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Strict Machine

Chapter Text


“We can pull a map out
detailing the direct route
Young ones grow anxious to proclaim their advances to the fray.
If we don't wake up
and the truth never comes up
You will never have our old lane, you will never have a right of way…”
Lovers Who Uncover, Crystal Castles


At the sound of shrieking laughter, Charles quickened his pace down the hospital’s hallway. He clutched his laptop to his chest as he ran, a shield against the orderlies’ reprimands for his reckless strides. Their expressions of disapproval deepened from annoyance at the noise to outright censure when they saw Charles’ flippant grin.

The answering cheer of other voices brought his grin to full glory, freckles and dimples working in unison to pull off a charming expression he hoped would steal one person’s breath away.

He overshot the corner and slid across the white tiles with momentum that nearly took him into a wall. He regretted wearing his nice Italian leather shoes for an instant, but the fleeting emotion was muscled aside when he saw the situation in the hallway.

Angel had one arm around Erik’s neck, the other extended into the air in victory. She kicked her knee-length Chucks back and forth in delight as she sat across Erik’s lap. He had the hospital wheelchair tipped back, balancing on its axis, right hand inching one wheel around as he attempted to put the chair into a spin. Erik’s forearms and biceps worked as he adjusted minutely for Angel’s wild gestures.

Sean, Alex, and Raven were cheering and Cupcake was filming with her phone. “Oh yeah, Jaws, work that wheelchair!”

Though Erik looked determined, he was smiling. Charles wondered if the open expression was due to the lingering affects of the surgical medication. Or perhaps his good mood could be attributed to an immediate future of walking without pain.

Angel’s burst of surprised laughter brought Charles’ presence in the corridor to the attention of the rowdy youths. Everyone looked up with grins on their faces. Angel waved wildly. “Professor! Your chariot awaits! I’m keeping it warm for you.”

“Careful you don’t make that chariot into a stick shift,” Raven cackled.

Erik turned his head to take Charles in. Charles didn’t miss the dilation of his pupils, nor the way he swallowed; he knew very well Erik liked seeing him in a suit. Erik’s tells were slight, but devastating with every appearance made. Slowly as he could, he lowered the chair to the front casters and moved Angel off.

Charles let his laptop down from his chest; the only shield he needed was one to protect him from the landmines he’d planted himself. He closed the distance between them. “I thought the doctors said you wouldn’t need a wheelchair.”

“They did. I don’t.” Erik admitted, rolling the chair back and forth with ease. There was bit of mischief in his eyes. “But I broke the walker while we were waiting for you.”

Charles’ eyebrows rose in explicit inquiry. “You what?”

“Erik broke the walker while we waited for you,” Sean said very slowly. “It could not withstand the brutal show of force when he tried to balance and then bounce it on one leg.”

“I won twenty bucks on that bet,” Alex added. He held up and waved his winnings like a flag.

“I have video,” Cupcake supplied, staring at her phone’s screen instead of at Charles’ face. “The two left legs bent right away.”

“And we’ve been told it would be great if we left, like, immediately,” Raven chimed in merrily. “Can you imagine?”

“Yes.” Charles snorted incredulously, trying hard not to laugh. “Yes, I can. Erik, can’t you control your club?”

Erik shrugged and put the brakes on the wheel chair. “Why would I want to?”

With speed and grace, he hoisted himself up to his left leg. His right wasn’t supposed to take much weight for a few days. Alex immediately stepped forward and ducked under Erik’s arm as a self-designated crutch. “I still think staying at the Prof’s apartment is stupid, Erik. Our place doesn’t have a flight of stairs.”

“I don’t need two legs for stairs,” Erik scoffed, but leaned on Alex all the same. It was obvious Erik didn’t need the wheelchair when the two started forward toward Charles. He would likely only need a crutch or a cane for a few weeks. They’d all been surprised when they learned how quickly knee surgery patients could get back on their feet. The physical therapy promised to be far less agony than what Charles had endured for his gunshot wound or that Erik had experienced since his skin grafts.

Alex stopped when he got to Charles and nodded respectfully. Charles winked in response. “Thank you for the special delivery.”

“U-Haul all the way,” Alex muttered, fighting down an embarrassed smile. “You guys take it easy.”

Erik rolled his eyes, then took his arm off Alex and threw it across Charles’ shoulders instead.

Charles grinned at Alex. “I intend to keep him on his back for the entire weekend.”

Alex grimaced. “That’s great, Prof, but I hope it wasn’t a pun.”

“It wasn’t.” Charles winked. “It was a double entendre.”

With the wheelchair vacated, Angel flopped back down in it and pointed forward. “C’mon Sean, you be Fargo! Mush!”

“I think you mean Balto.” Cupcake snickered and sat down on Angel’s lap. “Sean! Sean! Wheelchair cam! Mush!”

Sean and Raven each took a handle, and after a false start with the brakes still engaged, ran ahead. Charles bit his lip, trying to hold his hilarity in and took Erik in the opposite direction, toward the elevator bank.

The moment the elevator doors closed, Charles burst into loud laughter. He placed a hand to one wall for support as he shook.

Leaning against him easily, Erik smiled along. “Just like old times.”

Charles nodded, laughing into his free hand. “Only better. Cupcake makes a nice addition to Deus, and if Raven joins up, you’ll have an even better mix. I don’t think you should let anyone else jump on from the PMS ship, though.”

“I don’t recall you getting a say,” Erik said. “You aren’t a member. You’re more like, what, a den mother?”

“Are the painkillers still working on you?” Charles countered. “Because I’m going to hurt you if you suggest that again and I want it to be effective.”

“You could always conduct an experiment to see.” Erik bent his forearm back in order to run his fingers through Charles’ hair. “Scientific method.”

“You’re too simple an equation to solve,” Charles huffed, though he had a terrible time keeping a smile from conquering his lips.

The clinic was far closer to Erik’s house, but they took Charles’ leased Acura and headed south to Tempe. The sun was still hot, but the weather was cooling down as Phoenix moved into autumn. The triple digit heat broke after the monsoons finished so the rampant humidity no longer made a bad situation horrendous.

