He’s known all along that this was a disaster waiting to happen. Even so, it catches him completely unprepared.
It probably doesn’t help that he’s naked except for a towel. Erik’s towel. In Erik’s apartment, where Charles hasn’t been since before he got the summons from MacTaggert to go undercover.
Erik’s apartment, with Erik staring at him stony-faced. Holding out a shiny strip of photobooth prints.
Oh dear god, he kept them. Of all the stupid, reckless things to do –
And the thought that follows, a twist of hope that makes Charles’s heart clench: He didn’t want to let this go. To let me go.
Stupid and reckless of them to take the photos in the first place, but they’d been high on endorphins, giddy with the rush of their new affair. The danger and stupidity of it were part of the thrill, tipping them over from laughing and pulling faces at each other in the photobooth to kissing, and more. Just as well you only got four shots for a quarter. What happened after the kiss would have branded the pictures as pornographic. As it was, the images were insanely compromising: he’d assumed Erik would destroy them, along with all the other traces of their relationship, when Charles accepted the mission to spy on Sebastian Shaw.
“Charles,” Erik says now, quiet and reined-in. “Don’t make me ask you again. What the hell is this?”
“Photographs,” Charles croaks. “From before.” It’s about the most unhelpful thing he could possibly say, but apparently this is all his brain can come up with.
For a moment he thinks Erik’s actually going to hit him. Won’t look good in court, Charles thinks, and then reminds himself they’re still a long way from that. It could be months before Sebastian’s trial comes on, and meanwhile –
Meanwhile, there is Erik, looking at Charles as if he hates him. He’s seen that look before, and hoped never to see it again: in MacTaggert’s office, the moment before he shut off Erik’s memories of the two of them.
He can feel the waves of Erik’s rage and humiliation about everything that’s happened between them. Vivid jolts of memory from the last few days on the road, Erik’s confused and tormented desires for a man he thought was a stranger, and Charles’s teasing and goading in response. And then last night, the two of them finally falling into bed together for what Erik believed was the first time.
Charles feels sick and dizzy; he can’t tell if it’s all his own feelings or if some of it is Erik’s. Either way, the blast of Erik’s rage and hatred is too much, when he’s already weak and exhausted from the strain of going through his testimony with Raven Darkholme and facing the spectre of Sebastian’s vicious counter-accusations. The room is tilting and there’s a ringing in his ears as a wave of cold sweeps over him, and everything goes dark.
His head aches as if it’s going to split. Blotches of colour float across the darkness behind his eyelids. Someone’s shaking his arm, pulling him up off the floor. Draping what feels like a bathrobe around his shoulders, and manoeuvring him into a chair. The other person is angry with him, he can feel that – but the anger is laced with something else. Fear? Concern? He’s not sure.
He opens his eyes reluctantly, and there is Erik, glaring at him and carrying a tray with a bowl of soup on it. He sets the tray down on Charles’s lap and stalks off into the kitchen, returning with another bowl for himself. He doesn’t speak.
Charles has almost no appetite, and the smell of the soup makes him feel faintly queasy, but he does his best to eat, since refusing will clearly make matters worse. Lunch was a long time ago, and he was hardly able to eat anything then.
Erik sits at the table and attacks his soup as if he has a grudge against it. He doesn’t look at Charles. He takes the empty bowl into the kitchen, returns to collect Charles’s tray. A clatter of dishes in the sink. Running water.
Charles looks up at Erik standing in the doorway. He doesn’t have to ask what the question means.
“Before the mission,” Charles says. “Before I went undercover.”
Erik stares at him as if he’s talking gibberish. “You - what?”
“To get the evidence on Shaw,” Charles says. “MacTaggert recruited me. She knew I - used to know him.”
It's just as well he’s sitting down, otherwise the surge of emotion from Erik at that would knock him off his feet.
“So all of this -” Erik gestures to his head. “That was your doing?”
“With your consent,” Charles says. The bitterness of that memory floods through him again. “Your enthusiastic consent. You couldn’t wait to get me wiped from your mind.”
