Due to a host of complications including a computer malfunction, a surprise visit from his mother in the middle of the month, and a horrendous case of the flu, Erik missed his October deadline, which always put him in a foul mood for about two or three days until he revised his writing schedule to catch up on lost dates. Though it was his turn to host the weekly poker tournament, the rest of the floor wisely relocated down the hall to the apartment Hank shared with Alex and Sean, which was more spacious anyway and, according to Azazel, had better snacks.
This was largely why Erik missed the fact that Raven’s brother was moving into the Hub this Friday rather than at some nebulous date in the far future. 3K had sat empty for almost a full year after the previous tenant had been evicted for defaulting on his rent too many times to forgive. Good riddance, Erik had thought at the time; the guy had had appalling taste in music and no concept of neighborly etiquette. He’d left his wet shoes outside his door anytime it rained and stunk up the hall. He’d been up at all odd hours of the night watching whatever soap opera was on TV past midnight. Erik had written some of his worst work of the entire year to the muffled sounds of horrible, wailing pop music played at 2 a.m. The silence that had settled in the wake of the man’s eviction had been more than welcome and possibly sanity-saving.
When he’d heard that 3K was soon to be occupied, he’d actually considered—even if only for a handful of fanciful seconds—buying out the place himself to maintain the peace and quiet he’d become accustomed to over the last year. The new neighbor could conceivably be a nice guy who kept normal hours and enjoyed sensible music, but Erik had never been an optimist.
Only afterwards had he discovered that the new resident was actually Raven’s brother, who was moving back to New York after spending the last few years in England. Raven’s brother, he supposed, was better than a stranger, but he was still resolved to reserve judgment until he met the man for himself. Raven hadn’t mentioned an actual move-in date, so he’d reasonably assumed that such a meeting would occur sometime in the distant future and put it out of his mind.
It was something of a surprise, then, when the front door of 3K opened just as Erik stepped out of his apartment on Saturday morning to head out for his morning run. Erik was startled enough to freeze in place, iPod earphones dangling in his hand, and for a moment, he and 3K simply stared at each other.
Raven hadn’t mentioned the wheelchair. Of all the things Erik had been expecting, that hadn’t been one of them.
“Hello,” 3K said after a long pause. “You must be Erik.” When Erik blinked, the stranger smiled and explained, “Raven spent the ride from the airport briefing me on everyone who lived on the floor. I’m her brother, Charles Xavier. It’s very nice to meet you.”
Erik stepped forward to shake his hand. “Yeah.” He could’ve sworn 3K had been empty when he’d gone to bed last night, but then again, he’d been out late at the NYPL digging up research material so he could’ve easily missed the moving trucks. Still, he thought he should’ve noticed. “When did you move in?”
“Yesterday afternoon. I meant to go around and introduce myself to everyone but I got bogged down in unpacking. I thought I got rid of everything unessential before the move but apparently not.”
When Erik stretched his powers out, he could feel out furniture in the previously-empty apartment: a narrow bedframe, a large TV, what felt like a low-sitting coffee table in the living room. He must have been truly preoccupied last night to miss all the new metal.
“Actually,” Charles continued, “I’m glad I ran into you. I wonder if I could ask you a quick favor?”
Erik hesitated for a moment, then shrugged. He wasn’t planning to start writing until 11 a.m. anyway. “Sure.”
Charles grinned and wheeled backwards into his apartment. “Splendid. It shouldn’t take long, I think. Do you happen to have a screwdriver?”
Tucking his iPod into the pocket of his jacket, Erik followed him. “No, but I can do without.”
Charles cocked his head. “Do without?” His confusion dissolved into excitement before Erik could clarify. “Oh yes, your mutation! Raven told me a little about it.”
“Is there anything Raven hasn’t told you?”
“She didn’t tell me how awfully handsome you were,” Charles replied cheerily, spinning in a tight arc so he could wheel forwards down the rest of the hall.
A little stunned at Charles’ utterly casual delivery of the compliment, Erik stared at his retreating back for a few flustered seconds. It gave him a very fine view of Charles’ broad shoulders and the well-defined muscles of his forearms as they maneuvered the wheelchair skillfully around the corner of the hall.
Had Raven told Charles about Erik’s sexuality on top of everything else? He wished suddenly he’d asked Raven a little more about her brother when he’d had the chance.
“It’s just this,” Charles said, stopping in the living room. He pointed at a thin wooden shelf set high on the wall by the mantelpiece. “Whoever lived here before had a bunch of random shelves they didn’t bother taking down when they left. I’d take them down myself but…” He gestured at his wheelchair. “I’m a bit on the short end, if you hadn’t noticed.”
The shelf was fastened to the wall by metal brackets and screws. Child’s play.
“Do you want anything to drink?” Charles asked, backing up a bit so Erik could step in to reach the shelf. “There’s not much in the fridge, but there’s water and I could make tea.”
Erik shook his head. “I’m fine.” Grasping the edge of the shelf, he loosened the screws with a twist of his power, suspending them in the air when they pulled out entirely. He floated the brackets as well to keep them from clattering to the floor and turned to ask Charles what he wanted to do with the shelf.
Charles was staring at him with unmitigated delight. “That’s amazing.”
Erik gave him a half-shrug. “It’s only a bit of levitation.”
“It’s only fascinating,” Charles corrected eagerly, shifting closer. “Raven said you could manipulate metal?”
“Magnetic fields, more accurately.”
“Like I said, fascinating.”
When Charles held out a hand, Erik sent one of the screws dipping toward his palm. Charles’ eyes tracked its path avidly, watching as it began to orbit his arm. After a couple of lazy circles, Erik let the screw come close enough to brush skin, to see how Charles might react.
“You have marvelous control,” Charles said, mesmerized.
Erik found himself strangely pleased at the praise. “I’ve had practice.”
He removed six other shelves scattered around the apartment and stacked them on the coffee table for Charles to do what he liked with later. Charles’ appreciative gaze followed him as he worked, not quite lewd but not entirely platonic either. He was interested, Erik thought, sneaking a look at Charles out of the corner of his eye. Or at least passingly interested in men.
He couldn’t deny that he found Charles’ interest more than a little flattering. One of the best parts about being a writer was being able to shut himself up in his apartment for days on end without having to deal with anyone. On the flip side, it did get lonely from time to time. Normally when he was in the mood for some company, he’d just roam the floor for a while; Alex, Sean, and Hank usually kept their door propped open for visitors, Janos was almost always game for a run, and Angel and Raven were used to him coming in and watching some TV on their couch for a while before wandering back out. When he was in the mood for sex, he knew the good bars in the area where he could be relatively certain he wouldn’t be picking up any questionable characters.
Sick and busy as he’d been last month though, he’d barely gotten out at all. That explained how oddly conscious he was of Charles’ attention, and why he lingered after he’d finished with the shelves instead of just ducking out with a quick goodbye.
“Much better,” Charles proclaimed, surveying the blank walls of the living room. “Now there’s room for the bookcase. I’ll have to find Raven later and get her to help me move it.”
Erik checked his watch. Still only 8:48. “I can do it if you want.”
“Oh no, I’d hate to hold you any longer.”
Erik shrugged. “I don’t have anything to do until 11. Where do you want it?”
Charles’ answering smile made Erik feel as if he’d been sitting in the sun a little too long. “Let me show you.”
He spent the next half hour dragging an enormous old bookcase from the bedroom out to the living room next to the mantel. “Those nice boys from yesterday—Alex and Hank—they put the case in my room when they were helping unload the moving trucks yesterday,” Charles explained, keeping just far enough away to avoid getting tangled up underfoot as Erik steered the bookcase through the bedroom doorway. “I suppose they thought I wouldn’t want to clutter up the living room, but I like having my books out there. I’m sorry for the hassle though.”
“It’s not a big deal,” Erik grunted, navigating the sharp corner of the hall with a tug of metal. He’d darted over to his apartment to pick up spare bits of metal to act as sliders to move the bookcase, but even with them, the monstrous wooden thing was heavier than expected. By the time he’d finally positioned the bookcase to Charles’ satisfaction, he was sweating as if he’d just completed mile five of the run he should’ve been on.
“Here,” Charles offered, appearing at his side with a glass of water. Erik took it gratefully and guzzled it, fully aware of the way Charles’ eyes watched his throat. When he handed back the empty glass, Charles said, “I feel like I should pay you back for this somehow. Maybe dinner sometime? I can’t cook very many things, but I make a mean lasagna.”
Dinner between neighbors. Why not. It would save him the trouble of buying something. “As long as it’s kosher,” Erik told him.
When Charles’ brow furrowed, Erik nearly told him to forget it. But then Charles grinned and said, “I’ve never tried making kosher lasagna but I’ll look up a recipe. I can’t guarantee its quality but I’ll do my best.”
Without really meaning to, Erik smiled back. “Sounds good.”
“Maybe sometime next week then,” Charles said. “After I finish getting settled.”
Erik glanced at the stacks of boxes lining the walls and nodded. “If you ever need help…”
Charles smiled. “I know where to find you.”
There didn’t seem to be much to say after that, so Erik headed toward the front hall before any awkward silence could settle in. Charles saw him to the door and waved as he stepped out. “I’ll see you around, Erik.”
Charles’ brazen gaze followed him all the way to the stairwell, much to Erik’s pleasure. He barely remembered any part of his run afterward.
One of the best things about Charles was that he was easy to feed. Leftover pasta, pizza, microwaveable dinners—as long as it was edible, Charles would eat it. For all his ridiculous wealth, Charles had simple tastes, so Raven had no qualms about serving him a pot of Kraft’s mac and cheese when he came by for dinner.
“So,” he was saying to Angel, who was sitting beside him at the tiny kitchen table as Raven scooped the mac and cheese out into bowls, “there’s this guy.”
Raven groaned. “You’ve been here barely a day and there’s already a guy?”
Ignoring her, Charles repeated, “There’s this guy. Erik.”
Angel’s eyes widened. “You met Erik already? How was that?”
“Quite nice, actually. He helped me with some shelves and moved the bookcase around. Very accommodating.”
Raven and Angel exchanged a look. Erik. Accommodating. They’d never heard that one before.
“Are you sure you met the right guy?” Angel asked skeptically, chewing on the end of her pen. She always had her notebook and a pen with her, to jot down whatever writing ideas came to mind. Her pen clicking used to drive Raven crazy, but after two years of living with it as constant background noise, Raven barely even noticed it now. “Erik Lehnsherr?”
“3B, right? He’s just across the hall from me.”
“Yeah, that’s Erik. Weird.”
Charles shrugged. “He was a lot friendlier than Raven led me to believe. All those horror stories—were any of them true?”
Raven rustled through the drawer beside the sink for silverware. “They were all true. Maybe you caught Erik on a good day.”
“Erik hasn’t had a good day in a couple of weeks,” Angel mused. “We didn’t even have Writing Wednesday because he was in such a bad mood.”
“I highly doubt your story about Erik throwing that Sean fellow out the sixth-story window is true,” Charles remarked. “And what’s Writing Wednesday?”
Angel pointed to her notebook. “I’m a journalist. Erik’s a novelist. We made a pact to get together on Wednesday nights to just write all the shit we should’ve done weeks ago. It helps to have a fellow writer suffering with you. Also, Raven is the loudest roommate in the history of roommates and some quiet time is nice sometimes.”
Raven snorted. “Hey, I’m not the one who blasts ‘mood music’ all over the apartment at six a.m. in the morning when all the normal people are trying to sleep.”
“I can’t help when inspiration strikes. At least I don’t stop on random street corners to take pictures of trash.”
“An aesthetically pleasing arrangement of debris,” Raven corrected haughtily. “One man’s trash….”
“Is still trash,” Angel finished, rolling her eyes. To Charles, she asked, “Has she always taken ten minutes to walk a single block or did that just start when she got her camera?”
Charles laughed. “You should have seen her with those three-dollar disposable cameras from CVS. She used to use up the whole thing before we even got home.”
“Aww. I bet she was a cute kid.”
“She was. I have family pictures in a box somewhere if you want to see them.”
“If you show those pictures to anyone,” Raven said darkly as she carried their bowls over to them, “I swear to God I’ll shave all your hair off in your sleep.”
“She was adorable,” Charles continued anyway, his eyes gleaming with sly humor. “Short. Pouty. Cheeks you couldn’t resist pinching. Hard to believe that beautiful little girl grew up to become…” He waved a hand in Raven’s direction. “…this.”
Raven smacked him in the back of the head before returning to the counter to collect her own dinner. Dropping into the seat next to him, she said, “Don’t worry, I still have all your old baby pictures, too. Maybe I’ll show them to Erik. I’m sure he’ll appreciate that one where you’re running butt-naked out of the bathroom because you saw a spider.”
“Erik,” Charles replied archly, “is coming over for dinner with me next week. So please refrain from frightening him off before he and I even have a proper conversation.”
Angel’s pen stopped. “Wait. You’re having dinner with Erik?”
“Yes. It’s a thank you for helping me move some things around this morning, nothing more.”
Neither of them believed him. For one thing, Raven knew Charles, and she knew that whenever Charles showed even the slightest interest in someone, their relationship would very quickly culminate in late-night bedroom acrobatics, followed by early morning walks of shame and usually the termination of said relationship. For another, Erik never shared his meals with anyone other than his closest friends, and sometimes even they had a hard time convincing him to sit down with them.
“Dinner,” Angel said again. “With Erik. So a date.”
“It’s not a date,” Charles insisted, just as Raven said, “It’s so totally a date, don’t even bother denying it. Really though…Erik? He’s not your type.”
“Tall, dark, and handsome is exactly my type.”
“How about serious, antisocial, and angry? Because that’s Erik ninety-nine percent of the time.”
“He was perfectly sociable this morning,” Charles sniffed. He chewed down a mouthful of macaroni and then licked his spoon with a pleased noise. “Perfect amount of cheese by the way, as always. Anyway, I’m making him lasagna. Kosher. So we need to look up some recipes.”
“Hang on,” Angel interjected. “Is Erik even gay?”
Raven tapped her spoon against her lip thoughtfully. “Ninety-nine percent sure. He’s been here for, what, a year? We’ve never seen him date anyone, but every time we’ve gone out for drinks, he’s been hit on by guys and he doesn’t seem to mind it. But he doesn’t talk about anyone he likes, so who the hell knows?”
Angel grinned. “That’s because he doesn’t like anyone. Honestly, if his mother didn’t drop by every now and then, I swear he’d just pack everything up and go live in the woods with animals. He likes Magneto better than he likes any of us.”
Charles’ brow furrowed. “Magneto?”
“Stray cat,” Raven explained. “He wanders around the Hub and people keep taking him in. He’s sort of our unofficial mascot. Erik likes to pretend he’s all heartless, but everyone knows he keeps a bag of cat food at his place.”
“And that he lets Magneto sleep with him,” Angel added.
Charles frowned. “I thought there was a no pets policy.”
“There is. Shaw isn’t too great at following up on it though.” As draconian as their landlord was about rent and all his million other arbitrary rules, he was pretty blind to the fact that they’d had a tomcat wandering in and out of the Hub at its leisure for over a year.
