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Our House, In The Middle Of Our Street

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one.

It is on days like this that Charles feels really, really old.

He presses his forehead against the vending machine, stabbing mechanically at any random button and hearing the hiss of coffee dispensing into the cup. It doesn't matter what his choice is anyway, since almost everything in these machines – coffee, tea, what the hell is Nesquik - tastes like hot sludge. He doesn't move even when the coffee is done, not wanting to think of that young man sitting in his office, half-catatonic with shock and pain. Then again, anyone would be if they had recently lost both parents in a two car pile-up.

Finally he shoves himself off the machine and collects the coffee, mentally bracing himself for the chaos waiting for him back at his office. That newly-orphaned young man, and then later, so many others like him, all waiting for Charles, all represented by yellow folders, which are filled with distressing information about how these kids are alone, or unwanted, or both. At the end of the day, Charles will tuck away the folders back in his drawers, but back home, he can't quite tuck them away so easily in his mind.

He trudges back to the office, giving the young man a sympathetic smile before setting the coffee down in front of him. "Drink."

The young man stares back at Charles, uncomprehending, then shrinks back into his chair. Charles sighs and flips open the yellow folder that Moira had hastily put together after the accident yesterday. "It's Hank, right? How are you feeling?"

The boy blinks, then raises a shaking hand to adjust his glasses, his eyes blank and unseeing. Something twists in Charles's chest, but he steels himself to continue reading the file. "Are you going to be staying with your aunt?" he asks kindly, but Hank's face is still loose and slack with shock. Charles sits back, pinching the bridge of his nose. He is not going to get an answer, at least not tonight, and he doesn't blame the poor chap.

He ignores the pull of the resignation letter sitting in the top left drawer of his desk.

***

"Some days," Moira is saying. There are bags under her eyes, huge dark circles, the uniform stamped on every social worker trudging through these corridors. "Some days, Charles, I just feel--" Here she trails off, shaking her head, and Charles knows all too well the nameless clump of helplessness that's stuck in her throat, in his.

"I know." He shoots her a quick smile, rubs her arm. She feels a little too skinny, and he thinks that he needs to force her out for dinner again. Dinner and nothing more, though; they had tried to make a go of it a long time ago, but the spark had failed to burst into flame. "But we do it for the kids."

"The kids." Moira's voice is flat. "Tell me, how are we going to help them when there are never enough shelters, never enough foster homes?"

"Moira." The tone of his voice is warning enough; he is still feeling drained and sad from the interview with that McCoy kid. When she looks away, he rubs her arm again. "I didn't think I'd hear this kind of defeatist attitude from you." His smile grows sly, teasing. "You've been spending too much time with Stryker, you're beginning to sound like a crusty old man."

"Thanks a lot." But at least she is smiling a little now at the mention of their pessimistic, inept director. "Speaking of which, don't forget the meeting on Monday."

"Right," he says. Because he hasn't, and he intends to hand in his resignation after that meeting. "Monday, then."

 

two.

 

"You're leaving?"

Burt's voice is loud enough to be heard throughout the whole office, and Charles can only imagine the curious heads peeking over their cubicle walls. Charles nods once, sharply, and his supervisor just looks flabbergasted and lost. "Charles, I can't lose you, you're one of the best--"

"I'm sorry, Burt old chap, my mind's made up."

"But I thought you really cared for these kids." Burt just looks aghast and stricken, causing a twinge of guilt in Charles's chest. "We're understaffed as it is--"

"I know." Charles clasps his hands together and places them on his lap. "But there are bright, young graduates, all more than suitable to be the best social workers. It's just a matter of recruiting and training, Burt."

"I still don't get it." Burt is taking off his glasses and wiping them furiously."I know for you, it's not about the money, it's always been about the kids."

"Precisely," Charles says. "Which is why I am applying to be a foster parent."

Burt stops polishing his glasses. "Really?"

"Yes." Charles leans forward now, excitement bubbling in his veins in a way that has been absent for a long, long time. "I've done the paperwork, I'm going to submit the application. If they'll have me, I've got to go for classes, training...but first, I have to quit because I can't be both a social worker and a foster parent."

"Oh." Burt puts on his glasses again. "Ohhh." Now his supervisor is beaming again, and it's a brilliant thing to watch. "That's actually quite a good idea. You have the background, and you have the, uh--"

"Money," Charles finishes for him, and Burt flushes. "So I'll keep you updated on the status of my application, yes?"

"Please do." Burt stands up, reaching out to shake Charles's hand. "I can think of no better person to send these kids to."

Charles shakes his supervisor's hand, and when he walks out of the office, he prays that his gamble will pay off, and that his resignation would not have been for naught.

***

Moira won't quite look at him, and Charles can't figure out if she is sad or angry. She places his things into the mover's boxes with a little more force than necessary, and he decides that she is both.

"Moira," he says when he hands her the case files of the kids that she will be taking over. "Is everything all right?"

"Yeah." However she is biting her lip, tapping her fingers against the box of files. "It's just-- How am I going to do this without you, Charles?"

"You'll be fine," he says, and he means it. "Besides, it's not like we'll never see each other again. If my application is successful, you'll be sending those kids to me."

"I know." Her smile is small and sad, and Charles strokes her cheek. She leans into his touch with a sigh. "I'll miss having someone to bully around the office."

His laugh is out before he can stop it. "I'm sure you'll find some other unfortunate soul."

Her smile widens, then she leans forward and kisses him on the cheek. "I'll see you soon, you old rascal."

For the first time in a long time, Charles Xavier walks out of his office building with a heart as light as air.

 

three.

 

Three weeks after his resignation, Charles stands in front of his sprawling family mansion in Westchester and thinks, this could work.

It takes him a good few hours to reacquaint himself with his boyhood home where he grew up with parents so distant that they may as well have been in another country. But he knows he's fortunate enough, he and Raven, compared to all the broken, silent, sullen kids who have sat in his old office a thousand times, having lived through a thousand horrors. The culmination of their various life experiences have had a hand in shaping his own unique perspective on life, inversely turning him into the unfailing optimist he is today. If he can help these kids, he reasons, then no one is beyond salvation.

Raven has called him silly and idealistic, but she is also quitting her job in NYC to move back here and help him get things moving. As always, Charles is a man who puts far more stock in actions than words, and knows he can count on his stepsister where it matters.

The rest of the morning is spent wandering through the grounds, mentally cataloguing all the big things that need fixing, all the little things that need tweaking. He knows he is feeling rather out of his depth here, but he refuses to let the huge umbrella of all his new responsibilities overwhelm him. All this is nothing that a hired team of cleaners and handymen can't fix, but he'll have to go into town for that. For now, his stomach is growling too.

In the car, he sings along loudly (and off-key) to the radio, letting his worries fall away with the words.

***

After a quick lunch, Charles checks his watch. He will need to pick Raven up from the bus station in a few hours, but for now, he has time to wander around the town for a bit. For Charles it is a luxury for him to be able to simply wander with little purpose. As a social worker, he had often felt like the thinnest pat of butter spread out over the largest piece of bread, with too many kids needing his attention and too little time to help them all. He feels a twinge of guilt at the thought of Moira and his other colleagues straining under the additional workload, but he knows this is a better way he can help.

Having stopped at a bookshop and a deli, Charles stumbles upon a little hardware store named 'KLINSMANN HOME REPAIRS' that he had not remembered seeing in his childhood. Still, it looks like it has been there forever, ancient and a little musty. He enters the shop tentatively, eyeing the various fixtures and tools balanced precariously on the shelves. “Hello?"

Someone yells in reply to him from the back of the shop in what sounded like German. Charles pauses, then says, “I'm sorry?"

"Herzlich willkommen!" the voice shouted back cheerfully. "Warten sie eine Minute!"

Charles's grasp of German is spotty at best, but at least he knows the proprietor is asking him to wait for a while. He tinkers with an antique faucet while he waits, wondering if there are many in the manor like these that he had failed to notice earlier.

A much older man with Coke-bottle glasses and white tufts of hair growing out of his ears shuffles out from the back, beaming at Charles. "Guten Tag!"

Charles can't help but be charmed by this man, who looks like a bumbling, cartoonish Einstein. "Hello! Unfortunately, I don't speak much German, my good man. English?"

The old man's smile falters, but he continues to nod. "Yes, is fine."

"I was wondering if you had any contacts for a local handyman?" Charles asks. "You see, I just moved back here, and I have a lot of repairs to be done. And I'm quite useless at those, I'm afraid. My sister claims that if I hold a wrench, it would be a miracle if I didn't take my own eye out."

From the small chuckle, the old man seems to have at least understood Charles, but he seems hesitant in choosing his words. "Follow me," he says at last, and Charles obediently trots after him, following a small maze that leads out to an unexpectedly bright courtyard that makes Charles momentarily shield his eyes. He is surrounded by loud laughter and conversation, also in German. 

The little backyard is filled with men smoking and laughing, some eating. They fall silent as the old man addresses them, and Charles can feel their gazes silently assessing him. He keeps his posture straight, his smile friendly: this is his trademark stance when dealing with an abusive parent, or a complaining member of the public.

After the owner (at least, Charles presumes he is) is done, none of the men step forward to ask for the job, but someone says, "Lehnsherr," and there is a general murmur of agreement. Charles looks around to see who they are referring to, and his eyes widen when he notices a tall man with impossibly broad shoulders turning to face him, taking a last drag of his cigarette before flicking it away.

The man's black polo shirt does little to hide the long, slender tattoos that start at his forearms and disappear under his sleeves, and Charles wonders if gangs in Germany also made tattoos part of the initiation for new members. The man looks rough, dangerous, but years of social work has enabled Charles to read people exceptionally well, and the man called Lehnsherr has hands that look used to hard manual labour. He is now looking steadily at Charles, but he says something in German to the owner. "Was machen wir jetzt?"

"Oh, you don't speak English too," Charles says. "That might be a problem."

"He is only one," the owner insisted. "Lehnsherr, yes?" All this while, the man called Lehnsherr is just staring at Charles a little too curiously, but there is a hint of a smile too, as though there is some private joke that Charles doesn't understand. Maybe there is, because there is something in this man's eyes that makes Charles's nerves sing, maybe with caution, maybe with something else.

"All right then," Charles says, and kicks himself. What is he going to do with a handyman who only speaks German? "Just tell him to come to this address tomorrow, at nine." He hands over the address to the owner, studiously avoiding Lehnsherr's heavy gaze.

Charles pretends to ignore the mocking laughter long after his exit.

 

four.

"Who is this guy?" Raven asks, after she has unpacked in her old bedroom and taken out her old collection of stuffed animals. Equally unnerving is the single katana that lies on a stand on her mantle, and Charles idly wonders what else she has learned and experienced during her time in NYC. "How could you just hire him out of some shop?"

"It's not just some shop," Charles says. "And it's really hard to find help now, most of them have already been engaged by the people who own summer homes. And I can't wait, I want to get this place up and running as soon as possible."

"Fair enough," Raven says. "But I reserve the right to point and laugh at you when he destroys the shelves and makes off with half the furniture."

"Your faith in me is overwhelming, little sister." Charles grins wickedly as he tries to grab her for a kiss on the cheek, and she squeals with laughter as she shoves him away.

With Raven back in the house, there now seems to be a bit more life bouncing around the hallways, but Charles cannot wait to fill these rooms with kids who have lived on the streets, or shared such rooms with numerous siblings. The local grocery's van comes trundling up the driveway, and Charles watches as the various cupboards and fridges are filled with healthy food for growing children and, more realistically, junk food for growing teenagers.

