The problem with Charles Xavier is that he doesn’t get people.
When they first met, Erik used to think that it’s because Charles is a rich upper-class boy, shielded from the real world by privilege and family wealth. Later, Erik will think that it’s because of all those stupid-ass psychological theories they gavage-fed Charles, like a Strasbourg goose, at Oxford.
Sometimes, in his admittedly darker hours, Erik wishes either or both of those things were true – and they are, there’s no denying that – Charles is a privileged rich bastard, far too smart for his own good. Trouble is, even in combination, they aren’t enough.
Not nearly enough to explain how Charles, with all his brilliance and shiny diplomas with many letters and years of experience ‘in the field,’ can get himself stuck in the middle of a war zone and turn himself into a willing hostage.
“I fucking hate you, Charles,” Erik grits out under his breath, gripping the binoculars tighter as he stares at the besieged building, sweat dripping in a constant disgusting stream down his spine. “I hate you so much.”
He can just see Charles’s vaguely apologetic – but never really, never apologetic enough – smile that is undoubtedly concealed somewhere in the half-ruined hospital.
Erik’s fists clench, and oh, how he wants to punch him, from here into the next millennium, he wants to beat Charles to a pulp just so he would fucking stop getting himself into these unimaginable messes for five freaking minutes.
Erik hasn’t slept for more than a couple of hours in the last few days, filled with transport planes and bumpy rides through the middle of nowhere, Africa, with its hellish heat and too many people carrying Kalashnikovs and American special ops units that shouldn’t even be there but are anyway, courtesy of Colonel Stryker. Erik is tired and grumpy and scared out of his mind, but he can’t give in to fatigue or fear, because Charles ‘Fuck You, Reason’ Xavier needs him alert and thinking, even if he has no idea that Erik is here, and would be pissed as hell if he did.
Behind him, the captain of the ops unit is saying: “We have to move in now. Hit them while they aren’t expecting us.”
Erik grits his teeth. Storming the building now would be a death sentence to anyone inside, including the hostages.
Oh, hell no, Erik thinks, carefully undoing the clasp on his gun holster in case he needs it. Charles would frown at him, but Erik doesn’t care. He’s fine with Charles’s frowns as long as he can actually see them.
Charles might choose to never speak to him again, and yes, Erik wishes that he’d taken his chance in Paris, a chance he might never get again, but none of it matters now except for one single thing.
This is not going to end like this for as long as Erik is breathing.
Plenty of people underestimate Charles Xavier. Most people, in fact.
To a point, it’s understandable. Those who know of his academic accomplishments write him off as a nerd – a bookworm who’d faint if you say a swearword around him.
The impression would only grow stronger if they actually met him. Charles is on the shorter side, and of a slender build that is often exacerbated by him wearing clothes a little too big in an attempt to make himself appear larger. It has the opposite effect, of course, but Charles probably isn’t doing it on purpose. He looks the epitome of harmless.
Most people, no matter how paranoid, dismiss Charles as a threat within two minutes of being in his presence.
Most people – Erik knows only too well from personal experience – are idiots.
Charles likes to pick up strays. His mother cites non-existing allergies and never allows him to keep the abandoned kittens or puppies, instead making the servants take them to an animal shelter. Charles visits them regularly and is torn between happiness and sadness when someone adopts his former charges.
However, one day he drags in not another street cat, but a shivering, frightened Raven. She's dirty and hungry and still wearing bruises her drunk of a father left on her arms and back. Sharon Xavier isn’t thrilled, but then she wasn’t thrilled even when she gave birth to her own child, so it’s not something that can be held against her.
A year later, Charles stumbles over Erik, who’s trying to survive on the street. Erik is two years older, and, despite his recent misfortune, bigger and sturdier than Charles, and knows how to fight. He doesn’t take it lightly when Charles stops him from stealing a pocket knife from a thrift store by loudly asking how much it costs and if children are allowed to have one.
Charles gets a shiner for his trouble and it’s not altogether clear to Erik to this day how he ends up at the Xavier estate by nightfall, sleeping in a bed across the hall from Charles’s bedroom. All he clearly remembers is the overwhelming sense of exasperation at that kid who followed him around, preaching some kind of all-men-are-brothers-and-must-do-no-harm nonsense or other, refusing to be scared when Erik threatened to give him a second black eye to match, refusing to be scared of Erik, period.
Which, what the hell was that about? Everyone was scared of Erik. Everyone with a lick of sense to them, anyway. Erik had grown men cower when he smiled in just the right way. Charles just blinked and then beamed back, and that was exactly when Erik knew that the kid was crazy and there’d be no getting rid of him.
Sharon gives her son a look that almost has emotion in it, even if that emotion is the same sweltering exasperation that Erik is newly familiar with. He doesn’t like Sharon, but at that moment he can sympathize.
Erik stays too.
Growing up with Charles is an experience in itself, even if Erik gets ‘adopted’ into the household when he’s eleven and had stopped considering himself a child three foster homes ago.
At first, Erik thinks Charles just wants new toys. Raven has been living in the house for a year, and Charles doesn’t seem to be tired of her yet, but Erik doesn’t have Raven’s round cheeks or adorable blond curls. Erik also doesn’t have any table manners to speak of, or any manners at all for that matter.
Erik – Erik doesn’t know squat about Aristotle or Prince Caspian or geometry. Erik knows how to clean a gun, how to ask a price for a blowjob in French, and how to stay out of the way when the bottle is showing its bottom.
He doesn’t hide it, either, even though he’s kind of interested in Aristotle at least. Charles – because he’s a sneaky little bastard who woke up one morning and decided to become the bane of Erik’s existence just for kicks – picks up on that, and ignores the rest with an expressive lift of an eyebrow. Erik is convinced that the gesture is coded into his genome because there’s no way anyone can be trained to show that much unimpressed and arrogant with a bit of bored on top in a single tiny motion. Not in a lifetime.
Raven, who seems to have been shadowing Charles until now, is wary of Erik at first, but warms to him as soon as she realizes she finally has someone equally as willing to tease Charles to death. Erik joins in gleefully, and his jokes are really mean sometimes, which Raven doesn’t get, but Charles does. He doesn’t say anything, though, and doesn’t pay Erik back in kind. He just looks impossibly sad, and Erik feels every bit the ungrateful street kid he really is.
But once Erik had started, he can’t stop. He can’t explain it to himself, but it’s like he wants to provoke Charles, wants to make him angry enough to show his true colors. Nobody is that good, and Charles’s mom is a cold-hearted bitch so he can’t be that far off, even if he’s good at hiding.
Erik crosses the line one day when he pushes Charles into a pond in his clothes just as guests start to arrive for one of Sharon’s parties. Raven looks frightened and takes off, probably to try and distract Sharon from noticing.
Charles makes his way out slowly, slipping on the silt, and is covered in it too. His lips are pursed, and he’s angry all right. He radiates it through every line of his body. He doesn’t look at Erik as he climbs back onto the lawn, doesn’t go into the house, either. He walks toward the shelter of trees across the glade and sits down on the grass, hugging his knees and shivering.
Erik’s chest hurts at the sight, and what the hell, he doesn’t get feelings. But he walks after Charles slowly and sits down beside him. Charles pays him no attention. Erik shrugs off his leather jacket, the one he stole from his last halfway decent foster home and refuses to part with, even if Sharon’s lips quirk in disgust every time. Awkwardly, he drapes it over Charles’s shoulders.
Charles doesn’t shake it off; he still isn’t looking at Erik. “Why?”
Erik doesn’t know what to say to that. They sit in silence some more, listening to the distant sounds of light music and the guests chattering.
“This isn’t a prison, you know.” Charles sniffs. The set of his jaw is tight, unhappy. “If you really want to go – go.”
Erik stiffens. “Do you want me to go?”
Charles turns to look at him, his stupidly blue eyes wide and glistening suspiciously. “I just wanted to be your friend, Erik.” He sniffs again, looks away. “Raven and I, there’re just two of us against the world. Before Raven, I didn’t have – there was no one. Nobody wants to… I like you. I just wanted…”
He trails off, and Erik suddenly wants to go back and jump into the pond himself. So he goes and does it, ignoring the guests’ scandalized expressions and the icy look on Sharon’s face.
It’s entirely worth it, because Charles is running toward him across the lawn, eyes wide with shock and amusement and more shock and something like admiration. He pulls Erik up onto the shore, his grip surprisingly strong for such a tiny person, and he’s grinning like a maniac. They both are.
Charles tries to give Erik his jacket back; Erik refuses; Charles insists; Raven comes over, snatches the jacket from where the two of them are clutching at it, and stalks away with an annoyed huff, their embarrassed laughter trailing after her. Years later, Erik will think that this was basically the quintessence of their three-way relationship dynamic.
They are sent to their rooms without dinner, but it’s okay. The household staff adores Charles and never follows that particular order anyway, and Raven sneaks them some cookies later.
They spend most of their time together from then on, except for when Charles is at school while Raven and Erik have lessons at home with a private tutor. Both their education has been abhorrent so far, and they need to catch up before they have a chance to be integrated into the regular school system again. Raven, who’s been home schooled for a year now, is excited because she’s making enough progress to join Charles the next year. Erik doesn’t say anything, but privately vows to not only be ready at the same time, but outsmart Charles, too.
The latter proves to be utterly impossible. For a nine-year-old kid, Charles is pretty damn smart. Erik overhears Sharon once when she tells one of her socialite friends that Charles is a genius. Erik does a double-take, because Sharon never praises any of them. It takes him a while to realize that she isn’t, in fact, praising Charles, but talking about his test results. Apparently, they measure IQ at Charles’s school, and Charles is some kind of wunderkind, as Erik’s mother would have said.
He could have easily become unbearable – and indeed is sometimes when he’s in his lecturing mode, because Charles is the kind of person who shares everything, including his home and his mom, and sometimes there’s really no shutting him up. He inhales knowledge like oxygen, finds all of it delightful, and practically vibrates with the urge to spread it around. His favorite room is the library; he has comfort books like people have comfort food. Video games bore him. He’s the only person in a ten mile radius who actually loves going to museums.
Charles’s only saving grace is that at least he realizes he’s the freak, not everyone else. He’s learned early on not to show impatience when his classmates are slower than him, and Erik thinks it’s both silly and admirable. He and Raven often share an exasperated eye roll over Charles’s unintentional smugness, but Erik actually loves to leech knowledge off Charles. If there’s any one thing that Erik has learned early on it’s not to scorn any resource at his disposal.
Besides, Charles looks adorable when he’s ignited by an interesting subject, even if he’s the only one interested.
Erik evens the field a bit by teaching Raven and Charles how to fight. It’s the only thing he can actually give back in return for everything they’ve offered, and, as far as Erik is concerned, it’s a much more useful skill than being able to recite the periodic table in his sleep.
Raven takes to it gleefully, a deep-seated urge in her to finally be able to fight back surfacing at last. Charles frowns like he doesn’t think it’s a good idea, but Raven looks at him scornfully and Erik mocks him for his nerdy ways, and Charles is in.
That's another thing about Charles – he’s incapable of ignoring a challenge.
To Erik’s surprise, both Raven and Charles are a lot better than Erik had thought they’d be. Raven has a fierceness about her that makes her disregard pain and just plough on. By the time she’s thirteen, she kicks Erik’s ass every other time and thinks about signing up for karate classes.
Charles approaches fighting as he does everything else – with a lot of thought. He’s obviously weaker than Erik, but every once in a while he manages to get the upper hand – most notably because Mr. Be Good isn’t above fighting dirty, much to Erik’s delight. When Charles is fourteen, Erik insists he takes up aikido, because he needs Charles to be able to protect himself, even if he can’t explain why that's important.
Charles introduces Erik to chess, and Erik loves it, much to Charles’s glee and Raven’s disgust. Erik absorbs the game fast enough, and they’re pretty evenly matched, which makes Charles happier than Erik has ever seen him.
For her part, Sharon pretty much lets them grow like grass. She doesn’t adopt Raven or Erik, but, through no small amount of manipulation on Charles’s part, eventually becomes their legal guardian. Raven stops having nightmares that she'll be taken back to her home and away from Charles. Erik shrugs and rolls with it, even if he never lets go of his suspicions.
The weird thing is, Charles always introduces Raven as his sister – and that’s the way Erik thinks of her, too – but he never calls Erik his brother. Erik would be bothered, except for some unfathomable reason he prefers not to think of Charles as his brother, either. He can’t figure it out for four years, and then suddenly he can.
He’s fifteen, he’s got Lizzie McLane, the hot blond cheerleader, pressed against the wall in the school locker room, his hand up her skirt. He’s pushing against her hip while she blushes and giggles—
—and that’s exactly when Charles bursts in through the door, shouting: “Erik, are you in here? You wouldn’t believe what I just—”
Erik never finds out what he isn’t supposed to believe. Charles freezes, taking in the sight in front of him, and his jaw drops almost comically. He goes abruptly pale and then blushes to the roots of his hair.
“Do you mind, hon?” Lizzie huffs impatiently. She must be extremely frustrated at the interruption, especially since she can probably feel Erik losing interest, but she grits her teeth and forces herself to be polite – in everything but her tone at least – because Erik doesn’t take it lightly when people are rude to Charles. “We’re kind of in the middle of something.”
Charles closes his mouth finally and swallows, averting his eyes. He turns even redder than before if that’s even possible. “Of course, um. My apologies.”
He ducks out of the room, and part of Erik is filled with mean satisfaction – yes, take that, you naïve little idiot, – but the other part leaves him winded as though he’s only just taken a blow in the chest and makes him want to run after Charles and shout ‘No, wait, it’s not like that!’
Charles comes to Erik’s room later that day. He stares at the carpet and proceeds to tell Erik about how he understands, and how Erik is in that age, and it’s natural because of hormones – Charles has read all about hormones – and how Charles will knock from now on, and is he dating Lizzie?
Erik listens to him in growing mortification the likes of which he’d never felt before. “Charles!” he snaps finally. “Shut up!”
Charles does. He just stands there, still staring meekly at his feet, his cheeks flaming red, but his lips pursed tightly, determined – ‘Can’t you see I’m trying to be the grown-up here?’
“Good God,” Erik says, and Charles winces.
“Get the fuck out of my room,” Erik says, and Charles goes.
Later that night, Erik walks past the half-open library door and spots Raven, cuddled against Charles’s side on the couch as he reads her his essay, because Charles is the kind of freak who reads his papers out loud to check for errors. Erik hovers in the doorway for a moment, just watching.
This is why, he thinks bitterly. Why Lizzie, why Mary, why Kate. It’s all sweet and lovely for Charles and Raven to cuddle in front of the TV or indeed like this, but Erik will always be the outsider. It’s not fair, but it has to be this way. It has to.