“So Erik’s a cat person,” Charles mused, in that tone of his that meant he was taking mental notes. “I can live with that. Cats are cute.”
“Please don’t tell me you’re planning a future with him already,” Raven groaned. With how many times Charles had been burned by lovers since his accident, one would assume he’d be more chary of commitment. But it seemed like almost the opposite: Charles was forever jumping into things with both feet, without really looking, and he always seemed surprised when his relationships fell to shambles around him. Honestly, it was like he had no sense of self-preservation at all.
“I’m thinking ahead,” Charles replied, unruffled. “I’m fairly certain he’s interested. You should have seen the way he was looking me over. I’ve seen subtler ogling in a strip club.”
“So Raven was right, it’s definitely a date.” Angel put down her pen, fully engrossed now in the topic at hand. “What’re you going to do? Besides dinner, I mean.”
Charles shrugged. “I don’t know. I figured we could do dinner and see what happens from there.”
Angel hummed, her expression thoughtful. “You should do it Tuesday night. That way you can go over to Sean’s after dinner and listen to the Banshees practice. That’s always pretty entertaining.”
“I remember Raven telling me something about that. Alternative rock group…?”
“Something like that, yeah. I went over last week and they sounded like they had some good work going on.”
“Or you can drag Sean into your apartment and have him serenade you during dinner,” Raven said with a smirk. “He’s always wandering around in the halls with his guitar.”
Charles rolled his eyes at her. “It’s just dinner, and even if it is a date, it’s just a casual one. We barely know each other.”
“I have a feeling you’ll be knowing each other really soon.”
“Oh, shut it, you,” Charles grumbled, flicking a piece of macaroni at her. Raven dodged it with a laugh before launching one straight back at him.
Angel swept up her notebook and bowl safely out of the way. “Wow, you two are children. Guess who gets to clean up the kitchen afterwards?”
“Spoilsport,” Charles called as she retreated.
Raven nodded as she aimed a noodle at Charles’ eye. “Yeah, learn to live a little.”
“Children!” Angel shouted, dropping down on the cramped couch in front of the TV. When Charles began to laugh, Raven did, too, and for a few minutes it was like they were kids again, flinging food across the immaculate dining table to the consternation of their parents.
It was good to have him home.
Charles had figured he’d have a solid two and a half days to prepare himself for meeting Erik again, but the very next morning, he caught Erik in the lift going down and, after a beat of hesitation, called, “Hold the door!”
Erik, who’d been fiddling with his iPod, looked up and immediately shoved his shoe in between the closing doors. “Hi,” he said as Charles wheeled in next to him. “What floor?”
“Ground floor,” Charles replied, noting at the button was already highlighted on the panel. Eyeing Erik’s attire, he added, “Going out for a run?”
“Yeah, every morning at seven. It wakes my mind up before I write.”
“Ah, right, you’re a novelist. What do you write, if you don’t mind my asking?” Charles was pretty sure he’d never heard Erik’s name before Raven had mentioned it once in passing during one of her weekly phone calls while he was at Oxford.
“Fiction mostly. Commentary on political, social, and economic status of mutants in today’s society.”
Charles’ eyebrows lifted. “Heavy stuff.”
“But topics that have lacked attention for decades.”
“I won’t argue with that.” As the doors dinged open, Charles wheeled out ahead of Erik and asked, “Do you have any copies with you? I’d love to read your work sometime.”
“Sure. I know I have a hardback of Genosha lying around somewhere.”
Charles stopped dead. “Hang on, you wrote Genosha?”
Erik stopped, too. “Yes?”
“New York Times Best Seller Genosha. Lannan Literary Award winner Genosha. That Genosha.”
Charles’ eyes shot open wide. “Erik. That is one of my favorite books of all time. You—what—that’s impossible. Max Eisenhardt—”
“A pen name.” Now Erik was beginning to look faintly amused. “I could autograph, too, if you’d like.”
“Oh my God,” Charles said, shell-shocked. “I’m sorry, but it’s not every day you run into one of your favorite authors. Oh my God. I wondered what you were like. There aren’t any pictures of you on the Internet, if you can believe that, and your autobiography is so curt. I never imagined…”
Erik’s eyebrow rose. “Go on.”
Charles spluttered wordlessly for a moment. Erik, the Erik Raven had been talking about since he’d moved into the Hub last year, the Erik who’d helped Charles shift things around in his flat, the Erik who’d blushed so prettily when Charles had called him handsome—that Erik was an award-winning writer? One of the most elusive NYT bestselling authors, who had yet to show his face in public or hold any book signings, despite the fact that he had a good number of fans who would flock to him if he ever popped up?
“Does Raven know?” he managed eventually. “Because I can’t imagine her keeping a secret like this from me.”
“She knows. Everyone in the hall knows, but I get the feeling they don’t care much. The glamor wears off after a while, you know.” At Charles’ dazed look, Erik grinned. “You never suspected, did you?”
“Not at all. Intelligent, talented, and easy on the eyes. I knew I should’ve moved to New York sooner.”
Erik laughed, though the way he was twisting the cords of his earphones between his fingers betrayed some nervousness. Charles could see a question lurking on the edge of Erik’s mind but didn’t press in deep enough to read it. The right to mental privacy and all, as determined by no fewer than three Supreme Court cases. Besides he always found conversations much less boring when he actually allowed others to formulate their own thoughts in their own time.
“Dinner this week,” Erik said finally. “Is that still on?”
Charles smiled. “Definitely. I’ve already printed out a kosher recipe, too, so you can’t back out.”
“I wasn’t going to back out. I was just wondering…” Erik hesitated, then pushed on. “You know, I wouldn’t normally think this, but you’re…well. You’ve been giving out pretty obvious signals, if I’m reading you correctly. I wanted to know if dinner means a date.”
Charles blinked. “Am I really that obvious?” He could almost hear Raven’s snort. “No, don’t answer that. When I asked you to dinner, I meant just a friendly dinner between new neighbors. But…” He smiled slyly. “If you wouldn’t mind calling it a date, I wouldn’t either.”
A bit of red touching his cheeks, Erik shrugged. “I just want to know what to wear.”
“Your most comfortable sweatpants. That’s what I’ll be wearing.”
That made Erik smile back. “All right. I’ll see you…”
“Tuesday? Angel said we could watch the Banshees practice afterwards.”
Erik groaned. “Trust me, the Banshees aren’t entertainment, they’re a special form of torture.”
Charles laughed. “Well, I’m of the opinion one should always try everything once.”
“Fair enough. But if dinner is shitty, I won’t go with you.”
“Oh, so now there’s pressure. Go on your run then. You’re going to need it to burn off the most delicious lasagna you’ve ever had in your life.”
Erik smiled as he slipped one earphone in. “I look forward to it.”
He pushed the lobby door open and paused on the sidewalk outside for a moment to stretch his legs, which gave Charles plenty of time to admire the long, lean lines of Erik’s body, as well as the delectable curve of his ass.
When Erik disappeared, Charles wheeled over to the mail slots, still shaking off the shock. A date. A date with Max Eisenhardt, no less.
Fuck, he had so much to do. He needed to unpack the rest of his belongings today, if possible. Unnecessary things had to be shoved into a closet somewhere or boxed up for charity. The hallway had to cleared and swept. And he was going to have to get the ingredients for the lasagna together tonight to give it a dry run before Tuesday; he didn’t trust his culinary skills enough to attempt the recipe without any practice.
Maybe Raven would be willing to give him a ride to the store, since he didn’t like driving on unfamiliar streets. He was pretty sure she wasn’t working today anyway. Failing that, he figured he could always ask whoever was home in the hall. It’d give him a reason to get to know the rest of his neighbors, after all.
He went back upstairs with his mail, sorted it, and made himself some tea. Then he wheeled down the hall to see if Raven was in.
Raven, it turned out, had already left for the morning. “She likes to go to Central Park and take pictures in the mornings she’s off work,” Angel explained when she answered the door. “She’ll probably be back in an hour or so.”
“That’s fine, I can wait.”
Angel held the door open wider. “Want to come in? I made too many pancakes this morning and someone needs to eat them because we don’t have any room in the fridge.”
Charles thought about the stacks of boxes waiting for him back in his flat and shrugged. “Sure.”
Good Morning, America was on TV, the volume turned down low. The subtitle told him the topic of the morning was the controversial new bill in Texas that would require all incoming mutant students to pass a qualifications test to allow them to attend public schools with everyone else. It was an idea that had floated around for a while, but Texas was the first state to put the concept to words. Most people balked at its discriminatory nature, but some staunchly mutant-wary politicians were backing it wholeheartedly. And some of those politicians held real sway over the majority.
“Ridiculous, isn’t it?” Angel asked as she handed him a plate of steaming pancakes and a fork. “I think I’ll ask my editor if I can write something about that in my next article.”
“What paper do you work for again? I’m sure Raven’s mentioned it before, but it’s slipped my mind.”
“Mutant Matters. It’s a smaller paper. We operate mainly in New York, but we cover nationwide issues, too.”
“And what’s your column?”
“Social stuff mostly,” Angel replied, flashing him a smile. She flopped down on the lumpy couch and reached for the remote to turn up the volume. “Sometimes fashion, new mutant trends, what’s a good school for your kid and what’s not, new mutant authors…things like that. Like I said, it’s a small paper. I cover a lot.”
Charles smiled back. “You’ll have to lend me an issue or two sometime.”
“You can have a copy every week if you want. I give them to Raven but she always just sticks them in boxes in the back of her closet. I doubt she even reads them. Probably opens them just to look at the pictures.”
Someone knocked on the door, and Angel got up. Without glancing away from the TV, he followed her mind to the door and brushed gently against whoever was outside—two people, one an older woman, the other a young girl. He dipped just far enough to catch their names—Theresa and Kitty—before pulling back and refocusing on the TV.
A moment later, a little girl bounded into the living room, clearly making a beeline for the couch. But when she saw him, she stopped dead, eyes narrowed. “Who are you?”
“Charles Xavier,” he replied, amused by the suspicion in her tone. “Who are you?”
She sniffed. “Guess.”
“Kitty.” The woman from the door appeared at the end of the couch, a briefcase in hand. She was tall, elegant, and dressed sharply in a business suit that made Charles feel like a slob in his t-shirt and jeans. “Be polite.” To Charles, she smiled and said, “I’m sorry about that. I don’t think we’ve met. Theresa Pryde.”
“Charles Xavier.” He reached over the fishbowl on the low table by the couch end to shake her hand. “I just moved in.”
“Yes, 3K, right?”
He raised an eyebrow. “How did you know?”
“Everyone knows everyone on the third floor. Raven told us her brother was moving in and I’ve never seen you around, so…”
“An easy conclusion,” he finished. Glancing at the girl, who had climbed up onto the couch and was now flipping aimlessly through the channels, he asked, “And this is…?”
“Oh, this is Kitty,” Theresa said. “My daughter. Kitty, say hi.”
“Hi,” Kitty said dutifully. She eyed Charles’ wheelchair. “Why do you need that?”
“Kitty!” Theresa exclaimed, sounding scandalized. “I’m so sorry, she hasn’t really learned tact yet.”
Charles smiled. “It’s fine.” He patted one wheel and explained, “I was in a car accident that fractured my spine, and I can’t walk anymore. So I need the chair to get around.”
Kitty considered his answer for a moment. Then she asked, “How fast can you go in it?”
Charles smirked. “Faster than you can run probably.”
“No way!” The wary look in her eyes melted as she sat up straighter. “We should race sometime!”
“It’s fine,” Charles said with a laugh. It felt good to be addressed so normally, so casually. Adults usually preferred to ignore his injury or tiptoe around it, afraid he’d be offended if they so much as mentioned the wheelchair. Or they’d offer their sympathies, which was almost always worse.
“It wouldn’t be much fun if you couldn’t race,” Kitty said sullenly, slouching back on the couch. “Just saying.”
Theresa sighed and checked her watch. “I have a meeting in thirty minutes so I should be going. It was nice to meet you, Charles.”
When she’d swept out down the hall to the door, Angel explained, “Theresa’s a lawyer so she works all the time. Kitty’s dad is a banker so he’s gone a lot, too. I’m usually home so I babysit Kitty whenever they’re not around.”
“You’re Raven’s brother?” Kitty asked, turning to look at Charles again. “Can you do what she does?”
Her inquisitiveness made Charles smile. “No, I can’t. But I can do something else.”
“I can read your mind.”
Charles made a show of closing his eyes and putting his fingers to his temple. “Think of a number between one and a hundred.”
“Okay…” she said skeptically. In her mind, she was thinking of the number of roses her father had bought her mother yesterday on their anniversary. She’d helped her mom snip the stems to put in a tall glass vase and then they’d counted each flower to make sure her dad hadn’t kept one for himself. Her dad was sneaky like that sometimes; he always said he liked to keep them on their toes.
“Twelve,” Charles declared, opening his eyes again.
Her eyes grew wide and awed. “Do it again!”
This time she thought of how old her dad was. It had been his birthday last, last Saturday. She could still picture all the candles on his cake, each one lovingly crammed in next to one another.
Behind her, Angel grinned. Leaning down, she ruffled Kitty’s hair and asked, “You hungry, kiddo? Or you want some juice?”
“Okay, coming right up.”
Kitty grinned and scooted over to the end of the couch closer to Charles. “You want to watch TV with me?”
He glanced at his watch. 9:37. Still relatively early in the morning and he had nothing to do today but unpack, send a couple of emails, and give the recipe a try. As long as Raven wasn’t back yet, he had an excuse to linger in her apartment. “Sure. What are we watching?”
“Oh yes, an excellent choice. I haven’t watched this in a while.”
“You should. There’s a new girl that can shoot sparks out of her fingers! She’s super cool.” Kitty finally landed on the right channel, tossed the remote down on the couch, and kicked off her shoes so she could cross her legs. “Her name’s Jubilee. I wish I had her power. Mine’s pretty dumb.”
So she was a mutant, too. Not particularly surprising, since the Hub was widely advertised as one of the most mutant-friendly apartment complexes in all of New York City. Charles glanced at her in interest. “What can you do?”
Kitty chewed her lip for a moment before sitting up on her knees and leaning over. “Give me your hand.”
He put down the fork in his hand and held it out obediently. Her little fingers reached for his and then passed right through, like light through air.
Charles stared. With a nonchalant shrug, Kitty sat back. “Like I said, pretty dumb.”
“Dumb?” Charles echoed, amazed. “That’s a very cool mutation.”
The furrows in her brow eased as she shot him a shy look. “You think so?”
“I know so. It’s cooler than mine.”
That earned him a full, gap-toothed smile. “I like you. You’re cool.”
“Yeah, I’m sure Charles is thrilled,” Angel said as she returned, handing a glass of orange juice down to Kitty. “He lives for the approval of six-year-olds.”
“I’m almost seven!” Kitty protested with a scowl. Angel just laughed and ruffled her hair.
