Please love her.
It wasn't the dominant thought in Erik's mind when he and his family arrived on Charles' doorstep. It lay below the exhaustion, the fear, the dark current of anger at having been rousted from his home by men he'd very nearly counted as friends. Of Erik's concerns, it lay far beneath the gnawing anxiety that they'd be turned away.
"You're welcome to stay as long as you need to, of course," Charles said, after allowing Erik to finish his halting speech about the matter, the one that didn't tell Charles half as much as dipping into Erik's mind did, fingertips tracing over the surface of the water. "Here, I'll show you to the kitchen. You can eat while I have your rooms made up."
It was the right thing to say to dispel the concerns Erik had known he had. There was nothing Charles could say about the concern he was fairly certain Erik didn't know about.
Please love her. It didn't mean Nina, for Erik had once known Charles as well as anyone did; even if he didn't know that Charles couldn't help but adore any child of Erik's, he certainly knew there was no chance Charles could feel anything but warmth toward any mutant child.
Please love her. It was a plea of a kind Charles had learned better than to answer, the sort of thing most people were happier not to know they'd thought. Anyway, if he admitted he'd heard it, he'd also have to admit that Erik's hadn't been the only mind he'd sifted through immediately. He might be a peaceful man, but that didn't make him naive, and it didn't make him careless; he'd read Magda before he'd so much as opened the door. Not because she'd come with Erik but because she was a stranger who'd come to his home. In reading her, he'd discovered why Erik had fallen for her (because they were so alike in some ways), and why he had stayed with her (because they were so unlike in other ways, creating a balance between them). He'd found her strength, the depth of love she felt for her family and the surety she felt in Erik—enough that, even though she knew precisely what her husband had once been to Charles, there were no doubts in her mind about his fidelity, and no concern about what being under the same roof might tempt him to.
Please love her, Erik had thought, but there was no circumstance Charles could think of where it would ease his mind for Charles to respond with, Oh, my friend, I already do.
The first time it happened, it was an accident. Erik and his family had been there for three days by then. Long enough for the adjustment to begin on both sides, for it to seem like a normal state of things. Long enough for Charles to revert to old habits.
The last time he'd shared a roof with Erik, he'd always checked in on Erik's mind before letting himself fall asleep. Erik had had dreadful nightmares at times; Charles had found that he could divert him to pleasanter dreams if he caught them early, an ounce of prevention that would allow them both to sleep through the night.
It was innocent the first time, his mind seeking Erik's out of habit. What he found was not the beginning of any nightmare, and it took him a moment to realize what he'd done for the first time in twenty years, and what he'd found—her breathless voice crying out in the dark, her sweat-slicked skin beneath him, the way their bellies clapped together as he—
It took a moment for Charles to realize what he'd stumbled upon. It shouldn't have taken more than a moment after that for him to leave again. Yet he found himself caught up in it for the minute that remained, until Erik's mind went bright and he went still above her, inside her. His low groan was astonishingly familiar even after two decades. Charles broke the connection after hearing it, and was left alone in his bedroom, hot in the face and buzzing with desire, with an erection rivaling any he'd managed to sustain since Cuba.
He slid his hand under his pajama top, sliding his fingers up his belly and chest until he found his nipple. At first, he tried not to think of anything in particular as he pinched and pulled, but despite the thread of guilt, his mind kept returning to Erik and Magda fucking in the room he had given them, just a few doors down. By the time he reached into his pajama bottoms, he'd lost track of the guilt entirely in favor of remembering the way they'd sounded together, Magda's voice and Erik's, crying out their pleasure in one another.
Afterward, Charles came to his senses, and knew he would not repeat any of this. This was a one-time thing. It had to be. Even if he were to think about them again in this same way—and he surely would, he knew himself too well to deny that—he certainly wouldn't need any new material.
