The first time Charles notices Erik, is the night of one of those dreary dance affairs. Everyone in need of a good husband or wife, dressed in finery and unnecessarily haughty, despite being stuffed into one room for essentially the same reason. Charles slips out, yanking open his collar as he steps into the cool night air. He can hear the music and laughter behind him. It grates on his nerves tonight, his skin feeling sensitive, his nerves a little frayed.
After he's had enough of the fresh air, he sneaks back into the house, heading for the kitchen instead of the festivities. The servants know he shuns crowds in favour of books and aren't alarmed to see him take up a seat at the table despite its half empty platters and demolished vegetables. At some point Charles pitifully asks for a cup of tea, his head throbbing. A cup and saucer is placed before him and he looks up to thank the parlour maid. Instead he sees a man who is looking at him with eyes the colour of seawater, framed by dark lashes. He nods at Charles, pushing the tea towards him.
"Thank you," Charles says quietly, instantly drawn to him. Hating that he's drawn to him.
The man nods mutely and goes about his business, while Charles slowly drinks his tea.
His name is Erik. He's German, but speaks fine English. He makes heads turn. The men hate him. The women... they hate him a little too. It's his quietness. His pale gaze. The way he carries out his work in silence, as if he is somewhere else altogether. Like his whole world is a secret.
Charles finds himself watching Erik through doorways and windows, peering with greedy eyes, breathing in the faded scent of spaces where Erik has been. At night he shuts his eyes tight, shuddering with need, breathing hard as he tries to push thoughts out of Erik from his mind.
The first time they speak, it doesn't go well. Erik is stacking plates in the kitchen when Charles walks in and attempts a conversation. He says hello. Speaks about the awful weather. Attempts to enquire what a German is doing in England, and with such good English. Erik turns to look at Charles, his gaze heated, challenging.
"I seem to have offended you," Charles says with a frown.
Erik looks away. He seems shaken by something. When he looks up he says. "I see how you look at me."
Charles freezes, but musters a smile. "What do you mean?"
"You're rich. You think you can have everything. Things. People. If the price of me working here is that you can... find someone else, Mr. Xavier. I will find employment elsewhere."
Charles stares at Erik, surprised by how stung he feels. He smiles anyway. "I'm sorry for whatever it is that prompted your assumption. I assure you I came here for nothing more than your friendship. I'm apologise if I made you think otherwise. I won't trouble you again. There will be no need to find employment elsewhere. You're more than welcome to stay on here."
He turns and leaves Erik standing there staring at him, resolute that he needs nothing from this man or any other man for that matter. Even during the coldest of nights, Charles pushes Erik far from his mind, embracing the loneliness in his bed instead.
"May I speak with you?"
Charles is lying by a stream that runs through the forest just behind the mansion. He's been sketching flora and fauna, and watching the clouds as he lies on his expensive coat which is now smudged with grass stains. He sits up at Erik's voice, squinting at the sun shining like a halo behind his sour servant's head. Erik is standing there looking regretful about something, so Charles nods, mostly out of curiosity.
"I'm sorry," Erik says. "I thought-"
"Apology accepted," Charles says with a small smile. "I don't require an explanation."
Erik shakes his head, taking a few steps towards Charles. "I was rude. I had no right to say those things."
Charles shrugs. "I presume you had good reason. I understand."
Erik nods, looking down at his boots. When he looks up he has a tentative expression on his face. "You said you wanted friendship. I would like that very much."
Charles smiles. "So would I."
Erik wins another game of chess. In this lonely house where his relatives decide to impose themselves on Charles when and how they choose, chess with Erik is one of the pure joys Charles has. Even losing feels like winning to Charles, especially when Erik laughs or leans across to gently shove Charles into making a move. Charles could do this for eternity. He could live like this, with just friendship. Just having Erik here.
When Erik gets sick, Charles has him brought up from his quarters and into a better room. One where the fireplace will keep him warm. Where the bed will be comfortable. Where the air will move freely. He sits by the bed, watching Erik in his delirium. He lays a cool cloth on his brow. He doesn't care that the servants watch him with open curiosity and he doesn't care for the doctor questioning his devotion to just a servant.
"He's human. Isn't that enough?" Charles grates out, tired and scared.
They all end up thinking he's remarkable. If only they knew he's simply selfish.
Erik gets better, but predictably Charles gets sick. The days pass by in a haze of hot and cold, shivering and sweating. He sleeps so he doesn't have to feel the ache of his bones and he wakes when his sickness creeps into his brain in the form of nonsensical nightmares. He's only vaguely aware of someone's hands, tender in their ministrations. A voice that gently tells him to sleep, tells him he'll be all right. A voice he seems to trust and believe.
One day he wakes looking into pools of seawater surrounded by a beautiful darkness. When the world becomes a little clear, he sees Erik watching him, his expression troubled. They hold each other's gaze for a moment and then Erik is gone and Charles has no idea what he's done wrong.
The day Charles gets out of bed, the most well he's felt in two weeks, he's told that Erik is leaving. He goes to the servants quarters, straight into the small and dark little room where Erik has no more than a small cot and a dresser with a mirror on it.
