"I've just the cure for hangovers." Charles holds himself against the edge of Erik's door, not quite confident in his knees. He's almost shivering, somewhere between hungry and sick, and he slumps into Erik's room, sitting on the edge of his bed.
"I'm not surprised," Erik says, rolling over on his side to look at Charles, the bed sinking under his changing weight. "You must have perfected it by now."
"I'm too – too much for sarcasm right now," Charles says, rubbing his face. "I'm taking everything at face value, just so you know. Everything."
"You're an imbecile," Erik says, twisting in his sheets.
"Good," Charles says, squeezing the bridge of his nose, leaning his head in his hands. "I must be."
Erik breathes in the dust of his pillows, huffing into cotton. "Go on, then."
"Follow me," Charles says, slapping at any body part he can find; Erik's thigh, his hip, his side.
The sun spills through the curtains white and thick as custard. Hot, cloying, and absolutely everywhere. Sticky in the backs of their bare knees as Erik staggers out of bed, yawning and itching in yesterday's clothes, Oxford cotton shirt and wrinkled trousers. Charles is only in his underwear, small shorts and a scratch of hair in the middle of his chest and at the lip of his shorts. It's too early, it's as hot as fresh coffee, it's the worst feeling in the world. Let the world see him naked.
They stumble outside and barefoot to the gravel path, Erik following Charles in stuttered steps and hissing pain when he treads on sharp stone.
"You'll get used to it," Charles says. "You run and you play and your feet harden like stone, petrified wood. I used to have these friends in school, snotty little boys who summered in India or South Africa or Canada or wherever their fathers held title, and for the first month of term they'd lad about barefoot without a care, their feet as thick as leather from playing outside. I used to run laps around the house on this gravel just so I could match them." Charles grits his teeth and keeps walking down the stone pavement as Erik follows him in the grass. "There was this enormously steep rock on the grounds, and if you could climb it barefoot you were held in great esteem. By October none of us could do it, but I made sure I could it in September, or what's a summer for?"
Erik smiles, hides it behind a hand swiped to his brow. "Indeed."
Charles stops, yawns. "I'm sure you could undo me with a single story. How you spent summers minding the family store until some awful German broke all your teeth. How some Hapsburg prince chopped off both your legs for having brown eyes and a tendency towards Sabbath prayer. Go on, go on, I can take it."
Erik undoes the buttons of his shirt, pulls it off in a sharp tug and leaves it in a pile in the grass. His chest is warm with sun, no freckles, and strong in the collars and the lines of his ribs. He undoes the button of his day-old trousers and wriggles out of them until he's as helpless as Charles, almost naked and as broad as a Michelangelo marble. "We used to play in the old mill. We'd run after each other, diving into old bags of flour. We'd come out at night as white as ghosts, with hair like an old man's. We'd take our baths and then run after each other in the streets. No shoes." Erik shrugs, rolling his arms, shrugging the cracking tendons in his bare shoulders so all the muscles stand out, flexing and twitching like cogs in a machine. "I could climb your rock, I bet. Faster than you."
Charles runs, and Erik follows. Pain kept behind lips, hissed into bites, stinging growls half-hidden in yelps as they chase each other uselessly, side by side towards the fountain, hangovers trying to keep up with them.
The pool is a fountain in the middle of the garden, and it is huge. Atlas stands in the middle of it all, old bronze turned green and black with age, holding a heavy globe on his shoulders in the middle of the fountain. Good old Atlas, keeping the world steady while boys strip and run and laugh around him. Mermen representing the four great rivers of Europe flank him at all directions of the compass, spitting green water from their mouths into the huge basin deep enough to make the water black. The Seine. The Volga. The Danube. The Rhine. Spilling cool and clean and here.
Charles takes the run to it in broken steps, tugging down his shorts from one leg, then another, scraping his knee as he clambers over the ledge all naked and hot and desperate. Headfirst into the cold, arms wide open, the nausea of too much wine cleaned away from him in a few short kicks.
Charles dives, feels the slimy, green bottom and surfaces with his fingernails all dirty. Pushing back his hair, he grins at Erik, mouth tasting of copper and woody greens, the sticky heat of a hangover almost gone. His head is clean and bright as brushed cotton, settling under a fountain as the falling water beats calm into his shoulders and neck. Rolling his head about his shoulders, grinning soaking wet.
Erik stands on the lip of the rough stone border with his toes curled over the edge, his breaths shallow and sudden. Charles can see it right in his chest, the way Erik's stomach flattens pale and flexes, the divots of his hips cast into shadow. This perfect, rough-hewn man-boy, halfway between broad strength and the last scrawniness of youth. You wouldn't think of hardship when you look at him, only the tension in his neck and the darkness in the corners of his eyes betraying him. He's just a boy, nineteen, like Charles, and who could tell the difference between them?
"Come on," Charles says, treading water.
Erik smirks, tilting his head. All at once he tugs down his underwear, naked and glorious on the lip of the fountain. Sparse dark hair on his legs, a birthmark on his hip, his skin fading from sunworn shoulders to white, pale white of his thighs. Dark curl of hair around his cock, fading into a wisp at his navel. Mostly muscle and lean and confident boy, a marble hero, second cousin to Theseus and best friend to Heracles.
Charles smiles and tips an invisible hat, eyes stinging from the water and goosepimpling in the cold. "Well, then?"
Erik dives in, skin clean and green-white under the water. Kicking in long strides, he paddles toward Charles. He surfaces close and shakes his head, splashing Charles in the face, hands grappling at arms, cinching Charles around the middle and holding him in cold water. Charles laughs, twists away to lie on his back and drift away, lazily kicking away from the whirlpool of a boy.
"I used to swim here all the time when I was a boy," Charles says. "I should do it more often. We should."
Erik catches up quickly, failing to touch the bottom so his legs churn like egg beaters. His hands slide against Charles' ribs, holding him there, keeping him tight. "How nice for you."
"Can't it always be like this?" Charles asks. He stops struggling, slides in closer so his kicking legs knock against Erik's, knees and thighs and hands sliding up his chest to his armpits. "Always summer. Always stupid and together and caught like fish in a net."
"No," Erik says. He runs a hand down the flat of Charles' chest, finding every divot and crest, the shape of his ribs under wrinkled thumbprints. Against his waist, around his arse, hands cupping against muscle and drawing Charles near enough that they lock legs. And then he flashes a smile. "We would drown."
