chimed in, helping himself to the champagne. “Anyway, jokes aside, if you’re going for grand gestures, I think the skywriting works.”

“I’ll ask Ellen and Portia for you so you won’t have to sneak around behind Erik’s back,” Raven offered, and Charles gave her a grateful smile.

“Thank you very much, my dear,” he said, leaning in to kiss her on the cheek. “Now, I’m also thinking of proposing under the gazebo. I love it tremendously, and it was Erik’s gift to me for our anniversary.”

Raven couldn’t help thinking of what Hank had gotten her for their anniversary. It had been a lovely silver necklace from Tiffany’s with a custom-made pendant in the shape of a raven, and she knew he had saved up for a long time to afford that. She absently fingered the pendant now, missing Hank dearly. Although he may not be as well off as either of the two schmucks, he had always made her feel important and loved, and it didn’t matter to her that he couldn’t afford much on a cameraman’s salary.

She blinked when her attention snapped back to Charles and Darwin animatedly discussing decorations for the garden. “I want to line the sides of the pathway to the gazebo with calla lilies,” Charles said, lips pursed in thought. “Can you source for a florist who will be able to supply a few hundred of them, at least? Get them to come down and see exactly how many will be needed to line the path.”

“I’ll take care of that.” Darwin took out his tablet and tapped on it, making a few notes. “When will this be?”

“I was thinking we could start making arrangements right now. Erik and I will be leaving for D.C. soon, so you'll have free reign of the estate while we're away,” Charles suggested.

Raven piped up with a question that had been nagging her. “Why calla lilies? They seem like they’d be harder to get hold of in large quantities.”

A soft smile grew on Charles’ face, and Raven would honestly never get tired of seeing her best friend this happy. “Erik told me that, when he was younger, he helped his mother plant calla lilies in the backyard of his childhood home in Düsseldorf. They would flower again every spring.” Charles’ voice was getting softer and softer here as he played with the watch around his wrist. “So calla lilies remind him of his childhood, and although his family wasn’t well-off, they were happy because they had one another. I want to convey some of that meaning to him, by telling him Westchester is our home, and I’ll be happy as long as I have him.”

There was a long moment of silence after Charles was done speaking, and Darwin was rubbing Charles’ back while Raven gave him a wistful smile. She couldn’t help wishing that she and Hank could be more like Charles and Erik, who clearly told each other every minute detail about their lives. But as it were, she only saw Hank about once a month due to their conflicting work schedules, and they could hardly afford to waste any precious second they had together. She stifled a sigh, realising that she had to be grateful for what she already had. “It’s a good thing Erik is a closet soppy romantic, just like you,” she told Charles, who grinned and leaned in to kiss her temple.

“Anyway, we’ll probably need to rope Remy in,” Darwin suggested. “We need him to make sure his boss doesn’t go anywhere near Westchester.”

“Of course, I wouldn’t imagine doing this without that dear chap,” Charles said with a grin, whipping out his phone and looking up Remy’s number in his contacts to give him a call.

He waited for a few moments before Remy finally picked up, and greeted him warmly. “Remy! How is everything?”

Raven jabbed in the direction of Charles’ phone, mouthing, “Speakerphone!” to him. He quickly got it and put Remy on, and they managed to catch the tail end of his sentence, his tinny voice filling the suite. “—quite busy, Erik is quite the slavedriver, n’est-ce pas?

Charles’ eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Oh? What is Erik keeping you busy with? Remind me to have a word with him about overworking you, my friend.”

Remy now sounded a little guilty. “Oh, nothing, nothing, just some errands I have to run for him. Anyway, how can I help you, mon cher?”

Raven couldn’t help grinning as she watched Charles turn a nice flushed pink, clearly excited at the mere thought of matrimony. “I’m going to propose to Erik quite soon,” Charles gushed, holding the phone nearer to his mouth so that Remy could hear him clearly. “I’m making plans to do this at Westchester, so I will need to enrol Darwin, Raven and you. And both of them have already agreed, bless them.” Charles flashed both of them a grateful smile, but it faltered when Remy remained entirely silent on the phone. “Hello? Are you still there, Remy?”

Oui, oui, I am,” Remy said a little hurriedly. “When exactly do you intend to propose again?”

“After Erik and I get back from the location shoot in D.C.,” Charles explained. “You’ll be available to help, right?”

Raven, who had been listening with an increasingly doubtful expression just like Darwin’s, was surprised when Remy sounded reluctant to help. “I’m sorry, Charles, I’ll be quite busy at that time and won’t be able to help. It’s...my mother’s birthday.”

Charles’ face fell, but it was obvious he was trying to maintain a cheery tone. “Of course, I understand, that’s far more important. Just do me a favour, though. Could you make sure Erik doesn’t pop by the house?”

Oui, I promise he will be kept completely in the dark,” Remy declared, and maybe Raven was hearing things, but did Remy sound rather...relieved? The whole thing was a little odd, because ordinarily Remy loved doing things for both Erik and Charles, treating the two of them equally as his bosses. But then again, he did have a valid reason for not being around, so Raven supposed she couldn’t blame him.

“Thank you, my dear chap,” Charles replied with a small smile. They said their goodbyes, and it was obvious Charles was a little disappointed as he hung up. “Well, I guess we’ll have to count Remy out,” he told Raven and Darwin.

“Don’t worry, we’ll help all we can,” Darwin swore, gesturing between himself and Raven, who also nodded eagerly. “Besides, Erik follows you everywhere. If you don’t step into Westchester, it’s highly unlikely he will.”

Raven couldn’t help smirking. “Darwin is completely right. If you say ‘jump’, Erik will say ‘how high, mein Liebling? And would you like a cup of tea as well?’” she said in what she thought was quite a good imitation of Erik’s slight accent.

Charles quirked an eyebrow at Raven as Darwin started laughing. “Erik isn’t my slave, you know,” he said primly.

“No? Then he must be some creature you created in a lab just to love you and schtupp you,” Raven retorted with a chuckle.

It was highly amusing to watch Charles turn various shades of pink, his mouth opening and closing like a goldfish as Raven and Darwin giggled like crazy. “Oh, come now,” Charles finally managed to say, even though he was smiling. “You’re making Erik sound like Frankenstein’s monster!”

Reaching over to top off their glasses with the last of the champagne, Raven couldn’t help grinning. “Charles, you have to admit he totally is.”

To his credit, Charles didn’t seem in the least bit offended. In fact, there was a mischievous smirk growing on his face. “That’s quite ironic coming from you, my dear, seeing as how Hank is completely henpecked by you.”

As the boys roared with laughter while Raven was indignantly protesting that she wasn’t bullying Hank, there was a sharp, rapid rat-tat-tat on the door. As she wondered who it was, Raven spotted Charles perking up instantly, beaming brightly as he jumped to his feet and scuttled over to the door, glass in hand. Of course, there could only have been one person who would have this effect on him.

Raven’s guess was proven right when Charles swung open the door, the smile on his face brilliant enough to outshine all the glitz of Hollywood as Erik stepped into the suite, his gaze instantly locking on Charles as he returned Charles’ besotted grin. “Hello, darling,” Charles murmured before giving Erik a thorough welcome-back kiss, which Erik quickly got absorbed in before he seemed to have remembered they had a gawking audience.

“I could hear the noise from down the corridor.” Erik spied the champagne glasses that everyone was holding, and he smirked. “Having fun without me, I see?” he teased Charles, kissing his temple.

“Nonsense, love, I saved some bubbly for you,” Charles protested, handing Erik his flute. As Erik knocked back the last of the champagne, Raven rolled her eyes at the way Charles was riveted to the smooth flex and give of Erik’s throat, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down.

“Let me get this straight,” Raven said, trying to wash the image from her brain. “Charles, you actually memorised Erik’s knock?”

Charles seemed to blink rapidly, as though coming out of a spell, and arched an eyebrow at Raven. “I suppose it’s a piece of knowledge I acquired without meaning to, as a result of us living together for so long.”

“They’re hopeless, man,” Darwin complained to Raven, shaking his head. “Just don’t encourage them if you want to keep your dinner.”

“Speaking of which, I haven’t eaten yet,” Erik told Charles, who looked up at him in concern and started rubbing Erik’s belly in circles. “That meeting with Emma and the suits took forever, and you know Emma only ever orders salad and water.”

“You haven’t eaten? Poor dear,” Charles murmured, nuzzling Erik’s chin. “We could call room service, or we could try that new Argentinean restaurant in the East Village.”

“You know, I’ve always wanted to go to Argentina,” Erik mused, brushing back Charles’ hair and kissing his forehead. “We should make plans after we’re done with this movie, go drink some beer—"

“Hey, geniuses,” Raven called out as Darwin started laughing. “Sorry to burst your private little lovey-dovey bubble, but you guys are technically in my room, you know.”

Both Charles and Erik seemed surprised that they were not alone, and Charles nodded apologetically. “Right, sorry about that. We’ll get out of your hair.”

As they turned to leave, Raven could see Erik’s profile as he smiled and whispered something in Charles’ ear before kissing it, and Charles’ murmured reply, ‘Missed you, too,’ before the door closed behind them, and both Raven and Darwin let out a relieved sigh. “So, after we check and make sure we don’t have diabetes, we should get started on what Charles talked about,” Raven said, as Darwin grinned brightly.

“Sure. However, I warn you, marriage is just going to make them ten thousand times worse,” Darwin pretended to grumble as he opened his laptop, ready to research florists.

“I can’t possibly imagine them any worse than they are now,” Raven said with a sigh. “Damn, how are we going to survive the wedding?”

“I’ll get Alex to bring enough insulin for everyone,” Darwin remarked, and Raven couldn’t stop chuckling.

* * * * *

[Two years ago...]

Buying his own place with his own hard-earned money was a rite of passage that thrilled Charles to no end. It spelled a new kind of liberty for him from his parents, especially after the massive argument he had had with Mother about his new career path. She had threatened to cut him off from the family fortune, and while Father had intervened and promised that they would never do that to him, Charles still didn’t quite relish the thought of using his parents as a security blanket. He had wanted to make it on his own. Thankfully, the money from ‘The Blind Date’ and ‘All the Lonely People’ had secured him a large, lovely house in a gated community in Bel Air. The first thing he had done was to give Raven, Darwin and Moira a key each, for emergencies. However, Raven seemed to drop by all the time anyway, citing ‘lack of alcohol’ and ‘extreme boredom’ as emergencies, and an amused Charles decided that there was no harm in her constant presence. It made him feel a little less lonely, at least. A large, four-bedroom McMansion seemed pointless when he had no one to share it with, and it seemed extremely unlikely that Erik Lehnsherr, the object of his lurid daydreams, would turn up naked at his doorstep with his suitcases and a devilish smile.

The sound of the door banging open and Raven yelling hello startled Charles, and he barely had any time to collect himself before Raven burst into the living room. She was grinning incessantly, eyes sparkling, her cheeks flushed with excitement. And something seemed to be concealed behind her back.

“Well, look at you,” Charles said, chuckling. “What are you hiding, my dear? Excited about something?”

Her smile turned coy. “Before I tell you, I need you to promise me a few things,” she said, tilting her head playfully.

“Oh?” Charles arched an inquisitive eyebrow. “Such as?”

To his amusement, Raven skipped over to the sofa, keeping her hands well-hidden behind her body even as he tried to sneak a peek. “No cheating! Before I let you have a look, you must promise to love me forever and ever–”

“Raven–”

“And give in to me for the rest of eternity, and agree with everything I say–” she merrily carried on, without skipping a beat.

“My dear, I–”

“And buy me anything my heart desires,” she said with an air of finality. “Deal?”

“Raven,” Charles said, a little exasperated and glad to get a word in. “I rather think I do all of that already...”

Laughing, Raven plopped down on the sofa next to him and nudged him with her foot. “Fine, I admit you do kinda spoil me.”

“Of course I do,” Charles said loftily, pulling her close to kiss her temple, but at the same time, he tried sneaking a hand behind her to yank at whatever she was hiding.

Raven let out a yelp, freeing an arm so she could smack him. “Hey! You’d better be nice to me, you’ll owe me big time for this one!”

“Fine, fine,” Charles placated her, patting her hand gently. “You’ll always be my leading lady, you know that.”

Smiling with satisfaction, Raven finally pulled out the object she had been hiding behind her back, and Charles was intrigued when he saw it was a script. Taking it as she handed it over to him, he squinted at the title. “‘First Class’? This is not some porn movie set on an airplane, is it?”

Raven snorted. “You wish, you pervert.” She reached over, flipping to the synopsis so Charles could see for himself what it was about. He scanned through it quietly, but his heart fell as he realised it sounded like any other thriller-slash-murder-mystery. It was about two FBI agents who were on a global manhunt for a serial killer, but to be honest it wasn’t any different from the plots of a hundred other existing movies he could think of. The only aspect that might possibly warrant any excitement was the involvement of Sebastian Shaw as producer, but other than that, there was nothing much to shout about. His disappointment must have been obvious because Raven was now looking at him in concern.

“Well, at least it’s not another rom-com,” he said with a weak smile. However, Raven only gave him a knowing look.

“No, it’s not,” she said artfully, getting up from the sofa and gesturing towards the script. “Anyway, I’ll leave you to take a quick glance at it. You’re up for the part of Agent James McAvoy, I think his character suits you to a T. Let me know what you think.”

“Sure, my dear.” Charles was frankly a little disappointed – and mystified – as to why Raven had made him promise her heaven and earth before giving him the script. Did she really think he would be happy enough that it wasn’t one more chick flick?

“Oh, by the way,” Raven said, almost as an afterthought, as she stopped by the doorway. “I spoke with Sebastian Shaw. He said he’ll get the agent of the other male lead to toss him into a frigid ocean if he has to, but he’s as good as signed.”

Charles raised both eyebrows at her. “Oh? Who are they thinking of casting?”

The smirk on Raven’s face widened into the biggest grin. “He’s your dearest imaginary husband, Erik Lehnsherr.”

Pure shock made Charles’ jaw drop as he gawked at her in amazement, but the silence only lasted a nanosecond before he let out a loud whoop of excitement and jumped up from the sofa, sprinting towards her and grabbing her in a crushing hug. “Are you serious? Please tell me you’re serious, and this is not some kind of joke,” he begged her.

Raven scoffed as she released him. “Would I joke about something so important to you? Give me a little credit, Charles.” But she was beaming now, obviously pleased at his joy.

“Oh, my goodness.” Charles felt like he could float away into the clouds, like it was all too surreal and he would wake up at any moment to find that it was all a dream. This was the best news he had gotten ever since he had received the call saying he had won the part of Robbie Turner in ‘The Blind Date’. Years and years of stalking red carpets and narrowly missing Erik at events and award shows were finally coming to fruition. “This means...when will we be meeting him and his agent?”

Whipping out her schedule, she scanned it intently before her finger landed on a date. “Next Friday afternoon, in fact. We’re meeting Shaw at the 20th Century Fox studios, along with Erik and his agent, Emma Frost.”

Charles blinked at her. Friday. Friday. He was finally, finally getting to meet Erik on Friday. Already he was mentally running through his wardrobe and trying to think of the best thing to wear, and making a note to schedule an appointment with his hairdresser...

“Ahem!” Raven snapped her fingers in front of him to get his attention, and he realised he must have drifted off with a glazed look. “Charles, I forbid you to hit on Erik or dry-hump him the moment you meet him.”

Charles tried his best to look offended, as though he hadn’t already been thinking of the best pick-up lines to use on Erik. “Of course not, I would never–”

“I’m serious,” Raven said, and she looked sombre enough that Charles stopped talking, guilt washing over him. She had probably pulled many strings and used all her connections to get him this gig, and he didn’t want to throw away all her hard work just because he couldn’t keep his pants on in front of Erik. He stepped forward and hugged her, and it only took a moment for her arms to wrap around him as well.

“Don’t worry, I promise I’ll behave,” he told her, and he really did mean it. He wanted to make the best possible first impression, and thus, he would have to resist the temptation to flirt with Erik and keep it as professional as possible. Besides, it would be far better if they were friends first. The most important connections in Charles’ life – Raven, Moira, Darwin – all bore a deep undercurrent of friendship, and Charles hoped that any working relationship he would develop with Erik would be just as meaningful and lasting.

“All right, then.” Raven seemed satisfied with the sincerity of his answer. She let him go and rubbed his shoulder. “Anyway, this calls for a celebration. Shall I crack open that vintage Pinot Noir we got last week?”

Charles couldn’t stop grinning from ear to ear. “Quite frankly, I was going to save it for a special occasion. But this is definitely it.”

* * * * *

[Present day...]

Charles adjusted the collar of his pristine white tuxedo shirt for the millionth time. Stage fright was seldom a problem for him anymore, but occasionally he did get a case of butterflies in his stomach. The Oscars had been one such instance, and now the White House Correspondents’ Dinner that he and Erik had been invited to attend tonight was making him a little nervous, too. Erik and himself happened to be in Washington D.C. for the location shoot of ‘Strangers on a Train’ and, although Charles had felt rather disappointed that their filming schedule had prevented them from being present at the Supreme Court hearings for DOMA and Proposition 8, it had been such an honour to receive the invitation from President Obama’s office to attend the Dinner. Charles wanted to leave the best impression possible. He checked his watch, which was of course the Cartier one that Erik had given him for their first Christmas and Hanukkah; he wouldn’t dream of wearing anything else, and it went splendidly with his black silk Burberry Prorsum tuxedo.

He smiled when he noticed it was almost time for Erik to be heading back to the hotel. Erik had been held back to film some additional coverage in the afternoon, and while Charles had been perfectly willing to wait at the set for him, Erik had insisted that Charles head back to the hotel first to rest up and get ready for tonight’s Correspondents’ Dinner. When Charles had been about to protest, Erik had then convinced him with a tender kiss, which had made the crew all around them burst into a chorus of ‘awws’, causing Charles to concede with a laugh. Charles rather liked the crew who were working with them in D.C., and quite a few of them had been with Charles and Erik on ‘First Class’ as well.

Charles immediately straightened when he heard the soft ‘beep’ of the hotel key card being swiped through the door access, and he turned just in time to spot Erik letting himself in. The mere sight of Erik made something in his chest shift, and Charles found himself smiling like a lunatic. “There you are, darling.”

Erik himself seemed to be frozen in place, his eyes wide and appreciative as they roamed up and down Charles’ body. “You look...magnificent.” He finally closed the door behind him, before coming up to wrap his arms around a ready and willing Charles.

“Flatterer,” Charles teased him with a nudge, before leaning up for a kiss. He didn’t want to fall into the stereotype of those nauseating couples who couldn’t be apart from each other for only a few hours, but he truly did miss Erik whenever he was away for any length of time. Raven had snorted at them and called it a co-dependent relationship, but to be fair, it wasn’t that Charles couldn’t survive without Erik. It was like what Sean had said once: ‘It’s like having a vital part of your soul missing.’ Charles couldn’t have agreed more.

“How am I a flatterer if I’m only telling the truth?” Erik retorted, grinning when Charles pretended to roll his eyes. “It’s not my fault you take my breath away.”

Chuckling, Charles wound his arms around Erik even tighter. “Not that I’m not enjoying the flood of compliments, but why are you being especially sweet today?”

To his surprise, he saw Erik’s eyes dart away from his guiltily. “No reason.”

Charles arched an eyebrow at him. Something definitely didn’t seem right. “Darling?”

“I should go shower and change,” Erik said briskly, taking Charles’ wrist gently and eyeing his watch. “We don’t want to be late.” Here, Erik placed a tender kiss to the inside of Charles’ wrist, right above his pulse point, before letting his hand drop. It felt shockingly intimate, and Charles allowed himself to palm the side of Erik’s face, deciding to ignore any whisper of his earlier suspicion. He trusted Erik wholeheartedly.

Erik placed a kiss on his forehead. “Wait for me? I’ll be done in thirty minutes.”

Charles rubbed the nape of Erik’s neck, massaging it gently. Poor Erik must have had a long, tiring day filming while Charles was lounging around in their suite. “I waited five years for you, surely another thirty minutes is nothing,” he said teasingly, as Erik chuckled.

“If I could have met you five years earlier, I would,” he replied with a sigh as he reluctantly released Charles to pick up his bathrobe which Charles had laid out for him on the bed. “Anyway, speaking of time, I’d better hurry up.”

All in all, Erik was ready in less than twenty, groomed and exceedingly handsome in his black, single-breasted Calvin Klein tux. Charles couldn’t stop his hands from running up and down the silk peak lapels which splendidly framed Erik’s chest. “You shouldn’t have worn this,” Charles warned him.

Erik tilted his head at Charles with a gorgeous smirk. “You don’t like it?”

Charles could only grin back. “So much so that I may have to rip this off you and tie you up with it.”

Chuckling, Erik’s mouth quickly sought out Charles’, and the room was filled with the rustling of their tuxedos and the soft, slick sounds of their kisses. Erik broke off first, breathing heavily as he swept his hair back. “Come on, Liebling, or we’ll be late.”

“If you say so, darling,” Charles conceded with a reluctant sigh. He went to pick up his wallet and phone while Erik texted the driver, and they left the hotel suite arm in arm. The nervousness that had been plaguing Charles earlier had calmed a bit now that Erik was here, but Charles couldn’t help noticing that Erik himself seemed a little stiff and quiet now, flipping his phone in his free hand. It was a telltale habit that Erik couldn’t help succumbing to whenever he had a case of the nerves, and Charles supposed Erik was silently apprehensive about tonight’s dinner.

The limousine was already idling outside the Four Seasons’ lobby entrance, its black tinted windows gleaming and forbidding. Charles climbed into the car first as Erik held open the door for him, then joined him after. The driver’s partition was rolled up, and Charles felt a little off not being able to personally greet the driver as he did every time they hired a car. Erik did not say anything either, but the chauffeur must have been given prior instructions because the sedan was already pulling out of the driveway, past several other sleek cars, most of them bearing diplomat plates.

“This is a lovely limousine,” Charles said as he scooted closer to Erik, twining their fingers together. “Still, I feel rather embarrassed for being so ostentatious. The Hilton isn’t that far, you know.”

Erik’s eyebrows jumped up. “Surely you didn’t want us to walk to the Hilton, Liebling?”

“Not at all.” Laughing, Charles ramped up his most flirtatious tone of voice. “I was rather hoping that you could...take me all the way.

They managed to maintain a deadpan expression for only a second before they both crumbled in laughter, Charles resting his head against Erik’s chest, which was shaking with mirth. “Seriously, Charles. Sometimes, everything you say sounds laden with innuendo,” Erik pretended to complain.

“Don’t lie, you love it when I do that,” Charles murmured, letting his eyes fall shut as he took in a deep breath of Erik’s scent. It was a mixture of cologne, soap and Erik’s own scent; he smelled wonderful.

He felt his hair ruffle, which meant Erik must have kissed the top of his head. “I really do,” Erik said quietly.

Charles smiled to himself, soaking in Erik’s presence before he opened his eyes again and was surprised to find they were nowhere near the Hilton. In fact, they were turning around the Foggy Bottom roundabout and he could see the Potomac River nearby, shimmering in the evening light. “Darling, I think the driver has taken a wrong turn,” he said, peering out of the window.

However, Erik didn’t seem particularly concerned as he hummed under his breath. “Well, then it appears our driver is useless.”

“Erik!” Charles arched a disapproving eyebrow at him, but Erik’s grin only widened in response as he squeezed Charles’ hand. All was forgiven as Erik pressed his lips against Charles’ left temple and let them remain there, his free hand cradling the back of Charles’ head lovingly. Charles allowed himself to melt in Erik’s arms, letting out a soft breath of contentment as Erik nuzzled his hair.

It was a short while later when the car came to a stop, and Charles blinked as he reluctantly extricated himself from Erik’s hold, peering out of the window. They were back at their closed set at the National Mall where they had been for the past week, shooting the scene in which Bruno watched Guy from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The several familiar white aluminium trailers that housed Makeup and Wardrobe were still on the lot, and it was not much different from when he was last there this morning. “Why are we at the Lincoln Memorial? Did you forget something?” he asked curiously.

Erik only had a mysterious smile on his face, reaching into the window compartment and extracting a small felt bag. “I thought we could get in a quick chess game before the Dinner.”

Charles remembered their failed attempt at an outdoor game of chess a few weeks ago in Central Park and laughed, rubbing a hand up and down Erik’s arm. “Darling, did you honestly have them close the set longer just so we could play chess in the park?”

Erik palmed Charles’ right cheek with his free hand. “There are very few things I wouldn’t do for you, Charles.”

Charles couldn’t think of an adequate response to that, aside from closing the distance between them and pouring everything he felt for this perfect man into a loving, intimate kiss. When they finally got out of the car, Charles couldn’t stop himself from stealing glances at Erik, who just continued smiling as they walked hand in hand towards the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Right in the middle of the steps was a wooden chessboard laid out between two fluffy cushions, and beside each cushion was a long-stemmed white wine glass, along with a bottle of wine in a bucket of ice. Laughing in surprise, Charles bent down and glanced at the label; noting that it was one of the vintage Grand Crus they had procured during their anniversary trip. “Erik, what is all this?” he asked with a broad smile.

Erik jangled the felt bag he was holding, and Charles could hear the soft ‘clink’ of chess pieces. “Like I said, all I want is a quick game,” he replied, looking decidedly coy as he handed the bag to Charles before starting work on opening the bottle of wine.

Chuckling, Charles decided to just go along for the ride regarding whatever Erik had up his sleeve. Taking the bag from Erik, Charles made himself comfortable on the cushion, sitting so that he was facing the Washington Monument in the distance. It then occurred to him that this was probably the most phallic-looking structure on earth. “I have to say I’m enjoying the view,” he remarked with a teasing quirk of his eyebrows, then went about retrieving the chess pieces from the bag and laying them out on the board.

Erik didn’t even look away from Charles. “So am I,” he said softly, making Charles’ cheeks heat in a flush.

“If this is a move to get lucky tonight...it’s working,” Charles admitted with a chuckle, as Erik laughed and ducked his head. Once the chess pieces were properly arranged on the board – Charles taking white and Erik taking black, as usual – Erik gestured for him to make the first move.

Charles slid a central pawn forward before lifting his glass and sipping the wine that Erik had just poured. He made a pleased noise when he realised it was one of his favourite varieties from those that they had picked up in Alsace, and he wondered how Erik had slipped all this past him.

“I’m happy you like it,” Erik said, grinning as he moved a pawn forward as well. The next few moves they made were the same as the several hundred other games that had transpired between them up to that point, at least until he or Erik would switch things up. But Charles had become familiar with Erik’s usual strategy; he often disregarded his pawns and had only replied with an indulgent, “In chess, pawns go first, Charles,” when Charles had asked him once. Instead, Erik focused his attention on the key pieces. Erik used to hoard his knights, often willing to sacrifice his bishops to protect them, but his strategy seemed to be slowly changing lately, and Charles was beginning to notice that Erik’s bishops were now often the last remaining pieces on the board. Charles had once read that you could tell a lot about a person from the way they played chess, and he was starting to think there was some truth to it.

But this time, Erik seemed to be completely reckless. He sacrificed half his pawns, a rook and a knight within his first twenty moves, and Charles was beginning to wonder if Erik’s focus was even on the game. Despite that, Erik was staring intensely at the chessboard, particularly at his king. Charles’ gaze flickered over to Erik’s side; his king was safe, guarded by the queen and his bishops. Those were the only pieces that were still intact. The bishop represents a person’s heart, their closest friend, the book had said.

Charles wondered whether to warn Erik that, in a few moves, his black queen would be open and vulnerable. “Darling, are you sure?” Charles asked when Erik’s second knight joined the growing pile beside the chessboard. “You’re getting slaughtered.”

Erik only lifted his shoulder in a shrug. “Today must be an off day for me.”

“Be warned that I won’t show any mercy,” Charles joked, but he reached for Erik’s hand across the board and pressed a lingering kiss to his knuckles, taking the heat out of his words. Erik’s expression was so soft and fond that Charles almost forgot the game for a second, at least until Erik glanced down at the board again.

“Give me all you’ve got, Liebling,” Erik said, squeezing Charles’ hand before letting go.

The next few moves were not pretty, and Charles tried not to feel guilty as he took the second rook and a bishop. Erik’s queen was now open to attack. “Do you want to take back your last move? Because I’m about to kidnap your queen, darling,” Charles said teasingly as he leaned over and ran his fingers through Erik’s soft, fine hair.

Leaning into Charles’ touch, Erik arched an appraising eyebrow at the chessboard before shooting Charles a sly look. “Then my king would be useless without his queen, because he really loved her, you know.”

Charles burst into laughter when he realised that Erik had just quoted a line from his movie, ‘Becoming Penelope’. “Are you losing the game on purpose just so you can use that line with me, Erik?”

Erik’s smirk intensified. “Me? Never. Anyway, your move.”

Seeing that Erik seemed resigned to his fate, Charles moved his rook forward for the queen while his knight held the black king in check. “Hah! Checkmate, darling,” he declared with a broad smile after studying the board for a moment.

Holding his hands up in mock defeat, Erik reached over and toppled his king. Chuckling, Charles leaned in and gave Erik a sweet consolation kiss. “Well, that was an easy win. You weren’t even trying, were you?”

When Charles pulled back, he was surprised to find that Erik’s gaze was fixed on him, tender and full of affection. “Actually, I think I’m the one who won.”

Charles frowned at him, puzzled. “What do you mean, darling?”

The Adam’s apple in Erik’s neck bobbed as he cleared his throat – another sign of nervousness – and gestured at his fallen chess piece. “My king, open it.”

Even more confused, Charles picked up the chess piece, wondering what Erik was talking about. “Open it?” Charles asked in confusion, but upon closer inspection, Charles noticed that there was a small set of hinges above the base of the piece, and after fumbling with it for a moment, he finally managed to push it open.

A startled Charles felt his heart stop when he saw the engagement ring embedded in the base of the black king.

It took a good, long minute for him to let everything sink in, to think past the blood roaring in his ears and the brilliant joy seizing his chest. He was still gaping at the ring in his trembling hands, searching for any words that could describe his need to laugh and cry at the same time. Suddenly, everything made sense: Erik’s mysterious secrecy, their unexpected detour at the Lincoln Memorial, Erik lavishing far more terms of endearment on him than usual... Everything. Charles blinked and realised his cheeks were wet, and he was still speechless. The ring was beautiful, a slim platinum band with a groove running along its side, and right at the heart of it, there seemed to be a brilliant, impressively-sized sapphire.

When Charles looked up at Erik again, he stifled a half-sob, half-gasp when he saw that Erik was now down on one knee. Erik’s regard was steady but his eyes glistened, like the surface of the reflecting pool that stretched across the memorial ground, shimmering in the light of the setting sun.

“Charles, before you found me, I’d convinced myself that I could survive this life alone,” Erik began, his voice low and tremulous. “But all it took was a few brief moments with you for me to realise how wrong I’d been all this time.” Erik reached out, placing a warm palm on Charles’ lap and squeezing it gently. “I am happy, only when I’m with you.”

“Oh Erik, my love.” Charles had to momentarily clap a hand over his mouth to control his emotions. His other hand still held on tightly to the ring embedded in the chess piece, making sure he didn’t drop it in his state of joy and overwhelming excitement.

Erik’s gaze was intense and unwavering. “I can’t promise that our life together will always be as perfect as it is now, or anything like one of your movies. In fact, I promise that there will be difficult times, and there may even come a day when it’s all we can do not to renounce each other. But I also promise you that, even in our darkest hour, my heart is yours, I am yours, until the end of my days.”

Erik reached for the hand that was holding the ring, pressing a long kiss to the back of it before taking the ring out of the chess piece. He stared up at Charles hopefully, the ring poised just above his left ring finger as he carried on, “I cannot imagine a life without you. You’re who I want to wake up with, and fall into bed with, and raise a family with. I want to play chess with you until we’re old and grey, just so I can blame arthritic fingers for not toppling my king when you win the game.”

Here, a teary chuckle escaped Charles, and Erik took Charles’ right hand in his, pressing kisses all over it before looking up at him again, his eyes slightly reddened as he continued, “I know this sounds ridiculous, but I cannot stand it whenever we’re apart. I find myself missing you terribly, even if it’s just for a while.”

“I want you by my side,” Erik said, holding up the ring with a trembling hand. “Charles Francis Xavier, will you marry me?”

Even before Erik had finished his sentence, Charles had fallen to his knees and cradled Erik’s head in his hands, whispering, “Yes, darling, yes,” in between tearful kisses and gasps of disbelieving laughter. Erik’s wide grin was at odds with his tears, and he gently slid the ring onto Charles’ finger before hurriedly wiping his face.

“I’ve imagined this moment over and over,” Erik admitted, before pressing kisses repeatedly to his mouth. “I can’t believe it’s actually happening. You-you said yes.”

Charles chortled before hooking his arms around Erik’s neck, like a mooring to weather the changing tides. “I’m offended that you thought I would say anything else.” And I can’t wait for you to say yes, too, he thought, remembering the engagement ring stashed in the safety of Westchester.

Erik’s chuckle was low and contented, a deep rumble against his neck. “I didn’t want to assume, Liebling.”

“You are always more than welcome to assume that I’m yours,” Charles whispered against his ear, closing his eyes in gratitude. “Always.

* * * * *

It was dusk by the time they were finished with the wine and, although both he and Erik could have easily downed it in one go, Charles had felt it a waste to polish off such an excellent vintage in that manner. Besides, he had Erik wrapped around him, the two of them trading kisses and whispering sweet nothings in the fading light. Charles never wanted to leave.

Liebling, it wouldn’t do to keep the President of the United States waiting,” Erik said, chuckling when Charles made a noise of protest.

“For the record, I would much rather stay here with you,” Charles replied, earning himself a soft kiss on the cheek. It was with great reluctance that Charles extricated himself from the cocoon of Erik’s arms, gladly taking Erik’s hand and allowing himself to be helped onto his feet. They tipped the empty wine bottle and glasses into the bucket, Erik grabbing it in his right hand and tucking the chess set under the same arm while Charles collected the cushions. They made their way out of the National Mall, spare hands sliding together like second nature.

Perhaps it was some combination of the wine and the giddiness of being proposed to, but Charles felt rather lightheaded as they strolled back towards the limo. He couldn’t keep himself from running his thumb along the ring on his finger, which fit him perfectly, smiling as he shifted the cushions so he could admire the brilliant oval centrepiece in the glow of a nearby street lamp.

“I’ve always loved sapphires,” Charles mused aloud, stumbling a little when Erik stopped short. “Darling, is something the matter?”

“Charles, that’s not a sapphire,” Erik replied, sounding hesitant.

Charles gave Erik’s hand a firm squeeze, vehemently shaking his head. “Oh, that’s fine; it doesn’t matter to me at all,” he added immediately. He lifted his left hand closer, squinting. “I’ll have to blame the poor lighting, darling. Is it an aquamarine, then? I used to always love the one Mother—”

“It’s a blue diamond, Charles,” Erik cut in, looking increasingly horrified.

“A blue– what?” Charles gasped, sobering up instantly once he realised that the rock on his finger cost more than most houses. He stared at his ring in awe. “Oh, good God.”

Erik huffed incredulously. “I can’t believe you said yes thinking that I got you some cheap knock-off gemstone.”

“Oh, Erik... You know I would have agreed to marry you even if you had given me a ring from a Cracker Jack box,” Charles said softly, letting go of Erik’s hand so he could cup the back of Erik’s neck, sliding his fingers through his hair as he kissed him thoroughly.

“Do they still have prizes in Cracker Jack boxes?” Erik asked after they broke away, fingertips tracing patterns along the jut of Charles’ hipbone.

“Oh, yes,” Charles said, brushing their noses together.

Erik smirked, and subsequently placed a kiss to Charles’ temple. “That's nice to know. But a rare man deserves a rare diamond,” he said, before reaching up to brush back Charles’ hair. “It reminded me of your eyes.”

Charles could feel himself blushing. “Erik, if you carry on like this, I’ll have no choice but to beg you to take me in the middle of this memorial. And then we’ll all be sorry.”

I certainly won’t be sorry,” Erik responded, laughing. “You’re speaking for Emma and Raven, but their approval on the matter means nothing at all to me.”

Raven! I should call her,” Charles grinned, fishing his phone out of his pocket and hitting speed dial while Erik placed his hand to the curve of Charles’ spine, his warm palm gently rubbing circles that did complicated things to Charles’ heart. Erik tilted his head towards the limo before giving a soft push to Charles’ back, guiding them along as Charles waited for Raven to answer the phone.

She picked on the fifth ring. “Charles! I was just thinking of calling you but I thought it could wait until tomorrow, since you’re off drinking with the President and everything. But now that I’ve got you, I managed to get hold of Ellen and she gave me the number for the pilot that she and Portia use. He agreed to do the skywriting for you, just say when,” Raven’s familiar, well-loved voice rattled excitedly in his ear, and Charles felt overwhelmed by a sudden wave of memories. Raven was his oldest friend in this new life he’d carved out for himself, and having her on the line with him made everything finally seem real. If he could go back and tell his younger self – that silly chap holed up in his Bel Air home with a bored Raven draped lazily across him, watching ‘Cyborg Cop’ for the twelfth time – that one day he was going to marry that man on the screen, he would be asked to go take a leap.

To say he felt emotional would be an understatement, and his voice was shaking when he replied, “Please tell him that his services are no longer required.”

“Charles? Charles, what happened? Did Erik do something stupid? I swear I’ll—”

“No! Nothing at all like that,” Charles interjected, laughing somewhat hysterically at the gross misunderstanding. “Erik proposed! We’re getting married.”

He held the phone slightly away from his ear as, presumably somewhere in her suite in the Four Seasons, Raven started screaming. Charles leaned against Erik, the two of them laughing as Raven’s shrieks filled the air.

“Switch to FaceTime, I want to see the ring!” Raven yelled, trying to be heard over the ruckus.

“All right, my dear. Just give me a moment,” Charles said, holding his phone in front of him and toggling the video call function. Raven’s happily flushed face appeared after a few moments, and Charles could make out the edges of the hotel bathrobe that she was wearing. “Hello again, Raven.”

She waved in response before raising her eyebrows expectantly. “Well?”

“Darling, could you hold the cushions for me, please?” Charles asked as he handed them over to Erik, then held up the back of his left hand and wiggled his fingers. He chuckled when Raven’s eyes went wide, the video zooming in on her as she held the phone closer to her face.

Raven whistled and nodded her head in approval. “Well done, Erik.”

Charles couldn’t stop grinning, shifting the phone so Erik could get into the frame. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? It’s a blue diamond.”

“Duh, Charles. I’m not blind,” Raven said, rolling her eyes. “And as if Erik would have gotten you anything less.”

Erik chuckled beside him. “Precisely,” he deadpanned, and Charles watched the screen in embarrassment as Erik and Raven gave him simultaneous side-eyes. “I should be relieved that at least one of you won’t get swindled by a jeweller,” Erik added.

“Charles, you didn’t,” Raven giggled. “Anyway, Erik, it’s all your own fault if Charles never lifts a finger again, now that he’s wearing the Heart of the Ocean on his hand.”

Charles laughed, turning his palm so he could admire his enormous ring again. “Did you know that the blue diamond gets its colour from trace amounts of boron deposits? You could say it’s a mutant diamond.”

“Blah, blah, blah,” Raven interrupted, making a talking mouth gesture with her hand. “I don’t know how you put up with him, Erik.”

“It’s also semi-conductive,” Erik joined in, and Charles grabbed his face and kissed him.

Raven snorted. “And this is why you’re the one marrying him. Fine, go have awesome sex. I’ll ask Marie to get the press release ready. Congrats, boys.”

“Thank you, Raven,” Charles said, beaming.

“Oh, no. Thank you. I bet Emma double or nothing that Erik would pop the question first, and now I get bragging rights,” Raven said, winking at them victoriously.

Erik poked his head in front of the camera. “Wait. Is this why Emma kept asking me to slow things down? I’m going to strangle her the next time I see her.”

“Just don’t tell her you heard it from me. Bye!” Raven finished, hurriedly cutting out the call. It took a second for Charles to burst into laughter, holding poor Erik close and kissing the look of thunder off his face, which didn’t take very long at all.

* * * * *

It still hadn’t sunk in for Erik yet that Charles had accepted his proposal so quickly, and that they were finally going to be married. After having dreamt of asking Charles to marry him for so long, it was surreal for him to realise that it was now reality, and it would only be a matter of time before they would get to walk down the aisle. A sideways glance at Charles was enough to make Erik realise that his biggest wish had indeed come true, and he was allowed to grin like an idiot.

He felt an arm sliding around his waist and instantly he turned to smother Charles with kisses. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy,” he said to a beaming Charles, who seemed just as drunk with joy. “Not even the time when Emma tossed her drink in Shaw’s face.”

Charles threw his head back with a laugh, shaking with mirth against Erik’s body. “Nice to know I rank above that, darling,” Charles said, his mouth pursed in amusement.

“You’ll always rank above everyone and everything else,” Erik said very seriously, and Charles visibly melted at that, yanking Erik down for a sweet, chaste kiss.

“You know I was just joking.” Charles patted Erik’s chest as they finally stumbled back to the waiting limo. Erik opened the door for Charles, sliding into the backseat after him. He barely had time to close the door before Charles threw himself at Erik, and Erik happily allowed himself to drown in the assault of kisses, groaning when he felt Charles’ arms circling around his neck. It had been worth the weeks and weeks of planning, of pained secrecy (because he could never stand to hide anything from Charles) and conspiring with Remy, Emma and his parents to keep everything a secret. Erik knew that he wouldn’t have been able to pull this off without all the help he had received, especially from the pretty-boy moron. Remy had even kindly insisted on going all the way to the mansion in Westchester on Erik’s behalf to collect their finest Alsatian wine from the cellar, saving him the guilt of lying to Charles. As for the proposal, it was Mama who had given him worthy advice on what to say (and what not to say). “Charles is a very special boy, and you must make him feel like he is the only person in the world who matters,” Mama had insisted over the phone. “Don’t you dare think that grunting ‘marry me’ at him is enough.”

“Mama, I wasn’t—”

“Don’t mind your mother, son,” his father’s voice had chimed in after he had rescued the phone from the overexcited Edie. “She’s already saved your Charles a place in the family tree.”

Jakob!” Mama had interjected, and Erik had grinned as he listened to his parents squabbling fondly, hoping he and Charles were just as affectionate when they were much older.

Erik made a mental note to call his parents and tell them the good news later. He was sure Mama would be beside herself with joy, even though she had already predicted Charles would say yes before Erik had even thought of how to begin his proposal.

As the kiss grew heated, Erik was just about tempted to push Charles down onto the backseat when he registered the faint whirring of the driver’s partition sliding down, followed by a familiar low chuckle. “Mais non! Nobody wants to see that!”

Charles pulled his lips off Erik in surprise, beaming when he spotted a grinning Remy wiggling his eyebrows at them in the rearview mirror. “Remy! I had no idea you were our driver.”

“Ah, we did our best to keep all of this a secret from you, mon cher,” Remy explained with a little flourish. “So, judging from the way you just mauled Erik in the car, I’m guessing you said ‘oui’?”

Laughing, Charles flashed his left hand at Remy. “Not quite in French, but yes, of course I did.”

“I’m surprised Erik didn’t throw up, he was so nervous,” Remy commented, dropping Erik a wink in the rear-view mirror.

“Anyone would be nervous with a useless assistant,” was Erik’s wry reply, but he shot Charles a relieved smile and reached over, twining their fingers together. Charles beamed at him and plastered himself almost entirely against Erik, waiting as Erik lifted his left arm so Charles could tuck his head under it.

“Now Erik, be nice to Remy,” Charles said lazily as his left hand rubbed Erik’s stomach in circles. “I imagine he was a huge part of your plan.” As something occurred to him, Charles lifted his head and raised an eyebrow at Remy. “Is your mother’s birthday really coming up, my friend?”

Remy flashed him a rather guilty smile. “Actually, her birthday is in December.”

Chuckling, Charles wagged a finger at Remy before burrowing back into Erik’s arms again. “You sly fox! I was even about to offer to send both of you on a vacation.”

“The moral of the story is, don’t trust Remy,” Erik said with a smirk, before glancing at his watch. “Anyway, we should get going to the Hilton or we’ll be late.”

Pardon, pardon, my fault,” Remy muttered apologetically before starting the engine and pulling away from the curb, heading back out to the main road. “Anyway, can I see the ring now?”

“Later,” Erik said lazily, stroking Charles’ hair. “Get us to the Hilton in one piece first.”

“Slavedriver,” Remy said with an exaggerated sigh. But even as his hands were on the wheel, he kept trying to turn and sneak a peek at Charles’ ring, his tongue sticking out comically as he fought to keep an eye on the road as well.

Erik picked up one of the nearby cushions and bonked Remy on the head with it in exasperation. “What did I say? Be careful or you’ll get all of us killed.”

Muttering under his breath, a pouting Remy dolefully rubbed the top of his head. “I just wanted to see the ring, you’ve been hoarding it like Gollum for so long,” he said dramatically.

Charles laughed and untangled his limbs from Erik’s, scooting to the front and draping his hand over the back of the driver’s seat so that Remy could get a better look. “Here you go, my dear chap. I don’t suppose Erik was drooling over the ring and calling it ‘my preciousss’?” he joked, tipping a wink at Erik.

A sly grin was growing on Remy’s face. “The ring? Non. You? Oui, definitely.”

“Just because I’m on top of the world right now, it doesn’t mean I won’t stuff you into the trunk and drive the car myself,” Erik warned him, as Remy meekly clamped his mouth shut. But Erik was far too happy to carry out his threat, his gaze resting on Charles’ left ring finger. Finally. At this point, he found himself with a lapful of Charles, and both of them traded long, sweet kisses until the car came to a gentle stop.

“We’re here!” Remy called out cheerfully. Twisting around so he could face them, he eyed their tuxedos. “Should I play the Wedding March as you walk down the red carpet?”

“If you end up attracting the paparazzi, I’ll be happy to play you the Funeral March,” Erik retorted grimly as Remy let out a snort and faced the front again. But at the thought of the paparazzi, Erik couldn’t help remembering the first time he and Charles had gone out to dinner at Bossa Nova, and how the paps had swarmed Charles before Erik had told them to get lost. Even back then, Erik had been so ridiculously obvious, so protective over someone that he wouldn’t admit he was falling for. Now, he wanted to shout it from the rooftops, to tell the whole world that they were getting married. But not tonight, though. The focus should be on the Correspondents’ Dinner, and Erik would have liked to keep from bursting their own private little bubble of happiness for just one more night.

But that turned out not to be the case, as they stepped out of the car and at once the sharp-eyed paps spotted the diamond on Charles’ left ring finger. The explosion of shouts and camera flashes were absolutely stunning, even to both Erik and Charles who had spent most of their adult lives surrounded by the media. Erik tried to shield Charles with his body so they could walk into the hotel unmolested, but it was difficult to see where they were headed when they were blinded by the litany of flashes everywhere, like lightning.

Liebling, are you all right?” Erik said loudly over the din, quelling his instincts to smash the camera of any paparazzo who got too close to Charles. But Charles seemed more than fine, laughing as he pulled Erik close to him, locking his arms around Erik’s waist.

“Darling, we’re getting married,” he said softly in Erik’s ear. “I’m quite certain I’m the happiest man alive now.”

“I may have to challenge you for that title,” Erik said, breaking out into a grin as he relaxed. Charles was right, it was a happy occasion and Erik could certainly afford to let his guard down. Facing the persistent cameras, Erik took Charles’ left hand and kissed his ring finger, causing a massive uproar amidst the gleeful paparazzi surrounding them. It reminded him of the first time they had come out to the media, when he had told Charles, “No more hiding,” before they had stepped out and announced their relationship to the world, sealing it with a public kiss. Maybe it was fitting then, Erik thought, for them to wrap up this cycle with a celebratory engagement kiss, honest and open about the love they felt for each other. He turned to Charles, who was already making his way to Erik’s mouth, and their display of affection caused a ripple of cheers and applause, interjected only by the constant click-click-click of the cameras.

* * * * *

* * * * *

Being engaged was fantastic.

Erik never could have imagined what a difference it made going from hoping to spend the rest of his life with Charles to knowing he now had the privilege to do exactly that. For years, Erik had stood by and watched as his work slowly destroyed him. Getting into character meant adopting a different alias, letting the role consume him for the weeks or months it took to get the job done. He had lived dozens of lives throughout his career, whatever emotional attachment he forged with the other characters in that fantasy world lasting only as long as the cameras kept rolling. Affection was make-believe, relationships only temporary.

And then there was Charles. Charles, who was real and permanent, and loved Erik’s miserable heart in all its imperfection. And Erik loved him back, with every atom of his being.

The first time someone from the crew had asked Erik where his “fiancé” was during a break, Erik had found himself grinning so widely that he was sure Raven would have accused him of looking like a deranged maniac, if the flicker of terror across that poor man’s face was anything to go by. Erik would be the first to admit that he was a possessive man, and being able to refer to Charles as his from now on was enough to make him feel like he could raise a vessel from the bottom of the ocean.

It was unfortunate that Charles couldn’t keep his ring on while they were filming. “I really don’t like the idea of taking your ring off myself, darling,” Charles had said in their trailer the first day they had gotten back on set, before happily suggesting that Erik did it for him instead. Thus began their daily ritual of Erik slipping the ring on and off Charles’ fourth finger. In Erik’s mind, it felt like he got to renew his vows each and every day, with one or both of them always whispering a confession of love followed by an exchange of kisses as the ring returned to where it belonged, safe on the finger of the man he loved.

Erik always looked forward to that part of the day, especially following a difficult time on the set, like when he had to spend hours shooting that argument with Charles outside Guy’s home after telling him that he’d killed Miriam. Erik often felt the inexplicable need to apologise after, and found he sorely missed the days of ‘First Class’, when they could be freely affectionate, instead of this rotten hell of having to convincingly look like they wanted nothing more than to wipe each other off the face of the Earth. Erik couldn’t fathom how Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio made it through filming ‘Revolutionary Road’, adding a mental note to toss any script that even remotely resembled that into the bin.

Thankfully, he never had to angst over bad days very long. No matter how drained Charles looked, he would always relax the moment the metal band wrapped around his finger, smiling contentedly within seconds. Erik had asked him once how his mood could switch so immediately, and Charles had kissed him and murmured a dreamy, “It feels different, you’ll see.”

Well, Erik definitely noticed that sex felt different. To be more specific: the sex was scramble-his-fucking-brains-out terrific. (Not that sex with Charles wasn’t the best he’d ever had, mind you.) The connection they shared was stronger than ever before, and sensations that used to register as just a flutter on the edges of his awareness now felt like a pulse that thrummed through his entire body, consuming and devastating everything in its wake. Charles, too, readily trembled at the slightest of touches, back bowed and mouth slack with pleasure at the drag of teeth against flesh, abandoned moans that echoed in Erik’s dreams at the rush of hot breath over damp skin. Erik was always nothing more than a shuddering mess after, his wrecked body begging to sleep for a week just to recover. He might have obliged, but his cock always seemed to have other, much more fun ideas whenever Charles was around. Erik still caught himself smirking whenever he recalled the first time Charles’ ring refused to come off because the weather had been frigid that day, and Erik had used that as an excuse to suck Charles’ fourth finger into his mouth and do obscene things to it with his tongue. Charles’ eyes had gone dark instantly, and Erik had made good on his tease once he’d pulled the ring off using his teeth with a very thorough blowjob, which Charles subsequently reciprocated with enthusiasm. Needless to say, they had been extremely tardy in their arrival onto the set, and Erik had since developed an arguably unhealthy obsession with sudden cold fronts.

