aut viam inveniam aut faciam (attributed to Hannibal)
Erik’s first meeting with Charles Xavier is not an auspicious one.
It begins when Erik trips over a copy of the Oxford Latin Dictionary as he attempts to find his assigned office. This is what comes of having unlabeled entryways instead of hallways: he devoted so much attention to finding Room 607 that he completely missed the book lying in the middle of the hallway. He just barely catches himself, managing to keep from falling over by crashing loudly against the wall instead.
“What the hell?” he asks, rubbing his arm. He stares at the dictionary in confusion.
“So sorry!” a voice calls out.
Erik looks in that direction. A man wearing a blue, short-sleeved, button-down shirt tucked into relaxed fit khakis emerges from one of the offices. He has a head of tousled brown hair and carries a copy of the Oxford Greek Dictionary that matches the OLD Erik tripped over. Erik might even call the man attractive, with his startlingly blue eyes and distractingly red lips, were he not still trying to recover from his near fall.
The man gives Erik a once over, then brushes past him to pick the book up off the floor and inspect it critically. “No—well, almost no harm done.”
“To the book,” Erik points out. He’s still a little shaken.
“I’m sorry,” the man says, again, to Erik. “Are you all right, too?”
“Fine,” Erik admits.
“Wonderful,” the man says. He looks at Erik quizzically when Erik doesn’t move; in his defense, he still has no idea where he’s going. “Can I help you with anything?”
Erik doesn’t really want to admit he’s lost, but this is the fourth entryway he’s tried, and he isn’t sure where he is, beyond finally making it to the 600s. “I'm looking for 607,” he says.
The man smiles brightly. “It's right there,” he says, gesturing to the door he just emerged from. Of course. “We're to be officemates, then.” He balances his books in the crook of an arm and holds his free hand out to Erik. “Charles Xavier.”
Erik shakes it warily. “Erik Lehnsherr. Please don't ever treat my books—”
“Of course not,” Xavier says, looking horrified at the idea. He goes back into the office, gesturing for Erik to follow him. Erik obeys.
The office is much like Erik expected: two desks, a few bookshelves, a small table near the window with three chairs clustered around it. The furniture is all utilitarian, and the walls are white and bare.
“This will be exciting,” Xavier says. “What are you studying, Erik?”
“The standardization of the auxilia during the Julio-Claudian period.” He wanders around the room, hands in his pockets, looking out the window, examining the wall for power and cable outlets
Erik sees Xavier cock his head out of the corner of his eye. “You must have Emma Frost as your advisor.”
Xavier drops the dictionaries—Erik winces—back on the desk he has clearly claimed as his own, if the boxes strewn about it are anything to go by. “I rather liked her article contrasting the tactics of Lysander and Sulla.”
Erik can't help his surprise. “You've read that? Most people have only read her work on the Parthian War.”
“It was for a class,” Xavier admits, “but I thought it was a brilliant thesis. Though I'm sure you know much, much more about it than I do; it's rather outside my own area of expertise.” He pauses expectantly, clearly waiting for Erik to ask what that might be.
“Oh?” Erik says, noncommittal. He skims a finger across the surface of the desk closest to him, and it comes away clean. He is, despite himself, impressed. It's certainly a big step up from his most recent office, where he divided his time between fulfilling his Masters requirements and wrestling dust bunnies.
Xavier, apparently, doesn’t need more encouragement than that, as he continues, “I'm studying the relation between philosophical writings and political ideals in the late Republic, particularly in Cicero.”
“Who’s your advisor?” Erik asks, mentally rifling through the university’s professors.
“Irene Adler,” Xavier answers. “She was a visiting professor my final year at Oxford, and she was by far the best professor I’ve ever had, so I’m excited to continue working with her now.” Xavier gestures as he talks, and his hand motions get more and more exuberant as he discusses Adler.
“I can see that,” Erik says dryly.
The clock in the courtyard tolls loudly. “Three o'clock already,” Xavier says. He checks the time against the watch that he wears on his wrist, a huge monstrosity of a timepiece with a thick leather band. “I ought to pick up my key from housing.”
Erik moves out of the way of the door. “Don't let me keep you.”
He touches a few of the scattered belongings he's left on his desk—a mug, still half-wrapped in tissue paper; a collection of matching pens; a paperweight in the shape of a Corinthian column—, more, Erik thinks, as a way of reminding himself that they are there than straightening them.
Xavier grabs the leather satchel sitting by his desk, slings it across his chest, and walks past Erik out the door, pausing to say, “I very much look forward to sharing an office with you this year.” It's a funny, formal little speech, and Erik huffs out a laugh that Xavier must take as agreement, because he calls down the hallway, “I'll see you later!”
Erik kicks a stray box onto Xavier’s side of the room. He’s fine with the side of the room that seems to have become his, which is between the door, on the left, and the window, on the right. His own boxes of books are still in the enormous, unnavigable van the rental company gave him to take his things out of storage, but he has no intention of unpacking right now. He looks around once more and then leaves, pulling the door closed and locking it behind him.
Before he heads back to the rental, he makes the mistake of getting an iced coffee from the campus center. It’s strong, bitter, and overbrewed; furthermore, by the time he’s back at the parking lot, it’s mostly melted, condensation dripping down his hand onto his forearm. He irritably wipes his hand on his jeans before fishing the key out of his pocket and unlocking the door, climbing in.
The smell of the terrible air freshener is still as bad as when he first got the van, despite his earlier attempts to air it out. He drinks more of his coffee, even watered down as it is, while he studies the campus map; his apartment building is on the other side of campus, almost exactly opposite the office, which means it’s going to be one hell of a walk in the winter.
Erik finally manages to extract the car from the parking space—god, he hates vans—and pull out of the parking lot. The streets around campus are quiet and almost empty as he drives through them, leafy trees hanging overhead, casting their shade everywhere. He passes a few families out for a stroll, a handful of students laden with boxes and rolling bags.
When he reaches the apartment building, he parks as close to the third entryway as he can get, uses his ID card to get inside, then walks up to the third floor and down the hall until he arrives at 304. The door is already open. He walks inside and sees—Xavier.
“You can’t be serious,” Erik says, double-checking the number on the door. Still 304.
Xavier spins around, confused. “Erik?”
“What are you doing here?” Erik asks, though he suspects he already knows the answer.
“What am I doing here? I live here. What are you doing here?”
“I live here, too,” Erik says heavily.
Xavier, bizarrely enough, brightens. “How nice! We’ll be sharing an office and living together.” He runs a hand through his hair; it ends up fluffed up rather than patted down.
“Yes,” Erik says with a too-wide grin. “Nice. Right.”
“Well, let me tell you about the ideas that I had for the common room. Do you cook? I’m afraid I’m a little out of my depth in the kitchen, so I didn’t bring much in the way of kitchen supplies.”
Xavier continues to talk animatedly as he leads Erik around the apartment, imparting things he's noticed about the apartment already (“Oh, careful of that floorboard. It squeaks.”) and his plans for it (“I was thinking about putting an end table here, if you wouldn't mind.”). The tenor of his voice and his light British accent are strangely soothing.
The apartment itself is rather basic: two bedrooms, a common room, kitchen, shared bathroom, but Erik isn’t particularly picky. The ceilings are high in the middle but slope dramatically, and the slanted windows let in a fair amount of sunlight. Single beds, of course, but Erik can sleep on the full-sized sheets he brought until he has a chance to get a new bed. The biggest problem is the alarmingly uncomfortable sofa in the common room, which Erik discovers when he fails to heed Xavier’s warning and takes a seat.
Xavier sees his expression and laughs. “My sentiments exactly. I was planning to have this removed to storage as soon as possible and get a new one. Would you mind?”
“That’s fine,” Erik says, gingerly patting his back to make sure he isn’t bleeding, since it felt like one of the springs—and what kind of couch still has springs?—tried to impale him. “There are some other things I should get,” he adds, more thinking aloud to himself than speaking to Xavier.
Xavier, of course, takes that as an invitation. “It sounds like a trip to IKEA is in order. I have a reasonably sized car, and we can have anything else delivered.”
“We should probably go this week,” Erik says, since he imagines it will only get busier from there.
“I’m free on Friday,” Xavier says.
Erik spends the rest of the day moving his things. He’s only in the office for a short period of time, just long enough to stack the boxes he marked “WORK” on his side of the room and note that they’re running through free shelving space at an alarming rate, and devotes the rest of the day to the apartment. He can’t imagine that Frost is going to expect him to produce anything in advance of his first meeting with her, but he needs to set up his assigned bedroom—304A, the one on the right—so that he can sleep tonight. Four hours of home organization leaves him with a firmer grasp of what he’ll need from IKEA and an abiding hatred of moving.
He gets back from returning the van late that night and stumbles into bed, too tired to worry about dinner.
They both spend the next day unpacking, but Erik hardly ever catches sight of him, though he sees signs of Xavier’s presence in both the office, which now has a desk lamp on Xavier’s side and marginally fewer boxes, and the apartment, where the door to both the bedroom they designated Xavier’s and the closet in the room itself hang open to reveal the his clothes—and, oh god, are those his academicals? what the hell?—and shoes.
Xavier returns at seven with an enormous plastic bag filled with container upon container of Chinese take out and spreads its contents out on the tiny dining room table that came with the apartment. “I bought a bit of everything, since I didn’t know what you like,” he tells Erik.
