It’s funny, really, Erik decides. Humorous. It’s been years since he had any difficulty keeping his mind in order, retaining the useful parts of the monster that Schmidt created and locking the rest up tightly. He never speaks of it, rarely thinks of it; what does it matter if the contamination is in his mind alone, where it can never hurt anyone, where no one will ever know?
Until Charles, of course—that’s the part that’s amusing. The hot spark in his gut when Charles is yanking his sodden sweater up over his head in the infirmary on the ship, his crooked mouth, his narrow wrists, his shoulders, splattered with freckles, his mind, Erik reminds himself, tangled up with Erik’s, listening, listening. Knowing.
It’s not what you think, Erik wants to say. He’s well aware of what a spineless, craven lie that would sound like to Charles, so he says nothing. He wants to explain: he doesn’t normally have any difficulty controlling those thoughts; even years ago they had been only a mild annoyance, a distraction that he ruthlessly ignored until he—well. He had started to think it had gone away, that perhaps he’d grown out of it, that the perversion that Schmidt’s tortures had created in him had faded away. Could Charles see any of that, Erik wonders, or does he only see what Erik is thinking in the moment, unbidden, unwelcome—the way Charles leans across him to hit an elevator button, his elbow catching against Erik’s sleeve, the boundless elastic energy of his body, the—
Of course he would never betray Charles’ friendship: admit to his depravity, attempt to touch him. That’s all that ever mattered, before he met Charles, and now it doesn’t matter in the least, because Charles must hear him, every time, the formless warmth in his chest when Charles touches his wrist, warning him away from the sloppy joes in the cafeteria, the entire minute he spends thinking of the soft crease of Charles’ lower lip before he remembers and forces himself to stop.
Charles says nothing. Erik waits, with something like dread, for the price of Charles’ silence. He’s very kind, Erik realizes, finally. He hasn’t been the recipient of true kindness very often. Charles wants so much of him, expects everything of him, but he won’t use Erik’s deviance against him.
Charles must frequently be subject to distasteful thoughts, Erik knows. He must be so used to it as to hardly notice. Charles gets headaches with worrying regularity, always brushing away Erik’s concern with a self-deprecating insistence that he should have been more careful. Erik imagines Charles, wearily deflecting Erik’s lust, unable to escape, and feels ashamed. He does what he can to control himself and fails, often, stomach lurching helplessly when Charles smiles at him, the thread of curling, breathless want underneath every conversation that he can’t crush out of himself, no matter how he tries.
But Charles ignores it, so Erik, grateful, does the same.
It’s all in his head, Erik knows this. But. Charles always seems to—once they’re at his home in Westchester, it almost appears as though Charles wants to tempt him into some admission of guilt.
Charles slouches in his chair, shirt unbuttoned enough that Erik can see the hollow of his throat, the wings of his collarbones. He touches Erik, the back of his wrist, his shoulder, once, a glancing brush of his fingertips along the back of Erik’s neck, just at the hairline, passing by him at the breakfast table.
They talk, long after everyone is asleep, and Charles’ half-drowsy eyes, his rumpled clothes, look like an open invitation.
It is unlike Charles to be cruel, but then, Erik thinks, how well does he truly know what Charles is, what Charles is like. He has only his idea of Charles. For all he knows, Charles is waiting for him to humiliate himself.
“You can stop this,” Erik says, eventually. They ran together, in the afternoon, chasing each other up over the hills, Charles whipping his t-shirt up over his head and tucking it into the back of his shorts, grinning at him, a challenge. Erik looked away. They played chess, this evening, Charles smiling at him fondly, sprawled back in his chair, thumb rubbing against his lower lip until Erik could hardly concentrate on his next move. And then Charles, standing in the doorway of his bedroom, one shoulder against the door jamb, the glow of his bedside table lamp behind him and Erik can’t keep silent any longer.
“Stop—what?” Charles says.
“This isn’t necessary,” Erik says. “I’ll go. I can be packed and gone before lunch tomorrow.”
“I—but, why—” Charles begins, looking honestly hurt, and this goads Erik into bitterness.
“You had only to ask me to leave,” he says. “I know you have no reason to have a high opinion of me, but I would hope you wouldn’t think that I would prey on your—the. the boys.”
“I don’t understand,” Charles says, bewildered. “I don’t want you to leave.”