At thirteen, Charles is pretty as a fucking girl, with his bright blue eyes, cherry-red mouth, and those stupid spiky eyelashes he uses to full advantage when he wants to get out of detention he earns for letting people copy his homework.
Erik isn’t the only one who’s confused or bewitched or whatever. He notices people stare at Charles sometimes at school and Erik glares at them until they blush and look away, but he can’t glare himself into submission. It must be those hormones Charles was lecturing him about, and the last thing Erik needs is another shaky-voice lecture sprouting from those lips or Charles trying to explain Erik’s insane obsession with him from a scientific point of view.
Erik is a lot of things and he’s not a nice person at all. His father died young, and the foster care Erik had been subjected to was the kind one had to survive. He’d seen some really ugly things and done quite a few of them. He’s angry and spiteful and vengeful, and if he ever finds the drunk driver who hit his mother, Erik will kill him, and it’s not a poetic exaggeration or empty threat. At the very least, he’ll make him suffer.
He’s not a nice guy.
But that – he won’t do that to Charles. Sweet, innocent Charles, whose biggest crime against humanity is his stupid big heart. Who doesn’t understand he’s being a tease when he asks Erik to help him apply sunscreen or slurps around a milkshake straw. He’s fucking thirteen, for God’s sake, and Erik should really go shoot himself.
He will shoot himself before he hurts Charles.
Charles, who somehow always knows when Erik can’t sleep. He’ll sneak into Erik’s bedroom and shake him awake, ripping him from the grip of a nightmare that has drunk people throwing him into walls because Erik didn’t do some chore quite right. Erik always fought back. When his fists weren’t enough, he’d left the door to the fucker’s store open in a neighborhood where one didn’t do such things. It was a dick move, Erik wasn’t the only dependant, but it didn’t stop him. It felt good.
Every time he tells Charles something like that, Erik expects him to recoil, to be disgusted or scared, to kick Erik out of his house. But Charles would only stare at him with endless sympathy and reach out shyly to rub his knuckles against the back of Erik’s hand for a moment and say, “Oh my friend, I’m so sorry” and “You should have burned his shop down.”
Erik barks out a surprised laugh. “This from won’t-hurt-a-fly Charles?”
Charles grins at him impishly in the darkness. “You don’t know me as well as you think you do.”
“Yeah,” Erik says, even as his stomach does a funny flip. “I do.”
He’ll never ever subject Charles to the darker side of his nature.
It’s a small measure of relief to realize that Erik isn’t really a pervert. He doesn’t feel anything toward younger boys except for an occasional flare of irritation at their stupidity. This despicable thing he feels has nothing to do with it, and is all about Charles being Charles. From a certain standpoint it’s completely awful, because it means it won’t be over any time soon, if ever.
Erik gives Charles a wide berth, ignoring the hurt and confused look in his eyes. Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, Erik works his way through every pretty girl at school, flaunting them in Charles’s face, and some of the boys, too, though that Erik doesn’t advertise to anyone.
Charles is confused at first, and then steadily resigned, and then he’s smiling at Erik again and drags him to the library for a chess rematch and challenges him to a swimming contest. He offers Erik’s one-date-stands tea and talks to them about philosophy and vintage fashion, and, when they leave, Erik is pretty sure they like Charles better and actually wish he were older. Most of them end up severely disliking Erik afterwards, which genuinely upsets Charles and confuses him more.
Erik would be mad at him if he wasn’t so damn amused most of the time. He’s not a nice person. Case in point.
At eighteen, Erik gets a letter from Columbia, and he might not be as smart as Charles, but he must be pretty damn good, because he’s offered a full scholarship and living expenses.
When Charles hears the news, he jumps at Erik – literally tackles him, wrapping his arms and legs around him, as they roll across the lawn, ruining their clothes, and Erik laughs and hugs him back.
“I’m so proud of you,” Charles breathes out and clings to Erik for a moment longer.
Charles has always been awkward when reaching for physical contact, taking the cliché of ‘not having been hugged enough as a child’ to the extreme, because Erik is sure that Sharon had never hugged him or indeed touched him at all, even when he was a baby, except when there was a camera lens aimed in their direction. Charles – big surprise there – was a photogenic baby.
Charles is a little less ill at ease with Erik, mostly due to seven years of sparring sessions, but the only person Charles is truly comfortable with physically is Raven. The reverse is true as well, though Raven hides it better. Charles is painfully awkward sometimes when he reaches to pat someone on the back or put a hand on their shoulder. Simple gestures that come naturally to most are deliberate on his part; he thinks them through meticulously, and Erik has to look away, because it hurts to watch, because Charles is the kind of person who should be petted and hugged all the time. Erik can’t give it to him, except very rarely, very carefully, or when Erik’s guard is down and Charles is just there.
Sometimes at school Erik simply can’t help it. Someone will be standing too close to Charles, and Erik suddenly has to be there, has to drop a heavy arm around Charles’s shoulders possessively and bare his teeth at the other person. Charles, oblivious, would smile at Erik and melt into his side. He’ll never pull away first, but Erik knows not to read anything into it except Charles being a bit touch-starved.
On the couch, in the backseat of a car, in a café booth, Charles will often sit with his arm stretched along the back of the seat as though subconsciously inviting someone to huddle close beside him. No one but Raven ever takes him up on that, both of them natural cuddlers, conditioned not to ask for it, but craving it all the same. Sometimes Erik feels like the big bad wolf between the two of them.
They celebrate that night and even Sharon graces Erik with a thin smile and a ‘well done.’ Erik isn’t big on authority and he hates the thought of earning Sharon’s approval. For a moment, he’s almost tempted to do something to that effect, because years of living in the mansion haven’t tamed him; they only taught him to pretend better.
But then he glances at Charles, slightly tipsy and so happy for Erik, and it’s like being defused on the spot. Charles is utterly disarming, beaming as he is at that moment, and so fucking brilliant that it sets Erik’s teeth on edge, because how can someone like Sharon believe that she’s entitled to have a son like him?
Charles catches him looking, and it’s a moment suspended from regular time and space. Charles’s smile grows softer, more private, and he’s staring at Erik as if he can see right through him, into him, to the very darkest corner, and is smiling still. Erik swallows and has to look away, even if it’s killing him to do so. He has never been more tempted, and it physically hurts to restrain himself.
Suddenly his imminent leaving can’t come too soon.
Erik doesn’t like college much. He’s the same age as everyone else, but he feels older. He feels like a war veteran surrounded by happy, clueless puppies. Some of them are stupid enough to try their teeth on him. Usually one look from him is enough to dissuade them, and Erik abuses it left, right, and center. Vaguely, he wonders why he’s never felt this old with Charles and Raven.
Civil engineering is a little bland, but Erik also dabbles in metal chemistry and overall finds the courses interesting enough.
He doesn’t socialize much because the student body mostly comes off to him as an undisciplined, overly loud mass of ill-mannered children. Erik had never realized how far beyond their years both Charles and Raven acted until he lost their company.
He sees Raven from time to time, because she suddenly develops an obsession with her appearance and crashes in Erik’s room for days at a time while she tries out New York modeling agencies. Charles sends Erik a worried email where he asks that Erik please not contradict Raven ‘for she’s in a strange mood these days, my friend, and I could not predict the consequences.’
Erik snorts as he reads it. Charles really, really doesn’t get people.
Raven has always been independent, and she always wanted attention. Charles doesn’t get it – he can’t. Whenever he walks into a room, he’s got all the attention focused on him without trying. Erik doesn’t quite know why, but there’s something about Charles that makes everyone else fade into the background. Raven loves Charles dearly, fiercely even, but she can only stay in his shadow for so long – and this is something that Charles utterly fails to grasp.
Damn right, Erik isn’t going to stand in Raven’s way. He’s not Charles – she won’t spare his delicate sensibilities if he dares.
He trails after her to a couple of interviews, though. Just to make sure there’s no funny business.
“Don’t think I didn’t notice you playing bodyguard,” Raven says as they go out for coffee.
“Well, excuse me,” Erik retorts, unimpressed, “if I want to make sure you’re safe and not being sold to some harem or something.”
Raven blinks. “You’re mental.” She flicks her nail over the lid of her Styrofoam cup. “I’m just checking out the offers. I have an agent, you dummy. Charles vetted him and everything.”
“Charles is seventeen,” Erik points out, huffing, but it’s half-hearted. Charles takes Raven’s wellbeing very seriously, and he can be quite anal about the details, so if he had, in fact, vetted the guy, it’s a sure bet ‘the modeling agent’ has a Secret Service background and Interpol connections. Erik is inclined to relax a bit on the subject.
Still. He eyes Raven cautiously, and deems it safe to inform her: “I’m not thrilled with the idea of my little sister prancing around the stupid catwalk half-naked, you know.”
Raven rolls her eyes. “Oh, come off it, brother. Like you give a shit about me taking my clothes off. I’m not Charles, after all.”
Erik freezes. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
She scoffs. “Like you don’t know.”
But she’s already on her feet, throwing the long curly veil of her hair over her shoulder. “I’ve got another interview.” She points an imperious finger at Erik. “Don’t follow me.”
Erik doesn’t, mostly because he’s too stunned. She didn’t mean – she couldn’t have meant…
They were supposed to reunite for Christmas, the three of them, but Erik gets himself enrolled in some kind of charity project and stays on campus. Erik hates charity, but this is the one reason Charles would accept with no questions asked.
As luck would have it, though, Erik can’t avoid him indefinitely. The Xavier family tree is bizarre, and just before New Year, Charles is sent off to Spain to handle the aftermath of his great-great-aunt’s – or some ancient relative in any case – death. Erik picks him up from the airport when he comes back, because he doesn’t have a good reason not to, and because he can’t really help himself – he’s missed Charles too fucking much.
Charles is pale and tired, and, despite the warm smile he gives Erik, it’s clear that he’s not at all alright. Erik has to practically load Charles into a cab, where he slumps against the window, as far away from Erik as possible, looking as though he’s struggling to keep his eyes open. His eyes are bloodshot.
“I didn’t know you were so close,” Erik says apropos of nothing.
The corner of Charles’s mouth twists unhappily. “We weren’t. I’ve only seen her once in my life and I was five. It’s that house. The dead house. It’s…” He trails off, chin jerking up curtly. Erik doesn’t push.
He takes Charles to his dorm room, a half-formed plan in his head involving stuffing Charles full of his favorite spring rolls and watching some silly TV show until Charles passes out.
It goes well enough at first. Charles seems to shake off his apathy when they reach campus, and he keeps flicking curious glances everywhere, grabbing Erik’s arm to drag him this way or that when he spots something interesting, and firing questions at a rate that would be alarming for anyone but Erik or Raven.
By the time they make it to Erik’s room, Charles is almost himself, and Erik fights to keep it together, because handling Charles takes practice and he’s out of it. They’re halfway through a chess game – and dammit, it’s like touching Charles’s mind, and Erik missed that, too – when there’s a knock on the door.
Erik lifts his eyebrows; he’s not expecting anyone. He opens the door. “Emma? This is a surprise.”
“What are you talking about?” She breezes past him into the room like a gust of cold wind. “We have a party to go to, remember?”
Erik frowns. “Not really, I—”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you had company.” Emma smiles at Charles. “Hi, I’m Emma Frost, Erik’s girlfriend.”
Erik chokes on his half-formed question, because – what the hell? Girlfriend? Erik has never had a girlfriend in his life, and, while he and Emma have an understanding about certain things, this right here has come completely out of the left field. He turns around, not really knowing how to articulate as much to Charles, but feeling a dire need to – except Charles is on his feet, a polite smile on his lips – so fake it would have made Sharon proud.
He’s ignoring Erik, offering his hand to Emma instead. “Charles Xavier. Nice to meet you, Emma.”
She beams. “Oh, you’re Erik’s adoptive brother, right? I’ve heard so much about you.”
Charles flicks a quick look at Erik, lips still stretched in a social smile. “Indeed?”
“It’s true,” Emma says. “Erik is very proud of how smart you are – and for a boy your age. I wish my little brother were half as smart.”
It’s subtle, and if Erik’s eyes weren’t glued to Charles’s face, he’d have missed the way Charles winces, recoiling from the words. Erik moves toward him instinctively, because what the fuck, Emma doesn’t even have a brother, let alone a little one – but her arms are wound around Erik’s waist like steel bands.
“Is that so?” Charles has only allowed his smile to slip for a moment, and then the trademark Xavier breeding kicks in, straightening his spine for him, stretching his lips, whispering polite words in his ears. “That’s quite unexpected.” A sly look. “Erik isn’t normally generous when it comes to compliments.”
Emma gives a silvery laugh. “Tell me about it, sugar. It took him forever to admit that he liked me.”
Charles is smiling ever pleasantly. “I’m sure it couldn’t have been that long, Emma. You’re a very beautiful woman.”
“Why, thank you, Charles. Erik, you didn’t tell me your little brother was such a charmer.”
“I didn’t know,” Erik glowers at Charles.
“Well, on that note, I’ll leave you to it,” Charles says, picking up his coat. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Emma. Erik, we’ll finish the match some other time.”
“I’ll catch a cab, don’t worry. I never really planned to stay, just lost the track of time, I suppose.”
That’s a lie. Charles asked if he could spend the night before he even went to Spain.
“Have fun at the party, you two.”
“Nice meeting you, Charles.” Emma waves.
Charles is gone.
The moment the door is closed, Emma pushes away from Erik as though it hurts her to stay plastered to his side. Which, it probably does; she’s not a hugger. She rounds on him, eyes icy.
“Are you out of your mind, Erik?”
He grips the back of a chair, trying to rein in his anger. “Funny, I thought that was my line. What the fuck, Emma?”
“For God’s sake, he’s underage. He’s your brother.”
“We’re not related,” Erik says automatically, and then: “What?”
Emma rolls her eyes. “You don’t realize how transparent you are? Erik, I could see the way you look at him from my window. You’re broadcasting your – your – whatever it is, and the only reason he doesn’t get it is because he’s a freaking child.”
Abruptly, Erik feels as if all air has been knocked out of him. He drops to the bed and buries his face in his hands. Raven’s words come crushing back to him, and oh fuck. “Fuck.”
“Quite,” Emma snaps. When Erik looks up, she’s fingering the cross she wears on a long silver chain around her neck.
“He’ll be eighteen next year,” Erik says in a strangled voice. “I’m only two years older.”
“That’s about twenty in dog years, and you know it. He didn’t have the kind of life you had. He’s a sweet kid, Erik. Let him stay that way.”
Erik doesn’t get any sleep that night, thinking, long after he’d shut Emma and her moralizing out. She’s not wrong. In fact, Erik agrees with every word that she said, except for her allusions to incest, because, grown up together or not, Erik has never thought of Charles as his brother. Charles is young, spoiled, and extremely naïve – Emma is right about that, and Erik would be the first in line to kick anyone threatening that in the teeth.
