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It takes a heap o' livin'

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There is a house, old and stately like a grand queen, overlooking a sprawling estate of woods and grass and a small lake; and within her walls, under her roof, lives a family like any other.

“TEN MINUTES, EVERYONE!”

Erik winces, but continues the last-minute check of his briefcase: project papers, laptop, phone, flash drive. His wallet turns out to not be in his coat; a cursory scan of the breakfast nook shows up the small collection of coins in its little pocket, and he floats the wallet up from where it had taken refuge under the chairs.

A stampede of feet across the floor above causes the ornaments on the ceiling lamp to bounce and sway. He picks out Angel’s bracelet, senses her flattening herself against the wall as the mob containing Alex’s watch, Sean’s iPod, and Raven’s hairpins go racing down the hallway.

“A bit chaotic, this morning,” says Charles, wandering in, his hands trying to fasten his cufflinks and fix his tie at the same time. His expression is one of harried surprise, as if the morning hours of a regular work- and school-day don’t always resemble a bit of a disaster zone. “Erik, have you seen my-“ Erik floats up the set of keys he’d discovered when searching for his wallet, “right, thanks.”

Something heavy bounces along the upstairs floor, followed by a series of furious knocks, and a perfectly audible, “GET OUT OF THE SHOWER DARWIN IT’S MY TURN NOW.”

“Hank’s picking the kids up today, thank goodness,” continues Charles, “There’s a bug going around the faculty, so I have a solid block of classes after lunch.” He blinks, looking a little lost now that he’s tamed his clothing. Erik grabs a slice of toast from the pile and presses it into Charles’ hand.

“I’ll text him later to remind him,” says Raven, breezing past them and going straight into the kitchen.

“I’d appreciate it,” Charles calls after her. He turns back to Erik and his toast. “Sean’s got a presentation today, but I’ve been rehearsing with him all week and I’m sure he’ll do fine. Angel’s been invited to join the basketball team. Don’t ask her about her boyfriend, they’re not together anymore. Hmm, what else?” A particularly large crumb is clinging tenaciously on to the edge of Charles’ bottom lip. Erik can sympathize. “Darwin mentioned that he’s considering taking a gap year before university, maybe doing a tour of Europe.”

Erik gives him a bland look. “I let you believe I care about these things only because you give great blowjobs.”

Charles just grins and leans in for a kiss, and when he pulls away there are breadcrumbs all over Erik’s chin. “Like you weren’t worried along with the rest of us the last time Alex got into trouble.”

“Well, yes, I’d prefer not to be legally and morally responsible for a juvenile delinquent.”

“God forbid people think you’re not an upstanding member of the community. Oh, here’s your lunch.”

“Hank, please don’t be late again!” shouts Angel, now somewhere outside. Her bracelet is floating on level with the second floor. “Or you’ll be the one to fix whatever car Alex tries to hotwire.”

“That was one time!” protests Alex.

Grand theft auto is, generally, not a hobby one gets to practice until one gets it right, interjects Charles dryly. It always intrigues Erik how Charles’ thought-voice doesn’t, exactly, sound like him, being that it isn’t actually a form of sound, yet something about the delivery and the feeling behind it is so distinctly Charles: genial and kind and solid as old books.

Erik’s thoughts are interrupted by the stomp-stomp-STOMP of teenage feet getting steadily closer. “The horde descends,” he grumbles, and closes up his briefcase.

Charles has just stuffed the rest of the toast into his mouth, making him look like a blue-eyed chipmunk nesting in tweed. Erik finds this ridiculous and adorable and vaguely wants to slap himself in the face over it; instead, he hands his unfinished coffee to Charles and kisses him on the neck. A calculated move, as this affords him a glimpse of the mark at the juncture of neck and shoulder, dark red, just barely hidden by Charles’ collar.

Actually, now that he’s looking a little closer, Charles seems to be moving about with a hint of well-concealed stiffness.

He gets a brush of annoyance-arousal-affection from Charles, in addition to a crumby pout, and feels incredibly justified to be smiling smugly as he walks out to his car.