They spent the rest of the morning watching various kid shows, drinking orange juice, and playing cards. Go Fish was one of Kitty’s favorite games, so they played four rounds, all of which Charles won. Kitty petulantly pointed out that it wasn’t fair that Charles could read minds and had probably been cheating from the start (not an entirely unfounded accusation, since he’d been peeking at her cards from the beginning, but he’d been using his eyes and his height and not his powers). No amount of promising not to use his telepathy could persuade her to allow Charles to keep playing, so he capitulated without further protest and went to browse through the bookshelf by the window.
Angel and Raven had a bizarre collection with none of the titles organized in any recognizable manner. The handful of photography books were clearly Raven’s, but all the others seemed like a jumble of genres and tones. A couple of cookbooks sat on the top shelf, accompanied by a whole slew of Anne McCaffrey novels. Below that were various classics of the sort you’d find in a high school curriculum, a giant encyclopedia of dinosaurs, and a stack of children’s books. Half the last shelf was occupied by the various pieces of the Animorphs series, and there, on the end of the shelf, was a line of three books that read EISENHARDT down the spine.
He recognized Genosha’s cover immediately. The book had sat on the nightstand of his bedroom back in England for ages, not because he’d taken forever to read it but because he’d reread it so many times. His own copy was buried somewhere in the mess he still had left to unpack.
He reached down to pull the book out and laid it on his lap, smoothing a hand over its glossy cover. Then he flipped it open and found a signature on the first page.
To Angel, the least annoying journalist I know.
“Really a charmer, that one,” Angel said wryly from behind him. When he glanced back, she was looking over at him from the couch, Kitty dozing in the crook of her shoulder.
“He signed his real name,” Charles said, tracing the letters with his fingers. Erik had neat handwriting, straight and precise. Charles, who had nearly illegible handwriting himself, admired it greatly.
“Yeah, that was after I knew him for a while. You wouldn’t believe how long it took for him to open up to anyone when he first moved here. None of us even knew his name for like, the first three weeks he was here.”
“When did that change?”
“Darwin met him first. He’s the guy in 3J, right next to you. He’d locked himself out and Erik unlocked his door with his powers. Pretty cool way to introduce yourself. Anyway, they became friends, Erik tagged along to some hall events we were holding, and in a few weeks, we were all hanging out. Erik seems all antisocial and standoffish at first but once you get him talking, he’s only half as mean as he looks.”
Charles shrugged noncommittally. Erik hadn’t given him that impression either time they’d spoken, but maybe that just meant Charles had yet to meet the real Erik. He hoped not. He was rather charmed by the Erik he’d seen so far.
Holding up Genosha, he asked, “And when did you find out he was a famous author?”
“A few weeks in. He didn’t make it a big deal so we didn’t either. Erik hates being called famous, you know. I think he’s still clinging to that image of himself as some dirt-poor genius living from paycheck to paycheck for his art. He’s a romantic underneath all that gruffness.”
Charles smiled. Max Eisenhardt—Erik—a romantic. He liked the thought.
“You like him.”
Charles blinked. “Hmm?”
“You like him,” Angel repeated, grinning. “Raven gets that same goofy smile on her face every time she talks about Irene.”
“I do not have a goofy smile!”
“That’s what she says, too. Man, you two really are related, aren’t you?”
“Was that ever in doubt?” Charles asked, trying to scrub any silly smile from his face. He wasn’t goofy.
Angel shrugged. “You have an accent, she doesn’t. You seem pretty put-together, she doesn’t. According to her, you have no fashion sense and Raven has the best fashion sense of anyone I know. I’ve got a list if you want it.”
“We moved to New York before Raven was speaking, so she didn’t really get the accent. And what do you mean I’ve got no fashion sense? Raven went through a whole phase where she wore painted burlap sacks in public and called it art. She’s in no position to judge.”
Angel laughed aloud. “Are you serious? Burlap sacks?”
“Painted them herself. I think she was waiting for it to catch on as a trend, but it never did, thankfully.”
Angel laughed again, all the edges of her mind alight with amusement. “Oh man, I can tell we’re going to have lots of interesting conversations.”
Charles winked at her. “You wouldn’t believe the sort of blackmail material I can give you. I have pictures.”
“And we all know how much Raven loves pictures,” Angel snickered.
Grinning, Charles looked over Erik’s signature again and then flipped through the book. His own copy was highlighted and annotated—force of habit from college—but Angel’s was practically new, save for some wear on the corners of the cover. He wondered if Erik had any special editions Charles might be able to beg from him. Maybe Erik would even be amenable to answering some of the dozen questions Charles had jotted down after reading Genosha, questions he’d thought he’d never actually get the opportunity to ask.
“I’m bored,” Kitty said suddenly, startling them both. Charles hadn’t even noticed her wake up. “I want to go outside.”
Angel ruffled her hair. “Okay, let me get my coat. You should get yours, too.” As they stood, Angel glanced over at Charles. “You can come, too, if you want. We usually just hang out around the block so it’s not far.”
“No, that’s all right. I’ve got a million things to unpack.”
“Okay. Do you want me to call you whenever Raven gets back?”
“Yeah, that’d be great.” He slid Genosha back into its place on the shelf and wheeled himself back toward the couch. “Thank you for breakfast. It was delicious. And it was nice to meet you, Kitty.”
“What number am I thinking of now?” Kitty demanded as she shrugged into her purple jacket.
It took barely a second to skim the surface of her mind. “Sixteen.”
“You have to come meet my daddy later,” Kitty told him, bounding over to his chair. “He loves magic tricks.”
Charles reached out to tug her collar straight. “I wouldn’t say my telepathy’s a magic trick, really. But I’d be happy to meet your father sometime.”
Kitty beamed at him. “I’ll tell my mom to ask you over to dinner. She always has her boring business people over, so it’ll be fun to have someone cool for once.”
“Well, let me know. You know where I live.”
They headed for the door together and said their goodbyes at the end of the hall, where Kitty and Angel disappeared down the stairwell. Then, with a sigh, Charles went to deal with the horde of boxes still cluttering up his flat.
“He’s nice,” Darwin said on Monday afternoon as he handed a shoebox over to Erik to be marked. The MCC had done a winter drive for shoes and Darwin, Alex, and Erik were currently sorting through all the donations. The denizens of New York had been more generous than expected this year, and they had a mountain of boxes to catalog and organize before the shoes could be distributed to the mutant orphanages the MCC supported.
“Who?” Erik asked distractedly, marking down shoe size and brand before passing the box to Alex, who stuck it in the proper stack.
“Charles. The new neighbor. The guy in 3K.”
Erik’s attention snapped away from the clipboard he was holding. “What about him?”
“He’s nice,” Darwin said again. “We got coffee this morning, talked a little. He’s a cool guy.”
“You got coffee?” Erik repeated, a little stung. Charles hadn’t asked him to get coffee. Then again, he’d been out on a run this morning as always, and besides, they were having dinner at Charles’ place tomorrow night. Dinner was infinitely better than coffee.
“He couldn’t get his wi-fi working, so I took him across the street to The Grind. We hung out while he sent his emails.”
“Did you tell him wi-fi sucks at the Hub?” Alex asked. He repackaged a pair of shoes that had been badly stuffed in a box too small for them and stacked them. “And that he’ll basically have to live at The Grind if he wants reliable Internet?”
“Yeah. I also told him you can give out killer discounts.”
Alex groaned. “Stop telling people about that. My manager’s been giving me the side-eye at all the discount cards I’ve been giving out. You know those are only meant for close friends and family, right?”
“We’re all friends on the third floor,” Darwin replied, spreading his arms magnanimously. He looked like a king about to mount his throne of shoeboxes. Darwin always had a funny, regal look to him, even when all he was doing was presiding over an army of shoes. He was wildly popular at the MCC. Darwin was always the first to be chosen for games, the first one the younger kids consulted with problems, and the first one to be picked for the mentoring program the MCC ran. Erik might have bought into the cool persona himself, if he hadn’t once witnessed Darwin fellating four bananas at once on a dare because his throat kept adapting to the girth and Alex, who’d been drunk off his ass, kept trying to stuff more in.
“We won’t be friends if you make me lose my job,” Alex retorted.
“But can we still be boyfriends?” Darwin asked cheekily.
Alex threw a pen at him. “Not with that attitude.” He set another shoebox on the wobbling stack beside him and steadied it with a hand. “Anyway, yeah, Charles is nice. He’s got a ton of shit though. Hank and I helped him move in last Friday and it took us like, eight trips to get everything upstairs. It was ridiculous.”
Erik thought back to the boxes cramming the entryway of Charles’ apartment and concurred. When he’d moved in, all he’d had was a duffel bag of clothes, two duct-taped boxes of books and notebooks, another box of necessities like toiletries, and his laptop. It had taken him half an hour to unpack, and his apartment today was pretty much as neat as it had been when he’d moved in. He hated clutter. Messiness made it hard to think.
“Have you met him?”
Alex rolled his eyes. “Is this one of those days where you’re writing in your head again and we have to repeat everything four times before you hear it? I said, have you met him?”
“Who, Charles? Yeah. I’m actually…” Erik wrote down 8 under the Size column and Nike under Brand and handed the pair of shoes off to Alex. “I’m actually having dinner with him tomorrow.”
Darwin fumbled the next shoebox he was handing over. “You’re what?”
“Having dinner with him.”
Erik narrowed his eyes at the surprise on both their faces. “Yes, voluntarily. Charles is making lasagna. Kosher. He looked up a recipe.”
“Wow,” Alex said.
“Wow,” Darwin echoed. “Charles isn’t just nice, he’s magical.”
Erik continued to glare. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Alex snorted. “You know exactly what it means. It takes you like, a month to warm up to someone. Darwin was your first friend and it took him a week to convince him to come to a hall dinner. And Charles has been here…what, four days? And you’re letting him make you dinner.” His eyes widened. “Wait, he’s making you dinner. Is this a date?”
“Why is everyone asking me that?” Erik demanded. “I helped him move some stuff around and he wanted to thank me with dinner. So I said yes.”
Alex and Darwin exchanged a glance. Erik hated it when they did that. It was like the they’d been dating for so long they no longer had to speak to understand each other and it was more than a little unnerving.
“Whatever you say, Erik,” Alex said eventually with a smirk. “I mean, he’s pretty cute…”
“Shut up,” Erik grumbled, even if he agreed. Charles was pretty cute. More than cute—he was gorgeous. And he was charming and friendly and inquisitive, all traits that Erik normally found utterly annoying but somehow didn’t with Charles. Maybe it was how sincere Charles seemed. Maybe Erik was still just flattered by how flustered and delighted Charles had looked when he’d discovered Max Eisenhardt’s real name.
By the time they finished sorting the shoes, it was three p.m. and they were all hungry. As Alex darted out to find them something to eat from a nearby food truck, Erik and Darwin went about getting ready for the influx of kids at four, when school let out. Since they hadn’t hosted anything big over the weekend, there wasn’t much to do besides clean up some classrooms and make sure all the lights were on. One of the overhead lights in the gym ceiling was busted, so Erik put it on a mental to-do list for later, along with a million other things the MCC needed doing.
Angel usually came in around the time the kids arrived, so Erik wasn’t surprised to sense the front door open a few minutes before four. What he was surprised to feel was an unfamiliar metal contraption following her in, a metal contraption that, upon further inspection, had a sturdy frame and four wheels, two large, two small.
He ducked out of the administration office just in time to catch Angel walking past, wheeling a cart full of board games and coloring books behind her. Charles was at her side, listening avidly as she chattered on about how many classrooms they had and how many kids came by for after-school activities.
“Hey,” Erik said, hoping he didn’t sound too breathless. He directed the comment at Angel, but his attention was on Charles, whose eyes lit up when he spotted Erik in the doorway.
“Erik! I didn’t know you’d be here.”
“Erik’s the head volunteer at the MCC,” Angel explained. “Although with all the time he spends here, it might as well be a part-time job.”
“That’s wonderful,” Charles said, smiling at Erik as if he’d just been told Erik had singlehandedly built the MCC brick by brick. It was a smile that knocked a little of the air out of Erik’s lungs.
“We came by because Charles wanted to see what the MCC was all about,” Angel said to Erik.
Charles nodded. “The Mutant Community Center in Harlem is practically famous, did you know that? We hear about it all the way in England. It’s in the papers every once in a while.”
Erik wasn’t surprised; the MCC was the first community center in all of New York to cater specifically to mutants and because of that, its founders went through a hell of a time getting it licensed and built. There had been protests in the beginning, petitions against it, and a shit ton of lobbying. From what Erik understood, if it hadn’t been for the Munroes’ persistence and their not-so-slight political influence, the MCC might never have existed at all.
As it was, it had been standing for over ten years and had inspired a whole host of similar support centers all through New York and down the east coast. The only reason they were in the papers anymore was for hosting some large-scale event like galas for their donors or conferences for mutant speakers.
“Well,” Erik said, “the after-school kids are going to be here any moment now so Angel should get going. But I can take you on a tour if you want.”
Charles beamed. “That would be splendid. I’ll see you after, Angel?”
“I probably won’t be done until six at least,” she answered. “But Erik’s done soon, so if you want to go home early, you can ask him for a ride.”
As soon as she disappeared around the corner, Erik shut the door to the administration office and gestured to the empty hall in front of them. “Shall we?”
Charles grinned. “Please, lead on.”
He walked Charles down to the classrooms and let him peek inside a few. They were all set up the same way: individual desks, chairs, a whiteboard, a projector, and a computer. Multi-purpose.
“We have supplementary classes here by community request,” he explained as Charles wheeled his way through one of the rooms. “Tutoring, extra math classes to catch up, that sort of thing. We also have night school and other classes like yoga, health fitness, mutant history.”
“It all sounds very well-rounded,” Charles remarked, pausing to admire some of the finger-painted masterpieces that hung around the whiteboard.
“We try to provide something for everyone in the community at every age. We have community events for families, too.”
“Yeah, Raven told me about a few MCC events. She’s particularly fond of movie nights.”
Erik nodded. “Every other Thursday night. We put a movie on in the auditorium and a bunch of families come and hang out. It’s good fun.”
“The next.” Erik added very casually, “You should come.”
Charles grinned up at him. “Is that an invitation from the MCC staff or from you?”
“From…” Erik hesitated. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know what answer Charles was looking for. Charles had made his interest very clear from the start and he had to know it was mutual: Erik felt as if his own attraction to Charles was leaking out through his ears. But still Erik was reluctant to cop to it. They were moving far too fast. Erik barely knew the man.
But then again, he’d fallen into bed with men he knew far less. The whole point of fucking guys he found in faraway bars was to avoid the awkwardness of ever having to meet again. But Charles wasn’t just looking for a quick fuck, was he. He’d said yesterday that he’d call tomorrow’s dinner a date if Erik did. That meant this was going somewhere, or at least it had the potential to.
Erik wasn’t sure if he was excited or wary of the prospect. Relationships were complicated. He liked his life as it was now. He had his manuscripts, his friends, the MCC. He’d never felt like he was lacking anything, least of all a boyfriend. And now here was Charles, mixing up his head. It felt dangerous.