Their finally had a break in their filming schedule three weeks after the Correspondents’ Dinner, and this was their first weekend off in ages. Charles had said he needed to head back to their place, professing he had something incredibly important to do, and so here they were, coming off the flight out to Westchester County Airport. It was liberating not needing to fuss over any luggage, and there was the added bonus of having his hands free to hold Charles as he pleased.

Erik was looking forward to spending the weekend in the peace and quiet of the mansion, planning on using the time to start preparing the speech they were to give during San Francisco Pride. He had been visibly upset when the latest version of the immigration reform bill failed to include any mention of same-sex couples, even though the plans that had been laid out by President Obama in January had made provisions for recognising same-sex couples from different countries. Erik had kicked up quite a fuss over the desperate backpedalling, going so far as to consider conspiracy theories before an exasperated Charles had seated him down with a cup of tea. “Erik, darling, must you turn everything into Watergate?” Charles had said. He had then talked at length about how they couldn’t fault the senators for not wanting to let this opportunity to reform their nation’s immigration system go to waste, and further added that this wouldn’t matter much if the Supreme Court were to rule DOMA as unconstitutional. Erik could see where Charles was coming from, but he still couldn’t understand why allowing a few thousand gay American citizens to sponsor their partners for legal immigration was more objectionable than granting amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants. And the thought that, if it weren't for his job, these men had the power to take him away from Charles filled Erik with a maddening desire to rip open the gates of Congress and storm right in. Needless to say, Erik honestly wasn’t feeling exactly optimistic about the verdicts for DOMA and Prop 8 at the moment. It angered him that the fate of same-sex couples in this country lay in the hands of a bunch of bigoted old men on Capitol Hill, which was why he was counting down the days to Pride. There, they could make a stand, put their visibility to good use. March.

“Fellas, over here,” came Darwin’s ever composed voice. Charles tugged at Erik’s hand, quickening his steps as they made their way around the barricades and towards Charles’ waiting assistant.

“Darwin! Thank you very much for coming all the way out here with our car. I don’t know what I’d ever do without you,” Charles said, giving Darwin a few friendly pats on the back before Darwin handed him the key. They could have booked a town car, of course, but the mansion in Westchester was the only place where the media hadn't tracked them down, and neither Charles nor himself wanted to risk it by hiring a driver who might blab their location for a quick buck.

Darwin chuckled. “Not a problem, it’s nice to finally be useful. And congratulations, man,” he said, squeezing Charles’ shoulder. Erik smiled dotingly on when Charles began grinning like he’d just won the lottery.

“Thank you, my kind chap.”

“And I finally get to see the real thing. Raven wasn’t exaggerating, for once,” Darwin said as he took Charles’ hand to examine the engagement ring. He let go of Charles’ fingers when he was done, turning to shake Erik’s hand with a firm grip. “It’s about damn time!”

“I’m starting to think the only person who wasn’t waiting for me to propose was Charles,” Erik quipped, draping an arm over Charles’ shoulders and squeezing him in a sideways hug while Charles cuddled affectionately. The three of them had a good laugh, then Darwin walked them briskly out the arrival hall and to their Mercedes-Benz. They hadn't attracted too many gawkers, given that it wasn't a high traffic airport like the dreaded LAX. Erik considered it a small victory.

“Are you certain you don't need me to arrange a car for you?” Charles asked, ever concerned about everyone’s welfare. Sometimes, Erik wondered if Charles even knew what a personal assistant was for. He felt a tiny smidge guilty then for always entrusting Remy with so much to do, although the moron still hadn't run for the hills yet, so he couldn't be finding it all that terrible.

“Nah, I'm good. Alex is coming to get me,” Darwin said, clapping Charles on the shoulder before waving goodbye to the both of them.

Charles was still grinning when he opened the car door on the driver's side and presented Erik with the key. “In you go, darling.”

Erik shook his head, bending down to place a kiss on Charles' cheek before guiding him towards the car with a hand on the small of his back. “No, you drive,” Erik insisted. As much as he’d like to, Erik knew he couldn’t possibly chauffeur Charles everywhere forever. Nor would it be very practical to do so, now that Charles had his license back. Besides, there would eventually be roles where Charles would have to film scenes behind the wheel, and Erik would feel more reassured knowing that Charles could at least keep to the correct side of the road.

“Are you sure, love?” Charles asked, dangling the key in front of Erik as he waggled his eyebrows comically.

Erik laughed. “Yes, Liebling. I promise to try my best to remain calm,” he said, ignoring the spike of trepidation and praying that Charles wouldn't go all ‘Fast and Furious’ on him. “She’s your car as well, and I need to make sure you can drive in non-Commonwealth countries without causing a pile-up on the freeway. For my own sanity, at the very least.”

“You always worry too much, darling,” Charles murmured, pulling Erik down for a quick kiss before climbing into the car.

Erik closed the door and circled to the passenger’s side, and found Charles still busy adjusting the position of his seat when he got in. “Have I ever told you that you have extremely long legs?” Charles remarked absently while buckling himself in.

“You have, many times. Especially when I'm in jeans,” Erik replied, not bothering to hide his smirk.

Charles chuckled loudly, and Erik enjoyed watching as a blush spread across his pale cheeks. “Well, I can’t possibly be held responsible for anything I say while you’re a walking billboard for every physical temptation known to Man – although let me reiterate that I am always up for demonstrating my complete lack of self-restraint.” Charles paused, drumming his fingers against the steering wheel and pursing his lips. “Last chance, darling. It’s not too late to change your mind. Speak now or forever hold your peace.”

Erik squeezed Charles’ knee in reassurance. “My mind has been made, Charles. And I’ve long figured that it’s better to die in the wreck with you than spend the rest of my life alone.”

Charles intertwined his fingers with Erik's on his knee and sighed. “Sometimes I think I must have been a martyr in my past life to deserve you.”

He would have argued that Charles must be mad, that Erik knew himself to be a sorry excuse for a decent human being, but Charles leaned over and pulled him in to press their lips together. And then Erik decided that there was no point singling out the flaws in Charles’ statement, not when he had zero intention of giving Charles valid reasons to ever leave him.

The drive to the estate was surprisingly uneventful, and Erik only had to lift his hand from Charles' lap on a couple of instances to surreptitiously steer the car back on course. Charles was even keeping well within the speed limits, so much so that Erik felt inclined to point it out, amusement evident in his voice as he said, “Liebling, I've seen grandfathers drive faster than you.”

Charles laughed, taking his eyes off the country road for a moment to gaze into Erik’s. “Just rehearsing being one half of an old married couple, darling. You had best get used to it.”

“I should think our lives would still be more exciting than most, even when we're old and bald,” Erik replied, playfully ruffling Charles’ hair.

Charles visibly shuddered, batting Erik away. “Speak for yourself. I fully intend on keeping my hair, thank you very much,” he said, chuckling as Erik slung an arm around his neck and kissed the shell of his ear. “And I’m absolutely looking forward to bickering like Freddie and Stuart over tea.”

Erik chuckled, leaving his arm draped over Charles’ shoulders. They’d been following ‘Vicious’ recently, thanks to their mutual fondness for Sir Ian McKellen after meeting him at the Oscars, and it was refreshing being able to watch an old gay couple on TV. “I still don’t understand why you think I’m Freddie. I find nothing in common with him, other than the fact that we’re both actors.”

“Whatever you say, sweetheart,” Charles sing-songed, patting Erik’s hand absently.

They arrived at the mansion shortly after, heading up the long driveway once they'd parked the car in the garage. Although they didn't spend as much time in Westchester as they did at their place in Los Angeles, Erik always looked forward to returning to this estate the most. They only had wonderful memories here, treasured pockets of time when they belonged to no one but each other, every second precious and hoarded safely away in his heart.

Charles bounded up the front steps, unlocking the large wooden door and swinging it open. He spun around grinning as they entered, wrapping his arms around Erik's waist and pulling him close. “Welcome home, Erik,” he whispered, nudging the tips of their noses against each other before Erik cupped his face and tilted it back to seal their lips in a long, passionate kiss. Kissing Charles always felt like that first heady rush of falling in love, when two years ago, Erik had blinked and realised for the first time he was looking at Charles with new eyes, that he had been staring at the man he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. Filled with gratitude at having found Charles, Erik tried to put this into the kiss, capturing Charles’ mouth again and again and licking into it, desperate for his taste. And when Charles moaned into Erik’s mouth, Erik could hardly be blamed for going a little crazy with desire for him, nipping at those red lips.

It seemed like Erik wasn’t the only one losing control. He could feel Charles’ grip tightening in his hair, so that Charles could manoeuvre Erik’s head as he pleased. Erik submitted willingly when Charles, sounding desperate and sighing with desire, shoved him backwards so that the door slammed shut behind them, Erik’s body happily trapped between Charles and its carved wooden surface.

When they broke apart, gasping for air, Erik greedily took in the sight of Charles’ cheeks flushed red, his eyes a fiery blazing blue as they raked over Erik. Erik licked his lips. “Looks like you’ve got me where you want me,” he murmured, writhing a little under Charles’ hold as if to pretend that he wanted to wriggle away.

Charles pressed his entire body weight against Erik even more, so that he was effectively pinning Erik to the door, and the speed at which Erik's blood rushed south left him incredibly lightheaded. “What am I going to do with my prize?” Charles pretended to muse, his eyes so dark and intent with lust that Erik was mesmerized.

Deliberately, Erik let his mouth widen in a slow, evil smirk, the one he employed whenever he was mentally undressing Charles in public. He leaned in a little, inches away from Charles. “Depraved, profane things, all weekend long,” Erik whispered, so that his lips barely brushed Charles’ moist ones, making his breath stutter.

Erik practically mauled him, desperation and intense need tingeing the kiss. He was so distracted by Charles’ firm, insanely gorgeous body that he almost didn’t notice Charles untucking his shirt, then unbuckling Erik’s belt with trembling hands. Part of Erik wanted to cry with relief; he was so achingly hard that he felt like he was about to go insane.

When Charles’ warm, familiar hand wrapped around his shaft, Erik keened and rested his forehead against him, his hips jerking up in broken thrusts just from Charles touching him. No one had ever, ever had this effect on him before, and Erik knew that he could come just from kissing and touching Charles alone, if he so wanted it. But of course, he wanted more. He whined when Charles released his cock, which bobbed in the air, straining towards him.

“I’ve missed our bed a lot, why don’t we take this upstairs?” Charles said wistfully, turning the full power of those pleading blue eyes on a helpless Erik.

Except, Erik didn’t think he could make it to their room in his current state. The house was just too goddamn big. He started unbuttoning Charles’ light blue Oxford, sliding it off his shoulders and tossing the shirt somewhere in the direction of the staircase. “We could have a go here first, the bedroom will still be there later,” Erik answered, his cock twitching at the idea of taking Charles up against that massive headboard.

Charles raised an eyebrow in challenge. He grabbed the waistband of Erik's trousers in his hands and dropped to his knees in an instant, pulling Erik's pants and briefs down with him. Charles stared up at him from the ground devilishly, darting his tongue out to wet his lips before wrapping them around the head of Erik's cock. He slid partway down, eyes never leaving Erik's face. Erik felt him exhale, breath hot against his sensitive skin, right before Charles swallowed him whole, impossibly red lips stretched wide around his sizable girth. Erik let out a strangled cry, slamming his head back against the door, the sharp thump insignificant compared to the slick heat that gripped the entire length of his cock.

Charles pulled his mouth off him and got back up on his feet. "Upstairs," Charles said again, more forcefully this time, his voice rough.

Fuck. "Yes, now. Mein Gott, Charles," Erik bit out, toeing off his shoes and stepping out of the crumpled mess of his trousers.

Charles’ laughter filled the empty spaces of the mansion as he took hold of Erik's hand, leading him across the foyer and to the staircase. Erik couldn't take his eyes off the lean curves of muscle on Charles’ back, his pale skin adorned by constellations of freckles, Erik’s lips having long since worshipped every last one of them. Charles turned at the bottom of the stairs, wrapping an arm around Erik’s neck to crush their mouths together and pulling him along as he ascended backwards up the steps. Erik roughly tugged Charles’ belt off at one point, slinging it over the banister and not caring when he heard it crashing loudly to the floor below.

“That was Gucci,” Charles said, panting against his cheek.

Erik grinned unrepentantly. “I know,” he quipped, a thrill of pleasure shooting through him when that earned him a playful bite on the lip.

He undid Charles’ fly, holding onto the fabric to steady Charles while he kicked off his shoes and sent them tumbling down the stairs. Erik helped Charles out of his trousers when they reached the landing, coaxing a guttural moan from Charles when he curled his fingers around Charles’ cock and pumped, slowly but firmly, as he backed Charles towards their bedroom. Charles all but ripped off Erik’s white polo shirt at the doorway.

It was good to be back in their bedroom, to see one of Charles’ beloved cardigans draped over the back of a chair while Erik’s black scarf lay coiled nearby. The housekeeper must have left them there untouched to lend a sense of home, but her presence was noticeable in the rest of the room, particularly the lavender-scented sheets. Erik turned to Charles and picked him up, depositing him onto the bed. Charles smiled up at him, his dark hair a startling contrast against the sheets and the rest of his pale body, and Erik swore that he never knew he could fall deeper and deeper in love with this man. He crawled on top of Charles, who tugged him down and kissed him so sweetly that Erik felt his eyes sting.

After they broke apart, Erik closed his eyes while Charles palmed the right side of his face, hyper-aware of the cool metal band pressed against his cheek. It was still a new and very welcome sensation that he was happily getting used to, and he could not possibly describe what it had felt like when Charles agreed to become his husband. Husband. The word made something deep in Erik's chest clench, because he had never expected to fall in love like this, to love someone far, far more than anything else. He opened his eyes, and Charles’ irises were startlingly blue and clear as they searched his face. “I love you,” Charles whispered, as Erik turned his head to kiss his palm.

“And I love you,” Erik murmured, leaning down to capture those moist red lips that had been tempting him all day. Charles then gave a little muffled groan that made Erik’s simmering desire roar to life again, and the kiss turned rough, Erik tasting every inch of Charles’ mouth as he felt Charles’ legs wrap around his hips. Charles’ erection was pressing against his belly, hot and hard and pulsing, and Erik groped for it, grinning into the kiss as he started stroking Charles’ cock, relishing his cries of pleasure.

“You’re sinfully gorgeous,” Erik growled as he watched Charles’ expression of rapture, those unreal eyes a shocked, vivid blue. Erik rubbed his thumb over the swollen head of Charles’ cock just the way Charles liked it, the entire shaft now dripping with pre-come. He bit down harshly on his own lower lip when Charles arched his back off the bed, abdominal muscles pulled taut and beautiful as his hands gripped the sheets violently, the moan ripping from his throat loud enough to make Erik’s toes curl.

Erik shushed soothingly in his ear, knowing that Charles wouldn’t last much longer if he kept this up. He slowed the pace of his hand on Charles’ cock, loosening his grip as he eased Charles back down onto the sheets. Erik mouthed along Charles’ jaw, his other hand spreading across the centre of Charles’ chest before sliding gradually over flushed skin towards the base of Charles’ throat. Erik could feel the rapid drumming of Charles’ heartbeat under his palm, and if he concentrated hard enough, he could almost sense the iron coursing through his veins, the lifeblood singing to him as it thrummed beneath his fingers.

He kissed a path down Charles’ chest, sucking on a nipple and teasing the other with his fingers as his mouth found its way towards Charles’ erection. Erik released Charles’ cock from his hand, inhaling the intoxicating scent between Charles’ legs before licking slowly from base to tip, holding Charles down when he writhed beneath him. Erik fucked his mouth on Charles’ cock, Charles’ taste heavy on his tongue.

“Oh, God. Erik,” Charles gasped from above, moaning wantonly when Erik pressed two fingers against his perineum, tapping out a rhythm on the thin flesh over his prostate as he slipped a wet finger inside him. Charles’ cries made Erik heady with lust, and he couldn’t help rutting into the sheets. Erik pulled his mouth off Charles’ erection, taking in deep breaths as he shakily reached for the bedside table, fumbling around for one of the tubes of lubricant that they had stashed there. He had just uncapped it when Charles suddenly grabbed it from him, scooting out from under him with a breathless laugh.

“Charles, what are you up to?” Erik asked, perplexed and a little petulant at having his living wet dream get away from him like that.

“Since you let me drive earlier, I’ve gotten quite a taste for it,” Charles said with a grin, wild-eyed and utterly gorgeous. “Why don’t you sit back and enjoy the ride?”

Charles gave him a slight shove so that he was sprawled on the bed, facing the headboard. Satisfied, Charles got on his knees and made his way to Erik, straddling his lap and rendering Erik speechless.

Pushing the cap open, Charles squeezed some lube onto the fingers of his right hand, then reached between his own legs as he kept his gaze fixed on Erik. Biting his lip in pleasure, Charles began slicking his own entrance with the lube, voice hitching as his fingers slid in further and further, a breathless, “Mmm Erik,” slipping out occasionally. Erik was so completely transfixed, watching Charles get himself ready to be fucked hard, that he was barely aware that he was taking himself in hand, leisurely stroking his leaking cock.

“God, Erik, keep doing that,” Charles whispered, his eyes half-lidded as he watched Erik touch himself.

Erik deliberately brought his hand to his mouth, staring at Charles as he licked his palm. A sharp whine ripped from Charles’ throat, and he knocked Erik’s hand away, lifting his hips to guide Erik’s cock inside himself. Charles sank down slowly, their hands searching for each other’s as they twined their fingers together. Erik was shaking at the effort to not thrust up immediately, so that he wouldn’t hurt Charles, carefully watching Charles’ face for any signs of discomfort or pain.

On the contrary, Charles’ intensely blue eyes rolled back in pleasure as he bared his throat, moaning, “Erik, so bloody good...” and Erik couldn’t resist kissing that pale, flushed neck, lavishing special attention on the scattering of freckles he loved so much.

“I could watch you come, over and over again,” Erik whispered, his hips giving an experimental little thrust upwards and, judging from Charles’ shattered moans, he was free to move. Releasing Erik’s hands, Charles squeezed Erik’s shoulders as he rode Erik’s cock expertly, face contorted in sublime ecstasy as he rolled his hips up and down, the exquisite drag on Erik’s cock making pleasure build at the base of his spine.

Erik lost himself as he thrust into the tight heat, occasionally bending down to lick those sweet pert nipples, or arching up to kiss Charles. He heard himself moan, voice low and hoarse beyond recognition. In return, Charles grasped Erik’s jaw and stole several wet, indecent kisses, smiling like the little minx he was. Growling, Erik captured and sucked on that luscious bottom lip, combining it with a series of hard thrusts that had Charles going crazy.

Erik’s hands ran down Charles’ sweat-riddled back, landing on those firm, muscular thighs. Before Erik knew what he was doing, he grabbed Charles and, in a powerful, swift move, lifted him and slammed him up against the headboard, surprising a half-laugh, half-gasp out of Charles. “Erik! Oh, my word, I didn’t-ahhh...” It seemed Charles forgot to finish his sentence as Erik repeatedly drove his cock into him, causing Charles’ eyes to glaze over with pleasure. His fingers dug into Erik’s shoulders for support as his legs wrapped around Erik’s waist, ankles locking at his hips and keeping Erik where he belonged. “Erik...”

“Mine,” Erik grunted out against Charles’ jaw, soothing him with kisses and gentle nips while his hips did the opposite, which was to slam into Charles repeatedly, grinding against his prostate again and again, making him cry out and moan louder than he ever did before. When their eyes locked, Erik wanted to sob at how much love and emotion he saw in Charles’ tender gaze, in the way he was looking at Erik like he was the only person in the world who mattered. Taking in a shuddery breath, Erik turned his head just a little so that their mouths met, and Charles kissed him with an intensity that made Erik’s head spin.

I love you more than life itself, Erik thought, speeding up his thrusts and watching as Charles completely unravelled before his eyes, that red mouth going slack as he took in quick, shallow gasps. Charles wrapped his arms around Erik’s neck, resting the side of his head against Erik’s. Erik moaned when Charles nipped at his earlobe, the sound of his warm breaths echoing in Erik’s ear. Charles licked a hot stripe along the sensitive shell of his ear, and the wave of pleasure that slammed through him was enough to send Erik over the edge, the shout that tore from him raw and primal. Erik heaved Charles even higher and spilled inside him, the orgasm so intense that he whited out for a long moment, clinging to Charles as he came also, his voice completely wrecked as he moaned Erik’s name like it was the only word left in his vocabulary. Erik held on tightly to Charles for what felt like ages, needing him as an anchor while the tremors shot relentlessly down the insides of his thighs.

“Erik?” He heard Charles’ concerned voice first, before a laugh as he patted Erik’s cheek. “Darling, are you all right?”

“Fuck, Charles,” was all Erik managed as he slumped back down onto the bed, carefully slipping out and balancing Charles on top of him so that he didn’t fall. Now that he had his senses back, Erik finally noticed the white streaks all over his belly, and he let out a short laugh of exhaustion before collapsing back in bed, Charles a comforting weight sprawled along his side, the both of them still panting.

“I think you’re trying to kill me,” Erik told Charles once he had regained his breath.

Charles let out a deep, rich chuckle, planting kisses along Erik’s collarbone. “I beg your pardon, but I wasn’t the one who slammed me up against the headboard and fucked me until I almost passed out.”

Erik’s gaze darted down to the streaks on his stomach. “Didn’t seem like you had any complaints,” he said with a smirk, letting his fingers rake through the dark silk of Charles’ hair.

“Indeed, I didn’t,” Charles murmured, letting his kisses trail down to Erik’s nipples, which were always a little sensitive after an orgasm so Erik duly appreciated the extra care Charles took with them, blowing on them gently before moving on down to Erik’s stomach. When he started licking the smeared white trails and lapping everything up, Erik had to groan because his cock was valiantly wanting to rise to the occasion again, but the sex had really worn him out so he just watched, caressing Charles’ shoulders in encouragement.

After Charles was done cleaning him, Erik dragged him up to kiss, greedily licking into his mouth to chase after Charles' taste. Inspiration bloomed in his sex-addled brain. “Let me return the favour,” Erik said with a grin, as Charles arched an eyebrow at him. But he obediently let Erik manoeuvre him onto his stomach, tossing Erik a curious look over his shoulder. Charles’ ass still had Erik’s handprints on them from when he had grabbed Charles earlier and held him up against the headboard, and Erik ran his palms reverently over the pinkish skin, bestowing a kiss to one of his favourite parts of Charles’ body.

He raised Charles' hips in the air, then began kissing his way to his hole, where he could still see a little of his own come dribbling out. I did that, he thought proudly, as he licked off whatever he could see near the entrance. Charles’ broken, bitten-off moan of anticipation was incredibly sexy, and Erik shuddered at the sound. As he started licking into Charles and squeezing his thighs, he could hear Charles begging for him to continue. “God, darling, yes.”

Erik just chuckled deeply, lightly slapping that beautiful pale ass which was starting to turn even redder from his manhandling. Charles was panting, his moans soft and muffled now that he had buried his face in the pillow. Erik ran a reassuring hand up the length of his spine, letting it wander up and down soothingly before resuming his licking, holding Charles’ cheeks apart and tonguing him deeper. He grinned when he hit the spot which made Charles gasp sharply, tending to it specially until Charles was shaking and incoherent. He carried on licking into Charles, enjoying the taste of himself inside him until every last bit of Charles was clean. He lapped at Charles’ hole when he was done, and Charles sighed softly in contentment. As Erik scooted backwards a little to give Charles room to turn over, he could feel his eyelids drooping, a post-orgasmic lassitude settling in his limbs. Erik climbed up the bed, grinning when he saw that Charles also looked wrecked. Charles smiled as he blinked up at Erik, stealing a kiss.

Erik gazed down lovingly at him, his thumb caressing the lock of dark hair at Charles’ right temple. “Is it a bad thing that you’re so incredible in bed that I’m completely spent?”

Charles’ lips quirked up in amusement. “Glad to see that you appreciate my talents.” He brushed back Erik’s fringe, before tugging him down so that Erik was lying completely on top of him. He could feel Charles smoothing a hand up and down the planes of his back. Erik’s eyes fluttered at half-mast, taking in a deep breath and instantly assured by the warm, clean smell of Charles’ skin and the calming scent of lavender that lingered on the sheets. His right hand snaked out, searching for Charles’ left one until he found it, smiling with his eyes closed as he felt the ring around Charles’ finger. They were getting married.

“What do you want our wedding to be like?” Erik asked sleepily, willing himself to stay awake because he wanted to hear some of Charles’ ideas. He tried his best to stifle a yawn, but it broke out anyway as Erik nuzzled even more against Charles, who was chuckling.

“Maybe we should discuss this another time, you look like you’re nodding off,” Charles whispered, low and amused.

Erik made a noise of protest, even as his eyelids grew heavy. “No...I’m not. Tell me.” Determined to stay awake and listen to Charles, Erik readjusted his head on Charles’ shoulder, lulled by the hypnotic stroking of his hair that Charles was ridiculously good at.

“I did think that we could have a summer wedding,” Charles mused, and Erik drowsily listened to the rising and falling inflection of that familiar, beloved voice, the one that spoke directly to his heart. The last thing he remembered was Charles joking about something to do with swans - swans? - before sleep quickly overtook Erik, his hand still curled around Charles’.

* * * * *

Erik drifted awake to the faint sounds of Etta James pleasantly crooning ‘At Last’. He’d come to know it as Charles’ favourite record, and Charles often put it on the antique player Erik had given him before settling down to read. He smiled when he pictured Charles humming along to the tune as he thumbed through scripts or a hard copy of Nature Genetics (his fiancé was probably one of the few people in the world who read scientific journals for leisure, in print), content to have a book in his hands – at least until Erik took it upon himself to join him on the sofa. Erik hugged the pillow in his arms, wishing it were Charles instead. The sheets around him had grown cool and the sun had already set, the heady scent of sex now faded to a muted trace that clung sweetly to his skin. He sat up, wondering why Charles had gotten out of bed without him, and felt a bit guilty about passing out on him so quickly earlier. The bedroom was illuminated by the light from the landing, and only after his eyes had adjusted to the dim lighting did Erik notice the turtleneck of his that Charles had taken with him to Japan, folded neatly at the foot of the bed and placed atop a pair of pants. How curious.

He slipped into the clothes quickly and hurried his way down the stairs. Charles must have heard him because the record stopped playing abruptly, only to be replaced moments later by beautiful string music that Erik soon recognised as being an instrumental version of Elvis Presley’s ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’, the soft violins spiriting him away like a lover into the night.

“Charles?” Erik called, scanning the foyer and noting that the music was coming from the back of the house, the gentle crests and troughs in the melody luring him, hypnotic as a siren’s song.

“I’m in the gardens, darling,” came Charles’ answer, his voice tinged with mirth.

Erik walked briskly through the dining area and found the record player sitting just inside the back entrance, the exquisite harmony of the string quartet enveloping him as he stepped across the threshold and out into the surprisingly warm night air.

His breath caught at the sight that met his eyes. Charles was standing beneath the gazebo, a myriad fairy lights dancing around the spiralling frame of the open steel dome and down the sandstone pillars. Charles’ smile was tender when their eyes met, the lights that hung from the gazebo dome casting a warm glow across his face. Hundreds of white calla lilies in full bloom lined the path leading from where Erik stood to Charles, who was wrapped in the blue cardigan that had accompanied Erik all those long nights overseas. Erik stared openly as the music continued to play, the scene before him purely magical.

Erik eventually began to walk slowly down the flower-lined aisle, emotions threatening to consume him. He certainly knew what the calla lilies meant, but he could hardly believe that Charles remembered. Then again, this was Charles. Of course he remembered. The smile on Charles’ face never wavered, and in fact grew more radiant with each step Erik took. He held out his palm invitingly as Erik neared, and Erik reached out and took his hand, Charles’ gentle fingers yielding willingly to the hard lines of his own.

Erik…” Charles whispered when they embraced, bodies flush from the chest down. “For a moment there I was worried you wouldn’t find your way.” Charles tiptoed up to seal their lips together, and Erik exhaled a quiet sigh. There was nothing quite like being kissed by the person he loved completely and the realisation, in that kiss, that he was loved in return.

They stayed entwined together even after they'd broken the kiss. Erik interlaced their fingers and brought Charles’ hand to his chest, leaning his cheek against the crown of Charles’ head as he asked, “What’s all this, Charles? I was going to apologise for falling asleep on you like a Neanderthal, but I’m starting to think that that was your plan all along.”

“You know me too well, darling,” Charles said, chuckling fondly. “I'm glad you had a good nap for the both of us, because my ‘genius’ idea completely backfired. I could barely make it down the stairs after that, let alone string up all these lights.”

Erik started, casting his eyes up to gawk at the countless fairy lights hanging overhead and imagining Charles balancing precariously on a ladder to put them up there. His blood ran cold. “You hung these up yourself? Charles, do you have any idea how dangerous that was? What if you'd fallen down and—”

“Don't spoil this for me, Erik,” Charles harrumphed, even as one edge of his lips quirked up teasingly. “I'm still breathing, I didn't crack my head open, heaven forbid I use my own two hands to make sure everything looks perfect for the occasion.”

Erik raised his eyebrows, wondering if he'd forgotten something important. “What occasion?”

Charles' expression softened completely, and he was smiling like Erik had just said the silliest thing in the world. “You didn’t think I wasn’t going to ask you as well, did you?” Charles murmured as he brought his free hand up to cup Erik’s cheek, voice laced with affection.

His eyes searched Charles’ face, almost frantic. He can’t be saying… No, that’s impossible, a tiny voice whispered in his head. He was stopped from analysing it further by the sudden press of Charles’ moist lips to his own, Erik’s lips parting instinctively to invite Charles in, his hand letting go of Charles’ to curl gently around the side of Charles’ neck. Charles eased away slowly, a disarming smile still playing on his lips, and Erik had about two seconds for his mind to scream insecurities before Charles pulled a dark blue velvet box out of his trouser pocket and swiftly got down on one knee.

Erik felt his heart skip a beat, stuttering and pounding in his chest as a sharp gasp escaped his lips. He stared down at Charles in utter disbelief. All that time spent deliberating and scheming, eventually deciding on that evening in Washington D.C. because there was no way he was going to let a gorgeous Charles in a tuxedo go to waste, and it had never occurred to him that Charles had been making plans, too. Erik used to snort at the idea of settling down, marrying, the notion so far removed from reality, where attempts to socialise with the glitterati felt akin to having his mouth pried open in a dentist’s chair. There was no love lost; judging by how no one had actually deigned to approach him at events of their own accord, either. Emma had once said that only a complete masochist could ever be coerced into dating him, and for some reason that remark had stuck, lodged deep within his psyche and taken root. As such, Erik had always thought that if the time came, certainly it would be up to him to pop the question, because who in their right mind would ever decide that the best they could do was him?

But here was Charles – brilliant, wonderful, and so much more than Erik deserved – holding out a beautiful diamond ring on bended knee.

God, I love him.

Erik’s eyes were beginning to sting, overwhelming emotions contorting his features as he tried his best to hold himself together. It was to no avail, and he soon felt the first traitorous teardrop as it rolled its way down his cheek.

“Oh, darling…” Charles cooed, blinking away the wetness in his own eyes as well, an adorable grin spreading across his face.

They both chuckled sheepishly, and it suddenly occurred to Erik that he had no idea why he was still up here standing, feeling leagues away from where Charles was. He dropped to his knees and took Charles into his arms, and they held on to each other like they were both plunging through air.

“I can’t believe you did all this for me,” Erik said as he cradled Charles’ face in his hands tenderly, before leaning in to kiss his forehead. He stroked his hands down Charles’ arms, letting them come to rest on the jut of Charles’ hipbones.

Charles sniffled, shifting so that he was on both knees as well. He shook his head gently, piercing blue eyes locking with Erik’s. “I’ve made a living out of trying to convince the whole world to love me, when the only affection I’ve ever wanted is yours. Erik, I have been dreaming of this moment for ages, of course I want it to be special,” Charles said, voice trembling, and tipped his head up to kiss Erik sweetly on the lips.

There was a pause as Charles quickly wiped his eyes dry with the inside of his cardigan sleeve before again holding up the open ring box, excitement plainly written across his face. Delight was rolling off Charles in waves, and Erik felt himself powerless against being swept up by it, grinning uncontrollably as he playfully tugged a laughing Charles closer by the hips. Erik circled one arm around Charles’ waist, and that earned him a contented sigh as Charles settled in, smiling gently while he stroked Erik’s shoulder lovingly. Erik could barely contain his happiness.

“Erik, I didn’t realise I had been missing half of myself, until the day you came into my life,” Charles began, the string quartet still playing softly in the distance, creating a delicate atmosphere. Charles slid his palm up from Erik’s shoulder to cup the side of his neck, the movement sending fleeting shivers down Erik’s spine. “And then I understood that I was always meant to be with you,” Charles added, so earnestly that Erik felt something clench violently in his chest, the ache so deep and merciless, like drowning.

Sooty lashes fanned out over pale skin when Charles flickered his gaze down briefly, a wistful expression on his face as he said, “You might think this is silly, but I feel like I’ve known you far, far longer than the amount of time we’ve had with each other, almost as if I have loved you in lifetimes before.” Charles buried his warm fingers in Erik’s hair, using them to tilt Erik’s head down a little, his voice barely above a whisper as he continued, “And sometimes, when we stay up late into the night, trading secrets until one of us falls asleep, I almost convince myself that it’s true.”

Erik’s lower lip trembled as he clutched Charles fiercely to himself, the familiar press of Charles’ body steeling him against the relentless surge of raw emotion. There was no one on earth he could say he understood better than Charles, and likewise, Charles knew everything about him, from his darkest fears to his innermost desires. Every last one of his defences crumbled instantly at Charles’ gentle caress, or the hint of a smile on too-red lips, and Erik often caught himself thinking that one life together with Charles was not enough to fully convey how much he loved him. No amount of time could ever be enough.

“I know you keep telling me things after I've drifted off, Charles,” Erik said, his voice sounding rough to his own ears. Charles’ eyes widened with surprise, and Erik felt a bit guilty when he quietly confessed, “That’s why I pretend to, now and then.”

Charles was blushing slightly, flabbergasted. He was just about to cut in, perhaps insist that Erik was never meant to hear any of that or attempt to take everything back, but Erik would sooner trade all of Utopia than any single one of those stolen confidences. He gave Charles’ arm a reassuring squeeze, smiling tenderly as he added, “You share your wildest dreams with me when you believe I’m no longer listening.”

He paused, remembering that night last week when he’d closed his eyes (just to rest them, really), completely sated by an excellent dinner out on the town and an even better romp in bed, while Charles had told him about the room in the mansion where he and his father had set up several children’s science kits one summer and caused the maids a lot of grief. Charles had thought he’d gone to sleep, trailing off at the end while he pulled the fluffy hotel duvet over Erik. He had felt Charles shift then, leaning in as if to plant a kiss, and already had a ‘goodnight, Liebling’ waiting on his lips. Instead, Charles had lingered just beside his temple and whispered, “If we ever have a son, I’d like to name him Michael, after you.” Erik thought he deserved another Oscar for being able to keep his breathing level upon hearing that, his racing heart only settling back in his chest after Charles had drifted off on his shoulder, allowing Erik to finally gather him in his arms and murmur oaths of love before joining him in sleep.

Erik turned his head now, so that his lips brushed against Charles’ temple. “I like the name Michael Xavier, very much,” he whispered. Charles gasped softly as Erik kissed the breath-warmed skin, and then moved to cradle one side of Charles’ face with his hand. “And I think the same.”

“You do?” Charles asked, wide-eyed and credulous, and Erik swore that he’d even take lifetimes where they can’t be together, just for a few extra moments with Charles, over an eternity of never seeing him again.

Erik leaned forward to press their foreheads together, his vision blurring. “I do.”

The dampness around Erik’s eyes returned when Charles kissed him on the lips, the tip of Charles’ tongue gentle as he deepened it. Erik lost himself in the sweet whimpers that escaped Charles’ throat when he kissed back, loving the feel of Charles’ fingers digging into his scalp. They were both breathless by the time the kiss ended, and Charles placed lingering kisses onto the corners of Erik’s mouth before pulling away.

Charles curled his hand around Erik’s cheek, the gesture a mirror of Erik’s own. “We’re like bookends of the same soul,” Charles said, his eyes glistening in the fairy lights. “And I cannot bear the thought of our time together being limited, not after I’ve spent my whole life searching for you.” He stroked the pad of his thumb along Erik’s cheekbone, eyebrows knitting as he struggled to fight back the tears. “Because I need you, and I love you. No one else can ever compare.”

Erik had no such luck, and was barely able to bite back a sob. He’d never been sentimental before Charles, and now he rued the day he ever made any snide remarks about Charles’ past female co-stars. Clearly he was faring much worse than all of them combined. Charles must have taken pity on him, pulling him in to dry his tear-streaked cheeks with affectionate kisses. He cupped Erik’s face again and smiled, breathtakingly beautiful, the sincerity in his voice when he continued enough to undo Erik all over again. “You are my best friend, and my soul mate, and I cannot wait to build a future together with you.”

Charles glanced down at the ring, holding it higher and grinning so hopefully up at Erik that his heart ached. “Erik Magnus Lehnsherr, will you do me the honour of being my husband?”

Yes,” Erik answered with absolute conviction, right before he captured Charles’ face and kissed him with all that he had, desperately hoping that each urgent press of lips was able to send even an iota of how much he felt for Charles through to him. When they broke the kiss, Erik saw that Charles was barely keeping it together himself, and he used his thumbs to gently wipe at Charles’ damp cheeks as best he could. “You really shouldn't have to ask, Charles,” he added dotingly.

Charles laughed, removing the ring and setting its case aside. “But I wanted to,” he said, and Erik held out the fingers of his left hand as Charles positioned the brilliant, emerald-cut diamond ring in front of Erik’s fourth finger.

“Wait,” Erik said when he noticed there was an inscription on the inside of the ring, wrapping his fingers around the back of Charles’ hand to pull it closer. Erik sucked in a breath when the engraving caught the light, ‘Seelenfreund’ carved in what was unmistakably Charles’ rounded, broad handwriting along the inner circumference. Soul mate.

Erik keenly remembered that particular German interview they had done for ‘First Class’ last year, where he had candidly agreed with their interviewer that Charles was the number one priority in his life. Conversing in German must have caused him to let his guard down, because he honestly hadn’t given it much thought when he went on to call Charles his seelenfreund, adding that he would do anything within his power for them not to be apart. To him it had simply been stating a fact, no different from saying that the grass was green or Charles’ eyes were a deeper shade of blue than any ocean he had ever seen. Much to his mortification, their interviewer had started clapping like a trained seal and Charles had asked Erik what was going on, seemingly oblivious. Yet, despite having to of course endure Mama gleefully teasing him the next morning, saying she never knew her punim was such a romantic, Erik hadn't regretted his accidental declaration in the slightest. It was the truth, after all.

“I didn’t know you caught that,” Erik said affectionately as he met Charles' gaze. It also astounded him how quickly Charles had picked up German, and with hardly any help from him.

Charles winked and leaned in to kiss his cheek happily. “I hear everything, darling. But please don’t let me be what's stopping you from taking on roles you’re passionate about. You should do what's important to you,” he replied, taking Erik’s left hand in his and slipping the engagement ring up to the first knuckle of Erik’s ring finger. Charles looked up at him with such tenderness in his eyes, sliding the ring home as he quietly said, “And I will always be there.”

The abrupt surge of utter love he felt for Charles consumed him, like wildfire, burning away the man he used to be and transforming him into someone with a heart that was better, softer, and strong as tempered steel. Erik lovingly framed Charles’ face with his hands, the cool platinum band around his finger a distinct contrast to Charles’ heated flesh, the letters that were forever etched into the metal like a brand on his skin. “I love you,” Erik whispered against Charles’ slightly parted lips, just before he tipped his head down and kissed them, trading gentle licks and light nips until Charles was pliant and sighing in his arms.

Erik smiled with satisfaction upon seeing how swollen Charles’ lips were after he pulled away, his pupils blown wide as they locked with Erik’s. Charles was grinning as he said, “I don’t know about you, but my knees would be very grateful if we got off the floor.”

Erik chuckled, getting to his feet and helping Charles up. He wrapped his arms around Charles and quietly scanned his eyes over the area, taking the time to appreciate the beautiful lights and the sprawling stretch of calla lilies. “I still think this was all very unnecessary,” he commented, his tone light and teasing.

“Well, you’ll be happy to hear that this originally featured skywriting, which I got Raven to cancel. I realised it might have been a bit much,” Charles said, giving Erik a quick squeeze with his arms.

Erik raised an incredulous eyebrow. “Just a bit?” he asked, as Charles buried his face in Erik’s chest and laughed.

“I blame the champagne!” Charles groaned in embarrassment, the sound muffled by the turtleneck. Erik stifled a laugh. Charles was blushing furiously when he stepped back, holding out a hand as he said, “May I remedy this with a dance?”

“You may,” Erik replied, highly amused, taking the proffered hand and resting his other palm on the small of Charles’ back. Charles placed his opposite hand on Erik’s shoulder, warm and comforting.

Erik followed smoothly when Charles took a small step backwards, holding him near as they swayed in time to the gentle rhythm of the string music. The movements of the box step came naturally to Erik now, his feet tracing out the patterns from memory, ball to heel. Slow and intimate, just the two of them dancing under the stars. Erik wasn't sure who was leading after a while, but it really didn't matter. Together, then.

“I’ve been looking forward to working on our wedding dance,” Charles said, running his thumb along the fabric above Erik’s clavicle. “I could ask Mother to recommend us a good instructor. We never really managed to practice much dancing, did we? Even though I promised to teach you.”

“That's because we always end up dirty dancing,” Erik said, curling a corner of his lips. An idea struck him and he grinned. “I could Swayze you for the wedding.”

“Erik, don't be ridiculous!” Charles shot back, chortling. “You're not lifting me like Jennifer Grey. No, absolutely not.”

“We could give it a go tomorrow, the river is right there,” Erik poked his head in the general direction of the satellite in the distance, no longer able to keep the laughter from his voice.

No—” Charles' further protests were aborted when Erik spun him without warning, and he cried a yelp of surprise instead, giggling and breathless as Erik pulled him back in. Erik turned them such that Charles’ back was pressed against his chest, releasing his fingers so he could fold his arms over Charles’ waist as Charles leaned into him, wrists crossed where his hands curled loosely beneath Erik’s. Charles tossed his head back to kiss the line of Erik’s jaw, smiling giddily each time he pressed his lips to Erik’s skin. Erik held him while he calmed down, and chuckled as small puffs of humid breath tickled his neck.

He sensed Charles’ ring under the fingers of his left hand, spreading them so he could lace their fingers together. Their metal bands clinked pleasantly as they settled side by side. “You’re right,” Erik said after a while, letting his gaze fall on the satellite in the distance, its signal lights twinkling in the pitch dark. Charles hummed enquiringly, and Erik kissed the top of his head, giving his hand a fond squeeze. “It feels different, having a ring.”

“And me, Erik. You have me,” Charles whispered.

Erik tipped his head down to capture Charles’ plush lips, ever soft and yielding. Another kiss, to the two freckles on the bridge of Charles’ nose, lingering as he inhaled the scent of his skin. He had known, right from the start, that Charles smelled like home.

He tightened his hold on Charles’ left hand, smiling when Charles’ fingers curled firmly around his in response. The ring was proof. A testament that he had given himself to somebody, that someone out there loved him. That Charles loved him, and wanted him to stay. Always.


Notes:
1. The title of this chapter is a quote from 'The Notebook'.
2. Charles having a pastry outside Harry Winston is an homage to the opening scene of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’.
3. Michael Fassbender played Carl Jung in ‘A Dangerous Method’.
4. For more information on the Defence of Marriage Act, immigration reform, and the HRC gala dinner held on March 23, 2013.
5. Charles and his 5 blue cardigans, we shit you not.
6. The original gif for the video playing in the screencap of the HRC website is from this adorable photoset. Do check it out if you haven’t already seen the interview!
7. Terrence Malick has directed both Michael Fassbender and Jessica Chastain.
8. Another cameo by Peter Parker!
9. The original ‘Strangers on a Train’ photo shoot from the 2008 Vanity Fair Hollywood Issue.
10. Go here to watch the rest of Erik’s Michael’s behind-the-scenes video from his British GQ photo shoot.
11. ETA: And now there's Charles James and Jessica's photo shoot as well.
12. Photos of Ellen and Portia’s anniversary skywriting.
13. From Emma’s stash of blackmail material, video of Shaw dancing in a warehouse. Or: Kevin Bacon in ‘Footloose’.
14. ‘All the Lonely People’ is a reference to the upcoming two-part movie, ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby’, starring James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain.
15. We swear Erik's proposal scene was written before Sirs Ian and Patrick showed up at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on 27 April, 2013.
16. Honestly, this looks like a date.
17. “Once the Queen is dead, the King is useless. Maybe he's too depressed to fight. He really loved her, you know.” is a quote from ‘Penelope’.
18. Charles' engagement ring is based on the Chopard blue diamond ring.
19. The line about prizes in Cracker Jack boxes is another nod to ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’.
20. The Heart of the Ocean is a fictional blue diamond worn by Rose in 'Titanic'.
21. If you want to say hello to Erik and Charles at the San Francisco Pride, it's being held from 29 – 30 June.
22. Taking bets that this photo that Bryan Singer tweeted from the set of 'Days of Future Past' is related to the Watergate scandal.
23. Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi in 'Vicious'.
24. ‘Can't Help Falling in Love’ by Elvis Presley was released in 1962.
25. Calla lilies in their backyard.
26. In case you've forgotten how Cerebro the gazebo looks like.
27. Erik's engagement ring is an actual ring by Harry Winston.
28. Charles' proposal speech contains quotes from the original X-Men trilogy movies. “We’re like bookends of the same soul.” is from Excalibur.
29. If you want to read more about Utopia.
30. Michael Xavier is one of Erik's aliases, given to him by Charles when Erik took over the school.
31. Erik is most certainly going to drag Charles to the river. Expectation vs. Reality.
32. Charles was right. DOMA was ruled unconstitutional and Proposition 8 was dismissed on standing today.

If you're interested, there is a higher resolution version of the engagement photo on Tumblr. A masterpost for all the media created for Actorsverse can be found here.

Chapter Text

* * * * *

The Fairmont was Charles’ favourite hotel in San Francisco, and they were usually more than happy to reserve the penthouse suite for him whenever he happened to be in town. Although Charles had worried that the hotel would be exceptionally full due to the influx of visitors attending Pride, his fears turned out to be unfounded when the general manager, who was friendly with him, pulled strings to get them his usual suite. Located on the top floor of the Fairmont, the king suite had wall-to-wall windows that boasted beautiful views of Nob Hill and, farther out, the vast blueness of San Francisco Bay that Charles felt matched Erik’s eyes in a certain light.

They had just gotten in last night from Washington D.C. as they had wanted to be present for the Supreme Court’s ruling on DOMA and Proposition 8 the day before. As a result, their town car had been caught in the expectedly heavy traffic of Pride Week, and Charles had sensed that the slow crawl up and down the trademark hilly streets of San Francisco had been a true test of Erik’s patience. Despite the bad journey from the airport, Erik’s mood had visibly improved at the sight of City Hall illuminated in rainbow colours in honour of Pride Week and the fall of Proposition 8 in California, and Charles had never felt more glad that he was finally out and proud.

Remy was in the suite with them this morning, frowning over Erik’s schedule while Erik himself was brushing his teeth in the bathroom. Instead of his usual morning tea, Charles was working on mixing mimosas for their brunch while waiting for room service to bring up their food. The wait was considerably longer than usual, which was understandable given that the hotel kitchen was preparing brunch for five people instead of only Charles and Erik. Humming as he measured out the orange juice, Charles smiled when he heard Erik’s heavy footsteps thumping out of the bathroom, making a beeline for Charles before there was a soft, gentle kiss on the nape of his neck. “Need any help?” a shirtless Erik murmured, smelling strongly of mint.

“I’m good, thank you,” Charles replied, trying not to laugh when he noticed Remy was gawking at them.

“Are you two like this every morning?” Remy gestured between the two of them with his pen before twirling it expertly around his fingers. “Remy is going to be sick.”

“Jealousy does not become you, Remy,” Erik replied airily as he sauntered away, picking out a black Ralph Lauren polo tee from their shared wardrobe and throwing it on. Charles couldn’t help stealing a glance his way, admiring the fit of the polo shirt on Erik’s long, lean body. It was almost unfair, how Erik made clothes look so sinfully good, and if Remy weren’t here, Charles might have been tempted to abandon the mimosas and work the polo tee off Erik again.

Remy only chuckled as he flipped through the pages of Erik’s schedule. “Me, jealous? Non, you are truly mistaken. Give me my freedom any day.”

“Just because you are in love doesn’t mean you aren’t free,” Charles corrected him, picking up the champagne and generously topping off the orange juice with it. “I spend time with whoever I want, and so does Erik. Erik knows my friends, I know Erik’s friends.”

Remy affected a look of astonishment. “Erik has friends?”

“Idiot,” Erik muttered before aiming his rolled-up San Francisco Chronicle at Remy’s head, which the latter gracefully ducked with a grin as Charles laughed. “You’re lucky Charles likes you, moron.”

Now Remy was wearing a martyred, woe-is-me expression that made Erik roll his eyes. “I had hoped getting engaged would mean Erik being in a better mood, but alas! Poor Remy still gets insulted at least five times before breakfast. There is no love for Remy LeBeau.”

“Why do you keep referring to yourself in the third person? It’s annoying.” But the absent way Erik said it took the heat out of his words, and besides, Remy of all people should have known that Erik’s bark was far worse than his bite. When it came down to it, Charles knew that Erik was ultimately a kind-hearted man, albeit in a gruff, stoic way. And Remy, being a smart person, would never have agreed to stay and work for Erik so long if he had sensed that there was any real malice in their daily exchange of insults and good-natured abuse.

“It is not fair,” Remy pretended to complain. “Darwin isn’t tortured on a daily basis the way I am. Perhaps I should quit and work for Charles instead.”

“If Darwin decides he’s enjoying backpacking around Southeast Asia with Alex too much and doesn’t want to come home, there might be a position open,” Charles said, chuckling at the don’t-encourage-Remy pleading look Erik was giving him behind his paper. "I saw their photos at Halong Bay on Facebook, and I must say I can see why Darwin loves travelling so much."

“Speaking of which, I forgot to ask Darwin to buy me back some Vietnamese coffee,” Erik said with a yawn. “Liebling, do you know if they’re still in the country?”

“Let me check.” Charles picked up his phone and scrolled through his Facebook feed. “No updates from Darwin, but Alex just checked in at the Bến Thành market in Ho Chi Minh City so they’re both still in Vietnam.”

“Thanks, I’ll send them a message,” Erik said, fishing out his own phone.

“Well, I have some errands to run so I shall head off first before Erik decides to insult me further,” Remy announced with a grin, dragging his chair backwards to get to his feet.

“No, wait. You should stay for breakfast.” Charles gestured alluringly towards the row of mimosas he had prepared as Erik made a noise of agreement, his thumb tapping on his phone.

Remy blinked at the glasses, probably noticing them for the first time. “Are we having company?”

“Raven is coming over with our publicist, who wants to pass us a list of guidelines of what not to say at Pride this weekend,” Erik informed him. “Well, technically she’s Charles’ publicist, but both Emma and Raven insisted that it’s time I got one back on the payroll. She and Raven will be here any minute.”

Remy perked up. “Ah, a mademoiselle. Remy will always wait for the ladies.”

As if on cue, there was the sound of a key card being swiped and the door to the suite opened. Raven strutted in, Marie following close behind her. “Remy,” Charles began, “I’d like you to meet--”

You!” Marie exclaimed loudly, and Charles was surprised by the surge of anger, tempered a small degree by pure astonishment, that radiated off her.