“Then why do you insist on trying to provoke me into—into—” Erik chokes off. Charles must know already, all the depraved thoughts Erik has had of him, all the ways Erik has thought of Charles’ hands on him, his mouth, but Erik can’t say it aloud, can’t watch disgust chase across Charles’ face at the way Erik would pervert their friendship. “I know it must repulse you and I am sorry for that,” Erik says. “I would never have bothered you with any of it. I didn’t mean for you to know.”
“I’m afraid there’s been a terrible misunderstanding,” Charles says, after a moment.
“I know,” Erik says. “It wasn’t my intention to mislead you. I know that doesn’t excuse—”
“I don’t want you to leave,” Charles says. “I’ve been trying to—what did you think, that I’d throw you out if you touched me?”
“A reasonable response to having a—homosexual in a house with children.”
“But you’re not interested in children,” Charles says.
“No, but—you can’t say you’d truly trust me with Alex or Hank.”
“Of course I would,” Charles says. “I do.”
Erik stares at him; he doesn’t believe him. He barely trusts himself around the boys, always on guard against the moment he’ll start to see them as he sees Charles, that he won’t be able to help himself, that he’ll hurt them in some way. He can’t stand the idea of it, the disappointment in Charles’ face if something were to happen.
“Hm,” Charles says. “Perhaps not in the hallway,” and then he steps backwards, out of the doorway and deeper into the room, and Erik follows him as though he has no choice.
There’s a bureau, cluttered with cufflinks and papers and pill bottles and books, there’s Charles’ suitcase, still only half unpacked, there’s a bedside table—more books, more papers, an alarm clock, and there’s the bed, which is big and not very neatly made.
Charles takes off his watch and puts it on the dresser.
“Sit down,” he says, but there’s nowhere to sit but the bed, so Erik stands, waiting. It’s been a long time since he cared for anyone’s good opinion of him. He thinks of what Charles wants to say to him, in private, of what Charles must have had to endure from him, these last weeks, the intrusive press of lustful thoughts Erik hasn’t been able to contain, the few times he’s broken down and allowed himself to—to think of touching Charles, the once he put his own fingers in his mouth and allowed himself to imagine they belonged to Charles. Perhaps Charles has been listening to him, all this time, but won’t make him leave as long as he can quell—
“Erik,” Charles says.
“This would be a bit less awkward for me if you would look at me,” Charles says.
“I said I was sorry,” Erik says. “If you don’t want me to leave, I can try to do better—”
“Better at what?”
“At—I don’t know what you want from me,” Erik says.
“I’d like to take you to bed,” Charles says. “Forgive me, I had thought I was being very obvious.”
“But,” Erik says. Charles takes off his cufflinks and drops them in the dish on his dresser and takes a step towards Erik, who takes an instinctive step back. The backs of his legs hit the bed and he loses his balance and has to sit. The down comforter puffs softly under him.
“What do you think?” Charles says.
“I think you slept with a woman in Arizona,” Erik says.
“Yes,” Charles says.
“You’re not a homosexual,” Erik says. Charles smiles, a little wryly.
“You can’t possibly imagine that it’s as simple as all that,” he says.
“I don’t—I try not to think of it very much at all,” Erik says. It’s exactly as simple as that, as far as he can tell; he’s tried to want women and it’s been a humiliating, isolated failure of his body, which is, in all other ways, subservient to his wishes.
“That’s a shame,” Charles says.
“It’s unnatural,” Erik mutters, choking down another apology; Charles doesn’t appear to want one.
“Well,” Charles says. “If you take unnatural to mean statistically unlikely, then that is certainly not the case.”
“How do you mean?”
“I hear people’s thoughts about whom they’d like to fuck,” Charles says, almost carelessly. “I can assure you that homosexuality isn’t especially unusual.”
“Acting on it is,” Erik grinds out and Charles just smiles again, this time very gently, and shakes his head.
“Oh,” Erik says. “So you’ve been listening to me.” It’s nothing he didn’t already know, he’s sure it’s nothing Charles isn’t used to, but it’s still an effort to force the words out.
“Not listening, not on purpose,” Charles says. “But I can feel how you—well,” his cheeks are faintly pink. “It’s been extremely distracting.”
“Fine, right,” Erik says, not wanting to hear more about how poorly he’s controlled himself. “What do you want to—to do to me?”
