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Devil's Own Luck

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Charles felt Erik's mind when he was still about a half hour away from the house. Nothing more than a brief sweep of familiarity -- he didn't probe any further or speak to Erik, but then, there was little need to, knowing Erik was on his way.

Charles had been just about to tuck in, himself. A small mercy, he supposed, that Erik would choose now to appear, not in the middle of the day when he'd cause an uproar amongst all the students, or in the middle of the night when he'd wake everyone up trying to get Charles to pay him attention. Charles was always the last one up in the house, staying up too late reading and straining his eyes by the candlelight, like Henry always scolded him for, and he had only just given it up for the night. He had finished his last rounds, mentally checking that everyone was sleeping sound and calm, and then further away, outwards from the house, checking for any disturbances. Which was where, naturally enough, he found Erik -- a disturbance if there ever was one.

No use going back to his books. He put a bowl of stew on to heat by the fire -- if past experience was any measure, Erik would be roaring hungry when he arrived -- and sat himself in his favorite chair with some yarn to wait him out. The children's woollens had a tendency to wear themselves out at an alarming rate, almost as impressive as their other abilities, Charles privately thought. He'd learned knitting first thing when he started the school, and in the rare case he ever had a moment of time to himself, there was always plenty of mending to be done.

As it happened, it took Erik closer to an hour. The closer he got, the more obvious it became that there was something wrong, a sense of something off coming from his mind, driving Charles crazy. By the time he finally arrived, Charles was practically pacing a hole in the floor -- a bad idea, given his leg the way it was, and one he was surely going to pay for in the morn.

Charles, are you awake? Erik called to him. After all these years he was still better at it, that silent way of speaking mind to mind, than anyone else Charles ever met, his mental voice something raspy and low like smoke and whisky.

I'm here, Charles told him. Take care of your horse and get in here.

It was a handful of minutes after that. The door was locked, of course, but locks were never any problem, not for Erik. Charles was sitting at the table, waiting, but he started at Erik's appearance. He hadn't even realized it was raining out, but Erik was dripping wet, shivering in the cold.

"Take off your clothes and set them by the fire, you fool," Charles said gruffly. Another time, maybe, Erik would have said something smart in retaliation, but now he just nodded and obeyed without a word, which was out of character enough to be worrisome. When he was down to his stocking feet and longjohns, he stopped.

Closer to the light, Charles could see that Erik looked thinner than ever, that he hadn't bathed or shaved since who-knew-when, and -- most aggravating at all -- that there was a kerchief tied round his upper right arm, once white but now stained red with blood.

"Why didn't you mention you were hurt?" Charles said, pushing himself back up to stand.

"You didn't give me a chance to say much of anything," Erik pointed out, but Charles only grunted in response. He gathered a bowl of water, some clean rags, a bottle of whisky, a needle and thread. When he returned to the table, Erik was making fast work on the stew, holding the spoon in his left hand. He stopped as Charles sat down beside him, though, and without Charles having to ask, he unbuttoned and pulled down the top of his union suit, leaving him bare from the waist up.

Erik's body was a map of old scars; Charles knew them all, by feel and sight both. (Or almost all, at least; who knew how many new might be there since the last time Erik came round?) He'd tended to plenty of them, too, washing Erik and sewing him back up any number of nights like this one.

This wound wasn't too bad. Bullet rather than a knife, and just a graze across his flesh, not anything deep or direct. The last time Erik got himself shot, it'd been in the meaty part of his thigh, and he'd pulled it right back out himself, before he even got here. That one had been too bad for Charles to take care of; he'd had to call Henry down, and had the bizarre pleasure of seeing Henry practically explode with frustration over Erik's idiocy, and Erik blinking up at Henry, silently bemused at the shift from the mouse he'd never bothered to give a second of attention to.

This, though, this shouldn't even need stitches, Charles thought. He cleaned Erik's arm carefully, the water of the bowl slowly turning from clear to a cloudy red as he worked. When it looked good, he poured some whisky into the wound -- there was a loud clack of Erik's teeth as he winced against the pain -- and then tied it up again with a clean bandage.

They both had been silent throughout the entire process, Erik staring away into the fire while Charles worked. Now, though, he turned back to look at Charles with a lopsided smile.

"What do you think, doc?" Erik said. "Will I live?"

Charles said, "More than you deserve, you devil."

Erik reached out with his unhurt arm to take Charles's hand in his own, and Charles allowed it. Erik brought it up to his mouth, turning it over to press a kiss to the middle of Charles's palm, lapping at the skin like a kitten with milk.

"Don't start something you ain't gonna finish," Charles warned him.

"Ain't?" Erik repeated, the corners of his eyes crinkling with amusement. The light was getting dim in the room, as the candles began to gutter. Charles should get up and take care of them. He didn't.

"Not a lot of call for speaking properly around here," Charles said. "I've gotten into the habit of speaking such to the parents. It makes them more comfortable." There was any number of strikes against him, with those families. He couldn't do anything about his Eastern patrician background, or his college education, or the limp that immediately marked him as useless to all the farmers and ranchers who depended on their bodies for their living. His face was something he could work on, and had, growing out his beard in an attempt to look less baby-faced. His "sissy, fancified city manners" (as one parent had memorably put it) was another thing, and work on it he had.

"You're better than all of them," Erik murmured. "No shame in that. What do they say about hiding your light behind a bushel?" He stopped his kisses against Charles's hand, moving it instead to stroke against his cheek, rough prickly whiskers against the skin.

"Why, Erik," Charles said, "you get positively honey-tongued after some blood loss."

Erik huffed out a breath, half-laughter. "I'll need to lie low for a few days, at least," he said. "How do you feel about having me around a bit longer?"

"I can't exactly send you back out into the night like this, can I," Charles said drily. "You'd undo all my good work before you get a mile away."

The children would enjoy having Erik around; they always did, on those occasional unexpected times he would come to call. The boys worshiped him from afar, frightened and admiring as he worked on his metals; the girls thought he was handsome and somehow tricked him into dancing with them or letting them wear his boots or hat. Charles could put him to work while he was here, anyhow; they could always use another hand, and Erik's abilities were plenty useful, even making allowances for the reduced use of his arm while he recovered.

"There's not a free bed to be had in the place, though," Charles said, taking his hand back.

"I think I'll survive being forced to share yours," Erik responded.

"I was thinking more along the lines of having you bed down in the stable," Charles shot back, but he did not expect Erik took his words very seriously, not when he followed them up by leaning across the wood dividing them to kiss Erik full on the mouth, and then stroking his hands down Erik's bare chest for some time while that went on.

The kiss ended eventually. Charles's neck ached from the angle, and it was later than sin. "You know the way," he said. "Go on up and I'll join you once I clean up after you. Like I always do," he added.

"I wouldn't keep asking you if you weren't so good at it," Erik said, already rising from his chair. Charles snorted, and swatted him away, but Erik stole one more kiss before he left the room.

He gathered the bloody rags and water and Erik's empty stew bowl, putting them all out of the way, and then he put out all the candles. One last mental purview of his home and its residents -- all safe, still, all sound -- and he made his way towards his bedroom and sleep at last.