Unfortunately for Charles, retrieving Erik from the clinic, no matter how happy the occasion, put him in mind of the last time they were on a similar journey. He didn’t like the reminder or the guilt that came with it. It had been almost three months since the XA tragedy, but it was always fresh in his mind. It took all his willpower not to cling to Erik, and he wasn’t always successful.

Though the knee surgery was finally taken care of, Charles had yet to do more than casually sound out his friends with access to citizenship records. He was putting off the search for a passport for Erik and he knew it. Charles was fully aware he shouldn’t delay telling Erik about the FBI agent any longer than necessary.

But the very real possibility that Erik would leave him after he admitted the situation made it harder than facing the Black King had ever been.

“You were late today,” Erik said, interrupting Charles’ brooding.

“The videoconference took longer than I expected.” It wasn’t a lie; the conference with his colleagues in England had lasted past the scheduled end, but Charles had signed out fifteen minutes before the official end. Two hours prior. He’d been late due to something else entirely.

“When did my work ethic start rubbing off on you?” Erik asked dryly.

“I have a work ethic!” Charles exclaimed. “Besides, I didn’t mind having a good excuse to sit out filming the bone saw episode of your life. I thought you hated being filmed.”

Erik shook his head. “It’s my leg; if I ask for a joint to be hacked out of it, I want to see. I wouldn’t need to film it, if they’d kept me awake to watch. Better than my other home movie, at any rate.”

“Don’t…” Charles stopped and sighed. “Don’t remind me.”

Erik had kept the DVD on the off chance he could one day use it against Shaw. Charles had suggested sending it to Shaw’s LA rival, but Erik killed the idea on the grounds that he would have to go through the SS to do so.

Mention of the DVD didn’t bother Erik without the threat it used to represent hanging over his head. It was still in his bedside table, but it was at the bottom of the drawer. Charles had pushed it to the back; he didn’t like any of the boxes of condoms or bottles of lubrication making contact with the disc. It had a habit of killing his hard-ons when he touched the damn thing while grabbing for either.

The journey to his apartment complex remained blessedly uneventful. Charles nattered away about the videoconference and the research project his senior seminar students would be collaborating on with his colleagues’ students back in Oxford. Erik listened attentively, obviously interested in how the project would be organized.

Pulling into the parking lot, Charles considered telling Erik to close his eyes. Instead, he opted to monitor Erik’s reaction as they neared Charles’ parking spot. He kept on about the project, but he noticed the moment Erik snorted in disgust and leaned forward in his seat.

“One of your neighbors bought an S1000.” Erik commented without regard for the previous conversation. “Idiot. The S1000 is becoming the new GSXR; only this time it’s going to clean the gene pool of people with more money than sense.”

Charles bit his lip to keep from laughing. “Maybe the owner will let you take it for a ride?”

“Not funny.” Erik glowered at the red, blue, and white BMW as if it had personally offended him. The ferocious glower faded the closer they came to the covered parking. When he saw exactly where the motorcycle was parked, Erik sucked in a sudden hissing breath between his teeth. “Gott in Himmel. Charles, what have you done?”

“Brought you back to my place?” Charles grinned and parked the Acura in general parking, since he couldn’t fit the car in his designated spot next to the S1000RR.

Erik had the Acura’s door open before Charles turned off the ignition. Thankfully, the surgery on his right leg made it far more difficult to get out of the car, so Charles had time to get out and catch Erik before he did something regrettable like face plant onto the hot asphalt.

Wordless in his enthusiasm, Erik didn’t complain when Charles tucked himself under his right shoulder and helped him hobble over to the bike. Once in touching distance, he let go of Charles and took hold of the tank and one of the grips.

“This is why you were late.” Erik said with evident shock.

“It seemed like a nice way to thank you for switching the Triple’s throttle to the left,” Charles said, beaming his brightest smile. “Since my wrist will probably never work properly again.”

Erik shook his head slowly. “This is too much, Charles.”

“Hardly,” Charles denied smoothly. “I have plenty of money, so doing something like this costs me very little effort. I’d say buying you an S1000 is less trouble than the work you did to help me buy, adjust, and personalize the Triple.”

The look Erik gave him was doubtful, but his enthusiasm burned through. He held out a hand. “Do you have the key?”

Grin full to bursting, Charles withdrew the key from his trouser pocket and handed it over. “You can ride it in a week or so.”

Erik only shook his head and slotted the key. “I just want to hear it.”

The motorcycle’s instrument cluster came to life under the turn of its key. Various electronics whirred and hummed as the motorcycle underwent its start up diagnostic. Charles hardly noticed, he was so fixated on cataloguing every nuance of Erik’s fascinated expression. He chuckled when Erik leaned down to listen to the electronics.

He straightened again and pulled Charles closer. “Put it in neutral for me.”

“You could just pull in the clutch and start her,” Charles said, just to be difficult.

Erik pulled in the clutch as suggested, but didn’t hit the ignition. “Toe it up to neutral.”

Amused, Charles shook his head and slipped his foot from his shoe. It wouldn’t do to scuff the nice leather on the shift pedal. He made the half pull up from first to neutral and then crouched down to put his shoe back on properly. Erik lost no time firing the S1000 up.

Using the tank to support himself, Erik crouched next to Charles with his right leg out straight. Charles didn’t stand up; the view of Erik’s face as he listened intently to the S1000’s engine was too good.

“What do you think?”

Erik didn’t turn his head. “That this is still too much.”

“Pasta for dinner, then,” Charles deflected, “since that is the minimum of effort?”

Snorting softly in exasperation, Erik shook his head and rose up on his left leg. Ignoring Charles’ sudden protest, Erik pulled in the clutch and used his right foot to kick down into first. The engine died as he turned the key off, leaving the computer to power down quietly, but audibly.

Charles fit himself under Erik’s right arm once again and helped him toward his apartment building.

“What’s going on, Charles?”