Charles laughs, touching a wet palm to Erik's cheek, running a thumb over his chapped lips. It's a stupid kind of joy in his body, the fast fading kind that disappears like a roman candle, loud and bright and gone too fast. Instead he stays, half-strangled in limbs and naked bodies, an intensity that creeps slow through his stomach and his chest. "Well," Charles says, his voice half of what it should be, with his thighs around Erik's sides, their bodies hushed and bucking and hungover and close. "We should find a way to breathe under water."
"Yes," Erik says, leg pressed up between Charles' own. "We should."
"Erik –" Charles says, hands on slick body, against Erik's thighs, digging him close. "Hey, hey –" A groan, hips bucking up against him. "Erik, Erik –"
Erik laughs, and then he doesn't. He stares quite solidly, chewing on his bottom lip, treading water and keeping them still. "Oh? Go on –"
Charles nods, then shakes his head. "I'm not hungover."
Erik dives again, slipping away and then close again, rising next to Charles, smile sharp and hands teasing, jabbing a finger against Charles's sides to make him twist about like an eel, laughing as he kicks away. Erik's hair sticks up every which way, his eyes bright, his hands running smooth over Charles' stomach, cold as he grapples at Charles' thighs and drags him, laughing, under the water again.
They surface, close, warm breath and dirty water. Spitting it out, wiping their mouths, treading water together and hissing out caught breaths. Close, away, and then close again.
Erik grins. "Now?"
"Now what?" Charles says, kicking away and shaking it off, naked and shivering a bit in the water. "Now? What do you mean?"
They dry themselves naked on sunwarm stone. Charles looks over at Erik every so often, hoping to catch his eye, but Erik lies in a shadowy corner, naked with his book, holding it up to block the sun. A paperback thing that he sucks the life out of, flipping page by page so quickly like an assigned text.
"What are you reading?" Charles asks, bored of words and waiting for the next thing to happen.
"Your demise," Erik says calmly. "Crome Yellow. Aldous Huxley."
"Tell me about it," Charles says lazily, stretching out in the stiff grass, rough on his naked skin. He isn't wearing a thing, just lying there with his E.M. Forster novel open over his crotch, hands tucked behind his head. "How is it my demise?"
"A bunch of men meet in the country," Erik says tersely, flipping another page. "They decide they're terribly unhappy and that wealth has ruined the beauty of the world."
"Oh good," Charles says. "I was worried you were happy."
"Charles," Erik says, wetting his finger and turning a page. His voice is oddly strained, careful, wit turned to thistle. "What is this?"
"What is – what?"
"The way we are." Erik speaks with a thoughtful kind of delicacy, rehearsed words, questions that already have an answer, like he's asking just to see how Charles will react. Charles wonders what he's meant to say in this script. "Go on," Erik says, darker this time, from between teeth. "I want to hear you say it."
"We're friends," Charles says, shrugging one shoulder. He winces as he says it, but he's not sure why. "Aren't we?"
Erik rests the book down on his thigh. It's so strange, the way the sun can bleed out of him. The way good feelings evaporate, drying like the water on his skin. The clouds cover the little sun. Erik turning dark and sullen, like Charles has just met him. "No. Don't play with me." Thick with sarcasm, no laughter at all in his voice. "Are you in love with me?"
"What are you talking about?" Charles asks, fidgeting fingers around the filter of his cigarette, wishing they were talking about anything other than this, anything other than that weak bruise Erik presses in with his thumbs. "Don't be –" Charles closes his eyes but his fingers shake as he brings the cigarette back to his mouth. "Let's not talk about this right now, I – it's too hot. Let's just read. Have a glass of wine."
Erik stands up and walks towards Charles, leans over him. He's naked, and not for the first time Charles realizes Erik is strong. Innately strong, his muscles fraught and wiry, the kind of strength that comes from desperation. A practiced strength, the scary kind, the muscle that's been used in shadow times and has been polished in the dark. Erik leans over him and Charles almost winces. "Am I just another of your boys then?" Erik asks, his accent turning distinctly German, strange and alien and it makes Charles flush and burn, his chest getting all tight with air. "The ones you play with a throw away when summer is over?"
"We're friends," Charles says weakly, his fingers fuzzy and suddenly too large, clumsy as he thumbs the pages of his own book, not sure how to answer any of those questions. "Where is this coming from? Have a drink, Erik – stop this right now. Just forget it. Have – have a cigarette or something. I'm not – it's not like that. I'm not – we're not." Black spots in the corners of his eyes, Charles sucks in great breaths of air as panic threatens his chest. He's not this boy, doesn't have the right answers, isn't the one who was born to say yes. "I am not like that," he says, almost inaudibly. "I'm not."
"No?" Erik asks sharply. "If I kissed you –"
"No," Charles says wildly. "Don't – do that –"
Erik grins down at him humourlessly, taking Charles in coldly, hands balled in fists and his jaw tight. "Of course. Of course you aren't. That wouldn't do, would it?" Erik seems so pale, his freckles standing out like a splatter of black ink. Even now, shadowed by him, ashamed, Charles watches the flexing in his muscles, the lip of his navel, his hips and hands. "You are the prodigal son," Erik says, gesturing around at the fountain, the house, the bottles of champagne and packs of cigarettes. "You are the golden knight. You have a life that cannot go wrong."
"No," Charles says quietly, tight in his throat. "No, Erik –"
Erik pushes down on Charles, lips against his mouth, such a hard kiss and teeth and sharp against Charles' bottom lip, sucking out blood to make them red and rough. "You play," Erik says, his words grinding against Charles' mouth. "You play and you dance and live in bubbles. These pretty English romances I've read about, where nothing is real, where boys pull away before anything comes too close and bruises their pretty faces. I've seen these English friendships, where good boys say nothing and it fades by the end of summer and life goes on as it should with tailcoats and lawyers and pleasant marriages. When are you going to get too scared and leave? Autumn? Will you give me until winter until you're bored?"
Charles slides a hand up Erik's side, fingers running along the divots of his ribs, resting along the cocked muscle of his shoulder, holding him just away, still trying to catch the breath that Erik shucked from his mouth. "Erik, you are –" Charles says in a whisper, pushing his hips up against Erik's thigh, exposing his throat like a defeated wolf. "I want – I can't – this is not how it's supposed to be – why are you asking me this – I can't –" It isn't the time, nor the place. These are the questions he tosses out into rivers and streams, these are the things he wasn't born for. "No. No, Erik."
"I'm not your English boy," Erik says, sliding a hand against the small of Charles' back, lifting him up. Erik's grin is wolfish, cheeks and lips raw and hungry with flushing blood. "I can't be bought with champagne and relaxation. I'm not gentle. I won't play your little games of romantic friendship. I won't. Learn that now."
