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Summer Follies

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There are both advantages and disadvantages to the start of summer. The interns are gone, for one, but, of course, the summer interns will be starting in a week. The days are longer, but they're hotter. Charles begins to wear short sleeves and sweats very prettily, but he's also exhausted and dehydrated by the time he gets home from work every evening, good for very little aside from slumping in front of the air conditioner.

Summer's never truly begun, however, until Erik's annual family sick leave.

"Family sick leave?" Charles asks over dinner, sushi eaten straight out of the carton, while lying on the floor in front of the air conditioner. "I mean this with the utmost sensitivity, Erik, but you don't actually have any family."

"True," Erik says. "But, there is a work obligation that I do my best to avoid by claiming various relatives have died."

Charles laughs, full and incredulous.

"How long have you done this?" he asks, pushing himself up on his elbows.

"How long have I worked for the firm?" Erik asks, counting backwards. "Six years? So, five years."

"Oh, Erik," Charles says, but his disapproval is enveloped by laughter.

"I went one year," Erik says. "It was all I needed to see to know I never wanted to experience it again."

"What is it?" Charles asks. "Some sort of training or review?"

"Something like that," Erik says, and effectively ends the conversation by leaning over and licking a smudge of soy sauce off the corner of Charles' mouth.

***

The email goes out the next Monday. Azazel sees it first.

"Now would be a good time to invent another great aunt," he says, apropos of nothing when Erik comes in with their morning coffee.

"That time already?" Erik asks. "Brilliant. I'll come up with something."

"I would think you would enjoy the chance to show off your arm candy," Azazel says.

Erik rolls his eyes. "I have no desire to torture Charles by forcing him to mingle with those idiots," he says. "I'm perfectly aware that I have the most desirable spouse of out anyone in this department. I don't need to spend eight hours in the sun in a park on a Saturday to prove it."

Azazel shrugs. "You know," he says, "most people here look forward to the company picnic."

"I'm not most people," Erik says, sitting at his desk, but not missing the skeptical look Azazel shoots him behind his back.

***

Charles ruins it.

Of course he does.

It's in his usual optimistic, charming way, so Erik can hardly blame him. It doesn't stop him from trying, though.

It's Tuesday evening. The day's been fraught with thunderstorms and cloudy skies, the temperature dropping to a cool sixty-five degrees. Charles is in high spirits (and, tragically, a cardigan) after a day spent reading stories and leading crafts instead of running around outside, and easily agrees to dinner out, going so far as to let Erik choose their destination.

So, really, maybe it's not entirely Charles' fault after all, since Erik should know better than to choose the cosy Italian restaurant two blocks from his office.

"Lehnsherr!" he hears before they've even sat down. Charles looks at Erik questioningly.

My boss, Erik tells him, and he can't even keep the frustration out of his mental voice, so he smiles weakly and waves at the man instead of acknowledging him aloud.

"What a surprise! Wonderful to see you--Lehnsherr works so quickly and quietly we hardly ever cross paths, even in the same building," The second half of the sentence is directed at Charles, who smiles broadly.

"Well, he is brilliant," Charles says, and gives Erik a look so affectionate and proud he's torn between preening and hiding under the table from embarrassment.

"Charles, this is Phillip Coulson Sr. His son is my direct supervisor," he mutters instead, gesturing towards his boss and not meeting the gaze of either of them. "Mr. Coulson, this is Charles Xavier."

"It's a pleasure!" Charles says. "I believe you're the first person that Erik works with that I've ever met!"

"How bout that," Erik murmurs.

Be kind, Charles chastises.

You don't have to work with the man every day, Erik shoots back.

"Well, then I'm sure you're looking forward to the company picnic," Coulson says, and it's all Erik can do to keep from burying his head in his hands.

Tell them you're sorry but we have an urgent family matter to attend to that day! he thinks wildly.

Charles glares at him and says, "Company picnic? I'm afraid Erik hasn't told me about that yet, but it sounds marvelous."

This is your family leave? Charles thinks. He sounds crosser than his grin would normally lead Erik to believe.

"A week from Saturday," Coulson says. "It's funny, now that I think about it, I don't know that Erik was there last year."

"Family emergency," Erik mutters. Coulson claps him on the shoulder.

"Well, luckily there's none of that this year, eh?" He grins. Erik simpers. "I'll leave you boys to your dinner. I'll see you tomorrow, Lehnsherr. And I look forward to seeing you a week from Saturday, Mr. Xavier."

"I look forward to it as well," Charles says. "Have a pleasant evening!"

They take their seats wordlessly.

Really, Erik, it's just childish, Charles thinks as he spreads his napkin across his lap. A picnic! It sounds lovely and shame on you for lying to get out of it all these years.

It's torture, Erik thinks back. Don't you understand? I'm trying to save you from the tedium of spending an entire day outdoors with the imbeciles I work with. I'm doing it for you, darling. Erik only pulls out the endearments when he means business.

"I very much doubt that," Charles says out loud. He looks vaguely bemused and Erik barely restrains himself from banging his head on the table. "Oh, come now, love, it's a picnic. How bad can it really be?"

