“You should see the place he lives, Moira,” Charles says, leaning forward and lowering his voice slightly. The café is full of faculty and students, and he doesn’t want to air Erik’s dirty laundry in public.
“I still can’t believe you went to his house,” Moira shakes her head.
“Yes, I know. Your delicate sensibilities are shocked,” Charles drawls, earning himself a glare from his friend.
“So was it really that bad?”
“It’s not a good neighborhood,” Charles says frankly. “At all. I didn’t even know we had neighborhoods that bad.”
Moira rolls her eyes; her default reaction to any passing reference to Charles’ sheltered life.
“He’s raising a child there, Moira,” he says seriously.
“I’m surprised he can afford anything, to be honest. We know what tuition costs, after all.”
“He must have some financial aid, in his situation,” Charles reasons, but he’s already doing the math, adding up tuition, rent, transportation, and textbooks, not to mention the cost of everyday living—food and diapers and clothes for an ever-growing child. The sum he comes up with is staggering.
He and Moira wince nearly simultaneously.
“I wouldn’t want to be in his position,” Moira admits. “If I had gotten pregnant as a teenager, I don’t think I would have been able to stay in school. I thought undergrad was a nightmare just because I had to have a weekend job.”
Charles hadn’t even needed to do that much. His trust fund had kicked in at eighteen; he’s never had to worry about money a day in his life, and the fact that Erik might have to wonder how he’s going to afford food weighs heavily upon him.
“I wish I could do more to help him.”
Moira sighs. “Oh, Charles. You’ve done more than enough. More than you should have, quite frankly. And I can tell you right now that if you start offering that boy money, or whatever it is you’re thinking, you’re going to get the both of you in trouble.”
“I know—I wasn’t…I’m not going to start throwing money at my students, Moira,” Charles denies. “I meant with Lorna.”
Moira lets out a long-suffering sigh. “I’m sure she’s precious, Charles,” she says, with the kind of condescension only a woman who never wants children can muster. “But you can’t become her full-time nanny. You already have a job.”
‘Yes, Moira, I know. I’m making brilliant advances in the field of biology. Allegedly.”
“Allegedly,” she agrees good-naturedly. “Just try not being yourself for a change, and maintaining some distance.”
“I’ll do my best,” Charles offers. But his thoughts are still back in Erik’s tiny apartment, looking at the photos of Lorna on the fridge, happy and yet unaccompanied by the usual framework of family. It’s just not right, Charles thinks. She should have more people to love her. Erik should have more people to love him.
Charles can’t help but offer Erik a grin when the boy walks through his classroom door later that week. He knows Erik now, and he smiles at him the way he does all his friends before he catches himself, ducking his head quickly over his papers, slightly flustered. He hopes none of the other students notice.
When he looks up again, Erik tips him a smirk from where he has settled in the front row. Charles rolls his eyes at the boy before calling the class to attention.
They’re approaching the end of the semester, and Charles knows he needs to begin preparing them for the final exam sooner rather than later. He breaks the class up into small groups, giving them a practice quiz to go over together. Slowly he circulates the room, guiding them through the questions.
It’s all material they should know back-to-front, at this point—if they were doing all the readings and attending all the lectures, that is. His first time teaching, it had been difficult to reign in his frustration when he realized that some students didn’t know the most basic principles of biology, even this late in the semester. The first time he realized that some students would struggle with even the ‘no brainer’ questions, he was genuinely flabbergasted. Didn’t they want to do well? Now, though, he’s learned to take it in stride. He’s realized that the majority of the students will forget everything they learned for the midterm by the time the final rolls around, even though they’re less that two months apart. He’s learned that they’ll miss lectures, sleep through lectures, ignore the readings. He’s learned not to get annoyed when he’s asked the same question ten times over.
And so he patiently takes each group through the quiz, directing them to the relevant sections of their textbooks, reminding them of the answers to the midterm that they knew a few short weeks before.
When he gets to Erik’s group he leans over the boy’s desk, eyeing his quiz paper with interest. “Looks like you guys are doing pretty well,” he comments, scanning Erik’s cramped writing and seeing that the boy has most of the answers correct.
“Yeah, I guess…” One of the other boys says with a shrug. Charles looks over at his paper; unlike Erik’s, it’s half blank, and what he does have is partially wrong.