But Erik is flesh and blood, too. He’s human – fuck, so human, and Charles provokes the kind of response in him that no one else does or ever has.
He’ll talk to him, Erik decides at last, grimly. When Charles turns eighteen, Erik will talk to him, carefully, and trust Charles to understand. Until then—
Erik stays on campus during spring break and only answers every third of Charles’s emails, and mostly when they’re about Raven.
When Charles turns eighteen, he’s across the ocean, reading psychology at Oxford, already a semester in.
Erik only finds out by accident from Sharon of all people. Raven ignores his betrayed looks, and Erik – Erik thinks maybe all of it is for the best.
A few months later, Erik uses his expenses credit card, courtesy of the Xavier family, that he hasn’t used since he’d left for college and books a plane ticket to London.
Erik doesn’t really know what he’s been expecting when he arrives at Oxford. He just knows it’s not this.
He finds the apartment Charles rents after two hours of wandering about like an idiot between the buildings that all look the same and wondering if he shouldn’t have simply called Charles, told him about the change of plans, and have him pick Erik up. When he does find the apartment, it becomes instantly clear that it wouldn’t have been a practical possibility.
The door is flung wide open, some truly horrible indie music bleeding through the speakers, and there are drunk people everywhere. No, not just drunk – high. The sickeningly sweet smell of weed is permeating the air, the smoke from cigarettes and joints so thick – it’s visible. The groggy motions in the middle of the living room have surpassed the dirty dancing stage eons ago and are now undisguised vertical sex, and oh fuck, Erik didn’t need to see that. It’s like a mini Woodstock explosion forty years into the future, and it’s horrifying.
Erik is quite possibly still jetlagged, because half of his brain is trying to figure out if he’s got the address wrong, and the other is stunned into blankness. Where, in the name of all things holy, is Charles?
The kitchen. Erik finds him in the kitchen.
Charles is plastered over the breakfast aisle countertop, his face red, hair damp, mouth open to release small grunts at uneven intervals. He’s facing Erik as he slides slightly back and forth against the plastic surface, and at first Erik can’t understand what makes him move. He doesn’t understand why he can see Charles’s pants pooled around his ankles. Slowly, it sinks in that Charles doesn’t have four legs, and then Erik finally sees the guy behind him, pushing against him – into him – with an expression of vacant bliss on his face – and it clicks at last, just as Erik meets Charles’s eyes.
All the air is sucked out from the world, and Erik can hear his own heartbeat, a deafening, halting rhythm, as he stares into Charles’s eyes, glazed over with whatever he’s taken, pupils blown, extinguishing the blue completely, looking at Erik, looking straight at Erik, who can’t look away.
There’s a firm hand on his elbow suddenly, and Erik would have jumped if he hadn’t lost all capacity for feeling. He looks down. There’s a young woman, a slim brunette with a determined expression and surprisingly sober eyes.
“Come on.” She tugs on his arm, grip unyielding. “Nothing to see here. Come on. Come with me.”
Erik follows her, numb and uncertain of his movements.
He doesn’t remember or indeed see where they’re going, the stark image of Charles still burning on the backs of his eyelids. Erik blinks some time later to realize that he’s sitting in a dark, quiet pub somewhere and there’s a steaming cup of coffee in front of him. He gulps it down; it’s black and vile and burns his tongue. The woman is still there.
“I’m Moira Kinross. You must be Erik.”
He stares. She’s good-looking, but too serious – the kind of girl that people would always think of as smart before they call her pretty.
“Charles said you were coming, but he thought it’d be next week?”
Erik swallows. His throat is filled with sandpaper. “I changed my ticket. Wanted to surprise him.”
She doesn’t laugh. Doesn’t pity him, either. “Surprise,” she drawls tonelessly, with just a touch of dry sarcasm.
“Who are you?”
“A friend.” Moira tucks a strand of hair behind her ear.
“A friend?" Erik can’t help the acid in his voice.
Moira frowns. “Yes, he tried if that’s what you’re asking. Charles flirts with everything that moves, it’s his default setting, and he’s usually good at it, his dreadful pick-up lines aside. But I like him and I wanted to keep him, so I said no.”
Erik stares. “Did he have a personality transplant?”
She peers at him for a long time in silence as though evaluating. Finally, she speaks. “Look, Erik, I don’t know you. But everything I heard about you from Charles makes me think that you’re important to him, so I’m going to assume I can be honest with you.”
Erik nods. She’s got a vague Scottish accent, nearly blurred into the generic cadence of her speech. He isn’t sure he likes her, but somehow knows she can be trusted.
“What you saw back there” – Moira grimaces – “it’s not always like that. Charles is – I wondered about him, you know, when we first met. The way he went about drinking and throwing himself at people – I thought he’d lived in a convent or something before coming here. But he’s not usually that bad. He’s just – he likes people, and he’s not picky.”
“You mean he’s a slut,” Erik growls lowly, hands curling into fists. He doesn’t know whom he wants to punch.
Moira’s eyes grow colder. “I can’t deny that he comes off as – easy.” Erik winces. “It’s true to some extent, though not as much as people would tell you. But tonight is – I don’t know what it is, but it’s not how it usually goes. Charles does pub crawls and one-night stands, but he doesn’t do drugs or—”
She shrugs and stares at him in a way that makes him uncomfortable. “Actually, I think it has to do with you. Ever since you told Charles you were coming, he sort of – went wild.”
Erik can only gape, because – what?
“I was wondering” – and, for the first time, Moira’s voice sounds hesitant – “if something happened between the two of you. Something that would make him so—”
She trails off, but Erik wouldn’t have heard her anyway for the wild rush of blood in his ears. He wants nothing better than to go back to Charles’s apartment and punch him in the face. Then, he’d beat up the guy who presumed to touch him until he heard bones break. All of Erik’s instincts are screaming murder.
“Nothing happened,” Erik snarls through gritted teeth, his control hanging by a thread. “Nothing – I never once – not ever—”
Suddenly there’s a horrified understanding in Moira’s eyes, and Erik doesn’t know what it’s about, because he doesn’t get any of it at all – and right now he doesn’t care. He springs to his feet, his chair to the floor behind him as he storms out.
Erik doesn’t get a lot of sleep that night. When he comes down for breakfast, it’s closer to noon, and Charles is sitting at a table on the sunlit terrace of the small hotel, waiting for him. He’s wearing a sweater vest over a fresh button-down, his trousers are neatly pressed, and there’s nothing in his appearance that can so much as hint at his exploits the night before.
Except for the sunglasses he takes off the moment he spots Erik. His eyes are a little bloodshot.
“Erik.” Charles stands up to greet him.
Erik brushes past him, like he can’t see Charles standing there, and drops into a seat opposite.
Charles sighs. “You can’t be serious.”
Erik glares. “Try me.”
Charles sits back down slowly, eyes wary – anxious. “Erik, I’m sorry about last night, you weren’t supposed to see that. If I knew you were coming—”
Erik feels the anger sizzle just under the surface of his skin. “You think that’s my problem? That I saw that? Not the fact that it was happening in the first place?”
Charles seems taken aback. “Well—”
“What the hell happened to you, Charles? Do you even know that guy’s name?”
Charles’s expression shuts down abruptly; the openness disappears, replaced by a stony, closed off look. “Forgive me, Erik, but I don’t believe you have a leg to stand on to lecture me on morality. I don’t think there was a single girl you didn’t sleep with in the whole county, except maybe for Pat from the gas station because she had issues.”
Erik looks away.
“Oh my God,” Charles says. “You’re unbelievable.”
“At least I don’t act like a bitch in heat,” Erik snaps. “The way you were last night was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen.”
There’s a moment of eerie silence, and Erik knows he stepped over the line – again – but he can’t take it back, he’s too angry. He’s so angry with Charles – he could kill him, though Erik doesn’t quite know why.
Charles stands up slowly, his motions those of an old man. “You know,” he says quietly, “I haven’t seen you in almost two years. It – it was good seeing you, Erik.”
He walks away, and Erik doesn’t follow.
When Emma’s father makes Erik a job offer, Erik only hesitates for a day before accepting. Winston Frost’s company is one of the biggest contractors for the US Army, and Erik graduates in civil engineering, but he figures that bridges are bridges, the pay is more than generous, and they’ll give him a gun. That he has to go to boot camp before that is just an added bonus, though Erik keeps that to himself, because for some unfathomable reason people tend to think the exact opposite.
Raven comes over to yell at him because – ‘with the fucking army, you can get killed, are you out of your mind?’ Erik can’t help but notice that her rage has Charles’s fingerprints all over it, because the ‘inherent barbarism of war’ isn’t something Raven has concerned herself with in the entirety of the time that Erik has known her.
Raven, for all her pink cheeks and sweet eyes, is about as pacifist as a hungry cougar.
Erik doesn’t mind Charles taking an interest. It gives him some twisted pleasure to go on with the choice Charles so clearly doesn’t approve of.
In the first two years of his employment, somewhere between helping to defuse a relic mine field in Cambodia, and reconstructing an aqueduct in an Afghan village, Erik realizes that he’s found himself. He likes the military with its discipline and order. He likes it even more that he isn’t a part of it, doesn’t have to follow orders because – that, Erik would have had a problem with.
He thinks that at some point in the future he might quit from Frost Inc. and create something of his own, because he can see how to run things better. But for now, he’s enjoying life and is reveling in his abilities. Finally, he’s found something he’s undeniably good at.
The predictable-until-it’s-not rhythm of military life, army rations, field conditions – all of it suits Erik. He trains with the squads he’s assigned to, he works for about sixteen hours a day on average when he’s not at the New York office, and it’s all fine. It helps him think about Charles a little less – or at least helps him believe that he thinks about Charles less. He’s got no one there anyway to catch him on self-delusion.
Erik doesn’t like thinking about Charles, but it’s like a wound that will never heal, and he learns to live with it. Somewhere at the back of his mind, Erik knows that he screwed up, that Charles had a point. Erik certainly is no paragon of virtue.
But knowing that doesn’t help. No amount of logical reasoning in the world can make it all right for Charles to fuck some other guy. Erik knows he’s being horribly unfair, but he can’t help it. What he feels for Charles is so basic, so primal that modern concepts of human relationships don’t factor into it. Not even close.
He’s back in New York again when he gets another email. Charles has sent him several since their meeting at Oxford; Erik never answered. The new one is an invitation to attend Charles’s graduation ceremony. Erik stares at it for a while before closing. He doesn’t book a plane ticket, but he does go to see Raven.
After a period of experimentation and contemplation, Raven had realized that it’s much more interesting to be behind the camera than in front of it. Now, she’s studying photography and making a name for herself in the younger layer of New York's artsy bohemia. She rents an apartment with a number of characters that make Erik long to call the police and, in one particular case, a psychiatrist whenever he sees them, but over time he has slowly established that they’re more or less harmless.
Still, the urge never quite fades.
“Are you going to Oxford?” Erik asks, watching her develop photos in the dark room, the red lamp casting demonic glow on her features.
“Yes,” she says defiantly. “Are you?”
Erik purses his lips and says nothing.
After he came back from Oxford, he couldn't bring himself to tell Raven what had happened. Mostly because Erik suspects she’d either shrug or whistle appreciatively at Charles’s exploits, and Erik would never be able to explain why he got so incensed. He knows that Erik-reasons are quite removed from normal-people-reasons, so he exercises the better part of valor and doesn’t even try.
Raven spends time with Charles occasionally – they’re always together for Christmas, and there are a few spring-summer months tucked in here and there, when they apparently travel across Europe mostly to have country after country revoke Charles’s driving license. Raven can’t possibly have missed the cold draft between Charles and Erik, but it looks like Charles hasn’t been eager to enlighten her, either.
Erik often thinks that if he and Charles were married, Erik would get Raven in the divorce. She loves Charles unconditionally, but the older she gets the harder it is for her to ignore his flaws and idolize him the way she used to as a kid. Erik, in comparison, is cold and not kind at all, but he gets her. He knows how she feels. He knows why. Charles can only love her – and since when has that counted for anything?
For now, Raven plays the part of a sulking younger sister to a T, playing favorites when it suits her (Charles always wins), and jerking their chains in turns to punish them for rocking the boat. She does it with the cunning determination of an adult and the stubborn mercilessness of a child, and Erik can only hope that Charles is as exasperated with it as Erik feels.
“I’m seeing someone,” Raven tells him sweetly, case in point, obviously to spite him.
“Who?” Erik growls.
She throws him a coquettish look through the blood red shadows. “Azazel.”
Erik chokes. “That absolute tool from the Russian restaurant?”
“Oh, look who’s talking,” Raven scoffs. “When was the last time you were on a date anyway?”
“I don’t date.”
He doesn’t. Dating requires… a level of investment Erik can’t find himself interested in. The only relationships he’s ever managed to maintain are with Charles and Raven. Since he’s doing such a bang-up job of those, Erik really doesn’t think it’ll be wise to try with someone else.
Sometimes Erik thinks that if only he’d seduced Charles the moment the little shit had reached some reasonable age, he’d have fucked it out of his system by now and moved on. It’s an utterly unrealistic thought, of course, but it’s a pleasant one to have when Erik’s feeling his darkest.
As it is, he glowers at Raven and opens his mouth to say: ‘I’m calling Charles to tell on you’ because it’s still that much of a reflex, when he remembers that he hasn’t talked to Charles in over a year.
Raven eyes him shrewdly. “Come to dinner on Saturday, meet Az properly.” Erik grunts something noncommittal. “And for pity’s sake, come to Oxford with me. All this pining is driving me crazy.”
This time, Erik sputters indignantly and doesn’t answer.
He comes to dinner though. Azazel might be a tool, but he seems more afraid of Raven than he is of Erik, which at the very least is a clear sign that he’s not an idiot.
Also, he’s a great cook, and between Erik and Raven (and Charles, come to think of it), they really need one around.
Several days later, Erik gets a surprise in the form of the receptionist calling to say that there is one Moira MacTaggert there to see him. Erik only ever knew one Moira, so he gives the go ahead.
“MacTaggert?” he asks when she strides into the room, sleek and confident, her skirt too short, but somehow still classy. “Weren’t you called something else the last time I saw you?”
“You know, most people would have asked if congratulations were in order. You really are a boor, Lehnsherr.” She shakes his hand, smiles dismissively. “I married the bastard, found out he was a bastard, got out, kept the name.”
“Nice. Did Charles send you here?”
She lifts an eyebrow, surveys Erik critically. “I don’t know what you think of Charles now, but when my so-called husband landed me in a hospital for the third time, Charles was the one who got me out, stopped me from committing homicide, hired an army of attorneys to make the fucker serve time for abuse, let me bleed mascara all over his precious dress shirts, and broke Jim’s nose when he broke parole.”
