Word Count: 20,928
Warnings: excessive alcohol/tobacco use, themes of racism/classism, dickishness abounds, perpetual nudity, AU.
Summary: Brideshead Revisited AU, no powers. "I know," Charles murmurs, now putting a hand over Erik's books, closing them gently, easing the pen out of his hands. Charles tilts his head just so, looking up at Erik through his eyelashes. "I know you want nothing more than a glass of expensive champagne and to sit by the river and to smoke a hundred cigarettes and burn the day to its foundations. I know you do. Every boy does."
Author's Notes: I would be dead without th_esaurus and her beta. I would be dead in the ground goodbye.
Charles taps a cigarette out of Raven's gold case, props it between his lips and fires it with her tin lighter. When he lies back in the boat, he drops his empty hand into the cold canal, breathing out grey clouds of smoke from between almost-closed lips.
The world is a green place, carefully paid for. All along the banks of the Oxford Canal, the cattails and the vines and the reeds crash against the banks like waves. Charles is stuck in the lazy furlough before Trinity term starts, two days from now, and Oxford is slowly transforming into a place of bicycles and ink pots again. It's unbearable.
The punt was Raven's idea, of course. Some slender undergraduate with his waistcoat and boater pushes them through the reeds for a shilling or whatever. There's a bottle of French wine chilling in ice that has turned to water, and many cigarettes, flicking their fag ends into the canal. Charles closes his eyes and tries to pin the moment down like a bug in a glass case.
"Oh, please, Charles, wake up," Raven says, laughing. "I'm so bored. Entertain me."
"You seem worried," Charles says, winking open one eye. "We have days yet. Relax. Have another glass of wine."
Raven sighs. "I can't. I have so much to read. Can we pretend I don't? I haven't even bought half my texts."
"You should have read classics, then," Charles says. He drops a hand into the cold water, splashes it against his face. "Greek composition is too easy. We could speak Greek by twelve. You could do my assignment, for God's sake. Besides, you're the one taking biology. You brought this upon yourself."
"They say third term is the hardest," Raven says, swilling her warm champagne uselessly around the glass. "You can't coast forever, Charles." She pauses, catching Charles' flash of a grin. "Can you? Hmm, I bet you can, actually."
"Life, liberty, and champagne," Charles says, taking a deep drink from his glass. "Besides, this was all your idea. Women's college nonsense, championing the cause of higher education. I was happy not to bother with any of it. We could be in Sardinia, Raven. Bombay. Amalfi. But you chose Oxford."
"I've stopped listening to you," Raven says in that sharp American way, piercing and louder than everyone else.
The stone bridges are filled with students in cricket whites and linen shirts, suited men and the odd woman, all of smoking cigarettes that are tossed around them into the water like dying fire flies. Moss covers the stone, turning the pale bellies of the bridges green as they pass underneath. Charles sips his champagne and stares at the sky, blue and empty and almost summer.
The next bridge is almost vacant, just a few older scholars in their black robes and one young man smoking ceaselessly, chaining the burning tip of one cigarette off the last. He's leaning his forearms against the ledge, dark-eyed and scribbling ideas on a notepad between his wrists. He sticks out wildly; strange, half-exotic, being so tall and sullen with his cheap shirt unbuttoned to his sternum with the sleeves rolled and a tilted bowler hat, freckled forearms and hair sunbleached ginger, almost blond.
"Who's that?" Charles asks, narrowing his eyes and sitting up a bit straighter.
"That man, on the bridge," Charles says. "I've never seen him before."
"Oh," Raven says. "I think he's one of those scholarship people, paid for by the college. He goes to Magdalene, I think." They both twist around to get a look, the hard line of his back and his slouched shoulders. "He keeps to himself, mostly."
"Interesting," Charles says, twisting around in their punt to get a better look. "What's his name?"
"Who cares?" Raven says, shrugging one-shouldered.
"I do," Charles says petulantly.
"He's German," Raven says. "He's Jewish, too," she adds quietly. "Poor guy."
"Yeah," Raven says. "He has tutorials with Hank, he mentioned something about it. You don't see many Jews, after all." She glances at Charles and sighs. "I don't like your tone, Charles. I don't think you should speak to him."
"He's not – right," Raven says, tapping the end of her cigarette holder to her lips. "There's something awfully dark about him, don't you think? He gives me the creeps."
"He's – mysterious," Charles says, tilting his head. There was definitely something oddly sticking about the boy. The way he sucked on his cigarette like it was the only air he could breathe. The way he just stood about, scribbling away – essays? poetry? manifestos? – and ignoring everything around him. He's a boy all wrong and something special, something like a homemade bomb.
"He's not mysterious," Raven says coolly. "He's Jewish. You often confuse these things."
Raven laughs. "You've already got an adopted American sister in the women's college. Do we need to be more outrageous? Do you really want to be associated with someone like – that?"
The punt goes around another bend in the canal and the boy goes out of sight. Charles finally turns around and sits back in his seat, draining the wine left in his glass. "I think he's interesting. I'd like to meet him."
Charles isn't really sure why, he just knows there's something oddly appealing about someone like that. "He just has that air. Look at the idiots we surround ourselves with. I bet he doesn't talk about banking or shooting or government even once." Charles grins at Raven as she rolls her eyes. "Don't you see the value in someone like that?"
"Fine," Raven says, taking a long drink of her champagne, signalling to the punter to dock at the next stop. "It's your family name. I'm only borrowing it. Befriend all the misfits you want. Start your own little circus."
"Come on, I'm starving," Charles says. "Dinner at the Eagle and Child and more wine."
Charles steps out of the punt and offers a hand to Raven. She ignores him, alighting on her own. "Pay the good man, Charles," she says, gesturing to the punter. "After all, you're the one starting the charity."
Charles walks up three floors, wooden staircases beaten with age; half-moons carved an inch into the wood as it's been worn away by a thousand undergraduate feet. He steps lightly until the last floor, a jaunty spring in his step and into the dank and cloudy corridors smelling richly of old books and must.
He's not out of breath but Charles stops in front of the door to catch it. He pushes back his hair and collects himself, tugging down the hem of his waistcoat and shirt. Another collected breath, another push of hands through his hair and he knocks.
The foreign boy opens the door. He's as richly odd as ever, a collection of things Charles rarely sees: dark eyes, lean muscle pocked with freckles, hands dark with ink under his nails, hard muscles in his bare shoulders and a coldness like winter. He only has a towel around his waist. "Yes?"
"Sorry, I didn't mean to wake you," Charles says, extending his right hand. "Lord Charles Xavier."