“Whatever you like,” Charles says. “What do you like?”
“I don’t,” Erik says. His pulse is pounding in his throat. “I’ve never—”
“Ah,” Charles says. “But would you like to?”
Erik doesn’t trust himself to reply, but he manages a nod.
“All right,” Charles says. He’s unbuttoning his shirt, but still has on his undershirt beneath it. Then he slips the shirt off his shoulders and throws it on the floor of his closet, sits down next to Erik on the bed. Erik feels hot; his mouth is dry. “You really don’t have to,” Charles says.
“I know that,” Erik snaps. “You’re the one who doesn’t have to do this. It won’t be—” he hesitates, thinking of all the pretty girls and—boys, he supposes—Charles has undoubtedly fucked. “—very interesting for you.”
“It’s rather interesting so far,” Charles says. His thigh nudges up against Erik’s. “Come over here,” he says, and Erik complies as though Charles has taken control of his body, his mind.
They kiss, sprawled out on the bed. Charles’ skin is hot through the thin undershirt, and after a little while he sits up and pulls it off and comes down half on top of Erik, his trousers slipping low.
“Your shirt,” he says, as Erik is fitting his hands cautiously around his hips. “I’d like to see you.”
Erik sits up and yanks his shirt off over his head, self-conscious at how easily this business comes to Charles, who is flushed and relaxed, watching Erik with a soft little grin on his face.
“Do you want my mouth?” Erik says, before he loses his nerve. Charles pulls back, eyebrows lifting curiously. “I saw it in a movie,” Erik mutters. A rundown blue movie house in Brazil where he’d been killing time waiting for a contact, flickering screen, dirty floors. It had disgusted him at the time, sitting alone in the back of the theater, hard inside his trousers, watching.
“You needn’t,” Charles begins, and then very clearly changes his mind and slides off Erik, rolling to his back.
It’s harder than the movie made it look. Charles guides him, a few fingers on his cheek, his jaw, threading slowly through his hair.
“You want me to finish in your mouth?” Charles says, his voice low. Erik has been concentrating on sucking him, trying not to appear as the amateur he is, but he can’t help looking up at Charles at that, and Charles’ eyes are dark, a little strained. “No,” Charles says, and then “I think—come up here, I’d like—what about your hand?”
Charles flings an arm around his shoulders, drawing him close; they’re kissing again, Charles’ mouth soft and very disorganized under his, shuddering open as Erik tightens his hand around his cock. He wants to look at Charles’ body, the drawn-taut lines of his shoulders and hips, the convulsive jog of his throat, his cock, but he can’t stop kissing him, his mouth and jaw, the hollow of his neck, which makes Charles jerk against him, his mouth opened in a sigh.
Charles’ hand meets his on his cock. “Here, like this,” he murmurs, his fingers tangling with Erik’s for a moment, correcting his grip and then thrusting up into it, eyes unfocused, hair falling into his eyes, coming hard into Erik’s hand.
“Come here,” he says afterwards, pushing himself up on his elbow and waiting for Erik to slide over the bed towards him. He opens Erik’s belt slowly, almost lazily, watching his face, very intent. “You’ll stop me if I do something you don’t like,” he says, but Erik likes everything he does, Charles’ hands on him, the way he looks at him. Charles kisses him, and then licks his hand and jerks him off, not rough, but his hand is tight, overwhelming, and Erik comes before he’d like to, still stunned by the idea of Charles touching him, allowing himself to be touched.
Charles sprawls back on the bed, after, sighing with satisfaction. Erik gets up and cleans himself off in the bathroom, fetches Charles back a wet washcloth.
“I should,” he says, watching Charles wipe off his hand, his stomach, kick his trousers down off his ankles. “I should—”
Charles smiles at him, eyes bright. “You should stay.”
Erik takes a step towards the bed before some logic reasserts itself. “It's not safe,” he says.
“How d’you mean?” Charles says. He flips down the covers and climbs underneath, punching his pillow into place. It’s a big bed, and Charles slides to one side. There’s quite a lot of room left.
“The childrens’ bedrooms,” Erik explains. He’s gotten his shirt on and tucked back in properly, smoothed down his hair. “They could see me leaving in the morning.”
“And they might. well,” Erik says.
Charles shrugs. “I don't mind.” He looks at Erik and his languor fades a little. His voice is low when he speaks again. “But you mind.”