The handyman called Lehnsherr arrives at exactly five minutes before nine, and this time he is carrying a massive toolbox and wearing workmen's coveralls. They do nothing to disguise the lean muscle rippling underneath, which is good, Charles decides, as it means this man knows his business. Lehnsherr gives Charles the same blank look when he is introduced to Raven, but the dazzling smile takes Charles by surprise, and makes Raven look away coyly. "He doesn't understand English," Charles explains to Raven. "So don't give the poor chap a hard time."

"Why would I?" She rolls her eyes at him before smiling at Lehnsherr who, bless his German sense of efficiency, goes right to work.

***

Moira calls in the afternoon with the first case. "I thought you might want to take this one," she says, and Charles can hear the triumph in her voice. "Remember Hank McCoy?"

It barely takes Charles a second to recall him. "Oh yes, poor chap, lost both parents in an accident. Isn't he staying with his aunt?"

"Irreconcilable differences," Moira says dryly, and Charles knows this is code for what-the-fuck-do-I-do-with-someone-elses-child syndrome. "Got any room for my boy?"

Charles grins widely. "For you, my pretty little bee, I have five hundred."

***

While Raven and the caretaker, Mrs Rodriguez, go about preparing Hank's room for his arrival, Charles walks around to look for a suitable room to convert into a laboratory. He remembers that in Hank's file, he had seen perfect SAT scores and several achievements in regional science fairs, and he thinks that the boy would feel at home here if there were places he could work and tinker in. Charles arrives at his stepfather's old study and thinks that this might make a good place, and the window has a nice view of the garden.

Charles is about to leave when he notices movement in the garden, and he looks down to see Lehnsherr carrying out planks of rotten plywood that had probably been decaying in the basement, or one of the other rooms. Now Lehnsherr is mopping his forehead, bending down to guzzle water from an open bottle. His arms are golden, gleaming with sweat, and as a result the tattoos look darkened, even more pronounced.

Charles feels something settling in the pit of his stomach, like a coiled cobra, dangerous and waiting to strike, and it is a while before he finally moves away from the window.

five.


Hank arrives two afternoons later, looking considerably nervous and miserable and pained all at once. He is tall, much taller than Charles, probably even taller than Lehnsherr. Despite his height, Hank looks small in his room, as though trying to fold in on himself to hide better. Understanding his grief all too well, Charles helps Moira and Levine to unload the rest of his luggage, letting the boy hang on to his rucksack and a box of prized old books. Later, he thinks, he'll ask Hank about those books to try and get a foot in the door with the boy somehow; it is worth a shot. For now he tells Raven to leave their new occupant alone – her sidelong glances had not escaped his notice - and her indignant pout would have been hilarious if not for Hank's grief.

Hank doesn't join them for dinner, and Charles, after a concerned glance upwards, tells Mrs Rodriguez to leave a plate of food for him in the oven. Raven picks quietly at her food, but a nonchalant Lehnsherr eats solidly, probably blissfully unaware of the drama going on in the house. Not quite the foster family Charles had dreamed of, but he knows they'll get there.

Charles thinks that it would be a good idea to expedite the construction of the lab so that Hank has a distraction. There are a few more boys that Moira is sending over next week, boys whom Charles had once overseen, and Charles is already thinking of converting one of the bigger dens into some kind of rec room. He will definitely need to hire a contractor, but first he wants to ask for Lehnsherr's opinion; hopefully the man will somehow understand what Charles wants in the first place.

In the end, Charles settles for downloading a few photos from a local contractor's website, and he walks with Lehnsherr from room to room with his iPad, pointing out what he wants done, and the man nods, looking thoughtful. Although he may not speak English, he is quick enough to pick up on Charles's nonverbal cues, along with the aid of the pictures.

"Here, I thought we could get in some metal tables," Charles says as they enter the intended lab, and heat prickles along his skin when he remembers this is the room where he had been watching Lehnsherr from the window a few days ago. Thankfully, the man seems oblivious. Charles rests his iPad on the desk and flicks through the pictures. "I was hoping one day it will look like this--"

Then he hears Lehnsherr's footsteps getting closer, and now the man is looking over Charles's shoulder, head down at the iPad. His breath is warming Charles's neck, and Charles is struggling to get his thought process back on track, trying to ignore the man standing behind him.

"And, um--" Charles clears his throat as Lehnsherr shifts behind him, and he can smell sweat, paint and the faint tang of aftershave. "I'll get a contractor, of course, but I'll just need your help with some of the preliminary shifting." Charles turns slightly, seeing Lehnsherr's brow furrowed in confusion, so he mimes the movement of furniture, and Lehnsherr's frown clears.

"Do you understand?" Charles asks, and Lehnsherr nods. Now the man seems to be smiling that private little smile again, as though he knows the most amusing joke in the world and he isn't going to share it with Charles, not under even pain of death. From this vantage point, so up close, Charles can't help thinking about the Fibonacci sequence and the Golden Ratio. He knows science measures symmetry as beauty, and Charles is fascinated by the ruler-straight lines of Lehnsherr's face – his brows, his eyes, his jaw, that generous mouth. And, of course, the dark ink curling up the lines of Lehnsherr's arms, writ in the language of a world Charles would never be a part of.

Charles looks away first, not quite flushing, but close.

A heartbeat later, Lehnsherr steps away with his hands in his pockets, whistling something under his breath as he strides out of the room, and Charles envies him his nonchalance.

 

six.


The following week, the arrival of Alex Summers and Sean Cassidy spell the end of the quiet peacefulness of the manor, and Charles can't stop smiling at the communal sounds of yelling and stomping and running down the corridors. The boys become fast friends, due to shared interests like girls, comics, girls, sports and girls. Sean is not at all shy about his few misdemeanors but they are nothing serious, mostly involving vandalism and shattering windows. In contrast, Alex doesn't mention his colourful juvie background, and Charles doesn't see the need to either.

Alex also doesn't mention the nameless, absent brother making the rounds in other foster homes, but it is obvious that Sean has slipped effortlessly into the role, and with gusto. They're trying to draw Hank out of his shell too, and to Charles's surprise, it is somewhat working. Walking past the half-completed rec room one evening, Charles is gratified to see them crowded around the foosball table which Lehnsherr had managed to locate and bring in, Raven cheering them on and booing Alex whenever he scores.

They look up when he comes in. "Hey Prof, join us for a game?" Sean asks, his grin lazy and a little sleepy. They always call him Prof, despite Charles's insistence that they address him by his first name. He wonders if the nickname came from his previous background, or his fondness for tweed jackets which, according to Raven, were 'lame'.

"I'm good, you lot carry on whooping Alex," he says, to much laughter and an indignant, 'Oh, come on,' from Alex.

"I'm sure I can beat you with one hand tied behind my back," Hank says with a nervous grin as he sends the little plastic ball flying into the opposite goal with a flick of his wrist.

"I'm not so sure, I think Alex does a lot of things better with one hand," Sean cackles, and there is a howl of outraged laughter and disgust. Charles shakes his head with a grin, pleased when he sees Hank chuckling as well.

"Don't forget your chores before dinner," Charles reminds them, and they murmur obediently, eyes still on the game. As he is about to walk out, only then does he notice Lehnsherr, sandpapering a few boards in the corner of the room, an odd little paternal smile on his face as he absently watches the kids.

Then his gaze meets Charles's, and Lehnsherr gives him a nod, still smiling as he goes back to work.

***

Charles is walking around and checking the doors; the kids are in bed, the staff have gone home for the day and it is finally quiet in the manor. The silence means he doesn't miss the crunch of gravel outside, and he peeks out into the driveway to see Lehnsherr standing there, smoking and looking up at the sky.

Charles steps out, feeling the bite of the evening wind as he is only in his striped pajamas. "Your ride isn't here yet?" he asks, mimicking the action of someone driving.

Lehnsherr shakes his head, then points at his watch with a frown. He must have missed his ride.

"You're welcome to stay the night." Charles points towards the inside of the house. "We have a lot of rooms."

Thankfully Lehnsherr seems to understand, as he stands there contemplating Charles's offer, and finally he shrugs, putting out his cigarette and following him inside.

Charles leads him to the room opposite his. "The bed should be made," he says, not really caring anymore that Lehnsherr might not understand him. A group of teenage boys are a lot more tiring in one large dose instead of three. As a result, his next words are more careless and flippant than anything else. "If not, feel free to crawl into mine."

As Charles pads away to his own room, he wonders if he had imagined Lehnsherr's quiet snort of amusement.

 

seven.


The next morning, Charles comes down to the kitchen with a massive headache after a night of restless sleep, thanks to the weather. He's aware that he said something remarkably stupid to Lehnsherr last night, but he can't remember what it is now and he's just thankful the man doesn't understand English. The smell of coffee wafting from the kitchen perks Charles up a bit, and he staggers into the dining area, taking his seat at the head of the table. Alex and Sean are already in their respective places.

It takes only a microsecond for Charles to realise something is off. When he looks up, he notices both boys are uncharacteristically quiet, looking very wary and wide-eyed. In fact, they seem to be listening intently for something. It is only then that Charles picks up the two voices floating out from the kitchen, a lively exchange in Spanish. One voice is unmistakably Mrs Rodriguez, of course. But the other is a low, smooth baritone that seems oddly familiar to Charles, and it certainly doesn't sound like Hank.

"Is that Lehnsherr? Speaking Spanish?" Charles asks, somewhat in disbelief. Both boys nod immediately, looking as stunned as Charles.

"Huh." Charles pokes his tongue at the inside of his cheek. It seems rather odd that the man knows German and Spanish, but not--

"Guten Morgen!" Lehnsherr comes sailing out of the kitchen with plates of eggs and bacon, grinning widely as he sets them in front of Charles and the boys. Mrs Rodriguez trails along behind with a pot of coffee, shaking her head with laughter at something Lehnsherr must have said earlier. More excited chatter in Spanish again before the two of them head back into the kitchen, and Charles remembers to blink.

"Dude." Sean's jaw is still on the table. "What the flaming fuck?"

"Sean, language." It is more of an automatic response for Charles than anything else, but Sean looks reasonably contrite.

As for Alex, he is squinting in confusion the way he does whenever Charles has presented him with a particularly hard math problem to solve. "I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks it's strange."

"What's strange?" Hank has appeared at the table, hair neatly combed and shirt impeccably ironed in comparison to the others as he reaches out to steal a rasher of bacon from Alex's plate.

"Erik's in a really good mood," Sean says, mystified. "I had no idea he stayed the night. This morning, I was waiting at the top of the stairs for Alex when Erik walked past and clapped me so hard on the back I almost fell down the stairs."

"That's weird," Alex says with a grin. "If you had fallen down the stairs, I would have understood why he was in a good mood."

"Dude." Sean's offended tone causes a ripple of laughter as Raven joins them for breakfast, towelling her damp hair.

"What's so funny?" she asks eagerly, but it's too late as Lehnsherr reappears with Mrs Rodriguez, and the group is forced to settle down to breakfast. It is not long before they return to the usual mundane morning chatter, reminding Charles that it is time to eat, and that it is not polite to stare.

 

eight.

The rest of the week passes by quickly enough, and Moira calls up with two more cases she wants to bring over. The boy, Darwin, is a sweet, harmless enough lad whose case Charles had overseen last year, while the girl, Angel, is one of Moira's. Moira whispers in hushed tones that Angel is particularly problematic, and this is the fourth foster home she's been sent to. Charles tells her to send the girl over anyway, and Moira sighs in that way of hers with that don't-say-I-didn't-warn-you tone and it makes Charles smile.

Moira and the kids arrive in Westchester three hours late because of a flat tyre, and Charles shows both teenagers to their respective rooms. Darwin is grateful and starts unpacking immediately with Alex's help, while Angel merely sits on her bed, her jaw tight with insolence. Making a note to get Raven to talk to her later, Charles heads back downstairs and asks Moira to stay for dinner, since it is so late.