Charles looked through the gap between the kitchen and living room to where Erik had the first of two World Superbike races paused on screen. Erik always powered through the commercials and never paused races unless he was trying to puzzle through a racer’s strategy or see exactly what a bike was doing before a crash. He was doing neither. Erik was twisted around to look into the kitchen, his attention fixed on Charles alone.

“What do you mean?” Charles responded. He kept as much eye contact as possible while continuing to monitor the boiling pasta.

“You’ve been acting guilty ever since you got me out of Lupe’s clinic,” Erik stated plainly. “And I’ve told you before you’re not to blame for the XA crashing, if that’s what this is about. Or is it something else?”

“Can we not talk about this?” Charles directed his question to the boiling water, rather than Erik. “You’ve suffered enough,” Erik continued, despite Charles’ protest. “You’ve done nothing but help, and now it’s like you’re trying to buy forgiveness or something with the S1000. Isn’t it enough that you’ll probably never get full function of your wrist back?”

“Erik.” Charles looked up from the saucepan and shook his head with slow exaggeration. “Which part of ‘I don’t want to talk about this’ is eluding you?”

Erik’s eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched. A moment later, he released his gritted teeth. “When can we talk about it?”

“Stubborn.” Charles sighed. He wiped his brow with the back of his hand. “Not tonight. Just… not tonight.”

“When?” There was no getting around Erik, but Charles was determined to dodge his inquiries as long as possible.

“Can I just promise you we’ll talk when I’m ready?” Charles tried for stern, but his tone made the question sound more exasperated than he wanted. “It takes me time to work through things like this. You should have seen me after I thought you died: I hated motorcycles for ten years.”

Erik stare didnt waver even for an instant. “What if you’re never ready?”

The pasta received a thorough and unnecessary stirring in response. Charles cast his gaze back down and pressed at his mouth with the knuckles of his free hand. He had no answer to give. So far he was doing a terrible job of assuaging his guilt by trying to fix up Erik’s life instead of telling him about the FBI agent. He needed to work on the passport. He didn’t want to work on the passport.

Why couldn’t the S1000 take away his guilt? Like the buying of an Indulgence? He sighed and dropped the wooden spoon in order to rub at his face with both hands. Probably for the same reason his mother’s expensive gifts and addiction to alcohol never fixed a loveless and abusive second marriage.

Charles didn’t look back up until he heard the race resume. By the time it did, he discovered the pasta was far softer than either of them liked. Little was said over dinner, nothing during the race, and Charles was the only one to say good-night when they went to bed.

Though a deep sleeper, Charles woke when Erik sat up with a mouthful of angry German expletives tumbling from his mouth.

“Erik,” Charles murmured, placing a reassuring hand on Erik’s heated back. Back when they were on the run together, Max had frequent and terrible nightmares that would wake them both when their intensity would creep from his mind and into his limbs. Erik still had them, but they were less frequent. “Nightmare?”

“No, the squid on the ZX6,” Erik snarled, twisting to move the blinds aside and cast a murderous glare through the glass pane and metal screen between them. “Last time I stayed the night, he left before I could knock some sense into him.”

The answer startled Charles. He hadn’t heard the enthusiastic revver outside the apartment for over four months. As a consequence, he’d assumed the young man no longer came by the complex at ungodly hours.

“It sounds like your old bike, doesn’t it?” Charles asked fondly. He slid his hand up Erik’s back to his still-tender shoulder and pulled. Erik let himself be subdued and pushed flat on his back again.

Another burst of raucous noise wrenched the night’s stillness apart, but it had a fading quality: the revver was leaving. Charles dropped a kiss in the dip between Erik’s shoulder and clavicle. The space was usually where he placed his head to sleep and kisses had come to be, in his mind, the equivalent to fluffing up a pillow.

Erik shrugged the opposite shoulder and reached to thread his fingers through Charles’ sleep-mussed hair. “It isn’t that uncommon an exhaust note for an old in-line four with a Yoshimura exhaust. But you’re right, it sounds like my old ZX6.” He still sounded irritable, but Charles could feel the tension bleeding from his muscles.

“It used to wake me up,” Charles said quietly. He leaned over Erik’s chest and looked into his eyes. “It was terribly upsetting.”

“What changed?” Erik asked, raking his fingers through Charles’ unruly locks of hair.

“I don’t know.” Charles replied. He gave Erik a smile that he hoped expressed his sincerity. “Probably you.”

Erik closed his hand in Charles’ hair and tugged gently. His expression softened greatly; the tension from earlier retreated. “Then, would slow, lazy sex put you at ease?”

Charles hummed in pleasure at the pull of his hair and Erik’s offer. “Can I have the slow, lazy sex even if I’m already at ease?”

Erik released Charles’ hair and laid his hand across the back of his neck instead. His eyes were already dilated due to the dark, but his voice was husky, “You shouldn’t have to ask.”

“Then I won’t,” Charles whispered and pressed an open-mouthed kiss to Erik’s sternum which he followed up with a tender press of his lips to Erik’s.

Charles had made out with Erik before, but as they lay together, facing each other on their sides, he was touched by how gentle Erik had learned to be in his kissing and foreplay. He wasn’t always concerned with conquering Charles’ mouth or body with shows of force or endurance. Instead, he took things easy, as promised.

Erik caressed, kissed, and sucked Charles’ freckled skin until Charles begged quietly for more. There was no rush to grasp Charles’ achingly hard cock, though when he did it was with a kind of gentle firmness that was unique to him as a lover. Eyes half-closed, Charles let himself go when Erik enclosed both their cocks in his hand. He sighed and gasped breathily as Erik struck a slow, languorous rhythm that made his hips strain forward and his toes curl in the sheets.

It wasn’t until much later that Charles fell back asleep, but when he did it was with the soothing rhythm of Erik’s heart under his ear. 

The next time Charles woke up, it was to his doorbell ringing and Erik’s elbow in his ribs. “Get the door.”

