Introducing Charles to Erik’s mother is not, at the moment, going well.
Introducing Erik to Charles’s mother had not gone well either, but for very different reasons, and Erik still gets a flash of white-hot rage through his bones when he thinks about that, so he deliberately doesn’t, right now. He squeezes Charles’s hand instead.
Charles, when uncertain, buries the uncertainty beneath extra certainty about everything else, which reads an awful lot like arrogance to anyone who doesn’t know better. Erik does know better. His mother doesn’t.
She looks Charles up and down: expensive shirt, casually messy hair, proffered bottle of wine that likely costs more than a month’s rent for the aging brick townhouse. It’s not a terrible place, still well maintained and in a decent neighborhood—Erik’s been surreptitiously covering all the rent increases for the past five years, and she’ll never know—but Charles was raised in a mansion and doesn’t know how to stand or move or act like someone who didn’t have a butler and a maid and a chef, growing up. It’s innate, that unstudied carelessness of wealth; it’s not all Charles is, of course, but it’s part of him.
There’re other pieces of the world that aren’t money-related that Charles doesn’t take for granted. People loving him is one of them. Hence the uncertainty; hence, also, the self-confidence he’s currently wearing like a shield, proof against all arrows and swords.
They all stand in the cozy lamplit living room like the opening skirmish on a battlefield. Charles offers, awkwardly, “this is…nice,” and he does mean it, that’s the other problem, Erik can see it in his eyes as he gazes around: framed photographs, Erik on graduation day clutching his diploma, young Erik being held by his parents, faded sepia faces of relatives back in Germany whom he doesn’t recall. His first clumsy metalwork sculpture sits side-by-side with a tiny replica maglev train car he’d come up with for the most recent symposium on applied electromagnetic forces. A few cards from various friends are arranged on the refrigerator. Magazines lie folded open to new recipes on the coffee table. And the comforting scent of butter and sugar and fried dough wafts through the air.
The place feels like a home; Erik’s always held this room, this space, as his mental picture of the word. And Charles does mean the compliment. But Charles has a habit of saying the wrong words in the wrong way when he’s nervous and hiding it, and so the nice comes out rather condescending. Edie’s eyes narrow.
“Erik,” she says, “come help me in the kitchen, one second, please,” and Erik follows helplessly, throwing a glance back at Charles as he does. Those blue eyes drop away from his: Charles knows exactly how things’re going, too.
In the kitchen, he sets the bottle of wine on the counter. It stares at him accusatorily: you could’ve stopped Charles from bringing me. Could’ve made this easier.
“Shut up,” Erik mutters at it, and his mother raises a well-practiced eyebrow at him. “Erik Lehnsherr, you are not telling your mother to—”
“No! Sorry, Mama. I was…” He contemplates finishing that sentence with talking to Charles’s wine, and opts for, “talking to myself. Do you need help getting down plates?”
“Not yet.” His mother crosses her arms. Gives him a look that he remembers all too well. It’s the same look he’d once gotten after fights at school, black eyes and detentions and the unavoidable side consequences of growing up with an immigrant accent and a father lost too young to a heart attack and Erik’s own stony self-reliance.
“Erik,” she says, and there’s something like disappointment in her eyes, or wistfulness perhaps, a mother not wanting to see her child hurt again. “This boy…”
“He’s twenty-six,” Erik says, because that actually does matter: Charles looks vastly younger than he is, and that never helps the wealthy playboy impression. “He’s a professor. Columbia. Mama, I told you. He’s—he makes me feel like I’m not alone.”
This is true, every word; Charles is his other half, his rock, his anchor in the storms. Charles is his optimism and his hope for a future that includes laughter instead of rage.
Charles knows about bruises and scars, as well. It’s one reason, though not the only reason, they understand each other.
His mother doesn’t quite hear the importance of those words, though. She says, “I know you think you love him, Erik, but look at him, really look at him, in our home. He makes you feel not alone. Do you love him, or do you love not feeling alone?”
When they’d met Charles’s mother, two months ago, for her birthday, Sharon Xavier had regarded her son and her son’s partner over the rim of a martini glass and the stark glossy wood of the antique dining table. Had swept that calculating gaze up and down Erik’s frame, assessing: he’d had no doubt that she knew precisely the value of his shirt and slacks and watch and probably his annual income and net worth on top of that.
She’d dismissed him with a glance, and lifted an eyebrow at Charles. “Still dressing out of the graduate-school retail shops? How do you ever expect anyone to take you seriously, in that cardigan?”
“My students don’t mind,” Charles had said, tea-and-scones accent over a line of steel, and she’d sighed and inquired when he was planning to get back to building a proper company the way his father and stepfather had done, instead of spending his days puttering about in a classroom in front of unappreciative children.