It's easy for Charles to think that way. The closest thing he's ever had to a company picnic was a night out with Moira after the daycare's spring showcase. The only things the three of them know about that night come from the photos that showed up on Moira's camera the next morning. She has them in a locked Facebook gallery called "Bad Decision Bears" and no matter how many times Erik hacks in to delete them, they always show up again hours later. He doesn't think evidence of things like that should be made public. For one thing, he looks terrible in fuchsia.

"Those words are dooming us," Erik grumbles, opening his menu.

"Don't be so dramatic," Charles says, and Erik makes a note of it in his head so that when things inevitably go pear-shaped a week from Saturday, he can remember this moment and say 'I told you so.'

***

Erik spends a week and a half praying for monsoons, sudden illnesses, and alien abduction. The sunny, accident-free morning that we wakes to on the day of the company picnic reminds him again why he doesn't actually believe in god.

"Beautiful weather!" Charles says brightly as he peers through the blinds.

"I know," Erik groans. "It's awful."

Charles doesn't rise to the bait, cheerfully leaving the bedroom to put on the coffee. Erik has no choice but to drag himself from bed to follow. There's no way he can face this day without at least a full put of coffee and a solid breakfast.

***

Erik's not opposed to sunshine, cloudless skies, singing birds, and lush, green parks on principle, but as Charles drags him under the sunshine and the skies, past the birds and through the park, he curses all of them. The day is already awful. Charles is wearing a blue t-shirt the exact color of his eyes with three buttons at the collar that serve no other purpose than to tease Erik with a view of the delicious space between Charles' clavicles. It's an entirely unfair tease, forcing Erik to interact with his co-workers while those collarbones are on display and untouchable.

"You're being dramatic again," Charles says. He has a hand tucked into the crook of Erik's elbow as they cross the park, past the baseball diamond and the playground and back around to the gazebo and picnic area. The place is already hopping, filled with dozens of poor souls wearing matching t-shirts and their families. "Oh, where do you get your t-shirt?" Charles asks.

"I don't," Erik says, but before he can roll out another round of outright begging to try and convince Charles to turn around, a woman Erik vaguely remembers from when he was hired six years ago (and, okay, from that time last year he made that intern cry), approaches him with a clipboard and an armful of t-shirts.

"Mr. Lehnsherr!" she says. Erik doesn't know her name. "I'm so glad you 're with us! And you brought a friend!"

Erik makes no move to introduce Charles.

"Charles Xavier," Charles finally says himself, offering the hand not folded into Erik's elbow to the woman.

"Lovely to meet you, Mr. Xavier," she says.

"Charles is fine," Charles says, sending Erik a mental fission of reprimand.

"Pam Nash," the woman says. "I'm the director of Human Resources. Mr. Lehnsherr, I've got a schedule for you and your t-shirt! If you'd just put that on, Mr. Coulson Jr is going to be giving a brief keynote in about fifteen minutes, right before the softball game."

"Great," Erik says, with no enthusiasm.

"Enjoy your day!" Nash says, and then she's darting off after some other unfortunate soul. Erik holds the t-shirt out in front of him, pinched between two fingers.

"Oh, put it on," Charles says, tugging on the hem of Erik's plain grey t-shirt. "You look good in white."

"There's a cartoon wrench on the front," Erik says flatly.

"Still!" Charles says, moving his hands to Erik's shoulders and leaning up on his toes to kiss him lightly. If she comes round again, she's going to make you do it. At least this way, you can pretend that you did it because I asked.

"I hate you," Erik says against Charles' lips. When he pulls back, he obligingly strips off his own t-shirt and puts on the ridiculous one provided by the company.

"You look wonderful," Charles assures him, but his sly smile implies that 'wonderful' actually means 'ridiculous.' "Now." He takes Erik's hand firmly. "Let's go meet your co-workers."

Charles drags him closer to the gazebo, seemingly oblivious to the wide eyes and whispers from the rest of his engineering department. Erik does his best to glare them into submission, daring them to comment on either his attendance or the way he's allowing Charles to cheerfully lead him through the crowd.

Azazel, of course, takes him up on the dare.

"I must admit, I'm shocked to see you here," he says, and Erik comes very close to flinching. He hadn't heard Azazel's approach, but there he is, wearing one of those ridiculous t-shirts and standing next to one of the idiots from marketing. Jared or something. "I thought for sure," Azazel continues, "that you'd find some last minute family emergency."

"I tried," Erik admits. "He wouldn't let me."

"And you did not crush up a few benedryl in his oatmeal?" Azazel lifts a skeptical eyebrow.

"Telepath," Erik says mournfully.

"Very funny," Charles says. He offers Azazel his hand. "You must be Azazel. I've heard so much about you! It's nice to finally meet you."

"I've heard much about you as well," Azazel says. "The whole department thanks you for change in Erik's temperament since you began dating."

"Very funny," Erik mutters.

"It has little to do with me, I assure you," Charles says, though they both know that's not true.

Jared or Julian or whatever his name is looks like he's about to speak, but closes his mouth, thinking better of it. Charles, however, suddenly looks scandalized and smacks Erik's arm.

"Erik!" he says. "You made an intern cry?" He catches himself and turns to Julian or Gustav. "I'm terribly sorry, I do try not to read others without their permission but you were practically shouting and--Erik, honestly. Making a young man cry."

"It was just a rumor we heard in marketing," Gustav or Jorge says.