Erik grabs the carton of General Tso’s. “This is fine. Where were you all day?”
“Oh, here and there. I thought I’d stay out of your hair.”
Erik finds himself oddly touched by the gesture. “You don’t need to,” he says gruffly.
“Have some lo mein,” Xavier answers, smiling at Erik as he passes the carton over. “I had a meeting with Irene, too.”
“Your advisor?” Erik asks, to make sure.
“Yes. It was wonderful,” he says, trying to get the lo mein to stay on his chopsticks. Erik rummages through the bag the food came in and passes him a plastic fork. Xavier takes it with a sigh but starts using it. He continues, “We had tea in her office and talked about her foster daughter, Rogue. She’s fourteen, and she’s been with Irene since she got back from Oxford—”
“No work?” Erik asks, using his chopsticks to pick up some rice.
Xavier pats his mouth with the flimsy paper napkin, his actions firm and deliberate. “I think the first meeting is informal. Irene’s the reason I came here, so we didn’t need to do it, but Warren said his was just a get-to-know-you.”
“Warren?” Erik asks.
“Warren Worthington II—or is it III? He’s another grad student in the department. I met him today; I’ll have to introduce you.” Xavier takes a sip of water, cradling his glass delicately. The posh gesture is at odds with his slouchy clothes and general carelessness.
“Sure,” Erik says reflexively. He has no real interest in meeting other grad students, but it's hard to say no to Xavier when he looks so eager to include Erik.
“Wonderful! I know a few other people here, and my sister will be starting college in a few days. I'll introduce you around.”
Erik gives a vague nod of acknowledgment and reaches for the chicken with broccoli.
“Did you meet anyone when you came to visit?”
“I didn't visit,” Erik says.
“You didn’t?” Xavier asks, brows raised.
Erik shrugs. “I knew the university's reputation, I did a lot of research—” really a lot of research, he thinks, remembering hours spent poring over university websites and emails back and forth with professors all over the world— “and Professor Frost was willing to be my advisor; I didn't see the purpose in visiting after that.”
“I hadn't thought about it that way,” Xavier says thoughtfully. “So you haven't met Professor Frost yet?”
Erik nods. “Although I've communicated with her a great deal over email, particularly before she approved my course of study.”
Xavier confirms, “The standardization of the auxilia?”
“Yes,” Erik says and eats a piece of broccoli.
“You should consider taking Irene’s seminar on Rome, if you haven’t already decided on all of your courses,” Xavier says.
“What exactly is it about?” he asks.
“The transition from republic to empire and the continued consequences thereof, focusing on how Rome changes as a political model.”
Erik blinks at him, and once he’s processed that, says, “As a political model? I’m not sure how that would help me.”
Xavier twirls some lo mein around his fork. “I admit, the primary focus isn’t on the military, but it’s certain to play a large role in the course. You must know how tangled political situations can become when you add ambitious generals or unbalanced emperors to the mix.” He gestures with his fork, dropping a stray noodle in his lap. “I apologize,” he says, a flush spreading across his cheekbones. “I’m usually not such a mess.”
“It’s fine,” Erik says, trying to hide his own amusement, since Xavier seems so discomfited. “They look particularly uncooperative.”
Xavier flashes him a relieved smile, looking a little rueful. “Exactly. I don’t think they were designed for erratic movement.”
“I haven’t had a chance to sit down with the course guide yet, but I’ll keep the seminar in mind,” Erik says.
“Do,” Xavier says, pleased. “If nothing else, there’s an article of hers you might want to read about the role of the army in the Year of the Four Emperors. It’s not one of the things she’s known for, but it has some interesting points, especially on the Batvian rebellion. I have a copy of it somewhere, if you’re at all interested.”
“I would be, actually.” He tries to remember what Xavier told him about his own interests, beyond something about the Republic, but can’t. “Have you decided on what classes you’re taking?” he asks instead.
Xavier puts his fork down on his empty plate. “Essentially. There are at least four classes I think I can work into my schedule.”
“Four?” Erik says, surprised. “What’s wrong with taking three, like everyone else?”
“I like a challenge,” Xavier says unconcernedly. It should be arrogant and off-putting, but Xavier's blue eyes are wide and earnest, and instead Erik finds himself amused.
“Your funeral,” he says. The phrase is something he picked up from his roommate in college, along with a near-native ability to curse and a working knowledge of American slang. “So what are these four classes?”
“Irene’s seminar, obviously, is one of them, and there’s a class on Egyptian hieroglyphs that sounds fun.”
“Fun,” Erik repeats, giving Xavier a skeptical look. Erik has seen hieroglyphics before, and he wouldn’t describe trying to decipher them as fun, exactly.
“Yes. I’m sure it will be fascinating to learn,” Xavier says.
“So what dead language will you study next?” Erik asks. “Sanskrit?”
“Perhaps.” Erik scrutinizes him, but he doesn’t know Xavier well enough to tell whether he’s joking. “Do you mean to tell me you're happy with only two?”
Erik grimaces. “You sound like my undergrad advisor. He kept trying to get me into Semitic languages.”
“They have a great department here,” Xavier says, grinning.
Erik cracks a smile in response. “No, thank you.”
Xavier tells Erik more about his plans as they clear the table: the rest of the courses he wants to take, his hopes for independent research, his years at Oxford, where he just finished his B.A.
Xavier is opinionated—very opinionated—and appears to think he's more charming than he is, but he's also funny and self-deprecating, and Erik finds him easy to talk to. So easy to talk to that he tells Xavier a little bit about himself: about growing up in Germany, then coming to America for undergrad and his Masters.
Despite their different backgrounds, their experiences aren’t entirely dissimilar. Erik can certainly relate to Xavier’s stories about his terrible undergraduate advisors, for example. “And then he told me that if I needed any more help, I should really watch Spartacus!”
Erik shakes his head but feels compelled to point out, “It does get some things right.”
Xavier makes a moue of distate. “This is why I'm so excited to work with Irene,” he says, putting the last of the empty Chinese food containers in the trash.
Erik grabs them from him and sticks them in the recycling.
“I'll remember that next time,” Xavier promises.
It's later than Erik expects when he heads to his own bedroom that night. Before he shuts his door, Xavier calls out, “See you later!” and Erik is surprised to find he really won't mind that.
Unfortunately, Erik can’t say he feels the same way in the morning. He hates twin beds so much that he isn't in the best mood as he stumbles into the kitchen, debating whether he should bother with his Chemex or just get dressed and try one of the countless coffee shops around campus. Xavier is huddled around the enormous, futuristic coffee machine that he unpacked first thing yesterday. “Good morning!” he says cheerfully when he sees Erik.
Erik is startled to discover that Xavier's unutterable exuberance begins this early. He grunts in response, but Xavier is undeterred. He talks about his scoping out running trails and what his plans for the day are, though none of that registers in Erik's mind. The only thing that does register is Xavier offering him a cup of coffee, which Erik readily accepts and begins to drink.
“You don't take anything in it?” Xavier asks, making a face as he pours milk into his own cup.
“No,” Erik says. The aroma and taste of the coffee are setting him more at ease, and he leans against the counter, just enjoying it for a moment. “Thanks.”
Xavier smiles. “Good, isn't it?”
“Not bad,” Erik says. One of the lights on the machine flashes amber, but Xavier isn’t bothered, so Erik ignores it.
“You can make your own any time you like, if I'm not around.”
Erik nods. He cups his hands around the handleless mug, which apparently came with Xavier from Oxford, and buries his nose in his coffee.
Xavier continues, “I also bought muffins for us. I thought blueberry was a safe choice.” He passes Erik one of the muffins and a napkin, then they move to the table. Erik really can't wait until they have a functional couch, since the table chairs are acceptable but not overly comfortable.
“It’s good,” Erik says.
Xavier nods in agreement. “I got them from one of the bakeries across the street, Crustimoney.”
“Probably a wise idea,” Erik says. “I got a coffee from the campus center yesterday, and it was terrible.”
“University food usually is,” Xavier agrees. He finishes his muffin and coffee, then gets to his feet. “I'm going to take a shower, if you don't mind.”
“That's fine,” Erik says.
Xavier retreats to the bathroom, leaving his cup and muffin wrapper on the table, and Erik mentally rolls his eyes at Xavier’s forgetfulness. Still, he cleans everything up once he's done eating. He spends the rest of the morning further organizing the apartment instead of preparing anything for his meeting, Xavier's words from yesterday still in mind, then grabs a sandwich and arrives at Frost’s office seven minutes earlier, where he waits for her in the hall.
To be completely accurate, Erik arrives twenty minutes early, partially because he misjudges how much time it will take to get from the deli where he picked up lunch to the Classics building, and partially because he has his mother’s voice in his ear, telling him he should never make anyone wait for him.
Of course, once he arrives, the part of him that always rebels against his mother’s advice, that got him suspended from Gymnasium multiple times for cutting class, won’t allow him to show up that early, so he makes a slow circuit around the courtyard, examining the plaques on the statutes in the niches of the building exterior. He heads inside when he’s finished and waits in the hall outside Frost’s office.
Erik doesn’t have many expectations regarding Emma Frost. He studied her CV extensively and read almost all her published work before he decided to apply, as well as during the weeks in which he communicated with her regarding his application, of course, but Frost's university page lists her as “E. Frost” and doesn't contain a picture, and he never felt the need to investigate her personal life further. Still, whatever he expected, it definitely wasn’t for the door to open at two o’clock precisely to reveal a perfectly coiffed blonde woman who looks like she ought to be a model.