Charles has three doctorates and a multitude of research grants from institutions with increasingly complicated acronyms. Charles serves as official graduate admissions director and unofficial counselor to practically the whole damn genetics department, and volunteers to assist first-year university students with the transition to academia. Charles never wants anyone to feel alone or uncared for or unworthy of affection. Never, if he can help it, not anyone else.
Sharon Xavier, Erik had thought at the time, must also have known all of this.
He’d taken Charles’s hand. Felt those fingers not visibly reacting, but cold in his.
Charles can do anything, he’d thought then, and he’ll always continue to believe as much. Charles had smiled at him across a meeting-room table, some biomedical conference Erik’d begrudgingly been dragged to by the lightning-rod head of Stark Industries despite protests of consultant status and not being paid nearly enough for socialization. He to this day doesn’t recall the topic of the session he’d grumpily wandered into. He does remember a confidently charming hedgerow-and-lake-country accent, radiating enthusiasm and optimism; remembers all the exuberant shortness, excitable hair, and extraordinary sapphire eyes that’d caught his as he’d come in five minutes late to the presentation and again when he’d asked a hurriedly-formulated question about genome mapping processes during the question-and-answer.
That smile had lit up the room, along with the hollow places in the heart Erik’d nearly forgotten he had.
He’d glared ferociously at Sharon Xavier’s blue eyes, paler and cooler than her son’s, as they’d gone into a dinner full of desultory silences and glowering ancestral portraits and the muted clink of silverware. There’d been bacon in the salad course. Charles had hissed, “Mother, I did tell you, Erik doesn’t—” and Erik’d hastily said “It’s fine, Charles, it’s not as if I keep kosher, just don’t tell my mother,” and Sharon had entirely ignored this exchange and requested another martini.
Back in the present, he looks his own mother directly in the eyes, and says, amid the warm rich scents of baking and oven-heat and familiarity, “He loves me. And I love him.”
Edie sighs. “I love you, too, whatever happens, I want you to know that. I’m your mother, Erik, I’m always here for you, I just worry, it’s what mothers do, we’re allowed.”
There’s a quiet sound, not made by either of them, and they both turn, but can’t see anything around the corner. Erik knows without any rational proof that Charles must’ve been listening; not necessarily on purpose, perhaps, but the walls’re thin and Charles has good hearing and a lot of insecurity and morals just barely flexible enough to permit eavesdropping when he hasn’t explicitly promised not to.
“I know,” he says, and hugs her, a gesture which surprises her because he’s not normally the instigator of the hugs. He takes advantage of the resultant silence to add, “I’ll go check on him,” and ducks around the corner.
Charles had offered, at that utterly unfestive birthday dinner, their present, a ludicrously costly watch that he’d guessed she might like, with her taste for jewelry; it was from an excruciatingly fashionable designer and glittered in the box. Sharon had glanced at it, displayed precisely the polite amount of gratitude, and sipped her drink. Had inquired whether Charles had heard anything from Cain lately.
Erik, who’s been gradually allowed to know all of Charles’s scars and mementos of life with that stepbrother, broken arms and casual shoves down the stairs and books thrown into the fire, and who will forever be incapable of standing by while the man he loves goes pale and quiet beside him, had dropped his fork, stood up, grabbed Charles’s hand, and said, “Charles, I’m sorry, I’ve just remembered, we have a dinner engagement. Elsewhere. And we’ll be late.”
Sharon had set down her glass and blinked at her son and said, “Very tactless, this one, even if he is pretty; are you planning on keeping him long?” and at this point Charles had also gotten to his feet, laced his fingers into Erik’s, and answered, “No, we’re keeping each other, I think. I’m in love with him. I’m incredibly in love with you, Erik. Happy birthday, Mother, and we’ll see you at Christmas.”
They’d walked out the door hand in hand.
Charles had said, sitting in the car at the end of the drive, “I can’t believe we just walked out on my mother—” and then had started laughing, the kind of laughter that lived next-door to tears, all shock and amazement and liberation. Erik had held him, arms firmly in place around trembling shoulders. Had said, “I can,” which had made Charles laugh again, through the tears.
“She doesn’t mean it about Cain,” Charles’d said, later, clinging to him in bed, both of them naked and shaky with the aftermath of good lovemaking, pure and raw and tender. “She never knew how bad it was. She never wanted to know. And…my father took himself out of the realm of the living, my stepfather died in that fire, Cain left to put his violent tendencies to good use on a football field and Raven went to Hollywood and I’m, well, me…I think she’s lonely. I’m the only one who comes home for her birthday.”
“She doesn’t deserve you,” Erik said, and kissed him fiercely, lips and eyelids and old faded scars. “You deserve better.”
