Chapter 1: Chapter One
Charles scans his seminar group, doing a quick headcount. Fifteen. He glances towards the clock and sighs. It’s already five after. He thinks it isn’t too much to ask for all the students to at least show up for the first day. Still, it isn’t fair to keep the rest of the class waiting for just one student.
Gathering his notes, he calls the group to attention, fifteen sets of eyes immediately focusing in on him. It’s his third semester as a TA, and he still finds himself flustered under the collective gaze of his students.
The first day is always largely administrative: handing out the syllabus, going over attendance and coursework policies, letting them know the date of the exam so far in advance that it was impossible for them to claim a conflict at the end of term.
Still, he has hopes of delving into at least some of the course material, letting the students know what they’d be in for.
After thirty minutes of the same ridiculous questions about missed classes and coursework that he fields every term, Charles checks the time and grins. He still has twenty minutes.
Just as he reaches for his lecture notes, the door slams open, revealing a tall, hard-eyed boy. He doesn’t even have the decency to look ashamed as all the eyes in the room turn towards him.
“Sorry,” the boy mumbles half-heartedly. “I had—“
“Take a seat,” Charles firmly cuts him off. They always have excuses. If he accepted every one, no one would ever come to class on time. “You must be Erik Lehnsherr,” he glances down at his attendance sheet. “You’re over half an hour late, Mr. Lehnsherr. You’ve missed quite a lot of important material.”
The boy just nods, ducking his head and striding to an open desk at the back of the room, not meeting the eyes of his peers. If it wasn’t against university policy to read the thoughts of his students, Charles knows the murmur at the back of his mind would be all about the new student. Some of the students look annoyed, others simply amused, enjoying the schadenfreude. There is very little sympathy evident.
“Can someone please pass Mr. Lehnsherr a syllabus?” Charles asks, knowing there are extras floating somewhere within the group.
The boy grabs for the paper handed to him and bows his head over it. The hard, lean lines of his slender body are all the more evident in his tense posture.
“We’ve already gone over all the course policies, but most of the information is reflected on the first page of your syllabus. Do you have any questions?”
“Yeah,” the boy’s voice is deep and slightly accented. “When is the exam?”
Charles sighs, not even bothering to hide his annoyance. “I covered that at the beginning of class.”
“I just want to make sure—”
“It’s December 21st,” Charles interrupts, eyes flicking to the clock. He still has ten minutes. He might be able to squeeze in at least the intro to next week’s lecture topic. “Now, if you can all open your books…”
Lehnsherr’s raised hand looms in the air.
“I want just wondering how much attendance affects our grade?”
“Planning on missing more classes already?” Charles asks archly. One of the girls in the front row giggles.
“No, I just—“
“I think it’s unfair to make your classmates sit through this material a second time, especially since they all managed to show up on time. If you have any more questions, you can ask one of your peers, or come to my office hours.”
Lehnsherr glares, closing his mouth into a hard line.
Charles refuses to be cowed. He won’t let one insolent student ruin his first class. “Opening your books,” he repeats, “to the introduction. You’ll see that we will be studying the basic components of biology.”
As the students filter out of the room ten minutes later, Lehnsherr doesn’t even spare Charles a glance. He doesn’t look particularly inclined to ask any of his classmates to fill him in on the material he had missed, and given the hard set of his jaw as he strides past Charles’ desk, Charles is pretty sure he won’t be seeing him at his office hours, either.
Oh, well, Charles thinks, packing up his bag. Every class has one trouble student.
The next week Charles looks out over the sea of fifteen faces with a kind of grim satisfaction. No Lehnsherr.
As predicted, he hadn’t heard from the boy during the previous week, not even a quick email to confirm course policies.
Disappointment had welled up in him as he noted the small “M” next to Lehnsherr’s name on his student ledger. Mutants had fought so hard to be treated like everyone else, to get a chance to attend University and get a job and not face the kind of discrimination that had haunted their kind for decades. And Lehnsherr was throwing it all away.
Charles starts class at the hour, on the dot. No point in waiting for a student that doesn’t seem to care whether he even knows where to hand in his coursework.
Fifteen minutes into Charles’ introduction to basic biological principles, Erik Lehnsherr slips into the room, at least trying to be less conspicuous than the previous week.
Charles barely resists the urge to roll his eyes as the boy slides quietly into the seat nearest to the door, arranging himself as if to project the idea that he had been there all along.
“Nice of you to join us, Mr. Lehnsherr,” Charles says.
His colleagues often chided him for being too lenient with the students, too sympathetic to their myriad problems and plights, but the absolute indifference in Lehnsherr’s eyes does nothing to endear him to Charles, and he finds himself being almost hard on the boy.
“And only fifteen minutes into class,” he continues, pointedly looking towards the clock above the door. “Maybe next week you’ll actually be on time.”
Any other student would have flushed at his words, at being so publicly shamed. But Lehnsherr just stares back, face passive, blue eyes hard.
Charles looks away first.
“As I was saying,” he pointedly focuses on the other students, the ones who had been there on time. “DNA and RNA are the initial concepts you must grasp, to understand the biological sciences.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Lehnsherr dutifully taking out his book. Well, at least he’s going to pay attention while he’s here, Charles thinks. It was a small consolation.
Not five minutes later, however, he sees Lehnsherr’s hands disappear under his desk, the telltale signs of a student texting.
He grits his teeth against the annoyance flaring up within him. It was one thing to try and fire off a few discreet texts in a lecture hall of hundreds of students. But in a sixteen-person seminar group? Did he really think Charles wouldn’t notice?
Charles abruptly stops his lecture, turning his eyes to fix firmly on Lehnsherr. The rest of the students follow his gaze, but the boy doesn’t even seem to notice, his head bent over his phone.
“Mr. Lehnsherr,” Charles says pointedly. The kid freezes, his posture stiffening, before he slowly raises his head. “No texting in class. Maybe if you hadn’t missed my discussion of class rules last week, you would know that.”
The kid’s eyes narrow ever so slightly. “Sorry,” he says gruffly. “Won’t happen again.”
“Nevertheless, I think I’ll take your phone for the rest of the class period. Just to be sure.”
Charles has never confiscated a phone before, but he knows he’s well within his rights. The no texting policy is quite firmly enforced.
Rather than handing the device over, however, Lehnsherr’s hand clenches tightly around it. “You can’t.”
Charles knows he’s gaping a bit stupidly, but he isn’t used to open defiance. Students were always trying to see what they could get away with, but they back down when challenged, suddenly appearing apologetic and contrite. He has never had one talk back to him before.
“I most certainly can,” he says firmly, moving out from behind his desk and approaching the boy. He stretches out a hand. “Now, hand it over.”
“It’s an emergency,” Lehnsherr says, the phone still firmly in his grasp.
Charles snorts. An emergency would have someone running from the room, not exchanging texts. “A texting emergency? I don’t think so. Now, either hand over the phone, or leave the classroom.”
Hand still extended, it takes Charles a moment to realize that Lehnsherr is packing up his bag.
“Well then,” Charles says, letting his hand fall back to his side. The boy gives him a sharp look, and then leaves the room, head held high.
Charles turns back to the rest of the class, who look as incredulous as Charles feels. “I do apologize for the number of interruptions today,” he tells the remaining fifteen. “Hopefully next week will go more smoothly.”
It does, but only because Lehnsherr doesn’t turn up at all. Charles draws a large X next to the boy’s name in his ledger, and finds himself enjoying it. He mentally scolds himself. He shouldn’t let a student get to him like this.
Even with a few semesters under his belt, Charles finds it strange, not immediately seeking out the thoughts of those around him. His colleagues speculate that it’s what has made him soft; without knowing for a fact that the students are lying to him, he is inclined to believe even the flimsiest of their excuses.
But the other end of the stick was that he has no way of understanding behavior that is completely incomprehensible to him. He can’t understand why someone like Lehnsherr would waste his education this way, paying for classes he couldn’t even be bothered to show up for. He has taken a space from another student who, while perhaps less qualified, might have made more of the opportunities at hand. Without his powers, Charles can’t muster up any sympathy for actions he finds impossible to understand.
He sighs, closing his ledger and gathering his belongings. Class should have been interruption free that day, but it seemed that all the students kept one eye on the door the entire hour, certain that Lehnsherr would walk in any moment. Charles has to admit that he had turned at the slightest sound from the hall, certain that the boy was finally going to put in an appearance.
Trust him to disrupt my class without even showing up, Charles thinks with a huff.
Lehnsherr had been getting a pass on attendance, because he technically hadn’t missed a class. Just large chunks of them. But now he had a strike against him. Two more times, and Charles would have to report him to the dean, and dock his grade in the bargain.
He wonders if he’ll enjoy that moment when it inevitably comes.
“I just don’t understand,” Charles whines, slumped over in the graduate student lounge. “Why bother signing up for the course if you’re not even going to show up?”
Moira looks at him sympathetically over her coffee. “Maybe he’s one of those arrogant ones who think seminar group is just repeating the material for the slower students. I mean, he attends lecture, right?”
Charles frowns. “I don’t know, actually.” He thinks back to the last few lectures, trying to remember if he spotted the boy or not. But the lecture hall is normally just a sea of faces to him, not to mention the fact that he sits unapproachably in the front row with the other TAs. “I don’t think I’ve seen him, but, well…” he shrugs and Moira nods. They both know how hard it is to keep track of students outside of class. She was approached by a student in the hall once, and, as she later related to Charles, would have sworn on penalty of death that she had never seen the kid before. Turned out he was in two of her seminar groups; he had been crushed to have to explain who he was, and Moira said he had been unusually quiet in every class since.
“Well, look out for him next week. If he’s coming to lecture, it probably means he’s an arrogant prick, but at least you’ll know he’s not entirely blowing off the course.”
“I did tell them right at the beginning that there would be new material covered in seminar, but then again, he wasn’t there for that.”
Moira laughs. “He’ll learn to come to seminar groups when he sees his final grade docked by fifteen percent,” she says pragmatically.
Charles slumps slightly. “Yeah, and that B or C might be enough to put him off Biology entirely.”
Moira reaches out and pats him on the shoulder. “You can’t convert them all, Charles. Some of them will even end up being, horror of horrors, humanities majors.”
At that, Charles has to laugh along. There were always a handful of Freshman bio majors with dreams of being doctors who didn’t realize there’d be quite so much science involved. The TAs kept bets over whether they’d end up being English or Art History majors instead.
“Well, he won’t end up a communications major, at least,” Charles says, thinking of Lehnsherr’s mouth, drawn into a hard, firm line, walking out of class without a word. No, communication obviously wasn’t the student’s strong suite.
Although the other TAs, and even the professors, joked about it, it hurt Charles every time to lose one to another major. He likes to think that he’s inspiring enthusiasm, and even love for the subject in all of his students, and to see them running off for the Humanities department with their tails between their legs is always disheartening. Even if he privately sympathizes with the difficulty they find in organic chemistry.
Even though it feels like term had only just begun, midterms are looming on the horizon, and Charles’ students are showing signs of first-semester nerves. He takes them through the structure of the exam patiently, trying to give as many hints as possible about content without actually cheating.
Lehnsherr’s in class, thank god, so Charles doesn’t have to worry about the inevitable cycle of guilt and frustration that would have come as he decided whether to email the absent student the material he had missed. He hates to leave his students underprepared for an exam, but it is their own responsibility to come to class.
He’s spared the decision, though, with Lehnsherr’s quiet presence in the back of the room. Unlike the other students, he doesn’t ask any questions. He barely takes notes.
Charles eyes him speculatively; the kid has dark circles under heavy eyes. Hungover, Charles thinks with a sigh. He’s seen students like this before—so caught up in the freedom university offers them that they drink their first year away, never making it to a class before noon, and barely keeping their eyes open during exams. Final grades were a harsh wakeup call for a lot of students—and, more importantly, their parents. Chastised and contrite, they file into Charles’ second-year courses, back on track, or not there at all.
He wonders which group Lehnsherr will fall into.
His attention doesn’t linger on the boy for long, however. The rest of the class are in a predictable panic about the approaching exam, worth thirty percent of their grade. Charles ducks his head to conceal a smile. They don’t yet know how easy they have it. Fifteen percent on attendance, fifteen on coursework, thirty on the midterm and forty for the final exam gives them all a good chance of passing the course, even the worst of the students. After this year there will be a lot less hand-holding, and they’ll find themselves faced with finals worth seventy-five or ninety percent of their total grade. Pass or fail in one two hour sitting.
But that’s not something they have to worry about right now, and so Charles kindly answers all their questions, soothing nerves, and directing them to the relevant chapters to study. He knows they’ll all mostly likely wait to cram the night before the exam, but he does his best to make sure they’ll at least pass.
A few will even do well, he thinks, looking out over the group. Those are the ones that make being a TA—and eventually a professor, he hopes—worth it.
Another glance at Lehnsherr, whose head is dropping over his notebook, has him frowning. And then there are the students like Lehnsherr…
Charles glances down at his attendance ledger, and then back up at the clock. It’s two minutes to the start of the exam, two minutes until they shut the doors and bar anyone entrance until the testing period is over. Two minutes until Lehnsherr practically guarantees himself a failing grade.
Charles rubs his temple exhaustedly. He wants to cast his mind out, to see if his errant student is at least close, at least making an effort to show up, but all he’s allowed to do is step out of the open door of the lecture hall and peer down the corridor, listening intently for the of footsteps.
A minute has ticked by, and Lehnsherr still isn’t there.
It’s one thing to miss seminar group, Charles frowns. But skipping an exam is irresponsible to the highest degree. It will have to be reported to Lehnsherr’s advisor, who will then be responsible for sorting out the problem. Charles wonders if it’s drink, or even worse, drugs. Or does the kid really just not care?
Twenty seconds to pulling the door shut, Charles catches the echo of running feet.
“Wait!” he says, catching the hand of his fellow TA, about to swing the door shut.
Lehnsherr rounds the bend and pounds down the hall, running full speed.
“It’s one of mine,” Charles explains to his exasperated colleague.
“Fine,” Azazel huffs. “But you should speak to him about investing in a watch.”
Charles gives the man a grateful smile, wondering why he’s putting himself out for Lehnsherr’s sake.
The kid bolts into the room, one minute past the hour, and takes the exam paper from Charles without a word.
He’s panting as he takes a seat in the front row, bending immediately over the test.
“Alright, everyone,” Professor McCone says. “You have two hours. If you want to leave the room, you must submit your exam. That means no bathroom breaks. If you leave, you’re not coming back in. Everyone got it? All notebooks, books and phones must stay in your bag for the duration of the exam. If I see a phone, you automatically fail.” The man gives them an incongruously encouraging smile, given the nature of his pre-exam speech. “Good luck, everyone. You may begin.”
Charles and the other TAs are there to answer any questions, to hand out extra pencils to the foolish students who have come without, and to keep an eye out for signs of cheating.
Charles watches Lehnsherr.
It’s not that he thinks the boy will cheat, not really. But the kid hasn’t proven to be a stickler for rules. He waits to see him twitch towards his bag, to see a flash of phone hidden under the desk.
But Lehnsherr just remains bent over his exam, pencil flying furiously over the paper.
Charles moves around the room, fielding innocent questions from the students, and listening to the murmur of pages turning, pencil scratching over paper, and the frustrated sighs of people who don’t know the answer.
Invigilating exams is desperately boring; he wishes they were allowed to bring a book, but that would rather defeat the purpose of having them there in the first place.
Even more, he wishes he were allowed to read the students’ minds. It’s an strange feeling, one he’s not sure he’ll ever get used to, of having so many people in the same room as him, and yet no voice in his head but his own. He had to prove to the administration that he had mastered shielding to even be offered the role of a TA, and his mental wall is high, thick and stifling.
He privately thinks his power would be quite useful in this setting. He’d know who was cheating immediately, without having to worry that he missed the ink on the inside of someone’s arm, or an exchanged whisper here or there.
But no, he’s forced to do things the old fashioned way.
He’s drifting about the room, his mind on his own research, when he sees movement out of the corner of his eye. He turns quickly, in time to see Lehnsherr reaching for his bag.
Of course he would be the student trying to pull something, Charles thinks with anger. He starts off towards him, but then stops as he realizes the kid isn’t trying to be surreptitious, isn’t trying to sneak something out. He’s merely throwing his pencil into his backpack and standing up. Charles glances at the clock and hurries to the front of the room, in time for Lehnsherr to hand him his exam paper with a curt nod.
“Are you sure?” Charles hisses.
The boy stops, surprised.
“It’s only been thirty-five minutes,” Charles whispers. “You haven’t left yet, you could take your paper back. At least go over your answers a few more times?”
The test is designed to take the full two hours. A few students will obviously finish before that, but not this early.
The only way to finish this early is if the kid didn’t know any of the answers. Charles glances down at the paper in his hands. The questions haven’t been left blank, at least, but that doesn’t mean that Lehnsherr hasn’t just bullshitted his way through.
“No,” Lehnsherr tells him with a puzzled frown. “I’m finished.”
Charles sighs. “Alright, then. See you in class.”
The kid doesn’t respond, just turns and walks out of the room. Charles hates having failing grades in his group of students. It’s so disheartening.
He drops the paper off on McCones’ desk and goes back to his patrol.
Charles rubs his temple, depositing the last of the exams in the increasingly messy ‘graded’ pile and glancing at the clock. Only one in the morning; he’s certainly had worse. Still, it is an utter relief to have finished. He sends a momentary thanks to whatever deity might be listening that he teaches biology, and can merely grade on a basis of “right” or “not right.” The notion of trying to grade fifty philosophical essays gives him a migraine. Biology is straightforward; at least when it comes to Freshman year midterms.
He enters the last grade into his excel spreadsheet and sends the document off to McCone. He grades blind, but he’ll get to see his own students’ results tomorrow. It’s always a nerve-wracking time, waiting to see how they did, and, in consequence, how he did teaching them.
He thinks back to Lehnsherr’s early exit from the exam and droops.
Time for bed before he becomes maudlin about not being able to reach every student, he decides, easing out of his chair with a crack of his back and shuffling off to his bedroom. There’s no point dwelling on the ones that don’t want to learn, he tells himself firmly.
His students’ results don’t come through until the late afternoon. The grades won’t be posted for the students for at least another few days, but McCone likes to keep his TAs abreast of how the students are doing, the various successes and failures. Charles has been caught up in his own research, but stops what he’s doing when the email pops up in his inbox. He opens the document and scans the numbers, a smile forming on his face. Several high Bs, only one D, no Fs…
That’s a surprise. He looks back over the document, seeking out Lehnsherr’s name.
Charles blinks, completely astonished.
It’s a good grade. Not just decent, but towards the top of the class. There was one A recorded in his group, but on the whole, Lehnsherr had performed very well.
And in only thirty-five minutes.
Charles actually doesn’t know how the student managed, and if he hadn’t spent most of those thirty-five minutes watching the kid, he would worry that Lehnsherr had cheated.
As it is, he’s forced to re-evaluate his assessment of the boy.
Clearly he’s been paying more attention than Charles gave him credit for—at least in the lectures, which Charles has to assume he shows up for. Charles had thought he just didn’t care about biology. But it seems more likely that he just doesn’t care about Charles’ class.
Which suggests Moira was right in calling the boy arrogant. Perhaps he thinks he’s too bright to need seminar group.
Charles frowns. He’ll have to show Lehnsherr he’s wrong, somehow.
If Charles thought that an excellent midterm grade would change the way Lehnsherr feels about Intro Biology, he was wrong. Two more weeks of no-shows, and he’s at the end of his rope.
“I just don’t know what to do,” he whines to Moira, phone pressed between his shoulder and his ear as he tries to juggle his laptop bag, a stack of course work, and the door to a café.
“You need to stop caring so much,” she says pragmatically.
“Please,” Charles scoffs. “Like you wouldn’t feel the same way if it was one of your students.”
It’s the universal curse of being a TA—inevitably you’re way too invested in a bunch of eighteen year olds.
“You can’t let it get to you, though,” Moira says, dodging the accusation. “You’re too busy to be this stressed out.”
Charles looks down at the mounting stack of coursework in his hand and tries to remember the last time he actually got to do his own research. Moira might have a point.
“I suppose,” he allows reluctantly.
“Just report him to McCone,” Moira presses. “And stop worrying about it.”
“Yeah, I—” Charles clamps down on his bottom lip, a familiar profile coming into view by one of the back tables. “Shit, Moira, I think he’s here.”
For one agonizing second Charles tries to remember whether he’s said Lehnsherr’s name since he walked into the café, and then he looks closer, and realizes it doesn’t matter.
Lehnsherr definitely isn’t paying attention to him.
“Moira, I have to go,” he says, hanging up before she can question him.
He squints towards the back of the café. There’s no question; Lehnsherr is standing by the corner table, and there is a baby in his arms.
Charles sidles closer.
“Please, Emma,” Lehnsherr’s tone is pleading. It’s quite a departure from the monosyllabic grunts Charles gets in class. “I can’t miss another class; I’ll fail.”
A blonde rises from the table, coming into Charles’ line of sight. She’s beautifully and beautifully dressed, and she looks at the baby with something akin to distaste.
“You know I don’t do kids,” she tells Lehnsherr with very little sympathy. “Besides, I have a meeting for a group project.” She begins to gather up her belongings from the table.
Charles watches, fascinated. What is Lehnsherr doing with a baby? Has he gotten stuck with a younger sibling for the day?
“Emma, you know I wouldn’t ask if I wasn’t desperate. But there’s no one else.” Lehnsherr’s eyes are wide and entreating. The child in his arms squirms, reaching out to poke at his face. “The babysitter has pneumonia or something like that, none of my other regular sitters are available last minute, and I can’t blow off another class. I’m already on thin ice.”
Even though he’s technically still on campus, Charles can’t help but reach out, brushing his mind against Lehnsherr’s.
Already took out student loans…should have listen to my mother…no way I can do this… what was I thinking?...I’m going to fail out in my first semester…just prove everyone right: a teen parent doesn’t deserve more than a job at the local gas station.
Charles draws back with a gasp.
The baby is Erik’s?
The boy watches helplessly as the blonde walks away, offering a jaunty little wave over her shoulder as if she hadn’t just left him in a rut. Charles watches Lehnsherr’s face crumble into bitter resignation, as the child buries her face into his neck and his arms curl tighter around her.
All the missed classes, all the late entries, all the dark circles under Lehnsherr’s eyes, they suddenly make sense to Charles, and he feels like the worst teacher in the world. He’s called Lehnsherr lazy, arrogant, small-minded and a dozen other names, and in this moment he can see that none of them are true.
“Erik?” Charles says, stepping closer.
The boy looks up, surprise and embarrassment flitting over his face as he focuses in on Charles. “Oh. Hi, Mr. Xavier.”
“It’s just Charles,” he reminds the boy gently. “Are—are you okay?”
Lehnsherr frowns slightly, shifting the child to his hip. “I’m fine,” he says, and the mask of stony indifference that Charles is used to settles over his face.
The girl in his arms fixes her eyes on Charles, examining him with a kind of intensity he hadn’t known children could muster. “Hi!” she declares, her face breaking into a smile.
Apparently he’s passed some kind of a test. “Hello,” he returns. “What’s your name?”
“Hi!” she says again.
“This is Lorna,” Lehnsherr says awkwardly. “My daughter.”
He looks like he expects Charles to be shocked; but, of course, he doesn’t know about Charles’ mutation, and Charles isn’t about to tell him that he violated university policy and eavesdropped in the boy’s mind.
“Nice to meet you, Lorna,” Charles says gravely, reaching out for one of the baby’s chubby hands. He shakes it gently between his fingers and she erupts in peals of laughter.
Lehnsherr looks flummoxed.
“She’s beautiful, Erik,” Charles says sincerely. She has her father’s blue-green eyes, and her soft down of hair is a lovely rich auburn. “How old is she?”
“Eighteen months,” the boy says, and a small smile spreads over his face as he looks at his daughter.
Charles bites his lip; it softens the boy’s face, making him look so much more open and kind.
He feels worse and worse for the judgements he made against Erik. He should have seen that there was more to the situation than meets the eye; it was part of his pastoral role as an educator, and he had failed his young student.
He sees Erik’s eyes drift to the clock behind his head, and the boy winces slightly.
Charles makes up his mind.
“I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help but overhear. You need someone to watch Lorna while you go to class?”
Erik sighs. “My babysitter called out sick at the last minute,” he admits.
“I—“ Charles pauses, knowing what he’s about to suggest is insane. “I could watch her. I wasn’t going to do anything but grade some papers. I’m free all afternoon.”
Erik looks highly sceptical, but his eyes dart to the clock once again. “Do you have any experience with babies?”
“Well, no,” Charles admits. The eighteen-year-olds in his classes are pretty much the closest he’s ever come to children. “But how hard can it be?”
Lorna looks like a sweet, happy child. She’s watching him with interest, sucking on her own fingers.
Erik snorts, but one more glance at the clock has him handing Lorna over.
“Oh!” Charles takes her awkwardly, holding her uncomfortably against his chest. She squirms against him, writhing in his arms trying to find a more comfortable rest against him, and Charles squeaks, tightening his grip.
Erik looks even more sceptical, but merely hands over the bag from his shoulder.
“Diaper bag,” he says. “There are diapers and wipes inside. She’ll probably cry when I leave; give her a juice box and it’ll calm her down. There are some snacks in there, too. Just…keep her entertained, and I’ll be back in an hour.”
“Oookay,” Charles says, looking down at the bag. Diapers, wipes, snacks…he can do this. Probably. “We’ll be fine,” he says, trying to assure himself as much as Erik.
“Alright. I’ll just…go, then.” He leans in, pressing his lips against Lorna’s downy hair. “Daddy loves you,” he whispers, and Charles feels his heart constrict. He sounds so tender.
He can’t be more than nineteen.
Erik hurries out of the café just as Lorna’s little face begins to screw up. Charles watches, fascinated, as her face reddens and her little mouth opens, revealing the few teeth she has.
And then the wailing starts.
“Oh!” Charles looks around the café, seeing every head turning towards him and the noise bomb in his arms. “No, no,” he says lowly, jiggling her slightly in his arms. This does not seem to help. “Daddy will be back in no time.”
“Da!” Lorna hiccups, sobs increasing.
“Oh god,” Charles groans. What has he gotten himself into?
After about a minute of solid wailing he remembers the juice box Erik mentioned, and digs frantically into the diaper bag one-handed, trying desperately not to drop Lorna in the process. Finally, after a moment of panic, he unearths a small box with a colourful picture of a grape vine on it.
“Juice!” Lorna cries, reaching out for it.
The twist top is almost too much for him, particularly one-handed, but finally Charles tears the thing open and guides it into Lorna’s mouth.
The immediate silence is absolute bliss.
“Oh thank god,” he says, closing his eyes in relief.
He cracks an eye open to see a young girl, wearing a bright red apron with the logo of the café emblazoned on it.
“I’m so sorry!” he says quickly. “She’ll be quiet now.”
The last thing he wants is to be kicked out of the café. Where would he take Lorna then?
“I was just wondering if you wanted a highchair? For the baby?”
“What? Oh.” Charles glances at the table behind him. He supposes it would be nice to put Lorna down sometime in the next hour. She’s much heavier than he was expecting. “Oh, yes, that would be lovely.” He offers the girl his best charming smile.
She merely smirks, and Charles’ smile falters slightly. He feels he is being judged, although the girl can’t be more than eighteen herself.
She trots to the back of the store and returns a moment later with a highchair, setting it beside the table.
“Thank you,” Charles says, eyeing the contraption. “Do you, um…” he feels himself flush. “Do you know how to put her in it?”
The girl laughs outright then. “Just set her in, one leg on each side of this divider, and buckle the strap around her waist, so she won’t fall out,” the girl taps each part of the chair in succession, demonstrating.
“Ah, right. Thank you.”
She returns to the counter and the line of customers. Charles barely restrains from calling her back and pleading for her help. Lorna watches him critically from over the top of her juice bottle.
“Not you too,” he tells her, shifting her in his arms to try and deposit her in the seat. It’s not as easy as the barista made it sound. Lorna struggles in his arms, and Charles is terribly, terribly afraid he’s going to drop her. Her chubby little legs don’t automatically go where he wants them to, and when he tries to guide them, he worries that he’s hurting her. Can he force her legs to bend where he wants them to go?
After a moment’s struggle she slides down into the seat, her blue-green eyes fixing on him reproachfully.
“Sorry,” he says, abashed. “I guess I’m not very good at this.”
He plucks at the straps and buckles of the chair, trying to remember how the girl said it should go. He drags one around Lorna, but it doesn’t seem like it will reach. After a moment he sees that the straps adjust, and with a mighty tug gets them to wrap around her round belly, snapping in place and securing her to the seat.
“There!” he says triumphantly. Lorna just stares at him over the juice bottle.
Charles sighs and glances up at the clock.
It’s only been four minutes.
“This is going to be a very long hour,” he tells the child gravely, dropping into the seat beside her.
He takes out his stack of coursework, settling in to mark.
A juice box hits the side of his face and falls on the top sheet, drooling purple liquid on a student’s assignment.
“Done!” Lorna announces.
“Yes, I can see that.” He blots at the spreading stain of grape juice with a frown.
“Num-me,” she declares.
“Yes, yummy juice,” Charles sighs.
“Num-ME,” she says, louder. Charles glances up. She is looking at him sternly.
“Do you…want something?”
“Um…” Charles risks another glance around the café. People are definitely looking at him. Probably judging him and his inability to take care of a child for (he looks at the clock)…ten minutes. Oh god.
Sending a (silent) mental apology to Erik, he dives into Lorna’s mind. Her thoughts are not the same as an adult’s; they’re not ordered into words, but just flashes of images. Erik, at the forefront, coloured by a distinct tinge of longing. Charles bypasses that with a pang. Suddenly swimming into focus is the image of a stack of crackers, and Charles dives for the diaper bag, practically crowing in relief as he comes up with a baggie full of goldfish crackers.
“Num-me!” Lorna says, reaching out with chubby hands. Charles hands her the bag, and then just manages to catch it before she upends it all over the floor.