“Mr. Lensherr?” she asks.
“Yes,” he says, pushing off the wall and straightening up.
She makes a sweeping gesture to indicate that he ought to follow her in.
Frost's office is easily twice the size of his own and has three separate seating areas: a desk, with two chairs in front of it; a couch, complete with coffee table; and a table and chairs. Everything in the room is the same exact shade of creamy white, including Frost’s clothing. The only color comes from the books on her (white) bookshelves and the diffracting beams of light from the diamonds around her wrist and neck. Erik wasn’t aware that academia paid well enough to afford that many diamonds.
The walls are all bare, save for the bookshelf and a single Piranesi print of the Arch of Septimius Severus. It’s a subtle but powerful statement of academic prowess. Frost’s D.Phil. thesis, which Erik pored over during his Masters, focused on military strategy during the Parthian War and therefore covered the arch’s depiction of the war extensively. It was the result of a Rhodes and, when she expanded it into a book, put her on tenure track.
Frost turns around in the center of the room. The sun shines through the windows at exactly the right angle to illuminate her hair and soften the features of her face. “Take a seat.” She indicates one of the chairs in front of the desk, which sets him at ease immediately. He’s not here to become friends with his advisor, and he’s glad that she seems to recognize this.
The impression is further reinforced when Frost studies him for a few moments without speaking, the force of her gaze a palpable weight, direct and piercing. She eventually leans back in her chair and says without preamble, “The university thinks we ought to have some sort of ‘get to know you’ meeting to orient you to your life as a grad student here.” Her voice is very dry.
“Ah,” Erik says, when it becomes clear some answer is expected of him.
“Frankly, I think it’s a waste of time.”
Erik relaxes back into his chair a little.
“I have a meeting at two thirty that I can’t get out of, so it’s not like we’d have enough time to discuss your research further at this point, but let’s discuss what you’ll be taking this semester.”
It seems Erik has relaxed too soon. He opens and closes his mouth a few times. Frost’s eyebrows creep up. “I…have some thoughts on the matter,” Erik says finally, “but I neglected to bring my course guide with me.”
“There’s one on the coffee table.” Her tone is a shade cooler than it was before.
Erik hides a wince. “Yes, of course. I—”
“You’re not prepared,” Frost says, frowning.
Erik doesn’t make excuses for himself, so he doesn’t tell her that he wasn’t aware that he needed to be prepared for the meeting. Instead, he meets her gaze and says simply, “No.”
Frost’s lips tighten into a white line as she regards him in silence. “You’re wasting my time, Mr. Lehnsherr,” she says, tapping the diamond-studded watch on her wrist. “Frankly, I didn’t expect that, given our conversations while you were applying.”
“I apologize,” Erik says, his throat tight.
“Apologies don’t do anyone any good,” Frost says with displeasure. She regards him for another long moment, and Erik fights not to squirm. “I’ve put together a few materials for you to look over, outlining your responsibilities.” She pushes a set of pristine interoffice folders across the table with a manicured hand. “Any questions?” she asks lightly, but Erik can still hear the undercurrent of disapproval in her voice.
Erik looks down at the folders. “No,” he says.
Frost smiles; it is not a particularly reassuring expression. “That’s the first correct answer you’ve had all day, Mr. Lehnsherr. Now.” She leans back in her chair and crosses her legs. She looks calm and very, very unapproachable. “There’s an orientation schedule somewhere in one of them, though I’m sure you already have your own copy. Go to the events, don’t go to them, I don’t care, although in the future, I do expect you to be prepared for meetings with me.”
“Of course,” Erik forces out. He realizes that his fingers are clenched in the arm of the chair and slowly loosens his grip, not wanting Frost to see how much she has rattled him.
Frost glares at him for interrupting her. “You will also meet any deadlines I set for you and be prepared for all the classes that you are TA-ing.”
Erik nods. “Yes.”
“Fine,” Frost says. She stands. “We’ll be meeting next Friday; will that give you enough time to be prepared to discuss your course selection and your own research?”
Erik bristles at her condescending tone and does not immediately answer, taking a moment to collect himself. Once he’s sure his voice won't reflect his anger, both at her and at himself, he says, “Of course.” He grasps the folders more firmly and stands up himself, making sure not to break Frost’s gaze.
“Well. I think this has been a productive meeting, don’t you?” she says, voice artificially sweet. She extends her hand.
Erik shakes it. “Absolutely,” he says tersely.
Frost closes the door as soon as he leaves. Erik has no patience for academics who keep their office doors open at all times to encourage students to come visit them, but all the same, he can’t help staring at her closed door for a moment, stricken, before he takes off down the corridor.
Xavier is in the office when Erik arrives, and he greets Erik with a smile and wave.
Erik drops his folders on his desk, resists the urge to snarl at him, and goes to the men’s room. He locks the door behind him and takes a few minutes to breathe deeply, trying to push down his anger and embarrassment. He’s put so much time and effort into earning his place here that he can’t believe he fucked up before classes even begin. He splashes water on his face, careful to avoid getting his shirt wet, then examines himself in the mirror. There’s a muscle twitching in his jaw, but other than that, he looks as calm as he can manage—as different from the angry kid who almost failed out of Gymnasium and had to crawl his way out of a mediocre college in America into a second-tier masters program and now, finally, here, to one of the most prestigious Classics PhD programs in the world.
When he gets back, Xavier has taken a break from packing and is leaning back in his desk chair. He spins around in it idly, kicking off with a foot whenever the chair starts to slow down, and doesn’t stop when Erik comes in, just shoots him a smile and says, “How did it go?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Erik mutters. He lifts one of his boxes onto his desk and starts unpacking its contents, stacking them in piles as he goes.
Xavier stops spinning. “Is there a problem?” he asks.
“No,” Erik snaps. Then he gets hold of himself. It isn’t Xavier’s fault, he tells himself, so it’s no use getting mad at him. Still, it’s an effort to say, with an attempt at an even tone, “No problem. Professor Frost just wanted some information that I didn’t have prepared for her.”
Xavier sees right through his attempted nonchalance. “How awful. I’m so sorry.” He looks like he’s about to get up, but partway through the motion, he settle back into his chair instead. “Certainly not the way you wanted to meet her for the first time, I imagine.”
“No,” Erik says sharply. “It’s fine. I’m meeting with her again next week.”
Xavier smiles encouragingly at him. “I’m sure that one will go better. Do let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” His voice goes up a little at the end.
“Nothing right now,” Erik says, still taking deep breaths. “I’m going to go back to unpacking.”
“I should probably do the same,” Xavier admits. He abandons the chair and channels his energy into unpacking in some order Erik can't quite follow. He will take a stack of books out, mutter to himself, then put a few of the books on one of the bookshelves and the rest back on the floor. Occasionally, he puts an entire stack back without touching any of the books.
Erik gets to work on his own books and tries to ignore Xavier, but it’s an impossible task. The office turns into a battleground around them; Xavier lets some of his books encroach upon Erik's space, and Erik retaliates by shifting some of his boxes into Xavier's territory when needed.
They have many of the same books (the inevitable result of being fellow Classicists working on Rome), but Xavier's are all easily distinguishable from Erik's, first by their uniformly awful condition, and second by the ridiculous labels Xavier puts on the inside back cover of all of them: “PROPERTY OF C. F. XAVIER.”
“You have no idea how terrible people at Oxford were about taking my books,” he tells Erik cheerfully when Erik looks askance at one of the labels. “Eventually I had to start labeling things so I could shame people into returning them to me.”
At six o’clock, Xavier invites him along for a mixer for something something grad students. It’s not like Erik cares whom it’s for; he's in it for the food and possibly a beer or two, and he figures that he should be able to get in and out without problem.
The mixer is a typical university event: minimally decorated and minimally catered with ridiculous top 40s music blasting over someone’s crappy speakers, but at least the beer is flowing. Erik periodically descends on the snacks table, with its bewildering array of options (spring rolls, sushi, tea sandwiches, mini quiche), and spends the rest of his time standing in a corner with a beer. Xavier, by contrast, talks to everyone at the damn party and eventually gets lost in the crowd.
When there’s nothing left to eat, Erik gets sick of waiting around for Xavier to finish up and goes to find him, which is something of a feat; Xavier is short, and there’s an overabundance of tall people in the room. Erik finally spots him talking to an enormous, blond guy with impressive muscles. Erik has never seen an academic built like that.
“I’m going home,” he says.
“Oh,” Xavier says. “But it’s so early. You should meet Steve. This is Steve.”
The guy turns to him with a blinding smile and sticks out his hand.
“Yeah, no,” Erik says. He turns on his heel and walks away. As he’s leaving, he hears the guy say, completely serious, “Your roommate seems nice,” and Xavier answer, “He is.”
Erik just shakes his head and leaves Xavier to it.
Erik wakes up late on Friday, feeling hung over from too much sleep. Things only get worse when he gets into the kitchen, where Xavier has left a note that says, “Meet you in the car park at noon for IKEA! - C.F.X.” His handwriting falls somewhere between four-year-old and serial killer, and Erik stares in horror at the exclamation point, Xavier's cheerfulness grating on his nerves. The coffee machine refuses to cooperate, just beeps angrily and spits hot water, and Erik eventually concedes, afraid of breaking it. He seriously contemplates giving up on the day and going back to bed.