"It was more than once," Azazel says. "Lehnsherr is the reason behind the yearly conflict management workshop."

"It was his own fault!" Erik insists. The situation is rapidly spiraling out of his control and Charles is nearly pouting at him. He can feel Charles flipping through his memories; he's not being very discreet about it. "If he couldn't handle a little constructive criticism, he shouldn't have been--"

Charles smacks him again, with the hand that's not pressed to his temple as he glares at Erik. "Constructive criticism? You railed at him in front of the entire department! Erik!"

"You're right," Jorge or Jacob murmurs to Azazel. "This is much more interesting than sitting with marketing."

Erik glares at him, and then digs down deep for his best quelling expression to turn on Charles. "It was years ago, Charles," he says. "Can we drop it? It was long before I met you." Well. For a subjective definition of "long."

"Yes," Azazel agrees, "he's much better now. We all thank you."

Charles, at least, looks placated. "Well," he says, "I'm glad to know I'm rubbing off on him, at least."

Jacob or Gregor mutters something under his breath about rubbing off and Erik's about to dare him to repeat it, when Charles says, "Honestly, darling, it's Janos. His name is Janos."

"His name's not Janos," Erik says dismissively, "Azazel's boyfriend's name is Janos."

"Exactly," Azazel says wryly.

Erik turns back to the pair of them, blinking.

"No, no," he says. "That can't be your boyfriend. He works in marketing. They're all vapid imbeciles."

Azazel, Charles, and--well, Janos, he supposes, stare at him mutely.

"Oh god," Charles finally says, "if this is what he's like now, I dare not imagine what he was like before we met."

"As I have said," Azazel says, "we all thank you for your influence."

"You're all very funny," Erik says. He tells himself it could be worse--at least it's Azazel hearing this, who probably won't respect him any less on Monday morning. It could very well have been one of the lesser peons.

"Perhaps we should sit down?" Azazel asks. "Somewhere as far away from the others as possible?" He gestures towards a copse of trees on the very fringes of the picnic area. It's isolated, but technically within earshot and sight of the gazebo.

Erik smiles for the first time and threads his arm through Charles'. "I knew there was a reason I tolerated you, Kozlov," he says, and leads the way, glaring at anyone who so much as glances in his direction as he does so.

***

Coulson's speech is predictably bland, though it's better than the speech his father would have given and they're able to ignore most of it from their hideout, sitting on Janos' picnic blanket and pretending to pay attention to the remarks about company unity. They manage to avoid the softball game as well, sharing a box of doughnut holes liberated from the breakfast spread by the picnic tables as Charles relates daycare stories, which are much more interesting than engineering stories. As it so happens, Janos has a niece who's displaying early indications of developing powers, and Charles is all too eager to expound extensively on the benefits of all-mutant early childhood education.

"It's not that mutants don't also need the schooling from traditional pre-school," he says, "it's just that, if they have abilities that manifest in infancy, they need so much more. Teaching young mutants to accept and cultivate their powers at a young age aids massively in their self-esteem and development as they grow older. Think of what your own lives would have been like if you had spent your formative years surrounded by other mutants, accepting without question that your powers are a part of you that needed nurturing and honing as much as your language skills or motor skills. Most mutants of our generation weren't taught about their powers until they were shoved into Extra Ability Classes in grade school, as we all know how flawed the EAC program is."

Erik's heard this speech before, but he never tires of it. When Charles speaks about mutant education, something about him lights up. His eyes are brighter, his smile is larger, he's so obviously passionate that it sends shivers down Erik's spine. It makes him want to press Charles down and kiss him stupid for reasons he can't entirely articulate.

Erik must be broadcasting, because Charles blushes and glances haltingly at Erik before ducking his head to hide his smile as he continues to talk, handing Janos a business card and encouraging him to have his sister give Charles and Moira a call.

With a fond look at Charles, Erik pushes himself to his feet. The softball game is well underway and those not playing or watching seem to be keeping to themselves. It's as good a time as any to nip over to the breakfast spread and steal a jug of orange juice before it's cleared to make way for lunch.

"I'm going to get us some juice," he says.

"I'll come with you," Charles says, climbing to his feet. Erik's rather relieved--he didn't relish the idea of Charles sitting around trading stories with Azazel behind his back. It's inevitable, of course--he can't keep Charles by his side all day, and the picnic's barely started--but he'd like to put it off as long as possible.

"Wonderful," Erik says, and he smiles just a little as they head towards the picnic area.

It's easy enough to acquire a jug of juice, but cups are another story. Erik is rooting around in the boxes under the table looking for some when he hears an irritatingly familiar voice.

"Charles Xavier! What on earth are you doing here?"

It takes him a minute to shake off the horror at hearing the voice and parse the fact that it's not directed at him, that the question is for Charles and of course Charles knows Emma fucking Frost. They're both old money telepaths. Jesus, how had he never put the pieces together before?

"Emma! Oh, it's been an age! How extraordinary to see you here! Do you have ties to Coulson Engineering?"

Erik finds some cups and stands up, watching critically as Charles embraces Emma Frost tightly. She's wearing a white cotton sundress and has large, white-framed sunglasses perched on the top of her head.

"We've contracted them to work on several projects over the years," Emma says. "They do good work. And you? Are you finally back in the game?"