The boy takes his hand and shakes it twice, letting it drop like a grenade. "You didn't."
"Didn't?" Charles asks.
"Wake me," the boy says. "I just ran ten miles. After a tutorial this morning. What do you want?"
"Oh, interesting," Charles says brightly. "You run?"
"I like to run," the boy says, hair dark with wet and dripping down the edge of his jaw. He's heavy with strange things, with words and unplaced anger and another language in his voice. He sets his teeth hard and looks Charles in the eyes. "What do you want?"
"To meet you, actually," Charles says, pushing forward. He can see inside the boy's room, half-clean, clothes against one corner, prints of van Gogh and Caravaggio leaning against the bottom of the walls like they've forgotten to be put up. "How do you do?"
"I don't, actually," the boy says quickly. "Is that all?"
"Well," Charles says, clearing his throat and trying to figure out a strategy that works. A foot in the door, a benevolent smile. Books line the walls of this boy's dormitory, stacks of them with pale gold edging, cluttered and the only expensive thing to see. "I'd like to have lunch with you."
"Because I would like to," Charles says, at a loss to think of why the hell not. "I must say, I'm not used to being turned down."
"Tant pis," the boy says off-hand. He waits a moment in the dust of sunlight, water beading down his temples that he swipes at quickly. Everything he does somehow doesn't fit, an awkward puzzle piece in the neat order of Charles' life. Doesn't he know how this is supposed to go? Hello, hi, let's get drunk and never say goodbye. "Can I do anything else for you?"
"I – well," Charles says. "I'd like to know your name. I don't think that would be such a hardship, no?"
The boy grins, filled with sharp teeth and soft scorn. "Erik."
"Yes, of course, but you know that, didn't you?" Erik says, looking to the ceiling once. "With a K, yes. Are we through?"
"No," Charles says, putting a hand against Erik's door to stop him from closing it. He's not sure why he keeps pressing, but it feels wrong to walk away without knowing him, just a little bit. There's something here, something Charles would dearly like to have in his life, this new boy and all his strangeness. How interesting it would be to be friends with a wildfire. "Would you please reconsider?"
"You're not in the habit of offering, are you?" Erik says cleanly, looking Charles up and down, then up again. "You're terrible at it. Out of practice. Which means you expect people to say yes right away." Erik leans against the doorframe and Charles can't help but feel he's being sized up. "I suppose it's because they must say yes, those fortunate people. But here you are, asking me. Am I the first?"
"I suppose," Charles says, blinking quickly. "I don't know. I don't keep track."
"Your title," Erik says quietly. "I must say, you use it well. Like a bargaining chip. If I say no, it's because I don't understand exactly who you are, and so your ego isn't bruised. If I say yes it's because you're in a position of power. Either way, you win. Clever."
Charles bristles, righting his posture and frowning. "No, it's not like that –"
"But it is. Even if you don't think so, it is. My, my. Interesting." Erik smirks, touches the collar of Charles' shirt, fidgets it between his fingers. "Nice material. London tailor?"
"Thank you," Charles replies for lack of anything better to say. "Yes."
"I've already had lunch, as it is," Erik says, letting go of his collar. "I apologize."
"Then, dinner?" Charles asks.
Erik takes a moment to weigh it in his palms. He tips his head from side to side, like this is something to which he might say no. Finally he tucks his hands behind his back. "Fine. I'm suitably curious."
"Eight o'clock at the Gunners," Charles says.
"The Gunners," Erik says coolly, shutting the door on Charles. "You are paying. Good day, Charles."
"Good day," Charles says to a door.
"Drinks, please," Charles says, snapping his fingers for a waiter as Erik takes his seat across from him. "What do you take?"
Erik shrugs, straightening down the front of his shirt. "Whatever you think I drink."
"Scotch, neat," Charles says, gesturing to himself. He points at Erik and says, "And for my friend, a martini?"
"Well done," Erik murmurs, lip curling slightly.
"Well," Charles says, leaning back in his seat. The brown, smoky noise of the pub has fallen around them until they're satisfyingly lost, adrift in private island in the back, free to light up cigarettes and lean close like a conspiracy. Charles looks Erik up and down, his dirty shirt rolled up to the sleeves, his trousers with mud prints down the legs, his boots crusted with dirt around the tread. "Just come back from the stables, then?" he says, laughing.
"Yes," Erik says easily.
"Oh – oh, you have," Charles replies, feeling suddenly stupid for the joke. "I'm sorry, do you ride?"
"No," Erik says. The drinks arrive, and he holds the branch of his glass carefully, taking a sip of liquor, the corners of his lips turning up. "The dogs. I help with the Christ Church beagles. Take them out when there isn't a hunt, feed them, clean up. That kind of thing."
"Oh," Charles says, leaning forward. "How marvellous. Does it pay well?"
"No," Erik says. "It pays nothing."
Charles thinks he takes it in stride quite easily, nodding quietly around the sip of his scotch. "Interesting. You hunt, then?"
"No," Erik says, like he says to everything Charles might expect. "I just like dogs. They're pleasant. And they don't ask presumptuous questions."
Charles nods, swallowing his hitched breath. He can feel the blood rise in his cheeks and thank God they've found the dark corner of the pub because Charles feels naked right now. They're hidden away in Charles' money, but for the first time it doesn't feel like that's enough. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean – I was honestly curious."
"Well, now you have your answer," Erik says, barely softening. He narrows his eyes, runs a finger around the lip of his glass while he watches Charles fidget slightly in his seat. After a deep breath, Erik says, "No. I could never have a dog growing up, and now I have thirty. Simple enough?"
"Did your – did your parents not like animals?" Charles asks, flicking a cigarette out of his case and lighting it with the flame he stole from Raven.
"Did yours?" Erik asks, turning it on him quickly.
"We had horses of course, and a beagle pack," Charles says, finding the familiar territory of home and polite conversation. "But I'm not fond of hunting so I never saw them much. My father also enjoyed falconry, so we had an aviary for a while. But nothing I'd consider significantly domestic, you know?"
"Of course," Erik says. "Very understandable. One cannot have too many falcons." His cigarettes come in a cardboard pack, and his fire from a match. Erik breathes out a long breath of smoke, dancing the cigarette between his fingers. He looks down at his glass, then sharp and immediate at Charles. "When I was eight, we were evicted from our home in Munich quite suddenly, with little notice. You know, these protective measures against Jewish people. You must have heard about it in the newspaper, I think? No? Well, we were made to move into an apartment designated for – people like us. It was already twelve to a room when we arrived. My mother and father developed Typhus within the first two months and died before I was nine. I had a canary, but we left him behind. But, to answer your question, my family always liked dogs."