She advances with every word until Erik is cornered against his own desk. “So you see, Erik, if Charles ever made any request of me, I’d jump at the chance.” She drops into the guest chair and looks up at Erik through narrowed eyes. “To answer your question, no, he didn’t send me. He doesn’t know I’m here.”
Erik shakes his head slightly to clear it. “Could have just said no.”
“I could have. Charles is a good man.”
“I never said he wasn’t.”
“Whatever he’s done to you, he deserves a second chance.”
“He hasn’t done anything to me.”
“Then why do you keep ignoring him? It eats at him, Erik. You should have seen him after you left back then. He looked like someone made him drown a bucket of puppies.”
Erik could have done without the mental image and also without being harassed. Briefly he wonders about Charles who might have slept with half the undergrads at Oxford, but the one woman he’s actually managed to keep as a friend is completely terrifying. He thinks about introducing her to Emma and shudders.
“Charles is – he works like a man possessed. Believe it or not, I miss the days when he got shitfaced and picked up random strangers, because at least he wasn’t living in the library then. I have to use blackmail to drag him out and force some food into him.”
Erik frowns. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because you and Charles don’t talk, Raven won’t rat him out to you even though she should, and you need to know,” Moira tells him levelly.
“I really don’t,” Erik says, but, God help him, he wants to know. He can’t decide what’s more terrifying – to know what Charles gets up to these days or not to know. He can appreciate the irony.
“I’ll make you a deal,” Moira says, leaning forward and smiling at him pleasantly. “You’ll take me out to dinner in one of those nice restaurants – and I do mean nice, Erik. You’ll ask questions about Charles, I’ll answer some of them, then I’ll go back to England and won’t breathe a word to him that I even saw you – on the sole condition that you will come to his graduation.”
Erik gapes at her. The nerve. “Brilliant scheme,” he says waspishly. “The only thing I don’t understand is what I get out of it.”
She smiles wider. “Don’t you?”
Erik bites back a growl.
He hates smart people.
In the end, he doesn’t go to Charles’s graduation, but through no fault of his own. There’s an emergency, and, instead of England, the plane takes Erik to Turkmenistan. By the time he’s done sorting good sheep from bad sheep, metaphorically speaking, and the radio silence is lifted, Charles has long left the university.
That’s when the news comes.
Sharon Xavier, who has recently decided to take up horse riding, has had an accident and is in a coma. By the time Erik manages to get himself to an airport, she’s dead.
He arrives at Westchester on the morning of the service, the cab depositing him at the gates, because the driveway, huge as it is, is pooled with town cars and limos. Everyone is already out at the cemetery – and Erik remembers how irked he was by the idea of having one so close to the property when he’d first found out – but the maid tells him that Mr. Xavier hasn’t set off just yet.
Erik finds Charles in the library, talking on the phone in uncharacteristically irate tones.
“I appreciate your concern, Mr. Gordon, but I have no interest in contesting the will,” Charles is saying and Erik recognizes the name of the family lawyer. “No. No, that’s – Mr. Gordon, I – yes, I understand that, but—”
Erik leans against the doorway, crossing his arms, palms flat against his chest, because it suddenly aches, and he can’t help a smile.
Charles is standing by the desk, facing the window, with his profile to Erik. He’s wearing a tailored black suit, the jacket thrown over the back of a chair, a crisp white shirt, and a neat tie. He looks… the same for the most part, but something about him is different, and Erik can’t quite nail it.
Charles is still frowning over something Gordon is saying when he turns toward the door, showing no surprise at Erik’s presence, and waves him inside.
“This is my final word, Mr. Gordon. I expect to hear no more on the subject.” A pause. “Of course. I’ll see you at the service.”
He hangs up and turns to face Erik, a warm but hesitant smile on his lips. “Sorry about that.” His expression shifts toward rueful. “Never thought a death involved quite so much paperwork. God, that sounded horribly heartless, didn’t it? You’d think, with a degree in psychology, I should be able to figure out if I’m responding appropriately or not.”
“Charles,” Erik says softly, and Charles falls silent.
They stay like that for a long moment, with Charles biting his lip, staring out the window, and Erik shamelessly using his distraction to study him, taking in his features with a quiet kind of reverence, delighting in the pale constellation of freckles, achingly familiar over the bridge of his nose, and the set of his jaw that Erik could recognize by touch if he was blind.
Charles is looking at him. There’s a questioning, almost timid look in his eyes – and that’s all it takes.
Erik moves before he knows it, wrapping his arms around Charles, holding him close. Charles lets out a quiet sigh, melding his body into Erik’s instinctively, his forehead pressed to Erik’s shoulder.
“I’m so sorry,” Erik whispers into Charles’s hair, because Sharon, for all her faults, was Charles’s mother, and Charles loved her, despite – or because of everything.
Erik often wonders this about Charles, about his endless capacity to see the good in people when there’s little to none to be seen. There were times when Erik scoffed at it, when he thought that it made Charles weak, but he doesn’t care about it now. All he cares about is the way Charles’s tense frame relaxes at Erik’s words, and the warmth of his body seeping in through the fabric of Erik’s jacket.
Charles sighs and pulls back slightly, not looking up. “I wasn’t sure you’d come.”
Erik grips his shoulders, tight. “Of course.”
Charles nods, his smile tentative and grateful. “Thank you, Erik.”
The look in his eyes… It’s all Erik can do not to succumb to gravity and kiss him then and there, which would be inappropriate and wrong ten times over right now.
He steps back and clears his throat. “What did Gordon want?”
Charles grimaces and waves a dismissive hand, reaching for his jacket. “Nothing worth worrying about. Shall we go? The service is about to start.”
Erik can’t resist resting his hand on the small of Charles’s back just for a moment as he ushers him out of the room.
The service is… appropriate.
Erik struggles to find another word for it, and maybe there’s no need. Sharon’s socialite friends are sniffing fashionably, tearing up a few times in a way that makes Erik think with some amazement that they would actually miss her.
Charles delivers a eulogy that is a little bland and slightly halting – a clear product of him being caught between his inherent honesty and emotions that seem to be all over the place. No one notices anything wrong, though. Erik finds himself thinking that Oxford has given Charles his posh British accent back; Charles had spent his early years in England, but the accent had faded gradually after he returned to the States to make an appearance only in moments of great emotional distress or excitement. Now, it seems, it’s come back to stay.
Raven elbows Erik softly and when he looks at her, she’s peering at Charles intently, a soft half-smile on her lips. “He’s gone and done it, huh? He’s not just our Charles anymore, he’s – Mr. Xavier of the Xavier Estate. The gentleman of the house and all.”
She’s mocking a little, but Erik realizes with a jolt that she’s right. That’s exactly what he’d picked up back at the library, the elusive change in Charles he couldn’t name. He still looks impossibly boyish, and probably always will, but the aura he projects is different. He’s irrevocably an adult.
After the service, Erik takes it upon himself to kick everyone off the premises. It earns him a mildly reproachful, but mostly grateful look from Charles, and, what the hell, Erik can be very charming when he wants to be. He and Raven pull off the good cop – bad cop routine seamlessly and effectively clean the house of the chattering crowd.
All, apart from Mr. Gordon, that is, and then Erik finds out exactly what the deal with Sharon’s will is and it fills him with barely leashed rage.
Charles has naturally inherited the house that belonged to the Xavier family and not to Sharon anyway. Money is another matter. Brian Xavier wasn’t only a brilliant scientist but a really smart man when it came to investments, leaving his wife and child quite a fortune on top of the old family funds – enough for them to buy a small continent if one was for sale. A fortune, of which, according to Sharon’s will, Charles only gets sixty percent. The remaining forty is split evenly between Sharon’s wards Erik and Raven.
As it turns out everyone has a problem.
Gordon thinks Charles should contest the will to get it all. Charles is annoyed out of his mind and threatens to fire him, despite Gordons and Xaviers being tied together legally for generations. He satisfies himself with asking the lawyer to leave in a manner that is barely polite.
If Charles had his way, he’d make the split thirty-three percent each, and actually apologizes to Erik and Raven because there doesn’t seem to be a legal way to do it. Raven thinks Charles is crazy. And Erik’s thoughts on the matter could be summed up in an explosive:
“I don’t want her money! None of it; I never did! You can’t buy me, Charles!”
“I wasn’t trying to!” Charles snaps, actually trembling with anger. “I stupidly thought we were a family!”
“I don’t want your money!”
“Then give it to Raven. Give it to charity, flush it down the toilet, I don’t give a damn, Erik!” Charles brushes his hair away from his face, visibly fighting for control. “I know you never had any respect for Sharon, but she gave you – all of us – as much love as she could, and I’m sorry if it wasn’t up to your standards, but that was all she had to offer, and she was my mother, and I buried her today, and could you please show some fucking respect for that if nothing else?”
Erik is stunned into silence. It occurs to him that, as well as he knows Charles, he has never seen him angry enough to yell.
“Do you think I bought you like a toy, too?” Charles whirls on Raven.
She’s quick to shake her head, eyes wide. “No. Charles, look—”
“So it’s just Erik, then. Outstanding.” Charles crosses the room until they stare at each other point blank. “I don’t care what you think of me, Erik. I had hoped that after all these years you’d know me better, but if that’s what you really think, if I disgust you that much – fine. But this was my mother’s last wish. She could have sent you straight to an orphanage, but she didn’t, and you will take the money out of respect for that. And I don’t need you to come play with me out of gratitude you don’t feel. I don’t need to buy myself friends, Erik. Take the money. Go to hell.”
He storms out of the room, stunned silence heavy in his wake.
After a while, Erik glances at Raven. She gives him an awkward shrug, lips twitching, undecided between a sob and a laugh. “Well, I feel like an ungrateful shit right now,” she says, voice hoarse. “How about you?”
Erik blinks. “Did he just—”
“Guilt trip us into becoming obscenely rich? Yeah, pretty much.”
Raven shakes her head, laughing a little, expression caught between incredulity and schadenfreude. “You’re the one in the bad books,” she says. “You should go find him, and tell him we’d still love him to death even if he was piss-poor, and if he killed someone we’d help him hide the body, and that we’d watch those coma-inducing BBC documentaries with him if he wants, although better you than me.”
Erik gives her a look.
“Well,” Raven amends. “Maybe not in so many words.”
He finds Charles sitting on the bench by the pond. He’s watching the sunlight floating on the surface of the water, glances up curtly when he hears Erik’s footsteps, and doesn’t say anything.
Erik takes a seat beside him. “You know,” he says slowly, “I’d blame that stupid-ass psychology degree of yours, but I’m pretty sure you’ve always been a manipulative bastard.”
Charles snorts. It’s a soft little sound, more tired than amused.
“I never liked Sharon, you’re right. I’d never have stayed for her charity. I stayed because of you.”
“Because you felt sorry for me. Poor little rich boy.”
“No, Charles. I stayed because I – liked you, too.”
Charles’s lips quirk. “Don’t strain yourself, Erik.”
“That’s why I never liked her, though,” Erik says gravely. “Not because of how she was with me. Because of the way she was with you.”
Charles’s shoulders stiffen, his tone warning. “Erik.”
“It’s true.” Erik shrugs. “I was a shit son, I made my mother’s life difficult every way I knew how, but she still adored me. It’s what mothers do. You were everything any mother could want in a child, and Sharon just – didn’t care—”
“Erik,” Charles interrupts in a strained voice. His fingers squeeze Erik’s wrist tightly for a moment. “Please, can we not – just, let’s not – for God’s sake, she’s dead. Please.”
Erik shuts up. He covers Charles’s hand on the bench between them with his own; Charles lets him.
Abruptly, it dawns on Erik that Sharon was looking out for Charles after all. That’s what the will was all about. Charles must know this; he’s too smart not to have figured it out. The only act of kindness Sharon had ever shown him is no doubt making him feel worthless and unlovable, and Erik’s outburst probably didn’t help, but he can’t take it back now.
He can’t help Charles. He can’t raise Sharon from the dead and tell her to love her son the way he deserves. He can’t bring her back and tell her that, if Charles managed to retain any self-esteem with a loving parent like that, it must have been through some kind of miracle. Charles should have been spoiled rotten, not passed on from nanny to nanny until they became redundant.
Charles shouldn’t have had to make himself a new family at the tender age of eight, desperate enough to reach out to feral runaways, who beat him up and whose lexicon didn’t include the word ‘thank you.’
Erik can’t change any of that, so he sits there quietly, staring at the water lilies, and keeping Charles’s hand trapped under his own.
Eventually, he says: “I’m sorry. I’m too used to being on my own.”
Because even after all those years, it’s still the ugly truth of his nature, and just as Charles could never extinguish that tiny spark of doubt completely, neither did Erik.
Charles looks at him. Erik shrugs. “I didn’t like the idea of you trying to” – he looks away, embarrassed – “tame me.”
Charles lets out a surprised laugh. “Tame you? Oh, Erik. I’d have more luck taming a shark.” He shakes his head. “With money of all things? Give me some credit, my friend.”
It’s been such a long while since Charles has called him that… Erik needs to be on his feet suddenly, needs some space between them, before he does something supremely unwise and Charles will tell him to go to hell again and mean it this time.
“You going back to England?”
Charles squints, watching him pace. “For a little while. I’m starting my PhD at Columbia in autumn.”
“But there’s a project I want to see through at Oxford, so I’ll be doing a lot of flying back and forth, I’m afraid.”
“Well,” Erik says just to be a dick, “you certainly can afford it.”
Charles smiles at him pleasantly. “Fuck you, Erik.”
When Erik first learns that Charles has chosen to concentrate on psychology, he pictures a cozy little office with couches and cushions and Charles delicately telling bored housewives how to live their lives. (Erik isn’t sure why this requires a degree, but what the hell.)
Instead, because Charles has all the brains in the world but no common sense whatsoever, he chooses to specialize in trauma psychology, which means talking to kids who have just lost their whole families in a fire, soldiers who lost it on the battlefield when they couldn’t take too much death, cops who accidentally shot innocent people, and people who were taken hostage or became victims of a terrorist attack.
When Erik learns about this, he hopes desperately that Charles will be bad at it, because then they wouldn’t let him. Charles, of course, is singularly good. They call him an empath for his ability to draw the pain out, and it’s an apt nickname because Charles looks like he’s pulled it all into himself after those sessions. Erik begins to hate all the needy people in the world, which of course helps things not at all.
Over the next two years, he sees more of Charles than before, even with how hectic both their schedules are. Charles is stretched between Oxford and Columbia, completing two PhDs simultaneously, because why be easy on himself? Because Charles’s reputation as some kind of miracle worker precedes him, he’s being called in to assist with complicated cases more and more often, which takes him all over the States and the UK, and on one notable occasion to Australia.