“I guess you can’t really feed yourself yet,” he says, shaking a few of the bright-orange crackers onto the tabletop. Lorna grabs for them happily, shoving them into her mouth and crunching down.
Orange-colored spittle lands on his marking. Charles glances down sadly. Poor Kitty; she does not deserve the mess that’s being made of her work.
Lorna eats happily for several minutes—more crackers land on the floor than in her mouth, but she’s quiet and content. Charles manages to grade two and a half assignments.
And then Lorna starts squirming in her seat, a frown touching her rosebud lips.
“Eeeeeeeeeeehhhhhhhhhh” she whines, low and insistence. “Eeeeeehhhhhh.”
“What’s wrong?” Charles asks, as if she can tell him.
Her whining increases, and orange goop drips onto her chin.
Charles winces. “Lovely.”
The barista looks over from where she’s sweeping the floor nearby. “She probably needs to be changed,” the girl volunteers.
“Oh,” Charles eyes Lorna, hoping she’ll somehow do something to prove that’s not the case.
“There’s a changing table in the bathroom,” the girl continues.
“Oh,” Charles repeats. Lorna’s whine increases.
“Well,” he says, standing up determinedly and shouldering the diaper bag. “This should be an adventure.”
Lorna looks as doubtful as he feels as he struggles to remove her from the highchair, but eventually they make their way over to the café’s bathroom. Charles waits impatiently for it to be free, trying to conjure some knowledge of diapers. He even sneaks a peek into the barista’s mind, but all he finds is amusement at his predicament and a firm belief that he’s going to fail spectacularly.
But how hard can it be? People have been diapering their children for millennia. He’ll be fine.
He shoulders his way into the restroom when its occupant vacates. He blinks at the changing table folded against the wall. Of course, he’s seen them before, but he’s never had to think about them. He arranges Lorna on one hip and gives the table a tug, sighing with relief as it folds down from the wall. It has completely unhelpful pictorial instructions on it; mostly implying that there’s every chance the child will fall to their death from it. Lots of red Xs are involved.
Charles chooses to ignore the alarmist instructions entirely.
He plops Lorna down on the table starts to paw through the bag dangling off on one of his shoulders; diaper, wipes, he’s sure he can do this.
And then Lorna rolls over.
“Oh god!” he squeaks, dropping the bag to catch her with both arms. Toys and snacks and diapers spill across the sticky bathroom floor. “Well, that’s unsanitary,” he grumbles, his heart pounding in his ears. He hoists Lorna back onto the table, and finally pays attention to the straps that criss-cross the table. “Ah,” he says, squinting at the tiny diagram on the table. “Well, I suppose that makes sense,” he tells Lorna reluctantly, strapping her securely down before going to fetch the contents of Erik’s bag.
“Don’t tell your father this happened,” he says firmly, scooping up a handful of granola bars. “It’s not like the actual food touched the floor.”
Lorna gurgles at him, plucking at the buckle holding her down with interest.
“Okay,” Charles says, bag back in some semblance of order. “Diaper change. Yes. I can do this.”
He strips off Lorna’s pants, pausing for only a moment to admire just how tiny they are, a miniature replica of adult jeans, complete with little useless pockets and belt loops. They are, to be quite frank, adorable.
Lorna’s top buttons between her legs, and he unsnaps it, telling himself its ridiculous to feel awkward doing this, as she is just a baby. Her diaper is extremely puffy and slightly damp to the touch. “I can see how that would be uncomfortable,” he sympathizes. He wrangles it off of her, dropping it quickly into the trash before he can think about what he’s holding in his hand.
He unfolds the new diaper, looks at it, and then looks at Lorna. “Hmm,” he says. She giggles.
He really should have paid more attention to the diaper he removed.
“Okay, one bit under you,” he talks himself through it. “And then up between your legs, and then it should just…hmm.” It doesn’t seem as easy to stick as it should, but he manages in the end, getting it securely fastened around her little hips. A few more terrible moments, and she’s fully dressed again, and as far as he can tell, unharmed by the process.
“Let’s not do that again, alright?” he says, scooping her up and guiding the changing table back up against the wall.
When he opens the door, there is a line of seven people waiting impatiently for the bathroom.
“Oops?” he offers helplessly, stepping around a rather irate man. He glanced at the clock. He’d like to see them try to change their first diaper in under…fifteen minutes.
“Had a bit of trouble in there?” the barista asks, seeming utterly delighted with his struggles.
Charles frowns. “It was fine,” he tells her shortly, clutching Lorna tighter to his chest.
The girl just laughs.
The diaper change has, thankfully, taken up a good portion of his time with Lorna. Charles settles her back into her highchair, and tells himself not to stare at the door, trying to will Erik to walk back through it.
Lorna fidgets in her seat. “Down!”
“Not right now,” he placates.
“Down!” she says more insistently.
“You can’t get down,” Charles tells her. “The floor is dirty and I need you stay in one place.”
Charles cannot believe he’s arguing with a toddler. “No,” he tells her firmly.
She bursts into tears.
The girl behind the counter laughs unrepentantly.
He scrambles into the diaper bag, looking for something to entertain her with. He pulls a book out of its depths and Lorna instantly stops crying.
“Good girl,” he says, impressed. “Books are the best entertainment.”
The book is called Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and it is mind-numbingly repetitive.
Charles reads it four times.
Lorna is delighted.
“We’ll try to improve your taste in books later,” he concedes.
Charles looks up as a wave of concern and impatience hits him, just in time to see Erik shoulder past a slow-moving woman and squeeze through the café door. He visibly relaxes when he sees Lorna, sitting quietly in her highchair, flipping through the pages of her book.
“Sorry I’m late,” he says, panting. “The seminar ran over, and then we had to talk to our group partners, and arrange a study time, and it just took longer than I thought it would.”
Charles blinks at the breathless flow of words. “It’s fine,” he says gently. “We had a fine time. I didn’t even notice you were late.”
In truth, it had been the longest hour and seventeen minutes of Charles’ life, but Erik doesn’t need to know that, not when he’s looking so relieved, and unbearably fond of his child as he crouches down next to her, pressing a kiss to her round cheek.
“Were you a good girl?” he asks.
Charles is fairly sure Lorna isn’t going to answer her father, so he does instead. “She was an angel,” he tells him.
He’s not entirely sure if this is a lie, or not. She was difficult, but he suspects—mostly from the amusement radiating off of the barista—that this is normal baby behavior. She didn’t throw a tantrum or spit up on Charles or tear up his coursework. Perhaps that counts as angelic?
Erik looks up at him, his mouth twisting as several emotions flit across his face. He settles on reluctantly grateful. It’s more than Charles has ever gotten from the boy before, so he’ll take it.
“Thank you,” Erik says gruffly. “I really…I really appreciate it.” He seems to be forcing the words out.
“It’s quite alright,” Charles tells him. “Babysitters do get sick, I suppose.”
Erik snorts. “Yeah, and they forget, and they cancel, and their moms show up late to drive them to my place, and they decide they want to go out with friends instead—” he abruptly cuts off the bitter flow of words, cheeks flushing.
“Has it been that bad?” Charles asks gently.
“I’ve—I’ve been struggling with finding a reliable sitter,” he admits. “I can only afford kids too young to get a better job, but that also means they’re too young for the responsibility. “ He sighs, the resigned and long-suffering sigh of someone much older than his eighteen or nineteen years. “It was really great of you to step in today. I’ve missed too many classes as it is.”
Charles thinks of every time Erik’s come into class late, out of breath and surly. Every time he’s missed seminar. He remembers the look on the boy’s face as he sprinted up to the midterm, barely making it. His heart breaks a little bit.
“Can’t your family help out?”
Erik’s face hardens. “No. They’re—no.”
Charles can’t help it, he opens himself up, just a little bit, and gets a terrible rush of anger, resentment, longing.
“I could do it again,” he says suddenly.
“Watch Lorna,” he clarifies, slightly horrified at the words coming out of his own mouth. The only consolation of the last hour has been that it was only an hour. One hour out of his life.
But he can’t take back the words now, not when hope is blossoming in Erik’s eyes.
“Really? I mean, I only pay, like, five dollars an hour…”
“Don’t be silly,” Charles says. “You don’t have to pay me. I’m always free during this class period, and all I do is spend it in this café. I’d be happy to watch her once a week for you to go to…”
“Structural engineering,” Erik supplies.
“Ah. Not a bio major then?”
“No. Sorry,” Erik grimaces. “It’s a prereq for the major.”
“Ah well,” Charles smiles. “You’re good at it, though, if you change your mind.”
“I’m better at engineering,” Erik boasts with a grin, which falls just as quickly as it formed. “When I can make it to class.”
“Then I really insist you let me watch Lorna,” Charles says. He knows it’s foolish, but the joy that had colored Erik’s face when he talked about engineering…well, wasn’t that what he was supposed to foster as an educator? He couldn’t teach the boy engineering, but he could make sure he made it to class.
“Thank you,” the boy says sincerely. “We have to go, but—see you same time next week?”
“I’ll be here,” Charles promises.
Erik leaves the café with a smile on his face.
“Bye!” Lorna bellows over his shoulder.
“You’re a big softie, you know that?” the barista says, pushing a broom past his table.
“So I’ve been told,” Charles sighs.
This story was actually a fill for a prompt from the kinkmeme:
Erik is the teen dad of adorable baby!Lorna.
Baby's mom can be Magda, or I'd also be fine with an mpreg element. I just want teen!Erik being a dad, with adorable interactions between him and his baby. Angst is good too since there's always going to be some in such situations, but mainly I want to see teen dad Erik being an awesome dad who loves the hell out of his daughter despite whatever else may be going on.
Oh and powers are a MUST.
But somehow the first chapter ended up being all about TAing and how unreliable first year students are. Go figure.
Chapter 3: Chapter Three
“You what?!” Moira screeches into the phone.
“You heard me,” Charles says flatly, picking globs of saliva-moistened goldfish crackers off his sweater.
“You volunteered to babysit for the rest of term?” Moira parrots, voice rich with disbelief.
“To be fair, term is almost over.”
“And what about next term, hmm? Won’t he still be desperate then? Are you just going to leave him stuck come January?”
Sometimes Charles wishes she didn’t know him so well.
“You cannot be a full-time babysitter for one of your students,” she says firmly.
“It’s only one hour a week.”
“For now,” she says darkly.
“Come now, Moira,” he placates.
“It smacks of bias,” she says. “It’s a personal relationship with a student.”
“Professors have their students babysit for them all the time,” Charles says. “This is just…reversing the normal order of things.”
“You are hopeless. You’re going to become this child’s full-time caregiver, and never have any time for research, and never finish your dissertation. All because you can’t say no.”
“Oh, Moira. What would I do without your paranoid ravings?”
“You’ll see, Xavier,” she warns, before hanging up.
He does wonder, just a little, how he’s gotten himself into this position. Two hours ago he was just going to grab a coffee and get a bit of marking done, and now he has a long-standing childminding gig.
And his marking still isn’t done.
Still, when he thinks about the way Erik’s face lit up when he spoke of his engineering class…
Charles wants to help his students, each and every one of them. Moira calls him a sucker, every time he ends up listening sympathetically to boyfriend woes, and their lies about the transit system. But he does it all in the hopes that one of them will actually give a damn about their education.
And it seems Erik does.
One hour a week with a baby is more than fair to foster that kind of enthusiasm.
It is strange, though, when he sees Erik in seminar the next week. He is no longer just one part of the collective of Charles’ students. He is Erik, father to Lorna, engineering enthusiast, determined and resilient boy.
Charles thinks of the gentle way Erik handles his daughter, of the love in his eyes when he looks at Lorna, and knows that Moira has a point. Erik is no longer just a faceless student.
Charles wants to say something when the boy walks in the room, to acknowledge the previous Wednesday in some way, to smile at Erik, to treat him differently than the others.
Which is exactly what he can’t do.
This is why his pastoral role with the students is meant to be limited. When he knows a girl has just been dumped by her fiancé, or a boy has just lost his father, or that Erik has an eighteen-month old child at home, demanding his time and attention; he can no longer treat them just like all the others. Every word, every action is colored by the personal knowledge they’ve granted him, and he wants to treat them accordingly.
He sighs, letting Erik walk by his desk with nothing more than a little smile. He supposes this is one of the skills he is meant to be learning as a TA; how to moderate his involvement with his students. How not to care so much.
He doesn’t like it.
Erik is perfectly on time this week. Charles studies his critically. He seems fine, not flustered or exhausted, as he has been in some previous classes.
He must have other reliable babysitters, then. Or else he wouldn’t be here.
That is a relief. Charles knows Moira is right; if Erik needed more babysitting, Charles would probably volunteer, out of his misguided desire to help everyone less fortunate than him.
But he shouldn’t allow himself to become more invested in this one student than all the others. It wouldn’t be fair. For all Charles knows, each and every person in his seminar group has something they’re struggling with in their personal life, something as huge as having a baby. It’s just a twist of fate that he found out about Lorna at all.
Still, the next Wednesday he is sitting dutifully in the café at fifteen minutes to the hour, waiting for Erik to arrive.
When the student walks through the door, his face is tense, eyes apprehensive. He scans the café, and his shoulders slump with relief when his gaze lands on Charles.
It is obvious Erik was worried he wouldn’t be here, and that alone makes Charles resolved to see this through. The boy has clearly had enough people let him down in his short lifetime. He may not know what it’s like to be a teen parent, but disappointment is something Charles is intimately familiar with.
He raises a hand in greeting to the young man, and smiles as he hurries over, Lorna balanced on one hip.
“Hello,” he greets Lorna first, and is rewarded with a big gap-toothed smile.
“Hi!” she chirps.
“I’m so glad you’re early,” Erik says, resettling Lorna in his arms as she squirms towards Charles. “I thought we might go over a few things before I leave.” he averts his eyes, continuing with practiced casualness, “Like diaper changing.”
Charles laughs. “I think I’ve rather got the hang of it after last week.” He pauses when he realizes Erik still isn’t quite meeting his gaze. “Don’t I?”
“Well…” the student hedges.
“Oh god, did I do it wrong?”
“It was on backwards,” Erik tells him in a rush.
Behind the counter, the barista snorts into her foaming milk.
“Backwards?” Charles asks dubiously.
“Yeah,” Erik says with a grimace. “Which doesn’t quite work as well.”
Charles is smart enough to see past Erik’s politeness. “By which you mean it doesn’t work at all.”
“It kind of slid off, under her pants,” Erik agrees.
Charles feels his face heat. “I am so sorry!”
“It’s fine,” Erik says quickly. “It’s not like I gave you a demonstration.”
“But you will this week, and it’ll be fine,” Charles says resolutely, shooting a quick glare at the blonde barista, slumped over the counter, laughing at his misfortune. She could have offered to help, he thinks mutinously.
“So you’ll still watch her?”
Charles looks up at him, surprised. “Of course. I could see why you wouldn’t want me to, but there’s no reason why one mistake should put me off it. I’m more than willing to learn.”
Of course, he is embarrassed, but he’s not going to let Erik down over a little thing like humiliation.
“Great!” Erik says with relief. “Shall we?” he gestures to the restroom door.
It is more than strange, Charles admits, to be following one of his students into a single-occupancy public restroom. Despite their 18 month-old chaperone, he’s very glad that no one he knows is around to see it.
Not that he thinks of his students that way, of course. But Charles is often painfully aware of the fact that he’s only twenty-two himself, having completed his undergraduate degree at nineteen. His colleagues tease him that he looks like he should be in the classes, not teaching them.
But he’s a professional. He does his best to maintain some distance from his students, to dress like a professor, and to generally project the aura that he’s about twenty-years older than he actually is. Which hasn’t stopped several coquettish freshmen from coming on to him, lingering around his office and looking at him with wide, hopeful eyes.
It had been very uncomfortable.
Not in the least because Charles is gay, although not openly so with his students. Not because he’s ashamed, but because there’s no need to talk about his personal life with a bunch of eighteen year olds.
Nevertheless, he feels more than a little uncomfortable following Erik into the small room and swinging the door shut behind them. He is suddenly very aware that Erik is a good-looking boy, perhaps his best looking student if he thinks about it—not that he is—and if any of his colleagues were to see them, slipping off to the bathroom together, they might get ideas.
Giggling toddler notwithstanding.
Erik deposits Lorna on the changing table with ease, deftly fastening her in place before she has a chance to pull a stunt like she did with Charles, throwing herself over the edge. She babbles up at him with a grin on her face, kicking her little legs in the air.
“Okay,” he says, glancing over his shoulder at Charles. “Step one, remove her pants.”
“Yes, I did figure that one out,” Charles says dryly, stepping up to Erik’s elbow.
Erik chuckles as he deftly removes Lorna’s pink-striped pants in one swoop. She screws up her face, looking mildly outraged, but Erik dangles the trousers over her, swishing them in front of her nose, and within seconds she’s giggling again.
“Good trick,” Charles says, impressed.
“You do what you can,” Erik shrugs. He unbuttons Lorna’s onesie and rolls it up, tickling her stomach as he goes.
She squeals in laughter, scrunching up her little nose and revealing the nubs of her burgeoning teeth.
“So, it’s a good idea to stick a diaper under her before you take off the old one,” Erik says, doing just that.
“Because she likes to pee on people,” Erik says flatly.
“Ah.” Charles makes a mental note to always, always have a diaper under Lorna.
Erik removes the old diaper and throws it across the room, swishing neatly into the trashcan.
“The tabs for the diaper always go in the back,” Erik points. “So they pull around to the front.”
“I can see how that would be easier,” Charles admits, remembering his own struggle to get the diaper fastened around Lorna, as he mistakenly tried to stick the tabs to the back of the diaper.
“It’s like they were designed that way,” Erik teases.
Charles laughs again, and almost can’t believe this is the same stony-faced boy who had plagued his class for the last two months.
Once Lorna is fully diapered, Erik unstraps her and scoops her back up, smiling as she reaches out to touch his face. They gaze into each other’s eyes, father and daughter, both looking amazed that the other is there, is theirs.
Charles bites his lip; he is suddenly external to everything happening in the room, and yet he is happy to witness such a moment.
He knows Erik’s life must be harder than he can imagine, and yet, at least the boy has this.
Erik leans in, planting a sloppy kiss on Lorna’s nose and making her squeal. “Any questions?” he asks, turning to Charles.
“I think I’ve got it. Really, this time.”
They let themselves out of the restroom and head for Charles’ table. He sees a highchair waiting and looks up, surprised, in time to see the blonde barista tip him a wink.
Cheeky thing, he thinks with a shake of his head.
“You’re sure you’re going to be okay?” Erik checks as he passes Lorna over.
“We’ll be fine,” Charles assures him, adjusting the tiny girl in his arms. She squirms against him, turning so that she can still see her father.
“Alright, I’ll be back in just over an hour. Be good, Liebling,” he murmurs the word as he brushes his lips over her forehead, leaning close to Charles by proxy. Charles feels something tighten in his chest at the affection in Erik’s voice, the softening of his mouth as he kisses his daughter, the sweep of his copper eyelashes against his cheeks as he leans in close.
And then he’s backing away with a wave and a smile, and Charles is left staring after him, a riot of emotions welling up inside of him.
“Don’t cry. Please don’t cry,” Charles says desperately, jiggling Lorna gently in his arms. The toddler wails, high and loud and long, her face wet against his neck, drool and tears mixing together to pool in the hollow of his shoulder.
Charles’ eyes dart around the small café, taking in the frowns and glares from the other patrons, directed right at him.
It’s not fair, he thinks angrily, feeling their hostility crawling over him. It’s not his fault Lorna’s crying. He’s done everything he can think of: he’s changed her, he’s fed her, he’s read her a story.
Nothing will calm her down.
She wants something he can’t give her: to be at home with her father, away from these strangers and the noise of the café, and the bustle of the street outside. She’s tired and she wants to sleep.
Charles can sympathize.
It had gone so well for the first half hour, but then Lorna just seemed to have a breakdown. Nothing could please her.
And now she’s sobbing in his arms, and he feels his face heat at the attention fixed on the two of them.
I’d like to see you all do better, he wants to project, but he keeps the thought to himself.
A middle-aged woman gets up and moves tables, shifting away from the two of them with a disapproving tut.
Charles glares at her turned back.
He can’t believe how unsympathetic the other patrons are being. Sure, he’s done his fair share of glaring at crying babies in public, but surely these people can see that he’s doing his best? It must be obvious to them that there’s nothing he can do to stop Lorna from crying, and that there’s nowhere else he can go. But still they all glare at him, as if he’s murdered their puppy, rather than disturbed a single cup of coffee.
He tries to imagine what it must be like for Erik to do this all the time—on the bus, on the train, in grocery stores and restaurants. It seems there is no way to predict when Lorna is going to melt down and no way to stop her once she has.
And yet, Erik can’t just leave her at home; as far as Charles can tell, there’s nobody else to help him take care of his daughter.
Charles winces as he realizes how many times Erik must have been in this same position; a single parent trying to juggle school and a child, nothing more than a child himself.
Lorna lets out another ear-piercing shriek and Charles holds her closer, shushing her desperately.
Suddenly, he sees movement out of the corner of his eye and Lorna cuts off mid-wail, eyes going wide. Charles turns in time to see a spoon levitate from his teacup into the air, twirling gently as it rises to eye level. Charles feels his jaw drop as Lorna lets out a happy sigh.
The sudden silence is an almost overwhelming relief.
The spoon turns in the air, curling in on itself, melting into a ball of silver metal, spinning in place. It shifts and undulates in the air, and suddenly there is a perfectly formed silver duck hanging in front of Lorna’s face.
“A duck!” She says, delighted, snatching at the little creature. “Quack, quack!” It dodges playfully just out of her grasp, eliciting a joyous squeal and Charles turns wide eyes on the rest of the café, searching for the person responsible.
Erik stands just inside the door, hand in the air and a smile on his face.
“She likes ducks,” he offers, shouldering his bag and moving closer, allowing Lorna to snatch the metal duck from the air. It immediately goes into her mouth, where she drools on it happily.
“Telekinesis?” Charles asks, fascinated. Erik had used his power so casually, so effortlessly, the fine detail on the duck perfectly executed.
“Magnetism,” Erik corrects, reaching out to scoop Lorna from his arms. “Any ferrous metals.”
“Amazing,” Charles says. “You have such control.”
Erik shrugs, his cheeks staining faintly pink. The rising colour in his face stirs something strange in Charles’ breast.
“I used to be terrible at the little stuff. I was all about moving big stuff around, showing off. Moving cars down the street, stuff like that. But then Lorna came along…” he shrugs again.
“And you learned to make baby toys out of spoons,” Charles supplies with a smile.
“You work with what you’ve got,” Erik says, turning to grin at his daughter. “Isn’t that right?”
He says it so casually, and yet Charles knows there must be such depth behind the words, such pain. Erik has made the most of his situation, Charles can tell, has done all he can as a young single parent. He is working with what he’s got, and doing better than half Charles’ other students, who have no more responsibilities than the coursework due every week.
“She was difficult for you today?” Erik asks, smoothing a hand over Lorna’s unruly tufts of ginger hair.
“Well…” Charles hedges.
“It’s alright to say so,” Erik laughs. “She was screaming the place down when I came in.”
Charles winces. “I’m really sorry, I just couldn’t figure out what was wrong.”
“It’s not your fault,” Erik says seriously. “Sometimes there’s nothing wrong. Sometimes she just gets upset.”
“You calmed her down pretty quickly,” Charles says wryly.
“Yeah, well…I’m her dad.”
He smiles at her again, that soft, gentle smile that seems so incongruous on his serious, chiselled face. Charles can’t help but grin along with him.
“I’m sorry she was such trouble,” Erik continues.
“It’s not a problem,” Charles is quick to reassure him. “I don’t mind, really. Unlike some of the people in here.”
Erik grimaces. “People are bastards,” he says frankly. “Do you—“ he stops and frowns. “I don’t know if it would be weird, but you could watch her at my apartment. I mean, then she could be as loud as she wanted. And she’d probably be easier to keep calm there. She has all her toys and stuff.”
“Oh…” Charles bites his lip. It would certainly be easier, to not have to worry about disturbing other people, to not have to wait in line for the bathroom every time he wanted to check Lorna’s diaper. He’s sure she’d be happier in familiar surroundings, as well. But the idea of going to one of his student’s apartments is a strange one. He’s not even sure University regulations allow it.
“Only if you want to,” Erik says hurriedly.
It would be easier on Erik, too, Charles realizes. He wouldn’t have to worry about packing up all of Lorna’s stuff and preparing snacks in advance. He wouldn’t have to get her all the way to campus every week.
“That sounds like a good solution,” Charles says finally. He’ll worry about University regulations later; this situation should certainly be an exception to any rule that might exist.
Erik sneaks into seminar that week ten minutes late, shooting Charles an apologetic look as he slides into his seat.
Charles pretends not to notice his late arrival; he wonders if any of the other students notice the marked change from a few weeks before, when he attacked Erik for his behavior, refusing to listen to any of his excuses?
Guilt gnaws at him as he remembers how unsympathetic he had been to the boy, and he pointedly looks away from him now, letting him settle into class in peace.
He sees some students glance toward Erik, laughing and rolling their eyes, but continues on with his summary of that week’s lecture.
At the end of class Erik hangs back, packing his bag slowly. Some of the other students look at him curiously as they make their way out of class, used to him sprinting out the moment Charles dismissed them. As the last of them filters out the door Erik approaches Charles’ desk with an apologetic smile.
“Sorry I was late.”
“It’s alright. Babysitting troubles?”
Erik grimaces. “I swear, I don’t know why I even bother with the girl. She’s late more often than not.”
“It’s fine. You didn’t miss much. But I could give you the notes from the first part of class if you’d like.”
“Really? That would be great.”
“It’s no problem. I can give them to you on Wednesday.”
“Which reminds me,” Erik holds out a piece of paper. “I wanted to make sure you had my address, and my phone number in case you get lost.”
“Excellent point,” Charles smiles, taking the slip of paper and seeing Erik’s small, crabbed handwriting crowding the scrap with not only the address, but directions. “You should have my number, too,” Charles realizes. “It’s probably terrible that you didn’t have it before.”
They take out their phones, programming each other’s numbers in to their contact lists. “Great,” Erik says, shouldering his bag. “I’ll see you on Wednesday, then.”
“See you then,” Charles grins. He follows the boy out into the bustling corridor.
“Mr. Xavier?” One of the quieter girls in his class pushes off from the wall, looking at him hopefully. “I had a quick question.”
“Of course,” Charles smiles. “See you on Wednesday, Erik.”
The boy waves before jogging off down the hall, obviously eager to get home and relieve his unreliable babysitter. Charles turns to his other student expectantly.
Chapter 4: Chapter Four
Charles climbs onto the bus, eyeing the number at the front warily as he slides into a seat. He’s pretty sure he’s on the right one, but now would not be the time to make a mistake, not with Erik waiting for him. Charles hasn’t had much need to rely on the city bus system—he lives within walking distance of campus, and the University’s internal bus system takes him everywhere he needs to go. But it seems Erik lives quite a bit off campus, and so he spent the morning online, trying to figure out his bus route.
He tells himself that someone who almost has a doctorate should be able to figure out a small city’s public transformation, and leans back into his seat, forcing himself to relax. He has the name of Erik’s stop written down on the piece of paper clutched in his hand, and he watches the streets go by with trepidation, determined not to miss it.
Charles has no illusions about how spoiled he is—he grew up in the lap of luxury, where even the idea of getting on a city bus would be laughable. In Boston he took the T, but only within the fairly affluent neighborhood immediately surrounding Harvard. As he watches the streets pass by, he begins to realize that Erik might not live in the best of neighborhoods.
And when he sees the stop that’s written on his slip of paper, he’s sure of it.
The buildings surrounding him as he steps off of the bus are grimy and run down, garish graffiti scrawled across their every surface. Charles grips his bag a little tighter as he walks down the street, suddenly thankful that he doesn’t have to be here after dark. A lean, hard-eyed boy lounges at the corner, watching him from underneath his raised hood. Charles averts his eyes and walks a little faster.
The street number Erik gave him leads him to a run down convenience store, a blinking neon sign in the window advertising the beer they stocked. He eyes it mistrustfully, certain he must have gotten something wrong, until he notices a door to the right of the store, gray paint peeling off of its unmarked surface. Tentatively, he raises a hand to knock.
The door opens almost immediately. “Hi,” Erik says hesitantly. “You found it.”
“Yeah, no trouble,” Charles says as smoothly as he can manage, as if he didn’t notice the state of the neighborhood.
“Come on up,” Erik pivots in the dimly lit hallway and starts up a flight of stairs. It’s so narrow that they couldn’t walk side-by-side. Charles trails after him, certain he’s never been in a place like this before.
At the top of the stairs is another door, adorned with two locks more than the one downstairs. Right now, however, it’s propped open, and from within he can hear the strains of happy children’s music.
“Well, this is it,” Erik tells him, pushing the door open all the way. The nervous hunch of his shoulders would tell Charles of his embarrassment, even if he wasn’t projecting shame so loudly Charles almost flinches away from it.
He doesn’t want someone as respectable as Charles to see the state he lives in. Doesn’t want anyone to know that this is the best he can provide for his daughter.
Charles wants to reach out for him, then, to lay a comforting hand on his shoulder and tell him how brave Charles thinks he is, how astonished he is that Erik manages as much as he does.
But he can tell from the tense lines of the boy’s back that his fumbling comfort would not be appreciated.
The apartment is tiny, barely bigger than Charles’ kitchen in his own place on campus. The room they stand in contains the kitchen (a clutter of appliances on the left-hand wall and a tiny table, one leg propped up by a thin book) and the living room (a shabby futon underneath the only window). Charles’ heart sinks as he notices the crib, tucked into the corner of the room.
Two door lead off from the main room, which Charles assumes must be the bedroom and the bathroom.
At least it’s not a studio, he tells himself firmly as his eyes linger on the crib and changing table crowding the room. It could be worse.
As tiny and shabby as the apartment is, it’s impeccably clean, except for the detritus that comes with having a baby in residence—flashcards depicting adorable animals are spread under his feet, a blanket lies haphazardly in the middle of the floor, and Lorna herself is perched next to the futon, surrounded by a sea of crayons. A 13-inch television sits on the floor in the corner, blasting something Charles vaguely recognizes as Sesame Street. That has a big yellow bird, doesn’t it?