For some unknown reason, Remy bowed with a flourish and laughed. “You miss me?” he asked, grinning like he’d just been dealt a royal flush.

Miss you? What in tarnation! Are you completely insane?” Marie replied, her Southern accent becoming thicker the more emotional she got. She turned to Raven. “This is the swamp rat that put his paws on my butt at the Vanity Fair party.”

“Remy, that was you? Jesus, I should have guessed as much,” Raven said, rolling her eyes. “Nobody else would have been dumb enough to start a conversation with…what was it again, Marie?” Raven paused, absently twirling her hand before saying, in a startlingly accurate imitation of Remy’s voice, “The most beautiful woman in town, alone on Oscar night?”

Beside Charles, Erik snorted loudly. “Marie, please tell me you’re the one who pepper-sprayed Remy that night. Watching tears streaming from this moron’s blood red eyes almost beat winning the Academy Award as the highlight of the awards season for me.”

“Hell yeah,” Marie answered, tossing her hair proudly before glaring daggers at a sheepish Remy.

Charles picked up two glasses of mimosa and cleared his throat awkwardly. It seemed like it was up to him to be the peacemaker. “Marie, my dear. I do apologise on behalf of Remy,” he said, walking over to Marie to hand her a champagne flute.

“Thank you, sugar,” Marie said. Charles gawped as she knocked back the entire glass.

Charles ran a hand through his hair and continued, “Remy is that way with any female on two legs, I don’t think he meant any harm.” He turned to look at Remy meaningfully. “Am I correct, Remy?”

Non,” Remy said decidedly. “Remy still thinks she is the most belle fille he has ever seen.”

There was an unmistakable flush on Marie’s cheeks, and Charles didn’t think it could be blamed entirely on the alcohol. Marie narrowed her eyes despite this, fixing her glare on Remy. “Your pretty French words might have worked on plenty of girls, but I ain’t one of them,” she said. With that, she turned her attention back to Charles and placed the file she was holding on the table. “Here are the guidelines that I drafted up for the speech. I think you’ll be fine,” she said, then turned and pointed at Erik, “It’s Erik over there that I’m worried about.”

Erik raised his hands and ducked his head in mock surrender, still looking very amused by the whole Remy situation. Charles caught his eye and Erik twitched his brows teasingly, and Charles knew in an instant that Erik was just holding his tongue until Marie was gone. He had to bite his lip in an effort not to laugh.

“Just try not to piss off another director, aah-ite? You're lucky Emma finally decided to shack up with Shaw,” Marie said, shooting Erik a knowing wink. Charles hid his smile when Erik blanched, remembering how, upon receiving the news from Emma, Erik had spent the entire rest of the day in the grumps, bemoaning that his longtime agent was now sleeping with the enemy.

“And I'm outta here. I don’t think I can stand being in the same room as him for another minute,” Marie announced, gesturing to Remy, who of course took it as a sign to come over with a noticeable swagger in his step, single-minded to a fault in his pursuit. Charles just couldn’t shake the feeling that he was watching a train wreck in slow motion.

“Let's have a kiss before you go, huh?” Remy asked, smiling in a terribly charming manner.

The poor bloke was done for.

An indignant Marie’s hands balled up into fists. “You wanna end up in a coma?”

“Don't let him get to you, Marie,” Erik said, tone cool and soothing. He made his way to Charles, draping an arm over Charles’ shoulders and leaning comfortably against his side. “Remy hasn’t figured out that you’re way out of his league.”

Charles tilted his head up and spoke softly to Erik. “Darling, Remy really likes her. Play fair.”

“What was that?” Marie asked suspiciously.

Erik looked back up and flashed the smile he reserved for the red carpet; the one that always told him Erik was just playing it up for the cameras. “Charles said he loves what you’ve done with your hair.”

Charles pinched Erik’s bottom surreptitiously. There would be words later.

“Oh,” Marie said, looking somewhat unconvinced. She tossed her hair, the fresh platinum blonde roots of her reverse ombré catching the light on the top of her head and contrasting with the deep chocolate tones of her natural hair colour at the ends. “Thanks. Raven brought me to her colourist.”

Charles nodded fervently. “Yes, it’s very lovely. I could never pull off ombré hair. Unless I grew my hair out…perhaps attempt a little bit of the hippie look. I believe I have Jared Leto’s number somewhere on my phone,” Charles said, trying his best to improvise.

“Well, Hobo is in this season,” Raven said, finally breaking her silence. Charles could only imagine what she was going to say once Marie was out of earshot. “Maybe you should also grow a beard.”

“No,” Erik shot back immediately, his mouth pressed in a stubborn line.

The room chuckled at Erik’s expense, while Charles briefly entertained the thought of Erik's mouth - and other more delicate areas - covered in beard burn. Pretty, but nothing he couldn’t also come by through a little rough kissing. Marie took the opportunity to finally wave them all goodbye before she exited the suite, leaving a slightly put-upon Remy in her wake.

Erik and Raven doubled over laughing the moment the door closed shut, the both of them grinning and close to tears, and it had never felt more apparent to Charles who the Mean Girls of their group were. Erik slid a glass of the cocktail across the counter to Raven after he had composed himself, holding his drink up to her in a silent toast before clinking his glass against Charles’ and taking a sip. Charles drank as well, the bubbles still fizzing on the back of his tongue when Erik returned his attention to Remy. “She must be the first woman I’ve seen to turn you down,” Erik said with satisfaction. “Maybe Monsieur LeBeau is not as good as he thinks he is. I bet you that Marie will never give you the time of day.”

Remy shook his head and crossed his arms. “Non, I will not gamble on my love life.”

Erik took a long pull on his mimosa. “That’s a shame. I was going to wager two months of paid vacation leave that you wouldn’t be able to get Marie to fall for your charms.”

At that, Remy reached for the last glass of mimosa and clinked it against the side of Erik’s almost empty drink. “Fuck you, I accept. Remy will do it just to not look at your face every morning.”

“Careful, Charles will get jealous,” Raven teased as she hopped onto the counter. “And that was the quickest turnaround I’ve ever seen.”

Remy smirked and put on his fedora, taking a few steps towards the door before looking back. “Every man has a price to charge, and a price to pay. And for two abuse-free months, I will play just to prove Erik wrong.”

“By the way, I think Marie likes you,” Raven called out to Remy as he walked through the door. “She pepper-sprayed you. She uses her taser on the real Hollywood creeps. Zaps the life right out of them.”

“I know.” Remy glanced back and winked. He gave them a two-finger salute as he sauntered out into the corridor. “Remy don’t never go where he’s not invited.”

Charles turned on Erik the instant the door to their suite closed. “Erik,” he said sternly.

“Yes, Liebling?” Erik replied, affecting a look of pure innocence.

Charles swore he wouldn’t fold that easily. “Weren’t you already going to give Remy two months off when we go on our honeymoon?” Charles said, making sure to keep the disapproval in his voice.

“Yes, I was,” Erik said, grinning seductively. He hooked a finger into the waist of Charles’ pants and drew him in, and Charles had to place a hand on Erik’s chest to keep him at bay.

Charles sighed, shoving lightly at Erik. “I’m not sure whether you’re the worst boss ever or just plain diabolical.”

“I prefer ‘genius intellect’,” Erik said, flashing his teeth.

“I’m marrying a megalomaniac,” Charles declared forlornly, chuckling when Erik bussed a kiss to his temple. He felt strong arms wrap around him and found himself relaxing immediately into the familiar warmth.

Let it be known that Charles Xavier was a complete pushover.

There was a knock on the door and a shout of “Room service!” from the other side. “Oh, thank fuck,” Raven said, jumping off the counter and hurrying to get the door. “Any more of that and I would have flung myself out the window.”

* * * * *

“I now declare you spouses for life,” Attorney General Kamala Harris said, her words greeted by raucous cheers that echoed throughout the rotunda. Erik tightened his grip on Charles’ hand, their fingers interlaced as, all around them, same-sex couples and allies of the LGBT community applauded while Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, two of the plaintiffs in California’s Proposition 8 case, kissed for the first time as a married couple.

Erik couldn’t help but smile.

They had finally won. He and Charles had been in Washington D.C. two days ago when the US Supreme Court had ruled DOMA as unconstitutional. They had celebrated in the streets as the crowd that had gathered outside the courthouse waved rainbow flags and the blue and yellow Equality Flag of the Human Rights Campaign, many of whom openly shedding tears at the monumental victory. The festivities around the capital had lasted well into the early hours of the morning, culminating for the two of them when Erik had pressed Charles down into the sheets, making love to him tenderly as the ecstasy he felt at the triumph for the freedom to marry buzzed in his veins.

Now he stole a glance at Charles, and was startled to catch him looking right back, eyes moist and brimming with hope. “They did it,” Charles said, barely audible above the loud shouts that continued to reverberate off the walls around them. Charles was smiling as he tiptoed up to kiss Erik on the lips, joy and a certain measure of peace radiating from him as their breaths mingled together.

This, Erik thought. Charles content and safe from any threat of persecution; this alone is worth fighting for.

We did it, Charles. All of us, together,” Erik said. It was true that they owed a great debt to the two women that stood before them on the Mayor’s balcony, but Erik was certain that the outcome of DOMA and Proposition 8 would have been very different if not for the wave of campaigns that had swept across the nation in the months that had led up to the final ruling. His one regret was that he’d ever doubted Charles on the matter. All that precious time wasted, fixating on the endless debate, when Charles had been right all along.

Charles paused for a moment, seeming to ponder Erik’s words before nodding in affirmation. “Together,” Charles echoed, grinning as they wrapped their arms around each other and turned towards the steps of the rotunda. Charles rested his head in the crook of Erik’s neck, and they watched as the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, dressed in blue ties, black waistcoats and crisp white shirts with sleeves rolled up to their elbows, took their positions on the grand staircase for the impromptu performance.

It had been Charles’ idea to come down to the County Clerk's Office at City Hall this afternoon, practically dragging Erik out the door of their room at the Fairmont to take the car down. “It’s history in the making, Erik,” Charles had said, hurrying him along while Erik dragged his feet in feigned protest. Erik had originally planned on spending the afternoon going over the schedule for Sunday and making sure they had everything in order, but all that had been immediately tossed out the window once they heard that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had lifted the stay against same-sex weddings in California. Within minutes, HRC President Chad Griffin had informed them that Perry and Stier were on their way to City Hall for their nuptials, and Charles had grabbed the spreadsheets from Erik’s hands and proceeded to usher him out so quickly that Erik could have sworn their roof was about to cave in.

The applause was deafening as Perry and Stier made their way towards the bottom of the rotunda steps. The producer of ‘I Am Harvey Milk’ then took the stage and informed the crowd gathered that the happy couple had asked them to do a song from the musical for their wedding. “We had no idea last night that their wedding would be today,” he said, earning a round of amused laughter. “And so, here to perform the new song entitled, most appropriately, ‘San Francisco’. To Kris and Sandy, and the mayor, here is the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus.”

The crowd cheered and the chorus began singing a cappella, the haunting melody enveloping City Hall in a blanket of quiet calm as their audience listened in rapt attention.

Erik was frankly quite surprised and impressed that same-sex marriage had returned to California as quickly as it had. He had thought that it would have taken weeks, if not months, before they lifted the order, bogged down by endless paperwork in a last ditch effort to delay the inevitable. The fact Harris had insisted that marriages began immediately was indeed heartening. As Erik looked around, taking in the joyous expressions on the faces of same-sex couples gathered for the occasion, he felt the unmistakable beginnings of hope take root within his chest, despite his better judgement. Charles would be proud.

He turned his attention back to the man in his arms when he felt Charles stir, and Erik chuckled when he caught Charles wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. “Are you crying?” Erik asked incredulously, softening the teasing edge of his tone by pressing a kiss to the top of Charles’ head.

“Oh, hush,” Charles said, pouting. “I get emotional at weddings, and practically everyone standing in City Hall is getting married today.” Charles motioned to the couples waiting in line outside the County Clerk’s Office to emphasize his point. “You can’t honestly be shocked that I’m a blubbering mess.”

“No, I can’t say I am,” Erik replied, giving Charles a fond squeeze when his words earned him an annoyed huff. “I’ll be sure to carry tissues with me at all times during our wedding.”

Charles nodded indignantly. “You’d better,” Charles said as he turned back to Erik, but his look of mild exasperation slipped as he blinked once, then twice, leaving behind a gentle tenderness in his eyes that shone beneath the faint shimmer of unshed tears.

Erik wondered briefly what had brought about the change, then realised that he himself was smiling. He felt the corners of his lips tug up further and, at Charles’ answering smile, had to summon every ounce of willpower he had to stop himself from dragging Charles into the queue for a marriage certificate. Family and industry obligations be damned. “I love you,” Erik murmured, as the soft tones of the harmonised chorus continued to echo through the hall.

“I love you too, you ridiculous man,” Charles said, leaning up for a kiss that tasted of hope and shared dreams, of infinite possibilities and new beginnings.

They stood and listened to the two songs that the chorus performed, and were about to make their way back when a vaguely familiar voice called out to them.

“Charles! Erik! What a pleasant surprise, seeing you two fine young lads here,” the elderly, disembodied voice said.

Erik turned towards the source and was greeted by the sight of a grinning Ian McKellen, slowly making his way over to them from the back of the room.

“Sir Ian!” Charles greeted, hurrying towards the thespian to give him a hug.

“Charles, my boy. What did I say about not calling me ‘Sir Ian’? I don’t like being separated out from the rest of the population,” Ian said as they parted from their embrace.

“I’m terribly sorry…Ian. Old habits die hard,” Charles said, turning a flattering shade of pink.

“It’s good to see you again,” Erik said as he hugged Ian as well. It was utterly surreal to remember that the last time they had been in each others’ presence was on the stage of the Dolby Theatre four months ago, when Ian had presented them with the Academy Award for Best Picture. It seemed like a lifetime had passed since then, and yet in some ways it still felt like it had been just yesterday.

Ian nodded and reached out to clasp Erik’s hand. “Yes, indeed. And congratulations on your engagement.”

“Thank you,” Erik said, twirling his ring around his finger almost like a natural reflex.

Ian turned and shook Charles’ hand next. “Congratulations, Charles.”

Charles grinned broadly in return. “Thank you very much.”

“You’re both very handsome,” Ian said matter-of-factly, and Charles laughed at the flattering non sequitur. “Charles, you remind me of someone I used to have a crush on in my youth. Erik is a very lucky man.”

Erik was in the midst of delighting at Charles’ rapidly reddening cheeks when Ian suddenly put his hands on Charles’ face and kept them there, stroking said cheeks for what Erik swore must have been at least a couple of minutes. Erik kept quiet and let Ian carry on, constantly reminding himself that Ian was a knight, and Gandalf, and really just everyone’s very affectionate grandfather. He was about to speak up when Ian caught him off-guard and stepped forward to cradle Erik’s face in his hands. “If only I had been this handsome,” Ian said, smiling impishly. “Oh, to be young again.”

“Rubbish. I’ve seen pictures of you when you were younger, and you were most definitely a looker,” Charles stated, and Ian appeared to be very charmed by Charles’ honeyed words. Erik was beginning to wonder whether he ought to feel jealous. “Oh, and speaking of the wedding...” Charles glanced at Erik and raised a questioning eyebrow, and Erik remembered the conversation they had had while going through the list of names in Westchester. He nodded in response.

“Will you marry Erik and I?” Charles asked.

“I’m a little old for a ménage à trois, but I will try my best for the two of you,” Ian said as he grinned cheekily.

Charles very nearly choked on his laughter. “No, that won't be necessary. Although I'm sure it would be magical.”

“We were thinking more...as an officiator, actually,” Erik said, still feeling quite amused. “We heard that you’ll be performing Patrick’s wedding. We’ll show you our ceremony guides, if you’ll show us yours,” Erik explained, grinning when Charles perked up at the mention of Patrick Stewart. Erik had found Charles’ collection of Star Trek memorabilia in Westchester recently, and was just waiting for an opportunity to rib him mercilessly about it.

Ian smiled as he stood between them, draping an arm over each of their shoulders. “Of course, of course,” he said, nodding kindly. “I would be honoured.”


Notes:
1. The title of this chapter is a quote from 'Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back'.
2. Remy and Marie’s interactions will mostly be based on this video compilation from ‘X-Men: The Animated Series’, which was released in the 1990’s. The video is awesome and really worth a watch.
3. Raven adopted Marie in the comics.
4. The comment about Erik and Raven being the Mean Girls of their group is based on this gifset.
5. “Fuck you, I accept.” is a quote by Taylor Kitsch’s character in ‘The Normal Heart’.
6. Erik clearly writes his own character bio and thinks he has a “genius intellect”.
7. Video of Kris Perry and Sandy Stier getting married.
8. The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus performing in City Hall on June 28, 2013.
9. Vanity Fair article where Ian McKellen says he tends to discourage people from calling him “Sir Ian”.
10. Interview in Details where James McAvoy says Ian McKellen put his hands on his face and stroked it for two and a half minutes.
11. Ian McKellen officiated Patrick Stewart’s wedding in September 2013.

Chapter Text

No matter how many times Charles had been to the Golden Gate Bridge, the mere sight of it never failed to take his breath away. It was a majestic marvel of modern engineering, the red steel bridge towers looming up towards the sky, linked by miles of cables, and Charles could never resist persuading the engineer in Erik to wax lyrical about the history and construction of the bridge. The stark contrast of the terracotta painted steel against the glittering aquamarine waves of the San Francisco Bay always made for a pretty picture. But sometimes, on cold mornings, half the bridge would be engulfed by a white, cloudy fog that could have suddenly rolled in, atypical of the Bay Area in the summer, and on those days, Charles felt that the bridge looked like something from a dreamy, fantastical mindscape.

Despite the number of times he had already visited, he couldn’t resist bringing Erik there to just take in the astonishing view of the Bay Area, of Alcatraz and Angel Island and Oakland in the distance. Erik allowed Charles to be their guide, due to his familiarity with the place, especially after having filmed a few previous rom-com scenes there. “I seem to recall you having shot something here with Anne Hathaway before,” Erik remarked as they walked.

“Yes, I did,” Charles said, wrapping his arm around Erik’s waist and giving him a tight squeeze. “It was the break-up scene, remember? And you don’t have to look quite so gleeful about it,” he added with a laugh.

There was a low rumble of laughter from Erik before he pressed his lips to Charles’ temple. “Am I that obvious?” he asked with a sigh.

“It’s all right, darling. I myself am not too fond of all your previous kissing scenes, so I understand,” Charles said teasingly, cuddling against Erik as they began making their way down to the entrance of the bridge, where throngs of tourists were frantically snapping away at the picturesque view of the Bay.

Of course, it didn’t take long for those tourists to start nudging one another and pointing their cameras at the two of them instead, amidst exclamations of “Look, that’s Charles and Erik!” Already prepared for the inevitable onslaught of public attention, Charles put on his biggest smile and happily acquiesced to all requests for selfies and autographs, releasing Erik so that he could sign and pose for pictures, too. There were many families on vacation, as well as excited Asian tourists and a group of squealing young women who kept asking Charles to pose with Erik mid-kiss so they could take pictures. “This is so going on Tumblr!” one of the girls shrieked as she waved her camera in the air, and Charles couldn’t help exchanging an amused glance with Erik, who seemed to be enjoying the commotion, judging from his wide grin.

However, the most memorable fans they met were this gay couple from Montreal, who were vacationing with their young adopted daughter. Charles instantly fell in love with the little girl who kept hiding behind one of her fathers’ legs. “Hello, my darling! How old are you?” he asked, bending down so they were at the same eye level.

“Five and three-quarters,” she answered shyly, but she allowed Charles to ruffle her dark hair.

“Getting to welcome Joanne into our family was the best day of our lives,” one of her fathers, Jean-Paul, told Charles and Erik. “Which is why we wanted to come down this weekend, so we could celebrate that other couples like us can now also get married and start a family.”

“It was great when you guys came out,” Kyle, his partner, said as he picked up their daughter. “The LGBT community could always use more role models like you guys, Ellen, and Neil Patrick Harris. At least now, young gay men and women would have someone to look up to.”

Touched, Charles found himself beaming as Erik stepped forward with an outstretched hand. “It means a lot to us when we meet families like yours,” Erik said as he shook hands with Jean-Paul and Kyle, and they said their goodbyes before Charles and Erik continued on their walk along the bridge. Although the requests for autographs and photos had somewhat dwindled to a few, Charles was all too aware of the constant, curious stares following his and Erik’s every move.

Erik must have noticed, too. “I guess I should get used to this whenever we go out to a crowded public attraction,” he said with a sigh. “Maybe I should wear a mask. Or even a giant papier-mâché head, like the ones we saw in Chinatown.”

Laughing, Charles reached for Erik’s hand and twined their fingers together. “No need for that, darling,” Charles said, chuckling as Erik gave him a playful nudge before guiding him to a quieter section of the bridge, where they could stand and take in the forbidding view of Alcatraz in the distance. Charles let out a quiet sigh of contentment as Erik moved to stand behind him, his chest pressed against Charles’ back and sheltering him from the wind.

“Comfortable, Liebling?” Erik murmured against the shell of his ear.

“Never been better.” And it was the truth. Here Charles was, standing on one of the most beautiful man-made structures in the world, facing a postcard-perfect view and in the arms of the love of his life. He glanced down at where Erik’s left hand was resting on top of his on the railing, their engagement rings glinting in the sun.

“Me, too. The weather has been kind today,” Erik said, and Charles could feel the gentle weight of Erik’s chin resting on his shoulder. They stood in companionable silence for a while, content to just take in the view from the bridge. Charles’ gaze fell on a large, two-tier ferry chugging towards the direction of Alcatraz, filled with tourists probably en route to their tours of the island.

He turned his head sideways, nudging Erik. “Darling, have you ever been to Alcatraz?”

Erik shook his head thoughtfully. “Not yet. When I was in San Francisco a few years ago to shoot some action scenes in Chinatown, the crew wanted to go on one of our days off. But we were just too busy, I guess.”

There was something in Erik’s tone that seemed a little off, and Charles lifted a hand to rake it backwards through Erik’s windblown hair. “I’m guessing you didn’t want to go anyway?” he ventured, giving Erik a secretive sideways smile.

A huff of surprised laughter from Erik warmed his ear. “You know me too well, Liebling.” Erik’s gaze remained fixed on Alcatraz, the frown line between his eyebrows deepening. “I’ve never really liked prisons.”

Fully turning around so that he could properly face Erik, Charles palmed the sides of his face, feeling the chill on Erik’s cheeks from the wind. “Well, that won’t do,” he said with a mock serious sigh. “You’re too pretty to go to prison.”

Erik bent his head in laughter, resting the side of it against Charles’. “I seem to recall someone telling you the exact same thing, once upon a time in Paris.”

“Then it’s settled,” Charles said cheerfully. “Neither of us would let the other go to jail, ever.”

“Oh?” Erik lifted an eyebrow dangerously at him, and Charles was not above admitting that an occasional glimpse of the menacing side of Erik was quite the aphrodisiac. “So if I were to land in jail for, say, indecent exposure, you’d break me out?”

“Of course, darling.” Charles managed a kiss amidst their uncontainable chuckles. “I’ll bring an entire army if I need to.”

“Good to know you’re so concerned about prisoner welfare,” Erik chortled, before he turned slightly so that he could bury his nose in Charles’ hair.

“Everyone deserves a second chance,” Charles said softly. “Ex-offenders can also contribute to society. And who are we to judge them?”

He felt Erik pulling away just then, and whatever had been on the tip of Charles’ tongue died when he saw the soft, considering look Erik was giving him. He was seeing this look of Erik’s more and more recently, especially when he spoke of his causes and desires to contribute more to society, and it was hard to guess whatever Erik was thinking. But if Charles were forced to, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that Erik’s expression seemed to be one of the realisation of an epiphany, an awakening of ideas that hadn’t occurred to him before. And Charles liked to think that he and Erik were that to each other, a soundboard to discuss ideals that were important to each of them, along with a healthy dose of mutual respect.

Charles’ rush of thoughts were halted by a soft kiss from Erik to his forehead. Erik pulled away and gazed at him fondly before speaking, "I knew you'd say that. It's just like you, always wanting to build bridges."

Feeling the faint heat of a blush from Erik’s praise, Charles laughed it off and kissed both of Erik’s hands. “Speaking of bridges, let’s cross this one so we can get to Sausalito and have lunch at some quaint café overlooking the ocean.”

“After you.” Erik pretended to take a bow while gesturing for Charles to lead the way, both of them dissolving into laughter before Charles scooped up Erik’s hand again with a tight squeeze.

* * * * *

The Castro was teeming with people swarming the streets and clubs for Pink Saturday, smiling and laughing and generally high from the happy atmosphere saturating San Francisco. Erik felt drunk with it, clasping Charles’ hand tightly as they exchanged congratulations with complete strangers, like that couple bearing a ‘JUST MARRIED’ sash, beaming like the sun. Erik had watched them enviously as Charles congratulated them, remembering his urge the day before in City Hall to haul Charles towards the line for a marriage licence. No matter, Erik told himself, they were holding out for having family and friends with them for a special occasion, and that meant the world to Erik as well.

At some point, they stumbled into a dark club with flashing blue and yellow lights, and Erik snorted with laughter when he spotted the gaudy backdrop which proclaimed the name of the event they had unknowingly gate-crashed. “Darling, did you see that? ‘Swallow Your Pride 2’,” Charles read aloud with a laugh, cheeks flushed with alcohol. “What an appropriate name, don’t you think?”

Erik smirked as he planted a kiss on Charles’ heated cheeks. “Don't make me think about swallowing when we’re in public, because I can’t promise that I’ll behave.”

“What makes you think I want you to?” Charles replied with an equally broad grin, and not for the first time, Erik fought down the urge to drag Charles to a bathroom somewhere and show him the benefits of bad behaviour. Instead, he followed Charles further into the club, where they both ended up at the bar, surrounded by several other party-goers who were also clamouring for the attention of the harassed bartenders. Erik bracketed his arms on either side of Charles, so that he would be protected from the surge of people, and debated whether or not to just toss Charles over his shoulder and make a run for the VIP section.

Charles turned in his arms and leaned in so that Erik could hear him over the loud club music, his hand rubbing Erik’s back affectionately. “Is there anything you want in particular, love?” Charles asked.

“Besides thoroughly taking advantage of you?” Erik teased, earning himself a fond chuckle from Charles.

“Well, I’m buying the drinks, so I believe if anyone’s being waylaid tonight, it’s you.” Charles paused. “With ‘laid’ being the operative word here, of course,” he added, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.

Erik’s loud chortle was drowned out by the thrumming bass of yet another summer anthem that lacked any discernible lyrics. He shook his head at Charles’ astonishingly terrible come-ons, which only seemed to get exponentially worse when alcohol was involved.

Charles raised two fingers in the air and a bartender manifested before them immediately, like witchcraft. “Champagne, vodka, Red Bull. Two glasses, if you will,” Charles said, and handed the young man a credit card to start their tab. “Thank you very much, my good chap.”

They watched as their bartender prepared their drinks expertly, mixing the Red Bull with Belvedere before topping the glasses off with Moët. Erik clinked his glass against Charles’ when their drinks arrived. “Cheers, Liebling,” Erik said, holding his gaze.

“Chin-chin!” Charles replied happily and took a large sip while Erik did the same. The cocktail was easy to drink, and the sweetness of the Red Bull helped dull the burn of the vodka. Charles raised his eyebrows as he swallowed, then tilted his glass and observed as what remained of the effervescent froth fizzled into the golden liquid. “Fire burn, and caldron bubble,” Charles recited with giggling amusement.

Erik wrapped an arm around Charles’ shoulders, grinning all the while. They had watched a public performance of ‘Macbeth’ for ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ before dinner, and had spent much of the meal afterwards, in between a game of footsie under the table, insisting that the other would make an excellent lead for The Scottish Play. “I am truly sorry, Charles, but I am fresh out of eye of newt and toe of frog at the moment.”

“Lips of fiancé will have to do,” Charles joked, setting his glass aside to steal a quick kiss.

In usual fashion, their drinks were gone in no time, but the more than competent bartender kept the drinks coming while Erik enjoyed the atmosphere of the club with Charles, occasionally chatting with starstruck fans approaching them at the bar. It didn’t take long for Erik to realise that their chambulls were strong, the buzz hitting him almost immediately and making him feel lightheaded. He tried to keep up with Charles, who seemed practically addicted, downing glass after glass like they were liquid cocaine. Erik had absolutely no complaints about an increasingly tipsy Charles wrapping his arms around Erik’s neck, bobbing to the music and giggling loudly at Erik’s whispered jokes about the patrons around them.

“This is brill, isn’t it?” Charles said as he tiptoed up to kiss the corner of Erik’s mouth. Erik chuckled when Charles misjudged the distance, smushing his nose in Erik’s cheek. “We’ll show Raven yet. Calling us two old farts who only drink Scotch and play chess all--”

The loud blaring of a horn in the club cut him off, and Erik bent over the bar top laughing when Charles flailed his arms and ducked his head. The strobe lights began flashing in the colours of the rainbow flag as pink metallic confetti and inflatable flamingos rained down from the ceiling. The revellers around them cried out in cheers, and Charles laughed as he saved their drinks from the squares of falling confetti while Erik reached out and caught them a blow-up flamingo each.

“For you,” Erik said. He held up the two bright pink flamingos, letting Charles pick his prize.

“Thank you, darling,” Charles said as he selected the smaller of the two. “I do love tallll, exotic birds,” Charles added, his speech slurred, and winked cheekily.

Erik could feel his cheeks heating up and struggled against hiding his face behind his hands in embarrassment. “Charles, I beg of you. Stop talking.” He used his flamingo to peck mercilessly at the side of Charles’ head in retaliation, the both of them stumbling about as they broke into a fit of drunken giggles. Erik pulled Charles close, grinning when he saw that Charles had pretty much laughed himself to tears and was fast becoming as pink as the poor bird in his hands.

“Oh, it seems we have an audience!” Charles exclaimed, perking up in Erik's arms. “Hello, friends!” he greeted, waving his little flamingo about happily.

Erik turned his attention back to the club and found that they indeed had a small crowd gathered around them, many of whom with their cell phones out, presumably filming the two of them. Erik knew objectively that he probably would have minded on a regular day, but these were their people, and he and Charles were in a fantastic mood, so Erik found he was simply too drunk to care. He tucked his flamingo under his arm, put on his biggest grin, and struck a few poses with Charles. The flashes went off instantly.

“Can my boyfriend have a picture with the two of you?” a shirtless young man asked, his chest covered in green body paint and glitter. “This is our first trip together. It was Billy’s idea to come here.” He gestured to another youth wearing what appeared to be a red cape over black spandex, and it amazed Erik that they were walking around dressed presumably as Thor and The Hulk when it wasn’t even Comic-Con. Kids these days.

“Teddy’s always wanted to go on a globe-trotting quest,” Billy said, stepping forward to hold Teddy’s hand.

Erik knew that he needn’t even respond because, sure enough, Charles agreed immediately, motioning for both Billy and Teddy to come over. Teddy handed his phone to a fellow clubber while Billy sidled up to Erik, and Teddy himself then quickly made his way to stand next to Charles. They took a couple of pictures together and the young couple thanked them profusely when they were done.

“There is no shame in being open about who you are with. Never let anyone tell you different,” Erik said as he shook Billy’s hand before Billy and Teddy disappeared back into the sea of bodies. Erik found himself obliging to pictures with a few more fans, hoping the whole time that he didn’t look intoxicated enough in them to end up on one of BuzzFeed's stupid lists. He waved off the rest of the crowd and dragged Charles back to their waiting drinks, signalling to the bartender to bring them another round.

Charles handed Erik his champagne flute, and Erik didn’t miss the bleary, unfocused look about him when Charles leaned heavily against his chest. “Drink up, darling,” Charles said as he emptied his glass, smiling lopsidedly. “You’re rather behind tonight.”

“I think you’re the one that’s had too much,” Erik said once he’d finished the remainder of his cocktail. He frowned as their new round of chambulls arrived, reaching out to grab both glasses before Charles managed to get his hands on another drink. “I’m going to cut you off now. You’ll thank me later,” Erik said, earning himself an adorable pout from his lush of a fiancé. He prided himself on the fact that a lesser man would have given in to Charles’ pleading blue eyes.

Erik chugged the drink that was meant to be Charles’, and was halfway through his own glass when Charles started tapping his fingers excitedly on Erik’s bicep at the familiar opening beats of that Daft Punk single. “I love this song!” Charles shouted over the music, grinning and carefree as he started on a highly enthusiastic shoulder shimmy.

A fond laugh escaped Erik's lips as he rocked his pelvis in time with Charles, feeling loose-limbed thanks to his lack of sobriety, the two of them moving together to the four-on-the-floor disco rhythm so reminiscent of tunes from the Seventies. “Care to hit the floor?” Erik asked, motioning to the crowded area in front of the DJ booth with a tilt of his head. Getting away from the bar before both of them got hospitalised for alcohol poisoning was probably wise.

Charles’ eyes lit up instantly. “I thought you’d never ask!” he replied, wrapping his arms around Erik’s waist and tugging him in the general direction of the dance floor. Erik stalled while he handed his suit jacket and their flamingos to the bartender and struggled to take one last sip of his drink. He passed what was left of it to Charles, who downed it thirstily. “We're up all night to get lucky!” Charles half sang, half shouted along with the chorus as he put the glass down and led Erik away from the bar, the two of them grinning as they stumbled their way through the masses on the dance floor.

The alcohol was finally hitting Erik hard now that he was moving around, the club spinning as he followed Charles towards a spot on the floor with a little more breathing room. All Erik could manage was to focus on Charles, who was beautiful, and flushed, and every ounce of him wanted Charles so desperately that Erik felt like he was about to come undone. Erik ran his hands up Charles’ chest and grabbed his face with both hands, pressing their lips firmly together. He bit on Charles’ soft lower lip, angling Charles’ head back when that earned him a sharp gasp. Sliding his tongue between Charles’ parted lips, he chased after the taste of the cocktail as he took his time to explore Charles’ mouth, hot and wet and damnably delicious. Erik felt fingers grabbing at his hair the same time as Charles began sucking on his tongue, and that was enough for him to lose all semblance of control. Lust and caffeine-fuelled alcohol pumped through his veins, and Erik felt his cock harden, his entire body fast being overcome by a sweet madness.

Erik lost track of how long they spent on the dance floor, alternating between frantic kisses and shaking their bodies to the pounding music as their hands roamed up and down each other's torsos, warm flesh pliant and willing. He was vaguely aware of Charles helping him pull off his tie at some point and pocketing it, Charles’ deft fingers undoing several of his shirt buttons to the beat of an Icona Pop song. They ground their crotches together now and then, the friction barely enough to take the edge off, their soft moans devoured by hungry kisses.

They lost themselves in the music and each other, and Erik felt himself sobering up eventually, slowly gaining some clarity amidst the flickering lasers and relentless smoke machines. There was a slight lull in the energy of the dance floor, the DJ switching from dance hits to tech house music, and Erik took a moment to glance away from blue, come-hither eyes to survey the rest of the floor.

It was tempting to give in to the illusion of privacy, to pretend that only he and Charles inhabited this little corner of the club, but that illusion was quickly shattered when Erik spotted someone familiar. He groaned into Charles’ hair.

“What’s wrong, darling?” Charles raised his head to follow Erik’s dismayed gaze, but he brightened up when he spotted the familiar spiky tufts of Logan’s hair bobbing above the crowd, making his way to the bar. “Oh, it’s Logan!” he announced, beaming. “And who’s that he’s with?”

Erik couldn’t quite stop his mouth from tightening in a grimace, but he at least tried for a neutral expression when Charles gently swatted at his chest. He squinted at the tall blond guy standing a little too close to Logan, the man laughing as he rested a hand possessively on Logan’s waist. “No idea, but that guy looks really familiar,” Erik said, as Charles craned his neck to take a look as well.

“I’m quite sure he’s an actor, too,” Charles said decisively, lips pursed in thought as Erik tried his best not to stare and lose focus. “I feel like I’ve seen him recently in something.” Suddenly, Charles’ face lit up in recognition. “Wait, that’s Emmett!”

Erik blinked at Charles in confusion. “Emmett? Who’s that again?”

“Emmett, from ‘Twilight’, remember? The actor who plays him is Kellan Lutz, and that’s him standing next to Logan,” a patient Charles explained, and suddenly realisation hit Erik like a brick as all those asinine vampire movies he had watched with Charles in Westchester came flooding back to him.

“Oh yes, that’s right, he’s one of Edward’s brothers, right? The big, stupid one.” Erik pretended to look surprised as Charles shot him a look. “What? What did I say?”

“I thought you liked those movies! You even cried,” Charles said, quite scandalised.

“Only because they were so terrible.” The only reason Erik had suffered through that whole ordeal had been because he never passed up the opportunity to have Charles snuggled up on his lap, naked or otherwise.

“Well, you should have said something. I wouldn’t have forced you,” Charles stated, shaking his head. He then turned back to wave, trying to catch Logan’s eye. “Anyway, I heard that Kellan signed on to play Hercules in some big action movie coming out next year.”

“That probably explains why he looks like he’s built like a tank now,” Erik said, resting his head against Charles as they watched a laughing Logan and Kellan at the bar. “He must have bulked up to play the part.”

A shudder ran through Charles as he eyed the other two men. “I don’t like beefy men,” he said, before turning to Erik with a wide smile, his hands travelling down Erik’s biceps with a light squeeze. “I prefer my men strong and lean.”

As a broad grin unfurled on Erik’s face, he was about to lean in and whisper something naughty in Charles’ ear when they heard a familiar gruff voice, “Look what the cat dragged in.”

Grimacing, Erik turned to glare at a smirking Logan, who had sidled up to them on the dance floor, Kellan looming behind him with a too-bright smile. If it were up to Erik, he would have happily ignored Logan until the cows came home. But of course Charles, who was always nice and kind to everyone, greeted Logan like a long-lost friend.

“What a coincidence to bump into you here, Logan!” Charles hugged him tightly, before releasing him and extending a hand to Kellan. “Hello, I’m Charles Xavier.”

Visibly starstruck, Kellan was grinning a little sheepishly as he took Charles’ hand in a firm handshake. “Oh man, it’s so good to meet you. I’m Kellan.”

Erik decided to step in before he was forgotten because everyone was busy signing up for the Charles Xavier Fanclub. “And I’m Erik Lehnsherr.” He shook Kellan’s hand as well, before narrowing his eyes briefly at Logan. “This feels like a bad case of déjà vu.”

“I should explain,” Logan told a puzzled-looking Kellan. “I first met the two of them in a bar, about a couple years ago. Charles was trying to prove a point to Erik, so he asked for my number.”

“Oh? Is that so?” There was a flash of jealousy in Kellan’s eyes as they flitted between Charles and Logan, and for a moment Erik could commiserate with the poor guy.

“Nothing happened,” Charles assured him. “You see, I was trying to prove to Erik that I’ve been gifted with exceptional gaydar, and I had pegged Logan as playing for the same team, but Erik didn’t believe me. So it was a social experiment, really. I tore up Logan’s number as soon as he walked off.”

“I see.” At least Kellan seemed a little appeased now, especially with Logan rubbing his hand up and down between Kellen's shoulderblades. “Well, I remember watching the three of you on Kimmel last year. That was really, uh, intense.”

“You can say that again,” Logan grumbled. “At some point I was sure Erik was going to rip out my skeleton and decorate the set with it.”

“That’s all in the past,” Charles said a little hurriedly. “Now that Erik and Logan have signed up to do a new movie later this year, I’m sure they’ll be good friends from now on.”

Erik had to try and suppress a private smile. Charles was ever the eternal optimist sometimes, and often Erik was glad for it to counter his own tired cynicism, but being friends with Logan? Erik would sooner throw him into the river. When Erik stole a glance at Logan, it was amusing to see he had a somewhat disbelieving expression as well.

“Logan was just telling me about that!” Kellan seemed completely oblivious to Erik’s and Logan’s discomfort. “It sounds pretty cool. It’s about magicians, right? With Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall?”

“Yes, Christopher Nolan is directing. Logan and I are playing competing magicians,” Erik said, unable to hold back his burgeoning grin as he smirked at Logan. “Have I mentioned how much I am looking forward to your death scene?”

Logan simply rewarded him with a spectacular eye-roll. “Don’t flatter yourself, bub. I only took the role because Jean asked me to.”

“Oh? I’m hurt, Logan. I thought we were best buds,” Erik said dryly, chuckling as Charles turned in his arms to hide his face in Erik’s shoulder, shaking with laughter as Logan scoffed at both of them.

“Ha ha, very funny. Come on, Kellan, let’s not wait around to get insulted.”

Seemingly having collected himself, Charles managed a somewhat regretful expression as he called out, “Come back, Logan! We’re sorry, we’ll be nice to you and Emmett--”

“Go fuck yourselves,” Logan called back as he walked away, but the smirk on his face was a good indication that the teasing was forgiven.

“Don’t mind if we do!” Charles replied, laughing loudly at Logan’s pained grimace. Now Charles was slipping his arms around Erik’s neck again, his bright smile turning sly. “To be honest, I really liked Logan’s suggestion.”

“Oh?” Erik took in a deep, shuddering breath when Charles cleverly slid a thigh in between Erik’s legs to grind against his crotch, biting on his lower lip to make it even redder. All Erik could think about was bending down and sucking on that plush, reddened lower lip for himself, and for once he didn’t mind finding himself agreeable with one of Logan’s ideas.

Charles’ amazingly blue eyes were darker now, dilated as he stared at Erik’s mouth. “Shall we head back to the hotel?”

Nodding, Erik leaned in to whisper, “It’s either that or I bend you over the bar top counter and take you right here and now.”

Charles’ cheeks were flushed with laughter and arousal. “I don’t think Logan and the others would appreciate the free show.”

A surge of jealousy rose in Erik at the thought of other people looking at Charles naked, even if his idea of bending Charles over the counter had been a joke. “Agreed. Hotel it is, then.”

They made their way through the crowd back to the bar to collect his suit jacket, Charles’ card and the blow-up birds, and Erik groaned inwardly when they bumped into Logan and Kellan again on their way back out, now on the dancefloor grooving to ‘Blurred Lines’, which was admittedly Erik’s current favourite song. He laughed as Charles attempted some tipsy yet fluid steps to the music, pulling Erik in to dance next to Logan, much to the man’s horror and Kellan’s amusement. Charles then started moving with Logan, doing a very adorable side-step that made Erik torn between whipping out his phone to record this, or kissing Charles senseless. Thankfully for Erik, Logan solved his dilemma for him by mirroring Charles’ moves, and Erik was laughing with Kellan, reaching into his pocket for his phone to snag a picture.

“Oh no you don’t.” With a wink, Charles dragged Erik over, forcing him to shuffle from side to side until the three of them were miraculously in sync, prompting laughter and applause from Kellan and the watching crowd.

“All right, all right, we’d better go.” Erik decided he’d had enough when everyone seemed to have the same idea as him and started scrambling for their phones to record this. He wrapped an arm snugly around a giggling Charles’ waist, maneuvering him towards the exit. “See you in a few months, Logan. Have fun with Hercules.”

“See y’all soon,” Logan replied, before giving them a respectful nod. Charles waved Logan goodbye, and then he and Erik continued to squeeze their way to the exit, clearly intent on fulfilling Logan’s off-the-cuff suggestion. Erik could only grin smugly, eyes fixed on Charles’ ass as they made their way out of the club.

* * * * *

* * * * *

When they got back to their hotel room, Charles was about to reach for his keycard when he was surprised by Erik’s warm hands cupping his face, then tilting his head up for a kiss. A little thrilled at the idea of getting caught out in the corridor, Charles closed his eyes and gave way to Erik’s tongue sweeping into his mouth, alternately dominant and gentle. He slid a hand to Erik’s hip, stroking the firm muscle there before letting his hand stray inwards, tracing a familiar path towards Erik’s crotch. It made Erik groan into his mouth, before Erik decided to take revenge and begin sucking on Charles’ bottom lip, causing Charles to sigh in pleasure as he started exploring the generous girth of Erik’s clothed erection, now tenting the front of his pants obscenely.

Charles couldn’t help feeling victorious as a panting Erik pulled away from the kiss, pleading, “Stop, stop,” as he restrained Charles’ questing hand. Erik looked deliciously mussed, his lips puffy from Charles’ kisses. They rested their foreheads together, Charles lifting a hand to brush back Erik’s long fringe.

After a quick kiss, Erik nodded towards the door while fishing in his pocket for the key card. “Let’s go in, before we get caught on camera.”

“I don’t know, I wouldn’t mind the risk if I get to let you take me up against this door,” Charles teased, laughing when Erik’s nostrils flared in desire.

“Don’t tempt me.” Erik’s voice was low, roiling with heat as he took a step towards Charles, pinning him against the door. Charles couldn’t resist stealing yet another kiss, tugging on the short hairs on the back of Erik’s head just to hear him growl.

They finally got the door open and stumbled into the suite, tossing their stuff on the ground and heading quickly for the bedroom. It was clear that housekeeping had paid a visit; the sheets were changed, neatly pressed and tucked in, as opposed to the rumpled, sex-mussed mess they had left this morning. Kicking off his shoes, Charles gave in to his urge to dive onto the neatly-made bed, looking forward to messing up the sheets with Erik again. He propped himself up on one elbow, patting the space beside him. “Come here, darling.” Charles couldn’t suppress his smirk. “I want to do what I’ve been thinking about doing to you since the club.”

However, Erik remained where he was, his eyes hungrily raking over every last inch of Charles’ body. “I have a little something for you, Liebling.”

Charles couldn’t help a naughty smile. “Oh? Of all the words I know, ‘little’ is not a word I’d use to describe you at all, darling.”

Laughing, Erik strode over to the bed, bending down to give Charles a fleeting kiss before heading to his red and magenta suitcase beside the wardrobe, rummaging for something. A curious Charles heard the rustle of plastic, before Erik fished out a bag and brought out something oddly shaped. Joining Charles on the bed, Erik handed the strange object to him, and upon closer inspection, Charles realised it was some kind of toy. Made of metal, it seemed to be three identical spheres sitting on top of each other, ending in a base that nicely fitted Charles’ palm. “What is this, Erik?” he asked, holding it upright.

Erik nodded towards it with a knowing grin. “That is supposed to help you achieve multiple prostate orgasms.”

“Oh!” Charles could feel heat prickling his skin, eyes widening at the toy in his hand. “You want to try it out now?”

“Perhaps. What do you think?” Erik rested his hand on Charles’ hip, and Charles could feel the familiar warmth of his palm. “Would you like to give it a try?” Erik asked, voice pitched deliciously low and sending a jolt of arousal up Charles' spine.

If Charles wasn’t already convinced by the prospect of having yet more amazing sex with Erik, he was completely won over by the sudden, soft kiss Erik planted on his lips, teasing them open before Erik gently laid him down, covering Charles’ body with his. Instinctively, his limbs sought to wrap themselves around Erik, holding him close as their bodies began to rock together slowly, Charles yielding where Erik pushed.

“Yes,” he breathed out against Erik’s kiss-reddened lips. “Yes, yes, let’s try that. But not before I’ve had you in me first.”

Erik cocked an eyebrow at him. “What if you come first?”

“Then we’d have to make sure that doesn’t happen.” Charles flashed a wide, crafty grin at Erik, and of course it took Erik only a second to cave, his shoulders sagging in mock surrender.

“All right, Charles, we’ll do it your way.”

They took turns to remove each other’s clothes hurriedly, stealing long, wet kisses in between while flinging away various articles of clothing, and before long they were both naked and entwined, Erik breaking away (despite a noise of protest from Charles) to retrieve the lube from the nightstand. Quickly climbing back into Charles’ impatient arms, Erik let his kisses trail downwards to his neck, while his lubed fingers gently circled Charles’ entrance, teasing and light. “You feel so good as always,” Erik murmured, his voice deep and raspy against Charles’ throat. “Can never get enough of you.”

Charles ran his hands over the massive, muscular breadth of Erik’s shoulders, before letting his fingers brush over Erik’s collarbone. There was a reddened bite mark near his clavicle, which Charles remembered putting there a few days ago. He pressed a thumb against it, smiling devilishly at Erik. “Me too, darling,” he moaned, biting his lip when Erik’s fingers slid in and started stroking him, already knowing which buttons to push.

Erik was watching him with lidded eyes, lips parted as his inward strokes drove Charles crazy. “In that club, you kept distracting me with those bedroom eyes and wandering hands of yours,” Erik huffed out with a laugh, before withdrawing his fingers and smiling down at Charles. “And you kept doing that lip-twitch thing on purpose, just to make me think about your wicked, wicked mouth.”

“Like this?” Charles pursed his lips the exact same way he knew drove Erik wild with desire, baiting him with the suggestion of Charles putting his mouth to its talents. He had shamelessly exploited this during their first ‘date’ at Bossa Nova, successfully driving Erik to distraction and at least three dirty martinis. It had been hard not to feel smug, at least until Charles had been forced to go home without Erik and jerk off in the shower again. Thankfully, this was hardly the case now as Charles was more than allowed to show off his skills to Erik, gripping his shoulders and pinning him down to the bed with a wide grin. “Care to see my wicked mouth at work?”

Erik was smiling so broadly at him that his eyes were crinkled at the corners. “Always, Liebling.”

Starting with a nip at Erik’s lips, Charles let his mouth travel down Erik’s torso, stopping for a while to lavish kisses on his abdominal muscles while ignoring Erik’s wet-tipped erection, straining towards Charles’ mouth. Charles ran his hands down Erik’s muscular thighs, feeling them tremble beneath his touch. It felt good to know that even after the honeymoon period, they could still reduce each other to shivering, trembling incoherence and need.

Finally, Charles couldn’t abstain from Erik’s gorgeous, rising cock anymore, wrapping his fingers around the shaft and hearing Erik groan above him. He sucked teasingly on the head first, moaning as he tasted Erik, clean and salty. Erik now had his hands curled in Charles’ hair, stroking it back so he could see Charles’ eyes. “Mein Gott, Charles…”

Charles’ answer was to slide his mouth down a few more inches, relishing Erik’s loud moan of surrender as his grip tightened in Charles’ hair. Charles loved sensing Erik’s pleasure, loved eking a passionate, panting response from the man and making him breathless with want. He flicked his tongue under the head of Erik’s cock, pleased when that made Erik shout, pre-come pulsing into Charles’ mouth. “Charles.”

Hearing Erik moan his name so desperately like that made Charles unable to resist stroking himself, bobbing his head up and down and enjoying the feel of Erik’s grip tightening in his hair as he started bucking upwards into Charles’ mouth, gasping for air. However, as much as he loved sucking Erik off, it still felt a little off for Charles to not be able to lock eyes with Erik, to get a front-row view of the mix of emotions laid bare in Erik’s face whenever they made love. Charles wasn’t shy about admitting that he got off more on the emotional intimacy they shared during sex, and kneeling between Erik’s legs like this made Charles feel like he was missing something vital. Sliding Erik’s cock out of his mouth, Charles gave it one last, long lick before climbing up Erik’s body and meeting an equally eager Erik for a hungry, eager kiss.

“Missed me?” Erik smirked, as though he hadn’t been breathless and begging under Charles’ ministrations just a few seconds ago.

Reaching for the lube, Charles poured some into his palm and began applying it liberally to Erik’s long erection, grinning as the smirk on Erik’s face dissolved into sheer lust. “I sure did,” Charles said with a grin, tugging Erik’s bottom lip with his teeth. “And I missed having this,” Charles gave Erik’s erection an especially slow stroke, “inside me even more.”

