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The Better Men

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"--students will be arriving any moment and we've barely seen our dear headmaster in a bloody week, we still don't have a Potions master -- Winky, pull that one up a bit on the left, thank you..." Charles wiped sweat from his forehead, giving the Ravenclaw common room one last look-over. He'd been staring at blue and bronze banners, dangling eagles and glimmering stars for so long now, he hardly knew whether the overall effect was celebratory or simply cluttered. It would have to do. "All right, chaps, good enough. Thanks for the assistance."

The house-elves scattered to the hundred-odd other duties Charles knew had to be waiting for them, and Charles turned to the door. Should have been in the Great Hall five minutes past... His duties as Head of Ravenclaw House were plentiful, but little enough compared to his responsibilities as Deputy Headmaster, especially under a headmaster like Sebastian Shaw, whose preference, apparently, was to keep to his tower for days at a time and leave all the real work to his deputy. Charles wondered if he would even show up to greet the students.

He was considerably startled, then, to find the headmaster waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs when he exited Ravenclaw Tower.

"Ah, here he is. Professor Xavier, I'm told the students will be arriving momentarily, but we've just enough time to introduce you to the new Potions master. If introductions are even necessary -- I do believe the two of you were in the same year as boys, were you not?"

And the entire world stopped dead, cold dizzy breathless, as Charles's eyes focused on the man standing next to Shaw.

Erik Lehnsherr.

Only the wall at his back kept Charles upright. He was peripherally aware that Shaw was still speaking, but his head was buzzing to loud to hear. Erik.

The last decade had been kind to Erik; already a handsome, well-built young man at graduation (especially next to a scrawny, awkward thing like Charles), he now had a breadth and maturity that sat well on him. Charles couldn't help feeling he himself had only grown scrawnier and more awkward in the same amount of time. Erik's robes were sharp and new, his hair combed back perfect and smooth. Almost unconsciously, Charles tugged his robe straight, brushed his hair out of his face. Erik's eyes, until now carefully blank in a rigidly neutral face, flickered with something like amusement or pain.

"--first year teaching, of course, so I expect he'll need a certain amount of assistance now and then," Shaw was saying. "Charles is the most competent deputy any headmaster could ask for, Erik, and he's been doing this for years. Don't hesitate to go to him for anything you need, should I be unavailable..." He trailed off, as if finally noticing something odd in the way his Potions and Divinations masters were staring at each other.

"Of course," Charles said quickly, his voice only a little hoarse, and stuck out his hand. "Welcome back to Hogwarts, Erik."

Erik swallowed, shook his hand as briefly as manners permitted. His touch was like fire on Charles's skin.

"Well, we should move along, then, if we're going to be in place to greet the children!" Shaw turned and led the way down the corridor.

Erik and Charles lagged a step behind.

"I'm sorry," Erik murmured, so softly that even Charles could not have made out the words if he hadn't known Erik's voice better than his own. "I didn't mean to ambush you like this. I only agreed to the position yesterday."

"I'm sure you'll do splendidly. You were always a great hand at Potions." His voice sounded artificial, brittle, even to his own ears.


"Are you to be Head of Slytherin House, as well, since Headmaster Shaw's vacated the position?"

"I -- yes."

"I should have expected Shaw'd want you, of course, you always were his star student, might even say his protégé. Stepping right into his shoes, then."

"Charles, perhaps later, after the feast, we could talk..."

Charles laughed. "Oh, there'll be no talking tonight, my friend. It'll take us the bulk of the night to get the children bedded down, overstimulated as they'll be, and by then I promise you'll want nothing more than your own bed. You've no idea what you're in for." My friend, he'd called him my friend, hadn't he, it had just slipped right out. Well, and he called most everyone that, didn't he, and always had, but it had always meant something more when he said it to Erik--

Focus, Xavier! Oh, it was like something out of a nightmare that Erik was here, here, now, and with no time to calm his mind before--

Students, yes, pouring into the Great Hall just as the three of them arrived, lovely familiar faces grinning at him out of the crowd, the nervous excited unfamiliar faces, and how many of them might be sorted into Ravenclaw? Charles tried to force his attention onto them, and away from the blazing torch that was Erik's presence in his peripheral vision.

