Fandom: X-Men: First Class
Pairing/Characters: Erik/Charles; OC
Disclaimer: These characters are not mine.
Summary: He calls Erik my friend and the words resonate with a meaning only Charles can hear. There's a dangerous pleasure in it, that hidden meaning he longs to be able to share with Erik. Maybe one day, or one night, he'll find a way to tell him. But time is running out and he hasn't done it yet.
A/N: This story was inspired by ginbitch's wonderful XMFC fic, The Heart's Dark Crossroads; my thanks to her for allowing me to borrow her OC from that fic, and for her encouragement in writing this one. I'm also very grateful to blooms84 and kate_lear for their beta wisdom.
This one is for kalypso_v, because of Oxford and the Greeks.
It was sheer chance that Charles and Reginald ever met. Although they were in the same College and living on the same staircase, they had nothing else in common. Charles was in the first year of his Henry Scholarship, reading for a second B.A. in Science; Reginald was in his final year of English. Charles was gregarious, using all he'd learned at Harvard about how to pass as normal, fit in with the crowd; Reginald kept himself to himself and had a reputation for eccentricity. He dressed in the style of an 1890s dandy and collected blue china “because of Oscar Wilde”. The rumour that he was a secret absinthe drinker was probably groundless, but it was the sort of thing people thought might be true of him.
Reginald's surroundings, like his clothes, were different from everyone else's. A scholarship boy from a small town in South Wales, he furnished his College set with odd finds from Church bazaars and little second-hand shops, or from the attics of various deceased relations. It was a great-aunt's attic that had provided the bearskin rug which Reginald claimed was the nearest he could get “in these drab modern times” to keeping a live bear in his rooms like Byron at Cambridge. The wind-up gramophone came from an elderly uncle, along with a lot of the records. Charles enjoyed the music he heard drifting across the landing late in the evening, and was always sorry when it stopped.
Even though their rooms in College were opposite each other, it was half way through his first term before Charles first exchanged words with his odd neighbour. Reginald was mostly nocturnal, seldom emerging in daylight except to go to a tutorial. If Charles hadn't been up late one night in November, trying to pin down an idea that had been eluding him all day, they might never have met at all.
Charles sniffed: yes, something was definitely burning. The smell seemed to be coming from the room opposite his. There was a light under the door. He reached out with his mind and realized with surprise that the mind on the other side of the door was awake but apparently oblivious. Time to intervene: Charles pushed the door open, and saw a pale, dark-haired young man sitting bent over a book at his desk.
“Excuse me,” Charles said, “but I think something's burning.”
“Oh!” the young man said, startled. He jumped to his feet and rushed over to the gas fire, knocking away the charred objects stuck to the bars, and waving his hands in a hopeful attempt to disperse the smoke.
“Crumpets,” he explained, looking slightly embarrassed. “I was hungry but then I started reading because they were taking so long and I forgot about them. Would you like one? I don't think they're actually ruined.”
“Thank you,” Charles said. It seemed an odd time to be eating crumpets, but why not? “I'm Charles Xavier, by the way.”
“Oh,” the man said, sounding faintly surprised. “You're the Henry Scholar, aren't you? You don't seem very American. I'm Reginald Blunt. How do you do?”
The sudden return to formality made Charles laugh. Reginald looked puzzled, but then joined in.
“If you give them a bang against the plate and then scrape it should get the worst off,” Reginald said.
“Do you often set fire to things when you're reading?” Charles enquired.
“Not very often,” Reginald said consideringly, which made Charles laugh again.
“Essay crisis?” he asked, gesturing towards the desk.
Reginald's pale face flushed. “No,” he said, “it's not for an essay.”
Charles wondered what the embarrassment was about; being caught reading something frivolous, a detective story, perhaps?
“Have you heard of Edward Carpenter?” Reginald asked hesitantly.
“No,” Charles said. “Is that what you're reading?”
Reginald nodded. “Have a look, if you like.” His tone was casual, but there was a constraint under the casualness, Charles thought.
“Ioläus,” Charles read. “An Anthology of Friendship. Who's Ioläus?”
“It's in the epigraph,” Reginald said.
“Oh,” Charles said, looking at the quotation from Plutarch:
And as to the loves of Hercules it is difficult to record them because of their number. But some who think that Ioläus was one of them, do to this day worship and honour him; and make their loved ones swear fidelity at his tomb.
Charles felt slightly awkward; he thought he understood what he'd just been told, and Reginald's expression of embarrassment and defiance seemed to confirm that. He hadn't knowingly met a homosexual before, and didn't know what to say.
“Is it all about the Greeks?” he asked, feeling he'd better say something.
Reginald looked surprised and more than a little relieved. Charles wondered what response he'd been expecting, and why he'd choose to tell someone he'd only just met a secret that seemed to cause him such anxiety.
“Quite a lot of it's about the Greeks,” Reginald said, “but he does get as far as Walt Whitman.”
“O captain! my captain!” Charles said, mock-declamatory.
Reginald's face lit up. “You know Whitman – oh, but of course you do!”