Somehow, despite these setbacks, he gets to the parking lot at noon and jogs over to where Xavier is standing, beckoning.
“This is Trimalchio,” Xavier says, as though making an introduction.
Erik looks around, wondering if Xavier spotted someone with a really unfortunate nickname, but no one is there. “What?” he asks, confused.
“He’s a good old chap,” Xavier says, patting the side of his car. “He sometimes plays dead in the winter. And the summer.”
Erik snorts. “Hence the name?”
“Precisely,” Xavier says, looking pleased that Erik understood the reference. “But he’s been with me for a long time.”
“And you’ve been in an accident?” Erik asks, gaze zeroing in on the scratched, dented fender.
“Oh, yes. That. I’ve been meaning to have it repaired for a while, but I never seem to have the time,” Xavier says dismissively. “Don’t worry, I’m a perfectly safe driver. It’s just from backing into a tree.”
Really, that should have been warning enough, but Erik gets in the car anyway, putting his life in the hands of a British madman who doesn’t know how to drive. Xavier seems to consider himself exempt from traffic rules, so long as he clearly telegraphs his intent to break them; he carefully signals and then makes illegal turns on red with impunity. The tapping of his fingertips on the steering wheel as he slows down—he rarely makes any full stops—quickly becomes an ominous portent.
Erik clutches the door and resists the urge to backseat drive, which can only make it worse. Still, he can’t help the single, tense “Car!” he lets out.
Xavier takes his eyes off the road to look at him. “Hmm? Oh, I saw him coming.”
Erik likes to think he has more steely resolve than the average person, but it takes a lot of effort to not make frantic gestures at Xavier. When the car ahead of them stops short, Erik braces a hand on the dashboard and barks, “Light!”
Xavier’s reflexes are at least fast enough that he slams on the brakes, earning an angry honk from the car behind them. “I’ve always found car horns to be rather rude.”
Erik has never before been quite so grateful to whomever invented safety belts as he is this moment. “I don’t even know what to say right now,” he blurts out.
“If you don’t want to talk, we can listen to the radio instead,” Xavier says, taking a hand off the wheel to start pressing buttons and fiddling with knobs.
Erik, who dislikes casual physical contact, grasps Xavier’s wrist to stop him. “I can find a station,” he says, desperately hoping that Xavier will accept this offer.
Xavier pauses, glances at Erik again—he really wishes Xavier would stop doing that while they’re in the car—, and relents, smiling at Erik in a pleased way. “Go right ahead,” he says, finally returning his full attention back to the road as Erik relinquishes his hold.
Erik picks a station at random, stopping on a mellow song that he ordinarily wouldn’t like, but right now it’s slow enough to be almost soothing. It doesn’t matter much, since shortly after that, Xavier is careening onto the entrance ramp in order to merge onto the highway. Everything thereafter is a blur of improperly executed lane changes, swerving in and out of traffic, and treating speed limits like things that only happen to other people. Xavier is only forced to slow when they turn onto the road leading up to the IKEA parking lot.
A wave of relief washes over Erik as soon as his beleaguered mind registers that they are no longer moving. He escapes from the car, relishing the steady feel of unmoving concrete beneath his feet, and resists the urge to do something embarrassing, like pull a Lucius Junius Brutus and kiss the ground.
Xavier, apparently unruffled, regards Erik with some concern. “Are you all right? You look a little pale.”
“I’m fine,” Erik says tersely. “Let’s head inside.”
Walking starts to settle Erik’s nerves. Xavier rattles on about how his sister, Raven, has a tendency to get carsick—“strangely, only when I’m driving”—which segues, somehow, into the last time the two of them went on a lengthy car journey through the English countryside. Erik comes away feeling sorry for Xavier’s sister and some hapless sheep but also calmer than he would have expected. It must be Xavier’s babbling.
The first stop is for food, which is more Xavier’s decision than Erik’s. Erik doesn’t actually feel hungry, but his stomach rumbles as a reminder that he ought to eat something, so he follows Xavier through the line and to a table. He pokes at his meatballs and mashed potatoes while Xavier attacks the first of his two slices of apple cake, which he apparently thinks is an acceptable meal right now. The rote actions involved in eating make Erik feel more normal, enough that he can begin readying himself for the crowds: the cafeteria isn’t too bad, but, if the number of cars in the lot are a good indicator, it will worsen further along.
Once they’re finished, Erik buses their trays while Xavier studies the map he picked up on the way in with a slight frown. “This doesn’t make any sense.”
“Let me see,” Erik says. The map Xavier hands him is pretty basic, and Erik only gives it a cursory glance. “We follow the dotted lines,” he says, pointing to the clearly demarcated line. There are even arrows. What’s so hard about that?”
Xavier shakes his head. “That isn’t the nonsensical part. Why is the ‘Kitchens & Dining’ area separate from ‘Cooking & Eating’? Why aren’t ‘Storage Units’ filed under ‘Home Organization’? What on earth is ‘As Is’?”
Erik snorts. “Why did you pick this store if you find its layout questionable?”
“Oh, I’ve heard good things from other people,” Xavier says, shrugging. “But I haven’t been here before myself. I didn’t think it would be this labyrinthine.”
“Well, we’re here. Let’s just get what we need and get out.”
This is easier said than done. The “follow the dotted line” theory is complicated by the hordes of people clogging the aisles and Xavier’s insistence on taking a cart, though Erik doesn’t think they’ll need it in the showrooms. Worse, despite Erik’s attempts to avoid it, they end up traversing the children’s section. Erik almost tramples four children, and navigating around the rest of them makes progress extremely slow, allowing Xavier too much time to contemplate finger puppets.
“I’m not sure if this one is supposed to be the groom or the priest,” Xavier says. “It either makes this a depressing tale of a bride left at the altar or poses the question of who exactly is officiating.” He gestures with the box he’s holding.
Erik decidedly does not look over and instead pushes the cart another few feet forward. “Does it matter?”
“If you want to form a coherent narrative, yes,” Xavier says.
“No narratives involving finger puppets, please,” Erik says. Xavier sighs but sets the box down amongst some stuffed broccoli.
Erik rolls his eyes and forges ahead with the cart. At least the next area is useful, since Erik needs a bed, and Xavier has evidently decided the same. Unlike Xavier, who seems determined to investigate each available option, Erik does a quick sweep of the room and selects the one that’s black, metal, and not ornate, along with an acceptable mattress and box spring. He writes down all the parts on a scrap piece of paper with one of the stubby, yellow pencils Xavier picked up with the map. In the time it takes for Xavier to pick out his bed, Erik has also selected a filing cabinet and a rather large, comfortable-looking desk chair to replace the one that came with the standard-issue desk already in his room. He decides to sit in the display chair and poke at his phone, pulling up a crappy, black and white version of chess.
“I found the perfect one,” Xavier announces when he catches up to Erik a few minutes later. “I didn’t realize there would be so many options.”
“Hmm,” Erik says noncommittally. “Are you ready to move on?”
“I should probably pick a chair, first,” Xavier says, wandering off again.
Erik plays until he gets bored, which doesn’t take too long. He doesn’t particularly care for chess when there isn’t another person to play against, but his phone isn’t advanced enough for any games other than solitaire, and he’d rather turn to finger puppets than that. He goes to find Xavier, who is leaning back in a chair that is far more complicated than seems necessary and manages to make him look even shorter than normal. “What do you think of this one?” Xavier asks, stroking the arm of the chair. “Isn’t it grand?”
“It seems a little tall for you,” Erik says.
Xavier laughs, then gets to his feet. “I think tall is perfect. Shall we find a sofa?”
“Sure,” Erik says.
He guides Xavier over to where the living room furniture is situated. They pass through rooms they could theoretically skip over (the kitchen and bathroom areas, in particular, seem geared toward a level of renovation that would be entirely wasted on university housing), but even with the “shortcuts” labeled on the map, it’s difficult to find an easy way to circumnavigate when people keep getting in the way.
They finally make it to their destination. Xavier begins looking for a couch with his usual, inimitable energy, but even he begins to flag, and the process isn't quite as drawn out as looking for a bed and chair was. The only thing they really argue about is color; Xavier wants an unattractive orange with a noisy pattern, while Erik favors a neutral gray that isn't painful to look at. Compromise comes in the form of a shade of green that doesn't make Erik cringe and the decision that Xavier can get a rug to put under the coffee table already at the apartment.
They make it easily downstairs to the ground floor, which is, at first glance, an impenetrable sea of cookware, dishes, and in the distance, textiles. “Do you mind if I go look at the rugs?” Xavier asks, gesturing toward them, followed by, “I don’t really need anything here,” and an airy, dismissive wave to all the kitchen items.
“By all means,” Erik says, hoping that will get them out of IKEA faster.
Xavier smiles before he begins to weave his way through the people toward the rugs while Erik picks out a few things to add to the kitchen. After he finishes, he looks around for Xavier, who’s walking over. When he gets close enough to speak, Xavier says, “I need your input.”
“You’re the one who wants the rug,” Erik says tiredly.
“I’ve narrowed it down, but I like them equally and for different reasons.” He points out a shaggy purple rug and one with horribly blocked patterns and perplexing color combinations. “Which do you prefer?” he asks.
