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Battle Strategies

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It’s 8am on a Saturday. More specifically, the first Saturday since they’d gotten the go-ahead from Lehnsherr and Muñoz that the government budget is balanced and the government shutdown lifted. After the past three months of doing whatever she wants with her time, all Raven wants right now is to be face-down on her memory foam mattress, entirely dead to the world. Of course she should have known the months off would change nothing. Of course she should have known that Charles would call an emergency staff meeting on one of the two days of the week she gets to sleep in for as long as she wants.

Unsurprisingly, Charles took the news that they could return to work with an unmatched enthusiasm, dragging the rest of the Parks and Rec department of Westchester along in his wake. The actual email they’d gotten from Muñoz to confirm the reopening of the department had been buried under at least twenty emails from Charles, detailing all the plans he’d made during their time off. Over the past week, Charles has whipped them all into a flurry of activity, arranging events and interviewing for new classes to be offered this fall at the Recreation Center, and of course always, always keeping an eye on the new park budget. They’re all exhausted - all except for Charles, of course.

At least the hour he’s scheduled for this meeting will count as paid. This had better be good. As Raven looks around the room she sees the sentiment very much echoed in the glazed eyes of her coworkers; Moira is here for some reason and looking just as confused as to why as Raven is, Alex is picking his nails unenthusiastically, Sean’s actually slouched over the conference table with his head resting on his forearms, Hank is staring blankly at the half-eaten doughnut in front of him, and Angel is sipping coffee, looking ready to spit. Raven half-hopes she does. If a giant hole melted in the conference table doesn’t show Charles that he’s going too fast too soon, nothing will.

A thousand miles away, caught up in her musings, Raven doesn’t register the raised voices out in the hallway at first; not until Sean picks his head blearily up off his arms and swivels to look towards them. They get louder and louder as the speakers get closer and closer, until Raven can catch enough words to realize that it’s Charles and Lehnsherr fighting just outside the door.

“… done your job, everything’s fine again! I don’t know why you’re yelling at me all of the sudden.”

“It’s this kind of behavior that got you in the red in the first place,” Lehnsherr replies hotly. “The budget was just balanced, do you want to throw everything out of whack again after just a week?”

“Trust me, Erik, that’s the furthest thing from my mind,” Charles snaps. “One one hour meeting is not going defeat all your work of the past three months, I promise you. If it does, take it out of my paycheck.”

“I can’t- That’s not-” A short, aggravated huff from Lehnsherr. “You know that’s not how it works.”

“Well, the damage is done, anyway. They’re already here. You might as well let me say what I’m going to say.”

At that, the door opens and Charles strides through, face slightly flushed, but he beams at them all when he takes in their wide-eyed, questioning faces. Lehnsherr’s expression, however, is far less composed, mouth hanging open slightly with a half-formed retort, and when Charles starts to close the door he holds out a hand and keeps it open by the handle with his magnetism.

“Oh no you don’t,” he growls. “If you’re doing this I’m going to see what all the fuss is about.”

Charles’ smile grows just slightly more fixed as he goes up to stand at the head of the table. “Suit yourself,” he says. Then he turns to face the rest of the room. “Hello everyone,” he says brightly without skipping a beat. Lehnsherr settles himself in a chair on the other end of the table. “Thank you for coming. I promise this won’t take too long, but I just had an idea and it can’t wait since we need to send out the rec catalogue on Monday.”

Immediately, Hank’s expression becomes pained. “Oh, please, Charles, I just finished the layout. It took me all day Friday. Don’t make me change anything.”

“It’s fine.” Charles waves a hand. “It’s nothing. We just need to add one more thing to the elementary level list. I was doing some thinking last night and I realized something. What’s the one thing this town is missing?” His eyes sparkle with excitement.

“A water park?” Sean asks, eyes widening as he straightens up.

“A river that doesn’t double as a landfill?” Raven counters.

“Proper animal control?” Angel volunteers.

Charles shakes his head. “No. All good answers, but no.” He leans forward over the table theatrically. “What this town is missing is… a team rivalry.”

“Team rivalry?” Angel asks, eyes narrowing.

