Erik is rudely awoken in the middle of the night by a soft paw tapping insistently at his mouth. Blinking blearily, he finds a dark, heavy shape perched on his breastbone, utterly unconcerned with the way his little paws are digging painfully into Erik’s chest. The smoldering fire in the hearth casts enough dim light through the room that Erik can see Charles’s bright blue gaze fixed on him, and when their eyes meet, Charles says cheerfully, Oh good, you’re awake. I’m hungry.
Erik groans. “It’s not even — ” He glances at the window, which is utterly dark, with no hints of dawn. “It’s not even morning yet.”
Yes, but I’m hungry now. Charles gives him a plaintive look. He’s gotten very good at the plaintive looks in cat form, all wide pleading eyes and sad downturned ears.
Erik pushes him off his chest so he can breathe more easily and grumbles, “You could go down to the kitchens yourself. Everyone knows what you look like by now — it’s not like you’ll be chased out.”
The other cats are mean to me though, Charles whines. They’ll hiss at me. I don’t like being hissed at. He rubs his face against Erik’s shoulder and emits a low, soft purr. It’s annoyingly convincing.
“Fine,” Erik grouses. Sitting up, he leans over and searches for his boots. “But be quick about it. You know I have to be up early.”
Yes, yes, Charles says impatiently, leaping off the bed. He’s a white blur in the darkness, his fluffy tail twitching back and forth as he waits for Erik to lace up his boots and reach for his cloak. The castle is cold at night, particularly the drafty hallways that lead from the residential wing to the palace proper. Charles used to complain about it all the time, but ever since he’d acquired that thick white coat (and the fuzzy ears, and the tail, and the claws that can and will shred through skin when he’s agitated), he’s never cold anymore.
The corridors are mostly empty at this hour, but two soldiers guard the entrance that transitions from the residential wing to the working palace. The guards here have long since grown accustomed to seeing the captain of the guard and the king walking the halls together at hours when most civilized people are asleep. Even before his unfortunate transformation, the king had always been a night owl. The only difference now is that for the last three weeks, the king has gone from “handsome, charming, and fit” to “fluffy, tiny, and delicate.”
Not delicate, Charles says snootily as he trots at Erik’s heels. He has to hurry to keep up with Erik’s long stride, little paws pattering softly against the wood floor. And you think I’m handsome, charming, and fit? Aw, Erik, I hadn’t thought you’d noticed.
Erik gives him the mental equivalent of a shove, and Charles’s laughter echoes in his head.
The kitchens are on the lower level of the castle, down a set of winding narrow stairs. Charles darts on ahead, no doubt spurred on by the promise of food. At this time of night, the kitchen fires are banked low, and most of the servants are asleep in their quarters. Only a lone kitchen boy dozes by the door, a stick cradled in his folded arms.
He jolts awake when Erik nudges his foot. “Hey! I was — ” When he recognizes Erik, his eyes fly open wide and he shoots to his feet. “Captain! I was just — I — ” His eyes drop to the floor and find Charles practically standing on Erik’s foot. Paling, the boy drops quickly into a low bow. “Your Royal Majesty.”
Watching people bow and pay respect to a cat will never lose its humor. Hiding a grin, Erik says, “His Royal Majesty would like a late-night snack.”
Still, the boy hesitates in the threshold of the door, tapping his stick against the floor. He must be new, Erik thinks — he doesn’t recognize the boy, and anyone who’s worked here for longer than a few days knows the king often pops down at odd hours in search of something to eat. His visits have only become more frequent now that he’s a cat with an endless appetite for treats.
Don’t worry, Charles tells the boy kindly. You won’t be scolded for letting us in. You’re only supposed to guard against thieves, you know, and we aren’t technically thieving.
“Right,” Erik says dryly. “We’re only taking without permission.”
Technically everything in the castle belongs to me, Charles says loftily. To the boy he adds, If Arella tries to scold you, you may tell her to take it up with me.
The head cook has always been extremely particular about her kitchens and she’s known Charles since he was a boy, so she hasn’t got any reservations about rapping him over the knuckles for trying to steal a pastry or two. Charles has confessed to Erik that he’s still slightly afraid of her, and even Erik has to admit that she’s a menace with her wooden spoon. But she won’t punish a lowly kitchen boy for obeying a king’s order. She might just tweak Charles’s ear the next time she lays eyes on him.
“Alright,” the boy says finally, lowering his stick. “I’ll just, er — I’ll be over here.”
As he settles back on the stool by the door, Erik follows Charles deeper into the kitchens. “What do you want? There’s probably leftovers from dinner.”
That roast beef was divine, Charles replies, head lifted to sniff at the air as he winds his way past the stoves. I wonder if there’s any left. Oh, and the fish! I’ve never had salmon so tender — Arella truly outdid herself tonight.