Charles’ smile didn’t falter but something about it shifted. “I’m kidding,” he said before Erik could finish, slapping Erik companionably on the elbow. “Yes, I’ll come. I’ve nothing better to do anyway.”
He started to turn, but Erik stopped him with a little jerk on the metal frame of the wheels. Well, what the hell. He hadn’t succeeded thus far in his life by playing things safe. “Yes, the invitation’s from me. Come see a movie with me. I’ll even buy you popcorn.”
“See a movie with you and the rest of Harlem’s mutant population, I imagine,” Charles replied wryly. But his smile brightened again. “Extra buttery popcorn?”
“We only have microwaveable popcorn for movie nights,” Erik admitted, “but I’ll look for some butter.”
Charles laughed. “I’ve been in New York for less than a week and I’ve already got two dates lined up. Lucky me.”
His tone was perfectly nonchalant but the questioning look he shot Erik wasn’t. Dates? his raised eyebrow seemed to ask.
“Only one date,” Erik corrected, heading down the hall again. “The second depends on what happens tomorrow night.”
Charles grinned as he kept pace beside Erik. “So if I turn out to be a serial killer, I assume I’m disinvited to movie night?”
“That would be a sound assumption.”
“What if I wipe my mouth with my sleeve? What if the lasagna gives you food poisoning?”
Erik laughed. “Are you trying to drive me away?”
Charles laughed with him. Then, all of a sudden, the humor faded from his expression and he stopped his chair before the end of the hall, his brow furrowing.
Erik stopped, too. “What?”
“What if I were a telepath?”
Erik knew right away that one wasn’t conjecture. That one was truth.
Whatever Charles saw in Erik’s face made him grimace. “So you didn’t know.”
“I figured she hadn’t. I promise I haven’t peeked in your mind since we met. I take mental privacy very seriously.” He wasn’t quite looking at Erik. “If that makes you uncomfortable…”
Erik shook away his lingering surprise. “It doesn’t.” When Charles met his eyes, he explained, “My editor’s a telepath. She doesn’t deal with clients who discriminate against any mutant, psionics included. Psionics especially.”
Charles cocked his head curiously. “You’re truly not bothered by it?”
“You trust me not to twist your wheelchair up in a pretzel around you. I trust you not to invade my privacy.” Erik raised an eyebrow. “Fair?”
He knew he’d said the right thing when Charles’ smile returned full-force. “Fair.” As they resumed their way down the hall, Charles continued, “You know, most people are a little warier when they first find out. Even Raven went through a phase where she absolutely refused to trust me on anything. Sometimes I think she was glad I moved to England. Easier not to see me that way.”
Erik gave him a quizzical look. “You know she wants you here, right? All she could talk about for weeks was your coming here.”
“Oh, I know she wants me here now. I’m talking about when she was fifteen and I chased away all her boyfriends, even the ones she didn’t tell me about. I thought I was being properly protective. She called it stifling.”
“All her boyfriends?”
“She went through a phase where she didn’t want to wear clothes,” Charles said defensively. “Someone had to be mature in that situation.”
Erik had known Raven had been—and was still—something of a wild child but he hadn’t thought even she’d go as far as public nudity. But she’d evidently been even wilder in her teenage years than she was now.
“I bet you have baby pictures,” Erik mused.
Charles grinned wickedly. “I have so much more than that. You and Angel should come over once I’ve got everything unpacked. We can share horror stories.”
The tour concluded with a visit to the gymnasium, which, along with the pool outside in the back, was the most popular attraction of the MCC. Since the pool was closed up on account of the rapidly cooling weather, the gym was even more packed than usual. It was large enough to accommodate several activities at once, so whoever didn’t want to sit in one of the quiet rooms to do homework or read came here to hang out. On the far end of the room, a handful of the older kids were playing basketball. Some of the younger children skipped rope on the other half of the gym, while others sat on the bleachers and chattered amongst themselves.
“You’re certainly busy,” Charles observed, glancing around.
Following his gaze, Erik nodded. “A lot of the kids from nearby schools prefer to spend time here instead of in their after-school programs. We keep them until their parents can pick them up. We also have high school kids who volunteer as tutors to help the younger kids with their homework. It’s an all-around community effort.”
“That’s very cool. I wish there had been something like this in our neighborhood when I was growing up.”
“Me too. I could have used it.” If there had been an MCC around when he’d been an angry kid scared of growing up, maybe he wouldn’t have had such tough teenage years. It certainly would have been easier on his mother, who hadn’t been able to control his temper and troublemaking tendencies any better than he could. Those had been some hard times until he’d met Logan, who’d taken none of his shit and straightened him out like a hammer flattening unruly metal.
Both of them looked up to find a kickball sailing through the air toward them, right on a trajectory toward Charles’ head. Before Erik could jump forward to knock it safely away, Charles shifted his chair back and caught it one-handed with ease.
“What?” Charles asked with a grin when he saw Erik staring. “I dabbled in murderball in England. I know how to catch.”
He slung the ball back to the group that had been playing with it. Erik watched the ball effortlessly cross the distance, going high enough that one of the boys had to jump to catch it. “Murderball, huh?”
“Americans call it quad rugby, I believe. I only played in amateur games. Didn’t qualify for organized leagues. You have to have loss of function in at least three limbs for that and I’ve got full control of everything above the waist, sadly.”
Erik lifted an eyebrow. “Sadly?”
“I would’ve been a killer professional murderball player,” Charles lamented. “My fans would have been all over me.”
People would be all over you now if you so much as looked at them, Erik thought. He wasn’t sure Charles knew exactly how attractive he was. Aloud, he said, “Maybe you can find something around here to join. I’ll come cheer you on. I’ll even make posters if that’ll make you feel better.”
Charles laughed. “Promise? I expect balloons and flowers as well. And those obnoxious air horns.”
“Done. You’ll have to win though. I’m a notorious fair weather fan.”
“Oh, Erik,” Charles said, all brash arrogance, “I don’t lose.”
They turned to find Alex standing behind them, dribbling a basketball. “Thought that was you,” he said with a grin. “You come around to see the place?”
“I did. Do you volunteer here, too?”
“Yup. Me and Darwin do Mondays, Wednesdays, and most Saturdays. We come in other times if we can, too, but he has school and I have my job.”
“What do you do here?” Charles asked. He nodded at the ball. “Play basketball?”
Alex laughed. “If only that was all I had to do. We do whatever needs to be done really. That includes keeping kids company in the gym.”
Charles held out his hands, a clear gesture for the ball. With a shrug, Alex passed it to him and they watched as Charles dribbled it beside the wheel of his chair.
“You’re kind of good at that,” Alex remarked after a moment.
“When I was ten, I spent a summer in New York and all the boys I hung out with were obsessed with basketball. I picked up a few things.”
“Is there anything you’re not good at?” Erik asked.
“Golf. I hated it. Still hate it. Also tennis. And I tried hockey once but I couldn’t skate to save my life.” The ball continued to drum steadily against the gym floor. “I never tried baseball but I imagine I’d be rubbish at it.”
Alex jerked his head at one of the unused baskets. “Want to shoot some hoops?”
Charles shrugged. “Sure.”
He then proceeded to demonstrate that I picked up a few things meant that he could shoot free throws with nearly a hundred percent accuracy, much to the delight of everyone near enough to witness. Soon enough, he’d gathered a crowd, and before long, he was playing Horse with some of the older kids.
After a while, Angel appeared at Erik’s side, crossing her arms as she watched Alex attempt and wildly miss a three-pointer. “Charles makes friends fast.”
“He certainly does,” Erik agreed. It was good to see Charles so quickly enfolded into their community, as if he’d been here all his life. Charles, it seemed, adapted to new environments nearly as quickly as Darwin did.
“I’m going to see if he’s free next Thursday,” Angel said. “He’d probably enjoy movie night.”
“Already asked him.”
Angel stared at him. “You did?”
“He said yes.”
“You asked him?”
“What? I’ve invited people to movie night before.”
“Families. You’ve invited families using brochures, when you give your pitch at schools and stuff. You’ve never just invited one person.”
Erik scoffed. “And that matters because…?”
Angel gave him a funny look. “You really like him, don’t you?”
Erik shoved her shoulder, which only made her laugh. “Oh, shut up,” he grumbled. Then, after a pause, he added reluctantly, “Am I that transparent?”
Erik scowled at her. “Not a word to anyone.”
“Oh, honey,” she snickered. “As if everyone doesn’t already know. You might as well have tattooed I LIKE CHARLES across your forehead.”
With that, she went off to help one of the younger girls untangle a jump rope, leaving Erik to mull over the fact that his friends knew him entirely too well and he didn’t think he liked it very much.
Having rapidly accumulated a fan following, Charles was coerced into staying almost until seven, when the last of the parents came to pick their children up. Erik usually left soon after Angel’s shift started at four but today he lingered around, speaking with some of the older students, running quick errands, reorganizing the sports equipment in the gym’s storage room. He and Charles didn’t speak again until the last kid left, the taillights of her family’s SUV glowing brightly in the gray dusk.
“That was fun,” Charles said as Erik came out to join him at the front door. At some point, he’d pushed the long sleeves of his t-shirt up to his elbows, giving Erik a good look at his muscled forearms. His hair was a mess and there was a slight sweat pattern dampening the collar of his shirt, but he looked delicious. Erik couldn’t tear his gaze away.
When he didn’t reply, Charles glanced up at him and smiled slyly when he caught the look in Erik’s eyes. “Dinner first.”
“Any man who undresses me with his eyes like that needs to buy me dinner first. And no, tomorrow night doesn’t count because you’re not buying anything.”
Erik flushed but didn’t look away. If Charles was going to boldly flirt with him like that, then Erik wouldn’t shy away from being candid about his interest either. They were both adults and they both knew what they wanted. “Thursday then,” he said.
“Do you want to have dinner with me Thursday night?” Erik elaborated.
Charles blinked, then grinned. “You certainly move fast.”
I certainly want to kiss you right now, Erik thought. But he hesitated to say it aloud.
“Come here,” Charles said. When Erik shifted a step toward him, he reached out to pull impatiently at Erik’s sleeve, tugging him closer until Charles could curl his fingers in the front of Erik’s shirt and guide him down to press their mouths together.
There was nothing explosive about it. It was possibly the most chaste kiss Erik had ever received, just a press of lips, close-mouthed, careful, gentle and warm. But when it ended, Erik had never wanted a second kiss more.
“You think very loudly, my friend,” Charles murmured, and when Erik thought, Good, they both laughed.
Footsteps behind them pulled them apart. “Am I interrupting something?” Angel asked dryly.
“Go away,” Erik said without looking at her.
Charles couldn’t seem to drag his eyes away from Erik’s either. “You can go on ahead, Angel, thank you. I think I can convince Erik to give me a ride.”
“Don’t think he’ll take much convincing,” she muttered. “See you two later then.”
When she was gone, Charles asked, “So, how about it? Can I solicit a ride from you, Mr. Lehnsherr?”
“You could probably solicit a lot more than that out of me,” Erik told him.
Charles blushed prettily, much to Erik’s satisfaction. But rather than leaning in for another kiss as Erik was hoping he’d do, he just tapped a finger against Erik’s mouth and said, “We’ll see how tomorrow’s dinner goes,” before wheeling on ahead toward the door.
Dinner tomorrow. Right. Erik wondered if he should bring wine, and if so, what sort of wine Charles liked.
“Chianti if you’re going to bring it,” Charles said, hitting the button for the automatic door. When he turned and winked at him, Erik had to admit that he was probably already halfway along in his transformation into a love-struck idiot. And fuck it, he might as well enjoy it.
One of the things Charles missed most about his life before the accident was pacing. He’d never truly appreciated the ability to work off restless energy by pointlessly walking back and forth until he couldn’t do it anymore. Circling the room aimlessly in his chair wasn’t quite the same.
“Stop moving around,” Raven said from the couch where she was flipping slowly through the book she’d brought over. “You’re giving me a headache.”
“I’m nervous,” Charles retorted, passing by the window for the twentieth time. “This is my first date in ages.”
She lowered the book slightly. “If it’s a date, why are you wearing that ratty sweater and those sweatpants? You look like you’re about to go do some yard work.”
He picked at his sweater, which was admittedly threadbare. “When I invited him over for dinner, it wasn’t really a date yet. I told him to dress casual.”
Raven rolled her eyes. “Casual means jeans and a nice shirt, Charles. Not your pajamas.”
She was probably right but he didn’t feel like changing. Tapping his fingers against the armrest of his chair, he peered outside into the darkening sky. It was almost seven. He would have to shoo Raven out soon, get the lasagna out of the oven, and then double-check to make sure the table was set properly. No time to change really. No time to overthink anything.
He heard Raven shut her book behind him. “Let’s talk for a second.”
The seriousness in her tone made him turn. “Okay.”
Raven clasped her hands in her lap. “All right, look. You know how you do that thing where you fall for people and they end up being assholes and fuck you over?”
He groaned. “Not this speech again.”
“Yes this speech again because it seems like you never learn.” She shifted to the edge of the couch and frowned sternly at him. “Now just listen. Erik’s not a bad guy. I know him and he’s cool. But I don’t know if he’s really boyfriend material, and I don’t want you to get hurt because you fall in love with him and he doesn’t really feel the same way.”
“He does feel the same way. Or he could. If only you could feel his mind, Raven—”
“Yeah, yeah, you said the same thing about Mike and Amy and Thomas and what’s-her-face with the golden retriever. Point is, you have a pattern, Charles. If you were a serial killer, the FBI would’ve caught you like, three years ago. It’s a cycle and every time you think it’s different, it’s not. You get hurt and dealing with the fallout always sucks balls, and not in the fun way.”
Charles sighed. “I get it. You want me to take it slow.”
“No, I want you to be careful. That’s all.”
He hated to admit it, but she did have a point. He did have an unfortunate habit of falling headlong into affairs with people who didn’t quite care for him as he cared for them and getting burned by them was never pleasant. But he couldn’t help but feel that every new relationship was a fresh start, and this beginning with Erik felt fresher than all the others.
Maybe because of that, he should be a little more careful than he usually was in committing all his heart to the venture. The last thing he wanted to do was fuck this up, after all.
“I will,” he promised her.
Smiling, she shook her head and stood. “I don’t believe you. But Erik knows I can fuck him up if he hurts you too badly.”
“Erik should know I could fuck him up if he hurt me too badly,” Charles corrected wryly.
Her smile widened as she collected her book. “True. Okay, I should get going before Erik comes over. We’ll see you at Sean’s later?”
“At nine o’clock sharp.”
He saw her to the door and then took the lasagna from the oven. It smelled delicious and if the sample he’d produced last night was any indication, it would taste as good as it smelled. He set it on the counter next to the basket of bread rolls to cool it a bit, dug out two wine glasses, and set them at the placemats of the small kitchen table. If Erik didn’t bring wine, he had a backup sitting next to the fridge, ready to go.