+ + +

Erik isn’t sure why the dreary tedium of his job surprises him anew every morning. He’s suspected Charles’ interference, the invisible fingers of Charles’ good intentions carding through his short-term memory – Erik wouldn’t even mind, that’s how bad it is – but he dully suspects it’s his own coping mechanisms. He knows he needs to go to work, to live like any other civilian contributing to society, so his brain convinces him nightly that his day-job isn’t as awful as he remembers it to be.

Except, yes, it is as awful. Worse, on some days.

He stares at the metal ruler on his desk, at the metal pens and metal paperclips. He really doesn’t have to be here. Taking a desk-job position at a mid-level tech company had been his choice, after all. Something stable, easy, safe. Charles is always harping on about balance. And Erik hadn’t been ready, when he’d moved from recurring guest to a more regular role in Charles’ life, to return to a life path he’d thought lost to him for good.

On the other hand, he has no doubt that Charles would be fully supportive if - when he’s ready to get back in the game.

Someone’s computer beeps loudly. One of the admins has a new piercing on his torso. Janos, looking bored enough to stab someone, passes him a stack of papers and folders. Erik’s gaze catches on the blue post-it stuck to the topmost sheet.

They completely ignore each other for the next couple of hours, but when lunch comes around, Erik goes down to the company cafeteria and finds Janos sitting at the end of a long table, having already demolished today’s soup-and-sandwich.

“Tell me,” says Erik without preamble, sitting down across from him.

“Possible drug smugglers,” says Janos. “The FBI managed to narrow it down to several warehouses in New Jersey, so they know where the stuff is going through, but they can’t figure out how they’re doing it. Passed it along to our contact. A few of our people took a look around, saw some activity, but didn’t get too close.”

Under the table, Janos’ foot casually bumps into Erik’s instep. Erik gives no sign of noticing, occupied with opening up the brown bag he’d taken out of his suitcase.

“What’s today’s special?” asks Janos, grinning widely.

Erik scowls at him and pulls out a mini-cup of yogurt and a small container which, upon inspection, turns out to be full of pasta. “Carbonara with chicken and mushrooms,” he says, after a sniff. The container looks plastic but is, in fact, mostly metal, and the food is steaming a little by the time Erik removes the lid completely.

“That’s definitely not the Professor’s handiwork. Darwin’s?” Janos’ expression goes from teasing to a touch envious. “Kid’s got talent.”

Erik hums agreeably, already digging in. He’d be the first to attest to Charles’ many remarkable skills, but cooking, unfortunately, is not one of them.

Janos conjures a fork out of somewhere and grabs a piece of mushroom before Erik can stop him. “You guys gonna take the case?”

“Probably. At the very least, we’ll have the computer take a look at it. The people who checked out the site – anyone I would know?”

“Azazel, just last night.”

A voice passing by their table mutters something that may or may not include “lunchbox”, followed by stifled chuckles. Janos’ eyes flick over Erik’s shoulder, then return to Erik’s face with a worried expression. But Erik just eats on peaceably; he remembers having less than this to live on, and then later eating mass-produced food every day. He’s hardly going to turn his nose up at a home-cooked meal.

“What?” he asks irritably, when Janos doesn’t stop staring at him. “My kid made this, and it’s fucking delicious. Those idiots are welcome to their overpriced take-out.”

Though, fine, a few of the dickwads may experience some slight difficulties the next time they try to use their car keys.

Janos’ lips twitch up into a small, unexpected smile. “You’ve got a good thing going for you, Lehnsherr, you know that?”

Erik frowns. “Where the fuck did that come from?” But Janos thumps him on the arm and says nothing else. He doesn’t leave, either, just continues sipping his soda, his quick hands filching bites of penne under the guise of keeping Erik company.

When Erik gets back in the office, he bends down to pick up a few sheets of paper that have escaped from the tottering pile on his desk. As he does so, he plucks a tiny rectangular chip, grey, from the side of his shoe where Janos had stuck it. It’s smaller than his thumbnail.