Erik can’t say he really likes either of them, but the purple is the least offensive of the two, even if it will probably clash with the couch. “That one.”
“All right,” Xavier says. He strokes a hand down the short bristles of the rejected rug. “I suppose it was not meant to be this time.”
“It happens,” Erik says blandly, then herds Xavier to the next section before he can rethink their selection.
Erik doesn’t care about the bathroom decor, so he lets Xavier pick out towels covered in fish displaying a disturbing range of emotions and a fish-shaped bath mat. In the next section, Erik picks up a shoe rack, some coat hooks, and a few storage bins, while Xavier becomes far too invested in the lamp options available.
“How many lamps do you think we even need?” Erik asks, after Xavier brings yet another one over to the cart.
“These are all for my room,” Xavier says, “but I suppose you’re right. We should at least get a few floor lamps for the common room.”
Erik stares at him. “We have the overhead lights.”
“Those are terrible.”
“You haven’t complained the past few days.”
Xavier shrugs. “The overhead lighting is tolerable, but nothing looks right when viewed under that level of fluorescence.”
“But you can see, and that’s what actually matters,” Erik says but decides to let it go.
Xavier proceeds to dither over floor lamps for the common area. Despite Erik’s best effort to stay out of the way, people keep bumping into him. He glowers at each of them until, finally, Xavier makes up his mind, and they continue onward into the warehouse area. The aisles are labelled, and everything is clearly numbered, which Erik appreciates.
“This doesn’t seem right,” Xavier says, frowning at his list as they go down the first aisle.
“You find the aisle, you find the bin, and that’s pretty much it,” Erik says.
“Isn’t it arranged alphabetically?” Xavier asks.
“Let me see your list,” Erik says. Xavier hands it over. “You only wrote down the names?”
Xavier looks at him in confusion. “Isn’t that what I was supposed to do?”
“No,” Erik says. “Did you not read the instructions on the back of the map?”
“I read them, and they said to write down my choices,” Xavier says, “which I did. By name.”
“And you should have also written down the article number, aisle, and bin,” Erik points out.
“What?” Xavier asks, looking confused. Erik offers Xavier the map, and he reviews the instructions again with a frown. “Why make things so complicated?”
Erik looks around. The store employees are few and already mobbed, but there are a few kiosks in the warehouse. “You can probably look things up there,” he says, gesturing to the nearest one and offering Xavier’s list back to him.
“I hope so.” Xavier heads in that direction.
Erik trails after him, since there’s no point in splitting up now: even if Erik picks up his items, he’ll still have to wait for Xavier to catch up later. The computer system is straightforward when it comes to pulling up items by name, which draws a relieved sigh from Xavier. He methodically goes through his list, writing everything down this time.
Once he's finished, they get a second cart, and Erik arranges their purchases by cart, stacking everything as strategically as he can. Xavier helps by staying out of the way and not causing a Swedish furniture avalanche.
Carts loaded, they make their way to the cashiers, careful not to disturb the precarious arrangements. Checkout goes smoothly, though Erik's pretty sure Xavier ends up paying for pieces of Erik's filing cabinet, and he ends up paying for parts of Xavier's chair.
There’s no way everything will fit in Xavier’s car, at least not without impairing any of Xavier’s lines of sight, and Erik refuses to brave Xavier’s driving if he can’t see. Instead, they arrange to have the majority of their purchases shipped the next day, though Erik’s sorely tempted to take his mattress with them and just put it on the floor in order to avoid another night in the twin bed. Still, he feels he’s made the right decision when Xavier’s back behind the wheel. The return journey is no less traumatizing than the one that had taken them to IKEA, but miraculously they make it back in one piece.
“That was awful,” Xavier says when they’re back in their common room, sprawling onto the floor, since he refuses to try his luck with the old couch. Erik has only just gotten his breath back after the second scare of Xavier's excuse for driving.
“Yes,” Erik agrees fervently. “So many people,” he says, at the same time that Xavier says, “So many rooms.”
“I think this calls for Chinese takeout,” Xavier says.
Erik groans. In Xavier’s mind, he has learned, everything calls for Chinese takeout.
The delivery from IKEA arrives the following morning, and Xavier gets the door while Erik finishes showering. By the time he's ready to face the day, their new couch is taking up the parts of the common room not entirely covered in boxes, the delivery man is long gone, and Xavier is staring contemplatively into the only box he's managed to open, knife dangling loosely from his hand in a way that Erik finds deeply alarming.
“Give me that,” Erik says impatiently, taking it from him. He slits open the rest of the boxes, puts the knife back into the kitchen—far away from Xavier—and starts removing the plastic-wrapped pieces.
Xavier, meanwhile, stands in the middle of the room and looks lost. “I think they gave us the wrong boxes,” he says, scratching at the back of his neck.
Erik looks up at him. “What are you talking about? This is an arm of that chair you bought.”
“But it's in pieces,” Xavier says.
“Because you have to assemble it,” Erik says.
Xavier blinks wide blue eyes at him. “What? Isn’t that a benefit to having it delivered? Everything comes put together?”
“Never mind,” Erik says, shaking his head. “Why don't you go and do whatever it is you have to do today?”
Xavier drifts over to one of the boxes. “I could help...?” he says hesitantly.
Erik rolls his eyes. “I've got it.”
Erik hikes a thumb over his shoulder. “Out.” He gets to work, throwing the (overly confusing) instruction manuals out and surveying the pieces of the cabinet.
Xavier spends the morning doing something in his room, quiet and not disturbing Erik’s concentration, but every time Erik thinks to himself that he’s dying for a drink or he needs something to eat, he’ll notice the glass of water on the floor next to him or the apple by his elbow. He didn’t exactly plan to spend the entire day doing this, but the repetitive motions soothe him, and he gets lost in the simple pleasure of putting something together. The beds require Xavier’s help, but with detailed instruction, he proves at least moderately useful, and he’s stronger than he looks.
By the time he’s finished, the apartment is looking moderately livable, and it’s almost dark outside. Erik has recovered enough from the IKEA ordeal to agree to go with Xavier to another grad student mixer. Not that he particularly enjoyed the first one, but he wouldn’t mind being spared another evening of Chinese takeout.
“Come on,” Xavier says, “I’ll introduce you around.”
“All right,” he says grudgingly.
Xavier is as good as his word. He’s only been at the university a few days, but he already seems to know everyone there. “Azazel!” he calls.
A man with slicked-back black hair and a large red tattoo on his arm that sprawls down past the sleeve of his shirt comes over. “Charles,” he says solemnly.
Xavier puts a hand on his arm, and Erik flinches away, unable to stop himself. “Erik, this is Zinoviy Azazel—”
“Just Azazel,” Azazel interrupts.
“Of course,” Xavier says. “Sorry. Azazel is studying Alexander the Great’s campaign against Bessus. Azazel, this is my flatmate and office mate, Erik Lehnsherr. I told you about him, remember? He’ll be working with Professor Frost.”
Erik isn't sure how he feels about Xavier telling people about him, but all he says is, “A pleasure.”
“Yes,” Azazel says.
They eye each other for a moment, while Xavier beams at the two of them, oblivious to the increasingly awkward silence.
“Well,” Azazel says finally.
“Quite,” Erik says. He’s happy to know that someone else around here is studying military tactics—there are far too many people concentrating on literature and art—but not enough to make inane conversation with the man over platters of soggy crudite.
Azazel salutes them and wanders off.
“Well, he seems nice,” Erik says sarcastically.
Xavier nods. “Doesn’t he?”
The next hour passes in a blur of introductions and new faces and more information than Erik will ever remember about people he doesn’t care about.
“I think I need another drink,” Erik says eventually, to stop the tide of information and spare himself the need for further smalltalk.
“I’ll come with you,” Xavier offers.
Erik makes a dismissive gesture. “I hardly think I’m going to get lost on the way to the alcohol.”
“Oh,” Xavier says. He fidgets with his watch. “No, of course not. Never mind.”
Erik regards him for a moment, but Xavier doesn’t seem to notice his gaze. “Well. Come along then.”
Xavier smiles up at him. “All right.”
The drinks table, when they get there, is blocked off by a man with a wide back and a shock of brown hair.
“Hullo, Logan,” Xavier says. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“Free food,” the man says, turning around. “How’s everything, Chuck?”
“Capital,” Xavier says. Erik huffs a laugh at Xavier’s old-fashioned lexicon. He looks like he’s having the time of his life; his cheeks are flushed from a combination of the heat of the room and the beers he’s already had, and his smile is threatening to take over his entire face. “I wanted to introduce you to Erik.”
Logan grabs a beer and pops the cap with the enormous metal ring on his finger. “That’s nice. Have a beer,” he says, passing the beer to Erik. He opens two more, passing one to Xavier and keeping one for himself.
Xavier takes it as he completes his introductions. “Erik Lehnsherr, Logan. He only has one name that I’ve been able to discern.”
“Like Madonna,” Erik says, baitingly.
He’s eminently satisfied when Logan bares his teeth at him. “Right. Well, this has been fun,” he says insincerely. “But now I have free food and beer, so I’m leaving.”
“Oh,” Xavier says, startled. It’s probably the first time in his life that someone hasn’t fallen for his charm. “All right.”
Logan waves a hand at them and lumbers off.
“Well,” Xavier says finally. “That was Logan.”
Erik nods, not particularly interested.