Once Erik was slick enough, they both held their breath as Charles guided Erik inside him, letting out a shuddery gasp as Erik fully sank in. It never changed, this exhilarating connection between the two of them, every possible part of them pressed together, only ever wanting to be closer. Erik cupped Charles’ cheek, pale blue eyes searching his face in wonder. After a few experimental attempts, they eventually found their rhythm and Charles was trying hard not to shout too loudly at the force of Erik fucking into him, his hips in sync with Erik’s for every thrust, their mouths finding each other amidst breathless kisses. Erik always fucked like the world was ending; each thrust filled with a desperate intensity that wrenched Charles to the core, as if this would be the last time they’d ever have each other.

“So...tight…Charles...” Erik panted, his features scrunched together as if in pain, although Charles of course knew better. Erik was about to come, his hands gripping Charles’ hips to hold him closer, almost hard enough to bruise.

“You wanted this since the bar, didn’t you?” Charles gasped against his ear, before nipping at Erik’s sensitive earlobe. Erik had long, fleshy lobes, which Charles had remembered from some gossip magazine were a favourable indicator of penis size, and he couldn’t help chuckling inwardly at the idea that there may have been some truth to that article after all.

“Wanted this since we first met,” Erik growled back, before biting down on Charles’ shoulder and slamming his hips against Charles’ thighs in one last, forceful thrust, moaning Charles’ name as he did so. Charles trembled at the burst of warmth inside him, fighting himself down from the brink of orgasm just like how he had promised Erik, but it was damn near impossible, what with the depth of Erik inside him, the look of absolute rapture on his face.

“Hold on, Liebling.” Erik was panting heavily, trying to recover his breath as he gently eased out of Charles. A shaking Charles nodded, teeth digging into his bottom lip in an attempt to stave off his impending climax, which he felt helpless against, especially when he could feel Erik’s come trickling down his thighs. “Calm down,” Erik said soothingly, his fingers forming a tight ring around the base of Charles’ cock as his other hand stroked up and down Charles’ back.

Thankfully this seemed to help. Charles took in great, deep gulps of air, but at least it now felt like his climax was ebbing away and he wasn’t teetering on the edge anymore. He shifted his knees a little on the mattress, slumping further into Erik’s arms. They met for a kiss again, Charles’ mouth still hungry while Erik’s was relaxed, yielding with post-coital satisfaction. After a long moment, Erik’s fingers loosened around Charles’ erection and Charles let out a sigh, slightly more certain that he wasn’t going to come at the slightest provocation now.

“Okay?” Erik’s voice was tender as he brushed back a stray, sweaty lock of Charles’ hair. Charles nodded mutely, not trusting his voice when Erik was gazing at him like this, all defences down, like how he often did when they were alone and quiet and just basking in each other’s company.

“Come on.” Erik nudged for Charles to get on his knees, and in a swift move Charles was on his back again, pillowed by the smooth, warm sheets. Erik gifted him with another kiss before his mouth trailed down slowly, tongue working the flat nubs of Charles’ nipples and making him sigh again before continuing south. Charles noticed, with a sense of bemused frustration, that Erik was pointedly avoiding his leaking cock, pressing kisses around it before pushing Charles’ thighs open. Charles went with the flow, biting his lip when he felt more of Erik’s semen trickling from his hole, loosened now that he’d just had Erik in him.

“God, Charles,” Erik growled, the heat in his gaze making Charles’ cock twitch helplessly. “Do you know how hot you look like this, so full of my come?”

“Fuck.” Charles gritted his teeth as he tugged gently at Erik’s hair, desperate for him to do something. He finally got his wish when Erik’s head dipped, and Charles could feel Erik’s tongue laving at his entrance, licking up the excess fluid, his mouth driving Charles mad.

“Look at you, and we’re not even at the main event yet.” Pulling away, Erik looked smug and amused, and Charles wanted to wipe that silly grin off his face with a brain-melting kiss. But before he could sit up, Erik was already reaching for the toy he had brought out earlier, the metal contraption looking completely at home in his large hands. Erik warmed it with his palms, and Charles’ mouth went dry in anticipation as Erik placed the plug between Charles’ spread-open thighs, nudging it gently at his entrance, still slick with lube and come.

“Ready?” Erik raised an eyebrow at him, and Charles nodded, holding his breath. "Let me know if it gets too much."

Gripping Charles’ knee with one hand, Erik’s face was taut with concentration as he pushed the plug in, and Charles could feel the first ball slipping in easily past the ring of muscle, since it was not as thick as Erik’s cock. The second ball went in smoothly too, and Charles sighed with anticipation as Erik began moving the plug around inside him, seemingly searching for something. “How does it feel?”

“Nowhere as big as you,” Charles replied cheekily, laughing when Erik flashed him a proud, smug grin in return. “I think you may have spoiled me for all toys, darling.”

He was taken by surprise when Erik clambered up the bed in a flash so that he was hovering over Charles, their mouths mere breaths apart. “Have I?” Erik said with a smirk, before his hand did something marvellous and Charles arched up in shock with a high, keening moan, spasming under Erik’s sweaty body.

“Oh fuck, what the…” Charles was barely aware that he was clutching Erik like a lifeline, wanting to beg him to do whatever he had just done again and again. “Please, darling--”

“Please what?” Erik said with a sly smile, stealing another kiss which Charles gladly gave him. It distracted Charles enough for Erik to slowly work him with the plug, rubbing insistently at that bump inside Charles that made him arch upwards, panting and increasingly delirious and completely at Erik’s mercy.

Charles lost himself to the spasms that were rocking through his body, each one getting closer and closer to the next until he couldn't tell where one ended and the next began. Charles cried out helplessly at the explosion of pleasure, pre-come pulsing out of his cock and smearing against Erik.

“Charles, fuck, you’re so wet, if only I could just take you again right now.”

Hooking his legs around Erik’s waist, Charles surrendered to the building fire within him that Erik was stoking with the plug, losing all track of time as the tremors spread from his groin and gripped his entire body. Charles almost kicked Erik off the bed as he felt Erik push the plug all the way in, Erik's other hand holding Charles down at his mercy. Charles was wailing Erik’s name loudly, fists thumping against the sheets at the shocks of pleasure seizing his body.

“Shh... Just relax,” Erik coaxed, one hand stroking down Charles’ trembling inner thigh. Charles tried to simply focus on breathing, doing his best to unclench his muscles and ride out the endless waves of pleasure, his mind a brilliant haze of white.

The orgasms seemed to go on forever, until Charles finally reached the point where he felt completely, utterly, blissfully wrecked, unable to take anymore without passing out from sheer ecstasy. “Erik, I c-can’t…” he groaned, mindlessly reaching out to nudge at Erik’s bare shoulder.

“Come for me,” Erik growled, and seized Charles’ mouth in a rough kiss as he wrapped his free hand around Charles’ cock, pumping it hard and swirling his thumb around the tip with each stroke. Charles moaned all his pleasure into Erik’s mouth, hips rocking up into Erik’s pelvis, before his entire body jerked one last time. His voice sounded hoarse to his ears as he came with a shout, spilling what little he had left onto both their stomachs.

For a long while, Charles was incapable of doing anything besides simply lying there, too blissed out to move a muscle. He felt Erik slowly slide the toy out before shifting to lay by his side, wrapping his strong arms around Charles to provide comfort.

“Are you all right?” Erik asked, and Charles blinked as he came back down to Earth, then took a peek at their stomachs. Both their abdomens were covered with ropey stripes of Charles’ come, and it was no surprise given how Charles was still shaking. He noted with smug satisfaction that Erik was half-hard.

“All right?” he echoed in disbelief, mind still catching up. “That was probably the best orgasm of my life.” He must have looked a sight, panting with red cheeks and tousled, sweaty hair. Erik was not much better off, his long fringe tangled and mussed, his lips puffy and reddened from Charles’ kisses. Charles was about to lean over to trade more kisses when an aftershock swept through him, and he had to curl into Erik’s chest, his legs visibly trembling. Erik frowned, concern etched in his features, but Charles waved it off immediately. “I’m fine, darling. How long were we at it?” Charles asked, noting that some of the come on his stomach had dried up.

“I would say the better part of an hour,” Erik replied, kissing him when Charles balked in surprise. “I wish I’d recorded that. I’d probably wank off to that video twenty times a day and never get any work done.”

Laughing, Charles wrapped his legs around Erik’s thighs and raked his fingers through Erik’s hair fondly. “Honestly, I’m quite insulted,” he teased a grinning Erik. “Why in the world would you want a video when I’m more than happy to provide the real thing?”

“Twenty times a day?” The way Erik’s eyes were dancing with amusement made it hard for Charles to keep a straight face.

“More, if you like. Starting right now.” Charles laughed as he flipped a surprised Erik over onto his back, then reached for the discarded plug and the tube of lubricant. “Turnabout is fair play, after all.” And of course, Erik made absolutely no move to dispute Charles’ sound logic, only smirking before dragging him down for a kiss.


Notes:
1. The title of this chapter is a quote from 'Milk'.
2. Jean-Paul Beaubier (Northstar) famously married Kyle Jinadu in Astonishing X-Men in 2012. Jean-Paul adopted a baby girl and named her Joanne Beaubier, but she was born with HIV and died a few weeks later.
3. Michael Fassbender spends most of ‘Frank’, in a papier-mâché head.
4. Pink Saturday is street party held the Saturday night before San Francisco Pride in The Castro.
5. Both James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender have played Macbeth, and a free performance of ‘Macbeth’ for ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ was staged on Pink Saturday in 2013.
6. Billy Kaplan (Wiccan) is Magneto’s grandson in the comics, and his boyfriend is Teddy Altman (Hulking). Their appearances are patterned after Thor and The Hulk, respectively. Billy once suggested to Teddy that they should take a trip to San Francisco.
7. Wolverine and Hercules are a couple in X-Treme X-Men. Kellan Lutz played Hercules in 2014’s ‘The Legend of Hercules’.
8. James McAvoy claims that Michael Fassbender cried after 30 seconds when he watched ‘Twilight’.
9. Hugh Jackman starred alongside Christian Bale in ‘The Prestige’.
10. James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Hugh Jackman danced to ‘Blurred Lines’ on ‘The Graham Norton Show’.

Chapter Text

Waking up the next morning with Erik’s heavy arm protectively draped across his chest felt like the best kind of bliss for Charles. The sunlight peeking through the half-open drapes lit the room in a warm, yellow haze, and if Charles slitted his eyelids just so, he could spot dust motes suspended in the air. Unable to hold back a deep yawn, Charles stretched a little, enjoying the delicious little residual shiver from their activities the previous night. The metal plug that Erik had bought for them to play with had proven to be worth its weight in gold.

Turning over onto his side, he nuzzled into the crook of Erik’s neck so that he could breathe in the scent of Erik’s skin. Erik always smelled clean, a little salty, and as if on cue, Erik stirred slowly, mumbling in his sleep before pulling Charles in towards him even more, wanting to keep Charles close even in slumber. Charles watched Erik’s steady breathing for a while, his eyelids flickering, and wondered what Erik was dreaming about. Reaching up, Charles stroked Erik’s hair for a while, delighting in the way Erik’s long eyelashes fanned out over the edge of his cheekbones.

It was at least a good, long while before Erik’s eyelids slowly fluttered open, and the bleariness in his eyes sharpened the moment his gaze met Charles’, instinctively breaking into a wide smile. “Morning, Liebling.”

Charles loved how low and gravelly Erik’s voice always was upon first waking. “Good morning, my love.” Charles leaned up and kissed Erik’s right eyelid, then his left. Then their customary good-morning kiss on the lips, a tender and affectionate start to the day. “You look like you slept well. And deeply.”

“I did.” Erik stretched a little, then crinkled his nose. “Did I snore?”

Laughing, Charles maneuvered both of them so that Erik was flat on his back and Charles was sprawled on top of him. “If you had, do you think I’d look this well-rested?”

“Point taken,” Erik conceded, eyes searching Charles’ face in approval. “In fact, you look extremely well-rested. And well-fucked, if you ask me.”

They both burst into chuckles, Erik’s warm body vibrating with mirth underneath Charles’. “You should know, since you did the fucking,” Charles retorted with a bright grin, lifting his head as his troublesome fringe fell into his eyes and he tried to shake it out.

“I did, didn’t I?” Erik’s warm, amused smile was like sunshine as he brushed Charles’ hair back. “That explains why my thighs are so sore, as though I’d just run a marathon.”

“A sex marathon, maybe,” Charles said with a grin, earning another slow kiss from Erik. Honestly, he wouldn’t have objected to yet another romp in the sheets - and in the process, thoroughly destroying the poor hotel’s expensive linen with Erik - but it seemed Erik had other ideas as he gently broke away from the kiss and patted Charles’ bottom.

“Come on, let me go get something ready,” Erik said, and Charles was suddenly reminded that they had places to be today. If there was one thing he could always count on for Erik, it was that he never failed to make sure they were on schedule, with a punctuality that could often rival the Deutsche Bahn. Erik gave Charles’ butt an ample squeeze before letting go and rolling out of bed, and of course Charles stole the opportunity to shamelessly ogle Erik’s own award-winning arse as he strode to the bathroom, watching the muscles flex and ripple in those powerful thighs. Once Charles could hear the muffled sounds of Erik brushing his teeth, he sank back into bed and rolled over into the indentation Erik’s body had made, happy to soak up any lingering warmth from Erik’s residual body heat.

He must have dozed off again, for when he blinked his eyes open next, he could see Erik out and already wearing a bathrobe, thanking someone and wheeling in a cart. The sweet, syrupy smell of french toast made Charles sit up at last, beaming at the thought of Erik ordering breakfast for him. “Do you know that you have an uncanny knack of knowing my cravings, darling?”

Erik dropped him a wink as he rolled the cart towards where Charles was sitting on the bed, then sat down beside him. “Must be lover's intuition. And I know this is nowhere near as good as the french toast you made for me with challah that time, but it’ll have to suffice.”

Charles was aware that he was grinning like an idiot. “You still remember that?”

Erik shot him a sideways smirk. “Of course I do. Then again, it may have helped that you were sitting half-naked in my lap at the time we were eating it.”

Chuckling as Erik unveiled the food with a flourish and handed him a set of utensils, Charles tugged him down for a brief thank-you kiss before they both started on breakfast, feeding each other little bites of food as Erik flipped through the Chronicle while Charles scrolled through his Twitter feed and occasionally showed some amusing tweets to Erik. When Erik finished his food first, he said, “Give me a minute,” before squeezing Charles’ hand and heading back into the bathroom, and a curious Charles could hear water sloshing into the bathtub. A warm bath did sound enticing, and besides, it seemed a waste not to utilise the spacious and beautiful ceramic hot tub that came with the suite. Not long after, when Charles was finishing his breakfast, he could catch the clean scent of bergamot wafting out from the bathroom and into the suite, and already his sore head and muscles were longing to soak in warm, soothing waters with an equally warm, soothing Erik.

Charles had managed to clean up most of the crumbs and spills when Erik emerged from the bathroom with an inviting smile. “Fancy a soak in the tub?”

“Sounds bloody marvellous, I’m starting to feel a headache creeping on,” Charles admitted, wincing as he got to his feet a little unsteadily. His temples throbbed in sympathy as he made his way to the bathroom, making sure to avoid glancing at the slivers of light peeking in through the partially open drapes. It had been a while since he and Erik had gotten that magnificently drunk the way they did last night at ‘Swallow Your Pride’, and his mutant ability to deal with hangovers had somewhat faded in his thirties.

Erik’s generous mouth twisted in sympathy. “I know, Liebling, I’ve got a wicked hangover from yesterday as well.” He kissed Charles’ temple, massaging the back of Charles’ neck in soft, soothing strokes that made Charles moan in relief.

“Then we could both do with a glorious soak. Come on, love,” Charles finally said with a sigh, undoing the belt of Erik’s bathrobe and sliding it off his shoulders. They made their way to the jacuzzi, which was large and round and spacious, now almost filled with warm, steaming water tinged with the light green of Charles’ favourite bergamot bath oil. Once it was full, Erik turned off the tap, then reached for the switch behind the tub. Immediately, the jets buzzed into life and the water began bubbling vigorously, intensifying the scent of bergamot even more.

“After you,” Erik said, gesturing towards the tub, and Charles stepped in gingerly, sighing as he slowly submerged himself. He made space for Erik as he climbed in too, and Erik rested his back against the rim of the tub, spreading his legs as much as possible so Charles could sit in between them. For a good, long moment they sat companionably in silence as the warm, bubbling water enveloped both their bodies, their hands loosely linked underwater. Charles used Erik’s shoulder as a pillow, closing his eyes as he allowed the water to lull him into utter bliss.

“I want to stay here all day,” Erik’s voice rumbled beside his ear, and Charles made a noise of agreement. “Are you feeling better?”

“Somewhat. A high-carb breakfast and a bath run by a gorgeous manservant helped tremendously,” Charles said with a smirk, laughing as Erik nudged him indignantly.

Manservant? Oh, I see how it is.” Erik’s chest was vibrating with laughter. “You asked me to marry you so I could be your lifelong slave for free, didn’t you?”

“Of course, darling. It took you this long to figure it out? Like I said before, it’s a good thing you’re handsome. Besides, I do believe you asked me to marry you first,” Charles quipped, earning a nip on the shoulder from Erik as he pretended to wrestle with Charles, the water sloshing about from their playacting. Their laughter echoed off the walls of the spacious bathroom, and for a moment Charles happily forgot about his horrible hangover, safe and content and blissful in Erik’s warm arms.

“You’re terrible,” Erik teasingly whispered in his ear. “I don’t know why I put up with you.”

“Hmmm.” Charles pretended to sound contemplative, but in actuality he was sliding his hand further and further up Erik’s thigh, caressing whatever firm, lean muscle he could feel. The efforts of Erik’s daily visits to the gym were clearly paying off. “I’m sure there are reasons.”

He could feel Erik’s nose brushing against his curls, eager to take in his scent. “Such as?” Erik’s voice had dropped an octave, sounding the way he did whenever he was inside Charles.

“Take a guess,” Charles replied teasingly, laughing when Erik harrumphed in his ear. His laughter stuttered to a halt as Erik’s warm hands began exploring his chest, his fingers starting to circle his wet nipples. “Darling, you’re not playing fair—”

“Oh? And you are?” Erik snorted in reply, his mouth dropping to the exposed arch of Charles’ neck and mouthing wet kisses there, building a delicious ache within Charles. He couldn’t resist writhing backwards into the juncture of Erik’s legs, and gasped when he could feel Erik’s stiffening erection rubbing against the curve of his spine.

“It’s not my fault, Charles,” Erik continued, slightly panting now as he circled the hardened nubs of Charles’ sensitive nipples. “How am I supposed to resist you when you’re all wet and warm and naked in here with me?”

Gasping, Charles let his head fall back on Erik’s shoulder, giving himself up to Erik’s clever, skilful hands. “I would have thought last night would have been enough to satiate you,” he managed to utter, although coherent thought was fast becoming impossible.

There was a low, breathless rumble of laughter from Erik. “Honestly? I don’t think I’ll ever, ever get enough of you in this lifetime.” There was a gentle nip at Charles’ earlobe. “Although you have to admit, Charles, you’re quite insatiable yourself.”

It was hard to think of a witty reply with the way Erik’s hands were steadily creeping south, caressing Charles’ abdomen underwater before lightly - just with the barest of touches - brushing over Charles’ quickly hardening erection, the teasing contact making Charles even more hot and bothered than usual. “I might have to concede the argument,” Charles managed to gasp out, his hips arching towards Erik’s maddeningly evasive hands.

Erik’s chuckles in his ear were low and gravelly. “You can’t win them all, Liebling. And I have in mind several better uses for your mouth before I consider releasing you from this tub.”

“Your stamina is astounding,” Charles replied, before moaning softly as Erik began kissing the crook of his neck. Under the water, Erik’s hands were already gaining traction, curling around Charles’ hardening cock in slow, upward strokes. Combined with the warm jets from the jacuzzi and Erik’s gentle, seductive touches, Charles couldn’t help losing himself in the pleasures of being slowly and surely unravelled. He raised his arms behind him so that he could link them around Erik’s neck, his fingers running through the short damp hairs on the back of Erik’s head. This elicited a pleasantly low rumble from Erik, who was now nipping at Charles’ earlobe.

“How many times have we done it in a hot tub now? Five?” Erik murmured in his ear, his voice sly.

“Six, if you count that pool in Phuket,” Charles said breathlessly, both of them dissolving into chuckles at that memory. “Good thing we were done before that poor chambermaid walked in and stumbled upon us.”

“I’m never done with you,” Erik whispered roughly, and that made Charles twist around in his arms, the water sloshing out of the tub as he threw his arms around Erik’s neck, his mouth hungrily seeking out Erik’s. The taste of Erik’s mouth was still sweet from the french toast and syrup earlier, and Charles moaned in approval. Erik returned his kiss with fierce abandon, his hands now cupping Charles’ bottom and squeezing firmly, making Charles pant into his mouth. Charles could feel the curve of Erik’s burgeoning erection nudging against his stomach, and he couldn’t help smiling into a kiss as his hand plunged underwater to wrap around the shaft of Erik’s cock, wringing a desperate groan out of him. There was nothing quite like a wet, naked Erik in his arms, and Charles meant to take advantage of this situation as best as he could even though time was not on their side. He couldn’t resist capturing Erik’s luscious bottom lip and sucking on it as his strokes started to speed up, thrilled at the indescribable feeling of Erik getting harder and harder in his hand.

“Fuck, you’re gorgeous,” Erik panted once Charles released his lip, eyes fluttering shut as Charles began stroking in earnest, eagerly devouring every wet, glorious inch of Erik before his eyes. Charles was not at all above admitting that his heart still skipped a beat whenever Erik walked into a room or shot him an affectionate smile, and deep down he couldn’t help hoping that they would never lose this instinctive, magnetic attraction to each other, not for the rest of their lives.

“Me, the gorgeous one? Have you looked in the mirror recently? I have trouble keeping my hands off you as it is,” Charles said with a laugh, letting his thumb rub circles around the head of Erik’s cock the same way he would let his tongue swirl around it if he was giving Erik a blowjob. He briefly considered whether it would be worth a try to see if he could hold his breath underwater, but just as he took a deep breath and started to duck his head, Erik clamped a warning hand on his shoulder.

“Don’t you dare. I won’t have you endangering yourself,” Erik said, his tone fraught with concern as he brushed Charles’ damp fringe back. He must have been thinking along the same lines as Charles, his eyebrows drawing together in a frown.

Charles couldn’t help pretending to pout. “I was just trying to be sexually adventurous, darling.”

“Not if it means you being hurt,” Erik admitted, nudging against Charles’ mouth for a soft kiss. “Anyway, I can think of other ways for us to get off.”

“Oh?” Charles raised an eyebrow at Erik, letting out a gasp of surprise as Erik curled an arm around his waist and dragged him closer, so that their abdomens were almost pressing together, and Charles hissed in pleasure as his now fully stiff cock brushed against Erik’s. The determined grin on Erik’s face made sense as Erik wrapped his large hand around both their erections, his breath stuttering in ecstasy as he began to stroke both of them together.

Charles groaned, reaching out with one hand to rub their cocks in earnest, briefly delighting in how much longer Erik’s fingers were than his, the extra length affording Erik a much better grip. He clung to Erik with his other arm like a lifeline as they rocked together, sinking his grip into Erik’s hair and tugging on it hard, just the way Erik liked it. Erik’s face was getting redder and redder with arousal as he captured Charles’ mouth again and again, sucking on Charles’ tongue in such an indecent way that it made Charles dizzy. Once the kiss broke off, Charles twisted his hand around the head of Erik’s cock and whispered, “Let go, darling,” and that made Erik arch up against him, eyes shut in blissful orgasm as he jerked repeatedly under Charles’ body, mouth open in blind pleasure.

Seeing Erik in such rapture was enough for Charles, and he thrust twice into Erik’s limp hand before he spiralled into ecstasy, burying his face in Erik’s neck to muffle his moans. Throughout the aftershocks, he could feel Erik’s other hand fondly stroking up and down his spine, his voice low and soothing. “I got you, Liebling.”

Charles kept taking in huge, gulping breaths of air, soothed by the scent of Erik’s skin as he wrapped his trembling arms around Erik’s broad shoulders. He could feel Erik pressing kisses to his hair, murmuring little declarations of love and devotion wherever he could. Those soft words helped him to get a hold on his senses again, and Charles blinked as he raked his fingers through Erik’s hair, now damp with the bathwater.

“At least we have minimal clean-up this time,” Charles quipped, which made Erik roar with laughter as he wrapped his arms around Charles once more, both of them loose-limbed and spent.

* * * * *

The sun was already out in full force by the time Erik and Charles managed to stumble out of the car that their hotel had arranged for them, dazed and bleary and still feeling more than a little hungover. Erik had arranged for Remy to have the rest of the day off, and that moron must have been content to spend it hounding poor Marie all day, judging from the text messages she was sending Charles. Grinning as he shook out his aviators and slid them on, Erik watched Charles brush his fringe back and slip on the tortoiseshell Ray-Bans that Erik had given him so long ago, when they had first started dating. Laughing at the way Charles left them crookedly on his face, Erik reached out to straighten them. “Ready to rejoin society?”

“You sound quite smug for a man who made it quite impossible for me to walk straight,” Charles retorted, although the tender way he was smiling back at Erik made it clear that he was just teasing.

“It’s a miracle we both have the use of our legs today,” Erik agreed as they began heading towards Market Street. Duty was calling, after all, and for today, there was no duty more important than the Pride Parade.

Erik had watched the San Francisco Pride Parade many times before on cable or online, but this was the first time he was going to actually be a participant in the parade. Standing here with Charles in the staging area for the floats and watching the hubbub around them was infinitely more interesting than watching events unfold on a screen. Erik observed as a group of very lively, shrieky drag queens scuttled about in glittery costumes towards their float. Admittedly, it was rather disappointing for him to have first-hand confirmation that the Pride Parade seemed to be an excuse for participants to strut around like peacocks and show off their shiny new attire (or lack thereof, in some cases).

On the other hand, the buzz was mostly about a huge, separate contingent forming on a section of Mission Street, and if Erik craned his neck, he could even see their large yellow banner proclaiming, ‘PRIDE IN OUR WHISTLE-BLOWER’, which Erik immediately recognised as a reference to Private Bradley Manning, who had been involved in the WikiLeaks scandal. Having followed the news on the San Francisco Pride Parade closely, Erik had found out that the Bradley Manning contingent was formed as a protest against the San Francisco Pride officials removing Manning from the list of Grand Marshals. This defiant display of rebellion against authority and censorship was infinitely more meaningful to Erik, and he knew he would feel much more at home marching with that particular contingent instead of the main float.

Charles must have sensed his lack of enthusiasm, for his hand was folding over Erik’s. “Everything all right, darling?” he asked as he removed his Ray-Bans. His eyes were so blue and concerned.

Erik shook his head as he took off his own shades. His jaw felt tight with tension as he watched several technicians inspecting the scaffolding of the main float that they were going to ride on during the parade. “It all just feels like a glittery farce,” he said with a sigh, even as Charles frowned. “I would much rather march with the Free Bradley Manning contingent over there, instead of sitting with a bunch of people showing off their costumes.”

Charles’ mouth dropped open in surprise. “But Erik, we can’t. We made a commitment to the organisers; it is our duty as Celebrity Grand Marshals to accompany the main float. It would look very odd if the media were taking photos and we were nowhere to be seen.”

“Odd?” Erik let out a scoff. “You know what is odd, Charles? Being here for the sake of gay rights, but look around us.” He gestured at the various corporate floats lined up behind the main one. “Wells Fargo? Bank of America? Facebook? Do we really want to be a part of this? Since when did we commercialise gay acceptance and rights? Stonewall was a riot, not a brand.”

Charles’ frown was deepening as he crossed his arms over his chest. “I do think you may be overreacting, Erik. These sponsors donated money in order for an event of this large a scale to be executed. It is the lesser of two evils, so that an LGBT-positive event like this can have a wide reach and impact all around the world.”

“And what good is this publicity for?” Erik shot back. “To show the world how grateful we are to finally be included in the status quo? Are you so bent on pleasing everyone that you’re willing to be part of this assimilationist agenda, Charles?” Erik demanded, hoping to make him see reason. “We’re better than this. We should not be looking to be a part of the ‘system’, we should be looking to transform it. You and I are in San Francisco because we want to use our voice to prove a point. If you ask me, we should start by going against the status quo and marching with the Bradley Manning contingent.”

A stricken look crossed Charles’ face, the sight of which hit Erik with a sudden pang of guilt. “Erik, we cannot just abandon our duties. I understand what you’re saying, but we shouldn’t have agreed if you had wanted to march with the Bradley Manning contingent in the first place.”

Erik stood his ground, even though it pained him to be arguing with Charles. “Yes, but that was before we got here and I saw with my own eyes just how much of a mockery this event is.” Doubt was starting to cloud Charles’ face, and Erik decided to go for the jugular. “Aren’t you alarmed that the organisers are uncritically endorsing the military justice system? Bradley Manning was held for years in solitary confinement, without trial. Everyone deserves a second chance, you said it yourself—”

“Yes, all right! Fine, yes,” Charles cut in, running his palms harshly down his face as he sighed. Charles took a deep breath and closed his eyes, and when he reopened them, his mind appeared to have calmed. “All right,” Charles said again, much more quietly.

Although he had gotten his way, Erik felt no sense of victory. He reached out to tentatively brush the tips of his fingers against the back of Charles’ hand. The cause meant a great deal to him, but Charles was everything, and nothing in this life would ever be worth losing him over. He held Charles’ hand in his when Charles didn’t push him away. “I know we planned on being with the main contingent, and you wanted to be here so we could lend our celebrity status to support the event. But surely the parade would benefit as long as we marched, it doesn’t matter where,” Erik explained, hoping to bring Charles over to his side. “You and I together, drawing attention to issues that matter. We want the same thing.”

Charles gave his hand a tender squeeze, and Erik was filled with a flood of relief as he looked into forgiving eyes. “Yes, we do. And I would never have let you go up against the system on your own. I’m with you till the end of the line,” Charles said. “And I admit, deep down, I was thinking the same.” Charles gave him a determined nod and fished out his phone. “I’ll let the organisers know.”

Erik stood aside while Charles made the call, occupying himself by watching the various participants scurry around to get ready for the parade as ‘Same Love’ blasted from the speakers. There were fake policemen, firemen, several drag queens and even an entire group dressed as the cast of ‘Despicable Me’. Erik was rolling his eyes as he watched them board their minion-shaped float when he spotted someone who wasn’t in costume and looked extremely familiar, wandering around the staging area. She had dark, wavy hair that was blowing about in the gusty San Francisco wind, her slight figure wrapped in an oversized plaid shirt, skinny jeans and Converse sneakers. “Isn’t that Ellen Page?” Erik pointed out as Charles got off the line, wondering whether he was mistaken.

Nodding in recognition, Charles waved her over. “Ellen!” he called out, and her face lit up when she spotted him. Erik wasn’t very surprised; most people were delighted to see Charles, and he couldn’t very well blame them.

“Charles! It’s been a while!” Ellen wrapped her tiny arms around Charles, squeezing him in joy. Her smile was less familiar but still friendly when she turned to Erik. “Charles has been keeping us apart, it seems,” she joked.

Playfully swatting at her, Charles explained, “Erik, I’m sure you remember Ellen played my sister in ‘All The Lonely People’ a few years ago.”

“That was a magnificent movie, and you were very good in it,” Erik told her sincerely, making Ellen beam. “It’s quite hard for anyone to take my attention away from Charles in anything he’s in, but your character was one of the rare exceptions.”

“Why thank you, good sir.” Ellen pretended to bow, which made all of them laugh.

“So what are you doing at Pride? Came to support your friends?” Charles asked, tilting his head curiously.

A sudden darkness clouded Ellen’s face, momentarily dispelling her earlier good cheer. “Something like that,” she said with a sigh, making Charles frown quizzically.

“Anything wrong?” Erik asked, a little concerned.

There was something torn and conflicted in Ellen’s expression, as though she were gauging whether to tell them what was on her mind. “You know, I’ve always wanted to ask. How did things...change for you? When the two of you came out?” she asked earnestly.

Erik exchanged a puzzled glance with Charles, who seemed to consider her question thoroughly. “The media attention was definitely hard to deal with, at first,” Charles admitted, casting a glance at Erik who nodded in agreement. “But after the initial buzz, things died down a bit, and we went on with our lives.”

“It surprises me to say this, but the press spotlight has proven to be useful at times, especially when we want to bring attention to important causes,” Erik said, eliciting a proud smile from Charles. If only Charles knew just how much he had turned Erik’s life around, had set him down a path towards fighting for others like them. “I hesitate to say that we’re making use of the media, but it’s helped to bring so much visibility to our cause.”

“Why do you ask?” Charles said gently, resting a hand on Ellen’s arm. She bit her lip hesitantly, and for some reason Erik felt a protective urge to put his arm around her shoulder and shield her from the masses waiting for them at the parade.

Ellen took a long, deep breath before locking eyes with both of them. “I’ve been thinking recently about coming out,” she said in a low, hushed voice.

“Oh.” Erik was a little caught off guard, but Charles was only nodding understandingly, as though this were something he had been expecting. Erik had always known that Charles was the more perceptive one out of the two of them; he had a special ability to connect with people and make them feel at ease, and there was just something about his limitless intuition and empathy that went a long way in making people trust him with their deepest secrets.

“You knew, huh?” Ellen smiled wryly at Charles. “Since we were shooting together?”

“I had an inkling,” Charles admitted, giving her a modest shrug. He wiggled his fingers near his temple. “I can somewhat sense these things.”

Ellen flashed them a tired, wan smile. “If Charles has noticed, then I’m sure others have as well. And I’m sick of hiding who I really am.”

Immediately, Erik found himself frowning. “You should never hide your true self. Be proud to be who you are.”

“Erik is right,” Charles said at once. “Think of all the young girls who look up to you as their favourite actress. When you stop pretending to be somebody you’re not, you are encouraging them to be honest about themselves, too. Here you have the chance to be part of something much bigger than yourself.”

Ellen was blinking slowly, as though digesting bit by bit what they had just told her. “I admit I thought about that,” she said with a sigh, leaning against Charles for support as he rubbed her shoulder consolingly. “Being in the closet is helping no one. And it gets real tiring real fast.”

“That’s how I felt.” Charles shot her a sympathetic smile of solidarity. “But coming out has changed my life entirely for the better. The only thing I regret is that I should have done it sooner.”

Gazing down at the ground, Ellen nodded thoughtfully. “You guys gave me a lot to think about,” she said with a rueful smile, before turning to hug Charles tightly. “Thank you for giving me perspective.”

“Anytime, love,” Charles said gently, as Ellen released him so that she could hug Erik as well. Erik found himself having to bend down quite a bit to accommodate her height, and when he pulled away he could see Charles’ mouth quirked in a fond smile as he observed them both.

“All right, I have some friends to catch before they get on their float,” she said, giving them a wave. “Thanks for talking to me.”

“Don’t mention it,” Erik said, waving back as Ellen slipped into the crowd so stealthily that he could have sworn she’d gone invisible, simply walking right through the mass of people. He turned to Charles, their hands finding each other’s naturally. “I thought that went well,” Erik told him. “You always know the right thing to say.”

“I liked what you said, too,” Charles replied with a squeeze of Erik’s hand. “Hopefully we both gave her food for thought and we—what the bloody hell?” he trailed off in shock, staring in recognition at something behind Erik, and instinctively Erik whipped around to see what had grabbed Charles’ attention.

It turned out Charles wasn’t the only one distracted. There was a beautiful, confident young redhead striding towards them, covered entirely in blue body paint as the crowd around her gawked. As she approached, she smiled at both of them, and at this distance Erik noticed that she was wearing yellow contacts. He got a shock when she opened her mouth and an entirely familiar voice came out, “Want me to pick up your jaws, fellas?”

Raven?” Charles spluttered in disbelief. Now that she was closer, Erik noticed the fine, intricate patterns running all over her arms, legs and torso. Although she had initially appeared to be naked, Erik could see now that this wasn’t the case: a scanty blue string bikini still kept her relatively modest. As for her bright red hair, it appeared to be the same wig she had lent him for Halloween, albeit with a little trim after the ‘damage’ they had inflicted. Overall, Erik admiringly decided that her efforts were quite exceptional.

“Raven, what are you...where are your clothes?” Poor Charles was obviously still flustered and stunned, trying very hard to avoid looking at Raven’s almost-nude form.

Raven rolled her golden eyes. “Lighten up, Charles! Geez,” she said crossly. “It’s not like I’m naked or anything. Christ, there are dudes walking around with their junk hanging out.” She gestured towards a couple walking past who fit her exact description, and Charles quickly averted his eyes.

“I don’t mean to sound like an old fart—” Charles began.

“Which you are,” Raven cut in, and a wounded Charles blinked at her in surprise.

“Settle down.” Erik realised he was going to have to step in before an argument broke out in earnest. “Raven, you just caught us by surprise, that’s all.”

Raven turned to him, determined. “What do you think, Erik?”

“Me?” Erik gave her a considering look. “You’re a walking fuck-you to society. Of course I approve.”

She beamed brightly at him. “I thought you would. I woke up at 4am just to get this ready, and I think it’s entirely worth it.”

“But why? Where did you get the idea from?” A confused Charles was tentatively reaching out and running his fingers gently over the scaly blue paint, and Raven proudly flexed her bicep so that he could have a better feel.

“I just wanted to do something that defies the conventional beauty standards that society tries to force on women,” she explained, as Charles nodded with an ‘ah’ of understanding. “Instead of being blonde with blue eyes, I figured...what about being blue with blonde eyes?” She gave them a knowing wink, her golden eyes flashing.

“Absolutely wunderbar,” Erik said, nodding. “It’s a beautiful costume. If I looked like you, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

“Thank you, Erik. At least one of you appreciates the hard work I put in. I’d give you a hug, but I don’t want to get blue paint all over you,” Raven said apologetically, gesturing down at herself.

“I suppose it just takes some getting used to,” Charles admitted. “But the effort you put into it is amazing, my dear. I’m interested to hear what Hank has to say about this. Where is the bugger anyway?”

Erik didn’t miss the way Raven’ smile stiffened at the mention of Hank. “He’s busy working, he couldn’t make it for Pride,” she said a little distantly, smoothing down a wrinkle in her bikini top. She didn’t seem particularly upset, just a bit annoyed. Maybe they had just had a tiff.

“Oh, that’s a shame, I had wanted to ask him if he could be the videographer for our wedding,” Charles said, and instantly Erik lit up at the mention of matrimony, lips quirking into a smile that he simply couldn’t help. He pressed a kiss to Charles’ temple, and Charles had the same, silly grin on his face.

“Well, I’m sure you could ask him yourself once we’re all back in LA,” Raven said flatly, before seeming to brush it off. She stepped forward, linking her arm with Erik’s. “Anyway, I believe we have a parade to attend, gentlemen.”

“That’s right, we do.” Erik offered his other unoccupied arm to Charles, who gladly took it with a fond smile as the three of them started walking arm-in-arm, heading towards the contingent as a united front.

* * * * *

Charles made sure he never lost hold of Erik’s hand as their security detail hurriedly escorted the two of them from the town car to the Main Stage in Civic Center Plaza, located right beside City Hall. The warm weight of Erik’s hand in his anchored Charles in the here and now, even as his entire mind and body still thrummed with excitement over having marched in the parade. HRC had invited them to give the closing speech on behalf of the organisation; however, they were now running slightly behind schedule, as the Bradley Manning contingent had started some two hours behind the main float that they were supposed to have been with.

Charles had absolutely no regrets.

Nothing could quite compare to the rush of adrenaline that Charles had experienced as he’d marched in the contingent alongside Erik, having lost Raven to the masses along the way. Hundreds of thousands of people had lined Market Street for the parade, a sense of celebration in the air as the crowds cheered loudly for the colourful floats and contingents passing them by. One after another, participants of the reportedly 2,000-strong contingent for the Bradley Manning Support Network had come up to them, each one offering up their personal stories as they shook hands and posed for pictures. Charles had felt a deep, intimate connection with every one of them, touched that he had been made privy to parts of their heart and soul that few others ever had the privilege of seeing.

Erik, too, had shown a rare display of openness that Charles had never witnessed him extend to the fans that walked up to them on the streets of LA or those that waited in line at red carpet events. Charles had watched in amazement as Erik had encouraged and praised the numerous men and women who had shared their personal journeys with them, a look of pure conviction on Erik’s face as he gave them his undivided attention. As each of those parade participants thanked them and went back to their places, Charles had sensed that Erik’s words had truly made a difference to their day, and he had been filled with a staggering amount of pride that the rest of the world was slowly starting to see in Erik the good, wonderful person that Charles had always known him to be. It had been so clear then that there was no better man he could possibly spend the rest of his life with, and Charles had imagined for a moment that they were marching together down the aisle instead, loved ones flanking them on both sides rather than scores of nameless faces.

They had just arrived at the back of the stage when Charles reached up and buried his fingers in Erik’s hair, pulling him down for a deep kiss that left Erik in a surprised stupor. “Thank you for making me go down there,” Charles said, smiling when Erik’s expression softened at his words. It wasn’t that he hadn’t wanted to go with Erik. It had been quite the opposite, really, and if Charles hadn’t felt burdened by responsibilities, he would have followed Erik in a heartbeat. He would follow Erik anywhere and always, even until all of civilisation had long since crumbled down to sand.

“I’m just happy you chose to come with me in the end,” Erik said and captured Charles’ lips once more, his arm curling around Charles’ waist to draw him near.

Charles let his hands linger when their lips parted, his palms cupping Erik’s face and tilting it so that he could look Erik right in the eyes. “I can’t stop thinking about the others out there, all those minds that we touched. I could feel them; their isolation, their hopes, their ambitions,” Charles said, gradually being overcome by a brilliant sense of exhilaration. He had felt the smiles, buoyed by hope, as he and Erik had marched together with the sea of people. A sort of release had rippled through the crowd, a vindication, and Charles knew that whatever he and Erik chose now had the potential to change both their lives forever. “I tell you we can start something incredible, Erik. We can help them.”

“That’s exactly what we’re here to do,” Erik said, pressing their foreheads together. Charles closed his eyes as they stood there, breathing in each other’s presence. He caressed Erik’s temples with his fingertips, the resulting soft rumble from Erik’s throat sending a deep shudder down Charles’ spine. Charles knew that he would never feel as connected to another human being as he did with Erik. They were inseparable, like two poles of a single magnet, never meant to survive apart. And Charles was convinced that, together, he and Erik could remake the world.

They were so caught up in each other that they didn’t notice when HRC President Chad Griffin came up to them. It all became a blur after that, the three of them exchanging pleasantries before Chad rushed onstage to introduce them. Charles heard screams from the audience gathered below, and he and Erik took that as their cue to step out from backstage, the raucous cheers from the thousands of Pride attendees nearly ear-shattering as the two of them made their way to the podium.

Charles took a moment to compose himself, feeding off the high energy that was coming from the capacity crowd. Never in his wildest dreams had Charles thought that he would one day be addressing such a massive audience, on a topic that was so close to his heart. The sheer amount of hope he felt at seeing the thousands of LGBT community members and straight allies that had turned out in support was completely overpowering, and his heart felt full enough to burst.

He straightened his posture and waited for the cheers to die down, then turned to the HRC team that was off to the side. “Thank you, Chad, for that very kind introduction. And for the wonderful work that you and the good people at the Human Rights Campaign do each and every day. Erik and I are truly honoured to offer our services however we can,” Charles began, nodding in acknowledgement before turning his attention back to the crowd.

“A few years ago, I could not have imagined that I would one day be out and proud, and engaged to an amazing man whom I dearly love,” Charles said. He felt the familiar caress of Erik’s hand on the small of his back, and tilted his head up to smile lovingly at Erik in response. How different life would have been, if they had never met. Knowing what they had together now, to live in a world without Erik would be a fate worse than death, and something that absolutely didn’t bear thinking about. He gave Erik’s other hand a tender squeeze and continued. “As we partake in the festivities this weekend, let us remember that none of the freedoms that we enjoy today would have been possible without the courage and sacrifice of our LGBT brothers and sisters that came before us.”

It was Erik’s turn to step forward, and Charles shifted away slightly so Erik could have the microphone. “Rights are won only by those who make their voices heard,” Erik stated firmly, his tone powerful and determined. “We must do what’s necessary to secure our future, so that we are never again subjected to a level of treatment that violates basic human decency.” Erik always had a commanding on-camera presence that Charles relished watching from behind the scenes, but witnessing Erik address the masses was something else entirely. Erik was passionate, inspirational, every flick of his wrist a demand for attention. Erik was a born leader, and the public gathered before them loved him. “Society has always found it difficult to accept us. Extreme conservatives even believe that there is a cure.”

Charles tightened his mouth into a grim line and balled his right hand up into a fist, pressing it against the top of the podium. He leaned in towards the microphone and raised his voice. “We are here to say that being gay is an identity, not a disability.” Charles lifted his hand to place his palm against his chest, the steady rhythm beneath his flesh and bones like the loud beating of war drums. “It is as much a part of me as my heart, or my legs. We’re not asking for superior treatment, we are only asking to be treated as equals.”

Charles noticed people in the crowd nodding in agreement, and glanced up to find Erik doing the same as well. After all the time that he and Erik had spent together, they were now often able to anticipate what each other would say in any given situation. Charles was well aware of how special that was, to find a person who complemented him perfectly. To be so in sync with each other that they could even carry out whole conversations with a simple look, or a twitch of a lip, without ever having to say a word.

As if on cue, Erik bent forward to add on to what Charles had said, his words laced with an undercurrent of steel, “We were born into a world where our basic rights were stripped from us, purely because we are different. Humanity has always feared that which is different, and that fear can turn to hatred.”

Wanting to soften the message, Charles quickly joined in, saying, “Many of us have been bullied, ostracised, even victimised. And so you, too, are afraid.” He paused, remembering the few times he had been roughed up in the schoolyard for having “red lips like a girl”. He’d told Erik the story once, casually over a couple pints of weissbier, and Erik had been so furious that Charles could have sworn that Erik was about to dig up his old yearbook to hunt them all down - and possibly dagger them one by one. Charles had put on a stern face and insisted that Erik did no such thing, but he had been secretly pleased, and he knew in his gut that Erik had been able to tell. Charles stood tall, shaking off the ghosts of his past. “But with time, it will get better,” he said calmly, with a hint of wisdom that came with age. He felt Erik’s arm wrap around his waist, strong and comforting, silently telling Charles that he knew what he was talking in circles around. Of course he knew. “And frightened as you may be, that pain will make you stronger. If you let yourself feel it, embrace it, it will make you more powerful than you ever imagined.”

“Today was a display of our power, of what we can accomplish if all of us stand together,” Erik declared as his eyes swept Civic Center Plaza, spreading his arms to indicate his captive audience. “We won the right for the freedom to marry, but the fight is not over yet. On distant shores, brothers and sisters of our community are still being oppressed and marginalised. We are here to tell the world that this invisible prison of theirs won't hold us forever.” Erik clenched his outstretched hands into tight fists to punctuate his words, and sections of the crowd roared in approval. Erik was completely in his element amidst the rising fervour of the gathered assembly, a magnetic presence that demanded the focus of the network news cameras and eager reporters situated in the media pit below them. Charles gazed upon him with a sense of wonderment, and if he hadn’t been onstage right there next to Erik, he too would have joined the masses in vocalising his undying support.

“I have faith that our institutions are capable of change,” Charles stated, projecting his voice above the shouts from the riled up crowd. “Mankind has fought long and hard for gender, racial and religious equality, and I believe there's going to be a time when we're all together.” He gestured to a large group of youths standing close to the front of the stage, holding up a banner for the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, and broke into a broad smile when they screamed enthusiastically in response. “There is a political tide turning. I think that people’s eyes are being opened. They are becoming more understanding, more tolerant. And, someday, we will all come to realise that if we can't learn to live together, we shall surely die apart.”

Charles paused as people applauded and cheered, feeling heartened that there was a renewed sense of hope in the community. He scanned the faces in the crowd, noting that there were some that appeared to have their reservations, like strangers on the outside looking in. He finally spotted Raven in the corner, still painted blue and beautiful as always, and a deep surge of fondness rushed through him as he remembered the early years of his career, how it had felt like it was just the two of them against the world. They smiled meaningfully at each other, and Charles continued with his speech when he turned his gaze away. “I understand that there are some among us who have not been accepted by the people you love, but I urge you not to give up on them. Just because someone stumbles, loses their way, doesn’t mean they’re lost forever. In the meantime, let us be your home,” Charles said, extending a hand out to the crowd. “You are not alone.”

His mind went to Erik the instant he’d uttered those words; home was with Erik now. Charles tore his attention away from their audience and looked up at Erik, who was gazing at him with such affection that Charles felt his breath stutter to a halt. He withdrew his outstretched hand and held it up to Erik, who swiftly reached out to interlace their fingers. “You are not alone,” they said in unison, to each other rather than the masses before them.

The cheers that erupted were almost deafening, but Charles was only distantly aware of them. In that moment, he and Erik were all that existed, everything else silenced by a blanket of white noise. It was as if they were sealed off from the rest of the world, suspended in time, the love he felt for Erik so completely all-consuming that Charles wouldn’t have flinched even if Death himself were knocking at his door.

Erik tightened his grip on his hand, and Charles knew, with Erik, he would never be on his own again.

He and Erik turned back together to face the thousands gathered in the open plaza, hands clasped and with no intention of ever letting go. Erik spoke first. “And to our LGBT brothers and sisters out there, we say this: No more hiding.”

Loud shouts of approval filled the air. Charles felt a warm smile spread across his face as he remembered the first time Erik had said those words to him, on a beautiful Wednesday morning almost two years ago. Looking back, Charles realised he had already decided then that Erik was the man he was going to marry someday. And perhaps Erik had, too.

“No more suffering,” Charles added, earning them further cries of support.

“You have lived in the shadows in shame and fear for too long,” Erik proclaimed, his voice booming from the speakers and resounding across the square. He lifted the hand that wasn't holding onto Charles’ and beckoned to the countless men and women gathered before them. “Come out. Join us!” Erik called out, the crowd roaring louder with each command. The spectators raised their banners and waved their flags en masse, and Charles was overpowered by a giddy surge of exultation. He thought of all the people that stood before them, as well as the multitude more that would watch the footage on YouTube, or read about this in an online feature, and was gripped by the belief that what they did here today had the potential to accomplish a great amount of good. Charles thrust their joined hands in the air as moisture filled his eyes, and did his best to hold himself together when the crowd responded in thundering cheers.

“Proposition 8 hurt our hearts deeply, but it emboldened a movement like we’ve never seen before,” Charles declared. He leaned in close to the microphone, and infused a sense of gravitas into his voice as he continued, “We are on the brink of a new and uncertain world. A world of endless possibilities, and infinite outcomes.”

Next to him, Erik gave his hand a firm squeeze, and Charles made room for him as Erik pressed up against his side. “We have wasted more time fighting each other than going against the people that attack us each and every day,” Erik said, stabbing his index finger in the air to emphasize his point. “Let us unite and fight together, in the brotherhood of our kind.” Flecks of ginger in Erik’s auburn hair caught the light of the early evening sun, and Charles thought Erik looked like a hero from the pages of a history book, head held high and gaze set firmly on the horizon, ready to take on the world.

“Everything that happens now is in your hands,” Charles said, fixing his eyes on their audience expectantly. “Countless choices define our fate. Each choice, each moment, a ripple in the river of time,” he continued, shifting his attention from one group of spectators to the next. He gestured to the attendees at large, intent on rallying the crowd, and threw his voice to the back of the plaza, “Enough ripples and you change the tide.”