Charles is quiet as he drains the last of his scotch, feeling it burn down his throat, fizz in his blood and arms and skin as it settles in. Every turn with Erik is headfirst into a brick wall, Charles tripping over his words like tree roots. "I'm very sorry," he says. He's left defenceless, none of the easy quips and casual exchanges feeling quite right. It's a conversation he was never born to have, never meant even to see. "The hounds must be very special to you, then."
Erik smiles, off-hand and genuine for a moment before he covers it up. When he sucks again at his cigarette, his glance softens in the slightest. "Very."
"You must introduce me to them, then," Charles says, trying to get maybe one thing right. He'd like to do one thing right tonight. He isn't sure why, he just wants to somehow make this last. "I'd like that."
Erik doesn't speak for a long while, just stares at Charles as he smokes his cigarette down to the nub. His face glows copper and orange as the tip lights, darkened as he breathes out and tips the ash into their communal tray. "To be totally honest, I expected you to leave by now," Erik says quietly. "Most of your kind do."
"Well-meaning aristocrats, bored young men in search of charity," Erik says, waving his hand absently. "But you're still here, even though you're so obviously uncomfortable."
"I told you," Charles says, an uneven smile like he's afraid to be too happy. "I'd like to get to know you. Why should I be scared away when you've let me know a bit of who you are? If anything, I'm intrigued."
Erik sighs out a laugh. "And you aren't here to reform me? To make me change my heathen ways and see the guiding light of your saviour Jesus Christ?"
"I barely know the man, to be honest," Charles says, emptying the last dregs of his scotch. "I'm afraid I'm not terribly good at proselytizing. I never understood Jesus' appeal."
"Too poor?" Erik shoots quickly.
"Too ridiculous," Charles says, catching Erik's flash of a grin. Charles laughs, and then they're both laughing as he gestures to the waiter, nods at the empty glasses and asks for another round. "All that do this, don't do that nonsense. God seems like quite a fussy man." Charles breathes out smoke. "No, no, I'm rather an atheist, I'm afraid."
"Well, that is unexpected," Erik says softly, taking an offered cigarette from Charles' gold case. "An atheist. That's almost subversive. But, I will warn you now, you aren't doing yourself any favours befriending me."
"So we're friends now?" Charles says, throwing Erik's acerbic edge back in his face. "Bully for me."
Erik laughs slowly and privately, almost comfortably, like he's got nothing to cut down with sarcasm. "I'm reading History. I could tell you were curious, from before. History."
"I'm reading Greats," Charles says, offering a sturdy hand that Erik takes, shaking quickly. "Nice to meet you."
"Yes," Erik says, still a touch wary but mostly just smiling. "Isn't it."
Charles stumbles into his dormitory. The windows have been thrown open, loud with crickets and midnight things, river smells and the drunken laughter of undergraduates and the distant sounds of dogs.
Charles leans against walls and doorways until he find his own room, stumbles to pull the curtains closed and falls face-first into bed, fully dressed. He feels light as air, fuzzy and broken and floating a foot above the ground. It's all he's got left, this buzzing light for tomorrow, this happy blight in his head.
"Charles?" Raven asks, stepping into his room. She's in a white robe, her hair pulled back in a bun and her face clean and soft and naked. "You're not drunk, are you?"
"No," Charles mumbles into his pillow. "Leave me alone, harpy. Ride some other man's dreams."
"God, you are. Jesus," Raven says, quickly falling back on her sharp American accent never quite bred out of her. "Look at you. You are completely off your face." She kicks the end of the bed, makes Charles wriggle around the bedspread, digging his head further under the pillows. "You're such a boor."
"I'm not," Charles says tightly, rolling over in bed so he can take a proper look at Raven through his mussed hair, eyes only half-open. "I'm lost. I'm happy. Oh, God."
"Who is he?" Raven asks quietly, sitting on the edge of his bed.
"He's – amazing," Charles says, head lolling back, wet eyes already staring far away. His head is swimming, the spin of colour in the room and the champagne fizz in his body, in his face, his tongue and lips and cheeks. The night already drifting away, the best of it sticking in his brain like some half-remembered song.
"Oh, lord," Raven says, brushing the hair out of Charles' face, touching his cheek gently. "Who this time? What charming little fly have you trapped in your web now?"
"I don't know," Charles says. He rolls around in bed, tangled in blankets and half-pulled clothes, trying to undress in a knot of blankets and alcohol. "He's so strange. He's not real. I want you to meet him, you should meet him. He hates all the right things. Oh. Oh God. He's so – he's so – he's so mean and strange and not at all anything correct. I want you to meet him."
"Just your type," Raven says. "Another broken toy you can keep for your collection."
"No, no, no, no," Charles murmurs. She doesn't understand. She doesn't get it, not at all. Not a type at all, not a thing that has ever existed before. She doesn't understand foreign species, she doesn't understand happy mistakes. "He's not at all. He's undeniable."
"Go to bed, Charles," Raven says, kissing the top of his head shortly. She makes sure his blinds are secured, the room dark and filled with the smell of smoke. "You are made of nonsense. Good riddance."
"No," Charles says, flinging an arm over the side of his bed, grabbing Raven's wrist suddenly. "Make sure I don't forget this – feeling. Tomorrow. Tomorrow morning. Please?"
"Fine," Raven says, shaking his hand away. "But who are you even talking about? You sound ridiculous right now."
"I am," Charles murmurs, digging his head into his pillows, feeling everything fall away like water. "I want to be ridiculous forever. I want to. I'd like to."
"Good night, Chuck," Raven says, sighing as she closes his door.
It's just after noon when Charles leaves the house, the last gonging of the bells of Christ Church Cathedral making the air strangely electric and silver. Charles tips the edge of his trilby lower over his eyes and lights a neat cigarette before getting on his bike.
The road leads down towards the canal where the paths are lined with trees and everything seems to take a deep, calming breath. Magdalene is on the outskirts of the very core of Oxford, lingering out towards the flowers and brightly painted narrowboats. Out here the air has that rarefied quality, that near-summer kind of glow of mown grass and picked herbs and turned earth.
Charles bikes one handed, the other sipping carefully at his cigarette, a precarious game that he enjoys: the wobbling wheel of his bike, just missing students as he pedals, absently blowing out smoke like a steam train, the neatly cut carnation stolen from the botanical gardens bobbing in his lapel.