Erik's family had been there a week when Magda began to show up during Charles' visits to the garden. What had been a heavily neglected space during his childhood has blossomed to something magnificent under Hank's care and Charles' own. It had been their first project after they'd decided to try again with the school, back in those days when the both of them needed something to do with their hands so they wouldn't have the time to second-guess everything while waiting for the paperwork to go through. Since then, Charles had hired a gardener to maintain what they'd created, and Charles made a point of getting out to enjoy it when the weather cooperated.
At first, Charles worried that Magda had caught him out, that she was going to confront him eventually. Then, he came to the conclusion that she was tired of being cooped up in the bedroom with Erik all day—he seemed to venture out only to eat or to swoop conspicuously into the forest with Nina.
"He is afraid he will be recognized again," Magda said. "He is growing a beard and mustache, but until then..."
"Erik with facial hair, hmm? That would be a sight."
"It will be a terrible one," she said, in a tone that suggested the experiment had been tried before.
Charles had a tendency to become defensive when people spoke critically of Erik (except for Hank, who was allowed; and except for Raven, who always rolled her eyes at Charles when he brightened, then went off on a rant about how neither of them owned her, this-is-why-I-never-call), but although he wasn't precisely reading Magda, there was still no missing the fondness underneath the exasperation.
"Well, I look forward to it nonetheless," he said, and, since she was here and listening, launched into an explanation about naturally occuring genetic mutations in flowers. To his own surprise, he found her considerably more attentive than his genetics classes, who always seemed to view trips outdoors as opportunities to do anything other than pay attention to the lesson.
The second time it happened, it wasn't an accident. After Magda had left the garden, Charles was left with the way her hair gleamed in the sunlight, the twist of her wrist as she smelled a flower as his urging, the way her skirt flowed around her legs, the robust spring wind sending them the fabric way and that.
There was no reason Charles should have reached out for Erik's mind, night after night. He knew enough now to stay away, knew he ought not to eavesdrop...but still, he reached out for Erik nearly every night anyway. Most often, he found Erik asleep, Erik brooding--Erik being Erik, in other words. He couldn't decide whether Erik was more beautiful through Magda's eyes or through Erik's own; before long, he couldn't decide the same thing about Magda, either. Through Erik's eyes she was incandescent, and through her own...she was the one person in the world who saw Erik in the same way Charles himself did. The one person who knew him as well as Charles did.
(Charles knew he wasn't fooling himself. That what Magda knew of Erik was truer and deeper than what Charles knew of him, for it had been freely given over a period of years, whereas everything Charles had ever had of Erik's, he'd been more or less accused of having taken.)
There was no reason Charles should have kept looking, other than that he couldn't bear to lie there in his bed, and know they were in theirs as well. Other than that he couldn't let well enough alone. Other than that he wanted--well, he wanted to be with them again, to stay with them through it all.
He got his wish, of course. It barely took a week before he reached out and found--
Erik on his knees by the side of the bed, Magda's hands in his hair. Everything about it was clear, from the ache of Erik's scalp to the brush of her hairs against his face, to the way his fingers felt inside her, so good inside her as she came with a cry, her toes curling in the air beyond Erik's shoulders. Then Erik came up to lay beside her on the bed, and she took him in her mouth in turn, and afterward they laughed together, and spoke quietly for a few minutes.
It was then that Charles remembered that he had no business there.
(He wouldn't know for weeks that he'd left too quickly, this time, that his sudden absence was like the breeze from a door that's just been shut. He wouldn't know for weeks that it had caused both Erik and Magda to startle, and Erik to say, "I wonder..."
"What is it you wonder?" Magda asked.
"--Nothing. It's nothing."
"If it was nothing, you would not have thought to wonder it."
And of course Erik did tell, for he had never been able to keep anything from her, not from the first night he'd shown up on her doorstep, intending to tell whoever lived there only lies about who he was and what he was doing, lost in the woods behind her house. He told this time, as he'd told that, and spent more than half of the telling with his eyes on the wallpaper across from the bed. Magda knew that look, of course; knew he expected hate and disgust, still, as he would always expect those things first, even from her--from everyone but Nina he met in his life, perhaps.