If Charles wasn’t positively gleeful at the amount of material he’s gathering for his theses, Erik would have thought he’s doing it all on purpose – to avoid him. It’s silly, of course, but Erik does have grounds for the uncharitable thought.
Charles is friendly enough when they go out for drinks or dinner – almost always with Raven and whoever she’s dating at the time – but he’s also undeniably keeping his distance. Charles can’t talk about his patients, Erik can selectively talk about his assignments, so mostly they discuss politics, Raven, music, Raven, World Expo, and Raven, and sometimes their career plans.
Charles is treating Erik like a dear friend he’d met in college, not someone who’d grown up in the same house. He’s always happy to spend time together whenever they can fit it into their busy lives, but he’s studiously keeping Erik at arm’s length throughout it.
Erik tries to figure him out, but has no luck. He flirts with waitresses and random women to see if Charles will get jealous. Charles smiles through the spectacle pleasantly and then actually leaves Erik to it, which is a punishment in itself because Erik has no wish whatsoever to follow through.
Then of course there’s Emma, who often trails after Erik even when he doesn’t want it. The press has been linking their names together for a while now, what with Emma being the heiress of a Fortune 500 company and Erik being Sharon Xavier’s protégé. There’s not a lick of truth in the rumors, of course; they’re a standing joke between Erik and Emma, but people will believe what they want.
Charles is always extra wary around Emma, which Erik can’t figure out at all. He stops talking about psychological theories that so fascinate him, and turns into a mini version of Sharon, complete with social laughter over things he doesn’t find funny and politically correct conversation topics. Charles never acts that way around anyone else, and Erik begins to honestly resent Emma’s frequent presence.
And then, out of the blue, there is Steve.
Sometime after Charles comes back from Oxford for good with a few titles added to his name, Raven has her first personal show. It’s something that young photographers rarely have, but Charles shamelessly uses family connections to make it happen, making sure there’s not only a venue available but also a pool of journalists and professionals in attendance.
“You spoil her,” Erik comments as they each grab a flute of champagne from a server.
Charles smiles. He looks edible in a smart suit he’s thrown on, so Erik isn’t really complaining. “I wouldn’t have done it if she wasn’t really good,” Charles says with a shrug. “If she didn’t deserve it, I wouldn’t have bothered.”
Erik knows it’s true. Charles indulges nepotism only to a point, and if Raven had no talent, he’d have found other ways to make her happy.
“Besides” – Charles grins – “Raven would never have allowed me, if she didn’t feel she’d earned it. Don’t pretend you don’t know who holds real power in this family.”
Erik snorts, looking around. He doesn’t know much about photography or art, but he likes Raven’s photos. They’re… honest. Sometimes plainly blunt, like that of a teenage girl sitting on the edge of a rooftop smoking weed or a curvy woman followed by a boy, hands in his front pockets.
Sometimes the photos are too blunt, like the one with a little girl and a goat hiding in the shadow of a Hummer – that one was taken when Erik took Raven with him to Afghanistan for the first (and last) time in her life. She lacks subtlety, but Erik thinks she’ll learn that in time or make this unmitigated straightforwardness her trademark style.
He’s about to tell Charles something to that effect, when suddenly there’s a guy in front of them, smiling brightly at Charles like it’s any of his business.
“Charles, hi, so sorry I couldn’t be here earlier!” the interloper exclaims and then proceeds to envelop Charles in a hug.
Erik stares. Not because of the presumption itself, but because Charles is – comfortable. There’s not a single awkward motion in the way he hugs the stranger back, laughing a little because he’s happy to see him. They are – familiar – physically familiar with each other.
“I’m glad you could make it,” Charles responds, beaming. “Oh, my apologies. Steve Rogers – Erik Lehnsherr. Steve is a colleague of mine, he works with children. Erik here has taken up the noble mission of trailing after our valiant army and rebuilding what they destroy. He’s also my best friend since I was nine.”
Leave it to Charles to emphasize the important parts.
Steve is easily as tall as Erik, broad-shouldered, blue-eyed, blond, and is probably in everyone’s dictionary for all-American everything. He’s got the honest face of a boy next door, evidently likes children, probably saves kittens stuck in trees as well, while his muscles ripple under his shirt, making ladies blush.
Erik, who enjoys the flare of European sophistication trailing after him, can’t begin to measure the depth of his contempt as they shake hands.
Steve has a look of almost comical astonishment on his face, the kind that people wear when they’ve been ambushed with meeting the prospective in-laws. Erik’s smile is all teeth. Charles looks between them and has to drown his amusement in his champagne flute.
“Pleasure to meet you, Erik.”
“Likewise,” Erik grits out. He most certainly is not trying to break the guy’s hand.
“Erik,” Charles says quietly, and Erik lets go.
“So, Mr. Rogers. What brings you to New York?”
“Oh, I’m actually a resident. I work at a clinic where Charles volunteered – that’s where we met. And it’s Dr. Rogers, but you can call me Steve.”
His smile is pleasant enough, but not simpering. He knows he can’t charm Erik, which unfortunately lends credit to his intellect. Erik badly wants to trip him into the fountain and make it look like an accident.
Charles takes a subtle step toward Steve. “Love, I need a word with Erik. Why don’t you grab us both a drink, and I’ll join you in a minute and give you the tour?”
“Of course.” Steve smiles, hand resting briefly on Charles’s forearm. “It was nice meeting you, Erik.”
Erik ignores him.
Despite his earlier claim, Charles doesn’t seem in a rush to say anything, seemingly content to just stand beside Erik in silence, finishing his champagne. When his glass is empty, he casually exchanges it with the one Erik is still nursing. Erik watches him, bemused in spite of himself.
“You’ve never forgiven me for that night at Oxford, have you?” Charles asks quietly.
Erik freezes. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Charles gives him a look. “I mean, there’s no reason for me to forgive you…” Erik trails off. He feels blindsided and extremely disgruntled.
“Yes, that’s what I thought, too. I thought, it might not have been pretty, but it’s not any of Erik’s business.”
“Except it took my mother dying for you to start talking to me again, and if there was nothing to forgive—”
“I was busy.”
“—then maybe there was something more to the whole sordid thing.”
Erik clamps down. Charles presses, standing suddenly right in front of him, peering into Erik’s eyes with frightening intensity. “Was there more to it, Erik?”
Erik’s mouth goes dry and he badly wants to swallow but discovers he can’t. Charles is looking at him with a strange, nervous kind of hopefulness, and Erik is completely out of his depth.
What is he supposed to say? You aren’t allowed to fuck anyone but me? You aren’t allowed to smile at Steve, because you’re mine, even if you don’t want it? That would likely go well…
“No,” Erik whispers, because it’s all he can manage.
Charles stares at him a moment longer, and Erik watches, up close, how that strange light in his eyes fades away.
“I see.” Charles finishes his champagne, throwing his head back, and then presses the empty flute into Erik’s free hand. He’s smiling his social smile again. “Well, if you’ll excuse me, I have to find Steve. Enjoy the show. Don’t forget to buy something, it’ll make Raven happy.”
Erik watches him dissolve into the mingling crowd.
He doesn’t buy anything, but when he comes home, he goes straight to his study where he keeps a photo he’d stolen from Raven some time ago.
It’s one of Charles in some kind of pub, Erik thinks. Charles is leaning against the bar in a classic come-hither pose while dressed in a baggy cardigan, slacks, and a rather wrinkled shirt. He’s smiling like he’s trying to seduce the camera and at the same time is laughing at himself, and the whole captured moment is so carefree, relaxed, and sexy that it almost hurts to look at it.
Erik stares at the photo for a long time.
Erik usually doesn’t let himself be roped into trailing Raven around the city, carrying her heavy equipment. That’s what her pesky boyfriends are for. Having an ulterior motive, however, he volunteers.
“So that Steve character,” he starts as nonchalantly as possible while she prepares her chosen spot. “Do you know him?”
Raven hums distractedly in confirmation.
“Charles is dating him then?”
“That’s what it’s generally called, Erik.” She looks up for a moment, amused. “You know, when people eat together, then sleep together. You might try it some time.”
“How long has this been going on?”
“A while.” She actually straightens up to look at him. “What’s with the twenty questions, Erik?”
He shrugs, hoping his bluff will hold. “I don’t see Charles that often. Just trying to keep up.”
“With his love life?” Raven giggles. “Good luck with that.”
Erik really doesn’t want to know what that means. Instead he asks, “So is it serious?”
It’s masochistic that he wants to know, but he does. Charles had called Steve love, but Charles calls half the adult population of Manhattan love when he wants a drink and he usually gets away with it.
Raven shrugs. “Steve’s a likeable guy. Charles likes him, though I very much doubt he’s in love with him. But he should be, really. Steve’s good for him.”
Steve seemed impossibly bland next to Charles, but if that’s how Charles likes his men—
“Well, you know I love Charles to death,” Raven says, eyes glued to the exposure meter. “But let’s face it, there aren’t too many people out there who’d be willing to put up with his bullshit on a regular basis. He’s a good lay, from what I heard, but he’s hopelessly in love with his work and takes an interest in everybody. He’s extremely high maintenance. Especially when he comes home dragging ass after having to sort through people’s grief and shock all day and he can’t even talk about it. You know how he is.”
Erik does indeed. There are nights when Charles comes over unannounced and they play chess in near perfect silence until his shoulders stop quivering under the pressure of the day. Erik makes him tea, and lets him crash on his couch or calls him a cab, and Charles smiles at him softly and says ‘Thank you, my friend’ when he stops looking quite so haunted.
There’s been a significant decrease of such nights lately, now that Erik thinks about it.
“Steve’s boring as fuck, from what I’ve seen,” Raven says with a wry smirk. “But he keeps Charles in check somehow, and we both know Charles needs that.”
Erik squeezes his eyes shut for a moment, because it’s not like he didn’t know that there are better ways to snap Charles out of his funk than chess, but now that he’s seen Steve, it’s no longer a hypothetical concept. Charles isn’t a waif, but next to Steve he looks almost fragile, painfully exquisite, and in need of the right kind of breaking. Erik sincerely doubts that Mr. All America can give it to him as good as Erik would have, but then it seems to be working for Charles just fine anyway.
When Erik opens his eyes, his fists are clenched tightly, and he has to suppress a tremor, because his whole body is vibrating with the need to hit someone. He forces himself to relax, and then he sees Raven looking at him with her mouth slightly open.
“Oh my God, Erik,” she whispers. “Still?”
Erik could lie. He should lie, just pretend he doesn’t understand what she’s on about. It would be the reasonable thing to do. What comes out of his mouth is a shaky: “Yeah.”
Slowly, Raven comes to sit next to him on the low stone bench. Both of them are silent for a while, with the city humming softly around them.
It speaks volumes to Erik, her silence. There was a time when Raven would have told him to go for it, would have recklessly pushed him forward. She’s silent now, which means she truly has no idea of what Charles feels, and Raven can’t risk ruining the balance they’ve struck in the last few years. Erik wasn’t so wrapped up in his own brooding after that night at Oxford so as not to notice how hard Raven was taking it when he and Charles didn’t speak to each other. Okay, when Erik wasn’t speaking to Charles.
Raven has everything now. She’s a young, talented professional, with more than enough means to support herself, a chosen occupation she revels in, and a pool of lovers she can pick from as it strikes her fancy. But deep down inside, she’s still the same frightened girl whom Charles caught stealing food from his fridge, who was scared of loud noises. Erik and Charles are her only family, her only constants.
Erik is twenty-six, but he feels at least two decades older as he sits there, realizing that he simply can’t afford to risk fucking it up. He’s not the only one who’d get caught in the whiplash, and he might be a dick, but he’s not that much of one.
He takes Raven’s hand and squeezes it, trying to give her a reassuring smile. She rests her head against his shoulder, and they stay there a while.
A few months later, Erik gets shot.
He’s in Bolivia, doing some reconnaissance work for a project that might not even happen. He spent several weeks in the country already; he speaks the language; he feels comfortable enough. He goes out for coffee at the wrong place at the wrong time and gets caught up in crossfire between – Erik isn’t sure. Drug dealers? A jealous husband and his wife’s lover? A robbery?
He doesn’t know. He’s sitting at the bar, drinking strong black coffee, the kind of which he can’t find in the States. He’s staring at the postcard from Charles that caught up with him this morning – a rather cheesy shot of the Grand Canyon, Charles’s messy handwriting perfectly eligible: ‘Steve is taking me, can you believe I’ve never been?’
And Erik is thinking bitterly that of course Charles has never been, because Charles and trivial touristy stuff live in two different universes, and of course Mr. America will take him to the Grand Canyon because could he be any more unoriginal? What’s next? Disneyland? Niagara Falls? Seriously…
Erik isn’t listening to the sudden commotion behind him, and when he turns around it’s just in time for a bullet to pierce his left shoulder. The pain doesn’t come at first; there’s just immense surprise and a searing heat shooting through him. There’s blood on his white polo shirt, too bright in the dim light of the bar, and then suddenly his heart is beating too fast, pain grips him tight, and the world crashes down around him.
He comes to briefly to a dizzying vision of some grey corridors, stupid bright lights, and urgent voices, and—
“Mr. Lehnsherr, do you want us to call anyone before we give you anesthesia? We have a list of your emergency contacts—”
And that’s enough to make Erik jerk on the stretcher, sharp pain notwithstanding, as he yells – pants: “Don’t call Charles! Don’t you dare!”
The voice is confused. “He is number one on your list. Are you sure—”
Of course he is, Erik doesn’t have anyone else. Just Charles and Raven.
“Call no one,” he grits out.
“Mr. Lehnsherr, there’s protocol—”
“Then call him if I die,” Erik says and passes out.
He wakes up to the feeling of dull pain in his chest, a throbbing, itching pull in his shoulder, and a vaguely familiar voice somewhere close to him.
“We’ve got to stop meeting like this, Lehnsherr.”
Erik blinks blearily and turns his head on the pillow. He squints. “Oh, fuck.”
“Nice to see you, too,” Moira tells him with a sweet smile.
“Where am I?”
“Puerto Rico, base hospital. You’re a lucky son of a bitch, you know that? That bullet was inches from your heart.”
Erik wants to roll his eyes, but it feels like too much effort. He squints at her some more instead, taking in her khaki coveralls under a white med coat. “You’re what – you’re military now?”
Erik laughs, and it’s a very, very bad idea. Moira waits it out, a soothing hand on his good shoulder, and then helps him to a glass of water.
“You’re an ungrateful prig, Lehnsherr. Who do you think dragged your sorry ass out of Bolivia?”