Charles felt Erik trace his strong fingers affectionately over the tops of his knuckles, and turned his head up to face the one person whose regard meant more to him than anything else in existence. Erik was watching him intensely, something raw and untamed behind his eyes.

‘Love you,’ he mouthed to Erik. Just because Erik already knew the extent of his adoration, didn’t mean that Charles should stop reminding him that it would always be true. He sensed a warm fluttering in his stomach when Erik silently repeated the words back to him, and indicated the microphone with a slight tilt of his head to let Erik know it was his for the taking.

Erik held out his free hand, clutching onto Charles’ hand tightly with the other as Charles gripped him fiercely back. “The future of our community begins now,” Erik said, looking straight into the cameras. Charles couldn’t take his eyes off Erik, utterly captivated by how the passion Erik felt for this greater calling played across his features. Erik shifted his gaze back to address the legions in the plaza, the Pride flags flying as a strong breeze swept through the area. “A new tomorrow, that starts today,” Erik added with a note of finality. He turned to behold Charles once more, and they smiled tenderly at each other as the plaza erupted in applause. Erik wrapped his arms around Charles and swept him up in an instant, the two of them sharing a frantic, emotionally charged kiss. It felt as though they were standing together at the end of the beginning. And Charles knew, from that moment on, the world would never be the same again.

* * * * *


Notes:
1. The title of this chapter is a quote from 'La La Land'.
2. Erik and Charles started The Brotherhood together in San Francisco in Ultimate X-Men #26.
3. Bradley Manning is a United States Army soldier who was convicted in July 2013 of violations of the Espionage Act. The day after sentencing, a press release was issued to announce that Manning is a trans woman, and asked that she be referred to by her new name, Chelsea Manning.
4. “I’m with you till the end of the line.” is a quote from ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’.
5. Ellen Page came out during HRC’s inaugural ‘Time to Thrive’ conference on Valentine’s Day 2014.
6. “Rights are won only by those who make their voices heard.” is a quote by Harvey Milk.
7. Sir Ian McKellen was a Celebrity Grand Marshal for San Francisco Pride 2002. Footage of him addressing the crowd from the Main Stage can be found here.
8. The handsome, half-naked guy Hank gets so jealous of is Broadway and TV star Jonathan Groff.
9. If you would like the manips used in the Facebook artwork, they can be found here.

Chapter Text

Driving into Manhattan was something that Erik usually tried to avoid, as he hated the crowds and the crawling traffic. Charles didn’t mind getting recognised and posing for selfies and autographs, but Erik disliked feeling like a public commodity so they tried their best to minimise their visits to the city. However, certain occasions were unavoidable, such as Charles having to meet his lawyers at their office on Fifth Avenue. Throughout the hour-long drive, Erik could feel the dread weighing down his stomach, but Charles made it all better by constantly rubbing Erik’s back and adorably rambling on about all the places they could visit on their honeymoon. Erik kept shooting Charles fond glances, willing to suffer through any major inconveniences - like lawyers or Manhattan traffic - just for this wonderful man.

Thankfully Fifth Avenue wasn’t too congested today, so they were able to get a parking spot outside the Crown Building after a short wait. Unfortunately, Erik’s mood quickly soured when he spotted Trump Tower across the street, his eyes narrowing in a glare.

“Come on, darling.” Charles sounded amused as he took Erik’s hand and squeezed it, not letting go. “Don’t let that arrogant tosser bother you.”

“I know, Liebling, but I can’t help it. It has his big, ugly name on it.” In the past, Erik had gotten into a huge Twitter feud with The Don when Erik had publicly turned down taking part in Celebrity Apprentice, swearing that he would rather eviscerate himself than appear on that failing reality show. Erik contented himself with throwing one last glare at the building before pulling Charles closer to him, their arms around each other’s waists as they headed into the lift lobby.

Charles was practically buzzing with excitement as they rode the lift up to the offices of Stryker & Sons, much to Erik’s bewilderment. “Care to share what’s going on?” Erik asked, unable to recall an occasion when he had visited his own lawyers filled with anything but a deep sense of loathing.

“That would spoil the surprise,” Charles said and gave Erik a quick peck on the cheek right before the lift doors opened, stepping forward to lead the way into the opulently decorated reception area of the Xavier family’s private attorneys.

What appeared to be the entire law firm stood waiting for them past the front door, and Erik briefly wondered just how much the Xaviers were paying for their retainer to warrant the ridiculous welcome bandwagon. “William Stryker,” introduced a well-built, senior man as he firmly shook Erik’s hand.

“Jason Stryker, at your service,” said a younger man, much slighter in physique and looking like he barely left the office to see the light of day. Erik and Charles exchanged formalities with the father and son duo before making the rounds with the partners and associates gathered, and Erik had a stack of name cards in his hand by the time they were finally done.

“Erik, why don’t you help yourself to a drink while I settle some business with Jason?” Charles said, motioning to the cluster of whisky decanters on the art deco table by the side. Erik nodded at Charles, hoping that the time he would have to spend alone with the suits would be brief.

“Right this way, Mr. Xavier,” Jason said, escorting Charles along with some of his associates to his office and leaving Erik in the boardroom with William and a gaggle of his underlings.

Erik was contemplating pouring a couple of fingers of whisky for want of something to busy himself with - and more importantly, avoid small talk - when William signalled to one of the suits, who brought over a file and pulled out a thin stack of white bond paper. The man in black placed the documents in front of him, the words “PRENUPTIAL AGREEMENT” screaming up at him in big, bold letters.

Erik’s blood ran cold.

“What is this?” Erik asked, trying to buy some time while his brain caught up.

“Prenuptial agreements are standard practice for all Xavier marriages, Mr. Lehnsherr,” William explained. “Mrs. Xavier signed one before her wedding as well. The family is worth over three billion pounds. I trust you understand.”

Erik scanned the pages of the agreement, only half registering the legalese while William’s authoritative voice continued, “We know you will need your attorneys to review the terms, so if you provide us with their contacts, my people will email them the draft and we will have a separate meeting at your earliest convenience--”

“No,” Erik interjected. Dark thoughts were creeping into his head, suggesting that if Charles needed him to sign this, then they were over before they even began. At the same time, Erik knew he could not fault Charles for wanting to protect his estate. The old Erik would have done the same. However, the present him would be the first to admit that his judgement always went out the window when it came to Charles, damn it all if that meant he was weak. The devil was whispering in his ear, and Erik decided that the sooner he got this over and done with the better. “Hand me a pen and I’ll sign this right now.”

The lawyers looked surprised, but William nodded to the same man who had given Erik the papers and he pulled a fountain pen from his pocket, passing it to Erik. Erik took a deep breath to steady his hand, then neatly signed his name on the dotted line on both copies. There, done.

Erik looked up as the door to the boardroom swung wide, Jason holding it open for Charles who strolled in beaming. “Darling, sorry for keeping you waiting,” Charles said as he came over, wrapping an arm around Erik to affectionately rest his hand on Erik’s shoulder. Erik remained resolutely still, vaguely aware of Charles cocking his head to the side questioningly.

“Here.” Erik passed Charles the partially executed prenup and pen without looking him in the eyes. He felt utterly drained. “I’ve signed it. Let’s just go home.”

“Hmm?” Charles took the documents from him, and Erik snapped his gaze to Charles when he heard the sound of crunching paper. “Bill, what is the meaning of this?” Charles questioned, his voice raised. Charles’ hands had balled into fists, white knuckled and trembling. “Did my mother put you up to this?”

William remained stone-faced. “Mrs. Xavier had nothing to do with this. Our firm always has your family’s best interests at heart, and the prenup would ensure that your assets remain secured if you and Mr. Lehnsherr choose to part ways.”

“The last thing I'll be concerned with in the event of a divorce is just how many stately homes I stand to lose!” Charles was seething, and Erik would have been grinning like a proud parent for rubbing off on Charles if he had not been so stunned.

“That's what many of our famous clients say before marriage, but all of them regret not signing a prenup later on. I don’t need to tell you what the statistics for Hollywood marriages are like,” William said defensively, but Erik could tell that Stryker Senior was cracking.

That had evidently been the wrong thing to say. A furious Charles ripped the prenup right down the middle in one swift motion, silencing the room. “I should fire you all.”

Charles turned to a pale and visibly shaken Jason. “If you would hand me the deed…please.”

Jason hurried over with another bunch of papers and gave them to Charles. “Please accept my sincerest apologies on behalf of the firm. It was not our intention to offend you or Mr. Lehnsherr.”

Charles rubbed his temples. “Leave, all of you. I can’t even look at any of you right now.” The lawyers made haste and exited the boardroom, leaving Erik with a still-fuming Charles.

Marching to the side, Charles poured himself a generous portion of whisky. He winced as he knocked the drink back, causing Erik to raise a concerned eyebrow.

“Save some for me, Liebling,” Erik said, which seemed to break Charles out of the trance he was in. Charles chuckled dryly as he shook his head, refilling his glass and pouring one for Erik, too.

Charles brought back the drinks and placed them on the mahogany boardroom table with a sigh, and Erik silently cursed the Strykers and their ilk for upsetting Charles so badly. Erik pulled Charles in and kissed his temple, relieved when he felt Charles slowly relax in his arms. “I can’t imagine what you must have thought of me,” Charles said quietly.

“No less than I do right now,” Erik confessed. “And the part where you tore up the prenup was by far the highlight of my week.”

Charles laughed at that, and reached out to grab the papers on the table. “This is the real reason why I wanted you to come down with me,” Charles said as he passed them to Erik. “The thing that means the most to me is you. And I want you to know that all I have is yours.”

Erik glanced down at the title deed in his hand as Charles continued, “I’ve listed you as joint tenant of the place at Westchester, and we will retitle it to tenants by the entirety after the wedding. So you will always have a home there, even if something happens to me.”

Dropping the papers on the table, Erik cupped Charles’ face and kissed him fiercely. Nobody in this world deserved Charles Xavier. Charles’ lips were sweet with the heady taste of scotch, willingly pliant and utterly intoxicating. “Don’t you even dare think of dying,” Erik whispered.

“Everyone has to die sometime,” Charles murmured against Erik’s lips before pulling him down for another kiss. “But I don’t plan on leaving until we’re both old and grey.”

“We’ll be cranky old bastards together,” Erik said with a smirk on his face.

Charles put on a token pout. “Speak for yourself. I’ll be the sweet, feeble Gramp.”

Erik looked at Charles questioningly. “After that display just now? I find it very hard to believe.” Erik grinned when that earned him a light shove, proving his point. “It’s funny, I always knew your family was made of money – it just never occurred to me it was that much money.”

A thought occurred to Erik and he paused, recalling the decorations and artworks displayed around the mansion in Westchester. “That Goya painting in the foyer…?”

“Witches in the Air,” Charles answered.

Erik shook his head in amusement. “It’s real, isn’t it?” He didn’t wait for an answer, instead picking up the pen and signing his name next to Charles’ on the Westchester title deed. It was the first time they had both signed something together that wasn’t a promotional poster or a glossy magazine cover. This was the beginning of their next step as a couple, and he couldn't imagine taking it with anyone else. He turned his attention back to Charles and gave him a knowing wink. “I suppose I shouldn't have propped you up against it that one time we made love in the foyer.”

Erik felt Charles wrap his arms around him, holding him closer. “Well, those barely-clad warlocks saw more action in one night than during their entire time at the Museo del Prado. I bet they loved it.”

* * * * *

Charles let out a pleased sigh as he held the chilled champagne bottle to his cheek, lingering in front of the refrigerator door for a moment to enjoy the cool air leaking out from the compartment. It boggled his mind that it had been years since the drought in California had begun and that it was somehow growing worse by the month now that they were in the middle of summer. Charles knew Erik found it rather hilarious whenever he got into heated debates – no pun intended – with climate change deniers, but it honestly took all of his self-control to refrain from telling every last one of them to go back to school when California had evidently barely seen a drop of rain since ‘First Class’ was showing in theatres.

Charles wasn’t sure how much more of the heat he could take, and he was secretly looking forward to the blissful reprieve of gloomy London weather after they were done with filming. Grabbing a couple of champagne flutes, Charles headed for the living room where Erik was sprawled across the sofa with his laptop, dutifully researching venues for their big day.

Erik shook his head fondly when he spotted the champagne bottle. “I thought you said you were thirsty.”

Charles shrugged and poured Erik a full glass. “Save water, drink champagne, as they say.”

Laughing, Erik sat up and put his laptop aside, accepting the glass with one hand and using the other to tug Charles gently towards him, careful not to spill both their drinks. “In the spirit of saving water, may I also suggest that we take more showers together?” he said with a smirk.

Charles chuckled as he sipped from his glass. “I’d wager that we already do that far too often, darling.”

Settling down against Erik’s side, Charles reached for his own Macbook and continued where he’d left off looking up destination weddings on the other side of the pond. Having spent the last hour or so reading about everything from the Roman Baths to the Royal Pavilion to Highclere Castle, Charles still wasn’t anywhere near figuring out where exactly to hold their nuptials.

After the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act passed in England and Wales in the middle of July, Mother had jumped at the chance to have him and Erik hold their wedding back home. Charles supposed he should be glad that Mother finally felt comfortable enough to parade her son and his “movie star fiancé” in front of her high-society friends, and holding the wedding in the U.K. meant that it would be much less of a distance for Erik’s parents to travel. However, Charles also knew that Mother would only be happy if the wedding had enough pomp and pageantry to land a spread in Tatler, and he worried that Erik would not want the same.

He looked over to Erik who was, curiously enough, scrolling through a page on bespoke silverware. Charles placed his hand on Erik’s thigh, squeezing gently. “Darling, are you sure this is what you want? We could always go for something simple like a visit to City Hall.”

Erik gave him a wry smile. “If we were going for something small and private, then we would have gotten married in San Fran last month, right? Although to be honest, I was tempted to march you down the aisle right there and then.” He rubbed Charles’ knee with a grin. “We did agree we wanted our family and friends to be there.”

“I know, I know.” Charles started toying with Erik’s long, elegant fingers resting on his knee. “Sometimes it just feels overwhelming, you know? Planning a wedding of this scale, I mean.”

Erik’s expression grew serious. “Liebling, you know I’m happy to go along with anything you decide, as long as I get to call you my husband at the end of the day. If you want simple, we’ll do simple. If you want a fairytale wedding, then we’ll do that. I’ll follow you anywhere, everywhere.”

Charles couldn’t stop himself from tugging Erik close and kissing him firmly. “I must be the luckiest chap in the world,” he said, beaming as Erik blushed under the praise. “Thank you, darling. We’ll stick to the original plan then, hmm? Or else we’ll never hear the end of it from Mother.”

“Mama will definitely strangle me if she finds out we got married without her and Papa in attendance,” Erik reminded him.

“Ah, I wouldn’t want to start off our marriage by offending my new parents.” Charles gave Erik one last peck on the lips before they both settled back on the couch, scrolling through various sites and suggested wedding locales.

“How big a place are we looking for?” Erik shot Charles an amused glance. “I guess what I’m really asking is how many thousands of people you’re planning on inviting.”

Laughing, Charles tucked his feet under Erik’s thighs. “You’re not being fair, darling. I’m sure your invitation list has a large number of people, too.”

Erik arched an eyebrow at him. “If it were up to me, I’d invite only four people: my parents, Emma and that French moron.”

Charles nudged him with a chuckle. “Honestly, be nicer to Remy, will you? That poor chap cheerfully puts up with your grumpiness on a daily basis.”

Erik made a big show out of sighing, although Charles could see Erik was fighting back a smile. “Fine, I’ll try for your sake, Liebling.”

“Good.” Charles gave him a kiss on the cheek in gratitude. “Now, for proposed locations, what about the Xavier family manor in Reading?” He tugged his Macbook closer and clicked open a few pictures to show Erik. “I like it because it somewhat looks like our place in Westchester. Also, I’d get to invite my Eton chums. Many of them live in the south countryside.”

“All in stately manors too, I suppose,” Erik said dryly, although he quickly gave Charles an apologetic nuzzle when he saw Charles’ pout. “I’m just teasing, of course I’ll be happy to meet all your schoolmates and find out what you were like as a boy.”

“I was a massive nerd.” Charles ducked his head in embarrassment. “My head was always buried in my books.”

Leaning in, Erik whispered, “Remind me to tell you about my librarian fetish someday,” which made both of them burst into laughter.

“I’ve created a monster,” Charles admonished him teasingly, before turning back to the Macbook. “So, are we going ahead with the Reading manor?”

Erik had his head tilted in contemplation. Charles could practically hear the wheels turning in his head. “Actually, I was thinking... if we’re going for something grand, why not go for broke?” he suggested. “Like a castle?”

Charles’ mouth dropped open in surprise. “A castle? Really?”

Erik nodded firmly. “Why not? Nothing says ‘fairytale wedding’ like a castle.”

Now that Erik had brought up the idea, it seemed like an excellent suggestion that made Charles wonder why he had not considered it before. It reminded Charles of the time when he and Erik had slow-danced inside Neuschwanstein Castle, like a scene straight out of ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Besides, Mother would be over the moon for the perfect opportunity to impress her high-society friends. The idea was looking better and better.

Charles must have been smiling, for Erik was now brushing his hair back fondly. “I’m guessing you’re on board with this?”

“One of your best ideas yet,” Charles agreed. “Much like the first time you asked me out to dinner.”

“Ah, Brazilian food. Should we get them to cater the wedding?” Erik laughed as Charles’ eyes grew wide with excitement. “Now now, I was just joking. Mama hasn’t said anything but I’m betting she’s expecting everything to be kosher.”

“Yes, of course.” Charles mentally scanned through the list of kosher caterers that he’d been keeping a tally of ever since he knew he wanted to marry Erik. “My word, this whole wedding planning business is quite a lot to deal with. I’ll have to start making calls, asking for quotes--”

“Don’t stress yourself,” Erik said gently, stroking his arm. “It’s supposed to be the happiest day of our lives. We should let other people do the stressful parts. Want me to call my favourite assistant in the world?

Charles laughed. “We can’t ask poor Remy to plan our wedding! Don’t you need training and experience for that sort of thing?”

Shrugging, Erik tapped on his keyboard. “Okay, maybe not him. But in your long and storied rom-com career, I’m sure you’ve met some wedding planners, right?”

Nodding, Charles shifted his position so he could use Erik’s shoulder as a pillow. “Let’s see now, there were quite a few talented ladies and men that I came across while filming.” He thought for a while, before inspiration struck him. “Maybe we could ask Sarah Haywood? She’s the best wedding planner I’ve ever met, because she plans all these extravagant billionaire weddings.”

After a quick web search, they spent a good part of an hour ooh-ing and aah-ing over her elegant website and the various examples of weddings she had planned. Erik predictably was sold when he spotted magenta napkins in one of the displays, his eyes widening in approval. “I think she’s perfect,” he declared. “Charles, if you like her too, then let’s go with Sarah Haywood as our planner.”

“Of course!” Charles palmed Erik’s cheek. “How about the location? Should we let her suggest a castle property she’s familiar with? Or do we want to pick it ourselves?”

It wasn’t a surprise that Erik fully wanted control over where their wedding would be held. “I’m sure we can find a castle property we both like. Come on, we’ll both search and let me know if you find anything good.”

A few hours of intense Googling and discussion threw up some suggestions they each liked for individual reasons; Erik tended to prefer the dark, forbidding gothic-style castles while everything on Charles’ list looked like it came straight out of a Disney movie. In the end, they both settled for a location that was on both their lists: Pembroke Castle in West Wales. Charles loved its medieval charm and history, while Erik appreciated the fact that it had a moat. “Excellent for keeping out paps,” Erik said with a smirk.

Charles laughed. “Is that the only reason you like it? Honestly, darling.”

“Of course not.” Erik gave him a chaste kiss. “I love it because that’s where I’ll be marrying the man of my dreams. So, shall I get Remy to call Sarah Haywood? Darwin can help us check for Pembroke’s availability.”

“I never fail to be surprised by this side of you,” Charles said, grinning widely. “One would think you’re the rom-com expert, not me.”

“I have an excellent teacher.” Erik’s grin matched his, and they chuckled before getting back to work.

They had a wedding to plan, after all.

* * * * *

There was only about a week left until the shoot for ‘Strangers on a Train’ would finally be wrapping up. As much as Erik enjoyed working with Charles again, it was torture for him to be subjected to Charles’ and Jessica’s kissing scenes. Thankfully those were over, and all that was left to shoot was the grand climax with Guy’s and Bruno’s big fight scene at the end of the movie. Terrence had decided to change things up a bit for the reboot, and had the fight set on board a speeding runaway train rather than at the amusement park where Miriam was killed. Fighting Charles was almost as difficult as having to watch him kiss someone else; after all, Erik could never bring himself to even pretend to be violent to Charles.

Terrence was on the train set with them, bursting with energy as he talked them through the scene while the fight choreographer nodded beside him. Erik was itching to wrap his arms around Charles, but Terrence always frowned upon any displays of affection, wanting both of them to stay in character and hate each other. Instead, Erik settled for folding his arms across his chest, trying not to look too grumpy as Charles shot him a wan but understanding smile.

“So Charles, I really want you to put everything into this punch,” Terrence said. “Remember, this psychopath is ruining your life. He killed your wife and he’s demanding that you commit murder, too.”

Charles seemingly couldn’t help his wince. “Bruno is just misunderstood, he’s not a psychopath--”

“No, no, you have to stop thinking of this guy as your fiancé,” Terrence said impatiently. “He’s Bruno, not Erik.”

“I know, I know.” Poor Charles looked so miserable that Erik couldn’t help leaning over and pressing a kiss to his temple, ignoring Terrence’s sharp glare.

“Anyway, let’s do a take and see how it goes.” Terrence nodded at the fight choreographer, who gave them a quick rundown of how the scene was supposed to play out. It was very standard stuff, which they had already rehearsed countless times during fight training, and similar to directions Erik had been given for his other action movies. Then again, he hadn’t been required to convincingly act like he wanted to kill his fiancé in any of his previous fight scenes. How on earth did other acting couples do this?

The first few takes were dismal. Charles’ punches were half-hearted, and Erik couldn’t bring himself to rough up Charles like how the script had called for. The only thing that did work for them was the part where Erik had to wrestle Charles to the ground, but Terrence reprimanded them for smiling at each other during the scene.

“Jesus Christ, I thought you guys both won Oscars,” Terrence muttered as they watched the playbacks later on. “This looks more like a love scene instead of a fight scene, man.”

“You’re basically asking me to pin Charles to the ground,” Erik said dryly. “Be thankful we still have our clothes on.”

As the crew around them chuckled, Erik caught Charles’ fleeting frown. “I’m sorry, Terry. I'm just not very good with violence,” Charles said with a sigh. “Anyway you’re right, Erik and I are better than this.”

Erik instantly felt guilty. He of all people knew just how hard Charles had worked to be taken seriously as a ‘proper’ actor, and Charles always hated to look unprofessional during work. “It’s not Charles’ fault,” Erik immediately said, straightening his shoulders. “I’m the one not trying hard enough. Let’s run through the scene again.”

“You sure?” Terrence raised an eyebrow, but he must have been assured by the determination on Erik’s face since he didn’t bother waiting for an answer. “Okay then. Places, everyone!”

The following takes were significantly better, judging by the pleased smile on Terrence’s face. Erik forced himself to lock away his reluctance to hit Charles, tapping into his inner well of anger. He focused on all the things that easily filled him with rage: Shaw’s smug face, all the critics who had taken potshots at Charles over the years, even those hacks at TMZ.

It worked, judging by how Charles’ eyes widened in surprise before Erik tackled him to the ground, both of them heaving and panting in exertion. “Easy, darling,” Charles whispered in Erik’s ear, and when Terrence called for a cut, Erik gave him an apologetic kiss on the cheek.

“I didn’t hurt you, did I?” he asked worriedly.

“Don’t worry, I’m made of sturdy stuff,” Charles reassured him, patting his chest. “Come on love, let’s try again.”

They really got into the swing of it for the next take, and Erik was secretly alarmed to see Charles so red-faced and angry. “You ruined my life!” he shouted, grabbing Erik by the collar of his shirt and startling him, for that part wasn’t in the script. Charles must really be buried in his character. “You made the police think I killed Miriam!”

“Go to hell, a deal’s a deal!” Erik snarled at him, determined not to break character and let Charles down. They struggled in the moving ‘train’, Charles finally shoving him away and raising a fist for the landmark punch.

However, Charles must have mistimed the choreography when he swung just as the ‘train’ banked hard; Charles’ swift punch completely blindsided him and the left side of Erik’s mouth exploded in pain as he reeled back, stunned in shock.

Both of them lost their footing and crashed to the ground, Erik grabbing onto Charles and blindly reaching out to break their fall. “Erik!” he heard Charles cry out in horror. A sharp pain shot up his left hand and he groaned, letting a distressed Charles scoop him up into his arms. Somewhere in the background, Erik could hear Terrence yelling, “CUT!” before paging for medical assistance.

“Darling, are you all right?” Charles sounded frantic with worry and guilt. “I’m so, so sorry. I didn’t mean to-”

“It’s fine,” Erik assured him, although it probably didn’t help when Charles touched his mouth and his hand came away smeared with Erik’s blood. “Liebling, I promise I’m all right, it was just an accident--”

“Where’s the bloody medic?” Charles shouted at the nearest production assistant, and Erik realised just how upset he was. He had never seen Charles yelling at anyone on set, ever.

Two white-uniformed staff came running over with their medic kits, one examining Erik’s bleeding mouth while the other attended to his left hand.

“I’m so, so sorry, darling,” Charles whispered, those familiar bright blue eyes reddened and teary. He seemed completely oblivious to the flurry of people around them, stroking Erik’s hair tenderly while the medics worked around him.

“I’m fine, it’s just a bruise.” Erik tried his best not to wince as the medics began dabbing betadine on his lip. It throbbed in pain, along with the fingers of his left hand. Wanting to assess the damage, he tried to flex them a little but exclaimed with pain as he did so.

“Don’t move,” the medic warned him as she examined his fingers. “I think you busted your hand when you fell. Looks like a bad bone bruise.”

Charles’ arms tightened around him, and Erik shot the medic a glare for making Charles even more distressed. “It’s just a fall, I’ll be better in no time,” he said in his most determined tone.

The medic opened her mouth as if to dispute him, but she wisely shut it once she saw the murderous look on Erik’s face. Thankfully, Charles seemed to have collected himself by now, blinking rapidly as he took deep breaths. “It could have been worse,” he murmured, although Erik suspected Charles was trying to convince himself more than anything else.

“See? It’s nothing at all, we’ve had rougher episodes in bed,” Erik said with a smirk, gratified as Charles finally broke into a smile and the medics exchanged looks of amusement. “Did you hurt your hand, Charles?”

“Darling, don't be ridiculous. I'm not the one that's bleeding.” Charles waved off the medics when they heeded Erik’s remark and tried to examine the reddened knuckles of his right hand. “If you’re sure you’re all right,” Charles said uncertainly, but Erik stroked his cheek with his uninjured hand.

“You worry too much about me,” he chided Charles gently. “Come on, I need to let the medics patch me up.”

It was over in less than ten minutes, with Erik’s hand wrapped up in an ice pack. The head medic cautioned Erik that he might need a knuckle brace if the pain didn’t subside, and an x-ray might even be needed to ensure it wasn’t a fracture. However, she warned him that wearing any rings or other accessories was not allowed, at least until his hand healed.

Erik blinked in dismay. “But..my engagement ring--”

“No, not unless you don’t want your hand to get better,” she sternly said, looking at Charles for back-up. It was successful, judging from the way Charles was chewing on his lip in worry.

“Better listen to the experts, then.” Charles sighed, stroking Erik’s hair soothingly. “I’m so sorry, love. This is all my fault.”

Erik shrugged, about to tug Charles towards him and kiss his forehead when he suddenly remembered his busted lip and winced. He settled for rubbing Charles’ shoulders. “Honestly, I’m fine,” he said gently. “It was an accident, it could have happened to anyone.” Although if it had been some other poor sap instead of Charles who had accidentally hit him, Erik would have admittedly gone nuclear. Emma had always remarked (half-jokingly) that pre-Charles Erik would have loved any excuse to get into a brawl, particularly with the paps.

“Are you okay, Erik?” It was Terrence, his brow furrowed in concern. “Although I’d love to keep shooting because your injuries look so realistic, I have a feeling Charles might punch me next. So maybe we’d better call it a day, huh?”

Erik grinned even though it hurt his lip to be smiling so widely. His gentle, peace-loving Charles punching someone on purpose? Emma and Raven would fall all over themselves laughing.

Poor Charles had his mouth open in horror. “Terry, I would never--”

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” Terrence assured him. “Erik, go get some rest. We’ll see you guys tomorrow.”

* * * * *

The swelling had gone down after a few hours. Unfortunately, when Erik woke up the next day and examined himself in the mirror, the bruise around his mouth had turned a dark, angry purple. This made Charles fret even more, despite Erik’s assurances that he felt fine and had suffered far worse during his bartender days. As far as Erik was concerned, not being able to wear his engagement ring was the worst outcome out of this incident. Thankfully, Raven offered to lend him a silver chain so he could wear it around his neck, while Emma just laughed at him, calling him more henpecked than a bucket of corn.

Oh, and the paparazzi, of course. As usual, those bloodhounds were able to sniff Erik out when he was running an errand at CVS, picking up more antiseptic cream while Charles was on set to film some solo shots with Terrence. Leaving CVS with his hands in his pockets, the paps swarmed Erik the moment he stepped outside, blinding him with camera flashes. He could spot Remy waiting in the car across the road, frowning at the mob outside the pharmacy.

“Erik! Erik! What happened to your face? Why isn’t Charles with you?” one pap called out amidst the hubbub.

On his better days, Erik could force himself to be relatively pleasant (albeit in a curt way) to the press. However, his hand was still hurting and he was in no mood to entertain nosy paparazzi. “Don’t you have anything better to do?” he snapped, pushing away some idiot’s zoom lens waving in his face.

To Erik’s surprise, a hushed silence fell upon the mob, and he was wondering what had happened when everyone started shouting at the same time: “Erik, where’s your ring?” “Is the wedding off?” “Did you get into a fight with Charles and break up?”

The unrelenting cascade of questions left Erik too shell-shocked to react, everyone either yelling more stupid accusations at him or snapping pictures of his bare left hand. That was when some smartass shouted, “It’s over because Charles was the one who hit you, right?”

Red hot rage flooded Erik’s veins and he reached out blindly for the pap who made that offending remark, but there were just too many paparazzi surrounding him to tell who exactly it was. Erik would have happily kicked everyone’s asses if Remy hadn’t come to his rescue, shoving through the paps and shielding Erik as they scurried to the car. “Is this your new boyfriend?” someone commented. “Wow, is he a model? You sure move fast, Erik!”

“Ignore them,” Remy warned him as Erik snarled at the pap. “Don’t give them any fodder, mon ami.

Erik managed to get out one last, “Fuck off!” to the paps before Remy shoved him into the car and hopped in himself, the car peeling away from the curb with a screech. Still shaking with rage, Erik clenched his fists and forced himself to take deep breaths, ignoring Remy’s concerned glances. Letting out a long breath, Erik reached into his shirt for the chain around his neck, running his thumb along the engagement ring from Charles. The memory of Charles getting down onto one knee and smiling up at him - both of them surrounded by hundreds of calla lilies - helped to calm Erik a bit, and he could feel his shoulders loosening.

“You okay, homme?” Remy asked. “Ignore those bastards, they’re not worth your anger, oui?

Arschlöcher,” Erik muttered, not really wanting to voice just how grateful he was that Remy had insisted on accompanying him today. Otherwise, Erik would probably be in jail by now. “Did you see how gleeful they were? They were waiting for this to happen.”

“Of course, they’re paparazzi,” Remy said with a laugh. “A lot of them are probably going to get big fat bonuses for this. This is their bread and butter, mon ami.

“Don’t remind me.” Erik glared out of the window, wishing that Charles was here with him right now. Of course this had to happen today; didn’t Mama always remind him that bad luck came in threes?

Remy was grinning at Erik’s sullen face. “Oh, come on, look on the bright side! You’re one of the world’s two most handsome, eligible bachelors and you’re engaged to the other most handsome and eligible bachelor. You’re very lucky to be marrying Charles, non?” Remy shot him a sly glance. “In fact I’m surprised he hasn’t run for the hills yet.”

“Oh, shut up.” Erik skewered Remy with the best glare he could muster, but deep down he knew the moron was right. He would have suffered anything as long as he had Charles in his life.

“See, I’m always right,” Remy said with such smug satisfaction that Erik considered tossing him out of the car and driving himself back to the studio.

* * * * *

Chapter Text

Charles strolled alongside Erik as they made their way back to their trailer, holding onto Erik’s good hand with their fingers laced together. “May I at least convince you to have an x-ray done on your hand?” Charles implored, reaching out to gently take Erik’s left hand in his for a brief examination. It was covered in a thick layer of stage makeup to hide the bruising, as was Erik’s poor face.

Charles felt utterly terrible, doubly so after Erik had returned to the set yesterday afternoon visibly wound up over running into paparazzi. Erik had evaded his questions about the encounter, and Charles had had to pry it out of Remy to learn the full sordid details. Needless to say, it then became Charles’ turn to require calming down as he alternated between pure horror that anyone could assume he was capable of such a thing and furiously apologising to Erik that he had to endure all that because of him.

“Charles, for the umpteenth time, I’m fine. I've been in worse scrapes as a child,” Erik insisted, retrieving his hand and flexing his fingers to prove his point. Charles knew Erik was probably right, but he wished Erik would learn to depend on others for a change, rather than always soldiering on when he didn’t have to.

“All right, but don't overdo it during shooting, yes? We could always bring in a double,” Charles suggested. They were back to filming the train scene after Erik swore he was fit for duty, although Charles got the impression that Erik just wanted to avoid delaying production so they could get the hell out of Dodge.

Erik gave Charles a look that politely suggested that he thought Charles had gone stark raving mad. Charles was well aware that Erik never used doubles unless the insurance prohibited him from doing the stunt, and he really had little hope that Erik would start now. “Fine, fine, but we’re applying the hot gel pack the minute we get home,” Charles said.

Erik snorted. “Ja, Mama.”

Charles laughed as Erik unlocked the door to their trailer. Terry had called for a break while the crew made adjustments to the set, so Erik and him had returned to their trailer to collect their valuables before heading out for their lunch reservation at the Chateau Marmont. After Erik’s kerfuffle with the paparazzi yesterday, he and Erik had decided they were due for the time-honoured tradition of staging a PR move at the Hotel California. It was either that or tip off the paparazzi on where they planned on showing up next, but neither he nor Erik was ready to become another run-of-the-mill Kardashian just yet.

“Well, pardon me for caring about my wounded future husband – although I do recall someone asking me to come kiss him better last night,” Charles retorted.

He was aware of his phone ringing as they stepped into their trailer and made a beeline for the coffee table where he had left it earlier this morning. Charles could hear the smile in Erik’s voice from across the room. “Are you saying you didn't know I was just trying to get in your pants?”

Charles choked with laughter. “What do you take me for, some kind of pervert?” he replied teasingly, schooling his features into what he hoped was an innocent expression.

He knew Erik would have much to say about that, but upon seeing the name on the caller ID, Charles put a finger on his lips to signal to Erik before hitting ‘Answer’. “Hello, Mother!” Charles said cheerfully, trying in vain to hide his laughter as Erik pretended to exit stage left.

“Hello, Charles,” Mother greeted. “I'm calling to check if you will still be flying in next week. I really am a bit disappointed that I had to find out from the maids gossiping so loudly after dinner. I trust he had it coming.”

“W-what? Yes, Erik and I will be arriving in London on Tuesday. Where is all this coming from?” Charles asked, eyebrows furrowing.

“Oh, the both of you? Very well. I’m not to believe this article in the Daily Mail, I presume?” Mother replied, and Charles felt slightly heartened that he could sense a tinge of relief in her voice.

Nevertheless, Charles’ blood pressure was steadily rising. “Right, don't trust anything you read in that rag. Mother, I'm not sure what's going on but I'll find out more and call you back, all right?”

“That won't be necessary, Father and I will see you next week. Don't forget that Cabernet from Napa Valley that I asked for,” Mother said.

“Yes, Screaming Eagle. We're having a crate cargoed over. See you soon. Love you.” They said their goodbyes and Charles hung up, turning to Erik.

Erik’s brow was furrowed in a frown. “I have five missed calls from Mama and a string of increasingly worried texts to accompany them. Let me call her back.”

Charles nodded as Erik returned Mama’s calls, only just noticing while he scrolled through his notifications that he too had missed numerous calls and messages while they had been out filming. “Hallo, Mama,” he heard Erik say, followed immediately by him slowly and steadily reassuring her in German that yes, he was fine and no, nothing had happened with Charles, it was just an accident so please stop looking at articles on the internet. Charles was glad that his command of German was fairly passable now, which allowed him to follow the conversation Erik was having with Mama even if he didn’t like where it was going. His fears were confirmed when Erik clenched his fist, locking eyes with Charles as he muttered, “Scheiß TMZ...”

After spending a few more minutes trying to calm Mama down, Erik ended the call, his face livid now that he didn’t have to keep up the act for her. “Mama was distraught,” he said with steel in his voice.

“I know…” Charles whispered, approaching Erik with care and slowly placing his hand on Erik’s still-clenched fist. He stroked the back of Erik’s hand with his thumb like he was calming a spooked horse. It seemed to work, and Erik turned his hand over so he could hold onto Charles’. “Let’s get to the bottom of this,” Charles said determinedly. “Come to think of it, we haven’t seen Raven all day. We should give her a call.” If anyone knew what in the world was going on, it would be Raven. The fact that he had not received any texts from her, of all people, about this was odd to say the least.

Opening up FaceTime so Erik could join in as well, Charles tapped on Raven’s name and waited as the app connected the call. It only took a couple of rings before Raven answered, looking quite frazzled despite the broad smile plastered across her face. “Charles, hi! Oh, and Erik, too!” Raven said, her voice pitched suspiciously too high and her eyes darting about to glance at something offscreen.

“Raven, my dear,” Charles greeted. “We were wondering if you could clue us in on what exactly—”

“Quit the act, Raven.” Erik cut him off. “TMZ did something. Tell us what it was and who else is involved.”

Raven let out a loud sigh. “For the record, we didn't let you guys in on this because we were trying to protect you.”

Charles raised his eyebrows at that. “We?” he asked. Raven gestured with her head, and two familiar faces popped into the screen, one on either side of her.

Salut tout le monde!” Remy greeted cheerfully. “Oui, Raven, Marie and Remy have been hard at work since last night defending your honour.”

“Hon, you mean Raven and I. You ain't done diddly-squat besides waste the air in the room,” Marie retorted. Charles did his best to ignore the comically exaggerated look of hurt on Remy’s face. Poor Remy, it appeared Marie still wasn't giving him the time of day.

Chère, Remy gave ideas, but yours were always so much better.” Remy pouted and looked to Raven for help.

Unfortunately, all he received in return from Raven was an unamused eyeroll. “Right, as I was saying, we wanted to shield you from the initial backlash given how well the both of you had taken Erik’s little altercation with the paps yesterday. As it turned out, Erik’s favourite tabloid bought the pictures and broke the story on ‘TMZ Live’ last night, saying that you had beaten Erik bloody and that the wedding is being called off.” Charles froze where he stood, desperately not wanting to believe the words coming out of Raven’s mouth.

“What!” Erik bellowed, picking up his phone to search for the video in question on YouTube. As much as Charles was trying not to overreact, he knew that there was no hope of Erik doing the same once he saw the footage with his own eyes. There was no way this would end well.

Raven shook her head in commiseration. “It doesn’t end there. Naturally, it spread like wildfire and all the major entertainment news outlets have picked up the story, so we’ve had to play whack-a-mole issuing letters to each of them asking to take the story down.”

Charles rubbed his temple in a bid to chase away his headache. This was all sounding far worse than he had feared. “Goodness gracious. Can we issue a press release of some sort?”

“Don’t worry, doll, we’ve got ya covered. I’m working with Emma on a joint statement for you and Erik. I’ll send it off to my pain-in-the-ass contact at People when it’s ready and pray he shuts his mouth about me owing him one,” Marie said, giving Charles a reassuring wink. Charles never felt more grateful that he had such a capable team of exceptional individuals, and couldn’t imagine what he would be doing now if not for them.

Just then, he heard Harvey Levin’s voice coming from the speakers of Erik’s phone. Charles watched with dread as the segment played, the situation getting worse by the minute as Harvey and his co-host Charles Latibeaudiere made one libellous statement after another. He didn’t see the need to watch the full video given that it was chock-full of lies, but Erik wouldn’t look away, his lips set in a thin line as his eyes steadily narrowed. Erik let out a low growl when Harvey started talking about Erik being the latest victim of celebrity domestic violence, his fingers gripping his phone so tightly that Charles swore he saw the aluminium phone casing bend. “That’s enough, Erik,” Charles said softly, placing his hand on Erik’s wrist. However, Erik did not seem to have heard him as he was completely focused on Harvey now talking about how there was no way the wedding would be moving forward and then going on to further speculate whether Erik had been the one to throw the first punch. Charles had no intention of hearing another word and reached over to hit the ‘Pause’ button on the video. “Erik, that’s enough.”

Erik turned his attention to him and the raw, visceral anger that Charles saw in Erik’s eyes shook him to his core. Charles was certain it wasn’t directed at him – of course not. Erik’s rage was against the media, perhaps even the world at large, and deep in his heart Charles knew all that time and effort they had put into guiding Erik to do better was about to come undone.

Erik spoke, his tone even and measured. “I tried your way, Charles. I tried to go along with them, live with them. But it always ends the same way. You are everything to me and they’ve dragged our names through the mud and hung you out to dry.” Erik shifted his gaze to Charles’ screen, locking his eyes with Raven’s. “Now, we'll take everything from them.”

And yet, despite Charles’ misgivings, Erik was right. Lines had been drawn in the sand and, this time, the tabloids had truly crossed it.

Over on the screen, Marie tossed her hair with confidence, which drew a quiet, besotted smile from Remy. “Well, it’s a good thing you boys have me on your side. Sucking the life outta tabloid rags is right up my alley.”

Erik nodded his head with approval. “Emma is definitely going to enjoy this.”

“No.” Charles interrupted them. Sensing Erik stiffen beside him, Charles reached out to clasp his hand and took a deep, fortifying breath. It was time to make a stand. “We’ll need more help. Raven, track down Stryker. Tell him to put together a special team.”

Raven’s eyes grew wide before she broke into a broad grin. “I thought you’d never ask.”

Charles felt Erik give his hand a soft squeeze, and looked up to find Erik gazing back at him with such a tender mix of hope and determination in his eyes that Charles wanted so much to simply reach out and hold Erik tightly in his arms. “I’m glad you’re on my side,” Erik said, a relieved smile on his face.

Always, Charles thought, as Erik held his eyes. Always and forever. Erik wanted nothing more than to raze TMZ to the ground for him and, although this was not what a conventional Hollywood script would call for when it came time for the grand, romantic gesture, his relationship with Erik was anything but conventional. And Charles wouldn’t have it any other way.

“And Raven?” Erik called out as he turned back to her. “Give them hell.”

Raven made an affirmative nod, her eyes blazing with such resolve that Charles almost felt sorry for TMZ. “Let’s go to war.”

* * * * *

Emma could see that Erik’s anxiety was at an all-time high. It wouldn’t have been obvious to the casual observer due to Erik’s expertly mastered poker face, but after so many years, she could read him like an open book.

For one thing, the entire ordeal with TMZ and the other paparazzi had rattled Erik and tested his patience beyond compare. Normally Charles was very good at soothing Erik and coaching him on how to deal with the press, but this time even Emma would admit that the paps had gone too far by slandering Charles and saying he had abused Erik. For anyone who knew Charles, the idea of him being capable of domestic violence was completely laughable. Charles was an utter sweetheart who would apologise for bumping into a housefly.

Along with the false news that the wedding was off, TMZ had caused major panic and worry amidst Charles’ and Erik’s ranks, particularly with their families. Ever since then, Erik had been stoically quiet, responding only to Charles but not much else. Today, Emma had tried to sit down with Erik in order to renegotiate the terms of his contract with her. There would need to be several changes now that Erik was getting married and quite possibly changing his name to either Erik Lehnsherr-Xavier or Xavier-Lehnsherr, which was a pain in terms of billing and other areas. However, Erik was barely paying attention to her, eyes distant as he randomly clenched and unclenched his fists.

“Hey dummy,” Emma said sharply, and that made Erik look up with a frown. Insulting him was always a surefire way to get his attention (well, it was either that or having Charles walk into the room). “Are you with me? You’re a million miles away.”

“I’m fine,” Erik said gruffly. “And I’m here with you, what more do you want?”

“The lights are on, but there’s nobody home,” Emma quipped, which made Erik roll his eyes. “Seriously, do I have to get Charles in here?”

“He doesn’t need more things to worry about.” Erik sighed and raked his hands through his hair, messing up his usually neatly-coiffed hairstyle. “This is all my fault. Why did I have to piss off the paps?”

“This is not your fault,” Emma said very seriously. “Nobody asks for the press to print crap about them.” She picked up her phone and started texting. “And let’s just get Charles in here since this concerns him as well.”

She ignored Erik’s weak protests, satisfied when Charles replied immediately that he was on his way to her office to meet Erik for lunch anyway. At least now Erik’s shoulders had relaxed, his eyes darting over to the door in anticipation now and then.

“How’s the wedding prep coming along?” Emma asked, examining her nails and wondering if she should get them done.

“Fine.” At least Erik seemed more cheered at the mention of his upcoming nuptials. “We hired a wedding planner. Have you heard of Sarah Haywood?”

Emma nodded, privately impressed. She had attended a few of the glitzy weddings Sarah had planned, secretly planning to hire her once Sebastian came to his senses and decided to propose. Not yet, hopefully, as Emma was still enjoying single life and letting other men fawn over her. “Sarah’s probably the best in the business.”

A faint smile appeared on Erik’s face for the first time that day. “Good. I’m very much looking forward to our wedding day.”

Now it was Emma’s turn to smile. “You know something? There was a period of time where I thought you’d never ever want to get married. I mean, you had both women and men throwing themselves at you after the success of ‘Cyborg Cop’. But I never once saw you even glance at anyone with any interest.”

Erik didn’t look angry, only thoughtful. “You know, I didn’t think I was the marrying type either,” he admitted, playing with his engagement ring. “Not until Charles came along.”

Emma couldn’t help her smirk. “Believe me, I was as surprised as anyone. I knew you were itching to propose to him right after your first date. Why do you think I sent you all those articles about short-lived celebrity marriages?”

Rolling his eyes, Erik shook his head in resignation. “I knew what you were doing. Didn’t stop me from getting down on one knee, though.”

“And look at where we are now.” Emma gestured towards the contract with a laugh. “Discussing whether you’re going to change your name to ‘Erik Xavier-Lehnsherr’ so you’re going to be signing autographs as ‘Erik XL’ and leave everyone wondering if that refers to your endowment.”

Erik grinned at her from ear to ear, which was what she called his ‘Great White bite’. “Too bad only Charles knows.”

“Sugar, I hate to break it to you, but everyone already knows,” she said dryly. “Next time, don’t wear slim-fit pants in public when you’re looking at Charles, or everyone can see that you dress to the right.”

The look of horror on Erik’s face was so comical that Emma was still laughing by the time Charles appeared at the door, looking back and forth between both of them. “What’s so funny?” he asked, as Erik hurriedly crossed his legs.

“Nothing, nothing. Hallo, Liebling.” Erik welcomed him with a kiss, managing to shoot Emma a glare behind Charles’ back. “I’ll be ready for lunch soon, just give us a few minutes.”

“Oh, should I step outside?” Charles asked.

“Actually, you should stay.” Emma tapped on the contract. “Since one of the terms we’re discussing is Erik possibly changing his name, and how that affects billing for the movies he’ll be in. Therefore, it very much concerns you, Charles.”

Charles beamed at her as he sat down next to Erik. “Brilliant! We did talk a few times about changing our names, or at least hyphenating them.” He turned to Erik, stroking his arm. “What did you decide, darling?” Without waiting for an answer, Charles wondered aloud, “I’ll be honest, ‘Charles Lehnsherr’ does have a lovely ring to it, don’t you think?”

Erik had that soppy, besotted look on his face again, so Emma had to quickly step in before they started dry-humping in front of her. “It’s an idea, but hyphenation is really the best option. It’ll capitalise on both your famous last names. If you guys are going to have kids, they will benefit, too.”

Mentioning kids was the wrong move, because now both Charles and Erik looked soppy and sentimental. “Of course I want nothing but the best for our kids,” Erik said with determination, earning a kiss on the cheek from Charles. “That’s why I was actually thinking….that our children should take Charles’ name. And so should I.”

The room was so silent that Emma could hear a pin drop. She was gawking at Erik in a very unladylike fashion, while Charles’ mouth was an open pink ‘O’ of surprise. Erik looked perfectly serious, twining his hand with Charles’ and squeezing it while staring defiantly at Emma as if challenging her to oppose his idea.

“Darling, are you sure?” Charles finally asked, his eyes round with amazement.

“Absolutely positive,” Erik said firmly, raising their joined hands and pressing a kiss to Charles’ faintly-bruised knuckles. “The Xavier name is going to open doors for our children, both in the U.K. and the U.S. And if our kids are going by Xavier, then I should as well. I’m used to having different names anyway.” His smile softened. “This is the first time I’ve been given a chance to choose, and I choose you, Charles.”

“Good grief,” Emma muttered, while Charles melted on the spot, wrapping his arms around Erik. “Honestly, you two sapheads make Charles’ previous rom-coms look like horror movies.”

Erik was burying his nose in Charles’ hair, arching an eyebrow at Emma. “You’re just jealous, Frost.”

If Emma rolled her eyes any harder, they’d fall out of her head. “Sugar, puh-lease. If you ever catch me making googly-eyes at Sebastian, you’d know that I’d suffered brain damage.”

Erik’s loud laugh surprised her, and roused Charles out of his starry-eyed reverie. “Honestly, you two are so mean to poor Shaw,” Charles murmured, patting Erik’s chest. “We owe him this much for agreeing to back Alex and Sean’s script, right?”

“I suppose,” Erik said grudgingly, while Emma just smirked at him. She was going to enjoy watching Sebastian become this whipped; she’d have to learn Charles’ mind-control secrets someday.

“So you have decided to legally become Erik Xavier,” Emma continued, ignoring the way Erik perked up at that. “However, as your agent, I’d advise you to stick to ‘Erik Lehnsherr’ when it comes to movie billings. You’ve spent years building your brand, so you should continue to capitalise on it.” When Erik looked doubtful, Emma kept her tone brisk and businesslike. “So you can continue to earn your millions. For your parents and your future kids.”

That seemed to seal the deal, as Erik nodded once and Charles smiled to indicate his support.

* * * * *

* * * * *

There were many things that Raven was good at: negotiation tactics, winning arguments with Charles, and, of course, anything to do with the martial arts. But she felt her expertise truly lay in the art of disguise; she had always been very good with makeup, and as she had gotten older, she had started including wigs, hair extensions and even prosthetics, on occasion. She had thoroughly enjoyed arranging to meet Charles in public places, then coming up to stand right beside him while he looked around for her and completely failed to recognise the woman beside him. After Charles had grown wise to her tricks, Raven had taken to going out to bars and events in full disguise, pretending to be a different stranger every night. Her disguises had been truly useful; there were times she had overheard trusted ‘friends’ and colleagues badmouthing her or Charles, and the information had saved Charles from signing up for a few doomed projects.