Charles knows his eyes are wet, his arms trembling as Erik holds him tighter. It's a rush of a hundred things all at once, the way he's been brought up, the fire in his belly, the feel of Erik's mouth and teeth, the way a proper boy should behave, the way Charles wants to behave. "Oh God," Charles says weakly, and then leans up and kisses, not quite Erik in a little choked breath, parting his lips and feeling the warm flesh of Erik's tongue, groaning as he leans into it and his head rushes with the pulse and tide of his blood. "Oh God," he murmurs against his mouth, feeling the scrape of teeth against his lips as Erik cups the small of his back. "I can't. You know I can't."
"But you want to," Erik says, pressing his thumb into Charles' throat. "Don't you?"
"Yes," Charles ekes out. "No. You know I can't." A taste of Erik on his lips. This has gone too far. He leans up and kisses him again, teeth and tongue and closed eyes. "Fuck."
"Boys, boys," Raven says haughtily. "What are you doing?"
Erik lets go of Charles like a shot, tugging on his shorts and loose cotton shirt, drawing himself tall and simple again in the sun like nothing at all has happened. Charles draws his knees up to his chest and shakes a little in cold. "Afternoon, Raven" Erik says, his voice in control again.
"I was about to go for a run," Raven says, glancing at Charles, her voice cautious and full of heavy questions. "He says you like those, Erik."
"I do," Erik says, dusting off his hands and rolling his shoulders. "Lead the way."
"Charles?" Raven asks, looking down at her brother warily. "Or are you happy relaxing here?"
"I'm okay," Charles says, trying not to sound short of breath, sitting up proper and pushing his hair back. He coughs into his fist, and fidgets out another cigarette from the gold case. "I –"
"He'll stay here," Erik finishes for him. "He has a lot to think about." Erik splashes his face in the water of the fountain once, twice, tosses his book next to Charles. "Shall we go?"
Raven nods. "Do you like tennis? A game after?"
"Absolutely," Erik says, an unsteady smile that doesn't last long. "I am yours."
"Come on, then," Raven says, nodding at Charles. "Until later."
"Okay, okay, stop running," Raven says, slowing to a walk, her hands on his ribs and huffing in deep breaths of cedar air. "I think we're far enough," she says, looking around. It's only trees out here, some forest path that smells of horse shit and rotting leaves. They're still somewhere on the house grounds but out, out where the hunts go and the green is unconfined, wild and thick and raw with mud. "God, you never tire."
Erik slows behind her, taking the pause to pull a cigarette out of the pack in his back pocket and lights it. "You run well," he says, blowing out smoke. "I'm afraid for the tennis match."
"There's no tennis," Raven says at first, waving it away quickly. "I just needed to talk to you."
"Ah," Erik says, lacking surprise. "About Charles, no doubt."
Raven leans back against a tree, gestures quickly for the cigarette and takes a long puff of smoke before handing it back. "Yes, Charles."
"Go on, then," Erik says, smoking his cigarette and pacing among the trees. "Tell me about him."
Raven takes a deep breath, considering Erik up and down. "I don't know," Raven says. "It's not my place to say anything, but I feel duty bound. Sisterly love and that nonsense. Trust me, I love seeing him get told, I really do. I think he needs to hear the truth sometimes. He's so very good at burying what is pretty fucking obvious to everyone else, isn't he? I just – I just want you to go easy on him, okay?" She shrugs, sighs loud and long. "To be honest, I've never seen him so in love."
Erik takes a deep breath of smoke, tries not to flinch. "Does he deserve it?"
Raven shrugs, pushes away from the tree to stand near Erik, pilfering his cigarette again. "Probably not. The way he acts sometimes. I don't think he even knows how he feels." She rolls her shoulders. "There have been boys before. God, dozens. He takes them in like stray puppies and tosses them out when they turn into dogs." Raven laughs, pushes back her sweaty mess of blonde hair. "I honestly don't even think he realizes he does it. Or – why. Why it's, uh, only boys, and just what their friendships are." Raven shrugs again, shaking her head. "But I think he knows that you're different." She blows up at the hair falling against her forehead. "I just thought you should hear it from me. No one else will stand up to protect him, so I have to at least try."
The sun is low and honeyed between the trees, splitting into gold as it filters through the leaves. Erik nods, chewing on his bottom lip. "He's an idiot."
"I know," Raven says. "But – what else can you expect? His name is all he's got left. His father never cared. I think he liked me more, to be honest. At least he had to legally declare me his daughter. Charles never even got that much. I don't think he's seen him in two years. He's in Malta someplace, sending back messages written by his valet and cushioning that with money." Raven fidgets, stealing Erik's cigarette again. "And his mother comes and goes as she pleases. Somewhere in Crete, I think. She sends him birthday cards two weeks late. Her lover is younger than Charles, for God's sake."
"Am I supposed to feel sorry?" Erik says, snatching his cigarette back and smoking the last quarter inch.
"No," Raven says. "I just thought you ought to know. Charles won't tell you. He wouldn't dare. You've got that whole tragic parents thing on a lock, pretty much."
"Am I supposed to be sad that he's a poor impoverished boy?"
"I get it. I get why you're angry at him. But don't be such an asshole," Raven says pleasantly. "You care for him, I think." Raven stands tall at that, straightening her clothes and stretching her limbs, eyes dark and muscles moving to run again. "No, I know you do. I just wanted you to know that he doesn't – he doesn't treat love lightly. He never knew how. It's real for him. You're something of a special occasion, I think."
Erik pauses, stamping out his cigarette under his shoe. "Am I?"
Raven just stands there, hands on her hips.
"All right," Erik says, bowing his head. "Fine." Looking up, Erik looks tired, dark under his eyes and soft around the mouth. "I understand."
Raven doesn't say anything.
"I do," Erik says, drawn out from between clenched teeth. "Care. For him."
"Race you back," Raven says at once, taking off suddenly, her heels crunching leaves and her laugh echoing in the woods.
All the windows of Charles' little cottage are open, huge billowing white curtains blown in like ship sails bringing in the smell of cut grass and that ferrous ozone smell of coming rain. Charles rests in his bath, frothy with bubbles, only his shoulders and knees dry islands sticking above the water. He smokes out of an ivory cigarette holder he filched off of Raven, keeping the filters dry.
He leans back and closes his eyes, blowing out broken rings of smoke to the yellow-stained ceiling. Half-asleep, he hears the sticky smack of feet echoing in the hallways outside his bedroom door. A short rap on the wood.
"Raven? I'm in the bath," Charles calls.
Charles tightens up but stays where he is, trying to will his muscles to relax, to seem calm and unfazed when the thought of seeing Erik right now makes his stomach churn with shame. "Yes," he coughs out.