Erik is sitting at his usual place, on the porch in the little dark cloister of an empty half-cafe. It's been thatched over the years by the huge weeping trees planted around it, blocking out the sun completely, making the little stone corner cool and private.
"You aren't still working, are you?" Charles says, setting his bag down on the table carefully.
"Of course I am. Everyone's working. Everyone, all the time, except for you," Erik says without even looking up. "I suppose that's all right, though. After all, you seem to be taking a degree in Lunch."
"I work," Charles says lazily, sitting down at the table and crossing his legs. "I just find it so easy. Translating some tedious Xenophon paper on hunting or horses or whatever. I did it before breakfast. I was reading him at fourteen, for God's sake. But you're right," Charles says, finally catching Erik's eye, and grinning, "I do like lunch."
Erik laughs. "I'm sorry, I've already eaten."
"Hmph." Charles pushes through a couple of Erik's books, some old leather-bound tome, no doubt wrestled from the bowels of the University all covered in dust with the binding falling apart. "Who's on today?" Charles asks, taking out a new cigarette.
"Russians," Erik murmurs, flipping his lighter out of his pocket automatically, holding out a flame as Charles nods towards it and lights the tip of his cigarette. Erik flicks the lighter closed and looks back at his work. "Godunov. Shuysky. Vasa."
"Good Lord," Charles says, breathing out smoke and crossing one leg over the other. "Why?"
"You're the only person I know who must have some kind of reason for knowing something," Erik says, shaking his head gently. "There is no why, Charles. It's learning. Try it."
"Who needs to learn about some dead Russians?" Charles says. "I've been there once, when I was a boy. It was boring. And the food was terrible. And now, with their little revolution," Charles sighs, losing interest in the conversation when the sun is so yellow and the grass rich and his fingers itching to hold a wine glass. "I don't think it will last very long, all this Communist nonsense. It's too dour for words."
"Mm," Erik says mildly, scratching something illegibly onto a page filled with scraps of ideas and names and numbers. "Of course," he murmurs in that way that means something completely different. "You would say that."
"Because I'm rich?" Charles says, smirking and bobbing his knee against the table.
"No," Erik says, looking up with a sharp smirk, the glint of teeth in the corner of his mouth. "Because you're ignorant."
"I think you like me that way," Charles says, reclining in his chair and laughing. "As a child I was always told, you must either know everything or nothing at all. I've made my choice."
"That's Oscar Wilde," Erik says delicately.
"Yes," Charles replies, smiling like he can't help it. "You know him? Isn't he amazing? He attended your college, did you know that? Studied Greats, just like I am. Have you read any of his work? De Profundis. I'm in love with it."
Erik narrows his eyes curiously. He does this every so often, goes suddenly cold and calculating like Charles has done something unexpected. Charles always feels like he's being memorized in some significant way and made to feel oddly naked. It makes Charles shiver a little, but he doesn't say a word, just sits there absolutely still and calm, like a subject being painted. "Yes," Erik murmurs at last. "I suppose you must be."
"Don't be cruel," Charles says, a hesitant laugh. "Or I won't give you your present and I will leave you to toil ceaselessly over your Borises and Ivans and Igors."
"Present?" Erik says, looking up from the books again. He holds a fountain pen loosely between his fingers, like a cigarette, tapping it without rhythm. All at once his face eases, relaxes into a wicked smile and a loose somewhere-laugh.
"Yes," Charles says after a moment. Unbuckling his leather bag, he opens it and pulls out a bottle of champagne, planting it right in the middle of Erik's open book. "Ta da. Say you like it."
Erik smirks, finally pulling away from his slouch and resting back in his seat. He looks at the bottle, then to Charles, back to the bottle. "Mm," Erik says. "I'm afraid green isn't my colour."
Charles shakes his head. "Nonsense," he says soothingly, "it complements your coat."
"I have work to do," Erik says, still toying with his pen.
Charles rolls his eyes, gently tugs the paper away from Erik. Fine, if he needs to be convinced, Charles has always been good at that. "Come now. Your little tsars will be there tomorrow. This bottle, I promise you, will not."
Erik frowns, but not really, not genuinely. It's taken a couple of weeks but Charles is starting to see past the castle walls and crenulations of Erik's expressions; the stern frown set in his teeth like mortar, rigid in his wrists and collar. If there's one thing Charles is good at, it's turning life to fiction, buying his way into fantasy and that happy, half-drunk, late-afternoon nothing that he's sure Erik is afraid to admit he's beginning to love. "I'm afraid not."
"I know," Charles murmurs, now putting a hand over Erik's books, closing them gently, easing the pen out of his hands. Charles tilts his head just so, looking up at Erik through his eyelashes. "I know you want nothing more than a glass of expensive champagne and to sit by the river and to smoke a hundred cigarettes and burn the day to its foundations. I know you do. Why put up such a fuss? I want it too. Every boy does."
"Charles, it's barely noon," Erik says.
"I know, I know, we're terribly behind," Charles says, already unwrapping the foil around the head of the bottle. "We shall have to drink quickly in order to catch up."
And Erik laughs then, pushes himself away from his work. Charles grins as Erik stretches and yawns, gets caught in a smile he fails to wipe away in time and takes the glass Charles offers him.
"Cin cin," Charles says, lifting his own.
"L'chaim." Erik smirks, tipping back the first of many.
Raven, already primped and dressed for the day, stands above Charles and taps her foot. Loudly, as loud as a drum, oh good God, as loud as thunder. Her hair is tied back and she's dressed in a starkly white form-fitting shirt, long in the sleeves, and a grey skirt that stops just above the knee. She slaps Charles across the face with a white glove. "I honestly don't care if you're hungover, you promised," she says.
"What did I promise?" Charles moans, rolling away from Raven. "Oh God, do we have tutorials?"
"It's Saturday," Raven says. "No class. You said you'd fence. Get up, you jackass. It's almost eleven."
"Eleven?" Charles says, burying into his pillow. "It's much too late for a duel. Have you learned nothing from Pushkin? At dawn, Raven, at dawn."
"I said I don't care. If you can quote poetry you can pick up a damn sword, Chuck," Raven says, slapping his cheek again. "Besides, all you ever do these days is spend time with him. Every single day you're drunk. Every time we talk. It's boring. Pay attention to me for an hour."
"I admit defeat," Charles says, swinging his legs out of bed and dropping his head in his hands. "Finish me off. God, please do."
"Oh, poor Charles," she says, ripping the blankets from him. "No one cares about him. Get up. This isn't healthy, all these books and no swords."