“Thanks,” Erik says dryly, still winded.
“Can I call Charles now?”
She tuts. “You’re impossible, you know that?”
“If you breathe one word of this to Charles or Raven, I will find a way to end you, CIA or no.”
Moira sighs. “I’m so glad we have this fulfilling relationship, you and I. You’re the light of my life, Erik, really.”
“I need to get back to Bolivia.”
“Of course you do. D’you know what else you need to do? You need to pull your head out of your ass and tell Charles how you feel, you absolute moron, before you actually get shot in the head.”
“That sounds like an excellent argument against doing that, not the other way around.”
“Agent MacTaggert,” comes a mildly urgent voice from the door, and Moira stands up.
She surveys Erik for a moment, as though searching for words to bestow some wisdom on him, but eventually shakes her head. “I’m glad you didn’t die,” she says, resting her hand briefly against his cheek. “Get well, Erik.”
For the most part, he thinks afterwards, he does.
By the time Erik finally – finally – makes it home, his shoulder has long healed. Coincidentally, Charles uses this time to nearly kill himself trying to pull through a particularly far-gone patient or five; also to break up with Steve, as Raven tells Erik gleefully when she picks him up.
“Parted amicably, my ass,” she says with a grimace. “You lucky you missed it. He came over to my place and cried on my couch for like two weeks. It was totally gross.”
Erik stares at her. “Cried?”
“Well, whined mostly, but that, too.”
Raven is staring at Erik like she’s wondering what he’d been up to and if it involved getting hit on the head at any point.
“Steve,” she clarifies carefully. “Why would Charles come crying on my couch?”
“I don’t know, why would Steve?”
“You weren’t here and he and I sort of bonded over the fact that my brother is a dick and a heartless bastard.”
“Oh well, in that case,” Erik says, and it all slides into place, because yes, sometimes Charles is exactly that. It’s not a stretch at all that he has no idea what a break-up with him does to a person, and there are probably deeply rooted reasons for that, hinting at low self-esteem or some similar bullshit, but Erik is not the Freud in this family, so he doesn’t give a fuck.
Beyond acknowledging that Charles is spoiled beyond belief and really is a heartless bastard, that is.
Except – it can never be any one thing with Charles, because he was born annoying. The trouble with Charles is that he’s also the most compassionate person on the planet at the same time, and to him it’s not a contradiction. Charles invites orphaned children to share his life, and cares about his patients to the exclusion of everything else if the way he looks when he comes over to Erik’s that night is any indication.
Erik stares. Openly.
Charles seems to have lost over twenty pounds, and Erik isn’t sure where they had even come from to be lost in the first place. He looks skinnier than he had at sixteen, his cheekbones stand out sharply, his wrists look like they’re made of glass, and there are deep shadows under his eyes.
He shuffles from foot to foot awkwardly under Erik’s scrutiny, clearly uncomfortable, and tries to pull his cardigan tighter around himself. He looks like a coat hanger.
“What the hell happened to you?” Erik bursts out, because – what the fuck?
Charles winces. “Why does everyone keep saying that?”
Raven bristles. “What happened is – he kicked out the man who fed him regularly, and Charles has never figured out how to do it himself.”
“I’m a perfectly good cook, thank you very much, Raven—”
“You put tinfoil into the microwave – it exploded—”
“It did no such thing, just a bit of smoke—”
“You’re a menace! Tell him, Erik!”
“And you consider yourself such an expert, while all you can really make is morning-after food, and I have it on very good authority that it’s atrocious.”
“At least I can remember to order takeout!”
“I remember. I just – remember it too late, and then I’m not hungry anymore, and—”
“Do you see?” Raven shouts triumphantly, pointing at Charles, while clearly addressing Erik. “He’s like a fucking child!”
Erik blinks. “This isn’t happening.” He presses his fingers to the bridge of his nose. “Neither of you can cook, and Charles, really, tinfoil in the microwave? How many doctorates do you hold again?”
Charles blushes. “It was one time.”
“I’ll alert the fire department.” Raven sneers. “I’m sure they’ll be ecstatic.”
Charles narrows his eyes. “If you liked Steve so much, you should have married him yourself.”
Erik’s jaw drops. “He asked you to marry him?”
Charles looks away. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he mutters, sounding gutted.
Raven’s laugh is mean. “Mr. Oblivious over there didn’t even know they were living together. Way to go, Charles.”
Charles suddenly sits down, shoulders slumped, and shakes his head, too tired to keep arguing. This, more than anything, tells Erik that he’s absolutely exhausted, because Charles never gives up an argument, and the exchange sounded more like a shouting match than the usual playful banter Charles and Raven so often share.
“I think,” Erik says slowly, rubbing his left shoulder in a subconscious gesture, “that we – all of us – need some downtime.”
Charles melts into the couch, bites his lip, a frown on his face. He looks up at Erik – and doesn’t argue.
Erik is close to panic.
“I have a master-class in Paris in a few days,” Raven says thoughtfully, looking between them. “You guys could join me.”
“Sounds good to me.” Erik looks at Charles.
Charles worries his lip some more, then grins, somewhat weakly. “Well, since you’ve twisted my arm. I’ll cancel my appointments.”
Somewhere at the back of Erik’s mind, there’s a niggling suspicion that taking Charles to Paris of all places might not be good for Erik’s continuous peace of mind, but Charles looks like he needs it, and, God knows, Erik missed him.
He smiles at Charles and lets the thought go.
Erik loves Paris.
Not because it’s Paris, specifically, but because it’s Europe, where things like cobblestones still exist in places and streets occasionally are so narrow that a car won't fit, let alone two, where they bring coffee in small cups unless you have the misfortune of running into a Starbucks, and where, if you pull a chair for a woman, you’ll get an indulgent smile in return and not a lawsuit for sexual harassment.
Erik doesn’t remember much of his early life in Düsseldorf. He was too little, and all he kept were just a few images: a Norwegian fish restaurant across the street, his mother’s laughter when Erik pointed at the biggest sandwich at the stand, der Vikinger – 5 DM, Erik couldn’t read yet, but guessed the letters; trout glinting in the stream under the bridge like pieces of liquid silver; his father’s voice, enthusiastically loud despite the late hour, as he talked with his neighbor and good friend in the kitchen after Erik was sent off to bed.
A few images and a feeling that might as well have filtered in from another life, and it’s not much food for nostalgia, Erik admits. He can barely remember. But every time he sets foot on this continent, for just a few moments, that feeling intensifies tenfold, an intangible pull that this soil has on him, something bittersweet and blood-deep.
Charles glances at him as they step out of the hotel, and wraps his fingers around Erik’s wrist for a moment silently, and smiles at him in that soft, quiet way that he has – lips barely even curving, all in his eyes – before pulling away and starting a loud conversation with Raven, tugging her ahead, giving Erik all the time in the world he needs to just breathe.
For a moment, Erik feels as though his heart might burst, because it shouldn’t be possible to love someone that much. Charles glances over his shoulder once, that same soft glow in his eyes, and it hurts – it hurts.
They stop for breakfast before meeting Raven’s class. Raven plays with her food, like the spoiled brat that she is. There’s a cappuccino mustache over her lip, and Charles reaches, with an indulgent smile, to wipe it off with his thumb. The waitress coos at them and gives Erik a conspiratorial wink.
Because they are impossible, Charles and Raven take that as their cue to playact a young couple in love, holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes obnoxiously, until Erik snaps at them. Raven, who somehow managed not to pick up any manners from Charles except for the most abhorrent ones, crawls into Erik’s lap and curls around him, trailing a playful finger over his collarbone. The waitress looks scandalized; Erik blushes furiously despite his better efforts because of the spectacle they’re making, and Charles laughs till he’s sobbing, his whole body liquid with helpless mirth.
Erik’s doing his best to scowl at them, but it’s a losing battle; he can feel his lips twitching treacherously. It’s the most perfect morning he’s had in years.
Charles is fairly fluent in French, but his accent makes Erik wince – up until the moment when Raven starts to speak, and then both Charles and Erik stare in horror and want to cover their ears, and try to act as though they can’t possibly fathom why this strange woman is walking beside them.
Raven’s colleagues call Charles – Sharl’ – and Erik becomes Erik, which amuses Raven to no end. She spends the day embarrassing them as best she can by acting as much a stereotypical American tourist as possible, which raises Erik’s hackles and leaves Charles breathless with laughter.
Later that night, Charles and Raven take Erik along the ‘route of past glory,’ repeating the steps from the road trip they took before Charles’s graduation. If even half their stories are true, Erik is surprised that they’re even allowed back into the city. Charles, who’s pretty tipsy by that point, explains it away with the passage of time, but Raven insists that they’re unforgettable.
She drags them into a hole-in-the-wall bar on Montmartre and points triumphantly to one of the pictures on the wall as proof. Erik almost doesn’t recognize Charles among others until he realizes that Charles is wearing drag, wearing it extremely poorly, and looking absolutely ridiculous.
“I lost a bet,” Charles says defensively.
Erik eyes him speculatively, giving him a slow and thorough onceover.
Charles flushes to the roots of his hair. “Stop that,” he hisses.
“Why, Charles, what an adorable little pet you’d make,” Erik drawls, delighted by Charles’s embarrassment.
This is another contradiction which Charles seems to be entirely made of. He can be a fiend of a flirt and get away with hitting on a gang of Hells Angels (if Erik hadn’t actually witnessed it, he’d never believe it), and yet there are these criminal full-body blushes over the most harmless of remarks, and there’s no predicting when it’ll be the suave or the innocent. Erik’s head is spinning, and Charles is smiling.
The proprietor, who recognizes Raven, sends a gratuitous bottle of absinth to their table, and everyone gets sloshed in no time at all – everyone except Erik, that is, because he has some creepy tolerance for alcohol and it’s enough to keep him on the edge without actually falling over.
Raven abandons them soon enough in favor of her friends. Charles gets lost on the way to the bathroom, and when Erik goes searching, he finds Charles talking enthusiastically (and mostly with his hands) to a tall, Scandinavian-looking guy who’s wearing a kilt for no discernible reason. The man is staring fixedly at Charles’s mouth in some sort of daze. Erik catches ‘Lévi-Strauss’ and ‘positive ethnic complementarity’ and rolls his eyes.
“Erik!” Charles beams at him, well on his way to being three sheets to the wind, if he’s not there already. “I’ve just been explaining to Bjorn here—”
“Yes, I don’t care what he’s been saying,” Erik says to the man, wrapping an arm around Charles’s waist and tugging him off the barstool, “but he means ‘no.’ No, non, nein, net, nej. He can say it in Armenian, if you want. I know, I trained him.”
“Eeeeerik.” Charles pouts, but doesn’t actively resist, only waving back at the guy.
“Really, Charles,” Erik grunts, sitting down at their table for a moment to finish his drink. “Must you?”
Charles slings his arm around Erik’s neck, plastering himself all over Erik’s side and making Erik wonder exactly how sloshed he is, except then there’s a surprisingly coherent if slightly slurring murmur in his ear: “Let it go, Erik. You have to let it go. If I took it personally every time you went off with someone—”
And it’s probably Charles’s wet lips so close to his skin that make him lose his grip and not the absinth, but, before he knows it, Erik is grumbling: “You should take it personally.”
Charles pulls back enough to look into Erik’s face. Or – try to look in any case, because he seems to be unable to muster the necessary focus. “I should?”
Erik sighs. “You’re an inch away from shitfaced, aren’t you?”
Charles blinks. “Um. Entirely possible.”
“Come on.” Erik stands up and grabs him by the arm. “Back to the hotel.”
Maybe Charles gets better at holding his liquor at his old age of twenty-five, or maybe it’s the slightly chilly night air that sobers him up a bit, but by the time they reach the hotel he doesn’t need Erik to support him, strictly speaking, though Erik keeps his hand on Charles’s elbow just in case, and Charles seems to have forgotten it’s there.
Charles is blabbering excitedly about the incomprehensible Paris underground, about the book he’s planning to write, about the kid he shouldn’t be talking about, because he's a patient, but one Charles would hate to see sent back into the system after everything he’s been through. It’s like a tree-ring’s cut of his life, clear and fresh and impossibly alluring.
Erik feels a little like he’s standing on the outside with his face pressed against the glass, but also like he could listen to Charles forever. Paris makes him mellow, and between alcohol and Charles, it’s always been only a matter of time before Erik slips, but when it happens, it still takes him by surprise, because he’s been so careful.
They share a bathroom, and Erik sends Charles to the shower first in the hopes that he won't drown if he goes now.
It’s a little hot in the room, or perhaps it’s the aftermath of the intoxication. Erik strips out of his jacket and turtleneck and undershirt and stands beside an open window, enjoying the cool breeze on his fevered skin. He turns around when the bathroom door opens, and smiles at Charles. “All done?”
Charles nods and Erik moves to brush past him, when Charles suddenly grabs his arm. “What the hell is that, Erik?”
Erik doesn’t get it at first, because there’s enough alcohol in his system to be affecting even him, and Charles has his hands on his bare skin and is staring intently and—
“It’s nothing, don’t worry about it.” He tries to move past Charles, but of course no such luck.
“It’s not nothing.” Charles glares at him, his fingers sliding over the small, still pinkish patch of skin encircled with a thin ridge of scar tissue. “God, Erik.” Charles goes pale. “You’ve been shot.”
“You’ve been shot in the chest. It’s – your heart is right there, Erik, dear God. And you never said a word, you bastard! When was that? Why did you never say—? I’m going to kill Moira, I specifically asked her to look after you—”
But Charles isn’t listening, too busy inspecting Erik with his hands, touching everywhere, feverish and unsystematic, trying to get him to turn around to explore his back, searching for more scars, muttering darkly.
Erik has never been one for patience, and Charles seems to be verging on hysterical, so Erik grabs his wrists and squeezes hard enough to make Charles yelp. Erik shakes him.
“Charles! Cut it out. It’s only been the once. I’m fine. It’s fine.”
“Erik—” Charles fucking whimpers, looking up at him, teeth sinking into his lower lip as he tries to control himself—
And that’s when Erik realizes that they’re standing with their hips pressed flush against each other, and Charles has been inadvertently teasing him all night, and only just touching him, and there’s no way he can’t feel Erik’s erection digging into the soft skin of his belly through the thin fabric of the t-shirt he wears to bed.
Erik shuts his eyes and just stands there, because moving away would solve nothing at this point.
There’s nothing he can say to explain it in a way that Charles will believe, and Erik isn’t a liar in any case. He just needs a few more seconds to prepare himself for the inevitable fallout.
“Erik?” Charles speaks so softly it’s almost inaudible. “Erik. Oh, my friend, please look at me.”
Erik forces his eyes open and is immediately confronted with a whirlpool of confused emotions in Charles’s gaze. There’s undeniable understanding there, and sympathy, and more.