Erik leans against the doorway of the bathroom. He's still only in his buckled shorts, his hair wet and chest slick with the last of his run. He stands there in silence for a good minute, his jaw tight and his eyes focused and almost unblinking on Charles' face.
Charles continues to smoke, tries to make a game out of it, counting the puffs he takes in rhythm, still staring at the ceiling. He knows he's blushing, and the tepid water doesn't help as his chest blooms red and his cheeks as flushed as Christmas. He wants to sink, to drown, just to stop Erik from looking at him like that.
"If you'd like, I could call for a car," Charles says in a small voice. He licks his lips, keeps his eyes pinned to the ceiling.
"No," Erik says.
"Aren't you –"
"No," Erik repeats, softer this time. "Don't be stupid, Charles."
Something loud and almost happy rises in Charles' chest, and he has to struggle to keep it down. Winking open an eye, he sees Erik is smiling, just a little. Charles takes a long, arrogant puff of his cigarette and feels his legs relax, knees sinking into the bathwater. "I won't. I won't be stupid. I promise, I won't."
"Don't make promises you know you can't keep," Erik drawls, fishing out a cigarette of his own. The room is already hazy with smoke and steam and Erik is smiling around his fag. He takes a step forward, closing the bathroom door behind them and locking them in golden haze, the world blurry around the edges, dim electric lights gleaming off every shining surface like copper coins.
"I'm – I'm, well, intolerably bored," Charles says, his voice breaking a bit, leaning up in the bath. His blood is running warmer, runs through him loud and rich like coffee. "Come, keep me company. Could you set up the chess board?"
"You won't push all the pieces over if you lose again, will you? I don't want to search for them in the bath," Erik says wickedly, and, okay. Okay, then. Charles wriggles back in his bath, his legs falling apart and sinking under the water turning very clear. He grins out of the corner of his mouth, making vague splashes with his hands, making Erik look at him, now and again, lingering on his chest and lower.
"No more promises I can't keep," Charles says under his breath, the seafoam of soap fading dry on his chest. He yawns, his chest spreading and flexing as he stretches out. Erik watches. Erik watches the whole movement, from the twitch of bicep to his stomach under water. "And open a bottle of champagne, I'm feeling much too solid right now."
"Yes, of course," Erik says. He stands above Charles, casting a shadow over the bath. His eyes are sharp but they've somehow lost their hardness, flashing almost a glitter of game and silver. He puts his hand on Charles' damp head, fingers in the curls, twisting a little roughly in a grip, nodding him gently. "No more promises you can't keep. No more of those, Charles. This is not England. You are deep in enemy territory now."
Charles lets Erik pull his head back again, the long white length of his throat and the ticking pulse in the sinew of his neck. Charles grins up at him the whole time, yes, not even flinching when it hurts a bit too much. Grins at him as Erik draws his head back, Charles lolling back loosely and letting his body slide under the water, sloshing about him as he arches and drops his thighs. Tongue between his teeth. "No more of those." The quivering shape of his hands on his thighs under the water. "Deal. Done. No need to worry. I –" Charles laughs, leans up, catches Erik in a loose kiss, tasty the smoke in his mouth and the sweat on his lips, "- promise."
Erik nods slowly, his fingers going loose in Charles hair, his hand coming down to swipe wet and warm against Charles' cheek, wetting his lips with the pad of his thumb. "You're hard."
Charles shrugs, nips at the tip of Erik's thumb. "Get the chess set, why don't you."
Erik tugs his hair once, lets him go. "Stupid goy." A wet slap of a palm against his cheek. "My idiot goy. I'll drown you."
"All talk," Charles drawls and, can't help it, grins too. "We're going out tonight, by the way. People you'd hate. People you want to scorn. I want you to destroy their night, with me. The two of us, it's all I want anymore. Let's burn it down."
Erik laughs. "I've ruined you, haven't I?"
Charles shrugs. "All your talk about throwing off the yoke of oppression or whatever. Rising up against the whomever, and so on. Now we actually get to do it. How about the promises you don't keep, huh?"
"I was going to leave without you," Charles says, leaning against the doorframe and already dressed impeccably. Crimson cummerbund, a red rose in his lapel. Terribly neat, an obvious little boy parading daddy's good name. Charles shrugs, almost self-conscious though he knows he has enough money to ask the sun to set two hours late. It's the first time he's felt bad about it.
"Well," Erik says sharply. "I'm here."
Charles takes a moment to look him over. Far away at first, then close, hands at his lapels, straightening the front of his suit. "You look nice," Charles says as Erik redoes his tie, fidgets with it with a tongue bitten between his teeth. "Very nice. No one could tell."
Erik laughs. "Of course they can. My sleeves are an inch too short. I don't know which is the salad fork. I am going to punch someone in the face before dessert."
"Yes, well," Charles says. "You'll look great doing it, at least."
Erik pauses, grins. "Will I?"
"You look perfect," Charles says, straightening Erik's lapels. "Oh, God, they will freak out."
"Fine, fine, I will be the good little rotten boy you need. I will ruin all that is good. But it's not just that," Erik says, letting Charles run his hands down his sides, snapping the clean edges of his jacket. "But – it's not just this anymore. You know it isn't, right? Not the money or the politics or –"
"- we're complicated now, aren't we?" Charles asks, can't stop grinning. "I think we might be complicated now."
"Quite complicated," Erik breathes out, takes the few steps forward to grab at Charles' lapels, roughing them out a little, bruising the flower in his lapels and making white circles in flesh where his thumb presses against Charles' throat loosely. "Completely algebraic."
"What're we gonna do about that?" Charles asks cleanly, shivering a little as Erik flattens a hand down his stomach, smoothing down the starched front of his shirt.
"We're going to go to your lordly friends," Erik says, warm against the shell of his ear. "And ruin their night as best we can."
"I couldn't," Charles says absently, running his hands down Erik's front just one more time, not daring to let go. Tugging them close so their hips touch, thighs against thighs, stiff collars and sharp lines of their tuxedos. "I honestly couldn't without you, sometimes." Charles murmurs, leaning close, smelling the soft soap against Erik's neck. A hesitant press of his lips, just testing and then away. "I just – I couldn't."
Erik breathes against Charles' cheek. "Should we get drunk?"
"Immediately," Charles says. "This instant. Oh God. You look like a Prince. Is that my jacket? Never mind, come drink with me. That is my jacket, isn't it? This is perfect," Charles says, close to him, their sides flush and his breath boozy and warm and lips tingling against the scrape of Erik's scruff. "Wrong. Devious. Raw. In love with a bad idea."