“Not much,” Charles said apologetically. “But we did that one at school.”
“Oh,” Reginald said. “Oh, you must read Leaves of Grass. If you like poetry at all, that is. I know some people don't.”
Charles hadn't given the matter much thought, but he didn't want to dash Reginald's enthusiasm. He smiled in what he hoped was a vaguely encouraging way.
“You're a scientist, aren't you?” Reginald said. “What's your area?”
“Human mutation,” Charles said.
Reginald flinched. “Eugenics?”
“God, no,” Charles said. “Eugenicists want to dictate what form mutation will take. I want to understand what life forms are capable of becoming.”
“You're very tolerant for a scientist, then,” Reginald said wryly. “Most of the ones I know hate freaks of nature. Inverts, for example.”
He looked steadily at Charles, waiting for something; Charles wasn't sure what.
“Inversion – homosexuality – must be part of nature, mustn't it?” Charles said carefully. “Otherwise evolution would have got rid of it. We're all mutants of one sort or another.”
“Yes,” Reginald said sharply, “but only some of us are sent to prison for acting in accordance with our mutant nature. Or offered a 'cure' that's worse than the so-called disease.”
It's all right for you, you're normal, Charles could hear him thinking. He felt guilty at that, but he couldn't very well say Actually, I'm not normal at all. Reginald would probably think he was making fun of him.
“I'm sorry,” he said awkwardly.
“Don't be,” Reginald said. “It's I who should apologise to you. You were being perfectly nice about it and I bit your head off.”
Charles put his hands up to his head and said “Did you? No, it still seems to be attached”, which made Reginald laugh and call him a silly ass.
“I should probably go to bed,” Charles said, looking at his watch.
“You can borrow Whitman, if you like,” Reginald said tentatively. “And I'm usually up at this hour if you'd like a cup of tea.”
“Thank you,” Charles said. “On both counts. Yes, please, I'd like that.”
He thought the Whitman might be rather hard going, but it would be rude to refuse, in the circumstances. And a cup of tea might be nice.
They spent a lot of time together after that. When Charles couldn't sleep because his brain was buzzing from his latest discoveries, dropping in on Reginald was a welcome distraction. He realized early on that he was rather more than a distraction for Reginald, which made him feel vaguely guilty at first. But the guilt wore off, and he found he quite enjoyed being desired, especially by someone he knew was too shy and too gentlemanly to make a pass. It gave him a pleasant glow, like the warmth from the cranky gas-fire.
Charles would sprawl happily on the bearskin rug while Reginald talked to him about Whitman and Walter Pater and John Addington Symonds, or played him favourite records: Pierre Bernac singing Poulenc, Kathleen Ferrier singing Britten's folksong settings. He learned more than he ever expected to know about the Greeks, though he couldn't share Reginald's enthusiasm for the weirder bits of the Symposium.
“So according to this, the fact that I like girls means that I'm actually one half of an eight-limbed spherical hermaphrodite, in search of my female side,” Charles scoffed.
“It's not meant to be science,” Reginald said defensively.
“Just as well,” Charles said. “It's worse than inversion theory, all this romantic nonsense about finding your other half. As if there's only one other person in the world you could be with. What if you never meet? Are you supposed to spend the rest of your life looking for him?”
“It may be romantic nonsense,” Reginald said, flushing, “but at least he thinks that men like me are part of nature. Just as much as people like you. Maybe that's why you don't like it, because you can't feel superior.”
The suggestion made Charles uncomfortable, though he thought there was probably something in it.
“So what happens if you do meet your other half?” he asked, as the silence threatened to become awkward.
Reginald cleared his throat. “This,” he said, opening the anthology again. “'And when one of them finds his other half ... the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and one will not be out of the other's sight, as I may say, even for a moment: they will pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another.'”
“They become lovers?” Charles asked.
“It's more than that,” Reginald said. “He says it's about complete union – 'this meeting and melting in one another's arms, this becoming one instead of two'.”
Charles couldn't imagine having that, wanting that, with anyone, but he didn't say so.
“Plato's very poetic, for someone who didn't approve of poets,” he said.
“Oh, but you can tell he loves poetry, even in the Republic,” Reginald said, taking the bait.
Charles breathed a sigh of relief as the conversation moved to safer ground.
There was something almost erotic about the feeling of being the only two people in College awake at that hour. As if the intimacy was a secret, though in fact almost everyone seemed to know about it.
Malcolm Crail, the scowling bespectacled theologian in the year above Charles's, had seen him coming out of Reginald's room in the early hours of the morning, and taken it upon himself to warn him solemnly about Reginald's “unfortunate tendencies”. Charles laughed it off, saying “I can take care of myself, thank you very much.” But the glimpse he'd caught of all the confused emotions threshing around in Malcolm's own head made him feel as if he'd brushed up against an electric fence.
“Malcolm's queer himself, of course,” Reginald said when Charles told him about the warning. “He had an unhappy love affair and a sort of breakdown at school. Now he's trying to be what he calls normal. A lost cause, really. But he hates people like me who don't even try.”