“Um, there’s juice in the fridge, and I left some snacks out on the counter,” Erik says, drawing Charles’ eyes away from the cramped sitting room. “Bathroom is through there. She should be happy playing and watching Sesame Street for awhile. If she starts to fuss, she’s probably hungry.”
Charles congratulates himself on his knowledge of children’s television shows. He’s practically a natural at this babysitting stuff.
“I’m sure we’ll be fine. She seems much more comfortable here than at the café.”
“Yeah, the bus ride stresses her out a little, I think,” Erik says ruefully. “And all the bustle of getting her packed up and out of the house.”
“I can imagine.” Charles doesn’t have to imagine; he can see Erik running around the apartment, gathering everything while Lorna whines on the floor. He can feel the frustration and helplessness coursing through the boy as he tries to quiet his daughter, even as she squirms and protests being placed in the carrier he wears on his back. He can practically taste Erik’s panic as he glances at the clock and realizes they’re going to be late, again.
Charles shakes his head, drawing himself out of Erik’s thoughts. He knows better than to go delving where he hasn’t been invited; he hasn’t even told Erik about his mutation yet (although the boy would have been issued with a automatic warning when he was assigned Charles’ seminar group, just like all his other students).
He feels like it’s a conversation they could have, though, without Erik getting upset or afraid. Even without Erik’s mutation, Charles is aware of how much metal there is in the tiny apartment. The furniture is metal where possible—nearly everything but Lorna’s crib and changing table. Balls of metal line the shelves in the kitchen, unformed masses just waiting for Erik to shape them into something new and incredible. What little decoration there is appears to have been provided by Erik, shaped out of metal and hung on the walls. Some of them are quite lovely, Charles notes.
Erik clearly delights in his mutation. He’s not afraid to use it, to exercise it, to flaunt it. Perhaps, then, he will be accepting of Charles’, as well.
“Alright, I guess I should go,” Erik says, shifting awkwardly. He’s clearly aware of how strange it is to have a teacher in his home, just as Charles is surprisingly uncomfortable with this peek into his student’s life. He’s grown so accustomed to knowing nothing about the kids he teaches, to going without the insight he’s relied on his whole life. It’s funny how two-dimensional people become when he can’t read their minds; he sometimes finds it hard to believe that the rest of the world functions that way all the time.
But now, even without his accidental slip into Erik’s mind, Charles is seeing so much more of the boy; he is seeing behind the façade of ‘student,’ to find the real person underneath.
“Have a good class,” Charles tells him pleasantly, trying to restore some semblance of normalcy to their interaction. Erik nods and ducks down beside Lorna, running a hand gently over her hair. She spares him a brief glance before turning back to the television.
“She’s certainly engrossed.”
Erik rolls her eyes. “Wait until Elmo comes on. She won’t even know you’re in the room.” He ducks down, pressing a kiss to her auburn hair. “Be a good girl for Charles. Daddy will be home soon.”
He looks at her fondly for a moment before standing and reaching for his school bag. “Thanks again,” he says gruffly as he lets himself out the door.
“Alright,” Charles smiles down at Lorna. “It’s just you and me again.”
She glances over at him stonily, before shifting her gaze back to the large yellow bird on the screen. If Charles hadn’t just seen her do the same to her father, he’d be offended.
While Lorna is suitably distracted, her gaze going back and forth between the television and her coloring, Charles looks around the apartment again. He sees the piles of books by the small metal table, jutting awkwardly out from the kitchen into the living room space. They all bear the bright yellow “USED” sticker used by the campus bookstore. Charles hopes they aren’t in too bad condition to be of any use. He’s seen used books where every line of text had been highlighted, by either a very enthusiastic or very dense (or, likely, both) student.
Stuck to the refrigerator is an impressively lengthy list of female names and phone numbers. For a second Charles is scandalized, until he looks closer and sees notes under each name. Becki—can’t stay after 9pm. Jennifer—mom can only drive her on Tuesdays, etc.
Babysitters, Charles realizes.
There are a dozen names on the list, each with their own caveat, preventing them from being really useful to Erik. Some of the notes added make Charles wince, like Showed up stoned, and I think she stole money out of my bedroom.
He hopes Erik never called those girls again.
As strange as it is to be in a student’s house, to be granted this intimate peek into his personal life, Charles is once again relieved that he can do this for Erik, that he can help out, even if it is for just an hour and a half each week.
If Charles’ other students put the kind of energy that Erik puts into merely finding a babysitter into their schoolwork, he’d have a class of straight-A students.
Next to the list are several photos of Lorna: one in which she is a tiny infant, asleep in her bassinet, impossibly small and angelic. Charles can’t help the grin that spreads over his face at the sight. In the next she’s older, strapped into a highchair and wearing a goatee of orange puree. She blinks up at the camera, appearing startled by everything that’s happening to her. Charles chuckles. In the last she is nearly the age she is now. It’s an extreme close-up, as she evidently reaches for her father’s camera, one side of the photo obscured by a small, baby thumb.
All three are cute photos, but what Charles really notices is the lack of anyone but Lorna represented on the fridge. Erik isn’t in any of the pictures; presumably he was the one behind the camera. But there’s also no one else. No family, no friends. Charles wonders where Lorna’s mother is; even in the photo in which Lorna is a newborn, there’s no sign of the woman who gave birth to her.
He feels something brush against his leg, and he looks down with a start into Lorna’s grinning face.
“Hi!” she says, tugging on his trouser leg. She is somewhat unsteady on her little feet, and she grips tightly to the fabric to keep herself upright, neck craned back to meet Charles’ eyes.
“Hello,” he says gently, reaching down to lay a hand on her downy soft hair. He glances back at the pictures on the refrigerator. “Where is your mother, little one?” he whispers under his breath. He’s not sure how much Lorna understands of what he says, and he neither wants to set her off, or have her repeat something damning in front of Erik. The last thing his student needs is a reminder of the people who should be present in his life, but apparently are not.
As if Lorna isn’t reminder enough, Charles thinks sadly.
He leans down to scoop Lorna up, grunting under the weight of her. He’s only twenty-two, but his back gives a twinge of protest as he straightens from the waist, hauling her twenty-odd pounds up against his chest.
One she is at face level she reaches out, and with an air of utmost gravity, inserts her hand into his mouth.
“Hey!” he protests, words muffled by the fingers curled around his bottom front teeth.
“Teef!” she declares.
“Yes, teeth,” Charles agrees, maneuvering her fingers out of his mouth. He grimaces at the taste, wondering just what all she’s been touching since her hands were last washed.
He looks at her, and then at the kitchen sink, and then back again. How does one wash a toddler’s hands, he wonders?
He sets her gently on the kitchen counter, standing close to box her in with his own body, and reaches for a paper towel. She watches with interest until he reaches for her with the damp towel.
“No!” she scoots back with surprising speed, batting angrily at his hands.
“But I want to wash you off, “ he cajoles. “You’ve got my saliva all over your hands.”
He grabs for one of her tiny hands, but she pulls it out of his grasp. “No!”
She looks at him sternly. “No!”
Charles sighs. Objectively he knows that he is the adult here, and he should be able to get her to do what he wants. He just doesn’t know how, exactly. “Alright,” he relents, turning to deposit the damp paper towel in the trash.
Lorna’s delighted coo has him spinning back around. She’s leaning forward, little hands thrust under the spray of the faucet.
“Well.” Charles says. “I suppose that’s one way to do it.”
He leans over, helping her to suds and rinse her tiny hands, scrubbing between each finger. She laughs delightedly the whole while, splashing playfully at the rush of water. By the time they are done Charles is more than a little damp, but Lorna’s hands are definitely clean, and he feels inordinately pleased with himself, a feeling of accomplishment that is startlingly akin to when he finishes an important piece of research for this thesis. Look at me! the feeling says, look what I can do!
He lifts Lorna off the counter with a swoop, smiling as she squeals and claps her hands.
He carries her back over to the refrigerator and is just reaching for the handle when she slaps her hand against its surface excitedly.
“ Baby!” she declares, running her hand over the pictures of herself.
“Silly,” Charles chides. “That’s you.”
“Baby!” Lorna corrects.
“Yes, you as a baby. You’re very tiny there,” Charles points to the newborn picture.
“Baby,” Lorna grins.
Charles knows he’s not going to win this argument, so he gives up trying, instead swinging the door open and reaching inside for a juice box. It’s interesting, though. When do people begin to recognize themselves in pictures? What cognitive functions does that require? How will Lorna learn how?
He’s never thought much about child development before, past the fact that they do develop, that the screaming babies in grocery stores and on planes will one day stop being senseless noise machines and grow up into real people, with whom Charles can have a conversation.
But the way it happens…he’s never really thought about it, and now as he looks at Lorna, sucking happily on the straw end of her juice box, it seems incredible. The things she will have to learn to become even a child, let alone an adult.
The human mind, Charles thinks with a shake of his head. He knows how incredible it is, has felt every crevice of it, every quirk and every depth. But it seems so much more incredible now that he’s looking at Lorna; who is already a person, and yet who will become an entirely different person.
Shaped, in large part, by Erik; the only person truly in her life.
What responsibility to place on the shoulders of a teenager.
Charles sinks into the cushions of the beaten-up futon, settling Lorna onto his lap as she happily drinks her juice.
He wants to know so much more about Erik, about how he ended up in this situation.
It is clear that the boy adores Lorna and would do anything for her. But being a single dad to a toddler is not the goal of most teenage boys. How did he find himself here?
Charles hears the door on the street level slam, and then the sound of Erik running up the stairs, taking them two at a time if the thud of his steps is to be trusted. A second later the boy bursts through the door. He pauses in the threshold, surveying the room as if he expects to find disaster.
Instead, Charles knows that he sees Charles and Lorna nestled together on the couch, the toddler’s eyes growing heavy as they read through one of her many picture books. She’s snuggled into his side, one of her fists jabbed into her mouth, sucking on it noisily. The moment she spots her father, however, she removes the hand from her mouth and gives him a big, moist grin.
“Hi!” She says, rousing enough to sit up slightly, leaning instinctively towards him.
“Everything go okay?” Erik asks, a smile forming on his face.
“Everything was fine. She was so much happier being here than in the café.”
Erik nods, setting his bag down and crossing the room. “I figured it would be easier, except that you had to come all the way out here…”
“I didn’t mind,” Charles assures him, closing the book and setting it aside on the towering pile of those he had already read today. “It really was much easier looking after her here.”
And it was, truly, but Charles can also see that it was easier on Erik, and knowing himself, he’d tell the boy everything was fine even if Lorna had screamed the whole time and he got mugged on his way home.
Which he certainly hopes doesn’t happen.
Erik comes to stand in front of the futon, leaning over close to smooth the hair back from Lorna’s forehead. She smiles sleepily, dropping back against Charles’ side.
“Looks like it’s time for your nap,” Erik says fondly, scooping her up in his arms.
“I’ve only just changed her,” Charles reports, “And she had a big snack and two juice boxes.”
“Good job,” Erik says, clearly impressed. Again, Charles feels inexplicably proud of his ability to keep a toddler alive, clean and hydrated for two hours.
Lorna droops against Erik as he carries her over to the crib, settling her in and drawing a blanket up over her small form. She burrows into it, turning onto her front and curling up into a little ball. Charles feels his heart go soft.
“Uh,” Erik says, turning back around and finding Charles watching him. “Since she sleeps in here, I normally just have to hide in my room for her whole nap.” He shifts awkwardly on his feet.
“Oh!” Charles realizes. “Yes, of course, let me get out of your hair.”
“You’re not in the way, or anything,” Erik says hurriedly. “It’s just that she can’t sleep with people in here. It’s why we don’t share the bedroom in the first place.”
“That makes sense,” Charles agrees in a whisper, reaching for his bag and gathering up the few belongings he’s strewn about Erik’s apartment, and making sure he has all the essentials: bus pass, keys, phone and wallet. Wouldn’t do to leave one of those behind at his student’s house. “I’ll see you in seminar, then,” he offers hopefully, knowing (and hating) that Erik’s attendance relies on the availability of one of the irresponsible girls listened on the door of the refrigerator.
“Let me walk you out,” Erik offers. It’s not much of a walk, but they step out into the exterior hall together, letting the door swing gently shut behind them. Erik stops it a moment before it closes, propping it open ever so slightly.
“Thank you again for doing this,” he says, not quite meeting Charles’ eyes. It clearly takes a lot out of him to say the words, and Charles wonders once again what’s happened in his life to make him so fiercely independent, so unwilling to rely on the help of others.
“Erik,” he says after a brief moment of hesitation. “I don’t mean to pry, but…how did this happen? Lorna, I mean.”
For a second Charles can see that Erik is caught off guard; his hand falters on the knob of the door. It is only a second, though, and then his confident mask slides back into place. He arches an eyebrow at Charles. “You teach biology. Surely you know.”
“Very funny,” Charles rolls his eyes. It is an opportunity to let the question go, to walk out the door and leave Erik his privacy.
But Charles has never been very good with boundaries. “Where is her mother?” he asks bluntly.
Erik blanches, the expression just flickering over his face. “Not here.”
“But she’s…?” Charles asks, surprised.
It takes Erik a moment and then realization dawns. “Alive? Yes. It’s nothing like that.”
“Ah.” Charles hadn’t been able to think of any other excuse for Erik’s total independence in caring for Lorna.
Erik shifts awkwardly, peering behind himself at the door to his apartment, as if considering making a break for it.
But after a moment he squares his shoulders and turns back to Charles. “She left,” he says flatly.
“Left?” Charles parrots dumbly. “Just…left you with Lorna?”
The boy nods. “We lived here together, for a bit. Her parents kicked her out when they found out she was pregnant, and she had nowhere else to go. My parents wouldn’t let her stay at our house, so I found this place and moved out. My parents…weren’t happy about it.”
Even without using his powers Charles can feel the depth behind that statement, the layers of anger and sadness.
“So, what happened?” he ask gently, shifting closer and, after a second’s pause, laying a hand on Erik’s arm.
The boy tenses but doesn’t shake him off. Charles can tell that Erik isn’t used to people getting close, but Charles always been tactile, especially when he feels like the person needs to be comforted.
He’s had to turn that aspect of himself off for teaching, but he figures it’s alright to make an exception now, when Erik looks so vulnerable.
He gives the boy’s arm an encouraging squeeze.
“After Lorna was born, Magda just got…overwhelmed. It was hard.” He looks up, meeting Charles’ eyes. “Really hard. She got up six or seven times a night. It seemed like neither of us ever slept for more than twenty minutes. And it just went on for weeks. Money was really tight, and then Magda decided she didn’t want to breastfeed, and formula is so expensive, and we could barely keep it together and one day I came home and she was just…gone.”
He gives a shuddery sigh that nearly breaks Charles’ heart. He can see that Erik is trying to steel himself, to keep it all together as he has so clearly done for the past two years.
“Lorna was in her bassinet, all alone in the apartment,” Erik’s face clouds, his brow lowering. “She just left her here alone, knowing I wouldn’t be back for hours. What if something had happened?” he snaps.
Even through his shields, Charles can feel Erik’s rage bubbling to the surface. “But nothing did happen,” he says soothingly.
“Yeah, but she couldn’t have known that. It was just so,” he clenches his fists, arm muscles contracting under Charles’ hand. “So irresponsible. She left a note, saying she couldn’t handle it, she was too young to be a mother, and that her parents had told her she could come back if she came back without Lorna.”
Charles shakes his head. Of course it was hard, he can see how hard it must have been for them, two seventeen year olds with a newborn. But it must have been just as hard for Erik, and he stayed.
“And so you were left to care for her on your own?”
Erik’s nod is weary. “My parents were happy Magda left. They thought I’d put Lorna up for adoption and come home and be their good son again, go to temple and meet some nice Jewish girl and forget all about Lorna. When I told them that I was keeping her, they shut me out.”
“Just like that?” Charles has known neglect; he has long since ceased being surprised that some parents don’t care. His own mother would have probably loved to do just what Magda did: to abandon her child and go back to living her life, without a baby getting in the way. There had been nannies and maids and cooks to raise Charles, and it had still been made clear to him that he was impinging on Mother’s social calendar.
But what he can’t understand is a previously happy family torn apart by something like a baby. If Erik’s parents had loved him, if his childhood had been a happy one, how could they just…turn it off like that?
Erik gives a weary shrug. “Just like that. I think they’re hoping it’ll be too hard, that eventually I’ll give up. As if Lorna is just something I could walk away from.”
Like her mother, hangs unspoken in the air, tangible as if Charles had dipped into Erik’s mind.
Even without reading the boy’s mind, Charles knows not to say ‘I’m sorry,’ even though he wants to. He knows not to give Erik anything approximating pity.
Instead he says, “You’re doing an incredible job with her, and school, and everything. I’m very impressed.”
Erik straightens up ever so slightly, rising up to the praise. “I make it work,” he says, and Charles hears steel in his voice.
“Yes, you do. But I’d like to help when I can,” he adds gently.
“I—” Erik stops, looks away, and then starts again. “I don’t want you to go out of your way.”
He’s so unused to receiving help, Charles knows. He’s used to doing this all on his own, finding pride in mere survival.
“I want you to do well in your studies,” Charles says, just as firm as Erik can be. “And I like spending time with Lorna.”
The boy softens, slightly. “Well, thank you.”
There’s so much more Charles wants to say, but he settles for, “You’re a good student. I like having those.” He gives him a small smile. “So, I’ll see you in seminar?”
“See you then,” Erik agrees. Charles thinks he feels a slight contentment radiating off of the boy, that hadn’t been there before. He hopes it’s been cathartic for Erik to talk about his family, his struggles as a single dad. He hopes his encouragement makes things even a little bit easier for the boy.
He lets himself out at the street level, the noisy blare of traffic piercing the quiet of the dim hallway. He shuts the door behind him, his thoughts still back in the small apartment, with the stubborn, resilient, capable young man and his adorable daughter.
Chapter 5: Chapter Five
“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.”
“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.”
“Excuse me?” Charles stutters.
“A…Erik Lehnsherr?” McCone glances down at the paper in front of him.
Charles finds he can do nothing but gape as the name lingers in the air. “What about Erik?” he finally asks.
McCone looks up, fixing him with a penetrating stare. For one terrible second, it feels like McCone is the telepath, like he can see right into Charles’ brain.
Despite himself, the image of Erik shirtless presses to the front of his mind, and Charles feels his face heat, knows McCone is seeing the flush creeping over his cheeks and down his neck.
“I’ve had reports that you’re engaged in a romantic relationship with him,” McCone say.
McCone’s expression doesn’t change. “You know I can’t tell you that.”
Charles’ mind is racing—who would say such a thing?
“I have multiple sources, however,” McCone continues seriously, “who tell me they’ve seen you speaking with the boy in a friendly manner, exchanging what appeared to have been phone numbers with him, and discussing time spent at his house.”
Charles’ breath catches. It sounds so bad when McCone says it like that. Had he really been so careless?
He hadn’t thought he was doing anything wrong, he reminds himself, and so he hadn’t thought to be surreptitious about his interactions with Erik. Now he feels foolish, knowing with the rest of his students might have seen, might have heard.
“It—it wasn’t like that,” he stutters.
“You didn’t exchange numbers with a student?”
“No, I did, but—“
McCone frowns. “You didn’t go to a student’s place of residence?”
Charles grimaces. “I did. But—“
McCone settles back in his chair, arching an eyebrow. “But?”
“Erik has a daughter,” Charles says in a rush. “I’ve been babysitting for her.”
That clearly catches McCone off-guard, and for a second Charles feels smug. His informants hadn’t been all that informative, after all.
“Babysitting?” McCone repeats, clearly skeptical.
“Erik has trouble finding people to watch Lorna while he goes to class. So I offered to help.”
“And that’s it?”
“Yes, I swear.”
McCone looks down at the papers in front of him again, shuffling through the pages.
How many reports are there? Charles wonders frantically. How many people think he is sleeping with one of his students?
The idea is made so much worse by the fact that, if Charles is honest with himself, he’ll admit he finds Erik attractive. He wonders if he’s been flirting without really even realizing it.
He certainly likes talking to Erik, seeing the boy smile, hearing him laugh.
But that’s what flirting is, isn’t it?
His heart sinks, and he shifts nervously in his seat.
McCone watches him with sharp eyes.
Charles shifts again, remembering vividly the few moments he and Erik stood at the foot of the stairs the day before, pressed close by necessity, Erik shirtless and damp, smelling faintly of the soap he had just used in the shower. He had stood too close, he thinks wildly. He should have left the moment Erik opened the door. And what had he been doing smelling the boy?
After a long moment, McCone glances back down at the papers in his hands. “Several students have reported that you favor Mr. Lehnsherr in class.”
“I don’t!” Charles says, and then freezes. Does he?
“Despite reports that Mr. Lehnsherr is often late to class, or absent,” McCone continues sternly.
And Charles suddenly really, really regrets not reporting Erik’s tardiness and absences. He had thought that it was okay to let it slide, to just not mention the problem to Professor McCone.
He hadn’t wanted to get Erik in trouble.
Charles drops his eyes. He would have reported any other student, but not Erik. Which he’s pretty sure is the definition of “favoring.”
“He came to me with his babysitter troubles,” Charles stumbles over his words. “I was trying to be understanding.”
“Hmm,” McCone says. “And you haven’t given him any help for the course outside of class or office hours?”
Shit. Charles knows his face falls, as the memory of picking up a pencil and correcting Erik’s course work the day before flashes through his mind.
“Hmm,” McCone says again, jotting something down on the page in front of him.
“Nothing inappropriate has happened between me and Erik,” Charles says a little desperately. “I just watch Lorna once a week, that’s all.”
Charles can tell from the look on McCone’s face that he doesn’t believe him. He doesn’t know what else to say to make the man understand. He had never even considered what his relationship with Erik would look like from the outside.
Moira’s warnings ring in Charles’ head—telling him it was inappropriate, telling him he was going to get in trouble—and he hangs his head.
“I see,” McCone begins pointedly, “That Mr. Lehnsherr is also a mutant.”
Charles head snaps up. “What?”
The man stares him down, his expression serious and closed off. “I understand that you people like to stick together.”
“You people?” Charles parrots, dumbfounded. It’s like a slap in the face, and now Charles can feel himself growing angry. “You what? Think I’m giving Erik preferential treatment because he’s a mutant?”
“No!” Charles snaps.
“You haven’t reported his absences, even though it’s university policy. You give him help outside of class. Students report you favoring him during class, giving him special treatment and attention to the detriment to the rest of the group. And you want me to believe it’s not because you’re involved with him, or because he’s a fellow mutant, or both?” McCone’s words drip with skepticism.
“Yes, I want you to believe that, because it’s true. One of my students was having difficulty reaching his true potential in school. I helped him. I don’t think that’s wrong.”
McCone gives a little snort, which has Charles’ blood boiling. “Even if you don’t, the university does. I should have you removed from your TA duties immediately.”
Charles freezes, his blood running cold. Being a TA is essential for his resume—he won’t get hired anywhere after the PhD if he doesn’t have teaching experience.
And if anyone finds out that he was fired because of an “inappropriate relationship” with a student?
He’ll never have a chance at getting a job. The entire PhD will have been a waste.
“No, please,” he says, leaning forward desperately. “Don’t fire me. I’ll stop babysitting for Erik. Anything.”
“I should certainly hope you’ll stop babysitting for him,” McCone says, the word laces with innuendo. “But Mr. Lehnsherr will also be removed from your seminar group. If you are seen to be contacting him in any way outside of class, you will lose your position.”
“What?” Charles gapes. “Even after he’s no longer my student?”
McCone narrows his eyes, as if this has confirmed all his suspicions. “While Mr. Lehnsherr is still enrolled in the course, you could be passing him valuable information. Even if he isn’t in your seminar group, you’ll still know the answers to the final exam that he is taking.”
Charles can only stare at the man. He can’t believe what he’s being accused of. Not merely favoring one student over another during class, but outright cheating.
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“I certainly hope not,” McCone says, folding his hands on his desk. “I’m taking a risk that you won’t by allowing you to finish out your duties as a TA this semester. But I want to be clear: you will be removed from the position if you contact Erik Lehnsherr. He will be moved to another seminar group starting immediately, and you are to have no contact with him for the rest of the semester. If I find out you do, I will make sure every professor in this department knows why you were removed from your position. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes,” Charles chokes out. His hands are shaking, and he folds them tightly in his lap so McCone doesn’t see. He’s never been treated so badly in his life, and he doesn’t want McCone to have the satisfaction of knowing how shaken he is by it.
“Fine. I hope you’re telling the truth about your involvement with him, Xavier,” McCone says. “You could be a brilliant professor one day, but I’ve known more brilliant men to get derailed by attractive undergraduates.”
Charles can only shake his head minutely.
Yes, he may have thought briefly about Erik—about how good the boy looked half-naked, about the slant of his cheekbones and the color of his eyes—but he wouldn’t have acted on it. And now he’s being lumped in with disgusting old men, preying on teenagers well into their career.
It stings, wrenching at him deep in his gut.
“Is that all?” he asks after a moment.
McCone sighs. “Yes, that’s all. You may go. And please, watch yourself for the rest of term.”
Charles gets unsteadily to his feet, and leaves the office without a backwards glance. He doesn’t stop walking until he’s in the nearest men’s room, shutting himself in a stall and leaning up against the door, eyes squeezed shut, trying to catch his breath.
He can’t believe this is happening to him.
He’s been accused of sleeping with a student, of helping a student to cheat, and—he’s pretty sure—of subtle mutant supremacy leanings.
He hadn’t even realized McCone disliked mutants until that moment.
Even worse, there had been a stack of papers on McCone’s desk, apparently all reports about his interactions with Erik. Multiple people had gone to the professor about it.
Charles has apparently been making a fool of himself all term, behaving in a way that led people to think the absolute worst of him.
And now everyone will know why Erik isn’t in his class anymore.
Shame burns hot along his neck.
And Erik,he thinks miserably. Poor Erik, who’s done nothing wrong.
He’ll be forced into another seminar group, with a TA he doesn’t know, who will probably be biased against him, given the situation. The class will meet at a different time than Charles’ group—Charles winces—meaning Erik will have to struggle to find a babysitter during that new time slot.
And Charles will never be able to babysit for him again.
Erik had come to count on him, and now Charles is letting him down, leaving him high and dry so late in the semester.
This could seriously impact Erik’s final grades, both in Intro to Biology, and his engineering classes.
And there’s nothing Charles can do to help.
He’s not supposed to talk to Erik again—he’s not even allowed to explain what happened.
He lets his head thump back against the stall door, biting his lip as his stomach churns miserably.
He’s let everyone down.
And he’ll never see Lorna again.
The idea hurts more than he ever would have thought.
After a few moments, Charles pulls himself together enough to call Moira, his finger hesitating for just one second over the call button on his phone. She’ll say ‘I told you so,’ he knows. She’s said all along that he was going to get in trouble, that he was getting too involved in Erik’s life.
But she’s his best friend, and there’s no one else he could talk to about this. After a quick glance out of the stall he’s enclosed in, to make sure no one’s entered the restroom, he presses call.
“I told you so,” Moira says, after he’s related the whole conversation with McCone.
Charles leans back against the stall door with a sigh. “I know. But I never thought anyone would jump to the conclusion that I was sleeping with him.”
“Really?” Moira asks, sarcasm dripping from her voice. “You practically announce in class that you’ve been to a student’s house, and you didn’t think anyone would assume something inappropriate was going on?”
“But there wasn’t! It was totally innocent.”
“Oh, Charles. Sometimes your ridiculous naïveté is adorable, but it was bound to get you in to trouble. Just because you think the best of people doesn’t mean that everyone does. You have to consider what things look like to other people, who don’t think the whole world is rainbows and kittens.”
“I don’t think that,” Charles grumbles. He tries to be optimistic, but he knows as well as anyone how screwed up the world can be. The prejudice in McCone’s eyes when he spoke of mutants made that more than clear. Being a mutant, and growing up the way he did, Charles could be as bitter and cynical as anyone. But he chooses not to be, because he wants to believe that people can be better than his mother, than his stepfather and stepbrother. He wants to believe they can be better than Magda, and Erik’s parents, and McCone.
He doesn’t think that makes him ridiculous. Moira and Erik are evidence that there are good people in the world. Charles just chooses to maintain the hope that the good ones out number the bad, that acceptance and understanding will eventually replace prejudice and fear. That some people could see that he was just trying to be the best teacher he could be by helping Erik, rather than assuming something sordid was going on.
But it seems he’s put too much trust in his class and McCone, at least.
“It’s going to be next to impossible for Erik to find a babysitter at the last minute like this, and finals are coming up!” Charles finally says.
“Charles, that’s not your problem anymore,” Moira tells him, tone gentling. “It can’t be. You heard what McCone said. You’ll lose your job.”
“But I can’t just leave him stranded like that!” Charles protests.
“You’re going to have to. Someone could easily find out if you keep going to Erik’s place. Did you ever consider that the people who reported you might be going out of their way to get you into trouble? That they might still be watching to see if you slip up?”
“You’re so dramatic, Moira,” Charles complains, but something twists deep in his gut. He’s nearly certain that one of the reports came from Azazel—the teleporter could easily keep tabs on Charles without him ever knowing. And the red-skinned man had been doing all he could to stay in McCone’s good graces—probably angling for a position in the department after he completed his PhD. Charles wouldn’t put it past him to secure the man’s favour—and knock out some competition for future jobs in the process—by turning Charles in.
“You need to keep away from Erik,” Moira insists. “You can’t lose this job and you know it. It’s too bad for the kid, but you have to think about your future.”
“I have to at least talk to him,” Charles argues. “And explain.”
“I don’t think you should. Even if no one would ever find out, you’re on thin ice with the department now. You need to do everything by the letter so they have no chance of calling you out on anything. Be a model TA and hopefully they’ll forget about this by next term.”
“No,” Moira says firmly. “If they somehow find out that you contacted him, it’ll only confirm their worst suspicions. They’ll be positive you’re sleeping with him.”