“You guys are supposed to be working together,” he says gently.
“We were,” Erik speaks up immediately. “I tried to explain number five to them…” he trails off with a shrug and a quirk of his lips, as if to say that he can’t help the stupidity of those around him.
“Yeah, well, we can’t all be the teacher’s pet,” the other boy—Alex—mutters under his breath.
Charles glances over at him, surprised. “No one’s teacher’s pet here,” he says carefully.
Erik got good grades, but he hardly ever spoke up in the class. It seems impossible to Charles that he would be branded a ‘teacher’s pet’—the words conjuring an eager brown-noser with their hand perpetually waving in the air, rather than Erik, quiet and intense, bent over his paper and ignoring the room around him.
Alex shrugs, dropping his eyes to his own paper.
“Let’s just go over the answer to number five, all together,” Charles suggests, leaning over to see what the other student’s have written.
Quiz papers are dropped on Charles’ desk as the students file out of the classroom. He’ll go over them again tonight or tomorrow, seeing where the students are weakest; that way, he’ll know how to structure his lesson plans for the next few seminar groups.
Erik approaches his desk last, laying his paper down on top of the pile. “Before I forget,” he says, pulling his backpack around to his hip so that he can rummage through it. “This must be yours, because I know it sure isn’t mine,” he laughs, extracting a book from the bag.
“Oh!” Charles says, delighted. “I was wondering where I left that.”
“Under my couch,” Erik says with a wry little laugh.
“I’m not sure I can be held responsible for where things get pushed in your apartment,” Charles reminds him. In fact, now that he thinks about it, the last time he had seen the book, Lorna had been drooling on one corner of it. He eyes the pages for saliva damage as he takes it out of Erik’s hands.
“Fair enough,” Erik agrees. “Although, if you keep leaving books like that at my place,” he nods at the thick volume in Charles’ hands, “I’ll think you’re trying to convert me to the bio major.”
“Maybe I am,” Charles laughs. “Maybe this is all just part of my master plan.”
“Cunning,” Erik smirks. “Anyway, see you next Wednesday?”
“See you then,” Charles agrees, waving the boy out of the room. He slips the books into his bag along with the stack of quiz papers and follows his students out into the hall. He waves at the ones that are still grouped by the door, chatting to each other, presumably about where/what they’re going to drink that evening.
Of course, now he knows better than to think all undergraduates lives were that simple.
Charles reads the email again, tilting his head as if that will make the message any clearer.
Dear Mr. Xavier,
Please report to my office at 9am tomorrow morning. This is a matter of some importance.
It’s completely unlike the professor to send such a formal email. Normally his missives read something along the lines of,
If Charles and the other TAs were lucky. Sometimes even three words seemed to be too much effort for the busy professor, and they’d just get an email with a number and be forced to work it out from there. (9am? Meeting on the 9th? 9 students? 9 exams? Who knew?)
Even more perplexing is that the email is addressed to Charles alone (actually, to “Mr. Xavier”, and that was strange in and of itself. Not even his students called him that). He and McCone never had meetings without the other TAs. In fact, Charles can’t think of a single time he has spoken to the man alone.
He frowns, wondering if there’s a problem with one of his students. Cheating, perhaps? He hadn’t caught anything while grading the midterm exams, but he hadn’t necessarily graded his own student’s papers. He mentally went through all sixteen of his students, wondering which one it could be. They all seemed like good kids to him, unlikely to cause trouble.
Except for Erik, of course, but now Charles knows the reason for the boy’s erratic behavior.
Perhaps that was it, then? Erik’s absences and tardiness had been noted?
He sighs, closing the browser and shutting down his laptop. He hopes it isn’t Erik, but there’s no point dwelling on it now. He’ll just have to wait until tomorrow to find out.
He does hope it isn’t something too bad, though. For all he wants desperately to be a professor, Charles knows he’s a terrible disciplinarian. He tries to be strict with the students, especially with something as serious as cheating, but he can never quite manage more than looking sadly disappointed.
Which actually has a good effect on some of the students, but not the ones who are likely to cheat in the first place.