Charles ruefully shakes his head. "No, no, I'm afraid not," Charles says. "My boyfriend is an engineer." He glances around, and before Erik can (escape) react, both Charles and Emma are staring at him. Charles is beaming and Emma looks bemused.

"We've met," Emma says, and Erik has no choice but to approach, really, moving to stand at Charles' elbow.

"Frost," Erik greets her warily.

"Lehnsherr," Emma says. She turns her attention back to Charles. "Really? I thought better of you, Charles."

"Erik's brilliant," Charles says.

"Well, yes," Emma says. "There's a reason I always demand that he heads my projects. But, honey, he's so dour."

"Thank you," Erik snaps. Charles gives him a crooked smile and takes his hand.

"Perhaps," he allows, "but underneath that he's really quite soft."

Erik scowls.

"How do you two know each other anyway?" he asks, though he has his suspicions.

"Our families moved in the same circles," Charles says. "We spent a lot of our childhood together, went to school together...."

"Mm," Emma says. "We were the only two telepaths in our very posh grade school's EAC. Charles is a bit of a do-gooder, but we managed to get on anyway. What are you up to now, sugar? I've missed you terribly. No one's heard from you in ages, not since The Incident. Which, really, Charles, it was all very gauche, don't you think? I mean, I understand it was deserved, but it was social suicide all the same."

Erik frowns. 'What Incident?' is on the tip of his tongue, but Charles won't look at him. Charles, for all that he's open and honest and willing to talk about almost anything, is very stingy with more than the vaguest generalities about his past. Erik knows he comes from old money, that his trust fund alone could support both of them until old age with money to spare. He knows Charles' father died when he was a young child and that he sees his mother once a year on Christmas for as brief a time as he can manage, but that's all. He hadn't asked anything further and Charles has never volunteered the information. It's moot, really.

That doesn't mean Erik's not curious.

He keeps his mouth shut, though, while Charles tells Emma about the daycare and launches into his spiel about mutant early childhood education. The speech is second nature, so Erik doesn't feel too guilty sending the vaguest questioning tap he can manage out to Charles' mind.

He gets shut down so hard that he physically flinches away.

It takes Charles a second to realize what's happened, at which point he stops talking and blushes bright pink, grabbing Erik's hand with both of his own.

"Oh, oh, love, I'm sorry," he says. Erik rolls his shoulders to shake off the last of the shock. In all the time he's been with Charles, he's never been blocked out like that. "I didn't mean to do that, certainly not that abruptly, I just didn't want to--I don't want to talk about it, really, not today. I'm so, so sorry."

Erik rolls his shoulders again, shaking his head. "No," he says. "No, it's fine. I shouldn't have been snooping." Charles doesn't look convinced, so Erik squeezes his hands. He's not lying--he really shouldn't have been snooping. He's not upset, he's just... surprised.

"You boys obviously need to talk," Emma says. "And I need to go have a word with Coulson. Charles, is was absolutely delightful to see you and we must catch up. Shall I give you a ring the next time I'm up from the city?"

"Please do," Charles says, obviously trying to reign in his composure. "It was lovely seeing you, Emma. I've missed you too. It will be good to get a chance to talk."

Emma kisses Charles' cheek and then turns and sashays towards where Coulson is watching the softball game. Charles lets a long breath out through his teeth.

"I'm sorry," he says again, more quietly this time, hesitantly putting his arms around Erik. "I really didn't mean to hurt you."

"I wasn't hurt," Erik assures him, rubbing his back. "Just confused. We can talk about it at home."

"Okay," Charles says. He gives Erik a brief kiss, suffused with guilt. "Did you get the juice?"

Erik picks it up off the ground and holds it out.

"Good," Charles says. "Azazel and Janos are probably wondering where we are."

He takes the jug from Erik with one hand and takes Erik's hand with the other, pulling them back towards the picnic.

Erik follows. He knows when to leave well enough alone.

Sort of.

***

They manage to successfully evade Pam Nash and her clipboard of participation opportunities for most of the morning, though they have to sit through another of Coulson's speeches right before lunch is served. Just as he's finishing up, Nash zeros in on them, so Erik, Azazel, and Janos leave Charles with the blanket and scatter into the crowd already lining up for food.

I'll get you something, Erik promises Charles, as Azazel teleports to who knows where and Janos darts into the crowd. Erik is standing behind a large family squabbling about vegetarian options and Pam walks right by him. He sighs with relief.

All three of you should really be embracing the cooperative spirit of a company picnic, Erik, Charles thinks.

Hey, before today I didn't even know Janos' name. I'm already growing as a person, Erik thinks back.

He's able to join the line to the picnic tables without crossing paths with Pam Nash and congratulates himself on superior evasive maneuvers. It's then that he realizes that he's standing behind Emma Frost, who has lowered her sunglasses and put on a large, floppy white hat.

"We're standing under an awning," Erik says. She doesn't startle--she is a telepath after all--but she does turn to him and lower the sunglasses.

"I'm not protecting my complexion," she says. "I'm hiding from that infernal Nash woman. She keeps trying to get me to participate in her games. She seems to think that having a representative from the firm's biggest client participating will show--something, I suppose. I honestly stopped listening at that point and sent a mental nudge that she needed to be elsewhere."