Cursing incoherently, Charles rolled out of bed and fumbled for his sleep pants. He found Erik’s first and, shrugging, pulled them on. The waistband bit into his hips and the cloth strained over his muscular thighs. Charles wasn’t one to care about his appearance in the morning, but the length in the pant legs necessitated cuffing them.  The top shirt from the hamper was actually his, so he made it out of the bedroom door, pulling the garment over his head as he went.

On his way through the living room to the front door, he smoothed the shirt down over his stomach and checked the clock. Nearly half past nine was too early for Raven, but not too early for murder if it was her.

Throwing the lock and latch, Charles opened the door and winced as the morning sun blazed past the unfamiliar woman at his door. “Christ, it’s early. What could you possibly want?”

“Two government-issued forms of picture ID, if you’re Charles F. Xavier so I can release this package to you.” The woman held up a sturdy envelope and a scanner. She did not seem very friendly or appreciative of her welcome, such as it was.

Charles wasn’t expecting a package. He blinked several times, grimaced severely, and looked more closely at the woman. Her uniform was affiliated with a courier service unfamiliar to him: neither UPS, DHS, nor FedEx. Charles felt suddenly uneasy. What if she was there to kill him or Erik?

“Let me just,” he began, looking at her hands and forearms: she certainly seemed fit, with wiry forearms and callused hands. “Let me just get my wallet.”

She nodded and Charles closed the door. For a moment he stood there and looked through the door’s peephole to see if she would pull out a gun. She did no such thing. The courier only looked at the package with clear impatience.

Confused, he walked back to the bedroom to retrieve his wallet. Erik watched sleepily from the bed, where he was propped up on one elbow. “You look troubled.”

“Wasn’t expecting a courier,” Charles shrugged, fishing through discarded clothes for his wallet. He found it and cracked it open. Two government-issued forms of picture ID? He pulled out his driver’s license then headed for his study for his passport.

He was better prepared for the sun when he next opened the door and handed the woman both forms of identification. “I apologize for the wait; I’m not always human in the morning.”

Her demeanor softened a little, but she didn’t smile. She checked each ID against his face and her clipboard before handing them both back. Then she scanned the envelope and handed it to him. “No problem, Mr. Xavier. Have a good day.”

He nodded and closed the door again. He looked down at the envelope, but the plain brown cardstock was only labeled with his name and address. Reaching back absently, Charles turned the deadbolt, but let the latch hang freely.

Charles took the envelope’s tab and ripped it back along its perforations. Inside the envelope he saw an official document of some kind and a burgundy passport. Both were written in German.

Charles’ own passport and license fell forgotten to the floor. Fingers trembling slightly, he retrieved the passport from the envelope. Numbly, he opened it and turned past its unusual hardcover to the page that held the photo and name of the passport holder.

The name read Erik Lehnsherr and the photo was of Erik. Charles recognized Erik’s particular unsmiling expression from the photos Raven had uploaded to her Facebook one drunken night before Charles had infiltrated the Harley dealership. The whole thing had been manipulated to make it a suitable photo. But Charles was sure Raven had removed all the photos of Erik within twelve hours of uploading them. Had McTaggert been monitoring Raven’s Facebook the whole time?

Flipping past Erik’s name and photo, Charles found exit and entry stamps for England and the United States, as well as an American work visa that took up an entire page. The visa was good for three more years. It seemed the FBI agent’s goodwill hadn’t extended to permanent residency. And why would it? Erik had a criminal history of breaking and entering, theft, illegal ownership of a weapon, possession and use of illegally obtained drugs, drug-running, extortion, assault, battery, murder, and, if Kurt Marko had ever been believed, kidnapping.

Unless Erik found legitimate employment, or left for Germany, he would be back to life as an illegal immigrant in a few years. If it came to that, Charles was confident he could find Erik work. If Erik wanted it.

Though he looked through every page of the passport and both sides of what appeared to be a birth certificate, there were no notes, no evidence of whom it was from. They were unnecessary. It was obvious Moira MacTaggert had sent it. Charles didn’t care that it meant his information had helped her with the Black King. Rather, he cared that, unless he lied to Erik, Erik would learn of his involvement with the FBI and, possibly, that he’d known of his mother’s death.

Except, he was supposed to tell Erik all of that, anyway. Hadn’t he sworn there would be no more secrets? Wasn’t the passport the final barrier between his secrets and Erik? And wasn’t that barrier the whole reason he had dawdled in his inquiries for two months?

Charles stared down at the passport and birth certificate and shook his head in defiance of reality.

Could he ever be ready? Charles tipped back until his shoulders hit the door. For a small eternity, Charles stood mutely with Erik’s freedom in his hands. The truth was: he would never be ready. Ready never had been, and never would be, appropriate criteria to base his life’s choices on, let alone another person’s future.

There was no certainty that Erik would leave him once he learned the truth. Logically, he knew that, but his heart was an animal thing that only knew what it most wanted and most feared. His heart could tear him apart if he allowed it: for several months it already had.

Taking a deep breath of air, Charles pushed off from the door. He’d been living on stolen time for too long and the longer he did so, the easier it was obscure his original intent with sophistry and rationalizations. Ready or not, the time had come; to wait longer would clearly be wrong.

Charles placed both forms of identification into the brown envelope and put his first foot forward on the too short path to his bedroom. One way or another, they had both done their time; he would no longer keep Erik waiting.

Erik was sitting up naked in bed, casually inspecting the incision and stitches that held the edges of his skin together right down the center of his knee. In the indirect light from the window he looked less patchwork than he had when his road rash was in various stages of healing. Even after several months, he still had scabbing on one shoulder where skin had ground down to bones and joint. The scabbing was evidence a skin graft harvested from the opposite shoulder which hadn’t taken completely.

At Charles’ pause in the doorway, Erik looked up. “I think the stitches in my head were better than this.”

“Better than your home jobs, then?” Charles tried and failed to sound jocular. Erik noticed and looked at him in question.

Tasting his heart on the back of his tongue, Charles advanced to the bed and sat down facing the closet. Anxiety was making a noose of his lower intestines, but he twisted to the side and handed the envelope to Erik. “Actually, this is for you.”