He reaches into his bag and takes out his personal cell phone. It looks like a perfectly ordinary iPhone, though not the most recent model, and it displays a normal screen when he unlocks it. He pulls up the number pad, whereupon typing in a seemingly random collection of numbers causes no discernible change whatsoever. Except when he returns to the main screen, there are suddenly more options available that are not, perhaps, to be found on any app store anywhere.

The chip needs a full minute to upload its contents to the phone, which makes Erik suspect that there’s video included. He’s glad that he can just press the chip to the touchscreen now; the time they’d used phones with physical slots, and tried to regulate the data chip sizes accordingly, had been a lesson on technological pluralism.

The phone chirrups once the upload is done, and Erik sends the digital packet to one of the house’s smaller off-site servers, tagged for a thorough virus scan. Azazel is fairly trustworthy, though, and Erik has been working with Janos for as long as they’d both been in FrostByte, so he goes ahead and taps out a text message.

To: Family
We’re having lemon meringue tonight.

The familiar clicking of McTaggert’s heels alert him to her approach long before she comes into view, dark hair just barely visible over the cubicle walls. He’s got his head down and eyes on the paperwork when she walks past. She doesn’t stop, just speaks to someone quietly before click-clicking down a different direction. He sighs, contemplates the piles on his desk, and wills himself back to work again.

He surfaces an hour later, mostly because the coffee he’d refilled after lunch is now only a thin film at the bottom of his mug. He brings his cell with him to the break room and sees, without much surprise:

NEW MESSAGES

Havok: damn i want lemon meringue now
Banshee: wat does yellow mean?
Angel: u ate all our yogurt for lunch plus cheesecake HOW R U HUNGRY
Mystique: recon
Darwin: there’s more pasta at home
Beast: not anymore?
Havok: hate u bozo
Angel: fucking bottomless pits, see if i share my lunch again
Beast hey prof came home, i didn’t eat all of it
Mystique: thx guys ppl nxt to me think i have a vibe in my purse
Darwin: y don’t we use chat instead of reply-all
Havok: wat chat there is no cat
Beast: guys this data stream is piggybacking on a military satellite. just fyi.
Havok: wtf Sean how did u post a macro on my wall so fast
Banshee: hearken to my ginger ninja skills
Beast: and there IS a chat, i showed u guys last month
Mystique: busted
Angel: u guys suck at covert ops
Professor: I know for a fact that five of you have class right at this moment.

Erik finds himself grinning, despite earnest efforts not to. He still has two hours left, but somehow the endless minutiae of paperwork feels a little less soul-crushing.

Still. Two hours. He picks up a paperclip from the little bowl under his monitor, tucks his hand under his desk. He floats the clip, feeling rather than seeing, applies his power to bend and shape the little twist of metal. Once he’s satisfied, he adds it to the Dali-inspired, metallic graveyard of a sculpture taking shape under his desk.

It’s not as satisfying as yanking down structural supports and crumpling the building around the hated, claustrophobic office, but it does let him deal with the immediate future and its endless stacks of technical documents.

+ + +

Charles meets him in the hallway leading to the garage. “Hello, dear, how was work?”

Erik rolls his eyes and gets rid of Charles’ wide, impish grin by crushing his mouth against it. Is my headache that awful?

Maybe I’m the one with a headache. Charles pulls back a bit, and looks him up and down with a considering expression. “No mysteriously collapsing buildings or twisted infrastructure on the news, so it can’t have been too bad.”

Erik makes a vaguely disgruntled noise and presses Charles against the nearest bit of wall, now exceedingly interested in forgetting about his day – forgetting, in fact, everything that isn’t Charles melting into him, lips parting and happy to greet Erik’s tongue. Charles’ hair looks very much on board with his plans, already growing mussed around the top before Erik’s gets his fingers in.

“Some days,” a bored voice drifts over to them, “I wonder who the teenage boys are in this house.”

Charles bats weakly at Erik’s shoulders, but since he doesn’t even stop sucking on Erik’s tongue, Erik thinks, that is a very pathetic show of protest, Professor, and flips Raven off without looking.

She mutters something that sounds like “damn horndogs” and dashes away. Her shout of “FOUND THEM!” echoes off the dark wooden paneling and custom-order glass windows.