Erik snorts. "I hate to be the one to point this out, but you're the only person here in a designer white dress and a giant white hat," he says. "You're not exactly inconspicuous."

"Well," she says, "I'm also shielding myself from her, but you can't be too careful."

"That's a good idea," Erik muses. "I wonder if I can talk Charles into doing that for us."

"Oh, honey, Charles thinks he's too much of a goody two-shoes," she says. "Of course, you have more to offer as a bribe than I do." She looks him up and down and smirks. "You're very much his type."

Erik rolls his eyes and is about to make a joke when he pauses. Emma has known Charles a long time and apparently knows about whatever this Incident is in Charles' past.

"So," he says, as they creep towards the tables of food, "you and Charles grew up together?"

"That's what we said," she says. She sounds bored, but it's a sort of cultivated boredness that he recognizes. She's more interested than she wants to appear.

"What changed?" he asks. "What happened?"

"That's not my story to tell, sugar," she says, smirking. "If you want to know, you should ask Charles."

"Charles doesn't like to talk about his past," Erik says.

"Then maybe you should leave it alone," Emma says. Erik raises his eyebrows. "You're not going to leave it alone. Well. I still say it's up to Charles to tell you, but I will say this--Charles didn't go to his stepfather's funeral."

If anything, that's even more cryptic, but before he can say as much, Emma is gliding past half the line to where Coulson is standing.

"Phil!" she says. "What a wonderful speech!"

The traitor.

Erik fills two plates with generic picnic food, hot dogs and hamburgers and various salads, avoiding anything with mayonnaise because he doesn't trust it's been properly refrigerated. When he emerges from the awning to return to the picnic blanket, he spots Pam Nash at the very end of the line for food. That will keep her occupied for a while.

When he returns to the blanket, Azazel and Janos are already there. He hands Charles one plate of food and sits with the other.

"Thank you, my dear," Charles says. He opens his mouth to say something else and then frowns.

"Something wrong?" Erik asks. "I tried to avoid things that looked like they weren't up to health code."

"No," Charles says. "No, it's fine. Thank you."

"We may have to up our game in the afternoon," Azazel says. "I hear they are hosting a scavenger hunt. Mandatory participation."

"How does any of this have anything to do with company unity?" Erik asks.

"Theoretically, it encourages teamwork," Janos says. Erik glares at him.

"It was rhetorical."

"Well," Azazel says. "There's nothing saying we can't form our own team."

There's a reason Azazel is Erik's second in command.

***

The key is to be so enthusiastic that Nash is taken by surprise. When she next sets over towards them, resolutely, they meet her with a smile.

"We've already created our team for the scavenger hunt," Janos says. She seems taken aback.

"Oh--oh! How wonderful!" She pauses, as if she's not sure what to say now that she doesn't have to badger them into it. "Um. Here's the list of items." She hands a sheaf of papers to Azazel. "Now, remember, you can't start until Mr. Coulson sounds the airhorn. The first group to bring all twenty-five items back to the stage is the winner!"

Erik remembers he's supposed to look enthusiastic about this and forces a smile. His smile makes Nash blanch.

That smile is the reason Jean calls you a shark, Charles informs him mildly. It really just makes Erik's smile grow wider.

"And... have fun!" Nash says, backing away and shifting awkwardly. She bolts as soon as she deems it socially acceptable.

"That is a fairly scary smile, Lehnsherr," Azazel says once she's gone. He spares a glance down at the papers in his hand. "Am I correct in assuming that we will all be putting aside our usual overachieving tendencies in order to avoid actually participating in this farce?"

"Yes," Janos and Erik say as one.

"It might be--" Charles starts to say, but one look from Erik and he holds up both his hands. "I'm overruled, clearly," he says ruefully. There's an odd edge to his voice, like he's irritated or disappointed and Erik rolls his eyes. Of course Charles would be annoyed by not playing by the rules.

It's not that, Charles thinks without looking at him. Before Erik can ask, he says out loud, "We'll do things your way. But, you know, if we stay here, they'll know we're not participating."

"Then we'll go somewhere else," Erik says.

"This brings back fond memories of avoiding phys ed," Janos says. "As it happens, I was an expert at that."

"I was as well," Charles says, smirking a little, and Erik's a bit surprised, to be honest, but then he thinks about Charles growing up with Emma Frost and it makes a little more sense. "I was two years ahead of my peers. Playing American football with twenty boys two years my senior was really not my idea of a good time. It was self-preservation."

"I didn't say anything!" Erik says.

"You thought it very loudly," Charles says. Erik shrugs. He can't deny that.

It's another fifteen minutes before Coulson takes the stage again to start off the scavenger hunt. The airhorn he blows is met with raucous applause and cheers and Erik, not for the first time, wonders what's fundamentally wrong with all of his coworkers and how long he can go until it starts to infect him as well.

The four of them get to their feet casually, stretching out the kinks in their backs and brushing their pants clean. Janos and Azazel fold the blanket leisurely and tuck it against a tree to retrieve later.

"Shall we?" Erik says, gesturing towards a path through the trees. Charles takes his arm and they lead the others away from the picnic area and further into the park.

***

The trees provide a nice measure of shade and much needed quiet. There's a creek running parallel to the path and although Erik considers himself an indoorsman by nature (he's an engineer), there's something soothing about their secluded walk down the dirt path.