He managed to maintain something like a focused presence during the speech and the Sorting, immediately memorizing the names and granting warm, welcoming smiles to his thirty-two new Ravenclaws. The rest of the Feast, however, quickly fell into a blur. Despite his efforts to the contrary, Charles had ended up seated next to Erik at the table. The effort of not-looking not-touching not-saying was shattering. The plate before him kept disappearing behind a swirl of remembered images, words, touches--

Gradually he became aware that Raven, across the table from him, was staring at Erik with blatant shock and outrage. He managed to catch her eye, shake his head, mouth the words I'll explain later. As if this were something he had to account for -- but Raven contented herself with a glare and a mouthed You'd better. Hopefully that would be enough to get them out of the hall without a scene.

Or would have been, if--

"Charles," Erik murmured, much too close, and Charles shot to his feet.

But only a moment before the other teachers did the same, and the students, too, their plates disappearing from the tables. Time to get everyone settled into their rooms.

Charles gathered his Ravenclaws and swept them out of the room without looking back.


Charles, with his compromised focus, had to lean on his prefects rather more heavily than usual in getting the children settled for the night. Fortunately, both Dominique Weasley and Lysander Scamander were old hands at wrangling their classmates, leaving Charles free to focus on the first years, some of whom were in tears of exhaustion or homesickness by the time they had their bed assignments worked out.

Charles knew he was unusually involved, for a Head of House; most seemed to feel it was better to let the kids sort themselves out. Heaven knew, the idea of Professor Logan tucking in the Gryffindors was more unsettling than comforting, and his kids seemed to turn out all right; in fact they tended to follow him about like half-feral, fiercely-loyal puppies. But Charles couldn't help it; the children needed him, and if that meant a few bracing words, a pat on the shoulder, even a hug or two before saying goodnight, he didn't care a bit if Logan called him "Deputy Den Mother" behind his back.

He tried not to wonder how Erik was getting on with the Slytherins. He knew several in that lot who would jump on any weakness or uncertainty like piranhas (they would certainly eat me alive, he admitted silently), and though weakness and uncertainty were not generally on Erik's long and wide-ranging list of flaws, he was surely feeling a bit out of his depth tonight.

Charles did not hope they reduced Erik to tears his first night. He was a better man than that.

He didn't realize he'd been leaning motionless against the common room wall for several minutes until Dominique cleared her throat at his elbow. "You can go on to bed, Professor," she said diffidently. "Sandy and I have got things under control here."

The amount of noise still radiating from the older students' rooms rather belied this statement, but one glance at Dominique's clear, alert eyes and (as always) unruffled appearance told him she was better suited to dealing with it than he was.

"Don't mind if I do, then," he muttered, and ruffled her straight, veela-blonde hair. "Good night, 'Minique."

She wrinkled her nose at him, re-ordering her hair. "Goodnight, Professor X."

He stumbled back to his room, collapsed on the bed, and began counting the seconds until Raven opened the door. Without knocking.

One minute twelve seconds.

"So he's the new Potions master," Raven said.

Charles pulled himself upright and reached for a quill and a lesson plan that absolutely did not need any more last-minute tweaking. "Yes, he is. And I expect you to be perfectly civil to him."

Raven's face transformed into his own in the blink of an eye; dear goodness but it was a pain sometimes, having a Metamorphmagus for a sister. "Per-fect-ly civ-il," she sing-songed in his voice, complete with accent. Even after seventeen years in England, her own natural accent remained stubbornly American, just as Erik's would always carry traces of Germany.

--like his way of saying maus instead of mouse, you could hear the difference, it was definitely maus when he brushed the hair out of Charles's eyes and kissed his forehead--

Charles's quill cracked in his hand.

"Give me one reason to be civil to that superior Slytherin son of a snake," Raven was saying, face back to normal, and Charles did not know how much longer he could bear to have her in the room.

"For pete's sake, Raven, you act like he left me."

"He did, Charles! He's the one who--"

"Oh, please, Raven, I don't want to talk about it. I want to go to bed. I need to go to bed, and so do you. Tomorrow's going to be bedlam, and considering how chaotic your Transfigurations classes tend to be already..."

Raven sighed, and crossed the room to hug him. "You know, you might not be my 'real' brother, but by golly you're the best family I ever had. And I'm not going to sit by and watch that bastard break your heart again."

"I'm not asking you to. I'm asking you to let me get some rest before I have to look at him again in the morning."

"All right, all right." She kissed his cheek. "Sleep well."

The door closed behind her, and Charles buried his face in his pillow, wondering if he would sleep at all.