“He’s been here for a few years now.” Xavier takes a few pulls from his beer bottle, looking at Erik expectantly.
“That’s nice,” Erik says, when it becomes clear that he’s actually expected to participate in the conversation. “How’d you meet him?”
“It’s actually rather fascinating,” Xavier says excitedly. “You missed the meeting on fostering cross-disciplinary work—”
“I deliberately chose not to go to the meeting,” Erik corrects him.
“—But there’s some tremendously interesting work that’s going on now, particularly in the smaller programs. And Logan was there as an example of some of it.”
“I have a hard time believe he went willingly,” Erik says, thinking of Logan's brusqueness.
“Well,” Xavier equivocates, clearly not wanting to say something negative about a colleague. “He ended up being very responsive to questions.”
“I'll bet,” Erik says. He can just imagine Logan looming while Xavier inundated him with questions.
Xavier tries unsuccessfully to suppress his smile. “He had some interesting things to say,” he protests.
“Well, he started out in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, studying some of the ancient Syrian cults, since he has a strong background in Elbaite and Amorite, but now he's thinking of changing his thesis and focusing on those cults in the Roman Empire.”
“Like the cult of Mithras?” Erik asks. Roman religions aren't his specialty, but it's impossible to study the army and not become at least passingly familiar with some aspects of Roman religious life, like the Feriale Duranum—and the Mithraic mysteries.
“Precisely,” Xavier says.
“Interesting,” Erik says. “Still, from Syria to Rome. That's a big jump, particularly if he'd already started his independent work on the ancient near east. How'd he manage to do it?”
“He didn't go into detail,” Xavier admits. “I think he went to Rome on his own and talked the school into allowing him to work with both departments once he'd already done the research.”
“What, you mean for a vacation?”
Erik snorts. “Vacationing in Rome hardly qualifies as serious scholarship,” he says derisively.
“He wasn't just vacationing,” Xavier protests. “He conducted research on his own time.”
“But did he initially go to Rome to do that?” Erik asks, waving his beer bottle in a small circle to emphasize his point.
“No, but it's why he stayed there as long as he did.”
“So, what, he's making a significant change to his coursework because he dropped by a mithraeum? He didn't even bother to get departmental approval first,” Erik says with disapproval.
“But it's been approved now,” Xavier points out.
“After the fact, and there was no guarantee it would be. Maybe in a couple years he'll have real work to show for it. Or maybe he'll have changed his mind again, depending on his travel plans,” Erik says.
“His thesis is probably going to be on the use of Syrian words and customs in the Roman manifestation of the cult,” Xavier says stiffly. “He went to every mithraea in Rome. That he did this independently doesn't invalidate his work.”
He has a point, loath that Erik is to admit it. Instead, he protests, “Besides, that's not actual cross-departmental work.”
“What do you mean?”
“Going on a personal trip to Rome and then deciding that you want to add some stuff about your cult in Rome isn't cross-departmentalism; it's dilettantism.”
“What?” Xavier asks incredulously.
“Cross-disciplinary work involves actually using the skills you've learned in one discipline to help you in your study of another,” Erik says. “Whereas Logan still sounds like another spoiled rich kid doing whatever he feels like.” He puts his beer bottle down on the table with a loud click. “Not everyone can afford to do that. And if he can, it's ridiculous that he came to the mixer tonight for the free food.”
“Fine,” Xavier says. “So he's a terrible person. Please excuse me; I think I see someone else I need to say hello to.” He slips through the crowd.
Erik looks after him in confusion, then shrugs and takes up a position by the wall, much like he did during the first mixer. He becomes fully absorbed in people watching for the next few minutes. Xavier’s enormous friend—Stanley? Stewart? Stephen?—from the first mixer is standing in a corner talking to yet another tall guy with a chiseled jaw; Erik can’t tell if they’re flirting, but they’re certainly standing very close together. The guy with the tattoos that Xavier just introduced him to—something with an A, Erik knows, but he’s terrible with names—is showing them off to a girl Erik hasn’t met before, rolling his shirt sleeves up to reveal a design made up of smoke and flames and a well-defined bicep. Erik rolls his eyes; does everyone around here lift weights?
He finishes his beer and heads back over to the table to grab another one. The position puts Xavier directly in his line of sight. At first, he doesn’t even recognize him; without his customary animation, Xavier looks subdued and a little tired, talking to a girl Erik’s never seen before with long hair tied back in a business-like ponytail. Erik’s attention snags on the circles under his eyes and the lines around his mouth. It looks wrong on him, and Erik’s caught between the indifference he thinks he should be feeling and uncharacteristic guilt.
Without thinking too much about it, he grabs a second beer and, when Xavier’s finished his conversation and is standing around looking lost, brings it over.
“Here,” he says, shoving the beer at Xavier.
Xavier quirks an eyebrow at him. “I already have a beer.”
“Yes, but this one’s cold,” Erik says.
Xavier peers at him for a moment in confusion, and then he seems to understand what Erik’s trying to say, because he takes it and smiles a little and says, “Thanks, Erik.”
“Whatever,” Erik says. “Are you ready to leave?”
“You just gave me a beer.”
Erik makes an impatient gesture with his free hand. “When you’re done with that one, obviously.”
“Oh.” Xavier takes a sip. “Absolutely. Did I introduce you to Bruce? Because he’s somewhere around here, and I think you’d like him.”
They leave as soon as Xavier finishes his beer and his introductions. On the walk home, Xavier is silent. Erik, who has never minded silence, leaves him to his thoughts, perfectly content to spend the walk trying to determine what he’s hoping to cover during his next meeting and making note of all the places where the cobblestones are uneven and water will gather when it rains.
When they get back to the apartment, Xavier says, “I apologize.”
“For what?” Erik asks.
“For losing my temper like that.” He takes a deep breath. “I—some of what you said may have...hit close to home. But I shouldn't have taken it out on you like that.”
Erik shrugs a little. “Don't worry about it.”
Xavier gives him a smile. It's still not quite up to his usual wattage, but it's getting there. “Thanks.”
“Good night,” Erik says in answer.
He goes to his room and gets ready for bed, exhausted from the socialization expected of him. It was worth it for Xavier's brightening mood, but it's left him grouchy and short-tempered—grouchier and more short-tempered, really—from too much time spent around other people, Xavier in particular.
Xavier is constantly cheerful and noisy in the office, and he’s clearly taken Erik being assigned to share the same office and apartment as an invitation to become best friends, because he is always around, asking Erik if he wants to go somewhere for lunch together, walking over with Erik to the office in the mornings, bringing back takeout for both of them in the evenings.
Erik’s last roommate spent most of his time staring at a computer screen, too absorbed to acknowledge anything else. Erik tended to ignore his roommate in return. It was an arrangement that worked for Erik, who was an only child growing up in a small, quiet house, empty most of the time while his parents were at work.
He's starting to regret telling Xavier that he needn't stay out of his hair early on, since now it feels like Erik can't get a moment for himself.
He goes to sleep that night wishing he were back in his parents’ small house in Düsseldorf with an intensity that surprises him. He dreams that he is sitting in the kitchen, eating Wilstermarsch on a loaf of fresh, crusty Vollkornbrot. The satisfaction he feels upon waking up, before he realizes that it was a dream, is so strong it’s almost pornographic.
When he realizes where he is, his disappointment is almost as strong.
Erik plans on going to the office and actually getting work done for the first time since he’s arrived. His second meeting with Frost is coming up soon, and he needs to show her that their first meeting was a fluke, which means extensive preparation on the materials she gave him, the courses he wants to take, and his plans for independent research.
Except, of course, the day starts in the worst way possible. He stubs his toe on a cabinet when he’s getting milk for his cereal, spills the leftover coffee Xavier put in the refrigerator for him on his shirt, and drops his spoon into the trash, where it falls immediately to the bottom, making him have to search for it by hand.
Xavier, on the other hand, comes back from his usual morning run dripping in sweat, a wide smile on his face. “Good morning!” he calls on his way to the bathroom.
Erik grumbles in response and finishes disinfecting his hands.
Xavier sings his way through the shower, loud and completely tone-deaf. By the time he gets out of the shower, Erik is contemplating homicide. “I’ll be going to the luncheon this afternoon. Will you be there?” Xavier asks, popping his head, turbaned in a towel, out of the bathroom.
Erik shudders. An entire lunch talking about technological enhancements in the academe? “No.”
“All right.” Xavier vanishes back into the bathroom.
Erik heads to the bedroom to pack his things. He spends a good five minutes looking for his keys, only to realize he’s already got them in his pocket; he considers banging his head against a wall. Xavier has moved on to humming now, loud enough to carry over the sound of the tap running, and Erik has to go through the papers on his desk three times before he can summon the concentration to figure out which ones he'll need.
He can't possibly work like this today.
He calls through the open bedroom door, “When will you be getting to the office?”
Xavier appears in the doorway in his robe, a toothbrush hanging out of his mouth. “Hmm?”
“When will you be getting to the office?” Erik repeats.
Xavier goes back into the bathroom to spit, then calls, “Not sure. Maybe around two? Or three?”
“Which one is it?” Erik asks, trying to curb his impatience. “Two? Or three?”
“Does it matter?” Xavier shouts over the sound of the running water.
“Yes,” Erik says. “It does.”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Well, when will you find out?”