"Were you always this anarchic or did I have something to do with that?" Erik says, finger ringing around Charles' belt, bumping hips together.
Charles laughs, tosses his head back, white throat and Erik's breath warm and damp against it. "Just waiting for the right person." He hisses out a breath, lying back in the cushions of the carriage. "Erik?"
Charles grins. He'd burn for him, at the stake. He'd launch himself at lances, at barricades. It's dizzying and only half to do with alcohol and cigarettes. He leans into Erik's side, nuzzling against his waistcoat. "I want you to – I need you to –" Eyes half-closed, the creak and rattle of the coach jostling him against Erik's side, letting his hands slide around his waist. "Fuck me," he mumbles.
"Say it," Erik says quietly, his hand in Charles' hair. "Go on, again.
"I want you to fuck me," Charles murmurs, louder this time, as Erik pulls him close. "So bad. Fuck, I can't stop – thinking about it, against the edge of the bed, your hands. I do. I really do. I want you – your hands – I can't stop thinking about – tonight, in their house, I want you to –"
"Yes," Erik says again, tight in his throat. "Charles." Hands smoothing against Charles' hair softly. "It will hurt."
"Good," Charles mumbles against his side, already half-drunk, pliable, richly antagonistic and full of bile and bitter grins. "Good. Make it hurt."
"If you want," Erik says, thumb against the edge of Charles' cheek, wet against his mouth.
Charles grins, nips at Erik's finger with sharp teeth.
He wants to burst in, wants to fling the doors wide and stamp under foot all the things he hates most, that have been buried in dirt over the years. Charles wants to scream a battle cry, wants to grab Erik by the arm and parade him around the room, the face of rebellion, wants to kiss him on the mouth; look at them both, the atheist and the Jew and the gunpowder. He wants the world to be a volcano. He wants to laugh at the chaos, to dig his fingernails in the ashes.
Instead, a butler opens the door and Charles freezes, glancing about wildly before he snaps to and half-bows, kissing the hand of their hostess, a nice woman he knows from church.
"You've brought a friend," Lady Whomever says, nodding towards Erik.
"A student from abroad," Charles murmurs against her knuckles. "From Germany."
"Most welcome," the lady says, offering her hand to Erik.
Erik kisses the top of her hand gently. "Thank you for having me."
"Well, isn't he a dear?" Lady Whomever says, flushing slightly. "I'm afraid to say that he is our exotic fruit tonight. We're rather a plain group. Germany, you say? Not the Kaiser's blood, surely."
"No," Charles says quickly. "Just a friend."
They walk through the front hall, shadowed under marble arches and wealth cast in candlelight and carved wood. Charles bumps up against Erik, grinning a little like they've said the right code, made it past the vanguard into the shadowed, forbidden world of money and wine. They can bust open the doors later, can be two rebels when the time is right. Yes, when the time is right
"You've failed," Erik says coolly. "You're already one of them. Look at you, it's so easy to be correct."
"No, no," Charles hisses under his breath. "Have faith."
It makes Charles' mansion seem like a country cottage. The vaulted ceilings are flung so high that shadows hide the peaks, a sounding chamber almost, a cathedral of a dining room. Stained glass in delicate Christian themes colour the walls, the kind of pleasant devotion from misplaced chapels that catch moonlight and rain it down in green and gold and blue. They're seated near the end of a mahogany table, wine already poured and a clean ashtray set out for them. Charles stiffens tightly in his seat, giving a collegiate bow, and if his anxiety is anything to go by, Erik must be near funeral.
"Welcome," a nearby Lord says, nodding tightly.
"My father sends his best," Charles says automatically, his brain retreating into childhood training and the right thing to say. "How are the fields?" Charles asks, remembering the countless other dinners, the tales of Industrial revolution, the information he remembers in between the mind-numbing boredom..
Erik kicks him under the table.
"Very well," the Lord says. "We've been integrating. All these new tractors," he says, his voice rising joyfully. "Rather unique, aren't they? I'm rather interested to see their potential. They say they can clear a field in a quarter of time."
"Marvellous," Charles says, his voice chipping as Erik kicks him under the table again. "I've been telling my father about them. The industrial movement has been rather a welcome shock, hasn't it?"
"Yes, hasn't it," the Lord says pleasantly, nodding, already welcoming Charles back in the fold, didn't even know he was gone. "It redefines modern farming in every aspect. It's best to embrace it now."
Dinner is served and Charles can barely look up from his plate. Being defeated is tough when no one can see it. A pleasant dinner guest with charming, useless conversation, it's who he should be. Six months ago it's who he would have been, fitting neatly into the world, everything in its right place and pleasantly simple. But now Erik is eating his smoked salmon with a delicate fork and his smirk almost stings when he looks over at Charles. A grin like of course, of course you would fold your hand. Of course Charles would smother the flames of rebellion with a tail coat.
"But can you imagine living in Europe right now?" a Lord says, mouth full of gold coins. "The state of things. You'd think Versailles would put them in place, but this insidious virus is really taking hold."
"Communists?" some Lady asks, flashing her thick eyelashes. "I've heard. Those Russians. Have you read their manifesto?"
"Precisely," the Lord replies, words Charles has heard before, words Charles has heard all of his life. "It's nothing but trouble. That Marx fellow is a danger."
Charles dares a look at Erik. The white noise in his mind is getting louder, like a growing tide in his veins. Ear to a seashell and the rising tide. Erik sighs and seems to give it up, shaking his head and rocking back on stiff shoulders, his calculated movements of fork to plate to mouth, the way he doesn't even look at Charles anymore. Jesus. Charles winces.
"The banking is the problem," another Lord adds. "We all know where it comes from. These men with this fist around every pound sterling." A snort. "Remember that Beer Hall uprising last year? I rather think they had the right idea. Far too much is being controlled by the – wrong element."
Murmurs of agreement.
Charles hesitates a hand, pushing his food around his plate. The mistake is raw and obvious. Like an open sore, stinging and wet and he doesn't even dare look at Erik, frozen to his plate and the overwhelming desire to be the good boy, the proper son, the man he's expected to be. But here it is, those whispers, the nodding, the right time to detonate. It's been like this all his life, ignored mostly, but now it sticks in him like venom and barbs. Erik right beside him, Charles swallowing everything he should be doing.
"Jews?" Erik asks quietly.
"Well, yes," a Baron of some kind says. "It's becoming rather obvious, isn't it? You must have seen it, back in Germany, the way they rule from behind the curtain."