Mostly. Charles is a little quiet, a little stiff, and Erik can't quite put his finger on why. His questions, both mental and verbal, have been vaguely dismissed. Charles isn't acting cold, exactly, just...exasperated. Erik blames the picnic, which they never should have come to in the first place. He'll use this as an excuse for them to bow out next year.

"What's that?" Azazel asks suddenly. "Another team? A bird?"

Erik listens. At first he thinks Azazel's right and it's a bird call of some sort, though it sounds slightly familiar. Then Charles freezes. "Oh dear," he says. He looks apologetic, and before Erik can question him any further, the noise gets closer and Erik recognizes it for what it is.

"You just can't escape them, can you?" he asks Charles. He's honestly shocked. It's like children--Summers children, in particular--have some sort of Charles-centered radar.

"I'm sorry, love," Charles says, and kneels down just in time to catch Alex Summers, who's running out from between the trees, his father close on his heels.

"Don't get too close to the water Alex--oh! Charles!" Christopher Summers jogs up to where Erik, Charles, Azazel, and Janos have stopped. "What a surprise!"

"Lovely to see you, Christopher," Charles says.

"Mr. Charles!" Alex shouts happily, hanging from Charles' neck. He looks over Charles' shoulder and then adds, just as happily, "Mr. Lehnsherr!" and scrambles to get down so he can attack Erik as well.

Charles lets him. Charles is an enabler.

"Hello, Alex," Erik says with a sigh. He should count his blessings. At least this is happening in front of Azazel and not one of his underlings. Not that he trusts Janos to keep his mouth shut. Everyone knows that the Marketing department has the biggest gossips. By Monday, everyone will know about Erik's part time job as a human jungle gym. It will completely destroy his cred.

"Erik's company is having its corporate picnic today," Charles explains. "We're ah, on a scavenger hunt."

"Working pretty hard, I see," Summers says, smirking. "There's a nice park on the other side of these trees. Katherine and I thought we'd take the kids out. We've got Jean for the day--"

As if on cue, Erik catches a flash of red hair to his left and hears, "Mr. Charles! Mr. Charles! Mr. Charles! I feel Mr. Charles!"

"Jean's a telepath," Erik explains to Azazel and Janos, who look like Christmas and their birthdays have come early. Alex has settled down and is looking curiously over Erik's shoulder.

"Tail?" he asks.

"Alex, be polite, please," Summers says. To Azazel, he adds, "I'm sorry, he's... precocious. And despite my wife and I trying constantly to instill proper manners, he remains a little terror."

"It's fine," Azazel says, and he raises his tail higher for Alex to see. "Hello, little one. My name is Azazel."

"Alex!" Alex says, pointing at himself, and Erik places him back on the ground. He immediately attempts to scale Azazel's legs.

"Alex!' Summers chastises. "I'm so sorry, he's--"

"It is fine, really," Azazel says, and lifts Alex easily from the ground, just as Jean bursts through the trees with Alex's older brother on her heels.

"Mr. Charles!" she exclaims. "I heard you, Mr. Charles! And Mr. Lehnsherr!"

"Hello," Alex's brother, Scott, says politely. Erik's only met Scott twice, but he's more different from his brother than Erik would have thought possible. While Alex resembles a loud, plasma shooting monkey with his penchant for climbing everything in sight and causing mayhem wherever he goes, Scott is more severe and responsible than Erik would expect a five year old boy to be.

"Scott, Jean, it's wonderful to see you!" Charles says. He lifts Jean into a hug and then passes her to Erik so he can kneel down to hug Scott, who he claims he is now too big to be held.

"Hello, Jean," Erik says.

"Are you going to come play with us?" she asks. "Please? Please?"

"I'm sorry," Erik says, "But we're here with my, uh, friends--"

"Oh, we would love to, really," Janos says eagerly. "I would very much like to see you playing with a bunch of children, Lehnsherr." And if Erik isn't mistaken, he's already got his camera phone out. Ass.

"I would hate to impose," Erik says, glaring at him.

"No," Azazel says, "why not? It's better than actually participating in the scavenger hunt, no?"

And Charles, of course, is giving him the pleading puppy dog eyes that never fail to get Erik to agree with whatever he's scheming.

"Fine," Erik says with a sigh, and Jean cheers, kissing his cheek.

He absolutely doesn't blush.

***

On the other side of the path there's a nice, quiet playground. Katherine Summers is sitting at a picnic table with a baby carrier and various bags and toys. She waves at them when they emerge from the trees.

"Charles! Erik! What a surprise! When Jean said you were here, I thought she was playing," she says.

"No, it's really us," Charles says. He's holding Scott's hand. Jean, too, has abandoned them both for Azazel, clutching his hand as she peers behind him at his tail in rapt fascination.

"There was a boy at daycare with a tail!" she tells him. "He moved to Florida. That's where Mickey Mouse lives!"

"Tail," Alex agrees sagely.

"We went to Florida once," Scott says. "But Alex was just a baby, so he doesn't remember. There's beaches there! But they're nicer than our beaches here."

"My cousin lives at the beach!" Jean says.

Erik, who is used to the stream-of-consciousness of rugrats, ignores them and follows Charles to the picnic table.