“It’s—I don't want to expose them—”
“I think they know homosexuals exist,” Charles says dryly.
“Charles,” Erik says. “It’s not—you don’t understand.”
“I think I understand you very well,” Charles says. “A harmless inclination, well-documented to exist since the dawn of civilisation, mustn’t be spoken of, even amongst friends, but wholly unknown mutations which could pose significant dangers to humanity in the wrong hands, those mutations should be openly—”
“Really,” Charles says, sounding unimpressed.
“They look up to you,” Erik says shortly. “It’s inappropriate to influence them towards—abnormal desires.”
“Oh,” Charles says. “You—you’ve made me feel like such a hypocrite, these last weeks,” his mouth is twisted into a sad shape but his voice is low and furious. “But it turns out I wasn’t as much of a hypocrite as you’ve turned out to be.”
“I’m sorry,” Erik says, leaden. “I never intended—”
“Really, don’t bother,” Charles says carelessly. “I’d rather go to bed with someone who’s not ashamed of me when he’s finished screwing.”
“No,” Erik says. “That’s, Charles, I’m not—”
“I think you should leave now,” Charles says.
“Of course, if that’s what—of course,” Erik says. He takes his shoes and sweater and goes back to his room. He showers. He puts on his pajamas and brushes his teeth. He sleeps.
Charles knocks on his door well before breakfast; it could be anyone, Erik tells himself, but he knows it’s Charles, and has to take a steadying breath before opening the door.
“Good morning,” Charles says. He’s wearing a jacket and tie, loosely knotted, and Erik thinks about what his mouth felt like, brushing across Erik’s, what his hands felt like tugging open his clothes before reminding himself, ruthlessly, that Charles has little interest in doing any such thing again, that Charles might have come along to ask him to clear out after all.
“Good morning,” he says.
“I’d, ah—” Charles is staring at his left shoulder, eyes a little blank, and then he jerks his eyes up to Erik’s face and says, crisply “I’d like to apologize. I said some things that were not entirely fair and I allowed my personal feelings to—anyhow, I brought you these.”
It’s a stack of periodicals and a few books. Erik takes them in nerveless hands.
“Thank you,” he says.
“I really am sorry,” Charles says. “I hope you can—”
“It’s fine,” Erik says. “We’ll just—forget about it.”
“If that’s what you want,” Charles says and Erik thinks of how much he wishes it had never happened, that he’d never said anything, that he hadn’t let Charles touch him that way, and then sees Charles cut his eyes away, mouth flattening.
“Ah,” he says. “Of course. It’s forgotten.”
Erik reads the legal texts first, and the biology research.
Schmidt used to give him textbooks occasionally, a reward he gulped down whole: engineering and physics, mathematics and architecture. Erik knows how to build a bomb, a bridge, a skyscraper, but—psychology. Studying people, asking intrusive questions, turning them inside out for nothing, for curiosity, experimenting on them; Erik’s had enough of that to last a lifetime.
He reads everything, carefully, in his room; it’s nothing he has any kind of background in, but he’s not stupid, he’s able to understand it well enough, and he sees what Charles must think of him all too quickly, with painful clarity; a backwards, ignorant fool. Dummkopf, he tells himself.
Then the novels, his hands lingering over the thumbed pages, the chapters Charles must have returned to, more than once.
He doesn’t want to look at the magazines, some of them years old, the articles occasionally annotated in Charles' illegible scrawl. He doesn’t want to think about any of it anymore, the way that there’s no discernible difference in the way that Charles dresses or speaks to him or looks at him except that he’s no longer available in the way he was; he’s closed up shop. Dummkopf. Erik makes himself look at the magazines, every page.
There’s a pamphlet folded into the back of one of the magazines; seven mimeographed pages stapled together, creased, worn smooth at the edges, blurred purple text: instructions. Diagrams, or. Illustrations, not explicit, but enough detail that Erik feels his cheeks getting hot as he turns the pages over.
He’d thought—honestly, it had seemed as though Charles couldn’t help it, the way he’d smiled at Erik, or looked him over when they met outside their hotel doors in the morning, the warm approval in his eyes almost unbearable. Erik refolds the pamphlet neatly, places it back where he found it.
He understands now: Charles’ attention, his affection, was intentional: a gift. One Erik had thrown away without a second thought.