Erik lets out the breath he’s been holding. Then he remembers that he still has Charles’s wrists captive in an unforgiving grip and relaxes his hold, running soothing circles over the soft skin instinctively.
Charles shivers, eyes fluttering closed for a moment. “I think we need to talk,” he whispers, voice wrecked.
“Not now,” Charles says. “I’m drunk. You’re not sober. I want to be sober for this.”
Erik isn’t sure he wants to be sober for this; for all he knows, Charles wants to have better aim when he punches him in the face. “Yes,” he says anyway. “In the morning?”
Charles looks up and smiles, and that’s when Erik’s heart restarts and he thinks that it will be all right, maybe, and perhaps even a little bit wonderful.
“In the morning.” Charles nods. He frees his hand and squeezes Erik’s shoulder, his touch warm. “Goodnight, Erik.”
It takes several attempts for Erik to get his throat to work. “Goodnight, Charles.”
Despite his worst fears, that night, Erik sleeps like the dead.
Morning is, of course, when all the alcohol he’d drunk last night chooses to catch up with him. Through a monster hangover, Erik manages to discern agitated voices coming from the other room of the suite. His half-conscious brain recognizes them as Charles’s and Raven’s and translates that data into ‘All is well, go back to sleep’ – which he does.
When he wakes up properly, it’s midmorning. He has a headache and a horrible taste in his mouth, but otherwise it’s not worse for wear. He stumbles into the lounge to find Raven alone staring morosely at the television.
“What’s going on?” Erik asks, nodding at the TV as he gulps down a glass of water. “Where’s Charles?”
“Charles left,” Raven says sullenly.
Erik nearly drops the glass. “What?”
He knows it must have been quite a revelation, and perhaps even an unpleasant one, but Charles isn’t the kind of person who runs away from a confrontation. He’s a lot of things, but not a coward, and he does care about Erik – that much Erik knows for certain.
“Oh my God, Erik, your face.” Raven stares. “What did you do to him last night that – actually, you know what, no. I don’t want to know, not now. It’s nothing to do with you anyway. Moira called.”
Erik swears under his breath. “Why?”
Raven gestures at the TV. “You know John Kobb?”
Erik squints at the screen. “Guy in Africa, some kind of religious fanatic. Kidnaps children to turn girls into prostitutes and boys into soldiers.”
“Yeah, that’s the one,” Raven confirms grimly. “Special ops just discovered a camp of children that he kidnapped some time ago. Their emotional state… well, you can imagine.”
Erik suddenly feels sick. He’s been around the military long enough to have a vague idea. “Why did Moira call Charles?” he asks, ignoring the look Raven is giving him. “The CIA must have their own herd of pet therapists. Doctor MacTaggert, for starters.”
“There are about sixty children there, Erik,” Raven snaps as though it’s Erik’s fault. “It’s all hands on deck. Besides, Charles is on the draft list.”
Raven rolls her eyes. “It’s Charles, Erik. He’s on everybody’s list.”
Erik swears. It’s not that he has no sympathy for the children, he does; if he was in the room with Kobb, he wouldn’t hesitate to shoot the bastard between the eyes. It’s just that Charles saves nothing for himself when he works with children, and it wrecks him. Erik has seen it; it’s not pretty. He doesn’t like that Charles has gone alone, with no support system of his own.
Raven must be thinking along the same lines, because she stabs the remote almost viciously to turn the TV off and looks at Erik with the same helpless frustration he feels.
“He could have said,” Erik mutters.
“He made me swear I wouldn’t wake you,” Raven says. She sighs, shakes her head. “He promised to take me shopping.”
It’s not a complaint of a spoiled rich girl, Erik knows, but rather a sincere regret that they are robbed of their rare opportunity to spend some time together. Raven and Charles, for all that they aren’t related, are like particularly co-dependent twins sometimes, wilting when they don’t see each other often enough.
“I can take you shopping,” Erik offers.
Raven lights up. “Really?”
“No, not really, I’d shoot myself first,” he admits. “Charles is the patient one.”
“As if,” she huffs.
“But – if you have another photo shoot planned and could use a dogsbody—”
Raven squeals and jumps on him from the couch. “I knew there was a reason I liked you best!”
Erik winces at the volume. “You’re a mean little liar,” he grunts, steadying her automatically. “You’ve always liked Charles best.”
“I like you both best.” She beams and plants a loud kiss on his cheek which makes Erik wince again and drop her rather unceremoniously.
It all goes well enough for another couple of days, and then Moira calls him and starts with apologies.
Which is exactly how Erik finds himself in Africa, and everything promptly goes to hell.
Behind him, the captain of the ops unit is saying: “We have to move in now. Hit them while they aren’t expecting us.”
His – lieutenant? – Erik guesses; it’s hard to figure out their ranks without anything that could be recognized as standard issue uniforms – gives the captain a dark look and stops chewing on his cigar for a moment. “Why the fuck wouldn’t they be expecting us?”
The captain sneers. There’s something oddly similar between the two men, though Erik couldn’t be bothered to give a damn, really. He’s doing his level best not to learn their names, either.
“They think we’re still considering their terms.”
“No, they don’t,” Erik snaps. Both men look at him. “They aren’t idiots. They know you’ll never release their people.”
“Murderers, the bunch of them,” the lieutenant mutters darkly.
“You can’t move in,” Erik says. “The risk to the hostages is too great.”
“Dammit, Lehnsherr, don’t you think I know that?” the captain explodes. “Thank you for your expert opinion, but you’re a civilian engineer, here out of courtesy, so why don’t you take your advice and shove it where the sun don’t shine.”
“I have CIA clearance,” Erik growls. “And storming the building will give you only one thing – a staggering body count. There has to be another way.”
“And what if there is none? We’re losing time – every minute we waste sitting here, Kobb is moving further into the country. We sit here long enough and we won’t be able to find him. I have the go-ahead now—”
Erik grits his teeth. These men have been hunting down Kobb for months. They won’t stop now. Not when they have their superiors’ permission to do whatever the hell they want as long as it gets the job done. They haven’t been selected for this unit for their people skills or respect for human life. In their minds, a bunch of kids stuck between them and their target are already dead.
Erik wonders frantically if he could get Moira to call them off, but Moira, with all her undeniable talents, doesn’t outrank her own boss, and besides, she's currently stuck at ten thousand feet above the Atlantic.
They stare at him. The lieutenant pulls the unlit cigar out of his mouth. “What?”
“Give me 24 hours to find another option. If I fail, you storm the building. Do you really want those deaths on your conscience?”
The captain looks ready to laugh or to say something that would force Erik to kill him at some point in future, but the lieutenant cocks his head thoughtfully. Maybe he’s got a soft spot for kids under that thick I’m-a-war-machine hide of his.
“Who do you got in that building, Lehnsherr? Why are you even here?”
Erik holds his eyes and knows somehow that the answer is crucial. He hates these men, hates feeling powerless, but it’s Charles’s life and Erik will sacrifice a lot more than his pride for that.
“I do have someone in there,” he admits gravely. “My—”
How can he possibly describe Charles? There’s no way on earth to even hope to do that. ‘My friend’ sounds lame unless it’s Charles himself who’s saying it, and, screw that anyway – Erik’s never been one for pretence or euphemisms. Charles might not be his lover, but he sure as hell is more than just a friend, more than a brother, more than—
“Your – Charles?” the captain mocks.
“Charles Xavier,” Erik says, tired. He’s so tired. “Doctor Charles Xavier, Professor Charles Xavier.You might have heard of him, he does a lot of volunteer work—”
“Wait,” the lieutenant interrupts, suddenly frowning. “You mean the shrink? Chuck?”
Erik feels stupid all of a sudden, because of course they’d know Charles. Of course he’d have a stupid nickname with the special ops no one is supposed to know about, because he’s Charles, and it’s his dearest ambition in life to kill Erik slowly through the sheer force of exasperation.
The captain scowls. “Who?”
“Xavier – pretty sure that was his name, the guy who helped Billy, remember?” The lieutenant looks at the building with newfound interest. “After that bastard kidnapped Billy, turned him into a drooling idiot – and Chuck pulled him out of it. Fuck, we thought he’d be locked up for life, and he’s married with a kid on the way now, he’s that normal.”
The captain looks part dumbstruck, part annoyed, and expresses that in the only way he knows how. “Fuck.”
The lieutenant elbows him hard. “Give him his 24 hours, Vic.”
Erik feels suddenly lightheaded and can only nod.
As it turns out, Erik needs exactly two of the specified 24 hours to find out that there is indeed another option, but he’ll need the next twenty to make it happen. There is a substantial number of people in sensitive positions who owe Erik a favor or dozen, and an even greater number of those whom he can threaten unless they cooperate. All it takes is access to a satellite phone and a laptop, and then a short reconnaissance to confirm that there are indeed old underground tunnels leading to the building.
“Fuck me,” the lieutenant – his name is Logan; Erik has given up on willful ignorance by that point – says, sounding impressed. “How’d you know they were there?”
Erik purses his lips. He knew for the same reason he has a reputation of being the best man for the job. He’s not the most inventive or creative; he’s not an artist, but he’s fucking thorough to the point that surpasses excessive and heads straight into paranoid.
“The hospital was built on the foundation of a colonial era building,” he explains through gritted teeth, because he hates explaining anything. “Used to be a residence of some kind.”
“Imagine that,” Logan says flatly.
That’s the problem. The tunnel was deep to begin with, and in the centuries that passed the ground layer has risen further. Even if they had enough men, lifting up over a dozen people on ropes one by one will take too much time. Erik checks on available materials, curses profusely, and sets to building a lift.
It takes every scrape of knowledge he’s collected over the years to pull off that kind of improvised makeshift job, but Erik will make it happen if it kills him. It helps that Logan steals a small electric generator for him from God knows whom. Erik doesn’t ask.
“It makes sense now,” Logan says, chewing on his damn cigar as Erik works.
“What makes sense?”
“Why they have an adult hostage. The kids were being transported to the base. There were just those twelve little bastards left when Kobb’s people attacked. They told all the adults to clear out, something about kids being soldiers and not wanting to harm civilians.” He spits. “Bullshit. Didn’t want to draw the whole of CIA in, most likely. Figured if it was just about a few kids, it would fly.”
Erik waits for him to continue, even though he already knows what happened next.
“One guy volunteered to stay.” Logan shrugs. “Didn’t make sense at the time, but if it’s Chuck, well—”
Despite himself, Erik snorts. It’s not a surprise that Charles knows how to make an impression, even on a soulless mercenary like Logan.
When it’s finally done and tested to about ten percent of Erik’s satisfaction, the captain, Vic, turns up at his side out of nowhere.
“Right, time’s up, boys. I’ve entertained this Indiana Jones crap of yours long enough, Lehnsherr. I won’t risk my men for this, but my brother here volunteered.” He grips Logan’s shoulder with a sneer. “Big clawed softy that he is. Get in if you can, get the kids out, and you get out. You have thirty minutes, and then we storm in.”
Erik nods grimly. Logan jumps onto the platform next to him, and Erik kicks the lever to start their descent.
“Do you have a gun, Lehnsherr?”
“Yes.” Erik pats his hip holster.
Logan actually spits the cigar out. “Don’t use it except for self-defense. You don’t have a license to kill.”
Erik doesn’t say anything. It’s true. He’s not a soldier; he’s never taken a life. But he won’t hesitate to shoot anyone standing between him and Charles, and he’s not going to need any hand-holding after that, either.
Logan probably senses as much because he rolls his eyes and says nothing.
The tunnel is old and crumbling, but the iron ribs, rusty as they are, are keeping it intact. Erik slides his fingers appreciatively against the old metal.
Getting out is another matter. The tunnel ends up in the basement, and it’s a good thing Logan is with him, because Erik wouldn’t have been able to kick the trapdoor open on his own. They make enough noise as they emerge to wake the dead, but strangely enough no one jumps them.
“Where the fuck is everyone?” Logan mutters, pocketing his flashlight.
It’s dark in the building, but Erik, too, would prefer to stumble rather than to give away their location. Logan seems to see in the dark like a cat, and Erik crawls after him into the maze of unlit corridors.
They meet no one.
There should be about twelve terrorists in the building and they meet no one.
“Lunch break?” Erik whispers, squinting into the darkness outside as they pass a window.
“Fuck this,” Logan swears. “Let’s split up. You take the east wing, and, for fuck’s sake, don’t get yourself shot, Lehnsherr.”
Erik flips him off, but the gesture goes void in the near-complete darkness, and then he’s alone.
Erik has done some pretty gruesome things in his life, but it’s been a long, long while since he’s felt as he does now – led by his instincts, every sense on hyper alert, his very skin developing eyesight, his bloodstream sizzling with adrenaline. He feels – feral. Balancing on the balls of his feet, the cold weight of a gun steady in his hand—
Which is when someone tries to club him as he rounds the corner with a metal rod of some kind, grazing his shoulder, only just missing his head.
Pain flares like a shot of flame, and Erik forgets to fire, twisting his attacker’s arm and shoving him face-first into the wall instead. The man gives out a stifled grunt and Erik freezes.
The body under his tenses even more as though it’s physically possible.
Erik relaxes his grip and Charles turns around, moonlight streaming through the window just enough to make out his features.
There’s a cut stretching across Charles’s cheekbone, the blood black in the dark. Erik lifts his hand automatically to touch it. Charles flinches back and—
There are moments in every man’s life – moments of stark, brutal clarity, when the human recedes and the animal takes over, the drive of instinct extinguishing thought and reason.
Erik is not thinking when he surges forward, driven only by the guttural knowledge – Charles-here-safe. It’s not the time or the place, not even remotely, but Charles’s lips yield so sweetly under his when Erik kisses him hard and forceful and so desperate that for a moment he almost blacks out when Charles doesn’t push him away.
It lasts a handful of stolen seconds, but it’s an eternity to Erik, one absolutely perfect moment.
Charles shifts under him and breaks the kiss. “Not that I’m not happy to see you,” he whispers, “but we don’t have much time. Come on.”
And this – this is all Charles. He doesn’t ask how Erik came to be there or any other perfectly reasonable but entirely irrelevant at the moment questions that any sane person would have asked.
He simply grabs Erik’s hand and tugs him along the dark corridor, clearly with some kind of plan in mind.
“Where are we going?”
“To get the children. The guards won’t be distracted for long.”
“Where are they?” Erik shoots a look over his shoulder even as they speed up. “Why are you wandering here by yourself?”
Charles’s answer is as out-of-breath and quiet as the rest of their conversation, but it’s unmistakably teasing. “Why Erik, did you imagine coming heroically to my rescue? Did you picture me tied to a chair with a gag in my mouth?”