Charles tries to push the matter out of his mind as he gathers up his papers and books, stowing his computer in his bag and readying himself for the trek out to Erik’s house. He’s actually looking forward to it, today. Somehow Lorna has wormed her way into his affections, and the thought of seeing that little smiling face does a lot to improve his mood.
Whatever Moira might say, she is precious, and the fact that he’s getting to help someone as bright and motivated as Erik just sweetens the deal.
Charles smiles to himself as he locks up his office.
“Hello, Charles,” Azazel’s rough voice greets him, making Charles jump. Even though the red-skinned man isn’t allowed to teleport within the university, he’s still stealthy as a cat.
“Hi, Azazel,” Charles replies, trying to steady his voice. The man seems to take undue pleasure in startling people.
“You look happy,” the Russian says, with a hint of suspicion to his voice. Charles fights the urge to smile. Trust the taciturn man to disapprove of smiling.
“I suppose I am,” he agrees.
“You have exciting plans for the afternoon?”
Charles pauses. “Just going to get some reading done,” he finally says. He has no problem telling Moira all about Erik and Lorna, but then, Moira is his best friend. Somehow it feels strange to divulge Erik’s personal problems to Azazel.
The man gives him a scrutinizing look. “I was wanting to compare lesson plans with you, at some time. We could get coffee.”
Charles can’t help but blink at the offer. While he has nothing against Azazel, the other TA isn’t the friendliest man in the department. He thinks over Azazel’s wording—we could get coffee—and prays to every god he can think of that he’s not being asked out on a date.
Angry, red and Russian just isn’t his type, even if he is fascinated by the man’s mutation.
“I’m actually expected somewhere,” he says, as apologetically as he can manage.
Charles grimaces. “Yes. We’re going to do some reading, together. So, I guess I’ll see you around…”
“Yes. Around,” Azazel agrees, with an inscrutable look.
The whole encounter leaves Charles feeling a bit…off, a sensation he can’t shake even as he climbs on the bus out to Erik’s apartment. Azazel hadn’t paid him much attention in the past, and now that he is, Charles is pretty sure he doesn’t want it. The way the man looked at him—cold and considering—made his nerves flare.
He gets off the bus, still in something of a daze from McCone’s email and Azazel’s odd behavior. He’ll have to talk it all over with Moira that evening, but for right now he knows he needs to focus on Lorna.
He knocks steadily on Erik’s door, but unlike last week, it isn’t immediately wrenched open under his fist.
He gives a nervous glance around, finally breaking through his own thoughts enough to register the group of young men loitering on the corner and the shopkeeper eyeing him suspiciously.
He counts to twenty in his head and then knocks again, sending his powers out as subtly as he can—just a mental brush, really—to ascertain that the people around him don’t mean him any harm, no matter how well-dressed and out of place he is.
What he finds doesn’t exactly reassure him. They’re not immediately planning to jump him, but he’s caught several people’s attention, and he’d rather be off the street, if it was all the same to everyone.
He’s just about to knock again when the door swings open and he’s confronted with Erik, shirtless and short of breath.
His hair is wet, the very ends of it curling damply against his skin. His bare chest heaves as he struggles to catch his breath, offering Charles a wry smile. “Sorry. Running late.” he shakes his head. “One of those mornings.”
Charles tries to nod while not actually looking directly at the boy.
Of all the things he expected when the semester started, ending up in one of his student’s apartments while they were half naked was not on the list.
He was positive this was against some kind of university regulation.
“Come on in,” Erik gestures, urging Charles off the street and into the cramped space of the hallway with him.
Suddenly they are much too close, and Charles can smell the fresh scent of soap on Erik’s skin, confirming the fact that the boy has just stepped out of the shower.
For a moment they stand awkwardly at the foot of the stairs, crowded close in the dim light, and Charles is struck by how tall Erik is, towering several inches above him, and broader through the shoulders than Charles, despite his slight build. It makes him seem more grown-up, somehow, imposing in a way that Charles would never consider a student.
He takes a small step back within the confines of the hall, allowing Erik to move ahead of him and lead the way up to the apartment.
It’s been a strange day, he thinks with a shake of his head, and it’s barely lunchtime.