This time when Xavier emerges his towel is gone, but his entire face is dripping, and he’s got the white, foamy remains of shaving cream near his hairline. “I don’t really know,” he says, wiping the water from his face with his hand. “Whenever they finish. What does it matter?”
Erik represses a sigh. “It matters because I need to know how much time I have to really get work done.”
Xavier narrows his eyes. “I’m sorry?”
“You don’t think I can actually work over your noise, do you?” Erik asks. He crawls under his desk to unplug his laptop power cord.
“My noise?” Xavier asks.
“You know,” Erik says, climbing back out. He starts to loop the cord around his hand so it won’t get tangled up in transit. “You talk to yourself all the time, and when you aren’t talking, you’re humming. You drop things on the floor, and you—you rustle paper.”
“I rustle paper?”
Erik looks up. At some point, Xavier moved into his own bedroom and is now pulling clothes out of his dresser as they talk. “Yes. It’s impossible to work over.”
“Perhaps you’d like it better if I didn’t come to the office at all?” Xavier says.
Erik can’t tell if he’s serious or not, so he asks, “Is that an option? Because—”
“No!” Xavier interrupts, furious. “It’s not. It’s my office too. I shouldn’t have to preserve absolute, hermetic silence—”
“I don’t need absolute, hermetic silence,” Erik interjects, but Xavier says over him:
“When I work in my own office!”
“Well, I still need to be able to work in it. And you’re being too loud.” Erik is vaguely aware that his anger is irrational and not even really aimed at Xavier, but he’s tired and upset, and he hates eating cereal for breakfast, but Xavier didn't bring back muffins today, and there's nothing else for breakfast in their entire stupid kitchen, and he's already on edge about this meeting with Frost and making sure he’s prepared for it, and to top it all off, he misses his home and his parents, and he knows it’s stupid, he knows he’s been in this country for years, but he can’t help it. He can’t handle all of this at once.
“That’s ridiculous,” Xavier says, waving his arm around, the blue shirt he has clutched in his hand fluttering madly behind him.
“It’s not ridiculous. It’s the truth,” Erik insists. “It’s distracting. I’ll never be able to work with the amount of noise you make.”
“Next you’ll be telling me I breathe too loudly!”
“If you were, I’d tell you!” Erik almost shouts.
“I don’t believe it!” Xavier huffs. “So what if I happen to like talking to myself when I work? It’s not like I blast music—”
“I should hope not!”
“Or pop gum—”
“I think you’re missing—”
“Or, or tap dance or anything.”
There is a moment of complete silence after he says this, during which Erik can't help but imagine Xavier, in his perfectly pressed khakis and button-down shirts, tap dancing. The image is too funny to resist. “Are you likely to tap dance?” he asks and then gives up and bursts into laughter.
“No, but I could,” Xavier says. He seems to realize that he sounds ridiculous, because the corners of his mouth start sneaking into a smile. “I promise I’ll try to be quieter. And to talk to myself less. If it’s really a problem, we can always talk about switching offices.”
“I can bring headphones,” Erik says, willing to give a little if Xavier will too. “I’ll put them on if it’s too much.”
“So we’re okay?” Xavier asks.
“Yes. We’re fine. I’ll see you at two. Or three.”
Xavier smiles at him and closes the door to get dressed.
It’s not that Erik was lying, but it’s one thing to say that they’re fine, and it’s another thing to be fine.
Everything seems slightly unfamiliar to him. Not just Xavier and his new office and adjusting to his new place on the academic totem pole, but the width of the streets and the language on the street signs, the way people on campus smile at him and say hello and even, occasionally, introduce themselves, the unfamiliar brands in the grocery store when Erik goes to buy food. Which is ridiculous, of course; Erik’s been in the United States since he was eighteen, he should be over this by now.
He can't stop snapping at Xavier, bowed under the pressure of accumulated tension. Things get better when the undergrads finally arrive, and Xavier spends the better part of two days out of the office and apartment helping his sister move in. Later, of course, they manage to quarrel over Xavier’s sister’s presence in their apartment without warning or notice to Erik. This has never been a problem for Erik; of the two roommates he’s had before, the first went out instead of bringing people back, and the second never had anyone over.
In fact, prior to Xavier, the last time Erik got into an honest-to-god fight with anyone was when he told his parents he wanted to study in America after graduating from Gymnasium.
Erik waits until the next morning to call his mother. He’s been calling his parents from the U.S. for years, so he’s able to time it perfectly, catching her just as she arrives home.
“Mama,” he says when she picks up, his brain switching to German with a slight easing of tension.
“Erik!” she exclaims, her voice conveying her delight. The knowledge that he can still make her day just with a phone call is a warm weight in his stomach.
“How were the children today?” he asks.
“Good, good.” She begins to him about her day teaching at Gymnasium, about the progress of her students, about their struggles in Latin.
The sounds of her puttering around the house in the background are comforting. Erik can almost see what she’s doing as he hears it: That clank of metal on metal is her putting the keys in the bowl she keeps on the entry table that he made her in pottery class when he was eight. That heavy oomph is her putting down her heavy bag on one of the chairs in the kitchen. That pneumatic wheeze is the refrigerator door opening and then closing as she takes out the pitcher of lemonade she makes every morning to have when she gets home.
If he closes his eyes, he can almost imagine that he’s there with her.
“But for them, the locative is the worst,” she says.
Erik snorts and says, “How can it be? It doesn’t require learning another ending.”
She shushes him. “I remember when you, too, struggled with it.”
“That was years ago,” Erik protests.
“Ah, well, they are young, too. They will master it. But come, you did not call your mother to talk about the locative.”
“Am I not allowed to call my mother to say hello?” Erik asks.
“You are always allowed to call your mother to say hello,” she tells him. “But you do not usually sound sad when you call me.” She pauses, then asks, “Is everything all right, Erik?”
“Fine, Mama,” Erik says. “Mostly fine.”
“Mostly fine is not the same as fine. Tell me.” Erik hears the scrape of the chair against the floor. She must be seated now at the kitchen table, that glass of lemonade settled in front of her, along with a slice of bread or pastry from a bakery. When his father comes home, she will repeat the ritual for him except with a beer instead of lemonade.
Erik takes a deep breath. “My advisor is disappointed in me.” He pours out the story of his disastrous first meeting with Professor Frost and his upcoming second meeting. His mother listens, the way she always does, and makes comforting noises.
“Oh, Erik,” she says, when he finishes talking. It’s the same way she would say his name when he came home from school with scrapes on his knuckles from fighting, when he called to tell her that he and Magda had broke up, soft and tender and a touch exasperated. “It is a pity you did not know what this Professor Frost expected when you met with her the first time, but now you do. You have time to prepare and to make a better impression. I know you, Erik. If you want to impress her, you will.”
“I know,” Erik says. He does; he already spent last night going over the courses that he wants to take, making sure that he had all the information Frost gave him memorized.
“So that can be fixed. What else is troubling you?”
“My roommate,” Erik says immediately.
“What about him?”
Erik tells her about Xavier’s constant noise, his grating cheerfulness, his irritating habit of taking over every room he is in.
She laughs. “I think I would like him,” she says. “I think you also like him most of the time.”
She knows him too well. “Not right now,” he says, a little petulant.
“You don't have to like him all the time,” she reminds him. “And surely there must be some good things about sharing an apartment with him?”
Erik thinks about it for a minute. “He has an amazing coffee machine,” he tells her finally.
“There. You will have amazing coffee for as long as you share space with him. That’s important.”
“As long as he’s around to make it,” Erik says. “His coffee machine hates me.”
She laughs. “It’s a machine, Erik. I don’t think it hates anyone.”
Erik spins around to glare at the machine, its blank face, its unlit buttons. “It does!” Yesterday, he spent half an hour this morning trying to get the machine to make him a cup of coffee, and all that happened was that it made rude noises at him. Then Xavier came into the kitchen, and the machine chirped happily, flashed green lights all over its face, and dispensed a cup of coffee. Erik is good with machines and excellent in kitchens; it doesn’t make any sense. He scowls at it. The goddamn psychic machine burps at him and flashes an amber light.
She clucks her tongue at him. “I do think you are being a bit hard on this young man. Give him a chance.”
Erik grumbles but agrees. They are silent together on the phone for a little while, the only sound their breathing, and then Erik says, “He has a sister here.”
She inhales sharply.
“She’s starting college this year, and he helped her move in. And then he had her over without asking me about it. I…we fought about it. I said some rude things.”
“We will see you in December,” she tells him gently.
“December is a long time away.”
Because she’s his mother and she loves him, she doesn’t tell him that it was his choice, just says, “You’ll be fine until then.”
He hears the scrape of the key in the lock and says quickly, “I’ve got to go. My roommate’s about to get home.”
“Your father and I miss you,” she tells him.
“Yes, Mama. I miss you too.”
“You will call again soon?”
“I will call again soon,” he promises.
“That’s my boy,” she says before she hangs up.
Erik takes a deep breath to steady himself. The tight feeling in his chest has eased by degrees, even if he doesn’t feel entirely back to normal yet. He looks up as the front door opens, and Xavier steps inside, drawing up short as he catches sight of Erik in the kitchen. He hovers awkwardly, clearly unsure how to proceed. Erik isn't sure when Xavier came back last night—he went out after their argument—, but now he's dressed in his running clothes, dripping with sweat, as usual. “Good morning,” he says eventually.