Possibly wary due to Charles’ odd behavior, Erik took the heavy cardstock slowly. As if expecting poison, he warily parted the edges of the envelope and looked inside. Charles watched Erik’s face compose caution and curiosity with an equal part of reflexive intensity. He took the passport out first and opened the cover.

Erik’s expression turned blank and then moved on to dumbfounded. “Was…?” He set the envelope down and studied the passport for several seconds. Then he flipped through. When he came to the work visa, surprised confusion burst across his face, followed by what looked like his default anger.

Without letting go of the passport, Erik reached into the envelope and withdrew the other item: a birth certificate. He stared at it, eyes flicking across the page’s text from item to item. Charles observed, and wished he could just hang himself with his intestines instead of facing what was to come.

Finally Erik looked up. “Charles, what is this? A passport with a three-year work visa? A birth certificate from Dusseldorf? Does this have anything to do with why you’re acting so strange?”

“Yes,” Charles sighed, “and no. I’m afraid the answer is somewhat worse.”

Erik dropped the certificate and passport onto the envelope on his thighs. “Charles, I need to understand. Right now, I don’t know whether I should be happy or mad. Explain this.”

“You asked last night if I would ever be ready to tell you,” Charles began, face turned down. His eyes fastened to the floor as his fingers engaged in a losing battle of smoothing out the gathers of cloth at the bend in each knee. “I’m going to tell you even though I’m not ready.”

There was a moment of silence as Charles grasped for his confession. Erik filled it with a command. “Charles, look at me.”

Charles did not. “Erik, the Sunday after that first night at Cherry Bomb? That morning, right after you and I talked, I found somebody I didn’t know in my office. She was at my desk, with my work computer on.”

Despite himself, Chalres glanced at Erik. A shock ran through him at Erik’s expression; he’d forgotten what it was like to be at the mercy of Erik’s intense gaze. Though he had yet to reveal the damning information, he already felt skewered.

“She was looking for information on somebody named Shaw. She was a federal agent.”

Erik’s face lost color, but his expression did not change. “Charles, what have you done?”

“They were watching you, but then I showed up and it seemed suspicious to them, considering our past,” Charles defended weakly. He knew it sounded pathetic, but he was too emotional to care. “She told me you were from Dresden. She hinted at ties to the Russian Mafia. She even told me that somebody named Max Eisenhardt had died in Tel Aviv in a gunfight.”

“Who was watching me?” Erik asked in a soft, yet terribly calm voice. “What federal agent was watching me?”

“The security guard, Stryker, is a retired agent,” Charles said. “He must have looked me up just like he looked you up. Out of bored vindictiveness or something equally stupid. It doesn’t matter. He told the agent, MacTaggert, and she came to investigate.”

“And what did you tell her?” Erik’s voice remained deathly calm, hushed.

“I told her I would try to provide information that would help against Shaw, but I wanted you left out of it. Really, she was only interested in you for your connection to him.”

“What did you give her, Charles?”

“I gave her the New York post office box address from your letters,” Charles said and ran his hand through his hair in agitation. “I told her about the air race and which airports he might have used. In return, I wanted a passport for you.”

Erik lifted the passport and thrust it in Charles’ face. “This is from the FBI? I suppose three years was generous of her. Scheiße, Charles, your fame might protect you, but do you have any idea, any at all, what would happen to me if it came out where I got this passport from? That DVD would look like a kindergarten Christmas recital.”

“But it won’t come out!” Charles insisted, pushing Erik’s hand away. “She told me she would never reveal me, let alone you.”

Erik picked up the envelope and tossed the passport and certificate inside. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and retrieved his boxer briefs. “I could forgive you this entire, naïve episode, Charles. I could.”

Charles watched blankly as Erik pulled the briefs on then went for the loose basketball shorts Alex had bequeathed him. “You could?”

“But you lied.” Erik’s voice was arctic in character; whole blizzards were held in each word. “You never told me. I forgave you for stealing and watching the DVD, because I thought you told me everything. I thought I could trust you. Scheiße, you seemed so fucking sincere.”

Pushing off the bed, Erik lurched unsteadily to his feet. Charles stood instantly, hands instinctively going to steady him. With a hard sweep of his left hand Erik knocked Charles’ hands away and barked with all the heat his voice had previously lacked: “Don’t touch me!

The force of Erik’s contact against his hands wasn’t as shocking as his raw shout. “Erik…!”

“Shut up, Charles,” Erik snarled, covering his face with one wide-splayed hand in a sort of angry defeat. “Just shut up. I don’t want to hear your voice. I don’t want to see your face.”

Charles flinched a step back and nearly tripped and fell over the bed. His heart hammered in his chest. He paused, torn between pride and humility. Part of him wanted to tuck in and eat his deserved rejection. A smaller, stronger, part given life years ago with Max’s death, wanted to stand up and fight to keep Erik. Both made equal sense to Charles. He stood, frozen in agonized indecision.

Erik hissed in angry pain as he limped forward and snatched his t-shirt from Charles’ hamper and pulled it over his head. He turned and took the phone Charles had bought him from the nightstand and immediately placed a call. While he waited, he pinched the phone between his ear and shoulder and grabbed his keys and began prying at the key ring.

“Pick me up,” Erik said into the phone. He continued after a short pause. “Do I sound like I care? You can either bring him with you or he can leave.”

As he watched Erik talk, Charles made quick internal negotiations with his conflicting emotions. He remembered the confrontation at Carefree highway and reasoned Erik again needed his space if Charles wanted a chance at reconciliation. Though the idea of reconciliation was so unlikely as to appear a desert mirage.

When Erik was done with the call, he turned the phone off and tossed it on the bed. He finished working the key to Charles’ apartment off his key ring and dropped it on the bed, too. The keys to the S1000RR stayed on the table. He did, however, take the envelope when he limped from the bedroom as well as the prescription bottles he’d received after his knee surgery.