"You're leaving," he says, his voice sounding ragged. "Is something wrong?"
Erik shakes his head, packing a raggedy bag. "No."
"Then why?" Charles asks. Erik turns to look at Charles. He seems worn out, miserable. Somehow, Charles has done this to Erik, he's sure of it. "Tell me what's wrong. I'll fix it."
Erik looks at Charles for the longest time before he steps close, too close. His hand comes up slowly, hovers near Charles' face for a moment and then his fingertips touch the skin of Charles's cheek, so excruciatingly light. Erik strokes down Charles's face, his fingers smoothing across Charles' bottom lip. Charles starts to step away.
"Charles," Erik whispers.
Charles shakes his head, feeling a little desperate. "I told you. I've only wanted your friendship." The words come out like gasping little lies. He wants Erik so much he feels as if his body might fly apart from its core.
"Shhh. It's all right," Erik whispers. "It's all right."
Charles is shaking his head. "It's not. This isn't – it's not."
Charles shuts his eyes, as if this will stop the war inside him. But Erik's mouth is pressing against his, firm and heated, prying Charles's mouth open, demanding a kiss in return. Charles gasps and gives in, allowing Erik to pull him into a tight embrace. For once in his life, Charles doesn't fight his need. He grabs at Erik, shaking and clumsy. He opens himself up to every kiss. He kisses every new inch of visible skin. He grabs at Erik's hair when Erik kisses a path down Charles' chest and stomach. When Erik pushes him down on the bed, pulls him apart and kisses him all over again, Charles gives Erik everything he needs and takes all that he's wanted.
Afterwards, they lie quietly under the glow of the lamplight, Charles half-asleep on his back and Erik idly rubbing the rough pads of his fingers over the ridge of Charles' lowest rib. His hands seem to want to continually keep touching Charles, light and inquisitive.
“Will you stay?” Charles asks quietly. Erik shifts and Charles feels a kiss press against his jaw, Erik humming in affirmation. Charles moves his hand to the back of Erik's head, combing through his hair, holding him close.
Erik continues to work at the mansion in his quiet way, but when they catch each other's eyes, Charles sometimes sees a secret smile, a promising glance. It makes Charles want to speed through the day so he can be with Erik all night.
Sometimes Charles will see Erik speaking with Sally, the pretty young maid. He watches them as Sally laughs with a coy look and Erik nods and smiles in his quiet way. It makes him want to do something foolish, like walking out there from his hiding place and kissing Erik for everyone to see. But he can't. So he swallows it down, lets it fester and then allows Erik to kiss away the sadness from his mouth.
Sometimes Erik hates it when Charles crawls into the small servant's cot in the dead of night. Charles can tell Erik hates the way his clothes are pulled away, how Charles greedily takes what he wants. He hates being this dirty little secret. He hates the shame of hiding. But then Charles will look at him with dreadful honesty, his fists pressed against Erik's chest and Erik is the one who kisses him, marks him and fucks him so Charles is under no illusion. He belongs to Erik every bit as much as Erik belongs to him.
“I don't like the look of that one,” Charles's aunt says on one of her visits, watching Erik from the window.
“He's a good man,” Charles says.
She snorts. “His sort are never good men.”
“His sort?” Charles asks. “And what sort might that be?”
His aunt looks at him with an arched brow and says, “Let's just say, I shan't be bringing my Kitty here until that man is gone.”
Charles smiles and drinks his tea.
Erik is listening with a frown, but also an amused smile as Charles says, “So she won't be bringing her daughter here until you leave.”
Erik grins down at Charles, propped up on his forearms, the full length of him hard and warm against Charles. He kisses Charles and says, “She should worry more about your virtue.”
Charles smiles. “But I'm quite keen on your sort.”
Erik's gaze darkens slightly. “Are you? On my sort, that is.”
Charles gazes at Erik in silence. He sighs, closing his eyes and opening his legs to draw Erik closer. “Erik,” he says quietly.
Erik stretches out over him, kissing his brow. “Hmm?”
He whispers a secret into Erik's ear, a secret that makes Erik go very still, makes him pull back and see the fear on Charles's face. To Charles' relief, Erik nods and whispers the secret back into Charles' mouth with a kiss.
It's another night of one of those dreary dances. Charles bores of it after one dance. Ever since his work with the sciences has been progressing, the offer of wives seems to have been dwindling. His family appear to have resigned themselves to the fact that he has given up his life to the study of humans and how they have nothing to do with Adam and Eve.
So he moves through the house quietly, peacefully, nodding and smiling at guests. His destination is the kitchen where he goes with a smile. He walks in when he sees Erik is alone, stepping inside and waiting for him to turn around. Erik turns and looks at him, smiling that secret smile.
"Tea?" Erik asks.
Charles nods and sits down. "Yes please."
As the cup is placed before Charles and Erik is about to move away, Charles catches his hand for the briefest moment, kissing it before swiftly letting it go. He feels a gentle stroke down the back of his head and drinks his tea in peace, for once not bothered by the laughter and music drifting into his quiet from the other end of the house.