Everything was set. He nipped down the hall to his bedroom and spent a few minutes staring critically at his reflection in the mirror. Upon further consideration, he did look more ragged than he liked. After digging through his closet, he came up with an old pair of jeans and a Henley that always seemed to score points whenever he went out wearing it. Shucking off the sweatpants and the sweater, he slipped into the new selection, combed down his hair again, and reexamined his reflection. Better.
The doorbell made him jump. Okay, he thought, smiling at himself in the mirror, here we go.
He wheeled down the hall, took a breath, and swung the door open.
On his doorstep, Erik grinned and then went a little slack-jawed when he took in Charles’ outfit. Holy shit, he thought distinctly. He’s fucking gorgeous.
“You’re not too bad yourself,” Charles said, smiling widely. Erik wore faded jeans of his own and a plain gray sweater. Nothing flashy or out-of-the-ordinary in the slightest but he looked stunning anyway. And he was carrying a bottle of Chianti in the crook of his arm.
“Can I come in?” Erik asked bemusedly after a pause.
“Hang on.” Charles looked him over again, savored the fact that he was about to have dinner with this dizzyingly attractive man, and then nodded. “Come on in.”
He led Erik to the kitchen and directed him to sit while Charles fetched the platter of lasagna. Erik sniffed appreciatively as he brought it over and said, “Smells delicious.”
“Save your judgment until after you taste it.”
“Oh, I will. Remember that all future dates depend on this moment.”
Charles spun the spatula in his hand and grinned. “Moment of truth then.”
He cut them each a hefty square and then took his place opposite to Erik. “Drumroll please,” Erik said as he picked up his fork. His own grin widening, Charles complied, and amid the slap of his palms against the table, Erik took his first bite.
Charles watched the clench of the muscles in Erik’s jaw, hoping he didn’t look half as nervous as he felt. He was decent in the kitchen but he was far from an expert and sometimes he got unfamiliar recipes wrong. And what if he’d chosen the wrong recipe in the first place? Sure, it had gotten a four-and-a-half star rating but those ratings were entirely subjective and the reviews were largely written by amateurs like himself. He should have done more research. He should’ve checked more websites, should’ve read over more recipes.
Erik swallowed. “You look like you’re watching an intensive surgery or something.”
“Well?” Charles demanded impatiently.
“Well it looks like I’m in for a night of the Banshees after all,” Erik concluded with a sigh.
Charles grinned and picked up his own fork. “It’s all right then.”
“All right? It’s delicious. Second-best lasagna I’ve ever tasted.”
“Nothing beats a mother’s cooking.”
“Ah. Right.” Charles dug happily into his own dinner, his stomach growling. “I’m starving. Raven wanted to go for lunch ridiculously early and I haven’t eaten since then.”
“I was unpacking all morning and Raven came over later to help me finish.” He waved a hand at the room. “Better than the last time you were here, right?”
Erik glanced around. The kitchen was largely unchanged save for a kettle on the counter and a fruit basket that had come as a welcome gift from the Pryde family down the hall. The living room beyond the low wall that separated the two rooms, however, was a different story. The bookshelf was crammed full, the coffee table had a stack of journals on it, the TV was set up, Charles’ favorite throw blanket decorated the previously bare couch, and Raven had hung some of her framed photographs on the walls to make the place more homey. Charles’ laptop sat on the coffee table next to a textbook he’d been taking a look at earlier in the afternoon.
“It looks nice,” Erik said, nodding.
“It’s not quite the flat I had in England, but I’m sure it’ll feel more like home in a few weeks.”
“Why did you move?”
“I was at Oxford to do a PhD. I always planned to come back to New York, so when I finished, I looked for jobs in the area and lo and behold, Columbia had an opening. I was lucky to get it. There were plenty of older candidates who were equally if not even better qualified.”
“You’re a professor, then,” Erik said with some surprise.
Charles smiled. “Well, I will be in the spring when I start. What, did you imagine me doing something else?”
Erik shrugged. “I don’t know. I didn’t really think about it. What will you teach?”
“Intro classes to start with. Biology, genetics, that sort of thing. I’ll always be a scientist at heart.”
“You and Hank would get on like a house on fire.”
“Hank McCoy? The one who lives down the hall with Alex and Sean?”
“Yeah. He’s a grad student at Columbia. Biochemistry or something, I think. He has a whole lab set up in his room. It drives Alex crazy when he works at night.”
Charles laughed. “That sounds like my kind of company. I’ll have to talk to him sometime. I really don’t have anything to do until the semester starts anyway.”
“You should do some work at the MCC then,” Erik suggested. “There are always things that need doing and we don’t have as many volunteers as we do during the summer. We could always use help.”
“Is this a sly way of asking me to spend more time with you?”
Erik’s grin was all teeth. “I wasn’t thinking of that, but now that you mention it, yes. You can supervise the kids when they come in after school. They like you.”
“And I like them. Mutant children are a wonder.” He leaned his cheek against his palm and smiled. “There isn’t anything quite like watching children play with their mutations unashamed, don’t you think? It’s amazing how far we’ve come since I was a boy.”
A shadow crossed over Erik’s face. “The mutant situation today is better than it was when we were children, I’ll admit that. But it still isn’t ideal.”
“No, not close,” Charles agreed, thinking of the legislation movements in Texas. “But it’s still progress.”
“Glacially slow,” Erik said, his mouth twisting. “Have you heard of the new bill in Texas? The one that would—”
“Require all mutant children to pass a safety test to attend public school, yes. That’s exactly what I was thinking of.”
Erik scowled, his grip around the fork tightening visibly. “It’s ridiculous. Mutant children have been going to public school since public schools were created, and now they want to change that because some mutantphobic assholes don’t want their kids playing with mutants.”
“Well, to be fair, some children do have mutations that could be dangerous to their classmates. Some safety measures should be put in place, I agree. But taking steps to bar those children from school entirely is hardly the way to go.”
Erik snorted. “That’s an understatement. How many mutants do you think helped design the test they’re pushing? None probably. A bunch of baseline pseudoscientists ranking mutations to determine where a mutant is and isn’t allowed to go—it’s like the ’60s and the MRA stupidity all over again.”
“I think comparing the situation to the MRA is going a little far,” Charles said skeptically. “The Texas bill doesn’t have nationwide support. It barely has majority support in its own state. I’d be surprised if it went anywhere in the end.”
“Never underestimate Texas,” Erik muttered.
Charles shook his head. “Mutants are much more widely known now than they were in the ’60s. We have a voice, a political presence, social status. It’s much more difficult to dismiss our opinion now than it was fifty years ago.”
“And yet things like the Texas bill still come up. Not even twenty years ago, they were still punishing mutants for accidentally using their powers in school. They called it acting out, but those kids were just scared. They didn’t know what was happening and they didn’t know how to control it. But all the baselines were ever interested in was keeping mutants in line. That’s still true today.”
“Things have changed since you were a boy, Erik. They have proper programs in place to help manifesting mutants in school these days.”
“Programs,” Erik sneered, his eyes darkening with anger. “There are always programs.”
“Not of that sort. Not…” Charles hesitated for a moment. Then he said gently, “Not anything like the Fuller program.”
Erik jerked, a flash of alarm briefly lighting up the edges of his mind. “How did you know…”
“Genosha. You only gave one interview about that book and you mentioned it was based on your childhood experience. I figured…” Charles frowned, hoping he hadn’t stepped over the line. “I’m sorry. I understand it’s a touchy subject for most.”
“No, I was just…” Shaking his head, Erik exhaled softly. The thunderclouds that had been accumulating in his eyes began to dissipate. “I was just surprised. I didn’t think anyone would remember that.”
“Oh, believe me, your fans remember everything you say.”
Erik’s eyebrows rose. “Is that right.”
“You have a very loyal fan base.”
“That includes you.”
“I seem to recall you telling me I was one of your favorite authors.” Some of the tension eased from Erik’s shoulders as he smirked. “Do you want an autograph later? Maybe a photo?”
Glad Erik didn’t seem particularly upset over the mention of his past, Charles grinned and said, “I’ve got my copy of Genosha in the living room if you want to sign it after dinner.”
“I’ll write you a novella if it’ll get me out of listening to the Banshees.”
Charles laughed. “I already promised Raven we’d go. Besides, they can’t be all that bad.”
“You say that now but wait until you’ve been in the room with them for ten minutes. I promise you you’ll be wishing you had a drink. Speaking of…” He pushed back his chair and stood. “Do you have a corkscrew somewhere?”
The Chianti. Right. “In the drawer to the left of the sink,” Charles said, leaning forward to reach for the wine glasses. “I’m sorry, I should’ve poured us glasses when dinner started.”
Erik shook his head as he returned with the bottle and the corkscrew. “Don’t worry about it. Give me your glass.”
As Charles complied, the corkscrew floated itself to the top of the bottle and set to work. Charles watched in fascinated as it worked the cork loose and then laid itself back down on the table, as precisely wielded as if Erik had been handling it with his hands and not his powers.
“That’s incredible,” Charles said, grinning.
“What?” Erik glanced at the corkscrew. “That? That’s nothing. Party tricks.”
“Still incredible. Your control is very good.”
“I’ve had practice,” Erik replied nonchalantly, though the way his mind softened said he was pleased to be praised. He poured a glass for Charles and then one for himself before sitting back down. “There. Now dinner’s complete.”
Charles lifted his glass. “To incredible mutations.”
“To second-place lasagnas,” Erik said with his own drink raised, and Charles almost laughed his wine up his nose.
When dinner concluded, Charles took their empty plates to the sink, shooing Erik off when he tried to help. As he covered the leftover lasagna with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge, Erik went to poke around his bookshelf. After a few minutes, he pulled out one of the books and held it up. “Is this your thesis?”
Charles glanced over. “That was my first one, yeah.”
“I have three.”
Erik’s surprise rippled across the room. “In what?”
“Genetics, biophysics, and psychology. The last one I did at Oxford.”
“And the other two?”
Erik shook his head, his amazement almost tangible. “You’re some kind of genius, aren’t you?” he asked as he began to thumb through Charles’ thesis.
Table cleared, Charles headed over to join him. “I’m just a quick learner and a hard worker. Here.” He reached for Genosha on the second shelf, pulled it out, and handed it to Erik. “Can you write something flattering? An ode to my eyes, perhaps.”
“I could,” Erik said, his own pale eyes meeting Charles’ contemplatively. “You do have the sort of eyes people write poems about.”
When Charles blushed and turned away, Erik laughed. “So you’re allowed to flirt but you’re embarrassed when I flirt back?”
“I’m embarrassed by how utterly honest you sound when you do,” Charles muttered as he went to fetch the pen he left on the coffee table. He flirted with plenty of people and had been subject to flirtation in return, but he was used to practiced lines and the occasionally charming, cheesy pun. Erik’s words were nothing Charles hadn’t heard before, but they felt sincere in a way that warmed Charles’ heart.
He handed the pen up to Erik, who gave him a long look before flipping the cover open and beginning to write. As he did, Charles busied himself with reorganizing some of the books on the lower shelves. Raven had taken charge of his books when they’d been unpacking and she’d shoved everything on the shelves as quickly as possible without bothering to order them. Charles shifted his old genetics texts down a shelf and his collection of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes up one. He had half a mind to organize further but decided it would be a moot point; though every once in a while he was struck by the urge to alphabetize or sort by genre, he was far too lazy to maintain the order and before a week was up, his bookshelf would be a mess again anyway.
“There,” Erik said finally, snapping the book shut. “All done.”
He gave both the pen and Genosha back to Charles, who cracked open the cover a bit nervously.
To Charles, read Erik’s flowing script, my more than halfway decent dinner host, my self-acclaimed biggest fan, and my most interesting neighbor to date. Poetry has never been my strongest suit so please accept the following sketch in place of an ode.
Underneath his signature was an incredibly rendered sketch of Charles’ eyes, done entirely in black pen but still somehow giving the impression of color, of a sort of vitality Charles was startled to see.
“This is…” he said, staring in awe at it. “I didn’t know you were an artist as well as an author.”
Erik shrugged. “I dabble.”
“Dabble? Erik, this is…this is astounding.” He met Erik’s eyes, astonished. “You’re extraordinary.”
That made Erik laugh, the sound tinged with a hint of embarrassment. Erik, it seemed, was not used to being praised so blatantly to his face. “Hardly. You have three PhDs and you call me extraordinary?”
“Is this a contest now? Because I will sweet-talk you to death.”
Erik considered that for a moment. Then he grinned. “I won’t say no to that.”
Charles laughed and swatted at his knees. “Let’s head to Sean’s before we’re late and then we’ll see about stroking your ego.”
By the time they arrived at 3F, the muffled sounds of an electric guitar and some drumming could already be heard from outside. When they knocked, Hank answered the door, looking slightly harried. “Hi, come in.”
Raven and Angel were already there, lounging on the couch with a couple of beers. Alex, Darwin, Azazel, and Janos were sitting on the floor playing cards, and the rest of the living room was taken up by a drum set, an amp, a microphone stand, and a couple of guitars. Though 3F was the largest flat on the floor, with this many people in it, it seemed positively cramped. Charles stopped his chair next to the couch, not wanting to wander into the mess of cables that snaked around on the floor by the band setup.
“Hey, you made it,” Sean said, taking his hands off his guitar to wave. “Just in time.”
“Hooray,” Erik muttered, which made Charles smile.
Hank and Sean were on guitar and Sean appeared to be lead singer, but the drummer was a boy Charles didn’t recognize. “Bobby Drake,” Erik said lowly when Charles asked. “He works at the same coffee shop Alex does. They’re best friends.” He pulled a chair in from the kitchen to sit next to Charles, even though Alex scooted over to make room on the floor.
The Banshees weren’t as awful as Erik made them out to be. In fact, they weren’t awful at all. It was rather pleasant listening to them practice, even if their music wasn’t the sort Charles listened to often. Beside him, Raven and Angel chattered on quietly about Angel’s latest journalistic pursuits, getting up once to fetch another beer from the fridge. The group playing poker on the floor kept breaking out into hushed arguments about cheating, but not once did they raise their voices enough to interrupt the band.
“Do you want a beer?” Erik asked after a while.
Charles shook his head. “The wine was quite enough.” With his injury, he had to watch his alcohol intake and though he was still probably well within acceptable limits, he didn’t feel like a beer anyway. He wanted to be clearheaded—wanted to absorb every detail of Erik sitting by his side without being impaired in any way.
As the band paused to compare sheet music, Erik got up to get himself a beer. Raven took the opportunity to lean over and whisper, “So how was dinner?”
“Even better than expected,” Charles whispered back. “He signed my copy of Genosha.”
Raven side-eyed him. “Is that your idea of a fun night these days? You’ve turned into an old fart.”
He rolled his eyes. “We talked, okay? Did you expect us to have wild monkey sex on our first date?”
“Yeah. Don’t think I don’t know you.”
“All right, fine, that may be my MO, but this is different. This is…”
He didn’t know what it was, really. But he knew he wanted to find out.