Erik thinks, one, two, three… and Charles huffs out a laugh when Erik’s phone vibrates in his pocket. Erik floats it up to where they both can read the screen.

NEW MESSAGES

Mystique: code Chess Game, location – hallway between pantry and garage
Banshee: report gravity of Situation
Mystique: defcon 4
Havok: wait I always mix this up, is that clothes on or off?
Darwin: on
Angel: damn
Beast: if they’re not done by dinner, can someone please bring me food?
Banshee: u r nowhere near them
Beast: reference library, not lab. hallway outside has direct line of sight

Erik buries his face in Charles’ neck, sagging against the other man’s helpless laughter. “Just for that,” he mumbles, “I’m tempted to go full DEFCON one right here.”

Charles treats him to Disapproving Face #3, but Erik doesn’t miss the telling shiver and the twitch high up against his thigh. Exhibitionist.

Possessive caveman, retorts Charles fondly.

They indulge in a last, invigorating kiss, then take a few minutes to make themselves presentable again. Charles goes to dig Hank out of the scientific digests. Erik heads downstairs.

The hidden elevator opens at a touch of his power. Its concealed entrance is disguised by functional bookshelves, and the antique globe next to it works as a handprint scanner for the others. But Erik relishes all opportunities to unfurl his power after a day of restraining himself. There is something especially soothing about opening his awareness to the ever-present currents of magnetic fields in a well-known environment, running his power through objects which he has made himself.

Like the gentle wash of familiarity and welcome he gets whenever he enters Charles’ immediate radius, Erik thinks of this as his way of telling the metal hello, I’m here.

The elevator takes him down to the subterranean complex. The glare of bright walls and shiny chrome is always a little off-putting right after the luxurious dimness of the upper house.

There’s a bedraggled sign on the wall right across from the elevator. It reads, in a parade of different fonts:

wElCoMe 2 THE BASEment

He heads for the room at the end of the main hallway. Most of the walls here have been incorporated with psi-field negation and the very rare alloy that can block telepathic powers. Partly as a security measure, against scans from the outside or in case they ever bring in a telepath who needs restraining, but it’s also a design practicality, because of Cerebro.

And there’d been Charles’ argument: “if we are to live together, everybody should have a place to go to that I can’t reach, accidentally or otherwise; believe me, this is necessary for all our sanities.”

To that end, only Erik can open this particular door, by plying magnetism in a very specific pattern over the hidden locking mechanisms. He can do it now without thinking, and his stride doesn’t slow as he enters his personal workstation.

It’s wall-to-wall metal, inside. Possibly the only thing that isn’t made of metal is a ceramic mug, white with thick dark font declaring I <3 MY BOYFRIEND. He spots it where he’d left it two nights before, next to the pictures.

The real family pictures, Erik thinks of them, versus the nauseatingly mundane family picture on his desk at FrostByte. These show Raven mid-pirouette, beautifully blue; Angel and Sean cheating at basketball; Hank hanging from a tree in a Batman costume while, below him, Armando and Alex are hula dancing in grass skirts. And Charles, of course – Charles frowning in concentration at a textbook; Charles sleeping out on the grass; Charles beaming wide at a veritable sea of candles, because the kids had gotten the idea that Charles should make up for all the candles he’d missed out on when growing up. Captured moments encased in steel, a stylized waterfall sculpture that looks like a bunch of photo frames melted and bent together – mainly because that’s exactly what it is.

These days, Erik’s moments of what the fuck am I doing how did I get here are not as frequent as they used to be. But it’s... helpful, to have reminders of everything he’s gained.

He wakes his computer terminal and checks the info packet from Janos, finds it ready and cleaned of any viruses or trackers. He looks through each file, tags the most relevant ones. Saves the videos for later. There’s enough evidence for him to decide that this is worth checking out, and he’s fairly sure Charles will agree.

A gentle beep signals that the general PA system is on, followed by Mrs. Alvarez’s cheerful voice announcing, “Dinner’s ready!”