A couple of the kitchen cats watch them suspiciously as they pass, and one does hiss at Charles, who hisses back, his already fluffy tail puffing up further. He presses up against Erik’s legs, ears laid back, and Erik scoops him up and says, “Look at you. So brave.”
I could take them in a fight, Charles sulks, clutching at Erik’s shoulder.
Erik snorts. “Of course you can.”
With Erik there, the kitchen cats aren’t interested in trying their luck against Charles. They only watch grumpily as Erik pokes through the pantry at Charles’s instruction. Oooh the tuna, Charles says, claws digging into Erik’s arm as he sniffs at the shelves. Yes, let me have a lick of that.
“The cook is going to kill us if she finds out you licked the tuna,” Erik says sternly, but he opens the tin anyway.
You’re right, Charles muses. Well we’d better take it all then.
Rolling his eyes, Erik lets Charles lap at the tuna for a few seconds, then shuts the tin again and keeps it in hand. A quick circuit through the rest of the kitchen reveals leftover roast beef (Charles greedily licks the taste from Erik’s fingers after Erik tucks away a slice for later), a bit of salmon (leave it, Charles says regretfully, there’s not enough for us to take without Arella noticing), and a tray of honeycakes that Charles nearly goes mad over. Erik rakes a few of them into his arms as well.
Let’s go, Charles says, leaping off Erik’s shoulder to lead the way to the door. I’m starving.
Back in the king’s residence, Erik spreads the small feast out on the floor for Charles to pick over. Charles makes soft, pleased noises as he eats, occasionally pausing to offer Erik a taste of whatever he’s nibbling. Erik shakes his head with a huff every time. He might have sworn his life to Charles as a boy, but he absolutely draws the line at sharing his cat food.
It’s strange how normal this has become over the last three weeks. Perhaps Charles has always resembled a cat in some way: he’s always been physically affectionate, fond of napping, demanding, and — Erik admits this reluctantly — adorable. As a cat, he’s only become more of all those things, and Erik is continuously amazed by how naturally Charles has taken to being cursed. He almost seems to enjoy it sometimes.
Mmm. Charles sits by Erik’s knee and licks his whiskers. That was so good. Thank you, Erik.
“My pleasure,” Erik says dryly. “Now may I please go back to bed?”
Charles flies into bed like an arrow. Hiding his fond exasperation, Erik slides in beside him, tucking an arm around Charles when Charles curls up to his chest. If anyone wonders why the captain of the guard spends so much time in the king’s bedchambers instead of his own, they haven’t asked. Most likely they assume something sordid happens every night behind closed doors, but the reality is much less salacious — Charles and Erik have shared chambers since they were boys, since Erik was sworn in as Charles’s protector and future captain of his guard, and they don’t sleep well anymore when they’re apart. So this, even with Charles as a newly small, fluffy bundle, is as natural as anything to them.
Let’s sleep in, Charles murmurs, his eyes shut tight as he butts his head up against Erik’s collarbone.
“Did His Royal Majesty forget he has a meeting with the Economic Council in the morning?” Erik replies.
Charles’s low mewl of displeasure makes him laugh.
Being a cat is, surprisingly, not terrible.
For one thing, his senses are wonderfully heightened, which means he hears and senses people he wants to avoid long before they come anywhere near him. For another thing, his newfound smallness makes it laughably easy to squeeze into tiny hiding spots, especially nooks and crannies where no one would even think to look for the king of Westchester. Everyone is very kind to him, prone to slipping him treats and snacks when he gives them suitably pitiful looks, and even those lords and ladies of his court who would normally glower at him seem to have soften, perhaps because they realize how ridiculous they would seem, glaring and muttering at a cat.
Best of all though, in Charles’s opinion, is the fact that he now has an excuse to snuggle in bed with Erik every night.
They’ve slept in the same bedchamber since Charles was eight and Erik was ten, but always in separate beds. Ever since Charles turned fifteen and realized with a shock that Erik was attractive, he’d contrived a hundred different ways to slide casually into Erik’s bed — he could pretend he was cold, he could make excuses about nightmares, he could say nothing at all and simply see how Erik reacted — but he had never actually worked up the courage to do anything.
But ever since he’d been cursed (or blessed, Charles thinks sometimes), it’s been the most natural thing in the world to curl up in Erik’s bed with him, tucked under his arm against his chest. Cats snuggle with people in bed all the time, don’t they? If Erik ever asked, Charles would simply claim some irresistible cat-like instinct to seek out warmth.
But Erik never asks. He accepts Charles into his bed without a word, and a thrill fires through Charles from head to tail every time he puts out an arm to gather Charles closer.