There’s a long pause on the line, and then Moira says, far more hesitantly, “Charles? You’re not, are you? Doing anything with Erik?”
“Moira!” Charles feels his face heat. The guilt that’s been gnawing at him since McCone raised his suspicions floods over him—reminding him that even though he’s never acted on it, he’s started to think about Erik as more than just one of his students. “Nothing’s going on between us.”
“Alright. I’m sorry I asked. It’s just, you do like guys, and you’re not that much older than the students themselves. And the way you talk about Erik and his kid…”
“I like Erik,” Charles admits. “He’s a good kid. And Lorna is adorable. But I haven’t done anything wrong. I shouldn’t be punished.”
“No,”Moira sighs. “But the world isn’t fair. Just keep your head down for a few weeks, Charles, and forget about Erik. He’ll manage without you, he was doing it before.”
He was barely making it to any of his classes, Charles thinks bitterly, but keeps the thought to himself.
“You’re right,” he tells Moira instead. “Thanks for listening.”
“No problem. Coffee sometime later this week?”
“Sure,” Charles agrees, although he’s already tired of talking about this, and hangs up with a heavy heart.
Charles doesn’t have any classes that day and so, after taking a moment to collect himself, he hurries out of the department building and back to his apartment. He’s thankful that he doesn’t run into anyone he knows in the corridors or the narrow streets of the campus; he feels like he has a large red A emblazoned on his chest, marking him out for the judgment of the whole department—students and faculty alike. Even though he knows he’s done nothing wrong, he’s never felt so ashamed. To be accused of such a thing, and to know that his students and colleagues believed it of him, burns hot within him.
It’s not unheard of for professors or TAs to get involved with students, but it’s technically against the rules, and it’s certainly looked down upon. And McCone had chosen to threaten him with the full extent of the possible punishment—termination. Charles might privately think that has more to do with his mutation—and Erik’s—than the possibility of an inappropriate relationship, but that wouldn’t change anything if he was fired. It would be on his record, and it could mar his whole future.
Despite that, Charles knows he can’t let this go without talking to Erik. To just ignore the boy from here on out, knowing what he struggles with, seems downright rude, and Charles can’t bring himself to do it, no matter what McCone or Moira say.
The moment he steps into his apartment he reaches for his phone and before he can talk himself out of it, dials Erik’s number.
“Hello?” the boy answers hesitantly, probably surprised to see Charles’ name flash on his caller I.D. Charles has never called him before, and it’s nearly a week until he’s next expected to watch Lorna. Charles hears the sound of a television in the background, and can so clearly picture the scene: Erik standing in the middle of his tiny living room, Lorna toddling around his ankles, Sesame Street playing happily in the corner. His chest tightens. It’s something he’ll never see again. Never be a part of again.
“Hello Erik. It’s Charles.” He takes a deep breath. “I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
“Are you alright?”
Charles pauses, surprised by the question. There’s real concern in Erik’s voice, and that just makes the whole situation seem more unfair.
“I’m fine. It’s just that someone—or, I guess, several someones—have reported to Professor McCone that you and I are having an inappropriate relationship.”
“But we’re not,” Erik says, clearly puzzled.
“I know. And I tried to explain that to the Professor, but I’m afraid he didn’t believe me. I’ve been issued a warning, and they’re going to move you to a different seminar group. And, I’m afraid I can’t see you outside of lecture, anymore.”
“What? That’s bullshit!”
Charles feels his heart sink at the boy’s angry tone. “I know, I’m so sorry I won’t be able to help with Lorna anymore, I feel terrible.”
But all Erik says is, “Are you going to get in trouble?”
“What? Oh, no. I mean, he threatened to fire me, but if I follow his terms, it should be fine.”
“He threatened to fire you?” Erik growls. “For helping me with Lorna? Is that allowed?”
Erik sounds deeply indignant, and Charles realizes with a start that it’s on his behalf. Erik’s not worried about himself and his childcare situation; he’s worried for Charles.
“It’s against university regulations to get involved with a student. And since he doesn’t believe me that we’re not dating…”
“Would it help if I talked to him?”
Charles sighs. “Thank you for the offer, Erik, but I don’t think so. If he doesn’t believe me, he’s not likely to believe you. After all, if we were involved, he’d presume you’d be willing to lie for me.”
Charles doesn’t want to tell the boy that given Erik’s mutant status, it’s unlikely McCone would believe anything he said. He doesn’t want Erik to know about the prejudice he faces in his own classes.
“So what happens now?”
“Like I said, you’ll be moved to a different seminar group. You’re doing better in the class than most of your classmates, so it shouldn’t affect your grade. If it does seem like you’re having trouble catching up with the material in the new class, make sure to go to the TA’s office hours. That’s what they’re there for.”
“And you?” Erik asks.
“As long as I don’t see you or contact you again, I should be fine,” Charles winces. I doesn’t sound fine when he says it like that. “I’m really sorry about Lorna.”
“It’s alright. I’ll figure something out.”
Charles knows it’s going to be so much more difficult than Erik’s words imply, but he can’t think of anything he can do to help.
Wanting to help is what got them into this situation, after all.
“Oh, and Erik? I wasn’t supposed to contact you at all, so when they tell you that your seminar group has been changed, try to act surprised.”
“Sure. No problem.” Erik pauses and then continues in a rush. “I don’t want you getting in trouble. Not after everything you’ve done for me.”
“It’ll be fine, Erik,” Charles says, although right now it feels anything but. “Just, take care of yourself and Lorna. And good luck with the rest of the semester.”
“Yeah, okay. I—I guess I won’t be seeing you around?”
Charles bites his lip. “No, I suppose not. I’m sorry again for getting you involved in this.”
“It’s not your fault.”
Charles wishes that were true, but Moira is probably right. He should have known what it would look like to other people, and guarded both himself and Erik against that kind of accusation.
“Goodbye, Erik,” he says, and the finality of the words aches deep inside him.
The line goes dead, and Charles can do nothing but stare at the phone in his hand for a moment, realizing he may never talk to the boy again.
Oh, he’ll see him in the lectures—amongst the crowd, from a distance. But he won’t speak to him, or laugh with him, or ever get to find out more about the boy and his life.
And it’s only now that Charles realizes how much he wanted that.
Sorry this chapter is a day late! And just to warn everyone, I don't think I'll be able to post a chapter next week, because I have a lot of RL stuff coming up in the near future. Hopefully it won't be too long until the next update, but it probably won't be at my usual time.
Chapter 7: Chapter Seven
In which Charles angsts.
The first day of class without Erik is more difficult than Charles had thought it would be. Even though Erik has been absent before, he feels like all the other students’ eyes linger on Erik’s empty chair, knowing exactly why the boy isn’t there. He feels judged, knowing that some of these kids submitted complaints against him, sparking the rumors that led to him nearly being fired.
It makes it difficult to conduct class as usual, difficult not to look out at those fifteen faces and wonder which ones turned against him.
To wonder which ones were looking at him right now with suspicion. He’s prided himself on his teaching, on his way with the students, and it feels like that’s all crumbling away now.
It hurts, and Charles stumbles through his notes, barely able to remember the material he’s meant to be covering. He forces himself to keep his eyes on the faces of those present, refusing to look over at the empty seat by the door.
Erik should be there, his brain insists. Hunched over his notebook, scribbling furiously, the lines of his body taut with determination. Determined to make his way through another class period, despite the obstacles against him.
It makes being kind to the hungover students, the inattentive students, and the just plain dim students that much more difficult.
He feels his patience start to go as he explains a simple concept to Alex Summers yet again, and remembers suddenly that the boy had taunted Erik as a ‘teacher’s pet.’
Charles looks at him sharply, the short blond hair, the narrowed blue eyes, the slightly sullen expression.
Was he one of the students who reported to McCone?
Was that look darting across his face smug satisfaction?
Was he happy he nearly got Charles fired? That he could ruin Erik’s GPA for the semester?
“Mr. Xavier?” Alex asks, his brow furrowing. Charles blinks down at him, realizing he’s stopped in the middle of his explanation, just staring at the boy in dawning horror.
“Sorry,” he shakes his head, trying to clear away his thoughts.
Alex might have been one of the students who reported him, but acting guilty and paranoid would just make the situation worse. He doesn’t need further reports sent in to McCone that he’s targeting the students who turned him in, bullying them in class.
He’d be fired for sure.
The department tries to honor their TAs’ word over that of the students—after all, students often claim unfairness, or prejudice, or, god forbid, inappropriate behavior when they think it will get them out of a bad grade. The university knows that, and backs their TAs, except when there’s real evidence against them.
But McCone thinks he has real evidence.
Charles backs away from Alex’s desk after giving the boy only the most cursory explanation, and moves onto another student, a quiet, mousy girl who he’s sure would never spread rumors about him—if only because it would mean she’d have to talk to someone first.
He normally despairs over the terminally shy students, but today she’s about all he can handle.
He doesn’t want McCone’s reprimand to affect his teaching this way—doesn’t want to prove the man right by becoming inattentive and uncaring. But his confidence is shaken, and it’s all he can do to get through the class period.
Charles wonders if it will be like this for the rest of the semester—struggling under the weight of everyone’s presumed suspicions, struggling with his own guilt in the matter.
He wishes he could feel righteously indignant at his mistreatment, but as it sinks in that he might never see Erik again, he begins to realize that he does have something that resembles a crush on the boy. Not the kind of immediate lust that some teachers spoke of when confronted with an attractive student—Charles had strictly guarded himself against viewing his students in such a light—but a subtler appreciation and admiration for the boy that has grown up over the weeks as he got to know Erik.
Erik is smart and resourceful and fiercely independent. He’s grim and sarcastic, but surprisingly sweet and tender underneath. He’s complicated and damaged, and kind of perfect in Charles’ eyes.
And Charles might never speak to him again.
It’s unthinkable, and when Charles steps into the lecture hall for the first time since his meeting with McCone, he can’t stop his gaze from sweeping the room, looking for that one tall, lean figure, those hard blue eyes and strong, uncompromising jaw.
He also can’t stop his heart from sinking when he doesn’t immediately see Erik.
He takes his usual seat in the front of the room with the rest of the TAs, barely sparing Azazel a glance as he drops into the seat next to him. The other TA nods curtly at him, nothing in his demeanor belying his potential involvement in Charles’ case. Nevertheless, he knows he won’t be too friendly with the Russian again.
McCone is already at the front of the room, shuffling his papers on the lectern; Charles glances at the clock—only two minutes before lecture officially begins. And no Erik.
The majority of the students are in the room already, settling into seats, a low buzz of chatter filling the large room. The sound of shuffling feet and papers echoes through the large room as students find their seats and greet one another, opening their notebooks in preparation for class.
The second hand ticks by on the clock above the blackboard; Charles is about to give up on seeing Erik today when the boy slips unobtrusively into the room. Charles has a direct line of vision to the door, and their eyes meet as Erik stops just inside the doorway, his gaze straying to the front row of the lecture theatre as if he’s looking for someone.
Charles feels himself flush as their eyes connect, certain every person in the room is watching them—watching his reaction. Erik looks good, he thinks inanely, as if he hadn’t seen the boy just one week before. He’s wearing another turtleneck, a style that flatters his figure to a degree Charles knows he shouldn’t be noticing. The moment seems to go on forever—Erik’s blue-gray gaze locked on his, his handsome features unreadable—and Charles finally forces himself to drop his gaze, hoping that no one else has noticed. He is incredibly aware of Erik making his way into the room, walking up the aisle a few feet to his left and settling into a seat at the back of the hall, even as he forces himself to keep his eyes on the notebook in front of him, writing the date and course name in careful letters at the top of the page. It’s like he can feel the air displaced by Erik’s movements, he’s so aware of where he shouldn’t be looking.
Azazel shifts slightly to his right and Charles flushes red.
But as McCone begins his lecture, his droning voice slowly explaining RNA, Charles can’t help but reach out with his mind, brushing ever so slightly against Erik’s consciousness.
It’s breaking every rule in the university’s books, but Charles can’t bring himself to care, not when he’s already in trouble for something he hasn’t even done.
He just wants to make sure Erik’s okay; that he isn’t suffering for Charles’ mistakes.
Erik’s mind feels familiar after all these weeks getting to know him, feeling his emotions crest on the surface of his consciousness. Charles has become attuned to him, seeking out how the boy was feeling without even really realizing it.
He brushes up against him gently and then dips inside, picking up surface emotions first. The boy is tired, and slightly flustered from jogging across campus to make it to class on time. There’s also a pang of regret reverberating just below the surface, sparked by seeing Charles. Charles gets a flash of his own face, eyes far bluer than they are when he looks in the mirror, lips as red as his flushed cheeks. He pulls back slightly, surprised by the vividness of the image. He could pursue it, he knows, grab hold of that thread of a thought and burrow down into Erik’s mind, seeing everything the boy thinks about him.
But he won’t. It isn’t fair to invade someone’s mind like that; and he learned his lesson about doing so as a child. Not everything people think about you is entirely favorable, anyway. Charles has learned it’s best not to look, if he doesn’t want his feelings hurt.
Instead, he follows Erik’s train of thought about the class he’s in.
He’s been assigned to Azazel’s seminar group, Charles is surprised to find. Despite the fact that he’s certain that Azazel was one of the people who reported him to McCone, Charles is happy Erik is in his class. At least he won’t have to worry about Erik being targeted for the “M” next to his name in all of his student records. He won’t have to worry about McCone subtly influencing Erik’s new TA against him for being a mutant; Azazel may not be Charles’ favorite person, but he knows what it’s like to be discriminated against for the way he was born. His red skin and tail are impossible to hide, even if he keeps his teleportation to himself. McCone clearly trusts the red-skinned mutant—that’s likely why he placed Erik in his class—but Charles has to hope that Azazel will not target one of his own kind without reason. Not just for being different.
For showing up late to class, on the other hand…
The man had been neutral towards Erik that week, anyway. The boy’s memories of the class are a drudge of monotony in a heavy Russian accent, but nothing worse than that. The slight longing to have the class conducted in gentler British tones has Charles drawing back from Erik’s mind with a flush.
The boy is alright, anyway. There is no panic cresting the surface of his thoughts, only the residual worry that Charles knows perpetually haunts the boy. Concerns about time, money and Lorna that will probably crowd his mind for the duration of his undergraduate degree.
Charles forces himself to focus on McCone’s lecture and ignore the temptation to dive back into Erik’s mind, just for a moment. Just to feel that complex and fascinating presence at the edge of his consciousness.
The end of term is normally the busiest for teaching—usually Charles has barely a second to spare to think about his own research. But this term, he throws himself into his dissertation; thinking about teaching means thinking about Erik, and he doesn’t want to mope through the end of term.
Moira would yell at him, anyway.
So he buries himself in the lab and lets the term pass him by. He’s sure his students have noticed that class is a duller affair—it’s next to impossible to work up the same level of enthusiasm when each of his students is a potential informer, just waiting to turn him in to McCone and ruin his career.
He hopes he can be forgiven, then, for keeping his head down and just doing his best to get through the semester without making eye contact with anyone.
Nevertheless, when he spots two of his students in the building cafeteria, hunched over their textbooks, he feels duty-bound to go and say hello. It helps that they’re two of the quiet girls who sit in back; he’s sure they’d never think of getting him in trouble with McCone.
He steps quickly towards them, smiling when he realizes that the books they’re bent over are their Introduction to Biology texts. It never fails to please him when he sees students actually putting in effort for his class.
“I’m going to fail this final, I swear,” Kitty says with a groan.
Charles grins. Maybe he can guide them in the right direction with their studying; it might remind him how rewarding teaching can be. He wants to remember the passion for education that drove him towards his doctorate in the first place.
Her friend, Angel, snorts. “Don’t bother to study,” she advises. “Just offer to blow Xavier. I hear that’s how you get a good grade in his class.”
Kitty snickers as Charles stops dead in his tracks. For a moment all he can hear is the rushing sound of his own blood, pounding in his head, and the cackling of the girls’ laughter.
He stutters to a halt by an empty table, staring at his students for a moment, laughing together at his expense, before he realizes how strange he must look, standing in the middle of the cafeteria, gaping at two teenage girls.
He flushes deeply; he probably looks like a sexual predator.
He turns and flees, his face hot, his stomach knotting violently.
He turns a corner and stops in the deserted corridor, slouching against the wall and squeezing his eyes shut as if that will make the whole situation go away.
He thought a student or two was upset about their grades and targeting him unfairly. He thought Azazel was trying to put him out of the running for any future jobs in the department.
He didn’t know all his students thought he was sleeping with Erik.
And not just sleeping with him—trading grades for sex. With a student. With a teenager.
He feels short of breath and wonders dully if this is what a panic attack feels like. He wishes he were home, safe in his apartment away from prying eyes. If he’s having a panic attack, he doesn’t want it to happen in the middle of the science building.
Kitty seemed like such a nice girl, he thinks numbly. She’s quiet, intelligent, and responsible. She didn’t seem like the type to gossip.
And yet the rumors had reached her, too.
He thinks back frantically—had she looked at him differently, these past few weeks? Was there suspicion in her eyes? Disgust?
He knows that he would be disgusted with a teacher, if he thought he was taking advantage of a student in that way.
He thinks about Angel’s smirk as she spoke and shudders. He supposes he’s lucky that none of his other students have propositioned him, hoping to get the same “deal” he had given Erik.
The thought makes him utterly miserable, disgusted with himself for something he hasn’t even done.
He turns his back on the cafeteria and strides towards the exit of the building. He doesn’t care about his afternoon office hours, doesn’t care about the lab time he had booked for the early evening.
He just wants to get out of the school and away from the gossip and rumors that won’t seem to leave him alone.
The idea that his students think that of him makes him sick, but suddenly it occurs to him—what if Erik thought Charles had been coming on to him, as well?
The idea makes his stomach knot, even as he tells himself that Erik sounded just as surprised on the phone as Charles felt. But still, the thought is there, implanted in his brain, niggling at him as he brushes past bodies in the hall. What did Erik think when he first offered to watch Lorna? When he first approached him in the café? Did it seem inappropriate? Did he wonder if Charles was just trying to get close to him?
Had he noticed the way Charles looked at him recently—and thought the worst?
Charles ducks his head, barreling through the corridors as his blood pounds in his ears. He’s disgusted with himself if there’s even the slightest possibility that Erik thought he was using Lorna to get close to him, to seduce him. Turning a corner, he comes up short, against a solid wall of flesh.
He stumbles back, wincing as the other person’s books go flying.
“I’m sorry!” he gulps, dropping down to a crouch to gather the other person’s belongings, cursing his own clumsiness. He wants to be halfway home at this point, not scrambling after pens and paper in the middle of a corridor.
His head snaps up at the rich, slightly accented voice. Erik peers down at him, pale eyes wide. Dark jeans encase what seem like impossibly long legs from this angle, and a deep purple turtleneck clings to the expanse of his torso.
Charles snaps his eyes up to the boy’s face and straightens quickly, knowing his face is bright red. Did Erik think he was checking him out?
He can’t stand the idea that he might seem like a predator in the boy’s eyes, that his motives might have seemed anything less than altruistic. And yet, he let himself look, even now.
He wonders if he deserves what his students are saying about him.
“Are you alright?” Erik asks, reaching forward to take the books from Charles’ hands, their fingers brushing slightly as he does, calluses skating over the skin of his hand. Charles draws back as if burned, eyes wide. “I’m sorry, I should have looked where I was going.”
It wasn’t Erik’s fault, of course, but somehow all Charles can do is shake his head, glancing quickly around the corridor to see if anyone has seen them. Students, faculty, other TAs—anyone might report Charles, anyone might be watching and misreading the situation.
“Charles,” Erik says with a frown, stepping closer and lowering his voice. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you…”
All Charles can think is if anyone saw them now, standing close and speaking in whispers, they’d never believe this was a chance encounter. He’d lose his job, and any lingering respect his students might have for him.
“I have to go,” he says quickly, stepping back. “I’m sorry.”
He turns and flees, the surprised and slightly crestfallen expression on Erik’s face burned into his retinas. He stretches his legs as far as they go, lengthening his strides to make it out of the building, practically running the rest of the way.
He wishes he could have stayed to hear what Erik had to say—he looked so earnest as he leaned in close to Charles, bridging the distance between them in a way that made his heart race—but the possibility that he had wanted to say something negative made Charles afraid to hear it. Made Charles afraid to look, even though a part of him was clambering to slip inside Erik’s mind yet again, and see what it was that he wanted.
But he’s crossed enough lines, he tells himself firmly.
His behavior has been unacceptable, he can see that now.
If he wants to keep his reputation and his job, he’s going to have to follow Moira’s advice and keep far, far away from Erik.
Anything else will just confirm the rumors, and the worry that’s lurking deep inside him.
He makes it home in record time, slumping into a chair at the kitchen table and putting his head in his hands.
His interest in Erik is not that of a teacher in his student, he can admit that now.
And see how very wrong it is.
I'm REALLY sorry about the delay on this, everyone, and that not much happened in this chapter. Real life got out of control for a bit. I'm hoping things are back to normal now, but I'm afraid I can't make any concrete promises about updates. I should go back to updating about once a week, and there are only a few more chapters to go on this story.
I hope some of you are still with me here, despite the wait!
“Well, gentleman,” McCone says, closing his laptop with a snap. “That’s another semester in the bag.”
He pauses significantly, as if waiting for applause. The TAs glance nervously around the room.
After a few seconds of terrible silence, Azazel raises his hands, giving one loud clap.
“No, no,” McCone says jovially, holding his hands up. “No need for applause. Just doing my job.”
Charles valiantly resists rolling his eyes as he closes his own computer down.
Grades have been handed in and logged for the term (none of his students had failed—thank goodness for small mercies), and this is his last meeting of the term with McCone.
He has never been so relieved to see a semester end.
The TAs rise from around the conference table, awkwardly packing bags and avoiding eye contact lest someone suggest they all go out for a drink. Not that Charles would mind spending some time with his fellow TAs. But ‘all’ would inevitably include McCone, and even ass-kissers like Azazel didn’t seem to want to socialize with the man.
“Have good holiday, sir,” the Russian says gruffly, nodding at the Professor.
“You, too, son,” McCone returns, but the smile on his face is not entirely sincere. Charles watches, interested. He wonders if Azazel’s red skin and teleportation outweighs the use that McCone can make of the man.
He wishes that the older generation didn’t still harbor such suspicion towards his kind. Mutants were becoming more and more common as each successive generation came along, but the old order was still resistant to acknowledging them and their rights.
McCone will probably never be fully comfortable working with mutants. His loss, Charles thinks bitterly.
The TAs file slowly out of the room, bundling their coats around them against the harsh winter air awaiting them outside.
“Xavier, a minute?” McCone calls as Charles trails after them, his thoughts full of his warm apartment and a pot of tea.
“Yes, sir?” he questions warily.
“Have a seat,” McCone gestures to the seat across from him. He’s still smiling, but Charles doesn’t trust it. He hesitantly drops into the chair, settling his bag at his feet. He very pointedly doesn’t take off his coat—McCone only said a ‘minute’ after all.
“From what I’ve heard,” McCone begins, steepling his fingers in front of him. “You haven’t had any contact with that boy. Lehnsherr.”
Charles forces himself not to blanch at the words. From what he’s heard? He wonders just how much McCone has been checking up on him. “No, sir. Not since you transferred him out of my seminar group.”
“So no more ‘babysitting’?” The word drips with innuendo.
“No. Erik’s had to make do without my help with Lorna.”
“His daughter,” Charles snaps. “The child I was babysitting for.”
“Ah,” McCone frowns slightly.
“I’m sure his status as a parent is somewhere on his student record,” Charles says pointedly. If the school insists on recording Erik’s mutant abilities, they must have noted that he has a dependent. “If you don’t believe me.”
“No one said they didn’t believe you, Xavier.”
Charles bites his lip to keep from making a face. McCone may never have said it…
“I’m sure you’ve received your teaching assignment for next term by now,” McCone switches gears.
“Yes, sir.” He had gotten the email the week before.
“It’s not that I didn’t want you on any of my courses, you understand.”
“No, of course not,” Charles agrees, although he knows perfectly well that McCone influenced his placement—he’s taught Intro to Biology for three terms now, and yet it was mysteriously absent from his teaching for the Spring semester. He holds back a smirk—McCone probably thinks he’s punishing Charles, but he’s never been so happy with his teaching assignments. He’s been given two good courses, and McCone won’t be breathing down his neck all term. It couldn’t have turned out better, as far as he’s concerned.
“It’s really just a quirk of the system,” McCone continues on blithely, caught up in his own explanation. “People put in for teaching, people put in for teaching assistants…who knows how it will turn out?”
“It’s fine, sir.” Charles was well aware of how the system worked…he knew McCone had specifically requested not to have him teach on his course. But Charles didn’t care.
McCone looks at him sharply. “Of course it is.” He leans forward slightly. “I just wanted to have this chat and let you know that I was proud of you for resisting temptation. That’s the kind of will power you need to have in all your future teaching.”
“There was no temptation to risk, sir,” Charles says firmly, his jaw clenching. “I saw far more of Lorna than I ever did of Erik. And I did miss her all of last term. She is a very sweet child, and I enjoyed looking after her. As far as Erik is concerned, his final grade makes it clear that he got on fine without my assistance.”
“Yes, well,” McCone frowns.
“I hope your new TAs for Intro to Biology work out well for you next term, sir,” Charles says, standing.
McCone’s frown deepens and Charles feels something like smug satisfaction curling deep in his gut. “Oh. Thank you,” the man falters.
“I’m sure I’ll see you around the department,” Charles offers, grabbing his bag and heading towards the door.
“Make sure to watch yourself, Xavier,” McCone calls after him. “You wouldn’t want to get in trouble again.”
Charles pauses at the door, feeling bold. “I never did anything to warrant the trouble you gave me, sir,” he says firmly. “But I’ll be sure I never do anything that can be used against me again.”
McCone looks like he wants to say something more, but Charles is already out of the door.
Talking back to his superior might not have been the best idea, but it sure felt good. And he comforts himself with the fact that he hadn’t said anything that could really get him into trouble—he hadn’t said anything that wasn’t the truth.
He shoulders his bag and heads out of the building, his thoughts churning with McCone’s continued accusations. He had barely glimpsed Erik during the final exam—the boy finished in record time, just like the midterm, handing his paper in to Azazel without ever even glancing at Charles. Charles had tried to keep his eyes on the rest of the students, but if he was honest with himself, he would admit that his gaze kept straying to Erik, hunched over his exam paper, trying to decide whether he looked tired or stressed or unhappy. Charles thought he looked good, though. Really good. I suppose he didn’t really need me, Charles thought morosely, watching Erik’s pen fly over the exam paper.
That was the extent of his interaction with the boy, except for surreptitiously checking his final grade when they went over the evaluation of the second markers that afternoon. Erik had come away with an impressive 92% in the class.
It was a shame he wasn’t a biology major.
Still, the sight of that number filled Charles with sense of pride. He just knew that if the boy got a 92 in his class, he must have done even better in his engineering classes, the ones he was really passionate about it.
Charles wants to be the one to tell him about his final grade, wants to celebrate Erik’s achievements with him. He’s proud of all his students that did well, but he knows the satisfaction he feels at Erik’s achievement is something more.
Charles turns away from his own road, suddenly feeling restless. Term is over. Erik is no longer his student. He could contact the boy—he could tell Erik directly how proud he is of him. He could ask how he’s doing with Lorna, how the rest of the semester went for him. He could offer to help again, in the new term.
He could get to know Erik outside of class and babysitting. He could find out what the boy likes besides engineering and his adorable daughter. He could ask Erik out for a cup of coffee.
He frowns, hunching further into the upturned collar of his coat, shielding himself against the winter wind.
McCone would find out, he’s sure of it. Or, if not McCone, Azazel. Or one of his students. Someone would notice that Charles was being friendly with Erik—or more than friendly—and would assume that every rumor about him had been true.
The smug look on McCone’s face had been insufferable, even knowing that he was innocent of the charges the professor laid against him.
Could he handle the look McCone and others would give him if he was seen with Erik outside of school? Even if he was jut looking after Lorna?
Charles frowns and ducks into the café on campus, sighing at the warmth that greets him as soon as he’s through the door.
He doesn’t know what to do. He feels like if he so much as talks to Erik again, everyone will assume the worst. He’s always been a ‘good guy’—he was a good kid, the kind who never got into trouble or made things difficult for his parents. Not that they ever noticed or appreciated it. He went to university early, and never missed a class, or turned in an assignment late. He got perfect grades, and got into his top-choice graduate school. He’s on track to finish his PhD on time, he’s a good teacher, he still never misses a deadline. He’s never been the cause of trouble or gossip before.
Which makes it that much harder, he thinks as he mumbles his order of a large Earl Grey to the barista, knowing that people no longer think he’s a ‘good guy.’
He slumps down at a table in the corner of the café, rubbing tiredly at his eyes. It’s been a long semester, he thinks wearily. At times it felt like it would never end, but now that it’s over, he’s not sure what to do.
Keep being the quiet, unassuming good guy that everyone expects him to be? Keep his head down, finish his dissertation and hope he can avoid any further trouble?
Or pick up the phone and call Erik, like he’s been dying to do for weeks?
“Here you go.” Charles is startled out of his thoughts by a mug plunked down in front of him, milky hot liquid sloshing over the rim. He looks up, surprised, into the familiar face of the blonde barista. “One large earl grey, extra milk,” her lips quirk up into a grin. Charles gets the feeling she’s laughing at him. As usual.
“Uh, thank you.” He slides mug nearer, expecting the girl to turn and walk away. Instead, she tips her head to the side, regarding him with interest.
“So, where’s your cute young date?” She asks.
“What?” Charles stammers, floored. Have the rumors spread even here?
“About yay high?” the girl says, holding her hand up above the table. “Red hair? Cute as a button?”
Red hair? Charles thinks, bewildered. “Oh!” he says after a second. “You mean Lorna.”
“That the baby’s name?”
The girl smiles at Charles’ nod, but then frowns. “Is she okay?”