Charles gets out of bed, washes his face unsteadily at the sink. His eyes feel sunken in, his throat dry from all the smoke and raw laughter. It takes him forty-five minutes to put on his tight athletic clothes, hiccoughing as he buckles it up. He manages to grab a coffee from his scout, and a piece of buttered toast, eating it quickly as he follows Raven towards the quad.
Swirls of ashy grey clouds have filled the skies and it's raining in spits, drawing gloom over the world like a blanket. He still feels dizzy and loose as he dresses for combat in the small grassy field just outside their dormitory. His fingers are sluggish, his legs dumb, but he pushes down his mask because he's a good brother and he knows how to take a beating when it's called for. Maybe Raven will kill him. That would be lovely.
"En garde," Raven says, closing her metal shield over her face.
Charles lifts his sword, swishes it about experimentally. He's still somewhere else, full of clouds and thick thick porridge, but he nods.
Raven comes at him with everything. Parries, parries, thrusts, deflected, and immediately Charles feels the sting of the tip against his ribs. "Fuck." Charles takes a step back, planting his hands on his thighs to catch his breath. "I mean, blast. Blast. Fuck. No, blast it." He really hopes he doesn't throw up. He hasn't tried but a mesh helmet seems like the worst place to do that.
Raven takes a step back. "You aren't even trying. It's not fun for me if you don't try."
"I can't even feel my fingers," Charles says.
"En garde." Raven says again.
Her swipe is obvious and Charles sidesteps it. Parried, deflected on his off-side, pushing her away. She feints again, and Charles dodges her easily, twisting away from her foil. Another feint, a thrust forward turned into a high-sword at the last second, bringing it down as Charles ducks away from it, taking the chance to swing out an odd blade to her side. It meets steel, flung away.
"Good," Raven says. It starts raining in earnest, soaking their clothes, dripping off the ends of their foils and the beaded silver tips. "You're waking up."
"I've been thinking actually," Charles says, flinging his weight against Raven's strike, dodging low and away from her. "Erik has nowhere to go after term."
Raven parries his loose backhand, twists away from it and goes for his ribs with a sudden thrust. All at once his foil is there, thrust vertical and low, pushing her away. "Oh," she says, taking a step back and breathing loud, flicking her blade back and forth like she's scattering blood from it. "Does he not?"
"Yes," Charles says, catching her slice against his side, matching her overhead blow, knocking her away. "I want him around. I like having him around."
Raven stands stiffly, this spectre in white and steel, sword swinging back and forth, that bit of psychological torture she loves with blade singing death in the air. "And?"
"And," Charles says, catching her next blow with his foil, casting her away. Another swipe against his side, easily deflected, these big broad obvious strokes and Charles knows Raven is just toying with him. "And I want him to spend the summer with us."
"Fine," Raven says. She lifts her foil and takes a fighting stance, weight on her back leg and her sword swishing in the air between them. "You know what this means right?"
"No," Charles says.
"It means," Raven says. "You love him." Her swing is quick and clean, clanking loud against the edge of his blade and ringing out. She swings again on his other side, deflected once, parried, and then she hits clean and clear, a metal slap against his thigh, then his ribs as she grunts loud and bright. "Touché!"
"Fuck," Charles says, dropping his foil on the stone. "I mean, damn. No, I mean fuck."
"Ha," Raven says. "You're awfully slow."
Charles pulls off his mask. He's even dizzier than before, sweating and too hot in his clothes. He drops his mesh and leans heavily over the trashcan, his fingers abuzz and his head full of antiseptic and cotton. "You win," he mumbles, spitting bile. "Spare me, William Tell. I'll tell you everything I know."
"Well," Raven says, pulling off her mask, "fine, invite him if you must." Raven leans against her foil like it's a cane, her hair sweaty and rainwater wet, her smile more of a smirk. "I have to say, you've made me curious. Is he really that great?"
"Yes," Charles says. He takes deep breaths, calming breaths, enough to calm his roiling stomach. "But you're not to sword fight with him. I can see no possible good coming from that. Promise me."
"Fine," Raven says, tucking her foil under her arm. "I accept your defeat and spare your life. This time."
"Very gallant, monsieur," Charles says, and then he throws up into the trash can. Raven only waits a moment before she steps close and starts to rub his back as he throws up again, murmuring babyish nothings as Charles empties his stomach.
"Pour me a drink. I need a drink," Charles says, dropping his bag in the grass next to Erik's table.
"Good afternoon," Erik says, nodding slightly. "So, you've done the exam, then?"
Charles whips off the black cloak from around his shoulders, flinging at against the table. "Unfortunately," Charles says, flopping in the chair across from Erik. "It went rather well. Basic Greek, viva voce. Basic! An exam for tourists. I need a drink. Do you have a drink? Yes, it went fine."
Erik pours him two fingers of scotch from his flask. "How do you do it?" he asks slyly. "It must be difficult being so wonderful. Congratulations."
"Barely," Charles says, drinking his liquor in one. "Another, please. I'm so bored I might as well be drunk. Join me."
Erik pours him another. "Mm, every boy needs a hobby."
Charles flips open his cigarette case and takes out two, putting one behind his ear and lighting the other, taking a long deep suck. They're just off the edges of a cricket pitch, a small wrought iron table balanced precariously on the grass. A flock of undergraduates in their whites move to their odd formations around the dusty oval, tapping their shoes with bats, taking odd lunging stretches. "It's a lovely game," Charles says, gesturing with his cigarette. "A gentleman's game."
"I hardly understand it," Erik says, taking an absent sip of scotch, unable to look away from the first stirrings of the game. Wickets being propped up, the first batter waiting anxiously, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. "It's like an odd dance, isn't it?"
"Oh, right," Charles says. "Germany. I keep forgetting. Well, when I need to understand the finer points of – skiing, I shall ask you."
"I was born in Düsseldorf," Erik murmurs, still staring at the game.
"No mountains," Erik continues smoothly. "No skiing." He glances at Charles, a glint in his smirk. "I boxed."
Charles splits into a grin. "My apologies. And thank you for warning me. Remind me never to upset you."
"I'm curious about the game," Erik says, turning back to the cricket match with his elbows on his knees, crouched forward. "Explain it to me."
"I said it was a lovely game," Charles says. "Not that I understand it. Raven once tried to explain it to me. She's a rather genius bowler, did you know that? Anyway, once she got to this leg before wicket rule and how a run can be scored completely in theory, I just gave up. I feel like understanding something makes it lose its poetry, you know?"
"Ignorance is like a delicate, exotic fruit –" Erik begins.
" – touch it and the bloom is gone," Charles finishes, going bright red and smiling into his glass. "Yes, yes, exactly so."