For the last few weeks, the king’s sorcerers, Hank chief among them, have been working tirelessly to find a way to reverse the curse, but Charles privately hopes they take their sweet time. He’s quite content to remain exactly as he is for now.
That evening as Erik prepares for bed, Charles lounges on the blankets and pretends to lick his paws while really staring avidly at Erik’s muscular back as he changes into his sleep clothes. Erik had been so thin as a boy that Arella had regularly forced him to take second helpings at every meal — she’d been practically offended by his skinniness, as if it reflected some personal failing on her part. But Erik’s filled out since: his shoulders are broad and strong, he’s developed a frame of lean muscle, and he’s got long legs that Charles has spent years dreaming about having wrapped around his waist. As far as Charles is concerned, he’s the most beautiful creature in existence. And as a cat, Charles is perfectly poised to stare at him without overtly leering.
“I’m kicking you out of my bed if you cough up another hairball on my pillow,” Erik tells him as he sits down on the bed.
That was one time, Charles replies with a sniff. And I only threw it up on your pillow because I didn’t know what was happening. I know better now. He licks his front paw and wipes it over his face and ears. Besides, you thought it was funny.
“I thought it was disgusting.”
But you laughed.
“Only because you looked so appalled at yourself.” Erik reaches over and tugs at Charles’s ear.
I just cleaned that! Charles complains, aggrieved. As he starts to comb over that ear again with his paw, Erik laughs softly, picks him up, and deposits him further up the bed by his pillow. Then he crawls into bed, stretches out, and lifts his arm to make space for Charles to curl up against his side. His heart swelling with warmth, Charles happily takes the invitation.
Sometimes as a human, he’d had trouble falling asleep, his mind filled with concerns about some conflict or another he’d encountered that day, various plans for the upcoming day, or thoughts about Erik, who featured in most of his nighttime musings. But now as a cat, he doesn’t have any problems falling asleep at all; he merely tucks into a neat ball, wraps his tail around himself, closes his eyes, and he’s off.
Some unguessable amount of time later, he wakes with a shiver, uneasy for reasons he can’t immediately name. Lifting his head groggily, he finds himself still curled up against Erik’s side, except…except Erik is awake and staring at him with enough shock that Charles is half-certain he’s somehow spontaneously transformed into something else. Alarmed, he looks down at himself and lets out a strangled yelp when he realizes he’s very human, and very naked.
“I’m — ” His voice emerges as a croak, so he clears his throat and tries again. “I’m back?”
“It would seem so,” Erik says stiffly.
With Erik pressed so close, Charles can hardly mistake the emotions radiating off Erik’s mind: surprise, disbelief, horror, and the overpowering instinct to get away. He isn’t unaffected by Charles lying naked in his arms — no, he’s revolted by it.
Suddenly trembling, Charles grabs for the top blanket and drags it off the bed with him as he scrambles away. Wrapping the blanket around himself, he says, “I should — I’ll get dressed.”
“Charles — ”
Thank the gods it’s dark because he knows his humiliation is written all over his face. Of course Erik doesn’t feel the same way, sneers a cold voice in the back of his head. He would have said something if he did — he’s nothing if not brutally honest. And now he’s made it clearer than ever that you’re the last person he would ever want sharing his bed.
Trying to ignore the way his eyes are stinging, Charles makes a beeline for his wardrobe and fumbles out trousers and a shirt. As he dresses, he hears the bedsheets rustle as Erik rises and feels Erik’s mind approach, like a beacon coming near. A moment later, Erik’s hand finds his shoulder, a touch that Charles would normally have welcomed, but now makes his skin prickle with shame.
“Perhaps Hank’s spells finally worked,” Charles says, struggling to keep his tone light. “I ought to go see him — he’ll know what’s going on — ”
As he turns away, Erik’s hand tightens on his shoulder. “You’re acting strange.”
Abruptly angry, Charles wrenches away from his touch. “I just spent the last four weeks as a bloody cat, Erik. Forgive me if I’m slightly off-balance.”
“Well — let me get my boots, I’ll go with you.”
“No need,” Charles growls. He scours the floor for his own boots and shoves them on roughly once he finds them. As he’s doing up the laces, Erik asks quietly, “Did you…see something in my mind when you woke up?”
Charles freezes. After a second, he forces his fingers to keep working, looping one lace into a bow, then the other. “No. Why?”
He wraps his telepathy up tightly, not wanting to see what lies Erik’s concocting to try to spare his feelings. But of course Erik won’t spare his feelings, he’ll be painfully blunt, won’t he? He’s always painfully blunt, even when he knows Charles doesn’t want to hear it.
“I thought you might have seen how I felt.” Erik hesitates, and when Charles dares to glance over at him, his expression is wary and uncertain. “About you.”