"You should really stay, Mrs Rodriguez is making her famous tamales," Charles says with a wink as everyone helps to unload the car. "And then you get to see how the children push me around and bully me."

Moira laughs as she hands him a box of Angel's belongings. "Dinner and a show? How can I resist?"

"I knew you can't resist me," Charles teases, dropping a kiss on her cheek as Raven walks past with an eye-roll, Sean mouthing the word, 'Lame!' behind her. "Y'know, I've really missed you and the others."

Moira's smile softens. "Me too." She puts down her box and hugs him tightly, which he returns with a grin. He takes the box from her and carries it inside, setting it down beside the sofa.

A particularly loud 'clunk!' makes Charles jump, and he looks up at Lehnsherr who is stiffly walking away from the box he had just set down beside Charles, his expression rather tight and unreadable.

Already in a bad mood, my friend? Charles thinks, but he can't help being amused. Lehnsherr's moods seem to be as predictable as the weather.

***

Dinner is noisier than ever, because Moira is telling embarrassing stories about Charles and the children keep howling with laughter, egging her on. It is even worse when Raven teams up with Moira to reveal yet more mortifying stories from their childhood. Charles doesn't think he's ever wanted to crawl into a hole more than he does now as Raven tells everyone about how he accidentally shaved off his hair when he was younger. Still, it is all worth it. Looking around the table at the happy faces, Charles can't help feeling a sense of accomplishment that he is on his way to fulfilling his dreams, even if Angel's glaring absence at the table reminds him he still has a long way to go.

The other dampener is Lehnsherr's stoic expression as he vigorously dissects his tamales, shovelling food in and not really paying attention to the conversation. Then again, why would he? However, Lehnsherr does smile when Mrs Rodriguez lays a motherly hand on his arm and asks him about the food, and Charles can't help thinking that the chap really should smile more; it makes him look like an entirely different person, albeit a little shark-like. When Lehnsherr turns in his direction, Charles quickly looks away and back at Raven, who now seems to be talking about her first boyfriend, a complete arse whom Charles couldn't stand.

As the kids help Mrs Rodriguez with the plates, Charles and Raven go upstairs to prepare one of the guestrooms for Moira. "Stay, it's an insanely long drive back," Charles insists, and Moira looks too tired to argue anyway. Besides, it is a good opportunity for her to keep an eye on Angel whose door remains stubbornly closed.

After changing the sheets, Charles peeps out of the window to check if Moira had left her car in the driveway. To his surprise, he sees Lehnsherr and Hank standing next to a motorcycle in the driveway, a beautiful black Ducati. Lehnsherr is talking earnestly and making revving motions with his hands, and Hank is utterly enthralled by whatever he is saying. Charles's brow wrinkles in confusion, but it smoothes out again when he remembers that Hank is fluent in seven languages, including German.

Now Lehnsherr is stepping aside and gesturing towards the Ducati, and Hank seems hesitant. After more cajoling from Lehnsherr, the boy finally gives in and throws a long leg over the bike, straddling it comfortably. The growing grin on the boy's face does little to hide his genuine excitement, and Lehnsherr is patting his back heartily in a show of encouragement.

"What are you looking at?" Raven squeezes in beside him, her mouth open in an 'O' when she sees Hank on the Ducati. "Wow. Hank looks pretty bad-ass on that bike."

"He does," Charles admits. And he's not the only one. With Lehnsherr's black leather jacket which conceal his exotic tattoos and his dark jeans, he cuts a rough, stern figure. A man's man, like a cross between Clint Eastwood and the Marlboro Man.

Then Lehnsherr is looking up at them, and Hank follows his gaze. Charles and Raven manage a small wave.

"Wow," Raven says again as they step away from the window, pretending to fan herself. "Erik's actually not that bad, huh?"

Charles makes a noncommittal sound, feeling the ghost of Lehnsherr's breath on his neck again. "I suppose, if you're into the whole serial killer vibe."

Raven laughs loudly. "You're way too hard on him, you know?" she admonishes him. "Besides, you are the one who hired him."

"Don't remind me," Charles says, mentally shaking himself and checking his watch. Time to go check on the others. "Help me tell Moira where everything is, would you? Oh, and would you also try talking to Angel a bit? I'm afraid she might take a while to open up, and it might help for her to have another girl around to talk to."

"I'll try." Now Raven is looking at him rather thoughtfully, and he is more than familiar with this level of scrutiny. It always, always means that his sister is up to no good. "Are you okay, Charles?"

"Don't be silly." He flashes her a quick smile, pulling her in for a kiss on her cheek. "With the way I'm constantly running after you lot, it'll be a miracle if I don't lose all my hair."

Rolling her eyes, Raven shoves him out of the guestroom. "Love you too!" she laughs, blowing him a kiss.

Shaking his head, Charles is about to head over to Sean's room when he hears the roar of a motorcycle engine stuttering to life, and he resists the urge to walk over to the window, or to the door when Hank comes in and pushes in the bolts, his face flushed with barely concealed glee.

That night, Charles doesn't get much sleep again.

 

nine.


The water feels a little cold, but Charles simply can't bring himself to care. There are other far more important, far more delicious things in the shower distracting him now, like the press of Erik's wet skin against his, or the way Erik's mouth feels on Charles's collarbone, alternating between kisses and soft bites, leaving red marks all over his pale skin.

The best distraction of all, of course, is how Erik's large, warm hand is stroking him firmly, upwards, his grip slick with soap. With every stroke, Charles makes these embarrassing little hitching noises, but they seem to turn Erik on, his nostrils flaring with every sound Charles makes. Charles is helpless, pinned against the wall like this, his hips arching up into Erik's deft, work-roughened hands, grabbing onto Erik's broad shoulders for balance as he slowly fucks the tunnel of Erik's fist.

Now Erik's lips have reached his ear. "I want you in my mouth," he whispers in perfect, German-accented English. "Please, please let me suck you off."

"God, yes." Charles tangles his fingers in Erik's damp hair, tugging on the dark blond strands just to hear him growl and beg some more, while the other hand is already pushing down on Erik's shoulder of its own accord, echoing Charles's overpowering desire to see Erik on his knees. Now he is looking up at Charles, those bottle-green eyes glinting with desire and maybe something a little more, and when his mouth finally envelops Charles, so warm and so wet, Charles can't help but surge up into that heat, words of French and German and Spanish falling from his lips like rain, all different but saying the same thing, that Erik, Erik--

The sound of the beeping alarm clock jerks Charles out of slumber, and a guttural groan escapes him when he realises it was all a dream, his hands feeling oddly empty as though something has just been snatched out of their grasp. He rubs his face, twice, but it's no use: he is so hard that even the heavy quilt is tented. Charles eyes his erection evenly, wondering if he should take matters into his own hands, but the sounds of voices and running footsteps outside his door dash that dream. The children are already heading down for breakfast.

A cold, cold shower, then – he forces his eyes shut, willing away the last wisps of his cruelly identical dream earlier – and Charles feels more respectably human, and less likely to maul an unsuspecting Lehnsherr over the breakfast table. He pulls on his favourite shirt and a cardigan – what Raven calls his 'professor-ish outfit' and heads down to the dining room, giving the kids a wave at the chorus of hellos and good mornings. He collects his food, studiously trying very hard not to look at Lehnsherr who is seated at the other end, and Charles plops himself down next to Moira and Raven instead.

"Went jogging, Charles?" Raven asks through a mouthful of food. "You look flushed. And exhausted."

"I'm fine," he says calmly, even as the kids start casting curious glances his way. "Sean, could you pass the shower- I mean, the salt. Pass the salt, please."

Sean warily hands over the salt as though it is a bomb.

"What do you guys have planned for the weekend?" Moira asks, when it becomes apparent that Charles is not going to say anything else and looks particularly interested in his eggs and ham, and the kids return to their bored chatter. "The weather looks promising."

"Are we going outdoors?" That is from Hank, who looks distinctively uncomfortable at the thought of engaging in any sport or sport-related activity.

"Wuss," Alex mutters under his breath, then an indignant 'ow!' as he bends down to massage his bruised foot, while Raven continues chewing her food innocently, her retrieving foot unseen under the table. Alex shoots her a glare. "What did I say?"

"Going outdoors sounds like a good idea," Darwin says quickly, before a fight can erupt. "What is there to do around here? I need to explore this place anyway."

Alex perks up. "I'll take you around, dude."

"We'll all go," Charles adds, because the last thing he needs is the kids splintering out into their own little cliques and groups, and leaving those like Hank and Angel in the dust. "I have some ideas."

***

It is Moira's idea to take advantage of the sprawling green fields in front of the mansion for a soccer game, even though Charles tamps down the urge to correct her and call it by its proper name, the one he had learned in Oxford: football. Still, it doesn't matter because most of the kids (except a dejected Hank and an indifferent Angel, finally coaxed out of her room by Raven's many pleas) look forward to spending time in the sun, be it playing soccer, football or what have you. A picnic basket is also prepared, although Charles seriously doubts that it is sufficient to feed four teenage boys who can strip bare an entire fridge, much to Mrs Rodriguez's astonishment.

The dividing of everyone into two teams is spectacularly more difficult than it should be, as Charles is trying to be fair and the boys all want to stick together. He is more than relieved when Darwin steps forward and offers to form a team with Raven and Moira, so Hank falls in beside Alex and Sean. As Charles blows his referee's whistle, his eye falls on Angel, sitting coquettishly in the shade and looking bored. Well, at least she had agreed to come out with them. Charles knows how to be grateful for minor victories.

The match starts out a little bumpily, people confused about their positions, but thanks to Moira's training from her college soccer years, she explains what she can to the kids, Charles watching her with a grateful smile. At last the game gets going properly, and it is clear from the start that Darwin is a natural at this, dribbling the ball at his feet with fluid grace. Charles remembers the scared, beaten boy who had been assigned to him a year ago. Darwin had been terrified, skinny, plain Armando then, but now, a year shy of being an adult, he is helpful, quick to laugh, generous, graceful.

Surprisingly, Hank is almost equally as deft with his feet, at least deft enough to leave a stunned Alex in his wake as he goes for goal and scores, inciting a squeaky cheer from Raven who seems to have forgotten her team alliances where Hank is concerned.

"Judas!" Charles calls out with a laugh, and Raven flicks her ponytail rudely at him. Moira shakes her head in mock despair.

After the third goal by Darwin, Charles begins to realise that Angel is no longer alone, and out of the corner of his eye, he can see Lehnsherr crouching on the grass beside her, pointing out the movement of the ball and explaining something, most likely in Spanish as it is doubtful Angel understands German. Despite herself, Angel seems curious, listening intently to Lehnsherr. Even from here, Charles can see that Lehnsherr's white tank top is soaked through with sweat, and the remnants of last night's dream come back to him with a vengeance. The white of Lehnsherr's - Erik's - sharp teeth dragging down Charles's throat, more vivid than ever.

"Dammit," he mutters, and blows the whistle. Half-time, then.

 

ten.


Moira has gone back to the city after staying the weekend, but her presence has undoubtedly done quite a lot of good. Now Angel is present (but not active) at most meals and social events, and in Charles's book, being merely present is good enough, for now. Another unbidden realisation that had come about during Moira's stay is how helpful it is for Charles to have another 'adult' to keep an eye on the kids, to balance things out. As hard as he is trying, there is no disputing that the presence of two 'parents' lends an even keel to things, taking the edge off the children's constant seeking of his attention.

It isn't that he wants Moira, or a wife, or anything of that sort. He wants an equal, a partner-in-crime, a yang to what Raven calls his very yin nature.

Needing a break, he steps out of the house while Hank is leading the evening study group. The sky is a brilliant coral, dotted with balls of orange clouds that look like God has spilled a bag of heavenly marbles. Stuffing his hands into his pockets, Charles idly wanders around the compound, taking in the scent of the rosemary bushes that Lehnsherr had managed to plant in the garden behind the kitchen a few days ago.