Erik returned and sat down just as Sean started to pluck out a melody on his guitar again. As Hank started to hum something into the lone microphone (he had a very good voice that Charles liked very much), Erik reached over the armrest of Charles’ chair and very casually slid his fingers between Charles’.
Stiffening, Charles glanced carefully over and found Erik looking back at him, questioning. He knew without peeking into Erik’s mind that Erik was asking if this was all right.
More than all right, Charles thought, his heart thumping a little unevenly in his chest as he squeezed Erik’s hand. The corners of Erik’s lips twitched up and he turned his attention back to Sean, who was starting in on the chorus of the song. Erik’s fingers were cool from handling the beer and Charles relished the feeling of Erik’s skin against his, of Erik’s grip on his hand, not too tight and not too loose. Just perfect.
Raven gave him a meaningful look out of the corner of her eye and Charles smiled. He had a feeling New York was going to be good to him. Very good indeed.
Erik’s mother came on the tail end of November for Chanukah, so Charles hardly saw Erik at all from Monday to Wednesday. He compensated by spending all his time in 3F, cooking up God only knew what in Hank’s room.
“I’m a little worried,” Alex told Darwin as they lounged in bed together, allowing the sweat on their skin to dry. They were in Darwin’s apartment; his living alone was massively convenient in carrying on their relationship. “I think I’ve been smelling weird things in the apartment these last few days.”
“Probably nothing,” Darwin said drowsily, running his hand down Alex’s spine. “You always get worked up over nothing.”
Alex huffed. “One of these days that bozo’s going to burn down the entire building and I’m going to say ‘I told you so’ while we’re both standing on the curb homeless.”
Darwin smiled indulgently. “Absolutely. We should make go-bags. You know, put all our valuables in a little bag and stash it somewhere we can grab it easily in an emergency.”
From his tone, Alex knew he was kidding but it really wasn’t a bad idea. You never knew what sort of crazy antics Hank could get up to with his makeshift lab. Last year, he’d spilled something horrible and the apartment had smelled like rotten eggs for a week.
“At least he has Charles with him, right?” he said, more to reassure himself than anything. “I mean, Charles is a professor. He knows like, rules and stuff. He can stop Hank if he’s about to blow something up.”
“Definitely.” Darwin started to kiss his neck, then down his chest. That was his usual tactic of telling Alex he was being ridiculous. Having just come barely ten minutes ago, Alex wasn’t in the mood yet for another round, but the gentle touches were pleasant anyway. He ran his hand over Darwin’s short hair and closed his eyes.
After a while, they got out of bed and cleaned up. They had shifts at the MCC in half an hour and Charles had offered to drive so they slid on their clothes and walked one door down together to his place.
Alex half-expected to find him hanging out with Hank in their apartment, but Charles answered the door with something of a strained smile. “Hi,” he said. “I might have to cancel.”
“What…” Alex started and then trailed off when a familiar face appeared in the hallway behind Charles. “Edie!”
“Are those my favorite boys I see?” Erik’s mother asked, smiling. “Come in, I brought plenty of latkes for everyone.”
“She ambushed me,” Charles whispered as he let Alex and Darwin pass. His eyes were wide and panicked. “Erik’s not here and I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“It’s good to see you two again,” Edie said as they moved toward the kitchen. “It’s been far too long.”
It had actually only been a little over a month, but it really did feel like too long. Every time Edie visited meant the hall would be smelling of delicious home-cooked meals and warm motherly love for days. Alex was actually kind of surprised it took her a full two days to run into them; usually she came looking.
He made a show of sniffing the air and said, “Latkes, you said?”
She pushed a full platter across the counter to them. “Help yourselves. I was just telling Charles here how to make them.”
“I’m afraid I’m not a very good cook,” Charles said, sounding uncomfortable and embarrassed. Alex had never seen him look so ill at ease. “Erik’s much better around the kitchen than I am.”
“But Erik already knows how to make latkes,” Edie said dismissively. “I taught him when he was eight. This is a necessary life skill that you must learn.”
Charles shot a sidelong look at Darwin, who shrugged. “Edie gave us a crash course last year.”
“And how has that turned out?” Edie asked, leaning against the low counter as they each took a plate and began to pick at the platter.
“We had them for Alex’s birthday,” Darwin replied. “Erik admitted they were almost as good as yours.”
She beamed. “You’ll have to make them for me sometime. Are you boys going to be in tonight? You should come to our Chanukah dinner. I’m making lentil soup.”
They’d been planning to stop by a diner on the way back from the MCC but nothing beat Edie’s cooking. “Sure,” Alex said. “Should I invite everyone?”
“I already spoke to Raven and Angel,” Edie said, opening the fridge. Alex could see that it was nearly empty, a situation Edie would no doubt remedy before she left. They still had leftovers from when she’d visited last month and found their fridge in 3F stocked with nothing but beer and mayonnaise. “They’re going out with some other friends. Azazel and Janos have previous obligations as well, but the Pryde family has invited us to their dining room since it’s bigger. It’ll be a proper Chanukah party.”
Darwin tapped his fork against his mouth speculatively. “Should we bring anything?”
“No, no, you’re guests. I’ve sent Erik out to buy everything we need. You just need to bring your appetite.” She glanced over at Charles, who still looked as if he wanted to bolt. “That one in particular needs to be fattened up.”
Charles laughed nervously. “If dinner is anything as delicious as the latkes, I’m sure I’ll eat enough to burst.”
Alex exchanged a glance with Darwin. Whatever was happening here, Charles was clearly out of his element. He’d had no problem making friends with everyone in the hall, he’d wedged himself into the MCC without a hitch, and he’d somehow cracked Erik, of all people. He seemed to have an instinctive charm that drew people to him, and Alex had always admired the way Charles made socializing look effortless.
But now, sitting in front of Erik’s mother, he looked like a terrified, awkward teenager trying to work up the nerve to ask his date to prom. If he fidgeted any more in his chair, he’d be vibrating.
The front door swung open with a bang and Erik arrived laden with grocery bags. He looked like he’d bypassed the elevator and run all the way up the stairs. The reason why was obvious enough: the moment he entered, the tension in Charles’ posture eased immediately and his smile turned a little more genuine.
“Hey,” Erik panted, glancing at Alex. “Don’t you guys have MCC stuff to do today?”
Alex brushed crumbs off his mouth and checked his watch. “Oh yeah. Shit, we’re going to be late. Charles, you coming?”
“I…er…” Charles’ eyes darted to Edie, then to Erik.
“Go,” Erik said quickly. “The kids would be disappointed if you didn’t show.”
Charles did an awful job concealing his relief. “Right. Yeah, I should go. Thank you so much for the latkes, Mrs. Lehnsherr, they were delicious.”
Edie snorted. “Call me Mrs. Lehnsherr again and I’ll be serving you for dinner, kosher or not.”
Charles flushed. “Sorry. Edie. I’ll just…um, I’ll get my coat and we can go, yeah?”
Alex shoved the rest of his latke into his mouth, swallowed hurriedly, and asked, “What time is dinner tonight?”
“Seven,” Edie said. “Don’t be late.”
Charles was already halfway out the door so Alex stacked his plate on Darwin’s and handed them both over the counter to Edie before dashing off. As they left, he heard Erik mutter, “What did you do to him while I was gone?” Edie only laughed.
The moment they were in the car, Charles’ entire demeanor loosened. By the time they arrived at the MCC, he was his cheerful self again, chattering on and on about the synthesis of some blah-blah compound he and Hank were working on. Alex let Darwin pay attention, since science was more his thing anyway. He spent the ride staring out the window wondering what he should get Darwin for Christmas. Last year had been their first Christmas together as a couple and it had been something of a disaster, so he figured this year’s gift had to be twice as amazing to make up for it.
The November chill nipped at their exposed skin as they trooped into the MCC. It was only two o’clock, too early for students to be here. A few older guys from the neighborhood were playing basketball in the gym, but other than that, they were alone.
“Sorting mail,” Alex said as they settled into the mailroom. “My favorite.”
Darwin shrugged. “I find it pretty relaxing.”
“Of course you do. You find every boring thing relaxing.”
“And you find every relaxing thing boring.”
“Nothing wrong with that.”
“You know you’d probably be done with studying by now if you could sit still for more than fifteen minutes.”
Alex sighed. “I hate studying.” Despite the fact that he had all the books he needed and Darwin was more willing to sit with him and quiz him on anything he needed, he still didn’t feel very ready. His test date was looming closer every day, and he was beginning to think he wasn’t going to be able to give himself a GED for Christmas after all.
“The GED, right?” Charles asked as he glanced through a few envelopes. “Raven told me you were taking it.”
Alex nodded. “Can’t go very far without a high school diploma, and I don’t want to be stuck making coffee for the rest of my life. Darwin said I should try for a GED so…”
‘“Try,”’ Darwin huffed, shaking his head. “You’re plenty smart enough to get one. You’re just not studying.”
“I get bored,” Alex said defensively. “Studying’s hard. It’s just…books and books and books and I can never concentrate.”
“If you want, I could come by sometime and help,” Charles offered. “I know a few methods that might be more helpful than just reading from a textbook.”
“Well…” Alex hedged. If there was anything he hated, it was feeling dumb. Trusting Darwin with helping him through tough questions was one thing; Darwin didn’t judge him, didn’t care if algebra still tripped him up sometimes. But Charles was a genius and the thought of admitting to him that Alex sucked at anything to do with school was sort of intimidating.
But Darwin, damn him, leaped on the idea. “That would be great actually. I mean, you’re a professor, right? You know how to teach people. I try to help him but I’m not a very good teacher. I don’t know how to explain things. But you could.”
“I’d have to review the material but I’ve got plenty of time to help out. Just let me know when you’re free.”
“Tuesday afternoons and Thursdays probably,” Darwin supplied helpfully.
“Excellent! We can start tomorrow.”
Alex eyed him. “You just don’t want to face Edie again.”
“That’s not…” Charles spluttered, instantly thrown off his game. “I’ve no problem with facing Erik’s mother. She seems like a very nice woman and Erik clearly adores her and…”
“And you’re terrified of her,” Alex filled in.
“I am not.” When both Alex and Darwin turned skeptical looks on him, Charles sighed heavily, his shoulders slumping. “Is it that obvious?”
“Yes,” they replied without hesitation.
“I don’t know why,” Alex added as he sorted through a stack of letters. “She’s super nice.”
“She’s Erik’s mother,” Charles groaned, like that explained everything. When his words met with silence, he said, “My boyfriend’s mother.”
Alex blinked. “Is this some meet-the-parents anxiety thing?”
“Weren’t you nervous when you met Darwin’s parents?”
“I’ve never met Darwin’s parents.” And from what little he’d heard of them, he didn’t think he ever wanted to meet Darwin’s parents. If he did, he’d probably end up socking them in the face.
Charles turned his gaze on Darwin, who shrugged. “Alex’s parents live across the country. Haven’t met them either.”
Charles scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Well believe me, it’s more than a little nerve-wracking. I told Erik I wasn’t sure about meeting his mother so soon. I mean, we only started dating less than a month ago. And then this morning she shows up at my door and the next thing I know, she’s setting things up in the kitchen to make latkes. She’s sort of…”
“Intense?” Darwin suggested.
“Yes. I tried talking to her this morning but I don’t think she liked me very much.”
Alex raised an eyebrow. “I doubt that. Edie likes everyone. Even Azazel, who can be an asshole sometimes.”
Charles sighed again. “I just don’t want to mess everything up.”
Alex almost laughed. Charles was afraid of fucking up? Charles, who was probably one of the most well-adjusted and friendliest guys Alex had ever known?
“Trust me,” he said, shaking his head, “you’re gonna be fine.”
“I don’t know what I think about him,” Edie said as she bustled around the kitchen, expertly tending to six different things at once. “He’s…different.”
Erik sat at the kitchen table snacking on leftover latkes from that morning. He hoped his disappointment didn’t show on his face. She’d instantly loved the last guy Erik had brought to meet her, more than two years ago. He’d been sure she’d adore Charles, too, simply because everyone adored Charles. “Different?”
“He’s a very smooth talker.”
“That’s not a bad thing.”
His mother gave him a pointed look. “I’m sure I taught you better than to fall for people with silver tongues.”
“No, you taught me to be careful around people with silver tongues,” Erik replied. “You didn’t say don’t fall in love with them.”
Her gaze sharpened. “So you’re in love with him.”
Erik hesitated for a second. But there wasn’t any point in lying because she always saw through him. “Yeah. Maybe.”
“It’s only been a few weeks.”
Erik shrugged. “He’s a hard man to resist.”
That didn’t seem to put his mother at ease at all; in fact, it seemed only to make her more suspicious. “Do you remember Daniel?”
“Of course.” He was the last long-term relationship Erik had had. It was a hard thing to forget. “What about him?”
“Do you remember how long it took for you to admit you were in love with him? Even after I asked you a dozen times? Over a year, if I remember correctly.”
“Something like that.”
“And now you’re saying you love this Charles boy? After a matter of weeks? Erik.” She frowned at him in that way that never failed to make him feel like a child being scolded. “I worry about you.”
“And I’d be worried about me if this were any other case,” he admitted. “But Charles is…” Wonderful. Honest. Perfect.
Edie raised both eyebrows. “My son the author, speechless.”
He laughed and ducked his head. “I don’t know. I just really like him, okay? So try not to freak him out too much. He’s really worried about your opinion of him.”
“He seemed perfectly fine this morning when he was trying his hardest to charm me.”
“That’s because you don’t know him. He’s normally much more relaxed than that.” He hadn’t even known Charles could get so tense until this morning, when Erik had trailed behind his mother and waited anxiously as she’d knocked on Charles’ door. When Charles had spotted them and gone pale, Erik should have known this first meeting wouldn’t go well. Charles had told him he wasn’t sure about meeting Edie, but Erik hadn’t thought Charles would freeze up that badly. He’d thought Charles—always charismatic, always polite Charles—could handle anything.
“Well,” Edie said after a moment, “as long as he makes you happy…”
“…then I’ll try not to scare him off too far.”
“What? I’m only looking out for you, Schatz.” But her tone was more teasing now than warning, which he took to be as good a sign as any.
A few minutes before six-thirty, the familiar bulk of Charles’ wheelchair appeared down the hall and Erik hopped up from his seat.
“Where are you going?” Edie asked, eyeing him.
“I’m going over to Charles’. I’ll be back before seven, I promise.”
“Bring him over, too,” Edie called as he headed for the door. “Don’t be late or I’m giving away your spot to Kitty.”
He stepped into the hallway just as Charles was pulling his keys from his pocket. He gave a wave as Alex and Darwin headed down the hall to their apartments and then turned his attention back to Charles. “Hey, how was MCC?”
He was relieved to see Charles smile—a real smile, not the oddly forced one he’d been putting on all morning for Edie. “The usual. I beat Ororo at Horse again, though at the rate she’s improving, she’ll be running circles around me by the end of the year. We sorted through all the mail, too, and decided on a movie for next Thursday.”
Erik unlocked the door with a wave of his hand and followed Charles into his apartment. “What movie?”