Most importantly, her little form of espionage was what netted Charles the lead for ‘First Class’. After unsuccessfully trying to get a meeting with Sebastian Shaw for months, Raven had discovered that Shaw liked to frequent the Hellfire Club. So she had disguised herself with a brunette braid and a fake tan, planting herself at the bar for a few evenings. It was by sheer luck that one night, she’d managed to overhear a conversation about a key project between Shaw and a blonde woman who turned out to be the agent of one Erik Lehnsherr. Raven knew Charles would give his right kidney to do a movie with Erik, so when Emma Frost had gone to powder her nose, Raven firmly introduced herself to Shaw, bought him a scotch and insisted on Charles being given a chance to read for one of the male leads. The look of surprise on Emma’s face when she’d returned from the bathroom to find Shaw shaking hands with Raven was immensely satisfying (as well as an interesting introduction).

However, despite her successes, Raven had perhaps gained too much expertise in the art of masking herself. She had often caught herself hiding her troubles behind a carefully constructed smile, even when there was no reason to. She trusted Charles, deeply, but even he had been kept from the quiet despair building inside her during the past few months. Things had gotten worse and worse with Hank, who had been promoted to Second Unit Director, and while she had been happy for him, the downside was Hank being repeatedly hauled away to far corners of the globe, further and further away from Raven.

Finally, things had come to a head last month when, after a two-hour screaming match on Skype, Raven had sobbed and admitted this wasn’t going to work. The stony silence on Hank’s end had hurt more than actual words, and after that Raven had cried into her pillow until her eyes felt raw.

She had managed to keep up the act for the past month, pretending everything was fine and immersing herself in work and now this bloody battle with TMZ because she didn’t want to worry Charles, who had enough on his plate with all the planning for his upcoming wedding and the whole PR debacle. Marie - and Stryker’s legal team - had finally served the papers to TMZ’s lawyers, which had vastly improved Erik’s mood and eased Charles’ anxiety at least, but Raven still hadn’t wanted to confide in Charles or anyone else about Hank yet. Disguise, after all, was her forte.

Unfortunately, today she had given into temptation and checked Hank’s profile on Facebook, and she found herself trembling as she stared at a photo of a smiling Hank tagged with a cute uniformed nurse on some distant film set. The nurse had grabbed Hank to plant a kiss on his cheek, and the broad, almost shy grin on Hank’s face made Raven’s eyes well up again, angry and hurt that he had moved on so fast.

She quickly dabbed at her eyes when she heard footsteps approaching the break room, then Charles’ voice getting louder, “I already told them that there needs to be a few kosher options at the wrap party…” Charles was on his phone, pausing at the doorway before he said, “Darwin, I’ll call you back,” and disconnecting the call. He was dressed relatively casual as it was the last day of filming before they wrapped up ‘Strangers on a Train’, and it felt strange to see Charles in cargo shorts instead of his usually pressed pleats.

Tucking away his phone, he hurried over and crouched down beside her where she was seated on the couch. “What’s wrong, my dear?”

“Nothing.” Her voice was thick with tears, and Charles immediately abandoned his wedding folders, sitting beside her and folding his arms around her in concern.

“Obviously not, you’re upset. Tell me what’s wrong, my dear.” The kindness in his voice flooded her eyes again, and she turned so that she could take solace in a hug from her dearest friend.

When she felt like she had somewhat gotten a better hold on herself, she murmured, “Hank and I broke up.”

Charles’ eyes were wide with shock. “What? Why? What happened?”

She shook her head, taking the tissue Charles was offering her and wiping her eyes with a sniffle. “Work has been getting in the way for us. I haven’t seen Hank in months.”

“Isn’t he shooting in Culver City?” Charles frowned at her, and it was only then that she realised just how much she had been keeping him - and everyone else - in the dark. That last update had been ages ago.

“No, Hank is now shooting in Vancouver for Scott’s movie.” Raven was unable to keep the bitterness out of her voice. “And even when he is in town, we just fight all the time.”

“Do you need any time off to go settle this?” Charles asked her very seriously, rubbing her knee in consolation. “Find Hank, talk to him. Just tell me, it’s not an issue at all.”

“What’s not an issue?” Raven and Charles both looked up as Erik strode into the break room, casting enquiring glances at both of them. Although Raven hurriedly tried to wipe her eyes, it was too late as Erik immediately crouched down beside the sofa, his eyebrows knitted together in worry. “Raven, what’s wrong? Did someone hurt you?”

“Nothing physical, darling,” Charles told him, and Erik visibly relaxed, his fists unclenching. “Raven is just going through a tough time.”

“Hank?” Erik asked with raised eyebrows, and Raven just nodded, appreciating that Charles was leaving it to her to divulge what she felt Erik ought to know. Although she had now known Erik for a good two years and had already spent so much time with him, a large part of her would always be closer to Charles. But over that time, Erik had proven that Raven was important to him as a friend too, and not just because of Charles as their mutual connection. Erik respected Raven’s opinions and her place in Charles’ life, and he once told her (while drunk, but it still counted) that he knew he wouldn’t be with Charles if it weren’t for her, so at least the man had some brains.

Raven sniffled as she accepted another tissue from Charles. Maybe Erik deserved to be taken into confidence as well.

She told them both about her troubles with Hank, the constant fights, the secret break-up she had been successfully hiding from everyone else. When she mentioned the photo of Hank and the nurse, Charles shook his head while Erik’s lips thinned into a displeased line. Remembering the way Erik had manhandled Hank for Charles’ accident in the Canary Islands, she was suddenly glad that Hank was thousands of miles away.

“Do you want me to talk to him?” Charles offered a little uncertainly, but Raven shook her head.

“I don’t think either of us could do anything about it unless Hank changes his career,” she admitted with a sigh. “And I couldn’t do that to him.”

Above her bowed head she sensed Charles and Erik exchanging looks and nods in a wordless conversation she could never hope to comprehend, or be a part of. In a way, their closeness was a reminder of what she felt she was missing with Hank. Time spent in close proximity together was the key to building such a connection, and lack of said time was what robbed her and Hank of any real shot at a relationship. It was a miracle they had lasted that long to begin with, although Raven wasn’t above admitting that towards the end she had felt like their relationship resembled something unbearably fragile, held together only with the flimsiest of strings. One little tug, and it would all come apart. In contrast, Charles and Erik felt ironclad, insurmountable. She desperately wanted that for herself and Hank.

“Well, you know we’re here for you,” Charles said tentatively, and she felt a hand smoothing down her frazzled hair. “Erik and I. Together.”

“Yes, let us know what you need.” Erik’s voice was low, gravelly, and when Raven looked up she was surprised to find Erik was the one stroking her hair, not Charles. It was obvious now: Erik’s fingers were longer, his hand heavier.

“I need a distraction, that’s what I need,” she muttered. “I’ve tried burying myself in work, but it just ends up making me crazier.”

When it was a little too quiet, she glanced upwards suspiciously and found Charles and Erik grinning at each other in agreement, apparently at the conclusion of another of their endless seemingly-telepathic exchanges. “I can think of a perfect distraction,” Charles announced with one of those boyish smiles of his that raked in millions at the box office. “Erik and I are heading to the U.K. to do some stuff for the wedding, like meet with the caterer and scout out the venue. Why don’t you come with us?”

To be honest, the change of scenery and the idea of a long break did seem tempting, putting at least twice as much distance between her and Hank and allowing her to clear her head, in a manner of speaking. “You guys won’t mind?” Raven glanced back and forth between both Charles and Erik, who were nodding earnestly. “Won’t I get in the way of your wedding planning?”

“Nonsense,” Charles said cheerfully. “I would greatly appreciate your help any way I can get it! Our wedding planner is a darling but even with her help, Erik and I are quite overwhelmed with all our choices and options, so it would help to have a fresh eye.”

“Charles is right,” Erik said, which earned him a bright beaming smile from Charles that almost blinded Raven. “We could use an impartial third-party opinion if we don’t agree on something.”

“Excuse me, impartial?” Raven hooked her arm around Charles, pretending to flutter her eyelashes at Erik. “Haven’t you been paying attention? What makes you think I’m not going to gang up with Charles against you?”

Verdammt, I walked right into a trap,” Erik groaned, as both Raven and Charles laughed heartily at his expression of dismay.

* * * * *

London was still in the throes of summer heat, and even though it felt milder than the Californian weather that Erik was used to by now, it still made him miss cooler climates. For that matter, Charles didn’t seem to notice the heat, more than pleased to be back on home turf. As they walked around London, he kept his arm firmly wrapped around Erik while pointing out random landmarks to both Raven and Erik, ignoring quizzical looks and the occasional snap from the British public. To spite TMZ (and also because Erik loved any excuse to grope Charles out in the open), Erik ramped up the amount of physical affection the two of them usually indulged in, kissing Charles on his lips or forehead at every possible opportunity.

By now Raven seemed to have grown tired of rolling her eyes at both of them, resigned to enduring a trip being subjected to embarrassing amounts of PDA, and Erik reminded himself of his mental note to absolutely spoil her, now that she was trying to get over Hank. The idea of losing Charles was inconceivable to him, and he could only imagine Raven’s heartbreak, losing someone she had loved immensely.

They had set up shop in Charles’ apartment in Camden, since Erik wasn’t quite comfortable enough with Charles’ mother to spend an entire month staying with her. Charles’ London apartment fascinated Erik because he had bought it and decorated it long before ever meeting Erik, and unlike their current shared houses, the Camden flat still seemed to be entirely Charles’ domain, with very few belongings of Erik’s strewn around. I may need to remedy that, Erik thought as he wandered around the cosy flat. There was a strange, swimmy feeling caught in his chest as he imagined a younger Charles living in this flat, unaware of Erik or worldwide fame waiting for him in the future. It felt a little indulgent, wanting to travel back in time so he could meet this younger version of Charles and buy both of them more time together. Erik smiled at an abandoned chess set where Charles had obviously been playing against himself. At least Charles would always have someone to play chess with now.

Raven claimed the guest room farthest from the master bedroom, declaring that she didn’t need to be traumatised by their ‘sex marathons’ which made Charles blush and Erik snort. Despite the teasing, it felt nice to have her along for the trip, because Charles was clearly very fond of her, and Erik quite enjoyed watching the two of them bicker, tease, snipe and laugh at each other like adopted siblings. Erik was not above admitting that he felt a certain protectiveness towards Raven as well (albeit a diluted version of the unconditional, depthless devotion he harboured for Charles). So when the three of them were walking around London, Erik was more than happy to keep an eye on her the same way he automatically did for Charles.

The first appointment with the wedding planner was on their second morning in London, and the town car was waiting downstairs, a smartly uniformed driver holding the door open for them. The three of them squeezed into the backseat, Charles in the middle with Raven on the left and Erik on his right. Erik thought about volunteering to sit upfront and give Charles and Raven more space, but Charles must have read his mind because he squeezed Erik’s knee, turning to rest his head against Erik’s shoulder with a ‘stay-by-my-side’ smile that Erik was powerless to resist. He remained where he was, stroking Charles’ hair as Charles bickered good-naturedly with Raven over which radio station they were going to tune in to.

“We should listen to proper British radio,” Charles insisted. “And nothing is more British than Radio 1’s Breakfast Show with old Grimmy.”

Raven rolled her eyes. “Oh please, he’s so stale. Why can’t we listen to 6Music?”

“Because I don’t know half the artists they play on there,” Charles argued. “I don't mean to sound like an old fart.”

“Which you are,” Raven retorted.

“Sometimes. Look, why don’t we ask Erik what he wants to listen to?” Charles suggested, turning the full force of his pleading blue eyes on Erik.

“Oh hell no,” Raven said with a snort. “Sharkface is just going to go with whatever you want, it won’t be fair.”

Sharkface? Erik arched an eyebrow at her. “Excuse me? My opinions don’t always mirror Charles’. In fact, I was just going to request for the classical music station.”

“Excellent choice, sir,” the driver piped up from the front. “It’s what I listen to every morning. A bit of Bach is always very relaxing.”

Charles bit his lip, clearly torn between giving in to Erik’s suggestion and holding his own, but Raven just huffed loudly and leaned forward, stabbing at the buttons and turning to BBC6 on her own. “There, problem solved,” she declared proudly, folding her arms across her chest.

“Fine,” Charles relented with a sigh, while Erik kissed his temple in consolation. The song they had tuned in to had a slow, moody tempo with ethereal female vocals singing about lost love, and Erik found himself trying not to tap along to the beat, as a show of solidarity with Charles. Raven was humming along, twirling her hair as she stared out of the car window. Erik wondered if Hank was still plaguing her thoughts.

Raven had seemed a little cheerier ever since they’d arrived in the U.K., although Erik still spotted fleeting moments of sadness clouding her face when she scrolled through her phone sometimes. Charles had pleaded with her to ignore Hank’s Facebook and all other forms of social media, but Erik knew that was an impossible feat for someone in love. When he and Charles had been apart in Asia, Erik had been practically glued to Charles’ Facebook and Twitter feeds, eager for any glimpse of Charles he could get. He understood Raven’s pain all too well.

“Hey Raven,” Erik called out, trying to think of a distraction. “Why was that moron Remy hanging about with you and Marie the other day when Charles called you on FaceTime?”

“Need you ask?” Raven said with a scoff. “Wherever you’ll find Marie, that no-good French scoundrel will be close by with those puppy-dog eyes. I don’t even know why he bothers.”

“I think she does like him,” Charles insisted, tapping the beat on Erik’s knee despite himself. “I can tell. I’m very good at sensing these things, you know? It’s a mental gift.” He waggled his fingers near his temple, grinning widely. It was so endearing that Erik was unable to resist giving him a peck on the cheek.

“No way,” Raven retorted. “Sorry Charles, but the only thing you’re gifted at is brainwashing little old ladies and surly German action stars.”

They continued their good-natured squabble all the way to the Dorchester, and at one point Erik exchanged an amused glance with the eternally patient driver. Charles and Raven were still arguing as they got out of the car, Charles insisting that they’d one day be attending Remy and Marie’s wedding while Raven was more adamant that they’d be visiting Remy in jail for stalking charges. Erik privately felt that Charles was right, and despite appearance, Marie was not completely immune to Remy’s charms. Still, it was none of his business (although he admittedly enjoyed giving Remy grief about it).

Sarah Haywood and her army of assistants were waiting for them in the lobby of the Dorchester hotel. Charles greeted Sarah exuberantly like an old friend, then introduced her to Erik and Raven. Erik liked Sarah’s friendly, no-nonsense air and firm handshake, extremely curious to see what she had up her sleeve for their wedding as she led them into the Ballroom, which was closed just for their visit. Inside, there was an array of various staff who were wearing the uniforms of Michelin-starred pâtisseries from all over Europe and setting out trays of cake samples. Erik was impressed.

“We’ve prepared a range of samples for you to taste.” Sarah gestured towards the Dorchester staff, who rolled forward the trays on display. “Charles darling, I know from experience that you’re partial to creamy vanilla flavours. What about you, Erik?”

“I like dark flavours, like Black Forest cake.” Erik’s eye fell on Charles’ pale skin. “Although I’ve recently developed a liking for lighter, creamy flavours, too. Let’s go with what Charles would like.”

“Excellent,” Sarah said, while Charles beamed at Erik. Raven simply looked like she was trying not to burst out laughing.

The first round of samples was something vanilla with Earl Grey frosting - which Erik didn’t much care for - but he finished his slice because Charles made all sorts of obscene noises eating his own, causing Erik to flush and Raven to shake her head. “My word, this is heavenly,” Charles gushed to the bakery staff, who were all smiling at him with stars in their eyes. Erik could very well guess that they were probably wishing they were the ones getting married to Charles instead.

“Okay, okay, Mr. Foodgasm, let’s move on to the next cake,” Raven said, eyeing Erik warily.

They tasted a few more, and Erik preferred one of the denser chocolate cakes while Charles mooned over one with white chocolate frosting. Meanwhile, Raven finished everything laid out before her and stated her honest opinions matter-of-factly: too rich, too spongy, too weird. Erik could sense the renowned pastry chefs bristling at her comments, although Sarah was taking everything Raven said seriously and even jotting down notes.

They must have been on their twelfth slice of cake when the Dorchester staff rolled out yet another tray with the last two options, making Erik groan and Charles’ eyes widen in alarm. “I really couldn’t possibly eat another bite,” Charles pleaded, turning to Erik. “What about you, darling?”

Erik shook his head firmly, clutching his stomach which felt like it was about to burst. “Another piece was never an option.”

To their surprise, Raven picked up her fork again and beckoned the staff over. “I’ll do it. Bring it on.”

“Are you sure?” Erik said doubtfully, but she merely waved him away and helped herself to the last two flavours like a champ. Although he suspected Raven was partly comfort eating, Erik couldn’t be more grateful for her help, considering that he was already going to have to rack up his gym hours just to burn off all this cake tasting. His eye fell on Charles, who was standing beside Raven, suave and dashing in his navy Burberry suit. Charles was far luckier, as trim as he was the day Erik had met him. Maybe it had something to do with the copious amounts of lovemaking they were indulging in--

“Erik!” Raven yelled, and Erik snapped out of his daydreaming to realise everyone in the ballroom was looking at him and waiting for his answer. The irritation on Raven’s face meant she must have been calling his name quite a number of times.

“Sorry, sorry.” Erik blinked, trying to ignore Charles’ knowing smirk and focus on the irate Raven. “What were you saying?”

“I was saying that my verdict is the white chocolate and coconut frosting.” After one last glare at Erik, Raven pointed towards the winning cake with her fork. “And since Charles agreed with me, we’re waiting for you to have the last say.”

Erik wanted to scoff. It was a no-brainer for him: whatever Charles wanted, Erik would be happy to go along with it. He didn’t care much about cake one way or another anyway, but he had to at least try and look like he was making a decision before Raven called him henpecked again. Grabbing a fork for a quick taste, the cake was decent enough so Erik nodded in agreement. “Let’s go with this one for our wedding cake, then.”

“Excellent!” Now Sarah was the one beaming. “That was relatively painless. Sometimes cake tasting can take hours because the couple can’t agree on what flavours they want.”

“Thank God,” Raven groaned, clutching her stomach as Charles snickered at her. “I’ve eaten so much cake that I’ll never go hungry again!”

* * * * *

Charles had fond memories of his Camden flat, which he had bought as an undergrad with the modest inheritance his beloved grandfather had left him. It was the very first thing that had truly been his own, a little haven away from the clutches of his controlling mother and absent father. Charles had decorated it as he pleased, using eclectic, second-hand furniture he picked up from Portobello Road instead of the lavish, ornate pieces his mother preferred. It was a rebellious hodge-podge of Charles’ varying moods and tastes, but it was at least his very own.

It was amusing now to watch the two people he loved most in the world giggling over his old collection of furniture, decor and clothes. Raven was tying on one of his oversized shirts over her mini-dress while a tipsy Erik had shrugged on a ghastly old bathrobe (which somehow unfairly looked good on him, the handsome devil). They were on their second bottle of Jameson as well as an ancient stash of Remy Martin VSOP that Erik had managed to fish out from somewhere. Everyone was in high spirits, and deservedly so: Marie had called earlier with the excellent news that TMZ had agreed to settle out of court and publish a retraction for their libelous article about Charles and Erik.

“I wish we would have been able to bankrupt them and shut them down. TMZ are such slimebags,” Raven mused, sipping her whiskey and soda. “Erik, do you know that before you came along, TMZ loved to print all sorts of crap about me? I’ve been called everything from Charles’ secretly adopted sister to the cunning Canadian mistress who came between him and Moira.”

Charles snorted with laughter while Erik rolled his eyes. “I always wonder if TMZ has anything better to do, but I guess not,” Erik said dryly, taking a seat and adjusting the bathrobe around himself. It made him look fuzzy and comfy, so naturally Charles went over and deposited himself in Erik’s lap to see for himself if the bathrobe was really as soft and fluffy as Charles remembered it. Rubbing his cheek against Erik’s chest, Charles was delighted that his memory hadn’t failed him.

“Well, we won. Let’s drink up, yes?” Charles declared, to cheers from the rest. Charles was glad that Erik was in a much better mood now that they had put an ocean between them and the paparazzi back in L.A., and it probably also helped that filming on ‘Strangers on a Train’ had finally wrapped. As much as Charles loved the chance to work with Erik again, he hated that they had been forced to spend most of the movie as sworn enemies. Well, as far as they knew, anyway. It was anyone’s guess as to how much footage Terry would leave on the cutting room floor this time around.

Charles snuggled deeper into Erik’s lap, making a mental note to only accept offers in the future if he and Erik were on the same side. Erik was busy nuzzling Charles’ hair, so Charles, reluctant to move, held out their tumblers to Raven and grinned cheekily at her for a refill.

“Ugh, you guys suck,” Raven complained, but she dutifully sloshed more whiskey into their glasses. Then her eyes widened warily. “Or should I not mention the word ‘suck’ at all in your company?”

“We’re not that bad,” Erik protested, but it was very weak because he was mostly distracted by Charles curling up in his lap.

“Sorry, but you two are worse than bad,” Raven scoffed. “Marie, Remy, Darwin, Alex, Emma and even Shaw all agree with me. You can call them if you don’t believe me.”

“I don’t care what Shaw thinks,” Erik said, combing his fingers through Charles’ hair gently. It felt nice and soothing, doing a better job of relaxing Charles than the whiskey ever could. “The man is someone who needs to wear a helmet all the time or his brains would fall out.”

“Erik!” Charles was torn between swatting Erik on the chest or joining Raven in her infectious peals of laughter. “Be nice! If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t be together.”

“Corr-rection,” Erik slurred, which was a good indication that he was on his way to being completely plastered. “It was all Raven’s and Jean’s doing. Shaw had nothing to do with it.”

“Damn right, brother!” Raven pointed to him in approval, her voice getting louder and louder. The whiskey was really bloody strong. “Give credit where it’s due!”

“Speaking of Jean, I haven’t seen her in ages.” Charles felt around for his phone, delighted when he found himself not-so-accidentally groping Erik’s thigh instead. “I mean, I follow her on Instagram and Snapchat, but it’s not quite the same, isn’t it?”

“Well, then let’s take a photo for Jean,” Raven suggested, gesturing tipsily at Charles’ phone when he eventually dug it out. “Show her-show her that we’re missing her, and stuff!”

“Sure.” Erik gave Charles a parting kiss before helping him up, and the three of them tried out some poses, giggling too much to take it seriously. There was the prerequisite Charlie’s Angels pose (“Charles’ Angels,” Raven had insisted) as well as a moody boyband shot that made them burst out laughing until Charles had to collapse in the chair Erik had just vacated.

“Please, no more,” Charles begged, wheezing with laughter as Erik and Raven did the American Gothic pose, complete with sullen faces and the pitchfork.

Raven dropped her pose, smiling broadly. “Okay, fine. Let’s just send Jean a nice, normal photo and let her know we’re thinking of her.”

Erik shrugged, going to stand beside Raven and wrapping an arm around her shoulders, holding out his other hand to Charles and beckoning him over. “Come on, Liebling, we can take a selfie.”

Charles found himself staring at the two of them with a soft smile, thinking, They really are my two most favourite people in the world. “It’s fine, let’s take one of you two first.”

The photo came out really nicely, so that was the one Charles elected to send Jean on Snapchat. He added the message: “Miss you loads! Enjoy your Alkali Lake vacay with Scott! Love from Charles and these two goons.” It made him chuckle a little.

Charles tried a few wefies with Erik and Raven as well, just for his own little collection that he could use as his phone’s wallpaper. There were a few good ones, which were surprising given how wasted they were, and Charles’ favourite - apart from the Erik and Raven shot he sent to Jean - was a candid shot of Raven and Charles pulling faces while Erik was caught staring fondly at Charles. He set that as his current wallpaper, then looked up when Erik called for him to come cuddle on the sofa and finish the rest of the cognac. It was looking to be a promising night.

* * * * *

* * * * *

“I love your flat.”

Erik hadn’t meant to say those words aloud, surprising himself as much as Charles, who was standing by the window and watching people on their way to the Camden pubs. Charles seemed to be in a slightly pensive mood after Raven had earlier excused herself and headed to bed, bemoaning the hangover surely waiting for her in the morning. Erik himself never used to have problems with hangovers, although now, in his thirties, they seemed to have come back for him with a vengeance. He didn’t mind, though. Having killer headaches was part of getting older, and it was a small price to pay for having a wonderful fiancé and an amazing career.

“You do?” Charles was smiling a little now, making his way to Erik and slipping his hands under the cozy old bathrobe. “What do you like about it? I thought it looks a bit tatty myself.”

Erik shrugged. “Maybe. But...it’s so you. It looks nothing like your parents’ mansion, with the ornate furniture and expensive artwork. It looks like a home that you tried to make your own.” He gestured towards the Keane and Feist posters, the solitary IKEA lamp, the cheerful red stools Charles must have gotten from a discount store. “I love imagining Young Charles doing all this. He’s such a bright and resourceful fellow.”

Charles smiled up brightly at him. “Young Charles would have loved to bring home a handsome German bartender for a hot night of passion,” he teased, wrapping his arms around Erik’s waist. “And many more nights thereafter.”

Erik pretended to look thoughtful. “Oh? It so happens that I might be able to help Young Master Charles with that particular fantasy,” he said, as Charles chuckled. “Now all we need is a time machine. And lots of lube.”

“Bit short on time machines, I’m afraid,” Charles replied with a smirk. “But we’re good for the lube part, if you’re still interested?”

Erik leaned in to whisper in Charles’ ear. “Want to know my secret?” he purred, before nipping at Charles’ earlobe. “I’m always interested.”

“And you call me insatiable,” Charles said, although his breathlessness showed he was hardly unaffected. They shared another brief laugh, resting their foreheads together before Erik leaned down to kiss those wonderful smiling red lips, eliciting a soft sigh of contentment from Charles. Erik wasn’t sure whether it was the alcohol earlier that was making him tipsy and heady with pleasure, or if it was Charles’ kiss.

As Charles began sucking on the tip of his tongue, Erik decided (with what few remaining brain cells he had) that it had to be the latter.

They stumbled to the master bedroom together, giggling and doing their best not to make too much noise and wake poor Raven, but at one point Erik hit his head against Charles’ IKEA lamp and broke away from the kiss with a muffled groan, which caused a sharp gasp of concern from Charles.

“Are you okay?” Charles tugged Erik into the bedroom, closing the door and firmly sitting Erik down on the bed so Charles could examine his bump. “At least it’s not bleeding.”

“I’m fine.” Erik was blinking in a daze. With Charles leaning over him like this, he was intoxicated by a mix of Charles’ scent and nearness, a promise of sweet pleasure to come. Even now Erik couldn’t quite understand the hold Charles had on him, his ability to undo Erik with just a smile or a look or his mere physical proximity. Erik was addicted to Charles, plain and simple, and he wished more than ever that they’d met when they were younger, just so he could have more time with Charles.

Well, at least they had the rest of their lives to look forward to.

“Darling?” Charles’ voice was still wrought with concern, his warm hands cradling Erik’s face gently. “Are you alright? You’re so quiet.”

Blinking, Erik gazed up at Charles, running his hands up and down Charles’ muscled, freckled arms. How he loved those freckles, tracing them with his fingers or his tongue whenever he got the chance, relishing the clean, salty taste of Charles’ skin. “I’m more than alright,” Erik whispered, his voice hoarse with arousal. “I just didn’t expect to get lucky after my bartending shift tonight.”

Charles’ eyes lit up when he quickly caught on to Erik’s game. “Well that’s good that you’re not injured, because as a poor student, I can’t afford to bring you to the hospital,” he said, the laughter evident in his voice.

Erik made the most innocent face he could muster. “Then perhaps you could kiss it better?”

“Of course.” Charles planted an exaggerated kiss on the top of Erik’s head as Erik hid a smile. “Does anywhere else hurt that I could kiss better?”

“You’re very…helpful.” Erik tapped a finger against his lips. “How about here?”

“Gladly.” Charles tipped Erik’s head back, giving him a long, sensuous kiss that made all the blood in Erik’s body rush south by the time Charles was done, licking those irresistible lips. “Anywhere else?”

“Here.” Tapping on his chest, Erik chuckled as Charles eagerly ripped off the bathrobe and his T-shirt underneath, shoving Erik down so he could lavish kisses all over Erik’s chest, particularly his nipples. Erik could not stifle his groans as Charles’ mouth made its way down his sternum, those bright blue eyes half-lidded with desire as he gazed up at Erik, leaving hot wet kisses all over Erik’s skin. Erik was only wearing his shorts now, and there was no way Charles could ignore how they were now massively tented.

“Oh, my.” Charles’ eyes were now mischievously round and large with false surprise. “This part here is swelling quite a bit, it looks like it needs quite a few kisses to make it better.”

“Yes,” Erik hissed, half-plea and half-command, needing Charles to touch him in some way or form, he didn’t care how. He almost sobbed with relief when Charles started stroking him through the khaki shorts, mouth open in hunger as he rubbed his palm up and down the outline of Erik’s erection.

“I need you,” Charles pleaded, breaking character and all playfulness falling away now. “I need to take these shorts off you and I need you in my mouth.”

Erik could only nod desperately before Charles did as promised, yanking off Erik’s shorts urgently along with his Calvin Kleins before shedding his own clothes, grinning when he noticed Erik watching him hungrily. They both moaned in unison as Charles clambered on top of Erik again, rocking together quickly before he shifted down and, as promised, took hold of Erik’s cock and wrapped his lips around him.

Fighting hard not to buck against Charles or shout and wake Raven, Erik clutched at Charles’ shoulders, ignoring the pain as he bit down on his split, healing lip. He simply had to watch Charles work his magic, tongue swirling around the glans before he began sucking in earnest, those pretty pink cheeks hollowed as he took Erik in as far as he could go. They’d had lots and lots of practice by now, and Charles could sometimes take Erik all the way in, and Erik loved doing the same for Charles as well.

He had to stop Charles when he could feel his climax rapidly approaching, his hands tightening on Charles’ shoulders. “Stop, stop,” he panted, as Charles raised his tousled head. “I’m going to--”

“Isn’t that the point?” Charles arched an eyebrow, making Erik groan as he rubbed his cheek against the tip of Erik’s cock. “Wasn’t that why you agreed to go home with me at the bar? Because you wanted to see me do this?”

Erik let out a breathless laugh. “You’re the hottest one-night stand I’ve ever had,” he honestly said, running a hand through Charles’ curls. “Well, you may be the only one I’ve ever had….but still the hottest.”

“Good.” Charles crawled up Erik’s body, taking his mouth in a filthy kiss that short-circuited Erik’s brain. Distantly he was aware of Charles’ hand slicking his cock with lube, using those swift, determined strokes that meant Charles couldn’t wait to get Erik inside him.

Sure enough, Charles broke away, straddling Erik’s hips and guiding Erik slowly inside him, letting out a loud moan that would surely wake Raven and half the building. “Oh, my God, Erik...”

Charles crying out his name like that was enough to make Erik grab Charles’ hips and buck up into him in earnest, making him bounce a few times before Charles leaned down and resumed their kisses, his soft moans muffled by Erik’s mouth. Releasing Charles’ hips, Erik linked their hands together, kissing Charles’ ring before his thrusts started gaining power and traction, Charles’ cock trapped between their abdomens. Charles was close, Erik could see, his eyes almost all pupil with a thin ring of blue, his face red with exertion as he sobbed with pleasure. Erik planted his feet firmly on the squeaking mattress so he could give Charles everything he had, fucking him hard until Charles let out a loud cry, followed by a burst of warmth on Erik’s stomach.

“Fuck,” Erik panted, closing his eyes and burying his face in Charles’ neck, taking a deep whiff of his scent. Charles had gone all loose and pliant after his orgasm, wrapping his legs higher around Erik’s waist and adjusting himself so Erik could lose himself in bliss. “Come for me, darling,” Charles whispered in his ear, and the tenderness in his voice made Erik tumble off the edge, clutching Charles close and shaking with pleasure as he came inside Charles.

They held each other close as they always did in their post-coital ritual, Erik losing himself in the feeling of Charles stroking his hair while he breathed in the sweet, salty smell of Charles’ skin. Freckles, Erik thought fondly, making a note to himself to count them all over again the next chance he could get.

“Looks like the swelling’s gone down, at least,” Charles said with mirth in his voice, and they both couldn’t stop laughing, not even when Raven banged on the door and drunkenly yelled at them to keep down the volume of their “sex antics”.

Chapter Text

* * * * *

When Erik opened his eyes, the train was already pulling into Gare Du Nord. He sleepily peeked over at his parents beside him, who were both poring over a dog-eared map of Paris. All around them, the other passengers were already standing up and putting their coats on, chatting in that strange flowery language Erik didn’t understand, so different from the steady solidness of German. His mother must have noticed he was awake, for she reached over and squeezed his hand. “We’re in Paris at last, Schatzi. Do you feel excited?”

Erik knew how long his parents had saved and scrimped every penny in order to afford their first real family holiday to Paris, so he nodded firmly, earning a lovely smile from his mother before she returned her attention to the map. According to the hushed conversation his parents were having, they were trying to figure out the way to their hotel in the 11th arrondissement. Not knowing what or where that was, Erik tugged Klaus further up his lap and gave him a tight squeeze. Klaus simply never failed to make him feel better.

Holding on carefully onto Klaus’ left paw, Erik clambered onto his knees so he could look out of the window. His mother had always commented that Erik was already tall for a boy of six, so he did not have to strain his neck too much to get a good view. The train was not quite slowing down yet so Erik could barely make out the blur of faces of people waiting on the platforms for their own respective trains and loved ones. Erik wondered if there would be anyone to meet them at the train station, but he highly doubted it, based on how worried his parents seemed about making their way. He balanced Klaus on the windowpane so that the teddy bear could see the proceedings as well, and both of them watched until the train came to a complete stop.

Erik felt his father’s large, warm hand on his shoulder. “Come on, son, it’s time to go. Don’t leave Klaus behind.”

Erik only snorted. The idea of deserting his best friend in the world was inconceivable. “Of course not, Papa. I would never leave him behind.”

* * * * *

They eventually made it to their hotel, and by then Erik was overwhelmed and confused and tired and just a little bit frightened, clinging to Klaus tightly as they walked. The streets of this strange foreign city did not resemble Düsseldorf in the slightest. People walked everywhere with their dogs, disregarding the poop and cigarettes littered all over the streets, and the graffiti on the walls spelled strange angry words that Erik did not understand. There were also so many people of other nationalities that Erik had rarely glimpsed back home: dark-skinned men and olive-skinned women and every other shade in-between, all cheerfully shouting to each other in French and throwing dirty water and garbage onto the streets. Erik barely managed to dodge a puddle which smelled like pee, and he was truly glad to finally reach the Hotel Sophie.

After Erik’s father, who spoke French, had checked in with the curt receptionist, they lugged their suitcases up to the tiny little room they were sharing. By now Erik was wondering what had possessed his parents to spend all their hard-earned money and come to this dirty foreign place, but he was trying to be a good boy and not cause too much trouble to his parents, who were visibly tired after a five-hour train journey and a long time walking to their hotel. He simply hugged Klaus tighter for comfort, listening as his parents discussed where they could get a reasonably cheap meal for dinner.

After unpacking, they left the hotel and headed to the nearest metro station, boarding the packed trains and enduring the ride to wherever Erik’s parents were taking him to. Erik was not blind to the disdainful stares some of the train passengers were giving his parents, who were not exactly dressed in their finest, and suddenly Erik felt a surge of ugly wrath towards these snooty people who had no idea how hard his parents had worked to come here. Sure, Mama’s dress may have been frayed at the hems, but these idiots did not see the tireless hours Mama spent patching up the dress so that she could go without new clothes and they could save for their vacation. Erik glared angrily at the passengers who seemed disturbed by his gaze and looked away uneasily, and he was confident that Klaus was glaring angrily on his behalf, too.

However, it was all worth it when the family got down at a train station with the odd name of ‘Bir-Hakeim’, and Erik’s breath was taken away when they emerged and he laid eyes on the twinkling lights of the Eiffel Tower for the first time. “Isn’t that beautiful, Schatzi?” Mama said as she squeezed his hand, and he squeezed back, beaming.

So this was why they had travelled to this strange city.

Papa tried getting them something to eat, but all the hotdog vendors told him that the meat was pork so they ended up buying falafel from an Algerian vendor and sitting on a bench where they could watch the glittering lights of the Eiffel Tower periodically come on now and then. Erik munched happily on the delicious crunchy treat as he listened to his parents’ quiet conversation, content and peaceful with his best friend perched on his lap, watching the lights with him.

* * * * *

* * * * *

They slept deeply that first night because the whole family was so tired, and the next day, for breakfast they went to the Jewish Quarter so they could find something kosher to eat. Erik liked this place better, with its crooked lanes and beautiful buildings and charming synagogues with the familiar Star of David emblazoned on the front doors. The owner of the cafe they were in spoke Hebrew to his parents, and while Erik didn’t quite understand everything that was said, he enjoyed the comforting familiarity of the language, like the warmth of an old blanket. He pretended that he and Klaus were going to climb the Eiffel Tower later that day and fight evil flying robots who were hiding at the top of the tower, and the cafe owner took a liking to him for his quietness and gave Erik a chocolate croissant all to himself.

After breakfast, it became apparent that Erik’s parents were going to part ways for a while. “I’m going to see my friend, Uncle Saul,” Papa explained, ruffling Erik’s hair. “And it’ll be boring for you and Mama to just wait around for me, so you two should explore what Paris has to offer. I’ll meet you both back at the hotel for dinner.”

“Okay, Papa,” Erik said bravely, and his father slipped him a coin with a wink.

After Papa’s departure, Erik and his mother left the cafe and Mama asked him if he wanted to walk along the River Seine and see the Notre Dame cathedral. Of course, Erik would happily follow his mother to the ends of the earth and said so, which earned him a delighted smile and a hug. They strolled through the Marais and walked along the bank of the Seine, and Erik watched artists setting up easels and canvases to paint the beautiful view. This part of Paris seemed a lot prettier and nicer than the gritty area around their hotel, and Erik was beginning to enjoy himself.

Now that the sun was out, it was getting quite hot and Mama asked Erik if he would like an ice cream. “Yes, I can share it with Klaus,” he replied, and Mama squeezed his hand playfully before they stopped outside an ice cream parlour filled with patrons.

“Just wait for me by the door where I can see you,” Mama said, and Erik nodded, standing obediently inside the entrance and tucking Klaus out of people’s way. There were many other adults and children in the parlour as well, and Erik’s gaze ran disinterestedly over them until he spotted the boy outside the window. The boy seemed to be around his age, and he was alone.

Curious, Erik looked around to see if there was an adult who was supposed to be with the boy, but he seemed lost and frightened. He was biting his lip, cheeks flushed as he looked around hopefully at the swarm of adults exiting the ice cream parlour, but his face fell when he failed to recognise any of them. The boy then tried approaching a nearby woman for help, but the woman didn’t seem to understand him and scolded him in French for bothering her. Now, the boy seemed to be even more timid and scared, and he pressed himself against the window, as if he were unsure where to go or what to do. Erik highly doubted that this boy was one of the street children he had seen in the city; his clothes were far too refined and expensive-looking.

Through the window, the boy’s blue gaze met his, and a pang hit Erik’s heart when he realised the boy’s eyes were brimming with tears. The boy was so frightened, staring at him beseechingly for help, and Erik gave his mother one last glance to make sure she was still in the queue before he stepped out of the store, going up to the boy. At least Mama could still see him through the glass and keep track of him.

“Are you all right?” Erik asked, then admonished himself when the boy gave him a blank stare. Of course he didn’t understand German. Erik didn’t know French, but his Hebrew was passable at best. Still, he highly doubted the boy would understand it. Despite his dark hair, the boy didn’t look Jewish. “Do you speak Hebrew?” Erik tried again, and scolded himself at the boy’s puzzled expression.

There was one last bet, then. Mama had bought him some English books to teach him a little of the language, and they had been making some headway with her impromptu lessons before bedtime. “Do you...speak English?” Erik said haltingly, and when the boy beamed at him it felt like the sun breaking through the clouds.

“Oh, thank goodness, I’m lost and I can’t find Nanny and everyone around here speaks French,” the boy babbled, holding tightly onto Erik’s arm, and Erik did not have the heart to tell him that his grip hurt. “Please help me, I’m alone and I don’t know what to do.”

“You’re not alone,” Erik promised, although he wasn’t sure what to do. What on earth was a Nanny? “Where is your Mama?”

Now the boy wasn’t quite meeting Erik’s gaze. Erik wasn’t sure if the boy was sad, or ashamed. “Mother is back at the hotel with her friends,” he explained in a small voice, and for some reason Erik felt sorry for the boy. “It was my Nanny who was taking me out for a walk. And now I’m lost.”

“Oh.” Erik was confused, because he still had no idea what the boy was talking about, and at the same time, Erik couldn’t quite imagine his own mother abandoning him to spend time with her own friends.

As if on cue, Mama emerged from the parlour carrying a chocolate cone for Erik, and a lemon one for herself. “Here you go, Schatzi,” Mama said, handing the cone over to him before smiling down at the boy. “Who is your new friend?”

“He is lost, Mama. He can’t find his mother, or someone who he calls his Nanny,” Erik explained in German as Mama’s smile faded in concern, and she crouched down so that she could speak to the boy. Erik didn’t miss the way Mama’s eyes widened when she saw the tear tracks on the boy’s face, and she handed off her own lemon cone to Erik, who balanced Klaus across his chest so he could help to hold both cones.

“Are you all right, little one?” Mama said in English, and the boy looked relieved at the revelation that there was now an English-speaking adult who could help him. “What is your name, dear boy?”

“Charles,” he answered, staying still as Erik’s mother whipped out her handkerchief and wiped his face with it.

“You are looking for your Nanny? Where is your mother?” she asked, stroking his shoulder soothingly.

“Mother did not come out with me this morning, she is back at the hotel with friends. I was walking with my Nanny along the river, then she stopped to ask someone for directions. I chased after a pigeon, and when I looked up, I couldn’t find her anymore,” Charles explained, his trembling lip a betrayal of his brave attempt to hold back fresh tears.

“Don’t worry, my son Erik and I will wait with you until your Nanny finds you,” Mama said kindly. “And we will ask someone to call the police so they can help you.”

“Really?” Charles’ eyes were now wide with gratitude. “Thank you! I was so scared, Mrs…”

“You can call me Mrs Lehnsherr,” she said with a smile. “I think the best thing to do is wait here in one place because I’m quite sure your Nanny is hunting high and low for you now. So if we don’t move about, she’s more likely to find you.” Mama gestured towards her lemon cone. “Would you like an ice cream?”

Charles nodded shyly, and Erik handed Mama’s cone over to him, glad that he could help in some way.

“Good.” Mama dusted her hands, giving Erik and Charles a speculative look. “Both of you, sit on this bench and stay where I can see you. I’m going to go in and ask the owner of the ice cream store to notify the police in case your nanny has already made a Lost Child report. Stay and be good, okay?”

“Yes, Mama,” Erik automatically answered, climbing up to perch himself on the bench and helping Charles up as well, placing Klaus between them. As Mama went back into the shop to ask for help, Erik gave Charles a sideways glance, gratified to note that the other boy didn’t look quite so terrified or helpless anymore. In fact, Charles seemed to be quite comforted by his ice cream, and he kept giving Erik furtive looks, as to check and make sure his new friend hadn’t abandoned him.

“Where are you from?” Erik asked, curious because Charles sounded nothing like the people he had heard in Düsseldorf or Paris.

“England,” Charles replied, before pointing at somewhere in the distance, across the Seine. “I know Nanny said that it is across the water from Paris. Have you been there?”

Erik shook his head. “This is the first time I have left West Germany. I’ve never travelled before.” He refused to be ashamed of his family’s lack of money, not when his parents had never left him wanting for love or affection.

Charles’ face brightened. “I have been to West Germany before, Father had to fly there for work. I really liked the pretzel Nanny bought me. And Germans are all so tall!”

This reminded Erik of something that had been nagging at him earlier. “What is a Nanny?”

“She is paid to look after me because Mother is too busy to,” Charles answered, but he avoided Erik’s gaze.

The answer was even more troubling to Erik. “Don’t you get to spend time with your Mama?”

“Sometimes, if she wants.” The sad look had returned to Charles’ face, so Erik thought it would be best not to ask too many questions and upset his new friend.

Erik shuffled over, pushing Klaus towards Charles. “This is Klaus. He’s my best friend in the whole world.”

This seemed to work. Charles was smiling again as he pretended to shake Klaus’ paw. “How do you do, Herr Klaus?”

“He’s very happy to meet you, too,” Erik said, and was ridiculously pleased when Charles blushed in reply. “He says he’s never had a friend from England before.”

This resulted in an extraordinarily sweet smile that Charles flashed at him, his dimples deepening. “Then I’m very honoured to be his friend. And yours,” he added, resting a hand on Erik’s knee. Erik’s face felt hot as he focused on his ice cream, and he tried his best not to dislodge Charles’ hand from where it was resting, both of them eating their cones in quiet companionship.

They started talking about books and toys, and Charles was halfway through describing his favourite book, which had something to do with sea creatures, when Mama emerged from the shop, looking rather relieved. “Good news, Charles, your nanny happened to be at the police station when I called, she was out of her mind with worry and lodging a report. I told her you were with us, so she is rushing down to collect you,” she said, brushing back Charles’ dark hair.

Charles was beaming. “Thank you, Mrs Lehnsherr. I’m so grateful to you and Erik.”

“Not at all, bubbala, it’s the least we could do,” Mama said, patting Charles on the head. “If Erik got lost, I would hope that someone would help him and take care of him, too.”

“What does ‘bubbala’ mean, Mrs Lehnsherr?” Charles asked, wide-eyed with curiosity.

“It means ‘dear child’ or ‘darling’ in Yiddish,” Mama said fondly, taking a seat on the bench as Erik scooted towards Charles to make room for her. At Charles’ questioning look, Mama explained, “Yiddish is the language of our people. We are Jewish, you see. Me, Erik and Mr Lehnsherr.”

“Oh, the Star of David!’ Charles exclaimed, resting a hand on Erik’s chest where his pendant rested. It was the silver one that his Aunt Ethel had given to him last Hanukkah.

“Oh, clever boy! How do you know that, Charles?” Mama asked, a broad smile growing on her face.

“Nanny wears the Star of David, too.” Charles hadn’t moved his hand, and it felt warm on Erik’s chest. “This means she’s Jewish too, right? She doesn’t really talk much about herself.” Here, Charles looked a little forlorn, and he finally lifted his hand off Erik, leaving him with an odd sense of loss.

Mama seemed oblivious to Charles’ shift in mood. “That’s right. I’ll ask her about it later when she gets here.” She ruffled Charles’ hair, making him smile again. “She’ll be along shortly.”

“Where is Mr Lehnsherr?” Charles asked, between contented licks of his lemon cone.

“He went to meet a friend. It’s too bad you won’t be able to stay and meet him later,” Mama said fondly, taking out her hanky so she could wipe Charles’ cheek, which had a smear of sorbet. Erik watched this display, rather confused. Was his mother on the verge of adopting Charles?

Strangely enough, Erik simply couldn’t find it in his heart to feel jealous. Charles seemed so lonely, and if anything, Erik completely understood his mother’s impulses to adopt Charles and bring him home with them. Charles struck Erik as a kind, cheerful boy who didn’t like seeing other people sad or in pain, and it seemed monstrous that anyone would not want to be his friend and spend time with him. Erik found himself wishing that Charles lived in Germany so that they could be best friends, and he would take Charles to all his favourite spots to play and run and chase each other. It would be quite wonderful, to have Charles with him at all times.

At this point Charles flashed him a private, sweet smile, almost as though he could read Erik’s thoughts. Erik hurriedly busied himself with his ice cream, unsure why he suddenly felt so shy.

“Charles!” A loud shout made all of them look up, and Erik saw a young, sweet-faced woman scurrying towards them, throwing her arms around Charles. “I was so worried!”

“Don’t worry, we were taking care of him,” Mama said in English, before smiling at the young woman. “You are his nanny?”

“Yes, I’m Ada,” she said, shaking Mama’s hand. “Are you Edie? The lady I spoke to on the phone?”

“Yes, I am,” Mama said, beaming as she stroked Charles’ dark hair back. “Charles is such a well-behaved little boy. He has impeccable manners.”

“Indeed he does,” Charles’ nanny replied. “I’m so grateful you found him, Edie. I don’t know what I would have done if something had happened to him.”

“All is good,” Mama said reassuringly, before asking her, “Can you speak Yiddish?”

Charles’ nanny broke into a wide, delighted smile. “Oh, yes!” As she and Mama began chattering at each other in Yiddish at top speed, even Erik found himself unable to follow the conversation at length. He caught Charles’ equally confused expression and they both shared a shrug, before bursting into giggles together.

“Sorry, Mama loves making friends,” Erik explained, as he crept closer to Charles so that Mama and her new friend would have room to chat.

“Not at all. Your Mama is wonderful.” Charles turned to give him a brilliant, hopeful smile. “I suppose you like making friends, too?”

“Not always,” Erik admitted, but he was alarmed when Charles’ face fell. “But I want to be friends. With you, I mean.”

Charles’ smile returned in full force, lighting up his eyes. Erik was quite certain he had never met anyone with such rare blue eyes before. It felt like Charles was looking straight into him, reading all of Erik’s secrets. In fact, if Charles kept looking any longer, he might just find out that Erik was just as lonely as he was.

As Mama and Charles’ nanny continued chatting at length, Erik offered a hand to Charles. “Let’s go walk by the river.”

“Sounds marvellous,” Charles said, taking Erik’s hand and not letting go even after they had both climbed down from the seat. Erik liked how Charles’ hand fit perfectly in his, and it occurred to Erik that it was the first time he had held a hand that was smaller than his own. Erik explained to his mother that they were going to walk along the bank, and Mama reminded them both to stay within her sight. Charles promised her and his nanny that they wouldn’t wander too far, and they walked to the river hand in hand.

“What is going on over there?” Charles asked, pointing to a nearby bridge where many couples were standing on, posing for pictures. Some of them were also attaching locks to the rails; in fact, the entire bridge seemed covered with locks.

“I don’t know. Let’s go see,” Erik said, making sure Mama could still see them both. She waved merrily at them, so he took it as a sign of permission and walked onto the bridge with Charles, his right hand holding onto Charles’ while his left hand clutched Klaus. They watched a couple attach a lock to a corner of the rail, then exchange a kiss before they walked off, arms around each other.

“Why do you think they’re putting the locks on the bridge?” Charles asked curiously, and Erik shrugged.

“Maybe it’s a way to say they love each other,” Erik said, because from what he knew, his parents had their own special ways of showing they cared about each other. Mama would bake Papa’s favourite chocolate babkas for him, and Papa would take Mama out to see an English movie whenever they could afford to, leaving Erik with Mrs Herschmeyer to look after him.

“Seems like an odd way,” Charles said, his lips quirked in amusement. “Hopefully the bridge won’t break, from all the weight of the locks.”

The thought left a chill in Erik. “I hope not, because we’d fall into the water and I can’t swim.”

Charles squeezed Erik’s hand reassuringly. “Don’t worry, I can. So if you fall into the water, I’ll dive in and save you.”

Erik couldn’t hold back the smile spreading across his face. Charles would do that for someone who was essentially a stranger to him? But a little voice inside Erik’s head reminded him that he and Charles were friends now, and friends had to look out for each other, right? Erik wanted to give him a hug as a thank-you, but with one hand holding onto Klaus and the other grasping Charles’, Erik had to be content with reciprocating the squeeze of his hand. “I’m lucky you’re here, then.”