The roar of a motorcycle engine cuts through the evening stillness. Charles can't fight his smile; it is as though the very mere thought of the man summons him.

The stuttering roar gets louder and louder, and Charles turns to face the Ducati trailing slowly behind him, Lehnsherr with the biggest grin on his face. He isn't wearing a helmet although there's one dangling from the handle bar, and the twilight breeze sifts through his hair, stirring it gently. Lehnsherr brushes his hair back like a cat, as casual as you please.

"So you're done for the day," Charles says, pointing at his watch, and Lehnsherr nods, coming to a stop beside Charles and killing the engine. The sudden silence is almost deafening, which only highlights how loudly the blood is rushing to Charles's ears. "On your way home?" he asks, forgetting that Lehnsherr can't understand him.

Lehnsherr only takes the helmet and holds it out to Charles in a silent request, and Charles gets what he wants him to do. "Oh no, that's all right, I shouldn't--"

A slight frown, then Lehnsherr is pushing the helmet into Charles's protesting hands, then sits back and waits impatiently, folding those tattooed arms across that marvellous chest.

Charles sighs. "Oh, for the love of--it's not fair, really," he mutters, more to himself than anything else as he straps on the helmet, continuing to grumble. "Bloody handsome sod, thinks he can smile at me and I become putty in his hands, so what if you're sex on a stick, bloody--"

Lehnsherr looks like he's trying not to laugh, and instead his hand beckons Charles closer, those deft fingers curled in, a language far more easily understood than either English or German. Come to me.

Charles goes, climbing onto the back of the Ducati carefully, his arm tight around Lehnsherr's waist. The man smells like fresh shower soap and cigarettes, and Charles tries not to think about how warm and solid the man feels, or how close he is to Lehnsherr. Not if Lehnsherr wants an unpleasant surprise poking him in the back, anyway. He holds on tight, and Lehnsherr lets the engine roar into life.

The Ducati's speed picks up quickly and soon they're whizzing along the perimeter of the grounds, Charles letting out a surprised but excited yell. With the wind blasting in his face and whipping back his hair, Charles begins to laugh, letting the thrill of speed and adrenaline sing through his veins. Whatever reservations he had at the beginning about falling off the bike are now gone, thanks to the solid block of Lehnsherr's body that he is free to cling to any way he pleases. And Charles does cling, shouting and whooping and yelling with joy, particularly when Lehnsherr navigates a corner and lets the bike lean heavily to the right, perhaps a little heavier than it needs to be, making Charles grip tighter and hang onto him even more.

He is almost regretful when Lehnsherr comes to a stop by the main entrance, where Raven is waiting, watchful. "That looked fun," she says, the corner of her lips tugging up in a smile.

"It is," Charles says immediately, then flushes. He awkwardly climbs off the bike, leaning against Lehnsherr for balance, and lands neatly on the gravel. "The kids done?"

"Hank called for a break because Alex was driving him mad," Raven drawls. "I stepped out because I didn't want to be an accessory to manslaughter."

"I find that hard to believe," Charles says with a laugh, before turning to Lehnsherr. "Anyway, thanks for the ride. Sorry to keep you."

Lehnsherr doesn't move, though, and Charles is about to gesture towards the gates when he realises Lehnsherr is pointing at his head. "Oh right, the helmet! I'm sorry."

Once it is returned, Lehnsherr nods at him, then revs the engine and heads down the driveway, out past the gates. Charles turns away with a smile, almost bumping into Raven who is smirking at him. "What?"

"Nothing. I learned something today," she says before turning on her heel and heading back into the house, like she always did when they were children and she wanted to keep a secret from Charles, or at least torment him into begging it out of her. Charles rolls his eyes; there's no way he's going to play this game, not now.

Still, he can't help but wonder.

***

Progress is what Charles thinks when he walks past the rec room and sees Angel curled up on the sofa with Sean, their heads bowed over a magazine. For some reason he remembers that moment at the football match where he had seen Lehnsherr talking to the girl, and he wonders what he could have said to Angel, and if it had helped to open her up a little more to the others, if not him.

He hovers near the two of them, wondering how to casually initiate a conversation so he can get a gauge of how Angel is fitting in. Thankfully, Sean notices him first and looks up with a goofy smile. "Hey, Prof."

"How's everything?" Charles asks, catching Sean's eye and canting his head meaningfully at Angel's still bowed head. Sean, always one to catch on quickly, gives him a discreet thumbs-up. Maybe a joke would make her smile. "Have the boys been giving you a hard time, Angel?," Charles asks with a wink. "You must not hesitate to be a tattletale where this lot is concerned."

Sean clasps a hand dramatically over his heart. "Ouch, prof, right through the heart," he drawls, making her giggle. "I'm an absolute saint, man."

"Yeah, and I'm Lady Gaga in an egg," Alex says as he strides into the room, flopping onto the armchair with a groan. "Man, I'm beat."

"Where did you go? I was looking for you earlier," Sean says, nudging Alex with his foot.

"Oh, I helped Erik to carry up the bookcase for Bozo," Alex explains with a huff.

Angel's voice is quiet, but welcome. "Who's Bozo?"

Alex looks incredulously at her as though it is common knowledge. "Hank, of course. I mean, look at those giant clown feet. Erik clearly agrees with me."

Wait. Charles frowns, hurriedly walking over to where Alex is. "You spoke to Lehnsherr?" But Alex doesn't speak German, or Spanish--

After exchanging a confused look with the others, Alex nods warily. "Yeah, we're allowed to, right?"

Sean suddenly jumps up like an alert squirrel. "Did he kill a man once? Because that's what I said, and the others just said I was nuts!"

"You are nuts, he didn't kill nobody," Alex retorted.

As they continue to bicker, a sickening feeling of dismay and realisation is beginning to sink in for Charles, and he feels so stupid, remembering all the obvious evidence so far that he has wilfully ignored, thinking back to the very first time they had met at the store, and Charles wants to bang his head repeatedly against the wall. "My God, he speaks English. He speaks English."

"Yeah, he always has," Sean says hesitantly. "Something wrong, Prof?

"Nothing," Charles says, weakly waving away their concern. He has someone to maim. "Carry on."

***

He finds Lehnsherr inside Hank's room, shifting the bookcase into place with a grimace. Hank is nowhere to be seen, probably in the kitchen or study. Charles leans against the doorjamb, his jaw tightly clenched as he fixes a steely stare on Lehnsherr. "You lied to me."

Lehnsherr's straight-as-a-ruler eyebrows shoot up in surprise, and he points at himself questioningly.

"You can drop the act now, my friend," Charles says cuttingly. "I know you jolly well speak English and have understood me all along."

Lehnsherr says nothing, picking up a nearby towel and mopping off his sweat with it. When he does finally speak, he somehow sounds exactly like he had in Charles's dream, with impeccable, slightly German-accented English. "You were the one who assumed I only spoke German," he says quietly.

"When?"

"When you were at the shop, and Otto was telling us you needed a handyman to help you at your mansion," Lehnsherr's emphasis on the last word almost makes it sound like an insult. "When I asked him something in German, you happily assumed I couldn't speak English."

Charles is stunned. "That is not at all what happened."

"It is, you can choose what you want to believe," Lehnsherr says before gulping down some water.

"Fine, if that's what you said happened, then why didn't you correct me?" Charles asks plaintively.

Lehnsherr rolls his shoulder in a slow shrug. "I wanted to teach you a lesson, I thought it was particularly arrogant of you--"

The anger flares up before Charles can contain it. "I'm sorry?"

"Don't get angry yet, I have since changed my mind," Lehnsherr says without missing a beat as he sets down his bottle. "I see what you do for the children here, and it is...noble. Then again, what do I know?" Now Lehnsherr is smiling, looking like he is baring his teeth. "I'm just a handsome sod who is sex-on-a-stick, I don't know anything."

The anger has now fled, completely replaced by humiliation and embarrassment and, somehow, the overwhelming relief that Lehnsherr is taking it all in his stride with good humour and not looking for something to bludgeon Charles over the head with. Charles runs a hand through his hair, biting his lip. "My God." There is only one thing he can say, then. "I'm so sorry."

Lehnsherr flaps a hand dismissively at him. "Don't worry about it."

As he starts to shift the bookcase again, Charles tries to think of a million reasons to leave so he can die of embarrassment somewhere peaceful. "I'm, um, going to--"

Lehnsherr nods, unable to stop the smile creeping up his face. "See you at dinner."

Charles takes his dinner that night in the study.

 

eleven.


For the next week, Charles decides to bury himself in work – and there is an obscene amount of it. Lots of paperwork to fill up regarding the kids, and then he has to ask them whether they want to attend the high school in the nearest town or be home-schooled once summer is over. There are also letters to read from the lawyer managing his late stepfather's estate, and quarterly reports from the brokerage that he has entrusted to handle the family investments.

Despite the work, Charles is thankful for it – anything to take his mind off that sordid, horrifyingly embarrassing confrontation with Lehnsherr.

To his credit, Lehnsherr hasn't mocked him, or teased him, or even acted oddly. He behaves normally, doing his work and getting the mansion in shape, working with the contractors to make sure the specifications Charles had set are met. He nods at Charles during meals or while passing each other in the corridors. Business as usual, then. It is almost as if the Misunderstanding had not happened at all, and Charles can't quite decide if he's happy or disappointed that nothing has changed.

However, there is something to look forward to: Hank's birthday is coming up, and Raven wants to plan something huge for him, possibly a trip to town where they can watch a movie and eat at a nice restaurant. Moira is invited, of course, and so are Mrs Rodriguez and Lehnsherr. "They're all coming?" Charles asks as casually as he can while he peruses the hastily scribbled guestlist, and Raven nods, watching Charles like a hawk.

"You're okay with that, right?" she asks suddenly, and he raises an eyebrow at her.

"Of course, why wouldn't I be?" Charles doesn't tell her about his mental resolution to sit as far away from Lehnsherr as politely possible.

"Nothing." The way Raven studies him is unnerving, and he wishes he is less easy to read, to unravel. "Anyway, I'll need your help on that day. I've already ordered Hank's present, and Erik is helping me hide it at his place in the meantime," she says. "So could you help him pick it up in the evening while the rest of us buy the movie tickets?"

A hundred questions are stuck in Charles's throat - why me, why can't he pick it up himself, why is it that I can't stop thinking about that devastatingly attractive daft sod - but he nods and says okay.

***

The kids are rowdy and in a ridiculously good mood, and Hank hasn't stopped smiling the whole day. The cake in the morning, baked by Mrs Rodriguez, had been a nice surprise, and now everyone is getting the day off to go to the movies, then dinner. Charles takes Raven, Sean, Hank and Mrs Rodriguez in his car, while the others pile into Moira's Toyota. Lehnsherr says he'll ride first and meet them there, after which he will secretly pick up Charles so they can retrieve Hank's gift.

They almost do not make it, because once they are at the cinema, Hank is stubbornly glued to Charles's side, talking excitedly about a physics experiment he wants to carry out. Luckily, Sean loops an arm around Hank's shoulders and says, "Dude, you're picking the movie," while leading him away, and a relieved Charles manages to escape and duck out to the back, where Lehnsherr is waiting for him. He is wearing a black turtleneck instead of his work clothes for a change, and it clings to him in all the right places.

"Sorry to keep you," Charles says, avoiding Lehnsherr's gaze. "Hank wouldn't stop talking."

"He's starting to take after you." Lehnsherr is grinning from ear to ear as he hands Charles the helmet. "What? Don't give me that look."