He follows Erik up the stairs, his eyes fixed firmly on the peeling paint of the hallway. The disrepair is really shameful, and Charles considers suggesting that Erik speak to his landlord about it, before remembering that for the kind of rent Erik probably pays, this must be the standard of upkeep.
It’s a sobering thought.
The door to Erik’s apartment is propped open, and when they reach it, Charles sees tiny fingers pushing their way through the crack.
“Sweetie,” Erik says gently, a hand on the doorknob. “Can you move back a bit?”
The fingers just push forward more insistently. Charles bites his lip to hide a smile as Erik lets out an exasperated sigh and pushes the door forward an inch.
Lorna is clearly right behind the door, braced against it on her still unsteady legs. “Let daddy in,” Erik croons, pushing the door gently inwards. Lorna moves with it, and finally there’s a crack big enough for Erik to shimmy through.
Charles decidedly doesn’t think about the narrow width of the boy’s hips as he slips through the open door.
He hadn’t realized just how skinny Erik was underneath his clothing, his waist and hips impossibly small compared to the breadth of his shoulders.
Not that he makes a habit out of thinking about his students’ bodies, he reminds himself. No matter how many push-up bras some of the girls wore to his office hours.
Erik scoops Lorna up from the other side of the door and pulls it the rest of the way open for Charles. Charles gives the girl a smile when she comes into view; he wouldn’t be able to help returning her wide, toothy grin even if he wanted to.
“Can you?” Erik asks, nudging Lorna towards him.
“Oh! Of course,” Charles reaches out, letting the toddler slide into his arms with an enthusiastic “Hi!”
“I’m sorry I’m running so late,” Erik calls as he disappears into the bedroom. “I don’t know what happened. She was fussy, and then I burnt breakfast,” Charles smiles as he hears the grimace in the boy’s voice. “And then I couldn’t get the T.V. to pick up Sesame Street, and then suddenly you were knocking on the door.”
His voice is muffled for a moment and Charles can just picture him sliding a t-shirt over his head, the fabric tangling around him as he tries to keep up his steady monologue.
“It’s fine,” he calls back, walking Lorna over to her basket of toys and setting her down on the floor so that she can enthusiastically throw them all over the room. She immediately begins rooting through, digging with purpose as if she knows just what she’s looking for, and any old Elmo plush toy or kitty-themed flashcard won’t do.
Finally she unearths a worn and well-chewed stuffed cat, holding it up triumphantly for Charles’ inspection.
“Meow!” She declares. “Me-OW.”
“What a nice kitty,” Charles compliments.
“Nice!” Lorna agrees.
Erik steps out of his room, chest covered by a slim gray turtleneck. Charles has never seen the boy in more than a t-shirt, but the weather has turned decidedly cold in the last week, and the turtleneck is infinitely more practical. It’s also somehow more figure-conscious, skimming the lines of his lean, athletic body. Charles coughs and turns back to Lorna.
“Ready for class?” he asks.
“Yeah,” Erik agrees absentmindedly, packing his back. “Group project went well this week. I think we’ll get an A.”
Charles smiles as the tips of Erik’s ears go pink. “Well, hopefully, anyway,” the boy amends modestly.
“I’m sure you’ll do fine. You’re very bright.” Charles gives him a conspiratorial grin. “I don’t mind telling you that you scored much higher on your practice quiz than the rest of your group.”
Nevermind that they were meant to be working together, he tells himself. He’s had his fair share of bad group partners over the years, and he can sympathize with Erik forging ahead with his own education. Besides, as much as Charles tries to like all of his students, the Summers boy seemed to be deliberately giving Erik a hard time in class the previous week.
“Really?” Erik’s face brightens. “That’s a relief for the final, anyway. Wouldn’t do to lose my financial aid.”
“That’s grades-based?” Charles wonders. He’s never had to worry about such things, although he’s seen his fair share of friends filling out long and tedious forms.
“It’s just a minimum GPA,” Erik says sheepishly. “Shouldn’t’ be hard to keep up with, but…” he shrugs, hesitating over his words. “I always seem to worry.”
“I would, too,” Charles tells him honestly.
Erik gives him a small smile and then shoulders his bag. “Alright, I’m only…” he glances at the clock in the microwave. “…kind of late. I’ll see you in two hours or so?”
“Have a good class,” Charles agrees. “We’ll be fine.”