"I did," Erik says, voice as grating as frost. Fingers white around his cutlery, holding them like a dagger. He doesn't say anything else, just stares down at his glass of wine. Charles can feel his knee tremble under the table, feeling like some kind of half-born bastard stuck between money and red-blooded riot. Do it, do it now.
Charles stands too quickly, head spinning. He looks down at Erik, then to the rest of the table, a little bewildered. Deep breath. "I –" the fire melts him down, bones going brittle and his blood slowing like molten gold. "I - I am not feeling well. Excuse me."
Erik doesn't move as Charles leaves the table. Sits there, frozen, with his shoulders and tight and his body as cold as it was when Charles first set eyes on him. Oh God. Charles almost trips as he walks away, a hand to his mouth like he might vomit or talk and he's not sure which would be worse. He reaches the door when he stops suddenly and swallows back the bile in his throat and he can't, he can't leave Erik with the wolves.
"Actually," Charles says, suddenly loud and spinning on his heel. "Actually, you're all bloody – bloody bastards, you know that?" Charles almost gasps at his own words, because, oh God. "And - and you're absolutely – ridiculous and this is absurd, this is absurd, can you even hear yourselves? Can you hear yourselves talk? Jews? Fucking Jews, you – you fucking lunatics, like this could ever – like you could –" Charles looks around suddenly, anchorless. These men with their frowns, these awful women. These people without the right kind of heart. "Would – would that a plague – on both your houses," he stutters out, shouting wildly, his throat raw and black spots in the corners of his eyes. "Go fuck yourselves," and then his voice drops suddenly, stiffly formal, "I'm sorry to disturb your dinner, it's – just the honest truth. You're all – bloody rotters. Erik?"
The scrape of a chair being pushed out, the slap of a napkin on the table. Erik's heavy heels cracking on the hardwood floor until he stands by Charles' side.
"Also," Charles shouts at the stunned room. "I hope you all get eaten by dogs."
Erik laughs. Giving one last longbowman salute, Charles runs out, giving a great whoop and slipping a little on polished floors, Erik grabbing his arm to steady him, laughing all the while.
"Too much there, at the end?" Charles asks, gasping as they fly down dark wood halls and great cloth tapestries.
"I liked the Shakespeare," Erik says, a wild grin with flashing teeth. "You and your fucking Greats."
"A plague, a plague," Charles shouts again, echoing in the halls, running past bewildered servants as he grabs Erik's cuff and they careen crazily through this big, awful house. "A plague o' both their houses."
They careen into a side hall, the kind of shallow path meant for servants. Charles nearly screams, slams his fists against the wood panels and groans, hurts, yells what he has left that hasn't been drained from the blisters.
"I didn't quite expect that," Erik murmurs, shadowing over him and grinning, electric and light and touching Charles, his shoulders and neck, like he never had before. Fleeting, a brush against his lapels, a thumb brushed over his cheek, curling a lock of hair over his ear. "That was – unexpected."
Charles struggles to stand, back rubbing against wood, fingers flooded and fizzing and weightless when they grab Erik's collar. "Fuck them, fuck them, fuck them all," he grits out. "Fuck them, I love you,"
Erik puts his hands on Charles' shoulders, lacing his fingers behind his neck. "What?"
Charles is almost crying, hot and wet against the corners of his eyes. His fists have nowhere to go, no one to hit but the wood and his thighs and nothing to strike, no one to hurt so he buries them in Erik's shirt, tugging him close and rough, pulling out his tucked shirt and popping open a few buttons. "I couldn't. I fucking hate them. Erik – I couldn't listen –"
"Standing up for us Jews, huh?" Erik murmurs, mouth warm against the top of Charles' head. "You've gone soft."
"Fuck you, fuck your Jewish fucking shit," Charles shouts. "Who the fuck cares about that now?" Charles doesn't want to cry but he can't help it, lost for anything else to do. "I can't stand it. What does that even matter? I fucking love – love you. You, you bastard." Charles grabs Erik's shirt, twisting it in his hands, ruining it along the collar. "Don't you fucking love me? Didn't we decide it was more than money and being Jewish and all that fucking bullshit?"
Erik frowns, nods quickly. "We did."
Charles grabs Erik and pulls him closer, shaking fingers pulling away his bowtie and flicking the buttons out of their holes. "I meant it."
Erik softens against him slightly. "I can't believe you – I mean, what's your father going to think," Erik says quietly, touching Charles' collar, running a thumb over his Adam's apple. "Think of what you just did, think about the shame you're bringing on – on your whole family, what you've done to your name –"
Charles grabs Erik, forces him closer until their chests are touching, their mouths sharing air, Erik smelling of liquor and soap and the breath of Charles' own cologne. Charles can't help but grin, a blood-thirsty and wolfish grin, "fuck it, it's my name, it's mine to shame and kick in the mud. It's my goddamn name and I can spend it on you if I want. I do – want. I do, I – come on, come on, Erik, look at me –"
Erik bows his head and knocks against Charles forehead, nuzzling at him for a moment as he eases his hands under Charles' thighs, lifting him up against the low cabinet, pushing him back against the wall. "I love you, all right?" Erik murmurs. "I love you, you fucking richboy. I love you." Unbuckling Charles' trousers, pushing away his shirt, hand against the warm skin of Charles' flat stomach and shoving down the clumped clothes around his thighs with one hand, lifting his shirt with the other. "Wanna hear it?"
Charles nods, swallowing tightly. He kicks down his trousers, bumps his head back against the wall. "Yes, again."
Erik shoves a hand up between Charles' thighs, grabs him roughly, crushing his already hard cock against the flat of his stomach, fisting his hand around it tight enough to feel the pulse of his heart. Charles groans sharply and his body seizes, knocking his head back against the picture frame digging into his neck. He feels hot all over, cheeks to cock, and blood runs through him like cognac and napalm.
Erik just manages to get his own trousers undone, sliding down around his thighs, when Charles grabs a fistful of hair and smashes their lips together, Erik hissing a curse that dissolves flat against Charles' mouth. Biting his lips, tearing out another pulse, another love you like a curse word hot into Charles' mouth.
Erik is hard, his cheeks red and his chest red and his mouth red. Charles doesn't even think, just wants to do it now, to have Erik all over him, in him, right now. It's all he wants, fuck, how was it ever anything but this, how could it not be this? He wants to scream, needs to hurt right now or he'll go crazy, needs Erik in a way that makes him blind and frantic, like he wants a cigarette so bad it hurts, like he needs to be fucked or he'll die.