Charles resolutely pays no attention to the sharp pain in his chest. It’s not unlike what he imagines being stabbed in the heart feels like. “I saw enough,” he says coldly. “I don’t want to see any more.”
Erik stiffens. “I see.”
He should leave it at that. He knows he should. But Charles can’t help but attempt a parting shot, for the sake of his pride.
“Honestly, Erik,” he says as he strides for the door, “if the thought of seeing me naked disgusts you so much, your own chambers are right down the hall. I’ll thank you to retire to them from now on.”
He’s out of the bedroom and halfway toward the doors to his suite when Erik catches up to him, grabbing him by the arm so firmly that Charles is jerked to a halt. “Let me go,” Charles snaps, whirling on him, just as Erik seizes him by the shoulders and demands, “You think I’m disgusted by seeing you naked?”
His eyes are so wild that Charles is stunned out of his anger. Confused by his vehemence, Charles stammers, “That’s — that’s what you were thinking — ”
“I wasn’t thinking that,” Erik says, his tone thick with relief that Charles doesn’t understand.
“But you — you were horrified. You wanted me to get out — ”
“Because I was worried you’d overhear my thoughts!”
“Thoughts about what?”
“About how much I fucking want you!” Erik shouts.
He gives Charles a small shake that seems to rattle Charles’s very bones. Utterly dazed, Charles simply stares at him for a long, confounded moment. Then he says faintly, “Pardon me?”
Erik makes a low, frustrated sound in his throat. “You really are very stupid sometimes, aren’t you?”
“I’m the king,” Charles says weakly. “You can’t speak to me that way.”
“I’ve known you since you were a boy. I’ll speak to you any way I like.”
Charles barks out an incredulous laugh. “This is how you’re choosing to tell me that you’re — what, attracted to me?”
Erik harrumphs. “This is how I’m choosing to tell you that I love you.”
Charles sways. Of all the things that have happened to him in the last four weeks, this ranks far above everything else in terms of shocking unexpectedness. Even being unceremoniously turned into a cat hadn’t left him as poleaxed as the revelation that Erik loves him.
“You don’t have to say anything,” Erik says rigidly. “In fact, it’s probably best that you don’t. I’d rather not know — ”
“You’d rather not know that I’ve been in love with you since I was fifteen?”
Now Erik’s the one left gaping.
Charles laughs shakily. “I thought it was obvious. I’ve spent so much time staring at you, I was sure you’d noticed. I just thought you were too polite to say anything about it.”
“I…noticed,” Erik says slowly. “I didn’t think it meant anything.”
“Now who’s stupid?”
Erik snorts. “You’re still stupider.”
“I am the king,” Charles says in exasperation.
“You’re still stupider, Your Royal Majesty.”
Charles can’t stand it any longer — he leaps at Erik with a cry of aggravation, and Erik catches him neatly in his arms, spinning him round with a laugh. “You — you wanker,” Charles gasps out, feeling like a fire has ignited in his chest, spilling warmth through every inch of him. “You’ve been in love with me this whole time and you never said?”
“You never did either,” Erik murmurs, his gaze fixed on Charles’s.
“I thought…” Charles has a dozen excuses on his tongue, every one of them as ridiculous as the rest in retrospect. Gods above, he should have known. He should have known. “We wasted so much time.”
Erik’s eyes smolder. “We can make up for that.”
At that moment, dawn’s first light begins to seep in through the open shutters on the windows. The light is so lovely and romantic, and Charles can’t imagine a better setting for their first kiss — for his first kiss ever. So he leans forward, shuts his eyes, and —
— and feels the world lurch strangely, as if someone’s somehow reached inside him, taken a hold of his intestines, and started wrenching them around like laundry. The sensation is so nauseating that he has to squeeze his eyes shut and clench his teeth to keep from doubling over and vomiting all over Erik, which would no doubt put an end to any and all thoughts of romance.
When he opens his eyes again, Erik is suddenly very, very tall, and the world around him is suddenly very, very big.
“Oh nooo,” Charles moans, except what comes out is an extremely petulant, “Meoooow.”
“This is inconvenient,” Erik says, staring down at him in consternation. After a moment, he reaches down and gathers Charles up into his arms. “I think we’re due to see McCoy.”
I agree, Charles says miserably. His first kiss! Foiled! The audacity of it all.
“Take heart,” Erik says, stroking him soothingly. “You’re still adorable.”
I am not adorable!
“No, of course not. You’re very fierce and brave and — ” Erik kisses his nose “ — not at all an adorable little creature.”
You are very lucky I now have a vested interest in keeping your handsome face intact, Charles sulks. Take me to Hank so he can fix this already.
“Yes, sire,” says Erik solemnly, and no one bats an eye as he carries Charles Xavier, High King of Westchester, through the halls of the castle on his shoulder, shedding long white furs all along the way.