Erik swoops in to kiss Lorna, brushing close to Charles, and then he’s out the door.
Charles stares at the door in his wake.
“You’re father’s quite good-looking, you know that?” he tells Lorna with a sigh.
She ignores him in favor of her cat toy, which is probably for the best.
Charles settles down on the floor next to her, wishing, not for the first time in his life, that his powers worked on himself. Then he could just erase the memory of Erik’s damp, bare chest from his mind, and wouldn’t that be easier for everyone?
Instead, he spends the next thirty minutes or so decidedly not thinking about it and thus thinking about it constantly.
Lorna’s in a fine mood, systematically removing each of her toys from their basket and handing them to Charles to be admired and praised. Eventually, the routine of it, the smile on her little face and the pleased way she shows off her belongings drives everything else out of Charles’ head.
He loses himself in Lorna, amazed by her capacity to pick up sounds and movements from Charles, copying and learning and laughing and playing. He can suddenly understand how people stay home with their children all day. By the time she begins to fuss for a drink, he’s shocked to see that almost an hour has gone by, and he’s thought of nothing but the books he’s reading her, the pictures they’re drawing, and the way she’s learning. How Erik ever gets schoolwork done is a mystery to Charles. When Lorna is in a good mood, he can’t imagine the boy would want to do anything but play with her. And when she’s in a bad mood…well, he’s positive not much work gets done.
He pictures Erik locked away in his tiny bedroom while Lorna sleeps, trying to get everything done that he wasn’t able to during the day.
“Your father must work very hard,” he tells the girl, stroking gently over her hair.
“Da!” she agrees cheerfully, pulling her juice out of her mouth for only a second.
As she drinks, Charles wanders over to the stack of books on Erik’s kitchen table, seeing the familiar Introduction to Biology text right on top. Charles knows the book backwards and front—Dr. McCone had written several of the chapters in it, and thus it was the only text he ever assigned—so he pushed it aside to see what else the boy was studying.
Most of the stack was engineering books, with some that Charles figured had to be extracurricular reading—they looked far too advanced for freshman courses. He was impressed, yet again, by both Erik’s intelligence and his commitment to his education.
But, of course, he had motivation that most nineteen year olds didn’t—needing to support a child all by himself. Of course he would work hard to learn the skills necessary for a good career. It was Lorna’s future that was at stake, even more than his own.
Charles glances down at the homework that Erik’s left out, and smiles when he sees one of his own course sheets half-completed. He can see immediately that number seven isn’t quite right and without much thought he picks up a pencil and scrawls a note in the margin, pointing out the boy’s error.
It’s only after he puts the pencil down that he realizes that this isn’t quite the same as marking the work after Erik’s already handed it in. Still, he tells himself firmly, he’s done no more than he would if Erik had come to his office hours, seeking help on the assignment. If it means the boy gets one more point on a small assignment, well then, that’s not such a big deal.
Charles hears a bottle hit the ground and turns back to see Lorna giving him a very moist smile.
“All done, hmm?” he arches an eyebrow at her before stooping to pick up the bottle rolling on the floor.
Lorna ignores the censure, merely agreeing, “Done!” before turning back to her own books.
It’s clear, of the two of them, who’s in charge. Charles obediently settles beside her on the couch and begins to read.
Promptly an hour and a half after he left, Erik lets himself back into the apartment, at a much more leisurely pace than the previous week.
Charles is flattered that Erik trusts him enough not to come running home. The boy no longer looks like he expects the place to be in flames, or Charles to have run off at the first sign of trouble. Lorna has begun to fuss—rubbing at her eyes insistently—but on the whole, she had been easy for him. He understands, though, that it must take tremendous effort to trust someone with his child, after the way Lorna’s mother left them.
“Everything okay?” Erik asks as he lets himself in.
Erik smiles, the soft smile he reserves just for his daughter. Charles is secretly pleased to be sitting next to Lorna and in range of that expression, so gentle and tender on Erik’s otherwise serious face.
He settles down on the other side of Lorna, reaching out a finger for her to wrap her tiny hand around. “Were you a good girl?”