After five, ten minutes of silence, Erik absorbed in the game and Charles taking small sips of scotch and long drags of smoke, the boredom sets in again like a heavy cloak. Beautiful green English grass, sun finally free of its cotton cloud wrapping, crickets turning minutes into hours.
Charles fidgets but he knows Erik too well, knows that Erik loves ignoring subtle clues, feigning ignorance until Charles has to outright say what he's thinking. It's dangerously subversive.
"That man with the bat, that's the batter, or at least I think. Batter. Battist? No, definitely batter," Charles says, waving his cigarette around. "And that man with the ball, he's the bowler. Definitely not the baller, I don't think. Bowler."
"Thank you, Charles," Erik murmurs.
"I'm drinking for two," Charles goes on. "If I pour you a scotch and tip it in your mouth, will you drink it?"
"Thank you, Charles," Erik says again.
The game goes on and on. A man with a stick hits a ball and then everyone runs around a bit and then they stop running and another man takes the stick to hit the ball. Sometimes he misses and then no one runs around. Charles drinks another inch of scotch and he can feel it start to creep up around him, bumblebee tingle in his fingertips and a pleasant smoky cloudiness in the backs of his eyes. Erik keeps nodding and tapping his fingers to his lips like he's working out the odd algebra of cricket, turning it into patterns and machinations. In fifteen minutes no doubt he will be able to explain it to Charles in full.
"You never smoke enough," Charles says, lighting up his third in half an hour. "Do you realize that? I'm always two on your one. I don't know why you're always so mean about cigarettes. Do you just not have enough?" Charles flicks open his cigarette case. "You know you can always take mine. I think you'd like them. Yours are always so harsh."
Erik turns away from the game. He's blinking quickly, leaning back in his chair and considering the air for a second, watching Charles with strange precision. "I couldn't afford cigarettes, once my parents died," Erik says slowly, carefully choosing every word. "A bunch of us children used to go around picking up the unsmoked ends people had tossed on the ground. We'd save a bunch of those little nibs of tobacco and roll our own from that." Erik shrugs, taking a careful cigarette from Charles' case and propping it between his lips. Charles just watches him, takes a few seconds to realize before he fumbles his lighter open and holds the flame out for Erik. "We never made that many so you really had to savour them, one at a time, throughout the day." Erik exhales a small breath and turns back to the game. "But you're right. These are better."
Charles flicks his case closed. "They are," he mumbles, not sure where he should look now, twisting in his seat a little and looking away. "Whenever you'd like. You don't even need to ask, just take one. I'd – like that. I'd like you to do that. Our cigarettes."
Erik nods, smiles around the cigarette and turns back to the game. "If you'd like."
The game goes on after that. Charles shifts, can't find a comfortable spot. His heart is singing loud against his ribcage and he fidgets around his cigarette, taking shallow, nearly smokeless breaths. Charles watches Erik in profile, Greek nose and thin pink lips, just the soft brush of ginger scruff along his jaws. Charles is blind, fumbling, confused by these stained-glass stories that Erik has, this way he hides in shadows until suddenly the sun hits Erik just right, spilling a flood of colour and light into those dark corners of his life, Erik alive with richness and story, and then suddenly gone again. It's intoxicating, it's dizzying.
"Erik," Charles says nearly inaudibly. Clears his throat. "Erik?"
"Would you – would you like to live with me?" Charles says all at once, taking a good solid drink of whiskey. He's left it late, afraid of examinations and thinking too much, afraid of what time could do to honesty. It's strange to think that he's afraid of the answer, but he is. He really is. What he knows of Erik doesn't seem very much when he thinks about it. A loose boy with strange moorings. A bottle of champagne, a happy hangover. As uncertain as early frost. And those stories, that strange light, those attics and alleys and hidden places that Charles wants to know, desperately wants to know. "Would you? Would that be – okay? I'm packing my bags tonight. I want to know. You can come. Would you?"
Erik looks at him steadily. "Really?"
Charles stubs out his cigarette, half-finished. "You can pack your bag after your exams. I've got the train booked for the same day. I'm in a hurry to be home. We have the most amazing wines and mother is far, far away and I'd just – like it." Charles stumbles over it, his voice suddenly turning to dust. "I'd love it, if you came. I would. I know that I would."
"Can I think it over?" Erik asks.
Charles takes a deep breath, a puffy anxious laugh. "No?"
Erik smiles. "If I say yes, will you let me watch the rest of this match in peace?"
"Of course, absolutely. Absolutely." Charles grins.
Erik nods, plucking a new cigarette out of Charles' case. "It's just a summer thing, isn't it?" Erik says quietly, not even looking away. "It's what you do, yes?"
"No," Charles says quietly. "No," he says, louder. "It isn't. Just a summer thing. I'd like you to come. I would."
"I'm not the first, am I," Erik says, not a question.
"It's not like that –" Erik hesitates. "Not like that – anymore."
Erik draws into himself, quiet and thoughtful, glancing up to look at Charles every so often. "Fine."
"Well, then, I guess it's." Charles swallows back a complaint. "It's not a – I want you to come, however long you want. It's not .It's – shut up, Erik. I'm serious. I guess it's – welcome to the family," Charles finishes sheepishly, busying himself with another cigarette.
Raven is waiting in the car as Charles hops off the train and helps Erik unload his bags to the platform. It's still early, before noon, and the world has gone memorably English, china set blue and perfectly golden sun. It's a tight fit but they manage to load the cases into the boot of the much too small Bentley. Charles hops in the car, takes the middle not-quite seat, straddling the gear shift and half-standing between the two proper places, removing his hat and placing it in Raven's lap. Erik takes the passenger seat.
"You must be Erik," Raven says. She's very well done, a loose cotton dress with blue doodles around the collar, clean white driving gloves, a floppy hat covering her mess of blonde curls. "I'm sorry for the arrangements. The big car is still under covers."
"It's no problem," Erik says. Charles smiles down at him, his knee bouncing against Erik's shoulder, wordless and warm, a soft joke that makes them both laugh and cough and hide a little. "I'm sorry to have put you out."
"You've done nothing of the sort," Raven says, twisting the key in the ignition. "All the blame must land firmly on Charles' shoulders."
"I suppose it must," Erik says, sharing a grin with Raven. "He asks for it, doesn't he?"
"Enough of this," Charles says, a hand on both their shoulders like a safety belt. "I don't tolerate conspiracies. Drive."