Charles followed mutely, hating the way Erik was limping, his body taut with pain and anger. He watched without words from the living room as Erik sat at the kitchen nook to slip on socks and shoes then, using the wall as a support, limped to the door. Going down the stairs would be a feat Erik could manage without help, but Charles followed anyway.

“If you don’t call me in three days,” Charles stated as Erik went outside, “I’ll call you.”

Erik slammed the door shut in reply. The force of the wood hitting the frame sounded like a gunshot; it knocked a clock off the wall.

Charles slumped to the floor and dropped his face into his hands. He tried to imagine ways it could have gone worse, but had little success.

It was hard to concentrate. He was not his normal exuberant self in classes. His TA had asked multiple times if he was feeling sick. In fact he was, but explaining to his TA that he was afflicted with heart sickness did not fit his pride’s criteria of professional behavior. Blubber to friends he would eventually do, but not to an undergrad.

Prof, srsly, wtf? You wanna meet?

Charles dropped his phone on the bed and picked Erik’s back up. He scrolled through the messages Erik sent him for the eighth time that night. The height of romance was a message that contained a video Erik had taken of Sean trying to start the Triple after the throttle had been switched. Most of Erik’s messages were utilitarian in nature as were his photos.

Under Erik’s video file, however, Charles found a movie of himself sucking Erik’s cock in the Tacoma after they’d gone trail riding in the desert. It had been Charles’ idea and though Erik had once said he would never film receiving a blowjob, Charles had finally won him over by reminding him Erik’s face wouldn’t appear.

Erik had said he would delete the video; Charles didn’t mind that he hadn’t. It was interesting to see himself at lascivious work. He had enjoyed giving Erik the ridiculously dramatized blowjob. Charles tried to watch it, but hearing Erik’s groans and gasps for air and his own hums of pleasure made him feel simultaneously sick and hard when he only wanted the simplicity of wallowing in misery.

His phone pinged again. He checked it automatically.

What’s going on? Are you okay?

Charles dropped his phone once more and rolled over in bed. It was Monday night but Angel had started texting Saturday. Raven always messaged him, but she’d started asking him if he’d had a fight with Erik around the same night. It was obvious Angel had told her there was a ‘situation’. Unfortunately, where Raven was able to take a hint and wait to talk about something, Angel had no such constraints. At least she only tried a few times each evening.

Erik’s phone buzzed with a message. Charles checked it on reflex.

Asshole, I promise to give you a chance.

Charles sighed and dropped Erik’s phone and picked up his own. Prove it. He then shoved his face into the pillow that still smelled like Erik. He hadn’t even washed the sheets despite the mess they’d made of them Friday night.

A moment later his phone pinged again. Charles sighed a moist breath into the pillowcase and lifted his head up. Angel had sent him a file. Curious, he opened it, expecting anything but what he saw: a picture of Erik.

Sheets fled Charles’ skin as he shot upright with a gasp. Angel had broken her promise to Erik. On the screen Erik was asleep on the couch, one arm over his eyes and a bottle of Ketel 1 held loosely at his side. As he stared another message came through.

Proof enough?

Sighing, Charles shook his head. Angel was obviously more invested than he expected. I want to tell you what happened, but I can’t. I did something on the same scale as the dvd incident in the same time period. But I didn’t tell him until Saturday morning.

Angel’s next text was a long time in coming. Probably because she finally had his attention and he was reduced to staring at his phone in anticipation. After ten minutes of staring, though, he decided it wasn’t coming at all and pushed both phones off the bed and onto the floor.

The next morning he awoke to find she had sent several messages in the night.

It’s hard to be mad at you when I don’t know what you did, you know? I just know I should be.

What you did must be fucked up, but here’s the deal. You and I are still friends and we’re going to hang out. In maybe a couple weeks, I’ll feel Erik out for you, okay?

Charles stared at the message and nodded to himself. He wasn’t going to call Erik like he said he would; he would trust Angel’s judgment. She had, after all, spent far more time with him than Charles had. Rolling his bottom lip across his top teeth, Charles sent a message back.

Angel, you are aptly named. Clubbing in Scottsdale this weekend?

Deus intra Machinam no longer used the university lot for stunting practice; much to Darwin and Hank’s mutual disappointment. Darwin liked to watch and socialize with Deus, and Hank, well, he obviously enjoyed Alex’s presence.

Charles had known his revelation about the crotchety security guard would net their departure from the grounds. Logically he knew it had nothing to do with Erik’s anger with him. Emotionally, it was a different story. The loss of their ruckus made the university far too still and intolerably contemplative on Sundays. Charles stopped going to the school Sundays, too. Charles took to driving to Glendale on the weekends to see Raven instead.

October was a long month, particularly when Hallowe’en came and went without Erik. The things they had talked about doing together, like going to LA for haunted houses, aggrieved Charles more than anything else.

The weekend before Hallowe’en he brought Angel, Sean, and Cupcake with him to visit Raven. They did LA’s haunted tour and hit as many theatrical haunted houses as possible. It was only awkward when Sean accidentally mentioned things couldn’t be too bad with Erik, since he hadn’t taken smoking up again. Even then, it might have been fine had Raven not taken the opportunity to declare smoking didn’t kill some people fast enough.

Weeks later, the craze of the presidential election was over and Phoenix was far less warm. The sun was as bright as Charles’ hope was dim. There were now two unridden motorcycles chained in the same carport space. Alex had brought the Triple back from Erik’s garage where, at one time, it had waited for Charles. He had yet to list either one for sale, though he had started to do so half a dozen times.

After two months with no direct word from Erik, Charles started to look forward to June and his return to Oxford. Angel had not given up trying to talk to Erik about Charles, but she had little luck and no progress. Erik had taken to shutting himself up in his workshop to focus exclusively on engine work or spent days at a time on dyno tuning. Angel suspected Erik was spending nights up by the airport in a motel or possibly, and more likely, the workshop where he kept the dyno.