“Exactly,” Charles replies, nodding. “A football team rivalry! Something to get people to get out of their houses, be enthusiastic about their city, and-” he throws a meaningful look Lehnsherr’s way, “pay for tickets to cheer their chosen team on. It’s a surefire way to boost morale and city pride. I’ve been to Glasgow on a game day, I can tell you the power of team rivalries first hand.”

“Excuse me,” Moira says tentatively, looking around the room for support, “but I don’t work in this department. What does this have to do with me?”

“Because Moira, you, beautiful Scottish thistle, are one of my very best friends and I value your opinion now as I do at all times.”

Moira smiles faintly, flattered by Charles’ sincerity, but overall, doesn’t seem to understand any more than she did before she asked the question.

“So… you want to add a soccer option to the elementary level rec catalogue?” Raven says slowly. It’s too early to be bombarded with this much enthusiasm. Charles’ shields are even spilling over, making her feel just the slightest bit giddy.

Charles nods again. “Just enough to have two teams,” he says. “I’m sure we can get that. There’s a severe dearth of sports options anyway, kids that age will be dying to join a team. And parents, grandparents, friends will want to support them. Like I said, it’ll pay for itself.”

“And who are your coaches?” Lehnsherr asks. When Raven turns she sees him sitting totally straight in his chair, arms crossed, expression dubious, all probably from the proverbial stick up his butt. “Has anyone come forward? You need two coaches. Two coaches who will be paid.”

A trickle of discomfort passes around their little circle as suddenly, everyone in the room realizes where this is going. Raven looks back at Charles and sees him shifting uncomfortably for a second, biting his lip as he realizes how unpopular he’s about to make himself. Probably he thought he could get a few of them to volunteer if he offered them perks - a raise or a bonus. It probably would have actually worked, but that will be impossible now with the state auditor breathing down his neck. But as Charles holds Lehnsherr’s gaze, Raven can see his resolve firming. He straightens his shoulders, releases his lip.

God have mercy on us all, she thinks quietly to herself. She looks at Moira, whose looking just as wary as she feels. He’s getting an idea.

“Actually,” Charles says testily, “I’m volunteering myself. No paycheck needed.”

Lehnsherr’s eyebrows raise. “Awfully selfless of you.”

“Thanks,” Charles spits back. “You see, unlike you, I actually care about this town and the people in it. I don’t want them to lose all their opportunities for fun and growth because some people can’t balance their budgets.”

Raven has never seen someone go white so fast. The room goes silent for a moment, everyone hardly daring to breathe. At the other end of the table, Erik sits still as death, his jaw clenched, eyes boring into Charles’, but to his credit, Charles doesn’t even flinch, staring back just as angrily.

“You think because of my job I don’t care about what happens to the people here?” Lehnsherr grits out at last.

“I’m just saying, hundreds of school children were left without their summer camps after you shut down the government,” Charles breathes. “Including the one I sponsor for mutant children that helps them explore and develop their powers. Do you know how many sad and angry letters I got?”

Lehnsherr’s jaw twitches. Suddenly, he’s standing, every muscle taught as a bowstring. He leans across the table towards Charles, and all of them except Charles shrink back. “Fine,” he says. “I’ll play your little game. I volunteer to coach the other team. Unpaid. For the kids.”

Charles’ returning smile is completely humorless. In fact, it makes Raven’s skin crawl just a little. “For the kids,” he agrees. “Let the best man win.”

Over the next three weeks, while their respective teams meet and start practicing, Charles and Lehnsherr’s personal rivalry becomes more pronounced than ever. The Friday meetings Raven and Charles have with Lehnsherr and Darwin become almost hostile, both coaches attempting to catch the other off guard and make them spill what Charles calls “team secrets” and what Darwin has told Raven Lehnsherr refers to as “battle strategies”. Raven’s seen Lehnsherr show up at Charles’ corner office and invite him to lunch, both of them all thin smiles and snarky comebacks as they sit at the stone bench in the courtyard, sizing each other up.