"Cheers very much." Charles knows he sounds gruff, but he's wondering how he's going to ride the bike without holding onto Lehnsherr. So after he climbs on, he grips the sides instead, praying to every single known deity that he won't fall off.

Lehnsherr starts the bike, then turns with a frown. "What are you doing?"

"What do you mean?" Charles looks around. Is he sitting too close? Hell, he's barely touching Lehnsherr. "What's wrong?"

Making an impatient noise, Lehnsherr reaches behind and pulls Charles's hand off the seat, then places it around his waist. "I'm not answering to Moira if you fall off and maim yourself."

"I'm fine," Charles insists, but his other hand is also wrenched away and clapped on Lehnsherr's (incredibly flat) stomach, and before he has time to gather his wits, the bike is speeding down the street, making Charles hang on for dear life.

***

"You live here?" Charles takes off the helmet, surprised that they had stopped in front of the hardware store where he had first hired Lehnsherr. "I thought Raven said you had a flat."

"I did," Lehnsherr says as he climbs off the bike, then retrieves his keys. "I was staying on a friend's couch, but his wife came back and wanted a reconciliation, so I offered to move out. And most of the apartments I've seen have a six-month lease, at least. And since I might not be staying that long, I didn't see the point in renting a apartment. So Otto offered to let me live in the back."

Charles doesn't know which part of that to absorb first, so he just nods as he gestures at the shop. "Doesn't look too comfortable."

"I've slept in worse," is all Lehnsherr says, and there's something in his voice that signals this is the end of the conversation. Shrugging, Charles bite back his questions as he follows Lehnsherr into the store and out to the back.

The present turns out to be a beautiful, expensive-looking telescope that the kids had all chipped in to buy for Hank. As Charles bends down and picks up the rather heavy box, he notes the single sleeping bag in the corner of the storeroom, and there is a towel hanging on the back of a chair. Even the help in his house have better rooms than this, he thinks, and the solution is so obvious that he kicks himself for not thinking of it earlier.

As they're loading the telescope into Lehnsherr's motorcycle box, Charles finally decides there really is no harm in asking. "Erik, why don't you come and stay with us?"

Closing the box and locking it, Lehnsherr seems to consider the idea. "I don't really want to impose--"

"Don't worry. We have more rooms than we know what to do with, my friend."

Lehnsherr seems to be studying him carefully. "If you're sure..."

Of course, Charles thinks, he'll have his reservations since I've constantly been throwing myself at him like a slag. So he is surprised when Lehnsherr finally nods, the corner of his lips crooking up into a little smile. "I'll get my things later," he says, and Charles just climbs onto the back of the bike, glad that Lehnsherr can't see his hidden smile.

***

The movie is a cerebral drama about British code-breakers set during World War Two, and while Hank is on the edge of his seat, Charles can see Alex and Sean fighting hard not to nod off. Charles himself would have enjoyed the movie immensely if it isn't for the fact that Lehnsherr is sitting next to him, their arms pressed together. Lehnsherr also has the habit of brushing his thumb repeatedly over his lower lip when absorbed in something, and Charles has to struggle not to stare, or lean over and tug at that inviting lower lip with his teeth.

Dinner is easier for Charles to handle, because Lehnsherr is sitting at the other end of the table, beside Sean and Moira. When Charles isn't busy eating or laughing at the kids' silly banter, he notes how Moira keeps trying to make conversation with Lehnsherr, who only gives her short, clipped answers before looking elsewhere. The bewilderment on Moira's face is rather sad, and not for the first time, Charles wonders what kind of chip Lehnsherr is carrying on his shoulder.

When everyone has more or less finished their food, Charles picks up a fork and taps the side of his wine glass with it. "A birthday toast," he says, raising his glass once he has everyone's attention. "To Hank, who has perfect SAT scores, but still can't figure out how to beat Alex in Guitar Hero."

Laughter and cheers as Alex pumps his fist in the air, then everyone clinks their glasses together. "To Hank!" Raven declares, raising her Coke.

The shy smile on Hank's face doesn't hide the fact that his eyes are reddened. "You guys are really the best," he says, while Darwin rubs his back with a smile.

"Awww." Alex raises his orange juice. "To Bozo!"

"I take it back, then," Hank says with a grin, and everyone dissolves into laughter.

***

It isn't an easy feat to get six hyperactive and wired teenagers back to the mansion without a hundred different distractions, but Charles and Moira manage somehow. Lehnsherr has gone back to the hardware store to pick up his things and will come over later, so Charles promises to wait up for him so he can disarm the security system.

Reading in the living room, it isn't long before he can hear Lehnsherr's motorcycle roaring up the driveway, and he gets up to key in the security code while Lehnsherr knocks at the door. Charles is surprised to see the few belongings the man is carrying. "Is that all you have?"

Lehnsherr strides in with his bag. "When you don't stay in one place very long, it's easier to carry fewer possessions."

"Ah, I see." More than ever Charles is burning to know more about this man's life, and what happened to him, and why he doesn't stay in one place for long. But instead he says, "Let me show you to your room."

As they climb the stairs, Lehnsherr throws him a sideways glance. "Is it the room opposite yours, where I stayed before?"

"Yes. Is that all right?"

Lehnsherr seems to be trying not to smile. "Of course it is."

Now they're standing in front of the door, and Charles pushes it open, switching on the lights. The room is already made up, smelling of fresh linen. "Anyway, you know where everything is. Knock if you need something."

Charles is about to turn away when Lehnsherr grips his wrist, stopping him. "Thank you for everything, Charles." His voice is low, sincere.

"You're more than welcome," Charles says, unable to help drinking in the sight of Lehnsherr so up close. "You've been a great help to us."

Lehnsherr nods, but he doesn't let go of Charles's hand. Maybe it is all that wine from dinner, but Charles wonders if he is imagining the slow brush of Lehnsherr's thumb rubbing circles across his wrist, making his pulse jump.

"Charles?" It is Moira's tentative voice, and he can hear her shuffling out into the hallway. "Are you there? Sorry, I'm looking for the aspirin."

"Yeah." Charles retrieves his hand from Lehnsherr, not missing the black look of thunder clouding his face. "I'm coming. Good night, Erik."

Lehnsherr only nods, heading into the room to unpack and not looking up as Charles leaves the room and softly closes the door.

 

twelve.


The children unanimously agree that they want to be taught at home, so Charles makes arrangements to hire a private tutor. Hank and Darwin are taking their SATs this year, while Alex and Sean need to sit for their PSATs. Only Angel has not expressed interest in schooling, although Moira promises to take the girl aside and convince her to at least consider getting her GED.

After a long search, Charles eventually settles on an Emma Frost, who used to be a high school teacher and is now a private tutor. Her credentials are impressive, and so are her rates. Still, Charles has never minded paying for quality. After she agrees to start work in a week, Charles moves on to the next giant worry on his mind: the mansion.

He is astute enough to realise that without Lehnsherr's help and singular focus, the house would not be ready as quickly as it already is now. The rec room has been set up, and the lab will be finished in only a few days. Lehnsherr had also taken the initiative to remodel the library, clearing the dust and checking for areas that have been hit by termites. In fact, it is only when Charles does a little exploring that he realises Lehnsherr has taken care of a lot of small matters without Charles having to ask him first.

It is on such an exploration in the library – so much brighter and cleaner now – that Charles discovers the old chess set resting on a table beside an antique lamp. It had belonged to his father – not Raven's father, but his own – and the memory of that beloved face is still clearly etched in his mind, those blue eyes (you always had your father's eyes, Charles) crinkled with laughter as a young Charles stared uncomprehendingly at a rook. "I'll teach you, son," Brian Xavier had said, and that had been the start of many a chess game.

Charles carries the chess board out of the library, cradling it to his chest like it is something fragile and brittle that would disintegrate over time.

***

"You found the chess board," Lehnsherr says while he is dropping by one evening to borrow Charles's toothpaste. "I meant to ask you whose it is."

"Mine." My father's. Charles battles the maudlin ache in his chest and looks up at Lehnsherr, who is wearing a dark green turtleneck that somehow makes the colour of his eyes even more obvious. "Do you know how to play?"

"Not that well." However, Lehnsherr is already stepping into Charles's room and taking a seat in one of the armchairs, dragging a table forward. "Do you want white or black?"

"White," Charles says. And then, "How do you feel about scotch?"

***

It becomes a ritual, now that Lehnsherr has moved in. After dinner, with the sounds of American Idol blaring from the television in the den, or the quiet hush of Alex on the phone to his girlfriend du jour, Lehnsherr will pop his head into Charles's room, eyebrows raised in an unspoken question, and a quick nod from Charles as they get out the chess board and the brandy. They talk, too: about the mansion and its repairs, about the kids, about how Charles studied literature in Oxford and ended up being a social worker in New York City before coming back to Westchester and doing this. It is a given that Charles likes to talk, and his thought process often involves letting his ideas bounce off people and seeing what he gets when they bounce back to him. With Lehnsherr it is maddening, because he is perfectly content to listen to Charles, he isn't pretending to pay attention while merely waiting for his chance to speak.

For Charles, it is very much like playing squash with an absorbent wall that happens to be very good-looking.

"So what about you?" Charles asks after he has taken Lehnsherr's pawn. "What brings you to this neck of the woods?"

Lehnsherr contemplates the chess board for a while before he answers, "Work."

Charles fidgets a little, then crosses one leg over the other. So Lehnsherr is still not going to trust him. "Do you like working here?" he asks instead, not knowing where to put his hands so he places them on his lap.

To his surprise, the smile that illuminates Lehnsherr's face is radiant. "It has its perks," he says, his frank gaze resting on Charles. Then, out of nowhere, he says, "Why is your mouth so red?"

Charles is so taken aback that he almost knocks over the chess board. "I'm sorry?"

Lehnsherr waves a hand carelessly at him. "It's always red, I was wondering if you swiped Raven's lip balm or something."

"You're a regular comedian, Erik." That name rolls off his tongue more easily these days, more than Lehnsherr. "Don't quit your day job."

"I won't." Lehnsherr's – Erik's – smile is slow and easy, then he leans forward and knocks off Charles's queen. "Checkmate."

"Oh bugger," Charles says.

***

The children, Charles notices, have begun to react to Erik's now constant presence in small little ways. Angel talks more, laughs more, spends time in the garden with Erik and Darwin. Hank seems a little wary of Erik sometimes, but Charles has it on good authority (i.e. Raven) that Erik is slowly but surely teaching Hank how to ride his Ducati. This is interesting, given how Alex and Sean have both been specifically banned from ever touching Erik's motorcycle despite their loud protests. Still, a stare from Erik is all it takes to silence them.

Sometimes Charles wishes he had that same commanding presence; he knows he can be too soft on the children, and people who are soft and yielding can get stepped on sometimes. But as much as he wants to be hard on the kids, he knows their backgrounds and how some of them have been pushed around, knocked about. So it is actually a minor relief for him that Erik is not afraid to yell at the kids if they break something, or level them with a stare if they don't clear their dishes.

It is Moira who notices the difference during her next visit. "It feels different here," she says, watching the kids pulling out weeds in the kitchen garden, laughing as Raven drops a clump of dirt down Alex's shirt and incites a yell. "I don't know what it is, but it feels more settled somehow."

Charles scrapes the leftover food off her plate. "I suppose we needed to give everyone time to settle in," he says cheerfully. "Want some tea?"

When Moira doesn't answer, he turns to look at her. She is standing with her arms folded, the biggest grin on her face. "What? What did I say?" Charles asks.

"I can't get over it," Moira says with wonder in her voice. "You look so happy. This is the happiest I've ever seen you."

Charles grins. "It's the kids, I reckon. I'm happy because I'm losing my hair at a far slower rate than I thought I would."