Almost everyone is already in the dining room when Erik arrives. He takes a seat next to Charles, who’s bickering with Raven about something to do with her college. Sometimes Erik envies them the incomprehensible language they fall into, full of references to experiences or people or ideas, that signify a life long shared. Hank stumbles in last, as per usual, and automatically presents his damp, clean hands to Mrs. Alvarez when she looks pointedly at the chemical stains on his clothing.

Dinner is grilled trout and a rich beef stew and jacket potatoes, plus cream of mushroom and some kind of salad that has a lot of olives in it. There’s about five minutes of polite plate-passing before older habits will out, and then it becomes a matter of hoping that nobody will start throwing the breadsticks. Regardless, it’s gratifying to see the kids packing it away like there might be no more food tomorrow, Alex and Hank especially. But then, in here, Erik’s childhood is the norm rather than the exception. Mrs. Alvarez fusses over them all and reveals that Armando had been the one to make the stew. Sean and Alex cheer heartily, still with food in their mouths, which gets a “close your holes, that’s disgusting, do you think the rest of us want to see your half-eaten food” from Raven and Charles sighing like he’s failed them as a parental figure.

“So, is there a mission tonight?” asks Armando, in an obvious attempt to divert attention from himself.

“Seems so, but Charles hasn’t seen the files yet,” answers Erik. “And,” he interrupts before the rest of the table can jump in, “it’ll likely be just reconnaissance. The information that’s been passed to us is minimal.”

Half the table scowls at him – recon means a four-person team only.

“But what is it?” persists Angel. “Robbery? Con? Trafficking? Experimentation?”

“Drugs, most likely.” Erik floats his fork over to the bowl of potatoes and spears one. “Usual surveillance can’t figure out how the stuff is being moved, so there’s a chance of mutant involvement. Though what few of the traffickers have been seen appear to be human.”

Get me one too, love?

The fork, plus potato, changes path at the last moment and deposits its burden onto Charles’ plate, then heads back towards the platter.

Thank you. Charles addresses the whole group aloud, “Erik and I will go over what we’ve been given and we’ll let you know the plan. But don’t expect to get out of doing your homework.”

There’s a rumble of reluctant agreement around the table, and everyone’s attention dissolves back into smaller conversations. Alex, on Erik’s other side, starts telling him about Hank’s idea to incorporate the technology in his chestplate into the whole suit, if Erik can lend a bit of help with the microcircuits.

Several years ago, Erik would have found the noise of scraping dinnerware and voices speaking at cross-purpose and occasional airborne food moderately unbearable. But now they make up the sense of home; soaking, insidious, right into his skin, smoothing down the last bristles of tension racked up by the outside world.

Even when Sean adds pepper to his soup and accidentally inhales some of it.

Erik breaks the ensuing silence by saying to Raven, “I must admit, your reflexes have definitely improved,” genuinely impressed.

“You didn’t have to punch me in the face,” complains Sean, leaning back on his chair and cupping one hand over his nose.

“You’ll heal – the cabinets, chandelier, and Xavier family china wouldn’t have,” says Raven, unrepentant. “Calm down, I didn’t even break bone. It’ll swell up overnight and be fine in the morning.”

“Here,” says Hank, coming back from the kitchen. He hands Sean a Ziploc bag full of ice.

“Thanks.”

“Just for that, Sean, you get to have your fill of ice-cream for dessert,” announces Charles after taking a careful look at the injured nose. “I believe we even have a pint of homemade pistachio.”

“Okay, seriously,” says Raven, while Sean lets out a whoop of triumph, “there is no way you have his favorite flavor just lying around. Where are you hiding the goods?

“I don’t know what you mean,” says Charles loftily, as if Charles’ Secret Stash of everyone’s favorite foodstuff hasn’t been a family mystery for years, “it is just a happy coincidence that I had Mrs. Alvarez pick some up from the shop earlier today.”

“Raven, give it up,” says Angel, “not even Erik’s found it, and he has more to bribe Charles with.”

True, but it’s not as if Erik has tried very hard – Charles takes as much delight in occasionally spoiling his ragtag collection of strays as they do in receiving unexpected, delicious treats. It’s also turned out to be a remarkably good way of keeping the peace, which Erik attributes to most people never truly outgrowing their ten-year-old selves.