It wasn’t until a week after Thanksgiving, that Charles received a text from a number he didn’t recognize. It was Saturday and he was doing the unthinkable; cleaning his university-leased apartment. His phone pinged, but thinking it was just an overworked Raven bitching more about a bad batch of alginate, he continued with laundry and clearing out old cartons of take out.

As he waited for the dryer, Charles cracked a beer and settled on the couch to zone out with his laptop. First, though, he checked his phone for messages. There was only one, which he opened as he tipped the bottle against his lips.

5:00 at the place across from the museum.

Charles choked on his beer and ended up with most of the cold liquid soaking into his cardigan and pants and splashing off his closed laptop. In a panic, he jerked his knees up, to slide the laptop onto the couch, set the beer on the coffee table and rushed to the kitchen for paper towels.

He sopped the beer up with shaking hands and an abundance of swearing. The museum referenced in the message was Phoenix’s art museum on McDowell and the place opposite was Thai Hut. Erik was the only person he’d gone to either place with.

Conflicting emotions fought for territory in his chest. He wanted to race for a shower and spend an hour going for a flawlessly casually disheveled look. He also wanted to throw his phone through the drywall. Instead he threw his cardigan and pants into the wash and turned to cleaning the beer soaked carpet and couch with furious energy.

What was Erik thinking? Why invite him to a place so familiar to the two of them? Perhaps because it wasn’t Mexican; Erik wouldn’t want to take a chance on going somewhere where a PMS member’s extended family might be working. They were like a locals-only paparazzi that way. Charles counted himself lucky the women hadn’t said anything about the break up to him. They kept him involved, but slowly their messages had dwindled until only the student segment of the crew messaged him regularly.

At five on a Saturday the quirky restaurant probably wouldn’t be too busy, though the overwhelming urban quality of the area during the Christmas season could make things congested. Phoenix was already loading up with snowbirds from all over the country, how much worse would that make meeting at their once-favorite Thai spot?

What were they even meeting to discuss? Did Erik want the clothes he’d left? The S1000? His copy of Speed Tribes? Charles had almost thrown it away, had thrown the book into a waste bin in a fit of rage only to fish it out the next day.

Concluding that he had no idea at all what Erik could possibly want, he made no special preparations. The beer spill necessitated a shower, but he wore nothing noteworthy. No ‘fuck me’ blue cardigan, no t-shirt from Raven: black cardigan over jeans and a white button up. At 4:30 he walked out to his car with a bag of Erik’s clothes in his left hand. He had the book under his right arm since still couldn’t trust his right hand to hold anything with his arm extended.

The traffic was thick on the highway and without a passenger, he couldn’t use the HOV lane. Most of the slow-moving traffic was headed for Scottsdale or other shopping centers. Fortunately, Charles didn’t have far to go; McDowell was only a few exits away.

Though he arrived fifteen minutes early to secure the advantage of choosing the seating arrangements, Charles saw Erik’s blue R6 was already present in the former diner’s half empty parking lot. More nervous than he wanted to be, he left the bag of clothes and the book in the Acura and went in through the restaurant’s east entrance.

He thought he should be used to his heart beating erratically when it came to a life lived close to dangerous people like Erik, but he wasn’t. It still made him a little dizzy when he walked through the door and saw Erik in all his leather-jacketed glory. He looked as devastatingly handsome as ever.

Erik was not sitting in their usual spot along the counter, but at a booth near the door closest to his motorcycle. Charles wasn’t sure what it meant. Perhaps Erik was feeling paranoid, like he often had in the old days, but he didn’t seem suspicious when he saw Charles heading toward him.

Charles searched Erik’s face as he looked up, but saw only Erik’s usual mysterious demeanor. He felt Erik search him in turn, but Charles made no attempt to show anything but wary curiosity. His eyes, he was pleased to note, were totally dry.

Erik did not gesture to a seat, but Charles had to remind himself not to sit next to him.

“Are we ordering?” Charles asked, pretending that everything was fine, that Erik had not shut him completely out of his life for two months. That he didn’t want to attack Erik or beg him for forgiveness.

Erik shrugged. “I planned on it, but you do what you want.”

Charles turned and motioned one of the waitresses over to take their order. She smiled slightly, recognizing them.

Once their orders were placed, and glasses of water delivered, Erik cut to the chase. “Do you know what this is about or do I need to explain it?”

“I have no idea,” Charles admitted. His voice was carefully neutral, despite the dread he was feeling. “I have certain hopes concerning forgiveness and reconciliation, but those seem unlikely.”

“I thought you listened to the news everyday.” Erik frowned and looked away from Charles’ face. There was a flicker of something in his eyes, but the emotion quickly vacated.

Charles frowned in confusion. What did the news have to do with anything? “I got out of the habit with the election.” It wasn’t exactly untrue, he’d simply stopped listening to American news sources as the election news saturated every imaginable source.

Erik’s nod seemed unconsciously commiserating. He refocused his gaze on Charles. “Then you haven’t heard about Sebastian Shaw’s indictment.”

Charles stared. A confused burst of emotions fired throughout his mind and heart and rendered his lips totally useless.

“It was only mentioned briefly on the networks two days ago,” Erik continued. “I thought you would have heard that he’s being held without bail, for charges like kidnapping for the purpose of prostitution, money laundering, fraud, murder; the usual. The list is long and, eventually, it will include possession of stolen goods, such as his motorcycle collection. Even if they can’t get him for anything else, they can get him for tangible stolen property.”

“What…” Charles was too stunned to continue his sentence and had to try again once he’d calmed. “What does this mean—?” The second time he stopped purposely, ruthlessly biting off his heart’s intended for us.

Erik picked up his glass of water and took a long drink before answering. “It means Shaw will likely go to prison for thirty to seventy years, because the FBI, if Azazel’s friend, Quested, is to be believed, was able to track Azazel’s movements, and thereby Shaw’s.”

“I’m glad he’s going to go to prison.” Unbidden, one of Charles’ hands advanced across the table toward Erik’s. At the last moment he redirected it to his own glass of water. He hated himself for being hopeful. He fiddled with the plastic tumbler turning it slowly on the table with the tips of his square fingers. “But what I really want to know is what this has to do with you and me?”