“A gag would’ve been a blessing,” Erik mutters under his breath.
“I heard that. Come on, this way.”
“So why are you—”
“The children were crying. It was either let me tend to them or shoot them all, and apparently they’re more valuable alive, imagine that.”
Erik squeezes Charles’s hand, but saves the rest of his sentiments on the subject for later. “Where are Kobb’s people?”
“They were watching me in twos and threes at first. I couldn’t do anything. But then they got the correct impression that I’m very scared and completely harmless, and left just one of them to watch over me.”
“What did you do?”
“I’m afraid I had to hypnotize him.”
Erik can’t help a snort, and Charles gives a sharp tug on his hand, annoyed.
“Contrary to what you believe, Erik,” he hisses, his voice soaked with fond exasperation, chasing the echo of an old argument, “hypnosis does work. I don’t like using it, but I assure you, I’m quite proficient.”
“So what did you do to him?”
“He seemed the violent type; it was easy to plant a suggestion that he needed to settle a score with his mates.”
“How should I know? He’s part of a violent armed group. There’s always some kind of score.”
A distant sound of loud voices and fighting seems to back him up. Charles speeds up to a run, and how he can see anything is completely beyond Erik.
“Come on, I’ve been trying to find a way out of here that wasn’t under observation and I couldn’t, but I assume, since you’re here—”
“Really? How splendid. It’s just through this door—”
He runs headfirst into Logan, and it’s only Erik’s reflexes that save them from an unplanned bloodbath, because Logan didn’t even bother to cover the knives – his preferred weapon.
The next few seconds are filled with a confused squabble and expletives. The children – there are nine of them altogether, ranging from four to twelve years old – recoil in fear from Logan and Erik, but go readily enough with Charles when he coaxes them out in a mixture of English and Swahili, which as far as Erik knows Charles doesn’t actually speak.
Charles lifts the smallest girl into his arms, and Erik finds himself doing the same with another kid under Charles’s persistent gaze, his whole body vibrating with come on - come on - come on.
They’re too slow and too loud, and of course they’re ambushed halfway back to the basement. Erik shoves the kid he’s carrying at Charles and urges them on, even as he falls back, drawing his gun, inching to where Logan has erupted in a hurricane of flying knives in response to gunfire. How they get back to the trapdoor is a miracle Erik will never be able to explain, and maybe it doesn’t have an explanation except for the fact that Logan is batshit crazy and probably not entirely human.
Erik has discharged his entire cartridge, and he knows he’s hit the target more than once, but he doesn’t think about it until he’s standing on his makeshift lift platform and Charles is staring at the gun in his hand. Erik can’t read him, but lifts his chin up defiantly anyway. He’s not sorry, and Charles opens his mouth as if to say something, but then the girl Charles is holding buries her face against his neck, and he's distracted. Logan throws himself onto the platform, cuts the wrong rope, and they shoot up toward the starry sky, the sound of gunfire picking up in intensity in the distance.
Erik feels breathless and numb for a long while after that, all through the truck drive. Charles is talking to the children quietly as the uneven road jostles them, and Erik watches him, enervated, strangely envious – of what he doesn’t know, and so fucking relieved that it hasn’t even sunk in yet.
Charles – the stoic, inventive, cocky captive Charles – breaks down completely when they reach the airport and Moira’s people come to take the children away. The kids cling to Charles all at once, and it’s physically painful to watch as they’re pulled away one by one, screaming.
“Moira, please,” Charles despairs, tears streaming down his face. “What are you doing? You have to let me go with them—”
“I’m sorry, Charles, but it’s out of the question,” she snaps, because it isn’t easy on her, either, and it’s the fifth time she’s telling him no, and Charles is plainly begging now, which is its own kind of torture. “I can’t – you’ve just been a hostage yourself – I can’t let you work with kids right now for Christ’s sake! You know that!”
“Get a grip!” She slaps him across the face, unthinkingly across the cut on his cheekbone.
He jumps in between them, rolling Charles away and shielding him with his body while glaring at Moira. “Get the fuck away from him!”
Moira’s eyes are wide; her lips tremble. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean – Charles, I’m so—”
“Save it,” Erik growls. “Step back.”
“No, she’s right,” Charles says, going limp in Erik’s hold. “I’m unfit to work right now, she’s right. Moira, you’re right, it’s fine. Erik—”
Erik looks down and curses himself a dozen times over, because Charles is trembling violently in his arms. Now that he’s no longer geared up with adrenaline and out of immediate danger, it hits him all at once – the horror of what has happened, the threat to the children, to his own life. He’s shaking and he’s scared – now he’s scared, the idiot. Erik gathers him closer unthinkingly and holds him and holds him.
“Please take me home,” Charles whispers.
Erik nods. That, he can do.
By the time they reach the mundane comfort of a commercial airport, Charles has long quieted down. How Moira gets them to the first flight to New York Erik doesn’t know, and frankly couldn't give a damn. It’s not her fault, but it’s hard not to blame her.
The moment they get onboard, Charles takes a couple of pills he procures from a smiling flight attendant and passes out cold, sprawled over Erik’s shoulder. Erik has to nudge him until he can get his arm around Charles’s shoulders at least to make them both more comfortable. When that is finally accomplished and Charles’s breathing is warm and quiet against Erik’s neck, Erik looks up to find the flight attendant smiling down at them with ‘you two are adorable’ written across her face.
Erik glares at her, and she just smiles wider – and that’s completely unacceptable. Erik is used to women around the globe going all kinds of soft-eyed around Charles, but this one is clearly cooing at him, Erik, and that’s just – that’s just—
Charles nuzzles his shoulder in his sleep, and Erik’s thought process is completely derailed, because he could have lost Charles – he nearly lost him – yet here he is now, leeching Erik’s body heat, little cuddle slut that he is, as though nothing happened.
Erik suspects he goes more than a little soft-eyed himself at that moment, and closes his eyes, as the flight attendant looks away tactfully.
Coming back to Westchester is a little weird. All of them have apartments in the city, but Erik suspects that Charles needs space – in the literal sense even. Charles seems a great deal better when they land. He's more composed and more himself, but he’s still rather subdued, although part of it must be exhaustion.
Erik has never considered the Xavier estate home, but as he stares at the old house now, he feels an unexpected pang. He knows every bit of it, every corridor, every room, attic-to-cellar. He knows every inch of the land around. The loose board in the fence, the easiest tree to climb. He knows it and suddenly – he feels at peace.
“Will you stay?” Charles asks quietly, his smile tired but his own again. He reaches hesitantly to touch Erik’s hand.
Erik catches it, twines their fingers together. They haven’t spoken about the kiss, haven’t spoken about Paris. Erik doesn’t think anything between them is a mystery at this point, but doesn’t let that thought linger, doesn’t want to assume. He’s done that more than enough times already.
“I’ll stay,” he says.
Charles squeezes his hand and smiles.
They first arrive at the house far into the evening, and Erik doesn’t see Charles until about the same time the next day.
“I can’t believe I slept that long,” Charles says around a rueful smile and a yawn, staring blearily at the dinner Erik has assembled. “I don’t think I’m hungry.”
Erik makes him eat all the same, after which Charles falls asleep again, because apparently eighteen hours weren’t enough.
He’s still sleeping the next morning when Moira calls to make an appointment for Charles with a counselor. Erik is less than polite and flat out refuses to wake Charles.
“He doesn’t need counseling,” he growls into the phone.
“Erik, it’s just a formality.” Moira sounds rather defeated. “If he wants to continue working with us – and you know he does – he needs to be recertified after a stressful experience. It’s procedure. Of course, he’ll pass.”
Erik doesn’t doubt it. One completely understandable meltdown doesn’t say a single thing about Charles except that he’s human. The man was halfway through his own rescue, for fuck’s sake.
It feels unspeakably good to hang up on Moira.
Charles wakes up around noon and is almost immediately pounced on by the housekeeper. He sends an apologetic smile at Erik and disappears into the long-postponed paperwork.
Erik is suddenly nervous. He tries to get Raven to come over; she was all for it just the day before, after all. But now she just laughs at him.
“Go talk to him, you fucking coward,” she crows. “I’m not going anywhere near there until you two have worked it out. Just, for the love of God, spare me the details, it’s horrible enough as it is.” Suddenly she chokes. “Oh my God.”
“Charles is my brother, and so are you.”
“Nothing. Just – it would make for some really awkward wedding invitations.”
Erik doesn’t hang up so much as drops the phone.
Annoying as Raven is, Erik’s boss is a lot less pleased. He sounds sour when Erik tells him he’s finally decided to cash in his overdue personal time. Erik doesn’t particularly care. He’s not as arrogant as to believe that Frost Inc. won’t survive without him, but important clients are asking for him by name now, and Winston would bite his own arm off before firing Erik.
Still, Erik spends the afternoon sequestered with a laptop, trying to delegate his most urgent projects and cursing his coworkers a lot. At some point, Erik realizes that they won’t stop asking questions for as long as he’s answering them, and signs out of the corporate network. He’s never been the nurturing type, and if someone asked him to teach them how to swim, Erik would most likely push them over at the deep end.
What? Not everybody has Charles’s patience.
The library is empty, and so is Charles’s bedroom. Erik finds him at long last outside, sitting on the same bench he had after Sharon’s funeral.
Charles is dressed in slacks and a blue oxford shirt; he’s also feeding ducks with a vaguely absent expression.
Erik cocks his head, studying him. “Should I call you Aziraphale from now on?”
“Erik!” Charles looks up, startled, then grins. “You know, I always thought you’d make an excellent Crowley. The sneaking up on people alone—”
Erik shakes his head, grinning. “May I?” He nods at the bench.
Charles looks at him with mild reproach. “You needn’t ask, Erik.”
They talk a little about nothing in particular. Charles replays his phone conversation with Raven and wonders if her new boyfriend will stick. Erik bitches a bit about his colleagues.
Somewhere in the middle of it, Charles asks quietly: “Erik. How long?”
There are no two ways to interpret that.
“Since you walked in on me and Lizzie,” Erik says, resigned. “Since before that.”
Charles’s eyes widen. “Christ, Erik. All these years… Why did you never tell me?”
Erik’s mouth twists. “You were the definition of jailbait for the better part of those years.”
Charles simply stares at him, and all right, Erik can admit that it sounds a lot more stupid now than it used to. He sighs.
“I wanted to tell you. When I went to visit you at Oxford—”
“My God.” Charles pales, his eyes sliding shut. “You really were jealous. I thought Moira was seeing things.”
Charles looks at him, eyes unnaturally bright. Tears. “I’m so sorry, Erik.”
“You couldn’t have known.”
“I was only – you were with Emma, and I was just – I wasn’t really thinking, it was just easy to—”
“I was never with Emma. She misled you on purpose, trying to protect your virtue from a big bad deviant like me.”
Charles snorts bitterly. “Not much to protect, was there?”
Erik reaches out to cup Charles’s face gently with one hand, thumb brushing over his cheekbone. “Yes, there was. There is.”
Charles looks at him, determined. “I’m not an innocent.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“You can,” Erik says because he’s never underestimated Charles and he isn’t going to start now.
Charles seems slightly disgruntled, as though he expected more of a fight. Erik smiles at him, wishing he had a nicer smile, wishing he had something other to offer than a predatory show of teeth which he's tried to curb but never really succeeded. He desperately wants to move, but doesn’t, forcing himself to remain still, allowing Charles his contemplation, wherever it may lead.
He is rewarded when Charles presses closer, eyes fluttering shut, and kisses him, looking a little like he’s jumping off a bridge, fingers tense on Erik’s jaw as though he’s afraid Erik will pull back and walk away.
Charles really doesn’t get people.
Erik pulls Charles into his lap, the ducks protesting the lack of attention in the background, and kisses him with everything he has, blunt and unapologetic, until Charles moans softly, shudders in his arms, and whispers: “Want you. Come to bed with me.”
Erik nips at his bottom lip. “What, you won’t even buy me dinner? I’m appalled, Charles.”
Charles, bless him, laughs. “As many as you want, my friend.” He traces Erik’s jawline with his fingers wonderingly. “Consider yourself booked for the rest of your life.”
There is so much hope and disbelieving joy in his eyes that Erik thinks he can’t possibly be blamed if the ducks end up thoroughly scandalized when he gives the only possible response to that statement.
Later, in Charles’s bedroom, Erik strips as though the clothes are burning on him, but Charles is strangely awkward with buckles and buttons, all clumsy hands and muttered curses. Erik catches his hands, stilling them, and tips Charles’s chin up.
“Hey. What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” Charles says and blushes.
Erik’s heart swells in sympathy. “You’ve never been shy in your life.”
“No,” Charles admits. “But – this is you.”
Erik’s heart breaks a little more at that. How it is possible that Charles has no idea after everything, Erik doesn’t know, but he’s never been good with words, so he doesn’t say anything. He wants to kiss Charles, so he does, and then he takes over, undressing Charles slowly, gently, murmuring endearments he’s not entirely conscious of and getting carried away counting his freckles.
He spreads Charles on the bed and kisses him all over, stroking, biting, pressing and pushing until Charles is a whimpering, breathless, quivering mess and can’t form a single coherent word except Erik and please.
Erik takes him then, sliding into him in one smooth, relentless stroke. He wants to be gentle more than anything, but Charles gives him an incredulous look and pushes back and almost succeeds in flipping them over before Erik gives in, holds him down in earnest and gives him what he’s clearly asking for, what they both need.
Charles is a white-hot wire in his arms, uncoiling under him, all pliant limbs and steel-hard core, malleable and resilient and breathtakingly gorgeous, and Erik doesn’t know how he lived without knowing this, without knowing him like this, without them.
“Erik,” Charles moans, and Erik pushes him that one last inch and over just as everything whites out in a wave of blazing heat.
Later, hours and hours later, Erik brushes his fingers through Charles’s hair, darker with sweat, and kisses his shoulder.
“Charles,” he says softly. “How long?”
Charles blinks, moving slowly, deliciously fucked-out and languid. “Really?”
Erik lifts one shoulder in a timid shrug.
Charles’s expression softens. “Since I saw you at that thrift store,” he confesses bashfully, voice scratchy and hoarse from what Erik just made him do. “Since you gave me a black eye.”
Erik wants to go back in time and smack himself, but maybe it is for the best – God knows what he’d have done if he’d known. It still hurts, the sweet kind of ache, and he covers it with a laugh.
“Of course. You’re such a good boy, Charles. Should have known you’d have a hard on for violence.”
Charles huffs a little and grins. “Not violence, my friend. Just you.”
Erik shivers. “Say that again.”
Charles rolls on top of him, holding his eyes. “You, Erik. You – always.”
And Erik is too blissed out to think straight, but maybe, just maybe, Charles does get people after all.