“Homeward Bound. Old but excellent, and Alex said he didn’t think the MCC has shown it before.” Charles shrugged out of his coat and tossed it onto the back of his couch before wheeling to the kitchen to fetch a glass of water. “How has your day been?” There was a beat of hesitation before he added, “How’s your mother?”
“Good. She’s making dinner. It’s best to leave her alone when she’s at the height of her cooking. Everyone else just gets in the way.”
Charles nodded absently, seemingly engrossed in his glass of water. He drained it in three gulps and put the glass in the sink. This was usually the point where he’d offer Erik some refreshment, never mind the fact that they were comfortable enough with each other now that Erik could take anything from the kitchen that he wanted without asking first. But Charles didn’t offer him anything, just wheeled back to the living room without a word.
Erik followed him, frowning. “Are you okay?”
“What? Yeah, I’m fine, of course.”
“So you’re okay to have dinner tonight with my mother.”
“Yes, of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”
Erik sat down on the couch. “You seemed a little nervous this morning.”
“Nervous?” Charles laughed but it came out edgy. “I’m fine.”
Erik leveled a stern look at him. “Really.”
“Really, I’m…” Charles couldn’t hold his gaze. With a sigh, all the bravado fell away from him and his expression turned distinctly miserable. “Your mother hates me, doesn’t she?”
Erik blinked. “No, she doesn’t. Why would you think that?”
Charles ran a hand over his face and groaned. “I didn’t make the best impression this morning, did I? I couldn’t tell exactly what she thought of me, but I could feel her mind and it was…cool. And that’s not good.”
Erik reached over and caught his wrist. Charles calmed down whenever Erik played with his hands, which was nice because Erik liked playing with his hands. He ran his thumb over the back of Charles’ knuckles now and said, “She doesn’t hate you. She just has reservations, like any mother would.”
Charles smiled ruefully. “Maybe your mother but not mine. I have to admit, I’m not really sure how to deal with mothers.”
“Haven’t you done this before? Meet your boyfriend’s parents?”
“No, I haven’t really had a serious relationship since…” He gestured wordlessly at his chair. “I dated a boy before the accident, but his parents lived in Oregon and after he met mine…well, let’s just say my mother disapproved. We broke up soon afterwards. And none of my relationships since has lasted very long.”
“So this is your first time meeting the parents. That’s why you’re nervous.”
Charles squeezed his hand tightly. “I’m more than nervous, Erik. God, I’m terrified. I have no idea what to say to your mother. I tried talking with her this morning and she was clearly not interested in whatever I had to say. I really, really don’t want to mess this up.”
“You’re not going to mess this up,” Erik said, stroking Charles’ fingers soothingly. “You’re just a little wound up and she can see it. Just be yourself.”
Charles gave him a weak smile. “I’m sorry. I just feel like this is coming on a little fast. I mean, I’ve only known you a few weeks and I’m already meeting your mother. I just don’t want her to have any…expectations, you know?”
No, Erik didn’t know. He wasn’t quite sure what to make of that statement. Expectations? Like what? Long-term commitment? Maybe even…marriage? The very word made his insides squirm uncomfortably.
“We don’t have to think about that,” Charles said quickly, no doubt picking up on Erik’s uneasiness. “It’s way too early to be thinking about that. I just hope your mother knows it.”
Well, Charles wasn’t wrong to be wary. Edie judged every boyfriend Erik had ever paraded in front of her on the standard of her ideal son-in-law and so far, only a few men had ever fit the criteria. His mother didn’t believe in casual relationships; it was all or nothing.
But Charles didn’t need to worry about that. They were still feeling their way around their relationship, trying to figure out its limitations and boundaries. The last thing they needed was pressure from his mother to speed things up.
“If there’s anything I learned from my past relationships,” Charles said, “it’s that I tend to rush into things. That’s usually my downfall, and I don’t want it to be like that with you. I want to take things slow and steady.”
Erik nodded. “I do, too.”
“All right, good. I’m just a little worried about what your mother might want, that’s all. And what she might think of me.”
“Like I said, just be yourself. Don’t worry about winning her approval, just relax.”
Charles huffed. “Easier said than done.”
“True. But I’ll be there with you and I’ll kick your chair if you get tense.”
Finally the anxiety in Charles’ face dissipated as he laughed. “Just a mental nudge would be adequate, thank you. All right, let’s go.”
Since they were fifteen minutes early, Edie directed them to help take the platters of food down the hall to 3A. Erik’s kitchen table was far too small to accommodate more than four people at once, so when they had bigger dinner parties planned, they usually made use of the Prydes’ long dining table and larger apartment. Kitty opened the door for them when they rang the doorbell and helpfully pointed them to the table, where an assortment of other dishes were already laid out.
“Hello, Erik, Charles,” Theresa said with a smile when she saw them. “I know Edie always insists on cooking when we have dinner together but Carmen and I wanted to contribute a few things as well.”
“A few things,” Charles echoed, looking over the table. “This is a feast already.”
“Yes, well,” Kitty’s father said as he emerged from the kitchen, wiping his hands on his apron, “welcome to the typical Jewish celebration.”
“I helped make the dessert,” Kitty announced proudly as she hovered around Charles’ chair. She always gravitated to Charles whenever he was in sight, which made Erik a little bit jealous because she used to like him best. “You have to tell me how good it is when we have it.”
She made Charles and Erik promise they would and then helped them set their platters on the emptier end of the table. Edie came soon after bearing the rest of her afternoon’s work in the kitchen, and she and the Prydes spent a few minutes hugging each other and exchanging pleasantries.
By seven-thirty, everyone had arrived and they settled in to the dining table to eat. Charles seemed more or less at ease, and the only indication that he was at all nervous was the way he tensed when Erik got up from the table to get himself some more water. When Erik returned, he ran his hand down Charles’ back as he sat back down, trying to remind him to loosen up.
Your mother keeps looking at us, Charles said, poking the food around his plate. Am I doing all right?
You’re doing fine, Erik replied. It was a little startling how naturally speaking mind-to-mind came to him now. When Charles had first taught him how to project thoughts clearly, Erik had felt awkward and clumsy the first few days they’d tried it. But he had to admit this mode of communication had its advantages: namely, speaking to Charles without anyone else knowing.
“So, Charles,” Edie said suddenly, “Erik says you’re a professor.”
Charles jumped. “Oh, I…er…”
“He’s going to be teaching at Columbia,” Erik said smoothly. “Genetics.”
“A science man, then.”
Charles nodded. “Biology as well. I can teach chemistry, too, but they have enough professors for that at the moment.”
“How do you feel about Columbia’s latest decision to allow mutant freshman to live off-campus?”
“Live…off-campus?” Charles repeated uncertainly.
Erik could feel him mentally floundering. He should’ve warned Charles about his mother’s propensity for non-sequiturs; she loved using them to keep her conversational partners off-balance. The better to keep them honest, she always said, but her tactic didn’t seem to be inspiring much more than panic at the moment. Charles clutched his fork like he thought he might have to use it to defend himself.
“I read it in Mutant Matters a week ago,” Edie said, seemingly oblivious to his discomfort. “Angel was kind enough to offer me a year’s subscription at a discount. Anyway, some people think it’s good of Columbia to allow mutant students who might not be comfortable with living with others to live off-campus. Other people think it’s subtle encouragement for mutants to stay off-campus. Your thoughts?”
“I…I hadn’t heard of this,” Charles stammered. “But I usually like to read sources for myself before I make up my mind about anything.”
“That’s admirable of you,” Edie said, smiling. It was one of her pleasant smiles, the ones she used around strangers and people she wasn’t quite friends with. “What do you think about Venus Rising then? The only blockbuster movie last year with a mutant lead—pretty impressive, no?”
Thus followed one of the most painful dinners Erik had ever sat through. He and Charles had debated dozens of things over the last few weeks, everything from coffee versus tea to the Texas bill that was still being booted around. He knew Charles was an excellent interlocutor who always argued politely and always listened thoughtfully. One of the reasons Erik liked him so much was because of how easy he was to talk to, but the Charles sitting next to him tonight wasn’t the Charles he’d come to know over the course of the month. Even though Erik kept nudging him to try to relax him, Charles seemed only to get more and more stressed the longer Edie’s attention remained fixed on him, and by the time everyone had finished eating, Charles looked as if he might explode out of his chair like a coiled spring and go ricocheting off the walls.
His awkwardness didn’t go unnoticed by the others. Eventually Theresa took pity on him and said, “Edie, come help me with the dessert, will you?” When they stood up and disappeared to the kitchen, Charles turned to Erik and whispered, “I’m fucking this up so badly, I’m so sorry.”
“You’re doing fine,” Erik said. “Just…calm down.”
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I haven’t been this nervous since my first thesis defense and even then I don’t think I was this nervous.” Charles smoothed a hand down his thigh and took a deep breath. “I feel like I’m digging myself into a bigger hole every time I open my mouth.”
Erik took his hand and squeezed it. “I’ll make this up to you later. How does a massage sound?”
Charles’ anxious frown eased at the corners. “A massage sounds heavenly.”
“Good. Now relax and pretend you’re facing your thesis committee.”
That suggestion actually seemed to take because Charles looked marginally more relaxed as the night wore on, and by the time they were bidding the Prydes goodnight, he was smiling like usual again. When they walked Edie back to Erik’s, he said to Charles, “Go on ahead. I’ll be over in a minute.”
Charles glanced at both of them and nodded. “Okay.”
Erik waited until Charles’ door had closed behind him before ushering his mother in. “Well?”
“Well what?” she asked.
He went to the kitchen to deposit the empty platters in the sink. “Well, what do you think about him? You know you scared the shit out of him, don’t you?”
“I think I like him after all.”
Erik blinked. “What? You just spent the last couple of hours terrorizing him.”
“Well, I only figured out I liked him after he survived my interrogation. Besides, he’s cute when he’s flustered.”
Bewildered, Erik followed her to the guest bedroom, where she sat down on the bed and started shucking her shoes off. “You didn’t like him this morning.”
“He tried to charm me this morning. He wasn’t trying so hard tonight.”
Erik laughed. “Mama, Charles tried everything tonight. You know charming people is his default, right? I’ve never seen him so rattled before.”
She shrugged. “Maybe. But the boy I talked to tonight was much more endearing than the boy I met this morning. He has some good ideas, too. I’ll have to talk to him again about mutant filmmaking.” When Erik continued to stand in the doorway, she raised an eyebrow. “Are you going to stand there all night? Shouldn’t you be going to reassure your boyfriend that I don’t hate him?”
“Oh, right. You’ll be okay by yourself for the evening?”
“I do live on my own regularly, you understand that?”
He huffed a laugh and walked over to kiss her on the cheek before heading out.
“Give him a kiss from me!” she called after him.
Erik grinned. “I’ll give him two.”
By mid-December, they had fallen into a routine. Erik would go on his morning run, shower, and then head on over to Charles’, laptop bag on his shoulder. While Charles snoozed on one side of his king-sized bed, Erik would sit on the other, notes spread all around him as he wrote. Eventually Charles would be persuaded to get out of bed to eat breakfast and they’d hang around with each other all day, sometimes talking, sometimes working separately. It surprised Erik how easy it was to just exist in the same area, to share his life with someone else.
More than once, they abandoned whatever they were doing in favor of extended make-out sessions, but so far, they hadn’t had sex. Erik wasn’t sure how to broach the topic. He didn’t want to be insensitive, but he also knew Charles hated being treated differently because of the chair. They’d discussed his injury vaguely but they’d never discussed specifics, so Erik took his questions to the Internet, which gave him tons of sprawling articles about having sex when disabled and blogs dedicated to dispelling myths about paraplegic sex. But detailed advice on how to talk to your paraplegic partner about sex was lacking.
He’d let Charles bring it up, he decided after a few hours of fruitless searching. Charles would no doubt be more experienced in such matters and Erik was always willing to learn.
Besides, being a relationship without sex was sort of nice. He liked just being with Charles. It was comfortable. Uncomplicated.
Then one morning as Erik was trying to shake off writer’s block by outlining his next chapter, Charles propped himself up on one elbow on his pillow and said, “Erik, would you like to have sex with me?”
Erik’s head snapped up. “What?”
Charles laughed. “You don’t have to look so panicked. If you don’t want to, that’s fine.”
“No, no, I do want to. I was just…What brought this on?”
Charles shrugged. “Usually I would’ve slept with you by now and probably broken up with you, too. I guess it’s easier to have sex with people I don’t care for as deeply as I care for you.” He glanced down at his hands. “I don’t want you to be disappointed.”
“Charles.” Erik set his laptop aside and shifted closer, brow furrowed. “Is that why we haven’t talked about this yet? Because you were afraid I’d be disappointed?”
“Well.” Charles gave him a crooked smile. “I’m willing to bet you haven’t had sex with a paraplegic before. And it’s not the same as having sex with any other person, as you might imagine.”
“You think I give a fuck about other people?” Erik demanded. “I have you and I want you. You could never disappoint me.”
Charles’ sudden burst of affection felt like sunlight against his skin. “Well, when you put it like that,” he said, and then pulled Erik down for a kiss.
All the other times they’d kissed before, their hands had wandered around each other’s torsos but never lower. Today, Charles slipped his hand down Erik’s belly, fingers slipping into Erik’s waistband and tugging. When Erik realized what he was going for, he could barely muffle his groan. “Hang on,” he said, pulling back long enough to push all his notes together and shut his laptop. He leaned over the side of the bed to toss the whole mess on the floor and then rolled back to Charles, who was in the process of pulling off his shirt.
Weeks together and Erik had never seen Charles shirtless. Now he wished he’d asked about sex way earlier because Charles’ torso was a thing of beauty and it was practically criminal to cover it up. His chest was broad and strong, his shoulders well-muscled, and his arms—one of the first things that had caught Erik’s eye that morning he’d helped Charles with the shelves in his apartment—looked as if they could pin Erik with ease.
The thought sent a shiver of lust shooting through him from spine to groin. Charles grinned wickedly and said, “Do you want me to hold you down? Because I can do that.”
Erik kissed him hard, once, then again. Breathlessly, he said, “Let’s just go with it and see what happens?”
Charles’ eyes gleamed. “I do love being spontaneous.” He kissed Erik again and tugged at Erik’s clothes. “Off.”
“Okay, okay.” Erik knelt up to drag his shirt over his head and throw it somewhere off the bed. As he worked at his belt, Charles’ eyes raked over his chest and down to his waist, distinctly appreciative.
“Wait,” he said as Erik started to shuck off his pants. “Slowly.”
Erik laughed aloud. “Do you want a strip tease?”
Charles’ smile turned indulgent. “Please. I’m enjoying the view immensely.”
Erik stood up and planted his feet on either side of Charles’ hips. “Good?”
Lacing his fingers behind his head, Charles leaned back against his pillow and nodded. A low thrum of wordless approval brushed across Erik’s mind, warm and encouraging. Tilting his hips, he began to peel his jeans off and smiled as Charles’ gaze followed the gradual reveal of skin. He slid his jeans down to his thighs, then to his calves, then to ankles. Then he kicked them off the bed entirely and stood almost naked above Charles, probably giving Charles an excellent view up his boxers.