The train station is an industrial little bunker in the midst of nothing. In seconds they're in trees and birds and the flicker-snap of sun between leaves. The road is dirt and bumps along, Charles jostled from shoulder to shoulder, white-knuckle grip against the backs of their seats. In one spectacular divot and jump, he gives a little oomph and slams hard against Erik's side. Erik extends a hand and Charles grips it, tight and sudden for the rest of the drive, the only safety in a crash.
"Have you seen the house?" Raven asks after a while, the wind whipping her hair about her face.
"I haven't," Erik says.
"Oh, then you will love it," Raven says. "Everyone loves it at first."
"Personally, I can't stand the place," Charles interjects, leaning back coolly, closing his eyes to the wind.
"Hush. You love it when your mother isn't around," Raven shouts over the windshear.
"Well, of course," Charles says. "I love everything better without her."
"Your mother?" Erik asks.
"Oh, I'm adopted," Raven says serenely, looking straight ahead as she guides the car through the woods. "I thought that was obvious. My accent. I was born on Staten Island and stolen away at an impressionable age. Did Charles not tell you?"
"No, actually," Erik says.
"Because it's not important," Charles says stiffly. "She is entirely my sister. In all the worst ways. You'll come to understand that."
"Be an angel and light me one," Raven says, tossing her cigarette case into Erik's lap. He does so carefully, taking out three cigarettes and holding them all between his lips, lighting them in a row. The first goes to Raven, the next to Charles.
"Oh, well, prepare yourself," Charles says gloomily, breathing out low blows of smoke as they turn another corner. "You're about to fall in love with a deceptive house."
"Welcome home," is all Raven says.
The house, the big stone house is hidden at first behind the trees. Only the dome appears, shoots out behind the forest like a rocket. The spire and the holy cross stretch into the sky, as brittle as chicken bone. As Raven clears the next hurdle of trees and the rest of the house emerges from the mist like Goliath. Stone, stone the colour of rusty gold, an ingot of brick sitting high on a green hill. Dark windows pock the house in a regular line, dizzying columns and arches in careful sculpture crawling up the sides like ivy. It's imperial, totally immodest, each corner a rising tower with copper turrets aged to green. A front gate in white stone carved and twisting around a fading Coat of Arms and carved lion heads.
It seems to stretch forever, like a bird spreading its enormous wings. Row upon row of empty windows, turrets and defences and gargoyles guarding every corner. It dominates the world, a stone fist of a house, magnetic and almost terrifying in size, like gods could live here, or heroes.
"Dovestone House," Charles says, a limp gesture towards it with his cigarette. "Hence my being the Lord of Dovestone."
"This house," Erik says, maybe the first time Charles has seen him nearly speechless. "Honestly."
Don't be such a tourist, Erik," Charles says, squeezing his hand. "It's yours now. It won't go away. You don't need to be so greedy."
"Don't be so vulgar, Chuck," Raven says, drawing into the gravel path and drawing rolling to a stop in front of the guardhouse. "Not everyone is used to it. Let Erik enjoy it."
"So this is where you live?" Erik says, taking a tight breath of his cigarette as he steps out of the car, hands in his pockets as he stares up at the house.
Charles shrugs, weighed down under its heavy shadows where the day becomes cool. "I suppose."
"What are you doing in here?" Charles asks. He's smoking a cigarette and leans against the doorway possessively, like it's his place to invade. "I want to show you my little house."
"It's hardly little," Erik says, closing his closet door.
"No, no, not this place," Charles says. "I don't sleep here when I can help it. I've got a little place in the gardens, I want you to see it."
"The servants –"
Charles stretches. "Don't worry. I know you like your privacy." Charles snatches a new cigarette out of his case, brings a light to it quickly as he stubs out the old. "We're rather understaffed here. Because daddy is away, we've only got two footman, two maids, a cook, and a scullery girl. Don't ask me their names, I can see it in your face. I don't know and it's normal that I don't know so don't give me that look. No one will care that you're not unpacked." Charles taps his cigarette into his palm, dumping it into the rubbish after. "Come on, I want you to see my house."
They wind down hallways and stairwells, glancing past paintings that Erik pauses at, stares at like a public gallery. Charles grabs his arm and tugs him away. Statues covered in white sheets, huge windows still shuttered against the day, dusty and old. Erik stutters in his step but Charles hisses, "it's nothing, come along, come on."
Erik stops in the foyer, resists Charles. He stands there stiffly, staring up. "It's a Rubens."
Charles sighs. The painting isn't covered and he groans. A sweet-faced Madonna holding a pink-cheeked baby Jesus to a naked breast. Slashed in red and grey, deep shadows and warm, orange flesh. It's pretty, it's familiar, it's ignored. "Yes, I suppose it must be."
"I've never seen one," Erik says quietly.
"So? You're Jewish," Charles says. "What do you care about Jesus?"
"It's a Rubens," Erik says. "You don't need to care about Jesus."
"I hate it," Charles says sharply. "I'm tired of Jesus. I see it every summer and I want to burn it to ashes."
Erik stands there, staring upwards. "It's beautiful."
Charles stands there, lets Erik get his fill. He puts a hand to the small of Erik's back, to ease him forward at first, but then just to hold. "I like that you like it," Charles offers in a small voice. "Is that enough?"
"You're spoiled, you know?" Erik murmurs, almost affectionately at this point.
"So steal it, what do I care?" Charles says. He brings his hand to the back of Erik's neck, pinching the knot of his spine. "I can't stand thinking that you love Jesus more than you love me. Come on, I want you to see my place."
Erik stares at the painting for a moment longer, then he smiles and turns away. "Fine. Show me your little house."
It's a five minute walk through the gardens. Neat hedges, flower beds almost spilling over with orange and red nasturtium, near-overgrown magnolia hiding the little spots they dodge between, covering themselves in green so deep the main house disappears like a bad dream. All the while, two suited servants carry a casket of champagne between them, jingling like a horse's bell collar.
"The gardens are Capability Brown, late eighteenth century," Charles drawls, dragging his fingers through hedges, twisting off leaves to roll between his fingers. "Personally I prefer Inigo Jones but what can you do, huh?"
"The world is unfair, isn't it?" Erik says around his cigarette.
"I can detect that tone of sarcasm, by the way," Charles says, walking smartly ahead. "We're almost there, come on, come on." They turn another corner, under the arch of a rich, bow-headed rose bush and emerge in a small clearing where Charles stops and puts his hands on his hips. "There. Isn't it marvellous?"