“It doesn’t really mean anything for us,” Erik said.

It was as if Charles’ heart was struck by lightning. His hand dragged across the table as he fell back, his spine cracked against his chair. His jaw felt tight and began to tense with frustrated emotion. He needed to tell Erik to fuck off. He needed to tell him that leaving meant never contacting him ever again. A relationship like theirs either had to crash and burn or go strong until the journey had some ultimate end. Hope was more like a cancer, burning him up from the inside.

“But, there’s one thing that does.”

Charles didn’t even recognize the hope the comment offered, so thoroughly did the prior one devastate him.

“Did you continue to inform the agent even after you understood what the DVD was?”

Charles nodded. He answered automatically, hardly thinking about what he was saying. “I stopped after you agreed to give me a second chance. I didn’t mind risking my life if it meant I could free you, but I didn’t want to sneak around behind your back any more. I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize what we had.”

“Then you should know that if my mother hadn’t died, you would have freed me from my sponsor. However,” and Erik paused, focused and intent on Charles, “that was always your intent. I’ve come to think the end justified the means. So tell me one last thing.”

Charles stared, flabbergasted and bewildered. And hopeful, he hated it, but he was hopeful. Anger and frustration built up, causing his left leg to jitter nervously under the table. “What could you possibly want to know? I fucked up and now you’re ripping my heart out of my chest with possibilities I can’t bloody well grasp, Erik! What do you want?”

Erik leaned forward across the table, eyes focused and intent. He opened his recalcitrant mouth and he asked, “Will you take me back?”

The words were galvanizing. Charles stood abruptly, his chair hurtling behind him and hitting the floor with a clatter. Without thought for the scene he was creating or the property damage he was incurring, he knocked the table aside. Bottles of hot sauce, the tumblers and their water, napkins, all flew wide as the table crashed against the floor. Erik’s eyes rounded slightly in what had to be shock. He leaned back as if bracing for a violent attack, but with his back to the wall, he had nowhere to go. So when Charles collided bodily with him, he only remained upright thanks to the wall his back slammed against.

Erik’s tall frame was rigid for only a moment as Charles’ arms slid around his neck, his cardigan sleeves bunching back against Erik’s black leather. Then his body language turned warm and receptive as Charles rested his weight on Erik’s shoulders. Charles went up on his toes and slammed their mouths together. And if Charles broke their lips open with the violence of his kiss, that was okay; it was a reunion he would gladly wear, blood he would happily mingle, and a pain far more tender than a lifetime of joy apart.

Vaguely, Charles felt Erik’s arms answer his embrace, curling tight around his thicker waist and lift him up until his feet left the floor. There was shock and some outrage in the restaurant, but that, of course, was nothing new.

It was Thursday after chess club and Richard LaCroix and Charles Xavier were sitting in Mrs. LaCroix’s Impala outside the local café. He and Charles had the windows up, the AC running, and the last bit of Queen’s ‘We Are the Champions’ dying out over the radio. Earlier they had driven with the windows down, sharing a menthol Virginia Slim from a pack they’d found stashed in the glove box, and talked like gangsters.

Charles was thrilled. Since Kurt wouldn’t, Richard had agreed to teach him how to drive now that Charles had his learner’s permit. They were the same age, but Richard seemed somehow older despite being a grade junior to Charles. Having advanced a grade, Charles was the youngest and last in his class at their private school to drive.

Switching off the radio, the two stepped out of the car and made ready to walk in to the café where Charles had consented to tutor Richard’s study group. As they went for the door they both heard the harsh consonants of a foreign language. Raising an eyebrow, Charles turned to seek out the speaker.

At a pay phone to the left of the cafe’s entrance was a rangy young man with a cigarette hanging off his lip. Despite the unusual spring heat, the man was wearing a black leather jacket, steel-toe boots with duct tape wrapped around the instep of the left, and a grease-stained t-shirt. Under his arm hung a battered motorcycle helmet.

As the two high school boys watched, the young man took the half-burned cigarette from his mouth and began to gesture with it, while his tone became steadily more aggressive. There was an intensity to him that drew attention, something present and oh-so-real that Charles found himself totally mesmerized.

Richard moved closer to Charles with a frown. “I took French, what about you?”

“Latin,” Charles said, eyes fixed on the cigarette’s expressive cursive. It stopped abruptly as the stranger slammed the phone back in the payphone’s cradle. Then it glowed brightly as he put the filterless end to his lips and sucked hard.

“Oh!” Charles remarked. He was shocked at the full picture of a biker smoking, growling in German, and slamming public property around. “He looks like a criminal, doesn’t he?”

The young man’s eyebrows raised as if he understood Charles. He released the smoke from his mouth slowly, only to suck it in through his nose again. Both boys stared in awe-inspired fascination at the feat.

The awe ended the instant he flicked his still-glowing cigarette at the two of them, still clad in their school uniforms. “That’s because I am.”

“Oh,” Richard said stupidly, “you know English.”

The foreigner snorted smoke and looked down his nose at them through the cloud.

Charles, however, thrust his hand forward. “Charles Xavier. Nice to meet you, Mr…?”

The self-styled criminal raised an eyebrow at Charles, but then showed a good deal of teeth in what was either a smile or a precursor to biting Charles’ proffered hand. He seized Charles’ hand and, in a dick move, ground Charles’ knuckles together. “Max.”

Charles frowned, and jerked his hand back. “You know, that’s very rude!”

Max shrugged. “Then we are birds of a feather.”

Intrigued by Max’s frankness, Charles paused. He was uncertain what to say to somebody so completely beyond his realm of understanding. “Would you like to join us for a cup of coffee or something?”

Richard turned his head slowly to bestow an incredulous look on him. He clearly thought Charles was cracked. Charles didn’t care.

Max’s eyebrows lifted slightly. He searched Charles’ face intently then shrugged in acquiescence. “Coffee sounds good.”