Dinner ends and Charles herds everybody off to do schoolwork. Erik pours them both some wine, takes the glasses with him to Charles’ study. The chess set is in the corner, still in the middle of their last game; he remembers a time when they’d been able to play every night, when he thought the mansion went no deeper than the Cold War bunker, when the biggest secret in Erik’s head had been the note in his medical and employment records, under Mutant: Yes and Type of Power, that still reads Telekinesis: weak, unpredictable.

He’s got the computer terminal set into the big desk turned on and the evidence files primed to go by the time Charles shows up. Together, sipping wine, they examine the notes and photographs and surveillance reports. Erik drags around the file icons floating lazily in the air above the terminal, separates the video files. They watch these on the computer’s main screen, which is basically the surface of Charles’ desk, usually hidden by the retractable wooden cover.

“Azazel took most of these,” Charles comments, “I can tell from the movements.”

“Janos said he went last night.” Erik frowns. “You mean the fact that the video is wobbling like a drunk person on their first time out at sea?”

Charles gives him a wry smile. “I imagine it’s not particularly easy to keep a camera steady when you’re holding it with a tail which you normally use to keep your balance.”

Oh. Holding the camera with his tail and thereby keeping his hands free – that actually makes sense. “He could have gone for a smaller camera, attached it to his clothing.”

“A smaller camera would mean a poorer resolution. He went there intending to get video evidence. If he wasn’t sure how close he’d be able to get, he likely decided to risk a heavier device for the higher resolution.”

What Azazel had gotten was… not much, really. The footage starts off a considerable distance from the suspected warehouses, with a tall fence in the way. It zooms in on several figures lurking around the structures, but they just seem engaged in an irregular sort of patrolling. Azazel creeps closer, virtually silent. Then the camera starts picking up a faint humming sound. Azazel stops a few feet short of the fence. It looks like a normal fence, chain link, but the humming is quite distinct now. Azazel backs away. The rest of the video is him attempting the same approach at two other locations along the fence, getting close but never touching the chain link.

“According to his notes,” says Erik, pulling up the file, “Azazel considered teleporting straight into one of the warehouses, but something about that fence made him cautious, and his instincts told him to not risk it without knowing what that fence does. He checked the ground around the fence but found no dead animals, so it’s not electrified.”

They go over the long-distance surveillance on the warehouses, mostly satellite images and stills taken from outside the fance. “Hmm, yes, I see why they’re concerned.” Charles pauses the video. “Notice those crates, the large ones just inside the warehouse door? If you follow the timestamps, the deliveries in and out of the warehouses have a fairly regular schedule. We can track how most of those boxes and crates arrive and leave. Except for a particular batch of crates, seems to be a dozen or so, every few days. They just appear, no sign of how they get there, and after a couple of days they disappear, with equally no explanation for how they are moved or where they go.”

“So, we have a case?”

Charles grins, bright and boyish. “We have a case.”

+ + +

“Angel,” announces Charles, after they’d explained the situation to the kids. Four people for the team, plus Hank as pilot, and Erik and Charles are a given. Raven is also a given for recon, because she’s their best scout. This means the fourth is usually one of the kids, and then it depends on the situation. Tonight, the choice had been down to Angel or Armando.

“Darwin would be handy for dealing with whatever the humming is that’s coming from the fence, but we decided it might be wiser to have aerial backup instead, especially if we’re just having a look tonight,” Charles explains to the rest, apologetic because he’s a sucker for their disappointed looks.

Unsurprisingly, all the brats ignore Charles’ directive to continue their schoolwork and follow them down to the basement. Hank is already there, prepping the Jet, and there are maps of New Jersey and topographical data up on the launch deck console. Erik scowls at the suit that’s thrust into his hands, but goes and changes into it.

Charles is standing on the ramp and telling the others, “It should be quick, a few hours at the most,” when Erik passes him and gets strapped in.

“Famous last words,” mutters Raven from the co-pilot’s seat.

+ + +