“She’s still my mother,” Charles had said, hopeless and inarguable, and Erik had put a hand in his hair and done his best to banish all the heart-wounds for a little while, an enchanted span of time in which he could keep Charles safe and warm and sure of being loved.
He’d thought that perhaps meeting his own mother, in the wake of that disaster, might give Charles a sense of home. Might let him feel safe with one other person, other than Erik himself. Besides, his mother’d been pestering him for weeks about meeting the man in her son’s life. She’d be thrilled.
Charles had resisted with startling stubbornness, which was why it’d been two months before they’d managed to set a weekend aside. And now they’re here, and Erik’s beginning to see why.
Without giving detail and with permission, he’d told his mother the edges of Charles’s home life, the shape of the picture if not the hues. He suspects that she’d been feeling sorry for Charles, wanting to mother him somewhat. Charles, however, has zero experience with being mothered, and hates to appear less than competent and in control of every conceivable situation.
These two positions do not collide well. They’re in the midst of that collision now.
Charles turns, when Erik comes back into the living room. He’s smiling, but it’s sad. “I’m sorry. I’m not very good at this. Is this your father, in this one?”
Erik crosses over to the bookshelf. It’s his parents’ wedding photo; they look young and giddy, laughing and full of life. “It is. I keep asking her to let me take this and digitize it. She’s afraid it’ll fall apart if I take it out of the frame.”
“Oh.” Charles puts both hands behind his back, as if afraid even the thought of touching might shatter the glass. Erik feels his own heart threaten to shatter, too. “He looks like you. Or—you look like him. More accurate, genetically speaking.”
“Mama always says so,” Erik offers, dryly, “so you two do agree on something,” and Charles makes a sound that wants to be a laugh and isn’t. “At least there’s one data point, then.”
“It’s a beginning.” He puts an arm around Charles, draws him close, rests his chin atop that shorter head. “Don’t think too much, kätzchen. Be yourself. You’re irresistible. I should know.”
This earns a sigh and a grumble of, “not bloody likely,” but Charles leans a bit more weight against him, accepting the support, so that’s a step, anyway.
From behind them, there’s a throat-clearing. “If you two would like to come and have strudel now,” his mother says, “and also there’s coffee, Erik, if you wouldn’t mind, help your mother and pour,” and they look at each other.
“Mama,” Erik says, “Charles likes tea,” and Charles steps on his foot and says “It’s fine, honestly, have you got cream and sugar?” and Edie studies him for a moment. “Sugar, yes. Cream, no. Erik, you didn’t tell me to buy tea,” and Erik winces, because, yes, that one is his fault.
He’d meant to. Just busy. Distracted. But he could’ve made this easier, too.
“It’s fine,” Charles says again, and Edie apologizes and then says “My Erik’s always liked his coffee black, that’s why I never think of it,” and Erik knows instantly that she doesn’t mean the words as an accusation but that those blue eyes will hear it as one.
He attempts to squeeze Charles’s hand again on the way into the kitchen. Charles doesn’t look at him.
After the first bite of strudel, hot and flaky and melting away like butter on the tongue, Charles looks up wide-eyed and says “this is marvelous,” and Edie blushes at the praise, and for a second Erik has a fleeting sense of hope.
“It was nothing, I just knew you boys were coming, and Erik likes his desserts, he does have a sweet tooth, if you want I could teach you, you and I could share recipes sometime—”
Erik, who has witnessed Charles’s attempts to cook, frantically opens his mouth. Charles is already turning pink, embarrassment coloring all the freckles. “That’s—awfully kind but I—I’m sorry I never learned to—I’m really not very good at—”
“Hmm.” Edie eyes Erik meaningfully. “You do the cooking, for him, then? Such a change, you never used to like cooking, not even for your mother, you complained enough when I tried to teach you.”
“Mama,” Erik interrupts desperately, “I like cooking. For him. For us.”
“Hmm,” she says again, and there’s a panickedly silent pause during which everyone focuses on the blessed presence of the strudel instead of the conversation.
Eventually, they get up. She tells them not to bother about the dishes, and suggests that Erik go and show Charles their room, his old bedroom, where they’ll be sleeping. Charles is obviously trying not to do or say anything else wrong, because he looks at Erik for a cue. Every bit of Erik’s heart aches.
He loves them both. They are, in fact, the only people he loves out of the whole generally foolish and intolerable world. And he doesn’t know what to do to make this right.
“Come on,” he says, and hefts their bag—Charles’s bag, that they’re sharing, and he spots the brand name with an internal wince—and leads the way.
Charles trails him into the bedroom and sits down on the bed, not speaking. Watches Erik open the suitcase; watches Erik take out shirts and sweaters and begin to hang them. He’d help in a heartbeat if Erik asked, they both know that, but the fact remains that Charles doesn’t know how to pack or unpack properly and this is only practical and maybe if some of those professorial sweaters make it into his childhood closet then somehow Charles will feel more at home.