Except he hadn’t done it, had he? He couldn’t bring himself to destroy those memories altogether, even when Erik was standing there furiously saying “Do it.” He’d locked them away in Erik's head, so he could go on kidding himself that maybe when this was all over there could be something between them again. How the hell that was supposed to work, he hadn’t stopped to ask himself - too caught up in the stomach-churning dread of the mission, and the misery of Erik’s rejection. The way he’d looked at Charles as if he didn’t know him, didn’t want to know him any more. As if Charles already belonged to Sebastian.
Charles bites back the words he wants to say, because what good would it do? If you had even once said “Stay with me, don’t do this”...
“My consent?” Erik says, and the contempt in his voice burns cold. “You expect me to believe that?”
“Ask MacTaggert if you don’t believe me,” Charles snaps. “She was standing right there.”
Erik looks like he just stepped on a rake and got the handle full in his face. “She knew?”
“She knew we’d met, that’s all,” Charles says. “She was the one who introduced us in the first place.”
“How long?” Erik demands.
He’s not asking how long they’d been acquainted, Charles knows that.
“Three weeks.” The happiest three weeks of his life, till he got the call from MacTaggert and everything went to hell.
“Three weeks,” Erik echoes, flat and disbelieving. Charles feels his baffled rage at remembering nothing of that time – and then the jarring realization that he had remembered some parts of it. Charles had seen them in his mind in the last few days, flashes of memory that Erik assumed were dreams or fantasies. A fresh wave of anger sweeps over Erik at that: “What the hell did you think you were doing?”
Charles doesn’t have an answer. He’d told himself he could get through the trip with Erik as if they were strangers, that he had to keep his distance. Anything else was unthinkable, in the circumstances. But the shock of waking that morning in the motel, finding himself plunged into that intimate fantasy of Erik’s, had shattered his good intentions. He’d hit back at Erik, in frustration and pain, wanting to make him suffer in his turn. He’d known it was wrong, that he shouldn’t tease and goad Erik, but he couldn’t stop himself. Didn’t want to stop. Because if he stopped, he’d start thinking again about the ordeal ahead of him.
But what started as retaliation rapidly became something more. The more time he spent at close quarters with Erik, the more he wanted him back. Ached for him, his body remembering every press and touch. Wanted a chance to begin again with him, or at least to have the goodbye sex they couldn’t have the first time around. He’d allowed himself this consolation, knowing he shouldn’t, refusing to think about the ethics or the consequences.
“I’m sorry,” he says. Hopelessly inadequate, and he’s not even sure it’s true.
Erik certainly doesn’t believe it. “Is that all you’ve got to say for yourself?”
The question stings, and he flings back his own cold anger. “Apparently.”
Erik clenches his fists, but doesn’t move towards him. “Right,” he says, his voice hard. “I have to deliver you to MacTaggert in the morning. Obviously you know where the bedroom is.”
Charles blanches at the thought of sleeping in Erik’s bed, so haunted by memories that would be even more unbearable now. “I'll take the couch, please.”
“Fine,” Erik says. He disappears into the bedroom, comes back with a heap of bedding which he throws at Charles. “Make your bed.”
Charles curls up on the couch and pulls the blanket over himself, listening to the sounds of doors opening and closing, water running in the bathroom. Doors opening and closing again. He doesn’t try to speak to Erik, and Erik doesn’t speak to him. The bedroom door slams.
Time passes. He's not sure how many hours he’s been lying here, thinking about the impossibility of facing Erik in the morning. The impossibility of facing Raven-as-Shaw. There’s nothing to stay for, when all that lies ahead is failure and defeat. It must be nearly dawn: the air feels colder now. He pushes himself off the couch, leaving the bedding in a tumbled heap behind him, and gets dressed quickly in yesterday’s clothes - his own clothes, which he'd brought in a bag, not the uniform MacTaggert had lent him. He stands for a moment outside Erik’s bedroom door, though he doesn’t know what he's waiting for. It’s not as if there’s anything left to say. Then he lets himself out of the apartment, shutting the door softly behind him. He doesn’t look back.