“I just wish he’d admit the work we do is important,” Charles confides one day as he walks with Raven back from the cafeteria, coffee in hand. He’s staring out the window into the courtyard and across the way to Lehnsherr’s office where the man himself is standing with his back to them, talking on his desk phone, one hand on his hip. Charles stops up short and pauses, contemplating. “You know, deep down I get the feeling Erik isn’t a grouch at all. I wish he’d admit it to himself. He’d be much more bearable.”

Raven raises an eyebrow. The corner of Charles’ mouth is twitching up in a half-smile as he watches Erik move around the room, turning at last to look out the window when he sees the both of them standing there staring. He pauses, caught off guard, and after an awkward moment gives them both a jerky nod before turning back around, running a hand through his hair. Charles shakes himself.

“Everything all right?” Raven asks, unimpressed.

Charles gives her a twitchy smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “Of course,” he says too quickly. “Come on. We’ve got to go over those plans for the sprinkler system in Ramsett.”

“Riveting,” Raven drawls. She decides to let it go for now.

But when she finds time to sneak over to Moira’s office on her next break to tell the story and ask what she thinks about it, Moira merely shrugs, frowning. “I don’t know,” she says. “Charles hasn’t said anything about it.” She pauses, considering. “Actually, he’s been oddly quiet about Lehnsherr on the whole for the past week or so. Normally all he wants to talk about is how bullshit it is they’re cutting down on your funding.”

“And since that meeting?” Raven prompts.

“Nothing,” Moira says. “Still. Apart from it being against Darwin’s new policy for coworkers to date, Charles is horrible at keeping secrets. We’d both know if they were…”

She doesn’t finish the sentence, but both of them grimace at the knowledge of how it ends. Sleeping together. Ugh. Raven pulls a face.

“It’s like talking about your parents doing it,” Raven says.

Moira nods. “Yeah. Let’s never bring this subject up ever again. It’s a moot point. Charles would never break the rules. Right?”

“Right,” Raven agrees.

“Besides, the game is scheduled for this weekend. It’ll all be over soon enough,” Moira says, smiling with relief. “Are you going?”

Raven grimaces again. “I have to,” she answers. “Somehow Charles talked me into being referee. He said he’d get me a gift certificate to the spa in the mall, but man oh man I’m starting to regret it anyway.”

“Ah, I’m sure it’ll be all right,” Moira says encouragingly. “They’re both adults, and there’ll be a crowd watching them. They’ll have to behave.”

Which of course would apply to any other situation with normal people who lead normal, rational lives. But Moira and Raven forgot they were dealing with Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, two of the most bull-headed, avoidant, blundering man-children to ever exist on the planet Earth. Charles, for all that he boasts of being a former resident of jolly old England, apparently spent his whole childhood inside reading and making papier-mâché busts of Marie Curie and Martin Luther King Jr., not outside playing on the football pitch. His players have no almost no idea what they’re doing. From the way Charles keeps shouting advice and plays at them coaxingly, it seems that they spent little to no time learning the basics. Raven can clearly see how he immersed himself in high level strategy books without even explaining to the children the object of the game to begin with. Poor little Scott Summers - Alex’s younger brother - can barely dribble the ball, and his glasses keep slipping down his nose, causing little bursts of phaser energy to scorch the ground. At one point Jean Grey gives up entirely and sits down in the grass, pulling it up in chunks.

“Come on, Jeannie!” Charles calls encouragingly. “Come on, get up! Go get the ball!”

It’s no use.

Erik’s team on the other hand definitely knows what they’re doing. A little too well, actually. Raven’s given out five yellow cards to as many players, and it’s only now getting to the end of the first half. There’s clearly some rough playing happening that borders on cheating. At one point, Mortimer Toynbee straight up trips Kitty Pryde, and Raven’s forced to give him a red card, sending him out of the game, his parents shouting at her from the stands. Well, at least Charles’ little rivalry plan seems to working out. even if nothing else is.