The night before they’re to fly to Cuba, when he knows he can put it off no longer, Erik knocks on Charles’ door. It’s very late, but Charles answers immediately.
“You should be in bed,” Erik says. Charles is still dressed, although he’s down to shirtsleeves, barefoot.
“As should you,” Charles says.
“I only—I wanted to return these to you,” Erik says, lifting the books. “Thank you for. I wanted to say I was in error.”
“You’re welcome,” Charles says.
“You were very kind,” Erik says, “to me.” He can barely get the words out, choking on them, on the memory of Charles’ hands on his face, his thumb against the corner of lip, guiding him, of Charles rolling him back against the bed and kissing him, his mouth, his throat, taking him in hand. “And I acted without regard for you—”
“Erik,” Charles says, the glimmer of a wistful smile on his lips. “You read them?”
“Yes, of course.”
“It wasn’t required,” Charles says.
“You gave them to me.”
“I see,” Charles says.
“I was ill-informed,” Erik says, trying to get in the rest of the apology, "a—blockhead."
“Hm,” Charles says thoughtfully. “So—perhaps next time, you could give me the benefit of the doubt.”
“Yes, I, yes. I will, of course,” Erik says. “I’ll do that.”
“You should get some rest,” Charles says, but he doesn’t close the door until Erik nods and turns away down the corridor.
“Why’d you take the helmet off?” Charles asks, later.
They’d been back in Westchester before dinner. Erik wasn’t hungry, but Alex and Raven had grimly cobbled together a dinner of corned beef sandwiches and sliced oranges and Cokes and they’d all eaten together in the kitchen, talking of nothing much, long silent pauses. No one seemed to expect Erik to say anything. Charles had stopped him in the hallway before he could go to his room, drawn him into his bedroom. Erik had followed him, sitting awkwardly on the edge of Charles’ bed while Charles puttered around the room, tidying a little, brushing his teeth.
“I don’t know,” Erik says.
“Thank you for—”
“It wasn’t because of your rhetorical gifts,” Erik says. He’d almost sent the bombs back at the ships, but then he hadn’t, that was all.
Charles winces. "Yes, that's obvious," he says. "Not my best work, really." He smiles ruefully around his toothbrush. Erik curls his fingers into Charles’ soft bedspread.
“I didn’t have a noble motive, I can assure you,” he says.
“Of course not,” Charles says. He goes back into his bathroom to rinse his mouth, and Erik hears the rattle of his toothbrush in the cup, no time to organize his thoughts before Charles comes back.
“They would have killed us today,” Erik says. “Do you expect they won’t come for us again?”
“They can try,” Charles says. A non-answer. Charles straightens some papers and manila folders on a desk, stacks a few teacups and plates on a tray, places it on the table by the door, and then turns abruptly.
“What?” he says, his eyebrows jerking up nearly to his hairline.
“Nothing,” Erik says.
“Sorry, page what?”
“I didn’t say anything,” Erik says.
“May I—” Charles lifts his hand towards his temple.
“No,” Erik says, and then, horrifyingly, mumbles, “page five.”
“I see,” Charles says.
“It’s nothing, I’m overtired,” Erik says quickly. “I should—” but Charles’ gaze swings around to the stack of books on the table just inside the door.
“Oh,” he says. It seems to take him quite some time to push aside the other books, and start to flip through the magazines, opening one and then another. Erik considers whether he’d rather be talking about the beach, the bombs, the humans who hated and distrusted them, Shaw’s death, which he had always believed would be the end of his own life, as well. He thought he’d be—at peace; he hadn’t thought he’d be sitting, mortified, in his sock feet in Charles Xavier’s bedroom, watching him carefully page through a crumpled pamphlet. “Oh,” Charles says again, his face remarkably unreadable.
“Um,” Erik says, intelligently.
“Which way were you thinking?” Charles says, gesturing a little, in a way that Erik only wishes he found impossible to decipher.
“Either,” Erik tries to say, and has to clear his throat before he can continue. “Either way, whichever you think is—best.”
“Maybe we’ll try it both ways,” Charles says. He’s stripping his shirt off over his head, taking off his watch.
“That’s quite ambitious,” Erik says, just as Charles steps between his legs and cups one hand under his jaw, leans down and kisses him hungrily.
“Just think of all we can accomplish if we work together,” he says.