Erik spits into his hand and presses his cock against Charles, no warning, just shoving into Charles roughly, slamming him back against the wall and fucking into him hard enough to make them both groan. Fuck, it hurts like hell, it hits him like a punch to the gut but it feels right, the only way it could feel. Muffled against mouths, finding sharp teeth and dominance, snapping hard and wet and the both of them trying to find soft lips to sink into, half-formed words to suck blood.
"I love you," Erik spits, bloodied and iron-wet, pushing into Charles, quick thrusts that rock them back and shake the cabinet. "Fuck you."
"Again," Charles bites out, hands on Erik's shoulders, legs circling Erik's hips. It feels foreign and unexpected, not anything like last night fantasies, it hurts and it's not bad, it's not bad, Charles wants so much more of it, right now. "C-come on, say it again."
The patter of servants feet around them, doors shutting far down the hallway, the tinkling of glasses on a tray and the rasp of metal firegrates being pulled. Erik pauses on it, buried inches in Charles and holding around his shoulders tightly, his breath ragged and caught up in his throat like cotton. Moving feet, the swish of cloth down at the far end of the halls, their long shadows flickering around the walls and carpet.
"Come on," Charles murmurs, kissing Erik roughly, panting out the words. "Don't stop, you can't stop – d-don't stop, I can't take it –"
"Charles," Erik murmurs, fingers in the back of his hair, tight and shaking as footsteps come closer. Pause. An open door and shut, silence again. Erik breathes out and looks back at Charles, tugging his head back a bit by the hair. "This is –"
"Shut up," Charles says, hissing as Erik tugs his head back again, exposing the white length of his throat. "Say it again, fuck me again –"
Erik grins, foxlike and earnest as he leans down to suck the pulse of Charles' neck, the shear of teeth against the soft young flush of stubble. "I love –" Erik says, fucking up against Charles, "I –" pushing into him, making Charles smash back against the wall, "you –" another thrust, as hard as he can, Charles' thighs trembling around his waist.
"Like you promised," Charles grunts against Erik's neck. "Harder, like you promised - I love –" throat arched back, "fuck – fuck – now, now, right now –"
Erik chews Charles' bottom lip, rolls it bloodied between his teeth. Hands on Charles' hips, pulling him close as Erik fucks into him, as fast as heartbeats, full and rough and fucking incandescent.
Too fast, all at once, Charles feels this sunburst rush through him like boiling water. Charles comes on a growl, on bitten lips and a clenched scream smothered against Erik's mouth. Charles comes heavy and strong, splashing up against his stomach and on his shirt and around Erik's fist.
Erik can barely hold it together, forces himself into Charles deep and lets out a groan, all tight in his throat, sees the splash of pearl around his fingers before he's fucking himself into Charles and lets go, a silent gasp to match, an arch that pushes himself full into Charles as he comes inside him.
Erik holds him there, shaking a little, shivering between Charles' thighs. A single moment of silence, soft and tired and waiting for them to catch up with the skipped breaths. Just holding him there, rocking gently between Charles' bare thighs, panting against Erik's cheek. He bows forward thoughtlessly and Charles is there, loves behind there, foreheads pressed together.
"We should go," Charles whispers, cupping Erik's cheek, the both of them still trembling, muscle turned to giving, translucent skin.
Erik nods quickly, taking one last gasp before he steps away and pulls up his trousers, flattens down his shirt.
"Let's go," Charles murmurs, his mouth against Erik's, his lips pulpy and red, his eyes dazed and lost. "We should go. I – yeah. I can't stand this house. We need to go – home."
Erik nods. He buckles his trousers, straightens his shirt. And then, hesitating, taking silence by the throat, leans forward, leans over Charles, still up between his parted thighs, rocking him back against the table. Erik runs his thumb over Charles' mouth, gently, to the corner of his lips. Staring straight down at him, Erik holds Charles at the throat and then flat on his stomach, keeping him still for some reason, some quiet static moment with their faces inches apart, still smelling of the chlorine of come and good wine. Just lingering in it, breathing it in deep. Erik watches Charles closely like he does sometimes, careful and almost academic like he's taking in something new he's just learned, and then he relaxes. Erik lets go of Charles with a subtle nod, just a slight bow before he covers with his mouth what his thumb brushed dry.
Charles wakes as something heavy and wet and cold lands on his bare chest. He yelps, jerks away from it, wildly flailing to get it off. "What in God's –" The sopping towel lands with a splatter on the hardwood floor. Charles digs deeper into the bed, mouth into the pillows and breathing in the smells not only his own now. He groans loud as he stretches, his head hurting and his body sore and used in the best way. Charles winks open an eye. "Fucking – Erik, why would you –"
"Wake up," Erik says, standing tall and broad and naked in the middle of Charles' bedroom, using another towel to dry his hair. "I've already been running with your sister and swam for an hour."
Charles grunts, squirms away from it and, goddamn, the sun is a bright metal thing, even when he doesn't have a hangover it hammers nails into his head. Untangling himself from the sheets, draping them politely over his waist, Charles leans up on his palms. "You're miserable, don't ever do that again."
Erik grins out of the side of his mouth. "Don't sleep in so late."
"It's not my fault," Charles says yawning. He can't help but grin too, unplaced and wild and for no reason at all, just the map of pale freckles on Erik's shoulders and the rosy flush high on his cheeks somehow making sense. That's a stupid reason to smile, but he does, because Erik is right there and not somewhere else.
Oh, hell. Charles is naked and all he knows is that he wants to drag Erik, soaking wet or not, back into the sheets. It hits Charles all at once, somewhere in his chest like a crossbow bolt and the wind is knocked out of him for a second. Oh, God, he's totally lost, this is actually embarrassing. He doesn't dare say it out loud, words like love are reserved for when Erik is fucking him into the mattress and it escapes despite his best efforts, otherwise Charles would have to fall on his sword. "It wasn't my idea to share the bed. I barely got any sleep at all."
"So sad," Erik murmurs, trying to smirk but his heart isn't quite in it. "Go on, blame it all on me."
"Don't get dressed," Charles says petulantly, stretching out an arm. "I don't want to move. Come here. Bring some wine. Bring some food. Let's never leave this bed."
"I can't believe it took you this long to realize you were such a bloody nance," Erik says, done with his hair and tying the towel around his waist. "You take to it like a babe to milk. Maybe I bring out the worst in you, hm?"
"I'm too tired for innuendo, Erik," Charles says, sighing. "Please, please come fuck me."
"No, shan't," Erik says lightly. "I have reading to do for next term."
"I hate you," Charles murmurs, sliding away from the edge of the bed, making a space next to him. "That's a terrible reason."
"Perhaps," Erik says, kneeling against the edge of the bed, the mattress sinking under his weight, "but most of all, I like saying no to you."