Charles attempts a reassuring smile, trying to wipe away the sadness that had surely shown on his face. “She’s fine. Or, I think she is. I just haven’t seen her in awhile.”
“Ohh,” the girl gives him a knowing look. “You have a fight with her dad?”
Charles glances up sharply, wondering if the girl is implying something about his relationship with Erik.
The girl glances around the café, taking note of the multitude of empty tables, and then drops unceremoniously into the seat across from him. “I’m Raven,” she says. “Now, tell me all your troubles.”
“What?” Charles chuckles nervously.
The girl props her head in her hands, looking up at him with big blue eyes. “Come on. I’ve been told I’m a good listener.” She gives a little laugh. “And that I’m nosy. So spill!”
“There’s really nothing…”
She interrupts him with a derisive snort. “Please. Your face says it’s something. Just think of me like a daytime bartender. Tell me all your problems over a drink.” She gestures to the tea in front of him.
Despite the fact that she’s spent more time mocking him than actually talking to him over the course of the last few months, Charles surrenders to the earnest look on her face.
“I’m a TA at the university,” he explains. “And Erik—that’s Lorna’s father—was a student in my class. When I found out about Lorna, I offered to help him look after her.”
“I remember,” Raven says with a smirk. Charles gives her a sharp look. “Sorry, sorry,” she holds up her hands in mock surrender. “Go on.”
“Some people saw me with Erik outside of class and…misinterpreted it.”
“They thought you were banging,” Raven says bluntly.
Charles rolls his eyes. “Yes.”
“But you weren’t?”
“Really? I would have,” she says with a wicked grin.
Charles narrows his eyes. “Do you want to hear this or not?”
“Okay, okay. So, what happened?”
“I almost got fired. Erik got transferred out of my class, and I was banned from seeing him ever again.”
“Shit,” Raven whistles.
“But…” she gives him a considering look. “You do like Erik.”
“You may not have been sleeping with him, but you like him, don’t you?”
Charles shifts uncomfortably under Raven’s penetrating gaze. He’s the telepath here, but it seems like she knows exactly what he’s thinking. Is he that obvious about his interest in Erik?
“Well…” he hedges.
“Look, it’s okay,” she leans forward earnestly. “From what I remember, he was a fine piece of ass.”
Raven grins widely. “Just saying what we’re both thinking.”
“I was not thinking that,” Charles counters primly.
“Sure, whatever you say, Professor.”
“It’s Charles. Charles Xavier.”
“Okay. Professor X, then,” she grins. “So, you’re hot for Erik but you aren’t allowed to see him because he’s your student.”
“I’m not—” Charles begins uselessly. He shakes his head. “He’s not my student anymore,” he says with a shrug. “Term ended.”
“So, you’re allowed to talk to him again? Then what’s the problem?”
“If I were interested in seeing Erik socially…” Charles begins.
“Oh please,” Raven snorts.
“If I were to be seen with him, “Charles continues blithely, “It would get back to the department. And it would be as good as proving McCone and his cronies right.”
“But they weren’t right. You weren’t sleeping with Erik while he was your student.”
“Yeah, but they’d never believe that if they saw us together now.”
“So?” Raven frowns. “Who gives a fuck what they think? Sorry, Professor,” she says at Charles’ shocked expression. “But I really don’t see what business it is of anyone at the university. If you’re not breaking any rules, they can just mind their own fucking business.”
“But think how it would look,” Charles says uncertainly.
Raven scoffs. “You shouldn’t worry about how things look. Appearance isn’t everything,” she leans closer and winks, her blue eyes shuttering to a deep gold and then back again.
“A mutant? Yeah, and I don’t care who knows it.”
“ Oh, don’t think I’m judging you,” Charles says quickly. “I’m like you.” He sends a quick pulse against her mind—the mental equivalent of tapping her on the shoulder.
She smiles. “Cool. I knew you wouldn’t care. I saw your hot friend do his little trick with the spoons.”
“Ah,” Charles smiles at the memory.
“People are always going to try and keep us down and tell us what to do,” Raven says seriously, and Charles is suddenly sure she’s not just talking about his situation with Erik. “We can’t let them. You’ve got to live your life the way you want, despite what people say.”
The bell above the café door lets out a tinkling chime as a customer walks in.
“Duty calls,” Raven says, standing. She leans closer. “Think about what I said, Prof. If you don’t ask that boy out, I just might. He’s one of the hottest people to ever come in this place.”
Charles gives an incredulous laugh.
“Don’t be a stranger, now,” Raven says, patting him genially on the shoulder. “Our kind has got to stick together.” She trails off across the room, making her way back to the counter to take the customer’s order.
Charles sips at his tea, watching her work and thinking about what she’s said.
Is he being a coward if he worries about what McCone and the other PhD students will think if he’s seen with Erik? He thinks Raven might be right—he shouldn’t let other people dictate his life and his decisions, especially if they’re bigoted assholes.
Raven looks so confident, interacting with her customer, laughing as she makes him a coffee. She doesn’t look like she cares what people think about her at all.
But then again…she looks totally normal. Charles frowns, wondering if the golden eyes she had flashed at her were her true eye color. If so, didn’t that mean she was hiding, just like the rest of them? Nervous about what people would say?
He finishes his tea and stands, giving her a little nod as he leaves the café.
He stuffs his hands deep in his pockets, hunching down into his coat against the cold. He wants to follow Raven’s advice—wants to think his reputation in the department doesn’t matter.
But he’s still so unsure.
He lets himself into his apartment, stamping his feet to get some warmth back into them, and shrugs off his jacket.
The ringing of his cell phone drags him out of his thoughts.
“I just turned in my last grades!” Moira crows triumphantly. “Another semester over, and I didn’t kill any of my students!”
“A job well done,” Charles chuckles, sinking down onto his couch.
“Damn straight,” Moira agrees. “They’re annoying. I don’t know why anyone would think you were sleeping with one of them.”
“Moira,” Charles sighs.
“Seriously, it’s ridiculous. Thank god term is over and that’s all behind you. Have you finished up with McCone?”
“Yeah, just today. He got in a parting shot, though. Made it clear he still doesn’t believe I wasn’t fooling around with Erik.”
Moira snorts down the phone line. “What a bastard. I don’t know how anyone could believe you were involved with the kid, anyway. He’s straight! It’s not like he was desperate enough for a good grades to go gay.”
“Well…” Charles hedges, casting his mind back over every encounter he had with Erik. He had begun to think that his interest wasn’t entirely one-sided. Maybe. “Just because he has a child doesn’t necessarily mean he’s straight,” he says, for Moira’s sake as well as his own. “I mean, he was just a child when his girlfriend got pregnant.”
Erik had only been sixteen when he found out he was going to be a father, after all. Charles had dated girls at sixteen, and even later, before finally realizing that while he loved and respected women, he didn’t want to sleep with them.
“Oh, I don’t mean the baby, although that’s a pretty good sign,” Moira laughs. “I mean the girlfriend he has now.”
Charles straightens, gripping the phone a little tighter. “What?”
“Yeah, I saw them out the other day.” He can practically hear Moira rolling her eyes. “They’re an unfairly good-looking couple.”
“Really?” Charles says weakly.
“Yeah. She’s one of the few people on campus I’ve seen who could match Erik for looks,” Moira laughs. “Tall, thin, huge breasts, perfect blonde hair. She can’t be more than eighteen, but I’m pretty sure I hate her.”
Charles remembers the first time he saw Erik outside of class—he was talking to a blonde girl, trying to get her to her to babysit for Lorna. The girl had blown him off, but she had certainly been beautiful. Dressed all in form-fitting white, every inch of her immaculately groomed.
Was that Erik’s type? Charles is surprised—he wouldn’t have thought Erik would go for a girl like that. High maintenance, and clearly not interested in children.
But she was gorgeous.
“They were out on a date?” he asks, hoping he doesn’t sound quite as pathetic as he feels.
“Yeah, I saw them having dinner. At that nice Italian place? I was with my parents, or I never would have been in there. They seemed like they were having a great time—laughing and flirting, you know the deal.”
“Yeah, sure,” Charles agrees faintly.
“Anyway, anyone could see that boy isn’t into men. It’s just ludicrous that they tried to insinuate otherwise. At least you’re well done with the situation.”
“Yeah, thank goodness,” Charles agrees. “No more McCone for me.”
“And cheers to that! We should get drinks to celebrate.”
“Sure. But…not tonight. I’m kind of beat.”
“Okay. Tomorrow, maybe?” Moira suggests.
“Sure. I should go. Talk to you later, Moira,” Charles hangs up the phone, the image of the pretty blonde from the café burned into his mind.
Emma, he thinks Erik had said.
Erik and Emma.
It was cute, he tells himself. They would probably look great together.
He drops his phone on the coffee table with a thunk. He had been ready to give Erik a call when he left the café, to disregard his professional reputation in order to see the boy again.
But was he ready to make that sacrifice just to make a new friend?
He didn’t want to think that he only cared about Erik if he was interested in dating him, but the idea of reaching out to him, and drawing the censure of the whole department, just to sit around and watch Erik be happy with Emma was a little…off-putting.
Could he do it? Charles wondered. Could he offer to watch Lorna again, if it meant babysitting while Erik went out on a date?
Handsome, intelligent, interesting Erik, dressed up in one of his slim-fitting turtlenecks, smelling fresh and boyish, handing Lorna off so that he could go out with a beautiful blonde woman.
Charles drops his head into his hands. He doesn’t want to believe he’s only interested in Erik romantically—sexually. It’s too close to proving McCone right. But the idea of sitting around, watching him go out with other people, is a bit hard to take.
Especially now that he’s admitted that he finds Erik attractive.
If even Raven could see it, he must be fairly obvious.
He isn’t sure he’s a good enough man to sacrifice his reputation just to be friends with Erik.
And yet, he misses the boy. And he misses Lorna. It’s been weeks since he’s seen her. He knows what toddlers are like—she’s growing and changing everyday. She must be doing so much more now than when he last saw her. New words, new ideas—everything changed so rapidly with children that age.
And he’s genuinely sad that he’s not there to see it. She’s such a sweet child, and he misses spending time with her. But would he be willing to watch her while Erik went out on a date?
Charles groans at the idea, jealousy knotting in his stomach. He wants to call Erik, to congratulate him on his final grade and suggest they get together over the holidays, but now he can’t bring himself to do it.
Not with disappointment curling sharply in the pit of his stomach.
He had told himself he just wanted to check in with Erik, to make sure he was okay, and maybe get to know him a little better. And if that led to something more…well, then it was meant to be.
But now, knowing that “something more” wasn’t an option, he couldn’t bring himself to pick up the phone.
The holidays passed slowly, lingering weeks of stinging cold air and hot mugs of tea, consumed alone in his apartment.
Moira flew off to her family in the Midwest for a big, chaotic jovial holiday season. Charles looks at the photos on facebook morosely, seeing the decorated homes and the smiles plastered on everyone’s faces. Moira grins out from the middle of her big family, her cheeks flushed with happiness.
He makes another cup of tea, turning up the music piping out of his laptop to cover the silence of his empty home. It’s Bach, not Christmas carols.
He thinks about Erik a lot during the holiday weeks, Erik who must feel just as alone as he does. He knows the boy doesn’t speak to his parents, doesn’t see Lorna’s mother.
Is he all alone as well, with no one but his toddler daughter to help him celebrate the season?
The thought makes Charles want to call more than ever, but surely asking him to spend the holidays together would be too much.
They barely knew each other, after all. Just a few minutes spent together here and there, as Erik came and went to class. The time they spent together in class certainly didn’t count. Charles wasn’t pondering asking Alex Summers over for Christmas dinner, or New Year’s Eve, after all. He wouldn’t want Kitty Pryde showing up on his doorstep with a bottle of champagne and silly hats.
But as he watches the ball begin its slow descent into the New Year, he wishes he had given into the impulse to call Erik.
They could be in the boy’s flat right now, Lorna tucked away in her crib hours before, shushing each other from laughing too loudly, lest they wake her.
But that’s probably what Erik is doing, Charles thinks with a frown. But instead of his former TA, it’s his girlfriend at his side, pouring him another glass of cheap sparkling wine as they snuggle closer in the tiny bedroom of his apartment.
He sighs, setting down his own glass of bubbly. He’s not in the mood. He switches off the TV just as the crowd erupts in shouts of ‘Happy New Year’ and goes to bed.
Moira’s return is a relief. The holidays always remind Charles of what he doesn’t have in his life, and he’s happy to start the new semester and forget all about holiday cheer.
He had gone in to school nearly every day of the Christmas holidays, haunting the empty labs and corridors. But even the university had closed from the 24th to the 2nd, and so on the 3rd Charles settles back into his office with relief, opening up his laptop to start computing some data from his experiments. The next day brings the start of classes and then he’ll be swamped with seminar preparation, office hours, and needy students once again. Which is why his best work is done always done over breaks.
Or that’s what he tells himself.
It has nothing to do with the quiet loneliness of his apartment, or the memory of a mother who was distant even when she was in the same room.
Charles is hunched over his laptop, going over the results of some of his lab cultures when someone knocks on the door.
“Come on in, Moira,” he calls, knowing no one else would be in school on the last day of the holidays. He hopes she’s had the forethought to bring him some tea.
“Sorry to disappoint,” a deep voice replies as the door swings open. “But I’m afraid it’s just us.”
Charles’ head snaps up, and there, framed in his office doorway, is Erik, with Lorna cradled in his arms.
“Hi!” Lorna says brightly.
She’s bigger, Charles notes, staring dumbly at the two of them. When he first met her in September, she looked like a baby, but now she looks like a child, like a real little person.
And Erik…Erik looks just as good as he remembered.
“Hi,” he says weakly. “What are you doing here?”
A flicker of hesitation passes over Erik’s face, but then he steps further into the room, giving Charles one of his wry smiles.
“We wanted to come and say hello.” He stands Lorna up on the seat of the only other chair in Charles’ tiny office, balancing her tiny form with one large hand. “Lorna asked for you a lot back in December, so I thought now that the new semester is starting, it would be okay to come and see you.”
“She asked for me?” Charles asks, surprised.
Erik gives him a wider smile, a real grin. “Yeah. She wanted to know where ‘Char’ had gone.”
“Char!” Lorna repeats gamely, smiling.
Charles can’t help the grin that spreads over his own face, or the warmth that bubbles up in his chest. “I missed you, too, Lorna,” he tells her, standing to walk around his desk and over to the child’s side. She tips her head back to smile up at him.
Erik stands close beside her, one hand pressed protectively on her small back. This close, Charles imagines he can feel the heat radiating off of Erik’s body; he wants to lean closer, to tuck himself against the boy’s side. Instead, he takes a discreet step away, shifting to put more space between them.
Displeasure flickers across his consciousness and then is gone. Charles glances up, surprised, but Erik’s face is impassive.
He reminds himself that Erik has a girlfriend and a child.
“I’m glad you came,” he tells the boy, anyway. “I really did miss Lorna.” And you too, he can’t bring himself to say.
“Maybe,” Erik’s gaze shifts away from Charles’ face. “Maybe now that I’m not in your class anymore, you could come over again? And spend some time with Lorna.”
“Oh.” Charles supposes he shouldn’t be disappointed. Of course Erik is here to ask if he’d be willing to babysit again. He knew the boy needed the extra help, and the money saved from not paying Charles.
And he does miss spending time with Lorna.
“Of course,” he says. “I’d be happy to sit for Lorna again. What’s your class schedule this term? We can see what periods I’m available.”
A small frown creases Erik’s handsome brow, but he responds, “Oh, that would be…great. Why don’t I just email you my schedule?”
“Perfect,” Charles agrees. He’ll still get to see Erik coming and going from class, he reminds himself. It’s better than not seeing him at all.
And he won’t have to worry about Erik’s struggles with balancing Lorna and his studies.
He only ever wanted to help, after all.
Sorry it's a bit late, everyone!
The trip to Erik’s house is familiar but unsettling; Charles had convinced himself it was a journey he would never take again. The neighborhood is just as dodgy as the first time he was there, but this time Charles is nervous for a different reason.
Moira had been completely exasperated when he told her he had agreed to babysit for Erik again. She was convinced he was playing fast and loose with his career because he had some kind of martyr complex; Charles isn’t entirely sure she’s wrong. But here he is, standing outside of Erik’s run-down building, steeling himself to knock and see him again.
It had been a week since Erik showed up at his office—the boy had forwarded Charles his class schedule as promised, and Charles had surmised that he could watch Lorna two days a week this term, if he took a little time away from his own research.
Not that he’d told Erik that.
Martyr complex indeed, Charles thinks with a shake of his head, rapping his knuckles firmly against the unmarked door of Erik’s apartment.
The door is wrenched open before he’s even dropped his hand and there’s Erik, looking at him with a level of intensity that makes Charles falter.
“Come on in,” he says eagerly.
“Um, sure. How are you?” Charles steps into the dim hallway. It’s just as shabby and narrow as he remembered, but he doesn’t notice anything but the boy in front of him. He’s freshly showered, his hair still damp, curling just over the tops of his ears.
He really is very good looking, Charles thinks dimly.
“I’m fine. My classes seem good this semester.” Erik starts up the stairs, glancing back over his shoulder to make sure Charles is following.
Charles very pointedly does not look at how Erik’s slim-fitting jeans pull tight as he walks up the stairs.
“Except for Freshman Comp,” Erik continues scornfully. “What an absolute joke.”
That’s better, Charles decides. Talking about classes is something he’s sure he can manage, even with Erik in such close proximity. “Now, now,” he chides with a laugh. “Being able to write is important, even for engineers.”
“Taking this class is not going to teach me how to write,” Erik says. “Trust me. It’s absolutely ridiculous. It’s like it was designed by a mathematician. Everything is a formula, with no room for style.”
Charles is impressed. He’s used to science and math students deriding writing and failing to understand why it’s a useful skill. Charles agrees that the formulaic way composition courses are taught won’t make anyone a better writer; he just hadn’t expected an engineering student to pick up on that.
He suddenly very much wants to see Erik’s bookshelf, to know what the boy is reading.
“Perhaps you could opt out by taking something like English 101?” Charles suggests.
Erik looks back at him in surprise. “Is that allowed?”
“Well…” Charles hedges. “They don’t exactly advertise the fact, but I know other students have successfully petitioned to make the switch.”
He’s got a friend in the philosophy department who tries to get all his students to make the trade—Sean swears that Freshman Composition ruins philosophers, making them incapable of thinking outside rigidly defined boxes.
He’d rather they read Dickens and Eliot and figured it out for themselves.
“That would be amazing,” Erik says earnestly as he pushes open the door to his apartment. “I swear, if I have to take a whole semester of Comp, I’m going to kill someone.”
“Best not to resort to murder just yet,” Charles laughs as he follows Erik inside. “At least wait until you’ve had to deal with the administration about getting a schedule change.”
Charles surveys the small apartment; he had thought he’d never see it again. He’s incredibly glad to be back, even if it’s just as tiny and run-down as he remembered.
Lorna is seated in the middle of the living room, stacking blocks with fierce determination.
“Hi sweetheart,” Charles crouches down in front of her.
“Hi,” she glances up briefly from her small tower.
“Building is serious business,” Erik says from behind him. “You’re only a distraction.”
“I can see that,” Charles laughs.
Erik smiles at them, his expression fond, but then he gives a little jerk and quickly reaches for his bookbag. “So, everything is basically the same as the last time you watched her,” Erik tells him, shoving books into his bag as he speaks. “She talks more, I guess. Oh, and she’s really fast now.”
Charles laughs. “Fast?” he questions, glancing down at the chubby little legs Lorna has curled under her. “I think I can keep up with her.”
Erik smirks. “If you can’t outrun me, you can’t outrun her.”
Charles’ eyes drop of their own volition, scanning down the muscular lines of Erik’s body. He’s got a runner’s build, long and lean, and Charles imagines he’s pretty fast. He can just picture him, stretching his long legs, his tight, toned body glistening with sweat, as he runs.
“I’ll, uh, keep that in mind…”
Erik’s smirk deepens, and something in Charles’ stomach gives a little flip as he tears his eyes away, his cheeks heating.
Foolish body, he thinks. There’s no point getting all excited over every look and every smile.
He wishes he could read more into it, though. When he reaches out towards Erik he can feel fondness radiating off of the boy—he should be happy enough with that. They’re friends, or on their way to being friends.
Can’t that be enough?
But his stomach doesn’t think so, tying itself into knots every time Erik so much as looks his way.
“Okay, then. I guess I should go.” Erik hesitates by the door, his jacket on and his bag in his hand.
“Alright,” Charles says, wishing he could think of some excuse to get him to stay a little longer. But he’s here to ensure that Erik can go to class, not to make him late.
“Right,” Erik agrees. “So, I’ll just…go. But I’ll be back in two hours or so.”
“That’s fine. Have a good class.”
An expression almost like disappointment flits across Erik’s face before he turns to his daughter, giving her a gentle smile. “Be good, sweetheart,” he instructs, and then he’s gone.
Charles listens to his feet pound down the stairs and then hears the heavy thud of the outside door.
They were only in the same room for five minutes or so. Which is all he’s ever going to get when he’s just Erik’s easiest babysitter, he realizes with a sigh.
But Lorna is looking up at him with her big blue eyes, and he tells himself to stop being ridiculous.
“Can I build with you?” he asks, holding out a hand.
She gives him a considering stare before very magnanimously handing him a block. “Here.”
“Thank you,” he grins, reaching over to add it to the stack in front of her.
“No!” She smacks soundly at his hand, glaring for all she’s worth. Little but fierce, Charles thinks with a chuckle.
“Ah. Shall I just…build my own tower?”
Apparently in concession to his suggestion, she deigns to hand him another block.
“Well, thank you, your majesty,” Charles teases, ruffling her feathery hair. It’s longer now, curling around her neck, making her look so much less like a baby. It still glimmers a deep auburn, and Charles wonders if she got it from her mother.
Erik doesn’t keep any pictures of Magda in the house.
They build peacefully for a while, Lorna babbling to herself the whole time, seeing how high she can get the blocks to stack. Every time Charles stacks more than two blocks on top of each other, she reaches over and knocks it down again with a look of great satisfaction.
After he’s just about given up on building his own tower, Lorna puts her blocks down firmly and declares, “Candy drink!”
Charles smiles. “You mean juice?”
“Candy drink!” she insists again, looking at him beseechingly with her big blue eyes.
“Alright, just one second,” Charles gets up and heads for the fridge, hearing Lorna get to her feet and toddle along behind him. There are familiar juice boxes inside, and he grabs one and turns to hand it to Lorna.
“No juice!” She says sternly, pushing his hand away. “Candy drink!”
Charles peers back into the fridge with a frown. There’s a multitude of juice boxes, a gallon of milk, a six-pack of beer (which Charles pretends not to see, since Erik is not yet twenty-one), and a liter of coke.
The soda is the closest thing to a ‘candy drink’ in there, but Erik can’t possibly give his toddler coke already, can he?
“Candy drink!” Lorna whines.
Charles decides to have a look through the cabinets, too, just in case something jumps out at him. But besides an even bigger stockpile of juice boxes, he doesn’t find anything that lives up to the moniker of ‘candy drink.’
Meanwhile, Lorna is clutching the leg of his trouser, tugging insistently, while chanting out her demand.
“Candy drink, candy drink, candy drink,” she demands.
Charles looks towards the refrigerator skeptically. He’s nearly positive that soda isn’t good for small children. In fact, he’s read enough studies to know it isn’t good for adults either, but he tries not to judge, given the amount of tea he consumes on a daily basis.
But what Erik puts into his own body is different from what he allows his tiny daughter.
Charles hesitates with his hand on the fridge door, Lorna’s tone growing more and more insistent as she begs him for ‘candy drink.’ Surely a little soda won’t do her any permanent damage. But if it turns out he’s done the wrong thing, Charles isn’t certain he’ll be able to forgive himself. Erik trusts him with Lorna, after all.
He reaches out with his power, touching Lorna’s mind gently. Before her thoughts were pure images and base desires, but now more complex emotions and even words dominate, and for a second he just marvels at the way her mind is growing and changing. But she’s still whimpering, and so he looks with more purpose, trying to see what it is she’s after.
He gets pulses of frustration, helplessness, anger and upset, jumbling together in his mind in a confused mass. Beneath that is a low thrum of desire, sweet and a little tangy.
He pulls back, shaking his head. He got that she was thirsty, or hungry, or something, and that she wanted something sweet.
Which didn’t tell him a whole lot more than ‘candy drink,’ actually.
He reaches down to pat her on the head a little apologetically, chagrined at invading her mind, and tries to think what else he can do to figure out what she wants.
His eyes stray to his bag, tossed casually on the sofa, with his phone inside. He knows Erik is in class, and he knows the rules about texting in class.
Hell, he’s enforced those roles.
But Lorna’s eyes are starting to well up as she cranes her neck to look up at him, wondering why he isn’t giving her what she wants. He recalls vividly her one complete meltdown back at the café; in the rest of the time he babysits for her, he’s pretty sure his only goal is going to be preventing that from ever happening again. He can see now that she’s on the edge of a tantrum, frustrated as she repeats her demand again and again.
Texting Erik just once won’t hurt, will it?
His heart leaps as he scoops up Lorna and heads for his phone. Erik’s only been gone for a little over half and hour, and yet Charles is excited to hear from him again, excited to think of his name flashing on the screen of Erik’s phone.
But also he’s worried about Lorna, he tells himself firmly, depositing her on the sofa and pulling out his phone. She’s crying now, big fat tears rolling down her pink cheeks, and he genuinely wants to make things better for her.
He types off a quick message, sorry to interrupt, but what’s a “candy drink”?
He waits a few minutes, trying to sooth Lorna by flipping through a picture book, but she’s just gives him a pathetic look and whimpers, “candy drink.”
Finally his phone buzzes. Even though he’s expecting the text, has been sitting here waiting for it, the sight of Erik’s name on his screen makes his stomach flip-flop.
Honestly, he thinks. Like a twelve-year old girl.
Should have warned you about that one, Erik’s text says. She means oranges.
Like the fruit?
It’s a hard word to say. Charles can practically hear Erik’s defensive tone and his heart warms at the way the boy is standing up for his child. There’s a bunch in the fridge.
A second later, another message pops up. You’ll have to peel it for her.
Charles laughs out loud at that, drawing a confused look from Lorna.
He may not be the most competent babysitter in the world, but even he could figure that one out.
Thanks! Sorry for interrupting class.
Charles can just picture Erik, hunched over his desk, phone hidden in the shadow of the table. It’s a posture he’s seen a dozen times in his own classes, and he just hopes Erik’s teacher is a little less observant than Charles himself.
No worries. But if my phone gets confiscated, you have to talk my TA into giving it back.
Charles stares at the message for a long moment. Erik’s tone is teasing, almost…flirting? His heart thumps at the thought.
Btw, do you mind staying a little longer today?
Of course not. Why?
Friend asked if I could get coffee. Don’t want to keep blowing her off.
And suddenly Charles’ heart stops pounding, just enough for it to sink. Erik doesn’t want to blow her off.
Okay. No problem, he sends back quickly, stuffing his phone back into his bag.
“A friend, huh?” he says to Lorna despondently. “Want to bet it’s a beautiful blonde friend named Emma?”
“Emma!” Lorna says, brightening a bit from her tears.
Charles heart sinks further. “You see a lot of Emma?” he asks.
“Emma!” Lorna agrees.
Charles sighs. “Well, at least you like her,” he says morosely. That means Erik’s that much more likely to get serious with the girl.
Not that it matters. Charles is here as a friend. And if his gaze happens to linger on Erik a bit too long, or to stray over his toned body from time to time…well, he’ll just have to hope Erik never notices.
He leaves Lorna on the sofa and goes back over to the fridge, where he finds an entire crisper drawer full of oranges. He shakes his head; even if he had noticed the oranges, there was no way he would have guessed that they were ‘candy drink’ without Erik’s help.
He carefully peels one, placing the slices neatly on a plate before carrying it over to Lorna. He holds them out to her and she instantly brightens.
“Candy drink!” With great care and deliberation she selects one, her chubby fist hovering over the plate as she makes her decision.
Finally, she delicately lifts one slice, and shoves the whole thing into her tiny mouth.
“Mmm!” she declares, cheeks bulging.
Charles can’t help but laugh, his despondency lifting slightly. She chews noisily, smacking her lips with great relish.
“So very ladylike,” Charles grins.
After a moment she opens her mouth, letting the pulpy mass of orange slowly slide out, plopping down onto her shirt front.
“Ohh,” Charles groans. Lorna gives him a wide grin as she scoops up the goop, eyeing it with interest before extending her hand and dropping the whole mess over the back of the couch.
“Candy drink!” She reaches towards the plate on Charles’ lap with greedy hands.
“Oh god,” Charles groans, letting her snatch another slice as he peers over the back of the couch, seeing the mass of chewed orange clinging obstinately to the dingy fabric.
“At least it’s not a very nice couch,” he tells her with a sigh, steeling himself as he sticks his hand down between the couch and the wall and scrapes up the orangey pulp. It’s sticky and moist in his hand and he wrinkles his nose as he hurries over to the trashcan.
The perils of childcare, he thinks as he scrapes the mess into the trash and thoroughly washes his hands.
He turns back around just in time to see Lorna lob a mostly-chewed slice of orange onto the floor in front of her.
He grabs a roll of paper towels before heading back to her side.
The afternoon passes uneventfully, but Charles has to admit that his eyes stayed glued to the clock from the time he knows Erik’s class ends.
He wonders how long a ‘coffee’ Erik will have. A coffee with a classmate would be maybe fifteen minutes. Coffee with a friend, perhaps thirty. But coffee with a girlfriend…? It seems like the time it takes Erik to get back will reveal some secret truths about his relationship with Emma.
When twenty minutes have ticked by, Charles feels his heart begin to sink, even though he knows it’s another twenty minutes just for Erik to get the bus home.
When forty minutes go by, Charles is resigned. He’s sure Erik and Emma make a great couple.
He just wishes he wasn’t picturing it quite so clearly.