Charles tugged Erik along as they made their way across the bridge, pausing every now and then to read the writing on the locks. An old, weathered padlock caught Charles’ eye, and Erik could almost imagine the feel of the fine inscriptions as Charles bent down to trace the worn out markings on the metal casing.

Scratched onto the lock’s surface was ‘E+C 1962’.

“Do you think they’re still alive?” Erik asked. Twenty-two years seemed like a very long time, when he could only remember his last two birthdays.

“I hope so. And having a lovely afternoon together, just like you and I,” Charles replied, and smiled so brightly that Erik thought he would rather watch Charles all day instead of the lights of the Eiffel Tower.

Erik’s thoughts were interrupted when he heard Ada calling for Charles, and he turned to see both Mama and Charles’ nanny coming towards them.

“Charles, it’s time to say goodbye to Erik,” Ada said, holding out her hand. Beside him, Charles let out a small noise of protest.

Erik felt a burst of panic at Ada’s words, and tightened his grip on Charles’ hand. He was only just starting to get to know Charles, and the thought of losing him so soon terrified Erik. If he were honest, Erik wasn’t sure if he would ever be ready to let Charles go. “Mama, can we walk with Charles?” Erik asked pleadingly.

Mama must have understood, because she reached out to pat Erik’s head before addressing their new friends. “As long as Charles and Ada don’t mind,” Mama said.

“Oh yes, please! I would love it if Erik and Mrs Lehnsherr could come with us,” Charles replied excitedly. He gazed up at Erik and added, “Would you like to come up to my room? I want to show you my book on marine creatures, and Mrs Lehnsherr could have tea with Mother and her friends.”

Erik couldn’t help breaking into a broad grin. “Of course,” he answered readily, thoroughly looking forward to his playdate with Charles.

He and Charles followed Ada to the other end of the bridge, walking along the side of a huge palace that Mama said was the Louvre. Mama told them that there was a beautiful painting of a girl called Mona Lisa inside it, and Erik scoffed and said that this princess couldn’t be as pretty as Charles or Mama. Mama laughed at that and kissed the top of his head, while Charles’ cheeks flushed a delightful shade of pink. Erik decided that Charles looked even more adorable like this, and vowed to find more ways to get similar reactions out of him.

As they made a turn and arrived at the grand, open courtyard of the Louvre, Erik was awed by the huge, empty space in the centre of the palace. Erik reckoned the courtyard was large enough to fit his entire neighbourhood back home into it, and was just wondering whether the Louvre or the Reichstag building in Berlin was larger when he was startled by a soft tap on his shoulder. It was followed by a gleeful shout of “Tag, you’re it!” from Charles before he slipped from Erik’s fingers and raced off into the piazza.

Charles was quick for his small size, but Erik’s legs were much longer and he closed in on the distance between them effortlessly. Besides, Charles seemed more focused on chasing the hapless pigeons congregated in the courtyard than actually outrunning him, and Erik immediately understood how Charles had ended up lost in the first place. Erik grabbed onto Charles’ arm and they spun around as Charles’ feathered friends took to the skies, the both of them giggling madly as they held on to each other.

Charles was still laughing as he tried to catch his breath. “I wanted to give it a try,” Charles said, the soft curls of his hair shaken loose and wild by their sprint. “Mother says it’s ‘unbecoming of a young man’ to play tag.”

Torn between feeling angry on Charles’ behalf or just incredibly sad, Erik swore he would give Charles’ mother a piece of his mind when saw her. In the meantime, a happy Charles made Erik happy, too, so Erik gave Charles a gentle shove and sped off down to another corner of the piazza. And if he slowed a little from time to time so Charles could keep up with him, Charles would never have to know.

* * * * *

* * * * *

After running all round the square until Charles looked about ready to faint from exhaustion, laughter, or both, they carried on with their journey towards Charles’ hotel, which was some place that Ada called the Ritz. Mama said it was somewhere very, very nice, and Charles explained, somewhat embarrassed, that they only stayed there because Mother wouldn’t settle for anywhere else. Erik didn’t understand what the fuss was about, and was of the opinion that accommodations shouldn’t matter when travelling as it would only be for a few days, anyway.

They crossed the road from the Louvre to a sprawling, beautiful park, and Erik read a sign saying it was the Jardin des Tuileries. The grounds were scattered with marble statues and lined with perfectly manicured trees, and Erik caught sight of a large basin of water with a single-plume fountain in the distance that people were gathered around. As they drew closer, Erik noticed that there were some children their age sailing colourful little boats in the basin, and Ada offered to rent them one when she noticed Erik watching the miniature sailboats intently, saying that it was the least she could do.

Charles picked a boat that had a blue and yellow sail, and they took turns to nudge it along using a short wooden stick. Charles was his captain, and Erik was Charles’ first mate, and side by side they travelled the world. They talked about all the places they would see together someday, cruising along the Mediterranean in the summer, or even crossing the Atlantic to America.

“Papa told me that America is where people go when they want to chase their dreams,” Erik said as he handed the stick over to Charles.

Charles looked contemplative for a moment, and began making a paddling motion with the stick against the water. Erik watched as the ripples gently pushed the sailboat farther away. “I wish I could spend all my days with you,” Charles said, turning his attention to Erik. “So if America is where dreams come true, then let’s run away to America, Erik.”

Charles’ words took Erik by surprise. Erik loved Mama and Papa, and couldn’t imagine life without them. But here was Charles, who was sweet, and wonderful, and Erik knew that he would be the happiest boy in the world if he got to stay by Charles’ side always.

“I…” Erik paused. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to be with Charles. Quite the opposite, really. However, trading his parents for Charles was a choice he wasn't sure he could make, and Erik couldn’t bring himself to keep staring into Charles’ big, beautiful eyes when they were growing sadder by the second. He tore his gaze away and caught sight of their boat fast drifting off towards the centre of the fountain. In a panic, Erik reached out to rescue it but the sudden movement caused him to lose his footing, and he landed face-first in the knee-high water of the fountain basin.

He heard a loud splash behind him and soon felt small arms wrap tightly around his chest and lift him up from the water. “Are you all right?” Charles asked, full of concern.

“I’m fine, you didn’t have to come after me,” Erik said, feeling a little sheepish.

Charles smiled gently, and placed a wet palm on Erik’s equally soaked cheek as something complicated happened in Erik’s chest. Perhaps he wasn’t quite all right after all. “You’re my first mate. If you fall, I’ll dive in after you, remember?”

“I wasn’t drowning,” Erik said softly. It was a lie. The rest of the world seemed submerged underwater since the moment they’d met, and even the magnificent sights of Paris completely faded away in Charles’ presence. Vaguely, he was aware that Mama and Ada were rushing over, and if he didn't say this now, the chance would be lost forever. “Okay,” Erik whispered, as the two women approached. “What you said earlier. Okay.”

The grin that broke across Charles’ face drew a matching one on his own, and before he knew it, Erik had an armful of Charles, who had rushed forward to hug him fiercely. Erik realised then that he would gladly promise Charles the world, if only for another moment like this. And although Mama and Ada soon arrived to fuss over them, he and Charles paid no mind as the two adults picked them up from the water. All they had were eyes for each other, and a secret smile on their lips as they imagined all the wonderful adventures they would go on once they made their way across the ocean together.

* * * * *

* * * * *

Walking around in wet clothing was normally unpleasant, but Erik found that after Mama and Ada had managed to somewhat mop away most of the water, he didn’t quite mind the dampness so much. Thankfully, Mama had been holding onto Klaus for him, so the bear was as dry as a bone. Of course, it helped that Charles was proving to be a wonderful distraction with the sweet, soft smiles he kept shooting towards Erik, his cheeks turning pink for no reason at all. Erik happily forgot all about the damp and reached for Charles’ hand again as they walked along the beautiful tree-lined paths, Mama and Ada chatting behind them.

“Maybe the Schatzis will dry off a bit if we let them ride on the carousel,” Mama suggested to Ada, who nodded in agreement.

“I think I know where it is, it’s just a little farther down the path. Follow me.” Charles’ nanny flashed the boys a smile, and Erik was beginning to like her more already.

When they reached the carousel in the wooded part of the park, Mama and Ada reminded them not to wander off too far, and after Mama handed Klaus back to Erik, the two women found a nearby bench. “Erik, come on.” Charles firmly grasped Erik’s hand and tugged him onto the glittering platform. There were horses and carriages and cars, and Charles made a beeline for a magnificent white steed. “Come sit on the horse next to mine!”

Erik wanted to scoff. As if there were any chance of him turning down the opportunity to be next to Charles. There seemed to be some long-haired boy considering the horse next to Charles, so Erik wasted no time and made his way over, hopping onto the black stallion accompanying Charles’ steed and glaring at the would-be usurper, who shrugged and went to look for another horse.

“Oh good, I was worried the other chap was going to steal your horse,” a relieved Charles said, and Erik chuckled as he gripped the handles, placing Klaus carefully in front of him so that the bear wouldn’t fall off during the ride. They were on their own, the other children choosing to sit somewhere else, or in one case, with their parents inside the carriages. Erik was pleased to have Charles all to himself, alone in their little private universe.

Before long, music began to fill the air and the carousel began its slow rotation. Erik had been hopeful that the horses would be like the ones in Düsseldorf that bobbed up and down, but unfortunately these remained static. Still, Erik could hardly bring himself to mind, not when Charles was laughing in delight and reaching out for Erik. “Take my hand!”

Of course Erik didn’t need to be asked twice, extending his hand and grasping Charles’ outstretched one. Their hands remained steadfastly clasped as the carousel went around and around, and it wasn’t long before Mama and Ada came into view. Erik waved happily at them, and he could see Mama saying ‘awww’ to Ada before she started digging into her bag, presumably for her camera.

“Watch out, Mama is probably going to take some photos,” Erik warned Charles, who only smiled in response.

“That’s quite all right, I’d really love to take a picture with you,” he said warmly, squeezing Erik’s hand and making him feel like he was floating. “I’d like to remember this day, always.”

“Me, too,” Erik readily admitted, tamping down his inherent aversion to being photographed. He was willing to brave it, just so that he could preserve this wonderful day with Charles. “It’s the happiest day I’ve ever had, much better than the day I got Klaus.” He patted the bear’s furry little head, almost as an apology.

“Really?” Charles’ eyes lit up, and Erik was so distracted he almost slipped off his horse. Thankfully, Charles’ grip righted him again. “Be careful, Erik!”

“Sorry,” Erik said sheepishly. “Klaus was probably trying to kick me off the horse for saying I like you better.”

Both of them dissolved into giggles, before Charles pretended to give the teddy bear a little bow. “My apologies, Herr Klaus. I did not mean to steal away your protector.”

Erik found himself thinking of what Charles had said earlier, about his own mother not wanting to spend time with him and pawning Charles off onto his nanny instead. If anyone needed a protector, it was Charles. “Klaus can be your protector, you know,” Erik told Charles, before reluctantly letting go of his hand so that he could pick up Klaus. “He can be there to watch over you when I can’t.” He handed the bear over to a stunned Charles, whose mouth was opening and shutting without a word.

“Wh-what, Erik, I can’t!” Charles managed to utter, staring down at Klaus in incredulity. “He’s your best friend!”

Erik shook his head firmly. “I have a new best friend now,” he said softly, resting a hand on Charles’ arm. “Please, let Klaus protect you so I won’t have to worry.”

The look in Charles’ eyes as he gazed at Erik was so soft and fond that Erik wanted to look away. He watched Charles prop Klaus up on his horse, his cheeks flushed pink with pleasure. “Thank you, my friend,” Charles said, looking up at Erik again. “I know how much Klaus means to you.”

“You’re welcome,” Erik said, feeling his cheeks heat up as well. “I...just want you to be safe.”

Now Charles was tilting his head and staring at Erik consideringly, as if he were contemplating something. Before Erik could ask what was wrong, Charles smiled brightly and leaned forward on his horse, pressing a kiss to a startled Erik’s lips.

Oh. Erik blinked, before feeling something warm and joyful bloom deep in his chest, and he bent down so he could kiss Charles back. Unfortunately, the moment was over as soon as it began as Charles was now pulling back, those blue eyes brighter than stars.

“Thank you, Erik,” Charles said again, clutching Klaus close to him. A dazed Erik licked his lips, which now had the faintest, sweetest tinge of lemon. He touched his mouth in wonder, a wide smile growing on his face as he realised it must have come from Charles’ lemon sorbet earlier. If this was what all kisses were like, then Erik wanted to do it again and again with Charles. It was the best feeling in the world.

Charles was still turned around to face him when there was a bright flash that caught Erik off guard, and Charles blinked in surprise as well. They both looked over and spotted Mama parked in front of the carousel, grinning and lowering her camera. Ah, that was where the flash had come from, then.

“You’re both so adorable!” Mama shouted to them, making Charles laugh and Erik cringe a little, especially when the long-haired kid turned to arch a curious eyebrow at them.

“I’m sorry, Mama gets overexcited sometimes.” Erik couldn’t help his grimace, although Charles was grinning fondly.

“Don’t be sorry, she’s a lovely lady.” Now Charles’ hand was back on Erik’s arm, but the other one continued to guard Klaus fiercely. “I can see where you get your kindness from.”

Erik could feel his cheeks heating up again in embarrassment, unsure what to say so he simply placed his hand over Charles’, and they remained like that until the music eventually died, like the end of the sweetest of dreams.

* * * * *

* * * * *

The walk back to Charles’ hotel was more like a quick stroll, since it was only a stone’s throw from the gardens. Erik’s eyes widened at the magnificent palace that Charles pointed to, wondering if Charles indeed came from a royal background. Erik couldn’t help comparing the beautiful, sprawling building to the grimy shabbiness of the humble hotel he and his family were staying at, which bore equally grimy surroundings. More than ever, Erik felt like he simply didn’t belong.

His hesitancy must have been obvious, for Charles was squeezing his hand. “Don’t worry, I was scared the first time I saw the Ritz, too,” he chattered on, clinging onto Klaus with his other arm. “It’s so big that I almost got lost! But it looks really nice inside, you’ll see. Come on!”

And just like that, with Charles tugging Erik towards the grand doorway in the firm belief that Erik could ever belong in such a luxurious place, was enough to dash the worst of Erik’s fears. He turned to find Mama similarly hesitant, but Ada was just as insistent as Charles at inviting her in, and all four of them marched in through the entrance, the doorman greeting them with a hearty, “Bonjour!

At the lifts, there was another uniformed employee who hastily greeted Charles and held the door open for them. As their little group entered the lift, the employee inserted a special key above the row of buttons, then pressed the one at the very top marked ‘P’. Charles held onto Erik’s hand the whole time, pressing his cheek to the soft fur on the top of Klaus’ head. Erik couldn’t help his smile, gazing fondly at Charles.

He was surprised when the lift doors opened up not into a corridor, but directly into the hotel room itself. Actually, the whole suite looked more like a palace than a room. Erik gaped at the ornate furnishings, the beautifully carved wooden furniture, the genteel china teacups left on the table where Charles’ mother must have been drinking tea earlier.

“It seems like your mother has gone shopping, Charles,” Ada said, stepping forward to check the other rooms and missing the secret smile on Charles’ face.

“Good, then Erik can see my room,” Charles declared, tugging Erik down the corridor with Klaus firmly in hand. Erik could hear Ada saying to Mama in Yiddish, “I guess it’s better that Madam isn’t here, she’s not a very nice lady.” Instantly he felt sad - and overwhelmingly protective - of Charles.

 

Charles’ room was bright and airy, and his monogrammed luggage - ‘C. F. X.’ - was stacked neatly in the corner. Erik still couldn’t quite comprehend that Charles got a whole room to himself; Erik shared one smaller than this with his parents, sleeping in a tiny bed next to their big one. But, to be honest, he wouldn’t have it any other way. His parents loved to tell jokes and stories and sing songs before bedtime, and it was a beloved family ritual Erik would never give up, not for a palace entirely of his own.

“Klaus is the guest of honour, so he can sit here,” Charles said, placing him at the foot of the bed so that the bear could watch what they were doing. After making sure Klaus was safe, Charles headed over to his luggage and pulled out one that seemed a little more worn and used than the rest. He rummaged in it for a while, before triumphantly pulling out a large book. “Aha, found it!”

“What’s that?” Erik asked, more than a little enchanted at the sight of a ruffled Charles with flushed cheeks.

“My book of marine animals, silly,” Charles said, grinning as he tugged the heavy book towards the bed, then hopped onto the mattress with a bounce. He patted the space beside him. “Come on, Erik! I’ll show you my favourite animals.”

Not wasting a second, Erik ran and jumped up onto the bed, landing beside Charles and making the bed wobble, both of them giggling like crazy. He wrapped an arm around Charles’ shoulders, keeping him close. “Okay, I want to see your book.”

Beaming at him, Charles flipped it open, and Erik was stunned to be greeted with rows and rows of long, unwieldy words, accompanied by only a few illustrations. He had been expecting more pictures, that was for certain. But given how excited Charles seemed, Erik swallowed his confusion and concentrated on the massive book, only wanting to make Charles happy.

Charles stopped flipping, pausing at a page with an illustration of a magnificent white shark. “Ah, the king of the predators and my personal favourite, the Carcharodon carcharias.” Charles gave Erik a wink. “Or rather, more commonly known as the Great White Shark.”

“Why did you call it the...chachacha-something?” A puzzled Erik asked.

Chuckling, Charles shook his head. “The Carcharodon carcharias. That’s the Latin name.”

There was a knock on the door, and both boys looked up to find a smiling Ada at
the door with a tray. “Erik’s Mama and I are having tea and a snack, so we thought you might want the same. How does milk and biscuits sound?”

Charles sat up immediately, beaming. “Yes, please! Can Erik have some, too?”

Ada brought the tray into the room with a laugh. “Of course I wouldn’t leave him out. Thick as thieves, you two are.” As she knelt down to set down the tray and pour out the milk, she caught sight of the book on Charles’ lap. “Oh darling, don’t you ever get tired of reading those?”

“Never, there are so many animals in here and I want to learn them all,” Charles said, grinning from ear to ear.

“All right, whatever you say.” Ada’s smile had a twist of fond amusement as she leaned down and kissed Charles on the forehead, and Charles gave her a sweet smile in return. Erik couldn’t help wondering if Charles felt closer to her than he did his own mother.

Over jam biscuits and milk, the two boys continued to pore over the rest of the encyclopaedia, and Erik found himself blinking sleepily, lulled by the clear, soothing tone of Charles’ voice as he read out all the Latin names of various sea creatures: Architeuthis hartingii (the giant squid), Hippocampus ingens (the Pacific seahorse) and Erik’s personal favourite, the Tursiops truncatus (the bottlenose dolphin). Charles rattled off facts about all of them as though it were second nature to him; dolphins had their own language, and the seahorse was the only species where the males could give birth. Erik found himself quite in awe of how smart Charles obviously was, but not in a way that he was showing off. In fact, Charles simply seemed eager to share his knowledge with Erik, just like how he was willing to share his biscuits and everything else he had.

Now that both their clothes were fully dry, Erik didn’t have to worry about messing up Charles’ expensive attire, so he burrowed against Charles with a yawn. Charles smelled nice, and felt extremely warm and comforting. Erik wished he could hold Charles forever. Judging from Charles’ soft, contented sigh as his arm slipped around Erik’s waist, it seemed he felt the same.

“Are you tired?” Charles asked. Erik could feel Charles’ fingers sifting through his hair affectionately.

“It’s been a long day, we were up early,” Erik said sleepily. His lips quirked up in a mischievous grin. “Besides, I had to rescue a boy in an ice cream parlour who got lost chasing pigeons.”

Erik could feel Charles’ smaller body shaking with laughter against his. “I may have lost my way, but I found a friend,” he murmured contentedly.

“I’m glad you did,” Erik said, letting his heavy eyelids fall shut. He could feel Charles shifting about, and Erik tightened his grip around him anxiously. “No, don’t go, please Charles.”

“Silly, I’m not leaving you,” Charles said with a chuckle. “I’m just putting my book aside so that we can be more comfortable.” As Erik blearily opened his eyes, he realised Charles was true to his word, placing the book on the floor before hopping back up onto the bed and tugging Erik upwards with him, so that they could both fully lie down on the bed. Erik couldn’t help stretching out in happiness; the bed was far softer than his own at home, and Charles was right beside him, safe and warm. Erik tugged Charles towards him so that he could wrap his arms around his friend, and Charles readily wriggled closer.

“This is nice,” Erik whispered, not wanting the adults to intrude into their secret little world. “When we get to America, we could do this every day.”

“We could.” Charles kept his voice equally low and hushed, as though he intuitively understood what Erik was trying to do. “Better yet, we could also get a nice big bed like this for our ship.”

“You’re the captain, you could have whatever you want.” Erik grinned a little sleepily. “But be sure the bed isn’t too heavy or the ship will sink.”

Charles chuckled. “Don’t spoil this for me, Erik.” He reached over and began stroking Erik’s hair gently, his smile getting sleepy as well. Erik couldn’t resist watching Charles’ lids getting heavier, his dark lashes brushing against his cheek. Well, Erik hadn’t been lying when he said no princess could ever be as pretty as Charles or Mama. He kept his eyes on Charles for as long as he was physically able, until sleep stole him away to a place where he and Charles were sailing around the world together, laughing side by side.

* * * * *

“Wake up, Schatzi,” Mama whispered in Erik’s ear, but Erik let out a soft grumble before drawing Charles closer and burying his face against Charles’ neck. Charles was so warm and soft, and cuddling Charles was much better than old Klaus. Erik never wanted to leave.

Mama nudged his arm, which prompted Erik to blearily bat her away. “Come on, punim. It’s time to meet Papa,” Mama said, laughing. Erik would have protested further, but Charles was stirring beside him, and Erik was torn between shrugging Mama off and saying hello to Charles.

“Erik?” Charles murmured as he blinked open his eyes, and Erik thought he looked especially adorable with his features softened by sleep. However, realisation soon dawned on Charles, and his expression fell when it occurred to him that Mama was here to take Erik away. Under the covers where Mama couldn’t see, Erik felt Charles take his hand and squeeze it tightly. The sentiment was echoed deep in Erik’s chest, a sharp clench seizing his heart.

“It’s okay…” Charles said as he sat up, his voice laced with sadness. “Let me walk you down.”

They reluctantly got out of bed and Charles helped Erik straighten his rumpled clothes before they left the room hand in hand, slowly dragging their feet to the grand elevator lobby as Mama and Ada led the way. The ride down in the lift was silent, neither Erik nor Charles daring to speak for fear that they would not be able to hold back their tears once they started saying their goodbyes.

No, this was unacceptable. Erik decided he would not go down without a fight. They could still run off together if they tried, and Erik began scanning Place Vendôme for an escape route the moment they stepped out of the hotel and into the late afternoon sunlight. Charles had a truly brilliant mind, and Erik was confident that he could fight off any bullies that chose to pick on them. They’d survive as long as they worked together. Perhaps they could live on a train; Erik had liked the one he had taken from Düsseldorf to Paris. He nodded firmly to himself with newfound determination.

“Mama, I want to talk to Charles for a while,” Erik said as he guided Charles off to the side.

“Of course, Schatzi,” she replied, and Erik thought Mama looked rather sad when she turned to bid Ada farewell, too.

Erik stopped walking when he was sure they were out of earshot, and his pulse was racing when he took both of Charles’ hands in his. “We could make a run for it,” Erik said quickly, his voice a hushed whisper. “I’ll distract them so you can have a head start.”

Erik’s heart fell when Charles shook his head miserably, letting go of Erik’s hands so he could wrap his arms firmly around Erik instead. He felt Charles nuzzle the side of his neck and let out a sad sigh. “We can’t,” Charles said, his voice choking up.

Clinging to Charles as tightly as he could, Erik took a deep, shaky breath and tried to remember everything about this time and space, knowing this would be the last moment they would ever have. The scent of Charles’ skin, how soft Charles’ wavy hair felt as it pressed against his cheek, the way it made him feel to hold Charles close.

“I’ll find you someday,” Charles whispered hoarsely, bunching up the back of Erik’s shirt in his small fists. “And I’ll return Klaus when I see you again.”

“In America, like we promised,” Erik said, trying to hold on to hope, and placed a soft kiss on Charles’ forehead. Erik wanted to be strong, but his eyes burned as he willed away his tears. “Goodbye, Charles,” Erik said as he gently brushed the wet streaks from Charles’ cheeks.

Erik heard Mama and Ada approaching, and knew that time was slipping away. He wished he had the rest of his life to tell Charles everything he needed to say, instead of just these last moments as the sun began to set.

Charles sniffed as he shifted Erik’s palm from his face, and Erik could no longer stop his tears from falling when Charles kissed the back of his hand tenderly. “Goodbye.”

In the shadow of the Vendôme column, Erik watched wordlessly as Ada took Charles’ hand while Mama did the same with his. His eyes never left Charles’ as they were each led away. Erik paused when Charles entered the hotel, quietly hoping that Charles would change his mind and come back to him.

Charles never did.

“What is it, Erik?” Mama asked gently as she bent down in concern. “Oh, where is your bear? Did you leave him in the room?”

“No, I gave him to Charles.”

Erik cast his eyes to the ground so Mama wouldn’t see his tears, but he could never hide anything from her, and soon he felt Mama’s soft handkerchief wiping at his cheeks. “My poor punim… Charles comes from a very different world than us, Erik. This is for the best.”

Slender arms wrapped around him lovingly, and Erik clung onto Mama as she picked him up and kissed his cheek. She continued walking with Erik still in her arms, and Erik calmed down a little as he settled into Mama’s familiar warmth. It had been so long since Mama had carried him, not since the time he had scraped his knees while playing football. Erik thought this hurt much, much more.

* * * * *

* * * * *

Charles never let Erik’s bear out of his sight in the weeks and months that followed. He felt safe with it around, almost as if Erik was still by his side. Sometimes, Charles caught traces of Erik’s scent when he held the bear close, and he would kiss it goodnight each night hoping that Erik would somehow feel it, too. When Mother had finally noticed Klaus one day, Ada told her that she had bought the stuffed toy for Charles because he had loved it the moment he laid eyes on it. Mother had sniffed and allowed him to keep it, and for that, Charles was eternally grateful.

*

A couple of weeks after they returned from their vacation in Paris, Mama came home with a thick envelope, barely able to contain herself when she called Erik over to the dining table. “Schatzi, come see!” she said excitedly as she poured the envelope’s contents out. The envelope had been full of pictures developed from the rolls of film Mama had used on the trip, and Mama rummaged through the pile to find one particular photograph that she wanted to show Erik. It was a blurry picture of him and Charles on the carousel that day in Paris, and Erik smiled fondly as he held the precious memory in his hands. Charles was facing away from the camera with Klaus on his lap, looking at Erik, and Erik himself was smiling more brightly than he had ever smiled in any other photograph. It had been taken right after his first kiss, after all.

*

Mother let go of Ada several months later, saying that Charles was getting too attached to the help. Charles held Erik’s bear especially close that night when he was all alone in his room, and dreamt of that perfect day on the banks of the Seine when - for the briefest of moments - everything had seemed right. Charles begged Mother to return to Paris the next summer and spent a long afternoon searching for that same ice cream parlour with his new nanny. He was glad when he finally found it, even though Erik was nowhere in sight, and refused to leave the place until Nanny began fretting that they were going to be late for dinner. It was the start of a new tradition for him, and Charles never failed to track down an ice cream parlour each time he was in Paris, just in case lightning struck twice.

*

The truth was that Charles had left a gap in Erik’s life. He missed Charles quite terribly, and often wondered what life would have been like if Charles had agreed to come away with him. Erik began isolating himself from the rest of the world, choosing to surround himself with invisible walls instead of forming connections with people who would abandon him all over again. It had been reckless to give away his affections so quickly, and Erik swore that he would never again let someone in that easily. Erik decided to forget about Paris, about promises that were impossible to keep, and that beautiful boy who had filled his head with foolish dreams.

*

The years rolled by and soon Charles was thirteen and packing his bags for Eton College. He placed all his most prized possessions in a large chest in the attic, with his favourite bear from his childhood seated right on top. It would be safe here, and Mother would never come up to the dusty attic looking to throw the old bear away. Charles was hit by a wave of nostalgia as he put away his chest of memories, and was rather upset with himself when he realised he could no longer remember the name of the handsome boy he had met in Paris eight years ago. The boy had taught Charles to believe in the kindness of strangers, and Charles hoped that wherever he was in the world right now, he was happy.

*

It always baffled Erik that he could taste a faint trace of lemon sorbet on his lips sometimes, when he was feeling truly happy.

*

Charles was sick to death of débutante balls midway through the social season. He was beginning to suspect it was all part of Mother’s elaborate plan to make sure he was indeed gay, but he still tried his very best to be charming while he danced the night away with the prettiest girl Mother could send in his direction. They were all perfectly lovely and prime examples of British aristocracy, but Charles often suspected they were more interested in his trust fund than anything he had to say. Mother had taken his coming out as well as he could have expected, and had rattled on about Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Elton John when she had tried to work out how she was going to tell her high-society friends without too much embarrassment. Father had come to his rescue at one point when Mother had grumbled about why Charles couldn’t have just been normal, and had cited figures and studies on homosexuality in the animal kingdom and its evolutionary advantages. Charles for his part had been quite at peace with the whole fiasco. He had realised while he was in Eton that he liked boys the way the other boys liked the girls visiting from Marlborough or Pembridge, although he never quite figured out why he didn’t have many crushes. They were all not tall enough, or handsome enough…or, perhaps, German enough.

*

Fresh out of university, Erik was trying to figure out what to do with his life. He had decided during the last semester of his undergraduate degree that a career as an engineer was not something he could see himself in, and he desperately wanted a different life for him and his family. Yet, it had still come as a surprise to both himself and his parents when Erik decided one day to pack his bags and listen to that tiny voice at the back of his head telling him to make his way to L.A., in search of the American dream.

*

“Excuse me, miss?” Charles called out to the blonde waitress standing by the bar of the pub he was grabbing lunch at. She turned to him, pale blue eyes searching his face, and Charles thought she really was quite stunning. “I’d like to place my order, please.”

She glanced around looking puzzled for a second before strutting over to him, her knee-high boots clicking against the tiled floor. “Sorry to break it to you, but I’m not the waitress.”

“Oh, dear God, I’m so terribly sorry. I am truly, incredibly embarrassed about this.” Charles apologised profusely, feeling thoroughly horrified over mistaking the girl’s black ensemble for the staff uniform. “May I buy you a drink to make up for it?”

She tossed her head back and let out a full-throated laugh, her loose curls bouncing off her shoulders. “You Brits really live up to your reputation. Sure, I’ll have whatever you’re having. And I’m Raven, by the way.”

“Charles Xavier, a pleasure to meet you,” Charles said and shook her hand. “And may I ask what horrible reputation precedes me?” Charles added as he waved over the actual waitress this time.

Raven grinned and settled into the vacant stool beside Charles. “Oh, you know… Everyone’s just like Colin Firth or Hugh Grant; perfect gentlemen who could charm the pants off anyone they wanted.”

“I assure you that you are sorely mistaken,” Charles said as Raven giggled with amusement. He placed an order for a couple of pints before continuing their conversation. “So where are you from Raven?”

“I’m Canadian, but I work in L.A. now. I just took a job as a talent agent, actually,” Raven said.

Charles’ eyes widened. “For movie stars?”

Raven nodded. “Everyone’s an actor in La-la Land. I’m here to attend the London Film Festival, but enough about me. What about you? What do you do?”

“Well I’m about a year into my Ph.D. at Oxford. I’m just in London for the weekend visiting my parents since my father’s back in town,” Charles said, grimacing a little thinking of the flasks of cells he had left sitting in the incubator in the lab with some extra culture medium, and hoped they would survive until Monday.

Raven raised her eyebrows at that. “You have a great face, have you ever considered acting? Brains and brawn, the girls will go crazy over you.”

Charles chuckled and shook his head. “No, but I did do a bit of theatre while I was in boarding school,” he said, reminiscing about the stage plays he had put up with Hiddleston and Redmayne at Eton over the years.

“I’m serious, come back to L.A. with me. You could be my first real client,” Raven said, leaning over to pass Charles her card.

Charles stared at the card for a long while, thinking back to when he was young with a head full of dreams. He’d somehow lost that passion over the years, and now only vaguely remembered a time when he used to wake up wanting to make a name for himself and change the world. He looked back up when their beers arrived, lifting his glass to Raven as a slow smile spread across his face. “America, you say?”

*

Shaw brought Erik onto his massive luxury yacht to celebrate when ‘Cyborg Cop’ bowed at first place on its opening weekend, and later went on to gross $450 million in its full run. It was gratifying to finally make it big after countless failed auditions and bit parts to pay the bills, and Erik was enjoying his time in the spotlight, even though it irked him that he had Shaw to thank for it all. Shaw had spared no expense for the event, hiring the hippest DJs and inviting half the A-listers of Hollywood. And yet, despite the bombardment of strobe lights and pulsing music, Erik wondered why he couldn’t seem to shake the sweet taste of lemon sorbet from his lips as he joined Emma in sipping vintage champagne.

*

Charles was certain he would never get used to this; the lights, the cameras, the red carpet. The hundreds of minds congregated in one place, screaming his name. It was a rush whenever he connected with fans in person, as it was easy to forget that there was a whole world watching from behind the camera lens. But for once, this wasn’t his premiere.

“Charles! Are you here to support Keira?” a reporter from L.A. Weekly asked as she stuck her microphone in front of him.

“Oh, yes. Us Brits have to stick together,” Charles said cheerfully, and did not need to look to know that Raven was rolling her eyes behind him. “I’m also here because this is an Erik Lehnsherr movie, and we all know that that guarantees you’ll have a good time,” Charles added with a wink.

Charles finally had a couple of weeks to relax in Los Angeles before he had to be back on-location again, and he had practically begged Raven to get him to the premiere of ‘Age of Prometheus’ under the pretence that he and Keira Knightley had done ‘Redemption’ together last year. Raven had of course seen right through him, but had been kind enough to humour him regardless, so here he was dressed to the nines, anxiously waiting on the carpet until Erik Lehnsherr arrived.

His train of thought was interrupted when loud shrieks pierced the air, undoubtedly signalling Erik’s arrival. Charles caught a glimpse of him heading up to a reporter from E! before the reporter that Charles had been talking to drew him back into conversation. They were halfway through chatting about his new movie when he saw Erik rush by him and make a beeline for the end of the carpet, prompting Charles to signal for Raven to end the interview. She swooped in immediately, politely fending off the reporter and tugging Charles safely to the centre of the carpet.

“Where’s Erik? Where did he go?” Charles asked, casting his gaze about.

Raven pointed to two figures making their way off the carpet and round the side of the Chinese Theatre, back towards the drop-off area. “I believe that’s him and his agent over there,” she said, frowning.

Charles stared on in disbelief. “No.”

“Who the fuck skips out on their own premiere? Only prima donnas and sociopaths, Charles. Take your pick,” Raven said disapprovingly.

“I’m sure he had a perfectly good explanation…” Charles said, feeling slightly faint.

Raven sighed, wrapping herself around Charles’ arm and guiding him inside. “That’s the last time I’m doing anything for you.”

*

Emma had dragged him to some asinine movie showcase that had been produced by one of Shaw’s partners-in-crime, insisting that Erik needed to pay his dues and gift Shaw with an appearance every now and then, as a sign of gratitude and loyalty. As much as Erik had grumbled, he eventually put on his best suit and trudged down to the showcase for ‘Beginning at 10’. Thankfully, he was mostly left alone, except for a few nosy paps. The spotlight that evening was entirely on Moira MacTaggert, who was the female lead for the movie, and the male lead - some guy Erik hadn’t heard of - was doing the press rounds in London. This was apparently the fifth movie they’d acted in together, which was surprising to Erik. He could barely stand most of his past co-stars, and no amount of money could persuade him to work with them again.

“Play nice,” Emma warned him under her breath, as Shaw came around and introduced Erik to everyone as his ‘protege’. Erik fought the temptation to roll his eyes, gritting his teeth and wishing he were home with a bottle of wine and one of his favourite movies instead.

As soon as Moira and the director were applauded and situated, the movie started. To Erik’s surprise, the writing was sharp and witty, and the characters were believable and rather fleshed out (for a rom-com). Moira and the male lead - Charles something - had great chemistry and were perfectly in sync, and Erik found himself quite drawn to the man’s mischievous smile and twinkling blue eyes. This fellow certainly knew how to put them to good use and enthrall the audience. Looking around, Erik was amused to find that a good number of the audience perked up in their seats whenever this Charles person appeared on screen.

Granted, the movie wasn’t perfect. There were a few scenes that called for Erik to suspend his disbelief, along with a ludicrous airport chase that made him snort in impatience, earning an elbowed nudge from Emma who glared at him. You don’t understand, Erik wanted to tell her. This fellow can do so much better. He let out a short huff and sulked in his seat, refusing to be drawn in even during an emotional scene where the male lead was crying over the loss of his friend, those reddened blue eyes threatening to tug at Erik’s hardened heartstrings.

When the movie ended, the audience applauded and wolf-whistled for Moira and the director. Erik found himself regretting the absence of Charles the main lead, wondering if those eyes were really that shade of blue in real life.

Horrified, Erik slammed the brakes on that thought immediately, refusing to get intrigued by some fellow he hadn’t even met. No attachments, he reminded himself sternly, wondering why there was a lump of melancholy in his throat.

“That wasn’t so bad now, was it?” Emma said teasingly.

Erik schooled his features into a frown. “It was cheesy and formulaic. Why did you force me to attend again?”

Emma rolled her eyes. “Sugar, you really need to get laid. Then maybe you won’t be so grumpy all the time.”

*

As they shook hands, Charles couldn’t quite disguise his exhilaration and excitement at finally getting to meet Erik in the flesh. This was the man he’d been obsessing over for years, watching all his films and reading all his interviews. Erik was taller than Charles had ever envisioned, and even in person his eyes still vacillated between shades of green and blue. Charles felt silly now, remembering arguments with Raven and Darwin over the real colour of Erik’s ever-changing eyes in all the movies they’d seen. Even now, he couldn’t quite be certain.

“Erik, I’m such a big fan,” Charles found himself saying, aware that he was beaming from ear to ear like a besotted idiot. Erik’s hand was warm and firm, and Charles was reluctant to let go despite the lengthy handshake.

Eventually they dropped hands, and as Shaw continued talking, Charles noticed - with delight - that Erik was staring at him, head slightly tilted in curiosity and wonder. Maybe Erik was trying to ascertain if they had met before. Unfortunately not, Charles thought wistfully, running through all their missed chances.

Well, they would just have to make up for lost time.

*

“You can drop me here.” As Charles opened the car door, he turned and smiled almost shyly at Erik. “Thank you, Erik.”

There was a long, quiet moment in the car where Erik, for some reason, wanted to lean forth and…what? Stop Charles? Ask him to stay? He blinked, strangely reluctant to let Charles walk away from him. It wasn’t as though Charles were going away forever; Erik would see him tomorrow morning on set barely ten hours later.

“Is everything all right?” The concern on Charles’ face was touching, and now he’d raised a hand to stroke Erik’s shoulder.

“I….” Erik swallowed a lump in his throat, stunned that Charles seemed to have expertly read his mind. Was he that obvious?

“Sorry, I think I’m just tired,” he eventually said, unable to look at Charles for some reason. “It’s been a long day of filming. For both of us, in fact.”

“Ah.” Charles nodded, and maybe it was Erik’s imagination but it seemed like he’d been hoping Erik was going to say - or do - something else. “Right, of course, old chap. Tiring day indeed. I’m looking forward to our next rest day.”

Charles continued to prattle on about some cafe he meant to take Erik to for brunch on their rest day, while Erik sat there quietly, wrestling with the turmoil and yearning tangled inside him. Something had happened during their fondue lunch earlier today, where they’d opened up to each other and he’d confided in Charles more than any other person he’d ever met in his life. There was something familiar and comfortable about Charles that had made Erik let his guard down. Still, it was a mistake to get close to someone. What if Charles didn’t want to remain friends after filming? If Erik wasn’t careful, he was going to get hurt once he and Charles went their separate ways after the movie wrapped.

“Right, so we’re on for brunch this weekend then,” Charles said cheerfully, patting Erik’s knee twice. Maybe it was Erik’s imagination, but Charles’ hand lingered a little before he finally let himself out of the car, waving to Erik. “Goodnight, my friend! See you tomorrow.”

Erik waved back, watching as Charles took out his keys and let himself in. He stared at Charles’ closed door for a long while, murmuring “Goodbye, Charles” and wondering why it all sounded so familiar.

*

They sat quietly in the car, enthralled by the lights of Santa Monica Pier in the distance. Charles was lost in thought, distracted by distant memories of carousels and calliope music ringing in his ears. Was there a carousel at the Santa Monica Pier amusement park? He didn’t know, and it bothered him that he was thinking so excessively about it.

He turned to ask Erik, but the question died in his mouth as he found himself staring at Erik’s profile. The long slope of his nose, the curve of his lips, the pale blue of those intense eyes. Charles simply couldn’t shake the feeling of familiarity, as though he’d dreamt Erik into life. It was a fanciful notion, but Charles found himself tethered to the thought nonetheless, smiling at Erik and letting his hand rest over his friend’s.

*

It was the morning after the first time Charles had spent the night with him. And as Erik held him close right there in the middle of his living room, only one thought filled his mind: Charles smelled like home.

*

Charles sometimes wondered what happened to the young boy he had met all that time ago, but he had rarely crossed his mind in recent years, and definitely not since Erik had entered his life. But they were in Paris, and the city always made Charles nostalgic. Charles had come up with the idea to include Erik and Raven in his tradition, which was why they were here in the little ice cream café on the Seine, eating sundaes outside together in the chilly morning air.

“Why are we having ice cream in the dead of winter, Charles?” Erik asked after Charles had fed him a spoonful of his chocolate ice cream.

“Oh, hush. You seem to be enjoying your lemon sorbet just fine,” Charles said, eyeing Erik’s half-finished cup. “And that’s why I brought you out here with me to keep me warm. You should try the French vanilla,” Charles teased as he scooped a spoonful up for Erik, and laughed when he heard Raven huff in mock irritation.

Erik grinned and tried the vanilla, happily drawing Charles even closer. “I don’t actually remember the last time I had ice cream.”

* * * * *

Charles was enjoying wedding planning, and everything was so much simpler now that they had hired Sarah Haywood to handle their big day. Raven was still at Oxford Street racking up what Charles could only assume was a staggering bill on his card, so Charles had thought that today would be perfect for paying Mother and Father a visit and lounging around his family home in Mayfair. Besides, he needed to go up to the attic to dig up his old photo albums as Sarah had requested for some pictures of when he and Erik were little, and Charles was really looking forward to telling Erik more about his childhood while they flipped through his treasure trove of old pictures.

“It could be rather dusty up here, darling. Just so you know,” Charles said as they climbed the steps to the attic.

“I will never understand why your family has such an obsession with living in mausoleums,” Erik said drily.

Charles chuckled and turned back to reach for Erik’s hand to tug him up the stairs. “So long as you know what you’re marrying into, love.”

The attic was as musty as expected when he entered, and Charles held back a sneeze as he helped Erik up the last couple of steps. “Charles, I believe you need to rethink your definition of an attic. This place is large enough to house a family of twelve,” Erik said, shaking his head rather incredulously.

Charles rolled his eyes. “Would you prefer we stayed here instead of at the apartment?”

Erik raised his eyebrows. “With your mother? Absolutely not.”

Laughing as he led Erik towards the far wall of the attic where he kept his trunk, Charles couldn’t hold it against Erik for never quite warming up to Mother. It wasn’t as if Mother had been very welcoming; her attitude towards Erik was civil at best. Charles could only hope that both Erik and Mother would learn to like each other with time now that they were going to be family. Then again, Charles knew he would be better off wishing for world peace, given how stubborn they both were.

“There we are,” Charles said as they arrived at his trunk, reverently wiping off the thin layer of dust that had settled on it. “I kept all my favourite things as a child in here before I left for Eton. I just hope none of the housekeepers took it upon themselves to clean this out.”

Charles popped the lid of the chest, and was relieved to find everything as he had left it. He heard Erik let out a soft gasp, and saw him reaching out for Charles’ beloved teddy bear when he was growing up. “That was given to me by a wonderful boy that I met on my first trip to Paris. Mother used to hate that I would carry it everywhere. Oh, and before you get jealous, darling, I can barely remember what he looked like, let alone his name.”

“Klaus,” Erik whispered.

Charles chuckled. “No, that’s not—” He paused, a chill shooting up his spine as realisation dawned on him. It couldn’t be. He turned to Erik, his voice wavering as he said, “That bear you mentioned, when I asked if you’d ever been to Paris with someone special, you called it…”

“Klaus,” Erik repeated unsteadily, his face pale like he’d just seen a ghost.

“You mean that’s… you’re...” Charles’ hands trembled as he cradled Erik’s face in them. He traced Erik’s features with his fingertips, each touch wiping away the long decades that had passed since that spring afternoon on the sidewalks of Paris. And as his eyes began brimming with tears, he could almost make it out again; that long-forgotten, cherished face that he had struggled for years to remember. “It was you.”

Erik was staring at him like he was the ocean, and he was desperate to drown. Dropping the bear to the floor, it was with unsurpassed tenderness that Erik cupped Charles’ face, and Charles instinctively leaned into his touch, craving some form of reassurance that all of this was real. “I tried so hard to forget you,” Erik began, shaking his head with regret. “But when I finally did, I realised what a fool I’d been.” Erik smiled wistfully, a tear catching on his eyelashes before rolling down the back of Charles’ hand on his cheek. “But sometimes I get fragments. Like trees... sunlight...”

Charles leaned in, close enough to feel Erik’s breath ghost against his lips, their bodies pressed intimately together. “And a kiss,” Charles said as he sealed their lips together just as he had all those years ago, spinning round on that gorgeous antique carousel as calliope music played in the background. Erik tilted Charles’ head back and deepened the kiss, the two of them pouring themselves into it with a passion that they hadn’t possessed back when they were little.

It felt like coming home at the end of a long odyssey. Decades spent lost without each other, drifting out at sea. Charles’ heart ached for so much more when they parted from the kiss; for all those years that had been taken from them, and the countless different lives they might have lived, if only they had reunited sooner. “I loved you, even then,” Charles confessed, knowing it was the truth.

Erik removed his right hand from Charles’ face, using it to gently shift Charles’ hand from his cheek so he could place a kiss on the centre of his palm. The soft brush of Erik’s lips sent a tingle of pleasure down his arm. Erik curled his fingers over the back of Charles’ hand, holding Charles’ fist against his beating heart as he looked deep into his eyes. “I think I never stopped loving you,” Erik whispered.

Charles closed his eyes, tilting forward until his forehead was pressed against Erik’s, so that they were mind to mind. More than ever he was aware of the slow, soothing thump-thump of Erik’s heartbeat beneath his fist, beating in time with his own. Charles was still letting everything sink in, overwhelmed by the fact that Erik was the very same boy who’d protected him and loved him and given him Klaus in companionship all those years ago in Paris, his first taste of true love. Charles let out a half-laugh, half-sob, his eyes fluttering open because he needed to look at Erik’s face, to breathe him in with the assurance that they’d find each other again and again, in different lifetimes.

“I wanted it to be you. I wanted it to be you so badly,” he whispered, cupping that beloved face in his hands, his thumb tracing the curve of Erik’s bottom lip. Erik made a low, rumbling noise before he leaned up and captured Charles’ mouth in the gentlest of kisses, his breath warming Charles from the inside.

Charles’ mouth curled up in a smile, unable to help himself. This must be the millionth kiss he shared with Erik, and yet each kiss felt completely different, unique as a snowflake. The way Erik kissed him varied in method but never in feeling; Charles had always been able to sense the love and affection Erik placed into every kiss, all-encompassing and unconditional. But today, with such a wonderful discovery on their heels, Charles could feel something that hadn’t been there before: a fierce assurance and belief that they were meant for each other, already predetermined by the fates and the powers that be.

Gasping as Erik gripped his body close to him, Charles couldn’t resist tugging Erik down with him until they were both sprawled on the floor of the attic, Erik’s larger body pinning him to the ground, centering him. Their mouths met again in a wild, uncontrolled kiss, Erik nipping urgently at his lips while Charles slipped a leg between Erik’s thighs, grinning in triumph when he felt the large heft of Erik’s trapped cock rubbing against him. Erik’s low, broken moan was quickly swallowed by Charles, his hands slipping under Erik’s turtleneck to scale those ridiculously hard abs. Charles was torn between the need to violently rip Erik’s clothes off and the reluctance to let this beautiful, brilliant man out of his arms. Charles could hardly be blamed; he had let Erik go once, a lifetime ago, and he would be mad to do so again.

Liebling,” Erik murmured, nuzzling against Charles’ throat as he left a trail of hot, wet kisses down Charles’ neck, tugging aside his cardigan with a huff of annoyance. Charles was momentarily stirred out of his lustful haze to sit up a little so that he could properly take off his cardigan before Erik got too worked up and ripped it off. It had already happened once before, when they had been playing chess out under the gazebo at Westchester, and while the wild sex that had resulted afterwards had been extremely mind-blowing, Charles had been a little sad to say goodbye to Navy Blue #4. And Erik? Well, he had been inconsolable, given how fond he was of Charles’ cardigans.

It was a little distracting for Charles to undo the buttons while Erik’s mouth was nipping at his throat, but he finally managed to shrug it off, along with his Oxford as well. “Wait,” Erik said softly, and Charles arched an enquiring eyebrow at him as Erik reached forward, arranging Charles’ clothes below his back so that Charles would be comfortable. Unable to hold back his smile, Charles cupped Erik’s face in appreciation before sliding his hands down Erik’s magnificent chest, then tugging off that distracting turtleneck and flinging it away to some corner of the attic.

It took only a few more moments of struggling and muffled laughter for both of them to remove their pants, and once they were fully naked, Charles wrapped his legs around Erik’s waist, leaning up to give him a slow, chaste kiss. “You’re mine,” he said, both in joy and a little disbelief. “You’re really, really mine.”

Erik’s smile was devastating, picking up Charles’ left hand so he could kiss the engagement ring on his finger. “Was there ever any doubt? I feel like I’ve been promised to you since I was six.”

“You were,” Charles said fiercely, and that made Erik swoop down for another kiss, all fire and urgency and teeth this time, his tongue sweeping deep into Charles’ mouth. Charles was elated with the way Erik’s long, sinewy body was moulding itself against his, and he happily tightened his grip on Erik, running his hands from the gorgeous breath of Erik’s broad shoulders to the narrow tapering of his waist.

Then Erik did something clever with his hips, and Charles moaned in surprise when their erections aligned together, so close that he could feel Erik’s pulse against his, hot and heavy. “Oh, darling…”

“Fucking gorgeous,” Erik growled against his ear, nipping at the lobe. His breath was warm against Charles’ ear as he whispered, “I don’t suppose you have any lube on you, Liebling?”

Charles was struggling to get his few remaining brain cells working again, but it was difficult with the way Erik was now lavishing his neck with hot, wet kisses. Charles’ mental fog cleared long enough for him to remember that he had indeed stashed a foil packet of lube in the back pocket of his jeans, just in case Erik pounced on him somewhere unexpected. “Fortunately I always come prepared, darling,” Charles said with a breathless chuckle and a three-fingered salute. “Check the left back pocket of my jeans.”

Letting out an impressed huff, a dazed and rumpled Erik reluctantly pulled away from Charles to rummage through his discarded jeans and finally fished out the small packet in triumph. “Then it’s my duty to make you come, Scout’s honour.” Erik grinned, all teeth.