"Hello, Mrs. Summers," he says.

"Hello, Erik," Katherine says. "I'd offer you some food or something to drink, but all we have is juice boxes and peanut butter sandwiches."

"I went with Jean to her cousin's house," Scott says.

"Scott's my best friend," Jean says. "Do you have a best friend?"

"Is he your best friend?" Scott asks, pointed at an amused Janos.

"No," Jean says. "He's a special friend like Mr. Lehnsherr is Mr. Charles' special friend."

Erik snorts and turns back to Katherine. Let Azazel and Janos deal with the jumping, inquisitive children for once.

"We're fine, Katherine," Charles says. "We've just eaten at Erik's company picnic."

"I noticed the shirts," Katherine says slyly. "Very chic."

"Very funny," Erik says.

It's interesting to watch the children torturing someone else for once. Charles explained it once, that seeing him is a treat for them, that Charles and Moira are old hat at this point, so of course they gravitate towards Erik when he's around. It's almost odd to be in the vicinity and not have them hanging off of him.

Odd, but not bad.

"I'm going to run back to the car to get my sunglasses," Katherine says to them. "Would you mind terribly watching Gabe for a minute or two?"

The youngest Summers boy is sleeping peacefully in his carrier. Christopher is on the other side of the playground, sitting on a swing and keeping an eye on Alex, Jean, and Scott, who are tugging Azazel and Janos around to various playground equipment. Janos, Erik is vindictively pleased to see, is aiming his camera phone at Azazel.

"Go ahead," Erik says, waving her away. "Take your time. We'll be fine."

"Thanks so much," Katherine says, and grabs her purse, heading down the path.

It takes, of course, less than a minute before Gabriel starts fussing. As if he's psychically atuned to the cries (he's not--amazingly, both he and Katherine are human), Christopher looks over at them from the swings, but Charles holds up a hand and stands to gather the baby in his arms. It's unreal how much Gabriel has grown in just the few months since Erik first saw him. His eyes are open, darting around to his surroundings, and he's making a good effort to try and hold his head up, though it wobbles. He also stops whimpering as soon as Charles has him out of the chair. Erik suspects telepathic intervention.

Gabriel settles into Charles' arms and Charles leans his back against the table, watching as Azazel lifts Alex with his tail while Jean and Scott giggle madly from the jungle gym. Erik puts his arm around Charles' shoulders and watches the scene with a smirk. He wonders how much he'll have to pay Janos to get a copy of the video footage.

"You know," Charles says quietly, "I would have told you. I would have explained when we got home."

There's a moment of confusion--what would Charles care about him blackmailing Azazel?--before remembering his earlier conversation with Emma.

"I--" He fumbles for an excuse, but comes up empty. It was a complete violation of Charles' trust and hypocritical to boot--though Charles knows a lot about his past, it's not something he ever likes to talk about. "I'm sorry," he finally says. "I was just... curious, I suppose. You never seemed to want to talk about it and then Emma Frost, of all people, knew more than I did...." And, admittedly, that had stung, but--

"But it was easier than asking me yourself and making me upset," Charles says with a sigh, completing his unspoken thought. "Erik, I--I want you to ask me these things. I like that you're curious, that you care, but I'd rather tell you myself. That's what a relationship is supposed to be about, telling each other things. Sharing parts of ourselves."

Charles looks at him for the first time, turning his head just enough to catch Erik's eye and smile sadly. Erik feels like a heel. He's never been very good at relationships.

"I didn't want to upset you," he murmurs.

"I'd rather be upset than... left in the dark," Charles says. He doesn't sound angry, just disappointed, and that's almost worse. He turns again, looking out at the children and Azazel and Janos. "My mother married Kurt Marko when I was ten years old. He--do you know what the worst part about being a telepath is, Erik?"

Erik shakes his head, mutely.

"The worst part is meeting the man your mother is in love with and knowing immediately that all he wants is your dead father's money. And on my bloody tenth birthday of all times." Charles chuckles weakly. "It wasn't the best birthday ever. Kurt--didn't like that I was a telepath. Didn't like that I was gay, either, though I managed to keep that one from him for a bit longer. Everything I did angered him. If I did well in school, I was a snob, trying to show him up. If I did poorly, I wasn't trying hard enough, I was embarrassing the family. I spent a lot of time hiding at Emma's or our friend Tony's house, or even staying after school to avoid being home. I graduated school two years early, mostly because I'm exceedingly bright, but part of me just wanted to... get out of there as soon as I could."

"I'm sorry," Erik says. And he is. Erik has said he's sorry more times since meeting Charles than he had in his entire life before that mostly because he doesn't believe in saying things he doesn't mean and he's very rarely actually sorry. With Charles, he means it every time.

"Kurt died when I was eighteen," Charles says. "It was my sophomore year of college. And I decided, right then, I wasn't going to his funeral. I couldn't bare to spend a weekend pretending I cared, pretending I wasn't... relieved. My mother never forgave me. I've seen her maybe half a dozen times in the six years since."