No one’s actually hurt, which is the only reason Raven’s tolerating Lehnsherr at all by the time they get to the second half, but Charles is clearly close to the end of his tether. He keeps looking sidelong at Erik, frowning, sighing in frustration whenever one of his players elbows their way into Charles’ weak defenses and steals the ball. But as the game goes on, between Charles’ overzealous coaching and Erik’s roughhousing players, the score is miraculously tied 2 - 2. Ororo Munroe, despite all odds, has carried Charles’ team to, if not glory, then to not humiliation either, and little Janos Quested is too busy trying to look impressive that he’s missed half the shots that came at him for Erik’s goal.

At the end of ninety minutes, Raven blows her whistle. No overtime for munchkins. They’re all safe. The game ends, and she directs the two teams to line up with the coaches at the rear to walk past each other and shake hands. As they do, she feels someone step up beside her and turns to see Moira, shoulders sagged in relief.

“Thank god,” Moira breathes. “It’s over.”

Raven smiles, letting herself relax as well now, too. “Pretty nasty shit,” she murmurs. “But it’s done now. And I talked to Angel at halftime, she says with ticket sales and concessions we met our budget goals. No harm no foul, I guess.”

“Good,” Moira replies. “A win for the Parks department. You deserve one. I know how hard you all work.”

Raven bumps their shoulders together. “Hey, don’t cut yourself short either,” she says. “I mean, you’re basically an honorary member.”

“True,” Moira says, nodding. Then she pauses, face falling. “Oh god,” she whispers.

Raven turns back out toward the field and sees the children have dispersed back to their parents, but Charles and Lehnsherr remain standing at the halfway line, practically nose to nose, in each other’s faces, talking lowly.

“Shit,” Raven sighs, stomach dropping. “I am not breaking up a fistfight today.”

The two of them hustle across the grass, hopefully not attracting any more attention towards the awkward situation in the middle of the field. Charles is practically talking through his teeth, and Lehnsherr’s face is dark with anger as they approach, but they’re speaking too softly for Raven to hear anything. She does, however, feel the metal of her ref’s whistle start to vibrate the closer they get, a testament to how upset Lehnsherr must be. She takes it off from around her neck, balling it up in a fist. Children. They’re both acting like children.

“What is all this about?” she barks. Immediately, they break away from each other, Charles’ eyes wide and breathing heavy, while Lehnsherr merely turns his frown on Raven and Moira both.

“He was cheating,” Charles says. “You know he was, Raven.”

“The players certainly weren’t the nicest I’ve encountered,” Raven says evenly. “But apart from that-”

“See?” Lehnsherr cuts in. “It’s not illegal to be aggressive when you’re playing a game, Charles, much as that may surprise you.”

“Don’t condescend to me, Erik,” Charles snaps back. “Just because I didn’t train a pack of wolves in nine-year-old’s clothing doesn’t mean I’m naive.”

“Okay!” Moira says loudly, holding up both her hands, a frown etched angrily across her face. “Both of you are being ridiculous! If you’re going to do all this macho posturing, fine. But take it somewhere where the kids can’t see it. I’m surprised at the both of you.”

Both Charles and Lehnsherr have the good sense to look properly ashamed at that. They stand for a moment, Charles shifting his weight from foot to foot, biting his lip, and Lehnsherr rubbing at the back of his neck where a blush has started to creep up from under his button-down. Raven shoots Moira a grateful look and receives a reassuring smile back, the tension beginning to ease somewhat.

“Um, would you come with me please?” Charles says quietly, tossing a half-glance up at Lehnsherr, who nods, and they shuffle off towards the abandoned concessions stand together.

“That takes care of that,” Moira says. “Come on. Wanna go for a drink? I think we could both use one.”

Raven nods vigorously. “Definitely.”

*********************************************************************************************

Charles’ stomach is flipping with equal parts anger and regret as he props his shoulder against the side of the concessions stand, arms crossed, biting his lip again, a nervous habit. From the quiet jumble of thoughts washing from Erik, his feelings aren’t exclusive, but Charles won’t bring that up. It’ll only make Erik more upset if he knows Charles can read him, even though it’s not Charles’ fault, and explaining how his mutation works will take too long. Anger is not the way to deal with this problem anymore, perhaps, Charles realizes. He clears his throat unsurely, and Erik flicks his eyes up to meet Charles’ gaze for a fleeting moment.