An hour later than usual Charles hears the lower door slam, signaling Erik’s return home. Coffee that takes an hour must be a date, Charles tells himself. He barely even spends that much time with Moira, and she’s his best (or perhaps only) friend in the world.
He schools his expression into something less dejected than he feels and waits for Erik to open the front door. Lorna is slumped against his side, her eyes heavy as she pages through a picture book.
“Hi,” Erik drops his bag on the kitchen table and crosses the room to the sofa. “Sleepy girl?”
“Very,” Charles agrees. He shifts to move out from under Lorna and stand, but freezes as Erik stretches his long legs over the coffee table and drops down on the other side of his daughter. He runs a gentle hand through her hair.
“How was she?”
“Good. Although…there might be some orange stains down the back of the couch,” Charles admits.
But Erik just laughs. “They wouldn’t be the first ones. I’m so looking forward to her learning to actually consume the food she puts into her mouth.”
“I can see why,” Charles smiles hesitantly. Erik’s sitting so close, and being so friendly. He’s not really sure what to do or say; he just wants this moment to last a little longer.
He loves hearing Erik talk about his daughter—his voice goes so tender, even when he’s complaining about her messes and tantrums. Charles thinks it’s a lovely contrast to the intensity Erik brings to the rest of his life. It’s like the one place the boy can relax is with his child.
Charles feels lucky to be here to see it.
He just wishes he was the only one who got to.
“So, did you have a nice time with your friend?” he asks, hoping he doesn’t sound as obvious as he feels.
He would have thought the temptation to peek into Erik’s thoughts would be stronger—to find out just what’s going on between the boy and the beautiful blonde girl. But Charles finds he doesn’t really want to know. Certainly not in the detail he’s likely to pick up out of Erik’s mind. If the boy was thinking about Emma at all, he might catch the image of a smile, a touch, a kiss…the fleeting feeling of her lips, the sensation of lingering caresses.
No, Charles keeps his mind well to himself. But still, he can’t help but ask, just to see what Erik will say.
“Yeah, it was good,” Erik agrees. “Thank you, really, for staying longer. I feel like I never get to spend time with anyone over the age of two.”
“I can see how you’d be itching to get out for a bit,” Charles responds lightly, trying not to feel slighted by the fact that Erik apparently doesn’t consider him adult company. “It’s nice that you have friends in your classes, anyway.”
“Oh, Emma’s not in my engineering class,” Erik snorts.
The lingering hope that Erik was out with someone other than his new girlfriend withers inside of Charles.
“She’s a business major,” Erik continues blithely, laughing, “She’s ruthless.”
Charles almost winces at the fondness radiating off of Erik as he talks about the girl.
“Well, that’s a…winning quality,” he says weakly. If Erik’s looking for someone ruthless and impeccably dressed, than Charles is about as far from his type as possible, nevermind that he’s also a man. “Is that why you fell for her?” he hates the words even as they leave his mouth. He doesn’t want to keep talking about Emma. In fact, he doesn’t even really want to keep talking at all. He wants to go home and nurse his wounds over a massive cup of tea.
“Fell for her?” Erik parrots with a frown.
“Oh, I mean, I don’t know how long you two have been dating…”
Erik gives a sharp bark of laughter, mirth playing over his features. Charles frowns, baffled.
“Dating? Emma?” Erik says incredulously. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“You’re…not?” Charles is confused. Moira saw them on a date, Erik went out with her again today, Lorna apparently loves her, and Erik was radiating some pretty warm feelings for the girl as well.
“I would never date Emma,” Erik says, his laughter subsiding. “She’s a nice friend, but she hates kids.” He looks down at Lorna snuggled against his side, her eyes heavy, and smiles tenderly. “I could never be with someone who didn’t care about Lorna as well.”
He looks up then, fixing Charles with an inscrutable gaze.
“But…” Charles flounders, completely unsure of himself now. He’s been working himself into knots over Emma all afternoon. He doesn’t know what to do now that all his worries have been proven false. “I mentioned her earlier, and Lorna got all excited.”
“She did?” Erik says skeptically. “She’s barely even met Emma.”
“Well, I said Emma’s name, and she said it back. You know, happily.” It sounds a bit tenuous now that he says it aloud.
Erik laughs. “She’ll do that with anything. Hey, Lorna. Shoes!”
“Shoes!” the toddler repeats cheerfully.
Her pleased tone startles a laugh out of Charles.
“Oh.” Charles knows he’s flushing. “I guess I just…assumed.”
“I barely have the time to get a cup of coffee with a friend. I don’t know how you think I’d manage a girlfriend.” Erik pauses slightly and then continues with great nonchalance, “What about you? Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Me? No, no girlfriend,” Charles fidgets slightly, wondering just how much to reveal. He’s not ashamed of his sexuality, but he tries not to broadcast it to his students.
Of course, Erik isn’t his student any longer…
“Or, a boyfriend?” Erik says carefully, dropping his gaze back down to Lorna and reaching out to fiddle with her clothes, tugging her shirt down over her belly. “Professor McCone was awfully quick to believe you and I might be…involved.”
“Yes, I think he knows more about my personal life than I’d really like,” Charles says, letting that be admission enough. “But no, no boyfriend either.”
Hope rises within him at Erik’s questions, but he’s already misread the situation so badly, he doesn’t trust his instincts. Perhaps Erik is just making small talk.
“Charles,” Erik says, his voice gone deep and serious. Charles straightens where he sits, meeting Erik’s gaze.
“Daddy,” Lorna complains, butting her head into Erik’s side and whimpering.
“Oh. What time is it?” Erik glances over at the clock and swears quietly under his breath. “No wonder you’re tired, sweetpea,” he says, standing abruptly.
Charles bites his lip, standing as well. He wants to demand Erik say whatever was on his mind, but Lorna is tired and needs to go down for her nap.
He knows that’s more important.
“She probably needs to be changed again,” he says, glancing over at the clock as well.
Erik nods, scooping the sleepy toddler up in his arms and carrying her over to the changing table. His movements are quick and efficient, even as Lorna squirms under his touch, whining.
It takes him half the time it usual takes Charles, and then he’s carefully placing Lorna into her crib, pulling her blankie up over her tiny form.
Charles knows this is his cue to leave. As Lorna snuggles down into bed, her eyes falling shut almost instantaneously, he creeps across the room to where he’s left his coat and bag. He hates to leave, but reminds himself that he’ll see Erik the following week.
Whatever he had to say probably wasn’t that important, anyway.
“Charles, wait,” Erik says quietly, when he has his hand on the doorknob. “I’ll walk you out.”
Charles obediently pauses, his heart hammering in his chest, waiting for Erik to cross the room in long strides. They slip out into the hall, propping the door open behind them.
They hesitate at the top of the stairs, silent in the dim light. Charles fidgets with the strap of his bag. “Well, I guess I’ll see you next Monday,” he says, to fill the silence.
“I thought—“ Erik cuts himself off. “I was asking about your boyfriend before because I thought I got some signals from you.” The words spill out of him determinedly. “I thought you might be interested. In me. And that’s why you offered to watch Lorna.”
Charles’ eyes widen. “That’s not why,” he insists quickly.
“Oh,” disappointment doesn’t just cross over Erik’s face, it pours off of him mentally like a thick fog.
“No, that’s not what I meant,” Charles shakes his head, worry and elation warring inside of him. “I don’t want you to think I was using Lorna to get close to you.”
“Oh,” Erik says again, but this time it’s accompanied by a little smirk. “What if I told you I was using Lorna to get close to you?”
“What?” Charles stutters out an incredulous laugh.
“I appreciate the babysitting, don’t get me wrong,” Erik says. “But I also wasn’t sure how else I was going to see you again. That’s why I came to your office last week.”
“Really?” Charles can’t quite believe this conversation is happening. He had only just managed to convince himself to give up wanting Erik. “So you’re—?”
“Interested?” Erik supplies, his voice low. “I have been for months. Even before that asshole McCone moved me out of your class.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?” Charles chokes.
“What?” Erik’s smirk deepens. “To my teacher?”
“Oh god,” Charles groans, hiding his face in his hands.
“Hey,” Erik’s large hand lands on his shoulder, warm and heavy. “It wasn’t stupid university regulations that kept me from saying anything. I just assumed you couldn’t possibly feel the same way. You’re like the ultimate good Samaritan, swooping in just when I needed the help, and being a good teacher on top of that, and so good with Lorna…”
Charles fights the urge to let out an incredulous laugh. Just as McCone was accusing him of the worst, Erik thought he was too good to be interested?
“And if I was interested?” he offers meekly, unable to match the deep, flirtatious tone Erik had used on him.
“Then I think I’d have to find another babysitter.”
Charles frowns. That was the last thing he was expecting Erik to say. “What?”
“So we could go out on a date.”
“Oh.” Charles knows he’s blushing now. “Well, I have some friends who I’m sure I could talk into it.”
Moira owes him for getting him all worked up over Emma, after all.
So, I started writing this story when my daughter was exactly 18 months old, as well. But Lorna's aging a bit faster than my child, so I'm basing her behaviour off of my niece, as this point. And yes, she did go through a phase when she called orange slices "candy drink."
Sorry, once again, for being so inconsistent with posting. Real life is so demanding.
“Please, Moira?” Charles whines into his phone, settling down at a table at the café. “Pretty, pretty, pretty please?”
“Look, Charles, you know that I love you,” Moira sighs. “But what you’re asking is insane. I can’t babysit for a toddler! I can barely handle undergraduates.”
“She’s easy,” Charles insists, choosing to gloss over the first diaper change, the tantrums, the feedings, and the Great Candy Drink Hunt of 2012.
“Don’t even try it,” Moira snorts. “You call me every time after you watch her, remember? I know.”
“Please, Moira? I don’t want Erik to have to pay someone.”
“And why can’t you watch her, again?”
“Well…” Charles hedges. He hasn’t quite gotten around to telling Moira about the change in his relationship with Erik.
Mostly because there’s nothing to tell yet. Just the potential for a date that Friday night, if he can just find someone to watch Lorna for a few hours.
“Well, what?” Moira asks suspiciously. There’s a lengthy pause while Charles desperately tries to come up with something to say. It’s clear that he hadn’t prepared well enough for this phone call. “Oh god,” Moira groans after a minute. “You’re going out with him, aren’t you?”
“You know, I’m supposed to be the telepath here,” Charles sulks.
“Please,” Moira snorts. “It doesn’t take a telepath to see that coming. I’ve been worried about you being interested in the kid since you first started watching his daughter.”
“So…will you do it?”
“You think the fact that you’re dating him will make me more likely to babysit? Honestly, Charles … I don’t have to tell you what a bad idea this is.”
“No, you don’t. Because I’ve already made up my mind.”
“Fine, fine,” Moira sighs. “Do what you want, and leave me to bring the whiskey in the aftermath.”
“That’s what friends are for,” Charles reminds her. “Also, doing favors. Like babysitting.”
“I really can’t. I’ve got time in the lab booked all weekend.” Her tone has at least crept more towards apologetic. “Look, just hire someone and tell the kid they’re your friend. It’s practically the same thing.”
“Your social skills are astounding as always, Moira.”
“Thanks, darling. Talk to you later.”
She hangs up and Charles hangs his head. He feels like he’s been waiting for an eternity to get the chance to spend some time alone with Erik, and now he can’t seem to make it happen. Erik won’t let him pay for a babysitter—it’s clearly a point of pride for Erik, one which Charles actually admires—and Charles doesn’t seem to have any friends who will do it for free.
Charles looks up to see Raven smirking down at him, a cup of tea he hasn’t even ordered in hand. He shrugs morosely.
“Still pining for your hot friend?” Raven drops down in the chair next to him, without so much as waiting for an invitation.
“Actually …” Charles says, feeling a light flush spread over his face. He still can’t quite believe Erik asked him out on a date.
“Really? Way to go, Prof!” Raven grins widely. “So what on earth are you moping around here for?”
“I’m trying to find a babysitter for Lorna, so that Erik and I can actually go out on a date that doesn’t involve a toddler,” Charles tells her with a sigh. He adores Lorna, but he wants to get a chance to know Erik, one on one.
Raven rolls her eyes, but she’s smiling. “That cute little child? Like you’d even need to ask to get me to watch her. And if it gets you a piece of that fine man, all the better!”
“Raven!” Charles gasps, scandalized.
“Don’t be such a fuddy-duddy,” she teases. “Not when you’ve got such a hot boyfriend.”
“He’s not my boyfriend yet.”
“That’s right. You need to take him out on a spectacular date, and I’ll watch the princess.” She leans closer, smiling conspiratorially. “I’ll have you know, I’m fantastic at dress-up.”
Her shape flickers for just an instant, and suddenly Charles is looking into a mirror of himself, all wide blue eyes, crooked nose, and messy hair. He shoots a panicked look around the rest of the café, but Raven’s already back in her normal blonde form, and no one seems to have noticed a thing.
“Well, you’ll certainly be able to keep Lorna entertained,” Charles says, trying to calm the racing of his heart. He wishes he could be as casual about his mutation as Raven seems to be about hers. His isn’t even visible, and yet it feels like he’s always hiding. “But are you sure you want to do that?”
“I told you,” Raven says fondly, “our kind needs to stick together.”
“I—thank you,” he stutters, surprised. “Is Friday okay for you?”
“Sure thing. Just remember to thank me during your wedding toast.”
“It’s just a first date!” Charles protests as Raven swans away from him, laughing all the while. He takes a sip of the tea she left behind and feels a smile creeping onto his face.
He’s going on a date with Erik.
Oh god, he’s going on a date. With Erik.
Charles stares into his dresser drawer in a complete panic.
He has no idea what to wear. Everything he owns is what Moira deems “academic wear”—and the last thing he wants is to remind anyone that he was Erik’s TA.
Besides, he has it on good authority—again, Moira—that there’s nothing sexy about dressing like a middle-aged professor.
He desperately wants to look nice and appropriate and—if it’s not asking too much—just a little cool on this date. He wants Erik to be glad that he made a move and asked Charles out.
But all he has is a drawer full of cardigans.
He has a suit, of course, but even as sartorially challenged as he is, he knows that’s too much for a first date. He has sport coats and blazers—some with elbow patches—but those are both too dressy and too professorial.
Charles sighs, rubbing at his eyes. He wishes Moira were here to help him, or at least taunt him until he picked something just to make her stop.
He’s decided to take Erik out to a restaurant that’s causal enough that he won’t feel guilty when Charles insists on paying, and that’s on the outskirts of town—close to Erik’s apartment, and, more importantly, further from the university.
He wants to look nice, but not overdressed. Casual, but like he still cares. Mostly, though, he wants to look like he didn’t spend an hour staring at his wardrobe, trying to pick something to wear.
Somehow Charles is sure Erik doesn’t put himself through this kind of torment.
Of course, Erik also has a toddler to take care of, so he probably can’t spare an hour to obsess over his appearance. Good thing he’s so naturally good-looking, then, Charles thinks with a sigh.
Finally he settles on a button down shirt and a navy cardigan that’s slightly less frumpy than some of his others. There’s nothing else for it, he decides. It’s not like he owns other clothes. It’s that or the sweats he wears when he goes running. He does decide to leave the fingerless gloves at home this time, even though the air is biting outside. Moira says they make him look ridiculous, like a hobo-professor.
Charles, frankly, thinks it would be impressive for a hobo to earn their doctorate.
He gives himself one last critical glance in the mirror, smoothing his hair back from his forehead and tucking his shirt tightly into his pants. He looks…like himself, really, but he supposes that’s for the best. Erik seems to like him, anyway.
He bundles up against the January weather and walks down the street to the café. Raven is lounging out front, watching students walk by, but straightens as Charles approaches. She gives him a teasing smile. “Excited, Professor?”
Charles rolls his eyes. He is excited—and nervous. His stomach is churning, a mad feeling of butterflies. But he’s not about to tell Raven that. He doesn’t know the girl that well, but he still knows she’d tease him forever.
“Are you ready to go?” he asks, rather than deign to answer her question. He offered to take the bus out to Erik’s with Raven, to make sure she doesn’t get lost.
“To check out your hot boyfriend again? I was born ready.”
“Hey!” Charles complains, offering her his arm as they fall into step together, and then wondering if she thinks that’s strange. But she just immediately threads her arm through his, leaning close. “Do I have to be jealous?”
“Well, I am quite a catch,” Raven says with a grin. “But I think this one’s already caught.”
Charles turns his head slightly to hide his smile. He likes the sound of that.
They board the bus together, cramming into two narrow seats, Raven giggling and jostling his elbow all the way. It’s fun, Charles realizes. He adores Moira and her cutting wit and sarcasm, and Erik and his wry smiles, but he doesn’t think he’s ever had a friend as carefree as Raven, all teasing smiles and prodding fingers.
The bus pulls up at Erik’s stop and Raven doesn’t even blink at the neighborhood they’re in. Charles scolds himself for being an elitist, yet again, and leads her down the street to Erik’s door. “Thanks again for doing this,” he says earnestly before he knocks.
Raven just smiles. “What are friends for?”
Charles finds he likes the sound of that. Moira’s always telling him he needs more friends, after all. And now here he is, with a new friend and a potential boyfriend.
He raps on the door before he can get too mushy over his good luck. He hears Erik sprint down the stairs and then the door is wrenched open. Erik’s a bit out of breath, and dressed in slim-fitting slacks and a polo shirt that accentuates every line of his torso.
“Well hello, sailor,” Raven says appreciatively.
Erik blinks at her for a long second. “Um, hello?”
“Erik, this is my friend Raven,” Charles laughs. “And Lorna’s babysitter. Also, apparently, a character in a 1940s film.”
“I can do that,” Raven agrees. Her whole form shimmers and suddenly she’s dressed a smart period suit, her hair rolled up against her head and perched under a structured hat. Her features are more aquiline than they usually, sharp and a little sultry.
Erik’s eyes widen.
“Or I can just be Raven,” she shrugs off the disguise, melting back into her standard blonde form.
Erik shakes his head, a wide, toothy grin spreading over his face. “That is one hell of a mutation,” he tells her, admiration and pride evident in his tone.
Raven smiles, and Charles can tell they’re going to get along.
Erik ushers them in out of the cold and up the stairs. “You’re the girl from the café.” He says as he leads the way.
“The one and only,” Raven agrees. “Except Tuesdays and Sundays. Those are my days off.”
Erik laughs as he lets them into the apartment, scooping up Lorna from where she lingers by the door. She sticks her hand in her mouth, narrowing her eyes as Raven and Charles follow him in.
“Hi, sweetheart,” Charles greets her, reaching out to run a finger down her soft cheek. She keeps her eyes on Raven, but pulls her hand out of her mouth long enough to say, “Hi, Char.”
“She’s adorable,” Raven pronounces. “I’m keeping her.”
“Yeah, how about we just start with the next couple of hours and see how things go?” Erik offers.
“Fair enough.” Raven approaches them slowly, a smile on her face. “Hi there, Lorna,” she says gently. “I’m Raven, and I’m going to play with you tonight. Is that okay?”
“Can you say ‘hi’, Lorna?” Erik prompts.
She considers for a long moment, eyeing Raven sternly, before giving her a small, “Hi.”
Raven grins triumphantly.
“She’s had her dinner,” Erik says, setting Lorna down near the coffee table where a stack of her books wait. “So she’s just going to need a cup of milk before bed. There’s some already in a sippy cup in the fridge. You should change her every hour and a half to two hours, and she can have some juice if she asks for it.”
“We’ll be fine,“ Raven assures him. “I’m fantastic with kids. All her other babysitters will pale in comparison.”
“And so modest, too,” Charles adds.
“Charles already gave me his number and your number, and I know how to call 911. We’ll be fine.” She gives Charles a gentle push towards the door. “Go out, have fun. Be young.”
Erik grimaces, but puts on his coat and winds a scarf around his neck. Charles laments covering up that polo shirt, but knows he’ll get to see it again at the restaurant. All the more reason to get moving.
But instead he hovers awkwardly by the door for a moment. Raven’s been an excellent distraction on the trip out, and Charles has barely had a second to panic over the fact that he’s going on a date with the boy he’s been unable to stop thinking about for months. Now the nerves return full-force, along with the horrible pressure to make this a good first date, so that Erik will grant him a second one.
Erik steps up next to him, his eyes softening as he peers down at Charles. And then one of his large hands settles at the small of Charles’ back, and he swears he can feel the warmth of it even through all his layers. “Ready?” Erik asks, voice pitched low, just for Charles.
Charles’ stomach jumps and he nods quickly.
“We’ll be back in a few hours,” Erik tells Raven, maneuvering Charles out the door and into the dim hallway.
“Daddy!” he hears Lorna yelp as the door shuts behind them.
“Come on,” Erik says urgently. “I hate hearing her cry.”
They pound down the stairs, the sound of their footfalls almost masking Lorna’s anguished wails.
“She’ll be fine in just a few minutes,” Charles promises. “She always is.”
Erik lets them out onto the street, into the dim light of dusk. “I know. It’s just….”
“I know,” Charles agrees, resting a hand on Erik’s arm.
Erik takes one shuddery breath and then steels himself. “So, where are we going?”
“Um, this way,” Charles gestures. He’s looked up the restaurant on google maps, printed out the map, and written down the address separately, just to make sure he doesn’t make a fool of himself and get them lost. “I hope it’s okay.”
“I’m sure it will be fine,” Erik says confidently, leaning in to speak the words close to Charles’ ear. Charles shudders slightly as Erik’s warm breath puffs over his cold skin. Charles can’t tell if he's is doing it on purpose, if Erik's flirting or just being friendly, and he shifts nervously on the sidewalk. Erik just smiles at him, though, gesturing for him to lead the way.
It’s been a long time since Charles was on a first date—he likes to think of himself as friendly, chatting to people in line at the grocery store, in coffee shops, and particularly in bars. But he doesn’t get close to many people, and he hasn’t had time to devote himself to a relationship in what feels like an eternity.
And so he can’t remember quite what he’s supposed to do now that he’s on a date. He and Erik walk side by side, closer, perhaps, than friends would, their arms brushing every now and again. Charles wonders if he should reach out and take the his hand. He wants to—he’s noticed those hands, how large and sure they are. He’s only seen Erik truly flaunt his power once, but the way his hands twisted in the air, moving as if he was shaping the metal with a touch, was mesmerizing. So he’d like to reach down and brush his hand against Erik’s, to feel the warm touch of his skin, the spark that would surely ignite as they came together. He’d like to reach for him confidently, to entwine their fingers and squeeze lightly, feel the reassuring weight of Erik’s hand in his.
But he can’t remember if that’s the kind of thing one does on a first date, particularly a first date after months of hopeless longing and flirtation, after frustration and disappointment. So he keeps his hands to himself, contenting himself with the way their arms gently bump, the rough wool of Erik’s coat catching slightly on his own winter jacket, the fibers entangling.
The restaurant is quite close to Erik’s apartment, and so Charles doesn’t have to worry about filling the silence until they’re actually seated face to face. He concentrates for the moment on street signs, making sure he doesn’t miss their turn, and guides Erik down a side street to a small bistro. It’s certainly casual dining, but it looks nice enough, and the smell that greets them as they push open the door is almost as nice as the blast of warmth that takes the January chill off their bones. They’re seated by the window, and Charles watches Erik shrug out of his coat appreciatively, admiring the lines of his body while he’s not looking.
“So,” Erik says, folding himself into his seat and picking up the menu. “What looks good?”
Charles hasn’t looked at anything but Erik since they entered the restaurant. “Um, I’m not sure. It all does,” he says, flustered, glancing down at the menu in his hand for the first time since sitting down.
Erik smirks at him, as if he knows exactly what Charles is thinking.
“Mm, Italian,” Erik says, scanning the selection.
“You do like Italian, right?” Charles asks suddenly, realizing he has no idea. He thinks wildly back to the walk here, wondering if they passed any other restaurants. There might have been a Chinese takeaway, he vaguely recalls.
“Yes, Charles, this is fine,” Erik says patiently, with just a hint of teasing in his tone.
“Oh. Um, good,” Charles tries to calm the racing of his heart. He tells himself he’s normally better with boys than this, but he knows that the truth is that he shuts himself up in his career, falling back on the charming professor routine, because it’s the only way he’s entirely comfortable relating to people. The sad thing is, it was easier to know what to say to Erik when he was his teacher.
But Erik is smiling at him fondly across the table, and so Charles clears his throat and tries again. “I think I’m going to have pasta. A huge pile of pasta, covered in cheese, because it’s winter and I’m basically hibernating.”
Erik laughs then, a full, rich sound, bubbling up out of him like it takes him by surprise. Charles flushes, pleased. “I can tell,” he says, pointedly dropping his gaze down Charles’ body. “With that cardigan.”
“Hey!” Charles complains, but Erik’s tone is light, and even though he agonized over picking this particular cardigan for the evening, Erik’s teasing makes him feel warm inside. “This is a very nice cardigan,” he insists anyway.
“Yes, it is,” Erik says, tone going serious. “It brings out your eyes.”
Charles knows he’s flushing, can feel the heat racing to even the tips of his ears, but he can’t help it. He picked the navy cardigan with the vague thought that it looked nice with his blue eyes—his best feature, Moira tells him, when she’s not making fun of his hair or the way he dresses—but he never thought Erik would really notice. “Thank you,” he mumbles to the table.
The waitress comes over to take their order, and Charles has to quickly decide which pile of pasta covered in cheese he actually wants to eat. She notes it down and disappears again, leaving water on the table. Charles thinks it would be nice to get a bottle of wine, but Erik isn’t twenty-one yet, and he may no longer be the his teacher, but he is supposed to be a good influence.
Still, he thinks it might ease his nerves a little bit.
“So, Raven seems nice,” Erik offers.
“Oh, yeah,” Charles grins. “She’s actually great, isn’t she?”
“Should I be jealous?” Erik asks with a teasing quirk of his lips.
“No … although, now that I think about it, she could probably take on the appearance of anyone …”
Erik arches a curious eyebrow. “Ah. And who would you want to have for one night?”
Charles feels himself blushing, and really wishes he had a glass of wine. “No one but you, for the moment,” he says, even though the words feel ridiculous tripping out of his mouth.
But then Erik’s teasing smirk turns softer, pleased. “I’m glad to hear that.”
The waitress swoops back in with their plates of food, breaking the moment, allowing the flush to recede from both their cheeks.
“Her mutation is incredible though, isn’t it?” Erik continues after a moment, leaning in close and lowering his voice. It always makes Charles sad that they have to be discreet like this—pretending to be just like every other person in the restaurant. He knows it’s for the best, particularly with his mutation. Most people want nothing to do with him once they know he can read their minds.
Which is probably why he hasn’t exactly explained to Erik what he can do.
Charles bites his lip guiltily, looking over at Erik's earnest expression, the wonder on his face as he remembers Raven’s lightning-fast transformation. The image of Erik casually using his power in the café, shaping toys for his daughter, flashes into his mind. He hadn’t cared what anyone—not even Charles—thought of him in that moment. As Erik had put in all those months ago, he was just ‘working with what he had.’
Charles wonders if it’s time he did the same.
He likes Erik. He’s having fun with Erik. But he feels like he’s lying to him, even though he’s strenuously blocking all of his thoughts, being careful not to accidentally eavesdrop.
“All mutations are incredible,” Charles says. “Did you know that’s what I study? I work on the evolution of the X gene.”
Erik smiles. “I … may have googled you a time or two,” he admits. “And read some of your articles.”
“You did?” Charles is so surprised he forgets why he’s nervous. He can barely get Moira to read his work. “Did you understand it?”
Erik only looks mildly affronted. “Yes, I think so.”
“And you’re sure you don’t want to be a biology major?”
“Sorry to disappoint,” Erik laughs. “But large metal structures really…call to me.”
“I’ll bet they do,” Charles’ smile falters. “You know I’m a mutant too, right?”
“Of course.” Erik’s expression darkens. “It’s there in big letter on your university profile page.”
“I know,” Charles sighs.
“It’s a stupid policy,” Erik says, voice gone hard.
“I know,” Charles repeats.
They just look at each other for a moment, across their plates of cooling food. “So, did you want to tell me about your mutation?” Erik asks cautiously.
“I did,” Charles agrees, dropping his gaze to the pasta in front of him. He picks up his fork and pokes at, just to have something to do with his hands. “I do. But I don’t want you to feel weird around me afterwards.”
Erik’s brow furrows. “Why would I feel weird? You said so yourself, all mutations are incredible.”
Charles gives a small shrug. “Some people feel weird,” he offers. There’s more than one reason why Moira is his only close friend. He takes a deep breath, raising his eyes and meeting Erik’s gaze. He looks nothing but encouraging, his strong features softened as he meets Charles’ eyes.
“I’m a telepath.”
He doesn’t pry, doesn’t dip into Erik’s mind, as much as he wants to. But he does watch his face carefully, observing the emotions that play across his features.
The expected surprise is hidden, but the nerves, the slight narrowing of Erik’s eyes, is all too clear to Charles. He feels his heart sink.
“You can read my thoughts?” Erik pitches his voice low.
“Yes. But I’m not.”
“I don’t,” Charles clarifies. “As a rule.”
“A rule?” And now Erik’s brow furrows, genuine confusion on his face. “Whose rule?”
Erik’s eyes narrow further. “That’s ridiculous.”
“You shouldn’t limit your power that way,” Erik insists. “I don’t limit mine.”
“Yours is beautiful,” Charles says immediately. It’s true.
“And yours isn’t?”
“It’s … invasive.”
“So is Raven’s. She could take on anyone’s face. I could be her right now, and you’d never know.”
“But—“ Charles falters. It’s true, of course. Raven could use her power to gain almost the same kind of information that he has access to every moment of everyday. But— “It’s not the same.”
“I think,” Erik says, leaning closer, across their plates of food, “that if I practiced enough, I could pull the iron right out of your blood with a single thought. Does that scare you?”
“No.” Perhaps it should. It’s…quite a power. Very different from shaping duckies out of teaspoons. But he knows Erik. He knows he wouldn’t abuse that power. There’s a reason why Erik chooses to use it to entertain his daughter, rather than commit atrocities.
Erik sits back, looking satisfied. “And your power doesn’t scare me.”