Erik pops his head into the kitchen, his face and overalls streaked with dirt. "Charles, if you could--" His expression immediately changes when he spots Moira. "Oh, hello Moira."

"Hi, Erik. "

"I'll talk to you later," Erik tells Charles before he disappears back out again, leaving Charles to continue clearing the plates.

"Sorry about that." Charles sighs as he washes his hands. "Not sure why you rub him the wrong way."

The incredulous look on Moira's face is priceless. "You mean you don't know why he can't stand me?"

Charles's curiosity is instantly piqued. "No, why?"

Moira's laugh is genuine, but a little sad. "Oh, you men are so blind," she says as she walks away, shaking her head.

Charles can only stare after her retreating back.

 

thirteen.


Charles is beginning to see why it was a bad, bad idea for him to have asked Erik to move in. It is one thing to have some maddening, persistent infatuation with someone distant and aloof, with someone he barely knows. It is another thing altogether to get to know that person and see what he looks like first thing in the morning, sleepy-eyed and yawning as he heads for the bathroom, to see him pondering his next move in chess while brushing his thumb over that confounded bottom lip, to see him cracking up with the kids when Sean spectacularly crashes his car in a ditch while playing Gran Turismo.

A spectacularly bad idea, in fact, as Charles bumps into him one evening along the corridor that separates their room, and Erik is in the midst of taking off his sweat-soaked tank top, obviously headed for a shower. "Charles," he says with a nod, and Charles only makes some kind of embarrassing strangled noise in his throat as he stares at those departing hips in tight, work-roughened jeans. The tattoos, darkened by sweat, wink at him, a cacophony of what looks like Celtic symbols and Germanic runes before Erik disappears into the bathroom.

Charles continues on his way, remembering how to breathe again. Yes, definitely a bad idea.

***

"What do you think those tats mean?" Sean asks one day, distractedly tapping on his iPhone as he lounges on the sofa. Erik is a safe distance away, inspecting the plumbing in the basement, which is why Sean dares to speculate. "They look pretty cool."

"Guessing from what I've seen in juvie," Alex says, "Erik might have been part of a gang before."

Charles looks up from the book about the Holocaust that he's reading. "We don't know that for sure," he reminds them. "So we can't assume that."

"Everyone's ink is always personal," Angel says quietly, and here the boys at least have enough sense to keep quiet because everyone knows about the wings tattooed on Angel's back, a relic of her past.

"Well, whatever Erik's tattoos are, I'm not about to get on his bad side," Darwin says with a shudder. "The cat looks ruthless, regardless of the ink."

Charles gives up on his book after re-reading the same paragraph three times. "Your imaginations are quite astounding," he says, putting the book aside with a little smile. "Just don't be disappointed when you find out Erik is really just a giant teddy bear."

"Nuh uh," Sean says, resolutely shaking his head. "Giant grizzly bear, maybe."

"Or a great white shark, especially when he smiles," Angel says, baring her teeth and making the boys laugh.

Charles has to turn away, hiding his smile at the thought of it all.

***

They are all on the roof, because Hank had announced that he had wanted to test out his brilliant new telescope to look at the night sky, and Raven had beamed and said, "Why don't we all go?" and somehow it had evolved into a picnic on the roof, complete with hearty sandwiches and Sean's ukulele and a tarp that Erik had found in the attic. The weather is nice enough that the kids forgo their sweaters, but Charles wears his cardigan just in case.

The roof of the mansion is not flat; the massive water tank in the middle divides the roof into two sections. They settle down in the left section first to have dinner, but Erik later tires of the kids' nonsense and suggests to Charles that they head over to the other section to have a quiet game of chess. Charles readily agrees, but not before nipping back downstairs to the kitchen to grab a bottle of wine. When he joins Erik in the right section, he finds a blanket already spread out, and Erik setting out the chess pieces, looking lean and lithe in his turtleneck.

"Ah, rooftop chess," Charles says as he stoops down to join Erik on the blanket. "Erik Lehnsherr knows how to live dangerously, that's for sure."

The ensuing smile makes Erik look years younger. "Whatever will we do next?" he says wryly. "Chess while skydiving?"

"Now there's a thought." Charles pours out the wine; he can hear the voices of the children on the other side of the tank, and the steady drone of Hank's voice explaining basic astronomy to Raven somewhere further away. "Nothing excites me more than Extreme Chess."

Erik lifts an elegant eyebrow, but says nothing. He makes his first move instead, pushing a pawn forward while taking a sip of his wine. From the get go, Charles already knows this is going to be a casual game so he relaxes, stretching out his legs and occasionally looking up at the night sky scattered with stars. Erik is contemplating his next move, but there is a restless edge to his movements that makes Charles realise something odd.

Erik is nervous.

"Anything wrong?" Charles asks when Erik tugs at his ear for the fifth time. "Afraid that I'll beat you so badly that you'll never play chess again, despite what the doctors say?"

"You're dreaming, Xavier." The words are said in Erik's usual droll tone, but Charles can't quite place what is off about Erik tonight. Not for the first time, Charles wishes he could read minds. Erik is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a riddle, and Charles is spending too much of his time trying to solve a leather-jacket-wearing puzzle.

The sounds of someone playing the ukulele cuts through the stillness of the night, and Charles can hear Sean singing, his voice somewhat faraway and unexpectedly lovely.

'In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight...'

Erik shakes his head. "Those kids will drive me mad," he mutters as he moves another pawn forward, but Charles doesn't miss the way his lips are trying not to tug up into a smile.

"Well, they're terrified of you." Charles grins as he swoops in and claims that pawn with his knight. "And I can't say I blame them."

Now Erik seems to be studying him intently. "Are you?"

"Don't be silly," Charles says as he sips more wine. "Your many tattoos and surly demeanour are not intimidating at all." From the sounds of it, Sean is still singing, and now Charles can hear Alex, Darwin and Angel joining in with gusto.

'A-wim moweh, a-wim moweh, a-wim moweh, a-wim moweh...'

It is all Charles can do to hold in his amusement, but when he sees Erik's mirroring expression, they both burst out laughing. Erik recovers first, calling out, "Pipe down, you brats!" and the singing is interrupted by giggles and whispers, as well as Sean's yelled, 'Sorry!'

"So, wait," Erik says as an afterthought. "Am I really that scary?"

"Not really, no." The question burns at the back of Charles's throat, and he decides to just go for it. "But sometimes, you really are surly. Like you are with Moira, for instance. Why?"

Erik keeps his eyes on the chess board, but the way his jaw tightens is obvious. "Is she that important to you?" His words almost sound pleasantly casual, but Charles knows better.

"She is a good friend," he says. "Obviously I care about her feelings."

Erik's eyes jump up from the chess board to meet Charles's steady gaze. "That's it?"

"That's it, my friend."

The tight line of Erik's shoulders and arms and crossed legs relaxes, and it is as though Charles can feel the strange tension dissipating into the night air. He remembers what Moira had said - you don't know why he can't stand me? - and he thinks of denial as a soft, safe blanket, shielding him from the things he may not be ready to handle.

The kids have started singing again - they now know Erik well enough to tell the difference between fake threats and real anger – and the new song is sweeter, softer. Charles doesn't know the name of the song, but he lets it wash over him, the chess game almost forgotten. He and Erik are playing another kind of game now.

Charles loses in a few more moves, but Erik does not gloat as he usually does. Instead he is putting away the chess set, then scooting closer to Charles before stretching out on the blanket, tucking an arm beneath his head as he stares up at the night sky, his eyes so green and languid. "It's been a long time since I really looked properly at the stars."

"In my old job, I was too busy to appreciate such little luxuries." Charles wants to lie down too, but lying down would mean losing this glorious, glorious view of Erik stretched out like this before him, eyes pensive, the hem of his turtleneck riding up a little just enough to expose a bit of his stomach.

"You're happier." It is more a statement than a question, and the truth is that there is nowhere in the world that Charles would rather be right now. Now Erik is looking at him, raising his other hand and beckoning to Charles just like he had done on their first motorcycle ride around the grounds, his fingers curling in the same manner: come to me.

Charles finds himself bending down and hovering over Erik, searching his face for any signs of resistance. But Erik's face is smooth, impassive, and Charles reaches out to brush his thumb against a razor-sharp cheekbone. Now the corner of Erik's mouth is crooking up into a smile, and his gaze drops down to Charles's mouth.

The first brush of Erik's lips against his is unbelievably electric.

Encouraged, Charles leans in and nips at that bottom lip that has been haunting him for weeks. The resulting kiss is soft, tentative, a little restrained. Then suddenly Erik is pushing up and when he claims Charles's mouth for the second time, it's deeper, dirty, wet and hungry. Charles lets his fingers sift through the fine strands of Erik's hair, his tongue sweeping over the roof of Erik's mouth and enjoying the breathless little moan that it incites from Erik.

Erik's hand is sliding under Charles's cardigan, and he can hear one of the buttons popping open before he feels the rough press of Erik's large, warm hand against his stomach. His muffled 'oh' is swallowed eagerly, and with the way they're plundering each other's mouths, Charles really can't be arsed to think about his cardigan, or the fact that the kids are not that far away.

Eventually Erik reluctantly breaks off and pulls away, his lips reddened and kiss-bruised. "Been wanting to do that for a while," he murmurs, brushing a thumb over Charles's lips.

"How was it?" Charles can't help parting them a little to let Erik's thumb slide in, and the way Erik's eyes widen with hunger is just worth it.

"You were there," he says with a growl, before leaning up and recapturing Charles's mouth for a wet, sloppy kiss. This time it is Charles who pulls away, smiling and a little breathless.

"As much as I want to continue, this isn't the most opportune place," he says, laughing at Erik's crestfallen face. Right now Charles is too happy, and his trousers are a little too tight, but somewhere at the back of his lust-hazed mind he knows that the kids could come over any time, or that Hank might get more than an eyeful with the telescope. He places a hand on Erik's warm chest. "Why don't you come by later to my room and return the chess set to me?"

Erik's brilliant smile is his answer.

 

fourteen.


It takes an unusually long time for the kids to head to bed tonight. Although it is already past midnight, Charles can still hear music blasting from Sean's rooms, as well as footsteps up and down the corridor outside and voices discussing whether to get a snack. Normally he wouldn't blame the children – they're still wired from their picnic on the roof earlier – but he can't help feeling antsy, waiting for Erik to come to his room. Lounging on the bed, Charles lets his hand drift to his lips, touching them in wonder as he remembers the kiss. The kisses, if he wants to be specific. And when it comes to Erik, Charles definitely wants to be.

Erik. Erik is coming soon, coming to his bed. The thought of Erik between his sheets, warm and rumpled, sliding a hand up Charles's thigh...Charles sighs, running a hand through his hair. Just a while more to go until the kids will eventually go to bed. Maybe a shower would be good.

He makes it quick as he doesn't want to miss Erik's knock, and he pulls on a bathrobe as he emerges from his en-suite bathroom, towelling his hair dry. Thankfully, it isn't long before the music from Sean's room finally tapers off, and Charles can hear calls of 'Good night!' and doors slamming shut. Finally.

Charles is rummaging in his chest of drawers for lube or condoms – and frowning at the severe lack of them - when he hears the low, urgent knock. His stomach somersaults in anticipation as he heads over to open the door, and Erik all but bulldozes his way in, muttering, "I thought those brats were never going to sleep," as he places the chessboard on their regular table. Now his gaze takes in Charles, starting at his bare feet and working his way up slowly, hovering for the briefest of moments over the knot of Charles's bathrobe as Erik smirks, yes, smirks, then finally meeting Charles's gaze, that smirk loosening into something else, something tender.

"Hello, Erik." Charles pads forward, closing the distance between Erik and himself until they're pressed together from chest to hip. "Thank you for returning my chess set."