Erik's arm has been resting on the table behind Charles and he curls it around him, pulling Charles up against his side. He's deeply, bitterly glad that Kurt Marko is dead, because if he was still living, Erik would have to kill him, and that wouldn't end well for anyone. Charles can be an annoying, sanctimonious asshole sometimes, but he's also the most genuinely good person Erik has ever met. He didn't think people with Charles' sunny disposition and unwavering optimism could actually exist in the real world, and now that he's found Charles, he's made it his duty to nurture that irritatingly cheerful outlook and keep Charles just as enthusiastic and bright as he is now. The idea that anyone could know Charles and treat him badly, treat him cruelly is... is....

"Darling, I appreciate the sentiment, but calm yourself," Charles says softly.

Erik blinks and unfists his hands. The basketball hoop to their left is now a pretzel and probably a lost cause. The monkey bars will be easier to fix, but all the more embarrassing as they were in the children's line of sight.

"Wow!" Jean says. "Wow wow wow!"

"Is that your power?" Scott asks, eyes wide.

"Erm," Erik says, and Charles turns his face into Erik's neck to hide his laughter. He may be embarrassed, but it's nice to feel Charles smiling against his skin. "Let me just...." He raises his hand and squints at the monkey bars, concentrating until they're bent back into the right shape. Jean is jumping up and down and clapping, and immediately rushes over to them when Erik puts his hand down.

"Mr. Lehnsherr, that was cool!" Jean says. "Cooler than when you sometimes float people!" By 'people' she means 'Alex' and by 'sometimes' she means 'every damn day' because that child refuses to stop climbing up on things he shouldn't. Erik sighs and lets Jean climb onto his lap, wrapping his other arm around her waist to hold her steady. Jean looks up at him and her smile falters. "Don't fight with Mr. Charles!" she says. "Mr. Charles, don't be mad at Mr. Lehnsherr, he just wants you to be happy!"

"Jean," Charles says lightly, "what are the rules about reading people's minds?"

"That I shouldn't do it unless they say okay," Jean says. "But Mr. Lehnsherr was thinking that really hard, Mr. Charles! Like how he's always thinking that he loves you best when he's watching you at the daycare! It's just really loud!"

Erik feels himself blush, but forces himself to meet Charles' eyes and smile somewhat sheepishly.

"You can't fault her for hearing loud thoughts," he says.

"I suppose I can't," Charles says. He can't hide his smile either, so Erik feels a little better about being so soppy. "Jean, love, why don't you go play with Scott and Alex and your new friends for a bit longer while I talk to Mr. Lehnsherr?"

"Okay!" Jean says. She hugs Erik--and, god help him, he's actually getting used to the way she hugs him on sight--and jumps back onto the ground, running over to where Azazel is slowly turning the merry-go-round with his tail.

Charles rests his head on Erik's shoulder, rocking baby Gabriel gently.

"So, you love me best?" he says.

"I do," Erik agrees. "It can't be helped, I'm afraid. Am I forgiven?"

"You were always going to be forgiven, Erik," Charles says. "You are always going to be forgiven. Because I love you best too, you know."

And it's true. Erik doesn't have to be a mind-reader to know that. Charles will always forgive him. There's something almost horrifying about that certainty, about that capacity for love and forgiveness. He doesn't know if he can extend Charles the same courtesy. He doesn't know if he can be that selfless.

"You can be," Charles says. "I know it."

"Oh, and if you say it, it must be true," Erik says.

"Precisely," Charles says.

And the hell of it is, Erik believes him.

***

Katherine returns eventually and the children wear themselves out, collapsing onto the woodchips and begging for juice boxes and goldfish crackers. Before long, Christopher is looking at his watch and making noises about getting Jean back to her parents. There are sticky-fingered goodbyes and Alex first refuses to let go of Azazel, then Erik, but eventually the Summers family and Miss Grey are heading down the path towards the parking lot.

"The scavenger hunt ends in about fifteen minutes," Janos informs them, glancing at his phone. "I suppose we should return to the picnic.

Erik looks at his watch. It's nearly three in the afternoon.

"We could," Erik says. "But--and I won't speak for you gentleman--but I feel as though I've learned a lot today. Don't you?"

"If nothing else, I've seen you hugging children," Azazel says.

"If we've already learned all we're going to learn, there's no harm in leaving a bit early, is there?" he asks.

"I know a nice bar nearby," Azazel says.

"I can buy a new picnic blanket," Janos says.

The three of them look imploringly at Charles.

"Well," Charles says slowly, "I suppose I only said we'd come, not that we'd stay."

"You wanted to meet my co-workers," Erik says. "And now you have. The only one that matters, anyway. The rest of them are so dim I'm afraid just being in their presence would kill your brain cells."

"He only exaggerates slightly," Azazel says.

Charles sighs, but he can't hide his smile.

"Okay," he says. "I do suppose I could use a drink. Even if it is barely afternoon."

"It's Saturday," Erik says.

"Also, there are extenuating circumstances," Janos adds.

"Well, extenuating circumstances," Charles says. "Who am I to argue with that?"

"Wonderful," Azazel says. "Follow me, gentlemen."

Janos links arms with him, leading the way out of the park with Erik and Charles behind them. As they break through the trees and step out into the parking lot, Charles takes Erik's hand.

"It may not have been an ideal afternoon, but I'm glad we came," he says.

"I am too," Erik says, and he's a little startled to realize he means it.

"I really need that drink, though," Charles adds after a moment.

"Oh, me too," Erik agrees quickly. "The first round's on me."