It’s absurd, Charles thinks. His power scares everyone he tells. Scares them away, to be precise. The ones who stay exact very specific promises about how close he’s allowed to their thoughts. Moira would kill him if he caught even a whiff of emotion off of her. “Really?”
“Really,” Erik agrees. “I—I feel strange, of course, knowing you could read any thought that happens to cross my mind. I’m very conscious right now of what I’m thinking, and what I shouldn’t be thinking, which is of course exactly what I’m thinking. But I don’t think you should have to restrain yourself. And I don’t think you’d misuse your power.” He grins. “Hell, you wouldn’t even misuse the power of being a TA.”
“Oh god,” Charles chokes out a laugh, dropping his head into his hands.
“Hey, it’s fine,” Erik says, and then a large warm hand closes over his wrist, pulling his hands from his face. Erik is smiling at him when he looks up. “So, can you, like, talk in my mind?”
You mean like this? Charles whispers and Erik jumps, a grin splitting his handsome face.
“That’s very cool.”
Charles returns the smile. “Is it? Most people don’t think so.”
“Well, we’re not exactly most people, are we?”
Charles’ fork levitates out of his bowl, a piece of pasta speared on the end, and drifts up to his mouth. Charles can’t even find it in himself to panic, to worry who might see. He just opens his mouth, letting Erik feed him.
“No, I guess not,” he smiles.
Well, more was supposed to happen in this chapter, but it was getting a bit long, and I really wanted to post before the wait got ridiculous.
So, I hope you like boys being cute!
Charles can’t tear his eyes away from the fork rising to Erik’s mouth, the way his red lips part, his tongue darting out to collect every last bit of velvety chocolate.
Ordering desert was clearly a mistake.
Erik closes his eyes as his lips close around the utensil, sliding over the metal obscenely. Charles wonders if Erik can feel that, feel the wet, slick slide of his own mouth against the metal.
He suddenly very much wishes he was the one able to sense metal. His own fork hovers halfway to his mouth, forgotten as he watches Erik eat.
It’s absurd, he knows. There was absolutely nothing sensual about watching Erik eat pasta. And yet, now that it’s the rich mousse of a tiramisu on the end of his fork, watching Erik eat feels practically pornographic.
From the way Erik licks at his lips, chasing every sweet drop, Charles thinks he doesn’t allow himself to indulge that often. In deserts or anything else. He’s disciplined, that much was obvious from the first conversation Charles had with him. He’s disciplined and motivated, and watching him fall apart over a bit of sweet mousse is apparently Charles’ undoing.
He tugs uselessly at his collar, heat creeping up his neck, as Erik dives back in for another bite.
“Aren’t you having any?” Erik pauses, fork suspended above the shared dish. Belatedly Charles realizes his own fork is still hovering midair, a piece of espresso soaked ladyfinger speared on the end.
“Yes, of course,” he says hurriedly. “It’s…very good, isn’t it?”
“Mmm,” Erik agrees around another mouthful, and Charles swears he’s doing it on purpose. Charles is more than happy to let Erik finish off the dish, but he lifts his fork the rest of the way to his mouth, letting the tart sweetness dissolve on his tongue as he watches Erik.
Are you enjoying watching me?
Charles jumps, the words knocking against his brain like a tap on the shoulder. He stares at Erik, eyes wide, but the other man merely smirks back at him around his fork.
I am. Charles sends back hesitantly, still unsure of where Erik’s boundaries lie. But even this is more than enough, more than most people ever grant him. The sound of Erik’s thoughts forming in his mind is as lovely as anything about the boy, and Charles cherishes what he’s being given. You’re very good at projecting.
Erik’s smirk softens as he smiles across at Charles. I guess I just really want you to hear me.
Warmth swells in Charles’ chest, the complete acceptance that Erik is giving him nearly overwhelming him. They smile stupidly across the table at each other, and Charles can’t even bring himself to care if anyone else in the restaurant notices.
The moment is interrupted by the waitress appearing at their sides, the bill clutched apologetically in her hand. She gives Charles an encouraging grin as she hands it over, and he can’t help but smile back. He feels suddenly like everyone is on his side, accepting of his life and choices.
He waves off Erik’s question. “I asked you out. My treat.”
Erik hesitates. “But, you already got Raven to babysit…”
“Well, if you want to take her out to dinner, that’s your business,” Charles grins. “But tonight I’m treating you.”
“Well, thank you.” It’s vaguely reminiscent of the first few times Charles watched Lorna, like the words of gratitude could barely escape Erik’s lips. Not that he’s an ungrateful person—far from it—but Charles can see that he has trouble accepting anything from other people. Help, money, or even a dinner out.
But he wants to be able to do things for Erik. Not just buy him some pasta and tiramisu, but to help him with all the things that make his life difficult. Help him get to class, help him to study, help him to watch Lorna. Charles realizes he just wants to make Erik’s life easier, to see him relax more, and smile.
He’s smiling now, a tiny curling of his lips as he watches Charles deposit money on the table. It’s a smile Charles hasn’t seen before, grateful and a little shy. It’s the smile of someone out on a first date that’s going well—or at least he hopes it is—and it makes Charles’ heart beat faster.
Charles fights the urge to help Erik into his jacket, focusing instead on winding his scarf around his neck and bundling into his own peacoat. When large hands appear on the neck of his jacket, helping him shrug into it, he knows he flushes crimson.
“There we go,” Erik says, tucking Charles’ scarf into his jacket. They grin at each other again and Charles feels helpless against the happiness bubbling up inside of him. He can’t believe that he was nervous just a few hours before. Things have gone better than he could have ever expected, and here Erik is, grinning at him like he agrees.
They step out onto the street, into the cold winter air, hands brushing.
“Well, well. I thought that was you in the window, Xavier.”
Charles looks up sharply at the voice. Professor McCone stands on the sidewalk, a look of pure triumph etched on his face.
“And…Mr. Lehnsherr, isn’t it? From Xavier’s class?”
Erik’s features harden, the warmth and happiness draining off of his face, but he nods curtly. “Sir.”
“I knew it,” McCone says. “You denied it and denied it, and you almost had me at the end of our last meeting. You spoke with such conviction. But I knew you were lying.” He’s looking at Charles, eyes narrowed.
“No? You’re saying you’re not involved with Lehnsherr?”
Charles looks over at Erik and finds him looking back. There’s support in his eyes, and also an undercurrent of hope. Charles refuses to pretend this isn’t exactly what it looks like. “I am. But tonight is our first date.”
McCone snorts. “You expect me to believe that? After all the reports I got about you two?”
“Whatever anyone said, they were lying,” Erik says hotly, stepping forward. Charles catches him with a hand on his arm, steadying him in place.
“I don’t know what the reports said,” he says calmly. “But I can guess. I was seeing Erik outside of class, just like I explained to you. And I never even thought to hide that fact, because I never considered that people might read more into it.”
“But now you’re just suddenly dating?”
“It’s really not all that sudden, sir. Erik hasn’t been my student for months.”
McCone laughs again. “Yes, I’m sure this all began after all the reports I got about you fraternizing with a student. Just wait until the department hears about this.”
Charles freezes, feeling his blood run as cold as the January night air. Beside him Erik’s hands twitch helplessly as his sides. “I’m not breaking any rules,” he says carefully.
“No? You think you’ll be able to prove this relationship just started? With all the time you’ve been spending with Lehnsherr outside of class? With all the places you’ve been seen together?” McCone smirks. “Face it, Xavier. You’re done. I can have you banned from any teaching in the department in a millisecond. Hell, I might be able to get you thrown out entirely.”
“That’s insane!” Erik says angrily, his whole body tensing. “Charles didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Nice try, kid. But I know how it is with you types. You’re always looking for ways to get one up on us normal people. You just want to find another way to cheat the system.”
“Us types?” Erik says, his voice gone low and dangerous.
McCone steps closer, his eyes narrowing, disgust obvious on his face. “You mutants are cheating every day of your lives. You think I don’t know about you, kid? You think I don’t know metal-bending gives you an advantage over your engineering classmates? We’re meant to be ‘fair’ to your kind, but tell me how that’s fair? Tell me how that’s fair to the normal, honest, hardworking kids in your class? How is it fair that Xavier could be poking around in anyone’s head without them knowing, stealing their research with a thought? Who’s to say his dissertation is original? Who’s to say he didn’t steal everything from the normal people who actually have to work hard for what they do?” He’s snarling now, his face tinged red with anger. “The only person who could tell us that Xavier didn’t steal every idea in his thesis would be another telepath. And we all know you freaks like to stick together. It’s why no one’s going to be surprised when I tell them Xavier’s been screwing you since the beginning.” He takes a step back, satisfaction scrawled across his pointed face. “I hope it was worth the good grade.”
He’s walking away before Charles can think of anything to say, before he can even stop shaking in the face of the encounter. It’s been years since he’s had such vitriol spewed at him, since he’s been made to feel so small just for being who he is. The warmth of Erik’s earlier acceptance freezes over as he shrinks in on himself, thinking of the hatred on McCone’s face.
“Charles,” Erik says, stepping closer, laying a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” Charles chokes. “I am so, so sorry.”
“For what?” Erik’s brow creases. “You didn’t do anything wrong. That guy is a bigot and an asshole.”
“But he said—“ Charles faltered. “He implied—”
“That I earned my grade on my back?” Erik laughs humorlessly and Charles blanches. “But you and I both know that isn’t true.”
Erik’s voice is firm, and Charles wishes he could feel such conviction. “But who will believe us?”
Erik frowns, but squeezes Charles’ shoulder reassuringly. “We’ll just tell them the truth.”
Charles laughs, a bitter and humorless sound. “You heard McCone. There’s nothing we can do to prove we’re telling the truth.”
“I talked to Emma about us. She’d tell them that we only just started dating.”
“So would Moira,” Charles agrees. “Our friends. Mutant sympathizers. Everyone will just think they’re lying too.” His heart sinks as he sees the truth of his own words.
Erik frowns, but doesn’t argue with him. Charles can practically see the thoughts turning over in his head, a heavy cloud of anger and uncertainty forming around him. “What Professor McCone said?” he asks hesitantly. “About getting you banned from teaching. Can he do that?”
“Not directly, no.” Charles grimaces. “That would be up to the head of department. But if McCone can convince him that I was sleeping with a student and lying to everyone about it…”
“Oh,” Erik says, his face shuttering over. They start to walk, the cold night spurring them on, back towards Erik’s apartment. “I’m sorry,” he says after a moment. “I never should have asked you out.”
“What?” Charles’ eyes fly to his, searching his features in the semi-darkness. The warmth and happiness of the evening that had suffused him just minutes earlier has faded away, doubt creeping in as he tries to make sense of the hard lines of Erik’s face. He touches Erik’s thoughts lightly, and recoils from the regret pouring off of him.
“I should have known it would get you in trouble. You were in trouble all last semester, they removed me from your class, and I still went ahead and threw myself at you.” His voice is hard and angry. “And now I’ve ruined your life.”
“No,” Charles protests, stopping in the middle of the sidewalk. “McCone is trying to ruin my life. And we don’t even know if he’ll manage to do anything more than ruin our evening. So you shouldn’t worry about it.”
Charles suspects that McCone wouldn’t threaten those things if he wasn’t sure he could follow through, but that is not Erik’s problem. He doesn’t want the boy to feel guilty, not for giving Charles what he so desperately wanted. He doesn’t want Erik to regret telling Charles how he felt.
“Of course I’m going to worry, Charles,” Erik says with a shake of his head. And then he reaches out across the cold air between them, wrapping his large hand around Charles’. “I like you. I’m going to worry about you.”
“Oh.” McCone’s hatred and threats weigh heavily on Charles, but the warmth of Erik’s hand does something to lighten the burden. “I like you, too,” he tells him.
“Okay.” Erik’s voice is firm, tugging his hand to keep them moving down the street. “Then we just have to do whatever we can to fix this.”
It won’t be that simple, but as they reach Erik’s door Charles gives his hand a grateful squeeze. He knows what Moira would say, perhaps what any sensible person would say—that he was foolish to ever go on this date, foolish to even acknowledge his feelings for Erik. Foolish to think that the touch of the boy’s large palm against his own could serve as some sort of balm, even as his life appears to be crashing down around him.
But sometimes Charles doesn’t mind being foolish.
They let themselves into the apartment, hands still tangled together as they climb the narrow stairs.
The living room is in near darkness as Erik pushes the door open, and Raven comes tiptoeing over the moment the door cracks open. She slides out to join them in the hall, holding a finger in front of her lips. “She just went down about half an hour ago,” she whispers as the door snicks shut behind her.
“Everything okay?” Erik asks.
“Perfect.” Raven pauses, glancing between their faces. “Everything okay with you two?”
Erik hesitates, looking over at Charles, and Raven follow his gaze, eyes sympathetic. Charles can tell she thinks they just had a terrible date.
“You remember that professor I told you about?” he asks.
“The asshole who made you think you couldn’t have Erik?”
“Succinct as always,” Charles says, a smile flitting briefly over his lips. “We bumped into him tonight.”
Raven makes a face. “Well, that’s one way to screw with a first date. Did he see you?”
Erik snorts. “Oh, he saw us. He threatened to get Charles kicked out of the university.”
“Wait, what?” Raven’s blue eyes go wide, her voice rising before she remembers where she is, glancing guiltily back at the closed door.
“He thinks I was lying about seeing Erik this whole time, and threatened to take action,” Charles explains wearily.
“He didn’t think you were lying,” Erik scoffs. “He knew perfectly well you were telling the truth. He’s just a mutantphobe who’s looking for any excuse to get rid of you.”
“He’s anti-mutant? Are you sure?” Raven asks.
“He said so himself. Said he hated ‘people like us,’ and that we were natural-born cheaters who shouldn’t be allowed in the university.”
Raven flushes indignantly. “You can’t let him get away with that.”
“It’s terrible, I know,” Charles says with a sigh. “But there’s not much we can do.”
“You keep saying that,” Erik frowns. “But Raven’s right. We can’t let him just say stuff like that to us. We can’t let him threaten you like that just because you’re a telepath. There are supposed to be laws that protect us.”
“There are laws,” Raven insists.
“I know, but it’s still our word against his. For all I teach classes, I’m still just a student in the department. He’s a well-respected professor.”
“Maybe not that well respected,” Raven says darkly.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean if he really hates mutants that much, you two probably aren’t the only ones he’s said something to.”
Charles can see the interest sparking in Erik’s eyes, the determination creeping onto his face.
“Maybe he has said something to other people, but how would we even find them?” Charles hates having to be the voice of reason, but all the righteous indignation in the world isn’t going to get them anywhere.
“Charles, when I said our kind had to stick together, I didn’t just mean babysitting,” Raven says patiently. “I’m part of this group on campus. We’re all mutants, and we look out for each other. There are some law students. They make sure this kind of stuff doesn’t happen.”
Charles bites his lip. He’s always stayed well away from student crusades, walking past protests and petitions alike. “I don’t know…”
“Come on, Charles,” Erik says, voice low and urgent. “Stop letting everyone push you around. Don’t you ever get sick of hiding who you are, what you can do? Don’t you ever get tired of letting the so-called ‘normal people’ tell us we’re freaks, who have to be labeled and singled out? Don’t you hate knowing your students have to sign a waiver just to take your class?”
“I do,” Charles says softly. “I hate it.”
“Then do something about it,” Erik says firmly.
“Just come meet with the group,” Raven adds. She reaches out, laying a gentle hand on his arm. “Mutant and proud.”
Charles is inexplicably nervous. Although he studies the X gene and works with mutants as part of his research, he doesn’t actually go out of his way to surround himself with others of his kind. Sure, he sees mutants in the lab, and works with some in the department; he knows there are mutants in his classes, and in the restaurants and shops he frequents. But they blend in with the other people around them.
He blends in.
It’s something he’s tried to do his whole life—to fit in with normal people, to convince them that he’s just like them. He’s spent his whole life trying to ignore how different he is. His parents were normal. His friends have all been normal. All he’s ever wanted was to feel normal.
Until Erik and Raven he’s never even really socialized with other mutants. And now he’s supposed to just walk into a room full of them, gathered together because of their differences, and join them?
Erik stand at his side, Lorna tucked onto one hip. “Ready?” he asks, voice low, sensing Charles’ hesitance.
“Yeah, I just—yes.” Charles steels himself, reaching out to the door and turning the handle with shaking fingers. The sound of voices and laughter immediately fills his senses, a cacophony of people, and he pauses once more, overwhelmed.
“These are our people,” Erik whispers from behind him, ducking his head down to Charles’ ear.
The thing is, Charles has always maintained that they are all people—mutant and non-mutant alike. They are all human beings.
Somehow he thinks Erik and Raven might not agree with him.
“Charles!” Raven’s voice cuts through his paralysis, and he forces a smile onto his face, stepping through the doorway and into the room. They’re in a community centre, and the room is decorated with pictures and drawings that make it clear it’s also used for children’s activities.
Raven bounds up to him, grabbing his hand and dragging him forward.
“Sweet, there are toys,” Erik shoulders his way past him to deposit Lorna in the corner of the room, where a basket of miscellaneous toys awaits. Raven drags Charles forward as his eyes search the room, trying to take it all in. The room is equipped with folding chairs and a chalkboard, on which the remnants of a game of hangman are scrawled. The seats are filled with people of all different shapes, sizes and colors. A man with brilliant blue skin particularly catches Charles’ eye. In turn, Charles feels the curiosity radiating off of everyone in the room, as they eye him and Erik.
“Everyone, this is Charles, Erik and Lorna. Guys, welcome to Mutant Advocates.”
A chorus of greetings rise up around the room, and Raven guides Charles to an empty chair. He drops down into it, glancing over his shoulder for Erik. He knows he should feel comfortable here, like he’s finally among people who understand him, but instead he feels awkward and out of place. But Erik is crouched beside Lorna, helping her pull toys form the basket.
“She’s precious,” a girl coos, approaching them. She’s got deep caramel skin and shockingly white hair. She appears to be a teenager, one of the youngest in the room.
“Thanks,” Erik says evenly, smoothing a hand through Lorna’s auburn hair, the affectionate gesture belying his pleasure at the girl’s words.
“Does she have a power yet?”
“Not yet,” Erik says, and Charles starts. He hadn’t really considered the fact that Lorna was likely to develop a power, although he of course knows that the X gene is hereditary. He looks at her more closely, taking in her sweet features as if for the first time, seeking something he knows wouldn’t be visible on her face.
Or, at least, probably not.
He turns curious eyes on Raven, wondering when she first manifested her power. His research indicates that it normally happens at puberty—as his own had—but as successive generations inherit the X-gene, the age of manifestation seems to be getting younger and younger. He looks at Lorna with new eyes, those of a scientist, and wonders what it is that will mark her out as different.
Or, rather, mark her out as one of them.
“I’m Ororo,” the girl is introducing herself to Erik, crouching down with them to bring herself closer to Lorna’s eye level. “I can control the weather.”
“Erik. Control of magnetic fields.”
“Really? That’s pretty neat.” Ororo smiles, shyly tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.
Charles reminds himself that she’s about sixteen, so he has nothing to be jealous of. Erik grins at her, rising to his feet now that he’s sure Lorna is settled, happily playing. “Controlling the weather is pretty ‘neat’ too,” he tells her smoothly.
“Stop flirting with Charles’ boyfriend, Ororo!” Raven calls out, making both the girl and Charles flush red. His eyes dart around the room, but no one seems concerned in the least with learning that he and Erik are gay.
Of course, they’re used to accepting differences.
Charles relaxes slightly into his seat as Erik comes and sits down next to him, sharing a small smile.
“Okay, here’s the deal.” Raven leans forward with her elbows on her knees. “Charles is a TA at the university, and one of the professors is trying to get him fired for being a mutant.”
Indignation crosses some of the faces around them, resignation settling onto others. It makes Charles sad that he would normally fall into the latter category, just accepting the bad things that life deals him. But, he reminds himself, that’s why he’s here. To do something for a change. To stand up for himself.
“It’s a bit more complicated than that,” Charles counters. “But I do think he’s targeting me because of his anti-mutant prejudices.”
“But there’s another reason he’s giving for terminating you?” A willowy woman with long auburn hair leans forward, a serious frown on her face.
“This is Jean. She’s our resident legal expert.”
“Law student,” Jean corrects with a laugh.
“Third year,” Raven counters. “Good enough for us.”
“He, um,” Charles stammers.
“He claims to be firing Charles for carrying on an inappropriate relationship with me,” Erik says bluntly, drawing the eyes of the crowd.
“But you two are dating?”
“Only as of last week,” Charles says, feeling his cheeks heat. “But I was reprimanded for dating Erik last term, even though I wasn’t, and he was removed from my class.”
“And the professor knows you’re officially dating now?”
Both Charles and Erik nod.
“Well, that makes it difficult, doesn’t it?” A hard looking boy, no older than Erik, scoffs. He slouches in his chair, a zippo lighter twirling between his fingers.
“Yes John, that’s rather the point,” Raven rolls her eyes.
“I have no way of proving that Erik and I weren’t together last term, except for the testimonial of our friends. But Professor McCone has reports from students and other TAs suggesting that we were behaving inappropriately, so the university will probably be on his side.”
“But he’s anti-mutant? You’re sure?” Jean asks.
“He said as much to our faces,” Erik tells her, his mouth thinning into a hard line. “This isn’t about Charles dating a student. It’s because we’re both mutants. I know it.”
“Well, then,” Jean says, leaning back. “We just have to prove it.”
Easier said than done, Charles thinks.
No need to be so negative, a voice whispers in his mind and he looks up, startled. Jean smirks at him from across the room.
We’ll compare brains later, she assures him, obviously reading the interest rolling off of him in waves. For right now, let’s prove your innocence.
Charles smiles back at her, letting himself fully relax for the first time since they bumped into McCone. Chatter starts up around him as everyone discusses the case, and for the first time Charles really feels it.
Erik reaches over, tangling their fingers together.
Again, I'm so sorry for how long these chapters are taking for me to get up!
I'm obviously playing fast and loose with X-Men canon here, in my character selection. I just needed mutants to fill out the ranks of the Advocacy group, so I'm picking ones I know from the movies. Sorry if that bugs anyone!
Chapter 12: Chapter Twelve
Charles locks the door to his office carefully, turning the ancient key until he hears the lock snick into place. The university really needs to update all its fittings. Some days he can barely get the key to turn. He sighs as he pockets his keys, dejected. For the last week he’s felt like all eyes are on him whenever he’s in the department. As far as he knows McCone hasn’t started any official inquiries into his behavior, but the rumors have been flying fast. It’s only a matter of time, he tells himself, before he’s hauled in front of the head of department to explain himself. And he’s not sure quite what he’s going to say.
“Mr. Xavier? I mean, um, Charles?” a timid voice pipes behind him.
Charles turns to find Kitty Pryde lingering uncomfortably in the hallway, her eyes not quite meeting his. For a moment it’s like he’s back in the school canteen all over again, listening to her and Angel laugh over his supposed perversions.
He shifts uncomfortably.
“Yes, Miss Pryde?” he forces himself to ask.
“I, um,” she drags her gaze up to about his chin, and he wonders where she’s going with this conversation. The obvious discomfort she feels talking to him leaves a heavy weight in his stomach. She had always been such a good student. “I heard you were asking around about Professor McCone?”
“What?” Charles’ heart thumps loudly in his chest as he darts his eyes down the corridor, making sure they’re alone. He knows Jean and the other Mutant Advocacy kids have been trying to gather testimonials about McCone, but they were supposed to be discreet. Not to broadcast it to everyone in the department.
Kitty bites her lip. “Some of my friends asked me if he had ever said anything to me. About my powers?”
Charles starts. He thinks back to his register, trying to remember if he noticed an “M” written next to Kitty’s name. He tries not to let mutations affect his perception of his students—whether positively or negatively—and so mostly he tries to ignore those offending markers. And he had been rather distracted by Erik and his own scarlet “M” emblazoned on his list of students. He wonders what Kitty can do.
“And has he?”
“Well…not exactly,” she hedges.
“Okay?” Charles shifts his weight nervously, trying to keep from delving into the girl’s mind and taking the information he wants.
“I mean, he hasn’t said anything to me,” she practically whispers. Her cheeks are pink and she still hasn’t met Charles’ eyes.
“Do you want to come into my office?”
Her grateful nod is all he needs to see, and after a moment’s fumbling, he lets them back into the tiny workspace.
“So…?” he prompts as she folds herself down into the single chair across from his desk.
“I…overheard him say something,” Kitty admits, fidgeting with her hands in her lap.
“That’s great,” Charles says, then pauses. “I mean, not great that he said something unkind—I’m assuming it was unkind?—but that you can help us out.”
“I was kind of somewhere I shouldn’t be,” Kitty admits.
“I, uh. I was in his office.” The words leave her in a rush.
Charles raises his eyebrows. He’s been in McCone’s office—it’s certainly not big enough for him to miss a teenage girl standing in the midst of it. “You were in McCone’s office with him, and he didn’t see you?” He asks skeptically.
“Well…I wasn’t exactly in the office,” Kitty allows, picking at her nails rather than meeting Charles’ eyes.
Charles sighs. He’s desperate for anything that will help his case against McCone, desperate to keep his job and his place at the university. But it doesn’t seem like this girl is going to be able to help him.
“I was in the wall?” she offers, a blush staining her cheeks.
Kitty sighs dramatically, finally raising her gaze to meet Charles’. “I was in the hall and I saw this boy coming…I, um, really like him. And I saw him at this party the weekend before, but I was drunk and—” she cuts herself off, cheeks flaring crimson. “That’s not important. I just didn’t want him to see me, so I…ducked out. Or in, rather.”
“To the wall. That’s what I can do. Um, walk through walls.” Kitty drops her eyes again. “I didn’t even know what was through the wall! I’ve never been in Professor McCone’s office. I just wanted to get away from Brad, and then I saw the professor at his desk and I freaked out, so I just sort of…stopped. In the wall.”
“That’s…” Charles gapes, his mind spinning with the possibilities, the meanings of her mutation. Each individual cell must change, shifting at the atomic level to allow her to step through seemingly solid matter. It’s incredible.
“I know it’s against policy!” Kitty says quickly, her eyes flying up to his. “But I really didn’t mean to! I never use my power on campus, I promise. I just…panicked.”
Charles’ heart constricts at the terror on the girl’s face. She’s only eighteen, nineteen at the most, and she’s been taught to be so afraid of what she can do. It’s not right, he thinks firmly. None of it is right.
“Kitty, I’m not going to report you,” he soothes. “I would never do that.”
“Really. I’ve used my power on campus, too,” he admits, thinking guiltily about the times he brushed against Erik’s mind, unable to stop himself from dipping into the boy’s thoughts.
But Kitty offers him a tentative smile, hopeful enough to brush his guilt and doubts away.
“You have an incredible power,” he tells her. “I’d love to see it some time.”
“Yeah?” A shy smile curves over her lips. “Okay. That would be cool.”
“So, when you were in the wall…?”
“Oh! Yeah. Professor McCone was on the phone. And at first I wasn’t even paying attention to what he was saying. But then I heard him. He said he’d never hire a mutant. That we were ‘useful’ sometimes, but he wouldn’t give one a job when there were deserving ‘normal’ people.” Kitty scowls with every set of air quotes. “That he’d rather hire an idiot than a freak.”
“Oh,” Charles says dully. He knew the man hated them, but hearing that kind of hate speech always sends a shock through him; no matter how many times it happens, he still can’t quite believe someone would say such things. “I’m sorry you had to hear something like that, Kitty.”
“It’s okay,” the girl shrugs. “It’s not the first time.”
“But it shouldn’t ever happen,” Charles says firmly. Seeing the dejected look on her face, he really believes that. No one should be allowed to get away with saying such hurtful things. Certainly not someone in a position of power like McCone’s.
“I—I hope that helps?” Kitty says, raising her eyes to his. “With your problem?”
“I think it does,” Charles tells her with a small smile.
“Good. I’m glad I came to talk to you then,” she says, and her smile is more confident than he’s seen it all day.
“You can anytime, you know.” Charles assures her, following her to the door. “About anything. You know?”
“Thanks, Mr. Xavier,” She gives him a shy smile. “Charles.”
He shows her out of the office and then sinks back into his desk chair, thinking over what she heard. It’s impossible to know exactly who McCone was talking about, but Charles has his suspicions. Kitty heard the Professor talking this semester, which nearly guarantees that he wasn’t discussing Charles. Charles is pretty sure that McCone hasn’t thought about hiring him since November of the previous year, if he ever even considered Charles a candidate for when he finishes his dissertation.
And there’s only one other mutant in the department…
Charles frowns, propping his head in his hands. He knows Azazel hopes to get a job in the department, or to find the grants for a post doc. He doesn’t want to move onto another institution, he’s made that clear. Hell, Charles thinks half the reason the teleporter ratted him out to McCone was to secure a job for himself in the fall.
If McCone’s been treating the man like his own personal pet mutant, while never intending to hire him on…well, that changes everything.
But, of course, Charles doesn’t know for sure that McCone was speaking about the Russian.
It’s a lot to think over, and before he can talk himself out of it, he sends a quick text to Erik.
Can I come over? Something to tell you.
It’s mere moments later, as he’s checking that he has all his belongings that his phone buzzes.
Of course. Everything okay?
Something squeezes in Charles’ chest as his eyes linger on those first two words.
Yes. Just need someone to talk to.
Well, two someones are right here, Erik’s reply comes nearly instantaneously, and Charles finds himself grinning. He locks his office for the second time that day, feeling more buoyant this time around.
Erik pulls the door open with Lorna balanced on one hip, and Charles feels his smile relax into something simple and genuine for the first time in what feels like days.
“Char!” Lorna says, reaching out to pat him none-too-gently on the cheek.
“Hello darling,” he ruffles her soft hair, sneaking a peek at Erik to find the boy watching them with softness in his eyes.
“Come on in?” he offers.
Erik puts Lorna down to toddle off once they’re in the apartment. “So, something to tell me?” He prompts.
Charles unwinds his scarf and jacket, shedding layers in the complicated dance of wintertime. “Kitty Pryde stopped by my office today.”