"My pleasure." The low, dulcet baritone rumbles in Charles's ear; Erik is so close now, his fingers sliding up into Charles's damp hair and tangling with it. He seems to be taking his time to examine Charles's face, but it's obvious where his obsession lies. Erik is now staring at Charles's mouth, and Charles can hear Erik's sharp intake of breath as he licks his lips, or the low 'mmmh' rumbling in Erik's chest.

It feels like forever before Erik finally leans in, teasing Charles's mouth open for a slow, sinful kiss, and this time it's Charles's turn to moan at the wet slide of Erik's tongue into his mouth. He can't resist sucking on the tip of it, and he can feel the fastenings of his bathrobe being tugged at. He helps Erik eagerly, but his hands are slapped away as Erik breaks the kiss and growls, "Mine," sliding off the bathrobe in one swift motion.

It is as though this surprising show of possessiveness has suddenly lit a spark in Charles, and he has a microsecond to appreciate Erik's wide-eyed look of surprise before Charles practically yanks off the turtleneck, flinging it to some far corner of the room before hooking his fingers in the loops of Erik's jeans and dragging him in for a an obscenely filthy, messy kiss that leaves Erik looking a little dazed.

"Charles," he murmurs, recovering quickly enough to push Charles down onto the waiting bed, and Charles barely has enough time to scoot up and lie down on top of the sheets before Erik crawls on top of him, heavy and hot and sweaty, tipping Charles's head to the side so he can kiss his neck. Charles can't help moaning at the wet feeling of Erik's mouth latching onto his skin, and his legs are already spreading apart to accommodate Erik in between them.

"You're so easy for me," Erik murmurs against his neck, panting. "Begging for it--"

"Erik." It has been too long for Charles, and the weeks of foreplay have only served to hone his longing and rampant desire to a single fine point, a point that goes ErikErikErik in his mind and in the pulse between his legs. "Clothes," Charles commands, because he must have this man, and he is not going to make a fool of himself by coming from kissing alone.

The quick, easy grace with which Erik obeys him makes his stomach lurch a little, and he tries to distract himself with the numerous tattoos all over Erik's body. As Erik eagerly shucks his jeans and briefs, Charles runs a finger over the Celtic tattoo emblazoned over the right side of Erik's chest. Circling a nipple before sliding his finger to the center, he smiles when he can feel Erik's heart thundering in his chest. "Hurry up."

"Patience is a virtue," Erik reminds him, now naked, his erection bobbing against his stomach. Now he reclaims his rightful place between Charles's legs, and they both hiss as their cocks line up against each other, hot and pulsing. "Oh, good Christ--"

"Come on," Charles huffs, canting his hips upwards to rock with Erik just so, and the way Erik gasps is beautiful, a total loss of control. His pupils are already dilated, ringed with a tiniest circle of green, and Charles thinks, I did that, I'm doing that, I'm making him crazy and he bites his lip, grabbing that fantastic arse and rubbing their cocks together, already wanting Erik inside him but they have no lube and condoms, and even if Erik does, at this point he's not willing to let Erik go so he can fetch them. His teeth scrape against Erik's shoulder, leaving a little tattoo of his own and feeling a strange little thrill about it.

"Wait, wait--" Erik is saying, and he's now licking his palm, and Charles immediately knows what he's intending to do. He catches Erik's hand, then brings it to his mouth and sucks on his fingers, showing Erik exactly what he intends to do next time. Erik's low growl is gratifying, and so is the extra hard surge against Charles's hips, and Charles lets his fingers slip out of his mouth, pushing his hand down between their stomachs.

Even though Charles is already anticipating this, he still groans loudly when Erik's hand wraps messily around their cocks, but his moan is cut off as Erik leans down for one of the dirtiest kisses Charles has ever had, his hand still skilfully jerking them off. Charles is overwhelmed at the assault on his senses: Erik tongue-fucking his mouth, Erik's hand semi-wrapped around his erection, Erik's thick cock pulsing against his, Erik's sweaty skin plastered against his own, against his sheets, and Charles finally comes in slow, slow jerks, spilling into Erik's hand and lubricating his grip.

"Oh fuck, Charles--" Erik's moan sounds so low, so broken, and he watches Charles with half-hooded eyes as he continues to stroke both of them, his hand slick with Charles's come, and when he tumbles off the edge, Charles watches with delight as the man bares his teeth, eyes squeezed shut, then Erik is tumbling down into his arms, spent and utterly sated, and Charles is there to catch him.

***

When Charles opens his eyes it is already morning, but still early yet, judging from the grey dawn light filtering in through the windows. The arm draped over him is a foreign sensation, but his lips curl up into a smile when he remembers the previous night, and is bloody glad it is not a dream at all. He turns over, and sure enough, Erik is snoring beside him, his lashes so long that they almost touch his cheek, his hair mussed and sleep-rumpled, his mouth slack. Charles can't quite believe all that has happened, and he reaches out to brush some of that dark blonde hair back.

Erik stirs a little under his touch, then his snoring resumes. Charles grins to himself in the morning light, then tenses a little as he hears footsteps past his door, then the main door opening and shutting. Most likely Hank, going for his morning run. Charles yawns before letting himself nod off again, still nestled under Erik's arm.

When he awakes again he is alone, but he can hear doors opening, the kids fighting over who got to use the biggest bathroom. The sheets are still warm from Erik's residual body heat, and Charles lets his hand drift over the spot again and again. Finally he sits up in bed, stretching as his ears pick up the sound of running water in his en-suite bathroom, complete with low humming.

Erik comes out a few minutes later, fully-dressed and smiling at Charles. "Are you always this lazy?"

"Mmmpf." Charles rubs his eyes, then blinks. "Have you seen my robe?"

Erik bends down and picks it up from the floor. His smile turns sly. "If you want it, come and get it."

"Silly fool." Charles slides out of bed and walks over, trying not to feel self-conscious as Erik openly ogles him. The regret in Erik's eyes is amusing as Charles pulls on his robe. "Are you going down first?"

Erik nods. "I thought that would be best, so that the kids--"

"I quite agree." One last kiss, then Charles pushes Erik towards the door. "I'll be right down."

"Are you taking a shower?" Erik's hushed voice is plaintive as Charles gently toes him out, and now it's muffled through the door. "I can't watch?"

"Stop being a pervert!" Charles calls out, unable to stop smiling like an idiot.

***

Breakfast is a subdued affair, probably because the majority of the children are still sleep-deprived and a little cranky. The only two people in a spectacularly good mood are sitting at opposite ends of the table, and Charles is trying very hard to avoid Erik's frank gaze, because he doesn't trust himself not to launch himself across the table at a very smug Erik who is munching on his toast and reading the papers. You're fooling no one, my friend, Charles thinks, even though Erik can't hear him, despite the widening of his smirk.

The distraction is too much, so Charles turns away. "You all had better check your books and notes are in order," Charles tells the others. "Miss Frost will be here tomorrow."

"Already?" Alex groans, a huge contrast to the eager expression on Hank's face.

"We have to play catch-up, man," Darwin tells him. "We're already behind on a lot of things. Besides, she's just coming for a preliminary overview tomorrow, right Prof?"

"That's right," Charles says, buttering his toast. "I beg of you, please don't scare this poor woman off. She's good at what she does." Now he is licking the butter off his fingers, and he doesn't miss the way Erik inhales deeply.

"If she's nice, she won't have to worry, right guys?" Raven says, but Charles doesn't miss the familiar gleam of mischief in her eye, and he sighs.

Thankfully, the slow smile Erik is giving him across the table catches his eye, and Charles hides his own grin behind his coffee, replaying the images from last night over and over in his mind.

 

 

fifteen.


The first impression Charles gets when he spots Emma Frost getting daintily out of her car is how much she resembles her surname. Dressed from head to toe in gleaming white like a giant snowflake, she struts down the driveway in a cape and boots, causing both Charles and Erik to raise their eyebrows. "I didn't know Disney On Ice was in town," Erik mutters, at which Charles elbows him and tries not to laugh while Erik rolls his wheelbarrow away. As she approaches, she is quite pretty up close - not that Charles likes his women heavily made-up – and her perfectly coiffed blonde hair gleams in the sun. "Mr Xavier?" She holds out a hand, smiling broadly.

"Thank you for coming, Miss Frost," Charles says politely, noting the obscenely large diamond perched on her engagement ring. For a moment he begins to worry whether this woman will be able to connect with the children, who have probably lived in houses that cost less than that one jewel. Thank goodness she is not actually living with them. "How was the drive?"

"Long and bumpy, but scenic." She looks around enquiringly. "Could you get the help to assist me with my books and files?"

Charles's eyebrows jump up. The help? Hoping that this woman doesn't think he has an entire mansion of servants at his disposal, Charles steps forward. "Let me help you with that myself, I'm sure it can't be that heavy."

"I'll do it." Erik has reappeared behind Charles, giving Emma an even look as he strides forward to her car and opens the boot, unloading the materials she had brought for the kids.

However, Emma seems impressed, following Charles's gaze and giving Erik an appreciative once-over. "Who is that?"

"Oh, my apologies. That is my, er, associate, Mr Erik Lehnsherr." Charles doesn't miss the way her eyes linger on Erik's backside as he bends over to pick up a box, and he ignores the possessive lurch in his stomach. "He helps me out around the house."

"I see." She takes off her gloves, looking up at the mansion. "I imagine you would need a lot of help, it's such a big and marvellous place."

They walk in through the main entrance, and Charles guides her to the designated study where the students will be taking their lessons. Alex and Darwin are already inside, chatting and spinning the giant antique globe in the middle of the study as though it were a basketball, while Sean lounges in a nearby chair with his headphones on, lost in the blaring music and texting furiously. They all sit up when Emma Frost enters, eyes wide, and Sean quickly yanks off his headphones. From the boys' wide-eyed reactions, Charles gets the general idea that they had not expected their tutor to look like she had just stepped out of the pages of Vanity Fair.

"Emma, this is Alex, Sean and Armando. Well, we all call him Darwin," Charles says by way of introduction. "Alex, where are Hank and Angel?"

"Huh?" Alex says distantly, still staring at Emma. After a nudge from Darwin, he remembers that Charles had asked him a question. "Uh, they're on their way."

Erik marches into the study with Emma's boxes, setting them down on the table, and she smiles prettily at him, her hand lingering on his bicep. "Thank you, sugar."

Charles admires the way Erik smoothly but politely shrugs off her hand, like a cat that doesn't want to be petted. "You're welcome," he says just as Hank and Angel enter the study.

"Ah, there you two are," Charles says in relief. "Miss Frost, this is Hank and Angel."

"Charmed," Emma says as she shakes their hands. "Anyway, shall we begin?"

As Charles takes his seat, he spots Erik's epic eye-roll behind her back just as he is leaving, and Charles has to lift a hand to hide his grin.

***

"So what did you think of Miss Emma Frost?"

Charles is smearing shaving cream on his face and rinsing the razor when he hears Erik's question coming from somewhere in the bedroom, and he shrugs, forgetting that Erik can't see him. "She's all right, I guess," he yells back. "Too early to tell, really. Give the good woman a month, then we'll see." He tilts his head and begins shaving the right side of his face, idly pondering the recent events in the household. If he forces himself to really sit down and think about it, there had been so many changes in the last few weeks, and the children have mostly adapted well. Mostly. Charles grins at himself in the mirror, hoping that Miss Frost is up to handling a houseful of rowdy teenage boys and an extremely unreceptive girl.

He rinses his razor under the tap again. To be truthful, the most startling changes for Charles had mostly involved Erik. The chain of events for them so far had been bizarre, almost comical: thinking Erik didn't speak English, saying some dreadfully embarrassing things to him, having him move in, getting to know the man, starting the whole nightly chess ritual, sharing that kiss on the rooftop, and then, well, everything else.