“She was great,” Charles assures him, knowing he should begin to gather his belongings, but unable to look away from the tableau of Erik and his daughter, smiling at one another. Lorna reaches her arms out and Erik pulls her into his lap. She ducks her head against his neck, closing her eyes blissfully as she snuggles into him.
“What a sweet girl,” Charles says, when what he really means is how sweet they both are, together.
He knows Erik wouldn’t enjoy being called sweet, however.
“A sleepy girl,” Erik counters, rising steadily off the couch despite his burden and taking Lorna over to the crib. “She’s been changed?”
“Just fifteen minutes ago,” Charles agrees. He’s struck, suddenly, by how domestic the scene is, the three of them here in Erik’s apartment.
Unlike the first few times he watched Lorna, in the café, he feels completely at ease, comfortable with her, with Erik, and with their surroundings.
It’s nice, he realizes.
He gathers his belongings—doing a more thorough check this week—as Erik settles Lorna into bed, and then waits by the door. After a moment, Erik turns to him, nodding towards the door. Charles lets himself out, and is pleased when the boy follows.
“How was class?” he asks in the hall.
“Always the teacher,” Erik chides, but he’s smiling as he says it.
Still, it reminds Charles how strange this situation is. He is Erik’s teacher.
“Class was good,” Erik says quickly, perhaps reading the expression on Charles’ face. “I kind of can’t wait until I’m out of the intro courses, though.”
Charles laughs, the awkward moment forgotten. “You’ll regret saying that in a year,” he tells him with certainty.
Erik laughs, too; Charles is always delighted to see the boy at ease like this, not worrying about school or his daughter or the other cares that must weigh upon him. He seems carefree the way a teenager should.
Charles wishes, suddenly, that he had more of a chance to get to know Erik. Of course, he knows more about the boy than any of his other students, but he doesn’t know him like a friend would. He knows aspects of his life, the hardships he faces, and the love his has for his child. But he doesn’t know what kind of food Erik likes, or what movies he watches, or what he likes to do with a free afternoon. He doesn’t know what books he reads that aren’t textbooks, or what he was like growing up.
He thinks, perhaps, he could suggest they hang out, some time outside of class. But the moment he thinks it, he stops himself. How would Erik manage, first of all? He has enough trouble just getting to class, with Lorna, let alone trying to add socializing to his calendar.
And, then, of course, Charles remembers that he is Erik’s teacher. Getting a coffee, having lunch, seeing a movie…these are not things teachers and students do. So he clamps down on the thought and instead gives the boy a restrained smile. “I guess I should get going,” he offers.
He tells himself he’s imagining that Erik looks slightly disappointed.
“Yeah, okay. I’ll see you in class, then?”
“I certainly hope so,” Charles agrees, earning another smile, albeit a little rueful.
“Thanks again, for today,” Erik says, as he trails Charles down the stairs to the front door.
“It’s not a problem. I enjoy it.”
“Thanks all the same,” Erik insists.
Charles knows it’s a point of pride for the boy; knows that if he could afford it, he would try to pay Charles for his time.
“See you soon, Erik,” Charles tells him warmly, as he steps out onto the street.
He turns, hearing the door swing shut behind him a moment later.
Charles struggles into school the next morning, cursing the ungodly hour of nine a.m. He’s lucky he lives so close to campus, he knows. It only takes him five minutes to reach the biology department, meaning that he was able to sleep until nearly 8:15 and still have time for a shower and his morning cup of tea.
He knocks firmly on Professor McCone’s door, listening closely to hear the usual grunted response from instead.
When he swings the door open, he hesitates, surprised to see McCone sitting behind his desk, watching the door intently. Normally the professor is distracted, barely looking up from his papers, when Charles stops by.
“Xavier, come in,” the man gestures to the seat across from him. Charles enters the office with a frown. The professor’s behavior is just off, and he wishes, yet again, that he could use his powers, open himself up to the emotions in the room, coming off of the professor in nearly palpable waves.
Instead, he has to deal with the situation just like anyone else, shuffling to the proffered seat and settling in, looking at the man expectantly.
McCone’s face is serious, and Charles wonders how bad an infraction one of his students has committed.
“So,” Dr. McCone says once Charles is seated, folding his hands on the table in front of him. “I’ve had reports that you’re having an inappropriate relationship with one of your students.”