“How was that?” he asked, pleased at the way Charles’ breath sounded shallow.
“Don’t ever become a stripper,” Charles answered, sitting up again. “But don’t worry, I won’t hold it against you. Come closer, let me touch you.”
Erik swayed closer, nearly tripping on the bunched-up covers around Charles’ waist. Charles gripped his hips to steady him and then pulled Erik’s boxers down.
Erik huffed a laugh. It wasn’t the worst reaction his dick had ever gotten. “Not what you were expecting?”
“Well, I was expecting a cock, and that’s definitely a cock.” Charles’ wide eyes traced his length, half-hard against his thigh. “God, come here. Get on your knees.”
Erik went easily, kneeling down with his legs on either side of Charles’. Charles pushed him onto his back and rolled over on top, his hand ghosting up Erik’s knee. He was a solid weight on Erik’s chest, heavy and warm. Erik leaned up just enough to press their mouths together as Charles’ hand continued its exploration north, past Erik’s knee to his thigh. They kissed languidly, Erik’s fingers tangled in Charles’ hair, his breath hot and wet. Erik was hard and eager for Charles to get his hand on his cock, but at the same time, he liked the languorous pace they were setting. He could lie here and kiss Charles forever, he thought. It felt like they had all the time in the world.
Then Charles’ fingers slid up his length in a teasing caress and Erik bucked up against his touch, a shiver of lust running through him. “Please,” he said against Charles’ lips.
“Mm, please what?” Charles asked, his smile sly.
Erik kissed him in reply and reached down to push Charles’ hand against his erection. Finally Charles closed his hand around his shaft and began to pump him, slow and firm. Erik’s eyes fluttered closed as pleasure tingled through his cock and up his spine. Since Charles had moved in, Erik’s only orgasms had come from jerking off in the shower in the morning and occasionally at night in his bed, thinking of Charles’ mouth or his hands the whole time. But all those fantasies had nothing on the reality, and his own hand was nothing compared to Charles’. Charles’ clever fingers seemed to know exactly where to press to make him arch, exactly when to ease off to keep him from going over the edge. Before long, Erik was panting and desperate, pleasure building and building in his balls but not quite hitting the peak.
“I never thought you’d be such a tease,” he gasped as Charles ran the pad of his thumb over the wet head of his cock.
“I never thought I was either,” Charles replied, sounding short of breath himself. His eyes were dark with arousal as they swept over Erik’s body. “But there’s something tremendously satisfying about keeping you on edge like this.”
“Cruel,” Erik groaned. He tried to thrust into the circle of Charles’ fingers but couldn’t get enough leverage with Charles practically on top of him, keeping him still. Then Charles slid down off his chest to his thighs and took the tip of Erik’s cock into his mouth, and Erik let out a sound that made them both enormously thankful for thick walls.
It turned out Charles was just as much an expert at blowjobs as he was at handjobs, and before long, Erik was coming with a low, wrecked moan, his eyes rolling back into his head as Charles swallowed skillfully around him, the flutter of his throat enough to undo any man.
In the blissful haze that followed, Charles snuggled up close to him, head on Erik’s shoulder and arm tossed around his waist. They were both hot and sweating, but Erik only pulled him closer, drowsy as he always was after sex.
After a few minutes, the post-coital daze wore off and Erik blinked himself awake again, startled. “Charles, you didn’t…”
“Don’t worry about it,” Charles said sleepily, patting his chest.
“Orgasms with my injury are unreliable at best. We can work on it later if you want, but I’m quite content with cuddling for now. Besides, your orgasm was enough to wring me out.” Charles yawned. “That was very nice, thank you.”
Telepathy, Erik remembered. Charles had mentioned once that he could see through other people’s eyes, when he concentrated. Could he feel through other people’s bodies as well?
“Yes, and it was very nice, as I said.” Charles stroked a hand down Erik’s flank and pressed his face into Erik’s shoulder. Now can we nap for a bit or do you have to work?
We can nap. Erik shifted to get a pillow under their heads and then wrapped an arm around Charles’ shoulders. We can nap all day.
That Thursday was movie night at the MCC and Darwin, who was in charge of bringing the night’s entertainment, spent most of the morning throwing things out of his closet trying to find his DVD of The Sandlot. He knew he owned the movie but Alex had a bad habit of borrowing his stuff and forgetting to return it, so for all he knew, the DVD could be buried somewhere in the compost heap of Alex’s room in his apartment. After a while, he decided to resume the search after lunch and dug out his engineering textbook to kill time until Alex came back from the store so they could eat together.
He was halfway through Chapter 21 when his front door banged open. “Darwin!” Alex shouted. “You here?”
Bookmarking his place, he rolled off his bed and wandered out. “Why are you yelling? And don’t slam doors, you know I hate that.”
Alex pounced on him immediately, kissing the life out of him. Startled, Darwin stumbled back and they both toppled over the arm of the couch, tangled up in each other. “What—” was all Darwin managed before Alex drove the breath out of his lungs by sitting up on his chest. He waved something white and flat in Darwin’s face, his expression gleeful.
Darwin gripped his thighs tightly. “How did you do?”
“Passed. With honors.”
“Alex. Alex, that’s amazing.” Darwin dragged him down and kissed him again, hot and filthy because Alex deserved it. He dug his fingers into Alex’s hair and pulled until Alex moaned and let go of the envelope to fist his hand in Darwin’s shirt.
“Don’t you have class today?” he asked as he ground his ass back against the growing bulge in Darwin’s pants.
“No,” Darwin lied. “You want to celebrate?”
“Hell yeah, I do. I want to tell everyone but first—” He mouthed wetly at Darwin’s jaw, then his neck.
“First,” Darwin agreed, and thrust his hips up to meet Alex’s.
An hour later, they cleaned themselves up and made sure they looked mostly decent before stumbling out of the apartment and going in search of the others. No one was in besides Azazel, who growled at them for waking him up and told them the wi-fi was down again (surprise, surprise) so everyone was hanging out at The Grind. Azazel was always cranky in the mornings—being a nighttime security guard at some fancy corporate building really fucked up sleeping schedules—so they left him to sleep it off and headed across the street.
The coffee shop wasn’t too crowded today, save for the four tables shoved together by the front window where the Hub’s third floor usually congregated when the wi-fi in the apartments was down and the need for Internet was dire.
Raven was perched by the door with her camera, people-watching. She snapped a couple of photos of them as they came in and said, “Give me a smile, boys.”
When Alex waved the letter in front of her camera lens instead, she frowned and lowered her camera. “What’s that?”
“I have an announcement to make,” Alex said, loudly enough to hush the whole shop. He waved the envelope and pumped his fist into the air. “I got my GED.”
Angel leaped up from her seat at once and threw her arms around him. “Congratulations!” As Raven’s camera shutter clicked rapidly, their other friends sprang up, too, and crowded around Alex, clamoring for him to read his scores out. He laughed and accepted their back slaps and laughed again when Sean broke out into an impromptu rendition of “We Are The Champions.” Even Erik hugged him briefly and muttered a gruff congratulations in his ear.
Darwin, who had stepped to the side to avoid being crushed in the celebration, couldn’t hold back his own broad smile. After three years of dating, he could count the number of times he’d seen Alex this happy on one hand. Pride and joy swelled up in his chest like hot air in a balloon, and he was almost sure that if he jumped right now he’d go flying.
He didn’t even notice Charles sliding in beside him until he heard, “He did well, didn’t he.”
Glancing down at him, Darwin nodded. “He did. He gave it everything he had and he deserves it.”
“That he does.” Charles’ smile was brilliantly warm. “You know half the reason he wanted it was for you, right?”
“He wanted to be a boyfriend you’d be proud of. That’s what he told me when I was tutoring him.”
“He told you that?” Darwin’s throat felt suddenly tight and his words came out slightly watery. “He didn’t need to take any test to make me proud. He knows that, right?”
“I’m sure he does. But the thought certainly motivated him.”
A minute later, Alex broke away from the crowd and bounded over to them, his eyes bright. “Charles,” he said, handing the envelope down to him, “I couldn’t have done this without you. Really, thanks for whipping my ass into shape.”
“Anytime,” Charles replied, shaking his hand. “I knew you could do it.”
Then he pulled Alex down for a hug and everyone awwed and Raven’s camera whirred incessantly, and they all sat down to have celebratory cake and coffee, on the house because Alex had been working here for over a year and the manager liked him.
“Hey,” Darwin whispered after a while, slinging his arm around Alex’s chair to pull him closer, “you know how proud I am of you, right?”
Alex ducked his head in an obvious attempt to hide the way his cheeks pinked. “Yeah, yeah,” he muttered, shoving a piece of cake in Darwin’s open mouth, “I love you, too.”
Christmas passed in a whirlwind of decorated trees, gingerbread cookies, roasted marshmallows, and tinsel. Erik normally paid the holiday very little attention, but Charles was something of a Christmas maniac and Erik couldn’t help but get sucked along in all the festivities. He helped Charles decorate the tree in Charles’ apartment, baked a dozen trays of cookies (after Charles burned the first batch), and wrapped a million presents because Charles thought of everybody when he went shopping and hated the thought of anybody going without.
Erik was firmly Jewish and didn’t care for all the Christmas cheer and the caroling and the world’s sudden love for ice skating, but when his boyfriend loved something so much, he found it very difficult to remain entirely apathetic.
Charles gave him a huge, woolly purple scarf and a Firefly box set. In reply, Erik dug out the present he’d been hiding in one of the higher kitchen cabinets and handed it over to Charles, who said in bemusement, “I thought you said you didn’t give out Christmas gifts.”
Erik shrugged. “You celebrated Chanukah with me. I wanted to celebrate Christmas with you.”
Charles smiled and Erik figured he was never going to get used to the way Charles’ happiness lit fires in his heart. “I hope it’s nothing too expensive,” Charles said as he picked at the wrapping.
“Says the man who keeps wanting to whisk us away on a Caribbean cruise.”
“A vacation would be nice,” Charles argued. “Plus, when I start school next semester, we’re not going to have time to get away.” He stuck the bow on Erik’s arm and set about tearing open the side of the wrapping. “What is it, a box of some sort? It isn’t fragile, is it? Can I shake it?”
“If you want.”
Charles shook it to no avail; it remained stubbornly silent. “Mysterious,” Charles said, as thrilled as a five-year-old. He ripped off the rest of the paper to reveal a cardboard box and then lifted the lid.
Erik held his breath as Charles pulled out the sheaf of paper inside and smoothed his hand over the top page. Confusion, realization, and incredulity cycled through Charles’ expression in seconds, and he looked up at Erik, eyes wide. “Is this…?”
“It’s only a rough draft,” Erik told him. “You’re the first one to get a look at the finished copy. My editor hasn’t even seen it yet. Look at the dedication.”
Charles’ fingers shook with excitement as he flipped past the title page. ‘“To Charles,”’ he read aloud. ‘“Still a decent dinner host, still my biggest fan, and still my most interesting neighbor. Ich liebe dich, Erik’.”
His eyes were wet when they met Erik’s. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Your German accent’s still atrocious,” Erik said fondly, bending down to kiss him. Then he took the manuscript of his latest book from Charles’ hands and gestured to the box. “There’s something else.”
Charles reached back into the box and pulled out the picture frame Erik had laid at the bottom. When he flipped it over to see what was inside, he let out a sharp gasp of surprise and, Erik thought, of awe. “Erik…”
“Raven has a thousand photos of us,” Erik explained, hoping he didn’t look as embarrassed as he felt. “I asked her for one for a reference and…well. I wanted to sketch you and I thought you’d want to see it.”
Charles’ finger stroked wonderingly across the glass. In the sketch, Charles was sitting at the back table in The Grind, laughing at something Erik was saying. That was Erik’s favorite expression of his: head thrown back, eyes crinkling, teeth gleaming in a full-bodied laugh. Next to him, Erik had his arm around Charles’ shoulders to pull him close, his nose nuzzling Charles’ ear.
At first it had been irritating to realize Raven had caught such an intimate moment on film. Now he was glad for it because Charles was staring at the sketch like he was drinking it in and he radiated a warmth that seeped into Erik from head to toe.
“I love it,” Charles said, clearing his throat. “I love it so much.”
Erik couldn’t quite hide his relief. “I’m glad.”
“I love you so much,” Charles added. “Come here and let me kiss you.”
“I’ll do you one better,” Erik said, taking the box from Charles’ lap and laying it aside. Then he swept Charles up from his chair and carried him to the bedroom, Charles laughing in delight all the way.
New Year’s had never been Charles’ favorite holiday. He normally found the whole occasion rather underwhelming: all it consisted of was anticipatory partying, an anticlimactic ball drop in Times Square, a sloppy kiss with a stranger, and a list of resolutions that would most likely be broken before the first week of the new year was over.
But the end of this year felt new and wonderfully fresh. It was the first New Year’s that he knew exactly who was going to kiss him at midnight.
They were all in 3F wearing party hats, blowing on annoying party horns, and already covered in confetti. Alex and Darwin were drinking straight from a champagne bottle and groping each other on the couch. Nearby, Raven and Irene stood by the window, looking so entirely lost in each other that no one wanted to go near them. Angel was riding on Azazel’s back as he stumbled drunkenly around the apartment, and Sean and Hank had been keeping up a rousing cover of “Auld Lang Syne” for a full half hour.
Charles alone was watching the festivities on the big-screen TV in the living room as he indulged in a second glass of champagne. Erik had disappeared with Janos somewhere earlier in the night, no doubt to chat about the running club at the MCC they were thinking of starting up.
They had so many plans for the new year. The MCC had new volunteers coming in, Charles was trying to convince Erik to go on a book signing tour in the spring, and Charles had been approached by some of the faculty at Columbia about co-sponsoring a Mutant Student Union organization on campus. He’d already met the other professor they’d asked to sponsor—Dr. Moira MacTaggert of the Biology Department—and they’d gotten along smashingly. With any luck, they’d get the club chartered by the next fall and maybe Charles could even convince Erik to come give a talk. An ambitious goal, given that Erik hated speaking in public, but Charles could be quite persuasive when he was in the mood to be and Erik was so very vulnerable to his charms.
As the clock on the TV ticked down into the last minute of 2013, Erik appeared by his side, his cheeks flushed. His thoughts felt pleasantly tipsy, and Charles trailed mental fingers through the edges of his mind, just enough to catch the swell of affection Erik aimed at him.
“Hello, stranger,” Charles said, smiling.
“Hello,” Erik replied, running a hand through Charles’ hair. “You’re the handsomest man in this whole establishment, did you know that?”
Charles leaned into his touch. “No, I’m not. You are.”
“Lies,” Erik whispered as he bent down to bring their mouths level. And as everyone around them started to count down out loud, Charles wound his arms around Erik’s neck and kissed him soundly, knowing that with Erik by his side, the next year would only be better than the last.