"Well?" he said when he had finished, a challenge.
"You may be right. I do not know," said Magda. She would not be certain until the next day, when she went to see Charles in the garden again and found him unable to look her in the eyes until she had made him forget himself enough to laugh. "But I am wondering..."
Magda thought about it a moment more, and then she told him. Of course this became more a spectacle than anything he had told her. Still, she was not surprised when Erik agreed, any more than she had been surprised when he had demanded to know what she thought of Charles the first moment they were alone in this house.)
Charles managed to keep his mind from wandering for three nights after that. What he had done was wrong, of course, but more than that, he'd lost himself in Erik and Magda while they'd moved together, so that he couldn't be certain how well the barrier between them had held, or how well it would hold in the future. Neither Erik nor Magda would wish to stay, if they knew what he'd done...and they'd already grown around him, to the point where he couldn't imagine not having them here with him.
Over the next week or so, Erik began to seek Charles out, as well. Not in the garden, as Magda had done--that was too exposed for a man who spent every moment outside of his bedroom looking over his shoulder--but he showed up in the doorway of Charles' study one night, not long after lights-out in the dormitories.
"Hello there," Charles said, remembering how Erik had looked the last time he'd seen him, naked from Magda's viewpoint--then forcing himself to remember, instead, the way Erik had looked when he'd shown up on Charles' doorstep weeks ago.
He'd wanted something, then; it didn't occur to Charles that Erik might want something again when, with a nod at the chess board set up in the corner, Erik said, "Would you care for a game?"
"I would like that very much," Charles said, and so they proceeded to play their first game in some ten years. Erik won, of course; he didn't seem to have anything on his mind outside of the game. Not like Charles did, stomach curling with guilt every time he thought about how Erik wouldn't be in this room with him now, if he knew. Then they played their second game, and Erik began to speak. He asked Charles questions about the school--almost absently, and with none of the combativeness Charles would have expected--and told Charles much about his own life, as it had been in Poland.
"I never thought I would go back there," Erik said. "And when I had to, I never thought I would find anything there worth taking."
"Does Magda know she's been taken?"
"She think she did the taking."
"I didn't think there would be anything there that I wanted--to have, or to keep. But when I learned I was wrong, I grabbed onto it, and I've held onto it ever since."
For a moment, Charles had the fantasy that Erik would next lean over to kiss him. He had that look--such a familiar look. The last time he'd seen it had been on a plane, but they'd been blocked by an vicious argument, and by their audience; there was no reason for either, here, and so maybe...
But instead, Erik swooped in with his knight to take Charles' queen, then leaned back to watch him try to figure his way out of being checkmated in another few moves.
The next couple weeks were the same: Magda in the afternoons, and Erik in the evenings. They both seemed to Charles to be watching him now; they both seemed to be waiting for something. He hadn't the faintest idea what it might be, and refused to look; he'd invaded enough of their privacy already, after all. Besides, he was somewhat afraid of what he might find there. One didn't always find the most flattering portraits of oneself when eavesdropping.
But sometimes, one did in fact find a very flattering picture of oneself when so doing. And the next time Charles went looking for Erik and Magda's bed, he found something he hadn't expected at all.
They were twined together languidly, the way people are who intend to make love at some point, but for whom it is not an urgent matter quite yet. They had the sense, as well, of people who hadn't had the chance to do this often, if at all, throughout their marriage--always, there had been work, Magda's job and then Erik's, when he'd committed to staying with her--and then there had been Nina, and then she had manifested, and things had changed and changed again, and always there had been less time, never more or even as much as there had been in the first days. But now they were in hiding, and what work there was left to Nina was largely helped by other hands than theirs (for although she was a bit younger than the usual, Charles had found her a tutor, and she was practicing her gift with more experienced teachers, as well). Now, for the first time, they had hours for each other they'd never had before, due to tiredness or a baby's cries or their parental concerns.