"Devil," Charles says, flopping back into the pillows. "Succubus. Servant of Satan."
Erik touches him, gently. Fingertips at his navel, cupping his cock over the sheets, the touch making Charles arch his back a little as hands climb up his chest, his fragile throat, to the scabbed split in his lip. Erik fixates there, touching it gently as Charles winces a little, running soft fingertips over the hard divot in his mouth. "Did I do that?"
Charles nods just a little. "Teeth."
"It suits you," Erik says, fingertips pushed into his cheeks, shoving Charles away. "Something to remember. You can tell all your friends you got it in a fight."
"Got more aches than that to remember it," Charles murmurs as Erik flattens a palm down his bare chest. "God, I'll remember last night for a week."
Erik smiles at that in benediction. "Yes, well, I did promise to be rough."
"You were," Charles mutters, murmurs into the pillow, Erik's hands on him and deep pillows and lulling him back into the blankets. "Come on, come here, I know how much you like fucking a Lord."
Erik slaps him sharp against his cheek. "Certainly not. Your sister wants to fence with you and I promised to drag you out of bed by your heels if need be."
"My sister," Charles groans. "You do know how to ruin a good mood."
"Oh, I specialize in it," Erik says, slapping him again. "Get up. Get up now before I slap you again."
"I hate you," Charles groans as Erik stands up. "You're the worst person I've ever met."
"Pitiful," Erik says, pulling on a pair of Charles' trousers and buckling them around his waist with nothing else. "No one will believe you. You've lost all your conviction."
"Oh, just, shut up," Charles says, stretching in a great yawn.
The day is one of those obvious idyllic things meant for children and Wordsworth poems. Big yellow sun drawn on in oil paints, watercolours for the wash of grass and dahlias and tulips so heavy they arch to the ground. It's an always summer day, a day easy to forget the world and other people and anything but Charles' hand draped in the water of the fountain and Erik reading the newspaper, naked except for his round tortoiseshell sunglasses like some silent movie star.
"Can it always be this way?" Charles says, mostly to himself.
Erik ignores him, of course, turning the page of the paper.
"I know it can't," Charles murmurs, filling in Erik's half of the conversation. "But it's a nice thought."
"I thought I knocked you out of that," Erik says, off-hand. He licks a finger and opens a new page, tsking gently. "The world doesn't hold its breath for young men. That costs more than I think even you have."
Charles exhales a hissing kind of laugh. "Yes, yes, I'm such a silly boy, I know. You drink my champagne too, Erik."
Erik smiles carefully. "Only to keep you company."
"Hello, boys," Raven says, emerging from between the hedges, dressed in her fencing gear with her helmet and épée held under one arm. "I see Charles is finally up."
"Go away, we're not decent," Charles shouts, folding the newspaper over his crotch.
Raven rolls her eyes. "And when are you ever?"
Erik lazily grabs a towel from the grass and cinches it around his waist, more as a courtesy than anything else. "Please stab him," Erik says to Raven, "he's gone Byronic on me."
"My pleasure," Raven says, grabbing her sword and poking Charles gently in the knee with the blunted tip. "Get up, Charles, we must duel to restore your honour."
"Are you in on this together?" Charles says, glancing at Erik. "Do you conspire when I'm not around?"
"Oh, yes," Erik says, shrugging. "We talk about you constantly. Nothing better to do with our lives."
Charles narrows his glance. "Go back to the house, Raven, I'll meet you there."
Raven swishes her sword in front of Charles' face. "Fine, but if you aren't there in ten minutes I shall hunt you down with hounds."
Charles does a quick salute. "Ten minutes." He waits for Raven to leave before he raises an eyebrow at Erik. "Honestly, and you think I'm spoiled?"
"I like her," Erik says thoughtfully. "I like the way she treats you. Like a disobedient puppy." Charles kicks him in the thighs and Erik laughs. "Honestly, fencing and good wine and roast beef. I honestly don't blame you for wishing it was always summer. I should like to fence."
"No," Charles says, laughing and rubbing his face in his hands. "I told Raven she's not to swordfight you. I know you both too well, I know how you both compete. That could only end in bloodshed."
Erik smirks, swiping over to half-hit, half-ruffle the back of Charles' head. "Bastard."
"Listen, Erik," Charles says, rubbing the back of his head and leaning closer, "I'm not actually like –" Charles voice drops at that, sudden and quick. He pushes his hair back and smiles kind of breathlessly. "I am aware what things are like. Out there, beyond the walls of this garden. That it's – not just champagne and fencing."
Erik raises his eyebrows. "Are you now."
"Well," Charles pauses, looking down at the newspaper. "No, not really. But I want to know. I honestly do."
Erik doesn't say anything, pushing his glasses back up his nose. His hair is a mess, fountain-wet and dried in the sun so it sticks up all over, the tips just curling. The sun has brought out red in a line from cheek, over his nose, to cheek. Just looking at him, Charles gets that diluvial rush of blood and heat and, fuck it, love through him all at once. He shuffles closer to Erik, just kicking a toe to his ankle.
"I'm not kidding," Charles says. "Whatever happens out there, I want to know. I want to face it, like you do. With you, actually. If – that's all right by you, I mean." Charles breathes out anxiously, trying to make this sound right, trying to make Erik get it, how this needs to be, how Charles wants it to be. "Just, bring me with you, okay? Whatever – whatever's going to happen, bring me with you."
"You'll just get in the way," Erik says, though he's smiling slightly. "You'll get in the way of the world, I know you will."
Charles grins, shrugs as he draws his arms around his knees. "Is that a yes, then? We stick together? Us against the world?"
"Contra mundum," Erik mutters, fidgeting a cigarette out of Charles' case, lighting it and puffing out smartly. "Mm, I suppose so."
Leaning forward, Charles takes Erik's offered cigarette and takes a long drag, hand on Erik's thigh breathing out smoke close, bumping foreheads and sunwarm skin. "In that case, will you be my second in the duel?"
Erik laughs, taking the cigarette back and leaping off the fountain's edge. He tugs on his lost shorts, buttoning them one-handed as he takes a careful puff with the other. "I suppose I must now after all this talk about feelings. Lead on, Macduff."
Charles hops down too, tugs on his trousers and zips them up carefully. "Lay on, actually," Charles says delicately, taking the cigarette away from Erik and smoking it languidly. "And damned be him that first cries hold, enough."
Erik gives him a familiar withering look. "I hate you."
"I know," Charles says fondly, burning the cigarette down to the nub and flicking it into the fountain. He slips his hands around the back of Erik's neck, lifting his head to nip at his lips. "I know you do."