“Why would he hate you for that?” Charles asked.
Reginald looked at him with mocking affection. “Dear boy,” he said, “you really don't know much about people, do you?”
It was true enough, hardly worth disputing. And anyway Charles felt too relaxed to argue. He finished the last crumpet and licked the butter off his fingers.
“What would be nice now would be some music,” he said.
Reginald glanced wistfully at the gramophone. “Can't play records at this hour,” he said. “Not even the divine Ferrier. The Dean is a philistine; he'd confiscate the lot.”
“Read to me, then?” Charles suggested.
“Yes, if you like,” Reginald said. He took up the book and began to read:
“To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life... While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the sense, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist's hands, or the face of one's friend...”
Charles lay still and let the words wash over him; he liked the sound of Reginald's voice, with that very faint lilt that still betrayed his Welsh origins.
“It's a sort of code,” Reginald said. “When Pater talks about the face of one's friend, or when Wilde quotes that passage, it's a sign to the readers who know.”
Charles wondered what word they used for friendship that didn't mean love between men, in that case, but he was too drowsy to pursue the idea. He rubbed his cheek against the bearskin rug, lazily contented, stretching out his hand for another cigarette.
“You really are the most complete sensualist, Charles,” Reginald said, laughing.
“I'm sure Walter Pater would approve,” Charles said. “Judging by what you just read me.”
“I approve of you lying on that rug,” Reginald said. “Very much indeed.”
The moment stretched out between them till Charles thought surely something would happen now, and half-wondered if he wanted it to.
But Reginald only cleared his throat and said “More tea?”, and went back to talking about aestheticism.
He didn't need to read Reginald's mind to know that Reginald wanted him. But nothing ever came of it. Reginald kept his desires reined in, like Plato's charioteer. Not just with Charles, either; as far as he could see, Reginald didn't touch anyone. Charles couldn't understand why he didn't find someone who shared his inclinations – after all, there must be others in Oxford – but Reginald winced when Charles said something clumsy and well-meaning along these lines.
“Yes, there are others. That doesn't mean I want to go to bed with them. Anyway there's no reason to assume they'd want to go to bed with me.”
“Why shouldn't they?” Charles asked, genuinely puzzled.
Reginald had one of those odd faces that sometimes seemed barely human and at other times looked coldly beautiful, like a Greek statue. Right now, he looked like someone about to say Well you don't want me, do you?
“Eros is a mysterious force, Charles,” he said ironically.
Charles wasn't sure if the mockery was for Reginald or himself or the situation. Maybe it was all three.
“Wouldn't you like to have that sort of relationship with someone?” he asked.
Reginald sighed. “For a clever man, you are quite stupid sometimes.”
“If you met someone you were – attracted to,” Charles said, carefully not saying someone else, though the words hung in the air.
“I don't know,” Reginald said. “It's better this way. You don't understand, Charles, how could you?”
“Because I like girls?”
“Because of your devotion to the Pandemian Venus, yes,” Reginald said, grimacing. “Which our society sees as natural and superior. And not illegal, as long as the girls are sixteen.”
Before Reginald, he'd never thought what it would be like to want someone and know that acting on that desire would make him a criminal. He couldn't imagine what that must feel like.
“Illegality's an aphrodisiac for some, of course,” Reginald said. “There's a man I know at Christ Church who keeps a list of all the public places where he's had sex. He said the most unusual one was the top deck of a bus.”
“Oh, really!” Charles said, torn between scepticism and discomfiture.
“And that it was only afterwards he realized there was a plainclothes policeman sitting two seats in front of them.”
“He must have been pulling your leg, don't you think?” Charles asked uneasily.
“I don't think so,” Reginald said. “But even he might have to think about changing his habits, the way things are going. Between Maxwell Fyfe in the Home Office and that maniac Nott-Bower at Scotland Yard...”
He didn't have to finish the sentence: Charles knew the papers were full of news about arrests for “persistently importuning”. At least whoever had been slipping those press cuttings anonymously under Reginald's door had stopped, though only after Reginald had made a highly decorated collage of them and pinned it to the noticeboard in the JCR.
Charles knew there was pain underneath all that mockery about what Reginald called your devotion to the Pandemian Venus and Charles called picking up girls. He would have liked to tell Reginald It's really not that important, but he understood enough to know that would only make it worse.
It was true, though: picking up girls was easy because it didn't matter. The pleasure of bodies fitting together and the oblivion that followed climax were purely physical, a blessed escape from thinking. Emotion didn't come into it. On either side: he saw to that, the one bit of mind control he allowed himself in such matters. To a woman, the girls he bedded went away thinking Charles Xavier: fun to go to bed with once, but that's it. No regrets and no complications.
Romantic love served a social function, he knew that: pair bonding, child-rearing and so on. But apparently he was immune to it, and that suited him just fine. He never felt it for any of the girls and certainly not for a man. Never expected to, either.
And then Erik happened to him, and everything he thought he knew turned out to be wrong.
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