“So,” Charles begins. He pauses. “I think we both have some apologizing to do.”

Erik nods, his jaw set, and looks back up, his eyes softer than Charles has ever seen them. To others, it might look like defeat, but Charles knows instinctively that’s not quite the case. It isn’t defeat to admit you’re wrong, and it isn’t defeat to admit you might have changed. It’s damn hard sometimes - like now for instance - but it isn’t defeat. Charles sighs.

“I shouldn’t have held a grudge against you for so long,” he says. “Shutting down the government was the right thing to do, even if I couldn’t admit it then. I know you and Darwin were just trying to do the best with what you got when you came here. And I know it was bad. I just…” His voice drops, and he smiles softly up at Erik. “I really love this town. There are so many good people here. Did you know that we have one of the highest populations of mutant citizens in the country? I’ve put my heart and soul into giving them the best that I can. When I feel like someone is trying to stop me from doing that, I might get a little crazy. I’m sorry.”

Erik nods. “Thank you,” he says sincerely. “And I’m… I’m sorry for being an asshole about the game. What you said about me not caring, that really hit a nerve. I didn’t grow up in the most nurturing of communities. I don’t ever want to feel like I’m helping create a society that doesn’t care about the people who live in it. But then I got carried away with proving myself and winning, and it all just spiraled out from there. Your team didn’t deserve that. I apologize, and I hope I didn’t ruin their fun.”

“No, you didn’t,” Charles says. He smiles tentatively, and claps Erik on the shoulder. The touch sends a jolt up his arm, and embarrassingly, he feels himself start to blush. Maybe Erik won’t notice. “I could feel their minds the whole time. If anything, they were annoyed because… well, I probably wasn’t the best of coaches. They spent more time sitting down listening to me explain plays than they did actually kicking the ball around.”

Erik lets out a startled laugh at that, his head tilting back to expose his neck more fully, and Charles feels warmth spread through him as he tries not to think of how that skin would taste against his lips. Instead, he tries to paste on an unimpressed glare, which does nothing except make Erik laugh harder. After a moment, Charles can’t help but join in, the last bit of uncertainty loosening in his chest.

It feels so good to finally laugh with Erik. They’d shared a few shy jokes over the handful of lunches they’ve had the past weeks, but even then everything was tinged with distrust and second guesses. Now, somehow, they seem on firmer ground. Now it doesn’t seem so wrong to notice the bob of Erik’s Adam’s apple, how long and elegant his fingers are as he rubs at his forehead, the glints of copper in his hair that catch the last rays of the sun.

Or to notice how cute his butt is. Charles can’t see it now, but Erik has the cutest butt, and just knowing it’s close warms him that bit more.

“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised,” Erik teases.

“And I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that you took elementary school football coach to mean battle hardened world cup strategist,” Charles replies, but there’s no real bite to his words, and Erik, who is now only radiating contentment and a little bit of surprise, knows this.

Erik smiles again, shaking his head and looking away for a moment. When he looks down at Charles again his gaze is warm. Comfortable. Charles could bask in it and in the coils of Erik’s thoughts like a cat in the sun. When Erik keeps watching, silently taking him in, Charles realizes nothing’s stopping him, and only pauses a moment before giving in and riding the high of Erik’s happiness, letting time stretch out around them. It’s gentle, intimate in a way Charles doesn’t think he’s been intimate with anyone else before. The realization should frighten Charles - after all, he shouldn’t even be entertaining such thoughts, since acting on them is forbidden. But instead of frightening him, the acknowledgement of just how well he and Erik fit only makes Charles beam, his mind glowing with pleasure. Erik smiles back.

“Hey,” he says quietly. “Want to get some waffles?”

Erik nods. “Waffles would be great,” he says.

And if their hands brush once or twice on their way across the field, or their feet brush once or twice as they sit across from each other eating waffles at the diner, or if, before they say goodnight on Erik’s front doorstep, Erik leans down to press a quick, dry kiss to Charles’ cheek, and if Charles turns and catches his lips a second after. Well. Darwin never has to find out.