Erik's mind makes the subtle shift back to English, and he pockets his phone. “Morning.” His voice isn't quite as steady as he'd like it to be, rough even on just the one word.
“Is everything all right?” Xavier asks hesitantly.
“Fine,” Erik says. He sounds abrupt, and he doesn't mean to. ”I just called my mother,” he adds.
“Oh,” Xavier says, biting his lower lip. His eyes flicker to the machine at Erik’s elbow. “I think I'll make more coffee. Would you like some?”
“No,” Erik says, then amends, “Not right now.”
Xavier nods. “I’ll put the left over in the fridge for you.”
“Thanks.” He makes a tactical retreat to his bedroom while Xavier heads to the kitchen.
After checking and double-checking that everything for his meeting is in order, Erik reads until it’s a quarter until noon. He gathers his things and walks to campus, knocking on Frost's door at twelve fifteen precisely. This time she doesn't bother to get up to open the door for him, just calls out, “Come in.”
Inside, Frost is seated on one of the cream-colored couches in front of the coffee table. She doesn't bother to put down the papers she is reading as he enters. “Should I...?” Erik asks, gesturing to the door.
“Hmm?” She glances up at him. “Oh, please. Otherwise, I'll be bothered with undergraduates all day.”
Erik closes the door, and she waves him into a chair. Erik looks mistrustfully at the white seat cushion, then mentally shrugs and sinks down onto it. Anyone who keeps white couches in an office is asking for trouble. “I thought they only just arrived,” he says diffidently. Xavier's sister certainly did.
Frost pats her hair. “The administration decided to make me serve as advisor for some of them this year. I have freshmen traipsing in and out of my office all day, wanting to talk about their futures.” She says it like it's a dirty word.
“There's no way for you to get out of it?”
“It's too late for it anyhow. Never mind that; I certainly didn't call you in here to talk about undergrads.” She seems, suddenly, to turn her entire attention on him, utterly businesslike, even as she leans back against the sofa, hands braced beside her. Her focus remains formidable. “Did you have a chance to go over the materials I put together for you?”
Erik nods and pulls the folders she'd given him out of his messenger bag. They're considerably more dog-eared than they were initially, though he's done his best to keep from crushing them entirely. He has to suppress a smile when he thinks of Xavier, who carelessly dropped chicken and broccoli on some papers his own advisor gave him, then dabbed at them with a napkin, looking comically horrified. Xavier's appalling personal habits are considerably funnier when they're not putting Erik's life and limb at risk. Erik reaches back into the bag for a pen and notebook, then uncaps the pen and flips the notebook to a clean page.
Frost nods at this; Erik feels as though he's passed some sort of test. “First things first. Have you finally determined the courses you'll be taking this semester?” Erik’s pretty sure he’s not imagining the sardonic emphasis she placed on the word “finally.”
Erik turns to the list he painstakingly compiled last night and goes through his proposed schedule with her, laying out exactly what courses he wants to take and how he think they will contribute to his own course of study. Frost's brows creep up her forehead, but by the end, she looks almost approving.
All she says, though, is, “Don't bother taking Stark's course on numismatics. I've read through the work you submitted, and you already know all the methodology you'll learn in the class. Unless you don't have anything else lined up?”
Erik doesn't let this fluster him. “I thought about taking Professor Adler's seminar on Rome as a political model,” he says smoothly.
“You yourself have written about the intersection of politics and warfare,” Erik says, walking her through the line of thought that led him to put it on his list of maybes. “My background in political theory is comparatively weak and could benefit from additional study.” He doesn't mention Xavier's enthusiasm or the fact that he'd managed to make the course sound particularly interesting.
“Hmm.” Frost regards him closely, then smiles and says, “I'm impressed, Mr. Lehnsherr. This is a far cry from our first meeting.”
Erik takes a deep breath. “I apologize for that. I wasn't entirely sure what you wanted me to have prepared in advance of our meeting. It won't happen again.”
“See that it doesn't,” she says tartly, but she's still smiling a little. When he hesitates, she says, “Something else you wanted to talk to me about?”
“I had a fourth course I was interested in taking,” Erik begins, but Frost interrupts him.
“What makes you think you're responsible for four courses in addition to your TA-ing responsibilities?”
“Nothing makes me think,” Erik says carefully, “but my roommate is taking four, and there is another class that interested me.”
“Your roommate?” Frost asks, looking faintly confused.
“Charles Xavier,” Erik says.
Frost’s brow clears. “Ah. Yes. Our Oxford student. From what I’ve heard, Xavier is a bit...overly ambitious,” she says wryly. “He’s welcome to take four classes if he feels like he needs to, but he will be miserable in a few months. You’ve already done your masters, and I’m confident you can manage with three—if this meeting is more indicative of your general level of performance.”
“I’m certain you’ll find it is,” Erik say equanimously.
Frost contemplates him, a finger against her lips. “I think we’re going to like each other just fine, Mr. Lehnsherr. Please, call me Emma.”
Erik thinks about this for a moment. He’s never called a professor by his or her first name before, and he’s not sure that he’s totally comfortable doing it now. Then again, he doesn’t want to shatter whatever rapport Frost—Emma—seems to think they’ve built. He can adjust. “Erik,” he says finally.
“Fine.” Frost takes out the syllabus for her class. “Now, let's talk a bit about your responsibilities for the semester.”
Once the meeting finishes, Erik leaves the air-conditioned cool of the office and fights his way through the muggy air outside to get back to the apartment. He kicks a pebble down the path in front of him, then finds himself running after it so that he can keep going, dribbling between his feet. He hasn't done this since he was a child, and he earns a few strange looks from people he passes, but Erik can't bring himself to care, skidding the stone along in front of him, ignoring the way the heat makes his shirt stick to him unpleasantly.
Back home, all the windows are open, letting the warm air in, and the apartment smells faintly acrid. Erik looks around for Xavier, since the lights in the common room and the kitchen are on. Not that this means anything: Xavier always forgets to turn off the lights, even though Erik reminds him every single time they leave the house. Even the idea that Xavier may have done it again isn’t enough to disturb his calm.
Erik goes to the kitchen, hoping for something to drink. The smell is the strongest here, and he looks around in confusion until he catches sight of a blackened pan in the sink. The entire bottom is scorched, and some of the non-stick coating on the top has come off from over-vigorous scrubbing.
That would explain the smell. And why all the windows are open.
“Ah.” Erik spins around. Xavier is standing there, looking faintly abashed.
“What the hell?”
“I’m dreadfully sorry,” Xavier says. “I bought you a new one, of course. It’s in the mail.”
“But what were you trying to do?” Erik asks.
Xavier shifts his weight uncomfortably. “I may have decided that I wanted to cook something,” he admits.
“I thought you said you can’t cook.”
Xavier sighs heavily. “I think you’ll find that still holds true.” He indicates the pan in the sink.
Erik snorts and grabs a glass from the cabinet. “Then why were you trying to cook?”
Xavier flushes and stares with great concentration at his hands. “It may have been pointed out to me,” he says finally, “that I'm not the easiest person in the world to live with. And you've already had so much to deal with this week. I wanted to cook something for you as a—to show you—I wanted to cook something for you.” His mouth quirks. “Of course, then it turned out like this.”
“You’re fine,” Erik says quickly. It’s one thing to complain about his roommate to his mother; it’s another entirely to be confronted with the sight of him standing there, looking so miserable, and do anything other than try to make him feel better.
Xavier beams at him, and Erik avoids his eye, embarrassed, and instead opens the refrigerator.
Which is suddenly full of German beers.
Erik stares for a few moments in silence.
“Right,” Xavier says. ”So then I thought that perhaps some beer from home would be a better bet than cooking. Then I realized that I don’t know what type of beer you like, so...”
Erik can’t help smiling a little. “I like Rauchbier,” he says, grabbing a Schlenkerla out of the fridge and passing another to Xavier, who takes it. He shuts the refrigerator door, looks him in the eye, and says, “Thank you, Charles.”
Xavier—Charles—smiles back. “So, did you have any plans for dinner tonight?” he asks.
“Now that you destroyed my pan?” Erik asks, digging around in the drawer for the bottle opener. When he finds it, he pops the cap off of his beer, then Charles’. “Nothing in particular.”
“I’m going to meet up with Raven and some other people tonight. You’re welcome to join us,” Charles says.
Erik takes a sip of beer, quelling his automatic inclination to decline. Interacting with any of the undergrads is pretty low on his list of what he wants to do, but he can recognize a peace offering this obvious. “All right,” he says.
“Excellent! We’re going to try one of the places across the street around seven.”
“Not the Chinese place, right?” Erik asks.
Charles laughs. “No, not that one, though I think I’m on a first name basis with the nice woman who takes orders there.”
“You’re on a first name basis with everyone except Azazel,” Erik points out.
“And some of the professors,” Charles says.
“That’s different,” Erik retorts.
Charles tilts his head in agreement. “How’s everything going with getting your schedule worked out?”
“Good, actually,” Erik says. “I decided to take the seminar you mentioned.”
“That’s wonderful!” Charles says, genuinely delighted. “Your meeting went well?”
“Tell me about it?”
“All right,” Erik agrees easily. He leads the way into the common room and takes a seat on the couch. Charles perches on the opposite arm, expression intent, leaning toward Erik. Looking at Charles, telling him about his meeting, Erik feels, for the first time, like he might really belong here.