All of this, Charles got in the first few moments.
Then, they started talking about him. Or perhaps had already been talking about him.
"I imagine his lips on you, sometimes," said Erik, snaking his hand between Magda's thighs, where she was wet already, and gushed more at his words. "I remember how they felt and looked on me--around me. He'd tell me how much he loved it, but I could tell he'd always liked it a little more with a woman."
"Is he as good as you?" Magda asked.
"Better," said Erik, who'd never been willing to say much when Charles had been in bed with him. He'd apparently become talkative sometime in the last few years.
Charles would have been jealous of Magda for that if he hadn't been so terribly, painfully aroused.
The other times, he hadn't dared to touch himself while he watched them. It wasn't that he hadn't wanted to--he had, desperately--but what divide there was between them would surely fall if he didn't force himself to wait.
"His mouth is fine," said Magda. "But his shoulders, they are..."
And after that, Charles couldn't help it. Simply could not. He reached beneath his shirt, and into his pajama bottoms. By the time Magda came, he was close, so close to the edge; by the time Erik came, and Magda again with him, Charles, too, was crying out in pleasure. Magda's, Erik's, his own; theirs and his, his and theirs. In that moment, he saw them for all of what they were--and a moment after it was finished, he could no longer deny the fact that they had seen him, as well.
"Charles," Erik said, not to Magda--
And Charles pulled away. Back to his room, back to where he was alone and sticky in his own bed. Back to where he was alone with the knowledge that Erik and Magda had heard or felt him, this time--and that there was no excuse, no reasoning he could give for why he had done it.
Because you're so beautiful, apart or together. Because I can only have you in this one way. Because you were talking about me, and for a moment I thought what it would be like, if it were we three together instead of two, and one apart.
They'd seen him, this time, or at least Erik had. They'd known he was there. And surely it meant they'd be leaving again. Charles wouldn't be alone when they went--he'd never been alone, really, not since Raven first walked into his life; first there had been Raven, then Erik, and when they had gone there had been the others; and when the others had gone there had been Hank; and now there was the school, and the weight of his work, and all of it meant he would never be alone again unless he chose to be--but he would be lesser, and he would be devastated.
They had been speaking of him, and below the speaking there had been more than lust. That was what had called to Charles, what had attracted him, even more than what they were doing together, and what it made his body feel. There had been more, and maybe it meant something. Most likely it didn't. But maybe.
Erik had said his name, and the more Charles thought back on it, the more he looked for anger or betrayal in the memory, the less he could find anything other than fondness, and warmth. Not just for Magda, perhaps. Maybe there was something left for him.
He found himself thinking back to all their interactions, as of late. The way Erik found excuses to come see him, the way he found excuses for the both of them to stay up for one more drink, one more game. The way Magda looked out in the garden, in one pretty dress after the other; the way she never missed a day, and came to see him even when they had to stay inside, watching the flowers through a gray veil of rain. All the little touches, all the little glances, all the times Charles had been tempted to look and hadn't, because it had seemed to be even more of a violation when he was with them than when they were with each other.
And instead of sinking into the despair that seemed so tempting, Charles found himself thinking, Maybe...
He took his time getting ready. He hadn't worn his good suit in a while, but he hadn't lost, gained, or redistributed any weight in a while, either. He looked as good in it as he ever had, and it showed off his shoulders delightfully. (But his shoulders, they are...")
All dressed up, Charles wheeled out of his room. A few doors down, he stopped, and knocked.
From inside came a thump, a giggle, and Erik's voice: "Come in."
Charles still hadn't looked. He hadn't dared. He didn't dare now.
He reached for the doorknob.
Lower than a whisper, he said, "Please love me."
He went in, and found that they already did.