The garden has opened up into a little paddock. A vegetable patch, leafy with the lace of carrot tops and dill weed waving. The white stone path leads to a solid brick of a house, huge and square and marble, jutting out of the earth like an obelisk. Lambs chew on the tops of vegetables, little beasts fuzzy white and too deliberate, decorations themselves. All the windows are open, clean white curtains billowing out. It's so perfect, richly perfect, like it's been waiting this whole time with a smile. A country house imagined through fairy tales.
"It's certainly something," Erik says, shoving his hands in his pockets.
"It was modeled after le Petit Trianon in Versailles," Charles says. "It's my place, all mine. No one bothers me here. It's my slice of paradise. Do you like it?" Charles grins. "Oh, there are no Rubens here, if you were wondering. But there is champagne, and cigarettes, and it's all mine. Ours, I suppose," Charles offers quietly. "If you'd like."
"Charles," Erik breathes out. "Are you mad?"
Charles grins, putting an arm around Erik's shoulders. "Come on inside. I'll have the boys bring your things. I need a drink. Would you like a drink? Of course you would."
Getting to the roof is a bit of an ordeal. It's not strictly accessible, but Charles props a wooden ladder outside his balcony and they climb it a bit drunkenly, swaying in the breeze. They carry a bottle of champagne each, under their arms, wrestling them up with loose footing and numb fingers.
The tar of the roof is still warm from the sun, baking the bottoms of their bare feet. Charles snaps the blanket out a few times in the breeze, lays it down in one dark corner. He flops down on his back and fidgets a cigarette out of his case and blows out smoke into the night sky.
Erik sits cross-legged, wheedling the cork out of a bottle until it pops like a gunshot and the foam spills like lava. He drinks it down in heavy gulps, not wasting a drop, the fizz as light as fresh cotton. Erik's mouth is sticky as he swipes with the back of his hand, offering the bottle to Charles.
"Thank you," Charles slurs, taking a deep swig out of the bottle. He sets it down, then takes another drink that spills down his chin, dampening the collar of his shirt. "Oh, you're here, hello," he says softly, setting the bottle down again. Charles wriggles in his place, curls slightly against Erik's side, warm hands on his knees and resting against his shins. He's already lightheaded, but looking up he's suddenly dizzy with stars. "Erik. Lie down, come here."
Erik shifts back on his palms, lets himself down on his back. "I've drunk too much."
"Well done," Charles says distantly. His head lolls against Erik's hip, digging into the hard bone and warm skin where Erik's shirt rides up a little. Charles' snuffling breath is damp against flesh, his lips warm and wet against the ridge of Erik's hip. "Oh, happy day."
"Is this what you've brought me here to see?" Erik asks.
"Yes," Charles murmurs. The world bleeds like spilled ink, the edges of fir trees and cedar hedges waving in wind, the wet black of night catching light in pinpricks, reflected in the pond, purple and blue. Charles keeps his eyes focused on one star to keep from spinning about, reaching up to finds Erik's hand, squeezing it tightly. He doesn't let go. "Do you like it?"
Erik starts to laugh. He laughs until he hiccoughs, taking another slug of wine and passing the bottle over to Charles. "Only you would pay so much to see what everyone else gets for free."
Charles laughs, his back arching, settling back against the blanket. "You think so?"
"Any field in the land," Erik says. "You could see this just as well."
"I suppose so," Charles says. "But I like it here, right now, what this gets me." He runs his thumb over Erik's knuckles, feels them flex under his hand. The wind catches their cigarette smoke and dissolves it in air. The wine tickles the back of his throat as he takes another long drink, using the hand he's still holding with Erik's to wipe his mouth. "Do you promise? You like it?"
"I can't get used to it," Erik says slowly. "I won't get used to this."
"I don't want you to," Charles says. "I like – I like seeing your face when something expensive happens. When you get all exasperated and – and you roll your eyes just so. Yes, yes, like I'm sure you doing now. I like spending money on you, you know? I like spending lots of money just to make you uncomfortable, just to see how I'll be chastised for it next."
Erik laughs. He drags Charles' hand to rest on his chest, their fingers lacing, melting flat in the open space of his unbuttoned shirt. Charles' hand warm and flat against Erik's sternum, feeling every rise and fall. "You are beyond belief."
"Yes!" Charles shouts, echoing in the caverns of marble houses and walls of trees. "Just like that. Sometimes I think the only way you can show love is through criticism. I love your sarcasm. It's how - how I know you care."
Erik's head droops, against his shoulder, against the crown of Charles's head, his breath warm and lifting curls with each exhalation. "You don't even know your servants' names. You don't even care, do you? I know you don't, you just expect them."
Charles stiffens a little, his grip going tighter against Erik's hand. It's the wine, or the stars, or a thousand other things right at this moment – heat, closeness, long fingers laced with his own – but Charles takes a deep breath and curls tighter, his legs tangling under and over Erik's. "I had a valet – when I was a boy. He was meant to. Make me a Lord. Elocution, manners, decorum, French. More like a male nanny than a valet. A French-German lad from Strasbourg named Louis. I loved him, I doted after him. I called him the Sun King cause of – you know, Louis the Fourteenth, that kind of history thing. He was my absolute hero."
"It didn't end well, did it?" Erik murmurs, his mouth against Charles' hair, closer than he's ever been, drawn down to earth like an anchor.
"My father found out about the – nickname and – Louis was teaching me archery and he smelled like almonds, like almond paste, like marzipan. He always ate it, little wrappers of it in his pockets he offered me when I conjugated correctly." Charles takes a deep breath that shudders despite. "He never said goodbye. I don't think he got the chance."
"So you never learned another name," Erik says quietly, sudden and hard against Charles' side.
"No, I didn't," Charles says tidily. "No need for anyone to lose their job. I was educated at a private school after that. Nasty old nuns with switches. None of them had marzipan. I still can't eat it without wanting to retch. I miss him, wherever he is now. Dead, probably. He fought the Germans no doubt, some dashing cavalier rotting in the trenches." Charles laughs, a sick kind of laugh deep in his throat that hiccups and ends suddenly.
Erik is silent. After a moment, his free hand rests on Charles' shoulder, thumb against his neck, brushing gently over the smooth skin over the bulb of his Adam's apple. The edge of his jaw, Erik exploring it softly on fingertips, softly, comfortingly. Charles shivers and closes his eyes, feels alcohol and heat and colour rush to his skin, his chest and cheeks and tips of his ears burning like coals.
"I'm glad you're here," Charles says after a while, half-asleep, nuzzling gently against Erik's side and the few inches of skin he's found between shirt and trousers. "If only to give me that look."
"You're ridiculous," Erik says automatically.
"Mm, yes," Charles says, lips wet against warm skin. "That's the one."