“Your biggest talent,” Charles said with a laugh, before his gaze dropped down to Erik’s erection. “Well, maybe your second biggest talent…”

Erik buried his face in Charles’ neck as he shook with laughter. “Glad to see you appreciate my talents.”

Smiling as he nuzzled against Erik’s hair, Charles stroked it back gently. “I always do,” he said, before pulling away to kiss his long-lost sweetheart again.

There were sounds of crinkling foil, and Charles gasped into the kiss when he felt Erik’s fingers, now slick with lube, slide inside him. Erik was watching Charles greedily, taking in his every moan and expression as he worked his long, talented fingers into Charles. “Sexiest thing I’ve ever seen,” he heard Erik murmuring. “Those little gasps when I’m inside you…”

“Which you aren’t, yet,” Charles breathlessly reminded him. “And which I think we should remedy immediately.”

They both groaned in unison as Charles guided Erik into him, their fingers twining together as Erik waited a few moments for Charles to adjust. Despite having very frequent sex, it was a testament to Erik’s size that Charles still needed time to get used to his girth. Charles took a deep breath, wriggling his hips about as Erik lavished kisses on his cheek, his eyelids, his nose. He was looking at Charles with an ill-hidden wonder that Charles had never glimpsed before, and Charles was willing to bet Erik was trying to absorb the fact that Charles was the boy Erik had fallen for when he was six years old.

“I love you, you great sap,” Charles whispered, which made Erik chuckle as he stole a soft, gentle kiss from Charles.

“I don’t think I can hide anything from you,” Erik said a little mournfully, but his smile made it seem he was glad for that as well. He bent down to nuzzle against Charles’ ear, murmuring, “I love you too, so much,” before he began building his thrusts up so hard that Charles had to grip onto Erik’s slim hips to hang on for life.

“Fuck, Erik,” Charles groaned, and of course Erik did just that, fucking Charles so hard that the nearby trunk was rattling with each thrust. Charles grabbed Erik’s face and thrust his tongue into Erik’s panting mouth, and Erik met him with equal intensity, letting Charles fuck his mouth the way he was thrusting valiantly into Charles. They were sliding further and further across the attic floor, and Charles was momentarily grateful Erik had taken the time earlier to make sure the clothes were carefully arranged under him. It would have been interesting to add ‘attic burn’ to his growing list of sex-related injuries.

Charles arched his hips upwards when Erik wrapped a slick hand around his cock, pumping it steadily while whispering dirty things in Charles’ ear. “Love it when you’re falling apart underneath me.” Erik nipped at Charles’ earlobe, timing it with a spectacularly hard thrust that made Charles see stars. “Make you beg for me…”

“Yes, God, Erik, yes,” Charles pleaded, raking his blunt nails down Erik’s back and grinning when Erik moaned at the thought of being marked by Charles. “Harder, please, you feel so good--”

“Beautiful,” Erik gasped before his teeth sank into the crook of Charles’ shoulder, making Charles cry out in mingled pain and pleasure, mouth shaped around Erik’s name as his cock pulsed between them, covering his and Erik’s abdomens with white stripes.

Alternating between licking and nipping at Charles’ throat, Erik only lasted a few more thrusts before he breathlessly moaned Charles’ name, his grip so tight on Charles’ hips that Charles was sure there would be bruises later. Charles sighed happily at the burst of warmth inside him, watching a dazed Erik with barely concealed adoration as he brushed back Erik’s completely destroyed hair.

“Can you help me find my brains?” Charles asked with a smirk. “I think they may be somewhere around in the attic.” Charles paused, and felt his cheeks flush further, if that was even possible. “Oh, God. Do you think my parents heard?”

Erik merely grinned deviously, and Charles wondered if this was how it felt like to be a teenager, sneaking a boy into his room while his parents prepared dinner in the kitchen. “This place of yours is so obscenely huge, I doubt they would even notice if a bomb went off in your basement. That being said, there's no way we’ll be able to hide the number I did on your neck,” Erik drawled, making Charles convulse with laughter as he tugged Erik into his arms, both of them sprawled out on the attic floor of his childhood home together, panting and ridiculously happy.

It took them a while to recover, but eventually Charles’ breathing returned to normal. He lay boneless as Erik helped arrange them into a comfortable position, sprawled out across their discarded clothes, and silently thanked his parents’ housekeepers for taking the effort to clean the attic somewhat so he needn’t worry about cobwebs clinging onto his cardigan – or other unmentionables. He glanced about the room, and spotted Klaus toppled over onto the floor beside them. “It seems we had an audience, darling,” Charles said as he chuckled to himself.

He watched with amusement as Erik mumbled some words of apology to Klaus in German and took care to avert Klaus’ eyes, and Charles couldn’t resist pulling Erik down for a kiss when he was done. “You’re adorable,” Charles murmured, stroking Erik’s fringe back lovingly.

“Nobody will ever believe you,” Erik retorted before capturing Charles’ lips once more. Charles laughed into the kiss, looking forward to gushing about his dear future husband to the next reporter he saw, just to prove Erik wrong.

“I’m starting to think I became an actor as a way to try to find you,” Charles said as Erik rested his head on his shoulder and curled up against him. He wrapped his free arm around Erik, idly running his hand along Erik’s muscled back as he brushed a kiss against Erik’s forehead. “A small part of me was hoping that you might recognise me if I became famous enough, and just show up at a carpet one day. I suppose you did, in a way.”

Erik sighed heavily. “All those years wasted, Charles.”

“The past is the past, it was meant to be that way. Maybe we needed that time to become the version of ourselves that you and I could spend the rest of our lives with,” Charles said, trying to find some meaning in all of this.

“Because we hated each other when we first met?” Erik said drily. “I should have just kidnapped you when I had the chance.”

Charles chuckled with amusement. “You asked me to run away with you, I remember,” Charles said as he held Erik close. “I went back the next year with Mother, hoping to find you.”

“I’m sorry, Charles. I would have been there if I could,” Erik murmured, his voice tinged with regret.

“Don’t apologise, darling. We’ll just have to make up for lost time, that’s all.” Charles perked up at an idea. “I heard that the Ritz is being refurbished at the moment, but we should go back when it’s ready and see if we can retrace our steps. They hadn’t constructed the pyramids in the Louvre back then. And I know the Pont des Arts is all covered by glass panels now.”

Erik propped himself up and furrowed his brows. “Liebling, your memory is much better than mine. I can barely recall any of this.”

Charles smiled and touched the tips of his index and middle finger to Erik’s temple. “Try to remember, Erik.”

Erik closed his eyes and concentrated, and Charles could almost feel him sifting through his memories, sending his mind back in time to when they had first met. Erik blinked his eyes open, his expression soft as he gazed deep into Charles’ eyes. “You rescued me when I fell into the water.”

Charles cupped Erik’s face tenderly, remembering the beautiful boy that he’d sailed the seven seas with, even if it was all just in their heads. “You and I both know that you didn't need saving.”

“I did,” Erik whispered.

They kissed slow and deep, two lonely souls finding each other again after spending what felt like an eternity apart. Call it the result of reading one too many Hollywood scripts, but Charles was beginning to believe that he hadn’t been lost that day. Instead, the idea that Erik had called to him and Charles had reached out through the void in return, searching for the missing half of his heart, did not seem too far-fetched at all.

Erik broke their kiss all of a sudden. “You taste like lemon sorbet,” Erik remarked out of nowhere, a delighted grin on his face.

“What?” Charles questioned, raising his eyebrows.

But Erik shook his head and chuckled as he went back to kissing him, so Charles decided he would save his curiosity for later, not when Erik was being ridiculously affectionate, and utterly distracting, and they were both so very, stupidly happy.

Chapter Text

Watching the hodgepodge architecture of London give way to the rolling hills of the English countryside filled Erik with a deep sense of peace. Normally, Erik took great comfort in the cool precision of modern skyscrapers, the epitome of human advancement in all their steel and tinted glass glory. However, Erik was looking forward to spending some quiet time away from the city, far from the maddening crowds and their incessant need to come up to him and Charles asking for selfies. Here on the outskirts of civilisation, he finally had Charles all to himself.

Erik could hardly be faulted for being selfish. Now that they had figured out they were each other’s first love, he and Charles could scarcely keep their hands off each other, and Erik was beginning to entertain the thought of packing Charles off to live as a pair of hermits in the woods. Trailing his gaze down the side of Charles’ face, Erik watched as the light played off the scattering of freckles across Charles’ cheeks.

Correction, Charles was the only boy he ever loved.

Unable to help himself, Erik leaned in and pressed an affectionate kiss to Charles’ temple, which earned him a sweet smile from Charles and a slow, tender kiss in return. Tracing invisible lines along Charles’ thigh with his fingertips, Erik leaned in ever so slightly, mouthing a silent ‘I love you’ as Charles reached out to comb stray strands of his fringe back in place.

“Would the two of you like me to leave the cabin?” Raven asked drily as she refilled her glass of Chardonnay. “I knew I should have bought a separate ticket when we were at Paddington.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Raven,” Charles replied. “Erik and I are perfectly capable of behaving ourselves in polite company.”

“Besides, who’s to say you won’t run off and plan our murders with a random stranger if we let you out of our sight? We are on a train, after all.” Erik cocked an eyebrow at her and smirked, grinning unrepentantly at Charles when he felt a light kick to the side of his foot.

Raven huffed. “Don’t tempt me. It’s a five-hour journey to Pembroke and I am about bored enough to start counting the countryside sheep. Oh, speaking of the movie, how do you feel about having your mugs on the side of a train for the promos?”

Erik held back a laugh when Charles shuddered beside him. “Absolutely not,” he said, cheeks flushed as Erik gazed at him. “I would be completely embarrassed.”

“I think you would look very handsome plastered across first class,” Erik said without irony. “I’ll just be a few doors down in coach.”

Charles’ blush deepened as he gave Erik’s hand a fond squeeze under the table, looking like he was considering the proposal. “Well, I suppose it’s fine as long as I get to ride you first.”

Raven pursed her lips and shook her head. “I walked right into that one, didn’t I?” In what appeared to be a bid to ignore them, Raven picked up her phone and began calmly scrolling through its contents, not bothering to acknowledge Charles’ cheeky grin.

Erik was perfectly happy with that arrangement, pulling out his iPad to look through the pictures of Pembroke Castle that Sarah had sent them with Charles curled up at his side. Sarah had practically provided them with a photo board of the entire castle grounds, tagging each picture with comments about the centrepieces that they could consider in each spot. Erik was looking forward to seeing the real thing with his own eyes when they got there. “What do you think about the ice sculptures?” Erik asked, swiping back and forth between the various sample pictures.

“I like the swans,” Charles said, dragging his finger across the screen and zooming in on the picture of a pair of swans surrounded by an elaborate floral arrangement. “Unless you would prefer them to be pigeons?”

Erik looked up at that, glimpses of precious memories of the two of them chasing each other through the courtyard of the Louvre playing across his mind’s eye as he caught Charles smiling softly at him. “Perfection,” Erik replied, tipping Charles’ chin up for a kiss.

“You’ve got to be shitting me. Okay, seriously, spill. The two of you are being insufferable and it can’t just be because you’re enjoying your vacation,” Raven quipped and folded her arms expectantly.

“In what way?” Erik asked, his curiosity getting the better of him. It wasn’t as if he cared what anyone thought of how he showed his affection for Charles, but he did find it interesting that Raven felt it was any different from usual.

Raven raised an incredulous eyebrow. “Well for starters, the two of you haven’t stopped mooning over each other since I left you alone three days ago to check out the summer sales. And I would need to be blind to miss the hickeys popping up all over Charles.” Raven stabbed her finger through the air at Charles’ open collar to prove her point. “Do you want Tumblr to start drawing red circles around Charles’ neck again?”

“You can wear my turtleneck tomorrow, Liebling,” Erik offered when Charles began adjusting his collar self-consciously.

“Thank you, darling,” Charles said as he kissed his cheek, although Erik was secretly thrilled to have an excuse to dress Charles in his clothes. He could almost imagine Emma chastising him for behaving like a caveman, which only made him want to leave even more marks all over Charles’ body. “And Raven, we could always tell everyone that the ice sculptures are doves. They would be none the wiser,” Charles added.

“But why on earth would you want a pigeon centrepiece at your wedding? Next, you’re going to tell me that you want to hold your nuptials at Trafalgar Square,” Raven grumbled, clearly exasperated.

Erik turned to Charles, the two of them having a laugh over their little private joke. “We’re saving it for the wedding,” Erik declared, winking at Charles.

“Saving what for the wedding? Charles’ cherry? Because that ship has clearly sailed,” Raven shot back. “Fine, I give up. Don’t know, don’t care. Just pretend I’m not here,” Raven said as she picked up her phone and began typing on it.

Charles leaned forward, attempting to peer at her screen. “Are you texting Remy? You always text him when you get mad at us.”

“I won’t justify that with an answer.” The look on Raven’s face said yes.

Erik smirked, spinning his phone idly on the table with his fingertips. “Say hello to Pepé Le Pew for me.”

Erik,” Charles said disapprovingly as Raven snorted out loud and reached out to give Erik a high-five.

“Yes, old friend?” Erik answered with his most devilish grin, wrapping his outstretched arm around Charles as he brought it back down.

Charles’ expression softened immediately and melted into something that looked like fond exasperation. “That does have a lovely ring to it,” Charles commented as he cuddled closer to Erik. “Old friend, whatever am I going to do with you?”

“Nothing. Please spare a thought for your other, forgotten friend over here,” Raven deadpanned. She seemed to glance at her phone to check the time. “Great, only another four more hours of this to go.”

Chuckling as he reached across the table to take Raven’s hands in his, Charles drew her hands to him and placed an apologetic kiss across the top of her knuckles. “We’re sorry, my dear. I promise you that I’m all yours until we get to Pembroke.”

Erik could see that tough-as-nails Raven, who made even the most powerful Hollywood execs quake with fear, wasn’t immune to Charles’ devastating blue gaze. It was quite heartening to know that he wasn’t alone in this weakness, and Erik looked on in amusement as Raven cracked a soft, relenting smile. “All right, you can start by getting me another bottle of Chardonnay.” Raven paused, appearing to sense that she had a leg up on the situation. “And both of you will be doing the train promos –- non-negotiable.”

Erik nodded in unison with Charles, playing along. “Anything for you, my dear.”

* * * * *

* * * * *

As a self-declared Southern belle, Marie had been brought up not to brag. However, there was no denying that she was the best darned publicist that these Hollywood types would ever see in their lifetimes. For one thing, she actually cared about her clients, which meant that she would go through hell or high water for them. As a result, she was extremely selective about who she worked for, and so far she had never regretted agreeing to work for Moira and Charles, who were both absolute sweethearts and treated her like a friend.

However, now that Erik had come into the picture, things had definitely changed. He and Charles had become tabloid fixtures, and Marie was spending a lot more time tossing out threats of libel lawsuits. It wouldn’t have been so bad if all she had to deal with was just the addition of Erik, but unfortunately Erik had come along with a ridiculously annoying French personal assistant who thought he was God’s greatest gift to women, and he set out to annoy the heck out of Marie on a daily basis.

Sure enough, there was a knock on her office door before it swung open and there the idiot was, flashing her a cheesy grin that he probably meant to be charming. “Bonjour, chère!

“Go away,” she said rudely, browsing through a list of flights to Muir Island. “Don’t make me call pest control.”

Remy gave her the most pathetic wounded expression. “Moi? A pest? Ah chère, if you’re trying to break Remy’s heart, you succeeded.”

“I can’t break something that doesn’t exist,” she replied in a sing-song voice, pointedly not looking at him.

Unfortunately, Remy didn’t seem to get the hint, parking his ass in one of the swivel chairs in front of her desk and making himself at home. Marie mustered her fiercest glare possible, but it only served to make him chuckle at her. It should be infuriating, and Marie didn’t want to examine why it wasn’t.

Five years ago, Marie would have most probably found a man like Remy LeBeau charming and intriguing. She wasn’t exactly blind; the idiot was admittedly handsome enough to be an Abercrombie model (in fact, Emma had mentioned something along those lines). If someone got Marie drunk and loose-lipped enough, she might even admit that Remy LeBeau was very much her type. Tall, suave, European, charming. However, working in Hollywood had been her baptism of fire, and it had made her immune to the sleazebags who made a living off gullible girls like Marie. So far, Remy hadn’t done anything Marie would consider sleazy, but she had heard about his list of conquests. She wasn’t going to be another notch on his belt.

“You look extremely busy,” he said, flashing her a smile. “Let Remy help you.”

“You’re about as much good as a skunk in a perfume store,” she retorted, which only made him laugh. Nothing she ever said seemed to insult or faze him.

“I have to hand it to you, your insults are much more creative than my boss’,” he said cheerfully. “All he comes up with is ‘moron’ and ‘idiot’. Whereas your Southern phrases are, how you say, more colourful.”

“Thanks,” Marie deadpanned. “Plenty more where that came from, hon.”

There was silence as she finished booking her British Airways flight to Muir Island. When she glanced up suspiciously, Remy was grinning at her from ear to ear. “It’s très bien to hear you call me ‘hon’, chère,” he told her, eyebrows waggling exaggeratedly. To her horror, Marie found herself wanting to giggle. She quickly quelled the urge and glared at him instead.

“Don’t be flattered, I call everybody ‘hon’ out of habit,” she said icily, standing up and grabbing her car keys. “And in your case, it’s not short for ‘honey’ but ‘honestly annoying’ instead.”

She left her office in a huff, wondering if he’d finally give up and back off. But of course he was faithfully on her heels, raking his hair back in an unfairly suave move. “Come on, I’m never annoying,” he insisted, his long legs easily keeping pace with her. “Charles says I’m the best assistant he’s ever seen. Surely Charles has good judgement, non?”

“Charles is just being kind.” Although it was true, Marie did have to agree that Remy was unusually good at his job, especially when it came to bearing the brunt of Erik’s famous temper. Remy was also quite intelligent, expending his efforts into making Charles happy and, as a result, producing a failsafe way of impressing Erik.

Damn, why was she thinking all these complimentary things about Remy? She was glad he couldn’t read her mind.

As she got down to the parking lot and unlocked her car, she merely sighed when Remy hopped into the passenger seat beside her without waiting for an invitation. “You do know stalking is illegal, right?” she said exasperatedly as she started the car.

“It’s not stalking if you want me here,” Remy said so confidently that Marie understood why Erik sometimes bonked him on the head with a cushion or newspaper.

“Like hell I do,” she muttered, and jammed her foot down on the accelerator, the car peeling out of the parking lot and making Remy yelp in his seat. She suppressed a triumphant smirk.

“You’re too stressed, chère,” Remy said, tutting as he studied her. “You need a vacation. Let Remy bring you on a vacation.”

“How come you’re so free?” she asked instead. “Don’t you have to do a thousand things for the wedding before Erik skins you alive?”

“I have a few weeks off,” he said smugly. “Charles bribed Erik to let me have a break while they went to check out their wedding venue. And you know Erik can never resist Charles’ bribery.”

Marie snorted. “Don’t I ever. But I guess I shouldn’t scoff at their antics. It pays my bills. Besides, I love my work.”

“But you work far too hard.” Remy grinned at her. “Come on, chère, let’s go on holiday together.”

“In your dreams,” she retorted. “Besides, I don’t have time. I’m going to Muir Island to meet Moira. We need to work out how to handle any bad publicity, given her public history with Charles and how she’s now part of the wedding party. Then, if I have time, maybe I can find some things to do in Muir Island. That will be my vacation.”

Remy looked appalled. “Vacation? Muir Island is no good for you. How about we go to Paris instead?” Marie noted that he pronounced ‘Paris’ with a thick French accent, and reminded herself that she should not find it at all endearing.

Marie glared at him. “How about getting your butt out of my car?”

Remy smirked in response. “I’m not hearing a ‘no’...”

Checking her rear view mirror to make sure there was no car behind her, Marie jammed the brakes, the car tyres screeching to a halt. It was satisfying to see Remy’s panicked expression.

Fais gaffe! Hey, watch the road, chère! Where did you learn how to drive?”

“Don’t you ever get tired of listening to yourself?” Marie chastised him. It was tiring to keep reminding herself not to fall for his charm and hammy attempts to flirt with her, not when plenty of women had taken the bait before her. It wouldn’t be so bad if Marie did actually hate Remy, but the fact was that the bastard had somehow managed to endear himself to her, despite her better instincts.

To her surprise, Remy leaned in, his eyes dropping down to her lips. “Not when I’m talking about you, chère.”

For a fleeting second, Marie found herself entranced by his smile, her lips parting in response. His eyes were so green and clear, and she was right on the brink of believing all the affection he’d been lavishing on her, all the sweet talk and honeyed words swarming her brain.

She took a deep breath, reminding herself that she was only one in a long line of women. “I think you should get out of my car,” she said firmly, drawing back and putting more distance between herself and Remy.

Remy blinked in surprise, and maybe she imagined the hurt look crossing his face briefly. “As you wish,” he said with a bow, and this time his smile did not reach his eyes. He opened the car door and was gone in a flourish, strolling down Rodeo Drive with his black trench coat trailing behind him. Two women who were walking past turned to get a second admiring glance at him, but he uncharacteristically ignored them.

For a minute, doubt clouded Marie’s judgment. Maybe he’d really been serious in his pursuit of her. No, don’t fall for that skunk, she told herself firmly. It was just another one of the many tricks that scoundrel had up his sleeve.

Goddammit,” she muttered under her breath as she turned towards the curb, cursing herself for being soft-hearted. Remy was walking down the street, his shoulders slumped in dejection. He perked up when she honked her horn at him.

“Get in, idjit!” She rolled the windows down and waved impatiently at him. “Don’t stand there looking like a wet hen standing in the rain.”

The grin that returned to Remy’s face was gratifying. “You sure, chère?”

“Get in before I change my mind and run you over with my dang car!” she hollered, which made him hurriedly scramble in with a sheepish grin.

There was silence as Marie got back onto the freeway, although she could feel Remy studying her with interest. “Muir Island sounds like a fun place for a vacation,” he said carefully, arching an eyebrow at her. “Would….you like some company on your trip?”

Marie forced herself to bite back her sarcasm. “Since you’re askin’ nicely...I guess you could come along and carry my bags for me.”

Remy’s laughter echoed in the car. “For you, chère? Anything.”

* * * * *

There were times that Darwin genuinely forgot that he still had a job. Charles was honestly the best boss ever, insisting on keeping Darwin on his payroll and letting him travel all over the world with Alex, as long as Darwin was there in time for the important major events where Charles needed him. The next such deadline was in November, when Darwin had to report to the U.K. as Erik would be filming his next movie in London under the direction of Christopher Nolan. Although Charles didn't have a role in Erik’s movie, he was faithfully tagging along to London anyway since the two of them couldn’t stand to be apart.

Since Charles had decided to occupy himself with their upcoming wedding preparations, he’d asked Darwin to help out where he could. Truthfully, Darwin was very glad to be useful again. He’d borne too much guilt over letting Remy take over most of his old job (even if the guy was handling it all very cheerfully).

On the other hand, Alex was sad to have their backpacking adventures put on hold. Darwin was sad, too, but for other reasons. Alex was a different person when he was alone with Darwin; in front of others, Darwin noticed that Alex tended to put on a tough and ‘macho’ front, especially when Scott was around. Darwin suspected Alex would be mortified if everyone could see the thoughtful and considerate side of him that emerged whenever it was just the two of them. Alex was definitely the sweetest guy Darwin had ever dated.

“We’ll pick up where we left off after Charles leaves for his honeymoon,” Darwin assured him as they finished lunch in a small Hanoi cafe. “We’ll have at least two months to ourselves while Charles and Erik terrorise Europe.”

“Is LeBeau getting time off, too?” Alex asked, smirking. It was a running joke amongst their group that Remy had somehow been tricked by Emma into indentured servitude.

Darwin laughed. “I should hope so! Poor guy’s earned a break, at least,” he said, sipping his cà phê đá and leaning back in his chair. Damn, he was going to miss Vietnam. “Raven told me over text that Remy’s been following Marie around like a puppy dog, trying to convince her to go on vacation with him. She thinks it’s hilarious, but I happen to believe he’s for real.”

Alex scoffed. “No way, dude. LeBeau dates a different girl every week. His Facebook profile looks like a Sports Illustrated spread. All he has to do is show some model one of his fancy card tricks and they all fall in love with him.”

“Not since Marie came along,” Darwin reminded him. “Remy has mellowed a bit. So who knows? Maybe she’s different.”

“She’s scary,” Alex said with a shiver. “Scarier than even Raven!”

“Don’t lie.” Darwin chuckled. “You’re secretly looking to seeing all of them again. Even Emma, I bet!”

Alex gave him a reluctant shrug, but Darwin knew him too well. “They’ll all be at the wedding, right? So it’s not like I have a choice.”

“Yeah, right!” Darwin playfully batted at his arm, managing a sheepish grin from Alex. “Come on, I know you’re secretly looking forward to having everyone together again. It’s not the same when everyone is off, doing their own thing.”

“Tell me about it.” Alex’s frown had returned. “Ever since Sean ran off with Moira to La La Land, I haven’t been able to do any writing with him.”

This was an old complaint that Darwin had already heard many times throughout their trip. Still, he didn’t mind. Maybe Charles’ eternal patience had rubbed off on him. “And I keep telling you, you need to call him and get both your asses into gear,” Darwin said gently.

“I’ll just write my own script, without him,” Alex said determinedly. “Like the idea for the ‘MacGyver’ reboot I was telling you about!”

Darwin could only imagine poor Alex getting more and more disheartened as he shopped his script around to disinterested movie execs. Deciding that he needed to take matters into his own hands, he reached for his phone. “Okay, you know what? You need Sean and he needs you. I’m calling him right now.”

“Dar!” Alex protested feebly, but Darwin ignored him, waiting until he could hear the international ring tone.

Sean picked up after a few beeps. “Darwin, my man!”

“What up, Sean?” Darwin couldn’t help smiling; it was good to hear Sean’s voice. “How’s Muir Island treating you?”

“It’s cold as shit, even in summer,” Sean complained. “But I guess that’s Scotland for you. Moira seems to like it, though.”

“I’m glad you guys are having fun there. It’s crazy hot here in Hanoi.” Darwin shot Alex a meaningful look. “Hey you know, Alex’s been meaning to call you. Can I put you on the line with him?”

“Wait, hold up.” Now Sean’s voice sounded a little muffled as he spoke to someone in the background. “Moira’s on her break now, she wants to say hi to you guys, too. Why don’t we switch to FaceTime?”

“Cool!” Darwin said quickly before Alex could say otherwise or run away. There was a brief pause, then the screen switched to Sean grinning madly at the camera. Darwin didn’t know which to gawk at first: his moustache or his ponytail. “Sean, is that really you?”

“What up, Hanoi?” Sean yelled cheerfully. Behind him, Moira - who was huddled in a bathrobe over her costume - waved at them.

“Jesus Christ!” Alex yelled, instantly forgetting any grudge he might have been holding against Sean. “Whoa whoa, Cassidy, what is that thing on your face?”

“Hey, be nice,” Moira playfully warned him, as Sean stroked his face with pride. “I think it suits him. At least people have stopped asking if he’s my PA or something.”

“The hair looks good,” Darwin said, peering at the screen. “The hipster look really suits you, man. You should follow me and Alex back to Williamsburg one day, and visit your homeland.”

Sean rolled his eyes. “I’m so not a hipster. I listen to Taylor Swift!”

“You’re dead to me,” Alex said with a grimace, as Darwin and Moira laughed. “All those Spotify playlists I sent you, and you’re a Swiftie?”

“Oh, come on. Take a chill pill, man,” Sean teased. “I would have thought that travelling the world with Darwin would have helped you relax a bit.”

“It’s been really fun in Southeast Asia,” Darwin said, patting Alex’s knee. “But I know Alex is itching to get writing again.”

Sean’s face brightened. “Me, too! I mean, watching them bring ‘Muir Island’ to life is cool and all, but I miss writing with you, Summers. It just ain’t the same.”

Alex sat up in surprise. “Really?” Off-camera, Darwin shot him a smug I-told-you-so smile.

“You two really need to get to work,” Moira said dryly. “Sean has all this pent-up creative energy so he’s been driving our director crazy.”

“Oh, trust me, that’s nothing,” Darwin said with a laugh. “Alex’s obsessed about writing a ‘MacGyver’ reboot. Sean, see what happens when you ditch him for Moira? He starts creating havoc.”

Even Alex was laughing as Moira and Sean roared with mirth, wiping tears of laughter from their eyes. “Dude, seriously, ‘MacGyver’?” Sean pretended to shake his head with disappointment. “If I’d known how dire the situation was, I would have gotten my ass down to Vietnam, pronto.”

“Actually, why don’t we fly over to Muir and see you guys?” Alex suggested, glancing at Darwin for support. “We have a bit of time before Dar has to report back to work.”

Moira nodded with a smile. “We’d really like that. Let me know when you’re flying in, I’ll get you guys access to the set.”

* * * * *

Charles took a long, deep breath as he climbed the last couple of steps to the top of Pembroke Castle’s towering Great Keep. His legs were rather tired from the comprehensive private tour that Sarah and the castle staff had conducted for them around the castle grounds and down into Wogan Cavern, which was a large fortified limestone cave beneath the castle that Charles imagined could have easily been used as a filming location for the lair of Daenerys’ dragons on ‘Game of Thrones’. Walking over to Erik so he could lean against him to catch his breath, Charles found it quite unfair that Erik had not even broken a sweat from climbing up the 80-foot tower and made a mental note to join Erik at the gym more often.

The view from the Great Keep was truly spectacular, and from here they could see the town of Milford Haven across the water. Charles was starting to picture how the castle grounds would look when they were fully decorated for the wedding, and hugged Erik tighter to convey his excitement. “It’s perfect,” Charles whispered when Erik turned to him with a tender look in his eyes that Charles knew all too well. Erik answered him with a gentle, wordless kiss to the crown of his head.

Charles sensed Erik nod with approval when their guide explained to them how the rocky promontory Pembroke Castle was perched on afforded it a natural defensive position, and attempted to hide his amused smile in Erik’s shoulder. “All the better to prevent the paps from ruining the wedding,” Erik remarked, prompting Sarah to add more notes to the binder she was carrying around.

After posing some questions about the capacity of the outer ward of the castle, Sarah followed the castle staff down to inspect the bailey, leaving Charles, Erik and Raven to their own devices. Glancing up at Erik, Charles noticed that Erik had a rare, soft smile on his face. “What’s on your mind, love?”

“I was just thinking that this might be my new favourite place,” Erik replied, threading their fingers together.

Charles couldn’t help but grin in response. “I was thinking the same – we’re going to marry here, after all.” An idea crossed Charles’ mind, and he decided to give it a shot. “Do you know what one of my other favourite places is? Paris,” Charles stated, raising a playful eyebrow. They had been reminiscing so much about the City of Lights, it would be wonderful if they could go back and retrace their steps, as well as explore a few other cherished places together. “Place Dauphine right by the Pont Neuf. If I shut my eyes now, I know exactly how it feels to be in that little square.”

“So let’s go, we could get on the Eurostar right now,” Erik said, catching on immediately. Erik was always a man of action; it was one of the countless things that Charles loved about him. “We should drop by Düsseldorf after. There’s a certain childhood album that I would like to dig through for a photograph of my fiancé on a carousel.”

Charles tiptoed up to plant a soft peck on Erik’s lips. “I would love to see where you grew up. We’ll just have to tell Raven.”

“Tell me what?” Raven asked as she walked over, seemingly done with selfie-taking.

“Erik and I would like to make a trip to Paris before visiting Erik’s childhood home. You’re very welcome to come along,” Charles offered, although he did not miss the dubious look that Erik shot him.

“Yeah, thanks but no thanks,” Raven said. “You two lovebirds can go ahead, I know when I’m not welcome. Besides, I’ve decided to meet up with Marie and Moira in Scotland for some girl time.”

“That sounds lovely. Please send my regards to them both,” Charles said, making a note to call Moira to check if there were any designers she had to wear for her Maid of Honour dress.

“Anyway, I was actually coming over to tell you that Stryker called to say that the settlement from TMZ just came in,” Raven reported, a triumphant grin on her face. “Which account would you like it wired to?”

Charles raised a questioning eyebrow at Erik and received an affirmative nod in reply. “That won’t be necessary. Erik and I would like to give it to the ACLU.” He and Erik had long decided that they would be donating it to the American Civil Liberties Union in aid of victims of domestic violence. It was clearly the right thing to do, although Charles suspected that it was also Erik’s middle finger to one of his greatest public enemies (second only to Shaw). “We will match every dollar.”

“I have no need for TMZ’s filthy money,” Erik said, crossing his arms.

Raven looked highly amused, but wisely chose not to comment. “Right, we should put out a statement. I’ll let Marie know that I have good news for her for once.”

“I hardly think we’re that bad,” Charles protested weakly, which only prompted huge guffaws from his two companions, their loud laughter ringing down the long, spiral stairwell of the Great Keep.

* * * * *

The idea of a food and shopping trip to the U.K. had sounded like heaven at first, but after having a front-row seat to the lovey-dovey shenanigans of Charles and Erik in 3D, Raven quickly decided it was time to bail. Since they didn’t need her help with wedding planning anymore (besides, she was convinced it had all been a front with the true intent of cheering her up about Hank), Raven decided to make the quick hop over to Scotland and meet Moira so they could discuss their Maid-of-Honour duties. Besides, she counted Moira as a good friend, and it would be nice to just catch up with her.

The Easyjet flight took over an hour from London, and Raven was waiting for her bags at the luggage belt when she heard someone calling her name. “Yo, Raven!”

She turned to find a delighted Darwin and Alex walking up to her, both of them toting massive backpacks. “Oh, my God, guys! How are you?” she squealed, flinging her arms around both of them. Given how Darwin and Alex still looked tired and rumpled from the plane, Raven surmised that they must have just endured a very long flight.

“Exhausted,” Darwin muttered, running a hand through a glum Alex’s hair. “We had to change planes twice!”

“I never want to sit on another plane again,” Alex grumbled. “Dar, when it’s time to leave Muir Island, could we just swim back to the mainland?”

Raven laughed as Darwin shook his head with a smile. “I was stuck next to Mr. Grumpypants on three different planes for the last 23 hours,” he told Raven good-naturedly, tilting his head towards Alex. “So that swimming idea ain't bad at all.”

“Well, which would you prefer? Your grumpypants boyfriend, or a sad-eyed Charles in Japan mooning over Erik? “ Raven asked, arching an eyebrow.

Darwin shuddered at the memory. “You know what? You’re right, I’d take Alex anyday.”

“You’d better deliver on your promises, Munõz!” Alex yelled as he went to help with one of Raven’s bags. “Especially the taking part!”

Raven’s eyes grew wide with horror. “Seriously, I’d had enough of having to hear about other people’s sex lives. For Christ’s sake, I already had a full dose from Charles and Erik.”

Darwin patted her shoulder, clearly trying to hold back his laughter. “My sympathies. You sure took one for the team.”

“Tell me about it,“ Alex snorted. “Having to watch those two make eyes at each other is a special kind of torture, man.”

After collecting all their bags, they piled into a cab, heading for the hotel that Moira, Sean and most of the crew of ‘Muir Island’ were staying at. Darwin and Alex regaled Raven with their adventures of travelling in Southeast Asia while Raven did her best to summarise the past few months: Pride, the TMZ debacle, and helping Charles and Erik with wedding planning.

“What about Bozo?” Alex asked, as Raven’s heart plummeted. “Is he with you?”

“No,” Raven said curtly. She had a view of the backseat in the taxi’s sideview mirror, where she could see Darwin elbowing Alex and shaking his head with a frown.

“Oh. I see.” Alex sounded apologetic enough that Raven decided to give him a free pass.

“Anyway, Moira and I are going to talk about what we have to do as part of the wedding party,” she quickly said, hoping to change the subject.

“Wait, since there’s no bride, are you guys still technically ‘bridesmaids’?” ” Darwin asked, sounding a little lost.

“Charles was calling us his ‘Maids of Honour’, which is fine since it doesn’t have the word ‘bride’ in it,” Raven said with authority.

“Ah.” Darwin nodded with understanding. “Okay, then do we have to organise two separate stag parties? Or do we do just one?”

“There’s no point in organising two parties,” Alex retorted. “You think those two would want to see anyone strip, except for each other?” The silence in the taxi was ominous. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

“A bachelor party doesn’t have to be all strippers and booze,” Raven chided him. “Although, knowing Charles, booze will definitely be a part of it.”

Darwin glanced out of the window. “I think we’re at the hotel. Let’s just settle in, then we’ll meet the rest for dinner, and see what they think. We might be able to think better once we’ve rested and eaten.”

“Good idea, Dar.” Raven couldn’t hide her smile. Darwin was always the voice of reason, and she’d missed him more than she’d realised.

* * * * *

Paris was beautiful and timeless as it always was, its grand avenues flanked by rows of chic, elegant trees. It was hard for Erik not to fall in love with the city all over again, especially now that they had discovered it was where they had met as children. Charles had bought them tickets for the Paris Philharmonic later that evening, so they donned their suits and, after some thought, brought along scarves as well since they wanted to avoid the night chill later on. Hand in hand, they set out for a walk before getting dinner and heading to the symphony. It was still bright out, as the season was nearing the tail end of summer.

They spent the evening reacquainting themselves with the City of Lights, seeking out landmarks that held special meaning: the ice cream parlour where Erik had ‘found’ Charles, the Pont Des Art, even the Jardin des Tuileries, which still beheld their beloved carousel. Charles had suggested asking the surly operator to let them have one spin for old times’ sake, but Erik didn’t think the grumpy Frenchman would entertain two grown men asking for a kiddie ride.

Since Charles seemed dejected, Erik was determined to put the light back in those remarkable eyes again. “All right, Liebling, tell me where you want to go or what you want to do next.” He pressed a kiss to Charles’ forehead. “We’ll do anything you like, I promise.”

Charles’ eyes lit up with mischief. “Anything, you say? Because I do recall someone pressing me up against a lamppost and propositioning me the last time I was in Paris.”

“Anything that won’t get us thrown into jail,” Erik quickly amended, eliciting a laugh from Charles.

“Fair enough.” Charles tapped his chin thoughtfully. “I know! Since it’s summer, I want to go to the Jardins du Trocadéro. I want a good photo of us under the Eiffel Tower with blue skies.”

The idea of being swarmed by curious tourists and - heaven forbid, paparazzi - was alarming, but then Erik did promise Charles that they’d go where he wanted. “All right,” Erik said, bending down to give Charles a peck on the lips. “Should I grab us a taxi? Or I can call the towncar, I think that moron Remy arranged one--”

“Darling,” Charles chided him absently, the way he always did whenever Erik slagged off Remy. “Be nicer to your upcoming best man, won’t you? Before he runs away and you’re forced to ask Shaw instead.”

A horrified Erik violently shook his head. “I would much rather elope with you and forgo the ceremony.”

Charles chuckled. “Not only will Mama kill you, but so would Sarah Haywood. And Raven, and Moira…”

“All right, Liebling, I get it.” Erik couldn’t hold back his own wide grin. Marriage talk had that effect on him these days. “So, taxi?”

Charles pursed his lips in thought, distracted by a passing cyclist. “Actually, one of the things I’ve always wanted to do as a tourist in Paris is….to see the sights by bicycle.”

Erik raised his eyebrows. Even after so long, Charles could still surprise him. “I suppose we could rent a couple from somewhere in the park. You know how to ride one, right?”

Here, Charles’ grin turned sly as he pressed himself against Erik’s body, arms sliding around his waist. “I’m quite good at riding, as you know far too well. Unfortunately, a bicycle isn’t in my repertoire.”

Erik couldn’t help laughing. “As much as I love the thought of you and, well, riding, I have to say I’m surprised you don’t know how to ride a bike. Didn’t you learn, as a child?”

Here, Charles looked a little embarrassed. “Mother was always a little overprotective of me. And the household staff were too scared to teach me and risk her wrath.”

The idea of a young, sad-eyed Charles pleading for someone to teach him how to ride a bicycle was enough to make Erik take his fiancé by the shoulders and steer him towards the nearest bicycle rental stall. “I’m sure they have tandem bikes,” Erik explained, as Charles beamed at him. “You can sit at the back seat and watch how I do it.”

Now Charles had that wicked look in his eyes again. “Of course, darling. It’s not very often I get to be behind you, isn’t it?”

Charles’ incorrigible sense of humour made Erik burst out laughing, scooping him into his arms to press a kiss to his temple. “You’re a ridiculous man and I love you for it,” he said fondly, sharing a few kisses with Charles before they turned to face the amused owner of the bicycle shack.

After picking out a tandem bike, Erik taught Charles the basics as well as he could, showing him how to keep his balance and handle the pedals. Since Charles still looked relatively nervous, Erik hopped on first and held the bike steady so Charles could climb onto it safely. “Don’t worry Liebling, I’ve got you.”

“I know you do, love.” The smile Charles shot him was warm but a little anxious. “I wouldn’t do this with anyone but you.”

“I should hope not,” Erik said dryly. “I might have to protest if you got behind some other man instead.”

The silly quip helped to make Charles laugh and forget his nerves, and with more assurances from Erik, they finally took off down the park’s cycling tracks. Their scarves fluttered in the breeze as they gained speed, and Erik could hear Charles going, “Oh my God, oh my God,” behind him, sounding both panicked and thrilled.

“You’re doing it, Liebling!” Erik shouted back to him.

Charles’ laughter was like music to his ears. “I am! It’s bloody marvellous!”

As they sailed out of the park and started heading down a side rue of cafes and shops, Erik noticed two starstruck tourists staring at them with open mouths. “We’ve got company,” Erik warned Charles over his shoulder.

In his usual lovable manner, Charles was shouting a friendly greeting to the fans, who were now fumbling for their phones to take a picture. “Bonsoir, my dears!”

In response, the women shrieked in excitement and snapped several photos of them riding past, thankfully without flash. Even Erik couldn’t resist smiling when he imagined how cute Charles must look, perched on a bike for the first time. He would have been tempted to turn around for a peek, but alas he didn’t want to collide with some of Remy’s kinsmen.

“Have a brilliant day!” Charles called out to the tourists as they pedalled away, and Erik even consented to raise his hand and wave goodbye, eliciting more gasps and shrieks from the fans.

Laughing, Charles called out to Erik, “Let’s head down to the Trocadéro, darling!”

Tickled by his fiancé’s newfound bravery, Erik could only chuckle. “Whatever you want, Liebling.”

* * * * *

* * * * *

Once, Erik had asked Remy why he was so hung up on Marie, who was nothing but hostile and disdainful towards him. Remy could guess why his boss was curious; Remy’s previous dating habits made Casanova look like a monk. However, Marie had a certain je ne sais quoi about her that had ensnared Remy and drawn him in, helpless like a fish caught on a hook. Eventually Remy explained to Erik, “Mon ami, if you had pursued Charles in the beginning and he kept turning you down, you still wouldn’t give up, non?”

Something in Erik’s eyes had softened in understanding. “No, I guess not.”

So Remy had followed his foolish heart to Scotland, taking Marie’s so-called abuse with good humour and trying to help her whenever he could. He could see Moira and Sean were most amused by this new development, but neither of them questioned his presence. Being that their own relationship was unconventional, perhaps they understood too well.

Now that Raven, Darwin and Alex had joined the party on Muir Island, Remy was beginning to feel more at home with his friends. After Moira wrapped up shooting for the day, everyone met for dinner and drinks in her hotel suite, chatting and laughing as room service wheeled in carts of food and wine. After dinner, Charles’ and Erik’s wedding planner would be bringing the Maid of Honour dresses for the girls to try on. Remy hadn’t met Sarah Haywood yet, but so far he assumed she must be doing a good job, judging by the way Charles often gushed about her.

“I really can’t believe almost everyone is here,” Sean said with a whistle, glancing around the room. “It’s like a mini-reunion!”

“Except for the happy couple, of course.” Raven pretended to mop her brow in relief. “Trust me, you don’t want to be anywhere near those two.”

“What about Emma?” Remy said. “I think Her Majesty should be here, seeing as to how she’s in Erik’s wedding party.”

A chuckle ran through the group, although Remy was surprised at the unhappiness clouding Marie’s face briefly. “If she’s so important to you, why don’t you send a private yacht to go fetch her?” she said coolly, examining her nails.

“Emma won’t need one,” Alex chortled, oblivious to Remy’s confusion. “Shaw has his own yacht that’s bigger than mine and Dar’s place.” He turned to Darwin. “What’s it called, the ‘Cassiopeia’?”

“It’s the ‘Caspartina’,” Moira corrected them before taking a swig of wine. “And don’t ask me how I know that.”

That only guaranteed a chorus of voices asking Moira precisely that, but in the hubbub Remy was watching Marie curiously. Her nonchalant air could barely mask the unhappy twist of her mouth.

“Hey hey, come on guys!” Darwin held out his hands for peace and quiet. “We’re here to discuss the wedding, remember? Sarah and her team will be here any minute, so let’s try to be productive before they get here with the dresses.”

“Dar’s right,” Raven said. “So, Mr. Summers here had a good question earlier. Are we doing two separate bachelor parties, or just one combined one?”

“One,” Moira replied immediately. “It’s easier for us to plan, and I’m not interested in getting mauled by Erik if we make Charles look at another guy naked.”

Alex slapped his knee in triumph. “See? Told you! Erik’s definitely not interested in watching anyone else strip.”

“I can safely say the same for Charles,” Raven said dryly, before an idea occurred to her and her eyes widened in excitement. “I got it! Let’s all go to Vegas, and we’ll bring the two of them to a strip club...where Charles will be the stripper!”

There was much laughter, but eventually everyone agreed it was a great plan and one that the wedding couple would very much be on board with. Remy could definitely attest to the fact that Erik would be extremely happy to have the opportunity to tuck dollar bills into Charles’ thong.

“So the plan is that we’ll all head down together to some club for their stag party,” Sean said, tucking back his hair which was now longer than Remy’s own. “At some point, one of us will kidnap Charles, then you girls will bring him out as the stripper for the evening?”

“Bingo.” Raven gave him a thumbs-up. “It’ll take a lot of planning and some major stealthing, especially since we’re shuttling everyone to Vegas. But it can be done!”

“Charles is going to love this plan,” Moira said with a smirk. “We just need to make sure we clear the room at the end to give them some, er, privacy.”

“What about games?” Darwin asked. “People do those for bachelor and bachelorette parties, right?”

Remy smiled. “Remy would be more than happy to get a few rounds of Texas Hold’em going. Poker would be fun, oui?”

“Not everyone wants to play your silly card games, LeBeau,” Marie said loftily, tossing back her hair.

Instead of getting angry or annoyed, Remy was intrigued. Marie was definitely mad at him for some reason. “Remy would love to hear your ideas, chère,” he said, flashing her his most charming smile that usually made girls blush.

“Knock it off, Romeo.” Raven nudged him with her foot. “I’m sure we can think of something else.”

The group eventually managed to come up with a list of games for the parties - as well as settle the logistics involved in travelling to Vegas and ‘kidnapping’ Charles along the way - when there was a sharp knock on the door of Moira’s suite. “Room service!” a Scottish voice cheerfully shouted.

“That’s not Sarah the wedding planner,” Moira said, frowning down at their trays. “Besides, I thought all our food and drinks already came. Did you guys order anything else?”

Everyone shook their heads while Darwin jumped up and jogged towards the door. “I’ll get it.” Of course, he peered through the keyhole first - like any good assistant would - in case it was a crazed stalker. After all, Moira had seen her fair share (not including Sean, of course).

To Remy’s surprise, Darwin let out a bark of laughter before opening the door. “Look who it is, guys!”

There were shrieks and shouts of “Oh, my God!” as everyone rose to their feet in excitement, and Remy grinned in realisation when he spotted a beaming Charles at the door, Erik towering behind him with several boxes of gifts.

“Room service, my ass!” Sean chuckled, giving Charles a friendly smack on the butt which made Erik glare daggers at him. “What the heck are you guys doing here?”

“My word, Sean, that was quite a welcome.” Charles was laughing as he rubbed his backside, resting a soothing hand on Erik’s bicep. “Darling, would you mind placing the gift boxes on that table over there?”

Erik did so obediently, even though he looked as though he would much rather dump the boxes on top of Sean’s head. Giving Erik a sheepish grin, Sean quickly scuttled over to Moira’s side, where she was hugging Charles delightedly while he exclaimed over her new haircut. Remy made his way over to where Alex and Darwin were chatting with Erik, belatedly realising that this was the first time almost everyone had been in the same room since they dispersed after the Oscars.

Raven was shaking her head in disbelief at both of them. “I don’t believe it. I took off like a bat out of hell so I could escape your gruesome little lovefest. And now you’ve followed me here!”

Laughing, Charles reached for her and planted a kiss to her temple. “Oh hush, you’re secretly glad to see us!”

Erik was grinning from ear to ear. “I did try to convince Charles to give you a bit of peace and quiet, but let’s just say Charles is very...persuasive.”

“I’ll bet,” Moira said drily, which made Sean laugh out loud and Charles blush a deep beetroot red.

“Anyway, once we saw on Facebook that almost everyone had checked into Muir Island, we thought we’d show up to ruin the party,” Erik explained, before gesturing towards his pile of boxes. “But we come bearing gifts. Remy, quit standing there with your mouth open and come help me.”

Remy grinned good-naturedly before hopping over to help his boss, winking at Marie who wore a smirk, seemingly holding back her laughter. To be honest, he loved making her smile, even if it was at his own expense.

True to Charles’ generous nature, there were presents galore for all of them: Chanel trench coats for the ladies, along with Hermès belts and pocket squares for the men. Remy was surprised to find that Erik had also gotten him custom cufflinks shaped like a pair of aces. “Don’t lose these, moron,” Erik said gruffly, although he was fooling no one. A lot of thought had clearly gone into the gift.

Touched, Remy grabbed Erik before he could run and hugged him, ignoring his protests. “Merci beaucoup, mon ami.

“Get off me!” Erik demanded as the rest laughed, but his eyes widened in horror when Remy leaned in and gave him two exaggeratedly smacking kisses on each cheek. “LeBeau, what the hell?”

“This is how we French people show our appreciation,” Remy said with a graceful bow, as Erik hurriedly mopped his face with his handkerchief.

“Man, remind me to never ever do you a favour,” Alex muttered, edging away from a grinning Remy.

Thankfully Remy was saved from the wrath of Erik by a smart knock on the door, which a flustered Charles immediately hopped over to answer. “Sarah!” he greeted, which could only mean that it was that astronomically expensive wedding planner they had hired.

Sure enough, the wedding planner had finally turned up with her assistants and a slew of Maid of Honour dresses for Moira, Raven and Marie to try on. Remy immediately perked up when he spotted Marie picking up a beautiful green and white number, watching her holding it up against herself.

She must have felt him staring when he finally caught her eye. Instead of tossing her hair and ignoring him, she surprised him with a grin. “Whaddya think, stranger?” she asked him, tilting her chin up as if daring him to make some joke or smartass comment. “How do I look in this dress?”

Remy only had a soft smile for her. “Tu es la femme la plus belle au monde,” he said sincerely, reaching up to brush back her blonde-streaked fringe. “Il n'y a pas de mots pour le dire.

She was frowning suspiciously at him. “Are you makin’ fun of me? Just because I didn’t understand all them fancy French words?”

Remy shook his head, smiling at the misunderstanding. “Non, I was saying-–”

“Marie, let’s try on the dresses together,” Raven called out, coming over and grabbing Marie by the hand, yanking her away to Moira’s bedroom. Behind Marie’s back, Raven shot him a meaningful glance. Ah, of course she’d understood what he had said in French and was trying to save him from...embarrassment? A tongue-lashing from Marie?

Poor Remy had no idea.