“Kitty? From my class?” Erik frowns, turning the name over in his mind.
“The very one.” Charles is suddenly glad he never told Erik about overhearing Kitty and Angel. He’s feeling much more forgiving towards the girl after today, and wouldn’t want Erik holding a grudge.
They drop onto the couch, keeping an eye on where Lorna has wandered off to inspect Charles’ discarded outerwear.
“Turns out she’s one of the MA kids,” Charles continues, chuckling as Lorna winds his long scarf around her body, getting hopelessly tangled in it’s knitted length.
“Careful sweetheart,” Erik calls. “So she’s a mutant?”
Charles nods, briefly relaying the important facts from his talk with Kitty. Charles stumbles over repeating McCone’s words, still unsure of what they mean for him.
“But that’s perfect!” Erik crows, barely letting him finish. “That’s McCone caught directly in the act of discriminating, and not by us or one of our friends.” There’s a gleam in his gray eyes that looks positively vindictive.
Charles feels like he should disapprove more than he does. Or, at all, really. Instead he feels heat rising into his cheeks. The softness from earlier is gone, leaving Erik’s face all hard lines—sharp cheekbones, firm lips, and the determined set of his strong jaw.
“We’re going to beat this,” Erik says lowly, reaching out to grasp Charles’ shoulder with one large hand. Charles shivers at the touch, Erik’s fingers curling in hard, pulling him closer. “We’re going to make sure that asshole gets what he deserves.”
He tugs him even closer and suddenly Charles realizes what’s happening because oh…Erik’s lips are against his, hard and determined, molding to his as his hand slips from Charles’ shoulder to the back of his neck, tilting him to meet Erik’s kiss.
Charles lets himself be directed, opening his mouth as Erik tilts his head, letting the kiss turn wet and slick.
He had imagined their first kiss would be a sweet goodnight peck at the end of their perfect first date, cheeks flushed, eyes shyly meeting, hands tangled together. But he forgot that as gentle as Erik can be, he’s also strong and determined and relentless, and Charles finds himself unsurprised as Erik leads the kiss, shaping Charles’ mouth just the way he wants.
Erik’s mouth is firm and demanding, nipping at Charles’ lips and drawing the blood to the surface, staining them red. He kisses with purpose, nothing shy or hesitating about the way he shapes his mouth to Charles’, the fine stubble on his chin scraping at Charles’ sensitive skin.
A clatter across the room has Charles drawing back guiltily, lifting a hand to his wet lips. “Lorna,” he gasps.
They turn to find her happily going through Charles’ bag, throwing his possessions around the room with abandon.
“I guess that’s a mood-killer,” Erik laughs, his intensity waning as he gazes fondly at his daughter. “Sorry,” he adds, as Lorna upends the change section of Charles’ wallet, sending coins rolling across the kitchen floor.
Charles hides a smile in his hand. A couple of quarters don’t really matter. “Not really,” he counters, letting his gaze flit back to Erik.
A smirk curls over the boy’s lips, lifting them enticingly, and Charles wants nothing more than to lean back in. It had been far too long since his last kiss, he’s realizing.
And Erik, it turns out, is an excellent kisser.
Charles clears his throat, reminding himself that there is a small, impressionable child in the room and then he cuts his eyes away, because looking at Erik’s lips isn’t really helping the fact that now that’s he’s started kissing Erik, all he wants to do is keep at it.
“It’s, uh,” he says, knowing his cheeks are flushed bright red. “It’s not that simple. With McCone.”
Erik’s smirk falters. “Why not? We’ve got him.”
Charles sighs, his thoughts slipping back to Kitty’s confession. “We can’t go to the administration with what Kitty heard.”
“Why not?” Erik demands.
“Because she was using her power when she heard him,” Charles explains miserably. “She was in his private office, hearing a private conversation, while illegally using her power. Any part of that could get her kicked out of school.”
Erik frowns. “But she’s willing to testify against him?”
“I didn’t even ask,” Charles says sharply. “A power like Kitty’s will be classed as potentially dangerous, like yours or mine. You know the regulations. Using her power on university property is more than enough to get her kicked out. And then breaking into a professor’s private office?” Charles sighs. “Even if she was willing, I’m not doing that to her. She’s a good student.”
“But what she heard will save you from getting kicked out,” Erik protests fiercely.
“You just want to sacrifice her for my sake?” Charles asks, lowering his voice, conscious of little listening ears.
“She’s one of us, Erik. Not that it would be alright to throw any student to the wolves, but she’s…”
Charles frowns. He hates to think of it along those lines, black and white, us and them. “Yes. Our kind.”
“But. There must be some way to use her information.” Erik says anxiously.
Charles reaches over, placing a steadying hand over Erik’s, still thrilled that he’s allowed this kind of liberty. Erik’s hands hold such power, and Charles thrills as he tangles their fingers together. “There is one thing…” he admits. “I’m nearly positive McCone was talking about Azazel.”
Erik makes a face. “He reported us.”
“I think so,” Charles agrees. “He does whatever McCone wants. But I don’t think he’d be happy to learn he did all that without any kind of reward waiting for him on the other end.”
Erik’s gaze turns speculative. “So you think we can get him on our side?”
“We might be able to get him to question his loyalties, anyway.”
The devious light is back in Erik’s gray eyes. He bites his lip, thinking. “Azazel must know all kinds of things about McCone. More than enough to get him fired.”
Charles can’t believe he’s conspiring to get one of his professors, one of his superiors, fired. Still, he allows, “It’s possible. But we’d have to convince him. And I’m not entirely sure he’ll believe us just from what Kitty overheard.”
“Because McCone could have been talking about you,” Erik guesses.
“Or someone outside the department. It’s impossible to say for sure. And I’ll bet McCone has made Azazel all kinds of promises. I don’t know how we’d convince him that McCone was going to go back on his word.”
Erik gives him a sharp look. “Well, you could.”
“You could find out exactly what McCone thinks about Azazel,” the boy points out. “You can’t use your powers in the university hearing, but you can use them to convince Azazel.”
Charles knows he’s gaping. “Erik—I can’t.” It’s violation of everything he’s been taught, everything he believes in.
“You can,” Erik insists. “You have to.”
Short chapter, just because it's been SO LONG since I posted anything. But hey! Kissing!
Charles gazes into the faces trained on his, taking in Raven’s determined frown, Kitty’s wide, nervous eyes, and Jean’s placid reassurance.
“I can do it,” the redhead says. “I’m willing to do it.”
Charles’ heart leaps, and he wants to instantly take her up on her offer. But…he can’t. He’s brought Kitty to the MA meeting, letting her relate what she overheard, and has explained why they can’t use her testimony against McCone.
And now Jean is offering to be the one to invade the Profesor’s mind, to take the information they need to sway Azazel to their side.
But Charles knows he can’t let her. If anyone is going to risk themselves like that, go against everything society has taught them, and potentially face the consequences, it should be Charles.
This is his problem, after all.
I know how you feel about things like this, Jean’s voice whispers in his mind. I don’t…I don’t worry about it as much as you do.
He knows that. He’s felt it from her. She doesn’t have the same reluctance with her powers as Charles does, which is baffling to him, given how much raw power she wields. Telepathic from birth, telekinetic from puberty—frankly, he would be terrified of himself.
But Jean isn’t.
She isn’t afraid of herself and she isn’t afraid to use her powers. The casual way she speaks into his mind both delights and frightens Charles. He knows she does it to the others, as well, when she wants to speak to them privately in a crowded room. He wishes, sometimes, that he could do the same.
“We don’t have to make any decisions now, anyway,” he says aloud. He can feel Erik watching him, wondering why he isn’t charging full-steam ahead to take down McCone. Wondering why he hesitates at every turn. “Nothing has to be decided until McCone actually starts something.”
“He’s already started rumors,” Erik objects angrily. Charles has told him about the whispers in the halls, the looks the other TAs and even some of the faculty are shooting him when he goes into the department.
“Rumors are just that. Insubstantial. Inconsequential,” Charles says with more conviction than he feels. It hurts, knowing the things people are saying about him. “No one’s risking their place at the university over rumors,” he says, glancing sternly at Jean and Erik in turn. They’re both students; they could both be kicked out.
Erik grumbles but subsides.
Raven draws Kitty into a conversation about her power, distracting her from the nerves that have been setting her on edge since she arrived. Charles smiles at the blonde gratefully and moves over to where Lorna is playing in the corner of the room, happily pawing through dog-eared books and worn toys. Everything is so simple for her, Charles thinks sadly.
He wishes he could feel the same. Once, he used to wish to be normal, to be just like everyone else. Now, looking around this room, he realizes that ‘normal’ is far from what he had thought.
He isn’t alone as a mutant. There are many of them, and they’re here, together, ready to support Charles and Erik.
He just wishes he could return to a time when his power was exciting, not terrifying. When the idea of mutations was exhilarating, not something to be hidden away and ashamed of.
“If McCone starts something,” Erik leans down to whisper in his ear. “You will do something. Won’t you?”
Charles spins in the hall, looking curiously behind him. Professor Pratt hurries up to him, his large frame slowing his steps as he jogs down the corridor. Charles doesn’t know the man well; he teaches physics, an area that only tangentially overlaps with Charles’ own research. Still, he’s seen him in department meetings and he seems nice enough.
“I’m glad I caught you,” Pratt pants, slicking his hair back from his forehead. “Can we step into my office?”
“Of course,” Charles allows, puzzled.
Pratt leads him down the hall into one a small office nearly identical to the one Charles uses. “What can I do for you, professor?” he asks.
Pratt frowns, eyeing him thoughtfully. “I hate to be the one to tell you this, Xavier. But there was a department meeting today.”
“Professor McCone called it, to let us know that he’s officially filed a complaint against you with the university.”
Charles’ heart sinks.
“For fraternizing with a student.”
“I see.” Charles drops into one of the available chairs. He had known it was a possibility, but he kept telling himself it wouldn’t happen, that McCone would see the error of his ways. That he couldn’t possibly hate mutants enough to have Charles dismissed from the university.
He thinks about his thesis, all the years of work that have gone into it. Potentially being flushed down the drain.
He thinks he might be sick.
“Are you alright?” Pratt asks, hovering nervously. “I’m only telling you because I want you to be prepared.”
Charles looks up, dazed. “Prepared?”
Pratt’s face hardens. “To fight this. To fight him.”
“I know you’re a mutant, Xavier. I’ve seen your records. And McCone isn’t exactly secretive with how he feels about your kind.”
“It’s not right,” Pratt says earnestly, leaning forward to catch Charles’ eyes. “Mutants should have as many rights as the rest of us.”
Charles looks up, surprised. “You really feel that way?”
Pratt gives him a considering look. “Did you break the code of conduct?”
“You didn’t become involved with a student?”
“Not while he was my student,” Charles admits.
Pratt’s brow furrows, but then he nods. “Then it’s because of what you can do.” He says somberly. “I always thought it was. You know, ten years ago he didn’t even want mutants admitted to the degree program?”
Charles blanches. “He must hate having to work so closely with us.”
“I think he does,” Pratt agrees, shaking his head. “It’s a damn shame. People like him rising to the top, and keeping accomplished scientists like you down.”
Charles gives him a tiny smile, his mind whirring with what’s to be done. “Thank you for telling me.”
“Well,” Pratt says, scrubbing at his shaggy hair. “I wanted you to be prepared.”
“I appreciate it,” Charles assures him. “Really.”
“You do have allies here, Mr. Xavier,” Pratt says. “Not everyone is like McCone.”
“No,” Charles allows himself a smile. “I’m starting to realize that.”
Unless he does something about it.
He watches the streets go by in a blur, wondering if he can really do it. It goes against everything he believes it. Or, believed in.
Because now he has Erik to think about. And Raven, and Kitty, and Jean, and Ororo.
And, most importantly, Lorna. Barely a person, and yet potentially facing so much prejudice and hatred.
If she has a power manifest, she’ll go through the same things that her father has, that Charles has. The same discrimination that all mutants have to face on a daily basis.
And that’s just unacceptable, Charles thinks. Not for a sweet, darling girl like Lorna.
If and when she develops a power he wants her to be excited about it, thrilled with the possibilities.
Not frightened and wary of the world around her.
And that’s it, isn’t it? Charles is tired of being afraid.
Erik asked if he would fight for himself if McCone started something. Charles had hesitated, but now he’s sure. He’s not just fighting for himself—he’s fighting for all of them.
So the next morning Charles goes in to the university and, mustering his courage, knocks on Professor McCone’s door.
“Yes?” That cruel, hard voice calls.
Charles cracks the door open, registering the disappointment and disgust that flit over McCone’s face when he sees Charles. “Can I have a word, Professor?”
McCone gestures him into a chair in front of his desk and Charles obeys the command, his mind already reaching out for the professor’s.
“I heard a rumor yesterday that you had brought up disciplinary procedures against me,” Charles begins, probing gently, ever so gently, at the other man’s mind.
“And what of it?”
Charles frowns. “I thought we could discuss it like rational adults.”
McCone’s face hardens as he leans back in his chair, crossing his arms tight over his chest. “There’s nothing to discuss. You fucked a student and now you’re going to be fired.”
Charles narrows his eyes. “We both know that isn’t true.”
McCone gives a derisive snort. “Truth isn’t really the issue here, is it, Xavier?”
And with that Charles dives in, pushing past McCone’s natural defenses into the soft matter of his mind. Thoughts swirl wildly around him as he searches for what he needs.
The fleeting thought of a red-skinned devil gives Charles something to latch onto, and he follows the thread into the depths of McCone’s mind, seeing what he really thinks of Azazel.
Disgusting, all of them, McCone practically shouts, now that Charles is listening. Think they deserve a place in this world. Might as well let trained monkeys teach our classes, for all that they’re human. For all that they should be in charge of a bunch of kids. Just as likely to kill the students as looks at them, probably, McCone’s mind sneers. Looks at Azazel. I’m just supposed to believe nature made him look exactly like a devil, like something out of a picture book?
“What is the issue then, professor?” Charles goads, buying himself time.
Red skin and a pointy tail, McCone’s subconscious continues. Might as well have horns and cloven feet. He’s an abomination just like the rest of them. He looks like what they all are on the inside. Freaks.
The professor gives him a hard look. “The issue is the stack of reports I have against you and Lensherr. The mountain of circumstantial evidence. My own eye-witness account.”
He should have remembered his place, McCone’s mind sneers. Look at Azazel. He knows what he is. A lackey. This one, though. This one thinks he’s as good as the rest of us. Wanting a job here in the department. Thinking he can be my colleague. Needs to be put back where he belongs.
Charles frowns, shaking his head. There’s no love lost between him and Azazel, but that doesn’t make it any easier to hear. “So what you’re saying is that you don’t care about the truth?”
“The truth is what you make of it, Xavier,” McCone replies smugly.
Charles stands, using the height difference to stare McCone down. “Are those the words of a true scientist?” he asks before stalking out of the room.
He needs to find Azazel and tell him what he heard. But more than that, he needs Erik right now.
He ducks into his own office and pulls out his phone.
“Charles?” Erik answers on the second ring. “Are you alright? I’ve been trying to reach you.”
“Sorry,” Charles sinks back into his chair. “I had some things to do.”
“Everything okay?” Erik asks hesitantly.
“I think it’s going to be,” Charles assures him, closing his eyes to focus on the cadences of Erik’s voice. “Tell me how your day was yesterday.”
Erik laughs. “We didn’t really do much,” he protests.
“I don’t care. Tell me about it, anyway.”
“Well, Lorna tried to have me guess what her drawings were. And I would have sworn it was a camel, but apparently it was a cat, and she was so offended.”
Charles laughs, feeling the tension release from his chest as Erik rambles on, full of the little domesticities of life with Lorna.
After an interminable wait with his heart in his throat, Azazel rounds the corner, his head bent over the stack of papers in his hands. As he approaches his office door he looks up and freezes, surprise crossing over his stern face.
“Charles,” he nods.
“Azazel. I was wondering if I might have a word.”
“For what reason?”
Charles makes a face. “Look, can we just talk in your office? I promise not to take up too much of your time.”
“Fine.” Azazel unlocks the door with quick, efficient movements, allowing Charles to trail after him. “What do you want?”
“I assume you know that Professor McCone has brought action against me?” Charles dives right in.
“Da,” Azazel agrees, face carefully blank.
“And I suspect you know that the allegations are false.”
“I have seen you with the student,” Azazel counters.
“But do you believe I actually slept with him when he was my student?” Charles demands. It seems so ludicrous to have to keep going over this point, when he still hasn’t slept with Erik at all. Perhaps he should rectify that, he thinks with a sigh. When this is all over.
“Why does it matter what I believe?”
Charles drops into the one available chair in front of Azazel’s desk. “McCone is out to get me because I’m a mutant and so is Erik. Surely you must object to that.”
Azazel’s posture stiffens. “You have no proof.”
“I know you think you’re his favorite,” Charles says apologetically. “You think he’s going to give you a job in the department. But he’s just using you. He hates all mutants equally.”
“You are just upset that you lose your job,” Azazel counters.
“No. I’m sorry, Azazel, truly I am. But he’s never going to employ you. He’s never going to think of you as an equal.”
Azazel’s shakes his head in denial. “You are wrong. He has promised me.”
“I’m sure he’s promised you a great deal. Getting you to do his dirty work for him. Tell me, did he have you follow me? Spy on me and Erik?”
“I think you should leave now.”
“No!” Charles leans forward. “You must understand.” He raises one hand tentatively to his temple. “I’m sorry, but you need to hear what I’ve heard.”
And then he does something he’s never tried before. He takes the lump of memories surrounding McCone—what Charles knows, and what Kitty heard, and most importantly, what Charles pulled out of McCone’s mind—and he shoves it into Azazel’s head.
The other mutant’s brain resists, flinging a wall up around his consciousness, but Charles just batters against it, shattering it into a million piercing shards.
Azazel gives an aborted yelp, flinging himself back in his chair, away from Charles, but he can’t escape the knowledge forcing its way into his brain.
Disgusting, all of them. Looks at Azazel. I’m just supposed to believe nature made him look exactly like a devil? You mutants are cheating every day of your lives. They’re useful sometimes, but I wouldn’t give one a job when there are deserving normal people.
Charles pulls back, panting, to find Azazel staring at him with wide eyes, his hands clutched to his head.
“I’m sorry. It was the only way,” Charles chokes out, his stomach roiling at the lingering feel of Azazel’s mind, struggling against his, trying to keep him out. “You need to know what he’s really like.”
“I said get out!” Azazel thunders, teleporting to Charles’ side, looming above him, his red face distorted with rage.
Charles scrambles out of his chair, snatching his bag up and flinging himself at the door. He can hear Azazel behind him, heaving great shaky breaths.
Charles can’t think as he races down the hall to his own office, blood pounding in his ears. What has he done? He locks the door behind him and sinks into his desk chair, his head in his hands.
He went against everything he was ever taught, everything he believed in. He invaded Azazel’s mind, not just with a glance or a whisper, but with blunt force, putting something into his head that wasn’t there before.
It’s the worst kind of violation, and he did it just to keep a job.
No, a small part of his brain reminds him. It was for Erik and Raven and Kitty and Ororo and Lorna. Charles sits up shakily. It was for every mutant who’s been belittled or bullied, insulted or overlooked or turned away.
It was even for the non-mutants, the ‘normal’ kids, who shouldn’t grow up in a world of hatred or prejudice either, merely learning their parents’ bigotry and spewing it back out at their peers.
It wasn’t the right way to do it, but Charles wonders if it wasn’t just the right thing to do.
Azazel didn’t mind using his power against his own kind, he reminds himself sternly. The other mutant hadn’t admitted it, but Charles was sure that Azazel had been following him and Erik, reporting back on their every move. And all to get a job.
Charles was sure his own motivations were better than that. He was fighting the good fight, after all. Wasn’t he?
He’s honestly not sure anymore, about anything. He feels like he doesn’t even know himself.
He sulks in his flat, remembering every stern word his mother ever spoke to him, begging him to just be ‘normal’ in front of her friends and his father’s colleagues. He remembers the lessons he went to as a child—the special ‘freak’ lessons—where they drilled it into him: never use your power. It was different. It was wrong. He was wrong.
Charles knows that isn’t true. Understands evolution better than most, and knows the X gene better than anyone. He knows how mutants happened, knows that they’re not evil or a punishment from god, but merely another step in the forward march of nature.
But he still feels those judgments, slithering along his spine, making him feel like less than a man. Less than a person.
He hates it. He hates everything about the way mutants are treated.
Charles grits his teeth and makes a decision.
No matter what else he does, he’s not going to let Lorna grow up feeling that way. Not Lorna, and, if he can do anything about it, not any other mutant child.
As he scurries down the corridors, Charles swears everyone is looking at him. Talking about him. Judging him.
And maybe they are. Even if Azazel hasn’t reported him, the whole department is bound to know about the disciplinary action brought against him.
There goes Charles Xavier, they’re all probably thinking. Student fucker.
It’s vastly unfair, he decides as he locks himself in his office, that he hasn’t even gotten to fuck Erik. It’s been over a year since he had last been with anyone, and yet his whole life has become about judging his sex life. Unfair doesn’t even begin to cover it.
He grades homework mechanically, going through the stack of assignments with barely a thought. They have to get done, and so Charles will do them.
Most of the morning passes in a blur of multiple-choice questions before Charles is startled out of his reverie by a knock on the door. For one panicked second he thinks about pretending not to be there, hoping that whoever is on the other side will just go away.
But it could be a student, or the head of department, and so Charles resigns himself and stands, cracking the door open with trepidation.
“Xavier!” Professor Pratt says genially.
“I guess you’ve heard the news?”
Professor Pratt shoulders his way into the office, practically bowling Charles over in his enthusiasm. “McCone!”
Charles tenses. “What about him?”
Pratt shoots him a surprised look. “Well, he’s been fired, of course! You hadn’t heard?”
“Fired?” Charles parrots, dropping down in a chair in a daze.
“For discrimination, hate speech, false allegations, and inappropriate conduct! I reckon you could get him on stalking, too, if you wanted to involve the police.”
Police? Charles thinks in a daze. “What—what happened?”
“His other TA. Azazel, is it? Testified against him. Went over the head, straight to the dean, with his allegations. Told him everything—how McCone hates mutants, how he set out to get you and your student, how he had Azazel tail you two.” Pratt looks positively ecstatic, practically rubbing his hands together with glee at the juicy gossip. “How he targeted you just because you’re different.” Pratt gives him a considering look. “You really hadn’t heard? Everyone is talking about it.”
Charles thinks back to all the eyes he felt following him as he came into the building. Not because he was a mutant, or a student-fucker, but because of Azazel. Because McCone had been unmasked as a bigot.
Something lifts in his chest and he sinks back in his chair in relief. “So, the disciplinary complaint?”
“Dismissed!” Pratt confirms.
“So it’s just—all over?”
Pratt perches on the edge of Charles’ desk, giving him a sympathetic look. “It’s over, Xavier. Everything except your career. Which seems to me like it’ll be very bright.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
Pratt waves him off. “If I get any say in the hiring next year, your name will be at the top of the list.”
“Azazel should be considered, too,” Charles blurts. He’s always wanted a permanent job at the university, but suddenly, it doesn’t feel quite right. He shouldn’t get it over the other mutant, anyway. “He’s a fine teacher, I’ve seen him. And.” He squares his shoulders. “And a brave man.”
“I know,” Pratt says, with far more understanding than Charles would have expected. He claps Charles on the shoulder. “But you are too, Xavier.”
Charles just ducks his head, unsure of what to say. He violated his principles, whereas Azazel stood up for his own.
He doesn’t know how he’ll begin to thank the other mutant, for doing the right thing, for standing up for Charles. For standing up for himself, possibly for the first time ever.
Charles realizes the feeling welling up inside of him is pride. Not for himself, but for Azazel.
He loves helping his students, teaching them and seeing them succeed. But he’s never felt this before. This overwhelming pride in another person.
Knowing Azazel stood up for himself and finally took pride in who he is. It’s the greatest thing Charles has ever felt.
Perhaps, he realizes, just teaching university biology isn’t what he’s meant to do.
“Thank you for stopping by to tell me, Professor Pratt,” he says politely, standing.
Pratt pushes off the edge of the desk. “No problem. I mean it, Xavier. I’d love to have you around more permanently.”
“Thank you, Professor,” Charles says sincerely. “But I might—have some other ideas of what to do with myself. With my future.”
Pratt nods. “I’m sure you’ll be great, whatever you do.” He steps closer. “But I want you to know I’m behind you. All of you. So, if you need any help in the future, whatever you end up doing—Don’t be a stranger.”
Something warms in Charles’ chest, looking at this earnest man’s face. A non-mutant, but still so caring, so compassionate about Charles’ kind. “Thank you, Professor. I just might take you up on that one day.”
“I expect you to,” Pratt says with a grin. “See you around, Xavier.”
He lets himself out of the office and Charles stares after him in a daze. It’s all over. The persecution, the whispers. They’ve all come to an end.
Hell, he probably even has a job in the department, if he wants it.
He thinks back to his panic of the day before, the sick feeling that curled low and tight in his stomach, telling him he’d done wrong.
It’s gone now, he thinks as he locks up his office, strolling happily down the hall.
He may have broken every rule in the books—every rule in his own books—but he can’t argue with the fact that it had results.
And for right now, he feels like that’s enough.
He’s just thinking about turning around and making his way back to campus, perhaps stopping in the coffee shop to see if Raven is there, when the door is pulled open.
“Charles,” Erik sounds surprised.
“Hi. I—uh, I hope it’s okay that I just stopped by?”
Erik shakes his head, pulling the door open a little wider. “No, of course. It’s fine. Come on in.”
Charles steps into the dim hall, eyeing the boy beside him. Erik seems a bit…distant. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah. I just—haven’t seen you for a few days. I wasn’t sure if you—“
“If I what?” Charles prompts with a frown.
Erik turns away, looking pensively up the stairs. “If you changed your mind. About seeing me.”
“I wouldn’t blame you,” Erik forges on. “With all the shit McCone is giving you.”
“That’s all over now,” Charles says firmly, giving Erik a small smile when he looks over in surprise. “That’s what I came to tell you.”
“Really? But, how? What happened?”
“A lot,” Charles laughs ruefully. “A lot happened. I’m sorry I wasn’t returning your calls. But I had some things to do, on my own.” Charles shrugs. Whatever he feels about the decisions he made, he can be confident that they were his own, that no one pressured him or persuaded him. He, Charles Xavier, stood up to McCone. He, Charles Xavier, used his powers against another person, willfully violating his own moral code and that of the university. Not matter what, it was all him.
“But we’re in this together,” Erik protested.
“I know that. Really,” Charles assures him. “And knowing that you and Raven and everyone else were supporting me means everything. But—I did something I swore I never would, and I’m okay with that, but it needed to be my decision.”
Erik still looks uncertain so Charles reaches forward, catching the boy’s hand with his own. For a second he’s worried that Erik will pull away, but then his long fingers tangle with Charles’, giving a little squeeze.
“A lot happened the last few days,” Charles says. “And I want to tell you all about it.”
They mount the stairs with their hands still linked, the warm pressure of Erik’s palm reassuring. Lorna stands just inside the door, eying them with suspicions for having remained out in the hallway for so long.
“Hi little lady.” Charles ruffles her silky hair, earning him a toothy grin.
Charles crouches down, smiling at her pretty little face. “And how are you today?”
“Old?” Charles asks with a laugh.
“I’ve been trying to explain the concept of birthdays to her.” A fond smile crosses Erik’s face. “It’s not going that well.”
“I haven’t missed hers?” Charles asks, alarmed. He was only out of touch for a few days!
“No, no,” Erik shakes his head. “Next month. I was just trying to get the idea across.” He gives Charles a considering look. “Would it matter if you did miss it?”
“Of course!” Charles rises to bring that back to eye level. “A second birthday is important! I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
That earns him a small smile.
“Besides,” Charles continues. “I’d hope you’d tell me about something so important happening.”
Erik arches an eyebrow. “The same could be said to you,” he points out sharply.
Charles grimaces. “I’m sorry,” he says again. “Come on, let me tell you all about it.”
Erik doesn’t hesitate this time, just takes Charles’ hand and lets himself be led to the ratty sofa.
“Three days ago, McCone filed an official disciplinary complaint against me,” Charles begins.
“It’s really over,” Charles agrees with a grin. “And you know the best thing?”
“That McCone got what was coming to him?” Erik says with vicious glee.
“Well, yes,” Charles allows with a laugh. “But also no. The university has officially acknowledged mutant prejudice. They’ve fired a senior faculty member for it, no less. For years it’s been a problem no one talked about, happy to keep acting like they were doing us a favor just by letting us attend. And now the president of the university can’t help but face what’s really going on.”
“You think anything will change?” Erik asks.
Charles gives him a wide grin. “I think it will if we make it.”
Erik gives a startled laugh, revealing the neat rows of his white teeth. “Who are you and what have you done with Charles?”
Charles shrugs. “It turns out that not doing anything isn’t really an option. Not anymore. I’m tired of hiding.”
“So what’s your plan?”
“I think we need to start an advocacy group on campus, with university funding and everything. And the first order of business will be to stop branding us as different on all our official documents.”
Erik’s grin widens impossibly and his large hands come up to grasp Charles’ face. “You’re amazing, you know that?” he tells him, drawing him closer, until Charles can feel his warm breath against his lips.
“Do you think you’ll want to help?” Charles murmurs.
“Help?” Erik scoffs, leaning in to press a teasing kiss to his mouth. “I’m going to be by your side every step of the way.”
Charles sinks into the kiss then, letting Erik’s mouth mold to his, hot and wet and perfect. He hears the clatter of Lorna playing nearby, and realizes he’s finally found it. Where he fits, where he belongs.
I am so, SO incredibly sorry for taking three months off from this story, especially when I was so close to the end, anyway. I just got caught up in a lot of other things (including the One Direction fandom) and time slipped away from me.
There's going to be an epilogue after this, but I can't promise when it will happen, as I've got a lot going on in the next month. But I WILL write it, and this story will be complete.
For anyone who's still watching for updates after all this time, THANK YOU. It really means so much to me.