Charles says nothing for long enough that Erik’s stomach starts tying itself in knots, and then, at the third sweater, abruptly: “Wait.”
He spins around. Drops the sweater, where it falls into a fuzzy brown heap. “What—”
“Don’t,” Charles says. “Don’t. I’ll just—I’ll put them back in the bag, I’ll go, you can stay and spend the weekend with your mother, she’s thrilled to see you—”
“What,” Erik says again, and looks helplessly at the sweater, which puddles on the floor without offering any useful aid. “What are you—we’re here so that you can meet my mother, I know it’s not going well but that’s—”
“Not going well might be the understatement of the century.” Charles looks at his hands. He’s wearing one of his luxurious silk shirts, royal blue and clinging, one that Erik decidedly appreciates. It brings out his eyes and fits all the compact muscles of his body in perfect accompaniment. Right now, he’s fiddling with one of the rolled-up sleeves, heedlessly destroying the tidy folds. “I never make you coffee.”
“You never make me coffee,” Erik says, and sits down next to him, capturing those restless fingers in his own, “because you always manage to burn it. I don’t mind. I love you, Charles, not your culinary talents or lack thereof.”
“About that. You don’t even like to cook. You—I feel rather like an idiot. And useless, you know.” That elegant voice shakes; it’s Charles making light of his own inadequacies, or trying to. Cracks showing under the ivied walls and medieval towers.
They’re surrounded, here, by Erik’s childhood: an old model submarine, a few lopsided books, tape from a long-ago poster on the wall. He can’t remember what the poster’d been; his mother would know. The room’s mostly the same, otherwise; she’s not changed much about it.
“The two of you should catch up. You can—you can tell her I’m sorry. I am. But it’ll probably come out better, coming from you. I can just—I can go. I’ve got quizzes to grade, in any case, I—”
“Can you grade them here?”
“I…think you’re missing my point, Erik.”
“No, I’m not.” He lifts the hand, kisses it, hears the unhappy little inhale. “I want you here. I love you. You’re neither an idiot nor useless, Charles, and I know you know that. You can model projections of human evolution out of a fraction of DNA and a pen and paper. And marshmallows on toothpicks, once; I did hear about that teaching demonstration. Your students love you. You’re brilliant. And I love you, in case you failed to hear me the first time.”
“Erik,” Charles says, and reaches for him, and Erik wraps both arms around him and lets Charles breathe into his neck, in and out, holding him there on the bed.
Charles isn’t quite crying, but those inhales and exhales are far too shaky. Erik runs a hand over his back, kisses his temple, strokes hair out of his face. “I honestly don’t mind cooking. I used to hate it, mostly because it took too long and I didn’t see the point.” Charles knows all about his past, about his impatience, about his restless irritability.
“I do enjoy cooking for you. I wouldn’t do it so often if I didn’t.” Incontrovertibly true, and he feels the tiny hint of smile in reply. “I find it relaxing. About balance. Established recipes, and then new creation…I also enjoy knowing that I can feed you. You may have to allow me one moment of caveman pride.”
This gets a laugh, uneven but real, and Charles tips his head up to kiss the soft skin under Erik’s jawline, stubble and all. He puts his head back on Erik’s shoulder after, so Erik holds him a bit more tightly, and says, “You make me remember how to smile,” and Charles’s arms go around his waist in return, extremely tight.
After a while he looks up, prompted by some prickle of awareness he can’t quite define. When he does, his mother’s hovering just outside the doorway.
He’s not sure how long she’s been there, but it’s long enough that she must’ve seen or heard quite a lot of what’s passed. Long enough that she’s understood how important this is to Charles, and to him, he hopes. He can’t even be embarrassed about her catching his last sentence. It’s the truth.
Her expression’s complicated: love, concern, astonishment, ruefulness, apologies, understanding, pride in him. More than anything else, it’s the first and the last emotions that win out, and he realizes what she must be seeing: her angry son, always first to take on schoolyard bullies and to fight his battles in wounded silence, here rubbing Charles’s back and comforting another person.
She smiles at him and tips her head back toward the kitchen—I’ll be out there—and then tactfully vanishes from sight. Erik watches her go, and feels an odd new warmth in his heart, blooming there like the quiet lamplight in the bedroom, golden and secure.
He kisses the top of Charles’s head; when Charles looks up in response, eyes slightly wet but clear and open and honest with the collapse of all those walls, he says, “I love you,” and offers a hand up from the bed. “Back out to the kitchen? She’ll probably want to feed you again. It’s a form of affection, I promise.”
“I love you,” Charles says back, taking his hand, and Erik knows without a doubt that they’re all going to be fine.