All in all, it has been a very odd but interesting month. And of course, Charles has absolutely no idea where he stands now. Scratch that; he does have a rather good idea where he stands, he just suspects Erik may not have come that far yet.

"Well, I don't like her." Now Erik has stepped into the bathroom, wearing nothing but a towel, and Charles allows himself to ogle that tattooed torso for a moment before resuming his shave.

"Erik, you don't like everybody."

"Really, Charles." There is now a faintly exasperated expression on Erik's face, similar to the one he would have after listening to Sean tell him fifteen lame excuses why he shouldn't have to mow the lawn. "You're far worse, you're inclined to think too highly of everyone--"

"And you think everyone's going to run off with the TV and loot the house," Charles counters cheerfully, his grin widening when Erik throws his hands up in defeat. His eyes can't help darting down to that very tempting towel, knotted right below Erik's navel, and Charles has to steel his grip on his razor before he accidentally slits his own throat. He lifts his chin and continues shaving, hoping that Erik won't notice that his cheeks have suddenly turned a bit pink.

No such luck. Erik is now stepping closer, standing right behind Charles, his nose brushing against Charles's freshly washed hair. "Mint shampoo?" Erik's voice is lower than it was seconds before.

"Yes." Charles is thankful that he still sounds relatively normal.

"Mmmm." Now Erik is nuzzling Charles's hair, his chest pressing against Charles's back. The stiff points of Erik's nipples are extremely distracting, and Charles prays he'll be able to finish shaving without them having to call for an ambulance. "You're doing it all wrong."

"Doing what wrong?" Charles asks a little breathlessly, because wasn't it normal for everyone to shave with shaky hands, especially when a really handsome man is pressed up against you?

"Here." Erik's voice is unexpectedly gentle as he takes the razor from Charles, then begins to cleanly and efficiently shave the rest of his chin, the other arm braced around Charles's chest to hold him still. Charles lets his gaze wander over the litany of tattoos, and the most eye-catching one is the Gallic cross emblazoned on Erik's right tricep. The urge to ask Erik questions about his past is there, but Charles tamps it down, for now.


"There we go." Erik is flicking the foam away from the razor, grinning in the mirror at Charles. "And now, your face."

This part is more difficult, because Erik has to lean closer, pressing him more against the sink, and Charles is now hyperaware of Erik's breath warming his neck. He can also feel Erik starting to get hard. In fact, the more he writhes under Erik's grasp, the more he can feel that hard line burning against the small of his back, a reminder of how Erik is taller than him, and he thinks that maybe Erik likes having Charles pinned under him like this, writhing and indirectly asking to be fucked.

Charles exhales deeply, his eyes jumping up to meet Erik's intense gaze in the mirror. Erik finishes shaving the very last strip of skin, then lets the razor drop into the sink with a clatter. He slowly begins to press kisses along Charles's neck, his eyes fixed on Charles all this while. Charles's breath hitches; he is a witness to his own skin reddening under Erik's eager ministrations, and his grip tightens on the sink's edges. The arm that had been bracing him now drops, and Erik is letting a hand slide under the waistband of Charles's penguin boxers, the ones that always cause Raven to shriek, 'You'll never get laid in those!' on laundry day, but Erik doesn't really seem to care what Charles is wearing, only how fast he can take it off.

They both groan when Erik's hand wraps around Charles's straining cock, and Charles watches himself shudder in the mirror when Erik's thumb brushes over the tip, smearing the head with pre-come.

"What's the matter?" Erik asks, the playful tone of his voice underlying the fact that he is fully aware that Charles is starting to breathe through his mouth, hips already thrusting up into Erik's hand. "You look...bothered about something."

"Erik--" Charles grits out his name through clenched teeth, completely losing his mind at the way Erik is stroking him so firmly and surely, just the way he likes. He lets out a soft 'aah!' as Erik nips at the crook of his neck, leaving a nice red mark there that he soothes with his soft, wet tongue. Charles stares at the wet patch of skin, shiny with Erik's saliva, and he thinks of Erik's tongue in other places. "Oh God, your mouth--"

This spurs Erik to turn Charles's head sideways and they manage a somewhat awkward, sloppy kiss. "Condoms," Erik grinds out, his strokes moving harder and faster now as he stares at Charles in the mirror. "Lubricant, do you have any?"

"No," Charles hisses, and Erik's groan of disappointment makes his chest vibrate against Charles's back.

"So this means I can't bend you over the sink and fuck you?" His breath is hot in Charles's ear, and Charles's reflection in the mirror is wild-eyed and frantic as those images assault his mind, and his cheeks are flushed and he is panting and his eyes are such a dark blue that he almost looks possessed.

"Improvise," Charles demands, biting his lip when he feels Erik rutting against him, their skin separated only by thin fabric. God, feels so good, Erik, need you inside me--

Then there is only cool air as Erik's hands and body and mouth disappear, but only for a fraction of a second as Erik spins Charles around, but Charles beats him to it, quickly pulling off the towel before sinking to his knees, barely aware of Erik's hum of approval or the wonderfully soothing effect of Erik stroking his hair.

"Mein Liebling..." Erik's eyes are half-hooded as he stares down at Charles on his knees, and his hips are already surging forward, nudging Charles's lips with the moist tip of his erection. Charles is only too happy to take the head into his mouth, sucking gently as Erik groans above him, his hands tightening in Charles's hair. "Oh, fuck--"

Charles's only response is to let his mouth slide down as far as he can while his hand wraps around the base of Erik's cock. Although they are about the same length, Erik is a little thicker than him, and Charles only just realises he has his mouth on the most intimate part of Erik's body. This makes him suck a little harder and faster, causing Erik's broken moan. "Charles, God, your mouth!" His hips are jerking forward wildly, his hands pulling on Charles's hair just on the right side of painful but pleasurable, and Charles is completely caught by surprise by the warm, salty burst in his mouth as Erik cries out his name, mixed with an intelligible mix of German and gibberish that could have meant everything and nothing.

Charles barely has time to spit in the sink before Erik is yanking him into the bedroom, and the one word he does understand is 'payback' which makes him smile far too broadly.

sixteen.

"Charles." The look of complete astonishment on Moira's face piques his interest, and he looks up as she joins him at his desk. "I have a question for you."

"What is it?"

Moira looks around furtively, not that it is necessary as the kids are having their second lesson with Emma while Charles fills in the weekly status reports of the children for Moira. Satisfied, she leans in to ask in a half-whisper, "Why is Erik being so nice to me?"

Charles stares at her, his eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?" He does have an idea of what she means, but he wants to hear her say it.

Moira makes a vague gesture in the direction of the kitchen. "I was bringing out iced tea for the kids earlier, and I bumped into Erik. Before I could flee, he smiled at me - a real smile, Charles, not like he wants to gobble me up - and he says hi and that he'll help me. I was so amazed that I almost spilled the whole thing down his shirt. And he was still smiling."

"Oh Moira, you must be exaggerating." Charles can't help grinning as he flips through the folder haphazardly. "It just takes a while for Erik to warm up to people, that's all."

However, Moira definitely knows him too well to fall for that, and she's now pursing her lips, crossing her arms as she studies him intently, fighting a smile. "Oh, I don't think that's it."

"No idea what you're talking about," Charles says airily as he sets the folder aside, his smile even wider.

Moira's face suddenly erupts in a volcano of glee. "When? When?" she urges, sinking her fingers into Charles's arm.

"A gentleman never tells, MacTaggert."He smirks at her. "So what's this I hear about you and Levine?"

Her eye roll is surprisingly similar to Erik's. "Changing the subject? Very subtle, Charles."

"You're doing the same thing," he says, deadpan. "So, Levine?'

The exasperation lined around her eyes and mouth is obvious. "He's a douche," she says shortly.

Charles reaches out and squeezes her hand. "Don't worry, you'll find someone more...suitable," he says, not wanting to use the word 'douche' even if Levine really is kind of one.

"What's a girl to do?" Moira's smile is now this side of cheeky. "We can't all hire handsome German handymen to fall in love with."

"Moira!" Charles can't help the awkward laugh, his face so heated that he feels like he's going to spontaneously combust. "It's nothing like that--"

"If it's not love, then what is it?"

Charles lets out a long-suffering sigh. He had expected to be cornered by Raven like this, but he had forgotten to take Moira into account as well. "Let's not rush into things, shall we? This is very...new." And to his surprise, he feels his shoulders loosen with relief at the sensation of finally getting to articulate all the confusion that has been swirling around recently in his head. "I honestly don't know. It's too early to tell yet."

Thankfully Moira has stopped clawing his arm, but the knowing look she shoots him is equally discomforting. "Charles, I know you, and I know you're not the sort to wade into a pool, you'll dive right in."

"Come now, Moira--"

"Let me see, what was the name of that girl, the exotic-looking one?" Moira looks thoughtful. "Lilly? Lillian?"

"It's not the same thing," Charles says patiently.

"No." Moira's smile now looks a little triumphant. "No, it's not. This is different." Now she is looking over Charles's shoulder, beaming broadly. "Hi, Erik!"

Charles turns to watch Erik stride into the study with a measuring tape in hand. "Hello, Moira, Charles. Don't let me interrupt."Now his gaze falls on Charles, and he flashes a quick, secret little smile at Charles before turning away to measure the cabinets. Charles is only aware of the stupid grin on his face when he sees Moira shaking her head at him, mouthing 'So different!'

And maybe it is.

***

The children seem to be slow in responding to Emma Frost, not that Charles is surprised. He's beginning to wonder if it had been a bad decision to hire her, but at least she gets along with Hank, and Alex's work has already started to improve in as little as a week. For all her glamour and refinement, she does teach in a very straightforward way that Charles respects. "You can't expect everyone to be like you, Charles," Raven says to him one day, when he is airing his concerns to her over tea. "Not everyone can charm the pants off a sour old vicar."

Charles rolls his eyes at that old story. "I told you, I was just being nice to the man, everyone teased him for his lisp."

"Sure," Raven says with a smirk. "Coth everyone juth wanth to be friendth."

"What are we talking about?" Moira asks as she plops down at the table with the stack of folders. Her visits are becoming more and more frequent, thanks to Angel's steady improvement. "Charles being a slag?"

"That we already know," Raven says before Charles can protest over his Earl Grey. "We were actually discussing the elusive Miss Frost."

Moira cocks her head a little at Charles. "You know, I wanted to tell you this earlier but I forgot. Don't you find Emma rather familiar?"

Charles considers this for a while. "Not really, no."

"Where did you find her from?" Raven asks.

"Burt recommended her to me."

Moira is still deep in thought, frowning. "I'm very sure I've seen her before somewhere."

Raven cups her hands around her mug of chai. "Maybe she looks like some famous actress."

"No, that's not it. I think I might have seen her at some office function." Suddenly, Moira's eyes widen with recognition. "Oh, I know who she is! Remember that guy who took over Stryker as head of the department? Um, Shane? Shaw?"

Charles frowns a little. "Was this before I left?"

"Just before." Moira is beaming now. "That's where I remember her! I saw her with this Shaw guy at some fundraiser."

Suddenly it clicks for Charles, and he has a vague memory of meeting some smooth, rather obnoxious prat who had seemed to act like everyone's best friend, but underneath that howdy-folks genial appearance, Charles had sensed something rather disturbing about the man, and stayed far away from him. "Ohhh right, Sebastian Shaw. I remember he was some big-shot or something in the New York Foundling, right?"

"At least he was, until he took over Stryker," Moira reminds him glumly. "What are the odds that she's engaged to my big boss?"

"Uncanny," Charles says, ignoring the curl of uneasiness in his stomach.

"You have nothing to worry about." Raven's smile is sweet as she pats his hand, and for a second, he's tempted to believe her.